Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

Goodbye Hopeless

“Goodbye, Hopeless I must leave you,
For it’s time for me to go.
I won’t miss your dismal sea-views
And the cold Atlantic blow.
No more trudging over headland
In the fog and driving rain.
So Farewell, Hopeless, I must leave you.
Goodbye Hopeless Maine.”

Granted, it wasn’t exactly up to the standard of Messrs. Cobb and Barnes, the original authors of the song, but the colonel was quietly pleased with his parody of “Goodbye Dolly Gray”.
The truth was that Colonel Ruscombe-Green was feeling out of sorts. Spending five years on the island of Hopeless had not been his plan when he and his valet, Ebley, had set out to row across the Atlantic and seek their fortunes in America, the land of adventure and opportunity. While the islanders had been generally welcoming and supportive, it was, he reflected, no life for a professional soldier. Too boring by far… except, maybe, for the ever-present threat of being attacked by various night-stalkers. One could not discount the danger, either, of being whisked into the ocean by any passing kraken. These blighters seemed to regard the island in the same way that a child might approach a bran-tub at a vicarage fête; something to dip into for its own amusement. And don’t mention those blasted spoonwalker wallahs, who either drive one mad, steal one’s cutlery, or do both. Oh yes, then there was the unpleasant likelihood of being infested by nameless squiggly things that had a nasty habit of  disappearing up trouser legs. Thank goodness he’d hung on to his puttees after the war. No, life on Hopeless was totally uneventful for a man such as himself.
The colonel’s mood did not improve when an urchin from the orphanage delivered the following wedding invitation.

Mr William Ebley and Miss Constanza Gannicox request the pleasure of your company on the occasion of their marriage…

Ruscombe-Green knew that Ebley had been spending a lot of time at the distillery lately but he had no idea that his ex-valet was doing anything other than helping out; certainly not wooing the owner’s sister. He  supposed that he should be happy for Ebley and his bride-to-be but it was difficult. Despite their differences in rank, education and class, he and his batman had been brothers-in-arms for years and had survived many a scrape together. The colonel, feeling suddenly alone, decided there and then that the time had come to find a means of leaving Hopeless for good.

His opportunity came some weeks later. By then Reverend Crackstone had consecrated the marriage of Ebley and Constanza and the misty island was enjoying a brief spell of basking contentedly in the slightly jauntier weather that masqueraded as late summer on Hopeless. It was while visiting the newlyweds in their cottage next to the distillery that Ruscombe-Green stumbled upon the means for escape. Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, of  the Passamaquoddy tribe, was making one of his bi-annual trips to the island. He was trading furs and brightly coloured textiles in exchange for the Gannicox moonshine that had become extremely popular in certain quarters of the mainland since the introduction of prohibition. With gentle persuasion and the promise of future remuneration, the colonel secured himself a cramped seat in a small canoe, overloaded with bootleg alcohol.
That evening, in The Squid and Teapot, Sebastian Lypiatt threw a farewell party for the colonel. It was there that Ruscombe-Green found out that he had many more friends on the island than he realised. Not least among them was the barmaid, Betty Butterow, who by now was twenty years old. Betty had, over the years, grown especially fond of the colonel. Despite his occasional brusqueness and strange and starchy English manners, she had always found him to be as kind and big-hearted a man as you could wish to know. This evening, however, she was genuinely worried. While Joseph’s skills in handling a canoe were widely acknowledged as being excellent, there really was only room for one in the little craft, loaded as it was with moonshine. Besides that, the permanently fog-bound channel that lay between Hopeless and the mainland was a treacherous stretch of water with unpredictable tides, hidden reefs and rife with an assortment of nightmare creatures that could easily crush an ocean liner, much less a simple canoe. Betty knew these things more than most for, as you may remember, she was a Selkie, a seal-woman.
The following morning the colonel was glad to see that his old friend and ex-valet, Bill Ebley had come to see him off and wish him well. Their parting was particularly emotional. Both men were fully aware that any chance of their meeting again was unlikely but this remained unspoken. They both made promises that they would keep in touch by letter via Joseph, who had happily agreed to the arrangement. And so it was that amid much back-slapping, hand-shaking and the shedding of an occasional manly tear that not even the stiffest of stiff-upper lips could drive back, the colonel bade a fond farewell to the curious island of Hopeless, Maine.

The first letter arrived in the following Spring when Joseph next returned to the island, a full eight months after Ruscombe-Green’s departure.

My dear Ebley,
Greetings, would you believe, from the Nevada Desert.
I trust you and Mrs Ebley are keeping well. For myself, I have never felt better. My passage from the island was happily uneventful. It was a delightful addition to an otherwise nondescript journey when a harbour seal accompanied us all the way to the mainland, swimming as close to the canoe as it was possible to get.
Upon reaching Portland I immediately went to the Masonic Lodge in Congress Street, knowing that my fellow masons would aid a chap in need. From there I was able to wire my bank in London and, again with the help of the masons, prove my identity and release the not insubstantial  funds therein. I have left five hundred dollars with Joseph, whom I trust implicitly, to furnish you and others on the island with anything you might need until the money runs out. Just ask and he will bring it across on his next jaunt – providing it fits in the canoe, of course!
With these affairs in order I at once decided to explore the continent. After visiting Utah (where polygamy seems rife!) I caught the splendidly named Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad down to this strange and fairly new city called Las Vegas. I can’t for the life of me imagine why it was founded in the desert. There is very little here and I confidently predict that within ten years it will be no more than a ghost town.
Over the next few months I fully intend to explore the continent before returning to New England.
Please send my warmest regards to my good friends on Hopeless and do not forget to avail yourselves of anything you may desire from Joseph.

Yours sincerely

J W Ruscombe-Green (Col.)

The letter caused quite a stir on the island and before long Joseph found himself holding a batch of modest requests, ranging from building materials to toilet paper. The Gannicox distillery wanted as much crushed corn as possible. Betty Butterow needed something to wear, preferably low-cut, sultry and saucy. Someone had sent word to Randall Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man; he was desperately in need of a new bucket; one that had a decent lid that stayed securely in place. He also needed a new jacket. Joseph correctly guessed that the two requests were not unconnected. As the day wore on it became obvious that this would not all fit into the canoe. In view of the colonel’s generosity, the Indian resolved to make several trips to the island this year instead of his customary two.
Joseph took only a week or so to fulfil the first few requests. He recognised that Randall’s bucket and jacket were a priority. The supplies of corn for the distillery were in the first consignment, too. Joseph had also included a quantity of blackstrap molasses and barley; he was nothing if not pragmatic and the continued survival of the Gannicox distillery served his own business interests.
Although Joseph traded moonshine, he was not a drinking man; it caused a certain amount of surprise, therefore, when he walked into the bar of the Squid and Teapot. Much to the barmaid’s delight, Joseph had taken it upon himself to deliver Betty’s dress personally. To his great embarrassment she made him stay to see how it looked. No one could criticise Joseph’s judgement as the new dress was quite stunning upon her and fitted perfectly, in all of the right places. It was no wonder, really. The Indian had gazed at Betty with great admiration for some time. For this he was rewarded with a less than chaste kiss upon the lips and a knowing look in Betty’s eyes.

Over the next few weeks the little canoe shuttled back and forth between Hopeless and the mainland; each request for goods was duly met and every dollar spent. On each trip that he made Joseph could not help but notice the harbor seal that accompanied his craft. The legends of his people were full of tales of shape-shifters and spirit creatures. This was plainly no ordinary seal. Joseph instinctively knew it was there to protect him. He could only wonder who his guardian might be.

The months wore on and Bill Ebley eagerly awaited the colonel’s next letter. When it came he thought that his old friend had at last gone quite mad. Apparently Ruscombe-Green had been drinking somewhat excessively in a bar in South Dakota with chap called Robinson. Between them they had come up with a hare-brained scheme to carve a huge likeness of Abraham Lincoln and any other presidents with suitably craggy features, into the sides of a mountain known to the Lakota Indians as The Six Grandfathers. To his great annoyance, a few weeks later the colonel read in a newspaper that the bounder Robinson had stolen the idea and, along with a sculptor chap called Borgum, was actually going to do the job and with government funding no less!
Ebley shook his head in disbelief. The colonel always had one or two tall stories up his sleeve but this one took the biscuit. Carving massive faces into mountains, indeed! Besides, the Ebleys had little time for such rubbish. They had their own exciting news to pass on; William and Constanza were about to become parents. Suddenly, Hopeless was not feeling quite as hopeless as it once had.

Art by Tom Brown

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The Supper Guest

In 1630, or thereabouts, the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina published a play entitled ‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest.’ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, later adapted the plot of this play for their opera, Don Giovanni). I may be going out on a limb here but I feel certain that Senor de Molina is unlikely to have expressed the remotest interest in the concept of time travel. It is equally unlikely that he knew of the existence of the island of Hopeless either. In view of these assertions we can be reasonably confident that he was not influenced by the events I am about to unfold to you.

