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“Mum, Pat’s here.”
From somewhere at the back of the chalet she heard her mother’s voice calling back. “Come in Pat. I’m just packing up.”
Helen entered the main living area and smiled at Pat O’Boyle. “No Margaret?”
“She’s got things to do and I’m in the way,” he said, rolling his eyes in sheepish innocence. “She thought you might have things to do as well and I could take the children out of your way for a while.”
“Oh, what a shame, David’s gone out to play with friends. I’m sure Annie would like to go out for a while though. Wouldn’t you love?”
Helen walked over to the table and looked down at Annie’s painting. “Oh Annie, that’s lovely.”
The painting showed a red and white striped pole in the middle of a blue sky with a bright yellow sun in the top left corner, its spiky rays descending far down into a rectangle of green. Dotted around the rectangle were various other shapes.
“What’s that?” asked Pat, pointing to a figure apparently doing some kind of jig.
“That’s David. He’s doing Keepy-uppies,” Annie replied pointing to the brown blob just above the figure’s knee.
“Is this me?” asked Helen, indicating what was clearly a woman, dressed like the ones on the signs for the ladies’ toilets, reading an oversized book.
“Yep and that’s me and Daddy.” Annie pointed at a mass of limbs. “Daddy’s giving me an aeroplane ride.”
Helen smiled at her daughter. She loved to see her happy.
Pat O’Boyle broke in. “So, do you fancy going out for a while then?”
The truth was that she didn’t but to say so would be rude. “Are you coming?” she asked her mother.
“No, I’ve got packing to do and I need to clean up this place so that they’ve got no excuse to keep our deposit.”
“Can’t I stay here with you?”
“Don’t be silly. You’d be bored. Anyway, not an hour ago you were complaining to go out.”
“I know but I don’t want to now.”
“No arguments, you shouldn’t be stuck indoors on a day like this.”
“Come on, we’ll go and play some ball and then I’ll buy you an ice-cream.”
Annie had no choice. Reluctantly she followed Pat out of the chalet and onto the country road that led to the old lighthouse, passing the O’Boyle’s chalet on the way and waving to Margaret who stood at the kitchen sink by the window. They walked along the lane, a man in his holiday sandals, chatting away jovially to a small child at his side in her pink summer dress. It was a common enough sight in any seaside town.
Pat O’Boyle and his wife, Margaret, had been friends of the family for most of Annie Baker’s life. The two families had met on holiday and had kept in touch, arranging their holidays at the same time each year. The O’Boyles had never had children of their own. Margaret was over ten years older than Pat and by the time they had realised it wasn’t going to happen she was too old to adopt — the only option available to childless couples back then. Although there was always a hint of melancholy about her, Margaret accepted her lot, put on a brave face and focused her energies on doting on any children she came into contact with, especially Ann and David. Ann was more than happy to return the affection of this kind and gentle woman.
Pat was a different matter. Annie had never really been able to take to him. He was friendly enough, and generous, and her parents seemed to like him. He was always telling jokes and entertaining them with stories of his own childhood. Despite that, there was something Annie didn’t like. It was not the way he looked or anything in particular that he said or did. He was a small-framed man, barely taller than Annie’s mother and he spoke in the smooth and charming tones of Dublin. He kept his near-black hair cut neat and short and his blue eyes were always smiling — the picture of amiability. There was just something about him that made Ann feel uncomfortable.
It was on a the last day of their holiday when Annie was ten years old that she discovered that her instincts could be trusted. She woke late, for a ten year old anyway, and her father had already left. He had returned to work on the train, leaving her mother to pack up and drive the children home.
It was a beautiful day, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the heat was tempered by a gentle breeze. Annie stumbled through the living area, rubbing her eyes, and headed straight for the small table by the patio doors at the edge of the kitchen area. Sitting opposite David, she waited, watching him shovelling cereal into his mouth like he was afraid it was going to disappear.
After a few moments, her mother entered the room from one of the bedrooms that adjoined the main living area. Helen Baker was a good looking woman and, like many women, she worked at making the most of it. By now her dark brown hair was brushed and backcombed into place and her make-up was done for the day. Her figure showed the signs of child-bearing but she managed to limit it’s effects by keeping check on her weight.
“If you want breakfast you’ll have to get it yourself,” she said, plainly irritated by Annie’s late arrival. “I’ve got too much to do,” she called over her shoulder as she exited through another door.
With a stifled sigh, Annie got down from her chair, grabbed the cereal packet from the cupboard and the milk from the fridge and took them back to the table. She poured out far too much cereal and then managed to slop more milk onto the table than she got in the bowl.
“Mum, Annie’s making a mess,” David called, shooting a spiteful grin at his sister.
“Oh for goodness sake you two, don’t start already. I really can’t be bothered with it today.”
Annie opened her mouth to protest that she hadn’t started anything but then decided that it wasn’t a good idea. She knew her mother well enough to know when she was stressed and she also knew her well enough to know that doing anything to add to that stress would only get her swift smack on the behind.
“You two need to entertain yourselves today,” Helen called from the open door of the bathroom.
“I’m going out anyway,” David replied. Being three years older than Annie, he had made his own friends on holiday that year and had spent most of his time with them.
“I’m sorry?” His mother raised her eyebrows.
“I mean, can I go out today?”
“That depends where you’re going and who with.”
“Paul and Rick. We’re going to play football over the field.”
“Just make sure you’re back by 2 o’clock. We have to hand the keys in by then.”
“Can I go with him?” Annie asked.
“No.” David shot back before his mother could reply.
His mother glared at him before turning back to Annie. “No love, it’s too much responsibility. Anyway, you’d only argue.”
“No we won’t,” Annie protested.
“No. It’s not a good idea.”
Annie adopted her best dejected posture, shoulders slumped, head down, bottom lip protruding. “Can I go over to the playground then?”
“On my own.”
“No. That really isn’t a good idea.” She shook her head to emphasise the point.
“Because it’s not safe.”
“I’ll be really careful crossing the road. They taught us how to do it at school.”
“It’s not just the roads that are dangerous.”
Her mother just shook her head. “You’re too young to understand.”
“No and that’s the end of it.”
Annie gave up. She knew that tone.
Half an hour later, David had left and Annie found herself alone in the chalet with her mother. She sat at the table staring out the open patio door as her mother cleared away the breakfast dishes and wiped down the table. She was bored. Her mother watched her from the sink and smiled sympathetically. She wiped her hands on the tea towel and disappeared into the bedroom. A few minutes later she returned to the table with a palette of watercolour paints and a pad of plain paper. She filled a plastic picnic beaker with water from the tap and put it on the table in front of Annie. Annie brightened, picked up the paintbrush and set to work, merrily creating her masterpiece.
She noticed the shadow cast across her painting but it took several seconds before Annie thought to look up to see what had caused it. She didn’t smile when she saw Pat O’Boyle standing at the patio door.
It’s not too late to turn back, she told herself. I could turn around now, go home and forget about it. She laughed at the ridiculousness of the thought. Forget about it? Oh how she wished that were possible. If she hadn’t managed to forget about it in over thirty years, she was hardly likely to forget about it now. No, there was no going back. She might as well get it over with.
She walked slowly, looking at the unspoilt landscape all around, making the tall building ahead seem all the more awe inspiring, or intimidating, depending how you looked at it.
The door to the lighthouse was just as she remembered it — vertical slats of unpainted wood, weathered by the years of coastal exposure and fixed solidly to the frame by iron hinges, once black but now rusted brown. The grassy area to the front where they had lain out their picnic so many times seemed smaller than she remembered and the trees and bushes that surrounded it taller.
She walked on to the open land at the side of the building where she and David had played catch and shared hopes and dreams. Such happy memories, all snatched away, tainted. She tried to turn around, to look back towards the lighthouse, the rear of the lighthouse. She couldn’t. She hated herself for her own stupid weakness. She had to do this. She had to.
Eventually, she mustered the strength to turn her body but her eyes closed in reflex resistance. It took every ounce of her strength to lift her head and open her eyes. She had expected it to look exactly as it did in her memories and dreams. It didn’t. Not because her own child’s-eye memory had distorted the reality but simply because it had changed. The rusty, metal frame that she had never quite been able to identify, but which had been fixed in her memory all these years had gone. Why did she expect it to be there still? A wooden dining chair was placed looking out to sea and an old mattress lay half propped against the rear wall of the lighthouse. She walked further, drawn towards the spot where it had happened. Looking down at the ground, the memories came flooding back.
She remembered the smell of tobacco on his breath as he brought his face close to hers. She remembered the feel of his calloused hand held over her mouth. She remembered how his voice, usually so bright and amiable, turned quiet and sinister as he spoke:
“If you make a noise I’ll throw you over the side. I’ll say it was an accident — that you fell.”
She gazed up at the imposing red and white striped building remembering how, as a young child, she had come here every summer holiday with her family. She remembered the old, candlewick bedspread laid out as a picnic blanket and how her brother would tell her stories of shipwrecks and smugglers as they ate cakes and played catch, their mother calling to them from behind her book not to go too close to the edge. She remembered how her father had once held onto her so that she could peer over the edge of the cliff to the rocks so far below, how she had felt both afraid and excited at the same time.
Inevitably, her thoughts moved on to later, darker memories. She shuddered, took a deep breath and started her ascent along the dusty road.