The Lion Lies Waiting
Glenn Quigley © 2018
All Rights Reserved
On the tiny island of Merryapple, not far from the Cornish coast, almost every frost-kissed window was cheered with the light of a solstice lantern. Made of brass or copper or tin, each lantern was set with coloured glass, each one was polished and cared for, and each one was unique. Joyously lit were they with a red candle for the duration of the Midwinter celebrations, starting at the winter solstice and continuing through to New Year. Always red, that was the tradition. Red for blood. Red for life. Red for love. Every member of the household had their own lantern skilfully engraved with their name. When a person died, their candle was removed and cast into the sea—their light taken from the lives of their loved ones.
Robin Shipp never liked that part of the tradition. From the age of ten, his solstice lantern stood alone on his windowsill, his father’s candle swallowed by the waves, just as his father himself had been. Whenever the lantern’s tinted glass flooded the room with cheer, he tried to remember the good times with his father, tried not to think about being alone. And he managed it, for the most part. Robin was fifty years old and the past summer had seen a great many changes in his life. He’d discovered who his mother really was, cleared his father’s name, won the acceptance of the village, and started a relationship with a man he cared deeply for. It was December, 1780, and Robin was set for a Midwinter celebration to remember.
The little fishing village of Blashy Cove was shrouded in a chilly haze and the people were trying to remember how to walk on icy, cobbled roads. The previous night had seen the first proper snowfall of the season and the whole village was powdered, from hilltop to harbour, with the low, slate sky holding the promise of more to come. A mist clung tightly to the quiet sea.
In the ancient tavern named the Moth & Moon, Robin used the sleeve of his chunky, woollen jumper to rub frost away from one of the dozens of little panes of glass which formed a spacious bay window. He was a colossal man—tallest in the village—and wide to boot, with a jolly face and thick limbs made hard from a lifetime of oyster dredging in the bay. His solid, round belly rose when he laughed, and he laughed readily. His cap, with its unusual anchor pendant sewed to the band, sat askew, revealing a little of the single tuft of white hair which sprang from his otherwise bald head.
He peered out through the thick glass and across to the newly built and bustling market hall in the harbour. Just a roof held up by heavy wooden poles, but it helped keep the rain off. It was market day, and the traders hadn’t let the snow and ice put them off. Stalls selling fish sat next to ones loaded with goods from the island’s only farm. Others sold all manner of clothing and trinkets from the mainland and beyond. Under the cover of their new roof, the traders stamped their feet and hugged themselves to stay warm, their laughter and singing turning to fog in the frosty air. The smell of the morning catch mixed with that of the hot spiced brews they drank to keep their spirits up. It was the last market day for the duration of Midwinter and so the villagers were stocking up on the essentials.
“Never mind the sightseeing” came a voice from behind Robin. “Get those beads up or we’ll never get finished before nightfall.”
Mr. George Reed—the bearded innkeeper—was directing his staff and volunteers with a series of points and barks.
“Right you are!” Robin called back.
With meaty fingers, he tied one end of a long string of colourful but mismatched glass beads to an errant nail above the window frame. As he reached up to secure the other end, he tugged too hard and the string snapped, casting beads across the floor and seats. They ran under chairs and behind booths. A cerulean bead ran over the uneven wooden floorboards and came to rest at the foot of George Reed, who stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head. Robin tipped his cap back and looked sheepish.
“Ah, sorry, George,” he said.
“No, it’s my fault, I should have known better,” George said with a laugh, “but you’re the only one tall enough to reach without a ladder. Why don’t you go and help move those tables?”
Robin slapped George on the shoulder as he lumbered towards the bar where some men had grabbed each end of a bench and were clearing a space. With a great heave, he single-handedly picked up a heavy oak table and swung it about, almost knocking over one of the other helpers. With a mighty thump, he set it down by the far wall, knocking over several tankards of beer in the process. He lifted a cloth and began moping it up as best he could, but he was just making it worse, spreading the foamy liquid out ever further. The bar steward he almost knocked over took his own cloth and pushed the much taller Robin out the way, with a polite-but-firm: “Yes, thank you, Mr. Shipp.”
