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- Part 3
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8th June, 184__
When I stirred this morning and went in search of the Skipper I was informed that tonight will be my first night’s watch. Given how poorly I have slept since my arrival, it will be a pleasant change to have purpose to those restless hours. Nonetheless, there is a degree of resentment that now I feel almost fully settled, tonight may well have been the first time I experience full and satisfying sleep. Quite the conflict!
As such, I have been all but dismissed from my chores and have retired to the sleeping quarters. Alan will be assuming my duties this morning while Thomas shall be my mentor tonight and for those in the foreseeable until the Skipper is confident I can manage the task alone. I anticipate the responsibilities required of the nightwatch will be greatly different to those possible during daylight.
I wonder how the crew copes during winter months? The reduced light and harsher conditions must greatly impact on their ability to perform maintenance.
Though I have been advised to take this time to sleep and prepare, I simply cannot. I am now too familiar to a daytime schedule. I do wish I had been informed of the change yesterday so that I might have taken steps to adjust.
I will instead take advantage of this time to propose my annexing of the ‘auld store’, that ill-used, sodden chamber on the lowermost floor of the lighthouse.
To my great joy, Skipper agreed to my using the ‘auld store’! He seems greatly amused by my plans to convert it into some manner of studio. To the minds of both he and the others, that dank space appears as little more than a corridor through which one might walk a thousand times without truly appreciating its existence. I do not believe they consider the mouldering chamber worth claiming, thus I had little persuading to do!
I suspect part of the Skipper’s agreeableness stems from curiosity to see what I can do. I shall make every effort to enact my vision prior to his leaving. I believe it will be an excellent indicator of my commitment to the position of keeper!
Seeing no sense in waiting, I immediately set about taking inventory of the items that had been left there in such disarray. I could not possibly work while surrounded by such a volume of decay!
I located a number of spare lanterns to light the space and set about my task with relish. With such a significant challenge ahead, I first used common sense to divide the materials into those that might have some later use, and those that were beyond purpose.
I assessed the condition of any ropes I found. There were too significant a number to count – there were great, thick cords that had been coiled and cast aside, stewing in their weight of stale water; short cuttings that littered every nook and hidden space; some thinner lines that had been eaten through by time and, perhaps, rodents. Few of them were of any value.
Tangled amongst these were shredded fishing nets and any number of tools too rusted to be used for more than doorstops.
I stumbled across three ancient barrels stashed beneath the steps, one of whose sides was almost soft enough for me to press through with my fingernail. I opened one to assess its contents and was struck with a smell so vile that I almost disgorged my breakfast! Whatever had once been stored there had been left to fester for long enough that even Alan would be adverse to sampling its contents! Resolved to not not make that mistake again, I took great satisfaction in rolling each of them to the sea and casting them in.
Not all the crates were as waterlogged as I might’ve thought, but a great many more were splintered beyond repair. I set about creating a heap of kindling for the stove with a blunt axe. What was beyond salvage, I sent after the barrels. Thomas in particular was appreciative of my efforts upon awakening and assisted in shifting several armfuls to the kitchen where it might better dry.
For the next part of my plan, I shall finish my sorting. I then intend to use my newly developed skills in polishing to restore the grimy windows to something resembling clarity. The light levels will be less than optimal as they are small and thick, but I am nonetheless confident that such a secluded location with such ambience will be perfect for my creative purposes. If the lighting is indeed too poor, I can simply move outside!
By the time dinner was to be served, I had cleared almost half the useable space.
I must have talked ceaselessly at my companions who regarded me with detached amusement as they ate! As I spoke I was struck by the brilliance of white washing the internal walls to enhance the light!
Alan interjected to tell me that if I was so keen to pick up a brush, I might consider painting the rest of the lighthouse too. They laughed at me then – all three of them – and I sank back in resentment. The rest of the meal was punctuated only by gentle, dull-witted mockery of my apparent proclivity for housework and making suggestions as to my suitability for such a profession.
I shall keep my intentions to myself – and you, of course! – for the time being. They will doubtless be impressed by the finished chamber and the works I produce there.
Regardless of my audience, this remains an incredible opportunity! The mere thought of unpacking my equipment fills me with gladness. I will be sure to send you some works when I am satisfied. The ‘auld store’ will resemble nothing of its former self by the time I am finished!
I must leave you now as, with a mind full to bursting with plans, I go to attend my first night watch.
Yours with love,
10th June, 184__
I write to you at midnight, the second of my time as night’s watch. This is a most unpleasant position to be in. I would polish a hundred thousand mirrors if it meant I did not have to do this again!
I anticipated a more active and engaged role, but that was foolish. Instead, night watch is occupied by stagnancy. This is broken only by occasional patrols around the gallery, and occasional notes in the logbook. Said notes comprise of updates as to the conditions of the sea, the air, and any lights seen on the horizon. Said updates have been few and far between for nothing seems to change.
My first night with Thomas saw us sit in companionable silence. He had chosen a book from the selection available and recommended that I did the same. Thus we read.
The reading material available is less than engaging and I was compelled to put mine to one side on multiple occasions. We have been furnished with titles of a most exceptionally slim, simple, and dull nature. Certainly nothing I had not already encountered prior to arriving. I devoured two novellas in the time it took him to finger his way through a quarter of his own. His reading speed is indicated by an extravagant lick of his fingers and a grunt at the turn of each page that suggests the act of doing so is somehow strenuous. It becomes quite grating in the hours before dawn.
I was compelled to take frequent walks around the gallery to take in the cool air and keep my mind active. I wanted nothing more than to be back in the ‘auld store’, working on my project!
Thomas broke the stillness from time to time to explain what he was adding to the logbook and why. I drank in his instruction as eagerly as any I had received, hopeful that I might be given the opportunity to do more. This was not to be despite my insistence that I was able to do so.
Though seeming one of my more approachable new acquaintances, it transpires that Thomas is equally as taciturn as the next when isolated.
I did not, and still do not know how long he has served at this station. As I was told upon my arrival, he had been referred to as ‘Sprat’, the derisive title which I now assume as the most inexperienced member of the crew. One can therefore infer that Thomas had the most recent addition beforehand. How long ago had that been? How frequently did new people come here to assume the burden of that storm some three decades prior?
Regrettably, such questions bring us to tonight. I have opted to write rather than vent my ire for doing such a thing would be wholly unappreciated in such confined quarters.
For you see sister, I have found myself uniquely struck by the desire to simply talk. It feels so long since I have sat in the company of intelligent men and women well versed in social propriety and current issues. By the eve of last night, I longed for those vacuous sort of questions that compelled me to seek such a contrary life as this! I could almost hear father’s mocking words as I shared my plans.
Finding my opportunity, I seized the chance to speak.
“Aren’t you interested in who I am or where I’m from?” I asked as Thomas returned from the gallery.
He shook his head. “Keep it.”
To say that I was surprised was an understatement! Surely these men must have wondered how one such as myself – so foreign to this area and so clearly removed with regards my upbringing – would come to be here? “Why ever not?”
“Stuff like that dun’t much matter ‘ere.”
“Do none of you know anything about one other?”
He chuckled. “Aye. We know some. It were near enough a year before I were asked where I were from. Another two year before I were asked why I’d left.”
Judging by his reaction, I must have appeared comically surprised.
“Two years?” I gasped. “But you breathe the same air! Share the same food and sleeping space! Why in heaven did you keep that secret?” I shifted towards him, eagerly anticipating some terrible or shocking tale!
His laughter wounded me. “Secret? It’s no secret! Ye’ll learn soon enough that stories are the most important thing we ‘ave ‘ere. Other than t’ work, o’ course.” He jerked his head back towards the lantern. “We get by on books when we get ‘em, but ye’ll find that hearin’ about other folks in’t what matters.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ye want to talk about ye’self that much?”
I puffed out my chest in offense. Pride is not something I could often be accused of – after all, here I am with skin, dignity and clothing flayed thin by the elements! My body made tired by earnest work, and my mind made numb through repetition! What small glances I have taken of myself in the lantern mirror have revealed my general aspect to have become ruddy and unkempt. I daresay mother would struggle to pick me apart from any one of the estate’s labourers!
I resented having him infer that the simple act of an introduction is an act of arrogance. Is finding common ground with your fellow man not a natural drive? It seems to me that learning about another person is a fundamental part of interactions within civilised society!
“It would simply feel more comfortable if I were able to make a more thorough introduction,” I said once I felt sure enough to speak.
“Well, I don’t want to hear. Not yet.”
“You are not at all curious about me?” I asked, somewhat more tersely than I should have.
“Aye. Sure I am! But once ye’ve told me, what else is there?”
My brow furrowed further.
“Once ye’ve told me, ye’ve nowt else t’ give. Save it.”
“I do not understand.”
“Ye will.” And with that, he returned to his book.
I was left to stew in a mire of resentment, shame, and unique loneliness. As Donne stated “no man is an island”, and yet here – ironically – within such close confines and with such enforced intimacy, we are more akin to those singular chalk stacks that might have once been connected but now stand alone. I have never felt so isolated from my fellow man as I have done so here.
I miss you greatly.
Tomorrow is another day.
Yours with love,
12th June, 184__
I have some small victories to speak of!
Desperate to occupy myself and filled with childish exuberance, I have spent my sleepless hours over the last few days working upon my new studio. Much to the continuing amusement of my companions, I have been ceaselessly clearing, sweeping and mopping. The room barely resembles its former self, particularly with my equipment now set up.
What’s more- to my great satisfaction – I was able to surprise the crew! While removing what remained of the unsorted miscellanea, I exposed a trapdoor. It was firmly rusted closed and completely unusable, but nonetheless inspired a level of discussion I had come to think beyond them.
It was concluded that it must lead below the lighthouse to an old tunnel that crosses beneath the isle. In times gone by, the island had been favoured by smugglers, and before them, Catholic dissenters hiding from persecution. Before them still, there had been rumours of a Viking presence much as there had once been at the Farnes. Quite fascinating!
According to the Skipper, there can be little doubt as to the existence of such a thing. Its usefulness is another matter. If the infrequent flooding of the ‘auld store’ is anything to measure expectations by, it will be impassable. It has been most likely claimed by the sea.
With the Skipper’s verdict on the matter, both Thomas and Alan were sated. Myself, not so much.
I cannot say if it is the Skipper’s haunting tale of the lighthouse going dark and the mystery of its missing keepers or sheer boredom that compels me to be so inquisitive. Regardless, it is without question that when one has worked through the aches and pains of exertion and has learned the inner machinations of the contraptions that keep it working, there is precious little else to entertain a busy mind. I intend to explore every inch of this strange rock I now call home. I will seek inspiration wheresoever it takes me. Perhaps I have found a new point of mystery to idle away the hours?
On the matter of other victories: After dwelling on Thomas’s words since I last wrote, I believe I have achieved understanding. It was his simple presentation that, I suspect, threw me into such disarray.
The power of one’s history is not in educating others, but in the act of sharing.
As we seek to form connections within communities, we do so by telling stories. And what story is more known to us – more precious and significant – than the one of our own lives? To tell is cathartic! It is to expose oneself, to find empathy! That is what I want so desperately to do: To know they understand me, and that I might better understand them.
There is so much that I could talk about!
Growing up on the estate, my lacklustre schooling and further educational pursuits; my often tempestuous relationship with father, my fondness for both you and mother, my adoration of art and poetry, and so much more! Even to state my place of birth would have been something!
Knowing that my only companions on this isolated rock do not want to hear was almost maddening. I could feel a deep anger take me in the hours after Thomas and I spoke. Had I not opted instead to write to you, I would have been quite apoplectic by the time we were due to sleep.
We have been so well conditioned to speak of our accomplishments and talents that to be denied is uniquely torturous. What a privilege it will be to finally speak of such things, I grew to realise. The benefit would not be to my companions. It would be to myself.
I wondered how terrible it must have been for Thomas to remain so silent about his life for so long – for three long years! – and what events must have contributed to him finally being permitted to speak of it. How wonderful it must have been for him to finally talk of what had driven him to this place and of what he had left behind.
I remain dissatisfied by this state of affairs, but I am – at least – in a position of better understanding now. I shall endeavour to temper my misgivings with rationale.
There are many lessons to be learned out here. Not least the purpose of the trapdoor!
Yours with love,
With thanks to the best people ever, my Patrons:
- A Mysterious Benefactor
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