Read Visitants Online

Authors: Randolph Stow


Visitants (9 page)

But that morning, in the MacDonnell’s mouldering spare room, before we left for Kaga, he looked simply tired, no longer wild inside. And I thought: He’s got used to it, he’s going back, to the way it must have been before.

‘Tim,’ he said, ‘you
to go to Kaga, do you?’

‘You know me, I want to go everywhere.’

‘It’s not work,’ he said, ‘just a Sunday drive. I found something in an old patrol report I’ve been planning to ask them about.’

‘I won’t understand a word,’ I said, ‘but I’ll get to see Kaga.’

‘That’s my boy adventurer,’ he said. ‘Listen, you go and have kai, then check that Sayam and the crew are ready to leave. And chase up Osana.’

‘Ah, shit, Alistair. Do we have to take Osana with us, even on a Sunday?’

‘Yeah, we do. Otherwise his belly will be red-hot. It’s called diplomacy.’

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll sort it,’ letting him see my martyr’s face through the closing door. ‘Oh, let me tell you something that’s in store for you: the MacDonnell’s small-house.’

‘I know it well,’ he said. ‘A man of your size ought to get danger money.’

‘There’s a pit in the coral that goes clear to the centre of the earth, and it looks like nothing’s keeping the seat up but the white ants holding hands.’

‘That’s the way the MacDonnell’s going to go when he goes. Poor old bugger, what a tomb.’

That must have come over to him as a vivid picture, because when I left him he was lying back laughing, looking about twelve years old.

A gust of wind came down the passage as I turned from the door, all the scents of the morning on it, the sea and the grass, frangipani flowers and chickens, the leaves that have every smell between vanilla and hay. On the veranda I filled my lungs with it, the sweetness and saltness of the island after dawn. I sat at the table by the edge of the veranda and gazed down, through the rough flapping leaves of a pawpaw, on the bright lagoon, and the spotless
that was going to take us through all that freshness to something fresh again.

From where I was I could smell ripe pawpaws among the leaves. Then another scent cut across that, and I looked round and saw the girl behind me, the greyish sprigs of sulumwoya withering in her arm-bands.

‘Hi, Saliba,’ I said. ‘Have a good night?’

The English words must have meant something to her. Her face, which might be plain if it ever had time to be, began to beam good will, and she laughed all over.

‘Good,’ she said. Her voice is deep and high at the same time, coming from the back of her throat. ‘You good, taubada?’

‘Good too much,’ I said. ‘Saliba, you me go long Kaga?’

‘E-e-e-e,’ she cried, giving wild nods of her head, skirt and everything. ‘
Bi ta los’
,’ she said, which I knew by that time meant: ‘Let’s go.’

In her hands was a tray which she held pressed hard to her diaphragm, with two breasts on it and half a pawpaw on the plate that said
South Australian Government Railways.
She came beside me and put down the tray on the table. As she reached to set the plate in my place, I leaned down and rubbed my cheek against a brown susu.

‘Taubada!’ she yelled, and leaped away, nearly shapeless with giggles. ‘
Kam mwasila

Then we looked each other over, quite a time, I innocent, she modest as a flower.

She must have been searching for the words, and at last found them, and murmured shyly, in English: ‘Taubada, you fuck off.’


O, Kaga. O, the sea that day when we went to Kaga. The wind all the time blowing over the
, the frigate-birds following. The shouting and the bustle of the people going to Kaga that morning. And Timi telling me with his eyes that he wanted me, and I saying, by looking: I do not know, perhaps.

All the people were singing. Even Alistea, Misa Kodo, he was singing with the people, lying on the roof of the
And the people lit a fire at the front of the
and cooked yams in a pot, and Timi and Alistea ate yams with the people. Osana said: ‘Soon Misa Kodo will puke like Mount Lamington,’ but Alistea did not, he sang.

And when we came to Kaga, under the cliff, it was like flowers and lories in the water. The sea was like the window in Misa Makadoneli’s house when we have washed it, and the corals and the fish were different from in any other place, so bright, because the water is not so clear in any other place. And the people of Kaga were shouting on the cliffs and scrambling down their ladders, and jumping up and down on the rocks, full of joy and not truly able to believe what their eyes saw: a Dimdim boat, with Dimdims, and tobacco, that none of them had smoked for two years.

When the dinghy was in the water Alistea and Timi got into it. I was still standing on the veranda of the
, looking at the corals and the fish, and I was getting ready to jump and swim. But Timi stretched out his arm to me, and said: ‘Saliba,
ku ma
.’ So I put my hand in his hand and looked down into his face, which is not beautiful but was kind then, a Dimdim’s face, red, with sky-coloured eyes, very strange. I held his hand and looked at his face turned up towards me and was frightened suddenly, and thought: He will not look after me, he will not care. But he smiled at me with his big teeth, and I thought: This is a benevolent man truly. So I jumped down into his arms and sat in the dinghy where he pointed, and I and Timi rowed to Kaga side by side.


The people of Kaga are more ignorant than a pig. They know nothing, they see nobody. No white man goes to Kaga, it is too far, and there is no beach and no anchorage, and besides no water and no food. They live like gulls or crabs, those people, drinking coconut-milk, eating fish. But a long time ago some white sailors came and taught them to smoke tobacco, and now always they sit on the top of their cliffs biting their fingernails and saying: When will we smoke again, this year, next year, ever? O, they say, our desire is very strong that a steamer should come, full to the deck with tobacco, before the year after next. And because once, all that long time ago, they gave chickens to the sailors and had tobacco for their reward, they care jealously for the chickens that they do not kill, and gather up and hoard the eggs that they do not eat, and it is a crazy place. There are more chickens on Kaga than there are people, and more hens’ eggs in the grass than nits’ eggs in the people’s hair. They were idiots always, but I did not know how crazy until Mister Cawdor, reading from his book, began to ask questions. And then everybody knew, and those madmen of Kaga were ready to jump off their cliffs with shame.

When we came ashore from the dinghy the old headman of the village was still climbing down the ladder, and I thought he would fall and break his neck on the rocks, he was in so much hurry for the tobacco he expected Mister Cawdor to bring. He came down the palm-trunks and the ledges like a monitor lizard. They can only come to the sea by those notched palm-trunks, the Kaga people. Their village is up above, in the centre of the island, which is hollowed like a bird’s nest. That is where they scratch around together, trying to grow tobacco and stealing it from one another as soon as a leaf shows above ground; and that is where they came cackling from when they saw the Dimdim boat. Or perhaps Mister Cawdor was right, that they began to run long before, when they smelled his cigarette.

They are very poor, those people, it is disgusting to see them, so poor and ignorant. The men did not have a rami or a pair of shorts among them, not even the headman. Every man was dressed in a yavi, without even a leather belt or a twist of cloth to hold it up, and their ignorant manners and the way they said their words made me laugh.

‘Taubada,’ I said to Mister Cawdor, ‘how do you say yavi in English?’

Mister Dalwood said: ‘Bulletproof jockstrap,’ and grinned at his joke, whatever it was.

On the little piece of beach, under a mango tree whose shadow covered all of it, the Kaga people came panting to meet the Dimdims. They came bent to the ground, and crouched low at the Dimdims’ feet, because to people like that any Dimdim is a greater chief than Dipapa, and no common man’s head is allowed to be as high. The old headman crouched among the rest, and looked up at Mister Cawdor as if he hoped to become his wife.

‘Taubada,’ that old man said at last, ‘the people are very glad.’ At least, that is what it was in his mind to say, but he spoke it this way: ‘The peopen an vanny ganad.’

The headman talked only to Mister Cawdor, and looked only at him, because anybody could see that Mister Cawdor was the leader and would have the most tobacco. But the other men hardly looked at Mister Cawdor, even for politeness, they were so amazed by Mister Dalwood, and everywhere I heard them whispering and exclaiming that the young Dimdim was like a house.

‘Yes, truly, my nephew is like a house,’ said Mister Cawdor, ‘but he is a child yet, and will grow. Later on he will be as tall as Darkness-of-Evening, the yam-house of Dipapa.’

That was the kind of nonsense that Mister Cawdor talked in the villages, and he thought too that it was nonsense, but he did it to astonish the people. And always it made us laugh, the ones who came with him.

When he began to speak, I and Mister Dalwood and Kailusa and Biyu, we all turned to look at the faces of the men squatting around him.

At first their faces said: This Dimdim is talking, we must pretend to listen, and by and by somebody will interpret.

Then their faces said: What was that word that the Dimdim spoke?

Then their faces said: O! We understand every word that he speaks! ‘Listen,’ they called, ‘he is talking the language.’

And in the end it was like in every village the first time. They were shouting and laughing, and going
! and
! and smiling at him like a relation. Their bellies were moved towards him, it is the way with ignorant people. Many of them came sidling up to him and touched his hand, or stroked the Dimdim hair on his arms and legs, which all such people find so strange. It was very comical and stupid to see, and even the miserable Kailusa was smiling, pleased with himself because other people were pleased with his taubada. It was for that that Sayam called him Misa Kodo’s mother.

‘They are so
,’ Mister Dalwood cried out, and I decided that I would ask Mister Cawdor the meaning of that word, because Mister Dalwood could never explain.

And meanwhile Mister Cawdor went on talking in the language with the headman. He said that he did not come as Government, because Kaga was not the business of Osiwa, but only to see the island and gossip a little with the people. And the headman said that he was as pleased to see Mister Cawdor as if Mister Cawdor was a
partner bringing a famous arm-shell.

Then the headman said that he had a message for the King: that the VC, his own brother, was dead a year ago, and that the people wanted that man’s son to wear the King’s badge and be the next VC if the King would say yes, and that he wished the King to send a new rami and shirt for the VC because the old ones had rotted away. Mister Cawdor said that he would tell that message to the Government, and that the King had been dead for seven years, and that the commander of all villages was now a woman, the Kuwini. When they heard that the men became very excited, and asked questions about the Queen and about her husband, and told Mister Cawdor of their contempt for such a person who would let his wife command everything. But Mister Cawdor said what he always said: Our custom is different. And they all nodded their heads and looked wise and said: Yes, truly, it is different, your custom.

Then Mister Cawdor said: ‘Let us go, let us see your village.’ And over his shoulder he called: ‘Kailusa, go to the dinghy, bring the small tin box. In it there is tobacco.’

O my lord Jesus, what a sigh went up under the mango tree. I thought we should all be buried alive in leaves.


After Alistair and the headman had gone up the first ladder and were on the ledge, I said to Saliba: ‘You go now,’ pointing, and she looked at me half refusing, and then just moved her eyes towards Osana. I knew what she was saying, the danger from that bastard if he thought something was going to happen, but I wanted just that chance to see her before me in the line. Not my boss, trailing me in his wake, but her, thinking of me. And she saw that I meant it, and turned, and went up the notched pole as neat as a bush-rat up a tree. I watched her skirt with the stiff waistband flicking from side to side and her rounded brown calves marked with drying sea-water and sand. And I thought if I take the risk I will be someone to somebody, I will be more true. If I am real to her, if a woman like this can care.

From the ledge she looked back and down at me, so serious, her face was changed. And I thought yes, yes, she will care, I will be a man to her. Only for a little while, but she will care.

So I felt an excitement, climbing the pole, because even at that moment I was going to join her and she was waiting, and nobody knew of the going and the waiting but the two of us there on the cliff. And I thought of what might be ahead, too, but not much then of her, hardly of her at all, except that she seemed kind, and of course I would be kind.

When I came to the top of the cliff she had not waited for me, but had gone on after Alistair and the headman and was walking behind them on the path. And I let the distance between us stay, because Osana was following, and because, anyway, neither of us had anything yet to say, or a language to say it in. I kept my place in the line and watched them ahead, the black-headed man in white clothes and the brown girl in the flicking red skirt. I saw how soft the skirt was as it brushed the backs of her knees, and seemed to feel it myself when the waistband dipped and rose with the swing of her hips.

I couldn’t have said, then, why I watched them so possessively, those two. But I think now that he had already told me. Because once he said to me that the most tender word in their language was
, which is to keep watch over, guard, and has in it the word for hand. So to watch over someone was to handle or stretch out a hand, he said, and also, he thought, to hold in one’s hands, to have one’s hands full. That, anyway, is what he made of it; and I think when I looked after them and thought about them in that way I was holding them too, so as not to be empty-handed.

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