An undiscovered cave I found
with sights and smells that would astound.
It’s lurking there way underground;
in earth unsound! In earth unsound!
Dare I explore this mystery?
Should I climb up that pile of scree
or turn and go while can still flee?
Discovery Terry Hoffman.
When the room was unlocked and other village children were at school, I was free to explore the village and its surrounds. I would eventually find myself at one place that gave me great comfort, the beach. It was a spectacular beach which at low tide revealed hidden caves along the eastern edge of the Harbour Wall that divided the Ocean from the quiet, picturesque Harbour, home to the fishermen working boats on one side and on the other side the more luxurious cruisers and yachts that were shielded from the wild storms of the Atlantic by the high man-made walls. Ancient walls constructed in the 1840’s during the Irish famine under the direction of the English providing some work to the starving and impoverished community. Before reaching the beach I would often watch the fisherman returning to the harbour from their night fishing bringing with them pungent smells of freshly caught sole and place. The men enveloped in their yellow plastic overalls over woolen jumpers, white hand-knitted intricate cabled designs impregnated with oil to make them water and windproof, protecting them from the icy winter winds coming across the Irish Sea from Wales. Each family had their own unique cable. On the wet, slippery decks were stacks of blue boxes, glistening with their fresh haul. Some fish still moving, barely alive but slithering and sliding over their fellow travellers, gasping their last breath. Locals would congregate at the quay to have their first pick of the catch, before the bulk was taken to market at the local towns. I sat in my hidden grassy knoll above the harbour enjoying the friendly chat that drifted up on the freshening sea breeze.
I spend many hours exploring the beach and the caves at low tide. One cave, in particular, became my favourite refuge. I always greeted the beach with delight at low tide because it gave me access to my private, secret world of peace and safety where I hid until the tide began rising again. My cave had a soft sandy floor covered by velvety strands of Dulse Seaweed and Carrageen Irish Moss and a high ceiling with rugged, barnacled walls with shelf-like indentations where I could place a stolen sandwich or bottle of Vodka. My mother had given me Vodka from a very early age so I was drinking almost every day by the age of ten if I could. I was about ten when I found this cave so the timing was perfect. No one seeing me walking to the beach carrying a bottle of alcohol with the red lid ever commented, so I presumed it was normal and something all ten-year-olds did.
One day I entered my cave and found it occupied by a small stranger, poorly clad in a large oversized fisherman’s duffle coat with missing buttons and stains down the front. I do not know why but I did not run. I sat down and stared in wonder at this man who seemed also to be finding solace in the Hidden Cave. Strangely I did not feel any threat from him. In his left hand was a cigarette that came from a yellow box with a picture of a fishing captain with a hat on, embossed on the front. Sweet Afton I later discovered was the brand. It was the same brand as Mrs. Crane smoked. He offered me one. I politely refused but marvelled at being offered something. Here was a man who offered to give instead of just taking. In his right, a soil encrusted hand was a bottle of whiskey. He drank with remarkable delicacy. This was no ordinary man. Here was a man to be observed at a distance and pondered. He was dirty and unshaven with an uneven beard which had not seen a razor in years never mind soap and water. He carried the pungent odour of stale cigarettes, alcohol, stagnant body fluid, dirty clothing and oily hair. Quite a concoction for my ten-year old’s olfactory senses in the confined space of the cave. I automatically picked up some seaweed and held it to my face the counter his smell. He had bushy grey brows like mantels over his piercing blue eyes. They were slate silver blue and sparkled with life, twinkling with the surety of someone at peace with themselves. They made me feel immediately safe and in no way threatened by him. He never spoke. Not once in all the years I encountered him in the cave did he speak. He never attempted to harm me in any way and only ever offered me small treasures to consume which I always refused until once he offered me a bar of chocolate I accepted and eagerly ate it. From then on whenever we encountered each other he gave me the exact same bar of chocolate. So a man of sensibilities who actually noticed and cared about what I liked. This was a revelation to me.
He obviously saw my stash of Vodka because sometimes I would come and a new unopened bottle would be carefully placed alongside the empty bottle with a piece of paper with words and a picture drawn on it. I could not read the words always but took great delight in the beautifully coloured pictures of little girls in various situations. Magical woods, sunny beaches under crystal blue skies. There were no grey skies in my special mystery man’s drawings. The girls in the pictures went on adventures on horses with dogs and cats, seemed fearless in the face of danger. They were always the heroines who fought off the monsters he illustrated. There was always a younger child that the older child was protecting on their trips, travels and adventures in the wide world outside Ballyculchie. A wondrous world he had conceived and designed which gave me another universe to go to in my imagination, away from reality. Oh, it was rich, luscious and exciting and I so looked forward to each installment. He never disappointed me. If he was not there, drawings would be left under a bottle sometimes with a bar of chocolate! They told a story and each picture added to the tale of fiction woven by this unusual lonesome soul. I collected them all and placed them on the highest “shelf” underneath a bottle I had filled with sand to weight them down and protect them from the returning tide. I never took the pictures back to the room with me. She would find them and surely take them from me. One day when I was about fourteen I went at low tide to the cave and he was not there, only the crumpled pile of his wet coat, sodden packet of cigarettes and spilt bottle of whiskey. I waited as long as I could for him to return but the tide was coming in so I was forced to leave. I never saw him again and never discovered his whereabouts. I knew as little about the man at fourteen as I did when I first met him at ten. My very own mystery man who did not harm me but gave me kindness. I missed him so much.