The atlas was out of date, badly stained and worn but he eventually discovered the island when he flicked the compressed and mummified remains of an insect from the blue expanse of the Indian Ocean. The island was underneath.
“I’ve found it,” he said loudly. “It’s a dot.”
There was no answer from the kitchen and he knew by her silence that she was still fuming.
He had one last look, trying to calculate the distance from the island to the nearest mainland, before putting the atlas back in the bookshelf.
His wife was standing at the sink washing a saucepan.
“It must be miniscule,” he said.
She lifted the pan from the suds, turning it this way and that and then put it back in the sink for more scrubbing.
“You might as well dry,” she said. She sounded disinterested but he knew it was an order rather than a suggestion and he dutifully picked up a dishcloth.
“Absolutely tiny,” he mumbled.
She stopped scrubbing and stood motionless at the sink , her hands in the water, saying nothing, staring through the window at the big strelitsia leaves. They were moving to and fro in the hot dry wind, waving, she imagined, a warning. A rumble of distant thunder rolling in over the parched land filled the silence.
“I don’t want to hear about Abracadabra,” she said.
“It’s called Abadabra,” he said.
“Whatever it’s called; I can’t believe you’re even considering it.”
It was his turn to feel angry, convinced in himself that if he did go it would be for her benefit as much as his, for the benefit of the whole family. It was not a jolly; it was work.
“Howard says I would earn nearly double what I was earning in a year, tax free. We could buy a new car or pay off the mortgage. God knows, we need the money.”
“I like our car,” she said.
“It’s nearly ten years old,” he said. His tone suggested the car had committed an unpardonable sin, grown old while their backs were turned.
They argued for the rest of the evening and went to bed grumpy with each other and perplexed by life’s choices. In the morning they ate breakfast and avoided the subject. He hugged his two young sons, kissed his wife and went into town. When he got there he told Howard he was happy to go.
“How does Mary feel about it?” Howard asked cautiously.
“She’s not very happy.”
“I didn’t think she would be,” Howard said. “Four months is a long time but it is good money, no doubt about that, Piet. She must see that. You could buy a new car.”
Two weeks later Piet Lourens, a professional game ranger, a man in the prime of his life, was a passenger on a plane from Johannesburg that landed at Mahe airport in the Seychelles at four o’clock in the afternoon.
There was a long delay at customs, as he knew there would be, because he had a .375 H & H Bruno rifle in his luggage.
“You could stop an elephant with this thing,” the customs man said, fingering the weapon with the curious mixture of excitement and reverence many men exhibit around guns.
Lourens nodded, filling out yet another form. He had stopped many elephants with the Bruno during the course of his twenty-year career. It was not something he was proud of, or that he liked to remember.
“What on earth do you need it for?” the customs man asked.
Lourens shrugged. “I was told to bring it,” he said. He was still puzzled by that himself, wondering what animal on the tiny island could possibly be big or bad enough to deserve the brutal impact of a .375 bullet. But for him the rifle was a tool of the trade, like a piano tuner’s fork or a plumber’s wrench; just having it along gave him a measure of professional comfort, so he hadn’t queried his instructions.
There was a man waiting in the arrivals hall, holding up a small chalkboard with his name on it.
“Second trip today - I was here this morning picking up Dr Sinclair,” the man told him on the drive into town. “A really nice lady,” he added.
“Lady?” Lourens asked. “Dr James Sinclair?”
The driver nodded and seemingly encouraged by his passenger’s surprise, he winked and gave a knowing grin. The greasy familiarity was enough to cause Lourens to ignore him for the rest of the short journey to the hotel. He kept his curiosity and a growing sense of alarm to himself.
There was a note waiting for him at the reception desk asking him to join Martin Hinkle and Dr Sinclair for dinner at seven.
He went up to his room, sat on the bed and debated whether to phone Mary. He picked up the handset and put it down again, wondering how he could tell her that his colleague and companion on an isolated and uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the next four months was a woman from England. He looked at his watch, calculating what time it would be in South Africa, whether it was a good time, whether she would be busy with the kids, whether there could ever be a good time for news like that. After trying out several imaginary dialogues he picked up the phone again and dialled his home number. It rang six times and the answering machine kicked in. He left a message, telling her he’d arrived safely, asked her to give Leon and Hansie a hug, and he left it at that.
He showered, changed and went downstairs to get his bearings, ending up at a bar nestled in the lea of a granite boulder the size of a house, almost on the beach. The sun was squashing itself against the horizon like a giant egg yolk, oozing red and yellow streaks, but there were still people on the sand, children splashing at the edge of the darkening sea. He sat on a stool at the bar and ordered a beer.
“Mr Piet Lourens?”
Martin Hinkle, the director, was a small man with thick glasses and a cheerful sunburned face.
They exchanged light chit chat for the next half hour, talked about the tiresomeness of air travel, the beauty of the spot they were in, the comfort of the hotel, loved ones left behind, and they even bemoaned the terrible state of the world’s economy. As if by an unspoken agreement neither of them brought up the subject of the island.
“Goodness, it’s almost seven,” Hinkle said.
Hinkle had reserved a table by the window and from his seat Lourens had a clear view of the entrance. Men and women, as couples or singles, trickled in and he inspected each woman with a keen interest that would certainly have been noticed by Mary and would have infuriated her had she been there. Hinkle nattered on and in the midst of the monologue, looking for a moment squarely at his host to be polite, Lourens missed the arrival of Dr Sinclair. She was standing by the table when he did see her. Even then, in that first brief instant as he looked up, it didn’t occur to him that the young woman smiling down at him, holding out a slender hand, was a distinguished marine biologist. He immediately assumed she belonged there, someone employed by the hotel to deflect complaints with an engaging smile and unassailable beauty.
“Ah, Dr Sinclair,” Hinkle said, standing up.
Lourens stayed seated, stunned. When he did get up, he nearly knocked his chair over.
“Jamie,” she said.
Lourens nodded dumbly, forgetting to say his own name momentarily. Her hand, when he took it, was as small as a child’s.
“Piet Lourens,” he said.
During dinner his surprise and befuddlement slowly gave way to rising anger. He heard Hinkle describing the many and spectacular academic achievements of Jamie Sinclair, the youngest doctoral marine biologist St Andrews University had ever produced; he heard about the articles, the two books, the work with sharks and octopi, the awards and plaudits, even a National Geographic television series that was in the offing. While she blushed and smiled, moving morsels of seafood around her plate, interjecting inconsequential or self-deprecating remarks, all of it seemed irrelevant, incidental to her beauty. It was her youth and beauty, or rather the circumstances of that, which intimidated him and made him angry.
Hinkle paused to sip his wine and then turned his attention to Lourens’ short resume.
“Piet is one of the most experienced game rangers in Africa,” he said emphatically.
He said a little more. He mentioned in passing a bachelor’s degree in zoology, but dwelt more especially on the circumstances surrounding the medal Lourens had received for rescuing a colleague from the jaws of a four metre crocodile.
“He died soon after anyway,” Lourens said.
He hadn’t meant it to sound cynical but the effect was that and it created a small hollow space in the conversation.
Hinkle became more business like, detailing the plans for their trip to the island, noting that the full inventory of equipment had been assembled, and describing the nature of the accommodation they would find when they got there. They naturally had questions on a wide variety of matters and he answered them all and at the end, when it all seemed done, he answered the question that neither of them had asked.
“You won’t be completely alone. There is a work crew busy with a structure for the government, eight or nine men, some kind of weather station, I think. They’ve been there for the past two or three months but they’re on the other side of the island and won’t interfere with our project in any way.”
Lourens was relieved to hear there were other people in Hinkle’s Eden, and yet there was a small part of him, a residual silly shadow of his teenage self that was disappointed.
When dinner was over Hinkle suggested brandy but Sinclair declined and wished them goodnight. They watched her go and only when she’d left the restaurant did Hinkle speak again.
“I was a little euphemistic calling the men on the island a work crew,” he confided to Lourens. “They’re a labour crew certainly, but they’re technically convicts. Absolutely nothing whatever to be alarmed about, all petty stuff, I gather, but I thought you should know.”