“It’s probably all for the best,” said Philomena Bucket, philosophically. “I don’t think I’m the marrying type, really.”
She was coming to terms with the fact that, on what was supposed to be the morning of their wedding, Rhys Cranham had felt compelled to return to his occupation as Night-Soil Man. Some strange things had been happening in Philomena’s life lately, and she was determined to return to some semblance of normality, or as normal as one could expect things to be on the island of Hopeless, Maine.
“Anyway,” she added, “I’m still young. Well, fairly young, I suppose, and there’s plenty of time…”
She crossed her fingers as she said this. It was never wise to tempt Providence on this dangerously capricious island.
“What do you reckon?” she quizzed her companion.
Despite having hollow eye-sockets, Drury looked up at Philomena lovingly. He had spent the last two days chasing spoonwalkers who, confusingly, had disappeared the moment he caught them. It had been a good game but he was grateful that Philomena had rescued him. Neither were aware that the spoonwalker thought-forms had been created by Durosimi O’Stoat, in an attempt to keep Drury safely out of the way, while a doppelganger of the osseous hound was ripping up Naboth Scarhill, the new Night-Soil Man.
Since bringing Drury back from the Gydynap Hills, Philomena had made a point of writing to Rhys, saying that she understood his decision, and maybe they could look at marriage again in a year or two, at such times as he had trained a new apprentice. She had added a postscript, to the effect that Drury was totally innocent of killing Naboth, having been otherwise occupied when Rhys thought that he had seen him carrying the boy’s arm away.
Sitting in his cottage, commonly known as The House at Poo Corner, Rhys read the letter with no small amount of sorrow. He had so wanted to be free of the back-breaking toil and noxious reek that was a Night-Soil Man’s lot. Now the chances of a better future seemed to have been taken away forever. He had lost two apprentices in recent years; Gruffyd Davies had fallen into the ocean and had been turned into a Selkie, and Naboth had been ripped to shreds by something that, apparently, was not Drury. What were the chances of another promising young lad wanting to take on the role? A loveless, friendless existence followed by the likelihood of an early death was hardly the best job-description to attract willing staff. Rhys sighed, and put the letter on the table. He would have a word with Miss Calder, at the Pallid Rock Orphanage, in a day or two. Maybe she could suggest a likely candidate.
Miss Calder was in unusually high spirits. She had been dead for some time now but this did not interfere with her duties as administrator, responsible for the efficient running of the orphanage. Her ghostly form could frequently be seen flitting hither and thither, organising the orphans and reminding Reverend Davies of various items in his diary which he had chosen to overlook.
Naboth’s misfortune had recently come to her attention and she was expecting a visit from Rhys sometime soon, knowing that he would be looking for another apprentice. Being non-corporeal, Miss Calder had no problem in conversing with the Night-Soil Man, his overpowering stench having no effect on her whatsoever. Indeed, it would be a pleasure, for, in truth, the ghostly administrator was inclined to feel somewhat fonder of Rhys than maybe she should. Although a good friend to Philomena, she was secretly pleased that their wedding had been called-off. Miss Calder had long harboured the vague hope that some form of inter-dimensional union with the Night-Soil Man might one day be possible, although such things were unheard of, even on Hopeless. Before anything of that nature could occur, of course, she would have to learn to control her unfortunate habit of allowing her features to become terrifyingly skeletal whenever she became stressed or over-excited.
The wraith of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, peered down from the ruined chapel with curiosity. A few nights earlier he had watched, with some amusement, as the strange creature, the one that was definitely not Drury, savaged the youngster. In time-honoured fashion, the last remains of the Night-Soil Man would be dropped down the mysterious sinkhole that lay at the end of the garden in Poo Corner. Sadly, by the time islanders came to gather up what was left of Naboth, there was not a lot to be found, with ravens and other assorted carnivores having quickly taken the opportunity of an easy meal. None of these events bothered Obadiah, but the thing that had caught his spectral eye this evening certainly did. He watched with annoyance as a protoplasmic stew gathered at the foot of the rock, writhing and broiling in the moonlight. Obadiah knew only too well what was happening, and he did not like it one little bit. He growled and harrumphed to himself as, little by little, the protoplasm melded itself into the glimmering shape of Naboth Scarhill, complete with lidded-bucket. The newly-formed ghost stood, a little wobbly at first, staring around him, not immediately registering what had happened. Taking the advantage, the Mad Parson swooped from his rock and screamed in Naboth’s face. The boy looked back, impassively.
“You don’t scare me anymore, you old fraud,” he said. “I’m as dead as you are,” and with that, Naboth hit him over the head with his bucket-lid.
Chastened, Hyde scurried back to his ruin.
“This means war,” he thought to himself. “There can only be one ghost haunting Chapel Rock, and it is not going to be that little weasel.”
Not for the first time in his afterlife, Obadiah Hyde was wrong. Naboth had no intention of hanging around Chapel Rock with nothing better to do than scaring passers-by and annoying the Mad Parson. His was vengeful spirit. He had every intention of finding out who was responsible for his grisly death and, quite literally, giving them Hell.