Sometimes, it's more than a bit of a tragedy that real life can't be structured like a film.
I haven't seen many films, you understand. My job doesn’t exactly allow for time off, so the only ones I've ever been to see have been for reasons of business only, and I didn't have much of a chance to appreciate them at the time. Nevertheless, I have liked what bits of them I have seen.
Humans are so clever, really – no matter how some other people seem to dislike them and the constant problems they cause for us, I've always believed that they're a remarkably versatile and adaptive species, capable of producing the most ingenious solutions to problems. Human cleverness produces things that are unforeseen and (even for me) unforeseeable, and sometimes this can lead to complications, such as the ones that I have to deal with repeatedly in my job. But there's always balance, and humanity has produced just as many, if not more, good things, almost as if they were actively working to balance out the bad. Ice cream – delicious and sweet! – , self-opening doors, medicine and antibiotics – they managed to conquer the very things that were wiping them out in the millions-, and not so long ago, a group of humans actually managed to go into space! It's something I could have never dreamed that they'd do when I first saw them, so many hundreds of years ago, but I do love being surprised.
It's not good protocol, I know, to get so attached. I'm always being told that I shouldn't care so much about humanity. And so I've stopped displaying it so much on the outside. But I do think I'd miss them ever so much if they were gone.
And oh, I've gone so far off topic! Back to films, then. Another one of those deceptively simple-seeming things that you just have to stop and shake your head at, because you yourself could have never come up with it in a million years. A series of still images that, when shown on a screen, create an illusion of motion image. And how far it's come from its simple roots! I could talk for hours about the phi effect and everything from Edison and the Lumière brothers to Disney and Hayao Miyazaki -
- but on second thoughts, you probably wouldn't enjoy listening to that as much as I would enjoy talking about it.
The reason I say that real life should be structured more like a film is because of how wonderfully cinematic moments in life would be. Some moments feel as if they should be played out in slow motion, because the emotion packed into them is too much, too raw for the few seconds they take to occur. Other moments feel as if there should be incidental music accompanying them, because they're just missing something crucial otherwise. And of course, wouldn't it be nice if you could rewind your life, even for a few minutes, just to see how a certain past experience had played out in detail?
Maybe that's why films are so popular among humans – a way of viewing life that you could never possibly do on your own. The mode of seeing things that you will only ever have in fiction.
And… well, the point! I need to get to the point. Non-existence is odd that way; we simultaneously have all of the time in the world, and none of it at all, which is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. No matter – it simply means I tend to go off on more tangents than usual, with nobody here to stop me from doing so.
I said I’d tell you this story, but I didn’t even stop to think of how I’d do it! Which leaves me with so many options. On one hand, I could tell it to you direct, stating the events as they happened and my perspective on the matter. But as thrilling as the subject matter may be (and I don't doubt my own abilities of recounting it, not for a second!) I fear you would quickly tire of it. My perspective – as of all perspectives – is rather limited. And, well! What's the good of temporary omnipresence if you can't use it to spin a good tale!
So I shall do my best to set the stage, and to tell the events in as much thrilling detail as I can manage, in order for you to get the full picture. I must admit, despite the circumstances, I'm fairly delighted to try my hand at this. I haven't had the opportunity to do so for, well… quite a while, I should say.
There is no further ado to be made, so let's begin.
We see a sea; a vast stormy ocean dyed black by the night and the lack of light and the grey clouds hanging ominous as can be overhead. The moon isn't visible at all, and the mainland is only barely so – a rough jagged strip lining the horizon. And as we pan across the rolling, bucking waves, stirred up by some godly force far beyond the imagination, we see the Island.
We'll call it simply ‘the island’ here and now, since its actual name is not important, in the scheme of things. It's an unremarkable island by any measure, with only a very small settlement made up of the bare minimum of buildings, no roads or cars to speak of, a small port to allow passage to and from the mainland, and of course the small lighthouse that rises from the rocks on the eastern side; a jagged, ugly blight on the otherwise bland landscape. And even though it's the most unattractive feature of an overall unattractive island, it is at this lighthouse that this story will primarily take place.
This lighthouse is nameless, and while no official reason was given for its lack of title, the obvious explanation is that it was so unremarkable that nobody ever bothered to dignify it with the honour of having a name. A nameless lighthouse on a nameless island.
Let's move into the lighthouse now, and for the moment, let's see it as it was several days ago. And let's freeze it in time while we're at it, just because we can.
Here, see the large thick wooden door with the double-deadbolt holding it fast against unlikely intruders, and see the bristling, threadbare welcome mat with no message of welcome to be seen. And there's a small collection of broken lanterns and broken bottles of wine swept into the corner like a pile of regrets, and on the ground floor there's nothing else to comment on – so the only thing to do now is to move up the stairs.
And now the stairs – the only thing that could be considered slightly attractive in this miserable, forgotten place. A perfect spiral, sweeping round and round and up and up the fifty-or-so metres it will take the reach the top. The steps are even and well-made, if more than a little dusty from lack of care, and if you ran all the way up without stopping you would be thoroughly winded by the time you reached the top.
And here at the top, just before you reach the hatch that leads to the incredibly old but still-working light that beams out across the nameless ocean, there is the engineer's room. As cold and as stone as the rest of the lighthouse, and with only two beds, identical twins of each other, a desk and a table as furnishing. It's almost aggressively impersonal – everything is just-so, set out neat and tidy, like the occupant expects to have to leave at any time, and quickly give up the room to the next occupant.
There's only one item that looks non-regulation, but – wait just a moment, we'll get to it in a second.
Standing in the middle of the engineer's room is the engineer himself, the very opposite of resplendent in grease-stained, dirty grey shirt and trousers. He is the only occupant of this lighthouse, and his bed is the one furthest away from the window, so as to escape the frequent draughts of wind that blow in through the gap between glass and stone. His beard is scraggly, hair going grey, and he looks ever so grim; resigned to his fate. He is frozen for the moment, placed on pause for our convenience, with a curious expression in his eyes that might be fear and might be suspicion, and his arm is halfway to rising up from his side. It's as if he's in the process of reaching out to touch something – and if you follow his line of sight, you'll see exactly what that something is.
On top of the singular table in this room is a telephone. It is bright red, and old-fashioned – the type that requires you to input the numbers by spinning your finger around and around its oversized rotary dial. Its cord trails off the edge of the desk like an unfinished question and droops to the floor where it then goes out of sight completely.
Well, why is the engineer so intimidated by this admittedly unusual but nevertheless rather common household item? There's no way of knowing at the moment, since it's trapped, crystalized in a moment of eternity. But this is my realm, my storytelling, and so at a second's notice I can simply hit the play button, so to speak, and –
The first thing we notice as motion returns to this scene is the sound of the telephone ringing. It's rhythmic and fast and alarming. The sound cuts across even the constant pounding of the storm overhead, which is thunderous and deafening.
The engineer moves towards the phone before we even have a change to process it, and now we can properly pinpoint that elusive look in his eyes. It is absolutely and completely fear. He is afraid, afraid of this phone – and yet he's reaching for the handle of the receiver, and he's absolutely about to pick it up, but then.
There's another noise. Not quite loud enough to deafen the storm and the ringing, but distinctive enough to echo all the way up the even stone stairs and reach the engineer's ears, and it's enough to make him pause.
There is somebody knocking on the large wooden door of the lighthouse, crisp and sharp.
The engineer hesitates, casting his attention between the phone – ring, ring – and the stairs with the door at the foot of them – rat-a-tat-tat. He seems to come to a decision after a second, and practically scurries out of the door, slamming it behind him as he goes.
The phone continues to ring, even without his presence.
And down, down, down, the engineer goes, this nameless, tired engineer, taking the stairs at a moderate pace that allows no room for him to trip and fall and break his neck. Nevertheless, there's a certain urgency to his movements.
The person at the door is still knocking as he clears the last few steps. Above, he can hear the phone, distantly, ringing. Off go the deadbolts – both of them – and then he takes the bar-hold with both hands, and pulls it inwards. The storm is tugging at his clothes and hair and it's difficult to stay upright for long, even with his stout stature. That might be part of the reason why he's staring at his unexpected visitor with an expression of complete disbelief, since the woman standing in the doorway opposite him is perfectly composed with barely even a strand of hair being ruffled by the vicious storm raging around her.
"Good evening," she says pleasantly, adjusting her round glasses. Her voice is pitched at exactly the right tone to be heard over the crashing waves and crackling thunder. "Rough night, isn't it?"
The engineer takes a singular step back, looking horrified. He says nothing.
"Well," says the woman – she is wearing a long green skirt that is swirling in the wind, and a neat white blouse, but over that is a thick green peacoat that's doing the job of keeping the wind off her, although let us admit, just between you and me, that she really doesn't need it. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
Silence from the engineer. The woman sighs, and takes the initiative of stepping across the doorway, into the relative safety of the lighthouse, and even closing the door behind her. She examines the locking mechanism for a second, and then delicately, carefully slots the two deadbolts back into place, sealing the storm outside.
She hums to herself lowly as she takes in the engineer, standing there, trembling, and the lowermost floor of the small, nameless lighthouse, and after a second, she unbuttons her coat. "No coatrack, I see. Not very considerate, but I suppose I'll ignore it for the moment." And she unceremoniously dumps it on the stone floor, next to the pile of broken lanterns and wine bottles.
