Short Fiction ~ James W. Wood
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
People say there are no more manned lighthouses – and that’s nearly true. But Peter Finlayson was keeper of the last. A third of the way between Shetland and the Faroes, Sulland Voss lighthouse was out of range of wifi, electrical currents and civilisation itself.
It was everything you’d expect: tall, white and built in the nineteenth century. Last upgraded fifty years ago, one day some official would decide this lighthouse was too expensive or too pointless to maintain. But Peter had signed up for three years as the keeper. At the time, it had felt right: unwilling to continue his work as a maritime engineer, Finlayson wanted to spend more time with his family and write about his travels to Shanghai and Panama, Gabon and Amsterdam.
But thirty years of seafaring had left scars on his hands and no experience of any other kind of life; his plans to write shrivelled away, and solitude in a lighthouse seemed like the answer.
The blue and grey, the grey and blue: the horizon not a line, more a grey/blue blur that grew lighter in daytime and darker at night. The supply ship once a month. The intermittent connection to e-mail, video-links and internet via satellite. The sound of gulls, the waves whispering and crashing constantly, so loud he found it hard to sleep for weeks at a time.
At first, there was optimism and productivity. He spoke to his wife and children daily. His salary, of which he had no need, was deposited in his bank account by the Government for his family’s use. He maintained a disciplined schedule, rising at four to check the mechanism that turned the giant reflective light at the top of the tower: the oil, diesel and electrics. Then his report to the mainland: nothing to report. Sometimes he might spy a ship passing in the night, identifiable only by a far-off light winking through the waves. Otherwise, nothing but birds and waves and wind in cacophony. If people thought this place was quiet, they should try it some time. It was like a radio, TV and sound system all at once: waves, birds, wind.
He wrote every morning for an hour. Stories of bar-fights in Sierra Leone, of spilled blood and bones broken, stolen love in Singapore doorways, contraband and drugs smuggled into Rotterdam. He had drunk deep of life – and now he sat alone among this raging sea, writing stories for an audience that didn’t and might never exist.
Six months in, his first visit home. No replacement when he went on leave: an admission his job was unnecessary. His wife’s initial welcome fading to that last night when she turned away from him, the mattress between them a chasm love could not cross. And the kids, smiles and hugs dwindling to indifference. After a few days of curiosity, they reverted to asking their mother permissions and questions as if he wasn’t there. And in many ways, he wasn’t.
After his leave, the launch dropped him off back at the lighthouse with supplies when there was calm on the waters. Each morning, the mechanical checks; then the empty page. Thoughts of making love with his wife; the slow creep of desperation. Consulting the i-Ching online, reading horoscope sites he’d previously ignored as nonsense. Looking up tarot cards, necromancy – anything to give him some hope that this emptiness might end.
Then one day, a smashed mirror. It happened after he’d been shaving. He straightened up after washing the shaving foam from his face to find his tired features, more grey than black in his beard, eyes sunken like some ghost vessel in a fable. Before the next thought occurred, he saw his face shattered into a thousand splinters and blood on his fist, the crimson pulsing from the white where knuckle met skin, where he’d bashed his fist on the glass in frustration.
He picked the shards from his hands and dressed the wound. Then he opened his desk drawer, took out a bottle of whisky, sat down in the mess-room and drank the whole thing that morning.
The blue and grey, the grey and blue: his prayers became litanies, recited five times a day between professional obligations, writing and, at last, drink. Prayers to be delivered from this place. To be reunited with the wife he now believed was betraying him with a fantasy cast of men who came and went in his mind; reunited with the children he could hardly picture after two months’ absence. And that last night with his wife played over and over again in his head, the gap in bed like miles over dark water, her silent face still seen in the lighthouse windowpane at night.
When at first he spoke to God, he heard only silence. Then, over time, God’s voice told him he would be released from here. God said his wife waited faithfully and his children spoke of him often. And in time God told him to paint strange ikons on the walls, hymns to the movement of the sea, paeans to the sealife flourishing beneath the waves outside his window.
As the days blurred into one, God’s voice grew darker – and he listened. Not to do so might have meant being caught on this rock forever.
OFFICIAL REPORT No. 230924/Sulland. In the absence of any communication from Lighthouse Sulland Voss these last few weeks, a Naval vessel was sent to investigate. On forcing open the door, our entry team found Finlayson at the foot of an unintelligible mural he had painted throughout the living quarters. Whales and fish featured, together with images of the sun and moon, waves and clouds and lightning. The mural included a huge image in which devils and saints murdered and copulated inside the deceased’s head. Finlayson’s corpse was bagged and tagged and placed on the vessel for return. Next of kin have been informed.
James W. Wood's work has appeared widely in anthologies, magazines and newspapers in the US, UK and Canada. The author of six books of poems and a novel all published in the UK, 2024 will see his first collections of short stories published in America and Britain. Most recently, work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Sinister Anthology (Ink and Quill, USA), Porridge (UK) and Black Cat Mystery Magazine (US) . Shortlisted and nominated for many awards, he won the 2022 House Journal fiction prize in the US, and is the recipient of awards from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council.