The Expatriate : Billy Blue
The Expatriate – Billy Blue
First published in Oct/Nov 1984, this story won a Billy Blue Literary Award for fiction in 1985. For those readers who have been asking for longer posts, this is for you!
When I think of Brian Nanicull, I see him standing on the verandah of his plantation house as the sun rises over Maloe Bay. I see his red hair and beard, his freckled complexion above the eight or ten curly heads which surround him. He is discussing their various ailments in pidgin English. Brian administers Chloroquin to a shivering dark skinned Buka, one of his plantation workers, with a bad dose of malaria. Someone requests that he open the store and the little group marches down the steps to a corrugated iron outhouse which sells everything from thongs to rice. The day’s work has begun
The odour of fish and breadfruit chips wafts from the kitchen, separated from the main house by a covered verandah like the downstroke of a T. Ariou arrives on a motorbike, clad in a flowered lap-lap, carrying a ripe pawpaw and a handful of limes to bring out the flavour of the piquant red fruit, the first course at breakfast.
Nia his wife is dressing the children for school, while baby Marcus plays at her feet. Brian arrives and beeps the horn.
“School Kev, anyone else for the ride?”
The car bumps along the coral sand road, past rows of palms, dodging coconuts and comes to a few houses on the outskirts of a village. A chicken squawks across the road, an old man waves, a soman is sweeping the coral sand in front of her house with a short sago palm boom.
Stopping in front of Nia’s parents house Brian asks:
“How is Fili this morning.”
“He’s much better, fever all gone.”
Smiling faces surround the car, hands waving, shy grins. Brian checks his patient. Grandma takes baby Marcus. We move off again and the car grinds its way over the coral shingle to the school.
The collection of buildings is built in part of native style materials – the roof is palm thatches, the walls are woven bamboo. A blackboard adorns one wall, rows of desks sit on the coral sand floor.There are no windows – the trade winds have free access here. Kev jumps out of the utility tray onto the white sand and runs through the green and red leaved crotons ringing the playground. Children are shouting, running, kicking footballs, drinking and splashing of the water pump. The bell rings. The silence is broken by the rustling of coconut palms, the drone of insects and the cry of terns.
The road crosses the airstrip which Brian examines minutely, feeling the sand between his fingers – its dry, coral sand drains well. The wind sock points northwest and the air is hot and heavy as we enter the surrounding jungle. Beside the road are two taro beds, indentation of marshy ground, patches of cultivation among the jungle vines and creepers. A man is cutting into the fleshy big leaved plants with a bush knife. Served boiled or made into a type of bread, it forms the stable food of the islanders. Sweet potato, breadfruit, bananas, fish and chicken add variety.
The road burst forth into the open vista of coconut plantation.The coconut palm is to the islanders what bamboo is in Asia – a plant whose utility is as varied as man’s ingenuity. Houses, roofs and walls are thatched with palm leaves, sago palm is better but scarce, a woven hat provides shade, a sleeping mat not much comfort – the green leaves are woven into dishes which won’t burn, green nuts provide a cool fruity drink, while the meat of the nut flavours chicken, taro and fish. Cophra from the dried meat of the coconut provides income to buy what the plant itself cannot furbish.
Returning to the plantation, Brian starts the generator. In the house, fans begin to whirl, the radio becomes operational, Nia begins to iron.
“Wuvulu, Wewak, do you read me Wewak, over”.
“Come in Wuvulu, over.”
“Brian Nanicull here. Do you have a flight coming over today?”
“Yes. What would you like us to bring Brian?”
” There’ll be an order to pick up at Burns Philp – medical supplies – and don’t forget the South Pacific lager and the mail.”
“How’s the strip?”
“We’ll be there around 12, over and out.”
Brian drives out past the well and the cophra drying shed, past the corrugated iron houses of the Sepik boys, the plantation workers, to an area of plantation being cleared of undergrowth. Small dark figures, hair garnished with red hibiscus wield flashing bush knives, slashing to the accompaniment of high voices engaged in pidgin chit chat, interrupted at intervals by peals of laughter.
Further into the plantation, crabs scurry before the car, retreating into holes just before the wheels. A figure grows larger between the trees. A wave, a smile and work continues. He aims a coconut at a stake driven into the ground, twists the nut off the stake and strikes again a little further around the nut. Three strikes and the coconut is dehusked. The husk fibre joins a rapidly growing pile. The nut is split by a sharp blow from the back of the machete and white milk splashes on brown feet as the two halves join another pile beside a sugar bag of half moons, threatening to burst its string and spill the contents on to the pile. A tractor and tray pass and Simon heaves his bag on top of the 20 or so others on board.
Brian follows the tractor back to the drying sheds. Here the old men stoke the fires in the corrugated iron hothouse. Coconut sells and husks are used to fire the eternal flame, barely visible in the smoky steam bath atmosphere. Outside women are separating the dried coconut from the shell with a flick of the bush knife. Hessian bags strung between bars like a body on a trampoline are filled with dried cophra. Row upon row of rough brown bags await the arrival of the boat which will take them to market.
A faint drone in the distances signals the arrival of the plane.
“Balus, he come.”
The utility fills quickly quickly, brown bodies sitting all around, standing in the middle, holding each other. Bicycles, motorbikes, people running walking, the traffic is heavy, where yesterday only a car and a few bikes had been seen all day.
The Cessna 402 touches down then bumps along the runway. Driving across the grass with blades whirling wind grass and dust cover the waiting crowd. The hatch opens to reveal an Aussie in shorts, long socks, followed by two contemporaries,
“Brian , I’d like you to meet Andy Williams. He’s resident doctor at Wewak Hospital now, and this is David Olwin, government officer.’
