Looking out over the bay I saw the bright spotlight of the lighthouse search; it makes me smile and reminds me of my childhood.
I saw her standing in front of the open window, her nightgown blowing in the wind, silhouetted by the moonlight.
“Mrs Bellamy, what are you doing here?” I said confused to see her.
I was eight years old, her frame towered down at me as she turned.
“Oh, Billy, what a nice face to see,” she replied, stooping over in front of me.
She put her hands on my face, her fingers were ice-cold, but delicate.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she continued, a single tear rolled down her age-wrinkled face.
“That’s okay, let me get my mum.”
I tread the long hallway to my mother’s room. The door opened with a small squeak. I saw my parents asleep in the amber glow of the nightlight my mother refused to sleep without.
“Mum… mum!” I said asking louder.
“What is it, Billy?” she turned to the alarm clock, “It’s only 2am.”
“I went to use the bathroom and… and Mrs Bellamy.”
My mother sat straight up. Mrs Bellamy had been ill for a long time and my mum was always worrying about her.
“Did something happen to her? I told you not to answer the phone.” she asked.
“No, she’s fine, she’s in the hallway.”
A puzzled look gathered on my mother’s face. She took a moment for what I’d said to sink in, before putting on her slippers and getting out of bed. I pointed to the window that Mrs Bellamy stared out of. My mother peered around the doorframe.
“Where, honey? I don’t see anything.”
“By the window, she’s looking out.”
But all she could see was the curtains that gently moved in the breeze.
“Did you have a bad dream?” my mother asked.
“No,” I replied.
We both jumped as the rotary phone on the pedestal rang. Mum walked towards it and I kept watching Mrs Bellamy.
“I see,” she looked towards me.
“I’ll wake him right now.”
She put down the phone and returned before crouching in front of me.
“Are you sure you saw Mrs Bellamy?” she asked sincerely.
She put her had on my face, “Can you still see her?”
“Can you do me a favour?”
I nodded again.
“Can you tell her that everything is okay? All she needs to do is close her eyes.”
My mother watched as I walked down the long corridor towards the lady gazing out of the window.
“Mrs Bellamy,” I said, she turned.
“Mum says everything is going to be okay.”
She smiled, a genuine relief spread across her face.
“She said you all you need to do is close your eyes.”
“Thank you, Billy.”
And with that, she faded away, leaving just the open window and curtains that gently moved in the breeze.
I grew up on a small island of about five thousand residents. We had a thriving fishing industry, but little tourism; there was nothing special about our land that attracted them. On a clear day, I could see the mainland from the dock and rocky cliffs.
My parents and I lived in the once operational lighthouse. It was exciting to me, as well as a talking point amongst my school friends. The large structure could be seen from anywhere on the island, and by extension so was I. I was known in school as *The Lighthouse Boy* because of this; I didn’t mind, I liked the extra attention it afforded me. Everyone seemed to know me and my parents. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out that it was my father’s job that made us recognised in the local community.
My father ran the island’s funeral home. He did this in the lighthouse, in an eighteenth century extension that was added to the building as the population began to expand. He did his best to keep this part of his life separate from the rest, not wanting me to be introduced to the concept of death from such an early age.
When the school bus dropped me off, I’d sometimes see the hearse parked outside. It’s small white curtains partially hiding the large wooden coffin that lay within. Sometimes I’d see the hearse, but inside it was empty. My mother said it was much like the school bus, it picked up a passenger and took them to a better place.
When I entered the house, I saw her in the open plan kitchen putting the finishing touches to dinner.
“Mum, who’s the black car picking up today?” I asked.
“Mrs Bellamy,” she said with a sniff.
“Oh good,” I replied, “She seemed very upset last night.
“Where’s she going?” I asked.
“She’s going to be staying with us a couple of days.”
“Why?” I asked again.
Mum turned, her eyes appeared reddened from lots of crying.
“Because all her family want to see her one last time before they can’t.”
“Why won’t they be able to? Is she going on holiday?”
She smiled at my naivety, “Oh honey, come, sit.”
I climbed onto the breakfast stool. My mother poured me a glass of milk and took out a cookie from the jar that was always just out of reach. She moved it every time I got taller, so no matter how hard I tried, I was never able to reach it.
“Here you go.”
I bit into the cookie.
“Mrs Bellamy, something happened to her yesterday.”
“I know, she was scared, she told me.”
“She told you that?”
“Yu-huh, she looked really confused too. She didn’t know why she was in our house.”
“Billy, do you know what dying is?” she asked.
I nodded, “It’s when you fall asleep and never wake up.”
