He beat her up again today.
It was a date night. Napina’s iarman, her man of almost a year, had scored two tickets for boxing tonight. It was a chance to get out after being cooped up in the house with a breastfeeding three-month-old.
Napina relished the chance to feel less a feeding machine and more her own self – a 27-year-old young ni-Vanuatu woman at her prime.
It had been almost eleven months since Napina finished from her first full-time job at a nongovernmental organisation. She’d chosen to do more short-term work which meant she had a bit more flexibility. But this also meant that she had very little interaction with anyone else. She mostly worked from home.
This, coupled with the fact that she had just had a baby on an island where she had barely any family or friends, meant that much of her life was spent at home with Baby Tamalu and her iarman when he was home from work. Although he worked full-time and she worked part-time while taking care of a young child, she paid for most of the bills including the very expensive rental of 60,000 vatu a month.
“I got us tickets to boxing tonight, honey,” he said with a smile that stretched to show his even white teeth against charcoal skin.
Napina tried to show enthusiasm for boxing. But her smile ended in a grimace. She wondered how long her savings would last. The rent was eating through most of it. She also had to pay for all the baby’s clothes and the hospital bills. Not to mention all of the food in the house. She felt a little cheated by life.
“Oh thanks,” Napina responded with a grin, thinking about what she was going to wear.
Two hours later they were ready to go. Kaha Licha was there to babysit. Instructions were dished out for Baby Tamalu.
Napina and her iarman were dressed. She, in fitting red camisole slip dress with spaghetti strings – just a touch of sophistication, probably overdressed for boxing – but who cares. Being the social butterfly that she was, she looked forward to some company and who knows maybe she’d have something to drink tonight.
He, in his long sleeved shirt white that screamed Afro-American with just a touch of island that gave him just that air. That air she fell for when she first met him.
She recalled the first time she met him. It really was her brother’s fault. Had he not got into the problem with the man from Ambrym over cutting down the tree in the next yard she would not have met him. He just seemed to know what he was talking about when he was giving advice. Just so worldly. Nothing like the young boys she was used to.
Being much older than she he knew exactly how to worm his way into her life. Okay, she did fall for it. The whole veneer of charm and power combined fooled her.
From there the relationship moved too fast. Six months later she found out she was pregnant. She had to take a second pregnancy test when the first showed positive. Still very pregnant.
It was at 10.35pm when Napina noticed that he had gone quiet at their table in the makeshift arena put up just for the boxing match. How long he had been quiet, she wondered. She tensed. It felt like he was quiet for some time – just watching her.
She was having so much fun. A couple of glasses of bubblies and catching up with old friends.
“It’s so good to see you,” Jessica said. “What are you doing these days?” Napina worked with Jessica, an expatriate, on a number of different projects in the past three years. This was before she decided to resign and venture off on her own.
“I am mostly working from home”, Napina replied. “I like it. It means I get to spend time with my baby”.
She wondered if she sounded a little defensive and tried to backtrack.
“Don’t get me wrong I miss being out and about…but this works for me for now,” Napina added.
She turned to see her iarman downing plastic cups of beer as if they were lemon juice on a day filled with so much humidity you could cut through it with a sharp knife, like the yellow-handled one she almost cut her little finger on the other day.
“It’s time to go home,” Napina said close to his ear so he could hear over the din. He did not seem to hear.
She touched his arm. He turned to her. “It’s time to go home”, she mouthed at him.
He turned away sharply. “When I am done!” he said crushing and tossing the cup into the bin.
Grabbing her hand he yanked her through the crowd towards the entrance.
Outside the boxing venue, he looked around for a taxi. Napina saw an old friend from her university days across the road. She called out, “Matt!” And waved to him with her free hand. She had flatted at university with Matt in the last year before graduation.
Too late she realised that Matt was in one of the photos that her iarman burnt in a fit of rage an afternoon three weekends ago. Her acid-free black photo album where she carefully and lovingly pasted her memories writing captions in white ink pen beneath each. She brought her right hand quickly down to her side. The hand with the index finger now forever deformed when he crashed the laundry basket down aiming for her head and she’d protectively raised her arm instinctively.
Napina’s attention was caught by a flash of movement across the road. Right by the Chinese store opposite the Parliament House was a dilapidated lean-to with corrugated iron roofing rusted by the elements. Under a blue tarpaulin strung across the front of the shed where a dull yellow light beamed hopefully was a congregation of men. Napina knew it was a nakamal where men were drinking kava.
She imagined she heard guttural sounds of spitting and the fresh rooty smell of kava made her choke back a vomit.
A taxi pulled up. Napina’s iarman shoved her into the taxi. It was when she was inside that she realised it was Tawi John’s taxi, her iarman’s cousin. He must have phoned Tawi John.
Napina recalled the time she first met Tawi John. It was at a family gathering to commemorate five days after the death of one of her iarman’s aunties. Napina was sitting with the women and the children. She did not know many of them and did not speak their language. She sat mutely wishing she had not come. Her iarman and Tawi John were in the midst of a group of men having shells of kava and talking solemnly.
Many things seemed to happen around kava, Napina thought, shaking her head just so. Did it matter that she felt so disconnected from it all?
Napina turned around to face her iarman and found her face forced down on the seat of the taxi. He boxed her face and head with his balled up fists.
She looked at the fake red leather of the taxi’s seat. It too would soon be stained with her blood.
“How could you!” he said. “You embarrassed me”, Napina’s iarman continued. “How dare you…!”
Napina realised he was talking about her waving to Matt. She knew very well that he hated feeling like she defied him.
Napina cried for help as the taxi pulled away and headed for home. Home was not a good place right now.
“Tawi, please stop at the police station,” cried Napina. “Don’t take me home. He will kill me,” she said in pleas muffled by the taxi seat.
Tawi John does not help. Because he cannot help. This is their domestic issue. At least that was what he told Napina as she begged him to take her to the police station.
Napina heard the thud! thud! thud! of her heart like the pounding of a dull axe against a nakatambol tree through the pummelling of her head.
“Sori…” Tawi John said. He did not need to say anything else.
Napina was a cornered animal. He pinned her down to stop her getting out of the moving vehicle or call out for help to passers-by.
They had been to boxing. And now Napina’s face was being boxed to a pulp by her iarman – the man who loved her.
Napina’s mind was furiously running through options. The catch was her 3-month-old son, Tamalu, in bed at home with Kaha Licha. He knows she cannot run and leave a breastfeeding baby.
“Get out!” he said through gritted teeth. Is that how long it took to get from Numbatu to Tagabe? Napina realised she must have blacked out.
He pried her fingers loose from the taxi door, carried her into the house and threw her on the bed in their bedroom. Napina’s thoughts were of Kaha Licha and Baby Tamalu in the spare bedroom.
He came back into the bedroom, grabbed his black Nokia mobile phone and started to dial numbers. “I am going to call her, bring her here and fuck her on the bed next to you,” he ranted.
She knew this was not going to happen. Not right now. But tonight she wished it did. This is so it spares her from more beating.
Napina felt a stinging sensation on her face. How was she going to hide a black eye tomorrow? Was anything broken?
“I am sorry for what I did,” she whispered hoarsely through swollen lips, a mantra to keep her alive. Napina’s tired brain had gone into shutdown mode like the first grey Acer laptop she owned.
When she forced open the painful slits that were her eyes she realised it was daylight. She was alone in the room. Napina breathed a sigh of relief. She was alive. Everywhere was pain.
The bedroom door swung open. Napina tensed. Her iarman came in with a red ice-cream container and her fluffy white face cloth – her flannel. She likes flannels. They make her feel feminine. She does not say this out loud for fear that she might be seen as being a “princess”.
“Good morning, honey!” he said cheerfully. Her iarman had come to clean up the mess from last night. The pain was too much. She could not smile back without wincing.
“I am going to clean your face with warm water. Then Bubba will breastfeed,” he announced.
Her iarman wiped her face tenderly murmuring about how sorry he was. “I love you so much”, he said.
“I love you”, Napina said. “Thank you for cleaning me”, she added. “I’m sorry about last night”.
Napina found that she thought in Tannese or English whenever she was angry or hurt. Nolkeikeiian, love, could easily be used to talk about an object with has no feelings. Is this what she has become? A mere thing? Love, the most overused word in any language.
His benevolent smile lit up the room. Then he left to empty the now bloodstained water down the white porcelain sink in the bathroom.
He returned with a wriggling bundle – her baby, Tamalu. Napina could not turn on her side to breastfeed him. It was too painful.
Her iarman arranged a pillow for Baby Tamalu to lie on so he was able to reach her breast. He latched on eagerly and started to suckle. Napina’s eyes filled with tears of pain.
Napina breathed in his sweet scent – a mixture of talcum powder and baby wipes. The scent of a clean baby. Napina suddenly felt unclean.
Napina looked into Baby Tamalu’s eyes praying silently, “Don’t remember me like this, little man…”
He graced her with a smile.
There were moments of clarity. Moments when Napina knew she should leave. There were times when she left and then returned.
“Why are you still with him?” demanded Napina’s friend whose house she sought refuge at one night with her son. “Please don’t tell me you love him after all this!”
Napina’s friend paused in her pacing across the earth floor of the house she was renting to glance at her in disgust. She pointed at Napina’s battered face to stress her point.
“Go and see your mama,” she said. “That’ll teach him to try to do this to you again”.
Napina sat resolutely patting her baby’s bottom willing him to sleep. She must prove to her mama that she could make it work.
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” Napina asked. “It’s late and baby is sick…”
In a twisted way Napina guessed she still loved this man.
Okay she should have listened to her mama. Napina’s mama did warn her against him.
“Koko, there are some good men, like your father. But there are some men that are some bad men. There are men who lie”, her mama had said to her that Sunday afternoon after church.
But thinking she knew better and maybe to an extent to defy her mama Napina pursued the relationship.
“But you don’t know him, mama,” Napina responded. “He is a good man. He loves me”, she added.
And now she cannot go to her mama. That would be admitting defeat. And Napina has too much pride to admit that she was wrong.
Her mind goes back to the time he hit her on the beach close to his family’s home. Baby Tamalu would have been less than two weeks old. She was still weak from the caesarean section – a necessity as she has always been tiny around the waist and hip area.
He had held her face into seawater for the longest time. She flailed as she fought for breath. He released her finally. Gasping for air, she realised her face was all cut up by the reef.
“Let’s go home,” he said. They walked back in the rain together. Napina looked around at passers-by. She wondered if any of them noticed the cuts on her face. Everyone was averting their eyes. Were there cuts on her face?
“What happened to you?” asked his maman. Napina started to respond trying to hide the tears rolling down her nangalat-stung cheeks. “Why is your face bleeding?”
“Oh shut up, maman!” he retorted.
His father came running in from the bush kitchen where he was creaming sweet yams for dinner.
“What did you do to her, son?” he asked sharply. “She doesn’t have family here. What if something happened to her?” he added.
Napina felt unseen. Why was everyone talking about her like she was not there?
“It was her fault. She does not listen to me!” he said shortly.
His maman held Napina, rocked her like a baby and cried.
“You have to learn to listen”, she crooned. “Don’t make him angry because then he hits you”, she scolded.
Napina nodded mutely. Her tears could not come.
His maman boiled some water in a kettle on the open fire for Napina to have a bucket bath in the outdoor wood and black canvas shower stall.
She bent to scoop water to wash her body and hot water steamed up over the stall’s black canvas walling as it starts to drizzle. Tears mixed with drizzle flowed down her cheeks. Towelling off Napina gingerly stepped over the soil onto blocks of bricks not wanting her feet to get muddy after the shower.
Napina felt clean. His maman made Napina a sweet smelling pamplemouss leaf tea and put her to bed.
Dedicated to women who remain silent and those who have not found a sympathetic listening ear
List of words used:
Iarman: A term in Tannese language, a language spoken by people on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, meaning my man. Used in this way – Rahak Iarman – denotes a sense of possession. Tawi: A word used widely in Bislama, Vanuatu’s lingua franca, to mean brother-in-law or sister-in-law. It is also used as a term of affection and camaraderie between close friends.
Pamplemousse: These are large grapefruits. In Vanuatu there are a number of varieties with two distinct varieties – that of a deep pinkish-red colour and a white colour. It is from the citrus family.
Kaha: In Tannese language, Kaha is used interchangeably for both grandfather (Kaha Iarman) and grandmother (Kaha Patan).
Nolkeikeiian: Tannese for showing love and kindness. Nakamal: A traditional meeting house in many of the languages in Vanuatu. In the context of the story it is used to refer to the kava bar where people go to drink kava. Kava: Kava is from the Piper Methysticum plant family. Kava root is ground and mixed with water and consumed throughout the Pacific and Vanuatu for its sedating effect. It is also used in many traditional custom ceremonies. Nakatambol: A tree from which hardwood timber can be made. It produces clusters of fruit that turn yellow when ripe with a hard seed in the middle. Nangalat: A shrub that can grow into a tree. It stings in a similar way to poison ivy when it comes into contact with a part of the body. Koko: My sweet little girl or my darling, a term of endearment in Tannese that can be used to describe a girl or a grown women.