Never lick the moths, no matter how tempting they appear to be, or how hungry you are. They only ever taste dusty. Only a person driven half mad by hunger would think it reasonable to attempt to lick such a being. In the winter, when it has been deathly cold for far too long and your chickens are unwilling to lay anything resembling eggs, you might find a moth sheltering in the folds of a curtain, and succumb to the notion that moth licking has merit.
At such moments as these, the true obscenity of eating becomes all too apparent. The fleshiness of one’s own mouth. The inherently sordid nature of chewing and swallowing. The horror of a body that must consume in order to survive. It is as though the moths somehow cause these dreadful thoughts. I have found that the only safe way to prevent further ghastly moth incidents, is to keep my home rigorously free of them.
It is generally good practice to remove insects from the home. They cannot be trusted not to leave dirty footprints on the walls, and have the unpleasant habit of dying in unexpected places. I have benefited greatly from the judicious application of Dr Field’s insect repellent soap. Most moths cannot bear the flavour of cloth that has been washed in this substance. The green stains on my own skin vanished in a matter of days, and were a small price to pay for removing the moth problem.
I also invested in one of Dr Field’s special hunting robots. Although I am now uncertain about the nature of my purchase, for whatever is inside the robot grows as it consumes insects. I can see unsightly hairs pushing through the cracks in the device. I am fairly certain that yesterday I saw it eating a mouse, and I do not like the feeling that it is looking at me. Thankfully however I have had no urges to try and eat it, which is an overall improvement.
(With thanks to Rebecca Field for loaning her face.)
Mrs Beaten has an inexplicable urge to tell people how to manage their households.
A well functioning kitchen depends on proper consideration of the layout. First and foremost, one must ask, where will the blood go? At the very least, a kitchen should include a channel that will carry blood and other fluids conveniently from the room. If the channel does not have a slight tilt to it, then the contents will simply run out onto the floor when you try to wash it away, which entirely defeats the object of having such a channel in the first place. The channel width requires careful consideration. It should not be broad enough to invite a misplaced foot, but if it is too narrow it may block easily.
Position your kitchen table over the channel. This will allow you to bleed the dead as required. Should you find the blood wholesome and suitable for black pudding, a bucket that straddles the channel and that can sit beneath the table will suffice. When the draining is for purposes other than culinary, simply let the blood run out into the channel, and sluice down with water at the end.
Where the channel exits your abode, you should be alert to the possibility of attracting vermin, and demons. That which is vacated from the deceased body, that which is unsavoury, may prove attractive to undesirable entities and it is ill advised to have them congregate in too close proximity to yourself. Chickens can be a good choice for both processing your disgusting waste and seeing off demons. A decently sized chicken will also eat rats, and their brightly glowing eyes provide useful illumination at night.
A large sink is essential in a well designed kitchen. Once the body has been drained you will want to wash it thoroughly. Consider where sink water will drain off and if possible, align this with your blood channel.
Your larder must be cool and shady. Be alert to any means by which a fly might enter this space bringing putrification and undertaking to steal your precious provisions.
While a sturdy range with ovens and plates is of course desirable, a great deal can be done with a cauldron suspended over a fire, and the judicious use of griddles.
You will need knives. Very sharp knives. Also a knife sharpener so that you can keep those knives absolutely lethal at all times. A large meat cleaver is always a good investment especially for the processing of larger bones. A good chopping board will help to mute the noises made by using the meat cleaver.
Some kitchen implements will turn out to be cursed, possessed or haunted. It is advisable to keep a few sturdy boxes along with chains and padlocks against such eventualities. However tempting it may be, never throw possessed or haunted kitchenware into the garden. Such items may ambush you in the future, seeking revenge or furthering other unnatural schemes. Always lock your suspect items in a secure place before seeking professional advice.
Mrs Beaten has never approved of exposed legs, including those of tables. It just isn’t decent, to leave them there on display for all the world to see. Not that the world had ever been in the habit of entering Mrs Beaten’s parlour and she was hardly in the habit of sending out invitations.
Nevertheless, someone might see. One of Mrs Beaten’s ongoing ambitions in life is to make sure that the moment of her death could come, entirely unannounced, and she would be perfectly ready for it. Her underwear would be clean should some medical inspection be required. Her home would be in perfect order. Therefore it followed that if a person entered her parlour concerned about her possible demise, there would be no unseemly legs on display there.
