Dancing on a Sunday

A celebrated entertainer (whose name escapes me for the moment) once opined, via the medium of popular song, that Saturday night is, apparently, alright for indulging in a certain amount of fighting. Being one not renowned for pugilistic endeavours, I could not possibly comment on such an assertion. What I do know, however, is that, traditionally, Saturday night is definitely alright for throwing a party. This seems to be true the world over. True, except, maybe, on the island of Hopeless, Maine, where, let’s face it, one day is very like another and if anything can go wrong, it probably will.

This particular tale was born around the time when the founding families first settled on the island. Two centuries have passed since the fateful Saturday night that Clarissa Cockadilly celebrated her twenty-first birthday. As it happened, it was also May Day Eve. Even on Hopeless, one of the most cheerless places on earth, Clarissa truly felt that no date could have been better for the occasion.

The party was well under way when the first, few early stars began to shine wanly through the ever-present mist, their sickly pallor shamed by the gentle glow of the restless and innocent gnii, quietly meandering through the foggy skies. As the day was lost to darkness, the flickering firelight, coupled with the candle lanterns hanging from every tree, gave the celebration a dramatic chiaroscuro backdrop, endowing the bleak island with a mysterious, theatrical atmosphere. Trestle tables, while not exactly groaning beneath the weight of party provender, grumbled ever-so-slightly as more starry-grabby-pies, elderflower fritters and moonshine liquor was heaped upon them. For once, Hopeless felt almost as cheerful a place as one could wish to be, the night air alive with fiddle music and the energetic dancing of Clarissa and her companions.

In those distant, more pious times, the one gaping disadvantage of celebrating anything remotely joyous on a Saturday night was the inescapable fact that it would be followed by Sunday morning. The chimes of midnight would inevitably sound the death-knell of any merriment, ushering in the strict and stultifying observance of the Sabbath, with all of its attendant ‘thou shalt nots.’ And so it was with this particular celebration. If the revellers appeared to have had wings on their feet, then time itself danced even quicker. Clarissa could have sworn that only minutes had passed when the fiddler abruptly halted his playing, right in the middle of Sir Roger De Coverley.

“Midnight,” he said, packing up his violin. “Time to go home. I can’t play for you on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at him defiantly.

“Why ever not? We’re not doing anything wrong.”

“There are those that will tell you otherwise. All this frolicking is sinful on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at her companions.

“Sinful? If innocent pleasure is a sin, then I don’t care if I go to Hell, what say you?”

After some nodding and uncomfortable laughter at her blasphemy, the partygoers unanimously agreed that it would be pleasant to dance a little longer.

The fiddler stomped away angrily, promising to inform Preacher Chevin of their wickedness.  The dancers, fuelled by adrenalin and no small amount of moonshine liquor, merely laughed at him.

Despite the fact that the music had stopped, they made a valiant effort at dancing ‘The Bishop of Chester’s Jig’ and ‘The Collier’s Daughter’ but it was not the same. Just as they thought to give up in disgust and call it a night, a jaunty figure came over the hill brandishing a violin.

“Anyone fancy a dance?” he called brightly.

The revellers could hardly believe their luck. For a fiddler to turn up at such an hour was surely more than chance, but who cared? He wanted to play and they wanted to dance, so where was the harm? Had they noticed that his boots bore an uncanny resemblance to cloven hooves, a pair of small horn-like projections protruded through his cap and that a shower of sparks flew from the neck of the fiddle every time he drew his bow across its strings, they may have been more cautious. Such was their enthusiasm to dance, however, they were blind to all else.

‘The Beau’s Retreat’ and ‘Old Noll’s Jig’ went normally enough. It was only when the fiddler struck up the appropriately named ‘Midnight Ramble’ did the tempo change. Faster and faster the fiddler played and faster and faster the dancers danced. They pranced and gavotted, polkaed and fandangoed all the way from the partying ground to the old swamp that lay on the eastern borders of the Gydynap Hills. As the dance quickened and the dancers tired, a strange thing happened. One by one, they turned to stone, leaving an avenue of petrified sentinels marking the route towards the narrow causeway. By the time the road through the swamp was reached, only Clarissa remained, tirelessly spinning and reeling in time to the music. The causeway is exactly one hundred and seventy six yards long, a tenth of a mile. Clarissa danced at such speed that the fiddler, whose multi-tasking skills left much to be desired, could hardly keep up with her and play at the same time. It took her just forty seconds to cover the distance, end to end. Upon reaching the furthest bank she put her right leg in, put her right leg out and just as she was preparing to shake it all about, missed her footing completely and fell headlong into the swamp. It is sad to relate that poor, twenty-one years old. Clarissa, was sucked into the morass, where she drowned immediately. To look on the bright side, by dying unexpectedly Clarissa at least managed to cheat the fiddler, thereby avoiding the eternal embarrassment of being turned into stone.

