Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

The Wanderer

The apple trees growing in the shade of the Gydynap hills are far from beautiful. They are old, gnarled and twisted, and, on the odd occasions that any of them bears fruit, the apples are small and bitter, barely good enough for making cider. This said, however, every springtime, without fail, they produce a gorgeous and fragrant blossom that speaks of a harvest that never arrives.
Philomena Bucket has always waited impatiently for the coming of the blossom; it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland. She had few happy recollections of her early life, but the flowering of the trees in her grandmother’s orchard always glowed in her mind like a beacon. After her grandmother died, the apple orchard, and all the stuff of memories, were brutally snatched away, and the adults of the Bucket family found themselves in the workhouse in Dublin. Philomena and her sisters were deposited in the Foundling Hospital for Orphans and Abandoned children, just south of the River Liffey.
Philomena dismissed those dark and distant days from her mind as she plucked a sprig of blossom and pinned it on her coat, laughing as a shower of petals cascaded from the tree, covering her hair and shoulders like confetti.
As spring days go on the island of Hopeless, this particular one was decidedly… well, almost spring-like. The wind was moderate, there was no apparent sign of rain, and the usual shroud of mist that hung over the land was surprisingly light. The green shoulders of the Gydynaps rose up into clear grey skies before her; it would be more than optimistic to expect sunshine as well.
Philomena hummed a little tune and walked with a definite spring in her step as she made her way towards the summit of the hills. Drury, the skeletal hound, sensing her mood and wagging his bony tail, gambolled like a lamb over the grass (not that Drury had recently witnessed a lamb gambolling, at least, not for the last hundred years or so).
The Gydynaps are possibly the strangest place on the island. This is not to say that there are – to quote the traditional Scottish prayer – a greater number of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties wandering around there than on any other part of Hopeless. It is, instead, as if the hills are host to an indefinable presence, quietly possessing an aura of awe and antiquity that even the most insensitive soul could not fail to feel. And this is why they are shunned, for, unlike Philomena, most Hopelessians prefer the terrors that can be seen, and hopefully avoided, to the ageless, invisible, threat, that many believe pervades the Gydynaps.

Drury had spotted a crow foraging in the grass and decided that it would be worthwhile chasing the bird. Like crows the world over, this one had every confidence in her ability to avoid capture, and made a point of keeping just enough space between Drury and herself in order to give the dog the impression that he might just catch her.
Philomena was not worried when he disappeared from sight. Drury was his own master and would find her when he grew tired of the fruitless chase.

As the morning drew on the day became suddenly colder and a freshening wind brought ever-thickening wisps of mist on to the hills. Philomena drew her coat closer about her and was on the point of deciding to go back to The Squid and Teapot, where she had a room, when a bent figure, wearing something resembling a monk’s habit, appeared a few yards in front of her, as if out of nowhere. Philomena rubbed her eyes and concluded that the mist must be denser than she had thought.
“Good morning,” said Philomena, cheerily.
The elderly stranger raised a hand in greeting and Philomena thought he said,
“Imagine what.”
“Imagine what? What should I imagine?” asked Philomena confused.
The two looked at each other for a few seconds before Philomena realised what he had said.
“Maidin mhaith” she repeated back with a beaming smile, dredging up what she recalled of the language her grandmother had spoken.
The old man looked around, confused. The landscape had unexpectedly changed. From these high hills he could see that they were surrounded by water.
“What is this island called?” he asked, in a dialect of Irish that sounded archaic and unfamiliar, but to Philomena’s amazement she understood him perfectly.
“Why, this place is Hopeless,” she replied, surprising herself by answering him fluently in his own tongue.
“Indeed it is,” he said. “I have wandered for years, through hollow lands and hilly lands, but I have never seen anywhere quite as dismal as this.”
“Oh, it’s not too bad once you get used to it,” said Philomena, unconvincingly.
The self-confessed wanderer gave her a long, hard stare.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “I feel that I do… maybe a long time ago. Things are a bit hazy since I went into that hazel wood…”
‘Cheeky beggar’ thought Philomena, ‘I’m young enough to be his granddaughter,’ but she just smiled sweetly and said,
“Sorry, I don’t think so.”
Just then a slight breeze swept by, disturbing the apple blossom that still clung to her hair and shoulders.
The old man gazed at her, his eyes suddenly alight with longing and wonder.
“Yes… yes I do know you,” he said. “There is apple blossom in your hair… You are the one… I know it.”
Before Philomena could object, he had reached forward and taken her by the hands,
then, with surprising strength and agility, drew her quickly towards him and kissed her full on the lips.
“Ah… I taste fish,” he said. “You were once a fish, a trout. Do you recall?”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” said Philomena, more than a little taken aback, and pulling away hastily. “I had a bit of cold Starry-Grabby pie for me breakfast. That’s what you can taste. I was never a fish. Honestly. I’d have remembered.”
The old man looked dejected.
“It was a very attractive trout,” he said. “All silvery. I could have sworn you were she. That is such a shame. But… you don’t fancy walking through some long, dappled grass with me, just in case you’re mistaken. It might bring it all back to you.”
“No thanks,” said Philomena, who was becoming increasingly uneasy. “Besides there’s no long grass up here, dappled or otherwise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said morosely. “To be honest, I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever find her. She only ever called me by my name once, then she ran off, faded into the brightening air, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.”
“Don’t give up hope,” said Philomena, feeling suddenly sorry for him. “Stick with it, and you’ll be sure to bump into her eventually.”
“Hmm, I hope you’re right,” replied the old man. “But if by chance you do see the girl, say that her Aengus is still wandering around looking for her.”
Without saying any more he turned and, with a wave of his hand, walked into the gathering mist.
Philomena stared after him until he disappeared from sight. Lost in her own thoughts, she was suddenly brought back to earth when Drury pulled up alongside her, his tail still wagging.
Her reverie broken, she tried in vain to catch the last few ragged ribbons of ancient Gaelic speech which floated through her mind, before they disappeared forever. But they were gone, like snow on the water, and with those words faded all memory of her encounter with the Wandering Aengus.

With apologies to W.B. Yeats.

An Egg in the Attic

It was decided that the attics of The Squid and Teapot were in dire need of a good spring-clean. This was by no means an annual chore, but since Doc Willoughby had thoroughly ransacked the rooms, frantically searching for information concerning European warships of the sixteenth century, then failing to clear up after himself, the place was in a dreadful mess. This seemed to be as good a time as any to indulge in spot of a tidying-up.
While Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet swept and dusted, Norbert Gannicox and Philomena Bucket set about the daunting task of putting the multitude of scattered books back into some semblance of order. The work was not particularly arduous but the profusion of dust was inclined to make the throats of the four workers particularly dry. Fortunately, being an inn, The Squid was reassuringly well furnished with thirst-quenching drinks, the chief one being ‘Old Colonel’ Ale, the pride of the Ebley Brewery. A pitcher was brought up from the bar and three foaming pints were poured. Norbert Gannicox, who had abstained from alcohol for many years, contented himself with a glass of sarsaparilla. Unsurprisingly, this too was produced by the Ebley Brewery, following the discovery, some years earlier, of a crate packed with sassafras roots and assorted spices. It is sufficient to say, however, that the non-alcoholic beverage, even when it was called root beer, was not universally popular with the more robust tipplers of the island; in other words, pretty much everyone.
“I’m surprised that you’re teetotal, being a distiller,” commented Philomena, casually.
Norbert looked at her sadly.
“I gave up the booze when my dad was drowned in a vat of his own liquor,” he said. “It was five or six years before we eventually found him. He was perfectly preserved.”
“Ah well, at least he was in good spirits when he died,“ laughed Philomena.
There was an awkward silence for a moment. If Hopeless was the sort of place where tumbleweeds were inclined to tumble, one would have definitely blown through the room.
Then everyone spoke at once, commenting on the scarcity of gnii; the need to mend the cistern in the flushing privy; Mrs. Beaton’s latest tirade and a general enquiry whether anyone had seen Drury that day. In fact, any subject that avoided mentioning death, barrels, drowning or spirits was fair game for a few minutes.

