Maidenstone Lighthouse, p.1
The MAIDENSTONE LIGHTHOUSE
Books by Sally Smith O’Rourke
THE MAN WHO LOVED JANE AUSTEN
THE MAIDENSTONE LIGHTHOUSE
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
The MAIDENSTONE LIGHTHOUSE
SALLY SMITH O’ROURKE
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord deliver us.
In October I came to Freedman’s Cove.
Though more than three months had passed since I’d lost Bobby, I had not yet regained the ability to cope with the everyday demands of my life in the city: I was still searching the faces of strangers glimpsed through the rain-streaked windows of passing cabs. Still hoping against desperate hope that the next tallish, fair-haired man I spotted coming toward me on the street would turn out to be my Bobby. Still forgetting for minutes on end that he was truly gone.
I suppose I was more than half-convinced then that he was suddenly going to appear around the next corner and rush to embrace me, explaining between urgent, tearful kisses where he had been for so long. Explaining why he had never called to tell me he hadn’t died after all.
Denial is the clinical term for the way I dealt with the news of Bobby’s death. Which is to say that I did not deal with it at all. Perhaps I clung so doggedly to my forlorn hope of finding him again in some familiar place because that was exactly the sort of thing that might have happened when he was alive.
And then there were my daydreams.
In my favorite waking fantasy, Bobby had come home again at last. Though I was terribly angry with him over the agonies I had suffered through a hundred lonely nights of bitter tears, the pain always melted away like springtime snow at the first brush of his lips against mine. And our renewed lovemaking was possessed of an intensity that transcended mere passion.
Afterward, naked beneath our warmest down comforter, we’d cling desperately to one another in front of a fire in the smoky old fireplace he’d kept promising to fix but never had. And after we’d ordered take-out from the little Greek place down the block, flushed from hours of lovemaking and too much of the blood-red Cape wine he’d brought from a trip to Africa, I’d listen dreamily to the details of Bobby’s miraculous escape from certain death.
For, despite what the Royal Australian Navy had reported, it would turn out that his plane hadn’t really gone down in the shark-infested vastness of the Indian Ocean after all. Instead, blown far off course by a sudden storm, and with all its radios out, the damaged aircraft had crash-landed on a tiny island, an uninhabited speck of land the searchers had overlooked because it was so far off the plane’s planned route of flight.
As he related the incredible story of his survival to me, Bobby’s mischievous blue eyes would sparkle in the firelight, and he’d somehow manage to make the entire incident seem funny and not even very dangerous. So that by the time he was describing how he had built a clumsy bamboo hut on the beach and tried unsuccessfully to catch fish while he waited for a passing ship to rescue him, there’d be tears of uncontrollable laughter rolling down my cheeks.
But that was all just in my lovely fantasy.
Because, in real life at least, six-hundred-mile-per-hour business jets like the one that Bobby had been piloting when he disappeared last July do not make forced landings on uninhabited tropical islands. And, even if they did, everyone onboard would almost certainly be killed in the fiery crash that an off-airport landing in a crippled jetliner virtually guarantees.
Grim reality is the proper term for that.
So absolutely nothing about my waking dreams of Bobby’s return was real.
Nothing but my tears at the end.
Laura, the svelte, softly tailored Park Avenue shrink I visited a few times after I realized I was slipping deeper and deeper into my fantasies, says that delusions like mine are quite common following the death of someone very dear to one’s heart, especially when there is no physical proof to confirm the awful finality of the loss.
Physical proof, of course, was Laura’s delicate way of referring to Bobby’s absent corpse. For, as she had carefully explained on my first visit, without a cold dead body to see and weep over, a funeral to grieve at or a gravesite to visit, the dearly departed tend to remain forever vibrantly alive in the memories of their loved ones.
In such cases, Laura professed, it is often death itself that seems like the delusion.
I knew exactly what she meant.
Bobby dead at thirty-two! My Bobby, who had survived half a dozen near catastrophes in his career, first as a daring young navy carrier pilot, then, later, flying tiny geological research planes into the teeth of Arctic blizzards for a North Slope oil outfit. Bobby dead! The very idea was incomprehensible to me.
Because while I was painfully aware that my handsome love had spent most of his brief adult life deliberately taunting the Grim Reaper in the sky, hadn’t I also nagged, threatened and browbeat him into quitting that dangerous game?
I can still remember the words of heartfelt thanks I whispered to Heaven on the day he finally gave in to my desperate pleas. Because I knew it was for me alone that Bobby had traded his exciting, high-risk North Slope job for the dull, blessed tedium of piloting executives around the world in the oil company’s shiny new Gulfstream 550 corporate jet.
