However austere and impoverished their environment, human beings will always find reasons and means for celebration. Hopeless is no exception. It is an island so basic in its comforts and amenities that the occasional diversion likely to ignite the smallest spark of joy is often embraced with surprising enthusiasm.
The Annual Hopeless Rock Race has been a tradition since the late nineteenth century. It was the brainchild of no less and unlikely a personage than Reverend Malachi Crackstone. After finding himself shipwrecked he became somewhat homesick and harboured fond, if rose-tinted, memories of England. One of those memories was of the traditions upheld by his fellow countrymen; traditions, it must be said, of which he had heard tales but never actually witnessed. It confounded him why an otherwise perfectly rational young man would choose to run up a hill bearing a sixty-pound woolsack on his back. Equally baffling was the urge for apparently sane men and women to risk life and limb hurtling down a steep gradient in order to catch a fugitive cheese; a cheese which would have been rendered quite inedible after such a journey. There were many, however, who considered such activities to be a worthwhile use of their time, so who, in that case, was he to disagree?
It one day occurred to him that the more able bodied inhabitants of Hopeless would find enjoyment and health-giving exercise in a similar endeavour. In the absence of sacks of wool or wheels of cheese they would have to make do with the island’s most common commodity, that being lumps of rock.
Traditionally the Rock Race was always held on the day preceding the first full moon following the vernal equinox. It sounds complicated but the parson’s logic was that those islanders who could never remember when Easter was likely to fall in any given year could use this event as a reminder (as you probably know, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following this particular moon).
Forty years on and the race was still a much-anticipated and popular event. Crackstone had long gone to meet his maker, albeit in mysterious circumstances, and since his departure, both from this life and the Rock Race committee, the day had become a much more joyous and liberal occasion, helped along by the Gannicox Distillery and its near neighbour, the recently opened Ebley Brewery.
The concept of the Rock Race was simple: several rocks of roughly similar weight would be selected and competitors would be required to run, carrying their chosen lump of stone, from The Squid and Teapot to Chapel Rock, a distance of about one mile. Once under the remains of the chapel, the rock could be discarded but the participant would then be required to find a piece of cutlery in the ruins. This would usually be a spoon, which had either been left by a Spoonwalker, or dropped by one of the ravens who lived there, having discovered that the occasional Spoonwalker made a welcome addition to its diet. Once found, the cutlery would be rushed back to the Squid where the victor would be awarded with a refreshing glass of ‘Old Colonel’ and the inn’s speciality dish, a Starry-Grabby pie (this is similar to the Cornish Starry-Gazey pie but instead of having fish heads and tails staring heavenward from the pastry the Starry-Grabby pie has squid tentacles pointing upwards).
Any seasoned rock-racer was well aware that some rocks are easier to carry than others. While the weight of each had to be somewhat uniform, no such restrictions were imposed with regards to its shape, so the quest for the perfect rock was always a feature of island life for the days – and sometimes even weeks – leading up to the great event.
Cardew Gannicox, nineteen years old and heir apparent to the island’s famous distillery, discovered what he considered to be the ideal rock sitting in a corner of the courtyard of Squid and Teapot. To be fair, it was not exactly a rock. It was a dressed stone block but, Cardew reasoned, every dressed stone had been a rock, or at least part of one, at some time during its long career. Seeing victory in his sights, Cardew gathered up the stone and took it home for safekeeping.
The day of the race at last arrived but while contenders for the coveted prize were limbering up, Betty Butterow had other things on her mind. For the past five years she had dutifully tended to the welfare of the Squid’s resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, also known as The Headless Lady. Whenever the moon was full, Lady Margaret comes out to haunt the inn’s indoor privy, which had been constructed from some of the remains of her former home, Oxlynch Hall.
As you might imagine, this was a less than comfortable arrangement both for ghost and patrons. Fortunately Betty one day had an idea which improved matters no end; if just one of these stones was to be removed and positioned in another part of the inn, or its immediate environs, maybe Lady Margaret could transfer her energy, or whatever it was, into that and haunt the location in which the stone had been placed. To the barmaid’s amazement it worked. The ghost was more than happy with this as she had become decidedly desperate for a change of scenery. This evening, however, would herald the next full moon and Betty had no idea where Lady Margaret might find herself manifesting. The stone, which had been quietly sitting in the corner of the Squid and Teapot’s courtyard had vanished. It seemed that someone had taken it and Betty was beside herself with worry.
