Hopeless Inheritance

The evolution of a book cover….

and so it begins
drawing complete
with colour!

Inheritance is the second half of The Gathering in the Sloth Comics editions of Hopeless, Maine. In the original Archaia editions these were two separate books, and Outland, our American publishers is also doing them separately. These will be large, hardcover editions and so new covers were in order!

Archaia dumped us after two books (boo, hiss…..) but that’s ok because Sloth have been awesome to work with and Outland are shaping up well.

Copies will be available from places that sell books, but there is also a kickstarter in the offing…


A Final Journey

Some of you may remember, from earlier tales, that the very first Night-Soil Man on the island of Hopeless, Maine, was Killigrew O’Stoat, a young man whose tragic history drove him to find solace in such lonely and unsociable employment. In those days there was no tradition of a boy from the orphanage acting as an apprentice, a lad to whom the bucket would be unceremoniously passed upon his master’s demise; when Killigrew died his younger brother, Barney, naturally assumed the role, and carried out his duties faithfully until his own death, some years later. Upon finding himself sprawled dead in his favourite armchair, and having no heir apparent, Barney decided to summon a Night-Soil Man from the future to fill the vacancy, until such times as a replacement came forward. That is how Rhys Cranham found himself plunged into the past. If you think that this sounds less than credible, you must remember that these events occurred on that weirdest of islands, Hopeless, Maine, and that the O’Stoat family were – and indeed, are – famously odd.

Rhys had been working as Barney’s replacement for two months. During that period he had befriended Drury, the skeletal hound (for the second time), and had met his grandfather, several times removed, learning something of his family history along the way. Although Hopeless had changed little from his own era, it was not home to Rhys. Most of all, he missed looking out for Philomena Bucket and keeping a watch over her when she embarked upon some of her more inadvisable adventures.

It was rare for Rhys to encounter other people while he was working. The lateness of the hour, and the less pleasant aspects of his labours were generally sufficient reasons for his clients to give him a wide berth. Tonight, however, was different. A stocky young man stood in the moonlight that fought its way through the mist, illuminating the privy of a small, stone cottage.

“We heard that Barney had died,” said the young man in slightly muffled tones, as his hand shielded his mouth and nose. “I suppose you did the honours…?”

Rhys guessed that he meant the disposal of Barney’s corpse. He nodded.

“I’m Dara O’Stoat, and it’s my place – my duty – to take over, now. It must be true, as Granny said so. She also said that it’s time for you to go back.”

“Granny…?” Rhys was puzzled.

“She’s in there, with cousin Harriet – Harriet Butterow. Granny wants to see you. She ain’t got long, so hurry,” said Dara, cryptically.

Feeling strangely obliged to obey, Rhys unstrapped his bucket and placed it on the path, then hesitantly pushed open the door of the cottage. He was not used to entering people’s homes but, on the other hand, was well aware that no one argues with an O’Stoat matriarch. Besides this, he was curious; he was fairly sure that the woman he was about to meet must have arrived with the founding families.

Harriet met him in the parlour, immediately blanched, then covered her mouth and nose with a square of material. Rhys winced, uncomfortable that his malodour should dog his every step. Wordlessly the girl led him to a small, ill-lit chamber where a very old, white-haired woman was lying on a simple wooden pallet. A thin blanket covered her frail form. At the sight of Rhys, her dull eyes suddenly glowed.

“At last,” she said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice was faint and Rhys could see that she was dying.

“I know who you are, young fella, and where you’re from, but now it is time for you to return. Before you go back, though, I’ve got one final job for you to do.”

 If Granny O’Stoat noticed his smell, she did not show it, but her voice was beginning to fail.

“You need to help Granny fulfil her last wish.  Her name is Colleen O’Stoat, and the rest of the family will have nothing to do with her,” explained Harriet, who was keeping as far away from the Night-Soil Man as she could. “They call her a witch, a sorceress, which is good, coming from those hypocrites. That is why no one else will do this last thing she’s asking for, not even Dara,” she added, sadly.

“Then I can return to my own time? But how…?”

“She’ll find a way,” said Harriet.

