At the far end of a cemetery down the road from the lighthouse, apple trees grow among headstones.
The Man of Ngalaya Lighthouse
Caution note: This story appears to mention the names of the deceased, but there are no names or references to real people in this story.
‘You don’t want them! They’s got spooks in!’
The boy’s grin was fresh-faced and cheeky. His shirt coming untucked from his shorts, he crossed spindly arms over the counter and shared that grin with Mrs Campbell, the shopkeeper’s wife. Worn and oversized shoes pushed up onto tip toes as he stretched to point out the covered pies on the shelf to his mate.
‘Apples grown in the cemetery!’ he informed the younger boy. ‘It gets the spooks in – everyone here knows it!’
‘Spooks in the pies!’ his mate laughed. He too stretched over the counter, peering at the pies. Even under tea towels, they were freshly baked and filled the shop with an aroma of sweet and spice.
Mrs. Campbell tisked. Her print dress synched at the waist by a belt, she shooed them back with arms that giggled under short sleeves.
‘Get on with ya!’ she admonished. ‘There’s no spooks in my pies!’
Sniggering, the boys’ shoes fell back to heels on the scrubbed wooden floor. They didn’t retreat from the counter.
‘Got any meat pies?’ the second boy asked. ‘Some beef’s the ant’s pants.’
‘Or do ya let the cows graze in the cemetery too?’ joked the first.
There was no bell to announce John Morder’s entrance. The doors of the general store had all been thrown open to invite any breeze that may seek to break up the monotonous baking heat. Mrs Campbell, always committed to her real patrons, hustled the boys off.
‘Mr Morder,’ she greeted, her smile the sort that intended politeness for the local oddball. ‘I baked them this morn’, if you were after one of my pies?’
Mrs Campbell’s pride was the homey corner of the shop she’d packed three tables into, folded napkins ready beside the loving touch of wildflowers in little glass bottles that caught the sunshine from the window. John Morder, though he bought apple pie after apple pie, never stayed in the shop to eat them.
John had taken off his hat. He held it rested against his shirt front as he nodded.
‘I always am, Mrs Campbell,’ he said.
Mrs Campbell flashed him another smile before turning to fetch the apple pie she’d baked just for him. It wasn’t the only thing John Morder purchased that day, but it was the one he carried carefully in its box as he stepped back out of the shop. Behind him, hands on hips to ease the strain of a working back, Mrs Campbell watched him leave with a terse sigh.
John paused just outside the general store to don his hat. The sun was an autumn one, but it cooked the orange dirt road unabated that afternoon. The shop was a sitting duck for heat, built in shingle and half-timber on a foundation of rubble masonry; the oldest establishment on the peninsula. The tan Sydney sandstone of the church up the road kept cooler shelter, though John hadn’t attended service for years. He could see the orchard beyond. Peach trees up the hill. Nearer and spilling into the churchyard were the apples, some adding colour to branches yet to be picked. The verdant green and organised rows of the orchard broke up the sprawling and sea-scorched bush of the Australian coast.
A motor car kicked up dirt as John headed up the street. He nodded back to the driver, standing aside as it passed before carrying on. Round the school, the road led north east between fenced paddocks and gardens. And then, John trodding on, the village was falling behind.
It was a pleasant walk, becoming quiet but for the urgent rustle of sea wind. Ngalaya Headland was connected to the main peninsula by a spit of land. The road cut through the backbone of the spit, scrub rolling down on either side to twin beaches that stretched in long lines of golden sand along mirror-image coves. The gold and green of the land, shining in mid-afternoon, was a stark contrast to the deep hues of the ocean that scudded waves up the beaches; the startling peacock blue of the sky. Sydney born and bred, it’d often been the colours John had thought of when he’d missed home.
The skin around his eyes was creased by years of squinting in that sun. Below the shade of his hat, freckles gained in number from his cheeks down. His nose felt the sun as he looked up on approach, taking in the impressive stance of the lighthouse on the top of the headland. Reflected through the Fresnel lens, sunlight was what made it gleam at this time of day.
