Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

The Hoarse Whisperer

Mr. Stratford Park felt that something indefinable was missing from his life. Regular readers will recall that his Burns Night celebration went somewhat less than well for him, the islanders having renamed the occasion ‘First Degree Burns Night’, in commemoration of his slightly scorched buttocks. Deciding to put the event firmly – and appropriately – behind him, Stratford decided to look for a new project. If nothing else, the Burns Night disaster had confirmed for him that he enjoyed being the centre of attention; this had given him a certain hunger for being in the spotlight, or, at least, would have done, had spotlights been readily available on Hopeless.

For some weeks he agonised over what he should do next. Whatever his destiny, he knew that he would need to stand out in some way, in order to claim his rightful place as a leading light in the daily life of the island.
It was while perusing this very organ, ‘The Hopeless Vendetta’, that inspiration struck. Not everyone kept up with the news in the Vendetta. Indeed, the art of reading has passed several islanders by. What Hopeless needed was a purveyor of the latest headlines, someone to patrol the island proclaiming births, deaths, marriages and the usual catalogue of messy woes that filled up the spaces in between. Folk would be curious to learn whatever wisdom Mrs Beaten was choosing to impart; they needed to know their horrorscope, as provided by Idris Po; new arrivals on the island would have to be apprised of the best ways of staying alive for as long as possible. There was plenty of information to be passed on.

“Yes!” Stratford mused to himself, “this is the answer. Hopeless needs a Town Crier – an Island Crier. Someone who will bravely venture out and perform a vital service for the public, not unlike the Night Soil Man, only without the smell, the bucket and the unsociable hours.”

The first thing Stratford needed to do was procure a suitable costume for the job – and he knew exactly where to go. As mentioned several times in these tales, the attics of The Squid and Teapot contain many salvaged, but so far unwanted, items. People, along with an interesting variety of flotsam and jetsam, had been coming to Hopeless for many years. On an island where resources are often limited, nothing is wasted. In view of this, it proved relatively easy for Stratford, with the help of the landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, to unearth a tricorn hat, a pair of breeches and a handbell, the standard uniform of Town Criers the world over. Sadly, although his costume was vaguely correct, the chances of anyone marking Stratford out as being Someone Special were slim. In an environment where ‘make do and mend’ was more than a necessity, such an outfit was not particularly unusual or outlandish. The sight of an islander wearing a cloth cap, an Edwardian frock coat, plus-fours and hobnail boots would not raise an eyebrow. Similarly, when Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, late of Oxford University, suddenly appeared in the regalia of a Victorian lady, the event passed without remark. And so, it came to pass that the self-appointed Town Crier made his way through the streets completely unnoticed. As far as the rest of the populace was concerned he was just another deranged soul wandering around aimlessly, ringing a bell and shouting.

After his first fruitless day’s work, Stratford retired to his cottage feeling downcast. Following a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth it occurred to him that this was getting him nowhere and giving up was not an option. He had to project more, to be heard above the crowd. He needed to practice shouting. With this in mind he took himself to the lonely and mysterious Gydynap Hills to perfect his art.

For several hours every day Stratford would loudly declaim his “Oyez, oyez” to the hills, hoping that his usual baritone would somehow evolve into a Stentorian blast that would make people stop and take notice. Unfortunately the reverse happened.

Opera singers are not well represented on Hopeless, but had Stratford had the good fortune to have run into one and asked their advice, he would have been told that a powerful voice should emanate from the diaphragm and not the throat. In fact, Doc Willoughby would have told him exactly the same thing and, as far as I’m aware, Willoughby is even worse at singing than he is at being a doctor.  

Stratford sat in the snug of The Squid and Teapot nursing a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and looking as dejected as a dog that’s been locked out in the rain.

“Whatever is the matter with you?” asked Philomena Bucket, breezing through with a tray of Starry-Grabby pies.

“No voice” Stratford croaked, barely audible and pointing to his throat.

“Ah, me and Drury heard you shouting when we were up on the Gydynaps the other day,” said Philomena, putting the tray down. “That’s what caused it. So what was all that about?”

Stratford made some unintelligible sounds, to which Philomena nodded wisely, pretending to understand.

“What you need is some honey,” she advised. “That’s what me old granny used to give us if ever we had a sore throat. I don’t know where you’ll get any from, but that’s what you’ll be wanting, to be sure.”
Stratford sipped his ale moodily, making no effort to reply.

It was a day or two later, when out walking, that Stratford’s attention was caught by a faint buzzing noise. Remembering what Philomena had said, he became suddenly excited. His throat was still raw and his voice no more than a whisper. He desperately wanted a remedy and this could be the answer. Where there was buzzing there were bound to be bees, and where there were bees there was honey. All he had to do was to follow the bee and his problems would be over.

It didn’t take long for Stratford to spot his quarry. The insect was dancing along, a foot or so above the ground, buzzing happily through the morning mist. Stealthily Stratford followed behind, confident that the tiny creature would lead him to an industrious nest, overflowing with honey (the fact that he had no idea how he was going to extract the precious comestible was, as yet, a thought that had not yet crossed the lonely expanse that was Stratford’s mind).

He was passing by the Old Mill, not far from Geezo’s Bight, when his attention was caught by a pale, emaciated face gazing from one of its grimy windows. The owner of the face seemed to be mouthing some words and tapping on the glass with skeletal fingers. Stratford stopped, trying to work out what the old man was saying but, try as he might, it was no use. He shrugged his shoulders and made to resume the chase, then realised that the elusive bee was nowhere to be seen. If only he had not stopped he would probably be in receipt of a quantity of throat-soothing honey by now. Hoarsely, he cursed the old man, who had already left his post by the window.

Angry and disappointed, Stratford barely felt the sharp prickle as the Succubus Wasp settled on the base of his skull and began to feed. All that he knew was that someone seemed to be whispering in his head, quietly persuading him that there was no point in carrying on the chase. He should go home, relax and allow his voice to return in its own time. As he made his way back to his cottage, Stratford began to feel dreadfully listless, deciding that nothing really mattered any more.

A week passed by before the regular patrons of The Squid and Teapot decided that there must be something amiss with their friend and drinking companion, Stratford Park. He had been acting strangely ever since the Burns Night episode, shouting and ringing bells all over the place but for him to miss poker night was unheard of.

When they found him in his cottage he was sitting in an armchair, staring into space and making strange buzzing noises. After much discussion, Doc Willoughby was called. A degree of harrumphing and chin-stroking followed, until the Doc solemnly  opined that the patient was suffering from no more than a mild virus, undoubtedly brought on by too much shouting. It was nothing that a few days rest would not cure.

As far as I am aware, Stratford is still there, sitting in his front parlour, becoming more and more emaciated and making no sound, other than occasionally emitting a faint and somewhat irritating buzz. Well-wishers bring him food but he shows little interest. The Succubus wasp has almost finished with Stratford. She has taken almost as much of him as he can give. The Succubus Wasp is nothing, if not patient. It is just a matter of time now before someone gets a little bit closer to her host than is safe.

Should you wish to know more about the strange, beautiful and deadly Succubus Wasp, you could do worse that look up an excellent article, published in the Vendetta some time ago, entitled ‘Save the Succubus Wasp’.

Lapsus Linguae

Reverend William Spooner, Dean of New College Oxford, was an old and trusted friend of the well-to-do Toadsmoor family. When, one bright morning, he suggested that their youngest daughter, Marjorie, should take the Oxford University entrance examination, the household was gripped by a level of excitement which may have been considered unseemly in some Victorian circles, where a muted “Good show” might be all that was permitted. But excited they were, for this was an historical moment; in this year of 1885, the august university had at last deigned give women the opportunity to study within its hallowed halls of learning.
The family’s proudest moment was shattered and turned to grief just a few weeks later, however, when their brilliant daughter disappeared, never to be seen by them again.

Marjorie Toadsmoor is one of Hopeless, Maine’s newer residents. I have no idea how or why she arrived there, and come to that, neither has she. Like Garfield Lawnside, the city slicker who had designs to buy the island (see the tale ‘The Persian Runner’), she wandered down the wrong street one day and ended up on Hopeless. Finding herself standing in the shadow of a lighthouse and looking out over a wild and foggy sea, struck her as being somewhat bizarre as, just minutes before, she had been walking through Oxford. As you may appreciate, the town of Oxford is very far from being coastal.

It is fortunate that those on Hopeless are not slaves to fashion, or even vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Indeed, Hopeless seems sometimes to hover within its own time, sheltered from all aspects of modernity. I may be wrong (and I frequently am) but if she had been transported from any era, past or future, it would not have mattered to anyone, particularly. I mention this only because Marjorie appeared upon the shores of the island as the very essence of the modern Victorian lady-about-town. As it was, resplendent in bonnet, hooped skirt and carrying a parasol,, she looked no more out of place than anyone else on the island – and with each step she took, all but the most fleeting memories of her past life gradually melted away, like snow upon the water.

