The Lighthouse Keeper´s Mistress
It felt like a mixture of a game and an accident, the way the seagulls came slicing out from those iron sponges of cloud to swarm and circle one another before dropping towards the ocean like so many papers falling off a desk. What exactly the ratio of game to accident was though, had always been a source of great puzzlement to Claude Borup. Being the lighthouse keeper, he had observed this spectacle more regularly than, say, a city banker may encounter changes in traffic lights or receive emails.
Yes and Claude Borup spent hours and hours of every day doing little more than watching those seagulls and all their commotion. It never bored him because he could never quite understand it. All that fuss. The lighthouse keeper was by no means a stupid man - it was just that his mind was elsewhere. It always had been elsewhere, regardless of where he, or anybody else, was.
On some days the seagulls were elsewhere and the cliffs would seem silent and still, despite the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the arrhythmic pummelling winds. On such days Claude Borup, that habitué of cold and distant places, would stand and stare regardless from the cold grey rocks over the cold grey sea to the cold grey sky. He would stay there and let the fine ocean spray sting his cheeks and turn his dark beard into a drowned black cat as he wondered where the seagulls went. All that silence.
If ever there was a person who was likely to suddenly dissolve into a briny mist and become part of the ocean then it was he, the lighthouse keeper.
The Townspeople used to place bets amongst each other as to when this would happen. Not all of the townspeople, you understand, just the Townspeople with the capital T. They had, in a previous decade, been a popular musical group known for their costumes and somewhat laughable dance routines. They had a couple of big hits, The Townspeople, and you can hear them on the radio occasionally even now that they are living humble, ordinary lives amongst the regular townspeople. Still, they do wear their costumes sometimes as they go about their business. Their drummer wore a fireman’s uniform as I recall. Then too, there was a cowboy, and an Inuit who either played or mimed at playing the keyboard. They had a butcher and a businessman and a private eye who now runs the hotel on the promenade. The samurai cleans the hotel´s bed sheets and towels at his dry cleaning company, and on and on.
They are not ashamed of going around in those outfits – they are proud of what they achieved together and they are still on friendly terms with one another. Just as sometimes the veterans of this or that war will meet up and discuss their prosthetic limbs, and who shot who in the throat and suchlike. I do not consider this to be much different and I cannot say if either scenario is any worse than the other.
There was a time when the town hall caught fire and it really went up, as they say. There was a big panic and a crowd gathered at the house of the former drummer who dressed as a fireman and they dragged him from his bed at two in the morning to the source of the inferno, even though he was actually a chartered accountant. It sometimes got confusing like that.
It was a beautiful town, Windsmere, and everyone said so. The houses were arranged in crooked rows and tiers, from the harbour wall up into the steep and forested hilltops that hunched over it all like benevolent old gardeners over their flowerbeds. No two houses were very similar, and the lanes which held them were so serpentine and verdant that one could easily get lost, even having lived there for several years. Even the postwoman got lost sometimes - but then, she had spent many years as a saxophonist who dressed as a builder. When it rained, as it often did, this little town was more beautiful than ever, because the colours ran and danced and trickled into one another. The crimson stripes of the lighthouse on the distance, the lush greens of the trees on the hill, and sticking out like so many pastel crayons, the many-coloured façades and roofs of those quaint dwellings. All of it seemed to melt, or transform into a jewellery box, slathered with oils and neon light. And moving swiftly amongst it all, the costumes of The Townspeople and the other townspeople as they hurried a little to get indoors, making the colours run, as I say.
On one such rainy day, several members of The Townspeople had gathered in the Harbour Café. There was Michael, who was the policeman in the band, and there was Wilma who was a sailor and a trumpeter, then too there were George, Mary and Spencer (a trio of tap-dancing pilots with castanettes). The rain-
speckled windows had a thick coat of steam, and the old wooden table between them was bearing up heroically beneath an exhaustive bounty of cakes and hot drinks which were adding their share of steam to the cozy miasma. Background noises could be listed as vague chatter, mild collisions of ceramic, and the occasional jet of yet more steam expelled by the coffee machine. It was a steamy sort of place, all things considered. Michael shifted and squirmed some as he sat, for he was a little damp of clothing and he had always found that to be so intolerable. With great dignity though, he fought back the urge to mention it, and through his suffering tried to follow the threads of idle conversation back and forth amongst the steam.
