#34 The Lighthouse Men

Image courtesy of prozac1 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

ID-100230971

A face has been cut into the rock on the walls of the lighthouse, battered by waves since before my grandmother was alive. She would stoop a little once we reached the spot, and run her hands over the rough surface of stone, when the tide was out, and the sea was calm. As we stood watching the moon rise over the rocks she would say to me,

“This is where I’ll always remember him, just like the first time I saw him, standing tall under a winter dusk, and all the stars coming out. He always smelled so good to me then, how I drank him in! He was warm and wild. Standing here, it’s as if I can still feel the salt from the wind off the sea all caught up in his thick, black hair.”

We crossed over to our sitting spot, and there I laid a blanket. On the hard ground of the jetty we ate cheese and pickle sandwiches. My grandmother stretched her shins out in front of her and caressed them roughly with her hands as if trying to rub the stiffness out.

“You don’t believe in curses do you, Herrie?” she asked me. The wind was whistling over the cliffs, making the jetty boards creak, and the gulls squawk and beat their wings.

“Do you, Herrie?” she repeated.

I never answered her, preferring instead to just let her talk. Let her have her visits, three, four times a year to the lighthouse. She came here to relive the same experiences whenever the seasons turned. Now, the wind had slivers of ice in it.

My grandmother looked out to sea. I waited for her to begin the old story I had heard since I was a child. This was how she began.

“He was the lighthouse keeper. He had beautiful seashell eyes, grey-green eyes with flashes of silver. They were shot through like marble, with those thin, silver trails. He had a boat he would take out, and would catch crabs and little fishes to sell when he could. His hands were rough from pulling on the ropes, wet and heavy from the saltwater. I used to bring him a salve I made myself, full of fat and beeswax. At first he scowled at me when I put it on him, but after a while, you know, I think he liked it. He didn’t have anyone. His father had died years ago, and as for other family, aah, I don’t know that he had any. He was gruff and didn’t talk much, and I thought he was the most sophisticated man in the whole town. He was older than me, by a good stretch, and I thought that made him sophisticated. He always looked like he had seen something of the world, things that he didn’t care to talk about, and I liked that. I was entirely enchanted by the mystery of him.

“That night I saw him, he was down by the water and struggling with something. I ran over to him and wanted to help but once he heard my shoes clacking on the wet boards he whirled round and waved me away. Do you know what he had caught in a net that night?”

I did know, but I waited silently for her to continue. She swallowed, and swept a long, steel strand of hair across her face which the wind had caught and played with.

“Well, the thing bit him.” She said.

“I saw it jump out of the net and snatch at him, and he cried out and tried to beat the thing back. Now you know that I’m tall for woman, Herrie, and heaven knows I was stronger then, I went rushing to him. I took a plank of broken wood and I beat at that dark thing until it let him go, and slipped back down into the water. But, before it went, I looked into its eyes, and it saw me. They were like great, white, shining saucers with burning red coals at their heart and behind the redness, a blackness. A darkness without any kind of life at all. It saw me as me as it slipped back down into the tide, with the water gushing into that awful gaping mouth.

“I half-hauled him into the lighthouse, but when I got him to bed, I saw that the wound in his leg wasn’t bleeding at all. He saw it too, and he looked up at me with these sad eyes and pushed my hand away. I tried to put my salve on it but he told me that there wasn’t any use trying. I just didn’t understand what he meant by that.

“Over the next few hours, with me holding him, he changed, of course. I watched it happen. I couldn’t get my head around it, but he knew all about it because it he was a lighthouse man. All I could do was to try and make him comfortable, but it was hard to watch him twitching underneath the blanket of the bed. I loved his face so much.”

At this, my grandmother put her hand up to her face, she covered first her eyes, and then her mouth. Then she spoke again,

“Before the change took hold, he had shown me a book made by someone in his family. It was the old lore I suppose, barely legible, of the lighthouse men. That thing must have taken his father too I suppose. He never had children, or so he thought, but you know what nature is like.”

