The Lighthouse Keeper
written by: The Birch Twins
“There’s plenty to do on the south coast for a young lad,” said my uncle, a paternal hand resting on my shoulder as we waved my dad goodbye,” he won’t get into trouble here.”
I didn’t think I was ‘young’, as my Uncle had put it. I was eleven, and pretty much the star of Ancoats United Juniors FC. Man of the team, 1981. Or at least I had been. We walked inside my aunt and uncles cottage. It was a sea cottage, nestled on the cliff side with the ocean and the rocks below. My Uncle ducked as he passed under the tiny doorframe, its wood being eaten away by the constant winds from the sea. It was a wild day, and we ducked inside quickly, the noise of the angry ocean swell battering on the rocks. After a lunchtime snack with my aunt and Uncle, I went up the winding stairwell into the box room that would be my home for the summer.
I sat on the bed and began to read one of the books that were on a small shelf. Wishing I’d brought one of my football magazines from home, I began to leaf through a book entitled “Fell walking on the south coast – the lonely man’s guide.” I could hear the noise of the ocean through the window as it battered the rocks angrily. The sky had darkened as if a summer storm was coming, and I struggled to see my book.
‘Turn left just behind the telephone box,’ the book said, ‘and continue four miles up to the scar facing Raglan crag. Follow the site of the battlefield around to the tar pits and continue for…’
The window suddenly came off its latch, and banged down hard against the frame. I put down the book and was just trying to secure the window with an elastic band in my pocket, when Aunt Annie’s face peered around the door.
“Everything all right,” she asked, “I heard a crash?”
“It was the window,” I said. The wind, I think.”
“Must be. It’s been sunny and lovely here every day until today. I’ve never heard the sea like this for a long time. Uncle Tom says it’s blowing up for a storm.”
“My dad hates storms,” I said as I finished wrapping the threadbare elastic band around the window latch, “him and mum always used to hide in the back room at home.”
“We don’t get many,” said Aunt Annie, “There was a big one about ten years ago. About seventy, seventy one? The sea was halfway up the rocks. We thought the old lighthouse was going to fall into the sea.
I’d seen the lighthouse. Goresby’s coast line was protected by a cliff side, and a rocky shore that had, in days gone by, been both a haven for smugglers and a death knell for passing ships.
“Tom had to go out in it,” she continued, “to check the chickens. He swears he saw the lighthouse actually move on its foundations with the sea smashing the rocks.”
“Wow. I bet the keeper was scared.”
She stopped talking and looked at me suddenly. A strange look. We stood silently for a moment, Aunt Annie suddenly transformed into someone I didn’t recognize. I shivered as the cold wind chilled me.
The window banged loudly again as the small elastic band snapped and the gust violently snatched the frame, battering it.
“I’ll get some string, sweetheart,” said Aunt Annie, hurrying downstairs and apparently fully restored to herself, “that window will end up broken if we’re not careful.”
I opened the window to get a hold of the latch, taking a lungful of air. The smell was crabs, sardines, herrings. Tears, sadness. A man staring out to sea with a white beard. Such sadness. Such devastating sadness washing over him like waves threatening to engulf him.
Aunt Annie suddenly pulled the window shut, making me jump as she appeared behind me. She tied it closed securely with string.
“Uncle Tom says you’re not to go that old lighthouse,” she said sternly, “it’s dangerous and the foundations aren’t solid. That’s why it’s closed.”
I nodded my assent, somewhat shaken.
“Good boy,” she said patting my head, maybe the storm will clear up and you can have a walk along the beach later. I’ll take you to the shops tomorrow, and you can meet Mrs. Nettle.”
I watched through the closed window as the rain battered and the ocean howled angrily. Deciding that I was sad because I was missing my dad and my home in Ancoats, I sat on the bed again and got back to my book.
‘Stepping through the graveyard one finds the abandoned church. Onto the old mining path near here will bring the keen walker onto the path that leads to Tor Fell . Distance is seven miles.”
I made my mind up to try some walking while I was here, to go explore. Dad had said there were smugglers tunnels and coves around here where pirates had hidden their booty.
The storm seemed to subside slightly, though the rain made going out impossible. I remained a prisoner in the small tomb like living room, with my aunt and uncle watching Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street under the flickering lamp. By bedtime the storm had subsided to a gentle roar outside, and what with the travelling, I fell tiredly into bed.
I awoke in the night to the sound of a siren. A deep mournful siren that filled my room. The window banged and crashed angrily on the frame as the wind took it, sheared as it was from my aunt attempts at knotting. The siren continued, it’s sound as if a grave had opened and was beckoning me within. Struggling to the window, I managed to refasten the string on the latch, though the wind angrily fought to snatch it out of my hand. Shivering In the cold night air, I suddenly felt the presence behind me, the deep mournful presence of the siren as it echoed across the cove. The sadness, the wave of grief that hit suddenly before descending back to the darkest depths of the ocean. The mournful lonely longing stretched out and snatched at me as I pulled at the string.
