By Tipp Hex
He knew that they would come for him as soon as he closed his eyes. They always did. So the answer was as simple as it was impossible: don't close your eyes. And don't ever sleep.
George gazed at the horizon, at the exact point where the sky fell into the arms of the sea, and he could see nothing. His hand swept over his face to try and brush away the drowsiness, the stubble grating on calloused skin like sandpaper over wood.
How long since he had slept? Briefly, and then only to awake retching, choking on phantom salt water burning his throat. That drowning dream of his was getting stronger. The terror of it. A life with the sea and he’d never learned to swim.
George sighed, turned to stroke his cat Sam and found him missing from his usual spot against his leg. He quickly found Sam gazing back at George from the far side of the room, eyes glinting in the fading light.
‘Ah, you feel it too, eh Sam?’
George once again turned towards the sea, looking through the huge glass windows of his lighthouse home. Oily calm, the grey sea lapped at the jagged rocks around the base of his lighthouse. It was too calm.
Suddenly annoyed, George growled, ‘Where the Hell is Tom?’
Grabbing the binoculars, he found the familiar black shape of a small boat bouncing out towards him. There was Tom, standing nervously on the foredeck, ready to cast a securing line to the jetty at the base of the lighthouse. George smiled at the sight, he knew Tom was no seaman. But George liked this young man who came once a month to service the lighthouse electronics and though he would never admit it, George looked forward to his visits.
He watched him as he tied up, then went down the circular stairs. Tom had beaten him to it and was already standing inside the storm-door carrying his toolkit.
‘How’re ya doing George, everything ok with you today?’ Tom shouted out. ‘Got some fresh fruit for you, hope you like them.’
‘Aye Tom, I’ll enjoy those, something to get the taste buds working again.’
George sat down and settled his back against the stonework, watching Tom as he got his things together then headed towards the electronics at the back of the room.
‘Well, I’ll let you get on, Tom. It's good to see you here again,’ George said, after a while. He wanted to say more, but was somehow unable to do so.
Tom, his back towards George, carried on talking as if he hadn't heard him.
‘This shouldn’t take too long George – just checking and replacing this fuse box, and that’s all I think…yup, looks pretty good …’ Tom straightened, swept his gaze around the bare circular room and sighed at the build up of dust and again sighed.
“Well, I guess that's it. I'll be off, George. See you next month my old friend.”
George shook his head, and said, ‘Aye, well, that’s good I guess, Tom, 'cause I don’t think this calm sea is going to last that long– you’d best be off home - and be quick me lad…’ and with that, George turned and left Tom to gather up his things.
Once George reached the top of the lighthouse, it was clear the weather was turning. The horizon was darkening with the approach of a storm front. He heard Tom’s voice echo around the circular stone structure of the building as he called up.
‘Until next time, George!’
George watched as Tom negotiated his way over the slippery rocks towards his waiting boat.
‘Aye Tom, until next time. Scuttle back to dry land, that’s where you belong, no place for you here, not here, not today with this storm building.’
Closing the door behind him, George threw the heavy storm latches into their locked position and checked the barometer once again. The pressure was dropping fast, faster than he expected. A feeling of apprehension sent a shiver down his body.
His cat appeared at his feet.
‘Sam, it look's like we’re in for a proper show tonight, you’d better not venture too far, best stay close!”
Instead, the cat backed away.
'What's up, Sam?'
With a snarl the cat turned, its hair raised, and dived into the dark depths beneath a tattered sofa.
Suddenly, George heard what had scared his pet, too.
A high-pitched wail was floating over the sea, like a lament of the dead. His skin crawled as he recognised the sound, and the familiarity didn’t bring comfort. Again It came, a desolate cry that was not a song, but a warning.
The whale must be close, George realised. But there was no sign of it amongst the steel-grey waves. He knew this was a bad sign, preceding the worst storms.
Bolting the window shut, a sense of urgency enveloped him, as the coming fury would find any weak spot in his defences.
The storm inexorably grew, finding those small cracks in doors and window seals and it screamed its presence. As it grew darker, storm-waves sent spray over the full height of the lighthouse, pattering against the glass, its beam pulsing brief glimpses to, and of, the primordial fury beyond.
Even so, the sound he heard next made him grip the iron rail in fear. From far below, at the base of the lighthouse, a crashing quite unlike the sound of breaking waves, echoed hollowly up the staircase. Once again he could feel the hair on his arms rising. The sound was unlike anything the storm could create, and it was coming from the storm door at the very base of the lighthouse.
‘Damn flotsam thrown up by the storm, nothing more …’ George snarled under his breath, but in truth he was frightened.
He began his way down the stairs and the banging abruptly stopped. A light bulb suspended from the ceiling swung gently in a small arc, caught by the storms tendrils blowing through the tiniest cracks. The light cast dark moving shadows and the room seemed suddenly appeared ominous and almost alive. George stood before the now silent storm door. Had he imagined it?
