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A Final Journey

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.

The Northwest Passage

Rhys Cranham had found himself mysteriously deposited into the past of Hopeless, Maine, having been summoned there by the ghostly apparition of a previous Night-Soil Man. Although he had no idea, exactly, how far into the history of the island he had been thrust, the absence of the flushing privy, annexed to the rear of The Squid and Teapot, indicated that he was living in the Hopeless of many years earlier. Despite this, there was one face he recognised from his own time, and that was the bony visage of Drury, who had been around for longer than anyone knew. As far as Drury was concerned, of course, Rhys was a newcomer to the island, but the Night-Soil Man was grateful that his old friend was there to keep him company.

The role of the Night-Soil Man has changed little over the years, and Rhys had strapped on the bucket of the previous incumbent as naturally as if it had been his own. (In fact, it was his own. This version looked much newer and less battered, but, in Rhys’ view, lacked a certain amount of character.)

A week passed by uneventfully, or as uneventfully as a week on Hopeless ever gets. There was the usual array of night-stalkers to avoid, but the Night-Soil Man’s distinct odour was usually more than enough to keep them at bay. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when a dark figure arose from the shadows and ambled unconcernedly towards him. Even more surprising was the fact that Drury failed to growl, but instead wagged his tail enthusiastically.

“You must be our new Night-Soil Man,” said the stranger.
The news that there was a new holder of the office had obviously travelled quickly.
“Poor old Barney, I’ll miss him,” he continued sadly, then added, “but it’s good to meet you…”
For most of us, such an exchange would be unremarkable, but for the Night-Soil Man, it was astounding. Not since his brief flirtation with Philomena Bucket (who had temporarily lost her sense of smell) had anyone actually approached him voluntarily. If that was surprising, the words which followed came as even more of a shock.
“…I’m Elijah. Elijah Cranham.”
It took a moment or two for Rhys to fully appreciate that he was, more than likely, standing in the presence of one of his ancestors.
“You can call me Rhys,” he said, niftily avoiding giving his surname. He needed to know more about this man.
“But your accent… you don’t sound like a local.”
“No, I came to the island from England, via California, Canada and the Northwest… or rather, I should say, the Northeast Passage.”
Elijah laughed bitterly at the last remark.
As Rhys had never been away from Hopeless, none of these references meant a great deal to him, but he was keen to learn something of his ancestry, which had always been a mystery.
“You must be wondering how I can stand so close to you,” said Elijah, hurriedly adding, “no offence intended. It was the Arctic Ocean that did for my sense of smell. I fell overboard three years ago into that icy water, and was lucky to be dragged out alive. I haven’t smelled anything since. Then, after I found myself here, I got friendly with old Barney, the Night-Soil Man. Poor devil had no one to call a friend, as you will appreciate more than most, so he was glad for me to visit and have a chat occasionally.”
“And I’d be happy if you did the same with me,” said Rhys. “Call in whenever you want.”

The days unfolded into weeks, and little by little, Rhys was able to piece together some of his family’s history. Elijah, who had been little more than a boy at the time, left England in 1865, having heard about the gold fever that had gripped California over a decade earlier. He was told by reliable sources that there were still fortunes to be made there. Full of optimism, he eventually found himself in the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California, where the gold fields left a lot of men rich, but a greater number, including Elijah, disappointed. Undeterred, when he learned that gold had been discovered on tributaries of the Yukon River, in far-away Alaska, he decided to try his luck there instead, but again, to no avail (little did he know that he was twenty years too early for the gold-rush).

Far from home, and penniless, he heard tell of an expedition guaranteed to make everyone involved rich and famous. The plan was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a route linking the North Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. Many had tried and all, so far, had failed. This expedition, however, would be different – the explorers would set off from the Pacific and sail eastwards, through the chilly Arctic waters, to the Atlantic. It took little persuasion for Elijah to sign up for the trip, certain, this time, that fame and fortune would not elude him.

“And we did it!” exclaimed Elijah. “We bloody well did it, but nobody outside of this island will ever know. We were the first expedition to make it through the Northwest Passage. Then, with victory in our grasp, a terrible storm blew up and, as far as I know, everyone on board drowned, except me, and it looks as though I’m here to stay. No one ever seems to leave this place, so I suppose I’d better make the most of it. Maybe it’s not too late for me to settle down and raise a family. What do you reckon, Rhys?”

Rhys regarded the man who was his grandfather, several times removed, with eyes that were brimming with tears.
“I’m sure you will, my friend. I’m sure that you will.”

(and if you don’t have a rousing chorus in your head already, you will soon!)


Out of Time

Readers may recall that Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had found himself mysteriously deposited in a Hopeless that he did not recognise. He discovered, in a poorly furnished version of his cottage, the dead body of another Night-Soil Man, guarded by the skeletal hound, Drury. Initially relieved to find that his old friend was there, Rhys changed his mind when it became obvious that not only did Drury not recognise him, but that the dog decided to literally launch an attack, hurling himself in Rhys’ direction. Had Drury been in receipt of hot breath, or indeed, any variety of breath, it is certain that Rhys would have felt the benefit of it on his exposed throat.
Those who have followed the deeds, and misdeeds, of Drury, will not be surprised to learn that, while he makes an exemplary guard-dog, his killer-instinct is pretty much non-existent. If he were human, the idiom ‘all mouth and no trousers’ would immediately spring to mind, which, for Rhys Cranham, was fortunate. Having leapt on to the Night-Soil Man and knocked him to the ground, Drury was at a loss as to what to do next, other than amble back to the corner of the room and look at Rhys with a baleful eye-socket.
From his horizontal position, wheels and small cogs began to whirr and click in Rhys’ mind. The missing privy at The Squid and Teapot, the disappearance of his cobbled pathway and the fact that Drury did not recognise him, all pointed to his having been transported back to an earlier date in the island’s history. While this realisation would have reduced many of us to gibbering wrecks, Rhys was not particularly fazed. After all, he had lived on Hopeless for all of his life. The occasional strange occurrence was to be expected, and could often be viewed as a welcome diversion from the monotony of day to day living.
The immediate priority for the Night-Soil Man was to get Drury on-side, before he dealt with the problem of disposing of the corpse slumped in the chair.
Suddenly inspiration struck. He burst into song and the parlour was filled with the notes of a surprisingly pleasing baritone voice.

“In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone…”

Drury looked up with interest.

“… As she wheeled her wheelbarrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”

By now Drury was on his feet and wagging his tail. There was definitely something about this song that appealed to him.
Rhys launched confidently, and with no small amount of gusto, into the chorus, knowing full-well what effect the song would have on the dog. In his own time, Drury had become instantly enamoured with a version of ‘Molly Malone’, played on a wax-cylinder. While the Irish tenor on the phonograph did a decent enough job, Rhys felt sure that his own effort was vastly superior.
The old magic of ‘Molly Malone’ was working. Drury was wagging not only his tail, but his rear end as well, excited by the singing. It was almost as if he was able to remember the future, which, in view of this taking place on Hopeless, Maine, was by no means outside the realm of possibility.
After a half-a-dozen rousing choruses of ‘alive, alive-o’, Rhys felt that enough was enough. He was definitely in Drury’s good books by now and the osseous hound was sitting happily at his feet. Rhys looked at him fondly, and said,
“Drury, old friend, there’s something we have to do.”
The dog cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
“You’ve been around Night-Soil Men for most of your life… and… um… more,”
Drury had never accepted the fact that he was no longer alive, in the literal sense, so Rhys was being careful. He looked across the room at the corpse in the armchair.
“I don’t know what his name was, or why he died, but there is something important that must be done.”
To Rhys’ surprise Drury rattled to his feet and trotted out through the door, only to return a minute or so later, dragging a bedsheet. There was a clothes peg attached to one corner.
“Up to your old tricks, I see,” muttered Rhys, then he realised what the dog intended him to do.

Rhys spread the sheet on the floor of the cottage and manoeuvred the body of the Night-Soil Man on to it. It took but a few minutes for Rhys to wrap him up and, with some difficulty, hoist him on to his shoulder. Drury watched impassively as he made his way outside, bearing his burden.

The job of a Night-Soil Man is difficult and dangerous, and few enjoy a normal life-span. It has long been their practice to take on an apprentice who, hopefully, will have learned his trade before his master finally succumbs to whatever fate awaits him. When that time comes, the apprentice is expected to dispose of his master’s corpse by dropping him into the bottomless sink-hole that lies at the end of his garden. Although this sounds harsh, it ensures that the body will not be ravaged by any of the denizens who stalk the island, or swim in the wild ocean beyond. When the time came, Rhys, his body racked with sobs, had sent his predecessor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, into the mysterious depths of the sinkhole. It was not a task he had expected to have to repeat, but now, here he was, doing it for a stranger, who, apparently had no apprentice.
“I never knew you my friend, but for some reason your spirit came to find me,” he said, recalling the ghost who had led him there.
With as much reverence as possible, Rhys let the body, still wrapped in its sheet, slip soundlessly into the sink-hole,
“The Night-Soil Man is dead. Long live the Night-Soil Man.”

Rhys walked sadly back to the cottage with Drury at his heels.
“I guess it’s up to me now to be the new Night-Soil man,” he said aloud, then added,
“I wonder what year this is?”
If Drury knew, he was not saying.