Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

Lapsus Linguae

Reverend William Spooner, Dean of New College Oxford, was an old and trusted friend of the well-to-do Toadsmoor family. When, one bright morning, he suggested that their youngest daughter, Marjorie, should take the Oxford University entrance examination, the household was gripped by a level of excitement which may have been considered unseemly in some Victorian circles, where a muted “Good show” might be all that was permitted. But excited they were, for this was an historical moment; in this year of 1885, the august university had at last deigned give women the opportunity to study within its hallowed halls of learning.
The family’s proudest moment was shattered and turned to grief just a few weeks later, however, when their brilliant daughter disappeared, never to be seen by them again.

Marjorie Toadsmoor is one of Hopeless, Maine’s newer residents. I have no idea how or why she arrived there, and come to that, neither has she. Like Garfield Lawnside, the city slicker who had designs to buy the island (see the tale ‘The Persian Runner’), she wandered down the wrong street one day and ended up on Hopeless. Finding herself standing in the shadow of a lighthouse and looking out over a wild and foggy sea, struck her as being somewhat bizarre as, just minutes before, she had been walking through Oxford. As you may appreciate, the town of Oxford is very far from being coastal.

It is fortunate that those on Hopeless are not slaves to fashion, or even vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Indeed, Hopeless seems sometimes to hover within its own time, sheltered from all aspects of modernity. I may be wrong (and I frequently am) but if she had been transported from any era, past or future, it would not have mattered to anyone, particularly. I mention this only because Marjorie appeared upon the shores of the island as the very essence of the modern Victorian lady-about-town. As it was, resplendent in bonnet, hooped skirt and carrying a parasol,, she looked no more out of place than anyone else on the island – and with each step she took, all but the most fleeting memories of her past life gradually melted away, like snow upon the water.

Marjorie’s first experience of the strangeness of Hopeless happened within an hour of her arrival. Wandering inadvertently into a narrow alley, she found herself looking at a diminutive, fish like creature, with glowing eyes and tendril – like appendages, foraging among the rubbish. It appeared to propel itself along by employing a pair of silver dessert spoons as stilts. Not being particularly fond of most varieties of fauna at the best of times, Marjorie let out a scream of terror. The creature spun around upon its spoons and glared menacingly at the young woman. It has been reported on several occasions that the stare of a spoonwalker – for spoonwalker it was – can induce madness. Whether this was the case, I do not know but the situation was not helped when, in a bid to escape, it shot beneath her skirt and out of the other side before she could draw breath to scream again.

“Are you alright, miss?” It was Philomena Bucket who found her, crouched upon the floor and shaking like an aspen.
Marjorie looked up and was surprised to see a strangely beautiful woman with white hair and a pale, kind face. An albino! Something rang a distant bell in her mind; she had known an albino, a kindly man who was always getting his words mixed up, but that seemed long ago and far away.
“What was that creature… the one walking on spoons?” she asked.
“Ah, that would be a spoonwalker. Nasty little devils they are, to be sure,” replied Philomena.
“I have been attacked by a spoonwalker… and I am all alone in this strange place. Whatever will become of me?” Marjorie said, miserably, mainly to herself.
Her mind went back to the albino man whom she had known. His affliction had something to do with spoons; she couldn’t recall exactly what it was. Maybe he had been attacked by a spoonwalker, too. That was why he mixed up his words. Yes – he must have fallen foul of a spoonwalker, as she had. That would explain it.
“I fear I have become infected,” she told Philomena. “I can feel the virus coursing through me now, even as we speak. Oh, dear me.What shall I do?”
Philomena had never heard of such a thing before but decided that, if the young woman really believed herself to be ill, she needed to see Doc Willoughby.

The surgery was closed. The sign outside read:
‘Go away. Out on house calls. Back later.’
Philomena correctly surmised that this meant that the Doc was sleeping off a hangover and would not be in business for some hours.
“You’d better come back to the Squid and Teapot with me,” she said. “At least you’ll have somewhere to stay.”
“The Tid and Squeepot? What a strange name for an inn… Oh my gosh… it’s beginning already!”
“What is?” asked Philomena, bemused.
“My speech,” wailed Marjorie. “My meech has become spuddled!”
“Come on,” said Philomena, “let’s get you settled safely in The Squid.”

Once in The Squid and Teapot, Philomena found Marjorie a comfortable room and made her a cup of camomile tea, to soothe her nerves.
“Thank you so much,” said Marjorie, gratefully sipping the tea. “But won’t your employer be angry? I worry that he will be on you like a bun of tricks when he finds out. It would be a blushing crow for you, I’m sure, if he had you chewing a lot of doors as punishment.”
“Not at all,” replied Philomena, quickly catching on to her new friend’s strange way of speaking.
“It was not so long ago that I was a stranger here, too. You can always be sure that there will be a welcome in The Squid and Teapot for newcomers to the island.”
“An island! Gosh, I’ve always had a half-warmed fish to see more of the world,” said Marjorie, suddenly enthusiastic. “Might we go now, and maybe wake our may to the doctor’s surgery later? I’m as mean as custard to have a look around.”

The pair left the inn and had barely walked a dozen yards before Drury, the skeletal hound, spotted Philomena and came bounding up, his bony tail wagging madly.
“Aaargh… oh my goodness! What is that bowel feast?” wailed Marjorie.
“It’s only Drury. You’ll soon get used to him.”
“But he is nothing but bone. Has he no mister or mattress?”
“No. Drury is a free spirit, in every sense of the word,” laughed Philomena.

After they had walked a while, and Philomena had pointed out the orphanage and the brewery, she said, somewhat hesitantly, to Marjorie.
“This speech problem you have… it doesn’t happen all the time?”
“Indeed no.” replied her companion. “I don’t know why but it seems to come in stits and farts.”
Philomena was still stifling a smile when they saw Reverend Davies coming towards them.
“Good afternoon reverend,” said Philomena, with little enthusiasm.
“God afternoon miss um… um…. and who is your delightful young friend?”
Before Philomena could answer, Marjorie dropped Reverend Davies a deep curtsey and gushed.
“Oh, dear vicar, I am Marjorie Toadsmoor. I am so honoured to meet one who is doubtless a shoving leopard to his flock and a lining shite to all on the island.”
Reverend Davies stood quite still, his face puce, his mouth gaping open and the veins on his neck sticking out like knotted ropes.
“Must go, reverend,” said Philomena, propelling Marjorie away with some haste. “Things to do, people to see.”
“He was very rude,” confided Marjorie. “He couldn’t even be bothered to reply. What mad banners.”

“Those are the Gydynaps,” said Philomena, pointing to the hills in the distance. “Drury and I often go walking up there.”
“I can’t do a willy hawk in these shoes,” said Marjorie. “Besides, it looks as though it’s going to roar with pain at any minute.”
Even as she said the words, the skies opened.
“Let’s find some shelter,” said Philomena.
As they hurried through the rain, Philomena crossed her fingers that Marjorie would not comment upon the sign outside the salvage store which proclaimed ‘Free shoes and bags, yours for the asking.’

It was fortuitous that Doc Willoughby had recovered from his hangover sufficiently to have opened the surgery. Philomena and Marjorie burst through the door, shaking the rain from their bonnets and giggling like schoolgirls.
“You must be feeling better,” said Philomena. “Do you still need to see the Doc?”
“I think I do, “said Marjorie, “my words are still getting mixed up, like a sadly made ballad.”
Just then the Doc himself appeared, obviously not in the best of humours. After he had listened to Marjorie’s self-diagnosis he sighed wearily. The Doc, though not as learned as he would have people believe, had heard of Spoonerisms and knew that they had absolutely nothing to do with spoonwalkers. However, being nothing, if not an opportunist, he rarely missed a chance to impress and leaned forward on his desk, steepling his fingers.
“Young lady,” he pronounced gravely, “I fear you have, what we in the medical profession call, Lapsus Linguae.”
“A slip of the tongue?”
‘Dammit, the girl knows Latin. How the hell does she know Latin?’ Doc thought to himself, not a little irritated.
“That, of course, is how we describe it to non-medical people,” he said, back-pedalling like mad. “But it’s much more serious than that. However, I can give you a preparation which should clear it up in a day or two.”
The Doc decanted some coloured water into a medicine bottle and handed it to Marjorie.
“Thank you so much doctor,” she said. “I was concerned that you would think I was telling you a lack of pies.”
“My pleasure, “ said the Doc, unconvincingly, hurriedly ushering the pair to the door.

“I’m feeling better already!” pronounced Marjorie later as she sat in the snug of The Squid, tucking into a slice of starry-grabby pie. Her bottle of coloured water stood half empty beside her.
“By the way, Philomena,” she added, “silly me didn’t catch your surname.”
Philomena smiled, a little uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “It’s probably best we stick to first names until I know you’re really better.”

Diswelcome part 8 PLEASE DON’T BE BORING

When Salamandra opened the door, she barely glanced at me, focusing on Owen instead.

Although not any of the many warm welcomes I had imagined, I didn’t mind so much, as it gave me an opportunity to stare at her. She was simultaneously familiar, I had – after all – seen her grow and mature since childhood, while at the same time I realised I didn’t know her at all, as if she was a complete stranger.

Salamandra was clad in a dress made from strips of old bed sheets. Her long dark hair was a myriad of braids which seemed to have a life of their own, swaying this way and that, lending her a frighteningly Medusian aspect. She had a broad mouth, with sensuous lips, and compelling oval eyes, but the most fascinating aspect of her face was the animation of it, changing continuously to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions and moods.

