Penelope Todd: Island is set on an un-named quarantine island, for which I used my feeling for Kamau Taurua or St Martin’s island in the Otago Harbour. I wanted the fictional island to ‘float’ rather than be fixed somewhere specific. Today, Kamau Taurua remains pretty much as it was – cut off by water from the city and encapsulating its own small world. Many colonial cities had a quarantine island, which might be seen as a barrier, or as a boat conveying colonists slowly closer to their destination – although they remained ‘at sea’ with the goal unseen, the future uncertain, the new life not yet begun.
PT: Water confines the island’s occupants; and yet it has carried them there and forms their vista and the passage to their future. It might be said that water alludes to what is unknown, but tentatively explored; to a place of flux, the liminal space where much of fiction dwells. Certainly, each of the watery scenes marks out a time of transition, be it in one patient’s attempt to drown himself, or in diphtheria-afflicted passengers being rowed ashore in a sleet storm.
PT: I wrote the book after a long stint of writing fiction for young adults, so it could be called a cross-over, certainly a coming of age, novel. Protagonist Liesel, having crossed the ocean, spends longer than anticipated in the ‘waiting room’ of the quarantine island, since she has elected to work there. She encounters the plethora of life, death and love before she has the chance to leave. The early inklings of the story came in the persistent image of a young man traipsing across mud flats, then beginning to swim. When I eventually sat to write him down, he was striking out for the island, and his cause became clear. Kahu is a kind of alter ego for Liesel.
Liesel didn’t speak as she stepped and slithered down through the tangle of bracken and grass that hemmed the beach. Kahu followed slowly. When she sprang through the band of weed to the water’s edge, he crouched, then lay back into the warm grass.
When he sat up again, she was in the water. Her clothes were strewn, not rolled and stowed as they had been that other time. Already she was swimming: her head and shoulders bobbed as her arms swept out like wings, and every few strokes her feet broke the surface. Her face was averted as she moved across the bay.
Kahu stepped onto the sand, then turned back and sat again. But this was the kind of uncertainty he had meant to leave behind when he left home. Under his father’s influence, he had grown mistrustful of his own impulses, had lost his way with niceties and rationalisations. He meant to become simple again – to score out before they were written in his mind the convoluted sentences that stood between need and action. Kahu rubbed at his hair and glanced up towards the graveyard, then he stood and pulled off his clothes. Without looking at Liesel, he leaped through weed to the water’s edge. He was shocked by the cold. He walked out until he was waist deep and waited for the ache to subside.
Liesel reached the end of her invisible thread and turned – and paused, seeing him, then she swam on.
Kahu lowered himself. As he drew near, she stopped and trod water, on her quiet face the unmistakable warning to come no closer. He found that he could just touch the sandy bottom with his toes. Now she took him in with her eyes … then she lifted her arms and slipped under, looking still, he knew. She floated back up and lay on the surface, as she had that other time, languid, arms wide, not looking, not speaking, but letting him see the scarlet pebbles on her breasts, and when she tilted towards him, the white scoop where hip and belly met, the dark triangle and pale thighs fading into green as she came upright again.
She told him to shut his eyes and he spread his arms for balance. Her hand touched his throat and slid across his chest. There was a splash and the hand went to his belly and further, light as a fish, and he thought he might drown with his eyes rolling back beneath the lids as her fingers found and covered him. He sucked in his breath, almost a sob, but then she was gone, swimming away towards the shore, without looking back.
For a moment he went to thrash after her, but he caught himself and swam out to sea instead, with his crabbed and childish stroke. He waited until Liesel had pulled her dress back on before he dog-paddled to shore, where she spared him nothing with her ferocious gaze that made him first strut a little, then hunch and hurry towards his clothes.
©Penelope Todd, Island, 2010