Two Wuvuluvians returning from hospital are greeted by handshakes and chatter while the cargo is unloaded.
“Come to the house and have a cold beer” and addressing the crowd:
” You tell ‘im, any mari sick, bring ‘im to house.”
A shiny roof flashes between the tree trunks, thatching over the eaves stops excess water overflowing the gutters and splashing through the net walls – which keep out insects but allow the pale almost transparent geckos to hold on with the buttons on their fingers. The verandahs are the living quarters in this climate, the cool oasis in a vista of greenery and blue sea. A beer in the cane chairs and pancakes and tea for lunch is tropical living at its best. A knock on the door is the cue for the doctor to begin work.
“Would you like to go fishing later?’ Brian asks.
“Fine. What do you think. Pat has sold out to a group from Japan?”
“He’s probably jumping the gun a bit, but a lot of expatriots are getting out.”
“Well, some have reason to, but I’m surprised at Pat. He’s been here nearly 30 years, some of his boys have been with him as long. Well,I’ll be right, Nia has land in the village and I’ve built a house. The trouble is if the plantation goes, I won’t have an income.”
Brian gathers up lines, gaff, his odd assortment of lures. As the feathers wear out, Brian substitutes the brightest scraps of dress material he can find and these improvised lures work better than the originals. The boat shed houses a 4 meter aluminium boat which is launched and sets out through the narrow channel.
“I’m getting wet. there’s a hole under my feet.”
“That’s all right, a rivet’s popped out – it’ll keep you cool.”
As the lines are out and the lures are no longer skipping the surfac, Brian removes the bungs from the boat.
“What are you doing?”
“While we’re trolling, I’ll keep the bungs out, that’ll keep the water flow constant – into and out of the boat” says Brian.
A strike! The fish is circling the boat and Brian must stand to avoid entangling the line aropud the others. He pulls a metre long fish into the water rapidly filling the boat.
“I forgot the bungs, we’d better get going fast.”
Brian informs his startled crew The lake in the bilge gradually shrinks as they ead back across the bay. In the distance dark heads bob in silver streams of sunlight. Long poles reach out over the reef edge seeking dinner.
“You know the water off Wuvulu drops off to 1000 metres.”
“It must be an underwater mountain, how far out is this deep water/”
“In most places right off the reef flat, say 40 metres from the edge. At night when there’s a moon, the villages fish for the legendary ferrari, in 500 metre ow water using a rock and a banana leaf.”
“OK, come in spinner, what’s the rock and the banana leaf for?”
“The rock is the sinker and the banana lea, releases the rock and allows th bait to drift in the current at that depth>”
“What’s this ferrari look like?”
“Well it’s something like a grouper, but has phorescent lights on its body and a fishing line and bait dangling from its mouth.”
“That I’d have to see to believe>”
“I’ve never been able to find it in any book on fishes, and I’ve found most others I’ve seen up her.”
“Why don’t you send one to The Australian Museum?”
“Well, one day I hope someone from here, maybe my son or one of the village boys will clear up some of the mysteries. I hope to see the day when Wuvulu produces doctors,scientists and anthropologists. We’ve produced a few local celebrities already, unfortunately they have to go away. The best of our young people are drained away from here,”
Back at the beach the Sepiks crowd around to view the catch with laughter and praise. There are plenty of willing hands to haul the boat into the shed. Brian gives the fish to them – protein is scarce in their diet.
“We’d better be making tracks,” says Jason.
“Come in for a beer, and a clean up first”.” As they make their way to the house Jason comments:
“I envy your lifestyle here Brian, no problems, things carry on from day to day.”
“Well I have my problems, but I like I like it here, I guess I’ll die here.”
A smiling face approaches.
“Good on you Warlou, Kuka for tea.”
“What is that?”
“It’s a land crab that uses its claws to break open coconuts.”
“I wouldn’t like to tangle with one.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to lose a finger.”
A crowd is gathring near the store and Brian opens up for the second time while the others wander into the house.
Relaxing in a deep cane chair, Andy comments to Jason.
“Last time I was here it was not so peaceful. We had an emergency call to treat a little girl with a broken arm.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“No, but an old man appeared while I was treating her. A boy was sick in the village and he wanted me to come.”
” Well, Brian and I got down there as soon as we could, but it was too late – the boy was already dead.”
“What was it?”
“Without an autopsy, I couldn’t be certain, but appanently h had been sick for days with some kidney complaint.”
“Hadn’t Brian seen him?”
“No, that’s the strange part – he didn’t hear a whisper of it. They’re strange people sometimes, superstitious, probably strict Seventh Day Adventist. Better not say anything to Brian, he was pretty upset about it.”
As Brian enters, Jason offers him some Kuka.
“It’s delicious Brian, like lobster and thanks and thanks Brian for everything, it’s just like I was told, a paradise.”
The rhythmic pounding of Sepik drums or Kunda heralds the plane’s departure. As it circles the jewelled green island, Brian’s arm encircles Nia.
I was in Wewak again last year. As I drove along the waterfront, I saw a familiar red head and freckled face. He was driving a bulldozer. When I spoke to him of Wuvulu, he told me he left after independance, when the Plantation was resumed by the government. I asked him why he doesn’t come back home and he said:
“Wuvulu is home.”
I was reminded of an earlier visitor, Birger Morner, a Swede who visited Wuvulu in 1913 on a yacht, who wrote:
“Flow me, follow me you who shiver in the cold, to my far Pacific Isle, where a red hibiscus gleams and my heart has taken root.“