Spontoon Island
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Extracts from a Diary
by Amelia Bourne-Phipps
-edited by Simon Barber-
19 February, 1936 to 24 February, 1936

Tuesday 19th February, 1936

A lively time of it this afternoon, when Helen and I heard the familiar sound of conflict in the first-year dorms. We found Hannah Meyer and Liberty Morgenstern rolling on the floor fighting like cat and dog again, with both their dorms cheering them on. Liberty already had bleeding bite marks on her ear and Hannah’s nose was looking rather bashed – though Songmark is no beauty parlour, it seemed time to put a stop to it.

We did hesitate, but only because we both wanted to be the one to take Liberty down, Hannah being quite a polite and well-spoken girl when she is not sinking her teeth into her classmate. I let Helen do the honours and tackled Hannah myself, managing to pinion her rapidly without causing her much significant harm. Some folk might have thought Helen used excessive force, but when dealing with Liberty that hardly applies.

What a volatile year’s class this is. It seems that it had started perfectly harmlessly with folk getting nostalgic about the foods they love at home, only Rumiko and Saffina really liking Poi. Liberty described her local New Haven dishes, the approved People’s Diet served in all Workers’ Facilities being based on scrapple and scrod. Liberty has told us before about New Haven forbidding the private ownership of food and what happens to criminals caught hoarding dangerous contraband like a can of beans. Though “scrod” seems to be nothing but young cod, scrapple is a pork dish and Hannah objected to Liberty championing it being compulsory. One might say things went downhill from there.

Miss Nordlingen arrived to take over from us, and quietly wrote us a note for Song Soda. Hurrah! Though we might get there once a week, it is irksome to always have Maria paying for us, and I only wished she was not off today on her Reporting classes so she could share our good fortune (all staff notes like this have a time limit, and are “not transferable” to other people as are rail warrants.)

Song Sodas was actually quite full, as it is the only place of its kind on Eastern Island apart from the harbour cafes. There were various pilots in there and a scattering of Third-years, all happily enjoying the dozen flavours of ice-cream and Nootnops Red. Despite most Songmark girls stuffing their Suggestions Box every time we come here, they refuse to stock the Blue.

Though there were quite a few airways uniforms and the local “Euro” fashions to be seen, we did spot one unusual costume, a small Mouse girl in very plain oriental robes rather like the ones we use in our self-defence classes. She was trying very hard not to look at Belle and her native friend, who were being rather too affectionate in public – I was about to have a quiet word with them when Miss Devinski patrolled through and they suddenly practiced their angelic choir girl impressions. Perhaps the Mouse is from Main Island; we have seen various oriental villages there but not yet explored them in detail.

Anyway, the ices were most welcome even at this time of year, Helen deciding again on the rather ferocious Durian ripple despite the smell. As she points out – it is surprising what you get a taste for if you try it. I might try a fish flavoured ice cream if I ever saw one – I wonder if there is a market for them?

Thursday 21st February, 1936

Spring is definitely on the way! A sunny day, starting with our Tutors briefing us on a rather odd local event.

Although we missed it last year, on Main Island there is a massive swarming of land crabs at this sort of time, when they all head down to the beach at full moon to lay their eggs under the sand. This might be nothing more than a nice nature ramble, but the crabs tend to snack on any growing crops on the way and local farmers invite their friends and relations to divert them. Crab soup is a local delicacy this time of year.

Anyway, both us and the third-years are to consider ourselves on call this week and are warned to catch up on all the sleep we can. Furthermore, after the crab hunt we will be handed to the local Militia instructors for some sort of endurance training that neither our Tutors nor the third-years will explain. They do like to spring surprises on us.
We had rather a surprise after lunch, when it seems our Tutors have decided falling off rock faces is good for first-years as well as the rest of us. At any rate, we had the fairly easy job of escorting them there and demonstrating some of the basics. There are no distractions at that end of Eastern Island, and the knowledge they would soon have to be doing it themselves concentrated our juniors’ minds most wonderfully.

Tatiana was rather down in the dumps, as it seems Miss Nordlingen cancelled all Passes for her dorm for a month. Not so much for Liberty fighting, but for the rest of her dorm not breaking it up (Hannah’s dorm got the same). I hope the lesson on dorm solidarity is well learned, as Tatiana confesses she really wanted to go to Casino Island. I can’t think why, she is allowed to go to her Embassy when needed anyway and has often called the rest of the island a “sink of bourgeois depravity”.

