A family matter: Chips MacKellar

(Originally published Una Voce, March 2000, and reprinted in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 177)

Chips Mackellar was at the Ela Beach Court House for five years. He said this story would be the last of his series of stories about PNG as he believed he had fully covered his time there. He left the Ela Beach Court House – and PNG – in 1981.

When J.K. McCarthy was due to retire, the Administrator sent him on a final tour of PNG to say goodbye to all his old friends and colleagues. There were official functions, gatherings of kiaps, and informal meetings for him all over PNG; a final tribute by a grateful country to this great man.

When this farewell tour took J.K. to the Milne Bay District, I was then ADC Samarai. And during a lull in the official function in his honour, J.K. took me aside and gave me some fatherly advice. “You know, Chips,” he said, “the people call me Makati. I am not Mister McCarthy, or Sir, or Taubada. Even on the New Guinea side, I am not addressed as Master, and they don’t even call me Keith. To most Papua New Guineans, I have no other name, nor any title. I am just plain McCarthy.”

He must have sensed my surprise at this strange form of address, because he continued, “It is the greatest honour which these people can bestow upon expatriates like us. Because, when they no longer consider you to have any title at all, it is because they have accepted you as part of their world. Anyone can call you “Mister” and equals address each other by their given names. Anyone can do that. But when the people address you simply by your surname and nothing else, it means they have placed you into a special category. It means you are especially special to them, part of their great Melanesian social landscape.” He let this sink in for a moment, and then he added, “It’s like winning your spurs, old boy.” And then he concluded, “and one day, don’t be surprised if they call you nothing else but Mackellar.”

Years later, on my final assignment in PNG before I also retired, I was busily engaged in setting up the Ela Beach Court House. It was a high pressure posting, made that way because of the incredible backlog of traffic cases. Simple necessity meant that to keep abreast of the work load we needed to clear at least 100 cases per day. To do this, I knew that I needed the best staff the Law Department could supply, and the best office lay out. So I accepted the position of District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach, on condition that I could design my own court house, and select my own court staff.

I deliberately chose an open office design, with no separate accommodation for magistrates, and while the old Legislative Council building at Ela Beach was being converted into a traffic court for me, I scoured the other court houses and the Law Department elsewhere for my soon to be appointed very exclusive court house staff. I deliberately overlooked the old Papuan court house clerks who had been in service for years and years, because I knew that the pace and the new procedures I had in mind would be so alien to them, as to make their transition to Ela Beach an unfair burden on them. Instead, I chose younger, better educated but less experienced officers, whom I considered better able to accept a faster pace and new procedures.

Similarly, I alerted the Traffic Superintendent that I didn’t want our court time wasted by doddering old police prosecutors, if there were younger, better educated officers who could do the same job faster.

By the time we were ready to start, I still had not found from the staff available elsewhere, a suitable candidate for the final staff position. So I advertised this position in the Post Courier. And from the many qualified applicants, I chose a recent graduate from Sogeri High School, a 19-year-old girl named Selina. Eyebrows were raised all over Port Moresby when I made this selection, but from all the candidates for this final position, Selina was in my opinion the best mix of academic acumen, youth, exuberance, and talent, and the fact that she was totally inexperienced in the established court house procedures of the time was exactly what I needed. Untrammeled by the then currently stagnant court house processes, she would, I knew, breathe vitality and efficiency into the new court procedures I had in mind for Ela Beach.

And since I had selected my staff principally on the basis of talent and youth, when it all came together, and we started operations at Ela Beach Court House, I found that I was old enough to be a father to all of them and that I had been in PNG longer than most of them, even though they of course had all been born there. Some of my clerks were the sons and daughters of some of the old native clerks who had served with me in various parts of PNG, and some of the police prosecutors and the traffic police who serviced the court house, were the sons of police who had been on my first patrols. I was reminded of Kipling’s Lord Roberts, who –  

Before his eyes grew dim,
He had seen the faces of the sons,
Whose sires had served with him.

And a few days after we started, I suddenly recalled where I might have seen Selina before.

“Was your father a policeman?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, “and he still is. He is an instructor at Bomana Police College.” “I think he and I might have been on a few patrols together,” I said. “At Madang,” she said, and she laughed “you had a motor bike. Remember?”

And I did remember. I remembered the sweet faced nine-year-old nymphet who used to hang around the Madang Police Station, and wander over to the District Office where she used to cadge rides on our motor bikes. For some reason she always preferred mine. I telephoned her father at Bomana Police College. For a while we reminisced about the old days in Madang, and then I said, “Why didn’t you tell me Selina was applying for a job with me?” “If she was to win it,” he said, “I wanted her to win it on her merits. You know, family pride.” “She did win on her merits,” I said. “Thank you, Sir,” he replied. And a few days later she brought into the court house, a faded photograph of herself, a spindly legged but beautiful child, sitting on my motor bike outside the District Office in Madang.

I had forgotten all about this photo until Selina brought it in, and then I remembered having given it to her father, ten years previously. Everyone had a good laugh over it, but it was a reminder to all of us, that I had known all of them before, at other times and in other places when we were all a lot younger. And now that we were all drawn together in the important business of running the traffic court, our association together was in terms of the traditional Melanesian way, almost a family affair. And amongst this court house family, Selina soon played a major role. Being the daughter of a senior policeman, she already knew the young traffic police who used to drop in to chat with her, and she made good use of this friendship by giving them my summonses to serve, and my warrants to execute. So, while the other court houses in Port Moresby had to wait weeks or months to get their summonses served, ours were usually served the same day Selina gave them to the police, and this of course improved our processing efficiency.

And that was how the court house operated. The hard work, dedication, and diligence which these young Papua New Guineans displayed was not because of the public service salaries they were paid, but because we were like a family, running a family business. And like a family, when time permitted, I used to take them to lunch at the nearby Ela Beach RSL, and I took them sailing on my yacht Nialyn, which was named after one of them. And gradually, as we bonded closer together, I detected, ever so slowly, with the ghost of J.K. McCarthy guiding them, that amongst themselves they began to address me and refer to me simply as “Mackellar”.

My memory of J.K.’s explanation was supplemented one day by Selina’s very own. She was talking to an Australian lawyer about a particular case and he wanted to know where the papers were. “Mackellar has them,” she said. “You shouldn’t refer to the Magistrate like that,” he admonished her, “you should call him Mister Mackellar”. Selina hesitated momentarily as if searching for an explanation which might satisfy a lawyer. “It’s a family matter,” I heard her say. “We can’t call him Mister because he is our papa. And because he is our papa, we can’t call him by his first name, because it would be embarrassing for us.” Then she added, “so we call him Mackellar. It is a family name”. And to make sure he got the message, she concluded …..”Our family.” And soon I was being addressed simply as Mackellar, not only by the court staff, but also by the police, and also the PNG witnesses and the PNG defendants in the cases before me, and all other PNG people who came in contact with me. So, I had finally made it. I was part of the Melanesian landscape at last as JK might have said. And so a year went by, with everything operating perfectly.

But even the best families have their problems, and one day the auditors found K6000 missing from our court fines. It was a discrepancy between the fines listed in the court register, and the amounts recorded in the receipt book. Since Selina normally operated both, I asked her for an explanation, just as a matter of routine. But I was totally unprepared for her response. It took me completely by surprise. She covered her face with her hands, and burst into tears. Then slowly, through wracking sobs, and repeated apologies, in front of all the other staff in our open plan office, she admitted that she had taken the money to help her boyfriend buy a new car. Of course it was partly my fault, because if I had kept a tighter control over the court house finances, she might never have been tempted. But I had patrolled the hinterland of Madang with her father, and given her rides on my motor bike when she was a child, and I had known her for so long that I had trusted her implicitly.

Stealing as a public servant was a serious crime in PNG in those days, and the stealing of court fines by a court house clerk was almost too terrible to even contemplate. So I sent her home, while I considered what to do, and as she left the court house sobbing, the silence amongst the other staff was shattering. We were all stunned into disbelief. And then I did a stupid thing. Of course the obvious result of this theft should have been a prosecution. But we were all so close, and she was such a sweet girl, and she had been such a good clerk that I did not wish to see her life ruined because of a foolish affair of the heart. So, still wondering what to do about it, I rang her father and told him. He heard me out in silence and then hung up. I went to bed that night with the problem still in mind, hoping for a solution other than a prosecution. And I soon got one: a solution not of my choosing, and one so horrible that the memory of it still haunts me to this very day.

About 3am I was woken by the Shift Inspector at Boroko Central Police Station. It was a bail application he said. Such calls at such odd hours were normal for magistrates in Port Moresby in those days. So I got dressed, and drove down to the Station, where I found the operations room was in its usual state of chaos. The phone lines were jammed with reports of assaults and burglaries which were happening at the time all over Port Moresby, and several officers were monitoring by radio, a high speed car chase down Waigani Drive.

The Shift Inspector came in to meet me, and pointed to a young lad sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. He looked vaguely familiar to me, as I took the charge sheet which the Shift Inspector gave me. The charge was grievous bodily harm.

“The victim is one of yours, Mackellar,” the Inspector said gently, and I sensed the sorrow in his voice. Alarmed, I searched the charge sheet for the victim’s name. It was Selina.

“Who did it?” I asked horrified, reading the attached preliminary medical report. The Inspector beckoned the lad in the corner forward. He walked over, and stood before me, nervous but defiant. “Her brother,” the Inspector explained.

And then I remembered him, as I had remembered her, playing around the Madang Police Station, years ago. But that was when they were kids. And now he was a good-looking strapping young lad, and he had beaten Selina within an inch of her life. “Why did you do it,” I asked, still horrified. “You know why,” he said. And then the full impact of my phone call to his father suddenly struck me. Her own family had punished her, more terribly than any court could ever contemplate, for breaking my trust in her, and for bringing disgrace upon the family. It was payback, Melanesian style. “Release him,” I told the Inspector, “it is a family matter.”

Any other police officer might have questioned this decision. But you see, the Inspector had known me for as long as he could remember. His father had been my Sergeant of Police at Lake Murray, so he was part of the family too.

Next morning in the court house, I telephoned Selina’s father to complain about what his son had done to her. “Lucky he got to her before I did,” the father said, unrepentant, “I would have killed her, and then you would have had an even bigger problem to deal with.” And then he added, “And it will get worse if her boyfriend does not repay the money. And he knows that.”

The boyfriend had certainly got the message, and you could have cut the tension with a knife, as the other clerks counted out the K6000 later that morning, when he repaid the money which Selina had taken.

At this stage, we did not know if Selina would live or die, so after work that afternoon I went to the hospital to inquire. Her immediate family had temporarily shunned her, and had not yet been to see her at the hospital, and as I was not part of her immediate family, no one would tell me anything. But outside the intensive care ward, I saw a familiar face. The doctor came out, holding a clipboard, containing Selina’s medical records. The doctor was a graduate from Sydney University, but when I was ADC Samarai, she was still a high school kid at Kwato. I asked the doctor about Selina. “You know I shouldn’t tell you, Mackellar,” she said, “you’re not her immediate family.” “But I’m close enough,” I said, “and I think I am as close to her now, as I was to you, when you were still at Kwato and I used to catch you stealing guavas from the tree in my garden in Samarai. Remember?” And of course, she did remember. She gave me a shy Mona Lisa smile, and without actually breaking her Hippocratic oath, she turned her clipboard around, so I could read Selina’s file. It was mostly medical gobbledegook to me, but I saw enough to know that Selina was only just alive. “Will she live?” I asked tentatively. “Yes,” the doctor said, “given time, she will make a good recovery.” “Call me every day,” I said, “and let me know how she is.” “I will,” the doctor said. And she did. Because she was part of the family too.

The most amazing consequence of this episode, was that no one said anything to me about it. Every policeman in Port Moresby must have known what had happened to Selina, and why. And of course the court reporters would also soon have known. And considering that our court house was always in the news because of the high profile defendants who were constantly appearing on traffic charges, Selina’s story could certainly have been headlines in PNG and might even have made the Australian papers. Yet, there was no mention of it in the media. It was not as if there had been a conspiracy of silence; it was more a case of a silence of compassion. The spectre of this horrible retribution upon Selina by her own family, had struck everyone mute. Not even the Chief Magistrate said anything to me about it. There was no discussion about it in the court house, and no one outside the court house ever mentioned anything to me about it. In fact, the only official report I ever heard of this matter was that it apparently appeared as a short item in the Prime Minister’s daily intelligence briefing, as “an incident involving the staff at Ela Beach Court House” to which, I later heard, the PM had simply commented, “Ah well, they’re doing a good job there, so let them handle it.” By “them” of course, he meant me. And despite this cloak of silence which seemed to have enveloped this awesome event, I soon got the feeling that everyone seemed to be waiting to see if I would do anything about it. There was no pressure on me to do anything, it was just that I got the feeling that the decision on what if anything was to be done, was entirely up to me. Certainly, one phone call from me would have initiated a series of prosecutions; firstly against Selina and possibly the boyfriend for the theft of the money, and secondly against her brother and possibly her father for assaulting her. And since we were in the business of dispensing justice from Ela Beach Court House, a series of prosecutions would seem to have been the logical consequence of this chain of events.

But the money had been refunded, so the auditors were no longer interested, and considering the beating Selina had received by way of punishment from her own family, I doubted if any court would ever have punished her further. And since Selina never would have complained against her brother, I also doubted if any prosecution against him would have been successful. Any decent lawyer could have argued native custom, diminished responsibility, crime of passion and all that, and with no actual complainant, the whole process would have been a waste of time.

So, in the end, I did nothing, and life at the court house continued as normal; as normal as it could have been that is, without Selina. But it was business as usual, and we continued to get through our staggering case load, and the traffic police continued to drop in and chat up our court house girls, and take the summonses and warrants off as usual, and serve them the same day, just as though Selina was still there.

The weeks rolled by and it was months later before the doctor called me to say that Selina was fit enough to resume duties. And when Selina did came back to the court house, it was to stand in front of my desk, and hand me her resignation. I tore it up and threw it in the bin.

“Get back to work,” I said, “we missed you.” Two tears slowly trickled down her cheeks. “Who did my work while I was away?” she asked. “All your friends here,” I said. “They split it up between them.” And she walked over to her desk.

But you see, the drama was not yet over. Everyone in that open plan office was watching as Selena sat at her desk, and as she began to take out her pens and ruler, she stared at her open desk drawer in amazement. For inside that drawer, lined up like books on a shelf were her pay packets. After all, her work had still been done by the others, so I had let everything proceed as normal, and in all the time she had been away, I never stopped her pay. It was all too much. Selena bowed her head into her arms on the desk, and wept, and everyone watched in silence, as this final scene of the drama unfolded. And later, when she had recovered her composure sufficiently, Selena divided the money in her pay packets into equal lots, and went from one clerk to the other, giving each an equal share. As they accepted their share in silence the men took her hand gently, and one by one, the girls embraced her. Not a single word was spoken. I knew they had all been to see her while she had been in hospital, and that they were all happy for her to return to the court house. But this was the final act of reconciliation, Melanesian style. Selina then went back to her desk and started to work, and with the blessing of all the others, she was back in the family again, and within a few hours everything had returned to normal as though this whole dreadful episode had never happened.

And so the years rolled by. We continued to process the big case loads with the staff working at full capacity, and it was all a lot of hard work. But the social life of the court house continued also. At high tide on Ela Beach, the sea was only 10 yards away from the back door of the court house, and when the time and the tide was right, we could swim there at lunch times, or in the afternoons after work. Also, from time to time, we would continue to lunch at the Ela Beach RSL, and at weekends, we went sailing on my yacht Nialyn. Two of the court house girls married traffic policemen, thereby bonding us all even closer together, and life for us was perfect.

