It was the first day of the summer holidays and Everest Pearmain was planning an expedition.
Actually, he’d been planning the expedition for several weeks, with his best friends, Lizzie Sawbones, Cara Greengrass and Tristan Shandy. So today he was making final preparations and going over the finer details.
Careful persuasion had been needed to get the parents of the other three to agree to the proposed week-long camping trip to Bluestone Island, mainly because similar school holiday and weekend outings had caused minor upsets in the past.
The problem was that Everest had a ‘Dangerous Dad’ and Everest had inherited some of those ‘dangerous’ genes and was thought by some people, therefore, to be a ‘Dangerous Child’.
Laxton Pearmain, was that Dad and had acquired his reputation during a long career as a Famous Adventurer.
He was retired now, but he had a particular kind of philosophy in the parenting of his only child. This philosophy involved encouraging his son to challenge himself, run towards, not away, from danger, and push the boundaries of his capabilities in whatever way he wanted.
Within reason of course.
He saw this education in life skills as vital to building self-confidence and self-esteem, but other parents were not so sure and, it has to be said, not without some good reason.
It was true that the four friends were confident, resourceful and independent children, so perhaps Laxton had a point. The other parents might say they were pig-headed, reckless and stubborn and, they too, had a point.
In any case, and by whatever means, the four friends had managed to persuade their families to let them have their adventure.
The Mums and Dads wouldn’t exactly regret it but, if they ever found out in fine detail what went on during that first week of the holidays, it doesn't bear thinking about.
What was supposed to happen was that the four children would catch the train from Mucklebury to Tumblemouth, borrow a boat from Everest’s Uncle Bramley, sail across to Bluestone Island and spend the week camping, sea-swimming, exploring smugglers’ caves and searching the cliffs and beaches for dinosaur fossils and the famous Blue Stones.
The first part went to plan but then it quickly went a bit curly-wurly with some perilous shenanigans involving a storm, a partial shipwreck, smugglers, secret places, illegal hunting, piracy, a proper shipwreck and several arrests.
At the same time that Everest Pearmain was carefully inspecting his rucksack at Pearmain Farm, far away across the Channel, at the French port of Bordeaux, a dilapidated fishing boat, L’Escargot, was being loaded in preparation for a dawn departure. The three-man crew were bringing on board all manner of nets, traps and cages, but catching fish was not their purpose, and their destination was Bluestone Island.
The day of leaving had arrived.
Usually, when they were off on a jaunt, they would meet at 9 o’clock sharp on the steps of the Market Building in the centre of the village-town of Mucklebury, in the county of Dorsetshire, in this particular England.
Food supplies would be purchased: bakery cakery at Bunty Muffin’s Bread and Cake Emporium and meaty stuff from Angus Cleaver’s Meat ‘n’ Pie Place. And then they would wander off on foot or on bicycle to explore the countryside or embark on some pre-planned expedition.
Today, though, they had tickets for the 10 o’clock train to Tumblemouth.
They stocked up with the usual food supplies, then Everest gathered them together for one last kit-check.
“Right,” declared Everest. “We should all have our own clothes, obviously, and each have a mug, plate, cutlery and sleeping bag.”
“I’ve got one tent. Cara, have you got the second tent, frying pan and kettle?”
“Yep, all present and correct, cap’n,” she replied, coming to attention and saluting.
Everest ignored Cara’s antics and carried on.
“Tris, have you got the stove, water carriers, matches, pots and pans and your binoculars?”
“Yes sir!” shouted Tristan, snapping to attention, hands behind his back. His friends were clearly in high spirits.
“Yeah, very funny you lot. Look, I’m just trying to make sure we don’t get all the way over there and find something vital is missing.”
“Lucky I packed the sense of humour then!” retorted Cara, eyebrows raised and grinning widely.
“Yes, very good.” said Everest, smiling too. “Top notch comedy, as usual.”
“Finally, Lizzie. You should have a few more pots and pans, four torches, extra batteries and the first aid kit.”
“All here,” replied Lizzie, resisting the urge to join in the jolly japery.
“Right then. Kit inspection over. Let the adventure begin!” said Cara excitedly. She jumped up, shrugged on her backpack, and headed off towards the station as the rest of them half-ran to catch up.
They hopped on board The Blue Arrow as soon as it was stationary beside the platform. The sleek steam engine pulled five passenger coaches but the one immediately behind the engine was their favourite. It had individual compartments with two soft and springy, upholstered settees facing each other. Stainless steel luggage racks sat overhead and there was a glass sliding door to the corridor outside. They heaved their bags up onto the racks and flopped down on the spacious seats, which could comfortably seat six adults, so they stretched out and made the most of the luxury.
Shortly, the conductor’s whistle signalled the driver to pull off and the first leg of their journey was under way.
Once they were over the five, tall arches of the Mucklebury Viaduct it was open countryside all the way to the coast.
With just two stops on the way, The Blue Arrow could really build up speed and, being a single track at this point, you could safely slide down the window and poke your head out for the exhilarating feeling of a sixty-mile-an-hour wind in your face.
