The Poisoned Island: extract

Below is an extract from my second novel, The Poisoned Island. You can find out more about the book here.

ONE

She comes! – the GODDESS! – through the whispering air,
Bright as the morn, descends her blushing car;
Each circling wheel a wreath of flowers entwines,
And gem’d with flowers the silken harness shines;
The golden bits with flowery studs are deck’d,
And knots of flowers the crimson reins connect.—
And now on earth the silver axle rings,
And the shell sinks upon its slender springs; 
Light from her airy seat the Goddess bounds,
And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden’, 1791

TAHITI, 1769

Near the foot of great Tahiti Nui, in the shadow of the dead volcano and beneath the hungry eyes of ancient gods, the young Englishman chased his princess through the forest, despite the best efforts of the forest to stop him. The dipping branches of trees slapped his face and arms. Damp leaves, drenched in the mountain’s tears, were heavy on his face, like wet green clothes hung out to dry. The sun had come up after the rain storm and joined the gods to watch proceedings. The air was warm and liquid.

The Englishman’s breath was loud but steady in his ears, strengthened by countless rope exercises on the deck of his ship, just one of the many ways he’d filled the endless empty days of his voyage. His bare feet, strong and leathery after weeks on the island, felt solid and sure on the slippery earth. He had stopped concerning himself with the crawling and slithering creatures underfoot.

The princess (favoured by the gods) said nothing as she ran, and neither did he. Both of them breathed and breathed and breathed, their lungs in counterpoint, three of her inhalations to two of his, her waltz to his march. On every third breath, she exhaled a little sigh, and the gods sighed with her.

The chase was in its final stages. It hadn’t started in this grim silence punctuated by sighs. When she had first leapt up and started to run from him she’d squealed the same delight- ful girlish squeal he’d heard so many times before. She’d bubbled with laughter and he did, too, as he’d set off after her. The other Englishmen and the island women seated around the tents had laughed along with them, the men cheering heartily as he crashed into the green wall of trees to follow his escaping quarry. Her laughter had seemed to fill the forest, as if the island itself was joining in on this tremendously spirited romp. Above them rose mighty Tahiti Nui, its smoke long extinguished but its memories as enduring as the sea.

She’d shouted to him a few times as the chase began, and he’d recognised several words in the local tongue, with which he’d made pleasing progress. You cannot, he thought he’d heard. I am fast he was sure about. And No no no was as clear as day, and he’d laughed at that again, laughed at her games and her delightfully arch modesty. He knew it to be a masque. Was it not just what those charming London courtesans had said on that cherished fishing trip with his Lord S—. They too had lifted their skirts and run away, ankles dappled with mud, eyes sparkling and full of hidden knowledge, the game all part of the essential transaction.

In any case, this coquettish flight was certainly not in keeping with the island’s delicate intimacies. He was sure of that.

They ran like that for some time, laughing and shouting at each other, but at some point the nature of the chase had changed. Her laughter had died. His continued for a while, but it became forced and then it too ebbed away, replaced by the grim metronomic breathing, the liquid trees, the slapping, muddy feet, the little royal sighs of the princess. Then they were only running, breathing together, the wet sound of their bodies crashing through the undergrowth silencing the forest creatures around them.

And as the Englishman ran, his certainty grew.

No more. No more of this. No more teasing and cajoling. The other women of this island have given themselves freely and often, both to me and to my men. They have moaned and sighed and stroked and played, while this one has shared only caresses and the occasional chaste kiss. She knows I want her. I believe she wants me. What is this escape, but the need to find seclusion and privacy for our final consummation? She wishes to be hidden from the eyes of her retinue. Well, let her have her ways. And let me have mine.

His self-assurance grew. So did his desire. He felt he could chase her all the way to Venus.

The ground began to climb, and even with his heart pump- ing in his chest and the sweat bursting through his skin he knew where they were. They were running south, into the heart of the island, where water cascaded down into pools and birds circled. The trees would start growing ever thicker as they climbed away from the human places and into the green jungle, the place where only priests and their adherents ever went. The place where, the Englishman had been told, the Arreoy sanctified themselves with the blood of babies.

Her breath, he could hear, was beginning to sound ragged, and almost without thinking he slowed down. His arousal was by now at a delicious plateau. There would be no refusal. But the pursuit was pleasant and he wanted it to last.

A sound of water close by. They were near one of the many falls. Up ahead he heard a shriek and then a splash, and then he was into the water, and he had her.

She wriggled and scratched like a fish with claws, and for a moment his certainty faltered. Why so steadfast? Does she not indeed want this? Perhaps whatever faith she has precludes it? He considered this for a moment, even as he held her around her middle and felt the sharp angular rocks at his feet, one of them biting into his ankle and tearing the skin. He felt his blood in the water and the water in his blood, and he laughed and shouted because of the magnificent feeling of being alive that now encased him. Like a bear with a salmon he climbed up the other bank and onto the shore line, where she collapsed onto the ground and he began to unbutton his fine Covent Garden breeches, stained green and brown with his time on the island.

She said nothing for a moment, watching him. Her fine colourful robe, the mark of her nobility, was wet against her skin, and her dark shining hair was flat against her head. The flowers with which she’d decorated herself were gone, washed away down the mountainside by the stream. Her skin – my God, her skin – glowed like butter before a fire, wet and bright and alive. He congratulated himself on his refusal to accept no as her answer. Every pore of her, every fibre of her hair, every shining droplet of water on her hot, soft skin, spoke of desire. But then, as he stepped out of his breeches and prepared to lie on top of her, she spoke, in his own tongue.

‘No, Joseph. No.’

The words were flat and shockingly tuneless, with none of the melody of the local tongue in them. He noticed her breath- ing, how it was still dancing along in three-quarter time with that persistent little sigh. There was, for that moment, no doubting the woman’s meaning. For a second time he hesi- tated and his rational self seemed to emerge from the wet trees to find him there, his fine breeches round his ankles and his gentleman’s cock high in the air. That self shouted at him, pleaded with him, and its voice was the voice of his mother. He could almost smell her old perfume, and hear her high, tissue- thin voice, and it told him to stop, now, stop, before everything changed forever.

But there was never a chance of that. This was a man of action, of determination and most of all of will. This was, above all, a young man whose appetite for women was already the subject of scandalised rumour in the drawing rooms of England. He roared like a bear again, laughing delightedly at the princess lying on the ground (who must, after all, desire him for she did not struggle, only breathed that odd little rhythm), and he fell on and into her.

She had made no new sound as he’d taken her, other than that precise little pattern of breathing and sighing. When he rolled away from her she did not move. Her eyes looked to the sky. Her chest rose and fell. He stroked her face, smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead, frowned in irritation and mild con- cern at her silence, and then he slept and dreamed. In the years that followed and across the thousands of nights in which she haunted him it became impossible for him to unpick the real from the dream.

In his dream she stood and walked away from him, her damp robes falling to the ground, her black hair unrolling down her back as she went. His dream-self woke up and fol- lowed her close behind, respectfully this time, although even here the desire was still present, impossible to ignore. It was as if their previous relationship of visitor-and-monarch had been restored. She walked along the side of the pool, then she climbed – or rather, in this dream state, she seemed to float – up the rocks which lined the waterfall. He clambered after her, heavy and clumsy and lumpen (he would grow heavier and clumsier the older he got, the years fattening him as his belly grew as enormous as his reputation, but the dream would stay with him). By the time he reached the top she was already disappearing into the trees. He followed her once more, occa- sionally glimpsing her as he struggled to keep up.

And then, she began to sing.

He recognised neither the words nor the melody, and he’d made a careful study of the islanders’ music. What she sang sounded different from anything he’d heard, a complicated melange of tones and whistles, and after a moment birds began to sing in the trees around them. And here was something to thrill the heart of a voyaging explorer: the birds were singing along with her. They harmonised, they made counterpoint, they embarked on thrilling little rills which ran through and around and into the princess’s own song, like crystal water flowing into a blue pool.

He came upon the hilltop clearing suddenly, emerging from the green just as she stopped singing and the birds, one by one, ceased their accompaniment. He picked up his pace now, some new urgency coming over him, but she stopped, finally and completely, her glorious back to him.

There was a crackling wooden sound then, and the ground around her came to life. Tendrils of green burst upwards and wrapped themselves around her feet, her calves, her thighs. Her hair burst open with green light and fire, and her back began to elongate and spread itself up towards the fresh sun- light. Her fingers twisted into twigs which curled out from the branches of her arms. Shiny ovate leaves appeared all around these branches and twigs and then, with a final crunch of wood and bark, her shape disappeared within the new-yet-ancient body of a small, elegant tree, perhaps fifteen feet high, its canopy a neat, shining triangle which caught the brilliant sun and reflected it in a symphony of green, her legs fused into a single straight trunk.

