by Carter Fell
Chapter I: Speed Bonny Boat
Early one May, I received an invitation to a reunion at the Stevenage teacher training college. I had been ignoring such invitations for more than twenty years; for I had been a teacher for only two years after qualifying, and had absolutely no interest in renewing acquaintances from the lost world of education. But this time, I resolved to attend, and I returned the RSVP. You will think this absurd, but I have come to believe that the island was pulling me, as a dark mass in space pulls at an aimlessly drifting asteroid. At the reunion, I ran into Paul. I barely remembered his face, and certainly not his name; only the childish LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles really rang a bell. Like me, Paul was a loner drifting between the tight little groups that always form at such events, and we both gravitated to the bar.
Paul was pouring Stella Artois down his throat as if he feared it was about to be cut, and wanted to make the most of it. Despite having intended to stay sober, I found myself matching him drink for drink, and soon we were giggling together like a pair of schoolboys. In the middle of a particularly ill-informed conversation about England’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup, Paul suddenly leaned towards me in a conspiratorial manner.
‘I suppose you like women eh? Like them a lot, I expect?’
I nodded cautiously, and he braced himself for his big announcement.
‘Well, I can give you the chance of something special, something that will change your life. Interested?’
‘Paul,’ I protested. ‘You’ll have to tell me more than that!’
He shook his head boozily, and wagged a finger at me. ‘No can do, buddy. You’ll have to trust me on this. You’ll need money to come in on it, but if you’ve got the guts to live your life, and if you can keep your mouth shut, I’m offering you the biggest kick you can imagine.’
Leaning back, Paul smirked, with the air of a car salesman who has offered a punter a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a gleaming new vehicle. Then he lunged forward, put an arm about my shoulders, and whispered in my ear. ‘I can take you to the island.’
Even today, I cannot explain why those words gave me such a frisson of fear, excitement, and anticipation. In my part of the world, when someone says “the island”, they usually mean the Isle Of Wight; somehow, I did not think Paul was referring to that innocuous family holiday destination. But I did not resist, I was ripe for surrender to something, and I did not care much what it was. I only asked him one question.
‘Is it legal?’
Paul ignored that; he was struggling to his feet, and peering at his watch. ‘It’s now one am. Meet me at Euston railway station, platform four, ten o’clock tonight. You’ll need five hundred quid.’
‘I can’t Paul! It’s Thursday tomorrow, I’ll be going to work…’
But he was already lurching towards the exit. When I left, a few minutes later, I did not go straight home. I had to stop at a cash machine.
Just after noon on that Thursday, I was aboard the motor vessel Clear Blue Water as she emerged from the little Scottish port of Mallaig into the Sound Of Sleat. She was a charter fishing boat, with radar, fish finder, binnacle-mount GPS, all the high-tech equipment that is used to separate anglers from their cash. Ahead of us the ferry to the Isle Of Skye carried early tourists and their cars, we turned across its wake and headed westwards, in the direction of Rhum. Once well clear of the harbour traffic, the skipper pushed the throttles forward; the big diesels roared, and a mountainous propeller wash creamed up behind the stern. As mainland Scotland receded behind us, and the boat crashed across the Atlantic swell, I recalled the events of the previous twenty-four hours.
At Euston station, I had found Paul waiting for me. ‘Have you got the money?’ He asked.
‘I’m fine Paul,’ I replied. ‘And it’s good to see you too. And yes, I have got the money. What am I going to spend it on?’
Paul employed the old Margaret Thatcher trick of ignoring the asked question in favour of the one he wanted to answer.
‘Glasgow.’ He said. ‘I’ve got your ticket; you can get mine the next time we come. Come on, let’s find our seats.’
We hurried down the platform, and clambered aboard the train. We found two seats in carriage F, and we were lucky to do so, the train was rapidly filling. Settled in place, I asked Paul what we were going to do in Glasgow. He told me that he had booked a hire car, in which we would travel to Mallaig, from where a boat would take us to the island.
‘And what happens on the Island, Paul?’ But he just would not answer the question; he motioned with his eyes at the passengers around us, and held a finger to his lips. In the end, I gave up trying to prise any information out of him, and a long night of fitful sleep began; every time I woke up, stiff and uncomfortable, I cursed Paul for not booking us sleeper berths.
In Glasgow, there was an embarrassing moment when the girl in the car hire office handed Paul’s visa card back to him, and told him it had been declined. I had to proffer my own plastic, and then there was the tedious form-filling of transferring the rental to my name. Eventually we were on the road, and buzzing up through the Trossachs National Park. Scotland looks a small country on the map, but it looks bloody big on the ground. Bare mountains loomed threateningly around us, vast lochs hinted of unknown graves in icy water, and gloomy forests maintained a sinister silence. I resumed my questioning of Paul, but he was an enigma, insisting that I had to see and feel the island for myself, then I would understand what had been missing from my life. He was right, of course.
We were able to park close to the quay in Mallaig. My stomach was begging for food, but Paul told me there was no time to eat, and I should try not to be such a snivelling wimp. Aboard the boat, the skipper was waiting for us. However many times I am disappointed, I always expect skippers to be leather-faced old seadogs, who look like they are used to wrestling a shark for their breakfast, but they never do look like that. This one appeared to be barely out of his teens; he looked us over with his sly eyes, and then amazed me by explaining to us the workings of an ancient Penn reel. While he was urging us not to try slowing the spool with our thumbs, another two travellers arrived. The skipper – whose name I never learned – immediately abandoned his lecture, and fired up the engines. When he was satisfied with the steady burbling from under our feet, he cast off, and we eased away from the quay.
I have some familiarity with the strange and ghostly Western Isles from my sailing days as a Venture Scout. Half an hour out from Mallaig, the skipper altered course to the southwest, onto a track that I knew would take us between the isles of Rhum and Eigg. I did not think that we would be able to land on either the south coast of Rhum, or the north coast of Eigg, so I guessed that we would be going beyond those islands. My guess proved to be correct, we passed through the Sound Of Rhum, a couple of miles distant from either dangerous shore. Up until now, the passage had been distinctly rough, with the boat slamming into the peaks of the swell, and crashing down into the troughs. But now, as Rhum and Eigg slipped away behind us, the sea became glassy, and we ran through tendrils of mist.
The mist thickened into fog, as is common in those waters where chilled water from the distant Arctic meets the top end of the Gulf Stream. Still the skipper kept the throttles wide open, and I positioned myself closer to the lifejacket locker. I did not fear collision with land or another vessel, the radar should prevent that; but it would not see driftwood that could tear the bottom out of the boat in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, the engine roar died away, and the skipper watched the GPS display intently. Every few seconds he would blip the throttles, I realised that he was holding the boat on a mark. One of the other passengers spoke softly to the skipper, I could not catch the words, but I had the strong impression of a foreign accent, possibly Dutch or German. Whatever the words were, the skipper ignored them, and we all waited in silence, while the fog drifted idly around us, and a chill gnawed at our bones. I was straining my ears to catch any sound from the invisible world outside the fog bank, any sound that was different from the sea lapping at our hull, and the spluttering from our exhausts.
Eventually, I was rewarded by the angry buzz of a two-stroke motor in the distance. All of the passengers looked up eagerly, and stared around to catch sight of the other vessel. For a long time, the sound did not seem to come any closer; then, quite abruptly, a tiny outboard-powered dinghy slid out of the fog and came to rest alongside. Its sole occupant was a woman dressed in baggy jeans and sweater. She tied a painter to a cleat on the Clear Blue Water, killed the outboard, and then scrambled over the stern to join us. Paul whispered to me that I should not speak.
