Flat Tire in Rarotonga

LYDIA DAVISof New Zealand followed her husband “Dr. Tom" back to his home island of Rarotonga and was his valiant ally during the six years of his uphill struggle as medical officer in the Cook Islands. When Dr. Tom had won through,the Davises sailed away on their dream ketch, the Miru, a 45-footer,bound for Boston where he had been offered a fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health. With their young sons and two deck hands,they crossed 12,000 miles of the Pacific in an epic voyage of 155 days. All this they tell in their joint biography, Doctor to the Islands, which has just been published under the Atlantic-Little,Brown imprint. That their life was not always one of strain and buffeting can be judged from the enchanting glimpses in Lydia’s short story.



PAPA NAPA twisted impatiently on the driving seat and joggled the reins. “Oro-mai! Oromai! Hurry along there! Have you boys got everything now? The sacks? The baskets? The machete? No, I thought as much. Going to cut bananas and no knife to do it with.Auo-uo koe! That I should have such fools for sons!”

“Here they are,” shouted Kiu, crashing a couple of sharp-bladed machetes onto the floor of the buggy. “Let’s go, Papa.”

“Go we must,” grumbled Papa. “There would be no pork or fruit for the Xmas feast if I waited for you boys to remember everything at once, and the sun is high already. Aere, Beauty, we’re off.”

Papa cracked his whip (a branch broken from the wild hibiscus tree), and the ancient nag, Beauty, broke into her idea of a trot. The buggy lurched into motion but made no sound as it wobbled over the flower-strewn road, for the wheels were shod with rubber truck tires, a relic of more prosperous days when Papa Napa had driven a Model T instead of this ancient horse and cart.

Not even vanished prosperity could rob this island of Rarotonga and its single road of its beauty or lessen the pleasure and sense of unchange it had always brought to Papa and his family. To either side piled the weeds, hothouse blooms gone mad; in scarlet, purple, and yellow, the colors the sun likes, they edged each other and tangled round the trunks of the trees. Great tasseled blossoms from the giant utu trees plopped onto the road, contrasting with the crushed carpet of flame from the poinciana flowers and the rich purples of the bougainvillaea vines. Pink, white, and red oleanders shone primly from among waxy leaves. None of this could ever be permanently damaged. No matter how drastic the trimming of such lushness might be, if nature brought hurricane and tidal wave, if men came with their machetes, riot would soon hold sway again.

Papa Napa may never have put this into words even to himself, but it was this very reliability of island disorder that made him cling to his home when others thought it wiser to move to more profitable surroundings. Napa ma, as the family were known on the island, liked disorder. It was so much a part of their lives (as of the lives of their neighbors) that they either ignored it or treated it as their normal scheme, adjusting and forgetting.

The family had once been rich; now they were poor again, but their pleasures were little changed and their concern with their present circumstances was a matter only for passing thought, never of sufficient importance to mar the aimless harmony of their days. They were none of them lazy; they simply felt that exertion would not add materially to their contentment.

There was just as much pleasure in a drive to their plantation plot to pick fruit for a family feast as there would have been if the fruit were exchanged with the traders for money and fleeting luxury, so that now, on the early part of their drive, they sat contentedly on the floor of their buggy, seeing the loveliness of their island as if with new eyes.

“Tire’s flat!” shouted Kimi, aged six years, who had for some time been hanging perilously over the side of the cart, her curly head, innocent for many days of contact with brush, comb, or insecticide, turning from side to side as she kept a close watch on the old rubber tires. Kimi had been working, watching for the inevitable, and now, her work finished, she flopped back to the floor of the cart.

“Flat already?” grumbled Papa. “ Aue-t’auet’aue, Always flat. Whoa, Beauty my lady. Tapu koe. Stop.” Papa pulled hard on the ropes that did duty for reins, but Beauty did not immediately obey. She had her eye on some water grass a few yards ahead. She too knew that a flat tire was an inevitability but, horselike, had been hoping that the calamity would occur near some feed. Water grass was not her first choice, but it was filling.

“Everybody off,” ordered Papa.

There were no complaints as the Napa family unpiled. This was something bound to happen and each would enjoy the spell. Kimi, the first to scramble over the side, was closely followed by Peter. Peter looked just what he was, the six-yearold son of the missionary, clean, neatly dressed, brushed and combed to the last degree to set a good example on this treat of a buggy ride with his little Rarotongan friend.

