One day he just went. There was no overriding reason, more a gut feeling spread to his heart, but it was difficult to explain that. Men are not expected to leave a marriage and all it contains without anywhere to go. Friends thought at first that he must have found a younger model, but in fact there was no model, of any sort, at all.
As he walked the familiar path to the gate, each step seemed at once momentous and everyday: a paradox which, he thought later, has to be lived to be understood. He hadn’t left a note. It was that spontaneous.
After a week in a Travelodge, he found a small and very plain bedsit. Then, following a brief phone conversation with Helen, his wife – their conversations had become increasingly brief since his departure – he returned to collect the rest of his clothes. They were waiting for him in two black bags on the doorstep.
It took little time for his body to realise what he had done: he lost seven kilos in a couple of weeks and had to remind himself to eat. It took his mind longer. Each day, even work days, now seemed elongated and full of excessive time, which had to be filled with living. He became aware that he was in an entirely different space, not just from friends and work colleagues, but from the person he had been very recently. And his conscience was behaving strangely.
He began to hold imaginary conversations, in essence apologies. But he found himself apologising less to his wife than to his dog, as the latter seemed the greater abandonment. His dog, after all, though not indifferent to his occasional failure to serve food on time, couldn’t be expected to appreciate and so allow for his wider fallibility. Whereas Helen had always exhibited a panoramic sense of his shortcomings.
Dogs, he reflected, by their nature must expect constancy until they are deprived of it, and then could not be hoped to empathise with the source of deprivation. And they remain perplexed by the sudden absence of an owner long after it has ceased to be sudden. Furthermore, he thought, it’s hard to feel ambivalent about a dog. They don’t irritate intentionally. And their loyalty tends to be uncomplicated, hence all the more deserving of reciprocation.
So he felt bad about the dog. Dogs beget habits, he thought, and Tink(er) had always seemed to appreciate the things he did repetitiously. But within marriage, he reflected, habits are so often our undoing. Whoever said ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ must have been single. And they can seem such innocent things: simple actions and sequences that bind people together and structure their lives. By abandoning them abruptly he had gone cold turkey, and was suddenly very aware of their absence. He thought about the daily rituals he had closed the door and walked away from.
One such was to leave the clothes he had worn in a heap in the corner of the bedroom, ready to be transferred to the laundry basket at an appropriate moment. Mistakenly, he now realised, he had seen this as a practical approach to the laundry cycle. More mistakenly still he had continued to view it in this light even after Helen suggested a different, more direct, sequence.
‘Put them straight in the basket,’ she had said. ‘They’re untidy and they stink.’
From such remarks, he realised, had grown a spirit of passive rebellion. He soon regarded that heap of clothes as self-defining: an emblem of his freedom. In retrospect this seemed both explicable and ill judged. Everything was nuanced, nothing straightforward.
Sitting alone on a single uncomfortable bed, he thought of a friend whose devotion to cycling had cost two marriages, and so approached the third by buying a tandem. Thus far the marriage had lasted, and his friend still cycled, undiminished. He felt he should be able to take something from this. But what? That compromise, if sufficiently ingenious, need not be capitulation? Or simply that you can spend your entire life groping for elusive compatibility?
‘You don’t know who you are,’ Helen said. She sat opposite him on the only chair. ‘And you’re not likely to find out here, are you?’
She had come to see him.
‘It’s given me time to think,’ he said. ‘Surely that’s a start.’ He felt very exposed, sitting there on the bed, and wondered if she did too. The room seemed too small for them both. And in her presence its shabbiness felt like an affront: even at home Helen dressed for the office. He looked at her and felt puzzled: linen, cashmere, tiny blue cufflinks, elegance. Quite alien in such a room.
‘You could think at home,’ she said.
‘We both need to become something else,’ he said, but as he said it didn’t know where the thought had come from.
‘Do you mean you want someone else?’ she said.
He shook his head. ‘That isn’t even part of it.’
Confusingly, she began to cry. He sat watching her, then went over to put his arm round her shoulders, and in those few steps felt extraordinary distance. He wondered how such a thing could happen so quickly.
