"The Isles of the Blessed": a short story by Margaret Drabble

The voyage to the Isles of the Blessed seemed doomed. It had been conceived as a brave attempt to escape the rigours and dolours of yet another English Christmas, and they had been given, as they thought, the blessing of their family, who readily, perhaps too readily, accepted that Carol needed a break. She'd had a bad year, poor old Granny Carol, what with that mysterious accident at the crossroads, and the hos­pitalisation, and the physiotherapy, and then the mugging. One damn thing after another, as Carol and Paul put it, a little guiltily, to their middle-aged children, who were already quarrelling about which of them should try to cook the turkey. Sam was willing but couldn't really cook, Sarah complained routinely that she was always put upon because she was the girl, Will sometimes said he was a vegetarian.

“I've cooked enough turkeys," said Carol to Paul, "let's leave them to it and bugger off to the sun."

A brave attempt, but their spirits had sunk at Southampton, even before they boarded. The queues were as long as the queues at Gatwick and Heathrow which they'd been congratulating themselves on avoiding, and the sight of their fellow passengers was low­ering. OK, OK, they'd realised it would be an elderly crew, but perhaps not this elderly, not quite so many of the lame and the halt and the deaf and the blind. One could have cheered oneself up by thinking of oneself as comparatively young and nimble, had one not in fact still been feeling rather frail, said Carol to herself: not, out of delicacy, wishing to voice these thoughts out loud. But she could tell Paul knew what she was thinking anyway. He always did. He was worried that she was having to stand around for too long with her bad leg, and she was worried that he was worried, and that was how it was and would be.

They perked up when they reached their cabin. As promised, it had a little balcony, and would soon have a sea view. At the moment it had a view of a dank high wall, but the wall looked nautical, with thick dark twisted ropes and great rusted orange hooks. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was a delightful drinks cabinet, on top of which stood several shining bottles of spirits - blue gin, amber whisky, crystalline vodka - and a bottle of champagne on ice, bordered by a shipshape little silver rail to stop them sliding around. Clearly, elderly voyagers knew what they wanted, and the management knew how to provide it. Also admirable was the absence, so far, of anything to do with Father Christmas. They had been slightly dreading his appearance. There was still time for him to materialise on board, but at least they wouldn't have to sleep with his image or even with a mini Christmas tree.

Maybe, they ventured, as they unpacked their clothes and drank one another's health in an agreeable cut glass gin and tonic with ice and lime, maybe Charon Cruises had got it all sorted. They knew that what people wanted was to get away. And even if their fellow travellers were moribund, they wouldn't have to spend much time with them: they could entertain one another. They were both looking forward to the mid-cruise three-day break on the Canary Islands, and had done a little homework about what they wanted to see and do there. Volcanoes, sand dunes, beaches, cactuses, caves, craters, and the port whence Christopher Columbus had sailed. Not too much culture: they had enough culture in London, more than enough - they suffered from chronic guilt about plays not seen and exhibitions not visited. Sunny beaches would be a relief, even though they had read that some of the beaches were black. Paul loved to swim, and Carol knew that she should. Swimming was strongly recommended by Fred, her friendly physio.

Their spirits were higher as they watched Southampton recede with its farewell flotillas of buzzing little water scooters, as they descended the staircase (unlike many, Carol didn't really need the crowded lift, the needs of others were greater than hers), as they queued dutifully to wash their hands with antiseptic gel from a smiling robotic machine before they were ushered by the smiling 16-year-old Fili­pino waiter to their table for dinner.
The table was not so amusing.

They had asked for a table for two, which, in literal terms, this was, but it was separated by a mere three inches from the adjacent table, already occupied by an unpromising and far too proximate couple. This was, in effect, a table for four, and there was no avoiding conversational interchange with their immediate neighbours, who eagerly introduced themselves as June and Greg. First names exchanged, but surnames cautiously withheld, the two parties took refuge in examining their menus and the wine list, but it was already clear that June and Greg wished to emerge from this truce to chat. They were bored with one another, and wanted new meat.

Greg, a broadly built man with the jowled and heavy dark face of a bruiser and the mouth of a cane toad, was the dominant partner (he ordered the rib-eye steak), but his stout wife (lamb shank) had not graciously accepted her secondary role and was still, after decades of marriage, looking for an ally. They were considerably younger than many of the floating Christmas refugees, in fact they were younger than Paul and Carol - probably, guessed Carol, only in their fifties. They retained stamina and a lust for anecdote and combat.

