He (I will say ‘he’ for the sake of convenience) is as old as humankind itself. Every race and every culture have known his name, be it Raven, Loki, Robin Goodfellow, Anansi, or one of a thousand more. For he is legion. He is Trickster.
Trickster scowled, wrapped up in his own darkness. There was, he reflected, nothing that he could inflict upon this abysmal island to which it had not already subjected itself. Even the humans had weathered his pranks, with the stoicism of those already saturated in misery… well, maybe not quite all of the humans. The girl had been the exception. Killing herself was more than he had hoped for; the truth to tell, not what he had originally wanted. And as for that wretch, the one who called himself Linus Pinfarthing… he was glad to be rid of him, to slough off that particular meat-suit.
Too late had it occurred to Trickster that, when he first possessed the body and soul of Linus Pinfarthing, he had overlooked a tiny spark of humanity burning deep inside the young man. It was a spark that had lain dormant, failing to be kindled by mayhem or murder, only to be fanned into unexpected flame by love and loss. From the moment that Linus had first set eyes upon Marjorie Toadsmoor, Trickster, as puppetmaster, decided that she was to be the one. She would be pursued, ensnared and totally, willingly, enslaved by him. Oh, it would have been such a delicious trick to have made this girl Queen of the Island and render every last, miserable inhabitant in thrall to her. What games he might have played. It had started out well enough. As Linus he had courted her with grace and chivalry, creating an illusion that would not have shamed a May-day picnic on the banks of the Isis, flowing languidly beneath Oxford’s dreaming spires. It was a pity that the Bucket woman had to be there to chaperone them. Things might have been so different. True, Philomena Bucket was pretty enough, but not Trickster’s type; she was far too worldly-wise and knowing.
Those who have read the tale ‘Linus Pinfarthing’ may remember that Philomena and Marjorie awoke, confused, many hours after their luncheon date with Linus. They found themselves lying on the damp slopes of the Gydynap Hills, having no memory of the picnic, or how they had arrived there. Trickster, on the other hand, had used that time well, insinuating himself into Marjorie’s psyche. Little did she know it, but from the moment she awoke from that unnatural slumber, Marjorie would have no choice but to fall in love with Linus Pinfarthing.
The burden of being possessed invariably takes its toll upon body and soul, and Trickster was allowing the young man no rest. By night he stalked abroad, calling up storms and creating chaos and illusion, while during the day he continued to be the affable Linus, the young man adored by virtually everyone on Hopeless. He could frequently be seen walking arm in arm with a fawning Marjorie, the epitome of old-fashioned courtship. Trickster knew that he was burning Linus out; that no human being could live like this for very long.
If you are familiar with any of the various stories told of the Trickster, you will be aware that he frequently overplays his hand, resulting in his plans going awry; this tale is no exception.
Organising a drinking competition in The Crow had seemed like a really good idea at the time. It had to be in The Crow, of course. Trickster knew that, had it been held in The Squid and Teapot, Bartholomew Middlestreet would have kept a stern eye upon the proceedings and imposed his own tedious set of killjoy boundaries. In The Crow, however, anything goes, being a much less respectable establishment; a decidedly Tricksterish sort of place, in fact. Anyone who was there, and in the unlikely event of their being able to remember quite how the evening unfolded, would tell you that it was raucous in the extreme. The competitors warmed to their task with a relish and enthusiasm rarely encountered on the island, and none more so than Linus Pinfarthing. With the powers of the Trickster flowing through his body he was confident of winning, and set a cracking pace, downing pint after lukewarm pint of the flat, uninspiring concoction that passed for beer in The Crow (so unlike the robust nectar that was ‘Old Colonel’, much beloved by patrons of The Squid). The evening ended, as Trickster had planned, in bar-fights and violence, generously interspersed with various acts of theft, casual groping and general skulduggery. What was not planned, however, was for Linus to become so horribly drunk that Trickster was unable to control him, thereby allowing the spark of humanity, mentioned earlier, to flicker into dim life.
I have often thought that drunkenness brings out, and magnifies, a person’s true nature. The innately violent may become positively dangerous, while those with an overly amorous nature might be transformed into raging sex-maniacs… you get the idea. Whether I am right or wrong, an excess of alcohol revealed Linus Pinfarthing to be a hopeless romantic, simpering into his beer about the love of his life, the sweet and beautiful Marjorie Toadsmoor. Through his drunken haze, Linus realised that in order to win her – to win her properly, as himself – he needed to be free of Trickster’s power, and alcohol had, for the moment, allowed him that liberty. With this revelation, the little spark grew strong in Linus, and as it did so, Trickster knew that he had lost the young man forever.
As insubstantial now as the swirling fog that surrounded him, the old rogue consoled himself with the knowledge that there would always be others to possess, others to do his work. Oh yes… and also that he would make sure that the traitor, Linus Pinfarthing, would never know of love or contentment ever again.
(Editor’s Note – there may be some bias here, as the proprietors of The Crow, and its regular visitors consider it to be quite the superior eatery, while considering The Squid and Teapot to be a lowly dive.)
Hopeless was in the grip of Can-Can fever. Les Demoiselles de Moulin Rouge, who had found themselves shipwrecked on the island some weeks earlier, had made such an impression with their wild and uninhibited dance routine, which they had been happy to reprise on a weekly basis, that the whole island seemed to be under some sort of Can-Can spell. Wherever you might choose to go, the strains of Offenbach’s ‘Galop Infernal’ was being hummed, whistled, rattled out on the spoons or – best of all – played on the Bell-Edison Phonograph, that these days occupied pride of place in The Squid and Teapot. It was here that one patron was taken aback, wandering into the flushing privy, to find its resident ghost, The Headless White Lady, with her skirts up over her knees, Can-Canning for all that she was worth. “That woman has a fine pair of legs on her,” he later commented, “especially when you consider that she’s been dead for hundreds of years.”
So popular had the tune become that, ever since the concert when Les Demoiselles had made their island debut, the wax cylinder of the much-beloved song ‘Molly Malone’ had sat gathering dust.
The spectacle of islanders (of both sexes) practising high-kicks and various feats of Terpsichorean diligence had become commonplace, as had the queue outside the surgery of an unsympathetic Doc Willoughby, each patient complaining of sprains, pulled muscles and, occasionally, the consequences of an over-enthusiastic attempt to perform the splits. Bartholomew Middlestreet was adamant that his strained expression and stiff, halting gait, was on account of his having put his back out while lifting a barrel, but no one took this explanation seriously.
