All posts by Nimue Brown

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.

Diswelcome part 11 – UNDIGESTED FRAGMENTS

….days flow into one another, some long, some short. It took me a while to get used to the different way time functions here, but I feel I’m now acclimatised. Never before did I properly realise what a harsh taskmaster time is when regimented into seconds, minutes, hours…it’s truly liberating to just flow with the vagaries of a day that meanders aimlessly, rather than forever chasing it through imposed systematic limitations…

§ § § § §

…of food there is much to write, it has become a daily obsession. I suggested searching the sea for anything resembling lobsters, but both Salamandra and Owen strictly forbade me to go anywhere near the water, stating clearly that it would be better that way if I was planning on retaining my limbs…

§ § § § §

…the music box and its remarkable effect have lent Salamandra much optimism, to judge by her cheerful mood. She has questioned me endlessly about the Wyrde Woods, in between which I have managed to pose her a few more readers’ questions. That said, I haven’t seen much of her today, for she has retired to study some old books, with the music box in her hands, determined to discover how best to put it to use…

§ § § § §

…another encounter with tug-weed, intentionally this time. Owen took me tug-weed hunting. It involved poking at one of the plants with a long stick, waiting for sufficient quantities of its serpentine fronds to wrap themselves firmly around the stick, then wading into the water and chopping at the base of the fronds keeping feet moving at all times. We returned to the lighthouse with our two long sticks, bundles of still twitching tug-weed attached to their ends. The taste is nothing to write home about…its consistency is that of overcooked chicory, at which I needed to chew endlessly to reduce it to something vaguely digestible…

§ § § § §

…where we met some town folk, though I daresay reception was frosty. They had seen, of course, the column of bright sunlight around the lighthouse for the hour that it lasted, and there was much muttering of witchcraft. The only one who was nice was a lad called Donald, and his delightful little undead dog Drury. I petted it, and Lamashtu smelled that when we got back to the lighthouse. She told me I was a traitor and despicable canine-lover, after which she sulked at me disapprovingly for the rest of the evening. Salamandra said the cat would get over it, but better to close and lock my bedroom door that night…

§ § § § §

…a momentary lapse of memory. I put it down, just for a few seconds, before I remembered and tried to snatch it back. It was gone already. Salamandra announced that I would be spoonless for the remainder of my stay. It appears to be a thing of some shame, in the Hopeless community…

§ § § § §

…I was unfortunate enough to stray amongst some tombstones…I would describe the undead, but the merest thought of them gives me violent shivers…the eyes…oh the eyes…

§ § § § §

…Rather relieved that the Browns haven’t shown up…it would be hard to explain and I expect they shan’t be pleased…

§ § § § §

…like a dream. It’s hard to explain. I already told you time flows differently here, sometimes even backwards…but there is more to it. Rather than experiencing my stay in a continuous fashion, I appear to be drifting in and out, missing bits in between, including actions I was apparently involved in. It’s a quicksand of context, and sometimes I struggle to keep up. Things happen, at random, for no reason, without logic. I think Salamandra’s strength, and up to an extent Owen’s too, is that while most of the rest just let it happen to us, and try to cope, they are far more lucid, in control a lot of the time, though it costs them a great deal of energy. In contemplating this, I am much minded of a poet, one of these new-fangled ones, a chap called Poe.

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

It’s truly like that. I’m not sure if I am real anymore. Perhaps of more consequence to you, I’m not sure you are real anymore. Yes you, the one reading these words right now. Are you real? Do you know? For certain? I find it hard to tell. I may seem fictional to you, but how less fictional are you? Perhaps somebody is reading about you reading my words – a dream within a dream indeed…

§ § § § §

…Food, oh glorious food! I’m reduced to tears recalling Gammer’s home cooked meals…

§ § § § §

…time to say my goodbyes to Salamandra, Owen, and Lamashtu. It is with some sadness that I depart the lighthouse, but I’m looking forward to returning to Mewton…where I intend to devour all the bug chowdah on offer…

§ § § § §

…struck by sheer horror at the edge of the tidal plain. A thick fog obscured it. I could barely see more than a few feet in front of me. I heard the skipper of the skyskiff calling…

“Mistah Twynah! Mistah Twynah!”

“I’m here!” I shouted back. “I’M HERE, WAIT FOR ME!”

Despite suspecting just how dangerous it was to do so blindly, I floundered into the mud, trying to make my way towards the sound of the skipper’s voice.

In this I was defeated by Hopeless fauna a bird of sorts, its coat a hybrid of red and dirty orange, it’s many eyes seemingly blind, and its blue beak capable of producing human sounds…parroting human voices.

To judge by their imitations, there was a whole flock of them over the tidal plain. They seemed to be everywhere around me, their calls coming from left, right, front, and back.

“Mistah Twynah! Mistah Twynah!”

“I’m here,” I sobbed softly.

“I’M HERE! I’M HERE!” The call was picked up by the whole flock.


Sussex folk are notorious for being stubborn, so I did not give up. I do not recollect how long I stumbled through the mud, blinded by the fog, driven near to madness by hearing the skipper’s voice, and my own, all around me. Suffice to say, that when the fog lifted at long last…there was no sign of the skyskiff.  

§ § § § §

…realisation that any notion of departing from the island was hopeless…it was hopeless…it was Hopeless.

§ § § § §


The Hopeless Maine family strikes again

There are many truly lovely people who have, one way or another, thrown themselves into the tentacled embrace of Hopeless, Maine.

It would be fair to say that we’ve had a tough few months. As many of you know, Tom had a stroke back in December – he’s recovered well but it was scary at the time. Nimue has been ill a lot – nothing so dramatic, but ongoing adventures in pain and weariness. And so it was that some of the wider Hopeless Maine family gathered together and did a lovely thing to cheer us up.

This was apparently the brainchild of Nils Visser – who you will have seen a lot of here on the blog with his glorious Diswelcome series. He pulled a fabulous team together to make this happen. He’s a fine chap, and responsible for inventing Snugglepunk. Or possibly Smugglepunk.

There’s Professor Elemental doing the music, aided and abetted by Tom Carunana. We love the Prof, and the video features some of the art Tom’s done for him over the years.

Bob Fry is a longstanding supporter and spoon fancier, also an essential part of Nimue’s Wherefore project.

Herr Doktor once went so far as to make a spoonwalker. He’s also widely believed to be a deity of the steampunk pantheon.

John Bassett can be held responsible for Steampunk Stroud, and is also part of the Hopeless Maine film team, wearing many different hats for that one. All in one stack, obviously.

Cair Going is a gorgeous person and we were there when she was crowned as Queen.

Bill Jones can teach you how to grow Victorians in your garden. You may have seen his work in Private Eye.

Lou Pulford has written for this blog and performed with us in public places and has the best tentacles.

Susie Roberts sings with A Cup Full of Tentacles – the performance side of Hopeless – when we’re allowed to go out and do unspeakable things in public places.

Deep gratitude to you all, for being in our lives, for being so relentlessly lovely, and for making us cry over this video. You are all splendid and we wish we could hug you all.

