Will looked out to sea through the blurry circles of his small tin binoculars. The flap of his yellow sunhat kept blowing up and he could feel his lips burning. They’d blister, he knew that. The pins of sea spray stung his cheeks, bit him like invisible insects. He was too pale for a place like this. It was 1963 and he was six, or he would be in a month. They were somewhere off the coast of New Guinea.
He listened to the clunk of the boat against the waves underneath him. No sign of land or anything but the greeny-blue water and the smoke from the engine that smelled like burning tyres. His mother lay in her folding chair, one pale leg stretched out and braced against the engine room to keep the chair from sliding. He’d rarely seen her in a sundress, the blue ridges of her very-close veins. That’s what he called the bulging rivers that ran down her calves, but he knew it wasn’t quite the name.
She was only here under sufferance, to get to the bottom of things. That’s what she said.
As he let the binoculars fall, he glanced around at the native men. Islanders, his father called them. He’d barely seen an Italian back on the farm in Victoria, let alone anyone like these New Guineans. He didn’t like the way they watched him back, especially the one on the box who peeled a strange orange fruit and had a piece of metal hanging from his nose. No shirt or sandals, just a cloth about his middle. A lap lap, his father called it. And the way the man chewed red stuff made him look as if his teeth were bleeding. Then he spat crimson juice on the deck and stared with bloodshot eyes. This place wasn’t like his father had promised. It wasn’t anything like Paradise.His father stood over by the far rail with his pipe and cream safari jacket, trying out his pidgin English on a short native in baggy yellow shorts who chewed the red stuff too. Beetlenut, his father called it, but his father was unreliable. His mother was the brains of the outfit but she seemed out of her element here. She’d gone more silent as the day wore on. It was his father who seemed to be at home, but he’d been to The Islands before. Three times. He had his interests in the Tropics, or so his mother had recently learned. Will still didn’t know exactly what those interests included; something to do with his father’s best friend Carson, a room-mate from boarding school, Malvern Grammar. Will had always heard about Carson and how his family owned Nuguria, a tiny island way north of New Guinea, on the way to the Marianas, as his father put it. But there was no sign of Marianas. Not yet. But Will had seen photos—rows of coconut palms and thatched-roof huts, canoes on beaches. He’d touched the giant axe his father had brought home with the black and brown grass-woven handle and the big black blade.
His father had pointed to the mountains on a map and said, ‘That’s where the head-hunters live,’ as if that was a lucky thing. Will knew his father was only trying to scare him into being interested. He talked about copra, some crop from coconuts that had to do with fuel. He knew this was the reason his parents barely spoke. His mother hadn’t known his father had sent Carson money from the joint account, eight hundred pounds a year since 1957. She didn’t know about it until the month before. She’d called his father a sloven and a slut. Will had never heard her use those words.
Now he held the map up to his face in the wind and stared at where his father had marked it with a Texta, charting their course from Rabaul in small red dots to a speck in the middle of the blue that wasn’t named. His father had written Nuguria in big loopy letters. Will whispered it to himself and the sound of the word reminded him of the stuff in a bag that his mother used to fertilise the garden back home at Broadford, the powder that smelled like pee and looked like ground-up bone.
The boat pitched and the purple-faced captain spun the wheel, shouted at a knotty-haired man who disappeared down the steps. Will wondered if there was a fire to be stoked below, but then he wasn’t sure if there’d be a furnace separate from the engine. He’d never been on a boat before.
From beside the steps that went down underneath, the man on the fruit box stared. It made Will feel uneasy, kind of seasick, so he edged closer to his mother, reached out and touched her leg but she moved it away; she was sweaty. He didn’t talk to her, didn’t dare—it was too late in the day for that. They’d been on board for too many hours. Under the shade of her big straw hat, behind her sunglasses, she buried herself in her Hammond Innes. Earlier, she’d read him bits—the haunted ship that ran loose in the English Channel, The Wreck of the Mary Deare. But that boat was different from this. It had English people who were scary in a different way, according to his mother.
The short brown man listened to his father as if he had no choice, then suddenly showed his crimson teeth, said cah cah, and retreated to the end of the deck. The sound of the words cah cah made Will want to laugh but his father wasn’t smiling, just chewing on his unlit pipe and surveying the sea as if he contemplated a long-distance swim or dreamed of an island of his own. Maybe he was looking for Carson. His father had said that back in the good old days Nuguria had been too far for Carson to get home from boarding school for the holidays, so Carson spent them on the farm at Broadford. After they matriculated, Will’s father inherited the farm and Carson inherited the Plantation. That was what Will’s mother said: we have a piece of now and she needed to get to the truth of the matter. That’s why they were here. Pissing more money away to get to the truth. He imagined peeing coins out into the sea, how you’d have to swallow them first. The thought of it made his doodle hurt.
To get to New Guinea they’d driven the brown Vauxhall sedan for three days from Melbourne to Brisbane, sleeping out at night near Forbes, then Moree. They left the car at the Brisbane airport and waited for their flight to New Guinea. Will fell deep asleep on the linoleum corridor, where the passengers had to step right over him. His parents had thought it was funny, both of them together. It was unusual to hear them laugh at the same thing. Then he got up and slept on the carousel because it was rubber and softer, but it started to move and he jumped up in fright. They thought that was even funnier.
But they weren’t laughing now, the sea in every direction, no other white people but the captain who drank straight from a brown glass bottle, his cigarette somehow glued to his lip and his face sweating. A pig lay dead with its legs twined to a stick across the back of the boat. A gull sat on its head, pecking at its eyes. Someone should stop that, he thought.
The staring native with the nose ring spat betel nut on the back of his father’s safari jacket and Will shrunk back into himself, moved against his mother’s pale leg as the New Guinean glared at him as though daring him to tell. No place to bring a child, that’s what his mother had said, but she stayed in her book on that other boat in England.
Will couldn’t stop watching the bright red slag that sat on the cream of his father’s jacket, so he raised his binoculars to the sea and focused on what his father seemed to be gazing at, but all he could feel were the eyes of the spitter on him like the sun burning through his shirt, on the back of his neck and the bowls of his shoulders.
At first he thought he only imagined the trees on the lip of the water, then a line of white that could have been sand. He dropped his binoculars. A rickety pier and a white man surrounded by natives.
‘Carson’s there,’ Will shouted. He’d had never met the man but Will could feel his strength from here, and his own excitement. ‘King Carson,’ he said triumphantly.
His mother stood and folded her chair, made her complaining noises. ‘Let the games begin,’ she said. His mother knew Carson from before, back on the mainland a lifetime ago. She’d fancied Carson then, so his father said, but she’d said, ‘Please don’t be ridiculous.’
Near the entrance to a lagoon the anchor splashed into the glassy blue water, so clear and shallow he saw a fish, a velvety thing that could have been a manta ray. It was bluer even than the sea. He wanted to show it to his mother but the spitter dived from the rail and the ray was gone, just the swimmer underwater like an eel, a plastic bag trailing in his hand.
The boat had settled about a hundred yards out, as far as the sprint at school, his distance, but it seemed like a long way to swim. A woman he hadn’t seen appeared from below the deck, her whole body wrapped in orange like the sun. She had a dead thing bleeding from a sack. As he climbed down a rusty iron ladder looking up at it, he prayed it wasn’t one of those shrunken heads he’d seen in a photo of his father’s, or a small severed animal, or a baby.
His father waved at Will to go ahead so he stepped down from a ledge into an enormous dug-out canoe already half-full with natives emerging from under the deck, some hung on the sides in the crystally water. Others clambered in beside him and made the whole thing rock. He was feeling claustrophobic and his foot was sore so he sat between men on a ledge. A hand from above him played with his hair; he was surrounded by dark legs as his mother and father got in and the lip of the canoe began to take water. His mother moved through with her chair and stood over him. None of the men got up. ‘Stay put,’ she said, then added, ‘Lucky your father’s a swimmer,’ though they both knew he couldn’t swim. He was a farmer, although when he filled in the travel forms he called himself a pastoralist. He had delusions of grandmother. His mother said he was a grazier, at best.
