Smugglers' Gold

 

Poonam had descended the ancient, irregular steps so often she could have gone up and down them with her eyes closed. Every clump of ivy-leaved toadflax, its pretty, purple flowers growing from the many cracks, were like welcoming friends with smiles on their tiny snapdragon faces. The crumbling walls on either side were overarched by branches and studded with ferns clinging tightly to tiny spaces most other opportunist plants would not colonise.

There was a bite in the bright spring air and herring gulls wheeled noisily overhead as a trawler tossed the entrails of gutted fish into the sea. Sometimes the sights coming down the steps were less welcome than that of the church spire seen when going up. But Poonam needed to cross the pleasure beach before the holidaymakers armed with their brightly coloured windbreaks and silly attempts to pretend it was the height of summer. As soon as they realised how cold the water was, they would out-screech the herring gulls.

When she reached the boulder strewn shore on the far side of the sandy beach the tide was going out, leaving clear, glassy pools in the rocks to which beadlet anemones, limpets and bright yellow snails clung. Poonam searched every one, sure-footedly avoiding the slippery algae that brings down the unwary explorer. Backwards and forwards, until she reached the cliff face where fossils were exposed, tantalisingly just out of reach. It was dangerous here; the rocks could slip at any time and without warning. Poonam was undaunted, even though she knew her search was virtually pointless - more pointless than looking for a diamond in a sandpit. At least that might have sparkled for her. All the same, she felt obliged to try. Devak had been sulking for several days, and hopefully learnt not to wear precious items of jewellery when playing on the rocks.

Poonam sat on a boulder and watched the sun rising above the lighthouse, its rays spilling over the far side of the pier. In a world of her own and relaxed, she didn't even mind the high-pitched intrusion of the first visitors staking out their plot of sand for the day, or at least until high tide. Two trawlers were returning with their catches and the ferries on the distant horizon were now more frequent.

Then something caught her eye.

Many pebbles, shells and pieces of sea worn glass looked precious when wet, but this was different. Lying at the bottom of a clear stream of fresh water draining from the cliff was a coin: not a 10p, 50p or even a pound. It sparkled in a way that announced it could only be gold!

Poonam picked it up. This was not small change that had fallen from the pocket of a holidaymaker or one of the gold pieces buried by an artist in the outer harbour. It was centuries old and, intriguingly, must have been flushed from somewhere in the cliff.

She carefully followed the crystal stream back to its source, past the notice that warned of falling rocks. It may have been paradise for fossil hunters, but was potentially fatal for the unwary.

The last landslip had exposed a small entrance. Poonam was essentially a very sensible 13-year-old, trusted by her parents to shop, walk the dog, and go for bracing cycle rides along the cliff top on her own. But there was always at least one temptation even a sensible teenager could not resist. She took the mobile phone from her pocket, and then had second thoughts about telling someone else about the discovery. Instead, she used the beam of its torch to peer through the gap in the cliff face. There was a tunnel, its floor worn smooth by centuries of feet coming and going. Poonam glanced up at the rock that hadn't been brought down in the landslip. It was hanging precariously above her above her and looked as though it could give way at any moment.

There was no point standing there in her bright orange T-shirt waiting for someone to notice what she was up to so, without thinking, Poonam dodged through the gap and followed the tunnel deep into the cliff. Too excited to be frightened, she entered a large chamber.

She nearly dropped her mobile.

In its beam of light a skull was grinning at her - a skull wearing a battered three-cornered hat and perched precariously on a neckerchief of exquisite lace. They belonged to a skeleton dressed in an ancient gabardine jacket and trousers.

Any one of Poonam's friends would have screamed at the sight and probably brought down the crumbling roof, but the teenager's innate commonsense took over. She directed the beam of light into the corners of the cave. They were stacked with brandy kegs, linen packages from which more lace spilled and, most tempting, a small chest of coins similar to the one she had found. Poonam had not only stumbled across an ancient murder, she had discovered treasure!

The surrounding rocks seemed to resent her perplexed excitement and there was an ominous rumble from deep in the cliff.

It was moving.

The treasure may have been within reach, but there was no time to seize a handful of coins. The cliff was on the verge of collapse.

Poonam dashed back down the tunnel and out through the narrow gap just as the rumbling turned into a roar. With the speed of the school's champion hurdler, she leapt over rocks and pools, not daring to look back as the rock overhang fell away and crashed onto the boulders below.

Poonam was still running when the hardy sunbathers on the pleasure beach noticed what was happening just in time to include her bright orange T-shirt - as vibrant as a bunch of marigolds against the grey rocks - in the snaps they took on their smartphones.

It was just her luck that the coastguard arrived before she could make her getaway and the visitors on the beach were only too anxious to point her out.

Now what should she do? At best, she might just get away with being branded an irresponsible teenager who shouldn't have been playing near the cliff; at worst, accused of causing the landslip.

Poonam's large family had an Uncle Navinda, kept somewhat at arm's length by his siblings because of his dubious (many would say practical) view of the world. The children worshipped this outrageous, unmarriageable man who filled his flat with anything that sparkled and talked to pigeons.

"Poonam," he would have advised her, "sometimes the world is not lenient with honesty. What it does not know, it cannot sharpen into a tool to stab you with. If the truth is too incredible for fools without imagination to believe, it is better to keep it to yourself sooner than have them think that you are delusional."

He was right of course.

Once Poonam had persuaded the coastguard that she had merely been searching for fossils, and certainly not near enough to the cliff to be in danger from the landslip, let alone trigger it. (Yes, she really was asked if she knew what had caused it in a manner that suggested she had been responsible.) Fortunately they were persuaded that she was a sensible young woman. Poonam was allowed her to make her way across the beach, now crammed with curious holidaymakers snapping away at the landslip, up the harbour steps and back home.

Devak remained upset at losing the gold pendant, a gift from his favourite aunt until, a few weeks later, Poonam gave him a small box for his birthday.

Inside it was a bright gold coin, pierced and polished to put on his gold chain.