The harbour at Rodel is deserted as I drive down from the church and park in front of the hotel. There are a couple of other vehicles there, but not a soul in sight. I have no idea where Coinneach lives, and wander along the quay to the boat I saw him climb out of yesterday. It is a Sea Ray 250 Sundancer powerboat with a 454 Magnum Alpha One engine. I seem to know every little detail about it, although I am not sure how. It is a sleek beast, white with purple trim, and a plastic cowling that can be mounted to shelter the driver in bad weather. Though it would not, I know, last long in the winds it would encounter around these coasts. This is a fair-weather boat.
I am turning away when I hear my name called, and I swing back to see Coinneach emerging from below, climbing the couple of steps to the left of the driver’s seat, and straightening himself with palms pressed into his lower back. ‘On your own today?’ he says.
‘So what brings you back to Rodel when your boat’s up at Uig?’ And something about the way he says this makes me think that he didn’t believe a word of Sally’s story yesterday.
‘I was wondering if I could borrow yours.’
He laughs, and his amusement seems genuine enough. ‘I’m not in business for the good of your health, Neal. But I’ll rent you one. Where are you going?’
‘The Flannan Isles.’
He frowns and looks up at the sky. ‘Well . . . it’s fair enough now, alright, but the forecast’s for squalls moving up from the south-west. You’ll maybe not get landed.’
‘I’ll take my chances.’
‘You’ll not be taking any chances with my boat, man. If the swell’s too big, don’t even try it. You’d best take the inflatable with you.’
He gives me a strange look. ‘What the hell is it you find to do out there on these trips, anyway?’
I wonder if he has asked me this before, and what I might have said if he has. All I say is, ‘I like the solitude.’
‘And what about your book?’
So I have told him that lie, too. ‘What about it?’
‘Well, you must have gathered enough material for it by now, surely?’
‘It’s almost finished, Coinneach. I just need a few more photographs.’
He cocks an eyebrow. ‘Not the best day for it today.’ Then shrugs. ‘But that’s your business, not mine. Come up to the hotel and we’ll get the paperwork sorted, and you can be on your way before the bad stuff comes in.’
I see the islands, and the lighthouse, from some way off, and glancing back I can see the dark silhouette of the Outer Hebrides stretched out along the eastern horizon. The sea has been kind to me thus far, with a medium swell and light winds. I have studied Coinneach’s charts, and although I have no recollection of having ever set eyes on them, they seem comfortingly familiar.
There is a sense, in all this water around me, of homecoming. I am fully at ease with it. And it instils in me a sense of confidence.
Approaching from the south-west, I throttle back and cruise slowly between Gealtaire Beag and the larger Eilean Tighe. Once round the headland, I bear west and see the extraordinary twin arches that rise out of the sea between the two Làmh a’ Sgeires, Bheag and Mhor. Natural black rock stacks sculpted by nature and capped white with gannets, the air above them thick with wheeling seabirds, guillemots and shags, whose plaintive cries fill the air.
For the last mile or so, dolphins have followed me, breaking the surface of the water in playful arcs, circling the boat again and again. But they have gone now, and stretched out ahead is Eilean Mòr itself, lying deceptively low in the water. From a high point at its west side it dips towards a flat central area, before rising once more to a small summit in the east. The lighthouse sits on a central peak, which is the highest point on the island, rising it seems out of nowhere. But even as I approach it, the illusion of the island lying low is dispelled. Cliffs lift sheer out of the swell, rock laid in layers, one upon the other, and shot through with seams of pink gneiss.
Since the swell is coming from the south-west, I head for the more sheltered eastern landing, anchoring as close to shore as I dare. I lower the inflatable I have strapped to the stern of the boat, clamber carefully into it and pull the starter cord to kick the outboard into life.
I ride the swell into the jetty and see immediately that it has not been maintained in years, eroded and broken by time and the constant assault of the ocean. Concrete steps, encrusted with shells, vanish into dark green water, white breaking all around them on the rising tide. I nudge the inflatable slowly towards them, before turning side-on and cutting the motor, then leaping, rope in hand, on to the lower steps, hoping that my feet will find a grip. With difficulty I drag the tender the ten feet up to the broken concrete pier and secure it to a rusted iron ring set into the rock.
A hundred and fifty feet or more above me is the platform where the crane once stood, lifting loads from countless supply boats through wind and spray, to swing them on to an upper platform where a cable-drawn tram would haul them the rest of the way to the lighthouse itself.
The steps on which I have landed climb steeply up the side of the cliff before doubling back, still rising, to the concrete landing block where the crane would deposit the incoming supplies. On the sea side are the rusted stumps of what must once have been safety rails, long since torn away by the destructive power and fury of the Atlantic. It is a hell of a climb, puffins huddled in cracks and crevices, gannets and guillemots circling close to my head as if warning me to stay away, and as I near the top I feel the wind stiffening. Looking back across the water I have just covered, foaming in rings around the six other pinnacles of land that make up the Seven Hunters, I see the ocean rising and realise that I cannot stay too long.
I turn to find myself watched by a group of seabirds perched on a rock, huddled in hooded wariness. Large birds. Three of them, like the ghosts of the lost lighthouse men imagined in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem.