She smiled again, “A little bit like that, yes. She’s asleep now, but it doesn’t matter how hard we try, she won’t wake up. So her friends want to say goodbye as they won’t get to see her again.”
She took my hand, “She fell asleep before you saw her.”
“Have you seen anyone after they’ve fallen asleep?” I asked my mother.
“No, but I do talk to them. Sometimes they are a little lost and need directing. If you see anyone else, will you tell me?”
“That’s a good boy, now finish your snack. Don’t tell your father I gave you this, and don’t let it spoil your dinner.”
I laid in bed awake, unable to fall asleep. Thinking about Mrs Bellamy downstairs, unable to wake. I wondered what it was like and why she chose to sleep. Then I remembered what my mother told me to tell her yesterday. I panicked and got out of bed. I creeped along the landing, and stopped at the top of the stairs; I looked into the darkness and hesitated, but I didn’t want to put on the light and alert my parents.
Slowly, one step at a time, I descended as the staircase twisted in on itself. Shafts of moonlight shone through the windows on the ground floor, illuminating my route to the funeral parlour. The door to my father’s side of the building was something I never considered opening before; he told me never to, that it was out of bounds. I expected it to be locked, but apparently he trusted the warnings he’d given were enough.
I reached up for the handle, the heavy iron ring turned surprisingly easy in my hand. A sweet acrid smell wafted out as the door swung open and I saw the coffin. It sat in the middle of the room, ready for its viewing in the morning. I dragged a chair over to the side of the casket and climbed up. With all my might I lifted the lid to see Mrs Bellamy sleeping; she looked so peaceful.
“Mrs Bellamy?” I said.
I prodded her, her flesh stiff under my pressure.
“Mrs Bellamy, wake up! Wake up!”
I rocked her body in the coffin back and forth, but she wouldn’t wake. I tried to open her eyes and I jumped as the piece of plastic fell out, leaving just a shrivelled eyeball. I panicked and ran out of the room, back along the moonlit hallway and up the stairs.
I stopped on the landing to see my mother stand in her nightgown, rubbing her eyes.
“Where have you been?” she scowled.
“I… I…” I began to cry, “I wanted to see if I could wake Mrs Bellamy, you asked me to tell her to close her eyes. But now she won’t wake up.”
“Oh, honey, come here,” she responded, opening her arms, welcoming me.
I cried on her shoulder, and my mother patted my back.
The phone rang.
“Wait here son, let me get that.”
My mother sat on the stool next to the pedestal that housed the rotary phone.
“Yes, I think he would like to talk to you.”
She offered me the phone, nervously I held it to my ear.
“Hello Billy,” the voice said.
“Mrs… Mrs Bellamy? Are you calling from downstairs.”
“No Billy. Thank you for being so nice yesterday when I was lost. You are going to be a wonderful young man.”
My mother took back the phone, “Thank you Edith, now look for for the light; it will guide you home.”
She held the handset to her chest, “Billy, you are getting older now and I think it’s only fair you start helping out like the young man you are turning into.”
She took a key out of her pocket, “Here, you remember when we took you upstairs.”
“Take this key, it will open up the door to the lantern room. Open it and switch the big light on, then come straight back down, can you do that?”
I nodded again.
I ran up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower and reached up to insert the iron key in the worn keyhole. It turned easily in my small hand and I entered. This place always fascinated me. It was so high up, you could see the whole island. My dad told me that the light was used to stop the boats from hitting rocks, it was a beacon to show people the way home.
I flipped the switch and winced as the one million candle power light clunked into action. I stayed for a minute, watching the powerful beam sweep back and forth along the coastline illuminating the way for boats that no longer passed by.
I took two steps at a time as I descended the staircase back to my mum. She sat on the stool, next to the rotary phone that sat on the pedestal and she smiled at me; she opened her arms for me again.
She hugged me, “Well done son. She’s gone now.”
“Who is?” I said against the fabric on her arm.
“Mrs Bellamy, she’s found her way home, thanks to you. Now, let me get you back to bed.”
I slept well that night.
That was the first time I helped someone find their way, but it wasn’t the last.
I moved to the mainland for college, but I made sure I could see the lighthouse from my room. Seeing it meant I’d not lose touch with my parents when I was away.
I wrote my homework on the drawing table that looked out over the bay. Sometimes I saw the bright spotlight search; it made me smile and reminded me of my childhood. When it did, I felt happy that another soul had found their way home.
College was over before I knew it and I was off to the mainland-proper to work as an apprentice in a law firm. I still visited the island to see my family and friends but those visits became more and more infrequent.
