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Return to the Islands

11 — — A Cure for Toothache

page 191


A Cure for Toothache

Medically speaking, the only real discomfort of Ocean Island was the want of a dentist. If clove oil did your toothache no good, you either sat tight and stuck out the attack up there on the equator or make tracks for your favourite practitioner in Sydney, 2,400 miles away.

In 1930, when my left lower what-not began to give me gyp, I was only just back from long leave in England and hadn't a hope of getting it attended to in Australia until 1932 at earliest. Of course, kind Dr. Gould at the hospital would have whipped it out for me, if I had asked him to, but I didn't want to lose it; on the other hand, it was playing the devil with my work; I don't know what I should have done about it had not Providence most kindly and efficiently settled the matter for me out of hand.

The curative process began at about 5.15 on a fine Saturday afternoon when I was nursing and cursing a particularly scarlet dose of pain. There came a sudden telephone call from Alec Goudy, the Manager of the fine, new, recently fenced-in Chinese labourer's location. "Can you hear me?" came his cautious whisper over the line. "Well, they've got me locked in here; but they've forgotten I can use the phone."

'Here,' it turned out, was Alec's small office inside the location, while 'they' were a dozen or so Chinese who had hustled him into it and were now standing on guard outside the door. Their grudge against him was that he had tried to rescue an unfortunate man whom some others had tied to a post and were in the act of flogging. The Chinese 'people's court,' they told him, had convicted this man of being a police spy (which, by the way, he wasn't) and had sentenced him to page 192receive a thousand strokes of the cane. The labourers intended to dedicate their Saturday evening not to mah-jong or other games as usual, but to executing the judgment of the court. "They're still beating the poor devil," Alec's final whisper told me. "I can hear the welts from here. Come quickly. You'll find him tied to one of the big posts in the east side of the recreation hall."

The Chinese 'people's court' was a new one on me, and it looked bad. Nevertheless, hurrying down to the barracks, I had to think carefully about using the police as a rescue squad. Standing instructions said I mustn't resort to force until I had made sure that nothing short of it would save the wretched man's bacon. The only way to get that point established was to go alone into the location for a start.

However, I did feel entitled to take a few simple precautions. So we arranged that, five minutes after I had started for the location, Sergeant-Major Taitusi should take up his stand outside a small gate at its western end. If I failed to appear there within fifteen minutes of his arrival, he was to conclude that I hadn't proved a success as a peacemaker. Whereupon, he would lead in a detachment of twenty men armed with truncheons, make for the recreation hall, find out what was happening there, and do whatever had to be done to get the beaten man (and, incidentally, me too) out of trouble.

It struck me to hope very sincerely, on my quarter-mile walk to the location, that the element of adventure in the errand I had let myself in for would one day afford me much more pleasure in retrospect than I was extracting from the immediate prospect of it. With toothache, it is hard to imagine oneself a devil of a fellow or comport oneself with the authentic Big White Master swagger.

Not a sound of strife reached me as I entered the location. The quiet of the evening hour lay upon the neat little two-roomed sleeping houses strung in terraced rows above and below the path I followed. Someone on a verandah was page 193singing a small falsetto song to the dying day. The touching, childlike voice rose, fell, fluttered, as aimless and happy as a butterfly in the golden light: there was remote peace in the eyes that watched me pass. I had a sense of leaving them a thousand miles away as I rounded the shoulder of the hillside and came in sight of the recreation hall.

The hall was a single long room stepped up the hillside on a series of terraced floors, so that these formed a stage above the bottom end. As its sides were completely open, you could enter where you liked by ducking in under the low-hung eaves. But that day a swarm of labourers blocked the way in on to the lower floors, intent on what was happening down left of them, and I had to slip in at the top end. As I came up at it from behind their right shoulders, not a soul noticed me. I was three-quarters of the way down the central flight of steps inside before anyone knew I was there.

What took me down at a run was the sickening swish and swat of a half-inch cane on a human body. They had their man tied to a stud on the left side of the hall, at the level, so to speak, of the orchestra stalls. He had been made fast with his face to the post. His head lolled sideways on his shoulder; I thought his neck was broken; it seemed impossible that he could take those terrible swinging welts without a move unless every spark of life had left him. I forgot my toothache for the moment.

I found myself standing by the man, ringed round by a gaping wordless mob. But I was not alone. There beside me, his young face wreathed in smiles, stood Takinaiti.

Takinaiti was a Gilbertese boy of seventeen, fresh from our small government training school at Tarawa, now learning his job as clerk-interpreter at headquarters office. He knew perfectly well that his race made him the natural target for the anger of every man in that hall. There was bitter hate between Chinese and Gilbertese in those days. But there he was, as welcome as an angel, in his beautiful white waist-cloth hemmed with scarlet braid.

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"You young fool!" I hissed at him. "What are you doing here?"

His smile never wavered. "I thought you might need me," he explained. "Can I do anything to help?"

" Certainly you can," I was only too glad to tell him. "Run quick and tell Sergeant-Major Taitusi to bring those men along straight away."

He turned and pushed his way calmly through the crowd. They actually made way for him. He gave me a wave as he left the hall. I suddenly felt fine.

All that had taken only seconds. I turned at once to the bound man, but I had done no more than pluck futilely at the iron-hard knots that held him when everyone started to jabber and scream, and a dozen hands snatched me away from his side.

Nobody tried to hurt me. All they did was to swing me round to face the crowd, then drop my arms. But it was clear enough that they weren't going to let the man go without some kind of fuss. The only sensible thing to do from then on, was to play for time. Rather less than five minutes should see the police there, I reckoned, as I shouted into the clamour, "Can anybody here speak English?"

A tiny gamecock of a man strutted forward. "I do," he said, and explained in faultless English that the man tied to the stud had been sentenced by a properly constituted 'people's court,' whose judgment I would interfere with at my peril. He turned then and addressed the crowd, verbosely telling them, I supposed, how rudely he was dealing with me. All that accounted for something over two minutes. The succeeding clamour of applause for him and derision for me took up another thirty seconds at least. I imagined the police just on their way, at the double, when my turn came to speak again.

I began with the sort of line bureaucrats are bound to shoot about the sovereignty of British courts in British territory and all that. Then there had to be something about the page 195naughtiness of locking Alec Goudy in his office. What with this, plus the frills he added in translation, plus the renewed screaming that followed, another good three minutes had trickled by when he turned and gibed, "You have less than forty police altogether and we Chinese are more than seven hundred strong; so what are you going to do about it?"

And still no police appeared.

But I knew it could only be a matter of seconds now. The thing most likely to hold their attention as long as that was to read them the riot act. It was a fair thing to warn them, anyway. So I told them what Takinaiti had gone to do, and advised them to get out of the hall if they wanted to avoid the police truncheons. But before I was through, a small two-seater bench came sailing through the air from somewhere on my left and knocked me spinning.

"This is the end," I thought as I went down. And in that very moment the police arrived.

As I picked myself up, not a soul was looking at me. There was hardly a soul left in the hall to do so. Practically the whole boiling—maybe four hundred or so of them—had rushed out with axes, pickaxes, crowbars and shovels to swarm around the file of big brown men who, two by two in perfect order, came swinging down the hillside.

All my life I have been an enemy of force, but I still remember with delight the way that small detachment used its twenty truncheons. Our police were carefully taught to respect Chinese skulls and spleens, and respect them these men did with perfection of restraint the whole way down. I am not saying they didn't land some shrewd knocks on shoulders and knee-joints. Outnumbered by twenty to one as they were, and up against weapons which, for all their crudeness, were lethal, they had to do that or stand and be brained. But it was the least, not the most use they could make of their arms, and I felt like crying for pride of their gentleness as, bleeding from many a wound, they ploughed their patient furrow through the attack of that yelling mob.

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They ringed us round and held up every charge while one of them helped me to get the victim untied. Then, head first and face up a constable for each arm and leg, his poor sagging wisp of a body was carried out, with three files of two men each clearing the way before him, five pairs following after to cope with attacks from flanks and rear, and myself at the tail-end of the crocodile, once again nursing and cursing a tooth which seven new devils had suddenly reoccupied.

The first objective of our little crawling procession was the path by which I had come in, between the terraced sleeping houses. Only fifty yards of open country divided us from it, but here, where our right flank was exposed to attack from uphill, was where the enemy now gathered all his forces for a counterstroke. While the main group stood showering us with brickbats from above, a spearhead suddenly burst from among them with the master weapon—an extra long wooden bench from the recreation hall. Wielding it in the manner of a battering ram, a suicide squad of eighteen chosen stalwarts— nine a side—came charging down upon us, hell for leather, yelling at the top of their lungs, straight for the body of their senseless compatriot.

They fortunately missed a direct hit, because the man's bearers, with extraordinary coolness, leapt backwards with him in the last tick of time. But he did not entirely escape damage. The bench caught him a glancing blow on the head and by some extraordinary chance, lifted the scalp whole from his skull, so that it hung by no more than a hinge of flesh from his forehead.

The suicide squad, clinging to their now unmanageable monster, were whirled by its momentum clean through the gaping rank, which promptly closed after their passage, while they, their intemperately twinkling little legs no longer able to cope, suddenly collapsed in a deplorable bunch and went madly bounding, heels over head, one over another, down the rugged hillside.

They must have hurt themselves a lot. The sight wrung a page 197fulfilled laugh even out of my toothache, and, ten seconds later, Providence sent me a still more precious reward. We were just winning to the cover of the sleeping-houses, and I had turned back to hurry up a pair of constables who had straggled, when the miraculous stone arrived.

It must have been a stone of extraordinary shape. I always pictured it to myself rather like a bird's head with a delicate, longish, curved beak. Delicate or not, this beaked thing came flying down from some inspired Chinese hand, pecked a neat hole through my lower lip, bit into the gum, excised my aching tooth—none other—without the least damage to either of its neighbours, and, as Heaven is my witness, whipped it, absolutely entire, half-way out into daylight through the little pecked hole; so that when, having clapped a hand to my mouth, I drew it away to stare at the blood on it, there was that miserable bit of ivory stuck between my fingers.

I would have paused then to look for that amazing and beneficent stone but for one circumstance. The other end of it, perhaps more crudely shaped than the beak, had made such a horrid mess of my upper lip and four perfectly good teeth in the top jaw that I was left, for the moment, devoid of any intelligent curiosity about anything.

Looking back, the only fault I can find with the behaviour of Providence that day, was the price it charged the police for the relief of my toothache. Every man of them was badly cut about; it was a month before many of them were on their feet again. The man whose life they had saved came off much cheaper. The doctor simply washed his head, fitted the scalp back on it in the manner of a skullcap, sewed the edges round, kept him in bed, and there he was within a fortnight looking as if he had never had to turn a hair.

He asked to see me when he came out of hospital. I was glad to agree; I knew the police would appreciate a word of thanks from him. But gratitude wasn't exactly what he had in mind. His line was that the police had assumed entire responsibility for his safety by removing him, without his consent, page 198from the recreation hall. That being so, they should have been quicker on their feet when the charge with the bench happened. Their slowness had cost him a month's idleness in hospital. What he wanted to know was how much compensation the government proposed to pay him. The intrepreter said there were no words in his language to render my reply.