There had been a few storms in her life lately. And it seemed there were more to come…
Gemma’s lighthouse wasn’t the cosy, squat kind that perched on clifftops and graced the covers of kiddies’ storybooks. It was towering, tall and thin and a little sombre with a rusty red stripe around its middle.
Not much to look at. All peeling paint and functionality.
And protectiveness, of course. Because everyone knew that’s what lighthouses did. They warned of danger and they protected, standing straight and tall. Looking out over stormy seas and calm, being battered and bruised in all weathers. But always there.
A constant light in the darkness, on good days and bad.
It wasn’t really Gemma’s lighthouse. It was a local landmark on the south-west coast of England where she lived. But she drove past it every morning on her way to work.
She was a junior at Bright’s Solicitors, whose office was on the parade of shops just off the coast road.
Gemma neither loved nor hated being assistant PA to the partner, Rick Bright, but she was good at it and it might lead somewhere.
In another life Gemma would have been a singer/songwriter – she had a way with words, her English teacher had said. And quite possibly she’d have lived in California near some white sandy, palm-tree-fringed, sun-soaked beach, instead of on a wild, bleak Cornish coastline battered by relentless rollers.
She had a good voice and had once narrowly missed getting through to the live auditions on Britain’s Got Talent.
They’d said she sounded great. One of the producers had really liked her. But to get onto the show, you had to be exceptional. Exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.
“No taste, that’s their trouble,” Gemma’s dad told her.
“Never mind, love. You’re probably better off sticking with the legal eagles. Better job security.”
Gemma had been tempted to say something much ruder. Two or three years ago she would have done, but she wasn’t a stroppy child any more. She was nearly eighteen and she knew Dad was trying to be kind.
They’d both been through a lot in these past eleven months. They’d lost Mum, for a start.
She hadn’t died or anything awful like that. She’d had what Dad had called a midlife crisis.
She’d started an affair with a guy from Truro, which was the next big town along the Cornish coast, and now she had gone off to live with him and start a new life.
Gemma was part of that new life, of course she was.
She and Mum met once a week for tea – usually in Pizza Express, because Gemma didn’t want to go to the new man’s house.
His name was Peter and he had a bachelor flat – or at least it had been until Mum had moved in apparently and started buying cushions and adding feminine touches.
She told Gemma all about this with an eager hope in her eyes that Gemma might visit. But Gemma would have felt disloyal to go to the bachelor flat when Dad was still raw from the break-up.
He didn’t say he was raw. He said he was fine.
And he said that Mum wasn’t to blame and sometimes these things just happened.
But Gemma knew he was hurting, deep down under his surface brightness. He’d got thinner lately, and greyer, and he had tiredness lines even when he’d only just got up.
He still told rubbish jokes and pretended to be hearty and he still made his special dinner – ham and mushroom herby omelettes on a Friday night.
Dad was the only person Gemma knew who could toss an omelette like a pancake without breaking it.
But Gemma knew he missed Mum because his eyes went a little distant sometimes when he thought she wasn’t looking, and if an old song came on the radio he switched it off.
Then one Friday, on the same day when there was a large landslide on a section of cliff not far from Gemma’s lighthouse, Gemma’s life shifted again too – changed direction like a capricious south westerly wind.
If she was honest, she knew the winds of change had been blowing for a while. She’d had a few rows with Dad lately. He’d got grumpier about silly things, like what time she came in at night and who she might be seeing.
On this particular Friday she got in late from work.
Rick had asked her to do some overtime and she’d gladly accepted. She and Dad had argued that morning over the mess she’d left the kitchen in the previous night, and she’d flounced out.
She was still quite good at flouncing, despite being nearly eighteen. But honestly, Dad had turned into a right old grump lately. He was always having a go at her about something.
There hadn’t even been that much mess in the kitchen. She was beginning to wonder if it was time to move out. It would be good to be more independent. And a girl at work was looking for a flatmate.
She raced in, ready to apologise to Dad. Her mood had changed since this morning and she could be gracious even if he was grumpy.
But she found the house empty and quiet.
That was odd. She’d expected Dad to be at the stove cooking, or at the very least to be chopping up mushrooms and whisking eggs with herbs. But there was no sign of him.
In fact the kitchen had that kind of stillness that made her feel as though it had been empty for some time.
“Dad?” she called, hurrying into the lounge in case he was there.
Then she hurtled up the narrow stairs in case he’d not been feeling well and was having a lie down. His bed was neatly made from this morning.
Worried now, she ran back down to the kitchen.
It was only then that she saw the note.
It was propped up against the kettle, held in place by the pepper grinder and it said:
Gemma, sorry I couldn’t reach you. Your dad had a funny turn. We’re at the hospital.
