Leave a Light On For Me
By MARK NIXON
Among the rolling hills of Northumberland rests the small coastal town of Anworth. A quaint but none the less unremarkable village, it avoids the larger crowds of tourists by offering little distraction beyond its aging medieval castle. Yet, there is just enough trade to keep the coffee shops open. Sitting atop grassy hills and boasting a beautiful array of daffodils, the ancient ruins stands tall above the sloping streets of the town. A slight river surrounds the town, and must have once acted as a moat. Although the occasional passing car reminds locals of life beyond their hushed corner of England, Anworth holds a rare quietness that allows those within to shut away from modern stresses. For many, it is a place to retire, while for others it is somewhere simply to forget.
Opposite the castle, over the winding road stands the three star rated Cherry Tree hotel, a perfectly handsome building, decorated in creeping ivy, barely held back from entirely consuming the windows and signage. One of the later additions to Anworth, The Cherry Tree remains in the 1970s despite what contemporary fashions would impose upon it. The twenty rooms are never booked to capacity, and this morning, the guests of the typical eleven bookings do not venture far for breakfast.
Inside the restaurant, if it can be called such a thing, sits a man barely into his thirties alone at a breakfast table; his eyes fixed at his full plate. His belly empty, he none the less struggles to gather the energy required to handle the knife and fork. The grease, already solidified on the plate turns his stomach as he finally pushes the plate away. The clanging of cutlery and chatter an endless noise around him, he quickly takes and swallows the remainder of his orange juice, leaving his throat in discomfort from the large gulp.
“Something wrong with your breakfast?” The manager cheerfully asks, approaching with a fresh jug of juice.
“Not really.” Replies the guest, he looks up and forces a smile “I just think I’ve lost my appetite this morning.”
“That’s a shame,” He looks to the empty glass “at least let me top you up”.
The manager leans over to fill his glass, leaning into his customer. His strong aftershave tickles the nostrils of his guest.
“Thank you.” He places his hand near the top of his glass. The buttons on the cuffs of his shirt are unfastened, poking out from under a cashmere jumper. He smiles politely at his host. The patron’s short hair has been slicked back, in keeping with the dress code of his profession.
Silence hangs in the air between the two of them. Ever the good host, the manager searches for conversation.
“So, sleep well?”
“Yes, lovely. Thank you.” He lies.
The manager smiles and nods.
“That’s grand. Any nice plans today then? Stroll on the beach?”
“Sadly, no. As a matter of fact, I’m to meet with a Father Gorman this morning. I’ll be-”
“Father Gorman?” he interrupts with a scoff.
The guest furrows his brow “Yes, Father Simon Gorman. He does live in Anworth, doesn’t he?”
“Oh yeah, he certainly does. He doesn’t show his face a lot these days though. Hasn’t been so much as a Sunday Service in weeks.”
“How curious.” He replies, standing from the table. “Thanks.”
Forgoing any hopes of a decent meal, the guest steps outside of the hotel later that day and takes in deep breath of crisp air. Although the hills of the town hide view of the sea, one cannot ignore the ever present caw of seagulls and the salt hanging in the air. The sun beams down upon him, but its warmth is missing in the typical autumn weather. He secures his large leather satchel over his shoulder and marches down the path. His proud posture and antiquated corduroy jacket draw bemused looks from the local passers-by; men of such disposition rarely frequent these streets. Although Anworth is by no means an unattractive village, he has no time for its picturesque charm. He walks with purpose and soon sees the church beyond the humdrum of the village.
He arrives at the stone walls of the church, slightly removed from the busier main street. The manager of the hotel was right, there are no signs of activity to betray the still nature of the seemingly abandoned building. Typically, he is on time, but perhaps the priest is already inside waiting for him. The wooden gate, soaked with rain water, heaves against the gravel path as he puts his weight against it. Behind him, a passing local eyes the outsider with a suspicion, yet ultimately denying his curiosity, he leaves without comment.
The door to the church is unlocked, but fails to open with ease. As he pushes his way through, the sudden coldness of the church sweeps over him like a hanging blanket in the breeze. He hunches into himself as he pulls his jacket over his chest and takes his first tentative steps upon the stone. The church is dark, and his calls elicit no reply. He allows his footsteps to land noisily, hoping to see the door at the opposite end of the hall open. Catching a slight reflection on the inside of his glasses lens, he turns around to see a figure stood at the open door, hands in his pockets. Immediately, he approaches the figure with an outstretched arm.
“Yes, that’s me.” He meets his arm in handshake. “You must be Dr. Troughton?” His smile kind and reassuring, but none the less anxious.
Immediately he notices the absence of a collar on the priest at the door, and can’t help but observe the dishevelled nature of his appearance. Heavy bags rest under his tired eyes, and has what must be at least five days growth of facial hair adorning his slim face.
“Indeed I am, sir. But please, mister will do just fine,” he states with a false modesty long since adopted when outside the walls of the university. “You must forgive me for intruding.”
“Think nothing of it.” His smile drops for the slightest of moments as he looks behind Dr. Troughton. His eyes searching for something in the dark.
“Shall we?” Troughton steps to the side and gestures into the church, bemused at the role reversal.
“Yes.” He pauses before forcing another smile. “Yes, of course.”
The two men exchange pleasantries as Father Gorman switches on the lights and guides his guest to the back room. Inside, he plugs in a small, flimsy heater as they sit at the modest desk. The surrounding bookshelves stand mostly empty, however outlines of dust reveal the recent presence of a respectable collection. Behind the seat of the priest, a large Christian cross decorates the wall, the holy man glances to it from time to time, as if it may disappear once out of sight. In the corner of the room, an ancient wooden chest catches Troughton’s attention, a modern padlock sits tightly into the latch of the lid.
“Is this…?” Troughton gestures to the chest.
“It is,” nods the priest.
Troughton immediately gets up and walks to the tantalising chest, he squats and lifts the padlock, feeling its weight. There’s not a scratch on it, clearly it’s brand new.
“I suppose one can never be too careful,” he turns and smiles at the priest. “Especially when one leaves the church unlocked.”
Gorman remains in his chair, he laughs anxiously. “It must have slipped my mind.” He senses this explanation has not satisfied his companion. “But Anworth is a quiet village. Few trouble makers, as it were.”
“I see.” Troughton removes a pair of clinical rubber gloves from his pocket and begins to slip them on. “Do you have the key?”
Father Gorman hesitantly reaches into his pocket, removing an individual key. Taking it, Troughton unlocks the padlock and opens the old chest carefully. He rests the lid against the bookcase and gasps in awe.
Inside sits a large square shape, about a foot long and five inches wide, wrapped in cloth. Clearly the priest’s attempt to the keep the find in better condition. Troughton lifts the shape gently, and unwraps the cloth.
“Beautiful,” he says, almost involuntarily.
Holding now in his hands, was an old lantern made from what he imagined was steel. The colour of which had faded and mixed with dirt, was now almost black. Instead of glass, the sides were solid with patterns cut into it. It couldn’t give off much light, he thinks. He runs a gloved finger over the patterns, taking in the beauty of such an antique.
Father Gorman, whose chin rests upon clasped fingers, avoids the sight of the relic.
“You were quite right, Father,” Troughton calls back to the sitting priest. “Easily late 18th century.” He hears a hushed noise of acknowledgment behind him. “And you say the workmen came across this in the foundations?”
The priest’s eyes fixed firmly on the blank wall in front of him, he stares with such a deliberate intensity that he does not hear his companion.
“Sorry, yes – under the foundations.” He sat up in his chair. “They found it while we attempted to strengthen the dilapidated walls at the east side.” He looks upon the back of the lecturer, now working the latch of one side of the lantern, cautiously seeing if it would open. “Must you do that here?”
Troughton turns as he squats, the lantern still in his hands and a quizzical expression upon his face. “Excuse me?”
“The lantern, you’ve seen it now. I thought you’d study it back in Coventry?”
“You’ll forgive a man’s professional curiosity, Father. I can’t be expected to judge it so quickly now, can I?” He places it upon the desk. Now however, the priest’s eyes cannot be torn from it. “What did you make of it, Father?” he asks, scanning his face for tells.
“I’m not one for such things.” He casts his now familiar comforting smile, failing to convince him.
“Nonsense, I’m sure.” Troughton warily opens the latch; it gives easier than he’d have imagined. He sees inside a wick within it, so fresh it must have been put there recently. The top of the threaded wick had been burnt. He frowns.
“You certainly knew enough to re-thread the wick.”
Father Gorman meets his eye. “As you implied, curiosity; it gets the better of us all, does it not?”
Troughton looks back to the antique, annoyed. “Yes, I suppose it does.” His tones changes to a more friendly tenor. “I admit, it would be lovely to see it in use.”
Father Gorman stands abruptly. “We may have to stop for the day Dr. Troughton. I’m afraid I’m feeling rather unwell.”
He looked at him at a scrutinising eye. “Yes, I suppose you do look pale Father.” He looks back upon the lantern. “You go on home, I’ll be some time here.”
Gorman considered asking the guest to leave but clearly the lecturer was too excited to think of doing anything else. After some conversation he leaves reluctantly, handing over the keys, and hears the lock of the door behind him. Somewhat relieved to be away from the church, he feels a pang of guilt as he walks home. Just a little while longer, he thinks.
Inside, Troughton checks the door to the church is now locked fully, and is glad to be alone. His excitement overrides his pangs of hunger as he swiftly returns to the office at the rear of the church. Thoughts of the strange behaviour of Father Gorman leave his mind quickly. The evening passes with haste for the eager scholar, a collection of his specialist tools lay across the table. After some time he finds he has removed a lot of the loose rust and dirt without damaging the casing. As he sits absently brushing the relic, he notices the sun has long since set. He must return to the hotel soon and attempt to eat one of their so called dinners, while time allows.
Standing in the now dark office, he looks at the lantern with a tentative gaze. Professionalism aside, he finds something tantalising about the unlit lantern. Nothing more than a human curiosity, he nevertheless feels compelled, and soon finds himself searching for a lighter in the table drawers.
Among the stacks of papers, he finds a box of matches. It’s full, most likely purchased by the priest for this sole purpose. He strikes a match, the burning fills his nostrils as he leans to the lantern and opens the hatch. He holds the flame to the wick, it ignites instantly.
Blowing out the match, the lecturer steps back as the light fills the room. The flame is strong, somehow overcoming the confined gaps in the casing, no corner of the room holds onto the dark. Although he stands in the windowless office; he feels as if the light itself seeps through the stones walls, illuminating the streets beyond. His curiosity abated, he leans in and blows out the flame.
At that moment, there are footsteps beyond the church walls. Uneven, they fade as they near the front door, with a growing curiosity Troughton steps out of the office into the darkness of the main hall and listens purposely. The smells of the extinguished flame diffuse into the musty building as he waits.
At the opposite end of the hall, the handle to the church door slowly turns. The door doesn’t move, firmly locked shut. Immediately, there is a slow repetitive thump at the door.
Troughton sighs quietly and calls out to the door with the command of authority he had so often in his career.
“I’m sorry! The church is closed this evening!” His voice echoes briefly throughout the large, dark, hall. The thumping stops. He stands in the darkness and listens until he hears the crunch of the gravel as the clumsy footsteps walk away. “No idea why you’re calling at this hour anyway,” he quietly says toward the door.
He steps back into the office and gently packs the Lantern into his satchel. He removes his gloves, packing them away with the rest of his belongings. Soon he is locking the church shut. The door was strangely wet, as if someone had rubbed a cloth upon it. Not concerning himself with such trivialities, he walks up the gravel path and into the village. No sign of the drunken caller, at least. He makes his way up the hill of the high street, the weight pulling on his shoulder ever the reminder of the prize he holds.
The night is quiet and Troughton finds that he has the streets to himself, without so much as seagull for company. Which he imagines is for the best, as he passes the brightly lit windows of the local pub, cheers bellowing from within. He presses on, the noise of the pub fading behind. The cold batters his face, yet his excitement does not allow him to feel it.
As he progresses up the hill, he hears the crackling and shifting of debris falling from the rooftops, he ignores it as an ordinary thing until it happens again. A collection of dirt debris lands directly in front of him, something is on the roof. He looks up as a pebble bounces on the pavement, and hears a sudden scrabble, a slipping on the slate tiles as more debris is disturbed on the rooftop. Puzzled, Troughton walks backwards onto the road to get a better view of above.
It’s too dark, the small town has barely enough street lamps to show what’s up there. Something is definitely there though, he can see it if he squints. Whatever it is, it scrambles onto the next rooftop further up the hill, then another. The Lecturer slowly walks up the incline, his need for a better view driving him. The figure stops and grows taller to the point Troughton realises it -whatever it is – is standing upright. If you forced him to guess, he’d say the intruder was looking right down at him. Scrutinising the dark figure, he decides it is most certainly a person, but the silhouette is too dark to see any discernible features. He exhales loudly, and deliberately; what a ridiculous thing to do he thinks. Some drunkard, no doubt.
“You there! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
There is no response. Now he’s convinced the figure is looking right at him, motionless and silent. Troughton, about to call again, suddenly stops himself. Something feels unnatural. The house the figure stands upon, is just around the corner from the hotel; but now he certainly does not want to pass under it. He takes a few tentative steps backwards, his eyes on the silhouetted figure until he feels there is enough distance for him to slowly turn around and walk away. He walks with purpose, just slightly slower than a jog.
Passing through the winding streets, all Troughton can hear is the sound of his own footsteps and he allows his pace to relax. He looks over his shoulder from time to time, expecting to see someone in pursuit. Soon, he has passed through the small village in no time, and comes to the river at the outskirts. The river is still, and peaceful. Well cared for benches and flower beds dot the banks, clearly the village is proud of this area. There’s a moment of panic as he spots a man walking toward him, but even in the dark he can see that the heavy set stranger is wearing a huge warming smile.
“Evening,” he calls over.
“Good evening,” Troughton replies, somewhat relieved to see a friendly face.
The stranger approaches, hands in his pockets, bracing himself against the cold. “Cold isn’t it?”
“Freezing.” He smiles, glancing over his shoulder one last time.
“I wouldn’t bother being out if the dog didn’t need the walk.” Looking down and remembering his dog is not present he laughs “She’s around here somewhere, she loves a good explore.”
Troughton smiles in response; he never was good at small talk.
“Don’t think I’ve seen you around here.” The stranger scans his face.
“Oh no, I’ve only been in town since last night. I’ve been meeting with Father Gorman.”
The stranger laughs again, much to Troughton’s bemusement.
“Sorry.” He shakes his head with a smile. “Yes, the good Father ‘reckons he’s found Old Edgar’s Lantern doesn’t he?” He stops chuckling and reflects. He’s gone a bit funny about it actually.”
“Old Edgar’s Lantern?” Troughton asks, bemused. Not realising he is clutching his satchel that little more tightly.
“You’ve travelled to Anworth, and you haven’t heard that one?”
“Afraid not.” He allows the tone of his reply to suggest his eagerness. Some explanation for the Lantern could go a long way in his research back at the university, even if it comes as local legend.
“Wow, they were telling that one when I was a bairn. Anworth’s claim to fame you know! That’s where most of our tourists come from.” He leans against the bench, looks around the area for his dog before continuing.“Have you been down to the beach yet?”
Troughton shakes his head.
“Well, you should, it’s lovely.” He stretches his arm out to illustrate his next point. “There’s this old lighthouse down there. It’s falling apart really. Back in the day, the twenties I think, it was up and running all the time but there was meant to be a storm one night. Lightning strikes the lighthouse itself and the bloody light breaks.”
Troughton raises his eyebrows, offering mock reaction.
“So the lighthouse keeper – Old Edgar – panics because there was a ship coming in. He grabs his lantern and runs out to the beach. He’s waving it around like a madman but soon, it’s no use and the ship goes down after hitting the rocks. You’ll see those when you go down, bloody massive they are.”
Smiling, Troughton urges him on. “So what happened?”
“Well a few lifeboats are heading for the beach, but they can’t find it. Not for Edgar’s lack of trying though, he’s waving that thing around until his arm came close to dropping off.” He paused to reflect. “Anyway the waves were too strong, and none of the boats made it. All hundred members of the crew died.”
“Is that true?”
“Well, a ship did go down shortly after the war. But I think Edgar himself is made up. Apparently he sat on the beach while the storm ended, driven by grief he couldn’t save the crew. He walked up and down the beach each night with his lantern until sunrise, looking for survivors, even though everyone tells him it’s impossible.” He lowers his tone. “But one night, he goes missing himself. The next day, at low tide all the townsfolk can find is big footprints coming out from the sea, signs of a struggle and Old Edgar’s Lantern sat in the sand.”
“So, what’s the implication? There was a survivor?”
“Not a survivor, more a dead man walking out of his watery grave and taking revenge on the living!” He laughs and shakes his hands. “Thing is, the lantern’s a complete fabrication anyway, a bit of detail.” He stands, apparently dismissing the whole story. “It’s all something to stop the kids going to the beach at night. “’Don’t go to the beach kids, Old Edgar will bring the monsters right to you!’” He laughs.
Troughton offers a polite laugh in return. “Well that does sound colourful.”
“Certainly is.” He looks around. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d love to stand telling you scary stories all night. But I must find that mutt of mine.” He smiles.
“Yes, thank –you for your time.” Troughton nods his head as a bow. “Best of luck.”
