Tag Archives: Philomena Bucket

Ghost in the Machine?

I have no idea how the phonograph survived the storm and subsequent shipwreck – but survive it did. This was, unfortunately, more than could be said for the captain and crew of the ‘Golden Cross’, the merchantman that had set out with the honourable intention of ferrying the new-fangled Edison-Bell machine across an inhospitable ocean to England, only to flounder early on in its journey. It would be not unreasonable to suppose that the fogbank that suddenly loomed in her wake was the downfall of the ‘Golden Cross’, concealing as it did – and still does – the treacherous rocks and unnamed terrors lurking in the waters surrounding the island of Hopeless, Maine.

The crate had looked promising, sitting foursquare on the beach. An address label revealed that the intended consignee was the recently founded Gramophone Company, of Maiden Lane, London, England. This gave no clue whatsoever regarding the contents of the crate to the Nailsworthy brothers, twin boys who had never heard of a gramophone, London or, indeed, England. Despite this, they carried it with great care and not a little difficulty back to the Common, wary not to disobey the large, red stencilled letters, which advised ‘This Way Up’ and ‘Do Not Drop – Fragile’.

Regular readers will know that The Common is home to a small community, originally descended from some of the earliest settlers on the island. These are called Commoners. They are recognised by all on Hopeless for their homely disposition, scavenging prowess and no small amount of inbreeding.

A crowd had gathered, anxious to see the wonder that had been revealed, once an inordinate quantity of packaging and padding had been removed from the crate. What could it be? A polished wooden box with a big brass horn and a handle that seemed to do nothing in particular. This was certainly a conundrum that confounded the brains of the brightest of the Commoners. Although it made no sense, the strange item was treated with a certain amount of awe and reverence; after all, they reasoned, anything that had required such delicacy to transport must be a treasure of some worth. In view of this, the phonograph was set up with great ceremony in the middle of their meeting hall.

It was a week or so later that Philomena Bucket chanced to call by. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, was scampering along beside her, rattling happily and attempting to mark his progress with phantom micturitions.

No sooner had she set foot upon the Common than the Nailsworthy brothers appeared and ran excitedly to her.

“Miss Philomena, come and see. Come and see what we’ve found.”

Before Philomena could protest the boys dragged her to the meeting hall and proudly pointed to the mysterious machine.

“Why, it’s a phonograph” she said. “I haven’t seen one of those for ages. I wonder if it still works?”

“D’you know what it does? Can you make it work? Can you… can you? ”  asked Hubert and Osbert Nailsworthy excitedly. “Show us, miss Philomena – pleeease…”

“I think so,” Philomena smiled. “But I need to find some things first. I’ll come back this afternoon.”

It took no time for the word to get around that Philomena Bucket was going to make the machine do something quite wonderful, though no one knew quite what that would be. This did not prevent Gwydion Bagpath, the self-styled elder of the Commoners, speaking knowledgably on the subject, having gleaned whatever information he could from the Nailsworthy boys.

“It is as I guessed,” he said with an air of importance, “I recognised it immediately, of course. It’s called a um… called a…”

Gwydion racked his brain to recall what the boys had said it was.

“Ah yes, it’s called a pornograph I believe”.

Morning wore into afternoon and the excitement in the air was almost palpable as the Commoners waited impatiently for Philomena to return. She, in the meantime, had been ransacking the storeroom of the ‘Squid and Teapot’, looking through the spoils that had been salvaged from the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’, the ship that had brought her to the island several years earlier.

The ship’s skipper, Captain Longdown, had possessed a phonograph exactly like the one salvaged by the Commoners. While Longdown’s phonograph had not survived, some of its cylinders had. Without a phonograph, however, they were quite useless but, thanks to the ‘waste nothing’ philosophy of the island, they had been squirreled away just in case they might come in handy for something one day.

A reverential hush descended upon the meeting hall as Philomena, with Drury at her feet, wound the handle of the spring-gear that powered the machine. She fixed a cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and gently lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle, on to the cylinder’s surface. This began to turn and suddenly, from the depths of the horn, there arose the tinny but unmistakable warblings of a strangulated Irish tenor, who was professing his love for a girl with a wheelbarrow; a girl who apparently sold sea-food.

Philomena gazed wistfully at the Phonograph, her mind transported back to the land of her birth. Her reverie, however, was rudely interrupted by the screams of panic as her audience lapsed into mass-hysteria, believing themselves to have been subjected to all sorts of diabolical witchcraft. Unfazed, Philomena replaced the cylinder with one that played only music. It was Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, a tune beloved by every manufacturer of music-boxes, pretty much since the day that the old boy wrote it. Music-boxes were something that the Commoners could understand. They had seen them before. They knew how they worked. It was generally accepted, by one and all, that music-boxes were definitely not at all diabolical.

