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A Little Touch of Drury in the Night

Durosimi O’Stoat stared gloomily through his window; outside, Drury, the osseous hound, was rattling happily along, having spent a rewarding couple of hours chasing spoonwalkers.

“Blasted dog!” muttered Durosimi to himself. “He gets on my nerves. He’s always hanging around and causing trouble.”

While no one could reasonably argue with Durosimi’s assessment of Drury, on this occasion the dog could not be held totally responsible for the black mood currently spoiling his evening. For that he squarely – and quite unjustly – blamed the sixteenth-century visitor to Hopeless, Doctor John Dee.

You may remember that, in order to get Dee’s attention, Durosimi had attempted to abduct Philomena Bucket. This had failed dismally and, to make matters worse, he had no memory of exactly what had happened. One minute he was confronting Philomena, and the next thing he knew was that several hours had slipped by, and he was propped up against his own front door. It was obvious to Durosimi that some sort of sorcery had been employed and, as far as he knew, the only person capable of such a feat would be John Dee. Despite Dee having protested, on several earlier occasions, that he was not a magician, Durosimi chose to disbelieve him. What he did not know was that any magic being wielded in the Town Hall, on the night of the Beltane Extravaganza, was exclusively Philomena’s, and his threat had been the spur that had brought it to full and spectacular fruition. It was to Philomena’s great surprise when she successfully repelled his advances and sent him hurtling along the length of the Town Hall. The force stunned him so completely that he could not even remember struggling to his feet and staggering home afterwards.

It was almost dusk, and John Dee was sitting on a bench outside The Squid and Teapot, gazing up at the soft, pallid lights of the gnii, fluttering high above. Drury clattered up to him, his bony tail wagging furiously. How times change. Just a few weeks earlier, when they first met, Dee was convinced that he was looking at a Hell-Hound, come to drag him and his heresies into the fiery depths of the Underworld. Now he knew that Drury was no more than a regular, friendly dog, albeit one who refused to recognise that he had died many years earlier.

“God’s wounds, I’ll miss these evenings, when I go home again, Drury,” Dee said sadly. “Deep in my bones, I can feel that my own time is trying to drag me back.”

Drury cocked his head, apparently listening intently as the elderly Elizabethan poured out his woes.

“You have no idea of the pressure I’m under,” confided Dee. “Do you know, I had to make an astrological chart to forecast the most propitious time for the Queen’s coronation. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had got wrong? It would have been the Tower, for me, for sure. Oh… I could put up with the fog, the eyes in the sky and those things with tentacles, if I could only stay. But I suppose there is my wife and children; I should take them into account…”

Despite being in his sixties, Dee had married the much-younger Jane Fromond some ten years earlier, and now had eight children to support. They would certainly miss him if he remained on Hopeless.

Drury snuffled and leaned against Dee’s legs. Did he have any idea of what was being said? Your guess is as good as mine, but if nothing else, he was a good listener.

“But enough of my rambling,” said Dee, stoically. “Come on, old friend, let us go into the inn, where I might be persuaded to immerse my sorrows in some of Master Middlestreet’s finest ales.”

For the islanders of Hopeless, the novelty of having a sixteenth-century alchemist wandering around had worn off after the first couple of weeks. Much to his relief, these days Doctor Dee was greeted like any other regular patron of the inn. He settled himself in the snug, ordered a tankard of Old Colonel, and fell into conversation with Norbert Gannicox.

Drury ambled off to the kitchen, where Philomena had just taken a batch of Starry-Grabby pies out of the oven.

“I’m going to take one of these over to Rhys Cranham,” she said, putting a steaming pie into a basket, where it kept two bottles of ale company. “Coming?”

Drury did not need to be asked twice. Joining the Night-Soil man on his rounds was one of the dog’s favourite pastimes, second only to chasing spoonwalkers.

As they made their way to The House at Poo Corner (The official residence of every Night-Soil Man), Philomena allowed herself to voice her concerns to Drury, confident that her secrets would be safe with him.

“This magic business is a worry,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. It seems that I’m last in a long line of witches. Me! Would you believe it, Drury?”

Drury would believe anything that Philomena told him. In his eyes she could say or do no wrong.

“It’s this ‘last-in-line’ bit that troubles me, really,” she said. “After all, if I’ve got a bit of magic floating about inside me, then it’s my choice what I do with it. But, whether I choose to use magic or not, it seems wrong that after a thousand years or more it should have to stop with me. That’s a terrible responsibility to burden a girl with.”

Philomena stopped and looked at her bony companion, who immediately sat obediently at her feet.

“I don’t know if I’d be happy to settle down and have a family,” she said to him. “What do you think, Drury?”

As if in reply, the dog stood up and shook himself.

They walked on in silence, Philomena lost in her own thoughts. Arriving at the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, she lay the basket carefully on the doorstep.

“Ah Rhys,” she said quietly to herself, “I wonder what our futures might have been, if you were anything other than a Night-Soil Man.”

The faithful hound, mindful of the dangers that may be lurking in the darkness, dutifully accompanied Philomena back to The Squid. No sooner had she crossed the threshold of the inn than Drury turned around and raced back to Poo Corner, eager to join Rhys before the Night-Soil Man left on his rounds.

Rhys was already at his door, loading the contents of the basket into his knapsack.

“Who could ask for more than a fresh-baked Starry-Grabby pie and a couple of bottles of Old Colonel?” he asked, with a smile.

“Drury,” Rhys added earnestly, “You and I both think that Philomena Bucket is nothing short of wonderful – agreed? Maybe it’s high time for me to look for another apprentice, seeing that my first one turned into a seal! Perhaps one day I could follow in the footsteps of Randall Middlestreet, the only Night-Soil Man to retire and raise a family. I wonder if Philomena would say ‘Yes’? What do you reckon, old fellow?”

Drury wagged his tail and barked enthusiastically. He knew the answer to that, for certain.

There’s No Place Like Hopeless

Doctor John Dee sat in the bar of The Squid and Teapot, happily chatting to his friends, Norbert Gannicox, Seth Washwell and Bartholomew Middlestreet. Occasionally Philomena Bucket would bustle by with a tray loaded with foaming tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby pie, while Drury, the osseous hound, lay in front of the fireplace, resembling nothing more than a pile of discarded bones. Over the previous few days Dee had enjoyed a stimulating conversation with the shade of Father Ignatius Stamage, the Jesuit priest who quietly haunted a corner of The Squid, and a surreal encounter with Lady Margaret D’Avening, the phantom Headless Lady who occasionally manifested in the inn’s flushing privy. This was, indeed, the strangest of places, but Dee had no great wish to hurry back to Tudor England, where a wrong word or spiteful allegation could bring imprisonment, torture or an agonising death. Good Queen Bess could be as unforgiving and ruthless as her father, the much-wed Henry, when the mood was upon her, and her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, had eyes and ears everywhere.  No, this island of Hopeless, for all of its attendant horrors and privations, could teach sixteenth century England a thing or two about the rights of man.

There was one fly the proverbial ointment, however; Durosimi O’Stoat. During his lifetime John Dee had come across a lot of men like Durosimi – in fact one or two of these had also been named O’Stoat – and each, without fail, had self-interest as their single driving force. His position as Court Astrologer and fame in the field of alchemy had drawn these people to him, and now, hundreds of years later, it was his reputation that had attracted Durosimi. Dee smiled to himself. While it was cheering to learn that his legacy would be remembered far into the future, it was baffling, as well. Durosimi, like many others, was under the impression that Dee was some great sorcerer with dark and mysterious magical powers. The truth was that, having tried a few unsuccessful experiments, he knew that he had no magic; undeterred, however, he continued to possess a keen, not to say dangerous, interest in all aspects of the natural, and supernatural, worlds. Other than studying the heavens, taking part in the occasional séance and having an aptitude for scrying, he was very much like any other man of rank of his time, except that he was much, much cleverer than most, and he knew it. That’s how he had stayed alive for over sixty years.  

