Mort Island, 1828
‘You know, up until a few years back this was called Gull Island, the birds used to flock here in their hundreds, nesting see, perfect for nesting.’
‘Pretty cold though.’
‘Ah, tough things gulls.’
‘ Yeah, noisy too,’ Anton looked above at the gulls flying over the boat as it pushed on through the waves, spraying water up onto Anton’s glasses. Wiping them with a brown squared handkerchief, Anton continued, ‘so, how come the name changed?’
‘Ah, it was the Mort couple, such a tragic end.’
‘Yes, there are rumours he killed her.’
‘Harry Mort, they say he killed his wife and threw her in the deep, but who’s to know eh? He kept this lighthouse for years after she died. They couldn’t prove whether he had killed her see, and he pleaded innocence, so, they just left him to it. That’s how the name changed, just become known to be the Mort’s Lighthouse. He was there for years.’ The boatman took a long drag on his pipe, still lit despite the seawater spraying up over the side of the boat, smoke bellowing out of his mouth as he continued, ‘well, until he went missing a few years back of course.’
‘Oh god, so somebody died here?’
‘Well, that’s how the story goes.’
‘Oh, right, uh, well, has anybody kept it since he went missing?’
‘There were a few, never staying long, always complaining about the place and coming back on the first boat they could. Nobody for a while now, and it’s in dire need of repair that lighthouse. The owner wants it back working as soon as possible.’ The navigator gestured towards the island with his hand, letting out a small chuckle and coughing his words through his blackened pipe. ‘You two are the only two that turned up for the job.
‘The only two?’
‘It’s all the stories see, lights flashing, strange noises, they reckon it’s Lady Mort, haunting the place because her husband killed her, who’s to know eh? ’
Anton’s eyes widened as he turned to Ernst, a mocking smile pasted across his face, peeking through his curly brown beard.
‘Hear that Ernst, it’s haunted. ’
‘What? Sorry, um, haunted you say?’ Ernst sprayed his whiskey infused saliva at Anton’s face as he mumbled his words, the smell of Mellwood bourbon lingering on his breath. Ernst held out the half-empty bottle towards Anton, ‘go on. Have some of this, this’ll get rid of your hauntings.’
‘Uh, no thanks, you crack on with that.’
As they neared the shore, the boat slowed as it drifted towards the small beach, the boatman looking ahead as he guided the boat onto the sand. ‘I’ll be back in a few days with supplies for you and to see how you’re getting on, it’s only me that’ll come here from the docks, and I’m at sea next week, so it’ll be sooner than usual.’
After helping the men off the boat, the boatman offered his last words of ‘good luck,’ and pushed off from the beach, the water parting as the boat thrust through, the waves crashing back towards the shore. Anton and Ernst started up the beach, the boatman lifting his pipe in a goodbye as he continued back to the mainland. The shell-filled sand crunched beneath the men’s boots as they made their way up to the lighthouse, duffel bags on their backs and each with a crate of food in their arms.
Anton stopped as the lighthouse came into view from behind the rocks, staring up at the stone bricks and little windows dotted around it like protruding buttons. His eyes followed the windows up to the top of the lighthouse, the glass of the lantern room dirty and the balcony railings around it rusty. This place could do with rebuilding, not renovating.
Reaching the door, Anton placed his crate on the rocks, searching in his coat pocket for the key he had been given, as Ernst struggled over the rocks behind him. How much has he drunk already? Anton’s nails scratched at the long rusty metal of the key, cold and jagged between his fingers. How old is this place? No wonder nobody will come here. The key turned in the door like a knife, catching on something as it twisted, the door creaking open on its one remaining hinge into the living area, the smell of damp thick in the air.
‘Oh, well, I can see why we’re here Ernst.’
‘Hmm,’ Ernst stumbled through, dropping his bag and plonking himself onto one of the wooden chairs around the lopsided table in the middle of the room, the front door slamming shut behind them and showering splinters of wood into the air. Ernst jumped at the bang, ‘well, apart from that, it’s not too bad.’ Anton, his face scowled, scratched as his chin as he looked at Ernst leaning back in the chair. What a drunkard, what the hell is he going to do around here?
‘Come on, let’s have a look around.’ Anton was already making his way up the spiralling stairs as he asked Ernst to join him.
‘Oh, yes, of course.’
Each step creaked under their feet as they climbed, the old wood seeming as if it would break with any more weight. Reaching a small landing with a door, they entered, ducking as they went through the doorframe into the dimly-lit bedroom. ‘There we are, you can sleep in here Ernst.’ The dust from the neglected room swept up at the men as they moved around in the room, Ernst twisting his face up at the thought of sleeping in there. A double bed, stripped bare, with what looked like brass posts and a thin, flimsy mattress, lay still in the middle of the room, as if it was sleeping itself. Anton rubbed a small patch of the window, the thick layer of dust clogging up on his sleeve. He looked out at the rocks opposite the lighthouse, the waves turning to white foam as they crashed at them.
‘Look at this brother,’ Anton turned his head to Ernst, standing at the dresser holding a small oval picture frame with little pearls around the rim. Ernst blew the picture, thick dust strewing off and covering the floor, ‘these must be the Morts.’
‘Let’s have a look.’ Anton stepped over a pile of dirty rags on the floor and focused on the photo with Ernst, ‘yes, they fit the bill, wedding day too.’ Ernst passed the frame to Anton and began opening the drawers of the dresser. Anton’s fingers felt along the cold pearls of the frame as he turned it over to look at the back, finding an inscription in tiny scrawled writing, difficult to make out with the faded ink.
MY LOVE HAS GONE – HM
Anton gasped for breath, struggling to find it in the musty room, the thought of the dead Morts spooking him as he stood there in their bedroom. In an attempt to disguise his fright, he jabbed Ernst in his sides with his fingers, ‘lucky you, you can have the honeymoon suite.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Ernst’s pungent breath blew at Anton’s face as he pointed behind the door.
‘Oh god.’ A wooden cradle with dark wood slats on the sides and a rounded bottom sat there, hushed and still behind the door. A large cobweb connected from the end of the cradle to the wall. A baby? The men looked over into the cradle, the bare base of the wood staring back at them, covered in the same thick layer of dust that everything else was. ‘I didn’t realise they had a baby. Did the boatman say anything about that?’
‘Don’t think so, it was probably just here ready for when they did. I mean, hadn’t they just got married?’
‘Hmm, yeah,’ Anton looked around the room, moving his gaze from the wedding picture and the cradle, ‘you sure you don’t want this room?’
‘Let’s just see what the other one is like first.’
On the next landing up was another door, open, and with scuffs of the pale paint it had been coated in scratched off the bottom of it and scattered on the floor. Inside, a single bed, its iron cast frame rusted, and a small dresser underneath the window. Anton laughed as he turned to Ernst, ‘well, take your pick, they’re both as bad as each other.’
‘Crack on with the double, I’ll take this one,’ Ernst fell back onto the bed, the frame grating against the wall as his body forced it against it, dust from the mattress exploding into the air.
‘Look, I don’t mind this room, you can–’
‘No, no, you have it brother, honest.’
‘Okay, thanks,’ Anton felt his skin tighten, the stories the boatman had told him flashed through his head. Their bedroom, eugh, and that cradle, it’s just too spooky.
