For translation of the Pitkern words, see footnotes.
"What's that?" I said, as a crab ran across the kitchen floor.
"A crab," said Dennis.
I meant what sort of a crab was it. He didn't even think I knew
what a crab was.
There was something I wanted to clear up concerning the fishing
"People ever drowned down Isaac's?" I asked Dennis.
"Plenty," he said cheerily. His acceptance of it annoyed
"Then why do you fish there?"
He shrugged. "Wha place else?"
"Frankie fell down Tedside," he said.
"Some time back, two men drown."
"Only get small white fish or buhi down the Landing, cos of
oil from em boats."
Dennis was sitting at the table while I mixed the Alternative Pastry
for a chicken and arrowroot pie I was making for supper. I had taken
the recipe from Irma's Picture Cook Book, another handy publication
produced by the Adventist Church, which Irma had received as a gift
from a former pastor's wife. I read:
4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 ozs butter substitute
1 cup whole-meal flour
"Power es-e-on," said Ben, as he did every day, even though
the power came on at the same time each morning and each afternoon.
Perhaps Ben made this comment because, in a place where the supply
of everything was so uncertain, he feared that, one day, the electricity
would fail. It just wouldn't be there--the freezers wouldn't begin
to growl, the arrowroot pie wouldn't be baked and the billy wouldn't
boil. And each morning, Ben expressed his surprise and relief with "Power
"The power is on, Debbie, for your coffee," said Irma.
She had interrupted herself delivering a monologue about the hardships
of living on Pitcairn, due to one of the two televisions in the
big room blowing up in the middle of a miniseries.
"It's such a problem on a small island. You can't get things
fixed," she said, echoing "small island," "small
island," "small island" as she searched for the
comfort of a surface to dear.
"Steve. Steve. You se there?" The sound of Glen's voice
on the VHF brought Irma to a standstill, as if she were playing
musical chairs and the music had just stopped.
Steve came through. "Glen. Go to twelve."
Dennis reached the VHF just before Irma, and switched to channel
12. They both stood looking at the machine. Steve and Glen exchanged
information about a fishing trip. I carried on with my recipe.
1 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat water and lemon juice. Gradually pour over chopped shortening
in basin. Stir briskly until mixture is light and creamy. Add the
combined dry ingredients. Mix lightly with fork to form a soft
dough. Bake in a very hot oven.
Which oven? I thought, looking about Irma's electrical appliance
I had been baking without eggs for about a month now, although
there were still three dozen eggs in the fridge closest to the
Irma had checked them occasionally, congratulating me on not using
up her last supply. But I was beginning to wonder what we were
saving the eggs for, if not to eat them. So the next day, while
at the commercial radio station, following The Picture Cook
Book I decided to make upside-down sponge cake, which required two eggs.
I cracked open the first. The yolk bobbed black in the bowl, and
the stench was overwhelming. I opened a second, then a third, then
a fourth, and all came out stinking and rotten. I kept on cracking
eggs, finding just three good ones in the first dozen. Thinking
they would all go bad pretty soon, I decided to crack open the
dozen as well, and at least eat the few good ones while we could.
In all, I managed to save six eggs. I abandoned my plans to bake
upside-down sponge cake, and decided instead to make the eggs into
an omelette for supper.
When Irma came home I was chopping peppers. She saw the bowl of
yellow yolks on the table.
"What's that for, dear?"
"An omelette!" I said. "When I cracked open the eggs,
they were nearly all rotten. I managed to save half a dozen. So
I thought we could have an omelette with them!"
"But now we have no eggs, dear."
"They were rotten," I said, thinking she hadn't understood.
Irma opened the fridge door and peered inside, as if she could conjure
up the rows of eggs just by wanting them to be there. But there
was just an empty shelf. It struck me that I had never seen a shelf at
Irma's that wasn't jam-packed.
Irma's distress was obvious in the tightening of her mouth and
the untypically slow, soft way in which she closed the fridge door.
"We. Have. No. Eggs," she said.
"We didn't have any eggs. We only had rotten eggs. This"--and
I held up the bowl of yellow yolks--"is all we've got left."
I was trying to make things better, by explaining, but I was only
making things worse. A lack, a shortage loomed up before Irma and
made her anxious. It hadn't mattered that the eggs were rotten;
at least they were there, lining the shelf of her fridge. Empty
frightened her. You never knew when you would be able to fill them
"It se aw-right, dear," she said, "I'm not hungry," and
went out to the duncan, looking as if she might be sick.
I'd fallen into a pattern of spending my days cooking, weeding,
washing and joining occasional fishing trips, and in the evenings
sitting on the veranda working on my basket and listening to the
conversation. One morning my gentle routine had been broken by
a call to public work. Public work was an alternative tax system.
of having islanders pay a percentage of their income to the Administration,
which would have been impossible to enforce and in most cases amounted
only to cents, men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were required
to answer any call to public work-repairing the longboat, clearing
the roads or maintaining the molasses and arrowroot-making equipment.