One of the foreigners stood up unsteadily, and offered the woman his outstretched hand. She kept her own hands by her sides, and stared at him until he sat down again. Then she produced a bag with a drawstring top from her pocket, and she looked at me expectantly. I produced my wad of notes, which she carefully counted and placed in the bag. As soon as she had bagged my cash, she said ‘My name is Tina.’ Then she turned to Paul, who produced a wad that was substantially thicker than mine; this too disappeared into the bag. Each of the two foreigners gave her what appeared to be a pebble, which she examined minutely before dropping into her bag. Transactions completed, she returned to the dinghy, and started the outboard. Balancing easily in the small craft, she beckoned to us to join her. Clumsily, each of us swung over the stern, and then with two of us sat on either side of the dinghy, she cast off and gunned the motor. In seconds the Clear Blue Water had vanished into the fog behind us; and we headed for our landfall
Like the skipper, Tina relied on GPS to find her way, using a hand-held Garmin unit. Thank you, US Defence Department, thank you very much. After no more than five minutes, she throttled the outboard back to an idle; it was hard to tell if the dinghy was moving at all, then I began to hear the lethal hiss of water on rocks. I was scared rigid, and the other passengers looked just as frightened as me. Land appeared quite suddenly, a huge dark mass looming high above us. Abruptly, Tina let go of the outboard tiller, and darted to the front of the dinghy, where I could now see a buoy riding low in the water Leaning far out, she grabbed a mooring ring on the buoy, and tied the painter to it. She turned her angular face towards us, and offered an explanation. ‘We must wait for the tide.’
My expectation was that when the tide rose enough, she would take the dinghy over a sandbar or some such nautical obstacle. I was completely wrong about that, for in fact the tide was ebbing. I had looked at my watch when Tina had made her pronouncement, and tried to discipline myself to not look at it again for ten minutes. When I had silently counted six hundred seconds, I looked at my Japanese friend again; alas, only seven minutes had elapsed. But something interesting was happening; the fog was starting to lift, and about twenty yards away, at the very limit of vision, a wooden slipway was rising slowly out of the sea, and was creeping towards us. It was an illusion of the falling tide, we were dropping on the water as more and more of the slipway was exposed. After another twenty minutes, my disbelieving eyes saw another woman, a naked woman, walking down that slimy slipway towards the sea.
Chapter II: Addiction
As she came closer, I could see the naked woman’s staring eyes, her whole face was a picture of terror. I could also see that she was not technically naked, there was some kind of harness over her shoulders and around her waist. But there were no concessions to modesty, her breasts and pubis were exposed. A line trailed behind her, obviously attached to the harness. Reaching the water, she waded in, and lunged for the dinghy; her desperate face showed her to be no more than about twenty years old. Tina grabbed her arms, but did not help her into the dinghy. She reached over the girl’s shoulders, to the line. Unclipping it from the harness, she transferred it to the dinghy’s mooring ring, and then untied the painter from the buoy. Again she favoured us with a short address. ‘Stay in your seats. You must stay in your seats.’
There was a distant whine, the line tightened, and the dinghy was hauled onto the steep slipway, with the naked girl clinging on to the side. Expecting the dinghy to topple to one side or the other when it was out of the water, I held on to the side. But the dinghy tilted only slightly as it ascended, it must have had runners on the bottom.
The dinghy ground to a halt in front of the winch that had dragged it from the sea; there was no sign of a winch operator. We were on a rock platform that had been carved by man or the sea out of the base of the cliffs, which rose high around us. There was just the winch in a rusty cradle, and a small hut; to the left a rocky path led upwards into the fog. Tina jumped from the dingy, and the girl followed her to the hut. As the rest of us climbed out, Tina took a large towel from the hut, and wrapped it around the girl. ‘I told you it would be easy, Polly. Now you can go and check the teams are ready.’ Smiling happily now, the girl trotted up the path, and was soon lost from our sight.
Tina gathered up all our mobile phones, and put them in the hut. She emerged from the hut with three coloured discs; each disc had a key attached. To each of the foreigners she gave a yellow disc, and to Paul she gave a red disc. Paul and the foreigners immediately disappeared up the path; Tina secured the dinghy properly, and then turned to me. ‘Follow me, please.’
She set off up the path at a killer pace, while I struggled to keep with her. If only Paul had told me more about the island. Was I expected to screw this woman? I just did not know, I did not even know if I wanted to. The naked girl now, I would have welcomed a shot at her, although she had not looked like five hundred quid’s worth. As we neared the top of the path, we were suddenly in bright sunshine; to my left the sea was invisible, but I could look out over the fog to the peaks of Rhum and Eigg.
