Spontoon Island
home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
comic strips - editorial - souvenirs - Yahoo forum

Extracts from a Diary
by Amelia Bourne-Phipps
-edited by Simon Barber-

"Songmark Solstice" part 6
Entry of 11 January, 1935 (continued backdate of 9th & 10th)

(Continued entry of 11 January, 1935; including backdated 9th & 10th)

 It was as a somewhat hushed group that we left the Sanatarium, and returned towards the water taxi. Certainly,  the Gunboat Wars feature in the general history books written in Europe, but only as a very minor affair – considering that each of the combatants saw it as a small skirmish involving a squadron at most of their own Fleet, except the Spontoonies who suffered the full effect of all of them ! 
 Helen looked quite serious, as I noticed when she carefully watched the workers and figures on the dock as if looking for someone.  When we returned to South Island and had some time alone while the Hoele’toemis talked with the water taxi lady, she confessed to being unsure just how we had “gotten off the hook so darn easy”, to use her quaint turn of phrase. She pointed out that we were lucky indeed to have already been in the affections of a prominent Native family – and not to have tried to brazen it out against whatever Organisation strongly disapproved of our surveying work. I recalled the elder mentioning that if we had refused to cooperate, we would be cut off – and at the time, I thought he merely meant cut off from friendly contact with the locals.  Helen’s interpretation of “cut off” is more on the lines of “cut off tragically in the bloom of youth”, as the newspaper obituaries phrase it.
 Despite all this, our spirits rose as the sun came out, and we were invited to join a fishing expedition. We agreed immediately, having seen few fishing fleets close-to in Term time – Jirry explained that Eastern Island is too near Casino Island, the waters around which become less than healthy in Tourist Season. One of the advertised features of the “Waterworks Project” will be to fix that problem in the years to come: it seems that some combinations of wind and tide have already left tourist beaches looking (and smelling) rather more like the Thames shore downstream of London, than unspoiled Tahiti. 
 The boats we were shown around were sailing outrigger canoes, not particularly decorated except for a carved figurehead at the bow. Helen looked a little nervous still, though whether at the prospect of her stomach letting her down again on the choppy waters, or of being “taken for a ride” as Molly would put it, I scarcely liked to inquire. Still, folk would hardly have spent the time and trouble to tell us their semi-secret History if they had not intended us to make some use of it – that would be as unbelievable as a villain in a film telling a Secret Agent his plans for world conquest before he “bumps him off” .
 With a stiff Easterly breeze we almost flew out of North Bay, heading out around the West coast to the channel between there and Main Island,  where the tidal currents must have been adding a good ten knots to our speed. (I know the strait is half a mile wide, and even without a stopwatch and notebook, all the stiff Navigation lessons we took last term seem to have sunk in.) A splendid afternoon indeed, with the excitement of landing sea bass and tunny by hand. Tourist fishing boats have specially reinforced seats like barber-shop chairs with the rods secured to them, but Jirry showed me how to wrap myself around the mast and brace the fishing rod against the cleats for much the same effect.  The other fishermen were all lizard-types, which the books assure me are the islands’  earliest inhabitants, their portraits being carved on the impressively Cyclopaean masonry  that graces the park on Casino Island. There is a nice statue of a great green water-lizard in the square of Meeting Island, that looks as if it has been here since the year dot, if not longer.
 The tide took us round the Southern tip of the island, to within sight of the reefs that ring the main Spontoon group. Being low tide, some of the reefs were exposed, and I spotted definite movement out there – indeed, I could have sworn someone waved to us before slipping into the waves with a very oddly flowing motion. Strange indeed – there was certainly no boat to be seen, and with the currents fairly roaring along as the tide turned, it was hardly possible for anyone but a fish to have swum out there.  I wonder exactly what Jirry’s Aunt Millini meant by her hints about the Spontoonies being helped by Natives who were from “no island at all”? 
 To add to the mystery, the steersman sent us towards the reef a fair way before pulling us up into its shelter – when Jonni in the next boat stood up in the bows and with great ceremony threw a large and perfectly good sea bass back into the water by the reef. It floated for a few seconds and then sank – though it looked somehow more as if it had been dragged underwater, rather than sinking in the regular way. I might have thought there were sharks about, but there was no sign of the fins breaking the surface.
 As the sun began to set, we stowed our catches and headed back, not to North Bay indeed but towards Ranganoa Beach on the Southerly side of the island. Being used to returning rented boats to the park-keeper (my main boating experiences having been on the Upper Thames before coming out here) it seemed a little strange,  until I realised that with a boat and a good wind, the Natives can literally go where their fancy and the currents take them. Even our fishing vessel was liberally supplied with at least a dozen gallon cans of water, should an unexpected squall blow us out into the open Ocean.