“I saw Mr. Borup earlier on” mentioned Mary.
“Claude. You know, Lighthouse Claude?”
Spencer´s eyes flashed their enlightenment.
“I only knew him as Claude. Anyway...”
“Yes” Mary continued “and he was dressed up ever so smart. Not like he normally is, you know. So I asked him, I said ´where are you off to, dressed up so smart?´, and of course, typical me, I´ve put my foot right in it ´cos he´s off to a funeral of course!”
Michael stopped his damp squirming for a moment.
“That´s right” he said “it´s Marge Wallace´s funeral today. They´re having it somewhere up in the Lake District.”
“Funny” chimed in Wilma “I didn´t know Claude and Marge were ever all that close?”
“I don´t think they were. But he´s known her family since way back. Not that she was especially close to her family either. Still, I can´t think this will be any good for the lighthouse keeper´s mistress...”
There was a round of grave and pensive nodding at this last remark and much staring into teacups. The lighthouse keeper´s mistress had been a matter of some concern to The Townspeople lately. None of them were sure of the effect this funeral business would have on Claude, but they were in agreement that it wouldn´t do him any good. They were concerned about his loneliness. He must be lonely, living alone in a lighthouse, they reasoned. They didn´t really speak to him about this, and whenever one of them saw him out and about he would always appear friendly and upbeat enough - but they knew, and it was a testament to their neighbourly sense of concern that they discussed his difficulties with each other quite often.
The conversation in the café played itself out like a leisurely game of cards in which no score was kept. Now and then the deck was shuffled and the passage of the cards was watched with a vague, detached interest, just as one might half-watch the seagulls wheeling in the skies outside. The rain too had played itself out in a similar way - not packing up according to the fulmilment of any numerical values, but rather, slowly realising it had been enough for one day. The remnants of cloud were shuttled this way and that by a wind which had more sense of self than of direction, and the evening sun with a polite hesitance began to beam down. The town changed, iguana-like.
Along the front, doors creaked open and tinkled their little bells if they had them to tinkle. For some doors it was enough to simply creak. The rain-induced siesta had come to an end and for many people this meant having to do things.
Outstretched palms tentatively felt the air for further rain, as though it was an unfamiliar foe who had yet to be sized up, rather than an everyday weather condition. Eyes grown sleepy in the steamy hollows of subterranean cafés now had to blink painfully in the stark sunlight coming either directly from above or else reflected from any rain-smeared surface. The dreamy fragrances of cinammon and steamed milk were harshly replaced by salty spray and rotting seaweed. The sobering effect of this was, for many, not unwelcome. After all, there was still the final push at the office, or the weekly shopping, or the extraction of children from the maelstrom of other children at the daycare centre. Yes, a little sea air was a galvanizing emboldener of spirits and not to be disparaged. As these errands were carried out, the sun crawled reluctantly towards the ocean, as if it were embarrassed to be leaving so soon after making its big appearance. The sun is always self-conscious in towns like Windsmere where rain is the more established guest. It had, however, also been brought upright, and so it knew not to leave without giving some token of gratitude, which it now did.Firstly, it painted the sparse clouds as bulbous mountains of apricots and peaches. Then, lowering itself gradually, breathed fire into the ocean and made it into a dazzling sort of orange juice mirror. Courting couples on the promenade may also have had some fire breathed into them here, but no matter, the sun knows what it´s doing by now. Finally, with imperceptible motion, it slips beyond the horizon, like a resplendent coin into a hidden slot, and as it goes it brings down a curtain of operatic majesty. An indigo as deep as the ocean into which the sun itself has now descended, sequined with silver stars, and there, glowing like lava-heated stones, are the backlit contours of the final wispy clouds. Then this too fades, iguana-like, and there is only darkness and the sonorous crashing of the waves. Or... No, there is something else. Something born of the darkness and the crashing of the waves. It is a looming, lurking sense of the enormity of the universe and it can always express itself most correctly on beaches, in the dark. It can be the most soothing sensation of all, but it can also drive people insane with fear of mortality. Me, I like it. But I am not all people.
