Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

The Unhappy Medium

Drury, the skeletal hound, was curled up contentedly on an old blanket in the corner of the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, affectionately known to all as ‘The House at Poo Corner’.

As far as Drury was concerned, all was right with the world.  To all intents and purposes Philomena Bucket had stopped wasting her time worrying about being a powerful witch, or getting married, and was once more ensconced behind the bar of The Squid and Teapot. Even better, Rhys Cranham was back in his rightful place, servicing the cess-pits and outdoor privies of the islanders of Hopeless Maine. All thoughts of marriage appeared to have left them both, at least for the time being. The status quo had been restored to Drury’s satisfaction.

Rhys looked down fondly at the bony old hound. It would soon be time to drag on his boots, strap on the lidded bucket and once more venture out into the darkness. Doubtless, Drury would accompany him, as he did on most nights. Rhys could not help wondering how things would have changed, had his and Philomena’s wedding plans come to fruition. The role of Night-Soil Man had taken up half of his life, first as apprentice to Shenandoah Nailsworthy, then, after Shenandoah’s death, as Night-Soil Man in his own right. Would he have coped with married life? He had no idea; it might have been a disaster. After leaving the Pallid Rock Orphanage, the night soil business was all that he had ever known. It was probably best not to dwell on the question. Happily, Philomena was still a good friend, leaving a couple of bottles of Old Colonel and a wedge of starry-grabby pie on his doorstep every evening.

Despite the all-pervading misery that seemed to seep into every nook and cranny of the island, The Squid and Teapot generally managed to maintain its reputation for good cheer. A visitor could always expect a warm welcome and, more often as not, entertainment, of a sort. Tonight the venerable Bell-Edison phonograph, which always added a frisson of excitement to proceedings, had been taken out to provide the music for Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine, the troupe of Moulin Rouge dancers who had been shipwrecked on the island a year or so earlier. To the strains of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop (or ‘The Can-Can’ to most of us) the aforementioned young ladies performed their ever-popular routine to an appreciative audience. By a strange coincidence, whenever Les Demoiselles performed in the inn, some of those who rarely patronised the establishment found themselves with a pressing need to pay it a visit.

“Reverend Davies, we don’t often see you in here,” said Bartholomew Middlestreet, with no surprise in his voice whatsoever.

“Quite so,” said the Reverend importantly. “I’ve come to see Miss Bucket, if that is convenient.”

He failed to mention that he had already seen Philomena; she had been walking in the opposite direction.

“Sorry Reverend, she’s out at the moment and won’t be back for a while. She said she needed an hour or so to herself.”

“That’s a shame,” replied Davies unconvincingly. “I can’t wait an hour, but as long as I’m here I may as well have a small drink and watch the… er… cabaret.”

Philomena walked purposefully towards the Gydynap Hills. She was troubled and needed to be far away from other people for a while. Despite the hazards of venturing out into the night on Hopeless, Philomena never felt herself to be in danger. It seemed that the ghost of Granny Bucket was right – or maybe she was just lucky.

Granny, and Philomena’s friend, Doctor John Dee, had both impressed upon her that she possessed great magical ability. Unfortunately, Granny was no longer haunting her and John Dee had returned to Elizabethan England. This was bad enough, but to make things worse, her marriage to Rhys Cranham had been called off, following the violent death of his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill. Philomena felt horribly alone in the world and this feeling that her magic was growing more powerful by the day was not helping. She had never been comfortable having the dubious gift of ‘The Sight’, but now it was as if she had been given an even more burdensome gift, like that of some great wild animal, which she had no idea how to tame. If only Granny was here to help. Philomena sat down on the grass and wept in the misty darkness.

“Are you okay?”

Philomena had not heard the young woman approach.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. Just being silly,” said Philomena, wiping her eyes.

“Do you want to talk about it? I can sit with you for a while. I’m Marigold. Marigold Burleigh.”

“Ah. You’ll be the nurse I heard tell of. Sit, by all means, but I don’t need to talk, honestly” replied Philomena.

She had no idea why she was being so cautious, but somewhere, deep inside Philomena, alarm bells were ringing.

Trickster could feel subtle changes happening to the meat-suit already. That was a pity. He was enjoying being female and they usually lasted longer than this. The other one, the young man Linus, had given him months of wear. On reflection, Linus had resisted and done his best to get rid of Trickster. He had rarely been sober; that probably had some bearing on things. Anyway, all that was in the past, and this girl was not going to hold together for very much longer; he needed someone new to possess.

“That’s fine,” said Marigold, sweetly, “but I’d quite like us to be friends. How about you and I go for a quiet walk in the moonlight? I’m sure we’ll be safe enough if we’re careful.”

She offered the crook of her arm to Philomena, who took it warily.

“Gotcha!” thought Trickster

To be continued…

Mrs Beaten on moths

Never lick the moths, no matter how tempting they appear to be, or how hungry you are. They only ever taste dusty. Only a person driven half mad by hunger would think it reasonable to attempt to lick such a being. In the winter, when it has been deathly cold for far too long and your chickens are unwilling to lay anything resembling eggs, you might find a moth sheltering in the folds of a curtain, and succumb to the notion that moth licking has merit.

At such moments as these, the true obscenity of eating becomes all too apparent. The fleshiness of one’s own mouth. The inherently sordid nature of chewing and swallowing. The horror of a body that must consume in order to survive. It is as though the moths somehow cause these dreadful thoughts. I have found that the only safe way to prevent further ghastly moth incidents, is to keep my home rigorously free of them.

It is generally good practice to remove insects from the home. They cannot be trusted not to leave dirty footprints on the walls, and have the unpleasant habit of dying in unexpected places. I have benefited greatly from the judicious application of Dr Field’s insect repellent soap. Most moths cannot bear the flavour of cloth that has been washed in this substance. The green stains on my own skin vanished in a matter of days, and were a small price to pay for removing the moth problem.