“Is this your idea of helping?”
Duncan Hunger stood at the door of the inn with a tall object covered with a blanket and resting in a cart.
“It is, as it ’appens!” Robin replied.
Duncan was a very short, very stocky man in his late thirties. He had a full head of thick, black, wavy hair, with sideburns down to his jaw and he wore a pair of spectacles of his own design. Small, gold-rimmed and circular, they had an extra array of little lenses on movable armatures. They were an enormous help in his work as toymaker.
“Give me a hand with this,” Duncan said.
Robin grabbed one side of the object’s base and Duncan took the other.
“’Eavier than it looks,” he said.
“Aren’t we all?” Duncan said.
Together, they lifted it out of the cart and manoeuvred it to the space the staff had cleared.
“Careful, careful,” Duncan said as he slid the object into place.
Robin pulled his hands away too quickly and the item hit the wooden floor with a heavy, jangly thump, as if someone had dropped a box of cutlery.
“What part of ‘careful’ did you find the most confusing?” Duncan asked.
Robin stood bolt upright, clenching his fists and biting his pale lower lip as Duncan glanced under the cloth to satisfy himself nothing had been damaged. Relieved, Robin went to lift the material at his side, but Duncan quickly slapped his hand away.
“No peeking! You’ll spoil the surprise.”
“This is the Midwinter centrepiece you’ve been workin’ on all these weeks? What is it?”
“I told you, it’s a surprise.”
“Yes, but what—”
“You’ll see at Midwinter’s Eve!”
“Why don’t you take a break, Robin?” George said. Then leaning in to Duncan, he muttered, “Sit him down before he does any real damage.”
“I ’eard that. Nothin’ wrong with my ’earin’,” Robin said, laughing and wiggling his little jug ears.
He and Duncan sat in their usual booth by one of the numerous staircases, underneath a rousing painting of two ships blasting cannons at each other. It was named The Battle in the Bay.
“He’s only teasing, you know,” Duncan said.
“I know, but I really am doin’ my best,” Robin said.
“And I’m sure he appreciates the help. The place looks nice.”
The labyrinthine inn was being decorated in the traditional fashion—evergreen boughs were strung across the ceiling joists and hung from the bannisters of the myriad stairs riddling the tavern. Holly wreaths bursting with red berries adorned the pillars, and jars filled with colourful beads of glass worn smooth by the tides sat in most of the nooks and niches in the walls. The sea glass caught the candlelight and glistened merrily. Being such a big space, the inn always had plenty of candles dotted about, either in lanterns or in candlesticks. Usually, they were left to drip where they may, but at that time of year, when the nights were long and cold, they took on new importance. They were arranged a little more carefully, kept a little neater, and to Robin’s eyes, they burned just a little brighter.
“This must be quite a change for you,” Duncan said.
Robin nodded, reminded of all the years he’d spent as an outcast from the community because of his father.
“Everyone knows the truth about Dad now. Knows he weren’t a murderer. This is the first year I’ve felt included since I were a lad. And it’s the first time I’m spendin’ it with Mum! Properly, like. And my first with Edwin, an’ all. I’m finally goin’ to ’ave a family gatherin’ ’ere at the inn, just like everyone else. It’s goin’ to be somethin’ special!”
All around them, villagers were drinking and eating and talking. Some of them were helping with the decorations, a few were there just to relax, but a good many were conducting business of one kind or another. A carpenter was being paid for his work repairing a boat, a fisherman was setting out a price for a catch of Pollack, and a sculptor was haggling over a shipment of sandstone. Children ran around squealing and giggling, and in front of the massive inglenook, a couple of old brown dogs slept peacefully. The crew from a cargo ship recently docked were eating their fill and warming themselves by the massive crackling fireplace. George Reed was puffing on a clay pipe, telling one of his ghost stories and making the hardened seafarers jump every now and then. In the village of Blashy Cove, the Moth & Moon was where all life happened.