 Landing through the surf proved Interesting – with the ocean breakers coming in through a break in the reef, the beach was a mass of white roaring surf, decidely not for casual bathing in. Yet the six Native fishermen plus Jirry and Jonni paddled hard for the shore – and somehow caught the wave quite perfectly to have it drive up the beach rather than founder in foam. One suspects they have been practicing this.
 Helen seemed very grateful to be on “terra firma” again – hopefully she is exaggerating the dangers of our poking around the Spontoonies’ secret projects. After all, there are Embassies of at least a dozen countries that I have noticed on Casino Island – and some of them surely have professional Agents on call to do such explorations.  I confided as much to her, pointing out that anything we could discover is surely common knowledge to anyone who really cares to look – after all, the Waterworks Project is mentioned most weeks in the local newspaper, the “Daily ‘Elele” in some aspect or another.
 Helen’s response was a somewhat gloomy one, pointing out that if the Spontoonies knew their cover was truly “blown” (as they say in the talkies), they would hardly be carrying on with such a hugely costly project, depending as it does on secrecy to have any chance against a modern invader.  She tells me she has noticed in the local papers a tendency for off-season visitors and the like to have “tragic swimming accidents”, something that very rarely seems to affect the Natives, despite their being exposed to the same risks of sharks, currents etc far more often. Possibly we might be seeing the fate of those same Agents – a “chilling” prospect in more ways than one.
 Still, for the time being we seem to have got away with it, and our luck is holding up despite occasional creaking as of walking on thin ice (NOT a substance to trust in this climate, true enough.) Even Helen cheered up when we reached Haio village, carrying our nets of fish, to be greeted very warmly by the Haio’Toemi family and their neighbours.  Moeli was there with her sister, and seemed quite impressed – of course, being of the feline persuasion one expects us to enjoy fish, though not necessarily the soaking to the skin involved in catching it. Our freshly oiled fur, as it happens, now feels comfortable ten minutes after being saturated, and perfectly dry in half an hour. Quite an innovation – though I fear it would not go well in “polite Society” back Home.
 While the fish was being cooked, Moeli came and chatted, quite keen on showing us round the village, almost like an Estate Agent eager to make a binding sale. I blushed indeed when she recounted to Saimmi my skill with weaving, fishing and the like – all the domestic Virtues that seem in great demand around here. Spotting her brother, she called him over and then left us alone, just at the edge of the fire light – having first whispered to remind me of the improvements I had asked her about earlier.
 As the meal would certainly take some time to cook, Jirri and I went for a stroll under the bright Winter moonlight – and I mentioned that I admired Moeli’s figure, and would like one just like it. Which was a perfectly innocent question, as Moeli had provided us with a greatly improved fur condition for the climate – I thought she must be referring to Jirry being able to supply some exotic local ingredients from the bottom of the reef, or somewhere Moeli felt uncomfortable in going. Jirry’s response was very odd – he kissed me quite uncharacteristically boldly, looked into my eyes with a kind of worried sincerity, and asked me if I truly wanted that. Rather puzzled, I agreed – at which he embraced me closely, and confided that his Family would certainly approve, though I should make sure my own people would not object.
 Most puzzling! One wonders if there is some sort of taboo on cosmetic improvements around here. We returned to the firelight just as the scent announced to that side of the island that the fish was ready. A lively evening followed,  with the neighbours bringing out their flutes, drums and guitars. Despite all the marvelous Starkness of Futurist music, there is something very stirring about this Island music. It would be hard to automate, unless one produced a Flute and Treble machine.
 One of the Neighbours asked me if I missed the songs of my Homeland – which indeed I suppose I would, after a few years with no radio or gramophones to carry it to this side of the globe. Alas, in the Spontari Guest House this holiday, most of the music from England emanates from Soppy Forsythe’s supercharged gramophone – and is inflicted on us by the fiendish comic Lancastrian  Ukelele player, George Formless.  (Some of the Senior girls have been irritating Soppy by insisting that George Formless is actually a fictional character invented by the War Department to deter invasion.  The Chinese Water-Torture is a delight compared with the Lancastrian Ukelele Ordeal, especially from a singer who can play, sing and grin alarmingly at the same time.)
 After an excellent meal and a glass of palm wine, Helen and I retired to the women’s hut, where five of the neighbours and their relations seem to be spending the weekend.  One of them, Namoeta, is visiting from the distant Orpington Island, some two day’s sail away with a fair wind. I recall it from the charts, as just out of range of our Tiger Moths with full fuel tanks, a three hour flight. Definitely, air travel is making the world a smaller place.

