Ben seeks solitude in a lonely lighthouse, but the island and its violent sea hide a frightening secret; by Wendy Steele.
Ben Hughes packed away his sodden tent as the morning brightened. He'd risen with the cows and, in exchange for help mucking out, had partaken of a particularly good cooked breakfast. He was glad of the warmth in his belly after a disturbed, damp night. Rucksack and saddle bags balanced, he climbed on his bike and set off on the coastal path. Mist hung around leisurely as he cycled the undulating terrain, standing on the pedals on the hills, determined to be on the jetty by midday.
As Ben climbed aboard, the boat's engine sprang to life, rocking the boat so he almost fell on his bike. A hand came out to steady him and he nodded gratitude to a sexless figure dressed top to toe in waterproofs. Ben dumped his rucksack on the deck and sat on a bare plank beside it. While his night had been blighted by water, Ben's day was plagued by air as flurries and gusts sped across the water and battered his body from all directions. He tried his thickest jumper over his zip up fleece but this buried his hood so, holding his breath, he removed both before redressing with jumper against T-shirt. Warmer in the body, he fought to keep the fleece hood up as his ears reddened, and all around him the sea horses jumped and galloped.
As Ben pulled his waterproof from his pack, the boat tipped and he was showered with water from behind. The sky turned from blue to gunmetal, the clouds rising like breakers on the shore, and rain fell like diamonds.
"Get in here! Over here! Bring your stuff!"
Ben tried to hurry towards the voice but the pitch of the boat pushed him back. Two hands grabbed an arm each and he was propelled forward into the cabin. The captain laughed, shaking his head while manoeuvring his craft like a punt on a boating lake. The two other travellers helped Ben to his feet.
"Can catch you out, this stretch of water," said the waterproofed man, pulling back his hood. "Our Jack knows how to ride the eddies on this pond but not everyone can stay upright when he does!" The man's face was young, made a little older by a neatly trimmed beard.
Ben sat on the bench opposite. "Do you live on the island?"
"No, we visit when we can. Who could keep away from such a magical place?"
"We're artists." The man indicated the other figure who had not removed its waterproof covering and whose hood string was pulled so tight only dark eyes were visible. "And you?"
"I've come to see the lighthouse," said Ben.
Some children want to be firemen, astronauts or footballers. Ben wanted to be a lighthouse keeper or a cloud spotter or a nature photographer. He was popular at school, excelled at tennis and got on as well with his older brother, Jonny, as any second son could, but he enjoyed his own company. His mother wanted him to pursue a career in medicine. She had pushed Jonny to take law and though the older child had resigned himself to this chosen life path, Ben had rebelled. Recently finishing a natural sciences degree, exploring earth sciences as well as archaeology and biology, he was taking a year off to decide his future.
There was no town on the island. A group of buildings on the quayside housed biologists studying the bird and marine population while six houses on the hillside, a hall that was both chapel and tavern, and a metal barn that dealt with goods in and out, akin to a shop, were the extent of the rest of the island. Apart from the lighthouse. No one knew who owned the nineteenth century structure yet tourists regularly booked to spend a week or, in Ben's case, a fortnight, to live alone at the top of a tower, above a wild and merciless sea.
Provisions in the 'shop' were limited and though there was good coffee in his rucksack, he was surprised that there was no milk.
"No cows here, mister," said a young man, whose face looked like century old leather and whose single tooth hung like a sulphurous stalactite in his mouth. A filthy scarf was knotted high around his throat.
"I suppose they'd get blown over," smiled Ben.
The young man thought this over before shaking his head. "No, no one keeps cows here."
Ben persisted. "What about goats? I don't mind goats milk."
"No goats here, mister."
Ben gathered up his meagre shopping. His saddlebags were full of potatoes and onions while his rucksack held pasta, tins of tomatoes and two brown loaves. He conceded, as he set off along the back bone of the island, that meals would not be exciting but the whole point of trying this holiday was to understand the monotony and analyse the boredom.
Cycling along the ridge was tricky. If he took his focus from the ground for a second, the bike hit a rock or a divot and he fell off, yet the view was compelling so he contented himself with pedalling for a count of one hundred and then stopping to take in his surroundings. At some stops, the islands came up to meet the ridge. One side was stony, sparsely vegetated with low spiny bushes and tough short grass while on the other, out of the wind, wild flowers were scattered amidst the long grass, and trees of hazel, apple, ash and birch thrived. The 'shop' and houses stood at one end of the ridge while thirteen miles away, at the end of the path, was the lighthouse.
Abraham Davies was used to visitors at the lighthouse. He had his bedding roll, pillow and blanket laid out in his berth so he could rest there when he wasn't making his rounds. Some visitors stayed a night, a few two or more and while some packed up their possessions, most he never saw again once they descended the staircase to the rock. Day and night, Abraham Davies inspected his light and slept his contented naps knowing all was well on his island.
Ben padlocked his bike to the newel at the bottom of the staircase. He wasn't sure why but a part of his brain insisted that it was a long walk to the harbour.
The living quarters were compact but clean, if a little old fashioned, but there was coal and wood to heat a small burner and oil for a stove, just as the advert had said. He lit the burner before stripping to his boxer shorts, pulling on dry jogging bottoms, socks and t shirt, shivering in the cold musty air.
While the kettle boiled, Ben ascended a sturdy wooden ladder to the lantern room. Though he'd set off early this morning, he could see streaks of the setting sun, merging with cloud and foam just above the horizon. An eerie light filled the glass panelled room. The original lantern stood inanimate and cold within its crystal casing. Ben stared at the Argand lamp and peered at the reservoir above it. As the light left the sky, strange shadows were cast around him as he hurried down the ladder towards the welcoming amber light of his gas lamp.
Ben sipped his mug of black coffee while he cut potatoes into chunks and dropped them in a pan with the remaining hot water. He rescued two eggs, wrapped in socks in his spare shoes, and added them to the pan before returning to his room to unpack the rest of his belongings. Double packed in plastic, his notebooks, reading books and clothes had survived the soaking but his rucksack, tent and clothes and shoes from today were soaked through. Once he was in bed he would hang up his clothes and leave them to suck the heat from the burner. Tomorrow he would work out how to dry the rest.
A clang sounded in Ben's dream and as he stirred, it rang again. It sounded like rigging on a ship, restless in the wind and yet when he sat up, the noise had stopped. Grabbing his wind up torch, Ben stood up, cracking his tousled blond head on the low wooden ceiling. He sat down until the ringing left his ears. Winding up the torch, he rose slowly but hearing no further noises, he climbed back into bed. In moments, his dreams were awash with a green rugged landscape that he flew over like a raptor before folding back his wings and diving into the icy depths of the sea.
Though his sleep had been sporadic, Ben rose the next morning looking forward to exploring the immediate environment adjacent to his holiday let. His clothes were half dry so he revived the fire from its embers, turned his clothes on their travel hangers and propped his rucksack nearer the burner. Suitably attired with waterproofs and a knitted hat, he picked up the empty coal bucket to fill from the bunker by the front door, and set off to explore.
The lighthouse stood on a jut of land, linked to the ridge path by a series of rocky islands. At low tide you could walk across to the lighthouse but when the tide was high the lighthouse sat on its own island. He climbed around the rock that supported the building, glad of his strong fingers as he clung to the slippery surface, waves beating below his feet. He made his way to a particular rock he'd seen from the lantern room, shaped like a chalice, tapering to its base. Once inside, though he heard the thunderous power of the sea below him, he felt protected by the ancient rock. Peace spread over him like a warm fleece blanket. He saw the sea, its power evident on the ravaged stone, and watched every facet of its nature, from monstrous wave to sparkling spray. He saw the sky change its hues in response to the metamorphosing cloud that streaked across it, sometimes hurtling by like angry ashen tumble weed while other times meandering like the stripes of a zebra. He heard the cries of birds as they flew above the water. Hunger forced him back to the lighthouse.
As Ben heaved the coal bucket into the room, cold air met his face and then seemed to pass through him. He peeled off his waterproofs and hung them on the hooks on the back of the door. Stepping back, he felt something bump his arm, as if someone was climbing the ladder behind him. His eyes travelled upwards as the trapdoor to the lantern room opened and a saffron glow filled his vision before the trapdoor fell shut. He couldn't answer the questions that bombarded his brain so he put the kettle on the stove, stoked the burner and made two sandwiches, while his ears strained for the slightest unusual sound. Part of him wanted to climb up to the lantern room but most of him didn't.
Ben warmed his nose beneath the duvet but he couldn't sleep, so he heard the door opening and footsteps descending to the rock. He shuffled to the door and pointed his torch through the crack to see the door of the living quarters standing open, salty smells reaching his nostrils.
Ben saw a figure on the rocks below the lighthouse, holding a lantern before him. While Ben was fully clothed and waterproofed, the man wore a black jacket over trousers and a shirt and a flimsy yet colourful scarf flapped at his neck. As the man clambered on towards the chalice rock, Ben followed him, his head torch lighting his way. He wanted to call out but was afraid to startle the man and contented himself instead with the knowledge that he wasn't going mad and someone else had been in the lighthouse.
He could sense the sea around him but the black of night disguised its position and rogue waves crashed at his knees, taking his breath away. As he neared the rock he heard, above the percussion of the waves, a sultry voice rising on the wind and sweeping around the lighthouse. A woman rose from the cauldron rock and hung above the water, her naked curves highlighted by her dark snaking tresses. She sang and her voice echoed off the rocks, joining with the waves and the rain.
Ben approached and felt heat emanating from the woman, filling his mind with passion and desire. Thoughts of the other man left him until the woman swooped towards the figure on the edge of the rocks.
"Watch out! She'll knock you in!"
Ben tried to run towards the man but the treacherous rocks robbed him of his balance and before he could reach him, the man had disappeared and Ben fell backwards into the sea. Instead of the blast of icy water he expected, strong arms caught him and he felt his body being righted, as the man with the beard from the boat flew backwards and watched him, grinning.
It took a moment for Ben to realise he was hanging in the air. As he began to wobble a hand touched his arm, and with the fire that passed through his body came a compulsion to fly. With a push of his feet, he lifted himself to the lantern room of the lighthouse before turning and descending to the figures above the chalice rock.
They hung as if in their own bubble of time as the sound of the sea disappeared. Ben could hear their words but was unable to move or speak.
"You should be dead," said the bearded man, "and yet, though we're denizens of the underworld, we do have a heart of sorts. It was sweet of you to be worried about the old man, even though he's been our lure for years."
"He's too pretty to eat," said the succubus, "Can we have a taste and then keep him to play with?"
"We need to eat something, my love," said the demon, as fire sprang from his fingertips.
The succubus shrieked and dived towards her toy as the demon flew towards his prey.
The last thing Ben remembered was the light from the lantern room of the lighthouse, piercing the inky black night with a beam of shining light.