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.
Author’s note: Anyone wishing to see the complete (and frankly, extremely irritating) lyrics of ‘We all live on Hopeless, Maine’ will find them in the tale of that name – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/we-all-live-on-hopeless-maine/
“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.
By Detective Deirdre Dalloway
What he got was not quite a dog. It was just a sort of dog. The sort-of-dog certainly acted like a dog, alternately running around in circles chasing its own sort-of-tail and wriggling around on its sort-of-back with its sort-of-paws flapping joyfully. But it was a sight that made Michael Dalloway smile and shudder at the same time. Because the dog was composed entirely of bones.
Suddenly aware of his presence, in spite of its lack of nose, eyes and ears, the sort-of-dog bounded up to him and within seconds Michael Dalloway’s fears were gone and he was sharing his trek with a bouncing, bounding companion. Along the top of the cliffs they went, and the dog set quite a pace. It was as though it had a purpose. Yes, it definitely seemed to have a purpose, and before long Michael Dalloway realised that in following the skeleton dog, he was getting further and further from the lighthouse. He was being guided by a dead animal away from the only sign of human life that he could discern.
And yet the dog was clearly not dead, in the conventional understanding of the word. It had no eyes, nose or ears but this did not hamper it. It had no tongue either, but if Michael Dalloway slowed down for a rest from the load he was carrying, it would seem to lick his hand to encourage him onwards. And when he had lightened his load by drinking tea and eating most of the biscuits, the sort-of-dog had sat and begged like any other dog to be fed. That the biscuits fell straight through onto the wet peat did not seem to bother it at all.
Yes, the dog was sort-of-alive, so Michael Dalloway decided to take a chance on it, and sure enough, just as the drenched, rain-blinded and exhausted traveller was wondering about regretting his decision, they cleared a small copse of dead trees and a dimly lit settlement came into view. Both of them now bounded through the spikey gorse towards it, the dog still leading the way through the darkness, now past simple, mainly unlit dwellings, to a rather more welcoming looking inn. Scratchy recorded music was audible through a broken window. The dog threw itself at the door to make its presence known and it was opened from inside by a man in an apron.
“Drury!”, he exclaimed, “There you are! Everyone, look! Drury’s back! We put your favourite tune on, old boy, to encourage you to come in from the rain”. The man stooped to tickle the dog’s skeletal jaw. “And you’ve brought someone with you. Do excuse my manners, Sir. I’m Rufus Lypiatt, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot, and this is my pub. We welcome all unhappy travellers. I take it that you are one of those? Do come on in. We were just about to play ‘Molly Malone’ on the gramophone again.”
Find out more about Detective Dalloway here – http://detectivedalloway.com/
It’s Tuesday, and regular blog followers may have noticed the absence of a Squid and Teapot post. For more than a year now, we’ve had Tuesday contributions from Martin Pearson, exploring the history of the island. Hopeless has been much enriched by his contributions, and intermittently terrified of his puns.
Martin is currently taking a break. There is only so much time a person can spend on the island before this becomes necessary. Unlike actual islanders, people who visit from this reality can leave, but don’t always manage to, so breaks are good and necessary.
But this isn’t one of those. No. Rather than take the opportunity to flee for safety, Martin is pondering an even more elaborate tangle with the island’s tentacles. A top secret tango that we’ll probably cave in and start telling you about sometime fairly soon.
In the meantime, Tuesdays may get used for other things. There’s a great deal going on in Hopeless Maine right now, both in the imagined life of the island, and the rest of world stuff where the island gets made. Or drops its fruiting bodies into people’s brains, as may be closer to the truth.
Huge thanks to Martin for his Squid and Teapot contributions. We wait with curiosity to see what he does next…
Abner Badbrook had left the city of Calais, Maine in something of a hurry. There had been a certain amount of unpleasantness with several of the locals when they discovered that five aces had mysteriously found their way up the left sleeve of his jacket. Having escaped their clutches, hitching a free passage on one of the many commercial ships that plied the river was easy for a man whose charm was only exceeded by his crooked nature. Charm, however, was not enough when some of the crew caught him cheating during a game of five card stud. In an act of admirable self-restraint they revised their initial plan of keelhauling Abner and instead deposited him roughly on the banks of St. Croix river, in the heart of the Passamaquoddy reservation.
You will recall that Lilac Middlestreet and her friend, Amelia Butterow, had been liberated from the clutches of the evil Tobias Thrupp by Abraham, the Passamaquoddy trader and taken from the island of Hopeless to the safety of his reservation.
In the years that had elapsed since their rescue the two had happily settled into the life and customs of the tribe and, except for Lilac’s fair skin and red hair, they could easily have passed as Passamaquoddy girls. As it happens, these were the very traits that caught the attention of Abner Badbrook as he lingered on the edge of the forest, holding a spy-glass to his eye, watching the women doing their washing in the river.
Abner was famished. His particular skill-set precluded his living off the land and – not to put too fine a point on it – he was becoming desperate. His instincts told him that his welcome might be less than cordial if he wandered into their village as a beggar, so, clutching at straws, he had spied upon the women, hoping that they would leave something remotely edible behind when they left. Sadly, for Abner, this seemed to be to no avail. Then he spotted the fair-skinned white girl. She just might be his meal-ticket.
