Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

Party Politics

By Martin Pearson

“So, who have you invited so far?”

“Invited?” Philomena Bucket’s face was a picture of innocence.

If she had been shocked by being whisked away to some liminal place, as a whim of the ghost of Granny Bucket, Philomena did not show it. Over the years she had ceased to be surprised by any stunt that Granny pulled. She was, however, a little taken aback that her elderly, and long-dead, relative had got wind of the impending celebrations.

“To my surprise deathday party. Don’t pretend you’re not planning one,” said Granny. “I heard you plotting with that Middlestreet fellow. Now, who have you invited?”

Philomena knew that there was no point in trying to hide the details any longer.

“Well, I have asked Miss Calder…” began Philomena

“Miss Calder?” interrupted Granny. “I hardly know the woman. Why are you asking her?”

“If you would allow me to finish,” said Philomena archly, “I have asked Miss Calder to talk to the other ghosts on the island and find out who would like to come.”

“And I don’t get a say in anything?” snapped Granny

“It is supposed to be a surprise party!” exclaimed Philomena, exasperated. “Anyway,” she added, keen to change the subject, “I don’t recognise this place. Where exactly is it that you have brought me?”

You, like Philomena, will recall that she had been wandering up the Gydynap Hills in an effort to clear her head. She had no idea that Granny’s wraith was following her until she found herself suddenly standing next to a babbling stream, deep within a sun-dappled hazel wood. It was quite beautiful and certainly bore no resemblance to anywhere on the island of Hopeless, Maine.

“We’re safe within a memory I have of the Old Country,” said Granny, nostalgically. “I used to do a spot of courting here, as a girl.”

This was news to Philomena.

“And who was the lucky man, may I ask?” she said.

“Ah, Indeed you may. ‘Twas a young rascal called Willie Yeats. That was long before your time, though” confided Granny. “You wouldn’t know him.”

“Hmm… the name’s familiar,” said Philomena, uncertainly.

“But back to this party business…” Granny was like a lurcher with a rabbit. “Who do you intend to ask?”

“The maiden ladies of the Mild Hunt…”

“Them old biddies? With their yappy dogs and fartin’ mules? I don’t think so!” said Granny, emphatically.

“Very well. How about Lady Margaret D’Avening and Father Ignatius Stamage?”

“That sanctimonious pair, haunting the lavvy in The Squid and Teapot?” Granny was aghast at the suggestion. “They’re devout Catholics, the two of them. They won’t want to be hob-nobbing with a load of witches, that’s for sure.”

“A load of witches?”

Philomena had echoed the words with a certain amount of unease.

“Well, the ghosts of witches, anyway.  They are my friends and relations,” said Granny. “And it’s my deathday, after all.”

“How many, exactly, are we talking about?”

“Not sure yet,” said Granny. “I’ll let you know.”

As she spoke these final words, Granny began to gradually fade away, and with her went the stream and the hazel wood. Suddenly it was dark, and the familiar shapes of the Gydynap rocks were outlined against the misty skyline.

Drury was confused. He had spent hours searching for Philomena, following her trail high into the Gydynaps, only for it to disappear in a most unexpected manner. When it abruptly returned, in a dizzying burst of fragrance and accompanied by the lady herself, he was overjoyed. The osseous hound wagged his bony old tail in obvious pleasure. He had been seriously concerned when one of his two favourite people in all of the world had vanished, apparently into thin air.

“Come on Drury,” said Philomena, not even slightly surprised to find her old friend waiting for her. “I’ve got to get back and see how Rhys is faring. I must have been gone for hours.”

For the last few days, Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man had been struck down with influenza. Philomena, armed only with a clothes-peg to keep the smell at bay, had taken it upon herself to administer to him.  Her humanitarian mission had to be put on hold for a while longer, however, when a lean figure emerged from the darkness.

Drury growled menacingly.

“You can call your dog off, Miss Bucket. I mean you no harm.”

Philomena recognised the voice of Durosimi O’Stoat immediately.

“I hear,” he drawled, “that you intend commemorating your grandmother’s deathday, next week.”

“I don’t know who might have told you that,” said Philomena defiantly, trying to hide the tremble in her voice. “But yes, you heard correctly. As a matter of fact I do.”

“With the island’s ghosts in attendance, if my information is correct,” said Durosimi. “Young lady, that is not a good idea and I suggest you abandon it now.”

“And why would that be, Mister O’Stoat?”

“It would not be … politic” he said, struggling to find a suitably apposite adjective. “The spirits of this island have come from different times, different cultures, different mind-sets. You would be creating a potentially explosive situation. In dealing with these opposing energies, I fear you would be unleashing forces far beyond your comprehension.”    

“Well you needn’t be worrying on that score,” said Philomena, her face reddening with rage, “because the island’s ghosts don’t seem to be invited anymore.”

“How so?” Durosimi was suddenly interested.

Philomena felt suddenly bold. Who was Durosimi to tell her who could come to Granny’s party?

“Granny is most insistent,” she said quietly, “that it will be a knees-up for just witches, and ghostly witches at that; friends and relations, some from different times, but every one of them with the same mind. So, there is no chance that I might be unleashing any opposing energies, whatever that means.”

“No, indeed,” said Durosimi. He paused for a moment, as if processing the information.

“I believe,” he said carefully, “that your grandmother is under the impression that she and I – and obviously you and I – share a common ancestor.  In view of this I would very much like an invitation, being family, and all that. May I rely on you to ask her, please?”

“I can ask,” said Philomena, having a fair idea what Granny’s reply would be.

Durosimi smiled chillingly and disappeared into the night.

“I wish I’d never thought of any of this,” muttered Philomena.

Drury wagged his tail again. He could smell trouble in the air. Drury liked trouble. Trouble was fun.