I slowly worked my way up the company until I became a partner. Happy as I was to now be earning money my parents could only dream of, something was missing. With the more money I earned, I had less time to spend it, and no-one to spend it on. I’d worked so hard to get out of the closed community. It’s ironic, isn’t it, you spend your life trying to grow up too fast, filling your time with work, so you have the money to buy what you want, to do what you want. But when you know what you want, really know, it’s too late and all the money in the world cannot change it.
The phone rang late at night, and I almost sent it to voicemail as my tired eyes tried to read the accounts of a client of ours that was being sued for alimony; it was my father.
“Hi dad, it’s quite late,” I said rubbing my eyes.
“Hello William, you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, yeah, just a little tired. It’s a bit late for chit-chat, isn’t it?”
The line went quiet.
“Dad? Is everything okay?”
He sighed, “It’s your mother, she’s had a stroke, she’s in a coma. It’s touch and go. Do you think you can come and visit?”
“Ah shit, Dad. We have a really important client in tomorrow morning, I cannot miss it. Fuck. Shit. Sorry for the swearing, it’s taken me a little by surprise. Can I talk to you again after my meeting in the morning?”
“Sure son, don’t want to put you out and all, but I think your mother would like to see you.”
“I promise, if I can, I’ll come.”
I didn’t sleep that night.
The meeting we had with the client went terribly, my concentration was at an all time low from the lack of sleep and worry for my mother. It wasn’t until he stood up and pointed his finger at me, spittle flying out of his mouth as he shouted, that I knew I should have probably paid more attention.
“I can’t come today, sorry Dad. Are you sure I cannot speak to her on the phone? Okay. Maybe later in the week. I’ll let you know”
I put down the phone, I could tell he was upset.
Monday turned into Friday and our client decided to go a different way.
“Dad, I can leave tomorrow, early in the morning.”
The phone line was silent except for sniffs.
“She’s gone son, I’m so sorry.”
“But, she was getting better, wasn’t she?”
“It will be good to see you, William.”
The boat ride across to the island was as calm as it was brisk. The coastline came into view through the light fog, it warmed my heart. I had missed this place and it was never going to be the same.
The sounds of seagulls could be heard overhead as I got into the taxi for the short drive up to the lighthouse. I peered out the window and saw little change to the small village I had left so many years before. Faces I recognised flashed by, their features familiar yet aged. Children I didn’t know held their hands. I felt a little melancholy, this place was special and I missed out on it. I looked down at the suit I wore, and realised I didn’t belong here anymore.
The lighthouse came into view and the taxi came to a stop on the gravel path that led round the side.
“Wow, thank you sir,” the driver said as I handed him forty pounds, clearly too much for this small village town, “Do you want me to pick you up, anytime, day or night?”
“Thanks, I’ll let you know.”
He pushed a business card through the window at me and made me take it.
“Any time, day or night, any!” he said making eye contact.
I guess the taxi trade must be quite sparse around here, this was not something I thought about when I was younger.
My dad waited for me in the doorway. He stooped over and for the first time I saw the years hang off him like a burden he wasn’t able to shift. He looked sad and deflated; a man without his love, like a fish out of water.
I hugged him hard and the wall I had built for the past fifteen years burst.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner Dad, I really am,” I said as the torrent of tears burst forth.
“I know you are son. I understand you have a very important job now and that always comes first. Your mother would have understood.”
He led me into the house, patting me on the back.
We sat at the kitchen table. I sipped from the warm mug of tea that had just passed its best and was well on its way to stewed.
“Would you like to see her?” my dad asked out of no-where.
I shook my head, “No, that’s not her anymore.”
“Are you sure? We have the rest of the family coming to visit tomorrow, they are going to want to.”
“Thanks Dad, but I’d rather remember her how she was.”
I played with the empty cup in front of me.
“You know that phone upstairs, did mum still use it?”
“Yeah, up until the day she had the stroke, you know how much she liked talking on it.”
“Can I see it?”
“Sure, you can have it if you want, it’s in the drawer over there.”
“Why did you unplug it?”
“I cannot make it up there very easy anymore. I’ve been sleeping in the downstairs guest room. It kept ringing throughout the night; probably pranksters.”
“When did you unplug it?”
“As a matter of fact, this morning. I contemplated waiting until you arrived and asking you. But to be honest,” he turned away, “I wasn’t sure you would come back, I’m very glad you did. Look at you,” he held my hand, “You look so smart in that suit of yours.”
I smiled, “Thanks Dad. Do you mind if I plug it back in, if it rings again and it’s a prank call, I’ll give them a piece of my mind. Tell them not to call again.”