He woke up beside that Pacific waterfall. Only Tahiti Nui, its gods and the sun remained to watch him as he stood and dressed. The princess was gone.

THE THAMES

A nondescript ship containing wonders arrives at the mouth of the Thames estuary on a dull June morning in 1812. England is not looking her best to welcome the ship home. The estuary is certainly capable of splendour, if the time of day is right and the sunlight hits the damp air at the correct angle to split itself. An artist might perform miracles at such times. If the Navy was mustering on the Nore, well then, such an artist might even see something transcendent.

Not today, though. Today, the edges of Kent and Essex are indistinct things, and though the day is warm the air is heavy and damp. An artist wishing to paint today would need bring only browns and greys and an air of disappointment.

The new arrival is called the Solander. She takes her name from the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander, who charmed London in the last century with tales of his great voyage to Otaheite. Solander’s loyal friend Joseph Banks had given the ship her name and had sent her away to follow the same track he and Solander and their captain James Cook had sailed, back in the mists of legend.

Given her distinguished name, the Solander’s wonders are of an appropriately botanical kind. Hundreds and hundreds of plants from the paradise island of Otaheite have been planted in pots and barrels throughout the ship; her insides have been refashioned to accommodate them, and even the captain’s great cabin and his quarterdeck have had to make room for gardeners and their tools. Every spare surface and rail and cubbyhole contains some kind of South Seas plant life, either as seeds or bulbs or seedlings wrapped in linen (which must be kept constantly damp) or small plants in soil inside half-barrels secured by the carpenters to ensure they are not disturbed by rough seas. The quarterdeck has itself been taken over by a kind of plant house, constructed spe- cially for the voyage. Captain Hopkins has made one thing very clear: each plant is to be cherished as if it were a human member of the crew itself, and the expiry of any flora through negligence will be punished by the lash. Hopkins is a hard man, though not a cruel one, and his order is observed with due attention.

As for why the plants have been brought back to London, most of the crew could not care one way or another. They are being paid well (very well, truth be told), and most of them are returning with tales of the delights of Otaheite which will make their women cringe with jealousy and rage for years to come. These women may soon be cringing for rather different rea- sons, as the infections of Otaheite return to Europe. Most of the men on board are carrying some kind of venereal disease, the blighted fruit of dalliances with the women of Otaheite who were themselves blighted by contact with European sailors. Who carried these afflictions to the island is still the subject of nationalist conjecture. The English say the French infected the islanders on their first visit, while the French say the reverse, nodding in a knowing fashion at the widely published accounts of Sir Joseph Banks himself, who fearlessly and scandalously described his own dalliances on the island.

The crew of the Solander know nothing of such historical debate. They know that Otaheite presented them with experi- ences which had been previously unimaginable. They know that they are beginning to itch. They know that the treatment will be unpleasant. They discuss these matters only obliquely, each man an island of secrets.

Sam Ransome is a not-quite-stupid seaman who is seeing the muddy and featureless estuary seascape for the last time. He carries his own Otaheite secret, as do several other men in the crew. He is up on the main yard, his slow head still full of the wonders of southern oceans, where blue-green summits had sprung up over endless horizons after the yawning weeks of waiting. Beneath those summits he had found golden beaches, blue seas, willing women and intoxicating draughts. Otaheite had risen clearly and spectacularly from the blue Pacific, its peaks shrouded in a pearly mist which only empha- sised the resolute edges of its green tree-shrouded hills. At the other end of that memory sits his immediate future: a scruffy boarding-house room, a fat woman the wrong side of forty and the constant threat of impressment or penury. Yet he aches for home, his hunger for it driven by an unquenchable thirst which has grown with every nautical mile.

For most of the crewmen, the remembered magic of home will be a short-lived thing; it barely lasts beyond the first night back on domestic shores. Within the week most sailors will be sniffing the air in a particular way and strolling down to the wharves in a meaningful fashion. The truth is that home is complicated and seafaring is simple. Hard, but simple. You do what you are told, you sleep when you are allowed to, and no one (particularly no one of a female nature) gives you unclear instructions with unknown consequences.