A Busy Day

By Martin Pearson

Drury was not in the best of moods. He considered himself to be neglected, deserted and generally abandoned. A small confluence of circumstances had apparently conspired to leave the skeletal hound feeling suddenly alone, and deprived of the company of his two best friends, Rhys Cranham and Philomena Bucket. As faithful companion to Rhys, the Night-Soil Man, he had spent many a happy hour wandering over the island of Hopeless, while Rhys serviced the outside privies, cesspools and, occasionally, earth closets of its inhabitants.  This week, however, Rhys had been too unwell to perform his duties. Struck down by influenza, the Night-Soil Man had taken to his bed in an effort to shake off the malaise. His illness had unfortunately coincided with Les Demoiselles dancing troupe moving into larger premises. While their move did not directly affect Rhys, Philomena felt it to be incumbent upon her to help both parties, as well as fulfilling her duties at The Squid and Teapot. In one stroke, therefore, Drury was deprived of both of his friends and main sources of entertainment.

Drury had not always been so dependent on others for company. For more years than anyone could remember he had been a presence on the island, minding his own business and invariably poking his bony nose into other people’s. True, he had frequently found companionship with several generations of Night-Soil Men, but he had formed a special bond with Rhys and, more recently, Philomena.

Doc Willoughby had refused to go within twenty yards of the House at Poo Corner, which surprised no one. Philomena was thankful, convinced that a visit from the Doc usually had the effect of prolonging an illness. She, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions. The peg adorning her nose was barely sufficient for the intended task, but it at least enabled her to bring Rhys the pots of soup, plates of starry-grabby pie and flasks of Gannicox Distillery’s finest spirit, that she considered essential for the completion of a full recovery.  

“I wonder if I could go through married life wearing a peg on me nose?” she thought, idly remembering how close she had come to marrying Rhys. That was in the days, not so long ago, when it seemed as though the Night-Soil Man would give up his job for her. He would have done so, too, had his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill, not met an untimely end. 

“Well, enough of this daydreaming,” said Philomena, aloud. “Dwelling on the past will achieve nothing.”

 Drury watched forlornly as she pocketed the peg and bustled away, back to the inn.

With the absence of anything better to do, Drury resorted, that afternoon, to his old habits of removing washing from lines and terrorising the occasional spoonwalker. Usually these activities would leave him feeling fulfilled. Today, however, they held no pleasure for him at all. He wandered listlessly over to the establishment known for years as Madame Evadne’s, lately renamed the School of Dance, in the hope that Philomena would be there. Several of the Washwell brothers were shifting furniture in through the big front door, with Mirielle D’Illay barking orders at them in French and English, but there was no sign of Philomena. Nor was she in The Squid and Teapot. Drury was puzzled.

It must be remembered that, even allowing for the fact that he may appear to be nothing more than a collection of bones, Drury is no ordinary dog; he has been around for a very long time. So when Philomena failed to appear by nightfall, he knew that something was amiss. Had Rhys Cranham been in any fit state to search for Philomena, Drury would have tugged at his jacket, in the best Rin Tin Tin style, and made him understand that something was wrong. As it was, Rhys was huddled under a pile of blankets, running a temperature and feeling extremely sorry for himself.

It had been Philomena’s habit to wander into the Gydynap Hills whenever she felt the need to clear her head. The extra workload of helping Les Demoiselles to move into new premises, worrying about Rhys and wondering how to organise Granny Bucket’s forthcoming deathday party, was beginning to take its toll. Despite being horribly busy, she just had to get away for an hour or two. More often than not, Drury would appear from nowhere and accompany her. It was ironic that he had decided to feel particularly unloved that day, and chosen to wreck washing lines on the other side of the island, just when she needed him most. Unaware of this, and deciding that her old friend must have been nobly watching over Rhys, she set off alone.

Night falls quickly on Hopeless at the best of times. In the winter it slips in like a thief, and steals away the daylight before you realise what has happened. Almost uniquely among the islanders, being out in the dark had never particularly bothered Philomena, especially since learning that powerful witch-blood flowed in her veins. In the past this, and the fact that Rhys had been secretly keeping an eye on her, had kept the less pleasant denizens of Hopeless at bay. Tonight, however, was different. Rhys was fitfully sleeping in his sick-bed and, because of her preoccupation with those other things, Philomena’s defences were down. That is why she did not sense the presence of the figure following her. At least, not until it was too late.

 Drury sniffed the air. Although he had just a gap where a dog’s nose would normally be, he was as adept as a bloodhound when it came to following a trail. That Philomena had gone to the Gydynaps was no surprise, but she might have taken any one of a dozen different footpaths. To Drury, however, her scent was as clear as if etched in luminous paint upon the grass. With the gap in his ribcage, where his heart used to be, brimming with hope, he raced through the night, confident of tracking down his friend. Then he came to an abrupt halt. The trail had stopped at an outcrop of rocks. Drury clawed frantically at the ground. There was no trace of Philomena. She had apparently disappeared into thin air.

To be continued…

Fright Night

By Martin Pearson

“They’ll probably blame the Chevins”

“And that’s totally fine with me.”

The two eldest Washwell brothers viewed, with some satisfaction, the obscenities that they had daubed, in bright red paint, on the front door of Les Demoiselles School of Dance.

Hubert and Egbert Washwell were angry young men. They felt put upon, mainly because their youngest brother, Septimus, had become romantically attached to the choreographer, Mirielle D’Illay, and taken up dancing. That, in itself, would have been just about bearable, but since Septimus had started something of a trend among his peers of both sexes, who also wished to learn La Danse Apache, this had resulted in Les Demoiselles having to look for larger premises.

As related in last week’s tale, ‘The School of Dance’, they found a new home in what had once been the establishment known as Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. The building had been empty for some time, and the surviving décor was not to everyone’s taste. In fact, ‘taste’ was not a word that immediately sprang to mind when describing the surviving furnishings and ornamentation found in the Lodging House. Without hesitation, or indeed, consultation, Seth Washwell had volunteered the services of his remaining six sons and the facilities of his sawmills and foundry, in order to get The School of Dance up and running.

“After all,” he reasoned, “we’re practically family these days.”

His generous gesture and clannish claims, however, were not necessarily shared with his true family, especially Hubert and Egbert. The whole enterprise had taken time and effort, which they both begrudged. ‘All that work, and for what purpose?’ they asked, both having the view that dance was an unnecessary distraction, and male dancers foppish time-wasters. As far as they were concerned, the fact that their youngest sibling bore a fancy-dancy Latin name had always placed him firmly in the ‘Foppish Time-Wasters’ corner.   

