Following the coming of the founding families to Hopeless, one of the earliest structures to be erected was the lighthouse. To begin with this was a simple affair, no more than a fiery beacon on a pole to warn any passing ships of the treacherous rocks that lurk beneath the tide-line. As a navigational aid, however, it was by no means infallible and did nothing to prevent the disaster which deposited Mr Hamish Stevenson on the shores of the island.
There was a certain irony in Stevenson being shipwrecked. You see, Hamish was a nephew of Robert Stevenson, the brilliant engineer responsible for many of the lighthouses that still stand sentinel around the rocky shores of Britain. Young Stevenson, who had worked closely with his Uncle Robert, had been entrusted with the task of accompanying the transportation of a Fresnel lens, complete with the mercury bath that it would float upon, to the soon-to-be-renovated Portland Head Light.
The small matter of a shipwreck did little to bruise Hamish’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his work. Encouraged by the fact that both the lens and the mercury bath had miraculously been undamaged by the disaster, he immediately decided that Hopeless, Maine needed a proper lighthouse and he, a Stevenson born and bred, was the man for the job. And so – with no small amount of help – Hamish built a lighthouse. Maybe his was not as elegant or stylish as those of the elder Stevenson but Hamish was proud to call the Hopeless lighthouse his own. The job was done and done well. Bob’s your uncle, you might say (or, at least, he was Hamish’s uncle).
By a happy coincidence, the recent completion of the nearby Gnii distillery meant that there would be an ample supply of fuel to keep the light burning. All that was required now was to find a willing volunteer to be its keeper.
There was no shortage of applicants. Eventually the role of Hopeless’ first lighthouse keeper was given to Egbert Tinkley, a man who had spent twenty years before the mast, prior to his being shipwrecked with Hamish. Egbert was a wiry man with twinkling blue eyes and an impressive salt-and-pepper beard. In his seaman’s cap, roll-neck sweater (that perfectly matched his beard) and turned down sea-boots he looked every-inch a lighthouse keeper and embraced his role with vim and vigour, endlessly polishing the brass and cleaning the lens as it perched and rotated gently and quietly on its mercury bath.
When not involved with maintaining his beloved light, Egbert would occasionally venture into Hopeless town to obtain whatever provisions might be available. He would invariably stop and chat to anyone who would listen but as the weeks passed into months people began to notice some less-than-subtle changes in him. His blue eyes no longer twinkled but instead, stared, unblinking and glassy. His conversations became fewer, at least with other people, although he could be frequently heard having, sometimes, violent arguments with himself. He would wander the streets with squids tucked into the tops of his boots and his cap on backwards. Some of the islanders began to get somewhat concerned about Egbert, but put it to the back of their collective minds and attributed his behaviour to no more than colourful eccentricity. After all, the light never failed to be lit exactly one hour before sunset each evening and that was all that mattered.
It was only when Arabella O’Stoat called by the lighthouse with some squid tarts did anyone realise the extent of Egberts eccentricity. The lower floors of the building were a mess, the walls daubed with paint and papers and sea-charts strewn all around. There were heaps of pebbles and seaweed covering the floors, while a combination of dead gulls, driftwood and useless flotsam covered every flat surface. Only the lantern remained pristine and it was here that she found Egbert. He was humming to himself and delicately cleaning the lens with a mixture of vinegar and water (an excellent solution for achieving smear-free glass).
“Are you alright, Egbert?” asked Arabella warily.
“I can fly, you know,” the keeper replied, for no apparent reason. “Just like a seagull, when the mood takes me.”
“Of course you can,” said Arabella soothingly. “Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and have a nice cup of tea?”
“It’s not called the kitchen, it’s the galley,” yelled Egbert, suddenly angry. “I can fly there. Watch me.”
With that he scrambled outside, on to the gallery that ran around the lantern.
“Watch me,” he cried, standing on the top rail.
Arabella could only look on, horrified, as he launched himself into the air.
Over the following months and years a succession of lighthouse keepers went quietly mad attending to their duties, though it must be said, none as fatally as Egbert. It was generally felt that the building was cursed; surely, even on Hopeless, it was too much of a coincidence that every shred of reason chose to leave the keepers who tended the light.
After a while the brass became dull through neglect, the clockwork mechanism that rotated the light lay still and the lamp was lit no more. No one wanted to ascend the steps to the lantern and the lighthouse became derelict.
The madness suffered by the Egbert Tinkley and his successors is no great mystery, though on Hopeless the lighthouse curse is still spoken of in hushed tones. It is often suspected that lighthouse keepers are all a little mad. It is not just the loneliness of the work, as many believe, but the proximity of mercury. Like hatters, who used mercurous nitrate to cure felt, lighthouse keepers suffered prolonged exposure to mercury vapour – and like hatters, they often went mad.
The lighthouse still stands, though these days the lantern is long gone and its stonework bleached by the weather and ravaged by time. Ravens roost in its highest reaches, while spoonwalkers and puddle rats make uneasy neighbours on the lower levels. On a stormy night, when the wild wind howls off the ocean and screeches through the ruined walls, those unwise enough to be out at such a time have reported that it sounds like the manic shrieks of souls in torment. Of course, this is purely the product of an over-active imagination … isn’t it?
By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown