Svartskerry: Part 1

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

“How much do you know about what happened at Svartskerry?” Abigail asked, casually stepping off the pier into the little dinghy, bobbing in the murky harbour.

“I don’t know anything except it’s meant to be haunted.” Replied Sophie, tentatively stumbling onboard and quickly sitting down.

Abigail started the engine, and the boat began to pull away.

“It’s haunted as fuck. There’s a pretty cool story behind it as well.”

“Go on.”

“You see what happened was, while the lighthouse was still working, there were two people living there, right? There was the lighthouse-keeper, and his assistant. Now the lighthouse keeper was pretty standard, right? He was just a guy who’d used to be in the Merchant Navy. But his assistant was more interesting. The thing with his assistant is nobody knows who he was. The name he was calling himself was almost certainly fake, and he never told anyone his real name. But he didn’t t in at all. He was very well-spoken, obviously educated. Going off his accent, he was English. But he barely spoke to anyone. He kept himself to himself, and nobody knows how or why he ended up out here at all, working at the lighthouse. I guess they were just desperate for people to work there and didn’t ask many questions.”

“Then what?”

The boat roared through the voe, cutting through the bluegreen-brown waves, as the village became nothing more than a series of white specks beneath the lowering clouds.

Sophie would never admit it to Abigail, but she was starting to feel seasick.

“What’s that, Sophie? You want me to slow down?” Abigail taunted, over the hum of the engine and the roar of the waves against the bow.

“No, keep going. What happened to these lighthouse-keepers?”

The boat turned round a towering, grey headland, and into the open sea. Abigail, standing proudly, feet wide apart, at the helm, with the raging sea breeze whipping cold and salty spray across her face, turned her head back towards Sophie.

“So what happened was the two of them had been working there for a couple of years right? And one winter a storm blew up. You seen the storms out here? Waves 60 feet high crashing against the lighthouse, wind so strong it’s hard to stay standing. etc. etc. So anyway, the light’s on in the lighthouse one of these stormy nights, and in the morning it just stays on. And all day into the next night and the next day, until it starts to run out of fuel. So of course the lighthouse-keepers were meant to put the light out in the morning and light it at night and keep it topped up with fuel, so now people knew something was up.
“The problem was the sea was very rough, and there was no chance of landing a boat there, so they couldn’t get anyone to the lighthouse for a few days. When the sea had calmed down a bit and they got a chance, There was nobody there.

“They looked all over the lighthouse, but they didn’t find any traces of anyone. No bodies, nothing. Sort of a Marie Celeste kind of thing. The strangest part, though, was that the boat that they’d had moored at the jetty was still there. If the boat had been gone, you could have said they left in that, but it was still there. It was still tied up to the jetty. It didn’t look like there was any way they could have left, but there they weren’t.”

The shore was now nothing more than a black stripe on the horizon, beneath the brooding clouds. Abigail laughed as the little boat lurched up and down and up and down, bounding over the choppy water. Sophie tried to bury her head in her coat in an effort to keep of the frigid wind and biting spray.

“A few lighthouse keepers came and went, but none of them could handle it. The place was abandoned in the ’30s.”

Before long, their destination came into view – a mass of black slabs of rock, rising up from the water, and a dirty-white column piercing the menacing sky. Abigail turned off the engine, and the boat just bobbed, silently, as the waves rolled around it. She stepped up to the bow and stood there, like Washington Crossing the Delaware, as she surveyed the rugged skerry, looking for a landing site.

The rocks on the near side of the island had been beaten into a precariously balanced arch, and Sophie became briefly mesmerised by the waves rising up, crashing around inside it, foam racing up into the crevices of the layered rock and then back out. In and out and up and down and in and out…

“Hey! Sophie!” Abigail shouted.

Sophie lifted up her head and looked over to where Abigail was pointing. She couldn’t help but smile as she noticed a big, blubbery seal roll over and slide and drag itself off the rocks into the dark water.

Abigail returned to the helm, and the engine sputtered back into life. She began slowly steering the boat round the skerry, eventually pulling up alongside the rusty remains of an old iron jetty.

She vaulted up onto the bent metal platform. Sophie, eager to stand on firm ground again, tried to stand up.

