The Brief Insignificant History of Peter Abraham Stanhope by Mary Rokonadravu

Posted on 29/01/2018
By Commonwealth Foundation
The insignificant history

At 11.42 pm on 1 November, 2016, Peter Abraham Stanhope sat at his family’s old mahogany dining table and slit his wrists. He had folded three clean bath towels to place his hands upon so as to not make a mess. He watched the news first; switched on to Fiji One Television crackling against the sudden rain, part of the storm approaching from the east. The islands of Wakaya and Makogai were already cloaked in rain well before nightfall. He showered first, of course. Ate his dinner of fried pork sausages, three sausages to be exact. Some cassava, fried to a crisp. Just the way he liked it. He folded his laundry – one cotton shirt, one pair of cotton trousers, one well-worn polyester underwear he had bought from Gulabdas & Son two years before.

The fragrance of citrus – lime and oranges from the soap powder permeated the living room as he meticulously laid out his clean, folded clothes. He opened a can of skipjack tuna chunks and fed Sona, his old cat – the cat’s name meaning ‘Arsehole’, the result of a lost bet with old Maciu Smith, Mac, his old diabetic workmate, now house-bound in Vulcan’s Lane with both legs amputated from the knees down and addicted to Korean soap dramas on Sky Television. He had visited Mac during the day; said he was going to Suva on the morning ferry, if Mac could see to Sona who ate tuna chunks and appreciated the odd belly rub.

“Fuck you!” Mac had roared into the quiet afternoon, “Yeah, I gonna send one of the kids to feed Sona. If you stay longer, I’ll make them take me up the fucken steps and I gonna stay until you get back. And answer your phone when I call you!” They had both worked at PAFCO, the Pacific Fishing Company, driving forklift loads of frozen skipjack, albacore and bigeye between the Korean fishing boats and the cannery. That was in a better time, when the Japanese still ran the cannery, before the Government took over. At least, that was the general opinion in town.

He remembered to sweep out his toe nail clippings from earlier in the day, fold it into an old Fiji Times newspaper page and put it into the rubbish bin. He knew the Wesleyan Chapel deacon, the Vakatawa, would find him on Sunday morning. He wanted the house, and himself, clean.

His daughter, Caroline, married to a snivelling American who sold computers, lived in Maine. Peter had the fall postcards and winter Christmas cards pinned on the kitchen walls. His son, Jona, was dead. The men who killed him were now on trial. He had watched them in the news for two weeks. Then rung his nephew Samuela in Suva. He received the diver’s knife from Bob’s Hook, Line and Sinker a week later. It did not need sharpening. He read his Bible before he put his wrist on the towels and cut. His hands lay limp; as if he were holding a knife and fork, his wrists momentarily resting from a dinner of baked chicken and potatoes, as if someone at table were telling an interesting story, about an elopement maybe, or sharing a sermon from a Sunday past, and the hushed table was all ears. Were it a painting, the title, ‘Abraham’s Dinner’ would be apt.

His people have been in the town for one hundred and fifty years.

Let us begin with that. The town.

Levuka sits on a black rock, the Pacific at her toes. A tiny row of clapboard stores on its main thoroughfare. With no declaration to creativity, the name Beach Street stuck to the Macadam road that once was igneous pebbles salted by the sea. A few stores are of old coral and limestone patched with concrete. There is a Catholic cathedral of modest proportion. A Wesleyan chapel of even more modest proportion. A Masonic temple, oldest in the South Pacific, razed to the ground by good, I-am-born-again-and-the-rest-of-you-will-burn-in-Hell Christian folk. A tuna cannery a rabbi from Baltimore comes to cleanse to kosher twice a year. A little powerhouse hums electricity into the cannery, into homes perched like limpets onto steep, craggy volcanic slopes, into streetlights guiding nightshift workers back home or cigarette-puffing boys jogging to the bakeries for rising dough, and morning buns and loaves.

There is no drone of a first fly. They must be at the fish cannery at the southern end of town, drunk at the mixing of fish meal for pet food and fertiliser. The whole town cowers under this regular stench. It slips into the wood walls laying termites intoxicated; sinks into oiled mahogany floors, into the snake beans outside the Steinmetz’s kitchen on Church Street; into hand-washed PAFCO, FEA, and PWD overalls on clotheslines along the 199-steps of Mission Hill. The only sound is a mud wasp smoothening the walls of its mud house behind the old German-made woodstove. He lives alone. Stopped going to church thirty years ago. If no one finds him within a few days, he will bloat in the tropical heat. Then there will be liquid on the mahogany chair and on the mahogany floor.

He knew the church would not permit him a Christian burial – how awful that he took his own life! Burn in Hell! So he wrote letters. One to Mac telling him to have prayers in the living room – he had cleaned the room, gotten to his knees and polished the wood floor. Washed and ironed the curtains. Fluffed out the cushions. Put his wife’s best crochet piece on the coffee table. On all the palm-stands and side tables, little pieces of crochet-edged linen with embroidered daisies. He wrote another letter to Caroline. When you come to your senses and leave that American, home will be waiting for you. Do not believe any superstition. My spirit will not be here. I am going to your brother.

The last three things he did that night, before sitting to watch the news, before moving to the mahogany dining table, was to wash and season the cast iron skillet, put a fresh roll of toilet paper on the holder, and call his son’s mobile telephone number. His son was gone, as was the phone, but he called it every night. He had called it for the last three years. He had never been able to sleep without calling. He knew he called more for himself than for Jona. But in a very deep, hidden place, he wished Jona to know, if he were watching at all, that his father was still here. Still calling. He hesitated at the telephone. He knew it was the last call. He wanted it to be right. He dialled the numbers very slowly. His eyes fixed on the lights of Levuka, at the foot of the hill from him, this little bastard of a town that had kept his family for two hundred years, as a voice came over the line: The number you are trying to call is not available. Please hold while your call is diverted.

He held the line until it clicked. Then he stood to walk to the mahogany table in the next room.

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