A short story by LEONARD FONG ROKA
THE FIRE WAS CRACKLING with burning heat. In response, the blackened kettle steamed so roughly that it opened its lid. Toton carefully placed a tea-bag in the half-open teapot and whistled a tune as he admired the water turning thick brown. The smell of tea was promising.
After breakfast, he sat grooming himself and singing a local song from his home island of Nissan, back in Bougainville. Over, the refreshing sensation of potent betel-nut mixed with chalky lime and tart pepper fruits, he sang loudly; his old pet, a cat was disturbed in his sleep and carelessly leapt out the window hurting its left ear.
Toton he looked out the window; the road he was to employ was clear of the much hated drunkards that molested him so much on his unlucky Friday nights.
Intent, he marched into the bedroom; stood firm in front of the mirror, admiring himself in numerous postures; randomly smiling away.
The breeze blowing from the sea had become perfectly calm. White breasted terns were overhead with their peculiar cries; sounds he knew well from the time before he was crawling. The wristwatch alarm rang; it was nine o’clock when he lazily closed the door behind him and rambled towards town.
Toton was a grade eight dropout and a domestic servant working for a European businessman. To any ignorant Papua New Guinean, he was a nothing but a cheap labourer subjected to the Whiteman’s wishes. But this couldn’t be so, because the skin Toton had was too deep and sly. He was a poor man with a sugary tongue.
Despite earning a fortnightly wages of one hundred kina, mismanagement had its toll on him. Distant eyes could easily glean that the island boy, Toton, was a natural squanderer. Wherever and whenever, women were around his vicinity he spent without care.
But he didn’t curse this squandering stigma in him even when his mismanagement struck him hard. If he looked for obvious tearing claws in his wallet these were his drink mates. He condemned them as simple red skinned parasites but whenever his wallet was packed he ran after them like a crying child after its papa.
In one of those Chinese restaurants, Toton sat munching away at his food. Fried rice with fried chicken pieces, seasoned with garlic and curry, were on his plate.
He purposefully sat in the corner where he stared at the people without being noticed easily. His table had three empty chairs while all the others were occupied by hungry people eating greedily.
“Excuse, can we take these seats?” a girl’s polite voice, surprised him. Her right leg dragged back a chair.
“Oh sit…..sit,” he managed to say, over a mouthful of rice, to the girls in familiar Kokopo High School uniform.
Toton’s gaze set on the more beautiful girl of the pair seated directly opposite him. From her luscious skin, the scent of perfume disseminated. Her make-up looked flawless but she had a vacillating look on her face. Nevertheless, she was still an angel.
“Oh, girls my name’s Toton—” he briefly, paused for a thought. Then, added, “What grades are you in, by the way?”
“Grade eleven………both of us,” Susan giggled.
“Enjoy your schooling?”
“Sometimes,” both girls sang like a choir.
“Well girls, you must be committed to your education.” He began his cunning tactics of cajolery. “I was a student like you once. I graduated with a BA in accounting from the University of Papua New Guinea and now I’ve got a private business back home in Bougainville.”
Susan was hypnotized by the lie of the island boy. She was thinking that her dream of marrying a well-to-do person, like this handsome Bougainvillean, might come to fruition; only if she could ask for it, but she hesitated; though lust was creeping up her spine.
“What sort of a ventures do you undertake?” she asked.
To this question, Toton was instantly on Nissan Island looking for some sensual feedback. Answers that could at least enchant Susan for the hour she might set foot on Dolengan wharf with him and his nonentity fantasies.
“Oh, yes……I run a boat service between my island and the mainland, Bougainville. I……I’ve also got a store, a guest house and three vehicles that service the islanders of Nissan.”
“So, are you now on holidays?”
“Not so, girl, I am just returning from a business trip to Perth. You might have learned about it in one of your lessons. It is in Western Australia. Am I right?”
“Yes” Susan enthusiastically answered.
From that lucky Friday Toton was a happy man wih his once-in-a-blue-moon success in winning a gullible Tolai girl’s heart. Their dates began to become regular. Often Susan requested a night in the hotel where her boy was holidaying, but Toton just couldn’t entertain that and expose his below-poverty-line status too early. That could shatter his dreams of marrying his angel, Susan, for he had just discovered that she was a money face. Having her pregnant before she discovered his dire living conditions was his goal. Resigning from his work and taking Susan home was paramount in his plans.
One day as they lay embracing each other under the cover of some swaying shrubs and bananas, Toton said “I am leaving on Thursday for Nissan. I am taking you with me. In the Solomon Queen we will sail away.”