Next to Sam, Bob Attlee has started whistling a merry London tune which Samuel half-recognises, while Attlee’s great friend Tommy Arnott scowls into his work, his silence encasing him like a shroud. On the Solander, as on all ships, there are two types of seaman: the overweight and the skinny. Each thrives on the same rations, to the consternation and puzzlement of the other type. Attlee is fat and red; his silent friend Arnott is thin but as brown as an old shoe. Sam, for his part, is comfortably padded.

Attlee winks at Sam when he sees him looking, a theatrically knowing wink which is instantly noticed by the fourth member of the main yard crew, a despicable little Geordie called, much to the delight of his shipmates, Craven. For weeks now Attlee has been torturing the Geordie with intimations of a great secret. Sam wishes, with all his heart, that Attlee would desist; each one of those jokey winks feels like a warning shot from a marine’s gun. Craven cannot help himself, and rises to the bait.

‘Will ye be headed anywhere in particular when we get ashore, Sam?’ he asks, his disappointed eyes hungry for infor- mation. Attlee’s mouth is carved with contempt, and Sam feels the same, toying with the idea of shoving Craven off the yard and down to the deck below.

‘Away from you, Craven, is all,’ he says, and Attlee laughs at that. Even Arnott smiles.

The banks of the river close in on the Solander as she makes her way upstream. Tilbury and its Fort go by on the north shore, guarding the empty and windswept Essex marshes, where only birds keep watch. Gravesend is to the south, the Kent hills rising behind. At least a dozen ships have accompa- nied them into the river: laden colliers, a cutter on official River Police or Customs business, and a pair of substantial Indiamen headed slowly for the new docks.

At Woolwich the military river begins. Men in uniform look down onto the deck of the Solander from mighty warships, like gods gazing down on their congregation. The crew resist the temptation to shout something disrespectful up at them, lest Captain Hopkins hear them and unleash his own wrath.

The river is crowded with vessels now. They pass Galleons, and off to starboard Samuel can see the great new West and East India Docks, crammed with ships as big as cathedrals. Each of those enormous floating leviathans will only ever make three return journeys before the tide and the wind break them down. Sam’s imagination grapples with the idea that money should be so great that a machine like an Indiaman becomes itself disposable. It is a fearsome thought, the size of which is too much for Sam’s conception. His hand moves from the main yard to his side to feel for the pouch which sits there beneath his old cotton shirt. Attlee sees the movement and smirks. Craven sees it also, and files it away in some dark little place for when Opportunity presents itself.

The order comes from the officers to prepare the ship for mooring, and for the next hour the seamen on the main yard have little time to talk, their hands busy with the mindless rep- etition and urgency which accompanies any change in the state of an oceangoing ship. They pass the Hospital at Greenwich and then the Dockyard at Deptford, where more military ves- sels glower down at them. The ship’s sails come down one by one as they approach their mooring, on the chain in the river just downstream from Rotherhithe.

It takes a couple of hours to make the Solander ready for a lengthy stay; the officers bark commands, and the men work harder than they have for weeks, keen to get the work finished. Samuel works as hard as anyone; this is a rarity, for Sam Ransome is a recognised expert when it comes to avoiding hard work. The pouch inside his shirt bounces against his chest, an incessant signifier of pleasures postponed. The serpent in his belly which has been his shipmate since leaving Otaheite tightens itself and hisses, desperate to be appeased.

A flurry of lighters, wherries and barges comes alongside the ship as she is finally moored to a chain. The botanists, who have emerged from the quarterdeck plant house like moles unexpectedly surfacing into daylight, are supervising the trans- fer of the first tranche of plants from the ship to two waiting barges, which will carry the specimens down to Kew.

Around half the crew are discharged immediately. There is a crush of bodies as these men are given their papers and their pay. Samuel, Arnott, Attlee and Craven are all part of the mêlée. Sam tries his best to remain patient, but the buzz of desire within him is growing, and he can see it in the faces of Arnott and Attlee as well. They collect their belongings from below – Sam’s in a sea chest, Arnott and Attlee’s in ancient but sturdy kit bags – and then they are ready to leave the ship. Three other men join them at the gunwale: seamen Elijah Frost and Colby Potter; and Jeremiah Critchley, the carpen- ter’s mate, as blonde as a Viking, whose brown arms and enormous hands should be clutching an ancient hammer rather than the tattered little scroll which contains his discharge and the canvas bag which contains his pay. Around a dozen wherries have appeared round the ship ready to take men ashore, and the discharged crew are clambering down to them. But these six men hang back for a moment, their faces pinched with the same thirsty desire which marks Samuel. Craven attempts to join the little group, but he is shoved away by Critchley.