Marjorie’s first experience of the strangeness of Hopeless happened within an hour of her arrival. Wandering inadvertently into a narrow alley, she found herself looking at a diminutive, fish like creature, with glowing eyes and tendril – like appendages, foraging among the rubbish. It appeared to propel itself along by employing a pair of silver dessert spoons as stilts. Not being particularly fond of most varieties of fauna at the best of times, Marjorie let out a scream of terror. The creature spun around upon its spoons and glared menacingly at the young woman. It has been reported on several occasions that the stare of a spoonwalker – for spoonwalker it was – can induce madness. Whether this was the case, I do not know but the situation was not helped when, in a bid to escape, it shot beneath her skirt and out of the other side before she could draw breath to scream again.

“Are you alright, miss?” It was Philomena Bucket who found her, crouched upon the floor and shaking like an aspen.
Marjorie looked up and was surprised to see a strangely beautiful woman with white hair and a pale, kind face. An albino! Something rang a distant bell in her mind; she had known an albino, a kindly man who was always getting his words mixed up, but that seemed long ago and far away.
“What was that creature… the one walking on spoons?” she asked.
“Ah, that would be a spoonwalker. Nasty little devils they are, to be sure,” replied Philomena.
“I have been attacked by a spoonwalker… and I am all alone in this strange place. Whatever will become of me?” Marjorie said, miserably, mainly to herself.
Her mind went back to the albino man whom she had known. His affliction had something to do with spoons; she couldn’t recall exactly what it was. Maybe he had been attacked by a spoonwalker, too. That was why he mixed up his words. Yes – he must have fallen foul of a spoonwalker, as she had. That would explain it.
“I fear I have become infected,” she told Philomena. “I can feel the virus coursing through me now, even as we speak. Oh, dear me.What shall I do?”
Philomena had never heard of such a thing before but decided that, if the young woman really believed herself to be ill, she needed to see Doc Willoughby.

The surgery was closed. The sign outside read:
‘Go away. Out on house calls. Back later.’
Philomena correctly surmised that this meant that the Doc was sleeping off a hangover and would not be in business for some hours.
“You’d better come back to the Squid and Teapot with me,” she said. “At least you’ll have somewhere to stay.”
“The Tid and Squeepot? What a strange name for an inn… Oh my gosh… it’s beginning already!”
“What is?” asked Philomena, bemused.
“My speech,” wailed Marjorie. “My meech has become spuddled!”
“Come on,” said Philomena, “let’s get you settled safely in The Squid.”

Once in The Squid and Teapot, Philomena found Marjorie a comfortable room and made her a cup of camomile tea, to soothe her nerves.
“Thank you so much,” said Marjorie, gratefully sipping the tea. “But won’t your employer be angry? I worry that he will be on you like a bun of tricks when he finds out. It would be a blushing crow for you, I’m sure, if he had you chewing a lot of doors as punishment.”
“Not at all,” replied Philomena, quickly catching on to her new friend’s strange way of speaking.
“It was not so long ago that I was a stranger here, too. You can always be sure that there will be a welcome in The Squid and Teapot for newcomers to the island.”
“An island! Gosh, I’ve always had a half-warmed fish to see more of the world,” said Marjorie, suddenly enthusiastic. “Might we go now, and maybe wake our may to the doctor’s surgery later? I’m as mean as custard to have a look around.”

The pair left the inn and had barely walked a dozen yards before Drury, the skeletal hound, spotted Philomena and came bounding up, his bony tail wagging madly.
“Aaargh… oh my goodness! What is that bowel feast?” wailed Marjorie.
“It’s only Drury. You’ll soon get used to him.”
“But he is nothing but bone. Has he no mister or mattress?”
“No. Drury is a free spirit, in every sense of the word,” laughed Philomena.

After they had walked a while, and Philomena had pointed out the orphanage and the brewery, she said, somewhat hesitantly, to Marjorie.
“This speech problem you have… it doesn’t happen all the time?”
“Indeed no.” replied her companion. “I don’t know why but it seems to come in stits and farts.”
Philomena was still stifling a smile when they saw Reverend Davies coming towards them.
“Good afternoon reverend,” said Philomena, with little enthusiasm.
“God afternoon miss um… um…. and who is your delightful young friend?”
Before Philomena could answer, Marjorie dropped Reverend Davies a deep curtsey and gushed.
“Oh, dear vicar, I am Marjorie Toadsmoor. I am so honoured to meet one who is doubtless a shoving leopard to his flock and a lining shite to all on the island.”
Reverend Davies stood quite still, his face puce, his mouth gaping open and the veins on his neck sticking out like knotted ropes.
“Must go, reverend,” said Philomena, propelling Marjorie away with some haste. “Things to do, people to see.”
“He was very rude,” confided Marjorie. “He couldn’t even be bothered to reply. What mad banners.”

“Those are the Gydynaps,” said Philomena, pointing to the hills in the distance. “Drury and I often go walking up there.”
“I can’t do a willy hawk in these shoes,” said Marjorie. “Besides, it looks as though it’s going to roar with pain at any minute.”
Even as she said the words, the skies opened.
“Let’s find some shelter,” said Philomena.
As they hurried through the rain, Philomena crossed her fingers that Marjorie would not comment upon the sign outside the salvage store which proclaimed ‘Free shoes and bags, yours for the asking.’

It was fortuitous that Doc Willoughby had recovered from his hangover sufficiently to have opened the surgery. Philomena and Marjorie burst through the door, shaking the rain from their bonnets and giggling like schoolgirls.
“You must be feeling better,” said Philomena. “Do you still need to see the Doc?”
“I think I do, “said Marjorie, “my words are still getting mixed up, like a sadly made ballad.”
Just then the Doc himself appeared, obviously not in the best of humours. After he had listened to Marjorie’s self-diagnosis he sighed wearily. The Doc, though not as learned as he would have people believe, had heard of Spoonerisms and knew that they had absolutely nothing to do with spoonwalkers. However, being nothing, if not an opportunist, he rarely missed a chance to impress and leaned forward on his desk, steepling his fingers.
“Young lady,” he pronounced gravely, “I fear you have, what we in the medical profession call, Lapsus Linguae.”
“A slip of the tongue?”
‘Dammit, the girl knows Latin. How the hell does she know Latin?’ Doc thought to himself, not a little irritated.
“That, of course, is how we describe it to non-medical people,” he said, back-pedalling like mad. “But it’s much more serious than that. However, I can give you a preparation which should clear it up in a day or two.”
The Doc decanted some coloured water into a medicine bottle and handed it to Marjorie.
“Thank you so much doctor,” she said. “I was concerned that you would think I was telling you a lack of pies.”
“My pleasure, “ said the Doc, unconvincingly, hurriedly ushering the pair to the door.

“I’m feeling better already!” pronounced Marjorie later as she sat in the snug of The Squid, tucking into a slice of starry-grabby pie. Her bottle of coloured water stood half empty beside her.
“By the way, Philomena,” she added, “silly me didn’t catch your surname.”
Philomena smiled, a little uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “It’s probably best we stick to first names until I know you’re really better.”

No Country For Old Mendicants

“Steady as she goes, Brother Malo. Take her in gently.”
The wiry monk manning the tiller nodded in acknowledgement.
“This fog is unnaturally thick, Father Abbot. I fear that we could well run aground.”

Brendan, the elderly Abbot of Clonfert, looked unruffled by this remark.
“Trust in the Lord, Brother Malo. He will guide us through safely.”
Brother Malo smiled but secretly wished that, rather than just guiding them through, the Lord might be a bit more proactive and blow the fog away.

No sooner has the thought passed through his mind than Malo repented of such blasphemy and, as a gesture of contrition, banged his sandalled foot hard into the wooden frame of the boat, badly stubbing his toe.
“Careful man,” shouted Brendan, then quickly composed himself. “If you go through the leather on the side of this currach, we are all in trouble.

It was back in the sixth century that Naomh Bréanainn, known these days as Saint Brendan, set sail with a party of monks from Ireland’s shores. Their mission was to find the Garden of Eden. Seventeen in number, they had followed a haphazard route over the North Atlantic for seven long years, backtracking and revisiting many of their ports of call along the way. During this time they saw many wonders; wonders that their rich Celtic imaginations interpreted as visions of Heaven and Hell. The volcanoes along the coast of Iceland became demons hurling fiery rocks to impede their journey and an iceberg was a mighty pillar of the purest crystal. Strangest of all was the small island upon which they landed to say mass one day. When that turned out to be a whale enjoying a quiet nap, it was hard to say who was the most surprised, the whale or the monks.

Now, with death having claimed three of their crew, fourteen monks sat staring into an impenetrable fog.
“This must be it,” whispered Brendan to himself. It had long been foretold that the promised land they had sought for so long would lie within a shroud of mist.

