Tommy eased himself down from the upper bunk, silently watching his brother as he descended. His feet reached the floor with a touch and he groped around for his clothes. Gathering them up, he shot one last look at the lower bunk to make sure that his morning expedition had not been discovered before it had started. He opened the door with just the right amount of practised force to avoid the creak that the hinges usually made and made his way along the passage.
The early dawn light was streaming in through the rippled bathroom window and he set about pulling on his clothes. There wasn’t long before the tide turned so time was of the essence. He simply had to find something today. Declan had been boasting all week about the driftwood he had found on the beach. Etched into the worn wood had been the word “Viceroy” – obviously the nameplate of a vessel. Today was the last day before the Summer holidays and if Tommy didn’t find a more interesting relic, then bragging rights would be lost until the Autumn.
Slipping the latch on the gate, he was away across the cliff top. The strong wind tugged at his clothes as he skittered across the wet rocks. He quickly reached the top of smugglers’ steps and surveyed the beach before him. As the radio man had said – it was a very low tide today exposing the Western shore. Despite the greasiness of the steps, he took them two at a time bounding quickly down to the sand below.
In a moment, he was at the edge of the small river which crossed the beach. Despite his haste, he paused to study the stepping-stones that threaded their way across the river. Experience had taught him that the stones often shifted and became unstable. A moment studying them was worth it to avoid a ducking by putting too much weight on a wobbly stone. Skipping safely across, he ran across the sand to the caves of the Western shore.
Peering into the first cave, Tommy could hear dripping as the recently departed tide gave up its grip on the rarely exposed rocks. He liked to call this the eyeball cave as the walls were studded with glistening stones and bits of tin that seemed to stare as you made your way further inside. Making his way to the back of the cave, he came to the pools that gathered in the bowl-shaped rocks. Scanning them for any interesting flotsam, he could see nothing to catch his eye.
The second cave was known as hangman’s cave, due to the length of grey rope hanging down from the roof where it had somehow become embedded. As he neared the back of the cave, Tommy caught his breath – there was driftwood, several pieces. He examined each in turn, rolling them over and over in his hands. With disappointment, he noted that there was nothing special about the pieces of wood. But there was still the last cave, if there was time.
Dead man’s cave was so-called because many foolhardy souls had lost their lives trying to get back from it. With that thought on his mind, Tommy eyed the turning tide, weighing his chances. The thought of the insufferable, boasting Declan spurred him on and he raced across the sand towards the cave mouth. Twice, the advancing waves nearly soaked his shoes, but he managed to jump clear each time. Breathless, he peered into the last cave.
A broad smile lit up his face and he threw his arms up in the air. There was no-one there to hear him, but he cheered anyway. He had hit the jackpot. Again, there was driftwood, but among the ragged pile was a small wooden box. It was heavy and elaborately carved. The metal bands surrounding the box had saved it from the worst ravages of the sea, but it was still battered in places. To Tommy, it was the finest sight ever. He eased the box open. Inside was a tightly tied leather bag. Closing the box, his thoughts turned back to the tide. It was time to go.
The waves were now lapping around the entrance to the cave – it was going to be close. Tommy timed the approach of the incoming waves, picking his moment carefully. At the right time, he dashed across the beach at full pelt. He got halfway to hangman’s cave when a surging wave enveloped his feet and lower legs. He stumbled and grabbed the rocks for support. The wave ebbed away, and he began to run once more. Another wave – this one to his thighs. With one hand he grabbed the rocks again, keeping a deathlike grip on the box with the other.
At the second cave mouth, he paused for breath and assessed the tide. He had definitely left it too late. There was no time to lose as he made his way once more. The next wave pulled him away from the rocks and he found himself flailing in the surf. As it receded, he managed to find his feet only for another wave to lift him and send him perilously close to the rocks. Fear gripped his stomach and he clenched his eyes shut holding the small wooden box close to his chest.
Mistiming a breath, he took in a full lung full of cold briny water as a wave broke over him. Coughing and spluttering, he risked a glance towards the shore and panicked as he saw how far out he was. Clutching the wooden box for all his life, he felt a rip tide tug him under the surface. His strength had deserted him and his struggles became feeble as he realised the futility of his situation. Just as he gave up completely, he felt himself lurching towards the surface as a large hand grabbed the scruff of his clothes.
He was pulled into a small fishing vessel and cast upon the floor with rest of the fisherman’s catch. He wanted to thank his saviour, but couldn’t stop choking. Eventually, he managed to bring up enough of the water to speak. As he smiled up at the fisherman, all he could manage was “I’ve found this box.” before he fell back among the fish unconscious.