After a decadent lunch of goose sandwiches and chocolate pudding, Emma began to agitate for the older kids to go swimming. “Out of the question,” Millard groaned, the top button of his pants popping open. “I’m stuffed like a Christmas turkey.” We were sprawled on velvet chairs around the sitting room, full to bursting. Bronwyn lay curled with her head between two pillows. “I’d sink straight to the bottom,” came her muffled reply.
But Emma persisted. After ten minutes of wheedling she’d roused Hugh, Fiona, and Horace from their naps and challenged Bronwyn, who apparently could not forgo a competition of any kind, to a swimming race. Upon seeing us all trooping out of the house, Millard scolded us for trying to leave him behind.
The best spot for swimming was by the harbor, but getting there meant walking straight through town. “What about those crazy drunks who think I’m a German spy?” I said. “I don’t feel like getting chased with clubs today.”
“You twit,” Emma said. “That was yesterday. They won’t remember a thing.”
“Just hang a towel ’round you so they don’t see your, er, future clothes,” said Horace. I had on jeans and a T-shirt, my usual outfit, and Horace wore his customary black suit. He seemed to be of the Miss Peregrine school of dress: morbidly ultraformal, no matter the occasion. His photograph was among those I’d found in the smashed trunk, and in an attempt to “dress up” for it he’d gone completely overboard: top hat, cane, monocle—the works.
“You’re right,” I said, cocking an eyebrow at Horace. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was dressed weird.”
“If it’s my waistcoat you’re referring to,” he replied haughtily, “yes, I admit I am a follower of fashion.” The others snickered. “Go ahead, have a laugh at old Horace’s expense! Call me a dandy if you will, but just because the villagers won’t remember what you wear doesn’t give you license to dress like a vagabond!” And with that he set about straightening his lapels, which only made the kids laugh harder. In a snit, he pointed an accusing finger at my clothes. “As for him, God help us if that’s all our wardrobes have to look forward to!”
When the laughter had died down, I pulled Emma aside and whispered, “What exactly is it that makes Horace peculiar—aside from his clothes, I mean?”
“He has prophetic dreams. Gets these great nightmares every so often, which have a disturbing tendency to come true.”
“How often? A lot?”
“Ask him yourself.”
But Horace was in no mood to entertain my questions. So I filed it away for another time.
As we came into town I wrapped a towel around my waist and hung another from my shoulders. Though it wasn’t exactly prophecy, Horace was right about one thing: nobody recognized me. Walking down the main path we got a few odd looks, but no one bothered us. We even passed the fat man who’d made such a stink over me in the bar. He was stuffing a pipe outside the tobacconist’s shop and blathering on about politics to a woman who was barely listening. I couldn’t help staring at him as we passed. He stared back, without even a flicker of recognition.
It was like someone had hit “reset” on the whole town. I kept noticing things I’d seen the day before: the same wagon rushing wildly down the path, its back wheel fishtailing in the gravel; the same women lining up outside the well; a man tarring the bottom of a rowboat, no further along in his task than he’d been twenty-four hours ago. I almost expected to see my doppelgänger sprinting across town pursued by a mob, but I guess things didn’t work that way.
“You guys must know a lot about what goes on around here,” I said. “Like yesterday, with the planes and that cart.”
“It’s Millard who knows everything,” said Hugh.
“It’s true,” said Millard. “In fact, I am in the midst of compiling the world’s first complete account of one day in the life of a town, as experienced by everyone in it. Every action, every conversation, every sound made by each of the one hundred fifty-nine human and three hundred thirty-two animal residents of Cairnholm, minute by minute, sunup to sundown.”
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“I can’t help but agree,” he replied. “In just twenty-seven years I’ve already observed half the animals and nearly all the humans.”
My mouth fell open. “Twenty-seven years?”
“He spent three years on pigs alone!” Hugh said. “That’s all day every day for three years taking notes on pigs! Can you imagine? ‘This one dropped a load of arse biscuits!’ ‘That one said oink-oink and then went to sleep in its own filth!’ ”
“Notes are absolutely essential to the process,” Millard explained patiently. “But I can understand your jealousy, Hugh. It promises to be a work unprecedented in the history of academic scholarship.”
“Oh, don’t cock your nose,” Emma said. “It’ll also be unprecedented in the history of dull things. It’ll be the dullest thing ever written!”
Rather than responding, Millard began pointing things out just before they happened. “Mrs. Higgins is about to have a coughing fit,” he’d say, and then a woman in the street would cough and hack until she was red in the face, or “Presently, a fisherman will lament the difficulty of plying his trade during wartime,” and then a man leaning on a cart filled with nets would turn to another man and say, “There’s so many damned U-boats in the water now it ain’t even safe for a bloke to go tickle his own lines!”
I was duly impressed, and told him so. “I’m glad someone appreciates my work,” he replied.
We walked along the bustling harbor until the docks ran out and then followed the rocky shore toward the headlands to a sandy cove. We boys stripped down to our underwear (all except Horace, who would remove only his shoes and tie) while the girls disappeared to change into modest, old-school bathing suits. Then we all swam. Bronwyn and Emma raced each other while the rest of us paddled around; once we’d exhausted ourselves, we climbed onto the sand and napped. When the sun was too hot we fell back into the water, and when the chilly sea made us shiver we crawled out again, and so it went until our shadows began to lengthen across the cove.
We got to talking. They had a million questions for me, and, far away from Miss Peregrine, I could answer them frankly. What was my world like? What did people eat, drink, wear? When would sickness and death be overcome by science? They lived in splendor but were starving for new faces and new stories. I told them whatever I could, racking my brain for nuggets of twentieth-century history from Mrs. Johnston’s class—the moon landing! the Berlin Wall! Vietnam!—but they were hardly comprehensive.