“There were U-boats around here?”
“Loads. Whole Irish Sea was rotten with German subs. Wager you’d have half a navy on your hands if you could unsink all the ships they torpedoed.” He arched one eyebrow dramatically, then walked off laughing.
I jogged along the deck to the stern, tracking the shipwreck as it disappeared beneath our wake. Then, just as I was starting to wonder if we’d need climbing gear to get onto the island, its steep cliffs sloped down to meet us. We rounded a headland to enter a rocky half-moon bay. In the distance I saw a little harbor bobbing with colorful fishing boats, and beyond it a town set into a green bowl of land. A patchwork of sheep-speckled fields spread across hills that rose away to meet a high ridge, where a wall of clouds stood like a cotton parapet. It was dramatic and beautiful, unlike any place I’d seen. I felt a little thrill of adventure as we chugged into the bay, as if I were sighting land where maps had noted only a sweep of undistinguished blue.
The ferry docked and we humped our bags into the little town. Upon closer inspection I decided it was, like a lot of things, not as pretty up close as it seemed from a distance. Whitewashed cottages, quaint except for the satellite dishes sprouting from their roofs, lined a small grid of muddy gravel streets. Because Cairnholm was too distant and too inconsequential to justify the cost of running power lines from the mainland, foul-smelling diesel generators buzzed on every corner like angry wasps, harmonizing with the growl of tractors, the island’s only vehicular traffic. At the edges of town, ancient-looking cottages stood abandoned and roofless, evidence of a shrinking population, children lured away from centuries-old fishing and farming traditions by more glamorous opportunities elsewhere.
We dragged our stuff through town looking for something called the Priest Home, where my dad had booked a room. I pictured an old church converted into a bed and breakfast—nothing fancy, just somewhere to sleep when we weren’t watching birds or chasing down leads. We asked a few locals for directions but got only confused looks in return. “They speak English, right?” my dad wondered aloud. Just as my hand was beginning to ache from the unreasonable weight of my suitcase, we came upon a church. We thought we’d found our accommodations, until we went inside and saw that it had indeed been converted, but into a dingy little museum, not a B&B.
We found the part-time curator in a room hung with old fishing nets and sheep shears. His face lit up when he saw us, then fell when he realized we were only lost.
“I reckon you’re after the Priest Hole,” he said. “It’s got the only rooms to let on the island.”
He proceeded to give us directions in a lilting accent, which I found enormously entertaining. I loved hearing Welsh people talk, even if half of what they said was incomprehensible to me. My dad thanked the man and turned to go, but he’d been so helpful, I hung back to ask him another question.
“Where can we find the old children’s home?”
“The old what?” he said, squinting at me.
For an awful moment I was afraid we’d come to the wrong island or, worse yet, that the home was just another thing my grandfather had invented.
“It was a home for refugee kids?” I said. “During the war? A big house?”
The man chewed his lip and regarded me doubtfully, as if deciding whether to help or to wash his hands of the whole thing. But he took pity on me. “I don’t know about any refugees,” he said, “but I think I know the place you mean. It’s way up the other side of the island, past the bog and through the woods. Though I wouldn’t go mucking about up there alone, if I was you. Stray too far from the path and that’s the last anyone’ll hear of you—nothing but wet grass and sheep patties to keep you from going straight over a cliff.”
“That’s good to know,” my dad said, eyeing me. “Promise me you won’t go by yourself.”
“All right, all right.”
“What’s your interest in it, anyhow?” the man said. “It’s not exactly on the tourist maps.”
“Just a little genealogy project,” my father replied, lingering near the door. “My dad spent a few years there as a kid.” I could tell he was eager to avoid any mention of psychiatrists or dead grandfathers. He thanked the man again and quickly ushered me out the door.
Following the curator’s directions, we retraced our steps until we came to a grim-looking statue carved from black stone, a memorial called the Waiting Woman dedicated to islanders lost at sea. She wore a pitiful expression and stood with arms outstretched in the direction of the harbor, many blocks away, but also toward the Priest Hole, which was directly across the street. Now, I’m no hotel connoisseur, but one glance at the weathered sign told me that our stay was unlikely to be a four-star mints-on-your-pillow-type experience. Printed in giant script at the top was WINES, ALES, SPIRITS. Below that, in more modest lettering, Fine Food. Handwritten along the bottom, clearly an afterthought, was Rooms to Let, though the s had been struck out, leaving just the singular Room. As we lugged our bags toward the door, my father grumbling about con men and false advertising, I glanced back at the Waiting Woman and wondered if she wasn’t just waiting for someone to bring her a drink.
We squeezed our bags through the doorway and stood blinking in the sudden gloom of a low-ceilinged pub. When my eyes had adjusted, I realized that hole was a pretty accurate description of the place: tiny leaded windows admitted just enough light to find the beer tap without tripping over tables and chairs on the way. The tables, worn and wobbling, looked like they might be more useful as firewood. The bar was half-filled, at whatever hour of the morning it was, with men in various states of hushed intoxication, heads bowed prayerfully over tumblers of amber liquid.
“You must be after the room,” said the man behind the bar, coming out to shake our hands. “I’m Kev and these are the fellas. Say hullo, fellas.”
“Hullo,” they muttered, nodding at their drinks.
We followed Kev up a narrow staircase to a suite of rooms (plural!) that could charitably be described as basic. There were two bedrooms, the larger of which Dad claimed, and a room that tripled as a kitchen, dining room, and living room, meaning that it contained one table, one moth-eaten sofa, and one hotplate. The bathroom worked “most of the time,” according to Kev, “but if it ever gets dicey, there’s always Old Reliable.” He directed our attention to a portable toilet in the alley out back, conveniently visible from my bedroom window.