A few more steps, and we were on a grassy area about half a mile across. A low ridge bounded the plateau, so I could not see far; what I could see was a gravel path that ran in a rough oval. On the nearest part of the oval was a low wooden building, to which Tina led me. We stood in a small, low-ceilinged room, sparsely furnished room. From a cabinet, Tina retrieved a bottle of mineral water and two glasses. I realised that I was very thirsty, and seriously hungry. She poured us each a glass, and then, brisk and businesslike, she launched straight in.
‘You will listen to me, you will not interrupt, and you will not ask questions. If you do not understand what is happening, you are in the wrong place, and you have made a terrible mistake.’
She paused, took a small swig from her glass, and then continued.
‘Today you are a beginner; you are on probation. If you are thought to be suitable, you will be allowed to come again; perhaps you will become a member, perhaps you will progress beyond that. The island can offer you pleasures unknown elsewhere in the modern world. But you will have to deserve those pleasures, and you will have to respect the island.’
Another pause, another swig.
‘Today you will drive a rig with two ponygirls. I will give you three rules. Rule number one; as a probationer, you have no whip-rights. You must understand that the whip is a symbol of your authority, it is not provided for you to strike the ponies, and you are not allowed to do so. Rule number two; this is not a brothel. You must not attempt to make any sexual use of the ponies, that includes touching. Rule number three; you must not try to converse with the ponies. If you break any of those rules, you will never see this island again.’
Her cold stare suggested to me that maybe I would never see anything again if I transgressed the island’s rules. She continued. ‘If you think that a pony is lazy or disobedient, you must report the matter to me. I will make a judgement, and if I find that the pony has failed, then I will, I will..’ She stumbled over the words; staring fixedly ahead as if she could see something terrible that was invisible to me. ‘I will do what is necessary.’ Finally the sentence was complete.
So, whips and ponygirls, well I had guessed it had to be something kinky to be worth five hundred notes. I had parted with the money, so I might as well enjoy it. ‘OK Tina,’ I said, ‘I’ve listened to your bullshit, and you’re a good actress. Can we get on with it now?’
She coloured slightly, and gazed at me with a disbelieving expression. ‘An actress.’ she repeated softly, as if tasting the word for the first time. The she lowered her head to stare at the floor for a few seconds, while a string of questions raced through my head. Why had Paul told me nothing about this place? And where was Paul right now? I thought of Polly, naked and terrified on the slipway, what could have made her do anything so dangerous?
Tina snapped her head up. ‘I think we can go through now.’ She said, and walked across the room to a doorway. She threw the door open, and then I could see into the other half of the building, and my addiction started at that moment, when I first saw a pair of Thursday Island ponygirls. Two of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen were stood there, harnessed to a gleaming cart. I walked through the doorway in something of a trance; this was worth five hundred pounds, it was worth a lot more. Everything about the ponygirls was perfect; from their immaculate hair to their beautifully manicured feet, there was perfection in their lightly oiled skin, and in their ideally shaped breasts. I wanted to own those girls; I just had to have them for myself.
I turned to speak to Tina, and saw a terrible thing. She was changing, and she had her back to me. A grey skirt had already replaced her jeans, and she was pulling her sweater over her head, revealing her back; it was scarred with a latticework of white lines. I had never seen such a thing before, but I knew instantly that at some time she had been brutally flogged. Repulsed and embarrassed, I quickly turned away. I looked carefully at the ponygirls again, at their backs and buttocks, but there was definitely not a mark on them. The contradiction baffled me; if Tina was mistreated here, why did she not leave? It would be easy enough, I had seen her in charge of the dinghy, and there were islands just a few miles away.
Waiting for Tina, I inspected the pony rig. The seat was shaped from aluminium, it was unpadded, and was perforated with tiny holes. Below and in front of the seat was a footrest, it too was aluminium, and was perforated. The wheels appeared to have been manufactured for cycle use; the spokes and rims were polished to – well, to perfection, I just have to use that word again. I sat myself in the rig, and looked at the lovely forms in front of me. Their harnesses were similar to the one I had seen Polly wearing, but the waist belts were fastened to a horizontal bar that was connected to the rest of the rig by a tubular shaft. By my right hand was a hollow tube mounted vertically; into it was inserted the stock of a whip. The whip stock was about four feet in length; the tail was whipcord of about the same length. I fingered the stock, and my heart was full of darkness.
