Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turbulent Seas, Safe Passage

On my list of things to do before I die is stay in a light-keeper’s cottage. I don't know exactly why that immense, single eye belonging to a lighthouse draws me. Its blinding light reassuringly roaming throughout the night, lighting a pathway from land over sea. An luminous beam in the oily black guiding lost ships on a roiling sea.
That one beacon of light is said to be visible for 20-30 nautical miles, which means even a pinpoint of winking yellow saved many a sailor's life or led to certain death if that point of light was instead a wrecker's lantern. An unimpeded gleam brought ships too close to the shore, smashing them into the edges of cliffs. Then the wreckers, amidst the groans and dying wails, could claim their bounty.
Some of my ancestors, it is said, were involved in smuggling; triumphant with the spoils from crafty deals and possibly led astray ships. Relatives, I imagine, who were blessed with the-gift-of-the-gab and an unquenchable thirst for rum. The thrill of getting their hands on contraband charged through their dilated veins, but one had the misfortune of this blood forming a visible red wine stain. He wasn't wounded by a dagger or a pistol shot, but became discoloured through presumingly spilling the blood of others, and marked men then were punished accordingly: hung at the magistrate's pleasure.
The great-great-aunt, whom discovered this, felt herself to be tainted and so immediately halted her previous intrepid dig into that murky past. Those criminal skeletons, if indeed they did exist, should remain unspoken of, not let out again to roam the Dorset coastline. And nobody else has ever dare verify if there's any truth behind this myth; it's just continued to be handed down through the generations.
Was the hanged innocent? Was it a miscarriage of justice? Innocent, but still proved guilty. Innocent of manslaughter or murder possibly, but definitely not of smuggling. That branch of my family were, (and still are), born charmers, entertainers, and salesmen, and I very much doubt they would have wanted to miss out on the intrigue, the skulduggery in those heady times of coastal thieving.
And actually I kind of like it. For me, now years ahead, this history has been romanticised; its sinister and shameful hint has softened and made it positively desirable, like the thought of being kidnapped by a highwayman or tied to a ship's mast by pirates. If you travel your ancestors' roads backwards, eventually it becomes mere fantasy, until the consequences of their actions possess dream-like qualities. It's hard to put myself in their real world without injecting my own illusions: rugged landscapes, stormy seas, and untrodden hamlets; moonless nights, moist air, the clip-clop of hoofs and loaded wagons. I imagine voices whispering plans and breaking out in peals of drunken laughter.
The lighthouse then, for me more appropriately, symbolises a watchtower: a beacon of parenting, abetting men on land and sea. A majestic tower metering out its own unusual form of justice, like a parent who sees too late the blind spots, the obstacles, the pitfalls in their offspring, since they chose instead to cut themselves off from the mainland or left the tower completely unmanned. They can't right or understand the wrongs of their children, but that presiding sweeping beam, that throwaway ray of light is somehow atoning. It unsettles those on dry land, but for all those adrift on turbulent seas illuminates a safe passage.