The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex #Excerpt

1972  

RELIEF 

When Jory opens the curtains, the day is light and grey, the  radio playing a half-known song. He listens to the news, about  a girl who’s gone missing from a bus stop up north, and drinks  from a mug of brown tea. Poor Mother’s beside herself – well,  she would be. Short hair, short skirt, big eyes, that’s how he  pictures the girl, shivering in the cold, and an empty bus stop  where someone should have stood, waving or drowning, and  the bus pulls up and away, never the wiser, and the pavement  shines on in the black rain. 

The sea is quiet, with the glass-like quality that comes after  

bad weather. Jory unlatches the window and the fresh air is  very nearly solid, an edible thing, clinking between the trawler  cottages like an ice cube in a drink. There’s nothing like the  smell of the sea, nothing close: briny, clean, like vinegar kept  in the fridge. Today it’s soundless. Jory knows loud seas and  silent seas, heaving seas and mirror seas, seas where your boat  feels like the last blink of humankind on a roll so determined  and angry that you believe in what you don’t believe in, such  as the sea being that halfway thing between heaven and hell,  or whatever lies up there and whatever lurks down deep. A  fisherman told him once about the sea having two faces. You  have to take the both, he said, the good and the bad, and never  turn your back on either one of them. 

Today, after a long time, the sea is on their side. They’ll do  it today. 

He’s in charge of whether the boat goes out there or not. Even  if the wind’s good at nine it doesn’t mean it’ll be good by ten,  and whatever he’s got in the harbour, say he’s got four-feet high waves in the harbour, he can guess they’ll be forty feet  round the tower. Whatever it is ashore, it’ll be ten times as  much round the light. 

The new delivery is twentyish, with yellow hair and thick  glasses. They make his eyes look small, twitchy; he reminds  Jory of something kept in a cage, living in sawdust. He ’s  standing there on the jetty in his cord bellbottoms, frayed ends  darkened by the slopping sea. Early morning it’s quiet on the  quay, a dog walker and a milk crate unloading. The frigid pause  between Christmas and New Year. 

Jory and his crew haul in the boy’s supplies – Trident red  cartons containing two months’ clothes and food, fresh meat,  fruit, proper milk not powdered, a newspaper, box of tea,  Golden Virginia – and rope them down, covering the containers  in tarpaulin. The keepers will be pleased: they’ll have been on  tinned stew the past four weeks and whatever was on the Mail ’s  front page the day the last relief went out. 

In the shallows, the water burps seaweed, slurping and sucking round the sides of the boat. The boy climbs in, his  plimsolls wet, groping the sides like a blind man. Under one  arm he carries a parcel of belongings tied up with string –  books, cassette recorder, tapes, whatever he’ll use to pass the  time. He’s a student, most likely: Trident gets a lot of students  these days. He’ll be writing music, that’ll be his thing. Up in  the lantern thinking this is the life. They all need an activity  to do, especially on the towers – can’t spend your whole time  running up and down the stairs. Jory knew a keeper way back  when, a fine craftsman who put ships in bottles; he’d spend his  whole stay doing them and they were beautiful things by the  end of it. And then they got televisions put in and this keeper  threw it all away, literally chucked his whole kit out the window  into the sea, and from then on sat watching the box every free  moment he got. 

‘Have you been doing this long?’ the boy asks. Jory says  

yeah, longer than you’ve been alive. ‘Didn’t think we ’d make  it,’ he says. ‘I’ve been waiting since Tuesday. They put me  in digs in the village and very nice it was too, but not so  nice as I’d want to stay there much longer. Every day I was  looking out and thinking, will we ever get off? Talk about  a bloody storm. Have to say I don’t know how it’ll be out  there when we get another. They told me you’ve never seen  a storm till you’ve seen it from the sea, and it feels like the  tower’s going to collapse right from underneath you and  wash away.’ 

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