Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things.
Sometimes, people ask Balthazar Lemon about the mother of his child. He lies to them. He has never bothered to keep track of these lies and does not worry about what anyone else thinks. It’s not about misleading people. There are things too precious to share or speak of and he simply does not want to explain.
They met in the sea, of course. Balthazar spent his early life in boats and has never felt at ease on dry land. There’s something troubling about the way it keeps still, and you cannot see through it. The lighthouse he built was the closest thing he could get to a boat on a coast that eats boats, and eats anything that was in the boats.
Alraune came from warmer, kinder seas than these. A shallow sea, rich with kelp beds, sea grass and eels, and full of secrets. It was a good sea for diving, and for testing diving suits and devices. In those days, Balthazar had been obsessed with staying underwater for as long as he could. Pipes connecting him to the air were always at risk of damage, or could get him trapped. Carrying air made it hard to sink, and there was never enough of it. He thought about gills a lot in those days.
The mermaids fascinated him, apparently able to breathe in air and in water, but quite unlike the humans and fish they resembled. As far as he could tell, they tolerated him, and perhaps found him amusing. Sometimes he tried to talk to them, but their language was like no human speech he had encountered. It sounded more like dolphin, and he had not learned to speak with dolphins. By the time he was twenty, Balthazar could talk about tools and engines in an unreasonably large number of human languages. He had yet to find a language in which he could not persuade someone to sell him alcohol. Mermaid words were a bit more elusive.
So they didn’t really talk, at first, and it was a long time before he learned her name. He swam, or sank, of half drowned himself trying to get diving helmets to work. She watched, effortless in the water, clearly finding him entertaining. Balthazar had never enjoyed being laughed at before. It was, inevitably, a rather peculiar sort of romance.
(A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey, with art by Dr Abbey)
The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’. While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships. To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning. Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be. Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).
Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts. Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged. The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them. “That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen. “And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.
As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.
Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.
“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.” “What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox. “It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.” “But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert. An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly. “I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.” There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added, “And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”
It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine. To be continued…
Have you seen how the witches gatherer around the ancient dish, backs hunched as they feast together on the body of a mermaid?
A captivating image, but even so the scene does not feel real. Are you seeing ghosts and memories? Here in the shadow of mausoleums, in the hazy recollection of days when this place had wealth and prospects.
The witches are so raggedy, their clothes dirt stained, their faces tired and you think they might be eating a mermaid out of need, not malice.
You know, in the way that you know things in dreams, that the dish was not meant to carry the meat of mermaids. There is magic in it, and it is not the magic of desperation. You feel that you should know what purpose that dish serves. You feel you should ask, but you are silent, like a useless grail-questing knight who does not know how to speak at the critical moment. You wait, having sensed the dish itself will speak to you. When at last it does, the sound of it is a whisper of silk over silver.
The dish tells you that the witches and the mermaids are the same. They eat each other. Don’t take them too literally. It’s just a dream.
Various articles in the ‘Vendetta’, and indeed, in these very ‘Tales of the Squid and Teapot’, assert that a Viking settlement once thrived on the island we now know as Hopeless, Maine. The often violent culture attributed to the Norsemen has been well documented, and it is known that many of those whom they did not kill would be taken into slavery; the Vikings who came to Hopeless were no exception. We can be confident that their slaves were brought from the British Isles, a fact evinced by the many Old-English surnames and place-names which still survive on the island. For how long the Vikings remained on Hopeless is something of a mystery. Scholars have speculated that this must have occurred in one of those brief chapters in the history of the island, when the climate was very much kinder than it is today. What seems clear is that the deterioration of the environment was instrumental in their leaving for somewhere a little more hospitable, but not without first trying to appeal to whichever deity they believed to be responsible for this shift in their fortunes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the most desperate measure of Old Norse culture was human sacrifice. While animals were regularly dispatched to please the pantheon of Asgard, to offer up a human life was reserved for only the most sacred of reasons – and this is how a raven-haired beauty, the slave-girl Viviane, found herself selected for the honour of appeasing the gods.
The Viking term for sacrifice was blót. It is ironic that, while contemporary Hopeless is mostly one large blot on the landscape, the lake they chose for this particular blót is picturesque, even today. Needless to say, the virginal Viviane found nothing attractive about the lake, as the völva, the seeress, chanted as she bound the maiden’s arms behind her back and unseen hands held her beneath the icy waters. Whatever her final thoughts were, we shall never know; all we can guess is that they were intent on vengeance.