I slept fitfully after that, imagining every creak and groan was the tiny cottage being lifted from its foundations and smashed into the sea below.
Over breakfast, I told uncle Tom of my fears, and of the siren.
“Probably just the fog horn from the lighthouse,” he said smiling, “old houses like this are full of noises.”
“The old owners,” continued Aunt Anne as she brought a plate of bacon sandwiches for me, “said this was a smugglers cottage. That she would signal to the pirates that it was safe for them to bring the small boats in.”
“They’d come ashore here,” continued Uncle Tom, “and take the booty down to the cove. During the war, they brought people ashore here who were fleeing the Nazis. It’s a house full of history.”
“Not like those modern bungalows that you live in,” said Aunt Annie sitting down to her breakfast, “the beams holding our cottage up are five hundred years old.”
“Nowt be afraid of lad,” said Uncle Tom, “anyway, it’s a nice day. Bout time you took off for a walk and explore. Instead of sitting here afraid of old lighthouse foghorns.”
“I thought you said the lighthouse was closed?”
Uncle Tom stared sharply at me for a second, a deep shadow appearing under his eyes as if he were suddenly somewhere else. And then it was gone.
“Aye,” he said, “I suppose the storm did some damage and started the old foghorn off. He used to sound it every time there was fog in the cove, to signal to passing ships. Like I said yesterday, it’s dangerous. Don’t you go near.”
Not that there were any more ships. Now the ships mostly went between Dover and Calais, and few passed our coastline. Dad blamed Thatcher and the Tories, but I was eleven and didn’t care about politics. After breakfast, I took up Uncle Tom’s advice and decided to take a walk. That afternoon I would be going in the car with Aunt Annie to the shop to meet old Mrs Nettle. But the morning was my own. It was still cold, and somewhat damp in the air, but the sun had broken through and the air smelt refreshed and the rain was holding off. Out of the cottage, I took to the main road until I reached a small path which I knew from experience led across the headland cliffs and down to the sea. The grass was somewhat slippery with the rain, and several times I stumbled. Managing to save myself by grabbing handfuls of grass as I descended, after about twenty minutes I was down on the shore, nestled under the looming crumbling cliffside. Small birds were fishing in pools of salty water left by the outgoing tide, calling and arguing with each other. Seaweed made the air pungent as it sat, trapped and drying out upon the sand and rocks. I walked along, eating the chocolate bar my Uncle had pressed into my hand as I’d left. The caves and crevices, cast in shadow from the cliffside looked both inviting and terrifying as I walked, but Uncle Tom had long since warned me of the dangers of exploring those caves that ran under the cliffs. With the sun hidden by the Cliffside, I grew chilly as I walked, the shadows opening and making the cave entrances look like the massive snarling jaws of wild dogs.
“He won’t hurt you, you know” said a voice behind me. I looked down to see a huge black dog, snarling at me and growling.
Backing away, I jumped as I saw the man at the side of me.
“Sorry, did I make you jump. Come here, Jess, leave the lad alone. She likes a run every morning. Chases those poor seagulls.”
I bent down to pet Jess, who eyed me mistrustfully, before grudgingly licking my hand.
“You from round here, boy?” he asked.
“Tom Collier is my Uncle,” I said, “I’m here for the summer.”
“Well then, that’s nice. Come on Jess, let’s be off. Stay away from that lighthouse though. Isn’t safe.”
“Did you hear the foghorn last night,” I asked suddenly, remembering.
“Couldn’t have been from the lighthouse,” he said shaking his head, “it was disconnected when they closed it. I think Gypsies have been in and stripped the cables from her by now anyway. Must have been a passing ship you heard. Noises from out at sea sometimes seem closer than they really are. It’s the coast here. It was treacherous at one time. You be careful now.”
I watched him walk away, Jess busy chasing the birds that squawked as they picked between the seaweed. I walked further, looking up as I realized I was under the cliff that our cottage was built upon. I couldn’t see it, though I could just catch sight of the lighthouse slightly further away, sat upon the rock watching out to see, like a dead stone god. I kicked my way through seaweed and plastic junk until it began to come closer. Uncle was right, the place was closed and looked abandoned. Most of the glass was smashed or broken, and from what I could see down here, the doors were boarded up. I pulled my coat jacket up slightly, the cold wind whipping around the cove was becoming fiercer. The cave openings were like shadowy jaws that opened before me, and I began to look out to sea instead, as it I could see the coast of Calais.
Stood, with his boots almost in the water, was the figure of a bearded man. Dressed in a thick sheepskin sweater and a seafarers hat, he smoked a pipe as he watched out to sea. I pretended to look in one of the rock pools as he turned to look at me. I looked back at him as he approached. His shoulders were hunched, either against the wind or the world, I knew not which. He had an odd gait, a kind of aimless stride. It seemed like the walk of a man defeated by the world, one who had battled against something and lost.
