Skimming Pebbles
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Skimming Pebbles

She pushed at the tiny crab and its miraculous shell. It rolled off the table and fell onto the sand where it waved its legs in a state of helpless confusion; after all, its world had just been turned upside down too! Gazing far out beyond the reef and its seething foam, Mary felt the first vibrations of panic as some fuller implications of her decision flooded her mind. Sixty and doing this for God’s sake! Why hadn’t she learned to control these impulses when she was younger? What made her decide on those fateful days, to wash her hands of everything unpleasant and clear off for pastures new? It had lost her one good marriage, one disaster beyond parallel; at least two excellent career opportunities and every shot at security she’d ever had! She never, ever regretted the deed; never looked back after making the choice but boy could she panic! She was never quite sure what worried her so much; she never felt a sense of personal fear in the normal sense of the word. She continually felt guilty for abandoning ship and was certainly disturbed, that she could be taken over so often by this beast of impulse and thus for crucial moments, not be in control of her own destiny. She recognised the flaws in her character all too well.
A small, barefoot boy skipped across the grass towards her, leaping up to smack the ‘Beware of falling coconuts’ board, causing it to further dislodge from the leaning palm. She had to shade her eyes to see him as he danced through the light but he seemed to her an idyllic image of Polynesia, as he skidded to a halt and stood there framed in a halo of sunlight with the lagoon and reef beyond.
“Are you for real?” she asked, gasping at the image and groaning inwardly at her choice of phrase.
“My father asks who are you lady? What you doing in Mr.Kingsley’s house?”
He stood back, message delivered and hopped absent - mindedly awaiting an answer.
“Well you can tell your father that this isn’t Mr.Kingsley’s house any more, it’s the new Library!”
She had responded a little more sharply than she had meant and the boy stopped hopping and regarded her warily, so she softened her tone and smiled.
“And I’m not a lady, I’m Mary, Mary Simpson. I’m going to be the island’s Librarian.”
She smiled and reached out her hand to ruffle the boy’s hair but he was having none of that and stepped back out of reach. Had he flinched, or had she imagined it?
“What’s your name?” She asked still smiling.
“Solomana”, he replied. “What’s a Lib-arin?”
“It’s a person who looks after books and lends them out to people who want to read them. Would you like to see?” She gestured behind her into the house and the building beyond with its new corrugated roof gleaming in the sun..
“I can read,” Solomana thrust his chin forward and put his hands on his hips.
“I’m sure you can. What sort of books do you like reading?”
“I read lots of things. I read Hans Christian Anderson once and I read Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland too. I can read anything. You fetch me a book. I’ll show you.”
His face had become intense and determined and he scowled when Mary laughed for the first time on the island; throwing her head back and laughing heartily so that the late sun caught her hair, which shimmered silver grey.
Solomana turned to leave with a grunt of disgust.
“Oh no dear, I wasn’t laughing at you; really I wasn’t. I was laughing with happiness!”
She could hardly explain to him how incongruous she found his chosen reading matter. Although she doubted that he had read those eminent works with any real understanding, she wondered what image he had gained of Britain from those Victorian texts. Who had guided him in their direction?
“You have crooked teeth!” He stared at her with a slight smirk on his face, “and you’re very thin. Don’t you eat enough?”
She supposed she deserved that but took no offence and retorted grinning: “Yes but you never brush your hair! Do you have a comb?”
He looked at her askance and then accepting the humour, laughed in return.
“Ok Mary. You Ok I think. Can I come here tomorrow and you show me your Lib-ery. I want to read some more things. Mr Erik says that books can teach you everything.”
“Well that’s true and of course you can come tomorrow although we’re not officially open yet but I’ll give you a special preview.”
She got up to get him a drink, thinking of her planned few days of complete rest but he intrigued her so much and she could ask him some other things about the village as well. “Who’s Mr Erik?” She turned but Solomana was striding purposefully away across the sand.