Tonight, the telling of the story seemed to be affecting my grandmother more than usual. In the moonlight I could see the trails her tears had just taken down her cheeks. She said,

“I took him down to the water, like he had asked me. As I said, I was a strong woman. Still, it was so hard because my heart was broken and I wanted to jump in there after him. Instead, because it was what he wanted, I let him just fall out of my arms into the sea. I barely recognised him. He had become a sleek thing, with a long mouth full of sharp teeth, jagged like rocks, like razors. But his eyes never turned, never became like the one that bit him, because in his heart, he couldn’t be evil. He had a strong soul, and it stayed with him the whole time he was changing and even afterwards. I saw it there in his eyes as I carried him. I couldn’t hold back my tears, knowing there would always be a bit of himself that was left inside.

“He sank out of my sight. My hands were slippery from holding him and I cried all night, and into the next day. When my father found me I was soaked through. They put me to bed for months, and I refused to speak to anybody. Now, here I am, an old woman, and here you are, and I think, out there somewhere, he is too.”

Perhaps because there was something a little different about the way she had told the story that night, I asked her for the first time,

“Did he drown grandma?”

My grandmother just laughed. “Men like that can’t drown,” she said. “Neither could you, if you went into the water.” She looked at me so fiercely then that it made me uncomfortable.

“Promise me something,” she said, taking one of my hands and placing it in hers. “Promise me you’ll never take your father down here.” She gave my hand such a squeeze.

“Okay,” I said, but she worried me, there was something eerie about her that night.

“I love you Herrie.” She said.

We hugged for a while, and she patted my hair, and her tears fell in warm droplets on my cold cheek.

“Now go on to the car,” she said, finally.

“I want to watch the moon rise up over the lighthouse.”

The moon had climbed while we had been talking. Tonight, it was about as large and white as I had ever seen it. I stood watching her for a while as she made her way towards the lighthouse. Her hair flew out behind her, and she raised her hands to catch the wind, making her shawl billow around her tall, frail body, but as I watched her, my vision was torn away towards a shining object in the sea. I thought I saw something flash amongst the waves, two bright orbs of iridescent light shone like other moons in the water. In an instant the orbs had slipped out of sight, making a smacking sound as they vanished.

I saw now that my grandmother had lowered her arms and was crouching down towards the water’s edge. I turned to go back to her, but then I had a sudden change of heart. It had only been an old wives’ tale she had told me after all to cover up some love affair of her youth. The thing I had seen in the water must only have been a trick of the moonlight. I decided to leave her in peace.

Then, I heard the splash.

When I turned back there was no one at the base of the lighthouse. I ran as fast as I could down the jetty. I called her name and gazed out into the water, now rough and rolling in. Somewhere out to sea I thought I saw a shape being dragged away into the darkness of the water. I put my hand on the rock of the lighthouse wall to steady myself, but the sharpness of the rock snagged my skin. I pulled my hand away, I was shaking all over; there in the lighthouse wall I saw it, the face peering out at me with eyes fathomless and empty, utterly dwarfed by a long, gaping mouth like a void, and within it, the rows upon rows of jagged teeth, like rocks, like razors.

 

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#32 The Library of Things No One Has a Use For

Image courtesy of bugtiger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

id-100408285

 

Dear Amelia,

Today I gave someone a gift. Only then did it dawn upon me that gift giving can be a crime, and that it could be punishable. I gave somebody, in my haste and enthusiasm, a gift they did not want, and that was when I found myself here, in the library of “Things No One Has a Use For.”

I am writing to you on this scrap because they have taken all the blank pages away and left only old leaflets which, if you turn over you will see, advertise church tea parties and bring-and-buy sales from, oh I don’t know when. Some are, perhaps, even from before the War. The paper is not old though, which is perplexing. It feels new. I wonder why, for example, someone has taken the time (and presumably expense) to print images of 1940s tea parties onto leaflets and leave them in the library of Things No One Has A Use For. But wait, I seem to have answered my own question…

Here I go, onto another sheet. This one has a Teddy Bear’s Picnic on one side, isn’t that lovely? I thought you would like that one so I picked it out specially. It was on a table with all those other leaflets. They are scattered as if someone dropped them there from a great height. Some have even spilled out onto the floor of the library.You would hate that, I know. If you were here I’m sure you would stoop down immediately and start putting them all to rights! I bet you would have the table polished too. Then you would turn and look at me staring at you, admiring how industrious you were and you would say, “Well look alive Maria!” and I would be all fingers and thumbs and arms the one length, as Mum would say. No one will clean them up. Imagine that.  I could just leave them here, and they would still be lying like that tomorrow.

