“Good morning, Mr Sunshine”
“What a beautiful morning, Sunshine.”
Tay, tagging along behind Grandmother Ida, clutching at her skirts, despite his advanced age of 5, frowned a little. The tall figure of Art Browning was as familiar to him as the contours of his bed; slender, dressed completely in his shabby suit the colour of midnight, squiggles of white hair escaping around the brim of his battered top hat; his only spark of light the slender silver fob chain rocking in rhythm with his slow gait. Art was always there, wandering about the village, close as he could be to a Greenlake legend. All the kids knew him, all the adults, but Tay couldn’t understand this serious of greetings. He tugged hard on Gramma’s skirt when she halted outside the bakery.
“Why are they calling him Sunshine?”
“Art? It’s a nickname, little one. Like we call you Titch sometimes.”
Tay cogitated, chewed the idea into several different shapes, but none fitted. He distracted Gramma again, her patience infinite with yet another in the unending line of grandchildren at her heels, some her blood, some not, all loved equally.
“But he isn’t bright…?”
Ida nodded to the baker:
“Send the usual over, please, Rose.”
The girl in the store grinned, bent to tuck a sticky bun into Tay’s eager hand, and the pair left, beginning the slow meander back to Gramma’s cottage. Her walk was always punctuated by Greenlake residents, some merely passing a respectful greeting, others needing more attention, advice, solace, a smile, but for the next few minutes Ida concentrated solely on the puzzled little man at her skirts.
“You understand what a nickname is, Tay?”
He munched thoughtfully on his bun, then sprayed stickily over his reply.
“Like your name but not. Like Gramma is short for Grandmother.”
“Quite right, but there are other ways to give someone a nickname, a sort of joke. Do you know Ivor, the carpenter?”
Tay nodded, choosing silence over spraying more crumbs. Everyone knew Ivor. He was the tallest person Greenlake had ever know, almost seven feet high. Tay didn’t like to admit it, but he found Ivor’s hugeness very unsettling, like he might one day just topple over, a tree blasted by the wind, and fall on Tay or someone else.
“Have you ever noticed that everyone calls him Tiny?” More nodding around a certain amount of finger sucking; Rose’s icing was a local delicacy. “That is exactly what I mean. Ivor is a very tall person, so it is a gentle tease to call him Tiny, or to call Bart, the innkeeper, Slim.”
Bart was very keen on his own product and Tay giggled slightly, recalling Bart’s impressive paunch.
“So Art is… the opposite of dark?”
“In a way, yes. His job involves him working after the sun had gone. Do you know what he does every day, Tay?”
“Not really. He just walks about.”
Ida paused, her face a mirror of the boy’s frown as he tried to grasp what was being explained. At that moment Art walked out of the smithy and came to a gentle idle in front of them. Ida gave a decided nod of her head and spoke. Tay noticed the hint of respect in her voice, no joking here.
“Good morning, Arthur” she inclined her head, acknowledging his hat tip, “Might I ask a small favour of you.”
“Of course, Grandmother, I am ever at your service.”
“I have been trying to explain to Tay why everyone calls you Sunshine or Sunny, but it is easier to show than to tell. Would you take him with you on your rounds this evening? I will talk to his mother, never fear.”
Art looked down at the grubby little urchin, clinging tightly to Ida’s skirts and grinned, winking at her as he studied the boy.
“I’m not so sure, he seems a bit of a scaredy cat to me.”
Tay was prodded into indignation, blustering forward to defend his honour, his grip on Ida’s skirts a thing of the past.
“I am not scared! Don’t you say that! I’ll… I’ll… kick your shin!”
Art mimed abject terror, grinned and acquiesced with great show.
“Since you have no fear of all that lurks in the darkest corners, young sir, I shall collect you from your house at six of the clock. I advise you to eat well, little master, as it may be a long night for one so young, for all your bravery.”
He tipped his hat once more to Ida and disappeared into the bakery. Ida took a gentle grip on Tay’s hand, giving comfort to the light sheen of fear in his eyes.
“Let’s have a chat with your mother, shall we?
The appointed hour rolled around and Tay had worked himself into an excited state of nervous curiosity, standing on the kitchen chair to watch for Art to go past the window. Tay was already up past his bedtime – usually when the darkness began to roll in- and he had never seen the night street. His attention was caught by a flare of light which steadied to a flicker and seemed to levitate into the air. A moment latter a lamp pulsed into life and a golden circle glowed beneath illuminating the figure standing with raised pole. Art Browning, lighting the lamps in Greenlake which held back the deeper shadows, the inhabitants of dark recesses. Without Art, Greenlake’s sole lamplighter, there would be a lot less movement through the village at night. He progressed steadily up the street, occasionally greeting a denizen, pausing to accept a meat pie from the butcher, a lidded tankard from the inn, before arriving at Tay’s. He raised the pole and knocked gently on the door.
