It had been seven days since Laxton Pearmain had successfully sailed away from Vanatatamanuatu with a week’s supply of food and water.
There were thousands of little islands in this part of the world, so even the most hopeless navigator, and Laxton was certainly in that category, was bound to bump into one of them if they could sail in a straight line for long enough.
He had indeed seen many rather uninviting rocks poking up above the ocean but, up until this point, nothing that looked like it might offer up some replacement sustenance and dry shelter.
Consequently, it was with some relief that, directly ahead, a large, inviting, green and pleasant land mass came into view.
The currents were, for once, kind to our hero and they gently wafted him and his leaky tub, on the kindest of gently breaking waves, towards a beach of white sand.
As soon as The Mucklebury Lady was safely ashore, and hauled up above the straggly ribbon of seaweed, shells and various body parts of dead sea-creatures that marked the high-tide line, Laxton set about surveying his first ‘discovery’.
The land rose sharply from the little bay and was covered in dense green vegetation. He could hear birdsong and insect noises but, thankfully, no roars or growls that might indicate he’d arrived at the lost land of the dinosaurs or anything unfortunate like that.
From this vantage point it was impossible to gauge the size of the island or what lay beyond the leafy hillsides. So there was really only one thing for an explorer to do, and that was to explore.
When Laxton had constructed his boat, he had had the foresight to imagine just this type of situation, so he began the process of converting boat to house. He removed the mast and sail and upturned the hull, which was then propped up on two timbers at the sharp end. He then folded and shaped the sail as a makeshift wall all around, making a rather cosy little shelter.
He took a shoulder bag that he’d fashioned from more scraps of sail, strapped a fearsome-looking machete to his waistband, and set off up the beach to find a route through the greenery to the ridge. He had imagined he would need to cut his way through but, rather conveniently, he found a well-worn path, leading upwards from one end of the beach. The plants were mostly waist-height, with taller trees here and there, and several of them bore unfamiliar fruit, berries and nuts. But he thought better of experimenting with their edibility just yet.
This rare demonstration of foresight in the young and headstrong adventurer was commendable, but another character trait which, as we have seen, was still not fully developed, was caution. If he had stopped to think why there might be a well-worn path on a remote desert island and paid any attention to what was going on in his peripheral vision, he might have noticed that he was being shadowed up the hill by an extremely stinky, extravagantly bearded, bundle of rags which had, until Laxton’s arrival, been the sole occupant of the island.
Laxton reached the top of the hill, a little puffed-out but rejuvenated and exhilarated by the beauty and fragrance of his new surroundings.
Although, he did wonder where the occasional beefy whiff was coming from.
It was also rather nice to feel dryness creeping over him after a week where he had been, at all times, somewhere between damp and ringing wet.
The island appeared to be a giant crater. He could see that the ridge continued at roughly the same level, in a slightly irregular circle which formed the lip of a shallow bowl, full of what looked like salad leaves from this high point.
He took a deep lungful of the slightly salty air and made a three hundred and sixty degree turn to take in the view and reflect upon his good fortune in having been cut free from the straight-jacket of his former life as a seaman in the Navy.
His most recent voyage in the vastness of the wide, wide ocean had made him feel ridiculously small and insignificant. Consequently, he reasoned, any mistakes he might have made, or might continue to make, would also be ridiculously small and insignificant. During his few weeks sleeping under the stars on Vanatatamanuatu, he had had flashes of feeling a bit ashamed about his unceremonious exit from the Navy, but in the grand scheme of things it was probably for the best. They were undoubtedly better off without him and vice versa and, at the end of the day, what harm had been done?
He rather liked that way of looking at things and he resolved to make that his motto: 'do no harm'. It was a simple mantra, but he reckoned that if he kept that one thought in the forefront of his mind, only good things would follow.
He would live his life free of shackles or expectation, he would regret nothing, say yes to all new experiences, and choose his own path.
These principles would, in the future, lead him into interesting and, sometimes, dangerous situations.
And as he took another step along the path that he was currently on, his new-found freedom was snatched violently from him, and the first of those dangerous situations was about to begin.
His legs were wrenched from underneath him and his feet shot skywards under the influence of some unseen, and wholly unexpected, anti-gravitational force. By the time he had regained his senses, he realised he was dangling upside-down, tied by the ankles to a limb of a large tree.
As his inverted eyes started to refocus, he found himself face to upside-down face with, what could only be described as a creature. It appeared human-ish and all the regular features were there, albeit looking slightly peculiar from Laxton’s angle of dangle, but the whole visage was covered in wiry hair and bristle. And the eyes. Something unnerving about the unblinking eyes.
In the absence of any better ideas, Laxton introduced himself.
The caveman’s eyes widened with what could have been surprise, recognition or confusion. The creature cocked its head on one side like a puppy trying to work out what its owner was asking it to do.
Then, without warning, the caveman swung his arm with cutlass in hand and severed the rope holding Laxton in mid-air. With no time to brace himself, he fell head-first onto the hard ground and the world went black.
When he awoke, Laxton found himself sitting in a clearing with his back against a tree, hands now tied as well as his feet. The pounding inside his head made it difficult to put everything together, but his overwhelming thought was of how quickly he had gone from feeling like 'King of the World' to this current predicament, where the likelihood of ending his days as dinner for some primitive species of human, seemed very high.
A large log fire burning in front of him, with a cauldron steaming over the top of it, added weight to the adventurer’s initial assessment of his situation. His captor was sitting, cross-legged, on the other side of the fire, dressed in the ragged remains of a shirt and a pair of trousers. It looked…hungry.
Laxton was trying to work out what to do next when the creature suddenly stood up. It appeared to have made a decision and approached Laxton with purpose and, more worrying, with a knife in its dirty, hairy hand. Laxton tried to push himself back into his tree. The wild man stopped and stood in front of him, at which point Laxton realised where the beefy whiff from earlier had come from.
To Laxton's utter disbelief the creature spoke in English.
“Bruce Moriarty at your service. Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”
With that, he bent down and cut the rope binding Laxton’s hands, went back to the cauldron and ladled the hot liquid into two tin cups.
Laxton took the proffered cup, still trying to compute how on earth the filthy, stone age remnant in front of him sounded like one of his former senior officers and was brewing tea in the middle of a tiny Pacific Island.
“I can see from your tortured expression that you are ruminating upon what, on God’s green earth, is going on here?”
“That’s about the size of it,” replied Laxton, taking a suspicious sip of the strange brew inside his slightly rusty cup. It tasted disgusting and his face showed it.
“Yes, I call it tea, but the taste, I must agree, is an acquired one. You’ll forgive me for keeping your legs tied but I am anxious to confirm whether you are friend or foe before I give you all of your freedom back.”
“I tend to believe you but what, may I ask, brings you to my little island?” asked Moriarty.
“Pure accident. I’m an adventurer you see and I’m... well, adventuring, as we adventurers do. Never quite sure where we’re going to end up from one day to the next and all that.” Laxton hoped his confident tone conveyed what he imagined in his head was ‘nonchalant, seasoned traveller’. The narrowing of his interrogator’s eyes suggested his bluff hadn’t been entirely successful.
“Very young for an adventurer, aren’t you? And I didn’t have too much trouble trapping you, did I? I’d say you are somewhat new to this life. You are woefully under-equipped, and your boat looks like a crate. I, in contrast, am a seasoned adventurer, with many famous discoveries to my name.”
“Funny, I’ve never heard of you,” said Laxton, with a hint of sarcasm. He didn’t take too kindly to The Mucklebury Lady being referred to as a crate. And this hairy, stinky, missing link didn’t exactly look like a great discoverer. He decided to call his bluff.
“And how come you appear to be marooned on a little island, with no means of getting off?”
“No fault of my own I can tell you.” He replied, a little annoyance sounding in his voice. “I was kidnapped by a band of ill-informed pirates who mistakenly believed I was in possession of a treasure map. When they found out that was not the case, they dumped me here with nothing but a few basic necessities. That was a year ago, hence my slightly unkempt appearance. It’s only my ingenuity and superior intellect which has enabled me to survive. With your fortuitous arrival, I finally have the means to escape.”
Laxton had taken an instant dislike to this self-important blowhard. He didn’t like his tone or his presumption that Laxton would provide his ticket off the island. He was suffering from rising irritation after just a couple of hours in this idiot’s company, so the thought of weeks at sea, crammed into ‘The Mucklebury Lady’, wasn’t floating his boat, so to speak. And his overpowering body odour was making his nose itch.
But, wisely, Laxton realised he had to play along if he didn’t want to be left behind to watch his precious boat being sailed away by this uppity buffoon.