As the months and years slipped by it became clear that Viviane’s death did nothing to halt the mysterious fog that quietly insinuated itself on and around the island. Worse still, it brought with it a variety of horrors that even the fearless Norsemen could not tolerate. During those long, grim years, the vengeful spirit of Viviane brooded beneath the dark water, growing stronger as she fed upon the malevolence that now suffused the land. Eerie tales began to be told of otherworldly singing emanating from the midst of the lake, and of the dreadful apparition that would break its surface to claim any unfortunate young man who chanced to pass by.
Almost a thousand years passed, and those who have inhabited Hopeless throughout that time have wondered at the singular beauty of the Haunted Lake, as it became known. Of course, they were not aware of its history and of the girl who was sacrificed to an uncaring deity. They only guessed at the existence of her malign spirit; the Haunted Lake’s cold and unforgiving guardian. While the presence of vampires and werewolves, spiteful spoonwalkers and various nameless, razor-toothed and tentacled creatures, were real threats and there to be avoided at one’s peril, the dreadful glamour that tended and pervaded the lake was far more terrifying and chilling in the extreme. Its very beauty, in the heart of that harsh and ill-favoured landscape, invoked dread, and none would venture anywhere near its shores.
It must be near to a century ago that Randall Middlestreet, (the grandfather of Bartholomew, the current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) was the island’s Night Soil Man. The precarious nature of the Night Soil Man’s job, traversing Hopeless during the hours of darkness, demands that he employs an apprentice, someone to take over the essential work in the event of his injury or death. Randall himself was elevated from apprentice to the role Night Soil Man at the early age of fifteen, when his master was unfortunately consumed by a ravening monster (this was described in the tale ‘The Wendigo’, should you be interested). Apprentices were always boys recruited from the orphanage, essentially hefty introverts who could be trusted to endure the necessary isolation and heavy lifting that the job required. Randall’s apprentice, at the time of our tale, was Mortimer Whiteway, an intelligent, bookish lad who preferred old tales of heroic valour to anything that the orphanage could offer. The opportunity to escape and lead the life of a Night Soil Man held a certain – not to say surprising – sense of allure for the young man. By the age of sixteen he was as able to heft a bucket on to his back, or navigate the island in darkness, as Randall himself. He loved his work, but deep in his heart there was always a nagging feeling that something was missing from his life. While previous generations of Night Soil Men had been thankful that their smell had protected them from the various denizens that terrified other islanders, Mortimer ached for action and adventure. On Hopeless the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ should always be in the forefront of one’s mind.
It was a moonlit night in spring when they came upon the lake. Randall’s rounds rarely brought him this way, for no one had lived in the area for as long as any could remember. He had heard the stories, of course, of the Lady of the Lake, whose enchanting song captivated the unwary and enticed them into her watery realm. It was hard to believe, looking at it in moonlight, pretty as a picture. However, for all of its charm, Randall believed every word of the legend. Hopeless did not do ‘pretty’ and that in itself was enough to warn him that there was danger here. Mortimer, on the other hand, had other views. “Is she really there?” he asked. “I believe so, but no one has ever seen her, as far as I know,” replied Randall. “But there again, if they had they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.” “I’d like to… and I’m going to,” said Mortimer determinedly. “I’ll find a way.” “Best you keep away, or you’ll regret it,” replied the Night Soil Man severely, a shiver of foreboding running down his spine.
As I have mentioned before, Mortimer was a keen reader of adventure stories. One of his favourite tales was that of Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast of his ship in order to hear the song of the sirens. Thinking of this, it was not long before the beginnings of an idea formed in Mortimer’s mind. If Odysseus was able to listen to a siren-song all those years ago, so could he. The main drawback was that he could not do this alone; he would need help in safely securing himself to a tree. Knowing that there would be little point in approaching Randall, who would doubtless try to stop him, he resolved to ask a friend from the orphanage, one Jarvis Woodchester. Jarvis was a few years Mortimer’s junior, but, like him, a lover of any story that involved derring-do. Jarvis was also deeply envious of Mortimer, who had escaped the orphanage and gained a certain amount of celebrity on Hopeless, as the Night Soil Man’s apprentice. It was about a week later, on Mortimer’s night off, that two shadowy figures could be seen slipping quietly down the cobbled street that passed beneath the windows of The Squid and Teapot and, a little further along the road, creeping by the infamous Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. They made their way into the heart of the island, towards the lake. Had you been there and looked closely, you would have noticed that one of the figures wore a clothes peg on his nose. “Tie it as tightly as you can, Jarvis,” said Mortimer. “Afterwards, get far away from here until first light, then come and set me free.” The younger boy nodded, but said nothing, trying not to inhale the unpleasant aroma that even an apprentice Night Soil Man carries with him.
