The Honourable Walter Leigh-Botham was the sort of chap for whom the terms ‘cad’ and ‘bounder’ had been expressly coined. He had been expelled from Eton for excessive bullying (even by the sadistic standards of the English public school system*) and, after his father had pulled several strings to get him into Oxford, had managed to get himself thrown out within a matter of months for successfully managing to seduce both the Professor of Divinity’s wife and daughter, though, to his credit, not at the same time. In truth, other than the various pleasures of the flesh, the only thing Walter ever truly excelled in was cricket. By 1914, in Walter’s twentieth year, war with Germany seemed inevitable. It was, in his estimation, an ideal time to get out of England, not least because he had an impressive pile of gambling debts and several paternity suits to his young name. Being ever resourceful and, it must be said, oozing with charm, he managed to persuade the captain of a merchant ship to give him a passage across the Atlantic free of charge, spinning a tale about a dying grandmother in Maine. Walter had absolutely no idea where, on the American continent, Maine was actually located but, by chance, he had happened to overhear a conversation in a quayside inn concerning a merchant ship bound in that direction. Not one to break the habits of a lifetime, Walter repaid the captain’s kindness by assisting many of the crew to gamble away their wages and viciously depleting their rum ration. By the end of the voyage everyone on board, including the ship’s cat, had really had more than enough of his shenanigans and shortly before they reached Portland they bundled him into the very barrel he had been instrumental in emptying and dropped him, not too gently, overboard.
Scilly Point, on the coast of Hopeless, had earned its unusual name some years earlier, although there were a handful of people who believed that ‘Silly Point’ would have been a far more appropriate moniker, and with good reason. A couple of local lads, hearing the news that two Norwegians had successfully rowed from New York to the Isles of Scilly, thought they could emulate the achievement. Sadly they couldn’t and were never heard of again.
Walter had no idea of this fascinating morsel of information when his barrel came ashore there. After a few hours bobbing around on the Atlantic he would not have particularly cared either, having developed a pallor which was a decidedly delicate and interesting shade of green.
Scrambling unsteadily out of his barrel and over the rocks, he could not help but wonder where on earth he might be, as a small procession of blancmange-like creatures, shapeless and tentacled, crossed his path. He struggled on for some time, studiously trying to avoid anything that vaguely resembled a life-form in case it attacked him in some way. He was not wholly successful and was relieved when, through the mists, loomed the welcoming shape of The Squid and Teapot.
Sebastian Lypiatt, the landlord of the inn, though helpful to the latest arrival on the island, was more than a little suspicious of him. Having been a merchant seaman himself and shipwrecked here some ten years earlier, something in Walter’s tale of being an innocent passenger who had been shanghaied, robbed then viciously cast adrift by a sadistic captain and his rascally crew, did not ring true. He was relieved, therefore, when after a few days the young man decided to leave and find lodgings at Madame Evadne’s, an establishment with facilities far more likely to cater for his every need.
By the early years of the twentieth century Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen had become noticeably sleazier while expanding its business interests considerably. It had taken to providing gaming tables and alcohol as well as its more traditional pursuits for clients of both genders. This was an environment in which Walter felt truly at home and he settled back into his old ways with ease. His skill in knowing how to swindle the clients, water the drinks and run a crooked card table endeared him to Mozzarella Slad, the current Madame. She was a villainous woman whose underhand ways would have had Madame Evadne spinning in her grave. The once cheerfully vulgar bordello became a dark swamp of depravity and the following two dissipated years of Walter’s life saw him lose the few shreds of decency that he had left. Anyone who crossed him became fair game; his degenerate soul plumbed depths of evil that even made Madame Mozzarella gasp with a mixture of admiration and disgust. He was, however, becoming a liability and bad for business. It was inevitable, therefore, that one day she would decide that enough was enough and when that day dawned she resolved to be rid of him forever.
