Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

The Unhappy Medium

Drury, the skeletal hound, was curled up contentedly on an old blanket in the corner of the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, affectionately known to all as ‘The House at Poo Corner’.

As far as Drury was concerned, all was right with the world.  To all intents and purposes Philomena Bucket had stopped wasting her time worrying about being a powerful witch, or getting married, and was once more ensconced behind the bar of The Squid and Teapot. Even better, Rhys Cranham was back in his rightful place, servicing the cess-pits and outdoor privies of the islanders of Hopeless Maine. All thoughts of marriage appeared to have left them both, at least for the time being. The status quo had been restored to Drury’s satisfaction.

Rhys looked down fondly at the bony old hound. It would soon be time to drag on his boots, strap on the lidded bucket and once more venture out into the darkness. Doubtless, Drury would accompany him, as he did on most nights. Rhys could not help wondering how things would have changed, had his and Philomena’s wedding plans come to fruition. The role of Night-Soil Man had taken up half of his life, first as apprentice to Shenandoah Nailsworthy, then, after Shenandoah’s death, as Night-Soil Man in his own right. Would he have coped with married life? He had no idea; it might have been a disaster. After leaving the Pallid Rock Orphanage, the night soil business was all that he had ever known. It was probably best not to dwell on the question. Happily, Philomena was still a good friend, leaving a couple of bottles of Old Colonel and a wedge of starry-grabby pie on his doorstep every evening.

Despite the all-pervading misery that seemed to seep into every nook and cranny of the island, The Squid and Teapot generally managed to maintain its reputation for good cheer. A visitor could always expect a warm welcome and, more often as not, entertainment, of a sort. Tonight the venerable Bell-Edison phonograph, which always added a frisson of excitement to proceedings, had been taken out to provide the music for Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine, the troupe of Moulin Rouge dancers who had been shipwrecked on the island a year or so earlier. To the strains of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop (or ‘The Can-Can’ to most of us) the aforementioned young ladies performed their ever-popular routine to an appreciative audience. By a strange coincidence, whenever Les Demoiselles performed in the inn, some of those who rarely patronised the establishment found themselves with a pressing need to pay it a visit.

“Reverend Davies, we don’t often see you in here,” said Bartholomew Middlestreet, with no surprise in his voice whatsoever.

“Quite so,” said the Reverend importantly. “I’ve come to see Miss Bucket, if that is convenient.”

He failed to mention that he had already seen Philomena; she had been walking in the opposite direction.

“Sorry Reverend, she’s out at the moment and won’t be back for a while. She said she needed an hour or so to herself.”

“That’s a shame,” replied Davies unconvincingly. “I can’t wait an hour, but as long as I’m here I may as well have a small drink and watch the… er… cabaret.”

Philomena walked purposefully towards the Gydynap Hills. She was troubled and needed to be far away from other people for a while. Despite the hazards of venturing out into the night on Hopeless, Philomena never felt herself to be in danger. It seemed that the ghost of Granny Bucket was right – or maybe she was just lucky.

Granny, and Philomena’s friend, Doctor John Dee, had both impressed upon her that she possessed great magical ability. Unfortunately, Granny was no longer haunting her and John Dee had returned to Elizabethan England. This was bad enough, but to make things worse, her marriage to Rhys Cranham had been called off, following the violent death of his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill. Philomena felt horribly alone in the world and this feeling that her magic was growing more powerful by the day was not helping. She had never been comfortable having the dubious gift of ‘The Sight’, but now it was as if she had been given an even more burdensome gift, like that of some great wild animal, which she had no idea how to tame. If only Granny was here to help. Philomena sat down on the grass and wept in the misty darkness.

“Are you okay?”

Philomena had not heard the young woman approach.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. Just being silly,” said Philomena, wiping her eyes.

“Do you want to talk about it? I can sit with you for a while. I’m Marigold. Marigold Burleigh.”

“Ah. You’ll be the nurse I heard tell of. Sit, by all means, but I don’t need to talk, honestly” replied Philomena.

She had no idea why she was being so cautious, but somewhere, deep inside Philomena, alarm bells were ringing.

Trickster could feel subtle changes happening to the meat-suit already. That was a pity. He was enjoying being female and they usually lasted longer than this. The other one, the young man Linus, had given him months of wear. On reflection, Linus had resisted and done his best to get rid of Trickster. He had rarely been sober; that probably had some bearing on things. Anyway, all that was in the past, and this girl was not going to hold together for very much longer; he needed someone new to possess.

“That’s fine,” said Marigold, sweetly, “but I’d quite like us to be friends. How about you and I go for a quiet walk in the moonlight? I’m sure we’ll be safe enough if we’re careful.”

She offered the crook of her arm to Philomena, who took it warily.

“Gotcha!” thought Trickster

To be continued…

The District Nurse

If Doc Willoughby had truly received the classical education that he liked to imply, or indeed, possessed a half-decent dictionary, he would have been aware that the words ‘Patience’ and ‘Patients’ were both derived from the Latin ‘patientia’, meaning to bear, or to suffer. As it is, this particular homonym hung like a raincloud over the Doc, for while he had never enjoyed an abundance of patience, he always felt himself to be burdened with far too many patients. It was, therefore, with a certain amount of foreboding and an unwelcoming scowl that he answered the door to a young lady whom he did not recognise.

“Can’t help you,” he growled, before she had said a word, “too busy. You’ll have to make an appointment. Sometime during the week after next there might be a free spot.”

Doc said this, ignoring the fact that his surgery was obviously empty and the unmistakable waft of the Gannicox Distillery’s Finest Aqua Vitae emanated from his every pore. The girl tilted her head to one side and smiled with such radiance that even Doc’s frostiness thawed a little.

“Oh, I don’t need an appointment, doctor,” she said sweetly, “I was hoping you might be able to give me a job.”

“I don’t need a housekeeper, cook, secretary or any other domestic service you might be offering,” replied Doc brusquely, and made to close the door.

“No… you don’t understand. I am a qualified nurse and I thought I might be able to help. You obviously have a really heavy workload.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” lied the Doc, whose cure for everything usually involved alcohol, both for himself and his patient. “A nurse, eh? Well, maybe you can be of assistance. Come on in and let’s talk about it.”

The possession of curricula vitae or references have never featured greatly in Hopeless, Maine’s employment market. People arriving on the island generally have a short life-expectancy and frequently disappear without a trace. Any skills they might possess must be quickly utilised before they are lost forever. It was not deemed unusual, therefore, for the Doc to accept the nurse’s qualifications on face-value. ‘’After all’’, he reasoned, ‘‘what harm can she do?’’

Nurse Marigold Burleigh stood in the gloomy living-room, dispassionately observing the pale, angular woman sitting before her.

“It’s chest pains,” simpered Mrs Davies. “My husband, the Reverend, is concerned that I might have acute angina.”

“You needn’t worry on that account,” said Marigold, “I can promise you, you haven’t got a cute anything. Now, stick out your tongue.”

Mrs Davies obediently thrust out her tongue.

“Hmmm… that’s not good,” said the nurse. “Now show me the palms of your hands…  and keep your tongue out. Try humming a tune. Now wave your hands from side to side and roll your eyes.”

Marigold’s face registered no amusement, just professional concern, as Mrs Davies threw dignity out of the window and followed her instructions.

“Oh, that’s bad. That’s very bad,” said Marigold. “I’m afraid you have a bad case of numptiness, but not to worry. I don’t think it’s likely to be fatal.”

“Oh gosh,” said Mrs Davies, coming perilously close to blasphemy. “What can I do?”

