We are on the trail of a teenage cult believed to be harbouring an illegal animal of the spirit realm. Though they are based in and around the hills back home, we end up in some sun-drenched European town, drinking coffee at a dizzyingly continental roadside café. We are here to meet someone we believe may be able to tell us something more about the mysteries we are investigating, an expert and an old friend. “How are you keeping?” I ask. “Not bad, good. You?” “We’re not too bad.” She wears her hair tied up in a scarf, looks much older, more mystical than last time we met. Whilst we talk she constantly draws spirit maps on the back of a paper plate, scrawled marker pen cartography. “Actually,” I say, “things aren’t too good. We’re not proud of this work, we were in a cult when we were young as well. There was no one to stop us back then. Somehow this doesn’t feel right.” She pauses her map-drawing, sips her coffee, picks up the pen again. “So, what do you want me to tell you? Where it comes from? How did they summon it? All that?” I sigh, tap at the table top with my fingertips. “Actually, could you refuse to tell us anything.” I stop tapping, trace invisible circles instead. “Tell us that you don’t know, tell us that you can’t help. These kids aren’t doing any harm.” We head home no further along in our investigation. Back in the office we track the teenagers’ movements on the internet and learn that they plan to meet that night. It’s too easy. There was a time when investigations used to involve stealthy sleuthing on the streets, tracking footprints, sneaking around after dark. Now it all happens online. That night, at the appointed time, we put on our coats and tool up with torches and guns and magnifying glasses, just for old time’s sake. Their meeting place is in the drizzled-down hills currently obscured behind a curtain of fog, perfect weather for teenage cults and animal spirits. “We’ll just go and see what they’re up to,” we decide. Nothing more. We set off for the hilltops, dragging our stocky adult bodies up the incline, through the fog and the rain. The beams of light from our torches sweep the hillside, the rocks and the heather, the bleak expanse of mystery. And eventually – through the fog and the fuzz and the falling day – we come across a group of teenagers in a circle. In the middle of the circle is a pile of cheap electric torches, set up like a cubist campfire. The kids are laughing and singing and dancing a little. One of them sits and chants, almost to himself, until one of the others jabs them with their elbow and then he turns and joins the laughing. Two of them are kissing. There is no suggestion of serious intent, no ceremonial business. Nothing more than glumless, unabandoned fun-making. We watch them for a while, hand in hand, our torches trained on our feet. The air is dense with water like tiny fragments of time falling around us. “Remember.” We watch them for a while and then head back down the hill, leaving teenage cults to do what teenage cults do.
That morning, as every morning, she makes three cups of tea and four cups of coffee for herself and her colleagues. Coffee for her, she doesn’t like tea. She finds that it tastes like moss. She stirs the drinks vigorously, rowing them into tiny brown whirlpools with the teaspoon and then carries the tray from the kitchen steady-steady-careful-steady so as to not spill any, or at least to spill as little as possible. She distributes the drinks around the office and her colleagues sip sip sip and say thanks. She sits down, sips too. Moss. Her coffee tastes like moss. Like tea. She spits it back out. Checks the mug to make sure that she has the right one, thinks her way back to the kitchen and ticks off a mental checklist as she wonders whether she made the wrong drink – but soon the whole office is up in arms and exclaiming the error of her refreshments. “What’s the joke?” “Have you gone mad?” “Wake up!” They shout at her. She has made tea for those who wanted coffee, coffee for those who wanted tea. She thinks it over and over, the fallability of her processes, worrying herself into whirlpools. “I-I’m sorry,” she stammers and starts collecting the cups again. Some of her colleagues explain that it is ok, they will stick with what they’ve got. She admires their versatility, the ability to drink either coffee or tea, her mind reels a little at the flexibility some people show in their everyday lives. But as she carries the remainder of the mugs back to the kitchen, she thinks some more and a bad feeling slowly sinks and settles in her soul. Because she is sure that she put the right drinks in the right mugs and she remembers the way the air felt when she first stepped outside that morning, like the world had changed overnight, or perhaps as though she had changed overnight, and now she wonders whether coffee is still coffee and if tea is still tea. She makes the same drinks again, and then makes them the other way round, inside out like a mirror world.