Of course, most of the above account is patently untrue. The story of various innocents having some fun on the Sabbath, only to be rendered into stone by Satan, often playing a violin, is a common one in the western world, there to explain the existence of groups of standing stones and unusual rock formations. I have often wondered how these tales would have panned out if the devil had chosen to take up playing the tuba instead of the fiddle. It would have made this whole business of playing until someone danced themselves into a lump of stone a much more ponderous and drawn out enterprise. However, I digress. It is true that there is, indeed, an avenue of largish rocks lining the path to the causeway. It is also true that they look too staged to be natural. All that this means is that they have, at some point, been put there for a purpose. This is where my tale grows dark.

There exists another version of this story, still spoken in anger by the O’Stoat family, close cousins of the now extinct Cockadilly clan. After the party was over and the fiddler had left to report the blasphemous goings-on to the self-appointed Preacher Chevin, a terrible retribution took place. Full of self-righteous indignation and a seething dislike of the O’Stoats, as well as anyone connected with them, Preacher Chevin and a handful of like-minded islanders turned up to teach the party-goers a lesson. With one side fuelled by hatred and the other by alcohol, violence was sure to erupt.  According to the O’Stoats, not one of the dancers was ever seen again. It is thought that Clarissa and her companions were thrown into the swamp. The rocks that marked the road to the causeway, however, appeared overnight and the legend of the devil and the dancers spread rapidly, probably by the Chevins, to cover up the atrocity and strike fear into the hearts of anyone rash enough to seek enjoyment on the Sabbath. If this account is true, then it is clear that we have no need to believe in devils while people like this walk the earth.

In the years following the disappearance of the dancers, tales began to be told of a ghost haunting the far end of the swamp. It was – and indeed, is still – believed that unless you clear the length of the causeway in exactly forty seconds, the wraith of Clarissa Cockadilly will rise from the swamp and demand that you dance with her. If you are fortunate and dance well, she will thank you and you may leave. Resist, however, or dance badly and she will drag you into the stygian depths forever. Such is its reputation, the way through the swamp has long been shunned by most people. Despite this, it has acquired a name. Don’t be fooled by its innocence, however. You most decidedly won’t wish to meet those dancing feet on the avenue I’ve described to you  –  40 Second Street.

Author’s note: There is one tiny fact in all of this that disturbs me disproportionately. In order to cross the causeway (which, you may remember, is exactly a tenth of a mile, or one hundred and seventy six yards long) in forty seconds, you would have to be running at 6.666 miles per hour…

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Above we see the Chevins enjoying their favourite pastime (which is to say, being a mob)

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Baking Bad

Regular readers of ‘The Vendetta’ may recall that The Squid and Teapot once experienced some difficult times under the stewardship of one Tobias Thrupp, a most egregious sort of fellow.  Thrupp’s evil nature and eventual downfall is recalled in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’.  To my knowledge, this is the only period in the inn’s long history that its reputation for generosity has  been tarnished. Except for this brief interlude, newcomers to the island have been given board and lodgings in exchange for some basic chores. This arrangement has continued until such times as they were able to make their own way or, as is more likely, disappear without a trace, as so many do on Hopeless, Maine.

Philomena Bucket had been a resident of The Squid and Teapot for two months. Originally, she had been living in a room on the ground floor of the inn but wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible, she asked to be moved to a tiny attic space that boasted a single window that looked out towards the ocean. At least, it would have, had it not been for the thick and ever-present mist that obscured everything. Now and then an inquisitive gnii would nudge against the glass, spilling its soft, warm light into the room. At first Philomena was alarmed by this intrusion but it had not taken her long to come to love these strange and enigmatic creatures.

Philomena had spent her early life on the streets of Cork, making a precarious living sketching anyone who might give her a few pennies for her efforts. After such an existence, Hopeless, bleak as it was, posed few challenges to her. She was given shelter and food – not plentiful but adequate – and no one looked twice at her, for which she was grateful. Her hair and skin were as pale and translucent as winter moonlight. This albinism, which had occasionally been a source of fear and derision, went by unnoticed on Hopeless. People had better things to worry about than the way that others looked. Besides, she was a hard worker who more than earned her keep, and that counted for much.

One of Philomena’s chores was to forage, in the hopes of finding something a little different to excite the palates of the inn’s patrons. On the day that our tale begins she came across a wreck washed up on the rocks. It reminded Philomena of her own recent arrival on the island. She had been a stowaway, the sole survivor of the ill-fated merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’, which had been carrying a cargo of Irish whiskey. Unsurprisingly, this had been enthusiastically liberated from the ship’s hold and safely stored in the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.  Philomena wondered if this latest wreck contained such a treasure and without another thought, scrambled over the slippery rocks to find out. Being light and nimble, it took her no time at all to reach the ship and climb into its hold. To her disappointment, much of what remained of the cargo had been damaged beyond salvaging when the ship had been ripped open.  A dozen stout barrels, however, stacked above the water level, still looked as though they might contain something worth having.

