I will not argue that I was a little bit pissed off for a while at my drunken subconscious self and what kind of twisted logic he had had at his command that would lead him to think that a raft on the world's largest ocean would be the ideal hiding place from Yakuza hitmen. Indeed, for the first few hours I was absolutely livid, and found myself jumping around and yelling as much as basic common sense and the confined dimensions of the raft would allow. But after a while I found myself settling down, because it's almost impossible to stay mad when you're surrounded by the ocean's stark beauty. Also, I hadn't completely recovered from my trip and every time I stood up it was like someone had let off a Catherine Wheel directly behind my head.
So for several hours I just sat there, slumped against the mast, picking splinters off the raft and flicking them at passing sharks, and allowed myself to become lost in thought. Truth be told, I was actually starting to feel positive about the direction my life had taken. Oh sure, maybe I was adrift at sea with no means of survival or capacity for navigation, but the same could be said of my life beforehand, albeit in a clumsy metaphorical way. I had been studying for a bachelor's degree in aquatic mammal biology to get my parents off my back, and the only career I'd had in mind involved professional scamming of the government unemployment benefits scheme. At least now I had a purpose to my existence, that being to see how much of my boy scouts survival training I could remember offhand.
First of all, I remembered hearing vaguely somewhere that it was OK to drink seawater in small increments, so I experimentally took a few sips from my cupped hands. Seconds later I resolved to leave this strategy for the last resort, just below drinking my own blood.
Around the third day I was getting pretty hungry. Fishing was out of the question, because leaving aside the whole rod aspect I was being followed by several angry sharks with splinters and they would no doubt snatch anything I tried to reel in. I tried making an artful little salad from bits of wood, but it wasn't very appetising, so I opted to peel off the soles of my shoes and chew them. I'd heard that shoe leather can offer some nutrients this way. Of course, I was wearing trainers, but I was hoping if I didn't think about it too much then my digestive system could be fooled.
On the fourth day I resolved to try sleeping as much as I could. There couldn't be many nutrients left in my body, and their was no point in using them all up messing around with my shoes or leading the sharks in renditions of Yellow Submarine. So I spent most of the time after that with my back up against the mast dozing off to dreamland -
The tentacled king of the ball pool was full of apologies when I got back. He said he knew there had always been something weird about the cake shop owner but he could never quite put his finger on it. Anyway, he asked if I had found my eyes, and I reported that I evidently had, because I could see for the first time the tentacled king's magnificent coat. It appeared to be made from live chinchillas. Each chinchilla was somehow persuaded to join hands with the chinchillas either side of it and cling to the head of the chinchilla below with their little feet. They would also sing an upbeat chinchilla song whenever a bell was rung. The king insisted on giving me the address of where he bought his magnificent coat.
When I arrived at the address it turned out the entire chinchilla coat factory was also made entirely from chinchillas, albeit packed more tightly. These chinchillas refused to sing, as they were hard-working serious chinchillas, and seemed quite resentful of the apparently more higher-born chinchillas and their lovely singing voices who were permitted to be made into live chinchilla coats. I did my best to cheer up the angry wall chinchillas but their hostility was quickly transferred to me as a potential buyer of coats. I escaped their wrath by boarding a boat made of chinchillas as it sailed across a river made of chinchillas. The boat chinchillas I found much more agreeable, and they regaled me with many interesting sailing stories of chinchilla docks and chinchilla whores.
It was as we were sailing out onto the wide chinchilla sea that I noticed how every chinchilla looked exactly like Marlboro, the chinchilla I had owned as a ten-year-old and which I had put inside a popcorn machine to see what would happen. Then the boat ran aground on the biggest chinchilla ever.
My raft ran aground on a big island which bore only rudimentary similarities to a giant chinchilla, and I lay in the shallows on a large sandy beach for a few exhausted minutes waiting for some kind of energy to return to my limbs. The cool splashing of the ocean around my ears and knotted hanky was very relaxing, but then an inquisitive crab started investigating my knee and I was forced to get up and move.
After sucking what nutrients could be acquired from my few weeks' growth of beard, I was still pretty hungry, so I pursued that crab for a bit until it suddenly demonstrated a remarkable turn of speed and escaped into the jungle. At this time I was hesitant to venture into the greenery, because I wasn't keen on the possibility of having spiders the size of basketballs drop onto my face from overhead branches and refuse to let go. So I stayed on the beach for a while, kicking the nearby trees in the hope of dislodging a few in-season bananas. This proved especially futile, because they turned out to be date palms, and all the dates had apparently been taken by mischievous monkeys long ago.
Hunger pains were moving to the 'excruciating' stage by mid-morning. After a last-ditch attempt to extract nutrients from filling my mouth with sand, I decided that, if a big spider the size of a basketball dropped onto my face and tried to eat it, I would eat it back and we could turn the whole thing into an exciting competition. I was quite psyched for the match, but I needn't have worried. The jungle seemed empty of life, without even the lonely call of tropical birds to liven the place up. The trees and assorted foliage weren't even growing particularly thickly, and there was little shade to keep sunburn out of the picture. Occasionally I adjusted my knotted hanky, for which I had become quite grateful. I named it Dave, after someone I had known at school who had also spent time sitting astride my head for reasons I am not willing to divulge.
I had been exploring the island jungle for about half an hour and was about to start climbing trees in search of huge spiders when I picked up a strange noise on the edge of perception. On the basis that all sound is caused by movement, and that anything moving could potentially be digested, I headed towards it, hopping over low branches and shoving my way through curtains of leaves. As I grew closer, it became increasingly apparent that it was a hum. Not a jolly musical hum, or even a hum that might be associated with a bee, but a flat, monotonous hum that went on without pause or fluctuation. I wasn't sure what that could mean, but continued anyway. After all, nothing ventured, die of malnutrition.
