Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

Mrs Beaten does not like to be over familiar

It has come to my attention that Mr Frampton Jones, of the Hopeless Vendetta, has immaculate shirts. I feel uncomfortably over-familiar in using his first name thusly (we are hardly on intimate terms!) but with so many islanders being properly ‘Mr Jones’ it becomes exceeding difficult to clarify to whom one is referring. While trying to find food for purchase last week, I was involved in a most confusing conversation in which at least three farmers called Mr Jones were involved, and as a consequence I entirely failed to find any meat for the table.

While I do not like to speak ill of others, I cannot help but feel that my neighbour, Miss Tenacity Jones was making mock of me. I have previously been compelled to discourage her familiar way of talking about people, and now she refers to all of her relations as Mr or Mrs Jones, with scant regard to their apparent gender, and it is most unhelpful of her.

Mr Frampton Jones, of The Hopeless Vendetta has beautiful shirts. His shoes are invariably shined, his bowler hat neatly brushed. It lifts my spirits to think that I may not be alone in seeking civilization on this vile island.

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Daphne and the Fallen Stars

Daphne was down at the sea shore again. She was staring out to the greenish-blue-grey wash of the unsteady sea. So many thoughts were being washed around her head. They were about her mother and father whose lives had been lost out there in that monstrous wild of water. They were on a ship that sank. Daphne knelt down in the tidal grit and began to find bits of flotsam and shells. She gathered them with ritual obsession and her hands worked with the flotsam and shells as if putting together a puzzle only she knew. She finally stopped and looked at what she’d done. It was a ship. Or rather The Ship which her parents and many others had gone down with when it sank before she has any clear memories; this ship was so much part of who she was Daphne could not think of herself as Daphne without knowing she was Daphne from the Ship.

But she heard somebody else walking on the shore and her mind went away from the Ship. He had a large shabby frock coat on with many stains and weathering that it’s original colour was obscured. A battered bicorn hat sagged on his head. The man was staring out to sea with the wind in his grey beard.

After a while she decided to go over to him.

‘Who are you?’ she asked.

‘Cuthbert Thorrock’ he replied with a throaty voice.

‘I’ve not seen you here before’

‘Have you been watching the stars? They’re falling out the sky’ he answered her as if swapping news on the weather.

‘When did you see that?’

‘It’s been happening more and more, the stars aren’t staying up there anymore and they’re coming down here, watch out young lady you might be crossing paths with one!’ he turned his eyes towards her and they were full of the sea waves and clouds. He coughed loudly and spat into the shore grit.

Cuthbert Thorrock said no more, and Daphne stood with him a little longer looking out to sea. His big frame hardened with the life he’d had felt oddly reassuring to have next to her, perhaps this was what a father was like: dependable and under a big old coat with a smell of the world.

‘What’s your name young lady?’ he said after the silence.

‘Daphne’

‘Ah’ he said, and then he shifted and began to walk away again. His steps crunched over the shore with weight.

She took herself back up the narrow path onto the land. There was a rock not far away where she saw somebody was sitting. As she walked closer she saw it was a woman in a long black dress with long black hair under a neat lace snood. Daphne thought perhaps she’d come from a funereal and was stopping at the morgue on the way back, like people did.

‘Good day young lady have you seen any of my sisters?’ the woman spoke before she’d even reached her. She turned and her face was pale and beautifully shaped as if glass. She smiled at Daphne and she knew she should not have gone over. Behind her the sea tides hissed. Stars were falling.–

Words by Robin Collins-Art by Tom Brown

Spoonraker

I don’t  think that I have ever told you the tale of how my late friend, the celebrated actor-manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, first came to Hopeless, Maine.

Regular readers will recall that, before he arrived on the island, he was – at least, according to his own account – the toast of the London stage.

Being a born raconteur, Sir Fromebridge would never let the truth interfere with a good story, especially when it concerned himself. In the light of this, I give fair warning that some of the details given in following tale may be less than accurate. Only one person was on hand to witness the great man’s appearance on these shores and that was Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man at the time. He is in no position to contradict Sir Fromebridge’s version of events, as Jarvis shuffled off his mortal coil at a relatively early age, presumably having been celestially promoted to emptying the great cesspit in the sky.  Luckily, Jarvis’s successor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, has been able to fill in a few missing pieces, based upon what his late master told him. It is from these accounts I have cobbled together the following tale.