She takes an early lunch and hurries through the streets, feeling the air move around her thick, new, different, nothingwilleverbethesameagain. At the shop she buys teabags to take home and tin foil so that she can make hats for herself and all her colleagues. In the alleyway near her office she sees a dishevelled man bouncing from wall to wall, joyous or messed up on the day’s new chemistry. She watches him for a while as he gets further and further away, bouncing from wall to wall, until eventually he hits the wall hard and shatters and disintegrates in a dry shower of golden-brown onion peel. She watches the little pile of golden-brown for a moment whilst nothing happens.
Back in the office she makes another round of hot drinks. Tea for her, she doesn’t like coffee. Coffee tastes like moss.
The island first appears off the East coast of Japan on a map made in the 1700s. There is no record of anyone visiting it but it is clearly there, its distinctive shape inked on to the sea. It disappears for a while and then reappears a hundred years later in the Mediterranean, no name, no information. It is just there on the map. “Where did it go for the hundred years inbetween the two?” I ask Sam. “I guess it just wandered the Pacific.” Sam is the first person I meet who has lived on the island. He didn’t know anything about it until he came across it one day whilst fishing off the West Coast of Ireland, a decade ago. He climbed on, as you do, and ended up living on the island for five years. He fished in lots of different waters, he tells me over coffee. I want to know more, hear everything there is to hear about where the island has been, but he has to go. “Gotta keep moving,” he says. I ask if he has a phone number or an email address, some way I can contact him to meet again, but he shakes his head and then he’s on his way.
There are others who track the island on the maps of centuries past. They’re all over the internet, swapping tips and sharing rumours. The island can clearly be seen in the Gulf of Mexico on a map from the 60s, one types. Another – I’ve seen a map from the early 1900s which shows the island near Antarctica. 1870, the Baltic. 1932, sunning itself in the Caribbean. 2001, hiding amongst the Shetlands. And so on. Then there are the sightings, the conspiracy theories, the fictional accounts set on the island, science, geology, naturalists. I read all that stuff as well, but mostly I’m interested in the past. There is an apocryphal story that, at the turn of the millenium, the island was both the first and the last place in the world to see the new year in. Like a kid running round the back of the school photo so that they appear at both ends.
I have met other people who have been on the island and always found them to be pleasant individuals who are happy to talk about their time there. I think they like the fact that I do not ask them questions about how the island works or what they do when they are there. I just ask them where they have been. They tell me as much as they can and then hurry off: “Gotta keep moving.” As a historian, I make no distinction between those who were on the island ten years ago and those who left two months previous. All information is important. I log the island’s movements as dilligently as an astronomer plots the past, present and future positions of the stars with some idea that if I can see where it has been then I can work out where it will go. The island continues to move around, to disappear and reappear, to travel in mysterious ways as we all travel in mysterious ways, logged and monitored.
As for how it moves, my opinion is not important. But I do not think that it moves of its own accord. I think that maybe it is moved around, as though the ocean is a huge computer plotting a path and sending it on its way forever.
Suddenly, the telephone rings.
Someone tapping on the ribs of your cage,
Asking themselves back into existence.
Someone thieving your bones one by one by one.
You gradually disappear as you answer.
Each call a tiny shattering.
By the light of a twice-bright macaroon moon
An ex-pirate captain wears his hat on his sleeve
And leads a buccaneering army of umbrellas with
“We’ve gone too far and we’ll never getting back,
How does your life actually affect your life?”
If we do not follow him we are just biting ourselves in the feet
of cricket moustache kisses
He sees no pictures nor hears any noise,
experiences everything as a stream of text
a hurried mess of scrabbled words jotted in
different sizes and typefaces, becoming an
unintelligible incomprehensible unfathomable
And nowhere to begin, nowhere to grab hold.