Finally, I squeezed between two curving trees and burst out into a small clearing, where I found the source of the noise.
It was a vending machine.
The fact that a vending machine, the sort with the little metal coils, could be found in the middle of a jungle on a desert island in the middle of the South Pacific wasn't what caused me to fall to my knees in astonishment. The fact that it was fully stocked and functional was the bigger contributing factor, as was the fact, as we tend to notice the small details in times of stress, that it had three different kinds of McCowan's chew bars, including the Stinger which has always been a personal favourite.
After getting off my knees and brushing off my ragged trousers, I decided that I wasn't going to let reality mess around with me. Mrs. Jim didn't raise no fool, let me assure you. So I deliberately turned away from the vending machine and all the Stingers within, and put vending machines out of my mind. If I was hallucinating, it was obviously taking an image of a vending machine from my subconscious, probably the one from the leisure centre I frequently vandalised as a boy, and if I could block that out of my mind then the vending machine would, of course, disappear. I envisioned that vending machine, right down to the missing cells in the LCD display, and then imagined it being positioned at Ground Zero of a nuclear test. The whole thing was atomised. I imagined that vending machine getting destroyed so hard that I probably wouldn't be able to imagine another vending machine for years.
I turned around and opened my eyes.
The vending machine was still there, Stingers and all. Now, never let it be said that I am an incredulous man. I'm not the sort of person who would challenge the existence of an aluminium swordsman if the aluminium swordsman stood before me and poked me with his aluminium foil, especially if aluminium swordsmen were my favourite food and I was on the edge of starvation. So for the moment I accepted the existence of this vending machine.
Putting aside my hunger for a moment, I followed a cable from the foot of the machine, and found a power socket mounted in a nearby tree. The tree was artificial, that much was pretty obvious, as was - taking a look around - every other tree in the jungle, their leaves shining with a plasticky glisten. I inspected the sand beneath my feet, and discovered that it was curiously uniform and refined, with every grain the exact same size, shape and colour. It was like a treated sand you buy in huge sacks from gardening and construction suppliers.
Yes, yes, yes, mystery on mystery, feed me now, went my stomach petulantly, and I turned my attention to suckling Stinger from the technological teat. Experimentally I turned out my pockets, but found nothing even remotely currency-shaped, as I had used the last of my spare change to annoy sharks two days ago. I toyed with the idea of going back and looking for it, but I doubted the sharks would be accommodating. That left me moving on to the familiar territory of vandalism.
First I tried sticking my arm up into the machine through the tray at the bottom, but certain mechanisms were in place to prevent this sort of tomfoolery, and I could do little more than lightly brush the end of a pack of Refreshers. Hanging subtlety, I withdrew, picked up a large rock and hurled it at the vending machine's glass frontage. Apparently the accursed thing had been designed with this sort of tactic in mind, and not even a scratch came forth. I considered the irony of being starving while being only one centimetre of reinforced glass away from all the Monster Munch a man could ever desire in one sitting, and reflected on how this situation could very easily be equated with the plight of many of the world's starving.
I shook my head to dispel this pretentious thought, and somehow the sudden movement caused an idea to dislodge and attach itself to a neurone. I recalled a recent incident when Frobisher had authoritively informed me that it was possible to break a vending machine favourably by pouring saltwater into the coin slot. This sounded then and now like a load of old hairy bollocks, but I was desperate enough to try. Fortunately I knew of a convenient source of saltwater, and retraced my steps back to the beach.
When I arrived at the shore, I took another look around. Indeed, the sand still had that curious artificiality about it, and the trees were still no more genuine than the election promises of an opposition party, but that was where the falseness seemed to end. The ocean and sky seemed real, and I was pretty certain that there was no-one rich enough who gave a toss about me enough to play this kind of elaborate prank.
Now came the problem of transporting a quantity of seawater to the vending machine. I experimented with making a little bag out of the front of my shirt, but if the cheap cotton couldn't prevent my nipples from being clearly visible in even dim light then I very much doubted its ability to hold water. My shoes were my next thought, but then I remembered that I had eaten the soles. No, it looked like it was going to have to be my mouth. I knelt down in the wet sand and hoovered up the foul-tasting brine until my cheeks were inflated to full, then ran back to the machine.
I froze on the edge of the clearing, because there was someone already there.
If I had expected to find another person on a desert island - and I hadn't - then I would have probably envisioned the whole Man Friday thing. Dark skin, noble bearing, grass skirt, bone through nose, the usual ensemble. Seeing another white man would have been surprising, but not outside the realms of possibilities. A white man wearing a spotless ironed dress shirt and tie and pinstripe trousers was just absurd. He had a pair of tortoiseshell plastic-framed spectacles, the sort that never fail to make a person look like a complete twat, and his shiny black shoes were completely unsuitable for the sandy environment in which they were trying to make themselves useful.
The bespectacled man, whose posture indicated extreme nervousness, was trying unsuccessfully to feed a five pound note into the paper money slot as it consistently pushed it back out like a cheeky boy's tongue. He didn't seem to be immediately threatening, though, so I sidled closer and took up position to his rear, cheeks still straining from the water, because I was still English and the English still know how to queue.
After his money had been rejected for the umpteenth time, he hung his head and sighed. Then I suppose he must have noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Very, very slowly, like a person checking to see exactly what kind of filth they have just stepped in while not really wanting to know, he turned and looked me up and down. I gave him a cheerful nod and a smile, a single drop of seawater flying from the corner of my mouth.
Then he started screaming.