Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
,’ they said, making the shape of me in the air with their hands. ‘A very big man.’
‘Yes,’ I managed to say, ‘yes, truly, a very big man, me.’ Then they screamed and exclaimed, and I felt brilliant, because I was drunk with everything and still drinking.
And Alistair kept drinking too, and I saw him easing, coming to life, as if he was in his own house again after a long time away. It was when he was like that they opened up for him, they adopted him, like a clever kid or an amusing pet, with a kind of crooning. Well, they are sentimental; and I am sentimental too. We are treacherous, we sentimentalists, but I haven’t known that long.
I had stopped drinking when I noticed it was seven o’clock, but Cawdor couldn’t keep his hands off the bottle, and I wondered if I ought to do something, drop a hint or go to bed. Of course I hadn’t heard then, I hear no news, but I saw that when he seemed to relax he was actually tightening, and could tell that Naibusi felt it too, the few things she said were so soothing. I should think the prodigal son was like that at first, too eager to please. But whatever the old woman and I thought, the boy thought that everything in the world was perfect, and he sat beaming, drinking himself asleep.
‘Sunday tomorrow,’ I said. ‘No tax-gathering on the Sabbath. The idiocy. How much is it going to cost us to have you squeeze five bob a head a year out of these people? I’ll tell you something, old man, if it wasn’t for me buying copra there wouldn’t
five bob in the villages. So what would you send to Konedobu then, coconuts?’
‘It’s the principle,’ Cawdor said. ‘They’re calling it evolution towards self-government.’
I turned and spat, not that it’s a habit of mine but to make a point, through the open shutter, towards the ghostly palm-trunks that the lamplight dragged inwards from the dark. ‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘what are you doing tomorrow?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I thought we might go to Kaga. Tim, shall we go to Kaga?’
‘You’ll see some self-government there,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what I wanted to talk to them about.’
‘This is great,’ the boy said, slurred. ‘This is the life. We say to Sayam: “Take us to Kaga,” and away we go. It’s as good as being a pirate.’
He laughed, and all the girls looked up at him, over their garlands and cigarettes and half-made skirts. ‘His legs,’ one of them said. ‘
! Like the piles of a yam-house.’
‘You watch out for Sayam,’ I said. ‘A vindictive old bugger, that one. There was an ADO at Osiwa one time, a friend of mine, very decent fellow. Sayam found he was breathing down his neck a bit too hard, so he made up a story about some funny business with Government stores. The next thing I heard, that ADO was out. That’s what Sayam’s like, old man, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘He manages the boat,’ Cawdor said, ‘I manage the rest. We don’t clash.’
‘You clash with Osana,’ Dalwood said. ‘The slimy bastard.’
‘Osana,’ Saliba said, with a bray of contempt, and the boy glanced up eagerly and laughed at the tone in which she said the name. They seemed very pleased with each other suddenly, and I thought how young these white boys are, how long they go on being young, while she, at sixteen, was already mature and would soon begin to thicken.
‘Mak,’ Cawdor said, ‘may I say something to you, you have the most extraordinary library. I can see both Kinsey Reports, and something about six inches thick called
How could you even know these things are in print?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ I said, ‘it’s because of that foreign fellow, that ethnographer, as he used to call himself, the one who wrote all the stuff about Osiwa. I forget what his name was, but he got it all wrong. So I’ve decided to write a book myself, and I can tell you this, old man, it’s going to hit the world like a bomb. I’ve read Casanova and I’ve read Frank Harris, and they hadn’t heard half of it. Of course it’s a bit late, I’m seventy-four, wish I’d thought of it earlier, but people ought to know these things, and they’re not going to unless I tell them. So that’s the reason for the racy stuff—I’m studying.’
But Cawdor was hardly listening. Saliba had begun to pelt him and the boy with frangipani flowers, and the other girls had joined in, and he was looking at them, very steadily, as if trying to work out some problem in his mind.
‘There’s a lot of study we could do here,’ he said, towards Saliba rather than to me. ‘On the megaliths, for instance. Why are they there, who put them there? Are they temples, or what are they? Do you make anything of them, Mak?’
‘Not a thing, old man,’ I said. ‘People here say their ancestors put them up, but I don’t know about that. I think it was probably a different people altogether, but I haven’t had any particular ideas about them.’
