Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Island - Part 8

Amongst the fronds of the tree hung a foot, pigeon-blue. But it was not the hue of death; they were wriggling. The bony ankle and stringy calf gave way to a thigh, gashed open. The expression of pain on the face of the owner of that thigh is something I will never forget. She seemed to be trying to move.

'Don't move, I'll come and help you!'

The sound that came from her mouth belonged to a wild animal, the sobbing that followed and the tears, saliva and mucus dripping from her face onto her ripped clothes, more human. It was clear that she had been far removed from civilisation for some time. Signs of either cleanliness or vanity were absent. What was left of the hair on her head grew in red tufts, the bald patches were scored and raw.

I put my rucksack on the bed.

'Don't move, you're hurt!'

As I prepared myself for the challenge of climbing the trunk in a wetsuit, she had drawn her leg upwards and was trying to curl into a ball. She must have misjudged her footing; I am guessing that she had lost some sensation in her leg and she started to tumble out of the tree. My arms had already been outstretched and in an instant became a rough cradle for her form as we both landed on the bed and rolled onto the ground.

Upon impact, she had gone quiet and we were almost nose-to-nose.

Friday, 25 July 2008

The Island - Part 7

My instinct was to run. I wasn't sure whether the blood was from my own forehead or from someone else. Neither possibility was something I wanted to contemplate. I knew that I had slept very soundly, much more so than usual and I had no recall of injuring myself. I ran my fingertips across my brow. It was smooth, oily with the heat. I could feel the triangular dent from when I had fallen off the garden swing when I was four. When I raised my eyebrows, I could feel the creases in the shape of a bird in flight and at that moment, I wished that I could fly. I could feel no discomfort; no bruising or rawness. My skin was intact.

Reluctantly, and with the delicate silence of a slow-motioned picture, I cast my eyes back to the scene of my slumber. The pillow was blotted with blood. It was fresh. I took a deep breath. The muscles working my eyes may as well have been having to raise an elephant off the ground as I steeled myself for a glimpse of the origin of the blood. I decided to do it gradually; first locking on the base of the trunk, my vision mentally climbing over the gnarled bark and severed branches on the way up.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Island - Part 6

I woke with a start in the half-light of dawn, feeling drops of liquid splattering onto my forehead. The backs of my ribs were so stiff from the pressure of the lumpy bed that in the effort to rise, it felt as though my lungs were being asked to carry the entire weight of my upper torso. I was still alone. But not at home. What sort of person lived in a place like this? It was hardly an ideal home; a grubby, worn bed probably infested and exposed to all comers in the forest. The vegetation around the bed's base was well-trodden. I wondered whether I should be expecting the return of its owner. Would they be pleased to see me or did they choose this wild and solitary existence? If so, I might not be welcome. Either way, this person wouldn't be accustomed to having friends for dinner except possibly in the most gruesome sense, I mused. I should be on my way.

I clutched roughly at handfuls of neoprene from my wetsuit, which in this heat was as pliable as newly-kneaded dough; the warm, salty waft as it rebounded,clapping back onto my chest was the closest I could get to letting my skin breathe. I undid the zip a few inches, scratching at the raised wheel left around my neck by the sweaty elastic. I longed to strip off and seek a stream but I knew that even if I could find one, getting my wetsuit back on would be all the more unpleasant. No, I had to return to the beach or find someone who could help me.

Having gathered myself into a more upright position, and with the stiffness fading, I swung the rucksack onto my back. I felt a trickle down my forehead and wiped it with the back of my hand. My eyes were scanning for a lost horizon, a sight of the end of the dense jungle, perhaps a sea bird or even a change in the hue of the soil ahead. But I saw no exchange of red earth for pure white sand. On the edge of my field of vision I glimpsed the back of my hand returning to my side, streaked with blood.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Island Break

Sorry about the lack of postings over the last few days and the consequent break in The Island. I've been having a few technical difficulties, mainly a broken laptop and trying to be in two places simultaneously. However, I hope to resume normal service by the end of the week so please do keep coming back. You never know, I might find a quiet corner with an unused computer and a brain cell at an unexpected moment! You're not the only ones being neglected. Monty's missed out on his walks for the last few days and is huffing a lot.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Island - Part 5

I reproached myself for jumping to the conclusion that in some way, the red hair was more sinister than if it had been blonde. The connotations were irrelevant as after all, the reality of the situation was far more threatening than some weird childish hang-up. And yet still the image of little Red Riding Hood being lured into the cottage by the wolf kept edging its way into my mind like a fist pushing on the skin of a drum. So where was the wolf? Wearied by the number of unanswered questions, I sat down on the filthy bed. By this point, I was drenched in sweat and resigned to the fact that I must already reek; if I made it back off the island that day, I could take a dip in the water to clean off.

Suddenly, I heard a crackle amongst the low-lying vegetation. I looked down and about six feet in front of me was a huge, black snake slithering along. It didn't appear to be making its way directly towards me but I quickly pulled up my legs, just in case. It paused at the sound of the bed springs creaking and then continued on its journey. Confident that it wasn't interested in me and wanting to keep it that way, I remained still, fixing my attention on the string of muscles rolling along until the end of its tail faded to a dot and became indistinguishable from the shadows thrown by the undergrowth on the earth. Even although I knew it had gone, I couldn’t help looking back to the spot where I’d last seen it, again and again. Hypnotised by the effort to maintain a focus which kept receding, my eyelids grew heavy, weighted by beaded lashes and I must have drifted off. And that was the last thing I remembered of that day.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The Island - Part 4

The day before the holiday I had sat on my own unmade bed at home trying to envisage myself far away from this grey town with its dirty buses. I tried to imagine the clear blue skies (although I did allow a few high, wispy ones), the rattle of steel drums, brightly-coloured shirts and the aroma of jerk chicken on the beach barbecue. The sight of the unmade bed had reminded me that I was there on a much needed holiday, that trekking around a tiny, uncivilised island – albeit a hot one - was not what I had planned. It was the suggestion of barbecued food that was most discordant with my reality.

My thoughts switched again, this time to my niece and something she had said to me. She’d being doing a project on the rainforest and was fascinated by a plant they had discussed. She’d told me about it over and over, laughing. She said that it only came into flower once every ....I couldn’t even remember that....and that when it did, its flower smelled like rotten meat. I’d wondered if she’d ever smelled rotten meat. Did this count as a rainforest? Probably not. But I could smell rotten meat and I could see no flowers anywhere.

The bed was dirty, streaked with brown; in fact, I couldn’t have even made out its proper colour. The duvet was spilling out of the poppered end as if trying to wrestle its way from its cover. I could see some hair poking out from underneath the far side of this crumpled mess. It was red hair. A doll’s? I looked around me. The giggling had stopped. I seemed to be alone. There was no one to explain it to me, to tell me it was going to be alright, to tell me why, when I gently lifted the duvet to examine the owner of the red hair, there wasn’t one. Just a clump of red hair on a dirty mattress.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The Island - Part 3

A low hum was resonating from the huddle in the sand although its effect was almost vibrato as the breeze blew the sound around the bay and out to sea in rhythmic waves. I could stay there to find out what they were leading up to or I slip away whilst they weren’t looking. I chose the latter and hoped that they didn’t view my departure as a mark of irreverence for their friend. But I needed the toilet.

This wasn’t an island that had been either developed or cultivated but as I ventured into the bank of greenness fronted by the coconut trees, I could see a well-trodden route through the undergrowth. I could hear an intermittent hiss from some reptile or other and I saw some tiny lizards scurrying up some tree trunks but it didn’t seem as if there was any human company. Unwilling to alert any more potentially hostile inhabitants to my presence, I crept down the centre of the path to avoid cracking any branches underfoot.

I walked for maybe fifteen minutes. As my journey lengthened, so did the height of the trees and an almost solid canopy cut out most of the light. All around, I was surrounded by dense jungle but despite this, the path continued and I wondered what or who I may find at its end. I began to notice more mosquitoes darting and droning in front of my brow as I walked and it was hard to tell whether it was them or drips of sweat tickling me. Either way, I knew I was going to have to stop and take a rest. I was hardly dressed for trekking through the jungle but at least I had a bottle of lemonade in my rucksack. I sat down on a stone to the side of the path. Next to me was another stone. Suddenly, I noticed movement to my left and jumped up. It was an iguana, well camouflaged and startled by my arrival. I relaxed a little, took a sip of my lemonade, deciding to ration myself in case I needed it later.

I rested for a few more minutes and the dampness of my t-shirt began to cool me down. My watch had stopped – it probably wasn’t designed for watersports – and having done what I had left the beach to do, I decided it would be wisest to retrace my steps before I got completely lost. I stood up, hauled my rucksack over my shoulder and from the thud on the ground, thought that I must have dropped my lemonade. But my bag was zipped up. I had left the coconut trees far behind on the fringes of the shore and I’d seen how silently the iguanas could move around so what was it?

