The following article discusses certain delicate matters not generally aired in polite society. Anyone of a sensitive nature may wish to stop reading now.
Hopeless is wonderfully rich in strangeness and mystery. It is home to a multitude of weird and unworldly creatures and sometimes it seems as if an ominous magic is lurking around every corner. While the human population and the more commonplace animal species living here are wary of these praeternatural neighbours, all recognise that, whatever dangers threaten to beset them, the business of living has to go on in all of its aspects. This inevitably includes the production and disposal of – and I blush to have to mention it – sewage.
In these modern times most people on the island enjoy the convenience of an unseen, efficient method of waste disposal. In the past, however, the gallant Night-Soil Man was our only method of removing the offending effluent. It would be common, after dark, to hear him rattling along the cobbled streets in his heavily-laden donkey cart. Although those days are, happily, long gone there still exist a few Night-Soil Men to service the more isolated and sparsely populated areas where it would be almost impossible to install any form of financially viable technology which would be sufficient to the task of tackling the problem.
Maybe the best known modern day practitioner of this dying trade is Shenandoah Nailsworthy, a master of his craft. For those brave enough to be abroad at night, his burly form can frequently be spotted, scrambling over the rocky headland, burdened down with a large, tightly-lidded bucket, which is carried on his back like a rucksack. It should be noted that traditionally the work is always carried out in the hours of darkness in order to spare the sensibilities of the client.
There is a veil of secrecy surrounding much of the Night-Soil Man’s work. Indeed, the code of confidentiality that exists between him and his client has often been likened to that of the confessional. As Mr Nailsworthy once commented, “What happens in the privy stays in the privy.” Who exactly he said these words to is somewhat unclear though, as most people are disinclined to stand within speaking distance of him.
The comparison with the priesthood, perhaps, is greater than many may realise, as the general effluvium which surrounds him makes enforced celibacy an occupational reality. This is why there has never been a proud family tradition of night-soil collection with the tools of the trade passed from father to son. It has always been the occupation of a solitary man. By the same token, however, it keeps him alive, as the otherworldly denizens of Hopeless, however bizarre or deadly they may be, will invariably give him a wide berth. After all, a foul stench is a foul stench in whatever dimension you partially-inhabit. The noxious reach of this lonely profession’s reek has even penetrated the folk-culture of the island. Besides a reference being made to him in the well-loved ballad ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’, he is commemorated in a once-popular children’s street game; the song that accompanied it may still be heard occasionally:
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!
According to custom, when this game is played two children form an arch with their raised arms and their playmates march underneath in time to the song.The child who is left standing beneath the arch when the ejaculation POO! is reached is deemed to be out (this last syllable should be shouted lustily and with feeling). The arms of the arch come down and the hapless child is allegorically put into the Night-Soil Man’s bucket and the lid sealed. Comparisons have been drawn with Oranges and Lemons, at the end of which the unfortunate loser is symbolically beheaded. It either fate were factual it would be difficult to pick a preference.
Rufus Lypiatt, the landlord of The Squid and Teapot, told me a charming story about his elderly cousin, Arabella, one of the few people who managed, on one memorable occasion, to have a brief conversation with Mr Nailsworthy. Apparently she had a very bad head-cold at the time. It seems that one night she had wandered down to the end of her yard to answer a particularly urgent call of nature just a minute or so before he made his nocturnal collection. Surprised and probably somewhat embarrassed on having intruded upon her, he asked why she didn’t put a lock on the privy door.
“There’s no need,” she replied. “I’ve lived here for over forty years and no one has ever tried to steal the bucket.”
Finally, it should be noted that should you find yourself in the position of requiring the Night-Soil Man’s services please don’t be tempted to cut corners and do the job yourself. It is a potentially perilous activity and the chances are you will not succeed. At best you will simply end up going through the motions.*
*Author’s note: Apologies for the last paragraph. The temptation was just too much to bear.
Art by Tom Brown