The Light Between Oceans, Page 2M. L. Stedman
“I mean very tough.” The man across the desk leaned forward for emphasis. “It’s no picnic. Not that Byron Bay’s the worst posting on the Lights, but I want to make sure you know what you’re in for.” He tamped down the tobacco with his thumb and lit his pipe. Tom’s letter of application had told the same story as many a fellow’s around that time: born 28 September 1893; war spent in the Army; experience with the International Code and Morse; physically fit and well; honorable discharge. The rules stipulated that preference should be given to ex-servicemen.
“It can’t—” Tom stopped, and began again. “All due respect, Mr. Coughlan, it’s not likely to be tougher than the Western Front.”
The man looked again at the details on the discharge papers, then at Tom, searching for something in his eyes, in his face. “No, son. You’re probably right on that score.” He rattled off some rules: “You pay your own passage to every posting. You’re relief, so you don’t get holidays. Permanent staff get a month’s leave at the end of each three-year contract.” He took up his fat pen and signed the form in front of him. As he rolled the stamp back and forth across the inkpad he said, “Welcome”—he thumped it down in three places on the paper—“to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service.” On the form, “16th December 1918” glistened in wet ink.
The six months’ relief posting at Byron Bay, up on the New South Wales coast, with two other keepers and their families, taught Tom the basics of life on the Lights. He followed that with a stint down on Maatsuyker, the wild island south of Tasmania where it rained most days of the year and the chickens blew into the sea during storms.
On the Lights, Tom Sherbourne has plenty of time to think about the war. About the faces, the voices of the blokes who had stood beside him, who saved his life one way or another; the ones whose dying words he heard, and those whose muttered jumbles he couldn’t make out, but who he nodded to anyway.
Tom isn’t one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels. Nor were his lungs turned to glue or his brains to stodge by the gas. But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.
He tries not to dwell on it: he’s seen plenty of men turned worse than useless that way. So he gets on with life around the edges of this thing he’s got no name for. When he dreams about those years, the Tom who is experiencing them, the Tom who is there with blood on his hands, is a boy of eight or so. It’s this small boy who’s up against blokes with guns and bayonets, and he’s worried because his school socks have slipped down and he can’t hitch them up because he’ll have to drop his gun to do it, and he’s barely big enough even to hold that. And he can’t find his mother anywhere.
Then he wakes and he’s in a place where there’s just wind and waves and light, and the intricate machinery that keeps the flame burning and the lantern turning. Always turning, always looking over its shoulder.
If he can only get far enough away—from people, from memory—time will do its job.
Thousands of miles away on the west coast, Janus Rock was the furthest place on the continent from Tom’s childhood home in Sydney. But Janus Light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five-second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. When, in June 1920, he got news of an urgent vacancy going on Janus, it was as though the light there were calling to him.
Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same. The keeper Tom replaced on Janus was Trimble Docherty, who had caused a stir by reporting that his wife was signaling to passing ships by stringing up messages in the colored flags of the International Code. This was unsatisfactory to the authorities for two reasons: first, because the Deputy Director of Lighthouses had some years previously forbidden signaling by flags on Janus, as vessels put themselves at risk by sailing close enough to decipher them; and secondly, because the wife in question was recently deceased.
Considerable correspondence on the subject was generated in triplicate between Fremantle and Melbourne, with the Deputy Director in Fremantle putting the case for Docherty and his years of excellent service, to a Head Office concerned strictly with efficiency and cost and obeying the rules. A compromise was reached by which a temporary keeper would be engaged while Docherty was given six months’ medical leave.
“We wouldn’t normally send a single man to Janus—it’s pretty remote and a wife and family can be a great practical help, not just a comfort,” the District Officer had said to Tom. “But seeing it’s only temporary… You’ll leave for Partageuse in two days,” he said, and signed him up for six months.
