Living with relatives in Port Moresby and being kicked out by the “Tambus” (in-laws). Yeah…don’t you just love it? PNG culture struggling to survive amidst the pressures of an urban society.
“We can’t have them stay here forever, Robert. We have too many mouths to feed and besides, the husband doesn’t work.”
Richard lay staring at the moonlit ceiling as he heard his Joan’s uncle, Robert, argue quietly with his wife, Irene, in the neighboring room. Since his sacking, he was unable to find another job or another place to stay. He eyed his wife, Joan, who lay beside him. She too was restless. He watched as she tossed and turned barely able to go to sleep. She was an accountant at the Department of Works but being new on the job, her wages were barely enough to keep them through the two weeks before the next payday. Life here in Port Moresby was terribly expensive.
“If you don’t tell them to go I will!” came Irene’s voice which was deliberately audible. “And God knows what else will come out of my mouth. You know me…”
“Look, Irene, tambu Richard is doing his best to find another job,” Robert said reasonably. “And if he does soon they will be able to find a place to stay… You can’t just kick them out into the streets.”
“Well that’s exactly what I want to do now… Your niece and your tambu have been nothing but a headache and a waste of money since you brought them here. And they’ve been here for how long? Eight months? That’s too long!” Said Irene sharply. “She hardly cleans the house like what us ples meris do. All she does is sleep when she gets home. She paints her lips with that horrible nipstick or lipstick or whatever you call it and walks to work in those high heels. Is she trying to show off to us or what? And on Saturdays, she wakes up very late: who knows what they do all night…”
Richard listened through the thin wall as Irene listed all their wrongs in a loud voice. Robert meanwhile was desperately trying to restrain his wife, but his efforts only amounted to a faint mumble, which eventually fell silent. Richard knew the bulk of what she said was untrue. ‘What an ill-educated selfish person she was,’ he thought to himself. He felt like screaming and telling that to her face but stopped. She had the right to decide who she wanted in her house. Why did Irene have to launch such vicious attacks like that on his wife’s dressing? He knew Joan wore lipstick but it was only a moderate amount of a color that would match her complexion. What was wrong with being beautiful? Irene could not say much for how she looked herself. He smiled to himself as he remembered how Irene had pestered Robert to have her hair permed a few months ago. It had taken a huge amount of effort to hold back the laughter when he saw Irene’s stout figure stepping out of a taxi with a head of newly permed hair. He could have sworn that the tires of the taxi sighed with relief when Irene’s heavy bulk lifted off them.
“Robert…Wake up and listen to me!” Irene said loudly. “If you don’t get rid of them, I will go and live somewhere else and probably marry someone else too.”
Richard wondered what Robert had seen in this woman when he left his first wife and married her. He found it even harder to imagine Irene as a slim nineteen-year-old. However, when Robert met her she was not slim or nineteen. In fact she was 34 and fat. He smiled as he mused to himself. It would have been alright if he had married her for company. But according to Richard, it was definitely not for her looks that he married her. Whatever the reason was, he did not know and did not wish to find out.
“It’s past midnight…” said Robert sleepily. “I will talk to them tomorrow morning if you insist.”
Richard pitied Robert. He sometimes seemed like a helpless giant whenever he argued with Irene. His hulking figure would stand with its head hung low while Irene threw her tantrums. Such arguments had gotten worse since He and Joan moved here. Irene would find all sorts of excuses to be angry with Robert. This included unfaithfulness, unwise spending and food shortage in the house. Richard and Joan always did all they could to avoid the arguments. Joan always kept the kitchen stocked with food while Richard spent each day cleaning the flower gardens and fixing any broken walls or water pipes. Richard watched as Joan continued to toss and turn near him. He would try again tomorrow for a job he saw advertised in the papers. Right now he did not care what kind of job he got as long as it gave him some hope of a regular income and a possibility of finding a place to stay. He was a qualified electrician but these days finding a job depended on who you knew in the workforce. Although Irene and Robert were already asleep, his thoughts kept his mind alert for hours. It was almost impossible to go to sleep. It wasn’t normal for him – a man – to depend on his wife’s income. It would be a shame if his father and mother knew. Luckily, they were dead. But it was still humiliating to receive a twenty or even a two kina note from his wife. He had refused numerous times when Joan gave him money. While she saw this gesture as necessary, Richard always regarded it as a sign as sympathy. It had been a source of many arguments between them. He wanted to wake her up and say he was sorry. But what would he say? He was not a man who normally apologized.
He got up from the bed, opened the door silently, and headed to the toilet. As he sat on the toilet seat, he glanced at the thin roll of toilet paper, which hung on the small aluminum bar in the wall. Only the day before, Irene had complained that the current supply of toilet paper was not enough for them all and she had taken to removing toilet paper and replacing it with newspapers. It brought a swift response from Joan who brought a box full when she returned from work. He flushed the water when he got up from the seat. He knew it would not be long before Irene would start complaining about using the toilet at night. Richard knew she always found a reason to be angry.
He came back to bed and curled up beside Joan. It felt terrible to be homeless and jobless. He recalled what his mother always told him: ‘A man needs a place to call his own. It does not matter how small or big it is. He needs a place where he can cast aside all his worries and shut his eyes without having to worry about anyone asking him to leave.’ How true it was.
It was 3:30 am when he finally fell asleep. The early hours of the morning flew past like a speeding bullet. When he opened his eyes, Joan had already gone to work.. It was going to be another hot gruelling day fixing those flower gardens around Robert and Irene’s house. As he came out of the room door, He saw Irene cleaning up the last traces of her breakfast. He knew Joan hardly ate here since Irene began kicking up a fuss three months ago. He went outside and squatted beside a flower bed lined with stones stained with Irene’s betelnut spit. She did not seem to have a hint about outside presentation and landscaping, Richard thought to himself. She talked about cleaning the house but he wondered if she really knew what it was to be hygienic. He pulled at the weeds idly occasionally glancing up to the birds whistling up in the tree nearby. It was one of the few things he enjoyed these days. At least things were peaceful when he came to weed the flower gardens. It also gave him time to think. Irene had left about two hours ago to visit her neighbours four houses down the road. Richard knew she was not going to be back until just before her husband arrived. Her day was usually spent gossiping about them. Almost the whole neighbourhood knew what kind of problems, Irene and Robert had. Since Richard and Joan moved here Irene made sure they made it to the top of the gossip agenda. He hated walking down the road past the row of houses. ‘Good morning Richard,’ the group would call out to him as he passed. Then he would hear them say in subdued tones: ‘that’s the one who’s living with Irene and Robert up the street. They waste their money on him and he just eats and sleeps while his wife works…’ Then the it would lead on to how Joan dressed and where she worked. ‘These people really needed psychiatrists,’ he always said to himself. ‘And they needed to be locked up in a mental asylum where they would soon be gossiping about the color of each other’s turds.’
By the time it was four o’clock, Richard had finished working on the flower gardens. All the flower beds had acquired a new look. He stood admiring his own work as Joan arrived. She gave him a weak smile and settled on the veranda.
“Did you hear what was being said last night?” she asked him.
“I thought you were asleep,” said Richard with a startled look. “I think we have to move out.”
“I agree,” Joan responded. “I have a feeling we are going to be told to move this afternoon.”
They chatted for a while before they saw Robert returning. He was accompanied by Irene who was arguing with him. When they approached the house, the arguing ceased and Irene rushed past them leaving Robert with Richard and Joan. The moment Richard had been dreading had arrived.
“I need the speak to you and tambu,” said Robert to Joan. He was unable to meet her gaze directly. “I want you to find somewhere else to stay… Well actually what I wanted to say was….”
Joan looked at his uncle’s face. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
“I understand, uncle…” she said quietly. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
“Your father put you in my care but I have not lived up to his expectation… I have my principles but Irene is a different woman altogether…” he said. He was unable to continue as the words choked in his throat. They both watched as Robert walked into the house. They were now homeless without even a roof over their heads.