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Return to the Islands

1 — — Friends in Exile

page 9

Friends in Exile

After only a fortnight's wait for a ship in Australia, twelve days at sea from Sydney to the equator saw me back at Ocean Island, the capital of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, in the almost record time of nine weeks and five days out of England. They told me when I arrived that Herbert Reginald McClure, a senior district commissioner from Kenya, was going to be our new chief. As he and his wife were due to appear about three months from then, we had to get busy at once putting the residency into shape for their coming.

The residency was wonderfully sited next to our cricket field, on the edge of the island's high plateau, three hundred feet above the burnished immensity of the sea. Perhaps partly for that reason our late chief, E. C. Eliot, had borne patiently enough with its leaking iron roof and sagging floors. But, beyond this, his previous service in the grim political school of the West Indies had taught him to have modest notions about the housing of public servants. We doubted if the McClures could possibly have acquired such enlightenment as his in darkest Africa. So we decided that the repairs must page 10be radical; and this meant, for one thing, that I couldn't occupy the house myself while acting as resident commissioner. But I felt no hardship in forgoing that little bit of grandeur, because the Methvens asked me to stay with them instead.

Six-foot-four Stuartson Collard Methven was officer in charge of police and prisons, Ocean Island. He functioned in addition as superintendent of public works and public prosecutor in the weekly magistrate's court. We took it for granted that he would also operate, whenever the need arose, as foreman of works and sanitary engineer, immigration officer and customs boarding officer, chief landing waiter, chief store-keeper, and principal plumber, government station. We just didn't count the hundred other odd jobs, unsavoury chores, emergency duties and impossible tasks that his kindness undertook as a matter of course for the daily comfort of the seven households that made up our small official settlement on top of the island.

Stuartson and Ruby Methven had been close friends of Olivia's and mine ever since the day of tremendous surf in May, 1914, when, as new arrivals from England, we had been snatched from our plunging ship by Stuartson with his perfect boat's crew of Ellice Island policemen and brought gasping to shore through the charging combers of Ocean Island's boat passage. It was heartening to look forward to a few months of their companionship before going back alone to tackle life on some out-station of the Gilbert or Ellice Group.

There was Ocean Island's wonderful mail service, too, for comfort. The big local mining concern known as the B.P.C. —otherwise the British Phosphate Commissioners—was at that time exporting over 300,000 tons annually of the island's fabulous phosphate of lime deposits to Australia or New Zealand. The forty or more ships a year that this brought to us from Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland meant letters from home at least twice and often three times a month.

By contrast, three mails a year was the average expectation page 11in any of the other twenty-four Gilbert and Ellice Islands. That seven-hundred-mile chain of dreaming atolls to east and south of Ocean Island, strung so remote across the equator through the deep heart of the Pacific, had little in it to attract freight-hungry shipping from the outside world. After feeding its own lagoonside populations of thirty-odd thousand souls, it could put up no more copra for export than a single medium-sized tramp a year could carry away. The only other ships that paid regular annual visits were the s.s. John Williams II, doing her twelve-monthly tour of the groups for the London Missionary Society, and a recruiting vessel sent round by the B.P.C. to collect Gilbertese workers for Ocean Island. Under those conditions, your mail, when it did arrive, was certainly a big one. You could squeeze some extra fun out of it, too, after swallowing the lot at a single delirious first session, by putting all the letters you wanted to see again back through the local post, so that they reached you at breakfast, one every morning, for several weeks on end. But three, or four, or possibly even six months at a stretch is a long while to wait for home news, and I needed the preliminary breather fate had given me with the Methvens before going out alone to face it.

What I did miss at first on Baanaba (that was the Ocean Islanders' own name for their lovely little home) was the gay and spontaneous mass-friendliness I had learned to expect from villagers over in the lagoon islands. The eleven hundred Baanabans were a good deal shyer by nature than the other, bigger Gilbertese populations. Also, the growth of the phosphate mining industry, with its self-contained European settlement of fifty or so engineers, clerical workers and artisans—half of them married men with families—did establish conditions in which the white man and the brown, each contentedly absorbed in the fullness of his own domestic ways, tended to meet each other seldom except in the relationship of employer and employed.

