Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

The White Hare

The close bond between Philomena Bucket and Drury, the skeletal hound, is surprising, given the manner of their meeting. Regular readers will recall that this was mentioned in the tale ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress’, when Drury introduced himself to Philomena by attempting to steal a particularly attractive, and somewhat robust, full-length Victorian Nightdress from her washing basket. Despite this awkward start to their relationship, the pair became great friends and could frequently be seen together, walking on the Gydynap Hills.
Another resident of the island who has taken more than a passing interest in Philomena is Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. When she first arrived on Hopeless, Philomena was suffering from anosmia (or so Doc Willoughby announced. Most of us would just say that she had lost her sense of smell.) This was brought on by her inhaling cotton pollen while stowing-away aboard the merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’. When the Night-Soil Man saved her life, she promptly fell in love with him, being shielded from his noxious stench by her temporary affliction. The full account can be found in the tale ‘Scents and Sensibility’, but it is sufficient to say that a promising love affair was brought to a tragically abrupt close when her nasal passages were cleared and normal service resumed. Despite this, the two have always carried a torch for each other, albeit from a distance.
During those times when Philomena was rash enough to venture abroad during the hours of darkness, one can guarantee that Drury would be rattling along by her side and, from somewhere safely downwind, Rhys Cranham could be found, keeping a watchful eye upon her.

It was on such an occasion that our tale begins. Philomena, having finished her work at The Squid and Teapot, desperately needed to get outside. The Squid had been unusually crowded and rowdy that evening, upsetting Lady Margaret D’Avening, the Headless White Lady who haunted the inn’s flushing privy. Lady Margaret tended to regard full-moon nights as her own, and the constant to-ing and fro-ing in and out of her domain had put her quite out of sorts. As much as Philomena liked the White Lady, she had no desire to spend half the night listening to the ghost complaining at length about the Squid’s patrons, and how standards had dropped over the last century. With escape in mind, Philomena had set off towards her beloved Gydynaps, with Drury happily capering by her side. A full moon was riding high in the sky and battling, with some success, to shine her pale beams through the fogs which habitually swathed the island. Somewhere overhead the spectral Mild Hunt could be heard clattering clumsily and noisily through the heavens. The wraiths of the six maiden-ladies, eternally doomed to hunt for some lost pamphlets (as told in the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) were always careful to avoid landing anywhere near Drury. Experience had taught them that the osseous hound delighted in harassing their spaniels and exacerbating the irritable bowel syndrome of their famously flatulent mules.
“Blasted ghosts!” thought Philomena. “You don’t get a minute of peace from them when the moon is full.”
It was at that point that she spotted, what she at first believed to be, another apparition on the path before her. Drury saw it too, and if he had been in receipt of hackles, like a living dog, they would have risen.
The creature in front of them was a hare. She sat as motionless as a statue, and glimmering pure white in the moonlight. The barmaid had been on Hopeless for long enough to know that this was no ordinary hare; conventional animals who might find themselves washed up on the island did not stay conventional for long. Tentacles, scales and various novel appendages would generally replace their distinguishing attributes, that is, if they survived long enough for such a metamorphosis to take place.
The white hare gracing the pathway was majestic. There was something otherworldly, magical, even, about her, over which the awful, transforming curse of Hopeless, could have no command. Philomena racked her brains, trying to recall the legends she had heard regarding such creatures, but they all alluded her.

From his vantage point on the rocks, Rhys Cranham could see the hare as well. Being a Hopelessian, born and raised, he had never beheld such a beast, but something deep within his heart was moved by the animal’s poise and quiet dignity. He was surprised that Drury was apparently making no attempt to chase her.

Philomena and Drury watched the white hare for some time. Like Rhys, she had expected Drury to chase her away, but the dog was content to sit quietly by Philomena’s side. It was only when the moon slipped behind the clouds that the spell was broken and the hare vanished into the night.

If you have been following these tales in recent editions of ‘The Vendetta’, you may be forgiven for thinking that this is no more than another prank by the wily Trickster who called himself Linus Pinfarthing. Indeed, traditionally the shape of a hare is one of the Trickster’s preferred disguises. But Linus was in no condition to trick anyone at that precise moment, lying drunk, as he was, on his unmade bed.

Philomena made her way back to The Squid and Teapot, totally unaware of the Night-Soil Man’s protective presence some way behind her. She felt excited and could hardly wait until morning to tell the Middlestreets, and her good friend Marjorie Toadsmoor, all about the vision of the beautiful white hare. On reaching The Squid, however, she was surprised to find lights shining in some of the windows. Normally, at this hour, the inn would be in darkness.
She was met at the door by an ashen-faced Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Oh Philomena…” was all that she said, before falling into her friend’s arms, weeping.
“Whatever is it Ariadne? Tell me.”
Philomena feared that something awful had befallen Bartholomew, but then the landlord of the inn appeared in the doorway. He looked haggard and drawn.
Tenderly he wrapped his arms around both women.
“It’s Marjorie,” he said softly, his voice trembling. “Linus was in a terrible state. He said that he found her lying on the rocks. She’s dead Philomena. Drowned.”
Drury raised his bony face to the moon and howled.


A tale from The Squid and Teapot

As most will have gathered by now, Hopeless, Maine is not renowned for its good weather. For much of the year it can be challenging for residents to ascertain exactly which season they might be currently enjoying. Fog-bound, gale-swept winters drift into equally inclement springs, summers and falls, without missing a beat. Sometimes the fog has been known to relent and generously become no more than a semi-opaque sea-mist. While such interludes can never be called halcyon days, they are treasured. In fact, any weather pattern in which fog plays only a secondary role is a welcome distraction. So, when one morning the island woke up to a blanket of snow, the wonder and excitement of many of the islanders knew no bounds.
Being an island, lashed by waves and salt-laden air, the incidence of snow on Hopeless is rare. What makes this particular snowfall even more remarkable, however, is that occurred in mid-August.

Bartholomew Middlestreet stood upon the doorstep of The Squid and Teapot and scratched his head in amazement. The last time that it had snowed was on New Year’s Eve. That was unusual in itself, but its memory had lodged in Bartholomew’s mind for another reason. That had been the night of the bar-fight in The Squid, and he had watched a stranger to the island, the instigator of the brawl, walk out into the snow and not leave any trace of a footprint. Hopeless was an odd island, to be sure, he thought, but lately it had become downright peculiar.

The landlord’s definition of ‘peculiar’ might have been revised several degrees along the scale, had he been with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, a few hours earlier. Although used to the various horrors who called the island home (if ‘home’ is not too cosy a term for the living nightmares within which most of them dwelt), Rhys particularly disliked Creepy Hollow. The place, in itself, was not awful. It was the possibility of running into the wraith of The Eggless Norseman, Lars Pedersen, that worried Rhys. As ghosts go, the old Viking was harmless enough, but his mad, glaring eyes and gaunt form, little more these days than fading tatters of protoplasm, gave Rhys bad dreams. However, his work had to be done, and every few weeks the residents of Creepy Hollow required his services.
The unseasonal fall of snow had surprised Rhys, but it provided a certain amount of welcome illumination. While used to wandering around in darkness, the Night-Soil Man was grateful that the extra light helped to speed him along.
Intent on getting his Creepy Hollow duties out of the way, Rhys failed to see the lone figure standing in the clearing until he was almost upon it. The thought occurred to him that several things about the tableau made little sense. Usually, his proximity to most other life-forms would cause a certain amount of gagging and nose-holding, but the person in front of him did neither; indeed, it was as if the Night-Soil Man was invisible. Stranger still was the fact that there were no footprints in the snow, other than his own.
Rhys stood perfectly still and watched the figure, which he assumed to be that of a man, standing with arms raised, beckoning skywards with his fingers, as if willing the snow to fall. Seconds, or maybe minutes passed – Rhys had no way of telling – then, with his arms still outstretched, the mysterious stranger began chanting and rocking gently to the rhythm of his own song. Occasionally he would stamp one foot upon the ground. Gradually his movements became more fluid and dance-like. With his back arched and knees bent, he began to turn, and as he turned, so the snowflakes swirled around him. Faster and faster he went until he was little more than a blur within the blizzard that raged around his spinning form. By now Rhys was crouched in the shelter of the trees, his hat pulled down low, and his jacket wrapped tightly around him, and barely able to accept the evidence of his eyes, which were growing heavy. He was becoming lost in the mesmeric thrall of the storm, which raged and howled like a pack of hungry wolves (although Rhys had no way of knowing this, never having seen or heard a wolf in his life). Human shapes and nameless creatures could be seen flickering within the churning tempest, capering and writhing around the dancer, who by now, was almost invisible. Then, as if switched off by some unseen hand, the blizzard abruptly died, and all was still. Nothing was left to be seen but an expanse of snow, unruffled except for the Night-Soil Man’s own footprints.

That night, in the bar of The Squid and Teapot, the talk was all about the freak snowstorm that had swept the island that morning. Not the slightest pile of slush or tiniest sliver of ice now remained, but that did nothing to ease the speculation, oiled as it was by copious pints of ‘Old Colonel’ and shots of the best spirits that the Gannicox Distillery could provide. The unseasonal weather had been blamed upon everything from the Kraken feeling out of sorts, to Les Demoiselles, the French Can-Can troupe, inadvertently doing some manner of rain dance, which had turned to snow.
“It’s a warning to us all. The lewd and sinful dancing that those French girls brought to the island will be our ruin,” mused Seth Washpool, adding, “or so Reverend Davies reckons.”
“There’s nothing wrong with them girls. That man thinks everything is a warning,” said Philomena Bucket impatiently, having little time for the clergy of any denomination.
“Well, whatever the cause, I can’t recall seeing anything like it before,” said Norbert Gannicox, “and never heard tell of such a thing, either.”
Bartholomew Middlestreet kept his own counsel. He had his own suspicions who, or what, might have been responsible.
“You must admit that strange things happen here all the while,” opined Linus Pinfathing. “Hopeless is a weird place on the best of days.”
Some of the others nodded sagely.
A small smile played upon Linus’ lips, as he could not help but add,
“And we certainly seem to be living in Trickster times.”
No one noticed Bartholomew’s glare at these words. He did not like, or trust, Linus.
“We certainly are,” he thought to himself . “We certainly are.”

The Trapper

A Tale from The Squid and Teapot

Squid and Teapot also by Martin Pearson

“Hey fella. What’s this critter called?”
Linus Pinfarthing stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly. Only one quizzically raised, and somewhat affronted, eyebrow betrayed his annoyance.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said what’s this critter called. Ain’t seen nothin’ like these things before.”
The newcomer, who was dressed in furs and buckskin, was holding up a cage in which an angry spoonwalker tottered around helplessly.
“That sir is a spoonwalker. How did he get to be in there?”
If the other man noticed the ice in Linus’ voice, he chose to ignore it.
“Well, I lured him there. Got me a few more, back in the cave.”
“Indeed? And you are…?”
“Zeke Tyndale, trapper and fur trader. Please to meet you mister.”
Tyndale offered his free hand which Linus reluctantly grasped. He held it for a few seconds, as if deciding whether to shake or no.
For reasons he could not explain, Tyndale shuddered, feeling as if his soul was being laid bare. Then Linus smiled, shook the proffered hand warmly, and said,
“Linus Pinfarthing at your service, sir. My dear fellow, I would love to see the rest of your collection.”
“Happy to,” said Tyndale. “Follow me.”

As the two men walked, Tyndale surprised himself by blurting out his life story to his new companion. He told how he had been a successful trapper, and had plied his trade right across the continent. Upon a whim he decided to try his luck in the far north-east, where, he was assured, he would find plenty of pelts, just waiting to be caught. Unfortunately, his small boat had run aground upon the rocks around Hopeless. Being a practical man, he had set up camp and decided to see if there was any game worth trapping on the island.
“Lucky I’ve still got all my traps and snares,” he confided, “but I ain’t seen nothin’ worth skinnin’ yet, ‘cept some things that look like cats…”
“That would be Dust Cats. You would do well to avoid them,” said Linus gravely. “Besides which, you would never catch one.”
“That sounds like a challenge to me,” laughed Tyndale.

The trapper’s camp was surprisingly orderly, all things considered. He had salvaged the contents of his boat and stacked them neatly against a rock, covering everything with a badly stained tarpaulin. A circular fire-pit sat in front of the mouth of the small cave, which currently served as Tyndale’s temporary abode.
“Home sweet home,” he said, gesturing for Linus to sit on a nearby rock. “Coffee?”
“No thank you,” said Linus, ignoring the invitation to sit. “I am most keen, however, to see your little collection of spoonwalkers.”
Tyndale beamed, happy to display his prowess as a trapper, and strode into the cave, beckoning for Linus to follow.

The cave was small, barely half-a-dozen paces from side to side, and illuminated by the glow of a single hurricane lamp. Tyndale’s bedding lay in an untidy heap.
He carried the cage, and its irate occupant, over to the far corner, where Linus could see, in the dim light, several similar traps, each holding a dejected spoonwalker.