“There is a cure… but you might not like it…”

“Tell me, tell me… I’ll do anything.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Is there a fresh-water pool anywhere close by?”

“Yes – Nudger’s Pond is quite near.”

“Perfect… now here is what you have to do… “

“Golly Mr Gannicox! I have never seen one quite as big as that before,” said Nurse Burleigh, with genuine surprise.

The bony lump which had formed at the base of Norbert’s big toe was unfeasibly large, by anyone’s standard.

“Bunions seem to be a family curse,” he said miserably. “Both my parents suffered with them.”

 “Sadly, there is not a lot I can do,” said Marigold. “Although, I imagine Doc Willoughby could remove it with surgery.”

“No, no, that’s okay,” said Norbert hastily. “I’ve put up with it for this long…”

“There is an old folk-remedy you might like to try. Do you know where Nudger’s Pond is?”

“Yeeees,” said Norbert, uncertainly. “What do I have to do?”

“Numptiness?” said Seth Washpool. “That’s a new one on me. How did I catch it?”

“It’s possibly congenital,” replied Marigold.

“That’s not likely,” said Seth indignantly, “not at my age. Why, I can’t remember the last time…”

“No,” Marigold quickly interrupted, “I mean that you probably inherited it from one of your parents.”

“Well, that would be all I did inherit,” said Seth, somewhat bitterly. “Can anything be done about it?”

“Hopefully, if you act now, it won’t be fatal. There is a cure, but you might not be too keen to try it… Do you know Nudger’s Pond, by any chance?”

Word soon spread that numptiness was, apparently, endemic on the island. Along with a series of very minor ailments that could be similarly addressed by the application of a quaint folk-remedy, the disease kept Marigold busy all day. She reported back to Doc Willoughby later that evening, reassuring him that nothing of any concern had arisen during her rounds and the islanders of Hopeless were, by and large, in rude good health. The Doc gave a most uncharacteristic smile – if, indeed, the chilling rictus that creased his face for the briefest instant could be construed as being a smile. Marigold beamed back at him. She was an absolute beauty, and no mistake. If the doctor had been a younger man and remotely sober he could have been more than a little smitten with her.  Sadly, he was neither of these things, and quite possibly, never had been.

Despite that it was almost midnight, Marigold had one last call to make. Durosimi O’Stoat’s house was more than a little forbidding in the misty moonlight, but it troubled her not at all. She banged on his door, making it rattle in its frame. Durosimi thrust his head from an upstairs window.

“Yes? What do you want at this hour?”

“Mr O’Stoat? I’m Nurse Burleigh. I am Doc Willoughby’s assistant.”

“I need no medical help,” said Durosimi dismissively. “Any business I might have with Willoughby has nothing to do with his quackery.”

“I must speak to you,” said Marigold. “It is regarding your personal safety.”

“My safety?” Durosimi laughed mirthlessly. “You should worry about your own safety, young lady, disturbing me in the middle of the night.”

“Oh, I am safe enough,” Marigold’s voice had changed. There was an ancient darkness to it that make Durosimi start. “You should beware, O’Stoat. A vengeful spirit stalks you even as we speak. It is the ghost of a young Night-Soil Man. Does that ring any bells?”

For a moment Durosimi’s face went ashen, then he composed himself.

“How do you know this?” he asked.  “Come to that, who are you, exactly? Certainly not some lackey of Willoughby’s, I’ll wager.”

Marigold laughed and walked away. A wind suddenly shook the trees and Durosimi could have sworn that it spoke.

While Marigold and Durosimi were exchanging unpleasantries, a mile away, across the island, Rhys Cranham and Drury were an hour or so into the Night-Soil Man’s round. Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by the sound of voices.  Rhys stopped to listen; there must have been ten or twelve people chanting, by the sound of things. That was unusual; Nudger’s Pond was no place to be at this time of night. The noxious odour of the Night-Soil Man guaranteed that no night-prowler could stand to come within yards of him, but if people were out there singing they were definitely in danger. And then he saw them, illuminated by the pale full-moon peering through the mist. Wading around the pond, dressed only in their underwear and obviously in a deep trance-like state, was a group of islanders.

Were they drunk? Rhys dismissed the thought when he recognised Norbert Gannicox, who eschewed strong drink. And there was the unmistakable scrawny form of Seth Washpool, who definitely didn’t. And… was that…? It can’t be, but it looks like…? Surely not! But it was Mrs Davies. Something had to be done. The Reverend’s wife could not be seen wandering around Nudger’s Pond in her nether garments. Drury must have had the same thought, for in an instant he was running as fast as his bony old legs would take him, excitedly barking towards the Vicarage end of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Within minutes the wraith of Miss Calder could be seen fluttering towards them, while the Reverend, resplendent in a striped nightshirt with matching cap, came plodding behind her, intent on preserving his wife’s modesty and reputation.  It was then that the wind which Durosimi had heard rustled through the trees circling the area. It seemed to be laughing at them. Rhys thought that he caught a single word whispered in the leaves.

 The sound they made was “Triiiickksterrrr”.

The Vengeful Spirit

Many of you will be aware that some of the characters who have appeared in these Tales of The Squid and Teapot have, in a short time after arriving on the island, become ghosts. The teacher, Marjorie Toadsmoor and Father Ignatius Stamage immediately spring to mind, both having been killed in unfortunate circumstances. Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson was probably pushed off Chapel Rock by a disgruntled parishioner. By coincidence, he had been the self-appointed executioner of Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless White Lady who haunts the flushing privy of the inn. She had been dead for centuries when she came to Hopeless, transported in a pile of dressed stones that once comprised part of her stately home, in England. Each of these have one thing in common; they are bound to some solid object and are only able to wander from the immediate area if the artefact which they are haunting is moved.

Other ghosts are more mobile, but doomed to follow a set path. Think of The Little Drummer Boy, or Lars Pedersen, The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow, who has spent a millennium searching for his missing eggs. Then there is Clarissa Cockadilly, who will dance you to death, then throw you into the swamp at the end of the notorious, and to be avoided, Forty Second street. It is not just the land that has its spectral wanderers. The foggy skies of Hopeless are home, of course, to the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt, who, with their irritating yapping spaniels and flatulent mules, are apparently damned to spend eternity plodding through the heavens, searching for some irretrievably lost pamphlets.

Finally, we have a third and more select group; these are the vocational ghosts, phantoms for whom the call of duty is greater than the demands of death. These people had no intention of letting something as trivial as mortality get in the way of their busy schedule. The prime example of this variety is Miss Calder, who is more than able to administer the daily running of The Pallid Rock Orphanage, despite being dead. I guess we can also include Philomena Bucket’s beloved granny here, whose spirit has migrated to the island solely to protect her grand-daughter. Perhaps less obviously, this group contains the wraiths of the various Night-Soil Men. Here we have an unbroken line stretching back to the arrival of the Founding Families, and the first to bear the lidded-bucket, the introverted Killigrew O’Stoat. Despite their lowly calling there is an almost mythical stature attached to these men (they have always been men) and, though unseen, their spirits continue to wander the island, watching over the ever-unfolding generations of their calling.

Naboth Scarhill had every right to feel aggrieved. At the tender age of sixteen years he had been deprived of life, cruelly slaughtered by a vicious thought-form, a creature brought into existence by a person, or persons, unbeknownst to him. Reduced now to no more than a protoplasmic mass that had taken on his earthly shape, he raged impotently against the unfairness of it all, vowing to take revenge on his killer.