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Nevertheless, if you took the trouble to go calling in any of the four exquisite Baanaban villages—Tabiang, Uma and Tabwewa by the sea, or Buakonikai (meaning 'Place Among Trees') on the island's crest—you could always count on having a cluster of friends around you within a very few minutes of your arrival. Your best time for a visit was about five in the evening. All the world was at home then, the men just back from fishing, stretched at ease within the open-sided houses: the women outside, under the high-arching coconut palms, getting their earth-ovens ready to cook the day's catch; the golden-bodied children at play where hibiscus and poinciana burned between the grey-brown thatches. In that tender hour before sunset everyone's tongue was loosened, whether for serious discourse or joyful gossip, as at no other time of the day. I learned to depend much for inward peace upon the evening calls I paid in the villages. And then there were the visits with which 'Movement of Clouds' of her goodness honoured me.

Movement of Clouds (Tebutinnang in Gilbertese) was the only granddaughter of the headman of Tabiang village. She and her grandmother Tearia had been particular friends of mine ever since my greenest cadet days on Baanaba. It was old Tearia who, back in 1915, had taught me—while her great mane of silver hair was being brushed by the little girl—my first steps in Gilbertese myth and legend. But even earlier than that, Movement of Clouds, a naked elf of only seven at the time, had shown me how to belch with decorum, as every good guest should do, in thanks for hospitality received.1

Though I had spent most of the six years that followed away from Baanaba in the lagoon islands, she had been at pains, whenever I had reappeared at headquarters, to re-entrench her position as my accepted authority upon how true Gilbertese ladies and gentlemen did—and I myself always should—behave while visiting or receiving island friends. I had dubbed her for page 13 Villagepage 14this purpose Net Kaeti-kawai—meaning Female Straightenways or, broadly, Girl Guide—and she was delighted with the title.

Her approach to the business of keeping my manners up to the mark had never varied through the years. Wherever I happened to be staying, she would call on me (dressed, alas, in her most heavily flounced Mother Hubbard) within an hour of my arrival and wait in the back premises, often for as long as three or four hours, until I was ready to receive her. Sitting then on the mat by my easy chair, she would solicit my favourable notice of the wreath of white flowers she had plaited and was wearing in my honour. It was up to me to exclaim in response that it looked on her small dark head as lovely as an aureole about the brows of Nei Tengaina, virgin spirit of the dawn—which I honestly felt it did. Having considered which with grave pleasure, she would plunge into a masterly résumé of the points of etiquette she had collected for me since our last meeting. When that was done, she would accept with courteous grace a bowl of brown sugar and water from my hands, drink it off, return the vessel to me while eructating with exquisite punctilio for grace after meat, receive my thanks for her help, and go her way fulfilled.

One of my earliest calls after arriving back from England was on Movement of Clouds' grandfather. It was not a social call: I had some official business—I forget what—to discuss with the old man as headman of Tabiang village. So I planned to be there soon after 3 p.m. At that hour, I guessed, his wife and granddaughter would probably be busy shopping (or even busier gossiping with shoppers) at the B.P.C.'s big trade store down at Uma, and he sitting peacefully alone in his brown lodge, just emerged from a refreshing afternoon nap.

But my calculations turned out wrong. Tearia and Movement of Clouds were both at home with him and all three were heavily engaged with another caller. This last was a large brown mission teacher dressed in the trailing white waistcloth page 15 Young woman and flowersand starched drill jacket of his calling. He sat crosslegged on a guest mat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the other three, who listened, dumbly sweating in the languid afternoon heat, while he stated the official reason for his call.

They were all so absorbed in his business that nobody noticed me picking my way down the hillside through the palm stems. Rather than interrupt their session, I joined an interested little audience gathered in the shade of a mighty breadfruit tree near by, and listened in.

It appeared that two village policemen had started the page 16trouble. Those interfering fellows, the teacher said, had come snooping round his back premises last night, looking everywhere for a certain pig of his. Having failed to find which, in its pen or anywhere else, they had asked him what about it. And when he had replied Kai ngkam! meaning he neither knew nor cared, they had said what a pity, had written his name in a book, and told him he must appear before the Native Court next week on a charge of neglectfully permitting his pig to wander, for which crime the prescribed fine was sixpence, or, at the option of the convicted party, twenty arm-spans of coconut fibre string. And when he had said how could they accuse him like that of a wandering pig when they had seen absolutely no pig of his wandering anywhere, they hadn't had a word to say in reply. And the whole set-up was a shame that stank to Heaven, anyway, because it was clear to every Christian that missionaries, together with all the village teachers, pastors and deacons who assisted them, being representatives of the Almighty here below, should by rights be treated as immune from the action of the silly, treacherous, oppressive and altogether ungodly man-made laws for which the headman and his police minions stood.

Never had prelate of old, I felt sure, claimed benefit of clergy with arrogance more self-assured than this simple brown lay teacher's. But never, on the other hand, have I heard officialdom's majority views about itself more confidently stated than in the old headman's immediate reply.

"Stuff and nonsense!" he bawled, leaping to his feet and pointing at his visitor: "Stuff and nonsense, calamitous gaby! It isn't you missionaries who are above the law … it's we of the government … we, the lawgivers!" Not even a Treasury spokesman in Whitehall could have bettered the insolence of it.

Yet even in that moment of superb affirmation, the cagey personal modesty of the trained official overtook him. In saying 'we,' he hadn't meant to claim that he himself made any laws, he paused to explain laboriously, sitting down again; page 17only, being a village headman made him a colleague of the shining company who did so—the resident commissioner and his galaxy of district officers. Now there, if the teacher was looking for heavenborn masters, was a gang worth serving. Why, they walked practically arm in arm with the Almighty the whole day long!

And then his burning esprit de corps ran away with his tongue again. If only the teacher could see us at work, he said, … the divine play we made juggling with our own laws … the way we would be honouring them one day, ignoring them the next … the way we would be adding, revoking, twisting this way or that, with never a by-your-leave to missionaries, or native governments, or anyone else in earth or heaven, or even to the spirits of the underworld—well, if only the teacher could watch us at all those activities, he said, he would realize what truly heavenborn creatures we were …

He had clearly reached the top of his form at that point; anything more would have made anticlimax. I hurried down the slope to stand under the eaves of his house, a hand laid on the edge of its raised floor, begging admission. He simply had to stop then and welcome me: "You shall be blest, Kurimbo [Grimble]. Enter … enter."

All were silent as Movement of Clouds, on hands and knees, dragged a guest mat across to where I could sit on it propped against a corner post. She sat beside me crosslegged, holding my hand while I pronounced the ancient formula of courtesy she herself had taught me, "Blest be this house and everyone within." It was plain from the way her enormous eyes shone up at me that she was prouder than ever to have the privilege of being the instructress and friend of a creature so celestial. And alas, I said nothing to disabuse her innocence.

A little breeze was born like a cool thought in the heart of the forest. I remember still how soft, as we settled down to gossip, the sound of the surf a hundred feet below came filtering up to us through the rustle of the palms. There was no more striving between Church and State in the wistful calm page 18that fell upon us then. As far as I know, the case of the wandering pig was never brought to judgment.

But I was puzzled about Movement of Clouds when I got home. Though her welcome that day had seemed to mean she still valued our friendship, she had not once come to see me since my return from England. So, when three days had passed since my visit and yet she had not appeared, I wrote begging her to pity me and call. At nearly fourteen she had already had six years' schooling with the Sacred Heart Mission at Tabwewa and was well able to reply in her own language.

Her neatly written letter arrived two mornings later, I have it still. I have altered nothing in translating it except for here and there putting in a comma of my own:

Kurimbo, my loved uncle,

You shall be blest.

Be thanked for your letter, Kurimbo. My heart was glad to receive it but heavy also because of many things.

See here, Kurimbo, I am a grown woman now. I became ready for marriage many moons ago when you were in Engiran [England].

And now my grandfather is considering a husband for me to marry when I am fifteen years old, and you are not really my uncle, and I can never be much alone with you again.

But I have a thought which is perhaps lucky, perhaps not. I will be with you at five o'clock this evening and disclose it.

We shall meet, Kurimbo. You shall be blest. Remember me with love.

Me, your unhappy Straighten-ways.

I waited for her on the broad front verandah of the Methvens' house near the police barracks. She arrived on the tick of five as delicately garlanded and goffered as ever. She did not page 19ask me to admire her beautiful white wreath of uri blossoms as she settled herself on the guest mat; but she did greet me with a wan smile, and when I volunteered the time-worn compliment about the Dawn Virgin's aureole she laughed: "How sad my heart, Kurimbo, if you had forgotten to say that today!" And then, all at once, the melancholy fell off her like a shed cloak and she was a child again.

It was only after ten minutes of the old kind of gossip mixed with talk of my four daughters, whom we always called her little sisters, that she came to the 'thought' she had mentioned in her letter.

"You remember the words of my grandfather?" she suddenly asked me: "When he spoke of the games you and your Old Man can play with the law? When he said you can make it and undo it, just as the fancy takes you, up here on the top of Baanaba?"

"Yes … but look here …" I began anxiously.

Her eagerness swept me aside. "What a wonderful power is that!" she went on, her eyes lifted to mine. My heart rose up in pride as my ears listened; and then she whispered to me, "Now that Kurimbo himself is our Old Man for a time, who is there to prevent him?"

