In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Mary Rokonadravu’s ‘The Nightwatch’ is the winning entry from the Pacific.
Years later, Poasa recounted the miracle of the bauxite mine – how this hole in the ground lifted him from poor cassava-farming villager to owner of a Toshiba washing machine, a green twelve-wick kerosene stove and a tin house at Navuni Settlement in Suva. He also found a wife. Elesi. Alice in English. Elzz on the street. She was a seer in the Church of the Living Waters. Could see evil spirits in the form of one-eyed roosters perched on the backs of people. Cast the evil spirits into stray dogs. Now follower of American President Donald Trump and televangelists Paula White and Jesse Duplantis, experts of mass digital prayers while thousands phoned in to transfer money into bank accounts in exchange for miracles. Reverend Elesi, for that was now his wife’s name, was still in the early stages of discussion for m-Paisa transfers through Vodafone Fiji and Western Union for rural givers. But they were now preparing to move into a $3,000-per-month three-bedroom flat at Rifle Range in Vatuwaqa, a gift borne by their church members. They had come a long way.
Their relationship had quietly transitioned since they had met under what churchgoers would deem seedy circumstances behind the Vatuwaqa Bakery. He had paid for her services at ten dollars for a blowjob and five dollars for a hand-job. He liked her because she did not talk. He liked her more because she smelled of Colgate toothpaste. He found peace in the commercial transition. There was no cheating. No one attempted to take from him. She worked to make him come in the sweet blackness of the hibiscus bush behind the Chinese bakery. She did not stop until he came. Took a sip from a bottle of tap water afterward. Pressed a clump of toothpaste into her mouth. Ran it along her gums and swallowed it with another swill of water. Pulled his underwear up. Zipped his pants.
He thought of her endlessly. On the bus. In bed. During rugby matches on television. At RB Patel Supermarket in Laucala Beach. In the queue at ANZ Bank. Even in church. He fought erections. He was sure his penis would fall off. He dreamed of green tomatoes. A beached two-headed shark. An old woman eating hot yams. Sometimes the old woman had his detached dick in her hand. Shrivelled. Limp. His eyes opening to the morning chill of the tin-walled bedroom as the hag smacked it on a rock. Over weeks of dreaming he assured himself he could interpret his own dreams: the green tomatoes, the beached shark and the old woman eating hot yams were signs of his discomfort, loneliness, and pain. But he needed specific definitions of his self-diagnosed condition. He needed an oracle. The watchman at The Palace of Carpets which stood next to the Printing Press told him of one in Kinoya – off a short feeder road behind the sewerage treatment plant.
The old daurairai, the-one-who-sees, was gifted the standard one packet of Benson & Hedges No. 20 cigarettes, a red lighter, a Crest No. 18 chicken, four kilos of flour, and a kilo of yaqona. Poasa added Maggi noodles. The old man mixed a bowl of yaqona, put his wrinkled right hand into it, and said Poasa needed a woman.
‘But what do you see?’ asked Poasa, peering into the bowl of mud-coloured yaqona. He was dying for a smoke and a shit.
‘I see a snake,’ said the daurairai, ‘Not the whole snake. Just the head. There is a crack on the head of the snake.’
‘Where is the crack?’
‘In the middle.’
‘Magaitinamu! You mean like a dick?’
‘That’s a sad dick,’ said the daurairai. ‘You will slowly die. If you don’t satisfy your dick, it will turn inward and poke your heart. That’ll kill you.’
Poasa let out a hard fart. Akin in decibel to the common Diwali firecracker known as the woodpecker. A loud pop.
‘Caita!’ said the daurairai. ‘Fuck!’
The oily fish-and-chips frustration couched in his anal crevice since lunch in Nabua’s Happy Garden Restaurant came out in a billowing plume. Afterward, it was said Poasa farted because the daurairai had his thumb pressed on his arse. Not inside but on it with little pressure. That Poasa had eaten roti and tuna curry over lunch. That the boys peeping through holes in the wall smelled it too. No one cared to question how the boys knew about the daurairai’s thumb pressure. But Poasa did not care. He bought Jardine hair food for the hibiscus bush appointment. Plus, a coconut-fragranced Palmolive shampoo for dry hair and ten kilos of long grain rice for Elesi. She wept. She also moved in that night. This, to Poasa, was the greatest gift God willed for him. Poasa believed that like Jesus, he had rescued and given new life to a Mary Magdalene.
His mother rode the dawn milk-truck into Suva on Saturday. She rode without river prawns to sell at the market. She did not even take rourou for her son, or his favourite, half-ripe plantains from the garden next to their cookhouse. Neither did she take the ripe pineapples on the border of their yam plantation. Hers was a factory-tight coil of galvanised anger at the pit of her stomach. Bracing to spring like a cornered dog. Her cousins had brought word of Poasa’s marriage to a young sex worker from the squatter settlement in Navuni. She’d never been to the settlement but was aware her son had leased two perches. Built a tin house. Strung electricity into his house with an extension cord from a power socket six houses away. His house was fed electricity from a retired PWD plumber’s shack from six in the evening to midnight at the rate of fifteen dollars per week. There were a few sparks when it rained but his faith in God was big. He was a praying man, and the wires were covered with the blood of Jesus. He painted the house in Dulux Tall Ships blue, several sheets of corrugated roofing iron he had bought from the Shiva Temple in Samabula. The old camphor-steeped dhoti-clad priest selling it at a discount. He used the last of his money from the Chinese mine lease for this. Then he got a job as a watchman at the Printing Press at Vatuwaqa.
The plan was that his mother would come on fortnight-long to month-long sojourns in Suva. To wash his clothes. Cook lamb flap stews. Plant gardenias to keep the smell of the mangrove soil down in the evenings. He was to save up for a flush toilet to replace the pit he was using before he could bring his mother over. The plan was firm until Elesi winked at him.
Elesi stood sniffing glue outside the bakery. Poasa almost dropped the long loaf he was carrying. He walked away with as much dignity as he could muster. He felt her eyes on his back until he turned the corner into Viria East Road. By the time he inserted the key into the lock at the main gate of the printery, his feet were no longer on earth. He was flying. No woman had ever winked at him. He was in love. Full one thousand percent.
The next night he slowed his pace upon entering the bakery. She winked again and signalled ten dollars for a blowjob. The first time she braced herself against the hibiscus bush to take him in her mouth, he knew he wanted her to be the mother of his children. He had been, until then, a virgin.
He did not know they were quite visible to the bakery boys and Chong Toy the old Chinese baker and owner of the business from their first-floor washroom. The lightbulb had cracked, and they used the washroom in a shroud of darkness. They also had a good view of the hibiscus bush.
‘Hey Chong,’ one of the boys said the first night, ‘See Alice she fuck the watchman from Printing Press. In our hibiscus. They dinging there.’
‘What?’ asked Chong through the cigarette dangling from his mouth, ‘What you say, huh?’
‘Alice! She dinging there,’ pointing to the hibiscus bush through the mildewed wall of the bakery.
‘Who she ding-ding?’
‘New guard. Printing Press.’
When Chong pulled out the first batch of hot bread tins from the wood-fired oven late that night he saw a hard-baked, crusty brown penis with two perfect balls attached to it, an arrow pointing at a poor attempt of a vagina on one of the loaves. A few wormlike threads emerged from the scrotum.
The cigarette fell off Chong’s mouth as he cracked laughing.
‘Hey, we gonna put in to pay for this bread,’ he said afterward.
‘If we pay, we eat it,’ said one of the boys. ‘You gonna eat the dick and the two ball. Vosota, only next time we gonna make the dick big then you gonna get full!’
‘Next time you make it, I gonna make you sit on it,’ said Chong as he turned the pan over and the dick, balls, and pubic hair fell onto the large wooden table.