The work was almost finished when Philomena spotted a dusty cardboard box lying on a high shelf. Perching herself precariously on a rickety step stool, she reached it down and, much to the annoyance of the others, blew off a cloud of dust and peered inside.
“Whatever is this…?” she asked no one in particular, drawing out a mauve, egg-shaped, object. It had an array of, what appeared to be, flat-bottomed beads around the outside.
“Good gosh,” exclaimed Bartholomew, narrowly avoiding profanity. “I haven’t seen that in years. As far as I recall it was sent as a gift to someone.”
“Why, I remember seeing that when I was a kid. I’m fairly sure that it was sent to my uncle and aunt,” Norbert broke in, excitedly, “Bill and Constanza Ebley. Constanza was my dad’s younger sister, and Uncle Bill was the founder of the brewery.”
Sensing that they were about to be regaled with a slice of island history, the others settled themselves into some of the more comfortable seats, which had been stored in the attics.
“Uncle Bill was a servant of some description, who arrived on the island with his boss, colonel somebody-or-other. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a few years Bill and Constanza got married and the colonel left the island.
“Left the island?” asked Philomena, incredulously. “How the devil did he do that? I thought it was impossible.”
“It is now,” agreed Norbert, “but in those days there was an Indian trader, a Passamaquoddy, who rowed over from the mainland a couple of times a year. The colonel hitched a ride with him.”
“I’ve heard of the trader,” said Ariadne. “My grandma knew him. His name was Joseph.”
“Well,” continued Norbert, “The colonel travelled all over the world after he left, but managed to keep in contact with uncle Bill, via this Joseph fella. When he heard that they’d had a child, a daughter– which was a bit of a surprise as they weren’t that young – he sent them all sorts of stuff, including this egg.”
“That’s a strange gift to send a kid,” said Bartholomew. “There’s not a lot you can do with it.”
“That’s for sure,” said Norbert, nodding. “It looks too small and fragile.”
“Let’s take a closer look,” said Philomena, lifting the egg from its box.
It took her only a few moments to find that the mauve egg, which was little more than three inches in height, consisted of two enamelled halves, which opened easily. Inside was a heart-shaped locket.
The others watched intently as Philomena pressed a tiny catch on the side of the locket, which immediately sprung open into a clover-shaped picture-frame, each leaf containing a miniature portrait.
“Why, if it isn’t a shamrock!” exclaimed Philomena, then adding with some disappointment, “pity it isn’t green, though.”
“Who are the people in the pictures?” asked Ariadne.
“There’s a man, a woman and a baby girl,” observed Bartholomew, “It must be Bill, Constanza and their daughter, I guess.”
“I don’t think so. That uniform is a bit on the grand side for the British army,” said Philomena, eyeing the gentleman in the picture.  He looked haughty and high-ranking, his uniform festooned with medals and epaulettes. She hadn’t seen any soldiers walking around like that in Ireland.  
“Maybe that’s why it ended up being stored in these attics,” said Bartholomew. “It’s just a cheap ornament. All something like that is good for is to be stuck on a mantelpiece, where you can watch it gather dust.”
“What a shame,” said Ariadne, “though I reckon you’re wrong about it being cheap. I’ll bet that old colonel paid as much as five dollars for it.”
“Then he was robbed,” grunted Bartholomew.
Philomena clicked the picture-frame back together, re-assembled the egg and was about to replace it in the cardboard box, when she noticed a folded piece of paper, yellow with age, lying in the bottom. Carefully opening the page, she squinted in the dim attic light to read what was written.
“It starts with, My Dear Ebley…” she said. “That must be Bill he’s writing to. Then he goes on to say, hope you and Mrs Ebley… blah blah blah… young Mildred… blah blah blah… gift of this special egg…. and then… oh, good grief, what’s this word? Blast it, the man has started writing in French. Does anybody know what Fabergé means…?”

Author’s note:
If the reference to Doc Willoughby suddenly becoming fascinated by history is at all puzzling to you, then you obviously have not read the ‘Little Ship of Horrors’ trilogy of tales. There is no time like the present.
Should you wish to know more about the adventures of Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green and his erstwhile batman, William Ebley, of the King’s own Regiment, you could start by reading the tale ‘Jolly Boating Weather’.
The Passamaquoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs (to give him his full name) first appears in the tale ‘The Wendigo’.

Little Ship of Horrors (Part 3)

Part 1 https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/13/the-little-ship-of-horrors/

Part 2 – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/04/20/the-little-ship-of-horrors-part-2/

Without doubt, the Gannicox Distillery makes the finest vodka on Hopeless. That said, its only competition exists in the shape of a handful of moonshiners, who invariably go blind and/or insane after the first few distillations. Norbert Gannicox, the distillery’s proprietor, is not, himself, a drinker, but he has no inhibitions when it comes to encouraging others to sample the fruits of his labour. One of the island’s more enthusiastic samplers is Doc Willoughby, and on the evening of this tale, the Doc was being encouraged to sample more of the spirit than was probably good for him.

Doc Willoughby had been tricked into going to The Squid and Teapot by its landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, who was worried about the Doc’s odd behaviour following the arrival, and subsequent destruction, of a haunted Tudor Galleon, ‘Mary Willoughby’ (if you have not yet read the first two instalments of this tale, now might be a good time). Little by little, and drink by drink, the Doc revealed all about his obsession with the galleon, and the plank bearing her name that lay hidden in his basement.
“Voices in my head”, he told them, “promised that I am the rightful heir to the Willoughby estate. That is why the ship defied time and space, it came to find me on Hopeless”.
Bartholomew, Norbert, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket listened with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. They each imagined that the sardonic and cynical Doc Willoughby would be the last person on the island likely to be possessed in this way.
“You see,” slurred the Doc, “the Willoughby’s are English aristocracy. I am of ancient and noble lineage.”
“That’s a load of old blarney,” blurted Philomena. “Why, there’s loads of Willoughbys all around Dublin and Cork. To be sure, me great granny was a Willoughby, so maybe I’m an aristocrat to – or there again,” she added slyly, “ you might be related to me.”
The Doc pulled a face. He didn’t dislike Philomena – at least, no more than he disliked anyone else – but he certainly did not want to be related to her.
“But the ship found me, the rightful heir.” he moaned, before gently sliding off his chair and on to the floor, where he began to doze and snore loudly.
“I think we need to find that plank and put a stop to all this.” said Philomena, briskly.

Philomena and Norbert made their way to the Doc’s home, while the Middlestreets did their best to make the slumbering Doc as comfortable as possible. They had a nasty feeling that he was going to have the mother of all hangovers when he eventually awoke.

