Peace. He thought that this was the perfect definition for the sunset visible from the cliff, with the waves rhythmically breaking against the rocks shaped by century upon century of oceanic insistence, the boats of local fishermen tossed around by the tide, tied to the sea by their nets, mended, like nylon spider’s webs laying in wait for fish. The gentle breeze aroused by the beat of forever restless seagulls’ wings and the clicking of the relay that connects the spotlight of the lighthouse breaking the monotonous melody formed by the wind, sea and seagulls. He inserted the binoculars between his gaze and the bashful horizon and spotted the boat a few miles to the left, sailing round the islet of Candelain, home to nothing more than crabs and goats. A Chinese merchant probably stocked with knock-off clothes, Gucci bags or Levi jeans sewn by preadolescents from sun up to sun down with calluses covering their dreams. He looked at the register; Kuang-Shon-Li, he ticked it and noted down the time next to the name: 20:43. The beam of the lighthouse waited patiently for the immense freighter to move across the line of the horizon from left to right, like a cable car attached to the zenith, and then he extinguished the characteristic clunking of the relay that disconnects the spotlight from the battery. CLUNK, and darkness. Ismael wrapped himself up in his coat, wondering how much longer he could hold onto his job now that the spotlight had been automated and that his work consisted in noting down every boat that he spotted and keeping an eye on the working of the activation mechanism to make sure there were no breakdowns. “You could be here for another three years, maybe a little longer; enough time to test the new automatic activation system, and if everything goes as we expect, you will have to leave the lighthouse”, the Delegate from the Marine Ministry had told him exactly three years previously. Ismael lit his pipe and entered.
Ismael lived on the ground floor of the lighthouse. Just right for one man – no more, no less. A kitchen that also served as a living room when the lamps were not on, so really we should call it a living room that served as a kitchen three times a day, a bathroom and a bedroom. That was the lot. But to Ismael, accustomed to spending entire months sharing narrow cabins with sweaty Icelandic mariners, this seemed like more space than anyone could ever possibly need. He missed life at sea, his life before a cog from the traction wheel of the tug boat in which he was working left his left leg stiffer than the mast of a schooner.
He was eating a bit of chicken and potatoes whilst watching a programme about the advances of science on the television. I live in a scientific advancement, he thought smiling; his lighthouse, a prototype that would be installed all along the coast, detected the presence of boats through a radar system and remained lit while they were close, then it would sleep like a well-trained guard dog that remains calm when danger is distant. To save energy, they had said. Or to save the cost of a salary, thought Ismael. That bloody machine had not failed, not even once, in three years, that bloody machine was going to leave him unemployed. Clunk. Clunk? The lamp has connected? He got up and looked at the register; nothing for 23:00. Some Russian captain has overdone it on the vodka tonight, he said to himself. This happened fairly frequently, one lapse of concentration by the pilot and some of the boats that were following the route north, fell excessively windward through the night and ended up too near to the coast. He climbed the stairs of the tower dragging his left leg. Five hundred and seven damned stairs curved round on themselves like a black hole. He arrived at the top and scrutinised the horizon illuminated by the powerful light of the lamp through the glass. Nothing. He waited a moment, and then swept the sea with his binoculars again. Nothing. He called the coast guards on the radio who confirmed that they had not spotted any boat in the surrounding area. Nothing at all. Fuck, what’s going on? The lamp went out again. He went downstairs and noted in the register the time of the incident; 23:05. He checked what time the next ship would arrive, 01:00 in the morning, a transatlantic with a Greek flag. One thousand and eight-one souls including passengers and crew. Fuck. He looked at his watch: 23:17. He calmed down, there was plenty of time, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He went through to his room, and opened the third drawer of the set. He pulled out a bulky blue file. Operative Procedures in case of Emergency. He looked for the chapter that explains how to switch to manual control in the index; he found it with the bookmark for the novel that lay on his bed – Moby Dick. He went to the kitchen and found his toolbox under the sink. Armed with this he confronted the five hundred and eighty-seven step spiral staircase, his left leg bashed against them one by one as if shoring them into place, a stubborn and painful confirmation of his ascent. He arrived at the top, opened the control panel and compared the picture from the book with the jungle of cables and circuits that he held before him as if he were trying to solve a “spot the difference” puzzle. He did not see anything. He looked at his watch: 23:30. It was very early and he knew and was conscious for the first time of the fact that nothing would happen; he had plenty of time to resolve the situation. He read the book with care and followed the steps cautiously and accurately: he unscrewed the cover A-3 from the panel, he removed the red fuse, he bridged the connectors J and X and reinserted the red fuse. He pressed the on button. Nothing. Shit. He looked at the book again and found with horror that he had jumped a step; he had not pushed the lever P-1. He did this and tried again. Nothing. He read in the book: ensure these steps are carried out in the correct order as failing to do so may damage the red fuse. Shit!
He looked at the time while he lighted the ignition on the van; ten to twelve. It was clear that the red fuse had blown. He had to go down to the village and look in the warehouse, among hundreds of spare parts, for this damned red fuse. Then he would put it in and switch the lighthouse to manual control, turn it on and that’s that. Nothing bad would happen. The motor of the van spluttered, frozen stiff with the cold, and finally started up. He lifted the clutch situated on a hand control next to the steering wheel, as his leg prevented him from using the traditional pedal, and descended down the path driving faster than he would have liked. A thick fog had begun to draw in surrounding the hill as was usual at this hour of the night, but the van had strong headlights…Not sufficiently powerful, however, to illuminate the vastness of the sea and save the lives of thousands of people. This thought pressed down on his stomach and he pushed down on the accelerator. The old van danced as it passed over potholes and Ismael imagined that he would burst the tyres or something worse and reduced his speed nearly immediately. It was the longest drive he had ever taken to the village; it took half an hour. He parked next to the warehouse that luckily was located in the outskirts. He approached the door and grabbed onto the enormous padlock. God! He stood there, pallid, gazing hypnotised at the enormous steel lock. Did I pick up the keys? He remembered that he always carried them on his key ring, along with all the others.
“You should calm down, Ismael”, he thought. He opened it and entered the warehouse. He read the catalogue that was hanging on the wall, he identified the part and memorised the number of the shelf where the spare was located: C35. He limped through past the shelves looking at the dusty numbers painted on them until he arrived at C35. The red fuse was there, good job too. For a moment he had thought about the possibility of arriving and that there would not be anything there or that instead of the fuse he would find another, different, part, completely useless for what he needed. With the fuse still in his hand he moved towards the door, exited, closed up the warehouse and got into the van. He left the fuse in the glove box, he put the key in the ignition, turned it and the van started on the first try. Euphoric for having avoided that stereotypical cinematic scene where the car won’t start, he didn’t identify the first sound properly, it passed through his mind without his consciousness registering it; simply an echo that, when repeated clearly in his ears with the unmistakable ring of a boat’s horn stole his breath away for a few seconds. He stepped on the accelerator and confronted the path up to the lighthouse; a tortuous path littered with potholes that he had to traverse as fast as the wind. The boat must be very close now, it was ahead of schedule. He did not have time to lose.
The van, faithful to its instincts, blocked the wheels upon feeling the quick, energetic and firm pressure from Ismael’s foot, the sharp turn of the wheel made the van turn swiftly to the right but not enough to miss the hard body of the wild boar that broke the radiator and destroyed the motor and made the vehicle roll. Ismael opened the door and got out of the rolled van, dragging himself along, without paying attention to his head injury. Blood was running down his forehead but he didn’t care. The rammed, badly wounded, wild boar hurt him more; it showed him no mercy for a few seconds while he was on the floor and finally the boar disappeared into the undergrowth. He heard and believed he heard the horn again. He took a breath, got up, and ran up the path, the blood of the wound dripping down his face, running into his eyes, he imagined bloody bodies smashing against the sharp rocks of the cliff, he ran more, he felt a stabbing pain in his chest, he spat blood, and he shouted “Help!” His bad leg was really hurting, he wished he had lost it in the operation, damned nuisance, he remembered his girlfriend next to the hospital bed and her venomous goodbye, he bashed into a rock, shouted “fuck”, he sprang back up, ran like an athlete, abandoned the path, violated the wood in search of time, looked at his broken, stopped watch, he tore it off in fury, he heard the shouts of children drowning in his head and he saw the imposing silhouette of the lighthouse in front of him, unlit and dead like a macabre monolith waiting for a spell that awakes its ghosts. He looked to the left and saw the shadow of the enormous transatlantic approaching terrifyingly towards the cliff, blind in the face of its death. He opened the door to the lighthouse, entered the kitchen, groped the walls looking for the light switch without success, remembered the stairs, the light, the life, he hobbled his way to the five hundred and eighty-seven stairs that absorbed him like a black hole, he heard the insistent and deathly horn of the boat, pessimistic, treacherous, whore, goodbye, she said, goodbye, my love, goodbye. He coughed, felt sick, dizzy, he fell down the stairs, fifty, sixty, perhaps one hundred stairs, he cried bitterly whilst he got to his feet and crawled up like an injured dog, spitting blood and blasphemes, praying inside, imploring for help, dreaming of the tranquillity of the sea…He arrived at the top and opened the control box. He saw the space for the red fuse, he groped around in his pockets and remembered. His mind went down five hundred and eighty-seven stairs that transported him to the past like a black hole, he flew over the potholed, narrow path, he saw a dead wild boar, a destroyed blackberry bush, a upside down van, a glove box, a red fuse. The shout drowned him with nausea and a shudder. The pain in his chest and in his arm was unbearable. Ismael collapsed next to the light of the lighthouse and in the death rattle of the end of his days he could hear the voice of his death; a mocking clunk and then the light, immense, powerful and the saviour that everyone sees at the end of the tunnel.