News travels fast on Hopeless, especially when it concerns bounty from the sea. Before long a small procession of islanders could be seen carefully rolling the barrels over the rough coastal path, headed by Philomena who wanted to make sure that at least one of them reached The Squid and Teapot.

There was much rejoicing on the island when it was discovered that the recovered barrels contained rye flour. Although denser than that ground from wheat, it would make a pleasant change from the acorn flour they usually used, made from the acorns dropped by the island’s scanty oaks, or those washed up on the shore. Fortunately, those living on Hopeless have never demanded much in the way of choice or sophistication in their diet. The most exotic dish known on the island is starry-grabby-pie, which should not be confused with the Cornish delicacy, starry-gazey-pie. Starry-grabby-pie is far more appetising, having tentacles sticking out of the pastry, rather than fish heads and tails.

The rye flour was fairly distributed and before long the air was redolent with the intoxicating scent of baking that wafted from almost every home.

That afternoon, Philomena, standing in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, was preparing to make a batch of pies. She had not bothered to look too closely at the contents of the barrels earlier. After all, there was not really that much to see once the initial excitement had passed. Now, however, something disconcerting caught her eye. There were small black flecks in the flour that ought not to be there. She picked some out and examined them closely. They certainly were not mouse or rat droppings, as she had initially thought. She paused. Something in the deepest recesses of her memory stirred, stretched, yawned, scratched its belly and tried to go back to sleep. Philomena, being the woman she was, had no intention of letting it rest until she had remembered whatever it was that was bothering her.

 

It had been a long, tiring day but Philomena could not sleep. Buttoned securely into an industrial-strength, full-length, Victorian nightdress, she lay in her bed in the little attic room, idly watching the gnii floating quietly by outside her window. She smiled to herself in the darkness, reflecting on the way in which time changes everything. Here she lay, three thousand miles from home on the strangest island imaginable. Why, just a few months ago, if she had witnessed these weird but strangely beautiful creatures passing by her bedroom window she would have thought that she was hallucinating… hallucinating! She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. Hallucinating! That was it. A series of gears and cogs shifted in Philomena’s brain and several pennies started to drop. It must have been well past midnight but her earliest childhood memories finally gave up their secrets, providing her with the answers she had been looking for.

 

Doc Willoughby was not accustomed to waking quite so early in the morning. The insistent rapping at his front door, however, was enough to waken the dead (on Hopeless, one does not say these things lightly!) He peered out of his bedroom window to see that the disturber of his slumbers was Wilhelmina Woodfield, spinster of the parish and fully paid-up member of the hypochondriacal society. The Doc opened his window and glared angrily at her.

“Doc, you must help me. My arms and legs are on fire and a colony of woman-eating turnips in ginger wigs are nesting in my tin bath.”

The Doc eyed her wearily.

“Madam, your extremities are decidedly not on fire. As for the turnip infestation, I cannot possibly comment. This is, after all, our beloved Hopeless.”

By now a handful of Doc’s patients had joined Wilhelmina, all complaining of similar symptoms. Percy Painswick claimed that a candy-striped kangaroo has taken up residence in his bed. This was an especially remarkable revelation as Percy had never seen, or even heard of, a kangaroo, candy-striped or otherwise. Further down the street a growing throng of islanders could be seen running wildly around in various states of undress, screaming and gibbering through the morning mist.

“I need to think about this” exclaimed the Doc and slammed his window shut.

An hour or so passed before anyone knocked on his door again. By now, Doc Willoughby was up and dressed.

“Go away,” he shouted, without opening the door. “I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” said a voice. It was Philomena’s. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve seen this before, in Ireland, years ago, when I was a child.”

 

Word soon got around that Doc Willoughby wanted to address those afflicted, summoning them to the courtyard of The Squid and Teapot that afternoon. This was easier said than done, as most of those attending were, by now, exhibiting a certain amount of noisily challenging and eccentric behaviour.

“I have been doing some research into your problem, at no small inconvenience to myself.”            The Doc had to shout to make himself heard over the cacophony. He caught Philomena’s eye and reddened a little.

“With some… ah… minor assistance from Miss Bucket I … that is, we… have come to the conclusion that you are suffering from Ergot poisoning, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The rye-flour that was found yesterday was infected with ergot fungus. It causes hallucinations and a burning sensation in the limbs.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the more lucid sufferers.

“Throw away your flour and eat nothing else that was made from it. Other than that there is nothing you can do. One of two things will then happen. You will survive… or you will die. Horribly, apparently, and in great pain. The good news is that I haven’t eaten any of the blasted stuff myself”

The Doc wandered off, leaving the assembled throng somewhat disappointed. Philomena decided to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Don’t worry,” she advised them. “This malaise will pass. You will all be fine. Just remember, these strange things you are seeing are just hallucinations. Go up and touch them and they will pop like a bubble.”