As the unstoppable black night drew in, and with Ernst passed out on the chair he had adopted upon arrival, Anton patted the fire out and made his way to his bedroom. Shuffling around the room, Anton brushed off thick cobwebs from three pillar candles on the dresser and struck a match in a satisfying swipe, the crackle of the match amplified in the small room and the smell of the burning wood warming him almost instantly. Anton laid his blanket out on the bed, barely reaching the four corners of the mattress. He grabbed a book from his bag and lay there, his eyes squinting as he tried to read, the warm breath rising up from his mouth and fogging the glass on his wire framed spectacles. The whistling draft swirled its way up the winding staircase and under his bedroom door, making reading even more difficult by extinguishing the candles with its swoosh. Creepy. Reaching over to get the matches from the dresser, Anton knocked the wedding picture of the Morts onto the floor, the glass smashing as the frame hit the wooden slats, sending some of the pearls rolling across the floor. Shit. Anton threw the matches back on the dresser and settled into bed, leaving the broken frame beside the bed in a pile. That can wait, time to sleep. Arms crossed, and the bed sheet pulled up over his lower body, Anton lay in bed, the sound of the harsh waves lulling him to sleep. As he lay there, listening, he heard a large bang on the stairs and then quiet footsteps going up, the door above him opening. What a drunk. He shouted a goodnight to Ernst as he heard the bedroom door close, and drifted off to sleep.
Anton woke the next morning to the rain lashing against the round window of his room, as if the weather was knocking to wake him up. What a fine day. He heaved himself out of bed, picking up the frame he had broken and brushing the broken glass to the side of the room, knocking the cradle with his foot as he did. Sitting on the edge of his bed to put his boots on, Anton noticed the cradle gently rocking in the corner, creaking against the floor as it swayed from left to right, breaking its connection with the wall by pulling the cobweb. This place is just too much.
‘Ernst?’ A reply of grumbles greeted Anton as he entered the living room, Ernst still half-asleep on the chair Anton left him on the night before. ‘Didn’t you, uh, go to bed last night?’
‘Who needs bed when you’ve got a perfectly good chair, eh?’
‘No I mean, I heard you going to bed, I thought I heard you drop something. I shouted goodnight up to you after I heard you passing my room.’
‘I can safely say I have been here all night, close to my whiskey see, don’t want it getting lonely.’
‘No, you’re not listening, I heard you climbing the stairs, and your door closing,’ Anton looked at Ernst, raising his hands behind his head in disbelief and tugging at the thick curls on the back of his head, ‘so, it definitely wasn’t you?’
‘Nope. I’ve been right here.’
Anton felt his throat tighten into a choke, his mouth growing dry as he thought of what he had heard the night before. Must’ve been a dream, must have, what else? Anton paced around the living area, tapping his lip and chin with his index finger in a rhythmic fashion, his mind ticking over. This place, I don’t know, there’s something about it. Using his thumb he felt the hard yellowed calluses on the tips of his fingers and picked at the fraying skin around his cuticles. Those stories can’t be true.
After a quick breakfast the men made their way to the store house just opposite the lighthouse, beginning to scout out what needed repairing. ‘Look at this,’ Ernst held up a long, wooden fishing rod, pretending to cast it over at Anton as he tapped the frame of the window, the rainwater running along the glass on the outside.
‘Put that down, come on, we’ve got to get this place sorted out.’ Anton sifted through the store house, piling up jagged pieces of wood and broken tools in the corner of the room. ‘Looks like Harry Mort was a bit of a hoarder,’ Ernst grunted in agreement, still fiddling with the fishing rod on the wall. ‘Let’s go back and start work in there, tidying up out here can wait.’
Anton pushed at the wooden door to the lighthouse, the top half bending in slightly, ‘did you lock this behind us Ernst?’
‘No, I left it open to get the smell of damp out.’
Anton tried the door again, pressing his shoulder against it for force, ‘it won’t budge.’
‘Let me have a try brother,’ Ernst took a small run at the door, snapping the bottom hinge off and sending the door flat to the ground.
‘Well, I could’ve done that.’
‘We’re in aren’t we?’
‘Yes, but look,’ Anton lowered to the floor to look at the lock, ‘the key’s in here, it’s been locked from inside Ernst.’
‘Nonsense, you must have left it in the door last night didn’t you?’
‘No, no, I remember putting it on that hook there.’ The men looked at each other with blank expressions, Anton’s face growing pale and Ernst swigging from the bottle of Mellwood in fear, his hand clawed around it. What the hell is going on here?
