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JOSHUA

The little boy dug determinedly in the dirt with one grubby toe.

‘My name is Joshua,’ he said to nobody in particular, ‘and I can fly.’

A stone flew past him as the other children charged.

The pack bore down on him with childish murder in their hearts, pushing and shoving each other aside to be the first to strike. They didn’t like Joshua. He was different, he could do things they couldn’t. Joshua took one look then fled in the opposite direction, towards his uncle’s house. His eyes flashed in the darkness as he charged across the open space and dived into the hut.

They could never hit him. It became a cruel game, to try and get him with a stone, a lump of wood, coals from the fire – Joshua evaded their every effort. The missile would hover, about to strike, then the boy would do something very strange; he seemed to dissolve, somehow there and not there at the same time; the stone, the stick would pass through him, or be deflected, or simply disappear – then there he was again, solid to the touch, a shrieking little boy running away from the mob.

With a leap and bound he clambered up and over the ramshackle bed and threw himself out the far window. He knew the others would hover uncertainly outside the doorway to the hut, repelled by the presence of his uncle, uncertain whether he was inside or not. In that moment of hesitation Joshua was already on his way into the jungle just behind. It was a well-practiced escape route, a jump over the ditch, a duck and scurry through the inviting green hush of the forest, along the secret pathway, up that banyan tree, up that gnarled trunk into the curve and cleft of the branches, obscured from below by a network of curling vine and leaf.

He huffed and puffed and shivered then, quite unexpectedly, disappeared.

*

‘Are we here?’ Dogster asked as the jeep slowed down.

I’d been jerked from a waking dream. Overhanging leaves flashed in front of my eyes, smacking against the sides of the jeep, reaching in to eat me. The jungle along each side of the track was covered in thick volcanic dust, the vegetation in grey grit snow. It seemed like Miss Haversham’s garden, a cobwebbed, dying thing ready to crumble. Daniel stopped the motor, got out of the jeep and flashed me a withering look. I clambered out of the back and stretched my legs. I could just see a circle of huts around a large open space.

The village was unnaturally dark. Everywhere else on the island it was twilight, but here it was night. No light seemed to penetrate into the clearing; Yasur scared the sunlight away. Humidity thickened, the air hung like toffee, oozing limp from the sky. I heard the sound of crickets, felt the smell of deep rot descend; a jungle hissing and crackling, layer upon decaying layer about to settle, then lay down on me. I saw a flicker of flame from inside one of the huts and a large silhouette lumbered into the doorway with a belch. Daniel scuttled toward the black outline, hissed a greeting and gestured at me with a peremptory wave of his hand. The fat man said something and Daniel cackled loudly, then turned to the black man’s burden and called out.

‘Kastom,’ he said and held out his hand. Dogster went to shake it but his palm was dashed away.

The black shape almost filled the entrance to the hut. There was movement round his legs and a child with white hair poked an inquisitive face out of the gloom. I assumed whatever was happening was some kind of tradition. It was only when Daniel deigned to explain that I knew I was, of course, to give them money.

‘Kastom,’ repeated Daniel.

‘Yasu-u-uur,’ said the fat man and rubbed his fingers together.

*

Twenty children appeared from those dark houses as he paid up, stood watching in silence as the gift of cash to trespass on traditional land was made. The headlights picked up a single child in the darkness of the village, a curious boy with piercing eyes, standing separate from the others. While the others crowded silently around the tourist, this child stood apart and just stared.

‘Hello,’ Mr. Dogster said to the others and they scattered noisily, in sudden hysterics.

‘Halloo, halloo!’ they chorused, taking the piss out of this unfortunate traveler, ‘hallo-o-o-o!’ and crowded back around him, tugging at his clothes, laughing at his skinny white legs. Only one child stood still.

Without warning, as if an invisible switch had been pushed, the mood turned black. Dogster had no idea what the children were shrieking, what it was he represented, but the nips turned to pinches, the tickles turned to slaps. He was besieged by children, overwhelmed by their black energy, helpless in the mass of tiny bodies. Daniel and their owner, the man-mountain in the doorway, just stood back and watched, their faces deep in darkness. Dogster thought he caught a flash of white teeth, just glimpsed the edge of the pleasure his predicament provided them.

The kids were on the edge of hysteria by now. I managed to extricate myself from their spite and retreated back into the jeep. I was making light of it but felt my helplessness keenly, suddenly remembered long-lost scenes of playground bullies and bitter tears. I got a little scared.

The smile on my face fixed in a grimace, eyes shone with anger as I clambered into the back. The silhouette growled, the phlegm rumbled deep inside his chest and the children scattered, swallowed up by the night. Just one kid was left in the empty clearing. He came over to the side of the jeep and pulled at my sleeve.

‘Hello,’ he said.

Dogster is drawn to minorities. He’s lost count just how many he belongs to.

‘I know just how you feel, kid,’ I said and gravely shook that tiny hand.

His eyes met mine. The boy said something but I couldn’t make out the words. I saw his mouth open and close and heard no sound; all I could see were those eyes. I was swallowed by those eyes; the boy was talking through them, some silent language I couldn’t quite understand. I looked into his eyes and into the grandfather’s too. There was wild magic in that little boy’s eyes.

The boy looked away. The spell was broken. I stepped back and gasped.

Daniel slid back into the front seat and sullenly gunned off along the track, leaving the child waving in a cloud of dust. The two new friends watched each other get smaller and smaller until dust, distance and that premature darkness took hold. He was gone, swallowed back into the night.

*

Over the hill, just a few hundred yards out of the village, the vegetation came to an abrupt halt. From rainforest to black desert, yellow lake, purple sky in sixty seconds. The jeep lurched off the track, down the side of a muddy cliff and veered out into the dead zone, crashed through onto a flat, grey moonscape covered in ash. Dogster could smell the sulphur in the air. We were driving into the darkness, reversing into the past, slowly crossing the dividing line between the sky and the centre of the earth.

The reek of sulphur became stronger; the earth began to steam as they crossed the somber plains of ash, drove round and upward through a persistent patch of black rainforest, then out again back into the dead zone. There were boulders in the ash, random shapes of black back-lit by moonlight, warning punctuation on the way to the centre. Then, above the noise of the jeep, deep subterranean rumblings, noises so low they began imperceptibly, creeping up behind you, multiplying twice then double again, steadily sliding up to that threshold of alarm, the adrenaline point, that perfect moment when danger becomes a chemical reaction – then nothing, sweet nothing; the sound of sulphur. Daniel drove grimly towards the sky.

The noise started again as we reached the top. Cresting the peak, we crunched and slid along a ridge of ash, then stopped at the base of a crack in the side of that rumbling earth. Daniel led the way, stumbling up that suicidal pathway to the edge. I followed blindly, gasping for breath as he clambered up to the rim. Above him I saw the smoke glow dull red, felt the ground tremble and the muscles in my stomach knot, heard a thunderclap of sound as if to herald my first glimpse of the underworld.

‘Yasur,’ Daniel said.

*

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