“Sure son, go ahead. I’m going to cook dinner for 5pm. Your aunt will be joining us, and she is very much looking forward to seeing what her nephew is up to.”
“Not a problem,” I said, getting up from the table.
I sat on the chair next to the rotary phone that sat on the pedestal. I waited for it to ring. I waited patiently at first, then anxiously, then I was resigned to the fact the phone wasn’t going to ring again and I got up.
I stared at the window at the end of the hallway, it was closed now, the curtains hung motionless on either side. The corridor felt so much smaller than when I was a kid, it felt uncanny, not quite right. But it was my home, and I think that is what upset me most. This was my home, always was. But I no longer lived here, and such a big part of my life was now gone forever, and I couldn’t say goodbye.
I opened the door to my parent’s room. The covers were still pulled back, as if left in a hurry. The amber glow of the nightlight shone over the sheets and onto the floor. My dad’s slippers sat at the foot of the bed, waiting for his feet to occupy them. I can’t remember the last time I saw the inside of my parent’s room, but I was sure I didn’t think it would have been so long until I’d see it again.
I was sat back at the table when the doorbell rang and my dad got up to answer it.
“Let me get it,” I offered.
He waved at me shaking his head, “No, no, no. I’m not done that old yet.”
“Hi Sue, come on in,” he said greeting my aunt at the door.
“Oh, is this little Billy?” she asked as her gaze clamped on me.
“Yes it is, say hello to your aunt.”
I got up and hugged the frail woman who I’d feared would snap under my light grip.
“You are a naughty boy, aren’t you!” she said waving a boney finger accusatively.
“I’m sorry Aunt Sue?” I said adjusting my tie.
“Why weren’t you here for your mother? She asked for you everyday!”
“What? She was awake? Dad said she was in a coma.”
My father hung his head, “I didn’t want you to worry. I knew you were busy, knowing that she was asking after you, all that would have done was make you more upset. If you could come, you would have.”
“Dad! If I knew she was asking after me, I would have made special arrangements.”
“You didn’t tell him Harold?”
“I’m sorry, I thought I was doing the right thing.”
I sat back down in front of the kitchen table, and held my head in my hands.
“I’m sorry Billy,” my Aunt said, “I wouldn’t have been so hard on you if I’d have known.”
After the slightly frosty meal, the drinks began to flow. The three of us sipped stomach warming single malt scotch in front of the roaring fire, exchanging stories from when I was a kid. I admitted to a couple of indiscretions I’d not mentioned before; the revelations creating stares before dissolving into loud laughter.
“More drinks?” I asked, as I picked up the empty bottle.
The slightly tipsy nods of their heads said to me they agreed.
It was when I entered the kitchen and opened the cabinets, looking for the alcohol, that I first heard the noise. It sounded like a buzzing, coming from above my head. In my slightly drunken state, I had trouble pinpointing it. It wasn’t until I realised the rhythmic nature of it that I understood what it was.
I ascended the stairs, grabbing tightly on the bannister, behind careful not to fall backwards. When I turned the last corner and stood on the landing, I glared at the rotary phone that sat on the pedestal. The ringing vibrated the handset ever so slightly.
I sat on the chair next to the phone and picked up the phone.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” I asked.
The line was silent.
I sighed and was about to put the phone down when I heard it.
“Billy, is that you?”
“Please help me, I don’t know where I am; I’m scared.”
“Don’t worry mum, I know exactly what to do. Just stay there.”
I raced into my parent’s bedroom, opening all the drawers, looking for the key for the lantern room. *Shit!* It wasn’t there.
I saw my mother’s clothes on the table at the end of the bed and searched; there it was, in her jeans.
I took the stairs upward two at a time. I turned the key in the lock, it felt so much smaller than I remembered. I switched on the light and winced. The bright one million candle power lamp lit up, I watched the powerful beam sweep back and forth along the coastline illuminating the way for boats that no longer passed by.
I ran back down the stairs and picked up the phone.
“Mum? Are you still there?”
“I can see the light now Billy, I can see it!”
“All you need to do is close your eyes,” I said with a heavy heart.
“Thank you, William, I love you.”
“I love you too, Mum.”
And with that, I heard the beeping of a dead line. I leant back in the chair and exhaled deeply.
I phoned the firm this morning, told them I’m not coming back. The partners agreed to allow me to sell my shares. Now I have enough money to hire someone so Dad can retire.
I realised what was important to me. It was my family. It was my mother. She wasn’t there anymore, but she was still in this place, I could feel it. And someone needs to answer the phone.