The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on the glinting hilt of a scimitar.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I replied.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The servant replied, timidly.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, nonchalantly turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.

The Leviathan

An abridged version was entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2020.

The whale had appeared on the beach that morning. I think it was Patience Scott who saw it first, just as it was breathing its last, wheezing breaths out of its blowhole, abandoned by the waves along the strip of sand between two headlands towering above the sea.

Almost the whole village had turned out to help drag it off the beach. The harvest had been poor that year, but now we could feast on this extraordinary prize all winter. Tobias Earnshaw had let us use his barn, in the field by the beach, to keep out of the rain during the grisly task of butchering the carcass. Even Malachi Thorpe, who’d been sacked from Mr Earnshaw’s farm a few days ago, and John Wickham, who’d been arguing with him about some money he owed, were welcome today.

The leader was Nathaniel Crawford, whose cousin had gone off to Greenland on a whaling voyage, and who claimed to know what he was doing. He inspected the carcass, checking how everyone was doing, with their knives or axes or saws. Tabitha Holdsworth sat on top, hacking away slices of blubber and throwing them down to a grease-covered Harry Stobbs, who in turn threw them into a precarious stack, until he was beckoned away. Anderson Cockroft stood at the Sea Monster’s vast and bloody mouth, methodically sawing away the fibrous flaps that lined its jaws.

Apparently, they’re called “baleen”, and they’re what corsets are made of. Whales have them instead of teeth, and they use them to filter out the tiny creatures they eat from huge mouthfuls of seawater. There were probably 3 or 4 people in the village who’d ever worn a corset, and certainly nobody knew how to make them, but that hadn’t stopped Nathaniel from handing the 19-year-old farmhand a saw and telling him to get to work.

I don’t think he’d actually spoken to anyone all day, but he seemed happy enough, stinking of whale slobber.

Someone had found an old, rusty harpoon buried in the whale’s thick and clammy skin, that had grown around it years ago. It had been propped up carefully at one end of the room, where the workers occasionally walked past and admired its antique, exotic grandeur.

At sunset, Andrew Metcalfe’s son, who had been sent to fetch some lamps, ran into the barn shouting something incomprehensible. Nathaniel strode over and bent down to listen to him, before following him back out into the twilight.
Work resumed, with some of the other children returning with arms full of candles and lamps that bathed this terrible beast in their light and shifting shadows.

When Nathaniel returned from the dark, he climbed on top of the whale.

“Listen!” He shouted.

There was silence. Nathaniel had that effect.

“Tobias Earnshaw has been murdered!”

The silence became even more silent, before collapsing into a chorus of muttering.

“This was found by the body!”

He pulled a blood-stained butcher’s knife from inside his jacket and brandished it with theatrical relish.

The workers clustered around the head, upon which Nathaniel stood, dispensing justice as if from the mouth of this ancient creature of the deep, that mouth which had tasted the distant saltwater among the scattered atolls of South Seas and among the ice floes of the High Arctic.

“Tabitha Holdsworth! Step forward!”

The crowd parted and Tabitha gazed up to Nathaniel in his cetacean pulpit.

“I put it to you!” Nathaniel bellowed in the most legal voice he could muster, “That you were in possession of the knife that was used to carry out the murder of the late Tobias Earnshaw!”

“I was, sir.” Tabitha responded, meekly. “But it were here until the break. I couldn’t find it afterwards, and I’ve been here the whole time since.

The crowd murmured assent. Nathaniel allowed Tabitha to fall back, and shouted again.

“Did anyone see anyone going out of the barn since the break?”

The crowd muttered and scuffled. Eventually, four people were pushed forward towards the whale’s jaws. There was Malachi Thorpe, John Wickham, Bethany Coulson, and on the end was Anderson Cockroft, fidgeting and looking anywhere but up to the Judge.

“Can anyone vouch for these people’s whereabouts at the time in question?” Nathaniel asked the crowd.

Harry Stobbs spoke up. He’d seen Malachi leaving the barn, but all he’d done was had a piss against a nearby tree, and then come straight back.
Malachi was removed from the list of suspects and allowed to merge back into the crowd.

That left three.

John was first before the Inquisitor’s scrutiny. He stepped forward, hands in his pockets, and looked up to Nathaniel’s stern face.