We can tell from these thoughts that Mrs Beaten had at best a tenuous grasp of what would happen in the event of her death. Much of her planning was based on the assumption that her absence would be noted and commented upon, leading people to decide that Something Must Be Done. In reality the odds were high that by the time anyone noticed that they hadn’t noticed her for a while, the state of her underwear would be primarily informed by the state of decay she had otherwise achieved. The likelihood of a corpse not doing something unspeakable to its own undergarments was something she might reasonably be expected to have a better understanding of.
As for the table legs, it is unlikely that any other islander would give them more than a fleeting glance even if they were shamelessly left on display. Reverend Davies might have had an uncomfortable moment on seeing a carved leg whose shapely form evoked recollections of rounded, feminine thighs. These legs had no such issues. Beneath the table you would find a sturdy calf, a well polished boot and a neatly hung trouser…
With a long table cloth, the unseemly table legs were largely invisible. At least once a week she swept carefully under the table itself. The job always made her shudder because there was no way of avoiding the unseemly legs then or the dreadful feelings they were bound to encourage.
By Keith Errington. Mrs Beaten scribble above by Nimue.
Any casual passer-by describing Mrs Beaten is unlikely to reach for the word passionate.
Words such as stubborn, old-fashioned, maybe even mousey, might come to mind, but passion would be furthest from their thoughts. Of course, those first impressions would be formed in the minds of people who do not know Mrs Beaten well – which is to say almost everybody – as Mrs Beaten keeps herself to herself.
But Mrs Beaten was passionate – she became fired up about manners, decency, cooking, respectability, neatness, deportment, and a whole range of other subjects that I am sure you will find covered elsewhere in those annals of Hopeless, Maine which include Mrs Beaten.
Then again, Mrs Beaten did not believe in unnecessary displays of emotion. And what’s more, she even considered most emotions to be unnecessary. And even though she experienced emotions from time to time, she usually kept any strong feelings bottled up inside herself. (And if we are to be thinking of words, then the word that springs to mind here, is repression.)
This did not mean that she was indecisive or inactive. On the contrary, she believed in taking action to remedy the faults in her world, whether that action be a sarcastic smile, a loud “tut tut” within earshot, or a stern letter to the Vendetta. Yes, Mrs Beaten was always ready to take rapid, affirmative and proportionate action, in an appropriately dignified manner.
Such actions were almost always planned. Often meticulously. For example, she dedicated a significant number of hours to the task of perfecting her sarcastic smile.
Usually this planning took place in Mrs Beaten’s favourite room – the kitchen. The kitchen was Mrs Beaten’s den, her operations room, her lair. It was here that she did her thinking and her planning, her writing and her recipe making, and of course her preparing of ingredients and her cooking. It was an utterly impressive and respectably large room, whose practicality and unique décor would remain completely unknown to the outside world whilst Mrs Beaten was alive. It seemingly contained every culinary implement, every piece of preparation equipment and every cooking method known to the Western world. Or at least every one that turned up on the Island of Hopeless Maine.
But on this particular day, this repository of appliances, devices, gadgets and utensils was found lacking. Something had caused an intense passion to rise up inside Mrs Beaten, like the steam in her old pressure cooker. It was a situation that would only be relieved by taking action.
Mrs Beaten realised that for what she had in mind, she would need something special, something large, something exactly the right shape, something that was…well…unique. Not something you could buy, even in a well-equipped general store. Someone would have to make the item in question, which, unfortunately, and inevitably, meant engaging with a workman about a delicate matter – not a task that Mrs Beaten relished.
Shaw Dantry was known not only for his proficient carving ability, but also for his magnificent wood. A carpenter with decent wood was hard to find in Hopeless, Maine. If you looked around the island it wasn’t hard to see why. Hopeless trees were all misshapen, short, twisted, and rarely upright. They were generally full of knots, cracks and galls. And if you did manage to find a straight piece of wood, it would most often be riddled with worm, bugs or burrowers – or worse. So the fact that Dantry seemed to have a stock of good, straight, honest wood was a huge boon that stood him in good stead with his steady stream of customers. On top of that, his carving skills were more than adequate and so he found himself fashioning all sorts of items for people throughout the island.
Mrs Beaten knew she needed something large, long, hard and shaped for purpose. Something that would endure and last. So she paid a visit to Shaw Dantry to judge his wood for herself and to see if he could meet her needs.
Mrs Beaten started by insisting that she needed a discrete and private job, emphasising that no-one must know of it and Dantry should ensure that he was not observed at any point during the making of the item.
