Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
‘Alistair?’ I said. ‘You’re joking. Going where?’
‘Just—away,’ the old man said, with a shrug. ‘I don’t know how else to explain it.’ And by saying that he must have thought that he had rounded off the conversation rather neatly; and, besides, he was finished with me and the sea. ‘None of my business, after all,’ he said, wandering through the splintery room towards the passage to the veranda. ‘Can’t be bothered. That’s what age does, old man, if you want to know. No curiosity any more.’
‘Mak,’ I said, ‘what are you getting at? Has he told you he’s going?’
But he only called back from the doorway: ‘Kaikai on the veranda in half an hour.’ Then I heard his bare feet scuffing off over the grass mats, and was left staring at the last thing he had passed by, his little library of advanced sex, which it had been a mistake, apparently, to see as a sign of curiosity.
Benoni and Naibusi and I were sitting on the veranda beside the table where the Dimdims eat their food. Naibusi and I sat on the floor, but Benoni was sitting on Misa Makadoneli’s chair, because he is of the family of chieftains and must keep his head above ours. But he was not proud, and had brought us betelnut which we were chewing, and talked to us while he smoked a cigarette.
Naibusi was cutting up sticks of tobacco very fine with the bread-knife. She was putting the shredded stuff into a Dimdim tobacco tin.
‘Old woman,’ said Benoni, ‘I want a stick of tobacco.’
‘Not one stick,’ said Naibusi. ‘That is forbidden.’
‘Misa Makadoneli does not count all his tobacco,’ said Benoni.
‘Truly, he does,’ said Naibusi, laughing. ‘But it is not his tobacco. Misa Kodo will smoke this here.’
‘No!’ cried Benoni, showing his teeth. ‘Misa Kodo will smoke trade tobacco?’
‘Yes,’ said Naibusi, ‘always. And he chews.’
‘I think,’ said Benoni, ‘I think that Misa Kodo is one of us. Some people say that he is a black man truly.’
‘That is gammon,’ I said. ‘His face is dark because of the sun, but I have watched him under the shower, through the hole in the cookhouse wall, and his arse is white like shells.’
‘Your shame, Saliba,’ said Naibusi.
‘Why should I not watch the Dimdims?’ I said. ‘All the women watch the Dimdims.
! Misa Dolu’udi has a cock as big as this.’
‘I have a cock as big as this,’ said Benoni.
‘You lie,’ I said. ‘Let me see.’
!’ cried Benoni, putting up his hands and pretending to be frightened. ‘I am not a
.’ All the men in the villages pretend to be frightened of the women in Misa Makadoneli’s house, because of that night last year when we tore off the rami of a mainland policeman and raped him.
‘Saliba,’ said Naibusi, ‘you have a bad tongue.’
‘I have not a tongue as bad as Misa Kodo,’ I said. ‘He knows that we watch him from the cookhouse when he is under the shower, and he turns his back and shouts shameful things.’
‘What does he say?’ asked Benoni.
‘I will not tell,’ I said. ‘His shame, to talk like that to a woman.’
‘Truly,’ said Benoni, ‘you are a crazy person, Salib’.’
He leaned his arms on the Dimdims’ table and yawned, and then stretched his neck to look over the veranda rail at the
below. In his hair he had a hibiscus flower, and on his chest the boar-tusk necklace that is worth more yams than a man could count.
‘I am bored,’ he said. ‘When will Misa Kodo get up?’
Benoni is a most beautiful man. If he would sleep with me, I would tell everyone from Muyuwa to Dimdim.
‘By and by he will get up,’ said Naibusi, still chopping Misa Kodo’s tobacco, and rubbing it between her palms and packing it away. ‘Let him sleep. I think he is ill.’
‘He is different,’ Benoni agreed.
‘I will speak to him,’ Naibusi said. ‘I will tell him he should swallow quinine, then he will be well.’
I was going to say something to Benoni, to make him laugh, about Naibusi and her Dimdim magic, when I heard the old man’s feet in the passage, dragging a little on the mats the way that they do. So I hissed to Benoni instead: ‘
Ku la. Misa Makadoneli bi ma.
‘Truly?’ whispered Benoni, and he stood up quickly and was going to go away down the steps. But Misa Makadoneli came suddenly out of the passage and saw him.
‘You stay,’ Misa Makadoneli called out, and he sounded angry, because he has made this law that nobody may come on his veranda unless he says yes. ‘You stay. What man are you?’
