Balthazar Lemon – a love story

Sometimes, people ask Balthazar Lemon about the mother of his child. He lies to them. He has never bothered to keep track of these lies and does not worry about what anyone else thinks. It’s not about misleading people. There are things too precious to share or speak of and he simply does not want to explain.

They met in the sea, of course. Balthazar spent his early life in boats and has never felt at ease on dry land. There’s something troubling about the way it keeps still, and you cannot see through it. The lighthouse he built was the closest thing he could get to a boat on a coast that eats boats, and eats anything that was in the boats.

Alraune came from warmer, kinder seas than these. A shallow sea, rich with kelp beds, sea grass and eels, and full of secrets. It was a good sea for diving, and for testing diving suits and devices. In those days, Balthazar had been obsessed with staying underwater for as long as he could. Pipes connecting him to the air were always at risk of damage, or could get him trapped. Carrying air made it hard to sink, and there was never enough of it. He thought about gills a lot in those days.

The mermaids fascinated him, apparently able to breathe in air and in water, but quite unlike the humans and fish they resembled. As far as he could tell, they tolerated him, and perhaps found him amusing. Sometimes he tried to talk to them, but their language was like no human speech he had encountered. It sounded more like dolphin, and he had not learned to speak with dolphins. By the time he was twenty, Balthazar could talk about tools and engines in an unreasonably large number of human languages. He had yet to find a language in which he could not persuade someone to sell him alcohol. Mermaid words were a bit more elusive.

So they didn’t really talk, at first, and it was a long time before he learned her name. He swam, or sank, of half drowned himself trying to get diving helmets to work. She watched, effortless in the water, clearly finding him entertaining. Balthazar had never enjoyed being laughed at before. It was, inevitably, a rather peculiar sort of romance.

(A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey, with art by Dr Abbey)

The Little Ship of Horrors

The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’.
While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships.
To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning.
Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be.
Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).

Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts.
Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged.
The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them.
“That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen.
“And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.

As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.

Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.

“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.”
“What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox.
“It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.”
“But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert.
An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly.
“I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.”
There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added,
“And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”

It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine.
To be continued…

Durosimi

He picked a bone up under the lighthouse.

It had been used as candle stand.

He noticed a name carved.

Old language

He has a human candle at home.

Melting fat with old bones

Fire on dead hair

Scarlet flame from eye holes.

And spiders

Spiders are eating skulls

Spiders’ nests make a skull chain.

Durosimi grows eight legs

and laughs at himself.

It is a bone black magic.

*

(Text by Dr Abbey, image by Tom and Nimue.

If you’d like to spend more time with Durosimi and his spiders, there’s a 4.5k short story for everyone who backs the kickstarter – if we hit our first stretch goal. The piece above and the short story were written in parallel, and it is thanks to Abbey that the story has so many spiders in it! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/)

Witches and mermaids

A vision, a memory, a dream within a dream.

Have you seen how the witches gatherer around the ancient dish, backs hunched as they feast together on the body of a mermaid?

A captivating image, but even so the scene does not feel real. Are you seeing ghosts and memories?  Here in the shadow of mausoleums, in the hazy recollection of days when this place had wealth and prospects.

The witches are so raggedy, their clothes dirt stained, their faces tired and you think they might be eating a mermaid out of need, not malice.

You know, in the way that you know things in dreams, that the dish was not meant to carry the meat of mermaids. There is magic in it, and it is not the magic of desperation. You feel that you should know what purpose that dish serves. You feel you should ask, but you are silent, like a useless grail-questing knight who does not know how to speak at the critical moment. You wait, having sensed the dish itself will speak to you. When at last it does, the sound of it is a whisper of silk over silver.

The dish tells you that the witches and the mermaids are the same. They eat each other. Don’t take them too literally. It’s just a dream.

( A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey)

The art of the Game

Hello again people (and others)!

As I write this we are engaged in the process of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the new US edition of Personal Demons and also the new Hopeless, Maine Role Playing Game written by Keith Healing and powered by Alan Bahr’s innovative Tombpunk system. Here are some examples of the interior artwork I have done for the game.

This is the culmination of several years’ work (and dark incantations) so I very much hope you will join us.

I hope you will join us too in supporting and celebrating two fellow travellers who are bringing their projects to life by crowdfunding. Chandra Free is bringing us a new and shockingly deluxe version of The God Machine (Originally released by the same publisher and about the same time as the first release of Personal Demons) and also Boston Metaphysical Society: The Book of Demons by Madeleine Holly-Rosing. Boston Metaphysical is a fellow traveller and exactly the sort of unspeakably cool steampunk with supernatural elements and heart we want to see more of in the world. So, please become part of these campaigns too if you can!

I hope, as always, this finds you well, inspired and thriving.

