Here is Kevan’s receiving his trophy from Becky Edgington, and, below, his winning entry.
They Call it a Soursop
By Raoul Fluke
The island is not quite that of my six-year-old self’s drawings – semi-circle over pointed waves; shining sun; one palm tree, set at a jaunty angle; sometimes, one stranded man. Possibly a treasure chest – but it doesn’t always seem wholly dissimilar. Definitely no treasure on this one however, but the sun does insist on being inexcusably hot (during the day, at least; when it disappears it takes every bit of its warmth with it, like a party guest who ensures their unconsumed bottles leave with them) and there are actually a few palm trees. One could I suppose, apply the term ‘desert island’ without ridicule. And here, there is also that one stranded man although mercifully, he does not sit on the slope of the semi-circle alone.
Our time here began as a result of a series of events more suited to a survivalist novel or overblown, overlong film featuring “a tour-de-force!” from a Hollywood darling, designed scene-by-scene to clean up when awards season rolls around. At least, I think it did. We both remember very little of the crash. There had been no word from the pilot or anyone else. The stewardesses were in the aisles, with marionette smiles gleaming. The first clue that anything was wrong was as clear an indication as one would need however; the sickening, undiluted certainty that the plane was dropping from the sky. A split second of assuming we were hitting turbulence, then a deep, violent, bowel-troubling shudder which felt very much like an engine losing all power. Using the moments that followed as evidence, it would be entirely sane to think that it was indeed just that. Everything was fine and, in a beat, nothing was. The stewardesses stumbled and fell. I do recall noting, with a perverse amusement, that one of them seemed to keep hold of that false smile for several seconds, even after hitting the floor. You pay a little more for a seat with a leading airline, but you can’t put a price on that level of professionalism.
One of my earliest memories is of getting horribly sunburnt, and failing to comprehend the searing pain that would erupt over the next couple of evenings as my father rubbed lotion onto my arms and legs. We had been wandering around a county show – you know the things; livestock, farm machinery and stalls selling cider, cheese and knitted clothing – for hours, and my parents had neglected to put any sun cream on me before strapping me in the pushchair for the day. I thought about all the pain and the heat and the confusion of that incident – unconsciously, then more clearly – before I opened my eyes on the island for the first time. At first I thought that I had been returned to the evening following the county fair and, through the pain and heat, felt elation at having so much of my life ahead of me; a childhood to have another stab at, an adolescence that need not be dominated by frustration, anxiety and humiliation. I dared to open my eyes just a little and instantly, I was transported to the other end of my life. I knew that something bad had happened, and assumed that the white light that poured agonisingly into my retinas was my introduction to the afterlife, whatever form that may take. “Walk into the light,” the cliché goes, but how was one to approach a light so punishing, so mercilessly intense? I wanted nothing more than to get as far from its source as possible. One incomplete thought was replaced with another, and another as my brain rapidly made adjustments to absorb the reality of my situation.
I tried to move my arm and that day at the county show came back again. My skin rubbed against itself like two facing pieces of sandpaper. I grit my teeth and rolled laboriously onto my back. My skin nestled into the sand and the pain was an unbearable concoction of heat, scratching and muscular aches that forced me immediately back onto my front. My shirt had torn and wrapped itself around my midriff like a raggedy cummerbund – Robinson Crusoe chic? – and I lay there in the sand, baking and blistering in the sun for who knows how long. Once I had regained sufficient capacity for rational thought I came to realise that lying there for any longer could be nothing but detrimental and, suffering momentary blindness from the sunlight (walk into it), set about getting to my feet. I didn’t quite manage it on the first attempt, but did get to a sitting position. I had a look around and, for the first time since awaking, had a chance to gain some understanding of my situation. With palm trees and other outcrops of green, the otherwise relentlessly white beach felt far from barren but was still, and silent, save for the gentle slapping of soft waves against the sand. I strained to look to the shoreline and saw something that did not fit into the picture I was building at all – a huge, bright, bloated yellow carcass bobbing ever so gently against the water. In my only half-functioning mind (if that; I was probably working at around thirty percent, tops) I was looking at a beached animal. Was there a species of whale such a bright yellow? Surely not. A lemon shark, perhaps. In my head I chuckled a little at this, before realising, deflatedly, that I did not know whether or not my brain had just made a joke. I did – and do – not know what a lemon shark looks like, or even if their name is derived from any kind of yellow hue they may or may not be gifted with. Even as I brushed aside the thought, I saw the yellow mound for what it was, and some memory of the crash (marionette smiles) returned. Sitting a few metres from where I sat was an inflatable life raft, a dinghy. There’s no doubt a particular term for the type held on planes but I did – and do – not know what that term is, so life raft will have to suffice. Of how I managed to get from the thing to this spot on the beach I was unaware, although this mystery was low down on my immediate list of priorities. I needed to find some shade.
Somehow, it wasn’t until I had hauled my scorched self up the beach to the merciful shade provided by a friendly tree that I noticed her, cooking away in the sun just metres from where I had lain. A child, facing up into the unforgiving sun and blood. There was blood, soaking though her jeans and staining the colourless sand with its anger. I moved quickly, and dragged her up the beach to the tree, which was every bit as generous to its second visitor of the day as it had been to its first. Her face was as burnt and blistered as I knew my back must be but she was breathing. The bone was jutting out into her jeans and I could see it; it had not torn through but the denim tented outwards just below her knee, and the angle at which the leg below it lay seemed to complete the puzzle. While the material had retained an admirable integrity however, the terrifyingly vibrant shade of red that soaked the girl’s lower leg ensured that the jeans were ruined. After what may have been an hour under the tree and a few splashes of salt water in the face, she opened her eyes.
