Nomad traces the fortunes of an aviation company conceived and established around the time of Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975. That period of the country’s aviation history involved a struggle on the part of new operators to establish themselves alongside those already in existence, and the latter were experiencing major difficulties in the changed climate. There were no ‘Queensberry Rules’ – the gloves were off.
Papua New Guinea’s history has often been one of violent and cannibalistic tribal conflict, and in the immediate post-independence period, this element penetrated the business communities, both local and expatriate, to some degree. Indeed, the ‘pay-back system’ is as alive now as ever.
Mountain flying requires considerable training, and nowhere is this more the case than in P.N.G. Tropical weather and commercial pressures place most pilots in very stressful situations at times. And because of P.N.G.’s remoteness, a free house, furniture and health-care were all parts of a normal employment contract in those days. Consequently, a company manager ended up as trainer, employer, parent, confidant and marriage counsellor to members of his or her staff, and to their respective families.
This is the story of Independent Aviation Transport, the first one- hundred-percent locally-owned aviation company in Papua New Guinea. It was also the first commercial purchaser of the Australian-built, gas turbine-powered, Nomad aeroplane. The rapid development of the IAT Company created a lot of resentment and jealousy … and that is just a part of the story.
The arrow took Hairy high in the left shoulder, throwing him hard against the wall of his servant’s quarters. Along with a sharp stab of pain he felt the cassowary-bone barbs settling into his flesh. The metre-long cane shaft aggravated the wound with his every movement and, with teeth tightly clenched, he snapped it off. Another arrow just missed his head. It shattered the fibre-cement panel behind him. His mind was working overtime.
‘This isn’t a burglary. It’s a bloody set up … Please! A gun! Or at least a baseball bat … Shit, an arrow – the low bastards.’
Be buggered, he thought, they weren’t going to take control away from him. He’d started this company and by God he wasn’t letting go.
As the plane slipped through the last gap in the rugged mountains on descent into Hagen, Hairy thought how much he loved flying. Mount Hagen lay just ahead, bathed in brilliant sunlight, which was unusual for this time of day. The weather had rained itself out west of the town but to the east the thunderstorms were black and ominous, giving the sunlit valley a spectacular backdrop. Hairy loved this descent, with 170 knots on the clock, staying just a couple of hundred feet above the sloping ground as it fell away in front of him. It reminded him of his skiing days, zipping in and out of the moguls, back home in New Zealand. The approach into Hagen he knew like the back of his hand.
Easy enough in an easterly, he thought, but when the annual cyclones lashed against the far Papuan coast, that could all change in the blink of an eye, and the runway could close in a matter of minutes. Flying through the last gap in the mountains, he looked down over the steep gorges below to see precarious gardens cut into the mountain side, with the villagers waving back, just there at arm’s length, with their wide, happy smiles. He loved this flight … always had.
This afternoon, Mount Hagen looked resplendent in the sunlight and, with the backdrop of heavy rain and clouds, it looked as though someone were shining a spotlight on the town. Hagen certainly needed something, there was no doubt about that. The town itself would have to be one of the dirtiest, most unkempt towns in the country. Admittedly, the people of the Western Highlands Province, of which Mount Hagen is the capital, were ‘discovered’ by our so-called civilisation only a mere forty years ago. In a matter of few decades they had moved out of a Stone Age tribal existence to be thrust into the latter part of the twentieth century. The Australian administration system transformed, monitored and controlled this primitive population by using tertiary-educated patrol officers with unlimited legal power, along with a local, armed police force to back them up. These well-meaning officers were answerable only to the District Commissioner. Sudden change came in 1975, when the Australian government granted Papua New Guinea independence. Many believed it was a poor decision at such an early stage of the country’s development.
Flying over some of the most rugged terrain in the world and looking out over the subsistence gardens with thatched houses, he wondered exactly what amount of progress had been achieved by the Australian administration. Many villages were still the same as they were a thousand years ago, and Hairy was far from convinced that PNG was ready for its new-found independence.
He positioned the Nomad to join downwind and received his clearance to land. As he continued his approach, he thought about his squash appointment with Geoff later that day. Geoff had joined the Company as chief pilot a year ago, and they played squash a couple of times a week. Geoff had always beaten him, until Hairy gave up smoking six months ago. Since then, Geoff could do nothing to overcome Hairy’s winning streak. Hairy loved squash but he loved beating Geoff even more.
The touchdown at Kagamuga airport, just fifteen minutes drive from Mount Hagen was heralded by the screech of the tyres as they came up to speed on the longer 12/30 runway. This was always the first step in feeling the safety of the ground; the next was to feel the reassurance of the nose wheel taking the weight, with Hairy always at the ready to throttle hard and pull back for a touch and go should an emergency present itself.
Hairy smiled at the landing, touching the instrument panel in superstitious thanks, knowing how many aircraft now littered this wild country. There were never any guarantees when flying in PNG.
As he taxied in towards their terminal at the north western end of the main runway, he signed off the daily work sheet, using his real name, John Richards. ‘Hairy,’ was just the nickname he had acquired in his first year at high school. The woodwork master would look at his assignments and always comment, ‘Gee, Richards, that’s hairy.’ The name just stuck.
“Gidday, Jacob, had a good day?” he said, as he clambered out of the cockpit. Jacob, the cargo handler, a nuggetty little guy from Goroka, was dragging the fuel hose and mobile steps toward the aircraft. As always, Jacob was wearing just an old pair of thongs, tattered, torn shorts and a grubby shirt with its sleeves ripped off, revealing muscled brown arms capable of pumping a forty-four of avtur all day long. He was the face of the modern PNG warrior. Bright, capable and loyal, he had learnt his new skills quickly and was fast becoming indispensable.
“Alright, Boss,” he replied. “You like fuel, how much?”
Jacob still called Hairy, ‘Boss’. In fact, he called all the pilots ‘Boss’. But actually, Hairy wasn’t the boss any longer. If some of his company’s directors were to believed, he had, relinquished the management of the Company at a meeting, conducted without notification, whilst he and his Chinese-New Guinean wife, Maree, were on holiday in Australia and New Zealand. As far as Hairy was concerned, it was an illegal boardroom coup, and his resignation had no validity. However, he chose not to challenge the legality of the meeting, despite the palpable lack of notice. He was starting to find the responsibility onerous. Flying all day and then having to attend to administration matters plus the personal problems of fifteen staff was getting to be too much. Not being Boss had its rewards.
He concluded that he needed time to outwit the boardroom politicians, to keep hold of his fifty-percent control of the Company. Flying was a respite, and it gave him plenty of time to think. The new general manager that the board of directors had selected was reasonably experienced, and in his hands the company would continue to do well. With a capable chief pilot like Geoff to keep an eye on him, Hairy felt reasonably secure.
Mind you, there was still a lot of jealousy amongst certain factions on the board, even resentment, at the power that Hairy wielded. Still, he had to stop feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t the general manger any longer. Yet, he felt the need to reverse some of the policies that were now being put forward.
“Fill up both sides, thanks Jacob, and give the cabin a good vacuum out. Put all the chairs in as well, please.”
“OK, mi pulmapim gut, na behain putim olgeta chair igo,” Jacob chirped back in Pidgin.
Hairy was off to Tari in the Southern Highlands first thing in the morning to pick up eleven councillors for a meeting down in Moresby. In Hagen it was essential to be airborne at first light; most mornings the ground fog rolled in just after dawn, and a plane could be stuck on the ground until seven or eight o’clock if it was too far back in the queue.
Hairy knew that Jacob would take every care of the aircraft without his supervision and so he wandered off toward the new Provincial Air Services’ terminal building, the only modern, functional terminal on the airport. He looked every bit like the dashing air heroes of the second war. At just 183 centimetres in height, and weighing only 66 kilograms, his slimness gave an impression that he was tall. His lean to the right, caused by the weight of his flight bag, increased as he pushed open the front door and lurched through it.
“Hi, hon, how’s your day been?”
Maree, lifted her head from the accounts that she was working on and with her warm, welcoming smile, greeted him.
“Great and have I got a surprise for you. Your favourite girlfriend’s arriving at six.’’
“Which one?” retorted Hairy.
“Terri and her new baby.”
“She’s not slapping a paternity suit on me, is she? What’s his handle going to be?”
Hairy lowered his flight bag to the floor, at the same time giving his wife a loving kiss on the cheek.
“You’re not going to believe this – Dominic.”
“Oh, no – the Pope has got to give them a medal. I mean he’s a doctor, his wife’s a nurse and their eighth child is named Dominic. They just have to be dedicated.”
“You go and have your game of squash with Geoff. I’ll pick up Terri and Dominic and we’ll see you at home. Don’t have too many beers at the club.”
“Who, me? What do you think I am? By the way, do we have some decent wine at home? We’ll have to wet the baby’s head.”
“Yes, plenty. We could open those two bottles of French champers, seeing it’s a special occasion. I’ll put them in the freezer when I get home.”
“You’re a beaut, darl. See you about seven. I won’t be late, have to fly first thing. I’d better show my face to our illustrious new leader, just in case he wants to discuss some policy decisions with me,” he said with a grin, as he disappeared around the corner to his old office.
Hairy knocked and opened the door, and spoke briefly to the new manager, Jonathan Newman.
“Can’t stop, Jonathan, playing squash with Geoff. I’ve got that flight to Tari, then Moresby, all organised for the morning. You don’t need me for anything else, do you?”
Before Jonathan could collect his thoughts, Hairy, with a wave and a big smile, said, “see ya,” then breezed out the door, jumped into his car and headed for the courts.
Whack… thud. – Whack… thud. Hairy heard Geoff warming up. He cut the engine to his white Corolla which he parked next to Geoff’s brown one. Hairy believed in equality when it came to company perks for management.
Jonathan had been with the company for a week and they had given him a rental car and a house. Hairy had been waiting expectantly for someone to ask for his Corolla so they could present it to Jonathan. As a line pilot, he was not entitled to a company car and he had been quite ready to relinquish it, but he was not going to make it easy for the person who had to ask for it. Hairy knew that his salary adjustment must also be on the agenda for the next meeting, and that was going to be another interesting exercise. Most probably, they were also trying to fathom a way to reduce his voting power though they were well aware that he had that legally secured. Oh yes, fun and games were waiting in the wings.