It was a three-quarter of an hour journey to Tumblemouth, with the last couple of miles consisting of a gentle descent down to sea level. At the top of the hill was the best view on the whole journey: the Jurassic Sea, sparkling below the horizon, with Bluestone Island, hovering in the middle between sea and sky.
The island was uninhabited by humans but was home to several rare and protected species of bird and mammal. The most famous of these was the Guinea Mink. This odd little creature, a cross between a fluffy guinea pig and a stoat, had been hunted to extinction on the mainland as its extremely soft, pure white fur had been highly prized in days gone by for the clothes of the rich and the famous. Use of animal fur was now banned, but there was still a highly lucrative black market and smugglers and trappers had been known to visit the island in the hope of catching a few.
As The Blue Arrow reached sea-level, it slowed and glided through the town and into the railway station which sat right on the quayside at the mouth of the River Tumble, where it flowed into the calm waters of Bluestone Strait.
They grabbed their bags, tumbled out of the train onto the platform, and looked around for Everest’s Uncle Bramley.
Bramley Pearmain had been retired for many years, having had a stroke of luck whilst ploughing the fields of Pearmain Farm. He unearthed a hoard of medieval coins, which enabled him to buy a big house in the posh part of town. He also rather liked having the latest gadgets and was the proud owner of a sleek new motorboat. Slightly against his better judgement he had been persuaded by his brother, Laxton, to allow his nephew to borrow the boat to get them across to the island.
Everest saw him waving from the other end of the platform and they ran to meet him.
“Good morning, young Everest.”
“Morning, Uncle Brammers.”
“Crikey, I hope all that gear won’t sink my boat,” he said, looking at the enormous back packs.
“I’d be more worried about the captain,” chipped in Cara, nodding towards Everest. “I gather he had a little bit of an accident on the practice run.”
Everest blushed as he remembered his lesson of two weeks before when he failed to avoid a sand bar and grounded the boat in the middle of the channel. They had to wait several hours for the tide to come in and re-float them.
It wasn’t entirely his fault. The shallowness of the channel between Tumblemouth and the island was great for a calm crossing, but you had to take it slowly to avoid the shifting sand islands that were never the same from one day to the next. A couple of times a year a good storm would blow in and remove the build-up, but there hadn’t been one of those for several months and, as a result, the crossing was trickier than usual.
“Could have happened to anyone,” said Bramley, reassuringly. “As long as you all look out for the white tops breaking on the sandbars you should be fine. Come on let’s get you down to the harbour. It’s high tide in a bit so that’ll be your best time to head off.”
They trooped off in single file, following Bramley out of the station and along the seafront. The wide river estuary here provided the only safe harbour in the whole of Dorsetshire so the skyline was a mass of masts, rigging, sails and flags as far as the eye could see. Beyond the sailboats were the fishing trawlers and the enormous fish market, which buzzed with life for a few short hours every weekday morning.
They took a stone flight of steps down from the promenade to the wooden jetties and boardwalks where the smaller craft were moored.
“Here she is, The Mucklebury Lady,” said Bramley, puffing up with pride as they arrived at a beautiful wooden craft, gleaming in the morning sun with a fresh coat of varnish, and gently bobbing up and down on the greenish water. She wasn’t the first boat of that name to be owned by a Pearmain, but she was certainly the prettiest.
Really, she was a glorified rowing boat which had been upgraded with an engine and a deck. The centre section was a cockpit with two comfortable seats, in front of one of which was a miniature ship’s wheel, a throttle lever and a key to start the engine. There was a little door in the front bulkhead, leading inside to a tiny cabin just about big enough for four children to squeeze into. But not today, as it was full with several large containers of fresh water and the main food supplies for their trip. Behind the two seats was a bench seat, big enough for three, and behind that the rear ‘deck’ with two hatches, which opened up to reveal the state-of-the-art engine.
After Bramley had shown them around all these features, and their kit was stowed inside the front cabin, it was time for one final briefing before they were let loose on the high seas.
“Right, listen to me you lot! You may have guessed that this little beauty is my pride and joy. Quite how I let my brother convince me to allow you lot to go gallivanting around in it I will never know. When you moor it up in Pippin’s cave, take the starter key with you so nobody else can borrow it. Not that there should be anyone else around, but you never know. My mate, Billy the Fish, reckons he’s seen lights on the island at night on and off in the past few months, so keep your eyes peeled. If you get into any trouble, light the beacon at Dinosaur Point and I’ll get over to you. Have fun and please bring The Mucklebury Lady back in one piece.”
“Are you talking about me or the boat?” chipped in Cara, smiling broadly.
“Definitely the boat. Possibly Lizzie. But I’ve got no doubt you can look after yourself, Cara Greengrass. Go on, get going before the tide starts turning and you end up beached again.”
Everest started up the engine and Bramley untied the mooring ropes.
As his uncle nervously looked on, Everest pushed the throttle lever gently forwards and the boat glided effortlessly away from the pontoon and inched its way into the river channel.
Excitement amongst the crew was now at fever pitch and the pedestrian pace of progress was not to Cara’s liking.
“Come on Ev, give it some welly! Let’s get over to the island before sunset.”
“Just let me get the hang of this thing. You heard what my uncle said, he loves this boat and I’ve already crashed it once.”
“Oh, go on, just a little bit more ooomph. We’re not even leaving a wake!”
“Leave him alone,” said Tristan, as ever the voice of reason and sensibleness.
“Yeah, calm down Cara, there’s no rush,” agreed Lizzie.
“Yawn!” Cara gave in to the inevitable and, slightly miffed at the lack of adventure being shown by her friends, she settled back to watch the buildings of Tumblemouth pass by.
Everest did eventually increase speed, as he got more confident with handling the unfamiliar craft, and soon they were far enough into the channel to be able to look back on the rugged coastline of their home county.
Famous for the fossils which constantly tumble out of the ever-collapsing cliff faces, the map was being constantly redrawn as each new cliff-fall deposited a little bit more of Dorsetshire onto the beach for the sea to come and claim for itself.
They were now about a third of the way across the narrow channel, still at a rather unthrilling pace, but with good reason. Everest was having to chart a somewhat zig-zaggy course to avoid the random sandbars, which Lizzie and Tristan were doing their best to spot in good time, with the help of Tristan’s binoculars.
However, despite their best efforts, the occasional sudden lurching turn was required, much to Cara’s annoyance. While the others were trying very hard not to run aground, she was equally trying to extract as much fun out of the sea crossing as possible. She had unloosed her trademark scruffy ponytail and was sitting up on the rear deck, head back, eyes closed, enjoying the breeze in her tangled tresses. Unfortunately, in such a position, her continuing presence on board was under constant threat from these sudden changes of direction.
“Crikey Ev! Are you trying to pitch me overboard?” she wailed, after another rapid turn of the ship’s wheel flung her across the deck.
“Well, if you insist on doing impressions of a mermaid on a rock, what do you expect?” retorted Lizzie, eyes still fixed forward, on the lookout for the next sandberg.
“Shut up Cara!” shouted three voices in almost perfect unison.
She smiled to herself. She was always the one to lighten the tension with a wisecrack or two and if the other three were edging towards seriousness she knew when to puncture the gloom.
The obstacles were fewer as they approached the island. The southern side of the island was subject to the same forces which were eroding the Dorsetshire coastline and the sheer cliff face on that side was constantly battered by wind and tide. However, on the much lower and gently sloping northern shore, there were many little inlets and natural harbours for a safe landing. There was one in particular which they were heading for - a tiny inlet whose entrance was not much wider than the boat – the entrance to Pippin’s Cave.
The cave was named after Everest’s grandfather, Pippin Pearmain. From an early age he used to row across to the island for weekends of fishing and fossil hunting and the concealed cave was one of his little discoveries.
The Pearmains really were a breed apart when it came to living lives of adventure and discovery. It’s not that they were superhuman or blessed with above average intelligence – they just went out and did things without thinking too much about whether it might be too difficult or too dangerous or even impossible. To a Pearmain, an impossible thing was only a temporary state of affairs, until a way could be found to make it possible.
Anyway, thanks to Pippin and his discovery, the cave was the perfect place to make your HQ on a visit to Bluestone Island. As the tide comes in, the entrance is hidden beneath the water but, once inside, the cave itself is wide enough and dry enough to camp in if the weather turns bad, and there is a tunnel which leads into the rock and then gently climbs up to the top of the headland, exiting between two large rocks and into the fresh air. If you didn’t know where to look, both entrances to the cave were very difficult to find.
Everest had described the inlet to Tristan, who picked it out with the help of his binoculars, and they made a beeline for it. Soon they were safely inside, with the motorboat tied to the rusty iron rings concreted into the raised cave floor. They hefted their packs onto their backs and set off up the tunnel to the outside.
Meanwhile, 15 miles to the south, L’Escargot was chugging its way north. The crew were nervously looking behind them at the black clouds that seemed to be chasing them. The temperature was falling, and the wind was picking up. The craggy, be-whiskered old men had enough experience of the sea to know that a storm was coming. And it looked like it was going to be a big one.
The four friends were soon on top of the headland, breathing in the clean sea air.
Cara’s earlier frustrations were now gone as she spun around on the spot, arms wide to her side and head tilted up to the warm sun. She felt a freedom that only childhood carelessness can bring. Of course, she wouldn’t know that until she was grown up with children of her own. In future years she would always look back on these moments with her friends, out in the fresh air with no one to tell them what to do and some of that feeling would seep back into her.
However, on this occasion, her moment of inner peace was short-lived.
“Come on Cara, we need to get to the camp site and start getting organised. I don’t like the look of those clouds over there,” said Tristan, already striding inland towards their planned destination.
Bluestone Island was once part of the mainland but had become disconnected sometime after the last ice age, as sea levels rose, and the land bridge was washed away.