 “Another drink, Doctor?” asked Bartholomew, raising a hand to catch Philomena’s attention. Before he could reply, a pitcher was placed on the table and his tankard refilled. This ale was considerably stronger than that which he was used to, and John Dee was beginning to feel somewhat inebriated.

“I do not like Durosimi O’Stoat,” he suddenly declared, his voice slightly slurred. “I believe him to be a rogue and a scoundrel.”

Seth, Norbert and Bartholomew looked uncomfortably at each other. None would have disagreed with this sentiment, but would never have dared put it into words, especially in so public a setting.

“You see,” continued Dee, “he wants me to go back… go back to Elizabeth’s reign and take him with me. Ha! The fool does not know that I cannot do that, even if I wanted to.”

Dee regarded his friends fondly with glazed, moist eyes and patted Norbert reassuringly on the shoulder.

“And believe me, my most faithful of comrades, I have no wish… no wish at all to leave this most magical of islands…”

With that he belched, smiled weakly, then slid gently off his chair and under the table.  

“Methinks the doctor has overindulged in Hopeless hospitality,” said Seth with a grin.

“Well… if living in Hopeless is a better deal than being in his own time, it must be pretty awful there,” observed Norbert.

“At least we don’t hang, draw and quarter people,” broke in Philomena, who had come to clear the table, then added, “so much for Merrie England!”

“It couldn’t have been all bad,” said Bartholomew, “but like it or not, at some point he’s going to have to return. I looked him up in one of the encyclopaedias up in the attic. By my reckoning he’s got a lot to do at home and another twenty years to do it in. Let’s give him as good a time as we can while he’s here, because, one way or another, he’ll be whisked back to his own time without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“Then maybe we should start by getting him off the floor and into his bed,” said Philomena.

Doctor Dee woke with a headache. He could only imagine that the fog outside had somehow seeped into his brain. Fortunately, a crate of coffee beans had washed up on the beach just a week previously, enabling Philomena to make the doctor the finest hangover cure that she knew. It was with no little trepidation that Dee sampled the dark brew over breakfast. At first he pulled a disgusted face, but as the invigorating effects of the caffeine coursed through his body, he brightened visibly. Doctor Dee decided, there and then, that he liked coffee and would make a point of obtaining more of it (sadly for him, however, he would be dead for forty years before the exotic brew would eventually be brought to Europe).

Meanwhile, on a part of the island far less welcoming than the well-lit warmth and hospitality of The Squid and Teapot, Durosimi O’Stoat sat in his austere study and contemplated the problem of how to wheedle knowledge from Doctor Dee. The man had obviously been lying when he said that he had no idea how he had arrived on the island, and that he had no magic to help him. It was well known that Dee was a powerful sorcerer.  Durosimi was also aware that magicians were renowned for being secretive; in fact, none more so than Durosimi himself.  One way or another he would extract Dee’s knowledge from him, even if it meant chaining him up indefinitely.

Durosimi smiled unpleasantly. A sudden thought had occurred to him. Dee had made no secret of the affection that he felt for the Bucket woman, the Irish barmaid who skivvied in The Squid and Teapot. Maybe she could be the tasty morsel of bait which would hook Doctor Dee in once and for all.

To be continued…

Just One Thing After Another…

Doctor John Dee, Astrologer Royal, alchemist and occasional necromancer, still cut a handsome figure, despite his years.

This was not the first thought that entered Philomena Bucket’s head as she looked about her. When she had embarked upon a stroll through the tunnels, deep beneath The Squid and Teapot, with Norbert Gannicox, Bartholomew Middlestreet and the now-absent Drury, the osseous hound, she little thought that she would find herself in Tudor England before the day was out. But here they were, and standing before them was the man who had introduced himself as Doctor John Dee. Famous as Dee had become, however, none of the tunnel-explorers had heard his name before, but the décor of the room in which they stood gave every clue as to his many interests.  His shelves were filled with a variety of impressive-looking instruments, which had they known it, could have been identified as astrolabes, armillary spheres, quadrants and sextants, to name but a few. Skeletons of various birds and animals hung from the rafters (Philomena half-expected to see Drury amongst them) while malformed foetuses, preserved reptiles and human brains lurked worryingly in heavy glass jars. Every wall was festooned with a series of anatomical, astrological, alchemical and nautical charts, whilst books from his large library were piled on every available surface. Here was clutter indeed, but clutter of an infinitely superior nature to any found on the island of Hopeless, Maine.

If the three had found the contents of Dee’s study to be strange, they found his accent stranger, though perfectly intelligible. After all, he was a highly educated man who spoke the English of Shakespeare (although, I suspect he never knowingly conversed in iambic pentameters). Above all, John Dee was courteous to his unexpected visitors.

“Welcome to my humble home,” he said, spreading his arms expansively. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, however, than the fabric of the room seemed to dissolve around them, with Dee looking even more surprised than the others. They were falling, falling through a kaleidoscope of people and places, light and darkness, until things began to slow and gloom gave way to brilliant sunshine…

“Stowaways in the jolly boat” cried a harsh voice, and Philomena found herself being dragged by the arms on to the deck of a large sailing ship. A throng of rough and unkempt men had gathered about them.  

“What have we here then? Who’s the geezer in the frock?”  

Philomena thought the speaker was referring to her, but realised that everyone’s attention was focussed on John Dee, tall, bearded and stately in his long velvet robe. Despite his discomfort at being addressed so, the alchemist managed to remain dignified.

“Never mind him,” said another voice, “look what I’ve found!”

Now it was Philomena’s turn to be the centre of attention. She spun around and, with her free hand, hit her captor hard in the face. The experiences of the day so far had given her a sense of unreality, and so she was surprised when he hit her back, and it hurt.

“Tricky little vixen,” said a cultured British voice. “I think I had best take charge now, don’t you bosun?”

The newcomer, obviously the captain, took hold of Philomena, securing both of her arms in his firm hands.

“What about the others, Cap’n Vane,” asked the bosun, still hoping that the woman might be passed around after the captain had finished with her.

“Fish food. That’s all they’re good for,” Charles Vane replied, with a dismissive gesture

A cheer went up, and Bartholomew, Norbert and Doctor Dee found themselves being pushed towards the side of the ship.

“This can’t be happening,” thought Philomena, somewhat prophetically, for it suddenly was not happening. The astonished captives saw the ship and its crew disappear before their very eyes, and once more they were falling through time and space into a field of smoke and noise…

Captain Louis Nolan could not believe his eyes.  He was leading a hare-brained cavalry dash into the jaws of death, and four civilians had suddenly appeared in their way, as if from nowhere. It would take the horsemen very little time to cover the mile-and-a-half to reach their objective, and these four, if they didn’t get blown to bits by cannon-fire, would be trampled underfoot in less than a minute.

John Dee could only think that he had died and gone to Hell. The previous episode had been bad enough, but now he appeared to be witnessing warfare between two sets of demons. The ones on horseback would soon be upon them, with their brazen hooves and flashing swords and spears. He closed his eyes and wished that he had spent his life dabbling in less heretical pursuits.

Was there a man dismayed? I’ll say there was. And a woman. Philomena, Norbert and Bartholomew stood huddled and totally bewildered by their predicament. There were cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, and hundreds of stampeding horses with armed soldiers on their backs bearing down at great speed. Taking Dee’s lead, they closed their eyes and prayed to who – or whatever might be listening.