She had underestimated the utter darkness of the Pacific night and she slept fitfully, feeling enclosed and tiny and missing the ambient light of the city.
A hammering at the door startled her into wakefulness, bringing back unwelcome memories spawned by unwelcome dreams and it took her some time to return to the present. Solomana’s flashing eyes betrayed his irritation.
“You said you would show me the books!”
“Goodness, what time is it?” The lagoon lay still in reflected early sunlight and she wanted time to take it all in but the boy was already pushing impatiently past her.
“Now just wait a minute young man!” she roared. He froze and his whole demeanour changed. He cowered in the hallway, his hands between his knees and his head down. ‘He’s just like a whipped dog!’ she thought. It startled her into compassion. She gently ushered him onto the lanai and poured him some juice, urging him to be patient while she got dressed.
Once his confidence was restored, he was insatiably curious as she escorted him along the rows of books. He wanted to see exactly what was on offer before he delved in and accepted her explanations with interest. Eventually, they reached the door again, having completed the tour.
“Well, what do you think? Would you like to be the first honorary member of this new library?”
She watched him struggle for words.
“Can I take books today? Now?”
“Of course you can. You go and make some selections while I make out your official ticket.”
She felt proud of herself. This was what it was all about, she thought; this was what made her decision to come here the right one. She needed to know his surname and address but didn’t want to interrupt his avid searching and instead went to her kitchen to pour herself some coffee. When she returned, he was waiting by the desk with an open book in his hand.
“What, only one? You can take up to four you know.”
“I want to read this one.” he declared seriously and laid it down for her to stamp.
‘It’s Alright to Tell’ by James Dixon
It was a book meant for a New Zealand audience, written mainly for children from the more deprived areas of the cities, especially Auckland. It was perfect for Polynesian children but it was primarily for the victims of child abuse!
“Are you sure you want this one? Do you understand what it’s about?” She was unnerved at the implicit threat to her paradise but was determined to approach this carefully.
“I know what I want lady. Can’t I take this book?” He stared at her challengingly and she knew she had to let him have it without question, or risk losing him forever. After all, what did she know about this boy? Nothing. What she might learn put lead in her heart.
“Yes you can take it.” She stamped the book and gave it to him. He turned to leave.
He stopped and turned around, once more with quizzical eyes.
“Yes lady.”
“You know, if you want, we could get some more juice, sit on the lanai and have a chat. Would you like that?”
The almost imperceptible twitches suggested that he wanted to get away from there as fast as possible but he hesitated long enough for her to say:
“I don’t really know anyone on the island. You’re my first friend and I could really do with a friend to talk to right now.”
He came back in from the veranda; sat on his book as if it might fly away and stared at her
“You want to know why I wanted this book, right?”
“Not if you don’t want to tell me.”
“It’s okay. You alright lady but you must tell no one okay?”
“Is it that serious?” she avoided committing herself to a promise but she knew he needed to tell anyway and walked across the room to push the door, leaving it open slightly so that he could escape if he wanted to.
The story came out in a rush; about his father hiring him out to some Dane called Erik Rasmussen each time he came to visit the island, which was about three times a year. He was to stay at Mr Rasmussen’s holiday home for the duration of the man’s stay, ostensibly to do light household duties. His father was paid in advance. However, Rasmussen seemingly wanted more than light chores doing and according to Solomana, his father was probably aware of the situation but needed the money for his kava and his gambling. She found her hands gripping the table and her nails digging into the wood but kept her face composed and sympathetic.
Solomana was by no means distraught and actually admitted to enjoying some of the activities they shared but had read enough, heard enough and was terrified by the consequences of what he’d been doing, especially if he died and went straight to Hell!
Mary was grateful when he paused and she could offer him another drink. This was first and foremost, a church-going island. He was racked with confusion and Bible-inspired guilt. What should he do? he asked. What could she do? she thought, feeling overwhelmed by the implications of what she’d heard. They both sat pondering when suddenly the door burst open and in swept Tetuanui with an armful of books.
“So, here you are. You already busy. What you doing here Solomana? You telling your tales again? You know God won’t forgive you for telling lies, especially about foreign peoples. You been filling Mrs Simpson’s head with you stories about Mr Erik and your father? Won’t you ever learn? Boy will you get a thrashing!”
Solomana took one look at Tetuanui’s face and despite Mary’s protestations, dodged the outstretched arms and fled out into the glaring sunlight. Mary could only stare helplessly at the fast disappearing silhouette.
“Another beautiful day Mary. What we done to be so blessed by God’s bounty? I always ask myself.”
Tetuanui had filled the room with her expansive gestures and weather reports. She assumed all foreigners absorbed frequent weather reports, as a life need. Mary wondered whether she had just lived out a dream.

Tetuanui was to be Mary’s assistant. She was a large and lovely woman, who billowed like an ocean-going sailing boat in her flowered cotton prints. Her movements were filled with such grace and elegance despite her weight, that Mary felt angular and disproportionate in comparison. She smelled of flowers and Mary had felt entirely comfortable in her homely presence, until this very moment.
“You know,Tetuanui, I don’t think he was telling lies.”
Tetuanui’s jovial expression melted away and she frowned at Mary, her eyes narrowing and her mouth wrinkling and tightening with disapproval.
“Now how long you been here Mary? Five minutes yes? You don’t know things like we do. Solomana’s father is a decent man and his mother, God rest her soul, is long dead. That poor man has to raise that boy all alone and it is no easy task I can tell you. Solomana has the Devil’s spirit in him and he tries all our Christian patience with the trouble he causes every time someone new comes here. He walks over my grave every day! The boy is wicked, wicked. He causes all sorts of trouble. Some say he brings storms to the skies and sharks to the lagoon but I don’t subscribe to such gossip, it’s not God’s way but you mark my words Mary, you don’t want to get involved with him at all. Wait till I tell his father. Then he’ll get the good beating he deserves for all this. Though it never does no good. That boy has the touch of evil!”
With that, Tetuanui sat down heavily, her massive arms folded as if in defence against the ills of the world and shook her head repeatedly. The sweat broke out like pearls on her skin and she heaved with emotion.
The words were Christian but the eyes betrayed countless ancient and broken taboos and Mary suspected she had stumbled into something beyond her influence. She shivered but persevered.
“Who is this Erik Rasmussen, Tetuanui?”
“Why, Mr Rasmussen’s a fine man. He’s a man who understands us more than most Europeans and tourists. He only comes here for holidays but he’s very rich you know. So much money he’s given us for the Church and the Hall and yes Mary, even for the Library!”
Her case proved, with massive arms folded, Tetuanui’s smile returned and she turned away. Clearly the conversation was over.
“Would you like some more coffee Mary? Should I write cards for these books?”
Mary barely closed her eyes that night, confronting and evaluating countless moral dilemmas. Truth, lies, taboos, rights and wrongs, all haunted her thoughts. She knew enough about Polynesian culture to realise that things were never as black and white as they seemed. Christianity was dominant but was marbled with streaks of hidden and buried myths. The old gods were never too far away and their demands for sacrifice and appeasement for the good of the community were still to be met. When she did doze off, her dreams became processions of figures and visions of Hell and the morning light failed to resolve a single question.
It was a Sunday and she decided to go to church. Maybe the answers lay there, if she asked God directly but which God would answer her? Essentially a practical woman, she put the horrors of the night behind her and told herself that exaggeration and fear were all too easy bedfellows when the darkness wrapped her in solitude. She dressed as elegantly as she could, considering half her wardrobe was yet to arrive; then locking the door, despite Tetuanui’s insistance that it wasn’t necessary, headed off down the road in a more optimistic frame of mind.
Skimming Pebbles Part Two

She joined the line of churchgoers resplendent in their Sunday finery. The men wore suits and ties, though some of the older ones wore the traditional wrap around skirt. All looked splendid, as did the women in their sober dresses and white straw hats, some with a trim, though nothing over frivolous. It was an aspect of Pacific life, which entranced and shamed Mary at the same time. The serious business of Sunday worship, long abandoned by many in the west, still exerted a strong pull on the islanders of the Pacific, though Mary suspected that maybe its days were numbered. As the soaring harmonies filled the church; filtered out of the open windows and spread across the lagoon, she felt out of place and uncomfortable. Not only was she the only white face but she felt underdressed as well and not for the first time, she sensed she was in the wrong place, at the wrong time of her life. She tried to find enough moments of calm in which to question what had happened but only succeeded in catching Tetuanui’s eye, who beamed at her and further glances from others who did not. She tried unsuccessfully, to spot Solomana and his father in the crowd, further adding to her doubts and worries. It was with some relief that she left the church after the service and breathed deeply in the open air.
“So, how are you liking your new life here?” The Minister shook her hand vigorously at the churchyard gate.
“Oh, it will be fine I think, Minister. Thank you for a fine service by the way.”
He smiled and continued, still gripping her hand. “You know, very few foreigners come to the church and there are enough, scattered around the islands. The New Zealanders especially. I am disappointed in the New Zealanders. I have to say, I am overjoyed that we have a library at last. Tetuanui says that you have many fine books. Perhaps I shall make use of its services, as you do of mine.”
“You will be very welcome Minister. Perhaps you can spread a few words about the library, while you’re spreading the word of God.” Mary delicately extracted her hand. He laughed, his whole body rippling with mirth.
“Oh I can see we shall get along fine. I couldn’t help noticing how troubled you looked in church, maybe I can help if you have a problem?”
The smile had gone and his eyes searched her soul. What else had Tetuanui been telling him? Suddenly, she needed to get away and she searched for appropriate words.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just tired after the move I expect. I’ll feel better in a few days.”
“I understand my dear. You do not yet feel the rhythm of the island I think. When you do, your worries will disappear I’m sure.”
His eyes were still piercing and she could feel them in her back as she hurried off down the road.
She could feel those always-familiar feelings of panic sweeping through her. Her chest tightened
and she feared that from that moment it was ruined. The whole adventure was quickly losing its appeal. What she’d thought of as paradise had too many serpents and despite the heat of the morning, she felt chilled and tearful.
She reached the house and rushed in, closing shutters and locking doors behind her, until she felt secure enough to sit down and think. What sort of a person had she become, who couldn’t cope with the slightest problem, whose first instinct was to run? She needed to get a grip! Sort it all out and get it into perspective! After all, what had happened? Not a great deal. Certainly nothing to get so steamed up about. Maybe this fear came from the past and not the present? Maybe it was unwanted luggage from lives left behind.
In the light that streamed through the slats of the shutters, Mary devoted herself to some serious thought. Perhaps her instinct was wrong. After all, it had proved to be singularly inconsistent in the past. Perhaps Solomana was just a little liar who had turned her life inside out by means of an attention-seeking joke. Tetuanui had certainly seemed morally outraged by the boy and there was no reason at all to doubt her judgement. She came to the conclusion that nothing would be gained by over-reacting. She would doubtless see Solomana again and if she took it gently, could find out more of what lay behind his story, true or not. Meanwhile, she had a job to do and after opening the house up to the sunlight again, she put all her efforts into cataloguing books and writing signs. Nothing, however, would silence the nagging fears at the bottom of her consciousness.
The next week was so busy; she barely had time to dwell on Solomana and his tales. The library proved to be popular and she realised that she would need to plead for more books from New Zealand to meet the growing demand. It was while she was composing a letter to the chief librarian in Auckland, that she met Solomana again.
