Pluff Monday

“What’s a pluff?”
Norbert Gannicox sat cross-legged on the floor, a large book folded open on his knees.
He had been helping Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, to clear up the not inconsiderable mess that littered the floor of the inn. Several days had passed since the bar room brawl that had flared up on New Year’s Eve, wrecking just about every stick of furniture, piece of glassware and item of crockery in the place. Such a thing had never happened before.

If you want anything in particular on Hopeless, the chances are that, if it exists on the island, you will find it somewhere in the dusty attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’. Over many years these rooms, with their small, cobweb-draped windows, had become the natural repository of the many and various – but otherwise unwanted – items of flotsam and jetsam that washed up on Hopeless’ rocky shores. For all of the dust and cobwebs, the several generations of stewards of the inn had been scrupulous in keeping their salvaged goods in reasonable order. Because of this, it was no great hardship to refurbish the bar with everything it needed to resume normal business.

Next to the clothing, furnishings and household items, which were organised in their separate spaces, there were books; hundreds of books, placed in tall stacks, piled more by size than subject matter.  

The particular tome that had caught Norbert’s eye was a weighty volume, snappily titled ‘The Every Day Book: or, A guide to the year: describing the popular amusements, sports, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times, (ed. W. Hone.)’.
 ‘‘ I think I’ve found the next fixture on our calendar of traditions, said Norbert, with some excitement. “Listen to this…

   …The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday”, he said, pronouncing ‘plough’ as ‘pluff’’. “It appears to have received that name,” he continued, “because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistcoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy…”

“What do you reckon?” he asked.
“Well,” considered Bartholomew, “If I knew what a pluff is I might have a go at drawing one.”
Norbert nodded. “There again”, he said, “it might be a ploff, not a pluff.”
“That’s real helpful,“ said Bartholomew, his tone not without a degree of sarcasm, “but I can’t say that I’ve heard of either one of them. Ploff just don’t sound right. No, it’s definitely a pluff, and dammit we’ll spell it as pluff, as it should be. Blasted English!”

The dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, once famously commented that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language and this can frequently be seen in the variation in spellings, pronunciation and even meanings of certain words. As neither Norbert nor Bartholomew –  or practically anyone currently alive on Hopeless, come to that – had wallowed in the dubious delights of a British schoolroom, they were happily unaware that the implement they knew as a plow was, indeed, a plough to those inhabitants of Shakespeare’s ‘Scepter’d Isle’.

After deciding that neither man had the faintest idea as to what a pluff might be, that they didn’t have thirty or forty men to pull one and that no self-respecting old woman, or lad in drag, would have anything to do with the project, gaily bedizened or not, it was agreed that they would go ahead and celebrate Pluff Monday anyway. They were pretty dam’ sure that if they didn’t know what a pluff was, no one else on the island would, either.

An hour or so later a casual bystander might have witnessed two middle-aged men taking a nonchalant stroll along the shoreline and pushing a ricketty handcart. According to the book, Pluff Monday was due to fall on the day after tomorrow; Norbert and Bartholomew were looking desperately for an item, any item, so odd, so unusual, so totally alien that it would act as a stand-in for the elusive pluff. It would become, in the eyes of their fellow islanders, unmistakably a pluff through and through. Both knew that it was, of course, an outside chance that they would find such a thing but, as we all know, Hopeless is an outside chance sort of place, so neither man was particularly surprised when, carelessly deposited by the tide, on a beach of dark shingle, sat the very epitome of pluffdom itself.

Imagine, if you will, a rusty iron sphere, about three feet in diameter. Protruding from its surface is a series of horn-like spikes, resembling something not unlike the shell of a huge, metallic horse-chestnut. Norbert stopped in his tracks.
“This is it,“ he murmured with a certain amount of awe in his voice. “A pluff!”
“It’s impressive,“ agreed Bartholomew. “Let’s get it on to the cart before the tide takes it back out.”
This was easier said than done. Try as they might, the pair could not lift the pluff an inch off the ground.
“It must weigh a ton,” said Norbert, “We’ll never shift the thing. That’s probably why the book said that it took thirty or forty men to drag it around.”
“How about…” said Bartholomew, a thought was forming in his head. “…How about if we can’t take Pluff Monday to the people, then they can come here to see it? We could dress the pluff up in ribbons and things and create our own version of Pluff Monday – a Hopeless version!” He said, the last bit completely without irony.