I also invested in one of Dr Field’s special hunting robots. Although I am now uncertain about the nature of my purchase, for whatever is inside the robot grows as it consumes insects. I can see unsightly hairs pushing through the cracks in the device. I am fairly certain that yesterday I saw it eating a mouse, and I do not like the feeling that it is looking at me. Thankfully however I have had no urges to try and eat it, which is an overall improvement.

(With thanks to Rebecca Field for loaning her face.)

The proper arrangement of a kitchen

Mrs Beaten has an inexplicable urge to tell people how to manage their households.

A well functioning kitchen depends on proper consideration of the layout. First and foremost, one must ask, where will the blood go? At the very least, a kitchen should include a channel that will carry blood and other fluids conveniently from the room. If the channel does not have a slight tilt to it, then the contents will simply run out onto the floor when you try to wash it away, which entirely defeats the object of having such a channel in the first place. The channel width requires careful consideration. It should not be broad enough to invite a misplaced foot, but if it is too narrow it may block easily. 

Position your kitchen table over the channel. This will allow you to bleed the dead as required. Should you find the blood wholesome and suitable for black pudding, a bucket that straddles the channel and that can sit beneath the table will suffice. When the draining is for purposes other than culinary, simply let the blood run out into the channel, and sluice down with water at the end.

Where the channel exits your abode, you should be alert to the possibility of attracting vermin, and demons. That which is vacated from the deceased body, that which is unsavoury, may prove attractive to undesirable entities and it is ill advised to have them congregate in too close proximity to yourself. Chickens can be a good choice for both processing your disgusting waste and seeing off demons. A decently sized chicken will also eat rats, and their brightly glowing eyes provide useful illumination at night.

A large sink is essential in a well designed kitchen. Once the body has been drained you will want to wash it thoroughly. Consider where sink water will drain off and if possible, align this with your blood channel.

Your larder must be cool and shady. Be alert to any means by which a fly might enter this space bringing putrification and undertaking to steal your precious provisions.

While a sturdy range with ovens and plates is of course desirable, a great deal can be done with a cauldron suspended over a fire, and the judicious use of griddles. 

You will need knives. Very sharp knives. Also a knife sharpener so that you can keep those knives absolutely lethal at all times. A large meat cleaver is always a good investment especially for the processing of larger bones. A good chopping board will help to mute the noises made by using the meat cleaver. 

Some kitchen implements will turn out to be cursed, possessed or haunted. It is advisable to keep a few sturdy boxes along with chains and padlocks against such eventualities. However tempting it may be, never throw possessed or haunted kitchenware into the garden. Such items may ambush you in the future, seeking revenge or furthering other unnatural schemes. Always lock your suspect items in a secure place before seeking professional advice.

The District Nurse

If Doc Willoughby had truly received the classical education that he liked to imply, or indeed, possessed a half-decent dictionary, he would have been aware that the words ‘Patience’ and ‘Patients’ were both derived from the Latin ‘patientia’, meaning to bear, or to suffer. As it is, this particular homonym hung like a raincloud over the Doc, for while he had never enjoyed an abundance of patience, he always felt himself to be burdened with far too many patients. It was, therefore, with a certain amount of foreboding and an unwelcoming scowl that he answered the door to a young lady whom he did not recognise.

“Can’t help you,” he growled, before she had said a word, “too busy. You’ll have to make an appointment. Sometime during the week after next there might be a free spot.”

Doc said this, ignoring the fact that his surgery was obviously empty and the unmistakable waft of the Gannicox Distillery’s Finest Aqua Vitae emanated from his every pore. The girl tilted her head to one side and smiled with such radiance that even Doc’s frostiness thawed a little.

“Oh, I don’t need an appointment, doctor,” she said sweetly, “I was hoping you might be able to give me a job.”

“I don’t need a housekeeper, cook, secretary or any other domestic service you might be offering,” replied Doc brusquely, and made to close the door.

“No… you don’t understand. I am a qualified nurse and I thought I might be able to help. You obviously have a really heavy workload.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” lied the Doc, whose cure for everything usually involved alcohol, both for himself and his patient. “A nurse, eh? Well, maybe you can be of assistance. Come on in and let’s talk about it.”

The possession of curricula vitae or references have never featured greatly in Hopeless, Maine’s employment market. People arriving on the island generally have a short life-expectancy and frequently disappear without a trace. Any skills they might possess must be quickly utilised before they are lost forever. It was not deemed unusual, therefore, for the Doc to accept the nurse’s qualifications on face-value. ‘’After all’’, he reasoned, ‘‘what harm can she do?’’

Nurse Marigold Burleigh stood in the gloomy living-room, dispassionately observing the pale, angular woman sitting before her.

“It’s chest pains,” simpered Mrs Davies. “My husband, the Reverend, is concerned that I might have acute angina.”

“You needn’t worry on that account,” said Marigold, “I can promise you, you haven’t got a cute anything. Now, stick out your tongue.”

Mrs Davies obediently thrust out her tongue.

“Hmmm… that’s not good,” said the nurse. “Now show me the palms of your hands…  and keep your tongue out. Try humming a tune. Now wave your hands from side to side and roll your eyes.”

Marigold’s face registered no amusement, just professional concern, as Mrs Davies threw dignity out of the window and followed her instructions.

“Oh, that’s bad. That’s very bad,” said Marigold. “I’m afraid you have a bad case of numptiness, but not to worry. I don’t think it’s likely to be fatal.”

“Oh gosh,” said Mrs Davies, coming perilously close to blasphemy. “What can I do?”