 

Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man, was taking a well deserved rest.  Although generally known as being a somewhat surly man, tonight Jarvis was unusually happy. He had recently taken on an apprentice, young Shenandoah Nailsworthy, who, at that moment, was on the far side of the island, emptying the bountiful privy that catered for the needs of the patrons of “The Crow”. The other inn on Hopeless, “The Squid and Teapot”, was on Jarvis’s round. Thanks to one of the previous landlords, Sebastian Lypiatt, the hostelry enjoyed the modern luxury of a flushing privy that deposited its effluent far out into the ocean, therefore needing no attention from the collectors of the euphemistically named night-soil.

At this hour most of the drinkers had gone home to their beds and only a few lights still lit the building. Jarvis settled himself down on the rocks overlooking the inn; this was always a good place to stop, mid-round, for a bite to eat.

It was an unusually clear night, the moon was full and riding high in the sky and the sea was fairly calm. Jarvis, who was usually fazed by very little, was suddenly taken aback to see a figure emerge from the dark water. It looked faintly human in shape but was, as far as the Night Soil Man could ascertain in the moonlight, covered in some kind of black shiny skin. Sticking vertically out of its head was a short pipe-like appendage and instead of feet, it sported a pair of large, ungainly flippers. Jarvis wondered what manner of beast he was looking at. He gripped the edges of his bucket, ready to run if needs be, as the creature began to change before his very eyes.

“A shape-shifter,” Jarvis muttered to himself, uneasily.

The creature puffed and grunted as it sloughed off the skin and flippers. The process of metamorphosis seemed to be a long and painful affair, the outer layer being peeled away to a series of ejaculations which sounded uncannily like “Damn!”, “Blast!” and occasionally, “Bugger!”

Finally, after much effort and profanity, standing on the beach – or what passes for a beach on Hopeless – seemed to be a man in late middle-age, incongruously dressed in a white dinner-jacket, dark trousers and a bow-tie. He sneezed violently several times as he made his way inland. Then he spotted Jarvis.

“What-ho,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.

Jarvis had never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and therefore had no idea that this was a common salutation employed by some of the stranger sections of British society.

The newcomer walked up to Jarvis and introduced himself. This was a new experience for the Night Soil Man. Obviously the combination of a heavy cold and the wind blowing from the sea rendered the stranger impervious to the ever-present effluvia that surrounded his new companion.

“The name is Whitminster.

Fromebridge Whitminster,” he said, dramatically,  then sneezed again.

“Sir Fromebridge, in actual fact.”

This meant nothing to the Night Soil Man.

Rummaging in the inside-pocket of his jacket Sir Fromebridge retrieved a cigarette case. Flicking a black-oxidised and somewhat battered Ronson lighter, he lit a cigarette that was, I have been reliably informed, of Balkan-Turkish make. He inhaled deeply, tried to look suave, then totally ruined the effect by being gripped by a sudden, violent and uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing.

“Damned things,” he complained, as soon as he was able to speak again.

“Still, must persevere, if the part calls for it.”

“What were you doing out there?” asked Jarvis, incredulous that anyone could be so foolish as to be floundering around in the sea around Hopeless, especially at night.

“Well… It’s all very exciting. The whole thing is being kept very hush-hush, for some reason, though. The fact is, I’ve never been in a film before. It’s called Spoonraker, or some such.” said Sir Fromebridge.

To Jarvis much of this was little more than gibberish, although he recalled, from some dim recess of his mind, that the word ‘film’ referred to a thin covering of some description. Sir Fromebridge was obviously talking about the shiny black skin that he had been wearing.

 

“I was dropped into the sea, oh, ages ago now and told to swim to the island where some fairly important film people would be waiting. If this obviously fake Rolex that I was given actually worked it would tell me that I’ve been stuck for about four hours in freezing water. No wonder I’ve got this dratted cold.”

The actor paused, blew his nose, then added,

“You’re not tied-up with the film, I take it?”

Randall shook head emphatically, confident in the knowledge that he had never been wrapped in black, shiny material at any point in his life.

Just then the actor’s attention was drawn to a large, box-like contraption that had just been washed in on the tide.

“I do believe that’s my sea-trunk,” he exclaimed.

“How odd. That was safely stored in my cabin on the ship. One could almost believe they weren’t expecting me to return…”

Sir Fromebridge laughed to himself nervously.

“Ah well, maybe the film unit will arrive tomorrow.”