Diswelcome part 10 – A GIFT FROM THE WYRDE WOODS

I retrieved a small rectangular package from my satchel. It was neatly wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string, from which dangled a label with spidery hand-writing on it.

Not wanting to draw the attention of grabby skurries, I didn’t set the package down on the table, holding it out in my hand instead.

“What is it?” Owen asked.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “It was given to me by someone in the Wyrde Woods, back in Sussex. A Wise Woman. She told me to give it to Salamandra.”

“What is the Wyrde Woods,” Salamandra asked.

“A place in England, but not quite in England,” I answered. “Like an island within an island.”

She smiled. “I like it already.” Taking the package from me, she studied the label.

I knew what the label said, having read it a few times during my journey.

To Salamandra of the Lighthouse

Dearest Sister-In-Craft,

Play, to drive worries away.

Yours, Sally Whitfield of the Owlery

P.S. Lasts Exactly One Hour! Use WISELY.

P.S.S. Self-ReCharging BUT at own

pace – it’s Sussex Stubborn (days –weeks).

I hoped Salamandra would be able to make more sense of it than I could. I watched curiously as she began unwrapping the package. I suspected some sort of legendary demon-vanquishing weapon would be of most use to Salamandra, but the package was small and light, hardly the sort of thing likely to contain a mighty smiting thing.

Salamandra uncovered a small, cardboard box. Opening the lid, she lifted out a small mechanical device with a tiny crank.

I stared at it, slowly shaking my head in disbelief. It was a small music box, just a child’s toy. It seemed a bit of a poor joke to send Salamandra a toy. I felt somewhat cheated, even though logic had already told me that the package was unlikely to conceal a flaming sword, or some such fiercesome weaponry.

Salamandra gave the tiny crank an experimental turn, delight on her face when she heard the first hesitant notes thus produced. She continued to turn the handle, and suddenly, seemingly totally out of place in the fortress-under-siege atmosphere of the lighthouse, the notes of Greensleeves rang out, vulnerable but compelling, the tinny sounds lent amplification by acoustics of the lighthouse.

The notes were contagious, and I could not help but sing along.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong

To cast me off discourteously

For I have loved you well and long

Delighting in your company

Greensleeves was all my joy

Greensleeves was my delight

Greensleeves was my heart of gold

And who but my lady Greensleeves?

I felt foolish when I finished singing and the echoes of the toy’s last notes died down. I looked at the contraption in Salamandra’s hand intently, waiting for something to happen…something spectacular. Magic, fireworks…anything at all to demonstrate that bringing the toy to Hopeless had a tiny bit of meaning.  

Nothing happened.

“Nothing’s happened,” I pointed out, needlessly.

Salamandra shook her head in disagreement, a lovely smile on her face. “It’s filled my ears with beauty, and made me feel all the better for it. What do you say, Owen?”

I looked at Owen, concerned to see his face was thunderstruck, wide-eyed, his mouth opening and closing, but apparently incapable of coherent speech.

“Owen?” Salamandra asked.

Owen tried to speak, gave up, pointing instead at that which he was gazing at.

I followed his stare to one of the lighthouse windows, to see the colour of daylight spill in with glorious abundance.

We jumped up and rushed outside, to find ourselves bathed in glorious sunshine pouring down from a heavenly blue sky. It was just a patch, stretching about half a mile in each direction around the lighthouse, beyond which the murky gloom of Hopeless seemed more sullen than ever, but within that circle…oh my!

All sorts of things long dormant were emerging from the ground. Lush green grass was sprouting before our very eyes, and diverse flowers, representing all colours of the rainbow and some unknown unfolded to bloom in luxurious resplendence. Out at sea, aquatic beings large and small broke the surface to experience the wonder. On land too, critters, creepers, crawlers, floaters, and fliers were drawn to the circle, although at the circumferences I saw various native fauna and other…things…scurrying for the safety of shadowy fissures, or the Hopeless murk beyond our small kingdom of unexpected sunshine.

Scores of fluffbuns emerged, sniffing cautiously at the air first, with disbelief in their single eye, before rejoicing and frolicking about playfully.

Salamandra strode into a patch of green, spinning around, laughing, her arms outstretched to the sky.

“Daylight is a colour!” She shouted at me joyfully.

I nodded my head. I had never thought of it as such, but from the perspective of Hopeless, it was indeed a colour: A warm, radiant, cheerful, and homely colour.

Caught up in Salamandra’s joy, a dozen fluffbuns bounded over to her, running around her in playful circles, yipping excitedly. She lowered her arms, stretched out her hands, and a few of the fluffbuns leapt into them to nuzzle her fingers, or raise their heads for a chin-scratch.

The idyllic moment was spoiled somewhat, when Salamandra, with snakelike speed , closed her hands around several of the creatures, snapping their necks in quick succession, and then holding up the corpses. The surviving fluffbuns around her made off in a hurry, squeaking anxious alarm.

“SUPPER!” Salamandra enthused. “It’s a day of culinary delights!”

“I do love to see her happy,” Owen spoke at my side.

“Speaking of which,” I said. “A lot of readers would like to know when you two…”

“Tell them to mind their own business.” Owen smiled enigmatically. “I do not know this Wyrde Woods, but that Wise Woman has chosen her gift well.”

“It’s really just a toy,” I reflected. “The sun is nice, but…”

“NICE?” Owen shook his head. “I don’t think you even begin to comprehend the value of this…how it empowers. Don’t you worry, when Sal is finished revelling in it, she’ll find a way to put it to good use.”

“Well, then I’ll be sure to visit the Wyrde Woods again, and thank Sally Whitfield.”

Owen gave me a funny look. “Yes, you do that. If you ever make it back there again.”

Crustacean improvisation

leaving the scene of the crime.

The hermit crabs have not been told

Of how one end a reed should hold

They do not know to cut and dry

And knowing nothing, do not try.

The flute is narrow, it is so

And down it one large crab might blow

While keenly others play their roles

And scuttle forth to block the holes.

They long for music on the beach

A washed up band lies in their reach

Pray do not tell them as they roam

About the shipwrecked whole trombone.

Diswelcome part 9 – Post Luncheon Interview

I looked at the first question on my list, and experienced a moment of panic. Back home, the questions had seemed perfectly reasonable, but after all the risks I had taken to reach this moment, they seemed trivial, shallow, and mundane. I dearly hoped that Salamandra wouldn’t find them boring.

“Ahum, erm,” I began. “Salamandra. What is your favourite colour?”

Owen laughed. “Seriously? You’ve doomed yourself to Hopeless to ask Sal what her favourite colour is?”

I shrugged apologetically. “They’re readers’ questions, not mine.”

“I like the question.” Salamandra smiled. “My favourite colour is daylight.”

“That’s not a colour,” I objected.

She blazed with sudden fury, her hair rising in an angry cloud. “Now listen, Scribbler. I don’t know how often you’ve seen daylight, but I’ve seen it about four whole times. That makes me quite the expert, and as such, I assure you that daylight is a colour.”

I nodded quickly, reminding myself that my job required me to be an objective observer. “Daylight it is.”

“It better be,” Salamandra declared with satisfaction. “Next.”

“Do you have a favourite book?”

Owen drew a sharp breath.

Salamandra’s face darkened. “I do, and the less that is said about it the better. Next.”

“Alright,” I said, scanning the list, seeking something less likely to cause offence. “This one is from Mrs Albert Baker’s Soup Kitchen in Lancaster, for street urchins and whatnot.”

“Does street urchin soup taste nice?” Salamandra asked. “It sounds prickly and spiky.”

“No, no, Mrs Baker feeds the urchins soup, so she’s always on the look-out for new recipes. She wants to know what your favourite soup is. To feed the urchins.”

“Ah, I see, to fatten them up a bit before serving them. That makes sense. Before your arrival, I would have said Owen’s kyte kidney soup. But I’ve changed my mind on that one, it’s bug chowdah now. Wouldn’t mind trying urchin soup though, for comparison.”

“That’s good,” I said, scribbling away. “As the ingredients for chowder will probably be easier to find in Lancaster than bits of kyte. The urchins are big fans of yours, by the way…”

Owen frowned. “There’s something I don’t understand.”

“Hush,” Salamandra said. “I’m being interviewed, don’t you know.”

“It’s about the interview.” Owen looked pensive. “Ned, you say you know me, know Salamandra. And more people do, because you were sent to ask their questions. How does that work, precisely?”

I was put off by his question, not expecting it because I assumed they knew. “Well, people buy the books…”

“Books?” Salamandra asked. “What books?”

“There’s books about us?” Owen asked.

“Well, yes. The Illustrated Adventures of Salamandra in Hopeless, Maine. Surely you…”

My voice trailed away as Salamandra and Owen exchanged a dark look.

“Must be that Brown fellow,” Owen mused. “And his missus.”

I knew the name of course, for who hasn’t heard of Tom and Nimue Brown? However, it seemed that there was potential turbulence ahead on our current course, so I deemed it wiser to know as little as possible.

“Who?” I asked innocently.

“Two outlanders,” Salamandra answered.

“Regular visitors to Hopeless,” Owen added. “The Aunties only know how they get in and out. They seem quite harmless; just wander about with sketchbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils.”

“Which is why I haven’t changed them into floating newts or spoon walkers,” Salamandra said darkly. “…Yet.”

It occurred to me that I might have got the Browns into a spot of bother.

“Truth be told,” I confessed, determined to take some responsibility. “When I write out your answers to these questions, it will be published in a newspaper, which people will hopefully buy to read more about you…”

“You’ve paid us,” Owen said. “That was the best meal I’ve ever had on Hopeless.”

“Bug chowdah,” Salamandra said dreamily. Then she furrowed her brow. “That Brown fellow better get us something nice to eat, or else…”

“There’s something else I brought for you,” I interrupted her, eager to change the subject. “A gift.”

Lapsus Linguae

Reverend William Spooner, Dean of New College Oxford, was an old and trusted friend of the well-to-do Toadsmoor family. When, one bright morning, he suggested that their youngest daughter, Marjorie, should take the Oxford University entrance examination, the household was gripped by a level of excitement which may have been considered unseemly in some Victorian circles, where a muted “Good show” might be all that was permitted. But excited they were, for this was an historical moment; in this year of 1885, the august university had at last deigned give women the opportunity to study within its hallowed halls of learning.
The family’s proudest moment was shattered and turned to grief just a few weeks later, however, when their brilliant daughter disappeared, never to be seen by them again.

Marjorie Toadsmoor is one of Hopeless, Maine’s newer residents. I have no idea how or why she arrived there, and come to that, neither has she. Like Garfield Lawnside, the city slicker who had designs to buy the island (see the tale ‘The Persian Runner’), she wandered down the wrong street one day and ended up on Hopeless. Finding herself standing in the shadow of a lighthouse and looking out over a wild and foggy sea, struck her as being somewhat bizarre as, just minutes before, she had been walking through Oxford. As you may appreciate, the town of Oxford is very far from being coastal.

It is fortunate that those on Hopeless are not slaves to fashion, or even vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Indeed, Hopeless seems sometimes to hover within its own time, sheltered from all aspects of modernity. I may be wrong (and I frequently am) but if she had been transported from any era, past or future, it would not have mattered to anyone, particularly. I mention this only because Marjorie appeared upon the shores of the island as the very essence of the modern Victorian lady-about-town. As it was, resplendent in bonnet, hooped skirt and carrying a parasol,, she looked no more out of place than anyone else on the island – and with each step she took, all but the most fleeting memories of her past life gradually melted away, like snow upon the water.

Marjorie’s first experience of the strangeness of Hopeless happened within an hour of her arrival. Wandering inadvertently into a narrow alley, she found herself looking at a diminutive, fish like creature, with glowing eyes and tendril – like appendages, foraging among the rubbish. It appeared to propel itself along by employing a pair of silver dessert spoons as stilts. Not being particularly fond of most varieties of fauna at the best of times, Marjorie let out a scream of terror. The creature spun around upon its spoons and glared menacingly at the young woman. It has been reported on several occasions that the stare of a spoonwalker – for spoonwalker it was – can induce madness. Whether this was the case, I do not know but the situation was not helped when, in a bid to escape, it shot beneath her skirt and out of the other side before she could draw breath to scream again.

“Are you alright, miss?” It was Philomena Bucket who found her, crouched upon the floor and shaking like an aspen.
Marjorie looked up and was surprised to see a strangely beautiful woman with white hair and a pale, kind face. An albino! Something rang a distant bell in her mind; she had known an albino, a kindly man who was always getting his words mixed up, but that seemed long ago and far away.
“What was that creature… the one walking on spoons?” she asked.
“Ah, that would be a spoonwalker. Nasty little devils they are, to be sure,” replied Philomena.
“I have been attacked by a spoonwalker… and I am all alone in this strange place. Whatever will become of me?” Marjorie said, miserably, mainly to herself.
Her mind went back to the albino man whom she had known. His affliction had something to do with spoons; she couldn’t recall exactly what it was. Maybe he had been attacked by a spoonwalker, too. That was why he mixed up his words. Yes – he must have fallen foul of a spoonwalker, as she had. That would explain it.
“I fear I have become infected,” she told Philomena. “I can feel the virus coursing through me now, even as we speak. Oh, dear me.What shall I do?”
Philomena had never heard of such a thing before but decided that, if the young woman really believed herself to be ill, she needed to see Doc Willoughby.

The surgery was closed. The sign outside read:
‘Go away. Out on house calls. Back later.’
Philomena correctly surmised that this meant that the Doc was sleeping off a hangover and would not be in business for some hours.
“You’d better come back to the Squid and Teapot with me,” she said. “At least you’ll have somewhere to stay.”
“The Tid and Squeepot? What a strange name for an inn… Oh my gosh… it’s beginning already!”
“What is?” asked Philomena, bemused.
“My speech,” wailed Marjorie. “My meech has become spuddled!”
“Come on,” said Philomena, “let’s get you settled safely in The Squid.”

Once in The Squid and Teapot, Philomena found Marjorie a comfortable room and made her a cup of camomile tea, to soothe her nerves.
“Thank you so much,” said Marjorie, gratefully sipping the tea. “But won’t your employer be angry? I worry that he will be on you like a bun of tricks when he finds out. It would be a blushing crow for you, I’m sure, if he had you chewing a lot of doors as punishment.”
“Not at all,” replied Philomena, quickly catching on to her new friend’s strange way of speaking.
“It was not so long ago that I was a stranger here, too. You can always be sure that there will be a welcome in The Squid and Teapot for newcomers to the island.”
“An island! Gosh, I’ve always had a half-warmed fish to see more of the world,” said Marjorie, suddenly enthusiastic. “Might we go now, and maybe wake our may to the doctor’s surgery later? I’m as mean as custard to have a look around.”

The pair left the inn and had barely walked a dozen yards before Drury, the skeletal hound, spotted Philomena and came bounding up, his bony tail wagging madly.
“Aaargh… oh my goodness! What is that bowel feast?” wailed Marjorie.
“It’s only Drury. You’ll soon get used to him.”
“But he is nothing but bone. Has he no mister or mattress?”
“No. Drury is a free spirit, in every sense of the word,” laughed Philomena.

After they had walked a while, and Philomena had pointed out the orphanage and the brewery, she said, somewhat hesitantly, to Marjorie.
“This speech problem you have… it doesn’t happen all the time?”
“Indeed no.” replied her companion. “I don’t know why but it seems to come in stits and farts.”
Philomena was still stifling a smile when they saw Reverend Davies coming towards them.
“Good afternoon reverend,” said Philomena, with little enthusiasm.
“God afternoon miss um… um…. and who is your delightful young friend?”
Before Philomena could answer, Marjorie dropped Reverend Davies a deep curtsey and gushed.
“Oh, dear vicar, I am Marjorie Toadsmoor. I am so honoured to meet one who is doubtless a shoving leopard to his flock and a lining shite to all on the island.”
Reverend Davies stood quite still, his face puce, his mouth gaping open and the veins on his neck sticking out like knotted ropes.
“Must go, reverend,” said Philomena, propelling Marjorie away with some haste. “Things to do, people to see.”
“He was very rude,” confided Marjorie. “He couldn’t even be bothered to reply. What mad banners.”

“Those are the Gydynaps,” said Philomena, pointing to the hills in the distance. “Drury and I often go walking up there.”
“I can’t do a willy hawk in these shoes,” said Marjorie. “Besides, it looks as though it’s going to roar with pain at any minute.”
Even as she said the words, the skies opened.
“Let’s find some shelter,” said Philomena.
As they hurried through the rain, Philomena crossed her fingers that Marjorie would not comment upon the sign outside the salvage store which proclaimed ‘Free shoes and bags, yours for the asking.’

It was fortuitous that Doc Willoughby had recovered from his hangover sufficiently to have opened the surgery. Philomena and Marjorie burst through the door, shaking the rain from their bonnets and giggling like schoolgirls.
“You must be feeling better,” said Philomena. “Do you still need to see the Doc?”
“I think I do, “said Marjorie, “my words are still getting mixed up, like a sadly made ballad.”
Just then the Doc himself appeared, obviously not in the best of humours. After he had listened to Marjorie’s self-diagnosis he sighed wearily. The Doc, though not as learned as he would have people believe, had heard of Spoonerisms and knew that they had absolutely nothing to do with spoonwalkers. However, being nothing, if not an opportunist, he rarely missed a chance to impress and leaned forward on his desk, steepling his fingers.
“Young lady,” he pronounced gravely, “I fear you have, what we in the medical profession call, Lapsus Linguae.”
“A slip of the tongue?”
‘Dammit, the girl knows Latin. How the hell does she know Latin?’ Doc thought to himself, not a little irritated.
“That, of course, is how we describe it to non-medical people,” he said, back-pedalling like mad. “But it’s much more serious than that. However, I can give you a preparation which should clear it up in a day or two.”
The Doc decanted some coloured water into a medicine bottle and handed it to Marjorie.
“Thank you so much doctor,” she said. “I was concerned that you would think I was telling you a lack of pies.”
“My pleasure, “ said the Doc, unconvincingly, hurriedly ushering the pair to the door.

“I’m feeling better already!” pronounced Marjorie later as she sat in the snug of The Squid, tucking into a slice of starry-grabby pie. Her bottle of coloured water stood half empty beside her.
“By the way, Philomena,” she added, “silly me didn’t catch your surname.”
Philomena smiled, a little uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “It’s probably best we stick to first names until I know you’re really better.”

Diswelcome part 8 PLEASE DON’T BE BORING

When Salamandra opened the door, she barely glanced at me, focusing on Owen instead.

Although not any of the many warm welcomes I had imagined, I didn’t mind so much, as it gave me an opportunity to stare at her. She was simultaneously familiar, I had – after all – seen her grow and mature since childhood, while at the same time I realised I didn’t know her at all, as if she was a complete stranger.

Salamandra was clad in a dress made from strips of old bed sheets. Her long dark hair was a myriad of braids which seemed to have a life of their own, swaying this way and that, lending her a frighteningly Medusian aspect. She had a broad mouth, with sensuous lips, and compelling oval eyes, but the most fascinating aspect of her face was the animation of it, changing continuously to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions and moods.

Helter skelter, hurry skurry.

“Where have you been?” Salamandra asked Owen. “I was in dire need of something more compliant than lighthouse walls to fly stuff at.”

“I’m sorry to have missed it.” Owen apologized, scratching the side of his slightly hooked nose. “There was a Blood Rain…”

Salamandra’s eyes lit up. “Did you get there in time?”

Owen grinned, indicated the basket on his back. “Half a kyte kidney…”

“You’re my hero,” Salamandra purred. She turned to me. “I have no idea who or what you are. Please don’t be boring.”

I managed an: “Er”, as well as an “Um.”

“Er-um?” Salamandra asked, her mouth stern, but eyes twinkling. “Sounds medicinal.”

“A few hours ago his name was Ned Twyner,” Owen said, setting down his basket. “An outlander. Says he came to Hopeless out of his own free will.”

Salamandra rolled her eyes. “You should have taken him to see Doctor Hedley Case, not brought him to the lighthouse.”

“I’m quite sane, thank you,” I said.

Salamandra and Owen both raised an eyebrow.

I shrugged. “Reasonably sane.”

Owen addressed Salamandra. “I found him asleep in the loving embrace of a bed of snare-moss, where he decided to rest after barely escaping the clutches of tug-weed. He’s a scribbler, writes stories for something called the Brighton Gazette. Said he’s come to ask you some questions.”

“Questions?” Salamandra frowned.

“An interview,” I said. “If it isn’t inconvenient…”

“It’s inconvenient,” Salamandra declared at once. “I’m terribly busy…”

“I’m sure the china won’t mind if you turn your attention elsewhere for a while…” Owen  said dryly.

Salamandra glared at him. “None of it complained…well apart from that goblin cup, that is. I mistook it for an ordinary tea cup. It didn’t like that at all. Nearly screamed my head off.”

“If you’re busy, we could make an appointment…” I began to say.

“Busy, precisely,” Salamandra said. “We’ve got to go catch us some lunch, I’m famished.”

I looked at Owen’s basket.

Owen shook his head. “Tougher than a boiled tree creeper. The kidney needs to be left to decompose for a couple of weeks before we can eat it.”

“Delicious when it goes all gooey,” Salamandra licked her lips.

I slapped my forehead. “What am I thinking?!” I patted my knapsack. “I’ve got enough for all three of us. From the mainland: Bread, cheese, dry sausage, and a pot of bug chowdah.”

Salamandra pouted. “I had bugs for breakfast. They tasted bitter. And bits of their shell got stuck between my teeth.”

Owen shook his head. “If that is what I think it is, you’ll absolutely love it, Sal.”

“We’ll save the time it would have taken you to catch lunch,” I suggested.

“So you can ask me questions.” Salamandra looked at me thoughtfully. “But what if you’re boring? Harder to send you away when we’re eating your food. And I do so hate tedious conversation.”

“He’s rather amusing, actually,” Owen said. “Trust me on this.”

Salamandra relented and invited me into the lighthouse, where I was led to a large table on which I began to deposit the ample contents of my knapsack.

“Courtesy of the Merry Tentacle,” I said proudly.

Owen fetched a few bowls, chipped plates, knives and a single spoon which he clutched tightly. “We’ve only got one spoon left.”

I brightened, and fished a small rectangular linen bag from my satchel. “Ole Ted asked me to give you this. He said you’d appreciate the gift.”

I shook the little bag, which chinked merrily, then drew open the drawstring, turned it upside down to let the contents spill onto the table.

“NOOOO!” Salamandra cried out.

It was another Christina Rosetti moment. Even before the nine spoons in the bag hit the table, skurries appeared from everywhere: Falling from the ceiling, gliding in through a window, jumping from the top of a rackety cupboard, fluttering through an open door…one even gnawed its way through the considerable thickness of the tabletop.

I froze, staring in amazement as a fierce battle erupted between Salamandra and Owen on the one side, and the skurries on the other. All involved hissed, cursed, spat, growled, clawed, pinched, bit, and poked as they fought for possession of the spoons. Salamandra and Owen were on the losing side, until a black cat exuding sinister menace came to reinforce them, allowing retention of two of the spoons. The other seven, along with the skurries, vanished.

“Thank you, Lamashtu.” Salamandra smiled at the cat.

“You’re welcome,” the cat replied.

“It…it…” I pointed at the cat. “It…spoke…”

Lamashtu glared at me. “I’m well educated, I’ll have you know.”

Salamandra scowled at me. “I don’t think you’re going to last long on Hopeless, Scribbler.”

“Three spoons in total now,” Owen said happily. He poured the bug chowdah into three bowls, then set the container from the Merry Tentacle in front of the cat, which sniffed at it cautiously, before beginning to purr loudly.

Owen held out one of the spoons to me. “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of the spoon.”

I nodded, wondering silently how many more blunders I would make during my stay on Hopeless…and what disastrous consequences might ensue.

During lunch, both Salamandra and Owen reminded me of the images of Hindu deities I had seen in a travelogue, all of them with a multitude of limbs. The arms and hands of my hosts seemed to be everywhere at once, reaching for bread, cutting cheese, and spooning lobster chowder into their mouths even as they wolfed down slices of sausage. They ate more gustily than Free Traders returning from a long, hard run over the English Channel, and demonstrated an equal disregard for table manners.

The chowder was particularly favoured. Salamandra used her index finger to sweep up every last remnant of the lobster stew from the sides of her bowl. Owen held his bowl upturned over his mouth, to catch every drop.

I was caught with indecision as to how to clean my bowl, but that was solved by Lamashtu, whose intense green eyes convinced me that I really wanted to push my bowl towards the cat so that it could lap at the remnants, leaving me to chew on a dry crust of bread – wondering sheepishly who got the better end of the bargain.  

“Scrumptious,” Owen declared with satisfaction.

“Indeed,” Salamandra agreed, giving me an amiable look. “A most generous gift. I’m minded to be nicer to you, Scribbler.”

Taking that as my cue, I reached into my satchel, placed blank sheets of paper on the table, unfolded the list of readers’ questions I’d brought across the Atlantic, and dipped my quill into my favourite ink-pot.

“Very well,” Salamandra sighed. “Let’s have your questions then. I’ll do my best to answer them.”

No Country For Old Mendicants

“Steady as she goes, Brother Malo. Take her in gently.”
The wiry monk manning the tiller nodded in acknowledgement.
“This fog is unnaturally thick, Father Abbot. I fear that we could well run aground.”

Brendan, the elderly Abbot of Clonfert, looked unruffled by this remark.
“Trust in the Lord, Brother Malo. He will guide us through safely.”
Brother Malo smiled but secretly wished that, rather than just guiding them through, the Lord might be a bit more proactive and blow the fog away.

No sooner has the thought passed through his mind than Malo repented of such blasphemy and, as a gesture of contrition, banged his sandalled foot hard into the wooden frame of the boat, badly stubbing his toe.
“Careful man,” shouted Brendan, then quickly composed himself. “If you go through the leather on the side of this currach, we are all in trouble.

It was back in the sixth century that Naomh Bréanainn, known these days as Saint Brendan, set sail with a party of monks from Ireland’s shores. Their mission was to find the Garden of Eden. Seventeen in number, they had followed a haphazard route over the North Atlantic for seven long years, backtracking and revisiting many of their ports of call along the way. During this time they saw many wonders; wonders that their rich Celtic imaginations interpreted as visions of Heaven and Hell. The volcanoes along the coast of Iceland became demons hurling fiery rocks to impede their journey and an iceberg was a mighty pillar of the purest crystal. Strangest of all was the small island upon which they landed to say mass one day. When that turned out to be a whale enjoying a quiet nap, it was hard to say who was the most surprised, the whale or the monks.

Now, with death having claimed three of their crew, fourteen monks sat staring into an impenetrable fog.
“This must be it,” whispered Brendan to himself. It had long been foretold that the promised land they had sought for so long would lie within a shroud of mist.

By now every breath of wind was stilled and the only sound to be heard was the slap of the oars as they pulled the currach through the shallow water towards the mysterious island.

While it would be unfair to say that Brendan was bitterly disappointed with his first view of, what he supposed to be, the Garden of Eden, he was far from overjoyed. He had expected a beautiful land filled sunshine, birdsong and heavily laden fruit trees. Instead, the eyes of the weary travellers were greeted by a ribbon of dismal mist that drifted listlessly over a headland crowned with scrubby grass, and clung to the line of spindly trees that bordered it. No birds sang in their branches.
Brendan decided that this was definitely not the land that they were seeking, and maybe it was time to head out to sea once more, when his eye was caught by a strange figure that seemed to magically materialise from amid the trees.

As if by some unspoken signal, each monk ceased what he was doing and stood, stock still, as the newcomer approached. He was dressed, outlandishly they thought, in soft leather trimmed with fur; feathers adorned his dark, plaited hair. When he was about ten yards from them he raised his right arm, palm outwards, in what was obviously a gesture signifying ‘I am no threat. How about you?’

What happened next surprised everyone.

“Top o’ the morning to you.” he said (or, at least, words to that effect) in quite recognizable Old Irish, which, of course, was the language that the monks all spoke (with the notable exception of Brother Malo, who was Welsh. However, and happily for this tale, the similarities between the Goidelic language of the Welsh and the Brittonic of the Irish were sufficient that they could understand each other quite comfortably… but I digress).

“Um… good morning brother,” responded Brendan, getting over his surprise. “We come in peace.”

A degree of awkward silence followed, neither party knowing how to proceed, until Brother Fergus, the oldest of them all and almost bent double, could not hold back any longer and asked the question that was on everybody’s lips.

“You speak our language!” he blurted out. “We are a thousand leagues from home, and yet we understand your tongue. How can this be?”
The stranger squatted on the ground and said nothing for what seemed an age.

“My name is Nechtan,” he said at last, after some thought. “Come with me to my village, where you will eat and drink, and I will tell you of my people”

The monks immediately felt at home in Nechtan’s village, where the single-storey houses huddled close to each other. They were uniformly small, probably no more than one room dwellings, with thatched roofs pegged down with ropes, which were tied to heavy stones. Similar structures were found near their abbey on the West Coast of Ireland, where the winter winds from the sea could be merciless.

Over a simple meal of cornbread, fish and spring water, Nechtan told the monks how, many generations ago, three ships had appeared on their shores carrying a score or more of fierce, red-headed adventurers. Despite their looks, the men from across the sea had wanted no more than to rest, find provisions and repair their much-travelled ships. At least, that is what they first told the islanders. After a week or so, their leader, whose name was Bran, confided to their head man that he wished to bury a box. It was a simple enough, though puzzling, request that the chief felt unable to refuse. And so, one moonlit night, the box was dragged ashore. It was a heavy sea-chest, fashioned from black bog-oak and bound with brass. Bran and his men took it to some undisclosed place and buried it deep beneath the earth. Upon their return they made the islanders swear that they would never attempt to look for the box of bog-oak and brass. Although this was agreed, Bran bade a handful of his men to remain behind and ensure that no one would go back on their word.

The ones who stayed settled down quite happily. They each found a wife and within a generation or two, Old Irish had become the lingua franca of the island.

Brendan stroked his chin. The story of the voyage of Bran was well-known to him, but he had always assumed it was no more than a colourful legend, a tale dreamed up by the pagan bards to amuse their listeners.

“But what was the significance of the oaken box?” he asked Nechtan.
The islander shook his head.

“I have no idea,” he confessed, “but before he sailed back to his own land, Bran carved some symbols on a stone tablet. It has been handed down through the generations of my family. No one knows what it means but maybe, if you can understand it, it will shed some light on the mystery.”

Nechtan lifted the lid of a chest that doubled-up as a table, rummaged through its contents and, with some difficulty, extracted a stone tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long. On its surface was carved a series of glyphs in the form of notched grooves. Some were horizontal and others diagonal. All lay on, or was bisected by, a vertical line.

“It’s Ogham script,” said Brendan. As he read his face became more and more grim.

After a while he looked up from the tile and addressed Nechan.
“It entreats any who can read this to never, under any circumstances, seek for the chest of bog-oak. On their travels Bran and his crew encountered a fierce demon. He claims that their druid subdued this infernal creature and imprisoned it within the chest, binding the locks with magic. He then commanded them to bury it deep in the earth of the misty island they would find at the end of their journey. As much as I despise all mention of pagan magic, I have to agree. Under no account seek out this cursed chest and its unholy prisoner.”

“Be assured,” said Nechan, “we are a dwindling people. There are very few of us left here, these days –soon there will be none. No one cares about this legend. There is enough to fear on our island without digging up more monsters to trouble us.”

Brendan wondered what he meant. The place was dismal, that was for sure, but he saw no evidence of things to fear.

The voyagers returned to their boat and on the following morning decided to venture further inland. Surely there had to be one or two relatively pleasant places to enjoy. As Nechan had implied, the rest of the land seemed devoid of humans and indeed, animal life as well. At the end of the first day they pitched camp on a reasonably flat piece of ground overlooking the sea and settled down to what they hoped would be a decent night’s rest, away from the cramped conditions of the currach.
It must have been around midnight when Brother Malo sat bolt upright.
“Did you hear that,” he whispered. There’s something going through our belongings.”

The monks had left their meagre possessions outside their tent, confident that nothing was likely to happen to them.

Malo pushed his head through the flap and gulped in astonishment. Three small, fish – like creatures, balancing on crude wooden stilts, were going through the monks’ packs and dragging away anything they could manage. One had found some wooden spoons and had discarded his stilts in favour of these more sophisticated prosthetics.

Malo swore, then remembering his vows, hit himself with a rock as penance.

By then the whole camp was awake and two of the younger monks – both on the wrong side of fifty – chased after the spoonwalkers (this was probably the very first occasion that these creatures could legitimately be called this, as it’s unlikely that any had before used spoons as a preferred method of locomotion).

Brother Fergus was surprised to find a long tentacle wrapped around his leg. It was issuing from a small fissure in the ground and was attempting to persuade the ancient monk to join it. Brendan at once rushed forward, brandishing his wooden crucifix and demanding that the creature, apparently from the very depths of Hell, to let go of his colleague and return once more to the fiery pit. All that this achieved was for a second tentacle to emerge and take the crucifix from his grasp. Fortunately Malo had the presence of mind to hit tentacle number one with the rock that he was still fortuitously holding, retained in the event of his having the urge to inadvertently swear, or think blasphemous thoughts again. The resulting blow ensured that Fergus was freed and the brace of tentacles, along with Brendan’s crucifix, disappeared swiftly into the rocky ground.
Just when everyone thought that things could not possibly get any worse, the vast shape of the Kraken rose from the boiling ocean, its slumbers disturbed by all the commotion.

“That’s it! Back to the boat brethren.” cried Brendan, “I’ve had enough of this island, it’s hopeless,” he added, with a rare, but unintentional, flash of clairvoyance.

“And you expect me to believe that load of old Blarney,” said Philomena Bucket, a smile upon her pallid face.

“It’s true,” replied Bartholomew Middlestreet, propping himself against the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “I’m telling you, Saint Brendan the Navigator visited Hopeless as part of his epic voyage.”

“And what about all those islanders who spoke Irish? Where are they now?”

“I expect they died out, as Nechan predicted.”

“And Bran?”

“True as well,” said Bartholomew. “When Sebastian Lypiatt was digging the foundations of the flushing privy, all those years ago, he found the Ogham stone.

“I don’t believe a word of it” said Philomena.

“It’s true. He had no idea what it was or what it meant but he knew it was important, somehow. Look… up there, just above the fireplace. You’ve probably never noticed it…”

Philomena looked and sure enough, just where Sebastian had placed it, almost a century before, was a rectangular tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long, covered in the faint grooves of the Ogham script.

“There was even a chest made of bog-oak and brass, but that’s another tale altogether,” said Bartholomew, with a grin.

Author’s note: Should you wish to know what became of the bog-oak chest and its contents you might like to read the tales ‘The Necromancer’ –

and ‘Bog-Oak and Brass’ (preferably in that order).

Diswelcome part 7 Chance Encounter


As can happen, my first notion of danger came to me in a troubling dream. In it, I had been caught in the clutches of a skystinger, and in that uncomfortable position was being berated by an angry and grizzled kyte hunter, who ended his tirade with the words: “Oh, you numb fool.”

“Oh, you fool! Fool!”

I struggled to understand why the kyte hunter’s voice had changed from a bass boom to a far gentler and higher tone, with a young man’s timbre.

“Oh, such foolishness!”

I opened my eyes…to be utterly astounded by my restricted view, darkness crisscrossed by narrow, angular patterns of a twilight glow.

Hopeless! I’m on Hopeless.

I tried to move, but found myself entirely restricted, smothered by a hundred thousand tiny grips. Fighting panic, I recalled my previous experiences of Hopeless flora, specifically its tendency to cling…ensnare…wrap…cover…choke…

It seemed that the moss had crept up in my sleep, spreading to take me into a suffocating embrace.

“Help,” I croaked.

I began to struggle, bucking my body in an attempt to shake myself loose, but that only resulted in the moss tightening its grip.

“Stop moving, you’re only making it worse.” The young man’s voice said, confirming that he hadn’t been a figment of my dream.

I relaxed my body as much as I could, immensely grateful that I wasn’t alone. “Please, help me.”

“That’s what I am doing,” the voice replied.

I could see him now, or rather, I could see a darkish shape move about through the mossy visor that restricted most of my view.

“What are you doing?” I asked, willing him to just rip the moss away.

“Tickling the snare-moss with a feather,” was the reply.

The moss giggled.


“Shush, be still, for crying out loud.”

I did my best to freeze into a statue, fighting the urge to remedy sudden itches, ask a thousand questions, or tell the moss to stop its maddening high-pitched titters, twitters and tee-hees. I was much encouraged in my efforts when I sensed that the giggling moss began to ease its relentless hold on me.

“Apart from being ticklish, snare-moss is generally slow,” the tickler spoke. “You must have been asleep for at least eight hours.”

“I was tired.”

“You’ve got to be an outlander. No sane local even slightly attached to life would lie down on a bed of snare-moss…oh, wait…that argument doesn’t really apply around here…plenty are disheartened enough…”

“I’m an outlander,” I confirmed, swearing a silent and solemn oath never to lie down on a bed of snare-moss again.

“Shipwrecked, were you?”

“No, I came to Hopeless of my own free will.”

The movements ceased for a second. When the tickling resumed, the tickler spoke again, slowly, emphasising each word. “You. Chose. To. Come. Here?”

“Yarr. I chose to come here.”

“Why in the name of every puff bug in Hopeless would you want to do that?

I fought my instinct to shrug. “I’m a journalist, for the Brighton Gazette. I came to interview someone.”

“You’re a bigger fool than I thought,” the tickler muttered. “There we are, my lovelies.”

The moss, now in uncontrollable fits of merriment, eased its hold on me entirely, and the entangled web that had constricted me began to unravel.

“Quick, now,” the tickler said. “Up and away.”

I scrambled up, but wavered unsteadily on my legs, until the tickler took my arm and led me away from the moss, which wriggled about angrily, squeaking a hundred thousand outraged protests.

I glared at the deceitful greenery, then looked at the tickler. I saw a young man, about my age, maybe a little older, with a narrow, thoughtful face, long black hair, and a tuft of scraggly hair on his chin.

“You’re Owen!”

He looked puzzled. “You have me at a disadvantage; I don’t recall meeting you before…”

“Ned, Ned Twyner.” I shook his hand enthusiastically. “We’ve never met, but I kind of know you…”

“Kind of know me?” Owen frowned.

“In a manner of speaking, I’ve read about your adventures! That’s why I came to Hopeless, to interview Salamandra!”

“Sal? You haven’t picked the best day. When I left this morning, she was busily flying plates, saucers, and cups at my head.”

“Flying? Throwing, you mean?”

“Oh, no.” Owen shook his head. “She was definitely flying them at me. I was lucky to get away unscathed.”

I glanced at a large basket behind him. It held a large roundish object, wrapped in an old sheet stained with fresh blood. Reminded of my own luggage, I checked that my writing satchel and knapsack were still companions, suddenly grateful that I hadn’t relieved myself of their burden before falling asleep, and also relieved that they weren’t bleeding.

“Well, I suppose you might as well come along,” Owen decided. “If she’s still fussy, she might choose to decapitate you with a teapot, rather than poor old me. And I can hardly leave you here on your own; I don’t think you’d last very long…”

I nodded my heartfelt agreement, and followed Owen, after he picked up the basket that had straps which he slid over his shoulders.

We walked at a brisk pace, pausing only when Owen deemed it safer to wait while a herd of ur-deer thundered by in a wild stampede, chased by something blurry, leaving me mostly with the impression of scores of glinting claws, hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, and several pairs of luminous green eyes.

The scenery changed as we climbed steadily upwards. Wet and slimy trees made place for evergreens, the spongy ground beneath our feet gained solidity, and rocky outcroppings started popping up every now and then. Before long, we started passing buildings. Some grand and elaborately designed, but crumbling with age, others seemingly hurriedly assembled with any materials that came to hand.

I frowned when I heard a sound that was simultaneously familiar and yet out of place somehow.

“The sea!” I exclaimed, when I placed the sound as waves lapping against rocks and shingle.

“Indeed,” Owen confirmed. “We’ve crossed the island.”

The sea came into view, as did a rugged coastline: Outcrops of craggy rocks, becalmed coves and pebbled beaches between precipitous overhangs and jagged edges of granite cliffs.

“It’s high tide!” I said joyously.

Owen looked at me strangely. “That does happen, quite frequently in fact, though not with predictable regularity, the waters here have a mind of their own.”

“I thought it was rare…” I tried to explain.

“That’s on the tidal plain, on the other side of Hopeless,” Owen said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Tides are far and between there. Just as a truly low tide on this side is remarkable enough to cause folk to jabber on about it for a week or so.” 

Recalling Ole Ted’s talk on tidal peculiarities, I ventured: “And is it mostly highish tide on this side of Hopeless because it’s lowish…elsewhere?”

Owen furrowed his brow, before reluctantly conceding: “There are other islands which are cut off from general reality, aye. Ragged Isle for one, not to forget Tantamount.”

“Maybe I could visit them after Hopeless,” I mused.

Owen barked a laugh. “You are amusingly naïve, Ned Twyner. Did you think it would be easy to leave Hopeless?”

I chose not to answer, partially because my attention was drawn to something catlike floating by in the air.

“There!” Owen pointed in front of us.

I looked to see a partially submerged, and slightly tilted, lighthouse in the distance.

“Not much further now,” Owen said. “Let’s go find out if Sal’s mood has improved.”

Burns Night

No one seems to remember who left the book on a table in The Squid and Teapot. The cover, which had originally been a rich red colour, was now faded, dog-eared and badly foxed.

Stratford Park, a stocky, fair-haired man of early middle-age, sipped the frothy head from his tankard of Ebley Ales famous brew, Old Colonel, and idly picked up the little volume, for no other reason than because it was there. The gilded but grimy lettering on the front said simply ‘Robert Burns by Gabriel Setuon. Famous Scots Series.’

Stratford had heard of Robert Burns. He even knew some of the man’s poetry. On the strength of that he slipped the book quietly into the inside pocket of his overcoat and thought no more about it.

Several dreary months went by. That which passes for spring on Hopeless, Maine, drifted into a dismal summer which, in its turn, slid, almost unnoticed, into a damp and fog-bound fall. It had become overcoat weather once more.

It was on a blustery October evening, bundled up against the chill, that Stratford made his way to The Squid. He was looking forward to drinking a few pints of Old Colonel and shooting the breeze with some of his friends, as he did most weeks.

Settling down in the warmth of the appropriately named snug, Stratford threw his overcoat over the back of his seat.

“Something’s just dropped out of your coat, Strat,” called the ever vigilant Bartholomew Middlestreet, from behind the bar.
Stratford looked around, puzzled. Then he spotted the little book on the floor. He had completely forgotten that it had been in his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said, brandishing the book and was about to put it back when Bartholomew said,

“That’s strange. There was a book exactly like that left on the bar yesterday. I saw it and thought of you.”
For the second time in as many minutes Stratford Park experienced a certain amount of puzzlement.

Bartholomew wandered over to the table. With a theatrical flourish he presented his friend with a small red volume, at first glance identical to the one that had recently resided in Stratford’s pocket.
“Look at the title,” Bartholomew said.
Stratford looked.

“Mungo Park by T. Banks Maclachlan. Famous Scots Series.
“Who is Mungo Park?” asked Stratford.
“A famous explorer guy, according to the book,” replied Bartholomew, then added, “I figured he must be a relation of yours. Park is not a common name.”
Bartholomew grasped the book and stared at the cover.
“I’ve always thought I had Celtic blood,” he mused, excitedly. “I’ll bet we are related.”

From that time onwards Stratford became more and more convinced of his Scottish roots, purely based upon his being a namesake of Mr Mungo Park. He read everything he could about Scotland and the Scots; it became an obsession. He took to dropping the odd ‘och aye’ and ‘dinnae’ and ‘cannae’ into conversation and would look wistfully eastwards over the ocean and mumble something about his ‘ain land’. The two volumes of the Famous Scots Series became his most treasured possessions.
Christmas came and went. Stratford had hoped to celebrate Hogmanay but the bar-fight in The Squid on New Year’s Eve had killed all hope of that. In mid-January he tentatively approached Bartholomew with a look in his eye not unlike that of a dog begging for a biscuit.

“D’ye ken it’s Robbie Burns birthday on the twenty-fifth of this month?” he asked.
“Really? I thought he’d died years ago,” replied Bartholomew, wearing his best poker-face.
“Och aye, that he did, ” said Stratford, his accent veering erratically over three thousand miles of ocean.
“I wondered if we might have a wee celebration. Have us a real Burns Night.”

Bartholomew looked dubious. Since the debacle at New Year and the disaster of Pluff Monday, he was wary of indulging in any form of celebration ever again.

After some thought and fighting a feeling of deep foreboding, he said,
“Okay, but there won’t be no haggis or whisky; it’ll be starry-grabby pie and whatever is on hand at the Gannicox distillery.”
“Aye, that’s braw,” said Stratford, adding hopefully “there wouldn’ae be a kilt going spare somewhere up in yon attic, would there, the noo?”
The attics of The Squid and Teapot are famously full of the flotsam and jetsam washed up that no one else has laid claim to. What could he say? Being of a kindly disposition, Bartholomew dutifully helped Stratford rummage through the piles of clothing.

To Stratford’s disappointment there were no authentic traditional Scottish costumes to be found anywhere in those dusty attics. They managed, however, to unearth a rather fetching plaid skirt (extra large) and a round leather clutch bag that would, in a bad light, just about pass muster as a kilt and sporran.

The evening of January the twenty-fifth arrived and The Squid and Teapot became a little piece of Scotland for a few hours. Fuelled by several glasses of the distillery’s finest spirit, Stratford recited a few poems and sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, off-key and a capella. It was then that Norbert Gannicox produced a banjo with three strings and struck up a medley of, what can only be described as being, a broad and very personal interpretation of some well-known, if totally unrecognizable, Celtic melodies. Celtic music and no small amount of alcohol can sometimes be a lethal combination. Standing in front of a blazing log fire, Stratford decided to execute what he fondly imagined to be, a Highland Fling. With his knees flying high and his plaid skirts higher, he left little to the imagination of his bemused, not to say traumatised, audience. Indeed, so bemused and traumatised were they that no one appeared to notice that the back of his makeshift kilt had caught fire and Stratford’s Terpsichorean prancing and occasional whoops were becoming increasingly frantic.

When he was eventually rescued, after some energetic and over-enthusiastic thrashing of his rear end, the fire was successfully extinguished. Doc Willoughby, who had been skulking, unimpressed, in a corner, had Stratford laid face down across a long table. Much to the horror of those assembled, and with little ceremony, Doc pulled the skirt up over Stratford’s head, revealing a set of slightly scorched buttocks for all to behold.

“He’ll be alright,” affirmed the Doc, gruffly. “First degree burns, no worse damage than he’d get from a bit of sunburn. Stick him in some cold running water for a bit, that’ll make him feel better.”
No sooner had the words left the Doc’s mouth than the hefty Winstone twins acted as one, grabbing Stratford roughly under the armpits and marching him outside.

Unfortunately the Doc had not given any indication how long Stratford’s backside needed to be immersed, or whether they should stay with him. What the Doc lacked in bedside manner, he certainly didn’t make up for in helpfulness. The Winstones, who were not the brightest spoons in the cutlery drawer, looked at each other, wondering what to do. The party was still going on at The Squid. It would be a pity to miss any more of it. There and then they made the decision to sit Stratford in the icy water that flowed down from the Gydynap hills into Tragedy Creek, and leave him there.

When Rhys Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, found the would-be Scotsman some hours later, Stratford was literally blue with cold. Everything south of his waistline was immersed in the fast flowing water. Rhys heaved him out with some difficulty, and took him back to his cottage. If he ever wondered why the fellow in the stream was wearing a skirt, he didn’t say anything. It took a while for body heat to return and Stratford to revive. When he did, he was wheezing and sneezing, showing every sign of having all the symptoms of a bad head cold, which was just as well, because as we all know, there are few who can stand the noxious smell that permanently surrounds the Night Soil Man.

And that is just about the end of the tale. Following that small disturbance, Burns Night, on Hopeless, was always afterwards referred to as First Degree Burns Night. Stratford never mentioned it, or Mungo Park, again and gave up all claims of being of Scottish descent. His accent was miraculously restored once more to that of a native Hoplessian.
It is interesting to note that Mungo Park, who perished at the age of thirty-five, was the seventh of thirteen siblings. It is recorded that one of his younger brothers, inspired by Mungo’s example, joined an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the elusive sea route thought to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Like his more famous brother, who took one adventure too many, young Park did not return. Far be it from me to speculate, but his would not have been the first sailing ship to fall foul of a terrible storm and be blown wildly off-course onto the treacherous rocks and fog-bound islands that dot the coast of Maine.