I know your next question, but yes there are tomorrows here, Amelia. They come in the usual fashion, when the sun comes up. I sleep with my head in the crook of my elbow in between the bookshelves and I lie on old dusty cushions that appear to have no arm chairs to belong to, and don’t match each other, and smell of tobacco. I put my coat over my head to keep out the light because it gets bright here so early and I can’t bear it when the day starts before I am ready for it. You know the coat. It’s the red one that I thought was so smart the day I saw it in the window of Anderson MacCauley’s. Do you remember how much I paid for it? I bet you do. You never let me hear the end of it. And yes, you were quite right, I never did wear it often enough at all. There was that one dance, and Patrick Foy’s wedding, and then it lay in the back of the wardrobe and never saw the light of day again. Now it sees plenty of daylight, and keeps out the sun, and keeps out the chill and is a brightness here. I wish now perhaps I had worn it everyday, and never bothered about it being too ‘fancy’, but then perhaps I would have been too warm in it. I don’t worry about those sorts of things now. It never gets all that warm in the library. Sometimes I hear pipes coughing in the night, and hope that the heating will spring to life, but no joy.

I’m writing all these things, Amelia, and I haven’t even told you about my first day here, or about how strange things get when it grows dark, or about the food I eat which I don’t remember finding. One minute I am starving, and then suddenly it’s as if I have already eaten and am left holding the remains of my dinner in my hand. Yesterday it was a banana skin, a bone of chicken leg, an empty glass. Today I’ve discarded four empty tea cups, an entire box of chocolates, (full only of empty wrappers- of course) and a large casserole dish with crusted bits along the sides. The strangest thing is that I feel as if I have eaten. I never go hungry, or thirsty for long. I just wish I could remember the pleasure of eating, it’s funny how quickly one forgets. I’ve been here I think two weeks in total, but I can’t really say. I realised that I should write to you, because of course it’s what I would do if we were away from each other, in the real world.

Yes, the strange things at night, I was getting to that. I hope I haven’t alarmed you. I guess I might have because it must have sounded terrible. “Strange things when it grows dark” that was what I wrote wasn’t it, and I know you hate to be frightened. Anyway, I am quite alright in the dark, you know I always was. It’s just that here the place only seems to be busy when the lights are out. People are borrowing books in the dark, it’s the oddest thing. I feel the books moving, and the low rustling of pages. People murmuring and “sssshing” each other, like in a real library. Last night a man whispered, “Oh do excuse me” as he shuffled past my cushions while I was trying to sleep. A few nights ago I grew so curious and incensed by the irregularity of it all that I got up and went to try and engage one of the book borrowers in conversation, but I could find no one to talk to in the dark. They were always just slipping past me, or in the next row, and there are no lights Amelia, it’s infuriating!

I am running low on ink now. I’m sorry that the words are so faint, I will try and go over them again tomorrow when the next lot of pens arrive. They always appear in the morning, but all of them are on their last legs with hardly any ink at all. You see, things are always appearing when I need them, though are never exactly the things I want. The pens are, as you can see, multicolour. There are no black and blue pens. There is no blank paper, no cutlery, no blankets, no soap or lamps. No new shoes or new clothes to wear, no radio or piano, no pillows or doors – the windows all look out onto giant over-grown shrubbery except for the one through which I can see a lawn which never ends…There are no other people here, Amelia. Or there are, but they are of no use to me. The library is full of shadows.

I gave someone a gift you see, that they had no use for, and now I cannot forget his face. It was the last thing I saw, in the “real” world, where you, and he, still are.

