“It’s times like these I wish I invested in a portable tavern,” said Clifton as he dismounted from an emu. “Flightless bird polo is thirsty work.” Pip laughed as though she’d just stormed the Dardanelles. “Everyone can dream,” she said, “except me since the accident.”
Flightless bird polo was a curious sport played on a dirt field shaped like a two-sided triangle. The game was contested without balls or mallets and winning was seen as a state of mind rather than a measurable outcome. Most, however, suspected it was just an excuse for people to bobble around on birds.
Clifton and Pip packed-up their equipment and the referees gathered the decoy ostriches into bags. As Pip zipped her bag, she noticed a strange figure across the field. She squinted to see the man more clearly, but set up a telescope instead when squinting proved fruitless. The man was portly, dressed in an apron and his robust moustache was so long, it touched his shoulders. In front of the man was a wooden barrel, which acted as a footrest and Hamlet in an amateur production of Macbeth. Having learned all the lines for Hamlet, no one had the heart to tell the barrel he’d prepared for the wrong play. Few seemed to notice and the production was a moderate success. Pip noticed the man’s bottom lip was cracked and also noticed that one of Saturn’s rings had dislodged and was spiraling towards Mars.
“What are you looking at?” asked Clifton.
“That man over there. Does he come to the games often?” asked Pip.
“I’ve never seen him here before. The barrel comes weekly; I think it’s club president.”
“He’s staring at us,” said Pip.
“No, the man!”
“Do you think it could be because you’ve set-up a telescope in broad daylight?” said Clifton.
Pip giggled like a crime fighting caterpillar and jovially slapped Clifton on the back considerably harder than would usually be socially acceptable.
“Let’s get out of here before he starts giving us the creeps,” said Pip.
“The creeps” was a venereal disease that had struck several prominent members of the town in the late 70s. There hadn’t been a reported case in years, but the outbreak still played on the minds of those who don’t like their STIs to have nicknames.
Clifton and Pip sat at Millicent’s Tavern for a post-game drink. Clifton ordered a lager and Pip ordered a black wine spritzer, which was a concoction of Shiraz, dry ice, Guinness and sarsaparilla served in a spray bottle. Millicent’s was a favourite with the locals. It had a coat rack and seven open fireplaces. The joint had burned down several times, but the establishment’s dedication to warmth and pollution endeared it to the community.
“To another great game!” toasted Pip.
Clifton sipped and Pip pointed the nozzle toward her open mouth and sprayed, managing to only lightly mist her face.
“Delicious!” she lied.
Not too long ago, a burst of liquid like that would have sent Clifton into a panic. Since confronting the Fishmen at the Lonely Pier in the month prior, he had a new found confidence and a new found Roman coin thanks to his metal detector.
The tavern lights flickered.
“I hope the place isn’t burning down again,” said Clifton.
The lights went out completely and a galloping hooves echoed from outside, sounding like a combination of a horse and a xylophone.
The lights returned and outside the window Clifton spied the portly man with the long moustache.
“What was that?” asked Pip. “A travelling movie Foley artist?”
“Unlikely,” said Clifton.
Echoing hooves were heard frequently throughout the town. The origin was unknown, but it was thought the closer one got to the forest, the louder they became.
“I think I just saw the strange man from the polo game,” said Clifton.
“You’re so paranoid sometimes, especially when I slip ketamine in your drink,” said Pip.
The door swung open and the portly man bounded in, the barrel clasped under his arm. The man’s apron was covered in brown stains and several spirographs. Pausing only to survey the coat rack, the man headed straight for Clifton and Pip.
Pip misted herself in black wine spritzer for courage. The mustachioed man stood at the end of their table and glared.
“You be Clifton?” he said gruffly.
“Yes, I am,” said Clifton.
“No, not you. You!” he said, pointing to Pip.
Pip performed an uncanny impression of Clifton. The man clapped uproariously, slammed his barrel on the ground and sat.
“Marvelous! Absolutely fantastic,” he said handing Pip twenty cents for her efforts. “What a performance!”
“Thank you," said Pip.
"Do you have any formal training?" asked the man.
"I walked passed a music hall once,”
“You can tell!”
“Can we help you?” said Clifton, sharply.
“Me name is Harland Spriggs and this is me cider barrel, Virgil.”
“We saw you at the polo grounds,” said Pip.
“Aye, I’m sorry to be followin’ you around, but I needed to talk to you."
“Why didn’t you phone?” asked Clifton.
“The coverage in this town is terrible,” said Spriggs, “I like to use me hands free headset, but when I wave me phone around to get reception, I end up ripping the earphones out of me face. You might call me a bit ol’ fashioned, but I prefer the personal touch of stalking.”
“So do I!” said Pip as she madly cut letters out of a magazine.
“Did you hear the hooves?” asked Spriggs?
“I thought that was you?” said Clifton.
“No, no, no. Not I. I’m not a horse.”
“Are you sure?” asked Pip like a television interviewer.
“Horses don’t wear aprons, me girl.”
This was not strictly true. The horses that ran a local working with clay workshop wore aprons, goggles and 90s fluoro knee pads for safety.
“What do you think it was?” asked Clifton.
“Dunno for sure, but I gots me theories.”
Spriggs had many theories, believing there was no such thing as f gravity, time and grass. He was also a superstitious man and feared a mystical force roamed the forest.
“If I were a bettin’ man, and I haven’t been since I lost me car, toaster and niece in a game of battleships, I’d be saying that it was the horse of”—he paused—“the Shadow Imp.”
The room stopped dead and gasped. Clifton initially thought the reaction was in response to the mention of the Shadow Imp, but soon realised the tavern was inhabited by a flash mob.
The Shadow Imp was a famous tale, known widely in the town, due to its immortalisation in a haunting poem written by Sir Nathaniel Howard. The poem was rarely recited due to it being penned in Middle English. This, of course, wasn’t the reason for its unpopularity. The poem was of terrible quality and was written in 1968 in a fashion that was Sir Howard’s attempt to sound old-timey.
He doth rideth through the forest of yore,
Spotted oft’ throughth trees on yonderish hill.
Plagues scamps, shrubs, apes and boar,
Pleaseth his sickth desire and spill
Milk upon ye olde forest’s floor
The Beatles ruleth the radio…th
The poem continues for sixty-one stanzas and tells the story of a sharp edged silhouette that rides through the forest on a skeleton horse, luring passing travelers and abducting their oil lamps. Its appearance was reportedly preceded by a ghostly candle that floated by its own volition and smelled of wild berry, vanilla and avocado.
“The Shadow Imp?” questioned Clifton. “That’s just a children’s story.”
“That’s what you said about the Fishmen,” reminded Pip.
“True, but that’s also what I said about the Laundry Ghost and that turned out to be Mr. Willis down the road stealing the neighbourhood’s underwear.”
Spriggs took a swig from the cider barrel and wiped his mouth.
“Thanks, Virgil,” said Spriggs. “Clifton, there’s been all sorts of strange occurrences near the forest.”
The forest had always been a place of intrigue. Many who had dared venture into the woods had not returned. Because of its ghostly reputation, very few had the courage to go anywhere near the forest, but the woodland was mainly avoided due to the fact it had been an asbestos dumping ground for years.
One infamous tale told of little Jimmy Talbot, who saw a light dancing between the trees as he played near the forest. He wandered in to investigate but was never seen of again. The rumour was the Shadow Imp had whisked him away. Another rumour was that Jimmy’s mother had been offered a clerical job interstate and moved the family to far North Queensland; both horrifying prospects.
“Your confrontation of the Fishmen has gotten around these parts,” said Spriggs. “The way you bravely sank to the depths of the mighty sea to conquer your fear and destroy that horrible Lonely Pier impressed a lot of folk. Though, the Lonely Pier was heritage listed, so I reckon you’ll be gettin’ a heavy fine for that one.”
“Thanks,” said Clifton, looking around distractedly for the leader of the flash mob to ask if he could join.
“I need your help, me boy. I own an inn on the edge of the forest and four guests have disappeared in the past two weeks. The Shadow Imp’s bloodlust is increasing! I hear him galloping around me establishment every night. It's scared all me guests away! Me business has completely dried up and I’m getting terrible reviews on TripAdvisor. You gotta stop him!”
Pip excitedly sprayed her face. “That sounds wonderful! We’ll do it,” she said.
“Actually,” began Clifton, “it’s not really my thing.”
Pip laughed as though she’d been hit by an elephant hunter's tranquiliser dart. “Clifton!” she said. “You’re offending Virgil.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Spriggs. One ghostly is encounter if enough for me. I hope you understand?”
“I think I do. You’re asking me to use thermo nuclear weapons?”
“No, that’s not what I was saying.”
“Ah, I understand.”
“I can’t help you.”
“Oh, I see.”
Spriggs and Virgil thanked Clifton and Pip for talking with them. They signed-up for the flash mob’s improv classes and headed back to their inn.
“Virgil is cute, isn’t he?” asked Pip.
Clifton sipped his beer through a curly straw. “I don’t know,” he said.
“You should at least think it over,” said Pip.
Clifton climbed into bed after completing his evening’s chores of combing the sofa and dusting his cured meats. The walls of his room were decorated with pictures of futuristic train stations and damaged ceramics. His bed was unusually high as whenever he bought a new mattress, he simply placed it on top of the old one.
He closed his eyes.
As Clifton drifted off to sleep and off topic in the conversation in his mind between himself and Winston Churchill’s attractive cousin, Clifton felt the taste of something tart on his lips. He groggily awoke to find Pip pouring Virgil into his mouth.
“W-what are you doing?!” gurgled Clifton.
“I think you should help Mr. Spriggs. What do you think of the cider?” said Pip.
“It’s awful,” said Clifton.
“The barrel says it’s brewed with rotten apples and sheep dip.”
Clifton ordered Pip out of his house and insisted he was not interested in chasing imps. There was so much Clifton wanted to do with his life: plant a rosemary bush, investigate the price of snowboards, do-up a vintage adding machine and own a barbeque. There was no time for distractions.
Outside the window, in the distance, Clifton spotted a floating light. Could it be the floating candle Spriggs mentioned? He rushed to the window, but it was just a moth smoking a cigarette. As Clifton moved back to his pile of mattresses, another levitating light outside caught his eye. He leapt to the window, but it was just some tumbleweed with a neon glow stick on its way to a rave. But as the tumbleweed rolled away to enjoy a techno extravaganza, the unmistakable aroma of wild berry, vanilla and avocado wafted through the room and outside hovered a thin wax candle. The pictures of high-tech train platforms fell from Clifton’s wall, creating a plain white space. A shadow beamed across the wall and formed a hand shadow puppet of a swan, then a snail and finally a cute little bunny rabbit. In a panic, Clifton tried to climb onto his bed, but the hydraulic lift wasn’t responding. The candle disappeared, the tumbleweed danced, the moth bought some nicotine patches and the shadows vanished.
Clifton understood the significance of the shadow play. They were damned entertaining, but they were also a warning.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Clifton and Pip's folkloric adventures with monsters & ghosts will continue with a new entry every week. Unless, of course, the stories blow and in that case I'll abandon ship. If nothing else we've all learned a few nautical idioms. Use them wisely.
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