“In my experience, tomorrow never comes,” observed the Night Soil Man dryly, then, being uncharacteristically helpful, added

“How about I take you down to the Squid before Isaac locks up for the night? I’ll help you take your luggage with you.”

 

The two men made their way to the inn, dragging the large sea-trunk behind them.

For much of his life Jarvis had been deprived of the pleasures of conversation and was finding that he quite enjoyed it.

“So… what was that thing you were in called again?”

“Thing…? Oh, you mean Spoonraker.”

The Night Soil Man pondered the word a while before he spoke again. It was a strange name to give a second skin but, as Sir Fromebridge was the most amiable shape-shifter that he had ever encountered, he decided to let it go.

“And you’re definitely one of the good guys?”

“Oh, assuredly,” replied the actor. “In fact, I’m more than good. I’ve been led to believe that nobody does it better.”

The peace of the evening was suddenly interrupted by a series of metallic scraping noises as a troop of small, odd-looking thieves artfully lowered a cache of stolen cutlery from an open window of The Squid and Teapot.

“So you’re a Spoonraker, eh?” said Jarvis. “I’ve no idea what that means but something tells me that you’ll fit in well on Hopeless.”

Art by Tom Brown

The Queen of Flames

Randall Middlestreet was unique among Night Soil Men, inasmuch as none before him had retired. As has been mentioned previously in ‘The Vendetta’, Randall voluntarily hung up his bucket at the age of fifty-five, giving up both his job and the cottage at Poo Corner to his young apprentice, Jarvis Woodchester.
While the role of Night Soil Man is very far from being glamorous, it has its fair share of danger and excitement. Few can wander over the island at night as safely as he does, protected as he is from predators by the malodorous atmosphere which surrounds him at all times. It is this nocturnal freedom which allows him to see sights and wonders that others are denied.

Randall was well into his second pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and holding court in the snug of The Squid and Teapot. The small band of regulars were always happy to listen to his yarns. This is not to say that they necessarily gave these stories any credence. His accounts of encountering ghosts, demons and various fantastical figures would sometimes stretch their credulity but Randall always insisted that every word was true. Nobody really cared, for what could be better than sitting before a roaring fire, in the company of friends and listening to a good tale told well.

“It was May-eve when it happened, years ago now. I was up by Chapel Rock when I first heard the music,” began Randall, taking a sip of beer. “Faint, to begin with; no more than a whisper on the breeze. I thought that old Iron Mills had started his fun fair up in the middle of the night. Then I saw the lights. They were winding down the path from the Gydynaps. From where I was standing – and I was a good distance away – it looked like a procession of people, all carrying flaming torches. Not ordinary torches either; the flames were all colours. And they weren’t constant. It was as if, one by one, they were flickering out, only to reappear a few seconds later. Either that, or they were Will O’the Wisps; that’s what they looked like to me, but I knew they weren’t. You all know what I’m like; if there’s a mystery to be solved, I’m there. I just couldn’t help myself, I had to get closer to see what was going on. The torchlight procession seemed to be heading towards the town, so that is where I
went.”
Randall took another generous swig of beer then sat in silence, staring into some hidden space that only he could see. His audience became restless.
“Go on… what happened next?”
It was Ebeneezer Gannicox, the distiller, who broke the silence.
“What did you see Randall?”
“Well, as the procession got closer, I could see exactly who – or what – they were. What they weren’t were people carrying torches. They were flames. Living flames of all colours. Flames that flickered and danced, flames that died and then burst back into life. And all the while they followed… well, you should have seen her.”
Randall emptied his glass, laid it on the table and watched happily as it was immediately replaced with another foaming pint.
“She didn’t walk, she danced… danced through the empty streets of the town to the music of the hurdy-gurdy that she carried. Of course, I had no idea then what the instrument was called. I’d never seen anything like it, or her, before or since. She was a vision! Her hair was as red as fire itself and what I thought were feathers in her hat – well, they weren’t feathers, they were flames.”
Randall paused for a moment to allow his listeners to digest the scene.
“Suddenly,” he said, “the music changed. It became quite unearthly. I couldn’t help but notice that, as she turned the handle, the instrument lit up. Coloured sparks flew from every bit of it. I was totally in thrall of this lady. I could not move. Then she did the most wondrous thing. She somehow attached her hurdy-gurdy to a street-light and as she played, as she wound the handle, every light in the town burst into life. They glowed brighter, far brighter, than they ever had before. And the music… oh, what wonderful music. I don’t know how long I sat there but it must have been hours, for the skies had started to pale. It almost felt as if she was summoning the sun to rise. We don’t often see a good sunrise on Hopeless but this one…” Randall left his sentence hanging in the air.
“It was so bright I was dazzled. I had to squint to see the lady as she turned towards the east. With the dancing flames following her, the strange cavalcade seemed to disappear into the glowing ball of the sun as it rose from the sea. I just sat there, sat for ages, totally mesmerized by what I had witnessed.”
Randall took another draught of ‘Old Colonel’ and fell silent, once more staring into that distant place that only he could see. The company knew that they would get no more out of him that evening.

