Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chapter 4 Life or Death?

It was Jessie who heard the noise first. Great thuds, not far into the jungle. They fell quickly, one after the other, then more slowly. Then there was a silence before the noise started again. Jessie imagined a huge creature with monstrous feet.
‘Ssssh,’ she said to everyone. They all listened, moving into a closer huddle, still miserable with hunger and their disappointment that the ship hadn’t seen them.
‘Is it coming closer?’ someone asked.
Thud, thud, thud.
Kia drew the little ones around her.
‘No,’ said Jessie. She breathed out a big sigh. ‘What can it be?’
They crept through the undergrowth towards it, trying not to crackle the branches, until they came to a grove of coconut palms, rising their straight trunks tall above the scrabble of bushes.
‘Look!’ shouted Scarlet, pointing to the top of one of them. As she said it, three fat coconuts fell to earth, one after the other. Thud, thud, thud.
‘It’s Ali,’ shrieked Lizzie. ‘That’s where he’s went.’
Right up at the top of one of the trees, under the palm leaves, was Ali. His feet were against the trunk and his knees splayed out. One arm hugged the trunk and with the other, he slashed the coconut stems.
‘I wondered who had my penknife,’ said Trigger.
Then Ali was backing down the trunk. His feet worked as if they were one. He stretched them down, then brought his hugging hands to meet them. When he reached the bottom, he took off the piece of plaited twine that bound his ankles together.
‘Wow, that looks fun,’ said Rachel.
The others just stared at him. He picked up one of the green coconuts, and with the knife flicking and flashing in the sun, he pared away the thick case of the coconut, and then cut a hole in the top. He handed the first one to Callum.
Drink,’ he said.
He gave them each one, and some of them shared. Jessie found the water inside was fresh-tasting and slightly sweet. She wiped her mouth and threw down the husk, but Ali shook his head and picked it up again. Soon he had cut it open into a bowl, and carved a small curved spoon from one of the off-cuts.
‘Eat,’ he said.
She peered inside the bowl, and with the spoon, cut away at the soft white slippery flesh inside. It slid down her throat, deliciously smooth and rich. It was like custard - nothing like the lumps of coconut she’d chewed on when she’d won hard, ripe ones at the Shows. Their stomachs filled quickly. Suddenly, everything seemed so much better.
But that wasn’t all Ali had for them. He’d collected more of the green fruits they’d seen the day before. Using a big banana leaf as a plate, he’d sliced them open. They could see the orange flesh gleaming. The children bit into the slices nervously at first, but then they went back for more and more.
‘It tastes like sunshine,’ said May, who had a line of orange juice trickling down her chin.
There was a great chorus of Mmmms.
‘Mango,’ said Ali. ‘Not too much.’ He rubbed his stomach.
‘Or we’ll all get bad tummies,’ said Karen.
They were so much happier and stronger now, that they all ran off with great energy to do the tasks of the day. They’d agreed that they should play as much as they liked, once the water was collected. Some went swimming, some built a rough shelter for the camp out of woven banana leaves, some had piggy-back races up and down the beach. Even Lizzie Huston joined in.
She said, ‘I don’t hardly need my inhaler here.’
‘It’s because the air’s so clean,’ said KC.
A few boys tried to spear fish in the shallow pools, but the fish were still too fast for them. They drew a big game of snakes and ladders on the beach instead. Jill Beaddie and Scarlet squeezed some colourful dyes from plants and flowers and decorated each other’s shoulders with little tattoo-pictures of stars and fishes and butterflies.
Callum and some others thought about how to make themselves more visible to rescuers. They cut down some palm leaves, and laid them in a huge ‘HELP’ on the beach. They hung spare T-shirts on sticks along the edge of the water, and speared the Tunnocks Tea-cake wrappers so they would glitter in the sun. But all day no boats came past, and no aeroplanes flew over.
Jessie found Ali. ‘Thank you for getting us coconuts,’ she said. ‘How did you know how to do that?’
‘My uncle had a coconut plantation in Iran,’ he said. ‘I used to watch.’
‘You should teach someone else really,’ she said. ‘So you don’t have to go off on your own. We were worried about you.’
Rachel Wellard came running up, ‘Teach me, teach me,’ she said. ‘I’m good at rock climbing.’
Jessie went and added a rule to the list in the sand. ‘No-one goes off alone.’ They’d forgotten to write that one down.
When they laid down to sleep that night near the fire, they were all scratching at insect bites, but it didn’t seem as scary as the first night, and they had a kind of roof over them now. Jessie kept near to where Ali was in case a snake came again.
As soon as the sun went down, the insect music started amongst the trees. It sounded like tambourines shivering and trumpets tooting. Kieran Coolster told them a bed-time story about a robber who used a water pistol to hold up a bank. His get-away vehicle was a surfboard. Their laughter added to the night music. And then their snores did.
Now that they had enough water and food, the days started to pass. They played and did the jobs that had to be done. They started to look tanned and rugged. One day Trigger even speared a fish, and paraded up and down the beach with it on a stick, shouting, ‘GOAL’. But when Karen and KC barbecued it on the fire, it became very small. They only had the tiniest taste each.
Every day they looked at the sky and the sea for their rescuers. But no-one came. Every day Callum called a meeting in the morning, to decide what they were going to do. Some of them were getting impatient.
At first there were no new ideas. Then after they’d been there a few days, Rachel Wellard said she was going to climb up to the highest point on the island and see if she could see land. Then they might know if it was worth trying to build a boat. Dennis J Joans and Callum went on the expedition with her. They took plenty of water, the penknife, and a mango each.
