From 1959-1970, June Knox-Mawer lived in the South Pacific, the wife of a Colonial Administrator, based in Fiji. During this time, she travelled regularly throughout the Pacific, and the following recollections of the Polynesian Outpost of Tuvalu makes most interesting reading.
It was Kioa Island who turned me in the direction of the journey predicted by Finau. Kioa gave me my first glimpse of an entirely different kind of South Seas, the archetypal raft of land on which land and sea, food and shelter, were the four main elements of life - so different from the elaborate multi-racial network of Fiji with its growing appetite for money, speed, and shiny new Western goods and buildings.
Yet, Kioa was geographically part of Fiji. Only its people were foreign, three hundred islanders from the Ellice Group (now Tuvalu), a thousand sea-miles to the North, fringe outpost of the ancient Polynesian empire that once stretched from Samoa to Maori new Zealand, and now part of the Gilbert and Ellice Colony. This small community had emigrated from Vaitupu, in the Ellice, in 1946 because of growing land and population pressures. A patriarchal British administration had found them another red dot on the South Pacific where they could settle and raise their families.
This was all I knew of Kioa as we chugged out towards it from the coast of Vanua Levu. We were in an ancient motor-launch belonging to the district doctor, an ebullient Welshman, and his wife. A hospital dresser named Kaloa, the first Ellice Islander of my acquaintance, was with use, a small wiry man with high cheekbones and slanting eyes and a shock of greying hair. But his talk was of the Ellice islands in the war - the American landings and the Japanese bombings.
'Our islands are so narrow, we were hardly ever hit!'
Kioa rising steep and green before us, was another Fiji island - until the village glided into view. The houses were woven platforms on stilts, with bamboo screens for walls. Outrigger canoes, like the drawings of nineteenth-century travellers, were drawn up under the trees. The crowds that waited at the water's edge to greet us were soft-voiced, the Polynesian broken vowels intermingling with the coo-ed word of greeting 'Ta'alofa! Ta'alofa!' Ankle-deep in sugary sand, we were introduced to a tall smiling man in a flowered sarong -'Laisani, the Jerman.'
'The Chairman,' translated John, the doctor. 'The elected head of the island. The last Chairman, Nika, died only a month ago. They all adored him. This is his widow.'
The face of the little woman behind us brightened for a moment as she accepted our present of six tins of bully beef.
'Tomorrow is the Birthday of Nika's Choir,' Laisani explained. 'We apologize we are so busy, and no receptions made for you. But please, come and see Kioa.'
Together we walked on, and saw the curve of the sandy bay on the right, the dazzle of dark blue and light blue on the left. People were lying asleep on their platforms under the shade of the breadfruit trees. Streamers of coloured washing fluttered between the palms. Fallen tree-trunks made bridges over little streams leading out to the sea. Laisani pointed out the island sights - the 'Stoa', a Punch-and-Judy hut with two rows of tinned food inside, the Post Offisi, similar, with a notice of posting-times pinned to the door, and the Church, slightly larger and painted a pale sea-green.
'If you need the key to Post Offisi,' Laisani said with an air of delicacy, 'my wife has it.'
Seeing my puzzled look, he lowered his voice and added that there was an English toilet at the back of the building, the only one on the island. Finally there was the school, a basket-work house, with English nursery rhymes chalked on the board, and chickens scratching among the exercise books on the floor. As explained by 'Master' - a chubby teacher in a flowered shirt - the children were now at lunch. In the meantime, our lunch was being prepared, if we would wait a few minutes at Neli's house. We turned the end of the beach, past a pen where the village pigs snored and squabbled and their attendant, an ancient man in a tattered waist-cloth, turned to regard us with grizzled amazement. 'Neli's house' turned out to be a magical construction of two wooden storeys, perched high above the beach. It was painted a brilliant turquoise and wreathed in purple bougainvillaea. Against the brown of the thatch huts, it seemed as exotic as a Sultan's palace. It was the kind of place for a Stevenson to write in, breeze-blown in a rickety swallow's nest of a verandah, while Fanny tended the flowers or cooked in the kitchens below. Up ladder flights of stairs, we found three bedrooms, divided by reed screens, with Ellice mats of dyed grass on the floors, vivid with pink and purple flowers all flecked and shadowed over by the dancing vine on the trellis outside. The only sounds were the surf on the sand and the brush of the wind through the matting roof, the murmur of women's voices below, a dog barking further away.
