It was the night of January 3rd, 2011.
The hornblower was enjoying a well-earned break from his duties. As he sat in the luxury cabin he and Mrs Hornblower had taken for their Caribbean cruise, trying to enjoy the beer the steward had brought for him (which was not a patch on what he liked to drink back home), he marvelled at the weight of responsibility he had shouldered for seven whole years carrying on the nightly ritual on the market square without a miss for (he believed) one thousand, one hundred and twenty-nine years.
As the hornblower had told the countless tourists who turned up every night to meet him, in olden times there was a Wakeman, who would stay awake all the night and keep an eye out for marauding Vikings and the like. To let the people of Ripon know that the watch was set and they could sleep soundly, he’d sound the horn at all four corners of the market cross. In the seventeenth century, the Wakeman got too powerful and, as a result of the city’s new charter, an elected mayor was brought in, who appointed a hornblower to do his watch duties for him, then report back, wherever in the town the mayor might be to let him know that everything was as it should be.
As the latest in this long line, the hornblower was extremely proud of the job he did. Not only did he continue the nightly ritual, but he also played an important part in keeping the community of Ripon safe. Of course, there were police now, and a more general trend towards law and order than there had been in past times, but there were other, more intangible ways the hornblower helped his city.
First there were the visitors. Tourists flocked from all over the world to Ripon to watch him. Some nights he could be out till gone ten-thirty, signing autographs, posing for photographs and telling the wonderful stories of the tradition. This brought business to the city, and that, in turn, brought prosperity.
But secondly, there was Sir Hugh Ripley. Sir Hugh kept an eye on the doings of the Watchman. If the horn wasn’t sounded to his satisfaction, his ghostly face would appear in the attic window of the Wakeman’s House – his home when he became the first elected mayor of Ripon in 1605. Then all ill matters would befall the city.
It was to this end of keeping the city safe that the hornblower set up a system of deputies. He was as sound of health as any North Yorkshireman, but you never knew what might happen. And anyway, Mrs Hornblower had a lot to put up with him disappearing every single night to do his duty. She deserved the odd evening of her husband’s company, as well as an occasional holiday.
Like this one, the hornblower thought, as he stretched his long legs out in the cabin armchair and supped his pint. It was coming up one o’clock in the morning, and sleep was evading him. Local time in the Caribbean was four hours ahead of Yorkshire, and he just couldn’t get used to the foreign time. Besides, his whole body had been trained to be awake and alert at this hour. Mrs Hornblower, bless her, was tucked up fast asleep in the bedroom. A busy day of sunbathing and two sherries before dinner had seen to that. She loved the sun. And a sherry – only on holidays, of course.
The hornblower checked his wristwatch, held an imaginary horn to his lips and blew, as he knew his deputy would be doing back home. Then he stepped out onto the little cabin balcony and mimed the three blasts, raised the panama hat he was wearing in place of his tricorn, and mouthed the words he knew his deputy would be reciting to the mayor in whatever pub or restaurant he was in that night. It was a Monday, so it was likely he was in the One-Eyed Rat.
A good pub, that One-Eyed Rat.
He gazed at the big moon, the size of a fat rascal in the velvety night sky, and marvelled that it could be so warm here at night when, back home, as he knew from checking the Ripon Gazette newspaper in the ship’s internet suite, the weather was like icicles.
Slightly homesick, he sighed, stepped back indoors, switched on the TV and tuned into Sky News, turning the volume down low so as not to wake Mrs Hornblower. He was enjoying a long and interesting item on growing unrest in Egypt when something completely and utterly shocking appeared on the news ticker at the bottom of the stream:
NORTH YORKSHIRE HIT BY EARTHQUAKE
He sat there for a few moments, his mouth hanging slightly open, waiting for the ticker to cycle through, hoping that he had somehow misread it.
But no, there it was again:
NORTH YORKSHIRE HIT BY EARTHQUAKE.
He grabbed his phone from the coffee table and dialled his deputy, not even pausing for a second to consider the cost.
Without even a greeting, his deputy, who had presumably seen the hornblower’s number on his screen, launched into his apology.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I knew you’d ring. I didn’t want to call you just in case you were sleeping.’
‘What happened?’ the hornblower said, his voice quivering. He could feel his cheeks growing redder – with panic or anger he couldn’t tell.
‘There was a foot of snow,’ the deputy said. ‘It was minus twelve. On the first corner, the horn stuck to my lips. It was nothing but a squeak. It didn’t get any better all the way round. When I got to the fourth wall, I looked at the Watchman’s house and there he was! One eye on me, shaking his head, glimmering in the frosty air.’
‘No!’ the hornblower gasped. ‘What’s happened, lad? Is the cathedral still standing?’
‘Aye. But the whole ground shook,’ the deputy said. ‘It were right frightening, it were.’
‘Is the obelisk still there?’
‘Aye,’ the deputy said. ‘And the Council buildings. But the windows rattled all around the square. I’m in the One-Eyed Rat with the mayor right now, and they say a bottle fell out of the optics. The landlord says it was probably because it hadn’t been put in properly, but I think different.’
After being reassured that there had been no actual casualties, and that the deputy would do his duty properly in future, no matter what the weather, the hornblower put the phone down and wiped his brow. It had been a close call, a warning, perhaps, from Sir George Ripley, that he shouldn’t rely on others when things got difficult. The hornblower decided that he would never stray so far from home again, not during the cold months at any rate.
He looked at dear Mrs Hornblower, sleeping and smiling softly in the moonlight peeping through the porthole by her side of the bed, oblivious to the catastrophe that had nearly destroyed her home. How on earth was he going to break it to her that this was the last time they’d leave Yorkshire in the winter?
She hated the cold.
He picked up the cabin phone and asked the steward for another bottle of that execrable muck they called beer.
It wasn’t Theakstons. But it would have to do.