“Happy to help. If you could just untie my legs so I can have a stretch. I think I've got a cramp coming on.”
Moriarty duly cut the ropes binding Laxton’s ankles and spent the rest of the day showing him around what he referred to as ‘his’ island. He pointed out the edible plants from the poisonous and checked his traps for small mammal catches, of which there were many. Unfortunately, he also spouted on and on about his supposed achievements in the world of international adventuring. Laxton tried to get in with some of his Navy stories, but Moriarty was completely wrapped up in his own self-importance.
Later they feasted on the fruit and some rather tasty, roasted squirrelly things, followed by Moriarty’s ‘coffee’. This was just as revolting as the tea but thicker in consistency, and Laxton didn’t ask or want to imagine what it might have been thickened with! As dusk fell, Laxton declined the offer of a night inside his new friend’s crudely constructed cabin. Moriarty clearly had no idea that the place stunk like a dead skunk.
Laxton wandered back up to the ridge, pausing briefly to admire the crimson, setting sun before descending on the path to the beach where he lay down, utterly contented and cocooned, inside his makeshift boat-cum-house.
The only blot on the horizon was how he was going to separate himself from Bruce Moriarty. He briefly thought about sailing off at the crack of sparrow-fart, but he had given his word that he would help him get off the island and, if nothing else, Laxton was a man true to his word. He drifted off to sleep with a vague idea floating about in his brain and it involved trying to find Vanatatamanuatu again.
Laxton’s dreams were noisily shattered at first light by a verbal barrage in the, now familiar, grating tones of his fellow islander.
“Rise and shine, Pearmain! Carpe diem! Carpe diem! Today we sail away to a new world of opportunity. Once more I, Bruce Moriarty, the supreme adventurer, master of discovery, explorer extraordinaire, escapes certain death to fight another day.”
“With a little help from me!” thought Laxton but didn’t say it. He crawled out from under The Mucklebury Lady to see Moriarty standing, chest puffed out, hands on hips, looking out to sea like some all-conquering hero.
“Good morning,” muttered Laxton, rubbing his bleary eyes into focus. He suddenly realised the caveman had transformed. He was clean-shaven, hair trimmed, and the rags were gone. Given the circumstances, he was quite smartly dressed, in cream trousers and an almost white shirt, unbuttoned to the waist to show off his thickly matted hairy chest. He even looked like he had had a wash and the beefy smell was, if not entirely gone, certainly reduced to acceptable levels.
“Aha! I see you are shocked by my appearance. I have been saving these clothes and preserving the sharp edge of my one razor for this auspicious day. The day Bruce Moriarty returns to the civilised world. What tales of survival I will tell, what awe I will inspire in my audiences! Women will swoon with wonder at my manly derring-do. I may even write a book.”
The more he spoke the more Laxton was convinced that his plan to navigate back to Vanatatamanuatu and leave him there was a sound one.
They spent the morning turning the ‘crate’ as Moriarty kept calling it, back into a boat. They loaded it with fresh food and water and the few tatty possessions they both had. Moriarty brought various items of fishing gear, a saucepan, his pair of tin mugs and, rather curiously, a single old shoe. It had clearly been an expensive leather brogue once upon a time, but the leather was now faded, cracked and split, and it lacked a lace.
“Sentimental value. It’s one of a pair given to me on my 21st birthday by my parents.”“What happened to the other one?”
“Washed out to sea when I first arrived.”
“Not much point keeping one shoe is there?” ventured Laxton.
“As I said, it has sentimental value,” replied Moriarty, a little testily, and he packed the shoe carefully into the bottom of the boat with the rest of his clutter.
Laxton had the unlikely feeling that there was more to this curious object than Moriarty was letting on.
By mid-morning they were ready to sail and Laxton was being given instructions on the best course to set but, given The Mucklebury Lady’s simple design, and Laxton’s simple skills, they were really at the mercy of the prevailing wind. Laxton was pleased that a stiff easterly was blowing, and he hoped that this would send them nicely back to Vanatatamanuatu, where he could set about uncoupling himself from his new friend.
They made good progress with the strengthening wind behind them, and soon the little island was a distant speck. By the second day, Laxton’s ears were pounding with the constant blathering of his shipmate. What he hadn’t seen or done wasn’t worth seeing or doing. Most of the time Laxton pretended to be asleep and often he actually was, as he had the blissful ability of being able to drift off at the drop of a hat, whatever the circumstances.
