We are pleased to present an excerpt from Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, set to be released in the US on August 1st by Biblioasis. The novel, Moore’s first, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it was released in the U.K. in 2012. The Lighthouse has earned praise for its stark use of language and its powerful evocation of grief and memory from publications like The Guardian and The Observer.
Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands. The wind pummels his body through his new raincoat, deranges his thinning hair and brings tears to his eyes. It is summer and he was not expecting this. He has not been on a ferry since he was twelve, when he went abroad for the first time with his father. It was summer then too and the weather was just as rough so perhaps this should not be taking him by surprise.
His father took him to the ferry’s theater. Futh does not remember what they saw. When they sat down, the lights were still up and there was no one else in there. He remembers having a bucket of warm popcorn on his lap. His father, smelling of the beer he had drunk beforehand at the bar, turned to Futh to say, ‘Your mother sold popcorn.’
She had been gone for almost a year by then, by the time Futh and his father took this holiday together. Mostly, she was not mentioned, and Futh longed for his father or anybody to say, ‘Your mother…’ so that his heart would lift. But then, when she was spoken about, she would invariably be spoiled in some way and he would wish that nothing had been said after all.
‘In those days,’ his father said, ‘the usherettes wore high heels as part of the uniform.’
Futh, shifting in his seat and burying his hand in his popcorn, hoped that the film or at least the trailers, even commercials, would start soon. Some people came in and sat down nearby, but his father went on just the same.
‘I was there on a date. The girl I was with didn’t want anything but I did. I went down the aisle to the front where your mother stood with her tray all lit up by the bulb inside. She sold me a bag of popcorn and agreed to meet me the following night.’
The lights went down and Futh, tensed in the dark auditorium, hoped that that would be it, that the story would end there.
His father leaned closer and lowered his voice. ‘I drove her up to the viewpoint,’ he said. ‘She had this very pale skin which glowed in the moonlight and I half-expected her to feel cold. She was warm though – it was my hands that were chilly.’
The screen lit up and Futh tried to focus on that, on the fanfare and the flicker of light on expectant faces, and his father said, ‘She complained about my cold hands but she didn’t stop me. She wasn’t uptight like some of the girls I’d taken up there.’
Futh felt the warm pressure of his father’s thigh against his own, felt the tickle of his father’s arm hairs on his own bare forearm, the heat of his father’s beery breath in his ear hole, his father’s hand reaching into his lap, taking popcorn. Finally, his father sat quietly back in his seat to watch the start of the film and after a few minutes Futh could tell by the sound of his breathing that his father had fallen asleep.
When his father woke up halfway through the film, he wanted to know what he had missed, but Futh, whose mind had been wandering, could not really tell him.
Ferries make Futh feel a bit sick. He becomes nauseous just thinking about walking through the bars and restaurants with their clashing textiles, sitting down at a dishcloth-damp table, the smell of other people’s warm food lingering beneath the tang of cleaning fluids, his stomach roiling. He prefers to be outside in the fresh air.
It is nippy though. He does not have enough layers on. He has not put a sweater in the overnight bag which is stowed between his feet. He has not packed a sweater at all. Waves smack the hull of the boat, splashes and salt smell flying up. He can feel the rumble of the engine, the vibrations underfoot. He looks up at the night sky, up towards the waxing moon, inhaling deeply through his nose as if he can catch its scent in the wind, as if he can feel its pull.
Now the ramp is being raised like a drawbridge. He is reminded of the closing leaves of a Venus flytrap, but this is slower and noisier.
The mooring ropes are dropped into the water and Futh, like a disconcerted train passenger unable to tell whether it is his or a neighboring train which is pulling out of the station, sees the untethered land drawing away from him. The engine chugs and the water churns white between the dock and the outward bound ferry.
There is someone else up on the outer deck, on the far side of a lifepreserver, a man wearing a raincoat and a hat. As Futh glances at him, the man’s hat blows off and lands in the sea, in their wake. The man turns and, noticing Futh, laughs and shouts something across the deck, against the wind. His words are lost but Futh gives an affable laugh in response. The man moves along the railings, holding on as if he might blow away as well. Arriving at Futh’s side, the man says, ‘Even so, I prefer to be outside.’
‘Yes,’ says Futh, catching the smell of the man’s supper coming from his mouth, ‘me too.’
‘I get a little…’ says the man, pressing the palm of his hand soothingly against his large stomach.
‘Yes,’ says Futh, ‘me too.’
‘I’m worse on airplanes.’
Futh and his companion stand and watch Harwich receding, the black sea rising and falling in the moonlight.
‘Are you on holiday?’ asks the man.
‘Yes,’ says Futh, ‘I’m going walking in Germany.’
When Futh tells the man that he will be walking at least fifteen miles a day for a week, doing almost a hundred miles in total, the man says, ‘You must be very fit.’
‘I should be,’ says Futh, ‘by the end of the week. I don’t walk much these days.’
The man reaches into the inside pocket of his coat, takes out a program and hands it to Futh. ‘I’m on my way to a conference,’ he says, ‘in Utrecht.’
Futh glances at the program before passing it back – carefully in the bluster – saying, ‘I don’t really believe in that sort of thing.’
‘No,’ says the man, putting it away again, ‘well, I’m undecided.’ He pauses before adding, ‘I’m also visiting my mother who lives in Utrecht. I’m dropping in on her first. I don’t get over very often. She’ll have been cooking all week, just for the two of us. You know how mothers are.’
Futh, watching the sea fill the growing gap between them and England, says, ‘Yes, of course.’
‘You’re just going for a week?’ says the man.
‘Yes,’ says Futh. ‘I go home on the Saturday.’
‘Same here,’ says the man. ‘I’ll have had enough by then, enough of her fussing around me and feeding me. I put on a couple of pounds every time I’m there.’
Futh puts his hand in his coat pocket, wrapping his fingers around his keycard. ‘I think I’m going to go to my room now,’ he says.
‘Well,’ says the man, pulling back his coat cuff to check the time, ‘it’s almost midnight.’ Futh admires the man’s smart watch and the man says, ‘It was a gift from my mother. I’ve told her she spends too much money on me.’
Futh looks at his own watch, a cheap one, a knock-off, which appears to be fast. He winds it back to just before midnight, back to the previous day. He says goodnight and turns away.
He is halfway across the deck when there is an announcement on the PA system, a warning of winds of force six or seven, a caution not to risk going outside. He climbs down the steps, holding on to the handrail, and steadies himself against the walls until he reaches the door, which looks like an airlock. He goes through it into the lounge.
The floor is gently heaving. He feels it tilting and dropping away beneath him. He walks unsteadily across the room towards the stairs and goes down, looking for his level, following the signs pointing him down the hallway to his cabin.
He lets himself in with his keycard and closes the door behind him, putting his overnight bag down on a seat just inside. He takes off his coat and hangs it on a hook on the back of the door just above the fire action notice. It is a small cabin with not much more than the seat and a desk, a cupboard, bunk beds on the far side, and a shower room. There is no window, no porthole. He looks inside the cupboard, half-expecting a trouser press or a little fridge or a safe, finding empty hangers. He does not need a trouser press but he would quite like a drink, a continental beer. He opens the door to the shower room and finds a plastic-wrapped cup by the sink. He fills the cup from the tap and takes his drink over to the bunk beds. Switching on the wall-mounted bedside lamp and turning off the overhead light, he sits down on the bottom bunk to take off his shoes.
Peeling off his socks, he massages his feet, which are sore from walking around the ferry and standing so long, braced, on the outer deck. He once knew a girl who did reflexology, who could press on the sole of his foot with her thumbs knowing that here was his heart and here was his pelvis and here was his spleen and so on.
Standing again, he takes a small, silver lighthouse out of his trouser pocket and places it in a side pocket of his overnight bag where it will not roll around and get lost. He locates his travel clock, takes off his watch, and undresses. He has new pajamas and buries his nose in the fabric, in the ‘new clothes’ smell of formaldehyde, before putting them on. Taking out his toiletry bag, he goes into the shower room.
He watches himself brushing his teeth in the mirror over the sink. He looks tired and pale. He has been drinking too much and not eating enough and sleeping badly. He cups his hands beneath the cold running water, rinses out his mouth and washes his face. When he straightens up again, reaching for a towel, water drips down the front of his pajamas.
He imagines coming home, his reflection in the mirror on the return journey, his refreshed and tanned self after a week of walking and fresh air and sunshine, a week of good sausage and deep sleep.
Back in the bedroom, he climbs the little ladder up to the top bunk, gets in between the sheets and switches off the lamp. He lies on his back with the ceiling inches from his face and tries to think about something other than the rolling motion of the ferry. The mattress seems to swell and shift beneath him like a living creature. There is a vent in the ceiling, from which cold, stale air leaks. He turns onto his side, trying not to think about Angela, who is perhaps even now going through his things and putting them in boxes, sorting out what to keep and what to throw away. The ferry ploughs on across the North Sea, and home gets further and further away. The cold air from the vent seeps down the neck of his pajama top and he turns over again. His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.
‘I’m going home,’ she said, meaning New York, meaning three thousand miles away. It was only after she had gone that Futh realised she had not left an address. He looked on the pin board in the kitchen but all he found was the start of a shopping list, her handwriting an almost flat line, a dash of pen, indecipherable.
He looked in the library for pictures of New York, finding skyscrapers with suns rising and setting in their mirrored windows and all lit up at night, the light reflected in the river.
On his father’s side, there was German, although his father had never been to Germany until they went there together when Futh was twelve. Futh’s granddad had left home young, could not get away quickly enough. He settled in England and did not see his parents or his brother again.
‘He never went home for a visit?’ asked Futh.
‘No,’ said his father. ‘He thought about it a lot, but he never made it home.’
Futh did not like to think that someone would just leave, and so abruptly, and never see their family again.
Abandoning the top bunk, Futh feels his way down the ladder to the bed underneath, and the cold air follows him.
He woke in the night and his mother was there, her round face above him, lit by the moon through a gap in the curtains. When she left his room he was alone in the dark with her scent – the smell of violets – and the sound of her footsteps going down the stairs.
By breakfast time, she was gone, and his father was already drunk. Before she left, his father never hit him. Afterwards, when he did, it was without warning, or nothing Futh noticed in time. It was like when birds flew into windows with a sudden sickening thud, and then having to look at the bird lying terribly still on the ground outside, perhaps only dazed but probably hurt or broken in some way.