Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

Bigspoon

For most homes, having someone banging on the front door at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning is, generally speaking, an unusual event. The Squid and Teapot is certainly no exception to this, and when the stout doors of the inn rattled to a sudden matutinal tattoo one sabbath, it almost caused Ariadne Middlestreet to spill her coffee.
“Good morning Mrs Middlestreet,” said a polite, but spotty, youth to Ariadne, when she answered the knock. He was accompanied by a carbon copy of himself, down to the last pimple. Ariadne immediately recognised them as being the Westonbirt twins, Winston and Wendell, from the orphanage.
“And what are you boys after at this hour of the day?”
Ariadne is not a particularly maternal woman, invariably regarding anyone on the island, who has the misfortune to be under the age of twenty-five, as being up to no good. In this she is rarely disappointed.
“Miss Calder sent us, ma’am,” said Winston – though it could well have been Wendell. “We were raided by spoonwalkers again last night. Miss Calder wants to know if there is any spare cutlery in your attic, please.”
“Dam’ spoonwalkers,” said Ariadne, with venom. “Tell Miss Calder I’ll bring some over later.”
“We need them now ma’am,” said Wendell or Winston, with some trepidation in his voice. “We can’t do breakfast without.”
Ariadne sighed.
“Okay. What do you need?”
“A dozen dessert spoons and two large ladles, please ma’am.”
“Ladles? Spoonwalkers have no use for ladles, they’re way too big.”
“Well, they definitely took two last night.”
Ariadne sighed again.
“Stay here, you two, and don’t touch nothing. I’ll go and find you some cutlery.”
Ten minutes later the Westonbirt twins were happily jangling back to the orphanage with a bulging bag of non-matching dessert spoons and two ladles.

It always amuses Philomena Bucket when Drury, the skeletal hound, picks up a scent. His bony tail immediately lifts before he circles around, sniffing the ground, oblivious to everything else around him. All Philomena can ever do is to follow, if she chooses to. For Drury’s part, he has no need of an audience. The chase is enough. On the day of our tale, however, she decided to keep the dog in sight and see what he might find.
It was not until they dropped from the headland to the beach that Philomena could see the cause of Drury’s excitement. Imprinted deep into the dark sand was a set of cup-shaped indentations, as though a large and quite heavy biped, with exceedingly strange feet, had walked along the shoreline. Philomena racked her brains as to what manner of creature might leave such tracks, but nothing came to mind. She knew that there was every chance that answer to the mystery might be totally unremarkable, but her curiosity was aroused. She decided to get someone else to take a look before the tide came in and washed the prints away forever.

“It’s beyond me,” admitted Norbert Gannicox. “Looking at the stride, whatever it is must be at least four and a half feet tall. We’ve had some rum things wandering around the island over the years, but I’ve not seen anything with feet like that.”

The talk in The Squid and Teapot that evening was of the strange tracks that Drury had discovered. Harvey Winstone said that he had spotted similar ones in the mud behind the orphanage.
“They were like small bowls. I’ve never seen anything with feet like that,” he added.
Ariadne, listening with half an ear from behind the bar, suddenly paled.
“Spoonwalkers stole a couple of ladles from the orphanage the other night,” she said. “I reckon it’s to do with that.”
“But they’re too small to use ladles as stilts,” protested Norbert. “Dessert spoons are more their size.”
“But what if there’s one that’s not so small anymore?” said Harvey, a note of menace in his voice. “What if one has mutated into something bigger?”
Harvey had recently found some comic books washed up in a crate. Much of it was literally pulp-fiction, as most of the comics had become little more than a salt-sea mush, but deep in the middle of the crate a few had survived the worst ravages of the ocean. These had titles such as ‘Weird Stories’, ‘Creepy’ and ‘Tales to Astonish’. Harvey, innocent of the ways of comic-book writers, believed every word he read.
An uncomfortable silence descended upon the bar. Regular sized spoonwalkers were bad enough – just a glance from one of them had been known to drive folks close to madness. If there was something bigger out there, who knew what havoc they might cause?
“I’ve no idea what mutated means,” admitted Norbert, “but it sounds quite nasty. What are we going to do?”
There was a sudden hubbub of voices, each one advocating violence of some degree.
“Hold on,” broke in Bartholomew Middlestreet, ever the voice of reason. “Before we get too carried away, has anyone actually seen whatever it is that’s making these tracks?”
Nobody replied.
“Then I think, until we know exactly what we’re up against, we do nothing except be vigilant.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, but that night, as each customer made their way home, they could not help but tread with trepidation.

It is widely thought that the name ‘Bigspoon’ was coined by Harvey Winstone, who’s recent exposure to ‘Tales to Astonish’ etc. had brought to his attention the possible existence of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, arguably the North American cousin of the fabled Yeti of the Himalayas. Since delving into this newly discovered world of cryptozoology, Harvey harboured a secret hope that Bigfoot’s big feet would one day stalk Hopeless, but until then he had to be content with a home-grown version.
(As if the island doesn’t have more cryptozoological specimens than you can shake a spoon at!)

Once the creature had been given a name, it was not long before there were reports of Bigspoon being sighted all over the island. He was five feet tall, or sometimes eight feet tall. He was green and scaly or there again, brown and hairy. He roared, he squeaked, he spoke fluent English… and he was only ever seen in passing, from the corner of one eye, in a bad light, obscured by mist and behind trees. He was, in short, an enigma. There were as many varieties of Bigspoon as there were people who had claimed to have seen him. One thing that all agreed on, however; his round, ladle-shaped tracks were everywhere. Panic began to grip the island.

It was maybe a week or ten days following the robbery at the orphanage that Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, managed to put a stop to Bigspoon’s ramblings for good.
It was not quite midnight when he stopped for his break. Philomena had, as ever, left a generous slice of Starry-Grabby pie and a bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ outside his front door. Settling down, with his back against a rock, Rhys was about to take the first bite of his meal when a sudden movement caught his attention. Well aware of the tales surrounding Bigspoon, he was at once wary, hoping that his trademark effluvium would be enough to keep the creature at bay. He sat stock still and waited.

The figure that emerged into the moonlight was neither green and scaly, nor brown and hairy. It was a small boy with a ladle lashed to each leg, who hobbled awkwardly across the ground, in search of suitably soft patches of earth into which he might imprint his strange footmarks. Rhys smiled to himself, appreciating the hoax. He had been an orphanage boy himself and had often played tricks on the adults in his life. Hopeless, in the middle of the night, however, was not a safe place for anyone except the Night Soil Man, much less scrawny, adolescent hoaxers, such as the one he now saw before him..

Wendell, or possibly Winston, stopped in his tracks as a blood-curdling, animal howl issued from the nearby hillside. It was followed by the noise of rocks being crashed together, to the accompaniment of an assortment of yelps, gibbers and screeches. It sounded as though all the denizens of Hell had decided to hold an improptu party on Hopeless. Wendell (we’ll agree that it’s Wendell) kicked off the ladles and sped back towards the orphanage and the safety of the open window where his brother waited. Rhys lingered a while then wandered down to the spot where that the would-be Bigspoon had recently vacated, picked up the ladles and dropped them into his backpack.

“Did you hear it last night?” asked Harvey Winstone, clutching a tankard of ale close to his chest.
A murmur of assenting voices confirmed that they had, indeed, heard the wrath of Bigspoon. One or two swore that they had watched him raging over the hills, howling at the moon before eventually disappearing into the mist.
Philomena Bucket deftly carried another tray of drinks to across the crowded room, before going outside for a breath of air. Standing in the pool of yellow light by the open front door, she smiled to herself as she strained to read again the note that she had found outside the Night Soil Man’s cottage, when delivering his supper earlier that evening. It had been secured to the ground beneath the weight of two large ladles.
The message was clear enough:
“They won’t be needing these at the orphanage any more. Neither will Bigspoon. Yours ever, Rhys xx”

The Wanderer

The apple trees growing in the shade of the Gydynap hills are far from beautiful. They are old, gnarled and twisted, and, on the odd occasions that any of them bears fruit, the apples are small and bitter, barely good enough for making cider. This said, however, every springtime, without fail, they produce a gorgeous and fragrant blossom that speaks of a harvest that never arrives.
Philomena Bucket has always waited impatiently for the coming of the blossom; it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland. She had few happy recollections of her early life, but the flowering of the trees in her grandmother’s orchard always glowed in her mind like a beacon. After her grandmother died, the apple orchard, and all the stuff of memories, were brutally snatched away, and the adults of the Bucket family found themselves in the workhouse in Dublin. Philomena and her sisters were deposited in the Foundling Hospital for Orphans and Abandoned children, just south of the River Liffey.
Philomena dismissed those dark and distant days from her mind as she plucked a sprig of blossom and pinned it on her coat, laughing as a shower of petals cascaded from the tree, covering her hair and shoulders like confetti.
As spring days go on the island of Hopeless, this particular one was decidedly… well, almost spring-like. The wind was moderate, there was no apparent sign of rain, and the usual shroud of mist that hung over the land was surprisingly light. The green shoulders of the Gydynaps rose up into clear grey skies before her; it would be more than optimistic to expect sunshine as well.
Philomena hummed a little tune and walked with a definite spring in her step as she made her way towards the summit of the hills. Drury, the skeletal hound, sensing her mood and wagging his bony tail, gambolled like a lamb over the grass (not that Drury had recently witnessed a lamb gambolling, at least, not for the last hundred years or so).
The Gydynaps are possibly the strangest place on the island. This is not to say that there are – to quote the traditional Scottish prayer – a greater number of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties wandering around there than on any other part of Hopeless. It is, instead, as if the hills are host to an indefinable presence, quietly possessing an aura of awe and antiquity that even the most insensitive soul could not fail to feel. And this is why they are shunned, for, unlike Philomena, most Hopelessians prefer the terrors that can be seen, and hopefully avoided, to the ageless, invisible, threat, that many believe pervades the Gydynaps.

Drury had spotted a crow foraging in the grass and decided that it would be worthwhile chasing the bird. Like crows the world over, this one had every confidence in her ability to avoid capture, and made a point of keeping just enough space between Drury and herself in order to give the dog the impression that he might just catch her.
Philomena was not worried when he disappeared from sight. Drury was his own master and would find her when he grew tired of the fruitless chase.

As the morning drew on the day became suddenly colder and a freshening wind brought ever-thickening wisps of mist on to the hills. Philomena drew her coat closer about her and was on the point of deciding to go back to The Squid and Teapot, where she had a room, when a bent figure, wearing something resembling a monk’s habit, appeared a few yards in front of her, as if out of nowhere. Philomena rubbed her eyes and concluded that the mist must be denser than she had thought.
“Good morning,” said Philomena, cheerily.
The elderly stranger raised a hand in greeting and Philomena thought he said,
“Imagine what.”
“Imagine what? What should I imagine?” asked Philomena confused.
The two looked at each other for a few seconds before Philomena realised what he had said.
“Maidin mhaith” she repeated back with a beaming smile, dredging up what she recalled of the language her grandmother had spoken.
The old man looked around, confused. The landscape had unexpectedly changed. From these high hills he could see that they were surrounded by water.
“What is this island called?” he asked, in a dialect of Irish that sounded archaic and unfamiliar, but to Philomena’s amazement she understood him perfectly.
“Why, this place is Hopeless,” she replied, surprising herself by answering him fluently in his own tongue.
“Indeed it is,” he said. “I have wandered for years, through hollow lands and hilly lands, but I have never seen anywhere quite as dismal as this.”
“Oh, it’s not too bad once you get used to it,” said Philomena, unconvincingly.
The self-confessed wanderer gave her a long, hard stare.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “I feel that I do… maybe a long time ago. Things are a bit hazy since I went into that hazel wood…”
‘Cheeky beggar’ thought Philomena, ‘I’m young enough to be his granddaughter,’ but she just smiled sweetly and said,
“Sorry, I don’t think so.”
Just then a slight breeze swept by, disturbing the apple blossom that still clung to her hair and shoulders.
The old man gazed at her, his eyes suddenly alight with longing and wonder.
“Yes… yes I do know you,” he said. “There is apple blossom in your hair… You are the one… I know it.”
Before Philomena could object, he had reached forward and taken her by the hands,
then, with surprising strength and agility, drew her quickly towards him and kissed her full on the lips.
“Ah… I taste fish,” he said. “You were once a fish, a trout. Do you recall?”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” said Philomena, more than a little taken aback, and pulling away hastily. “I had a bit of cold Starry-Grabby pie for me breakfast. That’s what you can taste. I was never a fish. Honestly. I’d have remembered.”
The old man looked dejected.
“It was a very attractive trout,” he said. “All silvery. I could have sworn you were she. That is such a shame. But… you don’t fancy walking through some long, dappled grass with me, just in case you’re mistaken. It might bring it all back to you.”
“No thanks,” said Philomena, who was becoming increasingly uneasy. “Besides there’s no long grass up here, dappled or otherwise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said morosely. “To be honest, I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever find her. She only ever called me by my name once, then she ran off, faded into the brightening air, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.”
“Don’t give up hope,” said Philomena, feeling suddenly sorry for him. “Stick with it, and you’ll be sure to bump into her eventually.”
“Hmm, I hope you’re right,” replied the old man. “But if by chance you do see the girl, say that her Aengus is still wandering around looking for her.”
Without saying any more he turned and, with a wave of his hand, walked into the gathering mist.
Philomena stared after him until he disappeared from sight. Lost in her own thoughts, she was suddenly brought back to earth when Drury pulled up alongside her, his tail still wagging.
Her reverie broken, she tried in vain to catch the last few ragged ribbons of ancient Gaelic speech which floated through her mind, before they disappeared forever. But they were gone, like snow on the water, and with those words faded all memory of her encounter with the Wandering Aengus.

With apologies to W.B. Yeats.

An Egg in the Attic

It was decided that the attics of The Squid and Teapot were in dire need of a good spring-clean. This was by no means an annual chore, but since Doc Willoughby had thoroughly ransacked the rooms, frantically searching for information concerning European warships of the sixteenth century, then failing to clear up after himself, the place was in a dreadful mess. This seemed to be as good a time as any to indulge in spot of a tidying-up.
While Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet swept and dusted, Norbert Gannicox and Philomena Bucket set about the daunting task of putting the multitude of scattered books back into some semblance of order. The work was not particularly arduous but the profusion of dust was inclined to make the throats of the four workers particularly dry. Fortunately, being an inn, The Squid was reassuringly well furnished with thirst-quenching drinks, the chief one being ‘Old Colonel’ Ale, the pride of the Ebley Brewery. A pitcher was brought up from the bar and three foaming pints were poured. Norbert Gannicox, who had abstained from alcohol for many years, contented himself with a glass of sarsaparilla. Unsurprisingly, this too was produced by the Ebley Brewery, following the discovery, some years earlier, of a crate packed with sassafras roots and assorted spices. It is sufficient to say, however, that the non-alcoholic beverage, even when it was called root beer, was not universally popular with the more robust tipplers of the island; in other words, pretty much everyone.
“I’m surprised that you’re teetotal, being a distiller,” commented Philomena, casually.
Norbert looked at her sadly.
“I gave up the booze when my dad was drowned in a vat of his own liquor,” he said. “It was five or six years before we eventually found him. He was perfectly preserved.”
“Ah well, at least he was in good spirits when he died,“ laughed Philomena.
There was an awkward silence for a moment. If Hopeless was the sort of place where tumbleweeds were inclined to tumble, one would have definitely blown through the room.
Then everyone spoke at once, commenting on the scarcity of gnii; the need to mend the cistern in the flushing privy; Mrs. Beaton’s latest tirade and a general enquiry whether anyone had seen Drury that day. In fact, any subject that avoided mentioning death, barrels, drowning or spirits was fair game for a few minutes.