On the third day, disaster nearly struck. The constant easterly wind picked up considerably, and by mid-afternoon a full-on storm was raging. The two adventurers needed all their combined strength to keep the boat afloat with continual bailing and frantic shifting of their bodies to maintain an even keel. At one point, a huge wave threatened to overwhelm them but the force of the water both filled, then emptied the boat in one movement. It also picked up, and washed overboard, most of the contents of the boat, including Moriarty’s precious shoe.
Laxton was about to find out just how precious, as Moriarty screamed and followed it into the foaming waters.
Laxton watched with a kind of detached amusement as the rolling sea gave him first a view of the shoe, then Moriarty, then the shoe, then Moriarty. While one was up, the other was down, and despite energetic wheeling of arms, the shoe and its owner couldn’t quite achieve a coming-together.
If Laxton wasn’t so busy trying to keep The Mucklebury Lady from capsizing, he could have watched this pantomime all day, but what tickled him even more was the thought that if he could recapture the floating footwear, it would both really annoy Moriarty and give him a one-up on his know-it-all companion.
The two items of flotsam were still independently bobbing up and down as Laxton pulled the sail around to perform a sharp turn towards the shoe. The boat soared up the side of one wave, then plunged into the trough just as the shoe completed yet another descent and Moriarty another ascent. Laxton coolly stretched his free hand over the side and caught the brogue like a fielder in the cricket slips.
He then performed another turn and did the same thing with the floundering adventurer who scrambled back on board.
“I was just... (cough)... about... (cough)…to,” he coughed again and threw up.
“Be sick?” replied Laxton sarcastically.
“I was just about to get it.”
“It didn't look like it from where I was standing."
“Give it to me!” barked Moriarty, crossly.
“You really are something else, Moriarty. I risk my life to save you and your stupid shoe, and this is how you thank me. What is it with the flipping thing anyway? It's just a rotten old bit of leather.”
Moriarty ignored Laxton and stuffed the rotten old bit of leather inside his wet shirt.
During all this excitement the storm had subsided, and while Laxton was pondering upon the mystery of the weirdly important footwear, he glimpsed a distant peak poking above the horizon. At first, he thought he was imagining things, but as the wind continued to drive them on, the familiar outline of Vanatatamanuatu came fully into view.
Before he could say anything, Moriarty declared loudly, “LAND, AHOY!” and started getting very excited. For Laxton, landfall couldn’t come quick enough so he could renew his acquaintance with his island friends and, more importantly, put some distance between himself and Moriarty.
In no time, The Mucklebury Lady and its captain were once more guests of the Vanatatamanuatans, although the way Moriarty was going about handshaking and backslapping everyone, whilst declaring loudly who he was and how wonderful it must be for them to meet him, you’d have thought he was one of the island’s long-lost sons returning from conquering the world.
Laxton took the opportunity to have a quick word with the island’s chief, Famalualua. During his previous stay, Laxton had made rather a good job of cleaning and painting the chief’s ceremonial, double-hulled canoe, so he had gained his respect and gratitude. A few words were exchanged, and the first part of his plan was in place.
Next, Laxton arranged for Moriarty to be taken on a long, slow tour of the island by another friend and, while he was away, Laxton secured two weeks’ worth of food supplies which he temporarily stashed on board a fishing boat of another friend. Finally, he went to The Mucklebury Lady and retrieved the shoe, which Moriarty had tied to the mast to dry out.
Laxton held the item in his hand and wondered. He pushed his hand inside to feel if there was anything lodged down in the toe area. Nothing. He turned it upside down to look at the sole. Nothing. Running out of ideas, he held it up to the sun and turned it slowly around looking for inspiration.
Then he saw it. A tiny drop of water like a diamond in the sunlight, seeped slowly from a faint line between the heel and the rest of the sole and fell like a wept tear. He hadn’t noticed before, but he suddenly realised that the heel was rather large for a man’s shoe, at least an inch and a half thick. Moriarty was a bit on the short side, so perhaps the original pair had been designed to make him appear taller.
He watched as a second and then a third droplet emerged and fell from the heel. He held the shoe in two hands now and picked at the line, which looked like a join. He tried to force his fingernail into it but couldn’t. He tried twisting it, tried pulling the upper away and then as he was fiddling, he felt the smallest of movements.