It was just a few hours later that Rhys found himself carrying the lifeless body of Colleen O’Stoat through the grey mists, down to Tragedy Creek. With all the solemnity he could muster, he placed her into the hull of a battered old rowing boat which lay, as Colleen had said, hidden amongst the reeds. He covered the old lady with the threadbare blanket, as though tucking her into bed. Indeed, she looked serene and peaceful, as if asleep. Wading into the shallow water, Rhys turned the bow of the boat to face the open ocean.

His task completed, the Night-Soil Man stepped away. From safely downwind he watched Harriet kiss her grandmother’s brow for one last time. With surprising ease, the girl pushed the tiny craft out to sea. Despite its apparent unseaworthiness, the boat was borne easily upon the waves, drifting eastwards, until it became no more than a speck upon the pale sun that seemed to be rising from the ocean. It was almost as if the very elements themselves were conspiring to respect Colleen’s dying wish, which was to be sent back to the emerald green isle of her birth.

Deep in thought and walking slowly, Rhys made his way back to his cottage. He shivered, feeling the morning grow colder. Suddenly, in marked contrast to the unusually clear conditions of just a few minutes earlier, a heavy sea-fog rolled inland. Even by Hopeless standards, the visibility rapidly became decidedly poor. Rhys could barely see his hand in front of his face. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the fog cleared to no more than the swirling mist that the island enjoyed with monotonous regularity. As it did so, a familiar rattling and panting made him turn; it was Drury loping joyfully along the path behind him.

A voice cut through the morning air, freezing Rhys in his tracks.

“Well, there’s a sight we don’t see that often, to be sure. Rhys Cranham, skulking about in broad daylight!”

The teasing, playful lilt of Philomema Bucket’s gentle Irish tones made his heart soar.  She was a dozen yards away but he could clearly see the broad smile on her pale face.

“Philomena,” he called. “Oh, it’s so good to see you. Have you missed me?”

“Not really,” she laughed.

Rhys was taken aback and not a little disappointed.

“Why the devil should I have missed you?” she continued, laughing. “I only saw you yesterday evening, when I left that starry-grabby pie outside your door, you great lummox.”

Rhys grinned. It was good to be back.

Horrorscopes 2022

It has to get better, we thought. People will be comforted if they know that, we thought. And so we looked, and we could not look away, and we knew terrible, unspeakable things and blood poured from our eyes and we screamed all the time we were writing this. The universe doesn’t love you even a little bit, and it loves us even less.

Capricorn: You keep dreaming about the donkeys on the roof. This year you will start waking up on the roof and it’s only a matter of time before you start wondering if you are a donkey. Some of you have always been donkeys. Some of you are now turning into donkeys. Some of you are only dreaming about it. You will never be able to tell which one of these things applies to you.

Aquarius: You will grow extra parts of yourself and will live in fear of how others will judge you if they see what is happening. You are right to be afraid, you have people around you who will think that ending your pitiful life would be doing you a favour, and you know? They might be right.

Pisces: You are in the thrall of fish, and the water possesses you. Do what the fish tell you to do in order to live. Don’t expect to be glad that you chose this path. You may regret living, but there is no escape for you and even if you die, your ghost will be trapped here forever.

Aries: You will be haunted by strange noises. You will never find out what’s making them or whether they are even real or just a sign of your increasing detachment from reality. You may have to put bells on yourself so you can tell when it is you who is moving.

Taurus: This is the year when you can expect to find out about terrible family secrets. Whether that’s an ancient tale that has cursed your line to this very day, or more recent skeletons in closets remains to be seen.

Gemini: You’ve always known that no one likes you. You’ve always been told you’re just paranoid and delusional. Well, congratulations, this will be the year when you finally get the proof you need. Whether you can survive that proof to be smug about having been right all along remains to be seen, but no one else actually cares what you think anyway.

Cancer: Your obsessions and compulsions get a tighter grip on you this year, forcing you into ever greater extremes. The good news is that you’ll probably have no idea how dangerous this has become until a minute or two before it kills you. Only those of you who are obsessed with avoiding peril at any cost are likely to survive.

Leo: This is the year that old mistakes and betrayals really catch up with you. People are out for retribution, or failing that they’re going to want you to do terrible things to make up for the previous terrible things.

