Despite Mick's fears that she might have found another man since they parted under such dramatic circumstances, Evelyn has never forgotten the man she met on a tiny Pacific island. When she finds no trace of him after the war has ended, she is devastated and seeks refuge in her work.
I have chosen "Cordell" by The Cranberries as this chapter's soundtrack. It's all in the lyrics.
Once you ruled my mind
I thought you would always be there
And I'll always hold on to your face
But everything changes in time
And the answers are not always fair
And I hope you've gone to a better place
Time will tell
They say that you've passed away
And I hope you've gone to a better place
Your lover and baby will cry
But your presence will always remain
Is this how it was meant to be?
You meant something more to me
Than what many people will see
And to hell with the industry
Time will tell
Time will tell
We all will depart and decay
And we all will return to a better place
A big thank you to my friend Frannie for letting me borrow Bert for this story!
We'll meet again
Don't know where, don't know when …
I hastened my step, eager to get out of the hotel lobby with its tinkling piano, away from this song that seemed to haunt and mock me wherever I went. I had no idea why it had become so popular in times like these, with so many widows and orphans around, so many bereaved siblings and parents and friends, so many who were never going to meet their loved ones again because the war had claimed their lives or their fate remained unclear and might never be discovered.
I couldn't imagine those words, sung to such a jolly tune, would give much hope or comfort to people who had been waiting in vain for a sign of life from their missing beloved, who braved the mundane reality of their daily grind with a pasted-on smile and a stiff upper lip to hide the gaping painful void in their hearts.
People like me.
It was not as if I hadn't done all I could.
I had scoured the lists of the dead and the wounded, called on the Red Cross for assistance, kept my eyes wide open wherever I went, but there was no sign of one Michael Carpenter, last known residence Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands.
From time to time, a man would catch my eye, because of his height or his hair or the way he walked, but it was never him, and I finally stopped getting excited at fleeting similarities that would only leave me disappointed at second glance.
As soon as the war had ended and travelling the seas was deemed safe once more, I returned to the island, presumably to get my notes and photo prints to complete my manuscript.
Or so I told Lance Talbert, my editor.
Retrieving my notebooks, however, was of course not the main reason why I wanted to go back.
The truth was that I had the book as good as finished even without referring to my notes, as all the details were still very clear and vivid in my mind. It had virtually written itself, flowing from my mind in many late-night sessions at the brand-new typewriter I had bought to replace the faithful old thing that I'd had to leave behind on the island.
Once I'd have picked up the material I had buried in the forest near the village before I had gone into hiding myself, all I would have to do was compare my current draft with my old notes and select some pictures for the book's photo section.
I went back there because I wanted to see how the natives were doing and if anyone remembered me, and, what was so much more important than anything else, to search for him.
My saviour, my friend, my love.
I needed to find a trace of him, anything that would help me get him back.
Was it asking too much that he should still be living there?
I had been so heartbroken when I realized that he was not coming along to Australia at all. I could still feel the desperation of that moment, that icy fear that had gripped my heart when I saw him row away from the launch that had picked up John MacGregor and me to take us to safety.
My first impulse had been to jump after him, and I would have if John hadn't held me back.
I had cried and raged and cried some more all the way to Port Moresby.
By the time we got on the steamer to Sydney, I could rage and cry no longer. During many endless, sleepless nights, and long talks with John, whom our lengthy journy had turned from the stuffy missionary who used to eye me rather suspiciously into a good friend, I had come to understand that Mick would have felt a need and an obligation to stay on until the end. After all, the island was his home. It might not be the place where he had been born but the place he had chosen to live and come to love.
So there was some rightful hope I'd find him there, although I had never received an answer to the letters I had written.
Who knew if they had ever reached their destination at all. They might just as well have ended up to the bottom of the ocean when one of many mail ships went down, or they had got stranded when the mail service to the islands was shut down altogether due to the war, with all the hostilities going on in the Pacific waters and all the Westerners officially evacuated.
Despite my occasional doubts and the repeated disappointment of my futile search, I refused to believe the reason for his silence was either that he did not care for me any more, or that he had fallen victim to the war.
I knew that the islands had taken some minor shelling, but I told myself he'd have survived, hidden away in his cave.
He must have survived.
I wanted, no, I needed him back.
Those long months of missing him so terribly that it hurt me physically, of wanting to scream in horror and frustration as the memories of him began to lose some of their clarity, of dreaming we had been reunited only to wake up to another empty morning, they must not have been in vain.
There must be a second act for us in this play of life.
Fate had obviously decided otherwise.
