Published on 14 January 2016 by Quercus
I am excited to be posting an extract from Coffin Road and to be able to offer one of you, your very own copy. Hooray! Thanks to the generosity of Midas PR and Quercus.
Open to UK readers only, please comment on this post or follow me on Twitter and say hello (@northernlass73). You have until the 22nd January 2016.
My review is posted here: Coffin Road review
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT of COFFIN ROAD
The Big Coffin Road Blog Read
Part Five: Portrait of an Author
So I am writing a book.
I cross to the bookshelf and lift the booklet on the mystery of the Flannan Isles and sit down to flip it open. In it I read that the largest of the seven islands, Eilean Mòr, which is Gaelic for Big Island, rises 288 feet above sea level and was chosen at the end of the nineteenth century as the site for a lighthouse that would guide passing vessels safely around Cape Wrath and onward to the Pentland Firth. The island is less than 39 acres in size, and the lighthouse they built there is 74 feet high. Lit for the first time on 7 December 1899, it flashed twice in rapid succession every thirty seconds, and sent a 140,000candlepower beam 24 nautical miles out to sea.
It was almost exactly a year later, on 15 December 1900, that the captain of the steamer Archtor, headed for Leith on the east coast of Scotland, reported by wireless that the light was out. But whoever took that message at the headquarters of Cosmopolitan Line Steamers failed to report it to the Northern Lighthouse Board, and it wasn’t until the 26th of the month that relief keepers, delayed by bad weather, were finally landed on the island to discover that keepers James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur had vanished without trace.
As I read, I find myself being drawn into the mystery. Printed in full is a colourful poem written about the event twenty years after it, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. In it he imagines that the relief keepers, on landing, were watched by three huge birds that flew from the rock, startled by their arrival, to plunge into the sea. And when the men entered the lighthouse, the smell of limewash and tar that greeted them was as ‘familiar as our daily breath’, but reeked now of death. They found an untouched meal of meat and cheese and bread on the table, and an overturned chair on the floor. The men’s bunks had not been slept in, and there was no trace of them anywhere on the island.
This fanciful version of events is contradicted in the booklet I am reading by extracts from the actual account given by assistant keeper Joseph Moore, who was the first man to enter the lighthouse after the arrival of the relief vessel Hesperus. Making no mention of a meal on the table or an overturned chair, he wrote:
I went up, and on coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and store room, found it also closed and the door inside that, but the kitchen door itself was open. On entering the kitchen I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I then entered the rooms in succession, found the beds empty just as they left
them in the early morning. I did not take time to search further, for I only too well knew something serious had occurred. I darted out and made for the landing. When I reached there I informed Mr McCormack that the place was deserted. He with some of the men came up a second time, so as to make sure, but unfortunately the first impression was only too true. Mr McCormack and myself proceeded to the lightroom where everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows.
There are, it seems, two landing stages on the island. One on the east side and one on the west. Whilst everything was normal on the east side, at the west landing a box holding ropes and tackle had gone, the railings were buckled, a 20-hundredweight block of stone dislodged, and a lifebuoy ripped from its fastenings – all 110 feet above sea level. Below, ropes lay strewn over the rocks, and the only conclusion that investigators could come to was that a freak wave had broken over the cliffs and carried the men away.
The one inconsistency in this theory, according to my booklet, was the fact that regulations stated that one of the keepers should remain always within the lighthouse. And while the boots and oilskins of two of the keepers were gone, the waterproof coat worn by the third, Donald McArthur, still
hung from its peg in the hall. So if he had broken regulations and gone out at all, he had done so in his shirtsleeves. No one could explain why.
I close the booklet and run my hand over my face, aware for the first time of the bristles that cover my cheeks and chin. How long, I wonder, since I last shaved? But I am more focused on the mystery of the vanishing keepers, and wonder what I have written about them. Quite a lot, I imagine, since apparently I am close to finishing.
I shift seats to sit in front of my laptop and waken it from sleep, to be greeted, as before, by an almost empty screen. This time I search it more thoroughly. I open my browser to comb through its history. But there is none. It has been set to private browsing. Both the cookie and download folders are empty. A glance at the top of the screen tells me I am connected to the internet. And even as I look, I become aware of just how familiar I am with this laptop and its software. Computers are not some technology foreign to me. I know my way around. I check Recent Items, and find it, too, empty, apart from the mailer and browser that I have opened only in these last hours. And I realise that I must have been covering my tracks. Whatever use to which I was putting my computer, I did not want someone else knowing. All of which is very frustrating, when I am trying to learn what I clearly went to great lengths to prevent anyone else from finding out.
I breathe frustration through my teeth and am just about to shut down when I notice a folder sitting innocently between Downloads and Music. It is labelled, simply, Flannans. I double-click and it opens to reveal a long list of files. Chapter One, Chapter Two . . . all the way through to Chapter Twenty. Again I double-click, this time on Chapter One, which triggers the opening of my Pages word-processing software. The document opens. There are headers and footers and a chapter heading,
but not a single word of text. I look at it, startled by its emptiness, before opening Chapter Two. Exactly the same. With an increasing sense of disorientation, I open every single document, and find every one of them empty.
