Read Visitants Online

Authors: Randolph Stow

Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION

Visitants (4 page)

‘Well,’ said Mister Dalwood, ‘it makes a lousy megaphone.’

When Mister Dalwood said that, Mister Cawdor sighed and put down the book, and looked up at Mister Dalwood, who was leaning over him like a big tree. I saw how Mister Dalwood’s eyes, when he looked at Mister Cawdor, got round and worried. But I and Mister Cawdor did not think anything of that, because it was something we saw many times.

DALWOOD

He shouldn’t have looked like that, at his age. Sometimes, catching sight of him, I’d think: If I could get my hands on them. But he wouldn’t have liked it. He told me once I had the temperament of a Nazi animal-lover.

At first he was always taking the piss.

I said: ‘Christ, you look terrible.’

He didn’t even mind. He said: ‘I’m a terrible sailor.’

‘No, it’s more than that. Have you been taking those vitamin pills?’

But he always did think I was a joke, and just laughed, lying like spaghetti on a plate, holding the book to his chest.

Sometimes he reminded me of a horse, a high-strung horse in a storm. His eyes were too big, big brown wild eyes. Underneath there were dark marks, like stains. When he laughed, his mouth was tight over his teeth, and his face creased up like something that had had a long time in the desert, such as Leichhardt’s boot.

‘Do you know what you look like?’ I said.

‘You’ve told me. “Like a middle-aged teenager.”’

‘I’ve got a brother of your age—’

‘You’ve got,’ he said, ‘more brothers than a rabbit.’

‘Well, listen: my brother isn’t a mess like you.’

But that was going too far, or coming too close to him. ‘We’re all dying,’ he said. ‘Even you. So stop hanging around me like an undertaker.’

‘Look,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to be healthy in this job.’

He said: ‘Don’t tell me about this job, let me tell you.’

He would do that, suddenly, pull rank on me. And it got me down, it never failed. I didn’t say anything. I parked myself on the bench at his feet and sat looking out over the sky-glossy water, listening to the wash down the sides. His eyes were on me, thinking about me, but I wouldn’t look that way.

‘I can’t get through to you,’ I said after a while. ‘You’re killing yourself.’

Then for a long time I heard nothing except the sea, and I knew that he had surrendered. So I turned to him to make sure I’d won, to show him my face, that I was serious. ‘Listen to me,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘All right.’ And he sat up, serious then like me. I saw his face from a new angle, and more than ever he looked sick, sick to the bone.

His eyes had gone to old Sayam, where he stood at the wheel, looming out of a clump of Papuans. Sayam is the sea-god; they are the mortals, buying safety. He stands like an idol, with a crown of wire. You would think the people came to worship him. Every now and then they will give him something, some tobacco or betelnut, and he will take it, but he never thanks them, never looks to see where it came from.

Into the jumble of bodies Alistair shouted a name. He shouted: ‘Kailusa,’ and his houseboy jumped up and padded towards us, hunchbacked, in that rami of terrible mauve. His face was what I always thought of as a hunchback’s face, tight-skinned and making you think of pain. He glided, Kailusa; always with his eyes fixed on Alistair, timid and stubborn with concern.

‘Kailusa,’ Alistair said, ‘I want the little medicine box. I’m about to gorge myself on Misa Dolu’udi’s nourishing pills.’

I watched Kailusa, who never spoke if he could help it, turn away to the stacked patrol-boxes. He stood stooped over them with his brown shining hump pointed towards us, trying to picture everything inside them.

‘By the way,’ Alistair said to me, ‘here’s news for you. I don’t seem to have had an anti-malarial for a month.’

But I supposed he tried it on to get a rise. I said: ‘You need a keeper.’

‘That’s what they must have reckoned in Samarai when they sent me you.’

We weren’t listening to ourselves. We watched Kailusa wavering among the patrol-boxes. He used to depend on remembering everything he had packed, its exact place, but that time he was beaten. ‘What box, taubada?’ he called out, sounding peeved with the world.

Then suddenly he was coming towards me, he was falling at my feet and dragging out a leather suitcase from under the bench.

‘Oh,’ he said, smiling with a sort of stiff kink in his face, proud of his memory. ‘Oh, sinabada’s box.’

And I wanted to hammer him through the boat and into the sea.

OSANA

Mister Cawdor’s face did not look angry because Kailusa had said such a thing. He did not look at Kailusa, or at Mister Dalwood. He said: ‘The box is mine,’ and stood up and walked away.

Mister Cawdor went to the arse of the
Igau
and was staring into the wake.

Because I could not hear what Mister Dalwood would say to Kailusa, I climbed to the roof of the
Igau
and went down quietly to sit over Mister Cawdor’s head.

I knew why Mister Cawdor was watching the water. He did not want to see Mister Dalwood, who is so stupid and young.

I heard Kailusa give a little cry, and I heard him whispering, or trying to whisper. ‘No, taubada,’ Kailusa was saying. ‘I forget, taubada. True.’

Mister Dalwood cannot whisper, he does not know how. He said: ‘You sure you weren’t being clever?’

‘I forget, taubada,’ Kailusa said.

‘Don’t forget,’ Mister Dalwood said. ‘One more time, Kailusa. One more time.’

And then I think Mister Cawdor was angry, and he called out: ‘Tim.’

For a long time Mister Dalwood did not come. Mister Dalwood had his hand in Kailusa’s hair and was staring at him. And Kailusa was nearly weeping, so Sayam told me, thinking that he had grieved Mister Cawdor.

Then I saw Mister Dalwood’s head, leaning over the water as he stood beside Mister Cawdor, and I moved back on the roof of the
Igau.
Mister Dalwood and Mister Cawdor looked into the bubbling colours of the wake and the blue and white road behind. I saw Mister Dalwood’s hand come out and take hold of the fishing-line. The line bit into the sea like a bushknife and smoked with water in the sun.

‘What?’ asked Mister Dalwood, very quiet then, so that I could hardly hear him because of the wash.

‘Just a favour I wanted to ask,’ Mister Cawdor said. ‘Will you mind your own fucking business?’

As soon as I heard Mister Cawdor speak like that to Mister Dalwood, I went running quickly along the roof of the
Igau
, and when I saw in, over the head of Sayam, Mister Dalwood and Mister Cawdor were staring at each other’s faces. Mister Cawdor was leaning his elbow on the side, and his face was quiet. But Mister Dalwood’s face was red, and his hands moved as if he would hit Mister Cawdor.

‘Don’t worry,’ Mister Dalwood said, like someone with something in his throat. Then he went away from Mister Cawdor, very clumsy and angry. I saw him bend to pick up the book that he writes all his letters in, and I knew that he would be coming up to where I was.

I went on watching the back of Mister Cawdor while he stared at the sea. Mister Cawdor’s clothes were white and his head was black and the sea was shining. I think now that Mister Cawdor was always lonely like he looked then.

DALWOOD

Of course I called him every kind of bastard. Arrogant ungrateful sod, I said. As if I needed to get mixed up in it. Some day he’ll go too far, I said, and I’ll knuckle him.

Osana was where I left him, watching a hazy grey lump of island on the horizon. ‘Kailuana, taubada,’ he said. Then he seemed to catch sight of my face, and took an interest. ‘There something wrong?’

I didn’t answer. I sat down and watched the island, but couldn’t stop myself from breathing hard.

‘Mister Cawdor not seasick?’ Osana checked.

I knew he hoped Mister Cawdor had puked up his toenails by then, so I said: ‘No, he’s feeling fine.’

‘Not like usual,’ Osana said. ‘I think more better he go to another district. Too many islands here.’

‘You suggest it to him,’ I said; wishing he would, wanting to be there when it happened.

I kept thinking: Bastard, that bastard. Bastards, both of them. Some day it’s going to blow up between that pair.

Hating the two of them about equally. Hating the country, life, everything that seemed to be ganged up to put me down. Not even the spray and the slap of the waves below could do me any good just then.

But suddenly behind me, the boat-boys and policemen started to sing. Somebody signalled, and they were away, belting out that tune that they sing at every anchorage when we say goodbye to the people. The soloist soared, up in the clouds somewhere, like an oboe against muffled drums.


Kayoni, kagu toki, veyogu-u-u…

Goodbye, thank you very much, my relations, he sings. Goodbye and thank you, my relations. I’m off, I’m homeward bound for Osiwa. Goodbye, my relations, thanking you.

Then they all jumped into the chorus, sharp as cymbals. ‘
Dumeraka, dumeraka, dumeraka, dumeraka
…’ they sang, to that wildly jazzy tune which may have been a hymn once, and I could have sung it with them, after those weeks of patrolling. But what would Osana have made of that, behind my back?

They are my age, a lot of them. But I am something special, a
taubada
, a great man.

I twisted my neck to look at them. I saw them all sitting there, still. Their bare knees were drawn up and their eyes were on the sky while they sang. They didn’t think about each other, but they were together, doing something together. It seemed a long time since life had been like that for me.

Then suddenly I saw the other one, that I had never seen before. And I felt cold.

OSANA

Mister Dalwood saw the madman. He looked into his eyes, and he was afraid.

They were all afraid when they looked into that man’s eyes. So he stared back at Mister Dalwood, as he would have stared at any white man, protected by his eyes.

He said God gave him something. He said they saw it.

His mouth was open a little way. But it was not truly a smile. I knew what he was thinking: This young Dimdim’s face is very red. He is very big. He cannot look away from me because he is afraid.

When Mister Dalwood spoke to me, in a small voice, the man watched his lips. I know now what he was thinking then. He thought: He talks in English and believes I do not understand. I do not understand everything. In time I will understand.

‘For God’s sake,’ Mister Dalwood said to me, or perhaps to himself, ‘who’s that?’

‘Which, taubada?’ I said, pretending.

‘That one,’ Mister Dalwood said. His finger pointed at the big-eyed man.

Then I looked, as if I had not known before. ‘Oh, him,’ I said. ‘People call him Two-bob. Some taubada name him Two-bob. Because his eyes, you see, like two shillings.’

Mister Dalwood moved on his backside, in white shorts, as if the deck was too hard.

‘What a funny-looking fella,’ he said. ‘Like a zombie.’

‘What that, taubada?’ I said. Because I must learn the words.

‘Oh—’ he said, the way they say: ‘Oh’ in English, meaning that they do not know what to say. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘But why have we got him?’

I was tired of Mister Dalwood’s questions, and moved my shoulders, since he was not seeing me. ‘I don’t know, taubada,’ I said. Then I called to the man, in a voice to make him know that I was Government: ‘
Um valu ambes
’?’

The man did not look at me. He stared into the face of Mister Dalwood, a long time. When his mouth opened to speak, it was as if he was seeing it open and thinking of it. He said, not to me but only to Mister Dalwood:
‘Yaegu
Metusela.’ When he saw that Mister Dalwood understood, he said:
‘Ba ka’ita
Wayouyo.’

Then his mouth closed. We watched it close.

DALWOOD

I’d never seen anything like it. They were the weirdest eyes I ever came across. The white went clear about the brown. And he never stopped looking, as if he knew, as if he was trying to put the wind up me.

And yet, it was only the eyes. God knows, there wasn’t much more to him. A middle-aged shrimp of a man, with a mop of black curls, in old Army shorts so far gone that you could see the areca-sheath jockstrap he wore as a second line. But so still, as if he hadn’t moved for hours. When he opened his mouth, and I saw the betelnut on his teeth and knew that he was going to speak to me, I was scared for a moment, the way you might be scared by noises in the night, even though you know you don’t believe in ghosts.

His voice was very deep, very loud. He didn’t think much of our Osana.

I said to Osana: ‘What was that last bit?’

Osana was put out, it was good to hear. ‘Oh, he just say this,’ he muttered. ‘He say: “My name is Metusela. I’m going home to Wayouyo.” That Dipapa’s village, taubada, on Kailuana island. I think he is crazy.’

I said: ‘Sure he doesn’t understand?’

‘Him?’ Osana said, grinning. ‘No. He nothing. Bush-kanaka,’ Osana said, laughing, and I was supposed to hear quotes around the words, but they were vicious.

Suddenly he shouted at the man:
‘Ku la
! Go away.’

‘Now listen,’ I said. But Two-bob, Metusela, just smiled, raising his eyebrows a little, and got up. For a second he looked at Osana and at me. Then he padded away aft on skinny dusty legs.

‘Well done, Osana,’ I said. ‘That was real sophisticated.’ Because he made me sick, sitting in his crowd of hangers-on like a Chief Justice. I turned my back on him, and took up the letter in the pad.

A crash-hot patrol, the letter drooled, in so many ways. Because that genius actually spoke the language, and they loved him, especially the old ladies. Whole villages of old ladies all trying to feed him up with great scungey grey yams out of their cooking-pots, and he politely drinking a bottle of rum instead. A hell of a good bloke. Hard to understand the mentality of anyone who could do this to him, such a hell of a good bloke…

I took out my pen to revise that, and then put it back. The island was dim and grey across the swell. I thought about the island, feeling my face stiff with salt.

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