“I really appreciate what you are doing, Miss Toadsmoor,”
Miss Calder shimmered slightly in the perennial gloom of the office.
The young woman standing before her gave a small, but respectful, curtsey.
“Please, call me Marjorie.”
“I don’t think that is necessarily a good idea,” said Miss Calder. “We should maintain a degree of propriety and professionalism at all times, at least for the sake of the orphans.”
Marjorie nodded her assent. Although much of her life, prior to coming to Hopeless, was a mystery to her, the stifling decorum of upper middle-class Victorian society was so instilled in her bones that this formal arrangement sounded agreeable, even preferable.
“Excellent,” said Miss Calder, “and you are happy to work with me? My… ah… predicament does not disturb you?”
As if to test her new companion, for a second or two one half of Miss Calder’s face took on a ghastly skeletal quality.
“Not at all,” replied Marjorie, crossing her fingers behind her back.
Since her arrival on the foggy island of Hopeless, Marjorie had lived in The Squid and Teapot, relying upon the charity of Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet. Feeling herself to be no more than a burden to the Middlestreets, she decided that she needed to be independent and seek fresh accommodation and some form of meaningful employment. It was her friend, the barmaid, Philomena Bucket who suggested that Marjorie could help Miss Calder at the orphanage. This was a surprisingly good idea. Having been, in her own words, the main dish at a vampire feast, Miss Calder was now reduced to being a wraith, a condition which presented certain obvious problems when it came to matters of handling and lifting.
Although the ghostly form of Miss Calder took a little getting used to, she was a perpetually young and attractive woman (except when she did the skeletal face thing) who was loved by the children in the orphanage. The same could not be said, however, of the Reverend Davies, a gaunt, cheerless man with Puritan views and bad hair.
“And you feel you can teach the orphans something worthwhile, Miss Toadsmoor?”
The reverend’s eyes bore into Marjorie. He was sceptical that a girl of barely twenty would be able to contribute anything to the education of the orphans.
“Although I know not where or when it occurred, I can assure you that I have received an excellent education, sir.”
“That’s as maybe,” said Davies pointedly, “but can you recall any of it?”
“I am fluent in French and Latin and have a little Greek,” she replied, haughtiness creeping into her voice.
“A fat lot of good that is on Hopeless,” he grumbled. “You will be casting pearls before swine, young lady, pearls before swine… but, very well, if you can keep the orphans occupied for an hour or two, I suppose you will have achieved more than most.”
With a wave of his hand, Reverend Davies dismissed Marjorie from his office.
If, during your school days, you have been forced to sit through a long and monotonous lesson, which has inspired within you not the smallest spark of interest, then you will appreciate the mind-numbing tedium that the unwary orphans found themselves being subjected to. Miss Toadsmoor was exposing her class to their very first taste of Latin. How could they not be thrilled by discovering the language of Virgil, Ovid and Marcus Aurelius, she reasoned to herself. Here was the very bedrock of the Romantic languages; what a gift she was bringing to them.
“And so, if I want to say ‘The girl walked in the woods’ it would be, in Latin, ‘Puella in silva ambulavit’.
“But why miss?” asked a bored voice from the back of the room.
“Because that is the translation,” said Marjorie, patiently.
“No, why did she walk in the woods? It sounds dangerous to me.”
“And me. I wouldn’t do that.”
“No way. I know people who have done that and never returned.”
Marjorie was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the babble of voices, affirming that the puella in question was decidedly chancing her luck by rashly venturing into the silvan groves.
“Perhaps I’ve made this too complicated,” she said, raising her voice above the growing hubbub. “Maybe if I just say, ‘The girl is in the woods…’ ”
“You mean she’s been buried in the woods, miss?”
“No! No! Please children. No one has been buried in the woods.”
Marjorie felt that she was losing control.
“Yes they have. My Uncle Colin was.”
“And Mrs Draycott. I saw her when they dug her up. Horrible, it was.”
Marjorie dropped her head into her hands, defeated.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” said Marjorie tearfully. “I am not connecting with the children at all.”
“I don’t agree,” said Miss Calder. “Maybe Latin isn’t what they need to learn, but the lesson certainly became more animated when you started talking about people being buried in the woods.”
“But I didn’t,” protested Marjorie, “I never mentioned it. They did.”
“Don’t you see, such things are far more relevant to their lives than talking about girls happily skipping around under the trees, whatever language you say it in? They live among horrors, Miss Toadsmoor, a fact to which I can personally attest.”
Marjorie looked downcast. “I confess, my time, so far, on the island has been spent within the shelter of The Squid and Teapot. I know little of the horrors of which you speak.”
“Then learn from the children, Miss Toadsmoor. Listen to what they can teach you. No one is asking you to turn them into academics. There are too many who regard the orphans as nothing but nuisances, barely one level above that of spoonwalkers. They rarely get listened to. I should be doing all of this, of course, but since my unfortunate…” Miss Calder hesitated, “… my unfortunate affliction occurred, I find it increasingly difficult to communicate. It sometimes feels as though I am the only living soul and all those around me are ghosts. Silly, isn’t it?”
Marjorie fell silent for a moment, reflecting on Reverend Davies’ observation that she would be ‘casting pearls before swine’. It was an unpleasant and unnecessary comment that certainly added weight to Miss Calder’s words.
“Thank you, Miss Calder,” she said, brightly. “You have communicated perfectly and your sentiments have been most enlightening. I see clearly now what I must do. Thank you again.”
It was a week or so later, when Marjorie and Philomena Bucket were walking with Drury, the skeletal hound, on the Gydynap Hills, that Marjorie suddenly asked her companion,
“Do you know the song ‘Have you smelt the Night Soil Man?’ ”
Philomena looked at her friend and frowned.
“I can’t say that I do. How does it go?”
Marjorie cleared her throat and began:
“Oh have you smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man,
Oh have you smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine?
Oh yes I’ve smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man,
Oh yes I’ve smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine. POO!”
“I know the tune,” laughed Philomena, “only we used to sing ‘The Muffin Man’ back in Ireland when I was a girl. Where the devil did you hear that?”
“Some of the orphans taught it to me,” said Marjorie. “Apparently, it’s a traditional street-song and has been sung by children here for generations. Since being at the orphanage I have learned so much about Hopeless; its flora and fauna, and the things that are neither, or both. Those children are a treasure trove of information.”
“I thought you were supposed to be teaching them,” said Philomena, throwing a stick for Drury to retrieve.
“Oh, I am, but we have an arrangement,” replied Marjorie. “If the children agree to let me teach them some basic arithmetic or a bit of poetry for an hour, in return I will allow them to teach me something about the island. It usually involves something gory, or scary… in fact the gorier and scarier it is, the better they like it. Are you aware that there is the ghost of a mad parson at Chapel Rock?”
“Yes, I’ve heard, but never mention him if Lady Margaret is haunting anywhere nearby. They have history.”
Philomena was referring to Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady who haunts the flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot. Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was the reason she became headless.
The two women stood together in the swirling mist on the very top of the Gydynaps. On impulse, Marjorie grasped her friend’s hand and squeezed it gently.
“Thank you so much for finding me a place at the orphanage, Philomena. I really feel that I am doing some good, at last. What would I do without you?”
Philomena, who always found taking compliments to be a problem, was about to make some self-deprecating comment when Drury came trotting up and dropped a stick at Marjorie’s feet. When it came to people, Drury was particular and had his favourites. He would not place a stick at just anyone’s feet. Marjorie was one of the good ones, he had decided – and it was her turn to throw.
(Missed part 1? It’s over here – A Moving Tale)