Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
It is ended. That was the point.
Never did care for the sight of strangers in this room. The starched white clothes, the pink shining kneecaps. Now I notice the dust on everything, smell the rot. The books are dog-eared, I’d forgotten, and things are living in the horsehair that spills from the sofa. It was they who pointed out the cockroaches in the wireless. Naibusi doesn’t think of these things, they’re not part of her life; but I must keep in touch. Shall I really have to get a new wireless, because of cockroaches?
It’s late, late to be thinking of that sort of thing. Yet I must keep in touch.
I’ll give you a word of wisdom, I said. If you twist my arm, I’ll tell you a lie. That’s translated from the Latin, I said. Oh well, then, if you want to know, it all began with the wireless.
Yes. The daily heavenly voices rattling the room.
Yes, those, and the silence. The palms taking over in the sudden vacuum.
And I, at that table above the sea, calling out through the house full of leaves.
A bit nervous, I said, a little excited, not that I expected anything but an evening or two of company, but we lead a quiet life here, and there is the business of food.
So that’s how it started, I said. From here, I said. With me shouting towards that doorway, like this: ‘Naibusi–
The house endures.
Under the palm-fronds, under the wind, signed by rain with marks of a daily kind, like time. It has stained the timber walls with trails of black and slimegreen. The stilts on which the house stands drop pale gobbets of themselves on the chicken-raked mud. In the high wooden steps to the veranda the termites feed.
The palms above the house submerge the rooms in their surf of sound. Creakings and susurrations drop from the air. The palms wander in the bare wooden passages, in the gaunt living room wide open to the sea. Sudden gusts send them streaming, grey-green plumes against a grey-blue sky.
Time has not smoothed or mellowed the fabric of the house. Grey splinters fur the walls of the central room, where maps and ships’ pennants fade to a neutral dun. A smell of mildew circulates, from chests and cupboards where clothes, bedding, papers moulder in the hot damp.
The grass mats shine a little in the greenish light from the shutters. They show the path of someone who walks day after day between the windows, who leans day after day on the splintery sills to watch the sea.
A house is a castle; it defends. A house is a conch.
Under the palms, the house lies turbulent and still.
When Misa Makadoneli called to Naibusi she had her hands in water, and I said: ‘I will go, Naibus’.’
‘No,’ said Naibusi, ‘he will abuse us both.’
‘I am not afraid because of Misa Makadoneli,’ I said. And then he called again, very loud: ‘Naibusi–
‘E, go then Salib’,’ Naibusi said. ‘If he calls you a fat pig, I will call him something.’
So I went running from the cookhouse, across the veranda and down the passage, though he tells me not to run in the house because I will break it.
Misa Makadoneli was walking up and down in the room, by the shutter there, and muttering. He took off his glasses and wiped them on the handkerchief that he wears around his neck. Then he put them on again and looked at me.
‘What, taubada?’ I said.
‘O,’ he said, ‘you. Do not shout, I hear you. I do not want you. Where is Naibus’?
‘She is coming,’ I said. ‘Already she has come.’
He never hears Naibusi, she walks so softly. When she was in the room he moved his glasses again to see her better. Sometimes they stare at one another, Naibusi and Misa Makadoneli.
I think I do not understand the minds of people who are old. But everyone knows what there was between Misa Makadoneli and Naibusi, long ago. So I think when they stare like that they are looking for the people who were young.
‘Taubada?’ said Naibusi.
‘Ki, Naibus’!’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘You have shaved your head.’
‘E, taubada,’ said Naibusi. ‘It is mourning.’
‘Truly?’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘Then who has died?’
‘Ah, my grief for him,’ said Misa Makadoneli, shaking his head. ‘He was my friend, that old man.’
All the time Misa Makadoneli looked at the eyes of Naibusi, while Naibusi tugged at the blue dress Misa Makadoneli gave her, that is too tight. Under that dress Naibusi’s chest is flat like a boy.
‘Taubada,’ Naibusi said, ‘you called.’
‘E,’ said Misa Makadoneli, like a man whose spirit had been away. ‘Naibusi, the wireless has spoken. Soon some taubadas will come. Make ready the beds in that room and this room.’
I called out: ‘How many taubadas?’ and Naibusi hissed at me and said: ‘Enough, Salib’.’
‘Two,’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘One is that young Misa Kodo from Osiwa. The other I do not know.’
‘O,’ I said, ‘Misa Kodo. He has a benevolent face.’
Misa Makadoneli said to me: ‘Much you care about his face.’ But he and the old woman were thinking about other things.
‘These taubadas,’ Naibusi said, ‘when will they come?’
‘Soon. Before night.’
‘They will bring food perhaps? Dimdim food?’
‘They might eat chicken,’ Naibusi said, wondering. ‘I do not know. The Dimdim yams are finished.’
‘E,’ said Misa Makadoneli, ‘green bananas then. They are the same as potatoes. And
‘They will eat
?’ said Naibusi. ‘Perhaps it is not their custom.’
‘My grief for them,’ Misa Makadoneli said, showing his teeth that he keeps very often in a glass of water, and that smile at me when I am making the bed. ‘Go now,’ said Misa Makadoneli, ‘see what there is in the cookhouse.’
Then Naibusi went away, very quiet, saying: ‘E, taubad’,’ very quiet, and I could not hear her feet because of the sound of the palms. But I stayed to ask a question of Misa Makadoneli, who had gone to his table and sat in his chair, though he still looked after Naibusi down the long grey passage.
Not really what I expected, in a life devoted to escaping everything, to be left at the end of it the guardian and ward of an old woman with the head of a monk, and a back like a spear hardened in the fire.
Ah, Naibus’. You will bury me.
Well, that is something to be thought about, and something I was thinking then, sitting there among the bills and unanswered letters that the
had given a point to suddenly, and that were speaking to me in a language that cut me off from her. Yes, I thought, something will have to be done. Because how will she live, afterwards?
But the big girl slouched in the doorway was impatient with the silence, and bursting with a question. She screamed across the room: ‘Taubada.’
‘Do not shout,’ I shouted, ‘madwoman.’
‘That other taubada, what is his name?’
‘I do not know.’
‘What is he like?’
I put down the pen and settled my spectacles, so that she could see that I was giving her all my attention, noting in passing that her breasts had come a long way since I last observed. ‘He is young,’ I said. ‘Yes, he is young. And very big. And insatiable. His organ is like the long yam—’
‘O, taubada!’ she shrieked. ‘O, your shame!’
Modesty struck the house like an earthquake and the floorboards juddered under her feet. She ran away from me, with a boiling skirt, down the passage towards Naibusi, to tell her of the organ that was to come.
‘Sea-cow,’ I called after her. Even a household like mine has its rituals.
When she was gone, the palms returned to the room. I heard a ripe nut plump to the ground, muffled by grass, outside the shutter. At the table I was washed in the surge of palm-sound. But the sea below was still: a pond of turquoise deepening to indigo beyond the islet.
I said aloud, just to hear myself speak English: ‘Well before dark.’ And thinking of that, went back to my bills and cheque book, signing
MacDonnell of Kailuana
, as is my privilege.
When we were in the lagoon it was green, a sort of milky opal-green, but after we rounded the horn of Vaimuna we were on the open sea, and the
wallowed. So of course I thought of him, wondering if he was sick. The lagoon shores of Vaimuna were lush, all palms, but there on the south coast it is terrible country. Waves from clear across the Solomon Sea pound at the cliffs. The rock is grey, it has teeth like a nutmeg-grater. The pandanus that clings to it is twisted every which way by the wind, and you wonder how it grew there, how it keeps hold. The sea and the wind will not leave the atoll alone. We passed so close that I noticed the silence in the forest. Every few feet there are shafts into the caves below.
had just been painted, she looked fine then, especially out there, on the darker sea. She was white as salt. White is the best colour. The
Eagle—Igau—Sooner or Later
, she is called.
I was always standing there, up ahead. He used to say who did I think I was, the figurehead or George Washington crossing the creek? It was because I wanted to be the first to see everything, and get the wind and spray on me. I used to feel sorry for him, wondering was he sick yet.
Mister Dalwood’s houseboy works hard. Mister Dalwood’s clothes are always white. He is clean like a hospital. He looks as if they painted him, like the boat. I would not like to have blue eyes. They are not natural. I would not like to have big white teeth. They are like shells.
I asked the ADO how old was Mister Dalwood. The ADO said nineteen years. I said: ‘He is very big,’ and the ADO said: ‘You can say that again.’ I would not like to be big and clumsy like Mister Dalwood. He has the mind of a child.
I said to my wife: ‘Mister Dalwood is like a young dog,’ and she laughed. It is true. He was like a young dog with Mister Cawdor. Like a young dog with an old dog, but Mister Cawdor was not old. Twenty-seven, that is younger than I.
Once, on patrol, my feet hurt on the coral, and I said to Mister Cawdor: ‘I cannot walk any further.’ He said: ‘My grief for you,’ smiling, and told me to go on. So afterwards I used to look at him and say that with my eyes. My eyes said: ‘My grief for you,’ smiling, and he looked away.
I always know when Osana is watching me. Today, in this room, he is watching. And that day, on the
I felt his eyes on my back. I knew if I turned he would be sitting there, and so I wouldn’t turn, not to give him the pleasure.
A while before I had said, not looking round: ‘How much longer?’
And he said: ‘Two hours, taubada.’
Just the three words. But I couldn’t help myself, suddenly I was face to face with him, looking into those eyes that don’t seem to have any depth to them, but are flat and always insolent, in a way I can’t put my finger on.
I never knew how to deal with it. I said: ‘Watch it, Osana.’
And he did his usual stuff. ‘Taubada,’ very tolerant, drawing the word out, as if I was three years old.
‘I won’t take cheek,’ I said. ‘Just watch it.’
And he said: ‘Yes, taubada,’ not exactly smiling, but I felt small.
It was always the same, and always I went on thinking and thinking about it. Of him, on the deck behind me. I kept thinking: I won’t turn round to see; but I had to, I did again. And he was looking, sure enough, sitting there in a clump of Papuans, but not really with them, lording it over them in his navy-blue shirt and rami that show he’s Government. A face like a smacked bottom, my old woman would say.
And then it all went sour. The sea and the trip and going to a new island, it didn’t seem to matter, and I felt useless.
It can’t be that I hate him, he’s not worth it, he’s something-nothing. But he poisons the air. And that day, I found myself going away; stumbling over someone’s legs, feeling eight feet tall and spastic, the way he wanted me to feel. Scrambling down into the belly of the
What was it I used to go to him for? It can’t have been comfort.
Mister Cawdor was lying on the bench inside the belly of the
A book was in front of his face. Mister Dalwood could not see his face. I could not see his face, either, looking in over the head of Sayam.
‘Batman,’ said Mister Dalwood, in his loud voice, ‘have you ever noticed, Osana’s got eyes like a snake. You can’t see into them.’
But Mister Cawdor was reading.
‘Hey,’ said Mister Dalwood. ‘Misa Kodo.’
Mister Cawdor’s face, that we could not see, said: ‘Hullo.’
Still Mister Dalwood was standing over the bench, with the look of a worried man. The next time he spoke to Mister Cawdor, it was like a question.
‘Alistair?’ said Mister Dalwood.
It was as if he thought that someone else might be behind Mister Cawdor’s book.
Then at last Mister Cawdor began to speak, and said, not bothering with Mister Dalwood’s stupid words: ‘Tim, you know the old
‘Sure,’ said Mister Dalwood, sounding glad, because he is always wanting to talk about boats. ‘I came on her from Samarai.’
‘You know what the word means?’ said Mister Cawdor.
‘Not a clue,’ said Mister Dalwood. ‘What is it: Motu?’
‘No,’ said Mister Cawdor, ‘Aztec,’ and he sounded glad too. He began to read from the book to Mister Dalwood, about floating islands covered with flowers that are called
I did not think that Dimdims would believe in such things, which are like the rock-men in the sea that ignorant people believe in, but Mister Cawdor sounded glad.
When Mister Cawdor had stopped reading, Mister Dalwood said: ‘Gee, eh?’
‘Isn’t that a pretty thought,’ said Mister Cawdor, ‘a wandering garden delivering our stores.’
‘It’s a wandering bloody distillery,’ said Mister Dalwood, ‘when your order comes. What’s the book?’
‘The Conquest of Mexico
,’ said Mister Cawdor, and I could hear from his voice that he was reading again and wanted Mister Dalwood to go away.