Hobbs Island Hotel
By Fiona Dobson
When Elizabeth died my world stopped revolving and it seemed my life ground to a halt. It was an unexpected death, as so many illnesses are, but mercifully swift.
Merciful, that is, for her. It left me with an empty life before me. How many years? I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
So it was months later that I found myself waiting on lonely shore, in a gusty wind looking out at the bleak expanse of water, with Hobbs Island several miles distant, feeling desolate. But that was how each day felt at the time. Completely empty. It had been just six months, and my world had gone from full, exciting and fulfilled, to something as forbidding as that shoreline itself.
I should explain. I’d arrived a few days early for the workshop I was scheduled to give, with the intent to use the time to write. I had a piece to complete about the psychology of addiction, and it had been my intention to use those few days to complete the article in the quiet of the retreat. I suppose I should have checked with the organisers more carefully. I’d just assumed the hotel would be open, even though it was out of season.
After walking from the railway station to the quay, I made the call to my contact only to learn that the hotel on Hobbs Island would be closed. As it happened, the owner had been contacted and gave me permission to stay, even though I’d have to fend for myself in the empty old building.
“Just pick up some groceries in town, and you’ll be fine. The kitchen has plenty of supplies, but you’ll need to bring some milk and bread and the basics. They key’s under the flower pot beside the greenhouse out the back,” I’d been told.
As I’d been informed, the craggy faced boatman, McKenzie, was on the quayside in his old launch and he helped me aboard with my two heavy bags and my pack. I stepped down into the boat, and the tonk tonk of the diesel rose as we pulled away from the grey stone quay. The wind was fresh and sitting in the open boat I imagined that this very scene must have played out a thousand times before. The boat nosing out of the little harbour toward Hobbs Island, a tourist completely unfamiliar with the place, and McKenzie, complete with a pipe and expression of distaste for all things on his face.
I tried to make small talk, but old McKenzie did little more than grunt his replies. Soon the conversation faltered, and after fiddling with my cell phone for a while the signal faded from a few bars to one, and then disappeared altogether.
Then it started to rain.
I walked up from the beach toward the empty hotel. Three days of this. I could manage it. It would be good for writing, after all. This remote and empty building was beautiful in its way, and probably exactly what I needed. I pulled my coat collar up, and looked around the place, till I saw the greenhouse and sure enough I found the key a few moments later.
I slid the brass key into the lock and turned it, expecting the door to open with a creak, but it didn’t really play out like that. The cleaning staff had obviously been in, as there was a feint smell of polish. I called out, ‘Hello’, as I entered but no sound came back, as expected. I dropped my pack on the floor, heaved my two heavy bags inside and looked around the empty reception area. Empty, but clean and warm. To my left was what was obviously the restaurant. The heating must have been on a timer, and although the small island was deserted there was no doubt that the hotel was ready to receive guests in a few days.
The workshop organisers owned Hobbs Island, and this was the first retreat of the year, for them. As I explored the old building it struck me that it was quite a good business. A workshop or two every month, and then there were the visitors that would come for the bird life, which I was informed was prodigious, being located directly on the migratory route of the spattered peewit or some such ornithological wonder.
I looked at room after room, and selected one at the back of the building, with a view over a neatly trimmed lawn, further evidence of the pre-season cleanup crew’s hard work. I was directly above the kitchen, and outside my door a long sweeping staircase led down to the main reception. It was perfect, and as I unpacked, to my surprise the sun peaked out from behind the clouds that were scudding across the sky. For a time the lawn took on an almost vibrant shade of green and I could see why some of my colleagues had said this place really was quite beautiful.
I busied myself first unpacking and then making tea down in the kitchen, getting used to the big gas range that was doubtless wonderful for cooking for twenty five guests, but was a little ungainly for putting a cup of tea and some beans on toast out for one. I had some music playing on my phone and a small speaker, and the sound filled the restaurant, where I’d left it playing. It seemed to make the place a little more welcoming.