One by one the audience drifted back in and Philomena was eventually able to convince even the most sceptical that there was no imp or ghost singing, no demonic voice to ensnare them. Hopeless had its fair share of terrors, this was not one of them. Gingerly, Philomena wound the handle, put the  ‘Molly Malone’ cylinder back on and sang along, her sweet soprano voice mingling with that of the tremulous tenor. Gwydion Bagpath tentatively joined in with the chorus, then, following his lead, another voice picked it up, then another and another until the meeting hall rang with the strains of

‘Alive, alive oh,

Alive, alive oh,

Crying cockles and mussels,

Alive, alive oh.’

By common request the handle was wound and ‘Molly Malone’ was played over and over, more times than anyone could count, until Philomena, quite frankly, felt that she would be happy if she never had to hear the song ever again. Drury, however, was more than content to sit in front of the phonograph’s horn, his head cocked to one side, enjoying every moment. Alive, alive, oh – it was a good thing to be.

Story by Martin Pearson-Art by Tom Brown

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress

For a thousand years, or more, the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine has witnessed a long cavalcade of migrants scramble up its rocky shores. Few have come here willingly but each one, in their own way, has attempted to construct some sort of life for themselves in this most inhospitable of places. For most, that life has been brief; the natural – and supernatural – perils of the island are many.  Some have gone without leaving any trace of their visit, while others have left various possessions, enthusiastically recycled by successive generations. This is why it is not uncommon to see a Hopelessian wearing  spats, plus fours, an Edwardian tail-coat and a tricorn hat. Nothing is ever wasted.

When Philomena Bucket came to the island, having stowed away on the ill-fated merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’, she owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Over the weeks and months that followed she acquired a modest wardrobe, garnered chiefly from the storeroom in the Squid and Teapot, where the forsaken possessions of some of its previous patrons were housed. Despite her humble beginnings, Philomena had no wish to abuse the hospitality of the inn and took no more than was necessary. There was one particular item, however, that caught her eye and she coveted above all others; this was a full length Victorian nightdress, buttoned at the neck and sturdily constructed to repel all but the most ardent attentions.

Washing day tended to be a somewhat drawn-out affair in ‘The Squid’. The process, devoid of any mechanical aid, was long and arduous, involving heating several cauldrons of water and the dexterous application of a wash-board. Soap, more often than not made from wood ash and any hard fat that was available, would be scrubbed into the soiled items, which were then rinsed and dried. It was a thankless task but perversely, Philomena enjoyed it. She appreciated cleanliness, having been forced to endure a certain amount of squalor in her formative years and being able to wash her own clothes gave her particular pleasure.

It was on one such day, some  ten weeks after her arrival on the island, that our tale begins. With the inn’s freshly laundered washing drying reluctantly on the line, Philomena felt free to tackle the task of cleaning her own clothing and bedding, which lay in a basket awaiting her attention. While, over the weeks, she had become accustomed to the strangeness of the Hopeless, nothing would have prepared her for the events that were about to unfold.

Although she could have sworn that no one or nothing had entered the laundry, the contents of the wash basket appeared to move. A sock was thrown across the room, closely followed by a rather pretty chemise that Philomena had inherited from a previous tenant. More disturbing, however, was the sight of her beloved nightdress rising from the tumble of washing and making its way towards the door. Its progress was slow, as though some internal force was being impeded by the cloth that held it. Then, with a whimper, the nightdress stumbled over the step and clattered to the ground with a noisy and totally unexpected rattle. Gingerly, Philomena carefully lifted the vagabond garment by the hem and gave it a gentle shake, then jumped back with a little squeal as a collection of bones clattered out,on to the smooth flagstones. She was even more surprised when the bones dragged themselves up into some semblance of a small quadruped that yawned, shook itself, raised a languid rear leg against the door frame (which remained defiantly undampened) then bounded away in the general direction of Hopeless town. Philomena could only stand speechless as she watched its bony tail wag its way into the distance.

Over the following week Philomena made a few discrete enquiries around the island regarding her osseous visitor, expecting to be denounced as a madwoman at any moment. To her surprise, no one even raised an eyebrow at her description of the skeletal beast. She had, it seems, encountered Drury, a hound of indeterminate breed, or breeds, who resolutely refused to allow the small matter of being dead to spoil his fun. Indeed, the general feeling was that Drury had no sense of his own demise and continued to do all of the doggy things that he had done in life. Philomena heard this with tears in her eyes, remembering her canine friends whose short lives had slipped by all too soon. If only they could have been like Drury and cheated death and if – unlike Drury – they could have hung on to their bodies at the same time, how lovely that would have been.

Of course, Drury was not universally adored or even approved of. While he could be something of an annoyance to various sections of the general community, the ghost population detested him. It is said that all dogs can see ghosts. I have no idea if this is true but Drury, having more than usual access to the afterlife, could see them quite plainly and found them boring. He made it his mission in death to get them to lighten-up a little and enjoy some jollity, an exercise which mainly involved Drury having fun at their expense. Whenever the Mild Hunt appeared (see the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) the wraiths of the maiden ladies would try to shoo him away as he upset their highly-strung spaniels and nip the ankles of their mules, who became even more agitated – and therefore more flatulent- than ever. Obadiah Hyde, the ghostly Mad Parson of Chapel Rock detested him with a vengeance. If there was anything that Hyde disliked more than papists and adulterers (as described in the tale ‘The Headless Lady’) it was dogs, especially those of the deceased variety that stubbornly refused stay that way. In fact, the only ghost that Drury was unable to tease was the Woeful Dane, Lars Pedersen, also known as The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow. Poor old Lars had been haunting the island for almost a thousand years and was so faded as to be almost non-existent. Try as he might, not even Drury could get a reaction out of him.

Following the curious incident of the dog in the nightdress, Philomena Bucket could often be seen with a skeletal hound running along beside her. She did not care that the biscuits she threw fell straight through him, bouncing off his rib cage on to the floor, where it would be retrieved to be thrown again. Although he was not her dog – Drury did not seem to belong to anyone in particular – she knew that he would always be there.

“Maybe he is just an assembly of old bones,” she thought to herself, “but that doesn’t make him any less of a dog – and there can be no better friend to have”

As if reading her thoughts, Drury agreed by lovingly licking her hand with his imaginary tongue. It was good to be alive.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

Baking Bad

Regular readers of ‘The Vendetta’ may recall that The Squid and Teapot once experienced some difficult times under the stewardship of one Tobias Thrupp, a most egregious sort of fellow.  Thrupp’s evil nature and eventual downfall is recalled in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’.  To my knowledge, this is the only period in the inn’s long history that its reputation for generosity has  been tarnished. Except for this brief interlude, newcomers to the island have been given board and lodgings in exchange for some basic chores. This arrangement has continued until such times as they were able to make their own way or, as is more likely, disappear without a trace, as so many do on Hopeless, Maine.

Philomena Bucket had been a resident of The Squid and Teapot for two months. Originally, she had been living in a room on the ground floor of the inn but wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible, she asked to be moved to a tiny attic space that boasted a single window that looked out towards the ocean. At least, it would have, had it not been for the thick and ever-present mist that obscured everything. Now and then an inquisitive gnii would nudge against the glass, spilling its soft, warm light into the room. At first Philomena was alarmed by this intrusion but it had not taken her long to come to love these strange and enigmatic creatures.

Philomena had spent her early life on the streets of Cork, making a precarious living sketching anyone who might give her a few pennies for her efforts. After such an existence, Hopeless, bleak as it was, posed few challenges to her. She was given shelter and food – not plentiful but adequate – and no one looked twice at her, for which she was grateful. Her hair and skin were as pale and translucent as winter moonlight. This albinism, which had occasionally been a source of fear and derision, went by unnoticed on Hopeless. People had better things to worry about than the way that others looked. Besides, she was a hard worker who more than earned her keep, and that counted for much.

One of Philomena’s chores was to forage, in the hopes of finding something a little different to excite the palates of the inn’s patrons. On the day that our tale begins she came across a wreck washed up on the rocks. It reminded Philomena of her own recent arrival on the island. She had been a stowaway, the sole survivor of the ill-fated merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’, which had been carrying a cargo of Irish whiskey. Unsurprisingly, this had been enthusiastically liberated from the ship’s hold and safely stored in the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.  Philomena wondered if this latest wreck contained such a treasure and without another thought, scrambled over the slippery rocks to find out. Being light and nimble, it took her no time at all to reach the ship and climb into its hold. To her disappointment, much of what remained of the cargo had been damaged beyond salvaging when the ship had been ripped open.  A dozen stout barrels, however, stacked above the water level, still looked as though they might contain something worth having.

