Chapter 1: Dink
Based on a series of true events
January 20th, 2010
Every beach has its own sound. A unique and distinctive oceanic onomatopoeia. This lapping shore tide was the complex tinkle of broken coral. Musical. Magical. Each tiny wave disturbed the coralline sands to repeat the peculiar meditative mantra.
Sitting under a stunted tree fringing the bay, Dink stared out at North Point. His favourite Australian wide-brimmed hat sat askew to shade his angular face from the afternoon sun. A deeply lined tan spoke of a lifetime of exposure to the elements. Along the break wall, the pinkish granite boulders sparkled with sea spray as the easterly swell smacked their hard, round bellies. A scattered flotilla of small fishing boats spread out across the calm bay west of the break wall, and a rowboat cut languidly through the glassy water. Colourful wooden shacks rimmed the harbour and the infrequent yet unmistakable sound of metal on metal emanating from within spoke of focused labours.
Dink was aware of him before he sighted him. A presence rounding the tip of Route Nord, the northern road on the island of La Bajan. From the westernmost shacks, loud but friendly passing greetings drifted towards Dink as the stranger progressed along the road. Dink’s gaze tracked to the farthest stretch of pavement where, emerging from between the dense roadside palm thickets, an athletic figure on a bicycle rode into view. His features were not clear at this distance, but his smooth, calm movements spoke of confidence. He waved casually and yelled reciprocated greetings whilst exchanging light banter with the fishermen in their shacks. The tone was amiable and the warmth and respect evident. Riding on for fifty metres, the figure stopped to chat with a man who had just emerged from an orange and yellow shack in the apex of the bay. The yellow walls of the fishing shack silhouetted the two dark figures; the fisherman short and stocky with a slight paunch, and the man standing astride his bicycle tall and slim with a narrow waist and broad shoulders. Dink could barely make out the conversation at this range, but it appeared to be idle chatter. Money and a heavy plastic bag passed to the fisherman, who appeared reluctant to accept the offerings.
“No, my friend, it’s too much,” the fisherman’s lilting Sedois Island accent was full of inflection.
“C’mon man, you earned it.” Opening his hands palm outwards he declined to take back the offerings. “And I don’t want you to starve.” Both tilting their heads downwards to inspect the fisherman’s rounded abdomen, they laughed heartily. The exchange was completed with a common island saying, “And don’t tell me what I can’t do!”This old expression stemmed from the tough early years of inhabiting this isolated island. Hardy folk eked out a living any way they could. Positivity was essential.
“Yes. Yes. You’re too funny for your own good, Ajay. But I appreciate the fruits. I’ll bring the snapper to your house tomorrow.”
Widening his arms out to a metre span, Ajay jested, “Catch me a sea monster, Gregoire!”
The fisherman promised to do his best. They parted with a warm handshake, and Gregoire disappeared back into the shaded shack and Ajay back on the pedals cycling in Dink’s direction.
Dink felt the strong equatorial sun on his bare belly and legs. He visualised the ultraviolet rays hovering and warming, in his mind like the crimped heat haze of a desert mirage. The thought of the desert made him wince. Dink was sitting in paradise but couldn’t relax. Too much had happened in the past few days for his mind to be clear. You stupid fool!he admonished himself. Everything had been going so well, all to his and Kylie’s rough ‘life plan’, but Dink had ruined it in an instant. Despite his tiredness, this sobering reality still seemed like a bad dream. He was not yet ready to reflect thoroughly on recent events. Instead, closing his eyes he listened to the soothing tinkle of the tidal bay. Dink could remember other beaches with distinct sounds that all held special places in his life experience; the pobble of Positano pebble beaches, the swoosh of fine white Caribbean shores, or the squeak of Aussie beaches full of silica. This soothed him and he smiled at the thought of these places and the people the memories evoked.
The strong voice startled him slightly. “Yes. Good day, man?”
“Not bad,” came Dink’s automatic response. He opened his eyes to see the man standing over his bicycle and smiling at him from the roadside. Ajay introduced himself cheerfully, complete with a glint of white teeth and the sparkle of golden-brown eyes.
Sizing him up, Dink could sense the relaxed ease of this man and perceived a good spirit. “I’m Joe, but most people call me Dink.” He noted that Ajay was athletic, just under six-feet tall, and with a happy face and tight black curly hair. His straight fine nose enhanced his handsome countenance. Ajay had noticeably lighter skin than the other Sedois Island locals Dink had seen.
“You’ve found a great spot.” Ajay nodded at Dink’s position before turning to look over his shoulder and scan the coastline of North Point, the break wall, and the tranquil bay.
“Truly stunning,” Dink said, and meant it.
“Paradise in the Sedois Islands, man.” Ajay’s exuberant grin was like a beacon.