"Prevent him … I mean me?" I repeated blankly. "Why … whatever from?"

"From changing the law, Kurimbo," she said, with a kind smile for my obtuseness.

"In Heaven's name, what law?"

"The law of marriage."

"But why should I want to go changing the law of marriage all of a sudden?"

"For love of me," she answered simply. "Please, Kurimbo … this husband they are going to tie me to is a nice boy … I like him … but I don't want to be engaged to anyone yet. I want to come and go without care. Can't you make a new law about it for my sake?"

"You mean a law something like this, I suppose," I said page 20with laboured irony: "'Everyone in the world is forbidden to get engaged, or try to get engaged, to the girl child Tebutinnang, otherwise known as Kaeti-kawai, until she says she is willing to be tied; and anybody who breaks this law will be put in prison for six months.' Would that suit you?"

She glowed with pleasure. "That would indeed do nicely," she replied with a quick, excited laugh, "except that I don't think anyone ought to be put in prison for just trying."

My momentary irritation faded. Pity and shame overwhelmed me. I confessed with hanging head then that the Old Man and district officers like me were nothing like the allpowerful lawmakers her grandfather had pictured us.

In earlier times, it was true, things had been different, but nobody nowadays could interfere with the Gilbertese marriage laws as she expected me to do. It wouldn't be right … and so forth …

The happiness was drained from her face as I stumbled on. I cursed my thoughtlessness as her hurt gaze clung to mine. No more than a little word from me after her grandfather's big talk in the village would have sufficed to spare her this piteous disenchantment. "I am sorry … sorry …" I mumbled and waited, clay-footed idol I had proved, for her reproaches.

But she said not a word, only looked at me in silence while her slow tears gathered. I miserably watched them well up, fat and shining, one by one, roll down her cheeks, meet at her quivering chin, and tumble thence in sorrowful rain upon her lap.

Nevertheless, though my vanity had let her down so badly, the thought did break in on me soon that all was as yet far from lost.

"Cheer up, Straighten-ways," I recovered voice enough to say. "It's true I'm not a god, alas! It's true I can't be your real uncle. But what about you? Have you thought what you and I can do about it?"

Still she said no word. But the tears ceased to flow, and a small hope dawned in her eyes, as she waited for more.

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"Five years ago, at Tarawa, a little girl of Betio village took the name of my eldest daughter, Joan; and Joan she has been ever since. So what relation is she of mine, would you say?"

She wiped her wet cheeks and blew her nose with sudden gusto on the handkerchief I tossed to her: "That girl is your daughter's name-sister, Kurimbo."

"And what duties does she owe me?"

"She owes you all duties that a daughter owes you, until she dies."

"But suppose she gets betrothed to some nice young man. Can custom not prevent her then from coming to see me?"

She drew herself across the floor to where my right foot rested, and laid her hand upon my brown brogue: "No, Kurimbo, not even then."

"Very well. Do you remember my second daughter's name, or have you forgotten it?"

"It is Roti-mé-ré," she murmured, arranging and rearranging my shoelace with gentle fingers: "A beautiful name … none in the world more beautiful."

"Good. Nobody has taken it yet. Would you like it for yourself?"

She bent her head so low, I could hardly catch her whisper: "I would it were mine, Kurimbo." Then she picked up my shoe, complete with foot inside, hugged it to herself and laid her cheek upon the toecap.

It would have been a pretty gesture had things rested there— which is to say, had my foot remained at the approximate level of her chest as she sat upon the floor. In that position, my leg stuck forward at a reasonably dignified angle from the chair I sat in, and I could undoubtedly have regained eventual control of it without great loss of face if Ruby Methven had not chosen that particular moment to arrive home from a visit to friends.

The polite child sprang to her feet as soon as she saw Ruby and this again, per se, was a graceful act. But, for some reason I could never divine, she forgot to give me back my foot as page 22she sprang. The result was that Ruby's first view of me was flung back in my chair with one leg wildly cocked up against my little friend's bosom.

"What … playing at circuses?" was all she said as she passed us, to disappear upstairs, which struck me as very unsatisfactory. But when her idiot laughter came ringing from above Straighten-ways dropped my foot with a crash and followed suit; so I suppose I was wrong to remain annoyed.

