While Peceli is away, I can write lots of fiction! Okay, this is something I wrote some time ago, and it's only part of a longer story but the descriptions are based on one of the trips I did on the Adi Savusavu ferry.
A good night’s sleep was needed after the rooster crows, dog barks, thumps of yaqona being mixed, and a hysterical young woman calling out in the voice and dialect of an ancestor! Fijian life was never quiet. ADI LEI FIRST CLASS SALOON was stamped on her left hand and she felt like a disco client.
‘Remove your shoes Ma’am,’ instructed a stewardess in an aqua uniform. Jess was given a narrow mattress and sheets for the trip, the sea gently rocking with light to moderate seas predicted but rough in the Naselai Passage near Suva. Jess swallowed a Calm tablet with her bottle of water but didn’t order a meal.
The ferry left Savusavu behind at sunset, golden light hiding the mud-flats, and illuminating the steam from the hot springs. The Methodist choir members had been waiting there since 2.30 p.m. The patience of these people astounded Jess. They settled into the Second Class, and those not seasick were loudly rehearsing in tonic solfa for a hymn festival. They’d probably spent all their money, believing that God would in turn look after them. A soccer team was downstairs and one with Rastafarian hair was chatting up two tourists.
For an extra five dollars Jess had opted for First Class. Paper red roses were placed on each table in plastic-porcelain vases. The pink embossed velvet dining chairs were neatly arranged around the tables and rows of aeroplane seats with recliners filled the central space. There were only about ten people there. The stewardess was busy attending to three Part-European women who had booked a cabin with their rat-like dog. They spoke in a nasally manner, talking of homesteads, the Planters Club, the coconut yield, the beef. The Koro Sea belonged to them and they always travelled by ferry.
The air-conditioning was on high, too cold for the local people who put on their jackets. However Jess welcomed it after the searing heat of Labasa town and the dust of the sugar-cane trucks. A lanky tourist, past his prime, sat nearby, his arm around a plump Fijian lass. He looked over towards Jess and said, ‘She’s feeling dreadfully seasick. What’ll I do?’ Jess gave them a Calm tablet though it should have been taken an hour earlier.
‘Vinaka,’ she murmured just before she gagged.
‘Oh dear! Get her a bucket!’ shouted the elderly Part-European woman grasping her dog.
Jess instructed the girl to breathe slowly, to sit in the middle of the saloon, and sent the man to buy lemonade. ‘You’re not a kai wai,’ Jess joked, but the girl did not smile at the reference to people of the sea. She’s from a bush village perhaps, uneasy on the ferry. ‘Are you going overseas?’ Jess quizzed.
The girl was not long out of school and her companion looked sixty, the mismatching obvious. Would she be dreaming of an improved lifestyle with a Permanent Resident status in Australia? Within six months would she leave him, disappear in the vibes of Sydney, into the Islanders’ networks, earn more than enough money in a factory to look after herself?
Jess clambered down the ladder to visit the Fijian choir in Second Class. They spoke a language she half-understood and wanted to practice again.
Then a young female tourist came to me. ‘You’re Jessica aren’t you? I have a message from a man in the First Class saloon. He’s waiting for you,’ she said.
Jess knew that he had come after all. She did not want to go, anxious now, stirred by contradictions.
The messenger was an Australian, Tina, a fair-haired girl of medium height and build with nothing to distinguish her from the crowd. Her arm was wrapped up in a purple and pink scarf. ‘I’m treating my boils with crushed leaves. It takes away the pain for about two hours but I’m feeling dreadful now.’
‘Well, do I look like a nurse? No way!’ She was only an expert on proper books, not on improper relationships - thinking of the man upstairs. Not yet. ‘See a doctor as soon as you get to Suva.’
A Fijian woman butted in, using perfect English. ‘There’s a good one in a new arcade for $15. You need penicillin or you’ll get blood poisoning, dear.’
‘Why did you leave it so long?’ Jess asked.
‘Transport was difficult to the town. I thought I could live in the village for two months,’ she said, ‘but it’s only been three weeks.’
Jess and Tina moved to the deck and warm air swirled around us as Tina chattered told about her young man though Jess could only think of that older man waiting for her.
Tina’s mooning Isa Lei eyes were obvious as she looked over the dark water. The 'French Lieutenant’s Woman' had scanned the horizon also. Yes, there was deception in the story of so many people. What had Hardy written in 'The Riddle'? He would know the exact words. Stretching eyes west / Over the sea / Wind foul or fair / Always stood she / Prospect-impressed: / Solely out there / Did her gaze rest / Never elsewhere / Seemed charm to be. Or something like that.
Jess noticed the ones with eyes on the distance, looking back. Tina probably lived modestly in Australia but she had become excited by difference, the exotic nature of the Fijian village beside the river, the men’s languid singing, her young man’s athletic body and resonant voice. The difference in culture was exciting to her.
‘Why did you go to a remote village in the first place?’ Jess asked her.
‘For a work-camp two years ago. But… I fell in love with a guy here, a villager, but he has no money and his Visitor Visa application to Australia was refused twice by the Embassy in Suva. So what do we do next?’ She rushed on in a tangle of words. ‘He’s applying again. The immigration people back home said to me that they didn’t trust these young men. They often stay on illegally, even when sponsored by a fiance.’
Yeah, yeah. Jess had heard it all before; the tropics play merry-hell with relationships.
‘The Fijians are so happy and friendly,’ Tina enthused.
‘Hmmm.’ Jess was not quite as enthusiastic. ‘I like the Indian culture actually.’
Tina had brought food with her but the cooked breadfruit was overripe, sickly sweet. It needed a good hot sour chutney to get it down, so Jess declined a portion.
The crew were playing guitars and singing softly. The ferry passed islands now, Koro and Nairai perhaps, and Jess sang along with them, E dua na siga au vakarairai ai e o, a wave-like song about the Koro Sea. They didn’t sing Isa Lei yet, the song of farewell. And as for the man waiting on the upper deck….