Captain Nolan, still leading the charge, veered his horse to the left in a noble attempt to avoid careering into the four. He paid for this manoeuvre by catching a Russian bullet in the neck. As he fell, dying, from his steed it crossed his mind that he had been mistaken. The way ahead was clear. The four had disappeared. No one had been impeding charge of the Light Brigade.

This time the travellers knew what to expect, and gave in with grace to the sensation of falling. Whatever was causing these things seemed to be kind enough to remove them, in the nick of time, from the scrape they found themselves in, but the trepidation of not knowing what horrors awaited was still unnerving.

The auditorium of Ford’s Theatre, in Washington was hushed, the lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up ‘Hail to the Chief’, a tune unfamiliar to the party of four who found themselves in very plush and comfortable surroundings for once.

“There must be someone important watching this play tonight,” said Norbert, as the audience burst into cheers and applause as the final strains died away. They craned their heads to see who the ovation might be for, when the spotlight fell upon a box at the side of the auditorium, where a tall, spare-framed man had got to his feet, his hand raised in acknowledgement. Philomena thought dimly that she recognised the lean, bearded face.

The play was fairly tedious, but when the heroine of the piece asked for a seat, away from the draught, and the hero responded, to a certain amount of polite laughter,

“The draft has already been stopped, by orders of the president.”

The President! Philomena sat up straight, and realised, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, exactly where they were.

“We need to be out of here,” she said to the others, urgently. “There will be trouble before long, and with the way things have been going, we’ll be drawn into it.”

“That will make a change,” said Norbert drily. “Where’s the exit?”

Just then they heard a bark.

“Since when do they allow dogs in theatres?” asked Bartholomew, then turned to see a familiar bony figure standing in the corner.

“Drury!” exclaimed Philomena.

“It’s the Hell-Hound,” wailed Dee, shrinking back into his seat and receiving some irate ‘shushes’ for his trouble.

“Grab him and let’s go” said Philomena.

Norbert and Bartholomew took the reluctant alchemist by the armpits and manhandled him to the back of the theatre, where Drury was waiting.

“Quick,” hissed Philomena, and they fled through a curtained opening, Dee still complaining about Hell-Hounds, just as a shot was fired.

The air behind the curtain was cold but welcoming.

“We’re back in the tunnels,” said Norbert, relief in his voice.

“Come on, our lanterns are still over there and they’re alight. It’s as though we have not been away for more than a minute or two,” said Bartholomew.

The journey back seemed to pass surprisingly quickly. They walked again through the great chamber, where the sconces on the walls still flared brightly. Then they came to the staircase, long and steep, which led to the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.

“So this is the enchanted isle of which Saint Brendan wrote,” said Dee, looking about him. “Might I find lodgings here, Master Middlestreet?”

Bartholomew liked the sound of ‘Master Middlestreet’.

“By all means Doctor Dee. Stay as long as you will.”

“Welcome to Hopeless, Maine” said Philomena. “And you may call me Mistress Bucket!”

An hour or so later, after a somewhat bewildered, but unaccountably happy, Doctor Dee had retired to one of the guest-rooms of inn, Bartholomew, Norbert and Philomena sat, with Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, in the snug of The Squid and Teapot, trying to make sense of all that had happened.

“It was as though we were being dropped through history,” said Bartholomew, thoughtfully.

“Or maybe it was all no more than an illusion,” offered Ariadne.

“None of that felt like an illusion,” said Philomena, recalling the blow that the pirate had dealt her. “And Doctor Dee is real enough. Maybe he might have some idea what happened to us.”

“Don’t bank on it,” laughed Ariadne. “He looked more confused than the rest of you put together.”

“I can see why Sebastian Lypiatt wanted to get rid of the key to the tunnels,” said Norbert, sipping his sarsaparilla, referring to the old key that had been sent to his grandfather, a century before.

“Yes,” said Bartholomew, “That passage should be locked forever, and the key put where no one will ever find it. Maybe Doctor Dee can take it back to his own time – if he can ever get there, that is.”

So intent had the four been on their conversation that they had not noticed the lone figure who had wandered in, and settled himself quietly in the corner.

“Might I be of some assistance?” he asked.

To be continued…

The Cavern

“Well!” exclaimed Philomena Bucket, “I really didn’t this expect this.”

Bartholomew Middlestreet and Norbert Gannicox stayed silent, but wordlessly acknowledged to themselves that the barmaid was right; what they had found was totally unexpected. An hour earlier the three had discovered a secret passage beneath The Squid and Teapot, and along with Drury, the skeletal hound, had clambered down countless steps, hoping to come upon the fabled long-lost tunnel which would take them to the mainland.  Instead they had walked into this vast, cathedral-like space, lying deep beneath the fog-strewn island of Hopeless, Maine.

“Maybe this was a smugglers’ den,” said Bartholomew, “and if that is the case, there ought to be another tunnel somewhere, leading to the sea.”

It seemed to be a reasonable assumption, and they immediately set about exploring the area. The meagre light of their candle-lanterns, however, was no match for the blanket of darkness that surrounded them, and there looked to be little hope of finding another way out; then Philomena spotted a sconce attached to the stonework. Further exploration revealed that there were several arrayed around the perimeter of the walls, each one filled with dry rushes. It was obvious that these had, at some point long ago, been prepared in readiness for a gathering of some description. Norbert, who was the tallest of the trio, reached up and lit one of the sconces with his candle. In an instant the rushes burst into flame, casting huge shadows that danced alarmingly against the harsh, unforgiving grey walls that soared high above them.

Norbert lit two more of the torches. It was only then that the trio truly appreciated the space in which they were standing. This was no simple subterranean cavern, but a huge underground chamber with walls of dressed granite, and close-fitting flagstones beneath their feet. Any clue as to who had constructed this, much less the when and why, was apparently lost long ago.

“Over there…” said Norbert, pointing to a point on the far wall that lay in deeper shadow.

He had spotted the mouth of a tunnel, gloomy and uninviting, on the opposite side of the room. The three intrepid explorers were in no hurry to go on, and it was only Drury who seemed to be unfazed by the prospect of entering. With his bony tail wagging and his feet clattering on the hard floor, he wandered nonchalantly across and sniffed at the threshold of dark passage. Filled with uncertainty, the others followed.

“Well, if Drury is happy with it, I have no problem in following,” declared Philomena, stoutly.

Bartholomew looked at Norbert and raised his eyebrows. Unlike Philomena, both men had lived on Hopeless for all of their lives, and were aware that tunnels and passageways were not the nicest of places to frequent at the best of times. Compared to the denizens of The Underland, the creatures who lived above the ground were warm and cuddly. Besides this, Drury was not exactly a barometer of common-sense. It was only the fact that the dog was seemingly immortal, that had saved him from many a scrape in the past.

“I don’t think we should…” began Bartholomew, but he saw the look in Philomena’s eye and hurriedly amended the remainder of his sentence. “I don’t think we should go into these unknown areas completely unprepared. Your idea about taking various bits of equipment with us was sound, Philomena.”

(If you recall, in the tale ‘The Underland’, Philomena had, indeed, suggested that they take a small mountain of equipment on the expedition.)

Before the words were out of his mouth, however, Drury gave a bark and disappeared into the depths of the tunnel.

“Hey, wait for me…” cried Philomena and, with her candle-lantern held aloft, dashed after him.

“Philomena…” shouted Bartholomew, but it was too late, she was out of sight.

For the second time in as many minutes the two men looked at each other with eyebrows raised.

