BY SEIK PITOI
The folly of wife-beating - A young father’s rueful contemplation
SHE LOOKED LIKE A LITTLE ANGEL. The black and white laced dress she wore wrapped itself cozily around her cute little body, and the coconut shell-made hair clips her mother had bought her were beautifully arranged on her flowing black hair.
She stretched her legs and sank down in her seat, her chubby little hands tightly clutching her mother’s photo. It had been a long night and she was tired. She nestled down, leaning towards her aunty who drew her close and hugged her.
Little Janine rested her head on her aunty’s chest while her tired eyes surveyed the faces of the mourners. She glanced briefly across to where her father sat. He sat motionless and deep in thought. Soon, the sound of weeping subsided as the minister began his homily. After a brief while, Janine peeked back into the open casket. She noted how her mother lay peacefully; but her once ever-smiling beautiful face was now still forever…
Meleni leaned forward, his head in his hands. He had cried his heart out when he first heard the news. Now, his own thoughts drowned out the words of the preacher. He tried hard to gather himself together. Realization was beginning to dawn on him. Was that really Martha lying there? Meleni reminisced, his thoughts retracing the happier years of his life.
A fun loving boy from the atolls, Meleni grew up enjoying the sun and surf. He showed at a young age his superior skills in canoeing and fishing. His father was the paramount chief of Lei Islands and his mother was the second of Chief Tomale’s seven wives.
After completing his secondary education on the island, Meleni enrolled at the University of Papua New Guinea. He was proud that he was the first of Chief Tomale’s children to get a university education.
Coming from a small island community, Meleni was initially taken aback at the sight of tall buildings and numerous vehicles of all sizes in the capital, but he finally got over that. Meleni made friends easily and soon joined the university’s Rugby League team. He proved himself to be a star player which made him quite popular. Meanwhile, he plodded on persistently with his studies in law.
The university sports teams often held fundraising dances at the Drill Hall. Meleni looked forward to those evenings because of the chance to meet with female students. He was normally shy and couldn’t strike up a conversation when sober; but after a couple of beers under his belt, he found he could chat up any girl.
It was at one such dance that he met a pretty young lady called Martha. Martha was part Australian and part Bougainvillean, and her father had passed away some years before. She was doing a degree in social work. Her older sister, Veronica, had recently graduated in surveying and was now working with the Lands Department. Meleni had befriended a number of girls earlier on, but he seemed now to fancy this quiet spoken girl, much to the annoyance of the others.
It wasn’t long before Meleni began to take Martha out on dates. The pair enjoyed a pleasant relationship in the main but also had their share of ups and downs like every other relationship. There were times, however, when Martha felt like giving up on Meleni because he started to show traits of jealousy.
When he became aware of Martha’s previous boyfriends, he would interrogate her no end. Martha, on the other hand said very little about Meleni’s many ex-girlfriends whom she knew regularly called him on his cell phone. She knew it was not worth inflaming the situation.
One time, Meleni’s jealous rage became apparent when he came upon Martha having a casual chat with an ex-boyfriend outside the cafeteria. Without any warning, he decked the young man before he had a chance to explain his innocence.
This embarrassed Martha and she threatened to end their relationship. But Meleni would have none of it. As the son of a chief, he always had his way. He told her he was culturally duty bound to ‘protect’ her from any suitor who posed a threat to their relationship. Nonetheless, despite their arguments, Martha noticed that Meleni never once hit her.
Their friendship continued until Meleni graduated with his law degree and went on to do the requirements for his admission to the bar. Then he began work as a lawyer with a private law firm. Martha, however, withdrew in her second year after a serious illness saw her hospitalized. During that time, Meleni was by always her side. After she recovered, she resumed her studies the following semester. But in her final year, she had to withdraw yet again - this time because she was with child!
After a couple of years on the job, Meleni’s brilliance and commitment was recognized and he was soon promoted. He bought a car and rented an apartment for his young family. But as he rose up the ranks, his drinking and socializing habits worsened. Meleni often told Martha to stay home on weekends to mind Janine while he did the rounds of hotels and discotheques.
