Great expectations

Crispin U. Smythe is a short, plump man with a perfectly parted waxed moustache and a velvet flocked cravat. Anne sizes him up immediately as someone who wishes to impress his importance, when in fact he has little to none. He is at the typewriter when she enters his office; a small, crowded room up three flights of stairs. There's no secretary to ask her to wait, no room to wait in, just this funny little fellow who looks slightly alarmed to be caught doing the paperwork.

'Are you Sherwood or Smythe?' Anne asks him. She is fairly sure there is no Sherwood. The man probably didn't have a middle name either, let alone one that began with a U.

Smythe wipes his hands on a dainty handkerchief, before bolting toward her with an eager handshake. 'Sherwood is ah – out for the moment… Business at Fanningbank,' he adds suggestively, and taps his strawberry nose.

Anne's green eyes sparkle with mischief. 'The Premier's residence? I won't inquire further, sir.'

'I could tell you nothing if you did,' Smythe assures her.

As a sign of his favour he lifts a pile of papers off the grandfather chair squashed into the corner, and offers it to the mysterious lady in widow's weeds. Instead Anne takes the stool opposite a desk buckling under files and books, and smiles at him, politely. Coffee is offered, cocoa, tea, a tour of the office, an opinion on the weather. Anne soon realises Mr Smythe has no idea why she is here, or even who she is.

'I'm not late, am I? The appointment regarding Mr Keats' will was at one pm today?'

'Keats? Keats?' Drum drum go the fingers... 'Ah, yes, Mr Keats! Well you certainly look like the girl described.'

Anne's not sure if that's a compliment or not, and gives him a tactful smile. 'I'm afraid Mr Keats' description could only be what I told him myself. We became friends many years after he lost his sight. He told me he'd visited Avonlea before, though it was over twenty years ago. I first met him at a Sailors Home, the one near Arrow Point.'

'That a fact, that a fact,' says Smythe, with interest. He takes out a piece of paper and starts jotting down some notes. 'Then you won't know of your rather sizable inheritance, I take it?'

'My what?' Anne starts, the smile fleeing from her face.

Smythe clears his throat emphatically, then sits back in his chair and pats the wooden arm rests. How he relished being the bearer of unexpected news. 'I can tell you no more, my dear, unless I have some proof of your identity.'

Anne had expected this, and retrieves some old letters John Keats had sent to her. 'Mavourneen was one of his pet names, but Mr Smythe there must be some mistake. Mr Keats lived very simply, he was also blessed with the gift of the gab. I'm sure he would have told me if there had been some secret treasure lurking in his past.'

'I hope you're not expecting a pot of gold!' Smythe grumbles. He had hoped the girl would weep pretty tears when she learned of what had been left to her. It might not seem much to the more refined lady, but going by her oldfangled garb, this girl was clearly of reduced means. It was nothing but greediness hoping for more. But wasn't it always the way? People came into his office with nothing, only to declare that the something they were to expect was nowhere near enough!

'Believe me,' Anne says, still reeling with the news, 'I came here with no expectations. I assumed Mr Keats had left me some books.'

Smythe does a great deal of snorting at this, and bursts into phlegm strung laughter. 'Books!' he chortles. 'Oh, he left you some books, all right!' He totters over to the hatstand and removes a brightly checked coat. 'Come, Miss ah – Shirley, is it? Allow me to show you exactly how many books the man left to you.'

For such an energetic man Crispin U. Smythe walks very gingerly. The streets in this area are pitted with potholes, mud stained slush and piles of manure. One poor fellow with ragged trousers has buried his bare feet in a steaming pile. Smythe looks at him aghast, then down at his own white spatted shoes.

'I do apologise,' he keeps saying, turning his head in Anne's direction.

'Mr Smythe, I suggest you look where you're going, instead of back at me,' Anne says. She tosses the man ankle deep in muck a silver coin from her satchel. To her horror it lands right in it. Thankfully its recipient couldn't care less. He stuffs it under his flatcap and carries on warming his feet.

Yarmouth Street stretches out like a dog's leg down to Fair Way where trams, carts, buggies and wagons weave all over the road. Anne takes her guide's hand and nimbly leads him through the traffic, the stray goat, the hurdy gurdy with a broken wheel, the children bouncing around it, and the gaping hole near the gutter where raw sewerage can be seen flowing brownly to the sea.

Once those obstacles have been tackled Mr Smythe takes the lead again, and points out Derby Street. The books are not there however, nor on Idris Avenue, or the little lane they enter next, where a girl with a shorn head sits in a doorway cradling a baby – or is it a piglet? Once they emerge from that dripping, dark walkway even Anne feels the need to brush down her skirts. The hovels there are slick with slime, and the lane so narrow she is sure her cloak touched either side.

After passing through a second such lane she catches a smell of the sea. By her reckoning she is west of the Harbour, close to Mungo Pier. Anne isn't familiar with this part of Charlottetown. When she went hunting for Davy all those years ago she kept her search to the places a sailor would go. Taverns, hostels, Music Halls and the aptly named Congress Row where women in tilted hats and rouged cheeks advertised their wares. The Pier is where the steam packets docked, and cargo ships from Boston, New York, Halifax and St Johns. There are also rows of warehouses filled with the mainland's manufactured goods; hardware, glassware, steam engines, tobacco, fabric, paper and fancy goods. Here too are the wharf hands and stevedores loading up ships with the Island's best: smoked fish, canned fish, fresh eggs, pickled beets, and endless sacks of potatoes. Mr Barry had taken the girls there once in order to show them where his prized Early Roses ended up.

'On the tables of Boston's Brahmin Elite,' George Barry said, proudly, and gave his eldest daughter a kiss.

They wouldn't have made it last year, however. Most of the Barrys harvest got struck with the blight.

Anne secures her hat more firmly, before Smythe leads her onto a wide cobbled street with the delicious sounding name of Chalmallivon Road. Had it been in a more stylish part of town it might have been called the Promenade. The shore-side buildings give way to a low stone wall, and beyond that is a sliver of beach. The road is wide and well maintained in order to convey the trades. Though only those that have to be, venture out this afternoon. The wind is sharp and so bad tempered, it doesn't blow the sleet so much as spit it at their faces.

'Nearly there,' Smythe says brightly, tugging his companion's elbow.

Anne bristles when he does this, but it has nothing to do with the weather. She isn't used to being led, and cannot shake the feeling that she knows the way far better than he does. 'Mr Smythe, we're heading away from the warehouses –'

'Warehouses? Pooh! What I have to show you is far better than that!'

They stop at the corner near a huddle of shops, each with a pitched roof so pointed they look like witches hats. First is a tailors, next a shoemakers, and right at the end a dank little bookshop, its stone step so worn it looks like a ladle. A closed sign hangs inside the door – or rather it sticks with grime and dust and has never been turned around. On either side of the door are two tall windows featuring equally dismal displays. One shows last years Christmas cards with evil looking etchings of the Ghost of Christmas Past and a malevolent looking Scrooge. In the other is an enormous tome bound in leather the colour of peasoup, carrying the preposterous price of seventy-five dollars and thirteen cents.

Smythe crosses his arms and looks at Anne, expectantly. Anne's patience is about to run out.

'Forgive me, sir, I don't understand, are Mr Keats' books in there?' she says, pointing at the tumbledown shop.

'You've hit it in one,' he says emphatically, waving his arms about. 'This entire enterprise – books – building – the people inside it if you like – all of it, all of it, all of it yours! What do you say to that, young lady!'

The young lady has sudden cause to take Smythe's arm in earnest, and he guides her to the low stone wall. The grey sea laps up against it, thick with yellow curds of spume.

'Thought that was ice for a moment,' he says, 'couldn't have that, could we, the harbour freezing up?'

Anne shakes her head but the words won't come, and she stares out at the horizon. It's so different to the prairies, yet somehow the same. The grey of the sea and the grey of the sky made for a different kind of forever.

'What say we get out of this nasty gale?' Smythe suggests.

Anne responds with an encouraging smile. 'No Mr Smythe. If you can bear it, tell me everything you know.'

Mr Smythe cannot bear it. When he takes her to a tea room near the warehouses, Anne can see why. He had jammed his top hat on so tight, a deep indentation scored his brow and matched the colour of his nose. He was very forthcoming with information, however. The book shop had been John Keats' father's, but John had shirked his filial duties and ran away to sea. He left the business to his younger brother – and his bond with him in tatters. Samuel Keats did not want to be a bookseller either. He yearned to become a monk.

'He was one of your stricter Catholics. Franciscan, I believe.'

'The ones who reject all worldly goods? He wouldn't have made much of a businessman then.'

Crispin U. wriggles uncomfortably and rubs at the mark on his head. 'The shop is not in the best condition, I grant you.'

Anne laughs. 'From the little I saw it seemed like they were trying to drive business away.' Smythe almost pouts as she says this. For all his airs he saw himself as a sort of fairy godfather, down to the diamante on his velvet cravat. Anne she can't help it, she likes this curious man, and hides another smile behind a cup of hot chocolate. It's all so strange, so unexpected; her journey here this morning feels very far away. 'Can you tell me what happened to Samuel?' she asks.

'Died on a pilgrimage some time back, childless and wifeless naturally. A Mr Mead has the running of the shop at present, you shall meet him in due course.'

Mr Mead, Anne thinks. A man with such a name couldn't help but be sweet. Surely he will help her make sense of it all. 'Well then,' she says, rising from the table, 'what say we do that right now?'

To get into the bookshop you need to kick at the doorplate, then wedge your shoulder hard against the door. It groans as they enter and squeaks when they close it.

A man working at a bench on the left side of the room bellows, 'Kick it!' Another man at a bench on the right shouts, 'Shop!' Neither look up at their visitors, giving Anne the opportunity to have a good look at them. One seems to have the innards of a book strung from some sort of mediaeval torture contraption. He has a stocking cap pulled low on his head, ruddy cheeks, and a fabulous aquiline nose. His long fingered hands making minuscule stitches as he stares over brass rimmed spectacles.

Opposite him stands the other man, who hunches over a fine steel plate and deftly teases out hair-thin coils with some sort of chisel. His eyes meet Anne's briefly, a look a disdain in his deep blue eyes. He wears a hat too, a bowler, and has a lustrous black moustache. His bottom lip glistening like stewed rhubarb as he barks his order again.

'Shop!'

A moth eaten curtain parts swiftly and a tiny woman appears. She has silvery curls peeking out from her cap, yet her face is young and lively. Her eyes are blue too, like Jasperware plates, and her mouth emits frantic clucks.

'Keep you hats on, I'm coming, I'm coming...' she fusses, and darts over to Anne and Smythe. 'How do?' she says in a thick Irish brogue, 'what brings you here today?'

Smythe doffs his hat and makes a low bow. 'Mrs Brennan, I've found her,' he says grandly. 'Allow me to introduce Mr Keats' mysterious mavourneen.'

Before Anne can speak, the man torturing the book stabs himself and yells 'Blast!' The other man's chisel clatters to the floor. Neither of them move an inch however, nor look in Anne's direction. Anne is this close to laughing again. She bites her lip and offers her hand to Mrs Brennan.

'Please,' she says, in as even voice as she can manage, 'call me Anne.'

Orla Brennan takes Anne's hand as though she has been handed a sock. 'Tea?' she says at last – well tea fixed everything, didn't it? – and dashes through the curtain on tiptoeing feet.

Anne follows, pausing momentarily as she passes the two men, so that they might introduce themselves. They don't. One cleans his chisel with spirits, the other sucks on his thumb. Anne struts by smartly, and enters the back of the shop. It is a few degrees warmer in here, but not much. A thick shawl has been draped over a threadbare armchair bearing the shape of Orla Brennan. Beside it is some knitting and beside that a pot bellied stove. The kettle on top makes lukewarm cups of tea, which Orla downs in one.

'Don't look to me for anythink, will you? I'm just the Do-it-all. Cleaning, fetching, that sort of thing, know nothing of books and whatnot – oh but you won't get rid of me, will you, Miss Anne? I need all the work I can get. My Jack's got hisself herniated, flat on his back at home. Those sacks they have to load onto the boats, some of them must be two hundred pound.'

Orla sneaks a look at the pudgy lawyer as she says this, as if divining his own weight. Smythe clears his viscous throat.

'Now, now, Mrs Brennan, all in due course. Perhaps you can show Miss Shirley the premises?'

'I'm sure you have enough to do,' Anne says to Orla. 'The men front of shop might be more helpful.'

'Helpful?' Orla Brennan erupts, and slaps her knee. 'They only thing they care for are their shuddersome books. That and their folly. Oh, folly can make them do anythink!'

Anne isn't sure what Mrs Brennan means by that, perhaps it is an Irish phrase. She asks about Mr Mead instead.

'Him? He's well out of it! Cursed us, he did, cursed us one and all –'

'Mrs Brennan,' Smythe interrupts, nervously, 'do as I say now, there's a good woman, and show the young lady around.'

There isn't much to see as far as Anne can tell. The shop looks to be about twelve feet wide and forty feet long, with two plate glass windows at the front and a rough looking timber wall at the back, covering what should have been the back door. It looks as though it had been put up recently – perhaps the original wall had fallen down?

The rest of the building looks close to following. The plaster is all mildew and cracks; chunks the size of wagon wheels fallen away showing rusty red brick beneath. Some shelves had been bolted to them in a haphazard fashion, piled with dusty, unwanted books. By the door there is an ornate brass till also covered with dust, and the dirt that blew in from the street. It looked like it hadn't been used for months. Not that this was surprising. Anne can't imagine anyone bothering to come in here. There isn't even a light for customers to see by. The men at their benches commandeered all the lamps.

'The big nosed man is Thistlethwaite, the moustachioed one is Pegerim. They haven't spoke for two whole years.'

'But that can't be right,' Anne cuts in, 'I heard them as we entered the shop.'

Mrs Brennan rolls her eyes. 'To each other, I mean. It's all folly's doing. By and by you'll understand. You'll have to excuse me now, Miss Anne, I got to do the washing up.'

Anne expects to see her gather the chipped tea cups, instead she bustles through the curtain and out into the shop. The next moment the front door groans and Mr Thistlethwaite yells, 'Kick it!' before it squeaks shut again.

'Perhaps you'd like to see upstairs,' Smythe says, offering his arm again.

The stairs are like something you'd see on a ship, narrow and so steep Anne has to bundle her skirts under one arm and cling to the banister, in order to climb them. Being the gentleman, Smythe waits for her to ascend completely before joining her on the top floor. He finds the girl with her arms wrapped about her, looking through an enormous arched window to a view of the sea.

'This was Samuel Keats' quarters, I believe,' he says.

'He lived up here?' Anne says, amazed, then looks around her. The thick oak beams, the gothic window; it did look a bit like a church. It was quiet too, far too quiet for a house above a business. It seemed impossible that such a place could afford to employ anyone, let alone make a profit.

Anne sits on the thick stone ledge and rubs her hands on her knees. She is sorry to have to sell it. Mr Keats might have done so years ago, that he didn't told Anne how much the place meant to him. She feels badly for Mrs Brennan too, but with no Mr Mead, and the other two taking great pains to ignore her, there is no way for her to make this work.

It was a shame really. She would have liked a bolthole in Charlottetown. The town has a mixed reputation which Anne can't help admire. The rest of the Island thought their capital the very last word in style and industry. The rest of the world had other ideas. Charlottetown was founded by misfits, rejects and pirates. A place you ended up in, not a place you wanted to go...

The window pane behind her trembles in its casement, as the door below is forced open again. Anne can just make out 'Kick it!' followed by 'Shop!' and finds herself grinning, when by rights she should be in tears.

'Must be a customer,' says Smythe encouragingly, and dear man that he is, goes downstairs as if hoping to make the sale himself.

The customer doesn't linger long before the arched window rattles in the casement again. Anne is about to peer out the window and see who it was, when up pops a girl not much older than Anne, with a heavy basket of books on her arm.

