A story by Kevin Baker
The sheep saw us coming, but they didn’t move. They remained in tight formation, blocking the path and munching on the heather that lined the cliff top. The lighthouse shimmered on the peninsula ahead, its broken windows glinting in the late August sunshine. Beyond that was the town, huddled white against the hill like washed up polystyrene.
Lauren didn’t say anything as I bounded into the middle of the shaggy mass. I tried to drive them up the bank, but instead they retreated further down the path, their wet eyes shining with fear. I was soon out of breath and I stopped and turned round. Lauren was looking out to sea, her hair floating on an updraft, momentarily obscuring her face. When it drifted back down, I saw that her mouth was a tight line.
The morning had been spent in IKEA with her mother, buying all the things Lauren needed for university. We’d piled the trolley high with colorful beakers, bedspreads, knives and forks, cute pots and storage solutions. I’d made a joke about the amount of Volvos in the car park – there were phalanxes of them in front of the Swedish mother-ship, the Mecca of the middle classes. It was only when Lauren’s mother shook her head that I realised I was sitting in the back of one. Lauren’s mother had hated me since she overheard my remarks about those inedible hybrid breads she baked every morning: blue berry and cream cheese, sweet corn and raisin.
After we’d finished at IKEA, I’d managed to talk Lauren into walking back to town with me along the cliff tops. We’d taken that route a many times before, and I was hoping the familiar landscape would awaken the old Lauren, for one night at least. She was so alive in my memories of her, eager for any adventure I’d suggest. We’d clambered down wet rocks to hidden caves, where we kissed in salty embraces. We’d hunted through hedgerows for berries, collapsing under prickly thorns in damp laughter, our mouths stained red from the juices. I’d drawn arabesques on her naked body with the charcoal from a fire; she’d braided my hair with daisies. We were wild then, two savages exploring the ancient land, shunning the monuments that men had scattered around it and finding sanctuary instead in veiled bowers on overgrown islands. That was the Lauren I’d fallen in love with, not this silent girl with me that afternoon.
I gave up on the sheep and went over to Lauren. The scene felt incomplete without her laughter track, like I was playing to an empty hall. She didn’t look at me when I put my arm around her.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked, instantly regretting the triteness of the question, and knowing how needy it sounded.
“I’m saying goodbye to the sea. Or rather, I’m saying goodbye to the horizon. That’s where I look anyway. You can imagine, can’t you, people thousands of years ago, looking out at it and wondering what’s beyond it. Are we any happier for knowing?”
I couldn’t stifle my automatic response and a wave of disgust wrinkled my nose. I hated it when she talked like that, in airy riddles. It was as if she was preparing her role for university, all earnest questions and passion-starved “readings” of any given situation. I couldn’t think of a reply and so we stood in silence for a while, each alone with their thoughts.
A few months before, Lauren’s friend Bethany had begun dating an art student from a neighbouring town. I’d always known her as a sweet and slightly gawky girl, but with the student’s help she’d discovered her confidence, and was now permanently encased within tight jeans and miniscule leather jackets, the shapeless dresses of the past hung, unloved, on racks in the local charity shop. She’d started smoking, too, and affected a bored air about things that used to excite her.
I watched as Lauren became infected by Bethany’s new-found cool. Her bookshelf became choked with dead French writers. She took down the map of our county – its secret spots ringed with penciled hearts – and replaced it with a framed print of Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss. Finally there came the pronouncement that she was going to study English Lit in London, though I’d never heard her mention the subject nor the place before. That summer, our last summer, flew by. She drifted further from me with every new day.
The first few drops of rain wet my shoulder. Fat dark clouds had crept up on us unnoticed as we gazed out to sea. I grabbed Lauren’s hand and we drove the sheep down the path in front of us, finally managing to break their ranks and scatter them. I pulled her up the hill, hoping to reach the bus shelter next to the lighthouse before the downpour started. We didn’t make it, and within minutes we were both soaked through.
Lauren hugged herself as the rain drummed on the roof of the shelter, her blonde hair plastered to her face in delicate wisps. She was shivering. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. She gave a quick smile of thanks and looked back at the floor. A couple were sheltering in their car in front of us. The engine started with a splutter, and they sloshed out of their parking space and headed back down the hill towards town. I looked at the lighthouse and nudged Lauren.
“What?” she said, without raising her gaze.
“The door’s open.”
