The fresh smell of sea air wafted its way through the car window as I arrived at the familiar retreat. My home from home.
Over the horizon the I spotted the endless blue of the North Sea, appearing as if from nowhere behind the tall hills and cliffs of the east coast.
Thornwick Bay lies in the heart of the Flamborough clifftops, a picturesque painting of the East riding Yorkshire landscape. The site attracts families and tourists interested in hiking, sightseeing and dog walking. At just 4 miles north east of the popular coast of Bridlington, there is opportunity to head out to the pebbled beach depending how volatile the blustery weather is on the day.
The site holds many activities such as swimming pool and clubhouse complete with arcade games that enjoy gulping your spare change as holidaymakers down their expensive alcoholic drinks. The entrance to the park is a long stretch of road, equipped with fishing lake and walkway that heads up to the local pub – The Viking, a pub from yesteryear serving exceptional food and strong cask ales.
The most prominent feature of the area is the old lighthouse that stands tall on the cliff tops staring out to the North Sea. First lit in 1806, the lighthouse has a history of guiding vessels to both Bridlington and Scarborough with the white giant standing at almost twenty-seven metres tall. At the summit, the steel railings of the balcony and huge lantern face.
Some places in the world, a person can just make a connection, an unexplainable bond with the landscape. For me, it’s Thornwick Bay, the place that I hold dear to my heart. This place which is home from home. This place that terrifies me to the core.
So, why have I come back?
I first visited the site when I had been six-years old and returned every year since until I was thirteen. Back in those days, mobile phones had just shown glimpses that one day they would take over the world, Woolworths still sat on the Highstreet and Michael Owen was giving the Argentinian defence nightmares in the World Cup of 98.
It was also when Thornwick Bay wasn’t being run by a larger enterprise. The clubhouse still had the green and purple carpet where your shoes stuck to the spilt beer, the fish and chips were served in old-fashioned newspaper and the only thing to do as a kid was play on the muddy grass.
My sister and I were excited. Nothing beats being a kid going on a cheap caravan holiday with cotton candy and sugared doughnuts. We were a middle-class family. Rarely did we go abroad, instead mum and dad saved for two of these caravan holidays every year. We didn’t crave plane rides to exotic places, maybe because we didn’t know any different.
Mila was eight at the time. The five-year age gap causing irritation from time to time. Whenever a friend was over from school, mum told me that I had to somehow involve Mila, which was a pain because all I wanted to do was talk about girls and play Resident Evil or Cool Boarders on the Playstation.
Mila on the other hand with her brown pigtails and chubby face was finally coming out of her Disney princess and unicorn phase, falling into that stage where interests changed, yet couldn’t pinpoint what to do to stimulate her mind. The result was that Mila developed a fascination in trying to get involved in everything I was doing.
On holiday though, I enjoyed her company. She was my little sister after all.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been what many would describe as a loner.
Approaching forty-years old, I’ve never married or had kids. Regretfully, I don’t think I will ever have the chance to bring a family to the seaside to thrive on that British childhood that Mila and I had.
When I pulled up outside the caravan I’ve rented for the weekend, I just sat for a few moments, taking in my surroundings. I’m back. Back where it happened. Back to the place where mum and dad pledged they’d never return throughout their lives. This place that drove mum to her early grave.
Beside my caravan is a small park, made up of a few swings, a slide and seesaw. There were a few kids with their families, but the park was quiet being in October and out of season.
There was cold in the air, the waning voice of winter on the horizon, the smell of cold. Inside the caravan I dropped my overnight bag thinking about the closure I needed. That bag signified that I was coming back, and that thought was futile.
This place has haunted me since that summer in 98, and now was the time to build up the courage, to rip off that bandage of guilt.
I’d entered the caravan just as nightfall came knocking.
I remember it was night because I recall the moon being so large and the vast number of stars in the clear black sky.
Mum and dad were watching a movie – some thrilling detective movie by the look of it. There was a smell of burning and a half-eaten pizza on the side.
They’d told us to be back by nine – no later.
I walked in with mud on my hands and a distant look on my face.
‘You guys have fun?’ mum asked, not taking her eyes off the TV.
I couldn’t reply.
Had I had fun? I couldn’t remember.
After a few seconds, which felt like hours in the silence, mum turned to look at me.
Her smile cut short: ‘Will? Where’s Mila?’ she asked.
I looked back and shrugged, ‘can I have some of that pizza?’ I asked moving forward.
‘Will, where’s Mila?!’ mum asked again.
Dad had finally embroiled himself in the impending volcanic conversation. He’d jumped up and circled the exterior of the caravan finding no sign of my sister.
All the while, I was gnawing on burnt yet delicious cheese pizza.
‘She out there?!’ Mum called.
Dad came back in and shrugged.
‘Will, where is your sister?!’ mum finally erupted.
I settled down and had a cold beer with whiskey chaser on the side in the clubhouse bar – aptly named: The Lighthouse. As it flowed down, I could feel the nerves beginning to calm, only ever so slightly though. I couldn’t get her out of my head. She’s waiting, I can feel it. I must take my mind to another place.
Focusing on my surroundings, I concentrated on the bar. Gone is the homemade pub grub of the old clubhouse, now replaced by modern and generic food that is overpriced and clearly straight from the kitchen freezer.
Outside, children played on the larger park, field, and sandpit. It’s cold as ice, but kids don’t feel the cold, do they? Or maybe they do … I would imagine Mila certainly did.
In the distance, the lighthouse flashed, its beacon drawing me in.
I’d put this off for far too long.
The memory of what happened that night is still blurry, like a smudge on a camera lens, there’s a picture there, only I can’t make it out.
After a few more drinks I decided that it was time. Time to face the past, to face my demons.
Over the field I walked in the perishing night, my shoes trudging in the soft moist grass. At the end of the entrance road, I turned left and down the long stretch of country road flanked by tall foliage swaying in the icy gusts. Soon I passed The Viking pub, seeing the smokers stood outside laughing and joking. If only they knew what dwells here, deep in the crust of the cliffs.
Those caverns hide a dark secret don’t they, Will?
Before I knew it, I’d arrived at the lighthouse and fear gripped my senses.
Mila was found the next morning.
She was floating face down in the shallow water on the rocky beach. It was the owner of the café that had found her. She’d screamed so loud that a hiker on the cliff came running to help.
Mum and dad were inconsolable as expected. Me? I had been in a trance since the night before wondering why I hadn’t had breakfast and wondering what all the fuss was about. It would be days later after we arrived home that reality would sink in. I’d fall into a despair that any other feeling would be inferior. Mila was gone and she was never coming back. Mum and dad blamed me; I could see it in their eyes. They never out right told me as much, but I could see it.
The doctors had said the trauma of what happened blanked out my memory and that’s why I couldn’t explain what happened to poor little Mila.
Even now after all these years later, as the memories slowly come back do I question what happened that night.
Making my way past the lighthouse, I stood on the cliff top.
Peering down I saw the hard waves crash into the protruding rocks below. On the cliff was a steep walkway down, manmade in the earth and dirt with wooden steps. As the terror of what I might find down there gripped hold of me, I contemplated turning and running , just like the coward I am.
As I did, I looked up and saw the small girl at the top of the lighthouse. She was stood on the balcony, holding onto the rails with white hands. It was hard to tell whether she was stood or floating but either way she was looking down at me with pale blue eyes, glinting like the stars behind her head.
A thrust in my heart told me what I already knew that the figure was my little sister.
There was a gash on her head and her body looked … unnatural.
Like a contortionist, her limbs were crooked.
The way she had been found.
After few rotations of the gleaming light of the lighthouse, the apparition of Mila disappeared.
Whether my mind had played tricks or not, seeing Mila was a warning that if I didn’t face the thing tonight, then I would be haunted forever.
The thing in the cave that took her from me.
With the last pluck of courage, I started my descent down the steep steps down the cliff side and toward the beach. Toward the cave.
Mila and I had been playing on the park.
As the night drew in, I suggested we head back to the caravan to mum and dad.
But Mila, being the age of inquisitiveness said that she was wanted to see the lighthouse. Checking the time, we had another hour or so before we had to be back. I’d said we had to be quick because the sun was setting.
Once there we’d looked out to sea, breathing in the freshness that only the coast can bring. That’s when Mila pointed down to the beach.
‘What’s that, Will?’ she asked.
Following her finger, I squinted.
In the sea, something was floating.
At first, my mind processed it as maybe a wide sheet of material or something else. But I quickly calculated that the navy leather clothing and grey hair was in fact a person. An old man by the look of it.
‘We need to get help,’ I said.
‘We can help, Will!’ Mila yelled.
Looking around, I saw no one in the area. No one to help.
I nodded, starting down the steps, with Mila close behind. Rushing onto the beach, we ran straight to the sea and found nothing. The thing floating in the water was gone.
Frowning I looked back at Mila, ‘we should get back, Mila,’ I muttered.
Something felt off. I couldn’t explain what but certainly felt it.
‘I don’t get it,’ Mila said. ‘Have they sunk?’
‘We’ll get back to mum and dad and call the police,’ I said taking her hand.
I turned and started to pull Mila with me and that’s when I saw the movement in the cave to my left.
The old man was staring at us
Inside the cave I made my way over the rocky and slippery surface, the familiar feel of sliding on the moss underneath my feet.
When I got to the end of the cave, I looked out at the blustery waves, the tide spraying up before me. Around me the shadows hid deep in the cave interior, nothing but the occasional flash of the lighthouse providing any light.
‘I know you’re here,’ I said.
Only the splashing waves answered.
‘I said, I know you’re here,’ I said again.
And then he came, moving from the darkness to my right-hand side.
Mila and I entered the cave, calling out after the old man.
At the far end of the cave, he sat upon the rock, a statue glaring out to the ocean. From the back of him I saw the long grey hair drop to his shoulders beneath a white cap and he wore a navy leather jacket.
‘Were you just in the water?’ I asked.
For a moment the old man just sat.
Without turning, he said: ‘I’m always on the water.’
‘You looked like you were in trouble …’
‘Here, to the water and then to the lighthouse,’ the old man replied. ‘Then I get to see beyond the light, until I venture here again … back to the water.’
‘Do you need help? Is there anyone we can get for you?’ I asked.
‘Help? I’ve been alone so long, yes, so very long. It gets awfully lonely in that lighthouse.’
‘Lighthouse? I didn’t think there were any lighthouse keepers left these days?’
The old man fell silent. Then he turned. He was old in the face with a bushy white beard, his skin weathered. As the light from the lighthouse came around, Mila and I saw something that made our knees fall weak. On the right side of his face was exposed skull and bone. His eye socket was black. The left eye was glazed over with a milky white glaze.
‘Yes, it gets awfully lonely here,’ the old man said.
Mila screamed. Her sound echoing off the cave walls.
‘Aww, don’t scream, child. Do you want me to show you what is beyond the light?’ The old man asked, stood, and held out a gloved hand.
I turned to run, grabbing Mila by the arm. We skittered over the rock until I lost my grip. Then a noise that I have never forgot, one that has haunted my life since that night.
A quick yelp followed with a dull thud.
Turning back, I saw Mila laid on the rock, blood seeping from her head.
Creeping up from the dark, the old man appeared, moving unnaturally.
Mila looked at me with terrified eyes, the blood from her head falling into the rockpools.
Slowly, she held up her hand for help.
I turned and ran.
I’d read about the old folklore tale long after those adolescent years.
The lighthouse keeper who had tragically died when the isolation had become too much to cope with. Since then, he had wandered the caves in search for company. Or so the old tale had gone.
Knowing the truth, I’d thought of myself psychotic.
Years later, I’d wanted to tell my parents the truth. They’d never had the closure of what happened to their daughter. Only I held the key to the secret, and I’d kept it to myself in fear of being locked up in an asylum.
Saying it now makes me still wonder what is real and what isn’t. The ghost of a lighthouse keeper searching for company.
And he’d found it with Mila.
I’m so sorry for being such a coward.
‘I’ve come to see her,’ I said.
The lighthouse keeper said: ‘She’s great company, the little one. We have shared so many stories.’
Tears warmed my cheeks in the blistering cold.
‘She’s my sister,’ I said. ‘I should have protected her from you.’
‘You should have. You could have.’
‘Let me see her.’
The old man turned and faced the cave wall. Out of the shadows, Mila stepped forward, the blood matted on the side of her face. The same innocent expression etched on her like the last time I’d seen her alive. She looked upon me with crystalised eyes.
Collapsing to my knees I pleaded: ‘Forgive me, Mila. I’m sorry that I left you.’
‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ Mila said. ‘I’m keeping Edward company now.’
‘No, you lost your whole life because of me.’
Mila placed her palm to my cheek. The cold was unbearable, making my face go numb.
‘You’ve wasted your whole life, Will. Why don’t you join us here in the lighthouse? You loved it here at The Bay, a home from home you called it. We can show you what’s beyond the light. Will, it’s so beautiful, something you’d never be able to comprehend until you see it. Would you like that?’
I thought about the meaning of my life.
This place had meaning.
‘Come,’ Mila said holding out her hand.
I stood and reached out as Mila backed to the shadows of the cave.
I followed eagerly.
‘Mila! Mila! Where are you?’ I called out, the echoes hitting the waves.
As I walked into the shadow I was transported to the clifftop. Above the lighthouse swirled. Next to me, Mila held my hand as we looked down the same way as we did all those years ago.
‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light?’ she asked.
Turning to her I said: ‘I’m afraid.’
‘There’s nothing to be afraid about, dear brother.’
Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward. Mila let go of my hand as I fell over the cliff side. On my way hurtling down, everything drew into slow motion. The light from the lighthouse, the sound of the waves, everything moved at a snail’s pace.
I watched the night sky.
The lighthouse grew smaller.
As I felt the otherworldly impact and sudden pain, I blinked.
Standing on the lighthouse, I gripped the steel balcony. Down below on the beach, my body was still and staring up at us.
Next to me, Mila took my hand again. It wasn’t cold anymore. Mila felt warm to touch.
Behind, Edward sat in the lighthouse, a broad smile upon his face as he watched us.
‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light, dear brother?’ Mila asked.
Over the horizon I saw the lights of Thornwick Bay. I’d be here forever, in my home from home.
Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire. Currently he is editing his first novel that he hopes to be completed this year. The works of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft are influences behind his fiction.