I don’t think that I have ever told you the tale of how my late friend, the celebrated actor-manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, first came to Hopeless, Maine.
Regular readers will recall that, before he arrived on the island, he was – at least, according to his own account – the toast of the London stage.
Being a born raconteur, Sir Fromebridge would never let the truth interfere with a good story, especially when it concerned himself. In the light of this, I give fair warning that some of the details given in following tale may be less than accurate. Only one person was on hand to witness the great man’s appearance on these shores and that was Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man at the time. He is in no position to contradict Sir Fromebridge’s version of events, as Jarvis shuffled off his mortal coil at a relatively early age, presumably having been celestially promoted to emptying the great cesspit in the sky. Luckily, Jarvis’s successor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, has been able to fill in a few missing pieces, based upon what his late master told him. It is from these accounts I have cobbled together the following tale.
Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man, was taking a well deserved rest. Although generally known as being a somewhat surly man, tonight Jarvis was unusually happy. He had recently taken on an apprentice, young Shenandoah Nailsworthy, who, at that moment, was on the far side of the island, emptying the bountiful privy that catered for the needs of the patrons of “The Crow”. The other inn on Hopeless, “The Squid and Teapot”, was on Jarvis’s round. Thanks to one of the previous landlords, Sebastian Lypiatt, the hostelry enjoyed the modern luxury of a flushing privy that deposited its effluent far out into the ocean, therefore needing no attention from the collectors of the euphemistically named night-soil.
At this hour most of the drinkers had gone home to their beds and only a few lights still lit the building. Jarvis settled himself down on the rocks overlooking the inn; this was always a good place to stop, mid-round, for a bite to eat.
It was an unusually clear night, the moon was full and riding high in the sky and the sea was fairly calm. Jarvis, who was usually fazed by very little, was suddenly taken aback to see a figure emerge from the dark water. It looked faintly human in shape but was, as far as the Night Soil Man could ascertain in the moonlight, covered in some kind of black shiny skin. Sticking vertically out of its head was a short pipe-like appendage and instead of feet, it sported a pair of large, ungainly flippers. Jarvis wondered what manner of beast he was looking at. He gripped the edges of his bucket, ready to run if needs be, as the creature began to change before his very eyes.
“A shape-shifter,” Jarvis muttered to himself, uneasily.
The creature puffed and grunted as it sloughed off the skin and flippers. The process of metamorphosis seemed to be a long and painful affair, the outer layer being peeled away to a series of ejaculations which sounded uncannily like “Damn!”, “Blast!” and occasionally, “Bugger!”
Finally, after much effort and profanity, standing on the beach – or what passes for a beach on Hopeless – seemed to be a man in late middle-age, incongruously dressed in a white dinner-jacket, dark trousers and a bow-tie. He sneezed violently several times as he made his way inland. Then he spotted Jarvis.
“What-ho,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.
Jarvis had never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and therefore had no idea that this was a common salutation employed by some of the stranger sections of British society.
The newcomer walked up to Jarvis and introduced himself. This was a new experience for the Night Soil Man. Obviously the combination of a heavy cold and the wind blowing from the sea rendered the stranger impervious to the ever-present effluvia that surrounded his new companion.
“The name is Whitminster.
Fromebridge Whitminster,” he said, dramatically, then sneezed again.
“Sir Fromebridge, in actual fact.”
This meant nothing to the Night Soil Man.
Rummaging in the inside-pocket of his jacket Sir Fromebridge retrieved a cigarette case. Flicking a black-oxidised and somewhat battered Ronson lighter, he lit a cigarette that was, I have been reliably informed, of Balkan-Turkish make. He inhaled deeply, tried to look suave, then totally ruined the effect by being gripped by a sudden, violent and uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing.
“Damned things,” he complained, as soon as he was able to speak again.
“Still, must persevere, if the part calls for it.”
“What were you doing out there?” asked Jarvis, incredulous that anyone could be so foolish as to be floundering around in the sea around Hopeless, especially at night.
“Well… It’s all very exciting. The whole thing is being kept very hush-hush, for some reason, though. The fact is, I’ve never been in a film before. It’s called Spoonraker, or some such.” said Sir Fromebridge.
To Jarvis much of this was little more than gibberish, although he recalled, from some dim recess of his mind, that the word ‘film’ referred to a thin covering of some description. Sir Fromebridge was obviously talking about the shiny black skin that he had been wearing.
“I was dropped into the sea, oh, ages ago now and told to swim to the island where some fairly important film people would be waiting. If this obviously fake Rolex that I was given actually worked it would tell me that I’ve been stuck for about four hours in freezing water. No wonder I’ve got this dratted cold.”
The actor paused, blew his nose, then added,
“You’re not tied-up with the film, I take it?”
Randall shook head emphatically, confident in the knowledge that he had never been wrapped in black, shiny material at any point in his life.
Just then the actor’s attention was drawn to a large, box-like contraption that had just been washed in on the tide.
“I do believe that’s my sea-trunk,” he exclaimed.
“How odd. That was safely stored in my cabin on the ship. One could almost believe they weren’t expecting me to return…”
Sir Fromebridge laughed to himself nervously.
“Ah well, maybe the film unit will arrive tomorrow.”
“In my experience, tomorrow never comes,” observed the Night Soil Man dryly, then, being uncharacteristically helpful, added
“How about I take you down to the Squid before Isaac locks up for the night? I’ll help you take your luggage with you.”
The two men made their way to the inn, dragging the large sea-trunk behind them.
For much of his life Jarvis had been deprived of the pleasures of conversation and was finding that he quite enjoyed it.
“So… what was that thing you were in called again?”
“Thing…? Oh, you mean Spoonraker.”
The Night Soil Man pondered the word a while before he spoke again. It was a strange name to give a second skin but, as Sir Fromebridge was the most amiable shape-shifter that he had ever encountered, he decided to let it go.
“And you’re definitely one of the good guys?”
“Oh, assuredly,” replied the actor. “In fact, I’m more than good. I’ve been led to believe that nobody does it better.”
The peace of the evening was suddenly interrupted by a series of metallic scraping noises as a troop of small, odd-looking thieves artfully lowered a cache of stolen cutlery from an open window of The Squid and Teapot.
“So you’re a Spoonraker, eh?” said Jarvis. “I’ve no idea what that means but something tells me that you’ll fit in well on Hopeless.”
Art by Tom Brown