This story received a Commended in the Katherine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Awards
Theory of Falling Bodies
Run your hands along those old stones. Limestone blocks cut from these very cliffs and easy to climb if you know how. Put your fingers here where mine are, and your left foot, yes there and your right. It’s not hard, don’t panic. I can feel the tension all the way down your arm. You need to relax.
Look here, someone’s carved a date. The strokes are finger width so you can fit your hand. Must have been put here when they built the lighthouse for you could never do it now, this high up. Put your foot on this broken corner and haul your hand up to this metal spike. It’s rusty but it will hold. Luck you think? Well if you had ever looked up you would have seen we were heading for it. Just a little further, right hand, left leg, left hand. Now your right foot should be able to feel for the metal spike and we can reach the windowsill. It’s ok; no one knows we’re here. Now let’s see what can we see?
Ada is walking purposefully around the room, counting as she goes. ‘Forty nine, fifty, fifty one, fifty two.’ Her father appears climbing the spiral staircase from below. She stops by the window.
‘What is it you are doing Ada?’ he asks.
‘Measuring Father.’ Ada continues to step and count until she reaches the staircase. ‘The carpenter at Whitmans Dock told me I should know to measure things against my own body. He took his folding ruler and measured my hand span. Look.’ She stretches her thumb and small finger apart as far as she can and places her hand against the spine of a book on the table nearby. ‘Six inches, just a little less.’
Her father smiles.
‘He measured my tread as well, said I could tell the distance from the boathouse to Beacon’s Bell just by walking it. See, my stride is one and a half feet almost exactly, if I stretch just a little.’ She moves past her father and continues to walk around the room tapping her fingers against her thigh at every step until she is back next to the stair rail.
‘It took me forty six steps. He wrote it down with a pencil on an oak beam. Forty six multiplied by one and a half is sixty nine feet, which is twenty three yards. Or so he said.
‘I asked him how many steps in a mile and he said to come back after lunch so I did and he wrote it down for me. One thousand seven hundred and sixty yards in a mile which is…’
Ada fished about in her pocket for a scrap of paper and showed her father. 1760 yards = 5280 feet which is 3520 steps.
‘But why are you counting your steps in here?’ Ada’s father needed to tend to the lamp but knew not to trust the look in Ada’s eye.
‘Well,’ said Ada reluctantly. ‘If I can walk two thousand six hundred and forty steps, I can walk a mile and then maybe I can walk two and if I can walk that far then maybe I could walk the five miles to Leymouth to visit my mother.’ She finished in a rush and stared defiantly at the wall behind her father’s head.
‘Ada,’ her father began and then hesitated.
‘Ada, your mother never went to Leymouth.’
‘But I thought… But Mary said… Well, where did she go then?’ she demanded. There were four other towns marked on the turnpike. ‘Did she go to Smithfield?’
Ada’s father began again to climb the stairs, his boots heavy on the iron treads.
‘Your mother went to heaven Ada, she died in childbirth when you were three’
‘But Father!’ Ada starts up the staircase after him forgetting to count.
‘Father, how many steps will that be?’
‘Too many to count Ada’ Her father’s voice came down muffled from the room above. ‘And all of them uphill.’
Dust swirls and runs like water. Mice live like imaginary things unseen. Carpets unravel into threads. Birds circle, glass is broken. Bones and feathers, bones and feathers lie upon the floor. Close your eyes now. Open to another time.
Daniel stretched his boots out in front of the fire. He had taken off his jacket and hung it dripping from the peg by the door but there was no point in changing out of the heavy damp trousers or the boots, which were starting to steam. There was a storm coming and he would need to be out in it.
Daniel could smell storms coming, though there was nothing unusual in that. Lots of people could; old Bette up on the hill, John Doyne’s simple son, most of the older fishermen. There was a smell, a taste of metal on the tongue, like air heated in a forge, hammered into a spike then dunked sizzling into the sea. Some of the older men could give a boat three or four hours warning and they were so accurate that most skippers would release a net and dump a catch in an instant and start for home on their say so, even though the sky was as clear and blank as the reflection in a fish’s eye.
But Daniel could smell more than that. His nose could detect the metal edge of blood; he could smell a shipwreck coming. When he was a child he hadn’t known what it was, just that he was jumpy and moody sometimes for no reason and then, later that night, he would wake with the yells and swinging lanterns rushing along the street past his window and his father’s boots banging down the stairs.
On the evening before the Canterbury went down with all hands and 60 passengers, he had cried without stop from supper through to bedtime, until his father slapped him in frustration and his mother carried him to bed even though he had long grown beyond those mothering comforts. Later that night, as he lay still wakeful in his bed, his father returned cold and weary. Daniel heard him stop by the bedroom door, staring at him, silent in the darkness, for a long minute.
It was why, when he grew up, they had put him in charge of the lighthouse, even though he would dearly have loved to be digging down into the earth and growing things on the little plot of land his Grandfather had owned a few miles up the river, out of scent of the sea. It seemed a cruel punishment to Daniel to thrust him out here on the very edge of the foundering rocks, prophesying every sea drowning death without the means to actually help anybody.
But he could understand their logic. Any time he anticipated a wreck he would make his way along the sea wall and ring Beacon’s Bell three times, then the town could prepare themselves with boats and ropes and blankets and boil their kettles for a long night.
The trouble was that despite the lighthouse providing a warning of treacherous seas there was nothing that Daniel could do but stand beside the light as it made its maddeningly slow way around, flashing the code – two seconds, five seconds, two seconds. Daniel always felt that the steady pattern of flashes gave the wrong impression, sent a signal that said, ‘All is well. Everything is calm and safe.’ He wanted to speed it up, to send an urgent panicky message. He wanted to stand in front of a steady beam and project his dark shadow over the sea and frighten the ships into turning away despite the storm. But there was never any hope once he had tasted that rusty air.
Daniel stood and looked out of the window at the darkening sky. When the despair was on him he knew with absolute certainty that one clear night, when there was no scent in the air of anything except seaweed and when the high tide quietly lapped the edges of the sea wall, he would put on his heavy boots, walk out to Beacon’s Bell and pull the thick rope that hung from it one, two, three times. Then he would return to the lighthouse, climbing steadily up to the lamp room. There he would straddle the guardrail and when the light came around on its endless revolution he would project his shadow, large at first, then smaller, smaller, smaller onto the surface of the sea.
Hold now, the world turns. Night and day spin. We learn the dialogue of the ebb and flow of the sea. Stones smooth and wear as each minute limestone grain dislodges and falls. Time passes.
It was four o’clock and already getting gloomy, although the table I had placed by the window was catching the last of the light. I adjusted the carriage of the typewriter and scrolled the page up to read what I had written. My main character, Gerald, was standing on the edge of the platform, pontificating, while his girlfriend frantically tried to alert him to the approaching train. Suddenly I was sick of the sound of his voice.
‘Just fall in front of it you boring little prick!’ I shouted at the page. ‘As if anyone is going to care.’
I don’t know what I was thinking. Everyone agreed Sue’s plan for me to rent out the lighthouse for three months to write my novel was incredibly romantic. Now I think of it, typing the damn thing on my Grandmother’s old Remington was also Sue’s idea. I thought she was right and for a little while it made me feel like a real writer, but looking at the stack of grubby pages on the desk made me realise that real writers can probably write. I was starting to question Sue’s motivation.
There were 200 pages in the stack, each containing too many characters, talking too much and doing very little. I had given each of them enviable good looks and marvellous jobs and vast trunks full of accessories. But for some reason all of them sank down in a faint at my merest touch. They lay there, flat and uninteresting, only briefly animating into life when I opened the window and the breeze ruffled the edges of the stack under the bust of Shakespeare I used as a paperweight.
‘Fuck it!’ I thought as I watched them all reaching for a small breath of sea air before they smothered under the weight of my preposterous story. ‘Have it your own way!’
Before I could change my mind I rolled William out of the way and pitched the entire stack out of the window, letting the characters float happily down onto the rocks and waves below. Laughing and crying and fucking and cooking and driving and fighting and making up, all effortlessly, all without my help.
I searched the desk drawers for a half empty box of cigarettes I thought I had seen, then had my best idea yet. The Remington, still with pontificating Gerald attached, hit the rocks like a train crash, at exactly the same time as Shakespeare’s head.
‘Thus proving Galileo’s theory of falling bodies.’ I thought, and watched as an upside down William, lassoed loosely with typewriter ribbon, caught a wave and followed it around the sea wall until he tipped and filled with green water and sank.
Have you seen enough? Your arms are tired and the tiny ridges on your fingers do not seem sufficient to hold you here. The spike is rusty and moves under your foot with a powdery grind. Broken glass is scattered on the window ledge. Backing down is always harder than climbing up. You could always just let go.