The only voice of dissent was, unsurprisingly, Reverend Davies. Things grew a little tricky, however, when he was caught quietly humming the ‘Galop Infernal’, but he excused himself by maintaining, in haughty but hurt tones, that he was actually reminding himself of the allegro from the second movement of Beethoven’s tenth symphony, which the scoundrel Offenbach had obviously stolen. He had a very good chance of being believed, until Miss Toadsmoor innocently pointed out that Herr Beethoven had laid down his quill after nine symphonies, so the Reverend must be mistaken. If looks could maim, Miss Toadsmoor would have been carried out in a paper bag, but being a Man of God, and conscious that the Pallid Rock Orphanage was in desperate need of her services, he grudgingly let the matter go.
Things came to a head when half-a-dozen stalwarts of ‘The Crow’, generously lubricated and keen to impress, linked arms and Can-Canned themselves spectacularly over the edge of a cliff, never to be seen again. When they heard the news, Les Demoiselles were mortified, feeling responsible, and vowed that there would be no more shows unless the islanders stopped dancing in the streets; at least, that was a blushing Miss Toadsmoor’s somewhat genteel translation of some extremely earthy and robust Gallic sentiments regarding the antics of drunken fools and the desecration of their noble art.
A chastened Hopeless took note, the street-dancing stopped, and with its demise, all injuries and fatalities receded to pre-Can-Can levels. The occasional snatch of the familiar tune could be heard, but, by and large, the only evidence that it was still an ear-worm for most was the not-uncommon sight of islanders standing with a faraway look in their eyes, rocking slightly, as if being forcibly restrained, and tapping their feet to a melody that only they could hear. With some semblance of order restored, Les Demoiselles agreed to resume their weekly concerts, with the proviso that ‘Molly Malone’ was also to be played at the end of each evening, in the vague hope that the strangulated Irish tenor, with his chorus of ‘Alive, alive, oh’, would once more regain prime position in the hearts of all Hopelessians.
There was once a musician who owned two dogs. The larger dog went “Woof… woof… woof.” So the musician named that dog ‘Bach’. The smaller dog was more excitable, and went “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof…” And that dog he called ‘Offenbach’.
While that joke probably failed to have you rolling in the proverbial aisles, I am sure that you recognised it as being an attempt at humour. Maybe you even smiled. What is certain is, had you been a resident of the island of Hopeless, Maine, the joke would have sailed spectacularly over your head and out into the deepest reaches of space. Hopelessians have always been strangers to the goings-on of the opera house and concert hall, and this has been a source of deep regret to Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, a governess at the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Since the day she first set foot upon the island, Miss Toadsmoor longed, above all else, to bring high culture to her fellow islanders. ……………………………………………………………………
Bartholomew Middlestreet and his wife, Ariadne, rushed down to the beach, where Philomena Bucket was already waiting for them. A worried expression was etched upon Philomena’s pale countenance. “They’re over there,” she said, pointing. “I don’t know if they’re alive or no.” The trio picked their way to where four bedraggled female bodies lay, face down in the dark sand. A quick inspection by Ariadne verified that each was still alive. “They’re young and strong,” she declared. “They’ll be fine after a night or two in The Squid.” The Squid and Teapot had long had a reputation for hospitality, especially towards newcomers to the island, and within no time the four young women were safely tucked up in a large guest room on the first floor of the inn.
It was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, who discovered their travelling trunk, caught among the rocks. Other, less scrupulous people, would have prised it open and taken anything worth having, but not Rhys. He was aware that there were newcomers up at The Squid, and the trunk had to belong to one, or more, of them. With years of practice behind him, the Night-Soil Man hefted it on to his back and carried it up to the inn, where he left it on the doorstep.
Bartholomew and Ariadne were at a loss to understand a word that the four young women uttered. It was only when the front door was opened, revealing the travelling trunk, that any headway was made in communicating with them. “Aah.. le coffre!” exclaimed one, happily. “No, it’s not a coffin. It’s a chest.” explained Bartholomew, helpfully, eyeing the shipping labels festooned over its surface. Even Bartholomew’s limited geographical knowledge knew vaguely that somewhere, across the waves, there existed a place called France. When Philomena appeared she agreed that the newcomers may, indeed, be from there. Philomena knew just, one sentence in French. “Parlay vooz Fransays?” she enquired politely. “Ah, oui, oui,” chorused the girls delightedly, and started to chatter away, expecting Philomena to respond in kind, but the barmaid felt suddenly totally lost. Then a plan formed in her head. “I’ll get Marjorie over,” she thought aloud to herself. “ She’ll know what to say.”
“The girls are delightful,” gushed Marjorie Toadsmoor a few hours later. “They tell me that they are dancers, though I must admit to being a little confused, for they gave the impression that they worked in a red mill, somewhere in Paris. I can only think that they dance purely as a hobby, and for the entertainment of the other mill-workers. It appears that the orchestra who sailed with them, and indeed, everyone else on the ship, perished in a storm. All they have left is that travelling trunk, which contains their costumes and make-up, and also a wax cylinder upon which may be heard their music.” “Why, that’s wonderful,” exclaimed Philomena. “We’ve got a phonograph here on the island,” adding silently to herself, ‘‘and it’ll make a welcome change from that lousy tenor going on about Molly-blasted-Malone all the time.’’
Over the next few days wheels and cogs spun endlessly in Miss Toadsmoor’s head. She would devise an entertainment for the islanders; a thank-you for taking her to their collective hearts. There would be recitals, music and poetry, and the crowning glory, a stately dance by the young ladies of the Red Mill. To Miss Toadsmoor’s joy she had discovered that the music on the wax cylinder was an excerpt from an opera, no less, entitled Orpheus in the Underworld, by one Monsieur Jacques Offenbach. Although Marjorie was not familiar with M.Offenbach, or his work, she loved the Greek myths and was certain that the young ladies, dancing to his music, would provide a pearl of high culture in an evening of simple, homespun entertainment. She could envisage them already, swathed in their pure white costumes, diaphanous but modest and tasteful. The music would surely be ethereal, as befitted the tragic myth. As each day passed and the programme of events arranged, it became difficult for her to contain her excitement.
The big night arrived and the Meeting Hall was packed. Word had soon spread that there was to be music and dancing, although when it was revealed that the main act included an excerpt from a French opera, more than one heart dropped. However, the islanders of Hopeless are a stoic and steadfast band, at least for much of the time. The promise of free beer and starry-grabby pie (generously donated by both ‘The Crow’ and ‘The Squid and Teapot’) concentrated minds and cemented loyalties. They could put up with a bit of prancing around as long as one or two of their number were prepared to make fools of themselves, and they were able to join in a chorus or three of that all-time favourite, Molly Malone.
