Tag Archives: fiction

The Indispensable Man

Ever since the episode with the phonograph – described, you may remember in the tale ‘Ghost in the Machine?’ – Gwydion Bagpath had begun to register the existence of Philomena Bucket. Previously, she had barely caught his attention. As the self-appointed elder of the Commoners, his lofty position had rendered him far too busy to notice her. There had been beachcombing and salvaging expeditions to oversee. In addition to this, he felt that it was his duty to ensure that the Nailsworthy family were attending properly to the venerable elder trees that the community relied upon. Then there was his role as both chairman of the Gydynap Preservation Society and the Common Committee (organisations which met for a liquid lunch, twice yearly in ‘The Crow’). On top of these onerous duties was the business of standing around and looking important; the gravitas that his position required would not cultivate itself. But I digress. Gwydion had noticed Philomena Bucket and realised that, despite her pale skin and white hair, she was an extremely attractive young woman – that is to say, young by Gwydion’s standard. He was at least twice her age, but he was a widower looking for a young wife to comfort him through his old age and Philomena seemed to be perfect for the task. Philomena would be honoured, he felt certain, to be invited to step out with him, with a view to courtship and eventually marriage.

Blissfully unaware of Gwydion’s long-term plans, Philomena was happy enough (if not exactly honoured) to join him occasionally for a brisk stroll along the headland. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, would amble along beside her, sniffing everything in his path and chasing shadows.

‘Damned infernal creature,’ thought Gwydion uncharitably, seeing Drury as being less of a dog and more of a passion-killer. Of course, he would never voice this opinion aloud, knowing how fond Philomena was of her strange companion.

In order to win Philomena’s approval, Gwydion would use these walks to inform her of his many qualities. He would speak, at some length, of his altruism, his bravery, his generosity – the man’s virtues knew no bounds, at least in his own mind. Philomena, of course, was no fool and soon realised that she was being played like a fish on a line. She did not dislike Gwydion but the feelings he invoked in her were far from romantic – and she could never love anyone who displayed such obvious coldness towards Drury. She resolved, therefore, to find reasons to avoid these strolls. She would do this gently, however, to avoid hurting Gwydion’s feelings. That was her intention, anyway but being, perhaps, too kind for her own good, she left things too late and found herself, one foggy afternoon, in the position of being subjected to a proposal of marriage.

They had been walking towards the town when Gwydion suddenly dropped down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage.

“I’m sorry Gwydion, but I can’t possibly marry you,” she stammered.

A pained look passed over the old man’s face and his voice shook.

“Your hand… give me your hand… “

“I told you no…”

“For heaven’s sake, give me your hand, you idiotic woman, and help me up. My back has gone and goodness knows what else. I’m stuck.”

Try as Philomena might, this was to no avail. Gwydion was well and truly locked into a kneeling position and no amount of heaving by Philomena could budge him.

“I’ll get Doc Willoughby,” she said. “He’ll know what to do.”

Doc Willoughby knew exactly what to do. He arranged for a couple of burly lads from the Common to come along and carry Gwydion, still stuck with one knee bent in the time-honoured proposal attitude, back home.

“Silly old fool,” the Doc muttered. “What was he doing down there, anyway?”

“He was proposing marriage,” replied Philomena, simply.

“Well I propose that he stops making himself look ridiculous and give up chasing young women. He must be seventy, if he’s a day.”

Sad to relate, Gwydion never recovered from this latest affliction. Even though he was eventually able to stand normally again, his joints were past their best and his life was never the same. To the relief of everyone concerned, he reluctantly gave up his committees and overseeing duties. The job of Elder of the Commoners was discontinued; most had long realised that elder did not necessarily mean wiser. It came as something of a shock when Gwydion realised that nothing had suffered for his absence and life on the Common progressed as it always had. Before many months had elapsed, he died, a broken man. Little by little the name of Gwydion Bagpath faded from people’s memories.

It was many, many years later that an American soldier named Dwight Eisenhower, (who, I am reliably informed, did quite well for himself in later life) revealed that he always carried in his pocket a copy of the following poem. It’s a pity that Gwydion had not read it…

The Indispensable Man

Sometime when you’re feeling important;

Sometime when your ego’s in bloom

Sometime when you take it for granted

You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going

Would leave an unfillable hole,

Just follow these simple instructions

And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,

Put your hand in it up to the wrist,

Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining

Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,

You may stir up the water galore,

But stop and you’ll find that in no time

It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example

Is do just the best that you can,

Be proud of yourself but remember,

There’s no Indispensable man.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

The Bargain

A month had passed since Hank had wandered unwittingly into Hopeless. For some days previously he had been searching for the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, when his path led him to a fissure in the rocks, through which daylight and wispy fog issued improbably.

Hank was tall and wiry, two yards of whipcord draped in buckskin. He had had no problem in slipping through the narrow gap, though persuading his bulky backpack to follow had been more of a challenge. Eventually he had emerged, blinking and somewhat confused into the daylight.

You may recall, from the tale ‘Dutchman’s Gold’, how Hank had met Philomena Bucket, who managed, with some difficulty, to convince him that he was not in Hell but in Hopeless, Maine, some two thousand miles from Arizona. Though he accepted Philomena’s assurances, to Hank’s mind, Hell seemed a more likely explanation, not least because of the presence of the skeletal dog, Drury.

With his usual generosity, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ had given Hank board and lodgings in exchange for a few chores. While grateful, the prospector was keen to leave the island. He reasoned that if there was one path that could bridge two thousand miles in a hundred paces, there must be another and – dagnabbit! he was going to find it.

Hank said nothing of his plan to leave, either to the landlord or Philomena. As a token of thanks he left his pocket watch on the bar; it was a beautiful, antique half-hunter that he had won in a card game a few weeks before. For a man who had journeyed two thousand miles in twenty seconds, time and space had become irrelevant. The hands of the watch showed seven o’clock and somewhere, high above the ever-present fog of Hopeless, the sun was rising and attempting, with little success, to illuminate the island. Without looking back, Hank closed the door of the inn quietly behind him and set out for the Gydynap Hills, the place where his life on Hopeless had begun.

The path that wound into the heart of the hills was steeper than Hank remembered. A month of being relatively inactive had taken its toll on his stamina and despite the morning chill, he broke out into a sweat.