“Don’t do it, Naboth.”

The voice was little more than a whisper through the bare, stunted trees.

Naboth looked about but saw no one. He was surprised to feel a tremor of fear pass through him. That made no sense. He was a ghost, dammit! He was supposed to do the frightening.

“I will be avenged,” he cried defiantly, but somewhat shakily, into the night.

The whispering became louder. There seemed to be many voices now. Then he saw them.

Almost indistinguishable from the mist, glimmering in the late evening air were dozens of Night-Soil Men, clustering all around him.

“Welcome Brother Naboth,” the voices said. “Take your place with us. Do not seek revenge, it will not return you to life.”

“Maybe not,” said Naboth defiantly, “but it will make me happier.”

One of the Night-Soil Men stepped out of the throng.

“I was once Elmer Bussage,” he said softly. “Like you, I was ripped to pieces and desperately craved for revenge. Then one day I discovered that the creature who had killed me had been cast down into the bottomless sinkhole at the end of my garden. I thought it would make me happy, but I felt nothing. Not relief, not pleasure. Nothing. Accept your lot, Naboth, and join your brethren.”

But Naboth’s ghost was angry beyond reasoning. He drifted through them like smoke and allowed himself to go wherever the night took him, while the wraiths of his predecessors looked on in despair.

A long time had passed since Trickster was last on Hopeless. Some of you might remember that he was previously seen in the shape of a white hare. When he first possessed her, it had not occurred to Trickster that, although he was fearless and immortal, the hare was not. When irate spoonwalkers attacked, he tried to escape but found himself trapped within the hare’s body, careering madly through the foggy night in a headlong flight towards the rocky cliffs and restless ocean. It had taken some considerable time for him to extricate himself from the watery clutches of the Atlantic and discover another suitable host. No one can say that Trickster is not persistent, for here he was again, back on this strange little island that so suited his needs. Having assumed the form of a beautiful young woman, he had quickly and easily insinuated himself into what passes as society on Hopeless, using his charm to gain a foothold into the lives of those whom he believed might be useful. One such was Durosimi O’Stoat. Trickster knew all about his plotting to kill the Night-Soil Man, and was amused by the way in which Durosimi’s plans had backfired badly when Naboth died instead of Rhys Cranham. This was such an easy place to cause mischief.

“You can see me?” said Naboth, astonished. “And you’re not scared?”

“Of course not,” the girl replied, “I’ve seen loads of spooks. You’re better looking than most, as well.”

Naboth, although a ghost, had not yet shed enough of his mortal instincts to be anything less than a red-blooded sixteen-year old. The young lady standing before him was certainly alluring, and he wanted to impress her.

“Well, I shouldn’t be dead yet,” he confessed, “and I’m looking for revenge. Once I find out who did it, the person responsible for killing me is really going to pay. Big time”

“Oh, that was Durosimi O’Stoat” said the girl airily. “But it won’t be easy getting to him.”

Naboth said nothing. He had no idea how she knew, but she was right. Durosimi would be difficult to hurt.

Trickster wandered into the night, happy that things had gone so smoothly. All that was needed now, after letting Durosimi know that he was to be the victim of a vengeful spirit, was to stand back and watch the fun.

A Semblance of Normality

“It’s probably all for the best,” said Philomena Bucket, philosophically. “I don’t think I’m the marrying type, really.”
She was coming to terms with the fact that, on what was supposed to be the morning of their wedding, Rhys Cranham had felt compelled to return to his occupation as Night-Soil Man. Some strange things had been happening in Philomena’s life lately, and she was determined to return to some semblance of normality, or as normal as one could expect things to be on the island of Hopeless, Maine.
“Anyway,” she added, “I’m still young. Well, fairly young, I suppose, and there’s plenty of time…”
She crossed her fingers as she said this. It was never wise to tempt Providence on this dangerously capricious island.
“What do you reckon?” she quizzed her companion.
Despite having hollow eye-sockets, Drury looked up at Philomena lovingly. He had spent the last two days chasing spoonwalkers who, confusingly, had disappeared the moment he caught them. It had been a good game but he was grateful that Philomena had rescued him. Neither were aware that the spoonwalker thought-forms had been created by Durosimi O’Stoat, in an attempt to keep Drury safely out of the way, while a doppelganger of the osseous hound was ripping up Naboth Scarhill, the new Night-Soil Man.
Since bringing Drury back from the Gydynap Hills, Philomena had made a point of writing to Rhys, saying that she understood his decision, and maybe they could look at marriage again in a year or two, at such times as he had trained a new apprentice. She had added a postscript, to the effect that Drury was totally innocent of killing Naboth, having been otherwise occupied when Rhys thought that he had seen him carrying the boy’s arm away.

Sitting in his cottage, commonly known as The House at Poo Corner, Rhys read the letter with no small amount of sorrow. He had so wanted to be free of the back-breaking toil and noxious reek that was a Night-Soil Man’s lot. Now the chances of a better future seemed to have been taken away forever. He had lost two apprentices in recent years; Gruffyd Davies had fallen into the ocean and had been turned into a Selkie, and Naboth had been ripped to shreds by something that, apparently, was not Drury. What were the chances of another promising young lad wanting to take on the role? A loveless, friendless existence followed by the likelihood of an early death was hardly the best job-description to attract willing staff. Rhys sighed, and put the letter on the table. He would have a word with Miss Calder, at the Pallid Rock Orphanage, in a day or two. Maybe she could suggest a likely candidate.

Miss Calder was in unusually high spirits. She had been dead for some time now but this did not interfere with her duties as administrator, responsible for the efficient running of the orphanage. Her ghostly form could frequently be seen flitting hither and thither, organising the orphans and reminding Reverend Davies of various items in his diary which he had chosen to overlook.
Naboth’s misfortune had recently come to her attention and she was expecting a visit from Rhys sometime soon, knowing that he would be looking for another apprentice. Being non-corporeal, Miss Calder had no problem in conversing with the Night-Soil Man, his overpowering stench having no effect on her whatsoever. Indeed, it would be a pleasure, for, in truth, the ghostly administrator was inclined to feel somewhat fonder of Rhys than maybe she should. Although a good friend to Philomena, she was secretly pleased that their wedding had been called-off. Miss Calder had long harboured the vague hope that some form of inter-dimensional union with the Night-Soil Man might one day be possible, although such things were unheard of, even on Hopeless. Before anything of that nature could occur, of course, she would have to learn to control her unfortunate habit of allowing her features to become terrifyingly skeletal whenever she became stressed or over-excited.

The wraith of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, peered down from the ruined chapel with curiosity. A few nights earlier he had watched, with some amusement, as the strange creature, the one that was definitely not Drury, savaged the youngster. In time-honoured fashion, the last remains of the Night-Soil Man would be dropped down the mysterious sinkhole that lay at the end of the garden in Poo Corner. Sadly, by the time islanders came to gather up what was left of Naboth, there was not a lot to be found, with ravens and other assorted carnivores having quickly taken the opportunity of an easy meal. None of these events bothered Obadiah, but the thing that had caught his spectral eye this evening certainly did. He watched with annoyance as a protoplasmic stew gathered at the foot of the rock, writhing and broiling in the moonlight. Obadiah knew only too well what was happening, and he did not like it one little bit. He growled and harrumphed to himself as, little by little, the protoplasm melded itself into the glimmering shape of Naboth Scarhill, complete with lidded-bucket. The newly-formed ghost stood, a little wobbly at first, staring around him, not immediately registering what had happened. Taking the advantage, the Mad Parson swooped from his rock and screamed in Naboth’s face. The boy looked back, impassively.
“You don’t scare me anymore, you old fraud,” he said. “I’m as dead as you are,” and with that, Naboth hit him over the head with his bucket-lid.
Chastened, Hyde scurried back to his ruin.
“This means war,” he thought to himself. “There can only be one ghost haunting Chapel Rock, and it is not going to be that little weasel.”
Not for the first time in his afterlife, Obadiah Hyde was wrong. Naboth had no intention of hanging around Chapel Rock with nothing better to do than scaring passers-by and annoying the Mad Parson. His was vengeful spirit. He had every intention of finding out who was responsible for his grisly death and, quite literally, giving them Hell.