“Thank you.” She kissed him hard. “Why not in a jet plane, love?”
“Simplicity is my culture, Susan.”
Thursday found the couple standing on the bow of the rakish Solomon Queen. It was dark and chilly. But there, they were, embracing each other for warmth. A beam from a nearby lighthouse caught them, but it was growing weak every second, as the ship gained distance.
Susan watched the lighthouse fading; from a tiny dot, it went to an absolute nothingness. She was saddened but the presence of her well-to-do lover, Toton, ebbed that intruding pain off. Together, they marched into their third-class cabin, bolted the door and slept.
At 2 am Toton woke. He checked Susan; she was snoring in deep sleep. So he too decided to feign sleep as he fumbled deep in thought.
His lies, so ghoulish and fretful as it now seemed to him, to win this queen, was tearing at his flesh. A storm of guilt and shame was scurrying in his brain. How was he to elucidate to her, that in his love for her, he had lied to get her? Would she accept that? He flustered. Properties, soon to be seen, were not his or his families. He was a poor fellow since birth. Answers to his doubts were not that near.
Beside him, Susan slightly jerked in sleep. Rather than love, a spasm of pain ran up his spine generated by fear. “Why……oh why, can’t you last forever, night”? He told himself. He imagined how weak he would grow in the coming days once this woman discovered the truth of his life and started attacking him. Women are said to be emotionally powerful and his girl was no exception—she’ll wear him down.
Sometime later, thinking her partner was asleep, Susan wandered outside leaving the cabin door partly ajar. Outside, the alluring view of the islands stunned her; so she darted in, with curiosity. “Wake up Toton. We’ve arrived!” She dragged him out of the bed.
As the vessel cautiously made its way through the passage, Toton, saw that nothing much has changed. Coconut palms danced to the wind from Balil, down to Dolengan to Gerei and back to him along the sweeping expanse of white sandy beach as usual.
This land retained itself. Sirot and Barahun Islets were guarding the entrance to the lagoon. Inside, Han Islet in the heart of the lagoon, was there welcoming him. Nissan was that same old bone of living.
“What’s that islet, feigning as chief of the heart of this lagoon?” Susan was asking.
“Han.” He managed with a faraway look.
“Toton, are you sick? You look so depressed.”
“Nothing; I just need some sleep,” he lied and walked back to the cabin. Guilt was obvious in his looks.
Susan knew - it was naturally instilled in her - that a person, like Toton, bringing himself a lover from further afield, should be boastfully talking about his home as they approached. But something was wrong! Toton was behaving strangely; not so interested in his home and people. “Mountebank! Mountebank!” a tiny voice was calling from deep in her mind.
Is he really? She wondered, a mountebank? Oh, get lost, evil. He kept me financially nourished all through our courting.
But her evil still sang. Okay, time will tell, she told herself standing beside tacit Toton on the bridge shaking hands with a few of his relatives.
The ship, now safely moored, was a house; a floating house. Her crew were busy preparing her for the next night’s trip through that unimaginable undulating expanse of sea to Buka and beyond to such places as Kieta and Buin. Susan listened to the talk.
“Oh, Toton, you’ve got yourself a woman, you say.” A wantok commended him in local vernacular.
“A Tolai girl,” Toton chuckled.
Though, she enjoyed the strangeness of this language, Susan was annoyed at not being part of the talk that Toton and his friends were locked into. Once or twice she gave a pusillanimous look towards Toton when the term, Tolai, was articulated. This was not because she feared something, but simply to express her deep frustration at being kept in the dark.
“It’s about time we got home,” she said purposefully to cut the prolonged conversation. “Where is this Sian, men?”
“Right up there,” Toton pointed in a north-westerly direction to where a bluish pillar of smoke was climbing into the morning air, “where the smoke is.”
“It’s your mama, Toton, burning something very early. Go show her your Susan,” Otima, Toton’s friend said, reassuringly.
Susan was worried about the distance. “My eyes tell me that, I can’t walk this distance. So, go fetch a …..”
Toton knew that she was requesting a car ride. He had lied to her about owning three vehicles; and in Otima’s presence, it was not worth spilling it over; that would hurt his pride too early. He wanted his lies to creep over his island, starting off from his birth place, Sian. Not Tangmerek or any other village.
“Okay, let’s go….go…..go” he interrupted, lifting a packed rainbow bag to his left shoulder. “Okay, Otima see you around sometime.”