News travels fast on Hopeless, especially when it concerns bounty from the sea. Before long a small procession of islanders could be seen carefully rolling the barrels over the rough coastal path, headed by Philomena who wanted to make sure that at least one of them reached The Squid and Teapot.

There was much rejoicing on the island when it was discovered that the recovered barrels contained rye flour. Although denser than that ground from wheat, it would make a pleasant change from the acorn flour they usually used, made from the acorns dropped by the island’s scanty oaks, or those washed up on the shore. Fortunately, those living on Hopeless have never demanded much in the way of choice or sophistication in their diet. The most exotic dish known on the island is starry-grabby-pie, which should not be confused with the Cornish delicacy, starry-gazey-pie. Starry-grabby-pie is far more appetising, having tentacles sticking out of the pastry, rather than fish heads and tails.

The rye flour was fairly distributed and before long the air was redolent with the intoxicating scent of baking that wafted from almost every home.

That afternoon, Philomena, standing in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, was preparing to make a batch of pies. She had not bothered to look too closely at the contents of the barrels earlier. After all, there was not really that much to see once the initial excitement had passed. Now, however, something disconcerting caught her eye. There were small black flecks in the flour that ought not to be there. She picked some out and examined them closely. They certainly were not mouse or rat droppings, as she had initially thought. She paused. Something in the deepest recesses of her memory stirred, stretched, yawned, scratched its belly and tried to go back to sleep. Philomena, being the woman she was, had no intention of letting it rest until she had remembered whatever it was that was bothering her.

 

It had been a long, tiring day but Philomena could not sleep. Buttoned securely into an industrial-strength, full-length, Victorian nightdress, she lay in her bed in the little attic room, idly watching the gnii floating quietly by outside her window. She smiled to herself in the darkness, reflecting on the way in which time changes everything. Here she lay, three thousand miles from home on the strangest island imaginable. Why, just a few months ago, if she had witnessed these weird but strangely beautiful creatures passing by her bedroom window she would have thought that she was hallucinating… hallucinating! She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. Hallucinating! That was it. A series of gears and cogs shifted in Philomena’s brain and several pennies started to drop. It must have been well past midnight but her earliest childhood memories finally gave up their secrets, providing her with the answers she had been looking for.

 

Doc Willoughby was not accustomed to waking quite so early in the morning. The insistent rapping at his front door, however, was enough to waken the dead (on Hopeless, one does not say these things lightly!) He peered out of his bedroom window to see that the disturber of his slumbers was Wilhelmina Woodfield, spinster of the parish and fully paid-up member of the hypochondriacal society. The Doc opened his window and glared angrily at her.

“Doc, you must help me. My arms and legs are on fire and a colony of woman-eating turnips in ginger wigs are nesting in my tin bath.”

The Doc eyed her wearily.

“Madam, your extremities are decidedly not on fire. As for the turnip infestation, I cannot possibly comment. This is, after all, our beloved Hopeless.”

By now a handful of Doc’s patients had joined Wilhelmina, all complaining of similar symptoms. Percy Painswick claimed that a candy-striped kangaroo has taken up residence in his bed. This was an especially remarkable revelation as Percy had never seen, or even heard of, a kangaroo, candy-striped or otherwise. Further down the street a growing throng of islanders could be seen running wildly around in various states of undress, screaming and gibbering through the morning mist.

“I need to think about this” exclaimed the Doc and slammed his window shut.

An hour or so passed before anyone knocked on his door again. By now, Doc Willoughby was up and dressed.

“Go away,” he shouted, without opening the door. “I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” said a voice. It was Philomena’s. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve seen this before, in Ireland, years ago, when I was a child.”

 

Word soon got around that Doc Willoughby wanted to address those afflicted, summoning them to the courtyard of The Squid and Teapot that afternoon. This was easier said than done, as most of those attending were, by now, exhibiting a certain amount of noisily challenging and eccentric behaviour.

“I have been doing some research into your problem, at no small inconvenience to myself.”            The Doc had to shout to make himself heard over the cacophony. He caught Philomena’s eye and reddened a little.

“With some… ah… minor assistance from Miss Bucket I … that is, we… have come to the conclusion that you are suffering from Ergot poisoning, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The rye-flour that was found yesterday was infected with ergot fungus. It causes hallucinations and a burning sensation in the limbs.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the more lucid sufferers.

“Throw away your flour and eat nothing else that was made from it. Other than that there is nothing you can do. One of two things will then happen. You will survive… or you will die. Horribly, apparently, and in great pain. The good news is that I haven’t eaten any of the blasted stuff myself”

The Doc wandered off, leaving the assembled throng somewhat disappointed. Philomena decided to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Don’t worry,” she advised them. “This malaise will pass. You will all be fine. Just remember, these strange things you are seeing are just hallucinations. Go up and touch them and they will pop like a bubble.”