The bright full moon was sailing high in a midnight sky when she eventually challenged him. The bordello was rowdy as ever and Walter, paunchy and bleary-eyed, stepped outside for a moment to clear the fetid air from his lungs. The bottle of spirits in his hand was half-full, a situation he intended to remedy before the hour was over. He didn’t hear Mozzarella creep up behind until she was almost upon him. It was only by luck that he turned in time, for the rock with which she intended to crush his skull only caught him on the shoulder. He lunged and, catching her arm, spun her into the courtyard to crash against a statue erected in the likeness and memory of Madame Evadne. For a split second he was sure that the statue opened its eyes and smiled, not particularly pleasantly, at him. He shook his head and looked again, but no, she was as she had always been. This pause had given Mozzarella just enough time to scramble to her feet and run, screeching into the night. In an instant he was in pursuit, angrily dashing across the headland, a red rage driving him on.
It was at the foot of Chapel Rock that Walter eventually caught up with Mozzarella. In a blind and all-consuming fury he threw her to the stony ground. Wrapping his hands tightly around her throat he felt something close to elation as the life was violently squeezed out of her. When it was done he knelt on the ground, exhausted. His face was florid, his breathing laboured and his heart banging against his ribcage.
Suddenly aware of something slithering over the headland towards him, he stiffened. At first he thought it was a serpent but upon seeing that its length was punctuated with an array of suckers, realised with horror that this must be the tentacle of some huge sea-creature. As if in confirmation, an identical arm stretched up over the cliffside and waved in the air above him. The tentacle that crept over the ground now wrapped itself tightly around the body of the dead Mozzarella and hoisted her on to her feet, like a marionette. So terribly fascinated was Walter by this gruesome puppet show that he did not notice, until too late, that the other arm had slyly descended. It entwined itself around his torso and effortlessly lifted him off his feet. As the two monstrous arms drew together he found himself face-to-face with Mozzarella, her dead eyes protruding from a horribly contorted face. The pair were drawn up, their bodies as close as if they were dancing, then dance they did. The monster shook them like rag dolls. Mozzarella’s head flopped against Walter’s face. Her flesh was still warm and the saliva that lingered on her open mouth slavered against his cheek. Walter screamed. Only the ravens roosting on the rock could hear his increasingly manic wails as the grotesque dance continued. Then, when Walter thought things could get no worse, a thin green mist quietly writhed up from the ruins of the chapel, a mist that began to take the shape of a man. It circled, slowly at first, around the strange tableau. Suddenly the scrawny, almost transparent form and grimacing face of the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, Obidiah Hyde, was everywhere, screaming at Walter.
“Repent, sinner, for Hell is waiting.”
An ice cold chill gripped Walter’s heart as the wraith passed through him. The macabre dance and the howling ghost filled his brain, weaving deranged patterns in his mind. This is all there is and ever has been, thought Walter, gradually forgetting who and where he was. The last thing he saw as he fell to the ground, crashing into unconsciousness, was the lifeless body of Mozzarella being tossed high, high into the night air. For one tiny moment that lasted an eternity she was a grisly silhouette painted upon the face of the full moon, then she fell; tossed like a discarded toy into the sea. Walter dimly wondered who she was and how she had arrived there.
Hours later, in a grey dawn, Walter awoke. All memories of his old life had been erased. His hair was white and he looked older, far, far older than his twenty two years. Crawling over to the ruined chapel he discovered a small vestry which would provide shelter from the elements. Rocking back and forth on his haunches, he giggled to himself as from its perch on the ruined roof of the chapel a raven dropped a teaspoon, which clattered and bounced on the flagstones. The man who had been Walter Leigh-Botham picked it up and vaguely remembered.
“ Spoon” he said, inspecting it intently.
This must be home.
* For our American readers, in Britain most people attend state run schools and enjoy a free education. The affluent send their offspring to public schools. Despite the name these are not available to the public, being very expensive private schools, not to be confused with actual private schools which are still fee-paying but not as exclusive. I hope that clears things up.
Art by Tom Brown