A Place Called Pandemonium
Some years ago I returned to my birthplace and found it had become a luxury holiday resort. Described in the brochures as Iririki, Island of Elegance and lying snugly in Port Vilas blue harbour, its forty-four acres were crowned with flowering trees and contoured like a tall polychromic hat; you could walk the shadowy path around its brim in twenty minutes. It was a comfortable spot; when the mainland sweltered, Iririki usually got sea breezes and cooling showers. Once it had contained just two houses: our mission bungalow andset in parklike grounds with a flagpole flying a bedspread-sized Union Jackthe palatial residence of the British Resident Commissioner. Now seventy-two air-conditioned accommodation units were strung across its northern end.
By the residents jetty a signpost read Old Hospital Ruins. Directed back half a century, I saw myself as the guests drifting over on parasails might see me: an ageing, perspiring, overweight man hurrying towards a jungly acre that looked like an abandoned archaeological site. Somewhere in there, among the creeper-strewn hillocks and slabs of mossy concrete, my father had delivered me with forceps; now I expected, if not a thunderclap, at least an acknowledgement, some audible sign.
That, however, only came at the check-in desk when a porter cried, Welcome to the Champagne Resort! and handed me a complimentary fruit punch. Drinking it, I realized the vaulted reception area, built from local hardwoods, stood on the site of our vegetable garden. Then, having spelled my name for the clerk, I told her about my links with the island. She went Uh-huh, and asked for my credit card. Handing me a key she said, Enjoy your stay, Mr Fraser. My unit overlooked a tiny, fan-shaped beach where I had learned to swim; two topless women lay sunning themselves on the spot where I once kept my canoe. Later, eating a Big Riki burger at the poolside restaurant, I was relieved to find the restaurants location held no associations at all.
My son turned up and said, How do you feel? Have the squatters moved in?
I felt pretty good, actuallyindeed, oddly gratified that so many people seemed to be getting pleasure from the place. What do you think?
It was probably nicer before.
But John detested resorts of any description. He had arrived a couple of weeks earlier, a Royal London Hospital medical student out here to do his elective at his grandfathers old hospitaltoday named Vila Base and re-established over on the mainland. Looking tired and preoccupied, he said a nine-year-old girl from Tanna had been admitted that morning with cerebral malaria. Her parents tried a custom doctor, that didnt work, so they brought her in: Western medicine, last resort, it happens all the time. A few hours earlier and we might have saved her.
I watched my son pondering one of the diseases which my father, for much of his life, had fought so obsessively. That oddly jolting moment was interrupted by the arrival of Dr Makau Kalsakau, escorted to our table like a visiting head of state. Three waiters tussled to pull out his chair, a portly Australian manager hovered anxiously. Dr Makau, trained by my father and perhaps our oldest family friend, had promised us an Iririki island tour. A handsome, black-skinned pensioner with amused eyes and a wispy Assyrian beard, he held Johns hand and said, You look like your grandaddy, there is a definite similarity. He was my teacher. And now you are working in our hospital! About this there is, uh, a kind of . . . what is the word?
I had disappointed him by not going to medical school, but words were my business and now I was oddly eager for his approval. Symmetry.
Excerpted from Tales from the Torrid Zone by Alexander Frater Copyright © 2007 by Alexander Frater. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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