Tag Archives: Martin Pearson

Spoonraker

I don’t  think that I have ever told you the tale of how my late friend, the celebrated actor-manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, first came to Hopeless, Maine.

Regular readers will recall that, before he arrived on the island, he was – at least, according to his own account – the toast of the London stage.

Being a born raconteur, Sir Fromebridge would never let the truth interfere with a good story, especially when it concerned himself. In the light of this, I give fair warning that some of the details given in following tale may be less than accurate. Only one person was on hand to witness the great man’s appearance on these shores and that was Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man at the time. He is in no position to contradict Sir Fromebridge’s version of events, as Jarvis shuffled off his mortal coil at a relatively early age, presumably having been celestially promoted to emptying the great cesspit in the sky.  Luckily, Jarvis’s successor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, has been able to fill in a few missing pieces, based upon what his late master told him. It is from these accounts I have cobbled together the following tale.

 

Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man, was taking a well deserved rest.  Although generally known as being a somewhat surly man, tonight Jarvis was unusually happy. He had recently taken on an apprentice, young Shenandoah Nailsworthy, who, at that moment, was on the far side of the island, emptying the bountiful privy that catered for the needs of the patrons of “The Crow”. The other inn on Hopeless, “The Squid and Teapot”, was on Jarvis’s round. Thanks to one of the previous landlords, Sebastian Lypiatt, the hostelry enjoyed the modern luxury of a flushing privy that deposited its effluent far out into the ocean, therefore needing no attention from the collectors of the euphemistically named night-soil.

At this hour most of the drinkers had gone home to their beds and only a few lights still lit the building. Jarvis settled himself down on the rocks overlooking the inn; this was always a good place to stop, mid-round, for a bite to eat.

It was an unusually clear night, the moon was full and riding high in the sky and the sea was fairly calm. Jarvis, who was usually fazed by very little, was suddenly taken aback to see a figure emerge from the dark water. It looked faintly human in shape but was, as far as the Night Soil Man could ascertain in the moonlight, covered in some kind of black shiny skin. Sticking vertically out of its head was a short pipe-like appendage and instead of feet, it sported a pair of large, ungainly flippers. Jarvis wondered what manner of beast he was looking at. He gripped the edges of his bucket, ready to run if needs be, as the creature began to change before his very eyes.

“A shape-shifter,” Jarvis muttered to himself, uneasily.

The creature puffed and grunted as it sloughed off the skin and flippers. The process of metamorphosis seemed to be a long and painful affair, the outer layer being peeled away to a series of ejaculations which sounded uncannily like “Damn!”, “Blast!” and occasionally, “Bugger!”

Finally, after much effort and profanity, standing on the beach – or what passes for a beach on Hopeless – seemed to be a man in late middle-age, incongruously dressed in a white dinner-jacket, dark trousers and a bow-tie. He sneezed violently several times as he made his way inland. Then he spotted Jarvis.

“What-ho,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.

Jarvis had never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and therefore had no idea that this was a common salutation employed by some of the stranger sections of British society.

The newcomer walked up to Jarvis and introduced himself. This was a new experience for the Night Soil Man. Obviously the combination of a heavy cold and the wind blowing from the sea rendered the stranger impervious to the ever-present effluvia that surrounded his new companion.

“The name is Whitminster.

Fromebridge Whitminster,” he said, dramatically,  then sneezed again.

“Sir Fromebridge, in actual fact.”

This meant nothing to the Night Soil Man.

Rummaging in the inside-pocket of his jacket Sir Fromebridge retrieved a cigarette case. Flicking a black-oxidised and somewhat battered Ronson lighter, he lit a cigarette that was, I have been reliably informed, of Balkan-Turkish make. He inhaled deeply, tried to look suave, then totally ruined the effect by being gripped by a sudden, violent and uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing.

“Damned things,” he complained, as soon as he was able to speak again.

“Still, must persevere, if the part calls for it.”

“What were you doing out there?” asked Jarvis, incredulous that anyone could be so foolish as to be floundering around in the sea around Hopeless, especially at night.

