The brittleness of life

November 19, 2007 at 12:36 am (Short Story) ()

Colonial PNG was a fascinating place for anthropologists, artists, botanists, geologists, lawyers, linguists medicos and various other academic specialists but it also held considerable attraction for just plain travellers, with a roving disposition and a desire to meet fellow humans.

The expatriates in the country all seemed to have a story. Some were running away from the law or from personal problems. Others were making a new life. All were forsaking their home countries, for reasons known and unknown to them, and this perhaps added a certain lustre to otherwise ordinary lives.

On a volcanic island about 60 miles from the mainland town of Madang, two expats were listening to the radio in a house substantially made of bush materials. The late news from the ABC reported the arrest of Brian Cooper for sedition. In between cans of beer, Frank Warne, known as Warnie, said to Steve Callahan: ”It’s either a poofter case or he’s had his hand in the till.” Both were inclined to think sedition had something to do with seduction. Frank called out to his wife, Doreen, “You know that young bloke Cooper, you remember the co-op officer, he’s been charged with sedition. Do you know what it is?” Doreen answered with a puzzled expression on her face, “I think it’s got something to do with activities against the government. It doesn’t really surprise me. He said to me once that Australians should allow the locals much more say in their own country. I always felt that he was a bit of a Commie, but a nice enough young chap in his own way.”

Frank and Doreen ran a small trade store, or more correctly, it was Doreen who mainly worked in the store and Frank supervised a bit of grass cutting around their small plot of about four acres, planted with coconut palms. He also had a little pet project in the grounds, a bowling green. He mowed it and kept it in immaculate condition. No one had actually seen bowls played on the green but Frank was full of ideas about future competitions.

Frank was in many ways your typical story book Australian; a tall, lean and lanky man, independent and with an ability to seemingly just survive the vicissitudes of life. He was on an enduring search for a good deal. This attitude to life made him an inveterate gambler and a menace to himself and a source of contention for Doreen.

During the First World War, he had served as an Able Seaman on the famous Australian submarine AE2. This was the first vessel to breach the Turkish defences by making the passage of the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmora, and causing considerable damage to Turkish shipping during the Gallipoli campaign, before falling to Turkish gunfire, and being scuttled to prevent it falling into enemy hands. The crew spent the rest of the War in captivity in Turkey. This experience probably made Frank see the whole of life as something of a gamble. After being repatriated after the War, he returned to Australia and knocked around in various jobs before ending up in Papua and New Guinea as a plantation manager, gold miner, labour recruiter and hotel manager. Between these occupations and on visits to Australia, he married Doreen who was working as a barmaid in a small Sydney pub in Pitt Street.

During the Second World War, he enlisted in the army and served in the Middle East and in New Guinea. After the War, Frank and Doreen returned to Papua and New Guinea and, according to Doreen, Frank had won and lost a fortune many times at cards. During one of their more extreme financial downs, Doreen managed to keep just enough money to buy the small trade store and land that they were now on. She was working to get a little financial stability in their old age. This depended on keeping Frank away from gambling.

Steve Callahan managed a copra plantation owned by WR Carpenter and in many ways he and Frank were as different as chalk and cheese. A young man in his early twenties, Steve felt life’s problems weighing heavily on his shoulders, mainly as a result of religious scruples and sexual frustration, in a country that discouraged any sexual relations between young white men and the local women. Given the findings of sociological research and general wisdom on the subject, for most white bachelors lacking the courage to initiate sexual relations, masturbation would have been their only relief. Unfortunately, Steve in a state of paralytic drunkenness was observed while involved in self-abuse by two other young bachelors. It did not take long for reports of his behaviour to do the rounds of the island; much to his shame and regret, particularly so as he had no memory of his behaviour. He felt that life had dealt him an unfair card and he was reminded of the Shakespearean Sonnet:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate…

Steve’s religious dictates made it compulsory that he confess his sins to a priest. On the island there was a Catholic Mission Station run by a German Divine Word Missionary, Fr Joseph Engel. Fr Engel was a convivial character who loved a drink and was very often the life of the party at gatherings of expatriates. On one occasion, according to Frank Warne, his behaviour went beyond the pale and he made improper approaches to Doreen and Frank punched him. On recovering and getting up from the floor, Joseph was heard to say to a young guest who happened to be a Catholic: “He hit me, did you see that, John? Hit him back.” Other members at the party intervened and ruffled nerves were placated. All in all, Joseph was a character, traveling around the island on his motor bike, calling into the various plantations, enjoying a drink of anything on offer and smoking hand made cigars made from local tobacco leaf or brus as it was known. Jo loved these trips and was rarely the worse for wear. Occasionally, he fell off his motor bike and, until he got himself leather leggings, burned his leg on the exhaust of the bike. A prominent planter on the island, John Middlebrook, once said of Jo: “A great bloke but I wouldn’t fancy him much as a spiritual adviser.” Jo was generally liked and had many qualities of human kindness.

Frank and Steve continued their conversation, and Frank said to Doreen: “Oh,I’ll have to go to Madang to buy supplies for the store soon.” Steve could see a rather pained and doubtful look on Doreen’s face. She answered: “We’ll discuss that later.” As it was now quite late and Steve had about a twenty-minute walk back to his plantation, he decided that it was time to say good night.

Outside it was a beautiful tropical moonlit night, so bright that Steve could read the time on his wrist watch. He followed a foreshore path that passed one village settlement before arriving at the outskirts of his plantation. The salt-tinged air and the sounds and smells of the tropics had all the ingredients for romance. The clear night skies with the constellation of stars seemed to promise endless possibilities for socialising with the village people but given the puritanical attitudes of the time, Steve hardly considered this. His mind turned back to Frank and Doreen: “What if Warnie convinced Doreen to allow him to go to Madang with money to buy stores?” Steve remembered the look of concern on her face when this was suggested.

After a short walk through the coconut palms, Steve arrived at his house. He found a Tilley lamp burning and his domestic servant asleep in the kitchen. Gamalu, a Sepik contract worker, awoke when he came in. Steve told him to make tea and then go to his own quarters. He had a shower and drank his tea and went to bed.

The next morning Steve was up at the crack of dawn to allocate tasks on the plantation. The bosboi (foreman) came to the house to tell him that all the workers had assembled. Masta,olgeta ol i stap. Some were told to cut grass, others to collect coconuts and husk them, loading them on the trailer, for transport to the dryer. A group was sent to the copra shed on the foreshore, near the small inlet anchorage for vessels. Steve expected a vessel to arrive early to be loaded with copra in bags. This was done by the vessel anchoring and then lowering a boat to go ashore to collect bags of copra and taking them back to the ship.

After breakfast, Steve walked to the copra shed to await the arrival of the ship from Madang. When he got there who should he see but Frank Warne.“Hi Warnie, what’s happening?” he asked.“Steve, I’m going to Madang to buy stores for the trade store. I heard on the radio that a ship was due here sometime this morning. I’ll go back with her when you’ve loaded it.”“OK, but you might have a bit of a wait.” Steve replied.As he said this, they both noticed a ship approaching on the horizon. Frank exclaimed:

“Here she comes!”

The vessel was duly loaded and Frank boarded her for the return trip to Madang. Steve wondered how Frank had talked Doreen into letting him go alone to Madang, presumably with a considerable amount of money to buy stores. He had heard that there were a couple of lively poker schools operating among the expats in Madang. He supposed that Frank had promised Doreen that he would go nowhere near them. The analogy of kids in a lolly shop came to his mind.

Five days later, Steve was sitting on his verandah after lunch when he heard the sound of a motor bike approaching. Lo and behold it was Fr Engel and he greeted him: “Hi, Father, would you like a drink?” The offer was like nectar to a bee. Joseph’s face lit up and he said: “If you have?” After they were comfortably seated and drinking beer, Joseph said to Steve: “You’ve heard the tragic news, haven’t you?” “No, Father, what’s that?” Steve replied with a puzzled look on his face. Jo elaborated. “Oh, Mr Warne shot himself in Madang.” “Bloody hell! Excuse me, Father, but when and how did this happen?” Jo then went on to tell him what he had heard:“It appears that shortly after arriving in Madang Mr Warne got into a card game. The game, I was told, went on for some hours and after breaking up, the players left. Mr Warne lost a lot of money. The game took place at George Martin’s place, the manager of the Bank of New South Wales. As well as Warne and George Martin, there were three others, Ralph Wall, Paul Howard and Ross Williams. Wall, as you know, is the local SP bookie in Madang and Howard and Williams own plantations just outside of Bogia. They are all known as inveterate gamblers. Martin is only a social player and given what has happened, and his position, he is said to be very worried. The rest is a bit sketchy and Bob Cross, the Assistant District Officer, who told me about it, said that the whole story would only come out in the coronial hearing. But from what is known, Mr Warne shot himself in his hotel room.”Steve said: “What about Doreen?” Jo told him that she had been informed and taken to the airstrip and flown to Madang two days earlier.The findings of the coronial hearing established the essential facts. Frank Warne died by his own hand, and the verdict was suicide.

Some weeks later, Steve was visiting Madang and ran into Paul Howard in the bar of the Madang Hotel. Howard was drinking alone at a table near the bar and Steve introduced himself, saying that he had been a good friend of Frank Warne and he wondered if Paul could tell him more of the circumstances surrounding his death.:

“Well, from what I heard,” said Howard, “Warnie arrived in town, and visited the Bank of New South Wales and had some business with George Martin. This is off the record but I’ve always thought that Martin is a bit of a twit and from what I can gather, Martin told Warnie that there was a little poker game at his house that evening and he was welcome to come along. What a bloody fool he was. Everyone knew that Frank had a problem with gambling and fancy a bank manager making such suggestion to him. We all turned up at Martin’s place. You know the others who were there. Ross Williams was a bit concerned to see Warnie there and he told me on the quiet that it promises to be a bigger night than he expected and he was not sure how things would pan out.

“We got down to playing at first with a cap on the betting. For the first twelve hands or so, I’ve never seen such amazing luck. Warnie had a series of hands that you would only dream about – royal flushes, full houses and four of a kind. Even though at this stage we did have a cap on the betting, he was still winning quite a bit. With the prolonged winning streak, anyone could see that he was in a rush, and for the uncontrolled player this is about the worst state to be in.

“Looking back, we all should have stopped the game then, but at this stage we had all lost except Frank and we only wanted to get our money back. So we agreed to remove the betting cap. For the next few hands, Frank’s luck held out. You could see that he thought he was invincible. At this stage, he was about five thousand pounds up. I would say that Frank was a good poker player but not a savvy player. He had no idea how to set boundaries and when to quit. Well, of course, his luck changed, first losing everything he had won and the money he had come to Madang with, which was about two thousand pounds. We allowed him to operate on IOUs for another two thousand but he lost that too.

“The game then broke up. Ross Williams had Warnie’s IOUs and he came out the overall winner. The rest of us came out pretty even. Well we just finished up and we all went home. It wasn’t until the morning that we heard what had happened. Apparently, Frank got to his hotel room and put a bullet through his head, using a .22 sporting rifle that he had brought to Madang for repairs. Ross said he would not have demanded payment on the IOUs, especially when he heard how Doreen was struggling to keep things together.”

Steve thanked Paul for what he had told him and reflected on the fragility of human nature and the brittleness of life.


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