There was a lot of traffic. The rain began to get heavier, and got very heavy. I slowed down a lot. Most others didn’t.
I kept a good braking distance from the vehicle in front. People overtaking me, probably scared witless by the idiots two car lengths behind them, kept pulling into the space I’d left, as they do. I kept dropping back, trying to preserve my braking space, as I do. The result was that I was going even more slowly than I would otherwise have felt the need to, but so be it.
The inevitable happened, of course. I was able to stop before hitting the mess, and got myself onto the hard shoulder in the hope that I might escape the impact of following traffic. Not being very confident of that, I got out of the passenger side of the car, and legged it up the embankment.
For a short while I watched the mayhem from the top of the bank. I watched as the pile-up grew. My car seemed to lead a charmed life there on the hard shoulder – the whole road was full of carnage, and it spilled onto the hard shoulder both in front of and behind my car, but my car was untouched.
Then I watched with horror as two big trucks, side by side, attempted to stop before hitting the pile. They slid sideways into it, and a third slammed straight on into the side of them. The first was a fuel tanker, followed by a liquid oxygen tanker. And something burst into flame.
I didn’t wait to watch any longer. I wondered how far I could get before the first of the two tanks burst in the heat, and worse than that, the second as well. I ran, looking all the while for anywhere that would give me some shelter from the blast I knew was likely any time. A dip in the ground, anything.
They found me two hundred yards from the road. How much of that I’d run, and how much I’d been blown, no-one will ever know. I was lucky they found me – I could have died of hypothermia so easily, lying battered and unconscious in a field in the rain like that. I was the only survivor of the accident, and they still don’t know exactly how many people died in it.
Standing on the corner of the road were my friends Mike and Chris and James, and a little boy I didn’t know. I pulled up alongside them and wound down the window. ‘You waiting for a taxi home or something?’ quoth I.
‘Hop in. I’ll take you. You’re more or less on my way.’
So off we set. First Mike’s place. Little boy still sitting there. Then Chris’s. Little boy still sitting there. Finally James’s. There I am expecting the little boy to get out with someone, but no.
‘Who’s the little boy?’
‘I don’t know,’ quoth James.
Oh gawd! Each of us had assumed that one or more of the others knew who he was.
‘Where do you live?’
Well, there are Blackheaths all over the place, but none of them anywhere near here, and can I get any more sense out of him than that? Not a chance.
I remember a time when in such circumstances one would have taken him to the nearest police station and let them sort it out, but only a fool would do that nowadays. The only sensible thing to do is to leave him by the side of the road and let someone else find him. But how can you possibly do that?
We could see each other, forty feet away across the crowd, but if we descended into that milling throng, we’d never find each other. Would my phone work in that place? I knew the number of the announcer; it was worth a try. Would they be too busy to take my call? I gestured to her to indicate what I was trying to do.
The phone worked. The announcement came. It was like a dream. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and she ran across to me. The Red Sea closed behind her and continued on its various hurrying ways.
I held her close for a few minutes, then she reached up and kissed my tear stained cheek, pulled away from me, and disappeared into the chaos. I never saw her again.
The path was rather exposed. To our right, vertical rocks towered over us; to our left, a vertical drop of several hundred feet to the sea. I’m not very good with heights at the best of times. But the ground was firm, and the path was wide and level, and the weather was fine.
The cliff curved gently leftward, so we could see a mile or more of the path, following the same ledge all the way around the curve until it disappeared around the headland. We knew it was a well-used path.
As we got further around the curve, the ledge got progressively narrower. Here and there there were short stretches where, rather than a level surface of solid rock, there was a grass surface sloping steeply towards the sea, with a narrow muddy track incised into the grass. But by then, we weren’t all that far from the headland, and we could see the path quite clearly all the way – there were a few more such stretches, but they didn’t look any worse than this one. We could see the notch in the skyline where the path went around the headland; the path was wide there and on solid rock. And we knew it was a well-used path.
It really didn’t get any worse all the way to the headland.
Then we reached the headland. The view from that wide rocky platform at the point was superb in the sunshine, back to the village along the path we’d just walked, and across the sea to the next island, where clouds were playing around the tops of the mountain.
The path continued wide and level around the headland. After a hundred metres or so we could see into the next bay – another cliff face curving gently leftward, very like the first. Except that here there wasn’t a single ledge all the way around to the next headland. There were several parallel ledges, five or ten metres apart vertically, and none of them extended all the way from this headland to the next. The ledge we were on gave out around three hundred metres around the cliff, and we could see how the path was a steep scramble down to the next ledge, fifty metres or so before the end of our ledge.