The work was almost finished when Philomena spotted a dusty cardboard box lying on a high shelf. Perching herself precariously on a rickety step stool, she reached it down and, much to the annoyance of the others, blew off a cloud of dust and peered inside.
“Whatever is this…?” she asked no one in particular, drawing out a mauve, egg-shaped, object. It had an array of, what appeared to be, flat-bottomed beads around the outside.
“Good gosh,” exclaimed Bartholomew, narrowly avoiding profanity. “I haven’t seen that in years. As far as I recall it was sent as a gift to someone.”
“Why, I remember seeing that when I was a kid. I’m fairly sure that it was sent to my uncle and aunt,” Norbert broke in, excitedly, “Bill and Constanza Ebley. Constanza was my dad’s younger sister, and Uncle Bill was the founder of the brewery.”
Sensing that they were about to be regaled with a slice of island history, the others settled themselves into some of the more comfortable seats, which had been stored in the attics.
“Uncle Bill was a servant of some description, who arrived on the island with his boss, colonel somebody-or-other. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a few years Bill and Constanza got married and the colonel left the island.
“Left the island?” asked Philomena, incredulously. “How the devil did he do that? I thought it was impossible.”
“It is now,” agreed Norbert, “but in those days there was an Indian trader, a Passamaquoddy, who rowed over from the mainland a couple of times a year. The colonel hitched a ride with him.”
“I’ve heard of the trader,” said Ariadne. “My grandma knew him. His name was Joseph.”
“Well,” continued Norbert, “The colonel travelled all over the world after he left, but managed to keep in contact with uncle Bill, via this Joseph fella. When he heard that they’d had a child, a daughter– which was a bit of a surprise as they weren’t that young – he sent them all sorts of stuff, including this egg.”
“That’s a strange gift to send a kid,” said Bartholomew. “There’s not a lot you can do with it.”
“That’s for sure,” said Norbert, nodding. “It looks too small and fragile.”
“Let’s take a closer look,” said Philomena, lifting the egg from its box.
It took her only a few moments to find that the mauve egg, which was little more than three inches in height, consisted of two enamelled halves, which opened easily. Inside was a heart-shaped locket.
The others watched intently as Philomena pressed a tiny catch on the side of the locket, which immediately sprung open into a clover-shaped picture-frame, each leaf containing a miniature portrait.
“Why, if it isn’t a shamrock!” exclaimed Philomena, then adding with some disappointment, “pity it isn’t green, though.”
“Who are the people in the pictures?” asked Ariadne.
“There’s a man, a woman and a baby girl,” observed Bartholomew, “It must be Bill, Constanza and their daughter, I guess.”
“I don’t think so. That uniform is a bit on the grand side for the British army,” said Philomena, eyeing the gentleman in the picture.  He looked haughty and high-ranking, his uniform festooned with medals and epaulettes. She hadn’t seen any soldiers walking around like that in Ireland.  
“Maybe that’s why it ended up being stored in these attics,” said Bartholomew. “It’s just a cheap ornament. All something like that is good for is to be stuck on a mantelpiece, where you can watch it gather dust.”
“What a shame,” said Ariadne, “though I reckon you’re wrong about it being cheap. I’ll bet that old colonel paid as much as five dollars for it.”
“Then he was robbed,” grunted Bartholomew.
Philomena clicked the picture-frame back together, re-assembled the egg and was about to replace it in the cardboard box, when she noticed a folded piece of paper, yellow with age, lying in the bottom. Carefully opening the page, she squinted in the dim attic light to read what was written.
“It starts with, My Dear Ebley…” she said. “That must be Bill he’s writing to. Then he goes on to say, hope you and Mrs Ebley… blah blah blah… young Mildred… blah blah blah… gift of this special egg…. and then… oh, good grief, what’s this word? Blast it, the man has started writing in French. Does anybody know what Fabergé means…?”

Author’s note:
If the reference to Doc Willoughby suddenly becoming fascinated by history is at all puzzling to you, then you obviously have not read the ‘Little Ship of Horrors’ trilogy of tales. There is no time like the present.
Should you wish to know more about the adventures of Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green and his erstwhile batman, William Ebley, of the King’s own Regiment, you could start by reading the tale ‘Jolly Boating Weather’.
The Passamaquoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs (to give him his full name) first appears in the tale ‘The Wendigo’.

Little Ship of Horrors (Part 3)

Part 1 https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/13/the-little-ship-of-horrors/

Part 2 – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/20/the-little-ship-of-horrors-part-2/

Without doubt, the Gannicox Distillery makes the finest vodka on Hopeless. That said, its only competition exists in the shape of a handful of moonshiners, who invariably go blind and/or insane after the first few distillations. Norbert Gannicox, the distillery’s proprietor, is not, himself, a drinker, but he has no inhibitions when it comes to encouraging others to sample the fruits of his labour. One of the island’s more enthusiastic samplers is Doc Willoughby, and on the evening of this tale, the Doc was being encouraged to sample more of the spirit than was probably good for him.

Doc Willoughby had been tricked into going to The Squid and Teapot by its landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, who was worried about the Doc’s odd behaviour following the arrival, and subsequent destruction, of a haunted Tudor Galleon, ‘Mary Willoughby’ (if you have not yet read the first two instalments of this tale, now might be a good time). Little by little, and drink by drink, the Doc revealed all about his obsession with the galleon, and the plank bearing her name that lay hidden in his basement.
“Voices in my head”, he told them, “promised that I am the rightful heir to the Willoughby estate. That is why the ship defied time and space, it came to find me on Hopeless”.
Bartholomew, Norbert, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket listened with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. They each imagined that the sardonic and cynical Doc Willoughby would be the last person on the island likely to be possessed in this way.
“You see,” slurred the Doc, “the Willoughby’s are English aristocracy. I am of ancient and noble lineage.”
“That’s a load of old blarney,” blurted Philomena. “Why, there’s loads of Willoughbys all around Dublin and Cork. To be sure, me great granny was a Willoughby, so maybe I’m an aristocrat to – or there again,” she added slyly, “ you might be related to me.”
The Doc pulled a face. He didn’t dislike Philomena – at least, no more than he disliked anyone else – but he certainly did not want to be related to her.
“But the ship found me, the rightful heir.” he moaned, before gently sliding off his chair and on to the floor, where he began to doze and snore loudly.
“I think we need to find that plank and put a stop to all this.” said Philomena, briskly.

Philomena and Norbert made their way to the Doc’s home, while the Middlestreets did their best to make the slumbering Doc as comfortable as possible. They had a nasty feeling that he was going to have the mother of all hangovers when he eventually awoke.

The air in the basement was foul and was filled with harsh, unearthly cries and whispers. Not wishing to linger, it took little time for Philomena and Norbert to find the plank. The pair recoiled in horror when they saw the slimy mass that now crawled over it, obscuring the name of the galleon.
“I’m not touching that.” said Philomena, and Norbert was more than inclined to agree.

Ten minutes later, sitting in the Doc’s surgery, they tried to make sense of what was going on. The fact of the ship arriving on the shores of Hopeless was the least of the mysteries.
“There’s plenty of people who have turned up here out of their own time,” said Philomena, conscious that she, herself, had done exactly this.
“But that plank, crawling with slime… the smell… the voices?” said Norbert.
“Whatever it is, it needs to be gone,” said Philomena, “and I think I know how.”

Those of you who have followed the ‘Tales from the Squid and Teapot’ for some time might remember that the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening had arrived, with her head tucked underneath her arm, on the island many years earlier. She had been haunting the stonework that had once been part of Oxlynch Manor, a Jacobean building bought by an American millionaire. He had arranged for the manor to be dismantled, stone by stone, with the intention that it would be reassembled on his estate in Connecticut. Following the Wall Street crash, however, the building was abandoned on the dockside in Newhaven, where the bulk of it was eventually liberated by local opportunists for various building projects. The last few bits ended up on Hopeless and became the new flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, where Lady Margaret made her home as the Headless White Lady. Being an amiable sort of ghost, she struck up a friendship with the barmaid, Betty Butterow. They discovered that by moving a single stone block from the privy and depositing it elsewhere on the island, Lady Margaret could go sightseeing. This is, essentially, a long-winded way of saying what had happened to the ghosts of the ‘Mary Willoughby’. Simply put, following the destruction of the ship, they all migrated to a single plank of wood. Fortunately, being ghosts and therefore ethereal, they didn’t find this arrangement remotely crowded or claustrophobic. What they really wanted, though, was to take up residence in a human, to become legion, and Doc Willoughby took the bait – or at least, would have done, hook, line and sinker, if he had not been stopped at the last moment.