By now every breath of wind was stilled and the only sound to be heard was the slap of the oars as they pulled the currach through the shallow water towards the mysterious island.

While it would be unfair to say that Brendan was bitterly disappointed with his first view of, what he supposed to be, the Garden of Eden, he was far from overjoyed. He had expected a beautiful land filled sunshine, birdsong and heavily laden fruit trees. Instead, the eyes of the weary travellers were greeted by a ribbon of dismal mist that drifted listlessly over a headland crowned with scrubby grass, and clung to the line of spindly trees that bordered it. No birds sang in their branches.
Brendan decided that this was definitely not the land that they were seeking, and maybe it was time to head out to sea once more, when his eye was caught by a strange figure that seemed to magically materialise from amid the trees.

As if by some unspoken signal, each monk ceased what he was doing and stood, stock still, as the newcomer approached. He was dressed, outlandishly they thought, in soft leather trimmed with fur; feathers adorned his dark, plaited hair. When he was about ten yards from them he raised his right arm, palm outwards, in what was obviously a gesture signifying ‘I am no threat. How about you?’

What happened next surprised everyone.

“Top o’ the morning to you.” he said (or, at least, words to that effect) in quite recognizable Old Irish, which, of course, was the language that the monks all spoke (with the notable exception of Brother Malo, who was Welsh. However, and happily for this tale, the similarities between the Goidelic language of the Welsh and the Brittonic of the Irish were sufficient that they could understand each other quite comfortably… but I digress).

“Um… good morning brother,” responded Brendan, getting over his surprise. “We come in peace.”

A degree of awkward silence followed, neither party knowing how to proceed, until Brother Fergus, the oldest of them all and almost bent double, could not hold back any longer and asked the question that was on everybody’s lips.

“You speak our language!” he blurted out. “We are a thousand leagues from home, and yet we understand your tongue. How can this be?”
The stranger squatted on the ground and said nothing for what seemed an age.

“My name is Nechtan,” he said at last, after some thought. “Come with me to my village, where you will eat and drink, and I will tell you of my people”

The monks immediately felt at home in Nechtan’s village, where the single-storey houses huddled close to each other. They were uniformly small, probably no more than one room dwellings, with thatched roofs pegged down with ropes, which were tied to heavy stones. Similar structures were found near their abbey on the West Coast of Ireland, where the winter winds from the sea could be merciless.

Over a simple meal of cornbread, fish and spring water, Nechtan told the monks how, many generations ago, three ships had appeared on their shores carrying a score or more of fierce, red-headed adventurers. Despite their looks, the men from across the sea had wanted no more than to rest, find provisions and repair their much-travelled ships. At least, that is what they first told the islanders. After a week or so, their leader, whose name was Bran, confided to their head man that he wished to bury a box. It was a simple enough, though puzzling, request that the chief felt unable to refuse. And so, one moonlit night, the box was dragged ashore. It was a heavy sea-chest, fashioned from black bog-oak and bound with brass. Bran and his men took it to some undisclosed place and buried it deep beneath the earth. Upon their return they made the islanders swear that they would never attempt to look for the box of bog-oak and brass. Although this was agreed, Bran bade a handful of his men to remain behind and ensure that no one would go back on their word.

The ones who stayed settled down quite happily. They each found a wife and within a generation or two, Old Irish had become the lingua franca of the island.

Brendan stroked his chin. The story of the voyage of Bran was well-known to him, but he had always assumed it was no more than a colourful legend, a tale dreamed up by the pagan bards to amuse their listeners.

“But what was the significance of the oaken box?” he asked Nechtan.
The islander shook his head.

“I have no idea,” he confessed, “but before he sailed back to his own land, Bran carved some symbols on a stone tablet. It has been handed down through the generations of my family. No one knows what it means but maybe, if you can understand it, it will shed some light on the mystery.”

Nechtan lifted the lid of a chest that doubled-up as a table, rummaged through its contents and, with some difficulty, extracted a stone tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long. On its surface was carved a series of glyphs in the form of notched grooves. Some were horizontal and others diagonal. All lay on, or was bisected by, a vertical line.

“It’s Ogham script,” said Brendan. As he read his face became more and more grim.

After a while he looked up from the tile and addressed Nechan.
“It entreats any who can read this to never, under any circumstances, seek for the chest of bog-oak. On their travels Bran and his crew encountered a fierce demon. He claims that their druid subdued this infernal creature and imprisoned it within the chest, binding the locks with magic. He then commanded them to bury it deep in the earth of the misty island they would find at the end of their journey. As much as I despise all mention of pagan magic, I have to agree. Under no account seek out this cursed chest and its unholy prisoner.”

“Be assured,” said Nechan, “we are a dwindling people. There are very few of us left here, these days –soon there will be none. No one cares about this legend. There is enough to fear on our island without digging up more monsters to trouble us.”

Brendan wondered what he meant. The place was dismal, that was for sure, but he saw no evidence of things to fear.

The voyagers returned to their boat and on the following morning decided to venture further inland. Surely there had to be one or two relatively pleasant places to enjoy. As Nechan had implied, the rest of the land seemed devoid of humans and indeed, animal life as well. At the end of the first day they pitched camp on a reasonably flat piece of ground overlooking the sea and settled down to what they hoped would be a decent night’s rest, away from the cramped conditions of the currach.
It must have been around midnight when Brother Malo sat bolt upright.
“Did you hear that,” he whispered. There’s something going through our belongings.”

The monks had left their meagre possessions outside their tent, confident that nothing was likely to happen to them.

Malo pushed his head through the flap and gulped in astonishment. Three small, fish – like creatures, balancing on crude wooden stilts, were going through the monks’ packs and dragging away anything they could manage. One had found some wooden spoons and had discarded his stilts in favour of these more sophisticated prosthetics.

Malo swore, then remembering his vows, hit himself with a rock as penance.

By then the whole camp was awake and two of the younger monks – both on the wrong side of fifty – chased after the spoonwalkers (this was probably the very first occasion that these creatures could legitimately be called this, as it’s unlikely that any had before used spoons as a preferred method of locomotion).

Brother Fergus was surprised to find a long tentacle wrapped around his leg. It was issuing from a small fissure in the ground and was attempting to persuade the ancient monk to join it. Brendan at once rushed forward, brandishing his wooden crucifix and demanding that the creature, apparently from the very depths of Hell, to let go of his colleague and return once more to the fiery pit. All that this achieved was for a second tentacle to emerge and take the crucifix from his grasp. Fortunately Malo had the presence of mind to hit tentacle number one with the rock that he was still fortuitously holding, retained in the event of his having the urge to inadvertently swear, or think blasphemous thoughts again. The resulting blow ensured that Fergus was freed and the brace of tentacles, along with Brendan’s crucifix, disappeared swiftly into the rocky ground.
Just when everyone thought that things could not possibly get any worse, the vast shape of the Kraken rose from the boiling ocean, its slumbers disturbed by all the commotion.

“That’s it! Back to the boat brethren.” cried Brendan, “I’ve had enough of this island, it’s hopeless,” he added, with a rare, but unintentional, flash of clairvoyance.

“And you expect me to believe that load of old Blarney,” said Philomena Bucket, a smile upon her pallid face.

“It’s true,” replied Bartholomew Middlestreet, propping himself against the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “I’m telling you, Saint Brendan the Navigator visited Hopeless as part of his epic voyage.”

“And what about all those islanders who spoke Irish? Where are they now?”

“I expect they died out, as Nechan predicted.”

“And Bran?”

“True as well,” said Bartholomew. “When Sebastian Lypiatt was digging the foundations of the flushing privy, all those years ago, he found the Ogham stone.

“I don’t believe a word of it” said Philomena.

“It’s true. He had no idea what it was or what it meant but he knew it was important, somehow. Look… up there, just above the fireplace. You’ve probably never noticed it…”

Philomena looked and sure enough, just where Sebastian had placed it, almost a century before, was a rectangular tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long, covered in the faint grooves of the Ogham script.

“There was even a chest made of bog-oak and brass, but that’s another tale altogether,” said Bartholomew, with a grin.

Author’s note: Should you wish to know what became of the bog-oak chest and its contents you might like to read the tales ‘The Necromancer’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/the-necromancer/

and ‘Bog-Oak and Brass’ https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/bog-oak-and-brass/ (preferably in that order).

Burns Night

No one seems to remember who left the book on a table in The Squid and Teapot. The cover, which had originally been a rich red colour, was now faded, dog-eared and badly foxed.

Stratford Park, a stocky, fair-haired man of early middle-age, sipped the frothy head from his tankard of Ebley Ales famous brew, Old Colonel, and idly picked up the little volume, for no other reason than because it was there. The gilded but grimy lettering on the front said simply ‘Robert Burns by Gabriel Setuon. Famous Scots Series.’

Stratford had heard of Robert Burns. He even knew some of the man’s poetry. On the strength of that he slipped the book quietly into the inside pocket of his overcoat and thought no more about it.