The Last Enchantment

The dusty attics of The Squid and Teapot have long been used as a repository for anything salvaged and not immediately required by the islanders of Hopeless, Maine. Some things have been there for longer than anyone can remember. Until fairly recently the old sea-chest, squatting unobtrusively in a corner, had been regarded as a near useless relic, having been sealed for years and its stout lock stubbornly refusing to yield to even the most ardent attempts to open it. To all outward appearances the chest was unremarkable enough, apparently made of dark hardwood and bound with brass. This view, however, changed when Norbert Gannicox discovered an old tin box that had once belonged to his grandfather, Solomon. In the box was the chest’s missing key, along with a cryptic note asking for it to be kept in the distillery, safely away from The Squid and Teapot, and never to be used again. Human nature being what it is, Norbert and his friend, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, could not resist raising the lid, and only then was its shocking secret revealed.  Rather than discovering pirate gold, as they expected, they found themselves gazing at an iron ladder that descended vertiginously into a deep, dark shaft. They had stumbled upon a cunningly skeuomorphic construction, for the chest proved to be made entirely of stone and concealed nothing less than a cleverly disguised secret passage. Closer inspection, by Philomena Bucket (who descended the ladder with her skirt prudently tucked into her generously tailored underwear), showed that the shaft dropped from the attics to the cellars of the inn, and then linked up with a series of tunnels, known as the Underland. These tunnels eventually culminated in a mysterious and magical cavern, which seemed to provide a portal to whatever random spot, in time or space, that it chose to deposit you.

Following the violent death of Naboth Scarhill, the new Night-Soil Man, Philomena felt that her life had gone suddenly haywire. She did not want to believe that her friend Drury, the skeletal hound, had been responsible for ripping Naboth to pieces, but everything pointed to him as being the culprit. On top of this, Rhys Cranham had called off their wedding, saying that the island could not function without the services of a Night-Soil Man, and no one, other than him, had been trained to do the work. At the point when Philomena began to think that things could not possibly become more confusing or complicated, the ghost of Granny Bucket appeared and told her that she needed to speak to Doctor John Dee, the astrologer and alchemist. As far as anyone was aware, Dee had been swept back to Elizabethan England after his sojourn on Hopeless. The only possible way in which she could contact him was by visiting the Underland and hoping that it would take her to wherever Dee was. With this in mind, she raised the lid of the faux sea-chest with some trepidation, and prepared to descend once more into its depths.

Granny Bucket, John Dee and Durosimi O’Stoat had all recognised that Philomena was a natural witch, possessing within her a deep reservoir of powerful magic. Indeed, this disturbed Durosimi to such an extent that he had tried to destroy the barmaid, and when this failed, attempted to kill her fiancé, Rhys Cranham. This plan was thwarted as well, when the thought form he created, a creature resembling Drury, attacked the replacement Night-Soil Man, Naboth Scarhill.

Philomena did not believe herself to have any magical abilities, other than occasionally experiencing the dubious gift of ‘The Sight’. She was completely unaware of the power she now possessed. It did not occur to her, as she walked through the treacherous passages of the Underland, that the torches burning on the walls flared into life solely by her passing. Even when she ventured into the magical cavern, to find herself suddenly surrounded by the familiar sheer, black obsidian cliffs of John Dee’s scrying bowl, she never thought it odd. After all, what were the chances of her stepping into this capricious vortex and being taken to the exact spot where she needed to be?

Philomena recalled the previous occasion when she, Norbert and Bartholomew, had found themselves in the scrying bowl. They had been thrown, from there, into Doctor Dee’s study. This time, however, everything felt different. There was a stillness, then the obsidian walls became hazy. In the pale lavender mist that swirled around her, vague shapes formed, then, just as quickly, dissipated. Philomena wondered what this all meant. She looked up, expecting to see the aged, but still handsome face of the alchemist framed, like some benevolent god, in the air above her, but John Dee was nowhere to be seen.

The shapes lurking within the shifting mists gradually took on a more permanent appearance. With some surprise Philomena realised that she recognised this place; these were her beloved Gydynap Hills. Then she saw Drury. He was racing around excitedly, as if in pursuit of some invisible prey. She thought she glimpsed spoonwalkers, but they were shadowy and nebulous.  As she watched, a watery sun pierced the mist, then proceeded across the sky at an alarming rate. Then a full moon did the same. It was as if she was watching a speeded-up version of the day, which is exactly what was happening. Throughout all of this time, Drury continued his demented chase; it would have been enough to kill an ordinary dog, but as Drury had been dead for years, it meant nothing to him. He would happily chase spoonwalkers for days.

The scene dissolved around her once more, the hills giving way to a clinging, claustrophobic gloom. Philomena now found herself in a dimly-lit parlour, where a single, greasy candle bathed everything in dramatic chiaroscuro. An ominous shape, crouching in the middle of the room, exuded an evil air of dark malice, and was like none she had ever seen before. This was because it shifted continuously, as though being woven together, even as she watched. Its initial vague spideriness metamorphosed into a dozen indistinct incarnations, before assuming a strangely familiar form. Somewhere, lost in the shadows, a low voice was muttering an incantation which appeared to keep the creature at bay as it gradually took shape. Philomena was relieved that, although apparently plunged into the heart of the event, she was no more than a ghost, an invisible observer. Had this been otherwise, her gasp of astonishment would surely have been heard when the figure in front of her suddenly bore an uncanny resemblance to Drury… but not the Drury that she knew. This was a mad, slavering beast that raged against invisible bonds, desperate to attack its maker. An eerie red light glowed within its empty eye-sockets and stringy gouts of toxic drool hung from its fangs. Despite being aware that she was a disembodied onlooker, she quailed and cowered back into a corner. The darkness around her deepened and again the landscape was shifting. A moment later, she found herself standing in the lee of Chapel Rock, witnessing the last moments of Naboth Scarhill. Philomena turned away from the ghastly tableau in horror.

“I’ve seen enough,” she shouted, hoping to catch the attention of whatever agency was responsible for revealing these things to her. Immediately the darkness lifted, and she found herself standing once more in the mystic grotto, which now appeared to be no more than a simple cave.

As she walked back through the tunnels towards The Squid and Teapot, Philomena tried to evaluate the meaning of what she had seen. She knew now that Drury was innocent of Naboth’s untimely end. But why would anyone want the young Night-Soil Man dead? Then, with an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach, she realised what she had said. The Night-Soil Man! If the attack had occurred earlier in the week, the victim would have been Rhys Cranham. Rhys was meant to have died, not Naboth! With a sudden burst of clarity, the dreadful truth dawned upon her. She had no idea who was behind this, but they were obviously out to wreck her happiness. That was certainly not going to happen. Hurt and angry, Philomena clenched her fists, and the tunnel was filled with a cold green fire.