Tina came through to join me. ‘You may mount your rig.’ she said sarcastically, but at least she was smiling, and her rather hard face was transformed. Laugh-lines creased her cheeks, pulling her lips back to reveal her teeth. She looked at me with a very open and friendly expression, as if we had just spent a night together, and knew everything about each other. I wondered if she was giving me a come-on, I desperately hoped that she would. Then she flipped a switch, and part of the wall lifted in the same way as an over-and-under garage door. Sunlight flooded the room, dispelling the darkness inside of me, and revealing the oval track outside. I was as excited as a kid at Christmas, I just wanted to race around that track on my new toy. Tina stood by the rig, and looked up into my eyes.
‘Now look, I want you to remember that it’s not the ponies being trained, it’s you. And you are not being trained to drive; you’re being trained to be a pony driver. It’s mental state, see? Those ponies are human beings; and they may be a lot smarter than you, but you have to forget that, because you need to use their muscle, not their brains. You must have total command of the rig; it goes where you want, when you want, and how fast you want. The ponies will be hurting, but you cannot consider that.’
She broke off, and her serious look was replaced by a grin. ‘You’ve no idea what I’m talking about. But you will have. They will obey three commands; Walk, Trot, and Stop. Go out and enjoy yourself for a while.’
So I went out onto the oval, and I enjoyed myself. At first I let the ponies choose their own course, and of course they just followed the track. Then I started to use the reins, slewing the rig from one side of the track to the other. I practiced stopping and starting, I trotted them for a full circuit, barking at them to lift their knees higher. The sight of their young bodies working hard was an intense pleasure to me, and it was too bad that I was not permitted the logical conclusion.
As I went around the track, I could see Tina placing traffic cones on the grassy area inside the path. When she had finished, she called me to halt, and fitted leather blinders over the ponies’ eyes. ‘Off you go again’ she said. I called for the trot again, and found that I had to concentrate to keep the rig central on the track; the sightless ponies had only the reins to guide them. There was a real satisfaction to this, and I began to understand what Tina had said about the mental state of being a pony driver.
After my free practice, Tina had me steer the rig around the traffic cone course she had made; this reminded me of the basic motorcycle course I had taken. The ponies were still blinded, and more than once I struck a cone. But all too soon it was over; Tina stopped me and told me that my session was finished. The rig and ponies were left outside; I went into the building with my hostess, who gave me a plate of tuna and onion sandwiches and pot of tea. How had she known what sandwiches I would like? The question flitted across my mind, but I dismissed it. I ate silently and alone, while Tina busied herself outside.
When I had finished my late lunch, Tina returned. She looked at me thoughtfully, as if trying to make up her mind about something.
‘I know you enjoyed your drive, I think I will probably see you again. Before you leave, the panel wish to speak to you. All I can tell you about the panel is that they are the executive committee, they run the island, and they decide if you are to be invited back.’
Invited? Had I been invited? Suddenly I had the distinct feeling that Paul had been a messenger, and that I had somehow been identified as the sort of character who would fall for the island’s charms. I wondered briefly how that could have been accomplished, possibly my Internet usage had been monitored. But that question would have to wait, Tina had opened the connecting door, and I walked through to where I had first seen my rig. A folding table had been set up, behind which sat the panel. It consisted of three people; all were wearing pointed white hoods over their heads. They looked like a revival meeting of the Ku Klux Klan; I wanted to laugh, but I also wanted to run away. The centre hood motioned me to a chair; when I was seated, he spoke.
‘Please, forgive the amateur dramatics; this is just a matter of preserving the island’s privacy. You just sit back and relax; you will not be required to speak; we do not permit questions. We think that you have the potential to be a member; you are allowed to come again with your introducing member, if you choose to do so, and if you can afford the fees. Today you have seen the basics; you now have some idea what the island is about. If you choose to come again, you will be given further instruction. The fee will be one thousand pounds.’
‘After that, if you have demonstrated that you understand the responsibilities involved, we may invite you to become a member. Once you are a member, there will be further options available to you, but you cannot be told about them at this stage. There is an annual membership fee of five thousand pounds; that will entitle you to the use of a pony team on any twelve Thursdays per year, with no further fees.’
All three hoods stared at me for a few moments, and then they all rose. ‘Good day to you, Sir.’ They chorused; I mumbled something in reply, and then the meeting was over.
I left the room thinking that I would never see them or the island again. It had been good fun, but I could not possibly pay six thousand smackers to become a regular pony driver. On the train home, I asked Paul where the island got its ponygirls. He became agitated. ‘Never ask me that. You must never speak about the island, never.’
We were both silent for the rest of the journey. In my head, I speculated that the girls must be ferried over from the mainland for that one day in each week, and that they had normal jobs the rest of the time. Later on, I was to find out just how wrong I was.
Within hours of arriving home, I was itching to return to the island. I wanted to command ponygirls again, to watch their butts sway and their muscles work as they hauled me along. And in the deepest recesses of my personality, I wanted to swing the whip, and hear the sound it would make on human flesh. Tina’s back had truly horrified me, but it fascinated me, and I knew that I would not find those scars so repulsive if I had put them there myself. So I phoned Paul, and asked him when he was going again. He laughed. ‘I knew you’d be hooked! But you’ll have to wait awhile, I can’t find the time just yet.’ And the bastard kept me waiting for three weeks.
My second visit was remarkably similar to my first. We travelled on a different boat, the Out Of The West, with a different skipper, and our fellow travellers were unfamiliar. But there was the same fog, the same Tina in the dinghy, the same Polly plunging into the sea with the line. Paul and the others – they all gave Tina a pebble - were again issued with coloured discs; I was again led to the training oval to drive the same pair of ponygirls. For sixty minutes, I walked the team, trotted the team, and manoeuvred them around the cones. There was no progression, and I was feeling distinctly cheesed off when I sat before the panel afterwards.
As on the previous occasion, the centre hood did all the talking.
‘We think you are the right sort of man to join us, but I warn you now that you must harden your heart. So far, you have only seen the training oval, and our training ponies. The main circuit of the island is over seven miles long, that’s a very long way to pull a rig. Our standard rig has four ponies, but there is only one way to keep them moving at any pace.’
He rapped sharply on the table, the door opened, and Tina entered. Centre hood told her to put her clothes on the floor, in seconds she was naked. She was then instructed to climb on the table, which she did. Centre hood twirled a finger; Tina slowly pirouetted on the table, exposing her breasts, her vagina lips, and her scarred back to my embarrassed gaze. After a couple of revolutions, centre hood waved a hand at her, as if brushing away a bothersome fly. Tina jumped of the table, grabbed her clothes under one arm, and fled the room. Not a word had she spoken while she was in the room, but her obedience and her scars told a stark tale of slavery and the whip.
The three hoods sat and stared at me. Long minutes crawled by like hours. Finally centre hood spoke. ‘Can you accept what you have seen?’ I gulped, and nodded quickly. More minutes passed while I felt three pairs of eyes trying to see into my soul. They had tried to shock me, I knew that, and they might have succeeded if I had not already glimpsed Tina’s back. A thought leapt into my head, they’re going to kill me, they have to kill me. Around and around my head went the thought, I was certain that they doubted I was made of the right stuff, and that they could not let me leave the island. But centre hood spoke again.
‘Very well, you may come again, on any Thursday you choose, and after paying your annual fee, you will be received as a member. We look forward to seeing you in the bar. Good day to you, Sir. ’
Tina was waiting for me outside. Her face gave no hint of the humiliation she had endured; she just looked at me with her cool grey eyes, and told me the dinghy would leave in twenty minutes. Following her to the cliff path, I wondered what sort of sadistic bastard could have put those scars on her back. I knew the answer immediately, someone exactly like me.
End of Part 1