The dip of the light meant that the island itself was always left in darkness. A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it. – M.L. Steadman, ‘The Light Between Oceans’
The old man wakes with a sharp breath. Stares into the black silence. Nights like this he can feel it staring back.
He had been dreaming he was trapped in a white-walled hospital, blank-faced doctors pointing gloved fingers at him. He closes his eyes and inhales slowly, hears the waves launch themselves at the cliff as if pursuing some terrible revenge.
He opens his eyes. The lamp. Did I forgot to put it on? Maybe a ship . . . .
He pulls the covers aside. Cold air snakes around his legs. He stretches a trembling arm and grips the corner of a raggedy curtain, tugs at it. Moonlight spills in through the crack, illuminating his skinny shins. He peers out the window and catches a glimpse of the circling beam, breathes again.
The old man leans on the windowsill, struggles to a stand, bones groaning. He shuffles toward the mahogany desk, so ancient and worn it looks in pain, and sits on the chair. A cold gust finds him. He shivers, reaches for the box of matches, strikes one. Instant heat. He lights the candle. Sudden life: shadows salsa dance on the walls. He observes them. Remembers the dance that changed his life.
He opens a drawer and withdraws a sheet of paper and a pen. He pulls the candle closer and thinks for a moment.
It’s cold and dark and I’m lonely. I just remembered our dance, you know the one. I never told you, but your eyes were shining. Just like the moon is now. And my oh my, how beautiful you looked. I was the envy of the village. I’m not sure why I’m writing this. I haven’t written anything in . . . hell, I don’t even know when. These nights stretch on forever. But no crashed ships, and that is what matters, isn’t it? Someone has to do it. Well, just wanted to say that I’m thinking of you. Goodnight.
He lets go of the pen and stares at his scrawl on the yellowed paper. He shakes his head and looks at the shadow dancers. He smiles, blows out the candle, and clambers through the darkness into bed to wait for morning. Outside, the ocean continues its assault on the land.
Morning and the waves are restless. How much louder they are in the daytime, as if they crash to an audience. The old man emerges from the lantern room, descends the spiral staircase slowly. In the tiny kitchen, heatless sunlight splashes over the curved walls, the paint peeling in great chunks. He sits at the table. How long have I been here? When did I take over from Sheehan? Sheehan? That wasn’t his name . . . was it? The deep and familiar worry sets in his bones. He shakes his head, casts all thought out of it. Dwelling on his poor memory will only make it so. He will go for a walk, let the air freshen him.
Outside, the wind howls around him. He tugs his hat lower. The coarseness against his ears reminds him of sunbathing in the sand of the Algarve, their first time out of the country . . . a different ocean than here. Very. But ultimately the same.
He glances behind. Alone and watchful the lighthouse stands, stark white capped with a scarlet dome. He knows it sees him, sees all. He walks to the cliff edge. The sea billows like a sheet, a threatening navy blue, the world grey above it. Wet air tickles his face, and not for the first time he ponders the essential sameness of land and sea—of everything. Atoms and such. Essentially the same, maybe, but she will swallow a ship whole given half a chance. Thrums with an endless hunger.
The old man watches the ocean for a long time. Gulls circle overhead, shrieking and diving, beaks yellow as the sun. When at last he turns to leave, broken out of a trance, he remembers the note scribbled in the middle of the night. What an odd thing to have done. What exactly did I even write? He will check when he returns.
He reaches the lighthouse and climbs the swirling stairs. He is out of breath halfway, rests. At last he reaches the top and enters the little bedroom. Everything creaks, as if the room is sighing. He stands over the desk but the note is not there. Maybe the wind snatched it. He searches the floor and the corners. Nothing. Strange, the pen and candle are right where I left them . . . He scratches his chin. Perhaps it’s for the best. What good could come of reading such a thing?
He shuffles out the door and makes a slow descent to the kitchen. He arrives panting, and collapses into a chair. Within minutes he is dozing, dreaming of mermaids and sirens and the sad, sorry souls they lured into the deep to share in their grief.
Night arrives like a fog. From the kitchen window the old man watches the beam search the world. The sea sparkles beneath its touch. Something about it reminds him of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and his boats against the current but it is a long time since he read that book.
A thud from upstairs. He swivels his head, looks at the ceiling, listens.
‘Who’s there?’ His voice is weak. He coughs. ‘Who’s there?’ Straining his ears. A scraping sound. His heart stops, then gallops. ‘I’m armed.’ He grabs the sweeping brush from beside the fridge and holds it like a shotgun. ‘Who’s there I said?’ He waits twenty seconds.