 

Standing, somewhat larger than life-size, in the courtyard of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen (which still bears the name today) is a statue of the lady herself, who parted this life in 1891, aged eighty three. It was placed there a short time after her death in recognition of the many good works she did on the island.

While some may disapprove of her chosen trade (after all, a bordello is a bordello, whatever else you might choose to call it) few would deny that she was a true philanthropist. Her business interests made her a considerably wealthy woman and she was never slow to use this wealth to help the poor and needy of Hopeless – and there are many.

 

In the opening years of the twentieth century the Squid and Teacup had become a sad place indeed. The inn had long fallen from its former glory, when it had been host to such notaries as Mr. W.S.Gilbert, to become no more than a run-down drinking-den, serving cloudy beer and occasional bouts of dysentery. To call it squalid would be to give squalor a bad name. This was all attributable to the extreme idleness of the landlord, one Tobias Thrupp. He was a stout, squat man who sweated profusely at every opportunity. If asked he would tell you that he was someone who believed in fairness. The only indication of this, however, was the way in which he embraced each of the seven deadly sins with an equal degree of enthusiasm. If the truth is to be told, his only friends bore the names Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Avarice, Wrath and Lust.

Unsurprisingly, he was a frequent visitor to Madame Evadne’s, which, since her death, had become something of a social club for both sexes, offering additional facilities for a small remuneration (and half price for the over 60s every Tuesday).

Being the man he was, the unlovely Mr Thrupp used Madam Evadne’s as a vehicle to give full vent to those seven vices. The young ladies of the house (and also their ‘paying guests’) quailed visibly when his shadow crossed the threshold, which it did often. One didn’t need to be a soothsayer to know that the next few hours would bring a world of pain and violence to any who displeased him. While he always paid, albeit grudgingly, for his pleasures, there was not enough money on all of the island to compensate for the misery he caused. After his lusts and violent tendencies had been sated he would repair to the kitchen and devour alarming quantities of meat and beer, then stagger home drunkenly.

 

According to documents kept in The Squid and Teapot its fortunes changed for the better on Monday May 1st 1905. That was the day after Thrupp had rolled into Madame Evadne’s in his usual bullying fashion for the very last time. He had always been used to getting his own way but on this occasion things turned out differently. One of the young ladies, Madrigal Inchbrook, was entertaining a gentleman who had every intention of making an honest woman of her. He was Sebastian Lypiatt, a merchant seaman who had found himself to be the lone survivor of the shipwreck which had brought him to the island some months before. Sebastian was a big man and was not inclined to be pushed around by anyone. When Madrigal told him of Thrupp’s awful ways he decided to put matters right. To cut a short story even shorter, before he knew what was happening, an extremely disgruntled Thrupp was picked up like a rag doll and unceremoniously ejected from the building, being advised that he might not, in future, find himself in full receipt of the contents of his trousers should he return (or words to that effect).

Lying on the flagstones with his dignity and much of his clothing in tatters Thrupp gazed up at the stone effigy of Madame Evadne.

He rose unsteadily to his feet and waved his fist at her.

“ What sort of hospitality is that supposed to be?” he yelled. “Nobody treats me like that. Come to the Squid I’ll show you how to entertain a guest. Have supper with me sometime, you stone-faced trollop.”

The statue gazed impassively at him, as statues are wont to do.

Thrupp staggered away, muttering curses and vowing revenge.

Beltane eve, Mayday eve, Walpurgis, call it what you will, is not an ideal time to challenge the dead, especially on Hopeless.

 

The following night Thrupp was sitting in his parlour eating a lonely supper. His few customers had long departed, heading for home or maybe to The Crow, where the beer was less likely to be life-threatening.

Suddenly, he heard an ominous slow, scraping noise outside that made him pause. He put his fork down and looked around uneasily. The scraping continued; it sounded heavy and laboured. Silence. Then, just as Thrupp was about to resume eating his meal, there came a horribly loud series of knocks upon the door.

“Go away, I’m closed.”

The knocking continued.

“Didn’t you hear? I said I’m closed.”

More knocking.

Thinking it was the merchant seaman coming to dole out another dose of punishment he picked up a stout cudgel and carefully opened the door.

It was not Sebastian Lypiatt who met his eyes. It was the cold, blank stare of Madame Evadne’s statue.

The blood drained from his face.

“Wh..what do you want?” he stammered.

“You invited me. Here I am. What about your promise of hospitality?”

The voice was cold and hollow with a slight French accent (which was entirely false but during her lifetime she felt it gave the place a certain degree of class).

“Leave me alone… you’re not real… this is someone’s idea of a joke.”

“Believe me, it’s no joke,” she said and reached out a stony hand and grabbed his wrist. Her grip was hard and icy and a numbness flowed through him.

He whimpered with pain and fear.

“Come with me and let me show you how you can be truly hospitable”

He could give no resistance as she slowly, terrifyingly, dragged him through the darkened streets. He saw the outline of the bridge, the silent houses, the  monuments in the cemetery, all cold and still in the moonlight. Then he saw their final destination.

He screamed when she led him into the caverns beneath the town. He had heard the stories but had always laughed them off as fantasies to scare children.

“Don’t let them kill me,” he begged.

She made a noise that might have been a chuckle. It was hard to tell.

“Oh, they won’t kill you,” she said. Her words were as hard and cold as the stone that formed her. They offered little comfort.

“This is where the vampires nest. In their hundreds, I believe. They will certainly appreciate the endless supply of… hospitality you will be doubtless be giving them. Don’t worry, you are to live for a long time yet. Oh yes, a very long time.”

Somewhere, from deep within the caverns, a chorus of hapless souls wailed. In reply a score of bright eyes flickered in the darkness. White teeth flashed.

If you are familiar with Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni you will know that the statue consigned him to Hell. I can’t help but think that the Don got off lightly compared to Tobias Thrupp.

 

After Thrupp’s disappearance the Squid stood empty for months. As no one else showed any interest in restoring the inn, Sebastian Lypiatt and his new wife Madrigal decided to try and raise it back to the condition that it had enjoyed in happier times. According to my good friend Rufus Lypiatt (their great grandson and current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) within a year or so it once more became something of a haven against the fog and darkness that lingered beyond its walls. And so it remains today.

Art by Tom Brown

The Wendigo

The impressively named Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was one of the very few people who actually visited Hopeless regularly and of his own free will. A Native American of the Passamaquoddy people, twice a year he would load his canoe with furs and woven blankets and brave the treacherous ocean and dense fog banks to trade with the islanders. In the past there had been little on Hopeless worth bartering but in the last few years, Since Solomon Gannicox had opened his distillery, things had improved. Now, with the very recent imposition of prohibition laws in the United States, Gannicox ‘Fire Water’ had become a precious commodity on the mainland.

Today, however, he was puzzled. Standing on a hillside, overlooking Creepy Hollow, Joseph was convinced that he was witnessing some arcane religious ceremony. A small band of worshippers, men, women and children, formed a loose circle around two combatants, each carrying a club. A third combatant would occasionally hurl a missile at one of the other two, who, in turn would wave his club feebly at it. This usually resulted in a small bundle of sticks disintegrating behind the club-wielder, who was immediately banished from the arena, only to be replaced by another. This continued for some time until the throng were joined by a wild man. This strange character was alone in managing to hit the missile and send it towards the ocean, to devastating effect. It was then that Joseph suddenly realised what was going on. He was witnessing an invocation ceremony. These combatants had summoned a great undersea god, who astonishingly, and not without creating a certain amount of terror in all who witnessed the event, took the wild man as sacrifice. Joseph shook his head in amazement. The ways of the white skinned people would never cease to surprise him.

 

As he made his way home, Elmer Bussage reflected that he had just experienced the most enjoyable and unusual day of his life. A few weeks earlier he had rescued the Englishman, Colonel Ruscombe-Green, from certain death and as a consequence had been invited to participate in the cricket match that the colonel and his valet, Ebley, had organised. For most of us this would have meant very little but Elmer Bussage was the Night Soil Man and invitations to social events were not so much rare as non-existent. From his fielding position on the far boundary Elmer had watched the team from The Crow fail miserably. Not that he had fared much better, being bowled out for no runs. None of this mattered, however. People had clapped him when he went into bat and applauded again when he was bowled out thirty seconds later. It had been a perfect day. Well, almost perfect; after all, Crazy Wally had been taken by a kraken and that did put something of a dampener on things.

 

Someone else who had been invited to play was Randall Middlestreet, a youngster who had, until recently, lived in the orphanage. Randall had an altogether different take on the day’s events. Due to the confusion that ensued because of his being unfamiliar with cricketing terms, he found himself at Scilly Point, a mile or more away from the rest of the team. Realising his mistake he decided to make his way back to his lodgings but could not help but wonder how the match had gone and if his ball was safe. He was not unduly put out by missing the game but Randall had lent the cricketers a prized baseball and was keen to get it back. The hope was always with him that the previous owner might come looking for it; after all, she had gone to the trouble of inscribing it with her name. In his mind’s eye Randall could picture her clearly, sleek and gorgeous; as seductively beautiful as her name suggested. His heart raced slightly.

