The Wrong Address index

Irimo Street, Lae, Papua New Guinea 1985 



Mi helpim yu.

The large soft fingers fold gently around my keys -

Strange greeting from strange hands, so dark

Against my pale, the quality of new sensation;

Unbalanced I admit the uninvited

And watch technology defeat all good intentions,

For the lock will not acknowledge

Its new master.


Nem bilong mi Pita.

Apinun, nem bilong mi Thor.

Sadly I take back the keys.

A legion of green ants claims right of way

On the choko vine entangled with the gate.


It's a condominium, as they say

In the cities of the West; in equatorial Lae

It's a high covenant fortress, decayed

Up from its damp green bottom

To the corroded window bars. A sleepy scene

Of silent raging warfare between gekos

And an ark of insects. It's paradise

To the voices in the foliage, over the barbed wire,

Across the chasm of colliding worlds.


The privileged dwell in this block

Of four retreats, defended from poverty's claw

By three metre cyclone fences; imprisoned,

Tethered by the culture of their bellies

To the ethereal domain of supermarket shelves;

The expatriates trade their guilt psychoses

For the shifting masks of "expert",

The fool a thousand miles from home;

Caricature of fey qualities,

Wishfully misfit, missionary, mercenary.


As my feet quietly slap about parquetry floors

Prizing the solitude of their echoes,

Eight beings sweat and sing hymns

And sometimes fight

In a box of a one-room shack,

Not twenty metres over the wire.

On early mornings

Smoke wisps hover from their fires

And the shouts of the children

Are full of hope.


Hope wanes for the warriors bereft

With each day as the sun goes down

Over the squatter camp,

Where chance is taken from God

And luck is rarely given

To these lost proud men from the mountains,

With funny languages

And no weapons

To seize the dazzling prizes of new knowledge.


Only the women find something to sell.

They forgive my prodigal isolation;

They admire my freezer`s capacity for making cash :

Crimson ice-blocks are the currency of civilization,

Sold by heavy, patient Jane

Of the spikey hair and missionary smock,

To `munkis', all elbows and dusty kneecaps,

Who miraculously in the depths of a ragged pocket

Find twenty-five toea

To dye their tongues sticky-cold-red.


James knocks every night, after dinner -

Slight, polite, insistent, searching for a key

To the realm of parquetry floors;

He comes with a single torn exercise book

At first to study (he says), to learn

From the silence of empty rooms;

But away from the rich aroma of kin

He is spooked by a stranger within.


They hold him in awe, pool ice-block money

To succour their hope for the clan.

With his book James carries new magic;

But out of their sight

He bares his shame and terror :

The image of a boy in an unironed shirt.

James brings the garment regularly

Like a vestment to the temple of light.


For forty minutes each the torpid evening,

He irons with infinite ritual

And respectful conversation

At the creases in his mastery

Of a foreigner's domain.

Behind my dancing mask,

Trickster, expert, self-deceived,

Finally I know the limits of permission;

Of all the treasures,

What minute gifts are taken from my hands.


Fragments from an Australasian Life
Thorold MAY
copyright Thorold May 1995 All Rights Reserved 
published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company ACN 1116240S Sydney, Australia
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