For hours he wandered the hills, desperately searching for something – anything – that would lead him away from Hopeless. Squatting on the damp ground, Hank gave himself time to get his breath back. The sun was low in the sky by now, ready to drop below the horizon, having given up all hope of penetrating the unforgiving blanket of fog. Stuffing his pipe with his last, precious, twist of tobacco, Hank scanned the area pensively, looking for some likely cave or feature in the landscape that would lead him away from this accursed island forever. There was nothing obvious, nothing that indicated ‘Arizona – this way’. With a heavy heart he was about to give up his quest when a barely discernible movement caught his eye. Dimly, in this half-light, he spotted a small figure tottering unsteadily into a cluster of rocks, no more than twenty feet away, its tendril-like arms and legs clutching more spoons than it could comfortably manage.

“It’s one of them weird things,” Hank said  to himself. “Dam’ nasty little critters that walk along on cutlery.”

What was it that Philomena had called them? Spoonrunners? Something mad like that. As Hank recalled, one such creature had slipped into the doorway that had brought him here, just before it snapped shut. It could be worth following it.

By the time Hank had reached the tumble of rocks, the spoonwalker was long gone. A few yards ahead, however, a dropped spoon was lying on the rocky ground. Hank stopped to pick it up, noticing, as he did, the hole through which the creature had disappeared. Hank gasped. It seemed to be washed in a dim, green light which issued from somewhere deep inside the hill. This was hopeful! The gap  unfortunately, was no more than ten or twelve inches high and of half that in width. Maybe that garish, unearthly glow was some sort of sign that there was a path that could get him back to the Superstition Mountains. Hank looked around for something to prise the rocks apart, but could find nothing remotely suitable to use as a lever. Cursing his luck, Hank sat down, leaned against the cliff wall and closed his eyes.

”Dagnabbit!” he said aloud, “What I wouldn’t give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”

“And what would you give?”

Hank jumped up in alarm, not expecting a response. A tall, pale, almost cadaverous, figure dressed in funereal black was leaning languidly against the rock face.

“Jumping Jehosophat you gave me a turn,” complained Hank, indignantly.

“I repeat… ” said the stranger, firmly, “what would you give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”

Hank eyed his new companion with some disquiet. From the outset he had been convinced that Hopeless was Hell; if that  was the case, this fellow was probably after more than he was prepared to part with.

“Well, you ain’t having my soul, if that’s what you’re after…” he said, angrily.

The cadaverous stranger threw back his head and laughed. It was a hard, mirthless sound.

“Your soul… whatever do you think I would do with your soul? You might as well offer me your unkempt ginger beard or the ridiculous floppy hat that you’re wearing.”

Somewhat offended, Hank grew defensive. He was fond of his hat.

“Well, s’obvious I ain’t got nothing you want, so you might as well go before you get me all riled up and I do something we both regret.”

The stranger smiled. It was not a particularly pleasant smile but in that poor light Hank did not notice.

“How about…” said the stranger, in measured tones, “how about we come to some arrangement when you get to where you’re going?”

Hank was becoming suspicious that there was more to this stranger than he was telling. He had heard tales of what happened to folks in Hopeless after the sun went down.

“And you ain’t a-going to hurt me?”

“My dear fellow, why on earth would I wish you harm? No… no, I give you my word as a gentleman, I will cause you no pain whatsoever. This is purely a business transaction.”

Hank shrugged. If this character was being less than honest with him there was little he could do to avoid it.

“Alrighty,” he said, throwing caution to the wind, “get me to the Dutchman’s gold mine and you can have half of what I’ve got.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed the stranger, giving the cliff face the gentlest of pushes,  “then we’ll go straightaway. Follow me.”

With a faint scraping noise the rocks parted and the two stepped into the lurid green light of the cavern.

Hank had expected the road back to the Superstition Mountains to be rough and narrow. He was quite incorrect on both points. He found himself on a broad thoroughfare that meandered gently down through the belly of the hills. He was feeling better already. That green light – wherever it came from – seemed less sinister now and his travelling companion appeared to be decidedly light-hearted, despite his gaunt appearance. The only niggle that bothered him was the fact that it was taking a darned sight longer to get there than it had to come. A darned sight longer!

“Are we nearly there?” he asked, unwittingly repeating the mantra chanted by every child, ever since the earliest human migrations began.

“Indeed we are,” said the cadaverous stranger. “But first we must stop and eat. I have some particularly delicious cake that I’m sure you will enjoy.”

Hank took the cake gratefully. The stranger was right. It was delicious.

“Ain’t you eating too?” he asked suspiciously.

“No, I have a meal waiting for me at home. It would be a pity to spoil it.”

Hank finished the cake and they walked on for another mile or so. Suddenly the stranger stopped and pointed ahead.

“Look, look – there it is. The Dutchman’s gold mine.”

Hank stared into the cavernous space before him.

“Where? I can’t see nothing.”

“Oh you will.. you will. Here it is – yours to work for all time.”

The words flowed into Hank’s consciousness like a river of honey. He shook his head and sure enough, there was the mine, just as he had imagined. Thick veins of gold ran like ribbons through the rock and the ground was littered with nuggets of every size and shape.

“The Dutchman’s gold!” exclaimed Hank dreamily.

“Ah, yes, the Dutchman’s gold.” said the stranger, soothingly. “Look there are tools on the floor, picks and buckets – everything you need.”

“Everything I need,” echoed Hank in a flat voice, totally lacking in emotion. He bent down and reached for a pick that was not there.

 

Deep beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine, in a cavern wrapped in utter darkness, a figure goes through the motions of excavating gold from a mine that only he can see. Day and night he works, stopping only to drink brackish water and eat the thin shards of the mercifully nameless meat that is left for him. He has been told that it is beer and the best beef that Arizona can offer. He is content. His buckskin clothes are little more than tatters and shreds and his once red beard is now long and grey. Sometimes he sleeps and that is when they come to feed. The stranger told him no lies. There is no pain, no discomfort. Just a numbness as he unwittingly gives half of what he has. He is gradually fading and soon he will be no more than a wraith; only then will the illusion fade and the torment begin.

Story by Martin Pearson- Art by Tom Brown

A Dog’s Life

Killigrew O’Stoat loved mornings like this. As mornings go, this particular one was not exceptional, pervaded, as always, by copious amounts of chilly fog. The quality that Killigrew appreciated was daylight. It was midsummer and although very little occurred to mark the changing of the seasons on Hopeless, the summer months gave him the gift of being able to finish his work while basking in the semi-opaque dawn of another Hopeless day.

 

For three years Killigrew had been the island’s first – and self-appointed – Night Soil man. Being reclusive in the extreme, the anti-social stench, coupled with the nocturnal nature of the work, gave him the solitude he so craved. With his night’s labours finished, it was pleasant to rest for an hour on the rocky headland, listen to the waves breaking upon the rocks far below and allow his mind to wander wherever it wanted. On the morning of our tale, however, his reverie was interrupted by a sound he had not heard for some years; the barking of a dog. Although the founding families had brought a few pets and domesticated animals with them to Hopeless, these had not fared well, mostly falling prey to the many hazards – natural, supernatural and decidedly unnatural  – that were (and indeed, are) the scourge of the island. The mere sound of a dog barking, therefore, released in Killigrew a wave of nostalgia. If there was a dog on the island he had every intention of getting to it before it met an unpleasant fate.

 

The little that was left of the life-raft had been reduced to matchwood, having been dragged over the rocks by two long, sinuous and suckered arms. Those arms were now wrapped tightly around the middle of the raft’s former occupant, a grizzled man in nautical gear, who thrashed around like a fish on a hook, fighting desperately to avoid being dragged into the creature’s lair. The source of the barking – a scruffy looking dog of indeterminate breed – dashed frantically around in impotent rage. Killigrew raced along the headland and down to the beach, leaping over rocks and boulders, careless of his own safety. To the Night Soil Man’s horror he could only watch helplessly as the terrified seaman was pulled, kicking and screaming, into a dark cleft in the rocks.

Yet another tendril-like arm slithered out and tightened itself around the frantic dog, who snarled and bit angrily.

Killigrew knew that there would be no reprieve for anything dragged into that lair. He had never seen any more than those serpentine, grasping arms but knew from experience that the nightmare that wielded them was a vicious killer. He had witnessed this before.

Gasping for breath, Killigrew threw himself heroically into the entrance of the cave, thankful that the gaping maw devouring the gory remains of its victim were somewhere deep in the lightless recesses behind him. Immediately, as if by some unheard command, the dog was unceremoniously dropped on to the ground and the writhing arms seemed to shrivel as they receded past him, back into the cave. Killigrew smiled to himself. His overpowering stench had, at least, served to save one life today.

The great curse of the Night Soil Man’s existence is also its blessing. The work is foul and the incumbent, though respected, is a pariah, avoided by all. The silver-lining to this malodorous cloud is that he is also shunned by every living creature ( not to mention the undead and the not-at-all-sure-whether-they’re-alive-or-no) on the island. There are, of course, exceptions but these, like the monstrous Wendigo and Pamola, the bird-demon of the Maine Indians, are as ancient as the land itself and don’t really count. Dogs, however, are the undisputedly non-mythological exceptions that simply adore awful smells. Every dog owner knows that their beloved pet loves nothing better than to inhale or roll in the vilest of things – and this is how the dog on the beach became Killigrew’s only friend and faithful companion.

It would be less than helpful if I continue referring to the dog on the beach as simply ‘the dog on the beach’; in future I will call him by the, frankly unimaginative, name that Killigrew gave him: Dog.

In fairness to Killigrew, he remembered that the hairy, bouncy creature with a leg at each corner and an exceptionally long tongue standing before him was generally referred to, in the English-speaking world, as ‘dog’. The constraints of his amnesia, however, prevented him from recalling that these animals would usually have a unique name bestowed upon them, such as Bonzo, Lassie, or possibly Spot, a useful attribute when summoning them for walks, etc. Fortunately confusion was avoided, as on Hopeless such niceties are not necessary; in the absence of any other canine competition, ‘Dog’ was name enough.

For ten short but happy years Killigrew and Dog were inseparable. If anyone spotted the Night Soil man – usually no more than a silhouette on the skyline – rest assured, Dog was at his heels, or chasing ahead in pursuit of a spoonwalker, or other quarry (which he always failed to catch). Occasionally Dog would wander off on his own, sniffing and snuffling around the island while Killigrew slept but always returning in the evening, announcing his presence by scratching at the Night Soil Man’s door. Those were the best years of their lives. Then one dreadful day, in late spring, Dog went for a lone walk and did not come back.

Killigrew was frantic with worry. He waited for hours, neglecting his work, hoping for the familiar scratching at the door that would tell him that all was well but it never came. At midnight, in desperation, he decided to go and look for his beloved friend. He scoured the island with a flaming torch in his hand, calling Dog’s name, his voice breaking with anguish. It was dawn when he found him, curled up in one of his favourite hideaways, in the shadow of Chapel Rock. At first Killigrew thought  – hoped – that his friend was just sleeping, but the awful truth soon dawned. Weeping hot tears, Killigrew scooped Dog’s lifeless form into his arms and grief-stricken, carried him back to his cottage.

The Night Soil man could not bear to think of Dog lying in the bare earth, where his body could be exhumed by any scavenger who happened to pass. To give him to the sea would be as bad, or even worse. He needed to keep Dog as safe in death as he had in life – but what could he do? And then he remembered the sinkhole at the end of his garden. He had not looked into it for years. Though it would break his heart to do, it seemed the best place to let his only friend spend eternity.

With some difficulty Killigrew dislodged the capstone that had served to seal the sinkhole. He peered down into the depths, then fell back in astonishment. He dimly remembered having seen a vague iridescence, deep in the bowels of the island. What Killigrew was witnessing now was no faint glow but a green inferno, raging untold fathoms beneath him.

With a heavy heart, Killigrew picked Dog up for the last time, buried his tear-stained face into his friend’s neck and sobbed a heartfelt “Goodbye, old friend.”

With as much tenderness as he could muster, he lowered Dog’s body into the mouth of the sinkhole, then let it go, watching in anguish as Dog fell, for what felt like an age, into the abyss, down to the cold green flames, far, far, below.

Like a man in a trance, Killigrew knelt by the side of the hole for an hour or more, his gaze transfixed upon the final resting place of his only friend.

Replacing the capstone, Killigrew scratched upon its face a large letter ‘D’ by way of a simple memorial.

It was with reluctance that Killigrew strapped on his night soil bucket that evening. He went to work feeling more alone than he had ever felt in his life.

 

Spring turned to summer, summer slipped into fall and the days became shorter. Killigrew had taken to spending hours just sitting by the capstone, where he recounted to Dog his adventures and the gossip of the island. Then, under the cover of darkness, he would go to work, returning home, hours later, exhausted.

 

Killigrew had no idea how long he had slept. It was dark outside but night fell early at this time of year. The Night Soil Man lay on his bed, hardly daring to breathe. Something had disturbed him, something familiar. There it was again… a scratching at the door. It couldn’t be… could it? Killigrew dashed outside, half-expecting to see Dog, tail wagging and ready for a night’s adventures. But Dog was not there. Of course he wasn’t! Then Killigrew stopped in his tracks. The capstone had been moved and was standing on end, the scratched letter D clearly visible in the moonlight. He raced over to the sinkhole and peered in. There was some faint illumination in its depths but nothing like the eerie conflagration that he had seen when Dog died.

