I knew I was in for a spot of bother when the plane’s left wing exploded. There had been a violent shudder, an audible churning sound (krr-rrr, krr-rrr, krrrrr), then a few seconds of respite… and then KA-BOOM!
I remember looking out of the passenger window just as the thing blew up; first a few licks of orange flames were spat out of the spinning engine, and then there was a blinding detonation of dark reds and yellows and other autumnal hues. Almost immediately after, dark, thick smoke began pluming out of the turbine – but by then making heads or tails of things had grown rather difficult.
Everything after that was disordered chaos. Well, I suppose all chaos is disordered, but this was like multiple different forms of chaos intertwined. First, there were the screams – children, women, men, all shrieking at the top of their lungs. Then, there were the alarms blaring overhead, making it hard to hear the person next you talk (had the person next to you been capable of conversation at such a time). Next, there were the air masks falling down into our faces. I mean, I know they are meant to help, but at the time it felt like an annoying distraction; like an insect buzzing in your face when you are trying to read the newspaper. And finally, of course, there was that awful spinning and falling sensation, which was decidedly unpleasant.
After that, I suppose my memory becomes a bit hazy. I remember the sound of crunching metal and shattering glass. I remember the screams momentarily intensifying. And I also seem to recollect some sort of explosion. It all feels a bit like trying to recall a dream; I vaguely remember the feeling of terror, but it’s quite hard to pinpoint the precise events and occurrences.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up on a beach, my clothes soaked with seawater, my eyes stinging from the brine. There was a chatter of gulls overhead, and the hush of the incoming waves was a peaceful lullaby. And there was also the decidedly agreeable feeling of the afternoon sun warming my pale skin.
I remember wincing in the bright light, at first confused as to just where the hell I was. It all began clearing in my mind, slowly, in fits and spurts. When the memory of the crash came back to me, I recall having a sudden feeling of vertigo, as if I were falling all over again.
I sat up, looking around me, frantically. I probably looked like a meerkat, the way my head swizzled around like that. I was on a sand-white stretch of beach about a mile long, with the roaring seas on one side and a dense rainforest on the other. A small river trickled through the trees, over the beach, and into the ocean. Its miniscule size in comparison to the vast body of water was really quite endearing – I’d go as far to say that it was cute, a word that I normally detest. In fact, I think calling it a river is probably an overstatement; it was closer to a stream.
I staggered to my feet like a drunk who’s just spent the night sleeping off the booze in a gutter. I was still wearing my suit, but one of my leather loafers was missing. I damned the explosion. Those shoes had been expensive. Additionally, there were a few tears, here and there, on my attire. And a few scorch marks. I shook my head – what would my clients think of me now, were they to see me? No money would exchange hands that day, that’s for sure!
I wobbled over to the stream, one shoe on, one shoe off, and crouched down. I was thirstier than I’d ever been, and whilst I was no outdoorsman, I knew that I couldn’t drink the water from the sea. I splashed my hands around in that gently moving rivulet, to clean them of sand. The water was surprisingly cool. I cupped a handful of the crystal-clear liquid and took a tentative sip from my palms, ready to spit it back out again. I found it to be pleasant and refreshing – there was no hint of the salt that filled the ocean, just metres away.
In a fit of madness, I ducked my head entirely into the water, gulping mouthfuls of the stuff as it swept my way. I only stopped when I opened my eyes to see a small fish darting out of the way to escape my gaping maw. I guiltily lifted my head from the flowing water. With my thirst satiated, I leant back on the bank of the stream, hair dripping, gasping for breath, belly full and sloshy.
As I sat there, I let my gaze wander upstream, into the trees. They were not as tightly packed as I had previously thought. My perception had been skewed by the sheer number of plants available – the vastness gave the impression that there was no room to breathe in that greenery, but that wasn’t true at all. Even from my spot on the beach I could see at least four different types of fruit hanging from several different trees. A good number of the bushes were also sprouting berries and the like.
Deep in the hidden depths of the forest, a bird that wasn’t a seagull called out. The sound was both exotic and beautiful. I remember then, that the most wonderful feeling came sweeping over me – I felt it all at once, as if someone had taken a brush and painted me in glitter in one great, sweeping stroke.
The island was a veritable paradise.
Well, I say island because I have since discovered it to be so, but at the time I had no inclination as to whether I was on the coast of some foreign land or not. But yes, it is (and was at the time, of course) an island.