There wasn’t much to organize. No one to farewell. Two days later, Tom walked up the gangplank of the boat, armed with a kit bag and not much else. The SS Prometheus worked its way along the southern shores of Australia, stopping at various ports on its run between Sydney and Perth. The few cabins reserved for first-class passengers were on the upper deck, toward the bow. In third class, Tom shared a cabin with an elderly sailor. “Been making this trip for fifty years—they wouldn’t have the cheek to ask me to pay. Bad luck, you know,” the man had said cheerfully, then returned his attention to the large bottle of over-proof rum that kept him occupied. To escape the alcohol fumes, Tom took to walking the deck during the day. Of an evening there’d usually be a card game belowdecks.
You could still tell at a glance who’d been over there and who’d sat the war out at home. You could smell it on a man. Each tended to keep to his own kind. Being in the bowels of the vessel brought back memories of the troopships that took them first to the Middle East, and later to France. Within moments of arriving on board, they’d deduced, almost by an animal sense, who was an officer, who was lower ranks; where they’d been.
Just like on the troopships, the focus was on finding a bit of sport to liven up the journey. The game settled on was familiar enough: first one to score a souvenir off a first-class passenger was the winner. Not just any souvenir, though. The designated article was a pair of ladies’ drawers. “Prize money’s doubled if she’s wearing them at the time.”
The ringleader, a man by the name of McGowan, with a mustache, and fingers yellowed from his Woodbines, said he’d been chatting to one of the stewards about the passenger list: the choice was limited. There were ten cabins in all. A lawyer and his wife—best give them a wide berth; some elderly couples, a pair of old spinsters (promising), but best of all, some toff’s daughter traveling on her own.
“I reckon we can climb up the side and in through her window,” he announced. “Who’s with me?”
The danger of the enterprise didn’t surprise Tom. He’d heard dozens of such tales since he got back. Men who’d taken to risking their lives on a whim—treating the boom gates at level crossings as a gallop jump; swimming into rips to see if they could get out. So many men who had dodged death over there now seemed addicted to its lure. Still, this lot were free agents now. Probably just full of talk.
The following night, when the nightmares were worse than usual, Tom decided to escape them by walking the decks. It was two a.m. He was free to wander wherever he wanted at that hour, so he paced methodically, watching the moonlight leave its wake on the water. He climbed to the upper deck, gripping the stair rail to counter the gentle rolling, and stood a moment at the top, taking in the freshness of the breeze and the steadiness of the stars that showered the night.
Out of the corner of hi
s eye, he saw a glimmer come on in one of the cabins. Even first-class passengers had trouble sleeping sometimes, he mused. Then, some sixth sense awoke in him—that familiar, indefinable instinct for trouble. He moved silently toward the cabin, and looked in through the window.
In the dim light, he saw a woman flat against the wall, pinned there even though the man before her wasn’t touching her. He was an inch away from her face, with a leer Tom had seen too often. He recognized the man from belowdecks, and remembered the prize. Bloody idiots. He tried the door, and it opened.
“Leave her alone,” he said as he stepped into the cabin. He spoke calmly, but left no room for debate.
The man spun around to see who it was, and grinned when he recognized Tom. “Christ! Thought you were a steward! You can give me a hand, I was just—”
“I said leave her alone! Clear out. Now.”
“But I haven’t finished. I was just going to make her day.” He reeked of drink and stale tobacco.
Tom put a hand on his shoulder, with a grip so hard that the man cried out. He was a good six inches shorter than Tom, but tried to take a swing at him all the same. Tom seized his wrist and twisted it. “Name and rank!”
“McKenzie. Private. 3277.” The unrequested serial number followed like a reflex.
“Private, you’ll apologize to this young lady and you’ll get back to your bunk and you won’t show your face on deck until we berth, you understand me?”
“Yes, sir!” He turned to the woman. “Beg your pardon, Miss. Didn’t mean any harm.”
Still terrified, the woman gave the slightest nod.
“Now, out!” Tom said, and the man, deflated by sudden sobriety, shuffled from the cabin.