Neli, a venerable elder of Kioa, was away but the house was ours. In this enchanted place, the few minutes became hours, while we three Europeans struggled to release ourselves from our own time systems, into the softly overlapping, floating and timeless world of Polynesia. We were also hungry. Furtive nibbles from the picnic basket grew more frequent as we hung from our bamboo tower like castaways, searching for hopeful signs in the village. The first that came was the sight of three young men, hacking off the fronds of the nearest palm trees - to provide plates-bum-tablecloths. Then a languid fresco of Gaugaun women passed beneath us, carrying leafy stretchers on their shoulders, piled with vegetables and cooked pig. Six more sturdy figures with red hibiscus in their pigtails followed, each bearing a brown loaf on an upturned palm. A final procession came swinging buckets and kettles of water. Half an hour later a large tin box was dragged into the centre of the beach. On this three small boys armed with sticks, produced an ear-splitting military tattoo.
At the same moment, the head and shoulders of a beautiful girl appeared in the well of the stairs and said in breathless English, 'You will please join the feast?'
The repast that followed took lace in the maneapa, the traditional Ellice meeting-house. Its true purpose, we discovered later, was to give thanks to God (or propitiation to the Spirits) for the recovery of a certain elder, brought near death by a heart attack a few days earlier. But with true Polynesian tact, our own presence was woven into the vent by a number of ornate speeches in our honour. These were made by the line of elderly gentlemen seated opposite us with their backs to the wall, then toasted with weak toddy - the fermented palm-sap beloved by the Ellice and Gilbertese people.
Our own formal thanks for the food, to the girls who served us, brought the simple reply. 'Thank you for using it'. The feast over, the men began smoking, the women settled together in their own corner, and the talk - with Laisani as translator - grew relaxed. I asked the oldest and gravest of the orators, if the people were happy at Kioa.
'It is a good living,' he replied slowly. 'But for the old people, Vaitupu is still home.'
'We had the hardest time,' said another elder. 'In the first years the crops were poor, the homesickness very bad. But for our young ones it is a different matter. They are strong and healthy. For them Vaitupu is an island of stories only. Once or twice maybe they re-visit it with their parents and they are amazed at how flat and bare it is.
'We Ellice people are used to being on the move,' said the oldest and gravest. 'That is how our fathers found Vaitupu and the other islands. They made the journey by canoes from Samoa, which is the home of all the race. But Vaitupu, eh-eh-'! He sighed. 'That is the most beautiful of places, is it not? Or have you not seen the Ellice Islands?'
I said I had not, and thought he had heard me as he seemed absorbed again in talk with the others. Kaloa, the hospital dresser, and Laisani were summoned to join the conclave. Then as we rose to make our leave, Laisani turned and asked.
'You would like to go to the Ellice Islands?'
'Of course. But it's too difficult - how would I?' I began. 'I know no one there.'
'If you can make the journey, was his reply, 'We can arrange somewhere for you to stay. These is a relation of our friend here living in Funafuti - a doctor and his family. Also many other people still known to us. We can write to them. They can write to you. It is all easy!'
He laughed, the others watching me with expectant smiles. I agreed of course, thanking them for their kindness, writing out addresses on a scrap of paper. It was the usual vague and delightful South Seas invitation, like sending off a message in a bottle. Kioa was more in the forefront of my mind, as the little launch edged its way back along the coast. The sun had gone down. Green mirrored green along the edges of the land, smooth as marble. Women waved from a passing canoe. The diminished figures of people fishing moved along the edge of the shore. There was the sense of mystery of all such day-ends, calm, beautiful, resigned, amidst unbroken vistas of sky and sea. I had a feeling of certainty that I would be back in Neli's house before very long.
