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Authors: Marguerite Poland

The Keeper

BOOK: The Keeper
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Marguerite Poland
 
THE KEEPER
By the same author:

Fiction

Train to Doringbult

Shades

Iron Love

Recessional for Grace,
translated into French as
Cantique pour Grace

The Keeper,
translated into Afrikaans as
Die bewaker

Non-Fiction

The Abundant Herds
, with David Hammond-Tooke, illustrated by Leigh Voigt

The Boy in You: A Biography of St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown

Taken Captive by Birds
, illustrated by Craig Ivor

For Nicki, with love

Chapter 1

When the call came, Maisie Beukes was alone in the keeper’s quarters. Cecil had already gone on duty even though it was only five o’clock. The call, she knew, would be from the Signal Office in the port. It should have been no different from any other routine call – to relay messages, to list supplies needed, to send news, to report on the light. The sole link with the outside world. Island to shore, lighthouse to lighthouse through the medium of the signalman’s radio phone. One lighthouse on its barren, bird-raddled plateau – the most forlorn in the world – the other at the edge of a city.

That afternoon, a black southeaster blowing, the static was intense. It was difficult to make out the words. Even after years of coaxing the radio-telephone and learning to interpret its sudden startling squeals and plummets – sea echoes, wind shear – Maisie could decipher little.

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’ shouted the signalman.

‘On and off!’ she yelled.

‘There’s been an accident in the lighthouse on the island. They need a doctor.’

‘What happened?’

The static crackled again. Maisie turned towards the window to look out at the bay as if, in doing so, she could make the distance smaller, gaze the voice into existence at the distant port. It was no day for a boat to be out. There were white horses right to the horizon.

‘Who needs the doctor?’

‘Mr Harker,’ shouted the signalman. ‘He fell down the tower.’

‘Oh my God! Is he alive?’

‘Yes. But something’s broken. I can’t be sure.’ His voice swooped and darted. ‘The guano headman called and reported it.’

‘You must send the tug and a doctor. I’ll get hold of a relief keeper to replace him.’

‘The weather’s terrible,’ the signalman said dubiously. ‘I don’t think the Port Captain will let anyone sail. And anyway, it’s nearly dark.’

Maisie did not contradict him. She said, ‘Phone again in an hour.’


Goed. Dankie, mevrou
Beukes.’ And he was gone.

Maisie glanced out again at the far curve of the bay, the turbulent sea, the distant dune-fields. On impulse she called the Port Captain herself from the house telephone in her dining room.

‘Bad weather,’ he said.

‘It’s serious.’

‘Who is it?’

‘The Senior Lighthouse Inspector, Hannes Harker.’

‘It’s dangerous to try and land a man in the dark. The weather will calm down by tomorrow. Then we can make a decision.’

Maisie bristled. ‘He’s a lighthouse keeper, for God’s sake. If your tug was going down he’d walk on water to help you.’ She wiped her face with the back of her hand and drew a deep breath, calming herself.

Only lighthouse people knew; their code was unimpeachable.

‘Has anyone got hold of the doctor?’ the Port Captain asked.

‘I phoned you first.’


Jis
!’ he muttered under his breath. ‘This could be a balls-up.’

‘Sorry?’

‘OK, Mrs Beukes, listen. I’ll phone the doc and you find a relief keeper and I’ll come back to you.’

‘Be quick,’ said Maisie.

‘Stay put.’

Maisie went to the back door and called across the yard. The wind was strong enough to whip the white-bleached skin of broken shells from the pathway. ‘Cecil?’

No reply.

‘Cecil?’

A faint voice from the shed. ‘What is it, lovey?’

‘Come quickly.’ She peered out. ‘Cecil? I can’t leave in case the phone rings.’

Maisie went back into the kitchen and dragged the old kettle on to the hotplate of the coal stove. She pulled the tray across the counter, took the knitted cosy off the pot and emptied the cold tea leaves into the sink.

There were two commandments known to all of them:

The light must not go out.

The keeper must not fall.

Hannes – so competent, so careful, so assured.

Something had distracted him. Or someone.

And who could possibly distract him on that island?