Geoff was a short, stocky, powerfully-built bloke, trained in army aviation and ending up on choppers. He had a great personality but still managed to retain that arrogance that the army seems to instil in all their officers. Geoff camouflaged it very well, although the pride with which he was born certainly showed itself on the squash court. Hairy had a hard time with him, as they were evenly matched, but in the end he just managed to beat his opponent, 9-8, 9-6, 9-8.
“Nearly had you in that last game, you bastard,” Geoff said as he was soaping up in the shower.
Hairy smiled from the next door cubicle.
“Yeah, if I’d still been smoking I’d never have reached that drop shot you put in the corner, let alone win the next point.”
“Where will we go for a beer?” Geoff asked, and added, “I must schedule you for a line-check next week. Then I’ll get my revenge on you, now that you’re just a line pilot again. How are your ‘engine failure after take-off’ procedures these days?”
He smiled, “Mmm … let me think … yes, Mendi airstrip. Now there’s a good one. Maximum load, in the hot, late afternoon and you lose an engine halfway down the strip. With all those mountains and cloud build-ups that you have to clear, you’ll be wondering why on earth you chose the Nomad, with her illustrious single-engine performance.” Geoff teased, grinning from ear to ear.
“When are you getting the ejection seats fitted?” retorted Hairy.
“Geoff, I need to talk to you. I was having a big think about everything on the way back from Ok Tedi this afternoon. I need views from a new perspective. Yours, I can trust, you know what I mean? Let’s go to the pub for a beer. Len’s got that nice, little bar out back where we can be private. I’m worried, mate. I just don’t know whether I want to take them on or sit back and go along for the ride.”
“Hairs, if you want to take your fellow directors on, Sharon and I will be right behind you. All the pilots from our side of the partnership will support you to the hilt,” Geoff added, whilst tying his shoelaces and collecting his squash gear. “You’ve put all the effort into getting this Company up and running, and then developing it to where it is today. It’s been a fantastic accomplishment. Fuck ‘em. You’ve come from a tin pot show with one aeroplane and a charter licence covering two provinces. Now it’s eight provinces, two turbo-prop Nomads, a Beechcraft Baron, and an Islander, not forgetting the Cessna 206. Plus the engineering section in Wewak. All that, in the space of three years.
Geoff grinned and wandered toward the door.
“I’ll set ‘em up. See you down there.”
“Thanks Geoff, food for thought, see you there.”
Hairy finished dressing while he thought about Geoff’s words. They reinforced everything he had thought about that afternoon. Just because they had banded against him, that was no reason to throw in the towel. Geoff wasn’t pissing in his pocket. Hairy knew that. He also knew that if he didn’t keep the momentum going, Geoff would probably leave for a better opportunity.
“As for Maree,” Hairy thought, “she’s probably just being her normal, agreeable self supporting my idea of letting go of the management. Then again, she might be thinking of the family —‘us’. Yeah, it needs a lot of careful consideration. But is there enough time?”
He had to keep control.
“My-oh-my,” he thought, “what a bloody fight this is going to be”.
“Gidday, Len. Afternoon, fellas.” Hairy smiled to all and sundry as he entered the bar.
“How are you, Hairy?” grinned Len, the barman, while the others murmured their salutations. “Geoff’s through the back.”
“Good. Thanks, Len. We might need a couple of quickies to replace the body fluids. You know what squash in the tropics does to you.”
Looking toward the beer garden Hairy could see that Geoff had already just about demolished his first beer. Without a word, Hairy quickly caught up with him, downing the chilled San Mig stubbie Len thrust into his hand. It was encased in his favourite stubby holder kept behind the bar. Mere seconds later, he ordered a second round to take outside. Len had already opened them and had them ready on a tray.
“Thanks, Len, you’re a bottler.”
Hairy paid and wheeled around to join Geoff. The hotel beer garden was a little corner of heaven. Looking out to the stunning cloud draped mountains the small garden was bordered by crotons and palms, where an old gardener from Telefomin idly scratched at the leaves with his rake, then squatted for a minute under the mango tree, withdrawing the makings of a cigarette from his string billum. Coarse tobacco rolled dexterously in a square of yesterday’s Post Courier newsprint created a cloud of acrid smoke as he dragged happily on the overlong cheroot watching the ‘mastas’ sitting down with their beers.
The outside furniture consisted of some rickety old timber chairs and tables with the ubiquitous faded SP Brewery umbrellas that marked every watering-hole in the country. These weren’t the comfortable chairs of the Ela Beach RSL that Hairy had seen on his last trip to Moresby, painted fresh in vibrant colours, and strategically placed on the lawns next to the beach with waiters going from table to table wearing white laplaps with police issue belts. Still and all, here in Hagen it was the closest they had to a real city beer garden. It was theirs and they loved it.
“Hairy, I’m going to speak very plainly to you because you’re astute enough to know exactly where I’m coming from.”
Geoff had a very serious look on his face. He took a sip out of the new beer and continued, “If you throw away your position as managing director, then I in turn, would have to resign as chief pilot. There is no way that I’m going to be part of any organisation that has no leadership. I doubt if Jonathan has the balls, let alone the intelligence, to compete with the other third-level airlines here. Little Hitler in Goroka will eat him alive.”
