"According to whom?" Numwaya Nathalie looked puzzled.
"And just who are her associates?" said the numwaya, pacing restlessly in the deputy governor's office.
She did not walk all the way from the Numwaya Lodge just to hear the politician's views on Lady Gaesasara. Her girls and her guests went missing more than eight hours ago and she was getting extremely worried.
The deputy governor eyed her head to toe and then shrugged. Women were increasingly becoming pests in the consciousness of dutiful politicians like himself was the thought that ran through his mind. He nevertheless gestured towards the secretary to make a cup of tea for the numwaya.
"Black or white, my numwaya?" said the secretary, rising from her desk.
"Oh, none for me, thanks, Rita," said the numwaya. "Make just yours and the deputy governor's. I've just had a cup before strolling over." She pulled up a chair and sat directly in front of the deputy governor. "Who are her associates? And why are you so concerned about her unfortunate partners instead of me and my pressing demands? You forget I voted for you, Ronald. And so did my husband."
"Ha!" laughed the deputy governor, and it was an explosive kind of laughter. "Flatter me as much as you want, my good numwaya, but I do my job regardless. And bye the bye, our natural disaster and risk management unit has been alerted five hours ago, the patrol is out, your girls and guests should be found by now. Besides, porimana isn't as bad as it was a few days ago. Dinghies are safely coming into town in numbers from our part of the province." He paused, pointed to the TV grumbling away along the ledges of the office. "We should rather be worried about her breaking away from her associates."
The TV screen showed Lady Gaesasara stressing the point that the border issue was the problem of the government. The Prime Minister should visit the Oro and Milne Bay province borders as soon as possible before all else escalated into another Bougainville crisis.
"I did vote for you," chuckled the numwaya, then added somewhat mournfully, "she isn't a politician like you, Ronald. She's a lawyer."
"Lawyers or whatever not," smiled the deputy governor, running a finger over a freshly shaven chin, "we all end up in parliament eventually. Which is why I am saying she's making a grave error more than already isolating herself from her associates like that."
"She made the right decision sacking that company," said the numwaya looking somewhat annoyed. "It's the government not keeping its end of the bargain. What's wrong with you fat politicians nowadays?"
"Oh, I'm not fat," said Roland, taking his cup of tea from Rita. "I think the government made the right move last few days. That company is overall important. I'm sure it was all short-sightedness on the part of Lady Gaesasara."
"Short-sightedness," snorted the numwaya. "Good thing she went ahead and sacked that monster company without the advice of her associates - if it is the Nokondi you're referring to. Look what they did to Brazil. Or to Indonesia. What good would the company do to Nokondi - or the Highlands bloc or the rest of Papua New Guinea, for that matter?"
"I still envisage she made the gravest of errors. We underestimate the Highlanders but they still enable us all to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
"Over-dependence is what you all envisage at the end of the tunnel," said the numwaya with a short laugh. "Sack your employer and you're unemployed. An argument most men would like to take on."
Rita suppressed an unwanted laugh by quickly getting herself busy with the files on her desk. Ronald pretended he did not hear. He looked at Rita but changed his mind about what he wanted the secretary to do in the next few minutes. The tea tasted good. As usual Rita put honey in the tea. The pleasantries of distraction from Samalae women, he thought with annoyance. He was thinking of getting rid of Numawaya Nathalie sooner from his office.
"The girls will be all right, Nathalie," he now spoke cheerfully. "How many did you say were on that dinghy?"
"Well, there are the girls, Foroga and Mimi, Mr and Mrs Goldberg or Dan and Amie, Doboro Fjord and the boy Diko."
"They should be all right," said Ronald. "That Foroga, she does wonders when it comes to rough weather."
"I am hoping she does, Ronald. I am so hoping she does."
"Oh, I never doubt Foroga, my good numwaya. Rita, you've been up north coast way on a couple of trips with Foroga... you'd know..."