“Babe Ruth, I love you,” he whispered quietly to himself.

He had virtually reached home when his train of thought was derailed by the noise of rocks being disturbed just over the ridge. He wondered if the delectable Ruth had finally tracked him down and come to reclaim her ball. Why she would want to disturb rocks to attract his attention was something of a mystery but ever the optimist, he went to investigate.

The sight that greeted him was far from seductive. A creature, skeletally thin and as tall as three men was making its way towards the small collection of low buildings that Randall had recently begun to call home.

To call this monster hideous would not do justice to the abject ugliness of its face – if face you could call it – and body,  Its red eyes caught sight of the boy and drool slavered from the cavernous mouth. A tongue, black and lanceolated, swept over the yellow, needle-like teeth. Randall was terrified and momentarily frozen to the spot as the creature lunged towards him. He screamed as an icy, gnarled hand caught him around the throat and roughly dragged him upwards towards the gaping, salivating maw. The air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh and poor dental hygiene; the troubling thought occurred to Randall that he was far too young to die. Suddenly a volley of rocks peppered the air, bouncing off the monstrous head. Randall felt every breath of wind knocked from him as, with an unearthly snarl, his cadaverous attacker casually discarded his frail body in favour of this new, more fierce, and frankly, better nourished, prey.

“Randall, get up boy. Get up and run.”

It was Elmer Bussage. He had little fear of this or any aggressor. Years of experience had taught him that nothing seemed to want to tangle with a malodorous Night Soil Man. Sadly for Elmer the loathsome creature was not aware of this and swept him up as easily as a child with a doll.

Randall watched in horror as Elmer was ripped to pieces before his very eyes. Every morsel of the Night Soil Man was stuffed quickly and greedily into the huge gaping mouth. The creature chewed and crunched its way through Elmer’s bones, flesh and clothing in a noisy and disgustingly rebarbative fashion. Meaty gobbets and streams of gore dribbled from the monster’s chops, macabrely decorating the rocks and greasing the puddles. If, by chance, any other dark denizen of Hopeless smelt the bloody feast and felt slightly tempted to join in, they wisely made a point of keeping well away, being more than aware that they would probably be next on the menu.

Coming to his senses, Randall, in blind panic, ran as he had never run before, knowing he had just witnessed the impossible. Nothing can kill the Night Soil Man, he told himself. Nothing. That is what Reverend Crackstone had led him to believe at the orphanage and that was what everyone thought to be true.

 

Solomon Gannicox was deep in conversation with Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, when Randall crashed into him. Sturdy though Solomon was, the blow knocked him off his feet and on to his backside.

“Steady there, youngster,” he scolded. “There is no excuse for dashing around like that.”

“A monster,” wailed Randall. “A monster just chewed Mr Bussage up into tiny pieces.”

“Don’t lie boy.” Solomon said dismissively. “You know as well as I do that nothing can harm the Night Soil Man.”

“ It did with its great big teeth. It shoved him into its horrible gaping cake-hole. It’s a huge walking corpse with stinky breath. A monster, if ever I saw one, Mr Gannicox, sir. It was awful.”

Something had obviously distressed the boy. Solomon rose to his feet and banged the dust from the seat of his trousers.

The face of Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs had become suddenly grim. He looked hard at the orphan.

“ You say this giant corpse ate Mr Bussage?”

Randall nodded.

“Take no notice, Joseph…” began Solomon but the Indian raised his hand for silence.

“Now tell me exactly what you saw,” he said to Randall.

The boy described everything about the creature that he could remember.

Joseph was silent for some time, then said quietly and to no one in particular,

“Wendigo. Wendigo has come and it is my fault.”

“Wendy? Wendy from Peter Pan?”

The orphans had been read Mr Barrie’s story several times but Randall could not quite grasp the connection between the monster and the heroine, Wendy, with whom he had long ago fallen in love. That was, however, some time before his infatuation with Babe Ruth had taken hold.

“No, Wendigo. Wendigo is The Windwalker, an evil manitou, a dark spirit known to my people. He has followed me to this place. I am the one he is here for.”

Solomon Gannicox paled visibly.

“But why…?”

“I stole from his food store. Wendigo does not always eat his kill. He will hang the corpses from trees and feed later. I stole some of those corpses from him… “

“But why…?”

Solomon’s usually rich vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to these two simple words.

Joseph looked away and he took a long time to answer.

“They were the last earthly remains of my wife and my mother. Now Wendigo wants vengeance… and so do I. I will go to him. ”

Despite the protestations of the distiller the Indian had made his mind up. So had Randall.

“ I’ll take you to where I saw him,” he said, bravely.

Solomon was about to object but Joseph cut him short.

“The boy will be safe, I promise. Wendigo is not – how would you say it? – not very bright. I have tricked him before. This time I will finish it.”

 

Wendigo had not moved far. He was sitting on a rock by the Night Soil Man’s cottage, half dozing and still digesting his meal, when they spotted him. On the way over the two had formulated a plan to get rid of the monster and with his still being in the vicinity, the conditions were as near perfect to ensure its success as either could have hoped. Randall slipped into the bunkhouse by the side of the cottage and, a minute or so later, appeared with an old rush mat rolled up under his arm. He gingerly made his way around the rocks, making sure that he gave the creature a very wide berth. After a few minutes Joseph began yelling and beating the wooden walls of the bunkhouse with a discarded cricket bat that he had found. He hoped that if all else failed, this religious artefact might allow him some protection against evil.

Wendigo immediately reared up and snarled angrily, recognising his adversary. Whooping and waving his bat Joseph taunted him. Nimbly avoiding the massive reach of his abominable foe, Joseph ran. He ran for his life. Wendigo was so close behind him that Joseph could smell his foul breath in the air around him. Just when capture and death seemed inevitable Joseph spotted what he was looking for; the bunkhouse mat lay incongruously on the earth before him. As he leapt nimbly over it Joseph felt Wendigo try to grab one of his long braids of hair but it slipped through the Windwalker’s gnarled fingers. Hot in pursuit the enraged monster stepped on to the rush mat but found no support beneath him. For the briefest of moments a look of confusion crossed Wendigo’s hideous features, then in an instant he was gone, tumbling down the narrow shaft to depths greater than anyone could imagine. It was fortunate, but unsurprising, that Randall knew of the sinkhole near the cottage and had used it to trap the monster.

It took only a short while for the shock of the events of the previous few days to recede sufficiently for the island to return to its default state of mild panic rather than abject terror. It was then, in a simple ceremony witnessed by Solomon Gannicox and Reverend Crackstone (who had been Randall’s guardian before he left the orphanage) that Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs made Randall his blood-brother and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. And so, Randall recently apprenticed and dreadfully unprepared, became the next Night Soil Man and bore the distinction of having the longest name of any of his profession: Randall Blood-Brother-Of-Joseph-Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs.

Babe Ruth would have been proud of him.

Art by Clifford Cumber

The House at Poo Corner

Regular readers will doubtless have noticed that a recurring character in many of these tales is the Night Soil Man. This is not unsurprising as these solitary figures have been a presence on the island since the time of the Founding Families. The very first recorded bearer of the office was Killigrew O’Stoat, a bright but introverted young man who saw the role not as a punishment, as many might regard it, but as a viable way of escaping the horrors of having to engage with other people. In his small way Killigrew was a pioneer, the first in a proud tradition of artisans.  Anyone who has visited the Hopeless Heritage Museum would doubtless have felt a twinge of excitement to see the actual bucket that he used for much of his career.

Despite his connection to functions rarely discussed in polite company, there is a certain mystique surrounding the work of this nocturnal tradesman which I have touched upon in an earlier article. However, until now there has been little written concerning the facts surrounding exactly how someone might find themselves in this line of work. In an effort to rectify this I arranged an interview with Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the current Night Soil Man, in his small cottage on a remote part of the island. I’ll admit, I didn’t relish the prospect but was pleasantly surprised by the orderliness of the dwelling. There was no escaping the all-enveloping odour, however, which I sensed embarrassed Shenandoah a great deal but I believe it was worth this small sacrifice to bring you his testimony. Here then, in his own words, is Shenandoah’s tale:

“I was just fourteen when I left the orphanage. Seems like I had been especially selected. This is what they do. The people in charge, I mean. The orphans don’t know it but they are watched from an early age. They look for the loners, the introverts who don’t fit in. Then the biggest and burliest of these boys – it’s always a boy – becomes the chosen one, the Night Soil Man’s apprentice. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen often; in fact I’m the most recent. My old master has been dead this last twenty five years and he took me on five years before that. An apprentice is called when something in your bones tells you it’s time. I don’t feel that yet. I haven’t got an apprentice. I don’t need one right now but the time will come…

Well, as I said, I was sent out and given directions to go to a house tucked away on the far west of the island. This house has been the home and work base of several generations of Night Soil Men. Back at the orphanage, once they knew I was being sent here, the other kids would make jokes about the place. The House at Poo Corner they called it but it’s my home now and I’ll stay here ‘til I die.

I can’t pretend my predecessor was a particularly pleasant guy. For the five years I was with him I slept in the bunkhouse. It had no warmth or light. I’ll make sure no apprentice of mine is treated like that but I admit, he taught me some valuable lessons.

The first thing he said to me was ‘Once you get used to the smell it’ll become your best friend.’ He was right about that. It’s kept me safe more than once. Some believe that The Night Soil Man has only loneliness to fear, but I don’t agree. Loneliness is different to solitude and solitude is fine. While most things give me a wide berth you’ve got to be a bit careful if there’s a kraken close to shore. They’re the exception…well, almost  the exception. If the legends are true we should also be wary of the Wendigo. Truth is, I’ve never seen one. Don’t know anyone who has but there’s a story that one of my predecessors was taken by a Wendigo in broad daylight, almost a hundred years ago. Broad daylight, eh? That’s ironic. One of the lads at the orphanage swore he saw it happen right after some game or other. It caused a bit of a problem as his apprentice had to start within a couple of months of being chosen. Dropped in at the deep-end you might say.

This is not a life that would suit most people. Besides the nature of the work and the isolation there is a darker side. Like it or not, we are creatures of the night, as much as any werewolf or vampire. Some of the things we see after the daylight fades is the stuff of nightmares.  And some of it is just plain heartbreaking. Not many weeks pass that I don’t find a body. Sometimes it’s a victim, often of their own stupidity and sometimes it’s just Death taking what’s due to him. Or her. I never could decide. Then I’m the one bearing the news, not that I get close enough to say much. If folks see me in the daylight I’m an omen of death.

I don’t want to dwell on death but there is one thing your readers should know, something that few folks appreciate. At the end there is no one to mourn the Night Soil Man except his apprentice, and that’s a heavy burden. When my old master passed I was priest, mourner and undertaker. Come and look…”

Shenandoah led me outside, to the back of the building. About a hundred feet from his cottage was a dark and dangerous looking sinkhole, about four feet in diameter. A rickety circle of palings enclosed it. Gingerly I stood at the edge and craned my neck to look down inside. It may have been some form of optical illusion but it seemed to me that there was a gleam of green fire playing at its very core, unfathomable feet below, in the deep and mysterious belly of the island.

“Here’s where the night soil has gone for nigh on two hundred years,” he said, then added, almost in a matter-of-fact manner, “and quite a few generations of Night Soil Men have gone in there too.”

I couldn’t help but recoil from this. Shenandoah gave me a long and meaningful stare.

“You shouldn’t be shocked. There is really no alternative. The ground here is too rocky for burial and putting someone in the sea seems… well, you know what’s out there; it wouldn’t seem right. This is our way of life and way of death. Besides, no one knows how deep that hole is, or what’s going on down there.”

Shenandoah fell silent then. This was probably the most he had spoken for thirty years. As I made to leave he turned away and, lost in his own thoughts, I watched him as he stared long and hard into the dark depths of the sinkhole. It struck me then that here was a man quite literally gazing into the abyss and I couldn’t help but wonder what might be gazing back at him.

Art by Tom Brown

The Balloonist

You will not find Ivor Watson’s poems in any of the anthologies of nineteenth century American verse. For the few who are aware of his work he has always been viewed as a very minor poet, overshadowed by the likes of Longfellow, Whitman and Dickinson. The greatness and public admiration that he so desired always eluded him. In fairness, we cannot attribute this lack of celebrity to the fact that he died when still in his twenties; after all, it didn’t do John Keats any harm (except for the dying bit). To be brutally honest the real reason was that he was just not a very good poet.
Having been born into one of the wealthier families of New England, Ivor had the freedom to indulge his various passions to the full. One of these was a desire to take to the skies. He had been inspired in this by reading of the exploits of Mr John Wise, a famous balloonist of the time. In 1850 Ivor purchased Wise’s newly published book, the snappily entitled:
‘A System of Aeronautics, Comprehending Its Earliest Investigations, and Modern Practice and Art. Designed as a History for the Common Reader, and Guide to the Student of the Art, in Three Parts’.
Armed with this tome Ivor felt empowered to go out and buy a very expensive hot air balloon. This was a state of the art piece of modern technology and had been produced strictly to Wise’s specifications. And so, in the Spring of 1851, he set out to explore the heavens. What could possibly go wrong?

When all the gas escaped and the balloon floundered off the coast of Maine, to his credit, Ivor didn’t panic. Wise’s design ensured that if, for any reason, the balloon should become deflated when aloft it would collapse to form a parachute. This would ensure that the occupant of the basket descended to the earth in a reasonably dignified manner and without injury. That was the good news. The bad news was that he had landed upon the rocky shores of Hopeless.

We will now go forward in time and space. It was a year or so later that Mr Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was intrigued to take receipt of a small package, wrapped in oilskin, that his wife Frances had discovered, washed up on a beach. Inside was a small hand-written notebook. Within its pages were the ink-smudged last words ever written by Ivor Watson, which included his final poem. This Longfellow dismissed out of hand as being opium-addled nonsense but he was quite taken by the meter Ivor had employed (which is, I am reliably informed, trochaic tetrameter) and decided to use it himself some day.
By great coincidence the notebook is now in the possession of Rufus Lypiatt, landlord of the Squid and Teapot, having been inadvertently left there in a carpet-bag by Mr W.S.Gilbert, who had acquired it from Longfellow when he visited him in 1871.

Here, then, are the final words of Ivor Watson:

Tuesday April 15 1851 written from the comfort of my room in The Squid and Teapot.
I am thankful to have landed safely upon this island, though its austere bareness immediately troubled me for reasons which, at first, I could not comprehend. The basket of my ruined balloon still sits in the desolation of a long abandoned chapel. I will return there in the morning and see what might be done. It strikes me as being exceedingly strange that a house of God should have once existed in such a desolate spot.

When darkness descended upon the land I was loathe to venture far from the chapel, feeling that if evil was truly abroad its agents would be less likely to cause me harm if I stood upon consecrated ground. In the wan light of a full moon I witnessed certain creatures passing but in truth they resembled no fauna I have seen illustrated in any publication. I have always been led to believe that only denizens of the sea propel themselves with tentacles.
As the night drew on I began to fear that these horrors would indeed attack me. They came ever nearer, seeming to have no fear or respect for what was once the house of our Lord. As I was about to abandon all hope of deliverance I spied the figure of a man on a nearby hill. Although he carried a large burden on his back he scrambled over the rocks with great agility. The beasts, if creatures of flesh and blood they were, seemed to trouble him not. As he neared them they eschewed his very presence and thankfully retreated. I confess, I wondered who might wield such power over them and fretted that this might be yet another demon in human guise.
This fellow was certainly human but, in truth, his stench was untenable. Alas, it is the price I had to pay for his companionship and protection, for I believe that his reek, which is that of human filth, keeps the very demons of the pit at bay. I guessed him to be a collector of night soil. We have such men in Portland who patrol with pony and cart. Their business is conducted when gentlefolk are abed so this is the first of his type I have met. Despite the stench he is a good sort and accompanied me to this nearby hostelry.

Wednesday April 16 1851
Dear God, is there no respite from the demons that haunt this island? Disturbed from sleep last night, I swear I saw a tiny, almost fish-like figure scuttle through my room wearing pewter stilts that resembled spoons. I did but wonder if I had died and gone to Hell. Even the name of this inn screams of my worst nightmares. Squids and teapots are unlikely bedfellows in the waking world.
But at least now I have breakfasted and feel in better spirits. I prepare to make my way back in daylight to see if anything may be done with my late lamented air balloon.

Wednesday April 16 from the chapel ruins.
Good fortune has smiled upon me. As I made my way along I chanced upon some men of God seeking a place to build an abbey. Although papists, they seemed cheered by my description of the ruined chapel. We ventured here together and praise be, they have helped me secure my escape from this accursed island.
By prudently caulking my basket with moss and mud, then lining it with the fabric of my balloon, part of which will furnish me with a fine sail, I am now ready to put to sea and feel confident that this very evening I will be dining with my parents in Portland. However, before I may leave I have two tasks to complete. Firstly, I will write a poem to commemorate my journey. This should be in some heroic meter. I recall my Finnish nanny, dear Kaija, used to chant to me snatches of the epic tale from her native land ,The Kalevala. I always loved its rhythm. My other task before setting off is to wrap this notebook securely in oilskin, to protect it from the ravages of saltwater.

