Authors: Jeanette Winterson
After I had walked the dog and made the first pot of Full Strength Samson, I sat out on the deck of the light, and started to go through the post. Post was my job because Pew couldn’t read it.
There were the usual things – brass instrument catalogues, special offer oilskin coats, thermal underwear from Wolsey – the suppliers of Captain Scott’s 1913 Polar Expedition. I put a tick by a maroon vest and longjohns, and opened the last long white envelope.
It was from Glasgow. The lighthouse was going to be automated in six months.
When I read the letter to Pew, he stood up very dignified and threw the ends of his tea into the sea. Gulls screamed round the top of the Light.
‘There’s been a Pew here since 1828.’
‘They’re going to give you a lot of money when you leave. It’s called a Redundancy Package, and it includes Alternative Accommodation.’
‘I don’t need money, child. I need what I have. You write to them and tell them that Pew is staying. They can stop paying me, but I’m staying where I am.’
So I wrote a letter to the Northern Lighthouse Board, and they replied, very formally, that Mr Pew would leave on the appointed day, and there would be no right of appeal.
Everything happened as it always does; there was a petition, there were letters in the newspapers, there was a small item on the television news, a picket in Glasgow, then after what was called a period of ‘consultation’ the Board went ahead as it had planned.
Miss Pinch came visiting, and asked me what I intended to do with my Future. She spoke about it as though it were an incurable disease.
‘You have a future,’ she said. ‘We must take it into account.’
She suggested I try for a Junior Trainee Assistant Librarian Temporary Grade on a three-month work placement. She warned me that I shouldn’t be too ambitious – not suitable for Females, but that librarianship
was suitable for Females. Miss Pinch always said Females, holding the word away from her by its tail.
My future had been the lighthouse. Without the lighthouse, I would have to begin again – again.
‘Isn’t there anything else I could do?’ I asked Miss Pinch.
‘I’d like to work on a ship.’
‘That would be itinerant.’
‘My father was crew on a ship.’
‘And look what happened to him.’
‘We don’t know what happened to him.’
‘We know he was your father.’
‘You mean I happened to him?’
‘Exactly. And look how difficult that has been.’
Miss Pinch approved of automation. There was something about human beings that made her uncomfortable. She had refused to sign our petition. Salts, she said, must move with the times, which seemed odd to me, when Miss Pinch had never moved at all – not with the times nor with anything else.
– boarded-up, sea-lashed, ship-empty, harbour-silted, and one bright light. Why take away the only thing we had left?
‘Progress,’ said Miss Pinch. ‘We are not removing the light. We are removing Mr Pew. That is quite different.’
‘He is the light.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
I saw Pew raise his head, listening to me.
‘One day the ships will have no crew, and the aeroplanes will have no pilots, and the factories will be run by robots, and computers will answer the telephone, and what will happen to the people?’
‘If ships had had no crew when your father came to call, your mother would have not have been a disgrace.’
‘And I would not have been born.’
‘You would not have been an orphan.’
‘If I hadn’t been an orphan, I would never have known Pew.’
‘What possible difference could that have made?’
‘The difference that love makes.’
Miss Pinch said nothing. She got up from the one comfortable chair where she always sat when she visited us, and swept down the spiral stairs like a hailstorm. Pew looked up, as he heard her leave – metal-capped heels, keys jangling, ferrule of her umbrella drilling every step of the stone, until she was gone in a shatter of slamming doors, and clatter of bicycle across the jetty.
‘You’ve offended her,’ said Pew.
‘I offended her by being born.’
‘Well, and that can’t be held as your fault. It’s no child’s fault to be born.’
‘Is it a misfortune?’
‘Don’t regret your life, child. It will pass soon enough.’
Pew got up and went to tend the light. When the men with computers came to automate it, it would flash every four seconds as it always did, but there would be no one to tend it, and no stories to tell. When the ships came past, no one would be saying, ‘Old Pew’s in there, lying his head off with his stories.’
Take the life away and only the shell is left.
I went down to my eight-legged bed. Every time I had grown, we had just stuck an extension on the bed I had, so four legs had become six, and lately, six had become eight. My dog still had his original number.
I lay there, stretched out, looking at the one star visible through the tiny window of the room.
How can you do that when the connections are broken?
‘That’s your job,’ Pew had said. ‘These lights connect the whole world.’
What story, child?
One that begins again.
That’s the story of life.
But is it the story of my life?
Only if you tell it.
when the dog sheared off in a plunging of fur and loud barking. He shouted to the dog, but the dog had a seagull in his sights. The man was angry. He was trying to concentrate on the problem in his mind: his Sunday sermon for Pentecost.
Suddenly the dog disappeared, and he heard it yelping in the distance. He sensed that something was wrong, and ran along the headland, his boots crushing the stone.
The dog had fallen over the cliff onto a ledge about twenty feet down. It was whining piteously, and holding up its paw, The man looked; there seemed to be no way down, but to fall. He couldn’t climb down, and he couldn’t pull the dog up.
He told the dog to stay – it could hardly do anything else, but the command gave the chaos a kind of order. It told the dog that his master was still in charge. It helped the man to believe he was still in charge.
‘Stay!’ he shouted. ‘Lie down!’ Whimpering a little, with its hurt foot, the dog did as he was told, and the man began to walk quickly back to the Manse to fetch a rope.
There was no one about at home. His wife was out. His son was at school. The cook was sleeping before the Bishop came to dinner. He was glad there was no need to explain, no need to get exasperated. A problem shared was a problem doubled, he thought. People tried to help, but all they did was interfere. Better to keep trouble contained, like a mad dog. Then he remembered his dog, and pushed aside other, more difficult thoughts. They were his thoughts. He wouldn’t tell anyone, ever. He would keep his secret to himself.
He found the rope in the cart-shed. He slung it over his shoulder. He threw a heavy metal spike and a mallet into a sack, and took a pony harness to lift the dog. Then he went back, keeping his mind resolutely on the task ahead, and refusing the fraying at the edges that had become so common a mental state for him. He often felt that his mind was unravelling. Only by the greatest discipline could he find for himself the easy
peace he used to take for granted. Peace of mind – he would give anything to find it again. Now he worked for it, the way he worked his body by boxing.
The man walked briskly, trying not to tread on the poppies that grew out of every crack with a bit of soil in it. He could never get them to grow in his garden, but here they grew on nothing. He might use that for his sermon…
Pentecost. He loved the story of the Grail coming to the Court of King Arthur at the Feast of Pentecost. He loved it, and it made him sad, because that day every knight had pledged to find the Grail again, and most lost their way, and even the best were destroyed. The Court was broken. Civilisation was ruined. And why? For a dream-vision that had no use in the world of men.
The story pressed in on him.
He reached the cliff face and looked down for his dog. There he was, nose between his paws, every hair a dejection. The man called to him, and the dog suddenly raised his head, eyes full of hope. The man was his god. The man wished that he too could lie and wait so patiently for salvation. ‘But it will never come,’ he said out loud, and then fearful of what he had said he
began to bang the iron spike two-thirds of its length into the ground.
When he was sure it would take his weight, he carefully tied the rope into a reef knot, hung the horse gear across his body, and began to abseil down the cliff onto the ledge. He looked sadly at his scuffed boots; they were new last week and he had been breaking them in. His wife would scold him for the expense and risk. Life was nothing but expense and risk, he thought, with some dim hope of comfort, though it was the comfort he stressed to his flock, only himself he kept up late at night, with other thoughts.
He swung onto the ledge and patted the dog roughly and examined the injured foot. No blood, most probably a sprain, and he bound it tight, while his dog watched him with deep brown eyes.
‘Come on, Tristan. Let’s get you home.’
Suddenly he noticed that the wall of the cliff had a long narrow opening in it, and the edges of the opening seemed shiny, with malachite perhaps, or iron ore, polished by the salty winds. The man stepped forward, running his fingers over the bumpy edges, then he pushed himself half inside the gap, and what he saw confounded him.
The wall of the cave was made entirely of fossils. He
traced out ferns and seahorses. He found the curled-up imprint of small unknown creatures. Suddenly everything was very still; he felt that he had disturbed some presence, arrived at a moment not for him.
He looked round nervously. There was no one there, of course, but as his hands slid over the shiny brittle surface, he couldn’t help pausing. He looked at the dark sea-stained wall, but how could the sea have reached here? Not since the Flood. He knew the earth was 4,000 years old, according to the Bible.
He pressed the tips of his fingers into the tight curl of the fossils, feeling them like the inside of an ear, or the inside of…no, he wouldn’t think about that. He pulled his mind away, but still his fingers moved over the raised soft edges of this mosaic of shapes. He put his fingers to his mouth, tasted sea and salt. He tasted the tang of time.