Now I sit back and gaze at my blank screen, feeling more and more bewildered. Whatever I might have told Jon and Sally, or anyone else, I am not writing a book about the Flannan Isles mystery. I am a fraud.
I can feel the sense of frustration building inside me, bubbling up like molten lava to erupt as an explosion of anger. My chair falls to the floor as I stand up suddenly, just as in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem. There must be, in this house, something that will reveal to me more about who I am. There has to be! I live here, after all. I’m not a ghost. I must leave traces.
And I spend the next half hour going through every drawer and every cupboard, pulling stuff out of them in a frenzy, searching for something, anything, I don’t know what. I pull every book from the shelves of the bookcase, shaking each in turn by the spine, in case there should be something concealed among their pages. By the time I head for the bedroom, the floor is littered with debris, the detritus of my desperation.
But I stop in the doorway, my attention caught by a map lying on the coffee table, next to the bottle of whisky. An Ordnance Survey map, all neatly folded up within its shiny, cracked covers. I step over to the table and lift it up. A South Harris Explorer Map. It is well thumbed and torn along some of its folds. It is large and unwieldy as I open it up to reveal the myriad contour lines that delineate the shape and form of this lower half of the Isle of Harris. A landscape pitted by countless lochs, ragged scraps of water reflecting stormy skies. Red denotes the A859 main road, such as it is, with minor roads in broken black lines and yellow. Tràigh Losgaintir, where I washed up only hours ago, is a vast triangle of yellow. I find the cemetery, and my house next to it. Then my eye is drawn to a thick line of luminous orange, tracking part of a broken line from the south end of the beach, that heads almost straight up and over the hills towards a cluster of lochs on the east coast. It is a line I must have drawn on the map myself, with a marker pen. But not recently. It is quite faded, and I wonder how long I must have been here for the ink to lose its colour.
Holding it under the light, and squinting to read tiny print, I see that the track my marker pen follows is called Bealach Eòrabhat. Gaelic. But I have no idea what it means. I cannot imagine why I might have marked this track in orange, but if nothing else it gives me somewhere else to look. A starting point tomorrow. For there is nothing I can do about it now, in the dark.
I drop the map, still open, on the table and go through to the bedroom to continue my search. Here there is nothing but clean clothes and laundry. The spare bedroom at the other end of the hall is in use, it seems, as a dressing room. There are more clothes. A suitcase on top of the wardrobe, but it is empty. Only when I turn to go back out do I see the shoulder bag hanging from a hook on the back of the door. A canvas satchel. I grab it and sit on the bed to open it. Finally, something personal. My fingers are shaking as I undo the clasps and delve inside to find a blank notebook and a wallet. To
my intense disappointment, verging almost on anger, I find only money in the wallet. Notes and some coins. No credit or business cards, no family photographs. Nothing. I throw the damn thing at the wall and drop my face into my hands, fingers curling into brittle claws to drag at my skin. And my
voice rips through the silence of the house as I raise my head to the heavens. ‘For God’s sake! Who the hell am I?’
Of course, no one replies, and I am left sitting here in the desperate silence, bereft. Perhaps I am a ghost after all. Perhaps I died somewhere out there at sea. Yesterday was a stinker, according to Jon. And I had cancelled my trip out to the Flannan Isles. Or so I said. But what if I had gone? How did I get there, and what was the purpose of my visit? Certainly not to research a book. But something happened. I know it, I feel it. Something dreadful. Maybe I drowned. Maybe it was just my body that washed ashore on the beach. And it was only my spirit that rose from the sand to haunt this place. Perhaps that’s why I can find no trace of myself.
I clench my fists and dig fingernails into my palms and know from the pain I feel that I am no ghost. I look up as Bran lopes along the hall to stand in the doorway and look at me. ‘Tell me, Bran,’ I say to him. ‘Tell me who I am. What am I doing here?’ And he cocks his head to one side, ears lifted. He knows that it is him I am speaking to, and maybe he detects the question in my voice. But he has no answers for me.
Emotionally and physically spent, I rise stiffly and he follows me along to the bedroom. I do not even have the energy to go through and turn out the lights in the kitchen. Instead, I slip out of my jeans and T-shirt and flop on to the bed. If I could, I would weep. But there are no tears in my eyes, just a dry, burning sensation. My mouth is parched. I should drink water. I should eat. But I am too tired. I lie on my back, reflected light spilling from the hall into the darkness of the bedroom, and close my eyes, only vaguely aware of Bran jumping up on to the bed and curling up at my feet.
The Big Coffin Road Blog Read continues on Cleopatra Loves Books on Tuesday 19th January with Part Six: To the Lighthouse
Coffin Road by Peter May is out now in hardback (Quercus). You can buy your copy here