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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.’
February 3, 2014 § 7 Comments
A Short Story
Confused by memories of ships that passed in the night, the lighthouse stood solitary in the sand, disturbed only by the screech of seagulls bickering over nesting space. One winter, men came and meddled with nature. They built groins in the next bay and moved sand around with giant diggers. When they had gone, the harvest moon whipped up the coast into a wild storm. The tide went out as usual – but it never came back.
Trinity House took away the glass reflector, and the red and white stripes – which could be seen for miles around – peeled off the walls like old wallpaper. The barnacles fell off the rocks that used to stick out of the sea like stalagmites at low spring tide. Ivy crawled up its sides as a warning. And no one cared, until Dorcas turned up.
She turned the rusty key in the lock and peered through the doorway. A mouse skittered along the skirting board, and a well-worn pair of rigger’s boots lay unwanted on the bare, concrete floor; the history of their owner written on the stained and misshapen leather.
Dorcas believed in the power of symbolism, and as she walked round and round the kitchen, it suddenly came to her why she had to live in a lighthouse. No dark corners where painful memories jump out and crawl inside my head, she thought. No sharp edges to graze my skin and make it bleed. I’ll be safe here, she smiled. Because it’s round. This is where I’m meant to be.
She climbed the circular staircase to the empty lantern room, sat on the window ledge, and waited. Waited for the sun to fill her bones with warmth, waited for the thoughts to stop buzzing around in her head like a swarm of angry bees.
It had been Zac’s doing. He played jazz trumpet for a living, and liked to improvise. He did that with his life as well. And hers. ‘You know I’m an honest man by nature,’ he used to say. ‘But I have to be spontaneous. I’m not really changing my mind at all. You wouldn’t like me if I was predictable.’
‘How do you know?’ said Dorcas, trying not to let her mouth turn down at the edges. ‘I never know where I am with you.’
‘But you know I’ll never leave you,’ he said. But the more she believed his version of how life was, the more bewildered she became; and her brain turned from a neat little road map into a wild, tangled maze she was always getting lost in. All Dorcas had wanted was a simple life that looked like a long straight road with a beginning, a middle, and a happy ending – or at least one with no serious car crashes. The fewer choices she had, the better she liked it.
But Zac had gone – just like the small voice in her head had said he would – taking his backpack, his saxophone, and a head full of broken promises. So maybe he’ll come back, she mused – but she knew he wouldn’t. Like the cuckoo he was, he had found a new bed to nest in.
Dorcas put the boots in the cupboard under the sink, and repainted the inside of the lighthouse. I’ll hide the dirt and scratches of its past, she said to herself. Just like me, it can have a fresh start.
The next day she went to see a counsellor to sort out her head. ‘I got it wrong,’ she said firmly, as she lay on the couch staring at a painting of a sailing ship floundering in a storm. ‘I thought I wanted to live life in a long, straight line, but I don’t. I want to live it in a circular kind of way. I found a lighthouse to live in, and I need your help with the rest of it.’ The counsellor stared until Dorcas squirmed noisily on the leather couch. ‘Well, perhaps with the odd straight line thrown in for variety,’ she added.
‘I’m not sure that would work,’ the counsellor replied. ‘It might mean you’ll never get anywhere.’
‘But I’ll always know where I am. Don’t you see?’
The woman nodded and began to write on a notepad. ‘Tell me about your life.’
‘I’d sooner not,’ said Dorcas. ‘I just want to look straight ahead.’
‘That’s fine,’ she replied, scribbling furiously. ‘But how can we understand ourselves if we don’t look into the past?’
Dorcas climbed off the couch and put on her coat. ‘Thank you very much, but I think I’ll be better off getting a dog.’
Tied to the cage at the rescue centre was a typewritten sign:
This young man has a happy temperament
and boundless enthusiasm for life.
He is looking for a good home where there are no other dogs.
Dorcas got down on her hands and knees and put her fingers through the cage. ‘Are you the one?’ she whispered. The Jack Russell with a stump for a tail sniffed at her, then ran round and round the cage barking wildly. ‘I think you better stop that,’ she said gently. He dug his front paws into the ground, swayed a bit, then toppled over. She interpreted this behaviour as a sign they were meant for one another, adding to it the rationale that he’d be able to continue his orbital habit in the lighthouse without bumping into things. She called him Bouncer because he was, but knew the name didn’t quite fit.
The kennel maid told her it wasn’t a good idea to let him sleep on her bed, so Dorcas went looking for a beanbag. The pet shop only had round ones, and this too, she decided, was yet another sign.
Later that day she sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and explained to him how life was going to be. She crawled about on all fours, sniffing out anything that might poison him – a plastic bottle of toilet cleaner, strangle him – an old coil of rope, or kill him instantly – anything with a plug on. He sat on his tail and watched with his ears pricked. ‘I’m just pretending to be you,’ she said, adding firmly that it would strengthen his moral fibre if he slept in the kitchen by himself, then they could reunite in the morning, rested and ravenous for breakfast.