She didn’t lean into him or encourage his touch, and he realised that she wept not for effect, or to share how she felt, but simply because she couldn’t help it.
‘Everyone is always a stranger,’ he thought, as though it was something he knew but had forgotten.
So he entered a form of limbo. People even used the word about his situation. He began to ponder it: a transitional state in which sins are expiated.
‘To be in this position I must have done wrong,’ he thought. This was confusing, because, having acted, he couldn’t imagine acting differently. Although friends, the ones who hadn’t abandoned him, now spoke as if he had made a choice.
They ceased to take this line when he also walked out of his job. For a man with no apparent family this seemed like leaving the world. And then he left his flat. He went to see Helen before taking the next step: he thought it only right. Her hair, now unharnessed, hung simply on her shoulders, and the tautness he remembered in her brow and temples had also gone. He saw the person he thought he once loved as she would be now their lives had ceased to coincide. The change had taken very little time, it seemed.
‘My past is not my future,’ he thought, ‘and neither is hers.’
The next day he rose at dawn and drove till late evening. When he reached it, the island, rising steeply out of the bay, solidified the image he had carried from pictures. A mile long tidal causeway separated it from the mainland and he could see the August gorse and heather from the bank. The job advert for a lighthouse keeper had attracted five hundred applicants, but he had been chosen, not so much for his engineering skills – ‘engineers are ten a penny,’ the panel had told him, but for a quality of solitariness that convinced them he could exist alone for most of each week.
Once he had settled in the tiny stone cottage, high up on the rock and close by his towering workplace, he spent two days being inducted by his manager, Ross Johnson, a former petty officer, then bought a dog from a shepherd on the mainland. They quickly fused together and spent hours walking the island, the dog attentive to his every step and mood.
Over time, solitude and the absence of conversation lent his memories clarity, and he saw his previous life as a series of tableaux. But there was no continuity, it seemed. It was not as though one episode led to another, more that when something ended something else began. Nothing that had happened to him would have allowed him to imagine himself as he was now, but neither could he conjure a sense of his current self in any past guise. It was as though he was granted a span of time to inhabit specific circumstances and then the lease ran out. The realisation came as a sort of epiphany: it was this, almost a force beyond himself, that had cost him family, friends and indeed a marriage.
‘Other people’s lives are joined up,’ he thought. ‘Mine isn’t. The time I’m in now will lead to nothing, except perhaps another start.’ He felt a paw on his knee, and realised his dog was looking at him intently, as though it could read his thoughts.
‘It’s the same for you as well, isn’t it, McGregor?’ he said, laughing. ‘No wonder we understand each other.’ And suddenly he realised how long it had been since he’d found anything funny.
But as he pondered this idea further it was as though something had been released: he saw himself in a given time, in a given place, liberated from both past and future, free to be whoever he was, if for an undefined period.
Each day, however, was given distinct shape by his duties, which involved detailed and cyclical maintenance of the lighthouse mechanisms and fabric, also by McGregor’s insistence on regularity. He recognised that, however much the little creature shared his relish for the present moment, the ancient rhythms of farm life ran in its veins, and structured its expectations. So he rose, ate, worked and exercised accordingly.
And he began to make the island their home, albeit for whatever period fate might decree. Seeking permission from Ross Johnson, he built a timber awning onto the cottage, and sat out with McGregor in the light northern evenings, watching the moods and colours of the sea. Above them a revolving white light flashed every thirty seconds with, his manager explained, the power of thirty thousand candles.
‘Enough to light every church in the country,’ he had added, with a raised eyebrow.
In fact there was something church-like in the steep brick tower: the exterior venerable, the interior groping for modernity. Each day he climbed the eighty winding steps, trailing a cloth along the brass handrail to ward off tarnish. He cleaned the lantern panes inside and out and sprayed the weather vane with silica, and then took time to stand on the balcony, looking west into the ocean. The beam that shone from the lantern through fog and darkness had a nominal range of twenty-three nautical miles – farther than eyesight, but not nearly as far as imagination. His job, he told himself, was to foster this span of light.
Once a week he went to the mainland for provisions, and if the causeway was flooded, he rowed across the bay. McGregor, who loved even the coldest water, somehow knew to stay aboard until they reached the quay. The boat he had inherited was old, its faded blue hull scudded by tides and salt wind, but once afloat it held up.
‘Just don’t take it out if the sea cuts up rough,’ Ross Johnson had warned. ‘Because it won’t get you back.’
These words returned to him as he sat outside the cottage, huddling under a shared blanket with McGregor, as dusk fell and a cool westerly rose slowly in force. Increasingly, he was growing to appreciate the vitality of nature, and to find in the wind its most potent expression.
The night ferry came in, not ethereal as in quiet weather, but scuttling for cover like a man without a raincoat. He knew all the fishing boats by now, and had counted each one safely home. The wind built in strength and the weather vane skittered high above them. He was just planning to move indoors when he noticed a small vessel entering the mouth of the bay. He raised the binoculars that now lived on a cord round his neck and saw two figures in an open boat, powered only by a small outboard motor. This was unusual. Both commercial craft and holiday makers could be expected to have settled for harbour once faced with these conditions.
As the boat drew closer he recognised the figures as a man and a woman, youngish, and not well dressed for the sea. The man steered and the woman clung to the seat beneath her. The boat struggled towards the quay, and had reached the centre of the bay when it flipped. In an instant he found himself racing down to the shoreline, McGregor running urgently at his side. He reached his rowing boat and pushed it out into the waves, leaving McGregor behind to bark furiously at the foaming water.
Immediately the harsh waves, with their threat of death, were all around. He rowed out with all his strength, aware as he did so that he felt no fear. It seemed strange to be conscious of this at such a time. His mission was to save life, but he found himself wanting no more from his own existence than whatever each moment might provide. No dream, no plan, no aspiration from the past could compare with how he felt now, in that small boat on the bay, with the vast sea beyond. He was acting, almost organically, as the situation demanded.
He reached the couple, who were clinging to the upturned hull of their boat, and pulled them into the skiff by gripping each in turn beneath their armpits and falling backwards. For a moment they slithered on the soaking wood like netted fish, then pulled themselves into a seated position as he reset the oars and began to steer them back. They were both shivering violently, but his exertion lent his body heat as he pulled the boat through the bucking water, never doubting that they would all be safe.
When they reached the island he stepped into the spume and hauled the boat aground, as McGregor danced before him in a frenzy. He led them to the warmth of the cottage, ran hot baths, lent makeshift clothes, then fed them lentil broth and malt whisky. He gave them his bed and slept on the sofa with McGregor. In the morning, with the sea again tranquil, he rowed them ashore and returned to the island.
Word went round the small town and the event was recorded first in local then national papers. It was thought to be decades since a lighthouse keeper had carried out what was once a traditional duty, especially with such noticeable valour.
‘You did well, but you were damned lucky,’ Ross Johnson said, when they reviewed the incident formally. ‘Next time call the coast guard. And by the way you’ll see an increase in your salary from next month.’
Soon enough it all quietened down and he was left alone again: now, however, without the anonymity he realised he had cherished. His cover, though he hadn’t previously thought of it as cover, had been blown. For a while everyone he met on his weekly expedition for provisions told him he was brave.
In quiet moments he struggled with this. ‘Can bravery exist where fear is absent?’ he asked himself.
But there was no doubt, as months passed, that he had developed a taste for the sea. When time allowed he found himself rowing out more frequently, first in the bay, then further into open water. On these occasions, which he kept from Ross Johnson, McGregor learned to wait where the boat would rest when it returned. And inevitably, it seemed, the vast ocean stayed mild for him. Instead, he felt his own power, uncompromised by any human contact, as he pulled due north beyond the morning tide and on into the swell beyond.
It was on a cool March afternoon that McGregor was found, cold and wet but steadfast, waiting by the water. With no reply from the lighthouse or cottage, Ross Johnson had made his way to the boat, or where it would have been. He immediately alerted the coast guard, his training as a naval man overriding what he thought he knew in his heart, and a search, like another phase of life, began.
MIKE FOX is a therapist who most recently specialised in working with people with haematological cancer. He has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. His stories have appeared in The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, and Structo, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His website is www.polyscribe.co.uk