By Martin Pearson
Drury was not in the best of moods. He considered himself to be neglected, deserted and generally abandoned. A small confluence of circumstances had apparently conspired to leave the skeletal hound feeling suddenly alone, and deprived of the company of his two best friends, Rhys Cranham and Philomena Bucket. As faithful companion to Rhys, the Night-Soil Man, he had spent many a happy hour wandering over the island of Hopeless, while Rhys serviced the outside privies, cesspools and, occasionally, earth closets of its inhabitants. This week, however, Rhys had been too unwell to perform his duties. Struck down by influenza, the Night-Soil Man had taken to his bed in an effort to shake off the malaise. His illness had unfortunately coincided with Les Demoiselles dancing troupe moving into larger premises. While their move did not directly affect Rhys, Philomena felt it to be incumbent upon her to help both parties, as well as fulfilling her duties at The Squid and Teapot. In one stroke, therefore, Drury was deprived of both of his friends and main sources of entertainment.
Drury had not always been so dependent on others for company. For more years than anyone could remember he had been a presence on the island, minding his own business and invariably poking his bony nose into other people’s. True, he had frequently found companionship with several generations of Night-Soil Men, but he had formed a special bond with Rhys and, more recently, Philomena.
Doc Willoughby had refused to go within twenty yards of the House at Poo Corner, which surprised no one. Philomena was thankful, convinced that a visit from the Doc usually had the effect of prolonging an illness. She, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions. The peg adorning her nose was barely sufficient for the intended task, but it at least enabled her to bring Rhys the pots of soup, plates of starry-grabby pie and flasks of Gannicox Distillery’s finest spirit, that she considered essential for the completion of a full recovery.
“I wonder if I could go through married life wearing a peg on me nose?” she thought, idly remembering how close she had come to marrying Rhys. That was in the days, not so long ago, when it seemed as though the Night-Soil Man would give up his job for her. He would have done so, too, had his apprentice, Naboth Scarhill, not met an untimely end.
“Well, enough of this daydreaming,” said Philomena, aloud. “Dwelling on the past will achieve nothing.”
Drury watched forlornly as she pocketed the peg and bustled away, back to the inn.
With the absence of anything better to do, Drury resorted, that afternoon, to his old habits of removing washing from lines and terrorising the occasional spoonwalker. Usually these activities would leave him feeling fulfilled. Today, however, they held no pleasure for him at all. He wandered listlessly over to the establishment known for years as Madame Evadne’s, lately renamed the School of Dance, in the hope that Philomena would be there. Several of the Washwell brothers were shifting furniture in through the big front door, with Mirielle D’Illay barking orders at them in French and English, but there was no sign of Philomena. Nor was she in The Squid and Teapot. Drury was puzzled.
It must be remembered that, even allowing for the fact that he may appear to be nothing more than a collection of bones, Drury is no ordinary dog; he has been around for a very long time. So when Philomena failed to appear by nightfall, he knew that something was amiss. Had Rhys Cranham been in any fit state to search for Philomena, Drury would have tugged at his jacket, in the best Rin Tin Tin style, and made him understand that something was wrong. As it was, Rhys was huddled under a pile of blankets, running a temperature and feeling extremely sorry for himself.
It had been Philomena’s habit to wander into the Gydynap Hills whenever she felt the need to clear her head. The extra workload of helping Les Demoiselles to move into new premises, worrying about Rhys and wondering how to organise Granny Bucket’s forthcoming deathday party, was beginning to take its toll. Despite being horribly busy, she just had to get away for an hour or two. More often than not, Drury would appear from nowhere and accompany her. It was ironic that he had decided to feel particularly unloved that day, and chosen to wreck washing lines on the other side of the island, just when she needed him most. Unaware of this, and deciding that her old friend must have been nobly watching over Rhys, she set off alone.
Night falls quickly on Hopeless at the best of times. In the winter it slips in like a thief, and steals away the daylight before you realise what has happened. Almost uniquely among the islanders, being out in the dark had never particularly bothered Philomena, especially since learning that powerful witch-blood flowed in her veins. In the past this, and the fact that Rhys had been secretly keeping an eye on her, had kept the less pleasant denizens of Hopeless at bay. Tonight, however, was different. Rhys was fitfully sleeping in his sick-bed and, because of her preoccupation with those other things, Philomena’s defences were down. That is why she did not sense the presence of the figure following her. At least, not until it was too late.
Drury sniffed the air. Although he had just a gap where a dog’s nose would normally be, he was as adept as a bloodhound when it came to following a trail. That Philomena had gone to the Gydynaps was no surprise, but she might have taken any one of a dozen different footpaths. To Drury, however, her scent was as clear as if etched in luminous paint upon the grass. With the gap in his ribcage, where his heart used to be, brimming with hope, he raced through the night, confident of tracking down his friend. Then he came to an abrupt halt. The trail had stopped at an outcrop of rocks. Drury clawed frantically at the ground. There was no trace of Philomena. She had apparently disappeared into thin air.
To be continued…