 The next morning (January 10th),  we were awakened as usual by the combined crowing-power of what sounded like ten reinforced squadrons of chickens. I was sleepily remarking to Helen on the adjoining mat that it was a shame that such an alarm clock could not be turned off when to my amazement – the crowing stopped abruptly.  Namoeta walked in, looking pleased – Helen asked her jokingly if she spoke Chicken language – and was amazed when Namoeta claimed that she was learning to do so from her Great-Aunt,  who was famous for her abilities. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction around here – I must ask Ethyl if any of her lurid issues of the “Weird Tails” pulp magazine feature heroes or villains with amazing poultry control powers ?
 After breakfast, Saimmi took me for a stroll around the village, pointing out the various native shrines. Many of the longhouses have shrines, not under their roofs at all but some little distance into the jungle, along beach-sand paths decorated with shells.  Certainly, this seemed a charming view into the local culture – and very like my native Barsetshire, where even in hearing range of the church bells, one can often come across an ancient  rural shrine in the deep woodland, with evidence of authentic folk rituals sometimes still smouldering.
 Saimmi appears to speak perfectly good English when she chooses to, though with a rather odd accent. We arrived at a cluster of longhouses that must have been near the crashed Poll Giant Triplane, at which Saimmi was obviously well known and very welcome. She talked for a few minutes in her own language with some of the folk there, and then gestured towards a family hut, with six quite adorable kittens at play. One thing that struck me was their fur markings, some of which were quite different from the other villagers there. I commented as much, and Saimmi seemed pleased that I had spotted it so soon. 
 It seems, from what she told me, that although Casino Island has examples of most Institutions found in Europe, one thing that it has no need of is an orphanage.  The tradition seemed to have begun with the Gunboat Wars, with many orphans and bereaved parents following the civilian massacres – and the Natives living more “Traditional” lives deeper in the jungles decided to turn none away, but rather to adopt and raise them as their own.  Some of the traditions have evidently been expanded over the years – one adorable half-Persian girl I was told had been born on the island, her Mother having been a tourist who had visited and greatly enjoyed an earlier vacation. Saimmi pointed out some others with similar histories, remarking that only the local priesthood keep track of such things for geneological reasons – to the villagers, they are simply Family.
 Saimmi commented that in all circumstances,  the children of islanders are looked after, and that every year some more arrive in unusual circumstances. Quite a forward-thinking attitude, indeed, and one that some of the more “civilised” nations would do well to adopt.  I told her as much, and she added that several of her own family over the years had been “holiday presents”, whatever that may mean.
 On our return to the Hoele’toemi huts, I joined Helen for a wash, and recounted my conversations with Jirri and his sisters, remarking how very strange they seemed all of a sudden. As if to match, Helen’s complexion went a very strange colour, and she stared at me quite aghast as if I had grown an extra tail.  I quite failed to dodge her first playful swats with the wet towel, but managed to keep in front as she chased me round the hut, seeming half in shock and half bent double with laughter. Eventually she cornered me, gasping for breath and pinning me securely against a roof pillar as she asked if I really had no idea of Moeli’s Condition, which was responsible for her figure changing.  I must have looked rather blank, and so she spelled out in extremely short and simple words exactly what she meant – and what Jirry and the rest of his family had been assuming I had wanted to do.
 (Dear Diary – I think my ears must be still blushing even now, a day later – it would have been bad enough if it was just Helen who had spotted my misunderstanding, but what on earth am I going to tell the Hoele’toemis ?)
 Just as Helen released me and we went outside, there was a roar of engines and a big Caproni floatplane circled overhead. From the neat hatchet and firewood-bundle “fasces” insignia on its wings, it was a military transport – and for an instant I am sure we both wondered if the Spontoonies would have to put their defences to the test today. But then Helen laughed and gestured, pointing out that Maria would have to be arriving soon – and though term is two days from starting, having a day to spare is certainly good planning when travelling all the way from Italy. Though we are very keen to see her again and the rest of the class, it was a stern reminder that we have very little time left – despite the Songmark uniform being neat and comfortable, we have got quite accustomed to getting by on far less.
 Around Noon, Jirri returned from a fishing trip, with his brother Marti (much to Helen’s delight.) They mentioned a trip to Main Island, as they have to deliver some small freight to one of the Polynesian villages there – after which the rest of the day is all their own. Looking across the treetops to Main Island, one obvious attraction stood out – Mount Kiribatori, the highest peak on the Spontoon group, easily six thousand feet high. When I suggested it as a worthy final expedition of the holidays, Marti mentioned that he had climbed it before – but if we were to attempt it today, we had best start right away. 
 Quite a scurrying took place for supplies and equipment – even the Hoele’toemis wear sandals on rough territory, and we filled our bark satchels with enough food for a night out. Then down to the beach, load up the canoes and off in a steady Easterly wind and around the reef. Though we looked (and I had brought along my binoculars in preparation) there were no strange figures visible on the reef – beyond which the waters drop sheer away into the deep ocean, according to the sailing charts. As Jirry has not mentioned the “natives of no island” that I think we saw yesterday, I will not be asking him too many questions, but keep my eyes and ears decidedly open. 
 The weather turned brilliantly clear as we swung out into the straits, feeling the tugging of the currents. Marti commented that although the distance is little over a mile, very few people have ever swam it, and that depended on picking the exact time and tide. We fairly shot across to the far side, landing at Munorabte Village, one  we have often looked at from South Island – where the brothers’ business was quickly completed, and we set off into the jungle along a very steep and narrow trail.
 It was fortunate indeed that Marti had taken this way before, guiding some of the more adventurous visitors to the summit – maps would have been useless, as we could rarely see more than ten yards along the trail. But from the slope of the ground, I guessed the route went almost straight West across the backbone of the island, before starting to zig-zag steeply up from the Western side.  The distance was only a few miles, but even lightly laden as we were, five hours very strenuous climbing only saw us to where the jungle thinned out enough to permit a view through breaks in the trees.
 The sun was getting quite low by the time we left the jungle behind, emerging into an unexpected territory of short but very green scrub and grass, almost like a Swiss alpine meadow. The summit still towered above us, but even after such a climb, we made good time and arrived on the summit of Mount Kiribatori just as the sun touched the ocean rim behind us. Quite a view indeed! The mountain shadow stretched far out, partly touching Casino Island – and the windows of the hotels shone brightly reflecting its last rays. I could see the runway lights of Eastern Island just coming on as we watched, an aircraft approaching from the East with its navigation lights flashing cheerily. It was quite a contrast – standing there in our home-made Costume, with the brothers beside us, looking out over distant classrooms and hangars where some of our classmates should already be waiting. I could certainly imagine Miss Devinski instructing the senior years to start enforcing the curfew on those of us who had arrived early – certainly, despite term not having started, none of them will be heading out to celebrate on Casino Island without hard-earned Passes.
 Marti, meanwhile, had explored the Eastern side of the summit. Although it ended at a sheer precipice, easily twelve hundred feet of naked rock, there was a ledge a good twenty yards wide, carpeted with soft grass and sheltered from the wind by lorry-sized boulders.  He suggested it as a camping spot – Helen and I looked at each other and very eagerly agreed, being very keen on at least one completely free evening before having to return to the rules and restrictions of the Academy.
 Jirry had been carrying two close-woven pandanus palm mats tightly rolled, as had his brother – it turns out that they make a basic but quite effective tent, one mat acting as a groundsheet and the other arching over as a roof. Hardly waterproof, but the stars were coming out brilliantly, and the mats proved perfectly windproof.  We all sat outside the “tents” for an hour and more, talking quietly, as the night fell across the island chain below us. At last Helen and Marti retired to their shelter, and I was left with Jirry as the stars came out over the islands. 
 Though I had been somewhat dreading how to open the subject, I certainly had to explain the misunderstanding of last night – I had no idea that Moeli was expecting a kitten in late Summer, and my own plans had not really included one of my own, at least not while I am still at Songmark! Let alone what my Family might say, I could hardly think of facing Miss Devinski and confessing to being the one who ignored advice and broke the Academy’s (currently spotless, at least in public) reputation. Jirry was very understanding, though for an instant looked a little troubled. I discovered why, when I suggested we retire out of the wind – having accepted what he thought was my invitation to add to the Hoele’toemi clan, naturally he had brought nothing to Prevent him doing so! Judging by the sounds from the next shelter, it seemed a poor time to ask Marti if he had any to spare (and knowing Helen, it seemed an unlikely bet).
 Still – it was a very pleasant Experience, just to share the shelter, looking out over the starlit islands, with such excellent company.  I assume that his Family had given approval for this evening out, as at his home village the domestic arrangements are officially quite “respectably” segregated, as we might say at home. Again, I was hardly looking forward to making my excuses to them the next day, after they had been so supportive of me. I fell asleep, dreaming in his most welcome embrace.