Virgo: You think you’re on top of things, but you’re wrong. You’ve been sowing the seeds for your own downfall for some time now. The only question is how badly it’s all going to go wrong. Don’t imagine you can fix anything, it’s way too late for that now.

Libra: That good advice you’ve been giving people? They’ve finally worked out you have no idea what you’re talking about. There will be consequences. Also, you have no idea what you’re doing and that’s increasingly obvious to everyone else. The demons know that you don’t know what you’re doing. The demons know. Try not to go to sleep.

Scorpio: This is the year you get the wild, passionate romance you’ve always longed for. The trouble is, when they tell you they love you so much they could eat you all up, it’s no sort of metaphor. Something hungry has noticed you. Whether it wants your soul, your flesh or your sanity remains to be seen but think of the fun you’ll have finding out!

Sagittarius: You’ve been trying so hard to get everything right, and to not draw attention to yourself. You never let yourself get too comfortable but you believe it’s possible if you make no mistakes whatsoever that you’ll be ok. You are wrong about this.

The Northwest Passage

Rhys Cranham had found himself mysteriously deposited into the past of Hopeless, Maine, having been summoned there by the ghostly apparition of a previous Night-Soil Man. Although he had no idea, exactly, how far into the history of the island he had been thrust, the absence of the flushing privy, annexed to the rear of The Squid and Teapot, indicated that he was living in the Hopeless of many years earlier. Despite this, there was one face he recognised from his own time, and that was the bony visage of Drury, who had been around for longer than anyone knew. As far as Drury was concerned, of course, Rhys was a newcomer to the island, but the Night-Soil Man was grateful that his old friend was there to keep him company.

The role of the Night-Soil Man has changed little over the years, and Rhys had strapped on the bucket of the previous incumbent as naturally as if it had been his own. (In fact, it was his own. This version looked much newer and less battered, but, in Rhys’ view, lacked a certain amount of character.)

A week passed by uneventfully, or as uneventfully as a week on Hopeless ever gets. There was the usual array of night-stalkers to avoid, but the Night-Soil Man’s distinct odour was usually more than enough to keep them at bay. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when a dark figure arose from the shadows and ambled unconcernedly towards him. Even more surprising was the fact that Drury failed to growl, but instead wagged his tail enthusiastically.

“You must be our new Night-Soil Man,” said the stranger.
The news that there was a new holder of the office had obviously travelled quickly.
“Poor old Barney, I’ll miss him,” he continued sadly, then added, “but it’s good to meet you…”
For most of us, such an exchange would be unremarkable, but for the Night-Soil Man, it was astounding. Not since his brief flirtation with Philomena Bucket (who had temporarily lost her sense of smell) had anyone actually approached him voluntarily. If that was surprising, the words which followed came as even more of a shock.
“…I’m Elijah. Elijah Cranham.”
It took a moment or two for Rhys to fully appreciate that he was, more than likely, standing in the presence of one of his ancestors.
“You can call me Rhys,” he said, niftily avoiding giving his surname. He needed to know more about this man.
“But your accent… you don’t sound like a local.”
“No, I came to the island from England, via California, Canada and the Northwest… or rather, I should say, the Northeast Passage.”
Elijah laughed bitterly at the last remark.
As Rhys had never been away from Hopeless, none of these references meant a great deal to him, but he was keen to learn something of his ancestry, which had always been a mystery.
“You must be wondering how I can stand so close to you,” said Elijah, hurriedly adding, “no offence intended. It was the Arctic Ocean that did for my sense of smell. I fell overboard three years ago into that icy water, and was lucky to be dragged out alive. I haven’t smelled anything since. Then, after I found myself here, I got friendly with old Barney, the Night-Soil Man. Poor devil had no one to call a friend, as you will appreciate more than most, so he was glad for me to visit and have a chat occasionally.”
“And I’d be happy if you did the same with me,” said Rhys. “Call in whenever you want.”