Marjorie Toadsmoor stood in front of the assembled islanders and introduced the evening’s programme. “… And after Mr Jones’ poem, we will be treated to a medley of folk-songs from the children of the Pallid Rock Orphanage; then there will be a display of shadow puppetry by Norbert Gannicox, followed by Mr and Mrs Middlestreet performing the song, ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’. Following that, I am reliably informed, you will all join in with a rendition, played on the phonograph, of the popular song, Molly Malone (this raised a roar of approval from the audience, interspersed with a certain amount of excitable barking). Then will come our grand finale, an excerpt from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Monsieur Jacques Offenbach, and danced by Les Demoiselles de le Moulin Rouge. I have not seen this dance myself, as yet, and I am as excited as you all must be. So, without more ado… ” The evening went well. Even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby, sitting in the front row, appeared to be enjoying the entertainment. The children of the orphanage sat quietly beside the Reverend as soon as their act was finished, filling up the remainder of the available spaces. Philomena was in charge of the phonograph, with the ever-faithful Drury by her side. When the time came, she gritted her teeth and played Molly Malone. The chorus of ‘Alive, alive oh’ was guaranteed to be popular, not least with Drury, who capered and gambolled like a puppy. Marjorie groaned. She had no idea that the song Molly Malone was so popular. It was nothing short of an anthem to these people and anything which followed could only be an anti-climax. Oh, what a fool she had been! However, the die was cast and nothing could be done about it now.
Philomena Bucket looked at the container which held Les Demoiselles’ wax-cylinder. Stencilled upon its side were the words ‘J Offenbach: Galop Infernal.’ As mentioned earlier, Philomena’s grasp of the French language was flimsier than flimsy, but those words did not convey the sedate, ethereal music that Marjorie had imagined. It sounded much more fun. With a shrug of her shoulders she wound the handle of the Edison-Bell phonograph, fixed the cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle. As the opening bars of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop – commonly known to most people as the ‘Can-Can’ – filled the Meeting Hall, the four young ladies, clad now in short but full tricolour skirts, knee-length boots, low-cut basques and black stockings, came whooping on to the stage. Marjorie paled visibly and Reverend Davies, stony faced, suddenly developed a very noticeable pulse beat in a vein in his right temple. On stage, skirts were swirled coquettishly and legs were kicked provocatively high, revealing gartered, white thighs, above black stocking-tops. The dance grew ever more frantic and Doc Willoughby’s glasses seemed to be steaming up. The girls from the orphanage sat in awe, each one making a mental note to one day become dancers, just like Les Demoiselles. As for the boys… it’s probably best that we don’t enquire too closely. “Well, at least it can’t get any worse,” thought Marjorie, consoling herself. It was then that the dancers turned away from the audience, leaned over and threw their skirts over their backs, exposing a fine view of four pairs of frilly drawers, each one wriggling its respective derrière suggestively. Marjorie covered her face with her hands, completely missing the grand finale which featured the dancers doing the splits. There was a moment of absolute silence when the music stopped, then suddenly the room exploded to a volley of applause, cheers, appreciative whoops, whistles and a few skeletal-sounding barks. There were also loud, insistent calls for more. The dancers smiled and nodded to Philomena, who dutifully lowered the brass reproducer once more on to the cylinder, and the dance resumed. This time Les Demoiselles found themselves joined by several less-inhibited members of the audience, and Drury scampering around, in obvious ecstasy. Reverend Davies left soon after, ushering the orphans before him and muttering that it was past their bed-time. Doc Willoughby was seen slumped on his seat, mopping his brow with one hand and fanning himself with the other. A crowd gathered round Marjorie and the dancers, waxing lyrical with their praise and relegating Molly Malone to second place in their list of favourite tunes. The evening could not have been more successful. There was just one question Marjorie wanted to ask Les Demoiselles; what, exactly, did they make at the Red Mill?
“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.
It was decided that the attics of The Squid and Teapot were in dire need of a good spring-clean. This was by no means an annual chore, but since Doc Willoughby had thoroughly ransacked the rooms, frantically searching for information concerning European warships of the sixteenth century, then failing to clear up after himself, the place was in a dreadful mess. This seemed to be as good a time as any to indulge in spot of a tidying-up. While Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet swept and dusted, Norbert Gannicox and Philomena Bucket set about the daunting task of putting the multitude of scattered books back into some semblance of order. The work was not particularly arduous but the profusion of dust was inclined to make the throats of the four workers particularly dry. Fortunately, being an inn, The Squid was reassuringly well furnished with thirst-quenching drinks, the chief one being ‘Old Colonel’ Ale, the pride of the Ebley Brewery. A pitcher was brought up from the bar and three foaming pints were poured. Norbert Gannicox, who had abstained from alcohol for many years, contented himself with a glass of sarsaparilla. Unsurprisingly, this too was produced by the Ebley Brewery, following the discovery, some years earlier, of a crate packed with sassafras roots and assorted spices. It is sufficient to say, however, that the non-alcoholic beverage, even when it was called root beer, was not universally popular with the more robust tipplers of the island; in other words, pretty much everyone. “I’m surprised that you’re teetotal, being a distiller,” commented Philomena, casually. Norbert looked at her sadly. “I gave up the booze when my dad was drowned in a vat of his own liquor,” he said. “It was five or six years before we eventually found him. He was perfectly preserved.” “Ah well, at least he was in good spirits when he died,“ laughed Philomena. There was an awkward silence for a moment. If Hopeless was the sort of place where tumbleweeds were inclined to tumble, one would have definitely blown through the room. Then everyone spoke at once, commenting on the scarcity of gnii; the need to mend the cistern in the flushing privy; Mrs. Beaton’s latest tirade and a general enquiry whether anyone had seen Drury that day. In fact, any subject that avoided mentioning death, barrels, drowning or spirits was fair game for a few minutes.
