Rogie Bresson, hopeless lover and insatiable glutton for punishment, takes a perilous side trip to the toxic wasteland of...
Now The Island is to Vanderville what Vanderville is to the concept of urban civilisation: an artificial construct based upon accident, misconception, and fraud. Though now hard to believe, at one time the popular tourist destination never existed--not one shiny apple, lousy juggler or lick of asphalt of it. In its spot there had only been a pristine inlet, then known as Splotch Harbour, which divided the insular downtown core of the city from the shoulder of mainland that connected it to the rest of the world. But this tranquil body of water had the misfortune to be the industrial bull’s-eye to every nut, bolt, and widget factory that sprang up in the Golden Age of Iron.
It didn’t have to be that way. But there were two strikes against it. First, it was just sitting there; and secondly, it was the site of the most dramatic episode in Vanderville’s early history: The Grand Renunciation, or, for the initiated, ‘Ye Bludy Stoatin Floatin’Piece ay Yobby’ incident.
In November of 1787 the bitter rivalry between Josias Ezriah McRobbie, Scottish oaf and sot about town, and Sir Courthald Esterhazy Van Derville, English prig and captain of the HMS Endemic, was finally resolved. Both claiming to be the true discoverer of what would become Vanderville, their dispute was settled by drawing up a Deed to Splotch Harbour, in which McRobbie conceded control of the region to the English, in return for naming everything in it after himself. But, alone in his hovel, impatient for a drink and uncertain of the spelling of “Van Derville,” “England,” “King,” and other pertinent points, McRobbie could not be bothered to consult a dictionary, and left these lines blank to be filled out later. The deed was duly signed, however, placed in a handsome leather valise, and the valise lost over the side of the bark transporting it to the Endemic, when it hit a log--the ‘stoatin floatin’ piece ay yobby’ aforementioned.
Under pressure to go subjugate another part of the world, and knowing that he could not bear to spend another minute renegotiating with the odious Scotsman, Captain Van Derville took one last look at the fog-ridden harbour, the stone-grey forests, the oppressive dull skies, the cold slanting rain, and thought a short jaunt to the South Seas was just the ticket. Vowing to come back if it was really, really necessary, he heaved anchor and sailed into history.
The lost deed to what would become Vanderille passed into legend. The recovery of what was in effect a blank cheque to the city’s untold wealth became a lodestone--and millstone--to future settlers. The first stop on any new arrival’s agenda was a pilgrimage to the centre of Splotch Harbour, in whatever navigable craft was available, which, as often as not, was the first thing lying around on shore.
Over time the wreckage had piled up to such a degree it emerged above water, and resembled the framework for a small island. Composed mostly of derelict ships, it also included the wrecks of horse-drawn carriages--mistakenly thought to be seaworthy--barrels of all shapes, odd boiler and pipe outrigger arrangements, and tragic essays in submersible vessels contrived of chicken wire, parlour room rugs, and furnace bellows.
By the early part of the century silt and Nature’s Inexorable Will to rehabilitate anything had made the excrescence a halfway pleasant expanse of green fields, yellow flowers and chirruping sparrows. Thus it was the obvious property to be re-developed into Vanderville’s first toxic industrial park. Central to the city and located at the bottom of a downhill grade, it was ideally situated to mop up rivers of glowing sludge and other unsavoury substances.
By the 1950’s Vanderville had made the spectacular and needlessly extravagant jump from thirty-seven to one hundred thousand citizens, whose nightly ritual it was to turn from their opulent homes and apartments on the surrounding hills to gaze down wistfully on the never-tiring, industrial centre of their throw-away civilisation: The Island.
The Island: A throbbing, sputtering, smoking, fuming canker that glowed red-orange in the dark and from which trickled beads of gold and mercury, and iron and copper, like sweat off Vulcan’s nose, and from whose sludge encrusted shores radiated a shimmering golden penumbra of toxic quicksilver.
By day The Island was enclosed in a roiling fog of smoke, a miniature mushroom cloud on a continuous loop. Yet it was strangely beautiful. The Island was so hot from the relentless fermentation of industry that the interaction of air and sea created a spectacular prismatic display for all to enjoy. The Island was a hazy orange smudge in the middle of a red Sargasso Sea, a glorious pastel seascape in that same age of Technicolor unreality.
But like so many good things in life, this heyday of industrial enterprise came to a tragic end. When one last lawn fertilizer factory tried to squeeze in next to a cigarette lighter depot, the entire island exploded with Krakatoa magnitude. For three days a horrible rain of spigots and ingots, rats and vats, boats and barrels--and the occasional forklift--fell on the terrified populace. When all was done the ethereal rainbow mist of the Island had been replaced by a choking black fog whose drifting ash and metal particulates engendered a perpetual rainstorm over the inlet.
For years Splotch Harbour lay in darkness, its once tropical shores reduced to slimy black mud banks that even the mutant blind rats had trouble scampering along in the ceaseless cold rain.
But osmosis will out, and in time the Vanderville population managed to absorb enough toxins to let Nature disperse the rest, so by the early seventies The Island was visible again and even showing tiny patches of green. Seizing on the fact the place was a treasure trove of valuable, if slightly co-mingled metals, it was seized by the Federal government as a kind of gigantic coin it could literally trade away the next time it got soaked in any international trade agreement, which it always did. Until then, however, it would be re-developed and exploited in the way most appropriate to its heritage of heavy industry and toxic waste: that is to become a health conscious, public vegetable market.
The re-development of The Island was an astonishing success. In a city as culturally bland as Vanderville it was only natural that a park devoted to vegetables should attain such prominence.
But access was always a problem. It was this that Rogie Bresson was now contemplating--among other things--sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Greatway, a quarter of a mile away.
It had not been a particularly good morning, mid-morning, forenoon, high noon, or post-meridian, for him. In fact, the twelve years of grey misery he had lived since The One and Only Time with Vanessa had been repackaged and digitally enhanced for his new enjoyment in the seventeen hours since the spectacular End to the Second and Last Time with Vanessa. Every year, day, second of that period he could re-live with heightened agony from the perspective of having thrown away his second chance with her in his well-meaning, but moronic intention to point out a mistake.
Never, ever, point out a woman’s mistake. Never. He should have known that by now. Especially if her mistake was going to ruin her life. Mistakes Like hero-worshipping villainess Jessica Mae Endicott and defending her from her just desserts, only to expose herself--Vanessa Gloria Stuhlmann--to one last humiliating scandal from which she could never recover.
How could he have done it better! How could he have...persuaded, cajoled, entreated, seduced...he hit his head on the steering column. The horn blew. He snapped up with a start. The guy in front of him gave the finger. Rogatien grinned and waved in embarrassment.
He looked down the long line of cars wanting to get on The Island. They only wanted vegetables. He wanted a second chance at life. No. Make it a third. That’s just counting Vanessa. If you throw in all the other women, half-baked schemes, unfulfilled promises, lost opportunities...it was beyond count. He had to close his eyes.
The traffic moved forward an inch.
The Island, sitting in the middle of what was Splotch Harbour--now renamed the Gulf of Golf to suit the evil ambitions of local realtors--was cut off from the mainland. When it was decided to redevelop, a new bridge was started, but interminable wrangling over the colour scheme led to a complete breakdown in communication between the local and federal governments involved, and the bridge was never finished. This left a forty-foot gap in the middle over the water, where the two halves were to meet.
The only way to reach The Island was to accelerate the vehicle on the steep downward slope from the mainland as quickly as possible, yank up on the steering wheel as the visitor hit the on-ramp, and hope for the best.
This worked out moderately well for most vehicles, but on average the vegetable delivery trucks were less successful. Other approaches to The Island--for example, by private ferry--were also developed, but as often as not they became enmeshed in the hideous blockade of rotten squash, melons, and other menacing fruits and vegetables that always bobbed on the surface.
It had to be admitted that with the ever-increasing congestion of traffic, it was not easy to develop the momentum to cross the gap, and not only that, one had to time things carefully to avoid a mid-air collision with cross traffic attempting to negotiate the Island ring road around the luxury condos which lined The Island like a stockade. But usually in the early morning hours enough cars would have fallen through the gap to form a rude trestle bridge for the rest to drive over. Seldom were there any serious fatalities, owing to the vast supply of bloated floating melons and other refuse of the sunken delivery vans.
Rogatien was lucky that day. He was gearing up to accelerate down the hill and onto the ramp, honking his horn to alert the joggers, bikers and dragon canoeists below. But by good fortune a Japanese tour bus ahead of him had failed to achieve lift off and plunged into the Gulf, leaving the broad expanse of its roof an easy ramp to the other side.
Once on The Island, Rogatien was obligated to take the one road it had besides the abandoned railway tracks, whose presence on an island only half a mile long was a complete mystery. It was fall and the Island was relatively uncrowded, yet it was still a chore to guide his vehicle in and around the significant obstacles that were placed in his way. There were the remaining hulks of the cars that had just made it over the ramp, but with broken axles and busted radiators they had got so far, and no farther. Then there were the zillions of little wooden piles sticking yey-high out of the asphalt, a form of re-invented marine heritage serving to house discreet streetlights. But these were scattered so haphazardly that they reared out of the mist like floating depth charges, taking off a fender here, a wheel block there. Then there were the tourists that roamed about hunting down vegetables like hidden Easter eggs, veering off absent-mindedly one way or other oblivious to mechanized death bearing down on them at three miles an hour. Of course there were also the too-cool students of the Dorothy Dot College of Art, and the penniless employees of the lethal concentration of arts organisations, and the ancient boomer proprietors of hip engineering firms, standing outside their converted railway carriages, which, according to the dictates of the illiterate Island Heritage Groop had to be left strewn here and there in the middle of the road exactly as they had fallen in the Great Eruption of ’61.
Then there was Julia.