The Lighthouse, by Agnes Owens
‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ said Megan to her brother Bobby playing on the beach with his pail and spade. ‘Let’s go to the lighthouse.’
‘I don’t want to,’ he said, without looking up. At three and a half years he had the face of an angel, but his appearance belied a strong determination to have everything his own way. So thought Megan, aged ten.
‘You can stay if you like,’ she said, ‘but I’m going and I just hope a monster doesn’t get you.’
At the mention of the word ‘monster’ he began to look over his shoulder. It was only recently she’d been telling him about monsters and how they ate children. She’d even shown him a picture of one in an animal book, which was actually that of a gorilla, but it had been enough to make him refuse to sleep with the light off and even with it on he would waken up screaming.
‘I don’t want to go to the lighthouse,’ he said, running over and butting her in the stomach with his head.
‘But I do,’ she said, skipping off lightly over the sand.
‘Wait for me,’ he called, picking up his pail and spade and trailing after her.
Together they walked along in a friendly way, going at a pace that suited them both. The day was warm but with a bit of wind. Megan almost felt happy. They came to a part of the shore that was deserted except for a woman walking her dog in the distance. Bobby stopped to gather shells.
Throw them away,’ said Megan. ‘You’ll get better ones at the lighthouse.’
He emptied his pail then asked if the lighthouse was over there, pointing to the sea wall.
‘Don’t be stupid. The lighthouse is miles away.’
He said emphatically, ‘Then I don’t want to go.’
Megan lost her temper. ‘If you don’t start moving I’ll slap your face.’
At that moment the woman with the dog passed by. ‘Is that big girl hitting you?’ she asked him.
Before he could speak, Megan had burst out, ‘He’s my brother and I’ll hit him if I want.’
The woman studied them through thoughtful, narrowed eyes. ‘Do your parents know you’re out here in this lonely place?’
When Megan said they did the woman walked on with the dog, muttering something under her breath which Megan suspected was some kind of threat aimed at her. She hissed to Bobby, ‘See what you’ve done. For all we know she could be going to report us to the police and you know what that means?’
‘Mummy and Daddy will be put in jail for neglecting us and I’ll have to watch you for ever.’
At that he let out a howl so loud she was forced to put her hand over his mouth.
‘Be quiet, you fool. Do you want that woman back?’ He quietened down when she promised to get him an ice-cream.
‘Where’s the van?’ he asked, looking around.
‘Over there,’ she said, pointing in the direction of the lighthouse. At first he believed this, running beside her eagerly, but when they went on for a considerable length without any signs of an ice-cream van he began to lag behind.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘or we’ll miss it.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Don’t ask me stupid questions,’ she snapped, thinking how it wasn’t fair that she had to be saddled with him all the time. ‘You’re a silly bugger anyway.’
‘I’m telling you swore.’
‘Tell if you want,’ said Megan, thinking her parents couldn’t say much considering the way they swore.
‘If you don’t come –’ she began, when he started walking again, and just when she thought he was going to act reasonably for once he stopped in front of a rock.
‘Look! There are fish in there,’ he said.
Grumbling, she went back to investigate. It was true. There were tiny fish darting about a pool of water within a crevice in the rock.
‘Aren’t they pretty?’ she said, just as he threw a stone into the pool causing them to disappear. She shook him by the shoulders.
‘You have to spoil everything, don’t you?’ she said, letting him go suddenly so that he sat down with a thud. But he was up on his feet quick enough when she said, walking backwards, ‘A monster’s going to get you one of these days, the way you carry on.’
After a good deal of tramping over dry sand that got into their shoes and made their feet sore, Megan suggested they climb up over the dunes on their right-hand side to see if there was a better and quicker path that would take them to the lighthouse. He didn’t answer. She suspected he was still brooding about the ice-cream, but he followed her, which was the main thing.
Climbing the sand dunes wasn’t easy. They kept sliding back down. Bobby did it deliberately thinking it was funny. Megan was glad to see him in a better mood. When they got to the top they found they were on a golf course stretching for miles with nobody on it but a man in a grey track suit. He saw them, came over and said, ‘Better watch out you don’t get hit with a golf ball. It’s not safe up here.’