The work was almost finished when Philomena spotted a dusty cardboard box lying on a high shelf. Perching herself precariously on a rickety step stool, she reached it down and, much to the annoyance of the others, blew off a cloud of dust and peered inside. “Whatever is this…?” she asked no one in particular, drawing out a mauve, egg-shaped, object. It had an array of, what appeared to be, flat-bottomed beads around the outside. “Good gosh,” exclaimed Bartholomew, narrowly avoiding profanity. “I haven’t seen that in years. As far as I recall it was sent as a gift to someone.” “Why, I remember seeing that when I was a kid. I’m fairly sure that it was sent to my uncle and aunt,” Norbert broke in, excitedly, “Bill and Constanza Ebley. Constanza was my dad’s younger sister, and Uncle Bill was the founder of the brewery.” Sensing that they were about to be regaled with a slice of island history, the others settled themselves into some of the more comfortable seats, which had been stored in the attics. “Uncle Bill was a servant of some description, who arrived on the island with his boss, colonel somebody-or-other. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a few years Bill and Constanza got married and the colonel left the island. “Left the island?” asked Philomena, incredulously. “How the devil did he do that? I thought it was impossible.” “It is now,” agreed Norbert, “but in those days there was an Indian trader, a Passamaquoddy, who rowed over from the mainland a couple of times a year. The colonel hitched a ride with him.” “I’ve heard of the trader,” said Ariadne. “My grandma knew him. His name was Joseph.” “Well,” continued Norbert, “The colonel travelled all over the world after he left, but managed to keep in contact with uncle Bill, via this Joseph fella. When he heard that they’d had a child, a daughter– which was a bit of a surprise as they weren’t that young – he sent them all sorts of stuff, including this egg.” “That’s a strange gift to send a kid,” said Bartholomew. “There’s not a lot you can do with it.” “That’s for sure,” said Norbert, nodding. “It looks too small and fragile.” “Let’s take a closer look,” said Philomena, lifting the egg from its box. It took her only a few moments to find that the mauve egg, which was little more than three inches in height, consisted of two enamelled halves, which opened easily. Inside was a heart-shaped locket. The others watched intently as Philomena pressed a tiny catch on the side of the locket, which immediately sprung open into a clover-shaped picture-frame, each leaf containing a miniature portrait. “Why, if it isn’t a shamrock!” exclaimed Philomena, then adding with some disappointment, “pity it isn’t green, though.” “Who are the people in the pictures?” asked Ariadne. “There’s a man, a woman and a baby girl,” observed Bartholomew, “It must be Bill, Constanza and their daughter, I guess.” “I don’t think so. That uniform is a bit on the grand side for the British army,” said Philomena, eyeing the gentleman in the picture. He looked haughty and high-ranking, his uniform festooned with medals and epaulettes. She hadn’t seen any soldiers walking around like that in Ireland. “Maybe that’s why it ended up being stored in these attics,” said Bartholomew. “It’s just a cheap ornament. All something like that is good for is to be stuck on a mantelpiece, where you can watch it gather dust.” “What a shame,” said Ariadne, “though I reckon you’re wrong about it being cheap. I’ll bet that old colonel paid as much as five dollars for it.” “Then he was robbed,” grunted Bartholomew. Philomena clicked the picture-frame back together, re-assembled the egg and was about to replace it in the cardboard box, when she noticed a folded piece of paper, yellow with age, lying in the bottom. Carefully opening the page, she squinted in the dim attic light to read what was written. “It starts with, My Dear Ebley…” she said. “That must be Bill he’s writing to. Then he goes on to say, hope you and Mrs Ebley… blah blah blah… young Mildred… blah blah blah… gift of this special egg…. and then… oh, good grief, what’s this word? Blast it, the man has started writing in French. Does anybody know what Fabergé means…?”
Author’s note: If the reference to Doc Willoughby suddenly becoming fascinated by history is at all puzzling to you, then you obviously have not read the ‘Little Ship of Horrors’ trilogy of tales. There is no time like the present. Should you wish to know more about the adventures of Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green and his erstwhile batman, William Ebley, of the King’s own Regiment, you could start by reading the tale ‘Jolly Boating Weather’. The Passamaquoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs (to give him his full name) first appears in the tale ‘The Wendigo’.
Without doubt, the Gannicox Distillery makes the finest vodka on Hopeless. That said, its only competition exists in the shape of a handful of moonshiners, who invariably go blind and/or insane after the first few distillations. Norbert Gannicox, the distillery’s proprietor, is not, himself, a drinker, but he has no inhibitions when it comes to encouraging others to sample the fruits of his labour. One of the island’s more enthusiastic samplers is Doc Willoughby, and on the evening of this tale, the Doc was being encouraged to sample more of the spirit than was probably good for him.
Doc Willoughby had been tricked into going to The Squid and Teapot by its landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, who was worried about the Doc’s odd behaviour following the arrival, and subsequent destruction, of a haunted Tudor Galleon, ‘Mary Willoughby’ (if you have not yet read the first two instalments of this tale, now might be a good time). Little by little, and drink by drink, the Doc revealed all about his obsession with the galleon, and the plank bearing her name that lay hidden in his basement. “Voices in my head”, he told them, “promised that I am the rightful heir to the Willoughby estate. That is why the ship defied time and space, it came to find me on Hopeless”. Bartholomew, Norbert, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket listened with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. They each imagined that the sardonic and cynical Doc Willoughby would be the last person on the island likely to be possessed in this way. “You see,” slurred the Doc, “the Willoughby’s are English aristocracy. I am of ancient and noble lineage.” “That’s a load of old blarney,” blurted Philomena. “Why, there’s loads of Willoughbys all around Dublin and Cork. To be sure, me great granny was a Willoughby, so maybe I’m an aristocrat to – or there again,” she added slyly, “ you might be related to me.” The Doc pulled a face. He didn’t dislike Philomena – at least, no more than he disliked anyone else – but he certainly did not want to be related to her. “But the ship found me, the rightful heir.” he moaned, before gently sliding off his chair and on to the floor, where he began to doze and snore loudly. “I think we need to find that plank and put a stop to all this.” said Philomena, briskly.
Philomena and Norbert made their way to the Doc’s home, while the Middlestreets did their best to make the slumbering Doc as comfortable as possible. They had a nasty feeling that he was going to have the mother of all hangovers when he eventually awoke.
The air in the basement was foul and was filled with harsh, unearthly cries and whispers. Not wishing to linger, it took little time for Philomena and Norbert to find the plank. The pair recoiled in horror when they saw the slimy mass that now crawled over it, obscuring the name of the galleon. “I’m not touching that.” said Philomena, and Norbert was more than inclined to agree.
Ten minutes later, sitting in the Doc’s surgery, they tried to make sense of what was going on. The fact of the ship arriving on the shores of Hopeless was the least of the mysteries. “There’s plenty of people who have turned up here out of their own time,” said Philomena, conscious that she, herself, had done exactly this. “But that plank, crawling with slime… the smell… the voices?” said Norbert. “Whatever it is, it needs to be gone,” said Philomena, “and I think I know how.”
Those of you who have followed the ‘Tales from the Squid and Teapot’ for some time might remember that the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening had arrived, with her head tucked underneath her arm, on the island many years earlier. She had been haunting the stonework that had once been part of Oxlynch Manor, a Jacobean building bought by an American millionaire. He had arranged for the manor to be dismantled, stone by stone, with the intention that it would be reassembled on his estate in Connecticut. Following the Wall Street crash, however, the building was abandoned on the dockside in Newhaven, where the bulk of it was eventually liberated by local opportunists for various building projects. The last few bits ended up on Hopeless and became the new flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, where Lady Margaret made her home as the Headless White Lady. Being an amiable sort of ghost, she struck up a friendship with the barmaid, Betty Butterow. They discovered that by moving a single stone block from the privy and depositing it elsewhere on the island, Lady Margaret could go sightseeing. This is, essentially, a long-winded way of saying what had happened to the ghosts of the ‘Mary Willoughby’. Simply put, following the destruction of the ship, they all migrated to a single plank of wood. Fortunately, being ghosts and therefore ethereal, they didn’t find this arrangement remotely crowded or claustrophobic. What they really wanted, though, was to take up residence in a human, to become legion, and Doc Willoughby took the bait – or at least, would have done, hook, line and sinker, if he had not been stopped at the last moment.
