Philomena Bucket had not felt completely at ease, ever since her recent and unsettling conversation with Doctor John Dee. The alchemist, having been mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Elizabethan England, was convinced that Philomena was either descended from, or a reincarnation of, a certain Melusine O’Stoat, an erstwhile friend of his who had been burned for heresy.
There were two things about this revelation that particularly disturbed Philomena, the first being that she might be related to the infamous O’Stoat family. More worrying than that, however, was Dee’s insistence that he saw within her powerful magical abilities. Abilities, he promised, that would resist staying hidden for much longer. The truth of the matter was that, while Philomena had no wish to be remotely magical, she was well aware that she was able to see and sense things which were concealed from others. It was what Granny Bucket, back in the Old Country, had referred to as ‘The Sight’. Granny had also alluded to a lot more, but Philomena, having been the girl that she was, decided not to listen to things she had no wish to hear. How she wished that Granny was here now, to help her understand all this, but it was too late; Ireland was three thousand miles away, and Granny was long dead.
The flock of gnii, quietly flapping through the foggy night, cast a pale light through the small window of Philomena’s bedroom in The Squid and Teapot. She had not slept well and had just heard the stately Grandfather clock, sitting proudly in the corner of the bar, strike three. This, in all honesty, means very little, as the clock insists on striking three at various random moments throughout the day and night (one can only assume that it has a particular fondness for the sorts of things that might happen at three o’clock). On this occasion, however, the sepulchral chimes seemed to act as a clarion call, summoning an unseen presence to Philomena’s room.
The first indication for the barmaid that she was not completely alone was the sensation that someone was sitting on the corner of her bed. Although the light afforded by the migrating gnii was poor, it was enough to establish that the mattress was slightly depressed, with a faint, vaguely person-shaped apparition shimmering above it. Philomena was not unduly concerned; she had encountered enough ghosts on the island to know that most were harmless, but this was the first time that one had ventured into her bedroom.
“Who’s there?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.
“Jaisus, Mary and Joseph, Philomena, do you not recognise your old granny anymore?” said the shimmer, with annoyance.
“Granny? Is that really you?” asked Philomena, incredulous.
“Of course it is, you great geebag! Has death changed me that much?”
“Granny,” said Philomena patiently, “I can’t see you at all. You’re just a bit of flickering moonlight to me.”
“Blast!” exclaimed Granny, “I’m always forgetting to adjust to the non-astral. Hold on a second.”
Philomena watched in wonder as the indistinct shape before her was transformed into Granny Bucket.
“Granny!” cried Philomena with delight, throwing herself forward to hug her much-missed ancestor. Granny remained much-missed, however, as Philomena’s arms closed around nothing.
“Oh, you’re not really here, then?” she said, sadly.
“I’m as much here as you are, girl,” said Granny crossly, “except that my ‘here’ and your ‘here’ aren’t in quite the same dimension.”
Philomena nodded. She had come across a similar obstacle with Margery Toadsmoor, Miss Calder and other ghostly friends. She had vainly hoped that Granny might be a little bit more corporeal.
“Anyway,” said Granny in her no-nonsense way, “why did you call me?”
“I haven’t called you,” said Philomena. “Although, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately.”
“I know, and that was enough to drag me back to you. It’s that Doctor Dee, isn’t it? He’s been telling you stuff – stuff that you ought to have known if you had listened to me in the first place.”
Philomena looked at her old ancestor with some surprise.
“He is right, then? I’m an O’Stoat? Not a Bucket?” she asked.
“Of course you’re a Bucket,” snapped Granny. “Melusine O’Stoat was a Bucket too, originally, but she defied family tradition and took her husband’s surname – and all for the sake of vanity, if you ask me! O’Stoat was a powerful wizard, right enough, but the cowardly dog dashed back to Ireland after the English burned his wife, leaving his children – his own flesh and blood – behind, in the care of his in-laws, the Buckets.”
“And I am descended from them…” said Philomena, blankly. “So all that Doctor Dee said is true. I am a witch.”
“So now the penny drops!” said Granny, exasperated. “All of the Bucket women have been witches, for more than a thousand years, but it’s not a thing we talk about. Too dangerous by far, even in these relatively enlightened times.”
“Doctor Dee said I have great abilities… “ began Philomena.
“Doctor Dee says! Doctor Dee says!” ranted Granny. “Who cares what Doctor Dee says? Know yourself, girl. Yes, for some reason you have more magic in you that any of your ancestors, including Melusine, or me. I don’t know why. Maybe coming to this god-forsaken island has something to do with it. It’s something you’ll have to learn to live with.”
“Doctor… ” began Philomena, then hurriedly corrected herself, “I was told that this power is like a wild horse straining to be free.”
“And so it is,” said Granny. “So you better learn to ride, and pretty damn’ quick. Be careful, my girl, it won’t be easy.”
With that warning Granny’s shade began to fade, until it was no more than a brief evanescence.
Philomena peered helplessly into the darkness. Sobs shook her body and tears streamed down her pale face.
There was a distant noise in her head, a noise that she had not heard for some years, not since she had left the Coal Quay of Cork, as a stowaway on the merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’. It was the unmistakable sound of galloping hooves, and they were getting nearer.