The air in the basement was foul and was filled with harsh, unearthly cries and whispers. Not wishing to linger, it took little time for Philomena and Norbert to find the plank. The pair recoiled in horror when they saw the slimy mass that now crawled over it, obscuring the name of the galleon.
“I’m not touching that.” said Philomena, and Norbert was more than inclined to agree.

Ten minutes later, sitting in the Doc’s surgery, they tried to make sense of what was going on. The fact of the ship arriving on the shores of Hopeless was the least of the mysteries.
“There’s plenty of people who have turned up here out of their own time,” said Philomena, conscious that she, herself, had done exactly this.
“But that plank, crawling with slime… the smell… the voices?” said Norbert.
“Whatever it is, it needs to be gone,” said Philomena, “and I think I know how.”

Those of you who have followed the ‘Tales from the Squid and Teapot’ for some time might remember that the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening had arrived, with her head tucked underneath her arm, on the island many years earlier. She had been haunting the stonework that had once been part of Oxlynch Manor, a Jacobean building bought by an American millionaire. He had arranged for the manor to be dismantled, stone by stone, with the intention that it would be reassembled on his estate in Connecticut. Following the Wall Street crash, however, the building was abandoned on the dockside in Newhaven, where the bulk of it was eventually liberated by local opportunists for various building projects. The last few bits ended up on Hopeless and became the new flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, where Lady Margaret made her home as the Headless White Lady. Being an amiable sort of ghost, she struck up a friendship with the barmaid, Betty Butterow. They discovered that by moving a single stone block from the privy and depositing it elsewhere on the island, Lady Margaret could go sightseeing. This is, essentially, a long-winded way of saying what had happened to the ghosts of the ‘Mary Willoughby’. Simply put, following the destruction of the ship, they all migrated to a single plank of wood. Fortunately, being ghosts and therefore ethereal, they didn’t find this arrangement remotely crowded or claustrophobic. What they really wanted, though, was to take up residence in a human, to become legion, and Doc Willoughby took the bait – or at least, would have done, hook, line and sinker, if he had not been stopped at the last moment.

When Philomena found Drury, the skeletal hound, he was enjoying a dream which involved chasing spoonwalkers around the island. His bony legs were twitching and he made small, whimpering noises in his sleep. Philomena smiled fondly at her friend, but time was pressing and Drury had, quite literally, all of eternity in which to sleep.
She gave a low whistle and immediately the dog leapt to his feet and gave himself a rattling shake.
“Come on, Drury,” said Philomena, twirling a stout length of rope, “I need your help.”

Drury quite liked the smell of the basement and pranced around happily, getting under the feet of Philomena and Norbert, who, with some trepidation managed to wind the rope securely around the plank while miraculously avoiding touching the jelly-like substance that covered it, which occasionally reached out as if to grab them. Knowing exactly what was expected of him, Drury picked up the end of the rope in his powerful jaws and dragged the plank up the steps, banging through the surgery and out on to the road. This was a game and the tendrils that writhed and reached out were all part of the fun. Drury had no fear of the spirits that haunted the plank and cheerfully shook them off. Since he had been dead for years (though blissfully unaware of the fact) they could never have possessed him, even if they had wanted to.

Dusk was falling and the pale lights of the passing gnii glimmered gently, high overhead. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stretched and peered blearily out of his bedroom window. He had just woken from a deep, satisfying sleep and was in a particularly good mood, ready to start his shift. Drury was in the garden, which was always a welcome sign. The osseous hound was unique, inasmuch as he had no problem with the smell that seemed to cling to every fibre of Rhys and his home. In fact, in true doggie fashion, Drury revelled in it. Rhys hoped that he would be keeping him company tonight while he completed his rounds. Drury, however, seemed to be concentrating at the moment on other matters, matters which mainly consisted of a length of rope and an old plank which had become entangled in a clump of bushes, refusing to be dragged further.
Always happy to help, Rhys went outside with the intention of freeing the plank, only to be surprised by the dog’s reaction. Drury put himself between the offending bushes and the Night Soil Man, barking and growling with some ferocity. Rhys wondered what could be wrong; the dog had never treated him in this way before. Why, if he had been made of flesh and blood, Drury would be baring his teeth at him. As it was, Drury’s teeth were in a continuous state of bareness, so to speak, so the effect was far less menacing.
“Hey, old fella…” Rhys started to say, then noticed the goo wriggling over the face of the plank. He recognised it immediately.
“There’s only one place for that to go – the sinkhole” he said to himself, then realised that Drury had already thought the same thing. It was one of the dog’s favourite places for hiding the things he had no use for (including the city-slicker, Garfield Lawnside, as was related in the tale ‘The Persian Runner’).

Rhys kept a long ash pole propped by the side of his cottage. The pole had a Y-shaped prong on the one end and was generally used to pick up the baskets of beer and starry-grabby pies which Philomena Bucket routinely delivered from ‘The Squid’. In her early days on the island, when Philomena had no sense of smell, she and Rhys had fallen in love. It was not to be, for sad to relate, close contact with anyone in receipt of fully functioning olfactory senses is out of the question for a Night Soil Man, hence the pole. Today, Rhys decided, it would be needed for pursuits far more important than retrieving starry-grabby pies.

After twenty minutes of fervent pole-wielding, try as he might, Rhys could not dislodge the plank, despite Drury’s equally valiant attempts pulling the rope. As if aware of their fate, the tendrils of slime had attached themselves to anything within reach, and as the dusk descended into darkness, their strength seemed to grow. Just as all hope of shifting the plank faded, Rhys heard a babble of raised voices which grew nearer by the second.
“For gosh-sakes, Doc, you need to come back now…”
It was Bartholomew Middlestreet, getting as close to profanity as he dared.
“No… ish my plank, s’my inheritance…hic.. oh my head….”
Doc, who had sobered up a little, still sounded slightly drunk and somehow different to normal.
“Doc Willoughby… get here now…”
This was Philomena. Rhys winced at the memory of their brief flirtation.
Suddenly the Doc, his eyes glistening, burst through the darkness, totally oblivious to the all-encompassing reek of the Night Soil Man, and tried to grab the rope from Drury’s mouth.
Bartholomew, Philomena, Ariadne and Norbert stood at a safe and respectable distance, barely visible in the moonlight.
“Gimme that…” said the Doc, roughly.
For once in his after-life, Drury did as he was told, probably more out of astonishment than anything else.
Doc Willoughby picked up the rope and dragged the plank towards him. Sensing his presence, the tendrils loosened their grip on the bushes.
“I’ve come to claim my inheritance… I’ll let you all in,” intoned the Doc.
It was only then that Rhys realised that the curmudgeonly old physician was under some sort of enchantment. He needed to do something quickly.
It was as if Drury read the Night Soil Man’s thoughts, and the two sprung into action at the same time. The dog threw himself at Doc Willoughby, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Rhys grabbed the rope and, with the power of someone who had spent years hefting buckets of effluent around, sent the plank spinning into the air. It hung vertically, as if suspended for a moment, then plunged with disarming accuracy into the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole that lay at the end of the Night Soil Man’s garden.
“Nooooooo…” cried the Doc in anguish as the last remnant of the Mary Willoughby, along with its attendant spirits, plunged into the depths of the abyss.
He lay silent, waiting for the inevitable splash. Seconds turned to minutes but it never came.
When Doc Willoughby eventually sat upright, Rhys could see that the strange light in his eyes had faded. His voice had become normal again, although the first few syllables were hardly encouraging.
“Eughhh… aaargh… ack.. that is disgusting,” he choked, retching and covering his nose and mouth as best he could.
Rhys could only smile as the Doc staggered back to the four others, who were still patiently waiting, some yards away.
“Come on Drury,” he said, “it’s time to go to work.”

No one ever mentioned the episode of the Mary Willoughby again. If the Doc remembered any of it, he certainly didn’t say so. He did complain to Norbert Gannicox, however, grousing about a bad batch of vodka. He was certain that it must have been made from night-potatoes, as it had given him awful dreams and a ferocious hangover.

The Little Ship of Horrors (Part 2)

If you’ve not read part 1 yet, start here.

Bartholomew Middlestreet could hardly believe it when he heard himself say to Norbert Gannicox,
“I’m really worried about Doc Willoughby, Norbert.”
Norbert raised his eyebrows in surprise. He could hardly believe it either.
“You’re joking! You’re worried about the Doc…?”
Doc Willoughby was not normally the sort of person to elicit enough sympathy to cause worry in others, but Bartholomew was deadly serious.
“He’s acting really strange… almost being pleasant to folks. And his eyes look a bit too shiny.” he said.
It was Norbert’s turn to look concerned.
“That’s never natural. I wonder what’s brought it on?”
Bartholomew dropped his voice, conspiratorially.
“It’s only happened during the last couple of weeks… ever since that old-fashioned galleon turned up.”

As regular readers will recall, a Tudor galleon had recently sailed to the shores of Hopeless, carrying a strange and egregiously foul cargo. Even the islanders, who believed that they had seen just about every variety of the weird and not-so-wonderful, thought that this was just too much to bear. Eventually the ship was mysteriously destroyed and the jelly-like monstrosity that filled its decks had disappeared. Save for a few planks and bits of rigging, there was nothing much for anyone to salvage. Doc Willoughby, however, unbeknownst to his fellow islanders, came upon a piece of wood bearing the ship’s name. With a strange, unwholesome, light in his eyes he dragged the plank back to his home and hid it in a dark corner of his basement. The name of the ship was ‘Mary Willoughby’.

The thing that had given Bartholomew cause for concern was the way in which the Doc had appeared in The Squid and Teapot and greeted him that very morning.
“Bartholomew, old friend, I wonder if I might beg a favour?”
The innkeeper instinctively turned around, wondering of the coincidence of there being someone else in the bar named Bartholomew. As it happened, the inn was otherwise deserted.
“You mean me?” he stammered.
“Why yes,” beamed the Doc cordially, “I just need a bit of help for some… ah… some research I’ve agreed to do for… um… for Miss Calder at the orphanage… it’s a history project that she’s doing with the youngsters.”
The day was becoming increasingly bizarre; Bartholomew, who had known Doc Willoughby for most of his life, knew for certain that the man had never before entertained any intention of helping out at the orphanage.
“There are plenty of reference books in the attics,” said Bartholomew. “You’re welcome to go and take a look.”
“Capital, capital,” said the Doc warmly, shaking a bemused Bartholomew by the hand.

Doc Willoughby needed to find out whatever he could about the ‘Mary Willoughby’. He usually had little interest in ships of any description, but was now being driven by something beyond his understanding and control.
After much perseverance, and four hours of diligent perusal, he found what he was looking for. Having made his way through several hefty tomes that covered various aspects of European nautical history, Doc came across a list of British warships of the Tudor period. With great excitement, he found the reference that he was after.
“The ‘Mary Willoughby’ was a ship of the English Tudor navy, named after Maria Willoughby, a lady-in-waiting and close friend of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The ship was taken by the Scots in 1536 but recaptured by the English ten years later. She was sold in the latter part of the sixteenth century and never heard of afterwards.”

The entry was sparse, to say the least, but it told the Doc a great deal. If Mary Willoughby was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, and had a ship named after her, then she must have been quite somebody. More amazing still, this ship had, hundreds of years later, somehow found its way to Hopeless. Found its way to him! The Doc reeled with the implications of his find. This was fate; a sign, no less. The Willoughby family must have been really important people, royalty almost… and these were surely his ancestors.
Leaving the nautical history books in an untidy pile, Doc started rooting among the other volumes, to see what he could find out about English aristocracy. It did not take long for him to unearth a noble Willoughby line dating back to the thirteenth century. As he read, the Doc swayed and cackled, the unearthly glimmer in his eye becoming brighter by the minute.
“I always knew that I was special,” he said to himself.

Like all good innkeepers, Bartholomew is interested in his customers. In view of this, he felt compelled to find out what the Doc had been up to. It was not nosiness, he reasoned, but a genuine interest that urged him to go up into the attics after the Doc had hurriedly left, still muttering and chuckling to himself about having noble blood. Although Bartholomew didn’t hold out a great deal of hope, he decided – purely out of interest, you understand – to try and work out what the Doc had been looking for.
The task was much easier than he could have hoped. Doc had not bothered to tidy up after himself and the various open books led like a trail of breadcrumbs to the truth. It was not difficult to ascertain that Doc Willoughby was convinced that he was connected to an old and aristocratic English family. Bartholomew’s heart sank. He had seen something similar happen just months before, when Stratford Park believed that he was descended from the famous Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and that episode had not ended well (as related in the tale ‘Burns Night’).

Once back home, Doc Willoughby made his way down to the basement. By the greasy light of a tallow candle he gazed, like one in a trance, at the plank of wood that leaned against the wall. The words ‘Mary Willoughby’ seemed to dance and shimmer before his eyes. Suddenly, a thin, luminous jelly-like substance rolled along its length, then reached out and lay a tendril on the Doc’s temple.
“Did you find it, Willoughby?” said a voice in his head.
“Oh yes,” whispered the Doc.
“Then let us in, and we will make sure you are given your due.”
The Doc hesitated.
“You know that you want to…”
Suddenly a voice, up in the surgery, broke the spell. It was Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Doc, Doc, where are you? There’s been an accident, come quickly. Bartholomew has fallen down the stairs.”

Let us leave Hopeless, for a while, and journey back to the not-so-merry England of 1582. So far the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’ had been only slightly less barbaric than that of the other Tudor monarchs, and there was little sign of things improving. Traitors were still being hung, drawn and quartered, most things seemed to be punishable by death or maiming, torture was commonplace and heretics were being burned at the stake. These were dangerous times, especially for any who dared eschew the rule of law, or the teachings of the protestant church.
Doctor John Dee, scholar, occultist, astrologer and alchemist, knew that even his position as the Queen’s Counsellor could not protect him. A wrong word, an ill-judged look or a spiteful allegation could be enough to send him to the tower, and thence to the gallows, the flames or the block. Standing in the moonlight, upon the gently rocking deck of the ‘Mary Willoughby’, he was well aware that what he was about to do was madness, but the die was cast and there was no going back.

‘Mary Willoughby’, having been constructed about fifty years earlier, was older than most ships still afloat, and had seen more than her share of bloodshed and death. This suited Dee very well, for he, and his friend and fellow occultist, Edward Kelley, had boarded her with the intention of raising the ghosts of those who had died upon her decks.
“Where better to practise necromancy than on an old deserted warship, far from prying eyes?” Kelley had asked him.
Where indeed? Once the idea was born, the rest fell into place fairly easily. Dee had given the lone seaman, who had been charged with guarding the ship as she lay idle in Deptford docks, the handsome sum of two shillings to desert his post for a few hours. This the man did with a mixture of gratitude and fear, for Doctor Dee was infamous and his reputation and position at court was not to be argued with.

Beneath a full moon Dee and Kelley cast a circle of salt and, standing within it, uttered spells from an old grimoire. They invoked demons and angels, speaking their sacred and forbidden names in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. They called upon the dead to rise, to come and do their bidding, but nothing seemed to happen. After a fruitless and somewhat chilly hour, the two looked at each other in despair.
“Well, that was a waste of time and two shillings,” complained Dee bitterly, who was suffering from cramp and in desperate need of relieving himself.
Kelley sighed and drew out a long clay pipe with a tiny bowl. Into this he patted a equally tiny wad of tobacco. He had spotted a brazier burning on the aftcastle, and stepped out of the circle to get a light. Then he stopped in mid-stride.
“God’s wounds, John, what is this muck under my feet?”
Kelley lifted his foot and found, to his dismay, that a long, sticky strand of some glutinous substance was attached to it. Dee examined the goo closely, then shook his head, puzzled.
“I have never seen its like Edward, but behold…”
Tendrils of slime began squirming and climbing all around them, as if they possessed some diabolical life of their own. Confronting the spirits of the dead was one thing, but this gummy, seemingly sentient, abomination was something else entirely. Without more ado, and a few whimpers of terror, the two fought their way, with no little difficulty, to the side of ship, where they hurriedly descended to the small boat that waited below. Rowing frantically, and in their haste to leave, they failed to notice that a mist had started to form around the ‘Mary Willoughby’, through which they might have spotted some faintly human shapes writhing, as if in torment.

Sitting in a quayside tavern a short time later, the pair sat huddled in a corner, drinking ale.
“Marry, John, that was strange,” said Edward Kelley, still trembling.
“Strange, indeed,” agreed John Dee. “I still cannot fathom what that vile jelly might have been.”
A young man, sitting just within earshot, looked up abruptly.
“Vile jelly? That’s a good phrase. I might be able to use that one day,” he said to himself.
Young Will had come down to London expressly to sell the gloves that his father made, back home in the Midlands. He had absolutely no intention of doing that forever, though. He hoped one day to become a moderately successful playwright.
“Well, it’s either going to be, or not to be.” he thought, stoically.

“I can clearly see that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with you,” said Doc Willoughby angrily, a glimmer still in his eyes, but his sunny disposition of earlier having disappeared behind a heavy cloud.
He had hurried to The Squid and Teapot, black medical bag in hand, expecting to find Bartholomew Middlestreet in a mangled mess at the foot of the stairs. Instead the innkeeper was sitting, quite comfortably, at a table in the bar, with Ariadne, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox.
Ariadne left her seat, crossed the room and quietly closed and locked the door.
“No, I’m fine,” agreed Bartholomew. “The truth is, you don’t seem to be yourself these days, and we’re all worried. What’s up Doc?”

To be continued…

The Little Ship of Horrors

The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’.
While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships.
To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning.
Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be.
Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).

Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts.
Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged.
The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them.
“That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen.
“And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.

As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.

Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.

“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.”
“What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox.
“It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.”
“But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert.
An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly.
“I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.”
There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added,
“And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”

It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine.
To be continued…

The Lady of the Lake

Various articles in the ‘Vendetta’, and indeed, in these very ‘Tales of the Squid and Teapot’, assert that a Viking settlement once thrived on the island we now know as Hopeless, Maine. The often violent culture attributed to the Norsemen has been well documented, and it is known that many of those whom they did not kill would be taken into slavery; the Vikings who came to Hopeless were no exception. We can be confident that their slaves were brought from the British Isles, a fact evinced by the many Old-English surnames and place-names which still survive on the island.
For how long the Vikings remained on Hopeless is something of a mystery. Scholars have speculated that this must have occurred in one of those brief chapters in the history of the island, when the climate was very much kinder than it is today. What seems clear is that the deterioration of the environment was instrumental in their leaving for somewhere a little more hospitable, but not without first trying to appeal to whichever deity they believed to be responsible for this shift in their fortunes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the most desperate measure of Old Norse culture was human sacrifice. While animals were regularly dispatched to please the pantheon of Asgard, to offer up a human life was reserved for only the most sacred of reasons – and this is how a raven-haired beauty, the slave-girl Viviane, found herself selected for the honour of appeasing the gods.

The Viking term for sacrifice was blót. It is ironic that, while contemporary Hopeless is mostly one large blot on the landscape, the lake they chose for this particular blót is picturesque, even today. Needless to say, the virginal Viviane found nothing attractive about the lake, as the völva, the seeress, chanted as she bound the maiden’s arms behind her back and unseen hands held her beneath the icy waters. Whatever her final thoughts were, we shall never know; all we can guess is that they were intent on vengeance.

As the months and years slipped by it became clear that Viviane’s death did nothing to halt the mysterious fog that quietly insinuated itself on and around the island. Worse still, it brought with it a variety of horrors that even the fearless Norsemen could not tolerate. During those long, grim years, the vengeful spirit of Viviane brooded beneath the dark water, growing stronger as she fed upon the malevolence that now suffused the land. Eerie tales began to be told of otherworldly singing emanating from the midst of the lake, and of the dreadful apparition that would break its surface to claim any unfortunate young man who chanced to pass by.

Almost a thousand years passed, and those who have inhabited Hopeless throughout that time have wondered at the singular beauty of the Haunted Lake, as it became known. Of course, they were not aware of its history and of the girl who was sacrificed to an uncaring deity. They only guessed at the existence of her malign spirit; the Haunted Lake’s cold and unforgiving guardian. While the presence of vampires and werewolves, spiteful spoonwalkers and various nameless, razor-toothed and tentacled creatures, were real threats and there to be avoided at one’s peril, the dreadful glamour that tended and pervaded the lake was far more terrifying and chilling in the extreme. Its very beauty, in the heart of that harsh and ill-favoured landscape, invoked dread, and none would venture anywhere near its shores.

It must be near to a century ago that Randall Middlestreet, (the grandfather of Bartholomew, the current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) was the island’s Night Soil Man. The precarious nature of the Night Soil Man’s job, traversing Hopeless during the hours of darkness, demands that he employs an apprentice, someone to take over the essential work in the event of his injury or death. Randall himself was elevated from apprentice to the role Night Soil Man at the early age of fifteen, when his master was unfortunately consumed by a ravening monster (this was described in the tale ‘The Wendigo’, should you be interested). Apprentices were always boys recruited from the orphanage, essentially hefty introverts who could be trusted to endure the necessary isolation and heavy lifting that the job required.
Randall’s apprentice, at the time of our tale, was Mortimer Whiteway, an intelligent, bookish lad who preferred old tales of heroic valour to anything that the orphanage could offer. The opportunity to escape and lead the life of a Night Soil Man held a certain – not to say surprising – sense of allure for the young man. By the age of sixteen he was as able to heft a bucket on to his back, or navigate the island in darkness, as Randall himself. He loved his work, but deep in his heart there was always a nagging feeling that something was missing from his life. While previous generations of Night Soil Men had been thankful that their smell had protected them from the various denizens that terrified other islanders, Mortimer ached for action and adventure.
On Hopeless the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ should always be in the forefront of one’s mind.

It was a moonlit night in spring when they came upon the lake. Randall’s rounds rarely brought him this way, for no one had lived in the area for as long as any could remember. He had heard the stories, of course, of the Lady of the Lake, whose enchanting song captivated the unwary and enticed them into her watery realm. It was hard to believe, looking at it in moonlight, pretty as a picture. However, for all of its charm, Randall believed every word of the legend. Hopeless did not do ‘pretty’ and that in itself was enough to warn him that there was danger here. Mortimer, on the other hand, had other views.
“Is she really there?” he asked.
“I believe so, but no one has ever seen her, as far as I know,” replied Randall. “But there again, if they had they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.”
“I’d like to… and I’m going to,” said Mortimer determinedly. “I’ll find a way.”
“Best you keep away, or you’ll regret it,” replied the Night Soil Man severely, a shiver of foreboding running down his spine.

As I have mentioned before, Mortimer was a keen reader of adventure stories. One of his favourite tales was that of Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast of his ship in order to hear the song of the sirens. Thinking of this, it was not long before the beginnings of an idea formed in Mortimer’s mind. If Odysseus was able to listen to a siren-song all those years ago, so could he. The main drawback was that he could not do this alone; he would need help in safely securing himself to a tree. Knowing that there would be little point in approaching Randall, who would doubtless try to stop him, he resolved to ask a friend from the orphanage, one Jarvis Woodchester. Jarvis was a few years Mortimer’s junior, but, like him, a lover of any story that involved derring-do. Jarvis was also deeply envious of Mortimer, who had escaped the orphanage and gained a certain amount of celebrity on Hopeless, as the Night Soil Man’s apprentice.
It was about a week later, on Mortimer’s night off, that two shadowy figures could be seen slipping quietly down the cobbled street that passed beneath the windows of The Squid and Teapot and, a little further along the road, creeping by the infamous Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. They made their way into the heart of the island, towards the lake. Had you been there and looked closely, you would have noticed that one of the figures wore a clothes peg on his nose.
“Tie it as tightly as you can, Jarvis,” said Mortimer. “Afterwards, get far away from here until first light, then come and set me free.”
The younger boy nodded, but said nothing, trying not to inhale the unpleasant aroma that even an apprentice Night Soil Man carries with him.

It was late, much later than midnight, when Mortimer was lifted from sleep by a song that rang like silver bells in the heavens. For a moment he panicked, wondering where he was. Then he remembered, and the knowledge was far from comfortable. He had slept leaning against the tree, his arm slung over a branch. The ropes that had bound him, however, were inexplicably scattered on the ground. A cold sweat broke out all over his body as the realisation dawned that soon he would be totally at the mercy of the Lady of the Lake. A moment later a dreadful panic enveloped him entirely, when he felt himself become paralysed, as though bonds far more secure than the ropes, now lying useless at his feet, held him in an iron grasp.

She rose from the dark waters of the lake without causing as much as a ripple on its surface. Although the moon was obscured by clouds and the night hung like a suffocating shroud upon the sleeping island, Mortimer could see the Lady of the Lake as clearly as if she was bathed in sunlight. Her lips made no movement but her siren song filled the air as she silently glided towards him, arms outstretched. Mortimer squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it made no difference. Her pale, beautiful face was indelibly etched upon the darkness; it was as if he had stared for too long at the sun. And then she was upon him, wrapping her arms around his still form, pressing her mouth against his. Mortimer melted into the embrace. If this was death, then so be it.
He felt himself being drawn towards the lake, her hold upon him firm but gentle, with all the seductive insistence of a lover. He stepped willingly into the icy water, resigned to his fate. It was then that everything changed. The arms that caressed him became cold and hard and the mouth pressing against his was lipless and skeletal. Mortimer opened his eyes wide and a scream ripped from his body as he beheld the full horror of the hideous apparition that held him in its grasp. His scream turned to helpless gurgles as the malevolent spirit that had once been the beautiful, raven-haired Viviane, dragged him into the inky depths of the lake.

When it was clear that Mortimer had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, Randall Middlestreet soon guessed what had happened. He silently cursed himself for taking the young man anywhere near the Haunted Lake. Upon returning to the spot, it did not take long to discover the discarded length of rope lying near its banks. He knew then, for certain, that Mortimer had gone forever. Randall sadly shook his head and made his way back to his cottage with a heavy heart, mourning the loss of his friend and apprentice.

It was a day or two later, as he was preparing to begin his rounds, that Randall saw a figure standing carefully downwind on the path, some yards in front of him. It was boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age.
“Good evening Mr Middlestreet,” the boy said politely. “I hear you might be looking for a new apprentice.”
Randall raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that I do.”
“Oh… word gets around. Someone said that Mort Whiteway had disappeared.”
Randall was puzzled but, on reflection, it’s hard to keep a secret in a place like Hopeless.
“As a matter of fact I do need an apprentice. Are you interested?”
Jarvis Woodchester grinned slyly to himself, recalling how easy it had been to untie the knots of the rope while Mortimer slept.
“Oh definitely,” he said. “When can I start?”

The Funambulist

“It’s strange how things go round,” confided Bartholomew Middlestreet to Philomena Bucket. “Although the Lypiatt family ran The Squid and Teapot for over a century, my great-great grandpa, who was also named Bartholomew, was the landlord here before Sebastian Lypiatt, founder of that dynasty, washed up on these shores. Luckily for us, old Bartholomew never missed a thing and kept a journal; I found it a few years back in one of the attics. Grab yourself a drink, Philomena. There was a good tale in that journal which might interest you…”


It was a wet and windy night on the island and the snug of The Squid and Teapot was virtually empty. Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, rolled her eyes. She knew exactly what was coming next – a story she had heard a dozen times before.
If he noticed Ariadne’s reaction, Bartholomew chose to ignore it. He took a generous swig of ‘Old Colonel’, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and warmed to his task.
“It’s unlikely that even the founding families actually intended to come here,” he said. “Old Gruffyd Davies, one of the early settlers, implied as much in his memoir ‘Grief is a Thing with Tentacles.’ There was one guy, though, according to great-great grandpa’s journal, who was paid to sail here by a tightrope walker, or a funambulist, as they called them then…”

Bartholomew Middlestreet is, possibly, Hopeless, Maine’s most enthusiastic raconteur. Once he gets going, Bartholomew has been known to hold court for hours, filling his discourse with plenty of homespun wisdom, incidental anecdotes and never missing an opportunity to remind his listeners that his grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, was the only Night Soil Man to hang up his bucket, as it were, and retire, uniquely going on to become a family man. As my allocated spot in the ‘Vendetta’ is somewhat restricted, and the patience of my readers not infinite, it feels only common sense to tell the tale of the funambulist in my own words.

As Bartholomew has stated, few people have arrived on Hopeless voluntarily. It was necessity that drove the lobsterman, Joel Cranham to be persuaded to sail to the island.
It was in the 1840s that the nascent canning industry discovered that the humble lobster, a species that had previously required eating soon after death, could be successfully preserved in a tin. They also discovered that canned lobster was a huge money-maker. Within thirty years the once plentiful Homarus Americanus was fished to the brink of extinction. In response, the state of Maine imposed severe but necessary lobster-fishing restrictions, and the livelihood of Joel Cranham and his fellow lobstermen suffered accordingly. However, no one knew the waters around Maine better than Joel, so it was unsurprising that, when he was offered more than the equivalent of a year’s income to pilot a specially adapted Downeaster around some of the islands peppering the coast, he thought that all of his financial problems had been solved for good.

Joel’s benefactor was a slightly built and ridiculously wealthy young man named Lancelot Pensile. Like many an impressionable youth, Lancelot had been inspired by the recent feats of one Jean François Gravelet. Gravelet, who was better known to his adoring audience as The Great Blondin, was a funambulist extraordinaire who had famously traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope several times.
Being naturally athletic, Lancelot Pensile soon mastered the art of funambulism and, in a very short time, had become almost as adept on a tightrope as his hero.

For reasons which will become clear, Pensile had devised a plan which would involve linking just a few of Maine’s several thousand islands to each other by high-wires. These islands would, by necessity, need to be situated fairly close together. He had installed, on the deck of the Downeaster, an extremely large drum which held an equally large reel of hemp cord, two inches thick and half a mile long. The plan was to visit an island, erect a high platform – if nothing suitable already existed – and run the rope to a neighbouring island. By ferrying back and forth to the mainland for more reels of rope, Pensile hoped to create a slender highway over the ocean, upon which he could wander at will, thereby gaining an enviable reputation to rival that of The Great Blondin himself.

For a while, all seemed to be going as planned. Four islands had been bridged and Pensile had, indeed, proved that his plan was surprisingly feasible. It was only when the expedition hit a dense fog-bank that progress was halted. Joel was certain that an inhabited island was hidden somewhere inside, for although there had been no warning blast of a fog-horn, he had seen the beams of a lighthouse struggling to penetrate through the ghastly murk during the previous night. After a short conference with the skipper of the Downeaster it was decided to drop anchor and that Joel and Lancelot would run a tender ashore. A light rope, about an inch thick, was attached to the tender at one end, and to the hempen cable at the other, so that it could be conveyed easily to the island.
All went well until the tender floundered upon the rocks and the two men were forced to wade to safety, with Pensile steadfastly gripping the rope with one hand and a carpet-bag with the other..

While being shipwrecked would have dampened the spirits of most people, Lancelot Pensile was extraordinarily cheerful, especially when he spotted the lighthouse. This was exactly what he needed; a tall, solidly built structure to which he could secure his cable.
As you have undoubtedly guessed, the pair had arrived on Hopeless. In the best traditions of the island, a small crowd had gathered even before the two had managed to get on to dry land. It took little time for Pensile to introduce himself and his companion and explain his plan. At first no one appeared to be particularly impressed, then D’Arcy Chevin grew curious.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, suspiciously.
“To emulate my hero, The Great Blondin. Why Blondin has traversed Niagra Falls on a tightrope many times.”
Chevin had absolutely no idea what or where Niagra Falls might be, but it sounded impressive.
“And you could do that?”
“Indubitably!” exclaimed the young man, brimming with confidence.
D’Arcy Chevin had as sharp a mind as any and had quickly worked out that here was a possible means of escape from the island. If Pensile could get across on foot he was sure that he could manoeuvre his way to the next island by hooking a leg over the cable and dragging himself along. In time, it might be possible that more lengths of rope could be added and some contraption assembled to allow all and sundry to leave whenever they chose. If getting to the mainland meant undertaking a series of hops from island to island, D’Arcy Chevin told himself that he was the man to do it.

Word soon got around that escape from Hopeless might at last be possible and, as a result, there was no shortage of willing hands offering to set up the high-wire and provide whatever help the funambulist might require. The heavy hempen rope was soon hauled ashore and, with a block and tackle, hoisted up to the gallery of the lighthouse, where it was pulled taut and unyielding.
As I have said, so often, in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?

The following morning was, as ever, misty but there was no wind to speak of and conditions seemed ideal for a leisurely half-mile stroll on a tightrope over an angry sea.
From the depths of the carpet-bag Pensile retrieved his costume, along with a pair of fine leather shoes with soft soles. A little over an hour later he was ready, poised confidently on the rail of the lighthouse gallery, resplendent in pink tights and a jerkin of blue, which was covered in sequins. In his hands he held a long, slender balancing-pole which some of the islanders had fashioned from a felled ash tree.
“This should not take me too much time at all,” he called down to Joel. “As soon as I’ve reached the other end I’ll tell the crew that you’ve been shipwrecked. It shouldn’t be too long before you get rescued. In the meantime do you have any messages for the folks back home?”
“The missus will wonder where I’ve got to, so you’d best make it sound exciting,” Joel grinned. “Tell my wife that I’m trolling Atlantis, but I still have my hand on the wheel.”
“Will do,” replied Pensile, breezily and, with that, started his death-defying walk over the sea.

Those who watched from the shore could not help but be impressed as the slight figure of Lancelot Pensile, clutching his balancing-pole, disappeared gradually into the mist. The minutes ticked by and, as if mesmerised, everyone continued to stare at the quivering tightrope. Just when the realisation began to dawn that the spectacle was probably over, the rope began to bend worryingly, as if something was pulling it from below, as they might a bowstring. Then, to the shock and dismay of all, there was a loud TWAAAANG and the rope buckled and lurched upwards. Somewhere, in the distance, they heard an ominous splash, such as a body might make, if dropped into the water from a great height. Seconds later there followed a horrible crunching noise; this was the sort of noise you might expect to hear when a large wooden vessel is being crushed to pieces by some huge and unseen creature, which was, indeed, the case.
Just when the assembled onlookers decided that they had seen and heard enough excitement for one day, a long ash pole hurtled down from on-high and crashed into the top of the lighthouse, sending shards of wood and lumps of masonry flying everywhere.
“What the hell caused that?” yelped Joel. All the blood had drained from his face.
D’Arcy Chevin, all hopes of escape dashed, looked crestfallen. He turned to leave, then stopped and looked squarely at Hopeless’ newest resident.
“You’ll get used to it.” he replied. “There are giants out there, in the canyons.”
People trailed away in silence. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet stayed behind, generously offering Joel the hospitality of The Squid and Teapot and hoping for a good story to add to his journal in return.

It was nearing midnight when Bartholomew finished his tale.
“What became of Joel?” asked Philomena.
“He eventually came to terms with losing his old life and settled down and raised a family. His descendants are all gone now, except Rhys, a great-great grandson. He was in the orphanage from an early age and now he’s our Night Soil Man.
Philomena shifted uncomfortably. When she first landed on Hopeless she had completely lost her sense of smell and had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the Night Soil Man.
“And what happened to your great-great grandfather?” she asked quickly, seeking to change the subject.
Bartholomew lowered his voice.
“It’s believed that he was murdered by a scoundrel called Tobias Thrupp,” he said conspiratorially. “Now, there’s a tale you need to hear…”
“And that can wait until another day,” said Ariadne firmly, and blew out the lights.