“Put leg on wheel, then yump,” advised Kimi, hitching ineffectually at a trouser leg.

Peter “yumped.”He was a little vague as to the reason for the stop, for he did not clearly understand the Rarotongan dialect, relying on Kimi’s idea of English for any running commentary.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, landing on his bottom in the dust and ruining his spotless linen suit.

“Sick the buggy. Tire fall down,”volunteered Kimi, then left him to work that out as best he could, her attention now diverted to more pressing matters. “Pua, hold your skirt down. Peter will see your underwears.”

Sixteen-year-old Pua was not of the age or inclination to consider the feelings of any male of such tender years as Peter. She leaped from the buggy in one jump, tossed her long black hair away from her face, and with apparent absent-mindedness sauntered off up the nearest path.

Kimi’s eyes followed her with suspicion and disapproval. “Same as always. Runs away when she thinks she might have some work to do. I wonder where she’s gone this time.”But she had no time to dwell on this problem. “Quick, Peter, back!

Here come Mama.”

Kimi and Peter quickly moved aside and stood tense. Kiu and Tami, the two grown-up Napa sons, had already sprung over the side of the buggy in order to give Mama more room for her maneuvers, for with Mama the simple action of descending from the back of a cart became a major project in strategy. Kiu and Tami selected two large coral boulders from the beach side of the road and arranged them, step fashion, below the rear axle. Now they too stood aside and waited anxiously for Mama to do the rest.


BY Rarotongan standards, Mama was a very handsome woman — that is to say, she was fat. Viewed from a distance she was in fact approximately square, a sure sign that she was a desirable wife. Her husband adored her so much that he allowed her to sit and spread while he showered her with attentions. Her face was still pretty despite the overgenerous curve of her checks, but the pressed line of her mouth showed her to be a woman used to having her own way.

She was well dressed too. Not for her the plain cottons bought off the bolt in the local trading store. Her generous expanse was draped in real silk all the way from Paris via nearby Tahiti. It may have been mere chance that brought the figures so profusely scattered on the material into just those particular places where they seemed most at home, but it seemed the result of the skill of a dressmaker with a sense of humor. Across Mama’s enormous bosom there sailed an outrigger canoe loaded with fishermen in hot pursuit of a swordfish that was rapidly taking itself and its sword out of danger beneath Mama’s left arm, while in the dead center of her proud stomach a cockfight was in lively progress. From the rear, Mama was no less interesting. On either buttock poised an angry warrior, his spear at the ready and his teeth bared for the kill; but when Mama walked, these two cannibals forgot their differences and wiggled into an animated hula. Mama’s taste in dress was the envy of the island.

“ Ready, boys?” snapped Mama, swinging her treelike legs over the side of the buggy.

The lads steadied the boulders with their toes and each reached an arm to assist their mother.

“Now slide,” said Kiu.

With a sigh Mama obeyed, dusted off the two warriors, and looked around fora comfortable place to sit down. Under the mango tree seemed shady. “Kimi, stop playing with those pebbles, and you and Peter climb up and bring me down some mangoes. If I’ve got to wait here, I’ll need something to eat.”

Peter could not climb the tree quickly enough; he hardly paused to toss his snowy kid shoes into a nearby ditch (not noticing that it was full of stagnant green water). Clawing and clutching his way up behind the more agile Kimi he was secretly gloating over the palette of yellow mango juice and green bark stains added to the gray coral marks already on his shirt. Today he was going to get dirty, really dirty.

Now the three men, as men should, were considering the matter of repairs.

They squatted on their haunches for some minutes, just staring at the punctured tire as if to make sure it was flat, or perhaps hoping for some miracle that would restore it to its natural fullness. But no, that tire was really flat. Papa stood up, removed his hat and shirt, and tightened the woven belt round his middle.

“Everything ready?” he asked in much the same manner as a surgeon checking on the preparations for a major operation.

“Ready, Papa. Mending kit, the one we borrowed from Public Works last September, plenty sennit, and the wire cutters. All here. We’ll unhitch Beauty first, then prop up the buggy.”

Tami led Beauty out of the shafts and hooked the reins back out of her way. He did not need to tie her, for she had found a patch of buffalo grass beneath an ironwood tree and she knew as well as he that this, her favorite feed, grew nowhere else.