It was about ten miles long by five miles wide and was shrinking by a few feet every year as the elements nibbled away at its edges. Eventually the sea would claim the whole thing but for now it was roughly kidney-shaped with low headlands and bays with secret sandy beaches to the north and sheer cliffs to the south. In the middle was a dense, ancient woodland and that was where they were heading.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Cara shouted back. They had to watch their step as the ground was pock-marked with holes and the tell-tale lumpy-bumpy evidence of Guinea Mink burrows. The nocturnal animals came out at night to feed on worms, slugs and snails. If the moon was bright enough it looked like there were hundreds of little ghosts tearing around the place.
The edge of the woodland was about a mile away, so it wasn’t long before they were surrounded by trees and shrubs. There were a few faint paths to follow but what they were looking for was a small clearing, which they had discovered on a weekend camp to the island the previous year. On that trip they had been joined by Everest’s Dad, Laxton, and Lizzie’s Dad, Chippy. The two of them had been friends since childhood, even joining the Navy together as teenagers looking for adventure. With their help they had built a very sturdy shelter, which the four children planned to use as their living quarters.
“It’s getting rather dark in here,” said Lizzie nervously. She was not a great fan of dark, enclosed spaces like spooky woods and dingy caves.
“It’s those clouds I saw earlier,” said Tristan. “They’ve got here pretty quick and the wind’s picked up a bit too. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve got some rain on the way.”
That turned out to be a bit of an understatement.
As they got to their campsite, fat blobs of rain were falling through the canopy of trees, which were also starting to sway violently with a strong south-westerly wind ripping through them. This soon became a gale and the rain hammered down.
Thankfully, the shelter was more than a match for the elements and, more importantly, was waterproof. Chippy Sawbones had been both a carpenter and a surgeon in the Navy and he built things to last.
While the storm continued, they busied themselves with getting the rest of their kit unpacked. The dining area was arranged at one end of the shelter and consisted of four large sections of tree-trunk for seats, along with a low table cobbled together from driftwood. At the other end was the kitchen with two gas stoves and all the cooking paraphernalia ranged on shelves nailed to the walls. They had some of their food and fresh water supplies with them, but the rest they had left on The Mucklebury Lady, which would act as their larder for the week.
They settled down to tuck into some of Angus Cleaver’s hand-made pork pies, followed by Bunty Muffin’s mystery muffins – on this occasion, blue cheese and bacon, if they were not mistaken – and all washed down with steaming mugs of strong tea, brewed up by Tristan on his little gas stove.
They all agreed that this was one of the greatest feelings in life – cocooned in safety while the forces of nature raged all around.
After a couple of hours, the storm began to subside
“Right,” declared Everest. “Time for a little explore, I think. I fancy the cliffs – see if we can see France.”
They set off through the woods in a vaguely southerly direction and soon they came out onto open ground. The sky had cleared, and with the reappearance of a hot July sun, the rain-soaked ground started gently steaming.
They had to pick their way through some particularly prickly gorse which eventually gave way to the grassland which formed a wide green strip around the perimeter of the island. In front of them was the cliff edge and beyond that the rolling grey English Channel and, thirty or so miles away, the faint horizontal line of the French coast.
They carefully approached the edge, scanning the ground for cracks. Bramley had warned them enough times of the dangers of collapse, especially after storms, so they were being extra careful.
Happy with the soundness of the ground underfoot they peered over. Far below, waves crashed on the hundreds of rocks, throwing white foam into the air. Many ships had been blown onto the island over the centuries and there were countless stories told in the pubs of Tumblemouth of sunken treasure, smugglers caves and clandestine goings-on.
“Hey, what’s that?” said Lizzie, pointing to the west, a few miles further along the coast, below the ruins of Bluestone Lighthouse.
They all followed Lizzie’s finger and could see what looked like a small fishing trawler perched at an odd angle on top of a cluster of rocks.
“Let’s have a closer look,” said Tristan, bringing his trusty binoculars up to his face. “It’s definitely a boat,” he said. “Looks like a fishing boat. Something written on the side… ‘L’Escargot’ I think.”
“That’s French for snail,” said Lizzie.
“Yeah, definitely French, I can see the flag on the back. It’s literally sitting on the rocks completely out of the water. I can’t see anyone on it. Hold on, hold on,” he continued excitedly.
“What?” cried Cara, eager to see for herself what was going on.
“There’s a little rowing boat coming out from the shore. Two men inside. One rowing, one sitting down.”
They all took turns with the binoculars and watched as the rowing boat went back and forth, ferrying items from the stricken trawler to the shore.
“Can anyone work out what it is they are carrying to shore?” asked Lizzie.
“Come on, let’s get a bit nearer and see what’s going on. They might need help,” said Everest.
They made their way along the cliff top heading for the western foreland and the old lighthouse.
The lighthouse and the dilapidated keeper’s cottage were the only buildings on this side of the island. The lighthouse tower had collapsed a few years ago as the receding cliffs had finally made it to the foundations of the structure. The keeper’s cottage, which was further inland, was still standing but was in no condition for comfortable living, with half of the roof missing and all the windows open to the elements.
They were now level with the wreck of the trawler but could not see or hear anything of the sailors they had seen in the rowing boat.
“They must be on the beach below,” said Lizzie. “But they can’t stay there too long, the tide will be coming in.”
“Yeah, and they won’t be able to get up the cliff without serious climbing gear. I should know,” said Everest, with a shudder.
The year before on the weekend trip, Everest and his father had attempted to climb the cliff face on top of which the four friends were now standing. They had got there in the end, after two hours of toil, with the pair of them swinging from the ropes like two human pendulums for at least half of that time. Needless to say, blood was spilt, and scars were formed – both mental and physical.
Suddenly, the sound of voices reached them, carried on the westerly breeze from the direction of the ruined cottage.
“Quick!” cried Tristan. “Over here.”
He didn’t quite know why he didn’t want them to be seen but there was something in the roughness of the voices, some anger maybe, but definitely something that put him on his guard.
The others instinctively followed their friend away from the cliff-edge and slightly downhill into a shallow depression. They scrambled down onto their fronts and peered over the edge through the long, wet grass towards the cottage. The voices were getting louder and then, one-by-one, three men emerged from the hole where the front door used to be. They were arguing amongst themselves. The loudest of them, possibly the leader, was issuing orders and waving his arms around. They loaded bundles of nets, pegs and tools onto a little four-wheeled cart, which stood outside the cottage.
They walked off pulling the cart behind them, still arguing, and passed just a few feet in front of the four prone children and followed the route the friends had taken earlier.
“That’s putting it mildly,” replied Cara. “First question is: how on earth did they magically appear from that cottage?”
“Second question: what are they doing here?” added Tristan.
“Third question: what are we going to do?” finished Everest.
“Oh no!” said Lizzie, letting out a slightly despairing sigh. “Do we have to do anything? Can’t we just leave them to it and keep out of their way until they disappear?”
“Well, that’s not a bad idea,” agreed Everest. “But it’s fairly clear what they’re up to isn’t it?”
“Yep”, said Everest, keeping an eye on the receding figures of the three men as he spoke. “They’re not fishing for fish are they! And they’re heading inland now. I’m guessing over to the other side of the island to lay the traps before nightfall.”
“Ok,” said Cara. “We’ve got a good idea where they’re going and how long they’re going to be. That gives us a bit of time to go and have a look inside that cottage and see what’s what.”
They made sure the three Frenchmen were fully out of sight and then jogged over to the dilapidated building. They had a quick listen, in case there was a fourth man inside they were unaware of, but no noise came from within. Inside the entrance was a narrow corridor and leading from it were four further doorless openings to four, square rooms. One had a rusty old, iron bed, one had a sink and worktop with some old cupboards and was presumably had been a kitchen in a former life. The two other rooms were filled with empty wire cages and in the corner of one of them was a set of wooden stairs leading down to what must be a basement.
They inched down the stairs in single file, peering into the gloom. When they were all inside, they could see three camp beds, a couple of chairs, tins of food, a gas cooker, kettle, mugs. In short, everything you’d need for a few days’ stay.
“They obviously came prepared,” said Tristan.
“They’ve been here before by the looks of it,” said Lizzie. “A perfect little hideout while they carry out their illegal trade. Trap the guinea mink, put them into the cages and then load them onto their boat and back to France, completely unseen by anyone from the mainland.”
“Yep,” replied Everest. “But how did they get in here? Have a look round, there must be a way into this room from below.”
They found what they were looking for underneath one of the camp beds. A wooden trap door underneath a threadbare old rug. Leading down from the opening was a wide spiral staircase.
They went down as far as they could before they were stopped by the rising water, so it was clear that at low tide the steps must go all the way down to the beach. Back in the basement, they replaced the trapdoor and the rug and left the place as they had found it.
Once they were back outside and hidden out of sight again in their little depression, they discussed the situation.
“We need a Plan,” declared Cara. “We’re supposed to be here for a week and I do not fancy sharing the island with three dodgy-looking smugglers.”
“No, nor do I.” agreed Everest.
“Why don’t we just go back, let the police know what’s going on and leave them to it,” suggested Lizzie.
“We could do that but by the time we get back here, they’ll probably be gone,” said Tristan. “There’s another high tide tomorrow which will probably re-float their boat.”
“When’s low tide Tris?” asked Everest.
“First thing in the morning.”
“Right, here’s what we’re going to do”.
Everest laid out his ideas to the rest of them. To say they were happy would be an overstatement. But they did at least all agree that it could work, given a fair wind and a lot of luck.
There was nothing more to do until first light, so they made their way back to their shelter, prepared some food and settled down for an early night.
An alarm clock was not required in the woods of Bluestone Island. As soon as the sun made even the slightest dent in the darkness the birds began their chorus, so by about 5am they were all wide awake. Nervousness and excitement about the day ahead was also helping to heighten their senses.
