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U3A Writing: A Very Low Tide

Beachcombing is a marvellous way of life – particularly when you find a treasure chest.

Mark Scudamore tells a satisfyingly salty tale.

I’m lucky. That’s what they’ve called me – Lucky Muldoon – ever since that day when I made the beachcombing discovery that almost cost me my life.

A beachcomber’s life is a marvellous way of living with nature through all seasons and all weathers. It has its excitements and its low points but I would never change it for all those comforts of a rich city existence that my erstwhile friends claim to enjoy. It may not be the most profitable business in the world although I have always found it extraordinarily rewarding in other ways. In order to keep myself just about solvent I have to fall back on my old trade as a crewman on cargo ships from time to time. This means that I have the great experience of combing beaches in many different areas of the world and of being able to sell my wares in places remote from their origins.

“So what are these wares?” you may ask. They are many and varied. There is always an abundance of different types of wood on the beach at high tide and sometimes seasoned tree branches with interesting or grotesquely distorted shapes are washed up. These I am able to cut and carve into desirable ornaments that are attractive to tourists. It is amazing what a very relaxed holidaying couple will pay for such things if they are approached in the right way, and over the years I have learnt the various tricks of this trade.

People will also pay for the unusual seashells that I gather at low tide. Most of these I can sell after simply cleaning them but from time to time I amuse myself by polishing shells and coloured and striated pebbles and these sell for a higher price to particular types of tourists or even to shops that specialise in the sale of such things. Starfish are easy to collect but they have to be preserved by soaking in a special type of alcohol before being dried in the sun and I usually have a stock of these for selling, particularly to children.

There is also, of course, an abundance of seaweed at the high tide mark and I have sold pieces of especially attractive dried seaweed as a weather indicator to vulnerable tourists, although I am not proud of myself for doing this as I’ve never known it to work particularly well.

All this is a diversion from the story I was going to tell you about that day that gave me my nickname. I had left my cargo ship at the end of its voyage in Cuba. I calculated that my pay-off would be sufficient to rent some sort of beach hut that I could use as a base for my next beachcombing episode and I was fortunate to find a fisherman who let me have his place on a beach on the north shore of the island when he was away on an extended trip.

Food was no problem, fish were abundant and easy to catch and bananas were freely available, or at least, nobody asked me to pay for the ones I picked from the trees. I was initially enthralled by the colourful parrots and other birds that sang from the trees away from the shore but then, as always, I was enticed back to the beaches and the pickings that they may yield. The locals told me I was fortunate to have missed the annual mass migration of land crabs on their voyage to the sea for breeding. This causes chaos, not least to the rather badly worn tyres of the vehicles that drive over the crabs, shattering the sharp shells.

As I collected my usual haul of shells and coloured stones I came across a fellow beachcomber and we spent several days together gathering bits and pieces and exchanging events from our life histories. He told me colourful stories of the Spanish galleons that had been shipwrecked or deliberately sunk off these shores by English pirates. There were still many teams of divers searching offshore for the wrecks and the treasures that the may have gone down with.

After parting from my companion I decided to explore the low tide line. I didn’t realise at the time but I was walking down the beach to the lowest tide line for several years. The shells here were of different and interesting creatures that would not be exposed by normal tides. I was excited by the possibilities for collecting and possibly selling, either in Havana or away in countries where such shells would be rare. As I was scratching away in the sand at the lowest extent of the tide my short rake hit on something hard buried in the sand. As I dug to excavate whatever this object was, I was aware of a tugging sensation on my feet which I recognised as a warning sign of quicksand. I was so intent however of unearthing the object which seemed to be some sort of box, that I did not heed the warning signs and before I knew it I was slowly being sucked into the quicksand and, too late, I tried to withdraw my feet which were well submerged below the soggy surface which was now pressing against my knees.

I tried bending my body backwards so that I was lying horizontally to distribute by weight more evenly but this achieved little except extreme discomfort and a soaking wet back from the soggy sand. I hauled myself upright again when waves from the incoming tide started lapping against me. I was being sucked slowly, surely, inexorably, deeper into the cold damp quicksand whilst above the sand the water from the incoming tide was rising up from my waist to my chest and, terrifying thought, would soon reach my neck and head.