Philomena was, of course, perfectly correct. Once the ergot had done its work and the remainder of the flour was safely disposed of, tossed into the depths of the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole in the Night-Soil Man’s garden, all was well and there were almost no fatalities. Almost…

If you have read the tale ‘Bog Oak and Brass’ you will remember that the sinkhole was created centuries earlier, following a battle between the necromancer, T’Abram Spitch and a demon that he had inadvertently and magically freed from a sealed chest. The demon was a bizarre looking creature with the head of a lion, no body and five legs radiating from its head. These legs had cloven hooves and revolved like a Catherine wheel around the head, which remained static. A quick perusal of a 16th century grimoire – still available in various forms – snappily titled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’ by Johann Weyer, will tell you that the demon’s name was and indeed, still is, Buer. As scary things go, Buer sounds far-fetched, even by Hopeless standards. This is exactly what Percy Painswick thought. Whether Buer had been disturbed by the flour barrels being hurled into the sinkhole or just paying a social call, I have no idea but he was lurking in all his demonic glory when Percy passed by.

Taking Philomena’s advice to heart, Percy strode boldly up to, what he imagined to be, his latest hallucination and tugged its leonine mane with some force, then tweaked the demon’s nose. For a second Baur was a little taken aback – but only for a second. Strangely, since then, no one has seen hair nor hide of Percy.

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Scents and Sensibility

Philomena Bucket, having fled Ireland, had endured a month cooped up in the hold of the merchant ship Hetty Pegler’, with cotton pollen irritating her nose and eyes. Following the sudden death of the kindly ship’s captain, she had been slandered as a witch and a harbinger of ill-luck by the first mate of the doomed vessel and now, as its sole survivor, she had reached the island of Hopeless, Maine. Within an hour of setting foot on relatively dry land, however, she found her leg to be in the vice-like grip of something that deigned only to show, so far, a single maliciously powerful, grey-green tentacle. As it dragged her towards its dark lair amid the rocks, Philomena had little doubt that such an unsettling extremity could only belong to a creature who was fully equipped to enjoy a robust and unfussy carnivorous diet.

Suddenly the darkness deepened as a strange, indistinct shape blocked out the meagre moonlight. As the figure drew nearer, she could see that it was that of a burly man with a battered hat and a huge bucket strapped to his back.

Without the newcomer having to say a word, or raise the stick that he was carrying, the suckered tentacle loosened its grip around Philomena’s leg and slithered silently and sullenly into the shadow of the rocks.

‘‘Are you alright ma’am? Sorry’’

‘‘I’m fine, thank you”, she affirmed, “Though the old leg’s a bit on the sore side.”

She paused. “Why did you say sorry?” she asked.

“The smell. Sorry about the smell.”

“Ah. Not a problem.”

It had been such a long time since her olfactory functions had ground to a halt that Philomena had quite forgotten that she had no sense of smell. She could only assume that her saviour had been referring to some slight body odour or even – and Philomena’s pale cheeks flushed ever so slightly pink at the thought – that he was apologising for having inadvertently passed a little noxious gas just before they met.

“You really don’t mind?” even in this dim light Philomena could see the puzzlement on the man’s face.

“No, not at all.”

The Night-Soil Man shook his head in disbelief, tempered with no small degree of pleasure.

For those who have never encountered the Night-Soil Man, I should explain. It is his task to go about by night, servicing the cesspools, privies and earth closets of the inhabitants of Hopeless. It is a lonely occupation, executed with dignity and discretion by one who has been bred to the life. The Night-Soil Man is invariably recruited, as a young boy, from the orphanage. He serves an apprenticeship and when his master eventually succumbs, often sooner rather than later, to the strains and perils of his trade, the apprentice takes over. Because of the perennial stench that surrounds him, the Night-Soil Man is destined to be virtually friendless and definitely celibate for all of his days. The one advantage, however, to this seemingly dreadful curse, is that every creature on the island, however nightmarish, will give him a wide berth.

“Would you be knowing somewhere where I can dry me dress off and get some sleep?” she asked, hesitantly.

“There’s always The Squid, or The Crow,” said her companion, stroking his chin with a grimy hand.

Philomena was confused. The squid or the crow? What good were squids and crows if you wanted your clothes drying?

The Night-Soil Man saw the look on her face and assumed she had no wish to go to either establishment.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “I’m going to be working for hours yet. I’ll show you where I live, it’s not far from here, and you can sort yourself out there. In private, like.”