I heard a giggle; not too far away, maybe twenty feet or so. Never one to shy away from the opportunity when a woman comes calling I felt drawn towards the merry sound coming through the bushes.


No reply.

‘Hello! I’m from England! Lost, actually! Hello?’

A muffled sound came over the humid airwaves but it was just as far away as before. Someone was playing games with me. Wary of becoming disorientated, I ventured forwards again. I hesitated and even considered that the sensible course would be to turn back there and then but I caught a glimpse of something whitish ahead. There must be some sort of clearing because light was streaming through the canopy in thin strands like hot icicles in a cave. My pace must have quickened because it seemed no time at all until I had arrived at the object of my gaze. It was an unmade single bed.


Now I don't want it to sound like I'm making excuses but .....

I make no secret of the fact that I haven't quite been myself of late (whoever that is) and I have a few problems with my memory. Someone on that Grumpy Old Women programme summed it up beautifully when she described how with being a middle-aged mother, everyone's lives are filtered through you. Even when there is no stressful situation either present or on the horizon you are expected to know the whereabouts of every family member and most likely be responsible for transporting or retrieving them from there. You are also required to know exactly what they are doing, what they would like to do, what they have done and be able to retrieve this information instantaneously for a variety of people. This means that a phenomenal amount of data is filtered through my brain uninvited, the consequence being the occasional server overload. Therefore, I really think that it is perfectly excusable to have taken a phone message regarding a change of appointment and not to remember what or who it relates to. So, as Tuesday 15th at 0845 looms (4 days and counting), my anxiety increases proportionately. Yes, of course, I wrote it down. On an envelope. And I've double-checked with the dentist which was a little embarrassing as I had to admit to why I was asking. I also had to confess to the doctor's surgery when I rang there this morning to ask if my son's vaccination appointment was today or had been moved to next Tuesday. Obviously realising that I was indeed a nutcase, they asked to speak to him directly. His conversation with them was relatively short when he discovered that I was speaking to the wrong doctor's surgery. How was I to know that his appointment wasn't with our one? Now I don't know whether to drop around with some chocolates for the most polite doctor's receptionist I've ever communicated with or if I should just keep my head down. After all, I have a different surname from my son - I expect that he's quite glad about that at the moment - and no one is likely to twig unless they look through his notes. However, having taken up a considerable amount of their valuable time on the phone whilst they searched for the non-existent appointment, I expect they would be too busy. So I'll say nothing.

Anyway, he rang the right surgery only to be told that his appointment was today so the mystery continues. When it comes to 0845 on the 15th, should I stay at home and await the phone call to say 'Where are you?' or go out and pretend I was called away urgently?

Also, I'm trying to organise our daughter's birthday party which is on Sunday and have yet to bake the cake nevermind ice it. People keep asking me what we're having, i.e. what expensive entertainment have we got lined up? The answer is 'me'. Therefore, I'm thinking about party games ideas too.

All in all, I just wanted to say sorry for the break in what I'm sure is the most gripping narrative of 2008 but 'The Island' will resume normal service. Eventually.

Now this is spooky. I've just had an email asking me to work, starting from next Tuesday. I'll aim to get there at 0845. Very weird indeed.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Island - Part 2

There are times when someone's presence produces foolish excitement. This wasn’t one of them. It was beginning to dawn on Roland that the vacant interest in his arrival on this tiny island was well founded. The man on the left-hand end of the line was swaying and his forehead seemed to be erupting with balls of sweat. His eyelids were becoming heavy, his knees unlocking and folding beneath him.
The others in the line were not reacting to the deterioration of their companion and so Roland quickly stepped forward, just in time to scoop the hot, wiry frame of the man into his arms. The man’s eyes were now fully closed and although he weighed little, his clammy form was slipping from Roland’s grasp and he moved to lay him down onto the sand. The next person along the line had recoiled and flung their arms up the air and let out a hoarse scream. As he’d done so, the remaining six bodies fell like dominoes and landed in a pile, their legs protruding like wayward sticks on a bonfire.
Roland raised his palms to the group as they hauled themselves back onto their feet.
‘It’s OK, I don’t want to hurt you. Do you have any water?’
They looked out to sea. There were birds with beaks like Concorde and V-shaped wings soaring in a predatory fashion overhead. The shimmering tide was gently lapping against the hull of the jet ski and in the sunlight, Roland could see the tiny flecks of pink coral in the white sand accumulating, embracing this foreign body into its own substance. The screaming had died down, the birds glided in silent circles and the horizon was as deserted as the expressions on the faces of those who had now formed a circle around the body of their friend.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The welcoming committee

The welcoming committee awaited Roland as his jet ski roared up onto the white sand. Once on dry land, he’d planned to take out his binoculars and have a good look out to sea; with the noise and the spray, not to mention the panic at the thought of having left his friends somewhere out there in the Atlantic, it was impossible to concentrate and get his bearings.