The boys added to the coral boulders and by main strength easily hoisted the heavy cart onto its perch. Then the three squatted down to consider.

“No use pumping even if we had a pump. It will have to come off,” announced Papa. “Kiu, the wire cutters.”

No buggy tire in Rarotonga is joined to the axle with anything except pieces of wire. The arrangement is impermanent, but tires have to be removed so frequently that it is more convenient to hack through twisted wire than to exert the energy necessary for the removal of stubborn bolts and nuts.

“Good wire, this,”commented Papa holding up a short length. “Where did you get it, Tami?”

Tami examined the piece carefully.

“Oh yes, I remember. You know that new radio aerial that Dr. Tom put up in his garden last week?”

Good boy, Tami,”said Papa with approval; “you have learned well that Dr. Tom gets always the best. Is there any more?”

“The aerial fell down the other day, Papa. There should be plenty more now .”

Papa finished removing the wheel, tossing the fragments of wire into the ditch. They could have been used again, but that would involve tiresome splicing and twisting— it would be much easier to find a fresh length. While the two boys removed the inner tube and set about patching the puncture, Papa settled under the mango tree and joined Mama in the refreshments, extra servings being tossed down by the children.

“It’s the papaa again. Stupid white men. That one that rules over the fruit-growing has just the other day given out the nails for the orange cases. I sometimes think he scatters them all round the road just to annoy us. He gets his own tires mended by the Government and doesn’t care about all the worry he causes such as we.”


NEITHER Papa nor any of the family appeared to be worried. The children, high in the mango tree, were content; Pua, now out of sight, was doubtless the same. Mama and Papa were munching and the two boys sang as they worked.

Kia ora’ana, Napa ma. Aere koe kiea? Where are you going?” It was Mrs. Takuke, whose family happened to own the land and, incidentally, the mango trees where the buggy had stopped.

Papa politely rose and shook hands with his hostess. “Kia ora’ana, we go into the sunrise to collect our fruit but, as you see, we have met with trouble.”

“Hmmm. So I see,” said Mrs. Takuke with narrowing eyes. “Those are fine mangoes you are eating, Napa Vaine. Did you bring them with you ? ”

Mama looked hard at the other woman; then slowly, with maddening deliberation, she licked the last lush morsel of fruit off the mango, wiped her free hand across the back of her mouth, and carefully blotted her fingers on the clean grass beside her. Before condescending to answer, she meticulously picked off the last shred of yellow fruit fiber, folded her plump hands across the fighting cocks, and met Mrs. Takuke squarely in the eye. “I didn’t see you at church yesterday, my dear. Not enough money for the collection box this week?”

Mrs. Takuke was taken aback. “ I was sick,” she answered quickly, saying the first thing that came into her head.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mama replied, her voice showing not the least concern. “What was the trouble?”

“Er. . . . Well, you see, I was out fishing for ruri on the reef Saturday night. I must have caught cold, for Sunday saw me in bed with a fever. Only a miracle of the Gods could have given me the strength to attend the church.”

“Fishing on Saturday night, Mrs. Takuke? I am sorry to hear that you must eat tough sea foods on Sunday and forgo even a tin of beef. But there, your health is the main thing. You look so well today I can hardly believe that only yesterday you were ill. You are a very lucky woman to recover like this. Don’t you agree, Papa?”

Whether Papa agreed or not, Mrs. Takuke was not there to hear — she had wisely fled.

“Kimi!" shouted Mama, as loud as she thought necessary for Mrs. Takuke to hear every word. “Throw down some more mangoes. Those at the top look the juiciest.”

Papa broke his judicious silence to rebuke his wife. “You are not kind, Mama. Perhaps the woman truly has not enough money for the collection and is ashamed to enter the church.”

“Ashamed?” snorted Mama tossing away another stone. “She should be ashamed, grudging a neighbor the fruits off her trees.”

Papa hastily joined his sons lest he say something that Mama would make him regret. “How is it now, boys ? ”

“Nearly ready, but we must borrow a pump. Mrs. Takuke has one,” and before Papa could intervene Tami had run off up the path.

Through the trees sauntered Pua. The dreamy smile on her face was a taunt to the watching Kimi. “Where have you been?” her small voice piped through the mango branches. She did not expect an honest answer from one so sophisticated as Pua.

“Gathering gardenias, can’t you see?" Pua answered, lifting a scented basket.

“Doesn’t take all that time to get a few gardenias. You’ve been with the boys.”

“I haven’t, but if I had, it would be none of your business,” said Pua smugly, starting to thread an ei.

Kimi’s brown eyes snapped. “You wait, you’ll get a baby, that’s what will happen to you.”

“What are you saying?" asked Peter, unwilling to be left out of what promised to develop into a brisk argument.

“I tell her too many boys, she get baby inside,”Kimi translated freely.

Peter’s eyes opened wide, then his lip curled. “Kimi, you talk silly. Pua get a baby, indeed! Don’t you know girls can’t get babies unless they have husbands first?”

“Now you silly,” retorted Kimi. “Only white girls need husbands. Island girls get babies all the time.”

Peter was floored. He was not going to admit it, but there was no doubt of the truth in kimi’s words. That girl that used to cook for his mother had a baby now but she didn’t have a husband. Peter’s brain whirled and he climbed down to the bottom of the tree to sit, chin in hand, eyes glued on Pua, and consider the matter. Perhaps he could ask his mother about this when he reached home tonight, but he had a small feeling that his mother would be angry over such talk. It was all too confusing, so he called Kimi to help him look for lizards under the rocks in the sun and forgot about the problems of life.

Mama, surrounded by a circle of mango stones, rested her back more comfortably against the tree trunk and considered her daughter. Pua was well aware of the lovely picture she made, seated crosslegged, threading the heavily scented flowers onto a strip of hibiscus bark. She had tucked the largest bloom behind her left ear, where the creamy petals contrasted so well with her honey-brown check.

“ You are grown, Pua,” said Mama. “Sixteen last rainy season, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, sixteen at last,” smiled the girl. For an islander, sixteen was the perfect age; Pua would have liked to remain sixteen forever.

“Soon you will be ready to marry. Maybe a while man—would you like that?" asked Mama, not so much in gentle inquiry as in calm calculation.

“White man?” repeated Pua, hoping that her voice did not betray the fact that Mama had mentioned her favorite daydream. If Mama thought her good enough for a white man, then she must be beautiful indeed. “If I should find a white man, then I will have plenty of dresses and give tea parties and be asked to Government House like the other white women. That would be nice.”Pua’s imagination soared now. “And I could go to the stores and get everything I wanted just by putting my name on that little slip of paper. And think of the house I could have. With walls made out of concrete instead of crooked hibiscus sticks, with a roof of iron and a real bathroom that is not just some coconut mats round the garden tap. Oh, what a fine white woman I could be!”

Mama kept to the matter in hand. “Is there any white man that seems to like you?" She was not thinking so much of Pua’s projected social triumphs as of her own when she might show off her blueeyed grandchildren to her friends.

Pua giggled. “White men look so funny, such a funny shape with their nobbly shoulders and ginger hair all over them.” The thought drove her into peals of laughter in which, surprisingly, Mama joined wholeheartedly, immediately establishing herself as one who had been young once and was willing to act as conspirator. In delight at this new relationship, Pua lifted the lei over her mother’s head and kissed her cheek.

“We will see, Mama,” she said and ran off to join the children.


MEANWHILE Papa and the two boys had mended the tire. The pump, reluctantly lent by Mrs. Takuke, had been returned and now all that remained was that the wheel be reunited with the buggy. “Wire,” muttered Papa. “We need wire.”

He looked at the fence of the Takuke estate. Barbed wire there, quite useless. He peered over the matting surrounding the garden tap that was the Takuke bathroom. It was held in place by wire, but only by a selection of short lengths. That would not do. Wordlessly he raised an eyebrow to his sons, and as if by order they all tilted their heads back. There, right along the side of the road, ran miles of good, strong telephone wire, not ideal for the attachment of buggy wheels, but better than nothing.

Aere-mai! Aere-mai! Come here, everyone,”he called. “Kimi, and you Peter, stand at either side of that bend in the road back there. Pua, you stand along this way. Tami, up the tree with you. If anyone comes along, make a sound like the flying fox and make it loud. Mama, watch the house and if Mrs. Takuke comes out keep her talking. Kiu, up the pole with you. And you might cut off a little extra this time, it is handy to have. Be careful to take only the strongest pieces.”

The family scattered to their allotted lookouts. Peter was a little puzzled to know what this was all about, but he felt sure that there was a conspiracy and an element of danger included, so instantly he became one of the masked bandits he had met in his comic books. He watched for the mail coach. Mama lumbered to her feet and casually examined the garden on either side of the path of the Takuke house.

Kiu stripped a length of bark from a wild hibiscus and knotted this into a loop which he slid to his insteps. Then, as if it had been a ladder, he shinned up the smooth sides of the telephone pole. It was not so simple to find a length of wire that had not already shed some part in the interests of continued transport, but Kiu took what he wanted (and a little extra) and tossed the coil down to Papa.

Now the wheel was in place, Beauty — quite puffed out from gorging buffalo grass — was patiently standing between the shafts, and the steppingstones were ready for Mama to climb aboard.

Peter was not the clean little boy of an hour ago, and forgotten in a ditch a pair of white kid shoes slowly sank beneath the slime. Everyone was stained with mango juice; the two women were garlanded and wore knowing expressions. Papa and his sons were glowing with the exertion of a job well done. In the bottom of the buggy, coiled neatly and tied with strips of bark, lay a good twelve feet of telephone wire, the property of the Government, while Mama clasped a large basket of ripe mangoes.

The hour had been well spent, and it was quite likely that soon the rattling piece of roofing iron on the Napa house would be wired in place, the garden tap that refused to stand upright be secured forever, and the bedspring that could no longer endure the strain of Mama’s weight be replaced.

Papa flicked Beauty gently over her rump and they were on their way again. Pua started a song, and lacking a guitar or ukulele the boys beat out the rhythm on the side of the cart. Everyone joined in. Kimi lurched to her feet and favored the company with her version of the hula. Peter tried it too, but when the tires went over a pothole he fell laughing to the floor. Mama led the chorus, drowning out the rest with the voice that had earned her the nickname of “Hurricane” in the church choir.

And then, around a bend of the road, there came into view a strange figure. It was Father David, the priest from the next village. As his legs pumped at the pedals of his bicycle, he looked like a large bat, heaving from side to side. Even at a distance, the shine of perspiration and exertion glowed from his red and angry face. His soutane flapped around his legs, threatening at any minute to become entangled in the wheels, while from the hem of his sable skirts there poked two large white and bony ankles that disappeared into a pair of cracked patent-leather shoes.

Seeing the buggy, Father David welcomed the opportunity for a chat and a rest from his pedaling.

Papa touched the brim of his hat. “Kia ora’ana. Aere koe kiea?”

Father David propped his bicycle against the side of the buggy. He pushed up the brim of his ancient panama hat and with the edge of his palm swished the perspiration off his pinkly bald head.

“Ach, I go into the sunset,” he replied in Rarotongan heavily tainted with the accent of his native Holland.

“Surely, Father, are you not teaching in your school today?” asked Papa.

“Yes, that is where I should be, but everything goes against me and I must leave my children alone. I must visit my bishop, for there is an urgent message for him.”

“All the way to see the Bishop, Father? That is a long ride at this time of day,” said Papa.

“Of course it is too far,”snapped the priest, “but what am I to do? Our church has little money, yet we take some and from the Government we buy a telephone.”Here Mama, her mind working fast, discreetly lowered the basket of mangoes in front of a certain coil of wire. “This beautiful machine that hangs on my wall, what good is it? Even though all the many miles from New Zealand comes the white man who they tell us is an expert in the mechanics of this telephone, it does not work. Even though your lovely poinciana trees are cut down to make space for their ugly poles that they may string their wires right round your island, it does not work. In all the many months I have had that little machine, two times, only two times mark you, have I heard the smallest sound from it. Experts! They know nothing. And now when I have a message for my bishop, I must climb onto my old velocipede and, old man that I am, pedal my way fifteen miles when the sun is high to deliver my message.”

Papa sighed, rather wishing that he was headed in the opposite direction and could help the Father. “You are right. It is always the same with the things of the white man. They do not work. Even my buggy here with the wheel covering that is the invention of the white man, often it too does not work. I must be thankful that it is God who gives me my fruit — the papaa cannot spoil that.”

“That is a true word,” agreed the Father, balancing his foot on the pedal. “How much easier it would be for us all if we would put our faith in the things that are God’s rather than the ugliness that is man’s. But now I must be on my way. Kia ora’ana, Napa ma.”