“Goodnight, Miss. Go safely, now.”
I closed the door behind me, leaving the warm fireplace and friendly chatter behind, and stepped out into the cool night air.
It had been a wonderful evening.
I had only moved into the village the week before, exactly six months after my divorce had been finalised. This had been my first visit to the Shipwreck Hotel, and the locals couldn't have been nicer. They treated me as though I had been there all my life.
Cornwall is such a beautiful county. Its rugged shoreline conjures up images of sailing ships and smugglers.
My new home was a small stone cottage, just outside of the village, the views out over the sea totally uninterrupted.
The air was fresh tonight, a gentle breeze coming in from the sea, so I pulled my collar up around my neck as I set off on the ten-minute walk home. There was a footpath that ran along the top of the cliffs directly to my door, well, alright, not directly to it. It was actually a public footpath that passed my front gate, but it sounded more exclusive, putting it that way.
I looked up at the dark sky. There wasn't a single cloud but a myriad of bright, twinkling stars, a sight I never saw from my previous home in London because of the light pollution. I promised myself that I would buy a map of the constellations and then I would be able to search for them on nights such as this.
About halfway home, I stopped and looked out towards the sea. Like the sky, it was pitch black, spotted with the lights of boats and ships probably miles out.
I listened carefully and could hear the clinking of yacht rigging, tapping against aluminium masts, down in the harbour as the small boats with their tall masts swayed gently on the water.
Below my feet, I could hear the waves crashing against the rocks at the foot of the cliffs. Not the roar of the winter tides, but the heavy thump of waves breaking over the jagged rocks.
Taking a deep breath, I took in the cool, salty air as the slight sea breeze blew the strands of hair from my face. At that moment, I felt that I had died and gone to Heaven. Only Heaven could not be more beautiful, nor I more happy.
With a sigh, I turned away from the sea and back towards the path, but, as I did so, something moved underfoot, and I stumbled. There was nothing to hold onto! I screamed with fear as I went over the edge and plummeted towards the sea!
To my amazement, I didn't die. Incredibly, I had fallen only a few feet, twenty at most, and landed heavily on a narrow ledge. The wind was knocked out of me, and my back hurt a little, but that was it. I barely had a bruise!
Of course, it took a short while for me to realise what had happened. Afraid to move, in case I fell further, I reached out to the side. The ledge was only about as wide as a single bed, three feet at the most, maybe a little less.
I gathered my senses. All my life I had been a climber. Trees, rocks, anything with a hand or foothold. All I had to do now was climb back to the top and go home.
Although pitch black, as I got to my knees to start climbing, I was a little unnerved to find that the ledge was not much longer than I was tall. If I had fallen a few feet either side of where I had, well... it didn't bear thinking about!
The rock face was cold and damp, but I soon found a place to grip, and I pulled myself to my feet.
About two feet up was a small lip onto which I placed my foot. Holding tightly with my fingers, I pushed myself up. The foothold broke away and disappeared over the edge, clattering down to the sea!
I made one more attempt, but this time, the rock I was gripping also broke away, causing a veritable avalanche of small stones. The sudden movement also caused the edge of the lip on which I was standing to crumble away, and my foot slipped out into thin air.
With pounding heart, I held on for dear life. It could only have been seconds but seemed so much longer until I had gathered enough courage to sit down and huddle against the rock face.
Now I was scared, terrified, in fact. It was cold and pitch black. Who would find me at this time of night?
This was too embarrassing. So much so that I couldn't shout out as loudly as I should.
There was nothing for it, I would have to phone the coastguard.
Gingerly, I reached into my pocket and retrieved my phone. I pressed the little button on the side but, to my horror, nothing happened! Not even a glimmer of life on the screen!
I always kept a small LED torch in the top pocket of my anorak. One of those that is barely any larger than the two double-A batteries that power it. At least I would be able to use it to see what was wrong with the damned phone!
I pressed the button. My phone was immediately engulfed in a brilliant white light, which, to my dismay, revealed a shattered screen!
This time, I did scream, as hard as my lungs would allow. It was pure frustration.
When I had calmed down, I sat quietly. Listening to see whether anyone had heard me. No one came. The only sound was the occasional screech of an unseen seabird and the gentle thumping of the waves below. I had never felt so alone.
“Help! I'm down here! Help!”
I shouted louder this time. Fear had overcome the embarrassment. It made no difference, though, there was no one around to hear me. I had chosen September to move here just because it was out of the holiday season. Now I wished I hadn't. Worse still, sunrise wouldn't come until around six-thirty, and it was only ten-thirty now!
There was nothing for it. Since I was likely to be here for at least the next eight hours, I would try to get myself comfortable. Well, perhaps not comfortable, but at least as safe as I was able.
My torch, although small, was bright. Using it to examine my situation, I could see just how fortunate I was. The Grim Reaper was definitely looking the wrong way tonight!
Above me was a vertical granite cliff peppered with small cracks that were filled with loose stones. It was no wonder that I couldn't find a safe hand-hold.
I didn't dare lean too far forward, but it was enough to see that there was nothing to break my descent until the jagged rocks some sixty feet below over which the waves were breaking.
One thing I was grateful for was the lack of clouds. Aside from the beautiful vision of the stars and galaxies, it wasn't going to rain. I imagined that it would be like sitting under a waterfall if it did.
In addition to the light on the end of my torch, it had three LEDs on the side. There was also a clip on the opposite side to them, like a pen. I clipped it onto my pocket so that I could use it to look at my watch. With it there, I didn't feel quite so afraid. After all, there is nothing more frightening than almost complete darkness.
