My apprentice arrived at the end of August: a young man of twenty-five, dragging a box of books and a briefcase with two changes of clothes. I had asked for a woman, but I had asked for tinned peaches too, and I was only ever sent pineapple.
The sun was elbowing its way over the horizon, dragging up light the garish orange of work overalls. The heath looked like a fluorescent sponge. My apprentice boyhandled the box to the bottom of the cottage steps and smiled around me. He put his smile to my feet and then my shoulder before eventually settling on my face.
“Hello,” he said. “I made it.”
So you did.
“Odd place for a lighthouse, isn’t it?” he said. “The middle of a heath?”
The lighthouse cottage is not large. Downstairs is the pantry, a galley kitchen, and a grotto-like parlour with two wooden chairs, two armchairs and a table so plain it seems to defy three-dimensional space. The air in the parlour smells of the books crammed onto the walls, which I stopped reading many years ago. I told my apprentice that he could add his collection to any shelf where he could find space.
The pantry is always clean. I wipe the stacked tins and boxes daily, keeping a careful record of the provisions.
My apprentice admired my edifice.
“I didn’t realise you could get tinned chicken,” he said. “The poor thing must be folded up very small.”
The record of our weekly rations is in the logbook. It’s quite generous. Ensure you update the logbook daily.
“Are there any fresh vegetables?” he asked. “I thought I saw a garden –”
I grow flowers, to measure the seasons. No vegetables, no fruit. You will get through your apprenticeship if you follow two rules: never fall asleep at the lighthouse controls, and never eat anything that grows here.
He backed out of the pantry, sucking at his front teeth. On our way up the stairs, he pointed at the umbrella stand where I’d stashed my rifle. He must have been able to see that the stock was dull, and that I didn’t give it nearly the same attention as the pantry’s constellation of aluminium, but he asked all the same: “I can hunt? Rabbits, maybe?”
You can kill anything you like. You just can’t eat anything that lives here.
Upstairs were two single bedrooms, their privacy both ensured and interrupted by the bathroom between them, and the long staircase that led to the cupola.
He put his head around the door of his room. On the bedside table was a glass into which I’d deposited a fistful of freesias, in lieu of welcome. They looked suddenly fey against the austerity of the room.
“Very nice,” he said, and flinched his head round to me.
There are two ways men of twenty-five look at women of forty – around or through. Within a couple of months at the lighthouse, robbed of younger company, most of my male apprentices deliver a speech praising the maturity and sophistication of older women and attempt to seduce me. There is usually an insinuation that I should be grateful.
His look went around me, nervous as a fly. I gave him four weeks.
Let me introduce you to the light, I said.
Like all painful things, lighthouse-keeping is simple. We maintained the light and monitored the heath, working in shifts. He applied himself diligently. I watched him, not without satisfaction, bent over the controls, recording visibility and air pressure, his dark hair so thick and matte that it looked as if he’d fixed it in place with blood.
The monitors emitted a steady beep… beep… beep… beep, which was at the thin edge of audible throughout the house and at murmured conversation level in the cupola.
“What is that?” he asked me. “It sounds like a hospital heart monitor.”
It means things are in working order, I replied.
He varied his time with reading, walking, and sketching. He showed me charcoal renditions of the wildflowers and beetles, of glossy berries and the huge flat mushrooms that sprouted through the gorse like skin erupting through fur. Once he was foolish enough to bring a basketful back to the cottage, but I burned them and buried the ashes.
He had been with me for a fortnight before he broached the question at supper one evening (tinned potatoes and tinned peas, lavishly smeared with tinned crab and lemon juice concentrate).
“Why is there a lighthouse in the middle of the heath?”
Doggerland was once a heath.
It will make more sense when the mists come.
He overturned a flake of crab with the tine of his fork. I listened to him chew. I have had this conversation with my apprentices too many times to count. Perhaps that’s why I interrupted myself – broke my own silence, which, for me, is an interruption. I asked him:
What did they tell you before they sent you here?
He looked at me, startled. It was one of the first times he’d met my eyes. His were faun-like, a forest-depth brown. They made my trigger finger itch. I was sorry for it. I was sorry, too, for the confusion on his face, so much like that of an animal that bites and hurts itself. Of course he wouldn’t remember what they’d told him. He wouldn’t even remember how he’d got here. He only knew that he was here, and that he couldn’t yet leave.
The mist arrived before October. It lay so thickly on the gorse that it stirred around our legs like syrup when we ventured out. It brought with it a stinging, old-battery scent.
