Read For Death Comes Softly Online

Authors: Hilary Bonner

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BOOK: For Death Comes Softly
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The island exceeded my expectations, and at first my stay was all that I had hoped for. Four peaceful days followed of reading, walking, watching for Sika deer on land and seals and dolphins at sea, enjoying the gin and tonic seat, and eating surprisingly good meals at The Tavern in the evenings. I dutifully did all the things you should do on holiday on Abri, like buying the unique Puffin stamps, getting them franked, and sending postcards. In the shop I also bought a book called
The Flora and Fauna of Abri
, and amused myself considerably searching for plants I barely believed existed with extraordinary names like mouse-ear chickweed, bladder campion and hairy pepper-wort.
The Tavern was convivial. There was company when I wanted it and not when I didn't. I started to sleep well again. I even began to feel almost happy. I might have known it wouldn't last.
The fifth day was exceptionally bright and beautiful. Unusually for Abri at any time of year let alone approaching the latter end of the Autumn, the wind dropped away almost to nothing making the island unseasonably warm. In the late morning, having packed myself a few sandwiches as a make-shift picnic lunch, I walked across to the far north to the point from which you have the best view of the narrow phallic rock known as the Pencil, which juts a hundred feet or so out of the sea at low tide. In spite of the bad weather I had left on the mainland, it hadn't rained on Abri since I had arrived there, and the ground, covered in this part of the island by heather, was dry enough. I lay on the purple carpet, relishing the moment, propped on one elbow, my eyes half-closed against the sun's glare, gazing idly out to sea.
‘I could take you out there if you like,' said a voice right by me. I nearly jumped out of my waxed jacket. ‘Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.'
It was Jason, looking even more handsome than ever, still standing like a seaman, legs akimbo.
‘The seals nest in the caves on the far side of the Pencil,' he went on. ‘You're here at the right time of year. They've got young now, and in this weather they'll be out basking on the rocks. The conditions are perfect for dolphins out there today, too. If you get lucky they'll dance right up to you.'
To hell with it, I thought, while at the same time lecturing myself on not indulging in any more fantasising.
Jason guided me down a steep path to a little rocky inlet. An inflatable dinghy equipped with a reassuringly powerful-looking outboard motor had been dragged onto a small patch of shingle above the high-water line. I began to help him push the inflatable into the water. He was wearing waders. I had on only ankle-length walking boots. Jason grinned as I hesitated and, slightly to my embarrassment, lifted me easily off the shingly beach and into the boat. I know I'm only five foot three and slimmer than I deserve to be considering the amount of booze and bacon butties I put away – nonetheless it was pretty impressive.
We took about fifteen minutes to reach the Pencil. The sea is often inclined to look deceptively calm studied from the solid comfort of land. In reality on this day the breakers crashed into the steep sides of the rock, and the water foamed like the top of a warm pint of lager, spilling over the base of the abruptly vertical landmass. The inflatable rose and fell crazily with the swell, and I couldn't imagine where it would be possible to land.
Jason yelled above the tumult. ‘There's a gap there, see. It's easier than it looks. You step onto that ledge and the entrance to the tunnel is just above, an easy step up.'
I was beginning to have qualms. ‘The tunnel?' I queried.
‘Oh, didn't you know? There's a tunnel that leads up right through the rock to a higher ledge on the other side overlooking where the seals nest. You can't get to it any other way. And it makes a spectacular viewing platform. Everybody who comes out here loves it.'
He must have been aware of my doubt.
‘It's OK. The tunnel's less than thirty feet long. You can see light all the time.'
One of my big problems in life is bravado. The number of daft things I've done because I am more afraid of stopping than carrying on is legion.
‘Right then,' I said, trying to look and sound butch, which is difficult when you are my size.
Jason was using the engine merely to keep the boat steady now and was carefully studying the sea.
‘We go in on the seventh wave,' he said. Suddenly he tipped the outboard so that the propeller was no longer in the water and grasped a single oar as a particularly big wave carried us forward. He used the oar to give us some steerage. And he was right. It was easier than it looked. Our boat tossed and pitched its way through a bunch of scarily treacherous-looking rocks and suddenly settled in their lee so that he could bring the little craft quite gently alongside the ledge he had pointed out to me. He slung a line around a rocky outcrop with easy familiarity and helped me scramble across the bow of the inflatable so that I could clamber up onto the small ledge below the tunnel. That too was easier than it had looked. It seemed in fact as if someone might have carved footholds into the rock.
Jason reached up out of the boat and passed me a torch. ‘Just in case,' he said. ‘Don't stay longer than an hour because at high tide the bottom of the tunnel is flooded.'
My heart lurched again. ‘Aren't you coming with me?' I asked, trying to make my voice sound normal.
He shook his head. ‘I can't moor the boat here,' he said. ‘I'll hover just a few yards out. Don't worry, I'll be waiting and I'll be watching. We do it all the time. I'll come back in as soon as I see you on this side again.'
That, of course, was the moment when I should have stepped smartly back into the inflatable alongside him. But I didn't. Foolhardy as ever.
‘Enjoy,' he called, sounding more like a Californian waiter than a North Devon boatman, as he steered his way out through the rocks.
I tried to wave cheerily. Well, I thought, not much choice now. I looked around me. The sides of the Pencil were sheer. The only way of leaving the narrow ledge on which I stood was through the tunnel Jason had described. I heaved myself into its entrance and, as Jason had promised, I could see a reassuring circle of light above me and not that far away. I didn't really need the torch but I was glad of its comfort. I struggled to suppress my fears and groped my way gingerly forwards and upwards.
When I stepped out on the far side of the Pencil the entire disconcerting experience became instantly worthwhile. The ledge on that side of the rock was much larger than the one on which I had landed, and from its towering vantage point – twenty feet or so up the side of the Pencil – the view was spectacular. Several dozen cow seals and their young were basking on the rocks below, just as Jason had said they would be. I could see the coast of the mainland, pin-sharp in the distance. Something danced in the sea, gleaming in the glare of the afternoon sun. It was a dolphin, one of a vast leaping and diving pod, as the apparently infallible Jason had predicted. The whole thing seemed to have been stage-managed. Thank you Mr de Mille. I sat down on the ledge and drank it all in. Magic. Sheer magic. This was the sheltered side of the rock and the sun seemed even hotter here, not like November at all. I basked in it, just like the seals beneath me. The minutes flashed by, the cabaret was fabulous, the sea roared below – and yet I felt so at peace. I may have dozed off. I glanced at my watch. Almost an hour had passed. Time to return, pretty sharply. I felt guilty about Jason waiting on the other side, and also I was suddenly aware of a distinctly autumnal chill in the air. It was just after 3.30 p.m. Darkness comes swiftly halfway through the afternoon in November and the day was already not quite so bright. The brief journey back through the tunnel seemed easier, though, perhaps because there was a certain familiarity now. It felt damper and colder than before. I shivered. Not a place to be stuck, I thought, and teased myself about what I would do if Jason and his boat were not there.
It did not really occur to me that this could be a serious consideration, and I was smiling as I stepped out onto the small ledge on the landing side and looked out to sea ready to wave and holler. But there was nothing to wave at. No boat. No Jason. I scanned the horizon. Not a dot.
The water was lapping at my feet. The tide had already risen three feet or more. Soon it would flood the bottom end of the tunnel and there was nowhere else to go on this face of the rock. I contemplated going back to the far side of the Pencil to the higher ledge which I realised the incoming tide would not reach for some time. I quickly decided against it, though. It would be practically impossible for a boat to reach me there, and logic told me Jason would soon be back. Something rational must lie behind this. Even though the light was fading fast, I was sure that I should wait where I was and not panic.
By the time I began to think better of my decision, it was too late. The bottom of the tunnel had now flooded. I crouched on the far end of the ledge, slightly above the tunnel entrance, but the tide was already lapping at my feet, and quite vigorously too. The sea had got up with the sunset. Occasionally more robust waves cracked ominously against the sheer sides of the Pencil and I was getting drenched. I was cold and wet and very frightened. I felt the panic rising in spite of my efforts to suppress it. The position of the Pencil was such that no vessel was likely to pass close to it by chance and in any case it would soon be too dark for anyone to spot me. I had my torch, of course, but it was not a very powerful one and the batteries would not last for ever.
Maybe Jason had had an accident. Maybe he wasn't going to come back at all. Maybe nobody was coming. I tried not to think about that. Logic – again – told me the staff on Abri would miss me at dinner and launch a search party. But nobody knew I had gone on this foolhardy expedition to the Pencil with Jason. Why should they come here? And in any case, could I last that long?
The cold and the damp cut me to the marrow. I began to realise that both my movements and my ability to think had slowed. The panic mounted with the increasing darkness. Within an hour of my returning to the ledge the sky had turned completely black. I was not sure if the luminous hands of my watch were a comfort or a reminder of the inevitability of tide and time. The sea rose higher and higher.
By five o'clock on that bleak November evening I had been forced to somehow scramble up the sheer side of the rock as high as I could manage to escape the approaching threat of the sea. I clung to rocky outcrops with fingers I could no longer feel, and I had no idea how long I could hang on. More by luck than judgement my feet found a kind of misshapen crevice into which I managed to half crouch. But I still had to hold on somehow to the rock face with both my numbed hands. Six o'clock came and went. I tried to think only in minutes. One more minute, and then another, of life.
Curiously, my panic had subsided a little. I was quite certain now that I would die. The only question was when.
Two
The shout came just when I had totally accepted that it was all over. A faint call above the roar of the sea.
I peered into the darkness. I could just make out a gleam which could surely only be the lights of a boat. Yet for a moment or two I still wasn't quite sure if I was indulging in wishful thinking, if my imagination was playing tricks on me. Then I heard an engine. I remembered the torch dangling loosely from its strap around my wrist, which I had switched off in order to conserve its batteries for as long as possible. Somehow I found the strength to grasp it, switch it on, and wave it frantically. I tried to shout but my voice came only in gasps, and in any case, whoever was aboard that noisy sounding boat would never be able to hear.
They spotted me. At the time it seemed like a miracle, but later I realised that they were half expecting me to be on the Pencil. They had come looking for me.
The beam of my torch, still quite powerful thanks to my energy-conservation efforts, picked up the approaching bow of an inflatable – quite possibly the one which had dumped me there in the first place – nosing its way through the hazardous array of rocks. The boat came alongside the Pencil, unable to tie up anywhere now even temporarily as the ledge was four or five feet under water, and seconds later strong arms reached up for me and pulled me downwards.
I collapsed into a kind of human cradle, a tangle of limbs. The faces were just a hazy shadow. I had no idea even how many people were aboard the small boat, let alone who they were, and neither did I care. I had, however, a vague impression that young Jason did not seem to be among them, although, in reality, I was only half-conscious.
‘It's all right, you are safe now,' said a soothing male voice.
They knew about survival, it seemed. They wrapped me in tin foil and then blankets and something hot, sweet and liquid was pressed to my lips. I remember gulping it gratefully, feeling warming reviving fluid cursing through my system. Yet I was only barely aware of what was going on. I did know that I was safe. I knew that the ordeal was over. And that was enough. The next few hours were indistinct. At some stage I realised vaguely that I was back on dry land, the motion of the sea no longer rocking me, and that there were other new voices speaking and a certain bustle going on around me.
Strong arms carried me again. There was the sound of another engine, the island Land Rover perhaps. I was almost oblivious. I had no recollection of where I was taken or of being stripped of my sodden clothes and put to bed, although later it became apparent that is what had happened. Ultimately I became aware only of deep warmth and comfort and of the overpowering need for sleep.
Eventually I woke. I was lying on the softest mattress I had ever experienced, wrapped in white sheets so crisp they crackled when I moved, upon a bed which seemed to be about the same size as most people's houses. Gradually I took in a room of extremely grand proportions with huge towering windows. My first impression was of a glorious abundance of light again. And my second of a handsome Charles Dance lookalike sitting by my bedside peering at me anxiously.
BOOK: For Death Comes Softly
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