The Rubbernecks (excerpt)

(first published in Quadrant magazine, January 1994)

We came upon the island of Moracea in the late January of 1769; craning my neck in the prow of The Visitor, I could make out the tallest crests of euphorbiaceous foliage: spurges with their flowers cupped in conspicuous bracts like china teacups in malarial green saucers, cassava plants and poinsettia with showy scarlet shields for leaves, cascarillas - whose bitter aromatic bark a sailor might use as an ingredient in a tonic after a night clinging to the mizzenmast, where he has been chased by the belligerent (or sexually ambidextrous) Mr Alexander, medical officer. We had come to these latitudes to witness the transit of Venus, an astronomical marvel which was to occur in that year. Mr Barnabooth, our astronomer, was in fact trained principally in astrology; his comments on the matter of the transit were at best incomprehensible: he would mumble something about "the brief insurgence of the feminine principle", "the eclipse of the constant by the changeable" and other such nonsense until we could stand it no longer, tying him up in his hammock and trailing him over the side of the boat for several leagues. From a distance the entire island was visible, though the resolution was poor: at what distance, I wondered, might the product of the two, scope and resolution, be optimal? The mutable, the protean waves molded themselves tightly around our vessel as we slid into a snug harbour, made fast the sails, set anchor. To slide snugly, To mold themselves tightly, perhaps there is something of a sexual metaphor (but every topological motif is considered sexual in these unfortunate times) in my description? but I anticipate my own story which, though it need not be told chronometrically, might at least be told chronologically.

My first encounter with a Moracean occurred in the first minutes of our disembarkation. I saw - I thought I saw - a ruddy face peep out from under a rock; lean, suntanned, with a flattened plane running down the middle of his nose, as if he had run headlong into a pane of glass. His irises were black, and it seemed some of their colour had seeped into the surrounding sclera which were a very light tan, the colour of sand. I felt - somehow - as if I were peering into a murky mirror, for the face mimicked my expression exactly: caution, surprise, suspicion and finally an uncomprehending blankness; and the wrinkle in the corner of the mouth, and the single eyebrow bent in numerous places like a pig's tail or an inverted mordent, were my very own idiolect. I blinked and the double was gone; and (I considered) it must, in any case, have been a trick of the light because there was nowhere on this immaculate beach front where the hinder portions of his body might have been hidden. There was simply no place to conceal an arm, or a leg, let alone a chest or solid abdomen: the sand itself was as level as a horizon, and the jungle proper underwent the transition from nothingness to impregnable density in the space of half a foot: if that was where the young fellow (and I felt sure that he had been roughly my age) had stowed his body, I should have been unable to see more of him than an ear or the birthmark in the dimple of his chin. Perhaps I might have thought more of this at the time, except that the dusk was beginning to congeal and thicken about us, tents had to be pitched, firewood secured and dinner spoiled before dark. Mr Barnabooth intoned an ancient Oriental blessing over his portion and then after a moment of contemplation, tossed it to one side. Provisions, like small children or animals, have a way of wandering off into the distance at the slightest provocation, and I was set up as a guard at the front of the quartermaster's tent (in fact, a quartermaster on a navel vessel is generally responsible for navigation, but Mr Castle our captain had once been in the army, and his increasing age and forgetfulness had to be humoured).