“Oh dear," sighed Paul in bed that night, as he picked up Saramago's Blindness (Saramago, they knew, lived on Lanzarote; this grim book was not holiday reading but it qualified as homework), "oh dear, they are heavy going." Two weeks of June and Greg was not what they had ordered. Nor did their dining partners improve on acquaintance. They soon learned that June and Greg spent much of their time cruising the globe, round the world forever and aye, round the world with unshut eye, from pole to pole and ocean to ocean, avoiding and being avoided by their much-fractured family, their expensive daughter (too many lavish weddings, they would have to draw the line at the next) and their unemployably feckless son and their demanding and dyslexic grandchildren. Paul and Carol learned that Christmas cruises were notorious for the outcast nature of their clientele, shipped off for the season to be well out of the way (June and Greg reported this without any sense of irony), and that there would inevitably be at least one death on board. (There was, but only one.) Carol would have enjoyed June's bizarre small talk, which included a dissertation on her hope of buying 36DD brassieres in the new M&S on Tenerife, had it not been for Greg's rudeness to his wife, whom he put down as often as he could. It
was most uncomfortable. Paul suggested they might ask to have their table changed, but Carol thought that would be rude. She knew Paul
secretly thought it would be rude, too, but had gallantly offered to be rude on her behalf. So they sat it out.

They succeeded in having one or two breakaway conversations in the bar and on deck and over the peripatetic meal of lunch, but most of these had a macabre or medical slant to them. They heard much of old war injuries and recent widowings, of aneurisms and angina, of triple transplants and dental disasters, of cochlear implants and (more happily) of miraculously cured cataracts. Laser surgery came out with credit, they admitted to one another in bed as they watched on their television screen the silvery wake of the SS Annunziata. There was one game old boy with a Stephen Hawking voice box who would, like Hawking, have been interesting, had they been more practised at decoding what he was trying to say. But talking to him and listening to him required concentration, and they failed him. Given a life sentence or a longer fixed term in the inferno, they would have learned to keep him company, but a fortnight was too short for the investment. They avoided him. They let him down.

It was on the shore trip to Cadiz that they made friends. They had signed up out of restlessness, knowing in advance that they would be obliged to walk two by two like kindergarten children while a relentlessly cheerful and indifferent local guide spattered them with statistics and off-colour patriotic and racist jokes about the Armada. But they wanted to see Cadiz, their last port before the final two days' sailing to Lanzarote, and humbly embarked on the tourist coach, resolving to be good, to keep a low profile, and never to interrupt.

Walking in a crocodile up a handsome narrow street with handsome grim façades, Carol overheard two women behind them talking with lively animation about Henry the Navigator, the discovery of the Gold Coast, the rivalry of Spain and Portugal, and the early days of the slave trade. The subject of this dialogue was as astonishing and as refreshing as its tone.

Not a word of ill-health or complaint invaded the spirited discussion, and the women, unlike most of the marching or stumbling couples, appeared to be the best of friends. The hospital ship SS Annunziata had not got them down at all. Carol eavesdropped attentively. It was remarkable. The two women laughed together with easy intimacy, and although one of them knew much more about Prince Henry than the other and was, indeed, now delivering a mini-lecture on his eccentricities, the listener (somewhat the older of the two, thought Carol) was absorbing the information eagerly, prompting with questions, adding a footnote or two of her own - most of them, Carol guessed, from the perspective of an art historian.

It was a joy to overhear them. Carol manoeuvred herself and Paul to a position behind them, as they were led up the winding stone steps of an antique tower (not recommended for the less agile of the party) to see the camera obscura and the view over the city. They were sisters, she had decided, sisters and friends, out on some kind of celebratory spree.

Over drinks back on board, the two women, Nell and Margot, confirmed to Paul and Carol that they were indeed sisters. The four of them had initially fallen into conversation in Cadiz while waiting for a straggler, a lost sheep of an old man who in the end turned out to have been asleep on the coach all the time, and they had arranged to meet in the cocktail lounge, where they now exchanged impressions and brief lives.

None of their stories was without shadows - Carol confessed to her ludicrous accident, Paul to his impatience with his post-retirement posting, and Nell and Margot revealed that they had taken this cruise on the spur of the moment (very cheap last-minute rates) to escape from the aftermath of the funeral of their mother, who had died in her nineties in early December. They had been fond of and attentive to their mother, unlike a third sister who had kept well out of the way until the final two days, when she arrived to squat like a toad at the bedside, determined to be in at the death, not having lifted a finger during the life. But all this, even the irrepressible outbreak of sibling malice, was delivered with a cheerful vivacity, and Nell and Margot soon moved on from past domestic grief to future fun and to their pleasurable anticipation of spending Christmas on the beach in Lanzarote. It will make a change, said Margot, the hispanist, who claimed to know the Canaries well.

The newly formed quartet, obliged by protocol to part for dinner, met the next day and the next, as they sailed south through the sunlight. Margot regaled them with stories of the seven Blessed Isles, each of which she had visited: of the visit by the Roman general Sertorius who had wished to set up an ideal community there in the first century of the first millennium, of their rediscovery in the 14th century by Genoese merchants, of the mysteries surrounding the origins of the indigenous peoples, of the art work of the local hero and environmentalist César Manrique whom, as a young woman long ago, she had known. (She didn't like all his paintings, but she loved his crossroads sculptures.) She made the Canary Islands sound infinitely pleasing, and promised on arrival to be their guide. She knew the perfect spot for their Christmas Eve lunch. They would hire a car for the day at the port of Arrecife, and she would drive them all to the golden beach, to the best beach on the island, and they would swim in the bay and eat fish and drink a delicious local wine called El Grifo in the little restaurant on the jetty and forget about Greg and June.

Carol and Paul felt lucky and chosen as they sat in the back of the rented Opal and gazed at the passing landscape of subtle volcanoes and holiday apartments and at the calm expanses of the turquoise Atlantic. They were as happy and trustful as children in the confident hands of the sisters. The old-fashioned little fishing town of Arrieta, where they parked in a side street under a giant cactus, was all they could have hoped. The water sparkled, and families sheltered under brightly coloured parasols, and handsome young people sunbathed, and children were building sandcastles. Near the shore small children's waves broke, but way beyond the curving jetty were great breakers where surfboarders and windsurfers sported on the horizon. Elderly, and in Carol's case fragile, they swam in the shallows, then repaired to the beach to dry off in the sun on the emerald green towels that they had illicitly borrowed from their cabins. A few yards from them a young mother, naked to the waist, sat in a deckchair nursing her baby. "All this, and the Nativity, too," said Carol.

The young woman was a beauty. They could tell, from the direction of her glances, from the occasional deployment of her bino­culars, that her man was one of those brown athletes out there in the surf, riding the waves. Proudly, she watched him from afar as the baby sucked and mewed and mewed and sucked. She knew the old folk were admiring her, and she was pleased.

The restaurant overlooked the harbour, with a close view of a surreal and brightly painted building with little stone lions and strange finials and balconies and a lookout tower and a pink clay-tiled roof. Margot told them it was called Africa House, because it was the nearest point on the islands to Africa itself. On a clear day, von Humboldt had written, you could see the continent whence the first Guanches might have been deported under the reign of King Juba, long ago. She had never seen it, but there it lay. So they were able to imagine the mainland of Africa, as they ate their sardines and shrimps and garlic and wrinkled potatoes, as they drank their wine. The only disappointment was the absence of El Grifo, for the Bar Azul was temporarily out of The Grief, and they had to make do with Viña Sol from Spain.

Content they were as they sat there, a temporary fellowship, happy in the novelty and the familiarity of one another's company, forgetful of the dead and of their own ageing, enjoying the salt and sun on their skin, the post-prandial peace, the shimmering view. The mother and baby and surfboarder father, their Holy Family, had joined them under the bar's canopy - German, they guessed, or perhaps Scandinavian. All four of the grey-haired English voyagers were half asleep as they slowly and drowsily became aware of a certain disturbance, a small commotion, a drift of spectators towards the end of the harbour wall, a lifting of binoculars, a wave of anxiety and distress, a gazing towards invisible Africa, a sound of hooting, an approach of vehicles, a distant siren. And now people were moving towards the end of the pier, speaking
in Spanish and in other tongues, the waiters were abandoning their customers, the customers were rising from their tables, they were all gazing out over the ocean to where, still far from shore, still far too far from shore, an overloaded vessel from Senegal was heavily sinking into the shining sea.

And now it was all a confused flurry of action, as knowledge spread, as mobilisation was attempted, as a fishing boat was launched, but it was all too slow, far too slow, they were going under out there, within sight of safety, they were going under the waves after their long and perilous voyage. Very few of them could swim, they were drowning out there, drawn towards the immigrants' graveyard by the beacon of Africa House.
But the handsome young surfboarder could swim, and before their eyes he hurled himself into the water and cut his way towards the slowly sinking wreckage of the patera, and began his heroic rescue.

Of those aboard, single-handed he saved five, and brought them back to shore. The others drowned. He was never to forget their drowning. He saw their white eyes open under the water, he saw their mauve lips. But five of them he saved, and one of them a starving child.

Legend has it that his woman suckled the starving child at her suntanned breast, there in the Bar Azul.

Some of this is legend. But some of it is true.

© Margaret Drabble, October 2010
Margaret Drabble's novels include “A Summer Bird-Cage", "The Millstone", "Jerusalem the Golden" and "The Sea Lady". Her "Collected Stories" will be published by Penguin in the spring.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special