HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE

Drew Tapley's short story follows a castaway as he desperately searches for new forms of hope and distraction. Illustration by Mitt Roshin.

The silent chaw of fish seemed to encourage his thoughts, not that he needed any of that. They were all he had known for half a decade.

With few distractions on the island, he recorded the sun’s motion, its daily rise and fall — although the importance of this had been lost to the same time he was attempting to record. As he moved from island to island, he had decided to mark the passing months on his skin; his legs to be precise, which bore the scars of five years. The knife’s receding blade was perhaps a clearer indication of the passing of time. Its years of use had worn away most of its blade to a nub, and he knew that his recording of time since the demise of flight FG5646 was off by at least a week, maybe more.

At first, his policy was to stay on one island. They would eventually find him once they checked the land masses in the region. How many islands could there be? It was a numbers game, and sooner or later his number had to come up. Sooner or later they would find him, thanks to some control room set up by Melissa, manned by dedicated staff around the clock. It had walls of monitors and banks of computers, or so the fantasy went. It was a fantasy that progressed each day, always building on the extent of the one before. He had fattened this thought into a sacrificial lamb; one he had no intention of actually sacrificing.

Life was easy now, simple, settled, but lonely. A loneliness that clings to your body like wet cotton. After a while, the feeling faded. All of his feelings faded into one constant, continuous presence. He could no longer be at fault for not living in the present moment, a once commonplace accusation of his busy life in the city. When a particularly vivid memory dislodged itself and surfaced, he scrutinised its every curve and recess, etching it into the sand with as much detail as possible. He traced everything he could remember about the journey to his high school. Every road, every house and tree he passed; diving as deep as he could go before hitting a grey bedrock of mush. He would remember people in this way too, from decades past. Characteristics of their faces, a tick or trait long forgotten but now coming back with such clarity it was as if they stood before him on the sand. Then the rain washed it all away, but never from his mind. Memory by precious memory, he reviewed his life in this way.

It took a 500-ton Airbus A380 to hit the South Pacific Ocean at close to 500 knots for Jason Boyd to consider his own flight path, and eventually lose that eighty pounds. He thought about this while pulling out a loose thread from the frayed edge of his torn pants; rolling it into a ball and stowing it away. It occurred to him in that moment that he could barely remember the sensation of cloth over his knees.

He knelt in the sand, washing cloth in the lapping tide and wringing it tightly to dry in the sun by strips of fish on spiked twigs. He checked the contents of suspended coconut shells, drinking rainwater from two of them. Knee-deep in the ocean, he pressed binoculars into his face, ignoring the crack in the right lens. There it was, the other island. At least half a day’s swim, but definitely bigger. More trees, more shelter, more foliage. There would be more insects to forage, more materials to build. More of everything, he thought. He could see the top of the tallest tree on the island, where a flag blew in the wind with the word ‘THERE’ stamped across it.

If he rested up for a whole day, he could make the swim. He secured the decision by slamming a coconut down on a rock, cracking it open and lifting it to his mouth. This was an action he had repeated thousands of times to the point of perfection. Just the right force and height to crack it apart without spilling the nectar inside. Specks of white juice glistened on his long brown beard.

As the sun rose on a new day, Jason climbed to the top of the tallest tree with a bag across his bare chest made from palm leaves. He balanced in the nape of two branches to untie a flag with the word ‘HERE’ stamped across it, replacing it with a large piece of folded cloth from his bag. It unfurled in the wind, displaying the word ‘THERE’.

Jason didn’t own much. Most of the things he used to stay alive or entertain himself had been taken from the island. His world was made up of transient objects that came and went as extensions of himself. He owned the island no more than the island owned him. With every minute that passed during the last four years, eight months, three weeks and two days, this understanding deepened within him. He thought about it again as he made plans to leave this island, etching circles in the sand with ‘HERE’ and ‘THERE’ clearly marked. His index finger mapped out the swim, including sand illustrations of sharks and the direction of wind currents.

After a night of driving rain, the following day brought a radiant sun and azure sky. Jason poured rainwater from brimming coconut shells into two large plastic bottles. He cooked a fish on an open fire, spearing the flesh on a spiked twig and leaning it over the smoke. The same pointed rock that had opened hundreds of coconuts, opened one more.

With a sweeping farewell glance over the island, he entered the water and began to swim to the island of ‘THERE’. Arm over arm, head side to side, he kicked his legs gently and evenly, moving from home to home. Every thousand strokes he would stop, tread water for two minutes, survey the distance, drink rainwater from a bottle, and look for signs of approaching sharks. His policy on sharks, jellyfish or anything else that could potentially injure or kill him was to play dead and hope it left him alone. Such optimism was laden with hope and baked in ignorance, but he decided that having some contingency was better than none at all. In the absence of any previous research undertaken between lunch meetings and gallery openings, this was all he had.

The experience of the last three swims had taught him to focus his mind. The wandering mind of a long-distance swimmer is a torturous landscape to traverse. And so he gave a lecture to a packed auditorium about how he had survived a plane crash by remaining in the washroom throughout. How by luck or circumstance, or whatever philosophy you choose to apply, that portion of the plane containing the little box he was in, was thrown free of the sinking fuselage, and floated to the surface. He would say how the noises he heard inside that box were like listening to a radio being constantly retuned. The auditorium would, of course, be enraptured by his every word, waiting on each pregnant pause or sip of water. He bathed in the adoration of this celebrity; and after he had quenched his dry throat, he would tell them about the first time he saw sky through that tiny window, and knew he had survived. How the stillness was more haunting than anything you could imagine.

One thousand strokes into his lecture, he stopped to see the island ahead, maybe another two hours away. He had drifted a little. What always disturbed him about these swims, every year or so, was not what he saw in the water, but what he didn’t see. The great absence of anything at all in such an absolute abyss as this was lonelier than any island. A management seminar he had attended once, some fifteen years ago, was presented by a woman who had travelled the world on a lone boat voyage. She said that to gain perspective on your place in the world, go to the ocean. Well, here he was, lying on top of the largest ocean and single biggest entity on the planet, and the perspective threatened to drown him.

Slowly, very slowly, as the sun slid towards the horizon, he crawled onto a new beach and collapsed into the sand. A whole day and a whole night passed as he lay still. Shallow breaths rose and fell until he lifted his head, got to his knees, and drank two bottles of water. Through the binoculars, there in the distance, was his former home, no longer ‘HERE’ but ‘THERE’. He sat on the beach and ate strips of cured fish and coconut from his bag before climbing to the top of the highest tree. Balancing in the nape of two branches, he removed the ‘THERE’ flag and replaced it with the folded cloth from his bag. It unfurled and blew in the wind, displaying the word ‘HERE’. He smiled uncontrollably on his way back down.

That day, Jason fished and cooked his catch on an open fire. Smoke rose into his beard as he chewed. He cracked a coconut on a new rock and drained the milk. During the days that followed, he busied himself hanging coconut shells and dragging palm fronds around.

Days and nights passed. Weeks and months passed. He set about his days fishing, collecting rainwater, stockpiling coconuts, and exploring the island. He sang and wrote the lyrics in the sand, one after the other until whole albums were documented as they appeared on their track lists. Entire weeks were consumed by him writing long letters in the sand, collected and mailed by the wind. One day, he neglected to do anything other than etch a detailed portrait of a woman, enclosing it in a frame. When night came, he pressed his face into it and fell asleep.

Knee-deep in the ocean, he pressed binoculars into his face. That other island was definitely bigger than this one, he thought. More trees, more shelter, more foliage. More of everything. He looked to the top of the highest branch of the tallest tree on that island, where a flag gently fluttered the letters ‘THERE’.

As he etched plans into the sand to reach the island of ‘THERE’, he thought about Melissa’s tireless campaign to find him. A sleeping bag lay off to one corner of the control room, where she occasionally rested for a few hours. A large photo of Jason was pinned to a board, with every detail about him noted on surrounding whiteboards. Dozens of staff answered phones or peered at satellite images.

As the sun rose on a new day, Jason climbed to the top of the tallest tree, balancing in the nape of two branches. He switched the flags ‘HERE’ for ‘THERE’. The same jagged rock that had opened a hundred coconuts, opened another. With a quick glance over the island, Jason entered the water and began to swim to the other island.

Slowly, very slowly, as the sun slid towards the horizon, he crawled onto a new beach and collapsed into the sand. A whole day and a whole night passed as he lay still. Shallow breaths rose and fell until the sun came up. He lifted his head off the sand, got to his knees, and drank two bottles of water. Through the binoculars, there in the distance, was his former home with the flag of ‘THERE’ blowing in the wind. He sat on the beach and ate strips of cured fish before climbing to the top of the tallest tree.

That day, Jason fished and cooked his catch on an open fire. Smoke rose into his beard as he chewed. He cracked a coconut on a new rock and drained the milk. During the days that followed, he busied himself hanging coconut shells and dragging palm fronds around.

Days and nights passed. Weeks and months passed. He set about his days fishing, collecting rainwater, stockpiling coconuts, and exploring the island.

He looked down at his right thigh, now covered in old scars. The infection had spread, and his skin was black from hip to knee. It no longer hurt him, at least that was good, but he could not feel anything there. Every time he looked, the skin was darker and had spread towards his knee. It was becoming harder and harder to get around the island and do his daily tasks. He would sleep longer, and some days wouldn’t wake up until the early afternoon. When he could no longer hold up his pants with a belt he had made from frayed threads, he went about naked.

On the days that he couldn’t get up, he thought about Melissa in her control room, which had now expanded to the whole top floor of a large building, with hundreds of dedicated staff. He chewed slowly to move the food around his mouth and position the bite between the only teeth he had left.

One morning, he awoke to find himself floating several feet above the indent where he usually lay. Then he was able to see the top of the tree under which he had been sleeping, with the flag of ‘HERE’ blowing in the wind. Soon he could see the whole of the island, end to end, and then the other island he had lived on, and the one before that: all of the islands of ‘THERE’. As he floated even higher into the sky, he could see lots of other islands in a ring, and the whole ocean in every direction. Each ring of islands was an island in an even larger ring; a chain of chains of islands within itself, as far as he could see.

As he disappeared behind the clouds, he thought of Melissa.



'Here, There & Everywhere' was published in our 15th issue, The Adventure Issue, which is available to buy here.