This was why, under the cover of darkness, the elder Washwells had anonymously vandalised the door. It was a small gesture, but one that made them happy for a few hours… but only for a few hours.

Seth Washwell took off his cap and scratched his head.

“Why would anybody want to do that?” he asked.

Mirielle shrugged, too upset to answer.

“It’s not a problem,” said Seth soothingly. “I’ve got some red paint at home – just about the same shade, I reckon. The best thing to do is paint the door red all over. I’ll get a couple of the boys to come along and do it this afternoon.”

It was a few hours later when Hubert and Egbert found themselves standing, once more, outside the School of Dance, clutching a can of red paint. This time, however, they were temporarily on the side of the angels. Their father, unaware of their part in desecrating the door, had given them the task of painting it.

“The mindless vandals who do that sort of thing need a good thrashing,” said Seth angrily. “I’d bet my boots that the Chevins had something to do with it.”

Hubert and Egbert were glad that the blame was resting firmly with the Chevin family, as they had predicted, but they felt cheated.

“We need to do something big,” said Egbert.

“Yes,” agreed Hubert. “Something that we can’t be blamed for, or be expected to put right.”

“Something that gets so damaged that it can’t be mended,” added his brother.

The pair looked at each other for a few seconds, then, exclaimed together,

“The statue!”

The more than life-sized statue had stood in the courtyard of the building that was now the School of Dance for more years than any could remember. No one, these days, had any idea, exactly, who Madame Evadne had been, but the legend on the plinth called her a public benefactor, and that was enough for the people of Hopeless to regard her effigy with great affection. Hubert and Egbert figured that the statue’s destruction would bring a great deal of wrath down upon the (for once) blameless heads of the Chevin family and, with any luck, The School of Dance, for allowing such a thing to happen.  

The full moon, shrouded in mist, afforded little light as the two eldest Washwell brothers made their way to The School of Dance. The silence of the night was broken only by the distant roar of the sea and a solitary, muffled, chime from the church clock. One o’clock.  Intent on destruction, they were confident that there would be little chance of discovery; with very few exceptions, only the Night-Soil Man dared to brave Hopeless at this hour, and he was on the far side of the island.

Both were startled by the figure that loomed out of the fog. It took several seconds for them to realise that they had reached their goal, for the shape before them was that of the statue which they planned to reduce to rubble. They laughed uneasily at their mistake; she looked so lifelike. Privately, each brother began to question the wisdom of their mission. The statue seemed larger than either remembered, and looked as though it had been hewn from Maine granite. Suddenly, the foundry hammers, which they had purloined for the purpose, felt light and puny in their hands.  

Not to lose face, Hubert hefted his hammer and struck the statue a ringing blow. While the statue stood, undamaged, Hubert’s arms felt as if they had been bludgeoned. That was when the moon managed to break through the clouds, bathing Madame Evadne in a pool of ice-white light. To the young men’s horror, the statue opened her eyes, to reveal two ghastly greenish-yellow orbs which seemed to bore deeply into them. They screamed in unison as slowly, solemnly, she stepped from her plinth and raised a great stone arm, as if to smite her assailants, who by now were frozen to the spot.

“If ever you try to damage me again,” she intoned, in a strangely accented voice, which was as hollow and dark as a tomb, “or threaten my building, or those within it, I will drag you to your own private Hell myself. Do not doubt me.”

By the time they were able to summon up enough courage to move, the statue had returned to the plinth. As they made their hurried way home, Hubert and Egbert had no doubts that the granite lady would carry out her threat. This was just as well, as the stripped and agonised soul of one Tobias Thrupp could testify. Many years before, she had consigned Thrupp to the vampire-haunted caverns, deep beneath the island. The inhabitants of those caverns were more than adept at keeping their prey alive for a long time.  A very long time indeed. 

The School of Dance

By Martin Pearson

When the Can-Can troupe, Les Demoiselles de Moulin Rouge, first came ashore upon the island of Hopeless, Maine, they, like all newcomers before them, were generously offered bed and board in The Squid and Teapot. The Squid – as the inn is fondly known by its patrons – is proud of its legendary hospitality, as readers of ‘The Vendetta’ will be aware. For those who survive their first few weeks on the island without serious mishap, the protection afforded by the stout walls of the inn is priceless. In time, however, most gain confidence and wish to find their own space. Usually, this is not a problem; in a community where the mortality rate is phenomenally high, there inevitably exists more buildings than there are people with whom to fill them. So, when the five demoiselles decided that they needed to find more conducive premises in which to practice their Terpsichorean art, they moved out of The Squid and into a corner of a foreign field which was forever France… or would have been, had they stayed there.

Les Demoiselles were happy to encourage the few girls from the orphanage who had been keen to learn the Can-Can, comfortably away from the disapproving gaze of the Reverend and Mrs Davies. Their classes were small and manageable, but everything changed when their principal dancer and choreographer, Mirielle D’Illay, was introduced to young Septimus Washwell. Septimus had a reputation of being something of a pugilist, so when he told Mirielle that he would love to be able to dance (but definitely not the Can-Can) it took little effort for her to think of the perfect outlet for his bottled-up violence. Back in Paris, performing in the Moulin Rouge, part of their act had been La Danse Apache (as described in the tale of that name). It seemed obvious that this would be ideal for Septimus, with the stylised fighting that it enacted. Somewhat inevitably, love blossomed and before long Septimus was accepted as being an honorary Demoiselle. Following their first public performance, however, there was a sudden surge of interest from young – and not so young – men keen to become “French Apache Dancers”, as they called it. While this was gratifying, Les Demoiselles soon realised that their current abode was far too small for the space needed to accommodate their pupils, and so they looked for somewhere larger.