What I could not foresee was that when I did return to Kioa, it would be bearing gifts and messaged from families and friends in the Ellice Islands. The bottle came back containing a reply 0 a formal invitation from a Doctor Teleke Kofe at Funafuti - the village centre of the Ellice Islands - to stay at his home with his family for as long as I wished.
The doctor added he would be especially happy to welcome a writer to his home as he was himself a writer of poetry, and poems and songs and stories were the great entertainment of the Ellice people. He would not be at the airport to greet me as he and his family were away on a neighbouring island. But he had made arrangements for me to stay the night at the 'hotel'. He looked forward to our meeting the following day.
The Fiji airways service to the Gilbert and Ellice was once a fortnight. I stepped aboard the little Heron plane one grey dawn, along with a stout German couple - planters from the Gilberts - the pale young wife of an administrative officer with a new baby in her arms, and four squat Gilbertese men. They talked together in an oriental-sounding language and furtively wiped the sweat from their necks as the engines churned for take-off. With some trepidation I saw the reassuring bulk of the Fiji mainland fall away behind us. For four hours there was nothing beneath us but the wings of the little plane, sea and clouds and the shadows of clouds. It was unnerving to find the world suddenly so empty, I thought.
Beyond the glass of the port-hole the blue bend of the sea's horizon curved endlessly on beneath the paler dome of the sky. It was like swimming around in a giant's bowl, drizzly on and on. Then suddenly, far below on the sea's face, a scrap of driftwood floated by, then another.
"Ellice Islands," and the Australian steward laconically. 'Yer just can't figger how anyone found them in the first place, eh?'
I thought of the low-lying smudge they would make on the horizon to some lost fleet of canoes, the cries of triumph as the navigators made for anchorage after months of weary travel in search of a homeland. The rare visitors of later times and civilizations had similar experiences, the first glimpse of such unlikely islands was always a momentous occasion.
'So low that even in broad daylight one would not discover them, until almost touching, wrote the official discoverer of Funafuti, Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster, an American in command of the British brigantine Rebecca. He came across the island on a voyage from Valparaiso to Calcutta in 1819 and named the atoll Ellice's Group after his friend and benefactor Edward Ellice, M.P. for Coventry. On Mendana's first pacific voyage of 1568 it took a lad called Trefo, aloft on the mast, to sight a 'little low-lying island' - (today identified as 'Nui') 'looking like two galleys in a copse of trees'. In the three-and-a-half centuries between, only the most rapacious whalers 'on the line', a traveller as eccentric as Commodore John Byron (Foul-Weather-Jack') dared to break a new path diagonally cross the Pacific instead of round the edges, and so collide with other dots unrecorded in time and space. Byron termed the journey 'the hottest, the longest and most dangerous run that ever was made'.
Rowing out to meet such visitors came a people of 'dark brown complexion, middle-sized, well-bearded, tattooed on the arms and body, and adorned with gaily coloured strips of fine matting, tortoise-shell earrings, and necklaces of mother-or-pearl. Charles Wilkes, Commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1841 also noted that they seemed familiar with white men, and showed no alarm at gunfire.
For years were to elapse before the blackbirding trade made the islanders more cautious, and another ten before Captain Davies of H.M.S. Royalist made a rather different tour of the group, distributing Union Jacks and promises of British protection in return for loyalty to Queen Victoria. (Some of the islanders who were on board his ship, noted with approval the bronze bust of the lady - at least she was one of their own race, unlike the red-faced Captain.)
Today at Funafuti landing-strip, the Union Jack flew from a bamboo pole, and the islanders were lined up three rows like a sepia-coloured Victorian photograph. There were handsome faun-like faces among the young men, the women chubby, tousled, and slant-eyed in faded sulus and sarongs. The scrutiny was the steady careful stare of people who have little new to stare at, with the occasional shy smile or murmured greeting.
The heat under the iron roof of the airport hut was the most intense I had ever known. The smiles of the elderly men in white shirts were gentle and soporific as we signed forms at trestle tables. There were no instructions. A Land-Rover waited alongside a battered lorry with the number plate E.I.i., but the pilot announced that it was only three minutes walk to the hotel -'and no further or you'll be out into the sea again'.
Inside a building of pastel concrete round the other side of the trees, another gentle-faced light-brown gentleman awaited us. He had a large exercise book for us to write our names in. I was the only traveller not continuing on the flight on to the Gilberts.
'Then you are Dr. Teleke's lady,' said the gentleman. 'I am Pasifica - like the ocean. Pasifica Falena. Please be at home.'
Three moon-faced maids called greetings to me from the kitchen. A fourth girl, barefoot in a red cotton dress, showed me my bedroom - island mats, lined the floor and there was an old-fashioned brass bed. She opened the shutters. Screw pines were rustling in the trade winds, the sea came rolling up a few yards away to a wall of flat stones. There were the kind of palm leaf huts I had seen at Kioa. 'Those are our sleeping houses,' she said. 'Fale.'
'Yes, we are all Polynesians.' She smiled with a touch of pride.
I wanted to sample the air of breezy freedom. The lane behind the hotel, powdered with white sand, led straight and narrow between more houses, trellised weather-boards affairs with a friendly rustic look. It was Funafuti's main street. I discovered, as I walked on past the hens scratching at old coconut shells, under the frangipani trees clouded with white flowers. Old ladies were sitting in shadowy doorways, fingers plaiting and threading a fan or a necklace, while children swept the paths with twig brooms. A family was busy unsnarling a fishing line, the girl with a wreath of red flowers tilted Tahitian-style on her mane of curly hair. The family canoe lay close to a sheltering wall, black with age and carefully overlaid with old mats. There were gentle smiles, again the pigeon-like calls of 'Ta'alofa!' Few men were to be seen, most spent long times away working the phosphate on Ocean Island* I learned later. but one or two went past on ancient bicycles, wearing bright waist-cloths and the Roman-shaped straw helmets of the Ellice fishermen.
A stout man, supervising the building of a stone house in the shade of a breadfruit tree, called out to ask if I was Dr. Teleke's lady. 'Good! I am Penitala - I am the retired District Officer. Teleke will be here tomorrow, his house is the other end,' He beamed at me. 'You have seen Funafuti? Don't forget our cinema, and our Government H.Q.!' He pointed to a thatched shelter, and to a tiny concrete block opposite. A group of villagers gathered round us as we talked - an old lady carrying a Victorian iron from one house to another, two more on their way to the cook-house, arms full of green bananas, small children, a pair of youths like medieval pages each with a falcon-like bird on an outstretched wrist.
'They are frigate birds,' Penitala told me. 'The Ellice people keep them as pets. Each has its own perch on the beach. It comes to be fed.'
Shedding my new friends with hand-shakes all round, I walked on. The light was going, blown out away to the west with gusts of rain-sprinkled win that tossed the frigate birds in sudden swoops, and parted the curtain of palms to show the sea on the other side of the island, just a few yards away. Funafuti did this to one - as did all the Gilbert and Ellice islands - suddenly reminding one that all this cosy life clung precariously to a mere thread of land awash on two million square miles of water and weather.
Outside the Government H.Q. was posted a large notice headed 'Bicycle Regulations'.
'Each vehicle owner', it warned sternly, 'must satisfy the Government that it will be used mainly in the performance of Government duties, before an allowance is made.' The word 'mainly' thought was very Polynesian. The poster outside the cinema was more striking. 'The Three Stooges' in 'Have Spacecraft Will Travel!' underneath someone had printed '10 cents and 20 cents. Always the same price. FAIR TO PEOPLE.' Sheets had already been hung up on the wall for tonight's screening and farther along the road I met the elderly projectionist, his spools tucked underneath each arm. Behind him trudged his son carrying a record player for the music to accompany the performance.
Thus it was to the boom of early Elvis Presley that I fell asleep on my first night in the Ellice Islands - and woke to the slow sussuration of surf on the reef beneath the shutters, and a gentle knocking on the bedroom door. Outside stood a tall dignified man in his forties, very thin, with fine features and a mane of black hair. This was Dr. Teleke. He took my hand in his, a pair of deep-set eyes pinpointing mine as he said gravely, 'I knew you were coming.'
'Yes, I wrote to you.'
'No.' He shook his head gently. 'The day before the very first letter about you came from Kioa.' A dragonfly flew into my house - which means a man followed by a woman. Well - only yesterday out of the blue an Englishman - one of those V.I.P.s on colonial development - was brought to my house to speak to me about medical matters, on his tour of the islands.' He flashed me a brilliant smile. 'And now you are here! Let us go quickly to the house to make the whole thing complete!'
Teleke's house was one of a cluster of plaster bungalows at the other end of the village, small and sparsely furnished, a place to eat and sleep but mainly, as I soon discovered, a sounding-box for talk. Even as I arrived a female conference was in full swing. It politely dispersed as Tele's wife, a small solid figure, put her arms around me to draw me in, and Bwena a teenage daughter assured me in a stream of schoolroom English that we would be fast friends. She would show me everything, though Funafuti was a 'real bush place'. There were only two Europeans living on the Ellice - the weather-station man and his wife - and all the young men were away. She went to the girls' school at the Government Centre in the Gilberts.**
'When I finish my education I want to be a model in Sydney,' she confided, waving a hand at the magazine cut-outs on the bedroom wall. 'What is there on Funafuti for a young woman who is not married?'
We talked together most of the day, surrounded by an ever-changing circle of children, brothers and sisters and neighbours, from crawlers to marble-playing ten-year-olds in ragged shorts. The play outside the door was noisy, but once inside the house their entertainment was to listen cross-legged in absorbed silence to the talk of the grown-ups. Later in the afternoon we walked back to the village centre. Warlike shouts came from a field behind the government office.
'That is Te'ano,' said Bwena. 'Come and see. It is one end of the village against the other.'
Two teams of young men and women were playing a ballgame, facing each other like footballers. Back and forth whistled the ball, with the force of a cannon, hurled by the players to and fro as amazonian figures leapt with outstretched hands to return it with a thwack, dark hair flying with outstretched hands to return it with a thwack, dark hair flying, muscular calves braced for the impact, or else jumped back to let it hurtle past. I was about to ask the system of scoring and so on, when Bwena remarked casually - 'The ball is a stone, you know, wrapped around with twine and a pandanus leaf.'
After which I watched in open-mouthed silence. There was a brief pause in the game as a policeman walked slowly across the green. A deep hush fell. Mothers turned small children in the proper direction and all stood silently to attention as the policeman lowered the Union Jack from the flagstaff folded it neatly into a square, then marched away with it under his arm. Then the game was resumed with all its vigour, until victory was celebrated by 'our end' with a ribald send-up of a traditional dance.
'It was even more exciting in the days of our forefathers,' Teleke said, when I told him about it that evening. 'The winning side would go mad. It was the proper thing for the sisters of the winning men to unfasten their skirts and wave them from side to side like flags, standing there naked before all the people. So the native missionaries from Samoa put a tapu on all competitive games. They came here about one hundred years ago. Everything was forbidden, even the Ellice language in church, because the Bible was translated for us into a dialect of Samoa. Our people may have come originally from Samoa, even from Tonga, but after all, we have lived alone here for over three hundred years. We have made our own traditions, however small our homeland, even though we came upon it by accident, as it were!' He laughed, the slanting white smile transformed his thin face.
'Many things were changed by the missionaries, oh, yes, eh-eh!' piped a wrinkled sprite of a man sitting in the corner. In Polynesian fashion, no one had yet introduced him, but now Teleke said with something of a flourish, 'This is Osema.'
'Yes, I am Osema,' agreed the old man, coming forward to shake my hand. 'I am seventy now. Opetaia was my father and Funafuti is my own land.'
He sat down in front of me with a whistling sigh, crossing his legs like a grass-hopper, his old skirt hitched decorously between his knees.
'Osema composes most of the dances on Funafuti,' Teleke explained. 'He is also a famous poet, and the best teller of stories in the islands.'
Osema nodded again, with contented air. 'Yes, I am all these.' 'What are your dances about?' I asked him, hesitating a little over the correct form of enquiry. 'Oh, the Bible! Like the Battle of Jericho. Or the World War Two. The German planes the British shoot down into France. That fits nicely into a dance.' He flapped his arms dramatically from side to side. 'Or the American rocket going to the moon. That is my new one. You will see it while you are here.'
'And he is also a historian,' Teleke went on. 'He knows many of the legends - eh, old man? Osema?'
The composer had been staring dreamily into the darkness just past my left ear.
'Yes, the old days, songs of ghosts, fisherman stories ... I s'all come every day to story you?' he enquired, his eyes sudden pin-points of energy. 'That would be very kind.'
'Not kind, I like to story.' He wheezed a chuckle or two, then cleared his throat. 'Funafuti first. I tell now, You must know how the island was made. In those days the Ellice lands were named Tuvalu. The gods who looked after them were Tinai and her brothers Moloti and Foilape. Sometimes they walked the earth like men. Sometimes they dwelt as spirits in special places where the people left them gifts of food and mats and pearl-shell. Each family had its own sprit to talk to the gods for them. When the people wanted a passage made through the reef, they would ask the gods through the spirits. Foilape was the god who gave them this thing. He used to make his way around the islands by jumping over them with a huge vaulting pole. He made a hole for the passage with his vaulting pole - and that is how the lagoon which was closed, became open to canoes.'
Osema paused impressively, marshalling his thoughts. A small boy wearing nothing but a sailor's cap on his head, edged himself more closely in from his seat in the doorway.
'All this was deep in the past, but is still known today by the people of Tuvalu. In those days our own island of Funafuti was a poor string of land, no more than twenty-two yards as its widest point, and the people had room for houses and crops. They could move about the place at peace as we do today,' he concluded, folding his hands. He looked modestly down into his lap at the murmur of approval.
'With such a tiny island as ours every scrap of land matters to us, you can't imagine," Teleke said. 'In the war, the Americans were here and they covered up the pits where we grew our root-crops, to make an airstrip. The tinned food they brought us helped. But it was still a disaster to the people to see their earth pits filled in.'
'That is a good dance too,' cried Osema, immediately revived. He twitched to his feet like an ancient puppet, and squeaked a cheerful verse or two about the 'Melicani' planes and the death of the poor pulaka buried underground by the bulldozer. At the end of this, he was led away into the night by a chubby niece, promising to return the next day with more stories. 'Not straight ones next time, crooked ones! Stories 'fiti-a-kili' - make your skin stand up!' he added, rolling his eyes.
'Most Ellice stories are that kind,' Teleke told me, as we sat alone later, the wick of the lamp turned low so as not to disturb the younger children who lay together like puppies on a mat in the corner. 'Especially the ones I hear working at the hospital. There are only a few beds, but every patient secretly believes his illness is caused by an evil spirit of one kind or another. They go to the local sorcerer before they come to me, and they go back to him if it is a disease we cannot cure.'
I asked about the kind of magic they obtained from the sorcerers, and he told me about a woman suffering from cancer of the spleen.
'I could do nothing for her. She told me she wanted the sorcerer to get rid of the devil inside her. I agreed he could come. He sat opposite her with his two apprentices behind her, one to hold her, the other to tap with his fingers on the floor. This is the Ellice way of communicating with the spirits. The sorcerer had a bottle of oil containing a number of secret ingredients. This he poured over her head, then sprayed through his mouth in to her ears and over her face. All the time he slowly stroked her arms and breast, repeating certain words over and over. After a while the woman began to roll her eyes and breathe heavily, working up into a kind of fit, while the others held her down. She had three such convulsions in an hour. But she smiled at me in a peaceful kind of way. The sorcerer told her that was all he could do. Four days later she died but at least she died more resigned in spirit than she would have been under western medical treatment.'
I asked him what kind of beliefs he himself had about the existence of a spirit world. He shook his head thoughtfully. 'Not evil demons certainly, but spirits of the dead, yes. I am too much of an islander still, still, despite my British training, to doubt their presence. I was a boy when I saw their ways for the first time. I can never forget it. Shall I tell you?'
I said yes, if we could turn up the lamp a little. Behind us, the shadows on the wall shrank a little as the flame brightened.
'Like all our stories, this one can go on for hours. I'll make it short, because it is late. A man had died, falling from a tree outside our house while climbing for coconuts. A dead branch gave way, his climbing stick fell to the ground, and he with it. He was the caretaker of the dispensary run by my father, a man named Noa. He was buried in the usual way in the cemetery at the end of the island... It was the third night afterwards - the night when the spirit is supposed to leave the grave for the first time - a half-Christian, half-pagan belief, I suppose. We boys came in late from a dance, and went to sleep in our own quarters. After a while we were disturbed by stones being thrown up on to the platform where we lay. Our father called us over to his own place, and told us to get under the mosquito net between himself and our uncle. 'Don't be frightened,' he said. 'It's him - Noa. He has been with us earlier, singing hymns, and knocking at the beams.'
'As he spoke, the knocking started again, a slow tapping that went round the room in a circle. We boys were too frightened to move but my father called out, 'Why don't you go back to your grave, Noa, instead of disturbing the living?' "The knocking stopped then, and the next thing was the sound of footsteps walking round and round the house, outside the screen shutters. My uncle shouted, in a teasing sort of way, 'That's right! Keep guard on the house for us so that the big people can sleep.'
'The marching footsteps went on, and then the dragging sound of a stick in the sand. 'I think he'll start hitting the screens next,' said my uncle. Sure enough he did, until all the screens flew out and the door flapped open as if there was a huge wind, although the night was quite silent and still.
The worst moment came when we heard the sound of a key in the door of the store, next to the house. The door creaked open and there was the sound of bottles being broken inside, the shattering of glass, it's all right,' my father whispered. 'If not, someone's going to be charged tomorrow for being drunk and disorderly.'
'Nothing more happened. The next morning we found everything intact. There were no stones in the sleeping-house, not a bottle broken in the dispensary, not a footstep in the sand outside. We went to see the District Commissioner, an Englishmen and a friend of course, to tell him about the ghost. He said he had already had another visit about the dead man. It was the young grave-digger who told him he was worried he had not dug Noa's grave deep enough. He was still inexperienced in his work, and everyone knew that a man who had died a violent death must be laid at a good safe depth. So we all of us, my father, the D.C., my uncle and brothers, went with the young grave-digger to the cemetery. "Noa has told me he will not stay here unless the grave is re-dug," the young man told us. So re-dug it was, and the coffin replaced six feet beneath and face downwards. And that was the last anyone heard of Noa again in the village, from that day on. ...'
It was time to go to bed. I asked Teleke if I could take the lamp into my room with me. Even so I had to read for some hours before falling asleep. Teleke had left some notes of Ellice Island poems on the table by my bed, translations carefully written in an exercise book. There were poems on sea voyages, Christmas poems, love poems full of the eyes'. Last of all there was the song sung by the spirits of the drowned islanders whose canoe sank in a storm as they voyaged to seek new land.
'We pluck at the living present (cried the ghosts)
But we cannot reach it;
A wall comes before us
And we flutter against it like moths. ...'
A flying beetle knocked against the lamp glass. I turned out the flame and lay down, listening to the creak and rustle of an equatorial night, to the low and steady breathing of the vast sea on which we floated lonely as a feather.
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