Helter skelter, hurry skurry.

“Where have you been?” Salamandra asked Owen. “I was in dire need of something more compliant than lighthouse walls to fly stuff at.”

“I’m sorry to have missed it.” Owen apologized, scratching the side of his slightly hooked nose. “There was a Blood Rain…”

Salamandra’s eyes lit up. “Did you get there in time?”

Owen grinned, indicated the basket on his back. “Half a kyte kidney…”

“You’re my hero,” Salamandra purred. She turned to me. “I have no idea who or what you are. Please don’t be boring.”

I managed an: “Er”, as well as an “Um.”

“Er-um?” Salamandra asked, her mouth stern, but eyes twinkling. “Sounds medicinal.”

“A few hours ago his name was Ned Twyner,” Owen said, setting down his basket. “An outlander. Says he came to Hopeless out of his own free will.”

Salamandra rolled her eyes. “You should have taken him to see Doctor Hedley Case, not brought him to the lighthouse.”

“I’m quite sane, thank you,” I said.

Salamandra and Owen both raised an eyebrow.

I shrugged. “Reasonably sane.”

Owen addressed Salamandra. “I found him asleep in the loving embrace of a bed of snare-moss, where he decided to rest after barely escaping the clutches of tug-weed. He’s a scribbler, writes stories for something called the Brighton Gazette. Said he’s come to ask you some questions.”

“Questions?” Salamandra frowned.

“An interview,” I said. “If it isn’t inconvenient…”

“It’s inconvenient,” Salamandra declared at once. “I’m terribly busy…”

“I’m sure the china won’t mind if you turn your attention elsewhere for a while…” Owen  said dryly.

Salamandra glared at him. “None of it complained…well apart from that goblin cup, that is. I mistook it for an ordinary tea cup. It didn’t like that at all. Nearly screamed my head off.”

“If you’re busy, we could make an appointment…” I began to say.

“Busy, precisely,” Salamandra said. “We’ve got to go catch us some lunch, I’m famished.”

I looked at Owen’s basket.

Owen shook his head. “Tougher than a boiled tree creeper. The kidney needs to be left to decompose for a couple of weeks before we can eat it.”

“Delicious when it goes all gooey,” Salamandra licked her lips.

I slapped my forehead. “What am I thinking?!” I patted my knapsack. “I’ve got enough for all three of us. From the mainland: Bread, cheese, dry sausage, and a pot of bug chowdah.”

Salamandra pouted. “I had bugs for breakfast. They tasted bitter. And bits of their shell got stuck between my teeth.”

Owen shook his head. “If that is what I think it is, you’ll absolutely love it, Sal.”

“We’ll save the time it would have taken you to catch lunch,” I suggested.

“So you can ask me questions.” Salamandra looked at me thoughtfully. “But what if you’re boring? Harder to send you away when we’re eating your food. And I do so hate tedious conversation.”

“He’s rather amusing, actually,” Owen said. “Trust me on this.”

Salamandra relented and invited me into the lighthouse, where I was led to a large table on which I began to deposit the ample contents of my knapsack.

“Courtesy of the Merry Tentacle,” I said proudly.

Owen fetched a few bowls, chipped plates, knives and a single spoon which he clutched tightly. “We’ve only got one spoon left.”

I brightened, and fished a small rectangular linen bag from my satchel. “Ole Ted asked me to give you this. He said you’d appreciate the gift.”

I shook the little bag, which chinked merrily, then drew open the drawstring, turned it upside down to let the contents spill onto the table.

“NOOOO!” Salamandra cried out.

It was another Christina Rosetti moment. Even before the nine spoons in the bag hit the table, skurries appeared from everywhere: Falling from the ceiling, gliding in through a window, jumping from the top of a rackety cupboard, fluttering through an open door…one even gnawed its way through the considerable thickness of the tabletop.

I froze, staring in amazement as a fierce battle erupted between Salamandra and Owen on the one side, and the skurries on the other. All involved hissed, cursed, spat, growled, clawed, pinched, bit, and poked as they fought for possession of the spoons. Salamandra and Owen were on the losing side, until a black cat exuding sinister menace came to reinforce them, allowing retention of two of the spoons. The other seven, along with the skurries, vanished.

“Thank you, Lamashtu.” Salamandra smiled at the cat.

“You’re welcome,” the cat replied.

“It…it…” I pointed at the cat. “It…spoke…”

Lamashtu glared at me. “I’m well educated, I’ll have you know.”

Salamandra scowled at me. “I don’t think you’re going to last long on Hopeless, Scribbler.”

“Three spoons in total now,” Owen said happily. He poured the bug chowdah into three bowls, then set the container from the Merry Tentacle in front of the cat, which sniffed at it cautiously, before beginning to purr loudly.

Owen held out one of the spoons to me. “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of the spoon.”

I nodded, wondering silently how many more blunders I would make during my stay on Hopeless…and what disastrous consequences might ensue.

During lunch, both Salamandra and Owen reminded me of the images of Hindu deities I had seen in a travelogue, all of them with a multitude of limbs. The arms and hands of my hosts seemed to be everywhere at once, reaching for bread, cutting cheese, and spooning lobster chowder into their mouths even as they wolfed down slices of sausage. They ate more gustily than Free Traders returning from a long, hard run over the English Channel, and demonstrated an equal disregard for table manners.

The chowder was particularly favoured. Salamandra used her index finger to sweep up every last remnant of the lobster stew from the sides of her bowl. Owen held his bowl upturned over his mouth, to catch every drop.

I was caught with indecision as to how to clean my bowl, but that was solved by Lamashtu, whose intense green eyes convinced me that I really wanted to push my bowl towards the cat so that it could lap at the remnants, leaving me to chew on a dry crust of bread – wondering sheepishly who got the better end of the bargain.  

“Scrumptious,” Owen declared with satisfaction.

“Indeed,” Salamandra agreed, giving me an amiable look. “A most generous gift. I’m minded to be nicer to you, Scribbler.”

Taking that as my cue, I reached into my satchel, placed blank sheets of paper on the table, unfolded the list of readers’ questions I’d brought across the Atlantic, and dipped my quill into my favourite ink-pot.

“Very well,” Salamandra sighed. “Let’s have your questions then. I’ll do my best to answer them.”

No Country For Old Mendicants

“Steady as she goes, Brother Malo. Take her in gently.”
The wiry monk manning the tiller nodded in acknowledgement.
“This fog is unnaturally thick, Father Abbot. I fear that we could well run aground.”

Brendan, the elderly Abbot of Clonfert, looked unruffled by this remark.
“Trust in the Lord, Brother Malo. He will guide us through safely.”
Brother Malo smiled but secretly wished that, rather than just guiding them through, the Lord might be a bit more proactive and blow the fog away.

No sooner has the thought passed through his mind than Malo repented of such blasphemy and, as a gesture of contrition, banged his sandalled foot hard into the wooden frame of the boat, badly stubbing his toe.
“Careful man,” shouted Brendan, then quickly composed himself. “If you go through the leather on the side of this currach, we are all in trouble.

It was back in the sixth century that Naomh Bréanainn, known these days as Saint Brendan, set sail with a party of monks from Ireland’s shores. Their mission was to find the Garden of Eden. Seventeen in number, they had followed a haphazard route over the North Atlantic for seven long years, backtracking and revisiting many of their ports of call along the way. During this time they saw many wonders; wonders that their rich Celtic imaginations interpreted as visions of Heaven and Hell. The volcanoes along the coast of Iceland became demons hurling fiery rocks to impede their journey and an iceberg was a mighty pillar of the purest crystal. Strangest of all was the small island upon which they landed to say mass one day. When that turned out to be a whale enjoying a quiet nap, it was hard to say who was the most surprised, the whale or the monks.

Now, with death having claimed three of their crew, fourteen monks sat staring into an impenetrable fog.
“This must be it,” whispered Brendan to himself. It had long been foretold that the promised land they had sought for so long would lie within a shroud of mist.

By now every breath of wind was stilled and the only sound to be heard was the slap of the oars as they pulled the currach through the shallow water towards the mysterious island.

While it would be unfair to say that Brendan was bitterly disappointed with his first view of, what he supposed to be, the Garden of Eden, he was far from overjoyed. He had expected a beautiful land filled sunshine, birdsong and heavily laden fruit trees. Instead, the eyes of the weary travellers were greeted by a ribbon of dismal mist that drifted listlessly over a headland crowned with scrubby grass, and clung to the line of spindly trees that bordered it. No birds sang in their branches.
Brendan decided that this was definitely not the land that they were seeking, and maybe it was time to head out to sea once more, when his eye was caught by a strange figure that seemed to magically materialise from amid the trees.

As if by some unspoken signal, each monk ceased what he was doing and stood, stock still, as the newcomer approached. He was dressed, outlandishly they thought, in soft leather trimmed with fur; feathers adorned his dark, plaited hair. When he was about ten yards from them he raised his right arm, palm outwards, in what was obviously a gesture signifying ‘I am no threat. How about you?’

What happened next surprised everyone.

“Top o’ the morning to you.” he said (or, at least, words to that effect) in quite recognizable Old Irish, which, of course, was the language that the monks all spoke (with the notable exception of Brother Malo, who was Welsh. However, and happily for this tale, the similarities between the Goidelic language of the Welsh and the Brittonic of the Irish were sufficient that they could understand each other quite comfortably… but I digress).