“These critters are goin’ to make my fortune,” declared the trapper proudly. “When I get off this island, I’ll take them to New York. Folks there have never seen nothin’ like these. They’ll give me a blank cheque to get their hands on them. Then no more trappin’ for me. I’m going to be a millionaire!”
“And how do the spoonwalkers feel about this?” asked Linus.
“Why, they’ll be fine and dandy about it, I reckon,” Tyndale guffawed.
Linus sighed.
“Do you know, Mr Tyndale…”
“Call me Zeke.”
“… Mr Tyndale, there are few things more disgusting to me than to see a creature – even creatures such as these – caged for the pleasure and greed of thoughtless humans.”
“Well, that’s as maybe, Mr Pinfarthin’,” said Tyndale brusquely, “but trappin’ is my trade and what I can’t skin I’ll damn’ well sell… and believe me, these little guys will sell on the mainland, no problem.”
“I think not, Mr Tyndale. Maybe you should be caged instead. Or would you prefer to be skinned?”
Linus unlatched the cages and watched the spoonwalkers scuttle away on their cutlery stilts.
“Now you look here, young fella…”
“Young fellow? No, you look, Mr Tyndale…”
Suddenly, the light of the hurricane lamp was dimmed as the cave filled with a swirling, smoke-like dark mist, which seemed to emanate from the body of Linus Pinfarthing. His form was changing, and the affable young man who had walked into the cave had lost all substance. Tyndale cringed as the space was filled with nightmare visions of blood and sacrifice, through which he occasionally glimpsed animal and bird forms. Then, as swiftly as the mist had formed, it dispelled. Pinfarthing was gone. The trapper stood up, wondering what had happened, convinced he had been hallucinating.
Then he saw the hare.
It was sitting in the mouth of the cave, motionless, and looking straight at him. Now, here was a meal and a pelt he could not refuse.
Stealthily, he unhitched his hunting knife from its sheath, never taking his eyes from the hare. Just one throw is all that it would take…
“I gave you a chance,” said the Hare in a voice as deep and dark as the earth itself. “I gave you the opportunity to change your ways.”
Then the hare stretched and grew, and with growing, altered his shape into that of a coyote.
“Do you not know me, even now?” asked Coyote, shaking himself.
By now Tyndale was on his knees, trembling, as he watched Coyote turn black, and shrink once more, growing the feathers and wings of a great raven that tossed its head, and held the orb of the sun within its beak. It was a light that grew in intensity, almost blinding the trapper. Then, in the fierce unearthly glow, it seemed that all three beasts were there before him.
“Fear us now,” chorused the voices of Hare, Coyote and Raven. “We are The Trickster. We are The Guizer. We are The Eldest. We are The First and The Last.”
Tyndale screamed and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, hoping the three would be gone when he opened them again. Seconds passed like hours, or maybe they were hours.
Squatting on the floor of the cave, gibbering and shuddering, he heard the ominous rustle of wings, the padding of light feet on stone and the distant howl of a prairie wolf. He knew that there were no wolves on this island. What was happening to him? Tyndale opened his eyes once more. He was alone, and all of his world, and everything he would ever again know, was held within the cave.

“It’s beyond even my knowledge,” said Doc Willoughby, modestly. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Linus Pinfarthing looked on sympathetically.
“The poor fellow must have suffered some great trauma,” he opined. “You could almost believe he was somehow caged inside himself.”
“Yes, I agree,” said the Doc, nodding. “You may have something there, Linus.”
No one knew exactly how long the wretched figure had been sitting, rocking and whispering to himself in that cave. It was fortunate that Linus had happened upon him a few days earlier. They had tried to leave food and drink, but he appeared to want neither. He was existing on nothing but air, it seemed.

Zeke Tyndale looked through the bars of his cage and saw the thousands of creatures that he had trapped and slaughtered in his lifetime. They clamoured to break the bars down, to drag him away and rip him to pieces. He wished that they would, for death would be a welcome respite. However, Hare, Coyote and Raven, who guarded him day and night, had other plans. He knew that it was their intention that he would live, trapped in this cage for as long as it pleased them, and that would be a long, long time.

Linus Pinfathing

Squid and Teapot by Bish.

Regular readers may recall, in the tale ‘The Lord of Misrule’, how a quite violent, and uncharacteristic, bar-fight erupted in The Squid and Teapot on New-Year’s Eve. No one could say exactly who started it, although Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, vaguely remembered an elegant stranger whispering in the ear of young Ambrose Pinfarthing, just moments before the evening descended into chaos.
The incident was never referred to again, and many of those who were there actually began to doubt that it had ever happened. As for the stranger, only Bartholomew noticed his presence, and all memory of his shape and form left with him, like his shadow, as he slipped away into the darkness.

It was some months after the affray in The Squid that Linus Pinfarthing moved into the family home on Refinery Road. There had been Pinfathings on Hopeless for four generations and, as far as anyone was aware, they had all lived in the same cottage since coming to the island. While most of us would baulk at the concept of a total stranger insinuating himself into our home, strangely enough, no one in the family showed any surprise, although, none could recollect having seen him before. It was as if he had come from nowhere, and cast some sort of glamour over them. Indeed, the same could be said for the rest of the islanders, for to all intents and purposes, before many days had elapsed, the general opinion on Hopeless was that Cousin Linus had always been a presence in the Pinfathing’s household. Unlike the rest of the clan he was noted for his good-looks, charm, wit and affability. Everyone liked Linus – men admired him and women either wanted to marry him or mother him, and sometimes both. He was popularity personified. Even Doc Willoughby and Reverend Davies smiled indulgently at the mention of his name.
Bartholomew Middlestreet was alone in having reservations about Linus, although he never voiced them. For some nagging reason that he could not identify, he felt that there was something not quite right or wholesome about the young man.

“Miss Toadsmoor, what a pleasure to bump into you this morning. I do hope that you are well.”
Linus swept off his fedora, and made a deep, theatrical bow, bending at the knee and throwing his arms wide.
Marjorie Toadsmoor blushed to feel her heart suddenly race. She was, or had been, a Victorian lady of the upper-middle classes. Since being on Hopeless she had all but forgotten about courtly manners, but in Linus’s company the starchy etiquette that had informed her upbringing came flooding back. Controlling her emotions, she curtsied primly and smiled.
“Good morning Mr Pinfarthing. I am very well, thank you.”
Linus looked up at the sky, heavy with fog.
“I think it is going to be a fine and sunny day. Would you do me the honour of joining me for a picnic luncheon later?”
This was all very sudden, and the chances of the day being anything but foggy seemed remote. Despite this, she heard herself saying,
“Why certainly, Mr Pinfathing, but on the condition that I bring a chaperone. It would not be proper otherwise.”
“Naturally,” agreed Linus with a smile. “I will call for you at the Pallid Rock Orphanage at noon precisely, and provide the picnic.”
Still blushing, and not a little confused, Marjorie made her way to The Squid and Teapot, in the hope that Philomena Bucket would agree to be her chaperone.

“If he thinks that there’s going to be clear skies and sunshine,” said Philomena, as they sat waiting in the hallway. “He’s more of a fool than any of us took him for.”
Philomena was slightly put out that Mr Pinfathing had set his cap at Marjorie, who was no more than a slip of a girl, rather than at herself. However, she was not one to hold grudges and – after all – no one could be cross with Linus Pinfarthing for very long.
The clock in the hall chimed the hour and, as if on a signal, there came a sharp rap on the front door.
“It’s him, it’s him,” gasped Marjorie. “Oh, Philomena, what shall I do?”
“You’ll go out… we’ll go out, and we will eat his food, as you agreed,” said Philomena. “It is that simple.”
“Yes, but what if…”
There was another knock on the door. Philomena pulled it open before Marjorie changed her mind.
Suddenly, the hallway was bright with a shaft of honeyed sunlight. The two women stood blinking; they had both become unaccustomed to anything resembling good weather.
“Good day, and yes, it certainly is a good day, as I did indeed forecast. Come – I think that the lower slopes of the Gydynap hills will be a splendid place for us to picnic.”
Without more ado, the young man ushered Marjorie and Philomena through the empty, sunny streets and out towards the hills. Neither of the two women thought that it was at all strange for Hopeless to be deserted in the middle of such a phenomenally fine day. In fact, they didn’t think anything at all, for they were with Linus and that was enough.
It was not a long walk to the hills and it seemed the most natural thing in the world that their picnic was already set out when they arrived. There was a spacious tartan blanket laid out on the lush grass and a small table, heavy with a rich array of food and drink, the like of which neither woman had seen since coming to the island. The hills seemed alive with birdsong and the humming of bees as they gathered nectar from a scattered carpet of harebells, thrift, cornflowers and orchids.
Something kept telling Philomena that this was all wrong; none of this ever happened on Hopeless, but the thought refused to stay in her head. Instead, she downed another glass of sweet cider and munched happily on delicate white-bread sandwiches and soft, delicious honey-cakes. Marjorie and Linus were laughing and sharing food and drink, as lovers do.
“I’m glad that they’re happy,” thought Philomena, sleepily, as her eyes grew too heavy to stay open in the afternoon sunshine.

