Every shred of common sense I had screamed not to do it. No, counselled. Common sense doesn’t scream, it’s far too sensible for that. But the place was just enchanting somehow, beguiling, and I’m not one to turn down beguilement or really what’s the point. So I show up today, day one, skies leaden waiting to throw down everything they have and more, the wind whipping up curls of sand as though it were gossamer, and suddenly the place is less beguiling, more overwhelming.
The sea is to my left, and my right. I am surrounded. Perched on a thin spit of rugged land. Down the centre runs a gnarled spine of driftwood. Not the small sticks I associated with the term as a child, but whole, twisted tree trunks. It would be a paradise for hide and seek. But I’m not here to play games, and in any case there is nobody to do the seeking.
The spit runs out into the sea for a good three miles. I shuck on my rucksack and start walking. Perched at the end, on an incline of land, rising, grass-covered and proud from the rest, is a lighthouse.
Three miles takes me longer than it should, owing to the weight on my back and the relentless sea wind. The sky has stayed threatening but empty. He offered me a boat. Thanks but I’ll walk, I said. Idiot.
Finally I am approaching the knee high picket fence that surrounds the scrap of garden belonging to the lighthouse. The wind has dropped suddenly to a foreboding still and I hear a slow patter of water beginning to fall on the hard-packed ground around me. I hurry through the gate and rummage in my jacket pockets for the key. By the time I’ve managed to get the lock to work I am halfway to soaked.
The door opens into a rush of warm air. It is a scruffy paradise of rugs patchworked on oak boards, shelves that don’t quite lie parallel to the floor, a cavernous sofa, a small table and a mewing cat, black with white paws and one and a half ears. I have always loved cats but I have never lived with one, so this is a welcome greeting.
The advert was spare, simple. Free from the trappings of the modern labour market. Productivity wasn’t mentioned once. That’s what was appealing about it. That and I’d never answered a newspaper advert before. Smalley Lighthouse. Help wanted. Good eyesight helpful, no cat allergies. That was it. Usually I hate phoning people but who could resist that call?
Lighthouse keeper, said a gruff voice when I asked what the job was. His tone implied this should have been apparent. I felt foolish then, but pressed on. I don’t have any lighthousekeeping experience, I said, aware that it wasn’t standard interview technique but unable to lie. Don’t need any, he said. It’s just finding someone wants to do it, can be lonely see. I would do it, I said. There was a pause. I figured the pretty dream I’d woven since reading the advert was about to unravel. Fine, he said. When can you start? I did a rapid sum in my head, the addition of small numbers, and gave him a date. He said he’d send me the key and hung up before I could get his name. A week later a battered envelope dropped through my door. There was a key attached via a length of garden twine to a pebble with a hole in it and a note, impressive in its brevity. I’ll call in after you arrive, Dave.
I notice embers glowing in the wood stove. Dave must have set a fire for me some hours ago. I wonder for a moment why he didn’t stay to meet me. But then I don’t know where he lives, or how he travels here. By boat, I suppose, though I know nothing of the tides. Really I am unprepared.
There is a basket of logs by the wood stove so I get the fire going again as my clothes are still damp and I am starting to get chilled. The weather is rampaging outside. I unpack, settle into my first evening. I had wondered if I might feel afraid, living alone out here, but right now all I feel is tired. Content.
I sleep well, woken only once by a nightmare, and even then it is short, easily put to rest. Better than usual. When I wake a second time it is morning, and the weather is still in torment, rushing about the place. I pen a letter to my parents to assuage their inevitable concern, there being no landline and no reception. I take a cue from Dave, the letter is impressive in its brevity.
I am not being entirely honest. There is a landline, but written words are easier than spoken ones, less demanding.
I was also not being entirely honest when I said I had a sum to do. I knew very well how much time I needed. Had. There I go again. It is sometimes difficult to separate the strands of my narrative. I had already resigned from my job. And I had already packed most of my belongings. Preparing for escape before I knew quite where the door was. But I wanted this job, needed it, and what kind of person can pack up and move to a lighthouse at the drop a hat?
By the time I have eaten breakfast the wind is still up but the rain has stopped and there are even fleeting patches of sunlight. I wrap up, drop the key and its pebble into my pocket and go out for some air.
I breathe in the smell. I have never lived by the coast, though I have always loved it. The white rush of waves versus the slinking hiss of traffic. It is not a fair contest. Sitting, my warmth leaching into the rock beneath me, I find my eyes growing glassy with tears. The wind has dropped to a light breeze that tinkers with the strands of hair that have escaped from my hat. I am not sure why I am crying. I would like to say that it is with happiness, relief. But that, too, would be a lie.
I look back to my new home. For the first time I notice that it is a strangely stunted lighthouse. It is the cosier for it but not, I suspect, particularly practical. But then what do I know about lighthouses? I will ask Dave when he comes by.
As some had forecast, there was little work around on the far end of an illustration degree. I was too tentative in ambition and confidence to seek anything even tangentially related. Better not to try than to lay myself bare and be told no. At that impatient, tormented age, several months of unemployment felt like a very long nightmare. When a nameless recruiter found me a job in sales the only sensible thing I could do was accept.
The first six months were the worst, which made the subsequent years tolerable by comparison. The first six months I worked in a call centre. It was called a contact centre, I think to humanise it. But all attempts to humanise the inhuman serve only to make the thing more hideous. I was selling credit cards, savings accounts, bonds, mortgages, pointless packages of banking products. I hated it.
They say Japanese salarymen are most likely to throw themselves under a passing shinkansen on a Friday evening, because the relief of having made it through the week morphs into despair at the thought of Monday coming around and having to do it all over again. When I first heard that, I couldn’t comprehend it. But I grew to understand it in all of its bleak horror. Slightly less draconian labour legislation prevented me from ever seeking the comfort of oblivion, but a refrain gnawed at me whenever I was not at work: you have to go back.
Some days pass and there is no sign of Dave. I spend the time walking, staring out to sea. I start, tentatively, to draw. It is the light and the smell. The feel of the place. It pulls my hand to the page. I am rusty, but daily practice is loosening the hinges. Looking through my newly started sketchbook, I smile at the motion of the waves breaking onto the beach. I can almost hear them. But the beady eye of the seagull is nothing if not a warning. Perhaps it is too soon for birds.
A letter arrives from my parents. I don’t open it. I eat with the cat curled up on my lap. I spend a little more time wondering what my job is supposed to be. For now all I can do is be present, and appreciate the theatre of the sea. I wonder when Dave will come by.
After six months I got promoted to the training team. My promotion was not talent but happenstance. Default. I was the only one of my intake who was still there and coupled with a degree, any degree, it was enough. The blocks of time then are hazier in my memory, but I moved into junior management, dabbled in marketing, then back to management. Some jobs were better than others, some days were easier than others, but always I hated it. I was not being entirely honest when I said that I resigned.
When I look back now I can see how much time I let drift into an abyss. It was John who first showed me that this was not necessary. He showed me how to make the most of the present. Before him, I deferred happiness, treating it like a long term investment: suffer now, reap the rewards later. Except quite what those rewards were, who was going to pay out the interest, I never really considered. It isn’t a fucking pot of gold, he said of the good life, not unkind but frustrated with my pessimism. He prodded me affectionately in the stomach, smiling. I saw the logic of his arguments, was excited by the possibility. It took a while, but he was persuasive.
It is my one week anniversary at the lighthouse. I am sitting by the sea on what has become my favourite rock. It is the first day the sun has shown its face. The warmth on my cheeks is very welcome. I am drawing the sky, a hazy blue punctuated only by a wisp of cloud, a quiet sea below. I think about what Robin would have said: boring view, been done a thousand times before and better, why are you bothering. For a moment it slows my hand’s progress across the page, but I continue to draw.
I stare at the sea. The waves are small, so small I feel there should be another word for them but cannot think of one. Staring, I notice a strangeness. Here again language, mine at least, is ill prepared for the task of description. It’s a bit like phosphorescence, but it’s daylight out, bright daylight. Milky also half fits the thing I am seeing, but not completely. Nor glowing, incandescent, iridescent. Nor nacreous, nor pearly. I dismiss words with alacrity. It is as though there are clouds in the water, the sun shining through, weak, in places. But they are not clouds and the light catching in them is not sun.
I get up from my rock, approach with a tentativeness. As I get to the water’s edge I feel strange. Suddenly I am hit by an intense nausea. I snatch up my drawing things and retreat into the lighthouse. A sweet tea later and it begins to pass, though I am left feeling wrung out. There is a lingering rawness at the edges.
It is the day after the nausea. My sleep was wracked with unfamiliar dreams. Still now, after more than my usual volume of coffee, my head is fogged. As I chew on my oats, I hear footsteps outside the lighthouse. I go to the door, opening it to a bear of a man. Bright yellow rain jacket, red bobble hat, grey stubble beard. Dave, I ask. He nods and pushes inside. He doesn’t literally push but his bulk is such that his movement is enough to make me get out of the way. He asks for coffee and I pour him a mug full. I hand it to him without asking if he wants milk or sugar but before I can get the words out he’s telling me it’s fine black. He smiles. So, he says, and we go to sit at the small table. How do you like the lighthouse?
My small rented house was never a home to me, just a building, a noun. When I visited friends’ places Robin would always insist how much nicer they were. Cozier, more welcoming. And I could never disagree. But I could never cultivate that sense in my own place. I would decide it was the wall colour or the lighting, but whatever I changed, it never made a difference. Of course I experienced this at John’s place too, his was the homeliest of all. I was incredulous when, after deciding to cohabit, he made the case for mine. It’s more spacious, he said, and lovely besides. For once, Robin was quiet.
A year into my degree I fell in love with birds. Not all birds. Just the ones that would hop about my feet as I sat in the park, drawing. A sage blackbird and a sneaky robin became constant motifs in my work. For the first time I felt that I was getting something down that I was pleased with.
At the midterm critique, showing my work, I heard the same thing over and over. And eventually it wasn’t coming from my peers or my tutor, it was coming from my robin. Boring, flat, bland. Give up. Obviously they said it more diplomatically, my peers and tutor. But not Robin. He came straight out with it. He never stopped coming straight out with it.
Dave and I talk a while. He tells me some of his time as keeper. He reports loving it, but now he loves Vera more, and Vera did not want to move into the lighthouse. Was not ready to give up the shop she runs in the village. Dave says the job can’t be done from a distance, and so that is why I am here.
Prior to Dave’s romantic renaissance he was keeper for twenty one years, taking over from his uncle who had done it for twice that. But, nobody in my family to turn it over to, he says, not seeming upset by this, it’s just how it is. Why me, I ask. No experience, complete stranger. I don’t wish to belatedly talk myself out of the job but these are things I want to know. Nobody else called up about the advert, says Dave, and Vera was becoming impatient. Once again, I got it by default.
Dave brings the conversation round to business with a deftness I can only admire. Fuse box, village shop, boats, tides, window locks, fuel. It is interesting to me in as much as I need to know these things. And the quotidian here has a built in enchantment. But for all that, I am eager to know why I am here. Dave knows this I think but is enjoying dealing with everything else first. Eventually he pauses, smiles a little, adjusts his tone for greater drama. The lighthouse, situated as it is on a slight rise of land, does not need to be as tall as one might imagine, he tells me. He takes pleasure in the archaic pronoun. It is automatic, switching itself on and off as required, the lamp, that is. There is a panel near the front door with one LED and a buzzer on it. The former is an indicator for when the bulb needs changing. So why, I begin, but he cuts me off. He tells me to follow him. We leave the lighthouse.
I struggled through the rest of my degree. I was far too timid to quit. Robin became increasingly vocal. At first he just commented on my work, now devoid of birds, but then he crept into other spaces. Clothes, food, conversation. A certain degree of self criticism is necessary, and I thought this was what Robin was doing. It took a long time to begin to consider that he might be wrong.
When I finally came to the realisation that Robin was not a desirable figure, we went through phases. Sometimes he would be louder, sometimes quieter. I could silence him entirely for months at a time, but a day would come and he would be waiting for me when I woke up.
On the night John moved in, I couldn’t sleep. I lay in the dark listening to the quiet sibilance of his breath. Robin was not in the room. There wasn’t space. From then on he didn’t say much. I thought things he might have said, but it was me, not Robin, and that was ok. I cannot thank John for everything, but I want to.
We walk to the beach. Dave is looking out to sea, but not to the horizon, something closer. Before he says anything I know he is looking at the clouds. That is not what they are, but it is how I have come to think of them. I ask him what they are, the clouds under the water. The words he speaks are not the ones I am expecting, though I am not aware of expecting anything. Forgotten dreams, says Dave. I have stumbled into wonderland. Not dreams of the future. The ones you wake up with a sense of but they slip away before you can force them into focus. Those dreams cloud the waters here, he says.
He pre-empts my questions: Something to do with the winds, the rain, the currents, but I’m no scientist, he says. My uncle was interested in the whys and the wherefores, Dave goes on, but he never got too far with it. And I never asked him too much.
Your job, he says, make sure nobody comes down here. Sometimes people hear rumours and they come in search of their dream. Usually writers, musicians, people like that. They think they dream this fantastic idea for a song or whatever, but then they wake up and it slips away. Can drive them a bit nuts. So they hear rumours, and they come looking. Anyway, keep an eye. Anyone down on the beach, get them off. And anyone thinks they know about the dreams, distract them. Make them a coffee, give them a tour of the lighthouse, tell them sorry to disappoint but there’s nothing supernatural here.
An alarm will trip inside, Dave says, when anyone ventures onto this part of beach. That’s the buzzer. It was a harder job in my uncle’s early days, before the alarm. And that’s it, he goes quiet. Too many questions fill my mind and I ask none of them.
Dave is in a rush. Before I can formulate a single sensible question, he is getting into his boat. He will relieve me once a week so that I can go to the village to restock the kitchen and have a break from the lighthouse. Next time, too, he promises, he will give me a lesson in the boat. He waves, his huge paw of a hand silhouetted against the sky. Not knowing what else to do, I go into the kitchen and begin lunch.
I remember the eight months living with John as edenic. I have tried at times to recall the moments when this was not so, but my memory is not forthcoming, and anyway another part of me insists that this tactic is unfair. It has never helped. Instead I remember only the gentle timbre of his voice as it roused me from sleep in the morning, his rough palm smoothing the skin of my back. I remember eating together, retelling the comic moments from our day. He made me notice these, made me pay attention. I had been so absent from the world, before John. I wanted to see things, wanted to observe, be present, curate the good and the funny into eloquent phrases for him to enjoy. I portray myself as a performing dog but this is a poor portrayal. I was not trying to impress him.
I cannot now recall that phone call. I cannot recall the words that were spoken, my response, what I did in the minutes after it ended. There are times that are difficult to think of. And then there are times which are far, far beyond. That phone call was the latter. I am forced to think about much that I do not want to, but that moment I will not. I say this so that it is clear why there is this gap in my narrative. I tell my history so that this moment is glossed over, such that its reality recedes. It is the only way.
In the months that followed it was not that grief obstructed the functioning of my daily life, but that my daily life obstructed the functioning of my grief. It was this dynamic that everyone failed to appreciated.
A week goes by. I see occasional hikers, families, say hello. I paint. I read. The weather fluctuates. Nobody comes near my beach. I open the letter from my parents and write them a reply. I even write to a few friends. I am well, the scenery is reviving, the usual. Only I mean it.
I am sitting on my rock when I hear the chug of the engine on Dave’s small boat. He gives me a lesson in its operation, just the basics. Then he cuts the engine so we can talk and finally I have the chance to ask all of the questions that have been nagging at me: consequences, the secrecy, funding. Mostly he shrugs and is vague. There is a dusty sub-corner of government that has been quietly funding the lighthouse and its keeper for decades. It is easier for them than admitting to the phenomenon and devoting resources to figuring it out, especially when they have more pressing business. Not every corner of life needs to be officialised, regulated, cordoned off, he tells me. Some things just are, he says, and isn’t it better that way, leaving a little magic be. I cannot disagree with that so I don’t push the point.
We stare out to sea a while as the boat bobs, the quiet punctuated by the waves slapping the sides, a happy sound. As for consequences, he goes on, don’t try it. There’s no way of finding your own dream in the melee, and seizing someone else’s has similar effects to an overdose of a dissociative. I don’t interrupt to ask about his familiarity with this term. My uncle saw it once, he says. Someone in the dead of night, before he’d managed to get the alarm system working. He found the guy in the morning, vomiting into a rockpool, naked and hypothermic. His physical health was touch and go but his mental health was worse. It is hard enough to understand others when all we are going on is what we can see and hear. Imagine how that confusion can be amplified upon an additional, capacious dimension, he says.