“Hold on a moment, will you?” Abigail reprimanded her, as she secured the boat to a post, caked in rust, and did the same at the other end.

Sophie took her hand and heaved herself up, staggering onto the uneven surface. Abigail leapt back into the boat and pulled out a carrier bag full of food, a crate of lager, two sleeping bags and a hurricane lamp, passing them up to Sophie.

Slowly and cautiously, to avoid slipping on the rocks that gleamed with rain and spray, the two adventurers scrambled up towards the windswept lighthouse.

The Chain Gang

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

In the distance, a bevy of snare drums beat a harsh and unrelenting tattoo.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The crowd of onlookers pushed forward against the barrier in front of the pothole-ridden road, each excited breath forming a wisp of water vapour in the crisp, clear winter air.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Two children darted among the forest of legs, trying to get a better view of the spectacle that was to come, their enthusiastic shouts piercing through the cold above the sharp and ever-approaching beat of the drums.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

A dead-eyed soldier watched the crowd carefully, pacing back and forth in heavy boots, her rifle angled towards the ground.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Then the grim procession began to come into view. A stern-faced officer goose-stepped at its head, a row of medals on chest, glinting in the low, pale Sun against the dark-green wool of his dress uniform. The tassels on his epaulettes swung in time to the beats of his brightly-polished boots against the rough tarmac.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Next came the drummers, in a perfect row, each in an identical, maroon beret. The sticks became a blur, vibrating in that beat that just kept going and going.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

It was only then that I saw the prisoners. Each shaven head, bruised and bloody, staring at the manacled feet of the next. They shuffled steadily forwards, occasionally prodded back into line by a rifle-butt.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And a murmur spread among the crowd, growing to a roar, and becoming a low, steady boo. An incomprehensible shout pierced the monotone every few seconds. Coherence was soon lost, and the air began to writhe with jeers and shrieks and rotting projectiles, as the pathetic chain-gang passed, headed for the train that would take them away to the far-flung North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

One of the wretched train glanced up, away from the shabby road surface, before catching the eye of one of the ever-vigilant guards and fixing his eyes sheepishly on the ground once more. But in that moment, that one, fleeting moment, I saw, among his gaunt and emaciated features, his eyes. Startling, bright-green eyes.

I had seen those eyes before. You would never forget eyes like that. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about them, but there was something extraordinary.

I had seen them before, on a wet April afternoon, just outside the station. He had been muttering something. Nobody caught what it was that he said, but that was beside the point. He had breached Protocol.

Within seconds, he was lying on the shiny-wet flagstones with a black boot on his back and blood pouring out of his nose. As he was dragged away, silent, accepting a terrible fate that he must have known, accepting the prospect of suffering that I could not imagine, that was the moment I noticed the eyes.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And now he was heading back to the station, back to the place where his life had disappeared forever, then to the wild and distant North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The others would have been similar. Maybe they had taken too long to answer questions. Maybe they had admitted to an attraction that had turned out not to be reciprocated. Maybe they had greeted somebody who they had not known well enough. Anyway, they were Enemies of Society and had to be removed.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tara…”

The Desert

Lika was like a diamond. Not because she sparkled or looked pretty as an ornament or anything like that, but because she had withstood years being crushed, stretched and twisted, in the intense heat, and had come out unbreakable.

And now there was only the sandy asphalt and the desert night, the clear, navy-blue sky scattered with billions upon billions of flaming balls of nuclear fusion.

Kasim lit a cigarette, and I coughed, as the dusty wind in the open window blew the smoke back into my face.

“If we break down here, it’s 300 kilometres to the nearest town, and it could be days before anyone else comes along here. Can someone just make sure we remembered to pack the water?”

He laughed. Nobody else laughed.

“Just kidding. It’s in the glovebox.”

I caught a glimpse of Lika’s face in a flash of moonlight in the window, before her head moved and was again lost in shadow. She was smiling, but it was not a smile of naivety, it was a smile that had seen just about everything there is to see. And those eyes seemed to hold secrets older than the world itself.

When we had lost Leo, she said nothing. Amid screams of terror and anguish, surrounded by gunfire, she had simply stood there, still and silent, like Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in Babylon’s fiery furnace. When Kasim had pulled her into the car, she did not resist. She simply accepted what was happening. She let the universe carry her through, observing.