Sadly, and cursing himself for being a fool, Killigrew made his way back to his cottage slamming the door behind him. Someone was obviously playing a very cruel joke on him.

 

A short distance away, Hyacinth Jones discovered that her husband’s long underpants had been mysteriously removed from the washing line… and somewhere, out by Chapel Rock, a dog barked.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

 

The Original

While attempting, without any great success, to map the island of Hopeless, Sophia O’Stoat believed that she had discovered her long lost cousin, Killigrew. It appeared that since his disappearance, over a year earlier, he had been living among the Commoners, who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. Sophia wasted no time in returning home and reporting back to his father – her uncle Caswell – who asked her to take him to the place where she had spotted Killigrew.

 

Like all who lived on the common, Corwen Nailsworthy was unused to receiving visitors. When a tall, gaunt stranger rapped at the apothocary’s door, the old man had no idea what to expect. He withered visibly beneath Caswell’s intense gaze.

“Is it right that you have my son, Killigrew,  here?”

Corwen immediately guessed to whom the stranger was referring. Both the newcomer and the girl who accompanied him bore an uncanny resemblance to the strange lad that he had nursed back to health. Corwen invited the pair in, offered them a cup of elderberry cordial, and told the tale of Killigrew’s rescue and long recovery.

“His memory is completely blank, poor fellow,” said Corwen. “I had no idea of his name until you told me, just then. We just call him the Night-Soil Man.”

Caswell raised a quizzical and decidedly annoyed eyebrow. He had heard of the night-soil collectors of his own country. This was a job far beneath the dignity of an O’Stoat.

“It’s his choice totally, sir,” said Corwen hurriedly, sensing trouble. “Nobody makes him do it.”

“Take me to him, please,” said Caswell curtly, not entirely trusting the old man.

 

Caswell could hardly believe that he was looking at his son. He had always regarded Killigrew as being somewhat effete, given to indolence and too much romanticism. The young man who stood before him was sturdy and muscular, not at all like an O’Stoat. Besides this, he smelt like a cesspool.

“Killigrew? Is that really you?’

The young man stared at his father blankly; there was no hint of recognition in his eyes.

“I don’t know. That’s what she called me earlier,” Killigrew pointed at Sophia, adding

“And who are you?”

Caswell placed his hand firmly on the young man’s head and closed his eyes in deep concentration. The two stood motionless for what seemed to be an eternity.

Slowly Caswell opened his eyes once more and removed his hand from Killigrew’s head, placing it instead on Corwen’s shoulder. The old apothecary stiffened uncomfortably.

“You spoke the truth. I can never thank you enough for saving my son – the O’Stoat family will be forever in your debt. And now I’d like to take him home, where he belongs.”

Corwen’s heart missed a beat. He had heard of the O’Stoats. Rumours of their mystical abilities had been whispered in every corner of  the island.

 

If Caswell had possessed a fatted calf it would have been slaughtered in Killigrew’s honour. As it was they had to make do with squid pie (this was, of course, some time before starry grabby pie had been invented). Sadly, despite his family’s efforts to restore his memory – which included no small amount of magical persuasion –  Killigrew did not recognise any of them or have any recollection of his past. Nothing worked. A stranger in his own home, Killigrew longed for the solitude he had enjoyed as the Commoners’ night soil collector. Eventually his family relented and decided to let him have his way. They built him a cottage, far away from any other habitation, next to an old and apparently bottomless sinkhole, where few dared to venture. With heavy hearts they gave him their blessing to carry on with his chosen life. If you care to look into the history of Hopeless – or read the tale ‘The House at Poo Corner’ – you will find that Killigrew O’Stoat is recorded as being the island’s very first Night Soil Man.

 

You will recall from the tale entitled ‘Killigrew and Joliette’ that the Chevin brothers had viciously beaten Killigrew and left him for dead. You may well ask why they did not finish the job, once they learned he still lived. The answer is simple. By the time that everyone was aware of Killigrew’s reappearance he had firmly established the role of the Night Soil Man, going about his work under the cover of darkness, thereby guaranteeing his not having to meet other people. It is a life suited to the the most introverted, the most reclusive. The Night Soil Man, protected as he is by his malodorous calling, repels every terror walking the island – even the Chevins.

By Martin Pearson-Art by Tom Brown

Common People

A year had passed since Killigrew O’Stoat had disappeared. His family had long since given up scouring the island for him. The general feeling was that he had been taken by one of the nameless menaces that haunt Hopeless and the waters that surround it. That was, at least, the official view. In reality, the O’Stoats were convinced that his demise had more to do with the Chevin family taking issue with his romantic relationship with young Joliette Chevin (and of course, they were absolutely correct). The Chevins, at the same time, believed that Killigrew had bewitched Joliette and his actions had driven her to madness and death. There was also the matter of their child, Ophelia, whose parentage was kept secret from all but the immediate members of the family and passed off as being the youngest of the Chevins – and perceived to be something of a surprise to her ageing parents!

 

In the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’ it is told how a rag-tag band of sailors and convicts – in the shape of whores and petty thieves, originally bound for penal servitude in Virginia – discovered a small, tightly-knit community living at the foot of the Gydynap Hills, in the area known, these days, as Iron Mills Common. These people, who called themselves Commoners, conversed in a language approximating to Old English and were probably descended from the Saxon slaves of Norsemen who had settled on the island centuries before. The influx of lusty young newcomers ensured that, by the time the founding families arrived some hundred years later, the ancient language of the Commoners had all but disappeared and their gene pool was considerably less shallow than it had previously been.

In order to survive the Commoners had taken to beachcombing on a grand scale. A party of ten or twelve would venture out with a variety of baskets, buckets and barrels, carried on their backs, scouring the shoreline for anything deemed remotely useful or edible. So, when they came upon the crumpled form of Killigrew sprawled upon the rocks, there followed some discussion in which it was unanimously agreed that he was definitely not edible. Whether he would prove to be useful was another matter altogether.

Corwen Nailsworthy was the nearest that the Commoners had to a doctor. He was their self-appointed vintner, distiller and apothecary. His remedy for most ailments involved the administration of one concoction or another that relied upon the fruit or flowers of the elder tree. When the bruised and battered Killigrew was presented to him, however, he realised that his medical skills would be pushed to their limit. Bone-setting and bandaging would be only part of it. The young man had been so badly beaten that no one could possibly know what internal damage had been caused.

The weeks turned into months and thanks to Corwen, Killigrew’s body mended. His memory, however, had deserted him completely. He had no clue as to who he was, where he lived or what had happened. Furthermore, he had little desire to uncover his previous existence, convinced that he would not like the things he might find.

 

To begin with Killigrew was happy to stay among the Commoners  and hide from his past. As the time slipped by, however, he grew increasingly reclusive, eschewing the company of others. Although grateful to Corwen for bringing him back to health, Killigrew had no wish to interact with those around him any more than was necessary.

 

Despite his wishes, Killigrew was forced to relent a little. In order for any small community to thrive, every living soul has to contribute in some way. There can be no passengers, no hangers-on. Reluctantly Killigrew made it known that he was content to do anything and would happily embrace the most menial of tasks as long as he was allowed the solitude that he so craved. As it happened, there was one menial task above all others that no one had the slightest desire to fulfil. That is how Killigrew found himself collecting human waste – or the ‘night‐soil’, as the Commoners called it – and each morning ferrying it far away from the settlement, where time and nature might hopefully transform it into a usable compost. Strangely, Killigrew came to love his job. Nobody bothered him but in gratitude for his services, they left gifts of food on the doorstep of the little hovel he had constructed, on the edge of the common.

                       **********

Sophia O’Stoat, being an adventurous young lady, had made it her business to explore and map as much as the island as she was able. This was especially problematic, as certain vital landmarks had the annoying habit of disappearing, then turning up in odd spots where they had absolutely no business to lurk. Fortunately the larger, less portable places tended to stay more or less where they were expected to be. It was while she was surveying the area around the reliably immobile Gydynap Hills that Sophia spotted a once-familiar figure ambling over the edge of the common. She rubbed her eyes in astonishment. If it was not her long-lost favourite cousin Killigrew, then it was his double… but the smell! What on earth was he doing?

“Killigrew, is that you?”

The young man took no notice. She tried again.

“Killigrew. It’s me Sophia.”

Killigrew stopped and looked at the pretty girl who seemed to be calling to him. There was something vaguely familiar about her – and those names – where had he heard them before? He shrugged, turned and walked on; the bucket strapped to his back was too heavy to allow him to linger.

“Killigrew…” Sophia’s voice trailed off as she watched the unmistakable shape of her cousin disappear into the mist…

 

To be continued…

Story by Martin Pearson-Art by Tom and Nimue Brown

Tales from Tantamount.

We have *very* exciting news for you today. (Unless you are reading this in the past or the future, in which case the news is equally exciting, but your “today” will be different from ours)

Meredith Debonnaire is nearly ready to release Tales from Tantamount. She talks about it-here.

We would be guilty of a great understatement if we were just to say that we were massively chuffed about this. Meredith is one of our favourite writers and also one of our favourite humans. Additionally,  Tales fromTantamount is mad and glorious and fiendishly clever.  Tantamount is twinned with Hopeless, Maine for obvious reasons. You will also recall her “Finding Hopeless, Maine” earlier on the Vendetta (again, temporal confusion is always a possibility) Nimue and I did the cover art for this earlier in the year, and it was not a job, so much as fan art really, because we are hardcore fans, make no mistake about it.

In short-SQUEEE!!!!!

The Tragedy of Killigrew and Joliette

 “Never was a story more or less true,      Than this of Joliette and her Killigrew.”

There is strong evidence that, even in those very early years following the founding families settling on this island, relations between the various clans were not always cordial. Having said this, I am not talking about enmities on a par with those famously expressed by the Hatfields against the McCoys, the Pazzi against the Medici or the Campbells against the MacDonalds, where the body-counts were distressingly high. The occasional fallings-out on Hopeless were, more often than not, minor squabbles concerning ownership of various items of flotsam or jetsam, usually followed by the injured parties muttering under their breath, stamping their feet and making fists in their pockets. It is fair to say that the Jones and Frog families tried to maintain, at least, a veneer of civility with their neighbors but the Chevins and O’Stoats were destined to clash from the outset.

I have no idea how well any of the founding families knew each other prior to landing on Hopeless but I cannot imagine how the Chevins and O’Stoats were even able to tolerate being on the same boat that brought them here, if, indeed they were. They were chalk and cheese (not that you’re likely to find either very often on Hopeless). The Chevins, in those days were known to be tightly-buttoned, disapproving and fundamentalist in all of their beliefs, whereas the O’Stoats were as wild as their name suggests. They were rumoured to have descended from a long and noble line of witches, necromancers and heaven knows who else, which will surprise no one familiar with the history of Hopeless. Despite this, however, these disparate factions managed to maintain, at least for a while, a semblance of amiability. Then love got in the way and ruined everything.

Killigrew O’Stoat and Joliette Chevin were, as Shakespeare would have said, star-cross’d lovers. Their first meeting was far from auspicious, however. Killigrew was beachcombing at the time, with his cousin, Sophia. Night was drawing in and Sophia was becoming increasingly nervous.

“It’s time we were getting home, Killy,” said Sophia. “It’s dangerous out here when it gets dark.”

Not wishing to leave immediately, Killigrew pointed to where a faint gleam was emanating from a nearby building.

“But Soph’ – what’s that light from yonder broken window?”

“It’s probably one of the Chevins squeezing gnii to extract the oil,” replied Sophia. “They always glow a bit just before they die. The gnii, that is. Not the Chevins.”

You must remember that these events occurred a before the gnii oil distillery was constructed. There was nothing, at the time, robust enough to process the large, oceanic gnii. Experiments in extracting oil from the small but plentiful island gnii (gniis vulgaris) were primitive, not to say brutal, requiring something of a hands-on approach  As neither Killigrew nor Sophia had witnessed the far from pleasant spectacle of gnii being manually squeezed for their oil, the two, perversely, decided to get a closer look. They were thwarted, however when a girl’s face peered out through the cracked glass. She did not look happy.

“Clear off” she yelled

Sophia and Killigrew were so surprised at her unpleasant attitude that they stood rooted to the spot. The window flew open and the girl looked unaccountably angry.

“ This is Chevin property,” she shouted. “Now go away!” (This last directive may not have been the exact term she used).

It was then that her eyes met Killigrew’s and her anger melted, like snow on the water.

“We should leave, you know what the Chevins can be  like,” said Sophia, anxiously but Killigrew did not hear her. It was if an invisible thread was drawing him towards the girl at the window. It was love at first sight for both.

“I’m Joliette,” she said dreamily.

“And I’m Killigrew,” he answered, “but you can call me Killy.”

Joliette raised her eyebrows in disapproval.

“Killy? You have to be joking. Although a skunk cabbage by any other name would smell as vile, I’ll stick to Killigrew.”

And stick to Killigrew she did. The two became inseparable. Despite family differences, the elders of the both the Chevin and O’Stoat families gave every appearance of being surprisingly sanguine about the blossoming romance, even when the pair announced that they wished to marry – but others objected. Joliette’s three older brothers decided that enough was enough and that they did not want an O’Stoat heathen as a brother-in-law.

