To the Lighthouse

“I’m not sure I follow you … ?” Jon said.

He tilted his whiskey slowly from side to side and wondered how to break to his father-in-law that he really hated this conversation.

“Well, I reckon ye would nae,” the older man said and gazed out the window.

There was a slight reflection in Calum McDonnell’s water glass of the deep green from the hills outside, including a darker spot that hinted at clouds over the nearby Loch.

“What time did they say they would be back?” Jon looked at his phone. There was no signal but the phone’s clock told him what he needed to know.

“In an hour or so,” Calum said. “Good thing, too. There’ll nae be any going to the lighthouse tomorrow.”

“Why not?”

“—The weather,” Calum just said.

Jon looked at his whiskey skeptically. When Calum had asked him to try the Talisker, he thought first he should refuse. He was even surprised Carrie’s father still had something like this in the house. But it was a ‘special occasion’, or so Calum had said.

“First real talk between us old soldiers,” he had said. “Worth celebrating.”

“You have been to visit us in the States,” Jon reminded him.

“Aye, but always too bloody much going on … ” Calum poured the whiskey for Jon. “Here.”

He looked satisfied when Jon took the glass. “Good choice. Now ye can sample the local pride.”

But Jon had not sampled it. Merely held it in his hands. The amber liquid smelled like seaweed and smoke. Then they had sat down and begun their little chat, and the glass had remained in his hands.

“I regret ever going to Iraq,” Jon said eventually. “But I was young and I needed the money.”

Jon hesitated. Then he took a sip from the glass. There was a burning in his throat. But not like desert sand, though …

Calum nodded. “I don’t regret going. Only that my knee got shot up.”

“That’s bad. But it could have been your head.”

“I know, I know … but I should have seen the bastard.”

“Did you see him afterward?”

“Aye. My pals in the squad cleared out their nest for good. Last Argies in Goose Green, that’s for sure.”

Jon took another sip. “You regret not being able to go up there and shoot them?”

“Nae like that,” Calum replied thoughtfully. “But I do regret nae being able to do something, at all.”

“You got shot before you could engage the enemy. What could you have done?”

“I should have …” Calum paused. The dark spot in his water had grown. “I should have been … better.”

Jon looked at his phone again. “So … if you were able to still be in the service, would you have chosen to remain?”

Calum leaned back in the chair which responded with a mournful creaking sound. Jon wasn’t surprised. The living room in the house seemed like a time capsule.

Nothing much had changed since his wife was a child. Not much had ever been replaced.

“I would … probably.” Calum shook his head. “Caroline and her mother joke that they both married soldiers because they were the best-looking gifts they could find before all the shops closed. Then they discovered what was under the wrapping, so to speak.”

“Oh, did Carrie say that?”

Calum smirked. “Think ye’d better have a word with her once she gets home with Sheila and the kids, eh?” He got up and turned on the radio. “It’s news time soon. Hope ye don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Jon thought of time, too.

Calum retreated to his chair again, with heavy movements. He lowered himself into it with obvious strain. “Ye know, my 11-year-old granddaughter confided in me last night while we did the dishes that she will never marry a soldier—unless he is a good man, like her father.” He eyed Jon, looking for a reaction.

None came.

” … Emma already knows what’s good,” Calum continued, his fingers tapping the window frame beside the chair. “And that men who want to go off and fight usually turn out no good.”

“That’s not how she sees you,” Jon said. “Neither does Carrie for that matter. In fact—”

But Calum held up his hand. “It’s kind of ye, Jonathan, but the only fact here is that ye came home and swore ye’d never go again, and that was the right choice. I came home and swore that if I had the chance I would. Even after it cost me my marriage. Even though Mike … never came home.”

Calum’s gaze was far away now. Probably he was on some hillock or beach, thousands of miles and over thirty years away, seeing the knife-like sting of an Exocet missile plowing into his childhood friend’s ship. Jon, at least, figured as much. But as with the divorce and any other loss, he knew Calum seldom spoke about any of that, least of all with his daughter. So he felt slightly uncomfortable that the other man appeared to have chosen him, Jonathan Reese, as confessionary at this moment. To Jon, who didn’t like to talk about Iraq himself it felt like an ambush.

In the background, the venerable radio buzzed with something about Russian bombings in Syria.

“I believe you wanted to make it work,” Jon offered. “And lots of people make it work. Some of my old buddies from Iraq are still in the army and they have families, too.”

Calum let a brief smile cross his lips. “So ye are suggesting it was nae because I enjoyed doing my job that there was a problem, but because I couldnae figure out how to have a family, too?”

“I’m not saying that.”

“Or because I couldnae take that my pals died?” Calum’s voice rose.

Jon looked at the other man in the way he looked at shadowy figures approaching in desert twilight. You never really knew what they carried behind their backs. So you had to look at them as if you did not care in the slightest. It was something he had practiced a lot.

Then he put the whiskey away and got up. “What I’m suggesting is that it is over. The war for you ended 35 years ago.”

Something twitched on Calum’s brow like he was struggling with himself not to frown. 

Before he could say anything, though, Jon struck again. “I’ll go out and meet our ladies and the kids. I’m sure they are on their way back now.”

The frown came one last time then Calum nodded wistfully. “I’m sorry, Jonathan. I’m an arse. I will try to be someone different. I don’t want ye to believe in all the stories Caroline has told ye about me.”

“She told me some bad ones, yeah. She also told me a lot of good ones.”

Calum downed the water, then put away the glass slowly. “What did she tell ye?”

“That once she had run away you searched for a whole day and night, on foot, in the highlands. You went up to those mountains—what was the name again—”

“The Cuillins.”

“Yes, those. You went up there and you came home with her.”

Calum made a dismissive wave with the glass of water still in his hand. “Any father would have done the same. Especially after those whiners at the station said they had to stop the search for the night.”

“Maybe,” Jon said. “But I don’t know many fathers who are also trained in outdoor survival.”

Calum harrumphed.  “Ye are trying too damn hard to make it work, Jonathan … Why don’t ye go on ahead? Go out and meet the others and my daughter? I’ll join ye in a wee bit.”

“On the way to the lighthouse?” Jon asked.

“Aye, that way,” Calum replied.


Last updated 2 Aug 2023