"Yes, sir," said Rita, her eyes dropping to the floor. "One time we ran into a storm. It was night, pitch dark. We couldn't see nothing all around us. It was total blank like. I was scared. Sitting there, clutching on whatever I could hold onto, I cried for my parents, I cried for dear life. I prayed and I prayed. But Foroga, she just told us not to fear. She told us she could feel the current and tide beneath us. They were friendly, she said, even though the waves got rougher and angrier, and even at night we could see them mounting high and big like this building we sitting in..."
Rita's voice faded suddenly. The deputy governor was looking out at the quiet of the bay. It rained a bit overnight so the bay look greyish blue all over with its line of mountains opposite the town. The sea was calm; and still, like ash spread over its surface. The mountains were slightly covered by mist but he could make out some of the famous landmarks he was familiar with, a jut of a peak under which Charles Abel once set up a gold mine, or scant linings and dots of brief kunai grassland. A dinghy streaked past leaving a thin trace of white over blue grey. Rita stared at the floor. The thought of almost drowning in deep blue ocean was too much for her to recount. The numwaya rose from her chair, ambled a bit and made as if to leave, as if she was done with the visit to the deputy governor's office but like Rita she too had her eyes fixed on the floor. She was brooding. She was worried about her girls and her guests. But for some reason the room, the whole office enclosure, made her feel at ease. She looked at the flooring closely, at the familiar diamond shaped handiwork that she knew was enough for her not to feel so downhearted or fear the worst for all those in her dinghy. She could feel the firmness of the timber flooring beneath her as she ambled about. She knew she was in a building carefully crafted by her people, the Anuki people. Great builders they were, using the tough boda mangrove wood and the toya of the famous yabarawa tree that came from her part of the world. Every building interior she noticed in Alotau town had these wood blocks about them, so solid looking and enduring she felt she was at home, she need not fret.
The phone rang and they all startled themselves into confused laughter. Rita reached for the receiver.
"Deputy Governor's office, good morning..."
Rita was suddenly smiling when she looked up at the deputy governor.
"Cocoa Pods!" she said excitedly into the receiver. "What have you seen? What have you found? Talk to us! The Deputy Governor is here..."
She pressed a button, replaced the receiver gently and the voice of the caller became audible through the loud speaker.
"Hello, Copeland," said Ronald. "Do you have news for us?"
"Yes, sir," came the voice of Copeland. "Mr Deputy Governor, sir, I am pleased to report that the small vessel reported missing last night has been located..."
"You mean the dinghy?" Ronald and the numwaya asked simultaneously.
"Yes, sir, Mr Deputy Governor. I wish also to report that all passengers aboard..."
"Yes, sir, Mr Deputy Governor?"
"Cut out the formal bull crap and tell us if everyone's safe. The numwaya's here and she's anxious to know."
"Yes, sir," came Copeland's voice, sounding a little relaxed. "I was trying to relate that message, sir. Er..the numwaya need not worry. Her people are safe and sound... including her dinghy..."
"What happened exactly, Copeland?" put in the numwaya. "They were supposed to be back before three o'clock yesterday afternoon."
"I was told they ran out of zoom, good numwaya..."
"Ran out of zoom!" the numwaya was furious. "I made sure they were sufficiently equiped to take that trip to Samarai. Whatever on earth happened?"
"That part I shall tell you in due course, my good numwaya," came Copeland's voice, almost sounding cheerful. "But the good thing is they are all safe and sound. None of them looked troubled when we spotted them off Girumia Point. We as a rescue party felt like we were interrupting them in some kind of adventure or something..."
"What - despite the fact that we grew so worried we had to report them missing yesterday evening?" said the numwaya. "And you spotted them off Girumia Point? How did they get up there if they ran out of zoom? And they were having an adventure up that way? Right next door to the trouble spots of Dogura? What with all this weather now? Considering we are in the middle of porimana's worst in the Milne Bay waters? And - and with all the trouble we - I had to go through worrying about my girls and my guests? Is this a joke you are telling me, Copeland? Those guests are my responsibility. I need to know if they are all right."
"They are, my good numwaya. They all are. Please, hold on to your horses and let me explain this as best I can..." came the voice of Copeland.
Rita looked up from her desk wondering how the numwaya would take that remark. The numwaya came away from the receiver and was now pacing restless circles around the deputy governor's well polished floor.
"That sounds like Foroga's usual picnic trips to the islands," said the deputy governor, beaming over Rita's phone and looking more relaxed than the two women. "All right, Copeland, just tell us what happened."
"Apparently, as I said earlier, Mr Deputy Governor," came Copeland's voice again, "they ran out of zoom. This happened around 3 pm-ish yesterday afternoon. So they floated about in mid ocean. No help came for them, the poor souls. But you know how Foroga is in situations like this, Mr Deputy Governor and my good numwaya..."
"Yes, we know that, Copeland," said the deputy governor. "Go on..."
"So they floated about," continued the voice of Copeland. "Right out at the Solomon Sea. Er, virtually speaking, that is..."
At this the numwaya froze. She stopped pacing. But she changed her mind about screaming into Rita's phone. She rather resolved on seeing Copeland in town again, face to face.
"I mean, they said they were really out in the Pacific Ocean," Copeland's voice continued with a short laugh. "And would you imagine... they said old Labiadogha was responsible for their misfortune..."
"Now what has Labiadogha got to do with all this?" the numwaya put in suddenly.
She looked more than agitated. Rita suppressed another unwanted laugh by looking out of the window.
"That's what they told me, good numwaya," continued Copeland's voice, unaware of what the numwaya thought of him as a messenger in emergency situations. "They said he swapped a 30 litre plastic container of zoom with one of salt water."
That old, demented Labiadogha, Rita wanted to say but kept her mouth shut. The deputy governor said nothing as Copeland's voice carried on.
"By the time they realized they were duped with that plastic container of zoom it was too late. It was bye-bye Alotau town and hello Solomon Sea. They floated about. And even without zoom, even without a 40 horse power engine for a dinghy the size of your's, good numwaya, Foroga managed to keep her passengers safe. They floated about until nightfall. And then the storms came. You guessed it. The snorting, huffing porimana. But Foroga kept the porimana at bay, for the safety of her passengers. Using only a bamboo steering pole and a couple of paddles Foroga and her little crew kept the vessel afloat. All her passengers were in good health when we caught up with them earlier this morning. Er, at precisely 6.53am... er, Eastern Standard Time. This kid's a hero, my good numwaya."
"The snorting, huffing porimana," said the numwaya, looking a little relaxed and up from Rita's phone at the deputy governor. "Hmmm. One moment she's in deep slumber, as peaceful and noiseless as a baby whale in dreamland; the next, she's a snorting, huffing porimana. You don't look for words, eh, Copeland? That will do. Now, is Foroga there? I'd like a word with her."
"Unfortunately you cannot, good numwaya."
"We're already airborne," came Copeland's voice. "We're coming in to town now."
"You mean Foroga and the passengers are not with you, Copeland?" asked the deputy governor.
"No, sir, Mr Deputy Governor."
"Where are they, Cocoa Pods?" put in Rita suddenly.
Ronald and the numwaya exchanged glances. At the background they could hear the drone and rap of the rescue helicopter, coupled with sounds of someone groaning and whimpering and the captain observing the take-off location.
"Foroga should be turning off East Cape Point by now, Alotau bound, er, with fifteen passengers..." came Copeland's voice.
"Fifteen passengers?" said the numwaya. "Are my guests with her?"
"Fifteen passengers, yes. All of them students fleeing the trouble spots of Dogura. A few scratches here and there after scrambling to safety through rocky mountains and gulleys and valleys and what nots but they look all right. Foroga's bringing them to town and, er, your guests are not with her..."
"Are they with you, rather?"
"No, my good numwaya."
"Then where are they, Copeland, for God's sake? Remember, they are my responsibility."
"What happened exactly is that our rescue crew got to them three hours late this morning. Someone else was there before us..."
"Who was there before you, Copeland?" said the deputy governor. "Why didn't you tell us this before? This sounds serious."
"You told me to cut out the formal bull crap and come straight to the point, Mr Deputy Governor, sir."
"And so I did, Copeland. Dear oh dear..."
"Yes, sir. What happened was like we just flew in to a Spanish Armada or something. There were canoes everywhere surrounding the numwaya's dinghy. And there was this huge schooner, well, something like a schooner, you know, the ones that look like the kula trading canoe or the hiri ones... but this one was big... it kind of, well, reminded me of those fashionable pirate canoes that you see in Johnny Depp's Caribbean movies, and that kind of stuff... but this one was just one big mama canoe all right, I tell you... and that's why like I said earlier, we ran into some kind of adventure that Foroga's party was involved in... and, and we had to make some head and tail out of all this... and there was Foroga and party laughing and carrying on amid all these little canoes and the big schooner..."
"Goodness me," exclaimed the numwaya, sinking into the chair she claimed earlier. "Now why in the world did I not think about this yesterday? I should have known, I should have known."
"Go on, then, Copeland," said the deputy governor into the phone. "Is everyone absolutely safe and sound?"
"Yes, sir, Mr Deputy Governor. Everyone. We had a bit of disagreement with the numwaya's guests, though. But..."
"But what happened, Ronald?" said the numwaya, sitting up in her chair.
"We just had to let them go..."
"Let them go? What do you mean?"
"Let them go with the owner of the schooner..."
"Whose idea was this?"
"The tall one... I mean, all of them... despite our concerns on medical grounds they all insisted on going... the old ones, the old couple, reminded us politely about their rights as American citizens if we insisted they come with us... but we were only worried about their health and safety, that's all... the tall one..."
"Doboro Fjords," said the numwaya.
"Yes, that's the one - that's what Foroga called him... he was particularly vocal about being left alone. He said he knew the owner of the schooner very well. Everything would be all right. So we let them go. I think Foroga's bringing a note from them, my good numwaya."
"I see," said the numwaya, not at all looking pleased. "The Norwegian must be mad. He got the others swayed over by the sound of things. And I suppose they are all bla bla-ing their way to Tufi at this very moment."
"It appears so. Right now we have an emergency situation if you will excuse us, my good numwaya and Mr Deputy Governor. We have a student here in urgent need of medical attention. Some severely infected bruises around the ankles and our medic suspects a broken bone or two at the ribs."
"A student from Dogura?" asked Ronald.
"Yes, sir. She goes by the name of Elkie or Elka Schindler or some German name like that..."
"Name sounds familiar," said the numwaya, sinking further back into her chair.
"The student says she comes from further up north. You would know. The others are all right. The owner of the schooner gave Foroga fourty litres of zoom and said that would be enough for her to take them to town."
"What about Mimi and Diko?" asked the numwaya.
"The crew working with Foroga? Mimi and Diko? Oh, you won't like to hear this, my good numwaya..."
"What happened with the two of them?"
"They, too, jumped on the schooner."
"I'm sorry, good numwaya. My team and I tried..."
"Never mind. Just wait till I lay my hands on them."
"They will be back in town soon enough. Aside from that, I must say that we encountered no trouble at all this morning. Everything is in order. The security at Awaiama looks thoroughly intact. I'm glad we caught up with Foroga further away from Dogura, though. And now, are you happy with the info so far? My good numwaya? And sir? I'm fixing to sign off."
The numwaya and Rita looked at Ronald.
"All right, Copeland," said the deputy governor. "Thank you for your time. The Governor, as you know, might want a little of your acquisition on this."
"Acknowledged, sir. I shall have the report done for you and the Governor before COB this afternoon."
"Good, we'll see you when you get into town."
"Cocoa Pods," he said. "Quite a name for a close associate, eh?"
Rita turned red around the cheeks. She quickly picked up the deputy governor's tea cup and walked over to the kitchen sink at the back of the office.
"You shouldn't tease the young girl that way, Ronald," said Numwaya Nathalie, rising from her chair. "You embarrassed her."