“Hairy, he’s past his ‘use by’ date and there is not a pilot in this place who’ll have any respect for him. If he stays, this great Company will quickly self-destruct, and by the time you start fighting to get back on top – because it will be a fight – it will be too late.”
Geoff had a long pull on his beer and lit another smoke.
Hairy, with his head in his hands and his lips drawn tightly together, leaned back in the chair. “Christ, Geoff, what the bloody hell have I been thinking about?”
He took a mouthful from his stubbie and contemplated all that Geoff had said. There was absolutely no doubt about it; he had hit the nail right on the head.
“Thank you, my friend. ‘Operation Fightback’ has just begun. Maybe we could make Jonathan ops manager, under your supervision from the operational side, while I monitor him from the commercial? Would that work and would he buy it?”
Both minds were racing now. They had to cover every loophole.
“Offer it to him, then. If his pride won’t allow it, he’ll pack his bags and we’ll have to write the expense off to experience. But I really think you’d be better off to get your own man and piss him off right now. That’d be better from your point of view … and the Company’s.”
“Again, I’d have to agree. But that would mean you and I would have to carry the burden in the meantime, until Mr. Right pops his head up.”
“Well, that’s okay. We’ve done it quite successfully up to now. A little bit longer is not going to make much difference. At least we’ll know things are working properly.”
Geoff looked over his shoulder towards the bar but Hairy stepped in.
“No, my shout mate, I really appreciate your advice. I’ll get the next beer but it’ll have to be the last because I’ve got two gorgeous ladies waiting for me at home, and three kids to boot,” Hairy mumbled as he ambled through the doorway.
Smiling, Geoff leaned back, hands behind his head in a sort of stretching motion. He had not been sure in his own mind how Hairy was going to take his advice. He had felt duty bound to give it, regardless. Now, with Hairy’s complete acceptance, he felt a little like the cat that had just cleaned up the cream.
“Why are you looking so damned pleased with yourself ?” Hairy chimed, as he returned with the beer. “Anyone would think that you’d just done someone a bloody, big favour. By the way, that mongrel LH down in Moresby has ordered his second Nomad. I wonder if he’s looking at us for a possible takeover, or just wants to push us out the back door. When you consider our licensed area and fleet compatibility, our company would be a ripe cherry,” Hairy said.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you I had Tan in his bloody ‘Twotter’ following me round all day today. I didn’t have a chance to double back to find out what he was offering all our clients. Mind you, I will tomorrow, because I’ll be doing most of the airstrips again,” commented Geoff.
“Yeah, we must be worrying our Little Hitler, surveying his empire from his Eagle’s Nest up there in Goroka. He wouldn’t be using up non-revenue hours if he had work for the Twin Otter. Did you hear he sacked two pilots yesterday? He was having a go at the pilots for aborting their flight and the senior pilot stood up to him, so he sacked them there and then. Right from his balcony above the parking area, where everybody could hear. Can you believe it, – from his balcony? I reckon he screams so much because he’s got a complex about his height. ”
“Are you for real?” Geoff frowned. “The chief pilot would have to step in over that one.”
“I doubt if he’d dare. With sixty pilots for Hitler to choose from, he’d be demoted immediately,” reasoned Hairy.
“Have they got sixty pilots? Geoff asked. “Fair dinkum?”
“Highland Air has a fleet of fifty six aircraft and, he has to have drivers for them all. He’s even supporting localisation. He’s got three locals on the books now. Of course, that’s only because he gets them at half price. Tan’s one of them. You know he comes from the Enga Province, don’t you? With all the gold and copper up there, those blokes carry a lot of political clout. Nice bloke, and all that he is, we’ll have to watch him like a hawk.”
Hairy spoke with a very serious look on his face.
“We have our work cut out for us, Geoff. I think little Hitler can feel us breathing down his neck and he doesn’t like it. Take care, old son.” Hairy thumped his stubbie on the table as he stood. “I’ll go and pass this on to the girls. Not sure how Maree will take it but I think she’ll be all right. She’s a pretty understanding lady.”
“To put up with you she’d have to be,” grinned Geoff, diving quickly for the one-upmanship opportunity.
Ignoring the quip, Hairy countered with “I’m pleased Jo’s there, she’ll ease the situation. Well, I’m going, see ya.”
He entered the public bar, “See you, fellas. Thanks, Len. Look after my right hand man, won’t you?” and Hairy departed with a wave.
“No doubt about that, Hairy, God bless him.”
Len said it with so much sincerity anyone would have thought he was religious.
Mount Hagen has the most idyllic climate that you could wish for. Situated on the valley floor 1,600 metres above sea level, you can wander around all day, more than comfortable in a short sleeved cotton shirt, but thankful for a couple of blankets on the old bed at night. It is only a stone’s throw south of the equator, so you do get the odd heavy rainstorm in the late afternoon which leaves everything fresh and clean for the next day.
