A Place Called Pandemonium
Some years ago I returned to my birthplace and found it had become a luxury holiday resort. Described in the brochures as “Iririki, Island of Elegance” and lying snugly in Port Vila’s blue harbour, its forty-four acres were crowned with flowering trees and contoured like a tall polychromic hat; you could walk the shadowy path around its brim in twenty minutes. It was a comfortable spot; when the mainland sweltered, Iririki usually got sea breezes and cooling showers. Once it had contained just two houses: our mission bungalow and—set in parklike grounds with a flagpole flying a bedspread-sized Union Jack—the palatial residence of the British Resident Commissioner. Now seventy-two air-conditioned accommodation units were strung across its northern end.
By the resident’s jetty a signpost read “Old Hospital Ruins.” Directed back half a century, I saw myself as the guests drifting over on parasails might see me: an ageing, perspiring, overweight man hurrying towards a jungly acre that looked like an abandoned archaeological site. Somewhere in there, among the creeper-strewn hillocks and slabs of mossy concrete, my father had delivered me with forceps; now I expected, if not a thunderclap, at least an acknowledgement, some audible sign.
That, however, only came at the check-in desk when a porter cried, “Welcome to the Champagne Resort!” and handed me a complimentary fruit punch. Drinking it, I realized the vaulted reception area, built from local hardwoods, stood on the site of our vegetable garden. Then, having spelled my name for the clerk, I told her about my links with the island. She went “Uh-huh,” and asked for my credit card. Handing me a key she said, “Enjoy your stay, Mr Fraser.” My unit overlooked a tiny, fan-shaped beach where I had learned to swim; two topless women lay sunning themselves on the spot where I once kept my canoe. Later, eating a Big Riki burger at the poolside restaurant, I was relieved to find the restaurant’s location held no associations at all.
My son turned up and said, “How do you feel? Have the squatters moved in?”
I felt pretty good, actually—indeed, oddly gratified that so many people seemed to be getting pleasure from the place. “What do you think?”
“It was probably nicer before.”
But John detested resorts of any description. He had arrived a couple of weeks earlier, a Royal London Hospital medical student out here to do his elective at his grandfather’s old hospital—today named Vila Base and re-established over on the mainland. Looking tired and preoccupied, he said a nine-year-old girl from Tanna had been admitted that morning with cerebral malaria. “Her parents tried a custom doctor, that didn’t work, so they brought her in: Western medicine, last resort, it happens all the time. A few hours earlier and we might have saved her.”
I watched my son pondering one of the diseases which my father, for much of his life, had fought so obsessively. That oddly jolting moment was interrupted by the arrival of Dr Makau Kalsakau, escorted to our table like a visiting head of state. Three waiters tussled to pull out his chair, a portly Australian manager hovered anxiously. Dr Makau, trained by my father and perhaps our oldest family friend, had promised us an Iririki island tour. A handsome, black-skinned pensioner with amused eyes and a wispy Assyrian beard, he held John’s hand and said, “You look like your grandaddy, there is a definite similarity. He was my teacher. And now you are working in our hospital! About this there is, uh, a kind of . . . what is the word?”
I had disappointed him by not going to medical school, but words were my business and now I was oddly eager for his approval. “Symmetry.”
“Hmm, yes.” (Symmetry would do.) “So what do you make of our new Iririki?”
“Not bad. But I’m still a bit confused.”
“Let us climb the hill. John, you should see what is up there. The tourists never go, they don’t know. And for you, Sandy, it will be more familiar.”
Dense undergrowth walled off our garden. But we found a way in, a dozen paces spanning fifty years and leading to a half-acre so still and shadowy I felt I had broken into my own childhood.
The place was running wild but evidence of our tenancy remained. The flowering trees my mother planted grew with a jungle exuberance, the grass was knee-high and the banyan that loomed so massively over our front veranda had acquired half a century’s extra girth and a further forty feet of elevation.
Our house, said Makau, had been demolished after we’d gone, whirled out to sea by the great 1948 hurricane. But the garden endured, and I knew its tangled boisterousness would have delighted my mother.
Beneath the banyan Makau paused. “Here Mummy built her school.” John raised an eyebrow at this nursery nomenclature, but among the old-timers hereabouts it was routine; to Makau I would be perennially juvenescent, an ageing toddler with a worrying weakness for cigars. I was touched to see the spot where the smol skul
had stood. When the British and French refused to countenance any form of state education my mother took matters into her own hands. It proved so successful that later, a few yards away, she also built a teachers’ training college.
Our garden thus became a centre of academic excellence. The school produced—to the unease of both metropolitan governments—two streams of keen, bright kids. One entered the teachers’ training shack, the other headed down to the hospital where my father taught them to be doctors. That was how Makau, one of the first garden graduates, had learned his medicine. “All this bougainvillaea Mummy planted. She planted these frangipanis. You planted that orange tree. These hibiscus Daddy planted.”
I noted the absoluteness of the silence. Several dozen holidaymakers were making merry below, but the density of the bush excluded their voices. We clambered down forty broken steps to the razed Paton Memorial Hospital. This wilderness was Makau’s old alma mater. Sweeping aside a spinnaker-sized spider’s web he nodded towards a small depression carpeted with prickly sensitive plant. “Labour ward, you were born there.” We stumbled on through heavy scrub. By a young sandalwood tree he said, “Hospital front steps. At seven sharp every morning Daddy came down from the house wearing a tie and held a service for patients and staff. After that he did his rounds.” That startled me. The idea of a tie in this climate was one thing, officiating at morning prayers quite another. He had been a Presbyterian misinari dokta
, Glasgow-born, ordained after finishing his MB BS, but I never thought of him formally facing a congregation, couldn’t equate that with the quiet, rather shy and private man I remembered. We toured the sites of the general wards, the path lab, the theatre and, set by the beach like an elegant little Edwardian boathouse, the shell of the mortuary. The evening sun made the wooded hills above Port Vila a landscape worked in silks. An outrigger canoe slid past, propelled by a woman in a crimson dress.
