Kiri Rodwell Throughout the long gloom of English winters, I would visit our local bowling green, pristine with its fine shimmer of snow, and imagine being back in Fiji on the verandah of the little white cottage of my childhood from where I would watch the sea. Endlessly.
The cottage perched on the edge of the shore, its verandah jutting out over the lagoon, plain wooden floors running around its perimeter shaded by a corrugated iron roof, everything painted white. At high tide the sea would roll in under the verandah through the rocks and vines, slap up against the foundations.
As I sat in the pavilion of the bowling green, I could hear Rosa call from the kitchen, “Isa, Kiristini, don’t be lazy, come and help me,” and I would climb up onto a stool to stand beside her while she taught me to dry each white plate, each fork and spoon, until they shone, and to clear everything away after the mid-day meal, when she would return to her village for her rest.
Lunch was the important meal of the day when my father, returning from the plantation, would canter through the trees on his horse, his three white Labrador dogs in tow. He and my mother would listen to the BBC mid-day news while they sipped their gin and ice, “a spot” before sitting at the table formally laid out by Rosa. They would sit close together at one end of the table while we three children would sit far away at the other end, warned by Rosa to behave, no elbows on the table, to keep silent until spoken to.
Large open kauri rooms, the dining room and sitting room, with shuttered windows opening out over manicured lawns, coconut and mango trees in neat rows flowing down to the edge of the sea. They were dark rooms, lined with books and portraits of grandparents and distant aunts. In a corner sat a grand piano my mother would play of an evening, with bowls of hibiscus spiked into sa-sa stems trembling on its polished top, while my father would write at his roll-top desk nearby. A telephone hung on the wall at the far end of the room, and when he finished his daily dispatches on what may have been sightings of feared Japanese warships out on the horizon, he would busily wind up the phone, their brass bells tinkling, “Are you there, exchange, are you there, put me through to the war office in Suva, I may have some important news.”
On sultry nights with moths flying into kerosene lamps and bullfrogs croaking outside on the lawns, Bing Crosby would croon from His Majesty’s Voice phonograph while we children would peek at the guests when they arrived in their formal suits and floral dresses to party and drink imported whisky and absinthe. Until Rosa would come and shoo us off to bed.
She was at the centre of our lives. We spent most of our time with her. She took us from our mother’s arms almost as soon as we were born, it being the accepted norm for the descendant children of ex-pat British families to be nurtured and cared for by their Fijian “girls”. We became immersed in her language, her music and songs, her myths and legends, her proud Fijian tradition and history.
Although the white cottage was small and timbered and grew like an organic being at the edge of the sea, it was Rosa’s bure at her village that gave me a sense of home amongst her woven mats, her simple table where she ironed with a charcoal iron, the fragrance of thatch and the flaming hibiscus that grew at her door.
Often, during those long and frozen English winters I would visit that bowling green pavilion to gaze out onto my imaginary Fijian sea, promising myself I would return. But when I did, I found only sunken rocks and vine-covered foundations of the cottage swallowed up, the sea having reclaimed the trees and lawns and a past disappeared.
© Kiri Rodwell January 2008