There then followed a brief period of misunderstanding – as the carpenter had somehow wrongly assumed the nature of the thing Mrs Beaten required. Mrs Beaten couldn’t for the life of her understand why the wretched man was winking and nudging her – what was wrong with him? She almost left at that point, but following some simple clarification, the woodcarver changed his attitude to one of complete professionalism and a price was agreed.
As we have discussed many times, Hopeless, Maine is a bleak place; a difficult place to live, an easy place in which to die. Thus, its inhabitants often looked for respite of any kind, no matter how brief. This respite took many forms, music, social interaction, reading, entertainment, art and eradicating the thing, or the person, that was causing you the most stress that day. Art was practised by many islanders, and although there was no denying it was art, most of it was not terribly good art. Perhaps it pleased the person that had made it for a while, but it would not be to everyone’s taste, either thematically or technically. Art competitions were often won by works such as the painting that won the most recent event, “Three Blobs on a Muddy Background”, or the interactive sculpture from last year, “Tentacular Eviscerations”.
Occasionally, what was considered “good art” washed up from a shipwreck and was subsequently hung proudly in someone’s house or, as in the case of one particularly fine painting, in the Squid and Teapot. A few months ago, a quite spectacular item landed on the Southern beach – a magnificent sculpture. To be fair, it was mostly magnificent and spectacular in its size and the shockingly white material it had been carved in. It was really just an average copy of a true masterpiece, but even in a humble copy, the essence of the original shone through.
Nobody knows which mad individual actually managed to get the heavy piece off the shore, over the land and into town. But the fact is, somebody did. Its resting place was a small square off the main street which hitherto had been an unremarkable patch of dirt. The sculpture was generally considered a great asset to civic pride, with most feeling that the town had gained a level of civility it had previously lacked. The sculpture was visited and admired often, with even those passing down the adjacent street in a bit of a hurry, stopping to appreciate its fine lines for a few seconds before resuming their hustle.
But of course, art is very subjective. What one viewer appreciates, another may not. And one particular viewer did not approve. Oh no, not at all.
Shaw Dantry took pride in both his appearance and his work. And although he was fast and efficient, he was also thorough, and made sure that every requirement was met and that every client was completely satisfied. And indeed, Mrs Beaten was very satisfied with the service that Dantry had provided. As she held it in her hands, stroking it gently, she marvelled at its smoothness, its beauty, its length, its girth and its hardness. It had a lovely feel – quite the biggest and best she had ever handled. She paid the man with an uncharacteristic flourish, and eagerly made her way back to her kitchen to make preparations.
At this point, I am sure you are wondering what it was that she had commissioned from the woodcarver. What was the secret item that had invoked such feelings in Mrs Beaten? Well, you could say it was merely a wooden spoon, but that would be like saying the Titanic was just a boat. It was, quite simply, the most enormous wooden spoon you have probably ever seen. The bowl of the spoon was bigger than any fruit bowl, the handle thicker than that of any broom, and its length was as long as you would ever need in a spoon.
Mrs Beaten rested the monstrous spoon against a wall next to the door and began to assemble ingredients. Within half an hour, she had mixed up some sort of concoction, which bizarrely, was of such a small amount that she could store it in the tiniest container she possessed – a smidgeon of a jar that may once have held the smallest portion of fish paste. There was a genuine dichotomy between the enormous spoon and the miniscule jar. Within that jar was something foul-smelling and exceedingly viscous. Mrs Beaten now waited until the small hours of the morning before putting her plan into action.
The following day, the sculpture in the square had drawn a substantial crowd. Unusually, Mrs Beaten could be observed on the periphery. Anyone who knew her would realise that this was an Event. Mrs Beaten hated people. She could barely tolerate a single encounter, so a mass of humans was simply be abhorrent to her, and yet, here she was. And was that a faint smile of satisfaction on her face?
The sculpture, which we will now formally introduce as a copy of Michelangelo’s David, had a fresh addition. People were pointing and staring at the statue’s abdomen and groin. For there was a new wooden appendage present, where there had been none the previous day. A spoon. Beautifully carved and proportioned, it was fixed upright with the bowl down. The stem was fixed (glued maybe?) to the middle of the tummy, and the bowl of the spoon was precisely placed to hide that part of David that would have left you in no doubt of the subject’s maleness.
Intelligent opinions in the crowd were divided on whether this improved or devalued the sculpture, and indeed, whether it was “ART”. At the other end of the scale, many of the more philistine onlookers thought it was absolutely hilarious and most entertaining.