“You all right?” Tom asked the woman.
“I—I think so.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“He didn’t…”—she was saying it to herself as much as to him—“he didn’t actually touch me.”
He took in the woman’s face—her gray eyes seemed calmer now. Her dark hair was loose, in waves down to her arms, and her fists still gathered her nightgown to her neck. Tom reached for her dressing gown from a hook on the wall and draped it over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Must have got an awful fright. I’m afraid some of us aren’t used to civilized company these days.”
She didn’t speak.
“You won’t get any more trouble from him.” He righted a chair that had been overturned in the encounter. “Up to you whether you report him, Miss. I’d say he’s not the full quid now.”
Her eyes asked a question.
“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.” He turned to go, but put his head back through the doorway. “You’ve got every right to have him up on charges if you want. But I reckon he’s probably got enough troubles. Like I said—up to you,” and he disappeared through the door.
Point Partageuse got its name from French explorers who mapped the cape that jutted from the south-western corner of the Australian continent well before the British dash to colonize the west began in 1826. Since then, settlers had trickled north from Albany and south from the Swan River Colony, laying claim to the virgin forests in the hundreds of miles between. Cathedral-high trees were felled with handsaws to create grazing pasture; scrawny roads were hewn inch by stubborn inch by pale-skinned fellows with teams of shire horses, as this land, which had never before been scarred by man, was excoriated and burned, mapped and measured and meted out to those willing to try their luck in a hemisphere which might bring them desperation, death, or fortune beyond their dreams.
The community of Partageuse had drifted together like so much dust in a breeze, settling in this spot where two oceans met, because there was fresh water and a natural harbor and good soil. Its port was no rival to Albany, but convenient for locals shipping timber or sandalwood or beef. Little businesses had sprung up and clung on like lichen on a rock face, and the town had accumulated a school, a variety of churches with different hymns and architectures, a good few brick and stone houses and a lot more built of weatherboard and tin. It gradually produced various shops, a town hall, even a Dalgety’s stock and station agency. And pubs. Many pubs.
Throughout its infancy, the unspoken belief in Partageuse was that real things happened elsewhere. News of the outside world trickled in like rain dripped off the trees, a snippet here, a rumor there. The telegraph had speeded things up a bit when the line arrived in 1890, and since then a few folks had got telephones. The town had even sent troops off to the Transvaal in 1899 and lost a handful, but by and large, life in Partageuse was more of a sideshow, in which nothing too evil or too wonderful could ever happen.
Other towns in the West had known things different, of course: Kalgoorlie, for example, hundreds of miles inland, had underground rivers of gold crusted by desert. There, men wandered in with a wheel-barrow and a gold-pan and drove out in a motorcar paid for by a nugget as big as a cat, in a town that only half ironically had streets with names like Croesus. The world wanted what Kalgoorlie had. The offerings of Partageuse, its timber and sandalwood, were small beer: it wasn’t flashy boom-time like Kal.
Then in 1914 things changed. Partageuse found that it too had something the world wanted. Men. Young men. Fit men. Men who had spent their lives swinging an ax or holding a plow and living it hard. Men who were the prime cut to be sacrificed on tactical altars a hemisphere away.
Nineteen fourteen was just flags and new-smelling leather on uniforms. It wasn’t until a year later that life started to feel different—started to feel as if maybe this wasn’t a sideshow after all—when, instead of getting back their precious, strapping husbands and sons, the women began to get telegrams. These bits of paper which could fall from stunned hands and blow about in the knife-sharp wind, which told you that the boy you’d suckled, bathed, scolded and cried over, was—well—wasn’t. Partageuse joined the world late and in a painful labor.
