Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

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The Apprentice – Part 1

Ariadne Middlestreet could not sleep. This was by no means an unusual event; she had descended, on the distaff side of the family, from a long line of poor sleepers, each of whom had a natural proclivity to wake up after four or five hours. Ariadne also suffered with ‘fidgety legs’ whenever rain threatened, which it often did on Hopeless. This ensured that, like most of her female antecedents, she rarely enjoyed a long and refreshing sleep.
It was 3a.m. when she wandered downstairs to the bar of The Squid and Teapot, hoping to find Lady Margaret D’Avening, the ghost who haunted the flushing privy of the inn. Despite having been dead for several centuries, Lady Margaret was surprisingly good company, full of bawdy tales that would have had the Puritans of her day sanctimoniously rotating in their graves. She liked to refer to her chats with Ariadne as ‘our little tête-a-têtes’, which was somewhat ironic as Lady Margaret’s half of the tête-a-tête was often situated several yards from the rest of her. Tonight, however, there was no sign of the ghost, with or without her head. Then Ariadne remembered; they were in the dark of the moon, those few days between the setting of the old moon and the rising of the new. Lady Margaret could always be seen flitting around when the moon was full, but her manifestations gradually trailed off to nothing as it waned.
Ariadne sighed, poured herself a glass of water and wandered over to the window. It would be another hour or so before dawn, and a cloak of darkness hung heavy over the sleeping island. Suddenly, something caught her eye; it was the unmistakeable, flickering iridescence of a wraith wandering through the darkness, a sight not exactly uncommon, in her experience. It seemed to be heading in the direction of Poo Corner and the Night-Soil Man’s cottage.
Ariadne mentally ticked off the various names of the likely spirits who might be abroad at this hour. She obviously ruled out Lady Margaret. Then there were the ladies of the Mild Hunt, but they always travelled together, along with their mules and spaniels, so they were discounted, too. It couldn’t be Lars Pedersen, The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow; he was so ancient as to be almost completely faded. Hmm… it might be the Mad Parson, Obadiah Hyde, but she had never known him wander far from his home on Chapel Rock. The Little Drummer Boy couldn’t go anywhere without banging that infernal drum of his; you could hear him a mile away. How about the dancing ghost, Clarissa Cockadilly? But no, she was doomed forever to haunt the swamp at the end of Forty Second Street.
“Who have I missed?” she said out loud to herself, then realisation dawned upon her. She had never regarded Miss Calder as being a ghost. The others all wore their wraithlike credentials on their, sleeve, as it were, (though Lady Margaret tended to tuck hers underneath her arm) but not so Miss Calder. She was an old friend, businesslike and efficient and dedicated to the care and welfare of the orphans. Yes, it made sense, and if she was heading for the Night-Soil Man’s cottage there could only be one reason.

Rhys Cranham was sitting on his doorstep, pulling off his boots when Miss Calder shimmered into view. Since taking over from his predecessor, the late Shenendoah Nailsworthy, Rhys had seen just about every cryptozoological and supernatural creature that Hopeless possessed. By and large, the ghosts ignored him and everything else with a sense of smell avoided him. Miss Calder did neither. He almost fancied that she flirted with him, which was nice, as the Night-Soil Man’s lot is a decidedly lonely one.
“Mr Cranham, how are you?”
Her silky voice reached him long before she did. He imagined it fluttering along on the early morning breeze with silver wings.
He rose to greet her as she drew towards him. The first pale strands of dawn were trying to battle their way through the mist, and occasionally through Miss Calder.
“Miss Calder, good morning. I guess you have some good news for me.”
“I do indeed, Mr Cranham,” replied the wraith, eyeing him appreciatively, then added,
“His name is Gruffyd Davies.”
“Davies?” The Night-Soil Man could not conceal his surprise. “I thought there had only ever been one Davies family on Hopeless.”
“There has,” agreed Miss Calder. “The Reverend and Mrs Davies found Gruffyd, as a tiny infant, abandoned on the beach. They had no idea who he was or where he had come from, so they placed him in the orphanage and named the child after one the Reverend’s ancestors – the original Gruffyd was one of the earliest settlers, I believe.”
Rhys shook his head sadly.
“Why give a child your family name then stick him in an orphanage… ?”
“Well, that’s as maybe, Mr Cranham,” said Miss Calder briskly, not wishing to be dragged into discussing the rights and wrongs of the Davies connubial attitude regarding the subject of child-rearing. “Gruffyd is now fourteen years old, a good lad and, I am certain, has the right build and temperament to be your apprentice.”
“And he wants the job?”
“Absolutely. He is a very quiet, solitary boy and has no wish to remain in the rough and tumble of the orphanage for a minute longer than he has to,” replied Miss Calder.
Rhys nodded thoughtfully.
“Okay,” he said. “Bring him along tomorrow evening… and don’t forget to put a peg on his nose.”

The role of the Night-Soil Man has often been discussed in these tales. He is a pariah, outcast from society by the foul smell that surrounds him, always. Perversely, he is, at the same time, held in the highest regard by his fellow islanders for the way in which that aforementioned malodorous aura repels the deadliest predators, allowing him to walk freely through the darkest night without fear. The work is back-breaking and dangerous and his life expectancy can often be short. This is why every holder of the post accepts, at some stage in his career, that the time is drawing near when the torch (or more correctly, the bucket) has to be passed and it would be expedient to take on an apprentice. These boys – apprentices are always boys – are selected from the orphanage. Incidentally, newer readers may be interested to learn that the most famous Night-Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet, was dropped in at the deep end, so to speak, at the age of fifteen when his master was devoured by the Wendigo. Randall also has the distinction of being, to date, the only member of his trade to retire and raise a family.

A few yards from the Night-Soil Man’s cottage stands a small bunkhouse, sparsely, but comfortably, furnished. For over a century some version of this building has been the accommodation of the apprentice, and there he will reside until his master dies. It is in here, on the following evening, that we meet Gruffyd Davies, a wooden peg on his nose, nervously unloading his few, meagre possessions onto to his bed.
Rhys had welcomed him with kind words, while keeping a respectable distance. It would take a while for Gruffyd to become acclimatized to the overpowering smell, but that was fine. There was no hurry – or so Rhys fervently hoped. He would give the lad a week or so before taking him out on his rounds.

Two weeks passed by and a casual onlooker (though, of course, there were none) would have witnessed the Night-Soil Man and his apprentice sitting quietly on the headland. They were happily munching cold Starry-Grabby pie, swilled down with a drop of beer (to the delight of Gruffyd) and gazing up through the mist at the full moon. Gruffyd was thrilled to spot a small flock of gnii twinkling across the night sky. Life had been a blur since he had started his apprenticeship, but he had taken to his new surroundings well, and had shown every sign of being eager to learn his trade.
“There’s just one more call tonight, Griff,” said Rhys. “It’s a cottage down by Chapel Rock that needs servicing. It won’t take long, and then we can head for home. You can grab another breather while we’re there; I won’t need your help clearing this one.”

As true as his word, Rhys left his apprentice to his own devices, while he trudged off, out of sight, swinging his bucket. The cottage nestled on the landward side of a huge lump of granite that was crowned by the ruins of the old chapel that gave the rock its name.

Although having been thrust into an adult world, Gruffyd was still very much a boy of fourteen, and like most boys of his age, he could never resist the challenge of climbing something. Maybe it was the effects of the beer, but the rock and the ruins seemed to be crying out for exploration, especially since the moonlight had managed to cut a path through the mist, making a valiant effort of turning night into day. What could possibly go wrong?
It took a matter of minutes for the lad to scramble to the summit and stand proudly on top of the ruins, waiting to surprise his master.

