The Smuggler’s Sweetheart was the winning entry in our fourth short story competition held in 2019.
The Smuggler’s Sweetheart
by Mai Black
Mary stood on the chalk cliff top watching Jack’s boat disappear over the horizon. An hour passed, then two, whilst the waves lashed the rocks and the stars pinned themselves one by one to the darkening sky.
All too soon, it was time for work. She followed the ragged path back to her father’s inn, and there they all were: the grizzle-faced men with soup-stained moustaches and bulging bellies who leered and cursed and grabbed at her skirts with their filthy hands.
Until Jack, that was all she’d known – grime and stink and coarse laughter. But then, one day, the door flew open and in he came with his shiny, black leather boots, his navy, gold-trimmed jacket and his pale grey eyes, bright and cool as the dawn.
Since that day, every waking hour was filled with thoughts of him; every dream was of the two of them together, collecting shells or wandering through meadows of tall rippling grasses as they shaded their eyes from the dying sun.
She was sure he felt the same. So what if he flirted with her older sister, Rose? So what if some nights Rose sat on his lap whilst he played with her ringlets? Men never married girls like that. When she was old enough, she and Jack would be wed. She would plait her hair with lilacs and honeysuckle, and Rose would stand by, bitter, envious, and alone.
For it was she, Mary, who kept the lamp lit for him, she who kept his secret. Jack was no common sailor. He was far more valiant, more resolute, a man in charge of his own destiny. Smuggler. That was the word he’d whispered on their third meeting, when he’d taken her outside, away where no one else could hear, when he’d brushed his thumb against the softness of her hand and asked for her help.
‘Can you do it?’ he’d asked. ‘Light the lamp and guide me safely.’
She’d nodded, and he’d left her in the moonlight, his faint kiss still drying on her cheek.
For three seasons the trick had worked, and each time Jack found land safely. One morning, however, after Jack left, Mary fell ill. When she tried to leave her bed, she fell heavy against her pillow and could eat nothing all day, save a single spoonful of broth. Even so, that evening she staggered in her nightgown to light the lamp at her window in case Jack should choose that night to return.
The next day, her fever was worse, and the pain was so great she clasped her head in her hands. Yet, as the window darkened, she peeled back her sweat-soaked sheet, held the matchbox in her trembling hand, struck the blue flame and lit the lamp.
And so it went on until the seventh evening, the evening Jack had chosen to sail home. ‘The lamp,’ she whispered.
‘Hush!’ her mother said.
A mile from the English coast, lightning ripped the sky and thunder rolled barrel-heavy as Jack battled against the waves. It’s not worth it, he thought, sea salt pricking his face, his jacket sodden and clinging icy-cold to his chest. This will be my last crossing.
Now all he wanted was to reach dry land and stay there. Peering into the darkness, he searched for the light. But there was none to be seen.
The stupid girl had promised, he thought. So where was the light? Why hadn’t she lit the lamp? The creature was half in love with him. So where was it?
Just as he was losing hope, he saw a glimmer.
‘Good girl,’ he whispered and followed where it led. Soon he would have his lips pressed to a foaming mug of ale with Rose sitting on his knee.
A gust of wind parted the clouds and the moon appeared. Too late, he realised he was headed straight for the cliffs. He pulled hard on the oars, trying to hold the boat steady, but another wave came crashing, smashing, driving him forward.
What had gone wrong? Had the lamp been moved? Had he been looking in the wrong window?
A wave, higher and more powerful than all the others, thrust him forward. There was nothing he could do. It slammed his boat hard on to the rocks, splintering the hull. The foaming water rushed in, but, he told himself, he was a good swimmer; he might yet survive.
He pushed himself away from the rocks and kicked his legs hard. It was then that he saw the light. All the strength went out of him as the light drew him down and down, deeper and deeper, to where Mary was waiting for him, lilacs and honeysuckle plaited in her hair, and with the lamp from the window clutched tightly in one frozen hand.