An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Government Award for Short Stories
In Papua New Guinea, we call our aunts,‘mama’, and even people who are older and closer to us (not even related by blood) we call ‘mama’ and ‘papa’. I was inspired to write ‘Mama Salome’ because educated, working class women in PNG must respect their aunts. It is a traditional obligation. Mamas and aunts may not say it to our faces, but when they go out to neighbours they talk and say,‘Man, mi yia pikinini meri blo mi sa lukautim mi gut tru yia' (Man, my daughter looks after me really well). Mama Salome is a typical highlands mama – a strong highlands aunty who chews betel nut, smokes tobaccos, dresses to kill, gambles with the neighbours, there is a type….
MAMA Salome is large woman who floats around like a huge ship on a stormy sea. She carries two or three bags every time she leaves the house, heaving herself forward.
She stomps like an elephant and you have to make way for her to avoid being bumped or even crushed.
Mama Salome wears tight attire, always flowery and in bright colours. She has short bleached hair and a big oval face, large nose, laughing mischievous eyes, full lips and teeth blackened by betel nut and tobacco. When she smiles, one fang like tooth protrudes above the left side of her mouth.
Her legs are muscular and her feet are large and flat, so she always wears the biggest thongs that cocoon her thick painted toenails. Her great arms dangle with bangles, which complement her ringed fingers and flawlessly polished nails.
If her hands are not busy holding rolled tobacco, they twist and spool wool to make colourful PNG bilums. Sometimes, when Mama Salome is walking on the road, she weaves her bilum as she goes, waving her hands rhythmically and puffing on her tobacco, her flowery attire, bright yellow head and gigantic thonged feet all moving in symmetry.
She is a talker who will never walk past anyone without a greeting. She is gregarious and everyone in the neighbourhood knows and likes her. She collects stories as she chats with people on her daily ventures and seems to know every marital problem in the neighbourhood.
She is loud in her speech, says whatever comes into her mind and does not hesitate to tell people off in public. Nor does not hesitate to yell or cuss if someone has offended her.
From nine to one Monday to Friday, Salome sells ice block cordial at the road side market. She has a huge blue cooler and sits with her friends, who are in their mid fifties and call their side of the market, ‘Single Mama’s Corner.’
And this is where the fifty-to-sixtyish male species flocks to flirt with the women. In the process Salome and her friends rip them off, soliciting free cash from them while getting them to buy their wares.
Here she talks and laughs loudly, puffs on her rolled tobacco, chews betel nut and waves her hands rhythmically in the air making her colourful bilums. Yes, Mama Salome is quite outstanding as she sits under the huge guava tree at the corner of Scorpion Street, with her fanged smile and smooth caramel skin. She is the queen of Scorpion Street corner and every one smiles, waves and chats to her as they pass by.
Salome loves gambling and this gets her into hot soup. From 3 pm to 10 pm, she plays cards on the side of the road and, when she wins, she comes home in a jolly mood and tells her niece Rita of all the happenings of the day, bragging about how a man admired her and wanted her to marry him.
But when she loses, she comes home and complains about the back-breaking day she had trying to sell cordial ice blocks because Rita does not give her a proper allowance. On these nights, she doesn’t like to eat cold dinner and shouts at Rita’s girls to make her hot coffee to wash down her meal.
One night she went with some friends to Phil’s motel. At nine she called Rita’s mobile and told her to pick her up because she was tired and it was impossible to get a taxi.
Rita went to the motel and parked the car, not knowing that Salome had gambled away all her money and gotten really drunk. Rita went into the pub and looked around, but Salome was not there and the security guard said she went through the back door while Rita was coming through the front door.
When Rita opened the reception door to go out to the parking lot, she had the shock of her life. Salome was smashing the windscreen of her car.
As Rita ran out screaming, she saw Salome’s yellow head bobbing up and down, her huge arms dangling with her bracelets and smoke coming out of her mouth as she puffed on her rolled tobacco.
Salome can be an egotistical and aggressive woman who is totally insane when she gets drunk and remembers a quarrel or a feud from long ago that has to be avenged. Rita knew Salome was angry at her for lending money to her children’s father.
Five years ago, Rita’s former husband bashed her and fractured her ribs. She was in hospital and Salome cam a long way on a plane to take care of her. She looked after her like a baby and advised and consoled her and helped build back her confidence.
She nursed Rita to health. With her huge hands she massaged Rita’s body, with her large feet she walked her to the lavatory and with her fang like smile she kissed and wiped away her tears.
In the carpark, Rita clenched her right hand into a fist and turned to punch Salome in the face. Suddenly she stopped.
Mama Salome was the woman she hid behind and got strength from. If it were not for Salome, she could never have recovered physically and mentally from the bashing. Four months of kindness and pampering.
‘Mama Salome, waina yu brukim kar blo mi, yu lonlon lapun meri!’ Rita instead yelled (Mama Salome, why you broke my vehicle, you crazy old woman).
‘Yu disla pikinini yia, givim K1000 lo man klostu kilim yu indai. Mi mama blo yu yia, yu givim mi pipia K100 nabaut lo wanwan mon, na mi sa kaikai dus olgeta dei, traim lo salim ice block lo scorpion kona,’ Mama Salome yelled at Rita as the tears rolled down her caramel face (You daughter, gave K1000 to the man who nearly killed you. I am your mother, you only give me rubbish K100 every month and I had to sit at Scorpian corner every day eating dust, trying to sell ice block).
So Rita was right. Her aunty was angry about her giving money to her ex.
‘Mama, yu wokim bikpla hevi lo public yia,’ Rita was surprised to hear her own calm voice (Mama, you are causing great inconvenience in public).
Then Mama Salome sat on the ground and wept tears, telling the gathering spectators how Rita lets her ex borrow this vehicle she has just smashed.
‘Mi smesim karr yia. Pipia man yia noken kam draivim na kusai nabaut, blary rabis nabaut yia,’ she cried as the securities tried to calm her down.
‘I smashed the vehicle. That useless man must not drive it and showoff, bloody rubbish.’
Rita stood beside the vehicle speechless as her aunty raved and sobbed.
Then Rita walked to her aunty and someone in the crowd said.
‘Ornes, lapun yia, bai karim han blo susa nau stret’ (Honest, the old woman is going to be bashed up now by that sister).
Everyone knew that the old woman has asked for it and would definitely get it now.
Rita took Mama Salome’s heaving great body into her arms and hugged her tightly.
‘Mama, kam mitla go lo haus lo taxi nau . Plis inap lo krai. Kam mitla go lo haus na yu autim ol wari blo yu na bai mi harim yu,’ Rita said with tears in her eyes (Mama, come let’s go home in the taxi now. Please, don’t cry. Come we go to the house and you will tell me all your worries and I will only listen).
Then, in front of the gaping mouths of the spectators, Mama Salome’s tears disappeared and she stood up, hugged her niece with her great dangly arms and they both started crying.
‘Goodness gracious, what is going on?’ Mr Phil, the hotel owner, came out and couldn’t believe what was happening.
‘Boss, this is PNG. We fight, we cry, we hug, we cry, and then it is all over,’ the security guy tried to explain.
Mr Phil rolled his eyes and went back inside.
Rita checked her vehicle to make sure the doors were locked and told Mr Security that PNG Motors was on its way to tow the vehicle to the workshop.
Mama Salome and Rita held hands and walked to the taxi queue.