“I’m annoyed that my phone broke.” Dink’s arm sweep indicated the magnificence of the exotic surrounds. “I can’t take any photos of your beautiful island.” His face betrayed his genuine disappointment.
“We can sort that out, mate. No worries.” Many Aussie colloquialisms were familiar to Ajay and he had disarmed Dink.
“Have you been to Oz?”
“No, but I’ve met a few Aussies. Some of them were even nice.”
Dink raised an eyebrow but was used to this game between males. “They would’ve been from New Zealand!” he retorted snappily, and they enjoyed the joke. A brief but comfortable silence ensued. They stared out at the expansive ocean glistening in the afternoon sun.
“If you want, I’ll show you something special nearby,” Ajay offered.
“Perfect.” Dink gradually stood up, stiff-limbed after the prolonged posture. He grabbed his shirt off the ground and swung it over his shoulder.
Propping his bicycle against a salt-encrusted casuarina tree, Ajay strode inland along a small dirt path that appeared to head into thick forest. Dink followed. After a short walk the path widened, and small rough fields lay either side of the track and extended about a third of the way up the mountain behind. A dozen tall but wizened oxen grazed in the fields. Each ox was tethered by fraying ropes to large wooden stakes driven into the ground. Neat circles were cropped by the beasts and radiated out from their central restraints.
“This is the only place on the island where we can farm,” Ajay explained, “as everywhere else is too dry, or the soil too sandy.” He gestured towards the imposing granite tor that set a dramatic backdrop to the ox-farms. “Everything comes down from Mont Centrale, the fertile soil and abundant water.”
“It’s an impressive mountain for such a small island.” Dink craned his neck to better view the peak.
“The view is incredible but it’s tough to climb with the heat and humidity.” Ajay explained that it was over two hundred metres high and couldn’t be climbed from this direction, only from La Porte.
Dink mopped his saturated brow. “Perhaps we leave that for another day.”
Ajay was leading and headed left at the fork in the path that began skirting the fields. Crossing a small, deep rivulet by hopping across a few conveniently located stones, they entered a light-shaded forest full of banana trees. With the sun behind them, the forest ahead glimmered an unusual iridescent green that was pleasant but eerie. Darting up the trunk of the banana palm was a beautifully camouflaged small green lizard. Faint purplish spots and a cream-coloured throat were the only markings distinguishing it from the background. Dink was perspiring heavily and felt a ponderous tiredness creeping over him as he strode past several elevated wooden vegetable gardens. These were carpeted with ridiculously healthy-looking plants; lettuce, beans, tomatoes, and herbs.
“Yes, Jules!” Ajay called out to announce them as they approached a rickety dwelling. He turned back to Dink to check on him. “You OK, man? You’re sweating pretty hard.”
“I’m fine. Big night last night,” he explained with economy of effort but was feeling vaguely faint from his exertions and was glad to stop in the cool forest.
Ajay turned back towards the house as a painfully thin man emerged from the doorway, clearly waking from a nap. He was bare-chested and was all ribs and pointed bones. He was completely bald but soft downy white hair sat in a neat triangular patch on his sunken chest. Squinting hard to get better focus, he recognised Ajay and smiled broadly, his face appearing almost to crack in half with pure joy. “Ajay! It’s so good to see you, son.” They hugged warmly. “I didn’t know you were coming to visit.”
“It was a surprise decision, Jules. I had some business with Gregoire at North Point. I want you to meet my friend Dink. He’s from Australia.”
Jules said hello, peering around Ajay to eyeball Dink intently. “Any friend of Ajay’s is a friend of mine. He saved my life, you know.”
Ajay was visibly uncomfortable with this praise. “Oh c’mon, Jules. I just gave you a few farming tips.”
Jules started to add an explanation but stopped short. “All you need to know, Dink, is this man has a good heart, and is a friend to all.” His voice broke slightly, and his yellowed eyes misted. “He’s like a son to me.”
“I can tell he’s a kind man,” Dink offered.
Ajay placed a hand onto Jules’ bony shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. He looked him in the eye. “Thank you, my friend. Can I introduce Dink to J-C?”
“Of course. He’s up behind the chicken yard.” He swished his arm in the direction past the back of the house. “I won’t come up with you. I might go back inside to rest; I’m feeling my age today.”
“That old!” Ajay teased.
The old man smirked and shot Ajay a feigned irritated look before turning to Dink. “Nice to meet you, young man. I hope that you enjoy La Bajan.”
Dink was sure he would, already convinced of that after just half a day on the island. He was equally chuffed to be called a young man.
“And you, Ajay, come anytime, but the mornings are better when I’m more spritely.”
“Look after yourself, Jules. I’ll try to pass by in the next few days.”
Stooping lower than seemed necessary, Jules disappeared back into the darkness of his house.
