The Lord of Misrule

Another year had passed on the island of Hopeless, Maine. This is not as bland and obvious a statement as you may imagine, for while most places on this planet enjoy an orderly, straight as an arrow, passage through time, Hopeless does not always choose to conform. Time on this island – like so many of its denizens– can be a slippery and unpredictable beast. Mostly, it will obediently trot forward at a regulation pace but, at the slightest caprice, will career away at a gallop, or, just as often, slow to a snail’s pace. Once or twice it has stopped totally and then gone off in completely the opposite direction, which causes no end of anxiety and confusion… but I digress. Upon the occasion of which I speak, Time had meekly wandered up to the very brink of the old year and waited quietly, to listen patiently for the chimes of midnight.

To all intents and purposes the evening was progressing in a most satisfactory manner. The produce of the Ebley Brewery and Gannicox Distillery flowed freely and the mood was high-spirited and ebullient. Bartholomew Middlestreet watched happily as the pallid but strangely beautiful barmaid, Philomena Bucket, weaved her way through the crowded bar of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, deftly carrying, in one hand, a tray brimming with hot and steamy starry-grabby pies, and two foaming mugs of ‘Old Colonel’ ale in the other. Business was good in the inn tonight– but after all, it was New Year’s Eve and everyone here, and those at home by their own firesides, had survived another year. Bartholomew beamed to himself as he remembered the chorus of a song, penned years ago by the late Spencer Lypiatt. Being a better poet than he was a musician, Spencer had set the lyrics to a popular show-tune that he had picked up from somewhere or other in his travels (although his claim that South Pacific had at last reached the North Atlantic had baffled more than one member of his audience).

We all live on Hopeless, Maine,
(Hopeless by the sea)
There’s no reason to complain
If you’re living on Hopeless, Maine.

A lot of people thought this was nonsense – after all, the inhabitants of Hopeless have a whole host of reasons for complaint. Bartholomew, being somewhat cannier than most of his neighbours, knew only too well that they just did not appreciate exactly what Spencer was driving at when he wrote the song. The operative word in the chorus is, of course, ‘living’, as opposed to dying or being dead, and this is exactly what the patrons of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ were doing this evening – celebrating the very fact of being alive.

No one who was present on that particular New Year’s Eve can say with any certainty that they can remember when the tall, elegant stranger first came into the inn. He must have been there for some while, for it was about eleven-thirty when he was spotted pushing back the small table, rising from his chair and making his way across the bar to the far corner of the room.

When he put his hand on the shoulder of young Ambrose Pinfarthing and whispered a few words into the lad’s ear, you could be forgiven for assuming that the two had been friends for years . In response the young man gave him a slightly drink-fuddled and puzzled look; he shrugged and raised his eyebrows as he watched the stranger return to his seat, having no idea what had just happened.

Ambrose was sitting with a small party of friends, all of his age, who had been noisy but by no means troublesome, allowing themselves to become mildly inebriated as the evening progressed. With the minute hand creeping towards midnight, however, the group became increasingly vocal, blatantly ignoring Bartholomew’s more than tolerant request,

“Keep it down, lads, it’s getting a bit rowdy over there.

It soon became apparent that their general mood was becoming worryingly ugly. As voices became louder, tempers began to fray. Bartholomew tried to calm things down but to no avail. The innkeeper knew that he was losing control when bickering broke out on other tables and what was, only minutes before, a good-natured gathering, descended into a seething and hostile environment. It was as if an unaccountable madness had gripped every patron of the inn– or nearly every patron. Sitting quietly in his corner was a lone and enigmatic figure, who appeared to be totally untouched by the chaos breaking out around him. He smiled to himself and sipped his ale, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. Fists flew and tankards were thrown, glasses shattered and tables upturned, and all of the time the stranger sat unruffled in his own little oasis of calm.

Bartholomew could only watch in horror as furniture and furnishings, fixtures and fittings, plates and drinking vessels succumbed to the quite insane behaviour that had overtaken his customers. The normally feisty Philomena Bucket and Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, wasted no time and hid, trembling, in the privy. Even the prospect of sharing the cramped space with its resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady, was preferable to braving the turmoil that rocked the public bar.
As if in response to some invisible signal, at the stroke of midnight the elegant stranger arose, left some money on the counter, and strode towards the door. As he passed each brawling customer they stopped fighting and, in a daze, looked around as if waking from a terrible dream. The room grew suddenly and weirdly quiet; the only noise was the sound of shattered pottery and glass being crunched beneath a pair of highly polished leather boots.

“There’s something not right about him,” muttered Bartholomew to himself. “Did he say something to start all this?”

With a degree of bravery that surprised even himself, Bartholomew sprinted towards the door just as it was closing. Catching it by the handle, he threw the door wide open. A fierce and icy blast shook the few curtains that still hung tenuously in place. Bartholomew shuddered, drew his arms close around his body and looked out on to the inky darkness that heralded another new year on Hopeless, Maine.

The night before him was cold and totally empty. A light dusting of snow had been falling steadily for an hour or more, leaving a pure white carpet to grace the front yard of the inn. It was indeed beautiful – and not a single footprint was there to disturb its pristine surface.

Author’s note: Anyone wishing to see the complete (and frankly, extremely irritating) lyrics of ‘We all live on Hopeless, Maine’ will find them in the tale of that name – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/we-all-live-on-hopeless-maine/

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