‘What about Hester Prim?’
‘That’s what I said.’
‘No, it’s Prynne. Not Prim.’
‘Ah.’ I say. ‘Prim would’ve been more ironic, given her character.’
‘Names are important to get right, Miss Lynch. A true writer has a responsibility to their readership to produce believable characters—down to their names.’
‘Like your name.’
‘Well, it may sound old-fashioned now but Nathaniel is a fine, reputable name. A notable name. There was Nathaniel Saltonstall and Nathaniel Lee…’
‘ Nat King Cole.’
‘Who? No, no,’ corrects Mr. Hawthorne. ‘Nicknames are for the uncouth.’
‘My imposing statues in parks, my paintings in galleries–they are all engraved with Nathaniel. Most certainly not Nat!’
‘I’m referring to your surname.’
I recline and swig back the remains of my drink. The man assesses me scornfully across the table, his two thick eyebrows merge into one. I imagine him plonking a large A onto the lapel of my leather jacket. An A or any other letter of the alphabet to publically announce my sins.
‘My surname, young lady?’
‘Hawthorne is a good name. A noble name.’
‘A strong New England name?’
‘Like your great-great-grandfather?’
‘Hmmm.’ He scratches the moustache thatch dwarfing his upper-lip. Whiskers are stroked back into place. A tidier mouth contrasts the messiness of tangled wrinkles across his high forehead.
Hawthorne gulps, then emits: ‘My great-great-grandfather?’
‘John, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ he replies quietly.
‘A nobel man? Upstanding in the community?’
‘Are you not the direct decendent of John Hathorne, judge and executioner?’
‘Aye, I am. You know your history. But who are we to judge the judges? The past is past.’
‘Was your great-great-grandfather not the only judge of the Salem witch trials never to repent for the trial’s destructive madness? Young girls telling wild tales, women hanged?’
‘It was a frightening time in Salem back–‘
‘Mr. Hawthorne, is that wise philosophy, given the current political climate and shenanigans? Should we not scrutinise those holding political power? Have you looked at Twitter yet?’
‘I’ve gone too far,’ I say to the 19th-century fellow opposite.
‘My great-great-grandfather tried to oversee justice in Salem. He had a job to do, Miss Lynch.’
‘You changed the spelling of your surname when you discovered he was an unrepenting man. A man whose ill-judgement inflicted catastrophic harm on Salem’s community. Was it not shame that inspired your identity crisis?’
‘You’ve clearly done your research, miss.’
‘That, sir, is why God created Google.’ I extract my mobile from interior Birkin bag pocket and present it for Hawthorne. He appears visibly rattled by the technology, daring not to touch the silver device.
‘What’s Google?’ His eyes remain fixed on my compact Apple.
‘It’s a writer’s dream, Mr. Hawthorne!’ I tap the Safari app then nudge the phone across the table to his bony hands. ‘Type in Arthur Miller. You’d love The Crucible. Amazing. And talk about memorable characters–there’s Tituba–‘
‘She’s a slave. Not a witch.’
‘Whose a witch?’ The Puritan does not touch the phone; instead, he swings his greying head briskly back and forth, scanning the room for cauldrons and broomsticks.
‘I don’t compact with no devil.’
‘Devil? What are you speaking of, Miss Lynch?’
‘Tituba says that line in The Crucible.’
Then Hawthorne slowly smiles at me—a full-lipped grin, belying a romantic quality that surely fueled his writing for decades. ‘You are a peculiar girl, Miss Lynch. Enchanting, if not also a curiosity. You know, I was not always such a serious man.’
‘Weren’t you?’ I ask, coyfully.
‘Indeed, no one ever said I was fun at parties—not Longfellow or Emerson—but this glimpse of modern society today excites me. The twenty-first century! Imagine the stories, the novels I could write with this inspiration!’
‘Mr. Hawthorne, if you took a deeper look at today’s world, spent a few hours surfing the web, then you may very well long for a return to the 1800’s.’
‘Surfing? Ha! I’ll drink to that–a toast to the grand, old days and the web of lies today!’ He summons the barman, a portly chap undeniably annoyed to leave the Red Sox broadcast on the flatscreen telly. ‘Two more glasses of your finest whiskey!’
Chilled bottles of Sam Adams land to the table in under a minute.
‘To your health, Mr. Hawthorne.’
He leans forward to clink my glass. ‘A toast to us. Oh—and call me Nathaniel.’
‘So, you used to hang out with Longfellow? Bet you have some stories to tell. What about Poe?’
‘He wasn’t my biggest…my biggest…’ He pauses, perhaps mulling over ravens and Salem or poetry and foreshadowing.
‘Did you say fan?’
‘Yes, it means perhaps Poe didn’t have the highest regard for all of your work. He was critical of Twice-Told Tales.’
‘Pish!’ Exclaims Hawthorne, rather too loudly.
The natives seated around us gawk open-mouthed at my dark-suited friend. It may be the starched high-collar or perhaps they recognise him from their childhood literary books. It may be his black hat still perched on head, boasting a brim circumference of a tractor tyre.
‘Shall we go for a stroll?’
‘Indeed, miss. ‘Tis a fine day in our state’s fairest city.’
We stride together across Boston Common in rhythmic steps. We are lost in a formal pas de deux. I swap over my iPhone so to offer Hawthorne my hand nearest to him. He clutches my fingers delicately with his own gloved hand.
A sight we surely are that June day: ambling paths that criss-cross the enormous urban grassy rectangle, bordered by Tremont Street, Beacon, Charles and Boylston. Skateboarders swivel past us at speed and silently I watched Hawthorne devour the visual madness surrounding his misplaced Colonial self.
A gregarious toddler fleeing his young mother’s clutches wobbles our direction. He sports a blue t-shirt emblazoned with an enormous red S, stretching against a yellow triangle across his small torso.
‘That child is stamped with the letter S! What has he done?’ Hawthorne says with a hint of fear in his warbly voice.
‘You misunderstand, Mr. Hawthorne—‘
‘Nathaniel. Gone are the days of your bodily lettering. That S stands for Super!’
‘Actually, it stands for Superman but I fear we will lose our readers if I inject more fantasy into this farce.’
‘Superman, you say? Today has indeed been a revelation, Miss Lynch.’
His leather breeches come to a sudden halt outside Park Street station, then a perfunctory swivel of his lean body brings us face-to-face.
‘Thou art quite the interesting girl, Miss Lynch.’
‘It means I could say the same of you, sir.’
He casts his eyes afar, in the direction of The Public Gardens. I follow his stare to a wide patch of green where a juggler on unicycle captivates a crowd with a spectacular display of ten airborne bowling pins, tossing madly above his head. I mentally erase this colourful clowning melee and replace that spectacle with an imaginary, imposing plinth. On it, Hester stands. In my mind’s eye, the crowd cloaked in drab greys and blacks stand aghast at the woman. In 2017, Hester’s sin would evoke little less than playground tittle-tattle from the parents of her daughter’s childhood friends. I then wonder whatever became of her daughter, Pearl?
‘Fancy a jaunt on the swan boats ?’
Hawthorne retracts his focus from outfield to infield, settling closely on my blue eyes.
‘You truly are such fun…oh, I am afraid I never caught your first name.’
He snags my hand again, this time with playful abandon and an audible chuckle. ‘Call me Natty, Miss Lynch. Call me Natty!’
And away we head, alighting across the park towards a fleet of enormous, gliding swans.
Photo credit: Vintage The Scarlet Letter film poster sourced @ http://www.allposters.com