Hairy wound his way home along the pot-holed Highlands Highway cambered high to take the torrential tropical downpours, with rich brown gravel shoulders. He turned into his Munga Street driveway. It was a beautiful entrance — dead straight. The previous owner had planted delirium-inducing deep-red hibiscus[GD6] along both sides, and pruned and trained them to form a delightful tunnel along the complete length of the drive. The prolific rainfall endowed the hibiscus with abundant, deep green foliage, and thousands upon thousands of exquisite flowers. The sodium streetlight within three metres of the entrance and the bright security lighting surrounding the house gave a warm, welcoming effect. Hairy seemed to burst from the darkened tunnel into a gravelled area sprawling beside the front steps.
The house was low-set nestling on sloping ground and constructed of high quality materials. For Papua New Guinea, this was rare. The high turnover of the expatriate population and the general feeling of impermanence militated against such quality. The exterior boasted cream bolstered block and the joiner had left the mark of an artisan on the home, using local mahogany for the cupboards and doorways, all of it clean in grain and consistent in colour.
All the exterior doors were French with full-length panes of opaque glass, and these had been fitted with German-made deadbolts, and door locks. Hairy loved those doors. They had come from the old wing of the Cecil Hotel in Lae, and every time he looked at them he could sense the history that had passed through them. The oblong house opened out onto comfortable wide verandas on two sides, with panoramic views overlooking a large valley to the south.
“Apinun Masta,” Marcus murmured as he opened the rear door and retrieved Hairy’s squash bag in order to sanitise its contents for the next game.
“Thank you, Marcus,” Hairy said with sincerity.
Marcus, a man from the coastal province of East Sepik, had been with the Richards family for four years and had come with them from Wewak when the family moved up to the Highlands. Most coastal people have a hereditary fear of the not-so-long-ago, cannibalistic highlanders. His wife and family had decided to stay behind, but Marcus’s loyalty would not allow him the same option. He knew that if he needed to get back home, ‘Masta Hairy’ would get him there.
No sooner had Hairy turned from Marcus than two children came bounding around the corner of the house.
“Dad, Dad, quick, come and see little Dominic. He’s beautiful, Dad. He’s just so lovely; you’ll love him, Dad.”
“Okay, Maggie darling, ease up. We’ll get to Dominic in a minute. First of all, how are my two kids? Maggie is all wrapped up with this new Halloran baby, but how’s my boy?”
“Fine, Dad. Dominic smiles and he actually held my hand, come and see.”
Andrew latched on to his father’s left hand and Maggie on to the right, and the two children summarily dragged him around the corner of the house to meet this miracle child named Dominic.
“Hi Terri, I’ll be with you in a minute. I have to meet your new addition first. Oh, hi honey.”
Hairy offered his brief salutations to the women on the veranda as the children led him past. Maree was sipping away on her brandy-dry, Terri on her beer, both smiling at the spectacle of the children’s excitement at showing off the baby.
“Now Dad, you’ve got to be very quiet because Dominic is trying to go to sleep,” said the eleven-year-old Miss Maggie, utilising her fast-developing maternal skills, and perhaps a little acting skill as well, from the new Mt Hagen branch of the Dramatic Actors Guild, which she seemed ready to initiate.
“Don’t be silly, Maggie, he’s sound asleep already,” chirped in Andrew. “He’s had the plane trip and all the excitement of coming here. He’s tired.”
There was only fourteen months age difference between the children, and so a certain amount of rivalry was inevitable, but a very strong bond had developed. They had travelled a lot over the years and were both very confident while not being too clever-smart at the same time.
He was actually quite relieved because deep down, babies only appealed to him when they could walk and talk. “Well, we better go and see how Mummy and Terri are getting along. What do you reckon, kids?”
“Okay,” they chimed in unison.
“I’ll get you a beer, Dad,” offered Andrew.
“No thanks mate. I’m flying early in the morning and we’re going to have some French champagne to celebrate Dominic’s visit.”
“Can we have some, Dad?” Maggie asked, never missing an opportunity to try something new.
“I think I could find a small glass for both of you, seeing it’s a very special occasion.”
Maggie immediately dashed off to find a suitably sized glass, followed by Andrew.
“Righto, Terri, bring me up to date on the Halloran family and I don’t want to hear about your planning for number nine. How is the old boy? I suppose you’ve left him to care for the rest of the brood, poor bloke.”
Hairy sank into a comfortably cushioned cane chair between the two women.
“Andrew,” he yelled, “I’ve changed my mind. I will have that beer, please. It’s a bit early to start on the champers. We’ll have that with dinner.”
By now, it was twenty minutes to eight and solidly dark outside, except for the security floodlights that angled out from the exterior walls and lit up the whole block. The cicadas were providing their constant music, to the accompaniment of the odd flash of lightning, followed by a loud, rolling clap of thunder. It was a situation that one became very familiar with in PNG and so did not consciously see or hear. From the veranda, a straight path ran down to the servant’s quarters which were hidden from the light by ornamental shrubbery, including more of the deep-red hibiscus.
“I’ve got some news for you two; but if we all agree, I’d like to catch up on the news from Wewak first. How’s Michael and the rest of your family?”
“Oh, he’s fine; the kids are being very helpful and supportive with Dominic. The only thing wrong with the place is that we miss you and Maree.”
Hairy reached across and squeezed Terri’s forearm.
“Thank you, Terri, we certainly miss the wonderful times we all had together before we came up here.”
Maree stood and declared, “It’s getting late and dinner will be served in fifteen minutes. Darling, you keep Terri company, and kids, you can come and give me a hand.”
Maree was a deft hand in the kitchen with her Chinese cooking. She had most things already prepared, ready for that dramatic shock of being thrown into the wok, tossed around, and then deposited onto a serving dish to go into the warming oven.
“How’s the Company going, Hairy?”
“Great, thanks, Terri, but after a long discussion with Geoff tonight, I’ve radically changed my ideas on giving up the management. Look, I haven’t told Maree about this yet and I’m not sure how she’ll take it. Bring your drink and I’ll spill the beans in the kitchen.”
Walking into the kitchen, Terri drew everyone’s attention to the fact that Hairy had an announcement to make. She was not unlike the town crier from medieval times. This pleased Hairy. It showed Terri completely understood the situation without needing any explanation from him.
“Righto, Richards, one and all. Your leader has a crucial statement to make concerning your collective future. He demands your undivided attention but will excuse the cook because he is well aware of her ability to concentrate on six things at a time.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Halloran,” Hairy smiled. “I had a ‘heart-to-heart’ with Geoff tonight and he pointed out a few very pertinent matters. It all boils down to the fact that I can’t give away the management of the company; if I have to reduce my workload, it has to be on the flying side.”
He paused. There was a pregnant silence and Maree carried on with the cooking.
“But Dad, what about Jonathan?” Maggie queried.
“Hang on a minute, Mags. I’d first like to hear what Mummy thinks about it.”
Maree dropped the spatula in the wok, came round the table, threw her arms around his neck and proceeded with a long, meaningful kiss full on his lips. After disentangling herself and quickly getting back to the stove, she said, “That’s the best news I’ve had since we came back from leave and discovered all the devious goings-on. It surprised me that you took it all so casually.”
“And here I thought you wanted me to get out of the management,” sai Hairy.
“No, honey, I was just waiting for you to make the right decision. I knew you would. You just had to make it without any influence from me.”
“Christ, I left it pretty bloody late, didn’t I? If Geoff hadn’t kicked me in the shins this afternoon, I might never have made it.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself. If I know you, it was you who approached him.”
“Sorry, Mags, your turn now. You asked, ‘What about Jonathan?’ It is hard on him but he’ll have to go. I thought of keeping him as ops manager, but it just wouldn’t suit, his public relations are just all wrong. Geoff agrees with me. In spite of the extra workload on both of us, I’m far better off getting my own man.”
“But Dad, that means we’ll hardly ever see you again.” Andrew said.
“Yes, it will at the start, son. Basically, until I find an operations manager, Geoff and I will have to be the ones to keep the ship on an even keel.”
It hurt Hairy to see the disappointment written across his son’s face. It was true; he wasn’t spending enough time with his family and this was the most interesting period of their childhood.
“Right, it’s your turn, Terri. What do you think about the whole scenario?”
“First of all, I’m going to give you a great big kiss, as well.”
She turned and threw her arms around him.
“There, that was for making one of the most difficult decisions in your life and for coming up with the right one. I’m sorry for you, Andrew and Maggie, that you won’t have your Daddy as much as you’d like, but in a few years’ time you will understand why he had to make this decision.”
“Thank you, Terri, Maree, for your support. Kids, I will make time to be with you as much as possible. I promise. How’s dinner coming along, Mum? I’ll open the bubbly and we’ll get this show on the road.”
“Dinner will be ready in two minutes.”
While the ladies chatted at the stove, Hairy extracted the first bottle from the freezer and checked the temperature with the back of his hand; yes, it was cold enough. Maggie and Andrew stared wide-eyed and monitored every action, particularly the force Dad applied to extract the cork.
“Righto, come on everybody, let’s eat.”
A feast of dishes lay spread on the big kwila dining table and each took it in turn to struggle with the sheer weight of the solid kwila dining chairs as they moved to sit down. The conversation during dinner centred solely upon Wewak, that beautiful, little township on the north coast of the New Guinea mainland. It was a lively conversation that bubbled and flowed; the children joined in with the adults with memories of events, people and places, all familiar to everyone.
“Let’s move through to the lounge so Marcus can get the dishes done in peace,” suggested Maree.
“There you are, Terri.” Hairy placed the liqueur glass next to Terri’s coffee. “And one for you, darl,” handing the second to Maree. He collected his own glass, sank into his favourite chair, and relaxed.
The girls were already back into conversation about Wewak when Hairy decided a little bit of Neil Diamond’s ‘Hot August Night’ was in order, making sure the decibel level was within Maree’s tolerance.
“Ah, that made a difference,” Hairy thought.
Both women tapped in time to the music.
“I’m sorry, Terri, I must excuse myself. Duty calls. Can I pour you another Bailey’s before I go?”
“Yes, please,” was the answer. Maree and Terri spoke in unison.
Hairy went to the fridge, retrieved the bottle, and topped up both glasses.
“Righto kids, you’re off to bed as well. Say goodnight”.
Turning to Terri, Hairy bent and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“Great to see you again — and little Dominic. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon anyway. You’re not going back ‘til Wednesday, are you?”
“No, see you tomorrow, take care.”
“Night, darl,” as he kissed and hugged Maree.
“Goodnight children, kiss please and I would like you both in bed by the time I go to sleep.”
“Okay, Dad, we’re going now,” said Maggie, Andrew following.
“I’ll lock up now,” Hairy said as he walked out the door.
“Okay,” Maree replied.
Andrew and Maggie prepared for bed, did the goodnight thing and reluctantly shuffled off. Meanwhile, the girls settled down with their drinks for a good natter, along with a bit of a gossip about who was not strictly keeping to their marriage vows.
Papua New Guinea was one of the most difficult testing arenas for the sanctity of marriage and both women had seen many a marital turmoil bought about from loneliness, alcohol or despair.
“I’m a bit concerned about Marcus, Terri. He’s latched onto this highland bird and she’s been bringing all her friends and relations in. Honestly, it’s nothing for there to be ten to twenty people down the back. I’m just concerned that our clothes and things will start disappearing. You know what it’s like.”
“Didn’t you kick them all out?”
“Yes, Hairy did a couple of nights ago. I’ve never seen him get so mad with the locals. He’s usually very understanding. Now the rule is she’s allowed in, but her wontoks are banned. They didn’t like being kicked out. I just hope that they don’t try some sort of pay-back.”
“Still, he had to do what he did, Maree. If he hadn’t, you would have had them all sleeping down there.”
“Yes, I realise that but starting this company, whilst it’s been a great achievement, we seem to have made a lot of enemies by the mere fact of being successful. James Booker hates Hairy’s guts, you know, and it’s just pure jealousy because he doesn’t have control of the most successful Company in the Sepik Primary Producers’ portfolio. He’s the one behind getting Jonathan here without consulting Hairy. I’m just so pleased that Hairy’s going to change that, and stay on to manage the place. Even if it’s just for spite’s sake. Oh, aren’t I awful[GD11] ?”
“No, not at all, I’ve always quite liked James, but I must admit I can see that he likes to control everything.”
“Then there’s Little Hitler and his crew. They can’t stand seeing a locally owned company breaking into their monopoly and they’d try anything to stop us.”
“Maree, Hairy’s good. He’s got his finger on the pulse and he’s got a great ally in Geoff. There’s only one thing that concerns me. I think he should give away the flying side altogether, because I don’t think anyone can do both. You have a lot of staff now, and you know as well as I do that every single one of them is a problem — in the nicest way, of course.”
“You’re probably right, Terri. It’s been a long day and I’m buggered. Let’s call it a day and continue with all this tomorrow,” yawned Maree, as she rose to her feet.
“Yes, I agree.”
“Now Terri, have I given you everything you need, towels, facecloth, etcetera? You’re okay?”
“Maree, go to bed, you’re just about asleep on your feet. Night-night, sleep tight.”
“Night, Terri, dear friend.”
Maree stumbled to the bathroom, cleaned her teeth, used the toilet, stripped her clothes off and slid into the water-bed.
Cuddling up close to her man, she fell asleep immediately.
The luminous hands on Terri’s travel alarm clock read half-past three.
She felt petrified.
The French doors were ajar, restricted from opening any further by the bed where she was lying. There was a bamboo pole extended over her bed and it had just lifted her red blouse off the door handle where she had placed it. The pole, with blouse suspended passed in front of her face and disappeared out the door.
She watched in horror. She was shaking.
Even with the flood lighting, she could only make out one person through the opaque glass. As soon as the pole and blouse disappeared, she quickly and silently eased out of bed and ran straight to Maree and Hairy’s room. She gently shook Hairy’s arm. He awoke suddenly, sitting bolt upright, her nerves reacted, and her heart raced.
“Shsssh,” she said, placing her finger across her lips. “There’s someone breaking into my room,” she whispered.
By now, Maree was sitting up, too.
“How many are out there, Terri?” Hairy asked in whispered tones.
Throwing the covers back quickly and donning a pair of shorts to cover his nudity, he pulled on a pair of slip-on shoes.
“I could only see one, Hairy.”
“Right, I’ll get the bastard.”
He knew Terri was experienced enough and he was able to trust her observation. If she saw one that meant there were probably two or three. His plantation experience gave him the knowledge of their likely mode of attack, should that be their intention. However, just in case…
“Maree, call the cops, they might help sort things out when I catch these buggers.”
He unlocked the front door, raced across the veranda and around the corner, noting Terri’s bedroom door was still ajar. No, they had gone – they must have had a key, he thought, those deadlocks could not be picked.
Passing the car park, he scanned the driveway; the hibiscus tunnel could not hide anyone. They must be down the back. Terri and Maree watched him head down the path towards their servant’s house. They lost sight of him as he reached the perimeter of the floodlighting and the bushes obscured their view. They clung to each other with fear, knowing full well, the dangers of this primitive New Guinea culture.
As he neared Marcus’s house, Hairy noticed two murky figures ahead. And there was a rustle in the bushes to his left. His shoulders lurched back as he felt a terrifying icy feeling go down the full length of his spine. As he glanced back over his shoulder two more figures appeared.
“Shit, why didn’t I grab the baseball bat?” he chided himself.
“Fuckin’ hell, I see six and that probably means twelve at least. I’m bloody surrounded.”
He was surprised to hear himself saying it aloud at the same time as he was thinking. “Marcus is either bailed up or dead already.”
