Excerpt from Tales from the Torrid Zone by Alexander Frater, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Tales from the Torrid Zone

Travels in the Deep Tropics

by Alexander Frater

Tales from the Torrid Zone
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 400 pages
    Feb 2008, 400 pages

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“Hmm, yes.” (Symmetry would do.) “So what do you make of our new Iririki?”

“Not bad. But I’m still a bit confused.”

“Let us climb the hill. John, you should see what is up there. The tourists never go, they don’t know. And for you, Sandy, it will be more familiar.”

Dense undergrowth walled off our garden. But we found a way in, a dozen paces spanning fifty years and leading to a half-acre so still and shadowy I felt I had broken into my own childhood.

The place was running wild but evidence of our tenancy remained. The flowering trees my mother planted grew with a jungle exuberance, the grass was knee-high and the banyan that loomed so massively over our front veranda had acquired half a century’s extra girth and a further forty feet of elevation.

Our house, said Makau, had been demolished after we’d gone, whirled out to sea by the great 1948 hurricane. But the garden endured, and I knew its tangled boisterousness would have delighted my mother.

Beneath the banyan Makau paused. “Here Mummy built her school.” John raised an eyebrow at this nursery nomenclature, but among the old-timers hereabouts it was routine; to Makau I would be perennially juvenescent, an ageing toddler with a worrying weakness for cigars. I was touched to see the spot where the smol skul had stood. When the British and French refused to countenance any form of state education my mother took matters into her own hands. It proved so successful that later, a few yards away, she also built a teachers’ training college.

Our garden thus became a centre of academic excellence. The school produced—to the unease of both metropolitan governments—two streams of keen, bright kids. One entered the teachers’ training shack, the other headed down to the hospital where my father taught them to be doctors. That was how Makau, one of the first garden graduates, had learned his medicine. “All this bougainvillaea Mummy planted. She planted these frangipanis. You planted that orange tree. These hibiscus Daddy planted.”

I noted the absoluteness of the silence. Several dozen holidaymakers were making merry below, but the density of the bush excluded their voices. We clambered down forty broken steps to the razed Paton Memorial Hospital. This wilderness was Makau’s old alma mater. Sweeping aside a spinnaker-sized spider’s web he nodded towards a small depression carpeted with prickly sensitive plant. “Labour ward, you were born there.” We stumbled on through heavy scrub. By a young sandalwood tree he said, “Hospital front steps. At seven sharp every morning Daddy came down from the house wearing a tie and held a service for patients and staff. After that he did his rounds.” That startled me. The idea of a tie in this climate was one thing, officiating at morning prayers quite another. He had been a Presbyterian misinari dokta, Glasgow-born, ordained after finishing his MB BS, but I never thought of him formally facing a congregation, couldn’t equate that with the quiet, rather shy and private man I remembered. We toured the sites of the general wards, the path lab, the theatre and, set by the beach like an elegant little Edwardian boathouse, the shell of the mortuary. The evening sun made the wooded hills above Port Vila a landscape worked in silks. An outrigger canoe slid past, propelled by a woman in a crimson dress.

Gud naet!” she called.

As we strolled along a coastal path the resort guests were abandoning the beach for Happy Hour. They glanced curiously at Makau; normally the only native Vanuatuans, or ni-Vanuatu, hereabouts were employees. We progressed through the lobby to the pool bar and the staff rushed to secure a table for us. Makau walked in as though he owned the place—which, in a sense, he did—and called for orange juices all round. His home island, Ifira, lay less than a quarter of a mile away, its eight hundred people long regarded as Vanuatu’s elite; a progressive, industrious, enterprising crowd, they flocked to my mother’s schools and, today, play a major role in the country’s affairs. Iririki belongs to Ifira, and it was a typically shrewd Ifira move to lease it to an Australian development company. Makau said, “In seventy-five years we get the island back—plus a top-quality international resort. They build it. We keep it.”

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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