Drift away to Thailand with this modern classic
Drift away to Thailand with this modern classic
It was the height of a four-storey building — the kind of height I hate to stand upright near. To gauge the drop I had to crawl to the cliff edge on my belly, afraid that the sense of balance which allows me to stand on a chair would desert me and I would lunge drunkenly forward to my death.
On either side the cliff continued, eventually curving around into the sea, then, unbroken, rejoining the land on the far side. It was as if a giant circle had been cut out of the island to enclose the lagoon in a wall of rock — just as Zeph had described. From where we sat, we could see that the sea-locked cliffs were no more than thirty metres thick, but a passing boat could never guess what lay behind them. They would only see a continuous jungle-topped coastline. The lagoon was presumably supplied by underwater caves and channels.
The falls dropped into a pool from which a quick-flowing stream ran into the trees. The highest trees were more than equal to our height. If they'd been a little closer to the precipice we could have used them to get down — and getting down was the big problem. The drop was too sheer and too far to consider climbing.
'What do you think?' I said, crawling back from the cliff edge towards Etienne and Francoise.
'What do you think?' Etienne replied, apparently not yet ready to let control pass from my hands.
I sighed. 'I think we've definitely found the right place. It's where Mister Duck's map says it is, and it fits Zeph's description perfectly.'
'So near and so far.'
'So near and yet so far,' I corrected vacantly. 'That's about it.' Francoise stood up and stared over the lagoon towards the seaward rock-face.
'Perhaps we should walk around there,' she suggested. 'It may be easier to climb.'
'It's higher than here. You can see where the land rises.'
'We could jump into the sea. It is not too high to jump.'
'We'd never clear the rocks.'
She looked irritated and tired. 'OK, Richard, but there must be a way down, no? If people go to this beach, there must be a way.'
'If people go to this beach,' I echoed. We hadn't seen any sign that people were down there. I'd been carrying an idea that when we reached the beach we'd see groups of friendly travellers with sun-kissed faces, hanging out, coral diving, playing Frisbee. All that stuff. As it was, from what we could see the beach looked beautiful but completely deserted.
'Maybe we can jump from this waterfall,' said Etienne. 'It is not so high as the cliff in the sea.'
I thought for a moment. 'Possibly,' I replied, and rubbed my eyes. The adrenalin that had kept me going over the pass had faded and now I was exhausted, so exhausted I couldn't even feel relief at having found the beach. I was also dying for a cigarette. I'd thought of lighting up several times but was still too jumpy about who might smell the smoke.
Francoise seemed to read my mind. 'If you want a cigarette, you should have one,' she said, smiling. I think it was the first time one of us had smiled since leaving the plateau. 'We saw no fields on this side of the pass.' `Yes,' Etienne added. 'And maybe it can help . . . The nicotine . . . It helps.'
I lit up and crawled back to the cliff edge.
If, I reasoned, the waterfall had been pounding down into the pool below for a thousand years, then it was likely that a basin had been eroded into the rock. A basin deep enough to accommodate my leaping into it. But if the island had been created relatively recently, maybe the result of volcanic activity two hundred years ago, then there might not have been time for a deep enough pool to have formed.
'But what do I know?' I said, exhaling slowly, and Francoise looked up to see if I was talking to her.
The pebbles in the water were smooth. The trees below were tall and old.
'OK,' I whispered.
I stood up cautiously, one foot an inch from the cliff, the other set back at a stabilizing angle. A memory appeared of making Airfix aeroplanes, filling them with cotton wool, covering them in lighter fuel, setting fire to them, dropping them from the top window of my house.
'Are you jumping?' called Etienne nervously.
'Just taking a better look.'
As the planes fell, they would arc outwards, then appear to curve back towards the wall. The point where they landed, exploding into sticky, burning pieces, always seemed to be nearer to the edge of the house than I expected. The distance was difficult to judge; the model planes always needed a harder shove than seemed necessary if they were to clear the doorstep, and the head of anyone coming to investigate the patches of flame around the yard.
I was turning this memory over when something happened. An overwhelming sensation washed over me, almost boredom, a strange listlessness. I was suddenly sick of how difficult this journey had become. There was too much effort, too many shocks and dilemmas to dissect. And this sickness had an effect. For a vital few seconds it liberated me from a fear of consequences. I'd had enough. I just wanted it over with.
So near and so far.
'So jump,' I heard my voice say.
I paused, wondering if I'd heard myself correctly, and then I did. I jumped.
From stirring novels to tender biographies, thought-provoking journalism to the books that captured lockdown, these are the titles that best reflected this extraordinary year.
Charles and Di, Blur vs. Oasis, mobile phones or dial tones... the Nineties were a cultural and technological melting pot. Here, from J. K. Rowling to Jonathan Coe, Ben Okri to Helen Fielding, are some of the authors who best captured the decade in words.