Terry Shelley dies at 77: tough, generous, a true man of PNG
Papua New Guinea and the end of mankind

The Captain of My Soul

Captain-jack-pirates-of-the-caribbeanA SHORT STORY BY JOHN KAUPA KAMASUA

If I told you that misfortunes have assailed me all the days of my life up until the day I met my uncle, it would be an understatement. I think an average person would have already crumbled under their weight.

You see, I had always had misfortunes in my life; thinking I was bad luck pretty much; good for nothing. And I blamed myself most of the time for not having someone around to look up to.

Sometimes it was a mixed bag; I still had troubles yet with something good among them.

I wrote a comical essay once, after a near miss with a town bus whose driver seemed to be pleased for making me run for my life.

That was when I was a student at the University of Papua New Guinea. I had described the scene as if I recorded with a video camera. I described vividly my fear and feelings and the look of glee on the driver’s face as the bus sped by me. He must have thought I was a common stray dog.

My English lecturer, an Englishman, thought my essay hilarious and gave me the highest mark in the class. That was one of the few times in my life a blessing came to me in disguise.

The other time was when I had a bright idea for a team project after a nightmare during which every creature was out to devour me. They chased me, lashed out with sharp claws and gnashed their teeth. I could smell their foul breath.

I screamed, kicked and punched to get away from the evil creatures; punching the wall next to my bed and waking everyone in the house. I too awoke, shaking and sweating and for some reason wrote the words ‘feeding frenzy’ in a notebook by my bed

The following morning during a team project on the behaviour of non-government organisations in my country, I suggested we adopt the phrase ‘feeding frenzy’ as the theme for our project.

It worked well to describe the behaviour of NGOs; entities neither government nor business which tend to flourish for a season when certain issues emerge. Their response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic made a good illustration.

My idea sparked a frenzy of debate in the class. And it is said that this debate continues to this day in that same course. Anyway, it was one of those few times my nightmare turned into a reward.

On another occasion when I had an inspired idea to do something truly original, some cronies of the Minister stole it and made big bucks out of it. They simply substituted teir names for mine and, presto, the Minister approved it. I was gutted.

So you could say bad luck seems to follow me like a shadow.

This is a county where people steal ideas and make a fortune out of them. Vultures would be a good way to describe them.

People tell me I’m brilliant, but I scoff at that as bluff. I’ve hit the dirt too many times.

I suppose I could have done more with these ideas; turning them into something of value, something worthwhile.

But I did nothing. I was lazy like my grandmother. I was better at brooding and not acting.

And I paid the price, watching others run to the bank for acting on inspired thoughts and me musing whether the bank would ever be busted.

Let me tell you about a particular day.

As I look back on it, I almost wish I was never born. It was the day on which one misfortune led to another in a spiral that led me to the doors of despair.

I had received a call from my aunt who told me that my only paternal uncle, whom I had never met, had returned from one of his voyages and wanted to meet me. My aunt had divorced him many years before. She said he was away too much and always had a reason not to come home.

I wrote down the phone number she gave me, placed the note in my shirt pocket and stepped out of the house, intending to meet this man. It was a dark day and it seemed a big rain was not far off.

There was a crowd at the bus stop, everyone anxious to beat the rain and get on any conveyance that came along. Fully occupied buses with people hanging off them sped past. My own anxiety grew. I wanted to get to the dock to meet this long lost uncle.

I cursed the overloaded buses. Any other day there would be a few empty seats. I began to shake with rage. Was fate trying to put me down again. Did my aunt have something to do with this?

Then a bus came by, slowed and everyone rushed at it frantically, fighting their way in. Fat women cursed men who bumped them aside. Men glared at women whose sharp elbows they had felt. I dropped my umbrella in the melee. But I got aboard.

Outside the rain began to pour and I knew the bus would drop me well short of the dock. Now without an umbrella, I imagined standing before my uncle, drenched and looking like a fool.

I grew more anxious.

I decided to call my uncle from the bus and reached into my shirt pocket. Thankfully the note was still inside. I called on my cellphone and waited. The phone rang but there was no answer. I tried again. I tried the third time. No reply.

Panic and anger grabbed my attention. And still the rain came down.

When the bus reached its destination, I jumped off and fled from the rain. I entered a cheap Chinese restaurant and decided to call again. I reached into my pocket. It was empty. I checked my left pocket, then my right again. Both empty. I realised I’d lost the phone in the bus.

I ran from the restaurant like the wind and raced back to the bus stop. The bus that brought us to town was taking on some final passengers and I reached it just as it began to move off.

I screamed for the driver to stop but the rain drowned my voice. He saw my lips move and my hands chop through the rain like helicopter blades but took me for just another crazy commuter and sped off, raising his right hand slowly up and down to indicate all the seats were occupied.

By now I knew my phone was gone. Not many people in this city willingly return a good working cellphone. I wondered how I would contact my uncle. Perhaps a Good Samaritan would gift me a call?

I approached a young woman in a smart uniform but she refused outright, taking me for a phone thief. I asked an old man who looked nervous and quickly walked away.

Any self-belief and strength had left me. I doubted my ability to even stand in front of my uncle if I found him. How would I greet him? What name would I use? What would I say?

I knew the name of my uncle’s ship so there was still hope. Commanding my last remaining willpower, I once again stepped into the rain and jogged in the direction of the dock.

I had no trouble locating the ship and I asked one of the sailors if I could meet someone on board. He obliged and led me to a cabin below deck and left. It was the captain’s cabin.

I knocked once and a voice said, “Come right in”. My uncle sat at a desk with his back to me pecking on a typewriter. There were stacks of books on the desk, on shelves and on the floor. Papers lay in neat piles. The rattle of each key hitting the page filled the room.

A rainbow blue South American parrot was perched on his shoulder and appeared most engrossed in the typing. My uncle continued to peck at the keys while the parrot pecked at his glasses, his beard and his shirt. The shirt was the colour of bird droppings.

Navigation instruments were neatly stacked in another part of the cabin. The only personal items I could see were some photographs which turned out to be of his shipmates.

My uncle finally acknowledged my presence and turned around to face me.

The parrot eyed me briefly and went back to pecking.

I waited for my uncle to speak. He shook my hand and greeted me in a melodious voice, asking me first about the sudden change in the weather.

He then asked if I was doing anything with my life, and I said I’d recently completed a bachelor’s degree and was doing some casual work here and there.

He asked if a full-time job on an ocean-going ship appealed to me. I told him I was doing fine on land and did not fancy the sea.

And so the conversation flowed and it seemed I had known him for a long time. He eventually asked about my aunt and I told him she was doing fine. He had a faraway look on his face when he heard this and abruptly changed the subject.

“I called you to give you my box, a captain’s chest to be precise,” he sounded more formal. He pointed to the corner where the chest was lying.

“Thank you,” I replied. “I shall keep it for you.”

“No, it’s yours and there’s stuff in there, my stuff, but it’s all yours now.”

My uncle said his ship was docked for minor maintenance and I should come and go as often as I liked. He gave me two keys: one for the chest and the other to a small cottage he owned but had never really used.

He pressed a red button and a tall man appeared. My uncle instructed him to carry the chest to a waiting car and to take me to the cottage. He said goodbye to me and, even before I left, had gone back to typing, the parrot still on his shoulder.

I didn’t go back to the dock for a couple of weeks by which time the ship had set sail, I was told to the Philippines.

Exactly a month later, we received bad news. My uncle’s ship had collided with an ocean liner, capsized and sank off one of the islands in the Philippines. The weather had been poor and no survivors were found.

I received the news with a mixture of grief and confusion. He had seemed a likeable man and I was confused by his gesture of turning over his possessions to me.

Slowly it became clear that he had never intended leaving the sea or his beloved ship. He had wanted me to have his belongings as his only heritage.

I soon moved into the cottage and, some weeks later, decided to open the chest. At the top were many books and, as I dug deeper, jewelry, silk and some clothes. And, right at the very bottom, a number of strange stones.

And there was an envelope he had left at the very top of the chest. Perhaps that was what he was typing, I thought.

The envelope contained his will and three sheets of paper stapled together inside a clear plastic folder.

Three poems. ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley. ‘O Captain! My Captain’ by Walt Whitman. And ‘IF’ by Rudyard Kipling. His favourite poems.

I read the poems over and over trying to listen to their silent voices.

More recently I have laminated them and they hang on the wall in my living room. Of all my uncle’s gifts, I value these very much.

And two stanzas from Invictus gave me a new perspective on my life.

‘Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

‘It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.’

I found a new confidence and saw a new horizon. I knew I could make mistakes, learn from them and bounce back again. I realised I was a legitimate person, normal and with the power to influence events in my life.

Since then I have lived my life. I have become the captain of my own ship.


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