When Philomena found Drury, the skeletal hound, he was enjoying a dream which involved chasing spoonwalkers around the island. His bony legs were twitching and he made small, whimpering noises in his sleep. Philomena smiled fondly at her friend, but time was pressing and Drury had, quite literally, all of eternity in which to sleep.
She gave a low whistle and immediately the dog leapt to his feet and gave himself a rattling shake.
“Come on, Drury,” said Philomena, twirling a stout length of rope, “I need your help.”

Drury quite liked the smell of the basement and pranced around happily, getting under the feet of Philomena and Norbert, who, with some trepidation managed to wind the rope securely around the plank while miraculously avoiding touching the jelly-like substance that covered it, which occasionally reached out as if to grab them. Knowing exactly what was expected of him, Drury picked up the end of the rope in his powerful jaws and dragged the plank up the steps, banging through the surgery and out on to the road. This was a game and the tendrils that writhed and reached out were all part of the fun. Drury had no fear of the spirits that haunted the plank and cheerfully shook them off. Since he had been dead for years (though blissfully unaware of the fact) they could never have possessed him, even if they had wanted to.

Dusk was falling and the pale lights of the passing gnii glimmered gently, high overhead. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stretched and peered blearily out of his bedroom window. He had just woken from a deep, satisfying sleep and was in a particularly good mood, ready to start his shift. Drury was in the garden, which was always a welcome sign. The osseous hound was unique, inasmuch as he had no problem with the smell that seemed to cling to every fibre of Rhys and his home. In fact, in true doggie fashion, Drury revelled in it. Rhys hoped that he would be keeping him company tonight while he completed his rounds. Drury, however, seemed to be concentrating at the moment on other matters, matters which mainly consisted of a length of rope and an old plank which had become entangled in a clump of bushes, refusing to be dragged further.
Always happy to help, Rhys went outside with the intention of freeing the plank, only to be surprised by the dog’s reaction. Drury put himself between the offending bushes and the Night Soil Man, barking and growling with some ferocity. Rhys wondered what could be wrong; the dog had never treated him in this way before. Why, if he had been made of flesh and blood, Drury would be baring his teeth at him. As it was, Drury’s teeth were in a continuous state of bareness, so to speak, so the effect was far less menacing.
“Hey, old fella…” Rhys started to say, then noticed the goo wriggling over the face of the plank. He recognised it immediately.
“There’s only one place for that to go – the sinkhole” he said to himself, then realised that Drury had already thought the same thing. It was one of the dog’s favourite places for hiding the things he had no use for (including the city-slicker, Garfield Lawnside, as was related in the tale ‘The Persian Runner’).

Rhys kept a long ash pole propped by the side of his cottage. The pole had a Y-shaped prong on the one end and was generally used to pick up the baskets of beer and starry-grabby pies which Philomena Bucket routinely delivered from ‘The Squid’. In her early days on the island, when Philomena had no sense of smell, she and Rhys had fallen in love. It was not to be, for sad to relate, close contact with anyone in receipt of fully functioning olfactory senses is out of the question for a Night Soil Man, hence the pole. Today, Rhys decided, it would be needed for pursuits far more important than retrieving starry-grabby pies.

After twenty minutes of fervent pole-wielding, try as he might, Rhys could not dislodge the plank, despite Drury’s equally valiant attempts pulling the rope. As if aware of their fate, the tendrils of slime had attached themselves to anything within reach, and as the dusk descended into darkness, their strength seemed to grow. Just as all hope of shifting the plank faded, Rhys heard a babble of raised voices which grew nearer by the second.
“For gosh-sakes, Doc, you need to come back now…”
It was Bartholomew Middlestreet, getting as close to profanity as he dared.
“No… ish my plank, s’my inheritance…hic.. oh my head….”
Doc, who had sobered up a little, still sounded slightly drunk and somehow different to normal.
“Doc Willoughby… get here now…”
This was Philomena. Rhys winced at the memory of their brief flirtation.
Suddenly the Doc, his eyes glistening, burst through the darkness, totally oblivious to the all-encompassing reek of the Night Soil Man, and tried to grab the rope from Drury’s mouth.
Bartholomew, Philomena, Ariadne and Norbert stood at a safe and respectable distance, barely visible in the moonlight.
“Gimme that…” said the Doc, roughly.
For once in his after-life, Drury did as he was told, probably more out of astonishment than anything else.
Doc Willoughby picked up the rope and dragged the plank towards him. Sensing his presence, the tendrils loosened their grip on the bushes.
“I’ve come to claim my inheritance… I’ll let you all in,” intoned the Doc.
It was only then that Rhys realised that the curmudgeonly old physician was under some sort of enchantment. He needed to do something quickly.
It was as if Drury read the Night Soil Man’s thoughts, and the two sprung into action at the same time. The dog threw himself at Doc Willoughby, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Rhys grabbed the rope and, with the power of someone who had spent years hefting buckets of effluent around, sent the plank spinning into the air. It hung vertically, as if suspended for a moment, then plunged with disarming accuracy into the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole that lay at the end of the Night Soil Man’s garden.
“Nooooooo…” cried the Doc in anguish as the last remnant of the Mary Willoughby, along with its attendant spirits, plunged into the depths of the abyss.
He lay silent, waiting for the inevitable splash. Seconds turned to minutes but it never came.
When Doc Willoughby eventually sat upright, Rhys could see that the strange light in his eyes had faded. His voice had become normal again, although the first few syllables were hardly encouraging.
“Eughhh… aaargh… ack.. that is disgusting,” he choked, retching and covering his nose and mouth as best he could.
Rhys could only smile as the Doc staggered back to the four others, who were still patiently waiting, some yards away.
“Come on Drury,” he said, “it’s time to go to work.”

No one ever mentioned the episode of the Mary Willoughby again. If the Doc remembered any of it, he certainly didn’t say so. He did complain to Norbert Gannicox, however, grousing about a bad batch of vodka. He was certain that it must have been made from night-potatoes, as it had given him awful dreams and a ferocious hangover.

The Little Ship of Horrors (Part 2)

If you’ve not read part 1 yet, start here.

Bartholomew Middlestreet could hardly believe it when he heard himself say to Norbert Gannicox,
“I’m really worried about Doc Willoughby, Norbert.”
Norbert raised his eyebrows in surprise. He could hardly believe it either.
“You’re joking! You’re worried about the Doc…?”
Doc Willoughby was not normally the sort of person to elicit enough sympathy to cause worry in others, but Bartholomew was deadly serious.
“He’s acting really strange… almost being pleasant to folks. And his eyes look a bit too shiny.” he said.
It was Norbert’s turn to look concerned.
“That’s never natural. I wonder what’s brought it on?”
Bartholomew dropped his voice, conspiratorially.
“It’s only happened during the last couple of weeks… ever since that old-fashioned galleon turned up.”

As regular readers will recall, a Tudor galleon had recently sailed to the shores of Hopeless, carrying a strange and egregiously foul cargo. Even the islanders, who believed that they had seen just about every variety of the weird and not-so-wonderful, thought that this was just too much to bear. Eventually the ship was mysteriously destroyed and the jelly-like monstrosity that filled its decks had disappeared. Save for a few planks and bits of rigging, there was nothing much for anyone to salvage. Doc Willoughby, however, unbeknownst to his fellow islanders, came upon a piece of wood bearing the ship’s name. With a strange, unwholesome, light in his eyes he dragged the plank back to his home and hid it in a dark corner of his basement. The name of the ship was ‘Mary Willoughby’.

