BY RUSSELL SOABA
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
I wrote this short story at a time when there was so much uncertainty in writing and publishing in our part of the world. The PNG as much as the Australian writer in those days felt hesitant somewhat with subject matter. Not many of us, except Trevor Shearston perhaps, succeeded in getting a manuscript through to an Australian publisher, other than what writers like myself and John Kolia could produce through places like the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.
We wanted to write novels and short stories, plays and poems. Not research material or dissertations. Hence, the need there was to venture out and publish elsewhere.
But I see positive "attitudes" taking form nowadays. Look at how comfortably Scott Waide writes. He's bound to write a good short story shortly. We want that. In my days it was too much experimentation with the craft of writing instead of producing the art itself. "Portrait of a Parable" is an example of such experimentation with the short story format. I like it because it explores, it endeavours to discover, and what it discovers tends to come back to the writer. It is a shocker, I know. But in my opinion that is what a short story should look like.
- Russell Soaba
I CARRIED the carton of beer. Sheila carried her bilum of dimdim food, and we came out of the supermarket and walked into the late evening sun.
I suggested that we should catch a cab since it was going to be a long walk for us to the house. Sheila tried to remind me about the amount of money we had lost that week through such fancy extravagances, but I insisted and would not give in.
She was afraid of that persistence and determination in me. I wished things and even willed them to be and there was nothing she could do about them.
If I wanted a cab, she would be most unwise to say no. If I wanted time to stand still, it would; and if it didn’t, I would violently attack anyone who would dare argue that not even time would obey my orders.
Sheila broke into a sweat, sighed, then reluctantly waved a cab over.
When I was six years old I dug an okapi knife into the soil and stood back admiring it. The sharp blade was pointing towards me. Someone asked what I was doing with the knife and I replied that I was preparing to kick it with my bare feet.
The person asking the question looked at me for a long time then shook his head. I waited for him to speak again, for he was an adult, but he only stared at me with his mouth wide open.
Then, as if aware of what I was going to do, the whole of the village populace came and surrounded me. Everyone stood still and watched.
‘I bet you, you wouldn’t kick the knife,’ teased a boy older than I. ‘I will kick it,’ was my calm reply. ‘You will do no such thing,’ bellowed someone in front of me.
‘You will get hurt,’ pleaded someone else from behind me. ‘I am going to kick the knife,’ was my final reply.
A moment of great silence descended upon the village. I waited.
When no one else spoke I ran and kicked the knife with my right foot. The women screamed, some of them burying their faces in their palms and turning away. The men rushed over to see if I would faint, or drop dead on the spot. I remained on my feet, calm as ever.
‘He’s mad,’ screeched a girl, a teenager, and fainted at the sight of the blood. ‘Quick, get a bucket of water,’ ordered a man. ‘Get some clean bandages,’ said a woman.
‘Boil the water before washing his wound.’ ‘You are hurt,’ said one of my sisters. ‘No I’m not,’ I shook my head, folded my arms.
‘You are sick,’ said my brothers. ‘Something’s got inside you.’ ‘I am not sick nor am I possessed, thank you, Gregory and Arthur.’
My mother came and slapped me hard on both cheeks. ‘Cry!’ she ordered. I disobeyed her command and smiled.
She fled, screaming and tearing at her hair. My father caught her before she could throw herself to the ground or begin rolling in the pig ponds.
Afterwards, my father marched up to me, waving a strong fist in the air. ‘I will kill you, I will murder you, you little devil,’ he shouted.
‘O shame, shame be upon my household,’ I heard my mother wailing in the distance.
My brothers and sisters, armed with a towel, a first-aid kit, and a bucket of hot water, came and tended the wounds of the son.
Hermine and Hans were older and went to an international high school in the city across the bay from the village. Herr Steppenwolf took them every morning on his speed boat, and they cycled or caught PMVs home with the other students in the afternoon.
Sometimes they travelled to and from the city with Gregory and Arthur, one of my sisters, and many more students of that and other schools, in our village PMVs and buses.
My school was just after Herr Steppenwolf’s trade store so I did not have to travel far each day. Hermine and Hans invited me into their house where they offered me soft drinks and some biscuits.
Later, Hans taught me how to ride his bicycle and Hermine sprayed me all over with her hair spray. We had enjoyed ourselves so much that evening that when I left, Hermine and Hans were laughing joyously.
‘Is that you, Hans?’ called Gregory from within the house. ‘No, it’s me,’ I said.
‘Come off it,’ laughed Gregory from inside. ‘You are too good at imitating our accent, Hans. Welcome to the household, anyhow. High time Herr Steppenwolf himself and Fraulein Hermine came visiting us too ia.’
‘Greg, it’s me,’ I insisted, calmly and without emphasis in my voice. Curious, Gregory came out of the house. ‘Dear oh dear oh dear,’ he said, planting his hands on his hips. ‘Whatever have you done with yourself this time?’
‘What do you mean please?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean – what do you mean please? You are painted all over in gold, boy. Wherever did you get the paint from? You haven’t gone stealing in Herr Steppenwolf’s trade store, have you now?’
‘You mean all this? It’s from Hermine’s hair spray.’ ‘Hair spray? It’s spray paint, you nut. The ones people use for spray painting their cars and boats and houses and things. Look at you. Just look at you. Who do you think you are?’
Arthur came out. Then my sisters. And my parents.
‘God, not again,’ they all sighed.
I noticed Arthur holding a wooden bowl full of baked breadfruit nuts. ‘I’m hungry,’ I announced, throwing my bag of books on the floor.
Arthur gave me a few of the nuts and we both cracked and ate them while the others watched, looking either annoyed or fatigued with too much worry over me.
I saw one of my sisters pull a face and walk out to spit. Gegory looked away, scratching his head.
‘How long will it take for that evil thing to come off?’ shouted my father and pointed at me. ‘Well? How long will it take? Come on, stop looking at me as if you were born that way and answer me.
‘It takes time Papa,’ explained Arthur. ‘Things like this ia, you wait for time to wash them off.’
‘Hermine and Hans were there,’ I said simply. ‘I happened to be there with them and the paint came on. That’s all.’
‘Buy some kerosene, Papa, and we’ll wash it off,’ suggested Arthur. ‘I’m not wasting any more money on your brother’s evil activities,’ thundered my father.
‘All the money that I earn from the copra and from working in Herr Steppenwolf’s plantation seems to be going to this useless brat here. He ought to be killed and buried under the ground. He’s an accident in the family, of that I can truly swear.’
My mother broke into tears and Arthur took me down to the beach to show me a full moon rising over the ocean and the city.
‘So Arthur was your favourite brother,’ said Sheila, turning towards me in the cab. ‘What other things do you remember from childhood? I love listening to your stories.’
I noticed that Sheila was busily scribbling away on a note-pad as she spoke.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘when I was 14, 15 or thereabouts, I read Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have been a great admirer of Shakespeare ever since.’
‘Did you fall in love then?’
‘Yes. How – how did you know?’
‘Most adolescents throughout the world who read Shakespeare’s sonnets during their summer holidays go through that particular experience,’ said Sheila with a laugh.
‘But how lucky you are to have read Shakespeare at that age. I must confess I had never heard of Shakespeare until my university years. But please go on.’
‘Well I fell in love with the girl.’ ‘And then? Was she nice? Where was she from?’
‘She was a remarkably handsome little creature, a non-aryan brown native girl by birth. I forget what country she came from.’
‘Yet dare one say it, immediately after I had fallen in love with her, I often thought of her in terms of salad bowls, bacon slices, ham and egg sandwiches, manila folders, Bahasa silhouettes, Indian saris and curries, and even hot razor blades and primitive native cooking pots.’
Sheila whistled and quickly wrote something down on her note-pad. ‘You wicked thing,’ she laughed pleasantly. ‘You do have some imagination, though.’
When I stole a glance at her note-pad I noticed some numerical figures and diagrams which did not make sense to me. I am told Sheila had majored in psychology at the University of Papua New Guinea.
The one thing I had not discovered about Sheila until very late was that each time we conversed she had her ears tuned to me but her concentration devoted to something else.
When exchanging dialogues she would look past me and stare at something behind me. I would see doubt in her eyes then. But then she would smile or laugh pleasantly and playfully twist my nose with her fingers.
In the house I always asked her to make me coffee or bring me a beer from the fridge and she did so without hesitation.
The cab pulled up at Sheila’s house and we had only K1.50 to pay. When we reached the door, Pharaoh, Sheila’s huge Labrador, ran out to greet me.
Sheila’s son from her previous marriage came out with the baby-sitter and she picked up the boy. I gave the baby-sitter a carton of beer and asked her to load them all into the fridge.
Later in the evening, as I settled down to my beer, I turned the radio on and began listening to the news. Sheila came out of the kitchen and asked if I wanted some dinner. I shook my head and went on drinking and listening to the news.
‘Please have something to eat,’ insisted Sheila. ‘The boy and the baby-sitter have already eaten and are fast asleep.’ ‘I do not want to eat,’ I said firmly. She sighed and went back to the kitchen.
There was a lot of news being read over the radio. Violence at the border, for one. It seemed to me, after listening to that particular news item, that there was more violence going on at this side of the border than on the other side.
One other news item puzzled me. I could not believe such incidents were suitable for broadcast through the National Broadcasting Commission of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
It was about a man gunning down a chap by the name Dasaid, then driving a four-wheel truck over the corpse two or three times.
‘They say the man is still at large in Port Moresby,’ Sheila called out from the dining room after listening to the news item. ‘My boss, Felix – you know, Felix, don’t you? He’s a psychologist. You must meet him sometime – says he has a fair idea who the suspect is.’
‘Does your boss suspect the killer to be a foreigner or native?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know. But Felix thinks the suspect is a non-aryan brown native – whatever that is.’
‘My only guess is that the man in question might be the same one who ran over that poor woman at Boroko. Felix thinks along the same lines too. That reminds me. Boss mentioned something about someone writing an anonymous note to the poor woman. I think it was the note that did it.’
‘How can you be sure about that?’
Sheila came out. She tapped the back of her head with a finger and said, ‘It all happens behind closed doors, sweetheart.’
Thinking about her remark a bit, I said, ‘I’m sure the woman’s and Dasaid’s killer isn’t at all an aryan foreigner.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Sheila, thoughtfully. ‘But whoever the suspect is Felix tells me that he will be found out soon.’
‘How will you useless psychologists succeed in tracking down the killer?’ I asked, irritably.
‘Oh, we’ll know all right, in good time,’ said Sheila rather distantly. Then looking me straight in the eye, Sheila smiled sadly and said, ‘Please, let us not quarrel over these matters. They are bound to give each one of us a terrible headache.’
Then much later, and pulling up a chair to join me, Sheila said, ‘Are you happy?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered.
I then asked her to bring a beer over for me. She nodded, rose, but instead of going immediately to the fridge, she stood still and listened. We both listened. In the distance we could hear the police sirens.
‘I think they found the man,’ said Sheila and strolled over to the fridge.