“I look like a damn bus driver.”
That had been his joking complaint as he stood before the bedroom mirror adjusting his uniform tie early on the morning of the first day he was scheduled to fly the Gulfstream on a trip. At first I couldn’t tell whether he was truly annoyed or just having fun with me.
Reaching around to help him with the tie, I had stopped to stare at his reflection in the mirror. I’d grown so used to seeing him off to the airport in his beat-up old navy flight jacket and jeans that the effect created by the dark blue captain’s uniform required for his new corporate job had taken me completely by surprise.
Standing there that morning, all sharply creased and clean-shaven, and with the pink light of dawn glinting on the silver wings above his left breast pocket, he had looked like nothing so much as a heroic young Brad Pitt on his way to some exotic destination where he would, doubtless, save the world.
“Some bus driver,” I’d breathed, slipping my fingers lovingly inside the jacket and caressing the snowy fabric of his crisply starched shirt.
“Well, this corporate job is going to be just like driving a bus, but without the element of danger.”
“Mmmm, yes,” I sighed, moving as close as I dared without rumpling the beautiful new uniform, and feeling in the warmth of that wonderful possessive kiss that he was only pretending to be upset with me over the boring new assignment.
But happy was not the word I would have chosen to describe the secret emotions I was experiencing at that moment. In truth, I was positively ecstatic, because I was so sure that I had done the right thing by forcing him to change jobs.
It’s funny how decisions that we think at the time we’re making for all the right reasons can seem so foolish in retrospect. For I can clearly see now that I had only been acting selfishly then—because I was so much in love with Bobby that I couldn’t bear the thought of ever losing him.
But, of course, I lost him anyway. And, irony of ironies, it was the “safe” plane, the thirty-million-dollar high-tech corporate jet that I had so calculatedly pushed him into flying that had carried him to his death.
If…if he really was dead.
That was invariably the first word that ran through my mind every time I thought of Bobby dying. Because it just didn’t seem possible that he could have kissed me good-bye on that last glorious morning in July and then simply flown out of my life forever!
But that was exactly the way it happened.
Weeks passed after I got the news, then months, the initial shock and numbness of my freshly minted grief slowly turning to doubt and, finally, conviction that Bobby might somehow have survived. Until no matter how I tried I could not put away the feeling that there had to be some grotesque mistake, that he could not be gone.
And even knowing to a logical certainty that there was no possibility of a mistake did nothing to alleviate my guilt and pain.
I began imagining that I had caught fleeting glimpses of Bobby, speeding by me in a passing subway train, ducking into a doorway across a traffic-filled street. That was when my giddy daydreams of his safe return began to haunt me, in the end making me fear for my own sanity.
Predictably, Laura the shrink had assured me in her best clinical manner that there was absolutely nothing at all wrong with my mind. Nothing that time and modern pharmacology would not eventually heal. So she prescribed an antidepressant and had me join a grief-management group comprised of other miserable souls who, like me, had recently lost loved ones of their own.
I went to one group meeting where I wept uncontrollably for a distraught young mother whose beautiful five-year-old son had darted out in front of a midtown bus in pursuit of a wayward kitten and had been instantly killed. I left feeling even worse than I had before.
“Well, group doesn’t always work for everyone.” With that remark and a small wave of a perfectly manicured hand Laura casually dismissed her first shot at ending my anguish. She had then prescribed a new and even stronger antidepressant and suggested that I go away for a while, preferably to a place where I had spent little or no time with Bobby. A place that was essentially free of his memory.
Praying that she was right, for I had no wish to spend my life in perpetual mourning, I threw away Laura’s new prescription and went to see Damon, my partner in the antiques appraisal and authentication business that we had founded together half a dozen years earlier, when we had both been penniless art students.
How can I possibly explain Damon if you have never known him? After nearly a decade of friendship I still find it difficult to accurately describe my odd and funny little partner in any terms that don’t seem hopelessly clichéd.
Oh, his physical description is easy enough. Imagine if you can, a wild tangle of untamed dreadlocks surrounding a shiny, round ebony smiley face. Place that silly head atop a short, comical figure that seems precisely as wide as it is tall. Now, drape the whole lopsided creation in a wardrobe tending toward the sort of shiny tights and billowing sleeves you might find in a bad high school production of The Pirates of Penzance and you’ll have an approximate snapshot of Damon.
Not too surprisingly my strange friend’s manner closely matches his clothes. For he is always flamboyant, often outrageous and, sometimes, thoroughly ridiculous. Bobby once jokingly remarked that Damon reminded him of the rubber Michelin Man on uppers.
Damon is nothing short of brilliant with an eye that can spot from a hundred paces the slightly improper curve of 19th-century feet that have been cleverly “married” to a 17th-century French Provincial sideboard, with the devious intent of elevating its value by some tens of thousands of dollars. Let him poke around removing drawers and examining the piece for a few minutes and he’ll identify the wood by its grain and color alone, and name its precise region of origin. Given a few more minutes, Damon will probably come up with the exact year of manufacture, the cabinetmaker’s name, and then go on to inform you that it was actually the man’s youngest son, a deaf-mute, who added that tiny, exquisitely carved floral relief to the drawer fronts.
In the highly competitive world of high-end antiques, Damon St. Claire is more than conventionally brilliant. He is legendary.
When we were at NYU together Damon frequently skipped classes in order to haunt the museums, junk shops and galleries of the city, in search of beautiful furniture. And while I often went along on his excursions for fun, I was generally content to merely observe and admire the rare and valuable objects that he invariably discovered.
But not Damon.
Damon had to lay hands upon the satiny woods, sniff the scents of the centuries-old glues and lacquers, trace with his short, stubby fingers each cunningly wrought curve and plane of the exquisite Italianate chair found tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Met, or the dusty Georgian settee discovered in some Village pawnbroker’s dusty storeroom, as if by so doing he was able to somehow read the secret history hidden at the heart of each lovingly wrought masterpiece.
Visiting a museum with Damon was like participating in a terrorist raid. And many’s the time I served as his lookout—me, the demure young college girl lurking in a doorway, pretending to be studying an exhibit brochure—while my dwarfish accomplice was behind the velvet ropes in the next room, mumbling like a demented witch doctor over some priceless artifact or other.
Despite the fact that we actually lived together for more than a year—if sharing two drafty rooms in a SoHo walk-up could actually be called living—everyone who knew us then was absolutely certain that Damon was gay. And perhaps he is, though I have never heard him utter so much as a single word expressing lust or longing for another living soul of either gender.
As far as I know, Damon’s passion is and always has been reserved exclusively for the fabulous objects of earlier times.
When we were living together our small circle of artist friends considered Damon’s obsession with furniture to be nearly as hilarious as his appearance. At least that was how they felt until the incident that later came to be known as The Armoire Affair.
It all began with the news that an extremely rare and beautiful Louis XV armoire was to be sold at auction. Damon, who even when we were starving, always managed to obtain the elaborate and glossy catalogs that exclusive auction houses send out to carefully preselected buyers, usually at a cost of several hundred dollars per copy, had merely glanced at the full-page color photo and accompanying description of the fabled French armoire.
Then he pronounced it a fake.
Because he claims to loathe writing, he drafted me to compose a brief note to Christie’s, the auction house that was handling the sale of the armoire. In the letter I carefully explained why the alleged masterpiece could not possibly be genuine.
Not surprisingly, Christie’s was underwhelmed by our brash analysis of the Fabulous Object. In fact, they did not even bother replying to our letter. Three days late
So you can imagine our astonishment when, several months after the auction had taken place, we received a mysterious luncheon invitation from Sir Edward North, Christie’s senior curator of European decorative arts.
Sir Edward, a scholarly Englishman who looks as if he belongs in an Oxford lecture hall, apologetically informed us that our letter had been misplaced until long after the sale of the French armoire. But when he had finally gotten around to reading it, the prim curator confessed, he had instantly realized that he and his firm had been embarrassingly duped by an antiques forger.
A forger who was clever, but not as clever as Damon.
What had impressed Sir Edward most, he continued during the course of that extraordinary luncheon, was not the fact that Damon had detected a subtle inconsistency that exposed the fraud—an exotic hardwood mentioned in the catalog as part of the armoire’s inlaid marquetry was a rare mahogany found only in the Brazilian rain forest, a section of the world not explored by Europeans until well after the reign of Louis XV—but that he had done it without ever having seen the armoire itself.
The persistent curator had then offered Damon a staff position at Christie’s that seemed like exactly the kind of job my eccentric friend might have spent his whole life dreaming of.
But, to my utter amazement, Damon had flatly refused, explaining that he wouldn’t consider any job that required him to remain in one place every day, much less one that involved the writing of long and dreary appraisals. He had to be free, he said, free to wander his beloved museums, galleries, junk shops and libraries, as his whims, appetites and hunches dictated.