Some weeks after the party, Emma Osborne was leaving her flat. Her heels clicked on the red brick of the courtyard as she approached the gate to the road. She stopped to adjust her purse on her shoulder when she happened to look down and see that she was standing in running water. A leak. Wonderful.
Emma followed the small stream of water past an empty pedestal that had once held up a three-pawed cat and continued into the bushes. She found that the source of the water was coming from old Mr. Baldwin's flat.
His window was broken, which Emma chalked up to senile clumsiness, hardly surprising...and over the windowsill water fell as in a waterfall to a puddle at her feet, eventually making its way into the bricked area of the courtyard proper. A large, clawfoot bathtub had been pushed up underneath the window and it was overflowing. The tap was still turned flush open.
"Mr. Baldwin really!"
"Oh, pleasant afternoon to you, Ms. Osborne. Off to work are we? What's it this week? Marsh Corporation v. Starving orphans?"
"Mr. Baldwin, you know perfectly well that Marsh Corporation was falsely accused of using dog food in their privately-run orphanages."
"I'd heard you convinced the jury as much."
"This is not the point, Mr. Baldwin!"
Emma's voice was shrill with anger. She prided herself on not being shrill, on keeping an even keel in the courtroom. But this was not the courtroom. It was her courtyard.
"I must have missed the point then, Ms. Osborne forgive me."
"The point, Mr. Baldwin, is that you're flooding the courtyard. Or hadn't you noticed?"
"Well would you look at that. I hadn't. I must thank your keen eye, Ms. Osborne."
The old man was holding a plastic, toy boat in his right hand, and he saluted Emma with it before placing it back in the overflowing tub and pushing it along gently with his forefinger, keeping up a running commentary.
"The good ship Valentine was a whaling vessel, though no ordinary ship was she. Oho no!"
"Mr. Baldwin if you please."
"Oh, of course. Very good then," he said, reaching for the tap and turning it to the off position. "Sorry for the inconvenience." He tipped an imaginary cap at her, a tricorn no doubt, and refocused his attention entirely to the good ship Valentine.
Emma turned to go, a branch swiping her across the face and drawing blood. She cursed and snapped the branch, throwing it angrily to the ground.
Wretched, senile old man, she thought, huffing out of the courtyard.
Susan and Anabel were on a class trip to the park to look at the statue of Churchill. Their classes were separated by two chaperones and two years of age, but Anabel weaved her way back to her sister and they walked side by side, one seven year old invisible amongst a sea of nine year olds. They took turns imitating their grandfather talking about the deceased and frequently sculpted prime minister.
"Winnie knew what was best!"
"Never give up!"
"If you're going through bells, keep boinging!"
"That wasn't right, Anabel."
Before the sisters could get into another argument wherein one might push the other, Susan very nearly fell on the ground of her own accord. Anabel grabbed her sister by the collar and kept her on her feet.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine I just...slipped."
They looked down at the paving stones together and saw that they were in the midst of flowing water. Ahead, their classmates continued along without them, their blue-checked uniforms disappearing through the iron gates of the park.
"Where do you think it's coming from, Annie?"
"Maybe someone's left their water running. Or maybe the Thames is overflowing its banks! Let's follow the water to find out."
"What about school?"
"They're gone. See? And you remember what mama said about going into parks alone. She didn't say anything about following a mysterious stream."
Susan bit her nails and grabbed her sister's hand.
"Alright then. Let's follow it."
And follow it they did, though they didn't have so far to go before they recognized their surroundings.
"This is Aunt Emma's neighborhood," Anabel said. "Her building's just over there."
"Where the water's coming from."
"She'll be very cross."
As they entered the familiar courtyard, Anabel's hand instinctively reached for her heart. The gull feather was safe back at home tucked in between the frames of the girls' stacked bunks. Water ran between the old bricks and around the legs of the wicker chairs and tables. Anabel dared a glance at the far side of the courtyard and the cement stairs that lead to Aunt Emma's flat. No heels clicked. No perfume lingered, and no voice spoke into a wireless headset. She wasn't around.
The two girls hardly needed any help in finding the source of the water. Ever since they turned the corner into the familiar neighborhood they had felt a tingle of anticipation, of wonder. It had to be James Steinbeck Miller Baldwin's doing. The strange old man with a three-pawed cat and a flat that gulls simply passed through on their way to the ocean. Where else could be the source? Anabel let go of Susan's hand to pull back the branches of the annual bush when a familiar voice called out
"No! Whatever you do, don't let go!"
But it was too late. Anabel reached back for her sister's hand just as they were hit by a freezing, briny wave. The girls did somersaults in the water, tumbling head over heels again and again until finally surfacing and gasping for breath. They found themselves in a dark ocean, white crests of waves crashing down all around them. A great, masted-ship rocked with the fury of the storm nearby. On the deck, gripping the railing with his liver-spotted hands was Mr. Baldwin, calling out to them.
The rope landed in front of Susan and immediately began to sink. She swam the few lengths between her and the rope and was only just able to grab hold before it sank out of reach. She held onto it tightly, squinting through the howling wind and rain to see the old man tying the rope to a hook, one foot pressed up against the railing for support.
"Quickly Anabel!" she shouted to her sister, her voice being carried away by an unfeeling wind, landing far away from her sister and sinking into the void. Luckily, Anabel needed no further motivation to swim to her sister and shortly reached her, gasping for breath, but momentarily relieved. She held tight to her sister's shoulders, whispering into her ear.
"Be brave, Susan."
As the girls held tight to the rope, James Steinbeck Miller Baldwin pulled it in, the thick, sailor's rope rutting against the rusty hook with each heave. When, after much effort, the girls were within a meter of the ship, the old man tied off the rope, disappeared for a few nervous moments, and returned to toss a rope ladder down to the girls, who were only too happy to climb up and onto the solid deck.