“The crabs have run all out to sea, he said reaching down into the pool into which I looked, “what you see here are just shells, dead skin and empty husks.”
He picked up one of the white crab shells in his hand.
“See,” he said crumbling it within his fingers, “ it’s nothing but dead skin and bones. Its life is out there.”
He pointed to the sea, and I studied his face. His eyes were red, swollen and sunken, and his unkempt beard gave him the appearance of a long serving seafaring man. He smelled of herrings, of lobster pots and seaweed.
“They shed their skin. I learned about it in biology.”
He watched me with sad eyes, his body becoming more hunched.
“As do we all,” he said, the red eyes blinking, “can you hear the sea, lad? Can you hear it calling? It’s mourning the souls.”
“The people who have died at sea,” I said, transfixed, as he held the remnants of the crab shell in his fingers.
“The living,” he corrected, turning away and heading towards the caves, “the sea mourns the living. The souls that have died on the ocean call to those on land. They mourn the ones who are left behind.”
I tried to think of an answer, but the man was out of earshot. He walked away with that strange aimless walk he had. After a moment, I ran to the cave entrance where he had headed, but he was gone.
“Probably a tramp, love,” said Aunt Annie as she hunted for her car keys on the dresser, “Tom, have you seen my keys?”
“On the hook in the kitchen,” came Tom’s voice, “there’s all kinds of rogues on the beach there. They come down from London.”
I’d told them of the old man on the beach as soon as I’d got back for lunch. I knew it hadn’t been a tramp. I’d seen the look they exchanged when I told them of his mariner’s hat and his pipe and so, despite the beginnings of rain, Aunt Annie and I were off in the car to the small village, to meet Mrs Nettle in the shop. Aunt Annie seemed to drive faster than my father’s careful slow, plodding pace, and we were soon speeding along the lanes, past tumble down houses and startled sheep at the side of the road. After about ten minutes, we pulled onto some grass in a small village square.
“Here we are then,” said Aunt Annie getting out of the car, “get the bag, love. Oh hello Vicar.”
I got the bag, and nodded to the elderly man all dressed in black who was stood with Aunt Annie.
“Who’s this?” he said, regarding me without a smile on his face.
“This is Tom’s sister’s lad, from Manchester. Here for the summer, to spend time by the sea and play on the beach.”
“Better have him be careful on that beach,” he said turning to Annie, “there’s danger down there for foolish boys.”
Aunt Annie nodded, and bade him farewell as we walked towards a small green shack.
“Edwin Nettle and sons,” the sign read, “finest grocers.”
“Edwin died about fifteen years ago,” explained Aunt Annie, “Mrs. Nettle found him dead behind the counter. She’d been to her sister in Whitby for a fortnight and he was there, rotting away in the chair behind the counter. Maggots had been in the cereal, and had half eaten him before she found him.”
I shuddered as we went inside.
“Hello Annie love,” came a voice from behind a shelf, “I’ve got the bread in. He came late today again.”
“I’ll have an extra one then, Daphne. Lucy’s lad is with us for the summer.”
“Is he,” said the voice as a face popped up from behind the shelf, let’s have a look…oh there he is. My, he’s handsome, isn’t he?”
I stuck my hands in my pockets and smiled.
“What do you like,” she said, “there isn’t much here for a young man like you.”
“I like football,” I replied, “I want to play for Manchester City when I grow up.”
“Ooh, Edwin’s brother used to play football. I can’t remember who it was. Swindon Town I think. It was before the war of course. He never came home from France.”
“I’ll have four of these muffins,” said Aunt Annie, “what on earth have you got there, Daphne?”
“I found this old photo album from when we were all young. Remember when we used to have those dances in the hall?”
“I remember those. Shame it burned down.”
“Take a look. Here, lad, come and have a look at your Aunt Annie before her hair was grey.”
Aunt Annie laughed and we looked. There she was, young and attractive, with my Uncle Tom, young and all dressed up for a dance. My mother was at his others side. I blinked furiously as I saw her face, young and beautiful instead of pale and ill as I remembered her.
“Lucy was a looker, wasn’t she,” said Mrs. Nettle gently, “broke a few hearts. You have the look of her. ”
I pushed the painful memory back, and studied the other photographs. One showed a middle aged woman that was obviously a younger Mrs. Nettle, standing at the side of a very portly bald headed man.
“Is that Mr. Nettle,” I asked.
“He always had that cravat on,” she was explaining, “he got it from…”
But where it came from, I never found out. I’d seen the next picture. A cold hand suddenly descended upon me, and I shivered, right there in that small grocer’s shack. There he was. Right there in the photo was the old man from the beach. He was younger here, though the grey beard was still prevalent. He had a look of merriment on his face, and had his arm around a lovely young woman.
“Who’s that?” I said quietly.
I watched their faces change from reminiscing into something darker, and the quiet descended upon us all.
