Lester Ferris is nearly forty, ‘fatigued and even a little lost’, a British army sergeant serving as brevet-consul on the island of Mancreu. It’s a fictional place, ‘a first-and-last isle perched … midway between Socotra and the Chagos Islands’. He spends quiet days at his friend Shola’s tea shop in the company of a comic-obsessed boy who dubs himself ‘Robin’. The details of the boy’s parentage and home are mysteries to Lester; the boy becomes ‘politely deaf when quizzed’. But Lester takes a shine to him and realises he wants to rescue him from Mancreu, when the time comes.