FICTION - Early on the morning of the graduation, The Old Man drove from Lae International Hotel to Bumbu village to finalise arrangements for the festivities.
He had asked Japheth to call Delisa to pass on the message that he and Japheth, together with her siblings, would come to the graduation.
They would arrive before the official speeches were delivered. And Delisa had to remain in her place patiently until the ceremony was over.
They would then meet and come home to Bumbu for the graduation feast.
His Highlands’ relatives had been told to prepare the mumu. They would kill only five pigs and prepare the chickens for the mumu pit. Fifteen live pigs would be set aside.
Cold drinks were stocked in the fridge and in big eskies full of ice. The feast would start at five that evening.
Satisfied, The Old Man drove back to the hotel to have breakfast, bathe and prepare to attend the graduation.
He had asked Delisa’s mum to gather her family and relatives to wait for him at the block. In three 10-seaters driven by his Highlands relatives they would drive in convoy to attend Delisa’s graduation.
It was his firm intention to meet Delisa for the first time with her mother, her siblings and her mother’s people.
He wanted them all to share in the happiness of seeing Delisa receive her nursing college diploma.
Today would be a great day; a new beginning for many people.
As The Old Man waited in his hotel room, a call came from Delisa.
“I am so happy you are here. How can I ever pay you back?”
“I’m also happy to be here. Your mum and siblings are sweet. I also like your uncles and bubus. In fact everybody from Bumbu village has been so kind. I like it here.”
“I am longing to see you.”
“Me too. But graduation is just a few hours away.”
The Old Man told Delisa to stay calm as he and her mum, siblings and relatives entered the graduation hall. She had to stay where she sat, remain silent and avoid creating a scene.
The important thing was that he was here in Lae to witness her achievement. They would have all the time they needed at Bumbu later in the evening.
“OK, I understand what you’re saying. I won’t embarrass you,” she promised.
As The Old Man drove into Bumbu, he noticed Japheth dressed in a blouse and skirt in the red and black Papua New Guinean colours, as were all her children and sister.
They looked smart and happy. This is what he liked seeing on people’s faces – happiness.
The big mumu was already being prepared. One of his wantoks, an employee of Bumbu Oil Palm Company, came and shook hands, saying he was there to help prepare the mumu.
He had also brought K1,000 – his contribution towards the bride price payment. He would keep it for the moment and then openly give it to Delisa tomorrow when the bride price was to be paid.
Then he pulled The Old Man to one side and motioned towards one of Japheth’s children – a boy, the same lad who had come with her mother to Ariku to welcome them.
“Look at the small boy, and look at me,” he whispered.
Surely, the small boy resembled the man. He was clearly a boy of mixed Highlands and Morobe parentage.
“I met her in the tavern and took her to my house at the plantation,” the wantok explained.
“Then people started saying she was already married with children. I was afraid and ended my brief relationship.
“People told me she had been married to a Sepik guy. They’d had two children. When she was nursing the second child, the man abandoned her and ran off with a girl from another village around here.
“When I tried to make contact with her again later, I saw she was pregnant. I thought her husband had returned. I didn’t know the child she carried was mine. Her husband had never come back.”
The wantok glanced around to make sure nobody was eavesdropping.
“Lately I’ve been trying to make contact with her at the market place where she sells peanuts, ice blocks and loose cigarettes. I wanted to see the boy. And talk to her. But she did not recognise me or perhaps she did but avoided me.
“Or maybe she had many boyfriends and didn’t know which one impregnated her. I am happy you have come. You must help me find a way for me to claim the child.”
The Old Man had listened to him patiently. All the while he looked at the young boy and his wantok. He was sure this small boy was conceived of the man’s ipange (juice).
“There is only one way we can find that out. It will cost a lot of money. An expensive test to find out if your DNA matches the child’s.”
“Part of you that your relatives share. But let me settle down in this family first.”
“Thank you, thank you so much. And for the insight.”
By now Japheth’s sister and her husband had arrived. She was also dressed in PNG colours. They all looked smart. The Old Man arranged them in front of the new house and took some family photographs.
He then wandered over and took more photos of the mumu then he asked everybody to stand in front of the new house for a big group picture.
As they lined up, The Old Man noticed that his wantok was standing right behind the small boy and Japheth who was holding the small boy’s hand.
He smiled at his wantok’s assertiveness but nobody noticed anything. This was just a normal photo shoot, or so everybody thought.
When nine o’clock came, everybody trooped into the Toyota 10 -seaters. The two Dyna trucks had already taken off for home in the Highlands.
The Old Man drove one vehicle just for Japheth and her children, her sister’s husband and their children and one of his own wantoks who had travelled down the highway with him.
The convoy drove unhurriedly towards Lae. When it reached the School of Nursing administration block, the graduates were already seated on their marked places and important guests were beginning to arrive.
The Old Man recognised the Secretary for Health who had flown from Port Moresby to officiate at the ceremony. They were both members of the Port Moresby Golf Club and regularly played together on well-groomed golf course at the back of Parliament House.
He led Japheth, the children and everybody else to the seats allocated for families and public attendees. The atmosphere was orderly. This was surely going to be a good event.
As soon as they were seated, they craned their necks to see where Delisa was sitting in the long rows of graduates.
It was a competition among them to see who would be the first to spot her. The Old Man had only seen her in pictures so he left the game to the others.
Japheth spotted her first sitting on the right hand side of the fourth row. Delisa was in seat number 27 wearing a Sepik headdress with black cassowary feathers and white cowrie shells.
Japheth was shocked. Was it a coincidence that Delisa, 27 this year, was allocated seat 27. How had that happened? Japheth kept her thoughts to herself.
They could see Delisa looking around the crowded hall to see if The Old Man and her mother had arrived.
Then she spotted her mum and a big man with a bald head beside her. He was dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers and wore dark glasses. Well, he wasn’t that bad looking. He was powerfully built, healthy and had a cheerful face.
This man knew how to look after his body with respect. She was sure she would feel safe and secure in his arms.
Little did Delisa know that The Old Man had been torn and wasted by loneliness until his wantoks talked him out of his misery and encouraged him to marry again.
She half knew she had played a part in his recovery through her constant emails, text messages and phone calls.
Then he had begun to eat and regained weight and his will to live. The man whose voice she knew so well was sitting right there next to her mum. Delisa stood up and, with a shy smile, waved at them and sat down again.
The Old Man saw the same smiling face – the one he was so familiar with in the picture hanging in the living room of his house in Port Moresby.
This was that same girl in demeanour and appearance.
He and his late wife Rosemary were responsible for that happy face. Now he was here to see the girl smile again as she received her diploma.
He was glad he had arranged to be with the girl’s mother, her siblings and other relatives to share this happiness.
The important people spoke and the diplomas were handed out and hands were shaken and then it was time for refreshments.
The graduates were called to the dining hall and invited guests asked to move to one of the classrooms.
But not Delisa.
Delisa did not join her classmates. Holding back her tears, she hurried to where her mother, The Old Man and the others were standing expectantly. She felt like kissing The Old Man but did not want to embarrass him.
So she walked to him and looked him in the eyes. “I have waited a long time to shake your hand. Thank you for coming.”
They shook hands then stood next to each other - the dignified old man in suit and dark glasses and the beautiful young woman holding her diploma - as the cameras clicked and hearts beat faster.