It was a moonless night when they fell upon Killigrew, beating him to within an inch of his life. Not satisfied with this, the Chevin brothers dragged his bruised and broken body to the shore for the ocean – or worse – to dispose of; they were intent on finishing their sister’s paramour once and for all. It was late when the three slunk home in silence, each deep in his own thoughts.

In the days and weeks that followed it appeared to all that Killigrew O’Stoat had simply disappeared from the face of the earth – or, at least, from the island of Hopeless, Maine. His family sent out search parties but to no avail. Distraught though they were, their grief was as nothing compared to that of Joliette. To make matters worse, soon after his disappearance she found that she was expecting his child. Filled with shame, her family at once ensured that Joliette’s movements were confined to their own property and kept her pregnancy a secret. When the child – a daughter, whom they named Ophelia – was eventually born she was passed off as being ‘a lovely surprise from God’ for Joliette’s mother. A surprise indeed, for the older Chevins were generally considered to be well past participating in what many coyly described as ‘that sort of thing’ and were subsequently viewed as being dangerously racy by some of their more straightlaced neighbours.

Joliette never recovered from Killigrew’s sudden disappearance. She took to wandering the headland, a mad look in her eye, searching for her lost lover. On many an occasion she could be heard lamenting,

“Killigrew, Killigrew, where the hell are you, Killigrew?”

Eventually, she wandered out once too often and was never seen again.

Ophelia Chevin was eight years old when she discovered she had the gift of ‘The Sight’. Such an ability was unheard of in the Chevin family – it was more of an O’Stoat trait – and she was urged to mention it to no one. Being an obedient child, Ophelia made the  promise and kept it. The truth was not revealed until years after her death, when her journals were found, as related in the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’.

Only a handful of the Chevins knew the facts  of the matter and the family blamed Killigrew and by extension, all of the O’Stoats, for Joliette’s demise, claiming that he had bewitched her. The O’Stoats, though unaware of the truth, suspected that the Chevins were behind Killigrew’s disappearance. Hatred grew like weeds and nothing has since been right between the two families.

These should, perhaps, have been the last words concerning the tragedy of Killigrew and Joliette… but the decidedly weird island of Hopeless, Maine had other plans.

To be continued…

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

 

Dutchman’s Gold

Philomena Bucket wrapped her woolen shawl tightly around her shoulders; despite the chilly air she smiled quietly to herself. She had lived on Hopeless for almost a year and – somewhat uniquely – had fallen in love with the island. Certainly, compared to most places it was dangerous, inhospitable and lacking in the most basic of amenities. On the other hand, it was somewhere where she, an albino, attracted no second glances, no derision. Here she had a home, work, friends and the occasional company of a small, fun-loving dog. Admittedly the dog had been dead for some years and these days was no more than a skeleton but Drury had become as good a companion as anyone could wish to have. For Philomena, living on Hopeless was many times better than the life she had previously known.

 

One of Philomena’s greatest pleasures was to walk, as she was today, in the Gydynap hills. With their sudden fogs and air of mystery the Gydynaps reminded her of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland. Somehow, she felt safer in the Gydynaps than anywhere else on the island. Whenever Philomena chose to go for a walk, Drury would invariably appear, as if by magic and rattle joyously along beside her, sniffing the air and making a great show of marking his territory (but – for obvious reasons – failing).

 

The inhabitants of Hopeless are not renowned for their love of walking. A healthy respect for the various dangers, mixed with no small measure of apathy, ensures that few wish to venture an inch further than necessary from their own front door. In view of this, it was a rare day, indeed, that Philomena met anyone else walking the hills. The day of this tale, however, was rare beyond her wildest imaginings.

 

Philomena was by no means timid but her heart missed a beat when Drury suddenly stopped in mid-gambol and growled. Had he been  in receipt of ears to push back and hackles to rise he could not have expressed his guarding instincts any more clearly. Someone, or more likely something, was around; Drury was giving every sign that all was not right and Philomena was uneasy.

For what seemed an age the skeletal dog stayed stock-still, growling ferociously at, what appeared to be, nothing in particular. All around them the mist began to thicken and swirl. Philomena blinked and rubbed her eyes. Her long-sight had never been particularly good but this poor visibility seemed to be playing tricks with her vision. As the mist thinned a little, she could just make out a figure emerging through a narrow cleft in the rocks that Philomena could have sworn had not been  there a moment earlier. Drury dropped down on to where his belly would have been and whimpered quietly.

“Howdy ma’am,” the stranger hailed her with a cheery wave.

He was a lanky, ginger-bearded individual, dressed in worn buckskins and a hat with an excessively floppy brim.

“Good afternoon to you sir,” replied Philomena primly.

” I sure didn’t figure on findin’ no ladies up here in the mountains,” drawled the stranger. “You must be a long way from home.”

“A mile or so, sir,” conceded Philomena, softening a little as Drury became visibly more relaxed. The bony dog was always an infallible judge of character and their new companion seemed to meet his approval.

“By the by, I ain’t nobody’s idea of a sir. I’m just plain old Hank.”

The man who called himself Hank squatted down on the ground and opened his knapsack, from which he produced a leather tobacco pouch and a stubby pipe.

“Share a pipe, ma’am?”

Philomena smiled and shook her head.

Hank eyed her, unsure of what to say next. Philomena’s presence was confusing him. He drew on his pipe and said, warily,

“Guess you’re looking for the Dutchman’s Gold Mine, same as me.”

It was Philomena’s turn to be confused.

“No… I’m just out for a walk with Drury, here.”

At the mention of his name Drury clambered to his feet with a series of osseous rattles. Hank involuntarily screamed as he witnessed a pile of bleached bones become suddenly animated.

“Jumpin’ Jehosohat,” he exclaimed. “What in tarnation is THAT?”

“That,” Philomena replied coldly, “is my good and faithful friend Drury – and I would be obliged if you referred to him with a little more respect in future.”

As if to show his utter disdain for Hank, Drury immediately flopped down and sank into a deep and snore-filled slumber.

Hank’s face dropped.

“Then what them Apaches say is true,” he wailed. “There really is a gateway to Hell in the Superstition Mountains.”

“Hell?” said Philomena in surprise. “You’re not in Hell, you’re in Hopeless, Maine.”

“Maine???” Hank’s face whitened noticeably beneath his tan. “Jumpin’ Jehosophat, that’s more than two thousand miles from Arizona.”

Philomena wondered to herself who Jehosophat might be and why he was so addicted to jumping.

“Believe me,” she ventured, “Hopeless is strange – but surely preferable to Hell. Nothing much surprises me about this place any more.”