Anton stretched, in straightening his back and twisting his neck left to right he spotted the bookcase in the corner, moved to the side, the wall behind it a lighter shade of grey, and a square hole of bricks knocked out. ‘Ernst, look at that.’ Ernst turned on his heel, bottle in hand, gulping another mouthful of whiskey as he looked at the hole in the wall.
‘That wasn’t there before, was it brother?’
Anton crept towards the bookcase, peering around it and looking into the hole, the smell of mould pouring out from inside the wall. What the hell is this? Anton called Ernst’s attention with his hand, pointing his fingers and clicking at an oil lamp on the mantelpiece.
‘We’re not going in there are we?’
‘Come on, we’ve got to see what it is,’ Anton’s voice was low, his feigned bravery hiding his worried face, his lips trembling as he spoke.
Anton took the lamp and held it out to light the crevice, the grimy walls shining back with their glossy green texture. Stretching his right leg over the small wall and onto the ground the other side Anton made his way into the hole, and his other leg following. As he stooped in the narrow passage, he could see a stone staircase leading downwards, wet with damp, making him shiver. The cold pierced through to his bones, his muscles tensing around them, unsure of what may be down the staircase. Ernst followed as Anton made his way down, each step they took rigid with nerves as their shadowy figures moved through the darkness. Anton felt along the wall with his hand for balance, feeling the ridges and cracks in the stonework, his other hand tightly gripping the handle of the lamp. ‘I don’t think I want to be going down here,’ Ernst spoke in a whisper as he followed Anton down the uneven steps.
The men continued down the staircase, Anton growing more nervous with each careful step they took. What’s the worst that could be down here? A dripping sound persisted, growing faster as they neared the bottom, the light from the lamp making the small puddles on the steps glow orange, like tiny eyes looking back at them from the water. Oh god. The men came to a corridor, its floor a few inches flooded with dirty water. Can’t turn back now.
Their breathing grew deep and shaky as they headed through the corridor, the water engulfing their boots. What the hell are we doing? At the end of the corridor was a door, confronting the men with its large metal strips across it, shoddily nailed on. The door was ajar; Anton pushed it forward into the room, his fear keeping him alert and the pumping adrenaline raging through his body ploughing him onwards. With the scrape of the door opening, the men entered, the lamp lighting up the room as they walked in. Anton’s stomach churned at the sight of a skeleton propped up on a chair, its black teeth smiling back at them. This is enough. Anton turned to find Ernst already making his way along the corridor. The men bound up the stairs, splashing water up their trousers, their coats snagging along the mossy walls as they ran.
‘What the hell was that?’ Ernst shouted at Anton as they climbed back into the living area, the smell of smoke from the fire a reminder of the night before. Anton shook his head in reply, his index finger and thumb placed between his knitted brows.
‘I don’t know, but I think we need to leave.’
‘But how, there’s no boats.’
‘We can’t stay here, something’s going on, it’s got to be.’
As the men hurried around the room collecting their belongings, footsteps echoed down the staircase, followed by a voice, breaking as it spoke, ‘don’t go, wait.’ Anton and Ernst froze, looking over to the staircase at a man, hunched over and clinging to the handrail, his grey hair pointed towards them as he looked down at the floor, limping down the stairs. ‘It’s gone on too long, I’m ready now.’ Anton’s mouth opened, unable to speak at the sight of the man and the crack of his croaking voice. As the man took the last step off the stairs he looked up at the men, the left side of his face scarred and pink, and his eyes colourless except for thin red veins in the corners. Anton swallowed, his throat still dry but able to utter a few words. It can’t be.
‘Harry? Harry Mort?’
‘Ha!’ The man laughed with his throat, wheezing through his rotten teeth as he spoke, ‘I haven’t heard my name in a while. They stopped sending people you see,’ his chest wheezed again as he spoke, ‘you two are the first in years.’
‘They think you’re missing.’
‘They think I’m dead!’ Harry struggled over to one of the chairs and sat down, ‘they tried evicting me, tried to get me out of my home. My family’s home.’
‘Evicting you? Who?’ Anton spoke to the man, Ernst still in shock by the door, polishing off the last drops of his whiskey.
‘The owners, they bought this place years back, bought it from the town hall and tried to kick me out of here.’
‘And you didn’t want to leave?’
‘Would you leave your family behind? Your family’s home?’
‘Uh, no, I just meant–’
‘I know what you meant, and I’ve tried to go, honestly I have, look,’ Harry pointed up his face, the skin torn and ruptured on one side, ‘I have tried, I have tried, I’m always trying. I just wanted to be with my family.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My wife, my child, I lost them so long ago, I kept this place going, I just, I just kept it going for them. It was the only reminder.’ Harry sniffed, his heavy head dropped down towards the floor, his dry chin landing on his chest, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, I under–’
‘Do you? Do you really? Nobody does.’ Harry shook his head in an angry twitch as he spoke, ‘I stayed to keep people like you away, to keep people like you from destroying our home.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been creeping around, locking you out, same old tricks. People think this place is haunted.’
As he spoke, he reached inside his pocket, pulling out a stained envelope and bringing it close to his body in a groan. Anton and Ernst watched as his head went limp and dropped forward, his grip loosening, causing the envelope to drift down towards the floor. Both Anton and Ernst rushed over and lifted his head up, cold and heavy in their hands. Anton felt around on Harry’s neck trying to find a pulse as Ernst moved away from the body.
‘I think he’s gone brother.’
Anton grunted in agreement and paced around the table, ‘what just happened Ernst, what the hell was all that?’
‘I don’t know, it’s got me spooked though.’
‘Look, the envelope.’
Anton bent down and picked it up, the envelope was creased and worn, its edges bent from being kept inside Harry’s pocket. ‘Do you think we should, you know?’
‘I think he was trying to show us brother.’
‘Yeah, let’s have a look.’ The flap on the envelope lifted with ease and Anton slid a small note out from inside, ‘oh.’
My dear Harry,
I cannot go on any longer.
I am afraid, and I have failed you as a wife and failed our child as a mother. I must go now and be with our child.
Please forgive me Harry.
My eternal love,
‘Christ Ernst, it’s from his wife.’
‘So, he didn’t kill her then, she killed herself.’
‘Looks like,’ Anton folded the note back up into the envelope and placed it in his pocket, ‘come on, we’ll cover his body with one of the sheets, we’ll get the boatman to take him back when he delivers our supplies.’
Two days later, the boatman arrived with supplies, stepping off onto the beach to greet the men. ‘Hello gentlemen, I trust you’re doing well, look I’ve brought some–’ Anton interrupted the boatman as he began to speak.
‘We found Harry Mort.’
‘Well, actually, he found us, he’s been here all along.’
‘He’s alive?’ The boatman held his pipe to the side of his mouth, ‘I never, that man, I tell you.’
‘No, he’s dead.’ The boatman looked at the men blankly as Anton continued, ‘I think you should take him back to the mainland, get him buried and all that.’
‘Well, yes, quite right. Where’s his body?’
‘Up at the lighthouse, come on, we’ll help you get him on the boat.’ The three men headed back to the lighthouse, the boatman smoking his pipe profusely as they walked, gasping for breath as they clambered over the rocks.
Anton and Ernst looked at each other wide-eyed as they entered the living area, the chair empty, just the sheet draped over it. Anton uttered to Ernst, ‘he was there, right there.’
‘Yeah, on that chair, what the…’
‘Come on now gentlemen, no time for practical jokes, I’ve got a dock to get back to.’
‘No, look, we have his note,’ Anton searched through his pockets, nothing. ‘Ernst, did I give you the note?’
‘No, brother, you put it in your pocket.’
‘It’s gone.’ Anton stood in the living area staring back at Ernst, his mind heart pounding inside his chest as he thought about the events. ‘We better get on that boat.’
– Daniel Williams