There were rescuers already clinging to the rocks, but Albanus could barely hear their shouts over the crash and roar of the waves. The wind snatched at his clothes as he scrambled down the cliff path. Gusts of cold rain were slapping against his face and making his fingers clumsy as he tried to steady the rope slung around his chest, which must surely weigh as much as he did.
“They told me to bring this!” he yelled, recognising one of the centurions from the fort. The man pointed to a couple of figures poised to throw ropes from perilously near the reach of the waves. “Down there!”
The rocks were slippery in the wet. Albanus resorted to crawling backwards, using hands and feet. He glanced down to get his bearings and gasped as a massive wave reared up. The two rescuers vanished from sight. Moments later they reappeared, shaking the foam off their heads and crawling back towards the comrades who were holding the safety ropes that had saved them. Albanus delivered his own rope and hastily clambered back to higher ground.
By now the word had got round that there was a ship in trouble trying to reach the mouth of the river. Men, women and even children were gathered along the top of the cliff, peering out to sea in the fading light. The little vessel appeared from time to time, its tattered sails flapping like distress signals, and then vanished again in the trough of the waves. Albanus found he was holding his breath every time it disappeared, but now it had been gone so long he had to gasp for air. The people around him fell silent.
“There it is!” cried a child, and other voices joined in. “It’s still there, look!” and “Holy Neptune, save them! Let them get to tbe beach!” To his surprise he caught a whiff of incense. Even out in this storm, someone was trying to make an offering.
The ship vanished again. He wondered what sort of parent would bring a child to watch a thing like this.
When the dark shape reappeared, the cries of delight swiftly died away. Albanus heard his own intake of breath as he stared at the hull of the ship, upside down.
“It might roll back,” said a lone optimist.
Was that true? Albanus didn’t know. Even if it was, would anyone have survived?
“If they can just get to the sand,” added the optimist.
But it was clear that rounding the headland to reach the long stretch of yellow sand through the surf was no more likely than reaching the safety of the estuary only a few hundred paces further on. A bigger vessel might have withstood the pounding: run ashore and become a place of safety until the storm moved on and the day returned and the tide withdrew so the crew could be rescued. But not this one.