Not the pipes, I told him, but we headed down the road from the graveyard to my uncertain rendering of Annie Laurie until we were in sight of the island's only hotel, called, naturally, the Captain Cook—24 rooms, 12 with air conditioning, $8 extra, and one bungalow, proprietor Mr. Boitabu Smith.
Built, like the houses in London and Banana, of old barracks material, the Captain Cook should really have been called the Somerset Maugham; over the bar a massive fan moved lazily above a heterogeneous collection of expatriates. There were ex-colonial British unlikely to go home again—like Peregrine Langston, now a fishing guide, a cloth badge pinned to his shirt proclaiming him the local International Game Fish Association representative—and there was the polyglot crew of the 5,000-ton container ship Fentress, out of Ponape in the Marshall, which, in a memorable moment of inattention the previous week, had run ashore on the reef close to London. There were sun-hardened American fly-fishers, like Doug Merrick from San Francisco and Kathryn and Clive Rayne from Carmel, Calif. There were four other Americans, an esoteric collection of radio hams who had spent weeks on an uninhabited atoll to the southwest called Jervis, earning the envy of all other hams worldwide because they were the first to receive and transmit from there. And, explaining the space-age construction up the road, a tableful of technicians from the Japanese equivalent of NASA sat planning how they would track a satellite to be launched from their homeland in January, since for them Christmas Island was Tracking Station No. 3. Assisting them were three disconsolate electronic geniuses from Santa Barbara who were hoping to be off Christmas by Christmas.
Not that happy, either, was a solitary New Zealander whose baggage had been left behind on one of the six island stopovers he had made on the way from Auckland. He greeted us with an N.Z.-style "Gid-day" and proved to be Richard Anderson, a senior field officer of the New Zealand Wildlife Service, on loan from his government to help newborn Kiribati with its conservation problems.
And after a beer or two he confided that he reckoned he would soon be the most unpopular man on the island. "You love cats, right?" he said. "Nearly everybody loves cats. And it's worse here because cats are pretty special animals in some Polynesian cultures. But I'm the feller that's been sent to get rid of them, right down to the last bedraggled moggie. That's if these people want Christmas to go on being the most special bird island in the Pacific. And, God knows, it's been knocked about enough without the cats."
There were, he explained, more than 2,000 sneaky, lanky, hungry, feral cats on Christmas, an island where Tom has all the advantages and Jerry is, well, a sitting booby. One reason Anderson had been drafted was on account of the experience he'd had in his own island country of planning an anti-feral-cat campaign to rescue the last 30 kakapos in the world, flightless parrots that the cats would tackle even though they weighed 10 pounds and more.
"Here, though," he said, "they mostly hit the shearwaters and terns that nest on the ground. And, man, this little speck in the ocean has a huge importance. Seventeen million seabirds nest here, frigate birds—man-o'-wars—boobies and shearwaters that range for hundreds of miles out to sea to feed but can't land on the water. They have to have a home to go to—this little island.
"They took a terrible battering in the H-bomb tests, millions of them blinded by the flash and millions more young starved to death when the tests coincided with the breeding season.
"Now cats are the deadly factor. With time—and when the airline shows up with the traps I brought—I can probably handle the cats. But nobody is going to love me because the pet cats are going to have to go as well—the Kiribati Government's passed an ordinance to that effect—but how do you tell people their pets are doomed? One other problem I have is that the government can't even spare me a vehicle."
He made me feel guilty. I had a pickup and Eddy, just to go fishing. "Want to head out to one of the bird islands tomorrow and maybe try some fishing on Saturday?" I said.
"Blerry airline got my blerry fishing tackle as well," said Anderson. I told him there was tackle aplenty, waited a moment for him to square his conscience—but how could he work, anyway?—and we were set.