But he hadn’t read the rules. That night he howled like a banshee at the kitchen door, and just before first light, she gave in. She saw the bags under his eyes, looked in the mirror and saw her own purple half moons hanging limply as a bloodhound’s. Bouncer moved upstairs after that.
The second night Dorcas was restless. Tossing and turning, she rolled off the bed onto the beanbag. It broke her fall – but she landed on the dog. After the yelping had stopped, she decided to make amends by giving him an early breakfast. As she spooned their food out of the saucepan, the tinned meatballs and peas slid off the plates and rolled across the floor. Dorcas went outside to the tool shed and saw what she hadn’t noticed before – the lighthouse was leaning. She fished out her saw, and laying the spirit level across the mattress, hacked away at the legs of her bed, measuring with the ruler as she went. She stopped when all that was left were four untidy stumps. Then she started on the kitchen table, whittling away at the legs until a lone pea stayed put on the tabletop. ‘From now on,’ she told Bouncer, ‘and just to be on the safe side, I shall eat straight out of the tin, or only eat stuff like mashed potatoes that sticks to the plate.’
Dorcas needed a job, so she answered the ad in the fish and chip shop. Each day she followed the curve of the bay to the old promenade, and every evening after she’d worked her shift, she dangled her legs over the old harbour wall and ate cod and chips straight from the newspaper. Saving half for the dog, she followed her tracks carefully back to the lighthouse, climbed the curling stairs to the lantern room, and watched the sun go down with Bouncer on her lap.
But Dorcas kept forgetting Zac wasn’t in her bed. She would wake and reach out for his warmth – but his side was always empty and cold. I’m rewinding, she thought. And I don’t like it. ‘The problem is this,’ she said to Bouncer. ‘I have to change my thinking from was to is, from then to now. Simple.’ Bouncer wagged his tail. She lifted him onto the bed. ‘There,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll share.’
‘Cod, peas and chips please,’ said the man with the grizzly beard and hair the colour of chestnuts. He was wearing scuffed riggers’ boots and a belt with a skull and crossbones on the buckle.
‘That’s your next door neighbour,’ said the chip shop man. ‘Old Salty. And the one with the hat’s Kipper.’
‘Pardon me?’ she asked.
‘Old Salty. Lives on the boat stuck in the mud down by where the sea used to be. The one with stilts that looks like an insect with long legs. Kipper’s the one with the sun hat about to lift his leg on my doorpost. Don’t pat the little sod, he bites.’
‘What’s his boat called?’ she asked, shovelling chips into a greaseproof bag.
‘Samson and Delilah. Got stuck when the tide went out. Still there because it never came back. Expect you’ve heard the story.’
Soon something was happening in Dorcas’ head. She was getting bored taking the same route to work; so some days she took a deep breath and walked directly to the fish and chip shop, or followed the winding path through the marshes. She untied her long hair for the first time since Zac had gone, and listened for the buzzing in her head. All she could hear was the breeze twisting the curls around her ears.
‘Usual please,’ said Old Salty.
‘Are you the man who lives on the boat that looks like an insect?’ she asked.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘I’m Dorcas and I live in the lighthouse that’s leaning over. How come your dog keeps his hat on?’
‘He knows what’s good for him.’
‘He knows he’ll get sunburn if he doesn’t.’
‘Must be a smart dog, then.’
Kipper sat dribbling by the door.
‘Hungry is what he is.’
‘Why does your boat have stilts on?’
‘You ask a lot of questions. Never complain and never explain.’
‘Groucho Marx. My dinner’s getting cold,’ he said, hauling Kipper onto the pavement.
She bought a sketchbook and sticks of charcoal, and on her day off wandered about looking for things to draw. Shells, dried up seaweed, bits of wood – anything that didn’t require her to be exact. She gave each shell a different kind of roundness. As she sat drawing a pile of razor shells tangled with seaweed, Bouncer let rip his special bark like a pistol shot that signaled there was another dog around, but all she could see was a man pulling a small coracle through the mud. It was the man in the boat.
‘Hello,’ she said. Old Salty grunted. ‘It’s Dorcas from the fish and chip shop.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he said, with the faintest of smiles. Kipper leapt out of the coracle showing his teeth, and headed straight for Bouncer. ‘Down!’ he shouted, and Kipper sank to the ground wagging his tail. Dorcas pointed to the boat sitting high and dry in the marsh.
‘Have you had it long?’
‘Do you live on it?’
‘Her,’ said Old Salty. ‘All boats are women. Everybody knows that.’
‘The chip shop man said it, sorry, she was called Samson and Delilah. Why have you painted out the Delilah bit?’
‘She doesn’t live there anymore. Gone.’
‘Ah,’ said Dorcas. ‘Are you Samson then?’
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
‘Sorry. Don’t mean to be nosey.’
‘Since you’re asking, she used to call me Samson.’
‘I see,’ said Dorcas.
‘Don’t expect you do,’ he replied. ‘She reminds me of you.’
To be continued tomorrow…