by Peter Wilson
You can get dreadfully blasé about travel: going half-way round the world is nothing these days. And if you’re on a long business trip, staying in the usual international hotels that all look much alike, you can sometimes be hard put to tell one country from another. "It’s Tuesday, this must be Taiwan" and all that. It’s the big jets that have done it, of course, rushing people around the globe by the hundred - not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’d certainly have been glad if everything had been laid on half so conveniently when I first went abroad for the firm.
That was getting on for forty years ago, but I still remember it well. Things were a lot less organised then, particularly with the war being so recently over and some of the scars still showing. Old Perkin called me into his office one day and explained that there was a big installation job coming up overseas, and the reputation of Perkin and Warbeck depended on it (actually there wasn’t a Warbeck, and never had been, but he thought that a double-barrelled company name sounded more impressive than his own by itself, and anyway he had a penchant for historical allusion). I’d heard about that particular contract, but didn’t know much about it, so Perkin gave me a quick briefing. I’ll say this for him, he knew a damn sight more about what was going on in his business than a lot of directors do now. He was especially emphatic about the importance of time.
"We’ve estimated ten weeks to finish. There’s a bit of leeway, but it’s vital to take no more than three months," he insisted. "A day longer and the penalty clauses really start to bite, and bang goes our chance of the follow-up contracts. Any trouble could put the job back by weeks, and everything depends on good relations with the local people. Pendennis and his men will do the actual engineering work, of course, or at least our share of it. You’ll be in charge of liaison. I need hardly warn you not to tread on their toes. Oh yes, and you’re to go out three weeks on Tuesday to see that everything’s ready before they get there."
"Why me, of all people?" "Well, you know the lingo, don’t you?" "Yes, I’ve studied it, but . . ." "That’s settled, then. My secretary will see to the travel arrangements. Good luck!"
At least that was something. The secretary was a bit of a dragon, but efficient in a cold-blooded sort of way, and any arrangements she made would work, whatever they cost in lost sleep and frayed nerves: my nerves, of course, not hers. I was more concerned about coping once I got to the other end, not so much on the technical side - after all, engineers are engineers, wherever they are - but with the simple problems of living in a strange country for a substantial spell. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted advice.
The question was, where to get it? There were plenty of ex-servicemen around who had been abroad, but along with so many thousands of others that it was more like taking a bit of England away with them, and the relations with civilians that they described (usually after the third pint) were not quite what I supposed Perkin had in mind. An uncomfortably large part of the three weeks had passed before the obvious answer struck me: my Uncle Edward, a retired missionary, who had been pretty well everywhere in his time, although by then he seldom went much further than the next county. He said he’d done quite enough wandering already, and had earned a rest. After decades of putting up with primitive conditions, he also thought he’d earned the right to indulge himself a little, particularly with a favoured guest.
As it happened, a spinster aunt had left him a bundle of half-forgotten shares that had appreciated enough for him to buy a small property in a neighbouring village, stock the cellar remarkably well for those days, and still convert the residue into a comfortable annuity. He was looked after by a middle-aged cook-housekeeper whom he always called Dame Margery, but didn’t get much other company, and was glad of any excuse to lay on the nearest thing she could manage to a slap-up dinner with all the trimmings.
On the evening we arranged, Dame Margery had produced one of her better efforts, so that by the second or third glass of port, we were both pleasantly relaxed and conversation was flowing easily. He’d given me some useful tips about easily-overlooked bits of personal kit that would be handy to have with me, such as a good selection of buttons and thread, and others that seemed important but would probably be more trouble than they were worth. Naturally, he also wanted to know where precisely I was going, what the job involved, and in particular how well I was prepared for social mixing during several months in a basically unfamiliar culture. "You can’t talk engineering all the time, after all."
"That’s not what Perkin thinks."
I had actually given some thought to that point since Perkin’s bombshell. The local librarian relished a challenge and had done me proud with a selection of relevant literature, which I’d studied carefully besides revising the language, so that I was more than a shade too glib about expecting no serious problems in that line at least.
