The Darkhouse, pt 2


5th June, 184__

Dearest Philippa

Goodness! It has been a most exhausting stretch!

After so much physical work, it is pleasant to sit down and reconnect with home. I have been taxed so heavily these last three days that I have been unable to think. I shall try my utmost to write more often, though you will not receive these letters for some weeks after their composition. For the sake of myself as much as for you, beloved sister, I will endeavour to make more time.

I have learned much since I last wrote. Most significantly, I have learned of a fourth person calling this isolated place their home! I was introduced to Alan on waking the second day. I was roused by the Skipper as promised and taken for breakfast. At the table there sat a portly man whose precise age was impossible to tell due to a combination of weathering, a fondness for drink that flushed his face, and the roundness of his features. He seemed cheerful enough albeit weary and untalkative. In truth, so was I after the previous day’s exercise. The Skipper explained that Alan had been taking watch throughout the night and we were to take over as a new day began. 

Alan excused himself soon after the Skipper and I sat down to eat. I passed him later on my ascent to the top, snoring as loudly as any steam engine. 

My appetite returned, I enjoyed a hearty bowl of porridge. Thus sated, I was taken to the tower’s peak. En route, we passed through the penultimate floor of the lighthouse – the watch room where the keepers take their shifts. I noted the lower of two walkways (referred to as ‘galleries’) around the outside of this room. Then we ascended to the final floor, and onto a second gallery, this one orbiting the lantern’s glass crown.

The view from the top was simply breathtaking. From this vantage point, I could see so much more than my tiresome journey had allowed. On each occasion I have had cause to ascend to the lantern, I have been struck with the same sense of awe and have been compelled to stop for a while to appreciate it.

I first looked back towards Whitcliffe Cove. The cliff I had so steadfastly followed in the rowboat did not round and sweep back towards the mainland as neatly as I expected. Instead, it jutted back and north in a way that had been obscured from the village before tapering out into a sturdy, natural chalk arch tufted with grass. The sight that greeted me would not be appreciable if explored by foot unless one were brave enough to lie down upon the precarious, unstable clifftop and peer over. 

From that arch and into the North Sea there ran a rather lovely line of stacks which decreased in both height and girth with distance from the mainland in the manner of carefully displayed Matryoshka dolls. The remnants of a much older arch – its former columns withered by time – stood further out, the debris of its collapse barely visible above the water’s surface save for intermittent, soft white humps. Beyond that extended stouter, single stacks until all that remained was the sea. 

If one gazes from left to right, the sight is a quite perfect progression of geological history. Who could know how much had been claimed by those ceaseless grey waters over centuries prior?

I witnessed great clouds of birds diving, whirling, and performing incredible feats of aerial grace – skimming close enough to the water to take my breath away and swooping close enough to the cliffs that, from my distance, I was sure they would collide! I could hear them chatter noisily at any and all boats that happened to drift past, clearly hoping that one of the matchstick-tall figures aboard might spare them a gift from their day’s hauls. The size of those flocks was incredible in and of itself – I had never seen it’s like! I think you would be quite enchanted!

I turned east then, out into the open North Sea. The waters were a pleasing shade of slate-blue without a single white cap to be seen. The sky was cloudless and cobalt, the sun already high and promising a day as clear and beautiful as the one before. With naught but the lapping water far, far below, distant boats, and the cries of seabirds on the wind, I was thoroughly charmed. 

This was why I had travelled to this place. This view alone – this rare privilege! – was worth the sacrifices I had made.

Still! No time to waste!

After granting me opportunity to appreciate the scenery, the Skipper began instructing me on the form and function of the lighthouse’s heart. I will spare you the details, dear sister, but know that it is quite a smart albeit functional mechanism.

It is, simply put, a larger version of a household oil lamp that uses ten large, thick wicks rather than one to maximise its illumination. It is backed by an equally large concave sheet upon which many small mirrors are afixed. These mirrors are positioned in such a way as to produce a beam which – I was told – could be seen from up to fifteen miles away. 

