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KASTOM BOYS

Two local lads lounged outside the resort. One had a radiant crown of hennaed hair drawn tight back over his forehead to emerge in every direction behind the spray of feathers on top of his head. The other, shorter one was darker in tone and wore three strings of light blue beads – that’s all. Both were stark naked save for a tuft of straw hanging strategically from a piece of twine round their waist. It was all a bit of a surprise. Both carried bows and arrows slung over shining black arms, their blunt bare feet stamping expectantly in the dust, waiting to take this man home to meet the folks.

One held out a note printed in a spidery, childish hand on the back of a cigarette packet. MISTER DOGSTER COM TO MY HAUS STAY COM WITH MY BROTHERS NOW. It was signed STEVEN DAN.

‘How do you do this? How long have you been here? Twelve, fifteen hours? Christ mate, you must be doing something right. Amazing,’ said Michael.

The boss was surrounded by men, carrying, lifting, clearing the debris, standing there on the lawn overseeing the tasks, issuing orders with a peremptory wave of his hand, a whispered conference, a laugh or a snarl.  Michael had a hot temper and the men knew it. All emotions were possible in a very short space of time. They stuck to their work.

‘I’m going,’ said Dogster.

*

Mary backed out onto the patio with the preacher in hot pursuit. He held his pants up with one hand and tried to calm her with the other. She took a deep breath and started to scream.

He grabbed the back of her head with one hand, clamped the other one firmly over her mouth. The pants went their own way and slid ungracefully down around his ankles.

‘It’s not what it seems, Mary,’ he hissed as two brown eyes rolled round in her empty head, as nostrils flared and her breasts, her breasts, oh, her breasts, heaved and panted next to him. Mary was in shock, so aghast at what she had just witnessed that for a brief, unrepeatable moment she was lost for words. The twin pillars of her life had collapsed.

‘Mrs. Michael and I were…’

Words failed him in turn. How to explain away the patently obvious. Mary was not a total idiot. Or was she?

‘Mrs. Michael and I were praying together, Mary. Special prayers for the angels, Mary, extraspecial guria prayers, Mary.’

Her eyes began to focus and she appeared to calm down, her body relaxed under his and the breathing slowed down. Dare he take his hand away? He decided to chance it, but as he did so she immediately drew in a lungful of air ready to screech again. He clamped his hand on her mouth and her eyes bulged.

‘Mary, listen to me? Do you love the Lord?’

She nodded, eyes wide.

‘Mary, would you so anything to hurt the baby Jesus?’

Another denial.

‘Mary, God in Heaven will be upset if you tell anyone what you saw. This is God’s secret Mary and He has chosen you to carry it safe for him… ‘

He went on in this vein, a hopeless blather in an attempt, any attempt to calm the girl, perhaps make her realise that what she thought she saw she didn’t really see. Could he achieve this? He had no idea but he sure wasn’t going to stop till he had tried awfully hard.

She seemed to calm and the preacher let her go, hitched up his pants and went back inside. Mary fled. Mrs. Michael remained dead to the world. He grabbed his glasses, hat and Bible and exited backwards, casting his eyes around the room for any tell-tale clues. Clean. He quit Number One.

Somewhere out in the bay a silver mackerel flew clean out of the water, glistening black in the air. It hung there, suspended, for a long, still second then splashed noisily back into the deep.

*

He looked around, spotted her creeping up the path.

‘Mary!’ he called, ‘Mary, did you see Mrs. Michael?’

Those idiot eyes opened even wider as she fought with her emotions. Her mouth opened involuntarily and she was about to speak when the boss interrupted this swirling inner life.

‘Mary, get Mister Dogster some sandwiches, and a cardboard box.’

Mary looked back blankly, her mind racing, still fixed on the sights and sounds of Number One. She rushed off without speaking and was seen whispering ferociously to her sister. There was a high pitched ‘Ooooohhh,’ from Eunice and a shrill laugh of fear from Mary.

‘Put some gifts in there, Mary, Dogster is going up to the village!’ and Michael turned away. Mary knew just where he meant.

The young men were curiously impassive. Dogster didn’t realize that they were stoned. Michael made the introductions, stashed the idiot tourist’s luggage, gave a sleeping bag to Feathers and a cardboard box of gifts to the other. Beads put it on his head. These gifts were Dogster’s custom payment for the night, to be given to the chief on arrival. Michael laughed aloud as I slung on my day pack and headed for the gate.

‘Good luck, crazy man, good luck.’

I looked at the two adolescent murderers waiting to take me into the jungle, then back at my host.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Michael was shaking with mirth.

‘I’ll come get you after sunset. I think you’ll have had enough custom village by then.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You’ll see.’

I can do this,’ I lied, ‘I’m not scared.’

‘Sure?’

Dogster nodded unconvincingly.

‘OK, then. Wagons roll.’

*

Feathers had the most beautiful back. He ran, he jumped, he shot arrows into the air and climbed trees to bring Dogster back tart, red mandarines, stalked birds in the undergrowth and failed, generally showed off all the way to his village. Beads was quieter, stronger, more solid in his task. Perhaps it was just the cardboard box balanced on his head.

The unlikely trio walked a gentle gradient uphill for about an hour, passing mission villages and the government school, a strange concrete intrusion on this Pacific island. Dogster and the custom boys were communicating by now, a pidgin diet of learnt words, ferocious obscenities and graphic gesture. Feathers knew few English words, Beads was familiar with only two. Coca and Cola. Dogster couldn’t do much with that. They taught him names of things, he returned the gesture, they all laughed at their attempts at pronunciation, they all made an effort to communicate. Traveler’s language.

When the conversation ran out the two young men began to chatter away amongst themselves as they walked. Dogster had no idea what they were talking about but there was a lot of laughter. He joined in their good humor, smiling vacantly at their jokes, sending them into renewed fits of laughter.

‘Do you think he’s got a dick?’ Beads was asking his brother.

‘Of course he’s got a dick,’ Feathers replied, ‘even white men have dicks.’

‘I bet it’s a big one.’

‘How big?’

‘This big!’ and Beads held out his hands about a meter apart.

Feathers held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. The two young men hooted with laughter. Dogster smiled benignly.

‘Silly dick,’ Beads said, ‘stupid white man.’

We were still walking on dirt road, but it was getting dirtier and more overgrown as we continued. Gradually the dust underfoot became softer, a loose, fine powder that puffed out little brown clouds as we walked, left crisp, detailed footprints behind. Soon Dogster fell back, shuffling silently through the jungle, the boys far up the road. They disappeared round a bend and for a moment I was on my own, out there in the rain-forest, wandering towards the complete unknown. I shivered at the strangeness of it all, hesitated for a second and took in all the tropical wonder around me.

The thick air closed in, I became aware of the million noises that flowed through the forest, a high-pitched buzzing, a zing of creation out there in the wind. My eyes traveled slowly over the gnarled trunks and flowing vines, past enormous split leaves and dangling stalks, seeing them for the first time. There was a vividness about the colors that I hadn’t noticed before, a tang that I could almost taste. My nostrils arched and I breathed in all the smells of the afternoon, a damp sweet aroma of death and renewal. It was all too much. I blinked and shuddered and started walking again, following the footsteps of two young men along a dusty road.

*

It was another thirty minutes before we reached the village. Around a bend in the track were twenty tiny figures, nude, namba’d, a gaggle of grubby midgets at play. It was exactly as if we had stumbled on a lost tribe of pygmies. I was instantly the centre of all attraction, poked, prodded, vastly tall in this sea of writhing brown attention. They held my hands, giggled and pulled me down a steep mud path to their village. Invisible from the road, suddenly upon me, it was the usual ramble of huts, dark bedrooms and strange kitchens.

Deserted. Feathers and Beads melted away with a ‘see you later,’ wave and left me to this fracas of small boys.

The wild children led him through the empty village, urging him around a precarious pathway on the far side, over rickety log bridges across deep slashes in the earth, upwards through jungle and fern till suddenly, just as Dogster caught a glimpse of the malevolence in their glee, just as he was starting to worry, they all tumbled out into a large dusty clearing. There, posed on a long wooden bench sat Ralph and Irma, Stuart and Shirley.

*

‘Heeeey, Dogster!’ bellowed Stuart, his moose call breaking the calm of the clearing. ‘How’s it hangin’?’

‘Stuart!’ hissed his wife.

‘How’d ya get here, man?’

‘Walked, mate,’ I said wearily, ‘good afternoon, Shirley, Stuart, Ralph. How’s the day tour, Irma?’

‘It sucks,’ she snarled over her shoulder.

*

Around the clearing was a jumble of huts, a gigantic writhing thousand-year tree capped by a stunning Swiss Family Robinson tree-house, twenty bare-breasted women and tiny children, and at least another ten young girls, all plopped on the ground, grass skirts matted in the dust around them. Behind the giant tree the men sat waiting to perform.

‘Does anyone know what’s going on?’ It was Irma. ‘What time’s the show gonna begin? Ralph, go an’ ask someone. We’ll miss our flight outta this god-awful place.’

Ralph stirred, moved his weight from one buttock to the other but showed no signs of movement. To Dogster’ eyes he appeared quite drunk but no one else seemed to notice.

‘Ohh, leave him alone, Irma, it’s been a big day. We’re all tired.’ Shirley tried to reason with her but it was to no avail.

‘My fanny hurts from that damn truck.’ Irma said and dug her husband in the ribs.

The gaggle of tourists sat there impatiently on the log bench. This custom village was part of the guided tour, each day what few tourists were on the island came here for fifteen minutes of dancing, a quick cruise of the desultory collection of beads and grass skirts laid out for sale in the brown dust, a wander through those empty Stone Age display houses trapped in time. Duster was waved into in a ceremonial position of importance in the middle of the captive throng, they all exchanged glances and without further ceremony the show began.

As the tribe stamped its way around the open area clouds of dust flew around those hundred feet pounding into the dirt. Dogster watched the tourists as they concentrated on their cameras, lined up their videos and pointed them  at the past, saw the disinterest and confusion, watched Stuart load his film ruthlessly all through the ten minutes of culture, barely looking up at all. As he finally raised his camera to take that shot the dancing abruptly stopped. Dogster’ lip curled at his crudeness. There was a smattering of dutiful applause and the show was over.

‘Well, thank Christ for that,’ Irma said, ‘can we go now?’

All fifty participants lined up at one end of the bench and solemnly shook hands with each tourist. He watched the cultures collide, saw the look of distaste on Irma’s face as grubby brown hands were thrust out to shake hers. He got special smiles, though, and a wink from a breathless Feathers. The tribe left the tourists, the men to their special place behind the great banyan tree, the women and girls into the huts.

From the far end of the clearing he heard the sound of a motor revving, the blare of a car horn. It was Daniel, on the far outskirts of the village, calling his flock back to the jeep. They obediently took their leave and, with not a backward glance, trooped out of Dogster’ life. He heard the car start up and, as the motor died away, felt the stillness of the village descend on him. Dog was left all alone on the bench feeling shy and just a little silly. With all his heart he wished that Steven was here.

*

NAMBA

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