The sun eased itself into the Indian Ocean, quickening the flat horizon with crimson before leaving only shades of pink. The guests looked on from the cocktail bar in hushed silence, like visitors on a seven-star wildlife safari.
Satisfied, they turned their seats inwards, and their conversations to another evening of leisure. Another sundowner before dinner? Lobster or sushi? Visit the cinema on the beach, or maybe just relax in the private pool? The luxurious isolation of the Maldives island resorts drew them in and would hold them just long enough to keep them wanting more.
Issey had missed the sunset, busy getting the dhoni boat ready to take to Male, the crowded capital island. An experienced member of the resort’s boat crew, his job usually involved taking high-paying guests on dive trips and dolphin cruises; starched linen and smiles for millionaires and oligarchs. An hour away through the night, the journey to the city was more straight-forward this evening. Tonight he was taking the staff boat empty, ready to pick up colleagues first thing in the morning.
Taking the trip alone was against safety regulations, but an outbreak of flu had left the team short-staffed. Issey wasn’t concerned; it was almost a month until the south-western monsoon would bring storms across the archipelago, revealing the unpredictable reality of the islands after the foreign guests had gone home. But tonight the weather was calm, and he would call a friend to help him dock the boat when he arrived.
He always looked forward to off-season, and spending some quality time on his home island, away from the disneyfied resorts with which the word ‘Maldives’ had become synonymous. Issey knew how stage-managed the entire affair was, creating the utopian fantasy of the desert island: uninhabited, unspoilt, air-conditioned. Over a million doe-eyed travellers now voluntarily stranded themselves on the same reefs that had provoked only fear for so many visitors in the past. From peril to sanitised paradise within a couple of generations.
Issey finished his cigarette, started the engine, and steered the boat out through the narrow channel in the reef and into the dark lagoon. Devoid of pretence and feature, only the hum of the motor and the gentle glow of his navigation equipment provided a clue of the century into which he steered. The resort became an orange beacon receding in his rearview mirror. Alone, he nevertheless detected a slight sense of sadness for this modern mirage as he pressed a little harder on the throttle.
The occasional flash of white water was the only real definition that could be made out from his little wheelhouse at the front of the dhoni. Starved of detail, his mind began to fill in the blanks with the folk tales he’d heard as a child. Beastly fureytha and cunning jinn terrorising fishermen on the open seas were just stories used to explain misunderstood phenomena. He knew that. Back on the resort, he knew that. Out here in the middle of the atoll, his perspective shimmered like moonlight on the waves.
Inching his way towards the unseen capital, he wished away the distance. He checked his screens for the tenth time in as many minutes before flashing a glance up at his rearview mirror – a force of habit. But his body seized as his eyes met those of another person, sitting just a few feet behind him on the nearest seat. Automatically pulling back on the throttle, Issey spun round to face the pallid, middle-aged man who sat behind him. Both stared at one another as the sea rocked the drifting boat from side-to-side.
“Well, lad, what’s the hold-up?” the figure broke the tension with an impatient bark, almost stopping Issey’s heart.
“Erm, erm, are you a guest, sir?” asked Issey, desperately trying to assess the situation.
“Aye, sort of,” came the response – an accent Issey vaguely recognised as English. “But not for long. I need to get to Sultan’s Island, sharpish. I’ll get this mess sorted out and be on my way.”
Issey saw that the man was strangely dressed, even for a tourist. He wore a weather-beaten white shirt, baggy in the arms, and what looked like board shorts, gathered just below the knee. Beneath these he wore long socks that stretched down into pointed leather shoes, a style Issey didn’t recognise. More disturbingly, he appeared to be carrying a sword.
“Your way, sir? You mean?” asked Issey politely, playing for time while he desperately tried to determine who this man was.
“To Ceylon. I’ve been stranded in this accursed place for nigh-on three months. Come on you, get a bloody move on.”
Unsure of what else to do, and afraid of further angering the gruff figure, Issey turned back to the wheel, pushing the throttle forward again with his quivering hand. He gripped the wheel hard, squinting out into a darkness for a hint of reality. His blank navigation-screen and mobile phone stubbornly refused to offer assistance. Out of range. He dared not look behind him again.
After a few minutes, calmed by the hypnotic sway of the waves, he began to rationalise. It’s just a guest, he told himself. He must have hopped onto the boat just as I was leaving. Just another guest. I’ll take him to Male and inform reception.
Bracing himself, he looked in the mirror behind him once more. The man was still there, wearing the same frown on his perspiring brow. He was attempting to sit upright, but swayed from side to side in his seat, appearing dazed. His eyes tried to look ahead, but rolled uncontrollably back in his head every few moments before their fierce owner regained composure.
Ah, he’s blind drunk, Issey concluded, a knowing grin spreading across his face. He doesn’t know where he is. Sultan’s Island? No one’s called Male that for a hundred years. Confidence restored, he turned round to face his sole passenger.
“Sorry, sir. Where are you from?”, he said, as if talking to a small child. The man snapped himself out of another eye-roll.
“England. Yorkshire,” came the slurred response, further confirming Issey’s suspicions.
“And your good name, sir?”.
