‘When I sleep, which I can’t, I can’t ever sleep, I dream about him. I dream about him being totally stupid. Like, he’s in a washing machine or something and I’m saying, get out of the washing machine, you prat. But he won’t get out of the washing machine, he’s all tiny and in the washing machine, and he gets smaller and smaller until he disappears.’
‘That’s totally normal,’ said the calm, educated West Country voice.
‘You say everything’s totally normal,’ said Selina, pushing back her short hair crossly. ‘I could come in here and say, “I ran over two hedgehogs on the way here because they reminded me of his hair. One by accident, one on purpose,” and you’d say, “That’s totally normal.”’
‘Did you do that?’
‘No, but I might have. You’d probably still say it was normal.’
‘There is nothing normal about grief, Selina. It is common. But it is never normal.’
Selina let out a long sigh.
‘Why can’t I… why can’t I get over it? Start getting over it? Everyone else wants me to have got over it bloody ages ago. I can see it in their faces. It’s embarrassing for them. I want to get over it. I want to get to sleep without drinking too much wine, and wake up without seeing the face of my bloody dead husband in the washing machine and stop bumming everyone out all the time.’
‘Where are you living now?’ said the voice smoothly, as if Selina’s outburst hadn’t happened.
‘Don’t know. I think I’m going to give up the Manchester lease. It’s getting more expensive, and I don’t feel any more settled there than I did anywhere else.’
‘Maybe it’s time to think of going… home? Your home, or Tarnie’s home?’
‘I’m never going back to that place,’ said Selina, shivering. ‘I never want to go back there.’
‘Stop it,’ Polly said in a warning voice. ‘It’s not funny.’
Neil ignored her and continued to beat on the little high window with his beak until she could be persuaded to go over and give him a snack.
He was outside the lighthouse they had moved into the previous month, all three of them together, Polly, Neil the puffin, and Huckle, Polly’s American boyfriend, who had parked his motorbike and sidecar at the bottom of the tower. It was their only mode of transport.
The lighthouse hadn’t been lived in for a long time, not since the lamps were electrified in the late seventies. It only had four floors, and a circular staircase that ran round the sides, thus making it, as Huckle had pointed out more than once, the single draughtiest place in human history. They were both getting very fit running up and down it. One floor held the heavy machinery that had once turned the workings, which couldn’t be removed. On the top floor, just below the light itself, was their sitting room, which had views right across the bay and, on the other side, back towards Mount Polbearne, the tidal island where they lived and worked, with its causeway to the mainland that covered and uncovered itself with the tides.
From these windows you could see the little Beach Street Bakery, the ruined shop that Polly had revitalised when she had moved to the village just over two years ago, getting over a failed business and a failed relationship back on the mainland.
She hadn’t originally expected to do much in Mount Polbearne except sit and lick her wounds until she was ready to head back into the fray again, back to working a corporate lifestyle; hadn’t for a moment thought that in the tumbledown flat above the shop she would come back to life by practising her favourite hobby – baking bread – and that this would turn into a career when she reopened the old closed-down bakery.
It wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, and the hours were long, but the setting was so wonderful, and her work so appreciated, by both the townspeople and tourists, that she had found something much more satisfying than money: she had found what she was meant to be doing with her life. Well, most of the time she thought that. Sometimes she looked around at the very basic kitchen she had installed (her old flat in Plymouth had sold, and she’d managed to get the lighthouse at a knockdown price, mostly, as Lance the estate agent had pointed out, because only an absolutely crazy person could possibly want to live in a draughty, inaccessible tower with a punishing light shining out of it) and wondered if she’d ever manage to fix the window frames, the window frames being number one on a list of about four thousand things that urgently needed doing.
Huckle had offered to buy the place with her, but she had resisted. She had worked too hard to be independent. Once before she had shared everything, been entirely enmeshed financially with someone. It had not worked out and she was in no mood to repeat the experience.
Right now, she wanted to sit in her eyrie of a sitting room at the very top of the house, drink tea, eat a cheese twist and simply relax and enjoy the view: the sea, ever changing; clouds scudding past so close she could touch them; the little fishing boats bobbing out across the water in faded greens and browns, their winches and nets heavy behind them, looking tiny and fragile against the vast expanse of the sea. She just needed five minutes’ peace and quiet before heading down to the bakery to relieve her colleague Jayden for the lunchtime shift.
Neil, the little puffin who had crashed into her life one night in a storm, and remained there ever since, did not agree. He found the activity of flying outside, high up, and still being able to see her through the window utterly amazing, and liked to do it again and again, sometimes taking off to fly all the way round the lighthouse and come back in the other side, sometimes pecking at the glass because Huckle thought it was funny to feed him titbits out of the window even though Polly had told him not to.
Polly put down her book and moved over to the window, struck as she never ceased to be – she wondered if she would ever grow tired of it – by the amazing cast of the sun silvering in and out behind the clouds over the waves, the gentle cawk of the seagulls, and the whistling wind, which could turn thunderous on winter days. She still couldn’t quite believe she lived here. She opened the old-fashioned, single-glazed window with its heavy latch.
‘Come in then,’ she said, but Neil fluttered excitedly and tried to peck in between her fingers in case she had a tasty treat for him.
‘No!’ she said. ‘You are a fat puffin and no mistake. Come inside and stop tapping.’