I am ten when Uncle Rusty brings soft ice cream to Tanualu.
We already have a taste for the hard stuff, every spoon in the house humped from our impatient levering. When Uri Geller comes on ABC doing his cutlery bending, mum isn’t impressed. ‘If that’s proof you have ESP, I’ve given birth to three psychics.’
Rusty set himself up in business with a little grocery store about a year before. We visit the store on the eve of opening. The ceiling fan is on full, whirring and creaking as it strains at its moorings. The chemical smell of paint is strong. Mum scrunches her nose.
‘Gloss. Easier to clean,’ says Rusty.
The floor to ceiling shelves show his ambition, but with only enough funds for three cases each of Spam and corned beef and a couple of dozen bags of rice, they’re sparsely populated. Mum takes one look around and says ‘You know what you should call this place – The Federated Stores of Micronesia.’ She points at tins dotted around the room, ‘Yap, Chuuk, Ponanpe.’
Rusty looks hurt. ‘Sis.’
She goes over and puts a hand on his massive back. ‘It’s a start. Now get me a couple of Spam atolls from Chuuk over there.’
Rusty never closes. He doesn’t see it as work, just another place to be, and if he can make money while he’s being there, then that’s just fine. He soon makes enough to fill the shelves, but he has grander ideas. He wants to take on Big Store.
Big Store is a big deal. While our homes, school and church make do with grimy slats, it has windows of shimmering plate glass. Light streams through them, catching on ranked bottles and phials, decanters and tumblers, ashtrays and dishes, plates and pans, cutlery and tools. From the balcony above, it is as orderly and pristine, as vast and disparate, as a red army parade. We go to Big Store to buy our groceries, our school supplies, our birthday presents, our Christmas decorations, our furniture, even the motorbikes and bicycles we use to get around. If Big Store does not sell it, then we probably don’t need it. Rusty is an ant in comparison, but he is obsessed with them.
‘I can’t beat them just by being open all the time. All I’m doing is selling what they sell when people can’t get it there. If I’m going to compete seriously, I need to have something that people want that they don’t sell.’
He takes his first six months’ profits and flies to Brisbane in search of inspiration. When he returns, we go over to the store, eager to find out what exciting new food he has brought back, but the place looks exactly the same.
‘What am I going to do? Fill three suitcases with breakfast cereals? I have bought something, something special that’s going to blow Big Store away, but it’s going to take a while to get here.’
We wait: one week, two weeks, one month, three months. Nothing comes. Mum is worried for Rusty.
‘Those bloody Aussies. See an islander with money and think he’s fair game. What’s the address? I’ll write, threaten legal action. Put it on government stationery so they know we mean business.’
Rusty shakes his head. ‘Don’t worry, sis.’
‘Just tell me who they are. Why all the secrecy?’
‘Can’t tell. I trust you, but the little ones’, he indicates to Romina, Valdon and me, ‘they might let something slip out at school and then it’ll be all over the island in no time. Can’t risk Big Store finding out.’
‘They’ll find out soon enough when it arrives.’
‘Then it’ll be too late. They’ll have to order one from England, like I did. And like mine, it’ll take at least six months to get here, and while they’re waiting, they’ll be watching helpless as I take their customers.’
Mum looks doubtful but doesn’t press Rusty further. On the way home she says ‘Australia and England. That money is as good as lost.’
We believe her. As a secretary at the Parliament, she knows all about the Australians and English: how they refused to acknowledge that the phosphates on our island belonged to us, how they fought tooth and nail against paying us the market price for them, how, despite us having UN resolutions on our side, they are ignoring our demands to pay for the rehabilitation of Middleside.
Mum is passionate about the fight for what is rightfully ours. In her eyes, it’s good versus evil, and good will win out, not only because we’re in the right, but because we have a champion, a man of destiny. Chisel Harrison has already won us our nationhood and got us our phosphates back. He must be pushing sixty but that doesn’t stop mum going on about how elegantly he dresses, his manly physique and attractive smile.
‘Mu-um,’ I whine, rolling my eyes and grimacing.
‘What?’ she asks.
Valdon is sucking at the packaging of the ice cream brick we have just destroyed. He lifts his face from the cardboard to elucidate our perspective.
‘He’s an old man. It’s disgusting.’
‘I may be a mother to you but I am still–’ she pauses. ‘Never mind.’
Romina is waving her fingers to dry her nail polish. ‘She means she gets lonely.’
Mum reaches across and tucks a loose lock of hair behind Romina’s ear.
I come around the table and give mum a hug from behind. ‘Do you miss dad?’
‘How can I with three reminders of his ugly mug around the place?’
Then one day it arrives.
It isn’t much to look at, just a stainless steel box with vents in the side and a couple of taps on the front; but that only adds to the magic, that something so unadorned and functional can produce something that looks, feels and tastes so heavenly.
The ice cream is the purest white of coconut flesh. Descending from the tap at a stately pace, Rusty only has to roll his wrist slightly and the plump, fluted ribbon coils up from the cone. When he’s done, he pulls it down with a twist to leave a delicate loop at the top.
Being the youngest, I get my cone first. I hold it, uncertain of the best way to eat it. I open my mouth and place it over the top, enjoying the sensation of the yielding, cool mound against my lips and tongue.
‘You don’t kiss it. It’s not Amelia Abraham,’ says Romina.
Valdon lets out a shriek of laughter.
Ears burning, I remove my mouth and give a sheepish grin before addressing the ice cream with a series of chaste little licks.
Valdon takes his and begins slobbering over it like a horny teenager.
‘You got a spoon?’ asks Romina.
Rusty looks at mum and shakes his head in disbelief.
‘You can use your bloody finger,’ says mum. ‘It’s called soft ice cream for a reason.’
Valdon is on a mission for pennies. He’s looking under the furniture, going through pockets and bags, scanning the ground on the way to school, running errands, carrying shopping, even washing cars. By the end of the week he has accumulated fourteen. He sets out for Uncle Rusty’s, and Romina and I follow, we have to see this.
It’s eleven in the morning and Rusty is already doing a brisk trade in cones. Valdon waits in line, shaking the pennies in his cupped hands. When it gets to his turn, he opens his hands and releases them onto the counter.
‘Fourteen cones,’ he says over the sound of the settling coins.
Rusty looks to see who Valdon has brought with him, but there’s only Romina and me. ‘Who are they all for?’
‘Me,’ says Valdon, like it’s the stupidest question in the world. ‘I’ll stand to the side here and let you know when I need another. You keep them coming.’
‘We’ll keep count, won’t we Teo?’ says Romina looking down at me. I grin and give a series of rapid nods.
But this is a serious business for Valdon. ‘I’ll keep count,’ he says.
‘We’ll all keep count,’ says Rusty. ‘And if you can manage fourteen, I’ll give you a free ice cream every day for the next month.’
‘Deal,’ says Valdon with a nod.
Valdon starts strong, sucking up the ice cream and crunching down on the cones. He’s relentless and I can’t take my eyes off him. There is a steady flow of customers. A few pause to stare at the chubby twelve year old boy consuming his cone with little evident pleasure.
Amelia Abraham is in the queue for ice cream. She’s had a haircut; short, with highlights put in. I did not think it was possible for her to get more beautiful and unattainable, but here she is. No-one on the island has hair like this. She looks glamorous, like Olivia Newton-John. Uncertain that I am capable of speech, I cower a little behind Romina as she asks where Amelia got her hair done.
‘Ruby did it. I showed her a picture of Bananarama in Hits.’
I nod, as if I have a clue what Bananarama is.
Romina is having a hard time believing a girl two years her junior could get away with something so audacious.
‘Your mum let you do it?’
‘She kept saying no. I almost gave up, but then she won five hundred dollars at the bingo so I asked again. She was so stoked, she would’ve said yes if I asked for a tattoo.’
‘And after you got it done, what did she say then?’
‘She likes it.’ Amelia gives her hair a pat. It is as stiff as a bird’s nest.
‘How much hairspray you use?’
‘A lot. Spent all my Christmas money on the last three cans in Big Store.’
Now Rusty takes an interest. ‘BS run out of hairspray. You girls all use it?’
‘Everybody uses hairspray,’ says Amelia knowledgably.
‘Even the boys?’
‘The footie boys are the worst.’
Amelia’s right, the footie boys all have hair like pineapple tops. I laugh quietly and she bestows a smile on me that turns my legs as soft as Rusty’s ice cream.
‘Well, my mum doesn’t play bingo,’ says Romina closing the subject as Amelia reaches the counter.
I turn to see how Valdon’s doing.
‘Number ten,’ says Uncle Rusty.
‘Eleven,’ slurrs Valdon through a mouthful of ice cream.
Rusty shrugs and passes a cone to Amelia. Romina points to the door and whispers urgently ‘President Chisel, President Chisel.’
Through the window I can see Ari Danuga in his khaki uniform and peaked cap getting out of the presidential Rolls Royce.
Uncle Rusty is flustered but in control.
‘Romina, come round here, keep serving the ice cream. Teo, run and get your mother.’
The ice cream queue melts to the sides as Uncle Rusty moves towards the front of the store smoothing his hair. I run around him and just manage to dart through the doorway before the president’s frame fills it.
Mum is sitting at the kitchen table smoking. She starts to scold me for bursting in on her ‘precious moment of peace’, but when she hears what I have to say, she bustles off to her bedroom. I stub out the cigarette she’s left smoldering in the ashtray and go and stand outside the closed bedroom door, filling her in on Valdon’s ice cream challenge. The door swings open and mum is standing in her best dress, the black one with the red and yellow flowers on it, scowling down at me with hands on hips.