The two retired to the warmth and comfort of “The Squid”, where they set about the task of writing posters to advertise the ‘Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza at Scilly Point’. Philomena Bucket, who had been press-ganged into the scheme, dug out some ribbons and bells from the attic to festoon about the horns of the pluff. Somebody suggested taking the old phonograph to the event and playing ‘Molly Malone’ a few times. ‘Molly Malone’, with its ‘Alive-alive-o’ chorus, was a favourite with the people of Hopeless, mainly because it was the only wax cylinder that they possessed. Ideas poured from the three friends; they could light a fire on the beach and maybe take a cask of ‘Old Colonel’ and some starry-grabby pies to make the day go with a real bang. Wisdom of hindsight may have told them, a day or two later, to be careful what they wished for.

Pluff Monday had arrived at last! Bartholomew opened the big oak door of ‘The Squid’ and looked out at the new day. It was a little before 8a.m. and somewhere above the swirling mist, morning could be said to have broken. It displayed, however, a certain amount of defiance regarding the sentiments expressed in the popular hymn, for it bore little resemblance to that first morning, the temperature well below the four thousand degrees farenheit that the earth had then, apparently, enjoyed. Here, on eternally foggy Hopeless Maine, the glass would be lucky to struggle above freezing point on a typical day in early January. Not that this dampened the spirits of the organisers of the Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza.
By midday everything was ready. The phonograph sat on one handcart, while a firkin of ‘Old Colonel’, snuggling companionably with a large haybox, generously filled with hot and steaming starry-grabby pies, graced another. Drury, the long-dead and skeletal hound, gambolled happily around, getting generally in the way and underfoot, as only an over-excitable dog can. Drury loved a celebration of any sort, especially one that involved the phonograph playing ‘Molly Malone’.

When Bartholomew, Norbert, Philomena and Drury arrived at Scilly Point, where the beribboned and bedizened Pluff bobbed gently as the incoming tide lapped languidly around it, a crowd had already gathered on the headland.
“Welcome, friends, to the very first Pluff Monday celebration, here on Hopeless, Maine,” announced Norbert grandly. “I hope this to be the start of a long and abiding tradition on the island.”

With that, Philomena wound up the phonograph and immediately the strangulated voice of an Irish tenor cut through the mist, telling the sad tale of a female fishmonger who navigated her barrow through streets of varying width.

Drury was happy beyond words. So happy, that he wandered down to the beach, splashed into the shallow water and lifted a back leg against the rusting iron pluff. This was, of course, a pointless exercise, but old habits are inclined to die hard. It was just around that point that the tenor reached the popular refrain of his ballad and suddenly everyone joined in; the headland rang with ‘Alive, alive-o! Alive, alive-o! Crying cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” This was Drury’s favourite bit and he rushed excitedly back to the gathering, leaping headlong into the arms of his beloved Philomena. Taken by surpise, she stumbled against the cart which held the firkin of ‘Old Colonel’ and the box of starry-grabby pies. Filled with dismay, she watched it roll away in the direction of the beach, gathering speed as it went. The company on the headland looked aghast as the precious provender careered violently into the pluff. As one, they dashed down towards the water, hoping to salvage whatever they could. All might have been retrievable, had not the pluff, which had bobbed innocently around the North Atlantic for some years, decided to do the job it was designed for, and exploded in spectacular fashion. The inhabitants of Hopeless experienced the unique sensation of simultaneously being knocked off their feet and showered in a blend of strong ale and desicated squid. If such indignity was not bad enough, this was followed shortly afterwards by an uncomfortable rain of smoking matchwood and wisps of burning hay.

One by one, slightly deafened and covered in a quite malodorous and smoldering aley-fishy-woody debris, the Pluff Monday revellers got to their feet and looked around, dazed and bewildered.
“Was that supposed to happen?” asked Doc Willoughby suspiciously, removing a squid leg from his waistcoat pocket.
Norbert didn’t answer. Maybe it was time to give up unearthing traditions. It was too dangerous.
Up on the headland, a reedy voice was still warbling away about Molly Malone.
Drury wagged a bony tail.
“Now that’s what I call an entertaining afternoon!” he thought to himself.


Author’s note: Phonograph enthusiasts may like to look at the tale ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/ghost-in-the-machine/

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