As she sat in her lounge room with the terrace doors open to the sea breeze, Mrs Nora Patterson surveyed the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and thanked her husband—God rest his soul—for building a house with such a fine view.
To anyone arriving by sea, the sight of this tiny Fijian port was just as impressive. Quaint colonial-era shops lined its palm-fringed shore, and behind these, dozens of colourful clapboard houses climbed lush hillsides which rose steeply to high peaks.
The only trouble, she lamented, was access. The path from the township to her elegant weatherboard home was so steep that she could barely manage the climb on a hot day. For this reason she seldom descended to town and retained a delivery service to meet her daily needs.
There was also another reason; having emigrated from New Zealand a half-century earlier, and grown up as the consul’s daughter in the capital, Suva, she felt very much an outsider in Levuka. She preferred to invite friends from Suva, serve them lunch or high tea, and enjoy the town’s comings and goings—the cargo ships and school buses, tourist vans and sugar cane lorries that tootled along Beach Street—from the comfort of her hillside abode.
From her side table Mrs Patterson lifted a pair of antique binoculars which her father had snatched from a dead Nazi on Crete and directed them downwards. She spotted Mr Sahai, the manager of the Ovalau Club, sitting at the opened window stroking his white handlebar moustache as he leafed through the Fiji Times. Perhaps sensing he was being watched, he glanced up. Mrs Patterson quickly lowered the field glasses.
It was then she heard the postman’s call. She rose from her wicker cane chair and stepped onto the terrace to greet the small native Fijian in a sweat-stained blue shirt.
‘Good morning Mrs Patterson, just one today,’ he said breathlessly.
‘Thank you,’ she said, taking the letter and returning to her chair. The postmark read, ‘Appleton, Casey and O’Donnell Solicitors, 25 Oriental Parade, Wellington, New Zealand.’ She opened the letter and began to read. When she was finished, she placed it down on the side table and looked out to sea. Viewing that great expanse of water always helped her to make sense of difficult things. Of course, it was too late to do anything now; her great-aunt Agatha had died a month earlier and bequeathed to her favourite niece a piece of the family home in Wellington. According to the letter, it was presently en route by ship to the Fiji Islands. Mrs Paterson scowled. What in God’s name was she going to do with a piano?
Three days later the telephone rang.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Patterson,’ said Mr Patel, the Harbor Master General, in his trademark silky baritone. ‘We have a consignment for you. If you would care to pick it up at your earliest convenience?’
Mrs Patterson slipped on a floral print sundress, gathered her handbag and powder blue parasol and followed the winding path to the township. The air was cooler on the hillside but as she descended the atmosphere seemed to expand. The pungent smell of rotting fruit, the earthy odours of the taro plots and the briny smell of the sea crowded in on her. She began to perspire.
At the bottom of the hill she passed the Ovalau Club. Mr Sahai looked up from his window seat and waved enthusiastically. Ever since her husband had passed away five years ago, Mr Sahai had been displaying an inordinate amount of interest in her; he was always asking when she might be joining the lawn bowls club or attending one of the monthly dinners at the Levuka Chamber of Commerce.
She passed along Beach Street, entered through the port gates and stepped into the Harbour Master’s office. Mr Patel looked up from The Shipping News and beamed. ‘Ah Mrs Patterson, so nice to see you.’ He rose from his chair and waltzed to the counter.
‘If you would please sign here,’ he said, passing her a ledger and pen. ‘And here, and here.’ He inserted a carbon sheet. ‘And just once more here. That’s dandy, thank you.’ He tore four copies and handed one to her with a flourish.
‘Now, if you would please follow me.’ He held open the door and led her along the dock where vessels of all size and description were being loaded or unloaded by muscled men in greasy overalls. They halted beside a large freighter curiously named the Titan Uranus, whereupon Mr Patel put two slim fingers in his mouth and gave the loudest wolf whistle Mrs Patterson had ever heard. Several heads appeared above the gunnels and after a brief exchange of words, a deck crane engine coughed and began to grind.