Through all the legs he noticed a man who was rowing, sweat on his face, lathering white under his arms, yelling at the others. People jumped to it when he spoke and hands were cupped to dredge the canoe because there were no buckets. The oarsman had a small wooden sculpture hanging from his ear and he stared at Will too, but unlike the spitter he seemed to be laughing without moving his mouth. His lap lap hung open as a smile and Will couldn’t help glancing into its shadows. He couldn’t be sure what was moving in there as the oarsman reached back and forth, rowing.
‘He’s airing his differences,’ his mother said and gave Will a fright; he’d gone off into his own world but he could feel his face go redder than his arms, even than the burns on the arches of his feet. He made himself look away but he kept being drawn to the oarsman’s eyes and down to his lap lap. He rows for me, Will thought, but he didn’t know why.
As the jetty approached, he turned to the shore. Carson stood still at the centre of things. His legs looked solid as a wrestler’s, but tanned and hairy—they made his father’s seem skinny as rakes.
The oarsman threw the rope up, lassoed it tight around a post and knotted it, as Will slid past, trying not to look as he climbed onto the rickety slats of the pier. ‘Is everything flimsy here?’ he asked his mother, but she was already moving to the front, navigating through the natives unloading and talking in their language with red in their teeth. She loathed crowds, and his father was further on greeting Carson while Will stood on the jetty, mesmerised wherever he looked. Palm trees leaned away from the sea and dark women stopped to watch him, bright-coloured bundles on their heads. One had bosoms that drooped so low they reminded him of the pair of sleepy dachshund puppies he’d seen at the Kilmore gymkhana. The nipples nothing like his mother’s, small and pellet-sized, hidden from sight.
When he looked back towards the sea, the captain stood alone on the drifting boat getting smaller and Will realised they’d been left. The late afternoon sun jutted through the trees like swords in his eyes and he felt as though his parents had forgotten him. His mother swept ahead to a house on stilts that resembled a giant thatched insect. Carson had his arm around his father, doing their catching up as they walked along a path to a weatherboard house among the trees. A garden of bright yellow flowers and a pair of palms towered like giant green-topped matchsticks on either side. Coconut palms, that’s what the money had been pissed into. Not like the straggly date palm in the garden at home that dropped its clumps on the lawn, then died.
Will hung back, waited for their bags—he was afraid of them being left—his transistor clock and travel Scrabble in the small green suitcase, his woollen pony he was not supposed to bring. Their suitcases pulled on a cart by an old man who wore a long shirt just barely covering him, as if it was a uniform. He clunked the old wheelbarrow with its wooden spokes and squared-off wheel along the jetty. Will followed the bags along a path to the tall hut with legs where his mother stood waiting. Someone else touched his hair. It was the oarsman, guiding him forward, and he tried not to look at the man’s waist, afraid of a glimpse of the oarsman’s possible at such close range. His grandmother always said wash down as far as possible, and up as far as possible, but for heaven’s sake don’t touch possible. His grandmother who looked after him, but she’d been left back at Broadford to keep an eye on things. Will would keep an eye on things here.
Carson turned and shouted to his mother. ‘Annie, let Nonti put your bags up.’
He’d never heard anyone call her Annie. She was supposed to be Anne. And he’d never thought of his father as small, but compared to Carson he seemed short and narrow, Carson squinting, handsome and broad under his faded canvas hat, like the father in Swiss Family Robinson. ‘Come up and have a cuppa.’ He motioned Will’s mother towards the painted house but didn’t seem to notice Will.
‘Go, my manki,’ said the oarsman, who touched Will’s ear and walked off down the path through the trees along the beach.
Will watched him for a moment then walked over a square of thick lawn towards where his parents and Carson already sat in wicker chairs on an open patio in the shade of a faded grey blind. Everything seemed so green; it was as if the plants were growing before his eyes. The yellow flowers with thin red tongues from their middles, the petals like ears pushing in from the sides like they were listening. He looked back but the oarsman was gone, just the hut and the jetty and a row of canoes on the lagoon, and one small boat painted blue. Everywhere else was jungle.