Liz was their next door neighbour. Gemma felt her heart go icily cold.
What did she mean, a funny turn?
She reached for her phone and found it was dead. She’d forgotten to charge it last night and it must have given up the ghost sometime this afternoon. No wonder Liz couldn’t reach her.
Oh, my goodness. How long ago had they gone? There was no time on the note.
She grabbed her bag, keys and the useless phone, dashed outside again – Liz’s car wasn’t there either – and decided to head for the hospital. There was only one, so she couldn’t get that wrong.
All the way there, her head conjured up nightmarish scenarios. Dad had collapsed on the floor, Liz had found him and called an ambulance.
Or Dad had tripped in the garden and hit his head – that was a more likely scenario – and Liz had been looking over the fence.
All of her imaginings were terrifying.
Gemma’s own heart pounded with fear and her fingers felt slippery on the steering wheel of her old car.
Then, finally, she was at the hospital and an efficient nurse told her that her dad was in ward H4, the cardio ward.
She took the stairs two at a time. All the while she replayed scenarios and she prayed.
Please let him be OK. Please give me the chance to tell him I love him. Please give me the chance to say sorry. Please, please don’t let him die.
Then finally she was at the nurse’s station and they told her that Dad was in room two, in the third bed from the door. Only then did she slow down.
She took a deep breath and went in.
From the doorway, she could make out only a lifeless mound with a woman sitting by the bed. Liz.
When she got closer and adjusted her glasses, she realised that it wasn’t Liz at all. It was Mum.
She did a double take. What on earth was Mum doing here?
Then she saw that the lifeless mound had just been Dad’s legs and he was in fact sitting up in bed – albeit with an oxygen mask over his face. But he was evidently breathing.
Oh thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Gemma.” Both her parents spoke at the same time.
“We’ve been trying to get hold of you,” Mum said.
“Liz left a note. My phone’s dead. Never mind me. What happened?”
“I’m absolutely fine, love. A lot of fuss about nothing.” Her dad looked pale but very cheerful.
“He’s not fine.” Her mum frowned and bit her lip. “He’s had a mini stroke.”
They were holding hands, Gemma saw, and a little flicker of hope started in her heart.
They were holding hands – so it couldn’t be all bad.
“I fell over when I was getting in the washing,” Dad continued. “Liz heard the crash and came over. I’m lucky I didn’t break the crazy paving.”
“He collapsed. He’s lucky Liz saw him on the ground and acted quickly,” her mum corrected.
“Is he going to be all right?”
Gemma asked her mother the question but she was looking at her dad.
He looked a bit gaunt and a bit sombre and, to be honest, more than a bit rough around the edges and her heart flipped over in pain again.
“I’ve got to take things easier, love.
“And I need to stop racing around like a forty-year-old. I forget I’m not such a spring chicken.”
“And I didn’t help, going off on one this morning. I’m so sorry, Dad.”
“It’s not your fault, love.”
“He’s got high blood pressure and he does too much,” her mother said briskly. “He needs to take more care of himself. In fact, I’m going to make sure that he does.”
“What? You’re moving back home?” Gemma held her breath.
“Temporarily.” Her mother’s voice was somehow harsh and soft all at the same time. “Just to see how we go for a bit. You know.”
Gemma didn’t ask about Peter. She didn’t want to know about Peter. All she could think about was that they might be able to go back to how they’d once been.
Back to being a family…
“We’re not going back, love. We’re going forward,” Dad said.
“That’s right, a new start.”
“That sounds brilliant.”
“Dad’s staying in hospital for a night or two so they can monitor him, and I’m going back in a minute to pack him a few bits and pieces. That’s if I could borrow your keys, love, could I?”
Gemma handed them over and she stayed on a bit after Mum had gone.
She didn’t want to stay too long. Dad definitely didn’t need to get overtired. And she didn’t want to bring up anything too stressful like how Mum’s return had come about, and what had happened to Peter.
So for a while they talked trivia.
She told him about the landslide and how the lighthouse was now a good three foot nearer to the edge of the cliff.
“That lighthouse has been there a couple of hundred years and it will be there a couple of hundred years after we’ve gone,” her father said resolutely.
Gemma nodded in agreement, thinking of her lighthouse.
Towering tall and thin and a little sombre, with a rusty red stripe around its middle.
Not much to look at. All peeling paint and functionality. And protectiveness, of course. Because everyone knew that’s what lighthouses did. They warned of danger and they protected.
Standing straight and tall. Looking out over stormy seas and calm. Battered and bruised in all weathers, but always there.
A constant light in the darkness, on good days and bad.
Just like dads.
Our My Weekly Favourites series of feel-good fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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