Several dreary months went by. That which passes for spring on Hopeless, Maine, drifted into a dismal summer which, in its turn, slid, almost unnoticed, into a damp and fog-bound fall. It had become overcoat weather once more.

It was on a blustery October evening, bundled up against the chill, that Stratford made his way to The Squid. He was looking forward to drinking a few pints of Old Colonel and shooting the breeze with some of his friends, as he did most weeks.

Settling down in the warmth of the appropriately named snug, Stratford threw his overcoat over the back of his seat.

“Something’s just dropped out of your coat, Strat,” called the ever vigilant Bartholomew Middlestreet, from behind the bar.
Stratford looked around, puzzled. Then he spotted the little book on the floor. He had completely forgotten that it had been in his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said, brandishing the book and was about to put it back when Bartholomew said,

“That’s strange. There was a book exactly like that left on the bar yesterday. I saw it and thought of you.”
For the second time in as many minutes Stratford Park experienced a certain amount of puzzlement.

Bartholomew wandered over to the table. With a theatrical flourish he presented his friend with a small red volume, at first glance identical to the one that had recently resided in Stratford’s pocket.
“Look at the title,” Bartholomew said.
Stratford looked.

“Mungo Park by T. Banks Maclachlan. Famous Scots Series.
“Who is Mungo Park?” asked Stratford.
“A famous explorer guy, according to the book,” replied Bartholomew, then added, “I figured he must be a relation of yours. Park is not a common name.”
Bartholomew grasped the book and stared at the cover.
“I’ve always thought I had Celtic blood,” he mused, excitedly. “I’ll bet we are related.”

From that time onwards Stratford became more and more convinced of his Scottish roots, purely based upon his being a namesake of Mr Mungo Park. He read everything he could about Scotland and the Scots; it became an obsession. He took to dropping the odd ‘och aye’ and ‘dinnae’ and ‘cannae’ into conversation and would look wistfully eastwards over the ocean and mumble something about his ‘ain land’. The two volumes of the Famous Scots Series became his most treasured possessions.
Christmas came and went. Stratford had hoped to celebrate Hogmanay but the bar-fight in The Squid on New Year’s Eve had killed all hope of that. In mid-January he tentatively approached Bartholomew with a look in his eye not unlike that of a dog begging for a biscuit.

“D’ye ken it’s Robbie Burns birthday on the twenty-fifth of this month?” he asked.
“Really? I thought he’d died years ago,” replied Bartholomew, wearing his best poker-face.
“Och aye, that he did, ” said Stratford, his accent veering erratically over three thousand miles of ocean.
“I wondered if we might have a wee celebration. Have us a real Burns Night.”

Bartholomew looked dubious. Since the debacle at New Year and the disaster of Pluff Monday, he was wary of indulging in any form of celebration ever again.

After some thought and fighting a feeling of deep foreboding, he said,
“Okay, but there won’t be no haggis or whisky; it’ll be starry-grabby pie and whatever is on hand at the Gannicox distillery.”
“Aye, that’s braw,” said Stratford, adding hopefully “there wouldn’ae be a kilt going spare somewhere up in yon attic, would there, the noo?”
The attics of The Squid and Teapot are famously full of the flotsam and jetsam washed up that no one else has laid claim to. What could he say? Being of a kindly disposition, Bartholomew dutifully helped Stratford rummage through the piles of clothing.

To Stratford’s disappointment there were no authentic traditional Scottish costumes to be found anywhere in those dusty attics. They managed, however, to unearth a rather fetching plaid skirt (extra large) and a round leather clutch bag that would, in a bad light, just about pass muster as a kilt and sporran.

The evening of January the twenty-fifth arrived and The Squid and Teapot became a little piece of Scotland for a few hours. Fuelled by several glasses of the distillery’s finest spirit, Stratford recited a few poems and sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, off-key and a capella. It was then that Norbert Gannicox produced a banjo with three strings and struck up a medley of, what can only be described as being, a broad and very personal interpretation of some well-known, if totally unrecognizable, Celtic melodies. Celtic music and no small amount of alcohol can sometimes be a lethal combination. Standing in front of a blazing log fire, Stratford decided to execute what he fondly imagined to be, a Highland Fling. With his knees flying high and his plaid skirts higher, he left little to the imagination of his bemused, not to say traumatised, audience. Indeed, so bemused and traumatised were they that no one appeared to notice that the back of his makeshift kilt had caught fire and Stratford’s Terpsichorean prancing and occasional whoops were becoming increasingly frantic.

When he was eventually rescued, after some energetic and over-enthusiastic thrashing of his rear end, the fire was successfully extinguished. Doc Willoughby, who had been skulking, unimpressed, in a corner, had Stratford laid face down across a long table. Much to the horror of those assembled, and with little ceremony, Doc pulled the skirt up over Stratford’s head, revealing a set of slightly scorched buttocks for all to behold.

“He’ll be alright,” affirmed the Doc, gruffly. “First degree burns, no worse damage than he’d get from a bit of sunburn. Stick him in some cold running water for a bit, that’ll make him feel better.”
No sooner had the words left the Doc’s mouth than the hefty Winstone twins acted as one, grabbing Stratford roughly under the armpits and marching him outside.

Unfortunately the Doc had not given any indication how long Stratford’s backside needed to be immersed, or whether they should stay with him. What the Doc lacked in bedside manner, he certainly didn’t make up for in helpfulness. The Winstones, who were not the brightest spoons in the cutlery drawer, looked at each other, wondering what to do. The party was still going on at The Squid. It would be a pity to miss any more of it. There and then they made the decision to sit Stratford in the icy water that flowed down from the Gydynap hills into Tragedy Creek, and leave him there.

When Rhys Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, found the would-be Scotsman some hours later, Stratford was literally blue with cold. Everything south of his waistline was immersed in the fast flowing water. Rhys heaved him out with some difficulty, and took him back to his cottage. If he ever wondered why the fellow in the stream was wearing a skirt, he didn’t say anything. It took a while for body heat to return and Stratford to revive. When he did, he was wheezing and sneezing, showing every sign of having all the symptoms of a bad head cold, which was just as well, because as we all know, there are few who can stand the noxious smell that permanently surrounds the Night Soil Man.

And that is just about the end of the tale. Following that small disturbance, Burns Night, on Hopeless, was always afterwards referred to as First Degree Burns Night. Stratford never mentioned it, or Mungo Park, again and gave up all claims of being of Scottish descent. His accent was miraculously restored once more to that of a native Hoplessian.
It is interesting to note that Mungo Park, who perished at the age of thirty-five, was the seventh of thirteen siblings. It is recorded that one of his younger brothers, inspired by Mungo’s example, joined an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the elusive sea route thought to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Like his more famous brother, who took one adventure too many, young Park did not return. Far be it from me to speculate, but his would not have been the first sailing ship to fall foul of a terrible storm and be blown wildly off-course onto the treacherous rocks and fog-bound islands that dot the coast of Maine.

The Ghost Ship

Drury, the skeletal dog, had been spreading happiness and mayhem in equal measure upon the island of Hopeless, Maine for far longer than any living soul could remember. Many generations had passed since anyone had deemed themselves to be his master; Drury was a law unto himself, a force of nature, a free spirit. In truth, he was the very essence of dogginess epitomised, notwithstanding the fact that he had died years ago. However Drury, being Drury did not allow this slight inconvenience to get in his way for one minute.

If any two humans could be said to elicit the osseous hound’s affection above all others, they would be Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man and the palely beautiful Philomena Bucket, who worked in “The Squid and Teapot”.

While Philomena frequently enjoyed the dog’s company by day, when Rhys did his nocturnal rounds, it was often with Drury at his heels. He was under no illusion, however, that the dog was attracted purely by his bountiful nature and irresistible charisma. There was little doubt that a Night Soil Man’s messy and malodorous calling had no little part to play in persuading Drury that here was as good a companion as one could wish for.

There were no stars visible on the night of our tale. Only the baleful eye of the full moon was able to penetrate the mist that blanketed the skies over Hopeless. Rhys looked up and could not suppress a slight shudder.

“Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless under a full moon,” he thought to himself, then almost laughed out loud at his musings. Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless at the best of times, why should tonight be any different? Dismissing such thoughts from his mind, he hitched his tightly lidded bucket up on to his shoulders. Just two more stops and then he’d sit down for a bite of supper, grateful that Philomena had left a cold starry-grabby pie and a flask of ‘Old Colonel’ on his doorstep earlier in the day. Lovely Philomena! Salty tears, borne of an impossible and unrequited love, threatened to cloud his eyes, until Drury gave a sharp bark, instantly dragging Rhys away from his reverie.

A few hundred yards from the shore, sitting in the pathway cast by the moon, was anchored an old-fashioned galleon. Rhys looked on in horror, for he knew at once that this was no ordinary craft. Even with its sails furled he could see that they, like the rest of the galleon, were rotting and ragged and shimmered with an eerie, lurid iridescence. He had heard of such a vessel before but always dismissed the tales of a phantom ship, damned to roam the seas for eternity, as an island myth. He had laughed at the legend that spoke of the ship that, once every hundred years, would anchor off Hopeless in order to send a press-gang of wraiths ashore to replenish its crew. He wasn’t laughing now.

“Thank goodness they’re still a fair distance away,” said Rhys to Drury. “Time to pack in for the night and get home and lock the door, I think.”
But Drury wasn’t listening. Unseen by Rhys, a small tender, known as a jolly boat, had drawn up on the beach, a short distance away. It glowed with the same ghastly light as the galleon. Half a dozen cadaverous shapes had clambered over its rotting sides and  were even now lurching up the sand towards the terror-stricken Night Soil Man.

The six crewmen were dreadful to behold. In their tattered, tar-stained apparel of a time long past, these hollow-eyed wraiths were barely recognisable as creatures who had once been living, breathing men. Their shrivelled flesh and hollow eyes chilled the blood of all who beheld them. Even wraiths can be taken aback, however. When they were within no more than a few feet away from Rhys, Drury sprang fearlessly into action, a calcified ball of canine fury.
As I have stated on many an occasion, Drury is, to those of us who know him, a bony but loveable bundle of chaotic mischief. In view of this, it is easy to forget that he also has access to those hazy, liminal regions that bridge the realms of the living and the dead. So, while the slightly overweight representative of the species Canis lupus familiaris, snoring contentedly on your sofa, can certainly see ghosts, not even the meanest, fiercest fighting dog in the world could wrap its jaws around a phantom leg. Drury can.    

“It’s that bloody dog again,” screamed one of the wraiths as a very real set of teeth attacked whatever bits of him Drury could get hold of.  
“He was here causing trouble the last time we came.”

Rhys had no idea what to do. He knew he would be no match for just one of the wraiths, much less six and although Drury was fighting valiantly, he wouldn’t be able to hold them all off for very long.

Sure enough, no sooner had the thought entered his head than an ice-cold hand had grabbed Rhys by the neck and started to drag him towards the jolly boat. The Night Soil Man could see a furious and struggling Drury being restrained by the remaining five ghostly sailors, who, quite frankly, was having their work cut out.
“Get a move on, Charlie,” shouted one of them. “We can’t hang on to this little bleeder for much longer.”

Suddenly and from nowhere the air was filled with a thunder of hooves, excited yapping, some nasal brays and the distinct effluvium of flatulent mules as the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt swept down from the sky, their spaniels yelping madly and nipping at the heels of the surprised sailors. Suddenly dropped, with an ungainly clatter Drury fell to the ground and, with some relish, immediately joined in the fray, any previous dispute with the spaniels put to one side, at least for the time being.
Opportune as this intervention was, it had not prevented Charlie from escorting Rhys down to the jolly boat. He was just about to push the Night Soil Man headlong into its bilge when a sharp rat-a-tat-tat cut through the night like a blade. All who heard it stopped, frozen in their tracks. The mist on the beach swirled and gathered. Rhys turned his head to see shapes forming within its murky depths until, to the accompaniment of a stirring drumbeat, yet another phantom host appeared. These were the drowned sailors that the Little Drummer Boy had led ashore to safe haven many years before. Like the Mild Hunt, they regarded this island as their home. No upstart band of ragged-trousered wraiths was going to suddenly come in and scare the living daylights out of its inhabitants. That was their job! Besides, all of the ghosts on Hopeless (with the possible exception of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock) had something of a soft spot for the generations of Night Soil Men whom they had seen come and go. They had watched them perform their thankless work night after dreary night with little chance of respite; this was a fate, they perceived, not unlike their own.

“At ‘em lads”, shouted one of the shipwrecked ghosts.
Spectral cudgels and belaying pins swung through the air, raining mercilessly on  phantom flesh until, before long, the press-gang was sent scuttling back to the jolly boat.
Rhys, who, in the confusion, had escaped Charlie’s clutches, felt himself being gently led to safety by the ghostly (and curiously wandering) hands of the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt, who giggled girlishly to themselves as they flew once more up into the night, followed closely by their unruly spaniels.

The Little Drummer Boy and the drowned sailors lingered on the beach until the galleon could be seen to weigh anchor, set its decrepit sails and disappear from sight around the headland. Rhys, lying on the dark shingle, watched, still shaken, as one by one, the sailors dissolved into the mist.
“Thank you,” he cried, as the Drummer Boy, the last to leave, began to fade from sight.
Rhys could swear that he waved back to him, but it may have been his eyes playing tricks.
Drury nuzzled the Night Soil Man’s neck with a bony nose.

“And thank you too, old friend,“ said Rhys, getting up and retrieving his bucket. “Hopefully they won’t be coming back for another hundred years. Now let’s go home. I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”


Author’s note: Although that most famous of ghost ships, The Flying Dutchman, is generally associated with the  waters of the Southern Hemisphere, there have been reports of other crafts seen in the North Atlantic, as evinced in the following poem by Irish poet and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

Written On Passing Deadman’s Island, In The Gulf Of St. Lawrence, Late In The Evening, September, 1804.

    See you, beneath yon cloud so dark,
    Fast gliding along a gloomy bark?
    Her sails are full,–though the wind is still,
    And there blows not a breath her sails to fill!

    Say, what doth that vessel of darkness bear?
    The silent calm of the grave is there,
    Save now and again a death-knell rung,
    And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung.

    There lieth a wreck on the dismal shore
    Of cold and pitiless Labrador;
    Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost,
    Full many a mariner’s bones are tost.

    Yon shadowy bark hath been to that wreck,
    And the dim blue fire, that lights her deck,
    Doth play on as pale and livid a crew,
    As ever yet drank the churchyard dew.

    To Deadman’s Isle, in the eye of the blast,
    To Deadman’s Isle, she speeds her fast;
    By skeleton shapes her sails are furled,
    And the hand that steers is not of this world!

    Oh! hurry thee on-oh! hurry thee on,
    Thou terrible bark, ere the night be gone,
    Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
    As would blanch for ever her rosy light!

Pluff Monday

“What’s a pluff?”
Norbert Gannicox sat cross-legged on the floor, a large book folded open on his knees.
He had been helping Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, to clear up the not inconsiderable mess that littered the floor of the inn. Several days had passed since the bar room brawl that had flared up on New Year’s Eve, wrecking just about every stick of furniture, piece of glassware and item of crockery in the place. Such a thing had never happened before.

If you want anything in particular on Hopeless, the chances are that, if it exists on the island, you will find it somewhere in the dusty attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’. Over many years these rooms, with their small, cobweb-draped windows, had become the natural repository of the many and various – but otherwise unwanted – items of flotsam and jetsam that washed up on Hopeless’ rocky shores. For all of the dust and cobwebs, the several generations of stewards of the inn had been scrupulous in keeping their salvaged goods in reasonable order. Because of this, it was no great hardship to refurbish the bar with everything it needed to resume normal business.

Next to the clothing, furnishings and household items, which were organised in their separate spaces, there were books; hundreds of books, placed in tall stacks, piled more by size than subject matter.  

The particular tome that had caught Norbert’s eye was a weighty volume, snappily titled ‘The Every Day Book: or, A guide to the year: describing the popular amusements, sports, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times, (ed. W. Hone.)’.
 ‘‘ I think I’ve found the next fixture on our calendar of traditions, said Norbert, with some excitement. “Listen to this…

   …The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday”, he said, pronouncing ‘plough’ as ‘pluff’’. “It appears to have received that name,” he continued, “because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistcoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy…”

“What do you reckon?” he asked.
“Well,” considered Bartholomew, “If I knew what a pluff is I might have a go at drawing one.”
Norbert nodded. “There again”, he said, “it might be a ploff, not a pluff.”
“That’s real helpful,“ said Bartholomew, his tone not without a degree of sarcasm, “but I can’t say that I’ve heard of either one of them. Ploff just don’t sound right. No, it’s definitely a pluff, and dammit we’ll spell it as pluff, as it should be. Blasted English!”

The dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, once famously commented that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language and this can frequently be seen in the variation in spellings, pronunciation and even meanings of certain words. As neither Norbert nor Bartholomew –  or practically anyone currently alive on Hopeless, come to that – had wallowed in the dubious delights of a British schoolroom, they were happily unaware that the implement they knew as a plow was, indeed, a plough to those inhabitants of Shakespeare’s ‘Scepter’d Isle’.

After deciding that neither man had the faintest idea as to what a pluff might be, that they didn’t have thirty or forty men to pull one and that no self-respecting old woman, or lad in drag, would have anything to do with the project, gaily bedizened or not, it was agreed that they would go ahead and celebrate Pluff Monday anyway. They were pretty dam’ sure that if they didn’t know what a pluff was, no one else on the island would, either.

An hour or so later a casual bystander might have witnessed two middle-aged men taking a nonchalant stroll along the shoreline and pushing a ricketty handcart. According to the book, Pluff Monday was due to fall on the day after tomorrow; Norbert and Bartholomew were looking desperately for an item, any item, so odd, so unusual, so totally alien that it would act as a stand-in for the elusive pluff. It would become, in the eyes of their fellow islanders, unmistakably a pluff through and through. Both knew that it was, of course, an outside chance that they would find such a thing but, as we all know, Hopeless is an outside chance sort of place, so neither man was particularly surprised when, carelessly deposited by the tide, on a beach of dark shingle, sat the very epitome of pluffdom itself.

Imagine, if you will, a rusty iron sphere, about three feet in diameter. Protruding from its surface is a series of horn-like spikes, resembling something not unlike the shell of a huge, metallic horse-chestnut. Norbert stopped in his tracks.
“This is it,“ he murmured with a certain amount of awe in his voice. “A pluff!”
“It’s impressive,“ agreed Bartholomew. “Let’s get it on to the cart before the tide takes it back out.”
This was easier said than done. Try as they might, the pair could not lift the pluff an inch off the ground.
“It must weigh a ton,” said Norbert, “We’ll never shift the thing. That’s probably why the book said that it took thirty or forty men to drag it around.”
“How about…” said Bartholomew, a thought was forming in his head. “…How about if we can’t take Pluff Monday to the people, then they can come here to see it? We could dress the pluff up in ribbons and things and create our own version of Pluff Monday – a Hopeless version!” He said, the last bit completely without irony.

The two retired to the warmth and comfort of “The Squid”, where they set about the task of writing posters to advertise the ‘Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza at Scilly Point’. Philomena Bucket, who had been press-ganged into the scheme, dug out some ribbons and bells from the attic to festoon about the horns of the pluff. Somebody suggested taking the old phonograph to the event and playing ‘Molly Malone’ a few times. ‘Molly Malone’, with its ‘Alive-alive-o’ chorus, was a favourite with the people of Hopeless, mainly because it was the only wax cylinder that they possessed. Ideas poured from the three friends; they could light a fire on the beach and maybe take a cask of ‘Old Colonel’ and some starry-grabby pies to make the day go with a real bang. Wisdom of hindsight may have told them, a day or two later, to be careful what they wished for.

Pluff Monday had arrived at last! Bartholomew opened the big oak door of ‘The Squid’ and looked out at the new day. It was a little before 8a.m. and somewhere above the swirling mist, morning could be said to have broken. It displayed, however, a certain amount of defiance regarding the sentiments expressed in the popular hymn, for it bore little resemblance to that first morning, the temperature well below the four thousand degrees farenheit that the earth had then, apparently, enjoyed. Here, on eternally foggy Hopeless Maine, the glass would be lucky to struggle above freezing point on a typical day in early January. Not that this dampened the spirits of the organisers of the Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza.
By midday everything was ready. The phonograph sat on one handcart, while a firkin of ‘Old Colonel’, snuggling companionably with a large haybox, generously filled with hot and steaming starry-grabby pies, graced another. Drury, the long-dead and skeletal hound, gambolled happily around, getting generally in the way and underfoot, as only an over-excitable dog can. Drury loved a celebration of any sort, especially one that involved the phonograph playing ‘Molly Malone’.

When Bartholomew, Norbert, Philomena and Drury arrived at Scilly Point, where the beribboned and bedizened Pluff bobbed gently as the incoming tide lapped languidly around it, a crowd had already gathered on the headland.
“Welcome, friends, to the very first Pluff Monday celebration, here on Hopeless, Maine,” announced Norbert grandly. “I hope this to be the start of a long and abiding tradition on the island.”

With that, Philomena wound up the phonograph and immediately the strangulated voice of an Irish tenor cut through the mist, telling the sad tale of a female fishmonger who navigated her barrow through streets of varying width.

Drury was happy beyond words. So happy, that he wandered down to the beach, splashed into the shallow water and lifted a back leg against the rusting iron pluff. This was, of course, a pointless exercise, but old habits are inclined to die hard. It was just around that point that the tenor reached the popular refrain of his ballad and suddenly everyone joined in; the headland rang with ‘Alive, alive-o! Alive, alive-o! Crying cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” This was Drury’s favourite bit and he rushed excitedly back to the gathering, leaping headlong into the arms of his beloved Philomena. Taken by surpise, she stumbled against the cart which held the firkin of ‘Old Colonel’ and the box of starry-grabby pies. Filled with dismay, she watched it roll away in the direction of the beach, gathering speed as it went. The company on the headland looked aghast as the precious provender careered violently into the pluff. As one, they dashed down towards the water, hoping to salvage whatever they could. All might have been retrievable, had not the pluff, which had bobbed innocently around the North Atlantic for some years, decided to do the job it was designed for, and exploded in spectacular fashion. The inhabitants of Hopeless experienced the unique sensation of simultaneously being knocked off their feet and showered in a blend of strong ale and desicated squid. If such indignity was not bad enough, this was followed shortly afterwards by an uncomfortable rain of smoking matchwood and wisps of burning hay.

One by one, slightly deafened and covered in a quite malodorous and smoldering aley-fishy-woody debris, the Pluff Monday revellers got to their feet and looked around, dazed and bewildered.
“Was that supposed to happen?” asked Doc Willoughby suspiciously, removing a squid leg from his waistcoat pocket.
Norbert didn’t answer. Maybe it was time to give up unearthing traditions. It was too dangerous.
Up on the headland, a reedy voice was still warbling away about Molly Malone.
Drury wagged a bony tail.
“Now that’s what I call an entertaining afternoon!” he thought to himself.


Author’s note: Phonograph enthusiasts may like to look at the tale ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/ghost-in-the-machine/

The Lord of Misrule

Another year had passed on the island of Hopeless, Maine. This is not as bland and obvious a statement as you may imagine, for while most places on this planet enjoy an orderly, straight as an arrow, passage through time, Hopeless does not always choose to conform. Time on this island – like so many of its denizens– can be a slippery and unpredictable beast. Mostly, it will obediently trot forward at a regulation pace but, at the slightest caprice, will career away at a gallop, or, just as often, slow to a snail’s pace. Once or twice it has stopped totally and then gone off in completely the opposite direction, which causes no end of anxiety and confusion… but I digress. Upon the occasion of which I speak, Time had meekly wandered up to the very brink of the old year and waited quietly, to listen patiently for the chimes of midnight.

To all intents and purposes the evening was progressing in a most satisfactory manner. The produce of the Ebley Brewery and Gannicox Distillery flowed freely and the mood was high-spirited and ebullient. Bartholomew Middlestreet watched happily as the pallid but strangely beautiful barmaid, Philomena Bucket, weaved her way through the crowded bar of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, deftly carrying, in one hand, a tray brimming with hot and steamy starry-grabby pies, and two foaming mugs of ‘Old Colonel’ ale in the other. Business was good in the inn tonight– but after all, it was New Year’s Eve and everyone here, and those at home by their own firesides, had survived another year. Bartholomew beamed to himself as he remembered the chorus of a song, penned years ago by the late Spencer Lypiatt. Being a better poet than he was a musician, Spencer had set the lyrics to a popular show-tune that he had picked up from somewhere or other in his travels (although his claim that South Pacific had at last reached the North Atlantic had baffled more than one member of his audience).

We all live on Hopeless, Maine,
(Hopeless by the sea)
There’s no reason to complain
If you’re living on Hopeless, Maine.

A lot of people thought this was nonsense – after all, the inhabitants of Hopeless have a whole host of reasons for complaint. Bartholomew, being somewhat cannier than most of his neighbours, knew only too well that they just did not appreciate exactly what Spencer was driving at when he wrote the song. The operative word in the chorus is, of course, ‘living’, as opposed to dying or being dead, and this is exactly what the patrons of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ were doing this evening – celebrating the very fact of being alive.

No one who was present on that particular New Year’s Eve can say with any certainty that they can remember when the tall, elegant stranger first came into the inn. He must have been there for some while, for it was about eleven-thirty when he was spotted pushing back the small table, rising from his chair and making his way across the bar to the far corner of the room.

When he put his hand on the shoulder of young Ambrose Pinfarthing and whispered a few words into the lad’s ear, you could be forgiven for assuming that the two had been friends for years . In response the young man gave him a slightly drink-fuddled and puzzled look; he shrugged and raised his eyebrows as he watched the stranger return to his seat, having no idea what had just happened.

Ambrose was sitting with a small party of friends, all of his age, who had been noisy but by no means troublesome, allowing themselves to become mildly inebriated as the evening progressed. With the minute hand creeping towards midnight, however, the group became increasingly vocal, blatantly ignoring Bartholomew’s more than tolerant request,

“Keep it down, lads, it’s getting a bit rowdy over there.

It soon became apparent that their general mood was becoming worryingly ugly. As voices became louder, tempers began to fray. Bartholomew tried to calm things down but to no avail. The innkeeper knew that he was losing control when bickering broke out on other tables and what was, only minutes before, a good-natured gathering, descended into a seething and hostile environment. It was as if an unaccountable madness had gripped every patron of the inn– or nearly every patron. Sitting quietly in his corner was a lone and enigmatic figure, who appeared to be totally untouched by the chaos breaking out around him. He smiled to himself and sipped his ale, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. Fists flew and tankards were thrown, glasses shattered and tables upturned, and all of the time the stranger sat unruffled in his own little oasis of calm.

Bartholomew could only watch in horror as furniture and furnishings, fixtures and fittings, plates and drinking vessels succumbed to the quite insane behaviour that had overtaken his customers. The normally feisty Philomena Bucket and Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, wasted no time and hid, trembling, in the privy. Even the prospect of sharing the cramped space with its resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady, was preferable to braving the turmoil that rocked the public bar.
As if in response to some invisible signal, at the stroke of midnight the elegant stranger arose, left some money on the counter, and strode towards the door. As he passed each brawling customer they stopped fighting and, in a daze, looked around as if waking from a terrible dream. The room grew suddenly and weirdly quiet; the only noise was the sound of shattered pottery and glass being crunched beneath a pair of highly polished leather boots.

“There’s something not right about him,” muttered Bartholomew to himself. “Did he say something to start all this?”

With a degree of bravery that surprised even himself, Bartholomew sprinted towards the door just as it was closing. Catching it by the handle, he threw the door wide open. A fierce and icy blast shook the few curtains that still hung tenuously in place. Bartholomew shuddered, drew his arms close around his body and looked out on to the inky darkness that heralded another new year on Hopeless, Maine.

The night before him was cold and totally empty. A light dusting of snow had been falling steadily for an hour or more, leaving a pure white carpet to grace the front yard of the inn. It was indeed beautiful – and not a single footprint was there to disturb its pristine surface.

Author’s note: Anyone wishing to see the complete (and frankly, extremely irritating) lyrics of ‘We all live on Hopeless, Maine’ will find them in the tale of that name – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/we-all-live-on-hopeless-maine/

Another Hopeless Christmas

It has, in recent years, become traditional for a few of the residents of Hopeless to come together in order to arrange some manner of Christmas entertainment, basking in the vague hope of igniting a small spark of festive joy in the hearts of their fellow islanders. The crucial words here are, of course, ‘to arrange’; on Hopeless it is seldom that an arrangement of any description pans out as planned. This said, however, the dubiously named ‘Christmas Extravaganza Committee’ gathered in a small back-room of The Squid and Teapot and allowed hope to prevail over experience.

“We could do a Nativity play”, suggested Philomena Bucket.
Doc Willoughby, who was only there on sufferance and the off-chance that there might be a free drink or three coming his way, raised an eyebrow.

“Not on Hopeless,” he said. “You’d be lucky to find three wise men and a virgin around here.”

This was the Doc’s annual joke – possibly the only one he knew – which he trotted out every Christmas with regularity. The others around the table laughed dutifully, probably in relief that the old chestnut had been aired and safely put to bed again until next year.
Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, looked thoughtful.

“Do you remember the actor guy who lived here, the one that some folks reckon was eaten by that sea-serpent, Aboo-dom-k’n?
“Fromebridge somebody-or-other,” offered Norbert Gannicox, the local distiller.

“That’s the one,” said Bartholomew. “Well, he left behind a few bits and pieces, including a book on the history of acting. There was something in there about some ancient Christmas entertainment called… mummifying, I think.”

“Now that does sound entertaining,” observed the Doc, brightening visibly. “I can’t say that is something I’ve ever witnessed.”

“Well, as I recall, these various characters come on stage, they say who they are, then a couple of them have fight and one of them dies…”
“Ah…and then he gets mummified?” asked the Doc.

“Could be,” said Bartholomew. “But somewhere along the line the doctor brings him back to life.”

Doc Willoughby rolled his eyes.
“I think you’d better bring us the book,” he said, uneasily.

After the initial disappointment of discovering that, when mummers go out to mum, they rarely, if ever, have mummification on their minds, Doc Willoughby reluctantly agreed to take part in the entertainment, after making a mental note that the promised drinks tally had just doubled.

“Okay – so who are the characters, the dramatis personae?” he asked, always happy to drop in the odd Latin phrase, in hopes to impress.

“In this version there is Father Christmas, somebody called Room, Robin Hood, Beelzebub, Saint George, Bold Slasher, Mince Pie, a doctor and a Turkish Knight. That’s a lot of people!” replied Norbert, scratching his head.

“We’re going to have to cut a few parts out, as there are only four of us,” he added.

It was decided that Father Christmas, Saint George, the Turkish Knight and the doctor would have to do. Doc Willoughby was adamant that he was the only person qualified to play the doctor. After a certain amount of bickering the other parts were agreed; Bartholomew was to be Father Christmas, Philomena would be St. George and Norbert took on the role of the Turkish Knight.

Over the next week the troupe learned their not-too-demanding lines and Philomena, who doubled up as wardrobe mistress, trawled through the dusty attics of The Squid and Teapot in the hope of finding some vaguely credible costumes. By Christmas Eve the little band of thespians deemed themselves ready to meet their public.

Ariadne Middlestreet, wife of Bartholomew, was run off her feet behind the bar of The Squid and Teapot. The inn was full to bursting with the curious inhabitants of Hopeless (and some were certainly more curious than others). Beyond all hope, it seemed, they had gathered together on this cold Christmas Eve to witness the cultural highlight of the season. That, at least, is what the four actors told themselves. The truth was that most of the island was dying to see Doc Willoughby make a fool of himself.

Bartholomew, resplendent in a cherry-red dressing gown, matching woolly hat and cotton-wool beard, began the proceedings.
“In comes I, old Father Christmas.
Welcome in or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.. “

As the play unfolded the characters introduced themselves. Saint George appeared in a helmet made from a saucepan with a broken handle and grey knitted woollen ‘chain mail’, eliciting cheers and whoops from the audience. As to be expected, the emergence of the Turkish knight, whose turban looked suspiciously as though it was made of pink chiffon, was met with boos and catcalls. These reactions, however, were as nothing compared to the negative reception given to the doctor, an innocuous member of the cast who is usually received on stage with a chorus of polite cheers. It is fair to assume that this display of general antipathy was not so much directed towards the character as at the actor, who had made no effort whatsoever to don any form of fancy dress, loudly opining that he knew better than most what sort of clothes a doctor should wear.

There are many who will tell you that Christmas is a time of miracles and this little entertainment, put on for the people of Hopeless, Maine, is proof positive that this is, indeed, the case, for, miraculously, nothing went wrong. The Turkish knight slew St. George, the doctor brought him back to life again with his bottle of elecampane and, to huge cheers, St George gave the Turkish knight his comeuppance. Nobody fluffed their lines, there were no embarrassing costume catastrophes and, unusually on Hopeless, no one was abducted, eaten, or even seriously injured. The general concensus was that the night had gone swimmingly well.

By the time that midnight struck most folks were home and safely in bed. Christmas Eve is, however, the most haunted of nights and the ghosts of the island were wide awake and honouring tradition by manifesting for the occasion.

Down in Creepy Hollow old Lars Pedersen, whom time had rendered so faint as to be almost invisible, tramped through the night, seeking in vain for his precious missing eggs.

In the privy of the Squid and Teapot, Lady Margaret D’Avening, the Headless White Lady, had perched herself daintily on the lavatory seat, while her head, floating next to her, sang Christmas carols.
Some distance away, on the other side of the island, her nemesis, Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was busily venting his joyless and protoplasmic spleen against the iniquities of Papists, adulterers and anyone guilty of enjoying a spot of Christmas debauchery, or indeed, anything at all.

Up on the headland the Little Drummer Boy marched proudly along, leading a rag-tag procession of shipwrecked wraiths inland. As it was Christmas Eve he had abandoned his usual ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ drumbeat for the more seasonal ‘pa rum pum pum-pum’

Meanwhile, high overhead, the phantom maiden-ladies of The Mild Hunt, mounted on flatulent mules, with their highly-strung spaniels forever yapping and getting in the way, had come to grief when they had become entangled with some flying reindeer. The somewhat overweight, white-bearded gentleman who seemed to be in charge, was desperately trying to turn his sleigh the right way up, while at the same time fiercely berating them. His face had become as red as the clothes he wore and, with no little venom, he concluded angrily (and quite correctly, as it happens) that they must be English, driving like that on the wrong side of the sky.

The only islander abroad that night was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. Ghosts were familiar to Rhys and little surprised him anymore – but even he couldn’t believe his eyes as a not-particularly gentle rain of candy canes, sugar-mice and assorted toys fell noisily to earth.

