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.