14.32 p.m. Sunday 16th December 2001.
JACK Tennant, along with two other travellers from Oban encumbered with bird-watching gear, scrambled through the rising tide until his boots met the sunken remains of Eilean Mor’s concrete walkway.
His salted eyes scanned the rock face awaiting him, and he cursed that those granite steps leading upwards still hadn’t been restored. Given that this home to the Flannan Island Light was still a major curiosity, he’d make that omission priority on his Gaelic Heritage agenda.
Snow in the wind as he watched the black inflatable that had deposited the three of them on this lonely spot, speed back to the Western Rose. Time to psych himself up for the climb ahead, he told himself, aware of hesitation behind him.
“’Ha’ ye seen the mist comin’ down?” Panted the bigger man called Hamish MacLeod. “And soon this snow will be settling. I’m nae goin.’”
“Ye’ll be as swift as a prayer reaching our Lord.” The other twitcher, Iain Massie, tapped Jack’s shoulder. “See how our expert here does it…”
Jack blinked. No-one had ever called him that before. Even his remit with Gaelic Heritage ensured he stayed a Jack of all trades, master of few. But what about those failed relationships littering his past? According to his latest ex, he’d been a myopic, selfish husband and mostly absent father to their one child, Bonnie. So, yes, an expert, but in neglect…
He glanced back at the two men still deliberating as to who’d follow him; their cagoule hoods drawn tight under their chins. Dammit, he’d only met them on the quayside at Oban just three hours ago. They weren’t his mates, or relatives. His destination was his own business, and for Gaelic Heritage’s bold plan here, he needed a clear head and space to think.
The mist crept closer. The snow thicker. Their dinghy would be back within the hour.
“Let‘s move,” he said, whereupon the fat guy elbowed his way past and began to climb, embracing the rock as if it was some long-lost lover.
“I’ll show ye,” he gasped, his ample butt inching away above Jack’s head. “An’ if I dinnae make it, put on me stone ‘He tried.’ OK?”
Silence, save for those shrieking gulls hovering over the Western Rose. “You next,” Jack gestured to Iain re-tying a boot lace. “But keep an eye on him.”
15.03 p.m. The exact time his daughter had entered the world. And today, always too near Christmas, was her fourth birthday. He’d planned to find something from Eilean Mor for her to wond she was older. To remind her of the man he tried to be.
The rising wind hit his back as he trailed the bird watchers, expecting at any moment to break Hamish’s early fall. But no. The climb progressed, accompanied by hymns not heard since he was a lad over in Erskine. Hamish the wheezy bass, Iain a passable baritone. And him? It just felt good to listen as the three of them entered the thickening mist that had devoured the sky. The singing stopped, replaced by two heavy breaths.
“Ye heard ‘boot the mystery?” Iain called back at him, giving Hamish’s huge rear a helpful shove with his head. “The three lighthouse keepers who vanished into thin air?”
“Twas no mystery,” rasped Hamish. “We all know they was gay. Fell out as tae who should bend over. Offer tae be the stank…”
Jack refrained from being drawn yet again into that eerie world of rumour that had fixated him for years. As a bairn, he’d often prayed for the lost souls of Mr. McArthur, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Ducat. Willing their safe return to wherever their homeland had been. Perhaps nearby Hirta on the St Kilda archipelago, deserted for over fifty years. Perhaps Lewis…
Just five years out of university, he’d never dreamt his first trip to the notorious lighthouse would be to gauge its potential as an artists’ and writers’ retreat. His ambitious plans safe in his pocket.
Both his companions followed each other up and over. Their voices fading in the vapour. It was then Jack noticed his watch. The time still 15.03 p.m. Odd that, he thought before re-adjusting his rucksack for the final effort to the top. Then he realised with a jolt, that separation from those two might mean missing the only trip back to Oban that day. And meanwhile, that snow was settling.
Once he reached the plateau at the top, he used his thumb nail to prise open the watch’s back and jiggle its two tiny batteries. No joy. He looked up. Hamish was pissing into the wind. His cider-coloured spray rebounding to speckle his shell-suited shins. Jack glimpsed his uncut cock, pale as veal. Turned away from this unexpected intimacy.
“What’s the time?” he asked. “My watch is kaput.”
Hamish zipped up, checked his wrist.
“So’s mine.” He tapped the glass face. Fiddled with the winder. “It’s me faither’s. Perfect from the day he died… How weird…”
Jack saw Iain slap his more macho model against his arm. His too, had stopped.
“C’mon, c’mon,” the man grumbled. “What‘s up wi’ ye?”
Meanwhile, mist and sea fret was thickening, choking their talk. Jack felt even lonelier than when he’d first split from Bonnie’s mother. His boots beginning to slip.
Then bells, he was sure of it. Faint at first, coming it seemed, from in front of him. Yet there’d never been a kirk on this particular island – let alone a community big enough to fill it. Too late to ask Iain and Hamish if they could hear them too, or if they might meet up somewhere. They’d gone, and now he found himself on springy grass whose puffin burrows trapped the toes of his boots, almost causing him to fall.
All at once, something gripped his left arm. A disembodied hand, gnarled and old.
“Hamish? Iain? You there?” He called out.
According to the Western Rose’s captain, the three of them were Eilean Mor’s only visitors that day. December wasn’t the best month to see the Seven Hunters – those rocky lumps making up the Flannan Islands. Even his Gaelic Heritage boss hadn’t called them that… Odd he’d forgotten the guy’s name…
Jack tried to free himself, but the grip tightened until sharp nails – or were they talons – reached his skin.
“Who the hell are you?”
Again, no answer.
Smells of sweat and damp met his nose. The vapours thinned to reveal an old man wearing a whitened, tartan beret pulled low over his forehead. His grizzled moustache and beard had overgrown his lips, while his black, sealskin waistcoat and coarse, woollen shirt and even coarser trousers, seemed oddly out of date. Barefoot too, with both big toes abnormally long and curled.