It was late. Almost everyone had gone home and Betty Butterow was shooing out the last stragglers. She had floors to mop and tables to clear before she could leave. Only Bill Ebley remained. At eighty years of age he was one of Hopeless’ oldest residents. This gave him a dispensation to stay late, as Betty always insisted on walking him home.
“What did you make of Randall’s story?” she asked him as she mopped the floor around his feet.
Bill thought for a moment before replying.
“In 1915 I was in the trenches in France,” he said, adding, “we were in Mons.”
“There were a lot of stories flying around at the time, stories about apparitions, phantom armies and whatnot. Some even thought that there was an angel fighting on our side but I didn’t give any of it much credence. Still don’t. I did see something – someone – once, though and she sounds very much like Randall’s lady. I’ve never told anyone else this, not even the colonel, in case I’m thought to be mad. Maybe I witnessed what some of the others did, the ones who talked about the Angel of Mons. But the woman that I saw was no angel – I’m sure of that. She suddenly appeared, dancing through the mud and corpses on the battlefield as though it was a village green at Whitsun. There were shells and bullets screaming all around, yet she was totally unharmed and as far as I could tell, unnoticed by most. There was something deep and powerful, something elemental, about her; I thought that I was hallucinating. You hear about men going mad in the trenches. I was certain it was happening to me. Then one day, a year or so later, when I was on leave, a French gypsy offered to read my fortune. I was sceptical but when you never know if you’ll be alive from one day to another, where’s the harm? So this gypsy pulls out her tarot cards – the rummest pack I’ve ever seen – and swipe me, she drew a card and there, plain as day, is the Lady’s picture, just as I had seen her and exactly how Randall has described, to the tee.”
Bill got to his feet and pulled on his overcoat. He looked at Betty and added, almost as an afterthought,
“Apparently she’s known in the tarot as The Queen of Flames.”

 

Art by Tom Brown- Permission to use the likeness of Genevive Tudor graciously granted by herself.

The unspeakable difficulties facing Mrs Beaten

I do not think it is the proper business of women to criticise important men who are doing important things, importantly. Many times in the past I have had no choice but to silence foolish women who have thought it appropriate to air opinions of this nature. It is a woman’s place to applaud, to hold pens, to commiserate if appropriate, and not, I feel strongly, to make comment on the actions of the superior sex.

And yet, when the pillars of the community act badly, what is a woman to do? Should I remain silent, complicit in allowing dreadfulness to continue? What is the proper response to finding that the important men are not doing the important things? This is truly a conundrum.

The great men of the island have such appallingly low standards. Reverend Davies may often be seen in public wearing a shirt with no actual collar. Doctor Willoughby’s collars are limp and yellowing, and there are visible stains upon the front part. Durosimi O’Stoat, I am told, is the last male heir of one of the most important local families. I briefly made his acquaintance yesterday. We were not properly introduced, he smelled of common dirt, and the whole encounter has left me shocked.

What am I to do? It is unspeakably difficult for me.

The Sister of Mercy

One grey afternoon, in the closing months of 1842, Sister Evangeline, late of the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy, settled herself unsteadily into a small, birch-bark canoe. She was all too well aware of the amount of trust that she was placing in her God and the wiry Passamaquoddy Indian who had reluctantly agreed to transport her to a mysterious fog-bound island that lay just off the coast.

Her decision to leave Dublin, in order to join the Catholic community on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Maine, had not been an easy one. The death of her mentor and founder of the order, The Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, had left her bereft. For ten years the two had laboured, shoulder to shoulder, providing food and shelter for the homeless women and children of the city. When Mother Catherine died Evangeline knew in her bones that it was time to move on to somewhere far away.


After being only a few weeks on the reservation she began to hear rumours of a small band of ‘fallen’ women on a nearby island. It seemed to Sister Evangeline that it was her Christian duty – and indeed her destiny – to seek out and help these poor souls who had been forced into such dissolute ways. The apparent name of the island – Hopeless – conjured, in itself, visions of purgatory.  The very fact that few seemed to be aware of its existence and even fewer entertained any desire to visit, did not deter her in the least. With a subtle mixture of bribes, cajoling and hints of eternal salvation, she managed to persuade an Indian, who confessed to having traded with the islanders on occasion, into providing the necessary transport to get her there.


If Sister Evangeline ever had any remotely positive preconceptions of what Hopeless may have looked like, these were quickly dashed within moments of setting foot ashore. The cloying blanket of fog that seemed in no hurry to disperse, successfully muffled any sound that might have tried to sneak across the narrow but treacherous channel that separated it from the mainland. Dark shapes that may have been buildings, or possibly strange rock formations, loomed ominously before her. Occasionally some of these would seem to move but the nun attributed this to a trick of the light, which was so sparse that one could comfortably (or more correctly, uncomfortably) call it funereal. This is not to say that the place was without light – it was just that the it was muted and not always found in the places one might reasonably expect. There was, for instance, an eerie glow emanating from a series of sickly-green orbs that seemed to be following her progress along the rough-hewn pathway. They peered from the rocks and skeletal bushes that marked its margins. Every now and then  these would shift position, often to the accompaniment of an ominous metallic scraping sound. Sister Evangeline clung steadfastly to the handle of her suitcase and cast her eyes heavenwards. Inexplicably, there seemed to be glowing eyes in the sky, as well. They appeared to be following her progress, bobbing along like small balloons in a breeze, except that there was no breeze. Something told Sister Evangeline that these strange lights represented no heavenly intervention. She shuddered. She had a distinct feeling that to wander from the path could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness and so, with faith in her heart, a hymn on her lips and mud on her habit, she made her way steadfastly inland.

If the island had first appeared to be grim, then some of its inhabitants were surely even grimmer. So pinched, lean and unkempt did they appear, the paupers who haunted the streets of Dublin looked positively decadent by comparison. It felt as if a mad look lingered in almost every eye that turned in her direction. There were some eyes that turned in opposite directions at the same time, which was somewhat disconcerting. The place and all who dwelt there gave, in her considered opinion, a vision of what Hell might be like (but without the warmth, of course).

The gloom around her deepened and Sister Evangeline surmised that the shadowy drapes of evening were drawing in. It occurred to her that, whatever unease she had felt earlier, this would be multiplied several times over with the advent of night. She needed to find shelter and find it quickly. No sooner had the thought entered her head than the unexpectedly warm and welcoming lights of an inn appeared, as if from nowhere. Thoroughly untrusting of this island by now, she cautiously wandered up to its walls and studied the sign swinging over the door. Painted upon it she could just make out the figure of a cephalopod that regarded her with a baleful eye. It was wrapping itself sinuously around a teapot, for some obscure reason known only to itself and the obviously talented but decidedly eccentric artist who had been responsible for the depiction. The nun shrugged, crossed herself and boldly ventured into the building.


Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, had catered for a variety of castaways, fugitives and accidental tourists over the years, as had his father before him. Never before, however, could he recall having a nun cross its threshold. To say that he was surprised would be an understatement.

The truth was that Bartholomew had never actually met a nun before. He had seen pictures and heard tales – not all of them complimentary – but to encounter one in the flesh, as it were, was a new experience – and by no means an egregious one. The slightly bedraggled woman who stood before him was infinitely less terrifying that he had expected. She was petite, probably in her early thirties – his own age – with a pleasingly gentle lilt to her voice and a more than pretty face. When she enquired if there might be a modest room in which she could stay for a few days, she gave Bartholomew a smile which sent his pulse racing, rendering him more than a little tongue-tied and unusually awkward.


Sister Evangeline was nothing, if not discreet. Over the next week or so she was content to settle into her new surroundings and meet some of the islanders who frequented the inn. To begin with there had been a certain amount of distrust on their part; they expected to be lectured on temperance and godliness. They were pleasantly surprised, however. Despite her calling, Sister Evangeline had no intention of using her religion to browbeat people. She had long ago learned, on the streets of Dublin, that she could achieve far more with love and compassion than with cold, judgemental words. For her own part, Sister Evangeline began to see the inhabitants of Hopeless in a different light. They were not the deranged creatures she had at first imagined – well, not all of them. They certainly had little in the way of luxuries but on the whole they were simply ordinary people struggling to survive as best they could in a harsh environment. It was this thought that she carried with her when she made her way to the bordello, where the reasons for her mission to the island – the fallen women – were to be found.


As related in the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’, the bordello had been established more a century earlier by the female survivors of a convict ship that had been originally bound for Virginia. Over the years many women had found their way to its doors. While some had happily engaged in the business of the oldest profession, others had come there purely for companionship and protection. In a very short period they became .a tight-knit community that looked after itself as best it could. There had been odd occasions, in the past, where certain gentlemen had thought that they might take control and line their own pockets. Without exception, all such gentlemen had quietly disappeared without a trace.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that the arrival of Sister Evangeline was greeted with little enthusiasm. She had come looking for a pitiful rag-tag band of frail and abused womanhood; what she had found was a veritable bastion of female strength.

It took weeks for the nun to be regarded with anything but suspicion by the women. They expected her to have come with an agenda, intent on trying to lead each and every one of them back on to some narrow path of guilt-ridden righteousness. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While she disapproved, at first, of some of the more louche activities, her only concern was for their welfare. Sister Evangeline soon learned that to achieve anything at all she would need to lose her title, discard her wimple and habit and grow her hair.

And so it came to pass that  Evangeline moved into the bordello and little by little, became an essential part of the community. It took little more than a year for the others to ask her to take charge.

“Like a Mother Superior?” she asked, with a mischievous look in her eye.


The name Evangeline means ‘The Bringer of Good News’, which was certainly apt. The bordello and the general populace certainly benefited from her continued presence on the island. Evangeline herself, however, thought her name was a somewhat incongruous, given her new position. It was too pious, by half. Regular readers will have guessed by now that she became Evadne and for the clients who came to the establishment, that she euphemistically called a lodging house, she was Madame Evadne. To make her transformation complete she tried to affect a French accent when dealing with clients. Unfortunately, the result was a strange Gaelic/Gallic hybrid which was not unpleasant to the ear but, more often than not, slightly unintelligible, which added to her air of mystery to later generations.

For the next fifty years Madame Evadne oversaw the running of her Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen with a firm but benevolent gaze. Over that time she became one of the island’s greatest benefactors. After her death a statue was erected in her honour in the lodging house courtyard. As you may recall from the tale ‘The Supper Guest’ the statue came to life on one memorable occasion, and protected her girls from a particularly evil man. She was a Sister of Mercy even in death –  you could say that she never really lost the habit.


This tale is dedicated to the memory of

Sister Evangeline/ Madame Evadne 1808 -1891

Art by Tom Brown

The end of an era

Joseph was tired. For the last twelve months he had been to-ing and fro-ing to the Passamaquoddy reservation, bringing in supplies purchased by the ex- Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet. These trips had taken their toll on him.

“You’re not a youngster any more,” Betty had scolded.

“It’s high time you moored that old canoe for good.”

It was true. Joseph was over seventy and had paddled across the treacherous channel more times than he cared to remember.

“You’re right,” he conceded, wearily.

“One more trip to say goodbye to everyone and then I’ll retire. It’s sad, though. My family has been alone in regularly trading with this island for generations – even before the founding families reached here. It will be the end of an era.”

Betty knew that Joseph wished he had a son to carry on the tradition. They had not been blessed with children. She smiled to herself ruefully and reflected that this was not for the want of trying.

“Okay. Just one more trip and then you finish,” she said, in a voice that would brook no opposition.

 

Although, in the past year, Hopeless had acquired enough Indian-made goods to last an eternity, Randall had asked that Joseph bring more over. It was his altruistic way of transferring his new-found and unexpected wealth, inherited from his mother, into the economy of the impoverished reservation.

Jingling with the money Randall had given him, Joseph kissed his wife goodbye and set off on his farewell trip with mixed feelings. It would be hard to say goodbye to his old friends on the mainland and give up his lifelong trade. On the other hand, the prospect of never again having to negotiate the hazards and eternal fog that beset the treacherous channel was appealing.

 

His days on the reservation went very much as expected. There were hand-shakes, back-slaps and manly hugs a-plenty, shared between Joseph and his friends and relations. At last the appointed day arrived for him to leave the mainland for the very last time and return to the cabin that he and Betty shared on Hopeless.

 

The morning was grey and dismal and a harsh north-east wind was freshening by the hour. These were not ideal conditions to cross the channel but there was every indication that this weather was hunkering down for the duration.  If he left his departure any later Joseph feared that he could be stuck here for another week and Betty would be frantic with worry. Throwing caution to the wind – quite literally on this occasion – and, with his last ever cargo lashed securely down, Joseph paddled into the foggy channel.

 

Betty Butterow looked at the worsening weather with a troubled eye. While she had every faith in Joseph’s abilities, it would need more than his considerable skills to ensure his safe arrival home. Maybe she could help. She made her way to the rocky shore where, years before, she had first learned of her true identity, that she was a seal-woman, one of the legendary selkie people.

Hidden in a cleft in the rocks was her seal-pelt. Betty could not remember the last time she had donned it. She had heard tales of seal-women who had gradually become less human with every transformation. That is why she was loathe to shape-shift too often. It always worried her that one day she would be unable to change back.

Stripping off her clothing, Betty resolved there and then to go as a seal and look for Joseph, to bring him home safely, whatever the consequences. If, as she feared, Joseph was dead, then there would be nothing to return to. No reason to be Betty Butterow any longer. She would become a seal forever and little by little, all recollections of her human life would be no more than a distant dream.

 

The selkie scoured the treacherous channel for hours. There was no sign of Joseph. She had twice circled the island, desperately hoping that he had moored somewhere other than his usual spot but to no avail. Then she spotted something floating close to the shore. It looked like a canoe. Full of hope, she raced towards it.  “Please, let him be alive… please, please…” she prayed; prayed to who or whatever might be there to listen. Then an icy hand gripped her heart; it was indeed Joseph’s canoe, but smashed and ruined. There was no sign of Joseph.

 

The island echoed with the mournful wail of the seal-woman. She raised her dark head above the churning waves and threw her anguished soul upon the wind.

Then, her heart breaking, she flipped over, dived through the icy water and turned her back upon the foggy shores of Hopeless, Maine.

 

In her haste to leave she had not seen the figure of a man on the shore. Dazed and confused, he rose groggily to his feet, her bellow of grief having dragged him from the murky shadowlands of unconsciousness. Joseph looked helplessly across the foggy channel, somehow knowing that the unearthly cry that had woken him and shattered the peace of the day had been that of his beloved Betty. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched the dark, sinuous shape of a harbor seal disappear into the foggy distance.

 

The ocean boiled and churned. Startled, the selkie came to a halt as the huge bulk of the Kraken erupted through the water and caught her in its deep and unswerving gaze.

It spoke, not in words but in thoughts that echoed in her head with a voice as deep and sonorous as the ocean itself. It was a voice that she had heard before, many years ago.

“Go back, selkie. It is not quite time yet. Not yours, nor his. Go back. He is safe. As I have said, Betty Butterow, the sea looks after her own.”

With that she felt a suckered arm entwined around her sleek body. The kraken gently hoisted her high into the misty air, above the angry waves and jagged stone teeth that have brought many a ship to its doom around the coast of Hopeless. The creature lifted her trembling body to the rocks where Joseph stood weeping.

With her heart-beating fit to burst, Betty sloughed off the seal-skin, her body shaking with a mixture of cold and emotion. With an effort she rose to her feet and stood, shivering and naked in Joseph’s embrace. Every minute of every day would now would be precious. Betty could feel the tears running down her husband’s face as he laid a soft kiss upon her lips.

“Let’s go home,” she whispered.

Art by Tom Brown

Mrs Beaten is Judging You

I, Mrs Emmaline Elizabeth Beatrice Beaten found myself shipwrecked upon the shores of Hopeless Maine some six months ago. It is a cold and wretched place, sorely in want of even the most basic things in life. The island has not a single manufacturer of doilies or tablecloths. The natives are coarse and vulgar, with no sense of etiquette or good manners. Even those who claim to form the social hierarchy show a distinct lack of breeding.

Now that I am recovered from the shock of my arrival in this place, I see that I have a moral duty to perform. I must raise these people up from their sordid condition. I must instil in them a sense of right and wrong, and a clear understanding of how this applies to matters of personal toilet and the correct way to send out invitations. Although I am by nature a humble, and modest woman, it is clear to me that I have been called and must cast aside my reserve in order to lead these hapless islanders into the light.

(Every Sunday, Mrs Beaten will be sharing her annoyance, while awkwardly betraying her own poor manners and lack of common sense, sometimes through the medium of little sketches.)