Before long, with the bucket now full and strapped safely upon his back, the Night-Soil Man made his way towards the rock. It took him only a few seconds to register that Gruffyd was nowhere to be seen, then he heard his shout.
“Rhys! Rhys! Look at me. I’m up here. Up in the ruins.”
“Griff, get down. Get down now,” Rhys shouted with alarm, knowing the danger, but as he did so a wild haired and angry apparition came screaming out of nowhere at the boy, its arms flailing wildly.
It was Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock. For centuries Hyde had made a special point of hating papists and adulterers. Tonight he added ‘Shouty adolescents who disturb my slumber’ to that list.
Rhys had warned Gruffyd at the outset of his employment that from now on he could expect to occasionally encounter a variety of ghosts, ghouls and horrors of all descriptions. The boy had seemed surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing, telling Rhys that he would be fine. However, Gruffyd had never expected anything quite as terrifying as the Mad Parson; a ghastly, cruel wraith who famously appeared from nowhere to scream in one’s face.
Taken by surprise, as any of us would have been, the boy stepped backwards, losing his footing. For a second that seemed to last forever, Rhys watched him standing at a crazy angle on the edge of the ruins, waving his arms as though conducting an invisible orchestra… and then he was gone.

A Moving Tale (Part 2)

“I really appreciate what you are doing, Miss Toadsmoor,”
Miss Calder shimmered slightly in the perennial gloom of the office.
The young woman standing before her gave a small, but respectful, curtsey.
“Please, call me Marjorie.”
“I don’t think that is necessarily a good idea,” said Miss Calder. “We should maintain a degree of propriety and professionalism at all times, at least for the sake of the orphans.”
Marjorie nodded her assent. Although much of her life, prior to coming to Hopeless, was a mystery to her, the stifling decorum of upper middle-class Victorian society was so instilled in her bones that this formal arrangement sounded agreeable, even preferable.
“Excellent,” said Miss Calder, “and you are happy to work with me? My… ah… predicament does not disturb you?”
As if to test her new companion, for a second or two one half of Miss Calder’s face took on a ghastly skeletal quality.
“Not at all,” replied Marjorie, crossing her fingers behind her back.

Since her arrival on the foggy island of Hopeless, Marjorie had lived in The Squid and Teapot, relying upon the charity of Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet. Feeling herself to be no more than a burden to the Middlestreets, she decided that she needed to be independent and seek fresh accommodation and some form of meaningful employment. It was her friend, the barmaid, Philomena Bucket who suggested that Marjorie could help Miss Calder at the orphanage. This was a surprisingly good idea. Having been, in her own words, the main dish at a vampire feast, Miss Calder was now reduced to being a wraith, a condition which presented certain obvious problems when it came to matters of handling and lifting.

Although the ghostly form of Miss Calder took a little getting used to, she was a perpetually young and attractive woman (except when she did the skeletal face thing) who was loved by the children in the orphanage. The same could not be said, however, of the Reverend Davies, a gaunt, cheerless man with Puritan views and bad hair.
“And you feel you can teach the orphans something worthwhile, Miss Toadsmoor?”
The reverend’s eyes bore into Marjorie. He was sceptical that a girl of barely twenty would be able to contribute anything to the education of the orphans.
“Although I know not where or when it occurred, I can assure you that I have received an excellent education, sir.”
“That’s as maybe,” said Davies pointedly, “but can you recall any of it?”
“I am fluent in French and Latin and have a little Greek,” she replied, haughtiness creeping into her voice.
“A fat lot of good that is on Hopeless,” he grumbled. “You will be casting pearls before swine, young lady, pearls before swine… but, very well, if you can keep the orphans occupied for an hour or two, I suppose you will have achieved more than most.”
With a wave of his hand, Reverend Davies dismissed Marjorie from his office.

If, during your school days, you have been forced to sit through a long and monotonous lesson, which has inspired within you not the smallest spark of interest, then you will appreciate the mind-numbing tedium that the unwary orphans found themselves being subjected to. Miss Toadsmoor was exposing her class to their very first taste of Latin. How could they not be thrilled by discovering the language of Virgil, Ovid and Marcus Aurelius, she reasoned to herself. Here was the very bedrock of the Romantic languages; what a gift she was bringing to them.

“And so, if I want to say ‘The girl walked in the woods’ it would be, in Latin, ‘Puella in silva ambulavit’.
“But why miss?” asked a bored voice from the back of the room.
“Because that is the translation,” said Marjorie, patiently.
“No, why did she walk in the woods? It sounds dangerous to me.”
“And me. I wouldn’t do that.”
“No way. I know people who have done that and never returned.”
Marjorie was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the babble of voices, affirming that the puella in question was decidedly chancing her luck by rashly venturing into the silvan groves.
“Perhaps I’ve made this too complicated,” she said, raising her voice above the growing hubbub. “Maybe if I just say, ‘The girl is in the woods…’ ”
“You mean she’s been buried in the woods, miss?”
“No! No! Please children. No one has been buried in the woods.”
Marjorie felt that she was losing control.
“Yes they have. My Uncle Colin was.”
“And Mrs Draycott. I saw her when they dug her up. Horrible, it was.”
Marjorie dropped her head into her hands, defeated.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” said Marjorie tearfully. “I am not connecting with the children at all.”
“I don’t agree,” said Miss Calder. “Maybe Latin isn’t what they need to learn, but the lesson certainly became more animated when you started talking about people being buried in the woods.”
“But I didn’t,” protested Marjorie, “I never mentioned it. They did.”
“Don’t you see, such things are far more relevant to their lives than talking about girls happily skipping around under the trees, whatever language you say it in? They live among horrors, Miss Toadsmoor, a fact to which I can personally attest.”
Marjorie looked downcast. “I confess, my time, so far, on the island has been spent within the shelter of The Squid and Teapot. I know little of the horrors of which you speak.”
“Then learn from the children, Miss Toadsmoor. Listen to what they can teach you. No one is asking you to turn them into academics. There are too many who regard the orphans as nothing but nuisances, barely one level above that of spoonwalkers. They rarely get listened to. I should be doing all of this, of course, but since my unfortunate…” Miss Calder hesitated, “… my unfortunate affliction occurred, I find it increasingly difficult to communicate. It sometimes feels as though I am the only living soul and all those around me are ghosts. Silly, isn’t it?”
Marjorie fell silent for a moment, reflecting on Reverend Davies’ observation that she would be ‘casting pearls before swine’. It was an unpleasant and unnecessary comment that certainly added weight to Miss Calder’s words.
“Thank you, Miss Calder,” she said, brightly. “You have communicated perfectly and your sentiments have been most enlightening. I see clearly now what I must do. Thank you again.”

It was a week or so later, when Marjorie and Philomena Bucket were walking with Drury, the skeletal hound, on the Gydynap Hills, that Marjorie suddenly asked her companion,
“Do you know the song ‘Have you smelt the Night Soil Man?’ ”
Philomena looked at her friend and frowned.
“I can’t say that I do. How does it go?”

Marjorie cleared her throat and began:

“Oh have you smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man,
Oh have you smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine?
Oh yes I’ve smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man,
Oh yes I’ve smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine. POO!”

“I know the tune,” laughed Philomena, “only we used to sing ‘The Muffin Man’ back in Ireland when I was a girl. Where the devil did you hear that?”
“Some of the orphans taught it to me,” said Marjorie. “Apparently, it’s a traditional street-song and has been sung by children here for generations. Since being at the orphanage I have learned so much about Hopeless; its flora and fauna, and the things that are neither, or both. Those children are a treasure trove of information.”
“I thought you were supposed to be teaching them,” said Philomena, throwing a stick for Drury to retrieve.
“Oh, I am, but we have an arrangement,” replied Marjorie. “If the children agree to let me teach them some basic arithmetic or a bit of poetry for an hour, in return I will allow them to teach me something about the island. It usually involves something gory, or scary… in fact the gorier and scarier it is, the better they like it. Are you aware that there is the ghost of a mad parson at Chapel Rock?”
“Yes, I’ve heard, but never mention him if Lady Margaret is haunting anywhere nearby. They have history.”
Philomena was referring to Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady who haunts the flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot. Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was the reason she became headless.

The two women stood together in the swirling mist on the very top of the Gydynaps. On impulse, Marjorie grasped her friend’s hand and squeezed it gently.
“Thank you so much for finding me a place at the orphanage, Philomena. I really feel that I am doing some good, at last. What would I do without you?”
Philomena, who always found taking compliments to be a problem, was about to make some self-deprecating comment when Drury came trotting up and dropped a stick at Marjorie’s feet. When it came to people, Drury was particular and had his favourites. He would not place a stick at just anyone’s feet. Marjorie was one of the good ones, he had decided – and it was her turn to throw.

(Missed part 1? It’s over here – A Moving Tale)

A Moving Tale (Part 1)

“I cannot, in all conscience, remain here any longer, Philomena.”
Marjorie Toadsmoor looked uncomfortably at her friend. She had been resident in The Squid and Teapot for several weeks, and was beginning to feel that she had outstayed her welcome.
Philomena smiled, squeezing Marjorie’s hand reassuringly.
“Why ever not?” she asked. “I’ve lived here for ages and have no intention of moving.”
Marjorie’s face flushed.
“But you’re useful. You can cook, you clean, you do the washing and wait at table; The Squid would fall apart without you, Philomena dear, whereas I… for some reason I seem to have no aptitude for any of those things.”
Philomena had to admit to herself that this was absolutely true. Although neither woman knew it, before Marjorie arrived on the island, she had lived the existence of a privileged, upper middle-class Victorian lady, with servants to do her every bidding. As you may recall from the tale ‘Lapsus Linguae’, only a minute prior to finding herself standing beneath the lighthouse on Hopeless, she had been wandering among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, excited at being one of the first female students to be accepted by that venerable university. She had been mysteriously plucked from space and time and robbed of all memory of her previous life. It was probably a blessing; there was little in the way of privilege on Hopeless.
“You can learn, it’s easy, “ said Philomena. “You’ve already rid yourself of them stuffy crinolines and corsets that you wore to begin with, to say nothing of that daft parasol…”
“It blew away,” said Marjorie, regretfully. “And yes, I can’t think why I was in that ridiculous get-up in the first place. The clothes you found in the attic for me is far more practical. But with regard to staying at The Squid and Teapot, I honestly don’t think I can be of any worthwhile use at all.”
“Well, if you’re certain,” said Philomena. “Let me see what I can find for you, but please, don’t think that the Middlestreets want you to go. You add a bit of class to the place.”
It was the truth. Ariadne Middlestreet had commented on more than one occasion that Miss Toadsmoor’s cut-glass English accent, fierce intelligence and impeccable manners had certainly done the reputation of the inn no harm. Everyone adored her, with the possible exception of Doc Willoughby, who did not like anyone who was perceived to be cleverer than he was.

A day or two later Philomena delivered the news that she had found an ideal home and job for Marjorie.
“Miss Calder, at the orphanage, she could really do with some help,” Philomena said. “The children would benefit from having someone like you around, Marjorie, and there’s room enough for you to live there, too.”
“But surely, Miss Calder is more than up to the task of catering for her young charges,” protested Marjorie.
Philomena looked uncomfortable.
“There’s something about Miss Calder you should know,” she said. “She isn’t… she isn’t… well… quite alive.”
“You mean the poor woman has passed away?”
“Not in so many words,” replied Philomena, carefully “It’s just that she’s dead, but that doesn’t stop her looking after the children as best as she can. Oh, no.”
“I’m not sure I could bear to stay there if Miss Calder is as you say she is,” said Marjorie, a slight tremor in her voice.
“Ah, sure, you’ll soon be fine with it,” replied Philomena, adding after a thoughtful pause, “maybe it will help if you meet someone to get you used to the idea. I know just the person. Come down to the bar at midnight.”
Marjorie looked intrigued. She had no idea what her friend was planning but was happy enough to go along with it.
“Very well. I’ll see you then.”

A full moon was shining wanly through the windows of the inn when Marjorie made her way down the stairs, the yellow light of her candle throwing huge shadows against the walls. Philomena was waiting for her.
“Promise me you’re not going to be too frightened,” she said, ominously. “If she sees that you’re scared, you’ll offend her?”
“She? Who are we meeting?”
“You’ll see,” said Philomena. “Now we need to go to the toilet.”
“I don’t,” said Marjorie, not a little taken aback. “I went before I came downstairs.”
“No, no,” said Philomena, “I mean, we need to go into the toilet – to the flushing privy next to the bar. Come on.”
By the flickering light of the candle, the pair slipped into the privy.
“Lady Margaret, are you there?” called Philomena, softly.
The room grew suddenly much chillier and, to Marjorie’s amazement, the figure of a woman suddenly appeared before them. To all intents and purposes she looked to be as much a creature of flesh and blood as they were, but there was something about her that suggested that she was somehow on the very edge of becoming slightly transparent. This impression was not reduced by the fact that she appeared to be clothed in little more than a fairly revealing night-gown.
“Lady Margaret D’Avening, allow me to introduce you to my good friend, Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor,” said Philomena, respectfully.
Despite having forgotten her roots, there was some deeply inbred obsequiousness lurking in the make-up of Marjorie, when exposed to the aristocracy.
“My Lady,” she said, performing a deep curtsey, “I am honoured indeed.”
Lady Margaret nodded imperiously. She had not been treated like this for centuries.
“You’re not here to be honoured,” said Philomena, “You are here to meet a real-live… um… a real-dead ghost. Lady Margaret came here with the stones that built the privy, and won’t mind me saying that if you can get used to her, then Miss Calder will be a pushover.”
“But Lady Margaret is young and beautiful…” protested Marjorie. “If she is truly a ghost, then I surely have no need to fear.”
Although she had lived on the island for some weeks, except for an initial encounter with a spoonwalker, Marjorie had not experienced any of the more exotic inhabitants of Hopeless, including ghosts.
Philomena gave Lady Margaret a wink.
“Time to do what you do best. M’Lady” she said, upon which the ghost raised her hands and lifted her head from her body, letting it float in the air beside her.
If the light in the privy had been better, one would have witnessed Marjorie’s complexion suddenly becoming an interesting shade of green.
“That’s my party trick,” said Lady Margaret’s head, “thanks to a mad puritan parson who disapproved of my religion and, more to the point, my love-life. Now… tell me all about yourself, young lady…”
It soon became clear to Marjorie that, despite being an aristocrat and a ghost with a severed head, Lady Margaret D’Avening was delightful, easy-going company and not at all scary, unless of course, she had other tricks up her sleeve.
She left the privy that night feeling far more comfortable about the prospect of living under the same roof as Miss Calder, a well-meaning ghost, if ever there was one.

To be continued…

Bigspoon

For most homes, having someone banging on the front door at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning is, generally speaking, an unusual event. The Squid and Teapot is certainly no exception to this, and when the stout doors of the inn rattled to a sudden matutinal tattoo one sabbath, it almost caused Ariadne Middlestreet to spill her coffee.
“Good morning Mrs Middlestreet,” said a polite, but spotty, youth to Ariadne, when she answered the knock. He was accompanied by a carbon copy of himself, down to the last pimple. Ariadne immediately recognised them as being the Westonbirt twins, Winston and Wendell, from the orphanage.
“And what are you boys after at this hour of the day?”
Ariadne is not a particularly maternal woman, invariably regarding anyone on the island, who has the misfortune to be under the age of twenty-five, as being up to no good. In this she is rarely disappointed.
“Miss Calder sent us, ma’am,” said Winston – though it could well have been Wendell. “We were raided by spoonwalkers again last night. Miss Calder wants to know if there is any spare cutlery in your attic, please.”
“Dam’ spoonwalkers,” said Ariadne, with venom. “Tell Miss Calder I’ll bring some over later.”
“We need them now ma’am,” said Wendell or Winston, with some trepidation in his voice. “We can’t do breakfast without.”
Ariadne sighed.
“Okay. What do you need?”
“A dozen dessert spoons and two large ladles, please ma’am.”
“Ladles? Spoonwalkers have no use for ladles, they’re way too big.”
“Well, they definitely took two last night.”
Ariadne sighed again.
“Stay here, you two, and don’t touch nothing. I’ll go and find you some cutlery.”
Ten minutes later the Westonbirt twins were happily jangling back to the orphanage with a bulging bag of non-matching dessert spoons and two ladles.

It always amuses Philomena Bucket when Drury, the skeletal hound, picks up a scent. His bony tail immediately lifts before he circles around, sniffing the ground, oblivious to everything else around him. All Philomena can ever do is to follow, if she chooses to. For Drury’s part, he has no need of an audience. The chase is enough. On the day of our tale, however, she decided to keep the dog in sight and see what he might find.
It was not until they dropped from the headland to the beach that Philomena could see the cause of Drury’s excitement. Imprinted deep into the dark sand was a set of cup-shaped indentations, as though a large and quite heavy biped, with exceedingly strange feet, had walked along the shoreline. Philomena racked her brains as to what manner of creature might leave such tracks, but nothing came to mind. She knew that there was every chance that answer to the mystery might be totally unremarkable, but her curiosity was aroused. She decided to get someone else to take a look before the tide came in and washed the prints away forever.

“It’s beyond me,” admitted Norbert Gannicox. “Looking at the stride, whatever it is must be at least four and a half feet tall. We’ve had some rum things wandering around the island over the years, but I’ve not seen anything with feet like that.”

The talk in The Squid and Teapot that evening was of the strange tracks that Drury had discovered. Harvey Winstone said that he had spotted similar ones in the mud behind the orphanage.
“They were like small bowls. I’ve never seen anything with feet like that,” he added.
Ariadne, listening with half an ear from behind the bar, suddenly paled.
“Spoonwalkers stole a couple of ladles from the orphanage the other night,” she said. “I reckon it’s to do with that.”
“But they’re too small to use ladles as stilts,” protested Norbert. “Dessert spoons are more their size.”
“But what if there’s one that’s not so small anymore?” said Harvey, a note of menace in his voice. “What if one has mutated into something bigger?”
Harvey had recently found some comic books washed up in a crate. Much of it was literally pulp-fiction, as most of the comics had become little more than a salt-sea mush, but deep in the middle of the crate a few had survived the worst ravages of the ocean. These had titles such as ‘Weird Stories’, ‘Creepy’ and ‘Tales to Astonish’. Harvey, innocent of the ways of comic-book writers, believed every word he read.
An uncomfortable silence descended upon the bar. Regular sized spoonwalkers were bad enough – just a glance from one of them had been known to drive folks close to madness. If there was something bigger out there, who knew what havoc they might cause?
“I’ve no idea what mutated means,” admitted Norbert, “but it sounds quite nasty. What are we going to do?”
There was a sudden hubbub of voices, each one advocating violence of some degree.
“Hold on,” broke in Bartholomew Middlestreet, ever the voice of reason. “Before we get too carried away, has anyone actually seen whatever it is that’s making these tracks?”
Nobody replied.
“Then I think, until we know exactly what we’re up against, we do nothing except be vigilant.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, but that night, as each customer made their way home, they could not help but tread with trepidation.

It is widely thought that the name ‘Bigspoon’ was coined by Harvey Winstone, who’s recent exposure to ‘Tales to Astonish’ etc. had brought to his attention the possible existence of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, arguably the North American cousin of the fabled Yeti of the Himalayas. Since delving into this newly discovered world of cryptozoology, Harvey harboured a secret hope that Bigfoot’s big feet would one day stalk Hopeless, but until then he had to be content with a home-grown version.
(As if the island doesn’t have more cryptozoological specimens than you can shake a spoon at!)

Once the creature had been given a name, it was not long before there were reports of Bigspoon being sighted all over the island. He was five feet tall, or sometimes eight feet tall. He was green and scaly or there again, brown and hairy. He roared, he squeaked, he spoke fluent English… and he was only ever seen in passing, from the corner of one eye, in a bad light, obscured by mist and behind trees. He was, in short, an enigma. There were as many varieties of Bigspoon as there were people who had claimed to have seen him. One thing that all agreed on, however; his round, ladle-shaped tracks were everywhere. Panic began to grip the island.

It was maybe a week or ten days following the robbery at the orphanage that Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, managed to put a stop to Bigspoon’s ramblings for good.
It was not quite midnight when he stopped for his break. Philomena had, as ever, left a generous slice of Starry-Grabby pie and a bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ outside his front door. Settling down, with his back against a rock, Rhys was about to take the first bite of his meal when a sudden movement caught his attention. Well aware of the tales surrounding Bigspoon, he was at once wary, hoping that his trademark effluvium would be enough to keep the creature at bay. He sat stock still and waited.

The figure that emerged into the moonlight was neither green and scaly, nor brown and hairy. It was a small boy with a ladle lashed to each leg, who hobbled awkwardly across the ground, in search of suitably soft patches of earth into which he might imprint his strange footmarks. Rhys smiled to himself, appreciating the hoax. He had been an orphanage boy himself and had often played tricks on the adults in his life. Hopeless, in the middle of the night, however, was not a safe place for anyone except the Night Soil Man, much less scrawny, adolescent hoaxers, such as the one he now saw before him..

Wendell, or possibly Winston, stopped in his tracks as a blood-curdling, animal howl issued from the nearby hillside. It was followed by the noise of rocks being crashed together, to the accompaniment of an assortment of yelps, gibbers and screeches. It sounded as though all the denizens of Hell had decided to hold an improptu party on Hopeless. Wendell (we’ll agree that it’s Wendell) kicked off the ladles and sped back towards the orphanage and the safety of the open window where his brother waited. Rhys lingered a while then wandered down to the spot where that the would-be Bigspoon had recently vacated, picked up the ladles and dropped them into his backpack.

“Did you hear it last night?” asked Harvey Winstone, clutching a tankard of ale close to his chest.
A murmur of assenting voices confirmed that they had, indeed, heard the wrath of Bigspoon. One or two swore that they had watched him raging over the hills, howling at the moon before eventually disappearing into the mist.
Philomena Bucket deftly carried another tray of drinks to across the crowded room, before going outside for a breath of air. Standing in the pool of yellow light by the open front door, she smiled to herself as she strained to read again the note that she had found outside the Night Soil Man’s cottage, when delivering his supper earlier that evening. It had been secured to the ground beneath the weight of two large ladles.
The message was clear enough:
“They won’t be needing these at the orphanage any more. Neither will Bigspoon. Yours ever, Rhys xx”

The Wanderer

The apple trees growing in the shade of the Gydynap hills are far from beautiful. They are old, gnarled and twisted, and, on the odd occasions that any of them bears fruit, the apples are small and bitter, barely good enough for making cider. This said, however, every springtime, without fail, they produce a gorgeous and fragrant blossom that speaks of a harvest that never arrives.
Philomena Bucket has always waited impatiently for the coming of the blossom; it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland. She had few happy recollections of her early life, but the flowering of the trees in her grandmother’s orchard always glowed in her mind like a beacon. After her grandmother died, the apple orchard, and all the stuff of memories, were brutally snatched away, and the adults of the Bucket family found themselves in the workhouse in Dublin. Philomena and her sisters were deposited in the Foundling Hospital for Orphans and Abandoned children, just south of the River Liffey.
Philomena dismissed those dark and distant days from her mind as she plucked a sprig of blossom and pinned it on her coat, laughing as a shower of petals cascaded from the tree, covering her hair and shoulders like confetti.
As spring days go on the island of Hopeless, this particular one was decidedly… well, almost spring-like. The wind was moderate, there was no apparent sign of rain, and the usual shroud of mist that hung over the land was surprisingly light. The green shoulders of the Gydynaps rose up into clear grey skies before her; it would be more than optimistic to expect sunshine as well.
Philomena hummed a little tune and walked with a definite spring in her step as she made her way towards the summit of the hills. Drury, the skeletal hound, sensing her mood and wagging his bony tail, gambolled like a lamb over the grass (not that Drury had recently witnessed a lamb gambolling, at least, not for the last hundred years or so).
The Gydynaps are possibly the strangest place on the island. This is not to say that there are – to quote the traditional Scottish prayer – a greater number of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties wandering around there than on any other part of Hopeless. It is, instead, as if the hills are host to an indefinable presence, quietly possessing an aura of awe and antiquity that even the most insensitive soul could not fail to feel. And this is why they are shunned, for, unlike Philomena, most Hopelessians prefer the terrors that can be seen, and hopefully avoided, to the ageless, invisible, threat, that many believe pervades the Gydynaps.

Drury had spotted a crow foraging in the grass and decided that it would be worthwhile chasing the bird. Like crows the world over, this one had every confidence in her ability to avoid capture, and made a point of keeping just enough space between Drury and herself in order to give the dog the impression that he might just catch her.
Philomena was not worried when he disappeared from sight. Drury was his own master and would find her when he grew tired of the fruitless chase.

As the morning drew on the day became suddenly colder and a freshening wind brought ever-thickening wisps of mist on to the hills. Philomena drew her coat closer about her and was on the point of deciding to go back to The Squid and Teapot, where she had a room, when a bent figure, wearing something resembling a monk’s habit, appeared a few yards in front of her, as if out of nowhere. Philomena rubbed her eyes and concluded that the mist must be denser than she had thought.
“Good morning,” said Philomena, cheerily.
The elderly stranger raised a hand in greeting and Philomena thought he said,
“Imagine what.”
“Imagine what? What should I imagine?” asked Philomena confused.
The two looked at each other for a few seconds before Philomena realised what he had said.
“Maidin mhaith” she repeated back with a beaming smile, dredging up what she recalled of the language her grandmother had spoken.
The old man looked around, confused. The landscape had unexpectedly changed. From these high hills he could see that they were surrounded by water.
“What is this island called?” he asked, in a dialect of Irish that sounded archaic and unfamiliar, but to Philomena’s amazement she understood him perfectly.
“Why, this place is Hopeless,” she replied, surprising herself by answering him fluently in his own tongue.
“Indeed it is,” he said. “I have wandered for years, through hollow lands and hilly lands, but I have never seen anywhere quite as dismal as this.”
“Oh, it’s not too bad once you get used to it,” said Philomena, unconvincingly.
The self-confessed wanderer gave her a long, hard stare.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “I feel that I do… maybe a long time ago. Things are a bit hazy since I went into that hazel wood…”
‘Cheeky beggar’ thought Philomena, ‘I’m young enough to be his granddaughter,’ but she just smiled sweetly and said,
“Sorry, I don’t think so.”
Just then a slight breeze swept by, disturbing the apple blossom that still clung to her hair and shoulders.
The old man gazed at her, his eyes suddenly alight with longing and wonder.
“Yes… yes I do know you,” he said. “There is apple blossom in your hair… You are the one… I know it.”
Before Philomena could object, he had reached forward and taken her by the hands,
then, with surprising strength and agility, drew her quickly towards him and kissed her full on the lips.
“Ah… I taste fish,” he said. “You were once a fish, a trout. Do you recall?”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” said Philomena, more than a little taken aback, and pulling away hastily. “I had a bit of cold Starry-Grabby pie for me breakfast. That’s what you can taste. I was never a fish. Honestly. I’d have remembered.”
The old man looked dejected.
“It was a very attractive trout,” he said. “All silvery. I could have sworn you were she. That is such a shame. But… you don’t fancy walking through some long, dappled grass with me, just in case you’re mistaken. It might bring it all back to you.”
“No thanks,” said Philomena, who was becoming increasingly uneasy. “Besides there’s no long grass up here, dappled or otherwise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said morosely. “To be honest, I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever find her. She only ever called me by my name once, then she ran off, faded into the brightening air, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.”
“Don’t give up hope,” said Philomena, feeling suddenly sorry for him. “Stick with it, and you’ll be sure to bump into her eventually.”
“Hmm, I hope you’re right,” replied the old man. “But if by chance you do see the girl, say that her Aengus is still wandering around looking for her.”
Without saying any more he turned and, with a wave of his hand, walked into the gathering mist.
Philomena stared after him until he disappeared from sight. Lost in her own thoughts, she was suddenly brought back to earth when Drury pulled up alongside her, his tail still wagging.
Her reverie broken, she tried in vain to catch the last few ragged ribbons of ancient Gaelic speech which floated through her mind, before they disappeared forever. But they were gone, like snow on the water, and with those words faded all memory of her encounter with the Wandering Aengus.

With apologies to W.B. Yeats.

An Egg in the Attic

It was decided that the attics of The Squid and Teapot were in dire need of a good spring-clean. This was by no means an annual chore, but since Doc Willoughby had thoroughly ransacked the rooms, frantically searching for information concerning European warships of the sixteenth century, then failing to clear up after himself, the place was in a dreadful mess. This seemed to be as good a time as any to indulge in spot of a tidying-up.
While Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet swept and dusted, Norbert Gannicox and Philomena Bucket set about the daunting task of putting the multitude of scattered books back into some semblance of order. The work was not particularly arduous but the profusion of dust was inclined to make the throats of the four workers particularly dry. Fortunately, being an inn, The Squid was reassuringly well furnished with thirst-quenching drinks, the chief one being ‘Old Colonel’ Ale, the pride of the Ebley Brewery. A pitcher was brought up from the bar and three foaming pints were poured. Norbert Gannicox, who had abstained from alcohol for many years, contented himself with a glass of sarsaparilla. Unsurprisingly, this too was produced by the Ebley Brewery, following the discovery, some years earlier, of a crate packed with sassafras roots and assorted spices. It is sufficient to say, however, that the non-alcoholic beverage, even when it was called root beer, was not universally popular with the more robust tipplers of the island; in other words, pretty much everyone.
“I’m surprised that you’re teetotal, being a distiller,” commented Philomena, casually.
Norbert looked at her sadly.
“I gave up the booze when my dad was drowned in a vat of his own liquor,” he said. “It was five or six years before we eventually found him. He was perfectly preserved.”
“Ah well, at least he was in good spirits when he died,“ laughed Philomena.
There was an awkward silence for a moment. If Hopeless was the sort of place where tumbleweeds were inclined to tumble, one would have definitely blown through the room.
Then everyone spoke at once, commenting on the scarcity of gnii; the need to mend the cistern in the flushing privy; Mrs. Beaton’s latest tirade and a general enquiry whether anyone had seen Drury that day. In fact, any subject that avoided mentioning death, barrels, drowning or spirits was fair game for a few minutes.

The work was almost finished when Philomena spotted a dusty cardboard box lying on a high shelf. Perching herself precariously on a rickety step stool, she reached it down and, much to the annoyance of the others, blew off a cloud of dust and peered inside.
“Whatever is this…?” she asked no one in particular, drawing out a mauve, egg-shaped, object. It had an array of, what appeared to be, flat-bottomed beads around the outside.
“Good gosh,” exclaimed Bartholomew, narrowly avoiding profanity. “I haven’t seen that in years. As far as I recall it was sent as a gift to someone.”
“Why, I remember seeing that when I was a kid. I’m fairly sure that it was sent to my uncle and aunt,” Norbert broke in, excitedly, “Bill and Constanza Ebley. Constanza was my dad’s younger sister, and Uncle Bill was the founder of the brewery.”
Sensing that they were about to be regaled with a slice of island history, the others settled themselves into some of the more comfortable seats, which had been stored in the attics.
“Uncle Bill was a servant of some description, who arrived on the island with his boss, colonel somebody-or-other. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a few years Bill and Constanza got married and the colonel left the island.
“Left the island?” asked Philomena, incredulously. “How the devil did he do that? I thought it was impossible.”
“It is now,” agreed Norbert, “but in those days there was an Indian trader, a Passamaquoddy, who rowed over from the mainland a couple of times a year. The colonel hitched a ride with him.”
“I’ve heard of the trader,” said Ariadne. “My grandma knew him. His name was Joseph.”
“Well,” continued Norbert, “The colonel travelled all over the world after he left, but managed to keep in contact with uncle Bill, via this Joseph fella. When he heard that they’d had a child, a daughter– which was a bit of a surprise as they weren’t that young – he sent them all sorts of stuff, including this egg.”
“That’s a strange gift to send a kid,” said Bartholomew. “There’s not a lot you can do with it.”
“That’s for sure,” said Norbert, nodding. “It looks too small and fragile.”
“Let’s take a closer look,” said Philomena, lifting the egg from its box.
It took her only a few moments to find that the mauve egg, which was little more than three inches in height, consisted of two enamelled halves, which opened easily. Inside was a heart-shaped locket.
The others watched intently as Philomena pressed a tiny catch on the side of the locket, which immediately sprung open into a clover-shaped picture-frame, each leaf containing a miniature portrait.
“Why, if it isn’t a shamrock!” exclaimed Philomena, then adding with some disappointment, “pity it isn’t green, though.”
“Who are the people in the pictures?” asked Ariadne.
“There’s a man, a woman and a baby girl,” observed Bartholomew, “It must be Bill, Constanza and their daughter, I guess.”
“I don’t think so. That uniform is a bit on the grand side for the British army,” said Philomena, eyeing the gentleman in the picture.  He looked haughty and high-ranking, his uniform festooned with medals and epaulettes. She hadn’t seen any soldiers walking around like that in Ireland.  
“Maybe that’s why it ended up being stored in these attics,” said Bartholomew. “It’s just a cheap ornament. All something like that is good for is to be stuck on a mantelpiece, where you can watch it gather dust.”
“What a shame,” said Ariadne, “though I reckon you’re wrong about it being cheap. I’ll bet that old colonel paid as much as five dollars for it.”
“Then he was robbed,” grunted Bartholomew.
Philomena clicked the picture-frame back together, re-assembled the egg and was about to replace it in the cardboard box, when she noticed a folded piece of paper, yellow with age, lying in the bottom. Carefully opening the page, she squinted in the dim attic light to read what was written.
“It starts with, My Dear Ebley…” she said. “That must be Bill he’s writing to. Then he goes on to say, hope you and Mrs Ebley… blah blah blah… young Mildred… blah blah blah… gift of this special egg…. and then… oh, good grief, what’s this word? Blast it, the man has started writing in French. Does anybody know what Fabergé means…?”

Author’s note:
If the reference to Doc Willoughby suddenly becoming fascinated by history is at all puzzling to you, then you obviously have not read the ‘Little Ship of Horrors’ trilogy of tales. There is no time like the present.
Should you wish to know more about the adventures of Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green and his erstwhile batman, William Ebley, of the King’s own Regiment, you could start by reading the tale ‘Jolly Boating Weather’.
The Passamaquoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs (to give him his full name) first appears in the tale ‘The Wendigo’.

Little Ship of Horrors (Part 3)

Part 1 https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/13/the-little-ship-of-horrors/

Part 2 – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/20/the-little-ship-of-horrors-part-2/

Without doubt, the Gannicox Distillery makes the finest vodka on Hopeless. That said, its only competition exists in the shape of a handful of moonshiners, who invariably go blind and/or insane after the first few distillations. Norbert Gannicox, the distillery’s proprietor, is not, himself, a drinker, but he has no inhibitions when it comes to encouraging others to sample the fruits of his labour. One of the island’s more enthusiastic samplers is Doc Willoughby, and on the evening of this tale, the Doc was being encouraged to sample more of the spirit than was probably good for him.

Doc Willoughby had been tricked into going to The Squid and Teapot by its landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, who was worried about the Doc’s odd behaviour following the arrival, and subsequent destruction, of a haunted Tudor Galleon, ‘Mary Willoughby’ (if you have not yet read the first two instalments of this tale, now might be a good time). Little by little, and drink by drink, the Doc revealed all about his obsession with the galleon, and the plank bearing her name that lay hidden in his basement.
“Voices in my head”, he told them, “promised that I am the rightful heir to the Willoughby estate. That is why the ship defied time and space, it came to find me on Hopeless”.
Bartholomew, Norbert, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket listened with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. They each imagined that the sardonic and cynical Doc Willoughby would be the last person on the island likely to be possessed in this way.
“You see,” slurred the Doc, “the Willoughby’s are English aristocracy. I am of ancient and noble lineage.”
“That’s a load of old blarney,” blurted Philomena. “Why, there’s loads of Willoughbys all around Dublin and Cork. To be sure, me great granny was a Willoughby, so maybe I’m an aristocrat to – or there again,” she added slyly, “ you might be related to me.”
The Doc pulled a face. He didn’t dislike Philomena – at least, no more than he disliked anyone else – but he certainly did not want to be related to her.
“But the ship found me, the rightful heir.” he moaned, before gently sliding off his chair and on to the floor, where he began to doze and snore loudly.
“I think we need to find that plank and put a stop to all this.” said Philomena, briskly.

Philomena and Norbert made their way to the Doc’s home, while the Middlestreets did their best to make the slumbering Doc as comfortable as possible. They had a nasty feeling that he was going to have the mother of all hangovers when he eventually awoke.

The air in the basement was foul and was filled with harsh, unearthly cries and whispers. Not wishing to linger, it took little time for Philomena and Norbert to find the plank. The pair recoiled in horror when they saw the slimy mass that now crawled over it, obscuring the name of the galleon.
“I’m not touching that.” said Philomena, and Norbert was more than inclined to agree.

Ten minutes later, sitting in the Doc’s surgery, they tried to make sense of what was going on. The fact of the ship arriving on the shores of Hopeless was the least of the mysteries.
“There’s plenty of people who have turned up here out of their own time,” said Philomena, conscious that she, herself, had done exactly this.
“But that plank, crawling with slime… the smell… the voices?” said Norbert.
“Whatever it is, it needs to be gone,” said Philomena, “and I think I know how.”

Those of you who have followed the ‘Tales from the Squid and Teapot’ for some time might remember that the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening had arrived, with her head tucked underneath her arm, on the island many years earlier. She had been haunting the stonework that had once been part of Oxlynch Manor, a Jacobean building bought by an American millionaire. He had arranged for the manor to be dismantled, stone by stone, with the intention that it would be reassembled on his estate in Connecticut. Following the Wall Street crash, however, the building was abandoned on the dockside in Newhaven, where the bulk of it was eventually liberated by local opportunists for various building projects. The last few bits ended up on Hopeless and became the new flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, where Lady Margaret made her home as the Headless White Lady. Being an amiable sort of ghost, she struck up a friendship with the barmaid, Betty Butterow. They discovered that by moving a single stone block from the privy and depositing it elsewhere on the island, Lady Margaret could go sightseeing. This is, essentially, a long-winded way of saying what had happened to the ghosts of the ‘Mary Willoughby’. Simply put, following the destruction of the ship, they all migrated to a single plank of wood. Fortunately, being ghosts and therefore ethereal, they didn’t find this arrangement remotely crowded or claustrophobic. What they really wanted, though, was to take up residence in a human, to become legion, and Doc Willoughby took the bait – or at least, would have done, hook, line and sinker, if he had not been stopped at the last moment.

When Philomena found Drury, the skeletal hound, he was enjoying a dream which involved chasing spoonwalkers around the island. His bony legs were twitching and he made small, whimpering noises in his sleep. Philomena smiled fondly at her friend, but time was pressing and Drury had, quite literally, all of eternity in which to sleep.
She gave a low whistle and immediately the dog leapt to his feet and gave himself a rattling shake.
“Come on, Drury,” said Philomena, twirling a stout length of rope, “I need your help.”

Drury quite liked the smell of the basement and pranced around happily, getting under the feet of Philomena and Norbert, who, with some trepidation managed to wind the rope securely around the plank while miraculously avoiding touching the jelly-like substance that covered it, which occasionally reached out as if to grab them. Knowing exactly what was expected of him, Drury picked up the end of the rope in his powerful jaws and dragged the plank up the steps, banging through the surgery and out on to the road. This was a game and the tendrils that writhed and reached out were all part of the fun. Drury had no fear of the spirits that haunted the plank and cheerfully shook them off. Since he had been dead for years (though blissfully unaware of the fact) they could never have possessed him, even if they had wanted to.

Dusk was falling and the pale lights of the passing gnii glimmered gently, high overhead. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stretched and peered blearily out of his bedroom window. He had just woken from a deep, satisfying sleep and was in a particularly good mood, ready to start his shift. Drury was in the garden, which was always a welcome sign. The osseous hound was unique, inasmuch as he had no problem with the smell that seemed to cling to every fibre of Rhys and his home. In fact, in true doggie fashion, Drury revelled in it. Rhys hoped that he would be keeping him company tonight while he completed his rounds. Drury, however, seemed to be concentrating at the moment on other matters, matters which mainly consisted of a length of rope and an old plank which had become entangled in a clump of bushes, refusing to be dragged further.
Always happy to help, Rhys went outside with the intention of freeing the plank, only to be surprised by the dog’s reaction. Drury put himself between the offending bushes and the Night Soil Man, barking and growling with some ferocity. Rhys wondered what could be wrong; the dog had never treated him in this way before. Why, if he had been made of flesh and blood, Drury would be baring his teeth at him. As it was, Drury’s teeth were in a continuous state of bareness, so to speak, so the effect was far less menacing.
“Hey, old fella…” Rhys started to say, then noticed the goo wriggling over the face of the plank. He recognised it immediately.
“There’s only one place for that to go – the sinkhole” he said to himself, then realised that Drury had already thought the same thing. It was one of the dog’s favourite places for hiding the things he had no use for (including the city-slicker, Garfield Lawnside, as was related in the tale ‘The Persian Runner’).

Rhys kept a long ash pole propped by the side of his cottage. The pole had a Y-shaped prong on the one end and was generally used to pick up the baskets of beer and starry-grabby pies which Philomena Bucket routinely delivered from ‘The Squid’. In her early days on the island, when Philomena had no sense of smell, she and Rhys had fallen in love. It was not to be, for sad to relate, close contact with anyone in receipt of fully functioning olfactory senses is out of the question for a Night Soil Man, hence the pole. Today, Rhys decided, it would be needed for pursuits far more important than retrieving starry-grabby pies.

After twenty minutes of fervent pole-wielding, try as he might, Rhys could not dislodge the plank, despite Drury’s equally valiant attempts pulling the rope. As if aware of their fate, the tendrils of slime had attached themselves to anything within reach, and as the dusk descended into darkness, their strength seemed to grow. Just as all hope of shifting the plank faded, Rhys heard a babble of raised voices which grew nearer by the second.
“For gosh-sakes, Doc, you need to come back now…”
It was Bartholomew Middlestreet, getting as close to profanity as he dared.
“No… ish my plank, s’my inheritance…hic.. oh my head….”
Doc, who had sobered up a little, still sounded slightly drunk and somehow different to normal.
“Doc Willoughby… get here now…”
This was Philomena. Rhys winced at the memory of their brief flirtation.
Suddenly the Doc, his eyes glistening, burst through the darkness, totally oblivious to the all-encompassing reek of the Night Soil Man, and tried to grab the rope from Drury’s mouth.
Bartholomew, Philomena, Ariadne and Norbert stood at a safe and respectable distance, barely visible in the moonlight.
“Gimme that…” said the Doc, roughly.
For once in his after-life, Drury did as he was told, probably more out of astonishment than anything else.
Doc Willoughby picked up the rope and dragged the plank towards him. Sensing his presence, the tendrils loosened their grip on the bushes.
“I’ve come to claim my inheritance… I’ll let you all in,” intoned the Doc.
It was only then that Rhys realised that the curmudgeonly old physician was under some sort of enchantment. He needed to do something quickly.
It was as if Drury read the Night Soil Man’s thoughts, and the two sprung into action at the same time. The dog threw himself at Doc Willoughby, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Rhys grabbed the rope and, with the power of someone who had spent years hefting buckets of effluent around, sent the plank spinning into the air. It hung vertically, as if suspended for a moment, then plunged with disarming accuracy into the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole that lay at the end of the Night Soil Man’s garden.
“Nooooooo…” cried the Doc in anguish as the last remnant of the Mary Willoughby, along with its attendant spirits, plunged into the depths of the abyss.
He lay silent, waiting for the inevitable splash. Seconds turned to minutes but it never came.
When Doc Willoughby eventually sat upright, Rhys could see that the strange light in his eyes had faded. His voice had become normal again, although the first few syllables were hardly encouraging.
“Eughhh… aaargh… ack.. that is disgusting,” he choked, retching and covering his nose and mouth as best he could.
Rhys could only smile as the Doc staggered back to the four others, who were still patiently waiting, some yards away.
“Come on Drury,” he said, “it’s time to go to work.”

No one ever mentioned the episode of the Mary Willoughby again. If the Doc remembered any of it, he certainly didn’t say so. He did complain to Norbert Gannicox, however, grousing about a bad batch of vodka. He was certain that it must have been made from night-potatoes, as it had given him awful dreams and a ferocious hangover.

The Little Ship of Horrors (Part 2)

If you’ve not read part 1 yet, start here.

Bartholomew Middlestreet could hardly believe it when he heard himself say to Norbert Gannicox,
“I’m really worried about Doc Willoughby, Norbert.”
Norbert raised his eyebrows in surprise. He could hardly believe it either.
“You’re joking! You’re worried about the Doc…?”
Doc Willoughby was not normally the sort of person to elicit enough sympathy to cause worry in others, but Bartholomew was deadly serious.
“He’s acting really strange… almost being pleasant to folks. And his eyes look a bit too shiny.” he said.
It was Norbert’s turn to look concerned.
“That’s never natural. I wonder what’s brought it on?”
Bartholomew dropped his voice, conspiratorially.
“It’s only happened during the last couple of weeks… ever since that old-fashioned galleon turned up.”

As regular readers will recall, a Tudor galleon had recently sailed to the shores of Hopeless, carrying a strange and egregiously foul cargo. Even the islanders, who believed that they had seen just about every variety of the weird and not-so-wonderful, thought that this was just too much to bear. Eventually the ship was mysteriously destroyed and the jelly-like monstrosity that filled its decks had disappeared. Save for a few planks and bits of rigging, there was nothing much for anyone to salvage. Doc Willoughby, however, unbeknownst to his fellow islanders, came upon a piece of wood bearing the ship’s name. With a strange, unwholesome, light in his eyes he dragged the plank back to his home and hid it in a dark corner of his basement. The name of the ship was ‘Mary Willoughby’.

The thing that had given Bartholomew cause for concern was the way in which the Doc had appeared in The Squid and Teapot and greeted him that very morning.
“Bartholomew, old friend, I wonder if I might beg a favour?”
The innkeeper instinctively turned around, wondering of the coincidence of there being someone else in the bar named Bartholomew. As it happened, the inn was otherwise deserted.
“You mean me?” he stammered.
“Why yes,” beamed the Doc cordially, “I just need a bit of help for some… ah… some research I’ve agreed to do for… um… for Miss Calder at the orphanage… it’s a history project that she’s doing with the youngsters.”
The day was becoming increasingly bizarre; Bartholomew, who had known Doc Willoughby for most of his life, knew for certain that the man had never before entertained any intention of helping out at the orphanage.
“There are plenty of reference books in the attics,” said Bartholomew. “You’re welcome to go and take a look.”
“Capital, capital,” said the Doc warmly, shaking a bemused Bartholomew by the hand.

Doc Willoughby needed to find out whatever he could about the ‘Mary Willoughby’. He usually had little interest in ships of any description, but was now being driven by something beyond his understanding and control.
After much perseverance, and four hours of diligent perusal, he found what he was looking for. Having made his way through several hefty tomes that covered various aspects of European nautical history, Doc came across a list of British warships of the Tudor period. With great excitement, he found the reference that he was after.
“The ‘Mary Willoughby’ was a ship of the English Tudor navy, named after Maria Willoughby, a lady-in-waiting and close friend of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The ship was taken by the Scots in 1536 but recaptured by the English ten years later. She was sold in the latter part of the sixteenth century and never heard of afterwards.”

The entry was sparse, to say the least, but it told the Doc a great deal. If Mary Willoughby was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, and had a ship named after her, then she must have been quite somebody. More amazing still, this ship had, hundreds of years later, somehow found its way to Hopeless. Found its way to him! The Doc reeled with the implications of his find. This was fate; a sign, no less. The Willoughby family must have been really important people, royalty almost… and these were surely his ancestors.
Leaving the nautical history books in an untidy pile, Doc started rooting among the other volumes, to see what he could find out about English aristocracy. It did not take long for him to unearth a noble Willoughby line dating back to the thirteenth century. As he read, the Doc swayed and cackled, the unearthly glimmer in his eye becoming brighter by the minute.
“I always knew that I was special,” he said to himself.

Like all good innkeepers, Bartholomew is interested in his customers. In view of this, he felt compelled to find out what the Doc had been up to. It was not nosiness, he reasoned, but a genuine interest that urged him to go up into the attics after the Doc had hurriedly left, still muttering and chuckling to himself about having noble blood. Although Bartholomew didn’t hold out a great deal of hope, he decided – purely out of interest, you understand – to try and work out what the Doc had been looking for.
The task was much easier than he could have hoped. Doc had not bothered to tidy up after himself and the various open books led like a trail of breadcrumbs to the truth. It was not difficult to ascertain that Doc Willoughby was convinced that he was connected to an old and aristocratic English family. Bartholomew’s heart sank. He had seen something similar happen just months before, when Stratford Park believed that he was descended from the famous Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and that episode had not ended well (as related in the tale ‘Burns Night’).

Once back home, Doc Willoughby made his way down to the basement. By the greasy light of a tallow candle he gazed, like one in a trance, at the plank of wood that leaned against the wall. The words ‘Mary Willoughby’ seemed to dance and shimmer before his eyes. Suddenly, a thin, luminous jelly-like substance rolled along its length, then reached out and lay a tendril on the Doc’s temple.
“Did you find it, Willoughby?” said a voice in his head.
“Oh yes,” whispered the Doc.
“Then let us in, and we will make sure you are given your due.”
The Doc hesitated.
“You know that you want to…”
Suddenly a voice, up in the surgery, broke the spell. It was Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Doc, Doc, where are you? There’s been an accident, come quickly. Bartholomew has fallen down the stairs.”

Let us leave Hopeless, for a while, and journey back to the not-so-merry England of 1582. So far the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’ had been only slightly less barbaric than that of the other Tudor monarchs, and there was little sign of things improving. Traitors were still being hung, drawn and quartered, most things seemed to be punishable by death or maiming, torture was commonplace and heretics were being burned at the stake. These were dangerous times, especially for any who dared eschew the rule of law, or the teachings of the protestant church.
Doctor John Dee, scholar, occultist, astrologer and alchemist, knew that even his position as the Queen’s Counsellor could not protect him. A wrong word, an ill-judged look or a spiteful allegation could be enough to send him to the tower, and thence to the gallows, the flames or the block. Standing in the moonlight, upon the gently rocking deck of the ‘Mary Willoughby’, he was well aware that what he was about to do was madness, but the die was cast and there was no going back.

‘Mary Willoughby’, having been constructed about fifty years earlier, was older than most ships still afloat, and had seen more than her share of bloodshed and death. This suited Dee very well, for he, and his friend and fellow occultist, Edward Kelley, had boarded her with the intention of raising the ghosts of those who had died upon her decks.
“Where better to practise necromancy than on an old deserted warship, far from prying eyes?” Kelley had asked him.
Where indeed? Once the idea was born, the rest fell into place fairly easily. Dee had given the lone seaman, who had been charged with guarding the ship as she lay idle in Deptford docks, the handsome sum of two shillings to desert his post for a few hours. This the man did with a mixture of gratitude and fear, for Doctor Dee was infamous and his reputation and position at court was not to be argued with.

Beneath a full moon Dee and Kelley cast a circle of salt and, standing within it, uttered spells from an old grimoire. They invoked demons and angels, speaking their sacred and forbidden names in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. They called upon the dead to rise, to come and do their bidding, but nothing seemed to happen. After a fruitless and somewhat chilly hour, the two looked at each other in despair.
“Well, that was a waste of time and two shillings,” complained Dee bitterly, who was suffering from cramp and in desperate need of relieving himself.
Kelley sighed and drew out a long clay pipe with a tiny bowl. Into this he patted a equally tiny wad of tobacco. He had spotted a brazier burning on the aftcastle, and stepped out of the circle to get a light. Then he stopped in mid-stride.
“God’s wounds, John, what is this muck under my feet?”
Kelley lifted his foot and found, to his dismay, that a long, sticky strand of some glutinous substance was attached to it. Dee examined the goo closely, then shook his head, puzzled.
“I have never seen its like Edward, but behold…”
Tendrils of slime began squirming and climbing all around them, as if they possessed some diabolical life of their own. Confronting the spirits of the dead was one thing, but this gummy, seemingly sentient, abomination was something else entirely. Without more ado, and a few whimpers of terror, the two fought their way, with no little difficulty, to the side of ship, where they hurriedly descended to the small boat that waited below. Rowing frantically, and in their haste to leave, they failed to notice that a mist had started to form around the ‘Mary Willoughby’, through which they might have spotted some faintly human shapes writhing, as if in torment.

Sitting in a quayside tavern a short time later, the pair sat huddled in a corner, drinking ale.
“Marry, John, that was strange,” said Edward Kelley, still trembling.
“Strange, indeed,” agreed John Dee. “I still cannot fathom what that vile jelly might have been.”
A young man, sitting just within earshot, looked up abruptly.
“Vile jelly? That’s a good phrase. I might be able to use that one day,” he said to himself.
Young Will had come down to London expressly to sell the gloves that his father made, back home in the Midlands. He had absolutely no intention of doing that forever, though. He hoped one day to become a moderately successful playwright.
“Well, it’s either going to be, or not to be.” he thought, stoically.

“I can clearly see that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with you,” said Doc Willoughby angrily, a glimmer still in his eyes, but his sunny disposition of earlier having disappeared behind a heavy cloud.
He had hurried to The Squid and Teapot, black medical bag in hand, expecting to find Bartholomew Middlestreet in a mangled mess at the foot of the stairs. Instead the innkeeper was sitting, quite comfortably, at a table in the bar, with Ariadne, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox.
Ariadne left her seat, crossed the room and quietly closed and locked the door.
“No, I’m fine,” agreed Bartholomew. “The truth is, you don’t seem to be yourself these days, and we’re all worried. What’s up Doc?”

To be continued…

The Little Ship of Horrors

The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’.
While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships.
To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning.
Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be.
Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).

Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts.
Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged.
The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them.
“That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen.
“And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.

As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.

Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.

“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.”
“What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox.
“It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.”
“But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert.
An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly.
“I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.”
There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added,
“And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”

It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine.
To be continued…

Witches and mermaids

A vision, a memory, a dream within a dream.

Have you seen how the witches gatherer around the ancient dish, backs hunched as they feast together on the body of a mermaid?

A captivating image, but even so the scene does not feel real. Are you seeing ghosts and memories?  Here in the shadow of mausoleums, in the hazy recollection of days when this place had wealth and prospects.

The witches are so raggedy, their clothes dirt stained, their faces tired and you think they might be eating a mermaid out of need, not malice.

You know, in the way that you know things in dreams, that the dish was not meant to carry the meat of mermaids. There is magic in it, and it is not the magic of desperation. You feel that you should know what purpose that dish serves. You feel you should ask, but you are silent, like a useless grail-questing knight who does not know how to speak at the critical moment. You wait, having sensed the dish itself will speak to you. When at last it does, the sound of it is a whisper of silk over silver.

The dish tells you that the witches and the mermaids are the same. They eat each other. Don’t take them too literally. It’s just a dream.

( A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey)