Tina looked out at the wide expanse of empty ocean and sighed.
‘I never want to see the sea again.’
‘If I had a pound for every time you have uttered those words,’ said Ben ‘I could pay our ransom.’
‘We don’t even know if they have asked for one, I mean they don’t seem very good at being pirates.’
Ben didn’t answer, his thoughts hung in the hot still air unspoken. Did the fact that the motley crew seemed to be first time pirates act in his and Tina’s favour or not? They didn’t appear to understand English and he and Tina had no idea what language they were speaking. Perhaps the old couple with all their missionary experience might have guessed, if he hadn’t dropped dead with a heart attack on the beach. The new widow had been reluctantly rescued by a tiny fishing boat and Ben and Tina had happily waved them off assuming they would alert another boat or the authorities.
Night had not brought darkness as the fire raged behind them. They took cover from the swirling hot ashes in the shallows. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. The wretched lines had gone round and round in Ben’s head as he licked his parched lips.
Strangely, just before dawn came, it finally became dark; the flames died down with nothing left on the island to consume. The morning sun revealed the stark ruins of the hotel against the blackened hills.
Ben walked round the deck of the small boat again as if the view might have changed. At least they weren’t tied up in the hold, there was no need, no chance of escape. When they were rescued, wading then swimming out to the boat and being hauled aboard, they had been pitifully grateful; the proffered tin mugs of tepid liquid tasted as sweet as bottled spring water.
That had been four weeks ago, though they couldn’t be sure, it was timeless out on the seas. But they could no longer hope they were being rescued. It was not kidnap for robbery as they had nothing to take. The diet of fish and rice was monotonous, but they had not died in the fire or drowned, they were still alive.
‘Never heard of the place or its people, can’t we just ignore the messages?’
‘No Madam, they have two British Nationals who were reported missing eighteen days ago. The photos taken by the pirates appear to match the couple’s work ID photos and pictures put in the media by the family. We can’t put off informing their families any longer.’
‘Certainly not, their demands are outrageous. The British Government never pays ransoms, it would set a dangerous precedent and if the media get hold of this story… Negotiation is still the key. Have we found out any more about their wretched island?’
‘Their nascent tourist industry, in fact the whole island, was destroyed by the wild fire, that’s why they want us to give them a new island.’
Cassie stood on the small jetty apart from the others and tried to think clearly. At Christmas she could never have imagined March would find her on a deserted Scottish island, leaving behind pandemic lockdown England, leaving behind a secure job and home in a busy town. In the two months of careful preparation she had anticipated this moment and the challenges the next year or so held. What she had not expected was to encounter a problem even before they had stepped off the boat. The spiral of domestic smoke drifting against the clear sky signalled that they were not the first to set foot on this island for over a year. They had been told that no one had lived on the island for decades.
She turned questioningly to Sam and was surprised to hear a chuckle rising in his throat that soon turned to laughter. The skipper still had one foot on his boat, a reminder that the break in the weather was not going to last and he was staying only long enough for them to get their kit unloaded. Sam’s dog was already exploring the beach.
‘Why did none of us think of this? How many people with a boat might take the opportunity to escape the pandemic and enjoy the freedom of a desert island. There’s hundreds of uninhabited islands and who’s to stop them?’
Cassie found herself joining in Sam’s amusement, though her laughter was tinged with hysteria.
‘You mean some millionaire has their luxury yacht moored round the other side of the island?’
‘A millionaire would be happy to stay on his yacht and not need to escape to an island’ butted in Sam’s son.
‘Could be refugees from England who arrived in a rubber dingy’ said Sam.
They all turned to the skipper, who hadn’t uttered a word yet.
‘Well dinae look at me, I hae not set foot on this island fer five years and it were a godforsaken place then. None of yer fancy scientists’ projects ever came to anything. I told you I’ll give you a month afore yo’re wantin to come off. Now are you goin to come back wuth me or will youse get to know your new neighbours?’
As Carrie heard herself saying ‘Of course we’ll stay, we’ve come this far…’ Sam spoke up.
‘I shall be staying, I’ve nothing to lose, but Cassie and Lucas have to decide for themselves.’
His son laughed. ‘I’ll not give Ma and the auld man a chance to crow over our failure, I’m staying Dad.’
Cassie felt doubts creeping in before the skipper had even cast off. How would an office worker, a homeless scientist and a teenager cope if the inhabitants did not want them to stay? But as she tried to look nonchalant carting her one woman tent onto the beach she was confronted by a naked man stepping from behind a rocky outcrop. An arm appeared from behind the rock handing him a towel, but he was in no haste to cover himself up.
‘Can’t a couple come down for their daily swim in peace and who the hell are you lot?’
Behind him a heavily pregnant young woman was having difficulty protecting her modesty as her towel flapped in the wind. Whoever these people were, thought Cassie, island life must have made them tough if they could stroll naked down to the beach and contemplate getting in the cold sea.
Lucas had a broad grin on his face as he dropped his heavy kit bag in the sand; safely on dry land he had recovered from his sea sickness. Mocking their English accents he exaggerated his own Scottish baritone.
‘We’re supposed to be here and youse are not, but it seems you are weell settled. Is it jus the twae of youse or nearly thrae?’
‘Just us, we ate the others.’
‘Only joking, I’m Jack and this is Alice, come on up to the croft. I hope you have tents, there’s not much room, but Alice will be glad to have the company of another woman, especially when her time comes.’
Alice had not offered her opinion yet and Cassie had the horrendous thought she might be expected to deliver a baby, she knew nothing about childbirth and had no desire to find out. As they followed Jack, Sam was unfolding their official map of the island.
‘You won’t be needing that, we know every foot of this place.’
Lucas was full of questions, including what food supplies they might have as his appetite had returned.
In the tiny croft they were all grateful for a cup of tea and Cassie relished the smoky taste. Jack let them explain their plans before launching in to a colourful tale of how he and Alice came to be there.
‘…so that was the end of our sailing round the world avoiding the pandemic, the boat just about made it to this island and at least we had the charts and the radio so we knew where we were, even if nobody else does. I realised I had been here before when I was at uni., trying to set up a bird watching project.’
‘But could you charge your phones up and all that’ said Cassie vaguely.
‘For a brief while, till all the boat’s batteries were drained, but there’s no internet access here anyway.’
‘But we are supposed to keep in touch with base and do Zoom meetings’ said Cassie.
Alice came to life at this point and laughed. ‘Cassie the city girl, hey are you two together?’
‘Yes, no… we haven’t known each other long and yes I guess I am a city girl, but I don’t like shopping and I’m a bit of a loner, so I knew I could do this. There are more groups coming when they’ve done their isolation, we were worried Lucas would be bored or lonely.’
‘Well he won’t find any Girl Fridays here,’ laughed Jack ‘but he won’t be bored. We three chaps have got a lot of work to do, fix the boat, build some more crofts. And plenty for Cassie, do you know how to butcher a sheep, not that I’m saying the girls have to do all the cooking…’
‘What… sheep, no, I mean I can cook, but we are getting supplies every few weeks…’
Lucas laughed. ‘I can shoot and butcher venison, so sheep no problem, but is this island supposed to have sheep?’
‘All that’s left from past inhabitants I guess, we’re doing them a favour, keeping the population down, same as you do with your deer on the estate.’
Cassie wanted to get out of the croft, wanted to talk to Sam on his own, it was hard to take everything in.
Sam winked at her then turned to the others. ‘Me and Cassie are just going to check on the dog, you show Lucas where we might set up camp.’
Outside they wandered down a narrow track between rocks and heather, Sheba nosing ahead, looking at home already.
‘We’ll be okay Cassie, we wanted an adventure, we can still carry on with the project same as we would have done and we’ll get our own croft built, there’s certainly enough rocks around. This is real life, no more working for MPJ, no more lockdown.’
‘I keep wondering if we have been set up, are there TV cameras hidden, like one of those awful reality shows that I never watch?’
‘Could be worse, like one of those horror movies where everyone ends up eating each other… hey it won’t be long till the boat comes again and here we are, we’ve really done it.’
Cassie stood as near as she could to the bow of the boat without getting tangled in rope and other mysterious equipment, eager to catch a first glimpse of the island. The wind took her breath away, the sea spray stung her face, but she did not want to return to the tiny cabin that smelled of diesel fumes; she had soon discovered that looking straight ahead and gulping fresh air was the only way to avoid sea sickness.
Now as the clouds cleared to reveal blue March skies she wanted to savour every moment, every view as the skipper slowed the boat and curved round to follow the shoreline. Cassie held no illusions that the sun would always shine on this uninhabited Scottish Island, but she hoped the sunny welcome was a good omen. Beside her Sheba roused herself and pointed her nose towards land, the dog would be as glad as the rest of them to step on dry land. Her owner, Sam, had gone to the back of the boat to check on his son, who had spent most of the one hour trip hanging over the back of the boat being sick. They had laughed at her this morning, nibbling on dry toast as they tucked in to a full cooked Scottish breakfast.
As the tiny landing stage came into sight, this day felt like childhood Christmas and the start of school summer holidays rolled into one. No more work, no more lockdown, just freedom. Of course she would never have been doing this if it weren’t for Covid. Cassie had been happy moving to a new town, happy living alone in her new house, coping fine with lockdowns and working from home, but she had realised she did not want to spend the rest of her life working for MPJ, or even another year.
The decision to accept the job as wardens of an island they had never heard of was easier for Sam, he had nothing to lose, no home, no job and little prospect of either in the midst of the crippling pandemic. What he did have was his science degree and a few old contacts he had managed to resurrect. The board of the island project had seen past his lack of CV to the fortitude that had seen him survive life on the streets and pull himself out of homelessness. The challenges he had faced living rough would stand him in good stead to cope with the complete lack of twenty first century amenities.
