The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
When the door opens, letting in the cool night air and some noise from the street, Ester turns towards it. A man walks in, a thin, pale man with thinning, mousy hair. He carries a raincoat over one arm, and with the other he is pulling a suitcase on wheels. The door closes quietly behind him and the exterior sounds are shut out.
She stays sitting on her stool, tidying pieces of orange peel into the saucer of her coffee cup. The man comes to the bar, approaching the new girl, the little wheels of his suitcase clackety-clacking over the floorboards. ‘Futh,’ he says to the girl, ‘I’m Futh.’ The girl looks at him, asks him in German what he wants. ‘Ich bin Futh,’ he says.
When the girl continues to look blankly at him, he turns and looks around the room. Ester, who has been waiting for him all afternoon and all evening, lets him come to her. Clackety-clack, clackety-clack, goes his suitcase over the wooden floor, clackety-clack like a train, trundling to a stop. He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his pants. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’
Ester climbs down off her seat and walks over to her desk. He follows her, chattering away. He says, ‘Are you Ester?’ She would prefer something more formal but lets it go.
She ticks his name off in her ledger and takes his key from a row of small hooks on the wall. ‘Room six,’ she says, putting the key into his hand.
He says, ‘Thank you, Ester.’
She takes the handle of his suitcase, wheels it into the hallway and presses the button to bring down the elevator.
While Mr. Futh is travelling up to the first floor, Ester goes to the kitchen to fetch the plate of cold cuts which was prepared for him at lunchtime and has been kept under cling wrap in the fridge since then.
She takes Mr Futh’s supper plate up in the elevator and knocks on his door. When there is no answer, she lets herself in with her master key.
He is not in the bedroom. She can hear the shower running in the bathroom, can hear him singing in there. She would prefer not to have to talk to this man who keeps calling her Ester as if he knows her. She is still annoyed with him for being so late and not even apologizing. She is obliged to feed the man – she wants to feed him, she always wants to feed men – but she would be pleased to get away without having to engage with him.
She puts the plate of cold meats down on the bedside table and peels off the cling wrap. It looks a little dry, but that is his own fault. She turns to look at the suitcase which is open on the bed.
There is nothing of interest in there, just clothes, and a few books at the bottom. Except, in amongst the clothes in which he arrived, in the pocket of his gravy-stained pants, there is a silver lighthouse. About ten centimetres tall and three or four in diam-eter, it fits rather nicely inside her encircling hand. It has a four-sided tower and a lantern room with tiny storm panes and a domed top. In relief on one side it says ‘DRALLE’, the name of an old Hamburg perfumery. This ornate silver case ought to contain a cut-glass vial of a very expensive perfume, but Ester finds that it is empty, the scent missing.
When Ester was a child, her mother worked for a toiletries company, travelling a lot and leaving Ester with an au pair. Ester’s mother always came home with samples in her luggage. Having worn the same scent all her adult life, she gave her unwanted vials of perfume to Ester who collected them in a box on her dressing table and used them liberally, often sitting down to breakfast with a different scent on each pulse point.
Ester wanted to be a perfumier. She knew the names of many perfume houses – old and new, large and small – and their fragrances. She decided to create her own scent and went through her moth-er’s kitchen cupboards, combining lemon juice, peach juice, vanilla essence, herbs and spices, imag-ining that she was making the ultimate scent, one sniff of which would make someone fall in love with her. Completing it with shredded petals from her mother’s prized rose bush, Ester went to her parents’ bedroom and took her mother’s perfume from the dressing table. She poured it – her moth-er’s Eau de Parfum, her signature scent – down the sink and refilled the empty bottle with her own first perfume, a sticky concoction which she called ‘Ester’, presenting it as a gift to her mother when she came home.
Ester was given no more sample scents after that. The next person to give her perfume was Bernard.
Ester hears the shower being turned off, the shower curtain being drawn back, the clatter of the hoops being pulled along the rail. She drops the lighthouse back onto the pile of clothes and begins to leave. Halfway across the room, she hesitates, turns around and takes a step back towards the bed with her eye on the lighthouse. But she can hear him moving towards the bathroom door, still singing. She turns away again.
When the bathroom door opens, she is out in the hall, heading for the stairs, the door to room six closing slowly behind her.
At the opposite end of the hallway, just past room ten, there is a door marked ‘PRIVATE’, and it divides the guest rooms from those occupied by Ester and her husband.
Bernard, coming through this door, sees his wife hurriedly leaving room six and heading downstairs. Moments later, a man appears in the doorway of the same room, leaning out and looking towards the stairs. The man is partially hidden behind the door, but Bernard sees a bare shoulder, the knobbles of the man’s spine, a white leg, a blue-veined foot on the hallway carpet. The man turns his head and sees Bernard and withdraws into his room looking embarrassed. The door clicks shut and a key is turned in the lock.
In the night, there will be a storm. It will be brief, if a little violent, and hardly anyone will even realise it has occurred, although they might hear it raging, thundering, in their dreams.
In the morning, by the time people are up and about, the sun will be out again, and the rain-soaked pavements will be dry, and there will be very little evidence of damage.
Alison Moore was born in Manchester in 1971. Her stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies including Best British Short Stories 2011. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize, and for the Scott Prize for her first collection. She won first prize in the novella category of The New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes. She lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.
Excerpted from The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, copyright 2012. Published in the US by Biblioasis in 2017.
Photo: Alison Moore, Private
Published on July 6, 2017.