I was powerless but not entirely motionless or silent because I could still move my arms and use my voice to shout for help. But what use was this when I was alone in this god-forsaken situation. I even began to pray silently then aloud for someone or something to rescue me. By this time, the water had reached my shoulders and waves were starting to break over my head.

Then the miracle happened. I heard the sound of an outboard motor and saw a large grey inflatable dingy coming in shore but across to my right. I waved and shouted at the top of my voice and, just as I thought my luck had run out because the three men were not able to hear me and were not looking in my direction, one of them turned and spotted me and the boat started heading in my direction. By the time they arrived I was really at the end of my tether and babbling incoherently about a cursed treasure chest that had was my downfall.

It took all three men using a rope and the power of the boat’s motor to get me out of the quicksand. It was slow and painful and I now know something of what the early martyrs felt when they were stretched on the rack because the force needed to extricate me seemed to be stretching my body mercilessly. Eventually they succeeded and I was hauled wet and shivering convulsively into the boat. I was still babbling about a cursed chest and pointing down into the muddy sea from whence I’d been rescued. The three men looked at each other rather knowingly and one of them unlashed a long pole from the side of the boat, tied a piece of rag to one end of it and plunged it into the sea where I was pointing. “OK, does that satisfy you?” he said, “If there is anything there we can come back and look for it later.”

The thee men, Pedro, Francis and Mike were a team of treasure hunters who had been diving to the site of a Spanish ship that had been wrecked off the coast in the !7th century. They took me back to their lodgings and warmed me back something approaching normality by dressing me in dry, warm clothes and plying me with the rum which they seemed to be capable of consuming in huge quantities without noticeable effect. They told me that they had located the ship and were now in the process of breaking into the holds to discover what type of cargo it had been carrying.

“Sometimes we hit lucky with gold coins and other valuable artefacts but other times we find nothing because someone has been here before us.”, explained Mike. “Even if we do find things we have to be very wary of the Cuban authorities because if we declare it all we will be left with no profit for ourselves.” They continued in this vein, reminding themselves of stories of their previous adventures and telling of their hopes for the current one, far into the night. I was exhausted and kept drifting in and out of sleep, until they showed a couch which I stretched myself on and slept until I felt the strong morning sunlight on my face.

The men had gone and I, feeling refreshed, went back to my rented hut. For the next week my beachcombing confined me to the higher tidal reaches and I saw nothing of my rescuers. But then, on returning one day I found a note on my table asking me to meet the trio at an address along the coast, quite different from the one they had taken me to after the rescue. The note sounded urgent and said they must see me that very day because they had something to tell me that would be to my advantage.

When I arrived the sun was beginning to set and as I entered the rather shabby wooden hut I saw that all three of them were busy packing up their gear for departure. “We’re glad you made it “ said Francis because we can’t stay around here much longer. We dug down into the quicksand at the place we rescued you from and we have found the casket that you were babbling about. It is one of our most important finds and we have decided that it is only right that we should share it with you.” He lifted the metal-bound wooden box onto the table and opening it revealed that was full of gold and silver necklaces and bracelets, some set with coloured gems others crafted into intricate shapes. I had heard of such things happening in fairy tales but this we real, wasn’t it ? I actually pinched myself hard to see if I was dreaming. I must have looked like an idiot, standing there speechless but with my mouth open.

Mike tipped the contents out onto the table and very rapidly, without any sort of selection, divided the pile into four, roughly equal, smaller heaps. “Choose which of these you want”, he said briskly, “and make sure you know where to hide it, here on the island and especially when you leave. It will make you a fortune if you can sell it in markets far removed from Cuba and to collectors whose appreciation of such treasures is greater than their scruples.” I blurted out my thanks as I selected one of the heaps at random and began stuffing the pieces into my various pockets. “The only thanks we want is for you to forget you ever met us and to create a completely different story, if you are asked, as to how you came to acquire these lovely things”.

Now, many years later, as I sit outside my bungalow facing the beach at Kaikoura on the east cost of New Zealand’s South Island, I gaze out to sea to the bobbing floats of my lobster pots and decide that there is no rush to take the boat out to gather them in – I’m less impetuous now and will wait under the sea is calmer. I often think back to those early days and the tale I spin of the adventure that nearly cost me my life but made me a fortune. I have always been a beachcomber but it would crazy for me to tell the true story of where my fortune arose.

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