After cups of tea all round, the first task was to gather enough dry twigs, old wood and damp moss to make a nice smoky fire. This was all packed into Tristan and Lizzie’s rucksacks along with a box of matches.
“Ok” said Everest. “Is everyone clear what we’re going to do?”
“Are you sure you are going to be able to start that boat Ev” asked Lizzie, not unreasonably.
“Well, I certainly hope so because the whole plan does rather hinge on that. It can’t be that different from The Mucklebury Lady. It’s just a bit bigger that’s all.”
None of them looked totally convinced by Everest’s simplistic reasoning and he wasn’t that sure himself. The part of the plan where he and Cara rowed out to the grounded fishing boat, waited for the tide to float it and then drive it away was by far the most audacious thing he had ever planned to attempt.
“We need to get going,” said Tristan. “The trappers are going to be on the same timetable as us, which means they will be heading out to their traps to collect the guinea mink they’ve caught overnight.”
“You’re right Tris,” said Everest. “Ok, let’s go. Hopefully see you in a few hours.”
With that, Everest and Cara made their way south through the woods, aiming for the abandoned cottage. They were trying to get as far west as possible to avoid bumping into the smugglers. After half an hour they came to the edge of the trees but still had half a mile of open land between them and the cottage. They made their way slowly, crouched down in the long grass not sure whether the smugglers were still in the cottage or had left to collect their catch.
Everest and Cara were flat on their fronts, pressing themselves into the landscape and hoping they hadn’t been seen by the three smugglers, when they unexpectedly spilled out of the old cottage. With any luck they had been too preoccupied trying to manhandle the cages they had seen the day before onto the wooden cart to notice anything else going on. By Everest’s watch it was 8 o' clock so at least they would have a good couple of hours to get onto the boat before the smoke signals went up and the fun and games would begin.
Meanwhile Tristan and Lizzie were travelling to the far eastern end of the island at Dinosaur Point. This was the high point of the island and was where the old lighthouse keepers had gone before the days of radio to signal incoming storms or shipwrecks to the people of Tumblemouth.
Like their two friends, the first part of the journey was through the woods, then another mile or so of open grassland and gorse to the top of the cliff. They got there in good time and now just had to wait. If they lit the fire too early the smugglers would surely see it and realise something was up. They had to give Everest and Cara enough time to get onto the fishing boat.
Ten o’clock was the appointed time, so they spent the time tucking in to a late breakfast of Angus Cleaver’s sausage rolls and crunchy apples from Cara’s Dad’s greengrocery.
Outside the keeper’s cottage the three men had finished their loading and they set off along the cliff top to retrieve their catch. When they were completely out of sight, Everest and Cara pushed themselves up from the ground, a bit stiff and a bit damp with dew, but thankful that they had not been seen and happy that the cottage was now empty. They made their way to the basement, uncovered the stairs and descended towards the beach.
The last few steps were treacherously wet and slimy, but the seawater had completely retreated. They emerged onto the rocky beach where the rowing boat was tied up and looked across to the stranded fishing boat, perched up on its accidental mooring.
The tide was clearly on the turn, so they quickly untied the boat, got the oars in place and started rowing. The sea was calm enough, but it was a struggle rowing against the tide, and despite their combined efforts, it was slow progress. By the time they got to the rocks holding up the fishing boat they were exhausted. The water had been creeping up steadily and was now approaching the bottom of the boat. They could see the propeller and the rudder. Ominously, the rudder looked slightly crooked.
“Yeah, it doesn’t look quite right, does it? Could have been damaged when the boat was dropped here.”
“Do you think it will work properly?”
“No idea but we haven’t got much choice, have we? Just have to hope for the best,” said Everest, trying to summon up some confidence.
“Right, any idea how we’re actually going to get onto the boat?” asked Cara.
“Good question. I did say there are some things we haven’t fully planned out.”
At Dinosaur Point, Lizzie and Tristan had finished breakfast and were packing the rusty old fire basket on top of the ancient stone cairn with the contents of their backpacks. They had set campfires countless times in the past, so they were pretty sure they had the right amount of kindling, logs and damp moss to get a nice smoky fire going. What they hadn’t ever done was try and light a fire on top of a windy cliff. Tristan checked his watch – a quarter to ten. Nearly time.
Bobbing up and down in their rowing boat, Cara and Everest were still scratching their heads.
“We could just wait for the water to get us up higher,” suggested Cara.
“Yes, but by that time the smugglers will be back to do the same thing we’re trying to do. High tide is 12 o’clock remember?” replied Everest.
“We’ll have to use the rope. There’s a capstan up there on the side. If we can lasso the rope onto that we can climb up the rope and onto the deck.”
“We’ve got no choice I suppose but we’ll have to pull the rowing boat up onto the rocks or it’s just going to be washed back to the shore.”
Everest jumped out while Cara kept the boat still, then she joined him, and they hauled the little craft out of the water and did their best to wedge it tight among the rocks. They untied the mooring rope and Cara made a loop in one end and they both clambered over to the side of the fishing boat. On closer inspection the rudder really didn’t look in great shape, but they were committed now, so it was onwards and upwards. The idea of lassoing turned out to be much simpler than the reality and after several goes each it just wasn’t happening.
Back on dry land at the eastern end of the island, the second part of the plan wasn’t exactly going smoothly either. The box of matches had been placed too close to the damp moss in Tristan’s pack and most of the matches were unusable. After a little argument between the two children about how stupid they, or more specifically, Tristan had been, they regrouped and managed to salvage about six dry ones from the middle of the box. Now the problem was what to strike them on, as the strip on the box was also wet and useless.
And the time was now a quarter past ten.
Cara and Everest were managing not to argue and had come up with an idea but one that had ‘dangerous’ written all over it.
In what could only be described as a suicide mission, Cara was sitting on Everest’s shoulders, holding one of the rowing boat’s oars with the looped rope tied to the end. She was reaching towards the capstan, when Everest’s foot slipped, and the precarious pair wobbled and swayed like the amateur circus act they were. Luckily the slipped foot wedged itself into a crevice to prevent Everest performing an impromptu splits, and he managed to steady himself for long enough for Cara to have another go. This time she got the loop over and pulled the rope tight.
Cara gratefully dismounted from her friend’s shoulders and after taking a couple of minutes to get their breath back, they scaled the rope and were both on the deck of the fishing boat. Everest checked his watch. Half past ten. He looked anxiously to the east where a plume of smoke should have been rising steadily for the last half an hour, but the sky was clear.
Lizzie and Tristan had reached last chance saloon. After scouring the clifftop, they found a nice rough piece of sandstone to strike the matches on but after five failed attempts they were down to the last one. They were lighting ok, but the trick was keeping them going long enough to ignite the kindling. Lizzie was now standing as close to the grate as possible, holding her coat out wide as Tristan prepared to try again inside this protected cocoon.
“Ready?” he asked.
He struck the match and this time the fire was lit. Lizzie kept her position while the small flames took hold, then stood back and let the cliff-top breeze do the rest. In no time smoke was rising and the whole thing was catching hold. A little too quickly for their liking but hopefully the signal would be seen from Tumblemouth and help would soon be on its way.
They put the rest of the wood and some more damp grass and gorse on the top and started to make their way to their next destination – Pippin’s Cave.
“Now for the great unknown in all of this,” said Cara, “can we actually get this boat started?”
“It should be too diff—”
“Look, look!” cried Cara suddenly, pointing over towards the east. “Smoke!”
They were both mightily relieved to see the signal rising into the blue sky and they entered the boathouse with renewed optimism.
There were a few more levers, buttons and switches than Everest was used to but, he reasoned, all he had to master was engine on, go forwards and steer. Most exciting was the presence of the key in the relevant slot. He turned it and a green light appeared on the dashboard in front of him. He pushed a button, and a dim light came on in the boathouse. He tried another and a winch started turning on the deck in front of him. At the third attempt, somewhere beneath him an engine turned over. He kept the button pressed down and then suddenly a lot of things happened at once.
Clearly the engine had started because the whole boat was vibrating and shaking like a living thing. He quickly turned the key to ‘off’. Then, behind him, the glass window of the boathouse shattered, and an apple-sized pebble hit him on the shoulder and fell to the floor. And through the now-open window they could hear angry shouts coming from the beach. They didn’t know much French, but the gist was clear.
Lizzie and Tristan were trying to get their breath back inside Pippin’s Cave, having jogged all the way from Dinosaur Point. They realised they were about half an hour behind schedule, and they needed to get the boat out before the rising tide shut off the access. Luckily they had been paying attention when Bramley had gone through the boat controls, so they soon had the Mucklebury Lady purring away. Unknown to them their experience was a much calmer one than their friends were currently grappling with.
The most difficult thing was reversing the boat out and after a couple of bumps and scrapes, while ducking down low, they were once again in open water. Tristan pointed the motorboat westwards and set off to meet their friends – hopefully.
Everest and Cara were now completely at the mercy of the rising tide. They suddenly realised that there were more variables than they had realised when coming up with this hare-brained scheme and in the next few minutes they had to hope that:
1. the tide would come up high enough
2. the engine would start
3. the smugglers wouldn’t find a way to reach them
4. the rudder would work
5. their friends had done their bit
6. the smoke had been seen in Tumblemouth
7. help was on its way.
The first part seemed to be going well as the water was now halfway up the side of the fishing boat but that had, unfortunately, had an effect on point No.3. Cara noticed it first.
“Ev, look, the rowing boat!”
The rising tide had dislodged the little craft and was now washing it towards the beach and the angrily gesticulating smugglers, who had, at least, stopped throwing missiles in their general direction.
It was all now a question of time: how long to float the fishing boat versus how long it would take for the smugglers to reach them.
The rising sea was nearly three-quarters of the way up the boat now and a third of the way up the bodies of the smugglers.
The rowing boat was nearly at the shore.