'Hi there’ he decided to try and sound confident and put on his friendliest smile.

No response.

‘I’ve lost my friends. On jet skis, you know? Just wanted to take five minutes to try and work out what the hell has happened to them.’


Roland looked from the first man on the left then right along the line, trying to make eye contact with each of the eight figures in turn. Their eyes were directed at him but not registering his attempts to communicate let alone reciprocate. They were all tanned to the colour of Roland’s creosoted fence back home. Their clothes were faded and frayed at the hems, their colours dulled further by a coating of sand. They gazed through Roland towards the horizon, the tropical breeze blowing their unkempt, sun-scorched hair like windsocks.

Scattered around the foot of the trees lining the shore were broken coconut shells, interspersed with vacant tiny turtle shells. There were charred hollows in the sand surrounded by fish bones. There were some much bigger bones too, the shape of which Roland didn’t recognise.

He wondered what they were expecting of him. Entertainment? Enlightenment? Nourishment? He went cold at the thought, even though the late afternoon temperature was pushing one hundred degrees. He wondered who was in charge. He guessed that the population of such a small island may even have been limited to those who stood in front of him.


Saturday, 5 July 2008

Travels with a suitcase

In my suitcase I pack a silk red rose, a small cream cushion, a sieve, an elastic band and a big plaster. I’m travelling light; other than the clothes I stand in as I prepare for this spontaneous trip, I have nothing except £300.

The girl on the check-in desk frowns at her computer, lifts my case as if to reposition it and looks shocked at its emptiness. She blushes, she’s flustered. An almost empty suitcase. But not quite.

‘Did you pack your bags yourself Madam?’ she asks.


She tags it and it quivers as it disappears off around the corner over the rumbling conveyor belt. She doesn’t hand me my boarding pass straight away and is talking quietly into a handset with her back turned away from me. I’m not sure what’s happening but she swivels back to face me and I get a plastic smile with my documents. I get the feeling I’m being followed as I make my way to Departures.
This feeling of being followed follows me through the emptying back streets of Paris in the lull between evening and night time. I sit down at a small round table outside a cafe. My shadow has already halted back at the last corner. I wonder why I am here.

I wonder what I am going to do now that I am here. I’m not in the mood for shopping. I’ll have to make my clothes last twenty-four hours. This could be the last twenty –four hours and every one of them is too important to be wasted sleeping or shopping and besides, my £300 is depleted by the air fare.

I think about the contents of my suitcase which sits next to my legs. I take out the rose and place it inside the little vase in the centre of the circular table. Its texture jars slightly against that of its neighbours; after all, this is Paris and I would expect nothing less than real flowers.

An elderly lady with a small dog arrives and sits down at the table next to me. She is wearing an elegant calf-length suit and seamed stockings. She looks over and smiles and I notice how her lipstick has seeped into the lines around her lips. Her little dog is bouncing, trying to leap up into her lap and she tries to pacify him on the pavement. I take out the cushion.

‘Pour vous?’ I ask the dog and the old lady laughs and places it on the seat next to her.

‘Merci beaucoup, Madmoiselle’ and I return to my seat. The dog circles on the cushion before curling up, sighing and closing its eyes. The lady orders her coffee. When it arrives, she leans forward for her lips to meet with the rim of the cup but as she does so, the pendant around her neck catches around the button on her jacket sleeve and its stone plops into her coffee.

‘Here, let me’, I say, forgetting my French in the heat of the moment. I take her cup over to the kerbside and pour its contents through the sieve. The stone – and I am not sure what kind of stone it is – lies steaming in the pit of the sieve as the last drops filter through the mesh. The lady orders another coffee from the waiter who has come rushing outside and she thanks me again. She orders me a cake and I’m grateful.

Energised from my coffee and cake, I wave to the old lady, pick up my suitcase and set off down the pavement. I walk for a while and my heels become sore from the friction as I try to walk as graciously as the French girls strolling with their arms linked together.

Ahead, on the bank of the Seine, I can see a bench and plan to sit down to examine my sores. But I hesitate as I lower my weight onto the seat. I remember something; once you take off whatever’s hurting you, you never want it back how it was. Flesh swells, fills the gaps repressed by straps and finds its own form.

A few yards away, an artist is packing away his easel and painting. He looks tired and wipes his brow with his sleeve. He has a case for his brushes. It’s a hard, black one a bit like those I’ve seen musicians use. Perhaps it’s an artist thing, this case, the idea that you can contain your precious belongings in a case. The main difference between him and me is that my case is full of random objects; I will not be using them to create a masterpiece. Or will I? Perhaps I will write a story about a trip to Paris and feature the contents of my case and then they will be useful because someone might read it.

But what about the plaster? I bet you thought I was going to put it on my heel. Not so. I offered it to the artist to stick on the back of his painting after it fell on top of his case and was torn by its catch. That’s art for art’s sake. The elastic band remains the only mystery in this plot; it is circular and if you stretch it to a point, it comes back to the shape at the beginning.

In my suitcase I pack a silk red rose and wonder where it will take me. This is the beginning of the end.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Mermaid

You may have noticed that I haven't written here for a little while. Feeling under the weather with some mysterious illness, I've focused all my energy on doing the basics, like cooking and ironing, etc. Jealous? I bet. Anyway, the cooking has been getting more and more elaborate (making pizzas from scratch and chelsea buns is elaborate for me, anyway)so I decided that my creativity was asking to be let out regardless of my aches and pains. So, having missed out on responding to Sarah's prompts, I've played a little game with them just to get me going again. It's probably the sort of writing I shouldn't really inflict on other but there you go. Why should I be the only one to suffer?

• Thursday 3rd - the footprints were tiny
• Wednesday 2nd - take me out tonight
• Tuesday 1st - I was a nice kid
• Monday 30th - the pillow's bare by my side
• Sunday 29th - the bouncer's in hospital

I was a nice kid. The hair of a mermaid and the neatest frame which gave the impression that I’d just jumped out of a delicate little bird’s egg to sip dew off a tulip.

‘Take me out tonight’ I’d said to the Water Fairy. And she did.

We went to the Ladybird Club. I had to sneak in around the back, being what they disparagingly referred to as ‘Water Fowl’. I’d heard them alright although I pretended not to and hid behind the fish tank. The lights were low; it was almost dark except for the colours darting around the walls like fireflies.

When there was a really loud number on, I slipped across to the middle of the dance floor, holding my hair twisted into a temporary pony tail so that it wouldn’t swish against the legs of those gyrating to the club beat. My movements were smoother than theirs, like silk slipping over a banana. I had no clumpy shoes, just my bare flesh.

It was a matter of bad luck, I suppose; the wrong night to turn up. They were giving out awards for Best Dancer and I didn’t know until the lights went up and there I was weaving in and out of their stilettos trying to escape. Of course it was useless and I was spotted. But following trails of perspiration across the exposed areas of the dance floor, I managed to get to the window in the Ladies’. The Water Fairy was waiting outside and hearing the ensuing commotion, whisked me back home.

The next day, I asked her if she’d heard whether I’d been seen.
‘Undoubtedly, my friend. The bouncer’s in hospital for having let you in. It seems very unlikely that there will be no repercussions.‘

And so it was. There was much whispering around the forest and the lakeside. I woke up the next day feeling totally washed up. I looked downwards and did something I had never done before. I wiggled my toes amongst the reeds and a frog burped out a stream of bubbles before legging it across the surface frightened at the spectacle of me.

I stood upright. The ground felt solid underneath me. I took a step forwards. Unable to believe what had happened, I looked behind me. The footprints were tiny but they were definitely there.

At the end of that first day, I was weary with the weight of the constant breathing of the forest air and having to lift one foot and then the other but I couldn’t go back home like this. I made a bed out of laurel leaves and grass, covered myself with some clumps of badger fur and fell asleep, exhausted.

That day was to change my life forever. When I awoke to the scent of the bruised laurel, I already knew that yet something else was different. The pillow was bare by my side. My hair had been hacked away.

So the moral of the story is: listen to what your mother tells you and you’ll never wake up after a night out knowing you were legless the night before and that now you are paying the consequences. And don’t forget that we’d all die without water.