Cleaning these mirrors was to be my first job. Although they looked spotless to my eye, I was informed that this chore requires daily attention to ensure they remain in as fine a condition as possible. One cannot underestimate how eagerly the abrasive salty air will gnaw away at even the most solid of man’s works. A mere week without attention might see any one of the delicate pieces rendered too dull to work effectively. 

I was not quick on taking to this task, something both the Skipper and – when later he rose – Thomas were quick to comment upon, much to my chagrin. I resisted the compulsion to stress quite how difficult the journey had been and how my muscles still trembled. I cannot depend upon excuses if I wish to be accepted as a member of the crew. I already have so many hurdles to overcome.

Every time I felt my muscles burn and the build of frustration over performing such a menial task, I would raise my eyes and take in the beautiful backdrop of my new home. Certainly, as I observed the coming and going of the many boats that roosted at the village, I could not help but be grateful that I was so far removed. I felt as high and giddy as a bird perched securely upon my nest!

How could anyone complain about such a trivial ordeal as polishing when immersed in such majesty?

After dining upon a much appreciated wholesome lunch of bread, cheese and pickle, Thomas showed me the clockwork mechanisms responsible for conveying whale oil to the wicks. 

Again, darling Pip, I could bore you to tears with the specifics of how everything works, but I would just be indulging myself. Needless to say, maintenance of the machinery is taken with as much dedication as polishing the mirrors. Everything at the lighthouse is handled with utmost care and attention. I believe the reason for this is adequately explained by a later conversation I was to have with my new companions.

Between my high sense of excitement and my keenness to absorb as much of what my new life consisted of, I barely noticed the passage of time. Hours – indeed days! – were measured by the waxing and waning ache in my legs as I ascended and descended the stairs, the throb of my muscles as I hefted polish, cloths, wicks and oil to where they were needed. 

There are many fundamentals of life out here I had not considered prior to arriving. I have had to learn them quickly else I risk being rendered useless. I share some of them now for your amusement as much as for your education! 

I learned the truth behind the strange exchange between Skipper and Thomas on my arrival. I understood that Whitcliffe Lighthouse required a new pair of hands to support its function of course, but I did not understand the circumstances behind this. It transpires that the Skipper is retiring after twenty years of dutiful service and is due to return to the mainland. Thomas will be taking his position as the lighthouse’s ‘captain’. I have been accepted onto the crew to ensure the number remains three.

The nature of activities required to keep the lighthouse functional are so tightly interwoven with those activities required to keep us clean and fed that there is little sense in dividing them. What chores there are are so subject to the pace and skill of the individual that one might complete a ‘days work’ in mere hours. Save for keeping watch, of course.

We are granted occasional ‘rest days’ which are dependent upon the weather, the time of day, and the demands of the seasons.

Managing the water supply is shared between us. It is a task allocated on a system of equity, or – as seems more usual – winning card games. One much fetch rain water from any one of the receptacles set up for such a thing and boil it so it might be used for bathing, drinking, cooking, or laundry. I am sure you can imagine how gruelling this task is – drawing water and carefully bringing it up the lighthouse’s narrow steps is an exhausting process in and of itself. Why, on my first attempt I had scarcely half a bucket left by the time I reached the kitchen!

The Skipper, Thomas, and Alan have each cooked. The food is simple and adequate. Provisions are delivered every two weeks by Bill. The fare is much the same each time: Milk, potatoes, bread, green vegetables, fruit if it is available, and – of course – fish. There are sometimes other items included as treats, but these are highly dependent upon the season.

Bill also acts as a rudimentary postal service. He will bring both letters and books from the mainland, taking the same back with him when required. It is his hand that will serve as the first stage of the relay that will see you reading this, hence the delay. 

In hindsight, it should have been no surprise that the lighthouse would not have a privvy. Instead – with a call of “Ah’m goan t’ feed t’ birds” – the southern side of the lighthouse’s isle is made use of. When Alan informed me of their arrangement, I thought he was taking me for a fool. His demeanour suggested nothing less for he is quite the comedian at times! There is a ‘convenient’ overhang for positioning oneself over, and the sea can be trusted to remove any leavings with great efficacy.