I have to agree, our Tutor’s plans are rather well thought out – give them plenty of practical ways to prove themselves rather than sitting around arguing. By the end of the afternoon Liberty was heard to grumble that even if she is a member of the International Plutocracy, Hannah did get up the rocks faster than she did, and with a lot more style. A few hours of concentrating on sticking to a ledge really puts political theories in perspective, it seems. The more advanced climbs should be interesting to watch, as when dangling on a rope over a large drop, it is good to know the person holding the other end of it is a friend.

Liberty rarely talks to me given the choice, but she does talk to Molly and Beryl. Molly says she is almost tearing her fur trying to understand the “dialectic” of Spontoon. With as much certainty as anything preached in a church, Liberty’s view of the world is an inevitable overthrow of Imperialist and Plutocratic powers leading to a Worker’s State, kept forever pure and uncorrupted by continual revolution as Trotsky teaches. Once would be bad enough without making a habit of it, anyone might have thought. She tells us Trotsky has his base in Mexico, which might not be Red yet but presumably suits him as they already have the continual revolutions part right.

The trouble is, Spontoon actually left an Imperialist state a generation before Russia ever did and is free to be as Communist as the locals want to be – which by Liberty’s standards is hardly at all. Why it has failed to “progress” is causing her a headache, but she can buy her own aspirins. Beryl whispers she has some nice political spanners under construction to throw in the works when the time is right, which will probably cause Liberty more grief than Helen’s rather energetic quadruple hammerlock and tail hitch did on Tuesday.

Beryl usually lists her politics as Anarchist, and then happily spoils it all by announcing she approves of most institutions (with the possible exception of police stations.) I suppose a truly Anarchist state could not support prosperous banks, casinos and well-stocked jewellery stores, her favourite places. I think her idea of anarchy is best summed up by what I learned back in Saint Winfred’s in our Economics lessons:

“The good old rule, the simple plan
That those should take, who have the power
And they should keep, who can.”

Saturday 23rd February, 1936

Dear Diary: our Tutors had warned us, but it came rather a shock half an hour before lights-out to be conscripted for crab patrol! The moon was rising above the central Spontoon waters as we trooped off the water taxis at Main Village and joined parties of natives armed with fire brooms. Our dorm and Madelene X’s was told off to follow the group heading East to one of the plantations, as the crabs were already on the march.

Although I hardly appreciated it in the dark, Nennington Plantation is one of the oldest on the islands having a fine mansion house dating from 1860 that is used these days as the farming Co-operative headquarters. A sad come-down from its gracious early days when folk of good family planned and enjoyed the elegant rooms and laid down well-tended lawns that are now cassava plots. These islands have tried all sorts of crops, I have had exotics such as ginger and vanilla pointed out elsewhere on Main Island, but the fields we were guarding was a pineapple plantation. Land crabs love young pineapple shoots by all accounts, and can strip a field bare before sunrise.

It was quite eerie waiting in the dark at the edge of the fields. I could see quite well, but many of the other girls had to use their noses and ears for the first signs of crabs. Just before midnight we heard it, a rustling noise in the jungle – then we found out what we were up against.

The first land crab I saw, I laughed at, wondering what all the fuss was about. They are small, and my paw could easily cover one. But when the next fifty scuttled out, I stopped laughing and started swatting in earnest. They are very agile and very tough: our fire brooms are not meant to kill them (that would take a hammer) but to sweep them out of the way of the crops and shepherd them along to the beach.

I can see why the locals do not simply fence off their fields; land crabs can climb like spiders, and maintaining a good enough barrier round all the plantations would cost a fortune. The farm workers see this as an extra festival rather than a chore though, having prepared dozens of stout baskets that are the work of a minute to shovel full of the annoying crustaceans.

We were up all night, and I must have swept thousands of the things away from the fields. There was compensation, in the form of a crab soup breakfast /supper for everyone involved up at the plantation house.

Absolutely delicious. I begged one of the cooked whole crabs from the cook and did my best to sample it, but they only hold about an ounce of meat each that takes five minutes of delicate work to extract. Far more frustrating than satisfying, and I see why they are normally just boiled, pounded and the shells strained out of the soup.

By the end of all that, we were such a collection of drooping ears and tails as I have never seen, almost asleep on our paws. Most of us fell asleep on the water-taxi back, only managing to wake up to stagger off the dock up to our dorms, pull the curtains tight against the daylight and collapse on the beds. Most annoying that we miss our Dance lessons, but we would have been no earthly use. Instead of the Palm Sway, the only dances we could have managed might have names like the Toppling Tree or Collapsed Pile of Carpets.