‘The President of the Republic is in my brother’s store and my son is there stuffing his face with ice cream. Heavens, boy, why didn’t you stop him?’
I cannot believe she is being so unreasonable, so I put my hands on my hips and fire my question back at her.
‘How can I stop the president?’
‘Valdon, you ninny. Stop Valdon.’
The shop is full now, with people standing outside peering in the door and window. President Chisel is making a speech. Mum works her way down the side, squeezing between the people and the shelves, tugging me along by the hand. She stops when she has a clear view of the president but pushes me through until I am at the front.
President Chisel is wearing a white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar with the sleeves rolled up. He has a hand on Uncle Rusty’s shoulder. In his fingers I can see a scrunched up paper tissue, evidence he has eaten a cone. Romina is behind the counter looking pleased with herself. If she has made a cone for the president, we will never hear the end of it. Valdon is still in his corner eating ice cream, but the arrival of the president is uncommon enough to draw his attention, and he’s consuming it with the measured licks of a normal person. President Chisel is smaller than Uncle Rusty but his presence fills the store. His voice is quiet, the tone serious, and although he is smiling, his eyes are sorrowful.
‘I know you get tired of hearing us old timers go on about how we used to hunt noddy and harvest pandanus, but there are things from the past we should never forget. Forty years ago the Japanese invaded Tanualu, took us prisoner, shipped us to Tarol and left us there to starve. One in three of us did not make it back.’
He pauses and lowers his head so that we can all think about what that means. One in three. We have been doing division at school. There are thirty four children in my class. That means eleven and a bit of us would have died on Tarol. I puzzle over the bit. An arm is too small. A leg, perhaps.
‘But those of us who were lucky enough to survive swore that we would not allow our fate to be governed by other nations again. So we fought and reclaimed what was ours, and we fought and won our independence. And now it is our phosphates, that we mine and we export, that fertilize the grass, that feeds the cows, that produce the milk necessary to make this delicious ice cream.’
The hand that is not on Uncle Rusty’s shoulder indicates to the ice cream machine. Everyone in the room looks towards the machine and Romina. She smiles and tucks her hair behind her ear.
‘Today we are participants in a global economy. We are paid a fair price for those phosphates, one that allows us to enjoy this ice cream and all the other imported goods you see around you. What we need now is more men of business like Mister Russell Thomas here, to build our economy for future generations, to prepare us for the time when the phosphates run out and we must live off our own wits and talent.’
Everybody claps and cheers. President Chisel shakes Uncle Rusty’s hand and leans in and says something into his ear. Uncle Rusty beams back at him. Then the president moves towards the door, accepting the hands and embraces of the people. Romina pours another ice cream and hands it to Valdon. President Chisel approaches us and the people behind me press forward. I lose my balance but the president sees everything and holds out an arm to break my fall. Over my head he speaks to mum, ‘Mrs. Apa, lovely as ever.’
He moves outside. Some people follow him while others re-form the queue for ice cream. The excited chatter dies down when we hear President Chisel’s raised voice. He’s not shouting but his tone is hard as he stands by the Rolls Royce holding out the little flag on the pole on the bonnet.
‘Tell me what is wrong. Tell me.’
Ari mumbles something.
‘That’s right. Upside down. The flag of our nation, upside down.’
He drops the flag in disgust and waits for Ari to open the door. He does so, his head bowed in contrition. The president is half in the car when he stops to say some more.
‘It’s not hard, you only have three things to do, three things: drive the car, clean the car and make sure the flag is the right way up.’
It’s like when Mrs. Brown gives Kennie Hubert a rollicking because he won’t shut up, and she orders him out the class and he begs to stay and promises to be quiet, but it’s too late and she has to drag him out by the arm as he continues begging, almost crying. It’s unpleasant to watch and I blame them both, the one for not doing what he’s told and the other for humiliating him for it. Mum reads my thoughts and makes it clear who is at fault.
‘He’s got a lot on his mind,’ she says, ‘what with the International Court of Justice and everything. Ari should know better.’
She shakes her head in disappointment and turns to Uncle Rusty, fixing him with a penetrating look I know only too well.
‘Now what was so important that President Chisel had to whisper it to you?’
‘Nothing much, sis.’
‘Nothing much, sis.’
Mum is a talented and cruel mimic. It’s an effective weapon in a household with three children. She has a way of exaggerating Rusty’s deep drawl so that it sounds like Droopy Dog in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Rusty flaps an arm dismissively at mum. ‘Give over.’
‘Mu-um,’ says Valdon.
‘Come on, what did he say?’ Mum tilts her head, looking bemused. She is not accustomed to defiance from this quarter. ‘Rusty?’
‘Mum,’ says Romina with concern. ‘Valdon.’