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”.

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.