It was 6.30 a.m. when I heard a hammering at my door.
I quickly dressed and shouted for Alun to come in. He was clearly agitated.
“We’re at war Jed,” he said.
War? Was he referring to the argument we had last night about who would have the last carrot? It was a bit of a squabble at the time but I thought we’d agreed to sort it by the toss of a coin.
“What war?” I asked cautiously.
“The war with Shepherdless Island,” he said.
“Shepherdless Island?” I said puzzled, “but nobody lives on Shepherdless Island.”
“Not now Jed,” he said, “but there used to be. I’ve been looking at the historic documents.
As the island’s doctor Alun had much spare time, me being his only patient, and had taken upon itself to study the history of the island. He was slowly working his way through the entire collection of papers that described every detail of the island's history. To date, after five years' hard study, he had found nothing of any interest.
“Look at this, look at this,” he enthused and I picked up the faded, fragile sheet of paper, clearly an extract from an ancient diary.
“Tuesday 5 April 1803: Today I declared war with the island at 6 degree north. The fisherman who lives there caught one of my fish and refused to hand it back.”
“There you have it in our own official history, a declaration of war against Shepherdless Island. And there’s no papers ending the war, so it must be ongoing. We’re still at war Jed, 200 years later the war’s still going strong.”
I looked again at the entry.
“It doesn’t say it’s Shepherdless Island anyway,” I said, “are you sure that it’s at 6 degrees north?”
“I checked with my compass Jed, I did, I checked with my compass. Here, look.”
We marched outside to the northern edge of our domain, where our mortal enemy, the rugged shrub of land we called Shepherdless Island could clearly be seen.
“Look, that’s six degree north, nothing there, but Shepherdless Island is at 8 degree north so it must be the one, there’s nothing else anywhere near. They had very poor compasses in those days Jed.”
He was right, there was no other island anywhere near. Shepherdless Island must be the island we were at war with.
“So what do we do?”
“Well, we’re in a state of war Jed and that can’t be allowed to continue. War can bleed any island of its manpower and its money and there were just the two of us to begin with. I’ve written up a peace treaty. If you could just sign here.”
I read through the treaty, which formally ended the war begun over two hundred years ago, albeit in slightly wearisome language. I signed and Alun added his scrawl.
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad that’s over, it was stressful being at war.”
“It’s not over yet Jed,” he warned, “only one party has signed. We need Shepherdless Island to agree to the treaty.”
“But nobody lives on Shepherdless Island,” I said.
“No body, no, but there is a goat, I’ve seen it. All we need is the goat’s hoof print on the treaty to make it official.”
It was decided to end the affair there and then. We got ready the rowing boat we kept for emergencies just such as this. I took charge of the oars and Alun took charge of the navigation.
“Over there,” he shouted, pointing his finger towards the island.
It took just a few minutes to reach the island. The goat was easy enough to find, as it was standing on a hillet eating some gorse bushes, a type of shrub not known on our island.
“We come here in peace,” Alun said, brandishing the treaty. The goat ignored him and continued tearing into the gorse.
“It’s ignoring us Jed, it’s almost as if the goat doesn’t want peace.”
“Maybe it’s just hungry,” I suggested.
“Well we came here for peace and I’m not leaving without it. We’ll have to force the goat to sign.”
He directed me to stand behind the goat so that I could hold it down while he grabbed the front paw and dabbed it onto the treaty.
The goat was no bigger than a sheepdog, but lithe and tough, and I was conscious that it would have a strong kick on its hind legs. I grabbed the whole of its body and lifted it up, so that its front legs were in the air and it wouldn’t be able to kick with its back legs. However, although it couldn’t kick I had little control over it and it wriggled and struggled like a wild goat in the final battle of a two hundred year war.
After a minute or more struggling mightily, the goat broke free from my grip and ran off, knocking Alun over onto the mud.
“The treaty Jed, he’s eating the treaty.”