Anne is not sure what to ask her first: who she is, or how she managed to get up the stairs with such a load? There's no chance of a word escaping her lips. The girl flings her shawl on the banister and rushes to the window before Anne can move.

'Ooh, there he is, wouldn't I like some of that? Go on, honey, see for yourself!'

Anne isn't inclined to ogle some man in the street, and studies the girl curiously. Her buxom figure, tawny complexion and wide set, long lashed eyes remind Anne of her troublesome Jersey cow. Her collarless dress is daringly low, and a strange looking silver cross nestles comfortably between her breasts.

'Why you want to look at me, when you could be looking at God's gift?' the girl says. 'I'm not being blasphemous. Tell me you don't think Adam himself looked exactly like that?' She dumps the basket of books on the floor and gives her shoulder a rub. 'It's such a relief to meet you, Miss. The Conk and the Mo swore you were nothing but a filthy dream in old man Keats' head!'

'Beg pardon?' Anne splutters.

'Ooh, sorry was that rude. I should have said Mr Thistlethwaite and Mr Pegerim. They said boo to you yet? No? Not surprised. Don't let them put you off, honey. This little place you've got yourself, why you're sitting on a goldmine!'

At this the girl dips into a worn leather purse that is buckled onto her belt, and pulls out of wad of dirty notes.

'Was a bit slow today but don't you worry, I got nearly thirty orders.'

Anne shakes her head and starts to laugh. 'I don't understand,' she says for what feels like the hundredth time today.

'I'm the book agent, aren't I? You know, the one who keeps this place going? Stick with me, Miss,' she says, nudging Anne with her elbow. 'Now that Reedy Meady's gone, we can get this place running just how we like it.'

'We?' Anne says, 'but who are you exactly?'

'Miss Filomena Iskander,' she says, giving Anne a mock salute. 'Everyone calls me Folly – ooh, he's going – quick now, get yourself a good look!'

Anne can't help herself and peers down at the sleet spattered street. At first all she sees are women, two of them, one in the ugliest hat Anne has ever seen, the other shivering with cold. Behind her is a small boy who looks strangely familiar, and a tall man bent over to open an umbrella. He offers it to the younger woman, and she gives him a shy little smile.

'Gilbert,' Anne utters, her hands on the glass.

'You know him?' Folly squeals. 'Well get down there and get him back! He said he was after some Latin book.'

'I'm sure he'll find everything he needs,' Anne murmurs, watching them go.

The boy Gilbert is holding hands with, he must be the one from the station. The older woman must be his aunt, and the other girl a cousin – though she doesn't remember him mentioning one. Anne is glad she still has her hat on. Gilbert always said the least red thing always caught his eye. She thinks of the almandine ring he tried to give her. She had left it in the snow...

Anne takes a deep breath and turns away from the window. She can do this. She can. What did Marilla always say – just plant one foot in front of the other? All the same it wouldn't hurt to sit for a moment.

Anne leans against the window surround and pulls her knees to her chest. 'There's one name I still don't know,' she says, softly, her eyes drawn back to the street below. 'What do I call this odd little shop?'

Folly kicks off her boots with a thump, and tucks her toes next to Anne's.

'Well it's The Red Oak, isn't it,' she says, beaming. 'But you, lucky duck, get to call it whatever you like. This is your home now.'

...

* widow's weeds are mourning clothes.

* Arrow Point and Mungo Pier first mentioned in Anotherlea. Just so you know, I have never tried to write of Charlottetown as it actually is, I'm just using it for inspiration the same way Maud used Cavendish as inspiration for Avonlea, and Halifax for Kingsport. The line about Charlottetown having an iffy reputation came from research. Here's a quote:

'It had a reputation of being a town of drunkards and criminals. A place built by society's rejects. People no one else wanted...'

* Early Roses are a type of potato

* Boston Brahmins was a phrase coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes and refers to rare old families that came out on the Mayflower, Harvard types, and various highfalutin sorts.

* mavourneen (just to remind you) is Irish for darling. Conk is slang for a big nose, Mo is short for moustache.

* Red Oak is the provincial tree of Charlottetown.