Washing is a largely perfunctory operation which is performed in the kitchen basin with cold water and hard soap. Already my hands have surpassed a state of broken and have become quite dry and raw. I can thank the air as much as the hard work I have undertaken for this. The blisters I earned on my first day have not yet healed.

Do forgive me, Pip. It is late and I am really quite tired. I had hoped to write more about my interactions with the others but I must retire. I have not slept especially well since I arrived, but take heart! Writing this has been a perfect exercise to settle my heart and mind. I hope that reading it does the same for you.

Yours with love,

J

7th June, 184__

Dearest Philippa

I read through my last letter and realised that I had left quite a loose thread! I had intended to share a somewhat ghastly tale told to me by Skipper about the lighthouse and its history.

Please do me a kindness and do not allow mother or father to read this letter. They would be beside themselves if they knew I had shared such a thing with you. It is quite beyond me how one of your age can be so enamoured with such fanciful, terrible tales, but it is the knowledge of how you will enjoy this one that compels me to write it now. 

It was told to me as I sat with the Skipper and Alan on my second night here. It was Thomas’s turn to take the night shift so he had dined early and retired to the watch room.

I was quite, quite exhausted and barely lucid after my first day of hard work. I was also determined to remain awake that I might sleep well that night. I was certainly not of a mind to enjoy whist, so I watched Alan and Skipper pass favours and chores as readily as the cards with which they played while my eyelids grew heavy.

It is worth noting that none of my companions are exceptionally educated men. This is to be expected. They possess basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic – necessary of course in their line of work – but much beyond that evades them.  As one might anticipate, not one of them is skilled in the art of conversation. I believe one must have a taciturn nature in order to be content with a life so isolated. Much of their communication is conducted through action or – where that is insufficient – grunts and nods somehow thick with the local tongue. It is something I will have to learn. 

Once again, I must share my appreciation for Thomas whose voice is not so local as to sound like a foreign language when one is unfocussed!

Indeed, I have come to realise that the only way one can withstand the nature of this job is to expect that one will be wholly alone. My presence here – as an eager student – is an oddity, and by no means the normal state of affairs. New blood such as mine is a rarity to be savoured, not something to be considered a regular distraction. 

Nonetheless, I was desperate to rouse myself and so I asked questions. I wanted to know more about the lighthouse – about its history and purpose. Of course, I already knew this particular stretch of coastline is fat with fish and industry. In conducting research prior to my arrival I had learned that some two or three ships are lost along the East Riding coast every week. A patchwork of shallow banks, stubbornly vicious rocks (much like the one on which the lighthouse was constructed) and the shipwrecks themselves have contributed much to this terrible figure. 

It is strange, I thought, that such a nondescript village as Whitcliffe should be afforded such conscientious hands to oversee operations. I’m sure stations such as those at Flamborough or Spurn would be justified in having a dedicated crew seeing to their upkeep. Here, however, is no great ship building industry nor meaningful hub of trade beyond fishing. Whitcliffe comprises of neither a significant port nor harbour to speak of beyond haphazard jetties and a wide, shale beach. 

After exchanging a pointed glance with the Skipper at my questions, Alan rose and went to the larder. He returned with an unmarked, opaque bottle and three cups. He poured out a generous measure of deep amber liquid into each of these and pushed them in front of us. He sat then, quiet and attentive – respectful, I would almost say. The Skipper gathered the cards and put them to one side.

It has been a couple of days since he told me his tale. I shall do my best to recant it here.

Thirty years ago in late Autumn (or ‘backend’ as they call it here), a dreadful thing occurred: A storm picked up so sudden – so fierce – that every man, woman and child in Whitcliffe was forced to seek shelter in the inn and church for fear they would be picked up and swept away. The waves reached the cliff tops – some 200 ft tall if you recall – and all but destroyed the nests of those birds that called them home. Fish were left flapping and gasping in salted fields a mile inland; the battered carcasses of seals rotted throughout and beyond the village in the weeks that followed. Crab pots were later found as far north as Scarborough.