“Um… good morning brother,” responded Brendan, getting over his surprise. “We come in peace.”

A degree of awkward silence followed, neither party knowing how to proceed, until Brother Fergus, the oldest of them all and almost bent double, could not hold back any longer and asked the question that was on everybody’s lips.

“You speak our language!” he blurted out. “We are a thousand leagues from home, and yet we understand your tongue. How can this be?”
The stranger squatted on the ground and said nothing for what seemed an age.

“My name is Nechtan,” he said at last, after some thought. “Come with me to my village, where you will eat and drink, and I will tell you of my people”

The monks immediately felt at home in Nechtan’s village, where the single-storey houses huddled close to each other. They were uniformly small, probably no more than one room dwellings, with thatched roofs pegged down with ropes, which were tied to heavy stones. Similar structures were found near their abbey on the West Coast of Ireland, where the winter winds from the sea could be merciless.

Over a simple meal of cornbread, fish and spring water, Nechtan told the monks how, many generations ago, three ships had appeared on their shores carrying a score or more of fierce, red-headed adventurers. Despite their looks, the men from across the sea had wanted no more than to rest, find provisions and repair their much-travelled ships. At least, that is what they first told the islanders. After a week or so, their leader, whose name was Bran, confided to their head man that he wished to bury a box. It was a simple enough, though puzzling, request that the chief felt unable to refuse. And so, one moonlit night, the box was dragged ashore. It was a heavy sea-chest, fashioned from black bog-oak and bound with brass. Bran and his men took it to some undisclosed place and buried it deep beneath the earth. Upon their return they made the islanders swear that they would never attempt to look for the box of bog-oak and brass. Although this was agreed, Bran bade a handful of his men to remain behind and ensure that no one would go back on their word.

The ones who stayed settled down quite happily. They each found a wife and within a generation or two, Old Irish had become the lingua franca of the island.

Brendan stroked his chin. The story of the voyage of Bran was well-known to him, but he had always assumed it was no more than a colourful legend, a tale dreamed up by the pagan bards to amuse their listeners.

“But what was the significance of the oaken box?” he asked Nechtan.
The islander shook his head.

“I have no idea,” he confessed, “but before he sailed back to his own land, Bran carved some symbols on a stone tablet. It has been handed down through the generations of my family. No one knows what it means but maybe, if you can understand it, it will shed some light on the mystery.”

Nechtan lifted the lid of a chest that doubled-up as a table, rummaged through its contents and, with some difficulty, extracted a stone tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long. On its surface was carved a series of glyphs in the form of notched grooves. Some were horizontal and others diagonal. All lay on, or was bisected by, a vertical line.

“It’s Ogham script,” said Brendan. As he read his face became more and more grim.

After a while he looked up from the tile and addressed Nechan.
“It entreats any who can read this to never, under any circumstances, seek for the chest of bog-oak. On their travels Bran and his crew encountered a fierce demon. He claims that their druid subdued this infernal creature and imprisoned it within the chest, binding the locks with magic. He then commanded them to bury it deep in the earth of the misty island they would find at the end of their journey. As much as I despise all mention of pagan magic, I have to agree. Under no account seek out this cursed chest and its unholy prisoner.”

“Be assured,” said Nechan, “we are a dwindling people. There are very few of us left here, these days –soon there will be none. No one cares about this legend. There is enough to fear on our island without digging up more monsters to trouble us.”

Brendan wondered what he meant. The place was dismal, that was for sure, but he saw no evidence of things to fear.

The voyagers returned to their boat and on the following morning decided to venture further inland. Surely there had to be one or two relatively pleasant places to enjoy. As Nechan had implied, the rest of the land seemed devoid of humans and indeed, animal life as well. At the end of the first day they pitched camp on a reasonably flat piece of ground overlooking the sea and settled down to what they hoped would be a decent night’s rest, away from the cramped conditions of the currach.
It must have been around midnight when Brother Malo sat bolt upright.
“Did you hear that,” he whispered. There’s something going through our belongings.”

The monks had left their meagre possessions outside their tent, confident that nothing was likely to happen to them.

Malo pushed his head through the flap and gulped in astonishment. Three small, fish – like creatures, balancing on crude wooden stilts, were going through the monks’ packs and dragging away anything they could manage. One had found some wooden spoons and had discarded his stilts in favour of these more sophisticated prosthetics.

Malo swore, then remembering his vows, hit himself with a rock as penance.

By then the whole camp was awake and two of the younger monks – both on the wrong side of fifty – chased after the spoonwalkers (this was probably the very first occasion that these creatures could legitimately be called this, as it’s unlikely that any had before used spoons as a preferred method of locomotion).

Brother Fergus was surprised to find a long tentacle wrapped around his leg. It was issuing from a small fissure in the ground and was attempting to persuade the ancient monk to join it. Brendan at once rushed forward, brandishing his wooden crucifix and demanding that the creature, apparently from the very depths of Hell, to let go of his colleague and return once more to the fiery pit. All that this achieved was for a second tentacle to emerge and take the crucifix from his grasp. Fortunately Malo had the presence of mind to hit tentacle number one with the rock that he was still fortuitously holding, retained in the event of his having the urge to inadvertently swear, or think blasphemous thoughts again. The resulting blow ensured that Fergus was freed and the brace of tentacles, along with Brendan’s crucifix, disappeared swiftly into the rocky ground.
Just when everyone thought that things could not possibly get any worse, the vast shape of the Kraken rose from the boiling ocean, its slumbers disturbed by all the commotion.

“That’s it! Back to the boat brethren.” cried Brendan, “I’ve had enough of this island, it’s hopeless,” he added, with a rare, but unintentional, flash of clairvoyance.

“And you expect me to believe that load of old Blarney,” said Philomena Bucket, a smile upon her pallid face.

“It’s true,” replied Bartholomew Middlestreet, propping himself against the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “I’m telling you, Saint Brendan the Navigator visited Hopeless as part of his epic voyage.”

“And what about all those islanders who spoke Irish? Where are they now?”

“I expect they died out, as Nechan predicted.”

“And Bran?”

“True as well,” said Bartholomew. “When Sebastian Lypiatt was digging the foundations of the flushing privy, all those years ago, he found the Ogham stone.

“I don’t believe a word of it” said Philomena.

“It’s true. He had no idea what it was or what it meant but he knew it was important, somehow. Look… up there, just above the fireplace. You’ve probably never noticed it…”

Philomena looked and sure enough, just where Sebastian had placed it, almost a century before, was a rectangular tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long, covered in the faint grooves of the Ogham script.

“There was even a chest made of bog-oak and brass, but that’s another tale altogether,” said Bartholomew, with a grin.

Author’s note: Should you wish to know what became of the bog-oak chest and its contents you might like to read the tales ‘The Necromancer’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/the-necromancer/

and ‘Bog-Oak and Brass’ https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/bog-oak-and-brass/ (preferably in that order).

Diswelcome part 7 Chance Encounter

CHANCE ENCOUNTER…OR WAS IT?

As can happen, my first notion of danger came to me in a troubling dream. In it, I had been caught in the clutches of a skystinger, and in that uncomfortable position was being berated by an angry and grizzled kyte hunter, who ended his tirade with the words: “Oh, you numb fool.”

“Oh, you fool! Fool!”

I struggled to understand why the kyte hunter’s voice had changed from a bass boom to a far gentler and higher tone, with a young man’s timbre.

“Oh, such foolishness!”

I opened my eyes…to be utterly astounded by my restricted view, darkness crisscrossed by narrow, angular patterns of a twilight glow.

Hopeless! I’m on Hopeless.

I tried to move, but found myself entirely restricted, smothered by a hundred thousand tiny grips. Fighting panic, I recalled my previous experiences of Hopeless flora, specifically its tendency to cling…ensnare…wrap…cover…choke…


It seemed that the moss had crept up in my sleep, spreading to take me into a suffocating embrace.

“Help,” I croaked.

I began to struggle, bucking my body in an attempt to shake myself loose, but that only resulted in the moss tightening its grip.

“Stop moving, you’re only making it worse.” The young man’s voice said, confirming that he hadn’t been a figment of my dream.

I relaxed my body as much as I could, immensely grateful that I wasn’t alone. “Please, help me.”

“That’s what I am doing,” the voice replied.

I could see him now, or rather, I could see a darkish shape move about through the mossy visor that restricted most of my view.

“What are you doing?” I asked, willing him to just rip the moss away.

“Tickling the snare-moss with a feather,” was the reply.

The moss giggled.

“What?!”

“Shush, be still, for crying out loud.”

I did my best to freeze into a statue, fighting the urge to remedy sudden itches, ask a thousand questions, or tell the moss to stop its maddening high-pitched titters, twitters and tee-hees. I was much encouraged in my efforts when I sensed that the giggling moss began to ease its relentless hold on me.

“Apart from being ticklish, snare-moss is generally slow,” the tickler spoke. “You must have been asleep for at least eight hours.”

“I was tired.”

“You’ve got to be an outlander. No sane local even slightly attached to life would lie down on a bed of snare-moss…oh, wait…that argument doesn’t really apply around here…plenty are disheartened enough…”

“I’m an outlander,” I confirmed, swearing a silent and solemn oath never to lie down on a bed of snare-moss again.

“Shipwrecked, were you?”

“No, I came to Hopeless of my own free will.”

The movements ceased for a second. When the tickling resumed, the tickler spoke again, slowly, emphasising each word. “You. Chose. To. Come. Here?”

“Yarr. I chose to come here.”

“Why in the name of every puff bug in Hopeless would you want to do that?

I fought my instinct to shrug. “I’m a journalist, for the Brighton Gazette. I came to interview someone.”

“You’re a bigger fool than I thought,” the tickler muttered. “There we are, my lovelies.”

The moss, now in uncontrollable fits of merriment, eased its hold on me entirely, and the entangled web that had constricted me began to unravel.

“Quick, now,” the tickler said. “Up and away.”

I scrambled up, but wavered unsteadily on my legs, until the tickler took my arm and led me away from the moss, which wriggled about angrily, squeaking a hundred thousand outraged protests.

I glared at the deceitful greenery, then looked at the tickler. I saw a young man, about my age, maybe a little older, with a narrow, thoughtful face, long black hair, and a tuft of scraggly hair on his chin.

“You’re Owen!”

He looked puzzled. “You have me at a disadvantage; I don’t recall meeting you before…”

“Ned, Ned Twyner.” I shook his hand enthusiastically. “We’ve never met, but I kind of know you…”

“Kind of know me?” Owen frowned.

“In a manner of speaking, I’ve read about your adventures! That’s why I came to Hopeless, to interview Salamandra!”

“Sal? You haven’t picked the best day. When I left this morning, she was busily flying plates, saucers, and cups at my head.”

“Flying? Throwing, you mean?”

“Oh, no.” Owen shook his head. “She was definitely flying them at me. I was lucky to get away unscathed.”

I glanced at a large basket behind him. It held a large roundish object, wrapped in an old sheet stained with fresh blood. Reminded of my own luggage, I checked that my writing satchel and knapsack were still companions, suddenly grateful that I hadn’t relieved myself of their burden before falling asleep, and also relieved that they weren’t bleeding.

“Well, I suppose you might as well come along,” Owen decided. “If she’s still fussy, she might choose to decapitate you with a teapot, rather than poor old me. And I can hardly leave you here on your own; I don’t think you’d last very long…”

I nodded my heartfelt agreement, and followed Owen, after he picked up the basket that had straps which he slid over his shoulders.

We walked at a brisk pace, pausing only when Owen deemed it safer to wait while a herd of ur-deer thundered by in a wild stampede, chased by something blurry, leaving me mostly with the impression of scores of glinting claws, hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, and several pairs of luminous green eyes.

The scenery changed as we climbed steadily upwards. Wet and slimy trees made place for evergreens, the spongy ground beneath our feet gained solidity, and rocky outcroppings started popping up every now and then. Before long, we started passing buildings. Some grand and elaborately designed, but crumbling with age, others seemingly hurriedly assembled with any materials that came to hand.


I frowned when I heard a sound that was simultaneously familiar and yet out of place somehow.

“The sea!” I exclaimed, when I placed the sound as waves lapping against rocks and shingle.

“Indeed,” Owen confirmed. “We’ve crossed the island.”

The sea came into view, as did a rugged coastline: Outcrops of craggy rocks, becalmed coves and pebbled beaches between precipitous overhangs and jagged edges of granite cliffs.

“It’s high tide!” I said joyously.

Owen looked at me strangely. “That does happen, quite frequently in fact, though not with predictable regularity, the waters here have a mind of their own.”

“I thought it was rare…” I tried to explain.

“That’s on the tidal plain, on the other side of Hopeless,” Owen said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Tides are far and between there. Just as a truly low tide on this side is remarkable enough to cause folk to jabber on about it for a week or so.” 

Recalling Ole Ted’s talk on tidal peculiarities, I ventured: “And is it mostly highish tide on this side of Hopeless because it’s lowish…elsewhere?”

Owen furrowed his brow, before reluctantly conceding: “There are other islands which are cut off from general reality, aye. Ragged Isle for one, not to forget Tantamount.”

“Maybe I could visit them after Hopeless,” I mused.

Owen barked a laugh. “You are amusingly naïve, Ned Twyner. Did you think it would be easy to leave Hopeless?”

I chose not to answer, partially because my attention was drawn to something catlike floating by in the air.

“There!” Owen pointed in front of us.

I looked to see a partially submerged, and slightly tilted, lighthouse in the distance.

“Not much further now,” Owen said. “Let’s go find out if Sal’s mood has improved.”

Burns Night

No one seems to remember who left the book on a table in The Squid and Teapot. The cover, which had originally been a rich red colour, was now faded, dog-eared and badly foxed.

Stratford Park, a stocky, fair-haired man of early middle-age, sipped the frothy head from his tankard of Ebley Ales famous brew, Old Colonel, and idly picked up the little volume, for no other reason than because it was there. The gilded but grimy lettering on the front said simply ‘Robert Burns by Gabriel Setuon. Famous Scots Series.’

Stratford had heard of Robert Burns. He even knew some of the man’s poetry. On the strength of that he slipped the book quietly into the inside pocket of his overcoat and thought no more about it.

Several dreary months went by. That which passes for spring on Hopeless, Maine, drifted into a dismal summer which, in its turn, slid, almost unnoticed, into a damp and fog-bound fall. It had become overcoat weather once more.

It was on a blustery October evening, bundled up against the chill, that Stratford made his way to The Squid. He was looking forward to drinking a few pints of Old Colonel and shooting the breeze with some of his friends, as he did most weeks.

Settling down in the warmth of the appropriately named snug, Stratford threw his overcoat over the back of his seat.

“Something’s just dropped out of your coat, Strat,” called the ever vigilant Bartholomew Middlestreet, from behind the bar.
Stratford looked around, puzzled. Then he spotted the little book on the floor. He had completely forgotten that it had been in his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said, brandishing the book and was about to put it back when Bartholomew said,

“That’s strange. There was a book exactly like that left on the bar yesterday. I saw it and thought of you.”
For the second time in as many minutes Stratford Park experienced a certain amount of puzzlement.

Bartholomew wandered over to the table. With a theatrical flourish he presented his friend with a small red volume, at first glance identical to the one that had recently resided in Stratford’s pocket.
“Look at the title,” Bartholomew said.
Stratford looked.

“Mungo Park by T. Banks Maclachlan. Famous Scots Series.
“Who is Mungo Park?” asked Stratford.
“A famous explorer guy, according to the book,” replied Bartholomew, then added, “I figured he must be a relation of yours. Park is not a common name.”
Bartholomew grasped the book and stared at the cover.
“I’ve always thought I had Celtic blood,” he mused, excitedly. “I’ll bet we are related.”

From that time onwards Stratford became more and more convinced of his Scottish roots, purely based upon his being a namesake of Mr Mungo Park. He read everything he could about Scotland and the Scots; it became an obsession. He took to dropping the odd ‘och aye’ and ‘dinnae’ and ‘cannae’ into conversation and would look wistfully eastwards over the ocean and mumble something about his ‘ain land’. The two volumes of the Famous Scots Series became his most treasured possessions.
Christmas came and went. Stratford had hoped to celebrate Hogmanay but the bar-fight in The Squid on New Year’s Eve had killed all hope of that. In mid-January he tentatively approached Bartholomew with a look in his eye not unlike that of a dog begging for a biscuit.

“D’ye ken it’s Robbie Burns birthday on the twenty-fifth of this month?” he asked.
“Really? I thought he’d died years ago,” replied Bartholomew, wearing his best poker-face.
“Och aye, that he did, ” said Stratford, his accent veering erratically over three thousand miles of ocean.
“I wondered if we might have a wee celebration. Have us a real Burns Night.”

Bartholomew looked dubious. Since the debacle at New Year and the disaster of Pluff Monday, he was wary of indulging in any form of celebration ever again.

After some thought and fighting a feeling of deep foreboding, he said,
“Okay, but there won’t be no haggis or whisky; it’ll be starry-grabby pie and whatever is on hand at the Gannicox distillery.”
“Aye, that’s braw,” said Stratford, adding hopefully “there wouldn’ae be a kilt going spare somewhere up in yon attic, would there, the noo?”
The attics of The Squid and Teapot are famously full of the flotsam and jetsam washed up that no one else has laid claim to. What could he say? Being of a kindly disposition, Bartholomew dutifully helped Stratford rummage through the piles of clothing.

To Stratford’s disappointment there were no authentic traditional Scottish costumes to be found anywhere in those dusty attics. They managed, however, to unearth a rather fetching plaid skirt (extra large) and a round leather clutch bag that would, in a bad light, just about pass muster as a kilt and sporran.

The evening of January the twenty-fifth arrived and The Squid and Teapot became a little piece of Scotland for a few hours. Fuelled by several glasses of the distillery’s finest spirit, Stratford recited a few poems and sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, off-key and a capella. It was then that Norbert Gannicox produced a banjo with three strings and struck up a medley of, what can only be described as being, a broad and very personal interpretation of some well-known, if totally unrecognizable, Celtic melodies. Celtic music and no small amount of alcohol can sometimes be a lethal combination. Standing in front of a blazing log fire, Stratford decided to execute what he fondly imagined to be, a Highland Fling. With his knees flying high and his plaid skirts higher, he left little to the imagination of his bemused, not to say traumatised, audience. Indeed, so bemused and traumatised were they that no one appeared to notice that the back of his makeshift kilt had caught fire and Stratford’s Terpsichorean prancing and occasional whoops were becoming increasingly frantic.