It was late, much later than midnight, when Mortimer was lifted from sleep by a song that rang like silver bells in the heavens. For a moment he panicked, wondering where he was. Then he remembered, and the knowledge was far from comfortable. He had slept leaning against the tree, his arm slung over a branch. The ropes that had bound him, however, were inexplicably scattered on the ground. A cold sweat broke out all over his body as the realisation dawned that soon he would be totally at the mercy of the Lady of the Lake. A moment later a dreadful panic enveloped him entirely, when he felt himself become paralysed, as though bonds far more secure than the ropes, now lying useless at his feet, held him in an iron grasp.
She rose from the dark waters of the lake without causing as much as a ripple on its surface. Although the moon was obscured by clouds and the night hung like a suffocating shroud upon the sleeping island, Mortimer could see the Lady of the Lake as clearly as if she was bathed in sunlight. Her lips made no movement but her siren song filled the air as she silently glided towards him, arms outstretched. Mortimer squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it made no difference. Her pale, beautiful face was indelibly etched upon the darkness; it was as if he had stared for too long at the sun. And then she was upon him, wrapping her arms around his still form, pressing her mouth against his. Mortimer melted into the embrace. If this was death, then so be it. He felt himself being drawn towards the lake, her hold upon him firm but gentle, with all the seductive insistence of a lover. He stepped willingly into the icy water, resigned to his fate. It was then that everything changed. The arms that caressed him became cold and hard and the mouth pressing against his was lipless and skeletal. Mortimer opened his eyes wide and a scream ripped from his body as he beheld the full horror of the hideous apparition that held him in its grasp. His scream turned to helpless gurgles as the malevolent spirit that had once been the beautiful, raven-haired Viviane, dragged him into the inky depths of the lake.
When it was clear that Mortimer had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, Randall Middlestreet soon guessed what had happened. He silently cursed himself for taking the young man anywhere near the Haunted Lake. Upon returning to the spot, it did not take long to discover the discarded length of rope lying near its banks. He knew then, for certain, that Mortimer had gone forever. Randall sadly shook his head and made his way back to his cottage with a heavy heart, mourning the loss of his friend and apprentice.
It was a day or two later, as he was preparing to begin his rounds, that Randall saw a figure standing carefully downwind on the path, some yards in front of him. It was boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age. “Good evening Mr Middlestreet,” the boy said politely. “I hear you might be looking for a new apprentice.” Randall raised his eyebrows in surprise. “How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that I do.” “Oh… word gets around. Someone said that Mort Whiteway had disappeared.” Randall was puzzled but, on reflection, it’s hard to keep a secret in a place like Hopeless. “As a matter of fact I do need an apprentice. Are you interested?” Jarvis Woodchester grinned slyly to himself, recalling how easy it had been to untie the knots of the rope while Mortimer slept. “Oh definitely,” he said. “When can I start?”
If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know Philomena Bucket from the Tales from the Squid and Teapot. She actually started life as a character illustrating how you do things in the Hopeless Maine role play game. This is why she’s now gracing the cover of a new book. From which you can safely infer that we are indeed up to something with the role play game.
Also in this image, is Simon. If you’ve been following our adventures in film making, you’ll already know that Simon is an example of the island’s pointy sea life. Look closely at this image and it is evident that there’s more than one Simon. There may have been baby Simons recently. But then, sea life changes gender a lot, and who know how Simons work?
Characters on the island tend to have fairly outlandish names. However, there are a lot of sentient beings who are never named where you can see it. Goblins, demons, sea life and so forth. For purposes of keeping track, many of them do have names – but they tend to be relatively ordinary, so there are goblins called Fred and Geoff, and the sea monster is called Simon.
All of this pertains to a kickstarter we have that should be of particular interest to fans in America. It won’t be so good if you’re in the UK because of the postage. Talk to us if there are things you want and we’ll try and figure out sensible ways of moving things round.
“It’s strange how things go round,” confided Bartholomew Middlestreet to Philomena Bucket. “Although the Lypiatt family ran The Squid and Teapot for over a century, my great-great grandpa, who was also named Bartholomew, was the landlord here before Sebastian Lypiatt, founder of that dynasty, washed up on these shores. Luckily for us, old Bartholomew never missed a thing and kept a journal; I found it a few years back in one of the attics. Grab yourself a drink, Philomena. There was a good tale in that journal which might interest you…”
It was a wet and windy night on the island and the snug of The Squid and Teapot was virtually empty. Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, rolled her eyes. She knew exactly what was coming next – a story she had heard a dozen times before. If he noticed Ariadne’s reaction, Bartholomew chose to ignore it. He took a generous swig of ‘Old Colonel’, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and warmed to his task. “It’s unlikely that even the founding families actually intended to come here,” he said. “Old Gruffyd Davies, one of the early settlers, implied as much in his memoir ‘Grief is a Thing with Tentacles.’ There was one guy, though, according to great-great grandpa’s journal, who was paid to sail here by a tightrope walker, or a funambulist, as they called them then…”
Bartholomew Middlestreet is, possibly, Hopeless, Maine’s most enthusiastic raconteur. Once he gets going, Bartholomew has been known to hold court for hours, filling his discourse with plenty of homespun wisdom, incidental anecdotes and never missing an opportunity to remind his listeners that his grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, was the only Night Soil Man to hang up his bucket, as it were, and retire, uniquely going on to become a family man. As my allocated spot in the ‘Vendetta’ is somewhat restricted, and the patience of my readers not infinite, it feels only common sense to tell the tale of the funambulist in my own words.
As Bartholomew has stated, few people have arrived on Hopeless voluntarily. It was necessity that drove the lobsterman, Joel Cranham to be persuaded to sail to the island. It was in the 1840s that the nascent canning industry discovered that the humble lobster, a species that had previously required eating soon after death, could be successfully preserved in a tin. They also discovered that canned lobster was a huge money-maker. Within thirty years the once plentiful Homarus Americanus was fished to the brink of extinction. In response, the state of Maine imposed severe but necessary lobster-fishing restrictions, and the livelihood of Joel Cranham and his fellow lobstermen suffered accordingly. However, no one knew the waters around Maine better than Joel, so it was unsurprising that, when he was offered more than the equivalent of a year’s income to pilot a specially adapted Downeaster around some of the islands peppering the coast, he thought that all of his financial problems had been solved for good.
Joel’s benefactor was a slightly built and ridiculously wealthy young man named Lancelot Pensile. Like many an impressionable youth, Lancelot had been inspired by the recent feats of one Jean François Gravelet. Gravelet, who was better known to his adoring audience as The Great Blondin, was a funambulist extraordinaire who had famously traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope several times. Being naturally athletic, Lancelot Pensile soon mastered the art of funambulism and, in a very short time, had become almost as adept on a tightrope as his hero.
For reasons which will become clear, Pensile had devised a plan which would involve linking just a few of Maine’s several thousand islands to each other by high-wires. These islands would, by necessity, need to be situated fairly close together. He had installed, on the deck of the Downeaster, an extremely large drum which held an equally large reel of hemp cord, two inches thick and half a mile long. The plan was to visit an island, erect a high platform – if nothing suitable already existed – and run the rope to a neighbouring island. By ferrying back and forth to the mainland for more reels of rope, Pensile hoped to create a slender highway over the ocean, upon which he could wander at will, thereby gaining an enviable reputation to rival that of The Great Blondin himself.
For a while, all seemed to be going as planned. Four islands had been bridged and Pensile had, indeed, proved that his plan was surprisingly feasible. It was only when the expedition hit a dense fog-bank that progress was halted. Joel was certain that an inhabited island was hidden somewhere inside, for although there had been no warning blast of a fog-horn, he had seen the beams of a lighthouse struggling to penetrate through the ghastly murk during the previous night. After a short conference with the skipper of the Downeaster it was decided to drop anchor and that Joel and Lancelot would run a tender ashore. A light rope, about an inch thick, was attached to the tender at one end, and to the hempen cable at the other, so that it could be conveyed easily to the island. All went well until the tender floundered upon the rocks and the two men were forced to wade to safety, with Pensile steadfastly gripping the rope with one hand and a carpet-bag with the other..
While being shipwrecked would have dampened the spirits of most people, Lancelot Pensile was extraordinarily cheerful, especially when he spotted the lighthouse. This was exactly what he needed; a tall, solidly built structure to which he could secure his cable. As you have undoubtedly guessed, the pair had arrived on Hopeless. In the best traditions of the island, a small crowd had gathered even before the two had managed to get on to dry land. It took little time for Pensile to introduce himself and his companion and explain his plan. At first no one appeared to be particularly impressed, then D’Arcy Chevin grew curious. “Why are you doing this?” he asked, suspiciously. “To emulate my hero, The Great Blondin. Why Blondin has traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope many times.” Chevin had absolutely no idea what or where Niagra Falls might be, but it sounded impressive. “And you could do that?” “Indubitably!” exclaimed the young man, brimming with confidence. D’Arcy Chevin had as sharp a mind as any and had quickly worked out that here was a possible means of escape from the island. If Pensile could get across on foot he was sure that he could manoeuvre his way to the next island by hooking a leg over the cable and dragging himself along. In time, it might be possible that more lengths of rope could be added and some contraption assembled to allow all and sundry to leave whenever they chose. If getting to the mainland meant undertaking a series of hops from island to island, D’Arcy Chevin told himself that he was the man to do it.