There wasn’t a single roof left after the monstrous gales and torrential rains passed. It was a miracle that no one on land perished.

The storm came out of nowhere. A few locals had a sense of the thing beforehand – the sort of sense I gather one gets when you’ve lived in the area long enough, and they’ll tell you about if you take time to ask. 

Sensing something ill in the water, most boats had come in early – well before dusk. It had been a difficult year for many, however, and some foolhardy men remained at sea, so determined were they to seize what little advantage they might have. 

It was that night, for the first time since it was lit, the lamp of Whitcliffe Lighthouse was extinguished.

Every ship that stayed out in the storm was dashed against the cliffs; not a single soul made it back alive. Bloated corpses washed upon the beach for the next month, and a great many more were never found. It was devastating; truly the most dire disaster to have struck the village since its founding. Most, if not all families had a stake in the sea. Without exception, every person knew at least one strong, capable lad who had been lost. Young and old alike gnashed and wailed at the foolishness of friends and loved ones who had not returned. 

For the most part, however, they cursed the dead lighthouse which had failed to guide them home.

“Just when t’ light were most needed-” Skipper pointed up for emphasis. “It wun’t there. Ev’ry soul coulda made it t’ shore if it’d bin lit.” 

Illuminated by only a single lantern and with naught but the sound of our breathing and the muted sea, the air in the room became uncomfortably close. I felt a chill pass down my spine, even as I became aware of quite how far I was leaning towards the retiring Skipper. It reminded me of sitting at grandfather’s knee while he spoke of campaigns in Africa. I was rendered a child by the weight of his words!

Both men drank deeply from their cups with dour expressions. I could only clasp mine in pale horror as the story continued.

The next day when the surge had subsided and that eerie calm that one experiences after a storm of unusual ferocity has passed, the village sent a boat out to discover what had happened. They were to be disappointed.

When they disembarked, the searchers found the lighthouse to be utterly vacant. Not a single keeper was to be seen! There was not so much as a note explaining their absence nor a sign indicating where they had gone. Desperate for answers, they turned their attentions to the lighthouse itself.

They found that the vital mechanisms were sound; there was oil enough for a month, and what needed cleaning had been cleaned. The wicks, however, had burned to their bases.

“What happened?” I asked after a sinister stillness fell. “Were there no spare wicks?”

“None. N’one knows what happened. N’one knows why they didn’t keep keep stock, or why they din’t keep what they ‘ad clean so they’d last.”

“At the very least, they could’ve used fewer. The lantern works well enough wi’ five wicks,” Alan added, his normally jovial countenance greatly shadowed. “That would’ve been summat. If they’d half a mind between ‘em, that’s what they would’ve done.”

“Where could the keepers have possibly have vanished to?” 

“Maybe they’d realised what they’d done, and did t’ decent thing.”

“The decent thing?”

“Threw themselves out into t’sea. Killed themselves. Let t’ Devil have their souls, t’ bastards.”

“You wun’t find a single Cooper, Shaw, nor Boddy in Whitcliffe or for twenty mile around,” said Alan gravely. “They were driven out. It were their boys who were ‘ere at t’ time. They grieved, I’m sure. They wanted t’ know what happened to their blood. But folk were less than kind t’wards ‘em. Saw to it they didn’t stay for long.” I wondered if I could see a shadow of remorse on his expression. 

“Bugger’em,” Skipper spat. There was certainly no sympathy to be found on his old face!

There was no more left to say.

After a period of further, contemplative silence, I thanked them for both the quality of their company and their storytelling, and I excused myself. It was quite a thing to absorb.

Needless to say, after such a mysterious tale, I did not sleep well. 

It was only later that I recalled the presence of a small boat tethered where Bill and I had disembarked just six days before. Had there been a spare boat stationed here at the time. If so, had the boat of the missing crew also been left?

Yours with love,

J


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5 thoughts on “The Darkhouse, pt 2

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