The Lady of the Lake

Various articles in the ‘Vendetta’, and indeed, in these very ‘Tales of the Squid and Teapot’, assert that a Viking settlement once thrived on the island we now know as Hopeless, Maine. The often violent culture attributed to the Norsemen has been well documented, and it is known that many of those whom they did not kill would be taken into slavery; the Vikings who came to Hopeless were no exception. We can be confident that their slaves were brought from the British Isles, a fact evinced by the many Old-English surnames and place-names which still survive on the island.
For how long the Vikings remained on Hopeless is something of a mystery. Scholars have speculated that this must have occurred in one of those brief chapters in the history of the island, when the climate was very much kinder than it is today. What seems clear is that the deterioration of the environment was instrumental in their leaving for somewhere a little more hospitable, but not without first trying to appeal to whichever deity they believed to be responsible for this shift in their fortunes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the most desperate measure of Old Norse culture was human sacrifice. While animals were regularly dispatched to please the pantheon of Asgard, to offer up a human life was reserved for only the most sacred of reasons – and this is how a raven-haired beauty, the slave-girl Viviane, found herself selected for the honour of appeasing the gods.

The Viking term for sacrifice was blót. It is ironic that, while contemporary Hopeless is mostly one large blot on the landscape, the lake they chose for this particular blót is picturesque, even today. Needless to say, the virginal Viviane found nothing attractive about the lake, as the völva, the seeress, chanted as she bound the maiden’s arms behind her back and unseen hands held her beneath the icy waters. Whatever her final thoughts were, we shall never know; all we can guess is that they were intent on vengeance.

As the months and years slipped by it became clear that Viviane’s death did nothing to halt the mysterious fog that quietly insinuated itself on and around the island. Worse still, it brought with it a variety of horrors that even the fearless Norsemen could not tolerate. During those long, grim years, the vengeful spirit of Viviane brooded beneath the dark water, growing stronger as she fed upon the malevolence that now suffused the land. Eerie tales began to be told of otherworldly singing emanating from the midst of the lake, and of the dreadful apparition that would break its surface to claim any unfortunate young man who chanced to pass by.

Almost a thousand years passed, and those who have inhabited Hopeless throughout that time have wondered at the singular beauty of the Haunted Lake, as it became known. Of course, they were not aware of its history and of the girl who was sacrificed to an uncaring deity. They only guessed at the existence of her malign spirit; the Haunted Lake’s cold and unforgiving guardian. While the presence of vampires and werewolves, spiteful spoonwalkers and various nameless, razor-toothed and tentacled creatures, were real threats and there to be avoided at one’s peril, the dreadful glamour that tended and pervaded the lake was far more terrifying and chilling in the extreme. Its very beauty, in the heart of that harsh and ill-favoured landscape, invoked dread, and none would venture anywhere near its shores.

It must be near to a century ago that Randall Middlestreet, (the grandfather of Bartholomew, the current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) was the island’s Night Soil Man. The precarious nature of the Night Soil Man’s job, traversing Hopeless during the hours of darkness, demands that he employs an apprentice, someone to take over the essential work in the event of his injury or death. Randall himself was elevated from apprentice to the role Night Soil Man at the early age of fifteen, when his master was unfortunately consumed by a ravening monster (this was described in the tale ‘The Wendigo’, should you be interested). Apprentices were always boys recruited from the orphanage, essentially hefty introverts who could be trusted to endure the necessary isolation and heavy lifting that the job required.
Randall’s apprentice, at the time of our tale, was Mortimer Whiteway, an intelligent, bookish lad who preferred old tales of heroic valour to anything that the orphanage could offer. The opportunity to escape and lead the life of a Night Soil Man held a certain – not to say surprising – sense of allure for the young man. By the age of sixteen he was as able to heft a bucket on to his back, or navigate the island in darkness, as Randall himself. He loved his work, but deep in his heart there was always a nagging feeling that something was missing from his life. While previous generations of Night Soil Men had been thankful that their smell had protected them from the various denizens that terrified other islanders, Mortimer ached for action and adventure.
On Hopeless the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ should always be in the forefront of one’s mind.

It was a moonlit night in spring when they came upon the lake. Randall’s rounds rarely brought him this way, for no one had lived in the area for as long as any could remember. He had heard the stories, of course, of the Lady of the Lake, whose enchanting song captivated the unwary and enticed them into her watery realm. It was hard to believe, looking at it in moonlight, pretty as a picture. However, for all of its charm, Randall believed every word of the legend. Hopeless did not do ‘pretty’ and that in itself was enough to warn him that there was danger here. Mortimer, on the other hand, had other views.
“Is she really there?” he asked.
“I believe so, but no one has ever seen her, as far as I know,” replied Randall. “But there again, if they had they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.”
“I’d like to… and I’m going to,” said Mortimer determinedly. “I’ll find a way.”
“Best you keep away, or you’ll regret it,” replied the Night Soil Man severely, a shiver of foreboding running down his spine.