When Philomena found Drury, the skeletal hound, he was enjoying a dream which involved chasing spoonwalkers around the island. His bony legs were twitching and he made small, whimpering noises in his sleep. Philomena smiled fondly at her friend, but time was pressing and Drury had, quite literally, all of eternity in which to sleep. She gave a low whistle and immediately the dog leapt to his feet and gave himself a rattling shake. “Come on, Drury,” said Philomena, twirling a stout length of rope, “I need your help.”
Drury quite liked the smell of the basement and pranced around happily, getting under the feet of Philomena and Norbert, who, with some trepidation managed to wind the rope securely around the plank while miraculously avoiding touching the jelly-like substance that covered it, which occasionally reached out as if to grab them. Knowing exactly what was expected of him, Drury picked up the end of the rope in his powerful jaws and dragged the plank up the steps, banging through the surgery and out on to the road. This was a game and the tendrils that writhed and reached out were all part of the fun. Drury had no fear of the spirits that haunted the plank and cheerfully shook them off. Since he had been dead for years (though blissfully unaware of the fact) they could never have possessed him, even if they had wanted to.
Dusk was falling and the pale lights of the passing gnii glimmered gently, high overhead. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stretched and peered blearily out of his bedroom window. He had just woken from a deep, satisfying sleep and was in a particularly good mood, ready to start his shift. Drury was in the garden, which was always a welcome sign. The osseous hound was unique, inasmuch as he had no problem with the smell that seemed to cling to every fibre of Rhys and his home. In fact, in true doggie fashion, Drury revelled in it. Rhys hoped that he would be keeping him company tonight while he completed his rounds. Drury, however, seemed to be concentrating at the moment on other matters, matters which mainly consisted of a length of rope and an old plank which had become entangled in a clump of bushes, refusing to be dragged further. Always happy to help, Rhys went outside with the intention of freeing the plank, only to be surprised by the dog’s reaction. Drury put himself between the offending bushes and the Night Soil Man, barking and growling with some ferocity. Rhys wondered what could be wrong; the dog had never treated him in this way before. Why, if he had been made of flesh and blood, Drury would be baring his teeth at him. As it was, Drury’s teeth were in a continuous state of bareness, so to speak, so the effect was far less menacing. “Hey, old fella…” Rhys started to say, then noticed the goo wriggling over the face of the plank. He recognised it immediately. “There’s only one place for that to go – the sinkhole” he said to himself, then realised that Drury had already thought the same thing. It was one of the dog’s favourite places for hiding the things he had no use for (including the city-slicker, Garfield Lawnside, as was related in the tale ‘The Persian Runner’).
Rhys kept a long ash pole propped by the side of his cottage. The pole had a Y-shaped prong on the one end and was generally used to pick up the baskets of beer and starry-grabby pies which Philomena Bucket routinely delivered from ‘The Squid’. In her early days on the island, when Philomena had no sense of smell, she and Rhys had fallen in love. It was not to be, for sad to relate, close contact with anyone in receipt of fully functioning olfactory senses is out of the question for a Night Soil Man, hence the pole. Today, Rhys decided, it would be needed for pursuits far more important than retrieving starry-grabby pies.
After twenty minutes of fervent pole-wielding, try as he might, Rhys could not dislodge the plank, despite Drury’s equally valiant attempts pulling the rope. As if aware of their fate, the tendrils of slime had attached themselves to anything within reach, and as the dusk descended into darkness, their strength seemed to grow. Just as all hope of shifting the plank faded, Rhys heard a babble of raised voices which grew nearer by the second. “For gosh-sakes, Doc, you need to come back now…” It was Bartholomew Middlestreet, getting as close to profanity as he dared. “No… ish my plank, s’my inheritance…hic.. oh my head….” Doc, who had sobered up a little, still sounded slightly drunk and somehow different to normal. “Doc Willoughby… get here now…” This was Philomena. Rhys winced at the memory of their brief flirtation. Suddenly the Doc, his eyes glistening, burst through the darkness, totally oblivious to the all-encompassing reek of the Night Soil Man, and tried to grab the rope from Drury’s mouth. Bartholomew, Philomena, Ariadne and Norbert stood at a safe and respectable distance, barely visible in the moonlight. “Gimme that…” said the Doc, roughly. For once in his after-life, Drury did as he was told, probably more out of astonishment than anything else. Doc Willoughby picked up the rope and dragged the plank towards him. Sensing his presence, the tendrils loosened their grip on the bushes. “I’ve come to claim my inheritance… I’ll let you all in,” intoned the Doc. It was only then that Rhys realised that the curmudgeonly old physician was under some sort of enchantment. He needed to do something quickly. It was as if Drury read the Night Soil Man’s thoughts, and the two sprung into action at the same time. The dog threw himself at Doc Willoughby, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Rhys grabbed the rope and, with the power of someone who had spent years hefting buckets of effluent around, sent the plank spinning into the air. It hung vertically, as if suspended for a moment, then plunged with disarming accuracy into the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole that lay at the end of the Night Soil Man’s garden. “Nooooooo…” cried the Doc in anguish as the last remnant of the Mary Willoughby, along with its attendant spirits, plunged into the depths of the abyss. He lay silent, waiting for the inevitable splash. Seconds turned to minutes but it never came. When Doc Willoughby eventually sat upright, Rhys could see that the strange light in his eyes had faded. His voice had become normal again, although the first few syllables were hardly encouraging. “Eughhh… aaargh… ack.. that is disgusting,” he choked, retching and covering his nose and mouth as best he could. Rhys could only smile as the Doc staggered back to the four others, who were still patiently waiting, some yards away. “Come on Drury,” he said, “it’s time to go to work.”
No one ever mentioned the episode of the Mary Willoughby again. If the Doc remembered any of it, he certainly didn’t say so. He did complain to Norbert Gannicox, however, grousing about a bad batch of vodka. He was certain that it must have been made from night-potatoes, as it had given him awful dreams and a ferocious hangover.
Reverend William Spooner, Dean of New College Oxford, was an old and trusted friend of the well-to-do Toadsmoor family. When, one bright morning, he suggested that their youngest daughter, Marjorie, should take the Oxford University entrance examination, the household was gripped by a level of excitement which may have been considered unseemly in some Victorian circles, where a muted “Good show” might be all that was permitted. But excited they were, for this was an historical moment; in this year of 1885, the august university had at last deigned give women the opportunity to study within its hallowed halls of learning. The family’s proudest moment was shattered and turned to grief just a few weeks later, however, when their brilliant daughter disappeared, never to be seen by them again.
