Ariadne Middlestreet could not sleep. This was by no means an unusual event; she had descended, on the distaff side of the family, from a long line of poor sleepers, each of whom had a natural proclivity to wake up after four or five hours. Ariadne also suffered with ‘fidgety legs’ whenever rain threatened, which it often did on Hopeless. This ensured that, like most of her female antecedents, she rarely enjoyed a long and refreshing sleep.
It was 3a.m. when she wandered downstairs to the bar of The Squid and Teapot, hoping to find Lady Margaret D’Avening, the ghost who haunted the flushing privy of the inn. Despite having been dead for several centuries, Lady Margaret was surprisingly good company, full of bawdy tales that would have had the Puritans of her day sanctimoniously rotating in their graves. She liked to refer to her chats with Ariadne as ‘our little tête-a-têtes’, which was somewhat ironic as Lady Margaret’s half of the tête-a-tête was often situated several yards from the rest of her. Tonight, however, there was no sign of the ghost, with or without her head. Then Ariadne remembered; they were in the dark of the moon, those few days between the setting of the old moon and the rising of the new. Lady Margaret could always be seen flitting around when the moon was full, but her manifestations gradually trailed off to nothing as it waned.
Ariadne sighed, poured herself a glass of water and wandered over to the window. It would be another hour or so before dawn, and a cloak of darkness hung heavy over the sleeping island. Suddenly, something caught her eye; it was the unmistakeable, flickering iridescence of a wraith wandering through the darkness, a sight not exactly uncommon, in her experience. It seemed to be heading in the direction of Poo Corner and the Night-Soil Man’s cottage.
Ariadne mentally ticked off the various names of the likely spirits who might be abroad at this hour. She obviously ruled out Lady Margaret. Then there were the ladies of the Mild Hunt, but they always travelled together, along with their mules and spaniels, so they were discounted, too. It couldn’t be Lars Pedersen, The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow; he was so ancient as to be almost completely faded. Hmm… it might be the Mad Parson, Obadiah Hyde, but she had never known him wander far from his home on Chapel Rock. The Little Drummer Boy couldn’t go anywhere without banging that infernal drum of his; you could hear him a mile away. How about the dancing ghost, Clarissa Cockadilly? But no, she was doomed forever to haunt the swamp at the end of Forty Second Street.
“Who have I missed?” she said out loud to herself, then realisation dawned upon her. She had never regarded Miss Calder as being a ghost. The others all wore their wraithlike credentials on their, sleeve, as it were, (though Lady Margaret tended to tuck hers underneath her arm) but not so Miss Calder. She was an old friend, businesslike and efficient and dedicated to the care and welfare of the orphans. Yes, it made sense, and if she was heading for the Night-Soil Man’s cottage there could only be one reason.
Rhys Cranham was sitting on his doorstep, pulling off his boots when Miss Calder shimmered into view. Since taking over from his predecessor, the late Shenendoah Nailsworthy, Rhys had seen just about every cryptozoological and supernatural creature that Hopeless possessed. By and large, the ghosts ignored him and everything else with a sense of smell avoided him. Miss Calder did neither. He almost fancied that she flirted with him, which was nice, as the Night-Soil Man’s lot is a decidedly lonely one.
“Mr Cranham, how are you?”
Her silky voice reached him long before she did. He imagined it fluttering along on the early morning breeze with silver wings.
He rose to greet her as she drew towards him. The first pale strands of dawn were trying to battle their way through the mist, and occasionally through Miss Calder.
“Miss Calder, good morning. I guess you have some good news for me.”
“I do indeed, Mr Cranham,” replied the wraith, eyeing him appreciatively, then added,
“His name is Gruffyd Davies.”
“Davies?” The Night-Soil Man could not conceal his surprise. “I thought there had only ever been one Davies family on Hopeless.”
“There has,” agreed Miss Calder. “The Reverend and Mrs Davies found Gruffyd, as a tiny infant, abandoned on the beach. They had no idea who he was or where he had come from, so they placed him in the orphanage and named the child after one the Reverend’s ancestors – the original Gruffyd was one of the earliest settlers, I believe.”
Rhys shook his head sadly.
“Why give a child your family name then stick him in an orphanage… ?”
“Well, that’s as maybe, Mr Cranham,” said Miss Calder briskly, not wishing to be dragged into discussing the rights and wrongs of the Davies connubial attitude regarding the subject of child-rearing. “Gruffyd is now fourteen years old, a good lad and, I am certain, has the right build and temperament to be your apprentice.”
“And he wants the job?”
“Absolutely. He is a very quiet, solitary boy and has no wish to remain in the rough and tumble of the orphanage for a minute longer than he has to,” replied Miss Calder.
Rhys nodded thoughtfully.
“Okay,” he said. “Bring him along tomorrow evening… and don’t forget to put a peg on his nose.”
The role of the Night-Soil Man has often been discussed in these tales. He is a pariah, outcast from society by the foul smell that surrounds him, always. Perversely, he is, at the same time, held in the highest regard by his fellow islanders for the way in which that aforementioned malodorous aura repels the deadliest predators, allowing him to walk freely through the darkest night without fear. The work is back-breaking and dangerous and his life expectancy can often be short. This is why every holder of the post accepts, at some stage in his career, that the time is drawing near when the torch (or more correctly, the bucket) has to be passed and it would be expedient to take on an apprentice. These boys – apprentices are always boys – are selected from the orphanage. Incidentally, newer readers may be interested to learn that the most famous Night-Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet, was dropped in at the deep end, so to speak, at the age of fifteen when his master was devoured by the Wendigo. Randall also has the distinction of being, to date, the only member of his trade to retire and raise a family.
A few yards from the Night-Soil Man’s cottage stands a small bunkhouse, sparsely, but comfortably, furnished. For over a century some version of this building has been the accommodation of the apprentice, and there he will reside until his master dies. It is in here, on the following evening, that we meet Gruffyd Davies, a wooden peg on his nose, nervously unloading his few, meagre possessions onto to his bed.
Rhys had welcomed him with kind words, while keeping a respectable distance. It would take a while for Gruffyd to become acclimatized to the overpowering smell, but that was fine. There was no hurry – or so Rhys fervently hoped. He would give the lad a week or so before taking him out on his rounds.
Two weeks passed by and a casual onlooker (though, of course, there were none) would have witnessed the Night-Soil Man and his apprentice sitting quietly on the headland. They were happily munching cold Starry-Grabby pie, swilled down with a drop of beer (to the delight of Gruffyd) and gazing up through the mist at the full moon. Gruffyd was thrilled to spot a small flock of gnii twinkling across the night sky. Life had been a blur since he had started his apprenticeship, but he had taken to his new surroundings well, and had shown every sign of being eager to learn his trade.
“There’s just one more call tonight, Griff,” said Rhys. “It’s a cottage down by Chapel Rock that needs servicing. It won’t take long, and then we can head for home. You can grab another breather while we’re there; I won’t need your help clearing this one.”
As true as his word, Rhys left his apprentice to his own devices, while he trudged off, out of sight, swinging his bucket. The cottage nestled on the landward side of a huge lump of granite that was crowned by the ruins of the old chapel that gave the rock its name.
Although having been thrust into an adult world, Gruffyd was still very much a boy of fourteen, and like most boys of his age, he could never resist the challenge of climbing something. Maybe it was the effects of the beer, but the rock and the ruins seemed to be crying out for exploration, especially since the moonlight had managed to cut a path through the mist, making a valiant effort of turning night into day. What could possibly go wrong?
It took a matter of minutes for the lad to scramble to the summit and stand proudly on top of the ruins, waiting to surprise his master.
Before long, with the bucket now full and strapped safely upon his back, the Night-Soil Man made his way towards the rock. It took him only a few seconds to register that Gruffyd was nowhere to be seen, then he heard his shout.
“Rhys! Rhys! Look at me. I’m up here. Up in the ruins.”
“Griff, get down. Get down now,” Rhys shouted with alarm, knowing the danger, but as he did so a wild haired and angry apparition came screaming out of nowhere at the boy, its arms flailing wildly.
It was Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock. For centuries Hyde had made a special point of hating papists and adulterers. Tonight he added ‘Shouty adolescents who disturb my slumber’ to that list.
Rhys had warned Gruffyd at the outset of his employment that from now on he could expect to occasionally encounter a variety of ghosts, ghouls and horrors of all descriptions. The boy had seemed surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing, telling Rhys that he would be fine. However, Gruffyd had never expected anything quite as terrifying as the Mad Parson; a ghastly, cruel wraith who famously appeared from nowhere to scream in one’s face.
Taken by surprise, as any of us would have been, the boy stepped backwards, losing his footing. For a second that seemed to last forever, Rhys watched him standing at a crazy angle on the edge of the ruins, waving his arms as though conducting an invisible orchestra… and then he was gone.