The wraparound veranda of the keeper’s cottage thumped under John’s shoes. He latched the door aside as he entered, leaving only the screen door to shield out the bugs. Lighthouse, oil house, and keeper’s cottage built in the local sandstone, it was cooler inside than the general store had been. The windows of the single-storey cottage were sheltered by the corrugated metal of the veranda roof.
A pantry cabinet took up a corner of the small kitchen. Slipping the pie from its box, John stored it on the top shelf and shut the cabinet door. He turned his mind to work. Lamps must be refilled before evening set.
It was a task that took him round the cottage with the kerosene pitcher before carrying the canister up the covered staircase to the lighthouse door. Iron stairs circled higher and higher into the service room below the lantern. There John waited for dark, the great lamp above filled with oil and ready to be wound, sitting to his log book at a rough-hewn table under a small window.
Visit to Campbell’s General Store. Green paint purchased for repairs, arranged for order of timber for replacement of bannisters damaged by fallen tree, pantry stocked.
It was the last log for the 24th of April, 1948, written below the recording of the weather and tide, the condition of the light, the levels of oil stocks, and the note that nil sailors had been sighted in distress. Beyond the window, John admired the sunset as he stored his pen. Like apples and peaches spilled on golden beach sands, the sunset shot the sky with colour. Lengthening shadows made the rising waves below look taller as they rolled near and smashed into the tan rock of the headland.
Having lit the light, the lighthouse keeper wound the crank and let it go to turn, the glittering glass of the huge Fresnel lens above starting its grind for the night, revolving around to provide the beacon all ships approaching the headland would see and rely on.
Though bright light circled outside, only the lantern in his hand lit John’s descent through the tower. His feet picked up speed near the bottom, eager to leave the dark behind. It dissipated when he swung the lighthouse door open. Ahead, the night was lit by more than the flashing beacon. John’s feet took him down the covered staircase in a quick patter, heading for the screen door of the keeper’s cottage where lamplight spilled from every window, lanterns and, where they ran out, candles burning bright on windowsills.
‘Harry, is it?’ came the smoke-roughened voice of Lieutenant Kerry Rundel. ‘Well have a seat then, Mr. Harry!’
Quietly, John hung his hat on the hook just inside the door, letting the screen door click shut behind him. He met the sight of the young soldier standing beside the sofas with a pang of expected disappointment. He nodded politely to the new man.
The young soldier had a haunted look about him, but it would dissipate. Those that spoke on the first day didn’t take long to ease. There was a droop to the thin skin under the lad’s eyes, his cheeks narrow and his mouth gapped open in a rictus of startlement. His mouth shutting with a tight jaw, he cast another bamboozled look around before spotting Kerry’s epaulettes and hastily snapping his heels together.
‘Private Harry Pritchard, sir!’ he introduced himself properly, rising to a salute.
The men on the sofas chuckled. A ‘Never mind that, lad,’ was provided by Peter Miles, waving Harry down. ‘Gave up with that one round about the stinkin’ deserts of Africa!’
More laughter filled the sitting room. ‘Halfway through cooking your breakfast on the side of a bloody tank!’ added Dave Johnson, to further laughs from all who well knew the story. Peter shared it often.
John’s wife met his eye. Leaning against the worktop in the kitchen, Anne had been watching the men with a look of kind amusement. Her face was unblemished by age, illness, or misery: soft and round, just as John remembered it.
‘Every lamp lit,’ she murmured as he joined her. ‘Keep their spirits up.’
It kept John’s spirits up, the light and risible chatter of the men. He’d spent long enough among the unhealthy moans and dark of overcrowded camp bunks to want to spend a night any other way. Anne’s smile up at him was understanding. It appled her cheeks.
‘Mick will come,’ she said, tucking her hands under her elbows, arms crossed over the small bump of her belly. ‘For now there’s Harry – and he seems to be settling in.’
Harry had taken a seat beside Samuel Watkin. Speaking up less than most of the other soldiers, Samuel’s skin was just that bit darker: his Black ancestry slight enough to be allowed to serve Australia in the war. Samuel’s uniform was tidier than the other men’s, his slouch hat always worn on his head, one side folded up by its rising sun badge. “An Aborigine” the other men described him, “but the full bottle who served his country with the rest!”
