M is for Marshall Islands
Mike used to have flashbacks to his former life, but it had been a long time ago. Mike also had memories of the beach when it used to be very different.
Sometimes Mike’s thoughts had drifted back to the Melbourne skies, and he had remembered those endless sunny afternoons watching cricket, hearing the soothing slap of ball on willow as he sipped on his third glass of champagne. They were probably not a lot different from skies anywhere else, but there had always been a sense of hopefulness and calmness in the benign clouds like those that hung over the clock tower of his university on graduation day.
He recalled how just after his speech when he had finished top of his class of 98 students, he had seen the vapor trail of an airplane, cutting through the blue. He didn’t need to look at the adoring crowds and down at his expensive suit to know he was going places.
Mike had certainly gone places. At the age of 22 he was the top earner at Sydney’s most prestigious bank. By the age of 24 he owned a house on Bondi Beach. At the age of 26 he had married into one of the richest families in New South Wales.
By the time he was 28, life had sped up, and bits started to go AWOL. He recalled a lot of late night rendezvous and the burning of white powder up his nose. By the time he was 30, he realized he didn’t like his wife much, and his kids were like a pair of odd aliens propped up from the couch to watch TV in the home he occasionally visited.
At the age of 32 he vanished.
Mike’s family made a considerable effort to find him but the newspaper ads didn’t reach as far as the Marshal Islands. Not much did. Mike had arrived at the odd coral atolls almost accidentally when he had missed a flight.
When he showed up 15 years ago, Mike had set up court in a bar and drank away his old life. The beach and its sweep into the turquoise waters fascinated him and he would often sleep on the beach. Later he found another, even more secluded beach. The idea of living as a beachcomber and erecting a makeshift home of bamboo and palm leaves took hold. Mike found the water proofing part hard to master and would get sodden on nights when storms came in. He just drank harder until the wetness became a pleasurable sensation.
Over the years Mike collected a group of outlandish friends who would spend days and sometimes nights drinking with him. They came and went like the tides. Sometimes women would spot him and end up in his makeshift bed after imbibing his potent cocktails. They seldom stayed long given his deteriorating personal hygiene.
At some point Mike’s money ran out but he had made so many friends he seldom went without food or alcohol. He’d sometimes do odd jobs to earn money so as he could complete the gleaming beer top rockery garden around his beach home.
It took him two years to get the rockery to his satisfaction but eventually it was a sight to behold. He crafted the beer tops into elaborate sculptures like birds and stunted trees looking out onto the sea. Local children would visit him and bring cup cakes and other gifts in exchange for a guided tour. Mike thought it was one of the most beautiful sculptures he had even seen. Sometimes, he would pull out a top and pleasant little vistas would form in his mind of foaming vats at a brewery.
Mike sometimes saw children squinting at him quizzically and their parents grabbing their hands to pull them away from the bearded maniac who was staring at them over a gleaming moat of bottle tops. But most of the locals knew the beachcomber was harmless and would stop by to admire the sculptures he whittled out of shells or driftwood. Sometimes he even earned beer money from his creations.
During the 2030s, Mike noticed a change on the beach. Although he spent much of his time living in a world in his own head, it was noticeable that the visitors came less and less and the Wild Oyster bar and café closed at the end of the 2033 season, never to open again. When he had arrived at the beach all those years ago it had been a wide swathe of sand but now it was looking skinny and the tide would inundate his home more often, pulling away half of his bottle tops.
He recalled a conversation in the hot summer of 2035 with Dan, a homeless man who spent most of the year sleeping on friends’ floors in the nearby town and had spent the occasionally night smoking pot at Mike’s place.
Dan said relatives had given him the air fare to move to Hawaii. “This place won’t be here soon. You should get out.”
Mike just shook his head and spat on the ground. “This is my beach. Where else would I go?”
In many respects it was true. Nobody else had been on the beach as long as Mike. He was as weather-beaten and established as the coral and the complacent old palms.
But over the next few years, life became harder. Mike came to realize how he survived on the kindness of strangers and they were seldom on the beach anymore, just a few hardy divers who moaned about how the color had gone from the water and there was little living anymore. His home was now washed out by the tides so often that one day after guzzling half a bottle of industrial strength Portuguese brandy given to him by a visitor, he started kicking at the bark walls and yelling at the palm fronds.
He grabbed the bottle tops that remained and threw them on an elevated area of earth in the jungle off the beach. For the next few years he was eaten alive by insects and constantly teetering on the edge of starvation. One day he looked up at a faint and receding blue sky that seemed to be pulling out like everyone else on the island and realized he hadn’t seen a visitor for two weeks and maggots were crawling out of the sodden boxes of cereal he survived on. Water seemed to be everywhere – in the jungle behind him and in great dirty pools on what was no longer a beach.
It dawned on him then that he was entirely alone and, the islands were slipping into the sea. For the first time in a decade, Mike felt sober.