“Philomena, wake up,” pleaded Marjorie.
“I’m awake, and I wish I wasn’t,” came the reply. “What’s going on? Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” wailed Marjorie. “I can’t remember anything. Oh, I am so cold…”
A thick night-fog lay all around, blanketing all but the closest objects, and the dampness of the rough grass was enough to chill their bones.
“By the feel of the grass, I’d guess we’re on the Gydynaps. How the devil did we…?”
Before Philomena could finish her sentence, a blood-curdling howl rent the silence of the night.
Marjorie stifled a scream, but Philomena silently motioned for her to keep very still and quiet, as the rustle of someone or something moving stealthily in their direction caught her ears. Then their noses were assailed by a noxious smell, foul and unmistakeable.
“Rhys, we’re over here,” Philomena cried with relief, only caring now that the Night-Soil Man would hear her.
“Keep it down,” Rhys Cranham hissed as he emerged from the gloom.
“It isn’t safe out here at night. I don’t know what you’re doing, but you need to be gone. Drury found you. He is over there. Follow him. I’ll cover your backs.”
Gratefully the two struggled to their feet and went towards the spot where they could hear Drury, snuffling and rattling happily in the bushes.
“Are you going to be alright, Mr Cranham?” asked Marjorie concernedly, almost gagging through a hand that covered her mouth and clamped her nostrils together.
“I’ll be fine. There’s not much that can stand to be around the stench of a Night-Soil Man. Now go.”

“And you have no idea how or why you got there? You were gone for hours.”
Bartholomew Middlestreet, along with most of the patrons of The Squid and Teapot, had been searching frantically, once it was known that Philomena and Marjorie were missing.
The two shook their heads.
“If it hadn’t been for Rhys and Drury we’d still be out there,” said Philomena. “I dread to think what might have happened.”
“You gave us all a scare,” drawled a soft, educated voice from the corner of the room. “But at least you are both safe now. The hue and cry is over, so I’m to my bed. Good night all.”
“Goodnight Linus, it was good of you to help,” said Ariadne Middlestreet.
Bartholomew said nothing, but looked hard at the elegant figure, slipping through the doorway and into the night, and wondered why he did not trust Linus Pinfarthing.

Mrs Beaten demands trousers

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.

Can-Can Fever

A Tale from The Squid and Teapot

Squid and teapot by Matt Smith

Hopeless was in the grip of Can-Can fever. Les Demoiselles de Moulin Rouge, who had found themselves shipwrecked on the island some weeks earlier, had made such an impression with their wild and uninhibited dance routine, which they had been happy to reprise on a weekly basis, that the whole island seemed to be under some sort of Can-Can spell. Wherever you might choose to go, the strains of Offenbach’s ‘Galop Infernal’ was being hummed, whistled, rattled out on the spoons or – best of all – played on the Bell-Edison Phonograph, that these days occupied pride of place in The Squid and Teapot. It was here that one patron was taken aback, wandering into the flushing privy, to find its resident ghost, The Headless White Lady, with her skirts up over her knees, Can-Canning for all that she was worth.
“That woman has a fine pair of legs on her,” he later commented, “especially when you consider that she’s been dead for hundreds of years.”

So popular had the tune become that, ever since the concert when Les Demoiselles had made their island debut, the wax cylinder of the much-beloved song ‘Molly Malone’ had sat gathering dust.

The spectacle of islanders (of both sexes) practising high-kicks and various feats of Terpsichorean diligence had become commonplace, as had the queue outside the surgery of an unsympathetic Doc Willoughby, each patient complaining of sprains, pulled muscles and, occasionally, the consequences of an over-enthusiastic attempt to perform the splits. Bartholomew Middlestreet was adamant that his strained expression and stiff, halting gait, was on account of his having put his back out while lifting a barrel, but no one took this explanation seriously.

The only voice of dissent was, unsurprisingly, Reverend Davies. Things grew a little tricky, however, when he was caught quietly humming the ‘Galop Infernal’, but he excused himself by maintaining, in haughty but hurt tones, that he was actually reminding himself of the allegro from the second movement of Beethoven’s tenth symphony, which the scoundrel Offenbach had obviously stolen. He had a very good chance of being believed, until Miss Toadsmoor innocently pointed out that Herr Beethoven had laid down his quill after nine symphonies, so the Reverend must be mistaken. If looks could maim, Miss Toadsmoor would have been carried out in a paper bag, but being a Man of God, and conscious that the Pallid Rock Orphanage was in desperate need of her services, he grudgingly let the matter go.

Things came to a head when half-a-dozen stalwarts of ‘The Crow’, generously lubricated and keen to impress, linked arms and Can-Canned themselves spectacularly over the edge of a cliff, never to be seen again. When they heard the news, Les Demoiselles were mortified, feeling responsible, and vowed that there would be no more shows unless the islanders stopped dancing in the streets; at least, that was a blushing Miss Toadsmoor’s somewhat genteel translation of some extremely earthy and robust Gallic sentiments regarding the antics of drunken fools and the desecration of their noble art.

A chastened Hopeless took note, the street-dancing stopped, and with its demise, all injuries and fatalities receded to pre-Can-Can levels. The occasional snatch of the familiar tune could be heard, but, by and large, the only evidence that it was still an ear-worm for most was the not-uncommon sight of islanders standing with a faraway look in their eyes, rocking slightly, as if being forcibly restrained, and tapping their feet to a melody that only they could hear.
With some semblance of order restored, Les Demoiselles agreed to resume their weekly concerts, with the proviso that ‘Molly Malone’ was also to be played at the end of each evening, in the vague hope that the strangulated Irish tenor, with his chorus of ‘Alive, alive, oh’, would once more regain prime position in the hearts of all Hopelessians.

(You can find this week’s Squid and Teapot illustrator over here – )

The Raven Stone

A Tale from The Squid and Teapot

Image by Stephen Candy, Sheepthulhu made by
Lynda McBookaldson

The note pinned to the door had no signature, but Rhys Cranham recognised the writing immediately:
“I have it on good authority that today you celebrate ten years as the island’s Night-Soil Man. With best wishes for many more to come. x “
This message was completed with a charming illustration featuring small birds and meadow flowers, neither of which were common on Hopeless.
“Ah, dear Philomena Bucket,” said Rhys to himself. “I had completely forgotten the date. Ten years… it seems like yesterday…”

Rhys pulled off his cap and scratched his head in amazement.
“Shenandoah, what do you make of this?”
Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night-Soil Man, scrambled nimbly over the rocks to where his apprentice was standing, then, as if held by some invisible hand, abruptly stopped in his tracks.
“That wasn’t there yesterday,” Rhys said.
“No,” agreed Shenandoah.
As a breed, Night-Soil Men usually tend to eschew unnecessary chatter.
After a pause of almost a minute, Shenandoah added, “Nobody has seen anything like this for years. Certainly not in my lifetime. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
Rhys looked thoughtful.
“I’ve heard the tales, same as everybody else,” he said. “Never expected to see it though. It looks smaller than I imagined.”
“Don’t be fooled,” said Shenandoah, a hint of fear in his voice. “There’s more to this than you know.”