The days unfolded into weeks, and little by little, Rhys was able to piece together some of his family’s history. Elijah, who had been little more than a boy at the time, left England in 1865, having heard about the gold fever that had gripped California over a decade earlier. He was told by reliable sources that there were still fortunes to be made there. Full of optimism, he eventually found himself in the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California, where the gold fields left a lot of men rich, but a greater number, including Elijah, disappointed. Undeterred, when he learned that gold had been discovered on tributaries of the Yukon River, in far-away Alaska, he decided to try his luck there instead, but again, to no avail (little did he know that he was twenty years too early for the gold-rush).

Far from home, and penniless, he heard tell of an expedition guaranteed to make everyone involved rich and famous. The plan was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a route linking the North Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. Many had tried and all, so far, had failed. This expedition, however, would be different – the explorers would set off from the Pacific and sail eastwards, through the chilly Arctic waters, to the Atlantic. It took little persuasion for Elijah to sign up for the trip, certain, this time, that fame and fortune would not elude him.

“And we did it!” exclaimed Elijah. “We bloody well did it, but nobody outside of this island will ever know. We were the first expedition to make it through the Northwest Passage. Then, with victory in our grasp, a terrible storm blew up and, as far as I know, everyone on board drowned, except me, and it looks as though I’m here to stay. No one ever seems to leave this place, so I suppose I’d better make the most of it. Maybe it’s not too late for me to settle down and raise a family. What do you reckon, Rhys?”

Rhys regarded the man who was his grandfather, several times removed, with eyes that were brimming with tears.
“I’m sure you will, my friend. I’m sure that you will.”

(and if you don’t have a rousing chorus in your head already, you will soon!)


For Science!

I first discovered the Hopeless Maine Scientific Society back when I was working on the obituaries. And for those of you who weren’t reading the Vendetta then, let me explain. We did a kickstarter, with obituaries as a perk for the first 100 backers, so I spent an autumn killing people here on the blog. Fun times!

It turned out that the Scientific Society had a high mortality rate for some reason. Hopeless may not be a good place to live if you have a profound attachment to rationalism, confidence in conventional physics and an interest in biology that cannot accommodate random detritus posing as life forms.  Further, the pursuit of reason, across a misty cove towards a jellyfish woman, is not a pursuit that tends to end well.

The above image shows some of the gentlemen of the Hopeless Maine Scientific Society, and features in the Optimists volume. All of the gentlemen featured are, in the loosest sense of the term, real. On the right hand side, we have Keith Errington and Keith Healing, both of whom are heavily involved in all things Hopeless. On the left we have James Weaselgrease and Robin Treefellow. These two anarchic scientists will be involved with the Hopeless Maine online festival as they attempt to recruit new members for their society.

Isabelle Myfanwy, unexpectedly deceased

Having been missing for several days, remains of Isabelle Myfanwy were unexpectedly discovered late yesterday, inside a glass heron. Due to the whole issue of being inside a glass heron, there will be no burial, but a memorial service of some sort is expected.

At present, the cause of Isabelle’s death remains unknown. As a 14 year old she is unlikely to have been dismembered by the bird who ate her and should really have lost no more than a hand to a glass heron attack. It seems most likely that her remains were already in pieces before the glass heron ingested her. We may never know the truth.

Doc Willoughby said, “The most likely cause of death is gothicism, which is a frequent killer of young ladies. Isabelle had taken to wearing black clothing and dramatic hoods, which is never a good sign. She was probably hanging about in graveyards, and either got herself exsanguinated, or torn apart by werewolves.”

Doc Willpoughy encourages any other young ladies afflicted by gothicism to call in at his surgery after dark where they can admire his collection of unsavoury things in bottles while he undertakes to cure them of their unwholesome inclinations. I am sure this is as reasonable as it sounds.

Friends of the deceased fear that she may have been taken by the island’s black dog, or indeed a werewolf.

“She always did love fluffy things,” one family member told me. “And some of those werewolves can be really fluffy at this time of year.”

Out of Time

Readers may recall that Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had found himself mysteriously deposited in a Hopeless that he did not recognise. He discovered, in a poorly furnished version of his cottage, the dead body of another Night-Soil Man, guarded by the skeletal hound, Drury. Initially relieved to find that his old friend was there, Rhys changed his mind when it became obvious that not only did Drury not recognise him, but that the dog decided to literally launch an attack, hurling himself in Rhys’ direction. Had Drury been in receipt of hot breath, or indeed, any variety of breath, it is certain that Rhys would have felt the benefit of it on his exposed throat.
Those who have followed the deeds, and misdeeds, of Drury, will not be surprised to learn that, while he makes an exemplary guard-dog, his killer-instinct is pretty much non-existent. If he were human, the idiom ‘all mouth and no trousers’ would immediately spring to mind, which, for Rhys Cranham, was fortunate. Having leapt on to the Night-Soil Man and knocked him to the ground, Drury was at a loss as to what to do next, other than amble back to the corner of the room and look at Rhys with a baleful eye-socket.
From his horizontal position, wheels and small cogs began to whirr and click in Rhys’ mind. The missing privy at The Squid and Teapot, the disappearance of his cobbled pathway and the fact that Drury did not recognise him, all pointed to his having been transported back to an earlier date in the island’s history. While this realisation would have reduced many of us to gibbering wrecks, Rhys was not particularly fazed. After all, he had lived on Hopeless for all of his life. The occasional strange occurrence was to be expected, and could often be viewed as a welcome diversion from the monotony of day to day living.
The immediate priority for the Night-Soil Man was to get Drury on-side, before he dealt with the problem of disposing of the corpse slumped in the chair.
Suddenly inspiration struck. He burst into song and the parlour was filled with the notes of a surprisingly pleasing baritone voice.

“In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone…”

Drury looked up with interest.

“… As she wheeled her wheelbarrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”

By now Drury was on his feet and wagging his tail. There was definitely something about this song that appealed to him.
Rhys launched confidently, and with no small amount of gusto, into the chorus, knowing full-well what effect the song would have on the dog. In his own time, Drury had become instantly enamoured with a version of ‘Molly Malone’, played on a wax-cylinder. While the Irish tenor on the phonograph did a decent enough job, Rhys felt sure that his own effort was vastly superior.
The old magic of ‘Molly Malone’ was working. Drury was wagging not only his tail, but his rear end as well, excited by the singing. It was almost as if he was able to remember the future, which, in view of this taking place on Hopeless, Maine, was by no means outside the realm of possibility.
After a half-a-dozen rousing choruses of ‘alive, alive-o’, Rhys felt that enough was enough. He was definitely in Drury’s good books by now and the osseous hound was sitting happily at his feet. Rhys looked at him fondly, and said,
“Drury, old friend, there’s something we have to do.”
The dog cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
“You’ve been around Night-Soil Men for most of your life… and… um… more,”
Drury had never accepted the fact that he was no longer alive, in the literal sense, so Rhys was being careful. He looked across the room at the corpse in the armchair.
“I don’t know what his name was, or why he died, but there is something important that must be done.”
To Rhys’ surprise Drury rattled to his feet and trotted out through the door, only to return a minute or so later, dragging a bedsheet. There was a clothes peg attached to one corner.
“Up to your old tricks, I see,” muttered Rhys, then he realised what the dog intended him to do.

Rhys spread the sheet on the floor of the cottage and manoeuvred the body of the Night-Soil Man on to it. It took but a few minutes for Rhys to wrap him up and, with some difficulty, hoist him on to his shoulder. Drury watched impassively as he made his way outside, bearing his burden.

The job of a Night-Soil Man is difficult and dangerous, and few enjoy a normal life-span. It has long been their practice to take on an apprentice who, hopefully, will have learned his trade before his master finally succumbs to whatever fate awaits him. When that time comes, the apprentice is expected to dispose of his master’s corpse by dropping him into the bottomless sink-hole that lies at the end of his garden. Although this sounds harsh, it ensures that the body will not be ravaged by any of the denizens who stalk the island, or swim in the wild ocean beyond. When the time came, Rhys, his body racked with sobs, had sent his predecessor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, into the mysterious depths of the sinkhole. It was not a task he had expected to have to repeat, but now, here he was, doing it for a stranger, who, apparently had no apprentice.
“I never knew you my friend, but for some reason your spirit came to find me,” he said, recalling the ghost who had led him there.
With as much reverence as possible, Rhys let the body, still wrapped in its sheet, slip soundlessly into the sink-hole,
“The Night-Soil Man is dead. Long live the Night-Soil Man.”