Their new home seemed to have been deserted for years. Someone thought that it had once been some sort of Social Club, but nobody had lived there for a long time. The décor which had survived the ravages of time seemed lurid, and some of the rooms more resembled dungeons than guest chambers – but hey, this was Hopeless, Maine, so oddness was commonplace, and it was a good space. Besides this, there was a more than life-sized statue of an angelic looking woman standing in the courtyard, so surely it would be the perfect haven for Les Demoiselles.  With Septimus as part of the team, it seemed only natural to his father and six brothers that they would help renovate the property, with all of the resources of the Washwell Sawmills and Foundry at their disposal.

Long-time devotees of these tales will maybe remember a certain Sister Evangeline, an Irish nun who, many years before, took charge of Hopeless’s only bordello. She took it upon herself to become the guardian of the women who worked there, and, to be less incongruous, adopted the name of Madame Evadne. To make her transformation complete she tried to affect a French accent when dealing with clients. The result was a strange Gaelic/Gallic hybrid which was not unpleasant to the ear but, more often than not, slightly unintelligible, a nuance which added an air of mystery to all who frequented the establishment, which, by then, had become known as Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. Madame Evadne was adored by just about everyone, and some years after her death a statue was erected to honour her as the island’s greatest benefactor.

Les Demoiselles, of course knew nothing of any of this, for the bordello had closed its doors many years before. They also had no idea that once, long ago, the statue standing in the courtyard had come to life, and had taken terrible vengeance upon a brutal, cowardly man named Tobias Thrupp (this was related in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’).

Mirielle D’Illay regarded the statue uneasily. She could have sworn that it winked at her, but quickly dismissed the idea with a Gallic shrug.

“It’s just a trick of the light,” she thought. 

Ariadne’s Discovery

“Where have you been?” asked Bartholomew Middlestreet, landlord of The Squid and Teapot. “You’ve been gone for hours. I was beginning to get worried.”

Ariadne gave her husband a wry smile.

“Only up in the attics,” she said. “I can’t come to much harm up there.”

“Whatever was so important that you’ve spent half the morning in the attics?” asked Bartholomew. “And you’re covered in dust.”

“I’ve been foraging through some old books – books that haven’t been looked at for ages. You could stuff a pillow with the amount of dust that they’ve accumulated.”

“But why?”

“I needed to look something up… it was just a comment that Philomena made the other day; it bothered me and I couldn’t let it go.”  

“And are you going to tell me?” asked Bartholomew, his interest whetted.

Ariadne drew a deep breath.

“Do you remember, last week, when she was talking about celebrating Granny Bucket’s deathday?”

“Of course. A weird idea if you ask me…”

“That’s as maybe,” said Ariadne, “But she said that the only person she knew who had known the exact day of their death was her Great Uncle Brendan.”

“The horse-thief? He only knew because the judge told him,” said Bartholomew. “It sounded like a bad joke.”

“It was no joke,” said Ariadne. “Philomena told me later that Brendan was Granny Bucket’s younger brother.”

“That must have been sad for the family, but what of it? It was a long time ago,” said Bartholomew, a little callously, or so his wife thought.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Ariadne. “A very long time ago, and that’s what troubled me. It’s why I’ve been looking through old books. Old law books, in fact. Books which were washed ashore years ago, and of no interest to anybody. In the best traditions of The Squid, however, they’ve been hoarded away, just on the off-chance that one day they might be needed.”

“You’re going to get to the point soon?” quizzed Bartholomew mischievously. “We’ll have to open the inn in a couple of hours.”

Ariadne ignored the sarcasm.

“I found out that, in Britain, horse-stealing stopped being a capital crime in eighteen thirty-two.”

“Brendan was Irish,” pointed out Bartholomew.

“They were still subject to the same laws. Do you see what this means?”

“Now you come to mention it…”  replied Bartholomew, “…No, I don’t.”

He was beginning to lose interest in whatever mystery Ariadne thought she had uncovered.  

“Oh, for goodness sake,” said Ariadne, exasperated. “Look, Granny’s younger brother was hanged sometime before eighteen thirty-two, which means that Granny herself was probably born in the early eighteen-hundreds… AND PHILOMENA REMEMBERS HER! Do you see now what I’m saying?”

She watched patiently as the information seeped into Bartholomew’s mind.

“That would make Philomena at least…”

“Yes,” interrupted Ariadne, “but I don’t think it’s that simple. How long has she been on the island?”

“Four, maybe five years.”

“And that ship that she stowed-away on, the ‘Hetty Pegler’ wasn’t it? A wooden sailing ship,” said Ariadne.

“Yeess,” said Bartholomew, hesitantly, unsure where the conversation was heading.

“Every shipwreck we see on the island… why, they’re nearly always sailing ships. Maybe, very occasionally, we get some ancient steamer turn up. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to you?”

“Odd? In what way?”  

“Bartholomew,” she said gently, hardly believing what she was about to say herself. “Now and then, when the mist thins out, I’ve spotted them in the far distance, right on the horizon. Huge vessels, without sails, or without billows of smoke streaming out of funnels. I have no idea where they’re from, or what they’re carrying, but I think that they are ships; ships which don’t rely on wind or steam, and never come anywhere near the island, to fall foul of the rocks.”

Bartholomew flopped on to a chair.

“I’ve seen them, too,” he said. “It was when Doctor Dee was here. He seemed to think that they were from another time altogether, but that sounded ridiculous to me.”

Ariadne suddenly looked frightened.

“What if it’s us, Bartholomew?” she asked. “All of us, on this god-forsaken island of Hopeless? What if we’re the ones stranded in time and the future lies somewhere forever out of reach, beyond the mist and the rocks that surround us? What if every ship that crashes on to the reefs, every survivor washed up on our beaches, are from the past; a past that we cannot escape. Maybe that’s why no one is able to leave the island.”

“That’s a lot to take in,” said Bartholomew, “and I’m not convinced that you’re right, but it would explain a few things. Let’s not mention this to anyone else, though.”

“No,” agreed Ariadne. “If nothing else they’ll think we’re crazy.”

At that moment Drury, the skeletal hound, clattered into the bar and settled himself in front of the fire with a rattle of bones. As if on cue, the ghost of Father Ignatius Stamage manifested through the solid wall of the flushing privy, cheerily waved to the Middlestreets and patted Drury with a spectral hand.

