He put the button on her tummy. ‘Breathe now Hetty’ he said, ‘and watch the button … that’s what it’s like for a boat, going up and down on the sea.’
Francis took his daughter’s hand and led her up the whitewash steps just as the sun was sinking. As they spiraled up the staircase of curved white walls, she felt as if she was climbing deeper and deeper into a giant shell; a maze of salty curiosities in an echoing ocean. It roared like a train and pounded like a thousand wild horses galloping across the damp sands of the island.
He let his daughter turn the brass knob on the door that faced them on the forty-fifth step, and they walked into a room of glass at the top of the tower.
‘Help me pull back the curtains Hetty.’ Francis handed her a white cord which she pulled as hard as she could; her tongue gripping the side of her mouth with the effort. The heavy curtains parted to reveal a magnificent vista of blue and white that seemed to stretch to the other side of the world. Francis scooped Hetty up into his tattooed arms and asked her if she could see the ocean breathing. Because that’s how he always described it to her. A big belly of water filled with fish and lost treasure, breathing like a giant, beneath the cover of the sky. Though sailing vessels enjoyed the playful rock and sway of a daylight voyage across her undulations, night-time was a different story. As the sea slumbered, safe passage could never be guaranteed and that’s why lighthouses, mighty as great oaks, were built along the coasts and promontories of our islands.
‘I think it’s time to light the lamp Hetty.’ He kissed her on the forehead as he put her down and she giggled, pushing his beard away with her soft white palms. She smiled like her mother and her blonde fringe shone in her eyes in the same way too. He neatened it back with a hairpin and she put her hands on her hips, as she regarded the enormous lamp in the centre of the room.
‘That’s bigger than my lamp Daddy,’ she said.
‘It is’ he smiled, ‘because the sea is bigger than any room you could imagine, and we need to see every inch of it.’
Dusk stretched out its wings and glided in over the water like a swan. As Hetty stared out the window watching the surrounding hills melt into the shadows, she heard the tortured cry of the gull who hadn’t eaten enough and the departing heron who’d waited too long for a trout, already dreaming in the sea-grass meadows beneath the rocks.
The light cut the darkness like a gleaming sabre and the water shivered beneath its gaze. The soft beam created a sense of safety and protection, an ominous presence of comfort comparable only to the remembered nursery lamp in Hetty’s bedroom. Her mother chose it before she was born, ‘What do think of this one Francis?’ the soft pastels painting the night with moons and teddy bears that floated like angels around her bed. Standing in her glass tower, Hetty felt like a princess watching over a kingdom of water that swam into her imagination like a school of herring. Her father lost to his quiet solitude, stood like a steamship captain beside the lamp that lit the darkness; a moon in perigee. Together they watched dolphins skipping the rope of light that spun every five seconds and shone for sleepy sailors over sixteen seafaring miles away. As the sea slept, its dreams rose to the surface like vapours and Hetty stared in wonder at the wild imagination of the deep. The graceful dance of translucent jellyfish drifting with a current that rocked boats and bobbed the liners caressing the skin of the sea, sailing to distant ports and far away islands. The lamp in the lighthouse, a colossal cyclops that lit up the ocean, illuminating octopus stunned by the intonations of young whales and frilled sharks bending in the bathyal zone, coiling like snakes. The mottled cod; the ling hiding in the sandy wreck stalking starfish afloat in a forest of kelp. Without the howling south westerly that normally accompanied the nights of March, it really was like listening to the heart of a shell, the echoing ocean, the mooing humpbacks and Orca’s singing to their nomadic wives.
‘Don’t cry Daddy.’ Hetty put her hand in her father’s pocket.
He heard the sad laments too, the sea’s nightmares. Dolphins tangled in fishing nets; the plastic stomachs of gannets; the whale song of the inescapable harpoon, that cut the blubber from their bewildered ancestors. Sea-turtles suffocating in driftnets and sailors, whose lives were lost in the five seconds the enormous eye was closed and shut to the reaching arms of the drowning; blind to the bones of trawlers vanished in the rising swell.
Years later, after the lamps were automated and Francis himself succumbed to the sleeping belly of the sea, Hetty returned to Samphire to watch the sun retreat on a windy evening in March. As she drove up the winding hills of the island, she could hear the ocean calling like the roaring train of childhood and her skin tingled in the briny air that smelled of magic. She cornered the last bend and the sight of the lighthouse, took her breath away. It looked like the minaret of a mosque and its lamp called out like an albatross. It was a torch, searching the approaching night for the hungry gulls and fatigued herons, the singing whales and startled squid. It was searching for her, just as she had searched uselessly for her father, every night after the storm. Every boat, every skiff, sail and trawler from the surrounding villages searched for twenty-eight days after the mountainous wave swept her father off the steps below the lighthouse.
As she climbed into the shell of the spiraling lighthouse, she knew Francis would be there the way he always had. Polishing the glass and taking weather readings, signaling to the navigators, guiding their vessels home. They trusted him, the flashing beacon, the monocle in the eyeless night. Hetty stared at the living sea and listened to her father breathing. It was a peaceful breath, even as the tide and she imagined him out there not drowning but dreaming with the trout in the sea-grass meadows, a lost treasure in the sea’s reverie. And yet the lighthouse, ever lit and sentinel, signifying his presence like the sanctuary lamp of a tabernacle, anchoring his existence in the great nursery of the perilous ocean.