A visibly pregnant and noticeably buxom serving girl named Arminell Pinch dropped off two glasses of whiskey at Robin and Duncan’s table. She was being followed by a strikingly attractive young man with long, flowing blonde hair and wearing an elegant periwinkle overcoat. Mr. Archibald Kind was trying to assure his lover that his upcoming trip with his friend, Mr. Penny, was necessary and would take but a few days. She said she didn’t believe him.
Robin and Duncan shared a pie made of pilchards, eggs, and potatoes. Duncan always complained about the fish heads which poked up through the crust but admitted it tasted better than it looked.
“I thought Edwin was joining us?” Duncan said between mouthfuls.
“’E should ’ave been ’ere by…oh, ’ere ’e is!”
Robin wiped crumbs from his lips and waved to the man who had just walked in. Mr. Edwin Farriner—tall, broad, handsome, with tightly cropped ginger hair—slumped onto the bench next to Duncan. There wasn’t much room beside the larger-than-most Robin.
“’Ello, gorgeous,” Robin said with a smile, before noticing Edwin’s sombre mood.
“What’s the matter?” Duncan asked.
Edwin said nothing, but from the pouch of his leather apron, he produced a letter. Robin held it at arm’s length and squinted, slowly mouthing the words as he went.
“Oh, for…” Duncan said, snatching the letter from Robin’s hand. He pushed his little round spectacles up and scanned it quickly.
“Oi, I were readin’ that,” Robin said.
“We haven’t got all day…” Duncan murmured.
“What’s it say?”
“It’s from Hester. She’s your sister-in-law, isn’t she?” Duncan asked.
“She says Mum is making her life difficult,” Edwin said, “Calling at her house at all times of the day and night, banging on the doors and windows, demanding to see her grandchildren. Apparently, she’s taken to calling her names in the street, spitting at her.”
“Sylvia Farriner, delightful as always,” Duncan said.
“Hester wants me to go to Blackrabbit Island and talk to her. Talk to Mum, I mean,” Edwin said, clearly distracted.
Robin tipped his cap back and clasped Edwin’s freckled hand.
“’Ester lives in Port Knot. I thought your mum were livin’ with your auntie on the south of the island?”
“In Heron-on-the-Weir, wasn’t it?” Duncan added.
“So Mum said in her last letter. She must have moved, but where is she living now?”
Neither Robin nor Duncan had an answer.
“Are you goin’?” Robin asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to just leave the bakery. I asked Dad if he might be better off going instead.”
Robin paused for a moment, sharing a knowing glance with Duncan and considering his words carefully.
“Edwin, you know your dad can’t cope with ’er; ’e never could. She made ’is life a livin’ nightmare at times.”
Edwin ran his hand across the back of his own neck.
“I know; he said as much. He shouldn’t be making a journey in this weather, anyway.”
“Well, Bucca’s Call is still in the water, so don’t worry about travel arrangements.”
“Robin, I can’t ask you to…” Edwin started.
Robin held up a massive palm. “Not another word. I’m takin’ you an’ that’s that. I wouldn’t ’ave you goin’ there alone. Mind you, Port Knot is a warren, all them streets, an’ roads, an’ laneways, filled with all sorts o’ ruffians and cutthroats…!”
“No,” Duncan interrupted.
“No what?” Robin asked.
“No, I’m not going to Blackrabbit with you.”
“’Ang on, we ’aven’t asked you anythin’ yet!”
“You don’t need to. You’re not exactly subtle, Robin Shipp. Plus, you’ve got that look on your face.”
“What look?” Robin chuckled.
“That look,” Duncan said, pointing. “The one you get when you want something and you’re building up to asking for it. I know neither of you know Port Knot very well and you’re thinking to yourself ‘Who could show us around and make sure we don’t wander into any unsavoury back alleys? Oh, I know! Duncan will do it! ’E won’t mind coming with us to Black-bleddy-rabbit Island, even though ’e ’ates the place and swore time and time again ’e’d never go back! ’E’ll do it because we’re all such good friends now!’ Except I won’t, because we’re not.”
Duncan sat back in his seat, exhaling loudly, with his short arms stretched out stiff, hands pressed on the tabletop.
“Feeling better now?” Edwin asked.
“Much,” Duncan sighed. “When do we leave?”