The following week, a civic committee met and decided that the spoon should be removed. However, it turned out that the spoon and its glue were no respecter of the committee’s wishes, and try as they might, the spoon was not budging an inch. And so, it was reluctantly judged to be an official piece of Hopeless, Maine art and left alone.
— ◊ —
And so, for a while, Mrs Beaten was content. As far as she was concerned, the matter was dealt with and the pressure inside her had dissipated.
But then… she noticed the new hat that Mr Peremptory was wearing, and she could feel her pulse rising once again…
Mrs Beaten dreams of naked ladies. This is awkward because Mrs Beaten has never really seen any ladies who were naked. She has of course looked at her own body, occasionally, in stolen, furtive glances that do more to make her afraid than they do to answer curiosity.
She has some idea of what might occur beneath clothing. The stays and strings and pads and cages, the lobster pots. It would be more comfortable to assume that was everything, just layers of skirts and ropes and pulleys, and no flesh at all.
It’s that last layer that frightens her. The unspeakable, unseeable inside of a garment. Humans were not meant to be naked, she feels strongly. It isn’t natural, or proper.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, they come at night. Sometimes alone and pale and loitering. Sometimes with too many teeth in places surely teeth should not be? Some of them dance. Some of them wave parts of themselves around and Mrs Beaten does not know if those parts have names, or even if they are ordinary ladyparts to be possessed of.
In the daylight, she suspects the presence of demons, and murmurs her prayers and charms in the hopes of seeing them off. If all else fails, she gets another lobster pot to go inside her skirts. Somehow there is always room for one more.
Jam. For some, it is a dream based on little more than hearsay. For the fortunate few, jam is the memory of distant places now lost forever and the kind of luxury never to be hoped for again.
There are fruits on the island, but they tend to be bitter. You can make something sweet through the exacting process of malting barley, but this is more likely to go for brewing than to jam. Further, malted barley jam doesn’t keep that well, tending to ferment or mutate after a few days. Mugging bees does not result in enough honey for anything complicated. Jam batches are seldom, secretive and quickly eaten, if anyone dares to try, and they are never as good as the remembered jam of distant, brighter days.
Mrs Beaten makes jam because it is right and proper to have jam with afternoon tea. Even if you are obliged to use a mollusc in place of a scone – grains being in short supply. Mrs Beaten puts the jam on the mollusc first, and then the cream. The cream is also in very short supply. No one ever joins her for afternoon tea, as she has no friends and if she did, would hardly want them inside her house with their dirty shoes and unkempt hems. She fears these imaginary people would judge her, for replacing scones with molluscs and in fairness, she is right about this.
Her current batch of jam is made from beetroot. It is sweeter than the bitter apples of the previous batch. Yesterday she crept out at dawn and left a jar discreetly on the doorstep of a certain gentleman. She has no idea if he has found or understood the gift. But who else would make him beetroot jam? Absentmindedly, she smears a teaspoon of the stuff onto the back of her hand, and not onto the limp flesh of the shellfish.
Gazing down in horror at this debauched action, she wonders fleetingly what it would be like to smear jam onto someone else. Mrs Beaten crushes the idea at once. It will not do! She almost believes that other people will somehow know she has had this dreadful thought. All she can do is eat the jam quickly, in the hopes of hiding the evidence.
“There will be no unseemly wriggling,” Mrs Beaten asserts.
You think she is probably right in that regard and that wriggling – unseemly or otherwise – would be quite beyond you now. She has secured your entire person with a speed and efficiency that you are still trying to come to terms with.
“Filthy, disgusting beast,” she says.
You aren’t quite sure how to take this. Two people previously in your life have labelled you in this way. In your sister’s case, it had everything to do with a summer of failed attempts at taxidermy, resulting in distinct uncleanliness. But there was also that gentleman, late one night in a drunken haze, whose tone suggested delight rather than horror.
When a woman breaks into your room at night and swiftly binds you, it might be fair to assume that her intentions are both deviant and decadent. However, with Mrs Beaten it is notoriously difficult to tell.
She goes on to verbally chastise you for the appalling state of your collars, the lack of smooth gleaming whiteness in your shirts, and your generally slovenliness. You suppose she means to humiliate. You wonder what she knows, or guesses about your feelings on the matter. Would she stop at once if she knew? Or would she think up fresh torments? Her face is inscrutable.