Then it came again, with an awful intensity that shook his soul. George staggered back in shock.
The noise was tremendous, hammer blows raining down, the wood split and cracked and dust blew into the room. The strong iron hinges were shaking, loosening.
George screamed at the door, to himself, ‘Nobody's out there, not in this storm, you're bloody flotsam, rubbish, nothing more!’
George leaped forward and pushed at the door, and just like that, the sound ceased. He could hear nothing but his own ragged breath. He knew he had to open that door and clear the flotsam, clear his mind. His hand shook as he unbolted the securing locks, one by one.
At the last bolt, the door crashed open, knocking him to the floor with a blast of sea-spray. George climbed to his feet, gripping the door frame for support and stared out into the darkness. There was nothing there. Just the wind and sea.
The great searchlight from the lighthouse swung around and reached out its finger of brilliance into the night and there - frozen as if caught in the flash of a camera - shapes revealed themselves within the swirling spray.
They were grotesque beings, mere remnants of men, of women. Their corpses were made translucent from long immersion in the cold depths of the sea and having been feasted upon by the denizens that lived there, the crabs and eels. Yet there they stood. Silent, broken spirits, bodies streaked with the blood of the sea, their flesh hanging and ragged. Just as they had appeared, so they vanished into blessed blackness as the bright beam of lighthouse swept on its way.
George was transfixed. It couldn't be real. He was going mad. The light swung on its arc, coming around, closer, closer …
The creatures were moving, staggered towards him, eye sockets alive with crawling creatures. Reaching out, imploring.
Each time the light passed, they had moved that much closer to him.
The gale as forming ethereal words in the wind.
‘Help us! Help us, please help us, you must help us …’ it said.
George turned and grabbed the door and began to push it shut with all his might. But then a creature, once a man, its arm torn and broken, its rotting flesh hanging from exposed bones, pressed into the room, reaching for him.
George forced the door closed and heard the limb break as a severed arm slopped wetly to the tiled floor. Gasping for breath, George slid the storm-bolt home, and lent back against the door, securing himself from these monsters from the dead.
The limb by his feet faded and vanished. George gulped air into his lungs as he backed away from the door. The banging started again, the heavy door rattling and shaking as the dead demanded entry. Then it stopped.
George ran back up the stairs, locking another door behind him. He grabbed a bottle of whisky and took a long swig directly from the bottle. Had he been drinking? Yes, he must have been …
The whisky burned its way down his gullet. It took another three gulps before the warming effect flooded him and the shaking stopped. Yes, he was going mad, he was sure of it now. That could be the only explanation. Too long in the job. The solitude was finally getting to him. Yes, that was it. Tomorrow, he promised himself, he would retire; he was ready to go, he didn’t want to go mad. Not like the others. Not him, not him.
‘Mayday, Mayday, this is the ‘Fairwind’ we have lost power and are being blown towards Rockall Lighthouse, Mayday, Mayday!’
Grabbing his binoculars, George raced to the window and scanned the night. He could see the lights of the distressed freighter to the North. It was battling the heavy swell, its bow alternately pointing to the heavens before plunging down to face the next monstrous wave.
‘My God, they’re too close…”
George grabbed the radio. ‘Fairwind, Fairwind, this is Rockall Lighthouse, you are dangerously close to the rocks!’
“Rockall Lighthouse, Rockall Lighthouse,’ a panicked voice answered, ‘this is the ‘Fairwind’ we’re drifting, engines flooded, we need immediate assistance!’
‘Roger that, ‘Fairwind’, I’ll alert the coastguard, steer to port if you can, that’s the safest side! Good luck!’
But he knew the ship was at the storms mercy, the Fairwind was going to lose its fight.
‘Come on, get clear, damn you, move!’
H could only watch as the bow of the freighter went up the side of another wave. There, at the crest, it paused for a sickening second before starting the long slide back down. Deep into the trough of the wave it plunged, shuddered and then stopped, as if snared by something hidden. The great ship’s mast slowly tilted forward and fell. The great ship began to list, fatally impaled upon on the rocks of the very lighthouse built to protect her.
George watched as puny men battled against the might of the sea, struggling to release their swaying lifeboats before the ship capsized. One lifeboat fell, spilling its men into the dark waters and certain death. Another boat splintered and broke apart against the ships metal side. People fell from its ruins, dolls tossed like discarded toys into the sea and swept away.
Only one lifeboat managed to make down it intact with a mere handful of men. The dying ship rolled onto its side and consumed more its doomed prey. Not satisfied, the sea then turned its hunger upon those few survivors left as they were driven towards the waiting teeth of the rocks.
