Short story: The island, by Elspeth Sandys

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“There’s so little light left I’m not even sure I’m on a path”: a darkly psychological story by Elspeth Sandys

We are both tremendously excited. He, because this is the crowning moment of his tour, the day when he will get to meet his literary idol; me, because of my lifetime fascination with islands.

There are five of us gathered on the wharf. We two, our host the publisher, whom I’m meeting for the first time, and Jim and Adele, who have been our constant companions for the last two and a half weeks. Jim and Adele work for the publisher. It’s been their job to ferry us from city to city, organizing book signings and interviews. They are both young, likable, and curiously unknowable. I can’t even begin to imagine their stories. It’s as if they were born looking and sounding exactly as they do now.

The boat taking us to the island is small. It only runs at weekends, when it provides a morning trip over and an evening trip back. We can’t see the island from where we are, but it’s relatively close – half an hour away, we’re told. Between us and it stretch the dense grey waters of the Atlantic.

It’s a glorious day. New England in the Fall, so Jim assures us, is the most beautiful place on earth. We see no reason to argue. Since arriving in Boston we’ve been witness to a display of colour  straight out of a Van Gogh painting. Every tree we’ve seen, touched by the sun’s fiery breath, has been a burning bush. Today we will see different things. For one thing the island is covered not with the maples, cedars and oaks of the mainland, but with conifers and spruce – evergreen trees. Once the centre of a thriving fishing and farming community, all that remains today are a handful of holiday homes. One of these – the largest as we will discover – belongs to our host.

The voyage is calm. There’s coffee and bagels, and the kind of conversation we’ve come to expect in this generous country. Our host talks about the island as if he owns it. “It’s a deceptive place,” he tells us. “Much steeper inland than it looks, and densely forested. Criss-crossed with paths, most of which lead nowhere now. Easy to get lost.” Lunch, he goes on to tell us, was helicoptered in yesterday, along with the chef, and the woman whom my husband is so eager to meet. What her relationship is to our host, other than being one of his authors, is not clear, but I’m convinced they’re a couple. She travelled on his private helicopter after all. My husband disagrees.

We’re met at the wharf by the chef. His name is Roland Aubert. He has an accent to match. Our host greets him with a slap on the back, and a joke about the feast awaiting us. Jim and Adele exchange a look. I’m guessing this is a ritual they’ve witnessed before.

We climb up a steep flight of stone steps to a path that leads through trees  – not evergreens, more burning bushes – to the house. I sense rather than see the forest ahead of us, an imagined shadow against the luminous blue of the day.

The house is single-storeyed, made of honey-coloured wood, with a wide front verandah and a roof of dark green tiles. The trees surrounding it are a mixture of evergreen and deciduous. They bend in close, as if guarding it, protecting it from predators. As we climb the last few steps to the house, I see my husband, who is ahead of me, talking animatedly to Jim. This is unusual. Jim, despite his unfailing good manners during our tour, got on my husband’s nerves. A lot of people get on my husband’s nerves. He’s been described as taciturn, but really he’s just shy. Large gatherings make him nervous. Public speaking has him reaching for the whisky bottle. I suspect his present bonhomie has more to do with the person he’s about to meet than our good-natured guide of the last seventeen days. Kay (not her real name) is much admired in literary circles. She doesn’t have the public profile of a Margaret Atwood or an Annie Proulx, but that, in my husband’s opinion, is because she’s better than them. Too good to be popular. Too much the poet to engage in the kind of writing that ends up on the wide screen or tv. Personally I find her difficult to read. Her language keeps drawing attention to itself, like an actor signaling ‘look at me’ rather than ‘suspend disbelief’.

Kay is not in the house. Gone for a walk, Roland informs us. Our host, having pointed out where the bathroom is, pours generous drinks – a spritzer for me, beer for my husband, soft drinks for Jim and Adele. We step back on to the verandah with its array of cane chairs and a stunning view over the sea. Conversation starts up again, but I’m not paying attention. I’m thinking of the forest behind us, calculating the length and breadth of the island. “If you know your way you can walk around the whole shebang in an afternoon,” our host has told us. “But there’s no coast path. Too rugged. You have to follow the maze of inland paths. No easy task, believe me. Not without local knowledge.”

I wonder about Kay and whether she has ‘local knowledge’

We’re on to our second drinks when Kay appears. I don’t know what I expected – author photos usually lie – but my first reaction is mild shock. She’s not young. In her early sixties I’m guessing. Her hair is wet – maybe she’s just showered. It hangs down her back in a stone-colored slab. She’s wearing dungarees, and a tartan shirt several sizes too big for her. She’s tiny. Shorter than me and I’m only 1.6 metres. Skinny too. You may be a genius I think, but there’s not much of you.

With introductions out of the way, Roland summons us to the table. My husband sits next to Kay. I’m at the other end of the table next to Jim. Roland brings in the soup – clam chowder – and joins us at the table. Amid the chorus of praise for the soup, Jim taps my elbow and asks me what it’s like being married to an author. I try to change the subject, but he persists. So I give him the edited version of my life – children, friends, my work as a psycho-therapist – trying at the same time to guess what Kay and my husband are talking about. Whatever it is, it’s holding his attention. His eyes hardly leave her face.

Maybe its the spritzers, or the wine our host has poured, but I’m starting to feel giddy, as if I’m on a kid’s merry-go-round and it’s refusing to stop. Kay’s voice, which I can hear more clearly now, has a rather ugly twang to it. I seem to remember she comes from the midwest. Does that explain it?

The chowder is followed by three roast poussin with tarrogan mayonnaise, potato wedges, wild mushrooms, and sautéed green beans. More exclamations of delight erupt around the table. Roland, who has announced each dish as if reading from the Bible, beams with pleasure. My husband looks puzzled. Happy to discuss the virtues of different kinds of whisky, he would see little difference between the feast in front us, and sausages and mash. I feel a wave of love for him. He is many things, some of which make him difficult to live with, but he’s not pretentious.

With the chicken reduced to bones it’s decided – not sure by whom – that we should take a walk before sampling Roland’s pumpkin pie. There’s a scramble for jackets and hats – once the sun goes down the cold hits, our host has warned – and out we all tumble. Now what’s ahead of us is not an endless expanse of ocean, but the confined majesty of a forest rising to a peak tickled by wisps of cloud. I breathe deeply, as a new kind of giddiness takes hold of me. An island to explore. Heaven!

Somehow Jim and Adele and I get separated from the others. I look round for my husband but he’s nowhere to be seen. “He’s with Kay,”  Jim reassures, sensing my anxiety. “Don’t worry. She knows this place like the back of her hand. They won’t get lost.” Our host, apparently, has stayed at home. “Calls to make,” Adele explains. “If he’s lucky. Reception’s pretty hit and miss out here.”  

We’re walking under a canopy of trees so dense the sky is reduced to a patchwork of light and dark. As we move deeper into the forest the ground under our feet hardens. No leaves have fallen here. Instead there are roots and brambles and thickets of undergrowth concealing the path from view. Jim and Adele push on, unconcerned. Clearly they’ve done this walk before.

We pass two ruined houses – heaps of rubble with only chimneys to identify what they once were. I want to take a closer look, eager to find traces of the people who lived here, but Jim has strode on, oblivious of my interest. The further we walk the more the trees close in. I feel as if I’m wearing them, like an extra layer of clothing. When we reach a pile of bricks – all that remains of a well – Jim declares its time to turn back. Again I want to linger. Could this have been a sacred well? One visited by the islanders to cure sickness? I stare at the broken, moss-covered walls, as if by looking at them long enough I can summon up the people who came here. How can they be dead when the work of their hands survives? I look at my watch. Gone 3. I remind Jim the ferry doesn’t leave till 6. Surely we could walk a bit further? But Jim insists this is as far as it is safe to go.

We don’t talk much on the way back. As the light starts to seep in again through the thinning canopy, I sense my companions’ relief that this part of the day is over. I suspect playing nursemaid to a middle-aged couple from a country on the other side of the world was not what they signed up for.

As we near the house my husband appears. He’s on his own. Jim and Adele excuse themselves and walk on. Now that the house is clearly visible their responsibility is over.

“There’s something I want to show you,” I say to my husband, pointing back over my shoulder.

My husband taps his watch.

“There’s plenty of time.”

“No there’s not.”

“Did you see the ruined houses?”

“For God’s sake darling! We haven’t been brought here to explore ruins.”

He shakes his head at me. Then he turns on his heels. I watch him  go. He’s right, isn’t he? Coming to the island was about him and his work, not me and my obsession with ruins. When he turns to make sure I’m following him, I’ll catch him up. But he doesn’t turn. He slams the door behind him.

For a few moments I stand listening to the soughing of the wind and the different, distant soughing of the sea. I think of the forest behind me, and the well I want to see again, and a strange thought takes hold of me. If I stood here long enough I’d become a tree. My feet would grow roots, and leaves would sprout from the top of my head, and birds would make their nests in my hair. It’s a lovely feeling. I don’t want to let go of it.

I start walking. By my reckoning the well is no more than twenty minutes away. After about five of those minutes I come to a fork in the path. I don’t remember it from earlier. Which way did Jim go? I opt for the left and walk on. Soon, to my astonishment, I find myself by the sea. Not that I can get to it. It’s many metres below me, swirling and gurgling and tumbling. I step back from the rocky ledge I’ve been standing on, and start to retrace my steps. Not too much time lost, I tell myself, as I pick up speed. Back to the fork, then take the path to the right. But what I come to after walking for more or less the same amount of time, is a graveyard. Five, no six, headstones, half buried in the undergrowth, a dirt-encrusted, plastic bouquet poking through the grass at any feet. I bend down, scrape away the moss and weeds on the stone nearest me. I see the letters M C L first then, after more scraping, the words, LACHIE MCCLINTOCH GONE TO JESUS AGED TWO YEARS AND ONE MONTH. A wave of sadness washes over me. I think I would die if anything happened to my children.

Suddenly I ache to be with them. This is the longest time I’ve ever been separated from them. I want to be home again, back in familiar bush, not in this alien forest with its ruined houses and dead infants.

I start to run. In my mind we are already driving back to Boston, where a plane is waiting to take us home to New Zealand. Each time I’m faced with a fork in the path I wait for my intuition to kick in, then follow wherever it leads. I don’t look at my watch. I’m aware of the light fading, but I tell myself it’s late autumn, the sun sets early, there’s nothing to worry about.

When I do eventually look at my watch I see it’s 5.15. The ferry leaves in three quarters of an hour. I’m standing above the sea again but this time I’m closer to the water. Seagulls whirl above my head. I picture the others eating Roland’s pumpkin pie, wondering if they should be concerned about the vacant seat at the table. I picture my husband, keeping his feelings to himself.          

I start walking again, pushing away the tendrils that threaten to strangle me, the brambles that tear at my hands. I’m vaguely aware of pain at the back of my ankles – blisters, one of them I see, when I look down at my espadrilles, already bleeding. I push on blindly. There’s so little light left I’m not even sure I’m on a path. I think about climbing a tree to see if I can get a glimpse of the house, but the effort required is too great …Why are there no birds? Back home there’d be tuis and pigeons and squabbling mynahs. But all I can hear is the forest speaking, and the answering sea.  Will the ferry go without me? Our host has to be back on the mainland. I heard him say so. An important meeting.

“There you are!”

I spin round. It’s Jim, a huge smile on his face. “Thank God. You ok?’

I try to speak, but what comes out is a mucky gulp.

Jim takes off his parka and drapes it round my shoulders. ”You had us worried,” he says.

“I got lost”

“Figured that.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry. You’re not the first.”

“Have I missed the ferry?”

Jim smiles. “Did you think we’d go without you?”

“Has everyone been looking for me?” I ask, as I follow my rescuer back to the house.

“Well Adele and I know the island so we volunteered.”

We don’t speak again till we’re inside the house. There’s no sign of my husband. I remove my blood-stained espadrilles, and apply the plasters Adele has fetched from the bathroom cabinet. One of my toe nails has come adrift. I put my shoes back on and follow Jim and Adele down the path to the wharf.

“What the hell were you thinking?” my husband mutters as I join him.

“The prodigal returns,” our host booms, thumping me on the back. “Right then. On board everyone. Time and tide wait for no man.”

As I climb on to the boat I see Kay sitting in the cabin, head buried in a book. I find a place to sit, and try to hide the fact that my face is burning. My husband sits opposite me, next to our host.

We’re a sober bunch on the return journey. No coffee and bagels. No cheerful literary gossip. No wisecracks. Roland, hunched over his phone, bites his thumb nail with the concentration of a cat grooming itself. Adele rest her head on a cushion. Her eyes are closed. My husband exchanges the odd word with our host, but I wouldn’t call it a conversation. His eyes stray from time to time to Kay. Jim has found  an old copy of The Boston Globe to read.

We disembark in darkness. The sea is a black slate behind us, the island lost to view. Jim checks that we know the way to our hotel, a three minute walk away. Perhaps he’s afraid I might disappear again. We say our farewells. And our thank-yous. I apologize again for causing delay. We wave as our host and Kay disappear into one car, Jim and Adele into another.

We start walking.       
 

Next week’s short story: We begin a series of three short stories set at Xmas, beginning with “The Kiss” by Pip Adam.


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