Being a gambler Abner estimated that the odds of his being able to sweet-talk her into helping him were worth a try. All he needed was to get her on her own. As it happened Lady Luck was in a good mood that day and Lilac had decided to linger a while after the other women had gone.
Lilac was startled by the figure that emerged from the shadow of the trees. She thought to run but, being the girl she was, her curiosity overcame her fear and she waited to see what the stranger might do.
Abner, checking that he could not be seen from the village, wandered casually over and struck up a conversation. He slipped into charming mode as easily as you or I might put on a pair of well-worn and exceedingly comfortable carpet slippers. From the offset Lilac was as putty in his hands, completely buying his far-fetched story of having been kidnapped by river pirates and making a valiant escape by fighting off seven of them before leaping to freedom into the raging river. Caught hook, line and sinker, she promised to bring food, drink and warm blankets to her silver-tongued hero that very evening.
Events unfolded as you might expect. It was inevitable that Lilac would fall in love with the handsome stranger. Things happened quickly and before a week had passed the impressionable girl was making plans to elope with the card-sharp, whose latest gamble was playing out far better than he had hoped.
While running away might seem a drastic step to take, there was no question of them having a conventional Passamaquoddy marriage, even if Abner had wanted one and had made his presence known to the tribe. According to their customs a couple would have to go through a betrothal period for one year, during which time the groom had to prove to the girl’s father – in this case Abraham – that he was a capable hunter. He would be obliged to make bows, arrows, canoes and snowshoes for his prospective father-in-law. Also, during this year of courtship, the couple would have to be chaste. At the end of the betrothal the bride’s family would hold a feast, making speeches which exalted the groom’s geneology. Believe me, Abner’s geneology left little room for exaltation. None of this, of course was ever going to happen. And so, it was without a word to anyone, not even Amelia, that on one moonless night in midsummer, Lilac and her lover left the land of the Passamaquoddy people forever.
It was two years later, in the winter of 1904, that Lilac found herself in New York, penniless, alone and with a new born baby to support. Abner had disappeared when the prospect of fatherhood was on the horizon, leaving the hapless Lilac to fend for herself. She was too ashamed to return to the reservation, even if she had had the means to get there. In desperation Lilac resolved to leave her small son on the steps of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe. It broke her heart but she knew that as long as he was with her the child’s chances of survival would be minimal. Tearfully she wrapped him in a ragged blanket into which she had tucked a brief note bearing his name. Lilac had refused to give her son his father’s surname; she owed that man nothing, except her contempt. Besides, Randall Middlestreet sounded to be a far nicer person than Randall Badbrook.
Sister Mary Selsley of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe had relatives in New Brunswick. After a brief exchange of letters the childless couple happily agreed to raise young Randall as their own son. With the blessing of her Mother Superior Sister Mary arranged a passage for herself and the child on the SS Wycliffe, a journey that would take her away from the convent for some weeks. Or so she thought.
The storm that had raged for three long days was one of the worst the captain of The Wycliffe had seen in many a long year. He gave the order to abandon ship with a heavy heart and, in the best traditions of sea captains everywhere, resigned himself to a watery grave. Destiny had other ideas, though, and he found himself being hefted on to an upturned dining table by, what appeared to be, a prize-fighter masquerading as a nun. This, in fact, was Sister Mary who had never been known for her delicate femininity.
The two found themselves floating through a foggy seascape, their only other companion was the small child that Sister Mary had lashed securely to a table leg. The nun regarded the English sea captain with some warmth. Although he was a burly and rough looking man – even burlier and rougher looking than Sister Mary herself – he seemed kind enough. In fact, the captain took great pains to be a perfect gentleman in the presence of the nun, being careful not to spit or swear, lest he offend her. It was not, however, until they washed up on a barren, mist-strewn shore that he introduced himself.
“I’m Sebastian,” he informed her. “Sebastian Lypiatt. Let’s find that child some warmth and shelter.”
Sebastian and Sister Mary gingerly made their way inland with little Randall strapped papoose-like to the sailor’s back. This was a strange place, to be sure. Eyes seemed to be watching them from every direction, including above. Sister Mary was certain that she saw something scuttle by with teaspoons for legs but she told herself that this was only a symptom of the delirium caused by a lack of fresh water.
Before the day was out Randall Middlestreet and Sister Mary were safely ensconced in the old orphanage, a place which, the nun discovered, seemed to enjoy more than its fair share of bumps in the night. She decided that until rescue arrived, this was as good a place as any to stay and lend a hand. With luck, she thought, with a decidedly unecumenical smile, she might even manage to undermine the strictly protestant Reverend Crackstone, who appeared to be in charge.
Sebastian Lypiatt, satisfied that the nun and her charge were adequately catered for, made his way further inland. He stumbled upon a curiously named inn, The Squid and Teapot but this seemed to be too dismal a haven, even for a stranded sailor. Fortunately, he soon discovered the welcoming portals of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House For Discerning Gentlemen, which would be more than acceptable until either rescue or permanent accommodation materialized. Besides – a girl had caught his eye. Life on this strange island might just about be tolerable with Madrigal Inchbrook by his side.
Art by Tom Brown