Interview with: Jan Penberthy
An old man opens the door of the small granite cottage and gestures me in with a broad smile, and a broader accent. A few minutes later, we settle into two comfortable old armchairs with a cup of tea, and a couple of locally made pasties, the pastry still warm from the ovens of the bakery just down the road. I mumble my thanks through a mouthful of meat and vegetables. Once we’ve finished tucking into the traditional Cornish fayre, Jan relaxes into the stuffing of his seat, and with the mellifluous voice of a born storyteller he tells me his experiences of the War.
“Well, it was sorta lonely you understand. We spent weeks out there stuck on that rock. I admit the view was good, but you do get fed up with the bloody sea pigeons. Damn seagulls, all they ever do is eat and shi….er poop on things.
“We were of course in constant contact with everyone. Not like the old days of the lighthouse, when all you had was a dodgy two-way radio, which only worked in fair weather.
“Hell, we even had TV put in, and the helicopter pad right up on top of the light made it easy to drop in people, supplies, visitors, you name it. Even Prince Charles and his missus popped in once and had a cup of tea. Nice people they were, interested in everything.
“I suspect in some ways, I’m probably one of the least affected people you’ll talk to ’bout all this nonsense. See, I didn’t actually leave the Lighthouse for years once it all started. No need. I hadn’t got any family, my wife died a few years before the blasted Zombies turned up, and we didn’t have any kids, so all I did was sit tight, and hope for the best.
“For some reason, there was a tradition in the service that meant we always kept a massive amount of tinned food in the stores at the bottom of the tower. We were lucky there. It was just me and Ken Jago on duty when it all kicked off. We had a very short call telling us to sit tight, and then we just sat and watched the news.
“Scary! Hell, I’ve never seen anything like it. All those bloody dead things wandering around. We watched it for twenty-four hours solid, and then everything stopped. Dead. Trouble was the TV didn’t reanimate. That was it. Now, I was quite happy where I was, but Ken was going frantic. He had a wife and kids on the mainland, and he went stir crazy. I turned on the radio as much to keep him quiet as anything else, and we managed to pick up some conversation, but it didn’t really tell us much. But then, sudden like, a voice came over the speaker, clear as a bell.
“In a very clear and calm voice we heard ‘Hello, hello. Is there anyone there? This is Morwenna Jago. We are surrounded, repeat we are surrounded. We are located at Newquay airport, and are using the radio here.’ The tone of the voice changed then, and we could hear banging noises in the background. ‘Please help us. Oh God, please. We can’t get out, they’re breaking in. No, no, noooooo…….”
Jan paused at this point, his voice somber now; his tone dark, and his hands gripping the arms of the chair.
“She left the mic’ open.
“We heard the screams as she and her family died. We heard the feeding and the moans of the undead as they claimed the airfield, and then we heard nothing more.
“As I sat there, stunned and crying, Ken climbed to the top of the lighthouse. A few seconds later his body plummeted past the window to the Longship Rocks below us.
“It was a beautiful day too, for being so tragic. The sea was like a mirror, the blue of the sky reflected unbroken to the horizon. I’d known Ken for near on twenty years. His wife Morwenna had been the prettiest little thing you ever saw, and his kids? Well, they were their mother’s daughters.
“I was on my own then, but not for very long. We were still in the early stages of the outbreak then, and every now and again a boat would drift past. Sometimes it would have a Zombie on it, sometimes it would be empty. I tried to hook a line on a few of ’em, but they never came close enough.
“A couple of days after I’d given Ken a burial at sea, I was standing on the helipad at the very top of the lighthouse, and I saw something coming towards me. It was a helicopter! One of the pilots at the Heliport in Penzance had managed to survive, and gather a few survivors.
“There were regular runs to the Scilly Isles that lie to the southwest in those days, taking food, clothes, and supplies. When they saw my flare go up, Alan – the pilot – landed on top of the tower, his machine full to the brim with everything he’d managed to lay his hands on. There were five of us then: me, Alan, a teenage girl, and her two young twin brothers. Alan had been flying out towards the Scillys, hoping that they were uninfected, but had seen the girl and her brothers running across a field, being chased – albeit not at speed – by a small group of the Infected. He’d landed, thrown the kids into the helicopter, and taken off with the Zombies grabbing mindlessly at the landing gear as he lifted into the air.
“The Scilly Isles were overrun initially; we had intermittent radio contact with a family on the small island of Bryher for a while, but then one day they stopped answering, and we were truly on our own.
“We were busy though. By God, those boys kept us all on our toes. A lighthouse isn’t the biggest of places: Longships Lighthouse was over a hundred years old, built of proper Cornish granite. We had water tanks and stores at the bottom, a small bathroom, electricity fed by some solar panels or the generator, a small galley, and three small rooms that got smaller as you got higher. There wasn’t much room for playing, and they couldn’t really go outside, as the lighthouse was built directly onto the rocks. The boys were beggars for climbing up out onto the helipad, and regularly gave me a fright they did. One of the little sods even got his brother to lower him down on a rope once, so he could tap on the kitchen window. Nearly gave me a heart attack.
“The Longship Rocks are very rarely visible above the waterline, but when they were, we managed to get out and do some fishing; although we had to watch out for the odd Zombie who managed to clamber up onto the rocks. Alan stayed with us for just a day at the start and then headed to the Scilly Isles. He came back a couple of days later with another helicopter stocked full of essentials, but no news, and no more survivors. We didn’t see anyone else for years. Alan ditched the ‘copter in the sea before the winter storms hit that first year. It wouldn’t have stayed on the Helipad over winter, and I guess we always lived in hope that another ‘copter might find us and that it’d need somewhere to land. We stripped the thing of anything useful, and then he carefully landed it in the sea and I picked him up in the small dinghy that was part of the rescue kit.
“That was it then. We survived, unnoticed, apart from the odd Zombie drifting up onto the rocks. We usually just waited for the tide to wash them off again, but occasionally Alan and I had to deal with them. The girl Megan turned into a rather lovely young lady, but she never did speak about her past. She always kept that buried. Thankfully, her brothers Corin and Cadan were handful enough that they kept us busy.
“A few years later the army spotted a flare we sent up, and we got back in contact with the outside world. From then on we acted as a sort of staging post and relayed messages. They kept us supplied, and we used the forty metre high tower to start warning ships again as they took to the seas. It was a heartwarming sight to see those twin beams shining out across the sea I can tell you. The boys used to muck about with the fog horn though, the buggers.
“After a couple of years, the army set up a permanent base on the Isles of Scilly, having cleared the main Isle of St Mary’s of Zeds, mirroring the one they’d set up on the Isle of Wight at the start of the War.
“Alan, as a registered pilot soon ended up joining the fight, and he’s now part of the new Royal Air Force. He pops back down here occasionally and says hello.”
At this point, the interview is interrupted by two tall, dark-haired young men, who make the small cottage suddenly feel somewhat crowded. A very pretty woman follows them in and wanders over to hug Jan. He hugs her back and then turns to me and smiles.
“If one good thing has come of all this, I have a family now.”