Midsummer in Melanesia

THERE AREN'T THREE seats on the Solomon Airways flight to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, so I must fly out from Brisbane after Alaister and Flann. Before I leave, I ring a Drug and Alcohol Helpline. The counsellor advises, 'Look after your own interests carefully. Remember what they say about alcoholics: they don't have families, they have hostages.' I resolve to enjoy myself as much as possible. Apart from keeping Flann safe, it will be a good chance to test the dictum promoted by Al-Anon, the fellowship for families and friends that complements the more famous Alcoholics Anonymous: It's possible to be happy whether the alcoholic is drinking or not.

Al's lack of eye contact registers immediately. O-oh, here we go, I think as I weave through the crowded Henderson Airport. What a start to Christmas. Flann, though, is thrilled to see me and, at eight years old, is lively with happiness.

Alaister hoists my bag into the tray of his mining company truck and off we bump over a lattice of potholes into Honiara. Alaister's year working in the Solomons as a geologist hasn't made him fond of the place. (But then, what is he fond of, besides drinking, smoking dope and the girlfriend I disparagingly think of as Designer Girl with whom it was said to be 'all over'?) 'Solomon Airways hasn't got us firm bookings to New Georgia so we mightn't get to Paradise Island in time for Christmas,' Alaister grumbles. 'You'll find hotel "service" is non-existent; there won't be any towels.' As if to confirm his gloomy predictions a hotel staff member shrugs 'Sorry Madam, lift buggered' and we have to drag our luggage upstairs to our room. But the breakfast fruit is sweet and delicious, and, in retrospect, sweetness is what the Solomon Islands would deliver every day, in one form or another. 'Best pawpaw I've ever tasted,' I tell Flann. 'Best holiday I've ever had,' he grins back.

Alaister takes us driving through the large island of Guadalcanal. The wharf at Honiara bustles with people boarding ferries bound for home islands. After Honiara's slapdash suburbs we reach the plantations. A canyon of coconut palms dwarfs the dusty ribbon of a road. Lever & Kitchen once owned these coconut and cocoa plantations but the fierce battles of World War II rendered them uneconomic. It's forestry and tourism, not exports of desiccated coconut that the economy now depends on. The islands, named after the Biblical wealth of King Solomon, are yet to live up to their name as a source of gold. But Alaister and his mining company are hoping for a minerals boom, the government is too. How else will it ensure a future for its half a million people, 90 per cent of whom live in rural villages scattered across a plethora of islands with limited involvement in the cash economy?

Roadside stalls sell live chickens, fish, watermelons, betel nuts and ready-made snacks of chicken or fish cooked over charcoal. People, people everywhere, brightly dressed and waving and smiling. Loads of children. (By 2009, 40 per cent of the population was under fourteen.) Self-governing in the Westminster style since 1976, it is a youthful nation in every sense. It's apparent that the vast majority of people live a simple life, barely above subsistence level. On one stretch we pass a woman and child sitting hopefully beside two husked coconuts. How long had they waited? In a country full of coconuts, how much will they make from the sale of two husked coconuts?


THE ROAD SOMETIMES emerges from the plantations to skirt the sea. Numerous wrecks left over from World War II rust on idyllic tropical beaches. 'Let's go to Skyline Drive, where Honiara's rich people live. The American War Memorial's up there.' Alaister fills me in on military history: Solomon Islands saw some of the fiercest battles of World War II. We soon stand in front of panels of black-flecked, red granite engraved with lists of South-West Pacific war dead. The engraved narrative concentrates on the American story. There is a scant reference to Australian and New Zealand Allies; none to Solomon Islanders. More understandably the memorial doesn't mention the Japanese – these belligerents are simply 'the enemy'.

'Ah, the Americans,' an Australian World War II buff would say at breakfast next day. 'Many Islanders lost their lives helping the Americans and the Allies, nearly two thousand on one occasion alone. You're going to New Georgia, aren't you? You might even meet the old fella who rescued John F Kennedy when he was shot down. The man who saved his life – the life of the future president of the United States of America – lives in a hut without electricity even though he was on the cover of Time magazine. Such is the gratitude. I come here every year to keep the memory of the Australian sacrifices alive. I want the Solomon Islands government to do more to preserve military history.'

As we gaze north across the tropical blue waters, Al explains how Ironbottom Sound got its name. 'Used to be called Savo Sound but it's so chockers with war debris they've renamed it. There are skeletons underneath too. When the Allies gained ascendancy, they forced the Japanese soldiers from their hide-outs and pushed them out to sea. Finished them off with shot, one Jap after another.'

That night at the hotel restaurant, the waitress is incredulous when Alaister doesn't order SolBrew lager. 'What drink, sir? Fruit cocktail? A soft drink?' But Al is on antibiotics to treat an infected cut and both his doctor and the antibiotics container warn: STRICTLY NO ALCHOL. Only when a dance troupe from theneigbouring island of Malaita comes on to perform does he allow himself one beer. Pipes and drums bring the dancers to an electrifying ecstatic frenzy; their dark bodies gleam with sweat and the room smells of coconut oil. He sips slowly, mesmerized by a beautiful girl. Alaister and I sit together as man and wife, our son between us, but Alaister makes it obvious that he has no wish to be near me at all.

Still no confirmed flights to the Munda airstrip. Al found Paradise Island by accident when en route to Honiara from his exploration camp on the Mase Caldera in the centre of New Georgia. 'Solomon Airways left me stranded,' he claims. 'I met some fishing fanatics going to Paradise and joined them.' After another trip to the airline office, a flight for the three of us materialises. We'll spend Christmas on Paradise, after all.


IS THERE ANYTHING more beautiful on our small blue planet than gazing down upon the islands of the Pacific Ocean from a ten-seater plane flying at low altitude? The islands are jewels in a sparkling blue-green environ. Blond-blue on the edges of white sandy islands; deep greeny-blues indicating watery depths. Only now do I comprehend the utter beauty of the Pacific Ocean although I've lived on or near its eastern Australian edge most of my life. Flann and I point out unique shapes and colours to each other. Behind us, two young Melanesian men who've seen it all before are busily inserting newly-printed liner notes into cassette cases. They are musicians from Gizo, a regional centre further west along the major waterway of the Vona Vona Lagoon. Excitedly they are heading home to launch Island Boy, their new release. I gather from frowns and sighs that Alaister disapproves of my talking to local people and is finding my friendliness towards the musicians ridiculous. But I buy a tape and become their first customer.

We reach Munda and are soon sipping SolPearl fruit cocktails and eating toasted tuna and tomato sandwiches while waiting for the pickup boat. Peaceful lagoon traffic comes and goes. The lagoon children amaze us with their bravery and brilliance as they dive into the sea from a tower made of bamboo. 'Go in Flann,' we encourage. 'Cool off.' But the lagoon boys find his white skin and pink and black, sun-resistant, lycra swimming costume so hysterically funny he doesn't stay in the water long.

It's close to sunset before the muscular right-hand man from Paradise Island arrives in a fibreglass boat fitted with two outboards. Crinkly hair bunched into blond dreadlocks, cool sunglasses, an expensive diver's watch, hand-painted black singlet featuring Bob Marley's face, cut-off jeans. He zooms us past a maze of palm-clotted islands into the dramatic beauty of sunset. Knows exactly when to ease back the throttle and when to accelerate. Brings the Deadly Dora to the resort jetty at dusk without the slightest jar. Luke, poet of the waterways.

The tanned, fit American owner of the resort welcomes us. Chuck came to the Solomons as a young Peace Corps volunteer and fell in love with Dora (after whom the pick-up boat is named). She's a handsome, honey-coloured woman. This tourist business is their brainchild. Chuck ushers us across a few metres of sand into the resort bar and places a SolBrew in Alaister's hand. 'Not for me,' I clarify as he reaches for a second bottle. 'Don't drink. And Alaister won't be able to have any more after this one either; he's on medication.'

SolBrew has a range of soft drinks to cater for the religious population: Bitter Lemon, Fruit Cocktail, Pineapple, Tonic Water and Red Vitmo. Am I coming across as a Seventh Day Adventist? The reality is I am now phobic about consuming alcohol. Chuck's brown eyes blink closed and he opens the bottle for himself with the vibe of: Goddamn wowser woman! Al blinks back at him indicating: She's a drag, I tell ya. Unfazed by either man, I shoot a look at both of them: So this is why Al was so keen to return here – it's paradise, with a bar.

Our bungalow is constructed in the traditional way from sago and coconut palm leaves woven with lawyer cane onto a frame of betel nut. Chuck lights the kerosene lamp. 'Wanna take a shower? There's a communal one in the garden. That sound you hear in the roof is rats. Best eat your meals in our restaurant. If they find food inside, they won't stay up there.'

We happily troop down through the dark to eat Dora's fish and sweet potato curry then retire to unpack and sleep. The double bed consists of two single foam mattresses pushed together. That night, Al and I sleep as far apart as possible. Rats play in the thatched roof.


NEXT MORNING, CHRISTMAS Eve, Flann and I explore while Alaister sleeps late. 'This seawater is so soft! The silkiest my skin's ever known,' Flann declares. Then his jaw drops as a dugout glides in with a trussed live pig. 'Biggest pig I've ever seen.' We leave the water to watch Luke and Dora (who I discover are cousins) as they prepare the Christmas pig. They slaughter it and hang it up by its trotters to bleed. With long sharp knives they scrape off its bristles. Then Luke, his arm and shoulder muscles working, slashes its belly open. A big bag of guts tumbles out; he flings it to the fish. They splash the body and cavity clean and haul the carcass to the kitchen refrigerator.

By the time we drift back to the restaurant and bar area, it's full of yachties. A call had gone out: Rendezvous at Paradise for Christmas Day. Several yachts now swing at anchor and flags from Australia, South Africa, Germany and the US flutter above the clanking masts.

In the late afternoon four Melanesian men come from across the lagoon in a dugout fitted with an outboard motor. They enjoy each other's company as they sink a few SolBrews. The night is bright with stars when they leave; from their dugout they present a hymn in four-part harmony. 'Happy Christmas,' they call. Sweet. There's no harmony for me and Alaister; the course of antibiotics is not done but he's started drinking alcohol. He makes it clear to Chuck that he dislikes me intensely.

'You're hurting me. Deliberately,' I protest when back in our bungalow.

'Don't want you here,' he slurs. 'Want Flann but not you.' To highlight his contempt he stumbles to an open window and pisses onto the dirt below.


CHRISTMAS MORNING: FLANN'S presents are toys plus a torch to light his way along the dark paths between the coconut palms. I've brought a card with me for Alaister: To the love of my Bohemian soul, sunshine and cloudburst of my life, fellow-traveller in life, this is a massage voucher. Anywhere, anytime my loving hands will heal. Despite everything, I give it to him. My present from him is this holiday. 'Come with me for a walk across the island?' I invite. 'We've got time. The buffet lunch isn't until one this afternoon.'

'No, I'm sick of walking through tropical vegetation. But you'll be fine, there aren't any poisonous snakes or insects in the Solomons.'

I set off without a map or proper shoes. Tall palms hide the sun; there are no tracks and cobwebs persecute me. Am I really crossing the island or tramping around in circles? Am I secretly hoping that Luke will notice that I'm missing and come to rescue me? I take stock more logically: locate the sea then circumnavigate the island – you must eventually return to the resort. After a short time, the roar of outboards reaches my ears. Then the clacking of coconut crab claws. Mangroves. And here is the sea! There are poisonous things in the Solomons but I wade over submerged coral, blissfully ignorant of the dangers of cone shells. A moored yacht comes into sight, then another. I have been blundering around in circles! I make it to the bar and order a fruit cocktail. Al looks up from his SolBrew blearily.

By mid-afternoon, he is completely drunk. He sits amongst the yachties, singing out of tune and waving his limbs. Of the Europeans present – dive tour operators, an aid worker and a development advisor from across the lagoon as well as yachties and resort guests – only Alaister, the mining man, is drunk. The others are merry but not drunk. 'Eat with us?' I ask. He pokes an ugly face. Besides roast pork, there is curried chicken, crayfish, mud crab, fried rice, fruit and more, all laid out under the spreading limbs of an old rosewood ready for thirty people. Chuck sometimes despaired about the challenges of running a resort in an undeveloped country. One evening he told us, 'Week before you came, phone played up, generator blew up, water pump broke and the cook quit.' But today is a triumph for them.

As evening falls, some locals turn up. Because most Solomon Islanders live without cash, the consumption of alcohol is limited to those with money. Outlets such as the bar on Paradise are meccas for those who operate in the 'developing' economy. As I usher Flann off to bed, I hear Al raving on about cannibalism at them. What a fool and a creep. I light the lamp, put Flann's new torch under his pillow and tuck the mosquito net around the bed. I want to return to the party.

By now Al is perched precariously at the bar singing tunelessly and talking gibberish. The restaurant chairs and tables have been cleared and the yachties are dancing. In the Solomons the word for a big party is alelai. This is a lelai. After a few hours of dancing and singing with the others, I join Al to say goodnight. 'Chuck,' I ask, 'please don't serve him anymore.' Both men ignore me.

Sometime around midnight, Dora and two local women arrive at our hut, Al draped between them. 'He was sleeping on the jetty,' Dora calls up. They launch him upwards. By the top of the stairs, so much momentum has built up that he lurches straight through the bungalow. There at the back doorway he sways, pissing. Like a good nurse with a sick patient (alcoholism is a sickness, teaches AA) I steer him to the single bed opposite Flann. He now begins vomiting. I try to help by shoving a saucepan under his mouth but he pushes me away. 'Don't hang any of your shit on me,' he says coherently.

All night his guts heave. Sleepless, I rise several times to check on
him. Is he asphyxiating? What should I do? 'Leave me alone,' he roars. Flann sleeps on.

In the morning, after lying all night in his own vomit, Al flips his soiled mattress over. 'Hey buddy, let's go down to the jetty to fish,' he beckons Flann. Later, when Luke fires up Deadly Dora for interested guests, they too fly off across the curved blue crystal to try their luck with the tattoo-faced mahi mahi and bluefin trevally.

Afternoon. While most guests nurse Boxing Day hangovers and nap, Chuck arranges another excursion for the stayers. The guide is Thomas, normally in charge of the Paradise fishing supply shop, and he will take me, Flann and the Illywacker yachties to Skull Island. Flann has been spending part of every day at Thomas's shop. Whenever nearby villagers deliver bêche-de-mer, he helps Tom weigh it up. The locals often spend the money they earn at the shop before returning to their islands and Flann, too, is a loyal customer, buying snacks and chewing gum.

Skull Island is tiny, an isthmus really, with a sprinkle of palm trees and a pile of what appears on approach to be white rubble but reveals itself as a coral wall decorated with bleached human skulls. Tom shows us a mossy wooden 'skull house' shrine that houses the skulls of the best headhunter, still with his teeth, and six other 'best' hunters. 'These are the cooking ovens. My grandfather tasted human flesh,' says Tom quietly, 'when he was about this young fella's age.' Flann's eyes widen. 'The people needed to please the gods to find enough fish to eat. They asked their ancestors to talk to the gods for them, that's why they brought sacrifices. All the villages around here once had their own skull houses. The missionaries came, "Get rid of all this," they said. So the people gathered up the skulls and brought them to this out-of-the-way place. That's why there are so many here.'

As we step back into the boat, Tom describes the strong men who once paddled across the lagoon in their long war canoes with sacrifices to roast and eat in the presence of their ancestors. 'Half the men paddled on the right side of the canoe, half on the left; Deadly Dora's two outboards could not match their speed,' Tom says. Involuntarily my eyes meet those of the woman from the Illywacker. While Tom is flicking the outboards to life we both picture one hundred and fifty men in five long canoes, bringing sacrifices – maybe pigs or humans – here, ensuring the continuation of life. Warrior-sailors with skin as black as coal, as strong and determined as sharks.

On our return we see a school of fingerlings leap out of the water like a bucketful of stars. 'Today is the best day of my life,' Flann says with reverence.

Paradise is still slumbering. The bar is silent because Luke has taken his boombox with him to Munda where he has family; he's not the twenty-year-old I thought but a father of several youngsters. Chuck moves around doing what chores he can with an ill toddler against his shoulder. 'Malaria,' he replies to my wordless question. 'It's a huge problem in the Solomons.' The phone rings and he orders ten crates of SolBrew to tide Paradise over the New Year. Down at the jetty Flann's rod goes crazy but it turns out to be seaweed. Laughter rings across the lagoon – ten dinghies are moored around one yacht – the yachties enjoy yet another lelai.