Three months after the accident I returned to work. I’d never much cared for my colleagues but now I found them intolerable. One asked me how long John and I had been together before it happened. Oh, she said, surprised, when I told her, like she suddenly didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Another said he empathised: he’d just lost his dog. Yet another touched my arm while staring at my breasts and then asked me out for a drink. Others were awkward and silent around me, clipping their conversations short when I entered the room. Countless times I walked out, sat in the park with the blackbirds, glowered at the robins. My boss professed deep understanding and in the next breath raised my absence record.
Three months further on people forgot, went back to normal around me, though nothing was normal and would never be again. I didn’t really know what was worse. Even some friends started to use phrases like get back in the game. I humoured them to the point of drinking too much when we went out, but not for the reason they intended it.
I knew what was coming, the day I was summoned to my boss’s office. Or maybe I didn’t and I have just reordered the memories because they are more satisfying that way round. If I am honest it was humiliating, being fired. That is not what I told people that evening, recounting the story, beer in hand. I framed it of course as a blessing; always hated it, not brave enough to quit. And there is some truth in that. But the more important truth is that I felt ashamed. I felt I had failed. There is no pride in doing something badly, even if it is something you don’t want to be doing. That is a truth John helped me to accept, but without him it was too much to uphold. So my shame was bound up with also having let John down, as much as myself. Even though I really did hate it and I really was too timid to quit. The truth is not always straightforward.
The days slip by more easily out here. It is as though there is less friction between myself and the world even though it is all really the same place and for my part all I have done is run away to a lighthouse.
A chitinous crunch under my foot draws my attention to the delicate shells I am in the business of crushing. Careless, nonchalant. I hop onto the nearest rock and begin to dance across the beach with a little more attention. The clouds are full today, their underbellies a bruised purple and the sky behind them an astringent yellow. The telltale palette of storms to come. It is these things and the way they have of drawing my attention without demanding too much that make life easier to bear here. Though I wonder how long I will last in this solitude.
As each day wore on it became harder and harder to picture his face. I had photos, of course, but I wanted to be able to see him without their aid. I’m sure I am not the only person who has felt troubled by this, but it made it no easier to think I was not alone. But then, I didn’t want things to be easier. I wanted to be fully awake through every moment, every rend, every tear. It seemed more honest and appreciative that way. I bore witness to the world without John, a worse place. And it was only right that I did so. Even when I knew he would think I was being melodramatic and would wish for me to be in less pain.
After John, the house was a difficult place. I divided the world up into difficult places and neutral places. No place was easy. But my lease did not respect bereavement. Emotionally unbearable to inhabit was not a suitable reason for breach of contract. So I stayed, avoided thinking too much, until I could move out without being bankrupted.
In the night the wind gets up so fierce it rattles the lighthouse. Things creak and crack and the rain does its best to wash all the salt from the windows. The way I huddle under my duvet I could be ten years old, but it is comforting and so I ignore any sense of absurdity. Living here makes me feel both strong and not strong, but it is the former I dwell on when I tell my story in my head, in letters, to Dave. Surely it is my prerogative to construct my narrative as I see fit, especially when I am aware that this is what I am doing.
When the storm abates a little I slip into sleep. I dream of him, as I haven’t since he died. No torment or rage, just as it was. I know this in a way that bypasses the mind. I know it because of the sense of rest I feel on waking. My bones are warm and there is no dread in my stomach, just a calm, measured sadness. I am aware of this feeling before I am fully awake, but as I begin to rise from sleep, my mind bobbing to the surface after a long submergence, I am just aware of a glimpse of his face, and a memory, receding, retreating, ebbing away. I can no more hold on to it than I can clutch at a cloud. With an urgency, I try to return to sleep, but of course in the trying I force myself further into reality, self-awareness. I am fully awake now, my mind is insistent, conscious, racing. The more I struggle to claw back a full memory of the dream the louder the static, the nothingness, becomes. He has left me, again.