A rope net containing a very large, formless object rose slowly from the hold. It was hard to make out at first and she had to shield her eyes from the sun, but as the crane lowered it into the waiting hands of the stevedores and the net fell away, her heart sank. In all its polished glory stood a pink baby-grand piano.
‘How do you intend to carry this home?’ enquired Mr Patel.
‘Carry home?’ She snapped from her daze. ‘Well, I thought I might be able to keep it in storage for the time being. You know, until I can decide what to do with it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, laughing haughtily, ‘our warehouses are at capacity with the season’s copra harvest awaiting shipment.’
‘Oh dear,’ she said, and the shrill wail of the local fish cannery siren seemed to voice her sentiment. There came a shout from the office and Mr Patel excused himself, promising to return shortly.
The afternoon sun beat down and not even the parasol could stop her from perspiring terribly. She looked at the piano once more and felt the weight of a very big problem on her shoulders. Presently, the day shift cannery workers passed by the gates on their way home. They were tall, burly men in rugby jerseys with torn-off sleeves that exposed gleaming muscles and they had almost passed when one of them turned. He must have said something because the entire group halted and looked.
A brainwave forced a cry from Mrs Paterson’s lips. She scurried towards them. ‘Excuse me, hello, excuse me!’
The men gathered about, reeking of sweat and skipjack tuna fish.
‘I was wondering if you would all be so kind as to help me out. You see, I’ve bitten off rather more than I can chew. I must move that…’ Their gaze followed her small pale hand to the piano sitting on the dock. ‘…Up there.’ Their heads followed her finger back to the large weatherboard house high on the hillside.
Malakai Saulo, the smallest man in the group, stepped forward.
‘We’re on our way home, Mrs—’
‘Yes, we know who you are. We have lived here our whole lives.’
‘Yes, of course you have…’ she said. There was now a hint of pleading in her tone. ‘I was just wondering if you good men would help me.’
They looked at one another. Someone cracked his knuckles.
‘Listen Mrs Patterson,’ said Malakai, ‘we wake up at five a.m. Monday to Friday. We start work at six a.m. and we work hard all day gutting, slicing, canning fish. Today we did over twelve hundred tuna and we are paid only enough money to feed our families and send our children to school. All we want to do now is go home and drink a cold beer and go swimming with our kids.’
The men grunted in approval at Malakai’s speech.
‘Alright, how much then?’ said Mrs Patterson.
‘How much for what?’ said Malakai.
‘How much money will it take for you to move that piano?’
‘This isn’t about money Mrs Patterson. It’s about tired men who have done an honest day’s work and want to go home to their families.’
‘Alright, ten dollars,’ she said.
‘Ten dollars each?’
‘Ten dollars total.’
‘We’ll do it for fifteen.’
‘That’s outrageous!’ said Mrs Patterson.
‘No, Mrs Patterson, that’s capitalism.’
Mrs Patterson’s chest swelled, ‘Now, you look here…’
Malakai shrugged and turned to leave. Mrs Patterson’s cheeks quivered, her eyebrows knitted and a sound grew in her chest. It worked its way to her throat and leapt from her lips, a sound more shrill than the cannery siren.‘NOOOO!’ She felt faint. It was the heat, the smell of the docks, the canniness of the cannery men. And that damn piano! That damn pink piano sitting there on the dock like a big helpless baby.
‘Alright!’ she cried.
The men halted. They turned around, teeth flashing, and swept past her onto the dock where they assembled about the piano; ten big muscled men with size forty-six shoes and legs as knotted as tree roots. Malakai counted and on ‘three’ the piano rose into the sky in one momentous action.
Like a giant spider crab, the entire crew shuffled along the dock, past a grinning Mr Patel with the carbon-copybook in his hand, out through the port gates and into Beach Street. Mrs Patterson ignored all onlookers, marching ahead with stoic resolve, purse and parasol in hand, coaxing and directing the grunting, sweating men up Beach Street like a marching band leader.
