If you could go anywhere in the world, anywhere at all, where would you go? It was a game I played as a child: close your eyes, spin the globe, stop it with a finger. Wherever I happened to be pointing, I imagined, would one day be my home. I plotted out futures for myself in Greenland, Mongolia, Hawaii: snow, mountains, waves. After a year studying fiction at Boston University, I was given the opportunity to go anywhere in the world for up to three months to focus on writing a novel.
In my student apartment, I opened Google Maps and zoomed all the way out. My gaze fell on the southernmost tip of South America, pointing like an arrowhead towards Antarctica, and then, hovering off the coast, the Falkland Islands.
I was drawn in by the islands’ names: Swan, Pebble, Carcass, Barren, Lively, Motley, Fox. They triggered memories of adventure stories I read as a child, of pirates and shipwrecks and daring exploits. I scanned the islands for more intriguing words, and that was when I saw it – a comma dangling by the bulk of East Falkland, irresistibly named like a challenge, a provocation: Bleaker.
The journey to Bleaker Island involved a series of planes, each one slightly smaller than the last: London to Madrid, Madrid to Santiago, Santiago to the Falklands’ Mount Pleasant Air Base. Last, a tiny aircraft, in which I sat next to the pilot and tried to look calm as we wobbled though the air. We passed over rock formations that jutted out of the waves, schools of dolphins cutting white lines through the water, and a dark disturbance beneath the surface that the pilot said was a whale.
From above, the settlement on Bleaker looked like a collection of Monopoly hotels: little red-roofed buildings huddled together on a patch of land, squeezed between rough seas. To the north was the white curve of a sandy beach, which faded further up into a jagged, grey coastline. We landed on a patch of grass beside a little hut with a painted sign: welcome to Bleaker Island.
There are no roads on Bleaker Island. There are no trees. I was met by the island’s charming and disconcertingly normal owners. They drove me to their house, the farm manager’s cottage, two empty guest houses and a shearing shed. This is the extent of civilisation on Bleaker. The part I occupied was set up to accommodate tour groups which visit in the summer months: its many bedrooms all had the same bright bedding, the same unused smell. I closed their doors and confined myself to the living room, where sofas were strewn with sheepskins, and the sunroom at the front of the building: glass-walled, glass-roofed, a view of the water. I set up a makeshift desk – laptop, notebooks, pens – and began the work I had come there to do. I wrote 2,500 words a day, determined that by the time I left, I’d have finished my novel. Each day stretched ahead of me in a long, uninterrupted whole; sometimes I’d find I had met my word count, finished reading a novel and written a diary entry, all before noon. Then I’d put on every item of clothing I had, and head out.
I explored the low-lying, swampy coast south of the settlement, and the craggier points to the north, and Big Pond, where black-necked swans shared the water with thirsty cattle. Most days, though, I set out, bent into the wind, or hail, or sleet, or rain, or a combination of all four, and crossed the island to the beach. There, the penguin colony huddled at one end, and for the most part tolerated me crouching nearby. I watched them staring seriously out to sea, slithering across the sand on their bellies.
Disappointingly, the history of the island suggests its name was, originally, Breaker. There was no competitive islander who said to a neighbour, “You think your island is bleak? You should see mine.” Bleaker is a barrier between the rest of the archipelago and the full force of the South Atlantic. The ocean hurls itself at the island, and the waves break on Bleaker’s rocks in a fountain of angry white spray. Bleaker is an edge.
Still, there were times when the island felt profoundly, determinedly bleak: when I was cold; when a snowstorm lasted five days straight; when my own uninterrupted company became oppressive.
I used to say I would never go back: too remote, too cold, too lonely. But now I see it in a better light. Sometimes I even miss it. Bleaker Island was the birthplace of my first book: not a novel, in the end, but the patchwork of fiction and memoir and memory that became Bleaker House. It taught me how to be the writer I wanted to be. And even in the wintry weeks I spent on the island there were moments of bright sunshine, when the water would suddenly gleam aquamarine, and ground that had looked brown seemed golden, luminescent. At dusk, after a storm, the sky over the settlement would be streaked with dark, bright colours, and V formations of birds would slide across it; sometimes the wind dropped at exactly that moment, and I’d hear the beating of their wings.
Bleaker House by Nell Stevens is published by Picador at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04 visit bookshop.theguardian.com