As I clattered about I planned my afternoon. After this basic lunch I’d do some writing, perhaps have a bath and then get out and about the place to explore the little island. It looked like the weather was turning for the better. Perhaps I’d spend some time on my little ‘hobby’, given that the place was isolated and so very private.
‘Yes,’ I thought to myself.’ This may turn out for the best, after all.’
By late afternoon the spring sunshine was streaming into the hotel room from the south west, and the surface of the sea was spangled with reflected sunlight. A few white caps were still in evidence but the wind had dropped off, and the weather was becoming decidedly clement.
I brushed my hair, sitting before the mirror, and listened to the soft music. I worked at my foundation, a little blush, and then my eyes. A smoky brown, with some gold highlights at the side. I trimmed my eye brows, plucked here, and teased there.
The dress I’d laid out on the bed was one of Elizabeth’s favorite ones. A deep crimson velvet. A shawl too. Perfect for a late afternoon stroll around the garden and the island. I chose what you might describe as ‘sensible’ shoes, thinking of the time we’d been shoe shopping together and how we laughed about the look on the cashier’s face, as we’d both bought the exact same shoes, in markedly different sizes.
As I stepped into the heavy dress, and tied the shoes, I felt a wonderful sense of closeness to my Elizabeth. Walking down the staircase into the restaurant, empty and desolate, I imagined her there beside me. Behind the compact little bar at the side of the restaurant I found a large glass and poured a sherry. I left a note of what I’d taken, as I’d agreed to do, and then stepped out through the large conservatory doors into the garden. It was quite beautiful.
I sat for a time, enjoying the view. In the distance I could still hear my music from the phone and the speaker. For a moment I could almost feel her there, and I felt the warm flush of heat to my face and then the tears roll from my eyes.
Elizabeth had been the first woman I’d shared my hobby with. We’d been like most couples, with our own secrets and spaces we kept for ourselves, but there came a point at which I felt I wanted her to know. And, as she always did, she surprised me. First with her acceptance, and then her enthusiasm.
She would dress me and share the experience. She’d share her clothes and many times we’d shop together. An outfit now and then, or a special trip out of town to a nearby place to buy shoes. My home town is more than a little conservative. It’s trapped in 1953.
Some weekends we’d go away together and pretend to be lovers meeting for the first time. She as he, and I as her. And the play would open our lives to new joys. New trusts. New love.
And when she died, barely a thread of her clothing was discarded. How many husbands attend their wife’s funerals wearing the deceased’s panties. Few I suspect.
Glass in hand I strolled beyond the garden, toward the cliff. The breeze was dissipating now. It would be a calm night, after all. It really was quite beautiful. And yes, the birds were sweeping in from their sojourn out fishing, or whatever it is they do, and returning to their cliff bound nests for the night. It was wild and magical.
The sherry warmed my belly as I walked along that clifftop for a while, and then turned back toward the hotel. The daylight was beginning to fade, and my hotel room light was a warm guiding beacon as I made my way back. The dress was warm and I loved the way it felt against my legs. My shoulders were wrapped and I pulled the shawl about my ears, a slight chill in the air now.
As I approach the back of the hotel I glanced up and for a moment I was taken aback. There in the window I glimpsed a movement. Just a fleeting motion, but certainly something, and my heart skipped a beat. I was sure I saw something. I quickened my step, and hurried through the garden.
“Hello,” I called, as I entered.
To my great surprise, and I have to say I felt a wave of fear, a voice came back.
“Hello, love,” came the voice, from the kitchen. “Don’t you look lovely!”
I felt a wave of panic. Here I was, crossdressed and exposed. And quite suddenly a rotund old woman stepped out of the kitchen, and confronted me, first with a look and surprise, which was predictable, and then a broad smile, which was not. I thought of all the lies I could tell, I was preparing for a workshop demonstration. I was getting a costume ready for a show. I was…
“Well, aren’t you going to join me for a sherry in the conservatory? It’s a lovely evening, after all?” she said quite merrily.
“Well,” I stammered. “Well, yes. I think I will.”
