He was lucky there was a ladder here at all. Perhaps the crew had used it to escape when it was waves instead of sand dunes piling up against the hull, or perhaps it had been left here by some looter, decades ago.
Leonard took a deep breath and scrambled aboard, moving fast so that his hands were never on a rung for longer than he could help. He stood on the deck, made of wooden planks that had fared better than the steel hull, and looked at his palms. They smarted from the burns and the sharp edges of the flaking rust, but there was no visible damage.
A life buoy lay on the deck. It’s orange and white stripes had faded, but Leonard could still make out the words SS Malvern. He’d got the right ship. He hadn’t been sure because the desert had stripped the paint from the hull. Her profile looked right, but he hadn’t been sure.
He was within a stone’s throw of the end of the quest that had begun in the registry of Lloyd’s of London which, right now, felt far more than six months and a continent away. He’d spent a week searching the wrecks littering the Namib for the Malvern and now he needed to find the galley.
He tried a hatch but it didn’t budge. A crowbar from his pack forced it open with a groan of protest, revealing a companion way that looked pitch dark from the glare of the tropical sun. He placed the life buoy across the frame in case it slammed closed behind him. He hadn’t come here to be trapped inside with the ghosts of anyone who hadn’t made it off.
His torch showed no ghosts, but stepping inside made him feel as though he’d been uncomfortably close to a flame but had now stepped inside an oven. He took a pull of water. It didn’t help. He’d have to be quick in here, or he’d pass out. He wouldn’t have a chance if the Malvern had been a passenger ship that he’d have to search from top to bottom, but the crew quarters of a cargo ship were small enough that he found the single galley fairly quickly.
It was a moment worthy of savouring, but there was already enough sweat in his eyes to blur his vision. He needed to get out of here.
The first couple of cupboards showed him nothing but tins of corn beef. Third time lucky, he thought. For once, it turned out to be true. The torch beam played over something he’d seen in pictures so often that he saw it in his dreams. Yet the pictures had all been in black and white and consequently, so were the dreams. What he saw was faded, but it was in colour. He was afraid his fingers would go straight through the card, but the desert had preserved its treasures for him.
A shredded wheat packet issued in 1929.
He placed it on the counter, next to a mummified fish that someone must have given the cook immediately before the Malvern blundered into the African coast. There was a plastic box in his pack, carefully measured to the dimensions of shredded wheat packets so that it would protect it from being crushed without giving it space to be rattled around. Being careful not to drip sweat on it, Leonard placed the packet in the box, and the box in his pack.
His collection was complete.