He stopped screaming after I had gobbed my entire mouthful of water into his face, which I'm sorry to say was the only course of action that came immediately to mind. He stared blankly for a second, apparently in shock, his mouth still hanging open from his interrupted yell, then fell back against the machine, staring at me with wild eyes. I raised my hands in what I hoped was a calming gesture, all too aware of my emaciated looks, bloodshot eyes and scary hairy face, and tried to open a conversation.
"Me no danger," I said slowly. "Me want Stinger."
"What the hell are you doing here?!" he stammered out in somewhat high-pitched but recognisable English. That was something, at least.
"Well, that's kind of a long story, but buy me a Stinger and I'll sit you down and tell you all about it."
"I told you never to come back to this island!"
There are times in everyone's life when sudden gear changes have to be made. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, that whatever happens you at least have the lowdown on the situation, some hitherto unknown factor comes out of nowhere and knocks you right off your bike. It's like that moment everyone goes through in the school playground. Just when you've got the hang of the fact that girls smell and have nits and if you touch them you catch girl disease, bang, touching girls suddenly becomes the in thing and you're right back to square one. I bring this up because the stranger's statement was causing me to make one of those mental gear changes. I thought I knew what was going on. I may have been hungry and marooned and faced with a mysterious vending machine, but I at least knew who I was and what I was doing. Now the man in the suit was forcing to me face some kind of tiresome storyline.
"I'm sorry?" I said, being unable to articulate any of the above.
"Don't apologise to me," he said, glancing worriedly around at the surrounding jungle. "You're the one who'll be in trouble. Why the hell did you come back?"
"Er... I kind of want a Stinger."
"What? A Sti - what? What happened to your slur?"
"Last time we met you had a really strong slur in your voice..."
Doubtless you are all clever university-educated readers and have realised long ago what I realised just then, and so will shortly be feeling very pleased with yourselves and enjoying a brief moment of empty happiness in your ugly, lonely lives. "Ohhh," I said. "I must have come here while I was under the Fog Juice."
"Blunder the whuh?" said the man helplessly.
"Long story short, I spent the last few weeks doing a whole bunch of stupid things and I have no memory of any of them up until waking up on a raft a few days ago. So, we've met, have we?"
He was still constantly looking around in apparent fear, but the constant jerking around of his head paused for a second to answer my question. "Er... yes."
"So you are?"
"Penfold. Penfold Le -"
"So now we're such good friends you can buy me a Stinger, right?"
He took off his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Listen, I told you before, you can't hang around on this island. You have to get back on your raft and get away."
"I'm not getting back on that damn raft. I had enough trouble getting off it."
He grabbed my shoulders. "Listen to me, you fool," he said, trying to sound stern but being too whiney to pull it off properly. "Every second you stay on this island endangers you even more. After you left for the first time Mr. Bulstrode said if you ever came back he would pull off your balls and eat them like crisps and probably do some other nasty things as well so you've got to turn around and get the hell away before he finds out -"
"Penfold, Penfold, stop gabbling," I interrupted gently, brushing his hands off. "If you say Mr. Bulstrode will pull off my balls and eat them like crisps then I'll believe you. But you can't really expect me to go back on the ocean for who knows how long with no food or water, can you?"
"So, just buy me a Stinger and a strawberry milk and I'll be on my way, kay?"
He continued feverishly labouring his pound note into the slot, while I kept watch for Mr. Bulstrode and tried not to think about balls and crisps. Only after five failed attempts and a little smoothing of the note against Penfold's leg did the machine finally admit the currency.
"Say, Penfold, this seems like an appropriate juncture to ask," I said. "Why is there a vending machine on a desert island?"
"This isn't a desert island," he said mournfully, punching in the number for Stingers. "Er... your chew bar got caught on the coil there..."
"Well, order another one, then they'll both fall down."
"I'm not going to last long on a raft with only one bloody Stinger, am I?"
