Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

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Party Politics

By Martin Pearson

“So, who have you invited so far?”

“Invited?” Philomena Bucket’s face was a picture of innocence.

If she had been shocked by being whisked away to some liminal place, as a whim of the ghost of Granny Bucket, Philomena did not show it. Over the years she had ceased to be surprised by any stunt that Granny pulled. She was, however, a little taken aback that her elderly, and long-dead, relative had got wind of the impending celebrations.

“To my surprise deathday party. Don’t pretend you’re not planning one,” said Granny. “I heard you plotting with that Middlestreet fellow. Now, who have you invited?”

Philomena knew that there was no point in trying to hide the details any longer.

“Well, I have asked Miss Calder…” began Philomena

“Miss Calder?” interrupted Granny. “I hardly know the woman. Why are you asking her?”

“If you would allow me to finish,” said Philomena archly, “I have asked Miss Calder to talk to the other ghosts on the island and find out who would like to come.”

“And I don’t get a say in anything?” snapped Granny

“It is supposed to be a surprise party!” exclaimed Philomena, exasperated. “Anyway,” she added, keen to change the subject, “I don’t recognise this place. Where exactly is it that you have brought me?”

You, like Philomena, will recall that she had been wandering up the Gydynap Hills in an effort to clear her head. She had no idea that Granny’s wraith was following her until she found herself suddenly standing next to a babbling stream, deep within a sun-dappled hazel wood. It was quite beautiful and certainly bore no resemblance to anywhere on the island of Hopeless, Maine.

“We’re safe within a memory I have of the Old Country,” said Granny, nostalgically. “I used to do a spot of courting here, as a girl.”

This was news to Philomena.

“And who was the lucky man, may I ask?” she said.

“Ah, Indeed you may. ‘Twas a young rascal called Willie Yeats. That was long before your time, though” confided Granny. “You wouldn’t know him.”

“Hmm… the name’s familiar,” said Philomena, uncertainly.

“But back to this party business…” Granny was like a lurcher with a rabbit. “Who do you intend to ask?”

“The maiden ladies of the Mild Hunt…”

“Them old biddies? With their yappy dogs and fartin’ mules? I don’t think so!” said Granny, emphatically.

“Very well. How about Lady Margaret D’Avening and Father Ignatius Stamage?”

“That sanctimonious pair, haunting the lavvy in The Squid and Teapot?” Granny was aghast at the suggestion. “They’re devout Catholics, the two of them. They won’t want to be hob-nobbing with a load of witches, that’s for sure.”

“A load of witches?”

Philomena had echoed the words with a certain amount of unease.

“Well, the ghosts of witches, anyway.  They are my friends and relations,” said Granny. “And it’s my deathday, after all.”

“How many, exactly, are we talking about?”

“Not sure yet,” said Granny. “I’ll let you know.”

As she spoke these final words, Granny began to gradually fade away, and with her went the stream and the hazel wood. Suddenly it was dark, and the familiar shapes of the Gydynap rocks were outlined against the misty skyline.

Drury was confused. He had spent hours searching for Philomena, following her trail high into the Gydynaps, only for it to disappear in a most unexpected manner. When it abruptly returned, in a dizzying burst of fragrance and accompanied by the lady herself, he was overjoyed. The osseous hound wagged his bony old tail in obvious pleasure. He had been seriously concerned when one of his two favourite people in all of the world had vanished, apparently into thin air.

“Come on Drury,” said Philomena, not even slightly surprised to find her old friend waiting for her. “I’ve got to get back and see how Rhys is faring. I must have been gone for hours.”

For the last few days, Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man had been struck down with influenza. Philomena, armed only with a clothes-peg to keep the smell at bay, had taken it upon herself to administer to him.  Her humanitarian mission had to be put on hold for a while longer, however, when a lean figure emerged from the darkness.

Drury growled menacingly.

“You can call your dog off, Miss Bucket. I mean you no harm.”

Philomena recognised the voice of Durosimi O’Stoat immediately.

“I hear,” he drawled, “that you intend commemorating your grandmother’s deathday, next week.”

“I don’t know who might have told you that,” said Philomena defiantly, trying to hide the tremble in her voice. “But yes, you heard correctly. As a matter of fact I do.”

“With the island’s ghosts in attendance, if my information is correct,” said Durosimi. “Young lady, that is not a good idea and I suggest you abandon it now.”

“And why would that be, Mister O’Stoat?”

“It would not be … politic” he said, struggling to find a suitably apposite adjective. “The spirits of this island have come from different times, different cultures, different mind-sets. You would be creating a potentially explosive situation. In dealing with these opposing energies, I fear you would be unleashing forces far beyond your comprehension.”    

“Well you needn’t be worrying on that score,” said Philomena, her face reddening with rage, “because the island’s ghosts don’t seem to be invited anymore.”

“How so?” Durosimi was suddenly interested.

Philomena felt suddenly bold. Who was Durosimi to tell her who could come to Granny’s party?

“Granny is most insistent,” she said quietly, “that it will be a knees-up for just witches, and ghostly witches at that; friends and relations, some from different times, but every one of them with the same mind. So, there is no chance that I might be unleashing any opposing energies, whatever that means.”

“No, indeed,” said Durosimi. He paused for a moment, as if processing the information.

“I believe,” he said carefully, “that your grandmother is under the impression that she and I – and obviously you and I – share a common ancestor.  In view of this I would very much like an invitation, being family, and all that. May I rely on you to ask her, please?”

“I can ask,” said Philomena, having a fair idea what Granny’s reply would be.

Durosimi smiled chillingly and disappeared into the night.

“I wish I’d never thought of any of this,” muttered Philomena.

Drury wagged his tail again. He could smell trouble in the air. Drury liked trouble. Trouble was fun.

The diagnosis

Doc Willoughby sucked on his teeth for a little while, as he tended to do when he wanted people to think he was considering matters carefully. The small ‘fff’ noise did not confer the dignity he imagined, but this was of little consequence. If Doc Willoughby had really understood how little dignity he was afforded, he might never have dared to even venture outside his own doors. Thankfully, a lifetime dedicated to the science of distilling had protected him from such discomforts.

He took a swig from the cup on his desk, which still had something in it. After a briefly unpleasant sensation in his mouth. It occurred to Doc Willoughby that some of what was in it had been a spider, probably now deceased. He shrugged, and swallowed anyway.

“Ffffff,” he repeated, on the inbreath, shaking his head slightly. “Too much excitement of the nerves,” he pronounced. 

His patient sighed heavily at this.

“You’ve been overdoing things,” the Doc continued, nodding to himself as he warmed to his theme.

“I was worried I’d gone too far with the fasting this time,” Reverend Davies admitted, seeming relieved. “Miss Calder has been nagging me about it.”

“Fasting is good for you,” Doc Willoughby said. “It would be terrible for me, but it is clearly right for your nature and constitution.”

“I haven’t slept in about a week now,” Reverend Davies added, a statement supported by just how bruised his eyes appeared to be.

“That’s overstimulation for you,” Doc Willoughby said.

“What should I do?” Reverend Davies asked. “I was thinking about prostrating myself in prayer for an entire night, do you think that would help?”

“It might,” Doc Willoughby said. “But I think the most important thing is to try and have less fun.”

A Busy Day

By Martin Pearson

Drury was not in the best of moods. He considered himself to be neglected, deserted and generally abandoned. A small confluence of circumstances had apparently conspired to leave the skeletal hound feeling suddenly alone, and deprived of the company of his two best friends, Rhys Cranham and Philomena Bucket. As faithful companion to Rhys, the Night-Soil Man, he had spent many a happy hour wandering over the island of Hopeless, while Rhys serviced the outside privies, cesspools and, occasionally, earth closets of its inhabitants.  This week, however, Rhys had been too unwell to perform his duties. Struck down by influenza, the Night-Soil Man had taken to his bed in an effort to shake off the malaise. His illness had unfortunately coincided with Les Demoiselles dancing troupe moving into larger premises. While their move did not directly affect Rhys, Philomena felt it to be incumbent upon her to help both parties, as well as fulfilling her duties at The Squid and Teapot. In one stroke, therefore, Drury was deprived of both of his friends and main sources of entertainment.

Drury had not always been so dependent on others for company. For more years than anyone could remember he had been a presence on the island, minding his own business and invariably poking his bony nose into other people’s. True, he had frequently found companionship with several generations of Night-Soil Men, but he had formed a special bond with Rhys and, more recently, Philomena.

Doc Willoughby had refused to go within twenty yards of the House at Poo Corner, which surprised no one. Philomena was thankful, convinced that a visit from the Doc usually had the effect of prolonging an illness. She, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions. The peg adorning her nose was barely sufficient for the intended task, but it at least enabled her to bring Rhys the pots of soup, plates of starry-grabby pie and flasks of Gannicox Distillery’s finest spirit, that she considered essential for the completion of a full recovery.  

“I wonder if I could go through married life wearing a peg on me nose?” she thought, idly remembering how close she had come to marrying Rhys. That was in the days, not so long ago, when it seemed as though the Night-Soil Man would give up his job for her. He would have done so, too, had his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill, not met an untimely end. 

“Well, enough of this daydreaming,” said Philomena, aloud. “Dwelling on the past will achieve nothing.”

 Drury watched forlornly as she pocketed the peg and bustled away, back to the inn.

With the absence of anything better to do, Drury resorted, that afternoon, to his old habits of removing washing from lines and terrorising the occasional spoonwalker. Usually these activities would leave him feeling fulfilled. Today, however, they held no pleasure for him at all. He wandered listlessly over to the establishment known for years as Madame Evadne’s, lately renamed the School of Dance, in the hope that Philomena would be there. Several of the Washwell brothers were shifting furniture in through the big front door, with Mirielle D’Illay barking orders at them in French and English, but there was no sign of Philomena. Nor was she in The Squid and Teapot. Drury was puzzled.

It must be remembered that, even allowing for the fact that he may appear to be nothing more than a collection of bones, Drury is no ordinary dog; he has been around for a very long time. So when Philomena failed to appear by nightfall, he knew that something was amiss. Had Rhys Cranham been in any fit state to search for Philomena, Drury would have tugged at his jacket, in the best Rin Tin Tin style, and made him understand that something was wrong. As it was, Rhys was huddled under a pile of blankets, running a temperature and feeling extremely sorry for himself.

It had been Philomena’s habit to wander into the Gydynap Hills whenever she felt the need to clear her head. The extra workload of helping Les Demoiselles to move into new premises, worrying about Rhys and wondering how to organise Granny Bucket’s forthcoming deathday party, was beginning to take its toll. Despite being horribly busy, she just had to get away for an hour or two. More often than not, Drury would appear from nowhere and accompany her. It was ironic that he had decided to feel particularly unloved that day, and chosen to wreck washing lines on the other side of the island, just when she needed him most. Unaware of this, and deciding that her old friend must have been nobly watching over Rhys, she set off alone.

Night falls quickly on Hopeless at the best of times. In the winter it slips in like a thief, and steals away the daylight before you realise what has happened. Almost uniquely among the islanders, being out in the dark had never particularly bothered Philomena, especially since learning that powerful witch-blood flowed in her veins. In the past this, and the fact that Rhys had been secretly keeping an eye on her, had kept the less pleasant denizens of Hopeless at bay. Tonight, however, was different. Rhys was fitfully sleeping in his sick-bed and, because of her preoccupation with those other things, Philomena’s defences were down. That is why she did not sense the presence of the figure following her. At least, not until it was too late.

 Drury sniffed the air. Although he had just a gap where a dog’s nose would normally be, he was as adept as a bloodhound when it came to following a trail. That Philomena had gone to the Gydynaps was no surprise, but she might have taken any one of a dozen different footpaths. To Drury, however, her scent was as clear as if etched in luminous paint upon the grass. With the gap in his ribcage, where his heart used to be, brimming with hope, he raced through the night, confident of tracking down his friend. Then he came to an abrupt halt. The trail had stopped at an outcrop of rocks. Drury clawed frantically at the ground. There was no trace of Philomena. She had apparently disappeared into thin air.

To be continued…

Mrs Beaten goes on a date.

He took me to the graveyard at twilight

The thrilling risk of staying out so late

He harvested the plants that bloom by night

An unexpected opening to the date.

I did not know how many herbs there sprout

Amongst the resting places of the dead

To take  them is grotesque I feel put out 

This does not seem the right way to be fed.

Nonetheless he set about the picking

Fragrant and flavoursome the plants he chose

Down there underneath the dead lie rotting

Will I eat that which has been fed by those?

He spoke of sauce to marinade his catch

As though he meant to take me in his snare

Would talk of stuffing make for me a match

Or did he mean to kill me in his lair?

How can one truly know a man’s intent

Talk of flesh is shameless and confusing

Is a fine banquet invitation meant

What exactly is the meat he’s using?

A wanton gesture, leaves touched to my face

As though he had designs upon my heart

Feed me herbs just to hasten my disgrace

Or break my ribs to take me quite apart.

How to interpret all this talk of food

Courtship or a terrible seduction

Romantic aims or something far more lewd

Honest soul or creature of corruption.

I thought about it.

For pity’s sake man don’t talk about meat

Without clarity and firm explaining

Don’t tempt with food trying to be discrete

Oblique offers are not that persuading.

Talk plainly fellow, if you talk at all,

Am I to go and look upon your hams

Have you got a pot that’s full of meatballs

Are you inviting me to taste your clams.

There’s nothing more annoying to my mind

Than being vague when speaking about meat

I like to know what I am going to find

Be it firm, or soft, distended or neat.

A gentleman should make himself quite clear

Be plain about what he has in his pot

His corpse herb sauce does not fill me with fear

Tell me how many tentacles he’s got.

(Whether Mrs Beaten knows what she is implying, is always a question you have to ask with her. It’s hard to say which would be more alarming, some kind of deadpan innuendo, or managing to say this from a state of utter obliviousness.)

Fright Night

By Martin Pearson

“They’ll probably blame the Chevins”

“And that’s totally fine with me.”

The two eldest Washwell brothers viewed, with some satisfaction, the obscenities that they had daubed, in bright red paint, on the front door of Les Demoiselles School of Dance.

Hubert and Egbert Washwell were angry young men. They felt put upon, mainly because their youngest brother, Septimus, had become romantically attached to the choreographer, Mirielle D’Illay, and taken up dancing. That, in itself, would have been just about bearable, but since Septimus had started something of a trend among his peers of both sexes, who also wished to learn La Danse Apache, this had resulted in Les Demoiselles having to look for larger premises.

As related in last week’s tale, ‘The School of Dance’, they found a new home in what had once been the establishment known as Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. The building had been empty for some time, and the surviving décor was not to everyone’s taste. In fact, ‘taste’ was not a word that immediately sprang to mind when describing the surviving furnishings and ornamentation found in the Lodging House. Without hesitation, or indeed, consultation, Seth Washwell had volunteered the services of his remaining six sons and the facilities of his sawmills and foundry, in order to get The School of Dance up and running.

“After all,” he reasoned, “we’re practically family these days.”

His generous gesture and clannish claims, however, were not necessarily shared with his true family, especially Hubert and Egbert. The whole enterprise had taken time and effort, which they both begrudged. ‘All that work, and for what purpose?’ they asked, both having the view that dance was an unnecessary distraction, and male dancers foppish time-wasters. As far as they were concerned, the fact that their youngest sibling bore a fancy-dancy Latin name had always placed him firmly in the ‘Foppish Time-Wasters’ corner.   

This was why, under the cover of darkness, the elder Washwells had anonymously vandalised the door. It was a small gesture, but one that made them happy for a few hours… but only for a few hours.

Seth Washwell took off his cap and scratched his head.

“Why would anybody want to do that?” he asked.

Mirielle shrugged, too upset to answer.

“It’s not a problem,” said Seth soothingly. “I’ve got some red paint at home – just about the same shade, I reckon. The best thing to do is paint the door red all over. I’ll get a couple of the boys to come along and do it this afternoon.”

It was a few hours later when Hubert and Egbert found themselves standing, once more, outside the School of Dance, clutching a can of red paint. This time, however, they were temporarily on the side of the angels. Their father, unaware of their part in desecrating the door, had given them the task of painting it.

“The mindless vandals who do that sort of thing need a good thrashing,” said Seth angrily. “I’d bet my boots that the Chevins had something to do with it.”

Hubert and Egbert were glad that the blame was resting firmly with the Chevin family, as they had predicted, but they felt cheated.

“We need to do something big,” said Egbert.

“Yes,” agreed Hubert. “Something that we can’t be blamed for, or be expected to put right.”

“Something that gets so damaged that it can’t be mended,” added his brother.

The pair looked at each other for a few seconds, then, exclaimed together,

“The statue!”

The more than life-sized statue had stood in the courtyard of the building that was now the School of Dance for more years than any could remember. No one, these days, had any idea, exactly, who Madame Evadne had been, but the legend on the plinth called her a public benefactor, and that was enough for the people of Hopeless to regard her effigy with great affection. Hubert and Egbert figured that the statue’s destruction would bring a great deal of wrath down upon the (for once) blameless heads of the Chevin family and, with any luck, The School of Dance, for allowing such a thing to happen.  

The full moon, shrouded in mist, afforded little light as the two eldest Washwell brothers made their way to The School of Dance. The silence of the night was broken only by the distant roar of the sea and a solitary, muffled, chime from the church clock. One o’clock.  Intent on destruction, they were confident that there would be little chance of discovery; with very few exceptions, only the Night-Soil Man dared to brave Hopeless at this hour, and he was on the far side of the island.

Both were startled by the figure that loomed out of the fog. It took several seconds for them to realise that they had reached their goal, for the shape before them was that of the statue which they planned to reduce to rubble. They laughed uneasily at their mistake; she looked so lifelike. Privately, each brother began to question the wisdom of their mission. The statue seemed larger than either remembered, and looked as though it had been hewn from Maine granite. Suddenly, the foundry hammers, which they had purloined for the purpose, felt light and puny in their hands.  

Not to lose face, Hubert hefted his hammer and struck the statue a ringing blow. While the statue stood, undamaged, Hubert’s arms felt as if they had been bludgeoned. That was when the moon managed to break through the clouds, bathing Madame Evadne in a pool of ice-white light. To the young men’s horror, the statue opened her eyes, to reveal two ghastly greenish-yellow orbs which seemed to bore deeply into them. They screamed in unison as slowly, solemnly, she stepped from her plinth and raised a great stone arm, as if to smite her assailants, who by now were frozen to the spot.

“If ever you try to damage me again,” she intoned, in a strangely accented voice, which was as hollow and dark as a tomb, “or threaten my building, or those within it, I will drag you to your own private Hell myself. Do not doubt me.”

By the time they were able to summon up enough courage to move, the statue had returned to the plinth. As they made their hurried way home, Hubert and Egbert had no doubts that the granite lady would carry out her threat. This was just as well, as the stripped and agonised soul of one Tobias Thrupp could testify. Many years before, she had consigned Thrupp to the vampire-haunted caverns, deep beneath the island. The inhabitants of those caverns were more than adept at keeping their prey alive for a long time.  A very long time indeed. 

Jumping from the moon

I have a recurring nightmare.

My suspicion is that I read this in a story, once. A man jumps from the moon. He is ridiculous and unsympathetic. In the dream I am angry about how the author misunderstood the nature of cats, their gratitude is a rare gift and it takes a lot to make a cat feel that they should enable you to leap in this way.

In the dream I am the idiot man who does not deserve to jump safely from the moon. In the dream I am also myself, and I hope, desperately, that if I can jump from the moon I will be safe. Then I fall, and fall as though it will go on forever, and I wake with a violent jolt to find myself back on this island after all.

I invariably wake up on the roof, as though I have indeed jumped down from the sky to a relatively safe landing. Albeit a cold one. I sleep in my trousers now, for it is an undignified thing to have to climb off one’s roof wearing only one’s nightshirt. Also cold. I am always so cold when I wake up from these dreams, as though I have fallen many miles through the relentless dark of the night sky. I imagine that space must be cold, the starlight is not warm, after all.

Tonight I shall go to sleep in my coat, and beg the cats to let me stay. I cannot jump from the moon to some other place, it seems, but perhaps the moon would not be so fearful a place as this island. Could that be true? Or is waking here but a dream that shields me from a worse truth? If this is my happy escape from horror, then I curse my own mind for not being able to invent more comforting things.

Whatever the truth of it, I am most assuredly damned.

The School of Dance

By Martin Pearson

When the Can-Can troupe, Les Demoiselles de Moulin Rouge, first came ashore upon the island of Hopeless, Maine, they, like all newcomers before them, were generously offered bed and board in The Squid and Teapot. The Squid – as the inn is fondly known by its patrons – is proud of its legendary hospitality, as readers of ‘The Vendetta’ will be aware. For those who survive their first few weeks on the island without serious mishap, the protection afforded by the stout walls of the inn is priceless. In time, however, most gain confidence and wish to find their own space. Usually, this is not a problem; in a community where the mortality rate is phenomenally high, there inevitably exists more buildings than there are people with whom to fill them. So, when the five demoiselles decided that they needed to find more conducive premises in which to practice their Terpsichorean art, they moved out of The Squid and into a corner of a foreign field which was forever France… or would have been, had they stayed there.

Les Demoiselles were happy to encourage the few girls from the orphanage who had been keen to learn the Can-Can, comfortably away from the disapproving gaze of the Reverend and Mrs Davies. Their classes were small and manageable, but everything changed when their principal dancer and choreographer, Mirielle D’Illay, was introduced to young Septimus Washwell. Septimus had a reputation of being something of a pugilist, so when he told Mirielle that he would love to be able to dance (but definitely not the Can-Can) it took little effort for her to think of the perfect outlet for his bottled-up violence. Back in Paris, performing in the Moulin Rouge, part of their act had been La Danse Apache (as described in the tale of that name). It seemed obvious that this would be ideal for Septimus, with the stylised fighting that it enacted. Somewhat inevitably, love blossomed and before long Septimus was accepted as being an honorary Demoiselle. Following their first public performance, however, there was a sudden surge of interest from young – and not so young – men keen to become “French Apache Dancers”, as they called it. While this was gratifying, Les Demoiselles soon realised that their current abode was far too small for the space needed to accommodate their pupils, and so they looked for somewhere larger.

Their new home seemed to have been deserted for years. Someone thought that it had once been some sort of Social Club, but nobody had lived there for a long time. The décor which had survived the ravages of time seemed lurid, and some of the rooms more resembled dungeons than guest chambers – but hey, this was Hopeless, Maine, so oddness was commonplace, and it was a good space. Besides this, there was a more than life-sized statue of an angelic looking woman standing in the courtyard, so surely it would be the perfect haven for Les Demoiselles.  With Septimus as part of the team, it seemed only natural to his father and six brothers that they would help renovate the property, with all of the resources of the Washwell Sawmills and Foundry at their disposal.

Long-time devotees of these tales will maybe remember a certain Sister Evangeline, an Irish nun who, many years before, took charge of Hopeless’s only bordello. She took it upon herself to become the guardian of the women who worked there, and, to be less incongruous, adopted the name of Madame Evadne. To make her transformation complete she tried to affect a French accent when dealing with clients. The result was a strange Gaelic/Gallic hybrid which was not unpleasant to the ear but, more often than not, slightly unintelligible, a nuance which added an air of mystery to all who frequented the establishment, which, by then, had become known as Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. Madame Evadne was adored by just about everyone, and some years after her death a statue was erected to honour her as the island’s greatest benefactor.

Les Demoiselles, of course knew nothing of any of this, for the bordello had closed its doors many years before. They also had no idea that once, long ago, the statue standing in the courtyard had come to life, and had taken terrible vengeance upon a brutal, cowardly man named Tobias Thrupp (this was related in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’).

Mirielle D’Illay regarded the statue uneasily. She could have sworn that it winked at her, but quickly dismissed the idea with a Gallic shrug.

“It’s just a trick of the light,” she thought. 

Ariadne’s Discovery

“Where have you been?” asked Bartholomew Middlestreet, landlord of The Squid and Teapot. “You’ve been gone for hours. I was beginning to get worried.”

Ariadne gave her husband a wry smile.

“Only up in the attics,” she said. “I can’t come to much harm up there.”

“Whatever was so important that you’ve spent half the morning in the attics?” asked Bartholomew. “And you’re covered in dust.”

“I’ve been foraging through some old books – books that haven’t been looked at for ages. You could stuff a pillow with the amount of dust that they’ve accumulated.”

“But why?”

“I needed to look something up… it was just a comment that Philomena made the other day; it bothered me and I couldn’t let it go.”  

“And are you going to tell me?” asked Bartholomew, his interest whetted.

Ariadne drew a deep breath.

“Do you remember, last week, when she was talking about celebrating Granny Bucket’s deathday?”

“Of course. A weird idea if you ask me…”

“That’s as maybe,” said Ariadne, “But she said that the only person she knew who had known the exact day of their death was her Great Uncle Brendan.”

“The horse-thief? He only knew because the judge told him,” said Bartholomew. “It sounded like a bad joke.”

“It was no joke,” said Ariadne. “Philomena told me later that Brendan was Granny Bucket’s younger brother.”

“That must have been sad for the family, but what of it? It was a long time ago,” said Bartholomew, a little callously, or so his wife thought.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Ariadne. “A very long time ago, and that’s what troubled me. It’s why I’ve been looking through old books. Old law books, in fact. Books which were washed ashore years ago, and of no interest to anybody. In the best traditions of The Squid, however, they’ve been hoarded away, just on the off-chance that one day they might be needed.”

“You’re going to get to the point soon?” quizzed Bartholomew mischievously. “We’ll have to open the inn in a couple of hours.”

Ariadne ignored the sarcasm.

“I found out that, in Britain, horse-stealing stopped being a capital crime in eighteen thirty-two.”

“Brendan was Irish,” pointed out Bartholomew.

“They were still subject to the same laws. Do you see what this means?”

“Now you come to mention it…”  replied Bartholomew, “…No, I don’t.”

He was beginning to lose interest in whatever mystery Ariadne thought she had uncovered.  

“Oh, for goodness sake,” said Ariadne, exasperated. “Look, Granny’s younger brother was hanged sometime before eighteen thirty-two, which means that Granny herself was probably born in the early eighteen-hundreds… AND PHILOMENA REMEMBERS HER! Do you see now what I’m saying?”

She watched patiently as the information seeped into Bartholomew’s mind.

“That would make Philomena at least…”

“Yes,” interrupted Ariadne, “but I don’t think it’s that simple. How long has she been on the island?”

“Four, maybe five years.”

“And that ship that she stowed-away on, the ‘Hetty Pegler’ wasn’t it? A wooden sailing ship,” said Ariadne.

“Yeess,” said Bartholomew, hesitantly, unsure where the conversation was heading.

“Every shipwreck we see on the island… why, they’re nearly always sailing ships. Maybe, very occasionally, we get some ancient steamer turn up. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to you?”

“Odd? In what way?”  

“Bartholomew,” she said gently, hardly believing what she was about to say herself. “Now and then, when the mist thins out, I’ve spotted them in the far distance, right on the horizon. Huge vessels, without sails, or without billows of smoke streaming out of funnels. I have no idea where they’re from, or what they’re carrying, but I think that they are ships; ships which don’t rely on wind or steam, and never come anywhere near the island, to fall foul of the rocks.”

Bartholomew flopped on to a chair.

“I’ve seen them, too,” he said. “It was when Doctor Dee was here. He seemed to think that they were from another time altogether, but that sounded ridiculous to me.”

Ariadne suddenly looked frightened.

“What if it’s us, Bartholomew?” she asked. “All of us, on this god-forsaken island of Hopeless? What if we’re the ones stranded in time and the future lies somewhere forever out of reach, beyond the mist and the rocks that surround us? What if every ship that crashes on to the reefs, every survivor washed up on our beaches, are from the past; a past that we cannot escape. Maybe that’s why no one is able to leave the island.”

“That’s a lot to take in,” said Bartholomew, “and I’m not convinced that you’re right, but it would explain a few things. Let’s not mention this to anyone else, though.”

“No,” agreed Ariadne. “If nothing else they’ll think we’re crazy.”

At that moment Drury, the skeletal hound, clattered into the bar and settled himself in front of the fire with a rattle of bones. As if on cue, the ghost of Father Ignatius Stamage manifested through the solid wall of the flushing privy, cheerily waved to the Middlestreets and patted Drury with a spectral hand.

Bartholomew surveyed the scene for a long moment.

“Maybe we are, my love,” he said. “Maybe we are.”

The Party Planner

By Martin Pearson

“Well, that’s over for another year,” said Bartholomew Middlestreet, not without some relief in his voice.

Christmas celebrations at The Squid and Teapot had been somewhat riotous this year. Bartholomew, Ariadne and their barmaid, Philomena Bucket, had gone out of their way to make it special, and their efforts had just about exhausted the three of them.

“Yes,” agreed his wife, “It seems a shame, though, that it’s all done and dusted so quickly. Once we get the new year out of the way, there’ll be no excuse for a celebration for ages.”

“Unless of course somebody decides to get married,” said Bartholomew pointedly, giving Philomena a meaningful stare.

Despite the slight flush that sprang to her pale cheeks, Philomena pretended not to notice, deciding instead to change the subject.

“We could always do something for Granny Bucket’s deathday, in February,” she volunteered.

“Granny Bucket’s what?” asked Ariadne, confused.

“Granny’s deathday. It’s in February.”

“But I thought she was already dead,” said Bartholomew. “In fact I’ve seen her ghost hanging around The Squid several times.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Philomena. “But February the seventh will be the anniversary of her death. Everybody has a deathday, but most people don’t know when it is.”

 “I don’t think that it’s anything that many would want to be aware of,” said Ariadne.

“The only person I know who knew exactly when he was going to die was my Great Uncle Brendan,” said Philomena, wistfully.

“Was he a clairvoyant?” asked Ariadne.

“No, a horse thief,” said Philomena. “The judge told him.”

There was an uncomfortable silence while the other two struggled for something appropriate to say. Philomena came to their rescue.

“Anyway, it’s given me an idea,“ she said. “How about we throw a party for each of the island’s ghosts, to be held on the anniversary of their death?”

“There are rather a lot of them,” mused Bartholomew. “And it raises a few questions, as well.”

“Such as?” asked Philomena, quietly irked that her suggestion seemed to be in danger of falling at the first fence.

“How would we know when it happened?”

“They’ll know, believe me. They know to the minute, especially if violence of any sort was involved,” replied Philomena.

“Hmm, that’s pretty much every ghost on the island,” conceded Bartholomew, “but how can they celebrate? As far as I know they don’t eat or drink anything.”

“There’s more to a celebration than eating and drinking,” said Philomena, not entirely convincingly. “But the ones I’ve met like to socialise, I’m sure we could arrange that. After all, ghosts are people too.”

“No they’re not,” pointed out Ariadne. “They’re ghosts. And what about the Mad Parson? Are you including him in these little get-togethers?”

Philomena frowned. Having Obadiah Hyde at any social event would be problematic.

“But should we exclude him?” she asked. “After all, he can’t help being mad.”

“No, he can’t help being mad, but he could help it when he decided to remove Lady Margaret’s D’Avening’s head,” said Ariadne. “If she knows that he is involved in anything, she won’t take part.”

That was true. As has been told in these tales before, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock and the Headless Lady who haunted the flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, had history, and could not stand to be in each other’s company. It could be guaranteed that, within minutes, the ectoplasm would start to fly.

“Fair enough. Obadiah can be the exception,” agreed Philomena. “How about the others?”

Bartholomew sucked in his cheeks thoughtfully.

“What if we give a party for Granny Bucket in February, and see what happens?” he suggested.

The two women nodded in silent agreement, and bustled out of the bar, already discussing the guest list and venue.

“There will be at least six weeks of this,” thought Bartholomew, aloud. “What have I let myself in for?”

“More than you can imagine, my lad,” cackled the wraith of Granny Bucket, from where she lurked in the shadows. “More than you can possibly imagine.”

A Hopeless Christmas Carol

By Martin Pearson

Despite the frost, fog, and general abject misery, the island of Hopeless, Maine was beginning to embrace an unmistakable atmosphere that was definitely leaning towards the festive. This was due, in no small part, to the efforts of Philomena Bucket and the Middlestreets, Bartholomew and Ariadne, who had decided that Christmas should be celebrated in style this year. They had festooned The Squid and Teapot with an assortment of decorations and had contrived a special seasonal menu, which featured their own version of plum-pudding. Each evening, in the bar, one could hear rousing renditions of half-remembered carols, executed by various patrons of the inn and performed in an interesting variety of keys and tempos, often at the same time. Even The Squid’s resident ghosts, Lady Margaret D’Avening and Father Ignatius Stamage, lent their voices from the seclusion of the indoor flushing privy, where they were wont to haunt, giving any visiting clients something of a shock.

Most islanders seemed to enjoy the efforts being made, but as in every well-meaning endeavour, there was the inevitable handful of naysayers. Not least among these, and possibly the most vocal, was Doc Willoughby, who found the whole Christmas experience to be tiresome, to say the least, with its forced jollity and unfounded optimism interfering with the serious business of drinking.

“Blasted carol singers,” he moaned to no one in particular. “Why does Christmas have to come round so often? Oh, how I hate it. Humbug!” (This last ejaculation was in response to the Doc having spotted, and indeed heard, a humbug. This is a rare flying beetle uniquely native to Hopeless Maine. Although quite small and nondescript to behold, the humbug can be readily identified by its tendency to loudly hum the melody of any tune it hears, and, as it appears only during the month of December, that tune is invariably a Christmas carol).

“He gets more and more curmudgeonly every year,” complained Philomena Bucket to Miss Calder, the spectral administrator of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. “I don’t mind that he dislikes Christmas, but he doesn’t have to spoil it for everyone else.”

“No, indeed,” sympathised Miss Calder. “I wonder if he has always been like that? Something awful must have happened to make him such a misery.”

“I can’t see any of us changing him now,” said Philomena, philosophically. “It would take a miracle.”

“Hmmm, maybe,” replied Miss Calder thoughtfully, then her face turned briefly skeletal as an idea formed in her ghostly head.

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for an opportunistic young spoonwalker, quietly rifling through Doc Willoughby’s cutlery drawer. Meanwhile, up in his bedroom, the Doc was nestled snugly in bed, while alcohol-fuelled visions danced alarmingly in his head. The clock was just striking twelve when he was suddenly and rudely wrested from the arms of Morpheus – who, quite frankly, was glad to be rid of him –  by an unearthly glow that appeared to emanate from the far side of the room.

“What the… who’s there?” he demanded irritably.

“Doc Willoughby… Doc Willoughby…” said a distinctly familiar voice from somewhere within The Unearthly Glow, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“No you’re not,” said the Doc. “You’re Miss Calder.”

“No, really, I definitely am the ghost of Christmas Past,” insisted The Unearthly Glow, though a trifle uncertainly.

“Miss Calder, I may be half-asleep and slightly drunk, but I would recognise your sepulchral – though not unpleasant – tones anywhere.”

Abashed, Miss Calder stopped being an Unearthly Glow and returned to her more familiar form.

(Unlike the other ghosts of the island, Miss Calder has always been able to wander wherever she chooses, and not doomed to haunt a single given area or object. This latest feat, however, of changing her outward appearance, is one that I had not been previously aware of. It just goes to show that you can learn something new every day.)

“Very well, I give in, Doc. You’re right… but I’ve come to say that you really need to change your ways. You must have enjoyed Christmas as a youngster, surely? It should be a time of joy and giving, not grumpiness,” she said, as little by little, she faded through the wall

“Humbug!” said the Doc, as a small flying creature zipped past his ear, melodically crooning ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ in the key of F major.

That might have been the end of the tale, but as the Doc lay in his bed, he could not help but reflect on Miss Calder’s words. Had he enjoyed Christmas as a child? For the life of him, he could not remember. In fact, he could not even recall ever being a child. Surely he had not been middle-aged for all of his days? That was preposterous, even on Hopeless. He would check with Reverend Davies in the morning to see if he had any memory of them being children together.

It was barely daylight when the Doc was woken again, this time by the off-key, slightly nasal whine of a thin, adolescent voice.

Hobbling drowsily to the window, he opened it, and put out his head, to be assailed by drizzly rain, wispy mist and a dismally cold breeze.

“What’s today?” cried the Doc, calling downward to the owner of the voice, who was dressed in what passed as his Sunday best.

“Today? Why it’s Christmas Day.”

“Christmas Day?” said Doc. “Then you should have more respect, trying to sing and disturbing decent people at this hour.”

In a fit of pique, he threw a boot, which narrowly missed the youth and bounced harmlessly into the gutter.

“Now go away.”

This last sentence, you will appreciate, was not the Doc’s actual terminology, but I have no doubt that from it you will grasp the gist of his sentiments.

Doc slammed the window shut and returned to bed, only to be disturbed seconds later by a diminutive winged beetle cheerily flitting around the room and humming the ever popular seasonal ditty “We wish you a merry Christmas.”  

“Humbug!” growled the Doc.