Bartholomew surveyed the scene for a long moment.

“Maybe we are, my love,” he said. “Maybe we are.”

The Party Planner

By Martin Pearson

“Well, that’s over for another year,” said Bartholomew Middlestreet, not without some relief in his voice.

Christmas celebrations at The Squid and Teapot had been somewhat riotous this year. Bartholomew, Ariadne and their barmaid, Philomena Bucket, had gone out of their way to make it special, and their efforts had just about exhausted the three of them.

“Yes,” agreed his wife, “It seems a shame, though, that it’s all done and dusted so quickly. Once we get the new year out of the way, there’ll be no excuse for a celebration for ages.”

“Unless of course somebody decides to get married,” said Bartholomew pointedly, giving Philomena a meaningful stare.

Despite the slight flush that sprang to her pale cheeks, Philomena pretended not to notice, deciding instead to change the subject.

“We could always do something for Granny Bucket’s deathday, in February,” she volunteered.

“Granny Bucket’s what?” asked Ariadne, confused.

“Granny’s deathday. It’s in February.”

“But I thought she was already dead,” said Bartholomew. “In fact I’ve seen her ghost hanging around The Squid several times.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Philomena. “But February the seventh will be the anniversary of her death. Everybody has a deathday, but most people don’t know when it is.”

 “I don’t think that it’s anything that many would want to be aware of,” said Ariadne.

“The only person I know who knew exactly when he was going to die was my Great Uncle Brendan,” said Philomena, wistfully.

“Was he a clairvoyant?” asked Ariadne.

“No, a horse thief,” said Philomena. “The judge told him.”

There was an uncomfortable silence while the other two struggled for something appropriate to say. Philomena came to their rescue.

“Anyway, it’s given me an idea,“ she said. “How about we throw a party for each of the island’s ghosts, to be held on the anniversary of their death?”

“There are rather a lot of them,” mused Bartholomew. “And it raises a few questions, as well.”

“Such as?” asked Philomena, quietly irked that her suggestion seemed to be in danger of falling at the first fence.

“How would we know when it happened?”

“They’ll know, believe me. They know to the minute, especially if violence of any sort was involved,” replied Philomena.

“Hmm, that’s pretty much every ghost on the island,” conceded Bartholomew, “but how can they celebrate? As far as I know they don’t eat or drink anything.”

“There’s more to a celebration than eating and drinking,” said Philomena, not entirely convincingly. “But the ones I’ve met like to socialise, I’m sure we could arrange that. After all, ghosts are people too.”

“No they’re not,” pointed out Ariadne. “They’re ghosts. And what about the Mad Parson? Are you including him in these little get-togethers?”

Philomena frowned. Having Obadiah Hyde at any social event would be problematic.

“But should we exclude him?” she asked. “After all, he can’t help being mad.”

“No, he can’t help being mad, but he could help it when he decided to remove Lady Margaret’s D’Avening’s head,” said Ariadne. “If she knows that he is involved in anything, she won’t take part.”

That was true. As has been told in these tales before, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock and the Headless Lady who haunted the flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, had history, and could not stand to be in each other’s company. It could be guaranteed that, within minutes, the ectoplasm would start to fly.

“Fair enough. Obadiah can be the exception,” agreed Philomena. “How about the others?”

Bartholomew sucked in his cheeks thoughtfully.

“What if we give a party for Granny Bucket in February, and see what happens?” he suggested.

The two women nodded in silent agreement, and bustled out of the bar, already discussing the guest list and venue.

“There will be at least six weeks of this,” thought Bartholomew, aloud. “What have I let myself in for?”

“More than you can imagine, my lad,” cackled the wraith of Granny Bucket, from where she lurked in the shadows. “More than you can possibly imagine.”

A Hopeless Christmas Carol

By Martin Pearson

Despite the frost, fog, and general abject misery, the island of Hopeless, Maine was beginning to embrace an unmistakable atmosphere that was definitely leaning towards the festive. This was due, in no small part, to the efforts of Philomena Bucket and the Middlestreets, Bartholomew and Ariadne, who had decided that Christmas should be celebrated in style this year. They had festooned The Squid and Teapot with an assortment of decorations and had contrived a special seasonal menu, which featured their own version of plum-pudding. Each evening, in the bar, one could hear rousing renditions of half-remembered carols, executed by various patrons of the inn and performed in an interesting variety of keys and tempos, often at the same time. Even The Squid’s resident ghosts, Lady Margaret D’Avening and Father Ignatius Stamage, lent their voices from the seclusion of the indoor flushing privy, where they were wont to haunt, giving any visiting clients something of a shock.

Most islanders seemed to enjoy the efforts being made, but as in every well-meaning endeavour, there was the inevitable handful of naysayers. Not least among these, and possibly the most vocal, was Doc Willoughby, who found the whole Christmas experience to be tiresome, to say the least, with its forced jollity and unfounded optimism interfering with the serious business of drinking.

“Blasted carol singers,” he moaned to no one in particular. “Why does Christmas have to come round so often? Oh, how I hate it. Humbug!” (This last ejaculation was in response to the Doc having spotted, and indeed heard, a humbug. This is a rare flying beetle uniquely native to Hopeless Maine. Although quite small and nondescript to behold, the humbug can be readily identified by its tendency to loudly hum the melody of any tune it hears, and, as it appears only during the month of December, that tune is invariably a Christmas carol).

“He gets more and more curmudgeonly every year,” complained Philomena Bucket to Miss Calder, the spectral administrator of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. “I don’t mind that he dislikes Christmas, but he doesn’t have to spoil it for everyone else.”

“No, indeed,” sympathised Miss Calder. “I wonder if he has always been like that? Something awful must have happened to make him such a misery.”

“I can’t see any of us changing him now,” said Philomena, philosophically. “It would take a miracle.”

“Hmmm, maybe,” replied Miss Calder thoughtfully, then her face turned briefly skeletal as an idea formed in her ghostly head.