He shrugged in a fashion that indicated he'd be happy to just get both me and the whole sorry situation off his back, and punched in a few more numbers. By some miracle a third Stinger was also dislodged by the ordering of the second, and the strawberry milk came without a hitch. It was while I was on my knees digging around hastily in the drawer for my chewy prizes that I saw out of the corner of my eye a figure emerge from the undergrowth and freeze.
"Penfold Kenneth Doncaster Lexington!" cried the newcomer, Penfold jumping in surprise with every word.
The voice belonged to a short, middle-aged woman in sensible but extremely strained women's business attire, who would probably be taller laid on her side than standing upright. Her appalling bun hairdo and her attempt at a fierce expression on her little potato face were not in the least bit threatening, but it was the voice that made me hold my Stingers close to my chest and scamper behind Penfold's legs. It was a voice that recalled all the worst moments of primary school when the matronly teachers exercised their authority. I had a sudden, horrible flashback to being chased around the canteen by a ladle-wielding dinner lady while all the other dining children laughed and applauded.
"M-Maureen?" greeted Penfold innocently.
"Is that who I think it is?" She spat out the words 'that' and 'think' like cherry stones, or bullets from a big gun.
"Well, that all... depends on who you... think it is," stalled Penfold.
"I think it's that castaway who turned up a few days ago, left a few hours after that, and whose balls Mr. Bulstrode has expressed an interest in eating like crisps."
"Could we please stop talking about my balls?" I said, as petulantly as I dared.
"W-well, yes, I suppose it could be... that person," mumbled Penfold.
"Then why are you not taking him immediately to Mr. Bulstrode's office? Why are you buying him company chew bars on company time?"
"It was his idea," I said suddenly, regressing to childhood for a second.
"I was just about to take him," whined Penfold. "But he said he'd hit me if I didn't buy him some Stingers..."
I hit him. In the arm. "Ooh, you liar."
"I think you're going to follow me," said Maureen, with an air of terrible menace.
So then I was being led deep into the island jungle by this horrible woman, with Penfold sheepishly tagging along at my rear, with only a couple of Stingers to comfort me. They weren't even very nice Stingers, because they had been refrigerated for a bit too long and consequently shattered in my mouth, and I had to suck on the bits for several seconds before they became as chewy as God intended. I suppose I should have been paying more attention to my environment, trying to remember the route we were taking or looking to the jungle for something I could use. But I was too busy trying to stuff Stingers into my gob as fast as possible, and then trying to work large chunks of same from my back teeth
I was just ruminating on how perfectly ironic it would be to starve to death because the food you were trying to eat got stuck in your teeth when we arrived at a destination of sorts. Maureen pushed through one last curtain of leaves, carefully timing it so that it sprang back into my face, and the three of us emerged into another clearing in the jungle.
It was a slightly larger clearing than the one with the vending machine, because this one had to accommodate more furniture. There was a reception desk nearby where we came out, behind which a bored-looking receptionist sat adjusting the name badge on her blouse. A nearby tree bore one of those 'hang in there baby' signs, with the usual picture of the doomed cat. A large signpost was erected in the middle of the clearing, with a multitude of arrows labelled things like 'Accounts Receiving', 'Marketing' and 'Data Entry' pointing in the direction of a multitude of rough forest paths.
"Maureen," went the receptionist curtly, before noticing me. "Oh! He came back?"
"Boy, that's the stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone do in my entire life. Mr. Bulstrode's in his office."
Mr. Bulstrode's office turned out to be a patch of grass on the shore of a verdant tropical waterfall, where a desk of quite unnecessarily huge proportions stood. It was big and black like ebony, and the craftsman had for reasons best known to himself carved little gargoyles and scenes of unbridled demonic horror into the woodwork. Mr. Bulstrode himself was a man about one quarter of the size of his desk, an ugly round-faced man with a ridiculous combover sitting on a leather swivelly office chair that had been elevated higher than swivelly office chair engineering would conventionally allow.
"He came back," reported Maureen.
Mr. Bulstrode looked up from the stack of papers he was in the act of signing, and looked at me for a very long time, like a tarantula waiting to strike. Then, with very slow, deliberate movements, he made a curious gesture with both hands, as if he were swatting away two very slow flies. I heard a rustle, glanced around, and saw that both Maureen and Penfold had melted away into the jungle. Bulstrode made another deliberate slow gesture, this one beckoning me forwards. I took a few dreamy steps closer, and his beckoning hand suddenly became a pointing hand. I followed his finger, and saw a tiny three-legged stool. I sat myself down, and my knees rose up to be level with my ears.
For a few minutes, he seemed to forget I was there, and got on with his signing. I sat there awkwardly, unconsciously trying not to leave my balls undefended. After a while I started feeling hungry again, so I dug out my second Stinger bar and tried to open the wrapper without making irritating rustling sounds, without success.
"Jim," he said finally, still not looking at me. "How old are you?"
"Tweffty-foo," I said, through a half-chewed lump of flavoursome Stinger.
"I had a son about your age," he said. "I got him a job at the office here as a middle manager. For several months he was an asset to the company. But then I caught him trying to use foreign coins in the vending machine."
"Pff. Kids." This, I decided, was the wrong thing to say.
"My point is, I then had to punish him, so I put him in a wardrobe full of broken glass and threw him off a cliff. I'm still not sure if he survived or not, but that isn't the point. The point is, I loved my son dearly, and I was forced to harshly punish him for his wrongdoing. You, you I don't like at all. And you have made much worse transgressions than he."
"Now, I can see you're clearly not retarded or autistic or suffering from Down's syndrome or any other similarly affecting medical complaint, so the question occurs... why on Earth did you come back?"
My next words, I decided, would be vital to the survival of my balls. "To say that I'm very, very sorry."
There was absolutely no emotion in his face, but there was something questioning about his eyes. He appeared to be confused. "Then perhaps you can remind me exactly what you're very very sorry for?"
I had walked right into his subtle trap. "Okay," I said. "This is a really funny story. Basically, it started when I was being chased by ninjas-"
"Ninja. You were being chased by ninja."
"And then you made Fog Juice in an attempt to escape from them. You told me this the last time we met. And now I take it you have forgotten everything that took place while you were under the influence of the beverage?"
"Nail on the head."
He placed a finger across his lips thoughtfully. "In retrospect, I suppose I should have realised that you were still under the influence of Fog Juice when we spoke last. Your heavily slurred speech, inability to walk properly and tendency to giggle at only slightly amusing things should have communicated this, but I was so excited at the prospect of finally having the recipe for Fog Juice, which I have sought for many decades, that I chose to overlook this. Presumably, then, you also have no memory of giving me a recipe for which you claimed was Fog Juice, but which we later discovered was a recipe for Orange Julius."
I shrugged. "I have to apologise for my drunken subconscious self, he's always been an embarassment to the family. I hope you enjoyed the Orange Julius -"
"It was delicious Orange Julius, but that is not the point."
We watched at each other, Mr. Bulstrode and I, over his frankly ridiculously huge desk, while the only sound was the gentle playing of the nearby waterfall and the tap-tap-tap of his biro rattling rhythmically against his blotter. I decided it was up to me to continue the conversation.
"Can I go now?"
"No you cannot go. You are never leaving this island alive."
Another long pause, which was interrupted this time by him, perhaps before I said something stupid again. "I may be persuaded to let you live," he said, the finger in front of his lips again. "You will have to remain on the island in some sort of work experience capacity for the rest of your life, but said life, and your balls, shall remain unharmed. In return for this staggering generosity, I ask only one thing."
Anything I said would probably have been redundant, so I kept shtum.
"The recipe for Fog Juice," he intoned. "The real one, this time. I'm sure I need not recount what will happen to you if you disappoint me again."
"Seems fair enough."
"Do we have an agreement?"
For the first time, an ugly smile extended across his ugly face. "Welcome to Accountancy Island."