Maisie wiped her face again. A chill ran through her and she twitched her shoulders and leaned more firmly against the rail of the old coal stove.


Don’t be ridiculous, woman
. She almost spoke aloud.

She made the tea and set two cups. She carried the tray through to the lounge, a small waddle in her step, side to side, her slippers slapping quietly on the wooden floor. The back door opened and her husband, Cecil, called from the porch. ‘What’s the matter, lovey? Are you hoping for a cup of tea?’

He came in, tugging down the edges of his old green jersey, his nose purple-veined from the wind outside, his knees pinched by the cold above his long grey socks. He looked at her. ‘Maisie? What’s the trouble?’

‘Hannes fell down the tower. He’s broken something. He must be in dreadful pain. That fellow from the signal room phoned. I got hold of the Port Captain and told him to send a tug.’

‘You should have asked me to do it.’ Cecil was admonishing. ‘What’s he going to think, being bossed by a woman?’

‘Don’t you talk nonsense, Cecil,’ retorted Maisie, the flush deep on her neck, her chin bobbing. ‘It’s Hannes, for God’s sake.’

‘Of course, lovey,’ Cecil said. ‘Sorry I spoke.’

‘We have to find a relief at once while they raise the doctor. They’ll call again soon so we must hurry.’

‘Ockie will have to take over there for a while,’ said Cecil. ‘He’s not going to like it.’

‘You’ll get exhausted here by yourself,’ objected Maisie. ‘Think about your heart, Cecil, and don’t be foolish. Can’t we phone Seal Point?’

‘Too far,’ he said laconically. ‘It’s Ockie or me. We can’t leave the light.’

Maisie said nothing. She knew the first rule just as well as he.

Cecil went away to the single quarters to speak to his assistant. Maisie did not follow him to hear Ockie grumble, sucking at his teeth and pulling at his great ear and glowering. She could hardly blame him. No one ever wanted such an exile. Even for a week.

Except Hannes.

For him, a posting to the island was always going home.

When Cecil returned he said, ‘Ockie’s packing and then I’ll run him down to the harbour.’ He came and sat beside her on the settee, waiting: two old people, grey-headed, the steam from their cups drifting between them.

Then the telephone rang.

It was the Port Captain. ‘We’ll be leaving in an hour,’ he said.

‘My husband will bring the relief keeper down now,’ said Maisie.

‘The doc’s on his way.’

‘Good man,’ said Maisie as she put down the receiver.

‘Of course I’m a good man.’ Cecil reached for her hand. ‘Even your mother thought so.’

Maisie – comforted – half laughed. ‘You really are a good man,’ she said. ‘No matter all the other things my mother said!’ And she wiped her eyes.

Oh, Hannes. Not another blow.

She rested the side of her head against Cecil’s shoulder. Then they turned simultaneously and in silence to peer through the salt-rimed glass at the darkening sea in the bay and the waves breaking as far as the horizon.

The island lies five miles offshore – south-west from the densely wooded cape but thirty-one miles from port. Between it and the mainland is a channel, taupe green, cobalt blue. Sometimes that blue is all of the sky and sea, indivisible. And sometimes the heat bounces off the island rocks, an aura of fire, and the waves glitter as if scattered with mica chips. Sometimes the air is a tumult of gannets – a rising tide of wingbeats – and sometimes it is so still that the piping of a land-bird blown off course can be heard above the breathing of the sea. But when the southeaster blows, the wind whips the water to a salt-grey bile. Even its fish must flee the turbulence. Even the sharks. It is on those days that boats never venture near. Nothing comes except the wind – a great baleful beast.

The model of the lighthouse, created from shells, was ten inches tall. It stood on a base of polished wood. Hannes, packing up his things, preparing to leave the island once he had seen to the automation of the light – to become a vagrant pelagic bird once more – had opened the great wooden cupboard on the third landing of the tower and peered inside. It was dark and damp and crammed with old logbooks, instruments and tackle. He had cast his eye over its contents and found the model on the top shelf at the back, wrapped in a woollen shawl.

He had taken it up to the lantern room and set it on his work table. He had drawn up his stool and looked at it. He had left the shawl – that soft, familiar shawl – resting on his knee. And he had gazed at the handiwork, remembering.

His mother’s shell lighthouse.

The tides, the shore, the rock pools. And the hunt for shells.

He had touched, admiringly, the round red-pink shell she had used for the dome, recalling, intensely, his moment of delight, the bounce as he’d jigged up and down before her saying, ‘Look, look!’

‘Oh, Hansie!’ – only she had ever called him this – ‘That is beautiful. I will use it for the dome.’

He had walked about the chamber, alert: searching for an echo, a voice, the touch of a hand. Then he had sat again, cocooned, as the rain beat against the thick-clad glass of the window. Beyond the inner silence he had heard the thunder of the surf way, way below. He could feel the buffet of the wind against the walls, leaning into its tumult. And he had gazed at the delicate shell lighthouse glimmering in its pristine creams and pinks, the edges outlined in tan. He turned it gently, rotating it to catch each angle and plane.

And then he stopped, picked it up in his hands and looked more closely.

There was a place where shells were glued to the western aspect of the tower – well matched but newer, clearer, without the patina of those that had been set more than forty years before. Small beads of dried, transparent glue thrust up here and there – moments of impatience – disturbing the harmony of line.

This was not his mother’s handiwork.

Peering closely, he turned the model as gingerly as if he had been holding a blown eggshell. He tipped it on its side and glanced at the underside of the stand.

There – his mother’s name:
Louisa Harker August 1921
.

Just below, smaller, less assured –
A.H. August 1957
.

He scrutinised it in astonishment.

Aletta.

He touched the tip of his finger to the row of corner shells, only asymmetrical to the deftest touch, the keenest eye – like her small, secret, fragile vertebrae, the back he knew so well.

When, at last, he left it and rose to go, distracted by his thoughts and careless of his whereabouts, he missed his footing on the fourth step of the ladder and fell.

His shoulder hit the curve of wall and catapulted him.

He knew, as he fell to the stairway below and rolled, that something broke.

He lay on the landing near the cupboard, half insensible, quite unable to move.

Riefaart, the guano headman, would come. But when, Hannes could not tell. Earlier in the day he had seen him through his glasses take the boat out, heading towards Black Rock. He would be fishing. Only when night fell and the light was dead would someone come.

It would be hours yet.

He cursed himself, floating in and out of consciousness.

Late that afternoon he heard, far off, echoing in the vestibule, the sound of the shed door scraping in the yard.

He bellowed. Over and over. Hardly sure if he was conscious.

A lull in the wind and he called again.

The ensuing silence seemed eternal. And then he heard the sound, like a furtive mouse-scuffle. He sensed a shadow on the stairs.


Kaptein
?’ Misklip, the guano workers’ cook, stood at the head of the first flight, his old woollen cap poised on his head, his wrinkled face filled with consternation.

Hannes turned his head and Misklip’s figure seemed to shift and break, as if disembodied. Hannes slid away into unconsciousness.

It was only afterwards, when the rain had cleared and Riefaart had hurried up to the landing to find him and said, ‘That old
skelm
actually took out the rowing boat and came for me and
jirre
the waves were high,’ that the awareness of Misklip – his reality – returned.

‘I didn’t think he could handle a boat,’ Hannes had said hoarsely.

‘He can’t,’ said Riefaart. ‘But he was so
bleek
with fright I thought he was the island spook.’

Again, Hannes had drifted away. Then he’d whispered, ‘Where is Misklip now?’

‘I think he is on his knees somewhere saying his prayers,’ Riefaart had replied.

Hannes had not responded. His mouth was too parched, the pain too sharp.

But he had thought of it often when, at last, he lay in his hospital bed. He would turn to the window and sense the sea beyond the ramparts of the city buildings. For hours he would lie, his eyes half-closed, counting the imagined revolutions of the beam until Sister Rika came with her strong hands and lifted him up against his pillows, drawing the blankets around him and giving him something to help him sleep – never asking if he wanted it, knowing, if she did, that he’d refuse.

Even as he drifted, he’d remembered.

The rowing boat, the rainy sea. And Misklip – that human scrap – going out for help.

BOOK: The Keeper
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