Geometry – Part Two
February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments
‘Cod and chips, please. Twice,’ Dorcas smiled.
‘Anything you say,’ replied the chip shop man with a wink. ‘Have you got a young man, then?’
‘Nope. But seeing as you’re asking, one’s for Old Salty. He could use some company. Don’t tell I said.’
He sat on the bow of his boat, his face turned to the sun.
‘Ahoy,’ she shouted. ‘You’ll hurt your eyes if you do that.’
‘They’re closed. I was smelling the sea.’
‘That’s a funny question. Because I miss it, of course.’
‘I’ve bought you some fish and chips.’
He grunted. ‘You’d better come up then.’ He pointed to the ladder and threw down a bucket on the end of a rope.
‘What’s that for?’
‘Bouncer won’t go in there.’
‘Well Bouncer won’t.’ Dorcas put the fish and chips in the bucket, and stuffed Bouncer into her armpit. ‘Can you smell the sea, then?’
‘I can. There’s an onshore breeze today. It helps me remember. I couldn’t remember anything yesterday – the smell went somewhere else. Must be the wind.’
She handed him his tea wrapped in last week’s newspaper. He pointed to the steps that led down to the cabin. ‘You’d better come below to eat. It’s more civilised.’
Every space in the cabin was covered with shells. Oysters, cockles, periwinkles. Shells for mussels and hermit crabs, and a clam shell big enough for an octopus to sleep in.
‘Why have you collected so many?’
‘My memories are inside. They tell me stories.’
‘What’s that big one?’
‘Nautilus. From Australia. Found it on the beach there. I used to be a sailor.’
‘But you don’t go to sea anymore?’
‘No. Delilah didn’t like it.’ He closed his eyes and began to sing:
‘The seashell spoke in whispers,
Then it began to sing
Of corals and dolphins and shipwrecked gold,
And many a beautiful thing.
Of whales that keened,
Of crabs that danced,
Or the grace of the dolphin ballet.
Of mermaid’s tears that are shed for the dead,
And of seahorses racing away.’
‘Lovely,’ she sighed. ‘Did you make that up?’
‘Delilah’s favourite.’ His bottom lip loosened, and the old man turned away.
Dorcas was beginning to think Old Salty might be the same breed of person as her. She liked to recall their meals together, and she sang his song on the way to the chip shop. Every Saturday she brushed her hair until it shone and put on a clean dress. Armed with supper, she would whistle her arrival. He welcomed her with his customary grunt, and soon it became clear he had tidied the boat, and trimmed his beard into a neat curve that followed the shape of his chin. After tea, they sat on the cabin roof in a comfortable silence watching the sun disappear beneath the sea. The dogs ran around the boat in circles chasing their tails. Maybe they understand one another too, she thought.
‘Will you always live here?’
‘No such thing as always.’
‘But isn’t this your home?’
‘Don’t have one. It’s just where I stay.’
‘Don’t you get lonely all by yourself?’
He looked in the direction of the sea. ‘Don’t you?’
Dorcas didn’t answer straight away. ‘I don’t know that I do. I think I quite like things as they are.’
Old Salty sighed. ‘You can call me Samuel if you like. It’s the name I was born with.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, putting her hand on his shoulder.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I am. But it’s a fact, Delilah didn’t like it.’
‘Well I do. It was my grandfather’s name.’
As she climbed down the ladder, Samuel put a plastic bag in the bucket. ‘Look inside when you get home.’ It’s contents tinkled as it hit the sand.
‘I can’t take your shells,’ she said. ‘They’re your memories. How will you know what to remember?’
‘Don’t need them now. Past is past.’
His face began to redden, so Dorcas changed the subject. ‘Where do you go in your little boat?’
‘Down what’s left of the estuary towards the sea.’
‘I’ve never been in a boat.’
‘One day I’ll take you,’ he replied.