Her name is Charlie, she is thirteen and she had been on the plane with her parents for their first holiday abroad together. I gave her time to take it all in and to grieve, just as I had had that first few minutes on the beach alone, and I was awestruck by her remarkable resilience. After just minutes of tears, howls and staring out to sea, Charlie looked at me and said, through gritted teeth, “what’s that?” She pointed towards the shoreline.
“It’s the…you know, the life raft,” I told her.
“Oh…you mean slide raft,” she croaked. “The ones on planes are called slide rafts ‘cause they work as slides if the plane crash lands on land.”
I frowned at her. I wondered whether I should remind her about her parents, but instead brought her attention to her ruined jeans, which she had yet to notice. The shock of what she saw seemed to get her more than any actual pain but we began talking about other things – anything really, that was not related either to her leg, her jeans or her newfound orphan status – and she seemed to at least partially forget about it. She had been an only child and lived in Tacoma. She liked ‘80s adventure films, ice hockey (watching and playing) and female-led punk bands and hated Harry Potter, combat sports and Justin Bieber (on the latter she offered up a lengthy diatribe detailing how the singer was nothing more than a marketing tool designed to sell sex to children, and that other kids only liked him because they were told to, and because they had yet to be exposed to “real” music. It was a point I found difficult to oppose). Like me, she had been flying from Seattle to Sydney, but where I was travelling on business, she was to spend a week exploring the city with her family. I had to think that she would have had the better time.
I made a splint for Charlie’s leg (under her instruction) and left her beneath the good-hearted tree while I went to look around. Before darkness hit, Charlie had fashioned two astoundingly sturdy crutches, we had found what could almost pass for a cave and we were eating freshly-picked guavas. As far as first days stranded with little hope of rescue go, it had been a pretty good one. Nevertheless, we did hold out hope of being rescued, and spent much of the second day out on the beaches, searching the skies. I had wrapped Charlie’s leg using the remains of my shirt and she was surprisingly mobile, although her wound still bled. We found avocadoes (not to Charlie’s liking), more guavas and a large, spiky fruit that had, once we had removed its numerous hard seeds, a surprisingly creamy texture and not unpleasant taste. On the third day, my cigarette lighter (which I knew I shouldn’t have brought on the plane with me, but was something of a lucky charm; I had quit two years ago) had dried out sufficiently and that evening we huddled in close to the fire, both silently relieved that we would not have to share our body heat tonight (uncomfortable for me; outright disgusting to her). Charlie explained to me in detail the rules of ice hockey and educated me on the music and history of a band called L7. I tried to reciprocate and tell her about my interests, but after skipping over Neil Diamond, snooker (watching and playing) and reading up on historical warfare, I realised – with no small degree of alarm – that I really didn’t have many passions anymore.
We played noughts and crosses in the sand but Charlie declared it a “bore” after beating me for the twelfth time in a row. She hardly talked about her parents and when she did, it was with a somewhat detached melancholy, as if they had died years ago, not days. Her strength of mind struck me again and again. I wondered if it suggested a tough upbringing, although none of her stories even hinted at any real struggles in that department. We sat in our cave and played word association games and Charlie would cackle with laughter when my middle-aged brain could not keep up with her mile-a-minute mind, rolling her head side-to-side on the stone wall behind her.
In the morning of our fourth day together, I had to confide to Charlie that our strict fruit diet was beginning to take its toll on both my strength and my bowels. She grimaced, but admitted that she was feeling similar effects. She was also beginning to run a temperature, and so we decided to try our luck in the water. It was the cleanest, clearest sea water I had ever seen, and there were plenty of fish darting around my ankles. Charlie made the first catch – of course she did – and the second and the third, despite hopping around with one crutch and thrusting her sharpened stick haphazardly into the water. For every considered thrust I made with mine, Charlie would make four or five, and it was working. I watched as she danced around, stabbing wildly downwards and laughing and realised that we had become friends. Were we still certain that help would arrive? Surely we didn’t think that we had some new chance at life out here. Being around a child had made me let go of my ingrained habits, my grown-up’s obsession with the future and we began to really enjoy being together on the island. That night, we sat at the fire and ate fish. We didn’t talk much, but would occasionally catch each other’s gaze through the tips of the flames and smile. Charlie’s wound was still not healing.
* * * * *
It was the tenth day on the island, and I returned to the cave with armfuls of fruit. I sat silently, eating and staring out at the sky until the stars stared back.
“We’ll be alright,” I told Charlie, but she didn’t respond and I knew she wouldn’t. She hadn’t responded in days and she hadn’t moved and I knew, and I knew, and I’d known for all those days and for several before that but I couldn’t have told her, and I didn’t want it to be real.
By the third day it had been clear to me that the wound on Charlie’s leg was infected. Tough as ever, she insisted it was fine, and genuinely believed it, I think. The spreading infection barely seemed to touch her on the fourth day when we taught ourselves to fish. The wound simply was not healing, and by the fifth day Charlie began to get feverish. She was experiencing episodes akin to panic attacks, which continued overnight and into the sixth and seventh day. She did not eat. She clutched her stomach and was making a low, pained sort of braying sound which, on our ninth day together on this island, stopped.
Aside from its ongoing reluctance to provide treasure, the island feels now just like the ones adorning pages of my childhood sketch pads. Right down to that one man, alone and staring out to sea.