I stepped cautiously to a table and sat down. The elderly woman first went to the bar, found the sherry bottle where I’d left it, chose a healthy sized whisky glass and poured herself a generous measure before returning to sit with me.
In those first few moments I felt a wave of fear break over me, and then slowly dissipate. I felt something new. I felt the acceptance of knowing there was absolutely nothing I could say or do that would alter the fact I had been caught, and ‘yes’, this is me.
“I do love that color, I really do,” she said.
“Yes,” I said uncertainly. “So do I.”
“I’m Agnes. And you are…”
“Sylvester. That’s a lovely name. Sounds like the cat.” She paused a moment. Perhaps, ‘Sylvia’?”
I smiled nervously. She knew. Well, how could she not!
Then she continued, “Sylvia is a lovely name, too. I’m the manager of The Hobbs Island Hotel. Oh, and don’t you worry. We get all sorts here. And you look lovely, and I take people as I sees them. So, you’re all right with me, Sylvia.”
I felt a wave of relief. That and a sense of disbelief. After all, how often is it that you come across a … No. Let’s not even try to go down this road. It was just an extraordinary situation.
Over the course of the next couple of hours I explained how I came to be there, and Agnes told me that the phone line was out, yet again, and that hopefully it would be on by morning. She explained that she’d lived here all her life, on the mainland within sight of the island, or in the hotel itself. She’d been out preparing some of the bee hives, on the other side of the island all afternoon, and hadn’t seen the launch arrive. I think I was as much of a surprise to her as she was to me.
Somewhere toward to bottom of the bottle I explained that my wife had died some months before, and that I loved to dress in her clothes now, more than ever.
“Yes,” she said. “I can see that. But it’s honoring her, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “After a fashion. It’s sharing something. Something she gave me, really. Something I don’t want to let go of.”
Over the next few days I had a somewhat surreal experience. Agnes and I would share meals, enjoy evening drinks, and she seemed quite oblivious to the fact that I’d dress from morning to when I went to bed. I enjoyed the fresh winds off the sea and would take short walks around the cliffs now and then. I even found myself taking an interest in the nesting habits of the colorful spattered peewits as they fluttered about the cliff face riding on the breeze like skillfully piloted kites.
Much of the time I spent writing in the conservatory, taking breaks in the afternoon for tea with Agnes. She seemed to have the unusual ability to vanish into thin air until I felt like breaking my work cycle and having a tea, and then she’d appear with a tray of tea and biscuits, or a glass of sherry in the early evening. It was very pleasant and before long I’d completed the article I had been commissioned to write on the impact of prescription drug addiction in the workplace.
Agnes would listen to me talking about the social and economic costs of addiction and look rather disapproving.
“I never had time for none of that nonsense, myself.” She said.
“Well, it’s not exactly an experience one aspires to,” I countered.
Agnes, in her turn would talk about the history of the island, this owner and that owner, and the eccentricities of some of the people who’d stayed on the island over the years. There was the couple that had been coming back since their honeymoon, and that had a baby in room number 9. There was another gentleman who came for a week and stayed six months, and was eventually found hanging from a beam in the old barn. And there were the twin girls who gone swimming one afternoon never to be seen again.
By the time the work editing the article was finished it was almost time to prepare the workshop materials. In fact, as I mentioned to Agnes, the workshop delegates were due to arrive the very next day. I said I’d miss our talks. She said she looked forward to seeing me, after the workshop, but that she expected she’d be pretty busy in the coming days.
That night we talked about Elizabeth. She asked about our life together, and listened patiently as I told her about the travels, about Mexico and the trip we took diving. I told her of the first time she came across my clothes, and about how one night in my family’s house she dressed me in long evening dressed and we ate dinner in the enormous dining room, surrounded by family heirlooms. And how Elizabeth had held me, and to my eternal joy, made me feel beautiful.
Agnes was a kindly soul, and she listened with tender kindness. She never asked too much, and yet slowly and skillfully drew out the information. She allowed me to share it. She allowed me to enjoy the conversations, each one going a little further than the one before.
