Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

A Pattern of Islands

House that Vanished

House that Vanished

The trouble that had kept me five weeks at Arorae was a quarrel between the whole people and an acting District Officer, which ended in his return to Ocean Island. That raised acute staffing problems in the group. New officers simply could not be found in 1918. In the end, the Old Man was left with no recourse but to see if I couid run the ten central and southern islands together as a single district. The plan meant a change of headquarters from quiet Abemama to Beru, the island most centrally placed for the purpose and, politically speaking, the capital of the south. I never got back into our Abemama house except on visits of inspection, for the sequels of the Arorae trouble held me in the southern islands until Olivia's return with the children in late October, 1918.

The history of our doings at or near Beru began at sea, five miles out from the weather reef, an hour and a half before sunset on an evening of ferocious westerly squalls. There is no ship's entrance to Beru lagoon and the bottom is dangerous for half a mile outside the boat-passage. The captain of our ship was justified in standing well clear of a lee shore in weather like that; but we felt he had rather overdone it when we contemplated the landing-craft he had set at our disposal. He said the rickety launch and two boats towed behind it were all he could spare for the accommodation of Olivia and three infants; three page 229nursemaids; a cook; a houseboy and his wife; a native clerk and his wife; my orderly, his wife and child; myself with five boxes of office necessities and a steel safe; forty-eight chickens and twelve guineafowl in cages; crated provisions for six months, including a ton of Navy biscuits for staff; the staff's personal luggage and bedding; the children's cots and bedding; our family's personal luggage, household effects and bits of furniture. Also six goats.

We sixteen humans were huddled one on top of the other into the stern-sheets of the launch. Olivia was perched on the knee of Sila, the cook, while I sat in the lap of full-bosomed Faasolo, his wife, Joan's nursemaid. The dunnage was piled in the boats, mountains high, with the goats balanced on the peaks as if back in their native highlands. The sea was brutally steep and the squalls brought driving rain that had soaked us through before we left the ship's side. The captain lost his nerve in the last minute, when he looked down at the wallowing, overloaded craft: 'Don't you think you had better take a third boat?' he yelled overside, as if we hadn't asked for one.

'Tell him,' said Olivia to me, 'I wouldn't accept another boat from him if he were the Emperor of Morocco.' I did so with pleasure. 'And now, home, James!' Olivia said to the Gilbertese launch-boy.

Chickens cackling, goats bleating, children wailing for wetness, misery and fear, we lurched off on the five-mile run to the boat-passage. If the ancient engine had conked out – as it showed signs of doing – before we reached safety, we should have been swept helplessly by sea and wind down on the raging reef, for there wasn't a hope of getting oars out in those packed craft. But it did not conk out, and suddenly, in the middle of a blinding rain squall from the south-west, when nothing but the sea-sense of our steersman held us true on our south-east course from ship to passage, we found ourselves in calm water. Guided by ear alone, with visibility zero, he had turned suddenly due east through a break in the crashing surf at exactly the right moment. 'Moment' is no exaggeration; a mistake of ten seconds more or less would have destroyed us. But Gilbertese steersmen do not make such mistakes.

page 230

It was low tide. Beru lagoon is very shallow inside the passage, and the boats could not go far in, so Olivia, the children, their cots, their nursemaids, and I transhipped into canoes that had come to meet us. We took a few tins of milk and soup with us. The others stayed behind to deal with the rest of the stuff.

'There's the kitchen roof,' I said, pointing to a thatch just visible between trees two miles across the water; 'we'll soon be there now.'

Our spirits rose. We began to organize as we went along. I had seen the District Officer's quarters on my first recruiting trip three years before, as Charles Workman's doggie. It was a three-roomed wooden bungalow by the lagoonside, with deep verandahs, back, front and ends. A fine big kitchen, neatly built of native timber and thatch, had been added to its north end, and an office, also native-built, opened off its south verandah. The Old Man had granted me a special warrant of £50 to do the whole place up. We saw it already in our mind's eye freshly painted in and out, gleaming white under a gay red roof between the golden-brown of its native annexes.

