He pulled a piece of rope attached to a trolley on which Mrs. Pop Eye stood. She looked like an ice queen. Nearly every woman on our island had crinkled hair, but Grace had straightened hers. She wore it piled up, and in the absence of a crown her hair did the trick. She looked so proud, as if she had no idea of her own bare feet. […]
Our parents looked away. They would rather stare at a colony of ants moving over a rotting pawpaw. Some stood by with their idle machetes, waiting for the spectacle to pass. For the younger kids the sight consisted only of a white man towing a black woman. […] Us older kids sensed a bigger story. Sometimes we caught a snatch of conversation. Mrs. Watts was as mad as a goose. Mr. Watts was doing penance for an old crime. Or maybe it was the result of a bet. The sight represented a bit of uncertainty in our world, which in every other way knew only sameness.
What I am about to tell results, I think, from our ignorance of the outside world. My mum knew only what the last minister had told her in sermons and conversations. She knew her times tables and the names of some distant capitals. She had heard that man had been to the moon but was inclined not to believe such stories. She did not like boastfulness. She liked even less the thought that she might have been caught out, or made a fool of. She had never left Bougainville.
The weeks passed. Now we had an idea of what our time was for. It was to be spent waiting. We waited, and we waited for the redskin soldiers, or the rebels, whoever got here first. It was a long, long time before they came to our village. But I know exactly when they did because that’s what I had made up my mind to do—I had decided I would keep the time.
“I want this to be a place of light,” he said. “No matter what happens.” He paused there for us to digest this.
When our parents spoke of the future we were given to understand it was an improvement on what we knew. For the first time we were hearing that the future was uncertain. And because this had come from someone outside of our lives we were more ready to listen.
There was also a lot of stuff I didn’t understand. At night I lay on my mat wondering what marshes were; and what were wittles and leg irons? I had an idea from their sound. Marshes. I wondered if quicksand was the same. I knew about quicksand because a man up at the mine had sunk into it, never to be seen again. That happened years earlier when the mine was still open and there were white people crawling over Panguna like ants over a corpse.
This was the first time I had been in a position to tell her anything about the world. But this was a place she did not know about and hadn’t heard of. She couldn’t even pretend to know, so it was up to me to color in that world for her. I couldn’t remember the exact words Mr. Watts had read to us, and I didn’t think I would be able to make it possible for my mum to slip into that world that us kids had or into Pip’s life or some other’s, that of the convict, say. So I told her in my own words about Pip having no mum or dad or brothers, and my mum cried out, “He is lost.”
He smiled. “Matilda is a nice name, too. Where did you get such a pretty one?” he asked.
I anticipated his question. My dad had worked with Australians up at the mine. They had given him the name Matilda. He had given it to my mum. And she had given it to me. I explained all this.
“A sort of hand-me-down.” Mr. Watts glanced away with the thought. Suddenly he looked gloomy. I don’t know why.
Now listen. Faith is like oxygen. It keeps you afloat at all times. Sometimes you need it. Sometimes you don’t. But when you do need it you better be practiced at having faith, otherwise it won’t work. That’s why the missionaries built all the churches. Before we got those churches we weren’t practicing enough. That’s what prayers are for—practice, children. Practice.
The trouble with Great Expectations is that it’s a one-way conversation. There’s no talking back. Otherwise I would have told Pip about my mum coming to speak to the class, and how, seeing her at a distance—even though only two desks back from the end of the room—she had appeared different to me. More hostile. […]
Whatever I might say about my mum to Pip I knew he wouldn’t hear me. I could only follow him through some strange country that contained marshes and pork pies and people who spoke in long and confusing sentences.
In our village there were those who supported the rebels—my mum included. Though I suspect her support was nourished by the thought of my father in Townsville living what she called a “fat life.” Everyone else just wished the fighting would go away, and for the white man to come back and reopen the mine. These people missed buying things. They missed having money to buy those things. Biscuits, rice, tinned fish, tinned beef, sugar. We were back to eating what our grandparents had—sweet potatoes, fish, chicken, mango, guava, cassava, nuts, and mud crab.
I watched his face and I listened to his voice and I tried to hear how his mind ticked, and what he thought. What was Mr. Watts thinking as our mums and dads, our uncles and aunts, and sometimes an older brother or sister came to share with the class what they knew of the world? He liked to position himself to one side as our visitor delivered their story or anecdote or history.
We always watched Mr. Watts’ face for a sign that what we were hearing was nonsense. His face never gave such a sign. It displayed a respectful interest…
Sometimes as he read we saw him smile privately, leaving us to wonder why, at that particular moment—only to realize yet again that there were parts of Mr. Watts we could not possibly know because of our ignorance of where he’d come from, and to reflect on what he’d given up in order to join Grace on our island.
“I expect another one will grow.”
“So that’s okay,” I said. “Nothing’s lost.”
“Except that particular toenail,” he said. “You could say the same about a house or one’s country. No two are the same. You gain as you lose, and vice versa.” He stared off distantly, as if everything he’d parted with trailed out to sea and over the horizon.
I know […] you have been hearing some story from Mr. Watts, and a story in particular, but I want to tell you this. Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something. For example, if you know the words you can sing a song to make a fish swim onto your hook. There are even songs to get rid of skin rash and bad dreams.
The sound of my name took me to a place deep inside my head. I already knew that words could take you into a new world, but I didn’t know that on the strength of one word spoken for my ears only I would find myself in a room that no one else knew about. Matilda. Matilda. Matilda. I said it over and over. I tried out different versions, dragging the word out and expanding that room. Ma til da.
Because for as long as I could remember, Grace Watts was not really included in the village. She lived with a white man, a man whom our parents didn’t especially warm to. It was partly that, and partly the strange sight of her standing in that trolley towed along by Mr. Watts wearing a red clown’s nose. We did not understand the reason for this, we had no idea what it meant, and so it had been convenient to think Mrs. Watts was mad.
And now, to the startled ears of all us kids, we began to hear all the fragments that our mums and uncles and aunts had brought along to Mr. Watts’s class. Our thoughts on the color white. Our thoughts on the color blue. Mr. Watts was assembling his story out of the experience of our lives, the same things we had heard shared with our class. But Mr. Watts introduced new information as well […].
My mum said she had no problem with stating the obvious. The problem was that silly blimmin’ word insensibly. What was the point of that word? It just confused. If it hadn’t been for that silly bloody insensibly, she’d have gotten it the first time. Instead, insensibly had led her to suspect it wasn’t so straightforward after all.
I suppose it is possible to be all of these things. To sort of fall out of who you are into another, as well as to journey back to some essential sense of self. We only see what we see. I have no idea of the man June Watts knew. I only know the man who took us kids by the hand and taught us how to reimagine the world, and to see the possibility of change, to welcome it into our lives.