‘New Guinea, in ‘43,’ Harry was answering the men’s questions. He added more wryly, ‘Barely made it off the ship.’
‘At least you made it off!’ said Ron Murphy. ‘Torpedo,’ he explained for the newcomer’s benefit, ‘right through the hull. Saved me from having to muck the heads again!’
‘Three sheet rations!’ hooted Walter James. ‘Never enough!’
The echo in John’s head was more sensation than sound or sight. The groan and clang of steel deep in the suffocating cargo hold of the hull. The hang of an arm bare to the bones and devoid of strength, flopping in the dark with the waves. The desperate stink of a Japanese POW hell ship.
John turned his back to the warmth of a well-lit sitting room filled with chatter and busied himself with cooking his dinner. He enjoyed its presence at his back, but their conversation was not one he wanted to join in on this night.
It was only the laughter of kookaburras heralding the sunrise that broke the silence of Ngalaya Headland when John did his morning rounds dousing every lamp in the lonely keeper’s cottage and lighthouse. He’d clean the lens and windows of the lantern room later that morning. Dawn tickling the misty waves of the ocean, he took the early morning air for a solitary walk. The silence was easier when the sun rose.
Waves jolted up the beach with a subtle sort of vengeance that morning, as though providing a petulant threat to the earth. Unlike a ship, however, the ocean could never fully claim the land. The beach crunched robust and lasting under John’s bare feet as he headed along it, endless ocean to his left and the rise of the spit’s backbone to his right.
He slowed, squinting toward the end of the beach. Sand ceased at a sudden shelf of rock that served as a natural break. Atop it was the silhouette of a fisherman sat on the edge of the shelf, his feet in the sea spray and what mist was being burnt from the water.
Man, John thought, starting up again. Pronounced “ma-hn” or “mawn”, according not to Samuel, who spoke only English and knew nothing of the origin of his ancestors, but a book John owned. In an extinct language remembered only from scant records by European settlers, the local Aboriginal people had used “man” to mean both “fisherperson” and “ghost”.
John could see it. The coastline was versatile. A people who fished in mist, rain, sea spray, and the glitter of light off the waves when that sun was low in the sky… those people could look like ghosts. The man on the shelf did, from a distance. He was not, however. Sunlight didn’t shine down on ghosts.
The townspeople thought he did, but John didn’t disdain them. He tipped his hat to the wave of the fisherman. The man was Mick’s father, John recognised.
‘Nice morning for it,’ Mr Jones called. He gave his fishing pole a jiggle. ‘Cooler than it has been.’
John drew up beside the shelf. He nodded. Sat at about his head height, Mr Jones nodded too. He did it thoughtfully to himself, but it had the same look of an unconscious action to smooth the silence. Mr Jones’s leathery tan had seen more years of sun than John. His hat beside him, his bald pate was to the sky, speckles of silver hairs growing in number below it.
‘Been to the church in a while?’ Mr Jones asked.
Not an avid churchgoer himself, Mr Jones wasn’t asking about service. John swallowed quietly, remembering the sight of apple trees among the headstones.
‘Not in a while, no,’ John said.
Others may, but Mr Jones didn’t condemn John for it. He was back to nodding, his gaze out to sea in the way of a man reminiscing quietly one early morning.
‘Hear they’re building one of those returned servicemen’s clubs up this way,’ said Mr Jones. ‘A lot of you young lads have settled round here. Give you a place to be with others who served. To remember.’
It’d been spoken to the ocean, his son no doubt in Mr Jones’s thoughts, but he’d meant John. Many assumed John lonely, Mr Jones included. John’s response was another nod. He would not be attending a returned serviceman’s club. It wasn’t the living who spoke openly about their experience. It wasn’t the living he wished to speak with.
Mr Jones had glanced at him, wanting a response. He accepted the nod as John’s response.
‘Hear they’ve automated the other lighthouses,’ Mr Jones went on, filling the silence. He shifted his seat on the rock, finding a more comfortable position. ‘Automation coming to Ngalaya?’
‘Not yet,’ John answered. ‘Be a while still.’