Hank contemplated what she had said. He had had some strange adventures in his time but this was, by far, the strangest. Stoically, he finished his smoke and lay the pipe on the ground by his side. It did not take a great deal of persuasion on Philomena’s part for Hank to tell her his story.

“There’s a legend that this foreign guy discovered a gold mine in the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix. They call it the Dutchman’s gold mine. Folks have been searchin’ for it for years and some of ’em seem to have disappeared into thin air. I rolled up there a day or two ago and thought I’d try my hand at gettin’ rich. Instead I end up in… where did you say?

“Hopeless,” said Philomena, helpfully. “But I don’t think that the others have come here. I’m sure someone would have mentioned it. Maybe you can go back the way you came.”

“Maybe, but I… jumpin’ Jehosophat, what in tarnation is that?”

While they were talking, a spoonwalker had sidled up beside them and picked up the pipe, studying it with curiosity.

“Dagnabbit! What is that thing?”

The sudden commotion had woken Drury. He instinctively leapt for the spoonwalker. who fled the scene with surprising speed and agility, racing along on its cutlery stilts and still clutching Hank’s pipe. It made a beeline for the cleft in the wall, with Drury in hot pursuit.

Philomena watched in horror as her beloved companion hurled himself at the fleeing spoonwalker, just as it disappeared into the opening.

With a crack that echoed around the hills, the cleft snapped shut. Half a second later Drury crashed into the rock face with a force that would have killed an ordinary dog. Happily for Drury, that particular ship had sailed long ago. Instead, he picked himself up from the stony ground, gave a shake and staggered unsteadily over to where Philomena and Hank were sitting.

“As I was saying,” said Philomena. “This is a strange place – and it looks as though you’re stuck with it.”

She took Hank gently by the arm and walked the bewildered newcomer down the hill. Drury, fully recovered by now, ran on in front, his bony tail wagging happily.

“And you’re sure this ain’t Hell?” asked Hank, casting a wary eye at the pale woman and her dead dog.

“Not for me,” said Philomena. “Not for me.”

 

Author’s note: In the mid nineteenth century, Jacob Waltz, a German immigrant claimed to have discovered a mother lode of gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. He revealed the location of the mine on his death-bed to a boarding-house keeper, Julia Thomas, who, reportedly, later made a living by selling treasure maps for $7 each. Despite this, the mine was never discovered. This is just one of the several legends surrounding the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine’ (the words ‘Dutch’ and ‘Deutsch’ being commonly confused in the U.S. at that time).

What is not a legend is that many of those who have searched for the mine have disappeared without a trace.

Interestingly, the Apache Indians of the region have long believed that deep in the Superstition Mountains there exists a portal which gives access to the lower world, their version of hell.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

The Lighthouse

Following the coming of the founding families to Hopeless, one of the earliest structures to be erected was the lighthouse. To begin with this was a simple affair, no more than a fiery beacon on a pole to warn any passing ships of the treacherous rocks that lurk beneath the tide-line. As a navigational aid, however, it was by no means infallible and did nothing to prevent the disaster which deposited Mr Hamish Stevenson on the shores of the island.

There was a certain irony in Stevenson being shipwrecked. You see, Hamish was a nephew of Robert Stevenson, the brilliant engineer responsible for many of the lighthouses that still stand sentinel around the rocky shores of Britain. Young Stevenson, who had worked closely with his Uncle Robert, had been entrusted with the task of accompanying the transportation of a Fresnel lens, complete with the mercury bath that it would float upon, to the soon-to-be-renovated Portland Head Light.

The small matter of a shipwreck did little to bruise Hamish’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his work. Encouraged by the fact that both the lens and the mercury bath had miraculously been undamaged by the disaster, he immediately decided that Hopeless, Maine needed a proper lighthouse and he, a Stevenson born and bred, was the man for the job. And so – with no small amount of help – Hamish built a lighthouse. Maybe his was not as elegant or stylish as those of the elder Stevenson but Hamish was proud to call the Hopeless lighthouse his own. The job was done and done well. Bob’s your uncle, you might say (or, at least, he was Hamish’s uncle).

By a happy coincidence, the recent completion of the nearby Gnii distillery meant that there would be an ample supply of fuel to keep the light burning. All that was required now was to find a willing volunteer to be its keeper.

There was no shortage of applicants. Eventually the role of Hopeless’ first lighthouse keeper was given to Egbert Tinkley, a man who had spent twenty years before the mast, prior to his being shipwrecked with Hamish. Egbert was a wiry man with twinkling blue eyes and an impressive salt-and-pepper beard. In his seaman’s cap, roll-neck sweater (that perfectly matched his beard) and turned down sea-boots he looked every-inch a lighthouse keeper and embraced his role with vim and vigour, endlessly polishing the brass and cleaning the lens as it perched and rotated gently and quietly on its mercury bath.

When not involved with maintaining his beloved light, Egbert would occasionally venture into Hopeless town to obtain whatever provisions might be available. He would invariably stop and chat to anyone who would listen but as the weeks passed into months people began to notice some less-than-subtle changes in him. His blue eyes no longer twinkled but instead, stared, unblinking and glassy. His conversations became fewer, at least with other people, although he could be frequently heard having, sometimes, violent arguments with himself. He would wander the streets with squids tucked into the tops of his boots and his cap on backwards. Some of the islanders began to get somewhat concerned about Egbert, but put it to the back of their collective minds and attributed his behaviour to no more than colourful eccentricity. After all, the light never failed to be lit exactly one hour before sunset each evening and that was all that mattered.

It was only when Arabella O’Stoat called by the lighthouse with some squid tarts did anyone realise the extent of Egberts eccentricity. The lower floors of the building were a mess, the walls daubed with paint and papers and sea-charts strewn all around. There were heaps of pebbles and seaweed covering the floors, while a combination of dead gulls, driftwood and useless flotsam covered every flat surface. Only the lantern remained pristine and it was here that she found Egbert. He was humming to himself and delicately cleaning the lens with a mixture of vinegar and water (an excellent solution for achieving smear-free glass).

“Are you alright, Egbert?” asked Arabella warily.

“I can fly, you know,” the keeper replied, for no apparent reason. “Just like a seagull, when the mood takes me.”

“Of course you can,” said Arabella soothingly. “Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and have a nice cup of tea?”

“It’s not called the kitchen, it’s the galley,” yelled Egbert, suddenly angry. “I can fly there. Watch me.”

With that he scrambled outside, on to the gallery that ran around the lantern.

“Watch me,” he cried, standing on the top rail.

Arabella could only look on, horrified, as he launched himself into the air.

