The Man In The Lighthouse
When the little girl clambered into her wooden bed she could see through a tiny window a light house that stood proud on the tip of rocky land close by her croft. In the summer months, when darkness was brief, she could see the two lighthouse keepers moving about in their circular quarters. She wondered if they were preparing meals or perhaps writing in their log books or attending to the light’s rotation mechanism, they always seemed busy moving back and forth across a window half way up the towering structure or in the glass domed top. When did they go to bed as the light never went out? The lighthouse was very tall and straight with a large glass dome from which the light shone, night and day. The lighthouse stood higher than the tallest trees, higher than anything she had ever seen and she became used to its comforting solidity whatever the weather, a great white presence with its flashing beam that swept across her window in the dead of night. Even the woven wool curtain strung up by her mother, could not prevent the light penetrating her room, each rake of light casting weird patterns on the white-washed walls.
Once a month a cart pulled by an old pony arrived, loaded with provisions for the lighthouse keepers; the Carter’s pony would be tethered to a post close to the sea edge and adjacent to a suspended gangway that led to the lighthouse’s entrance. Before unloading, the Carter would give the pony some hay he had in a canvas bag, the animal was hungry having travelled ten miles from the nearest hamlet over a rocky, hilly road. The pony disliked the journey pulling the heavy cart as it hurt his hooves, and the animal was not getting any younger.
On these days the same lighthouse keeper would emerge, come blasting winds or shine, he would be wearing the same dark navy coat and cap. He would talk for a while with the Carter before they started to shift the provisions into the lighthouse. When there was a gale blowing the Carter would unload the boxes of vegetables, tins of food, packets of tea and other assorted provisions and any postage and place them at the foot of the gangway. The Carter refused to cross the swinging rope walkway as he was afraid he would swept off onto the rocks and crashing seas below. When the weather was calm he would pluck up the courage to venture across, gingerly holding the rope sides, to make the short hazardous crossing. As a reward the lighthouse keeper would make him a brew of tea on his stove, and add a tot whisky. The girl would watch these proceedings from the gate of her croft but would never go further to investigate, despite the lighthouse keeper’s friendly wave. She felt something unfathomable inside her that made her afraid, perhaps it was his dark clothing and grey beard, maybe his bushy eyebrows, it was a strange feeling that rooted her to the gateway.
When the unloading had been completed and the tea and nip of whisky consumed the Carter would untie his pony and trap and walk the pony towards the croft to speak to the girl’s mother and hand over any mail and what meagre provisions she had ordered from the village. Sometimes it was sugar or flour, boot polish, maybe a bag of coal for the fire instead of burning peat, but never any luxuries like tinned fruit or corned beef like the lighthouse keeper had delivered. ‘Hullo Morag,’ the Carter would call in his friendly voice, now fortified by his whisky and brew, he would duck down to enter the croft where her mother was invariably sewing garments using spun wool from their sheep or pounding washing in wooden tub.
‘Aye, and what news have you from the village, young Donald?’
And they would sit and gossip for a while and the mother would hand him a scone and some butter from the farm to eat while they chatted away. It was the mother’s only recreation as her husband, often too exhausted from farm work and not one for idle conversation. Her mother’s monthly chats was her way of her keeping in touch with the wider world, deaths and births and news of neighbours and local goings on. The Carter’s visits only changed if the winter weather was extreme and the hours of daylight short; the lighthouse keepers would be relieved every six weeks but the one with the grey beard never went a way. He was a permanent fixture like the lighthouse, immovable.
One day, as winter approached the girl was standing at the garden gate, when she heard the lighthouse keeper shouting at the Carter and she wondered if he had forgotten something in his monthly order.
‘I don’t know what’s up with Jacob these days, he has become very bad tempered and I couldn’t see Hamish, his mate, anywhere, very odd,’ she heard the Carter say to her mother. ‘I bought oats for their porridge as usual and he told me they never eat porridge, and he started shouting out and cussing, I have been delivering them large bags for the last five years, regular as clockwork.’
As winter set in the nights were long and dark and on the few days there was little wind she could hear the sound of muffled shouts and pans crashing coming from the lighthouse. Then one night the lighthouse light went out and the croft was enveloped in total darkness, save for the oil lamp in the parlour and a flickering candle in the girl’s room. This was very strange as it was the lighthouse keepers’ duty to keep a good light ensure the light burned brightly and cleanly to warn shipping of dangers. She lay in bed frightened by the dark and the strange cries she could hear coming from the lighthouse. The next morning, it was very cold and clear, the ground hard from an overnight frost; there was little wind as she ventured out and stood at the foot of the gangway looking at the lighthouse to see if she could see any of the lighthouse keepers. As she stood staring at the swirling waters lapping the rocks beneath the gangway, there was an enormous explosion, the unexpected sound made her sway on her feet and for a moment she thought she might fall forward over the cliff edge and into the sea. When she regained her balance she looked up and saw see the lighthouse keeper in the glass dome. His cap was gone and his hair was tangled mess and he was looking down at her. His face was flushed and he seemed to be roaring with laughter at her, and jumping up and down as if he was doing a jig. Then there was a second explosion and the sound vibrated through her little body and she turned and ran back into the croft.
Her mother had come outside to see what the commotion was, the explosions were a fog warning but she could clearly see the offshore islands miles away across the wide arc of the bay. ‘Come in lassie, it’s bitter out here. I have no idea what has got into Jacob. I’ll ask your father to go to the coastguard’s house in the village tomorrow, something strange is happening in the lighthouse, for sure.’ There were intermittent blasts throughout the day and the light failed to come on at dusk as normal. That night the wind got up and there was a gale blowing and the little girl could hear the waves crashing on the rocks at the base of the lighthouse. Meanwhile her father had visited the coastguards house and reported the strange happenings. As the replacement was due to take over from Hamish in two days time it was decided to wait until then to investigate further. The following night the lighthouse’s lantern came on but flashed in a different way, quite out of character from its normal sequence, with slower flashes per sweep.
The following morning the replacement lighthouse keeper, arrived in a cart accompanied by the coastguard and a constable. The little girl stood by her gate, the morning was misty and very cold, the beam from the lighthouse seemed weaker than normal, and despite the swirling mist there were no fog warning explosions.On hearing the clattering steps of the pony as it climbed the slope to their croft the little girl’s father dashed out of his steading and joined his daughter at the gate. The father went forward to greet the party and together they approached the lighthouse entrance. The girl was told to stay at the gate.
The constable led the way over the gangway, taking care not to slip on the icy wooden slats, on arrival at the door he hammered with a gloved hand onto the worn wood outer. There was no reply, he hammered again but nothing. The replacement lighthouse keeper joined the constable on the step and called, ‘Jacob, Hamish,’ and twisting the large door handle the door did not budge. Fishing in his leather satchel the assistant lighthouse keeper brought out a large iron key and inserted it into the lock and with one turn the door swung open inwards. The two other men now crossed the gangway and followed the others inside. On climbing the spiral staircase they reached the galley and living space. There was no fire lit and the condensation on the windows was dripping, frost had frozen the window panes on the landward side. They climbed higher to the bunk sleeping quarters which were unoccupied, but on the way up they found coal scattered on the stairway and the coal hole door half open. The smell was nauseous and on looking inside they saw a pair of boots sticking outwards and then the body of man. They countable pulled at the recumbent figure and dragged the body over the coals to the entrance door. There was a deep gash with dried blood on his head and face. He looked as smelt as if he had been dead for some time.
‘Oh, Hamish, my friend,’ said the assistant keeper, ‘what has become of you.’ There was a pointed coal shovel neatly hooked to the wall, ready for use, except its steel blade which normally glistened was now smeared with Hamish’s blood. It required no deduction to realise this had been the instrument employed to fatally strike down the second in command.
The constable looked around at the shocked party and putting his fingers to his lips he withdrew his truncheon in readiness and beckoned the coastguard and the girl’s father to stay where they were. The other two quietly climbed the stairs upwards to the gallery where the lantern was housed. As they reached the gallery they saw the Principal Lighthouse Keeper slumped on the floor with a rag used to clean the mercury balancing level of the optic lens held to his nose. He was muttering in a deranged state, eyes rolling and limp with exhaustion.
‘Jacob, Jacob, can you hear me?’ asked the replacement keeper.
‘No porridge, no porridge for Christmas,’ was all he could mutter before hie eyes rolled back.
It was only some years later that scientists and the medical profession realised that it wasn’t the solitude and hard life of being a lighthouse keeper that sent them mad or commit suicide, but the mercury used to balance the Fresnel optic lenses and maintain a specific speed of rotation. The best near-zero friction bearing was created by floating the light and lens on a circular track of liquid mercury. The problems arose when the lighthouse keeper had to keep the mercury clean from dust and other impurities and to do this they had to strain the mercury through a fine clothe. What they did not know was that mercury is a deadly poison and sustained periods of exposure eventually caused madness.