Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
I had known, anyway, all the time, I was stuck with it. He could talk to me like that, and I would still have to work with him, eat with him, travel with him, sleep in the same room. All day and every day, till my first leave, another year. There was no one else who spoke my language.
So I made a resolution, and stood up. As I stepped over their legs, the eyes of Osana and friends fixed on me, hopeful of entertainment. But I didn’t fall in, climbing down again into the belly of the
People were walking around on the veranda of the
The sun was on Mister Cawdor, and the shadows of the people’s legs moved over him.
I stood by Sayam, watching Mister Dalwood, who was searching for something. I saw him drag out a green coconut from the pile under the bench. As soon as he had it in his hand, some colours like a lot of parrots flew past me towards him. It was his houseboy, Biyu, wearing that Hawaii shirt that Mister Dalwood’s aunt, whose name is Doris, sent to Mister Dalwood. Biyu was smiling and looking like an important man, with a bushknife in his hand.
‘Thanks,’ said Mister Dalwood, and took the knife.
‘I do it, taubada,’ Biyu said.
‘Push off,’ Mister Dalwood said. ‘I do things myself.’
Mister Dalwood hacked at the husk with the bushknife, while Biyu called: ‘Your hand, taubada,’ and the chips fell on the boards. Then Mister Dalwood went towards Mister Cawdor, slicing a lid off the coconut as he walked. ‘Alistair,’ he said.
Underneath his book, Mister Cawdor said: ‘Uh?’
,’ said Mister Dalwood, which is number two of the five words that he knows in the language.
Mister Cawdor put down the book and sat up. He did not look at Mister Dalwood. He reached out for the coconut and leaned back his head to drink. The wind blew in Mister Cawdor’s hair, which seemed to be very soft like the hair of some Dimdims, and the light of the water flashed on his skin, so that you could see that it was not like the skin of a Dimdim truly and would never turn red in the sun.
‘Alistair,’ said Mister Dalwood, watching Mister Cawdor. ‘Sorry.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Mister Cawdor, into the coconut, which echoed.
Mister Dalwood waited. When he had waited a while he began to grow hot in the face, and he said: ‘Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry too?’
‘No,’ said Mister Cawdor.
‘Here, give me that,’ Mister Dalwood said, and he grabbed the coconut out of Mister Cawdor’s hands. ‘I opened it,’ Mister Dalwood said. He drank from the coconut until it was empty, then he put it down so as to see Mister Cawdor again.
‘I’m not sorry,’ Mister Cawdor said, smiling at Mister Dalwood. ‘If you were me, wouldn’t you have had enough?’
‘Okay,’ said Mister Dalwood, ‘so I bungle. You’ve told me before.’ He was frowning down at Mister Cawdor and looking uncertain, as if he did not understand Mister Cawdor’s mind.
‘I know what you thought you were doing,’ Mister Cawdor said. ‘To that extent, thanks.’
‘Fine,’ said Mister Dalwood, with a serious face. ‘I’m glad you see it.’
Mister Dalwood and Mister Cawdor looked at each other in the way that people half-look.
‘I mean well,’ Mister Dalwood said. ‘You tell me I think with my muscles, but I mean well. I’ve been used to having people around me all the time, but here…We’ve got to get on, or nothing will work.’
I saw that Mister Cawdor did not think the words of Mister Dalwood were important, though his face was kind. ‘It works,’ he said. Then he made his face more kind by wanting to, and said: ‘Let’s have a row, say, every Wednesday.’
When I saw Mister Dalwood looking so glad I guessed that he was thinking of those boxing-gloves that he cannot find anyone to hit with.
‘You’re on,’ Mister Dalwood said.
Then it was very quiet, and nothing was happening between the Dimdims, and I went to the side and looked at the island. The sea-haze was still in front of it, but I saw the tops of the palms and the sharp roof of Mister MacDonnell’s house. So I was glad, thinking of the people and the parties.
But suddenly everybody went running down the boat. The crew, the policemen, the houseboys, they all ran to the arse of the
‘What’s up?’ cried Mister Dalwood, using his loud voice again; and he went with them, asking questions that nobody listened to. Over all the people Mister Dalwood waved his head like a tree, asking questions from side to side.
The arms of the people were reaching out to the line, and their voices were crying: ‘O! O!’ I heard Mister Dalwood’s cry, one foot above them: ‘God Almighty!’ Then they were all dancing, clubbing the leaping thing that had come into the boat. When their bodies moved away I saw Mister Dalwood crouching over the great fish.
‘Jesus wept,’ said Mister Dalwood. ‘Isn’t that just beautiful?’