"Oh, Rita doesn't mind," said Ronald defensively. "It's their jargon, the young ones of today. Isn't that so, sweet heart?"
"I wasn't embarrassed, sir," called back Rita from the kitchen sink. "I was thinking of my bubu mummy and bubu daddy."
"See what I mean," said Ronald, now rising from his chair and coming around his work table to walk the numwaya to the door.
Rita walked out from the back to join them.
"My good numwaya?" she now asked.
"Who was that guy that Cocoa - that - that Copeland was talking about? You know, the owner of the big canoe or schooner something..."
"Oh, him," laughed the numwaya. "That was John Airara. A grand old man that one. Quite a legend in seafaring at the border areas of the Milne Bay and Oro provinces. Pity he doesn't participate in our canoe festivals because he has this unorthodox way of building sea vessels. Seems quite popular up that way."
"And quite successful as a business man, I heard," added the deputy governor.
"Oh, yeah," said Rita. "I think I heard a bit about him from Foroga when we were up there last time."
"He's quite good, old John. As a matter of fact he has been Foroga's mentor since she was six or seven years old. He still is."
"Wow," said Rita, bidding the numwaya a fine morning, walking back to her work station. "I must ask Cocoa Pods to tell me more."
"Cocoa Pods?" echoed both the numwaya and the deputy governor, oddly looking cheerful at their age.
"I say," said Ronald, flicking a finger and turning to the numwaya, "was it old John I saw in town the other day?"
"You must have. Now that I recall."
"Yes, really. He was with us at the lodge. To get provisions and go back to Maisin. And... oh dear, oh dear..."
Numwaya Nathalie stopped walking suddenly and looked deeply distressed.
"What is it?"
Ronald sensed something had gone amiss somehow, something was left out of their meeting all that morning. The numwaya stood still for a good minute, not a word coming out of her mouth. But she walked on, as if anxious to flee the deputy governor's office that very instant. Whatever it was that was in her mind made only the deputy governor wish she'd leave. Just leave. No more problems, please. His feeling of annoyance for bothersome Milne Bay women began to gnaw at his senses. He simply didn't want to hear another word from the numwaya. At the door the numwaya turned, deep in thought, with a finger of authority raised before her, for Ronald to see no doubt.
"You know, Ronald," she then said, slowly, "I should have asked Copeland if his party saw my husband around that area."
"What?" returned the other, visibly concerned. "Tomwaya's up that way as well?"
"Yes. He drove out of town hours before I sent Foroga and the guests to Samarai Island. In fact, they all left town on that very same day - my husband with his passenger, Foroga with the guests, and old John with his provisions. Oh, God."
"Dear oh dear. And Tomwaya's not back? He hasn't overnighted at relatives by any chance?"
"He doesn't do that, Ronald. Night or rain he always drives back to town."
"Then we are in deep trouble, cousin. Think of what your in-laws will take us as. We sent him to the front lines and that sort of thing."
Ronald was searching for words: and he wasn't pretending to, either. The numwaya was waiting, half-hoping the politician would suggest something hopeful, at least. She feared for her husband's life. The phone rang. Rita answered it.
"It's Radio Milne Bay, sir," she called from her desk, covering the mouthpiece. "They want to know if there's any information from the search party."
"Tell them to call the natural disaster unit, for goodness sake."
"I did that, sir. But they are saying it's your office that authorizes outgoing information from the province."
"Then for God's sake, Rita, tell them to go to the social media."
Rita slammed the phone immediately. She always thought of Ronald as an icon of some sort. She never forgot how many times he had saved her out of many embarrassing moments in her career as a secretary and if there was anyone who caused her so much discomfort it would be some media entity like Radio Milne Bay over her telephone manners, not excluding her flare for fashionable clothing when in the company of politicians and dignitaries. Ronald told her not to mind what the media said about her or any member of his staff as that merely served as publicity for the Deputy Governor's office. The job she was doing was important, he told her, so look up, sweet heart, hold your head high and smile with the sun. She watched her boss with gratitude, engaged in some deep conversation with the numwaya, from her end of the office. The two were silhouetted slightly by the half-light of a cloudy mid-morning that came in from the vast transparent shade that served as a roof and window above the front door of the office. The double door of hard toya wood was now thrown wide open for more light to seep in as clerks from the offices downstairs came up to lodge files on the deputy governor's table. Rita directed each one to place the files in the appropriate trays as they milled about, in and out of the office. A few stood and stared at the TV screen along the ledges, watched footages of the Alotau canoe festival a bit and then strolled out, bidding their deputy governor and the numwaya a good morning as the did so. Ronald and the numwaya stood near the doorway, each looking somewhat troubled, Rita could well see. She noticed, too, that whatever it was they were discussing could be part of the demands of the office she grew accustomed to. Some tea would help, she thought, rising, to walk over to her boss and the numwaya when, presently, they walked back so that settling down at length the three of them looked as if they never left their chairs.
"I don't get it, Nathalie," said the deputy governor, sitting down now, continuing what Rita took to be their conversation from a few moments ago. "You say old John did over five thousand kina worth of shopping that day? Provisions and stuff? Tents, blankets, mosquito nets, medical supplies, food, clothing, tools, cooking utensils, zoom and a variety of fuel? Then it is no coincidence that the mysterious old man would appear at the lodge that same day..."
"Yesterday, Ronald," said the numwaya. "All this happened yesterday."
"Yesterday. Quite. And I'm saying all this was planned. A kind of conspiracy no doubt. Tomwaya must have been trapped long before we have been given the chance to wake up. That's my argument. We don't even know who the old man was, where he is right now with Tomwaya. Now, that, my good numwaya - and my theories are one hundred percent sure, always on target, always correct - is worthy enough evidence that your good husband is safe and sound somewhere - even if, assuming, he is taken as a hostage. So rest assured, he is quite safe - wherever that mysterious old man might be."
"I am not good at transcribing theories," said the numwaya, "but yours sounds encouraging enough."
"Better believe that for the moment before we jeopardize our chances by sending out another search party. That would be a shot in the dark. Tomwaya's safe. I am positively sure of this."
"What happened to uncle Tomwaya, sir?" asked Rita. "Was he also with Foroga and them?"
The deputy governor and the numwaya turned and looked at the secretary. Rita waited and then sensed that she should not have been part of that conversation.
"I'll go make tea," she said hurriedly and shot up to her feet.
"Make mine white with no sugar, love," said the numwaya, waving her off.
"Yes, my good numwaya," said Rita and escaped to her usual shelter at the back of the office.
"All right, all right," the numwaya now turned to the deputy governor, "you've done so much for me this morning. Please accept my appreciation for that. But I cannot sit back and worry about my husband like this, Ronald. I'd sooner get up there myself."
"Don't even think about that, Nathalie," said the deputy governor, flipping through the folders in his tray, throwing those that did not need immediate attention back on Rita's desk, and looking a little exhausted by now, "we'll do something about Tomwaya presently. I'm just worried that the movement of these people - the mysterious old man, old John himself and your guests - were not properly monitored once coming into town."
"Who'd suspected anything about them?" said the numwaya. "They all looked like normal travelers, the usual tourists, that come and go."
"Including old John?" asked the deputy governor with a short laugh. "We still have to know if the old Maisin seafarer has some - some - political or whatever affiliations here and there. Don't forget he stood for and lost a couple of seats back in Oro. And there's that doboro fjord guy, the Norwegian or Swedish or whatever you said he was. They must have some connections we don't know about. And who knows, old John must be taking them right now to the old man with whom we have every logical reasoning in place to assume that Tomwaya is safe. You get my point?"
"I wish I could believe that, Ronald," said the numwaya, suddenly looking thoughtful, perturbed.
"Oh, don't you fret, don't you fret, dear cousin. Like I always say, all my theories are a hundred percent secure, logical. Sure as ever, always on target. I'm even famous for that, you know. Besides," he added with a laugh and picking up the telephone receiver to start dialing a number, "I didn't win this seat by chance, did I?"
This lightened up the numwaya a bit. She looked at her cousin with amusement. The deputy governor always had this air of certainty, this glare, this spark of thus-spake-the-people about his own ego and status as a politician that made not only the numwaya but those closest to him wonder if he would make a serious leader of his people. Not many of his own people voted for him in the last elections. No one asked and no one cared if even the numwaya and her husband did scribble the X against his name in the ballot boxes. His victory as the member of the north coast constituency came as a surprise for people around that area. Most voted for the candidates much more familiar, much more prominent and affluent, than he, and from the other parts of the Milne Bay Province. But the urge for his very own people, his relatives in particular, to seek him out for assistance in times of need was quite often necessary. It was necessary, his people said; absolutely necessary. That part alone the numwaya found amusing. As all funny things turn out to be sure-footed and serious in the end, so it was that the numwaya found her cousin not only good-humored and comical but also saddening to look at, and recognize, as someone more than willing to do his duty in serving others. I am amazed, was the thought that often ran through the numwaya's mind, I am amazed that although I and my husband did not vote for you, dear cousin, still you rise and rise. She sat still, without a word, trying not to hear what the deputy governor was saying into the phone or know whom he was talking to.
Rita brought out the tea tray and placed it on her work desk. Just as she was about to pour the tea the numwaya reached out and touched her wrist.
"Sit down, love," she told Rita, "I'll serve the tea for us. And look, dear, we need another cup. You, too, must have tea. We can't just work away all morning without having something in our stomachs, can we now?"
"Sure thing, my good numwaya," said Rita. "I'll get a cup. We have some biscuits and tapioca cake slices here as well if anyone's interested."
"Bring them out, I'm starving already," said the deputy governor, placing the receiver. "I was just talking to the Governor. He's calling a meeting."
"Then I must take my leave now," said the numwaya.
"No, no, no - pour the tea. There's no rush, really."
"How do you take your tea, then?"
"Just the tea with one teaspoon of honey, thanks."
"White, one sugar. I'm bringing out some of the tapioka cake. It has those wild tomato berry topping, all melted down nicely. You'll love it, my good numwaya."
"I love tapioka cakes. Who made it?"
"Bless her heart."
Ronald settled for the dry biscuits while the two women lavishly took in the tapioka slices with their tea. He could hear the crackling noises of the crust as they munched away. The numwaya was visibly enjoying the delicacy and Rita promised herself to relay that as a compliment to her mother later in the day. Outside, they heard the drone and rapping flutter of the helicopter returning from its rescue mission along the north coast. Foroga would be arriving shortly at Sanderson Bay according to Nathalie's calculation. As for her husband she resolved to leave the matter to the care of the deputy governor's office; for the time being, she told herself. Fortunately for her she had finished her cake and cup of tea before the thought of her guests jumping onto old John's schooner flashed across her mind. She felt utterly disappointed. She feared making a loss in business that week. It has indeed been a bad week for her. Then she thought of those fifteen students from Dogura that Foroga was bringing in to town. She hoped all or some of them would have relatives in Alotau to take them in. But if they were from other provinces who would shelter them, she wondered. Not I, not I, she told herself, since mine is a small business enterprise trying to make do with whatever little there is that comes from occasional local and overseas visits. Surely, I could not turn my humble little lodge into a Red Cross clinic? At which point the numwaya realized she was thinking aloud. The deputy governor heard her because he was already up on his feet looking out at the vast stretch of the bay.
"You need not worry about the students, good numwaya," he was now saying. "We'll put them up at the Transit Lodge. There should be some rooms available at this time of the year."
Despite his dislike for his cousin sometimes, Ronald often regarded Numwaya Nathalie with a certain degree of respect. Such women were the backbone of the nation's economy in one way or another, he told himself, what with their appearance first and foremost as forerunners of the government's programs in the establishment of small scale to large businesses of which the numwaya was a part. It was often women like the numwaya who took up challenges like that, Ronald reminded himself, to ensure that the plans of each government of the day were actually in place and were working. The numwaya herself went out of her way most times to ensure such policies worked especially at her little Numwaya Lodge. She catered for important summit dinner meetings of each cabinet of the day, each political caucus meeting that happened to take place in the town; each political faction with its alliances set to govern the country immediately after the elections. Here, at her very lodge, where it was that all strategy pertaining to how to run a new government within the course of the next four years or so took place. The new policies that cropped up, how to change the mode of thinking for the entire country - all that, took place here, in this town, at her lodge. There were also times she gave away certain evenings at her lodge to provincial drama performances in which high schools in the entire Milne Bay Province were invited to participate. Numerous prizes were given out, in cash and kind, to all these schools that came in to give the best of their talents, some of which prizes would range from mosquito nets for all to generators to light up their respective schools. Of all the schools in the province Dogura found haven in her lodge as the only place where it could do much of its fund raisings as a church school the whole year round. There at the numwaya's lodge Dogura was able to perform some of the country's best plays and all written by writers from the Milne Bay Province itself: Rooster in the Confessional, Scattered by the Wind, The Cry of the Cassowary or Vareta Nokondi, to name a few. At the end of each successful season of drama performances the numwaya and her husband, the tomwaya, would put in a word or two for the clientele to consider: that their's was a fast growing town in the southern region of the country and as such its provincial schools throughout needed every support they could get. Thenceforth, the givings for virtually all the schools that came into the province through the Numwaya Lodge was reported to be generously astronomical.
"Sir, I heard the helicopter go straight up to the hospital," said Rita, picking up the tray and cups to take them to the sink.
"Ah, yes, of course," said the deputy governor. "One of the students needing medical treatment. That must be one of Doboro Schindler's daughters, don't you think so, good numwaya?"
"Daughter or granddaughter, your guess is as good as mine," said the numwaya, rising from her chair. "We'll find out more soon. But what has been the source of my curiosity," she added with a gentle laugh, "for many years, that is, and since I was little, was the choice that this lot of bariyawa would make in settling nowhere else but deep in the wilderness of Dawakerekere, right in the heart of the Great Anuki Country itself. The country's independence came and went and still they would not leave, they were never anxious to move on for want of peace, comfort and safety."
"Then again," said the deputy governor with a slight shrug, "what would the Great Anuki Country have to show by way of threat to a foreigner?"
"Ah, and there you have it," said the numwaya, flicking a finger.
"Not to mention the gold that the bariyawa wanted," said the deputy governor, with an indifferent kind of laugh. "Kadi kayogura. But, as it was, and is, some found reason enough to leave while yet others thought that there was no harm in hanging around a bit. A strange sort of choice, that... come to think of it."
The numwaya chuckled, turning the phrase kadi kayogura in her mind but no word came out of her. She suddenly thought of her guests and their choice of jumping onto old John's schooner, right in the middle of and at the height of the perilous porimana season. She felt left out of things, as it were. Her guests made their choice of where they wanted to be, where they wanted to go, and that was that. She had already made a huge loss in her business that week anyway, who'd care about that. But the thought of the little girl being brought in to the emergency wards of the Alotau general hospital as part of the deputy governor's rescue mission exercises made her want to look at things from a fresh perspective. Somewhere along the line she would be useful, she told herself, and that whatever new development that came by her and her little business she would be ready for it.
Rita came out from the office's kitchen sink at the back and realized they were waiting for her. At the front doorway of the office they could see a couple of men standing at ease, patiently checking their watches but not daring to look in their direction. They were the security officer and the deputy governor's driver. It was time to drive over to the Governor's and, of course, drop off the numwaya along the way. The morning meeting was long both the deputy governor and the numwaya realized but resolved within themselves that all would turn out well in the end. Rita packed her notebooks and pens in her hand bag and looked up, ready to do whatever was required of her. The numwaya gave her a smile and they were all set to leave the office of the second highest in command in the Milne Bay Province.
All chapters subject to re-writes and further editing.