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
Spooked, I crouch to pick up a rock and hurl it at them. With huge wings outspread, flapping in slow motion against the wind, they rise, startled, into the air, wheeling away beyond the cliff and out of sight. I cannot explain why, but their presence creates in my mind a sense of foreboding, and I turn quickly to make the final ascent to the lighthouse.
The tram tracks are still visible in the concrete path, but the rails are long gone, and weeds and grass poke through the cracks. The climb leaves me breathless. Off to my right I see the helipad that was marked on the Historical Monuments map, and the chapel, such as it is. In fact little more than a crude stone bothy. A scaffolding erected along the south side of the complex supports thirty-six solar panels, answering the question I had in my mind of how the lighthouse was powered, if unmanned. The buildings are a freshly painted white, with doors and windows trimmed in ochre. The light room at the top of the tower is an impressive structure of steel, with glass prisms and a conical black roof. The whole is surrounded by a tall stone wall, cemented and topped with concrete copings.
The path leads through gateposts where some kind of gates must once have hung but are long gone. A weathered, cream-painted grille is closed over a green door. Both are locked. To either side of the path, within the walls, the ground is covered with thin, peaty soil and rubble. I have no idea what memory prompts me, but without hesitation I stoop to lift a large flat stone set in the peat, revealing two keys on a ring inside a clear plastic bag. I stare at them for several long seconds, wondering how I knew they were there, or even if it was me who had placed them beneath the stone. Carefully, I remove the keys and drop the stone back in place, then compare the keys in my hand with the locks on the grille and door. I get it right first time, unlocking both, and with an odd sense of excitement push the door open into darkness.
I am following now in the footsteps of Joseph Moore, who was the first man off the Hesperus to find the lighthouse empty and the keepers gone. I must have done it before, perhaps many times, but this time feels like the first, and I am burdened, somehow, by a sense of history.
I turn on the light switch on the wall to my right. The door to the kitchen lies open, just as it did when Moore came in. What were once bedrooms are mostly empty now, daylight flooding in through unshuttered windows. At the end of the hall, there is still a table and chairs in the room where a succession of keepers must once have shared their time, and where Gibson had conjured the image of an unfinished meal and an overturned seat. It is not limewash and tar that I smell in here, just cold and damp, and something faintly unpleasant, like the distant reek of death.
Back in the hall, I see the row of coat hooks where oilskins and waterproofs must once have hung, including those of the unfortunate Donald McArthur who, for some inexplicable reason, had left the shelter of the lighthouse without them. And I can recall, almost word for word, the superintendent’s account of conditions inside the lighthouse when the relief crew arrived, nearly eleven days after the light had been reported out by the captain of the Archtor on 15 December 1900.
The lamp was crimmed, the oil fountains and canteens were filled up and the lens and machinery cleaned, which proved that the work of the 15th had been completed. The pots and pans had been cleaned and the kitchen tidied up, which showed that the man who had been acting as cook had completed his work, which goes to prove that the men disappeared on the afternoon that Captain Holman had passed the Flannan Islands in the steamer ARCHTOR at midnight on the 15th, and could not observe the light.
There were echoes of the Marie Celeste about it all. What, really, had happened to those men? Could they truly have been carried off by some freak wave during a storm? A wave that must have crashed nearly 150 feet high against the cliffs, reaching almost to where the crane emplacement itself was set into the rock.
I climb the stairs that spiral up the inside of the tower, leading to a circular wood-panelled room. Above my head is the grille into which the lamp is set, providing a floor for maintenance and cleaning. I negotiate the last few rungs of an iron ladder that takes me up to the light room itself. And what an extraordinary space it is. Glass prisms acting as lenses, providing an unrestricted view of the Flannan Isles and the ocean beyond, through 360 degrees. The glass is misted, caked by salt carried on the wind and sparkling like frost. I hear the roar of the elements outside, and see white tops breaking all the way to the horizon. I can see, through the grille beneath my feet, down into the room below. The lamp itself is twice my height, spherical, comprising glass fins on its exterior to
reflect the light, and set to revolve on a complex electrical mechanism set into the floor. To stand here, in the dark, with the lamp turning, would be blinding.
I stay there for some time gazing out at the world, feeling unsettled, insecure. Why had I come out here all those times? Where did I get the keys? And I realise that not only do I have no memories that pre-date the day before yesterday, I still have no idea what kind of man I was. Sally had said she loved me, but she also said that I had changed. Had I really? I had hidden so much from her, that the me she thought she knew had not been the real me at all, just a figment of my own invention. A liar. A deceiver.
The Big Coffin Road Blog Read continues on Crime Thriller Girl on Wednesday 20th January with Part Seven: The Body
Coffin Road by Peter May is out now in hardback (Quercus). You can buy your copy here
If you’ve been following this wonderful blog tour and like what you’ve read so far and really would like a copy of Coffin Road – I have a Giveaway! To win the book given by Quercus, all you have to do is leave me a comment below and some way of contacting you, for those who don’t have a blog, so that I can track you down! The winner will be drawn using a random number generator on Sunday 24 January 2016 at 5 pm GMT.
Want to know more about Coffin Road? You can read my review here