The inspector introduced me to Old Tom, an ancient mariner with a brilliant snow-white beard framing a face bronzed to crusted leather. He was dressed in a pair of dungarees flecked with white paint and black soot, a boot missing a shoelace, and the navy blue cap with its shining gold emblem of the Marlow Point Lighthouse, clean as the day it was issued.
I offered my hand to the keeper. He looked me over, grunted in clear disapproval, and beckoned us inside without a word of greeting.
In the antechamber, we met a narrow spiral staircase. I gripped the wooden railing and followed the keeper, my knee protesting with each step. The staircase ended at the lower store.
“Food’s kept here,” Old Tom said, voice as harsh as the sea. “Comes once a month, usually.”
The term ‘usually’ disturbed me. With no desire to be torn between duty and bodily needs, I asked the longest he had waited for resupply. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Two month. Maybe three. Winter’s hard out here. Best be prepared.”
“Jack is our man hired for supply runs,” the inspector explained. “He buys the goods according to the inventory sheet you provide. This is why an accurate count is crucial.”
I vowed to be as correct as possible and returned my attention to the aged keeper. He pointed a gnarled finger at a red fire bucket in the corner.
“Check ‘em every day.”
He turned and ascended a second set of stairs where we found another store. Here dry goods were kept. Paint, mortar, bricks, and a variety of maintenance tools were stacked in orderly rows on a metal shelf. A medical box he said never to use complete with gauze, antiseptic, and morphine.
Another flight of stairs and we entered the kitchen. A pile of wood stacked in orderly columns rested near the stove, its steel pipe ran along the wall, disappearing into the ceiling above. I asked Tom if he got the wood from the forest.
“Don’t go into the wood. Nothing in there. You’ll only get lost.”
“The wood comes with the resupply,” the inspector said. “No need to fetch it yourself. Of course, use only what you need. No sense in wasting fuel.”
Another flight of stairs to the bedroom, which consisted of a single mattress atop a metal frame with neatly folded sheets, the only decor was the stovepipe running through the room. Letting my eye wander slowly about the dark, tiny dwelling, devoid of family portraits and memorabilia, I knew it to be the abode of a man isolated. There was nothing to this man’s life but lighthouse, sea, and duty.
Old Tom sneered as if guessing my thoughts.
“Light’s up there,” he indicated the direction.
The keeper opened a hatch admitting us into the light room. Above us roosted the great Fresnel lens, hidden beneath its linen bag like a hunting falcon waiting for release. All about us hung the ropes and weights which made the great machine rotate in place. But now, under the light of the sun, the weights hung still in space, gently undulating in preparation for another night’s work.
“Lens is already clean,” Old Tom said. “Use linen and nothing else. After it’s clean, bag it up like you see here and draw the curtains. At dusk, take off the bag, light the fire, and unlock the weights. Kerosene’s over there. Comes in twice a month. Should be plenty in case it don’t. Three buckets over there. Always keep water in ‘em. Clean the windows every morn, paint when needed, muck out the stove, and maintain the ground. Inventory lists are on that desk there.”’
“The District Office expects regular correspondence,” the inspector noted as he gazed about the room. “I expect updates, as often as you can manage.”
I promised to do so.
“Otherwise, watch for ships and give help when need be. I’ll be back in the spring, so don’t think of leaving her,” Old Tom grunted, pointing a gnarled finger to the light hanging overhead, the bell of his sanctuary. “You just stick to yer duties. Give her constant and faith attention, you hear? Constant and faithful attention.”