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The Lighthouse Witches is a chilling Gothic thriller from the author of the acclaimed The Nesting.
They bind our feet and ankles, tear off our clothes and douse us with alcohol. Amy’s crying and shaking like a new lamb, and I want to reach out to her but Stevens’ knife is held to my throat, his face so close I can smell his disgusting breath. He uncurls his fingers to show me the stones before shoving them into my mouth, breaking my teeth. I gag on blood and broken molars.
They start to cut Amy’s hair, hacking off her silky black locks so close to the skin that blood oozes darkly from her pale scalp. With a terrific lunge Stevens plunges his knife deep into my chest, scraping my collarbone, the shock of it causing my knees to buckle. I cannot breathe, nor speak. Amy lets out a long cry, like a wounded animal.
Already I can smell the fire. I do not fear it.
Wait for me, Amy. Wait.
The Black Isle, Scotland
The lighthouse was called The Longing. Pitched amidst tessellations of rock black as coke, thrashed for over a hundred years by disconsolate squalls, it needled upwards, spine-straight, a white bolt locking earth, sky, and ocean together. It was lovely in its decrepitude, feathery paint gnawed off by north winds and rust-blazed window frames signatures of use and purpose. I always thought lighthouses were beautiful symbols, but this one was more than that– it was hauntingly familiar.
Night was drawing in and we hadn’t yet met the owner. We’d driven hundreds of miles over mountains, through sleepy villages and along winding roads, usually behind herds of cattle. We had taken a ferry, and got lost four times, on account of using an outdated, coffee-stained A–Z road map with several pages missing.
I parked up behind an old Range Rover. ‘We’re here,’ I told the girls, who had fallen asleep against each other in the back. I wrapped my raincoat around Clover – she was wearing only a swimsuit over a pair of jeans – and lifted her up to walk a little way along the rocky beach daubed with spiky patches of marram and tough white flowers.
The four of us scanned the bay. It was a raw scene: a full moon hiding behind purple cloud, ocean thrashing against black cliffs. Gulls wheeling and shrieking above us. Trees stood like pitchforks, flayed by the wind. They hemmed the island, watching.
The lighthouse keeper’s bothy was a squat stone dwelling built close to the lighthouse. Smoke plumed from the chimney, pressing the earthy smell of peat into our noses.
A woman stepped out to greet us. ‘Olivia?’ she said.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Sorry I’m earlier than expected . . .’
‘No trouble at all. Come on in out of the cold.’
We found ourselves in a cramped hallway, where someone had pinned a shark’s jawbone to the inner wall. Luna reached out to touch one of the teeth and I tugged her back.
Saffy nodded at it. ‘Is that from a great white?’
‘Porbeagle shark,’ the woman – Isla – said with a tilt of her chin. ‘We don’t get great whites. Porbeagles are just as big, mind, and every bit as dangerous.’
‘I don’t like sharks, Mummy,’ Clover whispered.
‘We have a basking shark that tends to hang around the bay,’ Isla said. She glanced down at Luna, who threw me a panicked look.
‘You’ll be fine with a basking shark. No teeth, you see. Basil, he’s called.’
‘Is this where we’ll be staying?’ Saffy asked warily, eyeing the shark jaw.
‘It is indeed,’ Isla said. She turned to the girls. ‘I’m Isla Kissick, and it’s absolutely thrilling to meet all of you. But I’m afraid I only know your mummy’s name. Why don’t you tell me your names?’
‘I’m Luna,’ Luna said. ‘I’m nine.’
‘Luna,’ Isla said. ‘What a lovely name.’
‘It means “moon”,’ Luna said, a little shy.
‘Mine’s Clover,’ Clover said, elbowing Luna out of the way. ‘I’m seven and a half and my name means clover, like the plant.’
‘Also a lovely name,’ Isla said. ‘And I bet you already know that clovers are meant to bring good luck?’
Clover nodded. ‘Mm-hmmm. But my mummy said you make your own luck.’
‘Very wise,’ Isla said, glancing at me approvingly. She turned to Saffy, who flushed red. ‘And who might this lovely one be?’ Isla said.
‘Sapphire,’ Saffy mumbled to the floor. ‘I’m fifteen.’
‘Well now, that’s lovely,’ Isla said. ‘My daughter, Rowan, is fifteen. I’m sure you’ll meet soon enough. Now, come and sit down. I’ve made you all some supper.’
I nodded at the girls to leave their bin bags in the hall before following Isla to a kitchen at the back, where the smell of freshly baked bread and tomato soup made my
I’d supposed that Isla was Mr Roberts’ partner, but she turned out to be his housekeeper. She was short and lithe with long copper hair neatly pinned up, and her quick, round eyes searched all of us up and down. She had a beautiful Scottish brogue and spoke fast, as though the words were too hot to hold in her mouth for long. She was smartly turned out – a crisp white shirt, grey check trousers, polished ankle boots. The bothy was incongruously old-fashioned.
