The West Lighthouse is the taller of the two, a simple structure that is pleasing in its symmetry, a tower of patchwork stone. The original oil-fuelled beacon that once guided sailors safely to the pier was later replaced by electricity, but even that has long-since burned out. Now all that can be seen is the flickering glow of a lantern from the cab at the top, which has been converted into a small but comfortable room. A storm is roaring outside. Angry raindrops lash against the little windows and a gale whistles under the door and spirals up through the tower, making the internal fittings squeak and rattle. Martin lowers himself into a faded armchair with a groan, puffs of dust fleeing from its cushions. It is chilly in the circular room and he presses his fingers to a large mug of tea. He closes his eyes and unplugs the headphones, setting the music free to fill the space. The storm can’t compete with those soft harmonies and twangy guitar. He knows every word and every chord, but it never gets tired, this one. If someone told him the cavemen had sang this to each other in the dark of night all those centuries ago, he would have believed them. Timeless. It starts to fade and Martin plugs the headphones back in, flicking the microphone on to override the record.
‘Well, what can I say? I think we can all agree that track speaks for itself. The Everly Brothers – All You Have to do is Dream. One of my old mum’s favourites, that was, and I can still remember her singing it down in the kitchen when I should have been asleep in bed. Happy memories. Anyway, I hope you lot out there are keeping safe from the storm. This is Martin Christie with you through the night, playing all your favourite hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s, and now we’re going to take a call from one of our regular listeners – good evening, Joan. What’s new, pussycat?’
He clicks a button on the desk and another voice is added.
‘Hello, Martin,’ says Joan. ‘I just wanted to say what a lovely song that was. It were number one in the hit parade when I got married and it always reminds me of my wedding day, so thank you.’
‘That’s not a problem, Joan. Are you keeping out of the storm?’
‘Oh yes, me and Trevor never go out at night. We’re just having a brew in front of the fire.’
‘I’m right there with you, Joan, and I am drinking a toast to your health.’
‘Thanks, Martin. God bless.’
‘I think we can fit another one in before the break, so here’s a rocky little number to keep all you drivers awake – Jeff Beck with Hi Ho Silver Lining.’
Martin gets up to stretch. He walks over to the window and tries to see the stars, but the rain distorts everything, washing away even the lights on the mainland. It’s a pity because he likes to see them out there, like little fireflies, imagining the sleepless souls getting comfort from the knowledge that he’s up here, filling the small hours with his tunes. Turning back, he sees the orange call light has lit up. Probably Joan again, poor old thing. He settles back down.
‘Hello, caller, you are on the air with Martin Christie. And where are you on this tempestuous night?’
A cacophonous rumbling emits from the speaker, dotted with female voices with southern accents.
‘Martin? Oi, Martin. You call that rock?’
‘Hello, caller, I’m afraid I’m having trouble hearing you very clearly. Who am I speaking to?’
‘My friend’s getting married next week and she needs a bit of excitement in her life. Play something with a bit of balls!’
‘Arctic Monkeys,’ shouts another voice in the background, followed by laughing and squealing, as if someone has trodden on a litter of piglets.
‘I’m sorry, caller. I’m not familiar with that particular group, but how about a bit of Manfred Mann?’
He ends the call without waiting for a response and starts the song, his heart thudding hard against his cardigan-coated chest. He wishes he could screen calls before accepting them. Loud ladies using the b-word on air is not what his regular listeners are used to but, unfortunately, Whitby has become a popular destination for hen parties. He would never forget that one a few years back. They commandeered a sailing boat, but their lack of nautical experience led them to fall foul of the rocks. A whole party, drowned. It was a sorrowful time for the little seaside town – the cameras, the weeping families. And then there was the paraphernalia that washed up on the beach for days after – stiletto heels, clutch purses with packets of cigarettes still folded inside, and one day a torn wedding veil, clogged up with sand and flapping in the wind. Heartbreaking. Of course, the tourist industry made things worse – offering ghost tours and sailing trips for people wanting to follow in the footsteps of those poor ladies lost to the sea. It was in poor taste, if you asked Martin.
That last call has unsettled him. He carries with him a mental image of his audience, mainly old folk and nice young mothers attempting to settle their crying babies; not raucous women from the Travelodge, forced indoors by the weather, with nothing to do but antagonise hard-working deejays. The light is flashing again and Martin holds a shaking finger over it. He considers ignoring it, but what if it’s one of his regulars? He can’t let them down. He presses the button.
‘Hello, caller. Nice weather for ducks, isn’t it?’
‘Hiya Martin, this is Arthur.’
Martin sighs with relief.
‘A good evening to you, Arthur. And what is keeping you up at this hour?’
‘It’s my little lass, Julie. She’s got a piano exam tomorrow and she can’t sleep with worrying about it. She’s dead good but the nerves just get to her, you know?’
Oh, Martin knows all about that. He’s lost count of the number of times he’s performed on stage and every single time the nerves would build up, paralyzing his muscles and melting his insides until he thought he would vomit all over the piano. It’d never happened though. Somehow, he always knew what to do when the moment came. One deep breath and his fingers glided across the keys, easy as speaking, making him wonder why he’d ever worried at all.
‘You’re okay, love, you just suffer with nerves,’ his mum would say. ‘You’ll grow out of them.’ But he never did.
‘Now then, Julie,’ says Martin, sliding a record sleeve out from his carry case, ‘I play a bit of the old pianoforte myself, so I know exactly what you’re going through. Let me give you a bit of advice – take your time. That examiner knows you’re nervous and knows you’ve worked hard. Just take a deep breath before you begin and pretend you’re playing that piece just like you would at home with your dad. And remember, it’s okay to make a mistake. Mozart made mistakes too, you know. Now I’m going to play you a song by a cracking pianist just like you, who was once himself a little nipper, worrying about that exam in the morning. This is Rocket Man by Elton John.’
The opening chord lands like a soft pebble – G minor, smooth and sad but with the added 7th that sounds like a question mark. Martin’s hands move across the desk, following the music. As a young man, he’d been a big fan of Elton John, all glitter and platform boots, hammering those perfect rhythms. Martin had been classically trained himself, hours a day of Beethoven and Chopin, his senses following the music, feeling his way through a complex maze that made so much sense to him. But it was the pop songs he really liked – The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Bobby Fuller Four, they were the ones his mum would get him to play whenever family came round. He’d mastered many instruments fluently by the time he was ten, but it was the piano he loved the most. It demanded the attention of his whole body, which meant he could sit with his back to the audience, no awkward eye contact. At home, he could sense his aunts and uncles smiling from behind him, their pride like a warm light on his back. He was never much of a singer, so they’d do that bit. He’d swim through rock ‘n’ roll, pop and some Blossom Dearie for old Grandma Violet. The adults would let him stay up late while they drank vodka tonics and then Uncle Bert would make everyone dance around the small living room. They understood him, his family. He couldn’t dance or sing but without the piano, nor could anyone else. He felt like the life and soul of the party, providing the music that allowed the others to have so much fun. A lot of time has passed since those days and sometimes he feels the harshness of every hour that separates him from those nights of his youth. Oh, but the power of music; a mere sequence or collection of notes played together and he was somewhere else.
The orange call light is flashing again.
‘Well,’ he says, ‘that was for Julie who’s going to smash her piano exam tomorrow and I believe we now have another caller on the line. Hello, friend.’
‘Hi Martin,’ came a man’s voice with a scouse accent. ‘This is Rob calling. I have a question for you.’
‘Certainly, Rob, I will be of help if I can.’
‘I was wondering – are you the same Martin Christie who used to play the piano in Devil’s Daughter?’
Martin’s mouth goes dry and suddenly he feels like eels are swimming around in his stomach.
‘Um, no…sorry, Rob, mate. You must have me mixed up with someone else.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure that’s you. I saw you play in 1984 in Blackpool, around the time Witches Brew was released. You were ace!’
‘I can’t help you there, Rob, I’m afraid.’
‘If you say so, mate. Trying to keep a low profile, are we?’
‘Thanks for phoning, Rob, but the music is calling and she’s a harsh mistress if she doesn’t get her way. We’re moving forward through the years now and here’s Chicago with If you Leave me Now – one for the lovers.’
Martin yanks off the headphones and stands up. He is sweating and the room is getting stuffy. He opens the small window above his head and teeters on tiptoes to peek out. Through the rain, clouds hang low over Whitby pier, making the stars invisible behind the bubbling, grey mass. Where did Rob say he was calling from? Blackpool or Liverpool? Did he say? Martin’s thoughts are getting tangled, his vision swimming. He presses his palms to the cold glass and presses his toes to the floorboards to ground himself. Gradually, the room steadies back into focus and Martin returns to his chair. Just one person, he tells himself, it’s bound to happen occasionally. You don’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone without getting recognised sometimes, even when it’s just from your voice.
The orange light hammers on once again.
‘Hello, caller, how can I help you tonight?’ He tries to keep his voice steady and friendly but his heart is punching at his vocal chords, his throat rough. What if it’s his heart? What if he has a heart attack on air? Who would get help? Joan? The drunken hen party?
‘Evening, Martin,’ comes a sing-song voice. ‘This is Jill. I hope you’re having a nice night up there in your lighthouse.’
‘Can’t complain, Jill, can’t complain. And is there a song you’d like to hear?’
‘I just wanted to comment on what Rob was saying. I remember Devil’s Daughter. I saw you in London on my seventeenth birthday. My dad was waiting in the car outside and he was furious when I went to the after show party instead of coming straight out.’
‘I’m going to stop you there, Jill, I think there’s been a mix up. I was never in a band.’
‘Of course you were,’ she says. ‘You and Tommy Crane, the McDonnell brothers. I recognised your voice as soon as I heard it. We got quite friendly, if I remember rightly. Upstairs in the green room. I liked you. You were the quiet one; not like the other three. You played me that song, how did it go? Some people wear their heart out on their sleeve, not me…’
Her voice is tinny but pleasant. Of course Martin remembers Jill. There haven’t been many women in his life and this was one to remember. She had strawberry blonde hair and braces and a smile that dimpled her cheeks. In his head he’d written entire operas about that smile. And now here she was all these years later, singing his song, the melody scratching its way through a wasteland of stagnant memories.
‘But I, I wear my heart out loving you…’
‘Please…stop,’ says Martin, louder than he means to. Jill goes quiet but the lyrics stay with him.
‘I’m sorry, Martin. I suppose you don’t want to be reminded about all that. Still, the others won’t forget.’
‘You can’t stay hidden forever, love.’
Martin switches to the adverts and rubs at his eyes. His throat is tight now and he feels old, unwanted images pressing through his mind like fingers digging at his temples. He scrambles around in his record bag for something to calm him down. Dion and The Belmonts – I Wonder Why. That’s the job. A better time, when his parents were young, when they respected their elders and sang songs about love and teenage heartbreak. The little things that seemed big at the time but they were things you could get over, things you could live with. The storm is fierce now and the open window slams shut on the sound of the squeaking stairs on the outside of the tower. Martin’s breathing has almost returned to normal, but he locks the door anyway. It makes him feel safer and he relishes the solitude until, again, the orange light flashes.
‘You’re sick, mate,’ It was a child’s voice, a boy. ‘I read about your band on Wikipedia and you’re fucking wrong.’
‘You deserve to be found. Do you think what you did was funny?’
‘Young man, this is a family-friendly radio show. Please hang up and refrain from using that kind of language.’
‘I’m not going anywhere, mate. They’re coming for you and I want to be here when they get you.’
Suddenly, the room is hit with white light and Martin covers his eyes. The lighthouse’s disused lantern screams as it tries to turn all by itself, its beacon shouting out his presence. Martin staggers over to it and hits it with his fist but the glass is too thick and it burns his hands. He feels around for something to break it with, finding nothing. And then suddenly it stops and the darkness settles heavy over him. He grabs his torch and crawls under the desk. The boy’s voice has disappeared now, replaced by another crackling through the speakers.
‘You need to chill out, Martin.’ It is a woman, the hen from before. ‘Why don’t you get out of there? Me and the girls have, er, borrowed a boat; you can come out with us if you like.’
Martin reaches up and swipes at the dials on the desk, trying to shut out the voices, not caring if his listeners have to listen to static air. Then one voice, scratchy and faint, floats through.’
‘Marty, are you there?’
‘It’s me, sweetheart.’
‘Mum, is it really you?’
Her voice is high and choked with tears.
‘I told you not to go with those boys, Marty. I told you it’d end in trouble.’
‘I know, Mum, I’m sorry.’
‘But what you did…’
‘I didn’t mean to, Mum, they put something in my drink.’
Music screeches out of the speakers, that howling voice and the drums with a bass that goes right through you and throttles your core. Witches Brew.
‘They’re coming for you.’
‘What do you mean?’
But her voice is drowned out by a rusty whistle and then a crash of metal as, outside, the stairs detach from the tower and fall down to the ground.
‘Mum, are you there?’
‘Afraid not, buddy,’ came an American accent. ‘This is Johnny Wallace from The Mad Hatter Club.’
This is impossible, thinks Martin. The Mad Hatter Club burned down in 1986, Johnny and all.
‘You know, I always wondered about you, Marty. I told the others – I said, you wanna stop rattling that boy or one day he’s gonna take you down.’
‘It was an accident,’ Martin whispers.
‘Now, that’s just not true, is it? We’ve been here before Marty, remember?’
‘I didn’t kill the girl.’
‘Don’t make out like you’re all innocent.’
The airwaves hiss and pop until a new voice makes its way through; bland and firm. A BBC voice, they used to call it.
‘This is Harold Coles reporting from the scene in Los Angeles where a heavy metal fan has died. Fifteen year-old Stacey Bradshaw was found unresponsive early this morning after a sell out concert by the rock band Devil’s Daughter. Cause of death is yet to be established but witnesses say the teenager was last seen backstage with the band, who appear to have left the scene.’
‘Mum…’ Martin clicks off the torch and curls up as quietly as he can. A bang sounds from below him, jogging the main door to the lighthouse and making him flinch.
‘Mum, I didn’t hurt that girl, I promise.’
‘I know, love, but what happened afterwards-’
‘It wasn’t my fault. We’d been up all night and I couldn’t think straight but the others said I had to drive. It was just the four of us. The sun had just come up but it felt like midday it was so hot. I Just wanted to sleep. What am I going to do? They’ll kill me.’
‘Kill you? It’s a bit late for that son.’
The banging on the door gets louder and more frequent, like heavy boots against the wood.
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘The others were drinking beer, music playing really loud. They kept laughing about the girl and what they’d done to her; all three of them. She was only fifteen. I just wanted to go home, back to England, but I didn’t know where I was. I started to feel dizzy and that’s when they told me they’d put something in my drink. There was the whole of the Atlantic Ocean between me and home and I felt the entire weight of it, Mum. I couldn’t do it on my own. I couldn’t fly all that way. There were eight weeks left of the tour and I was so scared. I couldn’t breathe and they were telling me I would get the blame. So I did it.’
There is a crack from below and the thumping noise stops, leaving just the whistling wind and a weak fizzing sound from the speakers.
‘It was the easiest thing I’d ever done, in the end. I alone had the power – not Bradley or Bryan McDonnell or Tommy bloody Crane – and so I turned the wheel, that was all, turned the wheel and saw their faces in the rearview mirror as we went straight off the side of that cliff. At that moment, I saw them for what they were – scared little boys, sorry for what they’d driven me to, shocked by what was happening but knowing it was too late. All that in an instant.’
‘But they’ve found you,’ her voice is quiet and behind it he feels like he can hear the held breath of his audience, every one of them. The stairs beneath him creak gently but rhythmically, like careful, steady steps, and then another beat joins in, and another. He can hear the sweep of hands on banisters and the occasional tap of metal rings on the wood. ‘It’s time to move on.’
‘But I don’t know how,’ says Martin. The panic has reached a height where he cannot move and there is a ringing in his ears.
‘Remember how we used to deal with your nerves, love? It’s just like that.’
‘Find a happy place.’
‘All you have to do is dream, love. You’ve done it before…’
‘Dream of what though?’
‘…just like you dreamed up the lighthouse.’
The noise on the stairs has reached the top and stops outside the door, replaced by the sound of shuffling boots and whispered voices, broken and inhuman. Martin thinks of his mum and wishes he could be with her, but he knows she’s not really here; she’s with the stars. She’s moved on somewhere he can’t go. He thinks of Whitby, of his listeners out there, lost in the night, at sea. The handle to the door is turning violently back and forth and then they are smashing against it, the flimsy wood bending in so that their fingers can crawl through the gaps and grip the edge, blood dribbling down the frame. The door gives all at once, splintering apart so that Martin is showered with shards of wood and sawdust. He closes his eyes and thinks of home.
The house was built in the age of Queen Victoria, but has been well-plastered and decorated since it became a bed and breakfast. The whole place is white and clean and the new owners even kept his old piano down in the living room, or the breakfast room as it’s now known as. It’s a funny old place, Martin thinks. The attic where he is set up is warm and comfortable and has a nautical theme with blue and white finishings and framed portraits of impressions of Whitby. You can’t beat the real thing, he thinks. It’s quiet for the most part and he gets good reception for the show, although it also has a strange feel to it, an active frequency in the air. Sometimes he thinks there are other people in the room with him and their voices feed through with the music. Just everyday sorts of things like ‘cup of tea, love?’ or ‘we must visit the Abbey’. Anyway, he feels safe here; that’s the important thing. And his listeners, of course.
‘We’ve had Joan on the line tonight and it’s Trevor’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Trevor! Your lady wife has requested a bit of Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich for you, so here they are with Hold Tight.’
As the record plays, Martin peeks past the curtains and through a circular window in the alcove. The rain has held off tonight, but the sky is still a roiling grey mass, the clouds barely distinguishable from the sea beneath. He can’t see the stars, but he knows they are there and he thinks he’ll reach them one day.
Eleanor Hickey lives in Cambridge. She writes in a range of genres but is drawn to the dark side of storytelling, inspired by humour, music and the grotesque in everyday life. She is also a mother, cat-owner, musician, reader, trickster, vegetarian, teacher and watcher. Her short story, ‘Strange Brew’, was shortlisted and published in the Storgy Shallow Creek competition and another, ‘Hope Springs’, appeared in Dusk and Shiver’s Spring Anthology in 2019. ‘The Caretaker’, was published as part of the Greetings anthology by Enthusiastic Press.
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