Norbert Gannicox had taken a vow of sobriety. As you may recall from an earlier tale, the circumstances surrounding his father’s demise were somewhat macabre and had quite put him off alcohol for life. So, while he was happy to fulfil his role as the main distiller and supplier of moonshine on Hopeless, he carefully avoided imbibing anything stronger than coffee (This was sometime before the hairy variety was discovered. Even if it had been available I don’t believe he would have gone anywhere near it.)
As has been stated many times, resources can be scarce on this island and Norbert was finding difficulty in sourcing sufficient quantities of raw materials to provide the mash for his brew. Things were looking grim for the business until one day an article in The Vendetta caught his eye. Apparently there was an abundance – an infestation, one could say – of the dreaded Night Potatoes. Norbert reasoned that, as vodka is made from ordinary potatoes, any brew distilled from Night Potatoes must be at least as good, or possibly better. It was worth a try.
It is not difficult to gather Night Potatoes. By finding one, and popping it into a sack, you may be certain that others will soon appear to rescue it. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or the lone collector however, for a vengeful Night Potato will fight back with some vigour, as their first victim, Stern Ericsson, found to his cost. Fortunately Norbert had come prepared and with the aid of a few friends several sacks were soon heaving with their wriggling and indignant forms.
Ignoring the protests coming from the sacks, once back at the distillery Norbert consulted one of Ebenezer’s notebooks. The handwriting was neat and the instructions precise:
Potatoes are ideally left unpeeled and, if desired, a small amount of malted barley may be added. The potatoes, whether whole or chopped, should be initially boiled to gelatinise the potato starch. When this is done, add more water to form a mash and then cool to approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Add some milled malted barley to the mash. The potato starch will then be converted to fermentable sugars.
Norbert could see no problem here. True, these were no common potatoes but, in the scheme of things, a vegetable was a vegetable, whether it cursed and ran around or not. The time had come for action.
I won’t go into the harrowing details of Norbert’s process of preparing the mash. Maine is famous for its lobsters and doubtless many of us have quailed to hear one scream when it is cooked. Imagine the heart-rending cacophony made by a sackful of sentient potatoes, each one reluctant to enter the boiling water. Therefore, if only to appease my own sensibilities, I will fast-forward to the time when the whole process had been completed.
Norbert had purposely avoided mentioning the unconventional ingredients of this current batch of alcohol to his customers as he thought that it might be inclined to deter some from drinking it. In the event the very first batch of Night Potato Moonshine was to be delivered to Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen, a famous bordello (just down the road from The Squid and Teapot, as it happens).
Since Madame Evadne’s death a century or more earlier, a succession of capable ladies, retired, or at least semi-retired, from their erstwhile profession, had fulfilled the role that she had so successfully created; she was a concierge, administrator, book-keeper, businesswoman and bouncer all rolled into one.
The latest of this long line of matriarchs was one Nellie Bagpath, a fearsome and formidable figure who ruled her charges and their clients with an iron fist in a velvet glove (sometimes literally, especially if enough money changed hands).
As soon as the delivery had been made and Norbert was safely on his way home, Mistress Nellie, as she liked to be addressed, thought it expedient to sample the brew before the clients got to it. She helped herself to a generous tot, and then another one or two, just to be certain that the Lodging House had received a fair deal. She decided that it had, but one can never be too careful about these things, so to be on the safe side she had another couple of tots to make absolutely sure.
Unusually for Mistress Nellie she took to her bed early that night. She was feeling a little under the weather and decided that the place could run itself.
“I’m not at all well,” she told her second-in-command, Alicia Ozleworth, in slurred tones. “Not well at all, but I am most definitely not under the affluence of incahol.”
It was turning-out time at The Squid and Teapot and Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, actor/ manager and raconteur had begun the short stagger back to his home. He was singing quietly to himself, having enjoyed several pints of ‘Old Dogwater’, when his rendition of a song that seemed to be totally comprised of the words ‘Tum-te, Tum-te,Tum, Dee Dum Dee’, was brought to a halt when he saw a strange apparition wandering in the moonlight. The figure was that of a woman of matronly build and mature years. She was dressed in a flowing, full-length white nightdress and thick, pink woollen bed socks. With arms outstretched and eyes glowing with an eerie luminosity she lurched towards him. Ever the gentleman, Sir Fromebridge swept off his fedora and made a deep bow.