Megan asked him if he was a golfer – she noticed he wasn’t carrying any clubs. When he told her he was just out for the day collecting golf balls, she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to.
‘Bobby,’ she said loudly, ‘we’d better go back. Mummy and Daddy will be looking for us.’
‘But I thought –’ he began and was cut off by Megan pulling him back down the sandy slope. When he got to the bottom he said that he’d wanted to stay up there.
‘It’s not safe,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ Then, as if it had nothing to do with anything, he let out a tremendous wail.
‘In the name of God, what is it now?’ she said, in the same tone her mother used when totally exasperated.
‘I’ve left my pail and spade,’ he said, pointing up at the sand dunes.
She felt like strangling him. ‘Well, I’m not going for them,’ but when he began to wail loud enough to split the rocks, she said she would go if he came with her to the lighthouse.
‘I don’t want to,’ he said, stamping his feet in temper. ‘I want to go back to that other beach where Mummy left us.’
It was then she decided she’d had enough of his tantrums. ‘Go then,’ she said, giving him a shove so that he tottered on blindly for a few steps. ‘I don’t want to ever see you again.’
When he turned round she was racing along the beach at a fair speed. He called on her to come back, though it was doubtful she heard him above the cries of the seagulls, but even if she had, she probably wouldn’t have stopped anyway.
On arriving at the lighthouse, she saw there was no way to get close to it as it was surrounded by water, not unless she waited until the tide went out, and that would take hours. Sullenly, she looked up at its round turreted shape thinking it was much more boring from this angle than it had seemed from a distance. She wished she’d never come. The sea was stormy now with the waves lashing over the rocks. The whole venture had been a complete waste of time and energy, she decided. Suddenly her attention was riveted to what looked like a body in the water. For a split second she thought it was Bobby, which would have been quite impossible considering the distance she’d come. Nevertheless, it was a great relief to discover this was only a mooring buoy. She laughed at her mistake then began to feel uneasy. She could picture him stumbling into the sea for a paddle thinking it was all shallow water. It was the kind of stupid thing he was liable to do. Panic swept over her. What if something terrible happened to him? She should never have left him like that. Without another thought for the lighthouse or anything but Bobby, she began running back to where she’d left him, praying that he’d be all right.
From a distance she saw him hunkered down, digging in the sand. He must have gone up the sand dunes to get his pail and spade after all, she thought. She slowed down, her legs tired and aching, then to her dismay she saw the man they’d met on the golf course. He was hovering a few yards behind Bobby poking some debris on the shore with a stick.
‘Bobby!’ she called out sharply. ‘Come over to me at once.’
He either didn’t hear this or pretended not to, but the man did. He looked up at her and began to walk smartly in their direction. Galvanised into taking some kind of action, she ran forward to reach Bobby first. In fact she’d almost got to him when she slipped on a stone covered in seaweed and went down, the back of her head hitting off its sharp edge.
Her eyes were staring up at the sky as the man and Bobby crouched beside her. Bobby said, ‘You shouldn’t have left me. I’m telling Mummy.’
The man pulled him back. ‘Leave her alone. She’s in bad enough shape.’ Then he put his lips close to her ear. ‘Can you hear me?’
When her eyes flickered he put his hand over her mouth and nose and held it there for a considerable time. After that he turned to Bobby saying, ‘We’ll have to get an ambulance. You can come with me.’
Bobby said he didn’t want to get an ambulance. He wanted to go back to the other beach.
‘All right,’ said the man, taking him by the hand and dragging him towards the sand dunes with Bobby protesting all the way. His cries died down when they vanished over the top.
Later that afternoon, a strong breeze sprang up along the shore, lifting clouds of sand into the air as well as the strands of Megan’s hair drifting across her race. Seagulls came down to stand on her and poke her with their beaks, then, as if not liking what they found, they flew off to the horizon whilst imperceptibly and gradually her body sank into the sand, making a groove for itself. A passer-by might have thought she was asleep, she looked so peaceful. But no one came by that day, and in the evening when the sun went down she was gone with the tide.