When I was four to eighteen I was kept in a room in my parents’ hotel where the paedophile ring operated from. I was not kept locked up all the time. Often the room was unlocked and I was left to roam the Village on my own to spend time as I wished as long as I was home before dark.
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 find ing solace in the Hidden Cave. Strangely I did not feel any threat fro 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, 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 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 grey eyes. They were slate silver grey 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 spilled 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.