THE story really began at Kavieng one September afternoon in 1973. A patrol boat, HMAS Aitape, had made its way from Manus to Tingwon Island after receiving a radio call for assistance to transfer a woman in premature labour to Kavieng Hospital.
The patrol boat made the difficult entrance through the reef to the Tingwon beach where a signal fire blazed to attract attention.
Marian was on duty at Kavieng Hospital’s outpatients unit when the animated activity of patients and villagers attracted her attention.
The outpatients unit was located just metres from a beach where canoes from the offshore islands came ashore and patients could wander into the warm waters to wash.
It was here that the patrol boat with its patient and a village woman accompanying her arrived.
What greeted Marian was a terrible scene. The mother had given birth to a premature baby on the eight-hour journey to Kavieng. Despite all efforts, the poor woman had slipped into unconsciousness and bled to death in the boat.
The tiny baby – a boy - was wrapped in a blood stained towel. A nurse carried him quickly for medical attention. His mother’s body was covered in a laplap, placed on a stretcher and carried past curious onlookers into the hospital.
The little boy was so tiny that Marian and her colleagues, Chris Likeman and Dr Robert Likeman, didn’t hold much hope for his survival.
Meanwhile, his relatives decided who would be his surrogate parents.
Marian and Chris organised for breastfeeding mothers in the maternity ward to provide milk for him while he was tube fed. It was a simple intervention that provided him with the necessary sustenance to survive those early days.
The relatives organised to take his mother’s body back to Tingwon.
Week by week, the little fellow grew stronger and relatives of the dead mother came to Kavieng and told Marian that a mama lukautim (surrogate mother) had been found back on Tingwon.
It had been decided to call him Peter and he would be raised by this woman, who didn’t have any children of her own.
Two months later, in December 1973, Marian and I with a close friend, Gordon Doyle, travelled as deck passengers on a small steel-hulled vessel, Kuka, which traded basic supplies like tobacco, tinned meat and fish, sugar, rice and biscuits to villagers on the outlying islands of New Hanover. The return cargo was usually large mud crabs, kukas.
Our trip to New Hanover took us through a number of villages and it was near Umbukul village that we met up with an ex student who was from Tingwon. We were delighted to hear that little baby Peter was alive and progressing well.
Benson, the captain of Kuka, agreed to take us to Tingwon for an overnight trip. Everyone wanted to come with us so, when we embarked early next morning, we had quite a few extra passengers. They were mainly from Tingwon and had been awaiting an opportunity for a passage back to their island home.
The journey was slow as we chugged through the swells of the open sea with no visible landmarks. We were occasionally escorted by schools of dolphins who burst from the turquoise bow waves. Once, to our great excitement, we found ourselves in the midst of a pod of whales.
Then the chatter of other passengers had us peering towards the horizon and we saw Tingwon for the first time, which appeared on the horizon as a small, low finger of green with a backdrop of cumulous clouds and blue sky.
Two hours later we arrived and waded ashore to the beach. The journey from Aungat had taken over seven hours and impressed upon us the island’s isolation. The village councillors, students and their families offered us fresh coconuts to drink and we sat and talked.
Marian enquired about baby Peter and was led to a hut near the beach where the surrogate mother came shook hands and gestured to a small baby asleep on a pandanus mat.
In 2008 Marian and I returned to Kavieng. It was marvellous to be back and we revelled in catching up with former students and friends and visiting places special to us, including Kavieng Hospital.
We had taken with us a framed photo of Marian and baby Peter. We were not sure if he was alive or if he was still living on Tingwon but the word soon spread around the local community that we were making enquiries about him.
A few days later a group of men from Tingwon arrived, one of whom was an ex student from Utu, Junius Tongilok. They told us that Peter Tolingling was indeed alive and an expert at making traditional fishing nets.
He was married and had a family. We gave the photo and some gifts to them and asked that they give them to Peter when they eventually went back to Tingwon.
Early in 2015, our family conspired to return to Papua New Guinea, including Bougainville and New Ireland, and decided to include a visit to isolated Tingwon.
After many adventures in between, and much planning, in August – after 41 years - we once again spotted the thin hazy shape of Tingwon appearing low on the horizon.
As our boatman Joe skilfully maneuvered through the reef we saw people waving and running along the beach directing him to an area where we could disembark in relatively shallow water.
There were numerous handshakes and hugs and I recognised Junias Tongilok standing quietly in the crowd. He came forward to greet us with a shy red betel nut grin and explained a house had been built to accommodate Marian and I for the next couple of days and our backpacks and belongings were gathered up and taken along a sandy path to the dwelling.
No mention had been made of the person we had come to see, Peter. We were then told that Peter’s mama lukautim had died just five days before. Peter was around and a community meeting would be held tomorrow where we would meet him.
Late the next day, armed with our gifts and my iPad which had numerous photos, including the photo of baby Peter and Marian, we made our way to a covered meeting area and were sat on chairs at the front facing a quiet audience seated on the sand.
When it was Marian’s turn to speak she told the story of the patrol boat arriving in Kavieng and of Peter’s birth and the tragic loss of his mother.
The villagers shuffled forward on their backsides to get closer to hear the story. Marian told how Dr Robert Likeman, Sister Chris Likeman and the nurses had kept tiny baby Peter alive. She said she had hoped to give a framed photo of Peter as a baby to his mama lukautim but would give it instead to Peter.
After a pause, Marian went on to say that she had still not met Peter so could not recognise him in the crowd.
A slightly built man, who had been sitting at the front wearing a white People’s Progress Party tee-shirt, shyly stood up and came forward, head down in embarrassment.
Then, as Marian put her arms around his shoulders, they hugged and wept.
The tears flowed and people wiped their eyes as Peter, mourning the loss of his adoptive mother, was now overwhelmed by Marian’s story and by the meeting.
Marian gave Peter the photo taken all those years ago of her holding him as a four month old baby. I presented him with a fish finder and a combination tool, although - after watching the swift manner in which the villagers caught fish on the afternoon of our arrival - I doubted how useful the fish finder would be.
More emotional speeches followed and then a presentation of library books by Marian and me to the headmistress of Tingwon Community School.
That night there was a feast at Peter’s house consisting of Maori wrasse, trevally (butbut) and baked baby pigeon - absolutely succulent and delicious. After we had eaten we were introduced to Peter’s wife and children.
We had come with an arsenal of things for the village children so and gave them writing materials and tennis balls with the piece de résistance being fluoro sticks that could be made into bangles.
To our amusement everyone lined up to receive one, including the lapuns. For the rest of the evening the rainbow glow of the sticks could be seen shining eerily on the beach, the reef and throughout the village.
The next morning, as we packed our things and made our final preparations to depart, Simon Darius approached me and solemnly and emotionally presented me with a fathom of mis, traditional New Ireland shell money, placing it around my neck. It is something that will always be very special to me.
After numerous hugs and shaking of hands we launched through the reef, and motored out into the open sea.