There was now a slight ridge at the back of the heel as if it hadn’t been put on straight. He repeated the movement and the heel moved backwards, rather stiffly at first and then smoothly as it slid all the way back and off the sole with a small shower of water, which must have got in when it went overboard.
He turned the heel over and saw that it had been hollowed out. Wedged into the void was a small canister no bigger than a cotton reel with a lid at one end. Laxton thought back to what Moriarty had told him when they had first met: that he had been marooned by pirates who thought he had a treasure map. Were they right after all?
He prised out the canister and twisted off the lid. Inside was a roll of waxed paper. He took it out and unrolled it. Not a map exactly, but a drawing of a building and a plan of the rooms indicating the location of a hidden object. There were notations all around the drawing with arrows pointing to various parts of the plan. There were numbers too and rhymes and riddles, none of it making the remotest sense to Laxton.
But he recognised the building.
He had to work quickly. His morals prevented him from simply stealing the map but if he could copy it somehow…
When he had first arrived on the island with the Navy ship The Dido, some of the sailors had bought souvenirs from the islanders. Mainly shell-art, carved whale bones, wooden statues, that sort of thing, but he remembered that one family sold pictures on ornate pieces of wood, which they made using a hot shark’s-tooth pen to burn the images onto the timber. He ran down to their hut and, using a mixture of sign language and the few words he had learned in the local language, he was soon in possession of an exact copy of the treasure map burnt into a little wooden plank.
He got back to the boat just as he heard Moriarty’s booming voice announce his arrival back in the village. Laxton stowed the plank in the bottom of the boat, then carefully rolled up the original and placed it back in the canister inside the recess. He slid the heel back into place and tied the shoe back onto the mast.
“What ho! Pearmain! Look lively man, I’ve got rather chummy with the chief here, and he’s invited us over for supper.”
“Oh, really,” replied Laxton, trying to sound excited. “You must be popular. He doesn’t invite just anyone you know.” Laxton and the chief exchanged a brief look, unseen by Moriarty, who was puffing out his chest even further than usual.
“Well, what can I say? People just seem to warm to me. Magnetic personality, don’t you know." He finished, guffawing to himself with a noise like an asthmatic donkey.
All Laxton could do was sigh deeply, content with the inner knowledge that he would soon be far out of earshot of this prize prat.
A little while later, they arrived at the chief’s house to the sight, sound and smell of a feast being prepared. A wild hog was roasting over a fire and there were all kinds of fresh fish and exotic fruits by the barrow load. There was also a huge vat of the famous local drink, which was fermented from three special kinds of berries and a unique kind of coconut found only on the island. The islanders called it Vaka Totolo which means ‘quickly sleep’.
Acting on Laxton’s instructions, Famalualua had created a rather special brew which he had poured into in a separate jug, especially for the guest of honour.
The evening went off extremely well. Laxton had correctly guessed that Moriarty would not be able to resist any challenge to ‘down in one’ cups of the potent concoction so, after several, well-orchestrated challenges and a couple of hours, the unsuspecting adventurer was fast asleep and would remain so, in the chief's opinion, for about three days.
Now in case any of you might be thinking that Laxton was going against his promise to do no harm, you would be wrong. The rejuvenating effects of three days' sleep, induced by the consumption of super strength Vaka Totolo, was often used by the islanders to restore physical health after illness or injury.
Moriarty's mental health, when he awoke to find he was yet again marooned, was a different matter, but he had been and continued to be an insufferable bore, so it wasn’t long before the islanders gave him a boat to get rid of him.
At dawn, the morning after the feast, Laxton once more said his goodbyes and his heartfelt thanks to the people of Vanatatamanuatu and for the fourth and final time in his life he sailed away from the tiny island. He had untied the precious shoe, now fully dried out, and left it with the rest of Moriarty’s possessions, in the care of Famalualua.
By the time Moriarty was waking up from, what actually turned out to be a four-day slumber, feeling somewhat disorientated but strangely rejuvenated, Laxton Pearmain was charting what he hoped was a northerly course, towards China. He had a long way to go and there would be adventures and diversions before he got there, but for once in his life he had a goal to aim for.
His final destination would be the famous Mongol Palace, the location, according to Moriarty’s map, of the long-lost Solomon Sapphire, one of the nine wonders of the ancient world.
He just had to get there before Moriarty.
But that's another story....
Drawings by Rosie Middleton