Katherine Dee looked around the cluttered study with sadness in her eyes. She had cared for her father throughout his final illness and the time had come to clear out his belongings from the house in Mortlake. She had already sold his books, but could not imagine that anyone would want the skeletons of various birds and animals, malformed foetuses and preserved reptiles that littered every surface. The obsidian bowl, sitting on the table, might have some value. Katherine was surprised to see that it still contained water. As she leant to pick the bowl up, she thought she detected a tiny figure within its depths, then immediately dismissed the thought as a trick of the light. She had never displayed any interest in her father’s work, regarding it as too close to heresy to be safe in these dangerous times. Anyway, she had no inclination to follow in his footsteps. With a sigh, Katherine lifted the bowl and poured the water away, and with it went the last enchantment Doctor John Dee.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

“God’s wounds! What treachery is the knave up to now?” John Dee gazed intently into the obsidian scrying bowl, casually picking egg yolk from his beard at the same time.

Several hundred years and three thousand miles were the only obstacles separating Dee from the object of his attention. Ever since leaving Hopeless, Maine, with little idea how he might return, the Royal Astrologer to the court of Queen Elizabeth had made it his business to keep an eye on the goings-on of the island through the agency of his scrying bowl.

“I’m blowed if I know, doctor,” said the ghost of Granny Bucket, quietly hovering over the astrologer’s shoulder.

The pair had been watching the somewhat confusing antics of Durosimi O’Stoat. Peering into the dark waters of the obsidian bowl they had witnessed him cast some manner of enchantment over Drury, the skeletal hound, which had left the dog endlessly chasing phantom spoonwalkers around the Gydynap Hills.

“But I’ll try and find out,” Granny added. “I’ve got to get back for Philomena’s wedding soon, anyway.”

“Yes, of course, you must,” said Dee. “Be sure to convey my best wishes to the happy couple.”

“I will,” said Granny, “but I can’t leave until you do your banishing spell. You were the one who invoked me – remember?”

“Oh, silly me,” laughed Dee, “I have so enjoyed your being here that it slipped my mind completely. It has been good keeping up with the island’s gossip, Mistress Bucket; you must come back soon.”

“I intend to, doctor. You just cast the spell, and I’ll be with you. Now, in the meantime, if you’ll be kind enough to banish me, I’ll get back to Hopeless.”

Had either been aware of the sorcerer’s intentions, they would each have been incandescent with impotent rage. Durosimi had kept the osseous hound busy chasing spoonwalker thought forms in order to create a vicious killer; a killer who stalked the Hopeless night in the guise of Drury. In truth, the effort of controlling the creature had nearly been Durosimi’s downfall, but in the end he had prevailed and sent it out into the foggy darkness with one simple instruction: Destroy the Night-Soil Man.

The morning of Philomena Bucket’s marriage to Rhys Cranham dawned grey and misty, as did most mornings on the island of Hopeless. Rhys had very recently given up the role of Night-Soil Man, solemnly handing over the lidded bucket and long-handled shovel to his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill. With the prospect of a lifetime of married bliss stretching before him, Rhys had spent his last evening as a single man with his friend, Norbert Gannicox, owner of the Gannicox Distillery. It would not be unreasonable to believe that the night had been spent in wild carousing, given the surroundings, but the truth was that Norbert never drank strong liquor, except for the odd occasions when Bartholomew Middlestreet had led him to believe that beer didn’t count as an alcoholic beverage. It was, therefore, in a state of clear-headed sobriety that Rhys awoke early and decided to wander along to his old home, The House at Poo Corner, and see how Naboth was managing with his new-found responsibilities.

Rhys was just a few hundred yards from the Night-Soil Man’s abode when he saw a familiar shape loping along towards him.

“Hi – Drury, you old scoundrel, what have you got in your mouth?” he called cheerfully, but the dog took no notice of him. This behaviour was odd; Drury and Rhys had been good friends for years, spending many happy hours wandering the island together.

As the bony hound rattled by, ignoring him completely, Rhys could see that hanging from his mouth was a human limb of some sort. It looked remarkably like an arm, fresh and bloody. The day was getting weirder by the minute. Where had he found that?

Rhys had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he made his way towards the spot, out towards the headland, where he had first noticed Drury lurking.

Lying on the ground was something that used to have a human shape, but now was mangled out of all recognition into a bloody scattering of severed limbs and half-chewed viscera. Only the upturned bucket, with its foul contents spilled on to the rocks, gave any clue as to the identity of the victim.

Rhys stood frozen to the ground, staring in shocked silence and hardly able to give credit to the grisly tableau before him.

Although the morning was still barely light outside, The Squid and Teapot was already a hive of activity. While Bartholomew busied himself laying out trestle tables and chairs for the wedding reception, his wife Ariadne was fussing around Philomena, trying to persuade her to put curlers in her hair and generally aim to be a little more glamorous than usual.

“I’ll be fine as I am,” laughed Philomena, “Rhys won’t recognise the woman he’s marrying if I do all that. By the way,” she added, “have you seen anything of Drury? He was nowhere to be found yesterday and it’s concerning me a bit.”

“Don’t get stressed about Drury,” admonished Ariadne, “you’ve got enough to worry about, without that as well. Anyway, that old hound is well able to look after himself.”

Suddenly, a frantic banging on the door of the inn made everyone start in alarm. Who could be calling at this hour? It was with no small amount of trepidation that Ariadne pulled the door open and peeked around it.

“Rhys, whatever is the matter?” she asked, opening the door a little wider, “You can’t be here, not this morning. It’s unlucky for a groom to see his bride before the wedding.”

Philomena pushed Ariadne aside, sensing that there was a problem. Her fears were confirmed, just by looking at her husband-to-be. Rhys was ashen-faced and trembling.

“There will be no wedding today,” he sobbed. “Maybe not at all…”

Philomena could only stare in silence, her mouth suddenly dry.

“It’s Naboth, he’s dead, Philomena,” stammered Rhys. “He’s been ripped to pieces… and I think that Drury did it.”

“No… not Drury. He wouldn’t… not old Drury,” she said, bewildered.

“I saw him. He was carrying… oh, it’s too horrible.”

With some difficulty Bartholomew managed to persuade his wife that, if there was to be no wedding that day, it was permissible to admit Rhys into the inn. Ariadne knew that it was perverse to be worrying about bad luck, given the circumstances, but she had always been a stickler for tradition.

Rhys slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Philomena rested a tentative hand upon his shoulder.

“There is no one to cover the Night-Soil Man’s duties, any more,” said Rhys, in a flat voice. “I’m the only person on the island who knows what to do. I’m sorry Philomena… the island can’t manage without the services of a Night-Soil Man; I’m going to have to go back.”

Philomena nodded, too upset to speak.

“Maybe in another year or so… if I can get another apprentice. Although, I’ve lost two now. I think I must be jinxed.”

Some hours after Rhys had left, and Philomena had shed enough tears to fill a tankard, she found herself sitting in her room, alone on what should have been her wedding night. Her thoughts strayed to the events of the day, and the part that Drury had apparently played in viciously destroying both Naboth and her future happiness.

“Oh, Drury,” she muttered to herself, “How can I… how can any of us ever forgive you.”

“I am so sorry that the lad has died and your day has been ruined, but don’t blame the dog too quickly,” said a familiar voice.

Philomena turned to see the ghost of Granny Bucket sitting on the end of the bed.

“Granny…?”

The old lady’s ghost shimmered faintly in the dimming light.

“Philomena, all is not always as it appears,” she said. “You really need to go and speak to Doctor Dee.”

