The strangest experience of my life happened when I was asked to survey a derelict old inn in Cornwall.
Zennor Point. Zennor Point.
Where had I heard that name before? It was stuck in my memory somewhere, floating around with all the rest of the unexplained flotsam and jetsam ‘happiness words’, kind of like the name of my first pet, the places I loved going on holiday as a child, memories of favourite toys and so on. Eventually I gave up trying to remember where I’d heard it before.
I was born in England and spent my first year there, before my dad returned home to Canada, where I’ve lived ever since. I’m a building surveyor by profession, but an older guy now, and after I retired a few years early from my job in real estate in Calgary, and my marriage broke down, I decided to return to the country of my birth and start a new life. Ove the years I’d often travelled to England for holidays, and I really loved the place, and still, luckily had dual nationality. Dad had always told me that although he’d lived in Canada all his life apart from his army years when I’d been born, one of his ancestors had come from England. He’d been a miner who’d emigrated for work, so the story goes.
The estate agency who I worked for specialised in selling licenced premises around the country, but this public house had apparently not been trading for some years, so whoever might buy it would most likely have to do extensive renovations, or else knock it down and start again – my job was to ascertain how badly the structure had fared, and whether any of the building was salvageable.
Strangely enough, currently the pub had no road access – some temporary nearby building work had blocked off the premises, so that I had to park half a mile away and walk the rest, up the slipway beside the beach and out to the narrow outcrop leading to the sea. It was kind of like a miniature pier over the beach that didn’t quite reach the sea.
When I finally turned the corner I had one heck of a shock. The Fisherman’s Rest seemed like it was actually open – and it was a thriving place, with the windows polished, the fine wooden building looking spick and span, and people – mostly men – were walking in and out of the front door. As I got closer I noticed that everyone was wearing some kind of period costume, so clearly there had to be a TV production company doing a shoot hereabouts, and they’d done cosmetic repairs to the inn for the cameras.
Why hadn’t anyone told me?
I entered the pub, which really had been transformed into a perfect facsimile of an old Cornish hostelry of around 1850. I walked right in beside another man who was also entering, and stopped to nod a greeting. But he never even looked at me.
Everyone was sitting at tables, or leaning on the bar, engrossed in their own conversations.
“Hi there,” I said to the elderly man who was sitting at a table nearest me. “Are you guys taking part in a film shoot? I guess I must be spoiling things.”
But he didn’t reply. Not only that, but he didn’t even look my way. It was clear that he hadn’t heard a word I said!
And then I looked across the bar at the barmaid, an attractive woman who looked to be in her mid thirties, blond hair piled high and pinned up, Victorian style dress with a tight waist and full bosom. She looked at me, and her expression froze. I locked eyes with her. And I guess I could say that it the most astonishing moment in my life – I felt as if I was actually a part of her, as if her mind and mine were one and the same. She looked terrified of something.
She was terrified of me!
A man was regarding her in surprise, smiling and staring across in my direction and was asking: “What’s up Maggie? What’s up me old love? You looks like you seen a ghost! What’s up me lovely?”
Then a dog – some kind of brown mongrel – started barking and ran across, snapping at my heels, growling and leaping up at me.
Everyone was laughing at him.
“Look at Eli, he’s attacking thin air, the daft old bugger!”
“Probably seen Maggie’s ruddy ghost – the blessed little urchin!”
The dog chased me right out of the place, and I ran – ran like a crazy man from the savage dog, along the pier road back towards the land. Until I tripped over something, and fell over the edge onto the beach below, and I guess I must have hit my head and lost consciousness for a while.
When I woke up, a light drizzle was falling and I managed to haul myself to my feet on the shifting sand and pebbles. Above me I could see the promontory road. I walked back up the beach, then went along the road again. There was the Fisherman’s Rest Inn. But oh boy, how different it was now!
Because now it was the derelict wreck that I had been told to expect. Closer up I could see that all the windows were smashed, the timber cladding was mostly rotted away, and the old timber joists were all but gone, and there was no roof. It was clear that the building was much too far gone to save, and even the foundations looked compromised, and whoever was selling the place was going to have to be realistic about the price.
I was too stunned by what had happened to work it out. All I could do was the job I’d been employed for, and so, in a kind of trance, I took lots of photos, made measurements of the inside of the empty rooms, and made it back to the car as quickly as I could.
Nearby Zennor Point was actually a village, and I drove back and parked in the high street opposite the ancient church. Something attracted me to the old stone building, but also to the fine old overgrown graveyard.
As I wandered between the tombs, looking at headstones, a dog came up to me and he sat at my feet. This dog was nothing like the other guy I’d met today – he was a white Labrador, and he was real friendly, happily sniffing my hand and letting me stroke his head. Suddenly he broke away and walked along for a bit, turning around, clearly wanting me to follow him, which I did.
He’d led me to one of the graves, sat down and looked up at me. I knelt down to read the headstone: Maggie Prowse, died 1898, was carved there, and for some odd reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“I’m betting you’ve just found one of your ancestors,” said a man who came up to us, as he bent down to pat my new friend, his dog. “Lots of folks like you come here looking for their Cornish roots. See, when the mines closed down in Cornwall, our men would go all over the world for work: South Africa, Canada, Australia. They do say that even now, anywhere in the world where there’s a hole in the ground, all you gotta do is call out ‘Cousin Jack’ and a Cornishman will answer you.”
“Cousin Jack?” It was another of those kick-ass happiness words that drove a current of electricity through my mind, just like ‘Zennor Point’ had.
“My old boy he don’t often go up to strangers. I reckon he likes you.”