“Ah, what the heck,” said Norbert, getting as perilously close to cursing as he ever did. “In for a penny…”

Reluctantly the two men disappeared into the gaping maw that yawned before them.

Meanwhile, far away in time and space, two men sat hunched over their respective flagons of warm ale. One was Doctor John Dee, necromancer, and Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth the First of England; the other, much younger man, was his friend and associate, the spirit-medium and would-be alchemist, Edward Kelley. They had come to The George Inn, in Southwark, in the knowledge that they would not be recognised. This part of the city of London was largely populated by a colourful array of whores, vagabonds, conmen, thieves, escaped criminals, mountebanks, wandering minstrels and other ne’er do-wells. When not guarding their own lives and property, each and every one of these citizens was far more interested in watching the bloodshed occurring in the bear pits, the bullrings, and the alehouses that staged bare-knuckle fights, than spying on Dee and Kelley.

Looking furtively over his shoulder, Doctor Dee opened a nondescript leather satchel and pulled out an ancient looking book.

“What’s that?” demanded Kelley

“Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis,” said Dee, triumphantly.

To John Dee’s disappointment Edward Kelley looked singularly unimpressed.

“The voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot,” he translated. “So what? I can’t get excited about the antics of some old Irish monk taking a pleasure-trip.”

“Edward… Edward,” hissed Dee, urgently. “Do you not know of Brendan’s discoveries. I grant you, much related in these pages might be brain-addled rubbish from drinking salt-water, but there was one island that he mentions, towards the very end of his voyage, that really seems to be a portal between earth and all the hidden realms beyond. Imagine that, Edward, from that island we can reach the very shores of Heaven and Hell themselves. Who knows what we may discover? I have permission to mount an expedition in the Queen’s name – and at her expense, obviously – and you and I shall find this island, far away on the edge of the New World, and discover all of its secrets.”

“Sorry, I cannot,” replied Kelley, “I’ve just gained a position as alchemist to King Rudolf of Saxony. I’ll be leaving London at the end of this month.”

Dee’s face darkened.

“How on earth do you think that you are going to turn base metal into gold?” he asked brusquely. “The last time I looked, the only alchemical transformation that you’ve managed successfully is turning sour ale into piss!”

“Rudolf doesn’t know that, but I’m sure I’ll be fine” replied Kelley, breezily ignoring the insult. “Anyway, I am sorry I can’t join you on your voyage.  By the way, what is the name of this place you’ll be sailing to?”

“As far as I can tell, Brendan did not name it,” said Dee. “Though, upon returning to Ireland, when asked to describe the place, he clutched his head at the memory, curled up in a ball, and wailed, “It’s Hopeless, I tell you. The island is Hopeless!”

To be continued…

Author’s note: Over the years the George Inn, in Southwark, has been a favourite watering-hole of many famous people, including Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer and Winston Churchill. It was rebuilt following the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676.

(Cave image in this post is a chapter cover from Victims, and has a goblin in it, which may cause confusion, but that’s what goblins do…)

The Underland

Secret passages are always a good idea. Yes.

Philomena Bucket had discovered a secret passage, housed in the walls of The Squid and Teapot. It descended, by way of an iron ladder, from the far attic to the cellar.

Bartholomew Middlestreet and Norbert Gannicox had been enjoying a surreptitious pint of ‘Old Colonel’, while ostensibly searching for a hidden door in the cellar of the inn. Norbert normally eschews strong drink, but Bartholomew had assured him that drinking to quench a thirst, as they were, was quite different to social drinking, and therefore, on this occasion, would not count as ‘drinking’. (Similarly, I have never felt that the consumption of digestive biscuits, when dunked into tea or coffee, can ever be regarded as ‘eating’.)

When a section of the wall slid noisily back to reveal Philomena standing before them, her skirt knotted at the waist to facilitate easy ladder-climbing, they realised, with great surprise and a certain amount of embarrassment, that the door had, indeed, been discovered.

Philomena hastily adjusted her dress, and, with the aid of a foaming tankard of the Ebley Brewery’s best bitter, related how she and Ariadne, Bartholomew’s wife, had stumbled on the entrance to the passage, which had been concealed in a small extension to the attic wall, cleverly constructed to resemble a locked sea-chest.

“But it makes no sense,” declared Bartholomew. “What is the point of going to the trouble of making a secret passage which only takes you from the top to the bottom of the inn?”

“None that I can see,” agreed Norbert, peering up the shaft down which Philomena had climbed. “To be honest, it would have been a bit of a squeeze for me to have climbed down there. It’s very narrow.”

Philomena and Bartholomew exchanged a meaningful look. Norbert’s fondness for starry-grabby pies was legendary.

“Maybe there is a similar projecting brick on the back wall which opens up another secret door,” suggested Philomena.

They pushed and prodded the stonework for a few minutes, until Bartholomew remembered that the only things of interest likely to be found on the other side of the wall was a cobbled pathway and the Atlantic Ocean.

Bartholomew scratched his chin, thoughtfully.

“My pa always reckoned that there was a secret tunnel, somewhere under The Squid, that led directly to the mainland,” he said.  

“Now that would be a thing!” said Norbert, enthusiastically. “Nobody has managed to get off this island for the best part of a century.”

It was true, apparently. There were stories on Hopeless of how, years earlier, Joseph, a Passamaquoddy trader who had settled on the island, occasionally ferried back and forth to the mainland. On rare occasions, it was said, he had taken passengers. That was a long time ago, and any who might have verified these tales were long dead (although, in fairness, the mere fact of being deceased has never prevented anyone on Hopeless from voicing their opinion).

“So maybe we’re looking in the wrong place,” said Philomena, dropping to her knees and feeling around the floor of the shaft. It took her but moments to locate a flagstone that seemed to be slightly looser than any of the others. Taking the initiative, Bartholomew dashed outside for a lever of some description, returning less than a minute later with a shovel. Thrusting the blade of the shovel between the flagstones, he put all of his weight on the handle, until his feet left the ground. Philomena bit her lip, anxiously, expecting the handle to snap. Little by little, however, the stone was prised up, gently lowering Bartholomew back on to his feet. Once the gap was sufficiently wide to allow Norbert some purchase for his hands, the flagstone gave up the struggle, obviously realising that it was no match for the joint efforts of a zealous innkeeper and a hefty, not to say slightly tipsy, distiller.

Where the flagstone had so recently lain, a cold breeze now wafted from the dark opening that yawned before the feet of the three friends. The rectangular hole was twice as long as it was wide, and a steep, stone staircase descended into its depths.

“We’re going to need torches,” Philomena was the first to speak.

“We?” said Bartholomew. “I can’t allow you to go down there, Philomena. You’ve no idea what is lurking in that pit. It could be dangerous.”

“Then I resign,” shouted Philomena, angrily, making the other two jump in surprise. “And as you’re not my boss anymore, you can’t be telling me what to do.”

There followed a few minutes of Bartholomew trying not to panic, coupled with a certain amount of hand-wringing, as he attempted to calm his barmaid, assuring her that he didn’t mean to sound as though he was giving her orders, and that The Squid would not be the same without her. When sufficiently placated, Philomena immediately withdrew her resignation, mentally putting herself in charge of the forthcoming adventure.

Once they had retired to the snug of The Squid and Teapot, Philomena began making plans and writing a list of things they would need on their expedition into, what she had already named, The Underland. The attics would have to be ransacked for sturdy boots, helmets, candle-powered head-torches, lengths of rope, various items of weaponry, waterproof clothing, knapsacks, grappling hooks, crampons, carabineers…

“Hold on, just for a minute,” cautioned Bartholomew, treading carefully in case he upset her again. “Maybe, before we load ourselves down with too much equipment, most of which I’m not sure we have anyway, should we just do a reconnaissance with a couple of candle-lanterns?”

