A wooden walkway led away from the end of the carpark and up to a hide on the cliff, twenty metres above the beach. Inside, the hide was cool, dark and deserted. Wooden benches lined three sides of the small space and Department of Conservation interpretation boards on the yellow-eyed penguins – hoiho – hung on the back wall. While Violet digested facts about mating strategy, nesting habits, and threats to penguin survival, she realised that without binoculars she was unlikely to be able to spot any birds on the beach far below. She took out her digital camera and zoomed in on a piece of driftwood lying well above the strandline that appeared to have a small heap in front of it – a likely nest of grass and leaves, according to the information board. She was barely able to make out any detail through the viewfinder; even if a chick had been sitting there it would have been nothing more than an indistinguishable grey blob. But Violet was feeling inspired by the information on the rare birds; having come this far, it seemed like a waste not to try and find a way down to the beach in the hope that she could actually see one up close. A rule-breaking act. The thought excited Violet and the sluggishness left her body.
She headed back along the walkway and climbed the fence at the southern edge of the carpark, then set off quickly towards the gate at the far end of the large field of sheep. The animals skittered off in all directions, regrouping further away to regard her with suspicion. She’d read that hoiho were solitary creatures, setting their nests far apart, so she decided she should move a good way from the hide before trying to find a route down to the beach. There seemed to be little reason to worry about being seen; she hadn’t encountered a single person on her way to the carpark or at the hide. It appeared that in this town the little blues were the star penguin attraction.
The ground started to drop away in the third field, which was devoid of livestock. Thistles rose above the grass and Violet had the sensation of wading through a bottle green sea. She brushed her hands across the top of the blades as she ran towards the bottom of the valley. Eyes closed, she was nine years old again, running through the hay meadow behind the estate in Bletchley. Free from responsibility, allowed to be a child. She stopped, and with her eyes still closed, breathed in and out through her nose. Then she moved closer to the cliff edge, dropped to her knees and peered over. With her mood balanced somewhere between meditative and bold, Violet decided that the beach was within clambering distance – there was a faint trace of a path winding down the slope, and tussocks that could serve as handholds.
A thick bank of slate grey clouds had slipped in front of the sun now and the scent of rain mixed with pollen tickled Violets nostrils, so she began to hurry. She propped her bulky backpack between two rocks near the edge, pushed her camera down deep into the front pocket of her jeans and felt light bubbles of confidence fizzing up inside her.
Violet tightened her shoelaces and rearranged her ponytail to capture stray damp strands. Her fringe was too long and she had to keep sweeping it from her eyes. She’d cut it herself – as she always did – when she got back to the hostel. Until the retro look came into fashion, her blunt fringe was purely functional. Now, even though she felt experienced enough with the scissors to change her style, she left it the way it had always been and was happy to be fashionable in some small way.
She sat down and eased herself over the edge of the cliff onto the sheep path. Keeping three points of contact at all times, Violet began to shuffle down the slope on her bottom while a curious seagull circled a couple of meters above her head. Halfway down, her feet hit a loose patch of shale and she grabbed at a tussock in time to stop herself from sliding far. When her breathing returned to normal she carried on, slower, more wary. As she lifted her head to look out to sea, she saw that the swell had picked up and waves were now breaking hard on the shore. Violet started to move again, concentrating on the path, and noticed her breath shortening once more. This time, the strain to draw air deep into her lungs was accompanied by a lightness in her head. Her eyes started to water and the scene below went out of focus. She started to slide and reached out to grab at anything within reach, but the soft earth released every clump of vegetation with only a token amount of resistance. In the split second when she felt herself falling, Violet saw that she was tumbling towards a wide brown band running alongside the base of the cliff. A moment later, as her limp body twisted forward and back, she slipped into unconsciousness.
The first sense to return was sound: Violet heard waves thumping and pebbles scraping. Next, touch; her face felt like it was being exfoliated. Then came taste — smoke and bacon mixed with something earthy in the air being blown into her mouth. A moment later, touch and hearing combined painfully, as a thumb and finger pinched her earlobe and someone shouted, ‘Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?’
Violet opened her eyes to find the dark brown eyes of a man only a few centimetres from her face. ‘Get off my fucking ear,’ she said.
The features on the face were indistinct but seemed to be arranged into a smile. ‘Thank God for that. I was worried I’d have to start compressions soon.’
Violet reached up to massage her stinging earlobe.
‘Sorry, hope I didn’t hurt you too much,’ the voice said and as Violet continued to rub her ear, the face finally came into focus. Looking concerned and uncertain, a man of around forty with curly brown hair sat back on his haunches and folded his arms over his chest, waiting.
Other pain sensations registered; her left leg and right arm both appeared to be damaged and the pounding in her head made it difficult to focus. The outline of the man, silhouetted against the sky, became hazy again and she closed her eyes. Then her stomach cramped and she sat up suddenly. The man reached for her as she lurched forward and the smell of vomit mixed with the pungent aroma of the rotting seaweed beneath her.
‘Oh shit,’ she moaned. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She held her head in her hands and noticed the dried blood crusted over her hands and forearms. ‘What happened?’
‘Well, you’re covered in mud and blood, and there’s a big smear up there on the cliff, so I’m guessing you took a tumble.’ The man helped her to sit upright, ignoring the watery vomit on his jeans. ‘I found you lying here a few minutes ago. Lucky I came when I did or you’d have been washed out with the tide. You don’t remember anything?’
‘Oh, I do,’ she said. ‘I fainted.’ She wiped her mouth with her sleeve after she spat out the last drops of bitter vomit. ‘I’m sorry I puked on you.’
‘No problem,’ said the man. ‘I’ve experienced worse.’ He held out a bottle of water. ‘This might help.’
Violet poured a little of the tepid water over her hands and rubbed her face before rinsing and spitting, and then taking a few tentative sips.
‘Any idea why you fainted?’ He was sitting back on his haunches again. His look of general concern had been replaced by intrigue and sympathy. Violet took that to mean she no longer had the appearance of one who was about to die, which was a relief. She didn’t feel like she was going to die, although she was probably in for several days of pain, especially in her head.
‘No.’ She sipped more water.
‘Probably ought to introduce myself – I’m Angus.’ He held out his hand. ‘I live here, but I’m guessing you don’t?’
She took his hand, but winced as she lifted her arm.
‘Violet,’ she said, bobbing her head very slightly. ‘I’m just visiting. From England. And I probably ought to say thank you.’ Calluses grazed her skin as he shook her hand gently. She noticed that he had dirt under his fingernails but her brain faltered when she tried to remember what day it was. Fog seemed to drift in front of her eyes for a moment, and she rubbed them with the back of her other hand.
‘Don’t mention it,’ said Angus. ‘It’ll make for a good story down the pub. It’s not every day you find a body while you’re out beachcombing.’ He stood up and slung a canvas bag over his back. ‘Think we need to deal with some practicalities now though, before the tide cuts off our escape route and we have to climb back up that cliff. There’s a set of steps just round the headland.’ He patted the bag. ‘I can abandon the wood and carry you if you aren’t up to walking.’
Violet stood up tentatively, and took his proffered hand as she wobbled. ‘I think I can manage, if we take it slow.’ She squinted at the sea. ‘Would it really have come up this far?’
‘More than likely – that was the high tide line you landed on. No need to worry about it now though.’
Violet looked towards the cold grey water. The waves were slamming down hard and the water dragged the shiny, black pebbles down the slope it as it rushed back towards the deep. She wondered if her arms and legs would have instinctively known what to do if the water had reached her and sucked her out with the stones. Another large wave rolled in and Violet turned her back to the sea.