Fifteen minutes later Philomena found herself in the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, drying her dress in front of the fire, while he continued on his rounds. For reasons he could not fathom he found himself to be somewhat distracted by thoughts of this pale stranger who had wandered into his life.

When he returned home, just before dawn the following morning, the Night-Soil Man found Philomena curled up in his armchair, snoring gently. Tenderly he draped a rug over her sleeping form and tiptoed out to the kitchen to make breakfast. He was not able to get that sweet, pale face out of his mind. There had suddenly manifested a strange sensation deep in the pit of his stomach, a sensation for which he had no explanation – unless, of course, it was the Starry-Grabby Pie that he had had for supper.

When Philomena awoke, some hours later, the Night-Soil Man offered to take her to ‘The Squid and Teapot’, an inn famed for its generosity towards newcomers to the island. Philomena would be safe there, until she found alternative accommodation or – as was so often the case – disappeared without a trace.

As they walked along the cobbled road to the hostelry affectionately known locally as simply ‘The Squid’ Philomena was somewhat alarmed to see anyone they encountered shrink back from them, covering their mouths and noses. As an albino she had suffered more than her share of discrimination over the years, but the people of Hopeless seemed extreme in their reaction. Standing in the courtyard of ‘The Squid’ the Night-Soil Man told her that he could not go any further.

“The landlord and his wife are good people – they’ll give you room and board for as long as it takes. Help as much as you can and they will ask for no other payment.”

Philomena thanked him and he watched wistfully as she disappeared through the stout oak doors of the inn.

Everything happened exactly as the Night Soil Man had predicted. Philomena was granted full board in a comfortable little room on the ground floor of the inn, in exchange for helping out with cooking, cleaning and other chores. After her experiences on the road, she was a little surprised to find that she received no hostile stares within its confines.

Each morning Philomena would find that a posy of tiny flowers had been left overnight and placed upon her windowsill. These cannot be called wild flowers as such; wild flowers, on Hopeless, are really wild. They attack people, run around on limb-like roots and generally cause havoc. No – the flowers on Philomena’s windowsill were of the tame variety, flowers that had struggled up through the unforgiving terrain of this most inhospitable island. She had little doubt who had left them.

She developed the habit of getting up early and making her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, catching him just as he reached home at the end of his rounds. They would exchange news and gossip, laughing like children beneath the greasy, fog-bound skies of what passed as Springtime on Hopeless, Maine. As the days slipped by, a gentle, platonic love blossomed between the two. They would often sit in silence for hours, the tips of their fingers barely touching, each innocently enjoying the simple presence of the other.

It was maybe two weeks after Philomena first reached Hopeless that the landlord of ‘The Squid’ declared a state of emergency. The inn’s supply of alcohol was running dangerously low. It was only then that she remembered that the ‘Hetty Pegler’ had been carrying a consignment of Irish whiskey. If the ship had not disappeared completely, maybe it was still salvageable.

Philomena, along with a small but enthusiastic band of ‘Squid and Teapot’ regulars, made their way to the cove in which the wreck still lay. She was lying considerably deeper in the water than Philomena remembered. She hoped that liberating the whiskey would not be too arduous a task.  The party set to and before long, a reassuringly large number of casks were sitting on the rocks. Besides these, they had managed to salvage a veritable treasure-trove of pots and pans, coils of rope, ink, paper, furniture, cutlery and crockery. All this had been carefully stacked, safely out reach of the encroaching sea, which was becoming increasingly rough, threatening to sink the ‘Hetty Pegler’ for good.

“Just one more look around before she goes down,” yelled Philomena to her companions on the shore. Despite their declaring that they had collected enough and further trips would be dangerous, she ignored their protestations and returned to the ship for one last foray.  Waves had begun to break over the bows before she reappeared on the sloping deck, brandishing a bottle of rum and a china chamber-pot, both of which she raised above her head in triumph.  As she did so, the wreck gave an awful groan, like the death-rattle of some great beast. It lurched and, with little warning, rapidly slid beneath the waves taking Philomena with it. The watchers on the shore could only stare helpless as Philomena disappeared and the rum and chamber-pot flew into the air.

Luckily Philomena managed to escape the sinking ship before it had chance to drag her beneath its shuddering bulk.  All the same, she was no swimmer and the icy salt water was in her eyes, her throat and up her nose. There was seaweed – if seaweed it was – wrapping itself around her legs and tugging her to certain doom. She flayed wildly, desperate for life, not wanting to die just yet… or anytime soon. As if in answer to her unspoken prayers, she felt strong arms tugging at her, lifting her from the angry ocean. The salvage party had turned into a rescue party.