It was just after she had closed the library for the day and sat down at her typewriter, that she heard an almost imperceptible tapping at the window looking out at the back of the building. There was only undergrowth there and at first she thought it was a branch or an inquisitive Mynah bird. Nevertheless, she got up to look and found Solomana crouching beneath the shutter.
“Hello, what are you doing there? Why didn’t you come to the door?”
He looked up at her and his little face crumpled as he dissolved into tears.
“Can I come in lady? Through this window, now?”
Once inside, she hugged him until the tears subsided and waited patiently until he was ready to talk.
“Oh lady, I shouldn’t be here. I’ll just get you into trouble too.”
His eyes darted around the room as if he was ready to run.
“You don’t have to worry about me Solomana. I won’t be in trouble. Now you came here to see me. Why? What has happened to you? Why are you so upset?” She put her hand on his shoulder but he flinched and yelped.
“Let me see Solomana. Why does that hurt?”
With that, the boy slowly lifted his vest.
“My god! Who did that to you? You poor child.”
His skin was covered in weals and bruises, both back and front. Mary stood back, unable to move; unable to think what to do next.
“Ok, the first thing we must do is get you to the doctor.”
“No!” he screamed and ran for the door. “No, no doctor! I don’t need no doctor. I’ll be fine. I just need to stay away a while!”
The words came rushing out as he panicked. She rushed to get between him and the door and held her hands out, palms open, to show that she offered no threat of restraint.
“That’s fine Solomana; that’s just fine. You stay here. I’ll get you a drink. You’ll be safe here.”
He seemed to accept what she said and slumped down in a chair, head in hands and moaned softly to himself. Mary made sure her voice was going to be calm and reassuring before she spoke again.
“Whatever we do my friend, you are going to have to tell me what happened, or I won’t be able to help you.” She sat down beside him but didn’t attempt to touch him, although she longed to gather him in her arms and make everything alright.
“Now can you tell me who did this to you and why they did it? What have you done to deserve such a beating?”
He lifted his head and looked directly into her eyes. She could only see the young boy’s face but sensed that there was a lifetime of experience behind his gaze.
“My father says that Mr. Erik comes back again next week. I told him that I didn’t feel like staying with Mr. Erik this time. It is the last week of school and I want to be at school. I’ll never learn things properly unless I’m at school.”
“What did your father say then?” Mary could see clearly what his father’s reaction had been but wanted Solomana to explain for himself. She wanted to have no doubts this time.
“He told me I was ungrateful and selfish. He said that Mr. Erik gave the village so much and asked only for some help in the house in return. He said that I had no right to refuse and I must do as I am told.” Tears welled up in his eyes again and he gripped his fists as he went on.
“I shouted at him. I shouted at my father. I wanted him to know what Mr. Erik does to me but I think he knows already. Then he lost his temper and hit me. I’m a bad boy. I don’t think it’s so bad with Mr. Erik. I am selfish, he’s right. I deserved my beating!”
Mary could barely hold back the tears as she drew him towards her again. He needed protection at that moment but she feared that he wasn’t the only one.
A dog started barking outside and voices approached; footsteps across the lanai. She braced herself for the inevitable intrusion.
It was only two days later when the post arrived. The letter was brief and unapologetic. The island council felt that the library needed a local librarian and Tetuanui was to take over Mary’s duties with immediate effect. She was not shocked or even terribly disappointed, as this particular paradise had proved to be yet another illusion. It was almost as if the surreal tragedy of it all fitted her life seamlessly. Had she caused it all by her arrival? No of course not. She knew that but felt certain that wherever she was, she became a magnet for unhappiness. She didn’t desire it; she just sought peace of mind but no matter how many times she ran, she could never achieve it.
What to do about Solomana? She knew he would be raised by his own, in ways she would never understand. She sensed he would survive but more in hope than certainty. When she got back to Auckland, she’d raise such a stink.
What she did know was that she had no courage left and few reserves to draw on.
“Bugger it,”
She packed her bags.
Em.Querido's uigeverij:Amsterdam 2001