Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

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Daphne and the dead seagull

Daphne woke up and knew she had to go for a walk by the sea. The hissing and cold wallops of its tides called her and she listened wondering what the sea wanted to show her. A wrecked ship? A beached kraken? A crystal bottle where inside was sealed another smaller crystal bottle? Daphne had found one of those. If she held it up to any light that was willing to shine on the morgue where she lived on that bleak, dour hill the crystal bottle inside the crystal bottle shimmered with flitting rainbows.

Daphne wondered if there was a ghost trapped inside, and thought she’d leave it sealed because ghosts imprisoned in bottles were there for a good reason. The weather that morning was fairly grey and the clouds were all grey. Not a bit of it seemed like it was going to be cheerful, which was entirely in keeping with Daphne had grown up to expect of it. She had started walking on the twisted lonely path away from the morgue. Behind her the morgue stood like a beached plinth of light sucking stone and plenty of curious lichens and mosses which possessed tiny eyes. Just next to the morgue was a small stone cottage with two squat little windows that looked like the morgue had a child. Daphne lived in the cottage, but she never thought to distinguish it from the morgue. They were the same to her.

As Daphne walked on the path she sang a traditional and soul destroying ditty to herself.

There was a sailor

who nailed himself to his boat

not meaning to

there was a sailor

who got eaten by the moon

he should not have gone out that night

there was a sailor

who tied himself to a big cod

why did he do that?

And on it continued as Daphne savoured the familiarity of its maritime vexation which she enjoyed keeping alive, perhaps she’d make somebody else learn it so its tune would never ever leave people alone?

Her path had come to a steep stony one picking its way down to the oozing sea shore. Beside it was a cairn of stacked bluish-grey stones which was added to every time somebody disappeared at sea. She went down like a spry little sheep to the sea shore, plucking the odd green leaf of salty sea beet that grew here ruminating upon it as she chewed it. A shape had caught her eye on the shore as she now crunched through its detritus of grounded up sea flotsam of stones, shells and brittle things regurgitated from the bottom of the sea.

The dead seagull was laid perfectly out on the gritty tide line. One white wing lay outstretched and crusted with silt and sand. Its yellow orange beak like an abandoned kitchen knife was still. Those rapacious eyes in its head were greyed over. Daphne knelt down in the wet grit staring with interest at the dead bird. She looked at its outstretched wing brushing delicately the feather vanes of their silt. She thought that she’d keep one treasure from the sea. Dead humans were always put in the morgue but it didn’t have to be that way….

Daphne went back up the path and in her arms she cradled the ragged bulk of a dead seagull, one wing hanging out stiffly. Behind her the sea tide hissed and churned. The morgue would have a new corpse and Daphne was pleased that it had feathers.

Story by Robin Collins

Art by Tom Brown




The story so far…


In the spring of 1888 Harriet Butterow and her friend, Petunia Middlestreet, perished in the sea while trying to salvage goods from a shipwreck. Their respective daughters, Amelia, aged six and Lilac, aged three, became the wards of Harriet’s father-in-law, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot. In order to give the girls the best possible education and home life Bartholomew relinquished management of the inn to his long-term tenant, the odious Tobias Thrupp. Ten years slipped by and Bartholomew died. Nothing more was heard of the girls for the next two years, until they were rescued from Thrupp’s clutches by Abraham, a Passamaquoddy trader who took them to his reservation on the mainland. The girls lived happily with Abraham and his family until Lilac fell in love with Abner Badbrook, a silver-tongued rogue. The two eloped in the dead of night, only for Abner to desert Lilac when he learned that he was to become a father. Fearing that she would not be able to support her small son, Lilac left him on the steps of a convent. While being taken for adoption to New Brunswick, the child, Randall and his guardian, Sister Mary Selsley, of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe, were shipwrecked on Hopeless, Maine, along with the ship’s captain, Sebastian Lypiatt.


Amelia was saddened but not surprised by Lilac’s departure from the reservation. Her friend had been acting strangely for a week or so prior to her disappearance. It had become obvious to Amelia that Lilac was smuggling food and soft deerskin blankets to someone in the forest but she said nothing to Abraham or his wife, Cenopi.

Over the following weeks Amelia retreated increasingly into her own thoughts. She took to wandering along the river bank, as though seeking something. In blocking out the rest of the world she seemed to have switched on part of herself that had formerly been sleeping.

Amelia had often heard the seals before, of course, going about their business in Passamaquoddy bay. The plaintive barking that was so familiar, however,  one day became an invocation, a siren-call to those who could hear its message. Like one in a dream Amelia made her way to the water’s edge, then hesitated. The abiding memory she had of her mother was of being warned never to go into the ocean. After Harriet herself became a victim of the grey Atlantic, Amelia could see the sense in this, not knowing the real reason for her mother’s fears.

‘Strictly speaking’, she told herself, ’This is not the ocean. I can be careful.’

In truth, whatever her mind had said, a greater force was at work within Amelia and all of the warnings in the world would not have prevented her from being drawn towards the seal-song.

There is a point where practicality, driven by instinct will always prevail over the modesty imposed by social mores. That morning Amelia gazed over the expanse of shining water and without a second thought, took off her clothes. She laid each garment carefully on a dry rock, then – for reasons beyond her comprehension – threw herself into the chilly waters of the bay.

After the initial shock of hitting the water she began to panic. For a brief moment the old Amelia took control, thrashing and screaming in the swirling current. Then a great calmness swept over her. Dimly she imagined that this must be the end. If this was death it was not so bad. It did not come as some hostile enemy but almost as a gentle guardian, come to gather her into its warm embrace. But she was confused; none of the things she had been led to expect was happening. There was no bright light, no welcoming family waiting with outstretched arms to usher her into the afterlife. What she did feel, however, was warmth and strength and a undeniable desire to eat some fish. Amelia looked down at her body. It was sleek, fat and furry. Instead of arms and legs she had flippers. Then something in her remembered; this was a memory not spun from intellect but from instinct. A memory that flowed in her blood and lived in her bones. She was Selkie.

In the event, there was a family to welcome her, after all. The Harbor Seals had sensed that she was near and had been waiting. Amelia had come home.


It was a full two years before Amelia once more took on human form and again it was instinct that drove her to do so. She had watched with curiosity as a man, woman and tiny child bobbed across the water on an upturned dining table. Amelia, who still retained some shadow of her former attributes, could not help but swim up alongside the strange craft. It had been a long time since she had heard human speech. The conversation centred around the child, who the woman had referred to as “Young Randall Middlestreet.”


She dimly remembered that she had once had a friend with the same name. An ache grew inside the selkie, suddenly wanting to know more and if her friend was close by. She watched as the little party washed up on to a foggy shore – a somehow familiar foggy shore, she thought –  and made their way inland, abandoning the table and rough tarpaulin that had served as a makeshift sail. Amelia dragged herself onto the rocks. As she dried, her skin sloughed off to reveal her human form. She folded the sealskin and hid it in the rocks, then, in the best tradition of Adam and Eve, became suddenly aware and ashamed of her nakedness. The only item to cover her modesty adequately was the old tarpaulin, which she draped about her as best she could and, in bare feet, made her way inland.


Amos Gannicox was sitting outside his cabin when he saw her. His face suddenly became a deathly white, as though he had seen a ghost. It must be admitted that seeing ghosts was not that unusual on this island. Amos had seen several in his years there. This particular ghost, however, had a special place in Amos’ heart.

“Ha… Harriet. Is that you?” he asked, nervously.

“ Pardon?” Despite her selkie years, Amelia had not forgotten her manners.

“I’m sorry,” said Amos, seeing now his mistake. “It’s just that you reminded me of a dear friend who died over fifteen years ago. You could be her twin. Her name was Harriet.”

“My mother was Harriet…” said Amelia as memories of her childhood flowed back.


It did not take long for Amos and Amelia to piece together the events that had led up to her disappearance from the island. She told him about her time on the reservation and her living with the seals. Amos reddened. Harriet had always claimed that Amelia’s father was a selkie and he had dismissed it out of hand as delusion. The girl’s story now gave the tale some credence.

After Harriet’s disappearance Amos had salvaged some of her things as keepsakes. He had been secretly in love with her and could not bear to see her few possessions scavenged by the other islanders. From these he found some suitable shoes and a dress, which was a much tighter fit than Amelia had expected it to be. She could not remember having been quite so rounded when on the reservation.

When he was told of the child, Randall Middlestreet, Amos made a few enquiries and soon learned that the boy was in the care of the orphanage. Upon hearing this Amelia immediately resolved to go there herself. It was her plan to volunteer to help, thereby allowing her to keep an eye on Randall’s welfare.

Amelia had been there but a few hours before she found an unexpected ally in Sister Mary Selsley. The nun’s calling asked her to accept, without question, many things that, in a secular setting, she would find to be totally implausible. So, to recognise the existence of a shape-shifting selkie did not demand of her a huge leap of faith. Sister Mary had been born and raised on the wild west coast of Ireland where these creatures were known to exist and held in some regard. To those, like herself, who had lived among the selkies, there was something in their eyes and general bearing that betrayed them immediately when in their human form. These things she saw, and loved, in Amelia.

Sister Mary had nothing like the same regard for Reverend Malachi Crackstone, the principal of the orphanage. Besides his being a protestant, which was cause enough to meet the nun’s disapproval, she found him to be a mean-minded, unpleasant man, given to cruelty. She warned Amelia not to reveal any of herself to him, although the parson had already discovered that her great grandmother had been Colleen O’Stoat, a woman widely suspected of being a witch. Crackstone made no secret of his instant dislike for the girl, a dislike that forthcoming events would turn into something akin to hatred.


The mind and instincts of a seal and those of a human have little in common, outside of a desire for survival. That is why – perhaps mercifully – a selkie woman recalls her seal life as little more than a dream, and vice-versa. So, when the nun pointed out to Amelia that she was decidedly pregnant it came as something of a surprise. It certainly explained a few things but she had no recollection of ever mating. Sister Mary assured her she must have done so; to the nun’s knowledge there had only been one instance of a virgin birth and to suggest this might be another was nothing short of blasphemous.

“ As far as Reverend Crackstone is concerned,” advised the nun, “you’ve lived on the island all of your life and the father is unknown. He wont like it but it will stop him from asking awkward questions.”

There was another problem. A human gestation period is nine months, while a seal’s is eleven. A massive conflict was raging in Amelia’s body and she was not having a good time. In the event, the strange nature of the pregnancy brought on the onset of labour several weeks early.

It was a hard and traumatic birth. For two whole days and nights Amelia was wracked with pain that took a great toll on her strength. In her heart Sister Mary suspected that there would be little chance of Amelia or her child surviving the ordeal.


As the clock struck midnight, heralding the vernal equinox of 1905, Betty Butterow was born. As Sister Mary had feared, the fight to bring Betty into the world had been too much for Amelia, who, by now, was pale and very close to death. Crackstone, with a heart as cold as ice, took the child casually from the weeping nun’s arms and swept off to find a wet-nurse.

Tearfully, Sister Mary stripped the blood soaked shift from Amelia’s lifeless body and washed her.

“This girl should be returned to the sea, where she belongs” she told herself. “Not in the cold earth, where Crackstone would put her”

As I have mentioned before, Sister Mary was no delicate, frail thing. Effortlessly, she lifted Amelia into her arms and carried her out into the night air.


Unless you are a Night-Soil Man it can be perilous to walk about the island after dark. Fortune, or something else, was on the nun’s side, however, as she made her way to the precise spot where Amelia had said she had hidden her pelt.

A mist-shrouded full moon watched with a baleful eye as the sealskin was wrapped securely around Amelia’s lifeless form. For her own peace of mind Sister Mary said a few suitable words to her God, then, gathering up Amelia’s body, waded into the ocean, almost to chest height, and  placed her precious bundle upon its surface. She watched sorrowfully as the dark water folded over the girl and drew her into its inky depths. Making her way back to shore, soaked and shivering with bitter cold, the nun was comforted by the knowledge that she had returned Amelia to her true home.

A sudden noise made her turn. Just a few feet behind her a seal’s head burst through the water. For an instant that felt like a lifetime the two regarded each other in the moonlight. A spark of recognition flared in the seal’s dark eyes.

Sister Mary’s heart leapt.

“She’s alive,” she cried aloud, “Amelia, you’re alive!”

The seal lingered a moment longer and the connection that had momentarily flickered between them gradually faded, like a candle being slowly extinguished.

Without giving the nun another glance, the seal turned and headed for the open ocean, completely unaware of the identity of the human standing in the water behind her.

The selkie that had been Amelia Butterow was now a seal forever, forgetful of the life she had once known and the daughter she left behind on the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine.

Art- Tom Brown


Abner Badbrook had left the city of Calais, Maine in something of a hurry. There had been a certain amount of unpleasantness with several of the locals when they discovered that five aces had mysteriously found their way up the left sleeve of his jacket. Having escaped their clutches, hitching a free passage on one of the many commercial ships that plied the river was easy for a man whose charm was only exceeded by his crooked nature. Charm, however, was not enough when some of the crew caught him cheating during a game of five card stud. In an act of admirable self-restraint  they revised their initial plan of keelhauling Abner and instead deposited him roughly on the banks of St. Croix river, in the heart of the Passamaquoddy reservation.


You will recall that Lilac Middlestreet and her friend, Amelia Butterow, had been liberated from the clutches of the evil Tobias Thrupp by Abraham, the Passamaquoddy trader and taken from the island of Hopeless to the safety of his reservation.

In the years that had elapsed since their rescue the two had happily settled into the life and customs of the tribe and, except for Lilac’s fair skin and red hair, they could easily have passed as Passamaquoddy girls.  As it happens, these were the very traits that caught the attention of Abner Badbrook as he lingered on the edge of the forest, holding a spy-glass to his eye, watching the women doing their washing in the river.

Abner was famished. His particular skill-set precluded his living off the land and – not to put too fine a point on it – he was becoming desperate. His instincts told him that his welcome might be less than cordial if he wandered into their village as a beggar, so, clutching at straws, he had spied upon the women, hoping that they would leave something remotely edible behind when they left. Sadly, for Abner, this seemed to be to no avail. Then he spotted the fair-skinned white girl. She just might be his meal-ticket.

Being a gambler Abner estimated that the odds of his being able to sweet-talk her into helping him were worth a try. All he needed was to get her on her own. As it happened Lady Luck was in a good mood that day and Lilac had decided to linger a while after the other women had gone.

Lilac was startled by the figure that emerged from the shadow of the trees. She thought to run but, being the girl she was, her curiosity overcame her fear and she waited to see what the stranger might do.

Abner, checking that he could not be seen from the village, wandered casually over and struck up a conversation. He slipped into charming mode as easily as you or I might put on a pair of well-worn and exceedingly comfortable carpet slippers. From the offset Lilac was as putty in his hands, completely buying his far-fetched story of having been kidnapped by river pirates and making a valiant escape by fighting off seven of them before leaping to freedom into the raging river. Caught hook, line and sinker, she promised to bring food, drink and warm blankets to her silver-tongued hero that very evening.

Events unfolded as you might expect. It was inevitable that Lilac would fall in love with the handsome stranger. Things happened quickly and before a week had passed the impressionable girl was making plans to elope with the card-sharp, whose latest gamble was playing out far better than he had hoped.