Of course, the losing of children had always been a thing that had to be gone through. There had never been guarantee that conception would lead to a live birth, or that birth would lead to a life of any great length. Nature allowed only the fit and the lucky to share this paradise-in-the-making. Look inside the cover of any family Bible and you’d see the facts. The graveyards, too, told the story of the babies whose voices, because of a snakebite or a fever or a fall from a wagon, had finally succumbed to their mothers’ beseeching to “hush, hush, little one.” The surviving children got used to the new way of setting the table with one place fewer, just as they grew accustomed to squishing along the bench when another sibling arrived. Like the wheat fields where more grain is sown than can ripen, God seemed to sprinkle extra children about, and harvest them according to some indecipherable, divine calendar.
The town cemetery had always recorded this truthfully, and its headstones, some lolling like loose, grimy teeth, told frankly the stories of lives taken early by influenza and drownings, by timber whims and even lightning strikes. But in 1915, it began to lie. Boys and men from across the district were dying by the score, yet the graveyards said nothing.
The truth was that the younger bodies lay in mud far away. The authorities did what they could: where conditions and combat permitted, graves were dug; when it was possible to put together a set of limbs and identify them as a single soldier, every effort was made to do so, and to bury him with a funeral rite of sorts. Records were kept. Later, photographs were taken of the graves, and, for the sum of £2 1s 6d, a family could buy an official commemorative plaque. Later still, the war memorials would sprout from the earth, dwelling not on the loss, but on what the loss had won, and what a fine thing it was to be victorious. “Victorious and dead,” some muttered, “is a poor sort of victory.”
As full of holes as a Swiss cheese the place was, without the men. Not that there had been conscription. No one had forced them to go and fight.
bsp; The cruelest joke was on the fellows everyone called “lucky” because they got to come back at all: back to the kids spruced up for the welcome home, to the dog with a ribbon tied to his collar so he could join in the fun. The dog was usually the first to spot that something was up. Not just that the bloke was missing an eye or a leg; more that he was missing generally—still missing in action, though his body had never been lost sight of. Billy Wishart from Sadler’s Mill, for example—three little ones and a wife as good as a man has a right to hope for, gassed and can’t hold a spoon any more without it sputtering like a chaff-cutter and spraying his soup all over the table. Can’t manage his buttons because of the shakes. When he’s alone at night with his wife he won’t get out of his clothes, and just hugs himself into a ball on the bed and cries. Or young Sam Dowsett, who survived the first Gallipoli landing only to lose both arms and half his face at Bullecourt. His widowed mother sits up at night worrying who’ll take care of her little boy once she’s gone. There’s not a girl in the district’d be silly enough to take him on now. Holes in Swiss cheese. Something missing.
For a long time, people wore the bewildered expression of players in a game where the rules had suddenly been changed. They tried hard to take comfort from the fact that the boys hadn’t died in vain: they had been part of a magnificent struggle for right. And there were moments where they could believe that and swallow down the angry, desperate screech that wanted to scrape its way out of their gullets like out of a mother bird.
After the war, people tried to make allowances for the men who’d come back a bit too fond of a drink or a stoush, or the ones who couldn’t hold down a job for more than a few days. Business in the town settled down after a fashion. Kelly still had the grocer’s. The butcher was still old Len Bradshaw, though young Len was itching to take over: you could tell by the way he took up just a bit too much of his dad’s space at the counter when he leaned past him to pick up a chop or a pig’s cheek. Mrs. Inkpen (who never seemed to have a Christian name, though her sister called her Popsy in private) took over the farrier’s when her husband, Mack, didn’t make it back from Gallipoli. She had a face as hard as the iron the lads used to nail onto the horses’ hooves, and a heart to match. Great hulks of men she had working for her, and it was all “Yes, Mrs. Inkpen. No, Mrs. Inkpen. Three bags full, Mrs. Inkpen,” even though any of them could have picked her up with barely more than a finger.
People knew who to give credit to, and who to ask for money up front; who to believe when they brought goods back and asked for a refund. Mouchemore’s draper’s and haberdasher’s did best around Christmas and Easter, though the run-up to winter brought them a swift trade in knitting wool. Did a profitable line in ladies’ unmentionables, too. Larry Mouchemore used to pat his pointed mustache as he corrected mispronunciations of his name (“It’s like ‘move,’ not like ‘mouse,’”), and watched with fear and bile as Mrs. Thurkle got it into her head to open a furrier’s next door. A fur shop? In Point Partageuse? If you please! He smiled benignly when it closed within six months, buying up the remaining stock “as an act of neighborly charity” and selling it at a tidy profit to the captain of a steamer bound for Canada, who said they were mad for that sort of thing there.
So by 1920, Partageuse had that mixture of tentative pride and hard-bitten experience that marked any West Australian town. In the middle of the handkerchief of grass near the main street stood the fresh granite obelisk listing the men and boys, some scarcely sixteen, who would not be coming back to plow the fields or fell the trees, would not be finishing their lessons, though many in the town held their breath, waiting for them anyway. Gradually, lives wove together once again into a practical sort of fabric in which every thread crossed and recrossed the others through school and work and marriage, embroidering connections invisible to those not from the town.
And Janus Rock, linked only by the store boat four times a year, dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.
The long, thin jetty at Point Partageuse was made from the same jarrah that rattled along it in rail carriages to be hauled onto ships. The wide bay above which the town had grown up was clear turquoise, and on the day Tom’s boat docked it gleamed like polished glass.
Men beetled away, loading and unloading, heaving and wrestling cargo with the occasional shout or whistle. Onshore, the bustle continued, as people went about with a purposeful air, on foot or by horse and buggy.
The exception to this display of efficiency was a young woman feeding bread to a flock of seagulls. She was laughing as she threw each crust in a different direction and watched the birds squabble and screech, eager for a prize. A gull in full flight caught a morsel in one gulp and still dived for the next one, sending the girl into new peals of laughter.
It seemed years since Tom had heard a laugh that wasn’t tinged with a roughness, a bitterness. It was a sunny winter’s afternoon, and there was nowhere he had to go right that minute; nothing he had to do. He would be shipped out to Janus in a couple of days, once he had met the people he needed to meet and signed the forms he needed to sign. But for now, there were no logbooks to write up, no prisms to buff, no tanks to refuel. And here was someone just having a bit of fun. It suddenly felt like solid proof that the war was really over. He sat on a bench near the jetty, letting the sun caress his face, watching the girl lark about, the curls of her dark hair swirling like a net cast on the wind. He followed her delicate fingers as they made silhouettes against the blue. Only gradually did he notice she was pretty. And more gradually still that she was probably beautiful.
“What are you smiling at?” the girl called, catching Tom off guard.
“Sorry.” He felt his face redden.
“Never be sorry for smiling!” she exclaimed in a voice that somehow had a sad edge. Then her expression brightened. “You’re not from Partageuse.”
“I am. Lived here all my life. Want some bread?”
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
“Not for you, silly! To feed the seagulls.”
She offered him a crust in her outstretched hand. A year before, perhaps even a day before, Tom would have declined and walked away. But suddenly, the warmth and the freedom and the smile, and something he couldn’t quite name, made him accept the offering.
“Bet I can get more to come to me than you can,” she said.
“Righto, you’re on!” said Tom.
“Go!” she declared, and the two of them began, throwing the pieces high in the air or at crafty angles, ducking as the gulls squawked and dive-bombed and flapped their wings at one another furiously.
Finally, when all the bread was gone, Tom asked, laughing, “Who won?”
“Oh! I forgot to judge.” The girl shrugged. “Let’s call it a draw.”
“Fair enough,” he said, putting his hat back on and picking up his duffel bag. “Better be on my way. Thanks. I enjoyed that.”
She smiled. “It was just a silly game.”
“Well,” he said, “thanks for reminding me that silly games are fun.” He slung the bag over his broad shoulder, and turned toward town. “You have a good afternoon now, Miss,” he added.