Word soon got around that escape from Hopeless might at last be possible and, as a result, there was no shortage of willing hands offering to set up the high-wire and provide whatever help the funambulist might require. The heavy hempen rope was soon hauled ashore and, with a block and tackle, hoisted up to the gallery of the lighthouse, where it was pulled taut and unyielding. As I have said, so often, in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?
The following morning was, as ever, misty but there was no wind to speak of and conditions seemed ideal for a leisurely half-mile stroll on a tightrope over an angry sea. From the depths of the carpet-bag Pensile retrieved his costume, along with a pair of fine leather shoes with soft soles. A little over an hour later he was ready, poised confidently on the rail of the lighthouse gallery, resplendent in pink tights and a jerkin of blue, which was covered in sequins. In his hands he held a long, slender balancing-pole which some of the islanders had fashioned from a felled ash tree. “This should not take me too much time at all,” he called down to Joel. “As soon as I’ve reached the other end I’ll tell the crew that you’ve been shipwrecked. It shouldn’t be too long before you get rescued. In the meantime do you have any messages for the folks back home?” “The missus will wonder where I’ve got to, so you’d best make it sound exciting,” Joel grinned. “Tell my wife that I’m trolling Atlantis, but I still have my hand on the wheel.” “Will do,” replied Pensile, breezily and, with that, started his death-defying walk over the sea.
Those who watched from the shore could not help but be impressed as the slight figure of Lancelot Pensile, clutching his balancing-pole, disappeared gradually into the mist. The minutes ticked by and, as if mesmerised, everyone continued to stare at the quivering tightrope. Just when the realisation began to dawn that the spectacle was probably over, the rope began to bend worryingly, as if something was pulling it from below, as they might a bowstring. Then, to the shock and dismay of all, there was a loud TWAAAANG and the rope buckled and lurched upwards. Somewhere, in the distance, they heard an ominous splash, such as a body might make, if dropped into the water from a great height. Seconds later there followed a horrible crunching noise; this was the sort of noise you might expect to hear when a large wooden vessel is being crushed to pieces by some huge and unseen creature, which was, indeed, the case. Just when the assembled onlookers decided that they had seen and heard enough excitement for one day, a long ash pole hurtled down from on-high and crashed into the top of the lighthouse, sending shards of wood and lumps of masonry flying everywhere. “What the hell caused that?” yelped Joel. All the blood had drained from his face. D’Arcy Chevin, all hopes of escape dashed, looked crestfallen. He turned to leave, then stopped and looked squarely at Hopeless’ newest resident. “You’ll get used to it.” he replied. “There are giants out there, in the canyons.” People trailed away in silence. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet stayed behind, generously offering Joel the hospitality of The Squid and Teapot and hoping for a good story to add to his journal in return.
It was nearing midnight when Bartholomew finished his tale. “What became of Joel?” asked Philomena. “He eventually came to terms with losing his old life and settled down and raised a family. His descendants are all gone now, except Rhys, a great-great grandson. He was in the orphanage from an early age and now he’s our Night Soil Man. Philomena shifted uncomfortably. When she first landed on Hopeless she had completely lost her sense of smell and had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the Night Soil Man. “And what happened to your great-great grandfather?” she asked quickly, seeking to change the subject. Bartholomew lowered his voice. “It’s believed that he was murdered by a scoundrel called Tobias Thrupp,” he said conspiratorially. “Now, there’s a tale you need to hear…” “And that can wait until another day,” said Ariadne firmly, and blew out the lights.
“I used to be somebody, once.” Geoffrey Stancombe stared miserably into the dregs of beer pooling in the bottom of his tankard. Philomena Bucket patted his shoulder consolingly, “You still are somebody, you daft thing. Sure, if you weren’t, I couldn’t be seeing you sat sitting there, now could I?” “No, I mean really somebody. I used to have it all. Money, power, a girl on each arm. It’s all gone… all gone.” The other drinkers in the bar of the Squid and Teapot said nothing. They had heard it all before. This had been a regular lament of Geoffrey’s ever since he had washed up on the island a few days earlier, boasting of his luxury yacht and expensive clothes. All his rescuers could see was a slightly built, wild-eyed man of middle-age, who had arrived bedraggled, half-dead and clinging to a rectangular piece of wood that had once been a door. In fairness, Geoffrey was not that unusual. Newcomers frequently made improbable claims, citing wealth and position but – even if these were true – such things cut no ice on Hopeless. Anyone who managed to survive more than a few weeks would be simply judged by their ability to fit in, and the ways in which they might contribute to the benefit of all. So far it looked as though Geoffrey was doomed to fail on both counts.
