The war in the Pacific was hardly over when the drums began beating. A continuous low-pitched rhythm throbbed from the cloud-capped hills overlooking the island of Nasuma. It rolled across the valleys, through the vanilla plantations, over the mangrove swamps and down to the harbour where the inter-island ferry Ocean Flower lay at her berth. Her decks were dusty and deserted. Not a soul or thing stirred aboard save for a small masthead flag which fluttered feebly at each passing breath of air. A lone figure walked slowly along the quayside, pausing occasionally to wipe his brow and rest before continuing on his way. At the foot of the gangway, he stopped to inspect the vessel and noticed someone crouching by one of the lifeboats.
‘What are you doing, Mr McGrath?’ he shouted in a tone which carried some authority.
Kevin McGrath, a native of Kerry and first mate of the Ocean Flower, arose from the boat deck holding a spanner in one hand and shading his eyes from the blinding glare of the sun with the other. ‘I’m just checking the safety rails, Sir,’ he cried as he recognised the ship’s master on the quayside below. ‘Apparently, there’s a loose one up here and someone could have an accident if they leaned heavily against it.’
‘Belay that,’ growled the Captain. ‘I’d like a word in your ear.’ The Captain mounted the gangway slowly and reached the deck just as the mate stepped out into the alleyway.
‘Is everything alright, Sir?’ asked Kevin and then added. ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you look worn out.’
‘I’m fine,’ replied the Captain abruptly, ‘But what about the cattle? He indicated with a thumb in the direction of the saloon further down the alleyway.
‘The passengers? Well, they’re not overjoyed with the delay. Grimble, the Colonial Office fellow, says there will be trouble if we don’t sail by tomorrow. His wife is expecting another child and she was unwell last night. Then the war hero with the double-barrel name came hammering on my door so I escaped to the boat deck for a bit of peace. Apart from that everything is, as you might say, tickety-boo.’
The Captain shot Kevin an odd sort of look and continued, ‘I’ll speak to them later. We’ll sail when I say and not a minute before. I have some private business to clear up. If they pester you, tell them there’s a hurricane warning or whatever. I’m sure you’ll think of something.’
‘Very good sir. I hope they’ll swallow it.’ Kevin turned and strolled away. ‘The old devil’s away with the fairies again,’ he thought as he flicked yet another butt end with pinpoint accuracy into a tin bucket standing outside the galley.
The Captain stood alone on the deck, his eyes staring coldly at the distant horizon. Above him, the seagulls circled with their plaintive cries. From the saloon came the rattle of cutlery and the clinking of glasses; a canvas awning flapped in the breeze, and, somewhere on the ship’s side, a discharge pipe opened and spewed forth its contents into the waters below. Whistling cheerfully, the ship’s cook emerged from the galley and removed some freshly risen dough from a nearby tin bucket, but of these sounds the Captain was unaware. Yet he was listening; listening intently to a sound which came from the hills, the relentless pounding of drums.
Miss Clarissa Twist, a college librarian, sat tight-lipped in the saloon of the Ocean Flower studying the menu. ‘Green pea soup but no bread sippets, thank you,’ she hissed to the little Chinese steward who bobbed his head and scuttled away. ‘As I was saying Mr McGrath, do you know a good cure for sea sickness?’
Kevin stared at her thoughtfully and then replied, ‘Oh I do, Miss Twist, indeed I do.'
'Oh please tell me more', pleaded Miss Twist
'Well, the only real cure is to find a nice green tree and go and sit right underneath it.’
Miss Twist gave a weak smile, ‘How very droll. And can you tell us anything about that drumming in the hills?’
‘Sure,’ said Kevin. ‘I’ve worked in these islands since before the war and those drums you hear are part of ceremony held every ten years in honour of the great Owata-Pekka.’
‘Really?’ replied Miss Twist. ‘Is he an important chief?’
‘No, I think yer man’s a fertility god. But don't be alarmed, the mountain people are harmless and you’ll sleep safely tonight.’
Miss Twist blushed and made a mental note to remove the parasol from under her pillow. A silence fell over the saloon, broken at intervals when Grimble junior slurped his soup, and several minutes passed before anyone else spoke.
Resplendent in a green velour smoking jacket, Major Spencer Canning- Horsham (Catering Corps - retired) carefully wiped his moustache with the edge of his napkin and waited for the attention of the other diners. ‘Look, I don't know how you good people feel about being delayed here, but personally I find it damn annoying. I mean to say I'll miss the golf club dinner and dance if we don’t sail tonight.’ ‘And,’ he thought to himself, ‘That young bounder Carruthers will be hanging around Gloria Ponsonby, the new nurse. So young, so fragile and so vulnerable. What a divine creature! I haven’t seen such shapely ankles in many a long day.’
The others at the table were nodding in agreement and for a worrying moment he wondered if they could read his thoughts, then Grimble, the man from the Colonial Office, spoke. ‘I’ve tried to speak to the Captain but he’s not been answering his door and my wife is getting quite anxious. Has he given you any reason for our delay, Mr McGrath?’ Kevin mentioned the hurricane warning and added that the Captain didn’t want to take unnecessary risks.
‘A hurricane warning?’ echoed Miss Twist. ‘But I listened to the wireless all morning. The weather forecast followed the church service from Samoa - the vicar there is such a charming man. I know his wife very well, we serve on the ladies social committee at government house. She‘s one of the Woode- Smthyes from Bagshot, you know. Now where was I? Oh yes, I heard the weather forecast for the islands and there were certainly no hurricane warnings.’ Kevin groaned inwardly as all eyes turned in his direction. He took a deep breath and prepared plan (b): an unusually low tide and the risk of Ocean Flower running aground on the reef.
The brass clock on the bulkhead chimed twice and as the Captain heaved himself to his feet, his hand slipped on the edge of the desk at which he had been dozing and sent a half-empty whisky bottle crashing to the deck. The clear liquid formed a pool around the broken glass and started to drain away in a stream towards the doorway. The telephone rang several times but he ignored it. He lurched drunkenly across the cabin and struggled to open the
porthole. Fresh air flowed into the cabin and he gulped at it eagerly.
In a nearby cabin, someone was whining a tuneless refrain, but before he could close the porthole, the drumming started again. What did it all mean? He could put up with the voices that came at night but not the drums; they were driving him insane.
Ashore, he had found some escape from the relentless pounding. It had been so peaceful there. He remembered the daylight streaming through stained-glass windows, the overpowering fragrance of incense and flowers, and the rows of candles flickering beneath the statues. Once more he heard his footsteps echoing on the stone floor as he walked towards the church door. And then the drums returned. With each step, they became louder and louder. If only he could stay there, they might leave him alone. But it was no use; he had to leave and face the demons that were taunting him. There was no point in telling the passengers though, they would only laugh. Such idle and arrogant people but they kept the Ocean Flower in business. ‘I don’t know how McGrath can stand them, but then perhaps he‘s on their side. I never did like the fellow. Doesn’t show enough respect for my liking. He’s probably after my job if the truth is known. I’ll have to get rid of him somehow and the sooner the better.’ He staggered out
of his cabin and stumbled across the wooden deck. For several moments he leaned against the rails ranting incoherently to himself, his bloodshot eyes staring wildly at the distant hills, and his bulky figure silhouetted against the burning blue of the Pacific sky.
In her small cabin overlooking the boat deck, Miss Clarissa Twist was busy at her needlepoint whilst happily humming her favourite hymn. Midway through a crescendo in ‘And was Jerusalem builded here’ she heard a sudden noise and a cry outside the porthole. She put down her work and peered out anxiously. ‘Coooeee..is anyone there?’ But there was only silence and no sign of a disturbance. ‘Well, that did give me a turn,’ she whispered nervously as she resumed her task; a present for her favourite niece, Hermione, currently serving a five-year sentence at boarding school in England’s green and pleasant land.
The tiffin gong sounded aboard the Ocean Flower and the passengers assembled in the saloon for tea. Several eagerly tucked into a large plate of cucumber sandwiches made from freshly baked bread. McGrath noted the Captain’s empty chair and wondered what could possibly interest the old man ashore. ‘Were he a bit younger, I’d understand, but he’s sixty if he’s a day. Ah, it’s a queer old world, sure enough.’
His thoughts were rudely interrupted by the major's braying voice. ‘McGrath, inform the Captain that we wish to speak to him as soon as possible. We’ve been delayed long enough. The man is always AWOL. Frankly, it’s a bad show, a damn bad show! And no more of your hurricane warnings and all that blarney about the tides!’ Kevin nodded. How he would love to sort out this pompous eejit.
Then, all of a sudden, the small Chinese steward came rushing in babbling hysterically. ‘Mr Mate, sir, you come plenty damn quick! Sailors catch big big fish...him on deck now. One bloody mess! Hurry please!’
Kevin leapt to his feet and followed the steward out of the saloon to the deck. Immediately all the passengers started talking at once and Miss Twist paled as she struggled to find a bottle of smelling salts in her handbag.
The Major arose. ‘I suggest that the ladies remain here while a couple of us chaps go and see if we can be of any assistance. This kind of thing often happens; the natives land sharks without taking any precautions. It sounds like a twenty-foot rokea: a frightful butcher. Flashes like a hurled lance through the water. Bite you in half as soon as look at you.’ Miss Twist gave a feeble cry and fainted. ‘Yes,’ he continued, stepping over her prostrate figure. ‘Seen it happen once. Ghastly sight. Couldn’t eat fish for months. Wonder where the First Aid kit is?’
‘Thank you, Major, but there is no need for any medical assistance.’ Ashen-faced, Kevin stood in the saloon doorway.
‘But what about the men who caught the shark?’ asked the Major looking puzzled. ‘We understood there was an accident.’
Kevin shook his head slowly, ‘No, they’re OK. They were just cutting it open and there’s some clearing up to be done - a few loose ends.’ He paused and turned to the Major. ‘Do you still wish to see the Captain?’
‘Indeed I do, Sir, and I intend to give him a piece of my mind - and there’s no lie!’
Kevin gestured towards the open door. ‘Well I think you’ll find that he’s just come out on deck.’
Tony Crowley (c) 1961