Philomena sat in front of a roaring fire in the snug of ‘The Squid and Teapot,’ drinking a bracing concoction of hot water and whiskey. The excursion to the wreck had been a great success and despite her last, somewhat foolhardy actions, she had become the toast of the island – but something was different. Philomena could not pinpoint exactly what it was but something in her life had changed.

The next morning, she made her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, as usual.  She smiled to herself; it was her turn to give him a present. During the previous evening she had taken one of the sheets of paper, recently retrieved from the wreckage, and sketched, from memory, his portrait. Philomena, it must be said, was an accomplished artist and had supported herself – albeit frugally – drawing and painting for some of the wealthier citizens of Cork, who unwittingly bore within them the spirit of the Medici.

The Night-Soil man came to greet her at the door, smiling broadly but his smile froze when he saw her reaction. She had stopped abruptly, a startled look upon her pallid countenance. She gagged, putting her arm to her mouth. If it had been possible for her face to have blanched even more, then it would have.

“It’s okay,” he said sadly, his head bent in despair. “It’s not your fault. I understand.”

She could not open her mouth to speak, for fear of retching, but the sorrow in her eyes said it all.

She reached out and stretching her arm to its full length, offered him the sketch that she had so lovingly made. He took it from her and for one last, brief time their fingertips touched.

“I love you,” he said, softly, tears rolling down his cheeks.

She looked at him with brimming eyes, then turned and fled into the grey morning, uncontrollable sobs racking her frail body.

The Night-Soil Man returned to his cottage, his heart heavy. His tears had smudged the picture slightly but it did not matter. Written in neat, rounded letters at the bottom of the page were five priceless words that he would treasure forever.

‘With all my love – Philomena’

 

“It’s quite simple,” pronounced Doc Willoughby, joyfully sampling a generous mouthful of the whiskey that Philomena had brought him.

“You were suffering with anosmia. Loss of smell. Almost certainly to do with the pollen stuck up your nose.”

“But how…?” she started to ask a question but Doc, who never missed an opportunity to flaunt the limited knowledge that he possessed, cut her short.

“One of the remedies is to flush the nasal passages with salt water, which you did in some style, may I say.”

Philomena looked down sadly. Anosmia. Oh, how she wished she still had anosmia.

“Can I reverse the process?” she asked, hopefully.

The Doc frowned. Why would she want to?

“We don’t get troubled by too much pollen on Hopeless” he shrugged, pouring himself another drink.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Philomena Bucket

 

Philomena Bucket had found it easy to stow away aboard the merchant vessel Hetty Pegler’, as she lay anchored in the Coal Quay of Cork. It had been almost as easy as Philomena’s decision to leave Ireland for good and seek fame and fortune as an artist in the United States of America.  That, unfortunately, was where ‘easy’ came to an abrupt halt. It took just three days for her to be discovered. Racked by hunger and confident, though misguided, in her belief that the ship would be deserted in the early hours, Philomena crept on all-fours from her hiding place in the hold, only to come face to face, or rather, face to knees, with the first mate, who was attending to his duties as middle-watchman.  It took very little time for Philomena to learn that here was a man who had little room for freeloaders on the ship and would happily have thrown her overboard. Fortunately, however, his respect for the chain of command overcame his natural instincts.

Captain Longdown was cut from a different cloth to his second-in-command. He had been at sea for forty years, had a weak heart and really did not want any more difficulty than was avoidable. To the first mate’s barely concealed disgust, he treated the waif-like creature, unceremoniously hauled before him, with great leniency. It was tricky enough keeping his crew in order at the best of times, without having this young woman aboard. Despite her bone-white pallor and long, snowy tresses, he could see that standing before him was a beauty, albeit an odd one, who could cause more than her fair share of trouble if left to wander about his ship.

“You can get off at the first landfall,” he said, not unkindly. “In the meantime, please keep out of the way.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Just go back into the hold, or wherever it was that you were hiding. I’ll get food brought down to you.”

Not wishing to advertise the presence of the strangely attractive stowaway, the captain entrusted the task of conveying her meals to the less-than-amused first mate, who fumed quietly. It was bad enough for a stowaway to be aboard, but for him, second only to the captain in rank, having to wait upon her was untenable.

