For this tale we re-visit Hopeless as it was in the days when young Randall Middlestreet was the island’s Night-Soil Man…
It was almost midnight when Clarence Coaley and his younger brother, Cuthbert slipped out of the orphanage. Since Reverend Crackstone’s disappearance the place had become intolerable. Crackstone had been strict in the extreme – some would say even brutal – but with his going no one bothered preventing the bullies from having their own way any more. It had reached the point where the need to escape far outweighed the risks of wandering the island during the hours of darkness. Besides, Clarence knew of a secret cave; he was sure it would be the perfect place for them to hide.
Although Hopeless is not a particularly large island, there are plenty of places where anyone intent on staying hidden can do so with very little effort. What serves to concentrate the mind, however, is the need to avoid being eaten, maimed, driven mad or transformed into something rather disgusting. It is a safe bet that if you have found a dark and secluded place you are probably not alone. On this island, dark and secluded places are a favourite haunt of the sort of creatures someone might reasonably expect to encounter in their darkest nightmares.
A grey and sickly dawn was trying listlessly to illuminate the mouth of the cave, when Clarence heard, coming from somewhere outside, the ominous clanking of cutlery on the move. Alarm bells immediately rang in his head. Peering out, it did not overtax his powers of deduction when several pairs of ghastly green orbs appeared not more than a dozen yards away. This was a spoonwalker raiding party, returning home after a hard night of larceny.
By now both boys were wide awake and wasted no time in removing themselves out of the situation, leaving behind the few belongings they had brought from the orphanage. Unfortunately we will never know the spoonwalkers’ thoughts on discovering, on the floor of their lair, a bag containing a cold starry-grabby pie, two changes of underwear and a risque magazine.
Randall Middlestreet had almost completed his round. This was his favourite part of the day, with his work done and a chance to sit down and watch the sun, yet again, fail to fight its way through the fog. Suddenly, a movement, about a hundred yards or so to his left, grabbed the Night-Soil Man’s attention. Two figures – boys, by the look of them – emerged from a cleft in the rocks and appeared to be heading towards the Gydynaps. Randall guessed that they had run away from the orphanage. Why they would want to go clambering up the hills so early in the morning, however, was beyond him. He pondered whether or no to follow but thought better of it. At this hour the night-stalkers would be safely tucked up in their beds, so they would be no problem. The boys will be fine, Randall told himself. He yawned, hoisted up his bucket and struck out for home.
The Gydynap Hills had always been out-of-bounds for the children of the orphanage. It was not that they were any more dangerous than any other part of the island, or even forbidden because of their reputation for weirdness. If the truth is to be told, it would have been terribly inconvenient and too much trouble if the adults in charge of the orphanage had been required to traipse around the Gydynaps looking for stray orphans. This of course made the hills very attractive to absconders such as Clarence and Cuthbert.
Had it been visible, the sun would have been seen to be high in the sky when the boys spotted the cabin. The pair were tired, hungry and beginning to regret their decision to leave the relative security of the orphanage. They could hardly believe their luck; it would surely take an ice-cold heart to turn away two frightened little waifs. This is what they believed, at least but they were deluding themselves. They were, in fact, a pair of sweaty, sly-looking, lanky adolescents sprouting hair and acne who would probably have elicited about as much sympathy as a brace of diseased puddle rats.
Clarence knocked on the cabin door, timidly at first. When no response was forthcoming he banged harder. The door swung open invitingly, revealing a cosy-looking room inside.
The boys wandered in and immediately felt at home. There was a pot of coffee on the stove and a table laid for two. Despite this, no one appeared to be in.
It did not take long for the brothers to set about exploring, hoping to find something to eat.
It was with a gasp of delight that Clarence discovered small larder that contained a greater variety of food than he had ever seen. The provender supplied by the orphanage was bland and spare but here was stored all sorts of wonderful things. On a cold, stone shelf sat the most mouthwatering array of cheese, butter and cold meats. Yet another shelf held a ceramic crock filled with soft, white bread. Further investigation revealed biscuits, candy, a baking tray laden with fresh cakes and a big bottle of soda-pop. This was marvellous!
As has often been said, the island exists on that which the sea provides, by and large. These were the sort of delights that few on Hopeless would ever dream of tasting.
Meanwhile Cuthbert, who was slightly less worldly than his brother, had his interest whetted by a small desk near the window. It was strewn with paints, brushes, charcoal and various drawing implements, all tools of an artist’s trade.
‘So, this is who owns the cabin,’ said Cuthbert to himself.
On the desk was a watercolour sketchbook. Cuthbert opened it to the first page, which depicted a decrepit looking crow; it had ragged feathers and sad eyes. The caption above it said: ‘One for sorrow’.
On the following page the decrepit crow was joined by a younger, jauntier looking bird. This page was headed with the words ‘Two for joy’.
“Put that down and help me get some of this grub out,” yelled Clarence.
Cuthbert reluctantly left the book and joined his brother.
“This isn’t right,” he said.
Clarence snorted derisively.
“They’ve got plenty and we’re hungry.Seems fair to me.”
“I didn’t mean that,” said Cuthbert. “This is more than weird. People don’t eat as well as this on Hopeless. There’s something strange going on here.”
“Worry about it after we’ve eaten,” said Clarence, tucking into a large hunk of bread, thick with butter.
Cuthbert felt uneasy but told himself he was being a fool.
“Pass the butter…” he said.
Randall Middlestreet had not slept well; his conscience had been giving him a bad time. Despite reminding himself that the two boys were not his problem, a nagging voice in his head told him otherwise and gave him no rest.
“You should have stopped them – or at least followed,” it admonished.
In the end, Randall made a deal with his conscience. He would deviate from his planned route that evening and go to the Gydynaps to check on them, before he did anything else.
By the time Randall had reached the summit, the first shades of night were drawing in. He had searched every cave and hollow on the way up without success. The boys were nowhere to be found.
“Maybe they returned to the orphanage,” he thought but without much hope that this was, indeed, the case. Having once been an orphan himself, he knew that there was little incentive to return. He lit his lantern and turned to make his way back down the hill, when he noticed the cabin. It was almost hidden between the rocks, just a few yards from the track.
Randall wandered over, hoping the boys had sought shelter there. If they had it would have been cold comfort. The front door was hanging off its hinges and the windows were broken. Grass was growing through the floorboards.
Randall raised his lantern and cast his eyes around the tiny room. There was no sign of them here; only broken, rotting furniture, shattered crockery and puddle rat droppings. Then something caught his eye. Lying on the ground, amid all of the filth and decay, was a book. It had no sign of mould or water damage and looked as though it had been placed there that very day. Randall leant down and examined a few of the pages, which seemed to be filled with paintings of crows. There was little in it to interest him. He flipped through to the last page. Seven crows stood in a line. The first was old and decrepit. Then his eye was drawn to the two birds on the far right of the page. They were smaller than the others, cowering, with their wings wrapping around each other as if in terror. There was a caption at the head of the page. Randall did not read much these days. He held up his lantern, struggling to make out the words.
‘Seven for a secret never to be told’