A Smile from the Deep
The Time: 1953
The Place: A tiny coral atoll about sixty miles east of the eastern tip of the Papua New Guinea mainland.
The Circumstances: I was a young patrol officer posted to the Milne Bay District of Territory of Papua New Guinea (TPNG), and my instructions were to carry out a routine patrol of the small island groups to the east, checking on the welfare of the quite sparse Papuan population, conducting the census, arbitrating on village disputes, attending to health problems and so on.
My party consisted of a young cadet patrol officer, who, for the purposes of this narrative and for my own self-preservation and protection against possible litigation, I shall call Les Fletcher. Included also were a corporal and two constables of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary, a Papuan medical assistant and a cook who attended to the culinary needs of the two European officers.Our mode of transport was the sturdy seventy-foot government trawler MV Managuna, skippered by the venerable Harry Cox, a rugged old sea-dog with vast experience of the seas and waterways of TPNG. The Managuna had a wheelhouse, engine room, cargo hold and three small cabins, with the four-man Papuan crew sleeping in the fo’c’sle.
Les was a large young man, a proficient rugby player at school, cheerful, gregarious and good company. His philosophy was that life was for living, for working hard and playing hard. This was his first patrol and he was full of enthusiasm.
So we sailed from Samarai on this three-week expedition, the daily routine being usually a couple of hours travel to the next island, anchor in a reef-protected lagoon, and spend most of the day ashore attending to the multitude of tasks that our job entailed. In the evening it was back on board for a shower, a good meal and a leisurely chat with Harry on the foredeck before retiring.
Now it was always my policy, as it was with most field officers, never to take alcohol on patrol, or allow my subordinates to do so. Life was hard enough physically without having to get up at dawn with a Force 10 hangover and prepare for the next day’s slog. In those days also, and you may say, rather quaintly, we set some store on providing a good example for the native population and particularly our staff.
So, it was with some slight, albeit fleeting apprehension on our second evening out, chatting with Harry Cox on the foredeck after dinner, that I heard him say in his quiet, almost apologetic voice, ‘It is my custom on patrols such as this to break out a bottle of Negrita at the start of the trip, just to wish my passengers a successful voyage.’
Now there was a widely-held belief amongst Territorians that Rhum Negrita, was the drop that made boys into men and women love them for it, and that no problem was insoluble once the level in the bottle dropped below the bottom of the label. The good folk of the Christian missions, on the other hand, justified their presence in TPNG by the need to neutralise the Negrita–generated fallout and the subsequent salvation of the people from a state of being, known as doom.
All that aside, these thoughts did not occupy the minds of Les and me when Harry produced his bottle. The scene was verging on the idyllic. The sun had set in a crimson glow. A slight breeze came in from the shore where the cooking fires flickered in the village two hundred yards away across a glass-calm lagoon. One of our crew had a guitar and the sound of soft Papuan voices in a rendition of ‘Ricemo Iania’ drifted up to us through the fo’c’sle hatch. Above us the white stars blazed in a dark purple sky.
With firm resolution helped by the Negrita, my apprehension evaporated.
Harry, wily sea-dog, conscious of tomorrow’s treacherous reefs and the need for a clear head, had one drink and announced he was retiring. ‘Don’t leave any in the bottle, boys. It won’t keep, you know.’
Time passed. Two hours I suppose. It was pleasant. Very relaxing. The bottle seemed empty. Why did I feel so good a while ago and now I feel a bit crook? Why is the boat rocking when it’s flat calm?
Les fell out of his chair but regained the vertical with the assistance of the rail. ‘I think I’ll sit the hack,’ he mumbled, and hiccupped. He staggered off.
Somehow, I found my own bunk. It must have been in the pre-dawn hours that I was conscious of Les’ cabin door banging open, the rush of footsteps to the rail, and the sound of a spectacular ‘technicolour yawn’. With difficulty, I retained my Negrita in its allotted resting place.
Later, the morning sun shone through my cabin porthole. I was semi-conscious but thought I was dead. I wished I was dead.
I knew that Harry would be wanting to get under way, so I went to check on the welfare of my young colleague. I found him sitting on the edge of his bunk with an expression of horror on his face, a face which appeared strangely shrunken, hollow cheeks, pursed lips. In answer to my enquiry, a mumbled, barely intelligible explanation issued forth.
It seems that when Les was younger, a medical condition required the extraction of all his teeth and the consequent fitting of a full set of dentures. These were now missing. A search of the cabin proved fruitless and the inescapable conclusion gradually dawned that, in the course of Les’ nocturnal dash to the rail and ‘yawn’ over the side, the uppers and lowers had been projected into the lagoon.
We approached the rail and looked over. Now it happened that the day before, Harry Cox had dropped anchor over a white sand bottom in sixty feet of the most crystal-clear water in the South Pacific. It was a sunny, windless morning, the sea like glass, and we could see every grain of sand on the sea floor.
Les, facing the nightmare of a toothless, three-week diet of coconut milk and jelly, suddenly groaned with relief. For there, smiling up at us from the emerald-green depths, were Les’ fangs.
By this time, Harry was showing signs of wanting to weigh anchor, but moved by the plight of his young passenger, called to his crew to go over the side and attempt to retrieve the clackers. These lads, being islanders, had been swimming and diving all their lives, but without diving gear (this was before Cousteau had popularised scuba), their depth limit was about forty or fifty feet. Not enough. After repeated attempts and despite the promise of a tin of tobacco for the successful retriever, they were forced to acknowledge defeat. Harry was impatient. Les was desperate. I was crook.
While this drama was being played out, there appeared on deck Solomon, the engineer. Now Solomon was an aged Papuan, who, like Harry his skipper, had spent his life on small ships. He rarely emerged from his engine-room into the daylight, and his life’s parameters, it seemed, were his beloved diesel engine and the ancient, cracked briar pipe (unlit) that was perpetually clamped between his few remaining teeth.
Solomon sat for a while on the rail, surveying the scene. Then, without a word, he disappeared below, emerging a few minutes later with a length of fishing cord, a large spanner and a ball of putty the size of a grapefruit.
He tied the spanner to the end of the cord, tied the ball of putty under the spanner and lowered it over the side while the rest of the cast lined the rail with an air of curious anxiety.
Down went the contraption until, with a bit of dexterous jiggling, it was poised just above the teeth. Solomon dropped it, and Les’ full set clamped themselves on to the putty. Slowly, slowly up they came, breaking the surface to shouts of congratulation from the onlookers.
Solomon allowed himself the barest trace of a smile and went back to his engine room.
Harry weighed anchor—I started to feel better.
And that night Les dreamt of a king-sized T-bone steak.