Word on a Whim

The Chwyrn Bay Lighthouse – a short story

Maria knelt on the beach hugging Victor the greyhound as she gazed in awe at their home. One month into her new life and she still had a sense of being on holiday. Victor wagged his tail, his long nose pointing skyward to sniff the sea air.

  ‘So much fresher than London, eh?’ When Maria had heard that the decommissioned lighthouse at Chwyrn Bay was on the market, she had seized the opportunity to escape from London; sold her apartment and quit her office job to move to North Wales.

  The estate agent had been dubious. ‘I’m not sure it’s suitable to live in, although I’m not aware of anything in the deeds to say you can’t. It has got plumbing and electricity, and a built-in cabin bed, but there’s very little space.’

  Maria was undeterred. She was a competent oil painter who specialised in seascapes. This was her chance to try to earn a living from a hobby, and the profit from her London home would allow her to live on savings until she became established and formed contacts with galleries.

  Victor leaned into her and she rubbed his shoulders. ‘I hope the locals don’t resent us, coming up from London and buying their lighthouse.’ She felt conspicuous and identifiable owing to her striking red hair and pale skin. The old lady at the post office had given her a funny look yesterday when she gave her address as the lighthouse.

  ‘Welcome to Chwyrn,’ said a soft voice behind her. ‘I hope I didn’t startle you.’ A man with twinkling blue eyes and greying hair was smiling down at her. His border collie was on a short lead, tail wagging coyly between her legs. ‘I’m Tom, and this is Elsa. Is yours friendly?’

  ‘Maria and Victor.’ Maria stood up and smiled. ‘I don’t trust him with tiny dogs, but he should be okay with Elsa.’ Tom was looking at her with a curious expression, like the post office woman had. ‘It’s because he’s an ex-racer,’ she added to fill the silence. ‘They have a strong prey drive and he’s not so good on the recall if he sees something moving.’

  ‘Well … it’s good to meet you.’ Tom raised a polite smile, and began to walk away down the beach, then turned back. ‘Bring him along for a run with Elsa, if you like. She won’t go out of sight so if he’ll stick by her, they’ll be okay.’

  Maria bought a paraffin lamp as a backup for the dodgy electricity supply, and took to lighting it in the evening for a couple of hours. Nowhere near as powerful as the original beacon would have been, but it cast a warm glow on the beach and brought the lighthouse back to life. Painting was going well – the sea, as a living force, giving spontaneity to her seascapes. She’d made contact with a few art shops who were happy to exhibit her work, and made a few sales on the internet.

  Tom walked Elsa along the beach most days and, if Maria wasn’t engrossed in painting, and saw him passing, she’d join him. Mostly, they walked in companiable silence, watching the dogs and laughing at their antics as they chased the waves up and down the shore.

  ‘Storm forecast for tonight,’ Tom said the one day. ‘Hope you’re okay for paraffin – you know what the electric’s like!’

  Maria was excited by the prospect of capturing some dark and stormy scenes that night. The wind was picking up already, and dark clouds hurried across the sky.

  After tea, Victor curled up in his bed with a sigh. Maria knelt and stroked his back in the bed that curved into the wall, then ascended the spiral staircase, lit the lamp, and prepared her paints and brushes.

 The storm rushed in, bringing waves crashing up the beach – closer to the lighthouse than she’d thought possible. She felt the lighthouse being buffeted by the wind. The electric light on the staircase flickered, whilst the paraffin beacon glowed steadily. She painted with frenetic energy, daubing her fingers in the paint and sweeping them round the canvas to make waves, then drumming with white paint on fingertips to create an appearance of surf and sea spray.