Marjorie Toadsmoor is one of Hopeless, Maine’s newer residents. I have no idea how or why she arrived there, and come to that, neither has she. Like Garfield Lawnside, the city slicker who had designs to buy the island (see the tale ‘The Persian Runner’), she wandered down the wrong street one day and ended up on Hopeless. Finding herself standing in the shadow of a lighthouse and looking out over a wild and foggy sea, struck her as being somewhat bizarre as, just minutes before, she had been walking through Oxford. As you may appreciate, the town of Oxford is very far from being coastal.
It is fortunate that those on Hopeless are not slaves to fashion, or even vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Indeed, Hopeless seems sometimes to hover within its own time, sheltered from all aspects of modernity. I may be wrong (and I frequently am) but if she had been transported from any era, past or future, it would not have mattered to anyone, particularly. I mention this only because Marjorie appeared upon the shores of the island as the very essence of the modern Victorian lady-about-town. As it was, resplendent in bonnet, hooped skirt and carrying a parasol,, she looked no more out of place than anyone else on the island – and with each step she took, all but the most fleeting memories of her past life gradually melted away, like snow upon the water.
Marjorie’s first experience of the strangeness of Hopeless happened within an hour of her arrival. Wandering inadvertently into a narrow alley, she found herself looking at a diminutive, fish like creature, with glowing eyes and tendril – like appendages, foraging among the rubbish. It appeared to propel itself along by employing a pair of silver dessert spoons as stilts. Not being particularly fond of most varieties of fauna at the best of times, Marjorie let out a scream of terror. The creature spun around upon its spoons and glared menacingly at the young woman. It has been reported on several occasions that the stare of a spoonwalker – for spoonwalker it was – can induce madness. Whether this was the case, I do not know but the situation was not helped when, in a bid to escape, it shot beneath her skirt and out of the other side before she could draw breath to scream again.
“Are you alright, miss?” It was Philomena Bucket who found her, crouched upon the floor and shaking like an aspen. Marjorie looked up and was surprised to see a strangely beautiful woman with white hair and a pale, kind face. An albino! Something rang a distant bell in her mind; she had known an albino, a kindly man who was always getting his words mixed up, but that seemed long ago and far away. “What was that creature… the one walking on spoons?” she asked. “Ah, that would be a spoonwalker. Nasty little devils they are, to be sure,” replied Philomena. “I have been attacked by a spoonwalker… and I am all alone in this strange place. Whatever will become of me?” Marjorie said, miserably, mainly to herself. Her mind went back to the albino man whom she had known. His affliction had something to do with spoons; she couldn’t recall exactly what it was. Maybe he had been attacked by a spoonwalker, too. That was why he mixed up his words. Yes – he must have fallen foul of a spoonwalker, as she had. That would explain it. “I fear I have become infected,” she told Philomena. “I can feel the virus coursing through me now, even as we speak. Oh, dear me.What shall I do?” Philomena had never heard of such a thing before but decided that, if the young woman really believed herself to be ill, she needed to see Doc Willoughby.
The surgery was closed. The sign outside read: ‘Go away. Out on house calls. Back later.’ Philomena correctly surmised that this meant that the Doc was sleeping off a hangover and would not be in business for some hours. “You’d better come back to the Squid and Teapot with me,” she said. “At least you’ll have somewhere to stay.” “The Tid and Squeepot? What a strange name for an inn… Oh my gosh… it’s beginning already!” “What is?” asked Philomena, bemused. “My speech,” wailed Marjorie. “My meech has become spuddled!” “Come on,” said Philomena, “let’s get you settled safely in The Squid.”
Once in The Squid and Teapot, Philomena found Marjorie a comfortable room and made her a cup of camomile tea, to soothe her nerves. “Thank you so much,” said Marjorie, gratefully sipping the tea. “But won’t your employer be angry? I worry that he will be on you like a bun of tricks when he finds out. It would be a blushing crow for you, I’m sure, if he had you chewing a lot of doors as punishment.” “Not at all,” replied Philomena, quickly catching on to her new friend’s strange way of speaking. “It was not so long ago that I was a stranger here, too. You can always be sure that there will be a welcome in The Squid and Teapot for newcomers to the island.” “An island! Gosh, I’ve always had a half-warmed fish to see more of the world,” said Marjorie, suddenly enthusiastic. “Might we go now, and maybe wake our may to the doctor’s surgery later? I’m as mean as custard to have a look around.”
The pair left the inn and had barely walked a dozen yards before Drury, the skeletal hound, spotted Philomena and came bounding up, his bony tail wagging madly. “Aaargh… oh my goodness! What is that bowel feast?” wailed Marjorie. “It’s only Drury. You’ll soon get used to him.” “But he is nothing but bone. Has he no mister or mattress?” “No. Drury is a free spirit, in every sense of the word,” laughed Philomena.
After they had walked a while, and Philomena had pointed out the orphanage and the brewery, she said, somewhat hesitantly, to Marjorie. “This speech problem you have… it doesn’t happen all the time?” “Indeed no.” replied her companion. “I don’t know why but it seems to come in stits and farts.” Philomena was still stifling a smile when they saw Reverend Davies coming towards them. “Good afternoon reverend,” said Philomena, with little enthusiasm. “God afternoon miss um… um…. and who is your delightful young friend?” Before Philomena could answer, Marjorie dropped Reverend Davies a deep curtsey and gushed. “Oh, dear vicar, I am Marjorie Toadsmoor. I am so honoured to meet one who is doubtless a shoving leopard to his flock and a lining shite to all on the island.” Reverend Davies stood quite still, his face puce, his mouth gaping open and the veins on his neck sticking out like knotted ropes. “Must go, reverend,” said Philomena, propelling Marjorie away with some haste. “Things to do, people to see.” “He was very rude,” confided Marjorie. “He couldn’t even be bothered to reply. What mad banners.”
“Those are the Gydynaps,” said Philomena, pointing to the hills in the distance. “Drury and I often go walking up there.” “I can’t do a willy hawk in these shoes,” said Marjorie. “Besides, it looks as though it’s going to roar with pain at any minute.” Even as she said the words, the skies opened. “Let’s find some shelter,” said Philomena. As they hurried through the rain, Philomena crossed her fingers that Marjorie would not comment upon the sign outside the salvage store which proclaimed ‘Free shoes and bags, yours for the asking.’
It was fortuitous that Doc Willoughby had recovered from his hangover sufficiently to have opened the surgery. Philomena and Marjorie burst through the door, shaking the rain from their bonnets and giggling like schoolgirls. “You must be feeling better,” said Philomena. “Do you still need to see the Doc?” “I think I do, “said Marjorie, “my words are still getting mixed up, like a sadly made ballad.” Just then the Doc himself appeared, obviously not in the best of humours. After he had listened to Marjorie’s self-diagnosis he sighed wearily. The Doc, though not as learned as he would have people believe, had heard of Spoonerisms and knew that they had absolutely nothing to do with spoonwalkers. However, being nothing, if not an opportunist, he rarely missed a chance to impress and leaned forward on his desk, steepling his fingers. “Young lady,” he pronounced gravely, “I fear you have, what we in the medical profession call, Lapsus Linguae.” “A slip of the tongue?” ‘Dammit, the girl knows Latin. How the hell does she know Latin?’ Doc thought to himself, not a little irritated. “That, of course, is how we describe it to non-medical people,” he said, back-pedalling like mad. “But it’s much more serious than that. However, I can give you a preparation which should clear it up in a day or two.” The Doc decanted some coloured water into a medicine bottle and handed it to Marjorie. “Thank you so much doctor,” she said. “I was concerned that you would think I was telling you a lack of pies.” “My pleasure, “ said the Doc, unconvincingly, hurriedly ushering the pair to the door.