The thing that had given Bartholomew cause for concern was the way in which the Doc had appeared in The Squid and Teapot and greeted him that very morning.
“Bartholomew, old friend, I wonder if I might beg a favour?”
The innkeeper instinctively turned around, wondering of the coincidence of there being someone else in the bar named Bartholomew. As it happened, the inn was otherwise deserted.
“You mean me?” he stammered.
“Why yes,” beamed the Doc cordially, “I just need a bit of help for some… ah… some research I’ve agreed to do for… um… for Miss Calder at the orphanage… it’s a history project that she’s doing with the youngsters.”
The day was becoming increasingly bizarre; Bartholomew, who had known Doc Willoughby for most of his life, knew for certain that the man had never before entertained any intention of helping out at the orphanage.
“There are plenty of reference books in the attics,” said Bartholomew. “You’re welcome to go and take a look.”
“Capital, capital,” said the Doc warmly, shaking a bemused Bartholomew by the hand.

Doc Willoughby needed to find out whatever he could about the ‘Mary Willoughby’. He usually had little interest in ships of any description, but was now being driven by something beyond his understanding and control.
After much perseverance, and four hours of diligent perusal, he found what he was looking for. Having made his way through several hefty tomes that covered various aspects of European nautical history, Doc came across a list of British warships of the Tudor period. With great excitement, he found the reference that he was after.
“The ‘Mary Willoughby’ was a ship of the English Tudor navy, named after Maria Willoughby, a lady-in-waiting and close friend of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The ship was taken by the Scots in 1536 but recaptured by the English ten years later. She was sold in the latter part of the sixteenth century and never heard of afterwards.”

The entry was sparse, to say the least, but it told the Doc a great deal. If Mary Willoughby was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, and had a ship named after her, then she must have been quite somebody. More amazing still, this ship had, hundreds of years later, somehow found its way to Hopeless. Found its way to him! The Doc reeled with the implications of his find. This was fate; a sign, no less. The Willoughby family must have been really important people, royalty almost… and these were surely his ancestors.
Leaving the nautical history books in an untidy pile, Doc started rooting among the other volumes, to see what he could find out about English aristocracy. It did not take long for him to unearth a noble Willoughby line dating back to the thirteenth century. As he read, the Doc swayed and cackled, the unearthly glimmer in his eye becoming brighter by the minute.
“I always knew that I was special,” he said to himself.

Like all good innkeepers, Bartholomew is interested in his customers. In view of this, he felt compelled to find out what the Doc had been up to. It was not nosiness, he reasoned, but a genuine interest that urged him to go up into the attics after the Doc had hurriedly left, still muttering and chuckling to himself about having noble blood. Although Bartholomew didn’t hold out a great deal of hope, he decided – purely out of interest, you understand – to try and work out what the Doc had been looking for.
The task was much easier than he could have hoped. Doc had not bothered to tidy up after himself and the various open books led like a trail of breadcrumbs to the truth. It was not difficult to ascertain that Doc Willoughby was convinced that he was connected to an old and aristocratic English family. Bartholomew’s heart sank. He had seen something similar happen just months before, when Stratford Park believed that he was descended from the famous Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and that episode had not ended well (as related in the tale ‘Burns Night’).

Once back home, Doc Willoughby made his way down to the basement. By the greasy light of a tallow candle he gazed, like one in a trance, at the plank of wood that leaned against the wall. The words ‘Mary Willoughby’ seemed to dance and shimmer before his eyes. Suddenly, a thin, luminous jelly-like substance rolled along its length, then reached out and lay a tendril on the Doc’s temple.
“Did you find it, Willoughby?” said a voice in his head.
“Oh yes,” whispered the Doc.
“Then let us in, and we will make sure you are given your due.”
The Doc hesitated.
“You know that you want to…”
Suddenly a voice, up in the surgery, broke the spell. It was Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Doc, Doc, where are you? There’s been an accident, come quickly. Bartholomew has fallen down the stairs.”

Let us leave Hopeless, for a while, and journey back to the not-so-merry England of 1582. So far the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’ had been only slightly less barbaric than that of the other Tudor monarchs, and there was little sign of things improving. Traitors were still being hung, drawn and quartered, most things seemed to be punishable by death or maiming, torture was commonplace and heretics were being burned at the stake. These were dangerous times, especially for any who dared eschew the rule of law, or the teachings of the protestant church.
Doctor John Dee, scholar, occultist, astrologer and alchemist, knew that even his position as the Queen’s Counsellor could not protect him. A wrong word, an ill-judged look or a spiteful allegation could be enough to send him to the tower, and thence to the gallows, the flames or the block. Standing in the moonlight, upon the gently rocking deck of the ‘Mary Willoughby’, he was well aware that what he was about to do was madness, but the die was cast and there was no going back.

‘Mary Willoughby’, having been constructed about fifty years earlier, was older than most ships still afloat, and had seen more than her share of bloodshed and death. This suited Dee very well, for he, and his friend and fellow occultist, Edward Kelley, had boarded her with the intention of raising the ghosts of those who had died upon her decks.
“Where better to practise necromancy than on an old deserted warship, far from prying eyes?” Kelley had asked him.
Where indeed? Once the idea was born, the rest fell into place fairly easily. Dee had given the lone seaman, who had been charged with guarding the ship as she lay idle in Deptford docks, the handsome sum of two shillings to desert his post for a few hours. This the man did with a mixture of gratitude and fear, for Doctor Dee was infamous and his reputation and position at court was not to be argued with.

Beneath a full moon Dee and Kelley cast a circle of salt and, standing within it, uttered spells from an old grimoire. They invoked demons and angels, speaking their sacred and forbidden names in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. They called upon the dead to rise, to come and do their bidding, but nothing seemed to happen. After a fruitless and somewhat chilly hour, the two looked at each other in despair.
“Well, that was a waste of time and two shillings,” complained Dee bitterly, who was suffering from cramp and in desperate need of relieving himself.
Kelley sighed and drew out a long clay pipe with a tiny bowl. Into this he patted a equally tiny wad of tobacco. He had spotted a brazier burning on the aftcastle, and stepped out of the circle to get a light. Then he stopped in mid-stride.
“God’s wounds, John, what is this muck under my feet?”
Kelley lifted his foot and found, to his dismay, that a long, sticky strand of some glutinous substance was attached to it. Dee examined the goo closely, then shook his head, puzzled.
“I have never seen its like Edward, but behold…”
Tendrils of slime began squirming and climbing all around them, as if they possessed some diabolical life of their own. Confronting the spirits of the dead was one thing, but this gummy, seemingly sentient, abomination was something else entirely. Without more ado, and a few whimpers of terror, the two fought their way, with no little difficulty, to the side of ship, where they hurriedly descended to the small boat that waited below. Rowing frantically, and in their haste to leave, they failed to notice that a mist had started to form around the ‘Mary Willoughby’, through which they might have spotted some faintly human shapes writhing, as if in torment.

Sitting in a quayside tavern a short time later, the pair sat huddled in a corner, drinking ale.
“Marry, John, that was strange,” said Edward Kelley, still trembling.
“Strange, indeed,” agreed John Dee. “I still cannot fathom what that vile jelly might have been.”
A young man, sitting just within earshot, looked up abruptly.
“Vile jelly? That’s a good phrase. I might be able to use that one day,” he said to himself.
Young Will had come down to London expressly to sell the gloves that his father made, back home in the Midlands. He had absolutely no intention of doing that forever, though. He hoped one day to become a moderately successful playwright.
“Well, it’s either going to be, or not to be.” he thought, stoically.

“I can clearly see that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with you,” said Doc Willoughby angrily, a glimmer still in his eyes, but his sunny disposition of earlier having disappeared behind a heavy cloud.
He had hurried to The Squid and Teapot, black medical bag in hand, expecting to find Bartholomew Middlestreet in a mangled mess at the foot of the stairs. Instead the innkeeper was sitting, quite comfortably, at a table in the bar, with Ariadne, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox.
Ariadne left her seat, crossed the room and quietly closed and locked the door.
“No, I’m fine,” agreed Bartholomew. “The truth is, you don’t seem to be yourself these days, and we’re all worried. What’s up Doc?”

To be continued…

The Little Ship of Horrors

The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’.
While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships.
To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning.
Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be.
Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).

Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts.
Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged.
The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them.
“That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen.
“And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.

As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.

Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.

“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.”
“What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox.
“It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.”
“But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert.
An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly.
“I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.”
There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added,
“And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”

It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine.
To be continued…

Witches and mermaids

A vision, a memory, a dream within a dream.

