Wouldn’t you love to be cast away on a desert island, to bask on the pristine sands of a palm-fringed beach, lulled by waves lapping your feet, a gentle breeze swishing the trees, far from the madness, with nothing to do. You think you would like that, don’t you?
It happened to me.
Not long before the invention of mobile phones, I lived for four years in Papua New Guinea. We were miles from the coast, but occasionally, my husband’s work took him to a town by the sea, and I always went with him. On one of our earliest visits, I was sitting in a café when a man approached me.
‘Me Simon,’ he said.
He told me he had a boat, and offered trips round some nearby islands, including an uninhabited one on which we could spend a few hours and snorkel around its coral reef. We would have to give him money for the fuel, that was all.
It sounded a pretty good deal to me. I said I would come on the following Saturday, and bring Tom, my husband.
We packed a picnic of sandwiches, pineapple slices and lots of water, threw in our snorkeling gear, towels, sun-cream and a couple of books, then we headed for the shore. Simon was waiting for us with his boat, along with another young couple from America.
‘America, him where? Him belong Australia?’ Simon asked them, but he didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Americans, em good fellas, em fight em Japs. Dis fellas, em no good true, em cut down all sugarcane belong me fellas.’
Simon opened a can of beer, he started up his Suzuki outboard motor and we set off.
When we came to the first island our escort slowed his engine to a purr. ‘Dis fellas, em no good,’ he said, pointing to the shore. ‘Em rubbish people. Em buggerrup place belong em. Too much rubbish.’ He tossed his empty beer can into the sea and thrust the motor into full speed.
The second island we visited was Simon’s own. His large extended family ran down to meet us with laughter and whoops of delight, and pulled our boat ashore.
‘Now wait,’ Simon said, stepping out. ‘Me like show you fellas something.’ He ran up the beach, disappeared inside a grass hut, then re-emerged with a gold-plated picture-frame. Behind the glass was a letter. ‘Dis come long man belong Mrs. Queen, Prince Philip,’ he explained. ‘Him come long time before, long big fella boat belong him. Him he must blow up coral reef long bring boat long beach. An’ him sit down long beach an’ him story story me fellas all day. Me fellas happy true. Then him go, an’ him send dis fella letter belong say thank you thank you, an’ 400 Kina. Big fella money. Him good fella true.
‘A’right, you me go long island he got no people, now. Him he got plenty good coral. You fellas can go snorkelling.’ We set off again.
The island was as beautiful as anyone could wish for. A magnificent sweep of pure white sand lay between a turquoise bay and a palm-fringed rainforest. Beneath the clear blue water was the promised coral reef. We had arrived in Paradise.
The four of us paddled ashore, and Simon left us there for the afternoon.
We ate our picnic, then plunged into the lovely water and swam over the reef.
What a spectacular sight it was! Coral was not new to me, but it never ceased to astound me. Not even Disney could dream up the glorious Technicolor of this watery wonderland: the zinging lemons of the angel fish, the electric blue flashes of the neon damselfish, the comical orange stripes of the clown fish, weaving their ways through the fingers of coral.
We stayed in the water until our skins shrivelled. Then we stretched ourselves out on our towels. Tom started discussing American politics with the other couple, but I didn’t want to listen, not in Paradise. I picked up my towel and moved a slight distance away. I laid back and relaxed to the rhythm of the waves washing the shore.
I woke to a tender skin and a parched mouth. I reached for my water bottle and drank greedily until there wasn’t much left. The white glare of the midday sun had softened into a gentler yellow light. I looked at my watch: quarter to five. That was good timing; Simon would be back soon. It had been lovely but I would be ready to leave. Tom was sleeping. I didn’t disturb him, but took one more quick dip to cool down. Then I came out and got our things together.
‘Hi, is it that time already?’ Tom asked, drowsily. ‘Where’s my water?’
I was feeling hot again already, so I ambled up the beach to find some shade in the trees. It was cooler there, but there was nowhere comfortable to sit. Army ants were everywhere. I noticed the Americans had strung up a hammock between two branches. They were all right, Jack. I went back to the beach, sat on my towel and got out my book.
‘Simon’s late,’ I called out to Tom, who seemed to be transfixed by the waves. ‘It’s after five.’
‘No, he isn’t, not by Papua New Guinea time.’
He was right, of course. No one was in a hurry in this country. I still wasn’t used to it. Yet here was an excellent opportunity to chill out and take in the timeless beauty of this Paradise that we were so lucky to find ourselves in. I had to make the most of it. After all, I used to dream this very dream as I sat at my boring old job in Britain.
A soft band of gold had settled on the horizon. The Americans emerged from the trees. They had packed up their hammock.
‘Hi, it’s been gorgeous here, hasn’t it?’ I called over to them.
‘It sure has,’ they answered, sitting down at the water’s edge to wait.
I was feeling thirsty and there wasn’t much water left. I wondered how much longer Simon would be. I decided to get up and look for a coconut. If I could find one that had fallen recently, with luck there would still be milk inside. I searched the high tide line where the beach met the trees, but all I found were dry cracked shells. It was the green coconuts that contained milk, now that I thought about it, and you had to climb up and pick those. Little boys here could scale palms like monkeys. But I knew I never could, nor Tom, and probably not those Americans either. And even if we did manage, how would we get into the coconut? It took quite a bit of hacking to crack open a shell with a bush knife. Did we even have a penknife between us?
I returned to my towel. The gold on the horizon had intensified and some red had crept in beside it. Shadows were getting longer. My watch said ten to six. The sun would set at six, and then we would have dusk – for some minutes – it gets dark quickly in the tropics. Where was Simon? No one was expressing concern yet. Was that because they weren’t worried, or because they didn’t want to appear worried? Or did no one want to be the first to admit we had a problem?
What if Simon didn’t come back that night? OK, we’d sleep on the beach. Or at least, Tom and I would. The Americans had their hammock, lucky sods. At least it wouldn’t be cold, but the sand was not that comfortable, and what about wild animals? And what would we drink? We had to collect rainwater – except that it probably wouldn’t rain.
We would get hungry too. Before we left Britain, a friend had said he envied us but he would miss Bounty Bars. I thought that a pretty stupid remark at the time. Why would you want a Bounty Bar when you could have the real thing?
I would have welcomed a Bounty Bar just then. And a cup of coffee. Even machine coffee would do – in a plastic cup; I wouldn’t mind. I used to complain about it at work. What had I been thinking about?
What if Simon never came back at all? How long would it take them to find us? Did anyone know where to look? I supposed we could make a boat, or a raft, but what with? It was all right for Robinson Crusoe; he had a ship’s worth of supplies. We wouldn’t know which way to go either. There was no other land in sight. That ruled out swimming; that and the sharks.
I looked over at the American couple. They had told us they were Peace Corps volunteers, here to show Papua New Guineans how to grow vegetables. As if they needed to know. There again, we might.
Perhaps this was going to be more like ‘Lord of the Flies’.
For a minute, the sky turned a fiery red, then the sun slipped through a cluster of silhouetted palms across the bay, and left us in a violet dusk. It should have been lovely.
No one had said anything yet, but Tom was biting his nails. In a minute I would go and sit beside him. We would have to face facts: we were stranded. But first, I needed to calm down and gather my thoughts.
Please Simon, come please! I didn’t just want to return to the mainland. I wanted to go home, to boring, but safe and predictable Britain. I wanted my old job back, and I would never complain about anything ever again. If only I could get away from there…
Silly me! What a worrier I was! There was the boat rounding the promontory and chugging steadily towards us. Simon had come back, as we always knew he would. We waded out to meet him.
He laughed. ‘Me forget what island you fellas on.’
As we climbed in he passed round beers from a copious crate, already half empty. So that’s where the petrol money had gone. I drank my beer in one go. Aahh, I needed that.
‘You like island a’right?’
‘Yes, thank you, Simon, it was wonderful.’
There was just enough light left to guide us back to the mainland.
‘Do you know what I feel like right now?’ I said, as we stepped out of the boat. ‘A nice cup of tea, British style!’
‘Let’s go to that place over there,’ said Tom, pointing to the café where I had first met Simon. It was now a mere shadow against the blackening sky, but lights twinkled along its verandah, as if to welcome us back.
As I pushed open the door I saw a notice hanging next to it, which I hadn’t seen before. It said, ‘ON NO ACCOUNT SHOULD YOU GO WITH SIMON IN HIS BOAT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!’