Small Island by Chris Green
I am walking our cocker spaniel, Trevor on Gold Dust Hill when we come across the stranger. Trevor spots him first. He is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts, so at first I imagine the shadowy figure in the distance is a hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland offers. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs, and Trevor can tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls.
Milo keeps telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers, but he has been away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.
‘I won’t be on my own,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have Trevor.’
‘A fat lot of good Trevor will be when you are faced with a battalion of bloodthirsty rebels,’ he says. Sometimes Milo’s outlook verges on paranoia, but it looks as if he may have got it right this time. Although perhaps he has overestimated the scale of the threat. The lone figure is ambling towards us, rifle cocked. Have I got the right word? Is cocking something that you do with a rifle? Whatever, it’s still a man with a rifle. And cocking or not, he’s getting closer.
‘Run, Trevor!’ I shout.
The stupid mutt starts running towards the sniper. At times like this, I wish I’d continued with his obedience classes at Sit Happens.
‘Not that way, Trevor,’ I call out.
I might be pushing fifty but I can still manage a canter if need be. The problem now is we’re heading in the wrong direction for the car park, but I dare not double back.
When I feel we are a safe distance from the ridge where we caught sight of the sniper, I get the phone out of my shoulder bag. My heart is racing. Trevor is now barking furiously. He can smell my fear. How on earth are we going to get out of here? It’s no good phoning Milo, of course. Even if he were to answer, he would just rant and rave about me going up on to the hill despite his warnings. Not that he’d be able to get here, anyway. He’s out of the country on business. Most of the people I know live in Richmond which is a good ten miles away or Freeport which is even further. In any case, most of them would probably be tied up at this time of day. People have work to do or people to see. I decide to phone Doobie. He will be able to get here quickly, and he is streetwise. Unconventional certainly, but resourceful.
Within a matter of minutes, Doobie, his long straggly hair blowing like Bob Dylan’s answer, arrives in a curiously customised Jeep at the arranged spot along the dirt-track lane by the derelict grain store. Crashing guitar chords ring out from an improvised onboard speaker system. I don’t believe that this is Bob Dylan. Thrash metal, perhaps. Or nu-metal. Whichever, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of music on Iescos. The Rolling Stones are still considered to be new kids on the block here. I have often wondered how someone who draws so much attention to himself as Doobie does can get through life in such a cavalier fashion without requital. But he appears to do so. I believe it is called hiding in the light.
I lift Trevor into the vehicle and jump in beside him. With a spin of wheels, we speed off, hopefully out of danger.
‘What was happening back there, Nattie?’ Doobie says. ‘You seem a bit shaken up.’
‘There was a gunman coming for us and Trevor was running towards him and …….’
‘Slow down, will you, Nats? You’ll give yourself a heart attack.’
‘But he had a rifle and ….. ‘
‘Oh, I wouldn’t get too alarmed about that,’ he laughs. ‘If it was a sniper, he’s not going to waste a bullet on you. Ammunition is precious when you are a renegade in hiding. You worry too much, Nattie, you know that? Time for a cold one at Mojo, I think.’
Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in experimental cinema. We met at a screening of a Leif Velasquez film in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz online magazine, and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few exhibitions together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’
To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweeds and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with the Error 404 t-shirt. Who or what is Error 404? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got around to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along.
The recent uprising was a bit of a joke. Most of the rebels were rounded up within twenty-four hours. Iescos is a small island and because of this it has since its colonial days been relatively easy to govern. A few of the more enterprising insurgents escaped capture and most of these headed this way, the cover of the hills providing a treasury of hiding places. As it was such a shambles, I’m not sure that mastermind is the right word here, but nobody I have spoken to seems to know for sure who the mastermind behind the uprising was.
Around two hundred ill-equipped rebels stormed the government building and imprisoned the government officials. To announce the change of leadership to that of a popular co-operative and to manage the flow of information, they took control of the radio station and the press. What they overlooked was that hardly anyone on the island listens to the local radio station and even fewer read the newspaper. This is the internet age, even on Iescos. Unfortunately, there was not a skilled webmaster among the band of insurgents. So, unaware that we had to acknowledge a change in fortunes, we all went about our business as usual. By the time the rebels realised what was happening, or in this case not happening, outside help was at hand. GCHQ had already processed the information and, almost before the uprising had started, a pair of British boats were in Freeport harbour. The freedom fighters who were not captured by their former colonial oppressors took to the hills.
We pull up outside Mojo. It is almost buried beneath lush vegetation. It looks like a former colonial trading post. As we make our way through the greenery, we are greeted by colourful adverts for exotic herbs, hummingbirds, parrots, livestock, alligators and two-headed snakes. Island Sweet Skunk and Gurage Khat. It appears you can buy anything here. Or in Doobie’s case, it seems you can just help yourself. He ushers me inside to the darkened interior, Trevor at my heels. He directs us to a table, nods to a shadowy figure behind the counter, takes two glistening bottles of Sol Original out from a giant peppermint green fridge and places one in front of me. Clearly, he is a man of standing in these parts.
‘The gin here is fresh too if you would like one in a bit,’ he says, pointing to a still, visible, despite a beaded curtain, in the corner. ‘And duty-free.’
We settle into a conversation about the complicated topography of Iescos, all the peaks and promontories, twists and turns, ridges and rills, swales and dingles. Or in plain language, the ups and downs.
‘Although Milo and I have been here for three years and the island is less than forty miles across, I still get lost,’ I say. ‘Even with satnav. Some roads are little more than tracks or paths and even out in the open there are next to no road signs.’
‘The road signs all but disappeared in the uprising,’ he says. ‘One of the rebels’ tactics.’