Philomena was, of course, perfectly correct. Once the ergot had done its work and the remainder of the flour was safely disposed of, tossed into the depths of the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole in the Night-Soil Man’s garden, all was well and there were almost no fatalities. Almost…

If you have read the tale ‘Bog Oak and Brass’ you will remember that the sinkhole was created centuries earlier, following a battle between the necromancer, T’Abram Spitch and a demon that he had inadvertently and magically freed from a sealed chest. The demon was a bizarre looking creature with the head of a lion, no body and five legs radiating from its head. These legs had cloven hooves and revolved like a Catherine wheel around the head, which remained static. A quick perusal of a 16th century grimoire – still available in various forms – snappily titled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’ by Johann Weyer, will tell you that the demon’s name was and indeed, still is, Buer. As scary things go, Buer sounds far-fetched, even by Hopeless standards. This is exactly what Percy Painswick thought. Whether Buer had been disturbed by the flour barrels being hurled into the sinkhole or just paying a social call, I have no idea but he was lurking in all his demonic glory when Percy passed by.

Taking Philomena’s advice to heart, Percy strode boldly up to, what he imagined to be, his latest hallucination and tugged its leonine mane with some force, then tweaked the demon’s nose. For a second Baur was a little taken aback – but only for a second. Strangely, since then, no one has seen hair nor hide of Percy.

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Hopeless Books

In the beginning, we were going to call the series ‘Hopeless’. While we were with Archaia, (who first published 2 titles, now re-published in one volume as The Gathering) they decided it would be better for the marketing if we were Hopeless, Maine. I can see how this works, but it means that something is lost, and I want to share that lost thing with you.

It’s what happens to the titles themselves. Had we not got ‘Maine’ in there, every title would read slightly differently. The first title does it least well, because I hadn’t figured out the possibilities right at the beginning…

Hopeless Personal Demons

Hopeless Inheritance

(Now combined as The Gathering, which fails to do the things)

Hopeless Sinners

Hopeless Victims

The working title for the next one is Hopeless Optimists – but that might change

The final volume is almost certainly going to be Hopeless Survivors.

So now you know!

Scents and Sensibility

Philomena Bucket, having fled Ireland, had endured a month cooped up in the hold of the merchant ship Hetty Pegler’, with cotton pollen irritating her nose and eyes. Following the sudden death of the kindly ship’s captain, she had been slandered as a witch and a harbinger of ill-luck by the first mate of the doomed vessel and now, as its sole survivor, she had reached the island of Hopeless, Maine. Within an hour of setting foot on relatively dry land, however, she found her leg to be in the vice-like grip of something that deigned only to show, so far, a single maliciously powerful, grey-green tentacle. As it dragged her towards its dark lair amid the rocks, Philomena had little doubt that such an unsettling extremity could only belong to a creature who was fully equipped to enjoy a robust and unfussy carnivorous diet.

Suddenly the darkness deepened as a strange, indistinct shape blocked out the meagre moonlight. As the figure drew nearer, she could see that it was that of a burly man with a battered hat and a huge bucket strapped to his back.

Without the newcomer having to say a word, or raise the stick that he was carrying, the suckered tentacle loosened its grip around Philomena’s leg and slithered silently and sullenly into the shadow of the rocks.

‘‘Are you alright ma’am? Sorry’’

‘‘I’m fine, thank you”, she affirmed, “Though the old leg’s a bit on the sore side.”

She paused. “Why did you say sorry?” she asked.

“The smell. Sorry about the smell.”

“Ah. Not a problem.”

It had been such a long time since her olfactory functions had ground to a halt that Philomena had quite forgotten that she had no sense of smell. She could only assume that her saviour had been referring to some slight body odour or even – and Philomena’s pale cheeks flushed ever so slightly pink at the thought – that he was apologising for having inadvertently passed a little noxious gas just before they met.

“You really don’t mind?” even in this dim light Philomena could see the puzzlement on the man’s face.

“No, not at all.”

The Night-Soil Man shook his head in disbelief, tempered with no small degree of pleasure.

For those who have never encountered the Night-Soil Man, I should explain. It is his task to go about by night, servicing the cesspools, privies and earth closets of the inhabitants of Hopeless. It is a lonely occupation, executed with dignity and discretion by one who has been bred to the life. The Night-Soil Man is invariably recruited, as a young boy, from the orphanage. He serves an apprenticeship and when his master eventually succumbs, often sooner rather than later, to the strains and perils of his trade, the apprentice takes over. Because of the perennial stench that surrounds him, the Night-Soil Man is destined to be virtually friendless and definitely celibate for all of his days. The one advantage, however, to this seemingly dreadful curse, is that every creature on the island, however nightmarish, will give him a wide berth.

“Would you be knowing somewhere where I can dry me dress off and get some sleep?” she asked, hesitantly.

“There’s always The Squid, or The Crow,” said her companion, stroking his chin with a grimy hand.

Philomena was confused. The squid or the crow? What good were squids and crows if you wanted your clothes drying?

