There were a host of adjustments to be made and the first was to make friends with the mighty Indian Ocean, now only twenty meters from my doorstep. From one day to the next, that uninterrupted body of water, slipping away from the crystalline shallows into the secret depths beyond the reef, ruled my life entirely. D’arros lies 140 miles southwest of Mahé, the nearest outpost of the civilised world, with precious little else in between. To say that we were cut off from the rest of the world was an understatement.
In consequence, one thing was clear: I was going to have to get used to my own company and provide my own entertainment. Trips to the mainland were going to be few and far between and visits abroad scarcer still.
Life was going to be physical, which meant getting into top shape and learning new skills quickly to be able to assist in what boiled down to the creation of a miniature society in the middle of the ocean and one with little recourse to anything but itself, its resources and the ingenuity of its members.
At that point the population of the island stood at just under one hundred, with most living on D’arros, which measures roughly two kilometres by one kilometre, and a small number on St Joseph, principal island of the lagoon. These islands have no indigenous population so workers were contracted from Mahé and the island management became responsible for their welfare.
The chief cash crop at the time was “coprah”, the dried flesh of the coconut, which Seychelles exported. But to sustain life on our far-flung colony we also needed engineers, gardeners, labourers, carpenters, drivers, masons, administrators and domestic staff. We were fortunate, from the outset to have Egbert Ollman, an engineer of immense experience and prodigious ability and also Mike Anacoura, logistics manager, and many other things besides, who has repeatedly turned the world upside down to keep us functional. In the early years we also had a small nine-seater aircraft, an important lifeline whose sale we would later much regret as, among other inconveniences, it obliged us to rely more or less exclusively on schooner transport.
The greatest revelation to me in coming to live on the island was the extent to which, as city-dwellers, we take things for granted. In the big city there is always someone to call upon in an emergency and a municipality to provide essential services. In our remote location this was no longer the case and it was we who would have to minister to our community at every level.
Before getting caught up in the slipstream of things, however, I decided to contact my family, inadvertently sowing what was undoubtedly the worst confusion in the entire history of a Burridge household.
At that time the only form of communication between D’arros and the outside world was a radio-telephone which we used to keep in touch with the Mahé office, and to a lesser extent, with parties abroad via the radio station at St. Louis and the international switchboard. The radio set on D’arros was a Heathkit and from which, I was to learn later, certain parts were missing (in retrospect probably the parts that made it work).
Radio communication can be a fickle affair, easily disturbed by adverse atmospheric conditions. On a good day, even with today’s sophisticated sets, the voice can be distorted until it sounds like a cross between Donald Duck and the Chipmunks. On a bad day, reception resembles an army of wild cats batting it out across a row of dustbins with metal lids in a hailstorm.
Not being used to handling the radio, I decided to make my call a short one, which was just as well. Blissfully ignorant then of the difficulties of radio transmission, I made two additional mistakes the day I called. I misjudged completely the time difference so that the call fell at 5am U.K. time, and managed to pick a time, I again learned later, when my father was having particular trouble adjusting to his retirement.
The frightening array of electronic howls and caterwauls that stampeded from the loud-speaker as I opened the set should have told me that all was not well with the ionosphere that day but, undeterred, I contacted the radio station, placed my number and waited for a reply. In due course the phone on the other end began to ring. After what seemed to be a very long time I heard the click of the receiver and then my father’s familiar voice.
“Yes, who is it?” he croaked tiredly down the line.
“*&@!Dad*&@is?#*me !” I piped excitedly, my voice distorted beyond recognition.
“Hello ! Yes?” he sounded more alert this time. Irritated even.
“*&%Dad>:@is*&ME !!” I yelled back.
All he heard, he told me later, through a blizzard of electronic noise, was a sound he described as the universe farting, accompanied by a demonic, ear-shattering whistle, at once painful to the ear and strangely mocking in its tone.
Temper rising, in a voice as clear as a bell, he burst back on line: “Who is this?”
“&*^Dad:@>isME !@!” I persisted, edging forward in my seat, shrieking now into the microphone. Then carried away by the emotions of the moment, I proceeded to give him a three minute uninterrupted account of everything I had done since leaving Iran, amid a cacophony of derisive splutters and wolf-whistles only that ailing radio was capable of producing. Needless to say he understood not a word.
Breathless, I listened for his reply. After a very long silence in which I heard him yelling to my mother, he suddenly came back at me like a bull charging a red cape.
“Listen here, you little bastard……” he started. “……If you need…… disturb…… bloody stupid pranks…… come here and I’ll sort you out once and for all and that’s a promise……” He continued, threateningly. I pictured his lips pulled white-tight against bared teeth, his eyes bulging and saliva hitting the mouthpiece like hailstones as he hurled abuse down the telephone.
I began to have second thoughts. My father was a man of exceptional kindness but, riding tandem in his character was a most extraordinary temper which had served him well in his career as an accomplished boxer. His major achievement had been battering the reigning British Army champion, Jack Houndsel, to a first round defeat. He would talk, however, with equal relish of the rematch when Houndsel defeated him in a similar fashion. Jack Burridge was a big-hearted scrapper then in his sixties, yet not someone to mess about with.
I had tormented him and as disheartened and greatly disappointed, I aborted my call, I had the worrying vision of my father spontaneously combusting in sheer temper into a heap of ash on the bedroom floor as my mother looked on in horror from over the top of the bedcovers.
As it turned out I left for England a week later. My father was there to meet me at Taunton station, hands clasped aloft, in an old boxer’s salute.
He chided me mildly for not being in touch as I had promised.
“That’s not strictly true, Dad”, I pointed out to him as he listened, perplexed, “I did make one call.”
“What do you mean boy?” he asked in golden Somerset tones.
“Remember this……?” I asked, preparing my throat for a torturous imitation of the Heathkit’s racket. “@*&DAD*&~IS@~~ME !”
It took an instant for the penny to drop. Then, all of a sudden it hit him and for just a fraction of a second he shot me that deadly look of his, the one he must have worn as he destroyed Houndsel. Then he threw his head back and laughed. And laughed. And laughed.
I have rarely known a joke get so much good mileage. He never tired of telling it and he told it well, becoming a real expert in the end. And when, a few years later I last saw him in that barren cancer ward, he was still managing to tell it, creasing them all up.