He knelt at a low table made from a big slab of wood. A teenage boy served iced coffee from a glass jug, pouring it into cups just like his grandmother’s Royal Doulton. Will looked at the boy’s long dark feet. A fine layer of skin seemed to stretch between his toes. At first Will thought it was some sort of shadow and reached to touch them to be sure they were real. ‘He’s a mermaid,’ whispered his mother as she lit a Virginia Slim.
‘Orpheus grew up in the water,’ said Carson, ‘comes from generations of fishermen. Don’t you, son?’
The boy nodded and smiled, walked into the house in his narrow cut-off shorts, his feet barely hitting the ground. Then they all looked out at the small fishing boats on the lagoon. ‘You can’t pretend it isn’t beautiful,’ said Carson.
‘Indeed,’ Will’s father said, removing his Akubra hat and running his fingers through his hair to stop it flopping over his face. His beak and bright blue eyes with their pink rims, the zinc cream white on his nose and the lumps in his jaw from grinding his teeth and always chewing on his pipe. ‘What do you think, Annie?’
Now he was calling her that.
‘I only came to see what we’re getting for our money,’ she said.
‘What’s that?’ asked Carson as if he’d misheard, and for a moment there was silence. Carson’s jaw was all bone and broader than Will’s father’s, his skin even more out in the weather. His hands were like leather plates.
Will’s father took a drink from his cup, his little finger looking broken the way it bent. ‘I told her we’d been helping out up here.’
‘Who’s we, white man?’ said his mother, then let her cigarette arm swing wide as though she already owned the place. She was beaky too.
‘I mean us,’ his father said, ‘as a family.’ They looked like brother and sister, not parents; maybe that’s why they didn’t get on. Both of them sharp like birds. His mother looked red in the face. Strange sounds emanated from the forests and talking came from inside the house. Words that repeated like music.
When Carson asked about their trip his father said, ‘The crossing was calm as a Hindu cow,’ and Carson laughed but it wasn’t funny, just one of his father’s stupid sayings.
‘It was endless,’ his mother said, drawing deeply on her cigarette. She blew a smoke ring in Will’s direction because she knew he didn’t like her smoking, and he didn’t like coffee cold or hot. He was so tired he lay down on the straw rug beside the table and wished there was a dog. No sign of children his age, he’d only seen a baby being nursed by a girl as she walked along, a girl who looked much too young for a mother. He looked over at Carson’s legs, so muscly and hairy, his feet brown and wide, just inches away, sandals strapped across the veins. Skin leathery like his hands but the hair on his shins looked soft and bleached by the sun.
Gently, Will reached out, touched Carson’s calf and stroked it, so softly Carson didn’t seem to notice. Soft as the purr of a cat against his palm. He wanted to rest his head on Carson’s foot and sleep.
‘What’s happening down there?’ Carson shifted his leg and Will sat up and pretended to drink some iced coffee but it tasted like manure. His mother brushed the corner of her mouth with her little finger as if there was something to flick from there, then gave his father the hairy-eye like he was supposed to say something.
‘Would you like a biscuit?’ Carson asked her, then yelled for the boy, who came out with a tray of thin brown wafers shaped like fingers. Will examined the boy’s strange toes again as the tray was passed around.
‘We came to talk about a repayment plan,’ his mother said.
‘Must we talk about this in front of …’ Carson tipped his cup towards the boy who walked away. ‘They understand more than you think.’
‘Do they,’ said his mother.
‘Annie, Carson’s our host,’ his father said. ‘He’ll pay us back if he can.’
‘When he can,’ his mother said. She pushed her cigarette into an ashtray even though it was only half done and Will wished she wouldn’t waste cigarettes and he wished the wafer he’d taken wasn’t so stale. But he liked the red flowers in the vase; hibiscus like the yellow ones, the same as his grandmother sat beside her front door. The ones he used to call hibiscuits. They belonged here, he could tell, not in his grandmother’s garden. As he wondered if flowers got homesick, he noticed a hairy grey creature like a big-eared bat nestled in a corner of the overhang, right against the awning.
‘We’re almost breaking even,’ said Carson. ‘If the next few years are kinder than the last …’ He trailed off.
A chorus of croaking began and Will looked out through the glare at greenish-brown shapes that now sat on the lawn like barking cowpats. His mother breathed out smoke from a new cigarette. ‘I just happened upon the bank statements,’ she said. ‘You can imagine my surprise.’ She was on a mission.
‘Look,’ said Carson, ‘you’ve both been very generous.’
Will looked up at the black eyes of the silent bat, its ears like a dog’s, and listened to the croaking lawn.
‘I wasn’t given the chance to be generous,’ said his mother.
Will was sick of this conversation and the looks on everyone’s face, as if the mean tide was coming in. ‘What’s making the noise?’ he asked.
‘Cane toads,’ said his father.
‘I have an old cricket bat,’ said Carson. ‘Would you like to go and practise on them?’
‘No thanks,’ said Will and then he hesitated, looked down at Carson’s legs. ‘What’s manki mean?’
‘It means my little man,’ said Carson, a wafer almost in his mouth. ‘How do you know that?’
Will just shrugged, pretended to sip from his cup.
The sound of the toads faded to an echo as they walked in procession through the rows of coconut palms, the late afternoon a bright purple line above the clouds that lay on the water. A man with a machete up a tree cut coconuts that thudded to the ground like severed heads. Another man shinned up a nearby trunk, quick as a lizard. They were headed to the sing sing his father had promised.
‘The place looks well,’ his father said.
‘What part’s ours?’ his mother asked. She was a dog with a bone and Will could tell that Carson wasn’t pleased, the way he glanced at his father so seriously.
‘Anne, darling, for Christ’s sake, must you?’ His father poked his pipe towards his mother.
She touched at the top button of her dress as if offended. ‘I’m just looking for some satisfaction,’ she said.
A whooping sound rose like a bird that was laughing and Will’s foot was hurting, from the sunburn and the place where the blister had almost healed, but it was blistering afresh, he could feel it. The foot hurt from the day he went to the steeplechase, when he took the thermos to the car and promised his mother he wouldn’t open it. But before he placed it in the picnic basket he broke the promise, turned the lid to see inside and accidentally tipped it. Boiling water poured into his gumboot. That whole morning he walked around the point-to-point course in agony, watching the horses jump the brush fences in straggly groups, too afraid to admit what he’d done.
‘Tough is good, but stupid is stupid,’ his mother had told him in the hospital waiting room. He didn’t let her see him cry.
As they walked through the palms his foot rubbed against the strap of his sandal. He stopped and leaned down to examine it. ‘Most likely sunstroke,’ his father said but his father had already forgotten about the trip to the hospital where he’d admired the nurses.
‘It’s my foot,’ Will looked up and said to him, ‘you priceless idiot.’
His father looked at Carson, shrugged.
‘You let him talk to you like that?’ asked Carson.
‘Someone has to,’ said his mother.
An angular dog with a gash on its flank sniffed along behind her and when Carson shooed it away, Will wondered if the man was nice or not. Then a native was walking through the trees. He wore a headdress of red feathers and white paint on his face. It was the oarsman dressed up as a chief. He had on an elaborate red-patterned lap lap that was longer than the one he wore in the canoe, and a necklace of what looked like teeth all strung together. More like miniature elephant tusks.
‘Annie, this is Loodstar,’ said Carson. ‘He’s our local leader.’
His mother raised her new cigarette. ‘We saw him on the canoe,’ she said. ‘Very festive.’
But Will wasn’t sure if she meant festive now or festive then, and what sort of name was Loodstar? He noticed how his father didn’t greet the man, though he typically said hello to everyone, even waved at buses in Alice Springs in case there might be someone on board he knew. Instead, his father turned to the boy from the house. ‘Could you carry Will on your shoulders?’
‘I take him,’ said the oarsman–chief and Will was hoisted up, hands tight around his calves. It took the breath right out of him. But up on the tribesman’s shoulders, his thighs against the man’s neck, watching out between red feathers that sprouted from the oarsman’s head, was like being stroked by the sun. He could see everything—a woman with a papoose walking at an angle through the rows of tall trees, a stooped man in the distance with a bow and arrow who hid behind a narrow trunk. Will played the lookout among the knots and feathers in the tribesman’s hair and he realised his foot barely hurt at all. He could feel his doodle against the oarsman’s neck and wasn’t sure he wanted to get down.
They approached a clearing, a group of huts that weren’t on stilts. A crowd of women emerged wearing grass skirts with shells at their waists. Some of their breasts looked out like parking lights, others fell low to their bellies. A pig with its legs tied lay upside down above a fire. The pig from the boat. Tied up and burning.
The chief lowered Will, careful not to mess with the feathers, and as the women danced their beads and bosoms bounced. Black stripes streaked their cheeks, their mouths smiled but their eyes didn’t. A few of them reached to play with Will’s hair but he stayed close to the chief, who sent them away. A man crouched up a tree with a mask like a bird of paradise; others appeared from the forest. A woman whirled a cloth that turned like a kaleidoscope. This was a sing sing. Drums beat and dancers painted in white clay did a follow-the-leader around the shaking women.
‘Mudmen,’ his father said proudly as if he knew them all, and he did seem to know some, the way they smiled and nodded. His mother unfolded her chair and sat and the chief was given a tall chair of his own.
Will tried to get the right angle so he might see inside the new lap lap but his mother threw a stick at him. ‘Watch the limbo,’ she said. She was onto him, so he watched his father hold the limbo broom. A woman bent back so low her shoulders almost brushed the earth, and still her breasts got caught on the broomstick. His father’s face gleamed as he flipped the stick so each bosom flopped down by her side. His father was an expert at this—the nipples met the dirt and the native men laughed, the betel nut violent in their teeth. All except the chief, who watched his mother and Carson whisper. A boy about Will’s age swung a bunch of nuts tied on the end of a stick that made a clacking sound and he wondered if the boy would play but all he did was look at Will strangely and make a face.
Carson crouched beside his mother and she whispered hard. ‘It was eight hundred pounds,’ she said through her gritted teeth, ‘for six years. Every year of Will’s life.’
‘Don’t you get on your high horse,’ said Carson, but that made no sense—she hadn’t ridden a horse since Will was four, after she hurt her back.
‘We need that money,’ she said. ‘He needs to go to boarding school.’
Will almost said he didn’t want to go to boarding school but he didn’t interrupt. They talked as if no-one noticed, watching the natives line up behind a strip of leaves on the ground.
‘It’s time for the dash,’ said his father. He handed Will the broom and went to join in. His father looked like a child in his shorts and jacket, enthusiastic, lined up with all the others, the spitter from the boat and the man who said cah cah.
‘Annie, I would have lost the place,’ Carson said, almost pleading. He put his hand on Annie’s shoulder but she shrugged it off; still, her whole body shuddered in a way he’d never seen.
‘We’d settle for the deed to the island,’ she whispered but still she didn’t look at Carson, her eyes glassy in the fading light. Carson rose, his whispering finished, took off his hat and pushed a knuckle against his mouth. His head was shaking slowly as if he didn’t know what to do.
‘Car, you could have come back to the mainland and lived like a normal person,’ his mother said, looking up. He had a play name too.
‘I couldn’t do it, Annie,’ he said. ‘You know that.’ His hands clasped themselves into a prayer. ‘Live that life. All bottled trout and polo.’
Will’s mother turned away at a sudden clap of two coconuts banged together. His father started out fast and took the lead across the clearing. Will almost cheered him on but he felt the oarsman’s eyes on him and his mother staring up at Carson, whose eyes were on the sprint. His father’s little white legs covered ground so quickly they couldn’t contain him. Then he was airborne, falling face first in the dirt as the mudmen ran right over him. It even made the oarsman laugh out loud.
His father stood and dusted himself off, but still seemed quite pleased.
‘Look at him,’ said Will’s mother. ‘Albert Bloody Schweitzer.’
‘He’s happy here,’ said Carson not seeming to notice the betel nut stains all over Will’s father’s jacket, or the way the chief man listened.
Will had trouble sleeping, on the floor of a small alcove next door to his parents. The faces of the mudmen and the spitter, the shadows of the chief, then the sound of his parents quietly arguing through the wall, through the buzz of the mosquitoes swarming outside the net. When he woke up with the thatched roof above him, it was morning. He went out into the sun and stood on the deck. A group of half-naked men scooped out the insides of a log with small axes, making a canoe, and then his father appeared from among the trees with a tray of fruit. Will turned to wake his mother.
‘Leave her,’ his father said. ‘She got into the Halcyon.’ That meant she’d sleep late. Halcyon was a bird that floated in its nest on the sea. She’d pretend the hut was a nest and go on a voyage of her own. That’s what she called it. His father put a tray down on a wooden bench, orange slices of pawpaw cut up on the plate. White water in a plastic jug. ‘I think the sing sing went well.’ He said it in his rah-rah voice. Will decided not to say anything, took a slice of the fruit and looked out towards the men at the canoe, others with their nets in the water.
‘Three thousand miles to the farm,’ his father said.
It looked further than that. ‘What’s going to happen?’ asked Will. ‘About the money?’
His father poured from the jug into cups. ‘Oh, they’ll sort it out.’
Will wondered if his father really was an imbecile. He tried the drink, thought it was water, but it tasted sickly sweet and made him wince. ‘Coconut milk,’ his father said.
If we’re relying on coconuts it doesn’t bode well, he thought, as a dark-blue Jeep bumped along the track. It wasn’t as dusty as the farm at home, but damp and more humid, everything sweated. Carson pulled up in front with the boy from the house and another dark man in a safari suit like his father’s. It was Brazen, the plantation manager. Will had seen him in photos, standing with his father in their matching outfits. One face brown and one pink. He wore a cap that said Nuguria Plantation. Carson stood and waved like a prime minister and Brazen frowned.
‘Can I have a hat like Brazen?’ asked Will but his father was already down the steps. ‘Can I come?’ he shouted after him.
His father turned as he got in the back of the Jeep, put his hands on Brazen’s shoulders. ‘Sorry, son, we have our business to attend to.’ His father was all smiles. ‘Orpheus will look after you.’
Orpheus backed away and the Jeep drove off into the undusty jungle. Will spat pawpaw pips and looked down at Orpheus’s webbed toes, his bare feet in the sand. The toenails were chalky and the soles like shoes, but the skin between his toes was so fine Will could almost see through it. Orpheus lifted Will’s foot to examine his blister. ‘No shoes. We go swim. Salty water good healing.’
From the bench, Will climbed up Orpheus’s back and they went down to the water like that. He gripped with his arms and legs as Orpheus kneeled in the soft waves and he let out a whine as the salt hit his blister. ‘Only a pain,’ said Orpheus and then it went away and he was on Orpheus’s back being swum along like that—he felt like he was his own bird at sea. The water was warm and Orpheus paddled along the shallows. Will felt as if he were riding a long brown fish. This would be a thing of his own.
They swam along the shore of the lagoon, Orpheus’s head up in the air and Will’s legs gripping tight around his ribs and he didn’t know how they stayed afloat with only Orpheus kicking, his arms around Will’s legs to keep him from sliding off into the thick warm water. There was a kind of market ahead in the trees on the beach. Orpheus rose up and splashed in towards it, keeping Will there piggy-backed and they walked right up the sand. ‘Why is your mother so belly hot with us?’ he asked.
Will didn’t know what to say because it wasn’t Orpheus she was angry at. ‘She doesn’t like my father,’ he said.
Orpheus nodded. ‘Your father,’ he repeated.
Native men and women sold goods from tables made of slats, piles of sugar cane and cut coconuts with bright insides. Will looked out over Orpheus’s shoulders; he liked the feel of the arms around his calves. Orpheus spoke to a woman with big round earrings who handed Will a slice of coconut. He sucked on the flesh and it was sweet but crunchy, better than the milk as it dripped from his mouth onto Orpheus’s shoulder. It tasted like frosting, like Cherry Ripe without the cherry. Maybe there was hope for coconuts after all.
Orpheus lowered him to the ground and the woman offered him a drink from a mug carved out like the canoe. She removed his hat and the sun made it hard to see, the glare in his eyes as Orpheus led him into the shade where a dog lay on an angle that made it look like part of the tree root. Orpheus took him by the hand into a small hut behind the market stalls. Dark inside with coloured sheets that hung from the ceiling and the market noisy through the wall. A row of heads in the corner gave him a fright until he realised they were masks carved in coconuts. A machete leaned against a ledge and the oarsman was there in his headdress, sitting on a kind of throne among the sheets, his face painted red as his teeth.
‘Manki,’ he said and it sounded like monkey. Orpheus was gone.
The oarsman–chief stood up and gently lifted Will’s shirt. A skin a bunny up over his head even though it had buttons—did they want his clothes? His mouth was dry and the oarsman’s skin shone like oil and his possible was right there, let out of a crack in the lap lap, watching like an eye. A stale sweat smell as the chief took Will’s hand and placed it on the dark soft skin.
‘Do you own the island?’ asked the chief and Will nodded even though he wasn’t sure. He thought of his mother alone in the hut and how she might be waking but the chief played with his hair now, guided him down to the beginning of a secret, lips resting soft against the black wrinkled skin, the smell of it scary and strange, stale against the coconut flakes on his tongue. The possible kissing his lips, back and forth around them and it had him imagine the eyes of the spitter, the betel nut red as a ladybird’s coat, and the taste on his lips as if nothing else ever existed.
‘All because your father,’ said the chief and Will had a feeling he was supposed to do more but his breath sounded loud in his head and a struggle came up from inside him, made him reel away. He saw a dog lying under a table watching and wondered if the dog was for him but it was a carving from wood like the one that hung from the chief’s own ear, which was being presented to him now like a gift.
‘Special for you,’ said the chief. Something to show his parents or hide in the garden as a secret for home, the strong smell smeared on his lips.
He ran through the sheets and into the light and it was even brighter than before. Orpheus crouched against a tree with the woman who wore Will’s hat with her earrings hanging down from under it. He ran past, the burn in his feet like a fire, running straight back through the trees, smearing the smell from the chief that mixed up with his tears as his hands wiped his hair and branches slapped at his arms, ferns slapped against his legs, stung by things he couldn’t see, lush and green and hot and running. He didn’t call out because there was no-one to answer, no-one who’d understand, all the way back on his own with the carving in his fingers and the water in sight to the place on stilts where the sun sat high. But he would tell. He would tell her. They’d have to leave. They had to go home. It was all wrong here.
He came out of the trees, the sky a deep translucent blue above him, a toad noise like the cry he kept inside his throat. The Jeep was parked outside the hut and finally he shouted ‘Mum!’ But it was Carson who came out of the hut. Had she not woken from her nest?
Will stood there breathless at the foot of the steps, holding his tears. He could smell her cigarette and there she was beside Carson in her dressing gown, her hair was a mess. She blunted out her cigarette and walked down to him. She had bare feet. He’d never seen her outside with no shoes. She kneeled and patted him lightly on the head, not seeming to notice that he’d lost his shirt. She didn’t notice anything at all, just smiled into his eyes from far away.
‘Carson and I were talking,’ she said. Will looked up at Carson’s legs on the deck, then back into his mother’s face. She’d been crying.
‘You only need to hug me,’ he said to himself, words that stayed inside his head.
‘How would you like to live here?’ she asked.
He felt the carving tight in his fist. He could not show her; he could not tell her anything.©David Francis