When we arrived at the vertical scramble, we could see that it was a man-made stone staircase, partly chiselled out of the rock face, and partly built up onto the lower ledge with large stone blocks. Grass was growing in the cracks in the stone, and the surface of the stone was smoothed and indented from the wear of hundreds of years of foot traffic. It was clearly safe enough, but very exposed. It was hard to overcome my fear. I was very careful descending that short staircase.
This second ledge was longer, but wide and safe feeling, and took us within fifty metres of the next headland. At that point, there was a very similar staircase twenty metres upwards to another ledge. Going up wasn’t so difficult, even though the stairs were longer. The next ledge was mostly a transverse grass slope with a narrow muddy track, but it wasn’t very far to the second headland, and another wide platform.
From the headland we could see another curve of cliff to yet a third headland. Far beyond the third headland we could see the coast curving leftward again, but much lower, a wide grassy area with a low cliff down to the sea, and a surfaced road well back from the cliff edge. We realized the next village must be just around the next corner of the cliff.
But this curve of cliff looked far more menacing than the first two. The ledge was much narrower, and there were more places where we had to climb up or down from one ledge to another. Halfway around the curve, a narrow cleft cut into the rock, and the ledge disappeared into it. There was no corresponding ledge coming out the other side. We couldn’t tell from the headland whether the path continued on a lower or a higher ledge. But we knew it was a well-used path.
Before we got to the cleft, the sun disappeared behind a cloud. Then the top of the cliffs on our right disappeared in a shroud of mist. But the path was still clear, and we were well below the cloud line.
It wasn’t very light inside the cleft, and the rocks were damp and a bit slick. The cleft curved slightly to the right, so we couldn’t see how far into the cliff it went, and we still couldn’t see whether we went up or down to the next ledge. The ledge below us on the far side of the cleft didn’t look to have a path along it, really, so we assumed we must go up somehow.
We rounded the curve. The path went down another staircase ahead of us. Further on, the cleft continued, but there was a wide rock bridge joining the sides of the cleft, with a ledge on each side of the cleft going both ways, deeper into the cleft and back out to the open sea. We could hear the waves crashing between the rock walls far below us.
The ledge on the far side of the cleft, back towards the sea, didn’t appear to have a path along it. The path seemed to go back along the ledge below the one we’d arrived on, but that made no sense. We set off along the ledge that obviously went the way we wanted to go. It was wet and narrow and there was moss growing on it, and it really didn’t feel safe at all. But it was the obvious way forward. In places we had to go on our hands and knees.
It became impossible. It was simply too narrow. We had to turn back. Turning wasn’t easy, we had to reverse a few metres before we could. At the rock bridge we pondered our next move. Should we admit defeat, and head back to the village?
We decided to try the way the path seemed to lead on, however illogical a route it seemed. It was a much less dangerous ledge than the one we’d just been defeated by, and we could always get back easily enough.
We’d almost reached the end of the cleft before we saw the solution to the conundrum. The path went down another set of stairs, and then someone had built an arch across the cleft to a ledge on the other side. It was a very solid bridge constructed of large stone blocks without mortar – but quite narrow, especially at the summit, and with no parapet. We went over on our hands and knees. Descending the far side was terrifying.
Round the final headland, the path descended in a series of staircases and ledges, zigzagging back and forth across the face of the cliff. This cliff didn’t descend all the way to the sea, but to a grassy cirque with the village nestling at its centre. The road we’d seen ended at the village.
The sea cliffs had been pretty solid rock, but this cliff was crumbling in places. Some sections of the path had evidently fallen away, and been repaired. The repairs didn’t look nearly as sound as the ancient, original construction. Here and there pieces of rock moved slightly underfoot.
Then there was a section where the path hadn’t been repaired at all following what looked like a recent rockfall. We could see the path continuing five metres away, diagonally below us, but the only way to reach it was to scramble down the loose boulders of the rockfall, and back up the other side. It felt very precarious, but we managed.
It looked straightforward from that point – we could see the path ahead all the way down to the grass, and it all looked undamaged.
I’d been bringing up the rear all the way. As Mike, just in front of me, stepped onto a rock halfway down a set of stairs, it shifted under his foot. He grabbed at a handhold in the rock wall to his right, and a large stone came out in his hand. He jumped for the next step as the boulder under him tumbled away, and managed to grab hold of another bit of the rock face. Which held. He was safe.
But the tumbling boulder hit another rock below, and dislodged that. The second rock fell, and undermined a whole section of the cliff. I felt the staircase trembling beneath me, and scrambled back up to the top and onto the ledge we’d just come along just in time. My friends ran down the stairs onto the next ledge. The whole staircase collapsed, leaving a sheer drop between where I was and where my friends were. There was no way we could possibly cross.
There was no choice. They had to go on to the next village, and I had to go back. Three miles along all those ledges, and alone across that narrow bridge.
It was beginning to rain, and the cloud line was descending above me.
Have you ever tried to take in sail manually on a fifteen metre cat in a storm in the dark? Don’t. Well, don’t let yourself get into a situation where you have to. If you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it. And to think there used to be folks who sailed these things just for the fun of it!
We were tacking, beating upwind. It was blowing a good stiff breeze, white horses just catching the last of the light, but it hadn’t been blowing long and the sea hadn’t got up much. Dark and threatening with heavy clouds, but we’d got plenty of sea room and we weren’t worried. She was wide and stable, so we were flying along under full sail.
Then the rain hit us, and big squalls. No surprise there, of course. The waves began to get bigger, and she began to jump about a bit. Still no surprise, but Chris sensibly decided it was time to roll in a bit of sail. She spilt the wind and hit the button. Whirr – phht – whirr – phht – silence. And the lights had gone out in the cabin, too. We didn’t know exactly what had failed in the electrics, but something had.
In the dark I scrabbled in the locker under the cockpit seat and found the little handle to wind the sail in manually. I hooked myself onto the safety line and scrambled up onto the cabin roof to the foot of the mast. Fitted the handle into the socket in the boom and wound like there was no tomorrow. Then the sail stuck – something jammed in the boom? In the dark and the pouring rain, I couldn’t see what was wrong. I inched my way along the boom to try to find the problem, but the boom was swinging about and even with a sand-textured finish, the top of the cabin was slippery in the wet. A moment later I was in the drink.
I’d got a lifejacket on, of course, and I was on a safety line. But it’s still no fun. It’s still damn cold, and you still breathe a lot of water. And it seemed to be ages before Chris was hauling me back into the cockpit.
And we still had three-quarters of a sail up, and it was developing into a real storm. What now? We were very afraid the mast was going to break, and then we’d be drifting and lucky to be found in time. We could cut the sail loose and save the mast, but then we’d be drifting anyway. We just hoped against hope that the mast would survive the storm.
We arrived at the house a little before dawn. The house had retained some heat from the previous afternoon. Even without a fire in the grate, it was warmer inside than out – well, less bitterly cold anyway. We searched all around the house, inside and out, for anything to burn. There wasn’t much, and most of what there was was too damp. It wouldn’t dry out, even inside the house beside whatever fire we could make, in time to be any use to us.
In particular, we couldn’t find anything at all that would burn easily enough to get a fire started.
We just had to huddle together to try to keep warm. Sleep was out of the question.
But sleep we did. When I woke, the sun was streaming in through the window, and my feet, in a patch of sunshine, actually felt warm. Jackie was snoring, but Chris was awake. She’d managed to get a fire going somehow, and was cooking the rabbit we’d snared the previous day. She’d found some potatoes growing in a patch not far from the house as well.
‘There’s a spring at the foot of the cliff over there. Looks like good water. I’ve washed and had a drink. I can’t find anything to boil any water in though, so there’s going to be no tea I’m afraid.’
I thought that was just a joke – we’d not had any tea for a week. But she’d found a packet of tea in a cupboard.
One day I’m going about my normal life – then the next thing I remember, I’m in here.
Have I done something dreadful? If so, I don’t remember a thing about it, and I’ve never had any intention of doing anything bad. I don’t remember any court case, nothing.
It’s not really much like a prison, anyway. Fenced all around, but not at all secure, and no guards or anything – not as far as I’ve seen. But we’re all wearing painfully brightly coloured boiler suits, and all the other inmates are shuffling zombies. At least I’m not a shuffling zombie.
Well – I don’t feel like a shuffling zombie. I wonder whether the others feel like shuffling zombies? They look like shuffling zombies to me. I wonder whether I look like a shuffling zombie to everyone else?
I could vault that fence easily. I suppose it would keep the shuffling zombies in well enough. Well, I think I could vault it easily – as long as I’m still not a shuffling zombie in reality. Would something dreadful happen to me if I tried to make my escape?
What will happen to me if I don’t try to make my escape? Horror of horrors, perhaps a few days of whatever we’re given to eat here – we must get something to eat! – will turn me into a shuffling zombie.
So there’s nothing to lose.
And yes, I’m right, I can vault that fence easily. And nothing dreadful – nothing at all – has happened to me yet. Now where to go?
From being in what was virtually a field, I’m rapidly in a maze of ancient narrow streets – deserted for the moment, but looking as though they were busy last night, and probably will be again quite soon, when the sun comes up. This orange boiler suit is a bit of a problem. And all I’ve got under it, I find, is a pair of orange underpants and an orange vest. I wonder whether the locals – any of them – might be sympathetic to my plight? Or whether they’ll simply turn me over to the authorities?