Philomena looked disappointed, then Bartholomew had a flash of inspiration.

“If we took Drury along with us, he could sniff out any danger and give us plenty of warning.”

The barmaid brightened at the prospect of her best friend, the skeletal hound, joining their party.

“Well, you can count me out,” said Ariadne, who had been minding the inn while the unearthing of The Underland had been taking place. “I have no wish to go delving about in the bowels of the earth. Anyway, somebody has to look after The Squid while you lot are off enjoying yourselves.”   

 Her light tone belied the worry behind her eyes.

The following morning found Bartholomew, Norbert and Philomena, with candle lanterns held high and Drury rattling happily at the head of the procession, intrepidly descending the steep stone steps, into the stygian gloom of The Underland…

To be continued…

The Secrets of the Squid

Norbert Gannicox and Bartholomew Middlestreet appeared to be transfixed by the key that Norbert had placed upon the bar of The Squid and Teapot. It was ornate, obviously old and, until that morning, had spent the previous half-century or more hidden in a damp cupboard, in a dusty corner of the Gannicox Distillery. The box in which the key had been found also contained a mysterious letter, signed by Sebastian Lypiatt (a previous landlord of the inn), who had suggested that it would be preferable for ‘the item’, as he called it, to be kept anywhere other than The Squid and Teapot, and asking Solomon (Norbert’s grandfather) to do the decent thing, and hang on to it.

It was Philomena Bucket who broke the spell, mopping up puddles of spilt beer and rearranging the dust on the floor with a sweeping brush.

“What’s that old thing you’ve got there that’s causing so much interest? “she enquired, casually brushing a shower of pastry crumbs over Norbert’s boots.

“It’s a key to a door we don’t seem to have,” replied Bartholomew, shaking his head. “I know every door in this inn, and I also know what every key to every door looks like, and none of them look like this one.”

“Then maybe it doesn’t belong here at all,” declared Philomena, then added, jokingly, “unless, of course, you’ve not yet found the secret doorway that leads to a treasure chest.”

“I can’t imagine that,” said Bartholomew, although the sudden enthusiastic look on his face told Philomena and Norbert that he certainly could imagine it, and the prospect excited him no end.

“Well, if you don’t look you won’t find anything,” said Philomena, philosophically. “I don’t mind having a poke about, up in the attics, if you like.”

The truth of the matter is that Philomena enjoys nothing more than rummaging around in the attics of The Squid and Teapot, so this was not too arduous a chore for her.

“Yes, alright, if you’re sure, but that’s a big space to cover on your own,” said Bartholomew.

Just then his wife, Ariadne, wandered in and was immediately press-ganged into helping.

“If you two take a look in the attics, Norbert and I will see if there are any secret doors in the cellar,” said Bartholomew, adding pessimistically, “but I don’t expect we’ll find anything.”

The Squid and Teapot is one of the oldest buildings on the island of Hopeless. Originally thought to have been a church, and constructed long before the founding families arrived here, it has changed in shape, size and purpose considerably during its lifetime. Over the years it has been the subject of several building projects, leaving it both impressive in appearance and somewhat eccentric in design.  The inside of The Squid, as it is affectionately known, is no less remarkable. While its cellars contain as many barrels of alcohol as the Ebley Brewery and Gannicox distillery are able to provide, plus anything else vaguely alcoholic that the tide brings in, the spacious attics are an Aladdin’s cave, filled with any spoils of the sea which, for now, are not required for use on the island.

While Bartholomew and Norbert peered and prodded behind the barrels in the cellar, Philomena and Ariadne busied themselves moving boxes away from the attic walls in the hope that they would find the elusive doorway. The light filtering through the small, grimy windows, however, was not particularly good, and their tallow candles illuminated little. It was beginning to look like a lost cause.

“Let’s take a break,” said Ariadne after an hour of fruitless searching, and flopped down on to an old sea-chest that they had found to be too heavy to pull from the far wall.

“What’s kept in there?” asked Philomena. “It looks old.”

“No idea,” replied Ariadne. “It has always been here, as far as I know. We’ve tried to open it in the past, but not even crowbars will prise the lid up. Sadly, it’s locked tight, and we haven’t got the key. “

A meaningful silence filled the room, and the two women looked at each other for what felt like an eternity.

“You don’t think…” said Philomena.

She said no more, but rushed down the stairs, grabbed the ornate key that was still sitting on the bar, and returned, red-faced and breathless.

“What kept you?” grinned Ariadne. She moved off the chest and, with trembling hands, Philomena put the key into the lock. She expected the mechanism to be stiff and unyielding but was surprised by the ease with which it turned.  Gingerly, as if she half-expected something to leap out and attack her, she lifted the lid and peered inside.

“What’s in there?” asked Ariadne, excitedly.

“Nothing at all,” replied Philomena.

“Nothing? Oh for goodness sake…” Ariadne began, but Philomena cut her short.

“No… it’s empty but it goes down forever. There’s a ladder inside and I can’t see the how far it is to the bottom.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ariadne, “how can the chest be bottomless?”

“Because it’s not a chest. Not a real one, anyway. It won’t come from the wall because it’s part of it, a small extension built to look like a sea-chest. It is a secret passage! Come on, let’s see what’s down there,” said Philomena.

“I’m not sure that I can…” said Ariadne, hesitantly.

“Well I will!” replied Philomena, “Give me a candle and hang around up here until you know that I’m safely at the bottom. Will you do that?”

Ariadne nodded, feeling feeble, but unable to face the challenge of a vertical ladder that seemed to descend into nothing but unfathomable darkness.

Philomena tied her skirt into a knot around her waist and put her foot on the top rung, quietly praying that rust had not attacked the metalwork. Ariadne looked on anxiously as her friend disappeared into the gloom.

The shaft was cold and narrow, little wider than the span of Philomena’s shoulders. The smoky candle barely pierced the darkness, which seemed to wrap itself around her like a blanket.

“Can’t be far now,” she thought to herself. Her senses, usually so acute, felt numbed and the short while that she had been on the ladder felt like an eternity. Then her feet touched the floor.

Philomena reached out and felt cold stone all around her. She told herself not to panic; if there was no way out, other than the way she had come, then she’d climb back up. She would be fine.  The problem was that she did not feel fine, encased in what felt like a stone sepulchre. She allowed the meagre light of the candle to play over the unremitting wall of granite, but found no sign of a means of egress, other than via the ladder.

She was about to turn back, ready to face the long and perilous climb to the top, when she noticed the flame waver, a tiny flicker that would have been easy to miss. Raising a pale finger, Philomena traced it against the stonework. There was a definite line to follow, just enough of a crack to allow the tiniest whiff of air to find its way through the otherwise solid wall.

“This must be a door,” she told herself, pushing at the wall, but nothing moved. The candle was almost spent and its flame was growing weaker by the second. Then it went out altogether.

“Blast! I give up,” she moaned, almost in tears, and reached for the ladder. Philomena, however, had lost her bearings in the darkness and instead of touching cold iron, she found her hand leaning against a stone projecting very slightly from the rest of the wall. There was a soft rumble, and a mechanism that had lain idle for at least fifty years was coaxed into life. A second or two later a narrow section of wall slid back, revealing Bartholomew and Norbert. They were happily perched on a couple of beer barrels, and enjoying a quiet pint of Old Colonel.

They stared in surprise at Philomena, who was suddenly conscious of her skirt knotted up around her waist and her pale, bare thighs on show, for all to see.

“Hello there, fellas,” she said, unabashed. “I could really use a drop of that stuff.”

To be continued…

The Key of Solomon

For the past few years – in fact, ever since a copy of Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississippi’ came ashore in an old sea-chest – the last Tuesday in every month has been designated as being ‘Poker Night’ in the snug of The Squid and Teapot. Don’t ask me why. There is no great significance to the last Tuesday in every month, except that it can never clash with Thanksgiving (which, except for the odd occasion, has been pretty much ignored on Hopeless, anyway).  Although not a particularly exciting affair, the small handful of islanders who choose to play always look forward to poker night as an opportunity to put on whatever passes as their finery; for a fanciful few hours they can imagine themselves gambling on a paddle-driven steamboat, like those so famously evoked by the aforementioned Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Norbert Gannicox is no exception to this unwritten rule, habitually donning his much-coveted (though slightly too-large and badly sea-stained) Stetson, frilly shirt (that buttons-up the wrong way, on account of it having belonged to his mother), and bootlace tie (made from a real bootlace). Cards in hand, he likes to sit and sip a sarsaparilla or two, for despite being the proprietor of the Gannicox Distillery, Norbert has made it a rule never to touch strong drink, after finding his father drowned in a barrel of moonshine. On the evening of this tale, however, Norbert was panicking. His bootlace tie was missing. He had looked in all of the usual places, turning out drawers and cupboards in desperation, completely forgetting that he had asked his wife to secure a particularly noisy copper pipe which had developed an annoying rattle during the distilling process. A handy bootlace did the job admirably, and, with the pipe firmly secured, the annoying rattle, along with Norbert’s Tuesday-night neckwear, became a thing of the past.

It seems to be a universal truth that, whenever something goes missing, the subsequent search turns up all manner of long-lost items, except the one thing that you have been looking for. Once treasured possessions, generally thought to have been spirited away to whatever place it is that odd socks, teaspoons, broken scissors and loose change are given to migrate, will miraculously appear in locations previously ransacked a dozen times. Invariably, when you eventually find these things, the moment has passed and they have no importance whatsoever in your life anymore. While Norbert’s search did, indeed, throw up all sorts of half-remembered treasures, the battered old tin box he discovered, sitting in the back of a damp cupboard, was completely unfamiliar, and somehow unsettling. The box was closed tight, a thick crust of red rust welding the lid firmly in place. There was no opportunity to prise it open just then, however. Norbert was all too aware that time was getting on, and soon Bartholomew Middlestreet, the inn’s landlord, would be shuffling his venerable pack of dog-eared playing cards in readiness for the evening’s entertainment.  All the same, all through the game his mind kept wandering back to the subject of the tin box, and he found it difficult to concentrate on his cards. Others noticed that he was distracted, and attributed this, and the fact that he had forgotten to wear his tie, to some temporary mental aberration, possibly caused by over-exposure to distillation fumes.

It was the following morning when Norbert eventually found time to get to grips with the box, spraying a fine patina of rust over himself in the process. His initial reaction, however, was one of disappointment; there appeared to be little of interest lurking within its depths. There were a few scribbled notes, all yellowed with age, that seemed to pertain to various, fairly primitive, methods of distillation. He found a letter addressed to Mr. Solomon Gannicox, of the New Gannicox Distillery, from Sebastian Lypiatt, whom Norbert knew to be a former landlord of The Squid and Teapot. There was also a somewhat unpleasant missive from someone called Reverend Crackstone, railing against the production of ‘The Demon Drink’. 

As Norbert lifted the pile of papers out of the box, an envelope dropped on to the table with a resounding clunk. The contents sounded far too heavy to be merely paper. Excitedly, and with trembling hands, Norbert carefully removed the envelope’s red waxed seal. To his surprise he found an iron key nestling inside. The key was obviously old and quite ornate, unlike any Norbert that had seen before. The tin box had clearly been the property of his grandfather, Solomon Gannicox, the founder of the distillery, but why or how Solomon had come in possession of the key was anyone’s guess, and, more to the point, where was the door that it could unlock? Maybe there was another clue that he had missed, hidden somewhere among his grandfather’s papers.

Looking again, and instantly dismissing Reverend Crackstone’s offensive tirade, Norbert noticed that the letter from Sebastian Lypiatt made some intriguing references to Solomon looking after ‘the enclosed item’ which, apparently, was deemed to be a far safer option than it being housed within the walls of The Squid and Teapot. The distiller’s heart missed a beat. This was it, here was the lead that he had been seeking. Although, by no means a fanciful man, Norbert felt that here was an adventure in the making. The riddle of the key of Solomon would only be solved when, with the help of Bartholomew Middlestreet, the location of the door, and whatever lay behind it, was discovered.

To be continued…

(Key by Matt Inkel)

Freya

“Mr O’Stoat is a wise and learned man, Freya. It will be a marvellous opportunity,” said Reverend Davies, encouragingly, his fingers crossed behind his back.

He beamed down at the diminutive figure standing before him. A least, he imagined himself to be beaming. The smile more resembled a somewhat terrifying rictus, which did little to reassure the child.

Looking for a human guinea-pig to send into the past, and hopefully return relatively safely, Durosimi O’Stoat had approached the Reverend, asking for his cooperation in procuring one of the orphans of the Pallid Rock Orphanage to act as his assistant. Fixing Reverend Davies with an intimidating gaze, he had been characteristically vague with regard to the nature of the work involved, but had promised that it would not be at all arduous. His only requirements were that the child must be docile, biddable and not given to being noisy. In the normal course of events the Reverend would have dismissed the request out of hand, not from any moral standpoint, but that these stipulations ruled out virtually all of the youngsters currently in the care of the orphanage. The truth was that, being very wary, not to say fearful, of Durosimi, Reverend Davies was not inclined to upset someone who was more than equipped to make his life extremely difficult.  It was only when his eye alighted upon Freya Draycott, nine years old, pale-skinned, bookish and painfully shy, that his troubles seemed to be over. Freya would fit the bill nicely. He would deliver her to Durosimi himself, that very afternoon.

“You have done what???” The normally placid Miss Calder was literally incandescent with rage. Reverend Davies had never before seen her wraithlike form glow with such a ghastly green intensity. The pleasing face and figure that haunted the corridors of the orphanage had become horribly skeletal and fiery, such was the intensity of her fury.

“Durosimi assured me that Freya would enjoy the best of working conditions…”

“And you trust him?” Miss Calder was almost screaming. “You would leave that defenceless child in the care of such a monster?”

“Oh, come, come, Miss Calder,” said the Reverend, terrified that Durosimi might be within hearing distance. “You have no right to assume…”

“I have every right! I know exactly what that man is capable of. Why does he want her? And don’t say as an assistant!”

Before Reverend Davies could reply she stormed from the room, leaving trails of angry green ectoplasm in her wake.

It was deep into the night when Miss Calder, who had composed herself sufficiently to have reverted to her usual form, stood outside Durosimi’s house. Despite the lateness of the hour, pale light shone through several windows. Summoning her courage, for she had no idea whether Durosimi would have any power over her, she drifted towards the door, knowing that locks and bolts would be no barrier. 

Miss Calder was within touching distance of the house when the shockwaves hit. Her wraith was flung back several yards. Had anyone been watching, they would have been horrified to witness her going through every stage of decomposition, before landing on the ground, where she gradually retained her preferred shape. Flickering unsteadily into a standing position, she commenced to circle the building, aware that some unseen force was preventing her, or anyone else, from getting inside.