“Aye. goodnight.” The stranger smiles once more, and Troughton was quite sure it would remain on his face for the duration of his walk. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stopped and had such a conversation with a stranger back home. As pleasant as the exchange was, he feels all too keenly aware of the weight of the lantern in his satchel. Whether the macabre story held any merit, the lantern itself seems to instil in him a sense of loss, and a desperate loneliness. At that moment, he is aware of how alone he now is at the edge of town. He walks along the river but soon finds the complete darkness on the other side disconcerting, and he turns into the streets, back towards the hotel. He hopes he will bump into the mischievous dog the stranger was searching for, but his journey home is uninterrupted.
Approaching quite deliberately from the farther side of the castle, he eventually arrives at the driveway of the hotel. He decides it doltish to scan the rooftops, putting his earlier sighting down to fatigue and hunger. After all, that was the most rational explanation, and a man of his education is not prone to such foolishness. As he approaches the doorway, he looks up to his hotel room and spots that the window to his room is open. He groans aloud, he knew he’d forgotten to do something.
It’s later than he thought, and he is disappointed to find that the kitchen has closed for the evening. He finds some amusement at his disappointment as he makes his way up the stairs. He runs his hand along the banister, and accidently dislodges some cracked paint. Dusting his hands, he knocks the paint onto the floor. He was only too happy to remind himself that it was the university’s money that was paying for this trip.
There is a creak of floorboards on the landing above him, and his head darts up. His rationale failing to keep his nerves in check. As he slowly reaches the top of the dimly illuminated stairs he reminds himself there are other guests present. As he walks to his room, he hears the tinned echoes of a television from a room down the hall. The door opens, a young woman stands clad in a loosely tied dressing gown. She smirks, coy to have been caught in a state of undress as she closes the gown tighter. Troughton averts his gaze, the consummate gentleman. She darts past him quickly toward the bathroom.
“Back so soon?” She calls behind her, eager to break the awkward silence.
Troughton turns to her, puzzled; “Excuse me?”
Having reached the bathroom, she sticks her head of the doorway “I thought you just left?”
“No.” He smiles, not wanting to offend by picking apart her small talk “I’ve been out all day.”
“Oh right. Right.” She shakes her head in mock disbelief. “I must have you confused with someone else. I could have sworn I just held you in there.” She laughs falsely while retreating into the room.
“Not to worry.” He turns his key in the lock and strolls in.
The cold of the room hits him instantly, it runs up his spine. He dashes to the window and shuts it. The thud echoes through the darkened room, he puts his shoes into the cupboard and returns his attention to the window. Looking out to the castle across the street, he consciously acknowledges the beauty of it, all while allowing his eyes to move to the rooftops of the surrounding houses. Nothing. Satisfied, he pulls the curtains together and returns to close the door.
Eager to consult his colleagues back at the University the next day, Troughton decides on an early night. He lays his clothes over the chair at the foot of his bed and slides into bed. He pulls his still closed satchel closer to bed, keeping his prize find nearby. Sleep comes with surprising ease, as a heavy day takes his toll on the lecturer’s body.
A creak occurs at the end of the room, rousing Troughton from his sleep.
Disorientated, he looks across the room, his vision a haze. He reaches for his glasses atop the side table and slips them on. The cupboard door was open. Cheaply made no doubt. Then his attention drifts to the chair at the foot of his bed. His eyes grow accustomed to the dark, what little light penetrates the curtains fell across the floor.
That’s when he saw them.
Two feet facing the bed.
Someone was sitting in the chair.
Troughton bolted upright in his bed, slamming his back against the headboard.
“Who the hell are you? What are you doing in here?” he barked to the intruder.
Silence hung in the air, he could not penetrate the darkness of the room. In the second he awaited his reply, he noted pools of water around the feet, dripping from the surface of the boots they wore.
“Thank you.” A deep and quiet reply came from the chair.
Troughton wet his lips, trying to gather the means to reply. He gripped the sheets under his sweaty palms. “Get out of my room!”
“Thank you” It repeated.
The figure leaned forward in the chair, allowing its hands to enter the light. In its grip, the old Lantern. Troughton looked down. His satchel was missing.
“You led me home sir, thank you.”
Troughton’s anger rose, overpowering his fear.
“Put that down, right now. And get the hell out.”
Suddenly, the figure leaps from its seat. In the second it takes for it to pass through the light, Troughton caught a glimpse of its face. At least, what must have once been a face. The skin was bloated with water, sagging from hollowed eye sockets.
The figure landed atop him, and clasped its wet, slimy hands around his neck. Troughton struggled, but the overpowering weight on his throat was too much.
The old trope says that your life flashes before your eyes in your last moments.
All Professor Troughton saw was a glowing lantern.