“Well… It’s all very exciting. The whole thing is being kept very hush-hush, for some reason, though. The fact is, I’ve never been in a film before. It’s called Spoonraker, or some such.” said Sir Fromebridge.

To Jarvis much of this was little more than gibberish, although he recalled, from some dim recess of his mind, that the word ‘film’ referred to a thin covering of some description. Sir Fromebridge was obviously talking about the shiny black skin that he had been wearing.

 

“I was dropped into the sea, oh, ages ago now and told to swim to the island where some fairly important film people would be waiting. If this obviously fake Rolex that I was given actually worked it would tell me that I’ve been stuck for about four hours in freezing water. No wonder I’ve got this dratted cold.”

The actor paused, blew his nose, then added,

“You’re not tied-up with the film, I take it?”

Randall shook head emphatically, confident in the knowledge that he had never been wrapped in black, shiny material at any point in his life.

Just then the actor’s attention was drawn to a large, box-like contraption that had just been washed in on the tide.

“I do believe that’s my sea-trunk,” he exclaimed.

“How odd. That was safely stored in my cabin on the ship. One could almost believe they weren’t expecting me to return…”

Sir Fromebridge laughed to himself nervously.

“Ah well, maybe the film unit will arrive tomorrow.”

“In my experience, tomorrow never comes,” observed the Night Soil Man dryly, then, being uncharacteristically helpful, added

“How about I take you down to the Squid before Isaac locks up for the night? I’ll help you take your luggage with you.”

 

The two men made their way to the inn, dragging the large sea-trunk behind them.

For much of his life Jarvis had been deprived of the pleasures of conversation and was finding that he quite enjoyed it.

“So… what was that thing you were in called again?”

“Thing…? Oh, you mean Spoonraker.”

The Night Soil Man pondered the word a while before he spoke again. It was a strange name to give a second skin but, as Sir Fromebridge was the most amiable shape-shifter that he had ever encountered, he decided to let it go.

“And you’re definitely one of the good guys?”

“Oh, assuredly,” replied the actor. “In fact, I’m more than good. I’ve been led to believe that nobody does it better.”

The peace of the evening was suddenly interrupted by a series of metallic scraping noises as a troop of small, odd-looking thieves artfully lowered a cache of stolen cutlery from an open window of The Squid and Teapot.

“So you’re a Spoonraker, eh?” said Jarvis. “I’ve no idea what that means but something tells me that you’ll fit in well on Hopeless.”

Art by Tom Brown

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The Queen of Flames

Randall Middlestreet was unique among Night Soil Men, inasmuch as none before him had retired. As has been mentioned previously in ‘The Vendetta’, Randall voluntarily hung up his bucket at the age of fifty-five, giving up both his job and the cottage at Poo Corner to his young apprentice, Jarvis Woodchester.
While the role of Night Soil Man is very far from being glamorous, it has its fair share of danger and excitement. Few can wander over the island at night as safely as he does, protected as he is from predators by the malodorous atmosphere which surrounds him at all times. It is this nocturnal freedom which allows him to see sights and wonders that others are denied.

Randall was well into his second pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and holding court in the snug of The Squid and Teapot. The small band of regulars were always happy to listen to his yarns. This is not to say that they necessarily gave these stories any credence. His accounts of encountering ghosts, demons and various fantastical figures would sometimes stretch their credulity but Randall always insisted that every word was true. Nobody really cared, for what could be better than sitting before a roaring fire, in the company of friends and listening to a good tale told well.

“It was May-eve when it happened, years ago now. I was up by Chapel Rock when I first heard the music,” began Randall, taking a sip of beer. “Faint, to begin with; no more than a whisper on the breeze. I thought that old Iron Mills had started his fun fair up in the middle of the night. Then I saw the lights. They were winding down the path from the Gydynaps. From where I was standing – and I was a good distance away – it looked like a procession of people, all carrying flaming torches. Not ordinary torches either; the flames were all colours. And they weren’t constant. It was as if, one by one, they were flickering out, only to reappear a few seconds later. Either that, or they were Will O’the Wisps; that’s what they looked like to me, but I knew they weren’t. You all know what I’m like; if there’s a mystery to be solved, I’m there. I just couldn’t help myself, I had to get closer to see what was going on. The torchlight procession seemed to be heading towards the town, so that is where I
went.”
Randall took another generous swig of beer then sat in silence, staring into some hidden space that only he could see. His audience became restless.
“Go on… what happened next?”
It was Ebeneezer Gannicox, the distiller, who broke the silence.
“What did you see Randall?”
“Well, as the procession got closer, I could see exactly who – or what – they were. What they weren’t were people carrying torches. They were flames. Living flames of all colours. Flames that flickered and danced, flames that died and then burst back into life. And all the while they followed… well, you should have seen her.”
Randall emptied his glass, laid it on the table and watched happily as it was immediately replaced with another foaming pint.
“She didn’t walk, she danced… danced through the empty streets of the town to the music of the hurdy-gurdy that she carried. Of course, I had no idea then what the instrument was called. I’d never seen anything like it, or her, before or since. She was a vision! Her hair was as red as fire itself and what I thought were feathers in her hat – well, they weren’t feathers, they were flames.”
Randall paused for a moment to allow his listeners to digest the scene.
“Suddenly,” he said, “the music changed. It became quite unearthly. I couldn’t help but notice that, as she turned the handle, the instrument lit up. Coloured sparks flew from every bit of it. I was totally in thrall of this lady. I could not move. Then she did the most wondrous thing. She somehow attached her hurdy-gurdy to a street-light and as she played, as she wound the handle, every light in the town burst into life. They glowed brighter, far brighter, than they ever had before. And the music… oh, what wonderful music. I don’t know how long I sat there but it must have been hours, for the skies had started to pale. It almost felt as if she was summoning the sun to rise. We don’t often see a good sunrise on Hopeless but this one…” Randall left his sentence hanging in the air.
“It was so bright I was dazzled. I had to squint to see the lady as she turned towards the east. With the dancing flames following her, the strange cavalcade seemed to disappear into the glowing ball of the sun as it rose from the sea. I just sat there, sat for ages, totally mesmerized by what I had witnessed.”
Randall took another draught of ‘Old Colonel’ and fell silent, once more staring into that distant place that only he could see. The company knew that they would get no more out of him that evening.

It was late. Almost everyone had gone home and Betty Butterow was shooing out the last stragglers. She had floors to mop and tables to clear before she could leave. Only Bill Ebley remained. At eighty years of age he was one of Hopeless’ oldest residents. This gave him a dispensation to stay late, as Betty always insisted on walking him home.
“What did you make of Randall’s story?” she asked him as she mopped the floor around his feet.
Bill thought for a moment before replying.
“In 1915 I was in the trenches in France,” he said, adding, “we were in Mons.”
“There were a lot of stories flying around at the time, stories about apparitions, phantom armies and whatnot. Some even thought that there was an angel fighting on our side but I didn’t give any of it much credence. Still don’t. I did see something – someone – once, though and she sounds very much like Randall’s lady. I’ve never told anyone else this, not even the colonel, in case I’m thought to be mad. Maybe I witnessed what some of the others did, the ones who talked about the Angel of Mons. But the woman that I saw was no angel – I’m sure of that. She suddenly appeared, dancing through the mud and corpses on the battlefield as though it was a village green at Whitsun. There were shells and bullets screaming all around, yet she was totally unharmed and as far as I could tell, unnoticed by most. There was something deep and powerful, something elemental, about her; I thought that I was hallucinating. You hear about men going mad in the trenches. I was certain it was happening to me. Then one day, a year or so later, when I was on leave, a French gypsy offered to read my fortune. I was sceptical but when you never know if you’ll be alive from one day to another, where’s the harm? So this gypsy pulls out her tarot cards – the rummest pack I’ve ever seen – and swipe me, she drew a card and there, plain as day, is the Lady’s picture, just as I had seen her and exactly how Randall has described, to the tee.”
Bill got to his feet and pulled on his overcoat. He looked at Betty and added, almost as an afterthought,
“Apparently she’s known in the tarot as The Queen of Flames.”

 

Art by Tom Brown- Permission to use the likeness of Genevive Tudor graciously granted by herself.