A storm brews, bruises the sky grey. The sea glows an eerie neon aquamarine. Chuck glues himself to the radio then passes on the latest to the yachties: A cyclone has wiped out Guam and it's heading here. TheIllywacker and the Paramour sail off to find a more secure anchorage. In pouring rain, Luke returns from Munda with new guests but Dora doesn't feel like cooking for anyone. When I order a fruit cocktail Chuck plonks it down with, 'I'm sick of being on this island with a bunch of miserable little women.'

Alaister finally appears as I'm asking Luke, 'Can you play Island Boy again?' The tape I'd bought from the musicians on the plane is proving almost as popular as Bob Marley and the Wailers. The guests have gravitated for dinner and will need to be placated.

'You know these boys,' Luke says as he presses the play button of his boombox and slides behind the bar to give Chuck a spell, 'I heard they got killed at a party in Gizo.'

'No way.'

'Yes, one of them had been a bad boy in Honiara and he got cut. Both those boys got killed,' Luke grins.

I put my head down in my hands and cry. My fellow-artists. We're listening to their last ever recording. It was senseless, wasteful. With Al sneering a familiar chorus of 'mad', I step down from the stool to sit alone on the jetty under an umbrella. Flann edges alongside me and he too sheds tears when he hears the news.

When I rejoin Alaister, he rounds on me, 'You don't even know those guys. You're mad, so mad.' I look at Luke; neither man is showing sorrow. I can't understand their lack of emotion.

Later I compliment Dora on dinner; she's thrown together a brilliant feast of leftovers. She expands on the Christmas night drama. 'Alaister upset some of the black boys.' Dora uses this term, black boys, instead of local men. 'If I'd left him on the jetty, they would have killed him.' I flush with shame and anxiety about his insane drinking.


CHUCK REALISES THAT Paradise is overbooked and arranges for us to stay at Agnes Lodge in Munda for a couple of days. 'Good,' says Al, 'a power supply and a phone will come in handy. I'll do a bit of mining business and make sure we have flights back to Honiara.' Mister Dickey, an Englishman with a tour office at the lodge, hails us as we arrive and books Flann and me into an after-lunch bush culture walk.

Spending the afternoon with our bush culture guide, Faletau B Leve, would turn out to be the highlight of the holiday. A man in his sixties, he paddled into Munda in his dugout and borrowed Mister Dickey's outfit to take us and two Japanese men further along the lagoon. 'I was a boy during World War II,' he begins as we crunch up a coral track and enter the bush of New Georgia. 'The war changed everything, destroyed our traditional ways. I'm dedicating my life to preserving what I can.' He shows us some metal scraps that are finding second lives as non-degradable containers. 'See these? Water collects in them and mosquitoes breed and spread malaria. The junk left by the Japanese and American armies has killed thousands and is still killing us. Once a man could run through the jungle to hunt a pig but now he could trip on this sharp rusty metal. Maybe he gets tetanus from the cut. Maybe he dies. All my life I've been writing letters to the Japanese and American governments requesting them to remove their war materials. Nothing is done.'

The bush steams and insects shriek. Faletau shows us useful plants. This wild ginger leaf cures the flu; this leaf heals cuts. To survive on a coral island: find a coconut that is shooting, cut the baby palm off and tip it up to drink the milk inside then cut it open chop with your machete and eat the spongy seed and the coconut flesh.

'This big soft leaf makes good toilet paper – but aie! – when I was a boy I saw an American soldier grab this prickly one here to wipe his bum! Aie!' and he leaps around theatrically holding his backside. Flann and the Japanese tourists crack up. Next Faletau shows us a mushroom. 'During the war we used this part for contraception. When the war ended, we used this part here to get the piccaninnies coming again.' He stops at a burrow in the sand. 'This is where a coconut crab lives. They taste good because they feed on coconut flesh.' As he ambles along feeding us his knowledge, he uses his knife to fashion toys out of sago palm. 'Here,' he smiles at Flann each time. By the walk's end Flann has a rigger canoe, an aeroplane, and bows and arrows. Faletau's big bush knife is busy all day – from carving toys to cutting a bouquet of flowering orchids for his daughter-in-law.

As we circle back, we pass under the arms of a huge old tree. 'See this?' and our guide reaches down for a pod. 'The world wants the stuff that's in here,' and he whacks it open with his knife. 'You call it putty. While I'm here, I'll get some for my war canoe.'

'War canoe!?' the males chirp in unison.

'Wanna see it?' Faletau asks proudly.

We happily help him to collect the linseed pods that will help to waterproof his canoe in time for the New Year's Day celebrations that his church is involved in. On the way back to Munda, he pulls into his place. There on a grassy bank lies a long ornate vessel. 'Around here we'd lost the knowledge about how to build a war canoe but I wrote to the Australian Museum in Sydney and they sent me all the information and photographs they could. Photos and a few stories from my grandfather – that's all I had. It took me years to build,' he says. We stare humbly at the handsome black vessel decorated with pearl shell and curiously named Methodist 2; Faletau B Levy's life's work.

Next morning Alaister joins us for the World War II tour. Mister Dickey escorts us, along with his Melanesian boatman. We cross to Kohinggo Island to see an American Stuart tank that is riddled with shell holes inflicted by Japanese battlements on the Kula Gulf opposite. One American died, but three survivors managed to swim across to New Georgia then make their way through miles of jungle until they reached their battalion. Mister Dickey says, 'The village nearby is famous for a lelai they held a few years back. The village boys discovered a pile of hand grenades in the tank and wanted to make a few big bangs. The explosion was huge. Miraculously no-one was killed.'

Japanese war sites are next. Near the village of Sulamani on the volcanic Kolombangara Island is a perfectly preserved underground hospital, right down to vials of morphine and the iron bed frames. Back on New Georgia, we inspect Japanese guns that still point out to sea, guarding a long-lost position. 'Look at this,' I say. A Coke bottle and a hand grenade nestle on the fallen limb of a giant rosewood. 'Take a photo of your mum and dad, will you Flann?' I ask. What better record can there be of his parents' explosive relationship?


ON OUR RETURN to Paradise we are upgraded to another bungalow because a bunch of Peace Corps kids are in our old hut. Flann visits Tom's shop and makes his biggest purchase yet, a red and white game fishing lure with four hooks. 'Tom's going to get us a coconut crab and we'll eat it together,' Flann reports. A big-drinking New Zealand tourist has arrived and is appreciating the bar as much as Alaister; with Chuck, they are all becoming 'best buddies'. Al, beer in hand, wanders between the bar and the jetty where Flann often sits fishing. I read, swim and relax.

The next day, Al hires Luke to take us out in Deadly Dora. I believe that Luke understands my loneliness and I'm pleased when Alaister indicates I should sit in the front with him while he and Flann take the seat behind. When Luke realises my interest in fish and birds he points them out – there are sooty terns, large black frigate birds that wheel in the sky, and fat black and white boobies. We smile whenever flying fish break out of the water. Some are plump, some slender, some alone, some in groups. Every metre of their flight seems miraculous. They re-enter the water as unexpectedly as they soar out of it.

We clear up Luke's apparent callousness towards the killed musicians from Gizo. 'When a Solomon Islander says killed, it means beaten up in a fight,' Luke explains. 'The musicians are not dead.' I sigh with relief. It occurs to me that nor was Alaister's life about to end on Christmas night when Dora rescued him as he lay comatose on the jetty.

A lone orange butterfly flutters above the immense sea, miles and miles from shore. Luke and I smile at one another.


ON NEW YEAR'S Eve the lagoon turns choppy but the male guests nevertheless go out in the Deadly Dora. Around the bungalow the palms rustle and coconuts hit the ground with a klonk. Tonight it's Chuck who helps Alaister back. 'No shit from you,' Alaister bellows. That night, rather than vomit, he lies in piss.

I'm sleepless. So this is alcoholism. Not even the people I met in AA or in Al-Anon talked about how disgusting it is. My mind knots with revulsion as I lie next to a man who pisses in his sleep.

On New Year's Day when Al wakes, he heads down to the bar as if nothing of any importance has happened. I ask Flann what he thinks of the tangle of damp sheets. 'Pretty weird,' he says. Then Flann encounters another 'weird' adult event – the shop is closed because Tom has run off with one of the women who helps in the kitchen. They've up and left their partners during the night. A canoe is missing. I encounter another weird thing that I keep to myself: Dora tells me that Al pissed the bed on his last visit to Paradise too. When I discover Alaister hitting the SolBrew again I tell him straight, 'Don't come anywhere near my bed. Don't come anywhere near it.' To my surprise he follows me up to the bungalow and we talk. Earnestly I give the AA spiel: It's an illness and only you can do something about it.

'I'll just drink Coke today,' he says contritely. He goes down to the bar, brings back a Coke and soon falls asleep. I inwardly address his snoring body: Surely you'll stop drinking now. No-one would continue like this, would they?

To fill in the afternoon, Flann and I take up an offer to go to the basket weavers' village across the lagoon. When we return at sunset we're outraced by a noisy battered Chinese-owned cargo ship. It drops anchor and offloads potato chips and drums of petrol. When morning comes, the sailors load the hessian bags ofbêche-de-mer that Luke has been sorting and weighing since Thomas disappeared. The ship then pulls anchor, its diesel engine teased to life, and it clanks away with the delicacy so coveted in China and Japan.

Chuck mentions that he is taking his family to Munda for the day. Would Alaister like a ride? Yes, he can attend to business. When Al steps aboard the Deadly Dora, Chuck hands him a beer, shooting me a look that says: Us men will do what we want. If Al wants a beer he shall have one. Flann and I wave goodbye at the jetty; Al waves his beer back. His sad-mad eyes are blank. Poor bastard. He needs to go to Munda to drink in peace.

Beautiful three-part harmony comes floating over the gardens and through the palms. Anna, Emma and Jericho, the three housemaids, are sitting on the porch of their bosses' house, singing.

'Come and listen Flann,' I say.

'These people sing all the time, Mum,' he answers patiently.

That evening, Al doesn't return with the others and Chuck's vague about whether he will be back at all. With the weather turning feral, I spend my time summarising a book from the resort library, Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978 (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) by Judith Bennett. Two particular pieces of information strike me as significant. First: before the European sailors came, alcohol was unknown; Melanesians learnt to brew it to have something to trade for steel knives and axes. Second: ancestral spirit beings can communicate with the living by means of signs and dreams. If a butterfly flutters overhead, a Melanesian would ask what spirit is calling and what does it want? In my journal I write: That butterfly Luke and I saw flying over the ocean might be a sign that I should fly on with my life journey, alone and without fear; after all, that butterfly was doing fine. Alternatively, if it was an ancestral spirit addressing Luke, perhaps it was telling him, Well done Melanesian man, you're making this lonely European woman happy. Well done, Poet of the Waterways, Slaughterer of Pigs.

Gusty winds become cyclonic. Chuck and Luke haul all watercraft out of the sea. Palms blow inside out and coconuts bounce across the garden. When it's calm again, traders paddle over, spread tablecloths under the rosewood, and display their shell necklaces, woven placemats and wooden masks decorated with nautilus shell. Converts transport a white missionary along the lagoon in a dugout; he idly trails his fingers in the glassy blue.


MY GUESS IS that access to the phone in Munda has given Alaister the opportunity to phone Designer Girl and it's on again because when he returns to collect us, he's back to avoiding eye contact and being hypercritical. While the men grab their last 'best buddy' opportunity, Flann fishes, and I keep to myself. At sunset on this last evening, Anna, Emma and Jericho come to my hut and shyly say, 'We want to sing for you.' In the lovely language of the lagoon they sing me Methodist hymns. I've heard many of them before but never with this sweetness. To thank them, I make tea on the bungalow gas burner; we drink it by lamplight.

In the morning Chuck assures us there's time for one more fishing trip. Chuck proves to be no poet of the sea; if Luke were handling the boat, would I be so seasick? While Al catches a bluefin trevally and Flann nearly catches a Spanish mackerel with his red and white lure, I'm incapacitated by the choppy ocean and petrol fumes. I lean over the prow and cough breakfast into the blue.

