tagNovels and NovellasSomewhere Beyond the Lighthouse

Somewhere Beyond the Lighthouse


Decades ago when I was still a fairly young man, there was a quiet pub in my corner of London that was popular among gentlemanly American sailors. Not the sort of rowdy drunken loudmouths that gave their country a bad name, mind you, but their more mature brethren who enjoyed a quiet drink and pleasant conversation by the fireside before returning to sea. Having never been to the States myself in those days, I came to love welcoming the strangers to my neighbourhood to hear their tales of far away. The clientele seemed to include young men from every port over there, and in time I came to feel I knew Boston, New York, San Francisco and all the other ports as well as a native might.

Regrettably -- or so I thought at the time -- I made the mistake of divulging all that to my niece. The daughter of my much-older brother, she was scarcely ten years younger than I. Being as she had just gone eighteen that rainy summer and boasted a shameless lust for foreign men, nary a visit to my brother's home went by without Lillie begging me to bring her round to my pub. "Uncle Edmund, I know you are not one of those silly old codgers who believe alcohol is for men only -- you can't fool me, I know it!"

"Of course I'm not, my dear. I should even be more than pleased to treat you to a glass of wine or two with dinner. But if I brought you to a pub crawling with sailors, I scarcely wish to imagine what your mother and father should have to say to me!"

"Well, they don't need to know, Uncle Edmund, now do they?"

Indeed, I reflected, they did not. I had been an impertinent youngster myself not so long before, and I had many unpleasant memories of my brother ordering me about as if he were my father. I could only imagine the regulations poor Lillie must have faced, being that he really was her father. The poor thing was entitled to her bit of fun before the responsibilities of adulthood took full hold. And so, against my better judgment but with the devil-may-care joy of a favoured uncle, I told my brother and sister-in-law I had purchased tickets to a matinee and mightn't I treat my beloved Lillie to an afternoon at the theatre? Not without conditions, mind you: I told Lillie in no uncertain terms that she was to wear trousers or a long skirt, drink nothing stronger than wine, say nothing she would not want her father to hear, and be prepared to depart at my word should anything go amiss. "And I am certain I do not need to advise you on the chance of my doing any such thing for you again should your parents learn of this," I advised her.

"Heavens, no!" Lillie exclaimed, leaping into my arms with an added assurance that she would follow all my orders. "Thank you, Uncle Edmund!"

Three days later, dressed to my conservative specifications, she joined me in her father's parlour with a kiss goodbye to him, and we were off. She was uncharacteristically quiet in the taxi, owing perhaps to nerves; but she allowed a delighted sigh when I held the pub door open for her and ushered her inside. "Just as I have always imagined!" she said just a bit too loudly as she took in the view of the dark red leather seats and opulent decorations adorning the walls. "Are they all this lovely?"

"I only wish they were," I replied, drawing an appreciative nod from the bartender.

As it was a cloudy, cool afternoon despite the season, there was a roaring fire in the fireplace. Four chairs were set around the hearth, of which only one was occupied, by an older gentleman nursing a whiskey neat. I expected Lillie's attention to run to the younger men seated at the bar or by the window; but she found the fire irresistible and lost no time in approaching the older man. "Pardon me, sir, may we join you here?"

"I'd be delighted with your company," he said in an American accent of a variety I did not recognize.

Lillie undoubtedly did not know its exact origin either, but her smile in response to his invitation made it clear she did not care just where he might be from. "Thank you!" She recalled her manners long enough to smooth out her skirt as she sat down in the chair facing his, but then instant familiarity took over. "I've been after my uncle here to bring me to this pub for the longest time!" she exclaimed, not even noticing as the waiter approached and I ordered a glass of merlot for her and a pint for myself. "Dying to meet the American sailors, I've been! Are you a sailor? Oh, heavens, are you American? I understand Canadians hate it when we assume..."

"Lillie," I reproved her gently. "I think our new friend might not be here to play twenty questions!"

"Oh, it's quite all right, thank you," the gentleman reassured me. "Delighted with the welcome, actually. We aren't beloved in every port nowadays, you know." Turning to Lillie, he said, "Yes, I am an American sailor. Went to sea when I was twelve, actually, and I've been at it ever since."

"Twelve!" Lillie was appropriately shocked. "Heavens, I wasn't even allowed out of Nurse's sight at that age."

"Well, it was a different time and a very, very different place," the man explained to her.

"Which place?" Lillie's brazenness was back in full force. "Uncle Edmund has told me all about the great American ports. I think I like the tales of New York and San Francisco the best. Little wonder a boy could go to sea at twelve if he came from a place like that."

"Indeed," the man chuckled. "But I'm not from either of those, though I have spent many a lovely day in both. No, I'm from Sauraquid."

Now it was my turn to pipe up in a most un-English fashion. "Sauraquid!" I said. "My God, man, the stories I've heard of that place from so many sailors here, but do you know you are the first one I have met who is from there!"

"That doesn't surprise me," he said. "The sea is our life in Sauraquid, and everyone there makes a living from it in one way or another. But most of us who come from there stay there. Little wonder, really, if you've ever seen the filthy towns elsewhere in that part of the world. My own story is a very unique one, actually, if I do say so myself."

"Oh, this is just what I had hoped for!" Lillie squealed. "You must forgive me, Mister..."

"Jenkins," the man said, extending his hand. I was surprised and pleased to note that he shook her hand as firmly as one would a man's -- the mark of a man who would not condescend to women. "But please, call me Charlie."

"Thank you, Charlie! My name is Lillie and this is my uncle, Edmund." Turning to me, she added, "Uncle Edmund, why did you never tell me of Sauraquid? I do not even know where it is." She then whipped back to Charlie and added, "I am proud to say I know approximately where all forty-eight of your states are, you see, and I am quite sure Sauraquid is not one of them?"

"No, Sauraquid is in the state of Massachusetts," Charlie explained. "Or it's an island off the coast of Massachusetts, actually, and although it is part of that state we tend to think of ourselves as a land apart."

"Is it near Nantucket, then?" Lillie's knowledge of American geography was taking even me by surprise now; she had truly done her homework.

"A bit further out to sea than that," Charlie told her. "And Nantucket is known for its tourist attractions. Sauraquid isn't. We're much more of a working-class community, everybody there to do his or her part. It's beautiful in its own way, but it wasn't an easy place to grow up, I can tell you. Perhaps that is why your uncle never told you about it."

"That, plus most of the stories I have heard would not be suitable for mixed company," I added, cringing a bit as I realised I had surely piqued Lillie's prurient interest more than ever.

"I'm afraid he's right," Charlie said. "It is not a refined place at all, and that is unavoidably a part of what makes it what it is. In fact, it's the defining characteristic of why Sauraquid remains the pleasant backwater it is. My own story, I'm afraid, is inexorably shot through with episodes better suited to a bathhouse than a fine establishment like this."

"Oh, do share it, though!" Lillie pleaded. "It is not as though I am a blushing babe!"

"Lillie, I do not think that is a good idea," I told her. "There are things a girl of your pedigree could never understand no matter how many pirate novels you have read."

"And there are things a man could never understand about being a woman," Lillie reminded me. "With all that we live with, do you really believe we are truly the fairer sex at all?"

"I am more concerned with what your parents would think than with any of that," I replied, trying not to dwell on any of the taboos my darling niece had just implied. Many was the time I had thought the exact same thing, actually, but there was no need to give her the satisfaction of knowing as much.

Charlie looked less bewildered than I, and I was sure I saw the knowing visage of a man who had learned a great deal about women from women -- probably far more than I knew. "I don't wish to scandalise anyone, Edmund, but I must agree with Lillie. In my experience, women can tolerate far more than we men tend to give them credit for."

"Then you are going to tell me your thrilling life story, scandal and all!" Lillie insisted.

Charlie looked at me wordlessly. I felt my lips curl into a smile, knowing all too well that I was as desperate to hear the tale as Lillie thought she was. She faced a lifetime of dull tea-parties and snobbish circles, and her father would never need to know of this one transgression. "Oh, very well then, we're both listening!"

"If you are sure," Charlie said. He downed the last of his drink and waved at the bartender for another. "As I said, I went to sea when I was twelve. There is little I can tell you about my life before that, and only one person I was sorry to leave behind when I was taken away."

"Your mother, no doubt," Lillie said.

"Well, no," Charlie continued. "I'm afraid my mother was...well, she didn't have the best reputation. A washerwoman for the fishermen, but that did not make enough to feed four children. And my father was lost at sea, long before I was old enough to ever remember him. So she did what she needed to do, bless her soul. But of course the townsfolk did not see it that way, and they did not have much welcome for anyone in her family. I very much returned the favour, I have to admit. A street smart urchin from the time I was in pants, that was me. Always getting in trouble and nearly always slipping through the fingers of the law one way or another.

"Now, the one person I mentioned that I missed after I was Shanghaied, that was my dearest friend Wendy. She also came from the gutter, exactly where I don't know, as we never talked about our families. Lovely girl, too, although you had to look closely beneath all the sea salt and grime she and I both picked up playing along the shore all day. She used to wear a faded dress that had once been some bright pastel shade or other long before it came down to her. It was all raggedy just like her hair and her hands and everything else about her, grown up long before her time just like I was. But when the sunlight hit her just right when we were frolicking on the beach, well, she was beautiful in her own way. I used to promise I would make her a queen someday, and she'd laugh it off and tell me I could start by stealing some fish for lunch."

"Tell me you did not steal fish, Charlie!" Lillie interjected.

"I wish I could tell you that," Charlie said. "But as I said, it was a hardscrabble childhood. We did only steal what we needed, and we usually got away with nothing more than screams about how one day we'd be sent off to the mainland to work in the factories. And that, my friend, was a fate worse than death. You see, one thing about Sauraquid: we might have been a poor community, but the island was clean and beautiful. Not polluted at all beyond the dirt and salt on our hands from working. Over on the mainland, Lowell and Lawrence and thereabouts, we heard stories of all the factories and the many jobs they had. Modern efficiency and all that. But we also heard about the very long hours and the low pay and people losing hands in the machines and worse, and most of all we heard about the pollution. Poisoning the rivers, dirtying the air, soot and filth everywhere you turned. Even for a couple of filthy street urchins like Wendy and me, that had the power to scare us straight -- for a while at least. Until the next time we were desperately hungry and there was no luck fishing in the tides ourselves.

"No factories in Sauraquid, from what I've heard," I said.

"That's right, and no pollution either," Charlie said. "A veritable Garden of Eden, as far as clean air was concerned. And I'll tell you, having been all over the world since then, I find there's nowhere on Earth half as pristine and unspoiled as Sauraquid was -- and still is. Perhaps you've heard, Edmund, how it is that the pollution and other undesirable elements were kept at bay on Sauraquid?"

"I've heard rumours," I said reluctantly, still wishing Lillie would not be privy to what was coming.

"Sounds like heaven, Charlie," Lillie said. "Except for having to steal your lunch, of course."

"You can say that again," Charlie said. "All the unspoiled meadows inland and the beaches and the well-swept streets of the town, clean and safe but for the trouble Wendy and I and others like us caused...if you had to grow up in the street, Sauraquid was the place to do it. No filthy polluting factories for us. No waste to poison the ocean with either. But Wendy and I, as I said, we were common thieves, and in such a small community of course the law will catch up to you. It happened on a blistering hot summer's day when I was twelve. Wendy, I think, was a couple of years older than I, but we never talked about that. In any case, the catch hadn't been good lately, my mother hadn't been able to do much business that week, and I don't think Wendy or I had eaten a real meal in three days. We didn't like to steal, you'll understand, but desperation can make you do all sorts of things you don't care to do -- story of my life, that. In any event, old Mr. Cabot, the oldest fishmonger in town -- and easiest to outrun as a result -- he finally hauled in a decent batch of cod and he was setting them up in his usual spot just off the beach road. Calling out the catch as usual, he was, with his back to the beach since there was no one there. No one but Wendy and me."

"You stole his fish, then," Lillie said. She sounded to me like she was trying to sound disapproving, but I detected a sense of romantic enchantment beneath it all.

"Only one," Charlie said. "That would have been enough to keep our bellies still for a while anyway, once we got it back to our hideout and got a campfire going. Poor old man Cabot probably wouldn't have missed one fish, either. But I was so hungry I forgot to look as carefully as I usually did just before I grabbed the fish, and Cabot's daughter -- she'd been on the fishing boat with her husband that had just brought in the catch that morning -- she saw me, and she let out a scream. 'It's those two thievin' little rats again, Pop!' Well, I turned tail and ran off, right past the old man as he turned to see us, the fish under my arm and everything, dodging people left and right in the street and trying to disappear into the crowd. I know I heard a couple of guys chasing after me, but I was smaller and I made it across the street and behind the row of buildings there. Once I got that far, I looked over my shoulder to make sure Wendy had gotten away too.

"But she hadn't. I saw Cabot had her pinned to the ground and his daughter smacking her face again and again while she screamed. Well, I couldn't desert her when I was the one who'd been the thief this time, after all."

"Honour among criminals, then," Lillie said, all pretence to disapproval now gone in favour of thrilling to the tale. Privately I had to confess that I felt the same.

"I suppose. In any case, I was standing there just around the corner, out of sight of Cabot and Wendy, trying to figure out how I could help her. There must be a way to create a diversion, I was thinking. I thought so hard on the matter that I quite forgot how much trouble I'd be in if I got caught standing there. And so of course I was caught. Another one of Cabot's fishermen had been smart enough to go around behind the buildings from the other end of the block, and he grabbed me from behind and swung me over his shoulder -- still clutching the fish, of course -- before I'd had any idea what had happened. He paraded me right past Cabot and Wendy, saying 'Got 'im, Pops, we finally got 'im!' I was crying, that much I remember. Pretty sure Wendy was too, as we had just enough time to make eye contact when he carried me past."

Charlie paused for a sip of his new drink. "That was the last time I saw Wendy for several years. When we did meet again, I didn't dare ask what they had done to her just after we were caught. Sent her off to Lowell to work in a factory, was my guess at first, and then as I grew up and learned more about what women like my mother did to survive...well, I didn't want to dwell on that possibility with my Wendy. I still don't care to think about all that. As for me, the guy who caught me carried me all the way to the town gaol and had me locked up. I'd been there a time or two before, you won't be surprised to hear, and so I figured it was just a matter of a few days before they had to let me go just like they had done before."

"But I suppose it was different this time," Lillie said.

"Well, yes," Charlie confirmed. "I was right about one thing: I was only held in the gaol for two or three days, though of course it felt like more. Filthy and depressing place, but at least I got a bit to eat without having to steal it. I'd been through all that before and I didn't complain. After all, I knew I'd gotten nothing I didn't deserve, you'll understand. And sure enough, right around the time I was starting to lose track of time, the guard showed up with his key and the usual gleam in his eye. I stood up and waited for him to turn me back out into the street. But instead, as soon as he has the cell door open, he grabs me by the shoulder and drags me down the hall, without a word but to warn me not to cry or I'll be in for it."

"In for what?" Lillie demanded.

"I had no idea, but I did keep my mouth shut and my eyes dry. Finally we get to the back door of the gaol -- I knew that well enough -- and there are two burly, clean-cut men waiting by the guard's desk. The guard says 'Here he is, fellas,' and I had just enough time to realize he was talking about me before he gave me a shove and I went sprawling into both of them. 'Looks like a scrapper all right,' one of them says, and the other grabs me by the scruff of my neck and says something about what they do to thieves at sea. 'At sea?!' I say -- first time I opened my mouth -- and the guard starts cackling, says that's right, kid, you're the sailors' problem now, not Sauraquid's."

"I take it you weren't as upset about this as they expected you to be," I ventured.

"That's right," Charlie continued. "The guard's laughing at me and the two sailors are scowling at me and I can see they can't wait for the first chance to beat some sense into me, but all I can think of is, I'm going to sea! I'm out! Off to see the world and no more stealing fish for a living. Absolutely surreal, my friend, when it's the best day of your life and everyone involved thinks it's the worst, I'll tell you. But I did feel bad to be leaving Wendy behind, of course."

"So that was it!" Lillie marvelled. "Just off with you on the ship like that! But you did see Wendy again, you said?"

"Yes. But that was many years later, and only after I learned things I never would have imagined -- and I assure you, Lillie, neither have you. In any event, those two fellows hauled me off to the docks and we set sail that very afternoon. Bound for here, actually, with a load of cotton for the mills at Lancashire. They'd stopped off at Sauraquid to pick up some foodstuffs -- we had the best, with our seafaring lifestyle, after all -- and they were also short a few hands on deck. The gaoler had me in mind for the very purpose, from the moment I was locked up, because that sort of thing happened quite frequently with the ships that were allowed into our harbour."

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