“The human dilemma is not whether to do right or wrong but rather to do right when it matters the most and wrong when it matters the least.” Unknown
Andy barely closed his eyes that night, confronting and evaluating countless moral dilemmas. Truth, lies, taboos, rights and wrongs, all haunted his thoughts.
He knew enough about Polynesian culture to realise that things were never as black and white as they seemed. Christianity was dominant but was marbled with streaks of hidden and buried myths. The old gods were never too far away and their demands for sacrifice and appeasement for the good of the community were still to be met.
When he did doze off, his dreams became processions of figures and visions of Hell and the morning light failed to resolve a single question.
It was a Sunday and he decided to go to church. Maybe the answers lay there, if he asked God directly but which God would answer him?
Essentially a practical man, he put the horrors of the night behind him and told himself that exaggeration and fear were all too easy bedfellows when the darkness wrapped him in solitude. He dressed as elegantly as he could, considering half his luggage was yet to arrive; then locking the door, despite Tetuanui’s insistance that it wasn’t necessary, headed off down the road in a more optimistic frame of mind.
He joined the line of churchgoers resplendent in their Sunday finery. The men wore suits and ties, though some of the older ones wore the traditional wrap around skirt. All looked splendid, as did the women in their sober dresses and white straw hats, some with a trim, though nothing over frivolous. It was an aspect of Pacific life, which entranced and shamed Andy at the same time.
The serious business of Sunday worship, long abandoned by many in the west, still exerted a strong pull on the islanders of the Pacific, though Andy suspected that maybe its days were numbered.
As the soaring harmonies filled the church; filtered out of the open windows and spread across the lagoon, he felt out of place and uncomfortable. Not only was he the only white face but he felt underdressed as well and not for the first time, sensed he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time in his life. He tried to find enough moments of calm in which to question what had happened but only succeeded in catching Tetuanui’s eye, who beamed at him and further glances from others who did not. He tried unsuccessfully, to spot Solomana and his father in the crowd, further adding to his doubts and worries.
It was with some relief that he left the church after the service and breathed deeply in the open air.
“So, how are you liking your new life here?” The Minister shook his hand vigorously at the churchyard gate.
“Oh, it will be fine I think, Minister. Thank you for a fine service by the way.”
He smiled and continued, still gripping Andy’s hand. “You know, very few foreigners come to the church and there are enough, scattered around the islands. The New Zealanders especially. I am disappointed in the New Zealanders. I have to say, I am overjoyed that we have a library at last. Tetuanui says that you have many fine books. Perhaps I shall make use of its services, as you do of mine.”
“You will be very welcome Minister. Perhaps you can spread a few words about the library, while you’re spreading the word of God.” Andy tenderly extracted his hand. The minister laughed, his whole body rippling with mirth.
“Oh I can see we shall get along fine. I couldn’t help noticing how troubled you looked in church, maybe I can help if you have a problem?”
The smile had gone and his eyes searched Andy’s soul. What else had Tetuanui been telling him? Suddenly, he needed to get away and he searched for appropriate words.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just tired after the move I expect. I’ll feel better in a few days.”
“I understand my friend. You do not yet feel the rhythm of the island I think. When you do, your worries will disappear I’m sure.”
His eyes were still piercing and Andy could feel them on his back as he hurried off down the road.
He could feel those always-familiar feelings of panic sweeping through his body. His chest tightened and he feared that from that moment it was ruined. The whole adventure was quickly losing its appeal. What he’d thought of as paradise had too many serpents and despite the heat of the morning, he felt chilled and emotional.
He reached the house and rushed in, closing shutters and locking doors behind him, until he felt secure enough to sit down and think. What sort of a person had he become, who couldn’t cope with the slightest problem, whose first instinct was to run? He needed to get a grip! Sort it all out and get it into perspective! After all, what had happened? Not a great deal. Certainly nothing to get so steamed up about. Maybe this fear came from the past and not the present? Maybe it was unwanted luggage from lives left behind.
In the light that streamed through the slats of the shutters, Andy devoted himself to some serious thought. Perhaps his instinct was wrong. After all, it had proved to be singularly inconsistent in the past. Perhaps Solomana was just a little liar who had turned his life inside out by means of an attention-seeking joke. Tetuanui had certainly seemed morally outraged by the boy and there was no reason at all to doubt her judgement.
He came to the conclusion that nothing would be gained by over-reacting. He would doubtless see Solomana again and if he took it gently, could find out more of what lay behind the story, true or not. Meanwhile, he had a job to do and after opening the house up to the sunlight again, he put all his efforts into cataloguing books and writing signs. Nothing, however, would silence the nagging fears at the bottom of his consciousness.
The next week was so busy; he barely had time to dwell on Solomana and his tales. The library proved to be popular and he realised that he would need to plead for more books from New Zealand to meet the growing demand. It was while he was composing a letter to the chief librarian in Auckland, that he met Solomana again.
It was just after he’d closed the library for the day and sat down at his typewriter, that he heard an almost imperceptible tapping at the window looking out at the back of the building. There was only undergrowth there and at first he thought it was a branch or an inquisitive Mynah bird. Nevertheless, he got up to look and found Solomana crouching beneath the shutter.
“Hello, what are you doing there? Why didn’t you come to the door?”
He looked up at Andy and his little face crumpled as he dissolved into tears.
“Can I come in mister? Through this window, now?”
Once inside, Andy hugged him uncomfortably until the tears subsided and waited patiently until he was ready to talk.
“Oh mister, I shouldn’t be here. I’ll just get you into trouble too.”
His eyes darted around the room as if he was ready to run.
“You don’t have to worry about me Solomana. I won’t be in trouble. Now you came here to see me. Why? What has happened to you? Why are you so upset?” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder but he flinched and yelped.
“Let me see Solomana. Why does that hurt?”
With that, the boy slowly lifted his vest.
“My god! Who did that to you? You poor kid.”
His skin was covered in weals and bruises, both back and front. Andy stood back, unable to move; unable to think what to do next.
“Ok, the first thing we must do is get you to the doctor.”
“No!” Solomana screamed and ran for the door. “No, no doctor! I don’t need no doctor. I’ll be fine. I just need to stay away a while!”
The words came rushing out as he panicked. Andy rushed to get between him and the door and held his hands out, palms open, to show that he offered no threat of restraint.
“That’s fine Solomana; that’s just fine. You stay here. I’ll get you a drink. You’ll be safe here.”
He seemed to accept what Andy said and slumped down in a chair, head in hands and moaned softly to himself. Andy made sure his voice was going to be calm and reassuring before he spoke again.
“Whatever we do my friend, you are going to have to tell me what happened, or I won’t be able to help you.” He sat down beside the boy but didn’t attempt to touch him, although he longed to gather him in his arms and make everything alright.
“Now can you tell me who did this to you and why they did it? What have you done to deserve such a beating?”
He lifted his head and looked directly into Andy’s eyes. He could only see the young boy’s face but sensed that there was a lifetime of experience behind his gaze.
“My father says that Mr. Erik comes back again next week. I told him that I didn’t feel like staying with Mr. Erik this time. It is the last week of school and I want to be at school. I’ll never learn things properly unless I’m at school.”
“What did your father say then?” Andy could see clearly what his father’s reaction had been but wanted Solomana to explain for himself. He wanted to have no doubts this time.
“He told me I was ungrateful and selfish. He said that Mr. Erik gave the village so much and asked only for some help in the house in return. He said that I had no right to refuse and I must do as I am told.” Tears welled up in his eyes again and he gripped his fists as he went on.
“I shouted at him. I shouted at my father. I wanted him to know what Mr. Erik does to me but I think he knows already. Then he lost his temper and hit me. I’m a bad boy. I don’t think it’s so bad with Mr. Erik. I am selfish, he’s right. I deserved my beating!”
Andy could barely hold back the tears as he drew him towards him again. The boy needed protection at that moment but Andy feared that he wasn’t the only one.
A dog started barking outside and voices approached; footsteps across the lanai. He braced herself for the inevitable intrusion.
It was only two days later when the post arrived. The letter was brief and unapologetic. The island council felt that the library needed a local librarian and Tetuanui was to take over Andy’s duties with immediate effect.
He wasn’t shocked or even terribly disappointed, as this particular paradise had proved to be yet another illusion. It was almost as if the surreal tragedy of it all fitted Andy’s life seamlessly. Had he caused it all by his arrival? No of course not. He knew that but felt certain that wherever he was, he became a magnet for unhappiness. He didn’t desire it; he just sought peace of mind but no matter how many times he ran, he could never achieve it.
What to do about Solomana? He knew he would be raised by his own, in ways Andy would never understand. He sensed he would survive but more in hope than certainty. Nevertheless, when he got back to Auckland, he’d raise such a stink!
What he did know was that he had no courage left and few reserves to draw on.
He packed his bags.