While running away might seem a drastic step to take, there was no question of them having a conventional Passamaquoddy marriage, even if Abner had wanted one and had made his presence known to the tribe. According to their customs a couple would have to go through a betrothal period for one year, during which time the groom had to prove to the girl’s father – in this case Abraham – that he was a capable hunter. He would be obliged to make bows, arrows, canoes and snowshoes for his prospective father-in-law. Also, during this year of courtship, the couple would have to be chaste. At the end of the betrothal the bride’s family would hold a feast, making speeches which exalted the groom’s geneology. Believe me, Abner’s geneology left little room for exaltation. None of this, of course was ever going to happen. And so, it was without a word to anyone, not even Amelia, that on one moonless night in midsummer, Lilac and her lover left the land of the Passamaquoddy people forever.


It was two years later, in the winter of 1904, that Lilac found herself in New York, penniless, alone and with a new born  baby to support. Abner had disappeared when the prospect of fatherhood was on the horizon, leaving the hapless Lilac to fend for herself. She was too ashamed to return to the reservation, even if she had had the means to get there. In desperation Lilac resolved to leave her small son on the steps of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe. It broke her heart but she knew that as long as he was with her the child’s chances of survival would be minimal. Tearfully she wrapped him in a ragged blanket into which she had tucked a brief note bearing his name. Lilac had refused to give her son his father’s surname; she owed that man nothing, except her contempt. Besides, Randall Middlestreet sounded to be a far nicer person than Randall Badbrook.


Sister Mary Selsley of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe had relatives in New Brunswick. After a brief exchange of letters the childless couple happily agreed to raise young Randall as their own son. With the blessing of her Mother Superior Sister Mary arranged a passage for herself and the child on the SS Wycliffe, a journey that would take her away from the convent for some weeks. Or so she thought.


The storm that had raged for three long days was one of the worst the captain of The Wycliffe had seen in many a long year. He gave the order to abandon ship with a heavy heart and, in the best traditions of sea captains everywhere, resigned himself to a watery grave. Destiny had other ideas, though, and he found himself being hefted on to an upturned dining table by, what appeared to be, a prize-fighter masquerading as a nun. This, in fact, was Sister Mary who had never been known for her delicate femininity.

The two  found themselves floating through a foggy seascape, their only other companion was the small child that Sister Mary had lashed securely to a table leg.  The nun regarded the English sea captain with some warmth. Although he was a burly and rough looking man – even burlier and rougher looking than Sister Mary herself – he seemed kind enough. In fact, the captain took great pains to be a perfect gentleman in the presence of the nun, being careful not to spit or swear, lest he offend her. It was not, however, until they washed up on a barren, mist-strewn shore that he introduced himself.

“I’m Sebastian,” he informed her. “Sebastian Lypiatt. Let’s find that child some warmth and shelter.”

Sebastian and Sister Mary gingerly made their way inland with little Randall strapped papoose-like to the sailor’s back. This was a strange place, to be sure. Eyes seemed to be watching them from every direction, including above. Sister Mary was certain that she saw something scuttle by with teaspoons for legs but she told herself that this was only a symptom of the delirium caused by a lack of fresh water.

Before the day was out Randall Middlestreet and Sister Mary were safely ensconced in the old orphanage, a place which, the nun discovered, seemed to enjoy more than its fair share of bumps in the night. She decided that until rescue arrived, this was as good a place as any to stay and lend a hand. With luck, she thought, with a decidedly unecumenical smile, she might even manage to undermine the strictly protestant Reverend Crackstone, who appeared to be in charge.

Sebastian Lypiatt, satisfied that the nun and her charge were adequately catered for, made his way further inland. He stumbled upon a curiously named inn, The Squid and Teapot but this seemed to be too dismal a haven, even for a stranded sailor. Fortunately, he soon discovered the welcoming portals of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House For Discerning Gentlemen, which would be more than acceptable until either rescue or permanent accommodation materialized. Besides – a girl had caught his eye. Life on this strange island might just about be tolerable with Madrigal Inchbrook by his side.

Art by Tom Brown



High in the roof space of the Squid and Teapot are gloomy attic rooms, these days used only for storage. Their meagre light is afforded through the small windows that look out onto barren rocks and the raging ocean below.  For Tobias Thrupp these rooms provided the perfect place to hide Amelia Butterow and Lilac Middlestreet, whom he had held as captives, following the death of their guardian, Lilac’s grandfather,Bartholomew Middlestreet.


Since taking over ownership of the inn,Thrupp, who, in his younger days had cut a handsome figure, had become debauched, grossly overweight and notorious for his greed and brutality. His foul ways and warped soul were reflected in his face and form. Evil had made him ugly. He had taken to terrorising the young ladies who plied their trade at Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen, while, at the same time, his idleness and obnoxious ways had succeeded in driving custom away from his failing hostelry. Regular readers will know that Thrupp’s eventual demise is related in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’, in which he is seen to pay for his execrable ways.

It was one morning in early spring when, by chance, the sixteen-years old Amelia glanced out of the tiny window and spotted a figure standing on the rocks below. This was most unusual, for the only way to reach those rocks was from the sea. Had she known more about the world in which she lived, Amelia would have recognised the man as being Abraham, the Passamaquoddy trader who sometimes visited the island in his birch bark canoe.

Leaning out as far as they dared, Amelia shouted for the help that was so desperately needed. With the roar of the ocean filling his ears, it took some while for the trader to comprehend the message she was trying to convey. To the girl’s dismay he suddenly disappeared. Amelia fell to tears, believing that she had somehow offended him. Her hopes were revived, however, when Abraham returned, brandishing a coiled rope.

“Catch, and secure it to something,” he called up.

Although he threw with perfect accuracy, it took several attempts before Amelia managed to keep hold of the rope, which she then tied securely to the large iron handle of the door which Thrupp was always careful to keep locked.

Both girls watched in trepidation as the Indian scrambled blithely up the sheer sides of the inn, graceful and skilled as an acrobat.

In one movement Amelia and Lilac, three years her junior, were swept into strong, brown arms, before their rescuer kicked down the door of the garret with no more effort than if It were made of matchwood.

Quickly and quietly, they made their way past an alcohol addled Thrupp, who lay comatose in, what Abraham hoped, was a puddle of stale beer. Once outside, the foggy air of Hopeless wrapped its welcome embrace around the girls for the first time in years. Free at last, the little party wasted no time in going to Madame Evadne’s, just a short distance from the inn.


As mentioned earlier, the young ladies of Madame Evadne’s were only too aware of Thrupp’s vile temper and feared what he might do if he found the girls hiding in the bordello. Plans were made, therefore, for Abraham to ferry them to the mainland where they would be safe. That is how Amelia and Lilac found themselves living on the Passamaquoddy reservation with Abraham, his wife Cenopi and their young son, Joseph. (The name Passamaquoddy, or Peskotomuhkati in their own tongue, simply refers to a way of catching fish with a spear.)

Abraham and Cenopi treated the girls as part of their family. They taught them the native language and traditions of the tribe.

The next few years ushered in the beginning of a new century and Amelia and Lilac became every inch young women of the Passamaquoddy tribe – Peskotomuhkati pilsqehsis – with their long braided hair, beads and full-length, sleeveless dresses. Meanwhile, Joseph, at ten years old, was hoping to become as skilled a trader as his father, though given the opportunity and sunny weather, he would far rather lie and doze on the banks of the St. Croix river, earning him the name Dreaming-by-the-river-where-the-shining-salmon-springs (in fact it would have been far more accurate to have called him Dreaming-by-the-river-where-the-migrating-herring-come-to-spawn but that somehow seemed to lack a certain air of romance. Unless you are a River Herring, that is.).

For Amelia and Lilac, life on the reservation was nothing short of idyllic, compared with the nightmare of their captive years. However, each had a destiny to fulfil, a tale to tell, however brief. And somewhere in the fog across a treacherous channel, Hopeless, Maine was waiting for the next chapter to unfold.


