A story for the new year.
On a Saturday night before Christmas on the Pacific island where I’ve been working, I went into town for a party and then decided to stop at the International Dateline Hotel to hear the band.
Kafo was at the open-air bar. The big, earringed masseur was at a table with an older white man. He called me over to his table, and I sat down beside him and ordered a beer.
Kafo gripped my shoulder. “Chris”-he has never gotten my name right-“meet … “
“David,” the man at his right filled in. He looked about 60, with glasses.
“Phil,” I said.
David said he was from England, on holiday. It was evident to me that he had gotten a massage, and overpaid probably, as Kafo doesn’t get much trade these days, and they were now having post-massage drinks.
“Phil is working on an interesting book,” Kafo said.
“Well, it interests me,” I said, deflecting him with a smile.
“Phil!” Kafo was now making up for forgetting my name. “Tell David about your book.”
I bought time by looking at the Old Timers, who were sitting around on chairs a few feet away and singing one of their wistful numbers. The Old Timers play traditional Polynesian tunes on mandolin and guitars. One of the guitarists held a baby in his arms as he was playing.
“It’s about a fellow in the Peace Corps that was murdered here a long time ago,” Kafo said.
“Well, not exactly,” I said.
David peered at me through bulbous lenses.
“Enlighten us,” he said.
I was doing all I could not to engage him. He had watery gray eyes, a round pinkish face and thinning steel-gray hair. He wore a toneless plaid shirt, his body was lumpish, and his legs-or as much of them as were visible between yellow shorts and spanking new sandals-were very white and hairless. I’d met Dateline tourists before. They landed here by some freakish chance, exhausted the island’s sights within a day or so, and were soon bored and aimless.
“After this song.” I motioned at the Old Timers.
It was a little rude, but I talk to people all week long for my project, so I like to get away from it.
The song ended, and I said simply that I was looking into a death in the Peace Corps in 1976, a couple of miles from where we were sitting. I’d been working at it off and on for several years, and many of the islanders had helped me.
David nodded. “I’m here because of someone who died, too.”
“You are?” Kafo said.
“Yes. I came through here once before. In 1966.”
Kafo and I both looked at him.
“I’m an electrician, and I was working on a copra trader. There was a boy on our ship named Michael Wain [a pseudonym]. Good lad, 17 years old. I’m from Yorkshire, he was from the south. The coconut oil went into steel drums, and you had to close the lids tight with a spanner. The spanners would get very oily, and you were supposed to wipe your hands off after. One day Michael didn’t, and then he went up in the rigging and lost his grip. Fell to the deck on his head. We were in the harbor here and they treated him in the hospital, but he didn’t come out of it.”
David was silent for a moment. I’d stopped listening to the Old Timers.
“We had a funeral for him in the old Wesleyan church. There were just a handful of us, but when we came out, there must have been 500 islanders paying respects. I think they were moved by the fact that Michael had died alone, so far from home. They were trying to make up for it.
“We took his casket to the graveyard, and the islanders were there, too, and a bunch of men dug out the grave in about five minutes-the shovels were flying. Then after we put the casket in, they filled it in.
“And so that is why I’m here …. “
David sipped from his beer for punctuation.
“I promised myself back then-promised Michael, really-that I would come and visit his grave. I didn’t know anything about his family; I was never sure exactly where he was from. But it’s a terribly lonely thing to die in such a faraway place. It’s taken me 35 years, but here I am.”
“Why this year?” I said.
“I just retired. I’ve been an electrician all my life-now I have the time.”
“Did you find the grave?” Kafo said.
David hummed with an air of accomplishment.
“I found it today. Took a devil of a long time. The cab took me to a couple of graveyards before one seemed familiar. There’s one little corner that’s set aside for foreigners, and I hunted around for a while and there he was, with a little stone marker and his name. It was pretty grown-over. I cleaned it up, pulled the weeds out. I’d bought some flowers in the market and left them there. I think I’ll go back a second time before I leave.”
“When is that?” I said.
I stayed a little longer, talking with Kafo about his brother in prison, and then getting up, I said, “David, before you go, I’d like to hear more about Michael Wain.”
“I’m a journalist, I work for a New York weekly.”
For an instant, he had a look as if I’d hit him in the gut. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said, demurring.
“If I wrote an article, you might find his family.”
David offered a faint smile.
“Well, I’d like to tell you more about my book,” I said. “I could show you some pictures. I think it might interest you.”
“All right,” he said mildly.
“Can I look for you tomorrow?”
“I’m going for the day to a little island,” he said. “Pangaimotu. We won’t be back till 5:30.”
“How about we have a drink at 6?”
David shrugged agreeably.
The next day was the Sabbath, and the island was dead. I did a little work and had an early dinner at a friend’s, then got back to the Dateline at 6:30. The girl at the front desk said that the boat wasn’t back from Pangaimotu, so I left a note. I told David it had been a pleasure meeting him and that I was stirred by his commitment to his friend. As it happened, I was giving a talk about my project the next night at the University of South Pacific Centre. He was welcome to come; I’d be showing pictures.
I stopped by the hotel Monday to reissue my invitation, but David wasn’t in.
Then, in the afternoon, it began to rain, hard. The U.S.P. Centre is about four miles outside town, and only about a dozen people showed up at my talk, joined at the last minute by 15 soaked Peace Corps volunteers. David, of course, didn’t make it.
There’s nothing quite so fiendish as a writer who senses material, and on Tuesday afternoon, I stopped at the hotel for a last shot. I debated with myself about my pushiness, then I figured, what the hell, I was never going to see David again, I wanted to know more about his story. What Michael Wain had been like, how long they’d been at sea, how often he’d thought of Michael down through the years, whether he felt that he had a connection to Michael’s spirit.
It was 5:30. David’s flight was at 10:30. Everyone on a small island knows when the flights go.
I went back to the bar, and Kafo bought me a beer. I asked if he’d seen David.
“Just gave him a massage. He’s in his room-112. Go there.”
Kafo pointed at the southern wing of the hotel, across the swimming pool. I elected to call.
“Hallo,” David said.
“Hi, David. It’s Phil. I’m at the bar. I brought my pictures. I wondered if I might see you.”
“Oh, yes-well …. Actually, you know, I’m very busy; I have a flight out tonight. I’m getting packed.”
“Oh, all right.”
“Yes. Goodbye. Thanks very much for your interest-“
And the line went dead.
He didn’t have to leave for the airport for another three hours. Everyone on a small island knows when the flights go.
I stared briefly, balefully, at David’s door, then turned back to the bar. I bought Kafo a beer, and we tore hunks off a loaf of bread I’d just got.
I forget what we talked about. Business, women, it doesn’t matter. It only occurred to me later that I should have offered a toast to the third member of our little group. People generally like to be acknowledged when they do good things for others; we can all use a little recognition. The man in Room 112 wanted none. He understood that true generosity takes place out of sight.