The fish was like the tin toys that the children have in the ADO’s house. Its belly was silver, its back was black. The sunlight leaned on it and made it burn. The fins of the fish were yellow like bananas, the streak on its side was butterfly-blue.
‘Oh God, that’s beautiful,’ Mister Dalwood kept saying, as he stroked it. ‘Hey, life’s beautiful, did you know?’
‘Kai for the MacDonnell,’ said Mister Cawdor. ‘We ought to take him something.’
‘How can you talk like that?’ said Mister Dalwood. ‘Here’s this magnificent thing come up from the bottom of the sea, and you’re thinking about feeding the MacDonnell.’
Mister Cawdor had not moved from the bench. He looked down at Mister Dalwood, who squatted among the brown legs, and I saw that he was a sad man, which I had forgotten. Mister Cawdor looked down at Mister Dalwood looking up at him. The sun on Mister Dalwood’s face made his eyes small and shiny, and I saw the salt on his red skin. Because he was out of breath he showed many teeth, and he was laughing also.
‘I was never so young in my life,’ said Mister Cawdor, and shook his head.
Then Mister Cawdor turned and leaned over the side to look at the island, which had turned from grey to green. Over his shoulder he said: ‘I can just make out the house,’ in a voice that sounded as if he did not care.
I had dozed in my chair, and woke slowly, bringing to the surface with me the memory of some sound. A breeze had come up, through the shutter, moving my hair and carrying with it a complicated sweetness. Fifty years I’ve been smelling it, crushed and warm from their bodies, yet can’t place in my mind all the scents from my childhood that return. Anise? Lemon verbena? Thyme? No, scents are themselves.
The sound from my sleep came again, a scuff of bare feet. ‘Oh, you,’ I said, over the back of the chair.
Saliba was at the shutter, staring down on the sea. ‘Already they have come,’ she cried out.
The fresh sprigs of sulumwoya were wilting in her arm-bands. On her breasts a garland of bwita flowers looked pale and smelled heavy. There was a hibiscus flower in her hair. The dye of the red-and-yellow skirt had hardly had time to dry, and the skirt stood out from her hips in layer on layer, the work of weeks by the glare of the Tilley lamp, in this room. I saw that she could after all look graceful, and like her dead mother, and realized that she herself must all the time have known.
‘Who will look at you?’ I said, polishing my glasses.
’,’ the girl said, meaning that I was lying, or was joking, or was honestly mistaken.
‘Misa Kodo will not see you.’
’,’ she said again, and pulled a face. ‘Besides, I do not like the Dimdims.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘a black man, is it? A mainland man, a
‘Ssss,’ she said. ‘I do not like those policemen.’ Then she exclaimed: ‘
! He is very big.’
‘Who is big?’ I said.
‘That one,’ she said, pointing at the sea.
I got up from the creaking chair and came to stand beside her at the window-place. By the islet the
lay at anchor. Two outrigger canoes that had hoisted their basketwork sails to make use of the sudden breeze were moving away from her, and in one of them a white man stood squinting under his raised hand at the house. Against the dun-coloured sail his clothes were dazzling.
‘That is Misa Kodo?’ I said.
‘No,’ she said, scornful, drawing out the word. ‘You are a blind man. Misa Kodo is not so big.’
‘I am not a blind man,’ I said. ‘I am not a deaf man.
She smiled, tolerant, all her attention on the canoes. As soon as the beach palms hid them she flared about and ran for the veranda. She was there, intent, and in the post of honour, when I came out with my hat on.
‘Move,’ I said to her. ‘This is my house. Here I am commander.’ I took my place at the head of the splintering wooden steps. ‘But old,’ I said, to her who believed it more easily than I did. ‘
Mtaga sena tomwoya
When people heard that the
was coming they went down to the beach-path. I was at Misa Makadoneli’s house, speaking to the old woman Naibusi, and I went with them to see Misa Kodo, because I thought he was my friend. I stood by the path among the others and watched the people from Osiwa coming up from the beach. In front of them all walked Misa Kodo, because he was the leader, and behind Misa Kodo came a very big young Dimdim who is not truly a grown man yet, and is called Misa Dolu’udi. Misa Dolu’udi walked like a good-tempered man who was eager to go to a place. But Misa Kodo walked as if his legs were heavy.
When they came out of the shadow of the palm-grove they passed close by me, and in the sunlight I saw two or three white hairs on Misa Kodo’s head, which was black, and the light shining on the hair which he had on his arms, like all the Dimdims. I was standing among other people, but taller than any of them, and I smiled at Misa Kodo. But he did not see me, and walked on, and my mind was heavy. When he was here before I said: ‘Are you my friend?’ and he said: ‘Yes, truly,’ and gave me tobacco. So then my mind was heavy, because I thought he was my friend.
As Misa Dolu’udi passed me he stopped and looked back. He stepped out of the line and stood by the path, watching the other Osiwa people. Behind him was Osana, the interpreter of the Government, and behind Osana two men from the boat-crew were carrying a big fish on a pole. After the fish came a man with eyes like a fish, and Misa Dolu’udi was looking at the man and frowning.
Misa Dolu’udi spoke to Osana. ‘Has
joined us?’ he said.
‘Who, taubada?’ said Osana, like a man talking to a child.
Misa Dolu’udi looked angry for an instant, then he said: ‘Two-bob. He’s back there.’
‘He is walking home to his village,’ said Osana, ‘if I may make a suggestion.’
‘Well said,’ Misa Dolu’udi told Osana. ‘That was a good drop of English you turned on there.’ Then he turned to go away, but higher up the path he stopped again and stood watching.
The fish-eyed man went past me. I did not know who he was, or which his village could be. I had never seen him before, but his eyes and face made me feel strange.
Misa Kodo’s boy was a hunchback, his name was Kailusa. On the steep path he walked like a crab, with his arms spread wide. His face looked as if something hurt him. He stared uphill all the time, towards his taubada.
Behind him I saw Biyu, wearing a Dimdim shirt of all colours. ‘O, Biyu,’ I called. ‘How are you? What are you doing here?’
‘O, Benoni,’ Biyu said. ‘Does Dipapa exist? If not, are you chief of Kailuana?’
‘He exists,’ I said, feeling angry with Biyu, who smiled too much.
‘Nowadays I am Misa Dolu’udi’s boy,’ Biyu said. Then he looked up the path and saw Misa Dolu’udi standing aside, gazing down, and he stopped smiling and grew worried. ‘Why is my taubada looking at us?’ he said. ‘Did he call?’
‘No,’ said Kailusa the hunchback, not caring about Biyu’s taubada. ‘He is looking, that is all.’
‘Like a lizard,’ said old man Sayam, the skipper of the
‘He stares like a lizard. Go on, go on, little police-master.’
‘Not little,’ Biyu said. ‘Big. Very big.’
‘Little,’ Sayam said. ‘Later on he will be a grown man.’
‘Truly?’ said Biyu, laughing. ‘Then we shall be afraid, as in the days of Dokonikan.’
‘I shall not be afraid because of Misa Dolu’udi,’ said Kailusa. ‘He is like a child.’
‘You lie,’ cried Biyu. ‘My taubada is strong, very strong. Your taubada—’
‘Enough!’ shouted Kailusa, swinging round towards Biyu. He had eyes that were hot and wet. ‘You shall not speak like that!’
Biyu muttered also: ‘Enough,’ and looked uncertain, because the hunchback was so passionate.
‘Enough, both of you,’ Sayam said. ‘Go on, Kailusa.
,’ he added, loud enough for Kailusa to hear. ‘Defective one.’
And I saw Kailusa’s face, which Sayam could not see, go stiff, and as he walked on he whispered: ‘You shall not speak like that, Sayam.’
The people from Osiwa passed, carrying the boxes and all the other somethings that travel with the Dimdims. I thought: I do not think that I can talk now to Misa Kodo about my affair. Because of Misa Kodo my mind was heavy. I believed he was my friend.
So the people turned out to line the path, staring at us, talking about us. And Misa Kodo strode on. A tall young bloke tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t notice, and the bloke felt put down, I saw that. I thought of saying something, but then I thought: There is time. Ahead of me Alistair walked loose and mechanical, like a tired man with a job waiting.
I stood by the side of the path, watching the line. When I turned to follow, Alistair was gone. A clump of hibiscus bushes had hidden him at a turn in the path, and over the leaves I caught sight of the roof of the house, half-buried in palms. So I hurried to catch up with him, as I always did, because he was the only one who spoke my language.
Once round the bend, the house sprang up in front of me, sudden and close at hand.
I remember, before I came to this district, asking someone one time: ‘What happens there?’ And he said: ‘It rains.’ Seeing the MacDonnell’s house, on that clear evening, I felt surprised, as if it should have had its own cloud a few feet above the palms. Rain was written on everything, fifty years of rain. The wooden walls were grey with it and the edges of the iron roof had turned to rusty lace. Under the floorboards pigs were rooting in the mud and rubbing flakes of wood from the rotting stilts. Beyond, between the stilts, I had a glimpse of the old man’s village: sago-leaf houses, grey-brown and rain-stained, fuming with smoke like steam. Cottages around a castle, I thought. And it
a castle: a sad mouldering castle that some day soon will collapse, as suddenly as Jericho, with a slow dank crunch into mud and leaves in the rain.