“The name’s Overend. Captain J C Overend, lad. My ship is the Tranquebar,” came the reply, more irritated than inebriated. Further prodding from Issey left him no wiser as to the identity of the passenger. A vague story emerged through the thick northern accent. A journey to Colombo, a partner named Mr Fisher, a cargo of cloth and lead and an altercation with some islanders. Issey had helped many a drunken reveller back to their water villas over the years, but never one quite as lucid as this.
“Are you sick, sir?” he asked, observing the rapidly yellowing complexion of the man, whose stiff posture was quickly giving way to sharp twitching movements.
“Just your damn Maldive fever. Fisher’s already been taken off with it. I was warned of malaria in these godforsaken isles before we ran aground on your wretched reefs,” grunted the man, straining to remain upright as the boat pitched.
“I’m sure it’s not malaria, sir,” soothed Issey, rehearsing conversations he’s had with many a nervous tourists. “We have no malaria here anymore, most people love our beautiful reefs. You don’t like to snorkel, sir?”
The man was no longer listening. His white knuckles grasped the edge of the seat as the sweat rolled from his temples. Issey searched the horizon for signs of life, desperate to be rid of the disturbing presence of this strange character. Get him back to Male, into a taxi to the hospital or over to the airport, and then I’m done, he told himself. I’m not even sure he’s one of our guests.
In the distance, the lights of the city began to wink at him, revealing a horizon once more. Relief washed over him. He’d reach land in less than twenty minutes.
The dhoni powered towards the bright lights of the metropolis, a safe haven in the night that Issey had never longed for more than at this moment. But regular glances in the mirror brought no end to the nightmare behind him. The strange reflection panted and convulsed, letting out the occasional expletive groan. Soon, moans of pain, anger, and grief competed with the roaring engines as the dhoni passed the island of Fonadu, used for storing petrol just a few hundred feet from Male’s harbour.
Then, the moans stopped. Issey turned to see the figure lying prone on the deck. He killed the engine, rushing over to the crumpled heap. Kneeling by his side, the man appeared unconscious.
“Sir?” said Issey, peering over at the half closed eyes. “Sir, can you hear me?”.
At that moment the eyes flicked open, bulging, bloodshot and tinged with yellow. Issey pulled back, but two strong hands grabbed his shirt, pulling him in. The smell of death was overwhelming.
“Governor North shall hear of this. An outrageous and unwarrantable violence, sir,” panted the man. “The cargo is mine, sir, not your bloody islanders, and not Sultan Nooradeen’s. I saw off Tipu Sultan in Mysore and I’ll bloody – ”. He stopped mid-sentence as a powerful spasm wracked his body. His back arched violently and his hands let Issey’s shirt go as they twisted into pitiful claws. Issey scrambled back from the horrible sight, turning to the wheel once more and pressing the throttle as far as it would go.
The harbour was as quiet as the dhoni passed between the flashing beacons at entrance and Issey frantically dialled his friend’s number.
“Quick, you have to come quick, there’s a lunatic on my boat and he’s…” Issey looked up at the mirror again and broke off the conversation. There was no one there. No one at all. His pounding heart and the missing buttons on his crumpled shirt were the only remnants of his ordeal. “Just come”.
He didn’t tell his friend about what happened. He didn’t tell anyone. What could he say? He wasn’t sure himself. He checked with the reception but there was no record of a Mr Overend staying with them, nor of a Mr Fisher. Questions about a vessel called the Tranquebar also prompted shrugs from colleagues.
As the weeks went by Issey tried to forget it had happened, forced to remember the ordeal only during those trips back to Male, which he flatly refused to take unaccompanied from then on. The primeval fear of the sea was now his. He knew the ocean held more secrets than the tiny islands ever could, but he didn’t want to know any more of them.
Months later, on a visit to the capital, he and a colleague visited a local book fair, killing time before taking a boat full of staff back to the resort.
Wandering through the aisles of books, he saw nothing of interest. Books about Islam and the Olsen twins were popped on opposing sides of the room. But as he waited for his colleague, one book caught his eye, standing out from all the rest in the small local history section. There, amongst expensive re-prints of Dhivehi-language classics, he saw it; The Maldive Islands, by H C P Bell.
Issey had heard the author’s name before, vaguely aware that Bell has been one of the first foreigners to present the Maldives to the wider world, preceding Tripadvisor and Instagram by more than a century.
Almost without thinking he opened the large volume. Flicking past detailed descriptions of weather patterns and old maps, he came to the history section, searching for accounts of Sultan Nooradeen’s rule. There he saw it, squeezed chronologically between accounts of shipwrecks and Britain’s first attempts to chart the country’s deadly shoals. The name he’d tried to forget:
‘The Tranquebar, freighted with piece-goods for Colombo by her owners Captain Overend and Mr Fisher, was driven by stress of weather to the Maldives in January 1797. On the 29th it stranded on one of the Islands. The Islanders pillaged the vessel, the crew being sent to Sultan’s Island (Male). The Master was taken off by an English ship; but Captain J C Overend, 36th Regiment, died at Male’, March 16th, 1797, and was buried on Fonadu Island, where his grave is still pointed out.’
Issey shuddered, slowly closing the book and signalling to his friend it was time to leave. Back across the choppy no-man’s land before paradise closed for another night. Reality may have been tamed on the islands, he thought, but in the vast spaces in-between it was still running wild.