I’d like to say that at that point I had the overwhelming sense that somebody Up There was looking out for me… but if that had been the case, the crash probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Or I’d have woken up somewhere near civilisation, preferably a location less than a twenty-minute walk from my home. I also suppose you should take into account the other souls aboard that doomed aircraft. I often wonder what became of them.
No, the gorgeous sensation that suddenly took a hold of me… Well, I suppose it was an immediate and unfathomable appreciation for the wonder and beauty of nature. It was as if I were truly seeing the Earth for the first time in my life. I have since felt a pervasive annoyance that it took a plane crash to awaken in me a sense of thankfulness for this planet. What I fool I had been!
As a man born of a certain time and age, I began imposing order upon my surroundings. Namely, building a shelter to protect myself from any tropical storms that might frequent the locale, like an annoying neighbour that pops over uninvited – for whom you must then make a cup of tea, for the sake of propriety.
The biggest issue was that I had no prior experience in such activities, so there was a vast amount of trial and error, something which I would have formerly scoffed at.
In a previous life, I had been focused on my career. What I actually did before doesn’t precisely matter anymore, just know this, my friend: every day I wore a suit, carried a briefcase, crunched numbers, and clocked in at the office well before 9 a.m. and clocked out well after 5 p.m. It was… a different existence, to put it mildly.
And so, it took me several attempts to make, well, anything. I had amassed a collection of leaves and twigs and branches and such. I also had an idea of what my island shelter could look like – something marvellous and ingenious, like from those old castaway movies from the 1950s. The main problem was the tremendous gulf between what I had in my mind and what I could actually achieve.
Eventually, I figured out that if I leant the longest log I could find – it was taller than me! – against one of the trees, I could use that as a starting point. It took a lot of sweating and cursing, and I earned an additional tear on the shoulder of my blazer, but I managed to get the thing up and stable. I kicked it a few times, just to make sure it wouldn’t collapse on me whilst I slept beneath it. When I was confident it would stay up, I then covered that piece of wood with other, smaller pieces of wood, such as the branches and twigs I had found, so that it all looked vaguely like the ribcage of some giant plant creature. Finally, I roofed the entire structure with pieces of foliage; luckily, there were several trees nearby producing leaves the size of dinner plates. They had a thick, leathery texture that felt durable enough to the touch.
It wasn’t the impenetrable fortress I had wanted, but it would surely protect from rain and some storms, to a certain degree. I have to say, that once I was finished with the whole thing, I was very pleased with myself. Had I a camera on my person, I would have documented the feat with photographic evidence. It wasn’t flawless, but I felt a sense of achievement I hadn’t encountered since my youth, when I spent hours building and painting model aeroplanes.
I remember standing there, admiring my construction, grinning broadly from ear to ear – despite the fact that there was nobody present to smile at.
After several weeks of exploring and collecting and building and securing, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really quite nice here. The only major problem is the lack of other humans. I was never really a fan of people, before – I only had an interest in the contents of their pockets. But living a life without them suddenly seems rather awful. I hate to admit it, but I have begun to feel incredibly lonely.
I’ve come to another conclusion as well, in a similar vein: I have to leave. Nobody is coming for me, I am sure. I don’t know about the other passengers – perhaps they survived and found rescue? – but I am almost certainly presumed dead. And even if – and that’s a big if – they are searching for me, it seems highly unlikely that they will find me. I depicted giant ‘SOS’ letters on the shoreline with rocks, but I’ve neither seen nor heard any aircraft or boats passing by to observe my message.
And so, I’ve resolved to leave my paradise. Oh, I know it won’t be easy, don’t think I haven’t pondered it and pondered it and pondered some more. I know that they say to sit still in an emergency, and wait for rescue, but it seems highly unlikely that rescue will ever come. And whilst I could, in theory, survive here for the foreseeable future, what then? What is there to life, besides living? I want to give love and receive love. My absence from society has instilled me with a long-forgotten fondness for my fellow man.
If I can build a shelter, I can build a boat. Or, at the very least, something that doesn’t sink.
As with the shelter, the raft took me several attempts. The first few disintegrated upon contact with the waves, and several of my efforts dropped to the ocean floor rather fantastically. Well, I remember thinking, at least I’ve figured out how to make a good anchor.