I will now take the opportunity to apologize for Jade's behaviour. And – oh, of course, she never did introduce herself, did she? It's rather typical of her, and I doubt she will go on to reveal it later on, so I think I should do it here. It's easier to refer to her as 'Jade' rather than 'the woman', anyway. Jade, of course, has the same job as me – yes, the one that doesn't leave much time for enjoying films or ice cream. She is brilliant in her field, which happens to be focused on the more scientific side of things, and I greatly admire her for it. She has the same flaw as many of my other co-workers, however – a tendency to dislike and be horribly dismissive to members of the human race.
Jade pauses, moments after discarding her coat, and frowns. "Is that a phone I hear?"
Let us skip forwards a bit – I know I said I'd describe this in detail but it doesn't need to be too much detail, does it? Let's move past the part where Jade brusquely introduces herself and her reason for coming to the lighthouse to the engineer, and he fails to say anything in return. Let's skim the long section of time where Jade takes readings of the stone walls and floor and stairs, and comes up with nothing unusual, and let's cut out entirely the long trek up the spiral staircase, with Jade leading the way decisively and the engineer trailing mutely in her wake.
We'll return to the story at this point: the point where Jade is emerging into the engineer's room, pulling open the door easily, and waiting for the engineer himself to enter too before closing it behind the two of them.
The red phone on the table, of course, is still ringing. Why wouldn't it be? It never stopped.
The engineer still says nothing. He might be shaking at this point, it's hard to tell with the erratic lighting. Jade surveys his room with a keen eye, and then casts him a slightly pitying look. She doesn't comment on his sparse accommodations, but he knows she knows, and maybe to him, that's even worse.
Or maybe not, since he shows no outward sign of acknowledging this.
"I told you before that there was a disturbance in this lighthouse," she says – and she did, I can confirm this, this is the part we missed out, but it wasn't very important anyway.
The engineer shifts, foot to foot; looks over at the phone and keeps on looking; trembles.
She follows his gaze, and makes a speculative noise as she sees it, and then she adjusts her glasses and does something that's hard to explain – she looks further into it, and whatever she sees there makes her wince and shut her eyes briefly.
When she opens them, there's cold scientific curiosity in her gaze. "That phone – how long has it been ringing?"
The engineer shrugs, halfway, and mumbles something – it could have been anything, frankly, but Jade doesn't ask him to repeat himself. She's frowning. Then the engineer’s mouth flattens out into a thin line, and, well…
They move at practically the same time – Jade lunging forward to grab the engineer's arm, and him diving for the phone. Jade catches him by her fingertips at the elbow, and tries to tug him backwards, and Jade is disproportionately strong for how slight she looks, but even she can't hold him for long with such a tiny grasp. The engineer spins free of her, shoves her back with a vicious look akin to that of a cornered animal.
It's appropriate to imagine that, in the distance of this scene, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is playing.
Jade struggles to her feet, yells something along the lines of, "don't you dare!-" but:
The engineer has already snatched up the line, pressing the receiver tightly to his ear and the mouthpiece millimetres from his lips. The phone stops ringing abruptly. And there is silence.
There is a moment where neither of them moves, and even the storm outside seems to pause for a second. Jade, hands pressed to the wall behind her for support with her long dark hair falling out of its neat bun, and the engineer staring at her wild-eyed and blank, clutching to that phone like a lifeline, seemingly paralysed.
There's one beat of silence; two, and then this is what happens next. The engineer jerks to life with a horrible little noise of pain that sounds like a deathrattle, and all but throws that phone receiver back onto the table, where it clatters loudly. He stumbles backwards and hits the far wall, sliding down to the floor with his hands clasped tightly over his ears, and he's whimpering too, a terrible, dreadful sound because no grown man should ever have to make a noise like that.
Jade takes a step towards him with an expression like a tsunami on her face, but then she stops mid-step. Just stops, takes a step backwards and stands stock-still.
"Wait," she says, looking back and forth at nothing at all. There's an expression on her face that we haven't seen on her before, one that seems completely wrong for a woman like Jade, and it might just be fear. "Wait, this isn't-"
And then, without warning or preamble, Jade simply disappears. One moment she is there, and the next she is not.
If you slowed down this scene a million times over and then did so again, you might have been able to see her physical form being torn in strips from this plane of existence: being plucked off of the realm of reality bit by bit at an unimaginable speed. And just before she left, you would have been able to see the look of pure, senseless terror from a being that has no business feeling that emotion, and see her mouth forming the opening that precedes a scream. And you would never have seen her begin that scream, because by that point she would have been gone.
The engineer sees none of this, of course – and within less than a hundredth of a millisecond he is left alone in an empty lighthouse, trembling on the floor with his hands still clenched painfully tight around his head.
Outside, the storm is beginning to clear.