BY ARTHUR WILLIAMS
I HAD WALKED to Lavongai from my home seven miles down the coast to buy some basic groceries.
Striding past the mission hospital, which in the eighties was the best place to attend on the island if you were sick (still is), I was stopped by Sister Veronica, a German nursing nun.
“Willy (my Catholic name, the United and Seventh Day Adventist folk call me Arthur) come and see your tambu. She’s very ill!”
The nun took me into the maternity ward and showed me a woman who looked too old and frail to have just given birth and so occupy one of these beds. I stared for a moment and realised it indeed was one of my wife’s cousins; a teacher married to a New Zealand engineer.
I took the very weak hand of my tambu and tried not to exert any pressure on it. “What’s wrong with her Sister?” I gasped.
“She had a beautiful baby boy a few days ago, Willy (all Veronica’s babies were miracles and each was beautiful), but she has got weaker and look at her now she is very, very sick.”
I could see my tambu’s eyes were very jaundiced and she had lost any flesh she had had on her lithe young body. It was impossible to make any really understandable conversation with the young woman, so I went outside with Veronica by my side. We chatted.
“Willy she is surely going to die very soon and I am worried about the little boy. Would you be able to care for him?”
I only had four daughters at that time and knew my wife would be thrilled if we had a son to look after. I spoke for us both. Yes we could help my wife’s cousin if she really was so ill. But Sister must get permission from her and contact the husband, who was far away over the seas, somewhere in Bougainville. In any event we would do all we could to help the little boy.
Next day I returned with Lynette and we were given the little fella, who we decided to call Wilson after his daddy. My wife saw her cousin and all of us were of the opinion she could not survive many more days.
After bidding farewell to tambu the mission gave us a lift home in Columbana, the fast speedboat that the nurses used for emergencies and maternal health patrols. We were excited as we started a new life with a new child and were pleased, despite the circumstances, that the baby was a boy.
A few weeks went by and I was back at Lavongai. This time I had to cross the river to see my tambu, who Sister told me had been sent home, as there was nothing the hospital could do for her.
I found her lying on a bed with a window open to the sound of the waves lapping just thirty feet from the small hut that, unusually for those times, was built not on the healthier tall posts or stumps but straight onto the ground.
There was a small cooking area at the other end of the hut and a blue smoky haze surrounded us as I bent down to speak to my tambu. She could hardly speak and looked worse than ever. I told her that her son was feeding well and seemed to have put on weight. She nodded her head. I think we both shed a little tear or two or more.
A few weeks later I heard that a well-known magician had been called to see if he could help her. I just did the whitey thing of smiling condescendingly at this information; after all we know better, and I wasn’t I a Christian too.
It was perhaps three even four months later that I received information that Wilson’s daddy was coming to fetch his son. We were sad to lose the little boy we had grown to love, but certainly his daddy had first call on his placement and upbringing.
The day dawned and we heard an outboard slow down as it entered the small channel through the mangroves that the canoes used to anchor at our place among my 3,000 coconuts.
We sadly walked down to meet the father with his bouncing baby son cuddled, perhaps for the last time, in my wife’s arms. Then it hit us, standing by his side was my tambu, looking fit and well and once again looking young and beautiful.
Yes, she had survived. Enough to take possession of her son who she hardly could remember after being parted from him so soon after birth. So the snapping of our bond with baby Wilson was tempered with the wonderful knowledge of his being with his real mummy and daddy.
We have kept in touch over the years and when I was last in Kavieng I saw Wilson and his parents several times. The last time was when he was temporarily running an island cocoa and copra plantation they had bought. The father was undergoing treatment in Kavieng hospital.
Wilson had grown into a lovely, strong, healthy man who turned many Tigak girls’ heads and eyes.
How did his mother recover? I know you’ll tell me it was her mum’s loving care or perhaps sago. After all I’m white - so can’t -sorry don’t believe in magic, or do I?
Arthur describes himself as a Taffy but also a Lavongai