The fishing boat rocked slightly.
“Did you feel that?” shouted Everest excitedly.
“Yes, I did! A little bit of flotation if I’m not mistaken,” replied Cara trying to remain calm.
It rocked again and there was a rather unnerving metallic screech from somewhere underneath their feet.
At the same time, the rowing boat reached the Frenchmen, who were now chest-deep in the foamy waters.
Cara and Everest could do no more than watch as the three men clambered aboard and, with only one oar, started paddling Kayak-style towards them. At least the tide was now working for them, and the distance between them and their enemies was reducing, but not too quickly.
On board L’Escargot there was another ear-splitting screech followed by a clank as the boat seemed to lurch over to one side.
For an agonising few minutes nothing happened at all. It seemed wedged even tighter than before, despite the water continuing to rise.
And the rowing boat was getting closer.
Everest was on the verge of panic when suddenly the boat lurched again, then righted itself and bobbed up and down like a cork.
“We’re floating, we’re floating,” yelled Cara. “Start her up!
Everest turned the key and stabbed the starter button, and the engine sprang into life. The rowing boat was almost at the stern of the fishing boat and the two children could see the faces of their assailants clearly.
And it was not a pretty sight.
There were two levers in front of him. He chose one and thrust it forward. The engine noise surged to a crescendo and, behind them, the already choppy waters erupted into a foaming mass of white, which forced the rowing boat backwards at an impressive speed.
“Nice one Ev,” Cara was now beaming from ear to ear as the three smugglers started up again with shaking fists and what must have been French swearing.
Everest back off the speed lever a touch and tentatively pushed the other lever forward slightly. There was a little jolt from under their feet somewhere and L’Escargot was under way. He increased speed to counteract the incoming tide and they pulled away from the rocks and out to sea. Once clear of all the little rocky outcrops, Everest turned the wheel to the right to make for the western end of the island. Their plan was to round the island and meet The Mucklebury Lady on the north side and wait for help to arrive.
That was the plan.
The reality was they got their answer to point number four; the one about the rudder.
As they cleared the far western end the island, Everest turned the wheel again to steer right. Another nasty metallic clang was followed by a jamming of the wheel and the loss of all ability to change the direction of travel. The icing on the cake, and the most worrying aspect of all this mechanical malfunctioning was that the two control levers were also jammed and the key would not budge. They were locked into a trajectory that, by Everest’s quick calculation, would bring them around the end of the island and then back towards the island on a collision course with a sheer cliff face.
“Look, look, there they are!” shouted Lizzie from The Mucklebury Lady, as they arrived at the expected rendezvous point.
L’Escargot had come into view, with Cara and Everest waving madly from the front.
Lizzie and Tristan waved madly back with huge relief that the whole mad scheme seemed to have worked. Cara and Everest continued to wave as the fishing boat came round in a great circle in front of them and then to the right of them and, curiously, back towards them.
“Something’s wrong,” shouted Lizzie, with a sudden realisation that the waving was not an excited greeting but a warning, and the more obvious clue that if their friends were on deck, who exactly was steering the boat?
Tristan was slightly behind Lizzie in catching on to what was going on and fumbled with the controls to get the motorboat into reverse. Thankfully he got all his ducks in a row and manoeuvred out of the path of the rogue vessel just in time, as it roared across their bows on its way back to the island.
On board L’Escargot there was only one thing for Cara and Everest to do and that was to abandon ship. They jumped hand-in-hand as they passed their friends and swam the few short yards to the safety of the motorboat.
They all watched in silence as the fishing boat continued on its preordained path to its inevitable end. It ploughed into the cliff face with some spectacular sights and sounds of catastrophic destruction. There was a small explosion, smoke and fire and then steam as the stricken vessel rapidly disappeared beneath the waves.
In all the excitement none of them had noticed the approach from the north of the bright orange vessel of The Dorsetshire Coastguard with Bramley Pearmain looking on anxiously from the bow. Whether he was more concerned about The Mucklebury Lady or the four children we will never know.
After a quick recap of events, Bramley jumped down into his beloved motorboat and took them all back to Tumblemouth for dry clothes and a full explanation of the whole saga.
The three hapless smugglers were found not very far from the southern shore making a pathetic attempt to return to France in their one-oared rowing boat. They were arrested and, in due course, charged, convicted and sent to prison for their crimes.
The Guinea Mink were released back onto the island unharmed and fur intact.
After a night recovering at Bramley’s the four children resumed their adventure the next day and the rest of the week passed without incident. Bramley agreed to keep quiet about exactly what went on, for the sake of future adventures. The story did make the front page of the Dorsetshire Gazette but the children’s part in it was carefully omitted. By the time the paper reached Mucklebury a week later, they were all back at home and could claim blissful ignorance.
If the whole truth ever got out to the families of the three children who didn’t have a Dangerous Dad, the four friends would surely have spent the next few years kept very far apart.
And we would never have found out about The Mucklebury Knights or the Sunstone or the plot to catapult Mucklebury-world into a dark and dismal future.