The Eclipse Island Lighthouse

Cape Liptrap Lighthouse, Walkerville. © Tim South
But you say the light wasn't shining the last two nights. Why didn't you try to contact them?

Not long before the Second World War, my friend Pieter Lindenbaum had the foresight to move from Amsterdam to England, and, unlike over 100,000 of his fellow Jews living in the Netherlands who were deported to Nazi concentration camps, he survived the holocaust. His wife had died of a brief illness the year before, and his son had joined the army, so he had no strong emotional ties when he left. I first learned about Lindenbaum's move in May of 1937 when I received a post office telegram asking if he could stay with me for a day or two until he found lodging. Of course I was happy to put him up. Lindenbaum arrived the next morning, with one suitcase containing only his passport, spare clothes, toiletries, and a framed photograph of his wife. He told me briefly of her illness and passing. Sadly, his son was killed in action when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, but he did not learn this until the post-war years, when we were all counting the cost. Lindenbaum had intended to stay with me only for a short time, but I insisted he stay as long as he wished, and as it soon became apparent that we were quite compatible fellow lodgers, he stayed for a few months, and we enjoyed many long chats in the evenings by the fire.

Once again the reputation of his intellect preceded him, and he was recruited by the British Government eleven months after he arrived. Due to his age, and the fact that he was not a British national, he was only employed to a limited extent, but he avoided telling me the nature of what he was doing. Once he began to work for the government he would occasionally visit, as my house in Madingley was a short bus ride away from where he worked in Bletchley.

So we lived through the dark years of another world war. I was a very old man by the time it ended, but I had remained in good health, and had been affected much less than those many millions who died or whose lives were shattered. To some extent I had lost touch with Lindenbaum, who had worked harder and harder until it was over.

Not long after the war, Lindenbaum wrote to tell me he had moved to Dromness, a small fishing village in Scotland. It seemed a rather unusual place to move to, but I knew him to be incapable of irrationality, so I had no doubt there was a sound reason for it. He invited me to visit him - I happily agreed, packed my warmest things and organised my travel.

"So why Scotland, of all places?" I asked him.

"Well, it's... nowhere. For want of a better way to say it. There is something cathartic about living so far from the fighting. We have peace now, but the places are still scarred with the nightmare. I can't go back to Amsterdam, and England is too overwhelmed with grief. I had to run from it."

"Can you find work here?"

"I have a small pension. I live simply. Who knows, perhaps the police will ask my help on a baffling murder mystery!"

"Well, stranger things happen."

"I suppose so. But if you come to visit me every so often, and I may return the compliment, I won't be lonely."

"Of course, Pieter."

During my stay, our existence was a simple one. We would walk along the cliffs near his cottage every morning, take dinner in the village in the evening, and often we would talk to the locals. Very little was spoken between us, in what Genevieve used to describe as a 'comfortable quiet'. But every so often, at night, I could hear him through the wall, crying softly.

Far out to sea was a little rocky island called Eclipse Island, and perched grimly on it was a lighthouse. Lindenbaum pointed it out to me a day after I arrived - from the little village we could just see it with binoculars, though it was a very humble construction - not much more than a tiny shack on a number of oak piles, driven into rock which was under water more often than not. At any time there are two keepers living there, with barely enough room for one man. The frequent stormy weather, particularly in winter, meant that the keepers could go unrelieved for months at a time.

One night, sometime before midnight, I was woken by a noise. It began as a low roar, from a great distance, and seemed to last for a long time - it seemed to get gradually lower in pitch, until it was a sort of dark grinding sound with no pitch at all, before it vanished away. The next morning I said to Lindenbaum,

"Does the lighthouse have a foghorn?"

"No, it has no audible warning," he said. "The wind conditions are rarely calm enough for fog. Why, did you hear something?"

"Yes, last night, about midnight. Did you hear anything?"

"No, I was asleep. What did you hear?"

"A sort of low pitched roar, I suppose, and its note kept getting lower, for quite some time."

