Readers may recall that Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had found himself mysteriously deposited in a Hopeless that he did not recognise. He discovered, in a poorly furnished version of his cottage, the dead body of another Night-Soil Man, guarded by the skeletal hound, Drury. Initially relieved to find that his old friend was there, Rhys changed his mind when it became obvious that not only did Drury not recognise him, but that the dog decided to literally launch an attack, hurling himself in Rhys’ direction. Had Drury been in receipt of hot breath, or indeed, any variety of breath, it is certain that Rhys would have felt the benefit of it on his exposed throat.
Those who have followed the deeds, and misdeeds, of Drury, will not be surprised to learn that, while he makes an exemplary guard-dog, his killer-instinct is pretty much non-existent. If he were human, the idiom ‘all mouth and no trousers’ would immediately spring to mind, which, for Rhys Cranham, was fortunate. Having leapt on to the Night-Soil Man and knocked him to the ground, Drury was at a loss as to what to do next, other than amble back to the corner of the room and look at Rhys with a baleful eye-socket.
From his horizontal position, wheels and small cogs began to whirr and click in Rhys’ mind. The missing privy at The Squid and Teapot, the disappearance of his cobbled pathway and the fact that Drury did not recognise him, all pointed to his having been transported back to an earlier date in the island’s history. While this realisation would have reduced many of us to gibbering wrecks, Rhys was not particularly fazed. After all, he had lived on Hopeless for all of his life. The occasional strange occurrence was to be expected, and could often be viewed as a welcome diversion from the monotony of day to day living.
The immediate priority for the Night-Soil Man was to get Drury on-side, before he dealt with the problem of disposing of the corpse slumped in the chair.
Suddenly inspiration struck. He burst into song and the parlour was filled with the notes of a surprisingly pleasing baritone voice.
“In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone…”
Drury looked up with interest.
“… As she wheeled her wheelbarrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”
By now Drury was on his feet and wagging his tail. There was definitely something about this song that appealed to him.
Rhys launched confidently, and with no small amount of gusto, into the chorus, knowing full-well what effect the song would have on the dog. In his own time, Drury had become instantly enamoured with a version of ‘Molly Malone’, played on a wax-cylinder. While the Irish tenor on the phonograph did a decent enough job, Rhys felt sure that his own effort was vastly superior.
The old magic of ‘Molly Malone’ was working. Drury was wagging not only his tail, but his rear end as well, excited by the singing. It was almost as if he was able to remember the future, which, in view of this taking place on Hopeless, Maine, was by no means outside the realm of possibility.
After a half-a-dozen rousing choruses of ‘alive, alive-o’, Rhys felt that enough was enough. He was definitely in Drury’s good books by now and the osseous hound was sitting happily at his feet. Rhys looked at him fondly, and said,
“Drury, old friend, there’s something we have to do.”
The dog cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
“You’ve been around Night-Soil Men for most of your life… and… um… more,”
Drury had never accepted the fact that he was no longer alive, in the literal sense, so Rhys was being careful. He looked across the room at the corpse in the armchair.
“I don’t know what his name was, or why he died, but there is something important that must be done.”
To Rhys’ surprise Drury rattled to his feet and trotted out through the door, only to return a minute or so later, dragging a bedsheet. There was a clothes peg attached to one corner.
“Up to your old tricks, I see,” muttered Rhys, then he realised what the dog intended him to do.
Rhys spread the sheet on the floor of the cottage and manoeuvred the body of the Night-Soil Man on to it. It took but a few minutes for Rhys to wrap him up and, with some difficulty, hoist him on to his shoulder. Drury watched impassively as he made his way outside, bearing his burden.
The job of a Night-Soil Man is difficult and dangerous, and few enjoy a normal life-span. It has long been their practice to take on an apprentice who, hopefully, will have learned his trade before his master finally succumbs to whatever fate awaits him. When that time comes, the apprentice is expected to dispose of his master’s corpse by dropping him into the bottomless sink-hole that lies at the end of his garden. Although this sounds harsh, it ensures that the body will not be ravaged by any of the denizens who stalk the island, or swim in the wild ocean beyond. When the time came, Rhys, his body racked with sobs, had sent his predecessor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, into the mysterious depths of the sinkhole. It was not a task he had expected to have to repeat, but now, here he was, doing it for a stranger, who, apparently had no apprentice.
“I never knew you my friend, but for some reason your spirit came to find me,” he said, recalling the ghost who had led him there.
With as much reverence as possible, Rhys let the body, still wrapped in its sheet, slip soundlessly into the sink-hole,
“The Night-Soil Man is dead. Long live the Night-Soil Man.”
Rhys walked sadly back to the cottage with Drury at his heels.
“I guess it’s up to me now to be the new Night-Soil man,” he said aloud, then added,
“I wonder what year this is?”
If Drury knew, he was not saying.