Not long after this noteworthy sunset and the quietening of this little part of the world, and not long after the last of the courting couples came up from the beach, there came a rumbling from the road in the hills. A car with a rattling engine coasted languorously to a halt in front of the old post office. Its headlights illuminated a rusty old anchor and a stack of decrepit lobster traps by the harbour wall. A brief and muffled exchange culminated in the slamming shut of a car door. After the taxi had disappeared around the corner, Claude Borup, the lighthouse keeper, somewhat heavy and unsteady on his feet, wandered over towards the lobster traps. Coming to a swaying sort of halt, he faced the black void of the sea and filled his lungs noisily through his big hairy nostrils.
It had been a long day. More eventful than most days for Claude. All those people. It dizzied him. Also he had been drinking at the wake. Not because he was overcome with grief, and not because he was a drinking man. But people drink at wakes and Claude Borup was not the man to defy tradition in the company of others. He had found it dizzying, all that conversation. The whisky also had a dizzying effect. Had he been drinking the dizzying whisky to negate the dizzying effect of the social contact? He couldn´t remember any more, but he was glad to be back in the town, and the sea air was like an elixir, he felt. During the taxi ride he had been afraid that he might vomit. His vision had been swimming in whirlpools but somehow he had persevered.
As he gyrated unintentionally by the lobster traps, Claude tried to recount the day´s events. It was like trying to recall a dream after waking. Strange images flashed through his mind too rapidly to be caught and contextualised. Had there really been a swan at the funeral? He considered that he perhaps ought to have consumed more canapés as a robust foundation for all that whisky.
The lighthouse flashed its ghostly beam outward, and he felt cheered. Actually, he decided, he was glad to be full of whisky on such a beautiful night. Some people had stayed over at the George Hotel in Fapcaster where the wake had been held, but Claude had been quite insistent about returning home, even though it had meant paying for a taxi. He had made it, and now that the nausea had passed he was feeling almost jubilant.
The lighthouse was on the clifftop just a little walk up from the end of Harbour Street and he began moving in that sort of direction. A warm glow pulled him from the road onto the pavement and he found himself looking into the window of Thomson´s, the jewellers. Deep red velvet cushions held all manner of twinkling little beauties. Saphires. Rubies. Emeralds. Claude had heard these words before but didn´t know which, if any, of these they were. Nor did he particularly care. He was full of joie de vivre and now a big silver moon had sauntered into the sky. He smiled a simple, innocent smile at all that jewellery, thinking as he did so that perhaps he had never seen anything so beautiful in his whole life.
His brow creased up, albeit with a slight delay, at this thought. Probably he had seen many things more beautiful, he reasoned uncertainly. He staggered away from the window display, watching his feet moving beneath him by their own volition. He wasn´t thinking about walking at all, nor could he feel any physical sensation down there, and yet here he was smoothly gliding along. Remarkable! Then he found that he was nose-down in damp gravel and clumsily trying to stand up again. Steadying himself against a parked car, Claude tried to summarise his recent experience with jewellery.
“Jewels´s certainly look fine... but the physical health must be attended to always.” He nodded at his own wisdom and touched his face for any sign of blood. “In any case, I don´t think such trinkets are likely to appease a mistress such as mine”. As he spoke these words his narrowed eyes landed at the lighthouse door, cloaked as it was in heavy shadows.
Like a clumsy and tragic marionette, Claude Borup´s silhouette stumbled up the cliff pathway to his lighthouse, and the town was silent once more.
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