Have you seen how the witches gatherer around the ancient dish, backs hunched as they feast together on the body of a mermaid?

A captivating image, but even so the scene does not feel real. Are you seeing ghosts and memories?  Here in the shadow of mausoleums, in the hazy recollection of days when this place had wealth and prospects.

The witches are so raggedy, their clothes dirt stained, their faces tired and you think they might be eating a mermaid out of need, not malice.

You know, in the way that you know things in dreams, that the dish was not meant to carry the meat of mermaids. There is magic in it, and it is not the magic of desperation. You feel that you should know what purpose that dish serves. You feel you should ask, but you are silent, like a useless grail-questing knight who does not know how to speak at the critical moment. You wait, having sensed the dish itself will speak to you. When at last it does, the sound of it is a whisper of silk over silver.

The dish tells you that the witches and the mermaids are the same. They eat each other. Don’t take them too literally. It’s just a dream.

( A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey)

The Lady of the Lake

Various articles in the ‘Vendetta’, and indeed, in these very ‘Tales of the Squid and Teapot’, assert that a Viking settlement once thrived on the island we now know as Hopeless, Maine. The often violent culture attributed to the Norsemen has been well documented, and it is known that many of those whom they did not kill would be taken into slavery; the Vikings who came to Hopeless were no exception. We can be confident that their slaves were brought from the British Isles, a fact evinced by the many Old-English surnames and place-names which still survive on the island.
For how long the Vikings remained on Hopeless is something of a mystery. Scholars have speculated that this must have occurred in one of those brief chapters in the history of the island, when the climate was very much kinder than it is today. What seems clear is that the deterioration of the environment was instrumental in their leaving for somewhere a little more hospitable, but not without first trying to appeal to whichever deity they believed to be responsible for this shift in their fortunes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the most desperate measure of Old Norse culture was human sacrifice. While animals were regularly dispatched to please the pantheon of Asgard, to offer up a human life was reserved for only the most sacred of reasons – and this is how a raven-haired beauty, the slave-girl Viviane, found herself selected for the honour of appeasing the gods.

The Viking term for sacrifice was blót. It is ironic that, while contemporary Hopeless is mostly one large blot on the landscape, the lake they chose for this particular blót is picturesque, even today. Needless to say, the virginal Viviane found nothing attractive about the lake, as the völva, the seeress, chanted as she bound the maiden’s arms behind her back and unseen hands held her beneath the icy waters. Whatever her final thoughts were, we shall never know; all we can guess is that they were intent on vengeance.

As the months and years slipped by it became clear that Viviane’s death did nothing to halt the mysterious fog that quietly insinuated itself on and around the island. Worse still, it brought with it a variety of horrors that even the fearless Norsemen could not tolerate. During those long, grim years, the vengeful spirit of Viviane brooded beneath the dark water, growing stronger as she fed upon the malevolence that now suffused the land. Eerie tales began to be told of otherworldly singing emanating from the midst of the lake, and of the dreadful apparition that would break its surface to claim any unfortunate young man who chanced to pass by.

Almost a thousand years passed, and those who have inhabited Hopeless throughout that time have wondered at the singular beauty of the Haunted Lake, as it became known. Of course, they were not aware of its history and of the girl who was sacrificed to an uncaring deity. They only guessed at the existence of her malign spirit; the Haunted Lake’s cold and unforgiving guardian. While the presence of vampires and werewolves, spiteful spoonwalkers and various nameless, razor-toothed and tentacled creatures, were real threats and there to be avoided at one’s peril, the dreadful glamour that tended and pervaded the lake was far more terrifying and chilling in the extreme. Its very beauty, in the heart of that harsh and ill-favoured landscape, invoked dread, and none would venture anywhere near its shores.

It must be near to a century ago that Randall Middlestreet, (the grandfather of Bartholomew, the current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) was the island’s Night Soil Man. The precarious nature of the Night Soil Man’s job, traversing Hopeless during the hours of darkness, demands that he employs an apprentice, someone to take over the essential work in the event of his injury or death. Randall himself was elevated from apprentice to the role Night Soil Man at the early age of fifteen, when his master was unfortunately consumed by a ravening monster (this was described in the tale ‘The Wendigo’, should you be interested). Apprentices were always boys recruited from the orphanage, essentially hefty introverts who could be trusted to endure the necessary isolation and heavy lifting that the job required.
Randall’s apprentice, at the time of our tale, was Mortimer Whiteway, an intelligent, bookish lad who preferred old tales of heroic valour to anything that the orphanage could offer. The opportunity to escape and lead the life of a Night Soil Man held a certain – not to say surprising – sense of allure for the young man. By the age of sixteen he was as able to heft a bucket on to his back, or navigate the island in darkness, as Randall himself. He loved his work, but deep in his heart there was always a nagging feeling that something was missing from his life. While previous generations of Night Soil Men had been thankful that their smell had protected them from the various denizens that terrified other islanders, Mortimer ached for action and adventure.
On Hopeless the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ should always be in the forefront of one’s mind.

It was a moonlit night in spring when they came upon the lake. Randall’s rounds rarely brought him this way, for no one had lived in the area for as long as any could remember. He had heard the stories, of course, of the Lady of the Lake, whose enchanting song captivated the unwary and enticed them into her watery realm. It was hard to believe, looking at it in moonlight, pretty as a picture. However, for all of its charm, Randall believed every word of the legend. Hopeless did not do ‘pretty’ and that in itself was enough to warn him that there was danger here. Mortimer, on the other hand, had other views.
“Is she really there?” he asked.
“I believe so, but no one has ever seen her, as far as I know,” replied Randall. “But there again, if they had they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.”
“I’d like to… and I’m going to,” said Mortimer determinedly. “I’ll find a way.”
“Best you keep away, or you’ll regret it,” replied the Night Soil Man severely, a shiver of foreboding running down his spine.

As I have mentioned before, Mortimer was a keen reader of adventure stories. One of his favourite tales was that of Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast of his ship in order to hear the song of the sirens. Thinking of this, it was not long before the beginnings of an idea formed in Mortimer’s mind. If Odysseus was able to listen to a siren-song all those years ago, so could he. The main drawback was that he could not do this alone; he would need help in safely securing himself to a tree. Knowing that there would be little point in approaching Randall, who would doubtless try to stop him, he resolved to ask a friend from the orphanage, one Jarvis Woodchester. Jarvis was a few years Mortimer’s junior, but, like him, a lover of any story that involved derring-do. Jarvis was also deeply envious of Mortimer, who had escaped the orphanage and gained a certain amount of celebrity on Hopeless, as the Night Soil Man’s apprentice.
It was about a week later, on Mortimer’s night off, that two shadowy figures could be seen slipping quietly down the cobbled street that passed beneath the windows of The Squid and Teapot and, a little further along the road, creeping by the infamous Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. They made their way into the heart of the island, towards the lake. Had you been there and looked closely, you would have noticed that one of the figures wore a clothes peg on his nose.
“Tie it as tightly as you can, Jarvis,” said Mortimer. “Afterwards, get far away from here until first light, then come and set me free.”
The younger boy nodded, but said nothing, trying not to inhale the unpleasant aroma that even an apprentice Night Soil Man carries with him.

It was late, much later than midnight, when Mortimer was lifted from sleep by a song that rang like silver bells in the heavens. For a moment he panicked, wondering where he was. Then he remembered, and the knowledge was far from comfortable. He had slept leaning against the tree, his arm slung over a branch. The ropes that had bound him, however, were inexplicably scattered on the ground. A cold sweat broke out all over his body as the realisation dawned that soon he would be totally at the mercy of the Lady of the Lake. A moment later a dreadful panic enveloped him entirely, when he felt himself become paralysed, as though bonds far more secure than the ropes, now lying useless at his feet, held him in an iron grasp.

She rose from the dark waters of the lake without causing as much as a ripple on its surface. Although the moon was obscured by clouds and the night hung like a suffocating shroud upon the sleeping island, Mortimer could see the Lady of the Lake as clearly as if she was bathed in sunlight. Her lips made no movement but her siren song filled the air as she silently glided towards him, arms outstretched. Mortimer squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it made no difference. Her pale, beautiful face was indelibly etched upon the darkness; it was as if he had stared for too long at the sun. And then she was upon him, wrapping her arms around his still form, pressing her mouth against his. Mortimer melted into the embrace. If this was death, then so be it.
He felt himself being drawn towards the lake, her hold upon him firm but gentle, with all the seductive insistence of a lover. He stepped willingly into the icy water, resigned to his fate. It was then that everything changed. The arms that caressed him became cold and hard and the mouth pressing against his was lipless and skeletal. Mortimer opened his eyes wide and a scream ripped from his body as he beheld the full horror of the hideous apparition that held him in its grasp. His scream turned to helpless gurgles as the malevolent spirit that had once been the beautiful, raven-haired Viviane, dragged him into the inky depths of the lake.

When it was clear that Mortimer had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, Randall Middlestreet soon guessed what had happened. He silently cursed himself for taking the young man anywhere near the Haunted Lake. Upon returning to the spot, it did not take long to discover the discarded length of rope lying near its banks. He knew then, for certain, that Mortimer had gone forever. Randall sadly shook his head and made his way back to his cottage with a heavy heart, mourning the loss of his friend and apprentice.

It was a day or two later, as he was preparing to begin his rounds, that Randall saw a figure standing carefully downwind on the path, some yards in front of him. It was boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age.
“Good evening Mr Middlestreet,” the boy said politely. “I hear you might be looking for a new apprentice.”
Randall raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that I do.”
“Oh… word gets around. Someone said that Mort Whiteway had disappeared.”
Randall was puzzled but, on reflection, it’s hard to keep a secret in a place like Hopeless.
“As a matter of fact I do need an apprentice. Are you interested?”
Jarvis Woodchester grinned slyly to himself, recalling how easy it had been to untie the knots of the rope while Mortimer slept.
“Oh definitely,” he said. “When can I start?”

The Funambulist

“It’s strange how things go round,” confided Bartholomew Middlestreet to Philomena Bucket. “Although the Lypiatt family ran The Squid and Teapot for over a century, my great-great grandpa, who was also named Bartholomew, was the landlord here before Sebastian Lypiatt, founder of that dynasty, washed up on these shores. Luckily for us, old Bartholomew never missed a thing and kept a journal; I found it a few years back in one of the attics. Grab yourself a drink, Philomena. There was a good tale in that journal which might interest you…”


It was a wet and windy night on the island and the snug of The Squid and Teapot was virtually empty. Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, rolled her eyes. She knew exactly what was coming next – a story she had heard a dozen times before.
If he noticed Ariadne’s reaction, Bartholomew chose to ignore it. He took a generous swig of ‘Old Colonel’, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and warmed to his task.
“It’s unlikely that even the founding families actually intended to come here,” he said. “Old Gruffyd Davies, one of the early settlers, implied as much in his memoir ‘Grief is a Thing with Tentacles.’ There was one guy, though, according to great-great grandpa’s journal, who was paid to sail here by a tightrope walker, or a funambulist, as they called them then…”

Bartholomew Middlestreet is, possibly, Hopeless, Maine’s most enthusiastic raconteur. Once he gets going, Bartholomew has been known to hold court for hours, filling his discourse with plenty of homespun wisdom, incidental anecdotes and never missing an opportunity to remind his listeners that his grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, was the only Night Soil Man to hang up his bucket, as it were, and retire, uniquely going on to become a family man. As my allocated spot in the ‘Vendetta’ is somewhat restricted, and the patience of my readers not infinite, it feels only common sense to tell the tale of the funambulist in my own words.

As Bartholomew has stated, few people have arrived on Hopeless voluntarily. It was necessity that drove the lobsterman, Joel Cranham to be persuaded to sail to the island.
It was in the 1840s that the nascent canning industry discovered that the humble lobster, a species that had previously required eating soon after death, could be successfully preserved in a tin. They also discovered that canned lobster was a huge money-maker. Within thirty years the once plentiful Homarus Americanus was fished to the brink of extinction. In response, the state of Maine imposed severe but necessary lobster-fishing restrictions, and the livelihood of Joel Cranham and his fellow lobstermen suffered accordingly. However, no one knew the waters around Maine better than Joel, so it was unsurprising that, when he was offered more than the equivalent of a year’s income to pilot a specially adapted Downeaster around some of the islands peppering the coast, he thought that all of his financial problems had been solved for good.

Joel’s benefactor was a slightly built and ridiculously wealthy young man named Lancelot Pensile. Like many an impressionable youth, Lancelot had been inspired by the recent feats of one Jean François Gravelet. Gravelet, who was better known to his adoring audience as The Great Blondin, was a funambulist extraordinaire who had famously traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope several times.
Being naturally athletic, Lancelot Pensile soon mastered the art of funambulism and, in a very short time, had become almost as adept on a tightrope as his hero.

For reasons which will become clear, Pensile had devised a plan which would involve linking just a few of Maine’s several thousand islands to each other by high-wires. These islands would, by necessity, need to be situated fairly close together. He had installed, on the deck of the Downeaster, an extremely large drum which held an equally large reel of hemp cord, two inches thick and half a mile long. The plan was to visit an island, erect a high platform – if nothing suitable already existed – and run the rope to a neighbouring island. By ferrying back and forth to the mainland for more reels of rope, Pensile hoped to create a slender highway over the ocean, upon which he could wander at will, thereby gaining an enviable reputation to rival that of The Great Blondin himself.

For a while, all seemed to be going as planned. Four islands had been bridged and Pensile had, indeed, proved that his plan was surprisingly feasible. It was only when the expedition hit a dense fog-bank that progress was halted. Joel was certain that an inhabited island was hidden somewhere inside, for although there had been no warning blast of a fog-horn, he had seen the beams of a lighthouse struggling to penetrate through the ghastly murk during the previous night. After a short conference with the skipper of the Downeaster it was decided to drop anchor and that Joel and Lancelot would run a tender ashore. A light rope, about an inch thick, was attached to the tender at one end, and to the hempen cable at the other, so that it could be conveyed easily to the island.
All went well until the tender floundered upon the rocks and the two men were forced to wade to safety, with Pensile steadfastly gripping the rope with one hand and a carpet-bag with the other..

While being shipwrecked would have dampened the spirits of most people, Lancelot Pensile was extraordinarily cheerful, especially when he spotted the lighthouse. This was exactly what he needed; a tall, solidly built structure to which he could secure his cable.
As you have undoubtedly guessed, the pair had arrived on Hopeless. In the best traditions of the island, a small crowd had gathered even before the two had managed to get on to dry land. It took little time for Pensile to introduce himself and his companion and explain his plan. At first no one appeared to be particularly impressed, then D’Arcy Chevin grew curious.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, suspiciously.
“To emulate my hero, The Great Blondin. Why Blondin has traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope many times.”
Chevin had absolutely no idea what or where Niagra Falls might be, but it sounded impressive.
“And you could do that?”
“Indubitably!” exclaimed the young man, brimming with confidence.
D’Arcy Chevin had as sharp a mind as any and had quickly worked out that here was a possible means of escape from the island. If Pensile could get across on foot he was sure that he could manoeuvre his way to the next island by hooking a leg over the cable and dragging himself along. In time, it might be possible that more lengths of rope could be added and some contraption assembled to allow all and sundry to leave whenever they chose. If getting to the mainland meant undertaking a series of hops from island to island, D’Arcy Chevin told himself that he was the man to do it.

Word soon got around that escape from Hopeless might at last be possible and, as a result, there was no shortage of willing hands offering to set up the high-wire and provide whatever help the funambulist might require. The heavy hempen rope was soon hauled ashore and, with a block and tackle, hoisted up to the gallery of the lighthouse, where it was pulled taut and unyielding.
As I have said, so often, in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?

The following morning was, as ever, misty but there was no wind to speak of and conditions seemed ideal for a leisurely half-mile stroll on a tightrope over an angry sea.
From the depths of the carpet-bag Pensile retrieved his costume, along with a pair of fine leather shoes with soft soles. A little over an hour later he was ready, poised confidently on the rail of the lighthouse gallery, resplendent in pink tights and a jerkin of blue, which was covered in sequins. In his hands he held a long, slender balancing-pole which some of the islanders had fashioned from a felled ash tree.
“This should not take me too much time at all,” he called down to Joel. “As soon as I’ve reached the other end I’ll tell the crew that you’ve been shipwrecked. It shouldn’t be too long before you get rescued. In the meantime do you have any messages for the folks back home?”
“The missus will wonder where I’ve got to, so you’d best make it sound exciting,” Joel grinned. “Tell my wife that I’m trolling Atlantis, but I still have my hand on the wheel.”
“Will do,” replied Pensile, breezily and, with that, started his death-defying walk over the sea.

Those who watched from the shore could not help but be impressed as the slight figure of Lancelot Pensile, clutching his balancing-pole, disappeared gradually into the mist. The minutes ticked by and, as if mesmerised, everyone continued to stare at the quivering tightrope. Just when the realisation began to dawn that the spectacle was probably over, the rope began to bend worryingly, as if something was pulling it from below, as they might a bowstring. Then, to the shock and dismay of all, there was a loud TWAAAANG and the rope buckled and lurched upwards. Somewhere, in the distance, they heard an ominous splash, such as a body might make, if dropped into the water from a great height. Seconds later there followed a horrible crunching noise; this was the sort of noise you might expect to hear when a large wooden vessel is being crushed to pieces by some huge and unseen creature, which was, indeed, the case.
Just when the assembled onlookers decided that they had seen and heard enough excitement for one day, a long ash pole hurtled down from on-high and crashed into the top of the lighthouse, sending shards of wood and lumps of masonry flying everywhere.
“What the hell caused that?” yelped Joel. All the blood had drained from his face.
D’Arcy Chevin, all hopes of escape dashed, looked crestfallen. He turned to leave, then stopped and looked squarely at Hopeless’ newest resident.
“You’ll get used to it.” he replied. “There are giants out there, in the canyons.”
People trailed away in silence. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet stayed behind, generously offering Joel the hospitality of The Squid and Teapot and hoping for a good story to add to his journal in return.

It was nearing midnight when Bartholomew finished his tale.
“What became of Joel?” asked Philomena.
“He eventually came to terms with losing his old life and settled down and raised a family. His descendants are all gone now, except Rhys, a great-great grandson. He was in the orphanage from an early age and now he’s our Night Soil Man.
Philomena shifted uncomfortably. When she first landed on Hopeless she had completely lost her sense of smell and had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the Night Soil Man.
“And what happened to your great-great grandfather?” she asked quickly, seeking to change the subject.
Bartholomew lowered his voice.
“It’s believed that he was murdered by a scoundrel called Tobias Thrupp,” he said conspiratorially. “Now, there’s a tale you need to hear…”
“And that can wait until another day,” said Ariadne firmly, and blew out the lights.

Not for the faint-hearted part one.

Not for the faint-hearted

A tale in three parts by Keith Errington (AKA the KEITH OF MYSTERY)

Part one – a beginning and an end

Not much was known about Flora, she lived on the edges of what many in Hopeless just called ‘the town’ – but which was in essence little more than a sprawling, overgrown village. She kept herself to herself and had few visitors. A pale beauty, some suggested she must have suffered from a touch of tuberculosis in her youth – although others pointed out how unlikely this was, as tuberculosis was generally fatal – especially here on Hopeless.

Like many on the island, she was raised in the orphanage and when she came of age she went to work for Mrs Grangewurm – the laundrywoman, but she didn’t last as she started to suffer from syncope – she would faint at inopportune moments. At first, they lasted but a few seconds, and were a minor inconvenience, but over time they became more pronounced and poor Flora became embarrassed and unable to face either Mrs Grangewurm, her job or other people.

So she moved out to the seaward side of town, and somehow, she eked out a living doing washing and ironing for folks who couldn’t afford Mrs Grangewurm’s prices.

And that’s the scene set for our story.

— < ooo > —

Enter young Horace D’Arblay – a thoroughly disagreeable individual of the type usually found in Victorian penny novels tying ladies to railroad tracks for not paying their rent. Although he was brutish and gruff, he nevertheless paid attention to his appearance – his one and only redeeming feature. As if having a neat beard could really compensate for a life of nastiness, meanness and petty grudges. When his latest manservant ran away, he decided to do without and so he called on Mrs Grangewurm to have his collars starched and his trousers cleaned and pressed. There followed an extended argument over prices – which ended with Mrs Grangewurm almost pushing Horace out of her door (she was a tough one, that one), and this meant that Horace had to look elsewhere for sartorial satisfaction.

Asking around in his usual polite and diplomatic manner – that usually consisted of shouts punctuated by thumps – he eventually learnt about Flora and set off to visit her.

Horace arrived at Flora’s humble cottage early evening – the sun was thinking about leaving – but had yet to make up its mind. So there was still enough light to adequately illuminate Flora’s figure as she answered the door to several, unnecessarily loud and insistent knocks.

Even Horace – with his heart made of ironwood – was struck by her beauty. She had a perfectly proportioned face with large, limpid eyes, her skin was wonderfully smooth and almost translucent, and her small delicate hands moved gracefully as she opened the door to face the brute.

For the first time in his life, Horace was stuck for words but managed to mumble something about his trousers, and getting things stiff again. She beckoned him inside and he lay his collars and trousers on the table in the small front room.

Horace now regained his composure and spoke about the work he needed doing and the price he wanted to pay. Flora listened quietly to his demands and simply nodded. The light from the window caught her dress in such a way as to emphasise Flora’s figure, the smooth curves of her breasts lying underneath the thin cotton, and Horace felt a familiar rising of the blood. Horace had always got what he wanted – he never asked permission and never thought of others. Now, with his passion rising he wanted Flora.

He stepped towards her and grabbed her – she didn’t flinch, even though his intentions were plain enough – evident in his burning eyes. He leaned in to kiss her roughly and she fainted, going limp in his arms. Horace simply bared his teeth in an unsightly grin.

— < ooo > —

Are you imagining the hideous fate that is to befall Flora? Are you shocked, dismayed, truly horrified at the events that have come to pass in my story? But no, I am not that kind of writer. Let me continue…

— < ooo > —

Over the next few days, there were no sordid tales in the local paper, no funerals for fallen women, in fact, no stories related to Flora at all. Flora’s small band of loyal customers continued to get their needs met – no shirt went un-ironed, no clothes were left unclean. If anyone asked how Flora was (although they never did) they would have received the reply “same as ever”.

Over the next few months, tales of Flora’s beauty attracted a number of visitors whose motives were not entirely wardrobe-based. Some were young men who were too shy or too polite to actually do anything, but at least they came home smartly dressed with the most immaculate collars and clean, pressed clothes.

A second group were bolder and propositioned Flora – presenting flowers or other small tokens and asking her to walk with them, but Flora always refused in the most wonderfully polite and sensitive manner, and these considerate fellows left it at that – disappointed but satisfied that they had at least tried their luck.

Sadly, there was a third group – a few bold and brazen types who were cocky and self-sure, pushy and occasionally violent who didn’t understand the simple no and would go that one step too far, with no regard for the consequences.

— < ooo > —

In many societies, suicides would be remarked upon, they would be noticed amid much outrage and outpouring of emotions – why didn’t we do more? I wish I had just spoken to them. How could they be so inconsiderate? And the like. In civilised societies, suicides are rare – or at least rare enough to cause comment. Some sectors of society even consider them sinful and frown upon the practice perhaps hoping to stop practitioners repeating their offence. Not so in Hopeless, Maine where suicide is often seen as a valid option for escaping the island. In fact, one could truthfully say that death was pretty much the only option if you were bored with life on Hopeless, Maine. And deaths were surprisingly common as the many interesting obituaries attested to.

And so it was, that no-one really thought too much about it when Horace’s body was found washed up on the shore. He’d probably just walked into the ocean – a common occurrence amongst the lost of Hopeless, Maine; or perhaps he had jumped off of the nearby Corpulent Cliff – a site well-known for attracting those tired of what passes for life on Hopeless.

Our tale continues in Part two…