Fiction / June 2014 (Issue 24)

On Tromalin Island

by Sarah Bower

With thanks to Judith Schalansky, author of the Atlas of Remote Islands


On Tromelin Island, he stands with his back to Madagascar and watches the master of the tender attempting to deflate his airbed, so it can be stowed under a thwart. It is, he thinks, like trying to squeeze hope out of the human heart. For every bubble of air stamped out of the inflatable, another pops up. It will never again be as perfectly flat as when it was unrolled for the first time. The air has destroyed its integrity as surely as hope destroys the integrity of the heart.

He turns to look across the expanse of ocean separating Tromelin from its much larger neighbour. Beneath the sun's sparkle the water is indigo, almost black, and thick veins of foam seam the breakers. He wonders, idly, if the boat will sink during the journey out to the ship and his imagination is briefly filled with formless images of the monsters of the deep that inhabit the dead cold rifts in the ocean floor where no light reaches and no winds blow but the water moves according to its own massive and mysterious purposes. There would be a kind of comfort in it, he thinks, in the free fall into absolute darkness, in the cessation of breath and the stilling of the busy, hopeful heart.

He is a big man, as men go, but here, on this spit of sand where nothing lives but a grove of coconut palms, a colony of blue crabs the size of dinner plates and half a dozen itinerant fishermen, he feels small, foolish, superfluous, with his water purification tablets, his malaria medication, the boots that fitted glove-like in the high street outdoor activities store where he bought them but have now chafed his sweating, sockless feet into blisters. His airbed. He has reached the end of his search. There is nowhere, here, for another human being to hide. Freighted with his careful preparations, he has let her outrun him. It is over. There is nowhere left to go but back. Home. He knuckles his sweat-stung eyes with impatience and self-pity and, still, the resentment towards her born of realising he understands nothing about her.

* * *

I'm going, she had said. Going? Where? Why would she go? Everything was fine, wasn't it? To an island, she said. An island? Why? Because I can no longer bear your silence, she said. I crave a silence of my own making. Though he felt aggrieved, because he had always treated her with courtesy and affection, because when he was with her, he was only with her, yet had always made the limits of his commitment perfectly clear, he did not argue with her. He was a man who loved women and, in return, women loved him. He was confident he would not want for a lover for long.

Nor did he.

He charmed them into his bed with his usual, lubricious facility. Alert for the signals, every nerve ending and muscle fibre, every hair follicle and tooth and bone was honed by the sensibilities of the hunter. Once his prey was at his mercy, he moved in for the kill, the petit mort, carried by the momentum of his lust, assured of his skill, all thoughts of the brevity or shallowness of either his pleasure or hers pushed to the back of his mind. He was not an addict, a captive of the law of diminishing returns, but a man who exulted in the exercise of his individual will. His appetites were controlled, refined, chiselled to dovetail neatly into the rest of his life, his work, his garden, his passion for opera and silent movies. He had perfected balance, the equilibrium of light and shade, sensual and intellectual, the sweetness of solitude and the sharp consolations of rigorous social intercourse. His appetites were unorthodox. This he understood from the expressions on the faces of the ones who eluded him, the ones who had neither the courage, sophistication nor the sense of adventure to follow his lead.

To her, with some pride, he had described himself as depraved. She had laughed and whispered stories of her own depravities that made him feel as if he were suddenly a novice at his own game.

At first, when he sat at his desk and opened his inbox each morning, his mood would be one of optimistic confidence. She would write and tell him about her travels. Of course she would. They understood one another, they shared a sense of humour, a slantwise way of looking at the world, an extensive and fantastical lexicon of secret jokes and allusions. She would be unable to resist. As the days passed, he made excuses for her. She had no Internet access, her phone battery was dead, she was flying. But the longer her name failed to appear in his inbox or his text alert, the further he sank into misanthropy, a condition that had always been chronic in him but was now becoming acute.

In an effort to convince himself he was really alright, he dragged himself along to a reading given by an author whose work he admired at the time. Afterwards, he chatted with her. They talked about Angola, a country they both knew well. The author was dark, gamine, sporty-looking and clearly not immune to his charm, but he found it increasingly difficult to focus on her. Her face, her voice, her neat form in a green dress, faded in and out as though she was a radio he could not keep in tune. He wondered if he had eaten something that disagreed with him at dinner, feared he was about to faint, was about to excuse himself when, suddenly, he found himself gazing not at the author but at the woman who had left him. Her image flickered and shimmered. She did not speak, but her ironic, lopsided smile, usually so fleeting, was fixed to her face, embedded deep in her blue eyes. She was wearing, disconcertingly, nothing but an old shirt of his that she had loved. When it became too worn out for him to wear any longer, she had begged it from him as a keepsake. As her image solidified in his gaze, his eyes sought out the frayed collar and the split in the left elbow where the fabric had thinned with age. He blinked but she stayed, constant, behind his eyelids, the tail of his shirt barely skimming the tops of her thighs.

"I have taken up too much of your time," he said abruptly to the author, and fled, feeling the drag of her disappointment as an obscure regret.

This stayed with him, a shadow on his days, a bruise upon his heart, and instead of dissipating it became more and more concentrated until it sat in the centre of him, as dense and dark as a newborn star. He would contact the author, he told himself, drop a line via her publisher with some allusion to Angola calculated to remind her who he was and tempt her into replying. But he didn't do it. He knew the feeling inside him had nothing to do with her. And, faced with his silent phone and empty inbox, he had no idea how to make it go away.

One night, as he waited for his wife to finish in the bathroom, maddened, in this moment of inactivity, by the sensation of the void inside him, he raised his left arm and stuck his hand into the whirring blades of the fan above their bed. His wife, exiting the bathroom at the same moment, found her robe sprayed with blood and bone splinters from the spinning mangle of blades and hand. Her scream, his blood on the painting of Venice he had given her one birthday, were the last things he remembered for some time.

* * *

The hand could not be saved, but nor was it entirely lost. It continued to exist in a region of ghosts. Often, when he was thinking neither of the woman who had left him nor his lost hand, the two would conspire together to play tricks on his memory. From somewhere beyond the clinical wastebin and the hospital incinerator, the index and middle fingers of his left hand would experience again the sensation of being inside her, of dabbling in her juices and touching the muscle ribbed walls of her vagina as if they were the surface of an undiscovered planet. His nostrils would fill with the smell of her sex on his skin, his ears with her muffled sobs of pleasure. Tears would leak from the corners of his eyes into the corners of his mouth and his wife, full of compassion for his injury, would measure out his next dose of painkillers and antidepressants.

He never spoke the name of the woman who had left him, not even to himself.

He had expected to relish the discoveries she promised him, yet found that what he most wanted was to lie in her arms and talk to her. His stock of erotic arcana, his gags and handcuffs and first edition of Alan Moore's Lost Girls remained in their locked chest while he fed her olives and slices of mango and stroked her hair and listened, rapt, to her views on cats, Mozart, Abstract Expressionism, bread-baking, the beauty of the human foot. He felt, somehow, that these views were also his own, that they had been, like the Earth of the Book of Genesis, without form, and void, until she put them into words.

* * *

"Don't despair," urged the brisk prosthetist, strapping a confection of metal plates and hinges to the stump of his wrist. "It won't look like this when we've finished."

Despair. sespoir. The condition of being outside hope.

"Sybil!' he exclaimed, snatching back his wrist, so the prosthetic clattered into her lap."

"My name's Claire," she told him, expressions of bewilderment and shy pleasure chasing each other across her face.

"Wise woman," he added by way of explanation, though Claire didn't look as if that was what she wanted to hear.

It was simple. All he had to do was something which would locate him inside hope, or hope inside of him.

An island, she had said. However many islands there were dotting the face of the planet, the number was finite, the search possible. Telling Claire he had changed his mind about the fitting, he demanded that his wife drive him home and, when they arrived, climbed, without a word, up to the loft.

Though frustrated by his slowness and clumsiness as he rummaged through the detritus of his life that had washed up there, as if on the tide of some purifying flood that had once raged through the rest of the house, eventually he found the globe. He tried to wedge it under his arm, but could gain no purchase on the curved, shiny surface and kept dropping it. Eventually, he threw it down to his wife, standing anxiously at the foot of the ladder, before climbing down after it.

"What on earth do you want that for?" she asked.

He had no answer to give her. As a rule, he was open with her about his women, and equable about the lovers she had taken over the years. But for some reason, he had never told her about the woman who had left him, and now, he realised, gazing at her across the Arctic waste, it was too late.

"To complete something," he said eventually, raising his stump and sweeping it around the curve of the globe his wife held to her breast. He watched the challenge die out of her eyes, to be replaced by a kind of determined resignation which he admired, and felt an affection for that he couldn't express.

Shutting himself in his study, he placed the globe in the centre of his desk and spun it, then, after a few seconds, put out one finger to still it. When he lifted his finger, he found it had obliterated, exactly, an island in the Pacific Ocean called Tikopia. Shaped like the hook a man might wear on the stump of his wrist in place of a hand, it was in the Solomon archipelago. This, then, was where his quest would begin, he told himself, feeling the thrill of departure course through him, mixed with a chill of foreboding. The precision of his obliterating finger unnerved him. If islands were so easily effaced, what of the lives they supported? The seal fishers and coconut growers, the pearl divers and hoteliers, the policemen, the governors in feathered topis, the musicians and weavers of spells? The woman who had left him? The hope in which he must travel?

* * *

And now, standing here on Tromelin, watching the boatman stow his things, what of hope? What of her? It is three years since he left his home. The tender flesh of his stump has toughened, puckered around its scars, so it resembles nothing more now than a bolster made of hard, shiny leather. His beard is grey. The back trouble that used to plague him after long hours at his desk has resolved itself, but he suffers instead from the aftershocks of malaria and dengue fever and has nightmares about the island histories he has made his own. Sometimes he is the last man to leave the observatory on Lonely Island, all the instruments in his charge perfectly calibrated but the final, unfinished sentence in his log scrawled off the edge of the page, in red ink. Sometimes he is the captain of the Itasca, standing off Howland Island, raking the empty horizon with his binoculars for Amelia Earhart, who never comes. He wades through seas thick with blood and whale blubber, through scrub nailed with prickly pear, the buffets of tsunami waves and the rubble of melting glaciers.

Around eighteen months ago, he thinks, he received an email from his wife to say she had left him.

He has been assiduous in his search, as is his way. Among the wetsuited Mermaids of Jeju, his eye sought the familiar contours of her body as he shucked clams. He listened for her laugh among the penguins of South Georgia and her sighs in the winds called Calima and Fen-Feng, Nigeq and Habagat, and wondered which of the many skies that he passed under most resembled the blue of her eyes. In the entire three years, he can count on the fingers of his remaining hand the number of seconds of hope that have been afforded him, islands themselves in vast, indifferent oceans of frustration and disappointment. Bubbles interrupting the smooth surface of the deflated airbed.

* * *

On the flight from Madagascar to Paris, he falls into conversation with a woman. She is French. She has been in Africa seeking inspiration for her interior design business. When she asks him what he has been doing, he shrugs, mumbles something non-committal and refills her wine glass. Suddenly, in the ordered world of mechanical logic represented by the aircraft, his quest makes no sense at all. He has wandered erratically over the surface of the earth, carried, like a lost bird, by its winds and tides. Has he even visited every island there is? What is an island anyway? What can there possibly be in common between, say, Sri Lanka and Deception Island, sitting like a battered horseshoe in the ice-pale Antarctic Ocean? Between the world's largest island, Greenland, and Taongi Atoll, a few slivers of waterless rock that scarcely interrupt the Pacific's indigo flow? If islands are all linked beneath the sea, do they exist at all? When the woman who left him said she was going to an island, she made herself infinitely elusive and he knows, now, that he never would have found her. Weighed down by his new knowledge, that works like a drug on his brain, he sleeps. In his dream, he has his left hand again, and in it he holds hers, but whenever he tries to capture the exact feel of her small fingers linked in his, or curled into his palm, their hands are washed apart by waves.

Rooting in his pocket for his passport at Charles de Gaulle, he discovers the Frenchwoman has slipped her card in there. He considers it only briefly before tossing it into a passing cleaner's refuse sack. He walks through the crowds thronging the airport, touching no one, catching no one's eye, alone in his skin, in search of the onward flight that will deliver him back to the island he came from.

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