“Mr Wickham, were you responsible for the murder of the late Mr Earnshaw?”
“No, Your Honour,” he declared.

“Can you account for your movements at the time of the incident?”
“When I were out, I were just taking some fresh air, round the back of the barn, with my little flask of rum. It’s right smelly in here. I weren’t doing any murdering.”

A voice from the crowd suddenly shouted out.

“He owed Mr Earnshaw a fiver!”

“No, it were a tenner!”

“It were just two pounds!”

The Judge intervened.

“Silence! Silence! Mr Wickham, I put it to you that you did owe to the aforementioned Mr Earnshaw the sum of five Pounds.”

“It were a tenner, your honour, but I swear to God I’d never have murdered him about it.”

“Mr Wickham, that is all.”

John returned to the line. Bethany was next before the Leviathan’s weathered visage.

“Can you account for your movements in the interval in which it has been established that the aforementioned murder of Mr Earnshaw occurred?”

“I just went out for a walk, you see.” She said sheepishly. “I know you all know I’m next to inherit his farm and all, but it weren’t me who did it, I swear.”
She was dismissed and Anderson was summoned, bowing his head as Nathaniel towered over him.

“Mr Cockroft, are you able to account for your movements at the time in question?”

Anderson stared down at his boots. He looked up as if to speak, but then back down. The crowd began to stir.

“What were you doing at the time of the murder, Mr Cockroft?” Nathaniel declaimed again. Anderson remained silent, and looked around and then back to his greasy boots. The murmurings of the crowd grew louder.

Seeing what was going to come next, the Accused seized a hatchet that had been left on the floor close to his feet and darted past the huge and stinking beast, round its great, two-pronged tail and out into the murky night, waving his weapon at of anyone who tried to apprehend him.

It had started raining again, hard. There was no moon, and beyond the flickering circles of orange light from our lanterns, nothing could be seen. But still we searched, as the killer had to be brought to justice.

We’d reached the top of the cliffs, with no sign of our quarry, and the darkness was beginning to fade into twilight, when I saw a swinging lantern and heard, among the roar of the waves far below, a breathless voice coming up the hill.
“I did it! I killed him!” Malachi shouted frantically, between wheezes, as he approached.

We stopped. Malachi was bent over with his hands on his knees.

“He sacked me from my job on his farm. I couldn’t handle it and I just… went for him. I threatened Harry that he had to say what I were doing. But I couldn’t stand back and let you come after that boy. I couldn’t live with that.”

He stood with his back to the Edge, above the distant foam, as the Sun rose on the sea revealing, on a ledge halfway down the rockface, the glinting blade of a hatchet.

Who should be Patron Saint of England?

It’s that time of year again, when people keep thinking it makes sense to ascribe modern nationalities to someone from Classical Antiquity. In past years, I’ve seen people variously claiming St. George was Turkish, Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian and Georgian (He was born in Cappadocia, now South-Eastern Turkey, and later moved with his mother to her homeland in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, which occupied the Levant and also a large part of what is now South-Eastern Turkey). Whatever the case, he was certainly not English, and has nothing to do with England apart from being the patron saint of it.

The cult of St George certainly has a long history in England, going back to before the Norman Conquest. He was associated with the Crusades, and then was made Patron Saint of the Order of the Garter when it was founded by Edward III in 1348, ending up with him definitively supplanting the East-Anglian King Edmund the Martyr as Patron Saint of England. Given that he has nothing to do with England, and is a rather unoriginal choice for a national patron saint, being a patron saint of Russia, Georgia, Portugal, Turkey, The Crown of Aragon (inherited by Catalonia and Aragon), Greece, Palestine, Ethiopia, The Republic of Genoa, and Moldova, as well as farmers, soldiers, scouts, herpes, and syphilis. England has plenty of its own Saints that could be used instead. Here are some possibilities:

Edward the Confessor

Edward_the_Confessor
Edward the Confessor
Anonymous (Public Domain), from Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1003-1005, Islip, Oxfordshire.
  • Died: 1006, London
  • Canonised: 1161
  • Connection with England: Was the King of it
  • Feast day: October 13th

Edward the Confessor seems an obvious choice, as the only canonised King of England, as a patron saint of Kings of England, and as one of the unofficial patron saints who were displaced by Saint George.