The blustering night was upon us before we reached shore. 'We'll put the children in the middle room,' Olivia decided: 'We'll have the one next to your office for ourselves, and that will leave the one nearest the kitchen for a dining-room.' We said how marvellous it was, after all our goings and comings in strange houses, to be able to plan surely, cosily like that again. It looked to us almost as if Providence had set the stage – the comfortless ship, the screaming squalls, the perilous passage into safety – to sharpen our delight at having a home of our own waiting to take us in now … at once … just over there, where that light was glimmering through the sodden darkness.

'We'll get a roaring fire started right away in the kitchen stove and warm the children by it while we're waiting for the things to come ashore,' I said.

'Yes, and we'll hot up some milk for them and have a tin of soup for ourselves, to keep us going,' Olivia answered, as another rain squall plunged down on us.

It was black dark on the beach, but the Native Magistrate and Chief Kaubure were there with a hurricane lamp to guide us. It page 231was natural for us to ask them to lead us first to the big native-built kitchen, with its promise of immediate warmth and food. They ushered us in through a side door. The place was letting in the rain; there were holes in the thatch and pools of water on the cement floor. But there were dry spots here and there. The only real trouble was the stove.

There was, in fact, no stove. The Magistrate said something about it having been taken to Onotoa by my predecessor. However, that was no moment to be bemoaning details. The children were crying with cold and hunger. The first thing to do was to get a fire started somehow. The Magistrate and Chief Kaubure brought in dry sticks from somewhere and soon had a blaze going on the floor, with a kerb of big coral rocks around it. We took the babies out of their dripping clothes, wrapped them in blankets and stood their cots around the glow. The smoke was appalling, but there was warmth. 'And now for a saucepan and some milk,' said Olivia.

But there was no saucepan either. Everything of that kind had gone to Onotoa with the stove. My predecessor had made Onotoa his headquarters for the past year or more. The fact was known to me and I was the goat for not having foreseen the natural consequences. However, as Olivia said, we had our own utensils, and in the meantime a kettle would do for the milk if anybody had one. The Magistrate did have one, and the children got their warm drink with some biscuits we had brought for them. But before we got down to the soup, a thought struck Olivia: 'Perhaps we shouldn't move the children tonight. There's room in here for a double bed if we push out one of the cots. I'll share it with Joan by the fire; I'm pretty cold myself; there'll be no smoke when the fire burns clear.'

It seemed to me an excellent idea. The storm had blown itself out, the rain had stopped and I saw stars through the holes in the thatch. I believed I could squeeze a single bed into a corner for myself. We put the soup on and called for beds. They arrived eventually, on loan, from houses in the Native Government lines. The beds belonging to our own quarters had, unfortunately gone to Onotoa along with the stove and saucepans.

The substitutes so kindly lent to us were solid wooden affairs, page 232rough plank tables on short legs, and they made rare hard lying; but, as Olivia said, it didn't affect the children, and we two could soon get the station carpenter to run us up some nice string ones like those at Abemama. Meanwhile, there were our people arriving with the heavy gear – we heard their shouts from the beach. The idea was for me to go and see everything laid out on the front verandah before turning in. All we needed in our queer emergency quarters were the bundles of sleeping mats, bedding and mosquito nets. Everything else could just wait until morning. It would be marvellous to wake up fresh at daybreak, have a dip in the lagoon, and get down to the big, thrilling business of home-making.

I went out by the way we had come in and made straight through the trees for the canoes, eighty yards away. The night was now still, but very dark. It was fumbling work getting all that stuff dumped on the beach from the canoes by the dim light of hurricane lamps. I picked out the bundles of bedding and sent them back to the kitchen. 'Now get the rest taken and spread out on the front verandah,' I told my orderly.

He was a Tarawa man and strange to the place: 'Where is the verandah?' he asked.

I pointed inland: 'Up there, as straight as you can go.'

He went through the screen of trees with a lamp to get the lie of the land and I returned to report all well to Olivia. Our troubles were over. This had been a real adventure … fun to write home about when we had settled in and all that … but thank heaven it was only for a night. We were just getting ready to turn in when the orderly appeared at the door: 'I cannot find the verandah,' he said simply: 'I have searched south, I have searched north, I have searched middle. In the south there is another thatched house like this, very old and dirty, but in the midst between that and this there is no verandah.'

'You'd better go and see what he means,' said Olivia. She smiled, but she already knew in her heart as well as I did what the answer was. There was in very truth no verandah in the midst between. It had accompanied the stove, and the saucepans, and the beds to Onotoa. So had the rest of the house and everything in it except two kitchen chairs. We were, in short, page 233stranded on Beru, homeless but for the chairs and two ruinous native shacks eighty feet apart

But morning came and we bathed in the lagoon. The waters sparkled emerald-clear over the white sand bottom. We seemed to be swimming in limpid green light. In the cool of early day, the palms towered still and patient, like tall saints with folded hands gathering strength to face the burning noon. Their peace came dropping slow upon us as we walked back up the beach. 'After all,' Olivia said, 'we can have a really beautiful native-built house now, with great big rooms. I've always wanted to live in one of our own design. Then you can use that special warrant of £50 to buy a stove and a sink, and a roof-tank, and a new bath, and a cistern, and some chairs, and a wardrobe … oh, and I don't know what-not else instead of paint for that rotten old wooden bungalow.'

We began to design a grand new home that day. It was easy to consider ourselves on picnic until it was ready. The kitchen we were in was turned into a sitting-room-dining-room-office and the other shack, formerly the office, became our collective bedroom and night-nursery. The domestic staff lodged out in the Native Government lines, our cooking was done mostly in a native earth-oven. We had two squatter's chairs for comfort among our bits and pieces, and the station carpenter was asked to make us two string beds as soon as he could. Everything went blithely from the word go, except that Olivia and I were attacked by a queer irritation of the skin. But, as the children didn't get it and we felt very fit, we dismissed it for what George Murdoch always used to call 'just another of these dog-diseases of the Pacific.'

The beautiful headquarters and training school of the London Missionary Society were at Rongorongo, five miles up the curving shore. Their neat buildings by the beach looked neighbourly towards us over the water. The resident staff of five English workers – two married couples and a single lady – made generously helpful friends for us from the first week. There was Father Choblet too, the hero who had risked death to bring the page 234Last Sacrament to his brother-priest at Nukunau, a giant's soul in the frame of a gnome, vivid, humorous, passionate, truculent – 'Je suis français de la Vendée, moi!' he used to shout at his most redoubtable moments – brave as a lion, kind as an angel. His station and the house of two teaching sisters of the Sacred Heart lay only two miles north of us. We had had no such glut of European contacts ever before in the Gilbert group. The children were bursting with health. The only small nuisance was that skin-irritation.

I scratched an itching eyebrow one morning as I was writing, and a tiny speck fell on the paper. It was alive. I had never seen that particular insect before, so I showed it to my orderly. He laughed: 'That is what we call te uti-baraaki. Where did it come from?' But the smile went out of his face when I told him. 'Alas!' he cried, 'this is an evil thing. It eats its way under the skin, and lays eggs, and multiplies exceedingly, and the itching thereof is beyond bearing, and, before it can be rooted out, it is necessary to shave the hair from those places where it abides.'

We were suffering, not to put too fine a point on it, from crab-lice caught from the wooden beds so kindly lent to us. We swarmed with them. That was the second and last time I ever saw Olivia weep at the mischances of domestic life in the Gilbert Islands. The first had been at the ruin of our dinner for the Old Man at Tarawa. 'It's the tiniest little things that irritate most,' she said, and I thought she was right in this particular case. We slept on the floor until the string beds came along, a fortnight later.