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for an opportunistic young spoonwalker, quietly rifling through Doc Willoughby’s cutlery drawer. Meanwhile, up in his bedroom, the Doc was nestled snugly in bed, while alcohol-fuelled visions danced alarmingly in his head. The clock was just striking twelve when he was suddenly and rudely wrested from the arms of Morpheus – who, quite frankly, was glad to be rid of him –  by an unearthly glow that appeared to emanate from the far side of the room.

“What the… who’s there?” he demanded irritably.

“Doc Willoughby… Doc Willoughby…” said a distinctly familiar voice from somewhere within The Unearthly Glow, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“No you’re not,” said the Doc. “You’re Miss Calder.”

“No, really, I definitely am the ghost of Christmas Past,” insisted The Unearthly Glow, though a trifle uncertainly.

“Miss Calder, I may be half-asleep and slightly drunk, but I would recognise your sepulchral – though not unpleasant – tones anywhere.”

Abashed, Miss Calder stopped being an Unearthly Glow and returned to her more familiar form.

(Unlike the other ghosts of the island, Miss Calder has always been able to wander wherever she chooses, and not doomed to haunt a single given area or object. This latest feat, however, of changing her outward appearance, is one that I had not been previously aware of. It just goes to show that you can learn something new every day.)

“Very well, I give in, Doc. You’re right… but I’ve come to say that you really need to change your ways. You must have enjoyed Christmas as a youngster, surely? It should be a time of joy and giving, not grumpiness,” she said, as little by little, she faded through the wall

“Humbug!” said the Doc, as a small flying creature zipped past his ear, melodically crooning ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ in the key of F major.

That might have been the end of the tale, but as the Doc lay in his bed, he could not help but reflect on Miss Calder’s words. Had he enjoyed Christmas as a child? For the life of him, he could not remember. In fact, he could not even recall ever being a child. Surely he had not been middle-aged for all of his days? That was preposterous, even on Hopeless. He would check with Reverend Davies in the morning to see if he had any memory of them being children together.

It was barely daylight when the Doc was woken again, this time by the off-key, slightly nasal whine of a thin, adolescent voice.

Hobbling drowsily to the window, he opened it, and put out his head, to be assailed by drizzly rain, wispy mist and a dismally cold breeze.

“What’s today?” cried the Doc, calling downward to the owner of the voice, who was dressed in what passed as his Sunday best.

“Today? Why it’s Christmas Day.”

“Christmas Day?” said Doc. “Then you should have more respect, trying to sing and disturbing decent people at this hour.”

In a fit of pique, he threw a boot, which narrowly missed the youth and bounced harmlessly into the gutter.

“Now go away.”

This last sentence, you will appreciate, was not the Doc’s actual terminology, but I have no doubt that from it you will grasp the gist of his sentiments.

Doc slammed the window shut and returned to bed, only to be disturbed seconds later by a diminutive winged beetle cheerily flitting around the room and humming the ever popular seasonal ditty “We wish you a merry Christmas.”  

“Humbug!” growled the Doc.

The Fraser Fir

“That’s the one!” said Bartholomew Middlestreet, pointing to a particularly handsome fir tree, standing in a clearing in the wood.  “I’ll come and get it tomorrow.”

Philomena Bucket was not so impressed.

“Do you really have to cut it down?” she asked. “It is such a beautiful tree, and there isn’t much else with natural beauty growing on this island. It seems a shame to kill it, just for the sake of a couple of weeks of lack-lustre festivity.”

She could have sworn that the branches shuddered a little as she said this, but supposed it was just her imagination.

“Oh, come on, Philomena,” said Bartholomew enthusiastically. “Think how lovely it will look in The Squid and Teapot, all decorated up for Christmas.”

Philomena did not reply. Her animistic soul had never seen the sense in cutting down a perfectly good tree in order for it to do little else than stand in the corner of room, quietly and sadly dropping pine needles and turning brown.

It is fair to say that her assessment of the tree had been absolutely correct; it was indeed beautiful. Standing at just over seven feet tall, with a fine pyramidal shape and glossy green-blue needles, it exuded a delicate citrus scent that spoke of the high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains. Unsurprisingly, neither Philomena nor Bartholomew had any idea of whatever message it was that the scent might be trying to convey. Neither did they know, or care, that this particular specimen was a Fraser Fir, or Abies Fraseri, named for the Scots botanist, John Fraser, and, traditionally, the Christmas tree often favoured by the incumbent of The White House.

Bartholomew wandered back to The Squid, happily visualising the spectacle of the decorated tree standing resplendent in the corner of the bar, and the grateful, awe-struck faces of his customers as they beheld its beauty. Not that any of them would do any such thing, of course, but he could dream.

Philomena stayed behind in the wood and stared at the Fraser Fir, breathing in its delicious scent.

“I won’t let him do it,” she whispered into its branches.

If she had been able, she would have given the tree a reassuring hug, but the dense foliage allowed no more than the caress of her fingers.

“Trust me,” she said, but had no idea what she would do.

The night was beginning to draw in when Philomena made to leave, and with it came a cold easterly wind that shook the trees and chilled the bones. Philomena drew her coat tightly to her body, and bent her head in the direction of home, completely failing to notice the shadowy figure loitering fifty feet away, in the westernmost end of the woods.

Next morning dawned, and Bartholomew Middlestreet was to be seen scratching his head in bafflement, wondering where his saw had gone. His axe was also missing. In fact, every cutting implement bigger than a bread knife seemed to have mysteriously vanished overnight. He could not even blame spoonwalkers, on this occasion, unless they had suddenly become much larger.  

Meanwhile, up in the safety of her room, Philomena peered anxiously under her bed, feeling only the smallest twinge of guilt at having purloined the assortment of tools stowed there. She was painfully aware that the Fraser fir’s reprieve might yet be only temporary, though, as Bartholomew would, doubtless, be knocking on other doors in his quest for a saw.

“Maybe my magic might kick in,” she hoped. Philomena had learned some time ago that the blood of many generations of powerful witches flowed through her veins. Magic had come to her aid more than once, but only when she was in great peril. Whether it would turn up in order to save a tree, even a particularly beautiful one, was not guaranteed. 

“I must have faith,” she thought to herself, with little conviction.

Bartholomew stormed into the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, later that afternoon, with a face like thunder. Ariadne, his wife, had rarely seen him in such a foul mood.

“Whatever is the matter?” she asked, warily.

“What’s the matter? Every saw and every axe in the area seems to have disappeared, that’s what’s the matter. I’ve asked a dozen people, including Seth Washpool at the sawmills, and they all seem to have lost anything which could be big enough, and sharp enough, to cut down a fir tree. Seth’s got his circular saw, of course, but that’s no good to me. I just don’t understand it. First of all, I suspected that Philomena was behind it; she wasn’t too keen on me having that tree, but now I know that it can’t be her. There’s no way she could have removed so many tools – why, she hasn’t even left the inn since yesterday.”

“Then perhaps you should take it as a sign that you’re not meant to have that tree at all,” said Ariadne philosophically. “After all, this island is a funny place. It seems to have its own ideas about some things. Cutting down that tree could bring you nothing but bad luck.”

“Do you really think so?” asked Bartholomew. “It does feel like some sort of warning, I guess. And bad luck is something I could do without.”

Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, fastened the padlock on his outhouse door. It was unlikely that anyone would come snooping, but there was no reason to invite trouble. Besides, he would return the tools to their rightful owners eventually, but not just yet. If they wanted firewood they could always scavenge, or get offcuts from the sawmill. Rhys grinned to himself when he reflected how he had been standing unseen in the shadows, well downwind of Philomena, when she promised to protect that fir tree. While he was by no means sentimental about the flora and fauna of the island, he had no wish to see his favourite barmaid upset for no good reason. The collection of the saws, axes, billhooks, adzes and even the odd halberd, had taken the greater part of the previous night to collect, but it had been worth it, if it made Philomena happy.

Drury ambled up to the Night-Soil Man’s side, wagging his bony tail.

“You’re right,” said Rhys, strapping on his bucket. “We should be on the move. Come on, old friend, there’s twice as much work for us to do tonight, thanks to that fir tree. The things I do for love!”

A Stirring Tale

“Stir-up Sunday was over a fortnight ago!”

Philomena Bucket sat bolt upright in her bed, still half-asleep and not a little confused at the unwarranted intrusion into, what had been, a very pleasant dream.

“Well? Don’t tell me that you forgot, girl!”

The ghost of Granny Bucket was sitting shimmering on the end of the bed, and shaking her head in disbelief at Philomena’s apparent negligence.

“Hello Granny. It’s good to see you too. Where have you been these last few weeks? I thought you’d gone forever.”

The apparition held no terrors for Philomena. Granny had been haunting her, on and off, for years.

“Time means nothing where I am, as you should well know. And don’t dodge the question. Did you forget?”

Philomena’s mind began to clear a little, and the mention of Stir-up Sunday brought everything back into focus. It had always been important for the matriarch of the Bucket family to make the Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday. Granny’s ghostly heart still dwelt in that time long ago, back in The Old Country.  For Philomena, however, such a cosy memory was very much a thing of the past, but she could clearly recall sitting in church and listening to priest reading from the collect, saying, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”

It was a safe bet that many of those faithful people in the congregation, not to mention the distinctly unfaithful ones, were thinking that they should be at home, making a start on their Christmas puddings. Not only tradition, but pudding maturation requirements, demanded as much.  The biblical call to stir-up has long been one of those happy coincidences that works as an aide-memoire for those whose interests reside more in the kitchen than in the church.

“Granny, this is Hopeless, Maine. Remember? The chances of getting all of the ingredients necessary for a perfect Christmas pudding are next to non-existent.”

“I never said it had to be perfect,” snapped Granny, “but it wouldn’t hurt you to get up off your backside and pay some respects to an ancient tradition occasionally.”

By now Philomena was fully awake and quietly fuming.

“Just because some hard-up hack, with a quill-pen and a frock-coat, decided to scribble whatever came into his head to pay his debts, it hardly makes it an ancient Christmas tradition,” she said angrily. “Wassailing is an ancient Christmas tradition; burning a yule log is an ancient Christmas tradition; going out and getting well and truly rat-arsed is an ancient Christmas tradition. They all go back centuries. Stir-up Sunday is Early-Victorian, at best.”

“So is most of Christmas,” retorted Granny. “And, when you’re living in a place like this, you’ve got to hang on to whatever you can, or what’s the point in carrying on? Now, are you going to make this blasted pudding or no?”

“Granny, it’s two in the morning…”

“I don’t mean at this very minute.”

“I’ll need to sleep on it,” said Philomena, and pulled the blankets up around her.

“Fine, but I’m not going anywhere,” said Granny, defiantly.

Sure enough, when Philomena awoke some hours later, her ghostly ancestor was still patiently perched on the end of the bed.

“Why is this so important to you?” Philomena asked. “And don’t say tradition; I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it really is about tradition,” said Granny, then added, a little reluctantly, “and it’s about you, too. I don’t want you to be a spinster all of your days.”

“Whatever has that got to do with Christmas pudding?” asked Philomena, perplexed.

“It is well known that if you don’t stir the Christmas pudding, you’ll stay single for the next twelve months, and it would make me no end happy to see you settled down with a nice young man.”

“I haven’t heard that one before,” said Philomena. “Anyway, I’ve stirred enough puddings in my time, and I’m still single.”

“But it’s about intent, girl. You’ve got to make that wish as you stir.”

“And what makes you think that not being married makes me unhappy?” asked Philomena.

“I saw the way you looked at that Night-Soil Man,” said Granny. “And you came so close to tying the knot…”

“Things didn’t work out for us,” said Philomena, her pale face reddening a little. “It was nobody’s fault.”

“It might have gone better if you’d stirred the pudding last year,” said Granny, triumphantly.

Philomena looked downcast.

“Think on what I said, Philomena,” said Granny, beginning to fade. “You won’t be young forever. Give fate a hand and get that pudding done.”

“I’m really not that young anymore,” Philomena reflected sadly, but kept the thought to herself as she watched her grandmother disappear into the ether.

To say that Ariadne Middlestreet was surprised, when Philomena expressed a wish to make a Christmas pudding, would be an understatement.