It would be as long a while as John could make it. Automation meant no need for a full time keeper. When he left Mr Jones to fish, he did it with dread in his heart. He buried that dread under the meticulous clean he gave the lantern house, the many facets of the Fresnel lens polished to perfection by his dedicated hand.
The winds had set in two nights later, bringing cooler weather in a blustering rush. It rattled the dark windows at midnight when John rose from bed to tend the great light. There was no darkness through the cottage. The chatter that continued in the sitting room dispelled the noise of the wind.
‘Careful you don’t get blown over out there,’ said Anne, murmuring it from her comfortable recline on the bed.
John’s response to her was a smile. He swung the bedroom door after him and passed behind the men conversing on sofas on his way out. Anne’s warning was more joke than caution, but John braced himself all the same as the wind whipped his shirt to his front and made the lantern in his hand clatter from its handle. It would be rain soon, from the feel of the air.
He mounted the covered staircase quickly and pulled the lighthouse door open, a ready hand catching it before it was flung into the tower. Hustling in, John latched the door shut and turned to the sight of a ghostly face staring back at him.
John’s sharp intake of breath filled his lungs. He sighed it out slowly. Drawn to the light but unable yet to face it, Damien Gallagher looked the real spook haunting Ngalaya Lighthouse. This night, he was closer to the light than John had seen him before.
Having yet to speak for all he’d been a presence at Ngalaya near a year, Damien’s name was known to John by his resemblance to his sister, a woman who still lived on the peninsula. The young soldier’s face was blank, the thin skin under his eyes having the same hollow droop Harry had first arrived with, though on Damien it looked more pronounced below lost blue eyes. In the dark, the colours of his uniform were a mottled shadow, his pale face the most visible in John’s lantern light.
The stone tower shielded them from the wind, but it could be heard rattling windows above and shrieking past the corrugated metal rooves outside. The bluster and noise was unsettling. Damien blinked once and flinched away, retreating a step toward the stone tower wall. When his eyes opened, he was staring off elsewhere. He sunk to his haunches, limbs jittering along their lengths. Slowly, his head descended into his hands, Damien covering his ears as he hunched low.
It was easier to wait out the night and noise in the sitting room with the other men. John didn’t say so to Damien. The young soldier wouldn’t hear. John kept his feet quiet on the iron staircase, walking more slowly than he wished to for the sake of not adding more noise to the din. Damien was still at the base of the stairs when, the mechanism rewound for another few hours, John slipped quietly back past him. He closed the lighthouse door with the softest thump he could manage against the wind.
Where Damien had served, John did not know. Gunning, the reverberant shock of an exploding mine, those bowels of a hell ship. Damien could be beset by the echoes of anything. In the wind, John heard the clamour of a primitive coal mine and the metal of tracks jostling together; shrieking as one was pulled past another.
The cottage was a refuge. John pressed shut the door against the bluster outside.
‘Hiroshima Camp,’ Dave was saying. He tipped his head to John. ‘Atomic bomb, John says. Mate of mine at the camp saw it come down. Said the flash was unbelievable – near burned his eyes out. I was in the mines at the time. All I saw after was the black trees.’ He gestured a landscape before him. ‘When they were gettin’ us out: just black bush everywhere. Scorched.’
That’d been what John had seen too. Evacuated from a Japanese POW camp in a bus, he’d looked through the windows at a landscape charred black. Harry was listening to Dave’s story with close attention. Most of the men hadn’t made it to the end of the war. Harry hadn’t heard the stories of it either.
John took a seat in an armchair. Anne was at the bedroom door, peering out as she leant against the frame. She wouldn’t hustle John back to bed, but she would tell him later she worried he never slept enough. This night, with the bluster outside and the lingering image in his mind of Damien’s face as he sheltered from the echoes, John wasn’t up for trying to sleep again yet.
‘I was walkin’ see,’ Dave was explaining. ‘The ones they got out on stretchers, they went straight onto the ship. Had this gash down to the bone on my arm – got infected. Whole arm blew up like a red balloon.’ He gestured it over his arm. ‘And there wasn’t much to my arm before that, I’ll tell you – ‘bout tripled in size. Festering and stank like anything. But I was walkin’,’ he repeated significantly, humour growing in his face.