We never discovered if the Old Man had known there were no quarters for us. He was a queer bird, but probably he hadn't. In the absence of a District Officer at Beru, the only places he would have landed at on visits of inspection would have been the two Mission Stations. Incidentally also, he could not have got a clue to the situation from anything he found at Onotoa, because the timbers of the missing house were never reassembled there in recognizable shape. They simply disappeared. It was just another of those Gilbert and Sullivan twists that added zest page 235to life in the islands, as Olivia said, and we left it at that. One did not, in any case, put one's Chief on the spot in those days.

Our new house was to be built, according to plan, entirely of native materials, round three sides of a square, its courtyard turned inland. A big lounge between two bedrooms was to face the lagoon, and in the wings we were to have another bedroom, a day nursery, my office, the kitchen, and the bathroom. But a home like that was going to take five or six months to finish, whereas we wanted to be out of the shacks by Christmas Eve (which was also Olivia's birthday) only two months ahead. Work was therefore concentrated on the three front rooms first of all. These were ready a week or so before Christmas and we settled in happily, leaving the two shacks to be used as a kitchen and an office until the new ones came along.

The weather was not very good to us, as the westerly season was now at its zenith; but the driving rain taught us just where more leaf-screens were needed to make the house cosier for Christmas, and those took no more than a few minutes each to plait. We were all snug by Christmas Eve, with the weather doors and windows blinded against possible storms. 'The great thing is to be ready for trouble,' said Olivia on her birthday morning: 'Thank heaven we are out of those wretched shacks. They'll probably lose their roofs if these tremendous squalls go on.'

The squalls were indeed tremendous. News came in of village houses blown down, and I began to regret having felled a good many of the trees that had screened the house to westward; they had spoiled our view over the lagoon, but the lack of them now exposed us to the wind's full force. However, the weather abated in the afternoon, and by dinner-time all was quiet. We filled the children's Christmas stockings and turned in, more than ever serenely rooted in our new home.

But at midnight another squall awoke us. It hit the house with the impact of a solid mass. We heard the walls cracking with the strain. The whole universe shrieked, and so did the children. I leapt out of bed and tried to light a hurricane lamp; but the house was full of whirling gusts; I could not. Olivia groped her way through to the children in the pitchy darkness. I groped after her page 236with the unlit lamp. As we went, screens that filled the front doorway exploded inwards and driven spume from the lagoon flooded the lounge. The whole house was staggering and groaning. In the children's room, Olivia stood feverishly holding out her nightdress for shelter while I lit the lamp. But top gusts put even hurricane lamps out; the flame flickered perilously. We knelt on the floor, she spread her lifted nightdress over it, I opened my pyjama coat around it, to keep the flame alive. We must have made a marvellous Christmas Eve tableau like that. But we didn't feel marvellous when we looked overhead. The roof above us was whipping madly up and down. We saw lashings snap. Fragments of thatch were torn away as we watched. There was a ripping, rending roar; the whole roof suddenly vanished before our eyes into the screaming night. The lamp went out. We knelt in gross darkness, with our wailing progeny about us, while the gale lashed down upon our roofless heads.

But we thought our new house the grandest thing in the Gilberts when it was finished. Not a fragment of European stuff went into it except a corrugated-iron kitchen roof for a water-catchment. Lime burned from coral rocks made the base it stood on. The walls were of coconut-leaf midribs lashed upright side by side. Door and window frames were of moulded coconut timber. Lattice work of ivory-white pandanus-root slats filled the windows and garnished the tops of inside walls. String made of coconut fibre held the whole together with intricate and beautiful patterns of cross-lashing. The cool, twilight interior was a study in dun-browns, silver-greys and old-ivory, so complete in its own beauty that it refused all wall-decorations save here and there a patterned native mat and an etching or two, sparsely distributed. We got our stove, and bath, and roof-tank, and cistern, and what-not-else at last, thanks to an extra-special warrant the Old Man granted. The roof was built doubly strong after that educative Christmas Eve, and life went swimmingly from then on in our adorable home by the lagoonside.