Old John, the caretaker, always raised and lowered the flag each day, just after sun-up and just before sunset. He was a stickler for doing things right. Even as the paramedics were strapping him into the stretcher, he was itemising all the things I would need to do each day. Feed and walk the dog; raise the flag; check the oil in the dock lights, after I dowsed them and trimmed the wicks; top up the generator fuel; …............. He was still talking as the morphine kicked in and he drifted off to sleep. I was beginning to wonder if my decision to volunteer as stand in caretaker had been a good one. It was several years ago that the island owners had asked me if they could call on me, just in case, this was the first time I had been needed.
It started for me an hour or so earlier with a call from the harbour-master. The fishermen had radioed in their concerns and nobody had been able to raise John on the radio, so the harbour-master had sent a call for the air ambulance and then phoned me. The chopper pilot and paramedics would need someone who knew the island in order to land safely and search for John. They would be landing by the harbour in about 15 minutes. I stuffed some spare clothes and a few essentials into a rucksack, dropped my door keys in with a neighbour and told them I wouldbe in touch. I just made it down to the harbour in time to meet the helicopter. As we lifted from the harbour I could see the cold grey sea and the snow blowing in across the bay. I hoped I had packed enough clothes.
The keen wind had blown the snow away from the decking area inland from the dock. In the summer it would be full of visitors from the mainland coming in on the ferry to one of Cabbage Island’s famous clambakes, today it was empty and icy. As we came into land I strained my eyes to see if I could spot John, if he was ill or injured I expected he might be somewhere near the flag, which still stood at half mast. It did not take us long to find him, his dog was standing over him, barking loudly, as his master lay half in and half out of the generator shed. He had slipped on the ice near the flag on his way to raise it in his early morning ritual. He had managed to pull himself to the flag-pole and raise it halfway before making to the nearest shelter.
The helicopter threw up a flurry of snow as it took off and soon vanished into the grey skies. That left just me and the dog as the sole occupants of Cabbage Island. The only sounds were the flapping of the flag and slapping of the ropes against the pole and the steady sound of waves, slightly muffled, against a snowy shore. I thought through John’s list of my duties. dock lights; generator fuel, I had better get started on my new daily routine and then find breakfast.
Getting inside the lodge to the comparative warmth and shelter was a relief. The dog, followed me, expectantly, perhaps he thought he might get a second breakfast. The large room in the lodge was not heated, it was only used in the summer and now was empty and my footsteps echoed as I crossed to the wooden floor and went to John’s rooms. The kettle on the wood-fired range in the caretaker’s rooms had almost boiled dry, so back out into the cold to pump some more water. This was going to be a different Christmas for me, a back to basics Christmas. The paramedics had told me it would be months before John would be up and about. I was going to have to make some calls on the radio and put my mainland life on hold for a while. But first, COFFEE and breakfast, even though it was lunch time!
John had a well stocked larder, good dry cured bacon on the bone, home made bread, even eggs in waterglass. That looked good for breakfasts. Tins of almost everything, jars of preserved fruit and vegetables, and enough sauerkraut to feed and army, well this is Cabbage Island. Well fed, with a steaming mug of coffee by my side I fired up the radio and called the Boothbay harbour-master and gave him messages to pass on to friends and neighbours about closing up my house, re-directing mail, getting some more clothes packed, ordering some supplies, the list seemed to go on and on. As I signed off the harbour-master wished me a Merry Christmas and I sat and wondered how merry it was going to be, just me and the dog.
Winter days are short up in Maine and it was soon time to get down to the dock, light the lamps and lower the flag and start planning a very quiet Christmas. At least I would have the dog to keep me company and I was sure he would enjoy some of the canned turkey with me.
A cold wet nose on my hand woke me on Christmas morning. Item one, feed the dog. Item two, walk the dog ….
Standing by the flag on a bright crisp morning with the sea lapping against the dock I could see why John loved his life as an island caretaker, at least when the place was not heaving with visitors. I pulled my sketchbook from my pocket, one of the essentials I had packed, and made a quick study of the shore, that was one reason I knew the island so well, as an artist I made most of my living from paintings of the area, selling them to those summer visitors. This was different somehow, I had not seen the place in winter, there was no regular ferry at this time. John’s winter supplies and mail came in on local fishing boats on their way to the open sea. The quiet and peace of the island were magical.
Looking back, towards the lodge where icicles were hanging from the eaves I noticed for the first time the Christmas decorations by the fence and a life sized Santa in the big lodge window. I wondered why John had bothered with those as there would only have been him and the dog to see them.
Enough musing, time to open the canned turkey, put it in the oven, peel some potatoes, warm up some tinned clam chowder and perhaps make some egg nog, if I could find John’s stash of booze. I did hope there was some booze.
There was booze! Sitting in the easy chair, with a glass in my hand, stomach full of chowder, turkey, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and even some Christmas pudding I smiled at the equally full looking dog snoozing in front of the log fire. He had however refused to wear the paper hat from his Christmas cracker. To my surprise, all of a sudden, he bounded up and ran barking to the door. Bewildered, and slightly the worse for the egg nog I followed him and flung open the door.
There stood Santa Claus ! I looked at the glass in my hand, how much rum had i put in that egg nog? Behind Santa there were some other figures, not elves though, unless the US Coastguard had been recruiting in some strange places. Everyone laughed at the look on my face, perhaps even the dog laughed too.
This explained the decorations. One thing John had forgotten to mention in his confused state was that the local Coastguard cutter always called by on Christmas day for a non-alcoholic (honest !) cup of egg nog, a slice of John’s Christmas cake (which I found with a little help) and to drop off some fresh provisions and a large ham bone for the dog.
So my Christmas on Cabbage Island was not as lonely as I had anticipated, and I even managed to offload several jars of that sauerkraut.