Poasa’s mother rode the dawn milk-truck into Suva. Her nephew Samuela drove for the Rewa Dairy Limited. He began his route at five in the morning, collecting from small dairy farmers dotted along the Waidewara flats along the banks of the Waidina River in darkness. The truck’s headlights illuminating thick mists. There was the lowing of cows. Hides warm to the hand. Bats gorged on low-hanging breadfruit. Once, Samuela had reached out and put his hand around a grown bat feeding thus. The creature shrieked, spreading its black wings wide. He never forgot how soft, how like silk it was, slipping out of his grasp. Its wild heart. Taut flesh. The rush of about one hundred other bats, wings pulsing in a mist-wet glide over the low forests of Serea. By first light, they would be tucked into their wings like oversized ebony cocoons hanging from the gnarled arms of middle range trees under the forest canopy. Bellies full. Only juveniles rested late. Their young bodies new, learning the curve of the world, every slope and tilt of the earth, bones learning the cold rising from rivers that ran as dark threads on the flat regions below. Their eyes suddenly blinded by the first rays of the sun. It took time to learn to home. When to abandon the lush temptation of a red mango. The call of a bursting jackfruit. The tug of a cluster of sweet papayas. How to smell the turn of night.
Samuela turned to tell his silent aunt about the bat then quickly held his tongue. She was seated tight as a soldier at drill: stomach in, chest out, shoulders back and down, hands glued to the side. He knew it would take Poasa some effort to ease her. He did not envy his cousin the task. He looked into the mist and whistled a gospel tune. At Valelevu, about a kilometre before the Rewa Dairy factory, he put her in a taxi. Slipped twenty dollars into her green handbag.
Poasa was an only son. His mother came with a mission. When she reached Navuni she was welcomed with the smell of rotting uncollected rubbish that stood at the end of the street. She gagged. Quickly paid the driver. Sought directions from a child of about twelve.
‘Do you know a man called Poasa?’
‘Poasa the fisherman, or Poasa married to the kalavo?’
‘Kalavo?’ asked Poasa’s mother with a straight face.
‘Yes, kalavo. The rat. Everybody calls the woman that and she’s married to the second Poasa. Rats make money on the street, that’s what my mother says.’
‘Take me to the second Poasa.’
Her son’s house stood at the edge of the mangroves. His share of eleven thousand dollars from the Chinese mining company was transformed into a tin shack on a marsh. Mangrove stumps protruded dangerously from the swamp. Old car tyres retrieved from a dump were lined into a makeshift walkway to the house. Her eyes could tell he had put the house together. He had no expertise in carpentry. The piles were high. Crooked. Thin wood posts fashioned out of mangrove trunks. There was no squaring or levelling. It was a patchwork of wood and tin nailed one over the other. The windows were holes in the walls. He had cut out sheets of the thick plastic the Toshiba washing machine came in and nailed these to the windows.
The front door was from a public convenience. MEN it said in bold black paint. With the Fijian translation, TAGANE. The message: TP 50 cents was followed by an arrow pointing to the right. Unknown to her at the time was the fact that the back door said WOMEN with the translation YALEWA. The message about the sale of toilet paper at fifty cents. The lady in the booth rolled three times around her fist and tore portions. If you were to have a shit you prayed a large woman with a huge fist was in or you would buy two to three portions. Poasa had not bothered cleaning the doors. A few streaks of aged, matted brown were at the centre of the door. The section around the handle was also a matted black. Heaven knew how many thousand hands had touched this piece of wood. How many unwashed after holding their penises over urinals. How many unwashed after changing their sanitary napkins in toilet stalls. How many unwashed fingers with dollops of faeces that cut through the thin paper.
She thought of the old but sturdy house her husband had built from the sweat of his brow, harvesting truckloads of yams and dalo. He paid the Indian carpenter, Ambika Prasad, to come up to the village for two months to raise the house from the ground. Theirs was the first house in the village to have bedrooms, three spacious ones. Two beds and a kitchen cupboard had also been made from the leftover wood. She thought of the water-seal toilet that was required to be twenty metres away from the main house and the cookhouse. Unlike most homes that used offcuts of wood and tin to build a toilet as an afterthought, Ambika Prasad, seeing how she cleaned out and aired their current toilet, lay a good concrete foundation for the new one, installed the standard rural design bowl from the Ministry of Health, and put up a tight tongue-and-groove wall. Well ahead of its time, before any house in the capital, this toilet had a river pebble floor; Ambika Prasad carted loads of pebbles and set it into the soft concrete. He brought rocks, created a lush corner for wild ferns potted into cleaned paint tins. She thought of the uci plants her mother-in-law had encouraged her to plant around it to freshen the air. Keep the Evil Eye at bay. Three mokosoi trees planted behind the house, for the scenting of coconut oil and the breeze around the house. The cold mountain river plunging down basalt rocks. The steam of a chilled world rising from the surface. From patches of the river under the shade of dense forest foliage, cold steam rose even from the speckled surface in the hottest sun. She almost closed her eyes.
But here she was at the edge of a degraded salt swamp. There was an incoming oil-sheened tide carrying in plastic bottles, plastic bags, and half-opened garbage bags with refuse, rotting leaves and soiled diapers with stagnant hosts of buzzing flies. Above this tide, her son was asleep with a sex worker. She was sure of it. Her urge to berate her son gave way to the urge of wanting to clean this rising filth. She saw an old sasa broom tucked into the remains of a pandanus mat. They were thrown carelessly over a makeshift rail on a porch that could barely seat two grownups. She placed her green handbag under the mat and took the broom. She swept out the old tyres, extracting bottles and tin cans from within. By the time she reached the saltwater edge, about eleven children, the youngest about four years old, had joined. The youngest ones were a snot-nosed crew but eager to pull, push, pick and carry rubbish to a dry patch of land nearby. A woman appeared from somewhere with a couple of old FMF flour sacks. Another group began carting rubbish to the main road where the Suva City Council collectors made one pick-up in the week. Cans and bottles were easy enough to handle. The soiled baby diapers were another story. She used a flat piece of wood to push them along the water toward land where the older children used sticks to lift them into flour sacks. The place was beginning to take a cleaner look. She turned to thank the woman when the door suddenly opened, and her son stood there with a cane knife. Struck it against the tin wall.
‘Ei!’ he shouted, ‘Ei! Lako tani! Dou lako tani!’ Go! Go away!
The children scattered like startled chickens.
‘Poasa. Luvequ,’ she said. My son.
‘Na! Na!’ Mother! His voice shouted. ‘Na cava o mai cakava? O lialia tiko?’ What are you doing here? Are you mad? His voice rose to a shriek when a woman’s voice rose from within the blue shack.
‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Jisu! Jisu!’
She watched her son quieten, making way for his three-day-old wife emerging from the dark shack.
‘Spirit of jealousy!’ she screamed, ‘Spirit of jealousy is here! Jisu! Turaga!’
The young woman’s long crimson nails pointed at Poasa’s mother.
‘Wrong spirit! I command you to come out in Jesus’ name! Out! Out! Out! Jesus!’
Poasa’s mother stood transfixed. She watched her son throw his head back and rock.
But it was the young woman that her eyes rested upon. She was quite dark, and her frizzy hair had been straightened with a hot iron. Her hair could be mistaken for an avian life form, a parrot or a cockatoo. Emerald, crimson, and a rich purple streak brightened her head. Lipstick and mascara were smeared from sleep, neither washed off from the previous night. Or for several days. One could not tell. She was wearing a short skirt. Her stomach protruded from under the lime spaghetti-strap blouse struggling to contain her bosom. Nipples hard.
‘Don’t judge!’ the woman shouted. ‘Spirit of judging in your eyes! Don’t judge! Don’t judge! Vosoti koya, Turaga! Forgive her! Forgive her, Lord! In the name of Jesus!’
The truth was that Poasa’s mother, and indeed the rest of the neighbours, could not do anything, let alone have a coherent thought. Another woman emerging from the row of houses behind Poasa’s mother walked forward with a kitchen knife.
‘Hey! Saqamua! What happened to you? You climb Poasa last night and turn into a preacher? His dick turn you into an evangelist? You think we born yesterday?’
‘Lord, forgive them!’ cried out Elesi. ‘Vosoti ratou! Hallelujah! Glory!’
‘Oy!’ shouted the knife-wielding woman, ‘Last night you suck Poasa behind the bakery! What? You scared of Poasa’s mother now? Don’t pretend to be holy-holy! Qaralevu!’
‘Au revevaka ga na Kalou!’ Elesi shouted. I only fear God! ‘Who is this woman who just came today? I don’t know her!’ She took the green handbag and flung it.
Poasa’s mother retrieved the bag from the water. All the words she had brought along with her sat mute under her tongue. Her eyes were on her son who was now speaking a language she could not understand.
‘See! My husband is now speaking in tongues! Vinaka Turaga! Emeni! Emeni!’
A crowd had gathered and there was laughter all around. Many were filming the spectacle on smartphones. Some, livestreaming on Facebook.
‘Oy!’ came a shout from within the crowd. ‘How do we know Poasa is speaking God’s message? Who will interpret?’
‘I will!’ said Elesi. ‘The message is for all of you stubborn unbelievers! Repent and return to God! Or the fires of Hell will burn this city! The Lord is angry!’
‘Wait!’ cried out another voice from the crowd. ‘What does God say about Poasa’s dick?’
Elesi mumbled something and the crowd roared.
Poasa’s mother slowly inched into the crowd. Retraced her steps to the end of the street. She had seen fights and disagreements in the village. Nothing like this. Walking slowly through the mud path, she inched her way between lines of homes built in the manner her son’s was built. There were both Indians and Fijians, and those of mixed race. There was no piped water. Electricity was stolen from the FEA posts on the main street and fed into several homes which then sub-fed others. She saw extension cords snaking through houses, trees, and pinned to old forty-four-gallon diesel drums. The smell of wet mangrove mud blended with animal and human faeces was thick in the air. She walked a little faster. Upon reaching the end of Navuni, she continued toward Fletcher Road. She was sweating now. Needed water.
Turning a corner, she saw a little bakery. Chong Toy Bread Shop. There was a small retail section. The entire frontage was taken by advertisements for Vodafone and Digicel recharge cards, Punja’s Flour, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta, and Pepsi drinks. The bakery was deserted. She stepped in. She was greeted with the smell of fresh bread – a reminder of her husband, Poasa’s late father who bought several loaves after every sale of root crops in Suva or Nausori. He always kept about three loaves for them. Shared the other loaves with his uncles and cousins. She quickly pushed the thought aside. A radio crackled. The volume low. There was a fiery preacher speaking brimstone against homosexuals. She stood quietly waiting for someone to see her.
The bakery boys were asleep upstairs, but Chong and two boys were cooling themselves under the ceiling fan in the bakery section which was curtained off. They saw the elderly woman, Poasa’s mother, in the high ceiling mirror. She was in a bright hibiscus sulu and jaba that reached her ankles. Her hair was combed out neatly in the traditional Fijian buiniga. She carried a green handbag. She was obviously not from the neighbourhood. Chong sent Akuila, one of the better-smelling boys with a neater haircut to serve her.
‘Bula Nau,’ Akuila said.
‘Forgive me,’ Poasa’s mother said. ‘Can you please give me a glass of water? And do you have a place I can sit at for a little while? I only need to rest for a few minutes. Then I’ll go.’
It was a strange request. Akuila was about to defer to Chong when he called out from the back room.
‘Mai! Mai!’ Come!
Chong freed a wood bench in the coolest part of the room. Akuila followed with a glass of water. It was a strange affair. They had never been visited by such a well-dressed Fijian woman. She was elderly. Regal in appearance. Dignified. Akuila took a sasa broom and began sweeping out dust and flour. Chong, the owner of the bread shop, sat opposite her.
‘Nau, we make the tea for you. You eat some bread too.’ He sent Peni, the second boy up to fetch clean plates and cutlery. Afterward they would agree that none knew why they behaved thus but here they were, making the woman comfortable. By the time Chong and the boys spread a clean tablecloth, set the cutlery, and brewed tea, the woman was in tears.
‘Vinaka! Vinaka!’ she kept repeating. ‘Thank you!’
Chong watched the two boys slip to the back. He reached into a cupboard next to him and brought out a clean hand towel, one which the boys used during the night shift. The woman wiped her tears. She sat quietly, Chong’s hand on her back. Then she quietly sipped tea. She wanted to talk but Chong signalled her not to.
So here they were, sitting, when the radio suddenly came alive, and they heard a flurry of footsteps on Fletcher Road. The boys asleep upstairs came running down.
‘Hey! There’s another coup! The gang marching in town, they going to parliament and taking over!’
The other boys knew the routine and worked fast. They ran outside and pulled the barbed gates shut, slipped a large padlock to lock it down. Several padlocks, in fact. This was not the first military coup. By the time they came in to shut the doors and barricade the windows from looters, people from the settlement were running with rocks and grabbing handfuls of gravel to fling at Indian taxi drivers and at Indian homes. They already knew that not a single taxi or private vehicle would stop for anyone. The capital would be emptying fast. One of the boys ran upstairs to switch on the television. Mass looting was already underway. RB Patel Supermarket at upper Waimanu Road was being looted by civilians. Cartloads of liquor and frozen chicken and lamb chops were being rolled out its entrance. Two separate sections of the city were burning. There was a shop-owner weeping on the main street. Young boys ran up and down Victoria Parade beating and punching Indian drivers for no reason. The reporter and the cameraman reporting the news were in tears. The reporter kept on talking through his tears until a shower of rocks hit their vehicle. They left the camera rolling. In front of the television, the youngest of the bakers, fifteen-year-old Jemesa, was in tears, and he did not even know why.
Chong and his boys ran to check on their fire extinguishers. They had three. They checked the taps. Water was running and the boys began collecting in their largest buckets and containers. But they stared at Chong.
‘See? We tell you to buy the generator, but you want to keep your money!’
They were still talking when someone crashed through the bushes. Rushed in through the back door. It was an Indian taxi driver. His taxi was burning on Fletcher Road. One of the boys took his hand and got him to sit beside their lady visitor.
It was then that they realised that she was very still. Her head a little forward. Chong pried her fingers from her empty cup of tea and held her hand. He held her hand in his and wept like a child. The Indian taxi driver wept. The boys clutched the wooden table in the far corner of the bakery, their shoulders heaving.
It was silent in the bakery that night. As the fires died down and orange embers lit a city in darkness, Chong, the boys and the Indian taxi driver settled to sit the night out. They had gone out in the early evening, placing the Fijian woman in the bread van. For the first time, Chong did not drive. He held her in his lap. He and the youngest – Jemesa. The Indian taxi driver drove them to the CWM Hospital, to the mortuary. Chong had her handbag. He found her nephew’s work number. He would call the next day. On the way back the Indian taxi driver realised he had urinated in his pants earlier that morning. He was dry now, but the smell hit his nostrils hard. Chong gave him a change of clothes. Soap to shower. A towel.
For now, they sat. Unsure whether they would be looted or burnt in the night. FEA shut electricity down on the whole island. The taps were dry. Only police and military vehicles moved around slowly.
‘We alive, eh?’ Chong whispered, ‘Good we alive.’
In the settlement, a new prophetess was being hailed by its residents. After all, as she had predicted, the city did burn. Beside her, Poasa wept.
In the bakery, the motley men sat chewing bread in the darkness. Nothing moved. Every now and then a smoke-filled wind blew from the south-east. Their bodies tensed to sense approaching fire. Then relaxed. Only red and pink embers glowed in several charcoaled shops in Suva. Bats from the President’s House had flown across the city skyline hours ago, high above the black smoke.
The peninsula was silent.
Photograph © Vino Rex