Lindenbaum thought for a moment.

"Hmmm... I don't know what that would be. But there's an R.A.F. base a mile or two inland. I thought they closed it after the war, but perhaps other aeroplanes still use it. I'll ask in the village."

But the R.A.F. base was dismantled the year before. Although Lindenbaum talked to a number of people, nobody had been awake in the night before to hear the sound. He accepted the situation as a mystery for the present, but asked me to wake him if the sound recurred.

I heard the sound in the night again, about two weeks later. I went to rouse my friend, and he listened carefully.

"Yes," he said, "it's hard to tell which direction it's coming from. Almost every direction, really, it fills the sky. But it seems far away. It sounds man-made, but if it's an aeroplane it's doing something very odd."

We kept listening, until it faded into silence.

Two days later, the town was rocked by a dreadful tragedy - a dead body was washed ashore, a mile down the coast. It was soon identified as Griffin McTavish, one of the lighthouse keepers - he had drowned, but there was no other clue as to how he had met his end. The light had ceased operating two nights before. An attempt was made by radio to contact the lighthouse, but there was no response. Constable Renfrew, the district policeman, rang Lindenbaum to tell him that a boat was going to the lighthouse, and asking if he would assist, so we struggled into our raincoats and made our way through a cold drizzle to the wharf. As there was room enough on the launch, Lindenbaum asked the constable if I could come with them.

"Och, d'ye have any trouble with the sea-sickness?" he asked me.

"Not at all," I said. "I've been on plenty of boats, but sea-sickness was always the least of my problems, believe me!"

"Glad I am to hear it. The two keepers were terrible sailors - young James Malcolm was sick every time we went to the light. But they had to take whatever jobs they could find in these times. Aye, very well then, sir, come aboard."

And soon we began the trip to Eclipse Island. The sound of the launch was not too loud, and it seemed the constable was in a chatty mood.

"Lighthouses are famous for being lonely places as I'm sure ye know. It's easy te go a wee bit strange in the noggin. Ye know there was a keeper who killed his wife with an axe for playing her piano too much... and another lighthouse, very like the Eclipse Island light it was - a tiny light far, far out to sea - one o' the men fell over and died... The other one put him in a box, then went mad. Living with the corpse for four months just drove him out of his senses. And I'm sure you've heard o' the Flannan Island lighthouse, where three keepers just disappeared! Gone! There was a half-eaten meal on the table. Och, they're still trying to work out what happened, fifty years later."

"What can you tell me about the Eclipse Island keepers?" asked Lindenbaum.

"Well nowadays the board is vairy careful about who they put on the lights. Griffin and James have always been as quiet as two little lambs, ye might say. Though sometimes they've seemed a wee bit strange to me, when they came ashore. Sort of, scared, I suppose."

"Do they have families?"

"Aye, but not in the village."

If the constable had more to say it had to wait, as we moved towards something floating in the water. It was another dead man. The policeman cut the engine, found a long grappling hook, then pulled the body aboard.

"Och, it's James Malcolm. The other lighthouse keeper."

The constable's face was pale, and his hands were shaking.

"Alright, constable," said Lindenbaum, "we must keep going."

"Aye, sir."

The tone of authority in Lindenbaum's voice seemed to steady the constable - the engine was started and we continued. But something had come over my friend. It was only subtle, but I knew him well - he seemed to take on an air of mastery. I wondered if this little mystery was reminding him of who he was, and the place he had taken in a world now long gone, and I wondered if, perhaps only slightly, he was allowing himself to feel valued again.

After about an hour we reached the island. Even in the slight swell it was difficult to get onto the sea-weed covered rock - at one point I almost slipped and went into the water, but the constable grabbed my arm.

"Alright, be careful there, I say. We don't want another body in the drink."

I was tempted to stay in the boat - it wasn't hard to see why the rock was so often inaccessible. Lindenbaum pointed to a wooden box bolted to one of the piles.

"What's that for?"

"Painters, ropes, buoys and such like. Look inside if ye want."

"There are ropes in here," said Lindenbaum. "But not many. How many should there be?"

"I don't know," said the constable.

We climbed the ladder to the lighthouse cabin, and the constable went to the balcony and carefully looked about with his binoculars - the wind and rain were light, and he could see far out to sea. Away to the south-west we could see a steamer moving slowly north toward the Hebrides, and the mainland stretched behind us, but there was nothing else to be seen.

We found the door closed - inside the cabin we could find nothing to tell us what had occurred. The clock had wound down, but the log was kept until two days ago, with nothing in it out of the ordinary. The table was cleared of a recent meal, and there was a game of draughts half finished on the table. If the men had simply stepped off the rock for no good reason, we would have seen the same thing. Nevertheless, Lindenbaum took over an hour to scour the cabin for clues.

"There's plenty of oil for the lamp," he said. "But you say the light wasn't shining the last two nights. Why didn't you try to contact them?"

"Sometimes they have te make repairs. They're always as quick as they can - if there's a problem they would radio the village. It's usually no cause for concern. But Mister Lindenbaum, we need to get back. They're sending new keepers from Edinburgh to operate the light again, and I'll have to get them out here before dark."

"Of course, constable. I think we've seen everything."

Back on land, as we climbed back towards Lindenbaum's cottage, we talked further.

"Well, Albert, it's rather a poser, isn't it? A spell of calm weather, strange sounds in the sky at night, and two lighthouse keepers, of sound mind and placid disposition, drown for no good reason. Any ideas?"

"No, not a clue. It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes case - 'the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant'."

"Oh yes? And how did Holmes solve it?"

"Well there's no solution, it's one of the untold stories Watson mentions in passing."

"Oh, that's a shame. Any clue we can get would be welcome at the moment. I suppose there were no shortage of detective authors who have presumed to-"

Lindenbaum's brow knitted for a few moments...

"Albert, did you see any birds near the lighthouse?"

"Er... no, I don't think so. Perhaps they don't fly there for some reason."

"No, there were droppings on the lighthouse, I'm sure of it."

"Well I don't know much about bird behaviour, but surely there could be many reasons for their absence."

"You're probably right. Well, it's something to keep in mind."

The bodies were examined by the local doctor, but beyond confirming that both men had drowned, no further clue was to be had. Both families of the keepers lived in Edinburgh, and they were given the bad news. The next day, the widows travelled to Dromness, and Lindenbaum talked to them at great length, but learnt nothing.

Some days later, Constable Renfrew rang Lindenbaum to tell him that another terrible tragedy had occurred - one of the trawlers had come into the bay carrying a fisherman who had died only a few hours before. Lindenbaum and I made our way to the wharf, where the policeman was talking to the captain.

"Ah, thank you for joining me again, Mister Lindenbaum. Jack, now you tell this man all you have told me. Don't leave anything out."

"Och, well I don't know what te think. Just before sunrise the engine started to sound like a bandsaw - like something had snagged one o' the propellers, something large. We had to shut it down. But then after a few minutes we heard Andrew at the stern, screaming blue murder! He said he saw a huge creature come out of the ocean - he said it had a long neck, higher than five houses he said, with tiny eyes and a large mouth, but the rest of it was under the waves. He said it had disappeared before we got there, then, then he died, poor man."

"Is it possible he had been...?" suggested Lindenbaum, with a raised eyebrow.

"No, Andrew never drank before going out on the boat," said the captain. "He was a good man, and an honest man. He had a head cold and was taking tonic, but that's all, I promise ye."

The doctor pronounced the likely cause of the fisherman's death as heart failure, no doubt due to the shock of what he had seen. Not surprisingly, all the trawlers ceased their fishing, and the threat of the monster gripped the villagers with fear. Constable Renfrew was out of his element with such a case, and kept ringing Lindenbaum to ask if he had any further clues. A few days after the tragedy of the fisherman, Lindenbaum and I were walking along the cliffs of Dromness, and as he often did, my friend began to think aloud...