That face of his. I had always looked into it with a kind of frightened joy; he was like a treasure never seen before, to me, but we human beings can be very selfish. I didn’t realise that a momentary affection, a turn of phrase, could be a selfish thing. That I could give a gift for the wrong reasons. But wait! I don’t think that’s true, because when I saw him on the stairs, I had an urge to be kind to him, and before my brain could say ” now don’t be foolish” I had reached out a hand and touched the shoulder of his coat. He turned, and I uttered some words, and then I saw his face.

Now here I am, in the library. I thought I might read something, now that I have all this time, but they are all the books that no one ever borrows, Amelia. All the discarded novels you would see on railway stands, religious pamphlets that would end up in the bin. Recipes for dishes that are too dull to make and require all sorts of ingredients you never have in the larder and are too expensive to request from the shop. There are books in languages I can’t read, and books about things I can’t bear to, because they are awful. There are books on painting figureheads on boats (I tried to read that one, but it was so poorly written that I abandoned it after three pages and am still none the wiser on figureheads). Some books are old medical journals full of jargon, others are club newsletters for organisations I have never heard of and have no desire to learn more about. There are no sections-by-topic in this library, nothing is alphabetised (oh how you would hate it), the rows of bookshelves follow on, one after the others filled with volumes of writing which I must force myself to read to keep entertained, and some are so dull that I have fallen asleep within their pages.

There is one bathroom. I rush there, thinking I need to spend a penny, and when I get there, I find there is a sink but no toilet. And, when I get there, I no longer need “to go.” I have tried the shower and it works. There are no towels, however.

I have no way of sending this letter, Amelia.There are no post boxes, and no post men. The windows onto the lawn do not open,and cannot be broken. Any tool I might use to break them, dissolves in my hands. There is nothing of use here. Or at least, nothing entirely fit for purpose. But I understand why I am here, and it’s alright, because there comes a point in your life when you know that everything has outgrown you, and found its own little space in the universe but that you have not. Or at least, that is what I have found. I am glad that I have come somewhere where everything is out of place. Perhaps it is a puzzle for me to solve. Perhaps I can pretend to be the heroine, (just like in those old novels we used to read – the girl detective!). I am determined to make myself the most useful thing in the whole library of Things No One Has A Use For. That is what I call it. Perhaps the book borrowers call it something else, I don’t know.

Not everything has a place, Amelia. If you were here I would tell you that. I would say it, not to frighten or hurt you, but because you are a little younger than me, and you might one day find life has over-taken you too. The trouble is, you waste a lot of time trying to find the thing that makes you a jigsaw piece that slots into other pieces to make a whole, beautiful picture. It might be of a train, or a valley, or perhaps a scene out of one of those famous French paintings. You might turn out to be part of a lady’s umbrella, or a gentleman’s hat, or even a large lady in a colourful bathing costume staring out to sea.

But there are also jigsaw pieces here in the library, Amelia. I have tried them all out, and they don’t fit anything. I am going to turn them over, and draw on them with the terrible multicolour pens that run out of ink within minutes. I am going to use the half a pair of scissors I found (you know what I mean, the one blade without the other) and I am going to fix them so they can fit together. I want to give my jigsaw its own little glorious, happy ending, and then maybe it will cease to be here, I don’t know. It’s sort of an experiment. Goodness know what I shall draw. You know I never could make anything worthwhile with my hands. How funny to think that, in the library of Things No One Has A Use For, that I should find a sort of purpose in bringing together solitary pieces of cardboard.

The last of the ink is running out now, what a horrible green colour, I’m sorry about that. Oh and do turn this page over because it has an image of a swan on it, and I know they are your favorite birds, and I miss you so much, Amelia. I will try and write more tomorrow, but now I am afraid that if this letter is in any way meaningful that it might go too. Perhaps the letter might reach you after all, and then, maybe that will be a better way to test my hypothesis than the jigsaw puzzle, which, let’s face it, I may never be able to finish. How you will respond to me though, I have no idea.

