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February 28, 2008

The Vicar: story from...1996

Sunday night Father Godfrey comes for tea with Max. The two sit holding hands on the sofa as I ready the food. Max is sluggish and heavy-boned, a real highlands lad, but cute, I give him that, and exactly the same height as Godfrey. And Godfrey is slight, fortyish but eternally impish with his broccoli top hair and big blue eyes. Godfrey is currently having real problems at his church, where, after nearly a year, he is still the new priest from England. It seems that the problems arise from the Popendetta migrants in the church who are, by and large, more educated and fussy than the local Siane congregation. In fact, the Siane (Max is one) feel great affinity to Godfrey and want to stand up for him. This is a rift that predates Godfrey, but his flamboyant behavior has certainly exacerbated it.

            He’s made some mistakes as a newcomer, sure. Like, when the women’s group leader wanted to use the phone at the rectory and Godfrey kept saying,

            “Dont worry, go ahead,” and she insisted on paying, and he said no, she said yes.

            And then she admits, “But I actually have no money.”

            “Well I guess it’ll have to be sex then.” She didn't find it funny.

            A delegation arrived the next day to get an explanation. “I was kidding--tok pilai tasol! Sori!”

            But the offended woman had also been with him when he had a carload of parish women in his vehicle, and pulled up to a petrol pump just opposite a PMV load of workers, prompting Godfrey to call out,

            “Trade ya!” And when the PMV driver laughed, he added, “But wait now, big susu [tits] extra!”

            He told another van load of women once, when they were crawling up a high grade, that everyone with big tits had to thrust them out the window to lighten their load.

            “Everyone laughed at that one, you can be sure,” he insists. One parishioner joked that he must have a wife in Africa, one in England, another in China, but that now he needs a PNG wife.

            “Yeah right,” Godfrey said, “but the thing is all these women have susu to their waist, their hips, down to their knees--Can you do any better?”

            Godfrey has fallen in love with Max, a diffident young highlander from the settlements. There is a lot of phone calling and on the sly discussion between us over whether he can believe what Max says about never having had sex with another man, and what it might mean that he put his tongue in Godfrey’s mouth. But the one thing Max has never had problems with is holding Godfrey’s hand, because here all good mates hold hands, whereas wives, husbands and lovers never do. This has also been a point of contention with the Popendetta mob. Their argument is that it is highly improper for an expat to be seen doing so, no matter how dramatically Godfrey insists that he and Max are just friends.

            Godfrey is the darling of the landed gentry, the bunyip aristocracy of Goroka. He is their Vicar, in the Jane Austen sense. Late for dinner at a friend house, Godfrey races in apologizing that he’s been in the settlements.

            “Oh yes, that’s where most of your parish is isn’t it?”

            “Aye. And my cargo!”

            There’d be a few unexplained antimacassars and kettle cozies down there now.

            Chris W. is married top one of the Popendetta women, and is one of those few expats  regularly in attendance at Godfrey’s St. Francis church. Chris is discussing Godfrey with me by using all kinds of code words, and I believe he is trying to press my smiling description of Godfrey as “a fairy sprite who truly loves PNG and has so much to give.”

            “I do appreciate that,” he says. “But there are worries. You know, parishioners have seen him come and go from that man Digby’s all the time. There’s a church member lives right outside the Pacific gate and sees the St. Francis vehicle come and go all the time. And you know what it’s like, guilt by association and all.”

            “No I don’t know, because I live inside the Pacific gate and it’s more likely the St Francis vehicle is coming and going from my place. Father Godfrey stops over pretty much every day.”

            Then he says the parishioners feel that Godfrey has no Anglican friends, and that he  hasn’t invited any parishioners to tea. My understanding, forgive me, I say, is that parishioners have been pretty hostile toward him, and that they’ve actually picked a fight with one of the young boys who hangs around Godfrey.

            “I believe the parishioners are really concerned about these young boys hanging about the rectory.”

            “What because they’re charity cases?”

            “Are they? I mean, we’re not talking about Jesus Christ here.”

            “I think father Godfrey is genuinely trying to help these kids, give them food and work and all.”

            “But this is, after all, PNG.” 


            Godfrey calls me early one the morning because a Siane priest who has come up from Lae is pressing him for a K150 loan. He’s come up with wife, child and a wantok and this morning ominously reminding Godfrey’s vague promise of assistance. There’s no guarantee he can pay it back, so Godfrey has told him he’d really like to but the Missus wouldn’t approve. The Missus? The man is taken aback. So I show up, with little Richlene in tow at that, and I am immediately understood to be the one wearing the pants in this family. “Sori tru sista,” the man apologizes. One of Godfrey’s reformed settlement kids has done the laundry for this man’s family, and the man’s young son seems to think 50 toea (cents) is now missing from his shorts.

            “Well isn’t that brilliant? Here I give you my shorts and you come back asking for another fifty toea?””

            I tell the man he should consider the fact that Father Godfrey has no wantoks himself, barely any money, and can’t afford to make loans. Seku, the settlement kid, and the lad who’s had 50 toea stolen, want to get into that, but I spin around and sneer that they’re all wasting Godfrey’s time and should just forget about it, this is too stupid to involve Father Godfrey who has given them all so much.

            “Olosem wanem, yupela na lain bilong yupela nogat sem?” What’s wrong with you, have you all got no shame?

            They are contrite now, and I am so pleased at my own bossiness. Not twenty minutes later the Siane priest is at the back door apologizing to me and explaining that he needs money for his sister’s funeral, and that I must know how hard it is. He turns to Godfrey and explains,

            “I know you have no kina now, and mi save nau, because the Missus is always the boss.”

            Father Godfrey and I join Tina, Digby and others on a trip to the annual New Tribes Bazaar, which is a redundancy. New Tribes is a big Protestant Mission compound a few kilometers out of town where it might seem a little less offensive to put up chainlink and razorwire and hire security to keep nationals from wandering through their middle American town. Here mothers push trams, and toe-headed teenagers skateboard  in Air Jordans and board shorts. (The only other time they can be seen is Saturday, on family trips to the Bird of Paradise Hotel pool.) New Tribes has its own supermarket, schools, kit-house template, mechanics, internet server, and its own creepy inbred look, too. Inside, through the gate where we show our advance tickets, the place is like Roswell,New Mexico. And the central Town Hall is their mother ship. Cross the threshold and you are in Strassberg Pennsylvania, where they’ve cleared the High School gym, which doubles as the auditorium, for the annual charity fair. One corner has a burgers and fries (‘fries’ and not ‘chips’) where a big cooler displays drinks you can’t find elsewhere in the country: Pepsi Lite, Fresca, and Diet 7-Up.

            The beautifully sanded and buffed basketball court is covered with stands selling gingham toaster covers, shell earrings, macramé plant hangers, homemade toys and plaques with prosaic sayings. I see calico bunnies, book ends, stained coat racks, Christmas tree ornaments, knitted stockings, hot oil potpourri and creatures made from Hershey’s Kisses. Everywhere are people who inhabit this Brigadoon, people we’ve never seen before but who evidently live in Goroka: Women in denim shifts, anklets and Keds, wearing no more than a ‘smear’ of makeup-no big eyes or big lips anywhere; tall men with football teams on their caps, who should somehow be pressing footballs like a nutcracker between their palms; and kids of all ages with big teeth, blue eyes and great skin. Here and there we see a housegirl, or some young highlands man helping stack boxes. As I marvel at being beamed up to this oddly familiar world of motivational speakers, Godfrey is trolling the tables in back, where there are mounds of packaged toys, band new pop-up books, glo sticks, whiffle balls, frisbies, hair scrunchies and dive shoes.

            “Hang on a tick-What’s all this? New merchandise? These aren’t exactly handicrafts are they? Well, I suppose you could say. Crafty with that shrink wrap thing. ”

            “Well, we get them wholesale actually,” some humorless woman explains.

            “Is that soooooo?”

            “You might want to hold your tongue Godfrey.”

            “Wholesale do you? So you bring this swag through Customs?

            “Well, New Tribes does, yes, and you see, we’re able to sell them here to raise money for our community projects.”

            Tina has given her boys pocket money and they’ve each bounced back quickly, saying it isn’t enough. Tina is buying homemade candles, and Digby is astonished that the New Tribes cakes and cookies all have jimmies and almonds not currently available in the shops. Godfrey, however, is working up bile over the fact that he has just begged and borrowed enough kina to pay duty on a 3 cubic metre load of secondhand toys donated by his old parish in England, for the village kids at Christmas. Godfrey pulls in a miserable K4000 per annum, which rivals the take of about two of these stalls. Because, unbelievably, New tribes, like all Missions, pay no duty at all on their robust imported lifestyle.

            Godfrey grazes packages of tube socks with the back of his fingertips in passing. “Jesus loves me this I know, because my bank book tells me so.”

            Digby ambles up. “Look, now we’re all going to get our photo taken with the kids and that man by the tripod will put it on a t-shirt for Tina’s Christmas gift. Quick, before she sees us.”

            We complain but are forced to comply, so our faces come out hideous on the tshirt in the end. And when we leave, Godfrey turns on his heels at the door, taking it in one last time, and says, “By their works shall ye know them!”

            Everyone’s eccentric Anglican Father, the impish priest who transports his china collection from Yorkshire (in glass breakfronts) for a two-year stint in Goroka, because he had a sense, somehow, he might never return, Godfrey alienates parishioners and church officials right away, by filling niches with Buddha and Ganesh, right next to the  bony-hipped Christ on the cross. Godfrey raises rabbits and takes in stray kids. Once, when I’m leaving on a trip, he comes too late to see me off at the gate (because he’s been in the settlements ferreting out a stolen radio) and drives the church van to the far end of the airfield where, with Max, he stands on the hood to wave both arms goodbye as the Beechcraft pulls away overhead.

          But the Max story doesn’t end well for Godfrey. It blows up in his face. After introducing young Max, who is about twenty, to another kind of intimacy, the young man becomes indolent, then slightly hostile to Godfrey at unexpected moments. If someone else is around, another parishioner or another settlement kid, for example. I guess, when Godfrey presses, it might be a combination of resentment from a kid who still plans to be married and have kids, and a rising current of territoriality toward the next waif he imagines in line. Godfrey is at once the golden ring and a forcefield of attractions so varied as to be confusing, even suspicious: his humor, is feyness, his religious significance. Poor Godfrey, my twin brother, has set himself up for some brutal hurt here, and when relatives of Max’s come around insinuating extortion, that they know what he’s about, he’ll find out, and so forth-he is gripped by anger and sadness over Max. The kid runs off with some money and never comes back. 

          Godfrey is not much up for Christmas this year. A prominent local woman wants him to conduct a private mass out at her plantation Christmas day, but he’s declined. Instead, he plans to drive out to Siomoromoro village after Christmas Mass in town, and give away all these donated toys from England. We spend a wonderful two days sorting and grading this collection by age, gender, state of disrepair, and sheer camp: Barbie bags, greasy gray stuffed piglets; and also backgammon sets, battery operated trucks, soccer balls, crib mobiles, and blinking, ringleted dolls.

            This is like being left overnight in the it wardrobe department, we have so much fun modeling and winding up and reviewing for Hasbro all these things. Until David, one of the big men from Siomoromoro arrives from the bush with a long list in pencil of every child in his village, plus their age and gender. The meticulousness of this overwhelms us as we snake through the boxes in feather boas and witchy hats. Yes, we promise to make sober and considerate decisions about who gets what gift for Christmas. I say this with some confidence that a six year old village boy is going to be just as happy as his sister to get that orange patent leather clutch with a gilded chain strap.

            Godfrey has one announcement before Christmas morning Mass. He speaks in his Yorkshire-inflected Pidgin, with more sadness than anger, to report that someone broke in early this morning and stole all his rabbits from their big chickenwire cage out back; would anyone who happens to see big white lop-eared hares in a yard, or in the settlements, please tell him at once, thank you. After Mass, we load the parish van and head out of town. Siomoromoro is the nicest of all Godfrey’s villages in the parish, where they have a lovely little thatch church and have come to identify me as the Missus even as they giggle to watch Godfrey  squeeze the young men’s bums and hug them off the ground. He’s a “meri man,” they say, a woman-man, and oddly enough, this doesn’t preclude him showing up for a service with the prim Missus in tow.

            Godfrey is so popular in Siomoromoro everyone shows up in their best clothes and crowds the church for his Mass. All the little kids sit on the logs up front, squirming and giggling when Godfrey winks at them. He asks the church to turn to page 5 of their dog-eared Pidgin hymnals. But so many of them don’t read anyway, and after an awkward pause, one woman breaks into the sonorous chant of a local language song, and they all join in for an unselfconsciously strong, throaty refrain of four or five minutes.

            “Well, I didn’t expect that,” Godfrey giggles, “But thank you. We’ll move on.”

            The Mass finishes and Godfrey looks down to the front rows of bug eyes scruffy-cute kids. He’s been able to affix a child’s name to each toy in his boxes.   

            “Albert? where is Albert? Is there an Albert here who’s got 5 Christmases?” Godfrey is pulling the page of names from a box beside the altar. A five year old boy (five Christmases) on the front log sits at attention and appears terrified at being singled out by the crazy man-woman priest. In his mind, I suppose anything might happen now.

            “Sanap. Sanap!” everyone orders him, and he stands.

            All the other kids on the log giggle and clap hands over open mouths. They’re barefoot, wearing their least tattered clothes. With great drama, Godfrey ferrets around inside the box and pulls out a foot-long plastic car. The boy is propelled forward by desire and as Godfrey waves him closer, his hands reaching for this object like a mendicant for an apple. Albert seizes the car and bolts for the door. The whole church guffaws, and some clap their hands. It goes on like this for ten or twelve kids, a Barbie bag for Maria, a fire truck to Benjamin, all of them anxious to get away with their prize, exiting with ecstasy on their faces. Until one little boy in long trousers takes his toy and stands firm to say, “Thank you Father” with big beautiful  smile. His gift is a manila envelope with four matchbox cars inside, which we will see him carry around all day in one hand.

            Outside the church, everyone’s sorting out how to work the mechanical toys, wearing the stuffed animals on their head, clutching dolls, jigsaw puzzles and soft books to their chests. Even though the toys are clearly, to us, of different size and value, the kids are too overwhelmed to squabble or compete for each other’s bounty. It is a poignant moment, because we find this behavior so endearing, and know that it comes from a strong social imperative to share everything. No one kid will own his or her toy exclusively, so they’re not as possessive as Western kids might be about it.

            But the few toys Godfrey gave away after the Mass in town prompted an altogether other reaction. Mothers appeared from everywhere once the giving began, claiming two or three sick kids at home who’d all need their own truck or a doll or a jack-in-the-box. It quickly grew out of control, as the principle of sharing became a flood of entreaties for equable distribution.  I wonder whether this may be all it takes for the kids to learn personal possession and the thrill of amassing more and more cargo.

            We walk around Siomoromoro to see the gardens and the view over a gorge coursed by a clean rapid running river. In the doorway to one house we find a little boy hugging his big white police car to his chest. Push it along the ground, we prompt him.

            “Subim long graun!”

            He looks at us gravely, clutching the toy tighter. “Nooooo--bai dirti!”--It’ll get dirty!      There’s an extra box of toys in the van. Driving back we stop at all the kids ambling down the dirt road or jumping out from their gardens to wave to the vehicle, and, one by one, hand them flutes, vinyl purses, frisbies, stuffed animals, matchbox cars. Time and again, they unhesitant approach Godfrey’s window or mine, chirping “Meri Krismas” with genuine good cheer, only to be thunderstruck when handed a toy in return.

            “Thank you Father!” they call as Godfrey pulls away.

            Towards town we spot a girl about twelve years old, and Godfrey reaches for a toy cell phone, the very last thing in the box. He stops the car, leans out with plastic phone to his ear.

            “Aha, aha. Orait, bai mi luk.” Let me check. One hand over the mouthpiece, he calls out to the girl as she approaches across the dirt road. “Skus ples. Wanem nem bilong yu?”    “Monica,” she says, surprised.

            He raises the phone and says,  “It’s for you,” and hands it to her.

            Without missing a beat, she takes it and utters, “Hello?” and we start to laugh.

            She giggles too, just as Godfrey pulls away calling “Merry Christmas Monica!” and we can see her lowering the phone and waving back in the rear view mirror.


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