‘This is why I take Trevor out on to Gold Dust Hill,’ I say. ‘It’s an easy journey from the house and it has a safe place to park the car.’
Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs. He knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have a clue how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I did not know that places like this existed.
‘Most of the people on the island never make it out of the towns,’ he says.
In breaks in our conversation, I overhear the murmur of two men in conversation at a nearby table. They are speaking in their native tongue. It is something that you could easily miss, in fact, it is Trevor who draws my attention to it, but their conversation seems to be interspersed with occasional utterances of Milo’s name. Trevor’s ears prick up and he gives out a little yelp each time that Milo’s name is mentioned. He misses Milo. At first, I wonder if the pair might be referring to a different Milo. Or perhaps Milo or something that sounds like it is a word in their language. But when Doobie goes off to speak to someone at the bar, I distinctly hear one of them say the name, Milo Lorenz. He repeats it several times. No doubt then that it is my Milo. This is disconcerting. What connection could they possibly have with my husband?
I look around discreetly, anxious not to draw more attention to myself than I might already be doing. I am aware that a lady dressed in country clothing as I am might look out of place in a bar like this. A lady of any sort might look out of place. Except possibly a lap dancer. This is a male domain. I’m not at all comfortable that Doobie has brought me here. The lightness of the atmosphere earlier when we were sipping our Sol Original has vanished. Dressed in torn fatigues and baseball caps, the two men don’t look like the kind of associates I would expect Milo to have. They would not fit easily into the world of commerce. For one thing, I don’t imagine that you are allowed to spit on the floor in the meetings that Milo goes to. But, it occurs to me I know little about what Milo actually does and he is around so infrequently that there is not much opportunity to find out. I do not believe that he has been home now for nearly a month, in fact, he hasn’t phoned for a week or so.
The longer Doobie spends talking to the sinister man at the bar, the more nervous I become. They have sneaked away into a corner of the bar and I am unable to see what they are doing. The two men on the table behind me now have raised voices. They seem more menacing by the minute. I call over to Doobie, but he completely ignores me. I have a bad feeling about what might be happening here. What if I have been lured into some kind of trap? What if they are all in on it? What if I am being kidnapped? It is perhaps not the conventional way of doing it, but then there has been nothing conventional about today. They might be using me as a way to get money out of Milo. I take the phone out to give him a call but, predictably, it goes straight to voicemail. I can no longer see Doobie. He has disappeared.
Trevor begins to bark. One of the men at the table, the one with the scar running the length of his cheek, mouths something guttural at him. The other man, the one with the dental problems, then addresses me threateningly. He spits. I don’t understand Iescan but I think I understand the gesture. It is aimed at me. I am not welcome. I look around me for support. There is none. I am scared. I get up quickly and go over to where Doobie disappeared. I push open a door, Trevor following at my heels. We go down a couple of wooden steps and find ourselves in a murky room. Parrots call out as we enter. There is an overpowering aroma from a pot-pourri of herbs and spices, tarragon and eucalyptus, coriander and nutmeg. It is like a bazaar. Shelves are stacked with a dizzying assortment of strange artefacts. Trevor is spooked by the two-headed green snake that peers out from its glass tank. Next to it in another glass tank is a writhing congregation of baby alligators. Are those bats circling overhead? Or are they large moths? This is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sign of Doobie.
I backtrack and along a corridor find another door. I push it open. This is a much larger room. There are no parrots. No two-headed snakes. No alligators. Instead, dominating the space and looking completely out of context is a Heidelberg offset printing machine. I do not know much about printing, but this looks like a serious piece of kit. Although it is not in use, it appears to have done its job. Stacked alongside it are bales and bales of printed material wrapped in polythene, newspapers, posters, flyers. I move in closer, brush the dust off the nearest pile and take a look. To my alarm, they have Milo’s photo on. President Lorenz, it says. So do the other bales. President Lorenz? What on earth? Is this some kind of joke?
It gradually dawns on me that Milo must have been the one behind the failed uprising. This must have been the takeover that I heard him talking about in those clandestine phonecalls late at night. This would explain why he hasn’t phoned me. This must be why his phone is off. He must be in detention somewhere. This will be why I was being spat at in the bar. I can see straight away why the plan might have failed. Milo’s big problem is that he never thinks things through. He has an idea and thinks that this is enough; the job is then done. Not that Milo would have made a good president, anyway. His politics are too fickle. He has a low boredom threshold. One thing one day, the opposite the next. He would have been quickly overthrown.
But why haven’t the authorities contacted me? And why has Doobie brought me to this godforsaken place?
As if summoned, Doobie sidles into the room. His aura seems to have darkened a little.
‘There was no easy way of telling you, Nattie,’ he says, apologetically. ‘When you called me, I wasn’t sure what I should say. Not a lot of people in respectable circles realised who was behind the uprising. And it was seen as important that they didn’t find out. We’re no different here on Iescos than anywhere else when it comes to secrecy. The fewer that know the truth the better.’
‘I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.
‘You wouldn’t have believed me anyway,’ he says. ‘So, I thought it would be best if I brought you here and let you find out for yourself.’
I am about to point out that all the people here seem to know about Milo, but, I think I am beginning to get it. After all, the peasants here in the interior don’t have a voice, do they? They don’t have access to one. Nor will they have. The printing press is shut down for now.
‘So, Doobie. Whose side are you on,’ I say.
‘Sides, Nattie? I don’t do sides, Nattie,’ he says. ‘I’m too smart for that.’
‘I put too much faith in people, Doobie. I always expect to find things how I left them. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of surprises. From now on, I’m going to see which way the wind blows.’
‘I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved