It was almost dark now and the torches swung from side to side as the group made their way back along the cliff path, Dave driving unsteadily ahead of them, headlights bobbing up and down on the rough unmade road. Jaz was silent for once. Way off to the left of them a solitary seagull flew back to wherever it was that they roosted as the sun fell, late by its own standards and mewling pathetically.
The wind made a disappointing companion to the silent group, pondering what they’d found.
The cave in the cliff face turned out to be a lot larger than they’d thought and a lot less interesting in many ways. It ran back a few feet from the face, dipped sharply upwards and then levelled out and filled out the further back it went. Because of the angle of the first dip it was dry apart from the odd patch where water dripped from above between the slabs of rock that furnished its ceiling. It was pitch black – no ingress for any other light than that from the opening, which soon faded. Joe reckoned it travelled back under the cliff top about thirty or forty feet, just shy of where the road started. No-one had any theories about why it was there or how it had formed. It was sparse, empty, and to the unimaginative it was unexciting. The rock was uniformly grey, almost as if it had been cemented into place, the lack of light precluded anything growing in there and all that lay on the floor was wind blown dust and occasional bird shit. There was the odd piece of evidence that things had been in there before them, the odd feather, a long decomposed and unidentifiable jumble of bird bone. But presumably because of its inhospitable location and well covered entrance it hadn’t even been colonised by the avaricious gulls or cormorants that normally scooped up any unused rock as their own.
At most it was about ten feet wide, at the narrowest it came down to a body squeezing foot and a half. There was no sign that anyone had been here, at least not for decades. There was none of the usual detritus that washed up into the backs of caves, no stray nets, pieces of wood from boats, plastic bottles – it was too high and too out of the reach of even the most severe storms.
Joe had been disappointed most. He’d wanted it to be something more, something romantic, something more useful. He wanted it to teem with booty, long forgotten. He wanted it to be more than the mundane. Jaz had been more inclined to expect this reality anyway and wasn’t bothered one way or another, but some of Joe’s mood rubbed off on him and he felt a bit deflated. Dave hadn’t been down – he’d stayed in the car, at the end of the rope with Matt sitting beside him, nervously checking his watch every one or two minutes. But Dave had listened more than usually closely at the descriptions and, if anyone had been there to see them, would have seemed the more excited of the quartet. He’d felt quite trusted, knowing that if he drove off now he’d leave his brother and Jaz down there with no way of getting up. He half joked about this to Matt, who refused to see the funny side of it, fresh as his experience was, and turned away from him, facing into the dusk with a grimace.
When the adventure-that-never-was finished Joe and Jaz pulled at the rope and flashed their torches vertically. They’d agreed at the start to keep this low key and even now, now that they’d found nothing, they still wanted it to be their nothing. You never knew, ventured Jaz, when it might come in useful. Joe saw some potential for a bomb shelter, though why anyone would want to nuke this place was beyond him. Plus, as Jaz pointed out, they’d need someone still alive up the top to get them out again.
"Only thing that puzzles me is how come no one ever saw it before ?" said Joe as they trudged back down the slope to the village, Dave disappearing fast ahead now that he’d made the main road.
"Fuck me, it’s 'cause there’s no bloody point in it, that’s why." responded Jaz almost venomously.
"Dunn. How about a party down there ? Could get some of the girls over, it’s nice and dry. Better than on the beach anyway."
"Yeah and are you going to light a fire in there ? Can see that staying nice and quiet once someone sees the smoke coming out the mouth, not to mention the choking fuckers at the party ! Nice try – let’s print up some invites, 'come and choke to death in an empty cave', bound to get some birds turning up for that….."
Joe was stung and said nothing more. Jaz snorted and walked a bit faster, setting himself a couple of paces ahead as if he thought Joe’s stupidity might be catching. Truth is he was turning his mind over and over to what might be done there as well.
No one mentioned it again for a while. It was Jaz who thought he couldn’t stop it burrowing into his psyche though, so one day he wandered off the cliff path to where they’d been that night, intending just to sit at the top and well, just sit and think really. When he got there he could tell he wasn’t first.
The grass was muddied 'round the edge of the cliff, just where it threw itself over the edge and out of direct sight. He crouched down and looked at it, the way he’d seen Indian scouts do in the interminable westerns they showed on Saturday morning TV when he was a bit younger. Unlike the Indian scouts he had no idea what he was looking for. There were no footprints as such, just a skiddy piece of flattened grass. Then he saw it.
There was a long wooden peg embedded in the grass just behind a rock, so near where he was standing he nearly missed it. It was the sort of tent peg they used for big marquees, and wrapped ‘round it was a solid looking piece of rope. He pulled at it. It was unyielding. Fixed at both ends – this end and the end somewhere down below. Feeling slightly apprehensive without really knowing why he felt cautiously along the rope, not wanting to get too close to leaning over the edge. Then he saw a second peg, a second rope, about a foot away, parallel to the first. He stood up, slightly dizzy with the discovery and with the closeness to the emptiness where the cliff ended. Somewhere below he could hear the wash and retreat of the waves.
He shook his head. A week or two ago this had been unknown territory, now it seemed to him like some sod had come here and started developing the place.
He tugged at the second rope and that too was firm. Then it struck him with a force that only the blindingly obvious can. It wasn’t two ropes, it was a rope ladder and the first rung must be just down on the cliff face. He was too worried about what he might find at the other end to casually follow the ladder down, so he sat a little way back and squatted down by a bush, lighting a cigarette with his hands cupped around the flame. He puffed away and watched for any signs of a presence at the end of the ladder. He sat there for maybe a half hour, smoked three roll ups and then gave up. He didn’t know whether he wanted the begetter of the rope to know that he’d been there or not, decided that discretion was the better part of whatever it was he was doing and retreated soundlessly, ready to come back again and again and maybe next time bring his courage with him.
His mind buzzed with possibilities and he found himself in Joe’s fantasyland of pirates and smugglers without even realising it. Who was at the end of the rope ladder? What was their point ? Why now ?
He was so consumed with the questions he went straight down to the beach and tried to make out the ladder from the safety of the sands, but nothing could be seen, no sign of anything , even though he knew he was looking in the right place. The sand whipped around his face and he pulled up his collar to stop the stinging flurries. His eyes watered with the effort of so much scanning and he eventually gave up and headed home.
In the pub that night he said nothing. Last time he’d talked about the cave he felt that he’d led everyone down a dead end path and he didn’t want to lose his status with another cock and bull story. This time he wanted to be sure what he was talking about.