‘So I get sent to this tent – field hospital,’ he went on. ‘The matron comes out to ‘ave a look at us. And she was one of those matrons, you know: she’ll tell you what’s what, and no arguing.’ The matron was a stereotype a few of the men could recognise well. Sniggers and shared glances of expectation followed Dave’s words. ‘The good matron looks me up and down,’ Dave said, sitting up to imitate it, ‘and she says “Well we can’t send you home lookin’ like that!”’
Dave chuckled, flopping back to lean against the sofa.
‘I thought she was talkin’ ‘bout my arm!’ he said emphatically. ‘But nah: she meant my uniform! Just rags by that point and, ya know, that was not up to standard!’
John’s face had eased into a smile. Kerry on the sofa beside him was nodding as he laughed, able to picture it all too well.
‘I’m ‘bout to faint away dead on the spot,’ Dave carries on, ‘septic and all that, but I change into these clothes she brings me. And there’s not much to me, so they hang near off my arse. This matron looks me up and down again, and you know what she says?’
They waited, Samuel brushing a snigger away with scratching hand.
‘She says,’ went on Dave, ‘”Well, better bring you a belt then!”’
Peter slapped his knee as he chortled.
‘So I say,’ Dave continued, ‘”Why not? And if you’re bringin’ me a belt, might as well get me some cigarettes too eh? Haven’t had one in God knows. Maybe they’ll fix my arm!” And, bless the woman, she brought me both!’
Sagging back in his seat, Dave gave his hands a clap as he chuckled.
‘Ah – she was good for a laugh, that matron,’ he said. ‘And then, of course, the ships took off, and we were still there in this field hospital. No idea how the blokes that made it got home – coulda waited weeks or more.’
‘Another ship came,’ said John. ‘We didn’t know where it was going, but we got on it. Dropped us off at a camp somewhere in the Pacific. Malaya, I think.’
From the bedroom doorway, Anne’s cheeks had risen in a gentle smile. She liked to watch and listen when John shared a story. The attention of the room had turned on him, waiting for more. John nodded to them.
‘Didn’t have a better idea how to get home from there,’ he said. ‘Just a camp on some tropical island. We kept asking when another ship would come, and no one knew. Took maybe a week, but the only thing that arrived was a plane. One of those bombers, empty and just the pilot on board. So we ask him where he’s going, and he says Darwin.’
‘Headed in the right direction!’ Kerry said, his eyes crinkled with humour.
John tipped his head in agreement.
‘That’s what we thought,’ he said. ‘Never been to Darwin before – can’t place it on a map – but we knew it was in Australia.’ The corner of John’s mouth quirked, remembering it. ‘So we ask the pilot how many of us he can take. He says, “Ah well, maybe about seven of you.” The runway,’ John explained, ‘was only this path scraped from the bush. Wasn’t very long, and we’d have to lift off before we went right into the palm trees.
‘Problem was,’ John went on, getting into the story, ‘there were eight of us who wanted aboard. So we ask the pilot if he reckons he can do eight of us. He gets out, has a look and a think, and says, “We’ll give it a burl, eh?”’
‘Ahw – reassuring, that!’ said Ron.
‘It was what we wanted to hear at the time,’ said John, ‘though a good few of us got a chance to have another think when we climbed up into the bay where the bombs are kept. No bombs in it then, and just enough space for us. The pilot tells us to hang onto this rail over our heads, and if anyone wanted out then they didn’t get the chance when he shut the doors below us.’
John mimicked holding a bar above his head.
‘So we’re standing there, hanging on like this,’ he said, ‘and the doors of the hatch below us don’t shut properly. There’s about an inch gap where we can see the dirt under us. Pilot gets us to the start of the runway, has the engines going so loud we can’t talk to each other, and we’re just hanging on as it goes faster and faster.’
Peter had pulled a face, his eyebrows high as he waited for the verdict.