I have heard of kiaps who finished their time in PNG at Telefomin or Green River or in some mosquito infested backwater of the Papuan swamp lands. But as a final posting in PNG, Ela Beach must have been the very best. It was in fact idyllic. In fact, life there was so idyllic that it began to interfere with the careers of those stationed at our court house. I knew, for example, that some of my staff were declining promotions to other court houses, and I began to hear stories that some of the police prosecutors and traffic police were refusing the kind of routine transfers which were necessary for their careers, so that they could continue to work at Ela Beach.

Gradually, I began to realise that my continued presence at Ela Beach would increasingly have a detrimental effect on the family I had gathered around me there, and that although it had all been such a wonderful experience working together here, the time had come for us to part. So I informed the Chief Magistrate that I would not seek a new contract, and that when my current contract ended, I would return to Australia. Other expats were also leaving at about the same time, and so I joined the cocktail circuit for the swirl of send off parties which were regularly held all over Port Moresby at that time as, one by one, long-serving kiaps and other Australian public servants departed for home. But after the first two or three of these parties, all the rest became boring. It seemed that the same lawyers, and the same magistrates, and the same departmental heads attended, together with the same smattering of left over kiaps, and we all listened to the same boring farewell speeches. So I told the Chief Magistrate that I did not want a farewell party. I said I would go out, without fuss or fanfare, the same way I came in, 30 years before.

So, there was no official departmental farewell for me, just as I had requested ….. But I was in for the greatest surprise of my life !!!!! My last day at Ela Beach court house began the same as any other, and we stayed back as we usually did, to tidy up the last remaining shreds of work so that there would be a clean court sheet the following morning. Then I hung around, as I always did, while the staff tidied up and while things were locked away. On Selina’s first day back at work from hospital, it had been such a dramatic homecoming for her that I offered to drop her off at her hostel on my way home. The next few days were just as busy for her, so I did the same, and somehow, it just became a matter of routine thereafter. These journeys home together gave us the opportunity to talk over the days’ cases, and remind ourselves what we had to do next day. There was also the usual smattering of small talk between us, and I used to cherish these moments we spent together. And, as it sometimes happened, on this particular occasion of my last day at Ela Beach, Selina mentioned that she might be a while finishing up, so I walked out into the car park to wait for her. The traffic hummed along Ela Beach Road, as it always did at that hour of the day, and as I watched it all go by, two traffic police motor cycles arrived, and without talking to me, the riders dismounted and went inside the court house. I thought they were a bit late for whatever business they came to conduct, but the staff were still inside anyway. Then a few more traffic police arrived, and then all the prosecutors came, in two separate police cars. Then a paddy wagon arrived and the Shift Inspector from Boroko got out and came over to talk to me, and still I did not twig what was happening. Then four police got out of the back of the paddy wagon and carried two patrol boxes into the office. At this stage I got a bit curious, so I asked the Shift Inspector what was in the boxes. “Why don’t you take a look,” he said, and we both walked into the office.

I opened one of the boxes, and saw that it was packed with crushed ice. Inside the ice were bottles of beer and other assorted drinks, and still I did not twig. Then I heard police sirens wailing in the distance, and soon the car park was full of police vehicles, as more police poured into the court house, among them Selina’s father, whom I had not seen for 15 years. Then other people arrived, including Selina’s brother whom I had not seen since the night he nearly killed her, and then Selina’s doctor arrived in her sleek new car, and it was only then that I realised what was happening. It was a surprise send off party for me. And it had all been so carefully planned, that it came to me as a total, absolute surprise. But it was not a boring send off party with the same boring guests like all the others I had been to. No way. It was a fun filled hilarious gathering, the like of which I have never seen either before or since. And instead of boring speeches, there were funny stories. For with the Shift Inspector presiding as MC, everyone there was called upon in turn to tell a funny story about me. And we laughed till our sides were sore as we listened to stories of me falling off my motor bike in Madang, or falling off my horse at Menyamya, and so on. These stories were told as only Papua New Guineans can tell them, about that bygone era when the kiaps ran their country for them.

The play acting which accompanied these stories was superb. One story was about a very tired snake swimming across Lake Murray and which decided to have a rest on my passing double canoe. The canoe was then heavily laden with police and carriers, and all the equipment for a long patrol. I was only 19 at the time, totally scared of crocodiles and snakes, as I whipped out my revolver to ward off this unwelcome boarder. The first few shots went wide and the snake made it safely aboard. But the young traffic policeman who was telling the story had us in fits, as he sprang from chair to table to floor and back again, mimicking me trying to get a good shot at the snake without at the same time shooting the other terrified passengers or sinking the canoe with bullet holes. In spite of the turmoil aboard, the snake evaded death, and when fully rested, slithered over the side and continued its journey across the lake unharmed. Of course, the interesting sideline of this story was that at the time this incident occurred, the storyteller had not yet been born. He knew the story by heart, much embellished over the years, by his father who had been a constable with me on that canoe.

Selina’s doctor told a story of my guava tree in Samarai. She did not need to remind us of course that she was one of the most talented and most beautiful young ladies ever produced by Kwato, so she began her story by telling us how, during her final high school year, she and other mission girls from Kwato would hide in the bushes and watch me count the near ripened fruit on the tree. But I never got to eat from this tree you see, because the guavas would disappear at their moment of perfection, and before I had a chance to pick them. This mystery of the disappearing fruit was solved one day when I caught her up the tree and gave pursuit, threatening her, so she said, with all manner of risqué punishments, as she teased me and retreated laughing, higher into the upper branches, intending at some stage to jump off. But before this could happen the branch broke under our combined weight, and we both came tumbling down. On the way down, the doctor said, I was conceived of a brilliant non magisterial form of punishment, especially designed for Kwato girls who stole guavas. Lifting her upside down from the tangle of the broken branch, I bit her gently on her bottom. And she had everyone laughing till their sides nearly split, as she mimicked a teen aged mission girl trying to protect her modesty, while being held upside down by a playful kiap. “It didn’t work,” she said. “He never got to eat a ripe guava, but he kept on catching me up that tree. Mackellar may be leaving,” she concluded, “but his teeth marks stay behind,” and with that she pointed dramatically to her own shapely behind, and everyone screamed with laughter. It was a lie of course, because there were no teeth marks there. But it all made for a good story.

And so the stories went on and on, late into the night, and the only sombre moment of this wonderful, wonderful party was when the Shift Inspector presented me with a Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary wall plaque. “Take it with you when you go Mackellar,” he said, “and hang it in Australia on your wall, so that you will see it every day, and so that you will never ever forget that when you were here, you were one of us.” And as I type this page that wall plaque hangs beside me, with a PNG flag draped on either side: a lasting memory of my last day at the Ela Beach Court House.

I drove Selina home for the last time that night, and a thousand memories swept over us as we parted. I never went back to the court house again, and a few days after I left it, I took my yacht Nialyn to Australia. It was the North-West season, and we were moored off Ela Beach. So in the thin light of a still grey dawn we weighed anchor and sailed away, and my last sight of the court house was when it disappeared behind the looming bulk of Paga Hill. I heard later that as soon as I had left, the family just faded away. The girls who had married policemen followed them to their new postings, and most of the other policemen who had been stationed at Ela Beach received their long overdue promotions and were also transferred out.

Selina left Port Moresby to became the clerk of a provincial court house, and the others were either promoted or transferred elsewhere, and a new crew took over at Ela Beach. But not for long, because the court house building was soon demolished to make way for the new Ela Beach recreation reserve, and to this day not a single vestige of the old court house now remains.

But to me it will always remain as a land mark in my life: my last posting in PNG, a place of joy and woe, and wonderful memories where we all worked hard together for a just and noble cause. And for all of us, I am sure it will remain etched in our memories forever, as a legacy of sharing the lasting experience of that intimate family matter.

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