This is in England, in Cornwall, and a more weird dreary spot could scarcely be imagined. Nevertheless, tourists were beginning to arrive in ever increasing numbers because they had been everywhere else. The inhabitants of the place were in many respects peculiar, poor and cruel with extraordinary dark eyebrows, but the cream teas were excellent. The dogs were polite. The gulls were big, the crows enormous.
The weather was foul.
The graveyards weren’t as full or as mossy as those in Wales, the lanes not as snug. The cooking not as delightful; few turnips, no leeks. Actually, the dogs, though courteous, didn’t work as hard as the dogs of Wales. The ones without heads were the devil’s dogs. Even the most unobservant tourist had no problem in identifying them.
Most of the ghost stories in Cornwall involved ships and drowned sailors. And these drowned people, these ghosts, were always coming back, coming back to harass the living. Or to drag a beloved into the grave with them. Sometimes they came back to smile at their mums. The stories were a little tiresome.
In the old days, ships were always going down. The people on land liked it best when fruit ships went down. Oranges floated in. Grapefruit.
In King Arthur’s town in Tintagel, there was a big run-down hotel on a cliff. The drinking room there was called the Excali-Bar. It was for tourists. The locals wouldn’t be caught dead in the place. A group of travelers were sitting this night in the Excali-Bar drinking Adios Amigos — gin, brandy, white rum, red vermouth, bit of lemon juice, shake and stir.
A frightful storm lashed the windows.
The locals were in the chapel eating pancakes because it was Shrove Tuesday. In a few hours Lent would commence.
The locals didn’t care for the tourists. Never had. As for the tourists, they were beginning to believe what they’d been told — that Cornish culture was nothing but ghost stories and meat pies. Not that they were here for culture. They were here for a bit of the odd, a bit of the creepy.
There were seven species of sea gulls in the area. That was somewhat creepy. And a village called Lizard, an odd name indeed.
The locals had polished off their pancakes and were tidying up, preparing to play their Lenten prank. This year it fell to Paul and Paul, two old men. They staggered out of the chapel into the windy, rainy night and tottered along the cliff road to the Excali-Bar.
The travelers had stopped drinking Adios Amigos and were now experimenting with Sheep Dip — gin, sherry and strong sweet cider, stir and strain. There were two boy hikers, several married pairs, three ladies from Ohio, a transvestite, and a French couple who sat apart (quite aware that the others were thinking . . . The French . . . The French eat horses but they don’t eat corn . . .) The transvestite was having a quiet holiday alone, if you could say that a transvestite was ever quite alone. The imagination it takes to be one . . . It must be exhausting . . .
She was dressed sensibly, sensible shoes.
Paul and Paul lurched, dripping into the reveler’s midst. They both had suffered strokes in the past. One hand on each was cold and crabbed. Their eyes were bulging and clouded.
They weren’t going to tell any scary stories, not these two. Weren’t going to tell this crowd about the vanishing hitchhiker or the man with half a face. Or the ones about the boiled baby’s revenge and the body of water that likes to break little boys’ backs. They were just going to play a few games, give these tourists something to remember. What did they think life was, a vacation?
The travelers had been playing a game of sorts before the old buzzards’ arrival. They were secretly assigning zoomorphs to everyone present. Of course privately they all thought of themselves as cheetahs. There was not a single exception to this.
Paul and Paul had wide, rotting smiles. Once they had been young and vigorous. Clever. Handsome. Their lives before them. But they’d had to give it all up. It seemed to have been the deal that had been struck at birth.
The tourists made an effort to find them engaging. They so terribly wanted to be amused. They bought them beverages, having moved from Sheep Dip to Blimlets to Blue Skies by then. Blue Skies are gin, lemon juice, a dash of unflavored food coloring and half a maraschino cherry, if available. After a few Blue Skies it was clear to all that the two Pauls were the cabaret.
It all began innocently enough. They proceeded to engage their audience.
Each among them had to confess to a loss.
“I lost my skill at baking cakes,” one of them ventured.
“I lost a rucksack once.”
“My trigger finger.” The fellow raised his hand, and it was true. It was maimed. There was no trigger finger.
“My beech trees outside Lyon. Every one!”
“My driving privileges.”
It was amusing how this had slipped in there, and they chuckled.
They howled at this one.
“It’s true. Can’t remember . . . get everything mixed up!”
“You never know when the last time for anything might come!”
“Now we’re cooking,” one of the Pauls cried.
My breast . . . my potency . . . my beloved Skippy.
Time began to tear through there. Inside, their lives were passing as though in a single night. They longed for a nice Teeny-Tiny, you know, of the GIVE ME MY BONE! sort. For a spectral bridegroom or a brain on a stick, even a vampire or a cannibal. Anything but this deathly entertainment, these dreadful drinks, these hideous old gentlemen whom they were feeling more and more indebted and attached to. These Pauls, urging them on to even greater and more fearful acts of admission to loss. The time passing. The blackness pressing against the greasy windows. And the morning which had always come, delayed.
Excerpted from The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. Copyright (c) 2015 by Joy Williams. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House.