When he was eventually rescued, after some energetic and over-enthusiastic thrashing of his rear end, the fire was successfully extinguished. Doc Willoughby, who had been skulking, unimpressed, in a corner, had Stratford laid face down across a long table. Much to the horror of those assembled, and with little ceremony, Doc pulled the skirt up over Stratford’s head, revealing a set of slightly scorched buttocks for all to behold.

“He’ll be alright,” affirmed the Doc, gruffly. “First degree burns, no worse damage than he’d get from a bit of sunburn. Stick him in some cold running water for a bit, that’ll make him feel better.”
No sooner had the words left the Doc’s mouth than the hefty Winstone twins acted as one, grabbing Stratford roughly under the armpits and marching him outside.

Unfortunately the Doc had not given any indication how long Stratford’s backside needed to be immersed, or whether they should stay with him. What the Doc lacked in bedside manner, he certainly didn’t make up for in helpfulness. The Winstones, who were not the brightest spoons in the cutlery drawer, looked at each other, wondering what to do. The party was still going on at The Squid. It would be a pity to miss any more of it. There and then they made the decision to sit Stratford in the icy water that flowed down from the Gydynap hills into Tragedy Creek, and leave him there.

When Rhys Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, found the would-be Scotsman some hours later, Stratford was literally blue with cold. Everything south of his waistline was immersed in the fast flowing water. Rhys heaved him out with some difficulty, and took him back to his cottage. If he ever wondered why the fellow in the stream was wearing a skirt, he didn’t say anything. It took a while for body heat to return and Stratford to revive. When he did, he was wheezing and sneezing, showing every sign of having all the symptoms of a bad head cold, which was just as well, because as we all know, there are few who can stand the noxious smell that permanently surrounds the Night Soil Man.

And that is just about the end of the tale. Following that small disturbance, Burns Night, on Hopeless, was always afterwards referred to as First Degree Burns Night. Stratford never mentioned it, or Mungo Park, again and gave up all claims of being of Scottish descent. His accent was miraculously restored once more to that of a native Hoplessian.
It is interesting to note that Mungo Park, who perished at the age of thirty-five, was the seventh of thirteen siblings. It is recorded that one of his younger brothers, inspired by Mungo’s example, joined an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the elusive sea route thought to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Like his more famous brother, who took one adventure too many, young Park did not return. Far be it from me to speculate, but his would not have been the first sailing ship to fall foul of a terrible storm and be blown wildly off-course onto the treacherous rocks and fog-bound islands that dot the coast of Maine.

Diswelcome part 6: HURRY SKURRY

I was thoroughly exhausted after my odyssey through Hopeless’s tidal plain, but determined to get as far away from it as possible, by following something resembling a path which winded into a gloomy forest.

The trees were all the same, they had smooth bark, purplishly moist, and a few scant leaves clinging to their skeletal branches and twigs. The leaves seemed to pulsate, but looked wilted nonetheless. They were the colour of rotting liver. Coincidentally, that was the fragrance released by the awful trees as well. Long urine-yellow lichen clung to a lot of the branches, either swaying in a breeze I couldn’t feel, or else wavering slowly of their own accord, so I stayed clear of them, having no desire to lose my cap, or even my head, to their clutching fronds.

Despite the apparent deadness of the place, the wood was teeming with wildlife, in all shapes and sizes.

For this, at least, and in contrast to the hostile vegetation, I had come mentally prepared. When Gammer had heard of my assignment to Maine, she had taken me to visit a friend in the Sussex Weald before I left. The friend had been an alluring red-headed woman who lived in a solitary cottage deep within the woods. The cottage was named The Owlery. Gammer had told me the woman was the Wise Woman of the Wyrde Woods, and I had witnessed a Pook Dance on a moonbathed clearing around a stone circle.

I had grown up with the notion of Pooks, of course. It is nigh impossible not to be aware of their existence in Sussex. As many children do, despite all remonstrations to stay well away from Pooks, I had attempted at times to catch sight of them in and around the coastal village I grew up in. I might have even caught a few glimpses, but that was always hard to determine.

Not in the Wyrde Woods though, where Pooks swanned about openly on certain nights, leaving me wide-eyed, bewildered, and beguiled.

None of the creatures here, in this gloomy Hopeless forest, resembled any of the Pooks I had seen, other than that there was one notable commonality; namely that the diversity was so overwhelming it was near impossible to focus on one species long enough to apply individual descriptions. All the more so because not only was my body fully fatigued, but my mind was all a-whirl, and somehow Hopeless seemed to be absorbing my vitality, sapping at my very soul.

Instead of focusing on the individual, I accepted the collective. Like I had been during my brief sojourn in the Wyrde Woods, I was much minded of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market.

Flying, running, leaping,

Puffing and blowing,

Chuckling, clapping, crowing,

Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and moping,

Full of airs and graces,

Pulling wry faces,

Demure grimaces,

Cat-like and rat-like,

Ratel- and wombat-like,

Snail-paced in a hurry,

Parrot-voiced and whistler,

Helter skelter, hurry skurry.

My tired brain resolved to call the creatures ‘skurries’.

Although some of the skurries displayed some curiosity towards my appearance, none appeared aggressive. Most paid me no heed whatsoever, for which I was grateful, still reeling from my fight with a bloody plant of all things.

Through the vagaries of my thoughts, I heard my Gaffer’s voice speaking of essential basics. I recognised that as a sign that I was in urgent need of rest and respite, before my mind became so befuddled that it would direct my body to stroll into the huge, gaping, and tooth-lined maws of whatever land-predators roamed these parts.

It was then that I saw a tree unlike all of the others, with dry, soft bark, sheltered beneath a rich spring-green canopy, its great roots sinking beneath a mass of soft moss. No skurries crawled, hopped, levitated, flew, or otherwise lingered here, and the branches were mercifully free of the disquieting lichen.

Having lost my suitcase, I didn’t dare to disinvest myself from my satchel and knapsack, or even cap for that matter, but just lay down on a bed of soft moss embraced by two of the tree’s mighty roots. Part of my mind resisted, calling for caution, but I was simply too tired, and the moss felt finer than a soft goose-down mattress,  cajoling me into a deep sleep.

The Ghost Ship

Drury, the skeletal dog, had been spreading happiness and mayhem in equal measure upon the island of Hopeless, Maine for far longer than any living soul could remember. Many generations had passed since anyone had deemed themselves to be his master; Drury was a law unto himself, a force of nature, a free spirit. In truth, he was the very essence of dogginess epitomised, notwithstanding the fact that he had died years ago. However Drury, being Drury did not allow this slight inconvenience to get in his way for one minute.

If any two humans could be said to elicit the osseous hound’s affection above all others, they would be Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man and the palely beautiful Philomena Bucket, who worked in “The Squid and Teapot”.

While Philomena frequently enjoyed the dog’s company by day, when Rhys did his nocturnal rounds, it was often with Drury at his heels. He was under no illusion, however, that the dog was attracted purely by his bountiful nature and irresistible charisma. There was little doubt that a Night Soil Man’s messy and malodorous calling had no little part to play in persuading Drury that here was as good a companion as one could wish for.

There were no stars visible on the night of our tale. Only the baleful eye of the full moon was able to penetrate the mist that blanketed the skies over Hopeless. Rhys looked up and could not suppress a slight shudder.

“Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless under a full moon,” he thought to himself, then almost laughed out loud at his musings. Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless at the best of times, why should tonight be any different? Dismissing such thoughts from his mind, he hitched his tightly lidded bucket up on to his shoulders. Just two more stops and then he’d sit down for a bite of supper, grateful that Philomena had left a cold starry-grabby pie and a flask of ‘Old Colonel’ on his doorstep earlier in the day. Lovely Philomena! Salty tears, borne of an impossible and unrequited love, threatened to cloud his eyes, until Drury gave a sharp bark, instantly dragging Rhys away from his reverie.

A few hundred yards from the shore, sitting in the pathway cast by the moon, was anchored an old-fashioned galleon. Rhys looked on in horror, for he knew at once that this was no ordinary craft. Even with its sails furled he could see that they, like the rest of the galleon, were rotting and ragged and shimmered with an eerie, lurid iridescence. He had heard of such a vessel before but always dismissed the tales of a phantom ship, damned to roam the seas for eternity, as an island myth. He had laughed at the legend that spoke of the ship that, once every hundred years, would anchor off Hopeless in order to send a press-gang of wraiths ashore to replenish its crew. He wasn’t laughing now.

“Thank goodness they’re still a fair distance away,” said Rhys to Drury. “Time to pack in for the night and get home and lock the door, I think.”
But Drury wasn’t listening. Unseen by Rhys, a small tender, known as a jolly boat, had drawn up on the beach, a short distance away. It glowed with the same ghastly light as the galleon. Half a dozen cadaverous shapes had clambered over its rotting sides and  were even now lurching up the sand towards the terror-stricken Night Soil Man.

The six crewmen were dreadful to behold. In their tattered, tar-stained apparel of a time long past, these hollow-eyed wraiths were barely recognisable as creatures who had once been living, breathing men. Their shrivelled flesh and hollow eyes chilled the blood of all who beheld them. Even wraiths can be taken aback, however. When they were within no more than a few feet away from Rhys, Drury sprang fearlessly into action, a calcified ball of canine fury.
As I have stated on many an occasion, Drury is, to those of us who know him, a bony but loveable bundle of chaotic mischief. In view of this, it is easy to forget that he also has access to those hazy, liminal regions that bridge the realms of the living and the dead. So, while the slightly overweight representative of the species Canis lupus familiaris, snoring contentedly on your sofa, can certainly see ghosts, not even the meanest, fiercest fighting dog in the world could wrap its jaws around a phantom leg. Drury can.    

“It’s that bloody dog again,” screamed one of the wraiths as a very real set of teeth attacked whatever bits of him Drury could get hold of.  
“He was here causing trouble the last time we came.”

Rhys had no idea what to do. He knew he would be no match for just one of the wraiths, much less six and although Drury was fighting valiantly, he wouldn’t be able to hold them all off for very long.

Sure enough, no sooner had the thought entered his head than an ice-cold hand had grabbed Rhys by the neck and started to drag him towards the jolly boat. The Night Soil Man could see a furious and struggling Drury being restrained by the remaining five ghostly sailors, who, quite frankly, was having their work cut out.
“Get a move on, Charlie,” shouted one of them. “We can’t hang on to this little bleeder for much longer.”

Suddenly and from nowhere the air was filled with a thunder of hooves, excited yapping, some nasal brays and the distinct effluvium of flatulent mules as the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt swept down from the sky, their spaniels yelping madly and nipping at the heels of the surprised sailors. Suddenly dropped, with an ungainly clatter Drury fell to the ground and, with some relish, immediately joined in the fray, any previous dispute with the spaniels put to one side, at least for the time being.
Opportune as this intervention was, it had not prevented Charlie from escorting Rhys down to the jolly boat. He was just about to push the Night Soil Man headlong into its bilge when a sharp rat-a-tat-tat cut through the night like a blade. All who heard it stopped, frozen in their tracks. The mist on the beach swirled and gathered. Rhys turned his head to see shapes forming within its murky depths until, to the accompaniment of a stirring drumbeat, yet another phantom host appeared. These were the drowned sailors that the Little Drummer Boy had led ashore to safe haven many years before. Like the Mild Hunt, they regarded this island as their home. No upstart band of ragged-trousered wraiths was going to suddenly come in and scare the living daylights out of its inhabitants. That was their job! Besides, all of the ghosts on Hopeless (with the possible exception of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock) had something of a soft spot for the generations of Night Soil Men whom they had seen come and go. They had watched them perform their thankless work night after dreary night with little chance of respite; this was a fate, they perceived, not unlike their own.

“At ‘em lads”, shouted one of the shipwrecked ghosts.
Spectral cudgels and belaying pins swung through the air, raining mercilessly on  phantom flesh until, before long, the press-gang was sent scuttling back to the jolly boat.
Rhys, who, in the confusion, had escaped Charlie’s clutches, felt himself being gently led to safety by the ghostly (and curiously wandering) hands of the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt, who giggled girlishly to themselves as they flew once more up into the night, followed closely by their unruly spaniels.

The Little Drummer Boy and the drowned sailors lingered on the beach until the galleon could be seen to weigh anchor, set its decrepit sails and disappear from sight around the headland. Rhys, lying on the dark shingle, watched, still shaken, as one by one, the sailors dissolved into the mist.
“Thank you,” he cried, as the Drummer Boy, the last to leave, began to fade from sight.
Rhys could swear that he waved back to him, but it may have been his eyes playing tricks.
Drury nuzzled the Night Soil Man’s neck with a bony nose.

“And thank you too, old friend,“ said Rhys, getting up and retrieving his bucket. “Hopefully they won’t be coming back for another hundred years. Now let’s go home. I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”


Author’s note: Although that most famous of ghost ships, The Flying Dutchman, is generally associated with the  waters of the Southern Hemisphere, there have been reports of other crafts seen in the North Atlantic, as evinced in the following poem by Irish poet and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

Written On Passing Deadman’s Island, In The Gulf Of St. Lawrence, Late In The Evening, September, 1804.

    See you, beneath yon cloud so dark,
    Fast gliding along a gloomy bark?
    Her sails are full,–though the wind is still,
    And there blows not a breath her sails to fill!

    Say, what doth that vessel of darkness bear?
    The silent calm of the grave is there,
    Save now and again a death-knell rung,
    And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung.

    There lieth a wreck on the dismal shore
    Of cold and pitiless Labrador;
    Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost,
    Full many a mariner’s bones are tost.

    Yon shadowy bark hath been to that wreck,
    And the dim blue fire, that lights her deck,
    Doth play on as pale and livid a crew,
    As ever yet drank the churchyard dew.

    To Deadman’s Isle, in the eye of the blast,
    To Deadman’s Isle, she speeds her fast;
    By skeleton shapes her sails are furled,
    And the hand that steers is not of this world!

    Oh! hurry thee on-oh! hurry thee on,
    Thou terrible bark, ere the night be gone,
    Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
    As would blanch for ever her rosy light!

Diswelcome 5. HOSTILE FLORA

I was much relieved when the skyskiff made landfall on Hopeless. I understood that the crew needed to feed their families. If anyone was to blame for the barbarous slaughter I had witnessed, it was rich fools seeking to enhance their natural virility by means of make-believe magic, regardless of the tragic implications. Nonetheless, after having seen the crew unrestrained by any civility whatsoever, gleefully enjoying their brutal work even, I was eager to be rid of them.

“This hee-ah is Lowuh Hopeless, which you’ve been wantin’ to see so badly,” the skipper told me. “We’ll be back in seven days. We’ll wait an ho-uh at the most. In case you decide not to go native, and be wantin’ to retuh-n to the civilised wahld.”

Mewton? I restrained the grin that wanted to form on my face, but thanked him instead, trying to sound as sincere as I could.

The skyskiff had landed in what seemed the middle of a vast plain of mud, with tufts of sickly green vegetation dotted around. Vague shadows in the distance gave promise of higher, more solid ground, supporting far more vegetation.

The air was disconcerting. It was tense, like the sky at home before a thunderstorm, laden with ominous promise, daylight transformed into a weird, gloomy glow though still brighter than the sky here in Hopeless, which mostly resembled a discoloured twilight.

To my left, I could see people, tiny in the distance, crawling over the carcass of a wingless kyte, most likely the one we had hunted like ants scrambling over a juicy caterpillar. They were far away though, and I had my fill of dead and dying kytes for the day, so I opted to head for that promise of mainland up ahead. I could always intercept the inhabitants of Hopeless there, I reckoned, for surely those Hopeless folks would be heading that way too, to get back to wherever they lived.

There was another reason for my choice. Even though Ole Ted had said that a high tide was a rarity here, growing up along the Sussex coast had given me a very healthy respect for tidal movements. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to arrive at just such a rare moment that the tide did come in, and a child could see that a sudden surge of the sea in the middle of this muddy vastness could easily be lethal.  

Every step was a struggle, my boots sinking deep into the soggy underground, sometimes submerging altogether, leaving me knee-deep in the muck. Upon retraction, a foul decomposing smell would be released. The mud seemed to be toying with me, pulling and tugging me down, changing consistency, giving false impressions of shallow semi-solidity, only to then open up and inhale me into its suffocating depths.


Keep moving. Don’t stop moving.

Several times I had to retrace part of my path to more agreeable depths of mud, to seek a route less likely to see me drowned in mud.

I paid little heed to the wildlife, mostly small and buzzing, much as I would expect in any bog back home. I was alarmed several times, when I felt movement below the mud, something long and scaly briefly rubbing past my boots. Twice, fortunately at some distance, I saw thick limbs or tentacles emerge from bog pools for a brief instance, before silently slithering back beneath the surface. Once, I had to use my suitcase to swat something resembling a giant dragonfly, the length of a man’s leg, with rows of shark-like teeth between powerful jaws.

All in all though, my attention was focused on the need to keep on moving. It was disheartening to see that I barely seemed to be making progress towards that higher ground. At times it even seemed further away. My logic overrode the sense of panic at that. I recalled the low tide flats of Camber Sands at home, where your eyes play tricks on you regarding distance. Whether it appeared that way or not, I told myself, I am advancing, slowly but surely.

Battling the mud was exhausting, and at long last I gave in to the overwhelming urge to rest for a moment, just to catch my breath.

It didn’t take me long to begin to learn the mistake of this. A mere thirty seconds after coming to a halt, my skin crawled when I sensed movements around my boots, a great many worm-like tendrils circling, and then spiralling up my legs. I jerked a leg upwards, to see a tangle of greenish, snakelike vegetation slithering up and around my boot. A few kicks shook most of them loose, just in time to change footing, for the other boot, having been stationary all the longer, began to tighten around my calf and foot, squeezed by the mass of slithering strands.

Hopping from foot to foot, kicking wildly to escape the snare of Hopeless flora, I failed to see that tiny shoots of the stuff had appeared from the mud, to spiral upwards and then form a web around the bottom of my suitcase. Looking that way when the stuff began to tug at my suitcase hard enough for me to feel it, I saw thicker tentacles reaching up to get a firmer grasp on the suitcase. What followed would have seemed to any spectator as an absurd tug-of-war. Continuing to change my footing to kick away the relentless entanglement of my feet, I pulled at one half of the suitcase, sometimes winning, and sometimes losing the struggle with a local plant.