“There is a cure… but you might not like it…”

“Tell me, tell me… I’ll do anything.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Is there a fresh-water pool anywhere close by?”

“Yes – Nudger’s Pond is quite near.”

“Perfect… now here is what you have to do… “

“Golly Mr Gannicox! I have never seen one quite as big as that before,” said Nurse Burleigh, with genuine surprise.

The bony lump which had formed at the base of Norbert’s big toe was unfeasibly large, by anyone’s standard.

“Bunions seem to be a family curse,” he said miserably. “Both my parents suffered with them.”

 “Sadly, there is not a lot I can do,” said Marigold. “Although, I imagine Doc Willoughby could remove it with surgery.”

“No, no, that’s okay,” said Norbert hastily. “I’ve put up with it for this long…”

“There is an old folk-remedy you might like to try. Do you know where Nudger’s Pond is?”

“Yeeees,” said Norbert, uncertainly. “What do I have to do?”

“Numptiness?” said Seth Washpool. “That’s a new one on me. How did I catch it?”

“It’s possibly congenital,” replied Marigold.

“That’s not likely,” said Seth indignantly, “not at my age. Why, I can’t remember the last time…”

“No,” Marigold quickly interrupted, “I mean that you probably inherited it from one of your parents.”

“Well, that would be all I did inherit,” said Seth, somewhat bitterly. “Can anything be done about it?”

“Hopefully, if you act now, it won’t be fatal. There is a cure, but you might not be too keen to try it… Do you know Nudger’s Pond, by any chance?”

Word soon spread that numptiness was, apparently, endemic on the island. Along with a series of very minor ailments that could be similarly addressed by the application of a quaint folk-remedy, the disease kept Marigold busy all day. She reported back to Doc Willoughby later that evening, reassuring him that nothing of any concern had arisen during her rounds and the islanders of Hopeless were, by and large, in rude good health. The Doc gave a most uncharacteristic smile – if, indeed, the chilling rictus that creased his face for the briefest instant could be construed as being a smile. Marigold beamed back at him. She was an absolute beauty, and no mistake. If the doctor had been a younger man and remotely sober he could have been more than a little smitten with her.  Sadly, he was neither of these things, and quite possibly, never had been.

Despite that it was almost midnight, Marigold had one last call to make. Durosimi O’Stoat’s house was more than a little forbidding in the misty moonlight, but it troubled her not at all. She banged on his door, making it rattle in its frame. Durosimi thrust his head from an upstairs window.

“Yes? What do you want at this hour?”

“Mr O’Stoat? I’m Nurse Burleigh. I am Doc Willoughby’s assistant.”

“I need no medical help,” said Durosimi dismissively. “Any business I might have with Willoughby has nothing to do with his quackery.”

“I must speak to you,” said Marigold. “It is regarding your personal safety.”

“My safety?” Durosimi laughed mirthlessly. “You should worry about your own safety, young lady, disturbing me in the middle of the night.”

“Oh, I am safe enough,” Marigold’s voice had changed. There was an ancient darkness to it that make Durosimi start. “You should beware, O’Stoat. A vengeful spirit stalks you even as we speak. It is the ghost of a young Night-Soil Man. Does that ring any bells?”

For a moment Durosimi’s face went ashen, then he composed himself.

“How do you know this?” he asked.  “Come to that, who are you, exactly? Certainly not some lackey of Willoughby’s, I’ll wager.”

Marigold laughed and walked away. A wind suddenly shook the trees and Durosimi could have sworn that it spoke.

While Marigold and Durosimi were exchanging unpleasantries, a mile away, across the island, Rhys Cranham and Drury were an hour or so into the Night-Soil Man’s round. Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by the sound of voices.  Rhys stopped to listen; there must have been ten or twelve people chanting, by the sound of things. That was unusual; Nudger’s Pond was no place to be at this time of night. The noxious odour of the Night-Soil Man guaranteed that no night-prowler could stand to come within yards of him, but if people were out there singing they were definitely in danger. And then he saw them, illuminated by the pale full-moon peering through the mist. Wading around the pond, dressed only in their underwear and obviously in a deep trance-like state, was a group of islanders.

Were they drunk? Rhys dismissed the thought when he recognised Norbert Gannicox, who eschewed strong drink. And there was the unmistakable scrawny form of Seth Washpool, who definitely didn’t. And… was that…? It can’t be, but it looks like…? Surely not! But it was Mrs Davies. Something had to be done. The Reverend’s wife could not be seen wandering around Nudger’s Pond in her nether garments. Drury must have had the same thought, for in an instant he was running as fast as his bony old legs would take him, excitedly barking towards the Vicarage end of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Within minutes the wraith of Miss Calder could be seen fluttering towards them, while the Reverend, resplendent in a striped nightshirt with matching cap, came plodding behind her, intent on preserving his wife’s modesty and reputation.  It was then that the wind which Durosimi had heard rustled through the trees circling the area. It seemed to be laughing at them. Rhys thought that he caught a single word whispered in the leaves.

 The sound they made was “Triiiickksterrrr”.

The ghastly fate of Barry Lupin

Barry Lupin had an unhealthy passion for systems. He had come from some distant and exotic land where the natives pracriced such curious rituals as filing. Although ostensibly he spoke English, he dropped strange and arcane words of uncertain provenance into his conversations. Systems analysis. Research protocol. Data retrieval. He spoke these terms with such conviction that members of the Scientific Society who had no idea what he meant felt obliged to just nod their heads respectfully.

The trouble with having a passion for filing paperwork, is that this necessitates having some kind of paper supply. Hopeless has never been a place where paper making has ever occurred in significant quantities. The ‘imports’ available through shipwrecks often leave a lot to be desired for quality and may have already been written on. While Frampton Jones has always supported the Scientific Society, that support has never included a desire to sacrifice his constantly recycled paper supplies for them.