“It’s a nice walk new Sian girl,” Otima said, respectfully waving his free hand to Susan.
“Thank you, Otima.”
Without a word and in an air of swooping confusion they walked. A good number of people, obviously Dolengan bound, passed them, with ignorant chuckles, good mornings and dullish smiles.
This further infected Susan’s restless mind. People were clearly paying no heed to her and Toton, except that student, Otima. Why?
Susan lazily glanced at her wrist watch under the shade of some coconut palms as they were approached the place that Toton said was Tangmerek. It was half past eleven, and Sian was not that near yet.
Tangmerek’s cluster of buildings interested her. In the glaring heat of the sun and the balmy sea breeze, everything was still idyllic. “Can one of this be Toton’s?” she wondered, when a rusting red Hilux caught her attention. She was resting perfectly under a blooming white frangipani, with children gawking through the flowers at her. “This must be the place?” she thought.
“Toton, when are we to reach your cars, or your store and that fine cosy guest house of yours?”
“Oh, woman right across there,” Toton pointed west with his left hand. “Out there in Balil.”
People’s attention was caught by the stranger, Susan, pacing like a frightened child beside Toton, their kinsman.
“Toton, send for a vehicle. Where are the trio, you have?”
“I forgot to tell you,” Toton said; “one is too busy, and two remain idle with mechanical problems. Sorry.”
Susan quickly ran an impulsive gaze over Toton; from his hair down to his unpolished stockman boots. At least, he was perfectly handsome! But his skin seemed too deep, and needed squeezing out. “Businessman?”
After marching under the scorching sun past the church, discoloured by salt spray, and the buildings of Sigon Catholic Mission and the impenetrable mangrove bush at the foot of thickly forested Hiuon Hill, they arrived at Sian.
The place looked deserted at first. But there was life. A number of children were playing on the fine beach shooting at the airborne gulls with clumps of dead coral.
“Mama, Toton!,”a naked boy paused to get a clear picture, and then darted into the village shouting, “Toton! Toton! Mama, Toton….and a girl, mama.”
Toton stood deathly still, despite, the jubilation of his relatives. His eyes and thoughts firmly fixed on Susan. Would her learning of the truth set him free? Or just drag him into a prison of shame? Would she start nagging?
The high covenant house, he told her, was not there. The properties he had told her about were illusions. His home was no way near the standards he had been boasting about in that Chinese restaurant back in Kokopo.
To a low hut, without stilts, they were ushered with joyful singing. Toton’s fat and short mama wept with elation, as did her escorts.
The hut was a single room. The people said it was Toton’s. It was far worse than Toton’s descriptions of his living standards. The aged roofing iron made her sick, as did the discoloured wooden walls. Peeping inside, there were rats’ droppings, everywhere. The spring bed she would be resting looked likely to fall apart if they were ever to make love on it. Shocked, she swished at her shirt and sat on the bench offered to her.
“Oh, Mountebank!” she nearly screamed in fury. Then she ordered a passing child to look for Toton, who was running from house to house laughing with his people. That he was avoiding her was obvious.
As Toton approached she said, “So…so, you lied to me, eh?” She was hysterical. Her voice was hoarse. “You lied and have ruined my life. What do you say?” Warm tears ran down her cheeks.
Without a word, Toton sat on the wooden bench. His head dropped and he trembled. “What’s next?” he asked.
“You tricked me! You skint swine!” She roared to the shock of the villagers, who came running to witness the sudden outbreak of rumpus.
Swiftly she lifted up a piece of timber and landed it hard on Toton’s naked nape. He cried in pain and began jostling his way away as Susan struggled to free herself from the dozen gripping hands trying to calm her down.
She managed to slip out of their grasp as Toton came back seeking conciliation. Seeing a knife in a nearby boy’s hand, she grabbed it. Seeing this and the fierce look on Susan’s face the whole mass of people fled to safety. She gave a chase after the dastard, Toton. People followed the warring couple at a safe distance.
That night, with Toton hiding in the bush, nowhere to be seen, she sat by the soothing sound of the calm sea, her eyes, misty with tears; evaluating her recent life. She was too gullible and stupid, that evil Toton took her for a ride.
“I was a fool,” she scolded herself, looking at her dark shadow cast in the light of the crescent moon.
A lone bat flew towards the main passage of the lagoon. It was calling her to follow him, beyond the silhouetted shapes of Banahura and Sinot islets to where her homeland, Kokopo, was calling her.
From a collection of Leonard Fong Roka's short stories being prepared for publication in book form