A Bishop in deep water.

This is a story based on a fictional character Steve Wallace who in the late 1970s works in the Solomon Islands, providing engineering support to two local councils, on Guadalcanal and Santa Isabel. The Solomon Islands are on the verge of independence from the UK and are at that time called British Solomon Islands Protectorate or BSIP. Steve is from Ballymoney in County Antrim. The character and his further adventurers may appear again. This initial story is in three parts.

Even in this tropical paradise the nightmares rarely stay away for long. It’s pitch black and Steve is sitting up on his mat in a thatched leaf hut on Tanabuli island, having woken up sweating from another unsummoned dream; the images have already faded, nothing remains but the residual adrenaline of the escaped, the hunted, a sense of some deathly dread avoided yet again. Do they follow me, or do I carry them with me? he muses. He had hoped his antipodes would have given him a fresh start, a clean slate, but now he doubts it. By torchlight, his watch reads 3 am; he sweeps the beam around the thatch walls, pulls a sheet over himself hoping to sleep again.

Tatamba Bay, Santa Isabel. (photo credit Joanna Maclean, see link below)

Through the dawn’s stillness a cock crows and there is a baby’s faint cry. The first villagers move slowly through the rising light, walking around the leaf houses to the nearby shore. Fires lit in small rough kitchens leak smoke through the door and roof as children wake with hunger and a spark for the new day. Older ones will have breakfast and paddle their small canoes to the school at Tatamba on the mainland of Santa Isabel, a short distance across the sheltered bay.

Steve gets up pulls on his shorts and stretches, his dreams forgotten. Behind the Rest House, he washes from a bucket, soaping his face and beard. The water is refreshing as he spills it over his head and rubs himself down.

On the sandy soil between the houses a few papaya, betelnut and banana trees grow.  Away from the water behind the houses is a dense wall of greenery; large leaf shrubs and tangled vines which if left to nature would quickly envelop the houses, and further back tall palms. A gentle lapping of waves on the white sand beach is never far from earshot.

As Steve comes round the corner of his hut some children scream, running away, playing an ongoing game of peek-a-boo with the white stranger. The morning sun slips under the overhang as Steve listens to Solomon Islands radio hoping to hear news of a passing boat that could get him back to Buala, when Moses arrives, wearing a colourful patterned lap-lap against chocolate skin, his body compact with powerful shoulders typical of costal islanders.

“Eh Manevaka! What’s up?” he says in jest, having taught Steve their word for white men – “men who came on ships”.

“Do Bongi!” Steve returns in local language.

“You speak my language well.”

“Do Bongi – that’s all I know. You’ve got a different language in each village I go to.” Steve jokes, returning to pidgin. There at least five distinct languages on Santa Isabel alone, but his pidgin is good.

They walk along the shoreline, coconut palms sweeping up to the blue sky, the salt water’s tang fresh against the wafts of humid night air drifting from the bush, to where three men stand laughing.  They wait in turn to walk along a felled coconut trunk to a small thatched leaf toilet on stilts over the blue water. As Steve approaches they fall silent, diffidently moving aside for him, but he waves them back.

“Do Bongi!” he calls.

“Morning Masta, you go back to Buala today?” asks an older man.

“I’m no Masta of yours!” Steve replies forgetting his usual touch of humour. He tries persistently to counter this deference, have them treat him as an equal. Sometimes making a better job of it than others, he reflects. He understands its roots, knows no harm is meant.  He’s probably first white man to have stayed in the village, but he detests being called “Masta”.

“Suppose canoe come, I’ll go.” He adds with a broad smile.

Back as his hut Moses brings him tea and some of last night’s cooked sweet potato, and suggests they go fishing in the afternoon.  Steve takes hard tack biscuits from his rucksack hung from the rafters away from climbing rodents and eats alone.

The village is bustling now that breakfast is over.  Children leave for school, families, mostly women and young children, prepare to go off to their gardens by canoe, while men go fishing or harvesting copra. Only Steve and a few others, old and very young, remain behind.

Continues next blog.

Photo credit http://www.joannamaclean.com/revisiting-solomon-islands-50-years-3/

3 thoughts on “A Bishop in deep water.”

  1. More tomorrow! Thanks for picking up mistakes, already corrected – its …maclean.com. Tiki might pick up some other mistakes too. I hear your still in Dubai. Hope you are all well.


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