As I have mentioned before, Mortimer was a keen reader of adventure stories. One of his favourite tales was that of Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast of his ship in order to hear the song of the sirens. Thinking of this, it was not long before the beginnings of an idea formed in Mortimer’s mind. If Odysseus was able to listen to a siren-song all those years ago, so could he. The main drawback was that he could not do this alone; he would need help in safely securing himself to a tree. Knowing that there would be little point in approaching Randall, who would doubtless try to stop him, he resolved to ask a friend from the orphanage, one Jarvis Woodchester. Jarvis was a few years Mortimer’s junior, but, like him, a lover of any story that involved derring-do. Jarvis was also deeply envious of Mortimer, who had escaped the orphanage and gained a certain amount of celebrity on Hopeless, as the Night Soil Man’s apprentice.
It was about a week later, on Mortimer’s night off, that two shadowy figures could be seen slipping quietly down the cobbled street that passed beneath the windows of The Squid and Teapot and, a little further along the road, creeping by the infamous Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. They made their way into the heart of the island, towards the lake. Had you been there and looked closely, you would have noticed that one of the figures wore a clothes peg on his nose.
“Tie it as tightly as you can, Jarvis,” said Mortimer. “Afterwards, get far away from here until first light, then come and set me free.”
The younger boy nodded, but said nothing, trying not to inhale the unpleasant aroma that even an apprentice Night Soil Man carries with him.

It was late, much later than midnight, when Mortimer was lifted from sleep by a song that rang like silver bells in the heavens. For a moment he panicked, wondering where he was. Then he remembered, and the knowledge was far from comfortable. He had slept leaning against the tree, his arm slung over a branch. The ropes that had bound him, however, were inexplicably scattered on the ground. A cold sweat broke out all over his body as the realisation dawned that soon he would be totally at the mercy of the Lady of the Lake. A moment later a dreadful panic enveloped him entirely, when he felt himself become paralysed, as though bonds far more secure than the ropes, now lying useless at his feet, held him in an iron grasp.

She rose from the dark waters of the lake without causing as much as a ripple on its surface. Although the moon was obscured by clouds and the night hung like a suffocating shroud upon the sleeping island, Mortimer could see the Lady of the Lake as clearly as if she was bathed in sunlight. Her lips made no movement but her siren song filled the air as she silently glided towards him, arms outstretched. Mortimer squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it made no difference. Her pale, beautiful face was indelibly etched upon the darkness; it was as if he had stared for too long at the sun. And then she was upon him, wrapping her arms around his still form, pressing her mouth against his. Mortimer melted into the embrace. If this was death, then so be it.
He felt himself being drawn towards the lake, her hold upon him firm but gentle, with all the seductive insistence of a lover. He stepped willingly into the icy water, resigned to his fate. It was then that everything changed. The arms that caressed him became cold and hard and the mouth pressing against his was lipless and skeletal. Mortimer opened his eyes wide and a scream ripped from his body as he beheld the full horror of the hideous apparition that held him in its grasp. His scream turned to helpless gurgles as the malevolent spirit that had once been the beautiful, raven-haired Viviane, dragged him into the inky depths of the lake.

When it was clear that Mortimer had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, Randall Middlestreet soon guessed what had happened. He silently cursed himself for taking the young man anywhere near the Haunted Lake. Upon returning to the spot, it did not take long to discover the discarded length of rope lying near its banks. He knew then, for certain, that Mortimer had gone forever. Randall sadly shook his head and made his way back to his cottage with a heavy heart, mourning the loss of his friend and apprentice.

It was a day or two later, as he was preparing to begin his rounds, that Randall saw a figure standing carefully downwind on the path, some yards in front of him. It was boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age.
“Good evening Mr Middlestreet,” the boy said politely. “I hear you might be looking for a new apprentice.”
Randall raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that I do.”
“Oh… word gets around. Someone said that Mort Whiteway had disappeared.”
Randall was puzzled but, on reflection, it’s hard to keep a secret in a place like Hopeless.
“As a matter of fact I do need an apprentice. Are you interested?”
Jarvis Woodchester grinned slyly to himself, recalling how easy it had been to untie the knots of the rope while Mortimer slept.
“Oh definitely,” he said. “When can I start?”

Not for the Faint Hearted part three

Not for the faint-hearted

A tale in three parts by Keith Errington (AKA The Keith Of Mystery)

Part three – a flashback and a finale

Writers can manipulate time you know. Oh, yes, we have that ability. Whether it is the clichéd flashback or the premonition of things to come, writers have been playing with time for centuries. And so now, I am playing my very own time travellers card – I invoke my fictional temporal abilities and take you back to that fateful day when Horace met Flora…

— < ooo > —

Horace had but one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t pleasant. He knew what he wanted, and he knew he was going to get it. Flora was weak – just a girl. He was a man, a strong man, with the power and the strength, the desire and the lust – it all was boiling up inside him as he grabbed at Flora. Even when she went limp his urges did not subside as they might have done in many other men, no, he liked it, now she was totally helpless – a rag doll to do with as he willed.

Except… she wasn’t.