Sure enough there was the treaty in the goat’s mouth and as we were looking the goat chewed and the treaty disappeared.
“This is war Jed, he’s eaten the peace treaty!”
We went back home to plan our strategy
“All we need to do to win this war Jed, is to plant our flag on Shepherdless Island. That’s the internationally recognised symbol of victory. Once our flag is flying the island is ours, we’ll have won the war.”
I’d forgotten we even had a flag.
“So shall we go back and put it up then?”
“Not now Jed, not now. This needs a covert operation, we’ll go back tonight, under the cover of darkness.”
That night we returned to the boat, dressed head to tail in black. Alun had further disguised himself by smearing his face with mud. I assume it was a disguise, though he is sometimes lax at washing.
I rowed as quickly as I could. Alun carried the flag and the stick it was attached to, along with a hammer to knock the stick into the ground. The whole expedition was a carefully planned military operation.
We arrived back at the island without incident or problem.
“No sign of the goat,” whispered Alun.
We clambered out of the boat and Alun found a nearby hillet on which to plant the flag.
However, before he could so much as raise his hammer, we were ambushed.
The goat sprang from nowhere, a blur of hair and goat-stench knocking Alun flying. Before we even knew what was happening the goat was eating our flag.
It was in dire mood that we sat up that night drinking turnip wine in Alun’s kitchen. To be fair the turnip wine is so foul it’s usually associated with dire moods, but this was as glum a day as I remember in my entire time on the island.
“They’ve won the battle Jed, but they haven’t won the war.”
“They?” I asked, “you mean there’s more than one goat?”
“The residents of Shepherdless Island Jed, no matter who or how many there are. We need to develop a war strategy. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“Yes Jed, I’m proposing a War Tax. Every resident of the island is to pay a one off tax of £30. Together this will raise a War Budget.”
“A War Budget? What could possibly cost £60?”
“Arms Jed. We’ve tried every possible peaceful solution, we’ve no option left. We need to take the island by force. I propose buying a gun from the boatman and ending the conflict once and for all.”
“Oh how futile war is,” I moaned.
“Aye Jed, it tears my very soul that it has come to this, our peaceful, harmless community contemplating bloody, savage, brutal annihilation of neighbouring lands. But it’s the only way to bring a two hundred year conflict to an end.”
After a vote it was agreed to set a £30 war tax which was duly collected.
We both rose early to meet the boatman the next day.
“Guns?” he said, “what be you wanting guns for?”
We told him.
“War,” he pondered the word carefully, “ain’t been no war in these parts for a hundred years. Sommit don’t seem right to me, never heard of no war.”
“It was two hundred years ago, years before even you were born.”
“Even so, I’d expect to know, there’s not much about these islands I don’t know. I’ll bring you your gun this afternoon, about tea-time, but bring the historic documents, I want to see the truth of it.”
We met as arranged, around tea-time. The boatman handed over an old service revolver, big, heavy and effective.
Alun showed him the historic document. The boatman pondered it carefully.
“Thought so,” he said, “this ain’t Shepherdless Island, it says 6 degree north, Shepherdless Island’s 8 degree north.”
“But it’s the only island anywhere near,” Alun protested.
“True, s’only island there now, but 200 years ago,” he pointed in the direction of 8 degree north, “that would be One Man Island.”
“So where’s One Man Island?” I asked.
“Flooded over, hundred and fifty year’s ago.”
“You know what this means Jed,” Alun burbled excitedly, “we won the war. We won the war.”
“Well, I’ll be off,” said the boatman, “that’ll be 60 quid for the gun.”
“We don’t need the gun now,” I said, “the war’s over.”
“A deal’s a deal,” Alun and the boatman both said together.
“See it as an investment in peace Jed, with our armaments none of the islands would dare to threaten our domain.”
All the way home Alun gloated “We won the war, we won the war,” but I couldn’t help feeling that we had unnecessarily expended vast sums on a war with an island that had been sunk long before we were born.