For some months, following the disappearance of Philomena Bucket and Doctor Dee, Drury had been conspicuous by his absence. While this was a cause of celebration for some, there were others who missed the sight of the old rogue rattling around the island, chasing spoonwalkers, stealing washing from the line and causing general mayhem wherever he went. There were many who came to the conclusion that he had gone looking for Philomena, and to some degree they were correct; the truth was that he had been spending all of his time with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. Rhys and Drury had, under cover of darkness, scoured the island looking for the barmaid, becoming ever more despondent when, with each passing day, all hope of her being found grew less. The Night-Soil Man, by necessity, was a natural recluse and was rarely seen in daylight at the best of times. As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, Drury never left his side, for these two, in their own, individual ways, loved Philomena more than any other creature on earth, and found some small crumbs of comfort in the company of each other.
A year and one day passed by before Philomena was once more seen on Hopeless. While her return surprised everyone, no one was more bemused by the event than the lady herself, who thought that she had only been away for a few minutes. Although there was a certain amount of curiosity as to where she had been for all of that time, Philomena feigned amnesia. She instinctively sensed that it was best that few knew of the existence of the tunnels, coiling deep beneath The Squid and Teapot, and, at their heart, the mystical cavern that presented a different scene with each visit. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet and Norbert Gannicox were aware of their existence, but neither man suspected that Philomena had returned there, following the revelation that she was a vessel for a deep and ancient magic.
At the insistence of Bartholomew and his wife Ariadne, a celebration was to be held in Philomena’s honour the very next week. There was a great deal to organise, invitations to be sent out, and little time in which to do so. It occurred to Philomena that the one person she wished to be at the celebration would be unlikely to turn up, or, indeed, be welcomed by most. It saddened her that the noxious odour, which pervaded the air around the Night-Soil Man, excluded him from all aspects of island life. Nevertheless, next to Drury, he was Philomena’s best friend, having saved her life when she first came to the island, and she was determined to pay him a visit and, at least, let him know that she was alive and well.
Standing on the pathway, outside the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, Philomena slipped a clothes –peg on to her nose, hoping to negate, to some extent, the inevitable reek that would doubtless assail her nostrils when Rhys came to the door. She took a deep breath and tapped lightly on the open window.
Rhys, exhausted from his night’s work, was fast asleep. Drury, on the other hand, was only dozing, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before, as Edgar Allan Poe would certainly have said, had he been there. Despite this, the dog’s phantom ears were always ready to detect the slightest noise. The tapping on the window caused him to raise his head. For some reason the House at Poo Corner, as the Night-Soil Man’s home was known, had recently become attractive to a particularly decrepit member of the Corvidae family, a fact which pleased Drury not at all. He was in no mood for the annoying tapping that invariably announced the presence of that ghastly, grim and ancient raven, and decided to put a stop to things once and for all.
“Nevermore!” he thought to himself, as he threw his bony old body against the window, which, as I mentioned earlier, was fortunately open.
Instead of finding himself lying on top of an angry pile of black feathers, as he had planned, Drury looked down into the pale face of Philomena Bucket. For a split second he failed to register exactly who it was that he had careered into. Then he went berserk.
Philomena felt the dog’s wet tongue slobbering excitedly all over her face, before realising that his fundamental lack of saliva glands, and indeed, a tongue, made this impossible. Could this extra-sensitivity be part of the newly-released magic? She had no chance to consider the matter further, however, as Drury danced around her, barking happily, in a state of high excitement.
Rhys, bleary eyed and sporting a long, striped nightshirt, appeared in the doorway.
“What is all that noi…” he stopped abruptly and did a double take.
“Philomena, is that really you? Not your ghost?”
“Yes it is me, you great daft thing!” she laughed. “Have you missed me?”
Rhys did not answer. He had no need to; his face said it all.
“There is going to be a party thrown for me,” she said. “I really want you to be there. Please Rhys.”
“You know that’s impossible,” he replied, sadly.
“No, it isn’t,” said Philomena. “Don’t ask me where I’ve been, but while I was away I learned a great deal. Some of it was even useful.” She paused, briefly, then asked, almost shyly, “do you still have an apprentice?”
Rhys nodded, wondering why she wanted to know. Following the disappearance of his previous apprentice, Gruffyd Davies, who had been revealed to be a selkie, one of the seal-people, Rhys had felt compelled to return, somewhat embarrassed, to the orphanage and ask Miss Calder for another volunteer. The life of a Night-Soil Man can be unpredictable, and sometimes brief, so the presence of an apprentice is crucial, if the line is to remain unbroken.
“Yes, young Naboth Scarhill is shaping up nicely. In another year or so he should be spot-on.”
“I’ve just lost one year of my life, Rhys. I can’t afford to waste another,” said Philomena.
Rhys looked puzzled, “Sorry, you’ve lost me,” he said.
“No, I haven’t. I’ve found you. Give this up, Rhys. If you love me, as I think you do, give up being the Night-Soil Man.”
“Bartholomew’s grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, did all those years ago. You could too.”
Rhys looked at Philomena for what seemed like an age, digesting her words.
“I could too,” he said, slowly and deliberately.
Drury, who had been quiet all this time, had been around humans long enough to know exactly what was being said. These were the two people whom he loved most in the world, but now they had each other; how could there be any room for him in their plans? If a beating heart had dwelt in his old ribcage, it would have sunk at that moment. Quietly, sadly, he turned around and made to leave.
“Drury,” Philomena called, “don’t go. If Rhys and I live together, there will always be a place for you in our home.”
The dog turned and wagged his bony tail. There was a definite scent of change in the air. A change for the better. Suddenly, it felt good again to be alive.