‘Fuck off, Craven.’

The little Geordie attempts defiance.

‘Fuck off yourself, Critchley. I’ve every right to go ashore with whom I choose.’

The tall man says nothing. All six of the men in the group glare at Craven with their suspicious eyes. Craven gives way, slouching off to find another wherry.

Samuel watches the Viking Critchley, the unelected leader of their clandestine group. He sees the tension in Critchley’s face, the same tension they all feel as they wait their turn for a boat to take them to shore. Finally it is their time and the six of them climb down, each with hidden pouches bouncing against their sides. The boat takes Attlee and Arnott to Rotherhithe first, on the Surrey shore, and Critchley speaks to them before they climb out. Then the wherry turns and takes the remain- ing four men a little upriver and across to the stairs just below the River Police Office at Wapping. For the last time in his life, Sam Ransome scrambles up onto English land. Critchley speaks to Colby and Potter and then they too disappear like the rest of the Solander’s secrets, botanical and medical, into the anonymous chaos of the metropolis. They have a favourite boarding house in Ratcliffe, while Critchley and Sam plan to seek lodgings in Wapping.

Sam and Critchley walk up Wapping Street for a while, Critchley warning Sam to keep his peace and avoid any suspicious behaviour, just as he had warned the others. Then Sam leaves Critchley for good, turning up Old Gravel Lane and away from the waterfront, the disquieting walls of the London Dock pushing him east and north. His sea chest is heavy and he is very tired, but he walks with unfamiliar swiftness, a lazy fat man hurrying to a much-postponed assignation. He turns right off the lane into a side alley and goes through the door of an ancient, nondescript boarding house. Inside he speaks to an equally ancient and nondescript landlady, who recognises him but greets him with contempt anyway. He takes out some of his pay but before handing it over he demands she fetch him something. She becomes annoyed and demurs, but he insists, holding the coins away from her, and at last she surrenders to her own need for money and goes to find an iron kettle from her kitchen. He takes it off her when she comes back, almost snatching the thing away despite its weight, and heads up the stairs.

His room is empty apart from a bed and a chair, but as promised there is wood in the fireplace. He spends twenty frustrating minutes trying to light the fire, his hands shaking, his stomach now as clenched as a hand on a sword, sweat smearing his face even though the room is disgustingly cold for June. Eventually the fire takes, and he remembers the kettle is empty. He goes out of the room and down to the kitchen to fill it with water. The old boarding-house woman looks at him from her perch at the kitchen table as if he were a particularly nasty form of cockroach which had introduced itself to her res- idence, but he ignores her. The iron kettle and the water inside it are heavy, but even so his hands shake as he climbs the stairs again, goes into his room and puts the kettle on the fire.

It takes an eternity to boil, months and years and decades of waiting. He takes a primitive-looking wooden cup from his sea chest, and then he takes the pouch from around his neck and opens it. A foreign, pungent smell instantly engulfs him, a smell full of sun and sand and trees. He tells himself to be calm, to be steady, and with struggling care he empties some of what is in the pouch into the wooden cup. He tightens the pouch back up again and places it in his sea chest, along with his bag of pay, and pushes the sea chest under the bed. The kettle is boiling, at last, and he pours the hot water onto the dried leaf inside the cup. The smell that had sprung out of the leather pouch now deepens and spreads throughout the room, and every one of Sam’s senses is ringing; he can even hear the noise of a woman laughing, presumably from out in the street. He sits on the bed and finally, deliciously, succumbs to months of waiting, pouring the hot tea down his throat and crying out as it scalds his mouth, his tongue, his lungs. But the pain lasts only a moment, and then a familiar light opens up inside his head and he lies back on the bed, a smile of bliss already slashed across his face.

THE POISONED ISLAND

LLOYD SHEPHERD 

First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013

A CBS COMPANY Copyright © 2013 by Lloyd Shepherd

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. ® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved. The right of Lloyd Shepherd to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

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