The day is unbearable. It is the worst since I came to the lighthouse, but it is more than just that. I am the sort of restless that usually accompanies unrelenting heat. I cannot bear to stand, to walk about, much less to sit. I try to rationalise my response to the loss of the dream but I am taunted by the senselessness of it. My mood darkens as the day progresses, and a hot rage builds with the dusk.
I am unable to settle, to calm myself. I stomp around like a wronged teenager. I make a horrible meal and eat only a forkful. I aggressively sweep the floor but I do a bad job of it. My rage at no point gives way to the softer things I am feeling underneath.
It is late now but I am wild with energy so I pull on my jacket and walk the length of the spit and back again, my steps heavy. Six miles takes me an hour and a half and I am back at my beach. The walk has calmed me a little but I am left with a restlessness, a rashness. I know why I am here. The walk was for show.
I march to the sea, stare at the water. I watch the clouds as they shift and sway with the waves. There is a faint glitter to them under the moonlight and they are enchanting even to look at. But of course looking is not enough, not today. The irony of the lighthouse keeper being the one to run aground is not lost on me even in the moment. Worse still it is somehow tantalising. I have been timid long enough.
I crouch down, toeing the line where sea greets sand. There’s little wind now and the tide is retreating with gentle grace. Before I can think any more I am reaching out to the clouds, stretching forward both arms, fingers splayed as if to sift, plunging my hands into the water.
Extreme vertigo. I am in a centrifuge. A speeding car after too much to drink. Faces, colours, objects flash through my mind so rapidly I take in little but I am also overwhelmed by a force of foreign emotion. Switching, leaping, plunging through so many states I cannot begin to comprehend them or make any connection between image and feeling. I am aware of a more physical sensation too. A violent nausea. But it is swamped by everything and so somehow I am not vomiting. My fingers draw inwards ready to grasp, to grab John when I see him and hold on and on. Feel him again. But it’s all flashing so fast and I feel sick and sad and joyful and despairing and confused and I just clutch at a dream and hold on. I feel as though I am falling backwards or floating but then I am in the dream and it’s not mine and it’s not John and I’m in a strange room in a strange house with people I don’t know assaulted by alien emotion, thoughts, noise.
I vomit. The hot acid burns my throat but I’m relieved by the sensation that is familiar and my own. My vision darkens as though I might faint but reality swims back into focus and I’m on my hands and knees on the wet sand, the waves lapping up my shins. I am being sick onto the shore and the only thought I can process is that I must clean it up when I am able to. I roll onto my back, lie staring at the sky, damp and cold.
It is almost light by the time I am feeling well enough to stand up and walk the short distance back to the lighthouse.
For several days I am feverish, weak, can eat little. But my strength returns with my appetite. For this time I am conflicted. I feel moments of guilt, of embarrassment, confusion and disbelief at the strangeness of the experience. But stringing all of these together, surpassing them, is a pervasive, persistent sense of relief. I feel relieved.
I resolve to tell Dave and assume that will be the end of my tenure here, but that, too, is a relief. I cannot hide forever. I make plans to visit some old friends, my parents.
As peaceful as it has been, this isolation, the tides, the skies, it is not enough. John would have deemed it running from, not to, and if he is to continue to be a presence in my narrative it should at least be in ways of which he would have approved.
I hear the chug of the engine, hear it cut, hear the crunch of footsteps. The coffee is brewed and I tell Dave about the clouds. He laughs, not unkindly. You’re very earnest, he says. You thought I never tried it, and my uncle? His good humour diffuses a final, lingering guilt. I still have to go, I tell him, apologetic. He says he figured I probably wouldn’t stay for too long, hoped I wouldn’t in truth, but he would like it if I visit some time. He says he thinks he can convince Vera to move into the lighthouse after all, but she likes talking to people, and not just him all the time. Usually I assent to such requests with less than little intention of fulfilling them but I say I will visit and I mean it. He pulls me into a forceful hug.
This time I accept the offer of the boat.
C C Wilson is a previously unpublished author from the UK, currently living and working in Denver, CO. Her short story ‘The Girl with Bear Ears’ earned an honourable mention in the NYC Midnight 2018 short story competition, and she recently received a Highlights Foundation scholarship.