“God bless him,” said Mrs. Nettle stroking the picture with her finger, “He was such a lovely man. Worked as the lighthouse keeper here. A navy man. ”
Aunt Annie breathed deeply, as though the weight of the world were suddenly upon her.
“You forget what they look like, don’t you,” she said, “Helen was so beautiful.”
I looked at the photo. They were right, Helen was beautiful. Made more beautiful because of the obvious laughter on her face as she and her bearded companion were sharing some joke.”
“They were called emigrating to America,” said Mrs. Nettle, “he stayed here because of his work, and she went on ahead to arrange things.”
“I’ll never forget his face when he knocked on my door,” said Aunt Annie, “nineteen forty eight?”
“Something like that.”
Aunt Annie turned to me.
“She died at sea,” she explained.
I looked at the picture again. She was so beautiful. They both were. Laughing together. I looked at his face and how haunted and gaunt it would grow without her.
“Helen was coming home on a passenger ship. He’s said he would watch for it coming across the sea. They all passed here coming into Dover at one time. He was waiting down by the shore, but the ship never arrived. I took him to the docks, because I had a car.”
“It was all over the radio the morning after. She went down in a storm just off the coast of Newfoundland. All drowned.”
“I remember seeing him, kneeling down on the docks. God bless him.”
“All those poor people.”
“You had to drag him away from the sea, Annie. He was there for weeks, just watching. Hoping. God bless him.”
A look from Annie saw Mrs. Nettle give me a quick glance, and then fall silent.
“Anyway,” she said pointing to another picture, “do you remember this fellow here?”
“Albert Moon?” said Annie with forced laughter, “how could I forget those wandering hands of his.”
“That’s the same man I saw this morning,” I said pointing to the picture of the man with the beard, “down on he beach underneath the lighthouse.
“Who love,” said Mrs. Nettle, “Richard? Couldn’t be, my love. He’s been gone years.”
“I told you it was a tramp,” said Aunt Annie, “he’s seen a tramp on the beach this morning, Daphne.”
“They’re always down here from London,” said Daphne, “though if it was Richard, I could well believe it. He worked the lighthouse and she kept the garden.”
“Was Helen his wife,” I asked.
“Good gracious no. Richard never married. Helen was his twin sister. They were always together. If he’s anywhere, he’d be down there.”
“Don’t you go filling his head with stories, Daphne,” said Aunt Annie, “It can’t be him. You’ve seen someone else. ”
“But I was sure.”
“Well it isn’t him. I promise. He died, not long after. I went to the service. I’ll show you the twins graves sometime if we’ve time.”
As we walked around the village, I thought about my tramp. I knew it was the one they called Richard. twin. I recognized those eyes and that beard anywhere. Was Aunt Annie wrong? Was he not dead? I thought about what he had said to me, down there on the beach.
“The sea mourns the living,” he had said, “The souls that have died on the ocean call to those on land. They mourn the ones who are left behind.”
I thought of him all afternoon. Even a brand new football magazine and a can of pop couldn’t shake him from my head. I had to go to the beach again, to see if I could find him. But when we returned from the shop, the storm was brewing again and rain had already started to lash at the windows as we went inside the cottage. I thought of the man down there on the beach, staring out to sea.”
“How did he die,” I said suddenly.
“Who?” said Uncle Tom as we walked inside.
“Oh, Daphnes’s been filling his head with ghost stories. She told him about the lighthouse keeper and his sister.
“Poor Richard,” he said, “he never got over it, did he. Well your tramp is just a tramp, I’m afraid. Richard’s dead. About what…ten years ago? That place is dangerous. Stay away from there.”
“He means it,” chided Aunt Annie,” there are tunnels all under there leading down to the cove from that lighthouse. If you fall in one of them, we’ve lost you.”
“That part of the cliff is unsafe lad. If I’ve time at weekend, I’ll take you to the docks and we can watch the hovercrafts. How about that?”
I nodded, and went upstairs to my room. I stopped on the stairs as my nose was suddenly assaulted by the smell of the sea. A smell of herring, mackerel, crab. I froze as I heard footsteps in the room. Realizing that Uncle Tom and Aunt Annie were downstairs, I listened to the odd thump of the footsteps as they walked the length of the room. Shivering, I held my breath. Whatever it was, it was in my room. It was him. The lighthouse keeper. I crept up the stair, and at the doorway into the room, I could hear his breath as he stood there looking around. Bracing my courage, I turned into the room and put on the light. Nothing. The room was empty save for a half drunk can of pop and the open book on Fell Walking on the bed. I sniffed the air, but the smell had faded away. I looked around the room. Uncle Tom had said that old houses made noises, and I tried to reassure myself that that was what those footsteps were. I sat down on the bed and attempted to read the football magazine.
After dinner, I asked Aunt Annie if I could take a walk along the fisherman’s path and up to the sheep field. Despite the storms and lashing rain since my arrival, it was still the height of summer and the light was good until at least nine. I left them watching the six pm news. Rioting had broken out in many of the cities in England. My dad kept blaming Mrs. Thatcher, but I didn’t care much. It had been a weird year, I reflected as the sky began to darken with another storm. My gran had gone to live in an old people’s home and didn’t remember who I was any more. Nice old Mr. Mann had drowned himself in the River Irwell after the death of his wife and even my dad spent most of his nights down at the Red Bull on Mason Street. Mum hadn’t liked him going to that pub. She said it was too full of alcoholics. This was the first summer without mum. It was almost the fabric of my world had split down the middle when she had died of cancer, and was coming apart without her as the glue to hold it together. I kept thinking about the lighthouse keeper.
“The souls that have died weep to be reunited with the living.”
I turned onto the path that led over the cliff to the lighthouse. As I walked, the storm clouds drew their veil over the sky and the heavens began to lash me with rain. Over the sodden grass I ran, the old lighthouse drawing closer. I pulled my coat against the chill, soaked through to the skin. I drew closer, and the lighthouse began to loom over me and cast a shadowy pall like a headstone over a grave. Its windows were sealed and boarded, derelict, its brickwork crumbling into the uneven ground where the very foundations of its life were dying and collapsed. With the rain soaking through to my vest, I ducked into the alcove of the boarded doorway and sheltered. Jumping with a sudden flash of lightning, I found the board that sealed the doorway to be loose. I stepped inside, my terror of lightning storms overriding my terror of being inside this living tomb.
The thunder roared outside. Inside the lighthouse, it was dark, dusty and abandoned. Steel and iron machines and equipment lay long dead, their corpses covered with a thick sheen of dust. A lever was marked ‘foghorn’, but the equipment which the lever worked had been roughly stripped out. Through the back window, there was what had once been a pretty garden, now overgrown and broken down. I brushed some of the cobwebs from the glass. On the other side of the garden were the remnants of a small cottage. Its windows broken and its roof fallen in, the place being only fit for demolition. It seemed somebody had once loved it, for there were the smashed remains of once-pretty painted garden gnomes scattered here and there.
“What cruel god would separate two beings who exist as one,” I heard a voice say, “Light separated from dark. One cannot survive without the other.”
I turned around, startled, but there was nothing apart for the lashing of the rain and the constant groaning of steel as the old lighthouse moved on its collapsed foundations. Shivering as the thunder boomed around me, I turned back to the window. Then I saw him, his deathly pallor looking back at me through the cracked window of the cottage with those sad red eyes, a broken man in a broken house. The smell of rotting herrings, mackerel and tuna filled the air. He turned from me as if to face someone concealed from my view. And then the face was gone, and only the torn curtain whipped around the broken glass. Opening the back door, I stepped out into the overgrown back. The rain had subsided for a moment and all was quiet and still in the wrecked garden. Foxgloves grew, untended and unloved. They somehow reminded me of my mother, and for a moment I was transported back to Smithfield market where I’d been with my mum when I was very small. She’d always bought a bunch of flowers before we went home, and gave them to me. A part of the little ritual, I’d return them to her as we waited for the bus.
“Flowers from a handsome man,” she’d say, “aren’t I the lucky one.”
My body began to shake with the suppressed memory, and as walked closer to the old cottage door, I looked up. There he was at the window, the lighthouse keeper. His eyes were red and haunted as he watched me. I was rooted to the spot, there in the rain as he watched me, the terrible smell of him making me retch. He glared at me with those red swollen eyes, before disappearing inside the broken cottage. I tried to peer in at the window, but there was no sign. I tried the door. Open. Pushing it, I stepped inside. I stepped carefully. Several floorboards had given way, and I had to tread carefully.
“Hello,” I ventured in a high pitched voice, “who’s there.”
For a moment, I was back in Ancoats, and outside my mum’s bedroom door, too terrified to go in.
“I’m in here love,” said a voice, “I’m only ill, love. Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
Pushing the memory back, I stepped further inside. The roof had caved in and the whole place was a death trap. I stepped through a doorway and into what once had been the lounge. It was no longer a lounge. What there was of it was broken, and smashed, with the roof covering the floor and the sodden floorboards. Apparently, Mrs. Nettle had been right about druggies and ne-er do wells living here, as some of the graffiti on the wall read ‘Hag Fold Boot Boys 1976,’ and another said ‘Up the Arsenal.’
For a moment, I forgot where I was, and began reading some of the graffiti scrawl that the druggies had written. ‘Sandra likes dick,’ affirmed one, while another scrawl read ‘Go home.” I’d seen this on the walls in Ancoats, but I shivered as I read it all the same, as though it were written for me, as a warning for me to run from this dread place back to my own home. On the edge of a flight of terror, I saw another scrawl.
‘She calls me from the sea. She calls me home. To her. The thundering gallons of water and waves will close over us, two forgotten lives lost forever. May we rest together in our graves.’
I stared at it for a long time. My body shivered with the cold. The smell of herrings and rotting fish filled my nose again. Fighting the urge to run, I noticed another scrawl, and regarded it. I stared for a long time, the smell almost overpowering, the beating of my heart thudding inside my chest as I saw the terrible words written there.
‘Don’t be frightened,” it said in red ink. Underneath was printed ‘Come to mum.’
Feeling breathing against my ear I turned around. There was nothing there. Movement against the door. Against the wall where a bracket had been torn out was more writing. ‘The twins are together again.’ I heard the door move, and turned. On the wall at the side of the door was written again “Come to mum.”
I reached for the door to run, and as I opened it, I saw him again, retreating through the lighthouse and out the front door, still with that odd ambling gait of his. I followed, wanting to get out of this pit of hell and back to the safe haven of Aunt Annie’s cottage. Outside, the lighthouse keeper had flung open a door to what I had assumed was a coal storage shed and gone inside. The door banged against the frame in the rain, and I jumped as the ground moved underneath me.
“Hello,” I said again, opening the door. It wasn’t a coal shed. It was a stairway down into the blackness. I peered inside. I could just see the figure descending down as if to the pit of hell itself. It was a stairway through the cliff and down to the shore, that probably dated from smugglers times. I dared not follow any further, and in any case, those words I had seen haunted me still.
In fact, after I had run back to the cottage, and endured a scolding from Aunt Annie for getting soaked, I thought about them still.
‘Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.’
Of course it couldn’t have been meant for me. It had been written by some druggie back in the seventies in a derelict cottage. But my mind returned to it that night time and again. What a thing to write on the wall of a derelict building. Eventually, the night came, and I slept a fitful sleep. I was awoken again in the night by the foghorn from the lighthouse, a low mournful howl, as if from some eldritch creature being tortured in the pit of hell. The howling began to rattle the frame and I sat bolt upright in the darkness. There he was, his face almost pressed to mine, right in my room. The lighthouse keeper. A cry appeared in my throat but it would not pass my lips. The smell of rotted herrings and tuna filled my nostrils, his beard pressed up against my face, right there in my room. A sudden wave of grief hit me, washing me out as if to sea, breathless, lifeless. His grief, his loneliness and the longing drowned me as he stared into my face. The longing of one that can never again touch the other. His was a longing for a thing that stretches beyond our imaginations of heaven and earth. A force that could threaten to rend the earth apart, so much did it desire the other.
“The souls that have died,” he said with a rasping voice, “call to those that have not. The dead weep to be reunited with the living. It’s their grief that you can feel. I have to go to her. I must be with her. What cruel gods give twins to each other and then tear them apart forever. I’ll take the sea for her, my lad.”
The wave of grief came again, and I screamed and covered myself with a sheet. Images flooded my mind, images of a man searching for his lost twin, only never to find her.
I heard his voice again.
“You hear a call too,” he said, “when they call, we must go to them, else the grief will destroy them…and us. Heed her call.”
The foghorn came again, and I fought to free myself form the bedclothes with which I was covered.
I awoke suddenly. I sat in the quiet dark, hearing footsteps outside. I listened.
“Don’t be frightened,” said a female voice, “I’m here.”
“Mum…?” I said, terrified and crying.
The door opened. Aunt Annie, clad in her nightie, walked inside.
“No, love. You’ve had a dream,” she said sitting down on the bed, “You were shouting in your sleep. God bless you, you miss your mum, don’t you?”
I sobbed and she held me in her arms.
“I couldn’t say goodbye to her,” I said, “I was too scared to go into her room. I can hear her voice sometimes. Then she…she died. I didn’t get to see her.”
“When we lose someone we love,” she said cradling my body, “we imagine we can hear their voices. Old Richard that Daphne told you about was the same. He could hear his Helen’s voice calling him from the sea. God bless him, I wish he hadn’t done what he did.”
“What did he do?”
“He drowned, love. He never did get over it, and one stormy night, he walked down to the shore and into the sea. By the time we found out he’d gone, the police said his body had probably been swept out to sea.”
“You said there was a grave?”
“There is, love. I’ll take you to it seeing as you’re interested. Richard and Helen Greaves. They both died at sea, so they’re not there, but at the time they were both well-known and quite popular, so the locals wanted somewhere to go to say goodbye to them. There’s only a few of us old ones left that remember. They’re just names in an old church yard now. I’ll take you on Sunday if you want.”
I nodded. We sat some more, and talked about Mum. Aunt Annie told me some stories about her from their younger days, and she asked about my football career. Eventually, the nightmare fading, she left me and I settled down to go to sleep. I’d almost forgotten about those words written on the wall in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage
“Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
I’d been too frightened to go to see her all laid out. Was that why I heard the voice? Was that why I saw the lighthouse keeper searching for the twin he could never find? I slept a fitful sleep.
The storm had subsided. I stared at the gravestone for a long time. Aunt Annie was busy arranging flowers in the pots along the length of the grave.
“My mum never could stand dead flowers,” she said removing some of the blooms and placing them in a pile, “she said they had a smell. I swear she would haunt me if she saw this.”
I looked at the stone again.
Theresa Margaret Halloran, it said. Wife of Herbert, mother of Charles, William and Annie. Died August 14th 1965. Also Herbert Halloran who lies at rest here. Beloved husband and father. Died June 4th, 1953.
“Your uncle Billy wants to be buried in here,” she said to nobody in particular as she sorted the flower pots, “and I’ll be in here too someday no doubt.”
“Uncle Charlie is out to sea?” I asked quietly.
Aunt Annie stopped and dropped the flowers for a second.
“Yes love,” she said shaken, “yes he is. He was a seaman on board the Lancastria. I remember waving him off.”
“The dead weep to be reunited with the living,” I heard a voice say behind me, “an ocean of tears washing over them.”
I turned around suddenly. A few paces away, a figure dressed in a long black coat was walking away, an odd aimless walk, stumbling as he went.
“Who’s that, Aunt Annie?”
“Just a minute love,” she said arranging the flowers into a pile and standing, “I’m not as young as I once was. I don’t know, love. It’s a cemetery. People visit the dead. Have you been to visit your mum since…?”
I shook my head.
“You should do,” she said, getting up with an armful of dead blooms, “she’d want you to.”
But I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t. No more than I could force my body to creep around that bedroom door that day to see her as she lay there dying.
“Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
“I’m just going to the bins with these, love,” she said.
I’d stopped listening. I was wandering away to where the figure in the black coat had been stood. A smaller grave. An almost insignificant, much tinier and mostly uncared for piece of earth than the Halloran family plot.
I stared at the small headstone, and could instantly smell the sea upon it. Crab, whelk, herring, the smell of decaying rotting fish filling the air.
‘Helen Greaves,’ it said simply. ‘Beloved.’
That had been enough for him. No fancy inscriptions, or words had been needed for the lighthouse keeper. The one word had been enough, and conveyed the power of his feelings more than any poem or engraving.
More words were written under it.
Also Richard Greaves. Passed from this earth 14th June 1971. Reunited with his twin in the kingdom of heaven.
I knelt at the grave of the lighthouse keeper, and placed one of the flowers that Aunt Annie had dropped onto it.
“Say hello to my mum,” I said to nobody.
“The dead weep to be reunited with the living,” said a voice behind me, “your mother weeps to embrace you.”
I turned around to face the figure of the lighthouse keeper looming over me, the grey beard wild and the eyes red and swollen, mariners hat set firmly upon his head.
I fell back upon his grave, and he looked down at the name of Helen Greaves written there.
“I must go to her,” he said staring at me wildly, “one soul has been torn in two. She calls to me. Can you not feel her?”
I felt the wave of grief wash over me. I felt the small hands of children, forever clasped suddenly tear apart and the pain of the separation threatened to overpower me. I sensed the laughter of siblings suddenly turn to pain as one forever sought the other one, lost. I felt the nothingness of the sea, the long empty blackness of a desire for one that can never be found, a fading memory from long ago lost among the weeds. And among all that, as I sat there with his foul breath upon me, I saw the room. The bedroom.
“Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
And then I felt the loneliness. The longing for once lost among black emptiness. Forever gone. I would search for her for all time, to peek around that door, to see her pale and ashen dying face, but it was something that I could never see .
“To look forever,” rasped the Lighthouse keeper, “for one that is gone into the blackness. To never say goodbye. A final embrace. Why would you waste such a chance?”
I stared into his red swollen eyes, his face inches from mine. I smelled the rotting fish, the herring, the tuna. Aunt Annie. Suddenly wanting Aunt Annie, and leapt to my feet and pushed the lighthouse keeper out of the way.
“Aunt Annie,” I yelled tearing across the cemetery,” Aunt Annie.”
I ran around the side of the small church, and bumped straight into her.
“What on earth are you…” she said.
“I…I wondered where you were,” I said, “that man came back.”
“What man,” she said following me, “I told you, it’s just a visitor. Did he say something to you?”
We went around the corner, but he had gone.
That evening, Uncle Tom was tending to the chickens, while I was upstairs to my room. The sky was darkening, but the rain had held off, as if waiting for something.
“Don’t be frightened. Come to Mum.”
I shivered suddenly as I felt the breath on my collar.
I ran downstairs.
“Aunt Annie,” I said, “Can I go out for a bit?”
She nodded, busy with the washing.
“Be careful if you go down onto that shore,” she said, “the tides coming in.”
“I was going to go feed the donkey in Clapper’s field, I lied, “he looked hungry before.”
She gave me three pieces of bread for the donkey that I wasn’t going to go see. As I was out the door, I turned onto the path that led to the shore. The wind was strong, and I could feel the waves crash against the rocks below. I knew where I was going. I clambered won the cliff path, the grass blowing with the wind that came in on the tide. I saw the angry waves batter at the rocks as they tried to get to me. The smell of herring and mackerel swept over me, and I breathed deeply of the sea. As I reached the shore, the gulls were already circling the rock pools as if they smelt death upon the air. Some of the waves seemed close enough to wash over me as I reached the shore, but were held back by the rocks. The sky darkened. As I walked, the caves seemed to make faces and laugh at me. Creatures from unimaginable horrors crept out from the shadows to jeer and laugh at me. A funeral procession followed me down the beach, gulls, the dreaded black crow and the shadowy horrors tracked my footprints as we marched, like a funeral cortege towards the inevitable open grave.
And there he was. With the waves crashing and battering the coast, there he stood as a silent sentinel, right there on the shore line, soaked to the skin.
The lighthouse keeper, his eyes red and swollen as he stood and watched. Searched.
Standing there, watching the waves. I began to break into a run to get to him. The heavens opened and suddenly the storm lashed me, the sky turning black as the grave. The cliffs seemed to rumble above me and the waves began to break free from the rocks and began to pound me with their ferocity. I watched the lighthouse keeper. He turned to me, his eyes sad and his face appearing to have the world weariness of one a thousand years old and more.
“They’re gone,” he said, rasping and closing his red eyes, “we search and wait and love and hope, but they’re gone into the blackness.”
“I can hear her,” I shouted, tears streaming down my face as I saw the door to the bedroom again.
“Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
A gnarled hand took hold of mine, and led me towards the door.
“Mum,” I said looking down at the floor. I suddenly felt the smell of herring and mackerel again. Then it faded to a different smell. The one from our house in Ancoats. It was a smell of medicine, of boiled water and tears.
“Don’t be frightened. Come to mum.”
I approached, forcing my head to look up. She lay serenely in her sick bed, dying, so the doctors had said. But her smile changed her to the happy, bustling woman I had known and fiercely loved.
“Dad says you’re doing well with your football,” she said softly, her voice a whisper.
I nodded, unable to speak.
“I’m proud of you,” she said, “really proud of you.”
Shaking, I approached the side of her bed. The image of her will be etched into my memory until the day I die. I kissed her softly on the cheek. She smiled. I tried to speak, to say something but my breath wasn’t there. I realized it was the sea. The lightning struck again, and the rain lashed my position where I lay huddled on the beach.
“Such pain,” he whispered, “is not for a lad so young. Yon shoulders are not yet broad to bear such grief. You’ve had your goodbye. Tis something I never had.”
He dropped his head, turned back to the sea and stepped out. I screamed. The wave covered him completely and he was gone. Thunder boomed in my ears and the sky became alive with angry flashes. Rain lashed me, and the waves began to wash over me and p0und the Cliffside. I tried to find where he was, but he had gone. Swept away by the sea. The cliff began to rumble and crack, the ground lifting up beneath my feet.
The waves washed over me. Grief. Anger. I felt the cliffs rumble and crack, and suddenly it was if the world were being torn apart by two angry beings that had been dragged apart. I ran in terror as rocks and dirt began to fall on me. The waves began to wash over me, and I felt the smell of the sea, the smell of herring, mackerel and rotting fish. I heard the barking and the snarling from one of the hounds of hell, it’s jaws inches from my face. I whimpered and closed my eyes.
“Jess has found him, Tom. Come away girl!”
“Thank heaven for that. I told him about these rocks.”
I felt myself being lifted by kindly hands.
“Let’s get back to the cottage. The cliff’s come down. Looks like the lighthouse is gone.”
I awoke in my room. Uncle Tom and Aunt Annie were very fearful, and had threatened to call my dad, but I had reassured them I was fine. Of what the lighthouse keeper had shown me I had said nothing. It seemed the storm had brought a section of cliff crashing down onto the shore, and with it the old lighthouse. As the weeks passed, men from the council came to demolish the final remaining pieces of it, and make the cliff secure.
“Will you keep it nice for me,” I said as I arranged the plant on the grave, “when I’m back in Manchester, I mean?”
Aunt Annie nodded.
“Of course I will, love,” she said putting the small cloth and cleaner back in her bag, “he’d be happy now, Richard would. Somebody remembers them.”
I stood back at look at the graves of Richard and Helen Greaves. In later years, when I was done with being a football player, and had met a girl and settled down, the two children we brought into the world would be named Helen and Richard. My wife was bemused when, as a first gift for my newborn son, I purchased a small cheap snow globe from a novelty stall on Smithfield market. She didn’t understand the significance of it, but I did. Inside the little globe was a lighthouse.
The Birch Twins
Latest posts by The Birch Twins (see all)
- The Lighthouse Keeper - October 5, 2021
- Annie’s Story - February 2, 2021