The nights were longer now, the days briefer and pinched with cold. We turned the light across the fog. My apprentice, thirsty for novelty, attempted to sketch the soupy landscape, but found his skills weren’t up to the task. Instead, he became obsessed with describing it.
“Like bedsheets in a haunted house,” he said one day.
“Like shrouds in tidal water,” he suggested at another dinner.
I said nothing. It came every year, and, to me, looked only like itself.
We crept towards a new moon, discharging our nocturnal duties. From long experience I knew that they’d come when the sky was blankest. I arranged the roster so that my apprentice was on shift that night. I find it’s usually best to let the apprentices see them first – so that the shock is quick and bright and over swiftly. Joints and minds can be reset in this way.
On the night the new moon came in, I’d fallen into a thin, suspicious doze when my apprentice shoved my bedroom door open and woke me by laying his hands on my shoulders. His palms were wet.
“There’s people outside!” he shouted, raw with panic.
Did you abandon the light?
“People walking on the heath!”
Did you abandon the light?
He tore me from my bed and begged me up the stairs.
The monitor in the cupola was singing at the rate of panted breath. Beep beep beep beep. I let my apprentice harry me to the glass.
“There! Look there!”
Through the windows, across the lunar landscape of the heath under mist, the turning beam picked out two human figures.
They were moving in a slow, wide-legged crouch that suggested both high wind – far higher than our instruments were recording – and padded trousers. The taller of the two walked slightly behind, chin tucked. Their coats were glossy with water. Droplets burst fatly on their shoulders each time the light swept over them. The sky was clear and cloudless. There was no rain.
“We should help,” my apprentice was babbling, and, “I don’t understand, these readings must be wrong, I don’t –”
Keep the light steady, I said. They’re using it as a guide.
“I’m going out –”
They won’t be able to see you or hear you. They can only see the light.
My apprentice adjusted the light’s sweep with a trembling hand. He hadn’t yet spotted the boat a mile further out.
“Did the heath used to be underwater?” he asked me the next morning. He was yellow as an old nail and wouldn’t touch his corned-beef hash.
No, I said. But it will be. Some time from now.
“How is this happening?”
That morning I had limited myself to one sugar cube in my tea. Sugar is one of the hardest substances to transport, and subject to one of the strictest rations. I believed I knew my apprentice’s character. I promised myself an extra sugar cube if he stormed out before I finished the speech that I am usually forced to give at this juncture.
Do you know the story of the sparrow, which St. Bede told to King Edwin?
My apprentice shook his head. I could almost see the electricity of his synapses crawling up and down his thigh.
Bede told the king that the life of a man is like the flight of the sparrow through a mead-hall. The sparrow darts in, swoops, darts out. Inside the hall, it’s warm and bright. But where the sparrow came from in the darkness, and where it goes, no one can know. That’s what surrounds life: an enormous dark mystery.
“What’s that got to do with those people?” he asked me tightly.
You can build your mead-hall anywhere in the hills, at any time. Some will be brand new when others are rubble. But the hills are always there. If you imagine –
The parlour is small. My apprentice slammed his chair back, but it hit the armchair’s cushion with an anticlimactic burp. Still, a book gamely fell off the shelf for some extra percussion.
“Where is everyone?” my apprentice cried out. There was a sheet of tears in front of each of his eyes. The effect was strangely beguiling. “I thought we left together! Where are my friends?”
He slammed sideways into the wall, pivoted on his elbow and burst from the parlour. A few seconds later I heard the crash of the front door. I picked up an extra sugar cube.
I knew he’d walk the heath, fog-choked though it was, for many hours more than usual. I had already adjusted the duty roster in expectation of this. I spent the time he was gone wiping the tins, updating the logbooks, checking the oil and the gas levels, and listening to the conversational beep beep beep of the monitors.
I was writing another request for tinned peaches when I heard laughter. Laughter is rare on the heath, even rarer in the lighthouse. I’d run down the stairs for my rifle and had my fist around the barrel before I discerned a weirder shift in the acoustics. There were two sets of laughter, bracketing a conversation.
I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and aimed at the front door. The rifle wasn’t loaded, but the threat looked real enough.
The door burst back and my apprentice’s face swum out of the mist.
“Oh,” he said. He sounded sad, as if I’d reached into his chest and twisted a dial to turn his heart down.
Behind him, a much taller man cruised in. He was handsome, with eyes a bone-picked blue that you rarely see in nature.
“This is Graham,” said my apprentice.
“Harry,” said Graham, “you didn’t tell me she was pretty.”
For this, I kept the rifle raised.
Do you know this man?
“Yes, I’ve known him for ages,” said my apprentice. He’d stepped sideways, out of the rifle’s way, his shoulders bunched up around his ears. Graham throat was now in my sightline. He swallowed luxuriously.
“Graham and I were at uni together,” my apprentice continued. “In fact he was driving when – I suppose that’s how you got here, Graham? By car?”
“That’s right,” said Graham calmly. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said, to me, and took a step forward. His forehead almost touched the barrel. “Harry has told me wonderful things.”
But not that I’m pretty.
“He neglected to mention it, which is a shame, because I would have walked faster.”
“Graham got lost on the heath,” said my apprentice. “I said he could come – I haven’t seen him since we – I thought he could stay until the mist cleared.”
“Please put the gun down.”
My apprentice sounded like a child pleading with an alcoholic parent not to open another bottle. Graham stood there, going through me with his eyes. Of course I am not pretty. This was simply a minor cruelty at my hearth, comeuppance for my weapon.
“I wouldn’t want to impinge on your hospitality,” Graham said. “But it is very foggy on the heath, and you really are a beacon.”
It had been longer than I cared to measure since a man had tried to cut me with gallantry. I lowered the rifle.
My apprentice let a breath out. “Well! Thank you. Let me put the kettle on…”
He bustled into the kitchenette. Graham leaned against the banister and cranked his smile.
“You live alone?”
When I don’t have an apprentice.
“Harry showed me your garden. I liked the camellias. Very jolly.”
“There are wild hawthorn berries on the heath. Do you grow any? They’re wonderful here. So tart they put a furrow in your tongue.”
Graham slid his hand into his pocket and drew out a clump of half-crushed indigo berries. Lowering his head, he flicked one into his mouth with the tip of his tongue. He chewed it audibly and swallowed the pulp. He held my eye all the while. That’s when I knew, without a doubt, that he was already dead, and had been dead for some time.
If I’d had any doubts that my apprentice had brought home a dead man, they were dispelled that night.
I was on shift. I’d locked the door that separated the lighthouse from the cottage. I didn’t know what manner of dead man I was dealing with and I didn’t care to be surprised while I was working.
The boat – which comes every year – had drawn a little closer, but not close enough to distract my apprentice. Whatever sea it was sailing was unfriendly. It was so storm-tossed that it appeared to hiccup on the horizon.
The weather picked up by our instruments, however, was chill and windless. The beep of the monitors was at a wistful, lullaby speed. Apart from the distant boat, there were no other figures or vehicles on the heath.
I was recording the hourly temperature when Graham rapped at the door.
“Let me in,” he murmured.
The gentleness of his voice, and the softness of his knuckles on the wood, had the quality of licked fur. It was unpleasantly intimate. In closed spaces like lighthouses (prisons, schools, wedding beds), intimacy can be wielded across space. I felt something caressing my left nipple and knew that he was circling the mouth of the lock with the pad of his finger.
“Let me in.”
He must have turned his hand over and begun to jam his finger inside the keyhole, because I felt that too. It was exquisite, in a medical sort of way.
He groaned and flattened himself against the door. I felt the pressure all along my body. I said, blandly, You will go away.
There was a pause, and then the pressure slowly lifted. Graham had peeled himself away and drifted back down the stairs. Robbed of feeding, his footsteps became insubstantial. A hungry ghost.
I worked until dawn and went to bed when the sun was high enough to turn the mist luminescent. I awoke at around two o’clock, to the astonishing scent of cooking flesh, and hurried downstairs.
Graham was stood at the hob, shoving chunks of flesh around a cast iron pan. The kitchenette was dusty with feathers.
“Ptarmigan,” he said, without looking round. “I took your rifle out this morning.”
I can’t eat that.
Neither can my apprentice.
The former ptarmigan sizzled. It smelled appallingly good. Graham banged the wooden spatula against the pan and reached for the dried parsley.
“Don’t come too close to me,” he said pleasantly. “You know I want you very badly.”
“I’ll put you on the floor if you come too close to me.”
He put the parsley back and reached for the box of salt. Unlike sugar, salt is easy to transport. We have it in abundance here, and half my meals taste like tears. Graham sprinkled some over the bird.
“I’ve never hurt a woman in my life,” he said. “I’ve never even dumped a girlfriend. They always break up with me. Why is this happening?”
My apprentice said that you were driving?
When the car crashed?
Did you hit a tree? Drive into a lake?
Graham turned the heat down. “I hit another car. Hard.”
“That smells good!”
My apprentice twinkled into the kitchen. He was clutching a posy of late-blooming flowers. He began scampering about in a busy-work manner to find a glass to put them in. Graham – or the hungry ghost that had once been Graham, before he murdered himself and someone else – smiled and lifted a fragment of flesh on the end of the spatula. My apprentice surged towards it.
