FICTION – The ceremony over and the photographs taken, The Old Man and Delisa decided to skip the refreshments for the new nursing graduates and drive straight from Lae to Bumbu village where a big mumu was sizzling amidst hot stones.
The family trooped to the three vehicles. Delisa sat in the backseat while, as protocol dictated, her aunt’s husband sat in the front seat with The Old Man.
As they approached the block at Bumbu, The Old Man briefly stopped the vehicle.
“Look over there, Delisa. That’s for your mother.” He pointed to the new house.
“Ohoo true? Tell me you are not pulling my leg.”
“True. It belongs to your mother. We will open it today.
“It was built when you were over at Salamaua doing your practical.”
“Who built it, please tell me,” Delisa asked, looking at The Old Man, who ignored the question.
“It’s for your mother. Your house is somewhere else. You’ll be given one when you start work next year.”
“I didn’t figure that out,” she thought, as they drove closer to their destination. The new house. Their future together.
“The food will tell you what you need to know,” the elders had said in the hausman many years before, The Old Man listening intently. “People will watch and interpret the signs when you cook and distribute it in public.”
It is so. You may feel sure you prepared the mumu well, but if some of the food is raw or burnt by hot stones, it is a sign your intended plans will come to nothing.
The Old Man and his wantoks knew this instruction well. Especially as they were now in unfamiliar territory amongst a different cultural group, they had to behave well and do things properly.
Hence the feast had been prepared with great care. Five large pigs, chickens and sweet potato, bananas, taro and vegetables steam-cooked in one long mumu pit.
It had been hard work. Gathering the right firewood, preparing the food, heating the stones to the proper temperature and cooking everything to perfection in the earthen oven.
The Old Man’s wantoks sweat had been running off their skin like water in the humid coastal air, quite unlike their own cool climate in the central highlands.
At precisely the time The Old Man, Delisa, her mother Japheth, siblings and relatives arrived, the leaves were removed from the mumu. It seemed as if the food was laughing at them. No portion was burnt or raw.
Now The Old Man’s relatives and wantoks met Delisa for the first time.
She looked stunning in her graduation gown. This beautiful, smiling young woman greeted all The Old Man’s people without the slightest hint of a doubt in her eyes.
For their part, the wantoks cast glances of approval. They knew their food had spoken. They would not go back home empty handed. Their reason for coming to Lae was right here, shaking hands and mixing with them as if she knew them well.
It was time for The Old Man to speak his welcome. He first explained why he had come to attend Delisa’s graduation.
He congratulated her for making it through the difficult course. Then he thanked Japheth for what she had done to ensure her daughter graduated.
He explained how he and his late wife, Rosemary, had decided to help Delisa all those years ago when they received a random text message from a school girl seeking help.
Even though they were from another province, he said, they believed in helping people from all regions of the country. He had helped Delisa when she was in need.
If Rosemary was alive, she would have been at Delisa’s graduation but Rosemary had tragically died - knocked down and killed by a speeding car in Port Moresby.
The people listened in silence as he revealed that he had nearly perished, how he had mourned in solitude away neglecting himself and his friends, how he had been rescued by his wantoks who talked him through his great grief and encouraged him to move on with his life.
The Old Man paid tribute to their children, all working in Australia and who had taken turns to fly to Port Moresby to look after him.
Then, turning his head to where Delisa stood, he thanked her for playing such a vital part in his recovery.
The Old Man said he had more to tell them, but before that everyone should eat.
He moved to where his wantoks stood and gave instructions for them to distribute the food in six groups.
He told everyone that people would be served in groups and individuals not part of a group would be served separately.
The first serving of food and drink included four sides of two large pigs (saipi), whole chickens, vegetables and cartons of Coca-Cola was given to Japheth’s people from Bumbu village. The next serving - one saipi and whole chickens - was given to Japheth’s sister’s family.
Another with a saipi and whole chickens was given to The Old Man’s wantoks who lived in Lae, those who had come to prepare the mumu. Two more dishes with a saipi each and chickens were given to Rosemary’s and his own relatives who had accompanied him from the Highlands.
The two saipi of the fifth pig was set aside for The Old Man to take to Port Moresby next day to share among relatives in the city. And the sixth serving - a backbone of pork was for Delisa, Japheth, her siblings and himself. The rest of the pork was served to individuals who had come to the party. Not a sound was heard as everybody settled in to enjoy a hearty meal.
As the people ate, The Old Man again rose to his feet. He a wantok to bring him a bottle of red wine and give a bottle to each of the six groups. When everybody had a glass, he walked to the entrance of the new house where a ribbon hung and asked for a pair of scissors.
He asked Japheth and Delisa to come to where he stood and place their hands on the scissors while he cut the ribbon to open the new house. Japheth and her children could now live in their new home. Everybody clapped. They drank to good fortune as well as for Delisa’s success.
Japheth was a typical village woman raised in the vicinity of the huge oil palm plantation where people from many parts of Papua New Guinea worked. Nothing like this had ever happened in her life. Not to her or anyone she knew. This was all too much. She was in shock. She could not say much. She cried. The Old Man understood, everybody understood.
Taking her hand, The Old Man led her up the steps of the house and asked her to open the front door. When they stepped inside everything she ever wanted was there – furniture, a fine kitchen with a refrigerator and oven, a comfortable sitting area with cushioned chairs and a television set, fully equipped bedrooms and every household item imaginable.
“This is for you,” The Old Man said, asking his wantoks to serve more wine to the guests while he busied himself inside the new home.
He sat on one of the cushioned chairs and asked Japheth, Delisa, her aunt and husband, and two uncles to sit with him around the coffee table. Two of his wantoks were asked to join them.
After another glass of wine, he looked at Delisa. “What do you think?”
“I am shocked at everything you have done for me and my mother.”
“Yes, I’ve done a lot for you, but there’s more yet.”
“And what is it? I am ready to hear.”
“Your siblings. They need an education too.”
“They do, and I intend to help them when I get a job.”
“And if you don’t?”
“I don’t know. But I will find a way.”
The Old Man liked the words coming from the clear-headed girl. He was glad he had selected her to be with him.
The Old Man searched his jacket pocket, pulled out a ring and showed it to Delisa.
“You know what this is?”
She smiled shyly and looked at him.
“It’s an engagement ring. Do you accept my proposal to marry you?”
Delisa could only nod her head in agreement.
“Give me your hand….”
“Here, take all my fingers and choose the one you want,” Delisa said playfully.
“All the fingers you have are mine but the ring will sit on only one,” The Old Man quipped.
When the golden band was on her ring finger, The Old Man went outside to announce he would wed Delisa early next morning.
“Delisa will be engaged for just one night,” he said. “Tomorrow morning I will pay the 15 pigs I brought down from the Highlands for Delisa’s hand. In the afternoon, I will take her to Port Moresby.”
There was no objection. Everybody had guessed this was coming.
Inside the new home, Japheth, Delisa and their relatives sat in stunned silence. How quickly this was happening. The village had never before seen anything like this. It was almost beyond their imagination.
Music started and more wine flowed for this remarkable threefold celebration - Delisa’s engagement, her graduation and the opening of Japheth’s new house.
The Old Man danced with Delisa just once and then said he must leave for his hotel in Lae.
He asked Japheth to make sure everyone went home after he left. There was to be no more partying. He wanted next day’s bride price payment to flow smoothly.
Then he abruptly left for his room at the Lae International Hotel.
Delisa kept the frustration to herself. She did as The Old Man had asked. She made sure all the guests had eaten and were happy. She paid extra attention to The Old Man’s wantoks. They would be her tambus the next day.
Finally, when everybody retired for the night, Delisa went into the master bedroom in the new house and spent a dreamless night alone on the big bed.
Delisa was finding out much about The Old Man.
That he was decisive. He was generous. And that he knew that love and lust were very different things.
He was trupela man, a real man.