There are some gifts you cannot take back. Time, and love, are two of those things, which even when given in a moment, (as words exchanged on a stairwell late at night) can be punishable things. If you see him, Amelia, won’t you please tell him how sorry I was to have broken his train of thought as his hand found the hand rail and he bowed his head to descend. I did it because I saw him that night, looking so alone, and so solemn, and it broke my heart. When he turned around to face me, all I saw were how empty his eyes looked, how heavy his eyelids, and how far away he was from me, and it was so strange. Him of all people! It was like we had never shared a thing together, and there I was, offering him the only thing I had, of which he had no use for.

A desperate yearning, poorly disguised as momentary kindness.

But now, let’s not be sad! The sun is going down over my shoulder now Amelia.

I think I can hear the book borrowers shuffling past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28# Vestiges

Image by Pansa. Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100373553

They dissected his heart with fine tools, certainty and unwavering hands. Dr Plowers had performed the operation a total of one hundred and forty-six times before and his assistants were equally well trained and experienced men and women. The viewers watched on from the gallery and took notes, nodding, sharing the odd flat whisper, admiring technique and the technology. Dr Rawl looked down at the heart of the dead man being so carefully manipulated by his colleague and felt nothing out of the ordinary. There was no body for context, only the heart, penetrated by blades.

“Here we go, here’s where the magic happens,” Plowers said in a monotone. His catchphrase drew no smiles, it was routine. There were more nods from the viewers. Dr Plowers held open the now exposed chambers, making sure to get the best angle for the cameras above the operating table. There, sure enough, were the memories. They moved within the heart like living figures in a doll’s house.

“The vestiges,” Plowers said, indicating with a scalpel a particularly active figurine in one upper section which waved its tiny arms, demanding to be noticed.

“Patient history,” he demanded, and one of the shorter attendants shuffled forward and began speaking in clipped tones.

“Male, Caucasian, fifty years of age, death by drowning. Survived by a brother and sister. No offspring. Two nephews, one niece. One cat. Member of a local neighbourhood watch scheme. Played poker with colleagues once a fortnight. Considerable savings. Maintained a dating profile-“

“How active was this profile?” Plowers asked. He was staring down at the heart, and the little figures which phased in and out of being under the faint lavender light shed by lasers pointed into the chambers.

“Very active. Particular interest in a woman named Valerie Smythe. They had been dating on and off for approximately seven months, signs of significant attachment.”

“Yes I can see that. Describe Ms Smythe please, in terms of physical appearance.”

The attendant began to talk, his voice was pleasing, plain and without any significant inflections or flaws.

“Five foot five inches. Caucasian, freckled. Dark red hair, shoulder length. Grey eyes, wide set, hooded eyelids. Size twelve. You can see all these points from her account picture, plus some additional information listed on her voting profile.”

The attendant tapped the tablet he was holding and an image was projected onto a large screen both behind the operating table and in front where it was displayed on the glass in front of the viewers. Valerie Smythe surveyed them joyfully from out of her profile picture: her prominent teeth, her pink lipstick carelessly applied, the wind in her hair, the park backdrop with blazing greenery in the sunlight, the freckles on her nose.

Plowers nodded, he was staring intently at something inside the heart. “There she is,” he said, and turned to the viewing gallery. He let Dr Rawl shuffle into his place. Rawl took command of the heart with one hand as he adjusted the laser with the other in an almost offhand, effortless manner as Dr Plowers addressed the crowd through a small collar microphone.

“As you can see, here we have evidence of this patient’s love affair with this woman, Valerie Smythe.”

As he said her name, the woman’s image vanished and was replaced by a close up of the heart. There inside was a tiny shape which exactly matched the description of the woman, only in a different outfit, a distinctive vivid blue cocktail dress. She was waving her arms, pacing up and down and shouting, but no sound could be heard. She kept pointing to herself and then pointing outwards. There were many craning necks in the audience, the scratching of pens on paper, fingers jabbing at screens, notes being made and compared.

“As you can see,” Dr Plowers intoned, “using the Victor Phase-Light enables us to create memories from out of the past, holograms of emotions, not just artist reconstructions but images fashioned from genetic imprints left by human experience. Notice the snazzy outfit? She’s most likely dressed just as the patient chose to remember her best.” From over his shoulder, Rawl heard one of the attendants begin to hum, The Way You Look Tonight. A ripple of recognition shuddered through the nurses, mouths smirked behind masks. An old joke. Plower drawled on.