  Lightning came before the thunder and she scratched her nails through the wet oil paint, down to the white canvas below to create jagged streaks of light. Satisfied with the effect so far, she wiped her hands on a rag and picked up a fine brush to add some detail. The sky lit up again and, for a second, she saw a figure on the beach. Brush poised, barely breathing, she waited for the next flash of lightning. Yes! There was a man on the beach looking up at the lighthouse. A tingle of fear crept through her, and when the thunder finally crashed, she almost dropped the brush. The electric light went out and she froze at the sound of scratchy footsteps on the dark staircase … but it was only Victor. He pressed against her and trembled silently. ‘Poor boy, it’s okay,’ she soothed, sounding more confident than she felt.

  The dog settled and she turned her attention back to the beach. Now that the only light was from the paraffin lamp, she could see outside more clearly. There he was! A man standing some distance away, staring at the lighthouse. He must be able to see her silhouette. What was he doing out there? If he needed help, wouldn’t he wave or come closer? She decided to include him in the painting. A small figure would put the height of the waves in perspective, and add mystery to the scene. She resumed painting, this time using a fine brush …

  Maria woke up next to Victor but wasn’t entirely sure she had slept. The storm had passed. The paraffin lamp had burnt out, but weak daylight was casting some light around her. She glanced up at the oil painting that was still on the easel, rubbed her eyes and moved in to take a closer look. Startled, she hurried down the staircase, clutching the handrail tight as Victor pushed past to get down first.

  The electricity was still off so she unpacked the camping stove and set some water to boil in a pan to make tea. She checked her phone but there was no reception. The storm must have brought something down. Naturally, the lightbulb beamed into life just as the water was finally coming to the boil. She made tea then fetched the painting down, and stared, frowning at last night’s work …

  Craving human company for the first time since moving to the lighthouse, she watched out for Tom and Elsa, and was relieved to see them ambling along the beach around their usual time. She stepped out onto the beach with Victor as they approached.

  ‘The tower kept getting knocked by the wind. I could feel it shaking. I thought it was going to fall down!’ She laughed, trying to lighten it, but Tom could see she looked paler than ever, with dark shadows beneath her eyes.

  ‘Don’t worry about that, it’s got interlocking bricks that dovetail together, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s Smeaton’s oak tree design. Before the coastal defence work, the waves would sometimes come right up to it, but owing to the curved shape, they’d roll just a little way up and then fall back.’

  ‘Isn’t Nature a wonderful architect?’  

  ‘Aye, that she is. Rest assured; this one won’t be falling down. Not like the old one.’ He read her expression. ‘Didn’t you know?’

  ‘I knew this wasn’t the original Chwyrn Bay lighthouse, but didn’t know the old one fell down! I tried to look it up this morning but there was no internet connection. No phone signal either.’

  ‘Oh well, at least the electric’s back on.’

  ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

  ‘That wasn’t a hint – but since you’re offering!’ 

  In the small kitchen area, Tom was staring at last night’s storm painting.

  ‘I’ll move that out of the way,’ said Maria, but Tom stayed in front of it.

  Maria made the tea. ‘It’s not finished yet. As you see, they have no hands. I often leave those details until last as I find hands tricky. That man was on the beach last night, so I decided to include him but …’

  ‘But what?’

  ‘I’ve no idea why my self-portrait is next to him.’ She put the mugs of tea on a small table and took out two folding chairs, carefully positioning them around the dogs’ legs and tails.

 ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I don’t remember painting myself next to him. Occasionally, when I’m painting, I get a sense that someone else, or maybe my subconscious, is taking over and steering the composition. I tend to just go along with it, sometimes completely moving away from my preliminary sketch.’ She laughed lightly. ‘But it’s the first time I’ve accidentally incorporated a self-portrait!’

  Tom was quiet for a moment, apparently engrossed in dividing a biscuit equally between the two dogs. Finally, he looked up at her and said, tentatively, ‘I don’t think that’s a self-portrait. Her name was Anna, and she looked very much like you.’ Maria’s eyes widened. He went on, ‘The first time I met you I did a double-take. You look exactly like the photos I’ve seen of her. As for the man on the beach, that must be Joseph, still out there looking for her after more than a hundred years. I guess it’s the light you’ve put up there that’s attracted him. Hey, don’t be scared! Sit down and I’ll tell you the story, and you can make up your own mind.