I suppose I should explain. On Hopeless, death was not necessarily the end – many dead people walked amongst the living (I say walked – it was more hovered really) and it wasn’t even particularly rare to encounter one. But Flora was a singular orchid, a mythical beast, an entity as rare as a truthful politician. Flora, through fate and circumstance, had, at some point in her past become one of the part-dead. Dead and living sharing the same body.

And now, in the midst of this turbulent event, the dead was loose. Moments after she went limp, and whilst Horace was deciding exactly how he was going to gratify his carnal desires, a creamy yellow mist formed around Flora’s body. Transfixed by this apparition, Flora still in his arms, Horace watched, unable to move, as the mist coalesced momentarily into the shape of a woman, and then without warning, rushed towards him.

Horace found himself laying the lifeless body of Flora carefully in a chair. Then he turned around and walked towards the door – except he didn’t, it wasn’t him, he wasn’t walking, his body was. Or something? In any event, his body seemed to be moving of its own volition. His brain lacked the ability to comprehend what was happening, to understand the nature of the fate that had befallen him. He walked through the open door of the cottage and up the path, then stopped, returned a few steps and carefully closed the door. Horace at this point was worried – he couldn’t seem to control himself, he seemed trapped in a body he no longer had control over. He felt a rising panic as his body marched along the coast road in pitch-black darkness. A few moments later, somewhere inside his head, he was screaming uncontrollably as he headed inexorably towards the sea.

Back at the cottage around an hour later, and you would have seen Flora up and about, laying out the clothes she needed to iron in the morning, making a small hot drink and then getting ready for bed.

— < ooo > —

If this were a film we might switch from black and white to colour, or have rippling waves across the screen, or perhaps a montage of newspapers whirling in and out of view. But as this is merely the written word, we shall keep it simple and just write: Let’s return to the present and Mr Forager’s quest for the truth.

— < ooo > —

It was a modest dwelling that Flora lived in – a well-worn paved path led to a wooden door with a small catch and a simple knocker. Clement raised the knocker and let it go two times. There were small noises inside and then the door swung open and Flora greeted him. For a moment the two regarded each other. Clement noticed her long blond hair neatly tied back in some way, the symmetry of her face and the grace in her fingers as she moved them unconsciously to flick back a stray strand of hair. Flora noticed his piercing blue eyes, his strong jaw and above that – a disarming smile. There was a slightly uncomfortable length of silence before Flora said, “Good day sir, what can I do for you?” Despite the woman’s innocent appearance and complete lack of any characteristic one would associate with danger, Clement, almost by force of habit, replied with a well-rehearsed white lie, “My name is Clement Forager, and I am looking for someone to do my laundry on a regular basis, and I was informed that you might be able to fulfil that role?”

“Of course, sir” replied Flora courteously, dipping slightly, “Do come in”.

Clement was ushered into the front room and a large chair set across from a smaller, less comfortable chair. He sat down and Flora settled opposite. Clement started by asking Flora some questions of her services, what services did she offer? How much would she charge? How long do things take and so on? He kept noticing her exquisite hands, the smoothness of her pale skin, and the engaging way she smiled at him every time she answered calmly and professionally. Then he asked how many others used her service and were there any customers who failed to turn up when they said they would?

She looked bemused but answered him; yes, occasionally customers would fail to turn up when they said they would, but then, that was the way of the world.

Clement changed tack and asked if she was married or did she perhaps have a jealous boyfriend. Suddenly Clement realised he was in trouble, Flora was clearly a very perceptive lady, and now her clear eyes were eying him carefully, reading him for any signs of his intentions.

“I am single Mr Forager, with no current entanglements. Perhaps I should be asking you these very same questions?” her eyes twinkled, “But I would mainly like to know why it is you ask?”

The intensity of those beautiful eyes made him pause. “I’m sorry, I suppose I should be honest with you – whilst you can probably tell I do need to find someone to do my laundry,” he glanced down at his clothes, whereupon she nodded and smiled, “…I have another reason for visiting you miss Flora.”

She leaned forward slightly, “Oh, and what would that be?” She seemed more curious than wary.

“I wanted to ask you about a number of young men who came to visit you” Clement began falteringly.

“What do you mean?” asked Flora with a somewhat cheeky smile, leaning back in her chair watching his reaction.

“No – not that, I mean…” Clement was flustered. He did not do flustered. What was going on? He composed himself. “A large number of men seem to have committed suicide over the past few months – and the one thing they all had in common was either visiting you or heading in this direction. I’m looking into the matter for… a… friend”

“Lots of men – and ladies, visit me – I do their laundry after all.”

“Well, obviously” continued Clement – why couldn’t he concentrate – this was so unlike him. What was it about this Flora? “But these men were not seen alive again.” That seemed to touch a nerve.

“Are you suggesting I murdered them?” her voiced raised ever so slightly.

“No, no, of course not” Clement blustered “But perhaps you could tell me when you last saw them and if they said where they were going?”