” she called.
As we strolled along a coastal path the resort guests were abandoning the beach for Happy Hour. They glanced curiously at Makau; normally the only native Vanuatuans, or ni-Vanuatu, hereabouts were employees. We progressed through the lobby to the pool bar and the staff rushed to secure a table for us. Makau walked in as though he owned the place—which, in a sense, he did—and called for orange juices all round. His home island, Ifira, lay less than a quarter of a mile away, its eight hundred people long regarded as Vanuatu’s elite; a progressive, industrious, enterprising crowd, they flocked to my mother’s schools and, today, play a major role in the country’s affairs. Iririki belongs to Ifira, and it was a typically shrewd Ifira move to lease it to an Australian development company. Makau said, “In seventy-five years we get the island back—plus a top-quality international resort. They build it. We keep it.”
The guests, mostly well-heeled Australians in designer evening wear, began drifting in for cocktails, and as a band played island music I thought of my parents living quietly up on the hill, making do on their mission stipend, poor as church mice.
But there had been compensations and we were witnessing one now—a sunset so stunning that around the pool bar all tok tok
ceased. The horizon was invaded by an unearthly lavender light which came spilling across the sky then fell into the harbour at our feet, empurpling the air and water, painting our faces with amaranth. Makau told John about Vila Base, built by the American navy in 1941 on the old Belleview Plantation. “It had one thousand beds and thirty-six doctors, all top people. Every day C47s flew up to Guadalcanal to bring the casualties. At Bauer Field forty ambulances would be waiting, hospital ships called all the time. I remember the Solace
, painted white with a big red cross on the funnel. She used to sail at night, all lit up like a cruise boat. There were Jap subs everywhere, but . . .” He shrugged. “The old Paton Memorial nameplate is now at Vila Base. In reception.”
John nodded. “Yes, I know.” But he didn’t know that Makau had been its first post-independence superintendent. My father’s best student had succeeded him at the infinitely superior hospital he had long badgered the condominium government to build.
It was getting late. Makau rose. “Lookim yu!
” he said.
See you later.
Vanuatu’s eighty islands, routinely rattled by earthquakes, lie twelve hundred miles east of Australia. Named the New Hebrides by Captain Cook, they became a nineteenth-century Anglo-French condominium—a territorial trade-off in which two metropolitan powers with a thousand years of mutual enmity agreed to share power. It never worked; the Brits complained endlessly about the duplicity of the French, the French bemoaned the constant, furtive manoeuvrings of the Brits.
Their determination to yield nothing led to the duplication of everything: two flags, two anthems, two political doctrines, two currencies, two languages, two sets of postage stamps, two police forces, two legal systems, two jails (the French served better food), two hospitals (my father’s practised better medicine) and allegedly, for an utterly surreal few days, two rules of the road: Brits on the left, French on the right. Locals never spoke of Condominium. They called it Pandemonium.
In 1980, faced with growing UN disquiet, they finally agreed on a joint course of action—to allow the new Ripablik Blong Vanuatu to hoist its gaudy, jungle-hued flag. Yet, six centuries after Agincourt, the native population, schizophrenically split between Anglophones and Francophones, began re-enacting the Hundred Years’ War. An early Anglophone government sacked not one, but two, French Ambassadors, while the first act of the Francophone administration succeeding it was the mass sacking of Anglophone civil servants.
In one of the seismic family splits not uncommon here, Makau’s older brother Dr John—also trained by my father—threw in his lot with the French. Both were clever and ambitious; while Makau, before independence, ran the British hospital, John ran the French. Makau received an OBE and a gold lighter from the Queen at the British Residency, John a Légion d’honneur (plus a kiss on the cheeks) from De Gaulle at the French Mission. They remained close, but there was an edge to their relationship. And when the new Anglophone government shut down John’s hospital and declared that Makau’s would henceforth be Vanuatu’s major infirmary (and he its medical supremo) it grew distinctly sharper.
During a previous visit, a month before independence, I dined with them both—Dr John, a stringy, inquisitive, excitable old man, wore horn-rimmed glasses and did brilliant De Gaulle impressions. Now, little more than a decade later, I found the Francophones had again forced the Anglophones into opposition. Makau deflected questions about his brother; he was OK but inaccessible and, somehow, no longer in the family loop.
At dawn I was woken by the ringim
. Makau spoke without preamble. “You will eat with us tonight. John and you should be at Iririki wharf by seven o’clock.”
He replaced the phone. I sighed and went back to sleep.
At breakfast a waiter told me that Vanuatu’s Anglophone President was under house arrest.
I looked up from my grapefruit. “What’s he done?”
“He refused to support laws Korman wants.”
Maxime Carlot Korman was the new Francophone Prime Minister. “So what happens now?”
“There will be trouble.”
I called a friend in Port Vila who said he had recently seen the President, Fred Timakata, strolling past the post office. The PM, he added, was just back from Paris, where he mislaid his passport and plane ticket home; he was not in the best of moods. Reports of a rift between President and Prime Minister continued all day. Much bigfala trabol
Nothing happened.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tales from the Torrid Zone by Alexander Frater. Copyright © 2007 by Alexander Frater. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.