“Well, that proves that Durosimi is up to no good,” she said sadly to herself as she fluttered back to the orphanage. Miss Calder vowed never to forgive him, or Reverend Davies, if Freya came to harm.

Freya lay in a comfortable bed and wondered when Mr O’Stoat would need her to do any work. She had been with him for three days and nights, and during that time had been left to her own devices. She had seen very little of her new master. Despite his forbidding appearance, he had not been unkind and gave her the run of much of his house. There were books everywhere, which pleased Freya, though most of them were beyond her understanding. She missed her friends at the orphanage, but all in all, it seemed that she had nothing to complain about.

It was on the fourth night, however, some little time after she had settled down to sleep, that her world was suddenly turned upside down.

Sigrid hummed quietly to herself as she removed the warm loaves from the clay oven. The Allfather had been generous once more; the harvest had been bountiful the previous year. Since settling on this little island, life had been good. There was rich pasture land for the livestock and plenty of wild birds and animals for her husband, Bendt, to hunt. Her only sorrow was her inability to conceive a child. In desperation Sigrid had consulted Helga, the vǫlva, or wise woman, who, for a small payment, cast a handful of runes before slipping into a trance state in order to petition the gods on Sigrid’s behalf. Helga was confident that the plea had been a success, for she had been told that there would, indeed, be a child gracing the Holmen household before the feast of Lithasblot, or Midsummer.

 “Well,” mused Sigrid, still as slender as a willow, “that’s all very well, but spring has arrived and midsummer is just a couple of months away. So much for the intervention of a wise-woman!”

As has been mentioned before in these tales, the climate of Hopeless has not always been as it is today. There have been pockets of time throughout its history when the island has enjoyed warmth, sunshine and general abundance. So attractive was the place to the Norsemen, who arrived in their Dragon Boats, that they sent messengers back, bidding their families to join them. For a century or so, before the fog rolled in with its accompanying horrors, the Vikings lay down their weapons, and lived here in peace and plenty.

Freya awoke to find herself lying on a grassy bank. There was the fragrant smell in the air of sweet meadow flowers, and a golden sun smiled down through faint wisps of cloud. This was a world that Freya had never before seen. She looked around her in awe, then spotted the elderly, but still handsome woman with plaited grey hair who stood motionless, a few yards away.

Helga had watched the child slowly materialise before her startled eyes. This was an unusual spectacle, even for one who spent time, as she did, in the liminal landscape that lies between the realms of flesh and spirit. There could only be one explanation; surely she must have been sent by the gods, as they had promised, the daughter for Sigrid and Bendt. But when Helga spoke to the girl it was clear that she could not understand a word of what was being said. The wise-woman rolled her eyes. Why was she not surprised? The gods were so predictable; so capricious. This was typical of one of their tricks. Well, she could beat them at their own game. The child was young enough to learn.

She put her hand on own her breast and said, “Helga”, then she pointed to the girl.

Freya was quick on the uptake, and realised that she was being asked for her name.

When she heard the reply, Helga’s face broke into a smile,

“Freya… Freyja” she repeated.  

The child’s name was Freyja. Here indeed was a gift from the goddess herself.

Helga extended a hand and Freya took it, instinctively trusting her new friend. She did not care how she had arrived here, or even where she was; this place was so much more pleasant than Hopeless. There was no fog, no eyes in the sky and, so far, no monsters with fangs and tentacles. She knew that she could be happy here, and walked contentedly with Helga in the spring sunshine, out towards the settlement that nestled snugly in the shelter of a range of low hills.

“That’s strange,” Freya thought to herself, eyeing the scene in front of her. “They look just like the Gydynaps.”

The Visitor

Rhys Cranham had no problem with being around ghosts. In his role of Hopeless Maine’s Night-Soil Man, he encountered them regularly. Most were harmless, but others, such as Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, certainly were not, and so Rhys made a point of avoiding Obadiah and his ilk whenever possible. Uniquely, among those of the spirit world, Miss Calder was inclined to be flirtatious. Rhys often wondered if this was more out of pity than anything else, as she would have known full-well that the life of a Night-Soil Man is lonely and loveless. This made him feel uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, for, much to his own surprise, he found that he was not without feelings for her. This, in turn, gave him a dreadful guilt complex, as there was a definite frisson between Philomena Bucket and himself, and for a brief time, after she arrived on the island, it seemed as though romance was a possibility; or it was, until a hearty dose of sea-water swilled out the grains lodged in Philomena’s nose, and her sense of smell returned. It was at that point that Cupid almost dropped his bow in an attempt to make a hurried exit.
Yes, Rhys was fairly sure that he had met every ghost on the island, at one time or another, and could name each of them. That was why the apparition of a middle-aged man, currently wandering through the walls of his cottage, surprised him quite as much as it did. The Night-Soil man had fallen asleep in his armchair following his nightly rounds, and had been enjoying a pleasant dream that involved his swimming in an ocean of ‘Old Colonel’ ale. He awoke, bleary and with no small measure of disappointment. It took a few seconds of blinking and yawning before he registered the presence of his spectral visitor.
The ghost said nothing, but fluttered before him, beckoning and pointing to the closed door, through which he slipped like smoke. Seemingly unable to resist, Rhys rose to his feet, picked up his candle-lantern, and followed him. It was the early hours of the morning and the island slept. You could tell that it was sleeping by the way that the Gydynap Hills rose and fell slightly, filling the air with the sound of contented snoring. Occasionally a small flock of gnii would fly overhead, making the distinctive gnii, gnii sound, after which they were named. As ever, a thick mist shrouded the island, but the dimly phosphorescent spectre hovered in front of him like a beacon.
It was when they passed The Squid and Teapot that Rhys sensed that something was not right. The old place looked very much same, illuminated as it was by the candle-lantern, but Rhys could not remember the paintwork to be quite so neglected, while some of the window panes looked grimy and cracked.
“I’m surprised Bartholomew has allowed it to get into this state,” he thought to himself, as he wandered around the building. No sooner had the thought entered his head than he was forced to stop dead in his tracks. Something was definitely not right… and then he spotted it, or, to put things more precisely, he didn’t spot it at all. Where the flushing privy had stood, just a few hours ago, there was now an empty space, bordered by the blank, grey, back wall of the inn.
Rhys could not believe his eyes. Even in the unlikely event of Bartholomew wanting to demolish the privy, which had always been his pride and joy, and envy of the landlord of ‘The Crow’, there would have been some disturbed ground, some debris strewn around, but the whole area looked as though nothing had ever been standing there.
“Then I must be dreaming,” Rhys decided, and looked down at his hands.
You may not know this, but the Night-Soil Man had long been a lucid dreamer. He had, on many occasions, been fully aware that he was dreaming and was, from that happy position, able to direct events in a most satisfactory way. (Most Night-Soil men have learned to cultivate this ability, allowing them the companionship in dreams that they lacked in their waking lives).
Like anyone with a similar skill, however, Rhys knew that there were some anomalies that even the most lucid of dreamers was subject to, and the state of one’s hands was one of those anomalies. If you looked at them twice they would be different; they might have too many, or too few, fingers. They might turn into crab-like claws, or resemble several pairs of scissors, There was never any guarantee what you might see. On this occasion Rhys’ hands looked perfectly normal, but the mystery of the disappearing privy troubled him, so he racked his brain for other signs that he was in a dream.
“Text!” he said to himself. “That’s another one, text.”
He recalled that writing was rarely readable in a dream, and certainly never looked the same twice. He scanned around, looking for some words to test his theory.
The faded sign outside the inn proudly, though not unsurprisingly, proclaimed ‘The Squid and Teapot’. To give the legend on the sign some credence, it sat above a painting which depicted a cephalopod caressing a spouted utensil which did, indeed, closely resemble a teapot.
Rhys closed his eyes for a moment, then squinted at the sign again. Nothing had changed, the words were the same.
While all of this was going on, the ghost was becoming impatient, tapping his feet and drumming his fingers against folded arms, until gradually he began to fade away, as though his work was done, leaving a mystified Rhys standing alone in the deserted street. He shrugged and walked back through the town, towards his cottage. It was a strange journey, for although everything was familiar, the buildings appeared to sport small changes here and there, making the Night-Soil Man feel distinctly uneasy.
If Rhys felt that the differences in the town were unsettling, his heart almost stopped when he reached the cottage at Poo Corner. His cobbled pathway was gone, the front door was now a different colour and, like The Squid, the whole place looked neglected and unloved. Rhys cautiously entered and, in the glow of his lantern, the room sprang to life, sending shadows dancing over the bare walls.
The small parlour was sparsely furnished and bore little resemblance to Rhys’ cosy home. Slumped in the only armchair was the figure of a man. He was fully dressed and, although Rhys’ sense of smell was accustomed to the stench of night-soil, he was aware that he was in the presence of another Night-Soil Man; or, he would have been, had the poor fellow been alive. The man in the chair felt cold and stiff to the touch. Then a chill ran down Rhys’ spine as he recognised him; he found himself looking at the earthly remains of his ghostly visitor.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a noise in the corner, It was a dry, rattling sound which Rhys immediately recognised.
“Drury!” he exclaimed, relieved to see the familiar skeletal form of his old friend getting to his feet.
“Dear old Drury, am I glad to see you.”
If Drury had possessed hackles, they would have risen. He tucked his head in to his shoulders and gave a low, menacing growl.
“Hey, what’s wrong old fella?”
The dog bared his teeth (inasmuch as you can bare teeth which are completely visible at all times) and the low growl became a full throated roar.
Rhys barely had time to raise his arms in defence as Drury leapt towards his throat.

