Mr. Stratford Park felt that something indefinable was missing from his life. Regular readers will recall that his Burns Night celebration went somewhat less than well for him, the islanders having renamed the occasion ‘First Degree Burns Night’, in commemoration of his slightly scorched buttocks. Deciding to put the event firmly – and appropriately – behind him, Stratford decided to look for a new project. If nothing else, the Burns Night disaster had confirmed for him that he enjoyed being the centre of attention; this had given him a certain hunger for being in the spotlight, or, at least, would have done, had spotlights been readily available on Hopeless.
For some weeks he agonised over what he should do next. Whatever his destiny, he knew that he would need to stand out in some way, in order to claim his rightful place as a leading light in the daily life of the island.
It was while perusing this very organ, ‘The Hopeless Vendetta’, that inspiration struck. Not everyone kept up with the news in the Vendetta. Indeed, the art of reading has passed several islanders by. What Hopeless needed was a purveyor of the latest headlines, someone to patrol the island proclaiming births, deaths, marriages and the usual catalogue of messy woes that filled up the spaces in between. Folk would be curious to learn whatever wisdom Mrs Beaten was choosing to impart; they needed to know their horrorscope, as provided by Idris Po; new arrivals on the island would have to be apprised of the best ways of staying alive for as long as possible. There was plenty of information to be passed on.
“Yes!” Stratford mused to himself, “this is the answer. Hopeless needs a Town Crier – an Island Crier. Someone who will bravely venture out and perform a vital service for the public, not unlike the Night Soil Man, only without the smell, the bucket and the unsociable hours.”
The first thing Stratford needed to do was procure a suitable costume for the job – and he knew exactly where to go. As mentioned several times in these tales, the attics of The Squid and Teapot contain many salvaged, but so far unwanted, items. People, along with an interesting variety of flotsam and jetsam, had been coming to Hopeless for many years. On an island where resources are often limited, nothing is wasted. In view of this, it proved relatively easy for Stratford, with the help of the landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, to unearth a tricorn hat, a pair of breeches and a handbell, the standard uniform of Town Criers the world over. Sadly, although his costume was vaguely correct, the chances of anyone marking Stratford out as being Someone Special were slim. In an environment where ‘make do and mend’ was more than a necessity, such an outfit was not particularly unusual or outlandish. The sight of an islander wearing a cloth cap, an Edwardian frock coat, plus-fours and hobnail boots would not raise an eyebrow. Similarly, when Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, late of Oxford University, suddenly appeared in the regalia of a Victorian lady, the event passed without remark. And so, it came to pass that the self-appointed Town Crier made his way through the streets completely unnoticed. As far as the rest of the populace was concerned he was just another deranged soul wandering around aimlessly, ringing a bell and shouting.
After his first fruitless day’s work, Stratford retired to his cottage feeling downcast. Following a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth it occurred to him that this was getting him nowhere and giving up was not an option. He had to project more, to be heard above the crowd. He needed to practice shouting. With this in mind he took himself to the lonely and mysterious Gydynap Hills to perfect his art.
For several hours every day Stratford would loudly declaim his “Oyez, oyez” to the hills, hoping that his usual baritone would somehow evolve into a Stentorian blast that would make people stop and take notice. Unfortunately the reverse happened.
Opera singers are not well represented on Hopeless, but had Stratford had the good fortune to have run into one and asked their advice, he would have been told that a powerful voice should emanate from the diaphragm and not the throat. In fact, Doc Willoughby would have told him exactly the same thing and, as far as I’m aware, Willoughby is even worse at singing than he is at being a doctor.
Stratford sat in the snug of The Squid and Teapot nursing a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and looking as dejected as a dog that’s been locked out in the rain.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” asked Philomena Bucket, breezing through with a tray of Starry-Grabby pies.
“No voice” Stratford croaked, barely audible and pointing to his throat.
“Ah, me and Drury heard you shouting when we were up on the Gydynaps the other day,” said Philomena, putting the tray down. “That’s what caused it. So what was all that about?”
Stratford made some unintelligible sounds, to which Philomena nodded wisely, pretending to understand.
“What you need is some honey,” she advised. “That’s what me old granny used to give us if ever we had a sore throat. I don’t know where you’ll get any from, but that’s what you’ll be wanting, to be sure.”
Stratford sipped his ale moodily, making no effort to reply.
It was a day or two later, when out walking, that Stratford’s attention was caught by a faint buzzing noise. Remembering what Philomena had said, he became suddenly excited. His throat was still raw and his voice no more than a whisper. He desperately wanted a remedy and this could be the answer. Where there was buzzing there were bound to be bees, and where there were bees there was honey. All he had to do was to follow the bee and his problems would be over.
It didn’t take long for Stratford to spot his quarry. The insect was dancing along, a foot or so above the ground, buzzing happily through the morning mist. Stealthily Stratford followed behind, confident that the tiny creature would lead him to an industrious nest, overflowing with honey (the fact that he had no idea how he was going to extract the precious comestible was, as yet, a thought that had not yet crossed the lonely expanse that was Stratford’s mind).
He was passing by the Old Mill, not far from Geezo’s Bight, when his attention was caught by a pale, emaciated face gazing from one of its grimy windows. The owner of the face seemed to be mouthing some words and tapping on the glass with skeletal fingers. Stratford stopped, trying to work out what the old man was saying but, try as he might, it was no use. He shrugged his shoulders and made to resume the chase, then realised that the elusive bee was nowhere to be seen. If only he had not stopped he would probably be in receipt of a quantity of throat-soothing honey by now. Hoarsely, he cursed the old man, who had already left his post by the window.
Angry and disappointed, Stratford barely felt the sharp prickle as the Succubus Wasp settled on the base of his skull and began to feed. All that he knew was that someone seemed to be whispering in his head, quietly persuading him that there was no point in carrying on the chase. He should go home, relax and allow his voice to return in its own time. As he made his way back to his cottage, Stratford began to feel dreadfully listless, deciding that nothing really mattered any more.
A week passed by before the regular patrons of The Squid and Teapot decided that there must be something amiss with their friend and drinking companion, Stratford Park. He had been acting strangely ever since the Burns Night episode, shouting and ringing bells all over the place but for him to miss poker night was unheard of.
When they found him in his cottage he was sitting in an armchair, staring into space and making strange buzzing noises. After much discussion, Doc Willoughby was called. A degree of harrumphing and chin-stroking followed, until the Doc solemnly opined that the patient was suffering from no more than a mild virus, undoubtedly brought on by too much shouting. It was nothing that a few days rest would not cure.
As far as I am aware, Stratford is still there, sitting in his front parlour, becoming more and more emaciated and making no sound, other than occasionally emitting a faint and somewhat irritating buzz. Well-wishers bring him food but he shows little interest. The Succubus wasp has almost finished with Stratford. She has taken almost as much of him as he can give. The Succubus Wasp is nothing, if not patient. It is just a matter of time now before someone gets a little bit closer to her host than is safe.
Should you wish to know more about the strange, beautiful and deadly Succubus Wasp, you could do worse that look up an excellent article, published in the Vendetta some time ago, entitled ‘Save the Succubus Wasp’.