Don’t eat that.
“I’m sure one bite is fine –”
I reached out and slapped the spatula to the ground. Then, as my hand was still outstretched, I slapped my apprentice too.
They avoided me for the rest of the day, which suited me. I don’t like hungry ghosts. More than the danger they pose when their appetites are upon them, they strike me as pathetic. There is no external jury on the heath. Only guilt, and what it renders.
My apprentice was on duty that night, but I was so concerned that he would eat whatever pomegranate seed substitute Graham proffered that I sat beside him in the cupola, as I hadn’t since his first week here. Graham lay awake in the bedroom. I could feel the blade of his yearning through the floor.
Two hours into the shift, the light picked out a nauseous fluorescence. My apprentice cried out and dropped his hands on the control panel.
The light! I said sharply.
“Out there,” he croaked, “on a dinghy—”
The light, Harry.
The monitors were chanting rapidly, beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep. The boat had drawn close to the non-existent shore by the lighthouse.
We could see their faces: kicked-in pumpkins, pocked with a razing sickness. They struggled against weather that only they could feel.
“Children,” my apprentice gasped. “There are children –”
Fewer than last year.
He emptied an utterly aghast look over me.
One of the adults in the boat was shouting and thrusting their arms at another adult, who was holding a swaddled bundle and cowering. The boat thrashed back and forth and the passengers slammed from side to side, but still the shouting adult clawed for the bundle. A thin noise seeped from my assistant.
“The baby –”
Harry. They can’t see or hear you. Whatever you’re thinking of doing –
My apprentice shot from his seat.
I ran after him.
The house is small, the stairways narrow, and what happened next happened with the taut alacrity of crowded spaces. I saw that my apprentice had grabbed my rifle from the umbrella stand. He handled it amateurishly and it jumped in his palms like a weasel. I went to place myself in front of the door. He gestured madly at me. I don’t think he intended to put his finger on the trigger. Even when the rifle went off – loaded with ammunition from Graham’s hunt – I don’t think he understood what he had touched.
I raised my hand and touched the gunshot wound in my chest. The agony was distant, as if reported to me by post. I leaned over and plucked the rifle out of my apprentice’s hands.
He whimpered and cringed away from me.
“Are you – did I – why aren’t you dead?”
I touched the wound again. It was happening too slowly for my apprentice to see, but the flesh was already clustering back together.
There are certain precursors for death, I said. One of them is birth.
Something dreadful was swimming in his eyes. Fear, I think. It shoved him backwards, up the stairs. I let him go.
There was pain, for a while. I waited it out. In the many centuries that I have been a forty-year-old woman, I have learned that waiting is the finer part of force. When I could move without the announcement of pain, I crawled up the stairs.
The door to my apprentice’s room was open. Graham and my apprentice were inside. Graham was standing, quite naked, his expression undone. My apprentice was kneeling in front of him, head bobbing steadily, making liquid noises. There was no sign of coercion. In fact, as I rounded the banister, I saw my apprentice run both of his hands up Graham’s stomach with worshipful slowness. They had found each other, that’s all. First on the heath, and then in the dark.
They were coming to their conclusion as I crawled past, wanting my bed. Graham had started to moan on a rising note, like a question. His fingers went through my apprentice’s curls. The moan was cut off, tight and sudden, when I was out of their sight.
The night seemed to stutter. And then I heard the declension of the monitors.
It took me a moment to realise that my apprentice had drunk the nectar that grew here. He’d swallowed what made its home on the heath. I listened to the moment that he died, and then I listened to him wipe his mouth and murmur something filled with love to his murderer.
Nothing bound him to the lighthouse after that. He was dead, and therefore no longer my apprentice. The monitors were silent and would remain silent until I was sent another.
The hungry ghost and his husband left before dawn, taking my rifle with them. I wasn’t sorry to see it or them go. But I had liked Harry – I think – and I hoped that they’d make it to the other side of the heath.
I was still wounded. With the arrival of the sunlight, the pain became lavish and interesting. I calculated I could do two crawls of the staircase – one up, one down – so I dragged myself into the pantry, took two cans of beans, and hauled myself into the cupola. I slumped on the chair, ate the beans cold, and waited for night and my duties.
While I waited, I tore out a page from the lighthouse logbook. It’s an old, old tome, still embossed with an ancient name, Charon. Centuries ago, when I first took this job, I’d tried to scratch the C into an S but the ancient leather crumbled rebelliously. There’s a divot where my name should be.
I settled the paper on my thigh and started to write. The mist trembled promisingly. I asked for tinned peaches.