"Quickly now," Mr. Baldwin said. "Before you freeze."
He lead the girls down a set of narrow stairs to the inner cabin. There was a crackling fire and after digging in a chest, Mr. Baldwin came up with two large, woolen blankets.
"Near the fire now, get warm."
The girls huddled together near the fire, shivering in silence while the old man prepared tea for them, which they took and sipped gratefully.
"Some brandy in those. Don't tell your folks."
"Mr. Baldwin," Susan ventured. "Where are we?"
The old man laughed a rough but pleasant sort of laugh.
"Right to it. That's the spirit. We, my young friends, are en route to the island of Smithwick."
"Why the island of Smithwick?" Susan asked. "Is it hard to get to?"
"Oh yes, Susan. The island of Smithwick is harder to get to than any other island in the world."
"Doesn't sound much like a deserted island though does it? Smithwick?"
"Deserted? Smithwick isn't deserted, which is precisely why we're headed there. It is the only port in a storm of this magnitude. Even the good ship Valentine, former whaler of the best repute cannot weather this assault forever."
"Is it far then?"
"No, Anabel. I don't believe we've far to go now. I was just drawing up coordinates for landing before your arrival."
"We certainly appreciate it," Susan said, finishing the last of her tea in a gulp.
"Couldn't have let Tom Stearns Eliot's favorite young ladies drown now could I?"
"Is he alright?"
"Doesn't have great sea legs. Feeling a bit ill, but he'll be just fine. Now, let's see what we're in for."
Mr. Baldwin cleared the tea cups and saucers from the low table and spread on it a tattered map. The girls watched in fascination as he worked with a pencil attached to a metal spring of sorts, drawing half-circles on the map.
"Here," he said. "Is our destination, and that of course marks our current location."
The old man's finger rested on an island labelled "Smithwick" of a very peculiar shape.
"Why, it looks like papa's desk. That's a peculiar shape for an island."
"It's a very special island," Mr. Baldwin said. "And we'll be there in no time, though I think the two of you ought to get some rest. That was quite an ordeal you've just been through."
The girls agreed to rest a while and were shortly installed in rope-slung bunks in an adjacent cabin. Susan was just about asleep, rocked to sleep by the motion of the ship, when she felt a movement in her bunk and found Tom Stearns Eliot nestling in the hollow of her c-shaped sleeping position.
"It'll be okay," she whispered to the three-pawed cat. "It'll be okay."
When the girls emerged from the cabin stairs and up onto the deck once more, the sun was brightly shining and Mr. Baldwin was standing in the center of the deck, hands firmly grasping two pegs of the large, wooden steering wheel. He wore a tricorn hat and turned to look over his shoulder as the girls arrived.
"Just in time! We've entered into Smithwick's sovereign waters."
The girls saw that the ocean approaching the island, whose rocky formation really did look like their papa's desk, was calmer and sunny, and that the storm continued outside this undefined barrier.
"Just like I told you. The only port in a storm like this. We've made it, girls."
"Are the people of Smithwick nice?" Susan wondered.
"Oh yes, you'll soon see."
The people of the island did appear to be friendly, if a little formal. With the desk-shaped mountains looming behind the bay, the good ship Valentine came into dock and tied off with the help of some smithwickians. The smithwickians were all dressed in rather stuffy-looking suits. Double-breasted, pinstriped, some even with shining, gold cufflinks. To the girls they looked incomparably funny, but they did their best not to giggle at their saviors from the storm.
"Mr. Baldwin, we've been expecting you," an older smithwickian said, stepping forward and bowing slightly. His golden watch chain dipped slightly with his bow. "Who are your companions?"
"And I'm Susan."
"We welcome you most warmly Anabel and Susan, but I'm afraid Mr. Baldwin's business with us is quite personal."
The girls were disappointed, looking at Mr. Baldwin for reassurance, but the look on his face was cloudy, though he attempted a smile when they looked upon it.
"I think he's right," he said. "Might be that you two have had enough adventure for one day."
Anabel took Susan by the hand and said, her voice quavering only a little.
"We understand, don't we Susan?"
The smithwickian in charge smiled warmly at them.
"We'll send you home in style, you have my assurances."
The girls shook Mr. James Steinbeck Miller Baldwin's hand in turn, before following the designated smithwickian to a small sailboat on the other side of the bay. On its sail was a picture of a large, white gull in flight.
"It's beautiful," Anabel said.
"Quite," Susan echoed.
Instead of sailing back out to sea, their escort took them farther into the bay and up a canal, beneath sloping bridges trafficked entirely by besuited people. When they entered a particularly long tunnel, their escort spoke for the first time.
"I'm going to tie off here, and you'll have to walk the rest of the way. I hope you'll accept the compliments of all Smithwick."
With a flourish, the escort presented a pair of gold cufflinks, placing one gently into each of the girl's outstretched palms. He saluted the two of them smartly as they climbed out of the sailboat and onto the walkway.
"Just that way," he pointed.
The girls walked along the tunnel's edge, the end of the walkway drawing near. They saw that water dripped down the end of the tunnel, flowing over the edge rather like a tub pushed too close to a window might overflow a sill. Clutching hands, they walked beneath the falling water and…
into a fountain.
"Girls!" a voice shrieked.
It was one of the parent chaperones.
"Get out of that fountain right now! What naughty children. Susan Bates is that you? Your class is clear up there. You see them there. Off with you. You'll both have to spend your day in sodden clothes which ought to give you plenty of time to think about your choices."
Susan let go of Anabel's hand to rejoin her own class.
"I'll be brave, Anabel."
Each girl clutched a golden cufflink in their palms. Without direction or plan, each placed their hands near their hearts in unison.