The adrenalin started to pump as he recalled his plantation management training from years before.
“Whatever you do, don’t run, cover your back, smile, go for the ringleader and don’t show any fear. Easier said than done, thank God for the adrenalin,” he smiled to himself and remained cool.
As his eyes began to adjust to the darkness, he realised the natives were closing in on him in the expectation that he would break and run. Then with their fleet-footedness, they would cut him down from behind. He kept Marcus’s house firmly at his back.
“Come on, you old, mother fuckers you want to fight me, come and get me. Who’s your leader? He’s got no balls.” Hairy taunted in Pidgin English.
Sure enough, their leader showed himself, armed with a club over his shoulder and his face painted black. With glistening skin from the liberal coating of pig grease and plumes of the bird of paradise feathers flowing from his headdress, he was certainly a disconcerting figure. He was now just slightly ahead of the pack quietly issuing orders to his followers in their native tongue. Hairy noted the ugly-looking club over his shoulder – no, it was a long handled axe, an even more uncomfortable sight.
The tribesmen in their traditional arse gras skirts and head-dress glimmered as their greased bodies moved through the tree-mottled moonlight. They too were armed for a fight – some with bows and arrows in hand, others with war clubs or axes.
In one of those split-seconds of clarity that come in times of extreme danger, Hairy wondered why these tribesmen in full traditional war dress had a key to his house. If they were just committing a burglary there would be no point in having a key, and all this worried him. Not for long, though. Rright now he had other things to think about.
Hairy mentally lined the leader up. As soon as he was within range, he was going to get the hardest right that Hairy could possibly throw. It was his only chance; he had to take out the leader. Then perhaps the others would take fright and possibly clear out.
The attack cry went out and an arrow thudded into his left shoulder and threw him back against the wall: the barbs began settling themselves into his flesh. The pain had not registered and his adrenalin kept him focused on the leader. He snapped the long cane shaft from the head of the arrow and was ready for them. Another arrow shattered the fibro-cement panel behind him, whistling past his right ear.
There was nowhere to go – he could not escape – he was trapped.
The primal attack instinct was instant; Hairy left the protection of the wall and with a blood-curdling yell leapt into the affray. As their leader raised his axe, Hairy’s right fist caught him square on the jaw and down he went. Immediately the other tribesmen rushed in from behind Hairy and their clubs descended in unison, splitting – crushing – smashing – one on top of the other.
It was all over in a minute.
He went down on his knees, trying to keep focused, struggling to retain consciousness. It would be so easy, so comfortable, just to sink to the ground and stay there. But there was another vivid vision filtering through the haze — Maree and the children. He must get back.
There was no second wave. The attackers picked up their number one man and disappeared into the darkness. Hairy groped around for the corner of the building and using it for support rose unsteadily to his feet. He clung there for a moment steeling his mind and spirit to perform what his body did not want to do. Staggering and reeling like a Friday night drunk, he stumbled on his way. Refusing to give in to the darkness that threatened to engulf him, he concentrated on placing one slow foot after another on the long, long trek back to the house.
“Did you hear that, Terri? Oh, please God, let him be alright.” exclaimed Maree.
“It doesn’t sound good, Maree. Here he comes now, he needs help.”
Hairy appeared out of the shadows and stumbled into the floodlighting. Listing to the right, he staggered down the path – the awful gashes in his head spurting blood – leaving a crazy trail of crimson footprints.
“Quick, Maree, quick! Give me a hand, one of us either side, we must keep him on his feet,” Terri ordered.
The two women moved forward with welcoming and willing hands but the blood streaming down his torso made his half-naked body slippery, hard to grip.
“How bizarre,” thought Maree, “his white shorts are red.”
Between the two of them, they dragged Hairy up the steps and onto the veranda. His legs ceased to function as they eased him into a chair.
“God, darling, what have they done to you?” sobbed Maree, seeking rational answers for a situation where there weren’t any.
“Thanks, girls,” he groaned.
“I got one o’ them. Did they make, mmuch o’ a mmmess – of… ?”
He sighed heavily, his eyes rolled back, the head fell forward and he crumpled in the chair. Terri started to panic but taking his wrist, she was relieved to feel a good strong pulse.
“Maree, clean towels, quick!” she commanded, her professional nursing training keeping an automatic balance between the seriousness of the injury and the limited resources available.
Maree complied and was back, in a flash.
“Thanks, kiddo.” Terri grabbed a towel and gently wrapped it around his head.
Maree dropped to her knees. No words came; she just hugged him and cried.
“Maree honey, could you ring the hospital, tell them what’s happened and get on to an ‘expat’ doctor if you can and have them send an ambulance. Then ring Geoff and see if he could lend us a hand. I’ll look after him for you.”
Terri kept trying to think of everything that must be done.
“Oh and, Maree, get the chief medical officer on his after-hours number. That’ll probably get things moving a lot quicker.”
Terri thought, “That’s good, it’s got Maree doing something.”
Removing the towel, to change it, she could see the white bone splinters and realised the potential seriousness of the situation.
“John Richards, my dear, dear friend, it looks like a severe fracture of the skull and the sooner we get you into the haus-sik, the better.”
There was no response.