By Martin Pearson
Drury, the skeletal hound, snored contentedly in front of the roaring log fire. While never happier than terrorising spoonwalkers, or stealing underwear from the washing-lines of the unwary, when inclement weather raged outside, there was nowhere that he would rather be than curled up in the snug of The Squid and Teapot. As you may know, the function of a snug, or snuggery, in an inn is to provide a small, intimate space for a limited number of favoured patrons. When a large portion of this small, intimate space is taken up by a generous pile of gently snoring bones, the number of favoured patrons must be, by necessity, drastically reduced. Drury, however, had earned his place in front of the fire that evening, and, indeed, for many more to come. All of his past transgressions were forgotten, at least for the time being, for Drury had, with a little help from his friends, saved Philomena Bucket from a terrible fate, as related in the tale ‘My Phoney Valentine’.
“You had a narrow escape, Philomena,” observed Bartholomew Middlestreet, “but I don’t know what it was that Durosimi expected to achieve.”
Philomena shrugged. Like everyone else on the island, Bartholomew had only been told the sketchiest, most basic facts surrounding the events of the previous evening. It was safer for all concerned. Although they had been instrumental in thwarting Durosimi’s plans, not even Philomena’s closest friends, Miss Calder and Rhys Cranham, knew fully the extent of her magical powers. Durosimi did, or at least, he thought that he did. After all, he had been blasted by them on more than one occasion, and that was enough. Although, in reality, Philomena was no threat to him, he feared her. Until he could control – or destroy – her, he would find no rest. For now, he had withdrawn, defeated and deflated. Philomena was wise enough to know that this was no more than temporary; there would be a next time, and she would be ready.
“Whatever he was up to, it did not work,” she said with a smile. “But, let’s forget it. I really can’t worry about Durosimi.”
Bartholomew was about to say that he thought that maybe she should worry just a little, but decided against it. He knew his barmaid too well to get into that particular conversation.
If Philomena was choosing to put all thoughts of Durosimi to one side, Miss Calder certainly was not.
It was in the early hours of the following morning that she met with Rhys Cranham. She was drifting along the pathway which led to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage; it was a favourite haunt of hers.
Rhys saw Miss Calder flickering eerily through the trees some minutes before she hailed him. He smiled to himself. These ‘chance’ encounters were becoming increasingly frequent, but he did not mind. It was lonely being a Night-Soil Man, and it was good to have someone to talk to, even if it was a ghost.
It was a measure of Miss Calder’s feelings towards the Night-Soil Man that she felt able to refer to him by his given name. It had taken a while, but in all the years that she had known Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby, she had never felt comfortable enough to be anything but formal.
“Rhys, I am worried about Philomena. Durosimi seems intent on harming her.”
“I do what I can to keep an eye on her,” replied Rhys, “but I can’t be there all of the time… but she seems to have a charmed life, I must admit. I have never known anyone wander this island as freely as she does, and not get into trouble. Maybe Granny Bucket’s ghost is taking care of her.”
“I don’t know how,” said Miss Calder. “If you haven’t noticed, we non-corporeals cannot really do much, other than walk through walls and scare people, occasionally.”
“She worries me too, but I have no idea what can be done. Do you have any thoughts?”
Miss Calder hesitated. She had a solution, of sorts, but it was one that she found hard – painful, even – to put into words.
“I think,” she said, slowly, “that she needs a protector. Someone to be there for her all of the time.”
“Philomena would definitely have an opinion about that,” laughed Rhys, “and I wouldn’t want to be around when she expressed it.”
“I’m serious,” said Miss Calder. “She needs you, Rhys. You should marry her.”
The Night-Soil Man knew how difficult that had been for Miss Calder to say.
“You know what happened the last time we went down that route,” said Rhys, bitterly remembering the brutal way in which his apprentice at the time, Naboth Scarhill, had been killed immediately before the wedding that he and Philomena had so lovingly planned.
“And I suspect that Durosimi was behind that,” said Miss Calder. “For goodness sake, get your new apprentice trained up Rhys – if you leave it much longer it might be too late.”
Rhys opened his mouth to reply when a great rending noise filled the air, and the nearby trees writhed alarmingly.
Neither had noticed the night grow suddenly darker as the pale, mist-shrouded moon and dim glimmers of starlight were blocked out by a huge, threatening shape in the air, high above them.
“What the devil…?” said Rhys, all thoughts of Philomena flown for now.
“It looks like… like a ship,” observed Miss Calder.
“Up there? Yes… it does, but that’s impossible. But look, there’s a rope hanging from it.”
Rhys made his way gingerly towards the trees, directly beneath the spot where the ominous shape floated.
Miss Calder was less cautious; she had no fear of injury, having already died some years earlier. With an elegant wave of her arms she lifted gently into the air and settled herself among the swaying branches.
“You’re right,” she called down. “There is a rope hanging down from whatever that thing is up there.”
There was a moment’s silence as the ghostly administrator of the Pallid Rock Orphanage examined the rope more closely.
“I think I was right. That’s a ship, somehow floating in the air.”
“Surely not. What makes you say that?” asked Rhys.
“Because attached to the rope is a huge anchor. It is snagged in the branches. And Rhys…” she added, almost nervously.
The Night-Soil Man caught the concern in her voice and looked up in alarm.
“There is someone climbing down the rope!”
To be continued…