“Good evening, dear lady,” he said in his best Shakespearean voice. “May I be of some assistance, perchance?”
The apparition passed by as though he were invisible, which was probably just as well as the deep bow had put his back out and he was the one in urgent need of assistance.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night ” she moaned as she drifted by.
“Ah. Jolly good” he replied in agonised tones. “I say, could you possibly…?
But, alas, she couldn’t, as she was out of earshot and he was stuck.
This island is rife with ghosts and demons, vampires and all sorts of nameless creatures, slithering, creeping and wandering around on pilfered cutlery. These are the stuff of nightmares but when they saw Mistress Nellie in this new guise, every last one of them gave her a wide berth.
Someone else who enjoyed the disdain of the Hopeless horrors was Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night-Soil Man. This is not an image you‘ll want to dwell upon, but he was half-way through his rounds and had just settled down to eat his sandwiches.
Shenandoah is not a man who surprises easily but the sight of a woman with luminous eyes wandering the cliff tops in her nightdress and pink woolly bed socks was not all that common. Even less common was the fact that she came right up to him and planted a kiss upon his grizzled cheek.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night” she intoned.
“Well heck”, he said. This was as close to swearing as Shenandoah ever got.
“Heck! I’ve heard of women like you but never met one. You must have a really nasty head cold. Would you like a sandwich?”
He lifted one from the lunchbox sitting on his bucket lid.
It was too late. She had gone, wailing into darkness.
Whether by accident or instinct, the Potato Lady of the Night made her way to the gates of the Gannicox Distillery. Norbert was in bed and dreaming fitfully of screaming potatoes and old men floating in barrels. It was a relief to be woken by a relentless banging on the door. Blearily he went downstairs.
“Who’s there?” he called.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night”
“Well I haven’t asked for a delivery, especially this late. Come back in the morning.”
The banging continued and Norbert decided that discretion was the better part of valour and let her in.
“Mistress Nellie?” he gasped. “Are you okay?”
She drifted by him as if he didn’t exist and made her way to the storage sheds.
Puzzled and still half-asleep Norbert followed.
She made her way to the large vat that contained the Night Potato moonshine and turned on the tap.
“Come out my brothers and sisters, be free, be free once more” she wailed as the precious liquid splashed on to shed floor.
Norbert was rendered helpless and speechless as the alcohol flowed around his feet.
The woman that had been Mistress Nellie turned to face him, though face is maybe not the right word. Her features had become grotesque and shapeless, a gnarled and knobbly thing, not unlike the shape of a very large potato with bulging eyes that shone with a sickly yellow glow.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night” she said again, then for some reason added “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Despair seemed like a good idea. Snapping out of his paralysis Norbert screamed and ran away as fast as he could. He ran over the hills, careless of the dangers of the night-creatures and the dreadful reek of the Night-Soil Man, who had his second surprise of the night when Norbert fell over his bucket. Eventually he found himself outside Madame Evadne’s where the usual activities were well underway He knew what he must do. Racing in, he went to the cellars and found the cask of moonshine. Rolling it outside he knocked out the bung and let the contents empty into the gutter.
Alicia Ozleworth, Mistress Nellie’s deputy, watched from the doorway, not a little horrified at his actions. Norbert explained all and promised to fully refund the cost of the liquor.
Exhausted, he made his way home through the darkened streets. Suddenly he was stopped in his tracks by an anguished voice
“Excuse me, old chap, could you possibly give me a hand…?”
Needless to say Mistress Nellie Bagpath was never seen in the flesh again, though a couple of people reported spotting a strange, potato-like wraith in pink bed socks, wailing over the headland. It did not get a lot of attention. That sort of thing is hardly newsworthy here. What was newsworthy, however, was a rare but timely delivery from the mainland supplying the Gannicox Distillery with several casks of cereal and Alicia Ozleworth becoming the new boss – or Mother Superior as she called herself – at Madame Evadne’s. Sir Fromebridge, as you may know, is sadly no longer with us, but something tells me that although he’s dead, we’re unlikely to have seen the last of him. After all, this is Hopeless, Maine.
Art by Tom Brown