"This monster seems rather bizarre to me. It seems incongruous with what happened to the lighthouse keepers. I can't see it - as if both men were on the balcony of the lighthouse in the middle of the night, when some vast sea creature emerged and plucked both of them off, then decided to throw them into the water to be drowned, leaving no injury to their bodies whatsoever? No, it's preposterous. Yet how can two such terrible things happening within a short time be a coincidence?

"Well, three men are dead. And the trawler came up against something..."

"Hmmm, whether or not it was a long-necked monster remains to be seen, I suppose. But we may never know what the fisherman saw."

As we walked, Lindenbaum withdrew into some train of thought, and I remained silent.

Day followed day, and Lindenbaum kept searching for the answer... He spent an entire morning examining the trawler from stem to stern, and found nothing. He took the lighthouse log, a thick, worn volume, and read it all day and far into the night, then threw his spectacles onto the table with a bitter gesture.

The next morning, I took a walk along the cliffs again. I saw Lindenbaum standing there, looking out to sea with binoculars. Was he looking for something? Or was he just ruminating? After a while he turned and saw me.

"Ah, hello, Albert."

"See anything?"


He continued to look out to sea for a while. I didn't say anything.

"You know," he said, "when I was a young man I would think, and daydream, and sooner or later I would see the answer. But now, I can't help feeling that I have all the information, yet there's something I'm not seeing. This is the first case I've investigated where people's lives depend on me finding the truth. Is the pressure making my mind seize up? Am I getting too old?"

"Pieter, you'll find the answer."

But despite my empty reassurance, I kept trying to think of what to say to him. Was he too old? Had the ravages of the war taken their toll so much that his gifts had wasted away?

A number of days later, I was woken in the night by the noise again, and I went to fetch Lindenbaum. We listened for some time, before it died away into silence, as it had done before.

"What is it?" muttered Lindenbaum, his head in his hands. "What is it?"

We talked for a while longer, but kept saying the same things, over and over.

Then, as we were about to return to bed, we suddenly heard a nasty rattle in the room - a small pepper grinder on the dining table seemed to be vibrating, moving slowly along until it reached the edge and fell off, bounced and rolled into a corner. Lindenbaum didn't move. I went over, picked it up and put it on the table, where it resumed its dance for a few minutes more. Apart from the rattle of the grinder, there was utter silence. I looked at my friend - he had been seized by another train of thought, and sat there for quite some time.

Suddenly he asked, "What's the date?"

"The sixth."

"Of course. Yes, of course! Albert, get some sleep. We must visit the constable, first thing in the morning!"

So as soon as it was light, we dressed and walked quickly down the hill to the police station. Lindenbaum had obviously not slept, but his eyes were bright with energy. Soon we were sitting in the police office, with mugs of tea warming our hands.

"Well, constable, I have good news. I believe that without too much trouble, we'll be able to avoid these tragedies happening again. Let me explain my thought processes, but I must ask you to keep much of what I tell you a secret."

"Of course, of course, but for goodness' sake, don't keep me waiting, tell me now!"

"Very well. Let me begin by looking at the matter in this way; there are facts, and there are fancy. Did we hear the cry of some terrible beast? Well my friend and I heard something unusual, something unidentified. But then the story went around the town, gaining in terror and anguish as it went, until it was the bellow of an enormous monster, that drove the lighthouse keepers mad. Then, before he died, the fisherman described something suspiciously like the photograph of the Loch Ness Monster that was taken a few years back. No, as always we must exclude all considerations of the fantastical until we have thoroughly exhausted the rational. What are the common factors in all of the events? First, we have a strange, unidentified sound in the night. We have the aberrant behaviour of the keepers, the fisherman, and quite likely the birds. They were all awake, during the night, and all at sea. There are no other facts in common, but much superstitious interpretation. And when we examine the question on that basis, it almost answers itself. A sound that causes madness in certain people. It is also clear that these noises occur at regular intervals of two weeks. What monster has such a precise schedule? This thing is man-made. But why would it want to cause the deaths of three men? Well, we have no compelling evidence that it did.

