BY LEONARD FONG ROKA
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
AKORA WAS A GRADE 11 student at Hutjena Secondary School. His slim build and weakling-like posture had many of his school mates concluding that was an explanation for his easy-going attitude to life. But when he felt like slopping over the brim of his self contained world it was hard to understand the new side of his personality.
Nobody, not even his own folks from Kieta, knew whether he had a Buka girl friend or not. It was hard to squeeze out his secrets—he was too stolid. But the rumour in the air was hard for him to deny. He was spotted in the dark hours with a certain Haku girl from Grade 9 in that brown classroom next to his own. He travelled to places that most Kietas feared. For his dreams and him nothing could come between.
The year 2011 was the hundredth year since Catholicism had landed in Bougainville. Jubilee celebration talks infiltrated every conversation in the school. Akora, although a Catholic and often attracted by the jubilee-related radio jingles, kept aloof for his own reasons.
Easterly and sea originating gusts of wind swept through the Hutjena Government Compound continuously harassing his reading. Intermittently, when the wind—with its ingrained cruelty—pitied him and abated, the loud sound of the singing by the practicing student choir in the mess hall took its turn to disturb his concentration.
“Hey, Tebu, ol wokim wanem long mess?” he asked his bunk mate making his ingress to Dorm 17.
“Aung, they are Catholics,” Tebu answered, “practicing the centenary song. They’ll be leaving on Thursday by ship for Tunuru in Kieta. Brother Joe from Hahela is conducting them.”
Akora followed his mate into the dormitory and they sat lost in thought.
“Sans, mi lukim peles pinis,”Akora said, boastfully as he turned to a new page in the novel that he was reading, Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe.
“No. Aung, they are saying that only the ones involved in the rehearsals are going,” a boy grooming himself in his bunk said with a laugh.
Akora, with his mind concentrated on the book, absent-mindedly joked, “Sir, those nice voices and that pes-meri conductor, if they happen to leave me here, they’ll never get into Heaven. As for me, I’ll be there with a carton of beer to party with my Lord. You know; I’ll tell Him, Jesus, let’s go back to the Cana days.” They all laughed at the silly joke.
Days went by like the water in a river that has no resort to holidays. All the Kietas looked forward to a trip home in their centenary attire, if only to regain the smell of their so-missed home. From his distance Akora also shared with them that desire; that longing to be home.
Thursday found Akora very early in the dust and salt scented Buka township. Along the limestone gravel-covered streets Kietas wandered everywhere aimlessly. “So, you see, so many Kietas hiding in different corners of Buka island,” he said to his friend and classmate, Barapa’nung.
“Masika’ra, era,” Barapa’nung snuffled in the cloud of dust dragged along by a passing truck. “Many of them have never even felt a fine church pew even once.” He paused to cross the road for the market, and then added, “Tonight, they’ll all pack aboard the MV Sankamap for the joy of being seen in Tunuru as a bunch of faithful Catholics.”
Akora reluctantly chuckled, “Aung, and what about us trying to get on board, have we any desire for fellowship with the church?”
“Always, we are.” They laughed and entered the market.
Across the mighty and tenacious (if you fall into it) Buka Passage, the church chartered vessel was resting idly at Kokopau wharf, patiently waiting for the Tarlena Secondary students and others to embark.
In the background of the growing Kokopau station the coconut palms lining the high ridge above were swaying in the wind with absolute fidelity. Just like Buka, trails of dust were marking the whereabouts of moving vehicles.
At the northern entrance of Buka Passage, just outside Iata village, gulls fished in the glare of the setting sun on a calm sea besmirched by the pure whiteness of the remnants of crushing mighty waves in the area believed to be the spot where the flowing passage water meets the immobile ocean.
The take-off horn of the ship blared at half five toppling those twang-like piercing sounds of the few motor boats ferrying across the passage through its undulations and bulging waves. “Era, otherwise that thing leaves us here,” complained Akora, his eyes staring at the black diesel fumes emanating from the ship’s funnel in the distance.
The boys were intrigued and tucked into the last contents of their food parcels before dashing out of the market. “That ship must be coming here,” Barapa’nung reasoned. As they wondered the school truck appeared in front of them. “There, you see, the students are here. They will be crossing the passage for the ship is coming to this side.”
As they approached the wharf, the ship was there slowly engaging itself to the bridge.
“Anangka, de are kuada remang?” a wantok straying near the port gate asked them. “Students are inside the gate, are you two going with them? Will you be on the ship?”
“No, we are only going to the bank’s ATM,” they lied. “Not interested in Kieta girls; the Buka one’s are getting sweeter every day, you know.”
This was Akora’s way of answering questions from strangers. He loved short, cryptic answers where the enquirer must work out the rest in his own mind.
A good number of the choir students called to them as they walked under the street lamps but they ignored them, pretending not to be interested in being homeward bound.
They headed towards the bank and sat there watching the mass of people sorting out their travel papers. Later on they moved under the mango tree in front of the port’s main entry gate, to Akora a handy coign to keep an eye on developments.
The shrilling crickets annoyed them but they remained there calculating what steps they needed to take; one thing hindering them was the fact that neither had 15 kina to pay for the voyage to Kieta. Akora, however, had a plan.
“We’ll go in there, together,” Akora told his partner, “as we reach the money collector, I will send you back. That will give me time to play games with the cash-man, his receipt-boy and the person in the queue with me. Understood?”
Strong gusts of wind were blowing litter everywhere. Leaves from the mango tree rained down on them. There were no twinkling stars high in the sky, just the powerful flash of lightning and the sound of thunder to the north. In the chilly air the boys marched towards the ship.
As they jostled through the crowd, an announcement was made, “All Hutjena students listen carefully as we read your names; when you hear your name cross the gang way. If your name is not called, you will have to pay K15 for a ticket.”
As the list was read, the students snuggled into the floating house of the ship while the no-names began paying cash to Brother Joe, whose bald head, to Akora’s amusement, glittered in the bright lighting of the ship. The boys approached him.
“And you two? Painim wanem, maski lo bihainim ol meri,” Brother Joe, laughed. “Who is giving me K15?”
Akora watched Brother Joe write the receipts while the other brother, whom he was not sure about, collected the cash. Beside them, stood a couple of huge and aggressive looking security guards; the gangway was manned by them too.
“I will pay you,” Akora said. “Barapa’nung just came to see me off.” As an afterthought, he added, “Hey, Barapa’nung, my bag is there under the mango tree; go and fetch it.”
“What were you doing under the mango tree?” Brother Joe asked, with a giggle.
“Just write me a receipt,” Akora told him. Looking at the woman in the queue behind him he said, “Hey, woman pay money to the cashier and this pipia Brother will write you the receipt.”
“Have you paid too?” Brother Joe asked him.
“You write my receipt and keep it there and I’ll go and pay; you’d better write this woman her receipt as well.”
Brother Joe did just that and Akora moved over to the cash collector and handed him some areca-nut and started a conversation. They chatted like old friends, occasionally getting the receipt-man involved. When he thought he had them in his trap he would go back to Brother Joe for his receipt and he was sure he wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to him since he had been with the cash-man for some minutes. The timing was perfect and he presented himself to Brother Joe, again.
“My receipt, please?” he asked, confidently.
“Here you are, and safe trip, my pamuk boy.”
As planned, Akora boarded the ship and then walked to the bow area and handed the ticket to Barapa’nung, who was, after a few minutes, safe onboard beside his partner. They relaxed and looked forward to the voyage ahead.
All this was done under the brewing storm. Then came the mooring lines, followed by the gearing up of the ship’s engine, which felt like an earth tremor to Akora.
The ship steamed towards the open sea and Kieta in pitch darkness, unsteadily hustling against the tormenting winds and gigantic waves.
Waves as high as Mount Takuang attacked the ship continuously, causing stifling discomfort for poor Akora who now thought of nothing but sea sickness. “We are entering the mouth of a devil storm, boy,” Akora told Barapa’nung as they sat on the wet coaming canvas. “Let’s go into one of the cabins.”
Nobody was interested in exploring the warmness of the cabin with the waves hammering the vessel. Akora held tightly onto the canvas seam even though some stability had been gained and the floating house was churning on through the tempestuous sea. Fear gripped him yet.
To further add to their displeasure rain poured down in a torrent in collaboration with the cruelly rollicking wind hissing in the struts. Nobody was stable: people stood and then sat and uttered complaints or just wandered about, hands clutching at anything for balance—not even taking the chance to glimpse at the storm outside.
Akora lay prone on a bed offered to him by an old friend, Asino a student from Tarlena. He was sick in the belly. “You know, I felt awkward taking up this bed when other people needed it,” Asino boasted in a distant murmur; but pain was permeating his bravado. “You are lucky—” The ship quaked and he too was dangling over the bed vomiting with heavy gasps. Somewhere a child was wailing in gulps too.
With his chin resting on his wrist Akora painfully scanned the room. Everywhere people vomited onto the metal floor. A few with a little strength left staggered outside but returned wet all over from the sea spray and rain. Occasionally people bumped into the rails or bed frames as the vessel jerked uncontrollably.
As he laid in discomfort, Akora chided himself for taking this journey. “Why did I take up this voyage,” he murmured. The thought of jumping overboard momentarily occurred to him but he dismissed it quickly. “Get lost, he said.” He prayed with the woman next to him. As he meditated he kept his eyes on his female neighbour. She was mumbling in dulcet tones with a rosary resting in her palms.
He initially eyed her quite cynically but then admonished himself. She was beautiful, like every student from Tarlena, especially now with that frightened look. Her hair was neatly braided and a white t-shirt covered her agile body.
Just then, a giant of a wave struck. The churning of the ship’s engine wavered. The clock on the wall that was reading midnight was suddenly not there anymore. The ship jerked, bounced and then jerked again and again. Impetuous was its lurching.
Akora was not within his senses. In the darkness he attempted desperately to get to his feet but to no avail. He tried to scream but not a sound was uttered as the whole mass of the rosary girl, Jacklyn, was stuck to him. Her cheek blocked his mouth from calling while her bare thighs were all tangled up with his.
The smell of strong perfume overwhelmed him. Her warmth was erotic and liberating from the defiant storm outside. They both—now having each other for comfort—considered the dangers outside as a soothing lullaby for them—two desperate lovers.
Akora ran his palm down her smooth back and hesitantly under her panties. He began caressing her buttocks to no objection.
The darkness was prolonged due to some mechanical mischief in the ship’s engine. With that blessing he straddled her and they made love as the terrified people around them, mindful only of their own survival, ignored them.
The morning sun caught them in separate beds as the ship slowly made its way into Loloho wharf. They eyed each other with affection and talked about the new place before them. Jacklyn was taken by the rugged mountains and giant boulders that reached high into the skies of Kieta and her brown eyes were wide.
White seagulls soared high in welcome. The green mountains and rolling hills, mottled here and there by huge white galip-nut tree trunks, were magnificence to the Petat’s Island girl.
The ship docked carefully against the wharf and the lovers walked down the gangway laughing to themselves and discussing what had crept into their world.
“Aung, from which corner of Kieta do you come from?” Jacklyn asked shyly as they strolled in front of a bunch of curious on-lookers.
“Panguna is where you belong, rait lewa.”
“Em orait tasol,” she said proudly and hugged him before the dozens of wondering eyes.
LEONARD FONG ROKA (32) was born in Arawa and grew up in the Panguna District during the years of the Bougainville crisis. He began writing poetry as a student at Arawa High School and has now compiled a collection of short stories and poetry which he hopes to publish. He has returned after a break as a student at Divine Word University and is working on an autobiography of his experiences in the Bougainville war in his spare time