The cause of this unbridled garrulousness was a solitary standing stone, slightly taller than a man, which had sprung up, apparently overnight, on the westernmost side of the Gydynap Hills. Its rugged surface was etched with runic symbols that glowed eerily in the pale moonlight.

After they had finished their rounds, Shenandoah invited the young apprentice into his cottage for a late supper – or it could have been an early breakfast. He motioned for Rhys to sit down, then produced a starry-grabby pie and two bottles of ‘Old Colonel’ from his larder.
“Don’t pay too much heed to the tales you’ve heard, because the truth is, nobody knows why that stone just turns up the way it does,” said Shenandoah. “The last time that it appeared was nearly a hundred years ago, so you and I have seen more of it than any other living soul,” he added, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The two sat in silence for a while.
“Things don’t just appear for no reason, then go again,” observed Rhys. “It makes no sense.”
“You don’t know that it has turned up here for no reason,” said Shenandoah. “Anyway, strange stuff happens on Hopeless all the time, especially around the Gydynaps.”
His apprentice looked thoughtful and took a long swig of his beer.
“You reckon it’s best avoided?”
Shenandoah nodded.
“Don’t go near it, son,” he said.

Shenandoah sat, lost in deep thought, after Rhys had left the cottage.
He was well aware that his apprentice had no intention of keeping away from the stone. Whatever tales the young man had heard were certainly spurious, and would never serve to save him from the consequences of his own curiosity. Despite what he had told Rhys, the Night-Soil Man had a fair idea why it had appeared at this time. The date was not lost upon him; Midsummer-eve had held a terrifying significance to the Nailsworthy family for almost a thousand years, after his ancestor, the slave Cadman Negelsleag, killed a raven. Because of this insult to Odin, he and his descendants were cursed by a vǫlva – a Norse seeress, a shaman, practised in the old magic. The Nailsworthy family alone knew the terrible fate of Cadman and the secret of the Raven Stone.
Sighing, he dragged on his jacket, and stepped out into the cold air, to find a long, black feather lying on his doorstep. Picking it up, he turned his head slowly, and looked back at the cottage with sadness in his eyes. This was the final clue. There was no cheating fate. It was then that Drury came padding up to him.
“It’s time, Drury.” he said, a tremor in his voice. “Look after him, old fellah.”

There are few things sweeter – at least in the short term – than forbidden fruit. It was inevitable that thoughts of the mysterious stone would prey on Rhys’ mind all through the few hours remaining before first light.
“It could be gone tomorrow, and not back for another century,” he said to himself. “I think I’d like to take a closer look at those markings while there’s the chance; just for a few minutes, no more.”
And so, in the grey of a Hopeless dawn, he slipped out of the bunkhouse that was his home, and made his way towards the Gydynap Hills.

Hopeless is famously foggy, but on this particular day the fog seemed to be worse than ever. Rhys did not mind, at first, enjoying the concealment it provided. Soon, however, it became too dense to walk safely without putting one foot gingerly in front of the other and keeping his arms outstretched. It fuddled his brain, making time and distance seem to expand alarmingly.
After what felt like an eternity, the dim bulk of the Gydynap Hills loomed ahead. The fog before him, where the Gydynaps lay, was beginning to thin, though to his sides and rear it was as thick and impenetrable as ever. Thing started to get weirder by the minute; he could not see the stone now. If it was still there, it was surrounded by a small copse which had apparently sprung from nowhere in a very few hours. In addition, a flock of huge, black birds circled above its branches, cawing ominously. Drawn, as if by some force beyond his control, Rhys felt compelled to venture inside.

Shenandoah’s warning still rang in his ears, but it no longer seemed quite as ridiculous as it had in the cottage. Walking cautiously between the twisted and knotted trunks, young Rhys could swear he could make out a gentle, silver glow, somewhere ahead, as if shafts of moonlight were piercing a dappled canopy of foliage, but he knew that this could not be. The moon had long ago set.

Rhys wandered on for a few more minutes, towards the mysterious light, feeling a little surprised that he had not yet reached the far side of the thicket. From the outside it had appeared to be quite small, but there was no sign of the trees thinning any time soon. He felt suddenly nervous. Maybe it was time to turn around… and then he saw him. A dozen or so yards in front, a familiar figure was standing, bound to the rune stone and bathed in a cold, silver light. It was Shenandoah. He seemed to be wearing a cloak of glossy black feathers; but something told Rhys that it was not a cloak – it was a shroud, a living, fluttering, cawing shroud of ravens that gradually smothered the body of the Night-Soil Man, until not an inch of flesh could be seen.

The young apprentice was about to run towards the writhing mass of feathers when a sharp tug on his jacket pulled him up short.
He turned his head awkwardly to see Drury dragging him back.
“Let go Drury,” he yelled, but the dog was insistent, pulling him through the trees with preternatural strength. With arms flailing to keep his balance, Rhys ranted and swore at the dog, cursing him for a useless bag of bones that he’d toss into the sea as soon as he was free. If Drury understood the tirade – which he probably did – he chose to ignore it until he had moved the apprentice safely out of harm’s way.
Rhys rolled over on to the grass with Drury’s final tug, then leapt to his feet, ready to rush back and somehow tear away those infernal birds and rescue Shenandoah. But the trees were gathering in upon themselves, like a spring being wound. Within seconds there was barely enough space to slip a hand between the tightening trunks, which, little by little seemed to merge into each other, until all that was left was solitary hawthorn, gnarled and twisted, which gradually dissolved into the morning mist.

Rhys was stunned. Shenandoah was gone. Gone! Why had he been there? It made no sense. He dropped to his knees, on to the wet earth, and wept. Great sobs racked his body, his sense of loss so deep and wide that it felt as though nothing would ever be the same again. Then, blinded by hot tears, he felt a wet, furry muzzle nuzzling his neck and a long tongue licking his face. Something primitive stirred deep inside him, responding to the comforting touch of another living thing. Turning, there was only Drury to be seen, hairless and tongueless as ever, but wagging his bony tail as if to say, ‘We’ve still got each other, young friend.”

It took a week, or more, before Rhys felt able to move into the House at Poo Corner. He was the Night-Soil Man now; just eighteen, but after a three-year apprenticeship knew that he was ready. When the time came, he lifted the great lidded bucket, with its leather shoulder straps, from the wall, hefted it on to his back and stepped out into the night, alone on shift for the first time. Then an unmistakable, bony shape came rattling down the pathway, barking and panting. No, he will never be quite alone. Good old Drury.

Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine

Squid and Teapot as personified by Lyssa Lopez Wain

There was once a musician who owned two dogs.
The larger dog went “Woof… woof… woof.”
So the musician named that dog ‘Bach’.
The smaller dog was more excitable, and went “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof…”
And that dog he called ‘Offenbach’.

While that joke probably failed to have you rolling in the proverbial aisles, I am sure that you recognised it as being an attempt at humour. Maybe you even smiled. What is certain is, had you been a resident of the island of Hopeless, Maine, the joke would have sailed spectacularly over your head and out into the deepest reaches of space. Hopelessians have always been strangers to the goings-on of the opera house and concert hall, and this has been a source of deep regret to Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, a governess at the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Since the day she first set foot upon the island, Miss Toadsmoor longed, above all else, to bring high culture to her fellow islanders.

Bartholomew Middlestreet and his wife, Ariadne, rushed down to the beach, where Philomena Bucket was already waiting for them. A worried expression was etched upon Philomena’s pale countenance.
“They’re over there,” she said, pointing. “I don’t know if they’re alive or no.”
The trio picked their way to where four bedraggled female bodies lay, face down in the dark sand.
A quick inspection by Ariadne verified that each was still alive.
“They’re young and strong,” she declared. “They’ll be fine after a night or two in The Squid.”
The Squid and Teapot had long had a reputation for hospitality, especially towards newcomers to the island, and within no time the four young women were safely tucked up in a large guest room on the first floor of the inn.

It was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, who discovered their travelling trunk, caught among the rocks. Other, less scrupulous people, would have prised it open and taken anything worth having, but not Rhys. He was aware that there were newcomers up at The Squid, and the trunk had to belong to one, or more, of them. With years of practice behind him, the Night-Soil Man hefted it on to his back and carried it up to the inn, where he left it on the doorstep.

Bartholomew and Ariadne were at a loss to understand a word that the four young women uttered.
It was only when the front door was opened, revealing the travelling trunk, that any headway was made in communicating with them.
“Aah.. le coffre!” exclaimed one, happily.
“No, it’s not a coffin. It’s a chest.” explained Bartholomew, helpfully, eyeing the shipping labels festooned over its surface. Even Bartholomew’s limited geographical knowledge knew vaguely that somewhere, across the waves, there existed a place called France. When Philomena appeared she agreed that the newcomers may, indeed, be from there.
Philomena knew just, one sentence in French.
“Parlay vooz Fransays?” she enquired politely.
“Ah, oui, oui,” chorused the girls delightedly, and started to chatter away, expecting Philomena to respond in kind, but the barmaid felt suddenly totally lost. Then a plan formed in her head.
“I’ll get Marjorie over,” she thought aloud to herself. “ She’ll know what to say.”

“The girls are delightful,” gushed Marjorie Toadsmoor a few hours later. “They tell me that they are dancers, though I must admit to being a little confused, for they gave the impression that they worked in a red mill, somewhere in Paris. I can only think that they dance purely as a hobby, and for the entertainment of the other mill-workers. It appears that the orchestra who sailed with them, and indeed, everyone else on the ship, perished in a storm. All they have left is that travelling trunk, which contains their costumes and make-up, and also a wax cylinder upon which may be heard their music.”
“Why, that’s wonderful,” exclaimed Philomena. “We’ve got a phonograph here on the island,” adding silently to herself, ‘‘and it’ll make a welcome change from that lousy tenor going on about Molly-blasted-Malone all the time.’’

Over the next few days wheels and cogs spun endlessly in Miss Toadsmoor’s head. She would devise an entertainment for the islanders; a thank-you for taking her to their collective hearts. There would be recitals, music and poetry, and the crowning glory, a stately dance by the young ladies of the Red Mill.
To Miss Toadsmoor’s joy she had discovered that the music on the wax cylinder was an excerpt from an opera, no less, entitled Orpheus in the Underworld, by one Monsieur Jacques Offenbach. Although Marjorie was not familiar with M.Offenbach, or his work, she loved the Greek myths and was certain that the young ladies, dancing to his music, would provide a pearl of high culture in an evening of simple, homespun entertainment.
She could envisage them already, swathed in their pure white costumes, diaphanous but modest and tasteful. The music would surely be ethereal, as befitted the tragic myth. As each day passed and the programme of events arranged, it became difficult for her to contain her excitement.

The big night arrived and the Meeting Hall was packed. Word had soon spread that there was to be music and dancing, although when it was revealed that the main act included an excerpt from a French opera, more than one heart dropped. However, the islanders of Hopeless are a stoic and steadfast band, at least for much of the time. The promise of free beer and starry-grabby pie (generously donated by both ‘The Crow’ and ‘The Squid and Teapot’) concentrated minds and cemented loyalties. They could put up with a bit of prancing around as long as one or two of their number were prepared to make fools of themselves, and they were able to join in a chorus or three of that all-time favourite, Molly Malone.

Marjorie Toadsmoor stood in front of the assembled islanders and introduced the evening’s programme.
“… And after Mr Jones’ poem, we will be treated to a medley of folk-songs from the children of the Pallid Rock Orphanage; then there will be a display of shadow puppetry by Norbert Gannicox, followed by Mr and Mrs Middlestreet performing the song, ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’. Following that, I am reliably informed, you will all join in with a rendition, played on the phonograph, of the popular song, Molly Malone (this raised a roar of approval from the audience, interspersed with a certain amount of excitable barking). Then will come our grand finale, an excerpt from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Monsieur Jacques Offenbach, and danced by Les Demoiselles de le Moulin Rouge. I have not seen this dance myself, as yet, and I am as excited as you all must be. So, without more ado… ”
The evening went well. Even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby, sitting in the front row, appeared to be enjoying the entertainment. The children of the orphanage sat quietly beside the Reverend as soon as their act was finished, filling up the remainder of the available spaces.
Philomena was in charge of the phonograph, with the ever-faithful Drury by her side. When the time came, she gritted her teeth and played Molly Malone. The chorus of ‘Alive, alive oh’ was guaranteed to be popular, not least with Drury, who capered and gambolled like a puppy.
Marjorie groaned. She had no idea that the song Molly Malone was so popular. It was nothing short of an anthem to these people and anything which followed could only be an anti-climax. Oh, what a fool she had been! However, the die was cast and nothing could be done about it now.

Philomena Bucket looked at the container which held Les Demoiselles’ wax-cylinder. Stencilled upon its side were the words ‘J Offenbach: Galop Infernal.’ As mentioned earlier, Philomena’s grasp of the French language was flimsier than flimsy, but those words did not convey the sedate, ethereal music that Marjorie had imagined. It sounded much more fun. With a shrug of her shoulders she wound the handle of the Edison-Bell phonograph, fixed the cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle.
As the opening bars of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop – commonly known to most people as the ‘Can-Can’ – filled the Meeting Hall, the four young ladies, clad now in short but full tricolour skirts, knee-length boots, low-cut basques and black stockings, came whooping on to the stage. Marjorie paled visibly and Reverend Davies, stony faced, suddenly developed a very noticeable pulse beat in a vein in his right temple. On stage, skirts were swirled coquettishly and legs were kicked provocatively high, revealing gartered, white thighs, above black stocking-tops. The dance grew ever more frantic and Doc Willoughby’s glasses seemed to be steaming up. The girls from the orphanage sat in awe, each one making a mental note to one day become dancers, just like Les Demoiselles. As for the boys… it’s probably best that we don’t enquire too closely.
“Well, at least it can’t get any worse,” thought Marjorie, consoling herself. It was then that the dancers turned away from the audience, leaned over and threw their skirts over their backs, exposing a fine view of four pairs of frilly drawers, each one wriggling its respective derrière suggestively.
Marjorie covered her face with her hands, completely missing the grand finale which featured the dancers doing the splits.
There was a moment of absolute silence when the music stopped, then suddenly the room exploded to a volley of applause, cheers, appreciative whoops, whistles and a few skeletal-sounding barks. There were also loud, insistent calls for more.
The dancers smiled and nodded to Philomena, who dutifully lowered the brass reproducer once more on to the cylinder, and the dance resumed. This time Les Demoiselles found themselves joined by several less-inhibited members of the audience, and Drury scampering around, in obvious ecstasy.
Reverend Davies left soon after, ushering the orphans before him and muttering that it was past their bed-time. Doc Willoughby was seen slumped on his seat, mopping his brow with one hand and fanning himself with the other.
A crowd gathered round Marjorie and the dancers, waxing lyrical with their praise and relegating Molly Malone to second place in their list of favourite tunes. The evening could not have been more successful.
There was just one question Marjorie wanted to ask Les Demoiselles; what, exactly, did they make at the Red Mill?

