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Authors: Lucy Palmer

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BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
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Leaving and entering home was well-known in Port Moresby as a vulnerable point for carjacking. Most expatriates did not worry about robbery alone; it was the potential for gratuitous violence that most people feared. And rape, of course, such a terrifying violation of tenderness. Among my Papua New
Guinean friends, the situation was much, much worse – they often did not have the economic advantages and fortressed homes of their foreign counterparts and their level of safety was much poorer by comparison. They relied mainly on their substantial family networks – but often this was not enough to protect them.

‘Okay, go now!' Geri called out.

As we roared up the street, our doors and windows locked, Ros twisted a tissue in her hands and stared out into the dark night.

Fear of crime was a big part of Port Moresby life and thankfully there were many times when I travelled around the rest of the country and had absolutely no apprehension at all. But my general wariness while driving at night in this fractured city and a year of broken sleep spoke volumes about the level of underlying anxiety I had learned to live with.

Although accurate statistics were hard to find, crime in the city was frequent and every incident resonated. Sean Dorney, the long-standing ABC correspondent, advised me simply to keep a level head when I first arrived, saying that reasonable precautions should be enough. Just to encourage this serene state of mind, he had welcomed me with a lovely card. Inside was a copy of the front cover of a book written in 1974 about life in Port Moresby entitled
Not a White Woman Safe
.

•••

Razor wire and high security gates flashed in our headlights as Ros and I snaked our way around the narrow streets of Touaguba Hill, one of the city's most prestigious suburbs, which housed international diplomats and the political elite.

‘I take my hat off to you, Luce,' Ros said as we headed up the hill towards the brightly lit Australian High Commission. ‘There's no way I could live here alone.'

‘I'm used to it,' I said. ‘Don't worry about me. I'm exactly where I want to be.'

My mood lifted as I registered the presence of many familiar faces. I introduced Ros to a colleague and, true to form, she immediately engaged in an animated conversation. Perfect – the guest who did not need propping up. I wandered off to talk to the hosts, Bill and Elaine, determined to make the most of the evening.

Two hours later, the crowd had dwindled as I sat at a table with my friend Ian Boden, deep in conversation. We were interrupted by the appearance of Ros at my side.

‘Are you ready to go?' I asked.

‘Luce, you have to come and meet this really interesting man I've been talking to.'

I shrugged. ‘I'm really tired and I think I'm all talked out.'

‘No, really,' she insisted, ‘I think you ought to meet him.'

‘I believe you're being summoned,' Ian said with a raised eyebrow, standing up to signal his gracious acceptance that I might be wanted elsewhere.

Tired and crumpled by the heat, my dress sticking to the back of my legs, I reluctantly followed Ros towards the corner of the garden.

A man stood there alone. He was tall – at more than six feet he towered over my five-foot frame – and broad-shouldered, with a rather attractive patrician face hiding behind some impossibly thick 1960s glasses. He held out a large freckled hand and his face hesitated into a shy smile.

‘Ros has been telling me about you.' His voice was deep, his British accent strong and crisp. He exuded nervous energy, charging the air around him.

I shot her a look.
Not too much detail, I hope
.

‘I'm Lucy,' I said, assessing him in a glance: good-looking, conservative, possibly pompous, hopelessly English.

‘Julian Thirlwall,' he said.

•••

Geri was waiting by the gate, his machete dangling beside his spindly legs. He nodded a greeting, satisfied that we were home safely, and waved us through.

‘What a lovely man,' Ros remarked as we pulled into the driveway.

‘Geri?' I replied.

‘
Julian
.'

‘He seems nice,' I said. ‘What does he do?'

‘A lawyer. He's been here for years.'

‘Oh, right.' I began to unlock the security door.

‘He was telling me his wife died in a car accident. It's terribly sad. He said they have four boys who live in Australia. They're at school or maybe uni. I can't remember. He's a really lovely man, Luce.'

‘Good night, Geri. Thank you!' I called to the apparently empty garden.

A reply came from the darkness. ‘Night!'

‘I'm going to bed,' I told Ros. ‘I've had it.' I went into the kitchen to get some water.

‘Did I tell you Julian invited us for dinner tomorrow night?' she called after me.

‘Really? What did you say?'

‘Well, I didn't think we had any other plans, so I said we'd probably go.'

•••

The next morning I persuaded Ros that it would be much nicer to spend our last night alone.

‘Are you sure?'

‘I'm sure. I'll let him know.'

In the privacy of my office I found Julian's home number in the phone book and left a brief, polite message explaining I had an important news deadline. As I put down the phone, I hoped that would be the end of it – I really could not imagine Julian and I would have much in common at all and I was nonplussed as to why Ros seemed so enthusiastic about him.

The day slid effortlessly into night as Ros and I sat on the veranda drinking wine, watching a huge buttery moon rise over the Port Moresby hills. The phone rang. I hoped it would not be Julian.

‘It could be work,' I told Ros, running downstairs.

‘Hello,' said a cheerful voice. ‘It's Julian. Just wondering if you've got all your work done and if you might still make it for dinner?'

‘No, sorry,' I fumbled. ‘I'm absolutely drowning in this story on the economy.' Above me on the balcony I could hear the faint clink of glass on glass.

‘Oh, really? I happen to follow financial matters quite closely. Which particular aspect are you looking at?'

I scrambled through the paper on my desk looking for clues. I could feel my face flushing as I blustered through an excuse.

‘Well,' he said slowly, ‘if you're not free tonight, since you're
absolutely drowning
as you say, what about tomorrow?'

Damn. Damn.

‘No, tomorrow's not good either.'

‘Thursday?'

‘No, sorry,' I said, my exasperation rising. ‘Thursday is going to be really busy.'

There was a long pause while he assessed, as a showjumper might, the height and difficulty of a looming fence.

‘I see. Well, as your evenings seem to be problematic, let's have coffee on Saturday. I don't believe there are any newspaper deadlines at that time?'

Before I knew it, I had agreed that he should come to my house on Saturday morning. I put down the phone, dismayed by my inability to be more assertive.

‘Anything important?' Ros asked as I came up the stairs.

‘No, just the office checking something,' I said.

•••

We sat among the detritus of our dinner. Ros had recently left a stable relationship which she'd been in for many years. Everyone liked her partner and many could not understand her decision to leave him. Although she was still relatively young – she was the same age as me – I hoped she would not regret her decision.

‘I know I'm not exactly the relationship poster girl right now,' she began, ‘but let's focus on you for a minute.'

‘What?' I said.

‘Don't work too hard,' she said. ‘There is a life outside the office and you deserve to be loved.'

That night I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The persistent heat pressed down on my still aching limbs and yelping from the neighbourhood dogs savaged the silence.

I knew that my immediate life was a happy one, that I was living in a country where I had longed to be, work was always interesting and I had some wonderful friendships. I did not see myself as ambitious for career success at the expense of everything else. To me, it was simply a matter of pragmatism – in the absence of a better offer, I would simply make the most of the opportunities I had.

At the heart of these ruminations, however, lay a deeper kernel of self-doubt; a part of me wondered whether I was even capable of the kind of love that I aspired to. Under all my bright banter lurked a very real fear that, when love came too close, I might be seen in the full light of all my complexities, contradictions and inadequacies – and then abandoned.

I thought back to a rather dramatic resolution I had made a year earlier – that I was not going to have another relationship unless it was for good. I simply could not be bothered with all the drama and uncertainty anymore.

I had come to this decision after weeks of soul-searching while I walked, with seven others, for more than 850 kilometres across the Great Sandy Desert – from west of Alice Springs to
the outskirts of Broome in Western Australia. Hours, days and weeks of silent trudging across the ochre dunes in an endless landscape of sand and sky induced a deep and almost constant state of meditation, and gave me an opportunity to reflect more deeply on where my life was really going.

Going to the desert had given me no escape from my problems; it was, in fact, a total stripping down, a confrontation with my essential self. Like many people, there were aspects of my life and events from the past which I had not yet made peace with. With little else to distract me, my propensity to be highly self-critical was given free rein and I was forced to come face to face with all the things I had tried to forget.

As we trudged on, day after day, I found myself shedding not only physical weight but emotional burdens. I knew I was stuck somewhere in my life that I did not want to be – a place that was very familiar but utterly unhappy. I cannot say I found any answers, but I certainly felt more strong and resolute when I returned.

I kept my promise and battled on through all the challenges of building a new life in Papua New Guinea. Sometimes the feeling of isolation and loneliness was overwhelming, but I had to keep trusting that all would come right. Surely, I thought, it was not a question of
if
my hopes would be fulfilled, but only a question of when.

I got out of bed and walked to the window. Outside, the moon hung in the sky like an open, unblinking eye; it reassured me that there was boldness in waiting, adventure in standing still. It told me that I must simply surrender, and have faith that if real love ever came my way, I would be ready.

4

I remember the sea that day, the bursting sun, the lilt and

slap of wood and water; the harmony of our silence.

At the open-air market in Gordons, a suburb of Port Moresby, brightly coloured
bilums
, locally made string bags, hung from a wire perimeter fence. Cement benches were laden with organically grown produce – oranges, sweet potatoes, peanuts, coconuts, cabbages and greens.

Clutching a handful of notes and coins –I rarely carried a bag as I did not want to tempt anyone to try and steal it – I wandered through the market early in the morning. Some expatriates said it was too dangerous to go there, but if you listened to all the scare-mongering, I realised, you would never go anywhere. Anyway, Julian was taking me sailing and I wanted to buy some fresh limes.

Yes, Julian was taking me sailing. After Ros had left, he rang again to suggest we might sail to a nearby island instead of
having coffee. I usually grabbed any chance I could to get out of the city, so without really thinking it through, I accepted.
How the mighty fall
, Ros would have said, laughing.

As the day approached, I became more anxious about the prospective outing and wondered what on earth had possessed me to agree to it. Julian and I would be thrown into each other's company with no chance of respite. I worried that it might be awkward but it felt too late to back out now and I was too cowardly to try.

•••

The markets were overflowing with people haggling, chatting, exchanging news. One of the most quoted facts about Papua New Guinea is that it contains more than two-thirds of the planet's languages; walking around the streets of Port Moresby, it was extraordinary to hear so many voices lilting and dipping in so many different tongues. Even the vividly patterned clothes, from overseas and bought from second hand-stores, added another layer of colour to this dynamic and fascinating melting pot of cultures.

The women arranged their displays of fruit with pride as though they had prepared them for a still-life painting. Nests of peanuts were tied on their stems and perfectly spaced in neat rows, oranges were in small pyramids. Even the knobs of
peeled garlic were laid out in delicate, measured sequence like tiny fat moons.

Suddenly people started to chase an erratic figure amid wild shouts of anger. I stepped behind a stand of vegetables where a middle-aged man was observing the melee.

‘
Ol i mekim wanem?
What's happening?' I asked.

‘
Wanpela raskol em stilim bak.
A rascal stole a bag.' He shrugged and squinted, his eyes barely visible inside the drawstring lines of his face.

There was a loud cry from the corner of the market and a huge crowd disappeared into a storm of dust.

‘
Ol paitim ya.
They are beating him.' He turned to me with a satisfied grin. ‘
Yu no ken wori
. Don't worry.' His teeth were rotted black, his gums a garish, bloody red as he chewed on his betel-nut. He grasped my arm. ‘
Mipela bai lukautim yu.
We will look after you.'

•••

Julian arrived promptly at 9 o'clock, wearing blue shorts, a white t-shirt and a khaki hat. Extraordinary. We were wearing identical clothes.

He got out of the car and immediately came around to open the door for me.

BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
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