It hadn’t been the first house to be built in the compound although it seemed like it the way it sat squat and square onto the block whereas the front house, which had been, was angled in quite a peculiarly inconvenient position and the third house out the back, was so small as to be almost uninhabitable.
It was all so ugly, Celia was thinking, as she looked down at the wide concrete drive that led steeply from the carport down to the electronically operated gate fronting onto Korobosea Drive.
Celia was sitting in the comparative coolness of the evening on a small wooden veranda that was the saving grace of this fibro cement house, as far as she was concerned. Because the view was something else again.
Looking out over the variously shaded green tree tops, some with white, red or yellow flowers, towards the denuded hills surrounding this sprawling, dry and dusty metropolis and even further to the pale blue and purple shapes of the mountains mistily on the horizon (albeit almost obscured by the smoke from several fires as they inevitably were) Celia could almost begin to believe that Papua New Guinea was some kind of tropical paradise.
When Celia had first arrived in Moresby (was it only five weeks ago? it felt more like five years) the perpetual smell of burning in the air and the clouds of smoke lazily drifting skywards in several directions at once had alarmed her coming, as she did, from a country where the sight of fires burning unattended was enough to induce quite reasonable fear. In this kind of hot and humid weather particularly.
Now, even if her senses recoiled initially at the first whiff of burning on the breeze, her next reaction was one of annoyance. She knew that this national pastime of burning rubbish anywhere and at any time was unlikely to get out of control due to the lush vegetation. She’d seen fires lit at the base of large trees where the trunk and exposed roots were singed black but acted as a brake to to further burning. But she had also seen whole acres of small trees blackened and dead looking that didn’t auger well for this habit continuing unabated.
This was apart from the government directive that fires were banned in Moresby because the smoke added to the pollution. Not that it had made any recognisable difference to this time-honoured tradition. Like the betel nut sellers, also supposedly outlawed by the government, the smoke from fires wasn’t going to go away in a hurry.
The expanse of greenery was interrupted by the grey outline of the Boroko shopping complex fortunately too far distant to see the guards with their long truncheons and dogs on leashes standing outside the entrances to the supermarkets. Although she supposed she was glad enough to see them there whenever she was out shopping, so she could hardly complain, the rascals being as dangerous as they were and getting worse every day, by all accounts.
Even more so now the whole country was leading into the elections with a two months nation-wide curfew being imposed by the government from ten at night to four in the morning.
Not that a curfew had helped the security guard who’d been shot and killed trying to prevent a bank hold up, she shuddered inwardly, as she scanned the PostCourier for an item of interest that didn’t involve violence of one kind or another. Violence was the state of the world but PNG did seem to take it to quite extraordinary and seemingly incomprehensible proportions on a daily basis.
“Would you like a drink before dinner?” Vivian interrupted her reverie.
Celia jumped, “I wish you wouldn’t creep up on me like that,” she snapped.
“It’s a bit hard to do anything else in bare feet,” Vivian pointed out reasonably.
No-one, not even expats like themselves, wore footwear inside and much of the population still went barefoot outside as well. “It was such a lovely day, wasn’t it?” she went to stand at the rail to peer down at the garden below.
“Yes, unfortunately there are far too many lovely days for my liking,“ Celia muttered. The setting sun was tinting the clouds pink and gold and the sky was a darkening shade of blue with stars beginning to appear.
“I think one of us needs to go down and water the garden before it gets dark, don’t you?” Vivian suggested.
“If you want me to water the garden why don’t you just say so? I hate the way you carry on like that as if you’ve even so much as contemplated watering the garden since I got here.”
Vivian slowly turned and leaning back against the rail asked, “And what’s brought this on then?”
“Nothing,” Celia answered sulkily.
“Come off it, Celia, you’ve been in a bad mood for days and frankly it’s giving me the shits.”
There was silence for a full minute with neither of them moving. “It’s nothing you haven't heard me complain about before,” Celia muttered finally, “What keeps you so damned cheerful, anyway?”
“Money,” Vivian answered promptly, “I'm being paid a small fortune to work here, as you well know, far more than I’d get back home, what’s not to be cheerful about?”
“Money isn’t everything,” Celia stated flatly.
“No, but it sure beats the hell out of whatever’s in second place,” Vivian said grimly. Neither of them so much as raising a grimace at this old chestnut.
“Mercenaries, missionaries and misfits,” intoned Celia, “It’s not hard to tell which expat category you come under.”
“I don’t know, I think for a misfit you’re not doing so badly.”
Even Celia permitted herself a small smile at this. “Be that as it may, if I’d known what this place was going to be like before I came I would never have left Melbourne, believe me.”
“Don’t give me that,” Vivian scoffed, “You’ve been having a ball since you came here.”
“Oh sure, I can’t even walk outside this compound without fear of being jumped on and raped by rascals.”
“Rascals are a fact of life here and there’s not much we can do about it, unfortunately. Besides, as expats it’s not our place to interfere in the way this country is managed.”
“Since when? It seems to me that’s all the expats are doing or trying to do. Between the missionaries destroying the traditional way of life and the businessmen making their millions there’s not much left, I’d say.”
“Celia, you have such a simplistic view of the way this country runs. Wait till you been here as long as I have then maybe you can comment. But till then I’d keep my naive trap shut if I were you.”
“You can stay if you like but I’ve had enough. I’m leaving.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Vivian stated quietly.
“I’m not staying here to be raped like that young woman was just last week,” Celia shouted.
“Oh, so that’s what this is all about.”
“It’s not just that, it’s everything. The obvious poverty of the people, with no money for schools and medical services closing down while millions are being wasted by politicians. You can’t open a paper,” she picked up the PostCourier and threw it down again, “without articles about mass murders and the like due to paybacks. Women are being bashed all the time and it’s just accepted as part of the cultural way of life, supposedly.”
“Nonsense, the government’s been conducting a campaign for some time about domestic violence. It’s no longer acceptable to beat your wife. Anyway, it just seems worse at the moment because we’re coming up to an election. Everyone’s tempers get a bit more volatile around election time. That’s how it is here.”
“So, you keep telling me.”
“Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it. You agreed to come up here and live with me. I didn’t force you. And you were more than happy to do it, as I recall.”
They’d met three months ago while Vivian was on annual leave. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Celia didn’t need to be reminded that from the first moment she’d spotted Vivian’s leather clad figure across the smoke filled bar at VM’s she’d fallen hopelessly in lust. It had taken no time at all for Celia to be persuaded to leave her boring job with the public service to go to the comparative wilds of PNG with the most exciting woman she’d met in many a long year.
“And it’s not as if I haven’t tried to look after you,” Vivian went on, “It was you who sacked the haus meri, don’t forget.”
“I didn’t sack her. I just said I was extremely uncomfortable having an indigenous woman in to do the housekeeping when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself. It reminded me too much of all those stories I’ve read by Lessing and Gordimer about apartheid conditions in South Africa.”
“There you go again. There’s never been apartheid as such in this country. And you seem to forget that PNG’s been an independent country since Australia relinquished control back in 1975.”
“What about the fact that wages for haus meris are in the vicinity of $1 an hour? If that’s not bordering on slave wages, I‘d like to know what is.”
“Do you realise that by offering to pay higher wages it would have made everyone else either hostile or dissatisfied or both and the whole system would have broken down and no-one would have got paid. Is that what you want?” “I want to go home, that’s what I want.”
Night time comes swiftly this close to the equator. The view was now a myriad of tiny lights dotting the landscape. The noise of the PMVs gearing up to tackle the hill was overlaid by the screeching of insects. The cooling breeze had died down and thousands of stars were now clearly visible. Even while the darkness enveloped the small veranda Celia had no difficulty discerning Vivian’s black shape against the brilliant sky.
The high stone fence topped by barbed wire surrounding the compound seemed more like a prison to Celia than a safety precaution, right at that moment.
Celia stood up, “I think the garden can do without watering for one night, don’t you?”
Celia had already half turned to leave so she didn’t actually see Vivian move. Which made the slap across her face with the full force of her lover’s fury behind it doubling shocking when it connected.
Several days later, when she woke to yet another dark and dismally cold Melbourne winter’s morning, Celia was tempted to regard those humid weeks in Moresby as some bizarre figment of her warped imagination.
It was probably just as well she still had the course of anti-maleria tablets to complete as a daily reminder, for awhile at least, that she wasn’t as all together cool as she liked to sometimes fondly imagine she was. Dammit.
© Jean Taylor 2015