And so it was that Barry Lupin came to the pragmatic decision that he had best paint the walls of his house black so as to be able to write on them with chalk. He was certainly not the first person to go for the squid-based wall blackening, although more normally this would have involved cult membership or occult aspirations. Barry just wanted a viable paper substitute. Thereafter, he was able to plan out his systems, protocols, methodology and other record keeping theories, washing ideas away when he had explored them to their limits and discussing them at length with his bemused friends.

In his tiny, precise handwriting, Barry slowly covered the walls of his home in observations, ordered according to the systems he had so thoughtfully planned. His stairway became a catalogue of dustcat observations. The bedroom he filled with things he had witnessed that defied physics and all of his calculations relating to those circumstances. In the living room he made notes upon the noises he heard around the house at night but could not explain. The first few remarks having been written in jest, he became increasingly obsessed with this subject.

One evening in the early part of winter his friends found him, writing the leter A over and over again across his exposed and painted floorboards. He would not speak to them, and when he had run out of floor he simply continued into the garden. None of them could stop his slow and crawling departure into the woods. Although to be fair, the trio who found him were so confused by his behaviour that they did not greatly exert themselves and instead observed the scene carefully in case future notes were required.

Only later did they explore the house, tracing the relentless ‘A’s back to their point of origin in the phrase ‘the horror, the horror, I am screaming all the time I write this.’

(With thanks to Andy Arbon for loaning us his face!)

The Vengeful Spirit

Many of you will be aware that some of the characters who have appeared in these Tales of The Squid and Teapot have, in a short time after arriving on the island, become ghosts. The teacher, Marjorie Toadsmoor and Father Ignatius Stamage immediately spring to mind, both having been killed in unfortunate circumstances. Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson was probably pushed off Chapel Rock by a disgruntled parishioner. By coincidence, he had been the self-appointed executioner of Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless White Lady who haunts the flushing privy of the inn. She had been dead for centuries when she came to Hopeless, transported in a pile of dressed stones that once comprised part of her stately home, in England. Each of these have one thing in common; they are bound to some solid object and are only able to wander from the immediate area if the artefact which they are haunting is moved.

Other ghosts are more mobile, but doomed to follow a set path. Think of The Little Drummer Boy, or Lars Pedersen, The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow, who has spent a millennium searching for his missing eggs. Then there is Clarissa Cockadilly, who will dance you to death, then throw you into the swamp at the end of the notorious, and to be avoided, Forty Second street. It is not just the land that has its spectral wanderers. The foggy skies of Hopeless are home, of course, to the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt, who, with their irritating yapping spaniels and flatulent mules, are apparently damned to spend eternity plodding through the heavens, searching for some irretrievably lost pamphlets.

Finally, we have a third and more select group; these are the vocational ghosts, phantoms for whom the call of duty is greater than the demands of death. These people had no intention of letting something as trivial as mortality get in the way of their busy schedule. The prime example of this variety is Miss Calder, who is more than able to administer the daily running of The Pallid Rock Orphanage, despite being dead. I guess we can also include Philomena Bucket’s beloved granny here, whose spirit has migrated to the island solely to protect her grand-daughter. Perhaps less obviously, this group contains the wraiths of the various Night-Soil Men. Here we have an unbroken line stretching back to the arrival of the Founding Families, and the first to bear the lidded-bucket, the introverted Killigrew O’Stoat. Despite their lowly calling there is an almost mythical stature attached to these men (they have always been men) and, though unseen, their spirits continue to wander the island, watching over the ever-unfolding generations of their calling.

Naboth Scarhill had every right to feel aggrieved. At the tender age of sixteen years he had been deprived of life, cruelly slaughtered by a vicious thought-form, a creature brought into existence by a person, or persons, unbeknownst to him. Reduced now to no more than a protoplasmic mass that had taken on his earthly shape, he raged impotently against the unfairness of it all, vowing to take revenge on his killer.

“Don’t do it, Naboth.”

The voice was little more than a whisper through the bare, stunted trees.

Naboth looked about but saw no one. He was surprised to feel a tremor of fear pass through him. That made no sense. He was a ghost, dammit! He was supposed to do the frightening.

“I will be avenged,” he cried defiantly, but somewhat shakily, into the night.

The whispering became louder. There seemed to be many voices now. Then he saw them.

Almost indistinguishable from the mist, glimmering in the late evening air were dozens of Night-Soil Men, clustering all around him.

“Welcome Brother Naboth,” the voices said. “Take your place with us. Do not seek revenge, it will not return you to life.”

“Maybe not,” said Naboth defiantly, “but it will make me happier.”

One of the Night-Soil Men stepped out of the throng.

“I was once Elmer Bussage,” he said softly. “Like you, I was ripped to pieces and desperately craved for revenge. Then one day I discovered that the creature who had killed me had been cast down into the bottomless sinkhole at the end of my garden. I thought it would make me happy, but I felt nothing. Not relief, not pleasure. Nothing. Accept your lot, Naboth, and join your brethren.”

But Naboth’s ghost was angry beyond reasoning. He drifted through them like smoke and allowed himself to go wherever the night took him, while the wraiths of his predecessors looked on in despair.

A long time had passed since Trickster was last on Hopeless. Some of you might remember that he was previously seen in the shape of a white hare. When he first possessed her, it had not occurred to Trickster that, although he was fearless and immortal, the hare was not. When irate spoonwalkers attacked, he tried to escape but found himself trapped within the hare’s body, careering madly through the foggy night in a headlong flight towards the rocky cliffs and restless ocean. It had taken some considerable time for him to extricate himself from the watery clutches of the Atlantic and discover another suitable host. No one can say that Trickster is not persistent, for here he was again, back on this strange little island that so suited his needs. Having assumed the form of a beautiful young woman, he had quickly and easily insinuated himself into what passes as society on Hopeless, using his charm to gain a foothold into the lives of those whom he believed might be useful. One such was Durosimi O’Stoat. Trickster knew all about his plotting to kill the Night-Soil Man, and was amused by the way in which Durosimi’s plans had backfired badly when Naboth died instead of Rhys Cranham. This was such an easy place to cause mischief.

“You can see me?” said Naboth, astonished. “And you’re not scared?”

“Of course not,” the girl replied, “I’ve seen loads of spooks. You’re better looking than most, as well.”

Naboth, although a ghost, had not yet shed enough of his mortal instincts to be anything less than a red-blooded sixteen-year old. The young lady standing before him was certainly alluring, and he wanted to impress her.

“Well, I shouldn’t be dead yet,” he confessed, “and I’m looking for revenge. Once I find out who did it, the person responsible for killing me is really going to pay. Big time”

“Oh, that was Durosimi O’Stoat” said the girl airily. “But it won’t be easy getting to him.”

Naboth said nothing. He had no idea how she knew, but she was right. Durosimi would be difficult to hurt.

Trickster wandered into the night, happy that things had gone so smoothly. All that was needed now, after letting Durosimi know that he was to be the victim of a vengeful spirit, was to stand back and watch the fun.

Mrs Beaten and the unspeakable table legs

Mrs Beaten has never approved of exposed legs, including those of tables. It just isn’t decent, to leave them there on display for all the world to see. Not that the world had ever been in the habit of entering Mrs Beaten’s parlour and she was hardly in the habit of sending out invitations. 

Nevertheless, someone might see. One of Mrs Beaten’s ongoing ambitions in life is to make sure that the moment of her death could come, entirely unannounced, and she would be perfectly ready for it. Her underwear would be clean should some medical inspection be required. Her home would be in perfect order. Therefore it followed that if a person entered her parlour concerned about her possible demise, there would be no unseemly legs on display there.

We can tell from these thoughts that Mrs Beaten had at best a tenuous grasp of what would happen in the event of her death. Much of her planning was based on the assumption that her absence would be noted and commented upon, leading people to decide that Something Must Be Done. In reality the odds were high that by the time anyone noticed that they hadn’t noticed her for a while, the state of her underwear would be primarily informed by the state of decay she had otherwise achieved. The likelihood of a corpse not doing something unspeakable to its own undergarments was something she might reasonably be expected to have a better understanding of.

As for the table legs, it is unlikely that any other islander would give them more than a fleeting glance even if they were shamelessly left on display. Reverend Davies might have had an uncomfortable moment on seeing a carved leg whose shapely form evoked recollections of rounded, feminine thighs. These legs had no such issues. Beneath the table you would find a sturdy calf, a well polished boot and a neatly hung trouser…

With a long table cloth, the unseemly table legs were largely invisible. At least once a week she swept carefully under the table itself. The job always made her shudder because there was no way of avoiding the unseemly legs then or the dreadful feelings they were bound to encourage.

A Semblance of Normality

“It’s probably all for the best,” said Philomena Bucket, philosophically. “I don’t think I’m the marrying type, really.”
She was coming to terms with the fact that, on what was supposed to be the morning of their wedding, Rhys Cranham had felt compelled to return to his occupation as Night-Soil Man. Some strange things had been happening in Philomena’s life lately, and she was determined to return to some semblance of normality, or as normal as one could expect things to be on the island of Hopeless, Maine.
“Anyway,” she added, “I’m still young. Well, fairly young, I suppose, and there’s plenty of time…”
She crossed her fingers as she said this. It was never wise to tempt Providence on this dangerously capricious island.
“What do you reckon?” she quizzed her companion.
Despite having hollow eye-sockets, Drury looked up at Philomena lovingly. He had spent the last two days chasing spoonwalkers who, confusingly, had disappeared the moment he caught them. It had been a good game but he was grateful that Philomena had rescued him. Neither were aware that the spoonwalker thought-forms had been created by Durosimi O’Stoat, in an attempt to keep Drury safely out of the way, while a doppelganger of the osseous hound was ripping up Naboth Scarhill, the new Night-Soil Man.
Since bringing Drury back from the Gydynap Hills, Philomena had made a point of writing to Rhys, saying that she understood his decision, and maybe they could look at marriage again in a year or two, at such times as he had trained a new apprentice. She had added a postscript, to the effect that Drury was totally innocent of killing Naboth, having been otherwise occupied when Rhys thought that he had seen him carrying the boy’s arm away.

Sitting in his cottage, commonly known as The House at Poo Corner, Rhys read the letter with no small amount of sorrow. He had so wanted to be free of the back-breaking toil and noxious reek that was a Night-Soil Man’s lot. Now the chances of a better future seemed to have been taken away forever. He had lost two apprentices in recent years; Gruffyd Davies had fallen into the ocean and had been turned into a Selkie, and Naboth had been ripped to shreds by something that, apparently, was not Drury. What were the chances of another promising young lad wanting to take on the role? A loveless, friendless existence followed by the likelihood of an early death was hardly the best job-description to attract willing staff. Rhys sighed, and put the letter on the table. He would have a word with Miss Calder, at the Pallid Rock Orphanage, in a day or two. Maybe she could suggest a likely candidate.

