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A Pattern of Islands

Sorrows of a Housewife

page 83

Sorrows of a Housewife

The crux of the fresh-food problem for Europeans in the Gilberts was that humus just would not stay put on top of the pure, white coral sand. Coconuts and pandanus trees loved it; it kept their roots aerated; but it was not good for beans or tomatoes. One dug a trench, filled it with painfully prepared compost; the rains came; the compost disappeared underground. Or perhaps no rains came-because, every few years, there was a drought that might last as long as eighteen months. We could spare no water then for plants, seeing that our parched household was limited to two buckets a day for all purposes. The compost stayed on top, but we got no vegetables.

Sometimes-though not often-we were able to get breadfruit or pumpkins from the villages. There was also an enormous tuber of the arum family called babai, cultivated by the villagers in muddy pits. This could be eaten mashed with butter or in cheesy, steamed slabs and was incredibly indigestible either way. No other vegetable foods except coconuts grew locally, and the only sort outside tins that ships brought us every six months or so was potatoes. These always arrived looking depressed after their long, hot trip from Australia; but, with luck, half the weight we bought would be found good when picked over and, with care, we could reckon on enjoying fifty per cent of the good ones before the lot went bad on us. On the average, we were able to make beasts of ourselves on potatoes for two thrilling gastronomic periods of three weeks each a year except between 1918 and 1920, when we went to live at Beru and had none at all for seventeen months.

Some years were yet to pass before any type of refrigerator within the reach of £400 a year became known in the Gilbert group. Olivia never had the comfort of one as a District Officer's wife. And so, whatever oranges or apples the ships might get through to us in their primitive ice-boxes had to be consumed within a week of their arrival. But, as Olivia observed, we were saved from too much heartburning on this score, because the fruit hardly ever survived as far as the lagoon islands. By and large, therefore, no fresh fruit except a very occasional locally page 84grown pawpaw figured in our dietary at Tarawa, and, save for our six sumptuous potato-weeks per annum, the only fresh vegetables Olivia could always count upon for the exercise of her virtuosity in the kitchen were coconuts and that gross tuber I have mentioned-babai-whose unhallowed starchiness no treatment under heaven was ever known to exorcise.

The answer to all this was, of course, contained in tins. It sounds simple enough. Tinned goods in these synthetic days are often made to taste rather like the commodities so brightly pictured on their labels. But that was not so thirty years ago – not, at least, in the Pacific. With the honourable exceptions of asparagus and beetroot, which always seemed to retain faint memories of their better selves, the vegetables doomed to canning in 1916 entered their iron cells bleakly determined to betray every sweetness of their early promise. When they emerged, the eye dared hardly dwell upon their livid looks, and the taste of one and all-celery or onion, pea, cabbage, cauliflower, bean or potato-was as the taste of iron filings boiled in dishwater.

Nevertheless, with tinned asparagus and beetroot as sure standbys, babai at least always with us, potatoes, pumpkins, breadfruit and pawpaws now and then available (and, by the way, pawpaws cooked green made a reasonable substitute for vegetable marrow) we did not do so badly on the whole. Our goats, unfortunately, conspired among themselves to live a life of embittered chastity, which kept them forever fruitless and ourselves without the fresh milk we had dreamed of; but we found the tinned milk palatable enough. Our imported fowls refused to lay and died of gapes; but bush eggs were always to be had from the villages at the rate of three for a stick of trade tobacco, and these yielded sometimes as many as three or four to the dozen that did not explode like stink-bombs in the house-wife's hands. The bush fowls at sixpence each gave decent broth; there was plenty of rice in the trade-stores; the jelly-like flesh of green coconuts made a good vegetable food for infants; the sweet sap of the coconut blossom called toddy fed us with vitamins; the supply of fish from the lagoon was unlimited.

But it was difficult to get good cooks. Cooking for white folk page 85was for some reason always regarded as a man's job, and the men, born of a race of fighters, brought up to wage an endless war of survival against the terrors of the deep and the stern soil of their homeland, never found the happiest expression of their virtues in terms of culinary art. Their strong hands were ill at ease among the puny tools of the kitchen. But as Olivia rhetorically ásked, how could one grouse at that when they came to work crowned as for a dance with garlands of white flowers and made up for what they lacked of measurable cooking skills with measureless daily gifts of gentleness and humour? The kitchen rang with their laughter and song most of the time, and, if we found the things that came out of it sometimes a little wanting in sensuous appeal, we knew that they came garnished at least with the sauce of a friendship beyond valuation.