Flora studied Clement carefully for a moment and conflicting emotions welled up inside her.

“How rude of me Mr Forager” Flora suddenly said and stood up – can I get you a cup of something or a drink perhaps?

Clement instinctively rose up at the same time as Flora, and almost as instinctively replied “No – I am fine, thank you”. He was not just being polite – when offered a drink in Hopeless, Maine you never could tell what you might end up drinking, but in most instances, you would probably end up regretting it.

“Are you sure – I have some lovely sloe gin I made myself?”

Now that was an offer he found incredibly tempting but he was supposed to be getting answers here. “No, I am quite sure. I hope you won’t think I am being impolite.” He added.

She stepped towards him – “No not all. Perhaps if you let me have the names of these young men I might be able to tell you something about them?”

“Of course,” said Clement and dug the list out of his pocket, then handed it to her. Suddenly, he was very much aware just how close he was now standing to her – she smelt vaguely of violets, and lily of the valley, and lavender and sloes. It was a heady, almost intoxicating combination, and breathing it in, Clement was beginning to understand just how much he desired this angel, this beauty.

Flora noticed his gaze and then turned away quickly and read aloud from the list, “Horace D’Arblay?”

“Yes” replied Clement, “Bit of a bully by all accounts, seemed to drown himself after visiting you”. He stared at her intently, watching her eyes for any reaction. For a moment he thought he saw them grow in intensity, fiercer, keener, sharper – and then they just disappeared behind slowly lowering eyelids as her lifeless body fell towards him. He caught her in his arms and then… and then…

— < ooo > —

Perhaps at this point, I should talk about the weather in Hopeless, Maine which is wild, various and worthy of much study. We could discuss the unusually and specifically cruel breeding cycle of the Gnii or the best way to cultivate night potatoes and remain relatively sane. A long discussion of the geology of the island might prove informative don’t you think? Oh, and it never ceases to amaze me just how many types of cottage industries you might find on such a small island – I’m sure there is a book in there somewhere?

But surely, you would like to know about the sixth book across, on the third bookshelf up – in the bookcase on the left, in Reverend Davies study? Or perhaps the intimate details of the interesting way Mrs Beaten relaxes on the weekend? Or maybe, you’d be fascinated (or, more likely, appalled) to know just what is in Doc Willoughby’s cellar?

What’s that? You want to know what happened to Clement? Oh, I am so disappointed in you – wanting some sort of resolution – some sort of ending. Oh, alright then, I’d really hate to disappoint.

— < ooo > —

Clement awoke and rose from the bed, he felt completely refreshed, he couldn’t remember the last time he had slept that well. He dressed and went down the narrow stairs to the kitchen. His nostrils twitched as the smell of coffee (the good stuff) and some kind of bread reached them.

“Good morning Clement – I trust you slept well?” Flora greeted him with a warm smile and handed him a hot mug of brown heaven.

“Hmmm, like a log” Clement replied smiling back. “Thank you, for everything” he added.

She smiled sweetly and gave a little laugh, “I should be thanking you – it’s been a long time since I’ve had company. And such good company too!” Her eyes drifted away for a moment. Then she spun around and attended to the oven. “Sit down and I’ll bring you some food” she instructed.

Clement sat. He was happy. Happier than he had ever been. The funny thing was, he wasn’t really sure why. He wasn’t even sure how he got here. But he didn’t care – why question a good thing – a very good thing.

“Just think Flora,” He said and she turned to look at him as he continued, “Just think, if you hadn’t fainted, we would never have…” he didn’t finish, he couldn’t finish. He just couldn’t quite remember exactly what happened – only that it had been the experience of his life, and he smiled once more.

“A faint?” she responded laughing, “Oh my darling, that wasn’t a faint – it was a swoon!”

Philomena and Simon

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know Philomena Bucket from the Tales from the Squid and Teapot. She actually started life as a character illustrating how you do things in the Hopeless Maine role play game. This is why she’s now gracing the cover of a new book. From which you can safely infer that we are indeed up to something with the role play game.

Also in this image, is Simon. If you’ve been following our adventures in film making, you’ll already know that Simon is an example of the island’s pointy sea life. Look closely at this image and it is evident that there’s more than one Simon. There may have been baby Simons recently. But then, sea life changes gender a lot, and who know how Simons work?

Characters on the island tend to have fairly outlandish names. However, there are a lot of sentient beings who are never named where you can see it. Goblins, demons, sea life and so forth. For purposes of keeping track, many of them do have names – but they tend to be relatively ordinary, so there are goblins called Fred and Geoff, and the sea monster is called Simon.

All of this pertains to a kickstarter we have that should be of particular interest to fans in America. It won’t be so good if you’re in the UK because of the postage. Talk to us if there are things you want and we’ll try and figure out sensible ways of moving things round.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED PART two.