To be continued…

The Man in Grey

Since being relocated to The Squid and Teapot, via his hat, the ghost of Father Ignatius Stamage had been a model of discretion. Any who were not aware of his presence would regard the fleeting shadow, which they might catch out of the corner of their eye, as no more than a trick of the light. It was an arrangement that suited all concerned.
Bartholomew Middlestreet, the inn’s landlord, smiled wryly to himself as he contemplated how his old friend, the late lamented actor/manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, might have conducted himself, had he been haunting the place; he had not been renowned for his discretion. Bartholomew imagined that the ghost of Sir Fromebridge would be no less louche or raffish than he had been in life. It was a pity that the old boy had been taken from them by the sea monster, aboo-dom-k’n; he had certainly added some colour to Hopeless.
It was while entertaining these thoughts that it occurred to Bartholomew that there were some odds and ends of Sir Fromebridge’s property stored away in one of the attics. Could his wraith be invoked to haunt his favourite scarf? Would he be able to, after so many years? More to the point, should The Squid be host to any more ghosts?
Not wishing to make this decision on his own, Bartholomew decided to ask the opinion of his wife, Ariadne, who generally had the last word in most matters.
“Shouldn’t you ask him if he wants to haunt The Squid?” she enquired.
“And how do we do that?” asked Bartholomew, perplexed.
Philomena Bucket, who could not help but overhear the conversation, volunteered, with some hesitancy,
“Well, I’ll have a go. I have a little bit of experience in those matters. I used to help me old granny when she did her séances back in Dublin. She was always convinced that I had ‘The Sight’, but I’m not so sure.”
“You will never stop surprising me,” said Ariadne, warming to the possibility of attending a séance. “What do we need to make it happen?”
“Not much,” replied Philomena. “Just an open mind, I suppose.”

The following night, after the inn had closed, Bartholomew, Ariadne, Philomena and Norbert Gannicox sat holding hands in candlelight around a circular table; in its centre sat coiled an extremely long and colourful scarf.
If the others had expected to see Philomena displaying the histrionics generally associated with conjuring the spirits of the dead, they were disappointed.
She asked, in calm and unhurried tones,
“Are you with us, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster?”
There was a minute of silence, then the sound of something being knocked over.
“Blast!” said a disembodied voice, “Who put that there.”
“Is that you, Sir Fromebridge?” asked Philomnena, hardly daring to believe that she had succeeded so easily.
“Yes, yes, hold on a mo, m’dear, I’ll soon be with you.”
The room grew suddenly colder. Then, close to Philomena’s shoulder, a form started to materialise. The apparition before them was not sporting the expected floppy fedora, scarf and greatcoat, but was instead clad, from head to foot, in an immaculate grey costume. He wore a tricorn hat, a powdered wig, a long riding cloak and riding boots.
“It’s not him,” hissed Bartholomew.
“Oh, I can assure you it is indeed I, Bartholomew dear boy. How good it is to see you again.”
In the dim light it was difficult to see the ghost’s features, but the voice was unmistakably that of Fromebridge Whitminster.
The ghost made a deep, theatrical bow.
“Now, what may I do for you, dear friends?”
“Um… we wondered if you’d fancy haunting The Squid and Teapot?” blurted Philomena.
The ghost made another bow, even more theatrical this time.
“My dear young lady, I would be delighted to… especially with such charming company as your good self and Mrs Middlestreet. Unfortunately, however, it is beyond my power. I am somewhat otherwise engaged. I have to honour what one might call a Faustian Pact.”
Sir Fromebridge went on to tell them that he had once made a bargain, with some mysterious Mephistophelean entity, to guarantee a further twenty years of life.
“You see,” he said, “when that sea monster took me, it was my time. My extra twenty years were up. The beast was just an instrument of destiny.”
Ariadne looked aghast.
“But what do you have to do in return?” she asked worriedly.
“Oh, nothing too arduous, I can assure you. I have taken over the role of ‘The Man in Grey’, resident spook at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, one of my old stamping grounds, as it happens. The other chap, my predecessor, had been haunting the upper circle for years and was overdue for a break. It’s not all bad; at least I get to see a few plays… although, these days some of the language can be appalling…”
“Yes,” said Bartholomew, “But don’t you get any time off?”
“Sorry, dear chap, I’m booked there for the next century or so, evening performances and matinées. Still, mustn’t grumble, and the get-up is pretty natty, what?”
They all had to agree that the eighteenth century look did, indeed, suit Sir Fromebridge.
“Anyway, must dash,” he said as his apparition gradually faded. “Lovely to see you all, and if you’re ever in London, do drop in.”
Those last words were so faint as to be almost inaudible, but it was an emotional moment, even for Philomena, who had never met the man in the flesh.

“Well, that’s that, I suppose,” said Norbert.
“It’s a pity, “ said Bartholomew, “but I guess we’ve enough ghosts without inviting any more in.”
“He seemed like a nice fellah, though,” said Philomena.
“He was,” agreed Norbert. “One of the best, though inclined to be accident-prone.”
“Maybe we could name something in his honour.” said Bartholomew. “How about that little cobbled street by the shore, where he met his end? We could call it Sir Fromebridge Whitminster Lane.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” said Ariadne. “How about just calling it ‘Drury Lane’?”
In the corner of the room a pile of bones rattled to its feet, shook itself and wagged its bony tail.
Drury definitely approved of the idea.

Author’s note: The Man in Grey has been seen on many occasions in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. He always sits in the same seat in the Upper Circle, on the end of the fourth row. Afterwards he strides along the walkway behind the seats, then, upon reaching a particular spot by the Royal Box, fades away.
His presence at a matinée performance or a rehearsal is generally considered to be a good omen.