Miss Calder was in unusually high spirits. She had been dead for some time now but this did not interfere with her duties as administrator, responsible for the efficient running of the orphanage. Her ghostly form could frequently be seen flitting hither and thither, organising the orphans and reminding Reverend Davies of various items in his diary which he had chosen to overlook.
Naboth’s misfortune had recently come to her attention and she was expecting a visit from Rhys sometime soon, knowing that he would be looking for another apprentice. Being non-corporeal, Miss Calder had no problem in conversing with the Night-Soil Man, his overpowering stench having no effect on her whatsoever. Indeed, it would be a pleasure, for, in truth, the ghostly administrator was inclined to feel somewhat fonder of Rhys than maybe she should. Although a good friend to Philomena, she was secretly pleased that their wedding had been called-off. Miss Calder had long harboured the vague hope that some form of inter-dimensional union with the Night-Soil Man might one day be possible, although such things were unheard of, even on Hopeless. Before anything of that nature could occur, of course, she would have to learn to control her unfortunate habit of allowing her features to become terrifyingly skeletal whenever she became stressed or over-excited.

The wraith of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, peered down from the ruined chapel with curiosity. A few nights earlier he had watched, with some amusement, as the strange creature, the one that was definitely not Drury, savaged the youngster. In time-honoured fashion, the last remains of the Night-Soil Man would be dropped down the mysterious sinkhole that lay at the end of the garden in Poo Corner. Sadly, by the time islanders came to gather up what was left of Naboth, there was not a lot to be found, with ravens and other assorted carnivores having quickly taken the opportunity of an easy meal. None of these events bothered Obadiah, but the thing that had caught his spectral eye this evening certainly did. He watched with annoyance as a protoplasmic stew gathered at the foot of the rock, writhing and broiling in the moonlight. Obadiah knew only too well what was happening, and he did not like it one little bit. He growled and harrumphed to himself as, little by little, the protoplasm melded itself into the glimmering shape of Naboth Scarhill, complete with lidded-bucket. The newly-formed ghost stood, a little wobbly at first, staring around him, not immediately registering what had happened. Taking the advantage, the Mad Parson swooped from his rock and screamed in Naboth’s face. The boy looked back, impassively.
“You don’t scare me anymore, you old fraud,” he said. “I’m as dead as you are,” and with that, Naboth hit him over the head with his bucket-lid.
Chastened, Hyde scurried back to his ruin.
“This means war,” he thought to himself. “There can only be one ghost haunting Chapel Rock, and it is not going to be that little weasel.”
Not for the first time in his afterlife, Obadiah Hyde was wrong. Naboth had no intention of hanging around Chapel Rock with nothing better to do than scaring passers-by and annoying the Mad Parson. His was vengeful spirit. He had every intention of finding out who was responsible for his grisly death and, quite literally, giving them Hell.

The Last Enchantment

The dusty attics of The Squid and Teapot have long been used as a repository for anything salvaged and not immediately required by the islanders of Hopeless, Maine. Some things have been there for longer than anyone can remember. Until fairly recently the old sea-chest, squatting unobtrusively in a corner, had been regarded as a near useless relic, having been sealed for years and its stout lock stubbornly refusing to yield to even the most ardent attempts to open it. To all outward appearances the chest was unremarkable enough, apparently made of dark hardwood and bound with brass. This view, however, changed when Norbert Gannicox discovered an old tin box that had once belonged to his grandfather, Solomon. In the box was the chest’s missing key, along with a cryptic note asking for it to be kept in the distillery, safely away from The Squid and Teapot, and never to be used again. Human nature being what it is, Norbert and his friend, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, could not resist raising the lid, and only then was its shocking secret revealed.  Rather than discovering pirate gold, as they expected, they found themselves gazing at an iron ladder that descended vertiginously into a deep, dark shaft. They had stumbled upon a cunningly skeuomorphic construction, for the chest proved to be made entirely of stone and concealed nothing less than a cleverly disguised secret passage. Closer inspection, by Philomena Bucket (who descended the ladder with her skirt prudently tucked into her generously tailored underwear), showed that the shaft dropped from the attics to the cellars of the inn, and then linked up with a series of tunnels, known as the Underland. These tunnels eventually culminated in a mysterious and magical cavern, which seemed to provide a portal to whatever random spot, in time or space, that it chose to deposit you.

Following the violent death of Naboth Scarhill, the new Night-Soil Man, Philomena felt that her life had gone suddenly haywire. She did not want to believe that her friend Drury, the skeletal hound, had been responsible for ripping Naboth to pieces, but everything pointed to him as being the culprit. On top of this, Rhys Cranham had called off their wedding, saying that the island could not function without the services of a Night-Soil Man, and no one, other than him, had been trained to do the work. At the point when Philomena began to think that things could not possibly become more confusing or complicated, the ghost of Granny Bucket appeared and told her that she needed to speak to Doctor John Dee, the astrologer and alchemist. As far as anyone was aware, Dee had been swept back to Elizabethan England after his sojourn on Hopeless. The only possible way in which she could contact him was by visiting the Underland and hoping that it would take her to wherever Dee was. With this in mind, she raised the lid of the faux sea-chest with some trepidation, and prepared to descend once more into its depths.

Granny Bucket, John Dee and Durosimi O’Stoat had all recognised that Philomena was a natural witch, possessing within her a deep reservoir of powerful magic. Indeed, this disturbed Durosimi to such an extent that he had tried to destroy the barmaid, and when this failed, attempted to kill her fiancé, Rhys Cranham. This plan was thwarted as well, when the thought form he created, a creature resembling Drury, attacked the replacement Night-Soil Man, Naboth Scarhill.

Philomena did not believe herself to have any magical abilities, other than occasionally experiencing the dubious gift of ‘The Sight’. She was completely unaware of the power she now possessed. It did not occur to her, as she walked through the treacherous passages of the Underland, that the torches burning on the walls flared into life solely by her passing. Even when she ventured into the magical cavern, to find herself suddenly surrounded by the familiar sheer, black obsidian cliffs of John Dee’s scrying bowl, she never thought it odd. After all, what were the chances of her stepping into this capricious vortex and being taken to the exact spot where she needed to be?

