In The Cay, Phillip lives with his parents in Curacao because his father felt he was needed there to help increase the production of aviation fuel for the war effort. Some time after their arrival, America becomes involved with World War II and the family is no longer safe from the threat of German submarines. Phillip and his mother leave the island, much against Phillip's father's wishes, on a ship bound for America, but it is torpedoed and Phillip, separated from his mother, finds himself adrift on a raft with Timothy.
Timothy and Phillip are very different and, at first, Phillip is wary and untrusting of Timothy whom he describes as "a stubborn, old black man," but he soon realizes how kind and caring he is. He wonders what Timothy's surname is, because Phillip's father had always taught him to address an adult as "mister." This question amuses Timothy who "ave but one name."
When Phillip goes blind, it is up to Timothy to find shelter and food on the island where they camp. Phillip feels "superior" to Timothy, who is apparently illiterate, despite the fact that Timothy is an old man doing everything for Phillip. However, eventually Timothy puts the "young bahss" in his place when he insults Timothy and Phillip realizes that Timothy is trying to help him. In chapter nine, Phillip begins to change and asks Timothy to be his friend, and the only way Phillip knows to start being a real friend to Timothy is if Timothy calls him Phillip and not "young boss," acknowledging that there is nothing that gives Phillip the right to think of himself as better than Timothy. By asking Timothy to call him Phillip, they can cement their friendship.