She pulls out of your field of vision, and you hear her rummaging about, violating your privacy. You shudder. And then she leaves, and you are cold, and unable to escape and have no idea when she might come back or what she will do. Your mind skitters with dreads both named and nameless. It comes as a surprise to you that you manage to sleep like this.
You wake, sore and stretching, wondering if it was all just a terrible dream. The ropes are gone, if they ever existed at all. The whole scene seems so unlikely in the reassuring light of day that you almost persuade yourself it didn’t happen. But when you open your armoire, the truth is undeniable. Every shirt, freshly lauded to the point of almost shining, ruthlessly ironed to crisp perfection. You stare at them in silent horror.
Mrs Beaten’s hands are very cold as she touches your face. It is dark, but you know it is her, those chilled fingertips are distinctive.
You are not sure why she is in your house, much less why she is in your bedroom, touching your face. You breathe slowly, keeping still in case she believes you to be asleep. You have an odd feeling that perhaps this is how she would touch you if she believed you to be dead.
Those cold, cold hands, so light and deft on your skin. As though she is searching for something. Signs of life? Or the absence of signs of life?
You are barely breathing at all now.
What would she do if she assumed you to be dead? Where would those questing fingers go? What might she want from you, in the darkness and the silence?
Your heart seems unnaturally slow. You can hear the faint rustle of her dress as she moves. It is also possible to hear the glide of her fingertips over the bones in your face. Her hands are on your throat now. Can she feel your pulse? Fingertips glide towards your chest and you think if she reaches your heart, that will be the end. All beating will cease.
Trousers maketh the man. Although not in the way my neighbour Miss Jones seems to think because I refuse to accept that if she wears trousers, she is in fact a man. She asked me if I thought Mr Quentin who makes the herbal teas is in fact a man. He, after all, wears trousers and has tolerably presentable shirt collars. Of course he is a man.
“But how would you know,” Miss Jones said, ‘If he was really a woman?”
She says these things only to vex me.
It is true, and demonstrably true that men who fall into moral decay eschew the trouser. If you have been unfortunate enough to encounter one of those vampiric gentlemen of the night, you will likely have noticed their penchant for flowing fabric, and not a trouser leg to be seen between them. It is equally true with the gentlemen who have dedicated themselves spiritually to the great master in the sky. No trousers! While their preaching is persuasive, how can one trust a man whose trousers are at best hidden, and may be fearfully absent? How can you trust a man when you have not seen whether his creases are properly pressed in?
Trousers are the measure of a fellow. Loose enough to hide any improper curve of unspeakable leg-parts. Fitting enough not to seem wanton or excessive. What is manhood without well proportioned trousers?
And yet, how easily might we be beguiled by the well formed trouser? Who amongst us goes forth in the daylight, well trousered and appearing the very embodiment of manly virtue, only to cast off their trousers at night and appear robed and debauched? The very thought makes me shudder.
I could better forgive them if they had simply replaced the appropriate trousers with modest and sensible dresses. They have not. These loose, voluminous robes could hide anything! Who knows what depravity might continue beneath that flapping fabric? There is no restraint, no decorum. There is no recognition of civilization or decency.
There is something offensive about the way they gather on the beach when the weather is in the slightest way tolerable. They go there as if it is a place for fun and frolicking, and as though they feel some personal entitlement to frolic where others can see them.
It is so undignified, so unseemly. Some of the women lift the hems of their skirts to navigate the wet sand. A few of them even go down there in trousers. What is the world coming to? What an appalling sight for young children to behold! The human body improperly hidden is a terrible thing.
The beach is not a place for merrymaking. It is a place to scavenge, when one must. It is a place to die, for all that washes in there. It should be mournful. Why do they insist on filing it with laughter? What can they possibly find to laugh about? It is such a disturbing sound – giggling especially. It sounds like loss of control, like unreason made manifest. If we do not control ourselves carefully at all times, there is no knowing what may happen. I speak from unhappy experience.
One moment you might be going through your normal morning routine, and the next, you might entirely lose control and try to kill someone using only the fork that is in your hand. It is never safe to drop guard. Never safe to be incautious.
I cannot bear to be near the beach when other people are so dangerously out of control. I must go at twilight, when it is quieter. The risks of what else will be there seem less troubling to me than the company of people losing their minds. I will go only for the most essential and practical of reasons – to see what the tide has bought in and whether any of it is useful. Frivolity is fatal sometimes, and far too few people understand this.