|Rix often found it difficult to wake, but on this occasion he was at once fully alert. It was still dark, but from his window, which he had left uncovered, he could see the first grey fingers of dawn crossing the sky. He sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, then threw off the bedclothes. Something was wrong. |
John was sleeping deeply, sprawled all over his bed, but he woke at once. “What’s wrong?”
“Tom’s missing. James and Alex say he might be on the beach. David’s getting dressed. I’m worried about the tides.” Rix said, almost frantic. He was holding Tom’s asthma medication. “Follow me down there?”
“Yes.” John started pulling on his clothes, but Rix had already gone. He only paused to grab the large torch from by the front door, left it open and once outside, sprinted along to the cliff path. The tide was out, Tom was unlikely to have been caught but he might have fallen and injured himself, especially if he had been sleepwalking. Something about Alex’s expression had made Rix wonder, but there was no time to think about that. David had been instructed to go out in his car along the cliff path, and if Tom had wandered onto the farm, he would be seen by the workers who were already up and about for milking. Exmoor was the only other way and the locked gate made that less likely. The steep descent down to the shore allowed John to catch up with him.
“Go slowly, Rix. An accident here isn’t going to help anybody.”
“I can’t see him. Can you?”
“No. We’ll split up. We’ll find him, don’t worry. You’re sure he’s not in the house?”
“The front door was wide-open. The kids are looking for him in the house anyway. I’ve told them to stay put. David’s going along the road.”
“We’ll find him, he can’t have gone far. Bother this sleepwalking! I wonder where it comes from? Right - you go left and I’ll go right.” John clapped Rix on the shoulder, then set off at a run towards the cave. Rix turned the other way, around the headland towards Trennington Point where the old, disused lighthouse stood, high above the cliffs and more likely to be inaccessible. The thought of his son falling from the cliffs was suddenly sickening. A faint shout from his brother made him turn sharply and he saw a wave and headed towards him. John was heading towards the cave, and Rix almost laughed to think of how there must be some kind of curse on his little family when it came to it. As he came closer, he saw the small footprints in the damp sand that John had seen and he caught up with his brother when he paused and stooped over just by the start of the rocks.
“Stitch - sorry.” John said. “I’m out of condition.”
“He’s here. Thank God.” Rix suppressed his usual claustrophobic fear as he saw the footprints continue into the cave. They looked recent. He stepped forward, raising the torch but John stopped him.
“I’ll go. Don’t worry. I know it better than you do. Give me that and you stay here. Shout if the tide turns.”
“It has turned. Be careful. It comes in fast.”
“I know. He’s small, I can carry him if I need. Go to the path.”
“No, I’ll come.” Rix was determined, as much to protect his brother as his small son.
There was no time to argue, and John went first, shining the torch, which was powerful and fully-charged, hoping his back would last out if they needed to climb one of the tunnels. The idea of a child of six lost and wandering, perhaps falling injured, lessened his hatred of the thought of the treacherous sea filling the cave. He thanked God he had spent so much of his childhood exploring it.
“Is your back OK?” Rix asked.
“It’s fine. We’ll keep together. He won’t have gone far in, a kid couldn’t climb like we could. The only danger is the tide.”
John spoke truly; it only took a further eight minutes before they found a sobbing, trembling Tom curled up, exhausted.
“Daddy.” he sobbed, his asthma evident. Rix took him into his arms and dealt with administering salbutamol to control it, but it was a bad attack made worse by Tom’s fear. John shone the torch, one eye on his watch. The longer it took, the less likely they were to be able to escape along the beach, and there was some steep climbing to do. Tom was in pyjamas and barefoot. Later, they discovered he had been asleep for the whole journey and woken in the dark cave, giving him a big shock. Fortunately it had only been a short while until he was found, though to the poor child, it had seemed like hours.
“Breathe with me, Tommy.” Rix held the boy against his own chest. “Don’t cry. You’re safe. We’ll be home soon.”
“Rix - the tide.” John said, too low for Tom to hear.
“I need to stablise him. That’s better, good boy. I’m here. I’m not leaving you. We’ll spend the whole day together. That’s a good boy. Well done.”
John held Tom’s hand too, sitting down on the cave floor. They might get wet feet but they were in control of the situation. Suddenly a huge chunk of memory of the night of the hurricane flooded back, almost overwhelming him. The sound of creeping seawater, suddenly becoming a huge rush. He managed to hold it together, but it was a huge effort.
“Jack?” Rix saw his brother’s face in the torchlight. The anxiety he showed made John pull himself together.
“How is he?” He asked, drawing from his reserves - his training, his natural authority as a naval officer and the knowledge that two people were depending on him.
“Better. Come on, old man! We’re going back home. I want my breakfast!”
“Are - there pirate ghosts here?” Tom asked, fearfully.
“No such thing. Uncle’s going to lift you on to my back, OK? Careful, Jackie.”
“It’s fine.” They both heard the sound of the tide coming into the cave. “No - we’ll have to go through the passage up, or wait until it goes out. We’ll be caught in the current if we try to swim.”
They both knew that would mean either being dashed against the cruel rocks or swept out to sea and Rix was already shaking his head.
“We’re certainly not swimming! It's OK. I’ve done this before."
John climbed the ledge, while Rix held the torch, then took the torch and then his nephew. Rix scrambled up afterwards and they both breathed a sigh of relief that there was now no danger of drowning.
“We need to get back to the house. When I was here before, we managed to find a path up to the cliff road…”
John laughed. “I can do you better than that. Come on. You’ll have to carry him I think. It gets quite tight in places.”
“If it’s too bad, I’ll take him and get him to David. He’ll know what to do, won’t he?”
“Yes. I could have done without this little adventure! Where does it come out?”
“The Quadrant. There’s an old door that actually leads into the cellars. I found it when we were kids.” John laughed again. “Dad said he’d give me a good hiding if I ever told anyone.”
“Dad did? Really?” Rix was amazed. “Why is it even there?”
“Smugglers. You’ll see. I’ll tell you the full yarn later. This is the steepest part. Save your breath for a bit.”
It was an effort but they managed it, getting Tom up between them. He was rousing now, the relief of the rescue helping to revive him. His breathing still seemed hard, and Rix was conscientious in checking on him at regular intervals.
The reached the fork, that Rix remembered vaguely from the time he had been trapped here with Mary-Lou, so long ago now. John took the right hand fork and they walked in silence. It was flatter. John offered to carry Tom, but Rix refused. He’d fallen asleep, worn out, but seemed to be all right.
“We hit steps soon. Here! Don’t trip over.”
“This is amazing. These are man-made.”
“Smugglers. Maybe even wreckers. It makes you think doesn’t it? What kind of ancestors we had.”
“I’m just stunned.”
“No treasure, sadly! Tom’s sound asleep. I’d keep this a secret from them for a while longer. It’s an awful temptation and the tide is too dangerous. I think that’s why Dad was so strict about it, otherwise I would have told you.”
“I wouldn’t have come down here and I’m hopeful this is the last time I ever will. Another rescue, Lieutenant Commander!”
John sobered immediately. “I’m not. In fact…”
Rix interrupted him. “John - when we were kids… That day you had the row with Aunt Bridget, do you remember? I was at medical school. It was that really hot summer. You were swimming on your own after it was forbidden. We went to Trennington Point in the car one morning. Do you remember that day?”
“Of course. It was my last year at the Ship. Why?”
“I was just thinking. That day - you’d had to stay with that officer. You’d stayed overnight. Did he…? I mean, was that... “ Rix didn’t know how to finish his sentence. “This is just new to me. I want to understand.”
“Yes.” John answered the real question. He stopped, holding his back for a second.
“I didn’t even realise. You looked so strange when I picked you up. Oh, Jackie, let’s talk when this is all over. We need to talk properly. I’ve been awful to you and you need to tell me what’s been troubling you for the last year.” Rix shifted Tom to one arm, and hugged his brother with the other. “I’m so sorry. I’ll never be like that again, I promise. I just didn’t understand.”
It was too much and John broke down. A year’s worth of grief, rage and fear made him howl like his nephews might have done. Rix had his hands full for a good few moments, but he didn’t mind in the least. He knew it was probably the best thing for John.
They rested for a while. When John had recovered himself, they continued the climb and eventually found themselves outside a thick oak door that looked like it should belong in a museum. They opened it, with some difficulty. John was exhausted after the outburst of emotion and Rix was heavily-burdened.
“Bed for you - doctor’s orders. I’ll deal with Tom, settle the kids, then I’m coming back to you, OK? I’ll never forget this, Jackie, thank you so much. You saved my son’s life.”
John smiled. He already felt lighter than he’d done in years. Rix was on his side. He would help him.