By the morning of the workshop I felt rather like Agnes knew me better than any other soul on earth, so honest and open had been our discussions. And yet I knew little of her. Just that her husband had gone down with so many others, on the convoys. Another body lost in the north Atlantic to a German “U” boat attack. She’d been married a mere five years, “and that was enough, thank you very much.”
The staff arrived gradually, the first few on the launch, visible from where I watched on the cliff edge, the prow of the determined little craft fighting the tide as it puttered over from the mainland. Then a larger vessel arrived. This one brought more staff, trolley’s loaded with supplies, and a pair of sheep, of all things. The little launch made another visit, this time laden with supplies, everything from crates of fruit, to bottles of beer and bundles of blankets. There were baskets of flowers, a crate of tomato plants, and a pallet of toilet tissue. I saw sacks of flour and flats of soft drinks. I watched three aluminum beer barrels unloaded, some gas bottles, a guitar and coils of electric cable.
The staff were carrying things up in relays. No one was still. When the larger vessel returned I saw the delegates stepping hesitantly onto the quay. From the look of their cautious steps ashore this was the first time most of them had ventured to this remote coast. More than one looked a little green from the short crossing.
And that was the last I saw of Agnes for days. Instead I was surrounded by well meaning staff. My lovely clothes were returned to their case, and my second case opened, more manly attired hung in the wardrobes, and my heels were replaced by shoes of a more masculine form. Suddenly Sylvia was gone, and Sylvester emerged once more.
I met with the conference organisers and we discussed the details of the workshop. It was all rather routine. They were so busy, no one really was very interested in me, or what I’d been up to the previous few days. It wasn’t until late that night, after I’d given the first of several presentations, and I was sitting in the conservatory, that I chatted with Neil McCormick, one of the organisers.
“I love this old place,” he said as we drank whiskey. “I’ve done several of these things here. Great old building. So much history.”
“Yes,” I said. “So, I’ve heard. I was chatting with Agnes about it. I had plenty of time these last few days.”
Neil glanced at me.
“Agnes?” he said quizzically.
“Yes. We talked a few times,” I replied. “I haven’t seen her today, but she’s a nice old thing.”
“Are you sure, old chap?” he said. “I heard you came over early, but that you were on your own here.”
“I thought I was going to be,” I said. “But she showed up after a while. She’d been doing something with the bees, or something.”
“Are you sure, Sylvester,” Neil said, “I don’t think they’ve kept bees here since my first workshop, and that was fifteen years ago.”
“Well, that’s what she said. Of course, they’ve probably started doing it again for this year. I don’t know, but we had some lovely chats. She seems a sweet old thing. I’m sure you’ll see her around. A very sprightly old girl.”
“How very odd. I don’t know of any ‘Agnes’.” Said Neil.
I was too busy at the time to take much notice of Neil’s comment, yet later I was to remember it. Perhaps it was the whisky, or the fact I’d been so tired after the presentations. Yet the words hung there.
It wasn’t until that last night, the workshop done, and some of the guests already embarked on the launch and really just a few people still in the hotel, that I really had the time to sit down and reflect on the events of the previous few days. I had taken a turn around the island. I was wondering where old Agnes was. I’d quite like to see the old bird before I left and I went in search of the bee hives, thinking perhaps I’d find her there.
It seemed unlikely I’d overlooked them on my wanderings, but nonetheless I went in search of them with renewed vigor, before the last of the evening light faded. The island was so small it was not as though I could really have missed them, but after a fruitless search I wandered back along the shore resigned to pack and be ready to leave in the morning. It was there I found the boatman, McKenzie, sitting and loading his pipe with tobacco. I wandered up to him, and we exchanged a few pleasantries before I asked the old man, “Have you seen old Agnes? I hoped I might see her before I left.”
McKenzie looked back at me in that way some people have that leave you wondering what it might be that you’ve said that had offended them.
“Agnes, you say,” he answered curtly.