I was greeted with reluctant friendliness by the native women I had met in what felt like another life. To my dismay, they were all wearing Western clothes now, and many of them proudly told me that they had seen the light and converted to Christianity. I didn't like the fact but kept my mouth shut.
And then, after I had gone to dig up the little metal strongbox that held my notes and photos, I asked my native guide the question that had been burning on the tip of my tongue ever since I'd arrived.
"What about the trader man, Mick Carpenter? Mister Mick?"
The young man gave a little shrug and hesitated. "They say there's grave … in the forest, on another island."
" A grave", I repeated tonelessly, my heart turning stone cold in my chest.
I had him take me there on the same afternoon. He led me through the jungle to a pompous grey headstone crowned by a cross. It didn't actually prove anything because it had no name on it, but that did not occur to me at the time.
To me, the nameless marker confirmed my worst fears and shattered all my hopes.
I wanted to ask a thousand more questions – what had happened, how he had died, why he was buried here and not on the island that had been his home.
But all I could do was weep.
I sank to my knees, clutching at the silent, indifferent stone, and I sobbed like I had never sobbed before in my life.
I grieved not only for Mick himself – his beauty, his kindness, his calm unobtrusive presence, his graceful movements, his endearing little chuckling laugh – but also for the second chance we had been denied, for the life we should have shared, for the future we should have had.
That goddamn war had destroyed everything, and I was left with just a stack of manuscript pages and a few photos to speak of happier days.
I didn't even have a proper picture of him, no good portrait whatsoever, nothing but a few rather blurry snapshots of him sitting on the beach with a little basket of pearl shells nestled between his crossed legs in those old navy-blue shorts he'd used to wear every time he went out "pearlin'", as he called it.
Sobered and bereft, I returned home and buried myself in work. I was largely unable to sleep and there was nothing that could actually take my mind off having lost Mick and with him all hope of a happy future, so I wrote, re-read and re-wrote almost day and night.
Lance was surprised at just how quick I was to hand in the finished manuscript and in turn managed to get the book published astonishingly fast.
Bert, my agent, had planned and organised a presentation tour that started end of November.
My account of living among an indigenous tribe famous for their outrageous sexual behaviour caused quite a ripple in the feuilletons and seemed to have all the makings of a best-seller. I made the news each town I went on my circuit and was thronged by thrilled readers and curious journalists after every reading I held.
I liked the attention of my readers, the questions they asked, the praise and sometimes also the little criticisms they gave me, whereas the journalists seeking to interview me made me uncomfortable.
All I had wanted to say was there, on the book's pages, in the photos I had chosen. What was not in there was nothing I wanted to share with the crowd.
Most of the journalists were obsessed with the fact that a young woman like me had lived among "sex-crazed savages". I got asked questions I'd never have dreamed of. Some just didn't seem able to get their heads around my never having been involved sexually with any of the native men, and at one occasion, I actually flew into the face of one – male – journalist who kept inquiring tactlessly about intimate details of both the natives' and my own life. He tried to laugh it off brashly and only left when Bert intervened, discreetly authoritative. I was furious for the rest of the evening nevertheless.
The tour was also taxing in its monotony - moving on every other day, giving the same introductory speech, reading the same excerpts, showing the same slides over and over again. Sometimes I couldn't even remember where I was or where I'd be going next.
It kept me busy, though. In the evenings, I was usually too knackered to think a lot about what had been, or, worse, about what might have been.
But still, against better knowledge, my heart leapt in my chest and my stomach gave a little jolt of excitement a few times as a tall, well-built man with dark wavy hair came into view, a sensation unavoidably followed by the bitter pang of letdown when I saw that the face was too round, the eyes the wrong colour and shape, the nose broad and chunky, not classically long and straight.
I eyed myself critically in my hotel-room mirror now, not particularly fond of what I saw, sighed and started to touch up my face.
Carefully applied make-up would hide the shadows under my eyes, and a dab of blush would make my complexion appear less pale. A touch of lipstick added more colour, and after I had unpinned and redone my hair, I left the small suite in the surprisingly lush little hotel and took the lift downstairs, glad to hear that the pianist had moved on to play a mildly interesting classical sonata that didn't strike any chords with me.
I walked through the lobby quickly and stepped into the street to find it was raining and rather cool for the time of year. I debated whether to return to my room and fetch my umbrella but decided against it, as I didn't have much time to spare and there was a car waiting for me right outside the door. And Bert might be inclined to give me a ride back to the hotel afterwards anyway.
Hopefully he wouldn't be in one of his chatty moods and invite me for a fancy dinner, as he liked to do. I just wanted to get this afternoon's reading over with and have a simple meal in my room.
No three weeks into my tour, I was already getting tired of it.