Dad and I stood under the scorching sun holding a carefully folded Arabian blanket still with the price tag on it.
The smells of vehicle fumes and food from the Asian kai bars seared our nostrils and the betel spittle-stained pavements rumbled beneath the countless feet that trampled on them.
The market place was an enormous colony of buyers and sellers bumping into each other and arguing over prices.
The living skeleton of a stray dog with coveting eyes stared from a distance at the children as they followed their parents, food in hands. I understood how the poor animal felt for my father and I had not eaten since yesterday.
Beggars squatted at the market entrance like cane toads, their protruding arms as withered as dried branches. Some passersby made a mockery of them, some swore, while others of generous heart tossed a coin or two into their cups.
We had not gone to the city. It was the city that came to us. Our village was evolving into a suburb as the city spread slowly towards us bringing poverty and unemployment to village people like my dad and uncles.
On the distant hunting grounds of my forefathers now stood shopping malls, and taxis and buses took passengers from what used to be my grandfather’s garden.
That my ancestors hunted for wallabies here seemed like a mere myth. Never in my entire life had I seen a hunter come home with meat. Now they brought with them bags of rice and flour.
I closed my eyes and imagined my grandfather as a young man. He probably had a mop of thick curly hair and a body with muscles like a pawpaw tree. He wore less cover on his body and carried three spears which he treated with care as if they were his brothers.
I wondered what the market place looked like in his time. Maybe this was where he would hang six wallabies from a tree and take a peaceful nap before going home. He did not care for clothes or money as we did. He cut his day’s catch into equal portions and shared them with his relatives. The young girls no doubt tried to seduce him.
He told us that during his early days, when the white man came, the popular places were Burns Philip, Steamships, the Papua Hotel and the tavern at Konedobu.
I was so deeply absorbed in my imaginings that briefly I forgot about the irritating pain caused by my empty belly and the banshee sound of mad traffic.
A gentle tap on my shoulder brought me back. Dad was looking at me with a concerned face. Our bodies were drenched in sweat and the flies could not leave us alone.
“Son, I know how you feel right now. It is my fault, you should have stayed home. You look so weak.
“If we get someone to buy this blanket, we’ll be lucky enough to buy some food for tonight. Hey, remember that cream bun we saw in the bakery shop this morning?”
“Yea, daddy, what’s wrong with it?”
“I’ll buy it for you, I promise. Here, this is our last kina, go buy a doughnut.”
“It’s alright daddy, I’m fine. You can save it for our bus fare home in case no one buys our blanket.”
“Don’t be silly son. I can carry you on my shoulders. Here, go buy your doughnut.”
Behind his smiling eyes, I could see the hidden tears. I wondered what he was thinking. City life had become a race we couldn’t win. But everybody had to run it whether they liked it or not: employed and unemployed, educated and uneducated, working class and grassroots.
The ones that could not run fast enough got trampled, and my dad was one of them, the unfortunates.
People flocked in from other provinces and countries; they spoke strange languages, started businesses, settled. I wished the city was built across the sea far from my village.
My dad and I would not have to sell a mean blanket upon which our evening’s meal depended. Mum would make gardens and dad would go hunting. They would pay my school fees from what they earned.
I smiled at my father and took the coin.
The lady at the doughnut stall had a moon face and a beautiful smile.
“Hamas long donat?” (How much are the doughnuts?)
“Prais bilong ol donat i wan kina, tasol yu ken kisim long hamas mani yu holim i stap” (They cost K1.00 each but you can take any regardless of how much you have).
“Mi gat wan kina tasol em i orait. Mi bai kisim wanpela tasol, tenkyu tru” (I only have one kina but it’s alright. I’ll take one only, thanks a lot).
“Pikinini noken wari kisim foapela donat. Mi bai baim” (Child, don’t worry, take four doughnuts. I’ll pay for them).
I thanked the lady and pushed my way through a group of customers trying their best to be noticed by a fish seller who was drowned in a sea of outstretched hands that had green notes in them.
I emerged from the other side of the crowd and saw dad holding the blanket and calling the price. People glanced at him and passed by. No one seemed interested in a blanket on such a hot day. We had sold dad’s leather boots to a farmer for a good price. But that was last week.
Today it was mum’s blanket. Dad looked at me surprised as I handed him two doughnuts. I explained the lady’s generosity. The cloudless sky grinned at us as we forced the dry doughnuts down our throats.
The stray dog dragged itself over to me, its yellow eyes bulging, wagging its furless tail, its exposed scalp infested with purple fleas. I lost my appetite.
“Here buddy, there you go! Eat up!”
I threw the other doughnut at the dog and watched as it swiftly carry it away. A jealous bystander appeared from behind a rubbish heap and threw a banana stalk at the dog. It missed and the dog staggered into a nearby drain abandoning the doughnut.
“There lies our 25 toea,” Dad lamented. “Surely life is unfair, son, that is why I want you to school hard and make me and mummy proud.”
While I glared at the bystanders in anger, a short Highlands man approached us and smiled. He had a thick beard and a chest as big as a wine barrel. His bald head glistened in the sun each time he removed his hat to fan himself.
“Hello brother, I am selling this beautiful Arabian blanket for K300. Would you like to buy it?”
“Mind if I take a look at it? I’d like you to unfold it”.
Dad and I unfolded the giant blanket to reveal a delicate display woven from goat’s wool and golden thread. The corners of the blanket had golden rings. The man’s eyes sparkled as he ran his hands gently over the blanket. Then with a smile of delight, he asked, “Where did you get it?”
“Oh it was given to my wife by a missionary friend. She bought it in Saudi Arabia,” Dad replied.
“Great! Just what I wanted for my third wife! I’ll take it, brother, the Highlands is a cold place and I know she will love this blanket.”
Without hesitation, he flipped through his wallet, his tongue slightly protruding from the corner of his mouth, and handed daddy K300. We watched him tuck the blanket into his bag and wander into the crowd. By now the sun had hidden behind some clouds.
That evening, we took home food as well as goods for us to resell. Dad and I got off the local PMV and walked slowly through the slums of the village. Naked children ran about while other children were spanked by their mothers for attempting to climb the power pylons.
Women and young girls queued with water containers as they waited patiently for the only water tap to fill their containers. Below the stilt houses, rubbish of all kinds decayed in the choked sea. The suffocating stench drifted everywhere.
From a distance, lights of various colours from the skyscrapers bounced off the surface of the sea and welcomed the night with a splendid rainbow glow.
We climbed the wooden ladder to the top of the main platform that eventually divided into a network of platforms linking the houses that stood motionless over the sea.
My siblings raced towards us calling “Dada” and “Kopi” and that night we had a wonderful dinner. I made dad and mum some tea and placed it beside them before sitting down with them on the pandanus mat.
An elderly neighbour sang a lullaby in his ancient voice, so old that the very notes were weathered. We laughed and talked and sang more songs.
But in that moment of happiness, the events of the day came rushing back at me like bullets. My eyes turned glassy as I looked away and I exploded in volcanic tears.
“Dear, what is wrong?” Mum asked with concern.
“If we have nothing, will we sell again?”
There was a long silence. I felt like a total idiot for asking such a question. What was I thinking? I tried to apologise when dad spoke.
“Sonny, these days happiness is rarely found. So whatever happiness we have left, let us enjoy it to the fullest as if tomorrow may never come.
“When we have nothing, we’ll work our way through as a family. Let’s take one day at a time loving and caring for each other.
“Let tomorrow take care of itself. Above all, let’s try to survive. Take one day at a time. That is what I want from all of us.”