Rhys walked sadly back to the cottage with Drury at his heels.
“I guess it’s up to me now to be the new Night-Soil man,” he said aloud, then added,
“I wonder what year this is?”
If Drury knew, he was not saying.

The Leathery Chevin

Goblin cups are leathery anyway, and hard to reshape. Ur-deer have decent skins, but are shy and hard to catch. Small birds take a lot of processing. None of these creatures are optimal for leather making.

No one hopes they will get a leathery Chevin for Christmas. Usually, the appearance of such a horrible doll is a sign that you have caused deep offence. It suggests someone may even be considering killing you, and that you should, as a matter of some urgency, mend your ways.

Leather is a valuable commodity and not as common as would be ideal. Everyone needs leather shoes, and in the winter, you want oilskins, or oiled leather. Seals know not to venture too close to the island, and sea otters are in desperately short supply, so the chances of you getting winter wear from such a creature depends on it washing up dead, but not so dead as to be unsalvageable. 

For generations, the Chevins have specialised in both harvesting and processing leather. The smells associated with this work have only enhanced their reputation for not being very nice. However, if a creature dies, getting a Chevin in quickly to process the skin is always popular. And no one wants to leave a dead donkey on the roof through the winter.

Hopeless does not lend itself to the leather industry. The goats and donkeys are clever and keep to themselves a lot. The cows are decidedly on the small side. As a consequence, rather a lot of leather-like materials are harvested from the sea. The Chevins are discrete and secretive about this. To the point whereby the family’s entire secrecy budget seems to go on not talking about the leather, while their oversharing and indiscretion bloom wildly in all other contexts. No one really knows what most of their leather is. The general assumption is that the leather-ish material they sell has probably been extracted from some horrible form of sea life in the sort of way it would likely be best not to know about.

All of this contributes to the leathery Chevin being so ominous and unwelcome a gift. There are those who say that the leathery Chevins are made from the skins of people who have previously annoyed the Chevins. I’m sure that’s unfounded. I am prepared to continue to be publicly confident on this score, because I neither wish to receive nor become a leathery Chevin.