It was half a lifetime ago that he had met the stranger who had turned his destiny upon its head. He had been sitting in a dockside pub in Liverpool, drowning his sorrows in a smoke-filled bar, when she sidled up and offered to buy him a drink. Geoffrey was well aware that he was being set-up for some scam or other, but he was slightly drunk, down to his last few pounds and she was young and attractive; what was there to lose? Several more drinks were taken before she made her play. He could recall their conversation as if it was yesterday. “I’ll give you twenty-four.” “Oh, come on! I was hoping for at least forty.” “Sorry, twenty-four or the deal’s off.” “But why? I’ve heard that you’ve offered hundreds in the past.” “That, as you rightly say, was in the past. I cannot afford to be so generous these days. Times have changed.”
Geoffrey remembers himself hesitating, until the stranger purred softly in his ear, “Look… it is an excellent bargain. You’d be a fool to walk away from it.” He felt himself weakening. “And you would meet all of my demands?” he asked “Oh yes. I am not out to swindle you.” “And I get twenty-four years.” “Twenty-four years and not a minute less,” she smiled. “It’s a small price to pay.”
When you, yourself, are only twenty-four years old and are offered the same span again, pain-free, trouble-free, debt-free and guilt-free, it feels like a no-brainer. You are standing in the very centre of a story, your own story. Your life, so far, feels long and endless. Much of it is a blur, or something viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Time has been slow and kind, a sluggish stream that never reached birthdays, Christmas and school holidays quite soon enough. So you reason that future time will equally languid. Forty years would have been good but, hell, in forty years you would be really, really ancient and probably in no fit state to enjoy the extra time afforded to you anyway. No, twenty-four years of luxury would be good enough.
“What a fool I was,” Geoffrey thought bitterly, not realising that he had said the words out loud. “And why a fool?” asked Philomena, sitting down opposite him. Geoffrey said nothing for a moment. The easy way in which Philomena’s voice had sidled into his head, shattering his reverie, reminded him of the young woman in the pub in Liverpool. But there the resemblance ended. “Can you come and walk with me a while?” he asked her, almost shyly. “It’s nothing that I want to speak of in here.” “Give me a moment,” said Philomena, “I’ve a couple of things to finish off, than I’ll be with you.”
They walked in silence for a while, making their way in the direction of Chapel Rock. Philomena slipped her arm into the crook of his. It felt the right thing to do. Geoffrey told her about the conversation in the pub and the bargain that he had struck. He told her how his life had changed, almost immediately. Everything he wanted was suddenly available. Nothing was beyond his grasp. For years this hedonistic lifestyle seemed wonderful then one day, not so long ago, he woke up and realised that his existence was a totally empty sham. He had no friends or lovers, just a great many people who were attracted only to his wealth and power. Everything had gone sour and all that was left were his possessions, each one no more than a lifeless trinket, a symbol of his squandered years. To make matters worse, time itself had somehow forgotten how to dawdle. He had failed to notice how the lazy stream of his remembered youth had become a raging torrent that cruelly and casually swept away twenty-three years and eleven months in the blinking of an eye. The bargain he had made granted him twenty-four years and not a minute less. Now all that was left was one month and not a minute more. He was terrified. Geoffrey fell silent. Minutes that felt like hours slipped by. Unable to bear it any longer, Philomena asked, “So what did you do?” “I ran away. Leastways, I sailed away. I had a yacht and a crew of three to sail her. But there was a storm. That’s all I remember until I found myself on this island. I suppose the crew must all be dead by now.” “But you escaped… whatever it was you were running from.” “Do you think so?” he said, brightening up. “I guess it depends on how long you were at sea,” Philomena said, then added, “I’ve got to get back to The Squid now. I’ll catch up with you later. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
When Philomena arrived back at The Squid and Teapot she found Bartholomew Middlestreet sitting at a table, in the now empty bar, playing solitaire. “What was that all about with Geoffrey?” he asked. “I don’t know,” said Philomena pensively. “What he told me was difficult to believe, yet there was something…” “Well, those things he said in here about being rich and powerful, not a word of it is true.” Bartholomew interrupted. “But I’m not calling him a liar – I think he’s genuinely deluded.” “Well, that’s a relief, anyway” said Philomena, thinking of the story Geoffrey had told her. “But how can you be so sure?” “When we found him I could have sworn he was dead,” sad Bartholomew. “There was no pulse that I could feel, then suddenly he sits bolt upright, throws up a great stream of water and asks where he is. They say that drinking sea-water drives people mad and I guess that’s what happened to Geoffrey. Besides, the girl who turned up the following day says that they were part of the crew of the yacht that floundered on the rocks off Scilly Point. They were the only survivors.” “At least the bit about the yacht was true, even if it didn’t belong to him,” said Philomena. “I didn’t know about the girl, though. Where is she now?” “I haven’t seen her since then,” said Philomena replied Bartholomew. “Odd that. Most newcomers stay here in the Squid.”
Geoffrey didn’t return to the Squid that evening, or ever again. He seemed to have vanished completely. The general feeling was that, in the state of mind that he was in, anything could have happened. Philomnena was sad but not surprised. Such things occurred on Hopeless with monotonous regularity and all thoughts of Geoffrey and his talk of a mysterious deal eventually faded from her mind.
It was a some months later, while rummaging in the attics of The Squid, looking for something to read, that Philomena found the following passage in a slim book of short stories. For reasons she could not fathom, it made her blood run cold:
A rich man, living in Baghdad, sent his servant to market, as he did most weeks. When the servant came back, his face was pale and his hands trembled. His kindly master could not help but be concerned and asked the cause of his distress. “When I was in the marketplace,” the servant replied with a shaking voice, “I spotted a woman in the crowd. I recognised her at once – she was Death. She looked at me with surprise and it seemed as though she was threatening me. My heart missed a beat. I was certain that it was I whom she sought. Oh, beloved master, I must flee from this city if I am to avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra where Death will not find me.” “Take my fastest horse,” said the rich man “and ride like the wind.” The next day the rich man went down to the marketplace himself, and who should he see but Death, mingling in the crowd. “Why were you so surprised to see my servant when you saw him yesterday? He seemed to think that you were threatening him” said the rich man to Death. “It is true, I was surprised, but there was no threat intended,” agreed Death. “You see, I did not expect to see him in Baghdad yesterday, for I had an appointment with him last night in Samarra.”
I have been known on occasion to promise to write a review for fellow authors. I have some fair firm rules on these promises, in that I don’t write a review unless I genuinely like what I’m reviewing. If I don’t like a book I won’t write a review, because there is enough negativity in the world and frankly just because I don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean someone else will not love it.
There is however another reason why I occasionally fail to write a review, sometimes while I intend to do so I get swamped with other stuff and the review falls off my list of things to do. (reviews are not alone in this, I forgot to cancel my sons mobile phone contract for over a year, because it kept dropping off my radar) What I mean by this is I am exactly as organised as the average…
Mr. Stratford Park felt that something indefinable was missing from his life. Regular readers will recall that his Burns Night celebration went somewhat less than well for him, the islanders having renamed the occasion ‘First Degree Burns Night’, in commemoration of his slightly scorched buttocks. Deciding to put the event firmly – and appropriately – behind him, Stratford decided to look for a new project. If nothing else, the Burns Night disaster had confirmed for him that he enjoyed being the centre of attention; this had given him a certain hunger for being in the spotlight, or, at least, would have done, had spotlights been readily available on Hopeless.
For some weeks he agonised over what he should do next. Whatever his destiny, he knew that he would need to stand out in some way, in order to claim his rightful place as a leading light in the daily life of the island. It was while perusing this very organ, ‘The Hopeless Vendetta’, that inspiration struck. Not everyone kept up with the news in the Vendetta. Indeed, the art of reading has passed several islanders by. What Hopeless needed was a purveyor of the latest headlines, someone to patrol the island proclaiming births, deaths, marriages and the usual catalogue of messy woes that filled up the spaces in between. Folk would be curious to learn whatever wisdom Mrs Beaten was choosing to impart; they needed to know their horrorscope, as provided by Idris Po; new arrivals on the island would have to be apprised of the best ways of staying alive for as long as possible. There was plenty of information to be passed on.
“Yes!” Stratford mused to himself, “this is the answer. Hopeless needs a Town Crier – an Island Crier. Someone who will bravely venture out and perform a vital service for the public, not unlike the Night Soil Man, only without the smell, the bucket and the unsociable hours.”
The first thing Stratford needed to do was procure a suitable costume for the job – and he knew exactly where to go. As mentioned several times in these tales, the attics of The Squid and Teapot contain many salvaged, but so far unwanted, items. People, along with an interesting variety of flotsam and jetsam, had been coming to Hopeless for many years. On an island where resources are often limited, nothing is wasted. In view of this, it proved relatively easy for Stratford, with the help of the landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, to unearth a tricorn hat, a pair of breeches and a handbell, the standard uniform of Town Criers the world over. Sadly, although his costume was vaguely correct, the chances of anyone marking Stratford out as being Someone Special were slim. In an environment where ‘make do and mend’ was more than a necessity, such an outfit was not particularly unusual or outlandish. The sight of an islander wearing a cloth cap, an Edwardian frock coat, plus-fours and hobnail boots would not raise an eyebrow. Similarly, when Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, late of Oxford University, suddenly appeared in the regalia of a Victorian lady, the event passed without remark. And so, it came to pass that the self-appointed Town Crier made his way through the streets completely unnoticed. As far as the rest of the populace was concerned he was just another deranged soul wandering around aimlessly, ringing a bell and shouting.
After his first fruitless day’s work, Stratford retired to his cottage feeling downcast. Following a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth it occurred to him that this was getting him nowhere and giving up was not an option. He had to project more, to be heard above the crowd. He needed to practice shouting. With this in mind he took himself to the lonely and mysterious Gydynap Hills to perfect his art.
For several hours every day Stratford would loudly declaim his “Oyez, oyez” to the hills, hoping that his usual baritone would somehow evolve into a Stentorian blast that would make people stop and take notice. Unfortunately the reverse happened.
Opera singers are not well represented on Hopeless, but had Stratford had the good fortune to have run into one and asked their advice, he would have been told that a powerful voice should emanate from the diaphragm and not the throat. In fact, Doc Willoughby would have told him exactly the same thing and, as far as I’m aware, Willoughby is even worse at singing than he is at being a doctor.
Stratford sat in the snug of The Squid and Teapot nursing a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and looking as dejected as a dog that’s been locked out in the rain.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” asked Philomena Bucket, breezing through with a tray of Starry-Grabby pies.
“No voice” Stratford croaked, barely audible and pointing to his throat.
“Ah, me and Drury heard you shouting when we were up on the Gydynaps the other day,” said Philomena, putting the tray down. “That’s what caused it. So what was all that about?”
Stratford made some unintelligible sounds, to which Philomena nodded wisely, pretending to understand.
“What you need is some honey,” she advised. “That’s what me old granny used to give us if ever we had a sore throat. I don’t know where you’ll get any from, but that’s what you’ll be wanting, to be sure.” Stratford sipped his ale moodily, making no effort to reply.
It was a day or two later, when out walking, that Stratford’s attention was caught by a faint buzzing noise. Remembering what Philomena had said, he became suddenly excited. His throat was still raw and his voice no more than a whisper. He desperately wanted a remedy and this could be the answer. Where there was buzzing there were bound to be bees, and where there were bees there was honey. All he had to do was to follow the bee and his problems would be over.
It didn’t take long for Stratford to spot his quarry. The insect was dancing along, a foot or so above the ground, buzzing happily through the morning mist. Stealthily Stratford followed behind, confident that the tiny creature would lead him to an industrious nest, overflowing with honey (the fact that he had no idea how he was going to extract the precious comestible was, as yet, a thought that had not yet crossed the lonely expanse that was Stratford’s mind).
He was passing by the Old Mill, not far from Geezo’s Bight, when his attention was caught by a pale, emaciated face gazing from one of its grimy windows. The owner of the face seemed to be mouthing some words and tapping on the glass with skeletal fingers. Stratford stopped, trying to work out what the old man was saying but, try as he might, it was no use. He shrugged his shoulders and made to resume the chase, then realised that the elusive bee was nowhere to be seen. If only he had not stopped he would probably be in receipt of a quantity of throat-soothing honey by now. Hoarsely, he cursed the old man, who had already left his post by the window.
Angry and disappointed, Stratford barely felt the sharp prickle as the Succubus Wasp settled on the base of his skull and began to feed. All that he knew was that someone seemed to be whispering in his head, quietly persuading him that there was no point in carrying on the chase. He should go home, relax and allow his voice to return in its own time. As he made his way back to his cottage, Stratford began to feel dreadfully listless, deciding that nothing really mattered any more.
A week passed by before the regular patrons of The Squid and Teapot decided that there must be something amiss with their friend and drinking companion, Stratford Park. He had been acting strangely ever since the Burns Night episode, shouting and ringing bells all over the place but for him to miss poker night was unheard of.
When they found him in his cottage he was sitting in an armchair, staring into space and making strange buzzing noises. After much discussion, Doc Willoughby was called. A degree of harrumphing and chin-stroking followed, until the Doc solemnly opined that the patient was suffering from no more than a mild virus, undoubtedly brought on by too much shouting. It was nothing that a few days rest would not cure.
As far as I am aware, Stratford is still there, sitting in his front parlour, becoming more and more emaciated and making no sound, other than occasionally emitting a faint and somewhat irritating buzz. Well-wishers bring him food but he shows little interest. The Succubus wasp has almost finished with Stratford. She has taken almost as much of him as he can give. The Succubus Wasp is nothing, if not patient. It is just a matter of time now before someone gets a little bit closer to her host than is safe.
Should you wish to know more about the strange, beautiful and deadly Succubus Wasp, you could do worse that look up an excellent article, published in the Vendetta some time ago, entitled ‘Save the Succubus Wasp’.