Over the following months and years a succession of lighthouse keepers went quietly mad attending to their duties, though it must be said, none as fatally as Egbert. It was generally felt that the building was cursed; surely, even on Hopeless, it was too much of a coincidence that every shred of reason chose to leave the keepers who tended the light.

After a while the brass became dull through neglect, the clockwork mechanism that rotated the light lay still and the lamp was lit no more. No one wanted to ascend the steps to the lantern and the lighthouse became derelict.

The madness suffered by the Egbert Tinkley and his successors is no great mystery, though on Hopeless the lighthouse curse is still spoken of in hushed tones. It is often suspected that lighthouse keepers are all a little mad. It is not just the loneliness of the work, as many believe, but the proximity of mercury. Like hatters, who used mercurous nitrate to cure felt, lighthouse keepers suffered prolonged exposure to mercury vapour – and like hatters, they often went mad.

The lighthouse still stands, though these days the lantern is long gone and its stonework bleached by the weather and ravaged by time. Ravens roost in its highest reaches, while spoonwalkers and puddle rats make uneasy neighbours on the lower levels. On a stormy night, when the wild wind howls off the ocean and screeches through the ruined walls, those unwise enough to be out at such a time have reported  that it sounds like the manic shrieks of souls in torment. Of course, this is purely the product of an over-active imagination … isn’t it?

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress

For a thousand years, or more, the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine has witnessed a long cavalcade of migrants scramble up its rocky shores. Few have come here willingly but each one, in their own way, has attempted to construct some sort of life for themselves in this most inhospitable of places. For most, that life has been brief; the natural – and supernatural – perils of the island are many.  Some have gone without leaving any trace of their visit, while others have left various possessions, enthusiastically recycled by successive generations. This is why it is not uncommon to see a Hopelessian wearing  spats, plus fours, an Edwardian tail-coat and a tricorn hat. Nothing is ever wasted.

When Philomena Bucket came to the island, having stowed away on the ill-fated merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’, she owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Over the weeks and months that followed she acquired a modest wardrobe, garnered chiefly from the storeroom in the Squid and Teapot, where the forsaken possessions of some of its previous patrons were housed. Despite her humble beginnings, Philomena had no wish to abuse the hospitality of the inn and took no more than was necessary. There was one particular item, however, that caught her eye and she coveted above all others; this was a full length Victorian nightdress, buttoned at the neck and sturdily constructed to repel all but the most ardent attentions.

Washing day tended to be a somewhat drawn-out affair in ‘The Squid’. The process, devoid of any mechanical aid, was long and arduous, involving heating several cauldrons of water and the dexterous application of a wash-board. Soap, more often than not made from wood ash and any hard fat that was available, would be scrubbed into the soiled items, which were then rinsed and dried. It was a thankless task but perversely, Philomena enjoyed it. She appreciated cleanliness, having been forced to endure a certain amount of squalor in her formative years and being able to wash her own clothes gave her particular pleasure.

It was on one such day, some  ten weeks after her arrival on the island, that our tale begins. With the inn’s freshly laundered washing drying reluctantly on the line, Philomena felt free to tackle the task of cleaning her own clothing and bedding, which lay in a basket awaiting her attention. While, over the weeks, she had become accustomed to the strangeness of the Hopeless, nothing would have prepared her for the events that were about to unfold.

Although she could have sworn that no one or nothing had entered the laundry, the contents of the wash basket appeared to move. A sock was thrown across the room, closely followed by a rather pretty chemise that Philomena had inherited from a previous tenant. More disturbing, however, was the sight of her beloved nightdress rising from the tumble of washing and making its way towards the door. Its progress was slow, as though some internal force was being impeded by the cloth that held it. Then, with a whimper, the nightdress stumbled over the step and clattered to the ground with a noisy and totally unexpected rattle. Gingerly, Philomena carefully lifted the vagabond garment by the hem and gave it a gentle shake, then jumped back with a little squeal as a collection of bones clattered out,on to the smooth flagstones. She was even more surprised when the bones dragged themselves up into some semblance of a small quadruped that yawned, shook itself, raised a languid rear leg against the door frame (which remained defiantly undampened) then bounded away in the general direction of Hopeless town. Philomena could only stand speechless as she watched its bony tail wag its way into the distance.

Over the following week Philomena made a few discrete enquiries around the island regarding her osseous visitor, expecting to be denounced as a madwoman at any moment. To her surprise, no one even raised an eyebrow at her description of the skeletal beast. She had, it seems, encountered Drury, a hound of indeterminate breed, or breeds, who resolutely refused to allow the small matter of being dead to spoil his fun. Indeed, the general feeling was that Drury had no sense of his own demise and continued to do all of the doggy things that he had done in life. Philomena heard this with tears in her eyes, remembering her canine friends whose short lives had slipped by all too soon. If only they could have been like Drury and cheated death and if – unlike Drury – they could have hung on to their bodies at the same time, how lovely that would have been.

Of course, Drury was not universally adored or even approved of. While he could be something of an annoyance to various sections of the general community, the ghost population detested him. It is said that all dogs can see ghosts. I have no idea if this is true but Drury, having more than usual access to the afterlife, could see them quite plainly and found them boring. He made it his mission in death to get them to lighten-up a little and enjoy some jollity, an exercise which mainly involved Drury having fun at their expense. Whenever the Mild Hunt appeared (see the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) the wraiths of the maiden ladies would try to shoo him away as he upset their highly-strung spaniels and nip the ankles of their mules, who became even more agitated – and therefore more flatulent- than ever. Obadiah Hyde, the ghostly Mad Parson of Chapel Rock detested him with a vengeance. If there was anything that Hyde disliked more than papists and adulterers (as described in the tale ‘The Headless Lady’) it was dogs, especially those of the deceased variety that stubbornly refused stay that way. In fact, the only ghost that Drury was unable to tease was the Woeful Dane, Lars Pedersen, also known as The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow. Poor old Lars had been haunting the island for almost a thousand years and was so faded as to be almost non-existent. Try as he might, not even Drury could get a reaction out of him.

Following the curious incident of the dog in the nightdress, Philomena Bucket could often be seen with a skeletal hound running along beside her. She did not care that the biscuits she threw fell straight through him, bouncing off his rib cage on to the floor, where it would be retrieved to be thrown again. Although he was not her dog – Drury did not seem to belong to anyone in particular – she knew that he would always be there.

“Maybe he is just an assembly of old bones,” she thought to herself, “but that doesn’t make him any less of a dog – and there can be no better friend to have”

As if reading her thoughts, Drury agreed by lovingly licking her hand with his imaginary tongue. It was good to be alive.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown