The Lighthouse KeeperbyJack T. Ladd©
George awoke coughing, the taste of salt water in his mouth. As soon as the convulsions stopped, and he opened his eyes, the drowning dream quickly receded and vanished along with the salty taste on his tongue.
Drowning was George's worst nightmare. Despite being surrounded by water he could not swim. He believed that his hatred of water actually kept him alive. Keep out of the stuff, as well as away from it, and you will be OK, that was his motto. Yet here he was, surrounded by the sea, and despite his hatred of water, he conversely loved the ocean. His ex-wife thought he was mad, and as if to prove it, she left him. He sighed at the memory of her. But not too deeply, for he was in reality far happier on his own, a realisation he had finally come to accept. Soon he would be forced to retire, to finally leave this place where he had spent the majority of his life. He refused to think about it and pushed the uncomfortable thought of his future to the back of his mind.
"Morning Jasper!" He greeted his pet cat as it curled around his feet mewing and asking for his breakfast.
"Come on then, let's get you fed, first things first, eh Jasper?"
Having fed Jasper, George walked to the great glass window that surrounded the huge reflector and powerful lamp that warned shipping every night of the dangerous rocks that surrounded his remote lighthouse.
"Oh, here he comes." George muttered to himself as he looked through his binoculars at the small boat bobbing its way towards him over a flat calm sea. He could make out Tom standing on the foredeck, ready to cast a securing line to the jetty at the base of the lighthouse. Despite his gruff attitude to Tom, he actually didn't mind the young man who came once a month to service the electronics. Though he would never admit it, he actually looked forward to his visits. Tom didn't touch the lamp house though, that was George's sole responsibility, and one which he guarded and maintained fastidiously.
George was puzzled lately by the young mans attitude towards him on recent visits. Tom almost ignored George these days, hardly ever looking at him and talking to him almost absently. George put it down to his own impending retirement, as Tom knew he didn't want to go and knew also that it was inevitable, so he was perhaps just avoiding the subject in his own way.
George walked down the spiralling staircase to the ground floor as Tom walked through the heavy door carrying his toolkit.
"How are ya doing George, everything ok with you to-day?" He called out as he placed some fruit he had brought along with him on the table in the middle of the room. "Got some fresh fruit for you to-day, George, hope you like them"
"Aye Tom, I will enjoy those, something to get the taste buds working again"
Tom made no comment, again much to Georges surprise, as he watched Tom get his things together and head towards the electronics at the back of the room.
"I will let you get on Tom, good to see you again"
"This shouldn't take to long to-day, George, just checking and replacing this fuse box, and that is all I think…yup, it looks pretty good…"
"Aye, well that's good, Tom, because I don't think this calm sea is going to last, best get off home as quick as you can…" George left Tom working and muttering to himself deep inside the control box, and headed back upstairs to check the barometer.
He frowned at what he saw. Yes, his suspicions were correct, a storm was defiantly on its way, and probably here by the evening he thought. He looked out over a calm sea, but the horizon was darkening already with the telltale signs of a storm front beginning to appear at its edges. George opened the heavy steel door set into the surrounding glass that circled the top of the lighthouse. As he did so, he heard Tom call from below, his voice echoing around the circular stone structure of the building.
"Until next time, George!"
George walked out onto the walkway that circled the tower. He stood leaning against the rusting railings, over eighty meters above the dark rocks below, watching Tom walk over the slippery rocks and climb back into the waiting boat that would take him back to the mainland.
"Aye, Tom, until next time, now scuttle back to dry land, that's where you belong, no place for you here, not today with this storm building, no place to be at all"
He looked out at the horizon, yes, this is going to blow hard, he knew the signs all to well, better get everything battened down. He closed the door behind him and checked the barometer once again. The pressure was dropping fast, faster than even he expected, oh yes, this was going to be a severe storm he knew, and this just confirmed it.
"Jasper" He picked up the cat
"Jasper, old man, it looks like we are going to have a show tonight, you had better not venture far, best stay close" He stroked the cat in one arm as he made himself a pot of tea. As he sat down, the cat took fright and jumped away, spilling George's tea as its claws dug painfully into his legs as it scrabbled away, running to hide beneath a low chair.
"Jasper! What the …." Then he heard it.
A high-pitched wail, rising and then falling, a haunting sound that some called a song, but this song made his skin crawl. He walked to the window, opened it and listened. There it was again, a cry over the waves, keening and lonely. He knew the whale was close, but could not see where it was, could only hear its song. George shivered, another bad sign, he had heard this a few times before, and it had always preceding the very worst storms. It was almost as if the whales were warning him.
With more urgency, through the day, George did everything he new to make sure everything that could be done was done in preparation for the coming storm. He had seen more than his share over the years, and he knew that nature's fury would find whatever weak spot it could find in his defences and destroy him if it could. It was a war that nature would win eventually he knew, but not while he was here, not if he could help it. He had seen terrifying waves half the height of the lighthouse, crash against the stone building, making it shudder and shake, but still it held, damaged often, but never yet broken. Without it, many more ships and lives would have been lost to the jagged rocks and cold waters that surged malevantly around his home. The sea was capricious, at times seductive and at times deadly. Never the same, always beautiful, always dangerous, always surprising. But he was ready now; ready for whatever it could throw at him.
It built up gradually, until by dusk, the gale howled around the building, finding those small cracks in door and window seals, making them whistle and scream. Spray from the waves crashing against the rocks below flew over the full height of the lighthouse, its powerful beam lighting up the spray as it swung around on its steady warning path. George stood looking out, his back towards the brilliant light, as it silhouetted him on each rotation, a lonely figure standing against the dark of the night storm.
As he listened to the noises of the gale, an unusual sound then caught his attention, a sound apart from the wind, somehow strangely different and unexpected. George walked over to peer down the gloomy stone steps that led towards the base of the lighthouse. There it was again, a banging, hammering sound that echoed its way up the staircase to him. Then another sound, close by and more familiar made him look towards his cat Jasper. He was backing away, hissing, his fur raised on his arching back, ears flat, teeth bared. He hissed and spat again and then turned and ran to the far side of the room.
"Jasper?" What's the matter boy? The storm got you rattled has it?"
George went over to the terrified cat and reached over to stroke and to calm him. But before he could touch the cat it slashed its claws at the approaching hand, scratching and drawing blood. George snatched his hand away.
"Arghh! Jasper! What's got into you boy?" George sucked at the scratch marks on his hand as he backed away from the now primal cat.
The banging from below started again, as he watched the frightened cat back slowly away and up against the stone of the wall, looking desperately for an escape but finding non, turning around and around upon itself, pawing at the unrelenting stone. George watched puzzled, usually unperturbed by most things he was nevertheless still a superstitious man. Most men who made their living by, with or near the sea tended to be so. He felt the hair on his arms and back stand on end as he looked down the staircase towards the noise.
'Bang, Bang, BANG'. It went.
That could only be coming from the storm door, at the base of the lighthouse. George shook his head to dismiss the creeping feeling that enveloped him now, and walked down the stairs towards the noise.
As he neared the basement room where the storm door led to the outside of lighthouse, the banging stopped. George stepped into the gloomy room, a single light suspended from the ceiling swung gently in a small arc, making the dark shadows it cast, move. He looked at the heavy wooden door. No banging sound now, only the sound of the gale was to be heard, the rising and falling howl becoming a wail. Had he imagined it?
George almost jumped off the floor as the harsh sound reverberated in the room. He swallowed hard. Don't be a bloody fool, he told himself, probably just some sea debris cast up by the storm.
'Bang, BANG!' Came the sound again.
George watched the door shake on its hinges with each rattling impact.
"Only some bloody rubbish, that's all, stop being an idiot" he told himself as he went to open the door. Despite himself, he found his hand was shaking as he started unbolting the securing locks, one by one.
George hesitated as he took hold of the last remaining bolt, but, swallowing his rising fear, he pulled on it. It didn't move. Stiff from the wind pressure pushing inwards against the door bolt, it refused to move. He pulled again. It would not move. George pushed his shoulder against the hard wood of the door and pushed to relieve the pressure. It took an effort, but the bolt began to slowly move, then with sudden and sharp metallic 'clunk', it slid back. Immediately the door swung inwards and open, pushing George back and letting the ice-cold wind and sea spray blast into the room. George, recovering from the sudden windblast, leant into the wind and fought his way into the open entrance, gripping the frame of the door for support. He squinted against the howling, biting wind, the salt spray stinging his eyes.
The security light directly above the door showed him nothing. There was nothing at all that he could see except the swirling sea spray and the dead darkness beyond the reach of the door light. Then the great searchlight from atop the lighthouse swung around and above him, reaching out into the darkness. As the light traversed the area, the light showed shapes materialised from within the swirling spray; grotesque shapes, misshapen things, crawling out of the surf towards him. Twenty or thirty of them, what used to be men, sailors, their bodies translucent against the waves, missing limbs, torn and bleeding, some with empty eye sockets, now filled only with crawling crabs, sightlessly implored him.
The creatures were struggling towards him as the light swung on its path and away, darkening this vision of Hell, and the horrible sight was extinguished. George was shocked into immobility, unable to believe his eyes. Lightening flashed across the skies, illuminating shockingly one of the terrible creatures that was almost upon him, almost at the door, his half-eaten mouth moved. The screaming wind formed ethereal sounds, forming understandable words that spoke to George:
'Help me,' the wind-sounds implored plaintively 'help us, please help us, you must help us….' The sound from the drowned sailors rose and faded and became the wind again.
Panicking now, George grabbed the door and pushed with all his might, trying to close it on these horrible visions. The creature mouthing the words came closer, reaching towards him as he swung the door closed. An arm, with torn, half-eaten flesh hanging from its broken limbs pressed into the room, reaching for him. George pushed the door home with all his strength, felt the limb trapped in the frame crunch and break as the door closed upon it, heard the severed limb slop wetly onto the tiled floor, as he feverishly slammed the bolt on the door home, securing himself from these monsters from the dead.
Horrified, he looked down at the limb as it faded and vanished before his eyes. He was breathing hard as he backed away from the door, then the banging started again, the door rattling and shaking as the dead sailors hammered from the other side. Then it stopped. Only the wind remained and the sound of his laboured breathing. George backed up the stairs, away from this room. He reached the top and locked the door behind him as well. He staggered towards his table and sat down, grabbing a bottle of whisky and took a swig directly from the bottle.
The whisky burned its way down his gullet as George struggled to control his rising panic. It took another three gulps before the warming effect flooded him and the shaking stopped. Was he going mad? Did that happen? Did he see what he thought he saw? The mind can play stupid tricks he knew. Yes, that was it, a trick of the mind. The solitude was finally getting him, yes that was all it was. Tomorrow, he promised himself, that would be it, he would retire, he was ready now, he didn't want to go mad, not him, not him. His breathing slowed, and he started feeling more in control. Stupid old sod. Then he jumped as the radio burst into life.
"Mayday, Mayday, this is the 'Fairwind' we have lost power and are being blown towards the Rockall Lighthouse, Mayday, Mayday!"
George grabbed his binoculars and raced to the circular window and scanned the night through his binoculars. He could see the lights of the freighter to the North. It was battling the heavy swell, its bow reaching up before plunging down, the bow diving then under water, before struggling back once more to climb the next huge wave.
"They are much too close…" He muttered to himself, as he grabbed the radio.
"Fairwind, Fairwind, this is Rockall Lighthouse, this is Rockkall Lighthouse, received your Mayday, you are dangerously close to rocks, please turn away, please turn away!"
"Rockall Lighthouse, Rockall Lighthouse, this is the 'Fairwind' we are unable to stop ourselves being blow towards you, please be advised we need help!"
"Roger that, 'Fairwind', I will alert the coastguard now, steer to the port if you at all can, that is the safest side, Good luck!" With the coast guard alerted, George went back to monitoring the 'Fairwind's struggle to avoid the shallow rocks. They were losing. The ship was a plaything of the storm, its engines useless against its still growing fury.
"Come on, get clear, damn you, move..!
As he watched, the bow of the freighter went into another climb, up another huge wave, but on its downward slide, it seemed to stop. The mast tilted slowly, as the ship listed twenty degrees. It had impaled itself hard upon on the rocks.
George watched helplessly through his binoculars as he saw men battle against the fierce wind and waves, struggling to release wildly swinging lifeboats before the ship capsized completely. His heart sunk as one lifeboat fell, spilling men into the dark waters and certain death. Another desperately launched lifeboat crashed and splintered against the ships hard metal side and fell into the sea, which contemptuously then lifted and threw the remains back up against the side of the ship, smashing it into so many matchsticks, men fell like rag dolls into the sea and were swept away.
Only one lifeboat managed to make it down intact to the rough sea, a handful of men fighting madly to survive the wreck, using anything to hand to paddle the small craft away from the tilting, sinking ship behind them. They only just made it as the ship then rolled onto its side, waves crashing over its torn and bleeding hull. The surviving lifeboat had until that point been sheltered from the full force of the gale by the bulk of the sinking ship, but now that it had all but submerged, they felt the full fury attack them. It drove them towards George and the lighthouse. Towards the furious surf that hammered and tore at the deadly rocks around its base.
Was what he had imagined, those drowned sailors, had they been a premonition? George swallowed. He knew what he had to do. They wanted him to save them, he knew now without doubt, that was the premonition he had seen. George buried his fears and climbed into his waterproofs and survival gear and hurried to open the storm door at the foot of his lighthouse. He had to push hard to open the door against the fury of the wind opposing him, and then he was out. No demons awaited him, only nature's fury. He grabbed the railings that led down to the rocks, the steps slippery and treacherous at the best of times, now they were simply and purely a death trap.
Knowing this, he had tied a rope around his waist before he had stepped out, and now he lashed one end around a steel railing, holding a life belt in his free hand. Once secure, he squinted against the stinging sea spray to search the dark waters for any sign of the lifeboat. Nothing could be seen, just the phosphorescence of the waves as they crashed thunderously around him, swirling and snapping just below his feet.
Then he saw it. Lifted up from deep below a wave trough, it suddenly appeared at the top of a crest, upon a monstrous wave no more than 30 meters away from him.
"OVER HERE! OVER HERE!" George shouted at the top of his voice, his words snatched away by the wind as soon as he shouted them, as he waved the single life belt above his head, trying to catch their attention.
He saw them look towards him, saw their scared faces, their eyes wide in fright, saw them point, as the small boat started its slide down the wave It pitched almost vertical, pushed onwards by the wave, it tipped, as it somersaulted onto its back, the men falling helplessly into the churning white foam.
George stumbled further down the steps, desperate to try and reach the drowning men before they could be smashed and broken on the jagged rocks. He was waist deep in the surf now, as the back-drag of the last wave sucked his legs from beneath him, pulling him out and towards the shattered lifeboat in front of him.
George hung onto the lifebelt and kicked against the surf, struggling to keep his head above water, then he felt the tug around his waist as he reached the end of the length of safety rope that he had lashed to the railings. His feet felt rock then, as he stood up once more. He was panting now, the struggle against the cold and force of the water taking all his strength.
A single man was in front of him, but then from behind him, another wave was rushing in. It picked the man up and threw him against George and both men were swept into the surf, tumbled against the hidden rocks, they rolled bounced and bobbed back to the surface.
"HANG ON TO THIS! George screamed at the dazed and shocked man, as he pushed the lifebelt into his hands. They both hung on then as again George felt the end of the safety rope, pull hard against him, holding him safe.
George kicked as hard as he could against the swell, pulling hard on the rope, back to the railings and safety. If he could save this one man, just this one man from the wreck, it would be worthwhile. Slowly, with huge gasping breaths, his strength beginning to ebb, he pulled, desperate to reach the railings.
Then it gave way, the rope suddenly slack in his hands as he felt the water take hold and drag them both out to sea. The rope, once his saviour was now a snake, coiling around them both, entangling their legs and dragging them down, down into the cold beneath the waves. George panicked now, letting go of the rope, the lifebelt and the man next to him as he fought for the surface and air. His lungs were bursting, he needed to breath, and he needed to breath now! His heart hammered inside his chest, desperately needing oxygen, but where was the surface? All was blackness and cold as he fought, fought for his very life. Desperation overtook instinct as his bursting lungs at last took a breath. But it was not of air. Cold salt water flooded his lungs and he knew now he was about to die. The death he feared worse, to die by drowning. The blackness came mercifully quickly as everything faded away to nothing.