Drury, the skeletal hound, was enjoying a particularly productive day. Mrs Beaten was mysteriously missing two pairs of unmentionables from her washing line, Reverend Davies was wondering where his scarf had gone and a diminutive cephalopod was suffering severe heart palpitations, having been tossed in the air several times – and all this before his afternoon walk with Philomena Bucket. Could life, or more correctly, afterlife, really get any better?
It had long been Philomena’s practice to take a walk between the busier times at The Squid and Teapot. Having cooked a batch of Starry-Grabby pies that morning, and washed-up after the lunchtime trade, she felt that she had earned her hour or so of leisure time. There are those who would argue that battling through the inclement, not to say downright hostile, weather that plagued Hopeless, Maine, along with the island’s many hazards, hardly constituted leisure. Philomena, however, was a hardy soul, and usually never happier than when striding the Gydynap Hills with Drury beside her, but for some reason, today she felt differently. The daylight hours of December are scant for all of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, but on Hopeless, where the sun is perpetually fighting a losing battle, winter days rarely struggle to be any more than a dismal twilight. Philomena was not particularly bothered by this, but an air of foreboding, and the promise of returning to the cheer of The Squid seemed especially attractive.
Drury liked it when Philomena sang to him. Sometimes it would be a traditional Irish ballad, a music-hall ditty or, more often than not, just scraps of a half-remembered song that she had heard somewhere or other along the way; Drury did not care, and had no interest in its origins. He just loved to hear her soft, lilting voice. It made him feel warm inside, or it certainly would have, had he actually possessed an inside. Today she was singing ‘Shortenin’ Bread’. As to the meaning of the words, Philomena had no more idea than did Drury. She thought it must be a nonsense song; after all, if mamma’s little baby did indeed indulge in the pastime of shortening bread, which apparently he or she loved to do, it would be hazardous in the extreme. As far as Philomena was aware, the only way to shorten bread is with a bread knife and no one in their right mind would let a baby loose with such an implement.
She was pondering these thoughts, and in the middle of singing the chorus for the forty-fifth time (in fact, the chorus, which consists solely of the words ‘Mamma’s little baby loves shortenin’ bread’ was the only bit of the song that Philomena knew), when she was suddenly stopped in her tracks by the sight of a brace of spoonwalkers, tottering along in front of her and carrying between them something that looked remarkably like a bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ ale. Drury let out a low growl, and would have given chase, but Philomena placed a hand on his bony back, and commanded him to stay (it says much for their relationship that she could actually do this. Drury has long been thought to be untameable).
Although the dog had been successfully looking after himself since long before Philomena, or, come to that, her beloved old granny, was born, the barmaid wanted to go home and would not have felt comfortable leaving Drury alone and up on the hills after dark, chasing these vicious little cutlery thieves .
The pair watched the spoonwalkers creep unsteadily into a cleft in the rocks. This, in itself, would not be deemed unusual, but the pale yellow light that issued from within the hill was decidedly other than normal.
Throwing caution to the wind, Philomena, with Drury at her side, tiptoed to a spot near to which the spoonwalkers had disappeared. Upon closer inspection the cleft was larger than it had at first appeared, being as high as Philomena was tall, and just about wide enough for her, or a particularly thin man, to squeeze through. While she had no wish to enter the cave herself, Philomena could not help but notice that a particularly thin man had, indeed, already accomplished the feat, and was squatting on the ground, surrounded by a band of, apparently adoring, spoonwalkers. His eyes looked huge and glowed with a ghastly luminescence in the pale candlelight.
“It’s Linus!” gasped Philomena, with surprise.
Linus Pinfarthing had not been seen on the island for months. Following the death of Marjorie Toadsmoor he had become a drunkard and, as such, his disappearance was generally attributed to his having fallen off a cliff and into the sea. No one really knew the full extent of his story, related in these very tales, of how he had been possessed by the Trickster, then later saved by a band of grateful spoonwalkers that he had once rescued from the clutches of the trapper, Zeke Tyndale.
Philomena watched, fascinated, as the cadaverous figure clambered to its feet and swayed dangerously in the greasy light of tallow candles. A chilling rictus, that might easily have denoted pleasure or pain, masked his face, and he began to dance clumsily, with the spoonwalkers milling around his feet on their cutlery stilts.
She wondered what to do. Should she tell someone; raise a rescue-party to take him back to the town? The sad truth is that the friendship of spoonwalkers – which, as far as I am aware, no other human being had previously enjoyed – does not make one invulnerable to the fatal madness induced by their gaze; it was clear to Philomena that Linus was well beyond the reach of reason. Into whatever strange landscape his mind had retreated, that was his home now. There could be no escape until his wasted body gave up entirely, and by the look of him, that day would not be too far away.
Philomena had never harboured any great affection for Linus, but to see him now, reduced to the shadow that he was, brought a lump to her throat.
“Come on old friend,” she said to Drury, hurriedly turning her back on the tableau inside the cave, “it’s high time we were getting back.”