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‘Hello! White man!’

A shadow stood and beckoned.


A pitch-black tropical night – only a crescent moon to light the dark curve of beach below me; the curling edge of rainforest against a twinkling, silver sea. On the point the flicker of firelight, three men and a boy – sitting, swaying, staring. The kid leant over and stoked the fire. A shower of sparks swirled high into the air.

‘Come over here! Trink!’

The wind changed direction. Now I could hear voices; a sudden shout of laughter,  a cough, some muttered words. One man began to sing in a deep monotone and the others sat back; black skin, black sand in blackness – all except one.

‘Come! Trink kava wid us!


The resort was still, save for the soft sounds of retching coming from Shirley’s cabin. Stuart snored right through her bathroom aerobics. He’d heard it all before.

‘Hoick,’  hoicked Shirley from the bathroom.

‘Snork’ snorked Stu from the bed.

‘Yow!’ yowed Walphie as he stubbed his bloody toe.

‘Wha…?’ snapped a voice from the grave.

Ralph, creeping around his hut in the dark, was trying not to wake invisible Irma. Hand and eye co-ordination was not his strong point right now. It wasn’t long before her eyes flicked open, heavy-lidded and dangerous, like a hungry Komodo dragon

‘Where are your trousers?’ she hissed.

Ralph was too drunk to lie.

‘I lost them.’

‘You are disgusting,’ she snarled and rolled over.

Mrs. Michael wasn’t the only she-monster in town.

Our hostess with the mostest lay splay under the stars, lost to God. She was dreaming of the past, drooling gently into her kimono. In sleep all the evil drained out of her face – Mrs. M looked young and fun and carefree. She rolled over onto her side, a slight smile on her face. She had a lot of life to dream about.

Up on the hill the scorpion fled as Daniel crashed in, headed straight to the locked box under his bed and drew out a bottle of home-brew. El Scorpio arched his back with loathing. If he could eat this man he would.

Daniel popped the cork and took a deep swallow. In the corner of one eye he saw sparks.


‘Come! Come on!’

Hesitant, a little bit afraid, I stood respectfully on the edge of the firelight.

‘Relazzz. Be happy.’

A disembodied smile ushered me to a log as the singing continued. The boy brought half a coconut shell filled with dirty brown water. He mimed I should drink it all in one gulp, drain it dry and pass it back.

Kava is the flavor of dishwater, old socks and anesthetic; leaves your mouth numb, your tongue a sullen weight. It’s horrible; disgusting stuff – close your eyes, drink fast and  forget stuff. So I did. The bowl was refilled and passed around the group; soon it was my turn again. This time I was sufficiently anaethetised to care a little less, by the third round I was content to gulp, sit quietly and listen to the old man’s song.

Something resembling melody gurgled from deep in Zach’s chest and fought its way to the surface. The old man seemed to be thanking the moon. His face was angled straight at the crescent, suspended there wanly in a jet black sky.

My new friend, a rugged young man with a thick, black beard, whispered the meaning in English when he could link words to thoughts sufficiently to communicate. He was truly out of it, benignly grasping me around the shoulders as he whispered his kava secrets. The others faded away and Dogster melted into those glassy black eyes.

‘He’s singing about the beginning,’ he said softly, his breath warming my neck as he talked, ‘this is Kastom language now, this is secret. It’s a kind of blessing…’

A cold thrill traveled from the back of my neck, spread like wings to each shoulder blade before diving in a stream of sheer pleasure down the centre of my back.

‘He likes you…’

A wave started far, far away, crashed on the rocks at the jut of the point, then traveled the length of the bay in a single stereophonic swoosh.

‘You are safe here…’

His words melted away, became a deep masculine growl, my Melanesian madness merging into the long, rolling roar of the surf. Mr. Dogster was, for a brief, glorious minute, living exactly in the moment. I was perfectly, pathetically content.


‘One cannibal, two cannibals, three cannibals, four…’

Father Lathaniel was counting his cannibals, sprawled on his sad single bed. Like everybody else on Tanna tonight, he was drunk.

God loves a cannibal – the bigger and blacker and more bloodthirty the better. A cannibal soul was a genuine nine on the liturgical Richter scale. The acquisition of pagan souls was Lathaniel’s raison d’etre, his bottom line in the mission ledger.

‘You want me, Fada?’

Everybody called him ‘Father’ but Lathaniel wasn’t really a priest. His religion was much too obscure for that. In his faux-faith mere enthusiasm was enough to catapault anyone into the ‘clergy’. All they had to do was offer themselves up for missionary work and, within seconds, they were Mista God.

‘No, Jarod, you go home.’

‘Yessir, Mista God.’

Lathaniel didn’t bother to correct him – it was easier that way. After thirty years on this bloody island he felt he’d earned the appelation. The Church of the Really Peculiar needed a High Priest.


Blackbeard’s name was Steven Dan and he lived in Yakel, a Kastom village in the hills. We shook hands gravely and he introduced the others. One friend had nodded off by the fire, completely out of it, slumped in the sand. He didn’t respond. The boy was still busy preparing kava in the hut. He smiled. Zachariah, the crooner, was looking away, far out to sea. He nodded vaguely and waved a skinny arm. Now we were friends. When we’d all swapped the details and smiled the smiles, I told them about events on the volcano.

My surreal synchronicity made total sense to Blackbeard. I saw fire flicker in his eyes.

‘Guria-man…‘ he chuckled, ‘gu-u-u-uria-man…’

He grasped my arm.

‘I will guard you, guria-man.’

‘Guard me? From what?’

‘Bad people. Boogie man. Panther-r-r-r-r…’

Then he laughed and laughed. Zacharia joined in.

‘Panther-r-r-rrrr.  Hee hee hee.’

I didn’t think they had panthers in Vanuatu.

Steven reached out and picked up a pipe lying in the sand.

‘You like this?’ he said, ‘you like this? Smoke?’

I smiled and nodded.

‘Ha! We smoke. Tonight we smoke.’

The old man whooped, the boy poked the fire; a column of sparks flew high.

‘I’ll tell you about the island,’ he said, stuffing the pipe, ‘this my home…’

Zacharia started singing.


A thin, transparent fish, about a metre long, died in an underwater bubble of incandescent sulphur a million years ago. As fish go, it was content at the moment of its death, vaporized just as it was chewing on a small grey cod, absently casting its eyes around for more.

A single bright glob of lava appeared, oozing unexpectedly in a cloud of bubbles and gas, pushing the sea back in a rush. With a surge the sea opened up and a hiss and a roar vibrated for miles.

Yasur rose out of the sea in full eruption dragging with it the ocean floor. Streams of lava poured up from the centre of the earth, rolling down the evolving slopes of the volcano, freezing the sea bed as fossils in jagged, weathered larval rock; stone fish, frozen shells, a rock pool in the shape of a long decayed dolphin, frozen moments from a split second in time.

‘Bwo-o-o-offf!’ Steven said, blowing smoke through his nose, ‘Bo-o-o-o-ommm! Yasu-u-urrr.’

The birds and the currents did their work. A coconut washed onto a beach, a seed dropped from a beak, that first palm tree grew then a patch of grass. The wet and humid Pacific is a perfect conservatory; plants grow and multiply, their seeds scattered by the Trade Winds, the palm becomes a grove, the grove a hillside of lean, swaying trees – then a single canoe from no-one knows where.

‘My gran’faddas,’ he said solemly, ‘come from Heaven.’

They scraped past reef to rest on a black sand beach, build a fire, rest, explore. They climb the hills, walk the coast, find the water that makes them stay. Family by family clamber into tenancy of the island, grow to understand its secrets, defer to its whims, learn to respect it, revere it, eventually deify the smoking god.


Now I knew what that really meant.

Time rolled on in a tropical haze, ten times ten thousand years, each day very much like the last, the decades only counted by the cyclones and the storms, the earthquakes and the many moods of Yasur. The world rolled up to them, and they chose not to notice.

‘And then that God man come…’


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