Aneurysm, dead before he hit the riveted iron floor of the bridge, the small hours of a February morning.
A small craft warning in Lundy/Fastnet, nothing serious, a moderate gale, a cold northerly blowing fast arctic air across the Irish Sea. Easy for the jaded, reliable RMS Sehnsucht out of Cork en route to Bremerhaven at sixteen hundred tonnes and three hundred foot.
Built for this, for these seas but with the Chief Officer stiffening below the wheel she bore down blindly on the Trambly Rocks, loaded to the Plimsoll Line.
The impact slit her hull, the barnacled shale shearing a ninety foot jagged wound.
The small, sleeping Polish crew slammed from their bunks, scrambling on sprained ankles and shock-weak legs in the flashing red light and savagely loud klaxon. The slotted, wire lashed containers wrenched from their careful stacks, tumbled into the shallow ocean, cacophonous clanging against submerged rock.
The winter swell pushed her in inexorably to the waiting wildflower cliffs. Listing, her maroon bulbous breached the white water, back slowly breaking in the brief flashes of gibbous moon through the cold racing cloud.
All but the Chief Officer, lifeless on the bridge, rescued within the hour by the thumping efficiency of the yellow Sea King sent in from RMB Chivenor.
Word was seeping through the villages, along the bony, dark north Cornwall coast. Where the magic still lives. There were prizes to be had.
The Hunkins and the Pascoes were there almost immediately; god knows how, some ancient smuggler sense. Old sea-families. Didn’t tell the Kellows, they’ll tell the Polwheles and then nothing is sacred. And there was that time in 85 that wasn’t entirely forgiven, mind.
Half of the clans wrapped up against the winter upon the cliff tops, watching the dying ship long before the orange dawn with the aloof, detached sympathy of sea-kin. Each one thinking of the times they had come close.
They had called the Coastguard and the lifeboats, done their bit, if it weren’t for them those souls would be gone. Keen, quiet eyes on the quarry now, watching how the Maersk marked treasure chests moved in the swells and ebbing tide. Hushed plans, hatched and coordinated.
They had the boats coming round. Alan’s RIB will be fine, risky to take an open Crabber but young Jack could get it round in this, not too bad, cover the Craft ID up though, just to be safe. Got to move fast, the police will be roused from their soft beds soon, gale will probably worsen.
The coastguard eyed in official disapproval whilst the lifeboat, both manned by cousins, friends, acquaintances, future beneficiaries, stood on tentative guard, feigning ignorance.
As the light from the east came, an ember-red line over a night-dark cloudbank, the family trawlers and skiffs were herding the containers in to Trevethy Cove where the swell was quieter.
Corralled onto the shingle, prized open with angle grinders and crowbars the harvesting began. The small, rich, steel pod beached and gutted with quiet, urgent industry.
A sepia photograph in the Baggywrinkle Pub, nailed above the fire by the glass buoys in their hessian nets, of Beached Minkes in Bossiney Haven. A Grind. Happy pilchard-fed men, Hunkins, Pascoes and Polwheles, flaying the blubber with rolled sleeves and sharpened shearing knives. Children running, a line of young girls in white pinafores squinting with grim curiosity into the unfamiliar camera by the stacked lobster pots. The scene now retold under February darkness, the quarry now updated. No photographs of this haul.
A pair of quad bikes, three BMW motorcycles, blown glass from Bunratty, twenty pairs of walking boots, crates of Connemara single malt whiskey, children’s Aran jumpers, silver jewellery from a Dublin heading to a fayre in Innsbruck, venetian blinds, a shipment of alternators, boxes of perfume, an antique rocking horse, Dyson storage heaters and a dozen mountain bikes.
‘Roight’. Jowan, sea-voiced patriarch of the Pascoes in his orange oilskins, whose ginger-root hands faced backwards when his arms were limp, turning his barrel chest and swollen stomach to the sea and noting the paling skies, red passing into orange now, the cloud patterns showing the gale setting to worsen, made the call. ‘Lez ge’ goin’.
Small things ferretted up the furzey fisherman’s path hidden in the cliff to the idling vehicles. Bigger hauls ferried by young Jack out to the trawlers, where they would stay for a month or two, surreptitiously unloaded piecemeal under darkness at clandestine harbours, beaches and coves.
A half hour on the boulder and shingle beach all told. An operation, surgical, a skill that’s in the blood. Left the rest, the tat, some things missed of course, can’t dwell on that though, leave it for the others in the light, trying to sneak and crane around the line of patrolling Police, when the word was as out as the pale sun.
Everyone knew, all had inklings but no one really spoke of it. Some half-hearted questioning from the official shipping line investigation but the villages and the families, with the practice of generations of distrust and taciturnity, sealed up like the mussels at low tide, waiting for the slack.