‘And then the plane slows down again,’ John said. ‘Came to a screeching halt just before the trees. Wasn’t going fast enough. Pilot loops back to the start of the runway, and we grit our teeth, all thinking we’re too heavy. But the pilot doesn’t tell us all to haul out. He goes back as far as he can, and guns it. We’re shaking about in the back there, sure we’re going to meet those trees and it won’t be pretty. The doors under us are rattling and it’s no reassurance if we lose our grip we’ll stay in.
‘But he makes it this time. By nothing. See the palms just about scape the belly of the plane through that gap below us. And then it was who knows how long up there, hanging on as we see the ocean under us, just hoping we can make it far enough.’
‘And did ya?’ asked Walter.
‘Made it to Darwin,’ John told them. ‘And got dropped off in a camp there. Pilot was going to Melbourne. Didn’t know when the next plane would be coming to take us back to Sydney. So the process started over again.’
And when John had finally made it back to Sydney, there’d been no one there to meet him, the Army having had no idea they were coming in. John took himself home on a train, returning to the peninsula where his house was dark and empty, Anne and their child not there; John’s best friend since childhood having not made it home with him. But John didn’t tell that part of the story. Anne’s face now didn’t hold even the look of worry it had when she’d seen him off in 1941. Those weren’t memories John wished to stew in this night.
Stepping from the post office, John tucked his mail into a pocket of his jacket and ducked his hat to the rain. Campbell’s General Store had shut its doors this Saturday, the tinkle of the bell above the door announcing John’s entrance. The two boys in the corner didn’t pay it heed.
Mrs Campbell had taken pity on them. Both boys were munching on offcuts of meat pie at one of her scrubbed tables.
‘Yeah,’ the younger boy was saying, ‘I saw him go into the post office. Wonder if he’ll come here – always comes to the shop. Never see him otherwise.’
‘Keeps to himself,’ the older boy said sagely, and stuffed a forkful of pie into his mouth. He chewed, then cheeked the food to carry on, ‘It’s ‘cause the lighthouse’s haunted. All the spooks from all the pies and more besides.’
‘Haunted?’ the younger one said sceptically. ‘You seen the ghosts?’
‘Yeah I have! Saw one standing up by the light one night! It’s why the lighthouse man keeps all those lamps lit in his house – it’s to keep the spooks away! One at every window! Haven’t you seen it?’
The lanterns didn’t burn all night to keep the ghosts away. It was the danger of unwanted echoes the light kept at bay. John didn’t say it, however. His dripping hat held at his side, he met the gaze of Mrs Campbell as she bustled over.
‘Oh Mr Morder!’ she said. ‘Didn’t think we’d be seeing you today! Your timber’s not here yet – we thought we’d send it up with the car when it came to deliver kerosene to the lighthouse. Save you having to carry it all the way back yourself. Especially if this rain keeps up!’
John dipped his head in gratitude. At the tables, both boys had looked round. Their faces long in the way of abashedly shut mouths, they watched John silently.
‘I’m here for one of your pies, Mrs Campbell,’ he said. ‘If there are any.’
Mrs Campbell’s face split into a smile. She hustled behind the counter.
‘You finished the last one already, have ya?’ she said, pleased. ‘Apple?’
John had seen the harvested branches of the orchard on his way down. Mrs. Campbell may make her pies for another couple weeks, but the autumn season would be over soon. Neither sure he wanted to see his old friend, nor sure he wanted to stop trying, John had grown impatient.
Under the wash of rain, he took less pleasure in the walk home along muddy roads. At a hook by the cottage door, he left his hat and jacket to drip on the veranda floor, continuing inside to store the pie and open his post. There’d been only one letter waiting for John at the post office. It was on the worktop he left it once he’d read the correspondence through. He stepped back and turned around. For one long moment, he surveyed his home.
Lamps unlit, the keeper’s cottage held the grey light of a dreary day. The raindrops pattered on the corrugated metal roof, keeping up a steady white noise. It made the cottage seem lonelier. As the cottage likely would be in years to come.
His mouth set in a line, John fetched kerosene container and pitcher, and began his rounds refilling lamps before nightfall.
Visit to Campbell’s General Store and post office. Pantry restocked. Received missive from the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Ngalaya is to be automated come spring.