  ‘Joseph and Anna were lovers. Joseph was a lighthouse keeper at the old lighthouse; the one that collapsed. Anna was trapped in an unhappy marriage and used to meet him secretly at the lighthouse. The evening the storm brought the lighthouse down, Joseph had walked into the town to get supplies and was on his way back to start the night shift. He knew Anna was waiting for him because the key had gone from beneath the rock on the cliff; the place he left it when he went out, in case she came to him. As he’d turned the corner, ladened with candles and a couple of days’ worth of food, villagers were huddled together in the wind and rain and there was some sort of commotion going on. You can imagine the relief when he turned up – they thought he’d been in the lighthouse, you see.

  ‘So … they all start cheering and hugging him, then he looks over the cliff and sees the lighthouse has gone! Apparently, he ran along the raised path, yelling her name, then jumped down on to the beach. They tried to stop him but he fought them off and, well, the sea took him. His body was washed up on the shore a couple of days later, but hers was never found.

  ‘Over the years, some folks claimed to have seen him on the beach if they were daft enough to be out in a storm. But not since the lighthouse was decommissioned. Your little paraffin beacon must have brought him back.’  

  They both looked again at the painting, and a few silent tears ran down Maria’s face.

  ‘You need to finish the painting, Maria. But not yet. Wait until the next storm comes.’ 

  They didn’t have long to wait.

  ‘It’s going to be a rough night. I brought some paraffin, so you don’t run out.’ Tom looked at her, meaningfully.

  ‘Then, I guess it’s time to finish the painting.’ She hesitated. ‘I don’t suppose you’d come along for company?’

  Maria prepared the paints and set the unfinished painting on the easel. She looked nervously out to sea and watched the black clouds approaching, and was relieved to see Tom and Elsa strolling casually along the beach.

  ‘The tides have always been unpredictable in this bay. Fast and rapid. That’s what “chwyrn” means, you know. It’s safer since the work they did along the coast, but you’ve still got to be careful.

  It wasn’t like Tom to make unnecessary conversation. She guessed he was nervous too. The storm arrived with a vengeance, and angry waves crashed on the beach. ‘I see what you mean about it shaking the tower. Perfectly safe though. As I told you –’

  Maria was pointing to the beach below. Tom saw it too; the silhouette of a man standing looking up at them. He turned up the paraffin lamp and the light illuminated the figure. A well-built man with strong features and thick dark hair, inappropriately dressed for the weather … Joseph.

  Maria raised her paint brush and Tom nodded. ‘It’s time to paint.’

  Tom felt a thrill of adrenalin as a second figure began to materialise on the beach next to Joseph; indistinct at first, shimmering in and out of vision. He found he could see it more clearly if he gazed beyond, out to sea. Looking directly seemed to make it fade. He glanced at Maria to see if she’d seen it too, but her eyes were twitching and unfocussed, whilst her hand worked deftly with the paintbrush. Back on the beach, he could see the second figure clearly now. A woman with red hair and pale skin … Anna.

  Maria had stopped painting. Tom looked at the canvas and saw the couple were joined by their hands, which were clasped together.

  ‘Maria,’ he said softly. She didn’t respond so he took the paintbrush and clasped her hand in his. She blinked a couple of times then looked at the painting before her.

  Tom pointed down at the beach. As they watched, Joseph and Anna turned away, joined hands and walked out to sea. Their images faded. Tom and Maria sat in silence for a while. The storm passed over and the moon began to shine through the clouds.

  ‘I don’t think we’ll be seeing them again,’ said Tom. ‘They’ve found each other now, and finally moved on to wherever they belong. Good work, Maria.’

  Maria smiled at the completed picture, happy with the result. ‘But it wasn’t all my own work though, was it?’

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