Owen Scott is a writer, actor and broadcaster whose book, Deep Beyond The Reef, about his family’s history in Fiji, featured on Radio New Zealand and inspired the Annie Goldson film 'An Island Calling'. He currently works as a freelance journalist and adapts and records work for radio.
The Postmaster by Owen Scott
The boy ran barefoot down the track of crushed coral. His eight-year-old European feet were as tough and strong as those of his island friends. He was a child of the bush, at home with the sounds, smells and the rigours of island living.
In his hand he carried a dead mouse. He had spent the best part of the day trying to find one. The search had been prompted, earlier in the day, by word that there was a letter for his mother awaiting collection from the local Postmaster. News of a letter always triggered a search for mice.
The boy had timed his run to the Postmaster with care, arriving just before dusk in the hope that he might catch sight of the legendary ‘Morrison’.
The Postmaster’s house was a little way off the coral track – along an uneven, muddy path. Behind the house was a steep hill covered in thick bush. The house was more of a shack – a patchwork of assorted, uneven timber, topped with rusty corrugated iron. A ring of chickens, pigs, dogs and geese, and their commingled smells, gave the illusion of a belt of protection. The boy was always a little wary of this gauntlet. He was still young enough to find the honking of fearless and fearsome geese intimidating. On more than one occasion he had received a nip.
“Hello, Young John.”
A ruddy-faced, short man with a substantial belly leaned against the doorway of the shack, a glass of something coloured and clear in his hand.
“You’ve come for your mother’s mail I presume. Is that something for Morrie I see you’ve brought? He will be very excited. I wonder if he saw you running down the track. I guarantee you he did. Come inside.”
The boy climbed the front steps and carefully wiped his feet. He did it out of politeness, but need not have bothered. There were floorboards missing all through the house. Exposed nails and sinking soft wood required a careful tread, especially from feet that were bare, no matter how tough.
The Postmaster elegantly waved the boy to a seat with a flourish. The boy sank into the musty cushions of an old cane sofa. With a grunt the Postmaster seated himself in a chair opposite. For a time neither spoke. It was a ritual between them. The insistence of a busy dusk did all the talking for them. The boy was still, holding the dead mouse in both hands in his lap. Expectation widened his eyes and shallowed his breath. He listened quietly, watching for any sign of what he hoped he was about to witness.
“Mr Fellows … do you really think Morrie will come tonight?”
“I do indeed, Young John. How could he not come to see you?” The Postmaster pulled on the clear liquid in his glass. “I have a keen sense that you and I will once again be honoured by his magnificent presence.”
The boy tried to gauge how much the Postmaster had had to drink. Mr Fellows’ speech became increasingly ornate depending on the amount of liquor he had consumed. He had a strange, clipped way of talking that the boy found fascinating. Wonderful words came out of his mouth that the boy had never heard anyone else use. The manner of his speaking was like the call or song of a rare bird, one whose plumage was extravagant and bright.
If the Postmaster was drinking the clear, golden liquid it was a sign that he must recently have had an important visitor. The golden liquid was only drunk if one of the well-dressed notaries from Suva had been to visit. The boy had heard adults occasionally mention the word ‘whisky’ and he associated that name with the clear fluid in the Postmaster’s hand. There was something concentrated and powerful in the smell of the Postmaster’s breath today, something sophisticated and foreign. Normally, he was enveloped in the more familiar pungency of homemade palm wine and the content of his glass was a cloudy, dull yellow.
The boy had often asked his mother about the connection between the golden liquid and well-dressed visitors. The Postmaster, she had told him, was a real gentleman, a man of noble birth from England. He had been educated at a place called Cambridge. The boy didn’t know what this meant, but assumed that any word of more than one syllable ending in ‘-idge’ denoted importance, especially when linked to a place name. But if the Postmaster had gone to school in one of these ‘-idge’ places, why was his house so rundown, he wondered, with its leaky roof and broken floorboards? It wasn’t of great concern to him. A visit to the Postmaster was always an adventure. Apart from having to run a gauntlet of animals, and hopefully seeing Morrie, he would always return home carrying a large bag of Bullocks Hearts. They weren’t really bullocks’ hearts, but custard apples. The name was a reference to the size of the fruit.
The boy had once heard his mother describe the Postmaster as a ‘remittance man’.
“Mum, what’s a remittance man?”
His mother had looked awkward.
“Someone who has been sent a long way from England because they were … the black sheep of the family.”
Sheep were white. To the boy the very sound of sheep that were black denoted something mysteriously bad.
“Did the Postmaster do something that was wrong?”
“Well, that depends on different peoples’ interpretation,” said his mother carefully. “But don’t you believe any stories you might hear about Mr Fellows. He is a very good man.”
“It wasn’t very nice of his parents to send him away,” the boy said indignantly. “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you? What did Mr Fellows do?”
The boy’s mother was silent for a moment.
“Never you mind,” she said, eventually.
The boy and the remittance man continued to wait in silence; a time filled with nature’s noisy preparations for the night. The vigil was respectful, as if man and boy were standing on a crowded street in the Capital, waiting for a glimpse of someone important to pass by. As the light faded the noise increased with the urgency of the tropics. They both knew that very soon the differing trajectories of light and sound would meet in a perfect moment.
Suddenly, behind the Postmaster, there was the sense of a presence – a settling on one of the long poles that held open the heavy, wooden, hurricane windows.
“Is that you, Morrie?” asked the Postmaster without turning. “Young John here has come to see you. He has brought you a gift. Aren’t you fortunate! Are you going to come to join us?”
The words were like a signal.
With a breath of wings the presence left the pole and settled on the postmaster’s right shoulder.
“Ah, Morrie, I’ve missed you. Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in days. With those gimlet eyes of yours I am sure you saw what young John here was carrying as he ran down the road. Are you feeling a bit peckish?”
The Postmaster winked at the boy and stretched out a hand. The dead mouse was carefully passed across – a sacrificial offering to a high priest. But the boy’s gaze was not on what he was handing over, or on the ‘priest’. His attention was entirely fixed on the black eyes and pale, heart-shaped face of an owl.
The postmaster ceremoniously lifted up his hand, displaying its contents to his friend. Noiselessly, the owl became airborne. It collected the mouse in a taloned sweep and swiftly returned to the bush and the night, its departure as silent and as quick as its arrival. The boy blinked from the fan of air on his face. He had witnessed this feeding ritual many times – as entranced now as he had been on the first occasion.
He could remember the day the boys from village had presented the owl to the Postmaster when it was featherless and flightless. It had fallen from a nest and, if not picked up, would have quickly attracted the attention of the ubiquitous and rapacious predator of the area, the mongoose. The boy remembered how the curious Englishman, with his very formal way of speaking, had cared for the baby bird, feeding it tiny scraps until it was fully grown. The bond between man and owl had been steadfast ever since. The remittance man had charged every child in the district with the mission of providing food for the bird. “A mouse for Morrie, please” had been his sing-song directive. In return there was the promise of a penny.
With another of his many winks, the Postmaster now reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin.
“I suppose you have been waiting for this, Young John? You must be getting rather rich by now. You have rather unfailingly been Morrie’s chief benefactor and provider. Good lad. Now, here is the letter for your mother. Oh … and here is a bag of Bullocks Hearts of course.” The golden twinkle to his voice and eye was increasing with the course of the night. “Don’t eat too many before you get home otherwise I will have to brave your mother’s admonishment, which can certainly be severe. Time you were running along, Young Man. Run! And make sure you get home before it gets dark. Otherwise the devil might grab you and we couldn’t have that, could we!”
The boy mumbled his thanks and shook the Postmaster’s hand. There was no gauntlet of geese to negotiate this time as he carefully made his way down the front steps. They had found sanctuary for the night. As the boy ran down the path he bit into one of the huge custard apples and wondered how long it would be before another letter awaited collection. He knew that tonight, as with every visit to the Postmaster, his dreams would be a medley of owls, geese, whisky and remittance men.