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A Pattern of Islands

Epilogue — Return of a Stranger

page 259

Return of a Stranger

My old enemy, 'Amoeba', was at me again two months before Christmas, 1919. This time, the only medicine available was a I-ounce packet of Epsom-salt, which proved unhelpful. For fear of another crack like 'pusillanimous prig' from Father Choblet, I gave an earnest trial to that dietetic idea of his that had lifted me out of the last bout. But perhaps I lacked faith, or started eating too early, or ate too much or too little boiled fish, for it didn't seem to work. Nevertheless, Providence, by the Father's reckoning, remained active. On Christmas Eve, a totally unhoped-for schooner turned up and removed what remained of me to Ocean Island for treatment.

The event undoubtedly was providential for me as a person, but it didn't look like that for anyone else. The schooner was a small one, crammed with native passengers. There was not even deck space aboard for the four children and their nurses. Olivia stayed with the family on Beru. Fate had celebrated her birthday-cum-Christmas Eve the year before by ripping the roof off our house; this year it left her with a roof but without a husband in her solitude.

The captain promised to return and pick them all up within six weeks. Had he been able to do so, he would have found Olivia busily engaged, without benefit of medicines, in fighting an attack of dysentery on her own account and nursing Rosemary, aged three, through a raging temperature that seemed to come from blood poisoning. Rosemary had splintered her shin in a tumble. The splinter, as Olivia remarked afterwards, clicked back nicely into place under manipulation by a village bonesetter, but the sore festered. I fancy that the need of keeping it poulticed day and night was Olivia's main incentive for regarding herself-as cured of her dysentery. Perhaps, too, a light diet page 260helped her. It had to be light. The promised ship did not turn up for four and a half months. By the time it arrived, she had been twelve weeks without such luxuries as flour, rice or potatoes. She was not fat in May, 1920, when she at last came through to me at Ocean Island.

The Old Man had departed on long leave before she arrived, and that had meant a fortunate turn of the official wheel for me. My luck was that Charles Workman had recently been made Resident Commissioner, Solomon Islands, while Geoffrey Smith-Rewse had been seconded to Nauru as Acting Administrator and every other local officer senior to me by service had either retired or resigned. The Old Man had said to me in January that there was nothing for it but to leave me hanging around at Ocean Island as offsider to anyone the High Commissioner might send up to take charge in his absence. I was glad enough of that prospect at the time. A spell of Ocean Island's fresh foods and iced drinks seemed to me exactly the medicine for all of us.

And then, out of the blue, came the astounding order from Fiji that I was to be offered the chance of acting as Resident Commissioner for three or four months, before being packed off on long leave myself.

I well remember how the Old Man reacted to this grotesque proposition. Grotesque was his word for it. I agreed with him in principle but pleaded that, as a matter of practice, I should much like to accept the offer. He replied with one of his saturnine, double-barrelled sniffs and drew me into the dining-room: 'Look here,' he said, rolling back the mat and pointing to some deep dents in the floor boards: 'Do these remind you of anything?' They did. They had been made by the rain of boulders that had crashed through the roof when I blasted his back yard.

'Now,' he went on, 'I'll leave you with a word of advice. It's this – remember it. When you want to dynamite your official seniors, don't attack them from overhead. Their heads are quite invulnerable. Lay your shot near where they do their thinking – under their seats. That gets them every time. You may perish in the process, but what does a genius more or less matter to the Colonial Service, anyhow?'

page 261

I was still trying to work out the exact implications of this utterance for me when he emitted a short yelp, something like a laugh, clapped me on the shoulder and finished: 'Well, the ball's in your hands, Grimble. But none of your funny games before I leave, please.'

So it came about that Olivia and I woke up one morning to find ourselves in charge at the Residency. It was almost six years to the day since we had climbed the front doorsteps as not very welcome intruders into the Central Pacific. That first taste of larger responsibility set a term, I suppose, to my chequered apprenticeship as an administrative officer.

We sailed for home, via Sydney, in August. The arithmetic of our voyage is worth a word in passing. Six years of service entitled us to a passage grant of free transport from Ocean Island to Australia and, in addition, to a payment of £60 down towards the cost of our onward fares to England. My few months as Acting Resident Commissioner had not added to my wealth because (to use the jargon of the financial regulations then current) the substantive holder of the post – the Old Man, in fact - was on full pay leave, and none of his salary was available for the acting incumbent. But we had managed to save £280 out of our pay of £400-£500 a year between Tarawa, Abemama and Beru. Of this, £120 was spent on boarding-house fees in Sydney, where we had to wait three weeks for a ship, and on winter clothes for the children. We found that second class fares to England via Suez would mop up rather more than the remainder of our capital, including the grant of £60. We accordingly travelled round the Cape in a ship designed for the transport of emigrants from England to Australia, and left Sydney with £80 still left of six years' savings to paint London red with.

Our ship was held up for a week in Adelaide by a dock strike and for ten days in Durban by a coal strike. All the children caught whooping cough in the endless hugger-mugger of that horrible craft. Three of them picked up impetigo of the scalp, which was to take months to cure. Poor Rosemary's poisoned leg gave trouble all the way; osteomyelitis was what she had, the surgeon said; and, to put the lid on it, she went down with page 262measles a few days before we reached Tilbury. The others did, too.

We descended upon my father's and mother's house in late November, three months and a week after leaving Ocean Island. The six of us, regarded as a single import, grossed exactly 55 lbs. heavier than the combined weight Olivia and I had exported from the United Kingdom in 1914. But after all, as Olivia remarked, we were still alive. Also, the whole of my full pay during the trip was due to us. That would look after the children's doctors' bills. So, we were still ahead of everything by that £80 in the bank.

I sought conversation with numerous uncles in the early days of my leave. I thought a few first-hand impressions of what they loved to call our far-flung possessions in the Pacific would be sure to hold them spellbound. But somehow the talk never got as far as impressions. It almost invariable developed something like this:
  • Uncle: 'Hullo, my boy, glad to see you back. Sit down. Have a cigar. Now, tell us what you've been up to all these years out there.'
  • Self: 'Oh, I've been -'
  • Uncle: 'You don't look too well on it, whatever it was. Did you keep up your riding?'
  • Self: 'Well – no – you see – there aren't any horses there. But I-'
  • Uncle: 'What? No riding? Hm! Now, the other day, Jackie Jack-Jackson said to me – (Jackie's dicta on fox-hunting as an aid to health here omitted.) But you must have got a bit of fishing.'
  • Self: 'Oh, yes, I had plenty of that. The tiger-shark -'
  • Uncle: 'What? Tiger-shark? Now, the other day, I was talking to a feller back from Ireland. (Ensuing tale of a fight to the death with an eight pound salmon omitted.) But I suppose you had a shot at the tigers in those jungles.'
  • Self: 'Well – no – you see – there aren't any jungles or tigers. But I did-'
  • Uncle: 'Good God! No big game? Then what in the world were you doing with youself in your spare time?'page 263
  • Self: 'Well – you see – a district officer is kept pretty busy as a rule. He -'
  • Uncle: 'Oh, yes, now I see. Those cannibals and head-hunters, eh!'
  • Self: 'Well, no – you see – there aren't any cannibals in the Gilberts.
  • Uncle: 'And all this time we've been calling you the king of the cannibal islands. Just fancy! No cannibals.'
  • Self: 'Well – you see-'

But the total loss of horses, salmon, tigers, and cannibals was usually more than enough for my uncles. They weren't unkind about it. They felt the shame of the thing as deeply for me as for themselves. It was out of pure tact that they hurriedly looked at the clock and remembered they had men to see about dogs, and ushered me out with floods of talk about those damned radicals.

Kind Mr Johnson had retired from the Colonial Office some years before I got back to England. I never ventured to ask anyone else in Downing Street to explain exactly what that terrifying phrase 'qualities of leadership' meant to high officialdom. I did go to the Colonial Office, but not to ask questions. My notion was that the people in the personnel department might be glad to hear a few facts about living conditions in the Gilberts, if only for the forewarning of new recruits against avoidable dangers, such as being left without medicines where there was no doctor. I had got a good deal said about things in general to the beautiful young man on the other side of the desk, and was just beginning to expand on particulars, when he interrupted me.

'My dear fellow!' he exclaimed, 'you're not asking me to put all this on record, are you?'

I answered, meekly enough, that this had been the idea, and tried to explain why. But he interrupted me again.

'But – my dear fellow! I mean to say! Good heavens! If we told our applicants even a quarter of these facts in advance, we'd never get a bally recruit!'

I borrowed £150 at the end of my leave to pay my way (emigrant class again) back to the Pacific and leave the family in page breakfunds until I arrived there. I did not see them again for seven years, But that is another story.

  • Monterosso al Mare, La Spezia , March-November, 1951
  • Chester, Nova Scotia, February-April, 1952