John shut his logbook on the last note for May 1st, 1948. He stared out the window. Not, this time, to admire the sunset. There wasn’t one on this grim day. The sky simply became darker.
He was later than usual to descend the iron stairs, the beacon circling at the top of the tower. Still, John paused at the lighthouse door, hesitating. There was a deadline now, and it sharpened his internal conflict.
Ahead, light glowed through every window of the cottage. John squared his shoulders and headed down the stairs, glad for the cover that kept the damp from his clothes.
‘Burma – building that infernal bloody railway. You said this place was John’s? He never told ya?’
John’s eyes slipped shut, the door to the cottage open only a crack under his hand.
‘Aw Mick, you know John,’ Anne’s voice responded, her tone light-hearted. ‘He speaks when he wants to speak.’
Mick Jones laughed.
‘Oh I know John all right!’ he said. ‘Remember him speaking more than that though! So what’s this, then? John keep a pack of ghosts or the lighthouse?’
‘Does a lot of both,’ said Samuel.
Mick laughed. It was a hearty one, just as it had been for all of Mick’s life. If there was a person who’d find themselves a ghost and leap into it with a laugh, it was Mick.
John bit the bullet and pushed the door open.
‘And there ya are!’ Mick called to him. ‘Crikey do you look old!’
It hurt a little for John’s face to crunch into a smile. He smiled all the same, unable not to.
‘Been alive longer than you, mate,’ John retorted.
Having known Mick at his end, the effects of death were more startling for this soldier. Returned to health was how Mick looked, his eyes dark and full of humour, chin that same round ice cream scoop on the front of his jaw. He’d already gotten comfortable on a sofa.
‘Seen more toil than me, ya battler!’ Mick called. ‘I carked it halfway through that bloody railway. Couldn’t take the tropical ulcers another second!’ he laughed. ‘Right royal bastards. You get that thing finished, or did the Japanese get trounced first?’
John sank into his armchair. He met Anne’s knowing look for only a moment. It was hard not to feel at ease around Mick. To his final day, Mick’s ideology had been “If you haven’t got humour, then, well, what else you got?”
‘War went on for two years after we finished it,’ John said. ‘And when we finished that railway, they just shipped us to the mine camps in Japan.’
Mick had pulled an expressive grimace.
‘Well bugger me,’ he said, ‘glad I missed that!’
‘Could have been worse,’ said John. ‘Samuel here didn’t make it that far. He went in the death marches.’
Samuel confirmed it with a bobbing of his head.
‘Pity you didn’t know our song,’ Mick said to him, a sly grin pulling at the corner of his mouth. He shared a look with John. ‘Gave ya a spark of spirit to sing it when them Japanese hadn’t a clue what you were saying!’
‘You gonna share that song?’ said Dave, when Mick just laughed and John chuckled quietly. ‘Or ya gonna leave us guessin’?’
‘Smells like fresh apple pie in here,’ Mick said, evasive. ‘Always loved a good fresh apple pie!’
Mick did share the song, and he did so by cajoling John into joining in. At some point in the rousing chatter of the night, John noticed Anne stood by the worktop where the letter from the Commonwealth Lighthouse Services lay. That she read it, John had no doubt, though she didn’t speak to him of it until the night had near worn itself out and dawn was threatening over the horizon.
‘Why we’re here is because we weren’t at peace, John,’ she said as they sat together on the side of the bed, facing the dark window. ‘There is nothing to say this lighthouse is significant in us staying. Nothing to say,’ she pressed, ‘the same thing can’t happen in another home you keep lit all night – with electric lights, maybe, so you don’t need so many…’
Her gaze at John was entreating. He stared out the window. At peace. It was why he’d always both feared the pies bringing Mick to the lighthouse, and been disappointed when, time after time, they hadn’t. If there was one soldier John had wanted to be at peace, never to appear in his cottage, it was Mick. And it was only through Anne that he had reassurance he wasn’t pulling souls back from peace. Anne, who’d cried the night she’d appeared, and spent many nights since assuring him it’d been because she’d been glad to see him.
