Question: Who is The Last Islander?
The last Islander has existed in the backwaters of my mind for a number of years. He is a fiction in and of himself but he is also in many ways a reality. He is a reflection of the years of my childhood. I was born in 1964 and recall vividly a time before instant information and three hundred channels on cable TV. We didn’t have smart phones, we didn’t have a phone of any sort at my home until 1985.
I grew up in a small farming and fishing community, a tiny village of just three hundred souls. I recall the last of the farmers there using horses instead of tractors. I have memories of old fishermen who hauled lobster pots from the Irish Sea onto tiny skiffs powered only by the strength of their arms. I helped my father to milk cows by hand. But even then things were changing, the world was about to enter a period of unsurpassed growth and discovery that would lead to all the wonderful things we now take for granted.
I did not write this piece as a commentary on the good or evil of progress, I wrote it as a personal reflection of the people caught up in that maelstrom of change. The old timers who did not or could not move with the changing times. Relics, some would call them. Among the relics, many characters stands out. I would love to recount all of their stories but I am limited by word count and space so I will chose just one.
He was a man who remained steadfast in his adherence to the old ways. I never knew his proper name. He was simply called Hour by all and that is the only name I ever attached to him. He lived at the lower end of our village in a tiny cottage with stone flagged floors and an open stove on which his wife Nellie cooked and on which a whistling kettle was a permanent feature.
Hour was employed by the local council, he worked his entire life maintaining roadways and laneways over an area of several square miles. His days were spent opening drains, clearing weed, collecting carelessly discarded refuse and trimming verges. He walked each day to the particular stretch on which he was working pushing before him a large blue wooden barrow. Within the barrow were the tools of his trade, scythe, slash hook, shovel, spade and most importantly a large sweeping brush. Hour left his home early and arrived at the site of his days labour by eight thirty each day. He worked steadfastly until four in the afternoon and then he pushed his barrow back to his cottage, cleaned his tools and prepared everything for the following day.
Even while he was still working along the roadways and lanes of my childhood, change was overtaking him. Large mechanical diggers and tractor-mounted hedge trimmers were passing him and doing some of his work. But Hour kept his head down and he kept working because he neither knew nor wanted anything else.
He reached in time the age of seventy five, he became something of an embarrassment to our modern council. He was a living antiquity, a man out of time who had no place in the modern world. His retirement was not a lavish affair but the entire village was aware of it. The sense of an ending, a passing into history was apparent. People spoke about Hour and then the talk turned to others. The older people spoke about old farmers striving to survive on small acreage, men who had become an inconvenience to the creamery because sending a truck to pick up a few churns of milk was uneconomical. There was talk also of the fishermen on skiffs or their tiny fast fishers being harassed by large trawlers, men who should retire, people said, just as Hour was doing. Little did they know then of the spirit of The Last Islander.
Hour retired officially on a Friday evening. He pushed his cart back to his cottage, cleaned his tools and stowed them as always. As he walked home that evening he passed by our door, he had a look of stolid determination in his eyes and a fixed smile on his face. I hailed him and wished him luck in his retirement but he didn’t acknowledge me. He walked on, shoulders square and step certain. Over the following couple of days I didn’t think much about Hour but then Monday arrived and to my surprise I saw him pushing his cart, his tools as always clean and sharp, ready for work.
Hour had made a decision.
Hour was ignored by the county manager after that, he was left with his tools and his barrow, after all, no one else needed them. It was made clear to him that he was no longer a council employee and would not be paid, then he was left alone. He continued to walk every day to a section of road where he cleaned and maintained the verges and the ditches. The big diggers and flails and hedge trimmers passed him totting horns in respect and leaving him to his work. He died twelve years after his official retirement, he was eighty seven years old when he was found slumped over his cart. He died working, just as he had chosen.
Hour had shunned the slow death of retirement, the home help and the district nurse. He maintained his pride and his tools and stood solid in the face of progress. He was in his way The Last Islander. Just as every old farmer who clung on to their way of life because they knew no other way is. Every aged fisherman who kept hauling pots, tackling wind and rain, relying only on the strength of back and arm. Every old lady who has refused to be moved to a care home but instead clings to her home and her life. They are all The Last Islander.
All of those who stand before certain death and scream defiance in its face. Those who know death is imminent but chose to die by their own design not by the dictates of a society that neither cares nor understands. Within each of us a part of The Last Islander strives to be standing proud and choosing to die, but in our own way.
I could not write all of their, stories so I condensed them. I took the bravery, the determination and the spirit of these people and I created The Last Islander. I hope you enjoy it.
The Last Islander.
I am nobody. An echo, a dream of an ancient place,
a ghost who lives in the shadow of a new world.
Now I stand before the tide one last time,
the last of my clan, family all gone.
Tears cried and long dried, for lovers lost
and children planted in her blessed soil.
I am the only one, the last Islander
I cling now to this rock, absorb all I can
in these final moments,
because this is my life.
On this familiar air my ancient histories lift and rise.
My memories flicker in the changing canvas of the sky.
We were an ancient people and now we are no more.
The moving tides were our lesson and our lore,
our womb and our sustenance, we the workers of the shore.
I cling to it all, I cling to her beating heart, her blood and bone,
Holding fast to all that I have ever known.
A child torn from a mother’s breast, an ancient child
But a child nonetheless
I am the Island, the Island is me.
The sea is my blood,
The wind my living breath
The earth my gnarled and wasted flesh
And I must leave.
They tell me I must go now,
Turn away from the only home my people have ever known.
They tell me that no man is an Island,
If that is true, then I am surely no man.
To leave is to die. But I will not die as they deign
But rather by my own design.
I will not perish in the coldness of a barren landlocked home.
If I accept the faith they lay before me then I am already dead,
My soul will leave me, and I will be no more.
I will not let them weigh me down
With this anchor of death,
I will be rather
The author of my own demise.
And so I go,
On the rising of the first tide.
I will set a new course,
Not for the death of the caging land
But for the surging life of sea, her heat
And her endless possibility.
For there are worse things than to die,
With her air in my lungs,
And a pocket full of sand.
And so I will leave the Island
The sea my blood
The wind my living breath
I will go.
Alive and whole
Into the blue.