Cassie had no family to leave behind; her home was now rented out to one of the women in MPJ’s homelessness project, who had been touchingly delighted to be entrusted with Cassie’s two geckos. Cassie hardly qualified as a nature warden, or science expert, but her work skills would enable her to do the admin and communications side of things. They would not be cut off from the rest of the world, there would be regular Zoom meetings with the scientific team heading the project. But the three of them would be alone on the island; they had been tested and retested and declared Covid free. No one had even set foot on the island for over a year so their environment would be pure and safe. They themselves were an experiment of sorts, though other small teams could be sent later on.
Lucas had his mother’s and stepfather’s consent to come with them and he would be useful, but he was free to leave if he got too bored or lonely. He had pointed out that most teenagers had been bored and lonely in lockdown this past year. His mother was glad he would be well away from all her perceived dangers of teenagers roaming in towns and assumed after a few weeks he would be wanting to return to the highland estate home he had run away from.
It was beautiful; rocky shores and steep cliffs had given way to white beaches and the calm waters of the little cove belied the fact that rough weather often made any boat trips impossible. The next delivery of supplies could not be relied on. Sam reappeared to help the skipper tie the boat up. Cassie kept well out of the way, but as she looked up at the rugged island she spotted something against the clear blue sky; one single gentle spiral of smoke from the centre of the island. A welcome domestic sight in any other setting, but how could this be on their secret uninhabited island?
Today is ANZAC day and what better way to mark it than with these poignant words from a special guest blogger. In the first of an occasional series my Sister Down Under writes about a unique island.
A Very Humble Monument by Kate Doswell
Some thoughts for ANZAC day 25th April, 2018.
I’m not sure what it’s like in other Commonwealth countries, but in Australia we take our war memorials very seriously, and rightly so. “Lest We Forget” is inscribed on most of them, and as we read down the long, alphabetical lists of names, we are reminded of the truly terrible cost of war. Even in tiny outback towns, the list seems far too long, far too many of the youngest and strongest of the community taken from those that are left behind to carry on.
Most of these monuments are made of stone, imposing obelisks in bluestone or limestone or granite, depending on where they are situated. They are usually in the centre of town. Running around the monument and integral to its form is a ledge wide enough to sit on. People may sit and contemplate awhile, or simply pass by on their daily business or as a visitor to the town. How many, I wonder, stop and read the names and wonder at the fate of these lost men? Do the locals become so used to it that they just pass by?
However, not all monuments are as striking or as prominent, and last week I found one that was truly humdrum. It was on the Island of Rottnest, 20 km from the West Australian Port of Fremantle. For many years this Island has functioned as a much loved holiday playground for the people of Western Australia, and the tourists who come to our isolated part of the world. It has a rather grand Roman Catholic church high on a hill, but the Anglican church is represented by a much older, but more modest chapel of limestone and whitewashed render.
I visited the chapel late in the day, as there were other tourist activities that had claimed my attention. The door was stiff to open, and the interior gathering the gloom of the impending sunset, so the first thing I noticed was the distinctive smell of very old (to our European Australian eyes) limestone buildings from the early settlement era. Above the altar, I could see a simple, but attractive stained glass window depicting The Annunciation. Turning from there I looked at the pews, some thought to have been made by the Aboriginal Prisoners for whom this Island acted as a prison for 60 years. There were brass plaques on the wall in memory of various European families who had played important roles in the Island’s history, but the one that caught my eye was one on the door of a storage cupboard at the back of the chapel. It looked relatively new – certainly not crafted by the Aboriginal men in the 18th century – and I guessed it had been built and installed after the chapel was reconsecrated in 1965. It was utilitarian – capacious and solidly built but without ornament or distinctive features. Except for the plaque. A simple paper notice, its words carefully handwritten in Old English script, and framed with a plain wooden frame, so small it could be covered by two hands.
“This cabinet is dedicated to the memory of those Rottnest Islanders who served their country in times of war and peace.”
I have never seen such a monument before, if I can even use the word monument. Is this the only place in the Commonwealth to have such a homely reminder of the dead?
I didn’t open the cupboard, I had no business to do so, but I imagined it containing vestments for the visiting priest, the chalice and paten, hymn books and orders of service, all the paraphernalia of a functioning chapel. I thought of those remembered by this most humble of monuments, and wondered if they would have been disappointed, aggrieved, or even angry that they had nothing grander built in their memory? But then again, maybe they would have been pleased that, having it placed on an object that was in regular use for the worshipers, they would readily and frequently come to people’s minds. These people, no doubt, would have attended this chapel, maybe some even came in the week before they left to sail away to war. Now, each time someone opens the cupboard and sees that little plaque, they are back here again. Back home to stay.
Observed on 25 April each year, Anzac Day was originally to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It is one of Australia’s most important national occasions. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.