‘Rough Island Story” by Rupert Croft-Cooke

Rough Island Story


Rupert Croft-Cooke
Except for purely literary purposes, people are not often cast away on desert islands.  Yet that is exactly what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins.  They were on their way to some port in British Guiana.  Or was it farther south?  Somewhere quite remote and tropical, where Mr. Jenkins was to take over a branch of the bank by which he had been employed in England.  And for motives of economy they had booked their passage on a small cargo steamer.  Unfortunately, Mr. Jenkins had not taken the precaution of inquiring whether the company which owned her was solvent or not.  He did not know that the ship was fully insured and no longer very useful.  So that he was quite surprised when the Captain, whom he had always considered a most pleasant man, though by no means English, called him aside one evening and pointed to a rather small island nearby.
“See that?” said the Captain.
“What?” said Mr. Jenkins.
“That island,” said the Captain.
“Why, yes.  Charming, isn’t it?” smiled Mr. Jenkins, who had been enjoying the trip and thought the tropics were very nice.
“I’m glad you think so,” grunted the Captain rather rudely, “because that’s where you’re going.”
“Oh, no,” smiled Mr. Jenkins quite good-natured and patient with the Captain, although the latter was being rather obtuse.  “I’m going to R——,” and he mentioned the port where his new post was.
“You’re going yonder,” said the Captain, nodding across the water, “and think yourself lucky I don’t send you down with the ship.  Can you row?”
“I can paddle,” said Mr. Jenkins, “and I can punt.  I’ve never tried rowing.  It looks quite easy, though.  Why?  Is there much of that sort of thing at?” and once more he mentioned the port for which he was bound.
The Captain walked away, but at nightfall Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins were placed in a small boat and told to row for the shore.
Mr. Jenkins, who was a member of a tennis club in Leamington, where he had lived, prided himself on not being namby-pamby, and soon learnt to move the small boat in little jerks towards the island.  He was a grey-haired man, with a pointed moustache and glasses with thick lenses.  He dressed neatly, as a rule, and now unbuttoned his jacket for the effort of rowing.
“Rucks it up under the armpits,” he explained with a smile to his wife, who sat opposite him.
“You do it very nicely, dear,” she said amiably.  She was a stout, complacent woman, very devoted to Mr. Jenkins, and fond of cooking.  “But why are we in this small and inconvenient boat?”
Mr. Jenkins smiled encouragingly.  “Oh, it is the sort of thing that frequently happens in these extremely foreign places,” he replied.  “Those sailors intend to scuttle the ship, and will receive their share of the insurance money.  They did not want us to be witnesses, of course.”
Mrs. Jenkins took her knitting from her bag.  “I see,” she said, “and will it delay us much, do you think?”
“That remains to be seen,” said Mr. Jenkins.  “If this island is inhabited we shall soon be able to communicate with the mainland.  If uninhabited, the usual thing is to light a fire in a high place and attract the attention of a passing steamer.”
Mrs. Jenkins nodded. “Quite exciting, isn’t it?” she said, quickly manipulating two plain and one purl.
“Well,” replied Mr. Jenkins, who had read a great deal, “Mr. Conrad has related far more stirring events.  But it will provide some variation from banking.  I’m quite enjoying this exercise, after being cooped up on board.”
They drew the boat up on a sandy beach, and Mrs. Jenkins, who had a louder voice than her husband, called “Oo-oo!” to attract the inhabitants.  But there was no response.
“We will explore in the morning,” said Mr. Jenkins.  “In the meantime, my dear, let us see what supplies have been given to us.”