The Deal

“I used to be somebody, once.”
Geoffrey Stancombe stared miserably into the dregs of beer pooling in the bottom of his tankard.
Philomena Bucket patted his shoulder consolingly,
“You still are somebody, you daft thing. Sure, if you weren’t, I couldn’t be seeing you sat sitting there, now could I?”
“No, I mean really somebody. I used to have it all. Money, power, a girl on each arm. It’s all gone… all gone.”
The other drinkers in the bar of the Squid and Teapot said nothing. They had heard it all before. This had been a regular lament of Geoffrey’s ever since he had washed up on the island a few days earlier, boasting of his luxury yacht and expensive clothes. All his rescuers could see was a slightly built, wild-eyed man of middle-age, who had arrived bedraggled, half-dead and clinging to a rectangular piece of wood that had once been a door. In fairness, Geoffrey was not that unusual. Newcomers frequently made improbable claims, citing wealth and position but – even if these were true – such things cut no ice on Hopeless. Anyone who managed to survive more than a few weeks would be simply judged by their ability to fit in, and the ways in which they might contribute to the benefit of all. So far it looked as though Geoffrey was doomed to fail on both counts.

It was half a lifetime ago that he had met the stranger who had turned his destiny upon its head. He had been sitting in a dockside pub in Liverpool, drowning his sorrows in a smoke-filled bar, when she sidled up and offered to buy him a drink. Geoffrey was well aware that he was being set-up for some scam or other, but he was slightly drunk, down to his last few pounds and she was young and attractive; what was there to lose? Several more drinks were taken before she made her play. He could recall their conversation as if it was yesterday.
“I’ll give you twenty-four.”
“Oh, come on! I was hoping for at least forty.”
“Sorry, twenty-four or the deal’s off.”
“But why? I’ve heard that you’ve offered hundreds in the past.”
“That, as you rightly say, was in the past. I cannot afford to be so generous these days. Times have changed.”

Geoffrey remembers himself hesitating, until the stranger purred softly in his ear,
“Look… it is an excellent bargain. You’d be a fool to walk away from it.”
He felt himself weakening.
“And you would meet all of my demands?” he asked
“Oh yes. I am not out to swindle you.”
“And I get twenty-four years.”
“Twenty-four years and not a minute less,” she smiled. “It’s a small price to pay.”

When you, yourself, are only twenty-four years old and are offered the same span again, pain-free, trouble-free, debt-free and guilt-free, it feels like a no-brainer. You are standing in the very centre of a story, your own story. Your life, so far, feels long and endless. Much of it is a blur, or something viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Time has been slow and kind, a sluggish stream that never reached birthdays, Christmas and school holidays quite soon enough. So you reason that future time will equally languid. Forty years would have been good but, hell, in forty years you would be really, really ancient and probably in no fit state to enjoy the extra time afforded to you anyway. No, twenty-four years of luxury would be good enough.

“What a fool I was,” Geoffrey thought bitterly, not realising that he had said the words out loud.
“And why a fool?” asked Philomena, sitting down opposite him.
Geoffrey said nothing for a moment. The easy way in which Philomena’s voice had sidled into his head, shattering his reverie, reminded him of the young woman in the pub in Liverpool. But there the resemblance ended.
“Can you come and walk with me a while?” he asked her, almost shyly. “It’s nothing that I want to speak of in here.”
“Give me a moment,” said Philomena, “I’ve a couple of things to finish off, than I’ll be with you.”

They walked in silence for a while, making their way in the direction of Chapel Rock.
Philomena slipped her arm into the crook of his. It felt the right thing to do.
Geoffrey told her about the conversation in the pub and the bargain that he had struck. He told her how his life had changed, almost immediately. Everything he wanted was suddenly available. Nothing was beyond his grasp. For years this hedonistic lifestyle seemed wonderful then one day, not so long ago, he woke up and realised that his existence was a totally empty sham. He had no friends or lovers, just a great many people who were attracted only to his wealth and power. Everything had gone sour and all that was left were his possessions, each one no more than a lifeless trinket, a symbol of his squandered years. To make matters worse, time itself had somehow forgotten how to dawdle. He had failed to notice how the lazy stream of his remembered youth had become a raging torrent that cruelly and casually swept away twenty-three years and eleven months in the blinking of an eye. The bargain he had made granted him twenty-four years and not a minute less. Now all that was left was one month and not a minute more. He was terrified.
Geoffrey fell silent. Minutes that felt like hours slipped by. Unable to bear it any longer, Philomena asked,
“So what did you do?”
“I ran away. Leastways, I sailed away. I had a yacht and a crew of three to sail her. But there was a storm. That’s all I remember until I found myself on this island. I suppose the crew must all be dead by now.”
“But you escaped… whatever it was you were running from.”
“Do you think so?” he said, brightening up.
“I guess it depends on how long you were at sea,” Philomena said, then added, “I’ve got to get back to The Squid now. I’ll catch up with you later. I’m sure everything will be fine.”

When Philomena arrived back at The Squid and Teapot she found Bartholomew Middlestreet sitting at a table, in the now empty bar, playing solitaire.
“What was that all about with Geoffrey?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Philomena pensively. “What he told me was difficult to believe, yet there was something…”
“Well, those things he said in here about being rich and powerful, not a word of it is true.” Bartholomew interrupted. “But I’m not calling him a liar – I think he’s genuinely deluded.”
“Well, that’s a relief, anyway” said Philomena, thinking of the story Geoffrey had told her. “But how can you be so sure?”
“When we found him I could have sworn he was dead,” sad Bartholomew. “There was no pulse that I could feel, then suddenly he sits bolt upright, throws up a great stream of water and asks where he is. They say that drinking sea-water drives people mad and I guess that’s what happened to Geoffrey. Besides, the girl who turned up the following day says that they were part of the crew of the yacht that floundered on the rocks off Scilly Point. They were the only survivors.”
“At least the bit about the yacht was true, even if it didn’t belong to him,” said Philomena. “I didn’t know about the girl, though. Where is she now?”
“I haven’t seen her since then,” said Philomena replied Bartholomew. “Odd that. Most newcomers stay here in the Squid.”

Geoffrey didn’t return to the Squid that evening, or ever again. He seemed to have vanished completely. The general feeling was that, in the state of mind that he was in, anything could have happened. Philomnena was sad but not surprised. Such things occurred on Hopeless with monotonous regularity and all thoughts of Geoffrey and his talk of a mysterious deal eventually faded from her mind.

It was a some months later, while rummaging in the attics of The Squid, looking for something to read, that Philomena found the following passage in a slim book of short stories. For reasons she could not fathom, it made her blood run cold:

A rich man, living in Baghdad, sent his servant to market, as he did most weeks. When the servant came back, his face was pale and his hands trembled. His kindly master could not help but be concerned and asked the cause of his distress.
“When I was in the marketplace,” the servant replied with a shaking voice, “I spotted a woman in the crowd. I recognised her at once – she was Death. She looked at me with surprise and it seemed as though she was threatening me. My heart missed a beat. I was certain that it was I whom she sought. Oh, beloved master, I must flee from this city if I am to avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra where Death will not find me.”
“Take my fastest horse,” said the rich man “and ride like the wind.”
The next day the rich man went down to the marketplace himself, and who should he see but Death, mingling in the crowd.
“Why were you so surprised to see my servant when you saw him yesterday? He seemed to think that you were threatening him” said the rich man to Death.
“It is true, I was surprised, but there was no threat intended,” agreed Death. “You see, I did not expect to see him in Baghdad yesterday, for I had an appointment with him last night in Samarra.”

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.”