Some of you may remember, from earlier tales, that the very first Night-Soil Man on the island of Hopeless, Maine, was Killigrew O’Stoat, a young man whose tragic history drove him to find solace in such lonely and unsociable employment. In those days there was no tradition of a boy from the orphanage acting as an apprentice, a lad to whom the bucket would be unceremoniously passed upon his master’s demise; when Killigrew died his younger brother, Barney, naturally assumed the role, and carried out his duties faithfully until his own death, some years later. Upon finding himself sprawled dead in his favourite armchair, and having no heir apparent, Barney decided to summon a Night-Soil Man from the future to fill the vacancy, until such times as a replacement came forward. That is how Rhys Cranham found himself plunged into the past. If you think that this sounds less than credible, you must remember that these events occurred on that weirdest of islands, Hopeless, Maine, and that the O’Stoat family were – and indeed, are – famously odd.
Rhys had been working as Barney’s replacement for two months. During that period he had befriended Drury, the skeletal hound (for the second time), and had met his grandfather, several times removed, learning something of his family history along the way. Although Hopeless had changed little from his own era, it was not home to Rhys. Most of all, he missed looking out for Philomena Bucket and keeping a watch over her when she embarked upon some of her more inadvisable adventures.
It was rare for Rhys to encounter other people while he was working. The lateness of the hour, and the less pleasant aspects of his labours were generally sufficient reasons for his clients to give him a wide berth. Tonight, however, was different. A stocky young man stood in the moonlight that fought its way through the mist, illuminating the privy of a small, stone cottage.
“We heard that Barney had died,” said the young man in slightly muffled tones, as his hand shielded his mouth and nose. “I suppose you did the honours…?”
Rhys guessed that he meant the disposal of Barney’s corpse. He nodded.
“I’m Dara O’Stoat, and it’s my place – my duty – to take over, now. It must be true, as Granny said so. She also said that it’s time for you to go back.”
“Granny…?” Rhys was puzzled.
“She’s in there, with cousin Harriet – Harriet Butterow. Granny wants to see you. She ain’t got long, so hurry,” said Dara, cryptically.
Feeling strangely obliged to obey, Rhys unstrapped his bucket and placed it on the path, then hesitantly pushed open the door of the cottage. He was not used to entering people’s homes but, on the other hand, was well aware that no one argues with an O’Stoat matriarch. Besides this, he was curious; he was fairly sure that the woman he was about to meet must have arrived with the founding families.
Harriet met him in the parlour, immediately blanched, then covered her mouth and nose with a square of material. Rhys winced, uncomfortable that his malodour should dog his every step. Wordlessly the girl led him to a small, ill-lit chamber where a very old, white-haired woman was lying on a simple wooden pallet. A thin blanket covered her frail form. At the sight of Rhys, her dull eyes suddenly glowed.
“At last,” she said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice was faint and Rhys could see that she was dying.
“I know who you are, young fella, and where you’re from, but now it is time for you to return. Before you go back, though, I’ve got one final job for you to do.”
If Granny O’Stoat noticed his smell, she did not show it, but her voice was beginning to fail.
“You need to help Granny fulfil her last wish. Her name is Colleen O’Stoat, and the rest of the family will have nothing to do with her,” explained Harriet, who was keeping as far away from the Night-Soil Man as she could. “They call her a witch, a sorceress, which is good, coming from those hypocrites. That is why no one else will do this last thing she’s asking for, not even Dara,” she added, sadly.
“Then I can return to my own time? But how…?”
“She’ll find a way,” said Harriet.
It was just a few hours later that Rhys found himself carrying the lifeless body of Colleen O’Stoat through the grey mists, down to Tragedy Creek. With all the solemnity he could muster, he placed her into the hull of a battered old rowing boat which lay, as Colleen had said, hidden amongst the reeds. He covered the old lady with the threadbare blanket, as though tucking her into bed. Indeed, she looked serene and peaceful, as if asleep. Wading into the shallow water, Rhys turned the bow of the boat to face the open ocean.
His task completed, the Night-Soil Man stepped away. From safely downwind he watched Harriet kiss her grandmother’s brow for one last time. With surprising ease, the girl pushed the tiny craft out to sea. Despite its apparent unseaworthiness, the boat was borne easily upon the waves, drifting eastwards, until it became no more than a speck upon the pale sun that seemed to be rising from the ocean. It was almost as if the very elements themselves were conspiring to respect Colleen’s dying wish, which was to be sent back to the emerald green isle of her birth.
Deep in thought and walking slowly, Rhys made his way back to his cottage. He shivered, feeling the morning grow colder. Suddenly, in marked contrast to the unusually clear conditions of just a few minutes earlier, a heavy sea-fog rolled inland. Even by Hopeless standards, the visibility rapidly became decidedly poor. Rhys could barely see his hand in front of his face. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the fog cleared to no more than the swirling mist that the island enjoyed with monotonous regularity. As it did so, a familiar rattling and panting made him turn; it was Drury loping joyfully along the path behind him.
A voice cut through the morning air, freezing Rhys in his tracks.
“Well, there’s a sight we don’t see that often, to be sure. Rhys Cranham, skulking about in broad daylight!”
The teasing, playful lilt of Philomema Bucket’s gentle Irish tones made his heart soar. She was a dozen yards away but he could clearly see the broad smile on her pale face.
“Philomena,” he called. “Oh, it’s so good to see you. Have you missed me?”
“Not really,” she laughed.
Rhys was taken aback and not a little disappointed.
“Why the devil should I have missed you?” she continued, laughing. “I only saw you yesterday evening, when I left that starry-grabby pie outside your door, you great lummox.”
Rhys grinned. It was good to be back.