Two weeks later, there was a big ritual in Tabiang village, to turn the name Tebutinnang into Rosemary. There simply had to be a ritual, her grandfather said. You can't be too careful with a new name. A name's a thing—a substance: evil spirits love to burrow into it, as termites into wood; and once they're in, it's done for. Your only salvation then is to throw it away quickly, quickly, before they have eaten the heart out of it. If you don't, you will wake up one night to feel your own heart too being gnawed away to nothing. But you're safe enough from horrors like that if your grandfather knows how to put a name on you properly.

The first step in the ritual is to make a safe enclosure to protect the new name and its prospective owner from the very outset. So there in Tabiang on the chosen day—at the sun's high noon, his supplest hour for magic—Tebutinnang's kinsfolk were gathered around her. They sat shoulder to shoulder in a closed circle, mother's people on the south side, father's on the north, facing in towards the little girl at their centre, while father's father walked round inside the ring dropping whispered words of power like a kind of elastic webfence between them. Thus reinforced, the human rampart would stay impenetrable to any kind of earth spirit, no matter how the children wriggled out of line or the adults twisted in in their seats thereafter.

It only remained then to provide against the spirits of sea, sky and underworld. The sign of a magic solar cross, stepped page 23out within the circle, easily did that. Intoning his powerful spell as he went, the old man strode first from north to south and back again, himself the sun in its yearly course from solstice to solstice; then from east to west and back again, the sun this time in his daily rising and setting. And behold! (as he said to me afterwards) a roof of safety and a floor of protection for the sanctuary were complete.

I felt bound to tell him that the one magic formula he had used throughout, though very beautiful, seemed to me almost too simple to achieve the results he claimed for it—

Off with you, spirits of fear, spirits of death!
Give way to the sun and the moon,
For this is a sanctuary,
This is a place made safe.
Blessings and peace upon us,
Blessings and peace.

"Yes," agreed the old man, "it is only a little thing. But we put our whole trust in it and also in the power of the sun and moon to protect us: so it works for us according to our heart's desire." Which seemed to me quite good sense in a pagan and a bureaucrat.

So there, her sanctuary perfected, sat the grave little girl within it, her new name alive in her heart. Alive but hidden; for, even in that safe place, it would be unlucky to speak it aloud before the old one had been properly discarded.

The throwing-away ritual started as soon as we began to tuck into the feast. The feast was, in fact, an integral part of it. As the women brought round portions from the stockpile collected within our circle, grandfather came prancing in their train to snatch titbits from our very mouths and, amid hoots of laughter, fling them to the spirits outside. The dull, ordinary dishes like bully beef or sweet potatoes didn't attract him. He went for the real treats, such as fish heads in molasses and sardines mashed with strawberry jam. North, east, south page 24west he hopped and pounced in turn, scattering those delicious fragments until the grass outside was filthy with them; and, as he scattered, he bawled:

"Here, you spirits of earth!
Here, you spirits of heaven!
Here, you spirits of ocean and the underworld!
Here is your food, the name,
Even the name Tebutinnang—o—o!
Is it tasty, ke-e-e? Stay outside and eat it.
Stay outside for we are throwing it to you,
The name Tebutinnang.
It is gone, gone, gone—Tebutinnang—o—o!"

and "Gone, gone, gone—Tebutinnang—o—o!" we kept roaring after him until not an atom of the old name could possibly have been left inside the circle and the spirits outside were beyond any reasonable doubt totally preoccupied in devouring it.

The little girl rose to her feet at a sign from her grandfather and, standing in the very centre of our circle, was crowned by him with a fillet of coconut leaf. In the silence that fell upon us then I was called to approach and take her hands in mine.

"What name do you give this girl child?" the old man asked.

"The name of my daughter, Roscmary."

"And you?"—he turned to her—"Is it in your heart to take that name?"

"It is in my heart," she answered clearly, and suddenly all her kinsfolk raised a great shout together:

"Enough! Enough! Let her take the name of Roti-mé-ré!"

Without another word, the old man spilled oil from a coconut shell upon her head and, patting it gently all the time, muttered so low that only she and I could hear his words:

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"By this crowning with a fillet,
By this anointing with oil,
You have taken a name—
It shall lie safe on you in this place,
The enclosure of the sun and moon.
It shall lie safe on you outside,
For the sun and moon shall be with it—
  Blessings and Peace upon you,
  Blessings and Peace."

I found I had a touch of heat stroke that evening, which naturally pleased my name-child a lot when grandfather told her what it meant. According to him, it only went to show how strong the sun had been for his magic that noontide. And the proof of that was that a bit of coconut leaf on which he had called down the sun's blessing cured me in less than a week by merely staying under my pillow.

1 A Pattern of Islands