“Now as you can see, this man is dead, but Valerie is very much alive, both in the real world (according to her current voting status) and also in this man’s organs.” Here, Plower leered at Rawl who happened to be in his line of sight, Plower was ready for the big reveal.

“Of course, we use the heart as the example, because it is the organ most often associated with love,” he raised a hand to silence the murmurs, “yes I hear you, we could just as easily have opened up this man’s testicles, it makes no difference, you see any part of the body might retain these vestiges, see here:”

A trolley was wheeled into the centre of the room, on it was a foot. Even though he had seen this trick many times, Dr Rawl now found himself recoiling a little from the severed body part, from its disembodied coldness, its redundant flesh.

He did not watch as Dr Plowers began to dissect the foot under a new set of lights, revealing more vestiges within, and continuing with his spiel about how attached humans had become to the human body’s constituent parts as separate entities with separate imagined personalities when in truth, every part was ultimately composed of the same mixture of particles on a fundamental level. “Its all the same, everywhere you look,” he was saying, pointing to the Valerie, still storming up and down under the lights, still voiceless and irritated.

Dr Rawl was watching her also, but within the heart. In there too he saw the little tabby cat, licking its paws, beside it a ball of twine. He saw strange shapes flicker in and out of the light, people who had almost made an impression, but were not important enough to leave an indelible mark in the man’s heart. Heart Rawl sighed quietly under his mask. Heart, foot, testicle. Dr Plowers was debunking it all now, reducing the symbolism down to nothing, to atoms. Inside the heart Valerie had stopped shouting and was looking intently at Rawl. Is she looking at me? He felt a sudden shiver rush over his skin, he wondered what it would be like to have a little irate Valerie, pacing indefinitely throughout his own organs, forever catatonic. But in a moment the figure was moving again, storming off into another part of the heart. Rawl straightened up, sweating uncomfortably in the restrictive protective clothing which blocked out the radiation from the Victor light but not the heat. He felt unusually tired.

“My, look at the little woman go!” Dr Plowers was saying, cranking up the ringmaster patter for the final delivery. “You’re lucky to be able to see this folks because usually our vestiges aren’t so active. Guess Valerie must be a real cracker, and hey, good news, she’s single now!”

The audience laughed from behind the glass. The presentation was brought to a close and the trolleys were wheeled away. Dr Rawl stood for the ovation and the applause, realising that the demonstration had all passed him by in a blur.

Back in the executive locker suite, Plower addressed Rawl as he was pulling on his clothes after the precautionary decontamination shower.

“So how’s Pamela?” he asked in a light-hearted voice, with a winched up smile he perhaps intended as an indication that he cared about the answer.

“We broke up six months ago,” Rawl answered, tying his laces.

“Joel, I had no idea, and after all those years too-” the smile fell down like a stage curtain, but was not replaced with anything.

“That’s how it goes.”

“You got back out there yet?” it had only taken a minute for the jovial tone to be resumed.

“Yes actually, I’ve been on a few dates.”

“That’s my boy, you go tiger.” Dr Plower left the room. Joel Rawl watched him waddle away, pawing at his thinning grey hair, off to meet his acolytes.

Outside the skies emptied a waterfall onto the streets as Rawl ran to the car park. He hefted a duffle bag onto the back seat of his brand new car and slipped into the driver’s seat. The car smelled like plastic. The wheel felt smooth, the dashboard shone. He wanted to admire it for a moment, to admire the way he had picked up his life, how he had transitioned from aching, wrenching futility into a blank emotional canvas everyday with seemingly little effort. Inside he started the ignition. He thought about Valerie Smyth, and the realisation that it didn’t matter how well he recovered from heartbreak, because one day, some glib Dr Plower was going to pull open his chest, take out his heart, or his foot or his testicles and reveal inside them, all the people he had ever loved and could never be free off, even though they were gone.