Recently the men had begun to grumble: now women were earning a
wage (Look at Olive! She'd been island secretary for five years,
more than two thousand dollars!), they should have to do public
Irma, as always, was the most articulate on this controversial
"Women's lib on this island, you see, dear," she explained, "has
gone all wrong. Now the women have some of the highest-paid government
jobs, but don't have to do public work. Royal, for example. She
earns a lot. She has a widow's pension and her government job. Yet she
doesn't have to do public work. She makes a lot of carvings. While
the men are doing public work, she can make carvings and earn money.
The women can trade on the ships while the men have to unload cargo.
It's not right."
Terry, who was working on a carving as Irma did the washing and
I kneaded the dough, suggested that everyone should pay tax on
their government job, but not on the sale of their curios.
"The women have it easy," said Irma. "While the men
work, they can do anything!" She raised her arms, wet from
wringing the clothes, to emphasize this astonishing, and appalling,
"It's the same in New Zealand," said Irma. "They
have this thing called doll."
"The dole," I said.
"Well," she explained. "People who work have to pay
tax for those who don't work. It's not fair. So I think they should
put a stop to it."
Irma--as assistant radio officer number two, public relations officer,
and typist--had a taxable income. But she was near retirement,
and too old to help clear roads. So I offered to do public work
Often Irma seemed grateful, but I never knew whether she wanted
me to think I was pleasing her or whether I really was. But her
delight at my offer to work was genuine. The burrows on her face
and turned upward, and, for the first time outside her shack, she
looked like VR6ID.
"People will see you," she said. "I like people to
know that you work, dear. It's good for them to see. No one can say
I don't want to work." And she smiled so unaffectedly that
I smiled, too, pleased that I was behaving, proper Pitcairn.
When the bell in the Square struck three times one morning, Ben,
although seventy and no longer making money except from the sale
of his carvings, quietly went and picked up his hoe, pulled on
his taumata and waited on the veranda for Dennis and me. He shuffled
up behind me on the back of Dennis's bike, and we headed west up
a path I hadn't taken before. The road curved up to Garnet's Ridge,
at 1,100 feet the highest point on the island.
We arrived at a huge road, at least ten feet across, a real superhighway.
Some of the island men were leaning on wooden implements at the
road edge, talking to others who, at the most, seemed only to be
with the vegetation.
Ben slid off the saddle--he couldn't jump--and went to the verge,
where he began to snip-snip away at the fern and weed. Each time
his bamboo handle brushed against the lantana, the small yellow
and scarlet flowers released a strong, sweet scent. But the head
hoe was so small and the crunchy vegetation so stalwart that Ben
just tickled it. But he kept on patiently snip-snipping away at
each defiant fern, until a few inches of verge were cleared and
was a clear drain down the side of the road for when the rain came.
Once the islanders, nearly three hundred strong, controlled the
vegetation. There were large areas of cleared land, well-defined
gardens, sharp-edged roads where the red clay met the green vegetation.
But now, with the population down to fewer than fifty, the vegetation
was in control. Leaves, twine, stems and branches grew over roads,
almost obscuring them. Hibiscus and lantana rapidly claimed buildings
not continually shorn; the lower walls of the courthouse were smothered
in it. Rose apple trees, which grew like weeds, had dammed Brown's
Water. Gardens were continually encroached upon, so that corn would
lose the light and the beans be choked. If the vegetation wanted
something--an islander's food, an islander's home--it could take
Ben weeded in silence, never halting the tap-tap of his hoe. But
the young bucks had a more aggressive technique, swinging their
tools and cracking bawdy jokes.
"It make em stiff," said Trent. "All em digging."
"I se stiff all ha time," said Nigger, obviously not referring
to his muscles. I noticed that a slight sweat had spread over his
forearms, like dew. It seemed a long time ago and far away that
I had brushed another's damp flesh, comforted by human touch.
The good joke provided an excuse to stop work, and all the men
had lowered their tools and looked toward Nigger, ready to catch
"Might be why Worree no do public work," chipped in Glen. "He
Worree was the nickname for Tom Christian. Tom, the island intellectual,
disliked getting his hands dirty. But Perry was there working in
his stead, attacking the lantana systematically and with vigor.
To my surprise, the pastor joined in the ribaldry, even putting
up a name for inclusion in a list of Pitcairn men who were "nawa
stiff." Sometimes he lifted up his video recorder from the
front basket on his bike and filmed those of us who were working;
of the time he was propped up on his hoe, laughing at someone else's
story or telling one himself. Most of his tales were about fishing,
to which he was devoted. He would often spend a day Down Rope or
at Tedside with Nigger, Len and Glen, a line in hand. He was also
known to be a voracious nanwe eater, having beaten all previous
Pitcairn records by devouring twelve whole fish in one sitting.
Talk turned from sex to ships. Someone said that a Swedish ship
was going to call Sunday noon, and again I wondered what made them
say this. Information on Pitcairn seemed to emerge from sources
I had not yet fathomed, as if plucked from the heavy air.
