(This short story is about the time in primary school in Port Moresby in the early 70's when two friends and I would play in the tunnel that ran beneath the main building of the newly built University of Papua New Guinea.)
Standing on the cool packed earth at the entrance of the tunnel, the boys, the three of them, turned and looked into the darkness. It was a bright dry season afternoon and if they had taken two steps backwards they would have once again been bathed in the clear sharp tropical light.
He couldn't remember how or when they had first discovered the tunnel but now it was a part of their every afternoon. He looked down at his bare feet and then at the storm water drain that disappeared into the darkness. Outside, above them, he imagined the shaded space of the university's main building, with its roof high above the great amphitheater,a reflection in the library windows, all cooled by a steady breeze. He imagined as well students walking through the space and the sound of their footsteps echoing off the smooth cement surfaces.
He looked into the tunnel and felt a thrill at the cool quiet dark space, with its unexplored corners, its muffled drips and dankness. I. and P. had already plunged in, following the storm water drain, feeling their way along the wall. His eyes adjusted to the dark. The tunnel’s first turn was to the left, at ninety degrees. It was here he felt that the tunnel truly began. From this point the darkness became thicker, the air cooler still.
As always the tunnel was completely theirs. They never expected to meet anyone and they never did. Not once in all the hours they spent there, after school or on the weekend, did they meet a single other soul. It was their tunnel, their domain, their Aladdin’s cave.
In a distant corner water dripped. A right turn formed a corner in the drain which he enjoyed stepping over. Next came the longest stretch of tunnel and, as with every section, it evoked a particular feeling in him. The entrance lifted his spirits and made his heart jump. The long straight line of this part was pure adventure, high drama, and he felt like he was in a movie, one that was fifty times better than anything he had seen at the Skylight Drive Inn or at Wards Cinema. Those movies gave him something, certainly, but not this, not the singular uniqueness of this. At the end of this part they needed to crouch to get under the squared structure of air conditioning duct. On the other side the ceiling was lower, the space more intimate. Here they sat in the dusty soil leaning against the brick walls which formed an alcove.
He felt the bricks hard against his back. Over to his left he could see the rectangle of light formed by the frame of the door that he knew opened onto a small basement tutorial room. One day they entered the tunnel through this door after having walked down the stairs near the library, then along a short corridor.
He pushed some dirt with his toes. He could just make out the shapes of I. and P. Listening carefully to catch any sound he was surprised by how many he could hear. He heard voices, muffled, from the room nearby and the drip of water, as well as the hum and rattle of the air conditioning unit for the main lecture theatre above where they sat. One day a kid got pushed against the dark glass doors of the theatre, smashing its pane and sending out great shards of glass. There was lots of blood and glass everywhere. After that, every time he passed the door, he looked at the stain of the kid’s blood on the cement floor. There was the sound, faraway, as though from a distant planet, of an electric drill.
They stood and stepped back onto the cool path. This was the last part of the tunnel and it was narrow and already hinting at the day outside. The dripping water was closer and the wall damp and mossy. They stepped out into the day. It was so bright they needed to squint and cover their eyes. The afternoon had lost none of its intensity. Bougainvillea hung from the silver grey rock wall and in the car park widescreens caught the sun and multiplied it.
Their bikes were where they had left them leaning against the stone wall of the library. Soon they were pedaling away from the university along the back road, a strip of asphalt cutting through the bush. He felt the breeze on his face and chest. His shirt was open, as were his friends’, and as they pedaled, they shouted across the space between each other. The land was flat and they were surrounded on all sides by high kunai grass. If sitting in the tunnel had made him feel safe and calm this gave him a sense of freedom and exhilaration. He whooped and laughed and pushed harder on the pedals so as to overtake his friends.
‘Ha ha ha!’ he shouted, as he stood, pedaling hard, gripping the handle bars and taking full control of the bike. Suddenly the day felt still, lulled by the heat and light. Alive but sleepy, their movements apparently providing the only activity in an over lit landscape, like hyperkinetic cartoon figures rushing across a flat background image. Of course the stillness was an illusion and the boys fed off the bush’s pulsating energy and the life that filled every particle of matter.
He thrilled at the cool breeze, created by the forward movement of the bicycle, which touched the film of sweat on his body. He saw I. and P. closing the distance between him and them, so he pushed harder, as hard as he could, and by the time he started to climb the hill to the back blocks of the university housing his friends were far behind him.
He stopped and placed one foot on the hot surface of the road, while his hands continued to grip the handlebars. As he balanced there on the road, in the bush, at the top of the hill, he felt he was part of a great tableau. He turned his head slowly towards his friends and like the final scene in a movie in the movie of his life he saw his friends figures in a khaki landscape smiling, waving and pushing their bikes up the hill towards him.
(A short story set in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in the 1970's.)
A. took a small smooth stone from the ground, tossed it into the air and caught it. He then aimed at the gum tree a distance away, and in one graceful movement threw it so it hit the tree's trunk with a thud. Below us, at the bottom of the hill we heard the sound of children's laughter.
A. chuckled to himself, as he often did, as though a private joke would be lost if he told it. The ground's dusty surface felt warm on the soles of my feet. With my toe I pushed the loose soil into a small pile. The day was warming up.
'Nice shot,' I said.
After a time we proceeded with our expedition. The day was not waiting for us and indeed the sun was already high in the cloudless blue sky. We followed the track up along the ridge through clumps of kunai grass. Fumes from the eucalyptus trees filled the late morning air which was abuzz with barely visible activity. It felt as though A. and I were stars in a big Hollywood production.
The hill was patchy with burnt off areas and the blue, dry season sky promised adventures and possibilities. In the distance, to our left, the profile of the Owen Stanley Ranges reminded us of our day's purpose.
'Look,' shouted Ant, pointing into the sky. I looked up and saw a Kitty Hawke circling, carried on a stream of warm air.
We soon reached the peak of the line of hills just above the old Show Grounds. Below us, across Waigani Drive, sat the glowing white structure of the Drive Inn screen. It felt out of place in the afternoon light, as though someone had forgotten to put it away; an inexplicable cultural artifact, a suburban Easter Island statue.
A steady stream of Saturday traffic flowed along Waigani Drive. From up here it felt like another world, almost another time. We started down the hill carefully avoiding burnt off areas where soft grey ash hid sharp stones, pointy sticks and broken glass.
Once on Waigani Drive we began walking towards Boroko, our index fingers out. We passed the Volkswagen dealership, then the stationary supply shop and the bakery and just when it seemed hardly worth it a ute pulled up and we jumped in. From the back of the ute the scene was transformed, as the black bitumen road rolled out from beneath the ute like a conveyor belt.
Our friends looked incongruous among the Saturday shoppers. This was due in part to the two giant inflated truck inner tubes (gumis)that stood in front of them and by which they were dwarfed. Behind us a group of women sat on the footpath their produce laid out in neat piles in front of them, their backs against the wall of the Chinese trade store. Cars pulled in and out with operatic grace and over everything was an air of cheerful gaiety.
The PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) was empty except for two other people and once it began moving the cabin filled with a rush of wind. We passed the airport and if a plane had landed at that moment we could have looked up and seen its undercarriage, close enough to touch.
After the turn off to the Plateau the road began its windy ascent to the foothills and to our destination: the pig farm. Then we are standing in front of the pig farm fence and looking into the main paddock with its hard mud surface dotted with clumps of pig shit. We climbed the fence, headed for the clumps and began searching for gold top mushrooms. After finding what we hoped were enough spindly specimens with which to get high we scampered back over the fence. We saw neither pig nor person.
At the river we divided up our harvest, put them in our mouths and washed them down with warm, sugary lemonade. We then threw the inner tubes into the fast flowing river and leaped in after them. My skin tingled and goosebumped on contact with the cool water and my thoughts and vision became clearer. Once on the tubes we lay back and let the river carry us.
Suddenly the light refracted and what had been clumpy bits of kunai grass and trees on the river's edge became a vast, roiling tangle of tropical jungle with multiple layers and shades of green. The river was now a knotted mass of brown and green, untangling and reshaping and, radiating upwards and outwards, the jungle and the river and the sky all one, and us, we, in the thing and it in us. The sun, the light, the reflection of light on the water, the heat, the cold, it was all one.
And that is where the memories of that day ends, as though the film in the projector broke or an energy surge erased the rest. In my final memory I am reclining on the smooth, cool black surface of the tube, feeling its soft solid rubber and air, my feet in the water, and the cool, cold mass of the fast flowing river is carrying us under the canopy of green vines and branches (and above that the sky), over rapids and around bends, and at one point I turn my head and look behind me, and see the vast silhouette of the Sogeri Plateau calling us home.
I am an Australian artist living in Düsseldorf, Germany.