“Doctor Dee? But how…?” began Philomena, but Granny Bucket had vanished into the ether before the question was formed.

Thought Forms

Regular readers will recall that Durosimi O’Stoat was intent on harming Philomena Bucket, whom he believed to be a witch. He had come to the conclusion that she was a danger to him, and in possession of far greater powers than his own. This was only partly true, for Philomena had no idea of the extent of her abilities, or any wish to be in competition with anyone. It was only on the occasions when Durosimi had secretly attacked that the magic, smouldering within her, manifested itself, and then only as a form of self-defence. While Philomena suspected that O’Stoat had no great liking for her, she was completely unaware of the extent of the dark malice that festered in his heart. Indeed, so deep was his hatred that he decided that if he could not directly harm ‘That Bucket Woman’ (as he referred to Philomena), then he would weaken her by destroying everyone and everything she held dear, beginning with her fiancé, the Night-Soil Man.
 
Durosimi smiled to himself unpleasantly, reflecting on the ease with which he had ensnared Drury, the skeletal hound. It had taken little effort to conjure up a brace of phantom spoonwalkers, images that flickered tantalisingly in and out of the dog’s vision and keeping him endlessly occupied, chasing around the Gydynap Hills. As thought forms go, creating the spoonwalkers had demanded next to no work on Durosimi’s part. They were mere shadow-puppets, whose only function was to distract, requiring no outside agency, no deal to be struck, in order to give them shape and form. They had been the easy bit; the rest of his plan would ask much more of him. The next stage was to make a very different variety of thought form. While Durosimi was well able to give the creature shape, it needed something darker and infinitely older to provide the malevolent energy required to carry out his wishes. And there was the rub. Summoning such an entity was a relatively simple procedure; controlling it was another matter.  
 
Humans have been creating thought forms, of some description, for millennia. Most of these are unintentional, born from prayers, hopes and vague wishes, and therefore weak, shadowy and short-lived, their existence depending upon the strength of the intention that gives them existence. When a powerful magician, such as Durosimi, sets his mind to creating a thought form, however, he throws all of his emotions and energy into the effort. This he does in order to attract an eldritch, elemental essence, a sentient force which is forever prowling unseen, seeking animation through human passion.
 
You may be asking yourselves, at this point, why Durosimi had gone to the trouble of dognapping an unsuspecting Drury, and having him chase phantom spoonwalkers around the Gydynaps. The truth is that the magician knew, full-well, that the dog was a trusted friend of both Philomena and the Night-Soil Man, and neither would suspect him of anything but loyalty. Durosimi also needed a scape-goat. If Philomena’s magic was half as potent as he suspected, and all went as it should, there would be little chance of her showing mercy to the perpetrator of his scheme. As far as he could see, nothing could go wrong. While the real Drury was happily pursing non-existent spoonwalkers, a vicious thought form, given flesh (or bone, in this instance) as a facsimile of the osseous hound, would carry out his orders.
 
Naboth Scarhill hefted the lidded bucket on to his back, and looked out at the foggy blackness spreading before him. Philomena had left a bottle of Old Colonel and a slice of cold starry-grabby pie on the doorstep. This had been something she had done every evening since moving into The Squid and Teapot. There was, she reasoned, no need to stop just because Rhys had retired in order to marry her.
“Well,” Naboth told himself, “this is it, my life is mapped out”.
At the tender age of sixteen years, Naboth had become the most recent Night-Soil Man of Hopeless, Maine. He felt the weight of responsibility heavy upon his young shoulders, but carried the burden happily, sensing the ghosts of previous generations of Night-Soil Men benevolently watching over him. Some of these names had become legendary, from the earliest incumbent, Killigrew O’Stoat, through to Shenandoah Nailsworthy, Rhys Cranham’s predecessor. Naboth hoped that, one day, he might be remembered with similar reverence. As I mentioned earlier, such small desires may often wander out into the world as thought forms; this is why you should always be careful what you wish for.
 
Philomena Bucket was beginning to feel worried. Tomorrow was to be her wedding day, and her best friend, Drury, had gone missing. She knew that he was unlikely to be in any real danger; after all he had lived – and died – many years before she arrived on the island, and would probably be there long after she was no more than a vague memory.  Despite this, there was a niggling worry, as real as toothache, that warned her that all was not well.  She was sure that the ghost of Granny Bucket, who had made it her business to haunt Philomena, would have shed some light upon the dog’s disappearance. However, for reasons known best to herself, Granny had not been in evidence since Philomena’s recent excursion to the Underland.
“Oh, get a grip on yourself, girl,” she told herself, sternly. “This is just a dose of pre-wedding nerves. Drury knows you expect him to be there tomorrow. He’ll turn up.”
 
A pale moon filtered through the fog hanging over Chapel Rock. Naboth really hoped that its ghostly guardian, the Mad Parson, Obadiah Hyde, was not in the mood for haunting tonight. Although Rhys had impressed upon him that, while any encounter with Obadiah invariably involved a great deal of supernatural screaming, the old boy had next to no substance, and was harmless. Nevertheless, the apparition still terrified Naboth. He knew that Rhys’ previous apprentice, Gruffyd Davies, had been so scared by the Mad Parson that he fell off Chapel Rock and into the ocean. (Fortunately, upon hitting the water, Gruffyd, who knew nothing of his ancestry, discovered that he was a Selkie, one of the seal-people, and swam off happily in his newly acquired pelt).
It was then that Naboth’s heart lifted a little. A familiar form loped into view.
“Drury,” called the ex-apprentice, “am I glad to see you! I could really do with some company tonight…”
 
The ordeal was over. Durosimi lay sprawled on his bed, his face grey and haggard, every muscle in his lean form aching.  It had been years since last he had invoked such an entity as this, and the battle of wills had left him weak; weak beyond measure. Once given form, it had taken every ounce of Durosimi’s physical and mental strength to prevent the creature that now resembled Drury from ripping him to pieces. But he prevailed, as he knew he must, to send this abomination out into the Hopeless night with the simple instruction: “Destroy the Night-Soil Man.”

Wedding Plans

The news that Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had proposed marriage to Philomena Bucket, spread across the island with the well-documented rapidity of wildfire. On reflection, this is probably not the best image to employ, as wildfire has no chance of surviving the damp misery of Hopeless, Maine. However, as similes go, it somehow conveys a better sense of urgency than the ominous progress of the more appropriate and all-encompassing sea-fog.

It is fair to say that the fact of the popular barmaid of The Squid and Teapot conquering the heart of Rhys had caused no little amount of excitement.  In itself, this was not particularly remarkable, with Philomena being regarded as something of a beauty, despite – or possibly because of – her excessively pale, almost albino, features. The main aspect of the romance, which concentrated the minds and caught the attention of the islanders, was the break in tradition. As you will appreciate, the role of the Night-Soil Man has always been regarded as quasi-monastic, with the bearer of the lidded-bucket nobly standing apart from his fellow man, forever separated by dreadfully unsociable hours and an excessively unpleasant smell. Only once before in the history of the island had such a thing happened. Then, as now, most folk wished the happy couple well, but as might be expected, there were the inevitable naysayers, those who shook their heads and swore that no good would come of such disdain for the status-quo.

“No good will come of such disdain for the status-quo,” intoned Reverend Davies, idly swatting at something very small and tentacled that had unwisely settled on his trousers.

“I take it that you won’t be blessing the marriage, then?” enquired Doc Willoughby.

“I doubt they’ll even ask me,” said the Reverend. “The Bucket woman and I have little time for each other.”

Doc Willoughby leaned forward and said, in a lowered voice, “Durosimi O’Stoat maintains that she is a witch.”

“Well, he’s a fine one to talk,” said Davies. “The O’Stoats have always been card-carrying heathens. But the Bucket woman has been a disruptive influence from the day she first set foot on this island, and by bewitching the Night-Soil Man – for mark my words, if what you say is correct, that is exactly what she has done – she has shattered one of the great traditions upon which our society is based.”

“That’s a bit strong,” said the Doc, “after all, it isn’t the first time it has happened. Wasn’t it Bartholomew’s grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, who gave up his calling in order to become a family-man?”

Doc Willoughby had no great affection for Philomena, but had even less for the concept of traditional values.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” snapped Reverend Davies irritably. “Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about any of this rubbish. My haemorrhoids have been playing up. I need you to take a look…”

In the attics of The Squid and Teapot, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena were ransacking boxes and chests, looking for some suitable wedding-apparel.

“I am far more romantic than Bartholomew,” said Ariadne, wistfully. “I waited so long for him to pop the question, in the end I had to do the proposing myself. Would you believe it? Oh, how I wanted to have the perfect wedding, but he wasn’t bothered. Do you know what he said when I told him I wanted to be married in something long and flowing?”

Philomena shook her head.

“He said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. We can stand in the river. It shouldn’t be too high at this time of year’. That man cannot take anything seriously.”

Philomena laughed.

“I don’t think I’ll have that trouble with Rhys,” she said. “He’s finally come to realise that he doesn’t have to be a Night-Soil Man for all of his life.”

“And he does scrub-up well,” said Ariadne with a grin.

To all intents and purposes, Durosimi O’Stoat had little interest in the mundane goings-on of Hopeless, and usually chose to stand aloof from the other islanders. This changed when Doc Willoughby mentioned, during the course of conversation, that the Night-Soil Man intended marrying Philomena Bucket. Durosimi’s interest was immediately whetted. He had long been plotting to dispose of the barmaid, whom he believed to be a powerful witch and an enemy. Having witnessed her abilities first-hand, however, he accepted that he had no chance of defeating her… but the Night-Soil Man could yet prove to be her Achilles Heel. 

Durosimi reflected on this as he stared through the windows of his cheerless living-room, watching ribbons of grey mist swirl through the dark, stunted trees. He had yet to decide how he would destroy the Night-Soil Man, along with Philomena’s happiness. What he must not do is give her any indication of his responsibility for her lover’s demise, for if she was as powerful as he suspected, then he could expect no mercy. He would have to protect himself, and only when grief and anger had reduced her to her lowest ebb, would he feel safe enough to show his hand and strike. In the meantime, blame for the Night-Soil Man’s death must be fixed squarely upon another’s shoulders; some unsuspecting fool who would be unaware of what was happening, and unable to avoid her wrath.

A sudden thought slipped into Durosimi’s head, and an unpleasant, thin smile creased his face. Oh, it was so delicious. This would really hurt the witch, and the spell would not be too difficult to achieve. He could destroy, with just one stroke, both her lover and her best friend.

“Now, what is the name of that infernal hound?“ he thought. “Ah, yes… DRURY!”

Gossip and Single-Malt

Doc Willoughby rolled the whisky around his palate appreciatively. This was the real thing, right enough. He could only wonder how Durosimi had come by the stuff and, more to the point, why he was sharing it. Their last meeting had not ended on a particularly cordial note, to say the least, with the Doc being sent away with a flea in his ear for being too ethical when it came to the matter of hurling various unwitting participants back in time. (My apologies to any reader who has just choked on their coffee. I appreciate that it stretches credulity when the words ‘Doc Willoughby’ and ‘too ethical’ appear in the same sentence).

“More whisky, Willoughby?” asked Durosimi, proffering the half-empty bottle.

Despite his concerns, the Doc was not going to refuse. Opportunities of this variety did not arise every day.

“So, what is the gossip in The Squid, lately?” queried Durosimi.

The day was becoming ever more peculiar. Between Durosimi’s unheard of generosity with his precious single-malt, and this sudden interest in the goings-on of the island, Doc could only think that the old scoundrel was going soft in the head. But so what? Where was the harm in humouring the man? Anyway, the world had become fuzzy and warm and, in soft-focus, even Durosimi did not look quite so forbidding.

“Well, that old charlatan John Dee seems to have sloped off. Back to his own time, I wouldn’t wonder. Good riddance too. Couldn’t stand the man,” said the Doc.

“No, neither could I,” said Durosimi, truthfully. “Anything else?”

“Oh yes – the Night-Soil Man, you know, what’s-his-name, has proposed marriage to that blasted Bucket woman. Never much liked her, either.”

“Really?” exclaimed Durosimi, suddenly interested and surreptitiously replenishing the Doc’s glass. “Tell me more.”

“Well,” began Doc, “when she first came to the island I treated her for anosmia. That’s a loss of the sense of smell.”

“I know what anosmia is,” said Durosimi, stiffly.

“Of course… as I was saying, she’d lost her sense of smell, and it seems that within a few yards of leaving the sinking ship in which she had stowed away, something nasty grabbed her with its tentacles and she was within an inch of becoming lunch.”

The Doc took a generous swig of his whisky, dropping all pretence of savouring it.

“How did she escape?” asked Durosimi, tipping the remnants of the bottle into the other man’s glass. “Did she use magic?”

“Magic? What makes you think she’d use magic? That’s ridiculous!” slurred the Doc.

Intoxication had made him bold to the point of foolishness. Durosimi quietly counted to ten and smiled thinly.

“Just a thought,” he replied. “Do go on.”

“Where was I? Oh yes, it looked as though she was done for, when young what’s-his-name, the Night-Soil Man, rescues her. The creature who was attacking her couldn’t stand his reek, and because of her anosmia, the Bucket-woman didn’t know that the wretched fellow stunk like a cess-pool. Of course,” continued Doc, “it was inevitable. He was her knight in shining armour, so the silly girl falls head-over-heels in love with him. All would have been well, but not long after that she got a nose-full of sea water, which flushed out the seeds that had been blocking her olfactory system. That’s the …”

“I know what it means,” said Durosimi, impatiently holding up his hand.

“So, naturally, once she found how awful he smelt, the romance was off.”

“But now it’s back on again?” asked Durosimi.

“Seems so,” said the Doc.

Durosimi said nothing for a moment or two, staring pensively out of the window, then he turned his head sharply and said,

“Doc, I think you should go. We’re both busy men and I have wasted enough of your time.”

“But I haven’t told you about Norbert Gannicox’s verruca, yet.”

“No… but we’ll have to save that one for another day. I look forward to it. Now let me show you out…”

With that, the Doc was unceremoniously bundled out through the door. Durosimi watched him swaying unsteadily down the cobbled pathway, and singing ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike,’ at the top of his voice, almost in tune.  He had just got to the first chorus of too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay when Durosimi decided that enough was enough and strode back into the house, slamming the door behind him.

Regular readers will remember that Durosimi O’Stoat, having learned that Philomena Bucket had somehow acquired magical powers which were possibly greater than his own, felt threatened, and plotted to get rid of her, once and for all. When, during the previous year, he confronted Philomena in the town hall, she had all but killed him, blasting him from one end of the room to the other. Strangely, she seemed to have no idea or memory of what she had done. Soon after, and to Durosimi’s relief she, and Doctor John Dee, disappeared, seemingly off the face of the earth. He thought – indeed, hoped –  that maybe Dee had whisked her back to Elizabethan England, where, with any luck, she would be burned as a witch. For a whole year there was no sign of either of them, then Philomena returned, apparently more powerful than ever, and able to throw off his strongest spells. It occurred to Durosimi that if he could not hurt the witch – as he now thought of Philomena – then he could at least weaken her, maybe even destroy her, by attacking those she held most dear. He smiled to himself, reflecting how love and grief are two sides of the same coin; there is an inevitability that today’s love will become tomorrow’s grief.

