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Tuesday
Jul112017

VII. Expats

Theresa + Cricket 


“How many new ways can I find to bleed?” says Pete. 

It’s his day off, a dry day, and he just stepped on a palm frond that managed to slide the flip-flop off his foot, injecting him with splinters as he dug for traction, scrambling not to slip. At home, I pluck tiny needles from his heel and ankle with a pair of tweezers sterilized over the open gas-stove flame, then dab the wounds with triple antibacterial cream. 

The action is familiar. 

Several dry days earlier, the length of his right forearm, wrist to elbow, gets patched after a vicious cricket game. At least, Pete’s injuries look vicious. The nail on the ring finger of that hand falls mostly off—just a few intrepid shreds remain, left clinging desperately to skin. He’s hurt almost immediately, legs tangling beneath him as he runs, and somehow when he falls he doesn’t stop but rather keeps skidding, carried forward by momentum or maybe joy, so excited is he to again be playing the game he first learned as a boy in his mother’s English garden. Tina, his student, captures it on her iPhone. She has the video loaded, ready to roll whenever anyone says “cricket” or “Pete” or “wipeout” or “Walindi.” There’s talk of posting it on YouTube. 

Going to watch a cricket match is one of the few times we leave the Mahonia-Walindi compound. All of us pile into a van: a stone-cold pack of weirdo expats. Like Ema said, “I think you have to be a little crazy to want to live in PNG.” Our childhoods were different, but I’m learning that we have at least some qualities in common. The immediate ability to read a situation and adapt by shifting skins—not necessarily a great thing, as it’s been noted that chameleons don’t always have backbones. A tendency to laugh it off, regardless of how bad or gross or scary “it” may be (then indulge a hearty private cry, if it was truly bad or gross or scary). A ferocious, inherent need for solitude—I walk alone, through the jungle, every day, and I feel happy. A love of gin that borders on obsessive. 

Cheyne drives: left side of the road, behind the wheel in shotgun’s usual seat. Cecilie, his “mum,” sits up front beside him. I bounce over every pothole on the first bench, next to Pete and Ema. Behind us: JCU’s Chancey and Kara, with Theresa. Then Lao and Keat, who met in Australia and have worked for twelve years at Walindi. She heads the kitchen; he runs the maintenance crew. Which means his is the Sisyphian task of dousing daily fires to prevent the resort’s breaking into pieces and drifting off to sea. Nothing follows expectation. No day is ever easy. This might grate others’ spirits, after a year or two or twelve, turning humor into bitterness. Keat is one of the funniest men I’ve met. 

We arrive at San Remo Club, the hottest hotspot in Kimbe Town. It was once a golf course that no one could or would maintain. The mounds grew wild and sprouted weeds. Then squatters came, impoverished New Guineans without homes, to sleep in the tall grass. The grass was softer than a dirt patch, and sometimes it was sweetly wet with dew. Who knows what happened to the golf balls. Who knows what happened to the owners of this club, and then who knows what happened to the squatters. Now it’s a place where expats mix with prosperous locals, drinking beer in view of Mt. Garbuna, a hothead volcano. On Wednesday nights, teams play cricket on a converted tennis court. The pitch is small—outdoor cricket is meant to be played on sprawling greens—but this is what they have, so they play indoor cricket regulations, outside. We sit at a picnic table, and Pete whispers the rules in my left ear. I alone don’t know them, but I tell him I am not ashamed.  

“What are we, colonialists from 1900!” I say. “Who still watches cricket anyway?”
“Oh, people all over South Africa,” he says. “Pretty much everyone in the West Indies. The entirety of Pakistan and India, so add that one billion humans to your tally.” 

I drink my beer, properly shamed. 

Pete resumes whispering. He explains the complicated scoring system. Notes the stance of every player, predicting the course of ball trajectories based on hand grip and angle of toe-turn. I expect him to lick a finger and point it to the sky, checking wind speed. Each rule seems to have a sub-rule, with tertiary clauses and amendments. Then you delve into the subset of exceptions. At the end, I understand one thing: such diversion could only be the product of tortured English minds. Then the guy holding the ball winds up his arm and throws it, and the guy he aimed it to swings his wooden stick, and when he hits the ball goes flying, then he runs. 

“So it’s baseball,” I say to Pete. “With a lot of paperwork.”

He shakes his head, and I can see the small crack I’ve made in his heart. Then he gets up to buy us cheeseburgers. From a picnic table near the bar, Keat encourages our team with one shout, heckling opponents in the next. “Come on, mates, well done, that’s how it’s done, another one like that, just like that. You’ve got ‘em scared as shitting dogs! Dogs shitting razors.” The day’s heat has burned off without scorching its edges: un-ruined, the night licks cool tracks on my skin. In the sky, an unfamiliar set of stars—the Southern Cross instead of the Big Dipper. My cheeseburger tastes faintly of cinnamon. It’s not unpleasant. It’s all new. All except Pete, and the known weight of his hand on mine.  

The only game more serious than cricket is rugby. Even expats who didn’t field-trip to San Remo turn up for what’s called the Origin Game, which we watch on TV in the Walindi library. It pits one Australian team against another homegrown hero. Queensland, in maroon, is the Walindi favorite. Many from our group sport burgundy or crimson shirts in solidarity. Keat and Lao are resplendent in real jerseys. Blue uniforms belong to New South Wales, the band to beat. They’re flashy and fast and cocky and boring. I’m already cheering for Queensland, and it’s my first rugby. Has anyone ever not fallen for the underdog?

As far as I make out, rugby is American football crossed with European soccer combined with Greco-Roman wrestling plus boxing jabs tossed in at whim for extra pain. I’m glad this isn’t the sport Pete was playing. Cricket took one layer of arm-skin. The rugby would have claimed one life. 

This time we eat meat pies with peas and mash, which I know as mashed potatoes. The beef comes from Numundo Plantation, a few kilometers up the road. They process two things: palm oil and cows. The cows roam all day among the trees, breathing sea air and grazing rich grass. These cows have good lives. Their lives are short, but free from suffering. We eat and talk and on TV, twenty-first-century gladiators in tiny shorts and tight cropped tops show off their thick thighs and bellies that bulge with muscle. They run and leap, landing on each other’s backs. They pummel and knock down and even bite. I see one player bite another’s year—not off, but hard. This wins him cheers instead of penalties. None have helmets, except a Queensland rookie wearing a padded shell as thick as a banana leaf, tied in a flourish under his chin. I understand that he will be pummeled to death post-game for this blatant flaunt of pussyness. 

Queensland gets control of the ball. Two players run down the field, eyes locked, weaving wide then angling back together in a loving, almost sensual dance. Around them, a choking ring of enemies.

“Come on it, kick it outta there,” shouts Keat. “Straight past ‘em boys, straight past ‘em; that’s the way. Put ‘em on their arse, come on. Coooommme on, kill ‘em! Turn it into a homicide investigation.” 

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