“That’s something we’ve never done at The Squid,” she said. “There are a lot of ingredients needed, as far as I know.”

“We could compromise, here and there,” said Philomena hopefully. “I’ll dig out a recipe and we’ll see what’s possible.”

Following the aforementioned excavation, an exercise which involved a certain amount of foraging through the books in the attics of the inn, the task seemed to be less daunting.

“It seems to be mainly made of dried fruit, which we have,” said Ariadne.  “It won’t be much of a variety of fruit, though.  The ship that floundered on the rocks last year was only carrying raisins, but once the pudding is cooked that won’t matter. I’m sure that I’ve got an ancient pot of mixed-spices somewhere in the larder, and there are a few sour old apples still in the store cupboard. They’re too bitter for most things, but they could go into the mixture. Do you know, this just might work!”

Philomena could sense that her friend was becoming enthused with the possibility of creating a new festive dish for the somewhat sparse bill of fare at The Squid and Teapot.

“We need not worry about the bits we don’t have,” said Philomena, “and maybe, if the brewery can supply some malted barley to sweeten it, and the distillery some neat spirit…”

“That won’t be a problem,” said Ariadne, who had interests in both concerns. “I’m really quite excited at the prospect of doing this…”

Suddenly she stopped, and looked at Philomena

“Oh, I’m sorry. This was all your idea. Don’t let me spoil it for you…”

“I’m not a bit bothered,” said Philomena, airily. “Just as long as I get to stir the pudding mix…”

A Brief History of ‘The Old Colonel’

mortal remains
In December 1907 a 475 foot, seven-masted steel-hulled schooner, The Thomas W Lawson, went aground off Annett, an uninhabited island a few miles from the Cornish coast, with the loss of seventeen lives. On board were Fifty-eight thousand barrels of paraffin. Yes, honestly. Fifty-eight thousand! If you don't believe me, look it up.
 "What," you may justifiably ask, "has any of this to do with Hopeless, Maine? "
In all honesty, the simple answer is, not a lot. However, by coincidence, some years later, an almost identical tragedy occurred when a similarly large vessel, the 'Stanley Downton', came to grief on the rocks around Hopeless, carrying a far more agreeable cargo. On that day over fifty-thousand barrels of malted barley were delivered to the grateful inhabitants of the island, and, luckily, one visionary knew exactly what to do with every last drop.

Those who have followed these tales from their earliest days may recall that Colonel 'Mad Jack' Ruscombe-Green, and his faithful batman, Private Bill Ebley, gallant survivors of the Great War, had set off to cross the Atlantic in an open boat. They were hoping to emulate a feat, completed some years earlier (but from west to east) by two American-Norwegians, Frank Samuelsen and George Hasbo (related in the tale 'Jolly Boating Weather'). Fate, it would appear, had other ideas for Ruscombe-Green and Ebley; rather than making a triumphant arrival in New York harbour, as planned, the pair fetched up on the unforgiving shores of the island of Hopeless, Maine.
It was a full year or so later that Ruscombe-Green, 
almost uniquely, escaped the island, aided by the Passaquamoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs. Bill Ebley by this time had developed a fondness for a certain Constanza Gannicox and elected to stay on Hopeless, where he not only raised a family, but - more importantly, some might argue - founded the much revered Ebley Brewery. 

Prior to Bill's contribution to the quality and quantity of alcohol available, the art of brewing on the island had been, to say the least, somewhat hit and miss. Both The Squid and Teapot and The Crow had enjoyed mixed success with their home-brewed ales, having depended greatly upon whatever raw materials the tide brought in. With the arrival of Bill, who hailed from several generations of British brewers, closely followed by rather a lot of malted barley, things changed considerably. By my calculations, if the barrels had been mere little firkins (which is unlikely) the haul would have been about five hundred thousand gallons. If, on the other hand, they had been full sized barrels there would be somewhere in the region of two million gallons of malted barley at Bill's disposal. As I said, rather a lot. The future of brewing on the island looked decidedly good. 

It would be wrong to trace the fortunes of the Ebley Brewery without making some reference to the Gannicox Distillery. It was Constanza's brother, Ebeneezer, who originally founded the distillery. At first it relied upon the brewery for most of its barrels but as the years passed the roles reversed. An appreciative clientele were not slow to point out that beer which had matured in casks previously used for spirits acquired greater depth and flavour. So enamoured was Bill with the enhanced quality of the brew that he called it 'Old Colonel', in honour of his erstwhile commandant. 

 "That takes some believing," said Seth Washwell, when he heard the story. "Fifty thousand barrels? How did they get that lot ashore?"
 "Maybe they didn't need to," said Philomena Bucket, who had never questioned the veracity of the account. "After all, it was a big ship that ran aground. It didn't necessarily sink."
 Seth thought about this, then said, triumphantly, "Ah, but what about the crew? If the ship didn't sink they probably survived and would have stopped any looting."
 "Better not to ask," said Philomena, mysteriously. "It all happened a long time ago."
 Seth was not satisfied. 
 "And you're telling me that Old Colonel is still being produced from the malted barley that turned up all those years ago?"
 " Why ever not? " said Philomena, sharply. She was tiring of the conversation, and had work to do. 
 "If you don't believe me, ask Mrs Middlestreet. After all, Ariadne is the owner of the Ebley Brewery."
 She saw genuine surprise on Seth's face.
 "Didn't you know? Her grandmother was Mildred Ebley, Bill's only child. Mildred married Isaac Lypiatt, whose family had run The Squid for years. Ariadne is, or was, the last of the Lypiatts."
 "So that makes Constanza Gannicox her great grandmother... and Mrs Middlestreet has connections with the brewery and distillery. Norbert must be her cousin. Why didn't I know that?" said Seth, shaking his head.
 "Because you're too busy mooning around that French girlfriend of yours," grinned Philomena.
 Seth reddened.
 "That still doesn't explain," he said sulkily, "how they got fifty thousand barrels ashore, and where they put them."

Drury had been lying quietly in the corner, listening intently to their conversation. He wagged his bony tail. He had been there when it had happened, and had seen it all. Unfortunately for Seth, he wasn't telling.