Tower of Refuge is a short story I wrote in 2015 for one of the first competitions I entered. I needed to draw upon the artwork below, “(Light) House of the Rising Sun”, by Julie Podstolski (2003).
Upon doing a little research, I discovered the lighthouse in the artwork is located at Rous Head (North Mole) in Fremantle, Western Australia. It began operation in 1906 and was designed by Charles Yelverton (C.Y.) O’Connor. His name inspired some of the characters in the story as did the ruby-red colour of the lighthouse.
I hope you enjoy Tower of Refuge.
TOWER OF REFUGE
Ruby slammed on the brakes and the rusty old Valiant came to a screeching halt. She’d reached a dead end and was unable to drive any further. Probably a good thing considering her tears obscured her vision. She stumbled from the car and slammed the door. A hubcap clattered to the bitumen. She watched as it rolled a short distance, turned in a circle and spun faster and faster until it finally lay still and silent.
Tilting her head back, she screamed at the heavens and stamped her foot. The goddamn car was one more piece of unreliable crap that had wormed its way into her life. Her father barely deserved a mention; a dope-smoking hippy born to privilege who had been in and out of her life more times than the tide on the Fremantle docks.
Needing distance from the car and all it symbolised, Ruby ran toward the sea, sobbing as she scrambled over the rocks on the far side of the lighthouse. She wasn’t sure what had drawn her out here. She hadn’t been out to North Mole since she was a little girl and her grandfather used to bring her fishing. Sometimes, when she got tired, she would retreat to the cool shade provided by the lighthouse. She would lean against the cool cast iron and be thankful for a place to rest while she watched the ocean and her grandfather. That had been the time in her life in which she’d had a bit of stability. But then Gramps had died and Ruby had been subjected to the revolving door of her mother’s boyfriends and the occasional appearance of her father.
Free love and all that.
Except love wasn’t free. It hurt like bloody hell.
She’d been sure she’d known better than her mother. She had planned on finding a responsible, reliable man who would cherish her and love her. Ruby had thought she’d found him. She’d been waiting tables in a restaurant on the café strip, when he’d swaggered in with a group of mates. Their Yankee accents gave away the fact they were sailors, in port for some rest and relaxation, and when Ryan had locked eyes with her, she was positive he was The One. After all, how more responsible and reliable could a man get than one willing to serve his country?
Ryan had wined and dined her, had told her she was his destiny, had made love to her and made her feel special. When the time came for him to return to duty, he’d boarded the ship with a promise that he’d write to her every day and he’d send for her when he got back to the States.
Now, she tore at her hair and wailed when she recalled his promises. How could she have been so stupid? It had been three months since he’d left and Ruby had not received a single letter. Unless you counted the ninety sealed envelopes addressed to Seaman Ryan Johnson that were returned to her today with an official note letting her know there was no American sailor by that name on any U.S. Navy ship recently docked in Fremantle.
Her worst nightmare was coming true. She was going to be bringing a baby into this world alone. Her child would grow up like she had, without the love and support of both its parents. It occurred to her that she didn’t even know the real name of her baby’s father.
She clutched at her chest, suddenly finding it difficult to breath.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
Ruby nearly fell off her rock. A fisherman had arrived at the Mole and his blue eyes searched her face, his brow furrowed. He had a rod and tackle box in one hand and a neatly pressed handkerchief in the other. He held the latter out toward her.
“I think you could make do with this more than aye.”
His accent at first caused her to recoil—the hurt caused by another man of similar intonation was still too raw—but when she realised it was an Irish lilt, she quietly accepted his offer and dried her tears.
Without another word, the fisherman set up a small stool two rocks over and took a seat before arranging his tackle for the task ahead.
Ruby watched him and was reminded of her grandfather, though this man was much younger. He worked silently and deftly, his long fingers having no trouble positioning the bait on the hook. Light brown hair flopped over his forehead as he worked and, when the line was ready, he cast out. He caught her looking at him and gave her a brief smile and a nod before turning back to his line.
A cool breeze lifted Ruby’s long blonde tendrils from her shoulders; she turned into it and faced the ocean. The sun was getting low and the horizon had turned a soft shade of violet. The water lapped at the rocks below and the whir of the fisherman winding in his line could be heard. A calm descended upon Ruby and she was grateful.
She sat contemplating until well after dark. With a clear head, she felt a determination take shape deep in her gut and it bubbled away and grew bigger. She could do this. She was not her mother. She could provide a stable, loving environment for her child without anyone’s help. He would grow up knowing that his mother loved him more than life itself.
When Ruby eventually got up to leave, she was surprised to find that the fisherman still sat close by, quietly reeling in his line.
She thanked him for the handkerchief.
“Anytime,” he told her.
As soon as she was settled in her car, the fisherman rose and gathered his tackle.
* * *
Ruby could feel the shop assistant’s beady eyes follow her as she wandered past bassinets and strollers. She flipped the price tag over on a pretty cradle and felt a familiar crushing weight descend upon her. It was suddenly difficult to breath. With a white-knuckled grip on her handbag, she turned on her heel and rushed out of the shop, away from the oppressive glare of the judgemental old woman inside.
Shutting herself in her car, she let the tears fall and cradled the bump that now protruded from her belly. Who knew that providing for a baby would cost the world? Even with the extra hours she’d picked up at the restaurant, it was becoming clear there was no way she would be able to provide for this child. Deep down she knew there was only one solution—she just didn’t know if she could go through with it.
She needed to clear her head, to get some fresh air so she could breathe again. Maybe all her woes would disappear out in the sunshine. It felt as if some invisible force was pulling her out to the Mole. There was no point in fighting it; besides, last time she was there, she had found peace amongst the turmoil.
The Valiant rolled to a stop in front of the lighthouse and she parked beside the only other vehicle there. She got out of the car and rounded the red tower to see a familiar mop of light brown hair. She stopped and smiled to herself as she considered how appropriate it was that he should be here. If it hadn’t been for him showing up last time when he had, she likely would have hurled herself into the sea in despair.
Taking extra care in her condition, she stepped over the rocks until she stood a few metres from him.
“Hello,” she called, projecting her voice through the breeze.
He glanced toward her and nodded politely, before recognition hit and he looked at her more fully, mouth slightly agape and brows raised. “Hullo!”
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” She squinted slightly as she waited for his answer. Perhaps she was being too forward.
His eyes dropped to her belly and widened in surprise before he sprang into action. “No, of course not!” He placed his rod on the ground and picked up the foldable stool he had perched on last time. Propping it open, he insisted she take a seat.
He returned to retrieve his rod but moved a step or two in her direction.
“Aye hope yer having a better day than ye did last time you were here.”
She shrugged and glanced out at the water. “I’m not sure I am.”
His brow furrowed and he pursed his lips as if she were a puzzle he was trying to solve. “Aye’m sorry to hear it. Is there anything aye can do?”
Ruby gave a small smile at his kindness. “I don’t think so.”
“Hmm, well maybe aye can take yer mind off whatever problems yer having. Do ye know how to fish?”
She laughed and shook her head.
Although Gramps had tried to encourage an interest in fishing, Ruby hadn’t cared for it much as an eight year old. She had preferred to spend the time gazing out at the pretty, sparkling blue water or up at the fluffy white clouds, imagining she saw weird and wonderful creatures, all the while soaking up the strong and dependable presence of her grandfather. They were fond memories.
“Right, lesson one—baiting yer hook. I’m Connor, by the way,” he added with a smile.
“Nice to meet you Connor.” She stuck a hand out toward him and returned his smile, finding it contagious. “I’m Ruby.”
“Ah, I’d love to shake yer hand, Ruby, but mine are not the cleanest. Ye’ll learn why when ye come to bait yer hook.”
Scrunching up her nose, she watched as Connor showed her how to bait her line and listened patiently to lesson two—how to cast.
Sometime later, as they took turns reeling in the line, Ruby felt the words that had felt like an iron fist inside her gut, bubble up from deep inside and spill forth.
“I’m thinking of giving my baby up for adoption.”
She kept her eyes on the water but felt him turn toward her. Several minutes passed, and she began to think she’d only dreamed of sharing her secret with him—until at last he spoke.
“Aye can imagine it’s not an easy decision.”
“No, it’s not.” Her voice was thick and she swallowed hard, willing herself not to cry.
“Probably not one ye have to make today.” He reached out and took her hand.
She turned to meet his gaze and felt her eyes well with tears; his remained strong and steadfast.
She nodded and he gave her hand a squeeze before letting go.
He was right—she had months before she’d need to decide once and for all. The issue was far from resolved, but she marvelled at how, once again, this man was able to ease her anxiety and help her see clearly. She was grateful for his presence.
After several more lessons and as many hours, Ruby stretched and decided she could no longer ignore her aching back.
“Thanks for the company, Connor. It was … just what I needed.”
“Well, aye’m here most afternoons if yer ever in need again.” His blue eyes sparkled, reminding Ruby of the ocean at which she was so fond of gazing.
She smiled. “I might just take you up on that.”
* * *
Over the next few months, Ruby worked her fingers to the bone and saved every spare penny she made. She tried not to dwell too much on what the future would hold, but focused on preparing for it as much as possible. Her no-nonsense attitude, however, didn’t stop her from crying herself to sleep at night as the baby move inside her.
She visited the Mole often and would usually find herself there on a Sunday afternoon. Connor was always there and he would greet her with a smile and kind eyes. He would be waiting at the foot of the lighthouse, ready to help her onto the rocks, refusing to let her attempt it alone in her condition.
One day, Ruby arrived to find that he had bought her a fishing rod of her own. It was waiting in their usual spot tied with a big red bow.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Och, come on, Ruby. Aye would have thought aye was a better teacher than that.”
Her bottom lip trembled. “Is it for me?”
“That depends on if ye like it.”
She looked at the rod. Although Ryan had romanced her, he’d never given her anything so sweet and thoughtful. Yet, here was Connor, a man she barely knew but was perhaps her closest friend, giving her a gift without the promise of anything in return.
She burst into tears.
“Hey.” Connor moved to comfort her. He guided her to the stool and knelt beside her. “Are they happy tears or sad?”
“They’re—I don’t know—happy. I’m just emotional. I think it’s the hormones.”
“I can return the rod if ye don’t like it.”
She laughed and swiped at her tears. “No. It’s lovely. Thank you, Connor.”
He studied her features a moment longer then baited her hook and handed her the new rod. They sat and fished in companionable silence for some time before he spoke.
“It’s going to be alright, ye know.” His voice was soft and low, though his tone was sure and his eyes flashed with determination.
Ruby wished she could be as confident but she had trained herself not to hope. She couldn’t let her heart interfere with what was best for her baby. Its life was too precious to take chances.
She gave Connor a sad smile and looked out at the ocean.
* * *
When Ruby got so big that traversing the rocks was not only difficult but also dangerous, Connor would have his fishing gear packed away by the time she arrived and would set up the stools at the base of the lighthouse instead. They would sit against it, resting their backs on the cool cast iron and soaking up the warmth of the autumn sun. Ruby thought back to when she was a little girl and would do the same thing, content just to be with her grandfather. She always felt safe and loved just by being in his presence and was fast coming to realise that it was not dissimilar to how she felt when she was with Connor.
One afternoon, as she rose to leave, she felt a pop deep in her belly only moments before a gush of liquid poured from between her legs. She grabbed at her stomach, doubled over and thrust a desperate hand out to Connor, her fingertips digging into his upper arm.
Realising what had happened, she gasped and looked imploringly at him. She was terrified. She couldn’t do this.
Connor steadied her, his strong hands grounding her. “Everything’s going to be okay, Ruby.”
He led her to his car and settled her in. She shook uncontrollably. It was time. A decision had to be made one way or the other. She feared her heart was about to break.
Connor drove in the direction of the hospital, darting glances in her direction. “Ruby, I’m going to be here when you get out. I want you to know that.”
She screamed as the first contraction ripped through her.
When they arrived, the nurses bustled her into a wheelchair and she hunched over, one hand protectively over her belly, the other in Connor’s reassuring grasp.
“Are you her husband?” A severe looking nurse frowned at him.
“Ah … no.”
“Then you’ll have to leave.” Ruby sobbed as another nurse wrenched their hands apart and took off down the corridor with the wheelchair, oblivious of the pain its occupant suffered.
“I’m here for ye, Ruby!”
She turned in her seat and caught a glimpse of Connor, his face a mask of worry. Another contraction tore at her belly and all thoughts turned to the task ahead.
* * *
It was a month before she felt confident enough to return to the lighthouse. She was anxious to see Connor. If it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have had the confidence to make her decision. As she manoeuvred the Valiant down the final stretch to the Mole, she considered how different she felt from the first time she’d driven out here. She’d been distraught and frantic that day, now she was at peace with her choice.
She was excited to be back at the Mole. This place had become her refuge, a place to gather strength.
And it was all because of Connor.
She collected her precious cargo from the car, and when she rounded the lighthouse, she was unsurprised to see him waiting for her at the base of the rocks. Two stools sat ready for them in their usual spot. How many Sundays had he sat anticipating her return?
He seemed tense at first, though when he spotted her, he deflated a little as if he was relieved that she’d finally come. Her heart swelled and she smiled as she stood before him. She rearranged the bundle in her arms and introduced her son.
“This is Charlie.” She’d named him after her grandfather.
Connor scrubbed a hand over his face and stepped closer, placing a hand around her waist, the other moving aside the blanket to get a closer look at the baby.
“He’s a miracle.” His eyes met hers and he pulled her closer.
She nodded, lost for words. Connor gently pressed his lips to her forehead and they both looked down to admire her son.
* * *
Several years had gone by since the fateful day Ruby had first met Connor, but Sunday afternoons were still spent fishing in their favourite spot.
Needing a rest, she sat and leant against the lighthouse; her aching muscles relaxed and she sighed.
“Mummy, look! A fish!”
Opening her eyes, Ruby caught sight of Charlie standing on the rocks and holding a shining little fish, his face beaming. Connor crouched beside him, his proud grin just as wide as he glanced from the toddler’s happy face to Ruby.
“Isn’t he clever, Mummy?” he called.
“He is! Well done, Charlie boy!”
She watched as Connor showed their son how to release the fish. Charlie waved happily goodbye as Connor threw it back into the ocean.
Her hands moved to her belly as the baby kicked, no doubt eager to join her Daddy and big brother.
She closed her eyes and leant her head back once more as a single tear escaped and coursed down her cheek. She hoped her grandfather could see how happy she was now. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, she’d been truly blessed the day she came back to the lighthouse.
She had found her tower of refuge.
* * *
If you enjoyed Tower of Refuge, please consider leaving a comment below.
Many thanks for reading! Monique x