 And then – Dear Diary, I hardly know how to confess this. I awoke to a quite perfect dawn, our mountaintop the only piece of land in the light for a few minutes while the sun rose above the far horizons. Jirry was fast asleep still, and appeared to be having a most pleasant dream - I had been breathing his very clean and healthy scent all night, which is perhaps a factor but hardly an excuse.  For I confess to having being very – Unladylike indeed, and utterly throwing caution to the winds. Not what I had planned at all ! Neither had Jirry, but at the time I confess to being in a wholly unreasonable mood and in no mood to argue. Poor Jirry ended up somewhat tattered, with some tufts of fur missing (by MY claws – how Could I ?) and I felt indeed most gloriously sleek and relaxed afterwards. 
Oh dear.

 Breakfast was a rather subdued affair, with Helen and Marti in a most spirited mood by contrast – Helen somewhat bitten on the ear and the scruff of her neck, and Marti looking as if he had been wrestling with a briar bush, but neither of them seem to mind in the slightest.  How on earth I am going to explain all this, I have no idea at all – and I could have done without Helen’s comment that even at Songmark, only a few of us would be truly fit and healthy enough to make this climb with so much energy to spare.  We packed and were on the trail in a few minutes, heading into the shadows behind the summit. The only direct way down the East face of Mount Kiribatori would involve a good run-up and perfect judgement with steering the parachute away from the cliff face – though the idea of parachutes reminded me too much of other safety equipment we were not carrying for this trip…
 I let Marti and Helen lead the way on the trail, dropping back to have a quiet conversation with Jirry, who seems as shaken as I am (and rather more scratched.) I have decided to look on the bright side – should anything Happen, his family at least will be very pleased with me. And if not, I will be spared an embarassing interview with Miss Devinski and an even more embarassing letter home.  Until then – I refuse to worry till I know there is anything to worry about!
 We arrived back at Munorabte Village around noon, with the weather changing to look quite threatening – the mountain behind us was already quite hidden in rolling clouds.  Embarking on the boats, we saw the rest of the fishermen heading home in a hurry, with dark squalls hanging ominously above Eastern Island. Getting back proved a challenge, as we had to tack back and forth half way to Casino Island in the gusting wind before rounding the curving tip of land into North Bay.  Not where we had intended landing, but one look at the breakers crashing over the reefs had been enough to persuade us to take whatever harbour we could reach.  The four of us managed to pull the outrigger canoe right up the beach and secure her to a mooring ring, before the curtain of rain arrived, soaking us to the fur in scarcely half a minute. A damp end to an eventful trip, indeed! Just how eventful, I will avoid mentioning to Helen, who is looking so pleased with herself it would be a shame to worry her and spoil her mood.
 With a glance up at the hillside to the East towards the Spontari Guest House, we took the coral road back through the dripping woods to Haio Village, arriving just in time to dry out before a late luncheon. It was rather a strain to tear ourselves away from the Hoele’toemis, and set our minds towards classes and lectures, after this holiday. But all good things come to an end, and after a lingering farewell with Jirry, I set out on the long and damp road back towards the hotel “strip” and the Guest House. In the circumstances, I said nothing to Jirry’s family, and accepted a most affectionate hug from Moeli in the spirit in which it was intended.
 (Later). At last, I am up to date, Dear Diary. It is evening, and Mrs. Tanoaho is calling for “lights-out” in half an hour. The first thing we did on arrival was to take a long, hot bath with powerful soap – it has probably quite spoiled our waterproofing, but afterwards we looked and smelt rather more like young ladies of the Academy than we have done for weeks. Our Songmark shirts and slacks are pressed and ironed all ready for tomorrow – we will have to try and get back into a “civilised” frame of mind somehow. The cringe-making tones of George Formless and his dreaded Ukelele are filtering through the door from “Soppy” Forsythe’s room across the corridor – so as Helen says, reminding ourselves how fine Civilisation is might be quite a struggle. She will be wearing her hat tomorrow to hide her bitten ear (which she swears she hardly felt at the time) from casual view, and even now she is grooming it in the mirror with evident pride. I finally understand how the students at Heldelberg and other argumentative places can take pride in duelling scars, which I always thought an extremely silly idea.
 And so to bed – with four walls and a roof around us, and a curfew keeping us in.  One thing I know we will be learning next term – advanced methods of getting out of Songmark Academy, whatever the tutors and the Senior years may put in our way. Possibly Molly and Maria are there already – with their stories and souvenirs from their holiday. We two will have our excellent fur condition to show, after all the fresh air and salt water in the past weeks. Helen will no doubt show off her bitten ear, gained in “fair and honourable combat” as Father’s wound medals describe it. As for myself – whether or not I end up with a souvenir of my own, the next weeks will be definitely Interesting until I find out!