The downfall of Frank Gibson

He awoke suddenly with a languid feeling, and the first thing he noticed was that the mosquito net was not tucked in at the side of the bed.

   Frank Gibson then became aware of a slight musky yet pleasant smell on his bed pillow. It then came to him that he had slept with Maria. If slept was the operative word, he thought, it would not have been so bad, but a vague feeling of emptiness and inaction in the region of his loins spoke for itself and told another story.

   With the full recognition of what had happened he became aware of complications and difficulties created by, what he thought to be, a moral lapse.

   My God, what a fool he had been, he thought. If only he had walked away, as he had many times before from similar situations. Even the extra glass of Negrita Rhume, he had had the night before, didn’t excuse his lack of self-control.

   The Territory of Papua and New Guinea gave little endorsement to miscegenation, especially if one were a government officer.

   Frank as a European Medical Assistant was fully aware of this. He’d seen officers suddenly sent South – as the saying went for deportation to Australia – on the strength of the Native Women’s Protection Ordinance, which virtually forbad cohabitation between expatiates and native women. He also knew the complications that having ‘a bit of black stuff’ created, and he thought with terror of how his authority would be undermined in the native hospital he ran. Maria was his head nurse and an influential person on the small government station of Dreikikir. A station situated in the Sepik District at the foothills of the Torricelli Mountains, elevated at a sufficient height to produce mild climatic conditions. Contact from Dreikikir was maintained with the district administrative centre at Wewak by radio and light aircraft.

   There were two other white men on the station besides Frank, Bernie Porter, a Cadet Patrol Officer and Fr John Ryan, an American Divine Word Missionary.

   Bernie was a fairly average Australian who just managed to pass the School Leaving Certificate which qualified him for entry into the Department of Native Affairs as a Cadet Patrol Officer. Frank knew that Bernie had been itching to bed a local woman but was just too scared to do anything about it.

   Fr John was a singular character who before becoming a priest had been a lawyer in Chicago. Frank knew that John had no time for expatriates who carried on with local women. Frank feared that if he found out about his affair with Maria – a state that could hardly be ornamented with the term affair at this stage – it would considerably strain their friendship.

   Frank’s friendship with John was important to him. John was the only real contact with an educated man who shared many of his interests, for indeed, Frank was not your average medical assistant. He had completed 4 years medicine at Sydney University and only left to come to New Guinea because he had insufficient funds to continue his medical course. The fact that Frank was a practising Catholic strengthened his friendship with John.

   After his fling with Maria, Frank could see problems with his weekly communion at Sunday Mass. The prospect of going to confession to Fr John did not attract him at all. Anyhow, Frank thought, I’m not sorry for the Maria episode.

   Maria, in any man’s book was a beautiful woman and even the word local did not strictly apply to her as she came from Kerema in Papua – an area noted for the beauty of their women and Maria lived up to this reputation with her long limbs and stately figure, and a face like a Pharaoh’s daughter, but the fact that Maria was not local also created problems.

   The police corporal, Kasimai, also came from Kerema and he had had his eyes on Maria for months. In fact he had told her that he was prepared to put aside his Sepik wife and marry her.

   Frank knew it would be impossible to keep an affair between a white man and a black woman quiet.

   While he was thinking about this and sitting in his bush material house, Bernie called in to ask his opinion about the health of his house boy. Apparently, Bernie’s domestic showed signs of skin discolouration and he enquired of Frank if this could be leprosy. Frank told him that this was possible as the disease was endemic around Dreikikir. Frank said he would have a look at the man later. He was tempted to tell Bernie about Maria but he knew he would probably tell the District Officer in Wewak and then the District Medical Officer would hear about it. Frank didn’t think that he would be dismissed as the quality of his medical work was too well known, but it would be a transfer for him.

   At least Frank did have the satisfaction at this time of knowing that his reputation in the Department of Public Health as a practical medical man was without equal – a doctor in ever way except for degrees. His reputation needed no justification. In Wewak the white community never seemed to tire of talking of how he saved the life of Joan Johnson and her baby.

   Joan was the wife of Les Johnson, the hotel manager, and Joan was rushed to Wewak Hospital for a very difficult confinement.

   Jan Vertias, the Hungarian doctor in-charge – a man more trained in psychiatry than general medicine, rushed Joan to the theatre and promptly passed out himself, when Joan started to come into labour. Joan’s condition indicated that a caesarean operation was needed. There was no one able to do this, what with Vertias passed out. One of the nurses remembered that Frank was visiting Wewak and staying at the hotel. A car was rushed to collect him and he came to the hospital and performed the caesarean successfully. Les Johnson always insisted that the drinks were on him whenever he ran into Frank.

   Frank knew he would have to go to the hospital for the morning out-patients and he also knew he would see Maria.

   On approaching the hospital, a short distance from his house, Frank could see the usual line up of mothers, children and old men with one or two younger ones – colds, malaria, yaws, tropical ulcers; the usual diseases presented for treatment. He gave instructions to the orderlies – 4cc penicillin, 3 tablets of chloroquine and so on and so on, but all the time he was wondering where Maria was.

   After a while she arrived and addressed Frank in the usual way: ‘good morning, sir.’ With this Frank gave a sigh of relief – she was not going to take any advantages, he thought. He could end it now and not continue with the affair but on seeing her he knew he would be unable to do this.

   When the day ended at the hospital Frank asked Maria to come to his house after dark and with her smile of acceptance he knew to expect her that night.

   On his way home he ran into Fr Ryan who asked him to come to the mission for drinks later.

   When he arrived at the mission Bernie and Fr John Ryan were sitting on the verandah and sharing a bottle of Victoria Bitter. John called out to his house boy to get a glass for a Frank.

   With the beer freely flowing conversation developed among the three men on the state of the country; the natives and the dishonesty of old Kimmins who ran a trade store outside Wewak.

   An outsider would have observed three men who were themselves outsiders in an alien land with little new to say to each other – thrown together by forces outside their control by motives and imperatives both mundane and sublime directing them to a place where some would say they had no business to be.

   The conversation got eventually around to sex as it is want to among men isolated from their own kind. The more bawdy aspects of the subject were avoided out of deference to Fr John, but in the final count it was all there, if in a somewhat dignified tone.

   The subject came around to relations with native women. John made his views clear in that he strongly disapproved of such behaviour. Bernie in so many words justified it along the lines of any port in a storm. Of course, he maintained that he would not indulge himself. One could be forgiven for thinking that he was only trying to impress John. Frank said that he had an open mind on this question. After all what could he say knowing that unlike the other two he would have the company of Maria in the night.

   After about an hour all three were two-parts-gone and well on the way to being inebriated. John asked them to stay for a meal. Frank and Bernie sent word to their respective houses that they would not be home to eat. Frank in his own mind thought this was a good idea as his house boy, Joseph, would be out of the house when Maria arrived later in the night. He was embarrassed about Joseph knowing about him having sex Maria. Why exactly he didn’t know as Joseph was anything but a prude but he suspected that he had a high opinion of him and he did not relish the idea of destroying this.

   By about 10 o’clock the gathering broke up with Frank and Bernie making their way home and Frank wishing Bernie goodnight at Bernie’s house. He then proceeded home guided by the full moon and the mounting desire of expectation of what was waiting for him. Sure enough Maria was there in his bed half asleep.

   What followed was a night of sensual and emotional pleasure made in some perverse way more intense by the illicitness of their union.

   Maria left Frank at about 4 am and he slept the sleep, if not of the just, but of the exhausted.

   Maria arrived back at her house just as Corporal Kasimai was re-entering his house after relieving himself at a tree. He saw Maria returning.

   The plot of the tale from this point on has all the elements of tragedy, melodrama and just plane bloody mindedness.

   Frank’s affair with Maria became common knowledge on the station and news of it soon passed to Wewak but for some time there were no official complaints so the powers that be and the natives by in-large chose to ignore it. That was before Corporal Kasimai driven by intense jealousy hinted to Bernie that the doctor (Frank) was causing trouble on the station and unless something was done he would have to make a report to the police in Wewak. Bernie told Frank that the matter might be taken out of his hands if this happened. He did not actually say that he knew that Frank was carrying on with Maria but hinted that he knew and more or less said half his luck but the time had come to stop whatever was going on.

   Frank it appeared was powerless to stop seeing Maria for added to his obvious infatuation he had taken to drinking to excess. He was often seen the worse for drink in the mornings at the hospital. He had given up attending Fr John’s weekly Mass on Sundays and seemed unable to maintain a conversation with John except in his cups. Fr John too seemed unable to help and give him spiritual advice. The camaraderie that the pair had, seemed to be of no account in this crisis that Frank was going through.

   Frank’s fate took on a life of its own with the twists and turns of a road eventually leading to disaster.

   In the whole affair Maria seemed the only one not affected, if anything, she seemed to blossom into life and sparkle with the parcels of dresses that arrived from Wewak at Frank’s expense.

   Everyone except Frank and Maria became an audience awaiting a climax in a drama of life. The principal actors were only two but a third emerged, the wildest card of all; Corporal Kasimai loaded his 303 rifle and shot Frank dead one evening on his way home from the hospital.

   Frank was dead by the time Fr John administered the last rites.   It took Bernie a three days patrol to catch the Corporal in the bush.

   Some would say that Frank died from love, others might say he was a fool, and still others that he was a victim who dared to cross the colonial barriers of race and propriety. Whatever might be said, Joan and Les Johnson never ceased to sing the praises of Frank, the medical assistant who was more than just that.

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