Not for the faint-hearted

A tale in three parts by Keith Errington (AKA THE KEITH OF MYSTERY)

Part two – a statistical anomaly and an investigation

Simon Stewell was a young teenager obsessed with the births and deaths on Hopeless, Maine to a quite irrational extent. He was a quiet boy – but studious and possessed of an unnatural intensity when it came to maths and numbers. And so it was that these two passions came together and triggered something in young Simon. He realised that something odd was going on.

No wait, that’s probably not helpful, something odd was always going on in Hopeless, so I should say he noticed something out of the ordinary extra-ordinariness seemed to be occurring.

As soon as he calculated it, he rushed around town telling people about it. “There’s been a 52% increase in the suicide rate” he would shout at a random stranger, “strange rise in the people killing themselves” he would remark to a passing child, “worrying levels of suicide this month” he would say, loudly, to a cat sleeping in a window. Eventually, it occurred to him that this knowledge should more usefully be passed on to the appropriate person. But who?

— < ooo > —

Clement Forager was, by all accounts, a very handsome man. Given to moody silences and cryptic looks. He was well-built – but lithe with it. Whatever exercise regimen he utilised – it was definitely working. His face was rugged, chiselled and guaranteed to catch the eye of anyone present. An intelligent and well-studied man, he made a modest living finding things for people or helping them with minor disputes. In Los Angeles, he would likely to have been a private eye, in London a plausible detective, but here, he was just Clement who finds things.

Sitting at his desk one afternoon drinking a glass of something to bide the time, he was suddenly interrupted by a young man bursting into his makeshift office.

“You gotta do something mister” an adolescent voice demanded.

“Simon isn’t it?” (You see, Clement knew things, and that’s why he was good at his job).

“Yes sir, you have to do something”

Clement smiled – he liked the earnest tone of voice this young man projected. “Indeed, and what is it that so demands my attention?”

“Death sir. Death.”

Well, that certainly caught his attention and he raised an eyebrow. Without waiting, Simon continued almost breathless, “Yes sir, people are dying, lots of people. More people than before.”

“Sit down, young man – you’d better explain yourself.”

And so Simon did just that. He sat and ran through his findings – the number of suicides you would normally expect and the number that were occurring now.

Whilst Clement agreed it was unusual and Simon’s figures and methods were impressive, he didn’t really see how he fitted in.

“You have to… in-vest-i-gate” Simon had pronounced the individual syllables to give the word the emphasis he thought it deserved.

“Ah, right” replied Clement. He thought for a moment. It was clearly a wild goose chase, but he could see how agitated the boy was, and he seemed a good lad. He wasn’t snowed under with tasks at the moment so it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions as he carried out his other work.

He addressed the lad, “Okay – I will ask around and see what I can find out – see if I can find some reason for this…” he hesitated, just what was it exactly?

“Statistical anomaly” filled in Simon helpfully.

“Right. But I am not promising anything mind you. I’ll simply do what I can”.

“Thank you, sir!’ Said Simon. And to Clement, the boy seemed genuinely grateful.

As Simon left Clement, Simon thought to himself, good. That’s dealt with then. I’ve passed the problem on to the relevant person. He nodded and promptly forgot about the entire subject.

And as Simon left Clement, Clement thought to himself, ‘Well, I’m not sure what I’ve taken on here – but asking a couple of questions will keep the boy happy’, and he reached for his amber glass.

— < ooo > —

Over the next few weeks, Clement was kept busy with various small enquiries tracking down items and returning them to rightful owners. And whilst he did so, he asked about the missing people on the list that Simon had supplied. Like with all his work, he was methodical and meticulous, noting down everything and missing nothing. The point came when on another afternoon whiling away the time with a glass when Clement decided to lay out all he had learned about the unusual number of suicides. He was intrigued, that was indisputable – there were elements of each death that were very strange. He noted the facts. All the suicides were male. Which was odd, because although male suicide was more common by a ratio of 2:1, there should still have been some female suicides over that same period of time. Secondly, they were all young males – and seemed to be of a certain type. By the accounts of their acquaintances, work fellows and even friends, they were all bullies or thugs to a greater or lesser extent, nasty towards their fellow man and vindictive towards women in particular.

Several had been in trouble for beating their wives or girlfriends and some had even been accused of murder or manslaughter. Very few seemed to have been on the receiving end of justice though – but that wasn’t unusual for Hopeless, Maine, where the law was notional at best and justice tended to be delivered via firebrands and pitchforks.

They had all died in different ways – one had died from drinking household bleach, one from attacking a glass heron nest (who in their right mind would do that!) and so on. The causes of death seemed to get more and more… inventive?… as time went on, with one man even strangling himself – which seemed impossible, but then when he spoke to Doc Willoughby about it the Doc informed him it was surprisingly common. In fact, the Doc himself had even been personally involved with one or two cases where self-strangulation was pronounced as the cause of death.

