فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Chapter five

The Rice Run

Jed wouldn’t let me wake Etienne and Francoise the next morning. They’d asked me to say goodbye before I left but Jed shook his head and said, ‘Unnecessary.’

I thought his knife was unnecessary too. He got it out as we stood on the beach, preparing for the swim to the cliffs. A green- handled knife with a sharp blade.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked.

‘It’s just a tool,’ he replied. Then he grinned and added, ‘Frightening, huh?’ before going into the water with the knife between his teeth.

Until the Rice Run, Jed was a mystery to me. After the first day, when he’d met us at the waterfall, we’d had almost no contact with him. Sometimes I saw him in the evenings - never earlier, because he returned to the camp so late - but we’d never really had a good conversation. Normally I make quick judgements about people, often completely wrong, but with Jed I’d kept an open mind.

When we got to the cliffs, Jed explained that there were three caves that led into the open sea and our boat. We had to swim through one of them.

‘You know this cave?’ Jed asked, when we got to the entrance.

‘I’ve seen it while I’ve been fishing.’

‘But you’ve never swum through it?’


He looked concerned. ‘You should have. Golden rule: first thing you do when you arrive somewhere is find out how you can get out again. These caves are the only way out of the lagoon.’

You couldn’t see through to the open sea, because the roof of the cave dropped below water-level. Jed explained that we had to swim through an underwater passage in the cave. I wasn’t happy about swimming into the blackness, but Jed assured me that it was easy. ‘You don’t have to swim underwater for long. You get to the sea before you know it.’


‘Yeah. It’s low tide so we only have to swim underwater through half the cave. When it’s high tide you have to swim like that through the whole cave and even that’s easy.’ Then he took a deep breath and slipped underwater, leaving me alone.

I waited a minute in the water just inside the cave, listening to my splashes echo round the walls. My feet and legs were cold, reminding me of the diving game with Etienne and Francoise off Ko Samui. The echo began to scare me so much that I dived down into the inky water of the cave.

Unusually for me, I kept my eyes shut as I swam. I guessed that with each kick I swam about a metre, and carefully counted my strokes to give me a sense of distance. After I’d counted ten, I began to feel worried. An ache was building up in my lungs, and Jed had said that the underwater passage was no more than a forty-second swim. At fifteen strokes I realized I had to make a decision about whether to turn back. I gave myself a limit of three more kicks, then my fingertips suddenly broke the surface of the water.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I took a breath. The air was so bad that, even though I needed oxygen desperately, I could only manage short breaths before I started being sick. I looked around me, but it was so dark I couldn’t even see my fingers in front of my face.

‘Jed!’ I called.

Not even an echo.

My first thought was that I should continue to swim down the passage. I assumed that I’d surfaced too soon, maybe into a pocket of air left open by the low tide. But I’d lost my sense of direction and didn’t know which way to swim. By feeling around with my hands and feet I seemed to find four passages, but it was hard to judge. There could have been even more. It was a frightening discovery. If there’d only been two passages, then whichever direction I chose to swim in, I’d either come up in the lagoon again or the sea. But these other passages could lead to nowhere.

My second thought was to stay where I was and hope Jed would come to find me, but that wasn’t very appealing either. I felt I’d go mad if I waited in the blackness.

For a minute I stayed still, thinking about what to do. Then I started to panic. I splashed around wildly, knocking into the walls, screaming out ‘Help.’ Then a second later, ignoring the disgusting smell, I breathed in deeply and went underwater. I took whichever of the four passages I found first and swam as hard as I could.

I felt terrible. My legs and hands were knocking painfully against the passage walls and there was a deep pain in my chest. After perhaps fifty seconds I began to see red through the darkness. ‘It means I’m dying,’ I told myself, as the colour grew brighter. In the middle of the redness a spot of light started to form - yellow, but I expected it to turn white. I was remembering a TV programme about how dying people see lights at the end of tunnels. Then, suddenly, I realized that the redness might not be death after all. It might be light, sunlight, passing through the water and the lids of my tightly shut eyes. I forced myself to make one more hard kick and came straight up into brightness and fresh air. There was Jed, sitting in the sun on a rock! Beside him was a long boat, painted the same blue-green as the sea.

‘Hey,’ he said, not looking round. ‘You were a long time.’

I couldn’t answer at first because I couldn’t breathe properly.

‘What were you doing back there?’

‘Drowning,’ I finally managed to say. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’

‘Sure,’ he said, running the blade of his knife against his beard. ‘Now we’ve got to get the boat started.’

‘Jed! Listen to me! I was stuck in an air pocket with more than one exit and nearly drowned!’