An Ill Wind

In the month of March, 1888, one of the most severe blizzards in the recorded history of the United States raged along the east coast of the country, causing devastation from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The storm claimed the lives of more than four hundred people. At least twenty-five percent of these casualties were seamen, lost to the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. This is not surprising, taking into consideration that an estimated two hundred ships were either wrecked or grounded over a period of two days.

Where there are shipwrecks, there are, invariably, spoils to be had. Regular readers of ‘The  Vendetta’ will doubtless guess that some of these spoils found their way to the grateful shores of that somewhat strange and foggy island, Hopeless, Maine.


Harriet Butterow and Petunia Middlestreet stood knee-deep in icy-cold water. They were anxious to drag a large wooden crate ashore. Neither woman had any clue as to what the crate may have contained but it did not really matter. What could not be eaten, or modified for personal use, could be bartered. On this impoverished island nothing was ever wasted. Try as they might, however, the crate was reluctant to move.

The two young women had a lot in common; Harriet was a single mother and Petunia a widow. Besides having had a friendship which started in childhood, they also shared the bond of motherhood. Both had young daughters who, for today, were in the care of Petunia’s elderly father-in-law, the kindly Bartholomew Middlestreet, landlord of The Squid and Teapot. Harriet and Petunia were secure in the knowledge that their daughters, Amelia Butterow and Lilac Middlestreet, were in safe but albeit, somewhat arthritic, hands.

Like many islanders, it was news of the several shipwrecks littering the coastline that had the pair braving the bitingly cold March morning and looking to salvage as much of the precious wreckage as possible. After the long winter, supplies of everything were low on Hopeless and while the loss of so many lives was deeply regrettable, the islanders could only marvel at their good fortune when they saw the extent of the bounty that the storm had provided. All that was needed now was to bring it safely ashore – a task easier said than done.

It sometimes feels that Tragedy is a trickster always waiting in the wings and never missing an opportunity to show its face; sadly, that face is one that the people of Hopeless are more than familiar with. Even so, none are really ever prepared for it to appear.

The sea had seemed unexpectedly calm that morning, especially after the raging nor’ easterlies that had angered it over the previous few days. Anyone who has lived or worked on the water will tell you that a change of wind direction can achieve that in just a few hours. And that same person would also caution you to be wary; wary of both a capricious sea and all that it contained.


Amos Gannicox smiled to himself as he waved to Harriet. He had been on the island for almost four years now and had every intention of winning her heart completely before another year had passed. He was a patient man and felt sure that his patience would pay off before too long. He was well aware that Harriet still harboured hopes that Amelia’s father – who she genuinely believed to be a Selkie – would return to her, but almost seven years had passed since he had left and this seemed most unlikely.

Lost in his own thoughts Amos was brought back to reality by a sudden scream. No – two screams.

An icy hand gripped his heart. A few seconds ago two young women had stood in the water, laughing and care-free. Now they were gone. Look as he might, there was no sign of either. All that remained was the crate which they had been trying to shift. Amos scanned the shoreline frantically. This could not be – he had only taken his gaze off the object of his affections for a few seconds. Panic stricken he ran towards the spot where they had been standing. Others were running too, frantically shouting the women’s names but it was soon obvious that searching would be futile. They had disappeared completely. The ocean, or something dwelling within it, had claimed them.


Bartholomew Middlestreet was devastated. Although the shadow of death always stalked the island, he never imagined that his daughter-in-law would be taken before he was and now it fell upon his old shoulders to tell two little girls that they had become orphans. Lilac, at three years old seemed too young to understand but Amelia Butterow, aged six, took it badly. So badly, in fact, that she was literally dumbstruck. The truth is that the girl never uttered another word for the remainder of her days. It is a strange coincidence for, as regular readers will recall, her father,who was of the seal-people, a Selkie, was never heard to speak either.


Bartholomew was resolved to look after the girls himself; he had no intention of either of them going to the orphanage. The running of The Squid and Teapot would have to be left to Tobias Thrupp. Tobias, shipwrecked at the same time as Amos Gannicox, had been living there for four years and had done little enough, so far, to pay for his keep.


Ten years slipped by; ten years that saw The Squid and Teapot decline in every way. Bartholmew Middlestreet devoted himself wholly to the well-being and education of the girls, oblivious to everything else, including the fact that Thrupp was dragging his beloved inn into certain ruin. Then, one day in the final year of the century, a strange thing happened. Bartholomew, Lilac and Amelia disappeared without a trace. And no one noticed!


Whether Bartholomew died of natural causes, or by Thrupp’s hand, is unclear, but die he certainly did. One can only surmise as to the cause. What is known, however, is that a corpse left outside for a night on the headland is unlikely to still be there by daybreak. The age-old problem of disposing of the body is no problem at all on Hopeless.

As the old man had been absent from the inn for so long, ownership of The Squid passed seamlessly to Thrupp. The girls, too, had not been seen for years and were all but forgotten. Such disappearances, while unfortunate, are not uncommon on this island.


In unearthing and relating these tales for you it sometimes feels as though I am putting together a vast and complex jigsaw puzzle, filling intriguing gaps in the picture as each new piece comes to hand. Like any jigsaw, this one has areas filled with light and clarity; it also contains great sweeps of darkness. The rest of this tale is, I fear, one such piece, darker and more dreadful than any other I know, or, indeed, ever wish to know.


To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown


The Puddle Rat

Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil Man, rarely felt comfortable when his work took him into the vicinity of Chapel Rock. It wasn’t that the ghost of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson, was at all dangerous. It was just that the old wraith had developed an annoying habit of manifesting unexpectedly, then screaming around the place like a banshee with toothache. It was all most unsettling, especially on the occasions when the bucket on Randall’s back was particularly full; a sudden, startled reaction could create all sorts of unwelcome consequences.

On this night, however, Randall had other things to worry about.

Standing  before him on the narrow pathway was an unfamiliar creature. Although it was, admittedly, small of stature, it filled him with unease. Besides the beady eyes, long nails, yellow teeth and scrawny body (which reminded him strangely of the late and decidedly unlamented Reverend Crackstone), it was the beast’s audacity that unnerved him. Even the largest, most fearsome denizen of the island would invariably quail and flee before the Night-Soil Man’s unremitting stench. This diminutive creature, however, squared-up to Randall with the confident air of an anosmic prize-fighter.

“What the hell are you?” Randall asked, querulously.

“A puddle rat, of course, thou turpitudinous turdsmith”

Randall jumped in surprise to hear a reply, causing his bucket to lurch alarmingly. The voice was surprisingly deep and hollow, not to mention human.

“You can speak?”

Randall suspected that he had been badly insulted but chose to let it go.

“Zounds fellow, of course it cannot. I told thou, ‘tis a swiving puddle rat, thou arse-brained nincompoop.”

Randall was fairly certain now that he had been insulted. He turned to see who the voice belonged to.

Although the unexpected presence of the puddle rat had taken him aback, it was nothing compared with the vision before him. This time he jumped so much the lid almost flew off his bucket.

There, glimmering in the moonlight stood the unmistakable shade of Obadiah Hyde.

This night was becoming increasingly bizarre. To encounter a strange creature for the first time was odd enough but to be addressed – not to say harangued – by the ghost of a man two-and-a-half centuries dead was disturbing, to say the very least. Randall had never been drawn into conversation by a ghost before and was by no means sure as how to proceed. As it happened, he had no need to.

“They are vermin of the worst sort,” said the wraith. “In truth, I will vouchsafe that they offend me even more than papists and adulterers.”

Randall had absolutely no idea what Hyde was talking about but at least the parson’s appetite for insulting him seemed to have quelled.

Suddenly, from the general direction of the puddle rat, a faint rumbling could be heard. This, while growing in intensity, gradually changed pitch. The puddle rat’s eyes bulged slightly and an expression of intense concentration came over its pointed features.

A look of alarm spread over the ghostly parson’s luminous visage.

“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, that wretched creature is about to fa…”

Before he could get the last syllable out a great explosion shook the air and a smell, far more obnoxious than anything Randall had ever encountered in his twenty years as Night-Soil Man, hung almost palpably in the cold moonlight.

“Do they all do that?” choked Randall, his hand over his mouth.

“I cannot speak for those who live in other parts of the island,” said the ghost, mournfully. “But ‘tis my belief that ‘tis the nature of their diet that causeth such raucous nether-winds. They are, in truth, verminous scavengers and feast upon that which the ravens drop.”

Hyde gestured towards the topmost part of the ruined chapel where the ravens roosted.

“Spoonwalkers. Or, at least, the bits of them that the birds discard.”

By now Randall’s eyes were watering but at least he understood why the creature had no fear of him. Nothing the Night-Soil Man carried could compare with the ferocity of that smell.

Randall turned to speak to Hyde but the ghost had vanished, back to purgatory or wherever it was he spent his time when not haunting the rock. The puddle rat, too,  had decided to leave.

“I don’t blame it,” said Randall to himself.

“Now I know why I get left alone.”

Art by Tom Brown


Dreams of New Delhi

Occasionally, when the weather is clement and the their carers are in a beneficent frame of mind, the youngsters from the orphanage go foraging along the coast. This was as true in the past as it is today, an activity providing not only a modicum of fresh air and exercise but also the chance of replenishing the orphanage resources with whatever the sea has provided.
It was on one such expedition, in the latter part of the nineteen twenties, that the Reverend Malachi Crackstone and a group of boys discovered a sealed box washed up on the shore. The box had been addressed to a priest living somewhere on the mainland.  Since the addressee was a man of God, and therefore unlikely to be the recipient of anything that might be remotely inappropriate for young eyes, the Reverend could see no harm in allowing the lads to open the package unsupervised. Secure in the knowledge that their continued innocence was ensured, he left them to their explorations while he went across the rocks to help the girls’ group, who were cheerfully eviscerating a recently deceased porpoise.                                                                                                              
The contents, at first, proved to be something of a disappointment. There was a birthday card from someone called ‘Cousin Roy’ and a batch of out-of-date religious magazines. Closer inspection, however, unearthed a real treasure that warmed the cockles of their adolescent hearts. Hidden among the copies of ‘The Catholic Educational Review’ was a slim but risqué publication called ‘Dawn’. A brief description of the contents emblazoned upon the cover helpfully described the magazine as being concerned with ‘the erotic intersection of eugenics, nudism and figure studies’. While ‘Cousin Roy’ may have been sending this to a Man of the Cloth, there was a conspicuous absence of cloth on the young ladies who graced the pages, which were certainly not aimed at those of a pious persuasion.
The lads were gazing with wonder and appreciation at the revelations concealed

between the covers of ‘Dawn’ when the Reverend made his way back to them.       
“What are you boys so interested in?” he asked, suspiciously.
The children of the orphanage had been taught never to lie to their elders.
“It’s an educational magazine sir.”

Clarence Coaley was a quick-witted fourteen year old whose answer was nothing but truthful.
The other boys stayed silent. They had no wish for the real truth to come out. As far as Reverend Crackstone was concerned the boys had found a copy of National Geographic; this he had surmised when he heard Clarence say that they were studying pictures of New Delhi. This was wonderful. Some of the newspapers that Colonel Ruscombe-Green had sent from the mainland, via the trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, told of the planned creation of this exciting new capital of India. The city was even now under construction and  still some years off completion. The Reverend had often dreamed of visiting India himself one day, his father having been a young army officer there at the time of the mutiny.

Clarence reasoned to his young colleagues that what he had said wasn’t exactly a lie; if the Reverend had misunderstood, it was not his fault. After all, a caption next to one of the young ladies said that her name was Eleanor. In all probability she was known to her friends as Ellie and she definitely had no clothes on.

The interests of the young never ceased to amaze Reverend Crackstone. It did his old heart good to see how Clarence quickly and carefully placed the magazine inside the collection of Catholic Educational Reviews for safe keeping.
“Make sure you study that magazine properly,” he advised. “You’ll see places that you never even dreamed existed. But don’t stay awake looking at it half the night, you’ll ruin your eyesight.”


All would have been well, had Clarence been inclined to be less possessive. He was loathe to let anyone else look at the magazine, which he increasingly regarded as being his own property. With a fraternal indifference that would have met the approval of Cain himself, Clarence’s younger brother, Cuthbert, anonymously spilled the proverbial beans to Reverend Crackstone with a single, damning note, placed on the parson’s desk within a week of the discovery. Clarence’s brief infatuation with the comely Eleanor was brought to an abrupt end, therefore, when Crackstone, full of biblical wrath, fell upon the boys’ dormitory like Lord Byron’s wolf upon the fold. The affronted parson had little difficulty in locating the offending publication among Clarence’s few possessions. Not being one to subscribe to the philosophy of sparing the rod, he wasted no time in deftly meting out no small amount of punishment. Although almost seventy years old, he was still able to wield a fierce and unforgiving cane, designed to drive all impure thoughts from the unfortunate youth.

If he achieved nothing else, Crackstone managed to secure Clarence’s undying enmity. Following the magazine incident, a week would barely go by that the reverend failed to beat the boy for some misdemeanour, real or supposed. This he administered with a self-righteous rigour that verged upon madness.


During the summer of that year some visitors arrived on the island, which was, in itself, a rare event. When one of them was dragged away by an army of spoonwalkers a rescue expedition was mounted and Crackstone, who had briefly enjoyed a friendship of sorts with the missing stranger, volunteered to be part of it. Clarence was glad to have a day free of the parson’s puritanical zeal and took the opportunity to slip away and do a spot of beachcombing on his own, fostering the forlorn hope that he might stumble upon another saucy magazine.

By mid-afternoon Clarence was weary, crestfallen and empty-handed. As the day had worn on it had become increasingly obvious that the chances of his happening upon another such find was miniscule.

‘Just another hour and I’ll call it a day,’ he thought to himself. Suddenly he froze. A movement in the nearby rocks caught his eye. As a lifelong inhabitant of Hopeless, Clarence had learned to be constantly wary of the unwelcome attentions of its various denizens. This particular specimen, however, was of the human variety and crouched over a rock as if spying on something, or someone, by the shore. It took a moment for Clarence to register that the faded black suit was somehow familiar. Then it dawned upon him. Those pale hands resting on the rocks like albino crabs and the dusty, ill-fitting trousers flapping over scrawny buttocks could only belong to Reverend Crackstone!

If the beatings Clarence had received had been meant to purge his soul of whatever demon was lurking within, then they had failed. The thoughts that bubbled up in his mind now were darker and bleaker than any he had yet had. The sight of Crackstone, absorbed in something unseen and totally oblivious to Clarence’s presence was too much for the orphan to bear. He picked up a hefty stone and stealthily crept towards his hated enemy, intent on murder.

Clarence was seconds away from dashing the parson’s brains out when a surprising thing occurred. Crackstone stood up, ranting and raving at someone on the shore. The words ‘whore’ and ‘abomination’ were unfamiliar to the boy but he guessed them not to be too complementary. Still shouting, the parson picked up a large rock and hoisted it above his head with surprising ease.


Was the day growing darker?

Clarence gasped as the sky behind Crackstone became swallowed up by a vast shape that emerged from the ocean and blotted out the sickly, fog-bound sun. The creature resembled a huge octopus with long, suckered tentacles that writhed terrifyingly in the air above it. As the boy watched, fascinated but frozen to the spot, one of the tentacles wrapped itself around the body of the parson. The elderly man’s voice became muffled as more of the serpentine arms completely enveloped him, then he fell silent as they tightened and twisted, wringing his, thankfully hidden, body like an old rag. Clarence fell back in horror, not certain what he was witnessing. It was only when the remains of Reverend Crackstone were hoisted high into the air did he summon the courage crawl to the cliff edge.

Strange and vast though the sea-creature was, Clarence’s eye was drawn to the tiny figure on the shore before it. He recognised her at once. Betty Butterow, the barmaid of The Squid and Teapot had long been a favourite topic of conversation for the older boys in the orphanage. Long limbed and beautiful, she had fuelled their erotic fantasies as no other girl on the island could, despite her advanced age of twenty two years. And here she was, naked before his very eyes. What a story he would have to tell the other lads. That old hypocrite, Crackstone, had been spying upon Betty, whose revealed charms far surpassed those of the monochrome nude Ellie in the confiscated magazine, and now he was dead, killed by a sea monster who appeared to be protecting the barmaid.

With his bragging rights ensured, Clarence could not wait to get back to the orphanage.

It was then that his eyes met the deep and solemn gaze of the sea-creature.  Clarence suddenly felt helpless, like a kite on a string that was being inexorably drawn in. There was nothing in his world now but those eyes. They held no malice but no pity either. The Kraken – for Kraken it was – reached deep inside the boy and read his every thought. Clarence screamed, though no sound came from his lips. Then there was darkness.


When he awoke, Clarence found himself alone upon the headland. He had no idea how he had arrived there; his only recollection was having left the orphanage earlier that day. Everything else was a blank. He could only imagine that he had fallen into a faint for some reason.

It was getting late but, being midsummer, darkness was still an hour or so away. He was in so much trouble and needed to get back to the orphanage quickly.

He shuddered at the consequences of staying out too late.

Crackstone was going to have his hide for this.

Art by Tom Brown


The Sweaty Tapster


Almost a century before the arrival of the island’s founding families, a British convict ship, bound for Virginia, was caught up in a violent storm and blown several hundreds of miles off-course. Fortunately, though some might have said otherwise, the ship ran safely aground on the fog-bound rocks that generously punctuate the coastline around Hopeless, Maine. Although the captain, guards and crew tried valiantly to contain their captive charges, it soon became obvious that any hope of rescue was unlikely and either the convicts would have to be released, or left to drown in chains when the ship eventually broke-up completely. So, having absolutely no idea where on earth they were, the collection of shipwreckees struck an uneasy truce and made their way warily inland.

It must be remembered that those felons transported to the Americas and later, Australia, were not, by and large, hardened, dangerous criminals. Such people were swiftly despatched at the end of a rope. More often than not, the unfortunates who found themselves banished to the colonies had been forced into petty crime and prostitution by the simple requirement to survive in a time of great need.

Over the following days and weeks partnerships developed and little clumps of like-minded people found themselves drifting away from the original company. Some built shelters from rocks and driftwood, while others took advantage of the ready made dwellings that they found, mysteriously abandoned and in varìous states of disrepair.

Other survivors, it must be said, disappeared without a trace. There was a nervous but optimistic assumption by the rest of the company that they had simply gone their own way without a word of farewell. Anyone remotely familiar with the viscious nature of the fauna – and indeed, some of the flora – of Hopeless would recognise this as a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience.

Twenty or so of those with a more adventurous disposition took themselves to the far north of the island. In the shadow of a range of hills that they later learned were known as the Gydynaps, they were surprised to discover a small, friendly and somewhat inbred community that appeared to have resided there for generations. Even more surprising was the fact that these people conversed in something approximating to Old English.

Those interested in the history of the island have spent many hours scratching their heads over the origins of this little community. The general school of thought is that they were descendants of Saxon slaves brought over by the Norsemen who settled on Hopeless a thousand years ago, or more. There is no indication that pre-Norman Conquest Britons ever knowingly ventured this far west. Such a voyage – to all intents and purposes to the very edge of the world – would have been either founded upon foolishness or desperation, or, more than likely, a combination of both.

Unsurprisingly, it was here that the remains of the convict ship diaspora, a rag-tag band of whores, petty-thieves and sailors, decided to stay. While most of the sailors hoped for rescue eventually, the convicts were happy to call this place home. There were some empty buildings and even an inn, of sorts, although the beer was inclined to be flat, warm and cloudy. On the upside, they had at last found something to remind them of England!

A short distance from the inn was a church. This will come as no surprise to anyone who grew up in a village where the juxtaposition of religious disapproval and earthly delights is all too common. After all, robustly assuaging the thirst and then sanctimoniously staggering into church to purge the soul has a certain logic.

This church, however, was long deserted (organised religion has always had a tenuous hold on Hopeless. Even Saint Brendan gave up trying while he was here). Anyway, for whatever reason, the place had not heard a hymn or a prayer for decades.

It seemed as good a place as any for the small band of ‘ladies of the night’ to call home and resume business – and the sailors, being sailors, tended to agree. On an island where money has little meaning, it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to find a suitable reimbursement for the various services transacted but somehow both parties concerned managed to reach a agreeable arrangement.

Over the next few years the newcomers became fully integrated with the descendants of the earliest visitors, whose language gradually became diluted and transformed.  Although it is now many years since anyone spoke in that tongue its legacy may still be found in various landmarks, place-names and surnames north of the Gydynaps. Indeed, the very name of these hills gives every indication that they were once sacred.The word appears to be derived from the Old English ‘Gydenu’, relating to the presence of a god or, more likely, a goddess. Given the reputation for mystery that the hills still have, this is hardly surprising.

Another example worth mentioning is the family name of Negelsleag which eventually mutated into Nailsworthy, a name regular readers will recognise as being that of our current and much-loved  (from a distance) Night Soil Man. Being the last of his line, it is sad to reflect that when Shenandoah dies this ancient moniker will die with him.

Similarly, the way in which archaic words evolve is generally believed to have given rise to the origin of The Squid and Teapot. Many hundreds of years ago an ale-house would often have been identified by a nearby landmark, the owner’s name or even a description of the landlord. The rough tavern, beloved by those living north of the Gydynaps, was no exception and had, for many years, been fondly known as The Swætan Tæppere, or, roughly, The Sweaty Tapster (or innkeeper), doubtless a homage to a risible but unfortunate characteristic of one of its long-dead landlords.

The newcomers found this name alien, unpronounceable and somewhat uninviting so, in time The Swætan Tæppere became jocularly known The Squid and Teapot and the name stuck. (Another, no less interesting but somewhat disappointing theory is that the inn was so named after someone discovered a small cephalopod comfortably ensconsed in a kitchen vessel of the spouted variety, generally used for the concoction of herbal infusions).

Over the years the building was added to, spreading outwards and upwards, until it became the imposing tavern that it is today.

As for the deserted church that was reincarnated as a bordello, ever since that time it has been home to a number of young – and not so young – ladies, all of whom have been happy to make whatever sacrifices necessary in order to enjoy the shelter and security that its stout walls provide. Many years would pass before the establishment was granted a whiff of respectability by the enterprising and philanthropic lady who called herself Madame Evadne, a pioneer who, euphemistically, marketed it as being a lodging house for discerning gentlemen, which in all fairness, it was and still is. But that, dear reader, as I have often said before, is a tale for another day.

Art by Cliff Cumber



The new year was less than an hour old when Betty Butterow, her work at The Squid and Teapot finished, had almost reached the cabin that she shared with her husband, Joseph, in Creepy Hollow. With the exception of the Night Soil Man, there are few who voluntarily venture far afield on Hopeless after darkness has fallen. This is true even in the middle of the year, when the last few strands of daylight are reluctant to leave the sky; to be abroad on a dark and moonless midwinter night was unheard of. However, Betty,  you will remember, was a selkie, a seal-woman, and had enjoyed the protection of the mighty Kraken itself when Reverend Crackstone had tried to kill her. Since that day few creatures, on sea or land, would have dared cause her harm.


A thunderous clip-clop, like that of huge but tired hooves, underpinned by a series of sharp and really quite irritating barks, stopped the barmaid in her tracks. These were not noises one heard on Hopeless very often. A flurry of smouldering paper fluttered by, though there was no breeze tonight. Betty’s heart suddenly began to beat faster, not with fear but with excitement. She knew what this was: a spectacle she had heard of but never actually witnessed. Then she saw them. Filling the heavens with clatter and disapproving sighs came the wraiths of six elderly spinsters, arthritically plodding across the night sky on three flatulent mules. At their feet yapped a brace of ghostly Springer Spaniels. This was The Mild Hunt of legend, eternally doomed to chase some fiery, fugitive pamphlets across the skies over Hopeless.

They could only be so close to her home on such a night for one reason; the old stories told of them often being spotted in the winter months visiting the somewhat deranged ghost of Lars Pedersen, the famous Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow.

Betty kept very still and watched the ghostly cavalcade circle down to earth. In the air above her they had appeared to be colossal, filling the canopy of the heavens from horizon to horizon. Now, however, as they clattered to the ground, landing in awkward disarray, they assumed normal dimensions. The cacophonous chorus of yaps, brays, noisy expulsions of equine nether winds and several exclamations of “Dearie me” was enough to disturb the weary wraith of Lars Pedersen. Betty held her breath as he gradually manifested, as if through a doorway unseen. She was not a little surprised by the old phantom’s appearance. It occurred to her that he was fading away. After haunting the area for almost a thousand years Lars had become little more than an outline, as faint as breath on a chilly night. Despite this, she could see how gaunt and wild-eyed he was.

Betty watched for a while longer. The ladies seemed to be fussing around the old Viking. The mules had calmed down and the spaniels were sniffing anything and everything of interest. One wandered over to where Betty was hiding and licked her hand. It was a cold but not unpleasant sensation. It barked at her.

“Shoo” she hissed.

The dog refused to leave and continued barking.

Betty expected the ladies of The Mild Hunt to react to her presence but all they did was to admonish the dogs for their ceaseless noise.

It dawned on Betty that maybe the spaniels could see her when the other ghosts could not. This would make sense; rather like the way in which mortal dogs are said to be able to see things beyond human vision. Emboldened by this thought, the barmaid wandered into the clearing where the ghostly gathering had assembled. Not one of them saw her but the spaniels continued barking. The ladies were obviously speaking to Lars but their speech had become distant and indistinct to Betty’s ears. Uncanny though the tableau was, the spectacle of a group of elderly people talking, even ghostly ones, was not terribly exciting. Betty was almost relieved when the ladies of The Mild Hunt mounted their steeds, gathered themselves together and once more returned to their endless quest across the skies. The wispy shade of the Norseman waved briefly, then turned to leave, pushing open the portal that only he could see. Betty, never one to deny her curiosity full rein, followed, making sure to keep one foot in the world she knew.

If the ghostly spectacle of The Mild Hunt had been memorable, the sight that greeted her eyes now would be indelibly etched upon her mind forever. Incredibly, the land on the other side of the door was bathed in golden sunshine. The grass was green and lush, affording the half dozen goats grazing upon it rich pasture. Chickens and geese busied themselves noisily, while beneath an ancient spreading oak tree, a spotted pig basked contentedly.

On the near horizon purple hills rose up to meet the few fluffy white clouds that graced an otherwise clear blue sky. Birds sang and the scent of summer flowers filled the air. Although there was no sign of the warriors’ feasting hall or drunken revels of myth, Betty knew she was looking at Lars Pedersen’s private, very peaceful, Valhalla.

It suddenly occurred to the barmaid that the shape of the hills was somehow familiar. Then the realisation struck her. They were the Gydynaps! And if that were so…

The rest of the landscape gradually fell into place. Sunlight sparkled on the chuckling waters of nearby Tragedy Creek, while in the other direction ravens circled around the landmark she recognised as being Chapel Rock – minus the ruined chapel of course; Lars did not know about its existence. It was clear that Lars Pedersen was living an afterlife on Hopeless, Maine, but not a Hopeless that any living soul would recognise. Betty looked in wonder. Was this Hopeless as it was, as Lars knew it, or as it might have been? Or even might one day be? The thoughts raced madly in Betty’s head as she drank in the sounds and smells of this idyllic land,  aching to be part of it. In silence, Lars Pedersen himself drifted into her field of vision and stood smiling before her. No one would ever refer to this Lars as The Woeful Dane, a nickname his ghost had acquired over the years. She saw him now as young and strong, his long golden hair and full beard plaited and his twinkling blue eyes bright and mischievous. With a slight bow, he held out his hand to her, invitingly. A delicious mist filled her mind, blanking out all thoughts and memories of the Hopeless she knew. Her life at The Squid and Teapot and even recollections of her soul-mate, Joseph became no more than a distant dream. Betty extended her arm towards the handsome Norseman, more than willing to accept his invitation. Just one step is all it would take to transport her to this wonderful new home – just one step.

“Betty. Is that you?”

A voice dragged her out of her reverie. She lurched back, realising how close she had come to leaving this harsh but love-filled life forever. The vision of Lars faded and the portal to his Summerland suddenly snapped shut.

The voice – and it must be admitted – overwhelming stench of the Night Soil Man, had brought her back to the Hopeless she knew so well.

“Are you okay, Bet’?”

Randall Middlestreet looked worried.

Although she had possibly glimpsed Heaven, Betty knew that this version of Hopeless was where she belonged for as long as she was alive. This was home.

She smiled and blew the Night Soil Man a kiss.

“Never better, Randall” she said.“Never better.”

Art by Tom Brown

(Cross referenced with ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’ and ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’)


The Thirst Noel

Regular readers may recall that on Christmas eve in 1886, the very year that I tell of, ‘The Annie C. Maguire’, a three-masted barque, capsized off the coast of Maine. Happily her captain and crew were saved by the keeper of the Portland lighthouse. Unbeknown, however, to the ship’s  captain, Mr O’Neill, there was a stowaway on board. This was Manchachicoj, a hideous  Argentinian demon from the Salamanca Caves, who had been hiding in one of the many barrels of salt-beef stowed in the hold. The reason for the barque coming to grief as it did was entirely due to  Manchachicoj  industriously banging a hole in the ship’s side in order to answer the beguiling call of a siren (whom, uniquely in the history of sirens, he successfully managed to seduce). This and the subsequent damage caused when the floundering craft hit a reef, allowed some of the barrels to float free. These were accompanied by several firkins of the finest Argentinian wine, carefully procured by Captain O’Neill while ‘The Annie C Maguire’ sat anchored in Buenos Aires.


Imagine, if you will, the average Christmas on Hopeless, Maine. Tidings of comfort and joy are in short supply, as is everything else. The general lack of seasonal cheer ensures that any stockings optimistically hung up over the fireplace are certain to remain empty. There will be no great feast, no Bacchanalia. Most will find that it is a day like any other dismal day. For some islanders, however, during one Christmas long ago, all of this changed. Unsurprisingly for Hopeless, the change was not exactly for the better.


Amos Gannicox, a former ship’s carpenter, looked with satisfaction at the fine wooden cabin and workshop he had constructed from the pieces of wreckage and driftwood salvaged from around the island. He was now able to bid a grateful farewell to The Squid and Teapot, an establishment that had provided his lodgings for two years, ever since his arrival on Hopeless. In exchange, Amos  had happily used his art as a master carpenter to greatly enhance the appearance of the inn.

From his earliest days on the island, Amos  found that he was frequently visited by Elmer Bussage, a youngster who loved to watch him at work. Indeed, Elmer far preferred the company of the carpenter to that of his own mother and father. You will recall that the Bussage family, along with the Reverend Malachi Crackstone and Tobias Thrupp, were companions in the liferaft that had brought Amos to Hopeless.

There could be no doubt that the Bussages’ parenting skills were decidedly lacklustre, by any standards. While most newcomers to Hopeless  generally made an effort to earn their keep, Jethro and Maybelle Bussage had other ideas. They preferred to beg, scavenge and steal to get by. They made just two exceptions to this lack of industry; the first was on the occasions when Maybelle, with the full approval of her husband, competed with Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for the dubious attentions of various discerning gentlemen. The second exception was Jethro’s indisputable and frequently used talent for distilling moonshine, which they both consumed with an untamed enthusiasm. All in all, they were not the best role models for a boy of ten years old.


Amos gazed out at the worsening weather with some trepidation. It looked as though Christmas would be blown in on an ice storm this year. Little Elmer was sitting happily in front of the wood-burning stove that Amos had ingeniously created from a disused water tank. There was no point in sending the boy home in this weather. The carpenter threw another piece of driftwood into the stove and turned up the gnii-oil lamp. There was little chance that Jethro and Maybelle would be worrying too much about their son anyway, he reflected. The lad was far safer with him.


The Bussages had not, indeed, given their son a second thought since he had left that morning. He always came back eventually. Besides, it was Christmas Eve and some interesting looking barrels – one very large and two much smaller – had washed up almost on their doorstep and demanded immediate attention. Who said there was no Santa Claus?

In view of the impending inclement weather it would have been sensible for Jethro and Maybelle to attend to some pressing and basic practicalities. These they neglected, instead making their priority the task of getting the barrels under cover before the oncoming storm carried them away again. This  was easier said than done. The firkins, the five-gallon barrels, were heavy enough to carry but the tun was beyond carrying and had to be rolled. It was unwieldy to manoeuvre and wanted to go anywhere but to the place where it was supposed to be. Eventually, however, after much sweat and profanity, the job was done.

It was with no little excitement and exertion that Jethro prised the lid off the tun. Once opened, he viewed the contents with mixed feelings. He knew a bit about salt-beef and its preparation. There was no doubt that this was top quality, for there was no evidence of hide, bone or offal. As a boy he had often watched his uncle, who had been a butcher in a victualling yard. He recalled that the flesh was cut roughly into four-pound pieces and rubbed generously with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. This was followed by a lengthy process of further salting until, eventually, the meat was barrelled and floated in brine.

Jethro held his breath as he drew the first piece of beef from the tun. If the brine had leaked the meat would be rotten. He prodded the cut with his finger. It was firm to the touch. He breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time in over two years there was the real promise of a sumptuous Christmas dinner in store.

Maybelle, meanwhile, was exploring the firkins.

“Please let it be brandy.”

This was as close as Maybelle ever got to praying. Had she tried harder, who knows, the contents may have been miraculously transformed. In the event the wine in the firkin would have no truck with Christmas miracles and stubbornly refused to change.

The Bussages were only slightly disappointed.

“It’s all fine,” said Jethro reassuringly. “We can drink this one straight away and the other I’ll distill. We’ll have brandy yet – after all, brandy is no more than distilled red wine. Oh, what a Christmas this will be!”


The weather deteriorated as the day wore on. Before long a full blown ice-storm had developed. It raged for four long days, all over the Christmas period, before there was any sign of it abating. Even then the numbing cold and bitter winds were sufficient to quell any thoughts of moving far from warmth and shelter.


Amos had prepared well for the winter. Over the year he had stockpiled the meat from the dead whale that he had found beached. This he had dried and salted. Seaweed was fairly plentiful and nutritious and not unpalatable, once a taste for it was developed. Best of all was the huge tub of beef that had washed up that very day. This was a gift from the sea that he would be very happy to share with his neighbours once the storm had passed.


While Christmas on Hopeless was nothing like the ones of his earlier life, Amos was content enough. He had good friends, simple needs and a snug cabin. What more could a man ask?  He looked fondly at Elmer, curled up in front of the stove, guarding the wooden boat that the carpenter had made for him. Amos was glad that he had resolved to have Elmer stay throughout the storm. He knew the Bussages well enough to have little doubt that Christmas with them would have been less than merry for the boy.


By New Year’s Eve the weather conditions had improved considerably and islanders could be seen to emerge from their homes in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of bears coming out of hibernation. At such times a degree of camaraderie prevails and neighbours, who rarely take the time to say ‘Good morning’ to each other, will rally round and often go to great lengths to ensure each other’s well-being.

It did not take long for someone to notice that the Bussages had not come out to join them. Their door was firmly closed and opaque sheets of ice veneered their windows, giving the appearance that the house had not been heated for days. Something was obviously wrong and although Jethro and Maybelle were never likely to win the title of ‘Hopeless Maine’s Good Neighbors of the Year’ there was a genuine concern for their well-being.

It was the young parson, Reverend Crackstone, who took the initiative and made the decision to force the door and Amos, who possessed the best toolkit on the island, was sent for. He left Elmer with a neighbour and made haste to the cottage.

The door had little inclination to open. The ice that had set around the frame proved to be as efficient in preventing ingress as the stoutest padlock. It took almost an hour of chipping and levering, seasoned with a few robust oaths, before the door would budge. Even as it broke free of the ice, something still prevented it from opening. Eventually, after much pushing, Crackstone and Amos managed to move the obstruction just enough to gain entry.

The sight that greeted their eyes was not a pretty one. It had been Jethro and Maybelle themselves obstructing the door and they were very dead. Swollen and blackened tongues lolled horribly from their gaping mouths . Blood on their fingers and scratches on the wood gave testament that they had desperately clawed at the door to get out but to no avail. The two firkins lay empty on the floor and much of the meat in the tun had been consumed.

“ Make sure the boy is kept away” yelled Crackstone to anyone who was within earshot.

“ He can’t see his parents like this.”

Both men agreed that there was no great mystery surrounding the Bussages’ deaths. Crackstone summed up the scene in no time.

“Greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice are the killers here, I’m afraid,” he observed. “The wages of sin is indeed death.” Then added, helpfully, for Amos’s benefit, “Romans 6:23.”

“It looks to me more like the result of too much salt beef and no water in the house” said Amos. “They tried to quench their thirst with red wine, which only made things worse.”

“Exactly!” snapped back Crackstone,”Had they had the wit to provide themselves with wholesome provender this would not have happened. Did they think to share? No! It is the Lord’s judgement upon them for the deadly sins of greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice, I tell you.”

Amos said nothing but gathered up his tools and returned to his own home, where Elmer was waiting for him.


The carpenter would dearly have loved to adopt Elmer but Reverend Crackstone and the trustees of the orphanage would have none of it. The boy needed to be with others of his own age, they said. Besides, he had promise. He was just the sort of lad they needed to one day play a vital role in the life of the island.

Amos was puzzled. He could not comprehend at all exactly what was meant by this but in the end was forced to accept their decision.

“I’ll visit you soon” he promised the tearful Elmer.

He tousled the boy’s hair and as he turned to leave, spotted a figure on a nearby hill, watching the proceedings. Amos noticed Crackstone make some gesture of greeting and the figure waved back; there was something odd about this, not least the figure’s shape. Then all became clear as it turned and stood in silhouette. It was a man – a Night Soil Man with a large bucket strapped to his back.


Nothing is wasted on Hopeless but the Bussages left little of value for their neighbours to use. No one seemed to have any use for Jethro’s still, or the now empty barrels, so, on a whim, Amos took them, though he had no idea how the still worked.


This is a Christmas tale and traditionally such tales have happy endings and promises of hope. The legacy of the Christmas of 1886 – The Thirst Noel as it was irreverently dubbed – took many years to be realised. Those who frequently peruse The Vendetta will be well aware of the emergence of the Gannicox Distillery. They will also know that this achievement will be somewhat overshadowed by the heroic but dreadful fate of Elmer Bussage, The Night Soil Man.  Sadly, there can be little expectation of hope on an island called Hopeless. The very best we can ever look forward to is a bittersweet conclusion. Merry Christmas.

Art by Tom Brown

(References: People from the Sea; The Wendigo; The Distiller)