"Now when I was working for the British Government, one of their areas of scientific investigation was looking at infrasound - noises at frequencies that are too low for human hearing. It wasn't my section, but it got around that some of the boffins were conducting playful experiments on one or two of the others. But things took a nasty turn. Some of the victims developed serious behavioural pathology - there was talk of these people being gripped by uncontrollable fear and paranoia, and some were convinced they had seen ghosts. The whole process then came under intense scrutiny, and highly classified research is ongoing. With the sound we heard, it seems very likely that it lowered in pitch, but it didn't die away, instead it continued at an infrasonic level, with a strength which is impossible to determine. Its effects were briefly focussed and multiplied by the barometric conditions, the cold air, and the calm stretch of ocean - such noises can often carry for many hundreds of miles from their source and manifest themselves at random times, and the Doppler effect will make them reduce in pitch. The lighthouse keepers may have heard nothing, when the air for miles about them was howling and booming at an immensely strong volume. The sea birds would have fled. The men slowly lost any sense of rationality... then, like a dog in a thunderstorm, they had to escape. Once they descended from the cabin, they slipped off the rock and into in the water."

"But what about the log?" asked the constable. "Wouldn't they write something about it?"

"No... I doubt it," said Lindenbaum. "Logs are for weather conditions, nautical observances, procedures and so forth. If either of the keepers had written about anything supernatural, they would have been reprimanded, and their suitability to man the lighthouse would have been thoroughly examined. These were family men, who needed to keep their jobs."

"Yes, yes..." I said. "And of course the fisherman was similarly affected. But what did the trawler run up against?"

"Well, the men heard the engine snarl. But I don't think anything was wrong with their engine at all. I think our mystery sound had not yet lowered to an infrasonic level, and they mistook it for the engine. Then, by the time they had shut it down, the noise had become inaudible, and the fisherman began to see things."

"But why did it have no effect on us?" I asked.

"Ah, I'm not certain," said Lindenbaum, "but I think it might be related to the sense of balance... Infrasound energy was found to have a greater effect on a fragile vestibular system - you and I have no natural tendency towards sea-sickness, but the fisherman had a cold, and the keepers were well known to be poor sailors."

"So what made the sound, then?"

"Ah, well that will be my next problem!"

But once Lindenbaum knew what to look for, it didn't take long for him to find it. Over the next few days he conferred with the weather observatory in Edinburgh. Then, using his British Government security credentials, he managed to determine that a regular intelligence service flight between Pembroke Dock and the naval base at Scapa Flow had begun two months earlier, using a Sunderland flying boat. Of course, he didn't try to dissuade Coastal Command from flying over Dromness. But in time, he and Constable Renfrew were able to convince the people of the village that the monster only appeared on certain nights, when they must be away from the ocean.

So the time came for me to leave. Lindenbaum went with me on the bus to the train station, and when it was time to board, I shook his hand and said,

"Well, this is goodbye, Pieter! Thanks for your hospitality, old chap, thanks enormously!"

"No, thank you, Albert! Your companionship has meant a lot to me over the past weeks, especially your help with the little mystery."

"Well, I knew you would solve it. I only wish you could have been there to solve all the other strange mysteries that have happened to me! You'll be alright, you know, Pieter. Remember, you can come and visit me whenever you like. I promise."

And with those words, we parted. The case of the Eclipse Island lighthouse represented a new beginning for my friend, as if he had come out of a retirement and gained the heart to take his place in the world again. He moved back to Amsterdam, and with great wisdom and energy he helped found an institute for forensic science which rose to considerable prominence.

May, 2016

 the next chapter » 
 « contents