Clement prided himself on being open-minded and liked to explore all the possibilities – a trait that had served him well in the past, often people didn’t find things because they simply weren’t prepared to consider the improbable or unlikely. He entertained the idea that these were all the work of a serial killer and, if so, what connected all these young men? Just today he had discovered one rather curious fact, all the men had spoken of visiting Flora the laundry maid or were seen heading off in the direction of her cottage. Perhaps the answer to what Clement now considered as a bona fide mystery lay somewhere in that direction. The killer’s lair must be nearby – or maybe it’s a jealous boyfriend? Although that still didn’t explain the manner of death.

Clement resolved to speak to Flora – maybe she knew something? Maybe these young men never reached her? Or maybe they were attacked on the way back to their homes? He set off with his characteristic purposeful stride to speak with Flora.

Our tale continues in Part three…

The Funambulist

“It’s strange how things go round,” confided Bartholomew Middlestreet to Philomena Bucket. “Although the Lypiatt family ran The Squid and Teapot for over a century, my great-great grandpa, who was also named Bartholomew, was the landlord here before Sebastian Lypiatt, founder of that dynasty, washed up on these shores. Luckily for us, old Bartholomew never missed a thing and kept a journal; I found it a few years back in one of the attics. Grab yourself a drink, Philomena. There was a good tale in that journal which might interest you…”


It was a wet and windy night on the island and the snug of The Squid and Teapot was virtually empty. Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, rolled her eyes. She knew exactly what was coming next – a story she had heard a dozen times before.
If he noticed Ariadne’s reaction, Bartholomew chose to ignore it. He took a generous swig of ‘Old Colonel’, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and warmed to his task.
“It’s unlikely that even the founding families actually intended to come here,” he said. “Old Gruffyd Davies, one of the early settlers, implied as much in his memoir ‘Grief is a Thing with Tentacles.’ There was one guy, though, according to great-great grandpa’s journal, who was paid to sail here by a tightrope walker, or a funambulist, as they called them then…”

Bartholomew Middlestreet is, possibly, Hopeless, Maine’s most enthusiastic raconteur. Once he gets going, Bartholomew has been known to hold court for hours, filling his discourse with plenty of homespun wisdom, incidental anecdotes and never missing an opportunity to remind his listeners that his grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, was the only Night Soil Man to hang up his bucket, as it were, and retire, uniquely going on to become a family man. As my allocated spot in the ‘Vendetta’ is somewhat restricted, and the patience of my readers not infinite, it feels only common sense to tell the tale of the funambulist in my own words.

As Bartholomew has stated, few people have arrived on Hopeless voluntarily. It was necessity that drove the lobsterman, Joel Cranham to be persuaded to sail to the island.
It was in the 1840s that the nascent canning industry discovered that the humble lobster, a species that had previously required eating soon after death, could be successfully preserved in a tin. They also discovered that canned lobster was a huge money-maker. Within thirty years the once plentiful Homarus Americanus was fished to the brink of extinction. In response, the state of Maine imposed severe but necessary lobster-fishing restrictions, and the livelihood of Joel Cranham and his fellow lobstermen suffered accordingly. However, no one knew the waters around Maine better than Joel, so it was unsurprising that, when he was offered more than the equivalent of a year’s income to pilot a specially adapted Downeaster around some of the islands peppering the coast, he thought that all of his financial problems had been solved for good.

Joel’s benefactor was a slightly built and ridiculously wealthy young man named Lancelot Pensile. Like many an impressionable youth, Lancelot had been inspired by the recent feats of one Jean François Gravelet. Gravelet, who was better known to his adoring audience as The Great Blondin, was a funambulist extraordinaire who had famously traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope several times.
Being naturally athletic, Lancelot Pensile soon mastered the art of funambulism and, in a very short time, had become almost as adept on a tightrope as his hero.

For reasons which will become clear, Pensile had devised a plan which would involve linking just a few of Maine’s several thousand islands to each other by high-wires. These islands would, by necessity, need to be situated fairly close together. He had installed, on the deck of the Downeaster, an extremely large drum which held an equally large reel of hemp cord, two inches thick and half a mile long. The plan was to visit an island, erect a high platform – if nothing suitable already existed – and run the rope to a neighbouring island. By ferrying back and forth to the mainland for more reels of rope, Pensile hoped to create a slender highway over the ocean, upon which he could wander at will, thereby gaining an enviable reputation to rival that of The Great Blondin himself.

For a while, all seemed to be going as planned. Four islands had been bridged and Pensile had, indeed, proved that his plan was surprisingly feasible. It was only when the expedition hit a dense fog-bank that progress was halted. Joel was certain that an inhabited island was hidden somewhere inside, for although there had been no warning blast of a fog-horn, he had seen the beams of a lighthouse struggling to penetrate through the ghastly murk during the previous night. After a short conference with the skipper of the Downeaster it was decided to drop anchor and that Joel and Lancelot would run a tender ashore. A light rope, about an inch thick, was attached to the tender at one end, and to the hempen cable at the other, so that it could be conveyed easily to the island.
All went well until the tender floundered upon the rocks and the two men were forced to wade to safety, with Pensile steadfastly gripping the rope with one hand and a carpet-bag with the other..

