The chemistry of suspicion; the bitter taste of endurance. These are the constituent parts of my life. Or were, until I found the sweetness of love again with my new wives, after the last one decided she was no longer for me and placed my belongings (meagre as they were), outside another hut.
There was no storm when the ship stranded. A brisk breeze was blowing, I was told later, but I never saw it. I was asleep inside the life-jacket locker in which I had hid for three days.
I have an instant memory of the impact as we struck the reef – I recall a booming, shuddering crash, I recall sliding forward fast on my bed of lifejackets (so far, so comfortable), before cracking my head against a steel rib on the inside of the locker. I must have been knocked out cold.
The crew of the ship was fractious; this much I knew. They also drank a lot. This I had made out from spying from within my hideaway-hole. I had an array of ventilation slats in the cupboard door to look out of, and I could see these guys weaving around the deck, often blind drunk. I imagine this was their routine on the way to their fishing grounds - where, I suppose, they would get down to some real work.
I once saw an altercation between three crew members and an older, shorter man, one with an assumed air of authority – I presumed him to be the captain. A reprimand from the older man turned into a bit of pushing and shoving, which then lurched out of view, and ended in the soft whumps of bodies tumbling onto the deck.
That was a temporary world. My new world seems more permanent. Now, I don't believe I will ever leave this island. It seems no one ever has - or for at least a few millennia.
So the drunken ship strikes coral. When I come to in the morning, I see the crew staggering to a beach, making their way along the reef, carrying the dead captain with them.
I see them being met by men from the island, with a single woman in front of them. The people are tall, dark-skinned, almost naked, and quiver with fear and aggression; though the woman appears calm. The woman offers the men from the ship something from a large shell – the men sniff, it then knock it aside – the warriors immediately fall on them, kill them, bludgeoning them, and impaling them with wooden lances, and without pause bury the men in shallow graves in the sand, except for the already dead captain who they leave unburied.
The torpor of a tropical day resumes. Seabirds begin to peck at his body. I decide to lay low. I am able to eat from the galley of the now-deserted ship, but keep out of sight. The islanders do not come out to the ship, though they make exploratory trips out into the lagoon to look from a distance, in small dugout canoes.
On the second day, two military helicopters arrive, one lands on the beach near the dead man. The downdraft of the rotors exposes the other buried men. The other helicopter stays circling above. The islanders stay hidden.
On the beach, beside the landed helicopter, men in overalls scurry about. The bodies of the crewmen are recovered. The helicopters leave.
Three weeks later, running out of food, bored and lonely, and though fearful, I decide to go ashore. Mine must be a more peaceful approach. I have the advantage of seeing what went wrong for the crew. Obviously, how I handle the woman out front, and her vessel, is important.
I was so intent on keeping my footing in the coral, in the knee-high surge of the surf, that I was unaware of them – unaware, that is, until I stepped on the sand, and only then had the luxury of looking up. And saw thirty men and one woman balefully barring my further approach. (I learned later this was the half of the island’s entire fighting force. They have a policy of only committing half their warrior men to any confrontation, or otherwise uncertain situation, to always maintain a reserve. The other thirty men, the Elbow Men as I learned later they are called, were no doubt watching from within the dark line of trees. The women behind them.)
I fixed on the woman instantly. She was standing in front of and to one side of the warriors. She held a large shell horizontally in her hands, filled with a liquid I later learned was a mixture of her own breast milk and urine. This I came, much later, to understand, is powerful medicine for prophesying. She is able to read ripples in the surface of the liquid, and calls to the men what will happen, what must happen, and it is their custom to trust her implicitly.
The woman is chosen not for any particular wisdom or standing in the group, simply because she happens to be lactating at the time. By custom, it is best if she comes from a marriage with one of the men in the other troop, left behind.
Similarly, her child is cared for by a breast-feeding mother from a marriage within the groups of out soldiers. This is how things work on the island, one of their many complicated traditions I have been learning, these past eight years.
The people didn't kill me. Later, my first wife tells me it is because of the red plastic bucket I am carrying. It is their sacred colour. And perhaps, because they thought they had already killed everyone, for me to survive I must be special. Also, she laughed, I didn't appear threatening. But mostly because I handled the telling-shell so well. Or at least adequately.
When the woman proffered me the shell, I simply stood still and quiet, and looked intently at the liquid inside. This, by luck, was the right thing to do. And so I became part of the group; part of a small band of people almost forgotten from the world.
At the edge of the coconut trees on the island's other side, I find a collapsed sign, face down in the sand:
STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE North Sentinel Island,
an overseas territory of India. This sign erected by the
shore party of an official surveying team
Government of India
Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory
And in the time I've spent here hence, no-one has come. A helicopter flew over the island soon after the great wave that swept away the other village. The men stood on the beach shaking lances, and loosing arrows at the thuddering beast. The women, children and I were forced to hide inside the remaining huts. The helicopter left; and has left us unmolested ever since.
How am I writing this? I’m not. Or I was at first – I had taken pens and paper from the ship – but they have long since gone. My first wife burned them, thinking my writing was a sinister and unhealthy activity. She made it clear to me (and all this while I was still learning the language), that men are expected to provide some practical expertise to the group.
So I became their armourer. I brought back files and a workbench from the ship, and all the tools I could carry. I fashioned bits of iron into spear heads – the first these people had ever seen. I became useful. There’s now nothing resembling pen or paper on this island, so have I re-started my chronicle with carved chapter headings in the bark of a tree outside our hut.
My second wives (each with a child from me, and one more coming), do not seem to mind. Or perhaps they overlook this, now I have status. The scrawlings in the bark are simply reminders of big events on the island. The rest of the story – all the details – I have committed to memory.
How did I get here? It was my dreams that did this to me, that lead me to this lost island. From amongst the teeming masses of the biggest city in India, I was one among millions hopeful, dreaming of a better life, a job beyond being a chai-wallah, a life that could encompass a wife and children, a life like on TV. A life possible, perhaps, in Australia.
So I stowed away on a ship. The rest you know. The crew of the fishing boat were killed. Their bodies were taken. I salvaged tools and metal. The ship was blown over the reef by the big wave, and now lies in the trees, some way inland. It provides an endless source of metal.
My files and tools have long since blunted, and now it takes me many days to make one spear head. Mostly I do it by hammering with a mallet on the old vice I still have.
But I have all the time in the world it seems.
(It is true that North Sentinel Island is an overseas territory of India; that the people of that island have killed those who have landed there, and have forcibly resisted integration; and that the Government of India has decided to leave them alone. The rest of this story is fiction.)