For the first time, Jed looked at me. ‘An air pocket?’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure!’

Jed frowned. ‘Well… that’s weird. I’ve been through there a hundred times and I’ve never found any air pockets. And there were several exits?’

‘Four at least. I could feel them and I didn’t know which one I should take. It was terrible.’

‘I’m sorry, Richard, I really am. I honestly didn’t know that could happen. It’s amazing. Everybody on the beach has swum through that cave and no one’s ever got lost.’

He held out a hand and pulled me on to the rock.

‘I might have died.’

Jed nodded. ‘You might have. I’m sorry.’

Twenty minutes later, I was ready to set off for Ko Pha-Ngan. I liked our boat immediately. I liked its South-East Asian shape and the brightly painted patterns on the front.

‘Right,’ I said, when we were both in the boat. ‘Let’s start the engine.’ I recognized the engine type. ‘Here we go!’ I shouted, and the engine roared into life.

When we set off, I was keen to get to Ko Pha-Ngan. I was pleased to be doing something important for the beach. But an hour later, as the shape of the island was forming on the horizon, my keenness began to be replaced by anxiety. I was suddenly aware that meeting the World would bring back all the things I’d forgotten. I wasn’t exactly sure what these things were, but I knew I didn’t want to be reminded of them. I looked at Jed and guessed that he was feeling the same. To avoid thinking about the World, I started day-dreaming about Francoise and how beautiful she was.

‘West… more… land…’ I suddenly heard over the noise of the engine.

I stopped dreaming and shouted out, ‘What?’

‘I’m going west! There’s more open beach to land on. Fewer beach huts.’

I nodded in agreement. While I’d been thinking about Francoise, Ko Pha-Ngan had got much closer. I could now see the trunks and leaves of some coconut trees, and the midday shadows beneath them.

The stretch of beach we landed on was empty apart from a few old beach huts. We jumped out of the boat and dragged it up on to the beach.

‘Are we going to leave the boat here?’ I asked.

‘No, we’ll have to hide it.’ Jed pointed to the trees. ‘Maybe up there. Go and make sure the area is completely empty.’


Not far from where we’d landed I found two trees with a bush between them. The bush would cover the boat completely and the nearest beach huts were fifty metres away.

‘Here seems fine,’ I called to Jed.

‘Right. Come and help me then.’

With the weight of the engine, the boat was very heavy. Eventually we managed to get it between the trees and under the bush. We were both completely exhausted and looking forward to a drink and a big meal.

An hour later, we were walking past rows of busy beach huts and sunbathers. I was surprised that people weren’t taking more notice of us. Everyone looked so strange to me that I couldn’t believe I didn’t look equally strange to them.

‘Let’s eat,’ said Jed, and we walked into the nearest cafe and sat down. Jed looked at the menu while I looked around me in amazement. Even the plastic chair I was sitting on was strangely uncomfortable. I couldn’t work out the right way to sit on it. ‘How do you sit on these things?’ I said.

Jed looked up and laughed. ‘It’s weird, isn’t it? All this. After the camp.’

‘Yeah, it certainly is.’

‘What do you want to eat? I’m starving.’

I looked at the menu. ‘I think I’d like a couple of hamburgers.’ After we’d eaten, Jed gave me a choice. I could go with him to buy the rice or I could stay on the beach and meet him later. He didn’t really need my help so I decided to stay. I had my own shopping to do, anyway. I wanted to buy some more cigarettes and a few presents. I found a small shop and bought some razor blades for me, Etienne, Gregorio and Keaty, and a tube of toothpaste for Francoise. Then I bought several packets of sweets - I wanted to give everyone a present - and finally I bought myself some cigarettes and a pair of shorts.

I had a drink and decided to pass the time by walking along the beach. After a while the heat made me feel tired, and I lay down in the shade for an afternoon sleep.

The music started at eight, which was lucky or I might have slept until midnight. I jumped up and ran down the beach to the cafe. It was now full of people, but I saw Jed immediately. He had a bottle of beer in his hands and he was looking extremely annoyed.

‘Where have you been?’ he said angrily, when I sat down beside him. ‘I’ve been waiting…’

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘I fell asleep…’

He still looked very angry.

‘What’s the matter? Didn’t you get the rice?’

‘I got the rice, Richard. Don’t worry about that.’

‘What’s wrong then?’

‘You tell me!’

‘Tell you…?’

‘About two Americans.’

‘Two Americans?’

Jed drank his beer. ‘Two Americans I heard talking about an idyllic beach in the marine park.’

‘Oh God!’

‘They know you, Richard. They used your name. And they’ve got a map.’ He squeezed his eyes shut like he was fighting to keep control of his temper. ‘A map, Richard! They were showing it to some Germans!’

I shook my head. I was feeling shocked. ‘I’d forgotten… I’d…’

‘Who are they?’

‘Jed, wait. You don’t understand. I didn’t tell them about the beach. They told me. They already knew about it.’

He put his beer bottle down on the table hard. ‘ Who are they?’ he shouted.

‘Zeph and Sammy. I met them on Ko Samui. They were just two guys in the hut next to mine. We spent some time together, and the evening before we were going to leave for Ko Phelong they started talking about the beach.’

‘So you drew them a map?’

‘No! I didn’t say a thing, Jed. None of us did.’

‘Then where did the map come from?’

‘The next morning… I drew it and pushed it under their door…’ I pulled out a cigarette and tried to light it. My hands trembled and it took me three attempts.


‘I was worried. I didn’t know if the beach really existed. I had to tell someone where we were going in case something went wrong.’

‘What could go wrong?’

‘I don’t know! We didn’t know anything! I just didn’t want us disappearing with nobody knowing where we’d gone.’

Jed put his head in his hands. ‘This could be bad.’

‘We could have disappeared into the marine park and no one would have…’

He nodded slowly. ‘I understand that.’

We sat in silence for several minutes. Eventually Jed said, ‘These two Americans. Do you think they’ll try to come to our island?’

‘They might do, Jed. I don’t know them well enough.’

‘God! This could be so bad.’ Then suddenly he laid his hand on my arm. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Are you blaming yourself?’

I nodded.

‘Don’t. I’m serious. Whatever happens with these Americans, it isn’t your fault. If I’d been in your situation, I’d have done the same thing.’

‘What do you mean, “whatever happens”?’ I asked.

‘I mean… I mean whatever happens I don’t want you to blame yourself. It’s important, Richard. If you really want someone to blame, blame Daffy. Anyway, we might not even have a problem. In a few weeks the Americans will probably be flying home and the map should go with them. Even if they stay in Thailand they might not bother trying to reach us. The trip isn’t easy.’

‘Well, I hope you’re right,’ I said quietly.

‘All we can do is hope… and wait.’ He finished his beer and stood up. ‘We’ve got to get the rice back to the boat now. Are you ready?’


Around the back of the cafe was a narrow passage between two beach huts. Jed had hidden the rice sacks there. We set off along the beach, dragging the sacks along the sand.

After a while we stopped for a cigarette and ate some of the sweets I’d bought.

‘I’m sorry if I was angry with you,’ Jed said. ‘You didn’t deserve it.’

‘It’s all right.’

‘When we get back to the camp, Richard, don’t mention the Americans to anyone.’


‘Sal and Bugs. I don’t think they’ll understand.’

‘OK. If you think that’s the right thing to do.’

It took us another three hours to get back to the boat. We left the sacks beside it, then lay down on the sand. Jed went to sleep at once. I lay beside him and looked up at the stars, wishing I was living in a world where I hadn’t given the map to Zeph and Sammy.

We woke up at dawn the next day, put the rice in the boat, and made the journey back to our island. When we got back to the camp, no one seemed at all interested in our trip. A few asked ‘How was it?’ out of politeness, but as soon as I began telling them they looked bored. And no one was very enthusiastic about the presents I’d bought them either. It seemed that they weren’t interested in anything outside the beach.

I was disappointed by their reactions, but not for long. I soon began to forget the World too, as I had when we first arrived at the camp. Within a week nothing much existed for me beyond the lagoon and its circle of cliffs.

My worries about Zeph and Sammy didn’t disappear so quickly, though. I was kept awake, worrying about what plans they and the mysterious Germans might be making. But it was hard to go on worrying, even about them, as the days passed and nothing happened.

A few weeks after the Rice Run I woke up to the noise of rain on the longhouse roof. It had rained only three or four times since I’d arrived at the beach, and no more than short showers. This was a tropical storm, even heavier than the one on Ko Samui.

A few of us stood around the longhouse entrance, looking out across the clearing. Bugs was standing outside in the pouring rain, looking up at the sky.

‘Stupid fool,’ someone said, looking at Bugs.

‘Thinks he’s God,’ someone else said, and we all laughed. I would have said something too, but just then Sal came out of the far end of the longhouse and started walking towards us.

‘What’s the delay?’ she asked.

Nobody answered her so I said, ‘Delay about what?’

She looked at me and said angrily. ‘Fishing, gardening - work. What are we going to eat with your rice if no one goes fishing or gardening?’

People started slowly moving out into the rain. As I ran down to the beach, I thought about the conversation at the longhouse entrance. I’d never mentioned the way Bugs annoyed me, not even to Keaty. But from the way the others were talking, I began to wonder if they felt the same way. The thing that I’d noticed most was the way we’d all gone quiet when Sal came over. I felt like I’d witnessed some kind of division among the people in the camp, and possibly been included in it.

The rain continued to pour all that week and half the next, but in the early hours of Thursday morning it stopped. Everyone was relieved.

One day, on my way back from the beach where we’d been fishing, I met Sal.

‘Richard, are you going back to the camp?’


‘Will you walk with me to the garden? I’ve got to go down there and I’d like some company. We haven’t had a good chat for a long time.’

I nodded. ‘OK, sure.’

Sal walked slowly. Sometimes she paused to look at flowers, sometimes she stopped for no apparent reason.

‘Richard,’ she said after some time, ‘I want to tell you how pleased we all are that you found our secret beach.’

‘Thanks, Sal,’ I replied, already understanding that this conversation wasn’t just a friendly chat.

‘Can I be frank, Richard? When you three arrived, we were all a little worried. Perhaps you can understand why…’

‘Of course.’

‘But you all fitted in so well. Better than we could have hoped. We really appreciated you doing the Rice Run, Richard.’

‘Oh, well,’ I said, trying to look modest.

‘I feel a little guilty about the way I spoke to you that miserable wet morning at the longhouse entrance. I don’t consider myself to be the leader here, but…’

‘You are the leader really, Sal.’

‘Oh, maybe in some ways I am.’ She laughed. ‘People come to me with their problems and I try to sort them out. Keaty, for example. I know you and Keaty are close, so I presume you know about his problem.’

‘He wants to stop gardening.’ I knew Keaty hated work in the garden and wanted to join one of the fishing groups.

‘That’s right. But it isn’t easy moving people to different jobs. I’ve been telling him it isn’t possible for months. He was going to start fishing when your little group arrived. He was terribly disappointed, Richard. I realize now that if I’m going to improve his situation, I’m going to have to move someone.’

‘Who?’ I asked in an anxious voice.

‘I’m sorry, Richard, but it has to be you. I don’t have a choice.’

‘Oh no, Sal. Please, I really don’t want to move. I love fishing and I’m good at it.’

‘I know you are, Richard, I know. But try to see it from my position. Keaty needs to move out of the garden, I can’t separate Etienne and Francoise or the three Swedes. Gregorio has been fishing for two years, the Yugoslavs don’t know how to do anything else. Honestly, Richard, if I had a choice…’

‘Yeah,’ I said, looking at the ground.

‘And I’m not going to make you do gardening.’

‘You aren’t?’ A terrible thought crossed my mind. If I wasn’t going to do gardening, maybe I’d be doing carpentry with Bugs. Any job would be better than that.

‘No, you’ll be working with Jed. He wants a partner on his trips round the island and he suggested you.’

I looked up. ‘Jed? Cool!’ It had never occurred to me that Jed might want someone with him. Although we’d become friendly, I thought he preferred being alone.

‘I know,’ Sal continued, apparently reading my mind. ‘I was surprised too. You must have made a good impression on the Rice Run.’

‘But what does Jed need help with? Doesn’t he just… steal dope?’

‘He does that, yes, but other things as well. He’ll explain.’

‘I see.’

Sal smiled. ‘Richard, I’m so glad we’ve sorted all this out. I’ve been worried about telling you for days. Now we can go and find Keaty. Would you like to give him the good news or shall I?’ We walked to the garden together. When we got there, Keaty had already left for the camp so I ran after him.

‘I feel terrible about this, Richard,’ he said, when I’d told him the news. ‘I didn’t want Sal to move you out of the fishing group.’

‘No, it isn’t your fault. It’s just bad luck.’

We walked in silence for a few moments, then Keaty said, ‘Do you know why Jed’s suddenly decided he needs help?’

‘I don’t even know what he needs help with. We still don’t know what he does in the jungle.’

When we got nearer the clearing, it seemed to me that people must have heard the news. They paused in their conversations and all turned, watching me with quiet and serious looks on their faces. There was a strange moment when I reached them. I felt like I’d already been isolated from them. It reminded me of the first morning, after my fever, when I discovered that Etienne and Francoise had made friends while I’d been asleep.

It took me over two hours to get to sleep that night. For the first time since arriving on the beach, I started thinking about home. Almost wishing I could return, in fact. Not to leave the beach permanently - just to contact a few important people and let them know I was still alive and OK. My family in particular, and a few of my friends.

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