“Yes, I wondered if she might be about here somewhere.”
“I dare say she might have been… forty years hence.”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“There’s no Agnes here. Not for two score years. I’d know, young man.”
I wasn’t sure how much I liked this presumptuous fellow calling me ‘young man’, but battled on.
“I saw her, you must have brought her yourself. I spent three days and nights here, as you know.”
“Mister,” said the prickly old boatman, “You don’t know what you’re sayin’. Now shut your head and get up to the hotel. I’ve got work to do!”
With that he puffed a last puff and shambled off toward the launch. I wondered what I could have said that had upset him and made my way back to the hotel. I was confused, and tired. I’d be pleased to get off this place in the morning.
Later that evening I chatted with one of the owners of the hotel, who’d been kind enough to allow me to stay at such short notice. I told him of the exchange I’d had with McKenzie, and he looked rather shocked, and then ushered me into the office, behind the restaurant.
“You should have a look at this old paper,” he said handing me a file with some newspaper cuttings. I flicked through them, until I came to one with a picture of Agnes. She was even wearing the same dress I’d seen her in just three days before. The cutting told of the loss of a rowing boat, caught in a squall while crossing the straits to Hobbs Island. It was a local tragedy that happens from time to time, but there was no doubt about it, the face looking out at me from the cutting was that of the woman I’d spent days talking with.
“It must have been her mother,” I mused aloud.
“Well, so it might, except she died childless. I would know, I’ve lived here all my life. And did you notice the name of the boatman who was lost in the accident?”
I scanned the paper again. There it was, McKenzie. Now, he really was the father. The father of the boatman that brought me to Hobbs Island.
“Pardon me if I say so, but if this is all genuine I don’t get the idea that you are very surprised,” I said to my host.
“No. No, I’m not. You see, you’re not the first. About once every four or five years it seems that Agnes makes a little visit. Someone will see her, or hear her. And I often get to hear about it. Never seen her myself, of course.”
My host took me through to the bar and poured a hefty dram of whisky. I felt I needed it.
And there I would think my story would end, but it didn’t.
I listened to the wind, and I tried to fall asleep but without success. I got up and looked from my window out across the lawn and saw the sea in the moonlight, as troubled as my soul seemed to be. At some point toward morning I lost consciousness, partly through the sleeping pills and partly through a large glass of sherry.
I awoke to the sound of a baby crying. I’d not noticed a child among the guests, and glancing at my watch I found it had stopped. Then the sounds of a mother singing to the child, and the crying fading, I guessed as the mother walked the baby in a pram out into the garden.
I rose and glanced from my window. The sun shone brightly, a perfect spring morning. It was truly beautiful.
Two children played on the lawn, and a dog jumped and ran joining their frolicking. A man sat on the garden bench reading. As I watched I saw Agnes. Yes, there was no doubt. There she was, happily chatting to the girls. Only then did I realise they were twins.
Agnes looked up directly at me, where I was framed in the window.
“Sylvester, it’s time.”
My breath seemed to catch in my throat. How could this be?
“Sylvester, come down. I’ve someone who wants to meet you.”
I stepped back from the window in shock. To be truthful, I did not have time for fear, or bravery or anything. I just felt confused. Agnes seemed so welcoming. It was then I heard the footsteps on the landing, and the soft knock on the door.
Agnes’ voice came gently.
“It’s alright, Sylvia. Really. I want you to come down. We’re waiting for you. I think you know who’s here.”
I was dumbfounded. I hurriedly pulled on a pair of trousers, and a burgundy blouse. Slowly I opened the door, and emerged. There was no one there, but as I stepped onto the landing and looked down the sweeping staircase in the frame of the front door I saw the unmistakable outline of a woman, silhouetted against the incoming spring sunshine.
I knew that shape anywhere. It was a shape that I would know yesterday, or in a thousand years.
Agnes emerged from the corridor. She spoke softly.
“I think you know who’s waiting for you, Sylvia.”
The woman in the doorway turned and raised her face toward me in a broad smile.