by Sheila Kinsella
The twitching flare of the lighthouse lamp flashes against the walls. Every ten seconds, a quick white flash illuminates the windows. I sit in the darkness listening to the wind howl across the barren shingle. The chimney rattles like a tin can rolling down an empty street. The windows whistle. Rain clatters on the corrugated iron roof.
After a sleepless night, morning brings a stark winter light peppered by watery sunshine.
The milk has turned. Toast for one. The cat hogs the wood-burning stove. She glares at me with her little pansy-like face, miaowing indignantly when I shift her.
Through my hall window, I see the stark, angular outline of the power station in the distance. The old lighthouse, a few hundred yards away appears miniature in comparison.
My home is a converted 1880s railway carriage embedded in the pebbles in the unique landscape of Dungeness nature reserve. There are no boundaries, the panorama is desolate but beautiful, with wooden houses and expansive gravel pits.
As I wash up, I look out over the flat pebbled landscape towards the sea. The view is punctuated by odd cabbage-like Sea Kale and Blackthorns and the odd fishing tackle shed. Winding wooden pathways criss-cross the beach. If you follow the route it's as if there's nothing beyond but a mass of sea and sky until suddenly the path ends, and the shingle drops abruptly down to the sea. The light is spectacular.
I added a small outhouse to the south-facing side of the carriage to work and display my artwork in the summer months. In winter, I work in my living room, spreading my paints out over my desk. It’s a solitary existence, but I never much liked people anyway. The cold of the winter months makes my knuckles swell, but as long as I can paint, I’m happy.
My daughter worries about me. She telephones every day. Why don’t I get one of those sheltered flats they have in town? Not bloody likely.
I’m not expecting anyone. Then I remember, it’s the supermarket delivery man.
‘Come in, it’s open!’ I shout back.
‘Hi, how are you?’ He comes in and sets the bags on the kitchen table.
‘I’m fine thanks. On your way out can you just pop the milk and tins in the outhouse for me please?’ I reply.
‘Sure,’ Ivan separates them from the other shopping.
‘There you go, no replacements,’ Ivan says.
‘There you go love,’ I give him a couple of pounds.
Well, he’s only a kid, after all.
‘Oh, by the way, the coast guard told me there’s been a sighting of migrant boats off the shoreline. ‘You might want to lock your doors,’ his young face is etched with concern.
‘Ok, thanks. See you next week.’
I check his story on the internet. The government has planes ready to fly immigrants who cross the channel in small boats back to France.
The nearest neighbour is two-hundred yards away in another railway carriage. We don’t socialise much, but we keep an eye out for each other. Dungeness is a remote, but safe place. We don’t need to secure our doors here.
It’s a damp start to the day and I’m grateful for my thermal underwear. Living alone you can wear what you like. My choice is layers that I peel off according to the weather. The scenery around here comes into its own when the weather is grim. I pull on my puffer coat and straight away feel like Michelin Man, gloves scarf, the lot, pull the door to and walk to the beach.
The rain-laden clouds are grey as a dove’s belly. The wind rips the hair from my head. There’s not a soul about. The wooden pathway creaks underfoot as I walk. It stops abruptly and my feet sink into the clattering pebbles for the final drag to the sea. In the distance to the east, I see the white chalk cliffs near Folkestone and to the west Beachy Head. Straight ahead is France. A strong south-westerly blows. White-crested waves crash their foam on the shore. Seagulls hover on the thermals, dipping up and down. Their squawking is carried away on the wind. Nature’s elements surround me, I feel alive.
The climb back up to the path takes longer than the descent. Back at the house, I lay my beach finds on the table. A strange flat chalkstone with two holes like eyes. A battered cuttlefish and some seaweed with bubbles. The woodstove is burning a treat, its powerful throw of heat warms the room.
As I hang my coat and scarf on the back of the kitchen door, I notice muddy footprints on the floor. I mop them up, I must have forgotten to wipe my boots on the mat outside. The fear of becoming forgetful is ever-present.
I rub my hands together in front of the fire, stretching my fingers out and making fists, again and again, to loosen them up before beginning to paint. I love painting the sea, trying to bring it to life on the canvas. Sometimes I stand for hours swaying back and forth to inject energy into the work to capture the movement of the waves. Hours pass unnoticed. Using a large brush, I pick up some white and stipple it into the blue/grey while it's still wet, blending the edges softly.
The sudden noise of the door slamming shut startles me.
‘Is anybody there?’ I pause mid-stroke, put the brush down and go to investigate.
A trail of cereal leads from the kitchen cupboard to the door, but the box is nowhere to be seen. Footprints. Again. Small footprints.
It’s not a fox.
I ease open the door and tiptoe outside. The outhouse door is ajar, but a sudden gust of wind hurls it shut. I grab an old walking stick I was gifted but refuse to use and grasp it raised with both hands.
‘Come out whoever you are!’
With one hand I fling the door wide, ready to strike with the stick in the other.
A wretched tiny figure rises from behind the canvases, hands raised.
‘Come out where I can see you,’ I say, armed with my cane.
A boy wearing a hat and tattered rags emerges from the hut. Streaks of dirty tears trickle down his face.
I feel an outpouring of empathy for this human being. I remember Mother making me watch a film of the torrent of displaced persons traipsing across Europe after the Second World War. ‘Maria, we were all escaping something,’ she used to say.
‘Are you hungry?’
No reply. Just sobs.
When I realise that he is no threat to me, I lower the cane. He flinches at the sudden movement.
He is trembling. Cold. Fear. Both?
‘Come,’ I gesture for him to follow me into the house. ‘I’ll fix you some food.’
He huddles outside against the wall of the house, waiting. He must be hungry, otherwise he’d run. Although there’s nowhere to run to.
I give him a chicken and salad sandwich on a plate. Dark eyes stare gratitude at me.
‘Thank you,’ he says before attacking the food.
‘Water?’ I fill a large glass at the tap and give it to him. He hands me the empty plate.
He drinks the water and hands me the glass.
Once he realises that I will not hurt him, his shoulders drop, and he wipes his tears with the sleeve of his jacket.
His features are delicate, a neat nose, high cheekbones, little flesh and huge eyes like pools of tar. Pretty.
We begin this ritual, he and I. Morning, noon and night. Feeding times. He sleeps in the outhouse where I fashioned an airbed and a sleeping bag to keep him warm. He asks to read my books. I give him my emergency torch to read by.
Day after day, he unwinds and his story slowly spills forth, drip by drip.
On day four, he enters the house.
‘Beautiful painting,’ he says when he sees the canvas.
His voice is high pitched and unbroken.
I watch as he stands in front of the painting and wonder if I have some of my husband’s old clothes that might fit, for he was a skinny man.
It is at that point that I notice a dark wine-coloured stain seeping through the back of his trousers.
He is a girl.
She is Hiba. Her family was killed by a bomb that hit their home in Aleppo. She disguised herself as a boy to escape.