Tay scooted down from the chair, almost falling in his haste, flung open the door and spluttered excitedly;
“Let’s go, let’s go!”
He felt his mother’s hands come to rest on his shoulders, gently anchoring him to the floor, her worried face turned up to Art’s.
“Grandmother spoke with me, but Art… he’s just a child, not even in school…”
Art saw tears brim, saw them blinked firmly away and offered a smile.
“As was I Bet, as was I, and I did alright, didn’t I?”
Not sure she could trust her voice she ushered her son – he oblivious to this adult business – into the street with a quick kiss and a whispered plea;
“Keep him safe, Art, please.”
“Have no fear, Beth, the lad’s safe with me.”
She fled inside and the mismatched pair continued down the street.
The streets of Greenlake were built around a central market yard, framed by stalls and the smithy, overlooked by the inn, The Green and the Blue, thought to be a reference to the verdant landscape, but actually lost in time for the building was as old as Greenlake itself. Thus the main street ran in a circle around this hub but the folk to the village lived in streets which radiated off the centre like the spokes the year’s wheel. By the time Art had lit all the central lights, Tay had studied long and hard, watching the careful lighting then lifting of the tinder box which stoked the lamps. When they diverted onto the first side street he tentatively spoke.
“Mr Sunshine sir?”
“Art will do, Tay.”
“Art, sir… can I have a go?”
Art studied the boy, head on one side, making a drama of what was actually part of the plan.
“You may, but you’ll have to let me help.”
Art nodded approvingly; no complaints, no questions, just wanting to learn. Good.
“Here then.” He crouched, extending the pole behind his body, allowing the tinder box to come within Tay’s reach, “Flick the lid open, but keep your face clear.”
The action of opening the lid caused the tinder box to strike and spark into flame. Tay smiled, delight in his eyes as the flame appeared.
“Stand here, in front of me. That’s it. Hold the pole… so. Now, up!”
Together they lifted the flame, darting behind its curved metal hood, and brought it to the candle in the lamp far above. Bathed in warm light, Art showed Tay how to catch the glass door panel with the edge of the tinder box and push it closed.
“That’s why I leave them open in the morning, when I put the lamps out…”
“Because it makes it easier at night!”
“Just so, lad, just so.”
They wandered the streets, weaving back and forth until they reached the darkened house of the Casey family.
“Wait here lad.” Art cautioned and stepped up to the door. A single candle burned in the front window, Tay enjoying the way it danced in some unseen breeze. Strange, that single light when the rest of the house was in darkness; surely they were all in bed and Art wouldn’t get an answer? Wasn’t it dangerous to leave a candle burning when they were all in bed?
The metallic clack of a catch, the creak of wood, interrupted his thoughts. A shadowy figure emerged, nodded at Art and hurried back inside. Tay sidled closer, peeking from behind Art’s coat-tails. The figure returned, one hand shielding the candle which had been removed from the window and brought to the door.
“Are you ready?”
Tay looked up sharply, Art’s voice suddenly soft, light, comforting, like Tay’s mum when he was upset, crying. A sniff from the internal shadows, a faint wail from deeper yet, seemed to confirm his thoughts, then Mr Casey stepped into the street.
“Don’t think we’re ever ready, not really, Sunshine, but yes. Take her.”
Tay became more puzzled by the second. Take who? He expected someone to exit the house, but no-one came. Instead, Art moved forward, taking a strange tube from one of his many coat pockets. It was glass, glinting in the candlelight, but it had a strange ball on the end, almost like a balloon. He held the open end of the tube next to the candle, squeezed delicately on the ball and Tay jammed his hand into his mouth as, with a delicate sigh, the flame detached from the candle and slipped up the tube. Art corked it quickly and slipped it back into his pockets.
“I’ll see her on her way” he assured Mr Casey, laying his hand on the man’s shoulder for a long moment and then turning away, walking into the next street without a backward glance.
They walked for a few minutes, silent, brooding, both deep in their minds, until Tay could contain himself no longer.
“What happened? How did you do that trick with the flame?”
“It’s no trick, lad. You hold patience now, a little longer. Show me how grown up you are, Tayner.”
The use of his full name, only used by his mother when he was in trouble, made Tay sit up and take notice. He trotted along beside Art, silent, thoughtful, determined to show he could follow orders and be told these secrets. For secrets he was certain there were, secrets that maybe only Art knew and would share with Tay.
By the time Art slowed, beginning the sloping walk up to Owl’s Reach, the highest point in the village and for many miles around, Tay was flagging. His legs felt like lead and his eyes kept threatening to close. His companion seemed suddenly aware, reaching down, scooping the boy up and depositing him on his shoulders.
“Be our lookout, lad. Nearly there now.”
The final mile was a new and enlivening experience for Tay, up at a height he – long deprived a father – had never known. The new vistas kept him awake and interested to the point he was surprised when Art stopped and leaned his lamp pole against a tree.
“Won’t need this for a bit. Down now, Tay. Any good at climbing trees?”
What a question to ask a small boy, Tay thought. He didn’t know a single child in the village who hadn’t at least attempted to climb Hanging Oak, a massive creature which seemed to soar up to the sun, and Tay had been the first to reach the great bough with its ancient rope scars.
Art grinned and started running.
“There, I’ll be up first!”
Tay was momentarily stunned at the sight of an adult snaking up an enormous elm, but his pride wasn’t about to let a grown-up beat a kid at tree-climbing! A few moments later they were side-by-side, perched high in the canopy, staring through a clear patch in the branches, up and up into the endless velvet of night, gently pierced with a billion sparkles.
“I’ve never seen stars, Art.”
Art dropped a companionable arm about the boy, aware of his weariness, but hiding protection in comradeship.
“And how do you like them?”
“I don’t have words. They are even more beautiful than my mother…”
Art nodded sagely.
“Those are very good words, Tay, very good indeed. Now, I promised you an explanation. Do you know what you are made from?”
“Blood, bones, hair, skin, all that icky, brilliant stuff.”
“True, true, but do you know where that icky, brilliant stuff comes from to make you?”
Art pointed into the endless midnight, bejewelled with more diamonds than pebbles on the shores of the world’s oceans. Tay gazed, open-mouthed, and then his now familiar frown emerged.
“Not that, no. The stars, Tay, you are made from stars. Long before Greenlake, before animals and plants and long, long before people, the gods were bored one day. They decided to have a game of dice and the winner could name their prize. There were just two gods left, Ingor, who had a terrible temper, and Gliss, the gentlest of all. Gliss rolled a perfect throw and won the game. Ingor, enraged beyond reason, took up the prize, a beautiful glass goblet filled with the essence of life, and smashed it into a million pieces. As the glass flew through the air, into the darkness, Gliss claimed her prize. She blew a soft, endless breeze into the darkness and filled each tiny speck of glass with life essence, her breath fixing these twinkling lights into the darkest ever night. This new light, we call it starlight, became companion to the goddess, her company through the nights when she was alone in the darkness. As Gliss stepped away from the world, her arguments with Ingor more than she could bear, so her stars began to detach and fall from the sky, streaking through the night and falling upon the world. Everywhere they touched, new life sprang up. As with all life, it fades and when life dies on the world it must return to where it began to begin the cycle anew.”
He paused, Tay’s guileless face enraptured by the story, and drew the tube from his pocket. He handed it gently to Tay, guiding his fingers to the cork in the end.
“Mama Casey died today. She was old, and tired, her starlight barely a twinkle any more. Her family put that candle in her window and waited. With her last breath, Mama Casey blew her starlife into the flame. I drew it into the tube and now you are going to send her back into the stars, Tay; you are going to give her the chance to start again. Can you do that?”
Tay nodded, awed into silence. His fingers pulled, slow and steady and the flame leapt to the end of the jar as a soft pop heralded escape. The flame fluttered up, paused, bobbed to the pair on the branch, and flew. It soared, swooping and diving, swirling and spinning, growing brighter as it fled into the midnight. Art made a fast catch as Tay clapped his hands in delight, toppling, but Art had always been a safe pair of hands.
“Look, oh look, Art. She’s alight!”
And she was. Mama Casey reached her zenith, burst into a shower of silver sparkles, melded together and shone, the newest, brightest star in the dark midnight. The goddess slipped from behind a wisp of cloud to greet her return. Art whispered the blessing Ida had taught him more than 60 years ago, and hugged the boy close.
“Now you know why they call me Sunshine.”
“Because you bring the light back to all the people.”
The pair wandered slowly back to town, but on his doorstep Tay paused and stared up at his new friend.
“Are you tired Art?”
The older man was instantly aware of the deeper resonance of the question, crouching down to be on the level with Tay.
“A little, lad, a little; my starlife is spread thin these days.”
“Hmmm…” a quizzical little sound, “Can I learn to be you? To light the lamps and make people shine? Can I be Sunshine too?”
“Let’s go inside and talk to your mother about it, Starlet.”
Ida watched the pair disappear into the house and smiled, turning for home. They would make a good team.