“No way,” Lauren said, smiling for the first time since we’d left IKEA. The lighthouse door stood slightly ajar, revealing the darkness within. “We should have a look.”
Lauren pulled the jacket tighter around her shoulder. “Come on.” I followed her out into the rain, silently thanking the nameless forces that had opened the door. Nobody I knew had ever been inside the lighthouse. No one I knew had even pretended to have been inside, it would’ve required too great a lie. The door was always locked, and the windows were too high off the ground for even a ladder to reach. I had spent many an afternoon with my school friends dreaming up plans of how to break in – plans involving grappling irons and strong ropes – plans on which we never acted.
“Hello?” Lauren called as we stepped inside. It was dark and silent, and smelt of rust and wet rocks. “Do you think there’s someone in here?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.”
She put her hand through my arm and lent against me. I felt her warmth through my wet T-shirt, smelt her damp hair. We stayed that way for a few moments, standing just inside and letting our eyes adjust to the dark.
“I can’t hear anyone,” I said.
“Look,” Lauren said, letting go of my arm and walking over to the wall, “look at this.”
She took her phone from her pocket and held it up, shining the light from the screen onto the wall to reveal inscriptions scratched into the whitewash. She read one aloud, “Betty and Wilf, 1940.”
She shone the phone over another inscription, her face lit eerily by the reflections off the wall. “June and John, 1942. They’re all from the war.”
I looked up and saw that the whitewashed walls were covered from top to bottom with inscriptions – there were hundreds of names and dates – a garden of Ivys and Roses, a year of Mays and Junes. Hearts were scribbled everywhere, a thousand arrows piercing them. I wondered how many of the couples had been reunited, how many had made promises they couldn’t keep, with words on loan from Vera Lynn. How many of the men were buried on foreign soil? How many had plummeted, like my grandfather, into the English Channel? I could see them all down there, still strapped into their aircraft, flying in formation with the fishes, a squadron of algae-covered skulls with goggles full of water.
I quietly slipped my keys from my pocket and walked to the opposite wall. Lauren continued to read the inscriptions aloud as I took my own phone out and used its light to find a free space on the wall. I found one and started carving her name with my keys. I was halfway through the “e” when she stopped reading.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t look,” I said. “I haven’t finished it yet.”
“David! How could you?”
“What?” I said, turning round. “What’s the problem? Why can’t I write our names?”
“Because … because …” Lauren was staring at me, her face screwed up with frustration, with me, and with herself for not being quicker with a response. “Because this is a special place. That’s why. Don’t you get it?”
“I’m just writing our names,” I said. “This place belongs to us as much as it does to them.”
Lauren shook her head. At that moment she looked just like her mother. “You don’t get it.” She turned her back to me and walked towards the door. She stood there, leaning against the frame and staring out.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Lauren didn’t respond. I wanted to go over and put my arm around her, but I couldn’t face the cold shoulder. I stood rooted to the spot, the keys hanging limply in my fingers like a murder weapon.
“The rain’s finished,” she said. “We should get going.”
“But what?” she said, spinning round.
“I might as well finish it.”
Lauren let out an exasperated sigh and stalked out the door, leaving me alone with the damp air. I heard the bus coming up the hill, and I knew she’d get on it. I reactivated my phone and finished her name by its light. Then I added my own, along with the date. I looked at it for a long time; even now the shaky writing is embedded in my memory.
It started raining again on the walk back to town. I bought chips and ate them looking out at the sea, wondering if I should go to her house and try to salvage our last night together. In the end I decided against it.
I visited the lighthouse the next day, already feeling mopey and nostalgic. The door was locked as usual. I never learned why it had been open that day.
A few years later a local historian opened the lighthouse and “discovered” the inscriptions, just as a couple from the city was going through the process of buying the place. Despite strongly-worded protests in the local paper, their plans eventually went ahead and they converted the lighthouse into a family home, obliterating the past.
As for Lauren, she excelled at university and went into publishing. Later, she married a lawyer, and her wedding day marked the end of a certain period in my life, one based on fantasies of tearful reunions, of a love that spans the years. I used to believe that she could never love anyone as she had loved me, with all the certainty my ego could muster. Perhaps, to an extent, I still believe it, but it takes a lot of wine to bring back that certainty.
One thing I am sure of though: in the lighthouse, below layers of paint, we, like the wartime couples, are together still.