‘I think people who were fey,’ he said.
‘“Fey”,’ I said. ‘Haven’t heard that word for years. Well, you’re a Scot, too, I suppose, with a name like that.’
‘Doomed to die,’ he said, still to Saliba, one would have thought. ‘When people were fey, their character was supposed to change. Mean men became generous, changes like that. I’ve always imagined some very ordinary blokes being marooned here and realizing that they’d never get away, and changing. Starting to know things about themselves and their place in the set-up. Getting a bit desperate, probably, but also—I should think—reverent. I can see them putting up those stones as an act of worship: not of anything in particular, but just worship. And to show that they’d been here, to leave something behind. Maybe they even thought of the stones as a signal for help.’
‘Never struck me that way, I must say,’ I said. ‘Very ordinary lumps of coral rock, I’ve always thought.’
‘Oh, yes, but,’ he said, ‘they didn’t get there by themselves. And that may be the only message.’
‘All very interesting, old man,’ I said. ‘Nine o’clock, my time for bed. Are you turning in?’
‘If I have to,’ he said, turning round at me and shrugging. ‘I know the laws of the house by now.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘not such a bad place to be, bed.’ And was going on, dropping my voice: ‘I say, old chap, are you planning—’ when he brought me up short.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m sleeping alone, thanks.’
‘Oh, well,’ I said, ‘in your case—’
‘And so’s the kid,’ he broke in, nodding towards Dalwood. ‘Or I’ll have the bastard up in front of the ADO.’
‘Please yourself, old man,’ I said. ‘Times have changed. Many’s the ADO who’s had his outlook broadened in this house, but enough said.’
And then I was getting up to go and pumpship off the edge of the veranda, wondering what would become of the country when even the patrol officers were turning into missionaries. But suddenly all the women flew at me screaming like birds, and knocked me back on the sofa beside Cawdor again.
?’ I shouted at them, just as Dalwood, lurching to his feet, bounded into the middle of them.
‘Fire!’ bellowed Dalwood.
I said to Cawdor: ‘Which one this time?’
He leaned forward to see, and said: ‘It’s Saliba. Seems someone dropped a match on her skirt.’
‘O, her new skirt,’ Naibusi cried. ‘O Saliba. Never mind.’
‘Salib’,’ Cawdor called out, ‘we will buy you a skirt in Wayouyo.’
But Saliba was too busy to hear him, wrapped up in a battle which had been going on all this time between her and Dalwood. The boy was beating at the burning skirt, and she was shrieking: ‘Go away with your hands, ravisher!’
‘I think he knows, old man,’ I said to Cawdor. ‘I think he’s been there before.’
He turned his head, with that peculiar, guileless expression on his face and laughed at me. ‘Ah, Mak,’ he said. ‘You’re so abominable, you’re irreplaceable.’
‘We’re all irreplaceable,’ I said. ‘The Bible tells us so. As for abominable, I don’t know what it means.’
In the middle of the room Saliba broke away from Dalwood and ran for the passage, holding the blackened stubble together with her hands. From the doorway she screamed one word at Dalwood, who stood, huge and bewildered and pleased with himself, like a lighthouse among the waves of grass-skirted women.
!’ she shouted. ‘Insatiable fornicator.’
Then she thundered away. We heard her laughing as far as the veranda steps.
That night Naibusi woke and called for me. She called from inside the hut: ‘Saliba, are you there?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am here, outside the door. I cannot sleep.’
In the light of the moon the house was nearly white, with black lines. The trunks of the palms were white too, and the branches were like feathers, white and black.
‘What are you doing?’ Naibusi called.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I am looking at the house, that is all. Misa Dolu’udi has put out his lamp.’
Naibusi rolled over on her mat and laughed, inside the dark hut. ‘
!’ she said; ‘you cannot sleep because of the young Dimdim?’
’, Naibus’,’ I said. ‘I cannot sleep because I am crying for my skirt.’
‘I have a skirt and will give it to you,’ Naibusi said. ‘Now come and lie down. It is the middle of the night.’
‘Very well,’ I said. ‘Thank you truly, Naibus’.’ Then I said: ‘Naibus’, Misa Kodo cannot sleep, like me. He has not put out his lamp.’
As I told Naibusi that, Misa Kodo came to the window of his room. He was there all black against the light of the lamp, looking out. I thought that he was looking towards me, and stepped back quickly into the door. But truly he could not have seen me, and why would he have tried? No. He was only standing there, staring out, with his forehead on the glass of the window that does not open. And all the time a big black moth that came from the frangipani flowers was beating and beating against the glass to get in.
When you wake the air is already clammy, the sheet sticks to your back, but if there is a breeze your skin when you get up clenches as if with cold, and you feel new because the morning is so new. In this room, with the shutters open on the sea, there is always that dawn breeze, always the sound of palms, so that you hear the coolness at the same time as you feel it crawling over your hide. And that is the reason, I suppose, that the old man is up and about before anybody, and wanders in here to lean on the sills and watch the sea.
When I opened my eyes he was there. I woke because he was there, and I lay in the musty camp-bed taking him in by the grey-blue light. I had to remember him, he was still strange, still a bit weird to me then. Stooped in front of the shutter, in shorts, with dead-white delicate skin, he made me think of some fragile kid, the kind that might grow up to be a genius if the big kids allow him to survive. That is the look he must always have had, of being breakable. I can guess that because I have seen his son, the only child, after all, he has ever fathered, who is as pretty as an angel and nearly forty.
I got up to join him, the grass matting cool under my feet and the breeze that had swept the night heat from the room cold on my sweat. When I came to the shutter beside him, he started and jerked about.
?’ he said. His eyes seemed for a moment as big and round as his glasses, baby-blue. Then: ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes. Young Dalwood.’
‘Sorry. I thought you’d heard me.’
‘Getting a bit deaf, old man,’ he said. ‘Forgot you were here, as a matter of fact. Sleep all right?’
I told him yes, stretching and shivering a little in the air from the wide shutters. ‘You don’t stay long in the sack.’
‘It’s the only time of day,’ he said, ‘for old men.’
The rank grass under the palms was warming up with the morning, and the smell of it came in puffs into the room. Butcher-birds called and echoed. In spite of the breeze, the sea, of that turquoise of calm lagoons, looked congealed, like ice, and the white
sat fast in the mirror of her own shadow. On the islet behind her the palms in grey-green waves dipped and rolled.
‘Campbell and I planted that lot,’ said the old man, pointing. ‘Fifty-one years ago, it must have been. Before your father was born, I dare say.’
‘Campbell?’ I said. ‘Who is Campbell?’
‘My partner,’ he said, ‘once upon a time. He stuck it out for a year. Then he took a trip with a trader, haven’t heard from him since. Funny way to treat a friend.’
‘Perhaps he died,’ I said.
‘Yes, probably. It was easy,’ he seemed to remember suddenly, ‘to die in those days.’
I looked round at him for a clue how to take that remark, and went on looking. Apart from his glasses and Bombay bloomers he was naked. I thought of the White Rabbit, skinned.
‘So he came with you in the beginning,’ I said. ‘The two of you built the house.’
‘No, we had a camp then,’ the old man said, ‘on the islet. But he would have, of course. We meant to, if he’d come back. I waited a fair time, a year, I think. Then I crossed over the lagoon and built here.’
‘Just you by yourself? You and the Kailuana people?’
‘There was one foreigner, my houseboy, Naibusi’s husband. He was a mainland man. But no white man, no. There’s never been another white man on Kailuana.’
All that time he went on gazing at the islet, as if it was a place he could never get to again.
‘You must have missed him,’ I said. ‘Your partner, Campbell.’
‘I suppose, at first,’ he said, not much interested. ‘Because, you know, he was a white man. But soon that didn’t matter. When I built the house, I meant it—d’you know?—to show him that I wouldn’t need white men any more.’
He had not sounded for some time as if it was me he was talking to, but all of a sudden he turned his head and glittered at me, through the thick lenses. He bared his mail-order teeth. ‘You’re a white man,’ he said. ‘Cawdor’s not.’
‘What am I supposed to make of that?’
‘Almost not. Not for much longer.’
He was looking very significant. I pored over the tight old face, trying to make out what he might be hinting. ‘I don’t get you,’ I said; and the bottled eyes, still on me, seemed to become for a moment almost fatherly, almost concerned. ‘I wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘invest too much in Cawdor. He’s a hobby with you. But he’s going away.’