Murmansk, Russia. 1933
Ivan fingered the crucifix which hung around his neck, then grasped it in a clenched fist as he squinted through the windscreen. His vision of the runway was obscured by a sudden snowstorm, but it was too late now to abort.
Freezing fingers of wind scoured the wings of the Kalinin-K5 aircraft and formed a smooth coating of ice on the leading edges as it sped down the runway of a small aerodrome on the outskirts of Murmansk. It gained speed until it lifted into the air, the vibration coursing through the airframe dislodged most of the ice and the aircraft steadied itself against the strong north-easterly wind.
Ivan hated these late season flights, pushing luck against the onslaught of winter. With just over five-hundred kilometres to Kolguyev Island, he prayed the ice would remain at bay and not drag them down into the icy waters of the Barents Sea. The round trip would be over tonight, God willing, then the winter would be spent working further south in a more temperate climate.
Despite its twelve passenger seats the aircraft carried only two other people, yet the cabin was full. On, under, and between seats were provisions for the two men for 6 months, plus a margin for safety. An earlier flight had transported their fuel supplies. Despite the worries for his aircraft, the pilot would rather take the gamble of the return flight than spend the next six months in the hell hole those two men were going to.
The older of the two passengers was Vasily Primakov, he too was anxious about the trip and the following months. At sixty years of age, it was probably his last. He was due for retirement in two years and if they tried to get him to do another tour he would play on some fictitious illness. He'd done this job for thirty-five years, for the last five of those he had been posted to this same location, the worst of his career.
He had loved the job, the relaxed routine with time to read all the great classics as well as more modern fiction. He liked the quiet life but this was too much, certainly at this time of year. Six months frozen in with little contact with the outside world and nowhere to go. Always the same scenery, white snow, white ice, and seas as black as coal far as the eye could see.
The only time the scenery changed was during winter storms if the sea ice was thin enough for waves to develop. Then, the violent waves smashed the ice from the rocks near the water's edge leaving their grey, black and brown forms exposed like rotten teeth. One year a ferocious storm cast a lump of ice the size of a car into the side of the generator house missing the power plants by inches. The loss of both sets would have meant almost certain death for the inhabitants.
He felt old and knew he looked it too. His clothes matched his long, unkempt beard and shoulder length grey hair. A large hoop earring hung from one ear.
Their destination was Lighthouse Number 34, set on the north end of the island, eighty kilometres from the only settlement at Bugrino. The lighthouse had suffered more than its share of disasters over the years. It was destroyed by a summer storm in 1893 and by fire in 1910. The keepers escaped the fire, but it was winter, with nowhere to go. Surrounded by snow and ice, as soon as the last embers of the fire died, so did they; frozen where they stood or fell.
The lighthouse was rebuilt after each incident and constituted one of the most up to date and perhaps luxurious lighthouses; if that term could ever by applied to such a utilitarian building.
But they weren't the last mishaps. In 1923 one keeper shot the other after an argumentative game of poker got out of hand following a drinking binge. Another man died, only two years ago, in 1931, of apparently natural causes.
Many said the lighthouse was cursed, others went so far as to say it was haunted, either by those who died or by more malevolent forces which had caused all the catastrophes. Bloody nonsense, thought Vasily. Just bad luck.
He looked out of the cabin window and caught a final glimpse of Murmansk, his home town. They would be strangers to each other until next year. Already the streets were lined with snow. Smoke from house fires and industry hung over it like a grey blanket.
His colleague, Nikita Bylinkin, was, by contrast, stylishly dressed and in his mid-thirties. He was a relative newcomer to lighthouse-keeping but had already accompanied Vasily on two previous tours of duty at this outpost. At least it couldn't get any worse. He didn't mind the solitude as much as Vasily, it gave him the opportunity to follow his passionate interests. Like Vasily he liked to read, a great way to pass a mass of time, but he also loved to paint and draw. On top of that, he was a keen musician and practiced on his violin almost every day. They had an arrangement, Nikita would go up to the light room on pleasant afternoons while Vasily would play music on the ground floor with all doors between them closed.
It worked and they got on well, despite the difference in age. Nikita began to see Vasily as a substitute father figure and saw more of him than he ever had his real father. To Vasily, Nikita was like a son. His only true son was a Master Mariner who was lost when his ship went down during a violent storm off Valparaiso in the South Pacific. He was only thirty-five, a young age to be a Ship Master, and a young age to die.
They were actually looking forward to working together.
Half way through the journey another violent snow storm hit the aircraft. It was buffeted up and down, and from side to side. The pilot had no chance to pray or to hold his crucifix this time as he battled the machine with all the strength of his one-hundred-forty kilo frame
Vasily fought the urge to throw up his last meal. He tightened his seatbelt and then grabbed the sides of his seat. Sweet Jesus, he thought. Is this where it ends, out here on this God-forsaken sea? What comes first, freezing to death or drowning?
Both scared the shit out of him. He wanted his last moments to be by the fireside with a glass of Vodka, or to slip away painlessly in his sleep, not a violent, horrible death. He closed his eyes, his fate was not in his hands.
Nikita was frightened too. He had more to lose than Vasily. He was young, whereas his comrade had already lived a full life. He welcomed the loneliness of the lighthouse now, at least it was on firm ground. He would have given anything right that moment to be imprisoned there for the rest of his life rather than this.
The aircraft creaked and groaned, thumped and thudded. How much more could it take? The starboard engine cut out and they began a slow descent. The pilot pumped the fuel levers and igniters, his face staring in terror at the motionless propeller and the foreboding sea beneath them. He stabbed at the start button repeatedly and was about to ask for redemption from all his sins, whatever they may or may not have been, when the engine restarted. He pushed the throttle hard to its stops and the power of the engine pulled them back into an ascent. It sounded good, perhaps it had been a lump of snow dragged into the air intake. As he regained control his hands were shaking, they didn't stop until he touched down on Bugrino Island.
"Fuck!" he said aloud. His face was covered with sweat despite the low temperature. Spittle settled on his thick beard.
They entered into clear skies and the sea changed from an ominous black to a reflection of the crystal blue sky.
Vasily stepped into the cockpit.
"You're shaking," he said to the pilot.
"Thought we were goners, nearly shat myself."
"All good now. Look. you can just make out the island on the horizon."
Vasily saw the thin strip of grey through the haze. "Home for the next six months."
"Rather you than me."
"Rather that than this flying coffin in this fucking weather."
"It's due to clear, I should be okay on the way back."
"Hope you're right, comrade."
Ivan began the descent towards the makeshift runway which served the lighthouse. Flurries of snow were already settling on it and the outgoing keepers had lit flares to mark its edges.
Vasily could see two small figures, Alexei and Viktor, waving at them. I bet they're happy to see us, he thought.
"Buckle up!" Ivan shouted from the cockpit. "Landing in five minutes."
The aircraft began a slow turn as Ivan eye-balled the landing area. The weather was good; sun drenched the ground illuminating a patchwork of greens, browns, and fallen snow.
Vasily observed the desolate landscape trough the cabin windows, no sign of habitation as far as the eye could see. As the plane banked again the lighthouse came into view, a solitary pike against a featureless background, it's fresh paintwork glinted in the sunlight. The summer crew had completed the annual task of painting the structure, something which was impossible in the winter months.
It looked smart and homely, but Vasily knew that was an illusion. He recalled life from the previous tour of duty. They would see little of the outside of the building in the coming months. Sure, there would be opportunities to get out for a brief walk, but what was the point? They would get enough exercise ascending and descending the many flights of ...