“It was nice to meet you,” Dink directed the words into the lightless void as Ajay strode forward past the hut. Dink noticed that the chipped wooden doorframe was tilted at an angle, and there was no door. Despite entering only moments before, there was no sight or sound of Jules from inside.
“You’re going to love J-C,” Ajay predicted as he led the way. “He’s ninety years old.”
“Kind of.” Ajay looked perplexed, seeking the appropriate explanation. “More like a soul mate.”
“Righto!” Dink was pretty confused but at least this cryptic adventure had given him renewed energy.
They passed a dirt chicken run with scruffy fowl scratching wearily in the corners and, beyond this, Dink could see a large redwood tree dominating the area. It was festooned with a pale-green fleshy vine that cascaded down towards the ground, stopping neatly about a metre above the ground in a defined horizontal line, like a professionally trimmed fringe. Below the fringe, Dink could make out a dark mound that appeared to move.
Ajay stopped short of this and announced, “This is Jean-Claude, or J-C for short.”
Dink was stunned. A giant land tortoise peered towards him with large, intelligent eyes. It was huge, at least a metre long and nearly as high, with adjacent hexagonal shell pieces as large as dinner plates. Extending a fleshy neck, it reached up to feed on the overhanging vine. Thick, strong legs supported the weight of the carapace whilst hefty black nails gripped the ground. Dink was reminded of childhood images from The Tortoise and the Harestory books. Aesop’s Fables indeed!
“That’s incredible,” Dink stated in disbelief. “I didn’t know these creatures still existed.”
“La Bajan paradise, man.” Ajay beamed with pride and satisfaction. He explained that the tortoises are native to the Sedois Islands, although only a few of the old reptilian creatures remain. These were mainly in the forest of Mont Centrale where human encroachment was minimal. Traditional island custom had been to gift each infant child a young tortoise so that they would have company throughout their life.
Thinking that, if this practice had continued, there would be a lot of tortoises running around, Dink queried, “As a pet?”
Ajay looked a bit disappointed and his voice rose in pitch as he explained, “Man, more spiritual that that. A friend. A permanent companion in life.” He informed Dink that these tortoises may live to be over two hundred years old, they were surprisingly agile, and clearly have intelligence. “You know that J-C will outlive Jules.”
“Sorry, Ajay. It’s just a lot to take in right now.” Dink was feeling as if he had fallen through the looking glass. What a place this is!He wondered if Kylie would believe him when he explained the afternoon he’d had.
Ajay was now softly caressing Jean-Claude’s shell, tracing the bands between the articulated plates. J-C responded to the touch, standing taller and stretching upwards to initiate firmer contact. Like a cat being petted. The popular local belief was that tortoises love being stroked but you must not scratch them, especially around the bands where nerves were highly sensitive.
Dink stepped forward slowly, aware of the sharp beak-like mouth of this giant tortoise. Tentatively, he reached to stroke the front portion of the upper shell. The classic Divinyls’ lyric popped into his head, ‘It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.’ J-C rose to meet his hand and looked towards him to make eye contact. Dink was freaked out by this clear interaction. He was exhausted before this day began and this was an amazing experience. Outrageous, and overwhelmingly strange. But truly amazing.
“My wife, Kylie, would love J-C.” He smiled at Ajay. “Can I bring her another time to meet him?”
“Sure, man. It won’t be a problem with Jules.” Ajay subconsciously glanced at his watch. “I look forward to meeting her.”
They sat at peace with Jean-Claude for a few more minutes before Ajay suggested they start to head back. “I have some business in La Porte.”
“No worries.” Dink pondered whether Kylie was wondering where he was. She might still be asleep, he mused, as she had crashed on the bed as soon as they arrived on La Bajan.
Retracing their way back to the coastal road, Ajay retrieved his bike. He started as he remembered something. “Oh yeah. Man, I’ve got a spare phone at home. It’s old but it takes good photos.”
Dink was overcome by the unexpected generosity. “I can’t take your phone. It’s not right.”
“It’s the island way. Where are you staying?” Ajay must have been in a hurry as his rate of speech quickened and the words ran together.
“Javette’s guesthouse, near the church.”
“Man, we’re virtually neighbours. Javette is a good friend of my parents.” Ajay would drop past tonight about six o’clock.
Dink hesitated, thinking this was a big imposition and he could easily get the phone tomorrow. “I don’t want to put you out.”
“I’ll see you then, man!” Ajay was already riding down the road laughing and waving.
Dink would soon realise that once Ajay had set his mind to something, he was difficult, if not impossible, to dissuade. He was an irresistible force. Ajay continued to cycle smoothly next to the bay. The heat of the day had subsided, and the fishermen were standing bare-chested outside their huts trying to catch the breeze. Shouting noisy salutations to Ajay, a cacophony erupted into a loud cheering, acknowledging his progress. As Ajay disappeared along the road, the commotion subsided. Dink was impressed, thinking, This bloke knows everyone.