He licks his lips and inches toward the staircase. Breathing rapidly, he peeks his head out. Only darkness. He sucks in a gulp and steps onto the stairs. One slow step at a time he climbs the spiral, listening for any sounds. The wood creaks beneath him, terribly loud.
At the top, he catches a glimpse of something white and fluttering before it vanishes into the bedroom. He gasps, leans against the wall for support.
‘Wh-who’s there? What do you want?’
‘I’m armed. I’m coming in. I don’t want any trouble now.’ He swallows, lunges into the room.
The old man sweeps his gaze over everything. The room is as it was before: empty except for a desk and chair, a battered set of drawers, and a single mattress on the floor, covered in yellowy stains. Silver moonlight washes in through the small window above the bed. He drops the brush, raises a shaking hand to his head. The silence is heavy on his shoulders. Distant waves curl and froth.
He pulls out the chair and falls into it, inhaling gulps. His heart has not yet slowed. Dizzy. Weak. He rests his hands on the desk and that is when he sees it: the note. Exactly as it was the night before. But no, it’s crumpled, as if it had been rolled into a ball and flattened again. Fingers trembling, he picks it up. How did it get like this? A vague outline of something behind the letters. He squints and turns the paper over to find two words in an almost unintelligible scrawl.
The old man drops the note. Mouth open, aghast, he watches it flutter to his feet.
In the morning he is tired. He spent the night staring into the darkness, waiting. For what he isn’t sure. He walks to the cliff edge and lets the icy wind slap life into him. Four hundred metres to his right, the little village is soundless and shrouded in grey mist, forever asleep. Some days he wonders if anyone even lives there.
He thinks of the letter he wrote last night.
I feel foolish writing this but . . . is it really you? I’ve been having strange sensations lately, as if . . . I could have sworn I smelled your perfume, on the staircase, that one you loved, your smell, I can’t remember the name . . . it began with ‘A,’ I think. I wish I had a bottle of it.
This feels silly but maybe I should have done it long ago. Do you remember our trip to the Algarve? How jealous everyone was. We were the first in the village to get on one of those fancy planes. The excitement in your eyes. My dear, how sweet you looked in your summer clothes and everything blowing in the breeze. That gigantic hat and your hand permanently clamped over it. My heart aches at the memory, but it is a good kind of ache.
The nights are lonely here, Elsa. And the days are worse. Everything stretches on and on, just like the sea below. I miss you, utterly and terribly. Always I ask myself this question: Did I appreciate you enough? All the time we had? And the answer is yes. In every moment with you I was delirious. But still I feel empty of it all now, as if I should have absorbed it all better, squeezed out every drop of joy. Perhaps this is an inevitability of loss. The great days arrive so suddenly, like an early summer, and then they leave, not with a bang but a whimper—Eliot was right about that. Life happens, and then no longer. And I am tired. That is perhaps the one good thing, Elsa: You didn’t have to reach this age of exhaustion, when memory is an abandoned pathway through a forest, covered more and more with foliage. You are forever what you are.
He gazes into the distance. A steel ship shines on the horizon and he watches it with a familiar knot in his stomach. How quickly it could vanish . . . .
There was no response to the letter when he arrived back at the lighthouse, so he waited in the kitchen until the moon swapped shifts with the sun.
He sits on a chair by the window and watches the stars. There is something terribly sad about stars. They can never touch, only stare longingly at one another from their little pocket of space.
He is nodding off again when he hears the thud. Louder than last time, unmistakable. He almost leaps to his feet. He rushes to the door and waits half a minute, just to make sure. With a quick exhale, he begins the ascent.
He is breathless by the time he reaches the top.
‘I’m coming in now, love.’ He steps into the room. A smell of perfume fills his lungs and his heart somersaults. He hurries to the desk. The letter is there, turned over. He grabs it and air catches in his throat, the blood evacuates his face.
You left me there
The skin tightens across his neck. ‘E-Elsa?’
A smash of glass below. He spins, peers down the spiral. A shadow moves in the candlelight spilling from the kitchen.
The shadow freezes. ‘El—’
An almighty crash and the building shakes. The old man falls, whacks his head against the wall. He cries out and crawls into the bedroom, toward the mattress. He reaches for the windowsill and pulls himself to his feet, peers outside. A ship is wrecked against the rocks, silver in the moonlight like some ghost vessel.
The lamp! I forgot to switch on the lamp!