Philomena recalled the previous occasion when she, Norbert and Bartholomew, had found themselves in the scrying bowl. They had been thrown, from there, into Doctor Dee’s study. This time, however, everything felt different. There was a stillness, then the obsidian walls became hazy. In the pale lavender mist that swirled around her, vague shapes formed, then, just as quickly, dissipated. Philomena wondered what this all meant. She looked up, expecting to see the aged, but still handsome face of the alchemist framed, like some benevolent god, in the air above her, but John Dee was nowhere to be seen.

The shapes lurking within the shifting mists gradually took on a more permanent appearance. With some surprise Philomena realised that she recognised this place; these were her beloved Gydynap Hills. Then she saw Drury. He was racing around excitedly, as if in pursuit of some invisible prey. She thought she glimpsed spoonwalkers, but they were shadowy and nebulous.  As she watched, a watery sun pierced the mist, then proceeded across the sky at an alarming rate. Then a full moon did the same. It was as if she was watching a speeded-up version of the day, which is exactly what was happening. Throughout all of this time, Drury continued his demented chase; it would have been enough to kill an ordinary dog, but as Drury had been dead for years, it meant nothing to him. He would happily chase spoonwalkers for days.

The scene dissolved around her once more, the hills giving way to a clinging, claustrophobic gloom. Philomena now found herself in a dimly-lit parlour, where a single, greasy candle bathed everything in dramatic chiaroscuro. An ominous shape, crouching in the middle of the room, exuded an evil air of dark malice, and was like none she had ever seen before. This was because it shifted continuously, as though being woven together, even as she watched. Its initial vague spideriness metamorphosed into a dozen indistinct incarnations, before assuming a strangely familiar form. Somewhere, lost in the shadows, a low voice was muttering an incantation which appeared to keep the creature at bay as it gradually took shape. Philomena was relieved that, although apparently plunged into the heart of the event, she was no more than a ghost, an invisible observer. Had this been otherwise, her gasp of astonishment would surely have been heard when the figure in front of her suddenly bore an uncanny resemblance to Drury… but not the Drury that she knew. This was a mad, slavering beast that raged against invisible bonds, desperate to attack its maker. An eerie red light glowed within its empty eye-sockets and stringy gouts of toxic drool hung from its fangs. Despite being aware that she was a disembodied onlooker, she quailed and cowered back into a corner. The darkness around her deepened and again the landscape was shifting. A moment later, she found herself standing in the lee of Chapel Rock, witnessing the last moments of Naboth Scarhill. Philomena turned away from the ghastly tableau in horror.

“I’ve seen enough,” she shouted, hoping to catch the attention of whatever agency was responsible for revealing these things to her. Immediately the darkness lifted, and she found herself standing once more in the mystic grotto, which now appeared to be no more than a simple cave.

As she walked back through the tunnels towards The Squid and Teapot, Philomena tried to evaluate the meaning of what she had seen. She knew now that Drury was innocent of Naboth’s untimely end. But why would anyone want the young Night-Soil Man dead? Then, with an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach, she realised what she had said. The Night-Soil Man! If the attack had occurred earlier in the week, the victim would have been Rhys Cranham. Rhys was meant to have died, not Naboth! With a sudden burst of clarity, the dreadful truth dawned upon her. She had no idea who was behind this, but they were obviously out to wreck her happiness. That was certainly not going to happen. Hurt and angry, Philomena clenched her fists, and the tunnel was filled with a cold green fire.

Katherine Dee looked around the cluttered study with sadness in her eyes. She had cared for her father throughout his final illness and the time had come to clear out his belongings from the house in Mortlake. She had already sold his books, but could not imagine that anyone would want the skeletons of various birds and animals, malformed foetuses and preserved reptiles that littered every surface. The obsidian bowl, sitting on the table, might have some value. Katherine was surprised to see that it still contained water. As she leant to pick the bowl up, she thought she detected a tiny figure within its depths, then immediately dismissed the thought as a trick of the light. She had never displayed any interest in her father’s work, regarding it as too close to heresy to be safe in these dangerous times. Anyway, she had no inclination to follow in his footsteps. With a sigh, Katherine lifted the bowl and poured the water away, and with it went the last enchantment Doctor John Dee.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

“God’s wounds! What treachery is the knave up to now?” John Dee gazed intently into the obsidian scrying bowl, casually picking egg yolk from his beard at the same time.

Several hundred years and three thousand miles were the only obstacles separating Dee from the object of his attention. Ever since leaving Hopeless, Maine, with little idea how he might return, the Royal Astrologer to the court of Queen Elizabeth had made it his business to keep an eye on the goings-on of the island through the agency of his scrying bowl.

“I’m blowed if I know, doctor,” said the ghost of Granny Bucket, quietly hovering over the astrologer’s shoulder.

The pair had been watching the somewhat confusing antics of Durosimi O’Stoat. Peering into the dark waters of the obsidian bowl they had witnessed him cast some manner of enchantment over Drury, the skeletal hound, which had left the dog endlessly chasing phantom spoonwalkers around the Gydynap Hills.

“But I’ll try and find out,” Granny added. “I’ve got to get back for Philomena’s wedding soon, anyway.”

“Yes, of course, you must,” said Dee. “Be sure to convey my best wishes to the happy couple.”

“I will,” said Granny, “but I can’t leave until you do your banishing spell. You were the one who invoked me – remember?”

“Oh, silly me,” laughed Dee, “I have so enjoyed your being here that it slipped my mind completely. It has been good keeping up with the island’s gossip, Mistress Bucket; you must come back soon.”

“I intend to, doctor. You just cast the spell, and I’ll be with you. Now, in the meantime, if you’ll be kind enough to banish me, I’ll get back to Hopeless.”

Had either been aware of the sorcerer’s intentions, they would each have been incandescent with impotent rage. Durosimi had kept the osseous hound busy chasing spoonwalker thought forms in order to create a vicious killer; a killer who stalked the Hopeless night in the guise of Drury. In truth, the effort of controlling the creature had nearly been Durosimi’s downfall, but in the end he had prevailed and sent it out into the foggy darkness with one simple instruction: Destroy the Night-Soil Man.

The morning of Philomena Bucket’s marriage to Rhys Cranham dawned grey and misty, as did most mornings on the island of Hopeless. Rhys had very recently given up the role of Night-Soil Man, solemnly handing over the lidded bucket and long-handled shovel to his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill. With the prospect of a lifetime of married bliss stretching before him, Rhys had spent his last evening as a single man with his friend, Norbert Gannicox, owner of the Gannicox Distillery. It would not be unreasonable to believe that the night had been spent in wild carousing, given the surroundings, but the truth was that Norbert never drank strong liquor, except for the odd occasions when Bartholomew Middlestreet had led him to believe that beer didn’t count as an alcoholic beverage. It was, therefore, in a state of clear-headed sobriety that Rhys awoke early and decided to wander along to his old home, The House at Poo Corner, and see how Naboth was managing with his new-found responsibilities.

Rhys was just a few hundred yards from the Night-Soil Man’s abode when he saw a familiar shape loping along towards him.

“Hi – Drury, you old scoundrel, what have you got in your mouth?” he called cheerfully, but the dog took no notice of him. This behaviour was odd; Drury and Rhys had been good friends for years, spending many happy hours wandering the island together.

As the bony hound rattled by, ignoring him completely, Rhys could see that hanging from his mouth was a human limb of some sort. It looked remarkably like an arm, fresh and bloody. The day was getting weirder by the minute. Where had he found that?

Rhys had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he made his way towards the spot, out towards the headland, where he had first noticed Drury lurking.

Lying on the ground was something that used to have a human shape, but now was mangled out of all recognition into a bloody scattering of severed limbs and half-chewed viscera. Only the upturned bucket, with its foul contents spilled on to the rocks, gave any clue as to the identity of the victim.

Rhys stood frozen to the ground, staring in shocked silence and hardly able to give credit to the grisly tableau before him.

Although the morning was still barely light outside, The Squid and Teapot was already a hive of activity. While Bartholomew busied himself laying out trestle tables and chairs for the wedding reception, his wife Ariadne was fussing around Philomena, trying to persuade her to put curlers in her hair and generally aim to be a little more glamorous than usual.

“I’ll be fine as I am,” laughed Philomena, “Rhys won’t recognise the woman he’s marrying if I do all that. By the way,” she added, “have you seen anything of Drury? He was nowhere to be found yesterday and it’s concerning me a bit.”

“Don’t get stressed about Drury,” admonished Ariadne, “you’ve got enough to worry about, without that as well. Anyway, that old hound is well able to look after himself.”

Suddenly, a frantic banging on the door of the inn made everyone start in alarm. Who could be calling at this hour? It was with no small amount of trepidation that Ariadne pulled the door open and peeked around it.

“Rhys, whatever is the matter?” she asked, opening the door a little wider, “You can’t be here, not this morning. It’s unlucky for a groom to see his bride before the wedding.”

Philomena pushed Ariadne aside, sensing that there was a problem. Her fears were confirmed, just by looking at her husband-to-be. Rhys was ashen-faced and trembling.

“There will be no wedding today,” he sobbed. “Maybe not at all…”

Philomena could only stare in silence, her mouth suddenly dry.

“It’s Naboth, he’s dead, Philomena,” stammered Rhys. “He’s been ripped to pieces… and I think that Drury did it.”

“No… not Drury. He wouldn’t… not old Drury,” she said, bewildered.

“I saw him. He was carrying… oh, it’s too horrible.”

With some difficulty Bartholomew managed to persuade his wife that, if there was to be no wedding that day, it was permissible to admit Rhys into the inn. Ariadne knew that it was perverse to be worrying about bad luck, given the circumstances, but she had always been a stickler for tradition.

Rhys slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Philomena rested a tentative hand upon his shoulder.

“There is no one to cover the Night-Soil Man’s duties, any more,” said Rhys, in a flat voice. “I’m the only person on the island who knows what to do. I’m sorry Philomena… the island can’t manage without the services of a Night-Soil Man; I’m going to have to go back.”

Philomena nodded, too upset to speak.

“Maybe in another year or so… if I can get another apprentice. Although, I’ve lost two now. I think I must be jinxed.”

Some hours after Rhys had left, and Philomena had shed enough tears to fill a tankard, she found herself sitting in her room, alone on what should have been her wedding night. Her thoughts strayed to the events of the day, and the part that Drury had apparently played in viciously destroying both Naboth and her future happiness.

“Oh, Drury,” she muttered to herself, “How can I… how can any of us ever forgive you.”

“I am so sorry that the lad has died and your day has been ruined, but don’t blame the dog too quickly,” said a familiar voice.

Philomena turned to see the ghost of Granny Bucket sitting on the end of the bed.

“Granny…?”

The old lady’s ghost shimmered faintly in the dimming light.

“Philomena, all is not always as it appears,” she said. “You really need to go and speak to Doctor Dee.”

“Doctor Dee? But how…?” began Philomena, but Granny Bucket had vanished into the ether before the question was formed.