From Philomena’s point of view, things were not too bad. She was enjoying a better quality of food and shelter than she had ever known. Staying out of sight was a small price to pay. The only fly in the ointment was a sudden attack of hay fever, which, in this enclosed space and hundreds of miles from the nearest land, puzzled her. The truth was that ‘Hetty Pegler ‘ had previously conveyed a cargo of raw cotton from Virginia, the spores of which still stubbornly fluttered around the rotund casks of Irish whiskey now gracing the hold. The result was that her previously pink, albino eyes were now quite red and her sense of smell seemed to have abandoned her altogether.

It was fully three weeks into the voyage that things started to go awry. A violent storm blew up from nowhere, mercilessly lashing the merchant ship and sweeping a young seaman overboard. For two hectic days the storm refused to abate. A ripped section of the foresail came free from the gaskets. It took four men to climb the rigging to secure the sail but only three returned. The other fell to his death, sprawled like a stringless puppet upon the deck. When, at last, the depleted crew breathed a weary sigh of relief as the tempest eventually blew itself out, an extra rum ration was distributed. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had been blown far off course and it was not many days later, picking their way gingerly through the many islands peppering the coast of Maine, that the Captain Longdown, succumbing to his heart condition, watched the sun sink over the yardarm for the last time and quietly died. Command of ‘Hetty Pegler’ passed to the first mate, a man, we have already learned, not known for his tender heart.

 

The captain’s body was still cooling when the recently promoted first mate dragged Philomena up on to the deck. Stunned and blinking in the sunlight, she winced as he grasped her roughly by the wrist.

“Here is the cause of all of our troubles. This albino witch has cursed this voyage and all the time your oh-so-tender-hearted captain just stood by and let her do it.”

The superstitious crew muttered angrily as they saw, for the first time, the pale, fragile beauty being paraded, humiliatingly, before them.

“Even now she casts some sort of spell. Look at the fog curling up around us. This is not natural.”

The sailors looked and had to agree that the thick mist that had suddenly engulfed them was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced. Its murky tendrils, sinuous and smoky, curled over the ship’s sides, slithering up the masts and coldly caressing their legs. One could, indeed, be forgiven for believing it to be an enchantment, for the crew, to a man, stared in absolute silence, totally mesmerized by the ghostly fog. They quite forgot that their ship, now almost becalmed, was quietly inching forward through dark and hazardous waters. Only when the agonised scream of tortured timbers being reduced to matchwood shattered their reverie, did they realise that they had hit a submerged reef. The ‘Hetty Pegler’ was sinking.

“Abandon ship. Get to the lifeboats” yelled the mate, quite unnecessarily as it happened; the self-same thought had occurred to everyone else.

Philomena suddenly found herself alone, standing on the deck of a doomed ship. She could just make out the blurred forms of the retreating lifeboats. Despite the fact that everyone else had apparently escaped unscathed, there seemed to be an inexplicable amount of noise and commotion coming from their general direction. Terrified screams and huge splashes, as if a large object was being smashed to a thousand pieces by an even larger object, filled her ears. She strained her eyes, still sore from the hay fever, to see through the creeping fog and ascertain what, exactly, might be causing such a disturbance. Mercifully, they failed her and she was spared the spectacle of a gaping beak and long, thick tentacles writhing from the churning ocean, savagely ripping apart the fleeing lifeboats and their gibbering occupants.

It was less than a minute later that the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’ came to an abrupt halt, with her wooden walls still intact, by and large, and bobbing about just above the waterline. Philomena’s feet were barely damp. She gazed about her with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The ship appeared to have run aground on an island. Had the crew known how close they were to safety and not acted so hastily, they could have reached the shore with ease. Why, there were even lit candles, tiny beacons that would have guided them in. It was almost as though they were expected. She could not help but notice other lights, too. They seemed to be moving, as if with a purpose, yet high in the sky, barely discernible through the murky air. Wading thigh-deep through the chilly waters, Philomena wondered to herself how such a thing might be done but immediately dismissed the question from her mind, as the more pressing problem of getting dry and finding shelter occupied her. Stepping on to terra firma, she sneezed violently three times. Despite this, the cotton pollen that had insinuated itself deep into her nasal passages was determined not to move.

Within the hour, night had fallen and a weak, sickly moon peered through the misty sky. Philomena had made slow progress. She found herself walking a dark and rocky path that she fervently hoped led somewhere. Anywhere that had four walls – three walls, even – and a roof of some sort, would suffice. She was frozen. Her wet dress clung heavily to her pale legs and seemed to be getting heavier by the second. It was almost as if something was trying to drag her to the ground. She looked down and stifled a small squeal. Something was!

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine, Philomena Bucket.

To be continued…

 

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown