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SULPHUR BAY

‘Josh,’ the old man whispered, ‘you all right?’

And a tiny voice came back to him from far, far way.

‘He’s here, grandfather. I think he’s here.’

‘Show me.’

*

Up on the peak of Yasur young Joshua cleared his thoughts and stared fixedly at Dogster. In Sulphur Bay the chief glazed his eyes and waited. The Dog was quite unaware – he just wanted Daniel to stop laughing and get the hell out of here.

Dogster looked into the boy’s eyes and into the grandfather’s too. For a heart-stopping moment the old man thought the white man could see him there but it wasn’t a two-way mirror and the Dogster turned away, poked at the grit in his eye and squinted at Daniel.

‘Can we go now?’

The old man broke contact, exhausted. He closed his eyes and breathed through his nose. Joshua felt him fade.

‘Come later, boy, bring him here.’

He sighed and, quite unexpectedly, fell fast asleep.

*

We quit the volcano. I was still shaking, crammed in the back of the jeep, desperately gulping the warm beer, staring blankly out the back window at the cloud of dust behind him. Every time the brakes went on the rear red lights lit up the retreating dust. It was as if the volcano was following me down the mountain, pursuing me, chasing me into John Frum territory.

I finally had a thought.

‘How on earth did you get up there?’

The albino’s eyes met mine and I fell into that vacant space as before. The boy said something but I couldn’t make out the words. I saw his mouth open and close and heard no sound; all I could see were those eyes. The boy was talking through them, some silent language from across the valley of time.

Dogster was swallowed by those eyes. As he looked they seemed to get bigger and bigger, the pupils changed maroon through to black. There was jungle in there, there was fire, a forest of shining black leaves, sparkling silver flowers. There was wild magic in the little boy’s eyes, a twinkling, evil wonderland.

He looked away and the spell was broken. Dogster fell back and gasped. He looked quickly out the window and felt his head spinning, forced that evening air into his lungs till sanity returned. I stayed staring into the night as we sped down the side of the volcano, trying to calm my beating heart. Rounding a final zigzag curve we drove around the black field of ash, heading for our next appointment, my sing-song with John Frum. 

*

It didn’t take long for word to filter round the village that strangers had arrived. The boy was telling a lavish story, jumping from group to group, aflame with enthusiasm. A trickle of small children, then a flood, the women hanging back, a shout, a running man, a knot of silent young bucks sullenly part as the Chief walks slowly forward. Daniel asked his permission to enter, there was an absent wave of that elderly hand and the guide clambered over the tree trunks and into the compound.

Clouds of steam, back-lit by moonlight floated lazily up into the blackness, the smell of sulphur became more intense. It was a faintly pleasurable smell, reminded him of warm farts under the bed-covers as a child, of frantic laughter and the chemistry lab at school.

Free from the pull of the volcano the air seemed less intense; the aura of danger not quite so palpable, but things seemed just a little out of control. There was earthquake electricity in the air – crisp, sparkling, crackling clean. More people arrived, baskets on heads bearing food, talking animatedly; everybody was telling their earthquake story. He heard a peal of excited laughter, the birds started again, there was a baby crying somewhere close by. The albino was at the old man’s side. He looked up at his father and tugged his sleeve.

“See?” he said.

The Chief didn’t reply. He took the stranger’s hand when he offered it, accepted his greetings with silence, showed just the faintest flicker of interest when he lit up a duty free, deigned to accept when Dogster offered him one, no, two, one for now and one for putting behind the ear.

The tour began. Dogster was introduced to a clean-cut young man, ushered into a darkened hut, shown army uniforms folded on a table, a roster for duties tacked on a leaf wall, an American flag draped from one of the uprights and a brown newspaper clipping in a protective plastic wrapper telling about their last chief, jailed in political riots ten years before. Pride of place was taken by a red cross with a picture of those five crew cut American astronauts in the centre of
it. Remember? The Right Stuff. The hut was swept clean, the objects displayed as religious relics, the guide unsmiling and intense. The tourist thought that great respect was the appropriate response, asked serious questions about crazy topics, nodded sagely as wild conjecture was uttered as total truth; saw the making of the myth in action.

*

His guide was young, spoke excellent English, hyperactive and blissfully certain in that naïve way the converted are, full of sparkling clarity, a wonderful world of right and wrong. Dogster could see the light shining in his eyes, the sweet messianic edge to his Pacific beauty, the aristocratic curve of his nostrils, the tilt of his head in the air.

Then it was over to the flagpoles, goalposts stuck at one end of the empty field surrounded by huts. No flags, too late, they’d missed the sunset ceremony, ersatz marines in make-believe costumes, painted foreign flag folded and put away, rites observed for an invisible man waiting to return, ready with amazing wealth and the promise of salvation. Dogster couldn’t get a coherent answer from his evangelical friend as to just who this John Frum was; where he came from; when.

That was for someone else to tell me and he wasn’t here. We went into the church. A post stuck out of the ground next to a red cross. Mats on the floor. John Frum was Sergeant Jesus.

*

Things were moving back at the nakamwal, venue for the Friday Frum show. I was ushered onto a log placed along one side of the open structure, joined by the Chief, the rest of the village arranging themselves around the edge. The Chief turned to him and smiled.

‘Welcome,’ he said and held out his hand.

More cigarette sharing and smiling later the tattered procession began. One elderly gent in a G.I. uniform made of sacks shuffled into view from behind the giant banyan we were sitting under. He was holding a bamboo gun. Two by two, a motley parade of battered faith snaked into the central area while big breasted women dangling children sat heavily on grass mats, singing strange hymns to strumming guitars, swaying to the simplicity, the pidgin homily, a mix of blind faith and mystery. The songs sounded, to confused foreign ears, like bad country and western with a liturgical flavor.

‘John Frum, he muzz come, John Frum, he muzz come…’

Above them the cone of Yasur smoked constantly, the distant rumbling merging into applause and village noises. Another song started up. More and more people crowded around the nakamwal, elders crouched over fires, smoke drifting, mingling with dust and the lunatic fringes of religion. The child danced around the fringes like a demented pixie. More of the watching villagers were beginning to move to the singing, starting to abandon themselves to the spirit of the night, but this was early, hours to go yet.

‘John Frum, he muzz come, John Frum, he muzz come…’

I’ve stumbled out of time, slipped the loop; I’ve entered some zone of hyper-reality.

The old man next to me is the Chief, I assume. I can’t really understand any of his muttered asides but nod sagely anyway, grunt my fascination when it seems appropriate. It’s cold, the sea breeze whipped in from the beach and I found himself shivering, despite myself. I felt a mat draped around my shoulders. I looked around to see twenty or more people standing behind him, silently staring into my eyes. I smiled sheepishly back then turned away; felt their constant presence behind me and just a tiny twinge of fear.

They used to eat the missionaries here. Now they worshipped a vague white military man who was going to bring them great wealth. Every year at this time there was a birthday, every year they waited, decked out in uniform and flag waiting for the man.

*

The old chief whispering secrets was a victim of too much waiting. He started talking to the crowd, soft, high pitched and breathy. He was almost whispering, a rapid hissing monologue full of power and religious fervor. I caught the glint in his eye as he gestured glassily around the area. I had no idea what he was saying, but the gestures were emphatic and everybody was listening and looking at me.

There was a long silence. I could see the flames from the fire reflected in their eyes.

Daniel tugged at my shirt.

‘Come, come. Now!’ he whispered.

Then I caught the sniff of danger, glimpsed the black fantasy of their faith, saw through to the black sparkling surety of their life; this bizarre combination of military discipline, innocence and faith. My little friend was there, on the fringes, staring deep into my eyes. Not smiling any more.

Don’t remember standing – it was as if a gigantic rubber band was suddenly pulling me up and out of the village and through the gate. Families watched me retreat; blank faces in the gloom, those fierce young bucks barely seemed to notice. They were locked in on the Chief, straining to hear, caught in the swoop and the swerve of his words. The wise man simply paused, looked at our disappearing backs and smiled.

*

 

We were half-way home, just past the lookout when Daniel spoke.

“They were talking about you.”

“I worked that out, Daniel. What were they saying?”

“You and the earthquake. How the earthquake came and so did you. At the same time. What that meant.”

“And what did it mean. Daniel?”

‘It meant you were special.”

“Special good? Special bad?”

“That’s what they were talking about. They were deciding. They were deciding with secret words. I don’t like to speak about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it is not to be spoken about.”

Daniel was silent the rest of the way home. The stranger’s mind was blank as he stared through the back window, watching out for that volcano.

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