Then, for no reason at all, he felt lonely.
Dark took out his penknife and chipped away at part of the wall. He dug out an ancient seahorse, put it in his pocket, and went back to his dog.
‘Steady, Tristan,’ he said, securing the dog in the harness. When the dog was firm, he attached the rope to the D-ring in the middle of the gear, and quickly pulled himself back up the cliff. Then he lay down flat
on his stomach, and began to haul up his dog, until he could grab it by the scruff of the neck. And help it scrabble over
They were both panting and exhausted and the man had forgotten water.
He rolled over onto his back, watching the clouds speeding over the sky, and fingering the seahorse in his pocket. He would send it to the Archaeological Society, and tell them about his find. But as he made this plan, he realised that he wanted to keep the seahorse. More than anything, he wanted to keep it, and so to the great surprise of his dog he let himself down the rope again, and gouged out another piece of eloquent rock. They were like the tablets of stone given to Moses in the desert. They were God’s history and the world’s. They were his inviolable law; the creation of the world, saved in stone.
When he got home he felt better, lighter, and he enjoyed his dinner with the Bishop, and later, in his study, he wrapped up the second fossil and sent it by the stable boy to the Archaeological Society. He tied a cardboard parcel label to it, with the date and place of the find.
Salts had never known anything like it. Within two weeks, scores of palaeontologists were boarding at The
Rock and Pit, spilling over into the spare rooms of spinster aunts, sleeping makeshift on camp beds at the Manse, and drawing lots for a bad night in a tent on the cliff edge.
Darwin himself came to examine the cave. He admitted to being embarrassed by the lack of fossil evidence to support some of his theories. Opponents of his
Origin of Species
wanted to know why some species seemed not to have evolved at all. Where was the so-called ‘fossil-ladder’?
‘The Cambrian era is very unsatisfactory,’ he told his colleagues.
The cave seemed to suggest all kinds of new possibilities. It was stocked like a larder with trilobites, ammonites, wavy-shelled oysters, brachiopods, brittle stars on long stalks, and although it seemed that all of these things could only have been deposited there by some terrible flood of the Noah-kind, the man with the seahorse in his pocket was unhappy.
He spent a lot of time listening to the excited voices talking about the beginning of the world. He had always believed in a stable-state system, made by God, and left alone afterwards. That things might be endlessly moving and shifting was not his wish. He didn’t want a broken world. He wanted something
splendid and glorious and constant.
Darwin tried to console him. ‘It is not less wonderful or beautiful or grand, this world you blame on me. Only, it is less comfortable.’
Dark shrugged. Why would God make a world so imperfect that it must be continually righting itself?
It made him feel seasick. He made himself feel seasick, listing violently from one side to another, knowing that the fight in him was all about keeping control, when his hands were bloodless with gripping so tight.
If the movement in him was like the movement in the world, then how would he ever steady himself? There had to be a stable point somewhere. He had always clung to the unchanging nature of God, and the solid reliability of God’s creation. Now he was faced with a maverick God who had made a world for the fun of seeing how it might develop. Had he made Man in the same way?
Perhaps there was no God at all. He laughed out loud. Perhaps, as he had always suspected, he felt lonely because he was alone.
He remembered his fingers in the hollow spirals of the fossils. He remembered his fingers in her body. No, he must not remember that, not ever. He clenched his fists.
God or no God, there seemed to be nothing to hold onto.
He felt the seahorse in his pocket.
He got it out, turned it over and over. He thought of the poor male seahorse carrying his babies in his pouch before the rising water had fastened him to the rock forever.
Fastened to the rock.
He liked that hymn.
Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?
He sang it to himself:
We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll. Fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.
Fastened to the rock. And he thought of Prometheus, chained to his rock for stealing fire from the gods. Prometheus, whose day-time torment was to suffer his liver torn out by an eagle, and whose nighttime torment was to feel it grow back again, the skin as new and delicate as a child’s.
Fastened to the rock.
That was the town crest here at Salts; a sea village, a fishing village, where every wife and sailor had to believe that the unpredictable waves could be calmed by a dependable god.
Suppose the unpredictable wave was God?
The man had taken off his boots and folded his clothes neatly on top of them. He was naked and he wanted to walk slowly out to sea and never come back. There was only one thing he would take with him, and
that was the seahorse. They would both swim back through time, to a place before the flood.