Twenty years. That was his best estimate. Twenty years stranded on the tiny island. At least!
He had changed – obviously, he was older. Hairier too. I must look like a walking haystack, he thought. He no longer looked at his reflection in the rock pools that yielded him crabs to eat. The diet kept him lean. He had forgotten the taste of cake. There was fruit on the island. From that he got his sugar. Sometimes he would let it ferment in the sun and then he would get drunk. It was worth the stomach cramps the next day, for a few hours of blissful oblivion.
The loneliness was the worst thing. It had eaten away at his peace of mind and now proved his greatest danger. There were no animals on the island to predate on him. There was shelter and fresh water. And coconuts – he had learned not to walk directly under the trees when the coconuts were falling. What a way to go that would be! Brained by a falling coconut!
But the loneliness stretched his isolated hours. Perhaps it had not been twenty years. Perhaps it only felt like it.
Oh, to see another face! To hear another voice! He had thought about catching one of the colourful birds of paradise that roosted in the trees and teaching it to say Hello. Or to swear, because that would amuse him.
He drew pictures in the sand. Places he had been and people he had known. He imagined stories for them. How their lives had gone on without him! When exactly had they given up the search? Had they even searched? Had they bothered?
His paranoia told him he had not been missed. People had shrugged and got on with their lives.
He couldn’t say he blamed them.
And then, at long last, a blot on the horizon. He climbed to the highest point so he could watch as the dark spot grew larger. It was a ship! A ship heading directly for the island!
A ship meant people! A ship meant salvation!
His ordeal was over at last.
He hurried down to the beach and kicked sand over his fire. He tore down the shelter he had built and scrambled into a cave.
If I lie here still and silent, they’ll go away. He held his breath.
Good man, said his loneliness. It’s just you and me now.