After several failed experiments, I figured out which of the trees on the island produced wood that was both sturdy and buoyant, and which of the vines and plants were the strongest for binding sections together.
I also figured out the best shape to build my raft, too. I made a solid structural skeleton for the thing – much as I had for my shelter – using the strongest wood I could find. I have no idea what the tree is called, but it was bloody hard to chop down with my self-made axe. Using this as a foundation, I lashed together four columns and two rows.
Using several bamboo shoots that I had sealed with wax pilfered from a hive of unbelievably large bees, I created two separate cylinders made up of many bound tubes, each capable of flotation. I secured these cylinders in between the columns on each side of the raft, so that I had something that looked a little bit like an H, only with two bars going across, horizontally. It took me many, many attempts to realise that this H form was the best I could manage with the tools at my disposal, as the water would flow down the centre, between the two makeshift buoyancy devices that would help keep me afloat.
I also found a use for the thick green leaves that layered the forest’s floor in the thousands. As a side note: I believe that I have become really quite good at recycling; something I endeavour to do more of, should I make it back successfully. I am now ashamed to say I’d always been a bit wasteful, in my previous existence.
It took a lot of work and effort, but I believe I’ve made something that at the very least will see me out from the cyclical currents that pull everything ashore.
And so here I am; waist-deep in the water, pushing my boat out into the open sea.
I’ve made a promise to myself, if I ever make it back to civilisation alive: I am going to ask the receptionist, Gabby, out for a bite to eat. She was forever asking me if I wanted to go for drinks, or have lunch, or go grab some coffee, and I was forever shaking her off, with a lame excuse to boot. Well, no longer. Gabby, if you can hear me, I’m on my way back, and lunch sounds lovely. How about twelve, at the nice steak place down the road?
Back in my older life, I had a mantra: Perfection or nothing. I have come to realise that this was a bloody silly mantra to hold, and I have since discarded it and washed my hands clean of its filth. I had pursued utter faultlessness in both my personal and my professional lives, and it only brought me misery. I now think that perfection does not actually exist; we are either contented with what we have, or we are not.
Well, no longer. I will not strive for perfection. Instead, I will try to view the beauty in what I have. I will force myself to find the loveliness in the work that I do – even when others can’t see it. I will seek to see perfection where it is not immediately obvious. I will marvel at the structures that I build, even if they are not the sturdiest (and may in fact collapse under a particularly strong gust of wind). I will take pride in the boats that I build, even if the planks of wood are not completely even and water splashes up on board every other wave, soaking me to the bone. Even if my raft does not deliver me to safety, I will be proud of myself for having tried. Even if I die in the process.
If I do not try, I will be left all alone on my admittedly beautiful island, for God knows how long. And that is not what I want. I am chasing that which for I am yearning, even if all I want is to connect with other people on a level I had not previously done before.
I’ve made my boat, although I’m sure some would dispute that description. The logs are strong. The vines tying them are secure. I even have a sail, made from the offerings of the island’s trees. I have no previous sailing experience, but I also didn’t know how to build a shelter, either. I managed that, and so I will manage this. Or I won’t. Either way, I feel that I have won.
Behind me, I can hear the call of the exotic bird. I glimpsed it, once, in all its splendour. I will not betray its trust by describing my feathery friend here, but if you are in the neighbourhood, take a peek – it’s gorgeous. I feel as if it is saying goodbye. Goodbye and good luck.
I’ve checked my sail and bound my belongings to the raft. I know it’s going to be a rough journey, but I’ve set my mind to it – I suppose that’s one of the better life lessons I’ve learned from my career in business. I’ve made sure to pack backup logs and vines, should repairs need to be done along the way, and I imagine they will be. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, isn’t that what they always say?
The early morning sun hasn’t quite risen yet; the dark of the night is giving way to gorgeous purple and pink lines that burn in the sky in vivid stripes. The ocean water is cool and clear around my waist, as I carry my raft out from the shore. Small, friendly fish are swimming about me, excitedly.
The sea looks calm at the moment, but I know looks can be deceiving, and I won’t pretend that I’m in for smooth sailing. Nonetheless, I feel a lightness in my heart and a smile upon my face.
In the unlikely event that I’ve absorbed little from this life-changing experience, at least I can say that I’ve learned how to build a boat.
2nd September 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest