Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
But then it was in the yellow-green light of a clear late afternoon, that made the most of the green in the palms sweeping over the roof. And somewhere in the grove two birds were calling, two of the little butcher-birds of these parts, echoing the way in a plantation things do echo and hold on. It was the kind of evening when you feel that you could let all your thoughts go and empty yourself, and sit listening to your own silence like a shell.
So I came out of the sunlight, to the sodden grey house in the gloom of the trees. Steep grey steps led up from the rank grass to a veranda as deep as the building, dividing the kitchen quarters from the rest. Shadowy up there, silhouetted against a glow from behind, Alistair leaned on a veranda-post and talked to someone his body hid.
I looked at the steps, which seemed to have been built, like the island, by coral-insects, and thought that the heaviest man on the island was certainly me. With an eye on my feet, I went up to the veranda pound by pound.
And that way the MacDonnell was laid out for me, when Alistair moved away, from bottom to top, by instalments. There was first of all the MacDonnell’s Army surplus boots, then a pair of puttees with nothing worth mentioning inside. Eighteen inches of pale pipe-cleaner legs got lost in flapping khaki shorts like a kilt. I followed up a narrow column of grey flannel singlet, and came to a pink silk scarf tied loose round a chicken-neck. Then I was looking into the MacDonnell’s face: thin, old, innocent, with perfectly round blue eyes behind perfectly round glasses. On top of it all was a greasy grey businessman’s hat. As I watched there was a sudden commotion in the air, and a white cockatoo came out of nowhere and skidded to a halt on the crown of the hat. In a high feeble voice it said to me: ‘Popu.’
That p.m. on the veranda, sea in front, jungle of pink frangipani behind. Inevitability. 50 years he has been here. TD’s eyes on stalks at the sight of him. Yet the island took him in & digested him almost at first sight.
Think about that. The receptiveness. So many visitants coming, none that anyone knows of ever driven away.
Think about the history. A riddle, but one can guess.
1st. The mountains in the sea. Perhaps sudden, perhaps a storm of lava and steam. But time quietened them. Sea and wind, rain and ice.
Then birds, seeds, floating fruit, uprooted trees. Green. Coral in the shallows, silt and sediment in the lagoon.
Then the mountains sinking back into the sea, the coral struggling upward. Earth and seeds from the mountains lodging in the coral reefs, and the reefs becoming islands. The mountains disappearing, the ringed atolls left behind.
Then the earth, it must have been, heaving again, and the seas pounding. The coral walls breached, the lagoons rejoining the ocean. Water boiling through today’s dripping caves. And the islands one after another going down, till Kailuana stood alone.
Can’t even guess when people first came to Kailuana, how they came, where from. Probably in canoes blown by storms, lost and frightened. Perhaps the first were men without women, hunting, gathering food for a while, dying, leaving nothing. Or perhaps they did leave something: the megaliths. Because wouldn’t I, if it was me, even if it was me by myself, want to build, leave a sign? And the sign, here, would have to be something simple, something like flat coral slabs stood on end.
But more must have called and passed on, and spread the news of Kailuana. So settlers then, with wives, food-plants, livestock. Making their gardens and burying their dead. Simple people, the first ones, but the next wave more sophisticated. They took the fruit-trees and pigs of the earlier people, declared themselves an aristocracy, made the others stoop. Because, they said, the world is divided into four clans, and we are the top people. So everyone in the world knew his place, and things went tidily.
Try to imagine all that when the first ship, the French one, bore down under full sail. The terror. Yet they coped, they cope with everything. ‘The world is divided into four clans.’ The Frenchmen fitted, they parted friends.
And the same, next century, with the sailors, traders, missionaries, Government officers. They dropped in for a day or two, never came back, but they fitted. And the same, fifty years ago, with young MacDonnell and his partner. They arrived and announced that they owned the islet. Nobody sweated. It was all in the scheme of things.
It’s a comforting institution, that scheme of things. When the Japs dropped a bomb on the MacDonnell’s copra shed, Kailuana laughed. Not that they wanted to see the MacDonnell done out of anything, but a copra shed exploding, that was funny. No one said: ‘What about me?’
Keep thinking about time, vast stretches of time, so as not to think: ‘What about me?’ Where was I when the mountains came out of the sea. Seize hold of that moment, concentrate on it, meditate on it. Then I know where I stand with time and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Alistair, Alistair, she said, it doesn’t matter. Don’t think about it, it doesn’t matter.
The huge pink youth stared and stared at me, with the bird on my hat, and I took him for a fool, as so many of them are; but he was never a fool, only innocent, a little innocent, as he thinks I am too, and he told me so one night, on the veranda, in that very place. He stared and stared at the bird, and then the wind-burnt face opened up on the big teeth and he said: ‘Do you always wear that?’
‘Not if I can help it, old man,’ I said, ‘but he comes to have a look at the visitors and I don’t see him coming. Go away, Popu,’ I said, shaking my head, and the bird flew out screeching into the grove.
‘I am Dalwood,’ the boy said. ‘I go around with Misa Kodo doing good.’
‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘Popu means excrement. The women named him that because of his habits in the house. I am MacDonnell. But call me Mak. Where has Cawdor gone?’
‘He is there,’ Dalwood said, and I turned and saw Cawdor at the other end of the veranda, looking down on my village, against the thicket of frangipani glowing pink in the last sun.
‘Cawdor,’ I said, ‘you haven’t introduced us, old man.’
‘Sorry,’ Cawdor said, coming back to us, his skin very dark. I used to wonder if there might be a touch of the tar-brush there, but that is not possible, he was a son of the manse, a dark Scot. ‘Tim Dalwood,’ he said, ‘the MacDonnell of Kailuana.’
‘Do you want a rinse, old man?’ I said to Dalwood.
‘Do I want a what?’ he said.
‘If you need to pumpship,’ I said, ‘do it over the veranda rail, planter’s privilege here.’
‘“Pumpship,”’ Dalwood repeated. ‘Hey, Batman, listen to the words.’
Cawdor said, looking absent: ‘Mak’s always a year ahead of
magazine with the slang.’
‘I haven’t been off the island for seven years, old man,’ I said, ‘or out of the Territory for fourteen, and I haven’t spoken English, except to the wireless, since the
came three weeks ago, if you want to know.’
‘That’s fantastic,’ Dalwood said, and I saw his fingers playing with the strap of the camera that he had slung over his left shoulder (is it part of the uniform of the new breed?) and his eyes arranging me in some grotesque pose, and waited for him to say: ‘Do you think I could—?’
‘Do you think I could take a photo of the house?’ he said. ‘And, oh—maybe you wouldn’t mind—?’
‘Please yourself, old man,’ I said, ‘but not me, not now, it’s my time for a shower. No, you sit yourselves down at the table there, Naibusi will bring some rum. Cawdor, look after him, give Naibusi a shout.’ Then I went off to get out of my clothes, because it was six o’clock.
I heard Dalwood behind me spluttering and then choking with stupid laughter that he couldn’t swallow, and Cawdor saying, half-laughing himself: ‘Where are your manners, you ape?’ And the funny thing was that I felt rather pleased with him, the boy, for laughing at me that way, because I used to be like him at his age, and even later, when I first came to the island. But of course he couldn’t have conceived of that, no one can conceive it, except sometimes Naibusi when she stops and looks.
We sat at a table with a scarred plastic cloth on it, looking down on the sea, which was changing colour, and the dimming
by the islet. The palms kept up a slow sweeping on the roof, and the white bird somewhere out of sight was swearing to itself in one of those instant rages that cockatoos can turn on. A pawpaw tree beside me leaned in and drooped its fruit on the veranda rail. I thought of tight green breasts.
Corny. But that was the sort of thing I thought then a lot of the time, and thought it must be the same for him, not understanding that it was not that, never simple like that.
But then he was laughing and looked at home, at ease, the way he sometimes was when we were among new faces and not at home, and I thought perhaps, perhaps when we get back to Osiwa, this time, it will be over and he’ll be like he was before, however that may have been.
He saw me looking at him, and scowled. ‘You still doing a project on me?’ he said. Then he caught sight of something behind me, and his face went sort of gentle, and he stretched out an arm.
‘O!’ he called. ‘Naibus’.’
An old woman in a blue dress, with her hair cropped to the scalp, came towards us over the veranda carrying a tray. A rather beautiful old woman, I remember thinking: very straight and young in her walk, her face worn and fine. She put down the tray on the table, and then did what I never saw any other woman do in these islands, held out her hand, and he took it and kept it for a moment, smiling into her eyes.
‘How are you, old woman?’ he said in the language. And she murmured: ‘
A bwoina wa’
, taubad’. I’m just fine.’
‘That is Misa Dolu’udi,’ he said, nodding my way, and she turned and bowed, taking me in for a second with deep eyes. ‘This is Naibusi, Tim, the woman of the house.’
I said: ‘Hullo, Naibusi,’ and she murmured: ‘Taubada,’ bending to the tray and beginning to put out the things on the table. I saw that there was a bottle of O.P. rum there, with glasses and sugar and water, and a withered lemon on a plate that said
South Australian Government Railways.
‘But where is Saliba?’ Alistair asked her. And as soon as the name was out, something violent happened in the passage leading to the cookhouse, an explosion of shrieks and giggles, screams of: ‘
Salib’!’ Then there were sounds of fisticuffs on yielding surfaces, and one girl kept yelling out at the others. ‘
!’ she shouted, and ‘
!’ Then the force behind her had its way, and she came shooting across the veranda, still swearing, like a giggle-powered rocket.
‘Saliba!’ Misa Kodo sang out.
She was wearing all the flowers for miles around and smelt like a rich funeral, and had on arm-bands and leg-bands and red coral beads and a new skirt that seemed to be giving her a lot of trouble to control. She must have got dressed up for somebody, but it wasn’t for Misa Kodo apparently, because when she saw him opening his arms for her all she had to say was: ‘
‘Slut,’ he said. ‘Tim, this is Saliba.’
She turned to look me over for a moment, the big motherly teenaged bosom thrusting against the flowers, and I thought I made out in her something that was in Naibusi too, a sort of restfulness. Noisy as she was, quivering with bottled-up noise, there was a seriousness there too, in the plump blunt face and the eyes that seemed to be happy with everything they saw. I thought that somehow she was different from the rest, maybe not so pretty as the rest, but fuller, and kinder, and the only young one, probably, whose name and face I’d be able to remember when I’d gone.
Then he began to tell her something in the language about me and about the tax, how I’d come to help collect the tax, and she turned away from me and squatted down at his feet to listen, the fibres of the banana-leaf skirt parting over her thighs. But she was still thinking about me, I saw that, and it was some remark of hers to do with me that made him suddenly burst out laughing, and explain: ‘Saliba’s the clown of the house.’ The other girls were laughing too, and began to press around us, and the hot sticky air was suddenly full of crushed sulumwoya leaves.
When the MacDonnell pushed his way through them on his way to the shower, none of the women turned or noticed.
‘Hey,’ I said. The MacDonnell was stark naked.
‘Got a drink, old man?’ he sang out. ‘Help yourself. I’ll be there in five minutes.’
‘Do you always get about like that?’ I said, taking him in. Among the brown garlanded girls he was white like a woodgrub, and something of the same texture.
‘All born in the house, old man,’ he said, waving at the girls. And he went off, with everything explained, at a jiggling trot, and disappeared on the cookhouse side.
‘Good skin, hasn’t he?’ Alistair said, looking up for a second. Then he went back to talking to Saliba, having some conversation that they must have found pretty funny, because the dark creases kept coming back to his face and she quaked all over with that gurgling laugh. Rough, boisterous, tender. I thought what a household, and what might not happen in such a household, watching the girls, feeling tight.
Now all that evening seems so far away and sharp and bright it is as if I am watching through the wrong end of the binoculars and am outside but it is still going on. I drank too much and laughed till I got laughed at over jokes in a language I don’t know. The cockatoo came home and sat on my head and cursed and screamed at Saliba, every feather on end. Mak joined us, dressed for dinner in striped pyjamas, and we ate chicken and yams and the leaves of some tree by the light of a Tilley lamp that dropped fried insects on every plate. The palms turned blue, and the sea turned mauve, lilac, violet; the islet like a lump of coal floating on it, at the side of the ghostly
When we came afterwards into this terrible, dead, no, dying room, I did not notice what it looked like, there was so much talk and light. All the women came with us, the girls and Naibusi, to smoke and sing and make garlands in the hard white glare, the fireside of this house. They sat propped against one wall with their legs stretched straight ahead, teasing the old man, giving Alistair the local news, ogling me.