A hundred spinner dolphins appear. (Have I inadvertently called them to us?) 'They wanta play,' Chuck grins and sends the Deadly Dora hurtling. The dolphins respond by rocketing alongside us through glassy, peeled-back aquamarine. We squeal with happiness at their near-misses. How do they not collide with each other or the boat? A hundred dolphins leap and dive in their clear sea – gracing four humans with the lesson of their superior brilliance.

We can't put off leaving any longer. At the Paradise jetty, we bid the staff goodbye then head for Munda with Chuck and Dora. Like a stage play almost everyone we've met since coming to the western province puts in an appearance as we sit in the bar of Agnes Lodge drinking fruit cocktails and waiting for the plane – Mister Dickey, the diving school operators who came to Paradise for Christmas lunch, even Faletau B Levy. The ten-seater then taxies along the remnants of the World War II runway, bound for Honiara.

But before Flann and I leave the Solomons altogether, a scandal embraces Alaister's mining company. Matthew, a devout Christian and the company's cultural advisor, meets us for dinner with bad news.

Matthew is highly regarded throughout his country; in a recent World Health Organization program, he travelled to every island and settlement and educated people on how to avoid leprosy. He administered medicine, too, and, thanks to his tireless efforts, has almost single-handedly eradicated leprosy. (Unfortunately, in 2012, leprosy is in resurgence.) He is obviously agitated while we eat and now he unfolds a copy of the Solomon Star and points to a letter to the editor being given prominence on its front page. It's from the Australian aid worker who spent Christmas at Paradise. Having witnessed Al's reckless talk of cannibalism and his drunken abuse of the locals, the aid worker felt impelled to caution the Solomon Islands about mining companies and names Alaister and his company as culturally insensitive operators that the country should do without. Alaister shrugs. 'Means nothing.'


THIS IS THE fantasy I was indulging in before Alaister rejoined us in Australia: he would go to a clinic, commit to recovery and join AA. Alaister and I would return to the Solomon Islands where he would contribute to the country's economic development and I would help it to become aware of the danger that alcohol consumption poses. (A quick search of the internet reveals that the need is even greater now as experts warn that the country may be sliding into a culture of intoxication similar to that in Papua New Guinea. Which country would PNG have learnt that from, I wonder.) So much for dreams.

I don't know at what point the company discovered that their reputation was in tatters or that their chief geologist's drinking had spiralled out of control, but once Alaister returned, he didn't resume the exploration manager's job. He told us he needed to recover from malaria, but to others he said he was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Designer Girl came on the scene to 'rescue him'; we divorced.

I feel very sad for him now as I reread the journal entries I wrote over the Christmas-New Year of 1997-98. The holiday benefited me and Flann enormously, but for Alaister it was a terrible turning point. As I flip through the pages of my journal, I turn wistful. All sorts of extras are glued in: besides sketches and maps there are drink bottle labels – a SolBrew lager label and many SolPearl soft drink labels that I compulsively peeled from damp bottles as I sat at the Paradise bar, playing wife for the last time, modelling – futilely – the possibilities of a life without alcohol.

In the Brisbane high-rise unit where I live now I have some mementoes of that holiday – baskets from the basket weavers' village, a fruit bowl carved from rosewood and decorated with nautilus shell, and the red and white game fishing lure that Flann bought at Tom's bêche-de-mer depot. These symbolise the wealth of the Solomons that I glimpsed: the open-heartedness of its people; the sweetness of the simple life; its stunning tropical beauty. Alaister's last present to me was a wonderful one.

There's one memento I admit is weird: a dreadlock. I found it on the slats above the wet sand in the communal outdoor shower that everyone on Paradise shared. It belongs to Luke, Mister Poetry in Motion, Seafarer of the Solomons. Yes, I've kept it all these years. I wonder how he is. Did the civil war (The Tensions 1998-2003) affect him? Did he happen to be in Honiara when rioters went mad in 2006? Was he spared losses when the earthquake and tsunami hit Skull Island in April 2007? I hope, most of all, that this proud handsome man who was employed, amongst other duties, to run the bar at Paradise, has never –unlike so many of the Europeans around him – let alcohol get the better of him.

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