They were disappointed to find that the only food in their boat was a large quantity of ship’s biscuits.  “Well, well,” said Mr. Jenkins, showing, for the first time, a little irritability, “these will have to serve until to-morrow.”  And they ate heartily of them.
Mrs. Jenkins had brought a travelling-rug, so they laid this on the soft dry sand and prepared to sleep.  “It reminds me,” Mrs. Jenkins said, “of that time, just after the war, when we went to Hastings and couldn’t find accommodation.  Do you remember, Edgar?”
“Yes, dear,” said Mr. Jenkins rather curtly.
“Only then we had a breakwater to shelter us.  I wonder if we could find one farther along the beach? We never thought of looking, did we?”
But Mr. Jenkins, exhausted by the effort of rowing, was already asleep.
In the morning, after they had eaten some more biscuits, they set out to explore the island.  Mrs. Jenkins had thoughtfully brought her parasol and Mr. Jenkins wore a sun-helmet.  They found that the island consisted of two hills, and not very much more.  They walked along the beach for about two and a half hours, but found neither breakwater nor pier, as Mrs. Jenkins seemed to expect.
“It’s a very quiet little place,” she said with some disappointment, for in England she had always chosen the more populous resorts.  “Not a soul in sight”
The island, in fact, was uninhabited, even, it seemed, by birds.  But they found a stream of fresh water running lackadaisically seawards and were glad to stoop and refresh themselves.
Another half-hour’s walk brought them within sight of a boat, lying high and dry on the beach.  They were very pleased at this until they approached it and found that it was their own.  They had made a complete circuit of the island and returned to their landing-place.
“Really,” said Mr. Jenkins quite peevishly, “it’s very vexing.  There seems to be no one on this island at all.”  He drew out his watch.  “Lunch-time,” he added sharply.  So they ate some more biscuits.
In the afternoon they explored what Mr. Jenkins jocularly called the ‘hinterland’.  Mrs. Jenkins went first, with her parasol, and Mr. Jenkins followed.  There was the semblance of a valley crossing the island, but even between the hills the ground rose to a considerable height, and they found walking rather slow and painful.
“I like the country,” Mrs. Jenkins said, “but I always say you can have too much of it.  Oh, look at that yellow and black creature, Edgar!  It reminds one of the reptile house at the Zoo!”
“Best not to prod it, dear,” said Mr. Jenkins, “it might have a sting.  You never know.  Let’s sit on this rock for a little while and enjoy the view.”
“It’s really very lucky,” said Mrs. Jenkins, complying heavily, “that there are no savages or wild beasts here.  We at least have no danger from anything of that sort.”
“No.  On the other hand there is the question of food.  It is going to be very awkward when the biscuits are finished.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Mrs. Jenkins.
“Well, I don’t think you need, dear.  We will light a fire on this eminence to-night and no doubt some passing ship will send out a boat to take us on board.”
Suddenly Mrs. Jenkins looked disturbed.  “But, Edgar!” she exclaimed almost fearfully.  “Suppose the ship were going THE OTHER WAY?  It might be weeks before we got to R——.”
“So it might.  But don’t let us anticipate trouble.  And now, dear, if you’re rested, we had better be getting back.  It must be tea-time.”
They started their descent.  “In a case like that,” said Mrs. Jenkins presently over her shoulder, “who would bear the cost of the second passage, Edgar?”
“I really scarcely know, dear,” said Mr. Jenkins.  “But cannot see that I should be liable, having paid it once.”
“I should think not!” said Mrs. Jenkins as they sat down to more biscuits.