Once past the shops, the gradient began to rise and the piano slowed to a crawl. The men began to sweat more profusely. They began to sing. It was a deep and melodious chant which Mrs Patterson had heard before on occasions, drifting up the hillside from the Ovalau Rugby Union Club grounds. Was it the club’s anthem? They had beaten Suva the week before, she recalled.
As the song’s tempo quickened she struggled to stay ahead of the piano, furling her parasol and beating back branches of hibiscus which obstructed their route. But in the end, it was no use; the singing waned and Mrs Patterson and the men grew tired.
Halfway up the hillside they eased the piano to the ground, secured its wheel brakes and collapsed into the shade of bamboo glade. A murmured conference ensued, Malakai at its centre. He got to his feet and approached Mrs Patterson.
‘We’re almost there.’ She smiled encouragingly. ‘You’ve a done a splendid job thus far.’
‘The men have a small request,’ he said.
‘Oh?’ Her smiled faded. ‘What is it?’
‘The men would like two cold beers apiece.’
‘They feel they’ve already earned the first one, and the second one will help get them to the top.’
‘Oh, for goodness sake, we’re almost there. It’s just a little further!’
But it was pointless; the men sprawled beneath the shade of the bamboo, smug in the knowledge that there was nothing Mrs Patterson could do except to comply with their demand.
‘Well, where am I? How am I? Who am I going to get beer from?’ she said.
Malakai turned his head in the direction of the Ovalau Club. Beneath its cooling ceiling fan sat Mr Sahai watching them. He waved enthusiastically. Mrs Patterson groaned. Her gaze returned to Malakai, searching for signs of a Cheshire cat grin, but found none. She growled, thrust out her parasol for him to hold while she unzipped her handbag and fished out her purse. She handed over a small pile of Fijian dollars and said, ‘Enough?’
Malakai turned and wolf whistled down the hill, causing Mrs Patterson to flinch for the second time that day. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted something in Fijian-pijin. Mr Sahai waved in acknowledgement. Within minutes he and another man, the bartender perhaps, departed the building with string bags filled with bottles of cold Fiji Bitter.
Mrs Patterson shifted uneasily. Mr Sahai was a nice man; sartorial and chivalrous, but just a tad persistent. Yes, that was it, persistent. She could never tell exactly what he was thinking when he stopped to greet her on her rare shopping runs to Beach Street
‘Hello again, Mrs Patterson,’ he said, wiping the sweat from his brow when he reached them. After the bottles were distributed and the barman had collected the money, three bottles remained. ‘I imagine you also to be in need of refreshment, Mrs Patterson,’ said Mr Sahai, lopping off the cap of a frosted Fiji Bitter. He offered it to her.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…’ she began.
‘To your mission improbable.’ Mr Sahai smiled.
She glanced about at the men lounging like millionaires beneath the bamboo, sipping their beer, enjoying the magnificent view of the bay. The bartender had joined them.
‘Alright, just a little then, thank you,’ she said, accepting the bottle. She took a sip, and then another. The beer refreshed her.
‘Would you mind if I accompanied you to the top?’ he asked. The beer, the heat and the exhausting climb caused her head to wobble. Mr Sahai took this to mean ‘yes’.
Revived, the men hoisted their burden and once again set off. The breeze strengthened and the air grew cooler as they climbed. No one seemed to notice the thunderheads massing out to sea.
Within minutes they had reached the homestead and under the managing direction of Mr Sahai edged the piano through the rose garden to the lawn in front of the terrace. Then, after mopping their heads with their shirts, the men set off back down the path.
‘Wait!’ cried Mrs Patterson. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Home,’ said Malakai.
‘But how on earth am I going to get this into the house?’
The men stared and for a moment no reply was forthcoming. It was Mr Sahai who spoke up. ‘I think you have a problem here, Mrs Patterson.’ He was standing on her terrace with his arms outstretched between the doors and the problem was plainly obvious.
A thunder clap rolled about the high peaks like a giant clearing his throat and it made them all turn back to the sea. No longer azure, that vast plane had turned the colour of brushed metal and a veil of rain now swept across it towards them.
‘Well, what do you propose?’ asked Mrs Patterson quickly.
‘We’ll have to remove the doors. Where’s your toolbox?’ said Mr Sahai.
‘I don’t have one. Mr Matasarasara, from the hardware store, takes care of my maintenance.’
‘Well, Mr Matasarasara doesn’t take care of his bar bill. He hasn’t paid me in two months and—’
Malakai stepped forward. He lifted a silver chain from his neck. ‘I’ll use this.’ Dangling from it was a King George Fijian florin, 1934. A hole had been drilled in it and a chain passed through—like a lucky charm of sorts. He now set to work using it to unscrew the brackets which held the doors in place.
‘Hurry, hurry!’ said Mrs Patterson.
A thunderbolt struck the outer reef as the pink piano rose into the purple sky and the first drops of rain careened down, splattering on their heads. The last bracket fell into Malakai’s hand and Mr
Sahai removed the doors allowing the piano to pass through with a half inch to spare.
The sun lounge was now considerably smaller than Mrs Patterson remembered it. Eleven men, counting Mr Sahai, and a baby-grand piano didn’t leave much space for a tea trolley. Meanwhile, the full fury of the squall struck, blasting leaves and flowers and all manner of tropical detritus against the windows. The men stood about, neither wanting to be there in that small room, nor wanting to venture home in the squall.
They turned to find Mrs Patterson pushing a trolley filled with bottles of Pimms, Campari, dry sherry and an ice tub of cold Fiji Bitter. Malakai crowed, Mr Sahai beamed, and the men from the fish cannery soon formed a scrum around the refreshments, minding their manners but all eager to drink their fill.
‘Why don’t you play us a tune, Mrs Patterson,’ one of them said, sipping at a beer tumbler filled with dry sherry.
‘A tune, a song, something on your new piano.’
She looked suddenly embarrassed, defeated even. ‘I’m sorry but, you see, I can’t…’
‘That’s alright, Mrs Patterson,’ said Mr Sahai, stepping up and putting down his glass of Pimms and soda. He lifted a chair from her writing bureau. ‘Would you permit me to do the honours?’
‘Well I’ve been known to tickle the ivories from time to time.’
‘Oh, that would be wonderful!’
Mr Sahai sat down in front of the piano, lifted back the cover and inspected the keys. His right foot hovered over the brass pedal, while he straightened his back, cracked his fingers and began to play.
The sound, at first, was not what Mrs Patterson had expected. She had been thinking more along the lines of Mozart or Wagner, or something from a Broadway musical like The Pirates of Penzance. But what filled the room took even the cannery men by surprise. Their faces broke into wide grins. They put down their drinks and began to clap in rhythm, swaying, gripping each other’s shoulders and dancing. Then they broke into song and Mr Sahai struggled to keep up.
It was the same song that, on warm evenings when a breeze was blowing, carried up the hillside from the Ovalau Rugby Union Club. It was the sound of the South Seas, uplifting, melodic, masculine, feminine, carefree and heart-filled, and it produced a sudden strange and unfamiliar feeling inside her. She felt a large hand on her shoulder and it drew her gently into the semicircle that had formed about Mr Sahai and the pink baby-grand piano. This piano which had come by ship across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to this lounge room which overlooked this beautiful township on this magnificent island.
For the first time in a long time, she felt she belonged.
Simon Rowe teaches writing to English language learners at Himeji Dokkyo University in western Japan. His stories have appeared in TIME Asia, the New York Times, the Weekend Australian and the Paris Review. His blog, Seaweed Salad Days (www.mightytales.net), is a commentary on life in a disappearing Japanese neighborhood.