He was crowned king in 1043, having spent most of his life up to that point in exile in Normandy whilst England was under Danish rule.

During his reign, Edward spent much of his time trying to make sure the Vikings didn’t invade, trying to make sure his Earls didn’t depose him, and appointing the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges as Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps most notably, he built Westminster Abbey, in a decidedly Norman, Romanesque style.

He died in January 1066 with no heir, leaving 3 possible successors, all with decidedly tenuous claims to the throne, to sort it out among themselves. Of course, this being 1066, William, Duke of Normandy ended up coming out on top.

He was canonised in 1161 and nobody is entirely sure what he did to deserve it apart from being just generally sort of religious. A lot of Anglo-Saxon Kings became unofficially venerated, but this was the first time one had been actually canonised. He became a patron of the Kings of England, and the namesake of 8 of them (although ironically overlooked in their regnal numbers).

Thomas Becket

thomas becket
Thomas Becket, in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral
Renaud Camus from Plieux, France [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1119, Cheapside, London
  • Died: 1170, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: 1173
  • Connection with England: Was English
  • Feast day: December 29th

Thomas Becket (not Thomas à Becket, which seems to have come about long after his death to make him sound more like the theologian Thomas à Kempis) was an extremely important Medieval saint, and a prominent figure in the politics of 12th century England.

Becket was born in Cheapside in 1119, the son of a merchant. In a remarkable example of social mobility for the time, he ended up becoming Archdeacon of Canterbury, and was recommended to Henry II for the position of Chancellor.

As Henry II’s Chancellor, he was extremely obliging and Henry, looking to rein in the power of the Church in England, appointed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. In a surprising turn of events, however, Becket ended up taking his role far more seriously than Henry had expected, and refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have given the King a lot more power over the Clergy. Henry ended up putting him on trial, digging up some financial offences from when he was Chancellor. Becket was convicted, and fled to France.

Eventually, in 1170, the Pope persuaded Becket and Henry to make up, and Becket was allowed back to England.

Later that year, however, Henry got the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, and the Bishop of Salisbury to crown his son, Henry the Young King, in accordance with the French tradition of crowning the Heir Apparent. Since the Archbishop of Canterbury is meant to crown Kings, Becket excommunicated all three of them, and went on something of an excommunicating spree. This, famously, prompted Henry’s outburst of “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (although the exact words are disputed). Four knights, interpreting this as an order, turned up at Canterbury Cathedral, pulled out their swords, and hacked the Archbishop to death, smearing his brains across the floor when they’d finished with him.

Becket took just over 2 years to be canonised, and Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became an major pilgrimage destination.

Whilst Thomas Becket is one of the most important English saints, I’m not sure I’d want a patron saint who was martyred for his conviction that the Church should be above the law.

Augustine of Canterbury

augustine statue
A statue of Augustine of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral
User:Saforrest [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 6th Century presumably, Italy
  • Died: 604, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Led the mission that converted the first Anglo-Saxon King to Christianity
  • Feast day: May 26th

Lots of countries already have a great converting saint. Germany has Boniface, Ireland has Patrick, Norway has Olaf, etc. It would make a lot of sense for England to do the same.

The Roman province of Britannia had become Christian, along with the rest of the Roman Empire, under Constantine. However, in 410, the Roman Legions withdrew from the Province in order to defend the more central parts of the Empire from the Barbarians that were overrunning it. This left room for the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes to take over the Southern and Eastern parts of the Island, now England. As a result, while the Celtic peoples in the West remained Christian, albeit with a weird way of calculating the date of Easter.

According to Bede, the whole thing started when Pope Gregory I saw some Anglo-Saxon boys in a Roman slave market. Being the Pope, his eyes were of course immediately drawn to their angelic fair hair, blue eyes and pale skin. Remarking “non angli sed angeli” (“not Angles, but angels”), he resolved to convert these people to Christianity, and dispatched Augustine to do the job. Another account is that King Æthelberht of Kent, whose Frankish wife was a Christian, asked the Pope to send missionaries. Either way, Augustine was sent to convert the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity.

Augustine arrived in Kent and made himself the Archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelberht was baptised, and the Anglo-Saxons gradually became Christian, even if he didn’t get the Celtic Christians to agree on the date of Easter.

Bede the Venerable

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An image of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Public Domain. See page for author. via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 673, probably Sunderland, Tyne and Wear
  • Died: 735, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Known for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Feast day: May 25th

Possibly the only notable person ever to come from Sunderland, Bede was sent to a monastery at the age of seven. At the age of 14, everyone in the monastery except him and one other person died of plague, leaving them to run the monastery themselves. He seems to have spent most of his adult life writing books about history and how to calculate the date of Easter. He died in 735, having written enough, especially his Historia Ecclesiastica Genti Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) to be one of the most useful sources on the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

Joseph of Arimathea

arimathea
An illustration by William Blake titled Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion
William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: Unknown, presumably 1st Century BC or 1st Century AD
  • Died: Unknown, presumably 1st Century AD
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Visited Glastonbury, according to legend.
  • Feast day: March 17th

Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four Canonical Gospels, as the person who offers his tomb to be used to bury Jesus. His significance to England is rather mysterious, but there are several stories, appearing first in the Middle Ages, according to which he visited Britain after the death and resurrection of Jesus and founded a church at Glastonbury.

Going further, there are also stories tied into Arthurian Mythology, in which Joseph brought the Holy Grail with him on that trip. The Glastonbury Thorn is supposedly a descendant of the hawthorn bush that, in the same legend, sprouted from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff when he planted it in the ground on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury.

Another legend says that Joseph of Arimathea was a tin merchant and visited Cornwall, the centre of tin production in ancient Europe, bringing a teenage Jesus with him. An elaboration of this story says that Jesus actually taught the Cornish tin miners how to extract tin from its ore. The story of Jesus visiting Britain is referred to extensively by William Blake, most notably in And did those Feet in Ancient Time.

All this is, of course, total nonsense and obviously never happened, but I like it when a country has national myths like that. The Joseph of Arimathea myths are important parts of England’s cultural heritage and deserve to be celebrated.

Edmund the Martyr

edmund the martyr
The Martyrdom of St. Edmund
The Morgan Library & Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 841, traditionally
  • Died: 869 or 870, Hoxne, Suffolk (or maybe Dernford, Cambridgeshire, or Bradfield St. Clare, Suffolk)
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Former Patron Saint of England
  • Feast day: November 20th

In modern times, Edmund the Martyr is a very obscure saint. He’s mostly getting a mention here due to his popularity in the Middle Ages, and the fact that he was a patron saint of England before St. George was adopted by Edward III.

Very little is known about his life. He’s supposed to have been born in 841, and became King of the East Angles in 855. In 869, England was invaded by the Viking Great Heathen Army, who killed Edmund. The story concerning his martyrdom (which is probably nonsense) is that he refused to meet the Vikings in battle, instead throwing down his weapons and allowing himself to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being decapitated.

When people were looking for his head, the story goes that it called out “here! here! here!” until they found it, with a wolf guarding it from other animals.

Bury St. Edmunds, the location of his shrine, became a very popular pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages, until the abbey was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and he was venerated as a patron saint of England until Edward III replaced him with St. George.

Svartskerry: Part 5

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Abigail was sitting outside, in the dark, on a slimy rock, smoking a battered cigarette. Occasionally she glanced off to one side, or up into the mysterious heights of the tower.

Sophie took a few hesitant steps towards her from the doorway..

“Evening.” Abigail muttered to her.

“Are you… alright?”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

“What was that about, back there? You had me terrified.”

“I told you. this place just fucks with your head.”

“I’ll leave you alone, then?”

Sophie would rather not have left Abigail alone. The place was bad enough if there were two of you.

“You don’t have to.”

“I won’t, then.”

And she sat down, next to her sister. The wind was a bit less fierce now, but the rock was almost too cold to bear.

“You really scared me back there, you know?”

“That was the fucking point, you wanker. I properly had you.”

Abigail suddenly stood up and stared up to the lighthouse.

“Do you want to come inside? It’s very cold out here.”

Abigail hesitated for a moment.

“Sure.” She said, quietly.

Sophie had already got both sleeping bags out, and she took off her boots and climbed into one. As she struggled to find a comfortable position on the cold floor, Abigail just kept pacing, back and forth and back and forth.

Sophie lay awake and stared up at the ceiling. The dull, fading, flickering light of the lamp cast bizarre shadows that took on the hideous shapes of mysterious monsters. And she could not think of anything but that strange sheet of paper, compelling her to put it down, and what Abigail had said she’d heard.

And she was on the boat, with Abigail taking her to this abandoned lighthouse that Alex Jamieson had been to a while back. And the sky was thick with heavy clouds. And the spray from the sea bit at her frozen face and fingers. Abigail wondered where the Skerry was, but it could not be seen and the land could not be seen and nothing could be seen for miles and miles and miles, save for the empty sea, fading seamlessly into the empty sky.

She woke up.

She stared for a while at the ceiling, making out shapes in the cracks. There was something important she needed to get to. She couldn’t remember what, but she was already late. She tried to move, but she was stuck where she was.

She woke up.

Somehow, she had got some sleep. She didn’t know how much. It was still dark outside, although the window was now light up in a deep blue, rather than black. The nights were not long up here at all.

But Abigail was gone. Her sleeping bag was empty, and totally undisturbed.

“Abbie?”

“Abbie!”

“The fuck’s it you want?” Abigail shouted back, apparently outside.

Sophie pulled her hood tight around her head and stepped out to join her in the roaring wind and spray.

Abigail had found a piece of flat ground and was pacing back and forth and back and forth, just like a couple of hours earlier, muttering something.

“Abby?”

“Yes?” She seemed to have only partly emerged from her trance-like state. Only slightly.

“What’s going on?”

She stared, with a terrible stare, into Sophie’s eyes.

“I killed Alex Jamieson.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t he still alive.”

“No. I killed him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Three weeks ago… I… we… we were drinking together. We’d been at The Ship and then we’d gone back to his place.

“It was stormy as fuck. a hundred times rougher than this. Nobody would take a boat out the size of the boat he had. Unless you were insane. But I said he should. I said he should.

“And of course by this point we’re both wankered. But he said he wouldn’t, but I called him a pussy if he wasn’t going to try and get over to Sutheray. At night, in that fucked up weather, pissed off his bollocks.

“And he fucking did it. I went home, I’d been joking the whole time. I didn’t think he’d do it. But the next morning he was gone. And the boat had turned over, and he was fucking gone.”

“What? Really?”

“For real.”

“You’ve been talking like he’s still alive the whole time. Why?”

“I didn’t want anyone to find out. I didn’t want it to be real. I killed a guy. Have you ever killed a guy?”

“You didn’t kill him. It was an accident. It’s horrible, but he was stupid to do what he did. You couldn’t have thought he’d do it. It’s not your fault.”

Sophie wrapped her arms around her sister, and held her, tight. Abigail was slightly taller, but Sophie was on marginally higher ground, and their heads fell onto each other’s shoulders.

And the Sun cast pink and purple and gold fingers across the clouds, shimmered on the sea, and lit up the world to the raucous screams of a thousand gannets.

Svartskerry: Part 4

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

When she was much younger, Sophie had been scared of the dark. The worst had been the long, winter nights, trapped between the desolate moors and the deep, black voe. As the Atlantic Wind howled in the windows, she would put on Radio 4, quietly, to keep her mind from whatever demons lurked out in the raging wind, and in the shadowy crevices of her room, as she struggled to get to sleep, or waited, wide-awake, staring at the bathroom light, through the gap where she’d left the door ajar, hoping nobody would realise and, assuming what she had carefully arranged to look accidental was, in fact, accidental, turn off the light or close the door or turn off the radio, plunging her into a terrible darkness, with no sound but the raging Wind. She would wait, pulling her duvet tight around her, for 7 AM, when Mum would switch on the lights and they’d get up and get dressed and have breakfast and Mum would drive her and Abigail to School. And eventually, the Sun would breach the dark Horizon, casting its golden rays over the worn-out, soggy Viking longship mural, before plunging back into that bleak and interminable Ginnungagap.

Of course, nobody could ever know. She could only imagine how everyone at school would laugh, and how Abigail would laugh, if they found out she spent every night in desperate fear of Nothing In Particular.

She’d grown up since. She knew none of it was based on reality, but then she knew that at the time as well, and that hadn’t stopped her mind from creating whatever it wanted. And even a few days before, in her flat in Glasgow, she would turn on her bedside lamp before turning off the main light, so she wouldn’t have to walk across the room in darkness.

Right now, on this lonely rock, harbouring such strange and unknown stories, the eerie shadows of the Simmer Dim were just as bad as those drawn-out midwinter nights. Every rock, every crack in the walls of the lighthouse became some lurking demon sent by those lost lighthouse-keepers to torment these intruders in their domain.

The cold had driven them back inside. Abigail had lit the hurricane lamp, and it cast eerie, flickering shadows on the walls, each one like some monster from the fringes of an ancient mappamundi.

She could run, but what would she be running from? There was nothing there. What self-respecting rational being would flee from nothing?

And where would she run to? There was at most a couple of hundred yards in any one direction, and then nothing but the relentless ocean, writhing and pounding and surging in the darkness.

There was nowhere to flee to, and nothing to flee from.

The book had been nothing more than a bad attempt at tacky, pseudo-Victorian fiction, left by Alex Jamieson, but she had definitely felt something. There was something strange about it.

She just sat there in silence, half terrified and half hating herself for being terrified.

Abigail had been silent too, up to this point, but now she started to sing.

She didn’t know the words to Chelsea Dagger, but that wasn’t stopping her.

She was quiet at first, but gradually crescendoed until she was belting out the chorus at full volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, I believe! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da! Da-dada-da-da-dadadadada-Believe!

And now that dark and lonely rock didn’t seem quite so dark and didn’t seem quite so lonely.

Dadada-dadada-dadadadadadada! Dadada-dadada! Get my sister over here!”

She was standing up now, and she took Sophie’s hand and pulled her to her feet, spinning her round with surprising smoothness.

At once she was 17, and Abigail was 18, and they’d gone into town. Abigail had got her into Big Sam’s with a fake ID, and she was wankered on an embarrassingly small amount of vodka & Coke. And in that moment, on a sticky dance-floor in a club that, by a quirk of geography, had ended up as the hottest nightlife in over 100 miles, belting out trashy 90s and noughties anthems, she thought she had grown up, that that timid little girl had become a fully-fledged woman.

Sophie, who knew even less of the words, joined in. Surely there was no demon in all of Hell that could bear this raucous, tuneless and misremembered rendition of Chelsea Dagger.

And then Abigail stopped singing. Sophie stopped as well, and the darkness began to creep back around them.

“Did you hear that?”

Sophie had heard nothing.

“Did you hear it?”

“Did I hear what?”

“Like, someone shouting. Up in the tower. Did you hear it?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It’ll be nothing. I’m just hearing things. This place fucks with your head. That’s why none of the lighthouse keepers could handle it. There’s nothing there.”

“Stop trying to scare me. There’s nothing there. I know there’s nothing there.”

“But I definitely heard someone shouting from up there. But like what I said, this place fucks with your head. And if you didn’t hear anything, then, it’s just that.”

Or it was whatever was in that bollocks that Alex Jamieson had written. There was something there, something lived here that didn’t want them there.

But that was absurd. There wasn’t. But either there was or Abigail was going insane, which was at least as terrifying.

Abigail went back outside, walking unusually fast but trying hard not to run.

Svartskerry: Part 3

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

“Go on.” Abigail commanded. “Read it to me. While we’ve still got daylight.”

Sophie squinted at the battered paper, as it flapped in the wind. She felt a bit dizzy as she looked down again to the surging sea.

“Can we go inside?” She asked. “It’ll be easier to read, and it won’t blow away.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Sophie was kind of relieved to step back inside, into that strange, decaying Crystal Palace. She wasn’t going to plunge however many feet into the writhing foam from in here.

She could read that semi-cursive scrawl much more easily, too, when she wasn’t struggling to keep the trailing strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail out of her face, and the wind wasn’t stinging her eyes.

“I was born in Liverpool, in the year 1859, the son of a sea captain. At the age of 18, I travelled to Manchester, to study Mathematics. Though I do not mean to boast, I proved to be rather adept in my studies. Some said I could go on to be one of the greatest mathematicians of my generation.”

“This is so fucking Alex Jamieson.” Abigail interrupted. “He’s always fancied himself as a writer.”

For some reason, Sophie didn’t want to keep reading. She felt something in her head, telling her to put the paper down, to get straight back on the boat and leave this Godforsaken place.

She kept going, nonetheless.

“That was until I met Elizabeth.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”

“I first saw Elizabeth through the window of a cab as I was on my way to a lecture. She was the most wonderful creature I had ever set eyes on. Her blue eyes gleamed like sapphires fixed in her pure-white face.”

“That’s fucking terrible”

“I know, right? You want me to keep going?”

Somehow, Sophie really didn’t want to keep going. The paper seemed to have grown genuinely heavy, and her arms were getting tired. Every word she read seemed to add to this. The paper grew heavier and heavier, as if the meaning of the words had their own weight.

“Of course you keep going. This is fucking great.”

“I met her as she disembarked outside her house. It turned out she was none other than the daughter of Professor William Scott, one of the university’s foremost scholars of Mathematics, and that she would be at…”

Sophie’s hands were shaking now, and she was struggling to keep her eyes on the page. It was like staring into the Sun.

She couldn’t bear it any longer, and threw it to the floor.

“What’s up?” Abigail asked. “I mean, it’s shit, but it’s not that shit.”

“I don’t know. It’s just… it’s just… I’m tired, that’s all.”

“I’ll read it then.”

Sophie bent down and picked it up. Her movements became slower. Her hands were shaking. She fumbled with the pages, finding the place where Sophie had left off. She skimmed over the rest, clearly struggling to keep her eyes there.

“He asks her out. She says yes. He gets scared and fucks off up here.”

Abigail threw it to the ground.

“I’m not reading it all out loud, it’s too shit. It’s all just Alex Jamieson’s crap, anyway. It’s his fucking handwriting.”

“Wasn’t it, like, hard to read? Like you kept wanting to look away?”

“I know. It was shit, wasn’t it?”

“It was shit, I know, but wasn’t there something else? Like there was something in there that wanted you to stop reading?”

“No, it was just shit.”

“That’s probably right.”

It was stupid, it was definitely stupid. It was just something Alex Jamieson had written. There was nothing about it to suggest it was an authentic document, and if it was, someone would have already found it.

“Come on, Soph, you’ve got a degree in Physics. You know this is silly.”

“I know it’s silly. It’s just, it’s just, it was definitely there. I’m probably just making it up, but it was definitely there.”

“You’re just making it up. This place is fucking with you, or something like that. Let’s get downstairs.”

Abigail was quick to leave the wad of teabag-stained paper behind her on the floor and scamper round and down the rough and crumbling staircase and out of sight, but grabbing five cans of lager from the crate on the way and drinking heavily from the first, with the other four cradled precariously under her left arm. Sophie was glad to follow, and to leave behind that nightmarish, distorted greenhouse.

The shafts of light from the narrow windows, punctuating the staircase were getting fainter and redder as the sun went down. Sophie was struggling to find her footing, feeling blindly for each little foothold. She made it, though, and saw Abigail, sitting, curled up, against the wall, with three empty cans next to her.

“Good evening”, Abigail said to her, loudly and assuredly, standing up, and then sitting back down again almost immediately.

“Good evening”, Sophie muttered back. She collapsed to the floor next to Abigail, propped up against her shoulder.

“Hey, get the fuck off me.”

Abigail nudged Sophie off with her shoulder, and she sat back up.

“That sure was shit, wasn’t it?” Abigail eventually said.

Sophie grabbed the one remaining beer and took a big enough gulp that she felt sick.

“It was shit alright”, she sputtered back as soon as she was able.

“I feel like heading outside”, Abigail said. “You want to join me?”

“Sure”. Sophie was, as much as she would never admit to Abigail, desperate to get out of that accursed place. They both staggered to their feet and stumbled through the doorway into the biting wind.

The deep blue-grey of the clouds faded indeterminately into the black of the roaring sea, and, from far off in the murky distance, the light at Sulaness flashed, and flashed again, and flashed again.

Svartskerry: Part 2

See also: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

The heavy, rust-riddled door to the hut at the base of the tower had been left hanging open. Abigail was the first inside, dumping the crate of lager on the worn and uneven flagstones just inside. Sophie stopped just outside and looked in.

The room was bare, with the wind whistling out of a crumbling fireplace just to the right. There were two small, grimy windows. The once-whitewashed walls were streaked with bird crap.

“Are you sure this place won’t fall down on us?” Sophie said

“It’s been OK so far.”

“Does anyone know we’re here? You know, in case…”

“Alex Jamieson knows. He recommended the place to me. Didn’t spend the night, though.”

“Come on, we both know you’d rather die stranded out here than get rescued by Alex Jamieson.”

There was another door, opposite the fireplace, gaping into a cavernous darkness, pierced by a faint shaft of dusty light. Abigail seemed to have forgotten the grown-up poise she’d had on the boat, and gazed around the room in childish wonder, before walking quickly, with a sort of hop-skip in the middle, towards the doorway.

Sophie left her to it and wandered back down the rough and slippery steps onto the rock, pulling her hood back up around her face. She walked forwards, about 30 paces, and stopped abruptly, as the ground disappeared in front of her, leaving nothing but the waves, rising and falling against shattered slabs of rock.

She turned right and kept walking, keeping quite a way back from the edge. At this point, the furthest from the jetty where the boat was moored, the jagged edges gave way to a glistening sheet of rock, sloping into the writhing sea, that slid up and down the surface, pouring in and out of the rockpools.

Right at the top of the rocks, just where the earth broke off, there was a pod of seals, almost motionless. Sophie tentatively walked towards them. They remained still at first, and then one by one, their heads turned, they noticed her presence, and they fled, clumsily, to the safety of the sea, their heads bobbing on the waves.

“Hey! Soph!”

Sophie turned round and looked up. Abigail was standing on the narrow, ancient platform that ran around the edge of the light itself. Her bright blue coat stood out boldly against the grey of the lighthouse and the grey of the sky.

“Are you coming up or what?”

“Is it safe?”

“Should be! The view from here’s great!”

Sophie walked back over to the steps and slowly ascended. She’d have to do this at some point. She might as well get it over with. What could there actually be that would hurt her?

Warily, she stepped into the base of the tower.

This place had a strange feel to it. It was one of those places that just sort of feels like you’re not meant to be there. Almost like it sort of belonged to someone else, or something like that. This place had been abandoned to the fulmars and the gannets, and humans were no longer welcome.

She walked across, quickly, and straight through the door at the other side, before the fear that she felt could really get to her. Abigail had left it open, and it led to a staircase that spiralled into oblivion.

Egged on by the image in her head of Abigail’s face if she didn’t go up, she kept going. Up into the deep unknown.

Occasionally, there was a small window, usually with the glass broken, through which a dusty shaft of light poured, along with wind and rain and spray and the rasping shrieks of the birds.

She kept going up. What could there be that would hurt her? Abigail had gone up and seemed fine? And she was right. The building was unlikely to collapse after having stood for so long. She knew that. That was not what she feared.

Then what was it?

She kept going up, keeping her hands on the damp walls. The walls were solid. The walls were there. If she could feel something, then she knew she was still there, still real.

There were doorways, as well. Leading into empty rooms with rotten, wooden floors that even Abigail surely wouldn’t dare to test. She was foolhardy, but not suicidal.

Sophie was relieved when she saw light streaming down from the top of the stairs. She was still in darkness, but could see the light where she was headed. As she entered the pool of yellowish-white, she knew she had made it.

She stepped up into a shimmering realm of glass. She blinked in the light, as her eyes adjusted. There were four walls, each built of scratched and yellowish glass. On each side, there were the concentric rings of a Fresnel lens. The lamp’s mount was there in the centre, but the lamp itself had long gone.

“Hey! Soph!” Abigail shouted, through the glass.

Sophie looked round, and saw her face, distorted through the rough-edged prisms of the lenses. Abigail walked away, and then emerged from behind, inside the glass room.

“Come on. Get out here.” Abigail said, leading Sophie out through a little door onto the perilously-balanced balcony, overlooking jagged rocks and thundering waves.

“Look what Alex Jamieson’s left us”.

Abigail plunged her hand into her coat pocket, and retrieved a battered and stained, yellowish wad of folded paper.

“Grab a beer, and let’s read it while we’ve still got light.”

She walked round to the other side of the balcony, the side overlooking the rock rather than the sea, and returned with two cans of lager from the crate that she’d presumably somehow hauled up these stairs.

She cracked one open herself, and handed the other to Sophie. She sat down on the balcony, opened up the paper, and began to read. Sophie read over her shoulder.

There was a name at the top, and a date:

“Josiah Rose, Assistant keeper of the lighthouse at Svartskerry, January 14th 1877”.