"Very dangerous attitude," Edward muttered darkly, glancing at the skull-like object that formed an incongruously macabre centre-piece on the mantel. I’d always thought it an odd place for a memento mori. "You can easily drop the most frightful bricks. Angels fear to tread, you know."
Then he clammed up completely, which really intrigued me. No one had ever suggested dark secrets in Edward’s past, and he wasn’t usually reticent about it. In fact, given his head, he could be a bore of county if not international class, so this must have been something right out of the ordinary. Remembering the "third pint" effect, I made a point of seeing that the decanter always came to rest by his hand, and eventually the story emerged.
It happened early in his missionary life. A much older member of his society, call him Gregory for the present, had been working in a fresh area of New Guinea, at that time nowhere near as civilised as it is now and a notoriously dodgy place to go. He had just started to establish himself when he fell ill with one of the nastier tropical diseases. At least he survived, more than could be said of his colleague, but had to be invalided home for treatment, promising his flock to go back as soon as possible. His recovery, although disappointingly slow, now seemed to be complete, and Edward was considered just experienced enough to replace the dead colleague - not a very encouraging prospect.
Edward was seldom given to strong likes or dislikes, but Gregory proved an exception. He was a man of vast and distinguished experience, who had abandoned a brilliant academic career twenty years earlier to serve in the missions, and many of the young ordinands would have given their eye teeth for the chance to understudy him. Edward detested him on sight. The feeling was evidently mutual, and deepened with closer acquaintance to the extent that Edward tentatively asked whether another assignment might be more appropriate. He got short shrift from the Superior, one of the old no-nonsense type, who sharply reminded him that he was there to do the will of the Lord, not to serve his own inclinations; there was no one else available anyway, Gregory hadn’t complained, and if he could put up with an uncongenial companion, so much more easily should a younger man. Edward thought better of raising the obvious objection to that argument, and just resigned himself to a disagreeable tour of duty.
At least on the ship it was possible by careful management to keep out of each others’ way except at meal times. Edward tried his best at first to make conversation on these painful occasions, but eventually they agreed tacitly to minimise friction by rigid politeness within a rule of near-silence. Then, half-way across the Indian Ocean, they ran into a storm that pretty well confined them to their cabin. Gregory’s illness flared up again in the heat, the ship’s doctor was himself laid up after losing his balance during a particularly violent twisting roll and cracking his head on a bulkhead, and so Edward had to nurse Gregory as best he could.
The basic medical training he had received was hardly up to dealing with anything serious, and by the time they reached Darwin it was quite obvious that Gregory was not going anywhere just then - if ever - but into hospital. Edward was almost frantic with qualms of conscience over his antagonism, and hovered around wondering whether his duty lay in staying with the sick man or pressing on, until eventually the nurses made it none too tactfully clear that he was more hindrance than help. Accordingly he got what directions he could and carried on towards the destination.
That was itself a long enough journey, first by tramp steamer to Port Moresby, then by coaster, river launch and finally a series of dug-out canoes to a long-house in the jungle, well up a narrow valley in the mountains. All the way Edward was wondering what sort of reception he could expect, but he needn’t have worried on that score. The inhabitants had scrupulously reserved the area that Gregory had adapted as a little chapel and sleeping quarters, and were delighted to have them in use again.
Of an evening they would happily sit for hours listening to tales of the outside world, even if they took them with a large pinch of salt, and Edward, ever talkative, was equally glad to oblige. In return the villagers taught him how to eke out the supplies he had brought with him (he didn’t want to rely entirely on the generosity of people poorer than himself, however willing they might be to support him) by catching fish, gathering wild fruits and generally following their way of subsistence.
Eventually it dawned on him that he was doing fine socially, but making very little impression on the people’s tolerant scepticism about an alien religion. Their culture was animistic, seeing every natural feature as the home of a controlling spirit that had to be placated for any interference - understandable, where the caprice of nature could make all the difference between relative prosperity and starvation, but providing scarcely a toe-hold for Christian teaching. The villagers were mostly content with the beliefs of their ancestors: the white man might deal with whatever powers he liked, but what could his god know about their crops and the spirits of the forest, their fish traps and the river demons, and so on?
There were a few exceptions, however, generally youngsters simply rebelling against the traditions of their elders, but the odd one or two with genuinely inquiring minds. Edward decided to concentrate his efforts on them. For a while he feared that the older people might resent any influence he gained with their offspring, and he therefore made a special point of stressing respect for them, but they generally seemed to think his ideas a curiously irrelevant folly rather than any kind of threat. In any case it gave them some relief from coping with the more irritating antics of adolescents.
He picked the least unpromising of his little group, a lively teenager whom he called Joseph, to train as an assistant, despite a strong suspicion that the lad regarded Christianity as the coming thing and was more concerned about his status in the present world than in the next. Occasionally he showed alarming tendencies to order the others around more than was necessary. Still, he was a likable and resourceful rogue, who in time became a good friend.
Edward’s next concern was about the mode of address that tribal etiquette demanded he should choose for use at their instruction sessions: "My Father" (an accepted title of respect) seemed too Romish, "Reverend" too colloquial, "Padre" too military, "Teacher belong big chief in sky," suggested by one of the lads, tolerably accurate but altogether too cumbersome. Joseph had his own solution to that problem. Edward was simply "The Boss," and despite his reservations, the term stuck.
He kept plugging away, but putting across the basic ideas of Christianity even to his chosen few was an uphill task. One God, well, yes, every village had a head man, so why not a supreme being over everything, while the distinction between angels and minor deities could be put aside for the time being. "Take not the name of the Lord in vain," again, you didn’t insult the chief with impunity. "Honour thy father and mother," they did that anyway, more or less. But some of the later Commandments were trickier, especially what they did or did not prohibit.
"Thou shalt not kill" gave him particular difficulty. No, it didn’t cover killing animals for food. No, it didn’t invariably cover killing people either, although that was to be avoided if possible. "Then where does it apply, Boss?" "Look at it this way. If someone’s going for you with a hatchet on the crossing above the waterfall, you might at a pinch tip him in the river. But not if he’s doing you no harm and you just want a clear run at his wife." So that of course led him on to the next one. He tried lightening his explanations with a rendering of the old jingle "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, his ox thou shalt not slaughter, but thank the Lord it is not a sin to covet thy neighbour’s daughter." It was a mistake: the verse translated clumsily into the local dialect, and merely confused everyone. He didn’t risk any further attempts at humour in his teaching.
After six months with very little headway, Edward needed a break. There was no chance of home leave, of course, or even a week in Port Moresby, but perhaps he might usefully visit a neighbouring tribe that had aroused his curiosity, along the one overgrown track through the jungle and over the ridge. At least he could spy out the land and the prospects for work there. Joseph, however, was far from keen. His father had come across some of the Deeka: they were a strange people, their ways were not his ways, and he didn’t relish meddling with them. Admittedly they weren’t usually hostile or even unfriendly, but they certainly were unpredictably touchy about some things and formidable if roused, so that it was wise to give them a respectfully wide berth.
As it happened, during his training Edward had read an anthropological study of a group that had migrated to the coast but claimed descent from the Deeka and to have kept faithfully the traditions of their ancestors. What he could remember of it was encouraging, particularly their rule of meticulous courtesy to strangers who might be the incarnation of powerful spirits, as he carefully explained to Joseph.
"All very well for you, Boss. You look like a what-do-you-call-it spirit. I don’t." "But yours is a very great spirit, Joseph." "The Deeka don’t know that. To them I’ll be just an ordinary lad from the next village - and from the wrong valley, what’s more."
By now Edward was confident of handling anything short of overwhelming physical violence, which seemed an unlikely prospect, so Joseph’s objections were overruled. It said a lot for the lad’s loyalty that despite his grave misgivings, reinforced by his mother’s alarm, he nevertheless went along with the plan and was a great help in organising supplies for the expedition. He even insisted on carrying most of them.
In the event the Deeka were even more hospitable than Edward had expected. After the initial surprise at the arrival of unaccustomed visitors from beyond the ridge, they were taken to the chief, who welcomed them with a traditional exchange of courtesies. He received their gifts graciously, asked their business and seemed satisfied by Edward’s carefully diplomatic answer that he had heard much of the Deeka’s lore and wished to study it at first hand. The chief for his part had heard rumours about the strange ways of Europeans, but never met one before, and was mildly curious, enough to order that they should be given the best available lodging and shown every consideration.
Edward and Joseph were thus free to go about talking to anyone they wished. However, it wouldn’t do to push the privilege too far by interrupting important work, so they generally started by taking a morning stroll, finding someone not particularly busy, and asking the sort of questions that might be expected of any friendly stranger. Then, when the opportunity offered, they gradually worked round to matters of religion. For instance, Edward might ask about the local belief in this or that, perhaps express respectful surprise at some aspect of it, and so invite questions about his own ideas. People generally heard him politely if without great enthusiasm, and he was tolerably satisfied with progress.
One of the most interesting characters in the village was Jinato, a sort of shaman or witch-doctor to the tribe. He was a wizened but bright-eyed old man, totally pagan yet blessed with a natural wisdom and quick intelligence that Edward found deeply impressive. Indeed, some of the points he raised were very hard to answer within the context of the tribe’s experience and Edward’s knowledge of it; on the other hand, he was open-minded enough to recognise limitations in that experience. The two men had many long and animated discussions, never conclusive but always interesting.
Edward was a little puzzled at the attitude of Joseph, who after the first two of these sessions suddenly developed an eagerness for more of them that contrasted sharply with his initial scarcely-concealed impatience. "Isn’t it time for another talk with Jinato?" he would say, or "How about trying such-and-such a line on that argument?" The curious thing was that he never stayed to hear the outcome of his suggestions, but always excused himself as soon as courtesy permitted. The mystery was solved when Edward caught sight of him engaged in light-hearted banter with one of Jinato’s grand-daughters, a comely girl approaching marriageable age.
About a week after their arrival, the village celebrated a festival that was to culminate in a grand supper. One kind of dried fish among the supplies that Joseph had brought was apparently a rare delicacy among the Deeka, so he asked if he might contribute it to the menu. Edward didn’t particularly care for it and agreed readily. Perhaps partly as a result, perhaps because of the friendship he had struck up with Jinato, he was treated as a guest of honour, seated next to the chief. He was more than a little embarrassed by the privilege, especially as it was not extended to Joseph, who nevertheless urged him not to worry; Edward realised why when he saw that Jinato’s grand-daughter was among the serving maids and giving Joseph far more than his fair share of attention, which he obviously didn’t mind at all. Relieved on that score, he relaxed and started looking around him.
There was one other girl who caught Edward’s attention; indeed, he could hardly miss her. Becoming a missionary hadn’t dimmed his eye for the ladies, and this one had an attractive figure, features more to European than to local taste, and a particularly graceful manner. Edward had seen her about the village, and understood that she was an orphan, stranded years before when her parents had wandered in from no-one knew where, suffering from some unidentified and eventually fatal illness. One of the chief’s junior wives had taken pity on the child, but the circumstances of her arrival seemed an ill omen and she was still something of a Cinderella.
Her position in the chief’s household however gave her some status, and she was serving at what Edward couldn’t help thinking of as the "high table," even though with everyone alike sitting on the ground the term was a little inapt. Towards the end, after she had gently pressed him to take yet another helping and smilingly accepted that he had had quite enough, he casually complimented the chief on his charming attendant. "You like her? Good, you shall have her. The wedding will be in three days’ time."
Edward was flabbergasted. Thoughts tumbled through his mind about trying to explain that to admire a girl’s appearance and deportment was one thing, but to marry her, practically unknown, was another. No, in this culture that wouldn’t cut any ice at all. And while he had no objections in principle to a married clergy and neither had his society, its views on miscegenation as a source of envy, friction and scandal were hardly likely to go down well - particularly as they might with justice be thought a mere rationalisation. With suitable expressions of regret and appreciation, he therefore said simply that overwhelmed as he was by the chief’s generosity, such a match would be strictly taboo.
The merriment of the evening came to an abrupt halt. Joseph, whose attention had been caught by the sudden hush that descended at the chief’s words, looked horror-struck, Jinato scowled and the chief frowned like thunder. Edward wasn’t sure what was wrong, still less how to put it right, and decided that discretion was the better part of valour. He therefore apologised in general terms and withdrew with what grace he could, leaving the chief and witch-doctor in agitated discussion amid a general clamour of consternation.
Joseph followed, asking how all this had come about. Edward told him. "That wasn’t very clever, Boss." "I know, but how would you have got out of it?" "I shouldn’t have got into it." "True, I dare say, but not very helpful. What do I do now?"
They agreed that he should stay mostly in the hut for the next few days, communing with the spirits if anyone asked, while Joseph tested the social atmosphere. It was decidedly chilly as far as Edward was concerned. Some of the disgrace inevitably rubbed off on to Joseph, but he didn’t let it daunt his spirits, and his natural friendliness was more than the villagers could resist for long. Then for a time he was very busy coming and going, and decidedly uncommunicative about it. "I’m working on it, Boss," he would say when asked about progress, and that was about as much as could be got out of him. Edward was dubious, noticing that Joseph’s steps usually led towards the spot where Jinato’s grand-daughter - Eve, as Edward came for some reason to think of her - was usually to be found preparing food or doing other household chores. He was half right; that was indeed the place, but after a few words with Eve, Joseph would concentrate his attention on her father, Jinato’s favourite son. It did no harm to his chances with the girl anyway, and why not kill two birds with one stone? Even so, his main efforts were devoted to restoring Edward’s position.
Everything he said about it was passed on, subtly re-phrased where necessary, to Jinato himself, who after his initial anger was very willing to be persuaded that the whole business was a terrible misunderstanding. He had no wish to prolong a quarrel that could bring nothing but harm to anyone. Neither had the chief, once his offended dignity had been assuaged. So, without any embarrassing contact between the principals to the dispute, Joseph was eventually able to announce his triumph.
"Done it, Boss." "Done what?" "Sorted out your problem." "That’s marvellous, Joseph! However did you manage it?" "No time for details, Boss. There’ll be a message coming from the chief any minute now, and it’s important you give the right reply." "What’s that?" "Well, you’ll be invited to a ceremony of reconciliation . . ." "I’ll obviously accept - what’s the difficulty?" "Please, Boss, don’t interrupt. There isn’t time. You have to reply in a particular form of words - ‘I deeply regret having given offence to the mighty Chief, I thank him for his gracious forbearance, I gratefully accept his offer of reconciliation, and I wish the whole village to share in it.’" "Why that?" "Because the girl has no parents, she belongs to the whole village, therefore the whole village was offended by your refusing her, so it must be included in the reconciliation. Now come along, Boss, practise your speech before the messengers arrive, for goodness’ sake." So they did, and he got it near enough right to satisfy everyone, except perhaps Joseph.
The ceremony was to take place during another banquet the following Saturday - any excuse, thought Edward in a moment of cynicism. After that, he felt, it might be wise to leave before he put his foot in it again. On the other hand, going away so suddenly might cause yet more offence, but judicious enquiries by Joseph confirmed that none would be taken.
Once arrangements were made, tension in the village promptly relaxed amid a bustle of activity. There was much gathering of fruit, pounding of roots, snaring of pigeons and hunting of jungle pig. Edward felt able to move around freely again, and even if the missionary message was no more welcome than before, he was satisfied for the present to be back personally in favour. Besides, he had to rehearse his part in the ceremony; also to prepare a speech, so Joseph had told him, to be given at the end of the banquet. Fortunately Eve’s father was willing to act as a critical audience and point out any infelicities, of which there were plenty in the early drafts.
Come Saturday, the ceremony was a splendid occasion with songs, dances and athletic displays before the formal banquet. Edward had to be seated next to the chief again as the rubrics required them to join hands, declare to each other the intention that any animosity should be as dead as the garnished joint of meat placed between them, that the two men and the whole village should be united in spirit by sharing it, and that all misunderstandings should vanish like the smoke of the fire over which it had been roasted. Edward was highly relieved to get it over, and then began to enjoy the meal.
It was in fact excellent as jungle fare went, particularly since he and the chief received the choicest portions, and he did them full justice. He couldn’t help noticing that Joseph, aided and abetted by Eve, wasn’t letting the side down in that respect, either; a few thoughts on the deadly sin of gluttony crossed his mind, but he dismissed them as ungracious in view of Joseph’s part in retrieving the situation; and for his own part, he had to keep up a good appearance on this of all occasions, didn’t he?
After privately complimenting the chief on the opulence of the feast, he ended by delivering his carefully prepared and highly flattering speech of thanks and farewell, praising the greatness and magnanimity of the Chief, the wisdom of Jinato, the skill of the cooks, the assiduity of the serving maids, the prowess of the young men . . . he was tempted to go beyond his script by adding the beauty of the village maidens, but decided at the last minute that in the first place it wasn’t strictly true, and in the second it might lead to more difficulties of the kind from which he had so narrowly been rescued. So he concluded by presenting his parting gifts - a more propitious occasion than before their departure early the next morning - and professing the hope that friendship between the Deeka and his base tribe would thrive and endure. These sentiments the chief heartily endorsed, to thunderous applause for both of them from the whole assembly.
The journey home the next day was uneventful, and Edward was happier than he could have believed possible to stumble down the last few yards of the track, clean himself up with a quick splash in the river, and relax in the section of the longhouse that he had come to regard as his own. The villagers were glad to have him back, too; he was a popular figure, whatever they might think of his teaching, and they had been anxiously recalling the evidently well-founded worries about dealing with the Deeka. Joseph’s family, of course, made a great fuss of their son, all the more after Edward had praised the lad’s part in saving him from goodness knew what disaster.
The tribe rarely knew much variety in the routine of survival, and the expedition was naturally the main topic of conversation for weeks. Joseph was a born story-teller, and his account lost nothing with repetition. But he was practical, too: the way in which his "luxury" goods had been received in the Deeka village was not lost on him, neither was the quality of the arrowheads and utensils he had seen there, items for which there was a demand in his village and probably elsewhere in the valley. Before long he was back over the ridge to do some trading, not to mention a visit to Eve, and these visits became more and more frequent.
For some reason there was now quite a flood of people suddenly wanting religious instruction. Edward needed his assistant, and found Joseph’s absences a definite hindrance. "I’m sorry, Boss," he said when Edward tackled him about it, "I’ve done my best, but I’m not really cut out for the job, and I do have a business to look after now. Look, there’s Benjamin, he’s picked up everything I’ve learned and more, and he hasn’t my - er - distractions. Why not get him to help here? I don’t mind doing what I can among the Deeka on my visits there." "I think I know who’ll get the main benefit of that!"
Whatever the motives, Edward had to agree that there was a lot of sense in the suggestion: Benjamin (Joseph’s younger brother) was keen if not quite so intelligent, and after a day or two of reflection was duly appointed. Now Edward was able to make some real progress, concentrating on the more advanced pupils while Benjamin prepared the starters. Within a year half the village was involved, so far that for many of them Edward was able to arrange a mass baptism; and of the other half, a good proportion were showing signs of interest while hardly any were totally implacable.
Meanwhile traffic on the path over the ridge was steadily increasing. Edward himself seldom returned that way, although he scrupulously sent greetings and occasional gifts by way of the traders. One occasion when he did go, during the second summer after his first visit, was to act more or less as Joseph’s best man though also as officiating pastor, escorting Eve (now so christened) back for the wedding.
Another, some months later, was to attend Jinato’s funeral after he had succumbed to a mercifully brief illness. Edward travelled with Joseph and Eve. The path had been improved beyond recognition, with steps in the steeper parts reinforced by logs to prevent erosion, so that it was possible to talk almost normally on the way. Since one of Edward’s pet phrases was "No salvation without belief," Eve was desperately anxious to know what he thought of her grandfather’s fate. The official line on virtuous pagans wouldn’t be much comfort to her, Edward realised, and he was reduced to platitudes about God’s justice being no less generous than man’s. Later, as he stood before the old, lined face, so completely different without its animating sparkle, the utter inadequacy of his words overwhelmed him and he had to turn away to hide tears. They were noticed. That a man from outside the tribe - indeed, from far beyond the most distant horizon that any of them could imagine - that such a man should share their grief at the loss of a dearly respected elder did more to win over the Deeka than could any amount of words and gifts.
Time inexorably passed. For various reasons, missionaries of Edward’s society were generally moved around every few years. By the time his tour of duty drew to an end, the contrast with what he had found on arrival was striking. A new church was going up to replace the ramshackle structure that he had built when the tiny "chapel" could no longer hold his congregation, and which was now itself hopelessly inadequate. The villagers, realising that the longhouse partitions were anything but sound-proof and that some of the noises passing through them might be disturbing to a celibate, had also built him a separate hut for himself, after delicate enquiries through Joseph on whether he might misunderstand it as an exclusion from the community. Three-quarters of them were committed to Christianity, if not yet actually baptised, with half the rest hovering; and besides Eve, who was a special case, there had actually been some tentative approaches from the Deeka to suggest that they would like to hear more of what he had touched on during his original stay with them. If certain regrettable superstitions still lingered on - well, that could equally be said about plenty of communities with more centuries of Christian tradition than his village had years. All in all, Edward couldn’t help congratulating himself on the situation he was leaving for his successor. He would almost have been glad to show it off to Gregory, who had however been shipped back permanently to England on health grounds.
As the day of departure approached, Edward sensed an air of furtive excitement among his flock. Whenever he joined any group of people talking, there would be an obviously contrived change of subject, but odd phrases came to his ears. In time, Benjamin let slip what Edward had already guessed, that a special gift was being prepared for him. What it might be was another matter; obviously all would be revealed at the presentation, but it occurred to him that he really ought to check, before there was any public embarrassment, whether it was something he could legitimately accept. The people were still poor, if less so than previously, and Edward was very anxious not to take anything of undue value. Perhaps he could worm some hint out of Joseph, who was sure to be involved.
It was a moonlit evening when Edward walked from his own hut towards the part of the longhouse occupied by Joseph’s family, but none of the villagers seemed to be about. However, as he approached, he noticed someone scurrying away, glancing over his shoulder and trying with comic lack of success to hide what looked like a pale globe on a carved wooden plinth. That was probably the gift, Edward thought with some relief: he’d never seen anything quite like it, but it was presumably a piece of local craft-work. To accept it wouldn’t deprive the village of precious resources, it would be a pleasant memento, and it looked reasonably transportable too.
Joseph greeted him warmly, and Eve fussed around making him comfortable and offering refreshments - was she? Yes, almost certainly she was pregnant, after so long that Joseph’s mother had been seen sadly shaking her head over the prospects of grandchildren from that quarter. Congratulations were evidently in order, and Joseph thanked him absently but seemed oddly depressed.
"What’s up?" Edward asked. "I’d have thought you’d be rejoicing." "Look, Boss, how long have we known each other?" "Must be about five years - yes, easily that." "And we’ve been good friends?" "The best." "Yet you’re going away next week and we probably shan’t see you again."
Edward was silent for a moment. "But Joseph, life’s like that. I have to obey orders. And there’ll be someone to take my place, don’t forget." "We can’t change our friends as easily as you change your shirt, Boss." "Now you know I wasn’t suggesting that. Look, however far apart we may be, we can pray for each other."
It didn’t seem to help Joseph much. "We could pray for Jinato when he was ill - and we did - but it wasn’t the same as crossing the ridge to see him. And we can’t do that now." "I’m afraid that’s the way of things, Joseph. All human friendships must come to an end sooner or later in any case. None of us lives for ever. But eventually we’ll meet again in the next world." "All very well, Boss, but my problem’s in this one."
Edward sighed, but could think of no way out of this impasse. He had a strong suspicion that Joseph’s attitude to the hereafter was rather like a bank manager’s to an unsecured loan, and the best he could do was to try changing the subject. As it happened there was one thing that had been puzzling him for long enough: why the sudden spate of interest in Christianity after the first visit to the Deeka?
"That’s simple. The people thought that to make such a display of courage, you must have protection from some really powerful spirits, and they wanted a share." "Well, that’s true in a sense. But what display of courage?" "Why, refusing the chief’s offer of a wife, of course. You knew the ways of the Deeka, you must have known you were as good as asking for death. Isn’t that right?"
Edward was stunned. "Good Lord, I’d no idea." "Come off it, Boss. You told me you’d read all about them." "Not all, Joseph. You can’t learn everything just by reading. You have to live with people for years to know them properly - and even then they can surprise you. A book couldn’t cover all the details, even if the author knew them."
"I wouldn’t call this a detail, Boss." "No, you’re right. And that particular point wasn’t mentioned in the account I read. Are you sure about it?"
"Absolutely. Eve’s father explained it to me. You know that if you’re visiting someone, and admire something he has, then he has to offer it to you?" "That’s true in a lot of places. I hadn’t thought of it just then, though - silly of me. But surely, once the offer was made, honour was satisfied even if I declined it? After all, I’d have thought I was fulsome enough in thanking the chief."
"That’s not the point, Boss. In Deeka custom a gift can’t be refused. It’s now your property, so the chief can’t keep it without becoming a thief. It’s taboo. And if you don’t accept it, he’s stuck with it."
"He could give it to someone else." "No good, Boss. You can’t give away someone else’s property. Or if you do, it makes things worse." "All right, I see that. But where does the bit about ‘asking for death’ come in?"
"Well, it seems that this sort of problem had cropped up before. Not in quite the same way, but close enough. Then someone pointed out that if the man who’d refused the gift were no longer alive, the difficulty would disappear - the dead have no right to property. So there was a very unfortunate fatal accident. And ever since, that’s been the standard way to deal with that kind of situation."
"But there was no suggestion of any such thing." "How do you know, Boss? If you’re planning an accident, you don’t warn the victim. But you were lucky: the chief respected your taboo as much as his own, and Jinato thought of another way out."
"The reconciliation ceremony?" "That’s right." "Then why wasn’t it used on the earlier occasions?" "Well, for one thing, because it didn’t exist then." "But I thought it was traditional. Do you mean to say it was something new?" "Yes, Boss, Jinato and I planned it between us."
Again Edward was astonished. "You?" "Why yes. Jinato wanted it to be binding on both you and the chief, so he asked what sort of ritual would fit your customs as well as the Deeka’s. The best I could think of - not too far from either side - was the Old Testament communion sacrifice, so we worked it up from that."
"A brilliant inspiration, Joseph; I really must hand it to you. No wonder I kept feeling there was something a bit familiar about the ceremony. But just a moment, there’s something missing. To make the reconciliation complete, the girl I’d admired should have taken a main part, too. After all, she had more cause than anyone to be offended. I’m afraid I was too selfishly preoccupied to think of it at the time, but looking back, I don’t remember her even being there."
"Boss, that was the whole point of the meal. Didn’t you realise? She was the main course."
Peter D. Wilson
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