 

An excerpt from
The Song of Ivor Watson

On the rugged shores of Hopeless,
By the angry, murky water,
Wet and shiv’ring in the darkness,
I stood waiting for the morning
Hoping I’d survive ‘til sun up.
Then before me, not too distant
On the headland stood a stranger
With a bucket strapped upon him.
Oh the air was foul and fetid
In those places where he wandered,
Wandered with his lidded bucket,
O’er the rocks so slick and jagged.
“Tell me stranger” I beseeched him,
Trying not to retch and splutter,
“Tell me where I might find shelter,
Safely from the ghosts and goblins,
Those who gibber, scream and cackle
In the darkness, where my nightmares
Tentacled and fanged and slimy
Haunt me when I do not slumber.”
“Get you to the The Squid and Teapot”
Answered then the pungent stranger,
“There the company is pleasant,
There you’ll drink strong ale and porter.
Maybe try the local moonshine.
Local moonshine, giggling water”

In the safety of my chamber
Food and shelter soon refreshed me,
Drove away those nightmare visions
Spawned from fear and desperation
In the ruins of the chapel.
Exorcised those frightful demons.
Those who slithered in the darkness,
Those who shunned the gentle sunlight.
Nurs’ry monsters of my childhood.
So unto my bed I wander’d
Seeking sweet repose and comfort.
Then my eyes beheld a figure
Swathed in moonlight, small, misshapen
Spoons for legs and eyes a-glowing
Dancing on my bedside table
Capering within the moonlight
Even here the hell-spawn lingered.
Even here my nightmares taunt me.
Was it too much giggling water?

(The rest was an inky blur and completely unreadable. This, dear reader, is no great loss to literature)

 

Illustration by Clifford Cumber

Cricket!

You may recall that Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green had decided that it would be a good thing to instruct the islanders of Hopeless in the gentlemanly sport of cricket. He and his former batman, and soon-to-be batsman, Bill Ebley, who now acted as his valet, had fashioned some rudimentary stumps, a brace of cricket bats and even some primitive leg-pads from the wood of their wrecked rowing boat. It must be said that to make a functional cricket bat from limited resources is no easy matter. Fortunately Ebley had a certain amount of skill as a carpenter and managed to construct something that would be tolerably comfortable when hitting a heavy ball, such as the one that Randall Middlestreet, a lad who, until recently, had lived at the orphanage, had kindly donated. This was a treasured baseball, one of the very few on the island. Randall had let the colonel use it on the condition that he and two or three of the other orphans would be allowed to play. This came as something of a relief to the colonel, who had sensed a decided lack of energy and enthusiasm from most of the islanders whom he had tried to recruit to the team. However, by stiffening his upper lip and thinking of England, he had managed to assemble a sufficient number of players by allowing women and girls to take part.
“I only hope the M.C.C. doesn’t get to hear about this,” he confided to Ebley. “ I’ll never be admitted into Lords again.”
Ebley turned this over in his mind.
“With respect sir, that’s a crock of old night-soil,” he said.
He had picked up the local patois very quickly.
“They’d be proud of you, sir, bringing cricket to this God-forsaken place.”
“Mmm.. perhaps so but, after all, women and girls playing… it’s just not cricket!”
After much discussion with the respective landlords it was decided that the teams would represent the island’s inns. ’The Squid and Teapot Xl’ (Capt. J. W. Ruscombe-Green) would play ‘The Crow Xl’ (Capt. W.D. Ebley) at Creepy Hollow, where there was a reasonably flat area upon which a twenty-two yard pitch could be accommodated. The only problem was that part of the boundary was perilously close to the cliff edge, though the colonel was doubtful that, excluding himself and Ebley, anyone in either team would be sufficient to the task of hitting the ball any appreciable distance.
At last the day of the match dawned. It was definitely not the sort of weather for cold beer and a cream teas, even if these things had been available. Beneath a forbidding iron-grey sky a thin, drizzly mist clung stubbornly around Creepy Hollow.
“More of a day for rugby, really.” Ebley mused .
The islanders who had been persuaded to either take part or spectate were not remotely put out, however. After all, this was Hopeless in its summer finery. It looked a lot like Hopeless in its winter finery but was a degree or two balmier.
‘The Crow’ were to go into bat first. Colonel Ruscombe-Green marshalled his fielders as though they were going into battle.
“Lypiatt, I want you to be wicket keeper. Mrs Lypiatt – may I call you Madrigal? Fine leg, I think”
“Steady on colonel…” said Sebastian Lypiatt, uncomfortably.
“That Night-Soil chap can be out on the boundary. A long way out. Shout and tell him, someone… and you, young Middlestreet, I want you at silly point.”
“Really?” Randall Middlestreet looked puzzled.
‘’Yes really,” snapped the colonel. He was not used to having his orders questioned.
It took some time for the chaos to subside and the game begin in earnest. That was when the colonel realised that he was a man short.
“Where the devil is young Middlestreet?”
“He’s done what you asked him to” said his friend, Elijah Camp, a gangly lad who was waiting to bowl. “He’s gone to Scilly Point. That’s a mile or more away.”
The colonel turned several shades of red but said nothing. They would have to make do with ten players.
‘The Crow’ XI had a dismal innings. This had less to do with the Squid’s superior bowling and fielding skills than with the fact that at least eight players managed to hit the stumps down themselves. Bill Ebley scored an unimpressive seven runs before slipping on something anonymous, moist and many legged which had the misfortune of wandering across the pitch at just the wrong moment. Their final score was all out for twelve runs.
The day was descending into farce and the colonel was entertaining serious regrets as he went in to bat for ‘The Squid’ XI. They had an easy score to beat and if he could hit a couple of sixes very quickly it would have the wretched business over and done with. Bill Ebley, however, had other ideas. He had always prided himself as being something of a spin-bowler since his schooldays and, to everyone’s surprise, the first ball he delivered sent the colonel’s stumps flying.
“The blighter tossed me one of his googlies” the colonel complained, getting back to the makeshift pavilion. Madrigal Lypiatt gave him a wry, sideways look, unsure if he was being rude or not.
Things were looking bad for the Squid. Ebley’s bowling prowess was destroying them, when by chance, Sebastian Lypiatt, their ninth man in hit a six, sending the ball into an jagged outcrop of rocks. There was a lull in play while several fielders rummaged around for it without success. Then, from just beyond the rocks a scrawny, ragged figure with a mop of white hair and a straggly beard, appeared holding the ball aloft. He tossed it expertly to the wicketkeeper and, in a thin and wavering voice, burst into song.

“Jolly Boating weather,
And a hay, harvest breeze.
Joy on the feather,
Shade off the trees”

“Good Lord” gasped the colonel in disbelief. “He’s singing the Eton Boating Song.” and could not help himself but summon his finest baritone and join in.

“Swing, swing together
With your backs between your knees.
Swing swing together
With your backs between your knees.

It occurred to the colonel that if the strange fellow was an old Etonian then there was a more than good chance he would be something of a cricketer. Here was his eleventh man.
“Who is that chap” he asked Elijah Camp
“That’s Crazy Wally. Lives in the ruins at Chapel Rock.’’
Before another word could be said Sebastian Lypiatt was bowled out, having scored the only six runs that the Squid XI had achieved.
The colonel decided to take the initiative.
“Wally, old boy, do you know anything about cricket?”
The word ‘Cricket’ seemed to unlock a hidden door in Wally’s mind and he surprised everyone by capering about and repeating the words ‘Razor Smith’. To most this would have been gibberish but the colonel instantly recognised the name of the legendary Surrey slow bowler from the pre-war years.
Thrusting a bat into Wally’s hand he ushered him to the recently vacated wicket.
“We need just seven runs to win. Give it your best, old bean.”
Bill Ebley felt a temporary pang of pity for the unkempt scarecrow standing at the wicket. He decided to make sure that his innings would have a quick and merciful end, then they could all go home.
No one was more surprised than Bill when the fast ball he delivered was met by an expertly wielded bat and despatched to the boundary with ease.
The colonel was delighted.
“Well played sir. Another run and we’re home and dry.”
Bill Ebley gritted his teeth and hoped it was beginner’s luck.
The next ball that he sent down the pitch, he claimed afterwards, was the best that he had ever bowled.
Crazy Wally went to meet it with the skill of a seasoned test cricketer, sending it in a high, elegant arc but heading straight for the sea.
What happened next has become the stuff of Hopeless legend, still spoken of in the taprooms of both ‘The Crow’ and the ‘The Squid and Teapot’ in hushed tones of near-reverence.
The players and small band of spectators watched in amazement when, as the baseball reached the apogee of its curving flight, the long and languid tentacle of a kraken reached over the cliff-edge and caught it before it could commence its descent into the sea. Holding the ball in a neat and suckered curl it wavered for a moment, then, with unerring aim, hurled it with immense force towards the wickets and reduced them to matchwood in an instant.
Wally discarded his bat and, open armed, staggered towards the waving tentacle.
“You have come to take me to poor Mozzarella, my lost darling. You have come to bring me home?”
No one stirred as the serpentine limb reached down and grabbed the ragged man, almost gently, around the waist and hoisted him aloft, like a trophy.
For an instant Wally was suspended in mid-air, beaming and waving to his audience. Then, with a flip of its tentacled arm the kraken took him away forever.
There was absolute silence for a few moments then everyone started talking at once, hardly daring to believe the spectacle that they had just witnessed.
The colonel and Ebley drew away from the small crowd and made their way back to their lodgings.
“We’ll call that one a tie,” said Ruscombe-Green. “I don’t think we’ll be needing a rematch,do you?”