Little Andrea woke up in his mother’s lap.

“When will we be there?” He asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

Leo was gone, which was lucky, since we wouldn’t all have fit in the car otherwise. But then, if Leo was still with us, we wouldn’t need to be here at all.

I’d seen them with him, but I’d just kept walking.

Lika said nothing. Lika always said nothing.

Kasim had finished his cigarette, and let the still-glowing butt fall from the window. A pinprick of bright red light, borne on the warm desert wind, rose and fell and curled and spiralled, as it drifted away onto the empty sand and darkness.

It was impossible to tell whether it had gone out, or simply drifted out of sight.

The road to the south still streaked on, black against black sand, straight and dark and unending.

Lika was under the bed. I was breathing heavily. The spring rain hammered on the window, running down the street, churning the sun-baked dirt of the town square into a mire of mud and filth. A lizard, escaping the rain, crawled in through a crack in the window. She ran across Leo’s unmoving, unfeeling hand, and onto his bare torso. He moved, and then was still again.

And there was the moon, cold and silent, looking out over everything. Occasionally, it lit up Andrea, sleeping in his mother’s lap. Occasionally, its light fell across Lika’s motionless face. She might not even know what she’d done. There was no way to tell.

For the first time in however many hours or days, the headlights fell on a junction. I didn’t notice which direction Kasim took. All I noticed were the crossroads. I suppose it didn’t matter. Whichever way we went, I would never know the other way.

I dragged Lika out, stood her up, looked her in the eye, whispered in her ear, and let her fall back to the ground. Leo woke up.

“When will we be there?” Andrea asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

I hadn’t noticed before, but the door was slightly ajar. I could see a narrow strip of the peeling white paint on the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. A thin, slightly diagonal beam of sunlight cut it in two. Footsteps came down the corridor. I could tell instantly whose they were, in that way you sometimes can. There are subtleties in footfalls that you don’t even notice you notice, but they build up to tell you everything. Perhaps we’re more intelligent than we think.

Kasim’s shadow briefly blocked out the sunlight on the back wall, and he just kept on walking.

I smelled smoke in the air. Another house in the town was burning. Everyone just sat there. I just sat there, while all of someone’s worldly possessions were transformed into smoke and ash. But then, what could we do?

The wind picked up, and sand started to blow in through the open windows. We closed all except the front passenger window, where the mechanism jammed. It was no use, so we wrapped whatever cloth we could find over our mouths and noses. I used my kaffiyeh for myself, and Andrea’s blanket for Lika. The kid was asleep. He wouldn’t miss it.

Kasim loved Lika. He never let her out of his sight. But for now she was mine, in the stuffy little room, with the peeling plaster and the cracked window and the occasional cockroach or snake.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

I tied Andrea’s blanket at the back of Lika’s head, over her tangled, black hair, not that she noticed or cared, or that it would do any good. It just seemed like the right thing to do. In the process, I moved her head, she faced me, and in the moonlight, I glimpsed her still, silent face and her eye, her eyes, deep and mysterious, staring into mine. Eyes that had seen so much as to extinguish whatever youthful spark once flashed there, and that now looked at me with a sort of cold knowingness. She’d knew everything I’d done, and she knew I knew she knew everything I’d done, and she knew that I thought I knew everything she’d done, but she also knew I had no idea of anything she’d done.

That was the first time I realised that. I knew nothing of her.

“When will we be there?”

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

The sun began to rise over the town, as I looked out of the window and saw Leo running, running, running. I never found out what he was running from, only that he was running. I kissed Lika’s cheek, went downstairs, and ran out to meet him. Then he was lying on the bed next to me with a lizard crawling over him.

The sun began to rise over the desert, cutting, golden, through the deep blue and casting strange shadows on the sand.

Saying nothing, Kasim stopped the car, opened the door, picked up Lika, with surprising ease – she did not resist, she just let it all happen. I could have fought back, but I didn’t. Sometimes, there’s no point. Some things are just meant to happen. Some things you can’t fight, some things you shouldn’t fight.

And Kasim just kept on walking.