Hell’s Mouth

Squid and Teapot by Amanda Frick

You may recall that, in the tale ‘Bigspoon’, the orphaned twins, Winston and Wendell Westonbirt, successfully convinced most of their fellow islanders that a giant spoonwalker was stalking Hopeless. It was the Night-Soil Man, Rhys Cranham who debunked the hoax, but having spent his formative years in the Pallid Rock Orphanage, Rhys had no desire to land the boys into trouble with Reverend Davies. Instead he gave them the fright of their lives, then discreetly let it be known that Bigspoon would not be returning.
It took some weeks for before the twins were able to put their fears to one side and steal out of the orphanage after dark once more. This was obviously against all the regulations, and indeed, common sense, but these were the very reasons that influenced their decision.

The Westonbirt twins escaped from their dormitory a few minutes after their nine o’clock bedtime, just as darkness was falling. All seemed to be going well, to begin with, but after walking for no more than half an hour, it dawned upon them that they had absolutely no idea where they were. According to Winston’s calculations they should, by now, be in a position to peer through the downstairs windows of the once notorious Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. I have no idea what the pair hoped to see; Madam Evadne’s had long ago become little more than a social club, and there would be nothing remotely salacious to be witnessed by looking through its grimy windows (especially the downstairs ones).
Reluctant to let the adventure end so early, they walked on. The night deepened and fog thickened around them, distorting shapes and even the most familiar landmarks. After two more hours they had had their fill of adventure. All they wanted was to retreat to the safety of their own beds, but by now were hopelessly lost.
“I’m tired,” declared Wendell, sitting down on a rock, then swiftly springing to his feet again.
“That is hot!” he exclaimed, rubbing the seat of his trousers,
It was then that the fog lifted slightly; to their great surprise they were standing in the middle of a heat-scorched area of barren earth and piles of rock. Hopeless is somewhat devoid of areas of outstanding natural beauty, but the spot in which they found themselves was singularly unpleasant. In the dim light they could see deep fissures in the ground, which revealed, far beneath their feet, terrifying glimpses of raging fires. The very earth on which they stood was hot and, occasionally, jets of smoke would erupt from the most unexpected places. It would have been enough to strike terror into the stoutest heart.
Then, as the moon pierced the thinning mist, a single beam illuminated a cleft in the rocks which seemed to have been fashioned into a crude doorway. Smoke drifted from its dark depths.
Winston looked at Wendell and said,
“This must be Hell.”
“And that must be the way in,” agreed Wendell, nodding towards the smouldering doorway. “Now that would be an adventure to tell the others about.”
While Reverend Davies would have been gratified that some of his more robust sermons had not fallen on completely deaf ears, he would have felt some dismay to learn that two of his charges were contemplating visiting Hell.
Before either boy could move, however, a dark shape emerged from the smouldering doorway, a dreadful hump-backed figure, silhouetted in the moonlight.
“It’s the devil,” wailed Winston, and as one they ran blindly into the darkness, away from the Satanic scene in front of them.

It was over a century ago that a certain William Whiteway had the notion that there was gold to be found on Hopeless. His idea sparked little enthusiasm with his fellow islanders, but William resolved to dig his mine anyway. For five long years he toiled, delving deep into the earth, with no more than a spade and pick-axe to aid his endeavours. Every stone, large and small, that he excavated was placed in a basket which, when full, was strapped to his back and laboriously carried to the surface. It was back-breaking agony, and all for no reward. Then, one day, his pick shattered a rock which opened up into a huge cavern, empty and austere, like some vast underground cathedral. William thought that his luck had changed; the smooth walls gleamed with a metallic lustre in the pale light of the candle that he had affixed to his battered helmet. Eagerly he chipped at the rock face, but there was no gold to be had, just some sort of black mineral that would be good for nothing.
To no one’s surprise William died soon after, an exhausted and disappointed man.

While the islanders of Hopeless are maybe not the most industrious of folk, they certainly know an opportunity when they see one, and the abyss that William had thoughtfully supplied for them seemed an ideal place to deposit their rubbish. For fifty years William’s Pit, as it became known, was the main repository for the island’s waste. As you may imagine, fifty years’ accumulation of assorted trash would be smelly, to say the least, until someone had the bright idea that they could burn it.
For a while that strategy seemed to do the trick, but it became clear that, although both the smell and the rubbish had gone, the blaze still raged. It appears that William had inadvertently opened up a vast seam of anthracite which had ignited. The fire began half a century ago and it has yet to be extinguished. It is well known that raging beneath that part of the island is an inferno, where lethal clouds of gas swirl through the subterranean caverns. Luckily this is confined to a relatively small area which the islanders wisely avoid. Only the Night-Soil Man goes there occasionally. He finds it a convenient place to dispose of his burden.

The boys were found next morning, far away from home and thoroughly chastened by their experience. When the Reverend Davies questioned them, he was unsurprised that they thought that they had visited Hell’s Mouth and saw Satan himself. He was well aware of the existence of William’s Pit and that the Night-Soil Man frequented it. However, if they believed they had visited Hell and met its master, he did not disabuse them of the notion; such a belief, he thought, would only strengthen his authority
It was late on the following evening that Miss Calder stopped Rhys Cranham as he passed the orphanage. She told him what had happened, and how his timely appearance had frightened the boys away from danger.
The Night-Soil Man smiled, but chose to say nothing, accepting the compliment, although it was undeserved. He had not visited William’s Pit for weeks.

(New Squid and Teapot art by Amanda Frick. If you’d like to share a squid and teapot – art of photo – do let us know!)

The Sleeper

Reverend Davies stood frozen in his tracks. Just a moment before he had been walking purposefully along the shoreline, attempting to compose the text of his next sermon. He found that a misty morning walk, with the angry ocean and barren rocks as a backdrop, was often helpful in inspiring him to bring the wrath and harsh judgement of the Old Testament to vivid life, for the benefit of the parishioners of Hopeless, Maine. His reason for stopping in mid-stride, and abandoning his musings on some of the least pleasant aspects of the book of Deuteronomy, was the sight of an ominous dark shape lurking low in the water, just a few yards away from where he was standing.
Minutes passed, and Reverend Davies, who dared not move or remove his gaze from the nameless menace, was developing cramp in his left leg. Convinced that the thing was biding its time before rushing up from the sea to drag him to his doom, he bore the agony like a martyr, and kept perfectly still, silently wincing with pain. I have no idea how long he could have maintained this position, but fortunately the incoming tide produced a particularly large wave which propelled the mysterious creature on to the beach, while, at the same time, liberally showering the Reverend with spray.

Banging his foot on the ground to relieve the cramp, the Reverend looked about him anxiously to see if anyone had witnessed his actions, or lack thereof. He felt a little embarrassed that he had confused a plank of wood with some deadly denizen of the deep. When it was clear that the plank held no threat, he decided to make a closer inspection. This appeared to be no ordinary plank. It was huge; a good eight feet long, ten inches wide, about six inches deep, and blackened with age. Emboldened now, he gave it a push with his foot, but found it difficult to shift; the thing was unbelievably heavy! How it had floated was beyond the Reverend’s understanding. “Maybe,” he thought aloud, “that is why it lay so low in the water.”
His sermon temporarily forgotten, Reverend Davies decided that this plank, or whatever it was, would be an ideal replacement for the lintel that sat over the front door of the orphanage, a worm-eaten piece of oak that had seen better days and needed replacing.

What he had discovered was, of course, a railway sleeper. He can be forgiven for not knowing this, as only a tiny handful of people living on the island would have seen, or even registered the existence of, such a thing as a railway, let alone a sleeper. Railway sleepers which are no longer needed are invariably recycled in some way, and this, it would appear, was the plan for this particular specimen. One other thing, of which the Reverend was blissfully ignorant, was that the sleeper he had destined to support the wall above the orphanage’s front door, had been formerly transported by ship. In the course of the voyage a terrified crew, with the help of their skipper, had unceremoniously jettisoned it overboard.

It took four strong men to remove the sleeper from the beach and deliver it to the orphanage. They lay it on the ground outside, where it would remain until needed, for while the plan to replace the old lintel was, doubtless, a good one, the Reverend had not appreciated the enormity of the task. The double doors would have to be removed and the walls would need supporting when the old lintel was pulled out. Failure to do this would almost certainly result in the front of the building collapsing. This needed much planning, and planning took time.

A week or so passed. A pallid full moon gazed down on Hopeless through the ribbons of fog, and saw Miss Calder flitting around the outside of the orphanage, hoping, no doubt, to ‘accidentally’ cross paths with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. She was fully aware that her feelings were irrational and could never be realised. Miss Calder had been dead for some years, and though a ghost, she entertained certain unaccountable yearnings for the Night-Soil Man. For his part, Rhys did not mind, for his was a lonely life, and, despite being a wraith, Miss Calder was surprisingly good company. Like Drury, the skeletal hound, she had not allowed the inconvenience of death to interfere with her participating fully in island life, and had continued to oversee the smooth running of the orphanage in an exemplary fashion.

Unexpectedly, a noise which Miss Calder first thought to have been the death agonies of some huge creature, rent the quiet of the island. Here and there lights appeared in nearby windows and pale, frightened faces gazed into the darkness. Reverend Davies, resplendent in a long, striped nightshirt and pink bed-socks, appeared on the doorstep of the orphanage, while Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, their newest teacher, peeped timidly from the window of her attic room. The unearthly scream ripped through the air again and suddenly, bursting from nowhere, came the apparition of a massive steam engine, ghastly and shimmering with an awful luminescence. The faces of the driver and fireman could be clearly seen, contorted in terror as they frantically tried to bring the engine under control. Following helplessly behind were a dozen carriages, within which the bodies of their passengers were being tossed around as if they were rag-dolls. The onlookers stood transfixed as the phantom engine rolled like some stricken leviathan, falling clumsily on to its side and taking the carriages with it. The noise was deafening as it crashed into unseen obstacles, breaking down trees and buildings that were never there… then it was gone, and there was silence.
For most of us, such a sight would be traumatising, to say the very least. For the inhabitants of Hopeless, not so much. For them, the majority of hauntings are just regarded as one minor cause for concern in lives fraught with greater worries. They would be talked about in complaining tones the next day and, afterwards, mentally filed under ‘Nuisance Apparitions’. This particular apparition, however, was larger and noisier than most. Although lights were soon being doused and people went back to bed, there would be questions asked as to the origin of this particular disturbance, and, doubtless, blame to be attributed.

“What in Heaven’s name was that?” asked Reverend Davies, carefully picking his way over the cobbles to where Miss Calder stood.
“I have no idea, Reverend,” admitted Miss Calder, “But whatever it was, it has no place on this island, I’m sure.”
“I think I might know what it is that we have just witnessed.”
It was Marjorie Toadsmoor, an overcoat wrapped over her nightgown.
Marjorie had found herself mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Victorian Oxford some months before. The details of her previous life were shadowy and dim, but the sight of the ghost train had awoken some vague memory within her.
“I believe that was, what is commonly known as, a steam engine, pulling a train of carriages behind it… ”
“It sure was ma’am.”
Everyone turned to see where this new voice had come from.
The eerie shapes of the engine’s driver and fireman hovered unsteadily over the railway sleeper, as it lay on the stony ground.
“That there’s the Old 97, eternally doomed to haunt this old sleeper which brung it off the rails,” said the soot-grimed fireman.
The wraith who had been the driver – or, more properly, the engineer – was more than grimy; he looked to be badly burned.
“The last thing I remember,” he said, “we was going down the track making, ooh, must have been ninety miles an hour, when the whistle broke into a scream.”
“He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,” volunteered the fireman, shaking his head sadly.
“Oh, you poor man,” wailed Miss Calder. “It looks as though you were scalded to death by the steam.”
“Well, that’s as maybe,” said Reverend Davies, briskly, “but we can’t be putting up with that racket all the time. How often is this likely to happen?”
“We manifest every full moon. The last time we did, we were on a ship. You should have seen their faces,” said the fireman, smiling at the memory.
“Indeed,” said Miss Calder, “but every full moon? Honestly! I don’t understand why some hauntings have to be so unoriginal. I make myself available day and night, all year round.”
The ghosts of the engineer and fireman said nothing, but silently retreated, somewhat shamefaced, back into the ethereal depths of the sleeper.
“It has to go,” said Reverend Davies firmly.

The following morning the sleeper was taken to Scilly Point, where the water was particularly deep. The little party, overseen by Reverend Davies, rolled it, with some difficulty, into the ocean, then they stood on the headland to watch it being taken away from the island by the receding tide.
“A pity about the lintel,” thought the Reverend, “but at least we won’t have to put up with that again.”

There is a popular saying that time and tide waits for no man. While this may be true, unlike time, which is fleeting, high tides and low tides occur regularly, twice each day. That which is carried out is often returned twelve hours or so later, but not necessarily at the same spot. This is especially true of an island which occasionally decides to change its shape without a ‘by your leave’, as does Hopeless.

Seth Washwell looked at the long, dark piece of wood sitting on the beach with obvious appreciation.
“What a great piece of timber,” he thought to himself. “I’ll get the guys to drag it back to the sawmill, I know exactly what to do with it, once it’s been cleaned up a bit and sawn into shape.”

It was around three weeks later that Reverend Davies was both surprised and delighted to receive the gift of a bespoke, single-seat church pew. This had been donated with the compliments of the Washwell Sawmills and Joinery, an establishment situated on the far side of the island. In fact, so pleased was the Reverend that he decided not to install the seat in the church, but rather keep it in his study at the orphanage, where he frequently worked late into the night, burning the midnight oil. With a couple of cushions it would make an excellent replacement for his chair, which, after years of wear, was falling apart.
As I have said, so many times in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?