One thing I had an abundance of now was time. Time to think and reflect. I was obviously not going to sleep. The fear of falling was far too great for that!
Of course, what I would be eternally grateful for was the meal I'd eaten in the pub. I didn't finish it until around eight, so I wasn't likely to get hungry for some time. The home-cooked steak pie was delicious, as were the baby steamed potatoes and vegetables. If I survived this, I would go there again, without a doubt.
I looked at my watch and groaned. It was going to be a long night. I had only been there for twenty minutes so far.
Although the breeze was gentle, it was enough for me to feel cold. Even with my Anorak zipped up to my neck and my hood up, it was a struggle to keep warm. All I had under it was a sweatshirt and jeans. On my feet, just trainers and thin trainer socks. I hadn't planned on spending the night under the stars!
I switched that light off. The last thing I needed was for the batteries to go flat.
The time passed slowly, and I was feeling so cold inside. Not the kind of icy cold that makes your fingertips hurt, but the cold that makes you tremble inside. On top of that, my back was getting more painful. Every movement caused sharp, searing pain.
I pressed the button on my torch and looked at my watch. Just ninety minutes had passed and still another six and a half hours to sunrise.
I pressed it again to switch it off. I didn't dare unclip it, just in case I dropped it. It was all I had to drive away the darkness and the fear that came with it.
Without realising, I closed my eyes. I couldn't help it. The cold and the pain were beginning to take their toll. When I opened them again, there seemed to be something happening. In the distance, I could hear the sound of a boat engine.
I pressed my torch to check the time. This time, the light was so bright that I was dazzled. I couldn't see a thing. A brilliant beam of light illuminated me, and it was coming from the sea!
I wanted to stand up and wave, shout that I was all right, but I could not. The pain was too much, and I was afraid that the ledge would give way.
“Hello, down there! Are you hurt?”
The voice came from above. I couldn't see who was shouting because of the glare. I wanted to call back, No! but it was impossible. Every breath was an effort. Instead, I unclipped my little torch and waved it.
“Don't move!” the voice shouted. “We will come down to you.”
Moments later, ropes appeared at either end of the ledge, quickly followed by two mountain rescue climbers. I knew they couldn't come directly down to me due to the likelihood of dislodging rocks and having them fall onto me.
Very quickly, they worked their way across to me and secured their lines to the rock face. I had never been so pleased to see two men in my life.
They worked quickly, reassuring me and assessing my injuries. When I tried to sit up, I cried out in pain.
“Your back?” one asked. I nodded. “On a scale of one to ten, where ten is the worst pain you have experienced, how bad is the pain?”
“Ten,” I told him. “If having a baby is worse than this, then I'm glad I never had one!”
He smiled and nodded, the movement accentuated by the lamp he wore on his safety helmet.
“You may have broken your back so we can't take any chances. We won't be able to lift you off this ledge so we will have to call in the helicopter. Are you okay with that?”
This time, I nodded.
“Don't worry. The helicopter is based in Newquay. Only a few minutes away.”
Now that I was a little more relaxed, my curiosity got the better of me.
“How did you know I was here?”
The rescuer smiled.
“Someone must be watching over you tonight. There's a small cruiser moored out in the bay. There is a young couple on board who happened to be enjoying a few drinks on the stern. They saw a tiny light flashing on and off erratically. Knowing this area well, they knew the height of the cliffs here. Fortunately, you are far enough away from the village that it is dark enough for your torch to be noticed. They radioed the coastguard and reported what they saw. The coastguard then called out the lifeboat, who scoured the cliffs with a powerful lamp. They also spotted your torch, and that is how they found you.”
Moments later, a spinal board appeared on the end of a rope, along with a large bag.
The man I had been talking to pulled a flexible tube from the neck of the bag and passed it to me.
“Gas and air,” he said, and then, with a chuckle, added, “Which they also give to mothers who are giving birth. It will help to ease the pain.”
He had been right about the helicopter. By the time they had secured me onto the board, ensuring I was wrapped up well with a space blanket, I could hear its engines as it approached. Soon it was overhead, blowing up a veritable gale with the downdraught from the rotor blades.
Maybe because of the gas and air, I don't know, but I felt no fear at all as the winchman hooked the cable to my harness and covered my face as we swung out over the sea and slowly rose skywards.
I was discharged from the hospital the following day. My back wasn't broken. In addition to mild Hypothermia, the pain had been from a couple of ribs that had cracked when I hit the ledge. Together with a severe bruise near where my phone had been in my pocket.
You might think that after such an ordeal I would have taken it easy for a while, but no. I spent the next day writing letters of thanks to all of the many agencies involved in my rescue. Then, when I was able, I paid a visit to the Lifeboat Station. They were so welcoming and told me how pleased they had been that they were able to save yet another life. It came as no surprise, then, that I received the same welcome when I visited Newquay airport and met the Helicopter crew.
Two more weeks passed before I was able to overcome my embarrassment. Then I returned to the Shipwreck Hotel. I needn't have worried, though. As soon as I walked into the bar, the place erupted.
“Yer she be!” an unseen voice called out. “Our own little survivor!”
I flushed bright red.
“You heard then?” I replied.
“Yer don't keep secrets around 'ere,” the Barman said with a broad smile and pointed to the far corner. “Jim sees to that.”
I looked across and was greeted by the smiling face of my rescuer. He waved and smiled.
“Joey over thar, E's cox'n o' the loifboat. “Yer in safe 'ands around 'ere.”