Sunday, 3 August 2008

Madman's Island

By Ion L. Idriess

I was by myself last night because I wanted to watch Richmond play Geelong with no distractions and I had to stay at home anyway because I had work to do. Anyway, Richmond got hammered, and some locals had earlier asked me to go the pub later on.

I said, “I’ve lived in this town for two years and been to the pub only five times. For a reason. I hate it. It’s a cesspool of drunken fuckwits and the chicks are bogan slappers and half the guys wear those pants that are halfway down their legs like retards and surely their mothers couldn't sink so low as to love them... but thank you anyway for the kind offer.”

But after the footy I decided to man the fuck up and go to the fucking pub ‘cos I live in a small Australian town and it's What You Do.

All the people I knew there were dancing. Ugh. I didn’t recognise the music. It was that ‘RnB’ stuff that sounds like cats dying on top of a synthesiser. So I got chatting to this nice couple I know that blessedly were not dancing, and the bloke had his sister visiting. She was a journalist, and a fucking beautiful one at that. We got stuck into the wine, and argued about Oxford Commas.

“No!” she said of the Oxford Comma.

“You can’t stop us,” I said, “Me and my fellow Oxford Commarians. We’re coming. We will pillage, transform, and revolutionise the printed word”. Ah, it was highbrow for a while... and I was thinking, "Jeez, the pub's shit but I've found a nugget of gold with blonde hair and black stockings."

But then it turned. It descended into wine-induced madness, so much so that neither of us could speak properly and the next thing I knew I was playing pool with the journalist’s brother and some bogans from Colac and then the next thing I knew I was in bed alone and the bed was spinning faster than a Sunbeam blender.

I didn’t even try to pick her up. I’m an idiot. Though a rejection was probable, I shoud have at least given it a shot. But even if I got lucky, I would have fallen off. Her.

I don’t drink very well. I like coffee and cigarettes, and ecstasy, but if there was no alcohol left in the world I wouldn’t give a fat rat’s arse.

So anyway the point of all this is that today, Sunday, I couldn't muster the energy or will to do just about anything, and that included reading the two highbrow books I’m currently devouring. So, I crawled to the local second-hand bookstore, grabbed this book at random in the ‘Antiquarian Australian Fiction’ section (attracted by the title), brought it home, put myself in pyjamas, got the potbelly going and read all 238 pages in one sitting fuelled by Lipton’s Tea, Nescafe Espresso (the green label one), a pack of Dunhills and ongoing tomato/avocado on toast.

It was a fucking ripper. Set in the early 1920’s, and allegedly a true story with only minor embellishments, the main character Jack and this other bloke called Charlie are mining prospectors who are dropped off on Howick Island (north of Cairns) to follow up a rumour that there's tin on the island. The boat that drops them off on the desolated island is due to pick them up in a month.

But things go awry.

1. There’s a little bit of tin, but not enough to warrant a mining plant.
2. Charlie, a WW1 veteran, forgot to bring his medication which causes severe mood swings.
3. Charlie secretly decided he was never going to leave the island anyway – he wants to be alone for the rest of his life.
4. The boat doesn't turn up to collect them.

Charlie is the ‘madman’ acknowledged in the title. Without his medication, and scarred by a combination of WW1 and roaming the country by himself (sometimes living long periods with isolated Aboriginal tribes), as well as his physical sickness, he goes mad and tries to kill Jack.

Jack, who is only young, has to hide the whole time over the other side of the island and teach himself how to hunt and fish and survive in the mangrove forests, and also avoid being killed by crocodiles, sharks, stingrays, sand-fly swarms and even opium smugglers at one point, as well as his nutcase fellow island dweller.

He spends every night alone, hiding in a cave, a little scared.

“...on very windy nights a vast murmuring would come sighing over the island from the mangrove forest. In gusts, it would come, in sobbing shrieks that died away among the boulders. No wonder the legends of primitive man are full of ghostly things.”

Charlie’s madness is cyclical. The best twists in the story come when Jack, who spies on Charlie for safety, observes that he’s calm. When he’s calm, Jack actually goes and hangs out with him for a few days and they get along just fine but once he notices the mood swings starting to come on (probably PTSD or something) he has to go over the other side of the island and hide for his life because Charlie comes looking to kill him.

It’s riveting! It’s a gem!

But more importantly than the story itself, is the act of reading a cliff-hanging adventure novel on a chilly Sunday afternoon in your pyjamas by the fire. I ask you, is there a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon? I may not have had the pleasure of shagging the journalist, but what compensation!

God I love books.

I give this one a B.

In finishing, here’s a scan of one of the pages.

Two things to note.

The illustrator obviously didn’t bother to read the book. Jack often mentions the length of his beard but the picture shows a freshly-shaven man.

Secondly, I love seeing notes other people have written in second-hand books. I laughed and laughed when I saw the graffiti.