Rhys Cranham had no problem with being around ghosts. In his role of Hopeless Maine’s Night-Soil Man, he encountered them regularly. Most were harmless, but others, such as Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, certainly were not, and so Rhys made a point of avoiding Obadiah and his ilk whenever possible. Uniquely, among those of the spirit world, Miss Calder was inclined to be flirtatious. Rhys often wondered if this was more out of pity than anything else, as she would have known full-well that the life of a Night-Soil Man is lonely and loveless. This made him feel uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, for, much to his own surprise, he found that he was not without feelings for her. This, in turn, gave him a dreadful guilt complex, as there was a definite frisson between Philomena Bucket and himself, and for a brief time, after she arrived on the island, it seemed as though romance was a possibility; or it was, until a hearty dose of sea-water swilled out the grains lodged in Philomena’s nose, and her sense of smell returned. It was at that point that Cupid almost dropped his bow in an attempt to make a hurried exit.
Yes, Rhys was fairly sure that he had met every ghost on the island, at one time or another, and could name each of them. That was why the apparition of a middle-aged man, currently wandering through the walls of his cottage, surprised him quite as much as it did. The Night-Soil man had fallen asleep in his armchair following his nightly rounds, and had been enjoying a pleasant dream that involved his swimming in an ocean of ‘Old Colonel’ ale. He awoke, bleary and with no small measure of disappointment. It took a few seconds of blinking and yawning before he registered the presence of his spectral visitor.
The ghost said nothing, but fluttered before him, beckoning and pointing to the closed door, through which he slipped like smoke. Seemingly unable to resist, Rhys rose to his feet, picked up his candle-lantern, and followed him. It was the early hours of the morning and the island slept. You could tell that it was sleeping by the way that the Gydynap Hills rose and fell slightly, filling the air with the sound of contented snoring. Occasionally a small flock of gnii would fly overhead, making the distinctive gnii, gnii sound, after which they were named. As ever, a thick mist shrouded the island, but the dimly phosphorescent spectre hovered in front of him like a beacon.
It was when they passed The Squid and Teapot that Rhys sensed that something was not right. The old place looked very much same, illuminated as it was by the candle-lantern, but Rhys could not remember the paintwork to be quite so neglected, while some of the window panes looked grimy and cracked.
“I’m surprised Bartholomew has allowed it to get into this state,” he thought to himself, as he wandered around the building. No sooner had the thought entered his head than he was forced to stop dead in his tracks. Something was definitely not right… and then he spotted it, or, to put things more precisely, he didn’t spot it at all. Where the flushing privy had stood, just a few hours ago, there was now an empty space, bordered by the blank, grey, back wall of the inn.
Rhys could not believe his eyes. Even in the unlikely event of Bartholomew wanting to demolish the privy, which had always been his pride and joy, and envy of the landlord of ‘The Crow’, there would have been some disturbed ground, some debris strewn around, but the whole area looked as though nothing had ever been standing there.
“Then I must be dreaming,” Rhys decided, and looked down at his hands.
You may not know this, but the Night-Soil Man had long been a lucid dreamer. He had, on many occasions, been fully aware that he was dreaming and was, from that happy position, able to direct events in a most satisfactory way. (Most Night-Soil men have learned to cultivate this ability, allowing them the companionship in dreams that they lacked in their waking lives).
Like anyone with a similar skill, however, Rhys knew that there were some anomalies that even the most lucid of dreamers was subject to, and the state of one’s hands was one of those anomalies. If you looked at them twice they would be different; they might have too many, or too few, fingers. They might turn into crab-like claws, or resemble several pairs of scissors, There was never any guarantee what you might see. On this occasion Rhys’ hands looked perfectly normal, but the mystery of the disappearing privy troubled him, so he racked his brain for other signs that he was in a dream.
“Text!” he said to himself. “That’s another one, text.”
He recalled that writing was rarely readable in a dream, and certainly never looked the same twice. He scanned around, looking for some words to test his theory.
The faded sign outside the inn proudly, though not unsurprisingly, proclaimed ‘The Squid and Teapot’. To give the legend on the sign some credence, it sat above a painting which depicted a cephalopod caressing a spouted utensil which did, indeed, closely resemble a teapot.
Rhys closed his eyes for a moment, then squinted at the sign again. Nothing had changed, the words were the same.
While all of this was going on, the ghost was becoming impatient, tapping his feet and drumming his fingers against folded arms, until gradually he began to fade away, as though his work was done, leaving a mystified Rhys standing alone in the deserted street. He shrugged and walked back through the town, towards his cottage. It was a strange journey, for although everything was familiar, the buildings appeared to sport small changes here and there, making the Night-Soil Man feel distinctly uneasy.
If Rhys felt that the differences in the town were unsettling, his heart almost stopped when he reached the cottage at Poo Corner. His cobbled pathway was gone, the front door was now a different colour and, like The Squid, the whole place looked neglected and unloved. Rhys cautiously entered and, in the glow of his lantern, the room sprang to life, sending shadows dancing over the bare walls.
The small parlour was sparsely furnished and bore little resemblance to Rhys’ cosy home. Slumped in the only armchair was the figure of a man. He was fully dressed and, although Rhys’ sense of smell was accustomed to the stench of night-soil, he was aware that he was in the presence of another Night-Soil Man; or, he would have been, had the poor fellow been alive. The man in the chair felt cold and stiff to the touch. Then a chill ran down Rhys’ spine as he recognised him; he found himself looking at the earthly remains of his ghostly visitor.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a noise in the corner, It was a dry, rattling sound which Rhys immediately recognised.
“Drury!” he exclaimed, relieved to see the familiar skeletal form of his old friend getting to his feet.
“Dear old Drury, am I glad to see you.”
If Drury had possessed hackles, they would have risen. He tucked his head in to his shoulders and gave a low, menacing growl.
“Hey, what’s wrong old fella?”
The dog bared his teeth (inasmuch as you can bare teeth which are completely visible at all times) and the low growl became a full throated roar.
Rhys barely had time to raise his arms in defence as Drury leapt towards his throat.
To be continued…