The Night-Soil Man saw the look on her face and assumed she had no wish to go to either establishment.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “I’m going to be working for hours yet. I’ll show you where I live, it’s not far from here, and you can sort yourself out there. In private, like.”

Fifteen minutes later Philomena found herself in the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, drying her dress in front of the fire, while he continued on his rounds. For reasons he could not fathom he found himself to be somewhat distracted by thoughts of this pale stranger who had wandered into his life.

When he returned home, just before dawn the following morning, the Night-Soil Man found Philomena curled up in his armchair, snoring gently. Tenderly he draped a rug over her sleeping form and tiptoed out to the kitchen to make breakfast. He was not able to get that sweet, pale face out of his mind. There had suddenly manifested a strange sensation deep in the pit of his stomach, a sensation for which he had no explanation – unless, of course, it was the Starry-Grabby Pie that he had had for supper.

When Philomena awoke, some hours later, the Night-Soil Man offered to take her to ‘The Squid and Teapot’, an inn famed for its generosity towards newcomers to the island. Philomena would be safe there, until she found alternative accommodation or – as was so often the case – disappeared without a trace.

As they walked along the cobbled road to the hostelry affectionately known locally as simply ‘The Squid’ Philomena was somewhat alarmed to see anyone they encountered shrink back from them, covering their mouths and noses. As an albino she had suffered more than her share of discrimination over the years, but the people of Hopeless seemed extreme in their reaction. Standing in the courtyard of ‘The Squid’ the Night-Soil Man told her that he could not go any further.

“The landlord and his wife are good people – they’ll give you room and board for as long as it takes. Help as much as you can and they will ask for no other payment.”

Philomena thanked him and he watched wistfully as she disappeared through the stout oak doors of the inn.

Everything happened exactly as the Night Soil Man had predicted. Philomena was granted full board in a comfortable little room on the ground floor of the inn, in exchange for helping out with cooking, cleaning and other chores. After her experiences on the road, she was a little surprised to find that she received no hostile stares within its confines.

Each morning Philomena would find that a posy of tiny flowers had been left overnight and placed upon her windowsill. These cannot be called wild flowers as such; wild flowers, on Hopeless, are really wild. They attack people, run around on limb-like roots and generally cause havoc. No – the flowers on Philomena’s windowsill were of the tame variety, flowers that had struggled up through the unforgiving terrain of this most inhospitable island. She had little doubt who had left them.

She developed the habit of getting up early and making her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, catching him just as he reached home at the end of his rounds. They would exchange news and gossip, laughing like children beneath the greasy, fog-bound skies of what passed as Springtime on Hopeless, Maine. As the days slipped by, a gentle, platonic love blossomed between the two. They would often sit in silence for hours, the tips of their fingers barely touching, each innocently enjoying the simple presence of the other.

It was maybe two weeks after Philomena first reached Hopeless that the landlord of ‘The Squid’ declared a state of emergency. The inn’s supply of alcohol was running dangerously low. It was only then that she remembered that the ‘Hetty Pegler’ had been carrying a consignment of Irish whiskey. If the ship had not disappeared completely, maybe it was still salvageable.

Philomena, along with a small but enthusiastic band of ‘Squid and Teapot’ regulars, made their way to the cove in which the wreck still lay. She was lying considerably deeper in the water than Philomena remembered. She hoped that liberating the whiskey would not be too arduous a task.  The party set to and before long, a reassuringly large number of casks were sitting on the rocks. Besides these, they had managed to salvage a veritable treasure-trove of pots and pans, coils of rope, ink, paper, furniture, cutlery and crockery. All this had been carefully stacked, safely out reach of the encroaching sea, which was becoming increasingly rough, threatening to sink the ‘Hetty Pegler’ for good.

“Just one more look around before she goes down,” yelled Philomena to her companions on the shore. Despite their declaring that they had collected enough and further trips would be dangerous, she ignored their protestations and returned to the ship for one last foray.  Waves had begun to break over the bows before she reappeared on the sloping deck, brandishing a bottle of rum and a china chamber-pot, both of which she raised above her head in triumph.  As she did so, the wreck gave an awful groan, like the death-rattle of some great beast. It lurched and, with little warning, rapidly slid beneath the waves taking Philomena with it. The watchers on the shore could only stare helpless as Philomena disappeared and the rum and chamber-pot flew into the air.

Luckily Philomena managed to escape the sinking ship before it had chance to drag her beneath its shuddering bulk.  All the same, she was no swimmer and the icy salt water was in her eyes, her throat and up her nose. There was seaweed – if seaweed it was – wrapping itself around her legs and tugging her to certain doom. She flayed wildly, desperate for life, not wanting to die just yet… or anytime soon. As if in answer to her unspoken prayers, she felt strong arms tugging at her, lifting her from the angry ocean. The salvage party had turned into a rescue party.

Philomena sat in front of a roaring fire in the snug of ‘The Squid and Teapot,’ drinking a bracing concoction of hot water and whiskey. The excursion to the wreck had been a great success and despite her last, somewhat foolhardy actions, she had become the toast of the island – but something was different. Philomena could not pinpoint exactly what it was but something in her life had changed.

The next morning, she made her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, as usual.  She smiled to herself; it was her turn to give him a present. During the previous evening she had taken one of the sheets of paper, recently retrieved from the wreckage, and sketched, from memory, his portrait. Philomena, it must be said, was an accomplished artist and had supported herself – albeit frugally – drawing and painting for some of the wealthier citizens of Cork, who unwittingly bore within them the spirit of the Medici.

The Night-Soil man came to greet her at the door, smiling broadly but his smile froze when he saw her reaction. She had stopped abruptly, a startled look upon her pallid countenance. She gagged, putting her arm to her mouth. If it had been possible for her face to have blanched even more, then it would have.

“It’s okay,” he said sadly, his head bent in despair. “It’s not your fault. I understand.”

She could not open her mouth to speak, for fear of retching, but the sorrow in her eyes said it all.

She reached out and stretching her arm to its full length, offered him the sketch that she had so lovingly made. He took it from her and for one last, brief time their fingertips touched.

“I love you,” he said, softly, tears rolling down his cheeks.

She looked at him with brimming eyes, then turned and fled into the grey morning, uncontrollable sobs racking her frail body.

The Night-Soil Man returned to his cottage, his heart heavy. His tears had smudged the picture slightly but it did not matter. Written in neat, rounded letters at the bottom of the page were five priceless words that he would treasure forever.

‘With all my love – Philomena’

 

“It’s quite simple,” pronounced Doc Willoughby, joyfully sampling a generous mouthful of the whiskey that Philomena had brought him.

“You were suffering with anosmia. Loss of smell. Almost certainly to do with the pollen stuck up your nose.”

“But how…?” she started to ask a question but Doc, who never missed an opportunity to flaunt the limited knowledge that he possessed, cut her short.

“One of the remedies is to flush the nasal passages with salt water, which you did in some style, may I say.”

Philomena looked down sadly. Anosmia. Oh, how she wished she still had anosmia.

“Can I reverse the process?” she asked, hopefully.

The Doc frowned. Why would she want to?

“We don’t get troubled by too much pollen on Hopeless” he shrugged, pouring himself another drink.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Aether Egg Hunt: With Nimue Brown

Terrible Hopeless Maine Easter eggs, nesting over on Penny Blake’s blog.

Blake And Wight . com

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Greetings, salutations and the polite waving of tentacles.

I’m Nimue Brown and I write a whole array of stuff – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels… I also do unspeakable things for money, but best not to get in to that.

I gather that in Steampunk’d Lancaster there is an annual Aether Egg Hunt  – a chance for authors to connect with their readers and give a little gift of thanks for all their support in the form of an Aether Egg or Small Gift linked to the fictional world they have created. I’m always wary when talking about Hopeless Maine in terms of things people might enjoy, but there we go. This may be the bit of the process you get to feel uneasy about, while other aether eggs can be hunted with greater safety.

So here is my contribution which may do more to undermine the…

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Philomena Bucket

 

Philomena Bucket had found it easy to stow away aboard the merchant vessel Hetty Pegler’, as she lay anchored in the Coal Quay of Cork. It had been almost as easy as Philomena’s decision to leave Ireland for good and seek fame and fortune as an artist in the United States of America.  That, unfortunately, was where ‘easy’ came to an abrupt halt. It took just three days for her to be discovered. Racked by hunger and confident, though misguided, in her belief that the ship would be deserted in the early hours, Philomena crept on all-fours from her hiding place in the hold, only to come face to face, or rather, face to knees, with the first mate, who was attending to his duties as middle-watchman.  It took very little time for Philomena to learn that here was a man who had little room for freeloaders on the ship and would happily have thrown her overboard. Fortunately, however, his respect for the chain of command overcame his natural instincts.

Captain Longdown was cut from a different cloth to his second-in-command. He had been at sea for forty years, had a weak heart and really did not want any more difficulty than was avoidable. To the first mate’s barely concealed disgust, he treated the waif-like creature, unceremoniously hauled before him, with great leniency. It was tricky enough keeping his crew in order at the best of times, without having this young woman aboard. Despite her bone-white pallor and long, snowy tresses, he could see that standing before him was a beauty, albeit an odd one, who could cause more than her fair share of trouble if left to wander about his ship.

“You can get off at the first landfall,” he said, not unkindly. “In the meantime, please keep out of the way.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Just go back into the hold, or wherever it was that you were hiding. I’ll get food brought down to you.”

Not wishing to advertise the presence of the strangely attractive stowaway, the captain entrusted the task of conveying her meals to the less-than-amused first mate, who fumed quietly. It was bad enough for a stowaway to be aboard, but for him, second only to the captain in rank, having to wait upon her was untenable.

From Philomena’s point of view, things were not too bad. She was enjoying a better quality of food and shelter than she had ever known. Staying out of sight was a small price to pay. The only fly in the ointment was a sudden attack of hay fever, which, in this enclosed space and hundreds of miles from the nearest land, puzzled her. The truth was that ‘Hetty Pegler ‘ had previously conveyed a cargo of raw cotton from Virginia, the spores of which still stubbornly fluttered around the rotund casks of Irish whiskey now gracing the hold. The result was that her previously pink, albino eyes were now quite red and her sense of smell seemed to have abandoned her altogether.

It was fully three weeks into the voyage that things started to go awry. A violent storm blew up from nowhere, mercilessly lashing the merchant ship and sweeping a young seaman overboard. For two hectic days the storm refused to abate. A ripped section of the foresail came free from the gaskets. It took four men to climb the rigging to secure the sail but only three returned. The other fell to his death, sprawled like a stringless puppet upon the deck. When, at last, the depleted crew breathed a weary sigh of relief as the tempest eventually blew itself out, an extra rum ration was distributed. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had been blown far off course and it was not many days later, picking their way gingerly through the many islands peppering the coast of Maine, that the Captain Longdown, succumbing to his heart condition, watched the sun sink over the yardarm for the last time and quietly died. Command of ‘Hetty Pegler’ passed to the first mate, a man, we have already learned, not known for his tender heart.

 

The captain’s body was still cooling when the recently promoted first mate dragged Philomena up on to the deck. Stunned and blinking in the sunlight, she winced as he grasped her roughly by the wrist.

“Here is the cause of all of our troubles. This albino witch has cursed this voyage and all the time your oh-so-tender-hearted captain just stood by and let her do it.”

The superstitious crew muttered angrily as they saw, for the first time, the pale, fragile beauty being paraded, humiliatingly, before them.

“Even now she casts some sort of spell. Look at the fog curling up around us. This is not natural.”

The sailors looked and had to agree that the thick mist that had suddenly engulfed them was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced. Its murky tendrils, sinuous and smoky, curled over the ship’s sides, slithering up the masts and coldly caressing their legs. One could, indeed, be forgiven for believing it to be an enchantment, for the crew, to a man, stared in absolute silence, totally mesmerized by the ghostly fog. They quite forgot that their ship, now almost becalmed, was quietly inching forward through dark and hazardous waters. Only when the agonised scream of tortured timbers being reduced to matchwood shattered their reverie, did they realise that they had hit a submerged reef. The ‘Hetty Pegler’ was sinking.

“Abandon ship. Get to the lifeboats” yelled the mate, quite unnecessarily as it happened; the self-same thought had occurred to everyone else.

Philomena suddenly found herself alone, standing on the deck of a doomed ship. She could just make out the blurred forms of the retreating lifeboats. Despite the fact that everyone else had apparently escaped unscathed, there seemed to be an inexplicable amount of noise and commotion coming from their general direction. Terrified screams and huge splashes, as if a large object was being smashed to a thousand pieces by an even larger object, filled her ears. She strained her eyes, still sore from the hay fever, to see through the creeping fog and ascertain what, exactly, might be causing such a disturbance. Mercifully, they failed her and she was spared the spectacle of a gaping beak and long, thick tentacles writhing from the churning ocean, savagely ripping apart the fleeing lifeboats and their gibbering occupants.

It was less than a minute later that the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’ came to an abrupt halt, with her wooden walls still intact, by and large, and bobbing about just above the waterline. Philomena’s feet were barely damp. She gazed about her with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The ship appeared to have run aground on an island. Had the crew known how close they were to safety and not acted so hastily, they could have reached the shore with ease. Why, there were even lit candles, tiny beacons that would have guided them in. It was almost as though they were expected. She could not help but notice other lights, too. They seemed to be moving, as if with a purpose, yet high in the sky, barely discernible through the murky air. Wading thigh-deep through the chilly waters, Philomena wondered to herself how such a thing might be done but immediately dismissed the question from her mind, as the more pressing problem of getting dry and finding shelter occupied her. Stepping on to terra firma, she sneezed violently three times. Despite this, the cotton pollen that had insinuated itself deep into her nasal passages was determined not to move.

Within the hour, night had fallen and a weak, sickly moon peered through the misty sky. Philomena had made slow progress. She found herself walking a dark and rocky path that she fervently hoped led somewhere. Anywhere that had four walls – three walls, even – and a roof of some sort, would suffice. She was frozen. Her wet dress clung heavily to her pale legs and seemed to be getting heavier by the second. It was almost as if something was trying to drag her to the ground. She looked down and stifled a small squeal. Something was!

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine, Philomena Bucket.

To be continued…

 

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Lilly May

You’ll meet Lilly May in volume 3 of the Hopeless Maine series. She doesn’t have a big role in this book, but she’s an important part of the rest of the story, and you’ll be seeing a good deal more of her. As you can see from this image, she’s an inventor. This isn’t my colouring, this is an early version Tom did because we needed a coloured version for the Stroud Steampunk Weekend poster.

Lilly May also features significantly in a prose book I started writing last year and fell out of and may well go back to.

So here are some things about Lilly May that aren’t obvious in the next graphic novel.

She uses the walking chair because she had polio as a child and doesn’t have much lower body strength as a consequence. She can stand up and move short distances, but mostly she needs the chair to get around. The chair is of her own designing, she built it, and she maintains it herself.

Lilly May spent most of her childhood at the orphanage, and built her chair in what had been Owen’s workshop, using scrap he’d collected. She is entirely self taught. Owen has no idea she’s been using his workshop, which is probably as well because Lilly May does things with magic that would make Own uneasy.

This became apparent to me while Keith Healing was developing the Hopeless Maine role play game and put together some mechanics for demon devices – a means by which players can put demons in devices to get stuff done. I’ve not paid too much attention to the game mechanics while writing, but I liked the idea, so made off with it. Lilly May’s chair has an entity residing in it. A detail that isn’t in the game – demons often like to be warm. Hopeless is a cold, damp place and sometimes demons make pacts on the basis of spending their time very close to a warm, dry boiler. Perhaps these are old, tired demons. I’m not sure.

At fifteen, Lilly May is already heartily sick of how people respond to both her face and her chair. She has little time for anyone not smelling faintly of oil and metal, unless perhaps they can offer her something on the magical side.

Balthazar Lemon

Things we know for sure about Balthazar Lemon – he is Salamandra’s grandfather, by dint of being Melisandra’s father. He is an inventor and built the lighthouse. He has a bit of a thing about fish.

Things we do not really know about Balthazar Lemon – what he did after the end of The Gathering. How he build the lighthouse. Why he has a bit of a thing about fish – although when questioned about this with regards to the fish powered church organ, he responded by asking what we though God smelled like.

His imagery suggests Chinese origins. Balthazar is more of a Middle Eastern name. Lemon is not a surname to naturally go with either. I do this on purpose. Partly because the population of Hopeless is diverse while the author lacks sufficient knowledge to accurately portray people from everywhere. Partly because I like ambiguity, and uncertainty, and combining names and imagery in ways that are out of kilter is a way of doing that. Partly because Hopeless is not neatly part of our world.

We never see Salamandra’s maternal grandmother, we only hear about her occasionally from other people. She’s one of the many invisible women in the story. In the second half of The Gathering, Sophie Davies tells Salamandra a story about who her grandmother was. While we never deal with this in the books, I’m about 90% sure that Sophie was lying about some of the details, and that she wanted to give young Sal a story that would help her deal with her actual family. Taking into account how Balthazar feels about sea life, I’m fairly sure that the woman who was never known to anyone as ‘Mrs Lemon’ simply returned to the sea. She may have been something a bit like a mermaid. For all we know, she may still be out there.

Why Mrs Beaten makes so much jam

Sometimes, when it is late and she does not sleep, Mrs Beaten misses her husband. She thinks at great lengths of the things they did together, late at night, when there was no one else to see, or judge. She considers it important to be clandestine about some things. It is a gesture of respect to your neighbours to make sure that they have little or no idea what you do. One should have multiple lines for laundry so that items revealing too much can be hidden from viewing.

Mrs Beaten notes that it is curious how one can hate a thing at the time and miss it when it is gone. This is true of both her late husband, and the things he liked to do in the night. She does not regret his absence.

Sometimes, when the town is too quiet, and there is no sound of wind or wave to distract her, Mrs Beaten stalks her own kitchen at night. She reaches for the jams that did not quite work. For the fish jams, and the crab jams that of course aren’t sweet, or pleasant, or anything at all like jam, but which keep through the winter… She opens them, and painful compulsion takes over. She smears the contents onto her skin, her clothing or even her hair. Sometimes she wails aloud as she does this, but only very quietly so that none of the neighbours will notice her keening sounds as anything distinctive amongst the night cries of the island.

On the following morning she will have to clean herself and her home, as she always did. It feels less shameful, now. She does not judge herself for these compulsions.

Things I am up to

Comics making thoughts from Nimue Brown.

Druid Life

This week I finished colouring volume 3 of Hopeless Maine. It’s the second graphic novel I’ve coloured, and the first time on my own project. For those of you less familiar with the mechanics of comics making – this is normal. Making a comic involves writing a script, drawing it, colouring, inking (or over-lining in our case) and lettering the pages. These can all be done by different people, and in the more famous comics there is more of a production line approach to creation.

I started working on pages back when Tom did a project called The Raven’s Child. I took on some of the shading work to try and get him some breaks and time off. It’s not unusual in the comics industry for people to work ten and twelve hour days, and seven day weeks, and for a while we did that. We’ve since decided that the…

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News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.