We couldn't help noticing now and then that spiritual sauces, however rich, left the gross flesh craving still for solid food; but this raised few problems when we were alone; if the fish course looked disastrous, a mere wave of the family tin-opener was enough to produce some kind of substitute. It was when we were not left alone that embarrassments assailed us. Our trouble with visitors was that they always came ashore fed to the teeth with the tinned provisions of their ships and filled with dreams of getting down to a lovely home-cooked meal or two before returning to their misery. Though they bore their disillusionments with courageous courtesy, we thought they failed in average cheerfulness. We never entertained one whose face brightened perceptibly when bullimacow and beetroot were placed before him in compensation for charred pumpkin and incinerated mullet.

The Resident Commissioner was gloomier still. He said once that he envied our casual guests the standing advantage they had over himself. They could always refuse a second venture at our table, and go far away and forget at last the things we had done to them. He was not in the same happy boat; it was his duty to tour the Gilbert and Ellice groups at least once a year, and he was forced to include Tarawa in the schedule of his visits; yet, as he bitterly concluded, landing there inevitably meant staying with us, because the Medical Officer's quarters had no spare page 86bedroom, and the spare bungalow was unfurnished. We felt his way of putting things over-invidious. Heaven knows we had not planned the series of events that led up to his outburst.

It all began with a quarrel in the back premises. About three hours before dinner on the day of his arrival from Ocean Island, our nursemaid Faasolo had discovered Sila, our cook, talking alone behind the kitchen with a lady from the village. Sila was her husband; the lady was one whom she had long suspected of having designs upon him.

Faasolo was a gentle, smiling person most days of the year, and Sila had always seemed to us an exemplary husband. I am still quite sure he was. But they were childless, and the reproach of her barrenness was never very far from poor Faasolo's thought. The sorrow and frustration of it turned sometimes to despairing fury when she saw the soft glances that other women threw at her kindly, handsome Sila. She had his lady visitor by the hair and was flogging her horribly with a broom-handle when we intervened. Fortunately, our formidable Chief was not there to hear her deep-chested roars of rage or the rending screams of her victim. He had taken a stroll round the hospital with the Medical Officer. By the time he returned, the unwelcome girl was gone and Sila was doing his best to placate Faasolo in their dwelling near the police lines.

But we could not leave them together for long. Dinner had to be cooked-and what a dinner too! Our Chief had most kindly brought with him from Ocean Island an exquisite little shoulder of frozen lamb, and some onions, and potatoes, and a tin of real French petits pois. We ourselves could put up such things as mint sauce or redcurrant jelly, as well as olives, salted almonds and the rest; beyond which, to crown perfection with beauty's ultimate grace, there was our plum pudding, tinned but delicious. It was so delicious, in fact, that we had decided to hoard this last of six trial tins for Christmas. I grudged the premature sacrifice of it at first, but Olivia was more generous. The Old Man liked a good sweet, she said; and anyhow, her argument ran on, what sort of a main course were we going to get at Christmas comparable to roast lamb? Why not decide to look on this night's feast as our Christmas dinner in advance and make an artist's job page 87of it, soup, joint and pudding in one sweet symphony. I thought of the allegretto of the soup, the pastoral andante of the lamb and little peas, the scherzo of almonds and wittily stuffed olives running into the rollicking rondo of the pudding. My mouth watered. I withdrew my niggardly objections.

The joint was popped into the oven about an hour and a half before dinner, with Sila on guard. Faasolo was quiet now, he said. Last instructions were given. We bathed, changed, had a final look at the dinner-table, saw that it looked nice with our best glass and rose candleshades, felt young and adult and proud, passed out to the cool downstairs loggia, were presently joined there by our Chief, and relaxed a while with pleasant drinks beside us.

The hour after sunset was always the Old Man's best. That evening, he was mellower than I had ever seen him. He began to talk quietly about the rewards of living in the tropics, the relief of darkness after the day's glare, the night breeze, the whisper of palms, and, best of all-a gift that Ocean Island never gave him – the hushed lap-lapping of high tide upon our beach. His sincerity and the loveliness of the night touched and emboldened me so much that I dared to recite the octave of a sonnet I was writing at the time:

No more the torrid sands beat back the sun
 Nor sun-drenched breakers shatter into gems
 To crown the reef with poising diadems.
The sunset leapt, blazed, shuddered once, was gone;
And now night drops her blessings one by one
 From star-cool hands-the fragile scent of seas,
The merciful darkness, and the long heart-ease
Of knowing that the jaded day is done.

'Yes, Grimble,' he said, 'yes … you must finish that. Finish it with something about never wanting to go back to civilization again … something about the false values of it … something about all these big simplicities being enough for anyone. I believe you could manage it-you've got the right spirit, my boy, you've got the right spirit.'

It was marvellous, coming from him. I was stirred to the deep heart's core. As we took our seats at the rose-lit dining-table, I page 88felt that we were all one together for always in this land that was no strange land now for any of us. And the soup, when it appeared, looked a creamy dream to me. Olivia always could do heavenly things with chicken stock, asparagus and tinned milk. Sila, too, had become an adept at it.

But Sila's unhappy Faasolo had crept into the kitchen while we were at drinks and asked him to refill her hurricane lamp. I, for my part, never did much mind a soupçon of kerosene in any food except fish, so I went on with my helping. Olivia and the Old Man chose to abandon theirs in favour of sherry, toast and jeux d'esprit. That seemed rather a pity, but neither said a word about the soup. What was there to worry about, anyhow, with lamb and plum pudding still in prospect?

I was lapping up the last spoonfuls when Sila appeared at the door naked to the waist, in a not very clean state. He made no apology for intruding like that, but spoke in English, presumably in honour of our guest: 'Missus, come quick!' he cried urgently. 'Gravy, no bloody good!' and bolted back to the kitchen.

Olivia rushed wildly after him. The Old Man lit a cigarette and sat mum. I became aware of tension in his silence. I was tense myself. Gravy is important.

Looking back from now to then, I realize that Sila's report did little justice to himself. For gravy to be good or bad there must be some of it, and in this case there was none at all. That was his real problem, and it was one that no cook on earth could have solved in the circumstances. As for blaming anyone else, I can see that if he was innocent so also was poor Faasolo. She like him was, in the last analysis, but the driven puppet of calamity. She had come to the kitchen at seven o'clock intending to leave as soon as he filled her lamp. But she was a woman, and what woman in her place could have resisted the temptation that assailed her then? Her heart was bursting with heavy new thoughts about his lady visitor. She stayed to confide them to him. He paused in his work to reply. One thing led to the next; she went on, he went on. They lost themselves in each other, oblivious to all else until disaster fell upon them. It was the ooze of greasy fumes from the oven that told them what had hap-page 89pened . The shoulder of our little lamb was burned to a cinder. One cannot make gravy with ashes.

If this had been fiction, my story would have ended with the walkout of our furious Chief when cold bullimacow and beetroot were laid before him. But real life has small regard for climax and anticlimax; it just goes on, as that meal went on. We finished our gross substitutes for lamb and petits pois with little gaiety. He did indeed rise at the end and say he thought that would be about enough for that evening. Olivia, I could see, was keen to let him go, and be damned to the plum pudding. But something in me rebelled at the total waste of that one remaining treasure. So I told him the history of it, despite her reproachful glances. In the end, I was glad I had done so, because he consented with visible softening of temper to stay on. We all sat down again.

There was a longish wait before the pudding arrived. Sila came along at last himself to explain the delay. His first attempt at sauce had gone wrong, so he had made another just as good.

'Well, well, better later than never!' observed the Old Man brightly when it was uncovered. 'And, my word! what have we here? The sauce looks very handsome, I must say.' And so it did swimming crimson-red around the pudding's foot.

'Yes, he good Sah,' volunteered Sila, 'I makem myself. I boilem with plenty sugar.'

'Some kind of wine sauce, eh?' The Old Man had recaptured his benevolence with extraordinary decency. I could see Olivia was glad now that I had got him to stay.

'No, Sah,' replied Sila, 'he not wine-he juice. He beetroot juice outem tin.'

It was then that the Old Man walked out, and Olivia wept.

A few days after he had left Tarawa, I finished the sestet of my sonnet. I tried hard to make it say something about not wanting to return to civilization and all that; but every thought of what the Old Man had said was bound up with memories of lost lamb and little peas. The thing just wouldn't work itself out on his lines. What I actually wrote was:

page 90

But I would back to England once again,
 Where lush things grow, where even summer ends,
  To firelit books, to all the clean, dear things
Whose memory keeps us always English men,
 And haunts us as the quiet eyes of friends
  Haunt us, and clings as old-time perfume clings.