Whilst the thicker strands were engaged in our jester-esque tug-of-war, the smaller tendrils continued to explore their intended prize. Displaying far more intelligence than any species of vegetation known to me, they worked out how to unspring the clasps of my suitcase, and it snapped open, its contents scattering towards the ground. Immediately, all the plant’s tendrils and tentacles released whatever they were clinging onto, to all dive onto the loose items of clothing and toiletries, the separate elements of the plant wrestling with each other in their haste to lay claim to my belongings.

My boots and legs thus released, I beat a hasty retreat. I chanced one quick backward look to see that all trace of my belongings was gone, apart from my suitcase, but that was being pulled beneath the mud before my very eyes. I wondered with a wry smile what need a mud plant had for men’s shirts, or my pyjama bottoms. However, the thought of my razor in the grip of those persistent and apparently intelligent tendrils, was less cause for amusement.


This time I kept moving beyond pain and back again , until I had reached the higher grounds, where the ground’s consistency resembled the resistance of a wet sponge, and how mightily solid that felt!

Pluff Monday

“What’s a pluff?”
Norbert Gannicox sat cross-legged on the floor, a large book folded open on his knees.
He had been helping Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, to clear up the not inconsiderable mess that littered the floor of the inn. Several days had passed since the bar room brawl that had flared up on New Year’s Eve, wrecking just about every stick of furniture, piece of glassware and item of crockery in the place. Such a thing had never happened before.

If you want anything in particular on Hopeless, the chances are that, if it exists on the island, you will find it somewhere in the dusty attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’. Over many years these rooms, with their small, cobweb-draped windows, had become the natural repository of the many and various – but otherwise unwanted – items of flotsam and jetsam that washed up on Hopeless’ rocky shores. For all of the dust and cobwebs, the several generations of stewards of the inn had been scrupulous in keeping their salvaged goods in reasonable order. Because of this, it was no great hardship to refurbish the bar with everything it needed to resume normal business.

Next to the clothing, furnishings and household items, which were organised in their separate spaces, there were books; hundreds of books, placed in tall stacks, piled more by size than subject matter.  

The particular tome that had caught Norbert’s eye was a weighty volume, snappily titled ‘The Every Day Book: or, A guide to the year: describing the popular amusements, sports, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times, (ed. W. Hone.)’.
 ‘‘ I think I’ve found the next fixture on our calendar of traditions, said Norbert, with some excitement. “Listen to this…

   …The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday”, he said, pronouncing ‘plough’ as ‘pluff’’. “It appears to have received that name,” he continued, “because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistcoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy…”

“What do you reckon?” he asked.
“Well,” considered Bartholomew, “If I knew what a pluff is I might have a go at drawing one.”
Norbert nodded. “There again”, he said, “it might be a ploff, not a pluff.”
“That’s real helpful,“ said Bartholomew, his tone not without a degree of sarcasm, “but I can’t say that I’ve heard of either one of them. Ploff just don’t sound right. No, it’s definitely a pluff, and dammit we’ll spell it as pluff, as it should be. Blasted English!”

The dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, once famously commented that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language and this can frequently be seen in the variation in spellings, pronunciation and even meanings of certain words. As neither Norbert nor Bartholomew –  or practically anyone currently alive on Hopeless, come to that – had wallowed in the dubious delights of a British schoolroom, they were happily unaware that the implement they knew as a plow was, indeed, a plough to those inhabitants of Shakespeare’s ‘Scepter’d Isle’.

After deciding that neither man had the faintest idea as to what a pluff might be, that they didn’t have thirty or forty men to pull one and that no self-respecting old woman, or lad in drag, would have anything to do with the project, gaily bedizened or not, it was agreed that they would go ahead and celebrate Pluff Monday anyway. They were pretty dam’ sure that if they didn’t know what a pluff was, no one else on the island would, either.

An hour or so later a casual bystander might have witnessed two middle-aged men taking a nonchalant stroll along the shoreline and pushing a ricketty handcart. According to the book, Pluff Monday was due to fall on the day after tomorrow; Norbert and Bartholomew were looking desperately for an item, any item, so odd, so unusual, so totally alien that it would act as a stand-in for the elusive pluff. It would become, in the eyes of their fellow islanders, unmistakably a pluff through and through. Both knew that it was, of course, an outside chance that they would find such a thing but, as we all know, Hopeless is an outside chance sort of place, so neither man was particularly surprised when, carelessly deposited by the tide, on a beach of dark shingle, sat the very epitome of pluffdom itself.

Imagine, if you will, a rusty iron sphere, about three feet in diameter. Protruding from its surface is a series of horn-like spikes, resembling something not unlike the shell of a huge, metallic horse-chestnut. Norbert stopped in his tracks.
“This is it,“ he murmured with a certain amount of awe in his voice. “A pluff!”
“It’s impressive,“ agreed Bartholomew. “Let’s get it on to the cart before the tide takes it back out.”
This was easier said than done. Try as they might, the pair could not lift the pluff an inch off the ground.
“It must weigh a ton,” said Norbert, “We’ll never shift the thing. That’s probably why the book said that it took thirty or forty men to drag it around.”
“How about…” said Bartholomew, a thought was forming in his head. “…How about if we can’t take Pluff Monday to the people, then they can come here to see it? We could dress the pluff up in ribbons and things and create our own version of Pluff Monday – a Hopeless version!” He said, the last bit completely without irony.

The two retired to the warmth and comfort of “The Squid”, where they set about the task of writing posters to advertise the ‘Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza at Scilly Point’. Philomena Bucket, who had been press-ganged into the scheme, dug out some ribbons and bells from the attic to festoon about the horns of the pluff. Somebody suggested taking the old phonograph to the event and playing ‘Molly Malone’ a few times. ‘Molly Malone’, with its ‘Alive-alive-o’ chorus, was a favourite with the people of Hopeless, mainly because it was the only wax cylinder that they possessed. Ideas poured from the three friends; they could light a fire on the beach and maybe take a cask of ‘Old Colonel’ and some starry-grabby pies to make the day go with a real bang. Wisdom of hindsight may have told them, a day or two later, to be careful what they wished for.

Pluff Monday had arrived at last! Bartholomew opened the big oak door of ‘The Squid’ and looked out at the new day. It was a little before 8a.m. and somewhere above the swirling mist, morning could be said to have broken. It displayed, however, a certain amount of defiance regarding the sentiments expressed in the popular hymn, for it bore little resemblance to that first morning, the temperature well below the four thousand degrees farenheit that the earth had then, apparently, enjoyed. Here, on eternally foggy Hopeless Maine, the glass would be lucky to struggle above freezing point on a typical day in early January. Not that this dampened the spirits of the organisers of the Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza.
By midday everything was ready. The phonograph sat on one handcart, while a firkin of ‘Old Colonel’, snuggling companionably with a large haybox, generously filled with hot and steaming starry-grabby pies, graced another. Drury, the long-dead and skeletal hound, gambolled happily around, getting generally in the way and underfoot, as only an over-excitable dog can. Drury loved a celebration of any sort, especially one that involved the phonograph playing ‘Molly Malone’.

When Bartholomew, Norbert, Philomena and Drury arrived at Scilly Point, where the beribboned and bedizened Pluff bobbed gently as the incoming tide lapped languidly around it, a crowd had already gathered on the headland.
“Welcome, friends, to the very first Pluff Monday celebration, here on Hopeless, Maine,” announced Norbert grandly. “I hope this to be the start of a long and abiding tradition on the island.”

With that, Philomena wound up the phonograph and immediately the strangulated voice of an Irish tenor cut through the mist, telling the sad tale of a female fishmonger who navigated her barrow through streets of varying width.

Drury was happy beyond words. So happy, that he wandered down to the beach, splashed into the shallow water and lifted a back leg against the rusting iron pluff. This was, of course, a pointless exercise, but old habits are inclined to die hard. It was just around that point that the tenor reached the popular refrain of his ballad and suddenly everyone joined in; the headland rang with ‘Alive, alive-o! Alive, alive-o! Crying cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” This was Drury’s favourite bit and he rushed excitedly back to the gathering, leaping headlong into the arms of his beloved Philomena. Taken by surpise, she stumbled against the cart which held the firkin of ‘Old Colonel’ and the box of starry-grabby pies. Filled with dismay, she watched it roll away in the direction of the beach, gathering speed as it went. The company on the headland looked aghast as the precious provender careered violently into the pluff. As one, they dashed down towards the water, hoping to salvage whatever they could. All might have been retrievable, had not the pluff, which had bobbed innocently around the North Atlantic for some years, decided to do the job it was designed for, and exploded in spectacular fashion. The inhabitants of Hopeless experienced the unique sensation of simultaneously being knocked off their feet and showered in a blend of strong ale and desicated squid. If such indignity was not bad enough, this was followed shortly afterwards by an uncomfortable rain of smoking matchwood and wisps of burning hay.

One by one, slightly deafened and covered in a quite malodorous and smoldering aley-fishy-woody debris, the Pluff Monday revellers got to their feet and looked around, dazed and bewildered.
“Was that supposed to happen?” asked Doc Willoughby suspiciously, removing a squid leg from his waistcoat pocket.
Norbert didn’t answer. Maybe it was time to give up unearthing traditions. It was too dangerous.
Up on the headland, a reedy voice was still warbling away about Molly Malone.
Drury wagged a bony tail.
“Now that’s what I call an entertaining afternoon!” he thought to himself.


Author’s note: Phonograph enthusiasts may like to look at the tale ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/ghost-in-the-machine/

Diswelcome part 4 – Kyte Hunt

“Kytes Ahoy! Kytes Ahoy!” The look-out cried. “To lahboahd, kytes to lahboahd.”

We had just cleared a series of billowing ridges, and were treated to the vast expanse of a near level valley, its bottom formed by gentle cotton-like undulations.


About twenty kytes were gliding serenely over the centre of the valley. About fifteen feet long, their oblong bodies tapered into vast triangular wings to either side of their streamlined rumps, with a long, muscular tail trailing behind them, ending in caudal fins.

As we closed in, it became apparent just how gigantic the beasts were. I began to discern eyes, a long row of them, just above the front edge of the flat circular head, and then another row below, enabling the creatures to look both up and down simultaneously. When their wings moved, they did so with slow grace, displaying all the elegance of a dancer.

Entirely oblivious to the busy activities of the crew all around me, I stared at the majestic kytes…spellbound. I would have never dared to dream that such magnificent creatures could possibly exist. What an enchanting sight to behold!

The closest kyte regarded us curiously, making no attempt to distance itself from the skyskiff, and lazily flapped its tail, as if wagging it in a friendly greeting.

“Aren’t they grandiose?” I asked dreamily, turning to the crew member nearest to me.

To my shock, I now saw that the crew had mounted numerous harpoon guns all along the railing, and were bent over them, sighting and aiming…

“No…no…” I began to say.

“FIYAH!” The skipper thundered. “HAHPOONS AWAY! FIYAH!”

The first harpoon sped towards the kyte, trailing a rope. Others followed.

I watched in horror as they plunged into the kyte, penetrating its hide and burrowing deep into muscle and flesh beneath. The kyte uttered screams of pain, and started to trash its body left and right, in an attempt to dislodge the harpoons.

“Bind those ropes!” The skipper commanded, and the crew tied the ends of the harpoon ropes to belaying pins.

“Get ready for the ride of youh life, Mistah,” one of the crew advised me. “Better hold on tight.”

“RELOAD,” shouted the skipper.

Clutching at the railing once more, I focused my attention on the kyte again. Instead of dislodging the harpoons, its wild movements had ensured that the harpoon’s barbs had found firm purchase, caught behind sinew or bone. In that process, the kyte’s wounds had been ripped wider, and blood gushed out of them, running down in rivulets until falling into the nothingness of the sky, a steady drizzle of bright red drops, like a macabre, ruinful rain.

The kyte stopped shrilling its pain, snorted, and then barked angrily.

“Hee-ah we go!” the skipper exclaimed. “She’s gittin’ ready to run.”

On cue, the kyte lurched forwards, its tale circling in a corkscrew motion to propel it forward with all of its might. All the grace of its former dance-like movements was gone, this was now a desperate struggle of life and death. The ropes attaching us to the kyte grew tauter in an instant. When they reached full rigidity, the kyte was momentarily jerked back, more blood gushing from its wounds. It screamed again, drawing concerned calls from the other kytes, which began to circle our skyskiff at a wary distance.

Roaring frustration, the kyte redoubled its efforts, gaining the necessary momentum to move forwards, dragging the weight of the skyskiff with it. Having gained enough speed, it suddenly nosed down into a steep dive, dragging the skyskiff into its plunge, bow pointed steeply down, and once more we hung on for dear life.

The skipper shouted at the crew manning the harpoon guns. “Let’s tiyah the beast out, fiyah at will!”

More harpoons sped towards the kyte. When they struck, the creature bucked wildly, uttering desperate sobs. Possibly in a vain attempt to escape the harpoons, it came out of its dive and banked to larboard, before turning starboard in a steep ascent that turned into a loop.  

“You’s kyte dancin’ now, Mistah,” one of the crew shouted at me.

I didn’t have the breath to answer. My fists clutching the railing had turned white, and most of my concentration was on anticipating the next sudden twist or turn…gut-wrenching motions as my body tried to adjust to being jerked sideways, up, down, and even, during particularly hair-raising moments, upside-down.

“Cease fiyah! Cease fiyah!” The skipper shouted, as we eased out of one such loop. “We git it wheah we wants it.”

He strolled casually across the heaving deck to join my side. “The trick is not to kill the beast. If it dies on us, it releases the gas that keeps it afloatin’. They-ha’d be a lot of dead weight plummetin’ down towahds the island, draggin’ us with it!”

I nodded, not caring to contemplate the impact of a skyskiff barrelling down into solid ground.

The stricken kyte, weakened no doubt by the loss of copious amounts of blood, started to slow, its evasive moments now sluggish, and almost bereft of power. Its screams, barks, and roars diminished into pitiful cries.

“That’s it!” The skipper hollered at the crew. “Start haulin’ her alongside.”

He helped, grabbing one of the harpoon ropes, and soon all six of them were straining at the ropes, hauling them in.

“HEAVE! HEAVE!”

With reluctance, I too, grabbed one of the ropes and begun the struggle of pulling the defeated kyte towards our starboard railing.

“HEAVE!”

When the creature was closely abeam, the ropes were tied to the belaying pins. The crew grabbed boat hooks, and used these to arrange the kyte’s body in such a manner that one of the wings draped over the railing, spilling onto our deck.

The kyte began to struggle again, beating the tip of its wing against the deck with forceful thumps, powerful enough to shatter a man’s leg, should it be in the way. Using smaller harpoon guns, the crew, shooting at point-blank range, pinned the wing to the deck. Then, grabbing axes and long meat cleavers, they began to hack wildly at the wing, cutting and cleaving at flesh and muscle.

I retreated to the bow, horrified. The kyte’s blood sprayed everywhere, covering the crew in so much gore that they resembled demons more than men as they carried out their bloody business.

The other kytes were still circling us, although their anxious calls had changed to deep, melodious, bass sounds, almost as if they were singing a resigned dirge of loss and mourning.

The kyte’s screams of pain mixed with pathetic mewls that cut through my soul. Some of its eyes were frantically looking in each and every direction, others staring aghast at the bloody ruin the crew were making of its wing. A few stared straight at me…I shuddered…the eyes focused on me seemed to convey a desperate plea for mercy. I recognised at that moment, the soul of a deeply-sentient being, in anguish at uncountable pains, fully aware of its imminent demise…even longing for it…wanting an end to the pain…begging it to end…

I wanted to look away, but those eyes wouldn’t release me.

“FOUND ONE! FOUND ONE!”

I willed my eyes away. One of the crew was holding his hand up, clutching a small object the size of a walnut, dripping with blood.

The skipper took it from him, then strode towards me through the gore on the deck.

“You ah-wight, Mistah?”

I managed a weak: “Why?” Indicating the butchery on the deck, I added: “Why this?”

The skipper opened his hand, to reveal the small item retrieved from the kyte’s wing. It was almost perfectly rounded, with the texture of an orange skin. “A genodus.”

“Genodus?”

“Ayuh. Similah to a tumah. As kytes grow oldah, they-ha staht growin’ in they-ha wings. All of ‘em have a few, some of ‘em as many as half-a-dozen.”

“What…does it do?” I asked, staring at the genodus in his hand.

“Ah!” The skipper grinned. “They-ha’s some folk what believe that a genodus, dried and powdeh’ed, enhances and sustains noctuh’nal activities, if you git my meanin’.”

“Not really.”

He sighed. “They-ha’s plenty willin’ to pay good money foh just a scrit pinch of this stuff, in brothels from Bangah and Pawtlan, to Bahstan and even New Yahk.”

I stared at him, flabbergasted. “What about the meat? Can you…”

“You cahn’t eat it, Mistah, tastes like mummified bog lemming hide.”

He looked at me expectantly, and I realised he was measuring my reactions. When I said nothing, he continued: “Ole Ted was insistent you’d be paht of our fihst hunt.”

“He did?”

“Ayuh. Told me to tell you this…” The skipper briefly shut his eyes, as if searching his memory, and then continued. “If you’s feelin’ squeamish now: Do. Not. Go. To. Hopeless.”

I stared at him. I was strengthened by a sudden, granite conviction: No matter what awaited me down on Hopeless, no matter what manner of creatures I would encounter there…nothing could possibly equate the brutal savagery mankind was capable of.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Ready to touch down on the island.”

The skipper nodded resignedly. Something in my altered bearing changed his attitude. He became apologetic as he gestured at the mess amidships. “I git an invalid fathuh, a dementin’ muthah, a widowed sistah, a harried wife, and a total of five li’l uns at home. Ten mouths to feed altogethah, Mistah. Same such tales foh the rest of the crew.”

“I understand,” I said, sincerely. “Tis much of the same in Sussex for working folk.”

He nodded again, then made his way back amidships. Most of the wing had been shredded, one more genodus found. The skipper supervised the crew, half of whom, using boat hooks, began to turn the kyte’s feebly struggling body about to get at the intact wing. The other half of the crew began gathering chunks of flesh and strands of sinew to throw overboard, into the sky where gulls and other feathered scavengers I didn’t recognise wheeled around screaming frantically, nose-diving after the plummeting remnants of kyte, or contesting ownership of a seized titbit.

The utter barbarity continued when the other wing was in place on the deck, its soon demolished ruin yielding three more genoduses, much to the crew’s delight.

When the kyte was released from our bonds, it seemed barely alive at first, but somehow still contained enough strength to attempt to beat at the air with the stubs of its wings as it began its free-fall to the ground. To Hopeless.