Confined to the house and busy with the task of mothering, Martha began to resent her husband. She suspected he was having an extra-marital affair, but she quickly brushed that thought aside because she knew her husband loved her. In fact, just a year before, he took her and Janine to his island where a huge feast was hosted in her honour. Meleni’s people paid a bride price of Thirty Thousand Kina and gave rolls of shell money to her people. Surely this was proof that he loved her. But it wasn’t too long before she would know otherwise.
One evening, while he was getting ready to go out for another function, Meleni’s cell phone rang. As he was busy, Martha decided to take the call. The female caller asked to speak to Meleni, and when Martha asked who she was, she disengaged the phone. Martha searched the details of the call on the call menu and then she dialed the number.
The same woman answered and Martha asked why she had disengaged the phone. The woman mockingly replied that she was only interested in speaking to her boyfriend, Meleni, and no one else! Martha was furious and a heated exchange ensued between the two women. At that instant, Meleni came out of the bedroom and yanked the telephone from Martha’s hand. In a rage, he slapped her hard across the face, then punched and kicked her until she fell down to the floor in front of a hysterically crying Janine.
Using profanities she’d never heard him use before, he warned her never to meddle again in his affairs. He made it clear that because he had fulfilled his cultural obligation of paying her bride price, she was now his property. As such, she had no right to comment on whatever he did or wherever he went! Then he drove off into the night.
From that time on, Meleni didn’t seem to be the same man. He treated Martha well when he was sober, but was a totally different person when drunk. As time went on, Meleni became brazen in his attitude, openly talking about his girlfriend and comparing her with Martha. He continuously pointed out his right culturally to take any number of wives he could, as his father the chief had done.
Martha’s protests were all met with severe beatings and verbal abuse. After one such beating, Martha began to cough up blood. She passed out on the bathroom floor and had to be revived. The next day, her body ached and hurt all over. She knew this called for a thorough medical examination.
The morning Martha went to the hospital for her medical checkup, Meleni told her he would be going away for two weeks to see his parents. He left some money with her and took the flight out to his home province. Martha arranged for her older sister, Veronica and her husband, Ted, to move in with her and Janine.
Martha needed some help with minding Janine as she was continuously feeling ill. Veronica and Ted had been very concerned about what Martha was going through and they gladly accepted the offer to move in. But Martha didn’t come home that afternoon.
When Veronica checked her sister later that evening, she learnt Martha had fainted during the examination and was now hospitalized. The doctor suspected internal hemorrhage due to her previous medical condition. An operation was soon performed and Martha was told to remain for the whole week for observation.
Meanwhile, Meleni’s assumed visit with his parents proved to be a lie. Martha was informed by a friend that Meleni had eloped with his girlfriend and they were having a honeymoon of sorts at an undisclosed location! Meanwhile, Veronica and Ted stood by Martha during her ordeal, minding Janine and visiting her every day at the hospital. But Martha never recovered.
The medical report said it all. Death was primarily caused by internal hemorrhage. Veronica knew that Martha’s condition that required major surgery some years back was exacerbated by constant beatings to the head and stomach. In short, Meleni had killed her sister!
Should she press charges against him, a lawyer who should have known better? Was it worth the trouble? Still reeling from the shock of losing her sister, Veronica held back her tears as she signed the documents to verify the death, and sped home. She now had a funeral on her hands.
On that mournful day, Martha lay peacefully in the casket. Peace was something that had eluded her during her short and turbulent life. Her beautiful face was now still, her smile gone forever. Janine sat flanked by her aunt and uncle.
At three years of age, she was still trying to understand what was happening. All she knew was that her father was an angry man who always beat her mother up. She also knew, as she had been told, that her mum would never come back again. At that, she kissed her mother’s photo one more time, leaned into her aunt’s arms, and dozed off to sleep…