The Visitor

Rhys Cranham had no problem with being around ghosts. In his role of Hopeless Maine’s Night-Soil Man, he encountered them regularly. Most were harmless, but others, such as Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, certainly were not, and so Rhys made a point of avoiding Obadiah and his ilk whenever possible. Uniquely, among those of the spirit world, Miss Calder was inclined to be flirtatious. Rhys often wondered if this was more out of pity than anything else, as she would have known full-well that the life of a Night-Soil Man is lonely and loveless. This made him feel uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, for, much to his own surprise, he found that he was not without feelings for her. This, in turn, gave him a dreadful guilt complex, as there was a definite frisson between Philomena Bucket and himself, and for a brief time, after she arrived on the island, it seemed as though romance was a possibility; or it was, until a hearty dose of sea-water swilled out the grains lodged in Philomena’s nose, and her sense of smell returned. It was at that point that Cupid almost dropped his bow in an attempt to make a hurried exit.
Yes, Rhys was fairly sure that he had met every ghost on the island, at one time or another, and could name each of them. That was why the apparition of a middle-aged man, currently wandering through the walls of his cottage, surprised him quite as much as it did. The Night-Soil man had fallen asleep in his armchair following his nightly rounds, and had been enjoying a pleasant dream that involved his swimming in an ocean of ‘Old Colonel’ ale. He awoke, bleary and with no small measure of disappointment. It took a few seconds of blinking and yawning before he registered the presence of his spectral visitor.
The ghost said nothing, but fluttered before him, beckoning and pointing to the closed door, through which he slipped like smoke. Seemingly unable to resist, Rhys rose to his feet, picked up his candle-lantern, and followed him. It was the early hours of the morning and the island slept. You could tell that it was sleeping by the way that the Gydynap Hills rose and fell slightly, filling the air with the sound of contented snoring. Occasionally a small flock of gnii would fly overhead, making the distinctive gnii, gnii sound, after which they were named. As ever, a thick mist shrouded the island, but the dimly phosphorescent spectre hovered in front of him like a beacon.
It was when they passed The Squid and Teapot that Rhys sensed that something was not right. The old place looked very much same, illuminated as it was by the candle-lantern, but Rhys could not remember the paintwork to be quite so neglected, while some of the window panes looked grimy and cracked.
“I’m surprised Bartholomew has allowed it to get into this state,” he thought to himself, as he wandered around the building. No sooner had the thought entered his head than he was forced to stop dead in his tracks. Something was definitely not right… and then he spotted it, or, to put things more precisely, he didn’t spot it at all. Where the flushing privy had stood, just a few hours ago, there was now an empty space, bordered by the blank, grey, back wall of the inn.
Rhys could not believe his eyes. Even in the unlikely event of Bartholomew wanting to demolish the privy, which had always been his pride and joy, and envy of the landlord of ‘The Crow’, there would have been some disturbed ground, some debris strewn around, but the whole area looked as though nothing had ever been standing there.
“Then I must be dreaming,” Rhys decided, and looked down at his hands.
You may not know this, but the Night-Soil Man had long been a lucid dreamer. He had, on many occasions, been fully aware that he was dreaming and was, from that happy position, able to direct events in a most satisfactory way. (Most Night-Soil men have learned to cultivate this ability, allowing them the companionship in dreams that they lacked in their waking lives).
Like anyone with a similar skill, however, Rhys knew that there were some anomalies that even the most lucid of dreamers was subject to, and the state of one’s hands was one of those anomalies. If you looked at them twice they would be different; they might have too many, or too few, fingers. They might turn into crab-like claws, or resemble several pairs of scissors, There was never any guarantee what you might see. On this occasion Rhys’ hands looked perfectly normal, but the mystery of the disappearing privy troubled him, so he racked his brain for other signs that he was in a dream.
“Text!” he said to himself. “That’s another one, text.”
He recalled that writing was rarely readable in a dream, and certainly never looked the same twice. He scanned around, looking for some words to test his theory.
The faded sign outside the inn proudly, though not unsurprisingly, proclaimed ‘The Squid and Teapot’. To give the legend on the sign some credence, it sat above a painting which depicted a cephalopod caressing a spouted utensil which did, indeed, closely resemble a teapot.
Rhys closed his eyes for a moment, then squinted at the sign again. Nothing had changed, the words were the same.
While all of this was going on, the ghost was becoming impatient, tapping his feet and drumming his fingers against folded arms, until gradually he began to fade away, as though his work was done, leaving a mystified Rhys standing alone in the deserted street. He shrugged and walked back through the town, towards his cottage. It was a strange journey, for although everything was familiar, the buildings appeared to sport small changes here and there, making the Night-Soil Man feel distinctly uneasy.
If Rhys felt that the differences in the town were unsettling, his heart almost stopped when he reached the cottage at Poo Corner. His cobbled pathway was gone, the front door was now a different colour and, like The Squid, the whole place looked neglected and unloved. Rhys cautiously entered and, in the glow of his lantern, the room sprang to life, sending shadows dancing over the bare walls.
The small parlour was sparsely furnished and bore little resemblance to Rhys’ cosy home. Slumped in the only armchair was the figure of a man. He was fully dressed and, although Rhys’ sense of smell was accustomed to the stench of night-soil, he was aware that he was in the presence of another Night-Soil Man; or, he would have been, had the poor fellow been alive. The man in the chair felt cold and stiff to the touch. Then a chill ran down Rhys’ spine as he recognised him; he found himself looking at the earthly remains of his ghostly visitor.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a noise in the corner, It was a dry, rattling sound which Rhys immediately recognised.
“Drury!” he exclaimed, relieved to see the familiar skeletal form of his old friend getting to his feet.
“Dear old Drury, am I glad to see you.”
If Drury had possessed hackles, they would have risen. He tucked his head in to his shoulders and gave a low, menacing growl.
“Hey, what’s wrong old fella?”
The dog bared his teeth (inasmuch as you can bare teeth which are completely visible at all times) and the low growl became a full throated roar.
Rhys barely had time to raise his arms in defence as Drury leapt towards his throat.

To be continued…

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.