So Benoni did not go away any more, but turned at the top of the steps to face Misa Makadoneli, looking very beautiful and tall against the sea.
‘I,’ he said in a loud voice. ‘Benoni, taubada.’
I looked at Misa Makadoneli, who is so little and shrivelled and white and old, and wondered that he was not ashamed to stand before Benoni. But he was not. He was only angry, and you could see how he hated Benoni. Because Benoni had been away to the Navy at Manus and spoke Pidgin and was respected in every village and did not respect Misa Makadoneli.
‘Benoni?’ said Misa Makadoneli, looking very fierce, and for a moment his glasses flashed like windows in the sun so that you would have thought he had eyes of fire. ‘What do you want here, Benoni?’
‘I want to talk to my friend,’ said Benoni, ‘Misa Kodo.’
‘Talk with him in the village,’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘I do not wish to see you in my house.’ Then he stretched out his arm, which is like the shoot of a yam before it has escaped to the light
and said: ‘Go, adulterer.’
Benoni just smiled at Misa Makadoneli. ‘Very good,’ he said, but still his back was turned to the steps.
Then Naibusi spoke to Misa Makadoneli. She did not look at him, and her voice was so quiet that I did not think he would hear, yet he heard. ‘Taubada,’ she said, ‘do not abuse him. He is a good young man, and later he will command all the villages.’
‘That man?’ said Misa Makadoneli, pointing at Benoni like a turd on the path. ‘He will command nothing. His uncle has said it, Dipapa has said it. He is unclean. He has slept with his uncle’s wife.’
I shouted at Misa Makadoneli: ‘Taubada, you talk gammon. Dipapa is too old to sleep with a woman, and Senubeta is an age like me. That old man has never slept with her. He did not marry her for that. He has thirteen wives so as to have fifty brothers-in-law to fill his yam-house. I do not understand your mind. Do you want Senubeta never to have a man? I think truly she did love Benoni.’
‘Saliba, enough,’ said Benoni, sounding ashamed because I spoke of such things, and I think also because he did not any longer love his uncle’s wife.
‘Yes, truly, enough,’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘Go to the cookhouse, Saliba, to your work. You are insulting. And you, Benoni, go to your house, if you have a house. I know that Dipapa forbids you to live at Wayouyo.’
‘You are wrong, taubada,’ Benoni said, and he smiled at Misa Makadoneli. ‘My house is again at Wayouyo. My uncle has forgotten—those doings.’
‘I think you are lying,’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘Dipapa told me you will never command the villages. He told me that when he dies there will be no chief. Dipapa is the last chief of Kailuana. Like me. I am the last King.’
‘That is my uncle’s word, taubada,’ Benoni said; ‘but it is not my uncle’s affair.’
‘Ssss,’ said Misa Makadoneli. ‘So it is your affair,
‘Taubada,’ Benoni said, ‘while my uncle is alive, he talks. While you are alive, you talk. When the time comes that you do not exist, that my uncle does not exist, you will not be talking, you two. If the people want a chief, there will be a chief. If they want a Dimdim King, there will be a King. The villages do not hear dead men.’
‘Do not quarrel with him, taubada,’ Naibusi said. ‘That is not gammon. Everything will be different when we are not here, you and I.’
But the old man was passionate because a black man had spoken to him so proudly, and because he does love the people and wishes that the villages should always be like today and like yesterday. It is craziness, the craziness of old men. Better for him and Dipapa that they said in their mind: ‘We shall not command in the time when we are at Budibudi.’ But they hated Benoni’s thoughts, that he brought from Manus with his Pidgin, and their desire was that when they were dead the villages should turn to stone.
‘Benoni,’ the old man said, ‘go. You shall not speak with anyone in my house. You shall not walk on the ground of my village. You are not of a chief’s family, not now. You are a commoner and a shamed man. Go to your house.’
But Benoni still smiled, and talked to the old man in a gentle voice. ‘Taubada,’ he said, ‘do not be afraid because of me. I am a benevolent man and like your nephew. Now you understand my mind.’
Then Benoni turned and went down the steps. I saw his thighs, and then his shoulders, and at last his beautiful head, shining against the sea.
I went down the passage and knocked on Alistair’s door. A grey door, like all the rest in the house, furry as a copper-stick, set a little askew in a grey wall.
I was still hot with the MacDonnell, for he seemed to be one more who thought that life was all way above my head, and by then I would have liked the chance to say some of the things I was muttering in my mind. Such as that it was tough on the young, this generation-gap, because by the time I was his age and fit to be talked to, he would be a hundred and twenty-nine, and all that much more experienced.
I heard Alistair behind the door shout something in the language, thinking probably that it was Naibusi or Saliba, and lifted the rust-eaten latch and went in. The window of the little room, the only one in the house with glass, was not built to be opened. The air held the heat of the day before, and it smelt of mildew.
He lay on yellowed sheets, in a grey bed, puffing the smoke of his nailrod tobacco at a ceiling that was a mirror-image of the floor. He lay inside a cube of grey boards whose lines went round and round him like a cage. I thought that if it had been me, I would have been out and away from a room like that as soon as I was conscious. But not him; he sprawled there in his underpants like a zoo animal that had given up.
‘You sure you can breathe?’ I said.
He turned his head on the yam-coloured pillow and just looked at me, impartially, in a way I was used to.
‘You don’t like it here?’ he said at last.
‘Yeah, I like it. Man, it’s interesting.’
‘Good. You ready for Kaga?’
‘Well, I’ve showered and so on. I don’t see any feverish activity in here.’
‘It’s the Sabbath,’ he said, leaning over to an up-ended kerosene case beside the bed and stubbing out his cigarette in the clam-shell that was there for the visitors. Then something caught his eye through the dusty window, the light on the pink frangipani flowers outside, and he lifted his head and looked at them, intently. He would do that. His eyes all of a sudden opened to something, his face changed. He concentrated like no one else I have ever seen, on things I never saw at all.
‘Nice,’ he said. ‘Wish the window would get broken. The flowers might kill the mould.’
‘Alistair,’ I said, ‘why would Mak think that you’re going away?’
He looked round at me over his shoulder, still with that intentness on his face. ‘Mak said that?’
‘He said it. But it’s not true, is it?’
‘You know it isn’t,’ he said. Then he turned his head again, but I heard in his voice that he was smiling to himself. ‘Mak thinks I’m going troppo.’
‘So do some people at Osiwa. If you’d just take some sort of ordinary care of yourself—’
‘Ah, the people at Osiwa,’ he shrugged. ‘What would they do without me to talk about?’ He rolled back on the pillow and examined the ceiling, his hands behind his head. ‘Troppo,’ he said to himself. ‘
Ma non troppo. Agitato ma non troppo
‘What are you raving about?’
he explained. ‘Too much.’
‘I know what it means,’ I said. ‘Jesus, you talk to me as if I was some bush-kanaka just come in from the back of Wabag.’
‘All right,’ he said, ‘if you know so much, have you ever heard a piece of music marked
‘I don’t think it’s possible,’ I said.
‘I think it is. I want to hear it. At the end, all the instruments would be in bits.’
‘I’ll bet it’s been done,’ I said.
‘Ah, but this would be tropical,’ he said. ‘I can see it,’ he said. ‘The glue would melt in the heat, and the wood would warp, and the strings would rot away with damp and snap, one after another. The brass would turn green, and mildew would be growing on the woodwinds. When it was finished, the instruments would be thrown in a heap, and they’d begin to sprout and turn into the trees they were made from. And reeds and vines, and the wind would blow through them and the birds would come. That part I’d mark
‘You know something?’ I said. ‘This is a University-refectory-type conversation you’re having.’
Then he made the noise that he made sometimes when I actually got through to him, that went something like: ‘Wo-o-oh,’ grinning at me from the pillow and looking pretty much like anyone else.
Watching him, I tried to remember what he had been like when I first set eyes on him. Was he better, had I done him any good? And it seemed to me that he was, that I had. Because that first evening he had been far gone, like one of his cracking instruments, ready to fly apart. I remembered standing by a shutter in the big room, our living-room at Osiwa, looking out on the lagoon in the last of the light, hearing the voices in his bedroom. I listened to Kailusa trying, in the language, to persuade him to come out and take delivery of me, and to him saying, I could guess pretty rude things about the snotty-nosed cadet he’d never wanted to have and had tried to keep away. At last Kailusa came back with the lamp into the dim room, and said to me: ‘Taubada come, taubada,’ and I looked and he was there. His stockings were round his ankles and his hair was on end, and his eyes were like that man Two-bob’s, Metusela’s, so wide that they showed white around the brown. Even at that hour, six in the evening, he had a bouquet of rum. For a long time, half a minute, we stared at each other, with Kailusa between us holding the lamp, and the first thing I thought was: he’s dangerous.