Watching the men struggle for their life, George gripped the iron railings in fury. Were those visions of his, were they these poor drowning sailors? Had it been a premonition? George swallowed. He knew what he had to do. He climbed into his survival gear and hurried to open the storm door at the foot of his lighthouse. Leaning into the wind, he strode out into the night carrying a coiled rope and there were no demons awaiting him, only nature’s fury.
Down the treacherous steps, he clung to the single safety line strung along the steps that was his only lifeline. Lashing one end of his coiled rope around a railing, the other around his waist, he held a lifebelt and staggered out, searching the waters for any sign of survivors.
A green phosphorescence swirled around him as the waves snapped at his feet. Then he saw them. Suspended at the top of another monstrous wave, no more than 30 meters from him.
‘OVER HERE! OVER HERE!’ George screamed, but his words were snatched away by the wind.
They turned, saw him, his eyes glinting in the darkness, wide and wild. Hope flashed in their faces before the small boat started its final slide down the cliff of water and somersaulting onto its back. All aboard were thrown into the churning white foam.
Waist deep in surf, the back-drag of the water sucking at his legs, George fought to reach them. Around his waist the rope became taught as he reached the end of its length. Beneath him, incredibly, George touched an outcrop of rock and stood catching his breath.
A wave reached out, snatched a man and threw him towards George who held him fast though his footing was lost. Together they were dragged below the surf and into the rocks. With little strength left in either man, they broke surface and gasped air.
‘HANG ON TO THIS!’ George screamed, pushing the lifebelt into the man's hands.
Again the end of the safety rope pulled up hard against him, holding him safe. He kicked against the swell, back to the railings and safety. If he could save this one man, it would all be worthwhile.
He could almost touch the railings. Then he felt the cold iron of the railings. Safety! But then the rope suddenly became slack and useless and his grip slipped.
The water roared in his ears; it was the sound of the sea seizing its prey. The rope, once their saviour, now became a snake. An ally of the sea, dragging them down to the depths.
George felt his lungs burst, the nightmare dream of drowning was upon him! He needed to breath as he had never done before. He inhaled. Instantly, the bitter salt water made him vomit. Convulsing as his last breath drew in the sea, his knightmare had come true. His fate was to die the death he feared most.
Tom hugged Susan tightly in the bright sunshine as they stood at the front of the boat bobbing its way towards the lighthouse. She wriggled within his arms.
‘This is so exciting!’ She shouted into the wind, her eyes bright as she looked towards the massive structure perched upon the rocky outcrop. ‘It’s really cool, so great coming with you, Tom. I’ve always wanted to visit this place for ages!’
‘Yeah, the first time is always dramatic, but you should see it when the weather's bad. Sometimes it can be days before we can get close enough to land a boat.’
He moved in front of her. ‘Now, just stand back a bit as I tie us up at the jetty, ok?’
Inside the lighthouse, George awoke, retching again at the taste of salt water in his mouth.
As soon as the convulsions stopped, he opened his eyes, the drowning dream receding along with the salty taste on his tongue. He shook his head as he walked over to the window. Down below he could see a boat being tied up. Tom had a stranger with him this time, a young woman. He made his way down the stairs to greet them.
Outside, Tom pushed the heavy storm-door open, went inside and called out as he always did:
‘How’re ya doing George, everything ok with you to-day?’
He turned and grinned at Susan, who was standing looking surprised.
‘Why did you say that? I thought you said this was an unmanned automatic lighthouse? Is there anybody here?’
Tom’s smile faded. ‘Yes, it’s unmanned Susan. And no, there isn’t anyone here. It’s just a superstition of mine.’
'Well, a long time ago, a friend used to live and operate this place – he was the lighthouse keeper before it was made fully automatic. His name was George. But before they could retire him, he was killed during a storm. They never found his body.'
Tom looked out to sea, then back at Susan.
'They think he died trying to save the sailors from the freighter ‘Fairwind’ which foundered just over there,’ Tom pointed pointed to the rocks offshore. ‘No one survived. I like to think George died trying to save some of them.’
Susan’s face became serious.
‘Are you trying to scare me with a ghost story?’
'Maybe,' Tom smiled. 'No, it's true. A lot of lives were lost that night. Now, when I visit, I just go through this little routine. I even leave him some fruit, just in memory of him... you understand?’
Susan hugged herself and shivered.
‘I don’t know if it’s because of what you just told me, but I feel really cold. I think I’ll wait for you by the boat, I don't want to go inside, if that’s alright with you?’
‘No problem, you won’t find any ghosts around here though,” he said, wishing he hadn't brought the subject up at all now.
“I won’t be long, you just stay away from those rocks as they’re very slippery, be careful, ok?
‘Just for you, George,’ he said softly. ‘I have to be quick this time, gotta get back, can’t keep a lady waiting, I'll see you next time.’
‘Aye, Tom, until next time then, you go scuttle back to dry land, that’s where you belong, no place for you here...'