He hurries down the steps as fast as his body allows, heart nearing to burst. He glances at the kitchen as he passes: empty. At the bottom step he pushes the heavy door open. Immediately the wind bellows in his ear and throws a punch at him. Thunderous waves. The mast of the ship is visible just beyond the cliff, beginning to tilt.
The old man tries to sprint toward the village but manages only a jog. He roars for help but the wind smothers the sound. Just when he doubts his ability to go any further he sees something small and amber light up the dark. He squints. Two black shapes come into view. With a surge of adrenaline he pushes on, waving his arms.
‘A ship! Crashed!’
The shapes remain still. He struggles on. He can see them now—two hooded figures, one smoking.
‘The police.’ He stops, bends over his knees, gulping at the air. ‘Get the police.’ He goes to point behind him and slips, smashes into the damp grass. ‘A ship . . . crashed . . . .’ His eyes grow heavy. Darkness floods them.
The doctor looks young enough to be his granddaughter, if he had one. ‘Morning Ernest. Feeling better?’
He glances around. Sunlight streams in through a large window. Everything is clean and white. A stench of bleach. He is in a bed.
‘It’s nice to see you again,’ the doctor says.
She frowns, tucks ginger hair behind an ear.
With a sudden shock, he remembers the ship. He grasps her coat. ‘The ship. Did they save those people?’
The doctor places her hand over his, gently. ‘No, Ernest. There was no ship.’
‘No ship? There was by God! At the rocks below the lighthouse. It was my fault, I forgot to put the lamp on. Oh no, what have I done?’
She sighs, opens her mouth to speak.
‘I’ll take it from here, Kate.’ A police officer steps into the room. Tall, hair like smoke. ‘Hello Ernie,’ he says.
‘Tom? What are you doing here?’
The police officer smiles. ‘Glad you remembered.’
‘Listen to me, Tom, there was a ship, on the rocks—’
‘No Ernie.’ He shakes his head, stands over the bed as the doctor leaves. ‘There was no ship. You didn’t forget to put anything on because you don’t work in that lighthouse. Nobody does, it’s been automated for years. I don’t know how you even got in there with the way we boarded it up after last time.’
The old man blinks twice. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’
Tom chews his lip. ‘Did you see your wife last night?’
The old man’s body goes rigid, the breath knocked out of him.
‘Doctor Sheehan said you were well enough to live in that big house on your own again but I had my doubts . . . .’ Tom crosses his arms, brow furrowed.
‘But I . . . Elsa, she was there, I—’
‘Elsa died almost sixty years ago, Ernie. In that very spot. You told me that yourself. Try to remember.’
A glimmer of something. Violent thrashing, the burn of salt. ‘I . . . no . . . the notes, I can prove it. She wrote to me last night, while I was working.’
Tom shakes his head and steps forward, grips the side of the bed. ‘You weren’t working. You retired twenty years ago, and you were never at any time in your life a lighthouse keeper. You and Elsa crashed your yacht against those rocks almost sixty years ago during a sudden storm. The boat sank. The coast guard got to you in time, but . . . .’ He glances at the floor before looking back up, resigned. ‘They never found Elsa’s body.’ He smiles sadly and places a hand on the old man’s shoulder. ‘You’re old, Ernie, and sometimes when people get old, their brains act a little funny, that’s all. But you’re safe now and I’m going to look after you. And Dr Sheehan is on his way.’
The old man lowers his head. The past had surged out of some hidden place, still filtering through in drips. ‘Apparition . . . .’
‘What’s that?’ Tom leans in.
‘Apparition. That was the name of her perfume.’
Tom frowns, squeezes his shoulder. ‘I can bring you to your wife’s grave once Doctor Sheehan’s had a look at you. Maybe the lighthouse too, if you like.’ He nods in the direction of the window.
The old man follows his gaze. In the distance, perched on the cliffside, stands the lighthouse, solid and alone, scarlet cap gleaming like a warning: Beware she below. The old man shudders. He knows it sees him, sees all.
Philip Elliott is 23 years old and editor-in-chief of Into the Void Magazine. His writing can be found in various journals in nine countries, such as Otoliths, Foliate Oak, Flash Fiction Magazine and Revista Literariedad. His first book, a prose collection of fictional letters, Dreaming in Starlight (CTU Publishing Group, 2017), is on Amazon. Stalk him at philipelliottfiction.com.
2 Replies to “The Old Man and the Lighthouse – by Philip Elliot”
Reblogged this on The Salamander Chronicles – Don Beukes and commented:
The enigmatic writer and literary tour de force Philip Elliott