The Lighthouse Keeper
By Tipp Hex
He knew they came for him as soon as he closed his eyes. So the answer was simple: don't sleep.
At the horizon, at the point where the sky fell into the arms of the sea, there was nothing. His hand swept down over his face to brush away the drowsiness, the stubble grating over calloused skin like sandpaper over wood.
How long since he had slept? Only to awake retching, choking on phantom salt water burning his throat. The drowning dream was getting stronger. 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 found Sam gazing back at George from the far side of the room, eyes glinting in the fading light.
‘You feel it too, Sam?’
At the huge glass windows of the lighthouse, George again stared over the sea. Oily calm, it lapped at the jagged rocks around the base of his home.
‘Where the Hell is Tom?’
Grabbing the binoculars, George found the familiar black shape of a boat bouncing towards him, 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, looked forward to his visits.
He watched as he tied up, then went down the circular stairs to meet him. 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 called 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.’
He settled his back against the stonework as Tom 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, wanting to say more, but 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 sighed.
“Well, I guess that's it. I'll be off, George. See you next month my old friend.”
George shook his head.
‘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 quick me lad…’ George turned and left Tom to gather up his things.
Once he reached the top of the lighthouse, he knew the weather was turning. The horizon was already darkening with the approach of a storm front. He heard Tom’s voice echo around the circular stone structure of the building: ‘Until next time, George!’
He watched Tom negotiate his way over the slippery rocks towards his boat.
‘Aye Tom, until next time; scuttle back to dry land, that’s where you belong, no place for you here, not today with this storm building.’
Closing the door behind him, he 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.
Sam 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!”
But 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.
Then George heard it, too.
A high-pitched wail floating over the sea, like the lament of the dead. His skin crawled as he recognised the sound and the familiarity didn’t bring comfort. It came again, a desolate cry carried over the waves 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. This was a bad sign that preceding the worst storms.
Bolting the window shut, a sense of urgency enveloped him. The coming fury would find any weak spot in his defences.
The storm grew, found cracks in door and window seals and screamed its presence. As darkness fell, storm-waves sent spray over the full height of the lighthouse, its beam pulsing brief glimpses of the primordial fury.
But 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. It was coming from the storm door at the base of the lighthouse.
‘Damn flotsam thrown up by the storm, nothing more …’ George snarled under his breath.
He began his way angrily down the stairs when the banging abruptly stopped. A light bulb suspended from the ceiling swung gently in a small arc, caught by the storms tendrils blowing through cracks, it cast dark moving shadows. The room appeared 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. He staggered back.
Hammer blows rained down, wood split and cracked as dust blew into the room from iron hinges shaken loose.
George screamed at the door, ‘Nobody's out there, not in this storm, you're bloody flotsam, rubbish, nothing more!’
George leaped at the door and the sound ceased. He could hear nothing but his own ragged breath. He had to open that door, 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. Nothing. Just the wind and sea.
The great searchlight from the lighthouse swung around and reached 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.
Grotesque beings, remnants of men and women. Their corpses made translucent from long immersion in the cold depths and feasted upon by crabs and eels, they stood silently. Broken spirits, bodies streaked with the blood of the sea, their flesh hanging and ragged. Then blessed blackness as the lighthouse beam swept away.
George stood transfixed. It couldn't be real. He was going mad. The light swung around, closer, closer …
The creatures were moving, staggered towards him, eye sockets alive with crawling creatures. Reached out, imploring.
Each time the light passed, they had moved closer.
The gale forming ethereal words in the wind.
‘Help us! Help us, please help us, you must help us …’
George grabbed the door and began to push it shut with all his might. 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 slammed the door closed and heard the limb break, the severed arm slopping wetly to the tiled floor. He slid the bolt home, his 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 had 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 before? Yes, 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 was 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 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.
‘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 the ship was at the storms mercy, the Fairwind was going to lose its fight.
‘Come on, get clear, damn you, move!’
As he watched, the bow of the freighter went up the side of another wave. At the crest, it paused for a sickening second before starting the long slide back down. Deep in the trough of the wave it shuddered and stopped, snared by something hidden. The great ship’s mast slowly tilted forward and fell. She began to list, fatally impaled upon on the rocks of the very lighthouse built to protect her.
George watched as men battled against the sea, struggling to release their swaying lifeboats before the ship capsized. One 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 its doomed prey. Not satisfied, the sea then turned its hunger upon those few survivors 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. Perhaps those visions were those of these 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 and no demons awaited him, only nature’s fury.
Down the treacherous steps, the rope was his lifeline. Lashing one end around a railing, the other around his waist, he held a lifebelt and searched the waters for any sign of survivors.
An 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, his words were snatched away by the wind.
They turned, saw him, 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. Somersaulting onto its back, it threw all aboard 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. He held him fast, though his footing was lost. Together they were dragged below the surf and into the rocks. With little strength left, 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 be worthwhile.
He could almost touch the railings. He felt the cold iron, the railings, safety, just as the rope became slack and useless.
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 of drowning upon him. He needed to breath as he had never before. At last he inhaled, tasting for an instant the bitterness of salt water and vomited. Convulsing, his last breath drew in the sea.The dream. His fate 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 to the wind, her eyes bright as she looked towards the massive structure perched upon the rocky outcrop. ‘It’s really cool great coming with you, Tom. I’ve 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?’
Tom walked inside and placed his fresh fruit on the old table.
‘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.’
George came down the steps and into the room.
‘Aye, Tom, until next time then, you go scuttle back to dry land, that’s where you belong, no place for you here, not with this storm building, no place to be at all.’