 

Art by Clifford Cumber

Jolly Boating Weather

With The Great War over, Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green was finding civilian life a frightful bore. He and his batman, Private William Ebley, had been demobilised after the cessation of hostilities and while Ebley was content to spend his remaining days in London as the colonel’s valet, Mad Jack himself still ached for adventure.
When an invitation to yet another country-house party arrived by post the colonel’s immediate reaction was less than joyful. He knew that if he accepted he would be rubbing shoulders with the same dreary set of people, most of whom he despised. The prospect of a long-weekend in the company of minor aristocracy and various eccentrics made the memories of the trenches seem almost cheerful. However, this invitation had been from his old C.O. and he felt duty-bound to accept. Bill Ebley, on the other hand, relished these diversions and took little persuasion to pack the colonel’s bags and load the car.
The partygoers turned out to be as tedious as the colonel had predicted, save for one guest. An American gentleman of Norwegian descent named Frank Samuelsen was a breath of fresh air. Here was a fellow adventurer who revealed, in the course of conversation, that he and his late friend, George Harbo, had rowed the Atlantic some twenty-five years earlier. The story fired the colonel’s imagination. That would be just the ticket. Two months on the open ocean and then the vast continent of North America to explore. He took it for granted that Ebley would be his number two. After all, they had been through a great deal together.

Just a few weeks later the colonel was the proud owner of an eighteen-foot long oak rowboat. Following Samuelsen’s advice the craft had been fitted with a water-resistant cedar sheathing and kitted out with a compass, a sextant, a copy of the Nautical Almanac, oilskins and three spare sets of oars. And so it was that they set out from Falmouth with the eternal optimism of every explorer who ever lived. New York was just over three thousand nautical miles away. This would be a trip to remember.

Fifty five days later they were adrift and totally lost. The storm had raged for three days and nights, taking the little boat far off-course. Both men had suffered horribly from sea-sickness, their supplies had almost run out and the last set of oars were floating free somewhere miles away. The two adventurers were completely at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean and all hope had perished when they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a fog bank. It was as thick as either man had ever encountered. So thick, in fact, that they failed to see the reef that ripped the hole in their hull until they were upon it. With the sounds of splintering timbers and raging seas filling their ears the two were hurled onto the rocks and into the oblivion of unconsciousness.

Bill Ebley was used to waking up in odd places. His duties as batman to the colonel, and then, after the war, his valet, had deposited him in some strange surroundings but none to equal these. The room was conventional enough but he could have sworn that the trio of strange ornaments on the dressing table seemed to be moving ever so slightly. They were rum, that was for sure; they looked like socks with big glowing eyes, loads of tentacles and spoons for legs. It must be something to do with this Dadaism thing that he had heard about during the war. Blooming madness, in his opinion.
Blooming madness blossomed into full-flowered madness a minute or so later when the three ornaments decided to scamper across the dressing table and disappear through a hole in the skirting board. Ebley, never a man to knowingly panic under fire, screamed involuntarily. A second later a burly, middle-aged man dashed into the room.
“ You alright, guv’nor?”
Ebley was ghostly white.
‘What was that?” He gasped, then after a short pause. “You’re English! Am I in England? Or dead, maybe?”
“ Neither, my friend. You’re on an island off the coast of Maine, and I’m Sebastian Lypiatt, landlord of The Squid and Teapot.”
Sebastian revealed to Ebley that he had been discovered on the rocks by a foraging party and brought to the inn, which, incidentally, was occasionally plagued by creatures called Spoonwalkers.  When the valet enquired about the well-being of Colonel Ruscombe-Green he was met with a blank stare and told that no one else had been found.
“We’ll organise a search,” promised Sebastian. “We’re used to folks going missing on Hopeless.”
He didn’t mention that the chances of anyone actually being found were not so much slim as positively emaciated.

If Bill Ebley was taken aback by the creatures who shared his billet, Colonel Ruscombe-Green had been frog-marched to edge of reason, allowed to peep into the abyss and encouraged to wave at the demons. It took all of his mental resources to come to terms with his new reality. He found himself in a vast subterranean cavern, illuminated by a thin, sickly-green light. The air was filled with shrieks and screams, human beyond a doubt, that sounded like souls in torment. Just a few paces away from him an  assortment of ghastly, cadaverous creatures wandered, apparently aimlessly, around the cavern. They might have been people once but, except for a slight physical resemblance, all traces of their humanity had gone. They were sniffing the air and drooling like rabid dogs. Occasionally one would drift into the shadows and its leaving would invariably precede a heart-rending cry of abject agony and misery. If this was not Hell then where was it? And what were these monsters?
As if in answer one of them came up to him, drool hanging from its slavering chops. Had Ruscombe-Green known it, this was the very individual who had dragged him to the cavern, having found him unconscious on the rocks.
“Get back you Blighter …”
The creature, unsurprisingly indifferent to mild epithets, extended a bony arm and prodded him with a finger that was badly in need of a manicure. Then it drew back slightly, sniffing the air. It bared its teeth.
The colonel soon realised why it had recoiled. He tried not to gag as the air was filled with the foulest reek. Suddenly the cavern was alive with firelight and leaping shadows. A lone figure, smelling to high heaven, burst upon the scene brandishing a flaming torch.
“You heard what the gentleman said, now get away.”
The other creatures quailed against the cavern walls, as far away from the light and stench as they were able.
Reluctant to let go its prize, the aforementioned Blighter shielded its eyes and tried to grab the colonel’s arm, only to find itself much closer to the torch than, on reflection, it might have considered as being healthy.
Its skin and flesh was as dry as tinder and within seconds its body was engulfed in flames. Despite the revulsion the creature had instilled into both men, neither was prepared for the full horror of the writhing conflagration before them; its screams, as the flames consumed it, were unearthly and terrible to hear. The cavern, now filled with light, quickly emptied as the other fiends scuttled into the darkest depths like cockroaches.
“Quick, follow me,”
As they made their way out into the cold night air, the Colonel noticed that his malodorous rescuer had a tightly-lidded bucket strapped to his back.

“The fact is,” said the Night-soil man, “I’m safe enough around most things on the island. Nothing much will come near me. It’s the stink, see.”
The Colonel nodded in agreement. He didn’t dare risk opening his mouth.
“I saw that devil drag you in. Sorry I couldn’t have been quicker.”
The other man shrugged and waved reassuringly.
“I’ll get you to The Squid. Seb’ll get you right.”
Although he had no idea what the Night-Soil man meant, and despite the smell, the Colonel was grateful for whatever help he was about to get.

Some hours later, after Ruscombe-Green and his valet had apprised each other fully on their adventures of the day, the colonel said,
“You know, this is a damn rum place but these chaps have been good to us. We should reward them somehow.”
“Reward them sir?” Ebley looked confused. “With what? All we have are the clothes we’re standing up in and a boat that’s been reduced to not much more than matchwood.”
“So we have.” said the colonel. “But, one never knows, we might be able to salvage something from that.”
He paused, then a look of sudden inspiration spread across his face. Ebley had seen that look before; it usually meant work of some description.
“By Jove, I’ve just had a cracking idea. We’ll give our new friends the gift of civilization.”
Ebley gave him another confused look. The colonel looked triumphant.
“We’ll jolly well teach them how to play cricket”
And that, dear reader, is a tale for another day.

Art by Clifford Cumber

Moonshine!

Norbert Gannicox had taken a vow of sobriety. As you may recall from an earlier tale, the circumstances surrounding his father’s demise were somewhat macabre and had quite put him off alcohol for life. So, while he was happy to fulfil his role as the main distiller and supplier of moonshine on Hopeless, he carefully avoided imbibing anything stronger than coffee (This was sometime before the hairy variety was discovered. Even if it had been available I don’t believe he would have gone anywhere near it.)
As has been stated many times, resources can be scarce on this island and Norbert was finding difficulty in sourcing sufficient quantities of raw materials to provide the mash for his brew. Things were looking grim for the business until one day an article in The Vendetta caught his eye. Apparently there was an abundance – an infestation, one could say  – of the dreaded Night Potatoes. Norbert reasoned that, as vodka is made from ordinary potatoes, any brew distilled from Night Potatoes must be at least as good, or possibly better. It was worth a try.
It is not difficult to gather Night Potatoes. By finding one, and popping it into a sack, you may be certain that others will soon appear to rescue it. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or the lone collector however, for a vengeful Night Potato will fight back with some vigour, as their first victim, Stern Ericsson, found to his cost. Fortunately Norbert had come prepared and with the aid of a few friends several sacks were soon heaving with their wriggling and indignant forms.
Ignoring the protests coming from the sacks, once back at the distillery Norbert consulted one of Ebenezer’s notebooks. The handwriting was neat and the instructions precise:

Potatoes are ideally left unpeeled and, if desired, a small amount of malted barley may be added. The potatoes, whether whole or chopped, should  be  initially boiled to gelatinise the potato starch. When this is done, add more water to form a mash and then cool to approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Add some milled malted barley to the mash. The potato starch will then be converted to fermentable sugars.

Norbert could see no problem here. True, these were no common potatoes but, in the scheme of things, a vegetable was a vegetable, whether it cursed and ran around or not. The time had come for action.

I won’t go into the harrowing details of Norbert’s process of preparing the mash. Maine is famous for its lobsters and doubtless many of us have quailed to hear one scream when it is cooked. Imagine the heart-rending cacophony made by a sackful of sentient potatoes, each one reluctant to enter the boiling water. Therefore, if only to appease my own sensibilities, I will fast-forward to the time when the whole process had been completed.

Norbert had purposely avoided mentioning the unconventional ingredients of this current batch of alcohol to his customers as he thought that it might be inclined to deter some from drinking it. In the event the very first batch of Night Potato Moonshine was to be delivered to Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen, a famous bordello (just down the road from The Squid and Teapot, as it happens).
Since Madame Evadne’s death a century or more earlier, a succession of capable ladies, retired, or at least semi-retired, from their erstwhile profession, had fulfilled the role that she had so successfully created; she was a  concierge, administrator, book-keeper, businesswoman and bouncer all rolled into one.
The latest of this long line of matriarchs was one Nellie Bagpath, a fearsome and formidable figure who ruled her charges and their clients with an iron fist in a velvet glove (sometimes literally, especially if enough money changed hands).
As soon as the delivery had been made and Norbert was safely on his way home, Mistress Nellie, as she liked to be addressed, thought it expedient to sample the brew before the clients got to it. She helped herself to a generous tot, and then another one or two, just to be certain that the Lodging House had received a fair deal. She decided that it had, but one can never be too careful about these things, so to be on the safe side she had another couple of tots to make absolutely sure.
Unusually for Mistress Nellie she took to her bed early that night. She was feeling a little under the weather and decided that the place could run itself.
“I’m not at all well,” she told her second-in-command, Alicia Ozleworth, in slurred tones. “Not well at all, but I am most definitely not under the affluence of incahol.”

It was turning-out time at The Squid and Teapot and Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, actor/ manager and raconteur had begun the short stagger back to his home. He was singing quietly to himself, having enjoyed several pints of ‘Old Dogwater’, when his rendition of a song that seemed to be totally comprised of the words  ‘Tum-te, Tum-te,Tum, Dee Dum Dee’, was brought to a halt when he saw a strange apparition wandering in the moonlight. The figure was that of a woman of matronly build and mature years. She was dressed in a flowing, full-length white nightdress and thick, pink woollen bed socks. With arms outstretched and eyes glowing with an eerie luminosity she lurched towards him. Ever the gentleman, Sir Fromebridge swept off his fedora and made a deep bow.
“Good evening, dear lady,” he said in his best Shakespearean voice. “May I be of some assistance, perchance?”
The apparition passed by as though he were invisible, which was probably just as well as the deep bow had put his back out and he was the one in urgent need of assistance.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night ” she moaned as she drifted by.
“Ah. Jolly good” he replied in agonised tones. “I say, could you possibly…?
But, alas, she couldn’t, as she was out of earshot and he was stuck.

This island is rife with ghosts and demons, vampires and all sorts of nameless creatures, slithering, creeping and wandering around on pilfered cutlery. These are the stuff of nightmares but when they saw Mistress Nellie in this new guise, every last one of them gave her a wide berth.

Someone else who enjoyed the disdain of the Hopeless horrors was Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night-Soil Man. This is not an image you‘ll want to dwell upon, but he was half-way through his rounds and had just settled down to eat his sandwiches.
Shenandoah is not a man who surprises easily but the sight of a woman with luminous eyes wandering the cliff tops in her nightdress and pink woolly bed socks was not all that common. Even less common was the fact that she came right up to him and planted a kiss upon his grizzled cheek.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night” she intoned.
“Well heck”, he said. This was as close to swearing as Shenandoah ever got.
“Heck!  I’ve heard of women like you but never met one. You must have a really nasty head cold. Would you like a sandwich?”
He lifted one from the lunchbox sitting on his bucket lid.
It was too late. She had gone, wailing into darkness.

Whether by accident or instinct, the Potato Lady of the Night made her way to the gates of the Gannicox Distillery. Norbert was in bed and dreaming fitfully of screaming potatoes and old men floating in barrels. It was a relief to be woken by a relentless banging on the door.  Blearily he went downstairs.
“Who’s there?” he called.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night”
“Well I haven’t asked for a delivery, especially this late. Come back in the morning.”
The banging continued and Norbert decided that discretion was the better part of valour and let her in.
“Mistress Nellie?” he gasped. “Are you okay?”
She drifted by him as if he didn’t exist and made her way to the storage sheds.
Puzzled and still half-asleep Norbert followed.
She made her way to the large vat that contained the Night Potato moonshine and turned on the tap.
“Come out my brothers and sisters, be free, be free once more” she wailed as the precious liquid splashed on to shed floor.
Norbert was rendered helpless and speechless as the alcohol flowed around his feet.
The woman that had been Mistress Nellie turned to face him, though face is maybe not the right word. Her features had become grotesque and shapeless, a gnarled and knobbly thing, not unlike the shape of a very large potato with bulging eyes that shone with a sickly yellow glow.
“I am the Potato Lady of the Night” she said again, then for some reason added “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Despair seemed like a good idea. Snapping out of his paralysis Norbert screamed and ran away as fast as he could. He ran over the hills, careless of the dangers of  the night-creatures and the dreadful reek of the Night-Soil Man, who had his second surprise of the night when Norbert fell over his bucket. Eventually he found himself outside Madame Evadne’s where the usual activities were well underway He knew what he must do. Racing in, he went to the cellars and found the cask of moonshine. Rolling it outside he knocked out the bung and let the contents empty into the gutter.
Alicia Ozleworth, Mistress Nellie’s deputy, watched from the doorway, not a little horrified at his actions. Norbert explained all and promised to fully refund the cost of the liquor.
Exhausted, he made his way home through the darkened streets. Suddenly he was stopped in his tracks by an anguished voice
“Excuse me, old chap, could you possibly give me a hand…?”

Needless to say Mistress Nellie Bagpath was never seen in the flesh again, though a couple of people reported spotting a strange, potato-like wraith in pink bed socks, wailing over the headland. It did not get a lot of attention. That sort of thing is hardly newsworthy here. What was newsworthy, however, was a rare but timely delivery from the mainland supplying the Gannicox Distillery with several casks of cereal and Alicia Ozleworth becoming the new boss – or Mother Superior as she called herself – at Madame Evadne’s. Sir Fromebridge, as you may know, is sadly no longer with us, but something tells me that although he’s dead, we’re unlikely to have seen the last of him. After all, this is Hopeless, Maine.

 

Art by Tom Brown

The Distiller

Though not rich in natural resources, Hopeless has always scraped by on the bounty that the sea delivers, whether it is the occasional whale carcass or the flotsam washed up from the frequent shipwrecks.

Ebenezer Gannicox was well known as a beachcomber (or, more correctly on Hopeless, a rockcomber) so when he suddenly went missing from home no one really worried too much. He had done this before on several occasions, embarking upon what he described as a foraging mission. Ebenezer was a wiry little man and a distiller of some distinction who relied upon the sea to provide some of the raw materials necessary for his trade. The casks of malted barley, blackstrap molasses and other such luxuries carefully stored in his sheds attested to his success as a forager. It has also been suggested that he was possibly adept as a wrecker too, but this has never been mentioned in polite and civilized company (though it does get talked about quite frequently in the bar-room of ‘The Crow’)

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Hopeless has never been unduly troubled by the rule of law, especially those laws which seem, to many, totally irrelevant to the smooth running of society. After all, when the overriding priorities of your daily life are avoiding being eaten, avoiding being driven insane and avoiding having your cutlery stolen, all else fades into insignificance. So whether the offence is deliberately luring ships onto the rocks, or the manufacture of moonshine, poitin or pocheen (call it what you will), no one worries too much. To be fair, the amount of time and effort required to do either of these things will put most people off. They are far too preoccupied with the straightforward business of avoiding being eaten, avoiding being driven insane and avoiding having their cutlery stolen.

While wrecking is generally approved of as a necessary resource, there are inevitably naysayers who will list reasons why the distillation and consumption of moonshine should be banned. Some will invoke law, others religion. A few will offer the excuse that it may cause blindness but this only ever happens when the equipment used has been contaminated, or the methanol has not been removed from the brew, or you put a stick in the cup when you’re drinking it. (It seems that if you want someone to stop doing something you don’t approve of, tell them that they will go blind. This is a strategy famously employed by priests and headmasters for generations.)

 

After six months had gone by questions began to be asked as to Ebenezer’s whereabouts. His son, Norbert, scoured the coastline but there was no sign of him anywhere. It was as though he had vanished off the face of the earth, which was not an unknown occurrence on this most perilous of islands. The general consensus, however, was that Ebenezer was too wily a character to put himself in danger.  But when more months passed and the search had to be abandoned, Norbert and his mother resigned themselves to the fact that the old man had foraged one time too many.

Over the years Ebenezer had stockpiled an impressive supply of moonshine. It was stored in casks of all sizes, courtesy of the aforementioned shipwrecks. There were pins, firkins, kilderkins, hogsheads, butts and tuns, each containing gallon upon gallon of  the Gannicox Special Distillation, as it was called. This was fortunate, as Norbert was reluctant to take on his father’s role and become the island’s chief distiller. Instead he decided to become a distributor.

For the next five years he made his way diligently through Ebenezer’s stockpile. He delivered it in jugs, in bottles or sometimes in a firkin strapped onto his back. Each container bore the legend ‘Gannicox Special Distillation. 80% alcohol by volume. Keep out of the reach of children and Spoonwalkers’

Eventually, he came to the last cask – a huge two-hundred and forty gallon tun which sat in the darkest corner of the shed. Norbert estimated that while this would keep his customers happy for the rest of the year, the time had come for him to learn the distiller’s art if he wanted to remain in work.

For the next few weeks things went well. Norbert became adept at distilling and wondered why he had shied away from it for so long. At the same time he drew moonshine from the tun to fulfil his customers’ needs until one day the unthinkable happened; when he turned on the tap no liquor came out. No end of kicking and shaking would move the cask, so there was obviously still plenty of liquid inside. The only explanation was that something was causing a blockage. Norbert prayed that it was not a rat.

Deciding that the only way forward was to remove the top of the cask, he armed himself with a lighted candle, a crowbar and a step-ladder. To his surprise, however, it had already been loosened. The chances of the blockage being a rat seemed greater than ever. Norbert steeled himself, prised up the lid and peeped inside.

Nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greeted him. Old Ebenezer’s face peered up through the clear well of alcohol which had preserved  him perfectly. He looked happy enough, under the circumstances, but his eyes glowed with a greenish luminescence.  His big toe had become firmly wedged in bung hole, serving to stop the flow through the tap. Then Norbert noticed presence of spoons. A shudder passed through him. He could make out several lying on the floor of the cask.

Thinking things through, it seemed obvious to Norbert  that Ebenezer had stumbled upon a quantity of spoonwalkers nesting in the dark corner behind the casks. Everything pointed to it. They had probably been helping themselves to the moonshine for years. It was well known that to have eye contact with spoonwalkers for any length of time would invoke madness, and the glow in the old man’s eyes said as much. Had he climbed into the cask of his own volition or had they somehow managed to push him in? Norbert shuddered again and hastily replaced the lid.

 

Family loyalty prevailed over business interests and Norbert decided not to sell any more of the moonshine from the cask which had preserved his father so well. It occurred to him that it would be a fitting tribute to the old man if things were left pretty much as they were and the cask, complete with alcohol and Ebenezer, be ceremoniously buried on the cliff top, overlooking the coast where he did so much of his foraging. Unfortunately, that was not to be quite the way things turned out. When rolling it to the chosen spot the cask hit a small rock and bounced out of control, making its way over the cliff and into the sea. The last report of its progress had it  bobbing away on the Atlantic swell to a destination unknown. When it eventually made landfall someone, somewhere had an extremely nasty surprise.

Art by Tom Brown

Hopeless Romantics

While others rush to immerse themselves wholeheartedly in the fads and fashions of their age, over the years the inhabitants of Hopeless have steadfastly ignored such shallowness. This is not totally out of choice. In fact, it’s not at all out of choice. No one enjoys a spot of puddle-deep diversion more than the average Hopelessian but when you live on an island surrounded by fog and crawling with an assortment of nasties these things just don’t turn up by mail-order. Anything of a remotely novel nature generally arrives by accident.
One such serendipitous item is now  a treasured possession of Rufus Lypiatt, current landlord of The Squid and Teapot. This is a carpet-bag which was left at the inn by the renowned librettist, Mr. W. S. Gilbert. You may recall that Mr Gilbert returned to the mainland in something of a hurry following a night apparently disturbed by several spoonwalkers invading his bedroom. The bag he left behind contained several items of interest, not least of which was a collection of hand-tinted daguerreotypes of nineteenth century works of art, including some reproductions of paintings by the group who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
When, in the latter years of the nineteenth century, this book was shown to Beatrice Merrywalk, one of the older girls in the orphanage, she immediately fell in love with Romantic art and Sir John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia in particular. Although she had absolutely no idea who Ophelia was, she sensed from the painting that here was young woman who epitomised all of the yearnings for tragic romance that stirred in her own breast. It felt to her that Death was the greatest artist of all, perfect in its dark finality. Having become quietly obsessed with Millais’ painting, she decided that she not only wanted to become Ophelia, the girl in the stream, but to be seen in that role forever, so that people would understand the turmoil and anguish churning in her young heart. To add to her sense of the dramatic, not to say melodramatic, she had come across ‘The Death of Chatterton’, another picture heavy with the illusion of romantic death, this time of a young poet. Maybe if she, as Ophelia, could find her Chatterton, they could let the world know of, and appreciate, their great pain.
That cruel trickster, Adolescence, is famous for filling certain young heads with dark clouds and yearnings for a picturesque death. It was, therefore, almost inevitable that Beatrice would find her Chatterton before too long had elapsed. He arrived in the form of Algernon Box, an unassuming young man who lived alone in an old and falling-down cottage next to a babbling creek that led down to the sea. Like so many on Hopeless, Algernon’s parents had disappeared under mysterious circumstances and as a consequence the lad was given to staring at the most incongruous items with dewy-eyed sensitivity and looking glum.
No one objected when Beatrice moved in with Algernon. The orphanage was happy to have one mouth fewer to feed. Besides, on Hopeless none of the usual rules apply. Life is difficult enough without unnecessary complications. To call these two young people lovers, however, would be a vast overstatement. They were bound together by a common bond of platonic melancholy. This usually involved staring at incongruous items with dewy-eyed sensitivity and looking glum. Their conversation, when it dragged itself out of the Slough of Despair, would invariably turn to the subject of finding a suitable artist to capture their last, tragic moments as perfect replicas of Ophelia and Chatterton.  They named the little plot of land upon which they lived Tragedy Creek and planned their suicide pact.
“Only Death will give us what we most desire,” said Beatrice, and she truly believed this to be so.
You may have noticed that Hopeless is quite a strange place. The unusual and bizarre is fairly run-of-the-mill around here. In view of that, neither of the two young people felt remotely surprised when, one dismal afternoon, the very man they had hoped for arrived at the door of their cottage. In a deep, sonorous voice, he introduced himself as being an artist visiting the island and asked to be invited in. His gangly frame, lean to the point of appearing cadaverous, seemed to fill the tiny kitchen.
In truth, this mysterious visitor did not resemble anyone’s idea of an artist. In his smart, dark business suit he looked more like a lawyer. Or an undertaker. The only clues to his trade were contained in the portfolio he carried under his arm.
“I have the paintings you requested.”
The pair looked at each other in puzzlement.
“Paintings? We’ve ordered no paintings.”
“Oh but you did. I heard you. Is this not what you most desire?”
The dark stranger placed the portfolio on the kitchen table and, opening it, produced two paintings. One was of Beatrice. This was exactly as she had visualised herself; Ophelia, alone and tragic, lying in the creek that ran by the side of the cottage. The other painting was of Algernon as Chatterton. He had painted him as though in his home surroundings.
They both gasped.
“They are beautiful,” said Beatrice. ”But how…”
“You asked. Don’t you remember?” said the stranger, then, without another word he picked up his portfolio and left. At least they assumed he had left, for the whole episode passed as if it were a dream. Only the two works of art lying on the table proved that any of it had really happened.
Several days passed before either noticed some subtle transformations occurring in the paintings. Small creatures had suddenly appeared around the bodies, which had somehow started to appear less attractive. Ophelia began to bloat. The pallor of both became quite ghastly.  After another week or so things began to look really awful. They had become carrion. Although the corpse of Chatterton was subject to the attentions of anything that could crawl, squirm or slither through his window, Ophelia, out in the open, fared worse.
By the end of the second week Beatrice and Algernon had to turn the pictures around so that they faced the wall. The images of each had become the stuff of the most horrible nightmare imaginable. Faced with such brutal reality all their ideas of romantic death were gone. Alone and terrified they clung fiercely to each other and wept.
It was the night-soil man who found them. They were huddled together in the little cottage, a look of terror and madness imprinted upon their young faces. They had been dead for some days. He looked around him at the sparse furnishings and few possessions. It struck him as strange that amid all the poverty were two quite beautiful paintings, each depicting doomed youth.
Even now, Tragedy Creek is felt to be the most melancholic place on Hopeless. In over a century only a handful of people have stayed in Algernon’s cottage for more than a night or two. The most recent resident was a would-be poet who was later discovered to be a escaped convict. Although he reported no strange experience there, some claim to have seen two unhappy ghosts walking from the front door to the babbling creek. It was long ago thought best that the paintings be removed to more cheerful surroundings. Today they hang safely behind the bar in the Squid and Teapot.  Occasionally Rufus will be asked who the artist is. He always gives the same answer, usually with a wry smile. “I’m damned if I can tell you…
Art by Tom Brown