When Salamandra opened the door, she barely glanced at me, focusing on Owen instead.
Although not any of the many warm welcomes I had imagined, I didn’t mind so much, as it gave me an opportunity to stare at her. She was simultaneously familiar, I had – after all – seen her grow and mature since childhood, while at the same time I realised I didn’t know her at all, as if she was a complete stranger.
Salamandra was clad in a dress made from strips of old bed sheets. Her long dark hair was a myriad of braids which seemed to have a life of their own, swaying this way and that, lending her a frighteningly Medusian aspect. She had a broad mouth, with sensuous lips, and compelling oval eyes, but the most fascinating aspect of her face was the animation of it, changing continuously to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions and moods.
Helter skelter, hurry skurry.
“Where have you been?” Salamandra asked Owen. “I was in dire need of something more compliant than lighthouse walls to fly stuff at.”
“I’m sorry to have missed it.” Owen apologized, scratching the side of his slightly hooked nose. “There was a Blood Rain…”
Salamandra’s eyes lit up. “Did you get there in time?”
Owen grinned, indicated the basket on his back. “Half a kyte kidney…”
“You’re my hero,” Salamandra purred. She turned to me. “I have no idea who or what you are. Please don’t be boring.”
I managed an: “Er”, as well as an “Um.”
“Er-um?” Salamandra asked, her mouth stern, but eyes twinkling. “Sounds medicinal.”
“A few hours ago his name was Ned Twyner,” Owen said, setting down his basket. “An outlander. Says he came to Hopeless out of his own free will.”
Salamandra rolled her eyes. “You should have taken him to see Doctor Hedley Case, not brought him to the lighthouse.”
“I’m quite sane, thank you,” I said.
Salamandra and Owen both raised an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “Reasonably sane.”
Owen addressed Salamandra. “I found him asleep in the loving embrace of a bed of snare-moss, where he decided to rest after barely escaping the clutches of tug-weed. He’s a scribbler, writes stories for something called the Brighton Gazette. Said he’s come to ask you some questions.”
“Questions?” Salamandra frowned.
“An interview,” I said. “If it isn’t inconvenient…”
“It’s inconvenient,” Salamandra declared at once. “I’m terribly busy…”
“I’m sure the china won’t mind if you turn your attention elsewhere for a while…” Owen said dryly.
Salamandra glared at him. “None of it complained…well apart from that goblin cup, that is. I mistook it for an ordinary tea cup. It didn’t like that at all. Nearly screamed my head off.”
“If you’re busy, we could make an appointment…” I began to say.
“Busy, precisely,” Salamandra said. “We’ve got to go catch us some lunch, I’m famished.”
I looked at Owen’s basket.
Owen shook his head. “Tougher than a boiled tree creeper. The kidney needs to be left to decompose for a couple of weeks before we can eat it.”
“Delicious when it goes all gooey,” Salamandra licked her lips.
I slapped my forehead. “What am I thinking?!” I patted my knapsack. “I’ve got enough for all three of us. From the mainland: Bread, cheese, dry sausage, and a pot of bug chowdah.”
Salamandra pouted. “I had bugs for breakfast. They tasted bitter. And bits of their shell got stuck between my teeth.”
Owen shook his head. “If that is what I think it is, you’ll absolutely love it, Sal.”
“We’ll save the time it would have taken you to catch lunch,” I suggested.
“So you can ask me questions.” Salamandra looked at me thoughtfully. “But what if you’re boring? Harder to send you away when we’re eating your food. And I do so hate tedious conversation.”
“He’s rather amusing, actually,” Owen said. “Trust me on this.”
Salamandra relented and invited me into the lighthouse, where I was led to a large table on which I began to deposit the ample contents of my knapsack.
“Courtesy of the Merry Tentacle,” I said proudly.
Owen fetched a few bowls, chipped plates, knives and a single spoon – which he clutched tightly. “We’ve only got one spoon left.”
I brightened, and fished a small rectangular linen bag from my satchel. “Ole Ted asked me to give you this. He said you’d appreciate the gift.”
I shook the little bag, which chinked merrily, then drew open the drawstring, turned it upside down to let the contents spill onto the table.
“NOOOO!” Salamandra cried out.
It was another Christina Rosetti moment. Even before the nine spoons in the bag hit the table, skurries appeared from everywhere: Falling from the ceiling, gliding in through a window, jumping from the top of a rackety cupboard, fluttering through an open door…one even gnawed its way through the considerable thickness of the tabletop.
I froze, staring in amazement as a fierce battle erupted between Salamandra and Owen on the one side, and the skurries on the other. All involved hissed, cursed, spat, growled, clawed, pinched, bit, and poked – as they fought for possession of the spoons. Salamandra and Owen were on the losing side, until a black cat – exuding sinister menace – came to reinforce them, allowing retention of two of the spoons. The other seven, along with the skurries, vanished.
“Thank you, Lamashtu.” Salamandra smiled at the cat.
“You’re welcome,” the cat replied.
“It…it…” I pointed at the cat. “It…spoke…”
Lamashtu glared at me. “I’m well educated, I’ll have you know.”
Salamandra scowled at me. “I don’t think you’re going to last long on Hopeless, Scribbler.”
“Three spoons in total now,” Owen said happily. He poured the bug chowdah into three bowls, then set the container from the Merry Tentacle in front of the cat, which sniffed at it cautiously, before beginning to purr loudly.
Owen held out one of the spoons to me. “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of the spoon.”
I nodded, wondering silently how many more blunders I would make during my stay on Hopeless…and what disastrous consequences might ensue.
During lunch, both Salamandra and Owen reminded me of the images of Hindu deities I had seen in a travelogue, all of them with a multitude of limbs. The arms and hands of my hosts seemed to be everywhere at once, reaching for bread, cutting cheese, and spooning lobster chowder into their mouths even as they wolfed down slices of sausage. They ate more gustily than Free Traders returning from a long, hard run over the English Channel, and demonstrated an equal disregard for table manners.
The chowder was particularly favoured. Salamandra used her index finger to sweep up every last remnant of the lobster stew from the sides of her bowl. Owen held his bowl upturned over his mouth, to catch every drop.
I was caught with indecision as to how to clean my bowl, but that was solved by Lamashtu, whose intense green eyes convinced me that I really wanted to push my bowl towards the cat so that it could lap at the remnants, leaving me to chew on a dry crust of bread – wondering sheepishly who got the better end of the bargain.
“Scrumptious,” Owen declared with satisfaction.
“Indeed,” Salamandra agreed, giving me an amiable look. “A most generous gift. I’m minded to be nicer to you, Scribbler.”
Taking that as my cue, I reached into my satchel, placed blank sheets of paper on the table, unfolded the list of readers’ questions I’d brought across the Atlantic, and dipped my quill into my favourite ink-pot.
“Very well,” Salamandra sighed. “Let’s have your questions then. I’ll do my best to answer them.”