It was not the best of race days that year. In fact, it was a total disappointment. A miserable, drizzly rain had ensured that the competitors were thoroughly uncomfortable long before the race was over. The rain had made the rocks slippery and difficult to hold. There had also been several minor accidents, due to the greasy conditions underfoot. Cardew Gannicox had not won the coveted prize, though there were few, by then to witness it. He had been beaten by young Lemuel Nailsworthy, whose victory was only secured by the severe shortage of discarded spoons that year. By nightfall the only signs that the annual Rock Race had indeed taken place was the redistribution of several lumps of stone and The Squid and Teapot having three more spoons in the cutlery drawer.
Randall Middlestreet was thankful that the rain had stopped. The Night Soil Man’s job was not the easiest at the best of times, negotiating the various hazards of the island in the darkness. The incidence of rain just added to the misery. Making his way over the headland, however, he felt quite content with his lot. It had turned into a fine, if chilly, night and the full moon was making his progress much easier. Besides that, there was a delicious Starry-Grabby pie in his bag that Betty at the Squid had made especially for him. It had long been a tradition on the island that the Night Soil Man receive a Starry-Grabby pie on race days, the reasoning being that, as he could not compete, he should get a pie anyway. This year the tradition had been further enhanced by the inclusion of a bottle of the Ebley brewery’s ‘Old Colonel’.
Randall decided to take his meal break in the ruins at Chapel Rock. He knew that it was haunted; he’d seen old Obadiah, the ghost of the Mad Parson, more than once. They had even had a conversation which, admittedly, mainly comprised of Obadiah hurling a torrent of arcane insults at him. It was fair to say that ghosts held little fear for Randall. They were, on the whole, harmless and there were many worse things on Hopeless to worry about. Placing his bucket on the flattest surface he could find, the Night Soil Man spread a cloth over its lid and beaming with anticipation, upon it laid his pie and beer bottle.
He had barely swallowed the first mouthful of pie when the wraith of Obadiah Hyde manifested no more than a dozen yards away from him. The mad parson gave no indication that he knew Randall was there. Ghosts can be like that, sometimes being visible in several dimensions, realities, universes – call them what you will – and not totally sure which one they are actually inhabiting. Tonight Obadiah was oblivious to everything except the sense of a strange presence that drew him like a magnet towards a square-cut stone sitting in the ruins. This was something new.
Randall Middlestreet watched, fascinated, as the apparition flickered like a candle through the remains of the old chapel. Little by little, one of the blocks of stone began to glow. It was with no more than a faint luminosity at first, which grew very gradually into a steady greenish light, as if lit from within. Then, from the stone, the distinct but ghostly form of a woman appeared. The Night Soil Man could tell the ghost was female (despite the restrictions imposed by his calling, Randall had always been appreciative of the female form) but her lack of features above the neck made her a particularly ghastly sight. Obviously the shade of Obadiah Hyde thought so too, for the ghost visibly recoiled when he saw her. The Headless Lady grew in brightness until suddenly, with a flash that made Randall jump and nearly knock his bucket over, she seemed to fill the night with her presence, leaving the parson cowering before her, and despite her lack of a head, let out the most terrifying Banshee wail that had the Night Soil Man scampering back over the headland leaving his bucket, pie and beer behind.
Betty Butterow was running a mop over the floor of the privy, her last task at The Squid and Teapot before going home to her husband, Joseph. For several years now she had become used to the Lady Margaret D’Avening’s head suddenly appearing from nowhere and wishing her goodnight. Tonight, however, a less hardy soul might have suffered a heart attack to find her ghastly visage burst like a cannonball through the stonework, screaming at the top of her voice
“Hyde, thou murderous, pox-ridden piece of dog dung, may’st thou rot in Hell for evermore…”
Finding herself in the hated presence of her killer, Obadiah Hyde, had been too much for Lady Margaret to bear and therefore she wasted no time in relocating to the comfort and security of the familiar stonework of the Squid and Teapot privy. She was beside herself. I mean that quite literally. She sat, shocked and shaking, upon the toilet seat while her head floated a foot or so beneath the cistern. It was indeed fortunate that Betty was there to comfort her; the two had formed a close friendship over the years; Betty’s gift of ‘The Sight’ had given her an invaluable advantage when it came to conversing with ghosts and suchlike.
As Lady Margaret recounted her tale, all became clear to the barmaid. The mystery of the missing stone had been solved and Betty promised that it would be recovered and placed back in the grounds of the inn, far away from Chapel Rock, before the next full moon, when the headless lady was due to manifest again. Betty wondered if there would ever be any resolution to the differences between Lady Margaret and The Mad Parson. She felt fairly sure that if this was ever to be, she would have to be the one to make it happen.
For some reason the words ‘A cold day in Hell…’ immediately spring to mind.