Jeremy Clarke

The death of my desert-island fantasy

The coral was a bleached ossuary, the trees dead, dying and burnt

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I was on the back seat of a golf buggy being driven down to the marina from my beachside villa through grossly exotic tropical gardens. From the many seaside and sporting activities the resort had to offer, I had opted this morning for the ‘island adventure’. I would be whisked away by speedboat and deposited on a desert island to snorkel or relax, then picked up again two hours later. Driving the buggy was a tanned, virile-looking young man with short hair. Smoking wasn’t allowed on the island, and I was dying for a fag. Sticking to my theory that people with short hair must always be told the truth, I leant forward to ask him if he minded if I had a cheeky fag on the way down.

He was one of those busy, ultra-civilised personalities with about five motivations to my one. I think he had quickly intuited that my pay grade was roughly that of an illegal immigrant in a cash-only nail bar. ‘Nobody has ever asked me that before,’ he said. ‘I’ll make a call and find out.’ He speed-dialled someone owning greater authority and without preliminary courtesies put the question. The answer was no. On arrival at the marina I would however be permitted to stand in a place designated by my driver and smoke my cigarette if I kept the butt with me and put it in a bin. The buggy driver reported this back to me as if it were a rare concession from the top.

At the marina he yanked on the brake and we both baled out and he pointed to a spot on the asphalt next to a newly cultivated flower border. Why I had to stand here, rather than anywhere else, was a my-stery. He went inside the marina buildings to prepare my safety equipment and I duly obliged by lighting up and standing obediently on the square foot he had indicated with his finger. When I had finished the cigarette, I extinguished it between my fingers rather than sully the asphalt or the flower border stones, then I carried the stub in the palm of my hand into the building, which turned out be a wet-suit and diving-equipment allocation centre.

In here I was briskly issued with a snorkel and mask and a sealed plastic drum containing emergency rations and phone. There was also a foil blanket and, I think, flares. Then he handed me a lightweight hooded swimming costume called a ‘stinger suit’ to prevent my being stung by jellyfish. Finally, I had to read and triple-sign a two-page waiver absolving the resort of all responsibility in the event of my doing anything silly or controversial leading to the injury or death of myself or a third party or parties. I couldn’t see a bin anywhere so kept the cigarette end in my palm throughout this process.

Now laden with my emergency waterproof barrel, my stinger suit, my snorkel and mask and my daypack, and grasping the cigarette butt between finger and thumb, I followed the buggy driver out of the building and along a wooden jetty, where he guided me with a light hand as I stepped down into the speedboat, then helped me on with my life jacket.

The sky threatened rain and a stiff breeze was whipping the water into short-lived white-topped waves. ‘Because the weather isn’t great,’ he said, ‘today we will put you off on the more sheltered side of the island. Not so pretty but the snorkelling is just as good.’ And with that he switched on the outboard engine and steered the craft out of the marina towards the open sea. Once clear of the marina, he opened up the engine and I hastily abandoned my naive seat near the prow for a drier one in the rear.

The island chain’s tree cover was recently devastated by a cyclone. Acres of trees were torn away and in other places they remained as bleached skeletons. Above sea level, the darkening sky and wrecked island-scape was killing my desert island fantasy, but I kept it alive with expectations of possible coral gardens and colourful fishes enduring beneath it.

Less than ten minutes later he throttled down, steered the boat into a cove and bade me hop off the prow on to a bleached ossuary of dead coral piled up in heaps in a gloomy cove. The cove was backed by dead, dying and burnt trees. After vaguely indicating a point close to the shore where I might snorkel, and warning me of a law against removing shells from the beach, he whipped the boat around and sped off. Still clutching my cigarette end, I squatted on a rock and watched him disappear around the point. Then I flicked it rebelliously into the sea and meditated on it bobbing there for quite a long time.