He fixes on one tiny sentence written in an
quiet and elegant font, fixes on it so as to
have somewhere to start from, a base camp.
“By the side of the road a man shelters from
the rain and uses his key as a rudimentary
spoon with which to eat a tub of expensive
He reads the sentence over and over and over
again until it annexes his mind, his imagination.
The key and the ice cream become the points
around which events spiral in an accelerating
tumble of everything and everything-at-once.
There’s a man at the door with a pork pie hat and a bee on a string and he wants his money or else. Listen, I didn’t think things would come to this – when I made the investment I had it all planned out. You could get a good price for blueberries in those days but, hey, the world’s a changing place. That’s why there’s a man at the door with a bee on a string and I’m on a train speeding through the blueberried countryside, blueberries growing all over the place, out of control. Even inside the train there are blueberries. I’m sick of the sight of them. I’ve ditched the blueberries now, I’m going back to the biscuit business. I stayed up all last night dunking biscuits in about fifteen hundred cups of coffee whilst trying to come up with designs for the biscuit tins of the future. I’ve got those with me, stuffed into a messenger bag which is lying at my feet, blueberries slowly growing across it. Bloody blueberries. They are a new kind of problem. A problem for everyone, some kind of environmental disaster I guess. Not like the complicated maths problems I have to solve so that I can pay off the man with a pork pie hat and a bee on a string – problems which involve some numbers which I furiously add and subtract and multiply and divide in the vague hope of them forming some kind of friendly shape but which do not to play along whatever I do. See, you have an idea for a business. You borrow some money from a man with a pork pie hat and a bee on a string. You buy an old abandoned factory and you make it into a blueberry-packing joint. Blueberries are good business – people love ‘em but there’s not many around. You’ve got a contact who can ship in tonnes at a time, you’ve got the packing equipment, you’ve got places to sell them, you’ve got it all worked out. Things go well, for a while. Then. On a country walk you find blueberries growing all over the shop – in hedges and up tree trunks but also on bus stops and abandoned vehicles. They’re everywhere and people are eating them and picking them and selling them and god knows what else. Whatever they’re doing with them, they are not going to be buying your nicely-packed blueberries. The infestation soon spreads, even in the middle of the city the blueberries are taking over, crawling up the side of skyscrapers, creeping across the pavements, growing like funghi on the back of scrawny urban pigeons. They are probably growing on the pork pie hat which is sitting on top of the head of the man with a bee on a string and a strong desire to get his money back. His money is probably covered in blueberries, too. And I wonder what good his money will do him now, what good it will do any of us as the blueberries slowly take over, growing faster than we can eat them, growing above and below the ground, growing across the sea, blueberries growing on us and inside us and all around us now forever.
I am plucked from obscurity and handed a part in a low budget film. On the first day I am handed my official film sweatshirt, which I pull on quickly in the hope that it will stop anyone from noticing that I am not a real actor. The director seems pleased with me, and keeps saying, “Yes, yes,” enthusiastically. I play the part of a teenager who is kidnapped by a bad magician and a femme fatale and hidden under a big pile of cardboard. “Act sad,” the director tells me. I recite the lyrics to Bat Out Of Hell over and over again in a tiny monotone until my bones are shaking and my eyes are big. “Yes, yes,” the director sings his praises. “Like a small child lost in a giant shoe factory.” Under the pile of cardboard it is quiet and nice and I spend a pleasant day ‘acting.’ The bad magician occasionally lifts the cardboard to snarl at me, whilst the femme fatale brings me pizza. When I leave for the day, the director pats me on the back, “A star!” he exclaims. That night I sleep proudly in my official film sweatshirt. When I return the next morning for the second day of filming there is no sign of the director or any of the other actors. I wander around the set which seems to have been deleted and replaced with a factory manufacturing giant shoes. I begin to make my own film in my head, an experimental piece of bewildering proportions, all tiny eyes and outsized shoes and everything quiet and nice and going on forever buried deep in cardboard.