“I’m feeling better already!” pronounced Marjorie later as she sat in the snug of The Squid, tucking into a slice of starry-grabby pie. Her bottle of coloured water stood half empty beside her. “By the way, Philomena,” she added, “silly me didn’t catch your surname.” Philomena smiled, a little uncomfortably. “Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “It’s probably best we stick to first names until I know you’re really better.”
Another year had passed on the island of Hopeless, Maine. This is not as bland and obvious a statement as you may imagine, for while most places on this planet enjoy an orderly, straight as an arrow, passage through time, Hopeless does not always choose to conform. Time on this island – like so many of its denizens– can be a slippery and unpredictable beast. Mostly, it will obediently trot forward at a regulation pace but, at the slightest caprice, will career away at a gallop, or, just as often, slow to a snail’s pace. Once or twice it has stopped totally and then gone off in completely the opposite direction, which causes no end of anxiety and confusion… but I digress. Upon the occasion of which I speak, Time had meekly wandered up to the very brink of the old year and waited quietly, to listen patiently for the chimes of midnight.
To all intents and purposes the evening was progressing in a most satisfactory manner. The produce of the Ebley Brewery and Gannicox Distillery flowed freely and the mood was high-spirited and ebullient. Bartholomew Middlestreet watched happily as the pallid but strangely beautiful barmaid, Philomena Bucket, weaved her way through the crowded bar of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, deftly carrying, in one hand, a tray brimming with hot and steamy starry-grabby pies, and two foaming mugs of ‘Old Colonel’ ale in the other. Business was good in the inn tonight– but after all, it was New Year’s Eve and everyone here, and those at home by their own firesides, had survived another year. Bartholomew beamed to himself as he remembered the chorus of a song, penned years ago by the late Spencer Lypiatt. Being a better poet than he was a musician, Spencer had set the lyrics to a popular show-tune that he had picked up from somewhere or other in his travels (although his claim that South Pacific had at last reached the North Atlantic had baffled more than one member of his audience).
We all live on Hopeless, Maine, (Hopeless by the sea) There’s no reason to complain If you’re living on Hopeless, Maine.
A lot of people thought this was nonsense – after all, the inhabitants of Hopeless have a whole host of reasons for complaint. Bartholomew, being somewhat cannier than most of his neighbours, knew only too well that they just did not appreciate exactly what Spencer was driving at when he wrote the song. The operative word in the chorus is, of course, ‘living’, as opposed to dying or being dead, and this is exactly what the patrons of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ were doing this evening – celebrating the very fact of being alive.
No one who was present on that particular New Year’s Eve can say with any certainty that they can remember when the tall, elegant stranger first came into the inn. He must have been there for some while, for it was about eleven-thirty when he was spotted pushing back the small table, rising from his chair and making his way across the bar to the far corner of the room.
When he put his hand on the shoulder of young Ambrose Pinfarthing and whispered a few words into the lad’s ear, you could be forgiven for assuming that the two had been friends for years . In response the young man gave him a slightly drink-fuddled and puzzled look; he shrugged and raised his eyebrows as he watched the stranger return to his seat, having no idea what had just happened.
Ambrose was sitting with a small party of friends, all of his age, who had been noisy but by no means troublesome, allowing themselves to become mildly inebriated as the evening progressed. With the minute hand creeping towards midnight, however, the group became increasingly vocal, blatantly ignoring Bartholomew’s more than tolerant request,
“Keep it down, lads, it’s getting a bit rowdy over there.
It soon became apparent that their general mood was becoming worryingly ugly. As voices became louder, tempers began to fray. Bartholomew tried to calm things down but to no avail. The innkeeper knew that he was losing control when bickering broke out on other tables and what was, only minutes before, a good-natured gathering, descended into a seething and hostile environment. It was as if an unaccountable madness had gripped every patron of the inn– or nearly every patron. Sitting quietly in his corner was a lone and enigmatic figure, who appeared to be totally untouched by the chaos breaking out around him. He smiled to himself and sipped his ale, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. Fists flew and tankards were thrown, glasses shattered and tables upturned, and all of the time the stranger sat unruffled in his own little oasis of calm.
Bartholomew could only watch in horror as furniture and furnishings, fixtures and fittings, plates and drinking vessels succumbed to the quite insane behaviour that had overtaken his customers. The normally feisty Philomena Bucket and Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, wasted no time and hid, trembling, in the privy. Even the prospect of sharing the cramped space with its resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady, was preferable to braving the turmoil that rocked the public bar. As if in response to some invisible signal, at the stroke of midnight the elegant stranger arose, left some money on the counter, and strode towards the door. As he passed each brawling customer they stopped fighting and, in a daze, looked around as if waking from a terrible dream. The room grew suddenly and weirdly quiet; the only noise was the sound of shattered pottery and glass being crunched beneath a pair of highly polished leather boots.
“There’s something not right about him,” muttered Bartholomew to himself. “Did he say something to start all this?”
With a degree of bravery that surprised even himself, Bartholomew sprinted towards the door just as it was closing. Catching it by the handle, he threw the door wide open. A fierce and icy blast shook the few curtains that still hung tenuously in place. Bartholomew shuddered, drew his arms close around his body and looked out on to the inky darkness that heralded another new year on Hopeless, Maine.
The night before him was cold and totally empty. A light dusting of snow had been falling steadily for an hour or more, leaving a pure white carpet to grace the front yard of the inn. It was indeed beautiful – and not a single footprint was there to disturb its pristine surface.
“How much do you want for ‘The Squid and Teapot? I’d like to buy it.”
Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, almost dropped the tankard he was drying.
“How much for the inn. Name your price.”
The man who stood before Batholomew was a slightly built, ferrety little specimen. His sharp, city suit and shiny shoes were not items of apparel you would see every day on Hopeless.
“I can’t sell the Squid, even if I wanted to,” said Bartholomew, not a little taken aback by the request.
“Oh, come on,” said the other, producing a bag of coins, with a flourish that would not have shamed a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat. “Everyone has a price.”
“I don’t own the Squid,” said Bartholomew. “No one does. I manage it.”
The other man took some time to process this information. The concept of no one owning such an impressive piece of real estate was beyond him.
