By Will Randall
Published by Scribner
March 2003; 074324396X; 283 pages
Opening one eye, I snapped it closed hurriedly against the white glare of the sand. I tried again. A small hermit crab was making its way up the beach with deliberate determination. Stopping, it turned its two black-tipped antennae to glare at me disdainfully.
I managed to raise myself onto one elbow, leaning, to my surprise, on my inflated, yellow life jacket. With my free hand I brushed the grit from my eyes, cheeks, and forehead, out of my ears and nose, the fine grains stinging against my skin.
Gently lap-lapping, the water around my ankles was calm blue, the light breeze of an early morning just frosting its surface. The sun, casting shadows through the coconut leaves high above me, was already preparing for its daily offensive and, as a vanguard, a squadron of brightly colored parrots zoomed from its furnace center. They flew in small swoops directly overhead. Aiming with pinpoint accuracy, their leader released his payload. A direct hit, it landed with a wet splash on my salt-stiffened T-shirt. The bird flew off, waggling his wings. The rest followed, screeching their congratulations as they banked away toward the cover of the trees.
I discovered that my tongue had been mysteriously glued to the roof of my mouth. Squeezing my finger between cracked lips, I dislodged it, but when I did so thirst thundered through me. Every joint crackled as I heaved myself to a sitting position and unsuccessfully tried to run my fingers through my hair. It had set saltily solid. Parted just above the right ear, it stood out at an angle, a lopsided crest.
Staggering to my bare feet, and shading my eyes with both hands, I peered up and down the shoreline. White beach. More white beach. I looked up at the deep green, impenetrable jungle. It stared back implacably.
Trudging to the next point, I squinted further on round the island.
No leaf huts, no children throwing themselves into the water with great screeches of delight -- fortunately, because now my head was beginning to throb like a big bass drum -- no wisps of smoke from the kitchens signaling kettles and tea, no fishermen in wooden canoes waving their paddles in greeting. In fact, none of the familiar sights and sounds of the small village that I was, by now, so used to waking to. Nothing, just the quiet stillness, the untouched haphazardness of a desert island.
Along the length of the water's edge, shells, leaves, twigs had all been discarded by the risen tide as it slunk back out to rejoin its parent ocean. White-capped noddies, those beady, bargain-hunting birds, picked the tangled mass over, scavenging for any useful junk or tasty leftovers. Nowhere, though, among all this flotsam was there the cheering sight of a beached canoe or even a wet footprint in the sand. No, absolutely nothing, just miles of sand, acres of jungle, and several billion gallons of bloody sea.
My thirst, now fearsome, had me by the throat. Poking a coconut out from the fringes of the bush, I tried light-headedly, halfheartedly really, to break it apart on a washed-up giant clamshell. In frustration, I hurled it into the sea, where it bobbed and winked in a self-satisfied fashion. I turned in disgust and headed for the shade of some small sago palms.
No need to worry, said a small, slightly high-pitched voice in my head, someone is bound to turn up soon enough, you'll see.
Hang on a minute, interjected another, considerably deeper and gloomier voice, doesn't that leave just a few unanswered questions? You know, just for example...Where am I? How did I get here? And why is someone bound to turn up?
Try as I might, I could not piece together the events leading up to my mysterious presence here. I did, however, succeed in deducing, from various elementary clues, two near certainties. First, from the nature of the scenery, I was pretty sure that I was on one of the Solomon Islands. Which one of course was still open to debate -- with myself. Second, the tranquillity of the morning led me to conclude that I was now this particular island's only occupant.
© 2002 by Will Randall
Who hasn't fantasized about dismantling his or her hassled, wired-up life for a simpler existence? Yet who among us has the will and opportunity to do it? The answer, of course, is very few.
Will Randall, a young English schoolmaster, had such a chance -- and took it. He uprooted his conventional First World life and let himself be blown to one of the farthest and most beautiful corners of the earth, the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. In the entertaining tradition of Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, this is the story of Solomon Time.
From the first, it's an improbable journey. In a chance encounter on a rugby field, Randall meets a doddering old man known as "the Commander," who has retired to England after running a cocoa plantation in the South Pacific for thirty years. Six months later, the Commander dies and his will is read: he wants someone to travel to his beloved, long-missed island -- where his plantation has fallen into ruin -- and devise a way for the natives to support themselves. If successful, they might avoid poverty, build a new school, and even fend off the greedy developers circling their peaceful waters.
It's a mission of noblesse oblige, yet possibly a fool's errand, too. Randall agrees to go.
Spread across the Tropic of Capricorn, the Solomon Islands are not so much the Pacific archipelago that time forgot as the one that forgets time. Randall's new home is Mendali, a fishing village so remote it can be reached only by motorized canoe. But the people of the village, some with cheeks engraved with a rising sun, are welcoming, for they remember the Commander kindly, and still practice a pagan Anglicanism in a church he built for them in 1956. They sleep in houses made of leaves and live on fish of every sort, mud crabs, yams, ngali nuts, even the honeycomb of termites.
Randall decides that the villagers could raise chickens, and they greet the idea with enthusiasm. But finding live chicken eggs in their watery world proves wildly difficult, and Randall must chase after the eggs over shark-infested seas and through jungles where strange characters reside, including a one-eyed dwarf and a tattooed lady.
One couldn't imagine a better man than Will Randall to help the people of Mendali meet the twenty-first century on their own terms. But will he succeed?
Solomon Time is a moving and witty account of one man's accidental adventure in paradise and is certain to enchant explorers and armchair travelers alike.(back to top)