Author’s note: The ghosts mentioned in ‘Another Hopeless Christmas’ can be encountered in several other tales, including:
‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’; ‘The Headless Lady’; ‘Chapel Rock’; ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’.

The Persian Runner

“How much do you want for ‘The Squid and Teapot? I’d like to buy it.”

Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, almost dropped the tankard he was drying.

“Pardon?” 

“How much for the inn. Name your price.”

The man who stood before Batholomew was a slightly built, ferrety little specimen. His sharp, city suit and shiny shoes were not items of apparel you would see every day on Hopeless. 

“I can’t sell the Squid, even if I wanted to,” said Bartholomew, not a little taken aback by the request.

“Oh, come on,” said the other, producing a bag of coins, with a flourish that would not have shamed a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat. “Everyone has a price.”

“I don’t own the Squid,” said Bartholomew. “No one does. I manage it.”

The other man took some time to process this information. The concept of no one owning such an impressive piece of real estate was beyond him.

Garfield Lawnside had been on Hopeless for less than a week. The circumstances of his arrival on the island had puzzled him at first but logic told him that he had been Shanghaied. He could remember coming out of the waterfront bar in New York and wandering down a narrow side street – oddly, one that he had never before noticed. His drink must have been drugged, he thought, for the next thing he knew was that he was wandering around on some foggy hill, with no clue as to where he was. The strangest bit was that nothing had been stolen. His carpet-bag, which contained many of his worldly possessions, was still in his hand. Being a pragmatist, Garfield decided to make the best of it. He was a city man and was convinced he could do well around here. The locals seemed simple enough. Why, after that pale looking broad – Phyllis, or something – had found him wandering around, this Middlestreet guy had even given him free board and lodgings in The Squid and Teapot. What sort of businessman does that? 

“On Hopeless,” said Batholomew, without a hint of condescension, “we don’t tend to own things, especially land and buildings. We take what we need but no one owns anything. Ownership can be a complicated business and – let’s face it –  life round here is inclined to be uncertain, to say the least.”

Garfield had not been on the island long enough to grasp the full import of the landlord’s words. His mind was too busy, anyway, focusing on the line ‘we take what we need’.

“So… if I see an empty building, then it’s mine to live in?” asked Garfield, slowly.

“Yes,” nodded Bartholomew. “And you can use whatever the previous owners left in it. They won’t be needing anything, anymore,” he added, ominously.

“How about land? Can I take that too?”

“I guess so…” the landlord replied. ” Though folks don’t tend to, very much.”

Garfield smiled to himself, and strolled thoughtfully out into the morning mist.

It did not take many hours for Garfield to find a deserted cottage. As Bartholomew had predicted, the erstwhile tenants had left it furnished and ready for the next occupant. Garfield wondered to himself why people would choose to up and leave their homes so completely. He also wondered where they went afterwards. As I told you earlier, he had not been on the island for very long. 

It was a day or two later, when pegging out a substantial piece of land for himself, that he hit a snag. There had been some heavy rain and some of the ground had become little more than a quagmire. Garfield had always prided himself on being something of a dandy, but the clothes that he was wearing when he arrived on the island was now the sum total of his wardrobe. The rest were hanging in a small hotel room in New York. His shiny, patent leather shoes would be ruined in all of this mud. He needed to be able to get over the boggy ground without actually setting foot on it. The thought occurred to him that, as nothing actually seemed to belong to anyone, there might be something in The Squid and Teapot that he could salvage to solve his problem. 

Philomena Bucket was not impressed when she caught Garfield trying to roll up a long length of carpet from one of the corridors of the Squid. He found himself subjected to a torrent of abuse that Philomena had been saving up since the day she had first set eyes on him. She did not like or trust the man she thought of as ‘the city-slicker’, not least because he insisted on calling her Phyllis. 

“But Bart said I could take what I wanted,” Garfield whined.

“Not from here you don’t,” said Philomena, then relented, adding, “If you’re desperate for a bit of matting go and have a look in one of the attics. There’s stuff up there, salvaged from a hundred shipwrecks. You’ll be sure to find something. And don’t you go calling Mr Middlestreet Bart!”

The attics of The Squid and Teapot are a veritable treasure trove of goods and chattels, deposited on the rocky shores of Hopeless, Maine by tides and by providence. The passing generations have carefully squirrelled these away, sensible of the knowledge that any newcomer to the island could always count on finding something to make the remainder of their (often tragically brief) life a little more comfortable. 

Garfield passed an appreciative eye over the scene that greeted him, promising himself that he would return and take as much of this bounty as he could carry. His task, at that moment, though, was to find something to keep his shoes pristine, while he pegged out the generous dimensions of his land. And then he found exactly what he was after and whistled softly through his teeth.

He unfurled a long, narrow stretch of carpet. It seemed to go on forever. It was a runner, designed for a corridor far longer than any found on Hopeless, or anywhere else that Garfield had been. It must have been at least fifty feet of the finest Persian workmanship, destined originally for a palace or some other equally impressive residence. It would be worth a fortune. 

It took no little effort to get the Persian runner down the stairs, into the courtyard, then into a borrowed barrow and trundled across the island to Garfield’s new abode. It seemed a pity to use it as a means of crossing a muddy piece of land but it was perfect for the task and within a short while the city slicker was marking out his patch, keeping his shoes clean and eyeing up anything that he might claim as his own. What was it that Bartholomew had said? 

‘We take what we need’. 

Over the following few days Garfield wheeled his carpet all over the island, using it as a means for putting his nose into all sorts of places that would have been otherwise inaccessible to him. Nowhere and nothing was safe from his greedy gaze; this, inevitably, was his downfall. 

You may remember that, at the bottom of the Night-Soil Man’s garden, is a sinkhole. The capstone that had once covered it had long been removed and stood up on end, a letter D etched into its face. Garfield had seen this, from a distance, and wondered exactly what it signified, what it hid. He was convinced that all manner of rich pickings were to be had from this seemingly backward community and he intended to leave no corner unexplored.

Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, was sleeping in his cottage and heard nothing as the Persian runner was rolled past his door. The capstone – and the, yet unseen, sinkhole – was a good hundred feet distant, so Garfield needed to roll up the runner behind him as he went, in order to gradually unfurl it again on the next stage of his journey. He sure hoped that the stone with the D written on it was worth the effort. What could it mean? 

It was only within the final few feet of reaching the capstone did he see the sinkhole. The runner had draped itself over the very edge and Garfield had stopped just in time. He stood uneasily on the brink, peering down into its fathomless depths. He found it hard to pull his eyes away from the faintly green and decidedly weird iridescence swirling far, far below. 

When not accompanying Philomena Bucket on her daily walk, Drury, the skeletal dog, could often be found hanging around the Night-Soil Man’s cottage. Despite being devoid of anything but his bones, Drury was still very much a dog and revelled in all things malodorous. Besides this, the Night-Soil Man liked him and was always good for a game of something or other. So, when Drury spotted the edge of the runner, some fifty feet from the cottage door, he could only conclude that it had been put there for his amusement. In Drury’s opinion most things on the island were also there exclusively for his amusement but right now, this carpet was obviously begging to be dragged away. 

Drury pulled on it but nothing happened. The game was on as far as he was concerned, and entered into the spirit of things by giving the runner’s edge an almighty tug. Fifty feet away Garfield Lawnside’s reverie was shattered by the ground beneath his feet being unceremoniously removed and his slight form sent down to examine, more closely, the iridescence that had so fascinated him. 

By the time Drury had reached Chapel Rock he had tired of the carpet game and left the Persian runner there for the elements to dispose of, as they chose. As for Mr Garfield Lawnside, no one was surprised that he had left so abruptly. As Doc Willoughby observed, with uncharacteristic insight, a man with shoes like that would never have fitted in.

The Squid is resting, the Teapot is Silent

It’s Tuesday, and regular blog followers may have noticed the absence of a Squid and Teapot post. For more than a year now, we’ve had Tuesday contributions from Martin Pearson, exploring the history of the island. Hopeless has been much enriched by his contributions, and intermittently terrified of his puns.

Martin is currently taking a break. There is only so much time a person can spend on the island before this becomes necessary. Unlike actual islanders, people who visit from this reality can leave, but don’t always manage to, so breaks are good and necessary.

But this isn’t one of those. No. Rather than take the opportunity to flee for safety, Martin is pondering an even more elaborate tangle with the island’s tentacles. A top secret tango that we’ll probably cave in and start telling you about sometime fairly soon.

In the meantime, Tuesdays may get used for other things. There’s a great deal going on in Hopeless Maine right now, both in the imagined life of the island, and the rest of world stuff where the island gets made. Or drops its fruiting bodies into people’s brains, as may be closer to the truth.

Huge thanks to Martin for his Squid and Teapot contributions. We wait with curiosity to see what he does next…