While being shipwrecked would have dampened the spirits of most people, Lancelot Pensile was extraordinarily cheerful, especially when he spotted the lighthouse. This was exactly what he needed; a tall, solidly built structure to which he could secure his cable.
As you have undoubtedly guessed, the pair had arrived on Hopeless. In the best traditions of the island, a small crowd had gathered even before the two had managed to get on to dry land. It took little time for Pensile to introduce himself and his companion and explain his plan. At first no one appeared to be particularly impressed, then D’Arcy Chevin grew curious.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, suspiciously.
“To emulate my hero, The Great Blondin. Why Blondin has traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope many times.”
Chevin had absolutely no idea what or where Niagra Falls might be, but it sounded impressive.
“And you could do that?”
“Indubitably!” exclaimed the young man, brimming with confidence.
D’Arcy Chevin had as sharp a mind as any and had quickly worked out that here was a possible means of escape from the island. If Pensile could get across on foot he was sure that he could manoeuvre his way to the next island by hooking a leg over the cable and dragging himself along. In time, it might be possible that more lengths of rope could be added and some contraption assembled to allow all and sundry to leave whenever they chose. If getting to the mainland meant undertaking a series of hops from island to island, D’Arcy Chevin told himself that he was the man to do it.

Word soon got around that escape from Hopeless might at last be possible and, as a result, there was no shortage of willing hands offering to set up the high-wire and provide whatever help the funambulist might require. The heavy hempen rope was soon hauled ashore and, with a block and tackle, hoisted up to the gallery of the lighthouse, where it was pulled taut and unyielding.
As I have said, so often, in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?

The following morning was, as ever, misty but there was no wind to speak of and conditions seemed ideal for a leisurely half-mile stroll on a tightrope over an angry sea.
From the depths of the carpet-bag Pensile retrieved his costume, along with a pair of fine leather shoes with soft soles. A little over an hour later he was ready, poised confidently on the rail of the lighthouse gallery, resplendent in pink tights and a jerkin of blue, which was covered in sequins. In his hands he held a long, slender balancing-pole which some of the islanders had fashioned from a felled ash tree.
“This should not take me too much time at all,” he called down to Joel. “As soon as I’ve reached the other end I’ll tell the crew that you’ve been shipwrecked. It shouldn’t be too long before you get rescued. In the meantime do you have any messages for the folks back home?”
“The missus will wonder where I’ve got to, so you’d best make it sound exciting,” Joel grinned. “Tell my wife that I’m trolling Atlantis, but I still have my hand on the wheel.”
“Will do,” replied Pensile, breezily and, with that, started his death-defying walk over the sea.

Those who watched from the shore could not help but be impressed as the slight figure of Lancelot Pensile, clutching his balancing-pole, disappeared gradually into the mist. The minutes ticked by and, as if mesmerised, everyone continued to stare at the quivering tightrope. Just when the realisation began to dawn that the spectacle was probably over, the rope began to bend worryingly, as if something was pulling it from below, as they might a bowstring. Then, to the shock and dismay of all, there was a loud TWAAAANG and the rope buckled and lurched upwards. Somewhere, in the distance, they heard an ominous splash, such as a body might make, if dropped into the water from a great height. Seconds later there followed a horrible crunching noise; this was the sort of noise you might expect to hear when a large wooden vessel is being crushed to pieces by some huge and unseen creature, which was, indeed, the case.
Just when the assembled onlookers decided that they had seen and heard enough excitement for one day, a long ash pole hurtled down from on-high and crashed into the top of the lighthouse, sending shards of wood and lumps of masonry flying everywhere.
“What the hell caused that?” yelped Joel. All the blood had drained from his face.
D’Arcy Chevin, all hopes of escape dashed, looked crestfallen. He turned to leave, then stopped and looked squarely at Hopeless’ newest resident.
“You’ll get used to it.” he replied. “There are giants out there, in the canyons.”
People trailed away in silence. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet stayed behind, generously offering Joel the hospitality of The Squid and Teapot and hoping for a good story to add to his journal in return.

It was nearing midnight when Bartholomew finished his tale.
“What became of Joel?” asked Philomena.
“He eventually came to terms with losing his old life and settled down and raised a family. His descendants are all gone now, except Rhys, a great-great grandson. He was in the orphanage from an early age and now he’s our Night Soil Man.
Philomena shifted uncomfortably. When she first landed on Hopeless she had completely lost her sense of smell and had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the Night Soil Man.
“And what happened to your great-great grandfather?” she asked quickly, seeking to change the subject.
Bartholomew lowered his voice.
“It’s believed that he was murdered by a scoundrel called Tobias Thrupp,” he said conspiratorially. “Now, there’s a tale you need to hear…”
“And that can wait until another day,” said Ariadne firmly, and blew out the lights.

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.