EDitorial ± 8-Sep-2014
A Few May Yet Be Saved
(my winning entry in the 2014 short story competition run by Let's Talk magazine and also published on the Let's Talk website)
I already had the torch. A really good one, as it happens, and that rarest of items, a useful Christmas present from Jane's brother. This particular model was "in use by the Las Vegas PD" if you believe that marketing spiel. Torch, tick.
Sourcing a bright yellow sou'wester and matching rain cap (complete with chin strap) presented far more of a challenge. Turns out there's a half-dozen or more camping and outdoor places in town. Maybe they're in a turf war with the mobile phone shops? Not sure why there are so many when they all appear to sell much the same stock. No, I didn't need a two season sleeping bag, nor a basic survival kit, nor indeed any mint cake. What I did need was some fashionably old-fashioned waterproof clothing. Come the third or fourth shop, I stopped using the word "sou'wester". Too much confusion in their pimpled faces. It's possible that I may have got a little shirty in Blacks once they declined my not unreasonable request to scavenge in their store room.
Nursing a consolation cappuccino and wishing that Gracie was there to dip her little finger in the chocolate foam, it came to me: not Blacks, but White's. Surely that esteemed gentleman outfitters with its correct apostrophe had gone the way of cravats and spats? First left, second right and there it stood, a period rose between the modern thorns of AroundAPound and U-Bronze. Entering White's was akin to stepping in to the pages of something by HG Wells.
"May I assist, sir?"
Wow. I hadn't seen this chap since being fitted for my school blazer best part of a quarter of a century ago. One of us had aged, for sure.
"Er, I don't suppose you might stock a sou'wester?"
In White's, one used the correct terminology for one's raiments.
"And cap, if you have one."
"Certainly, sir. Would that be with or without a chin strap?"
Once I had the raincoat sorted, tracking down a pipe was, relatively speaking, child's play. Your normal workaday smoking type pipe would have been easy. However, not wanting to set a bad example in a few days, I wanted one that was, above all else, edible. Like I remembered sucking on while sat in front of The Generation Game on a Saturday night. Back on the high street, Adams, where we used to buy cute animal baby grows for Gracie, had been replaced by Mr Parminter's, "purveyors of retro confectionery". Parma violets, cola cubes, toffee bonbons. I was like a little boy in, well, a sweet shop.
"A pipe? Of course. Liquorice or chocolate? Milk or dark?"
I scratched my chin. Far too smooth. One more purchase required. Anyone who's lived in this town long enough knows about Jugglers in the arcade. Kids come here for their fun snaps and silly string. Adults come here for their superhero costumes.
"White, please, and as big and bushy as you have."
Torch, sou'wester, pipe and the hairiest fake beard you ever saw. Outfit complete.
What did I want with these random artifacts? Well, it's my own fault, as Jane has said to me on more than one occasion. She's right, naturally. She's right most of the time, truth be told. Please don't tell her I said that.
See, earlier that week I'd managed, for once, to get home in time for tea with the family. Made a pleasant change to eat food that was properly hot rather than reheated. Microwaves and pasta do not go. We were getting on famously, the three of us, though I was trying not to get too wound up by that pile of peas which Gracie was trying and failing to hide under her cutlery. Jane got up.
"Right, since you're here in good time, I'm going to give that yoga class another go. Can I leave you two to clean up?"
"'Course, Mummy. I'll show Daddy how you fill the dishwasher."
Jane made a face, kissed both of us on the head, grabbed a kit bag and was gone. Whoosh.
"OK, I said, "we'll take these plates through. Careful with those peas" - Gracie stuck out her tongue - "and let's see if can catch the end of CBeebies."
Ten minutes later we waved bye-bye to Makka Pakka, Upsy Daisy and the rest of the gang. Gracie, clearly well trained by her mother, turned off the TV - "Goodnight, gogglebox!" - then took a running jump in my direction. We rolled around on the carpet, me still in my work shirt, Gracie in her favourite Wibbly Pig PJs, until she was perched cross-legged on my chest. A cloud rolled over her face as she came over all serious.
"Daddy, you know Mia, my friend? Well, her daddy fixes people's pipes. And Fran's daddy is a postman. Me and Mummy sometimes see him on the way to school. He's always in shorts."
I could see where this might be heading.
"So, Daddy," - here it came - "what is it you do exactly?"
"Well, sweetie, I, er..."
The office flopped into view, a featureless building within a faceless out-of-town business park. Open-plan, air-conditioned when it was working, and blessed with windows that were impossible to open. Laminated health and safety notices. The dull glare of monitors. The interminable whirr of laptop fans. A million miles from the locomotive or football pitch or outer space where I'd dreamed of spending my adult life.
"You know, Daddy, your job?"
Her face was perfect but for a horizontal wrinkle of pure concentration. Trying to parallel park out the front was next door's car. Over her shoulder, I watched as its beam scoured the coving from left to right.
"Gracie, darling, I'm... I'm a lighthouse keeper."
What a ridiculous thing to say. I was lying to my own daughter, for goodness sake.
How could a grin be that wide?
"Miss says to bring our daddies in to talk about their work. I've already said you're coming in. There's a note in my bag with the time. That's alright, isn't it, Daddy?"
"Great! That's great."
Which was how I found myself the following Tuesday afternoon at St Augustine's Infants. To be specific, in the gents. I pictured myself like Superman, entering the cubicle as humble Mike Hurst, certified IT admin level 4, emerging seconds later as - what had Jane called me? - Captain Birdseye, guardian of the rocks. In full keeper's regalia, I made my way to the corridor outside Gracie's classroom, familiar from the previous parents' evening. Inside, a huge postbag attached to a wiry man in shorts (Fran's dad!) was standing by the whiteboard. Pacing up and down, I waited for my cue, sweating in the surprisingly well insulated sou'wester. White's always did sell only the best. Out popped Miss Smeaton's head - she looked me up and down and didn't miss a beat - and in I bounded to deliver my opening line.
"Hello, children! How long have I been a lighthouse keeper? Even since I was a buoy!"
Quite why I decided to talk like a pirate, I really couldn't say. That just happened. But if you'd asked me to sit my lighthouse GCSE there and then, I'd have aced it. This was going to be fun but I was keen for the children to learn something too.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I gave them the A-Z from Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world, through Portland Bill, opened 1906, to the amazing Stevensons, an entire family of lighthouse builders. Then, thanks to an old BBC documentary I'd found on YouTube, I described my strictly imaginary working day.
To finish my talk, I thought I should demonstrate the extreme conditions in which I worked. I handed out a small bottle of water to each of the kids at the front and invited them to squirt me while I spun around with the torch on my head. I was approaching my fourth or fifth rotation and halfway through eating my pipe when Miss Smeaton interrupted.
"Sorry to butt in, Mr Hurst, but Trinity House just called. They need you back rather urgently, I'm afraid. Thanks awfully for coming ashore."
I swallowed the rest of the pipe.
"No problem. Arrr."