The storm carried on unconcerned by the efforts of the four men. Victor despatched Dave to round up as many other people as he could cajole, persuade and threaten into joining the search. He threw the hotel keys at him and told him to ‘phone everyone who could get there, then to take his car and get them back to the beach as soon as possible. Dave ran off, throwing backwards glances over his shoulder, hoping that someone would suddenly call him back, or that Matt would appear strolling up the cliff towards him.
Maybe another ten minutes passed before they were joined by a group of older men, in their thirties – leather faced and weathered – fishermen, boat builders and the like, always the first on the scene for things like this. They never knew if they were likely to be next. One carried a torpedo buoy from a yacht, the second a handful of torches and the third another length of rope. A fourth passed out whisky from a flask as they set off in all directions, checking the coves where the flotsam of previous years washed in and out with monotonous regularity.
Jaz sat down at the edge of the cliff and shouted out Matt’s name once more, listened for the reply and sank down head in hands at the lack of a response. He kicked at the damp earth with his heels and watched flakes crumble and get carried by the wind and gravity into the blankness. Inside he was empty, unable even to keep his thoughts in order – it wasn’t possible, this shredding howling weather, this angry sea, this lack of any hope. It was only possible to believe in carrying on.
He stood; the ground he’d been kicking gave way. He didn’t even have time to yell as the grip of his boots failed him and he bumped down the slope before falling from sight.
Smack, his head hit rock. Grappling with an overhanging tree root he clung for dear life and scrabbled with his feet until they came to rest on a more solid surface. He’d dropped maybe four or five feet below the top of the cliff. Shaken but unhurt apart from a graze where his head had made contact. He was on a ledge – not wide but firm enough and wide enough for him to be safe for now. The curve of the cliff sheltered him from the worst effects of the gale and gave him time to collect his thoughts again. Getting back up was possible, but in this weather not easy. He looked around and saw that the ledge dipped slightly to one side at the end of its six foot length. Feeling around in the dim light he felt the foliage at the back give and he pushed himself further into it for more shelter. Something snapped and he tumbled backwards anticipating another fall. But he landed flat on his back, leaves and brambles wrapped around his legs, but dry earth below his outstretched hands.
He’d fallen into a fissure high up on the cliff face, where two strata of rocks collided with each other and twisted upwards – this gap had formed and then over who knew how long had been eaten away by the elements. It smelt slightly of animal, rotted vegetation and darkness. Fumbling for the torch in his pocket he gave thanks to Bill the fisherman who’d passed it to him only minutes earlier. The beam was bright and the depth of the cave revealed itself. Beyond the small mouth it opened into a tunnel shape, maybe three or four feet tall and the same width – sloping backwards and down. Tentatively he followed it, forgetting Matt for just the moment, worried more about himself. After maybe ten feet it dropped away – a shaft leading nowhere in particular. He could hear the dull thud of the waves as they hit the cliff face below, reverberating their heavy bass through the rock and amplified by the hollow he crouched in now. He turned to go back to the entrance; surely they didn’t need to be looking for him as well. He’d flash his torch he thought. They’d come and get him.
As he reappeared he took a deep breath and with a start he realised that here was a rope hanging down in front of him. Joe’s head appeared over the top of the cliff,
“Jaz ? Jaz ?”, the call was anxious.
“Down here mate, “ Jaz flooded with relief.
“Jesus, thank God, thank Christ !”, Joe wasn’t normally given to Christian imprecations but at times like this they fell out without thinking. Jaz would normally have had a go at him, but given the circumstances it didn’t seem right.
“Thought we’d lost you too – saw you go and when we looked there wasn’t anyone there. Jesus”
The rope swung in front of Jaz and he grabbed it tight, tying one end around himself as he had earlier. Joe called someone else out of sight and the slack on the rope was taken up. Jaz braced himself against the rock and then started to lift his feet in a sort of reverse abseil.
One step, two, then a sickening lurch and he found himself tumbling back down past the ledge, dropping like a slow motion replay until the rope suddenly snapped back to tautness, cutting him across the chest and knocking the breath out from his lungs to join the storm. He hung there.
Joe reappeared – too far away for Jaz to hear him, he checked that Jaz was still on the end of the rope and pulled a pained face then, as an afterthought, a thumbs up.
Jaz could hear the sound of a car being revved far above and he slowly started to rise. Slowly, they were obviously taking no chances this time. Slowly. A gust spun him round, hanging free on the rope, the rough hemp grating the skin on his hands as he tried to prevent it from crushing his ribs. Slowly.
Then a whisper.
Then an unfamiliar colour in amongst the greys and greens of the cliff face.
There, over to the left.
There – unmistakeably not rock nor bracken nor earth.
There, a foot.
Jaz tugged on the rope. No response, he continued to rise.
He yelled. No response. He was almost level with the ledge now. He yelled again. No response.
Seconds seemed stretched to breaking point. He yelled again and then he broke clear of the cliff and hands caught him around the tops of his arms and pulled him back into their embrace. Joe’s face, relief and a smile chasing each other around. The delight in his eyes evident. Others came to help, unwrapping the rope. Jaz could see Victor’s old Anglia estate with the rope still tied around its tow bar – that was how they’d pulled him up. He jumped to his feet, pushing aside one man who was trying to see if he was OK. He grabbed Joe.
“He’s there ! He’s there ! Down there !” Jaz was hysterical, “He’s fuckin’ down there. Matt. I know it’s him. I saw him.”
He pointed urgently to the cliff, pushing away the growing throng of helpers and gawpers arriving from the village.
Jo’s face lit up, “Where ? Is he OK ? How ?” Questions gushed from him.
Jaz’s face dropped.
“He wasn’t moving….”
Joe took control, maybe for the first time in his life. He grabbed the arm of one of the locals – “Coastguard here yet ?” – the answer was still no. “Get Jack, the one with the rope. Get him here. And Victor. Now !”
Joe ran to the men who were untying the rope from the car. “Leave it ! Going down again. Matt’s there.”
The men looked apprehensive but without a word they reattached the rope, pulling it tight and testing it with all their might. Victor arrived, out of breath and marbled with mud and rain, waterproof long since abandoned to ease the scurrying over sharp and treacherous terrain. He started to organise. One group of men with torches leant out and tried to illuminate the gloom, beams still deflected by the driving rain, Jaz tried to persuade Joe to let him go back down, but Joe told him in no uncertain terms that he was a liability and fastened the rope to himself with a strong bowline. The fisherman turned up and quickly the group by the car fixed a second rope to the car too. Victor took over in the driving seat and assertively edged the car back towards the edge.
Joe lowered himself over the drop, like he’d seen climbers do, but had never done himself. He gulped and found his mouth dry despite the surfeit of water all around. He wasn’t thinking about the drop or the raging sea below, he was wondering what he’d find. He took the spare rope in his other hand and down he went, inches at a time whilst he could hear, but not listen to, the shouted encouragements of those above him.
He reached the ledge and took the weight of the rope for a second before kicking out into the emptiness.
Over to the left he could see nothing.
He swung – kicking at the cliff – stopping himself from turning. He dropped again as the car lurched slightly backwards.
There he was.
At least part of him was there.
Joe could see feet sticking out, the rest virtually indistinguishable from the rock, covered in mud, scraped earth around his head. But no movement. Joe edged his way along, another few feet. Another partial outcrop of weathered slate meeting weathered granite. He could just stand. Matt had dug a kind of trench in the old earth, not deep, but enough to stop him rolling back down the vast face. Joe found himself caught between being impressed with Matt’s thinking and full of fear at the great chasm below. He shook his long wet hair out of his face and touched Matt gingerly. He was very cold, his feet were blue, Joe had no idea if he were alive or dead. He wrapped the rope around the lifeless waist, taking his time, ignoring the blasts of spray from the rocks below and the rain from above. The air howled with pain. Matt didn’t respond to Joe’s touch and when he finally had him roped up he pulled on it sharply, letting the men up above take the strain, letting the rope slowly, so slowly, pull taut. Matt’s limp body was dragged gently upright, Joe cradling his sunken head to stop it cracking against the rocks. Holding him like an oversized baby, comforting him and protecting him. Telling him he was going to be OK.
As Matt’s body swung around Joe caught sight of the gash on his leg, just above the foot, deep, not bleeding, not pleasant. His foot hung at the wrong angle.
Inch by inch the pair were raised back from beyond the brink, Joe holding Matt tight against him, taking the knocks and cracks against the cliff himself rather than let Matt feel any more. It seemed a lifetime. There was nothing to do now apart from hang and hope. With Matt held so close to him he fancied he could feel a heartbeat, but it was only his own, the muscle pounding enough for them both.
Jaz was the first to reach out and pull them both up the grassy slope at the top of the cliff. Simultaneously a Land Rover pulled up, headlights illuminating them in a tableau. Jaz couldn’t speak. He just held on to Joe and Matt. Victor leapt from the car and, ignoring the coastguard, crouched down beside them. Matt looked younger, he looked drained of any experience and so very empty. Joe was crying with exhaustion and relief, great sobs heaving through his frame. Dave pounded up the cliff and stood, a silent observer, just watching, no expression.
The coastguards bustled out of the land Rover – Victor intercepted one of them and told him what he could. The other ran back, fetched blankets and wrapped them around Matt, Joe and Jaz. After a quick look they picked up Matt’s unresisting body and placed him in the back seat, Jaz tried to get in with him, but the coastguard firmly resisted and Jaz had no fight left. Seconds later they were gone. Leaving a forlorn group struggling to understand what had happened.
Victor made the first move. He put his arms around Jaz and Joe and led them back along the path to the hotel, the others followed, fishermen to the fore. In the bar they sat down silently and Victor passed out glasses and bottles of Scotch. No-one spoke. This wasn’t a celebration. Not just yet.