Every day Dorcas took the dog along the old seabed at first light. Samuel and Kipper would wait for her like statues half hidden in the marsh. As they walked, the dogs arced like ripples around their feet. She collected an armful of sea lavender to decorate the lighthouse, and Samuel took a knife from his pocket and began cutting a plant that grew close by.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘Doesn’t look like it. Surely you can’t eat seaweed?’
‘It isn’t seaweed. Poor man’s asparagus. It’s samphire: marsh samphire.’
‘Shall we eat it together?’
He shook his head slowly and handed her the bag. ‘Boil for ten minutes and eat with butter.’
‘Not this time,’ he said coughing nervously. ‘But will you come to the boat? I want to show you something.’ They walked silently, their eyes staring straight ahead.
Samuel had hung dresses in the cabin. Like offerings, she thought.
‘They were Delilah’s. I don’t think she’ll be back for them. Might fit you.’
The dresses had full swirling skirts and fitted bodices. They were printed with flowers and butterflies. ‘She liked nice things,’ he said. His eyes grew glassy, and Dorcas turned away so she wouldn’t see his pain.
‘That’s beautiful,’ she exclaimed, picking up a pale blue cotton dress with a pattern of tiny shells.
‘Take it. I have no use for it.’
Dorcas knew she was about to become a liar. ‘I couldn’t. It looks far too small for me.’
‘My usual please,’ he said quietly to Dorcas across the counter.
‘Thank you for the dress you left on my doorstep,’ she said. ‘It’s beautiful. Would you like to come for tea tomorrow and have a look at where I live?’
‘I don’t need to see any old lighthouse. I know what they look like. Thank you anyway.’
‘Please,’ she pleaded. ‘I want to show you something too.’
‘Just five minutes then.’
Samuel stood at the threshold hopping from one foot to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. He had shaved his beard, and his chin had red scratches where he’d cut himself. His body said he was about to bolt. Dorcas had put on the blue dress. Samuel opened his eyes wide and breathed out deeply.
‘Come in. Please come in,’ she said. ‘Kettle’s on.’
‘You look just like she did thirty years ago.’
Dorcas didn’t answer at once. ‘Here,’ she said slowly, holding out a wooden frame. ‘I did a drawing of the nautilus shell. And I made a frame out of driftwood.’
‘Thank you. Delilah liked to draw you know.’ He looked about him. ‘Someone’s been meddling with that table, I see.’
‘The floors aren’t level. Things kept rolling about.’
‘It was Delilah’s. The table.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Table belonged to Delilah. Too big to fit in the boat.’
‘You mean you were the lighthouse keeper?’ Samuel nodded. ‘Where is she now?’
‘I don’t know. Was a long time ago – when the sea was still here. I didn’t want her to go. She wanted a child but it never came. It made her ill. Twenty years ago it was.’
‘Are you waiting for her?’
Samuel lowered his gaze. ‘She won’t come back, will she?’ he asked, like he wasn’t sure whether it was a question.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied gently.
‘No, I know she won’t.’
Dorcas turned off the kettle. ‘Shall I show you around?’
‘I don’t need to see any more. But thank you.’ Samuel stood in the doorway.
‘The coracle is outside. I thought you and Bouncer might like it.’ She opened her mouth to speak. ‘But….’
‘Excuse me,’ he interrupted. ‘I have a lot to do.’
Dorcas climbed the stairs to the lantern room and watched him go, his back bent so much more than usual. She wanted to help this kind, humble man, but knew he wouldn’t allow such intimacy. He has done so much for me, she thought. Given me my life back. I am not frightened of life anymore. But Dorcas knew it was different for Samuel. The more he had talked of Delilah, the more disturbed and restless he became. She lay down on the bed and Bouncer curled up beside her.
She woke at dusk to the smell of burning, to the sound of Bouncer’s warning bark. Samuel’s boat was ablaze.
The wood was dry and burnt like tinder. Dorcas pushed her way through the crowd. There was little left. Just a pile of hissing ash. A burnt black tangle of rigging wire. The metal compass lay useless in the sand. Bouncer lifted his leg and the circle of glass sizzled and exploded. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘Samuel wants us to go for a sail. He wants us to be free. Just like him.’