* * *

A week passed and brought great changes, for Mrs. Jenkins ran out of the brown wool with which she was knitting a pull-over and Mr. Jenkins got more tired of biscuits.  But they found no means of replenishing their supplies.  Mrs. Jenkins said with resignation that she supposed she would not be able to get any more wool until they reached R——.
She explained that this was of a special colour which had cost her some trouble to find in Leamington, and she hoped there would be no difficulty about matching it when they arrived.  And although Mr. Jenkins made one or two attempts to catch fish with a bent hairpin they were not successful.
Every evening he climbed towards the summit of the hill and lit a large fire to attract the notice of a passing ship, and one of Mrs. Jenkins's garments was hung on a pole as a signal in the daytime.  She was at first a little unwilling about this.  She reminded Mr. Jenkins that she had never allowed the servants to hang the more intimate portions of their laundry on the clothes-line at home, and wondered what the sailors of their relief ship would say about it.  But Mr. Jenkins explained that it really could be considered an emergency, and the sailors would understand this.  So she gave way at last and helped him to hoist their distress signal.
But still there was no sign of relief, and the monotony of their diet began to tell on Mr. Jenkins's nerves.  “Really!” he said, “it’s too bad!”  And on the eighth day, “I don’t feel that I can eat these much longer.”  On the morning of the ninth day he said savagely that if he didn’t have something else to eat soon he didn’t know what he would do, and on the tenth he told Mrs. Jenkins that he was getting desperate.
It was the morning of their eleventh day ashore that Mrs. Jenkins noticed something very strange in her husband’s demeanour.  “Didn’t you sleep well, Edgar?” she asked.
“I slept quite well, thank you, dear,” he returned sharply.
He was eyeing her fixedly. His eyes travelled over her ample contours with a new interest.
“Whatever’s the matter, Edgar?” asked Mrs. Jenkins.  “Really, you make me feel quite jumpy!”
“It’s these biscuits,” said Mr. Jenkins.
I know it’s trying,” said Mrs. Jenkins placidly.
For a moment he was silent.  Then he said: “My dear, I’m very sorry, but there is only one thing for it.  This island provides no other food.  I’m afraid, I’m very much afraid, that I shall have to have a change of diet.  And you will have to provide it.”
“Well, Edgar, I should be only too glad to cook anything you please.  But I don’t see what there is.  I can’t catch fish.”
“I wasn’t referring to fish,” said Mr. Jenkins, “but meat.”
“Meat, Edgar?” asked his wife, for the first time growing nervous.  “What meat?”
“There is only one kind of meat on this island,” said Mr. Jenkins drily.
“Edgar, you . . . cannot be proposing to turn cannibal?”
Mr. Jenkins shifted uneasily.  “Of course, it is all very unfortunate,” he observed, “and the Captain was greatly to blame for his inadequate supplies.  But there you are.”
Mrs. Jenkins began to cry softly while her husband continued.  “I think it rather selfish of you,” he said, “to make things more difficult than they are by those tears.  The situation is trying enough as it is.  And I shall envy you for being out of it.”
“It’s . . . not that,” sobbed Mrs. Jenkins.
“Then what is it?”
“I think . . . you might have waited until the biscuits ran out, Edgar!”
It was on the thirteenth day that Mr. Jenkins’s patience was finally exhausted.
“It's no good, my dear,” he said resolutely, laying down his breakfast biscuit.  “I can eat no more of these.”
Mrs. Jenkins nibbled on. “I don’t know how you’ll manage alone, Edgar,” she said rather sentimentally.
“Nor I.  But I see no help for it.  There is one suggestion, however, which I might make.  Since we are likely to be relieved shortly, it would be a pity to be unnecessarily premature.  I mean, we might start with a leg, perhaps, and in that case you yourself would benefit also in some measure . . .”.
Mrs. Jenkins shuddered slightly.  “No, dear,” she said, “I should prefer to leave the whole matter to you.”
“Just as you wish,” returned Mr. Jenkins with a conciliatory smile.  “Then, if you are quite ready?”
Mrs. Jenkins rose to her feet.  “It’s quite an important step to take, isn’t it?” she said hesitatingly.  It would be kinder perhaps to Mrs. Jenkins and also more delicate to leave unexplained the method chosen by Mr. Jenkins to achieve his unwilling object.  Suffice it to say that the method was both simple and humane.  On this point he gave his wife the most earnest assurances before he began tactfully and cheerfully to distract her attention by more general conversation as they crossed the island.  But when they reached the appointed place, and the prearranged moment, he hesitated.  A sudden doubt had occurred to him, and in order to remove it he was forced to return to the subject which he had been avoiding.
“My dear,” he said after clearing his throat uncomfortably.  “Er . . . how long does one give it to cook?”
The housewife rose bravely in Mrs. Jenkins’s bosom.
“Twenty minutes to the pound, dear,” she said.  And those were her last words.
Mr. Jenkins lives a few doors down the road from me and is a pleasant neighbour.  We often walk to the station together in the morning.  It appears that he was picked up by a passing steamer some three days after the incidents described, and feeling that he had seen enough of the tropics, he returned to the service of his bank in England.
He has married again, and is very happy with his wife, who rarely speaks of the past. Only once has she shown any curiosity about the cause of the first Mrs. Jenkins’s decease, and her husband was quick to satisfy her.
“Oh, she died of consumption,” he said briskly, and, in a way, of course, it was true.

[This text comes from Michael Harrison (ed.), Under Thirty: An Anthology (London, 1939), pp. 134-41.  The anthology included stories from thirty British writers who were then under the age of thirty years.]