Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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16

Loneliest Island and the Rollers


 


Halfway across the South Atlantic, midway between Montevideo and Cape Town, ocean all around as far as the eye can see. If ever there was a middle of nowhere, this is it. The Majestic II begins to slow engines as a shadowy, black peak pokes its way into the blue horizon. As we draw closer, more of this speck of a forgotten island reveals itself: slopes descending ever so evenly downward toward the base, where the angle suddenly juts sharply, straight to the ocean. The blurry, charcoal image casts an eerie silhouette of the loneliest of places, Tristan da Cunha.


The islanders, all 292 of them, have been awaiting our arrival for days, weeks, months. As the Majestic glides closer, their sleeping volcanic home looms ever larger, a circle of an island, 40 square miles, surrounded by ash-blackened cliffs that drop precipitously 900 to 1,800 feet to the water's edge, except for one section on the northeast side, where a low plateau provides level ground near sea level for the simple homes of stone and rough wood with thatched or tin roofs. Here, in the village of Edinburg, is also a church, a public hall that doubles as a pub, a school, store and post office.


Tristan's two nearest companion islands come into view, the aptly named Inaccessible, and Nightingale. Off in the distance are Middle and Statenhoff islands.


The main island takes its name from Tristao da Cunha, the Portuguese mariner who discovered it in 1506. With bigger, richer worlds to explore, colonial powers had no use for this midocean rock until Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, the South Atlantic island nearly 1,500 miles to the north. The British, suddenly seeing strategic significance to the forlorn place, annexed Tristan in 1817 and have held it since.


Long before we dropped anchor off the island, the seven families of the island had been preparing for our visit by signing envelopes that would bear a special issue of stamps showing the likeness of the Majestic II, some of the other great British liners, and a sailing vessel representing the kind used by islanders. Because the island is so remote, its stamps had long been treasured by collectors, providing Tristan with its chief industry, exporting stamps. The first-day covers signed by the islanders were to have a special value, providing Tristan with a one-time windfall. On board, ship staffers canceled the rare issues madly as the longboats from ashore swarmed into the surf toward the waiting Majestic. It was a big, glorious day in Tristan da Cunha, where the sun shone without a cloud in sight and a light, warm breeze blew.


In a way, Tristan da Cunha is a miniature melting pot whose family lines had become somewhat blurred as the generations passed. Six families, Green (Dutch), Swain (English), Hagan and Rogers (American), Repetto and Lavarello (Italian) were descended from shipwrecked sailors who wound up in the forbidding place and never left. The seventh was the Glass family, whose ancestor, William, had been among the British soldiers who ventured to the place at the time of Tristan's annexation. William Glass, it turned out, elected to remain on the island.


And so it remained for a century and a half, the seven families, living together, harvesting crayfish, tending subsistence farms, burying their dead -- and waiting for a supply ship to call three times or so a year. When the long-awaited vessels arrived, a big bell was rung in the middle of their village, Edinburg, and everybody would come running. Mail days were cause for a bigger celebration than New Year's or Christmas. Sometimes, the ships would just pass by and leave a barrel of mail in the nearby waters for the islanders to retrieve.


Then, in 1961, the volcano on which the islanders live suddenly awakened from its long sleep. The inhabitants were offered passage to and residence in England. As the volcano began to erupt, a ship arrived to fetch this strange group of people, whose isolation had left them locked in a time warp.


One of those who remembered the evacuation was a masseur I had met weeks earlier in the world cruise. Galen Naughton had been working on the Union Castle ship S.A. Vaal when it was chosen to ferry the islanders on the final leg of their voyage to Southampton, England.


"A Dutch freighter had brought the people to Cape Town," Naughton had told me one night over drinks in the Blue Star. The South Africans treated the islanders with their own brand of hospitality. When Galen first saw the islanders lined up on the quay in Cape Town, "it was like turning the clock back 150 years. They were dressed in the Victorian style. The girls wore long dresses and the men wore dark suits. I don't think they had such a thing as informal dress," he said.


"The islanders spoke in the manner the British spoke 150 years ago, using `thee' and `thou' often. And they were quite unfamiliar with the modern standards of hygiene. They all needed dental treatment and were not at all familiar with modern showers and baths. The security officer on the Vaal lined them up and pushed them into the baths," recalled the short, muscular Naughton as he nursed his mix of lager and lime juice.


"On the Vaal, the men and women all sat in separate groups, with the women knitting all day and the men smoking their pipes and talking. It was almost like they were from another planet. But they were very British and very pro-Queen," Naughton had said with a smile.


At the time, the people asked a lot of questions about life in England, he went on. "They were not accustomed to the luxury of comfortable chairs, beds, and certainly no telly. The furniture they used on the island, they had made by hand."


Many were shocked when they landed in a world of rock 'n' roll, miniskirts, fast cars and trains and a vast array of electronic gadgetry, not to mention cities filled with thousands of strangers. Many adjusted right off and others took it all in stride. A few became terribly sick because they lacked the immunities to fight off common colds and viruses, and sadly, died. Nearly all eagerly returned to Tristan da Cunha to resume their lives after the danger had passed.


The arrival of the Majestic II was no doubt the biggest event for the island community since its 1961 evacuation and return two years later. Besides having such a grand guest in their waters for the better part of a day, the island's main link with the outside world was being restored. Tristan's radio transmitter had been on the blink for months, effectively cutting off outside communications except for the scraps of news that dribbled through the Ham radio station, which also kept tabs on the approaching liner.


As the orange launch carrying Grigg and a couple of assistants splashed toward the island to make the radio transmitter repairs, Sal and I had watched the islanders' longboats pull up to an open hatch at Five Deck. The people clambered aboard and were soon circulating on the open decks, in the bars and public rooms, talking to passengers and officers. None of the anachronisms of dress and speech was evident, although their clothes were by no means stylish and for the most part well-worn and ill-fitting. They spoke with a British lilt and seemed to be fond of some odd expressions, like "swifty flyer," used as a kind of a postscript to a joke: "That was a swifty flyer," they would say.


A bar that had been set up on Quarterdeck aft near the swimming pool turned out to be a popular gathering place for the shy islanders, who were drawn by the light music played by Bruce and Bonnie Cullen. That's where I met some of the Swain kin, Rupert, a shy, unmarried fisherman who gave his age as 35, and Julian, who was in his late teens.


Rupert remembered going to England as teen-ager to escape the eruption. A few of the older islanders, he recalled, stubbornly refused the offer to leave at the time, but they were eventually persuaded to go along or risk almost certain death.


"I liked it all right," he said of his stay near Southampton. "But I wouldn't go back."


I asked Julian if he would leave if he had the chance.


"I would, but you need this." He was making the finger-rubbing gesture that means money. "So I'm not going. Besides, there are two women for every man here.


"Money's not of much use to us anyway," said Julian, who wore an orange polo shirt and worn, light trousers. "We don't use it much. You see, we trade everything where we live."


I bought them each a pint of lager and we talked on. A young man called Chas joined us and I asked how people on the island got along.


"If someone wrongs someone else, he'll go home, come back the next day and apologize. It's like that."


As we talked, an announcement came over the tannoy, asking if there was an ophthalmologist on board. It reminded me of what Naughton had said about the genetic problems that have arisen among the islanders due to the small population.


Islanders, young and old, seemed to forget their shyness when it came to trading. Among the most popular items offered -- besides the scores of signed, stamped envelopes -- were little wooden smoking pipes the men had carved. I detoured quickly to my cabin to fetch some t-shirts with printed sports logos, which were in hot demand by the eager traders.


But the items most needed by my new friend Julian Swain were guitar strings. He and three of his friends had formed a rock 'n' roll band, and although it lacked a bass and drums, he and his friends made the best of it. But the band's ability to play really became crippled when several of their guitar strings broke. Needless to say, there were none in stock in the island store.


"How do you get music?" I asked.


"We listen, practice from songs we remember, what we hear on the short wave," he said. But with the transmitter down, they hadn't even heard any outside music for months. And, of course, there was no sheet music on the island.


I excused myself, walked over to corner where the Cullens were playing and caught Bruce's attention. He cut the set short and came right over to our group, and I explained Julian's dilemma.


Without a word, Bruce disappeared, then returned 10 minutes later with a stack of sheet music and several packages of strings."


"To your musical health," he told Julian, whose face lit up with delight. "Don't worry about the strings. I'll restock in Cape Town."


Bruce handed his card to Julian, and promised to mail an old bass guitar he had stored in a closet at home once he returned to the states. "How do I address the package?" he asked.


"Just Julian, Tristan da Cunha. You can also use my last name if you have to be formal."


Julian insisted on buying a round of pints, and that led to another, and one or two after that. Capt. Goodrow and a coterie of senior bridge officers, who had been slowly working their way through the crowd, made their way to our group and chatted for a few minutes before gliding on toward another gathering of islanders and their hosts. I took several of the islanders on a tour of the ship, showing them the grand Midships Theatre, the glittering, two-story Gallery and ornate, formal Quarterdeck Ballroom, the sprawling Parisienne that could seat hundreds and the more reserved, first-class Seven Seas dining room. I showed them the Casino, which was closed for the afternoon, the swank Blue Star, the wood-paneled Liverpool Room, the devil-may-care Admiral Nelson Pub, and the temporarily silent disco bar. Below decks, I guided them past the indoor pool area and we peeked into the sauna, Turkish bath and gymnasium. My followers were silent mostly, listening politely to my running travelogue, and occasionally dodging into public restrooms -- just to see how they work, I think. We returned to the Quarterdeck aft.


The talk and trading went on until the shadows drew long, and our guests were boarding their boats again to resume their long, and in most cases permanent, lives of isolation. As the final call to disembark came, I lifted my pint pot to Julian and took a final swallow before escorting him to the Five Deck hatch. "Tell him, thanks for the music and strings," Julian said as he climbed into the waiting boat.


Back on Boat Deck, I caught up with Sal, who had spent the afternoon talking to women from the island and walking a few of them to the ship's hospital, where the medical staff had been on duty to perform checkups and dispense medicines that were in short supply on Tristan. We watched as the last of the longboats made their way back to the island, and as the launch Grigg had used on his repair mission was hoisted back to its davits and covered.


The shifting of the liner in the strong South Atlantic current hinted that the first anchor had been drawn. And several minutes later, Tristan da Cunha was no longer off our starboard, but instead dead off the stern and slowly appearing smaller. As black smoke billowed from the funnel, the Majestic II sounded a long blast of her whistle.


The setting sun touched the tip of the island's cone, sending forth a final fan of orange rays before slipping behind the rise and casting a purple-brown pall over the sloping sides. Passengers were heading inside to change for the evening cocktail party and the decks were soon deserted, but Sal and I stayed on deck, hearing nothing but the flapping of the Union Jack at the stern and watching from the fantail as the world's most remote inhabited isle melted to a black speck on the darkening horizon. Tristan da Cunha was alone again.


 


 


A sentry at his post, Bin Peshcancalliven stooped at the top of the ladder to t'up, brushing yet another coat of white paint -- at least his fifth since the ship left Rio -- on the railing. Robin Thornley, meanwhile, paced slowly up and down the wooden deck with his anaconda curled about his trunk and neck, taking advantage of the sun's healing powers.


"I think he's got it licked," Robin called over. " 'e seems a bit spunkier now, 'ey? By God, I wish he'd eat something. 'ow often do these buggers eat, anyway, Bent?"


"It can be months before ... oh, wait please." He turned toward the steps. "Oh, so very sorry sir, but we are painting here this afternoon. Will be open again tonight, better tomorrow," he called to a passenger who had started to walk up to the deck. After a pause, he again turned toward Robin. "He has had enough sun today, then? We should think about leaving soon, don't you say?"


Thornley nodded, or tried to, but with the snake curled around his neck like a mink about the collar of a countess, it was but a wasted gesture. Bin collected his can, rag and wire brush and the two men walked to a hatch leading to the crew area, with Bin going first so he could distract anyone else who might appear along the way.


 


Ten days since Rio, two or three days to go until Cape Town, and Booth was still a secret known only the four men who had been at the card game in Brazil. Thornley seemed to revel in the risk and challenge of having such an unseemly pet in such circumstances, although the macho factor of owning his own anaconda also figured into his resolve to keep Booth. Bin, too, had an incentive; he had told his confederates several times that such a beautiful specimen could bring a sizeable sum of rupees from people he knows in India, and perhaps even more in Hong Kong where snakes are a culinary delicacy.


Just as Bin knew the most about snakes among the four men, Thornley had the most complete knowledge of the Majestic's architecture even though Arch Toth had worked on board longer. When he started out as baggage man, his mentors had shown Thornley every open corner and crevice where stowage of any sort, legal or illegal, could be socked away for the duration of any voyage. He had also learned of a flaw in the ship's construction that afforded a perfect place to conceal, say, a stowaway snake of significant proportions.


Due to a blueprint error at the Liverpool shipyard where the Majestic had risen from keel, a space of a little less than two meters in height had been added to the deck plan on one section of the ship, just below the Three Deck cabins and above the ceiling over the car hold about a quarter of the ship's length from the stern. The "uncommitted" space, as it was called, appeared in no brochure of the ship, and was ignored as a stowage area due to its awkward location. For all intents and purposes, it was forgotten. The only entry was from a latched but unlocked steel door stenciled "No Entry," located under a dimly lit ladder in the crew area. Rather than redesigning and refitting the whole section of the ship at a considerable cost, Brighton Line merrily dismissed the design snafu as an inconsequential oddity because it did not detract from space in adjoining areas and did not pose a safety risk.


Thornley had hit upon the perfect accommodation for his recovering snake, although he would have preferred something with a view; the place was utterly devoid of light. Robin had taken a couple of orange crates from the galley and hammered them into a kind of makeshift pen-bed for the reptile, but of course it was hardly necessary, for the thing routinely sought out a corner in which to curl up. Except for his daily walks on deck, that is where Both spent his cruise. To help ward off any possible snoops, Bin had repainted the "No Entry" sign at the hatch in bright red and painted a bright white box around it for extra emphasis.


 


We had barely mentioned the word "galleon" for days. After Tristan da Cunha, it was all work for Sal and me, searching for the best short wave frequencies for BBC and Voice of America, filtering out the ubiquitous but always entertaining Radio Moscow propaganda blasts, and pulling together some prep copy for Cape Town features. The loss of an hour each day due to the eastbound course was also nibbling at our time, so we just worked a little faster. Of course, none of this stopped us from taking our afternoon strolls on deck to enjoy the pattern of clear, sunny weather, chats with passengers and an occasional chance meeting with Hallsford, Hatch or another of the officers. Usually we made it back by tea time, when gold prices -- and any cricket scores that may have crackled across the airwaves -- were delivered from the radio room.


Sal unlocked the office door.


"The tea's already here," she said. "Look, on the desk."


I didn't think anything of it. Actually, I would have preferred a Slim-Jim, and was now wondering whether they were sold in South Africa.


"Doesn't that strike you as odd?" she asked. Sal hadn't moved a step since opening the door. "The tea's inside," she said.


"Huh? So it's here. You want some? Here, let me pour you a cup ... "


"No, listen. Joe usually leaves the tray outside the door when we're not in. He always knocks before he comes in with the tea tray, right? He doesn't have a key for this place. How did he get in?"


I looked into the closet. Flats all stacked in place. Nothing, it seemed, was out of place.


"Don't know. You're right," I said. "Something's funny."


"I remember locking that door before I left. I even turned the knob to make sure, like I always do. Michael, someone was in here when Joe came."


She hardly ever calls me Michael.


The galleon. Someone's been in here and I have to know if it's still there, I thought.


"Where are the scissors? The scissors," I said as I moved toward the closet. "Lock the door."


Sal pulled out a desk drawer and fumbled around a bit before she located them. But she held onto them and sat.


"Do you have to look for it now?" she said. "Why not just let it be for now. We'll check in the morning, or tonight. Later tonight when it's quiet. Let it go."


"Maybe you're right," I said. "Yeah. Let's get back to work. Let's have some of that tea. Is it still hot?" I walked toward my desk and poured two cups of tepid tea from the stainless silver pot, trying to distract myself from worries about that damned little golden ship. So what, I thought, if someone has taken it? Then it will no longer be my concern. I hope.


I turned on the short wave and started twisting the dial. A BBC report came in: "And in Pakistan, the Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence of Prime Minister Zulfikar ali Bhutto, who has been sentenced to the gallows for conspiring to kill a political opponent ... " I pushed on the tape recorder. "Messages of protest have been sent by several nations ... "


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© By Buzz Adams