The Lighthouse

photo credits here.

by jaime pang

“A storm is coming.”

Carrying his backpack, Andy trudged down the stairs.

Outside the window, dark clouds flooded the sky as thunder rumbled ominously. Light was blocked out completely, darkening the morning sky to a midnight blue. The air was heavy with humidity as winds howled through the gaps and crevices in the walls.

Grandad did not look the slightest bit perturbed. Well, old men hardly ever did. He nodded serenely and smiled.

“Don’t you worry about that, son.”

It was this air of ignorance that irritated Andy just the slightest bit. Not that he cared about his Grandad’s job in his shabby old lighthouse, of course.

“You’re the lighthouse keeper,” Andy pressed. “Shouldn’t you be the one watching out for storms?”

Grandad hummed as he flipped open yesterday’s newspaper and sipped his coffee. It was a marvel how he had managed to get newspaper on a tiny rock off the coast of town. Andy scowled at his grandfather’s lack of vigour.

“Not like I ever wanted to stay in this dump of a place,” he grumbled discontentedly.

The lighthouse was situated off the coast of Land’s End, Cornwall, on a tiny little island, or more appropriately, a midget shelf of rock that had popped out of the ocean. The dilapidated circular tower was already in various states of decay. The once bright and joyful red and white paint of the lighthouse was peeling off from wear and tear over the years. No one knew—or cared to know—when it had been built.

On the inside, the front door led to a medieval dining area which consisted of gaudy flowery wallpaper, an ancient wooden dining table complete with rickety old chairs, an old kerosene stove and one of those cupboards which Grandad had insisted on calling ‘a pantry’. A single faulty oil lamp (the kitchen had been plunged into darkness more than once during Andy’s stay) hung from the ceiling in the centre of the kitchen, activated by pull string.

On the second floor was a single bedroom with a creaky bed, a thin mattress, and a dresser. Andy took the bed, and Grandad took the mattress. The outhouse was round the back of the lighthouse.

To reach the top floor involved climbing a pull-down ladder through a tiny trapdoor, and contained the lamp that was the sole reason the lighthouse existed. The lighthouse lamp was one of those old pumping lamps (“A hydraulic lamp,” Grandad had explained) that required one to constantly pump it while watching out for a multitude of nearly insignificant details such as the air flow in the machine, the height of the wicks or overflow of fuel lest the contraption blew up in your face. It was as primitive as it could get. Not to mention, the lighthouse was situated in such an area where it was particularly susceptible to massive waves crashing down on it, especially during storms.

The air would turn heavy as massive gales whipped and churned the ink-black ocean water. The roiling water would crash against the rocks of the island and send up sea spray taller than the lighthouse itself. On occasion, some sea water would seep in through the cracks in the structure and fall into strategically-placed buckets. That was on good days.

On bad days, monstrous waves would threaten to engulf the lighthouse. They would rise into the air and crash into the lighthouse with such force that the ancient walls creak and groan. The sky would light up and turn to day for a brief instant when lightning flashed, followed by the ear-splitting crash of thunder. Outside, the wind howled like the souls of the damned as it shook and rattled the lighthouse, threatening to, like the old fable, ‘huff and puff and blow it to bits’. It was during times like this when Grandad would rush to the top of the lighthouse to pump and switch the valves of the creaky and rusty warning lights, and when Andy stayed in the bedroom and prayed with all his might that the lighthouse would not come collapsing on top of him.

Andy hated this place.

“What did you say, kiddo?” Grandad asked.

“I hate this place,” Andy grumbled. “Can’t we stay on the mainland, like everyone else does? Like Mum and Dad do?”

Grandad contemplated it for a while.

“But your parents are in, what, Minnesota? Michigan?”

“Massachusetts,” Andy corrected. “They’ve got a teaching job back there.”

Grandad nodded in acknowledgement.

“Amnesia,” he joked, tapping his temple. Andy rolled his eyes. Grandad sighed.

“Well, I guess you may probably find this place rather primitive -”

“Of course not,” Andy mumbled sarcastically.

“Well, this old shack, for one thing, stood through thick and thin for centuries off the Cornish coast. She’s been torn down and rebuilt dozens of times but trust me, she’s lasting.”

Andy shrugged nonchalantly, scrutinising the peeling wallpaper of the house.

“But why’d you choose to be a lighthouse keeper in the first place, Grandad? You could’ve been a teacher, or a pilot, or … something.”

Grandad chuckled.

“You know, when I was your age, I never thought I’d be a lighthouse keeper either – ‘Never dreamed of ever coming to a lighthouse in the first place.”

“Exactly! Then why did you wind up here, anyway?”

“It’s sort of the family trade, sport,” Grandad explained. “I got it from my Grandad, and my Grandad got it from his Grandad.”

“And I expect that it will end up with me?” Andy mumbled, his heart sinking like a stone as he imagined living in that rusty, weather-beaten shack for the rest of his life. Grandad chuckled as he watched despair wash over Andy.

“Well, times have changed, so I’d guess that you probably wouldn’t end up over here like me,” he reassured Andy, patting him on the shoulder. “But to be honest, being a lighthouse keeper is more of a tradition nowadays than an occupation.”

“Most lighthouses nowadays are automated, or at least newer than this one,” Andy noted.

Grandad nodded. “Lighthouses have been around for thousands of years., with some of the earliest dating back to three hundred-or-so BC. They were mainly used to provide warnings and signal to ships coming towards them, but some were also used as land markers- sort of like a flag. So back then, most sailors’ lives depended on lighthouses, since they warned them of any danger nearby, such as rocks or cliffs. They were patrons and guides to many sailors, protecting them from harm and guiding them safely back to the coast. All of this depended on the dedication and work of the lighthouse keeper.”

“So in a sense, the lighthouse keepers are the ‘protectors’ of the people out at sea.”

‘Were’, you mean,” Grandad smiled knowingly. “Like you said, we’re moving into the information age. People like your Mum and Dad are working on ways to make life easier for us using automated technology. I can predict that in the future, there would be robots that can cook for you, bake for you, buy your groceries for you-”

“Robots that can go to school for you, robots that can do your homework for you,” Andy interjected.

“Robots that can eat for you, robots that can sleep for you!” By then, both Andy and Grandad were giggling like little kids.

“I suppose that in the future, computers would be doing so much for us that we wouldn’t need to do much of anything,” Grandad said.

Andy nodded. “They’d probably be more efficient too, such as putting up storm warnings in time,” he said, shooting a pointed glance at Grandad. Grandad retained his air of stubbornness.

“Lighthouse-keeping is a dying trade, I suppose. Very, very few people, present company included, would want to take up this job nowadays, especially with all the technological revolutions taking place around us. Very soon, we may not even need lighthouses anymore, what with all the new GPS systems and weather updates.”

The two sat in silence for a while, before Andy finally asked, “So, will this mean that the lighthouse will have to go?”

“Our family has looked after this lighthouse for over a century, spanning at least three generations. I like to think of this as just the end of a journey. After all, ‘all good things must come to an end’, right?”

Andy placed his feet firmly on the ground.

“That’s not fair! Perhaps if there were another way…” He tried to say more, but nothing seemed to come to him. Grandad’s words made perfect sense, didn’t they? What could he, a mere ten-year-old boy do about it? Stall technological advancement? Hamper the development of GPS technology?

“Well, for better or worse, the world is adapting, and we need to adapt with it.” Even as he said this, Grandad looked as though he was not quite convinced, looking out at the churning waves with his brow furrowed.

Andy seemed to contemplate the idea for a while. There was so much to do, yet so little time. Noticing the actual time, he grabbed his rucksack and made his way towards the door.

“It’s getting late. I should get going, or else I be late for school.”

Just before he pushed the door open, he looked back at the dingy little lighthouse, and his Grandad. The boy had almost a somewhat wistful expression on his face.

“See you later, Grandad,” he said as he shut the door behind him.

“See you later, Andy.”

The old lighthouse keeper walked to the window and watched as the dark clouds drifted silently overhead and out to sea, revealing radiant blue skies full of hopes and aspirations as the first rays of sunshine flooded the creeks and coasts of Land’s End.

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