“And grieve she will,” he thought to himself. “That old fool Willoughby has told me all that I need to know. She must be using her magic to mask the stench of the Night-Soil Man – there is no other way she could possibly countenance marrying him. Well, she won’t be needing to do that for much longer. His days are numbered…”

The recently promoted ex-apprentice, Naboth Scarhill, read the note again, his chest swelling with pride. The scrap of paper only contained a handful of words, but they meant a lot.

My dear Naboth, thank you so much for agreeing to take over the role of Night-Soil Man from Rhys. You cannot know how much this means to me. Rhys has told me how highly he regards your work, and that you will one day become as great and renowned as any who have wielded the lidded-bucket and long-handled shovel.

Thank you again,

Your grateful friend

Philomena.

A Day of Surprises

Philomena Bucket busied herself in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, attempting, with little success, to keep her mind focused on anything other than recent events. She reddened at the brazen way in which she had confronted Rhys Cranham a few days earlier, almost demanding that he forsake his work and way of life, and marry her. Although he had tentatively – and without any great enthusiasm –  agreed, she was convinced that the Night-Soil Man must really despise her. Whatever had possessed her to do such a thing? She could only think that all this talk of her being a powerful witch, with some impressive magic at her fingertips, must have gone to her head. Well, she was yet to see any evidence that she was any different from how she had always been, despite having had a year of her life stolen in that strange cavern, deep beneath the surface of the island. Far from feeling magical, Philomena regarded herself as being an abject failure, both in love and life, letting down all who came into contact with her.

Wrapped in these dark thoughts, she did not notice Drury, the skeletal hound, wander through the back door, until she heard his bony form clatter noisily down, and sprawl out upon the flagstones. However glum Philomena felt, Drury would always lighten her heart.

“Ah, get from under me feet, you great lazy lump,” she said, good naturedly. “Are there no spoonwalkers for you to be chasing today?”

Drury’s tail wagged, thumping the floor several times, but he made no effort to rise. Instead he regarded Philomena with a baleful eye, or would have, had he actually been in receipt of an eyeball.

“Well, you’re in luck. I’m almost finished here,” said Philomena. “Come on, let’s go for a walk up the Gydynaps.”

If anywhere on the island of Hopeless, Maine, could be regarded as being Philomena’s favourite place, it would be the Gydynap Hills. For many Hopelessians, the reputation of the Gydynaps engendered a certain amount of mystery, not to say terror. For Philomena, however, they always brought back memories of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland.  This was the place to which she would come, whatever the weather, whatever her mood, and always feel better for the experience.  True, she had encountered a few strange characters while walking these hills, which led her to believe that the Gydynaps were home to a portal, of some description, that lead to who knows where, rather like the cavern beneath The Squid, but she never felt threatened. Anyway, with Drury by her side what harm could befall her?

The fog came down with alarming rapidity, even for the quixotic climate of Hopeless. Although Philomena and Drury had been walking side by side, they suddenly disappeared from each other’s vision. At least, Philomena could not see Drury. The dog, on the other hand, spotted Philomena in the thinning mist. She was running away from him, down the hill, back towards the town, and waving her arms above her head. Drury loved a game of chase, and if that is what Philomena wanted, then he was all for joining in.

Usually, it’s fair to say that Drury is nobody’s fool, but the day of our tale was far from being a usual day.

Philomena stood alone, wrapped in a cold blanket of fog. All around her was silent and still. Her world had become abruptly comprised of nothing but this chilly cocoon that seemed to be seeping into her very pores.. And then, almost imperceptibly, the whispering began. At first it was no more than the faintest suggestion of breath in her ears. Then came the taunts and the chuckling, barely audible, but all the worse for that. Philomena hugged her body, trying to force out the strange voices. Where was Drury? This was not supposed to be happening. She felt an icy hand clutch at her heart, squeezing and freezing her from the inside.

“Get a grip, for heaven’s sake,” she thought to herself. “You can beat this. You can beat this. You can beat this…”

Philomena kept repeating these four words, over and over to herself like a mantra, rocking back and forth as she did so. With outstretched arms and, still rocking, she began to turn, slowly, at first. Then the turning became spinning, ever faster and faster, and the mantra grew into a great, roaring song. Grey, grim rags of fog swirled all around her body, gathering speed until they were drawn up into a swirling vortex that rose above her head, dark and menacing, a filthy cloud which swelled until it burst into a mass of screeching, bat-like creatures that fled away into the now clear sky.

Philomena fell to her knees, sobbing and trembling, and wondering what had just occurred.  Shakily, she managed to stand up and steadied herself against a rock, breathing in deep draughts of air. She stood there for several minutes, regaining her composure and a steadier heartbeat, when Drury reappeared, not a little confused by the events of the last half-an-hour.

“And where the hell did you go. Fat lot of good as a guard dog you were!” Philomena cried, uncharacteristically angry at her canine friend. Anger, however, is not an emotion that Philomena can harbour for long, especially where Drury is concerned.

“I think you and I have been attacked by some enchantment, old friend,” she said quietly, patting the dog’s bony skull. “Sorry I shouted… but I’m damned if I know what was going on there. Come on, let’s get home.”

Durosimi O’Stoat stepped out from behind the rock where he had been hiding, visibly shaken by what he had just witnessed. When Doctor John Dee had let slip that he believed Philomena to have very powerful, but yet latent magical abilities, he was sceptical, but Durosimi resolved, there and then, to rid himself of any threat that this Bucket woman might pose. The deal he had struck with the dæmon, Buer, had backfired, thanks to the incompetence of Dee, and now it was up to himself to end matters. The fact that she had thrown off the fog so easily, a spell that had taken no little amount of time and effort to contrive, was beyond comprehension. It was supposed to wreck both her mind and body. Instead, she had spun around like some whirling dervish and cast it off as though it was no more than an old shawl. Durosimi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He had obviously underestimated her powers. Well, if he could not harm her directly, maybe he could target someone close to her. He would have to make enquiries.

Philomena made no mention of her experience when she returned to The Squid and Teapot, just in time for evening opening. The usual procession of familiar faces filtered through the door, and as the night wore on she was kept busy, ferrying endless tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby Pie to the tables. The atmosphere was one of warmth and conviviality. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the room fell silent. Philomena, dutifully washing-up, was curious as to what had happened, and came out of the kitchen, tea-towel in hand. Every pair of eyes in the bar was fixed upon the figure of Rhys Cranham. The Night-Soil Man was no more than a legend to some, rarely seen, and then only under the cover of darkness. Now, here he stood, scrubbed clean as a choirboy on Sunday morning, smelling of nothing but soap, and wearing an old, slightly ill-fitting, suit, courtesy of Bartholomew Middlestreet and retrieved from one of the attics of the inn.   

“I’ve been thinking about what you were saying the other day, Philomena, and you’re right,” he said, awkwardly. “Naboth Scarhill has been a good apprentice, and he reckons he’s ready to take on the job as the new Night-Soil Man right away.”

Rhys dropped down on to one knee.

“In view of that, Philomena Bucket, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”