Terry, who had said nothing so far, mumbled, "Last time one
Swedish ship call third June, 1989. Ha captain good 'un. He give
me big waterproof. But ha Filipino steward mean as a brute," and
everyone stopped to listen, because Terry was always right about
There were a few lengths of dear verge at the edge of the road
when Steve decided that our work was done for the day. It was about
and time for breakfast.
Perry ambled up, throwing one bare muscular leg in front of the
other instead of stepping. He was naked from the waist up, tanned
and glistening with a light sweat, which made his hairless chest
seem as if it had been oiled. His skin was so flawless, his tan
so even and his smile so fixed that, although his shape was that
a perfect male, he was not sexy. I no more wanted to touch his
perfect body than if it had been molded from plastic.
"Would you like to walk back with me?" he said in perfect
English and, although an invitation, coldly.
My legs were pockmarked with mosquito bites, some still ripe, others
tipped with a tiny scab. My hands were blistered from the hoe,
my hair dirty from the earth. My sweat didn't sit on me in a thin film,
like oil; it soaked my clothes, it ran down my legs. It made me
feel uncomfortable. Unlike Perry, I wasn't able to cultivate the appearance
of someone who was lounging on a South Pacific idyll. I looked
and harassed. I looked like I had spent the morning working on
Perry strode confidently down the path.
"Are you enjoying Pitcairn?" he asked.
"I am enjoying Pitcairn. It is what I expected." He said
this with more than a soupçon of self-congratulation.
"Not the videos, naturally," he said. "I was not
expecting the videos. But the rest. Yes. Certainly."
It had taken Perry more than three years to reach Pitcairn and,
if nothing else, he should have been given a prize for persistence.
His license to land had been referred back several times. For Perry
was an unashamed Paradise-seeker, and had put this on his application.
He had been searching for a primitive island where he and his girlfriend
could buy a piece of land, build their own home and settle down.
Perry was twenty-five, although he looked like a teenager; his
girlfriend was fifteen.
She had remained behind in Germany while Perry had paid a yacht
three thousand dollars to take him from Tahiti to Pitcairn. He
was to lay the foundations for their new life together, and then
to Germany to claim his bride. By that time, she would have celebrated
her sixteenth birthday and be old enough legally to marry him.
He showed me a picture of her that he carried in his pocket. She
indeed a schoolgirl, and a very pretty one. With long blond hair
and a coquettish smile, she was the picture of an ideal partner
for the perfect Perry in Paradise.
When his application had been turned down for the third time by
the Council, wary of Paradise-seekers, Perry decided to write an
open letter to the Pitcairners. The letter--in which he offered
to work full-time for any family who would agree to invite him
island--was pinned up outside the courthouse. Tom Christian snatched
up the offer.
Now Perry lived with Tom and Betty, fishing, weeding, trading,
doing Tom's public work and helping to dig their new well. He was
worker, and freed Tom from the manual, menial tasks he so disliked,
to talk on his ham radio and write his diary. Perry also helped
Betty in her garden every afternoon. I had heard that the broccoli
planted just a month earlier was beginning to sprout.
"How do you find fitting in here?" I asked, tentatively.
Perhaps he would confess to me, a fellow stranger, a slight feeling
of unease, a knowledge of the difficulty of being accepted in such
a small place. Despite all outward appearances, Perry might yet
prove to be a confidant.
Perry declared, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he had had no
problem at all. He had found it remarkably easy to be accepted
into the community,
and had found everyone most welcoming.
"Yes. Most welcoming," I echoed softly.
We were walking down Jack's Tatties, passing Royal's house. She
lived on the edge of town and her home had a suburban feel about
it, set back from- the road with a big front garden leading up
to her door.
As if from nowhere, Royal appeared in her driveway.
"Wut a way you?" she greeted. She looked us up and down,
and strained her neck so she could see back up the path.
"Good 'un," we chorused.
"Wa sing yourley doing?" Royal should have been a police
interrogator. She was always so disconcertingly direct that it
made me startle then flounder, and then feel guilty for no more than not
having an immediate answer, and then blush, and then appear as
if I were trying to hide some crime I had just committed, or was even
in the throes of committing.
"Making babies," said Perry, thinking to crack a Pitcairn-style
joke and we walked on.
"God!" I said, hoping we were out of Royal's earshot.
Perry laughed, although it was very dry for a laugh.
"God!" I said again. I had visions of Royal mounting her
bike speeding down to Irma's, throwing herself through the bananas
and de daring to anyone who might be on the veranda-Nola? Charles?
Charlotte? Terry? Dennis?--"I bin see Debbie and Perry comen
fer Garnet's Ridge. They se fucking!"
two men drown: In 1910,
Harold Burdett Christian, age seventeen, and Lavis Johnston,
son of a Mangarevan trader, were drowned at St. Paul's.
buhi: A buhi is a moray eel. (I caught one, once.)
taumata: archaic Tahitian word for a hat made from plaited
coconut leaves. On Pitcairn, the word is used for any pull-on
such as Ben's.
Wa sing yourley doing?: What are you doing?
What are you up to?