Jessie noticed that as soon as they had set off, Scarlet and Jill started whispering. They sat under a big mango tree in the shade, and called the other children over to them one by one or in small groups. Jessie listened very hard and she heard them say things like, ‘If you join us, you’ll be guaranteed FUN!’ and, ‘We’ll give you an island where you can do what you want, when you want.’
Some of the children came away with an excited glint in their eye and a colourful tattoo on their arm or leg. They went away and made drums out of old coconut shells, and whittled away at bamboo to make bazookas they could blow through. Jessie was getting worried, especially as Callum was away from the camp for the day.
Then she noticed that Jill and Scarlet were standing where the rules were written in the sand. Jessie plucked up courage and went over to them. Using a coconut palm leaf as a brush, they had wiped away all the rules.
‘What are you doing?’ Jessie squeaked.
‘We hate school,’ said Scarlet. ‘We hate rules. And so does everyone else. We’re not having rules anymore.’
‘But we agreed,’ said Jessie.
‘Well, we’ve un-agreed. We’re starting a new group. We’re called The Red Devils.’
And they ran off, shrieking and bellowing, onto the beach. All their new followers ran towards them, squealing on their whistles and banging on their drums. They made a raggle-taggle parading orchestra along the shore with Scarlet stomping along at the front, raising her knees up high. Lizzie Huston was with them, and so were quite a few of the little ones, who had been bribed by the promise of ……
Jessie ran to where Ali, Trigger, Kia, May, KC and Karen were standing watching. They had been collecting firewood and building the fire for the night, and had not been invited to join Scarlet’s group.
‘That looks fun,’ said Trigger. Before they could stop him, he picked up a burning branch from the fire and ran off to join the parade. He swung the fire-brand over his head, fog-horning, ‘TRIGGER’S COMING TOO!’ as he ran.
The others just stood there watching. Jessie felt her feet twitching a little, as if they wanted to dance, and her hands fluttering at an imaginary drum.
The parade grew quieter as they went out of sight.
‘Where are they going?’ asked Jessie.
‘I don’t know,’ said Karen.
‘I hope Callum gets back soon. They’re voting with their feet.’
The sun was getting close to the horizon. Rachel’s expedition hadn’t come back, and nor had Scarlet’s parade. The only ones to come back were two of the little ones. They had been crying when they got to the fire and said it wasn’t fair because Scarlet had ordered them to go and fetch water for everyone in her group.
When they’d said to Scarlet that this was supposed to be a job they all did, she’d said, ‘Not any more it isn’t. Your job is to shut up and do as you’re told by us older ones.’
At first they thought it was just smoke from the campfire. But then they started coughing. It was too thick to only be that. Jessie was the first to hear the crackling noise, and the screech of birds moving quickly over their heads. They escaped onto the beach and looked back at the jungle. Then they realised what was happening.
Smoke was belching from the trees on the left hand side of the island. Cracks and bangs burst into the air as the fire tore through branches and tree trunks.
‘What about all the poor animals?’ whimpered May.
‘What about Rachel and Dennis and Callum?’ said Jessie. ‘They might be caught in it. And Scarlet’s group.’
The fire was still some distance from the camp, but already they could feel a fierce heat coming from it.
‘Will it burn the whole island?’ asked Kia.
‘It depends,’ said Ali. ‘On which way the wind blows.’
‘What can we do?’ wailed Karen and KC. ‘I wish Mr Barker and Ms Chess were here.’
But they couldn’t think of anything to do. They had a few bottles of water stored up but that wasn’t going to be enough to put the fire out, and they would be in danger themselves if they went into the forest. Jessie hated to stand still and do nothing. She felt sick.
Then they noticed, where the trees edged the beach to their left, a few children were lurching out of the forest, coughing and vomiting. They got clear of the fire and then fell over, onto the sand. Jessie and her friends ran over. They helped more children away from the trees and to safety on the beach. Jessie began to count who was there, just as Mr Barker would have done. There were still some missing.
Finally they saw some shadowy shapes moving amongst the trees. At first they looked like monsters with several legs. As they became clearer, and reached the beach, Jessie saw that Trigger was supporting Jill Beaddie. Jill was walking with one leg and dragging the other. There was a massive raw burn down one side of it. Her hair was singed black.
The second monster turned into Scarlet and David Casket. They were carrying something between them which seemed to be very heavy, and Jessie couldn’t at first see what it was. It drooped in the middle, almost dragging in the sand. Finally they let it down gently.
Jessie ran over, and gasped with shock. She heard all the gasps and small wails around her as everyone else saw what it was, who it was. Lizzie Huston lay there, very still. Her face was blackened with smoke, her clothes torn. Jessie longed to see her move. But she didn’t.
‘She must have breathed in too much smoke,’ said Kia, pushing to the front. She dropped to her knees beside Lizzie and felt for a pulse at her neck, lay her head against Lizzie’s chest.
Jessie heard footsteps behind her, approaching fast, at a run. She looked around and Dennis was there, panting, then Rachel. And Callum, the tallest boy in the school, was looking over the heads of the crowd that now surrounded Lizzie.
He pushed to the front. His face was pale and sweaty. ‘Is she still breathing?’ he asked.
Kia looked up at him. The flames beating in the forest behind her reflected on her face. It looked like the flashing light of an ambulance. But it was red rather than blue.

To be continued…..


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