I was up and around at noon, feeling decidedly hungry and none too keen on the usual weekend fare Songmark provides. It would have been such a let-down after dining at the plantation house, and after that supper I quite see why the farmers do not discourage the crabs more strongly. Helen and the rest were fast asleep despite Maria snoring on full throttle, so I left them to it. I pity Ada Cronstein though, who I met staggering in through the gates as she returned from her temple on Casino Island; apart from the usual attitude around here of “work hard play hard” she adds “pray hard” on a quite uncompromising schedule.

It was quite a novel experience, being on Casino Island on my own without a definite errand to run. A quick combined lunch and breakfast at a Popatohi stall was the first priority, followed by a leisurely hour of window-shopping. We can never forget that Molly still needs every cowry we can scrape together, and it would be awful for her to be thrown out for the lack of funds we spent on luxuries. Our Tutors have made it very plain that Songmark is strictly a business and if she is one cowry short, she goes.

I was admiring party frocks I can no longer afford, when in the reflection I spotted a familiar white-furred figure, with a long black-tipped tail waving nervously as she looked about herself. Tatiana almost jumped out of her fur when I clapped my paw on her shoulder in best Police style, and asked sternly what she was doing here without Passes. I know for a fact she has no pass to be here, none of her dorm has.

For half a minute she refused flat out to speak, though I noticed her ears were blushing brightly with embarrassment. Of all the tough situations we have been in on Vostok and elsewhere, there is only one place I have seen her embarrassed before – I hazarded a guess she had been back to the Double Lotus, and from her reaction I was right first time. She gabbled rather incoherently about being ordered to investigate sinister political meeting-places by her Embassy – but that would be a Duty, and she is stern as anything where that sort of thing is concerned. Besides, I pointed out that apart from the scent of fear on her, there was quite a different musk she did not get out of a perfume bottle.

By rights I should have frog-marched her right back to Songmark again and handed her over to our Tutors, then probably her whole dorm would spend their free time cursing her while peeling taro roots all this month. But there was little point in spoiling my afternoon as well, and unlike last time I had not actually been sent looking for her. I let her go on her way, looking fearfully around as if both the Vostok secret police forces were watching her – more so, in that she copes with that sort of thing very well.

Well! Life is full of surprises. Though it is a perfectly respectable place, the Double Lotus is not my idea of a social club. Had I not spotted Tatiana first, I am sure Prudence and her friends would have done so soon enough, and Prudence is more of a stickler for regulations than I am. I just hope Tatiana is more sensible about getting Passes the day they do find her in there, as discovering they share common interests will not stop Prudence from running her in.

Back to Songmark, to receive the unwelcome news that we are “stood to” ready for crab-swatting
tonight as well. Help!

Sunday 24th February, 1936

A busy night sweeping crabs till our whiskers drooped was followed by another very fine crab breakfast as the sun came up over LONO hill. Land crabs have an incredibly intense flavour, compared with the regular sort they are like anchovies next to cod. I was chatting with one of the plantation cooks before we left, who boils down any excess and bottles it for the rest of the year – I have occasionally seen jars of it privately sold in the market, though with only a few days a year to harvest the swarm, it is hardly a commercial product.

Helen commented that it would be handy stuff to have on the table if we had to eat Pastefish, those large and meaty fish we caught a lot of last Easter with the Noenoke clan and mostly threw back (they taste of wood pulp if anything, and are only used dried and ground for chicken fodder.) Molly’s ears and tail went right up at that, and in the matinee cartoons one would have seen a light-bulb switch on over her head. She announced she has a Plan, though she has several of those a week and nothing ever comes of it.

Although we were worn out, Helen and I knew where we wanted to be. With our yawning Tutors’ permission we headed down to South Island, and joined Mrs. Hoele’toemi for breakfast - or supper, depending on one’s timetable.

The guest longhouse was very welcome, more so when Jirry and Marti arrived from helping friends crab hunt elsewhere on Main Island. All though all we did was promptly close the shutters and fall asleep, I very much appreciated the company. Some folk are fussy about the need for glamour and grooming, but actually Jirry is just as pleased to see me even asleep on my feet and smelling of crustaceans as he is when I am dressed up and sparkling with energy. In fact, we had both been working hard for ten hours, and neither of us had the scent of a Paris perfume house – though I must say I far prefer this way. Waking up with his scent around me is such a fine thing.

Of course, by the afternoon we were fully refreshed and rested – which was just as well. I have never heard of crab soup having any special restorative powers, but I can certainly say that something did the trick very nicely.