Garfield Lawnside had been on Hopeless for less than a week. The circumstances of his arrival on the island had puzzled him at first but logic told him that he had been Shanghaied. He could remember coming out of the waterfront bar in New York and wandering down a narrow side street – oddly, one that he had never before noticed. His drink must have been drugged, he thought, for the next thing he knew was that he was wandering around on some foggy hill, with no clue as to where he was. The strangest bit was that nothing had been stolen. His carpet-bag, which contained many of his worldly possessions, was still in his hand. Being a pragmatist, Garfield decided to make the best of it. He was a city man and was convinced he could do well around here. The locals seemed simple enough. Why, after that pale looking broad – Phyllis, or something – had found him wandering around, this Middlestreet guy had even given him free board and lodgings in The Squid and Teapot. What sort of businessman does that?
“On Hopeless,” said Batholomew, without a hint of condescension, “we don’t tend to own things, especially land and buildings. We take what we need but no one owns anything. Ownership can be a complicated business and – let’s face it – life round here is inclined to be uncertain, to say the least.”
Garfield had not been on the island long enough to grasp the full import of the landlord’s words. His mind was too busy, anyway, focusing on the line ‘we take what we need’.
“So… if I see an empty building, then it’s mine to live in?” asked Garfield, slowly.
“Yes,” nodded Bartholomew. “And you can use whatever the previous owners left in it. They won’t be needing anything, anymore,” he added, ominously.
“How about land? Can I take that too?”
“I guess so…” the landlord replied. ” Though folks don’t tend to, very much.”
Garfield smiled to himself, and strolled thoughtfully out into the morning mist.
It did not take many hours for Garfield to find a deserted cottage. As Bartholomew had predicted, the erstwhile tenants had left it furnished and ready for the next occupant. Garfield wondered to himself why people would choose to up and leave their homes so completely. He also wondered where they went afterwards. As I told you earlier, he had not been on the island for very long.
It was a day or two later, when pegging out a substantial piece of land for himself, that he hit a snag. There had been some heavy rain and some of the ground had become little more than a quagmire. Garfield had always prided himself on being something of a dandy, but the clothes that he was wearing when he arrived on the island was now the sum total of his wardrobe. The rest were hanging in a small hotel room in New York. His shiny, patent leather shoes would be ruined in all of this mud. He needed to be able to get over the boggy ground without actually setting foot on it. The thought occurred to him that, as nothing actually seemed to belong to anyone, there might be something in The Squid and Teapot that he could salvage to solve his problem.
Philomena Bucket was not impressed when she caught Garfield trying to roll up a long length of carpet from one of the corridors of the Squid. He found himself subjected to a torrent of abuse that Philomena had been saving up since the day she had first set eyes on him. She did not like or trust the man she thought of as ‘the city-slicker’, not least because he insisted on calling her Phyllis.
“But Bart said I could take what I wanted,” Garfield whined.
“Not from here you don’t,” said Philomena, then relented, adding, “If you’re desperate for a bit of matting go and have a look in one of the attics. There’s stuff up there, salvaged from a hundred shipwrecks. You’ll be sure to find something. And don’t you go calling Mr Middlestreet Bart!”
The attics of The Squid and Teapot are a veritable treasure trove of goods and chattels, deposited on the rocky shores of Hopeless, Maine by tides and by providence. The passing generations have carefully squirrelled these away, sensible of the knowledge that any newcomer to the island could always count on finding something to make the remainder of their (often tragically brief) life a little more comfortable.
Garfield passed an appreciative eye over the scene that greeted him, promising himself that he would return and take as much of this bounty as he could carry. His task, at that moment, though, was to find something to keep his shoes pristine, while he pegged out the generous dimensions of his land. And then he found exactly what he was after and whistled softly through his teeth.
He unfurled a long, narrow stretch of carpet. It seemed to go on forever. It was a runner, designed for a corridor far longer than any found on Hopeless, or anywhere else that Garfield had been. It must have been at least fifty feet of the finest Persian workmanship, destined originally for a palace or some other equally impressive residence. It would be worth a fortune.
It took no little effort to get the Persian runner down the stairs, into the courtyard, then into a borrowed barrow and trundled across the island to Garfield’s new abode. It seemed a pity to use it as a means of crossing a muddy piece of land but it was perfect for the task and within a short while the city slicker was marking out his patch, keeping his shoes clean and eyeing up anything that he might claim as his own. What was it that Bartholomew had said?
‘We take what we need’.
Over the following few days Garfield wheeled his carpet all over the island, using it as a means for putting his nose into all sorts of places that would have been otherwise inaccessible to him. Nowhere and nothing was safe from his greedy gaze; this, inevitably, was his downfall.
You may remember that, at the bottom of the Night-Soil Man’s garden, is a sinkhole. The capstone that had once covered it had long been removed and stood up on end, a letter D etched into its face. Garfield had seen this, from a distance, and wondered exactly what it signified, what it hid. He was convinced that all manner of rich pickings were to be had from this seemingly backward community and he intended to leave no corner unexplored.
Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, was sleeping in his cottage and heard nothing as the Persian runner was rolled past his door. The capstone – and the, yet unseen, sinkhole – was a good hundred feet distant, so Garfield needed to roll up the runner behind him as he went, in order to gradually unfurl it again on the next stage of his journey. He sure hoped that the stone with the D written on it was worth the effort. What could it mean?
It was only within the final few feet of reaching the capstone did he see the sinkhole. The runner had draped itself over the very edge and Garfield had stopped just in time. He stood uneasily on the brink, peering down into its fathomless depths. He found it hard to pull his eyes away from the faintly green and decidedly weird iridescence swirling far, far below.
When not accompanying Philomena Bucket on her daily walk, Drury, the skeletal dog, could often be found hanging around the Night-Soil Man’s cottage. Despite being devoid of anything but his bones, Drury was still very much a dog and revelled in all things malodorous. Besides this, the Night-Soil Man liked him and was always good for a game of something or other. So, when Drury spotted the edge of the runner, some fifty feet from the cottage door, he could only conclude that it had been put there for his amusement. In Drury’s opinion most things on the island were also there exclusively for his amusement but right now, this carpet was obviously begging to be dragged away.
Drury pulled on it but nothing happened. The game was on as far as he was concerned, and entered into the spirit of things by giving the runner’s edge an almighty tug. Fifty feet away Garfield Lawnside’s reverie was shattered by the ground beneath his feet being unceremoniously removed and his slight form sent down to examine, more closely, the iridescence that had so fascinated him.
By the time Drury had reached Chapel Rock he had tired of the carpet game and left the Persian runner there for the elements to dispose of, as they chose. As for Mr Garfield Lawnside, no one was surprised that he had left so abruptly. As Doc Willoughby observed, with uncharacteristic insight, a man with shoes like that would never have fitted in.