‘You bought that book,’ Anne went on, persuasive. ‘”Ngalaya” was the name given to this headland by an old governor of the colony. He’d have known known no more about the local Aborigines than the writer of that book – less, likely. He’d have just liked the name… He may not have even known what it meant.
‘“Man”,’ Anne pressed on, ‘that word for both “fisherman” and “ghost”… that wasn’t unique to this headland. Even if they had experiences of ghosts, the word would have been used right across this region, among many groups that fished. As far as we know, there’s only been a light on this headland for a hundred years. You looked and looked, John, for why us ghosts are here, and found nothing to say this headland is significant. Before you, there’s no history of it here.’
‘No known history of it,’ John corrected softly. ‘The people who knew are lost, and it wasn’t written down.’
Anne conceded the point in a brief pinch of her lips. She surveyed John.
‘This lighthouse is your peace too,’ she said, even more gently. She carried on as John sunk his head into fingers that rubbed his eyes. ‘Your routine. Your purpose and dedication. A place to seek refuge in a landscape you find safe. With people you feel safe with.’
Anne was quiet for a moment. Raising his head from his hands, John glanced at her. Out the window, dawn was breaking. Anne’s look, as ever, was understanding.
‘Write to the Lighthouse Service,’ she suggested. ‘Even with automation, the glass needs cleaning. Maintenance… And you know how to do that.’ She gestured to the cottage around them. ‘There’s already a cottage here. Ask them to stay on. It’s always been more work than it should be for one man. See if you can stay on, and not wake up many times a night to wind that crank.’
Anne’s arm was rested on her leg, bowing just slightly around a small belly. Her arm was mere inches from John’s. A long time ago he’d learned to stop craving the touch of her. Just then, he wished again to clasp her hand. And knew it wasn’t possible.
So he watched her, until the sun rose high enough in the grey sky to turn the ocean from black to roiling steel, and she faded with the relative diming of the lamp on the windowsill.
The word “Ngalaya” means “ally in battle”, from what is known of a lost language. Across the spit from Ngalaya lighthouse and down the road toward a growing village, apple trees rise between headstones at the back edge of the cemetery.
The first headstone sunk into the earth here is close enough that as the apple tree has grown, a root has emerged from the soil to curl around it, like an arm in an unconscious embrace. On the headstone, the name reads “Anne Morder and her unborn child”. It calls her rightly the beloved wife of John, though he never saw the headstone laid, nor the burial. Below that are the dates 1918 – 1941.
Around Anne’s headstone are others, in cold grey stone.
1912 – 1941
1906 – 1943
1923 – 1943
1919 – 1945
1916 – 1942
1921 – 1944
1924 – 1944
1919 – 1942
Samuel Watkin’s headstone has a date of birth, but Samuel had told John it was a guess. The second number is 1945, the date of his death. Into the space above his supplied birthdate, John once scratched the rising sun insignia into the simple stone.
All characters and locations here are fictional. The lighthouse was inspired by Barrenjoey Lighthouse, and apple pies aren’t that popular in Australia, curiously enough.
Several years ago, I met one of the dwindling number of Australian WW2 soldiers. He told his memories from the war, and I just sat like a child at story time, listening. He described a naval battle, his time as a POW in Burma, the black trees after the nuclear bombs in Japan, and trying to make his way home after the war.
It was living history. I was not only glad to have met him, I was glad he was so committed to sharing the stories. He told me openly why he shared them too. For a long time after the war, he didn’t talk about it. But he was very old when I met him, and his view was if he didn’t tell the stories, who would? Most everyone else was dead, their stories buried with them.
He’s passed on too now. I won’t share his name, but I do remember it. I do think, if he’d known anything about this little story, he’d have wanted it to not be only sad. He had a strong belief in humour.
Writing this, I just wanted to create a “snapshot in time”, rather than anything that offered conclusions. There are some anachronisms in this story, some I made nods to, others, like “carked it”, I simply cannot verify was an expression used at the time the story is set. “Aborigine” is the closest I got in this story to using racial slurs that would have been more acceptable in the period. “Aborigine” is not the preferred term, and is seen as derogatory by some in the Indigenous community because of the history.