I would learn that Lòn Haven, its inhabitants included, was full of skewed time spheres. The absence of modern retail chains and its breathtakingly rugged landscapes made the place feel like you’d stepped back in time, perhaps to the very beginnings of the earth. The lighthouse itself was built upon an ancient Scottish broch that was built upon a Neolithic fort which in turn was built upon late Jurassic rock, like an architectural babushka doll.
‘There you go,’ Isla said, placing bowls of steaming hot soup before each of us. I apologized again for the mix-up about our arrival. I’d planned to begin the commission a few weeks from now but decided to head north on the spur of the moment. Or the middle of the night, to be exact. We’d driven the whole way from York to Cromarty, only to find that the ferry was cancelled for the day on account of high winds. The girls and I had to endure a very cold and uncomfortable night at a rest stop, sleeping in the car.
‘It’s no trouble,’ Isla said. ‘Mr Roberts is away, of course, but I’m to take care of everything until he returns.’
‘Are we sleeping in the car again?’ Clover said, wiping her mouth on the back of her sleeve.
‘In the car?’ Isla repeated, looking to me for explanation.
‘I’m sure there are plenty of beds for all of us,’ I said quickly, and this time I was the one to look to Isla for confirmation. I didn’t want to mention that we’d had to sleep rough.
‘Of course there are,’ she said. ‘Shall I give you the grand tour?’
The bothy was small but efficiently organized. A door at the rear of the kitchen led to a scullery with a washing machine and loo. Three bedrooms provided ample sleeping space with freshly made-up beds, and a bathroom with a shower cubicle.
We followed Isla to the living room at the front of the house, overlooking the garden.
‘Now, you’ll have noticed it’s a bit chilly on the island. So you’re not to worry if you need to turn the heater on.’ She nodded at the wood burning stove. ‘You’ll find a shed at the side of the bothy stocked with wood. And I’ve put plenty of blankets in the cupboards for you to coorie down in the evenings. Which reminds me. Sometimes the electricity goes off. Nothing to worry about. You know how to manage an oil lantern?’
I followed her gaze to an old-fashioned oil lamp in the windowsill, which I’d assumed was for decoration. I caught Isla rolling her eyes as it became clear that no, I didn’t know how to manage an oil lantern.
‘I’ll be sure to leave instructions,’ she said with a tight smile.
‘Does Mr Roberts live here?’ Saffy asked.
‘This is one of his properties,’ Isla said. ‘But no, he doesnae live here. His main residence is north of here, twenty minutes or so by car.’
‘Will you tell him I’ve arrived?’ I asked.
‘Well, I’d love to,’ Isla said brusquely, ‘but he’s at sea just now.’
‘Aye, for all he has a half-dozen houses dotted about the place he prefers to be out on his boat.’
‘I have a boat,’ Clover offered.
Isla lifted an eyebrow. ‘Do ye, now?’
‘It’s green with a purple chimney and I play with it in the bath.’
‘Well, Mr Roberts’ boat is a wee bit bigger than that, I’d wager,’ Isla said, chuckling. ‘He tends to sail to Shetland at this time of year.’
‘He’s a pirate, then?’ Clover said, astonished.
Isla bent down to Clover’s eye level. ‘No. But I reckon he’d be a good ’un.’
‘Do you come from Shetland?’ Clover asked, running her fingertips along the stubbly woodchip wallpaper. Woodchip was her favourite texture.
‘No,’ Isla said. ‘I come from Lòn Haven. Where d’you come from?’
‘My mummy’s vagina,’ Clover said.
I watched Isla’s face drop. ‘Girls, go have a look at your bedrooms,’ I said, ushering Clover quickly away. ‘Do you know when I’m to discuss the commission with Mr Roberts?’
‘He said to give you this.’ Isla reached into her trouser pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper. I opened it up to find an elaborate and highly abstract sketch, a diagram of sorts. Lots of lines and arrows and circles, like a zodiac.
‘What is it?’ I said, turning the page to the side. There was no indication which way the sketch was meant to be viewed.
‘It’s the mural,’ Isla said flatly. ‘The thing you’re painting inside the Longing.’
I stared at her, wondering if I’d misheard.
‘This? This is the mural?’
She cocked her head. ‘Is something the matter?’
‘No, no . . .’ I said, though I didn’t sound convincing, even to my own ears. ‘I suppose I thought there might be more to it than this. Written instructions, perhaps.’
‘That’s all Mr Roberts has given me. He said I’m to fetch whatever equipment you need to do the job. So perhaps you can write me a list of whatever you’ll require and I’ll get on to it in the morning.’
Still dumbfounded by the sketch, I said I would, but that I’d need to see inside the Longing first.
‘Ah, now that would be an idea,’ she said, straightening a lampshade. ‘How about I show you just now?’
Outside, harsh winds buffeted us on the rocks, and I saw movement on the far reaches of the island. Seals, Isla told us. I was astonished at how close they were to the bothy, but she told me they were shy creatures, despite their size. They’d not bother us. I watched them slip off the stones into the black water, their shape in the dark almost human.
The lighthouse stood twenty feet away from the bothy towards the far end of the cliff. We all pushed against the wind towards the heavy metal door at the base. I could make out an object wrapped around the handle. A tree branch. I made to pull it off, thinking it had been blown on there by the wind and become stuck. Isla stopped me.
‘Rowan wood,’ she said. ‘It’s for protection.’
I had no idea what she meant, but I stepped back as she tried to leverage the door open. Finally, it shifted. I lifted Clover on to my hip and held Luna’s hand tight as we followed Isla inside.
‘Bloody hell,’ Saffy said, looking around.
‘This place is rank.’ I shushed her, but couldn’t help agreeing internally.
I’d never been inside a lighthouse before. I’d expected floor-levels, an enclosed staircase. The Longing, however, was a grim, granite cone. A rickety staircase was pinned loosely against the wall, spiralling Hitchcock-style to the lantern room at the very top. The place reeked of damp And rotting fish. I wondered why we were standing in an inch of black liquid, until Isla explained that one of the lower windows was broken, and seawater had poured inside and pooled on the floor.
‘I gather you’ll need something to pump it out before you start,’ she said.
‘Mr Roberts is turning it into a writing studio, is that right?’ I asked, and Isla nodded.
‘He’s not published,’ she added. ‘Just a hobby. I wouldn’t be expecting him to produce The Iliad or anything like that. He bought it last year and didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Next thing I know, he’s asking me about getting a painter in to prettify it, make it into a writing studio.’ She gave a shrill laugh. ‘Whoever heard of such a thing? Surely all you need to write is a pen and paper.’
‘Maybe the views will inspire him,’ I offered.
‘Aye. Inspire him to go off sailing, more like.’
We were shrouded in darkness. Clover was clutching on to her toy giraffe, whimpering to go home. Bats flitted overhead. Moonlight dribbled from the small upper windows, revealing the height of the place.
‘It’s a hundred and forty-nine feet tall,’ Isla said, swinging her torchlight to the very top.
‘A hundred and thirty-eight steps to the lantern room. Braw views up there. I can show you when it’s light.’ Her torchlight rested on patches of paint that had crumbled off, revealing raw stone. About halfway up someone had graffitied a section of the wall in garish shades of lime-green and black.
‘There was a break-in,’ Isla said darkly. ‘Outsiders, you see. We get them here a lot more now, since the rental properties on the east side opened up. And the Neolithic museum, that’s new. You should take your girls.’
Isla reassured us that break-ins like this were rare, that tourists – or ‘outsiders’ – didn’t frequent the place often. Lòn Haven’s population was predominantly grassroots, with sixty or so archaeologists from ‘the University’ working at the Neolithic sites. Some of the younger population had inherited crofts that they didn’t want to live in, so they’d started renting them out. The older population objected strongly both to the younger islanders moving away (‘all of them want to live in Edinburgh or London,’ she told us with a sneer) and, as a result, drawing ‘outsiders’ to the island to rent out the crofts.
Break-in aside, I was intrigued by the Longing. As an artist, two of my favourite things were shadows and curved angles, and this place had both in spades. The shadows seemed alive, like the wings of a giant bird stirred by our presence. It was creepy, yes, but also elegant – I loved how the staircase whirled upwards in increasingly narrower circles within the cylinder of the structure, how the lack of right angles gave every small edge extra significance, how the architecture drew my gaze upwards.
‘Has the lighthouse ever been submerged?’ I asked. I could hear wind pummelling the stone walls, the loud suck and slap of the waves close by.
‘We get our fair share of storms,’ Isla said, and I could tell she was choosing her words carefully so as not to put me off. ‘But the Longing has been standing for a hundred years amidst all that Mother Nature and the sea gods have to throw at her, and I daresay she’ll stand a hundred more.’
A pause. ‘So long as you keep rowan on the door, you’ll be fine.’
It was as she said this that I felt a wave of déjà vu pass over me. Saffy, Luna, and Isla were beginning to head towards the door to leave, but the feeling of familiarity was so strong that I paused, as though someone had spoken and I was trying to understand what they’d said.
‘Liv?’ Saffy said from behind. I turned all the way around, moved by absolute certainty that something was in the corner by the stairs, just underneath it, as though I’d left it there.
‘Everything all right?’ Isla said as I sloshed through the oily water to the staircase. Her torchlight fell upon something floating on the black water ahead of me. The slender white limb of a baby’s corpse.
Luna gave a scream that bounced off the surfaces of the lighthouse.
‘What is it?’ Isla said, rushing forward.
Luna was still shrieking, clawing at me and crying, ‘No! No!’ She turned to rush out, and I grabbed her, reaching down with my free hand to scoop the little body out of the filthy water.
It wasn’t a baby. It was only a doll, one of those naked newborn dolls that Clover liked to play with.
As I looked down into the grotesque face of that doll, its eyes blacked out with felt tip, adrenaline flashed brightly through my body. I had known it was a doll. I had known it was there before I saw it, and that we’d mistake it for a dead child. Like a memory.
But that was ridiculous. I had never been there before.