A Short Story by Samu Batara The chapel bell rang. It was the usual bell at six o’clock in the morning to animate sleeping students. “Let’s have another bout,” Bewo declared. I felt uneasy. I was not satisfied with the whole night spent for just a few wins. “I wonder why,” I said. “My skill did not cooperate this time. The balls seem to be functioning against me.” It was hard for me to accept defeat. I had been playing pool for a considerable period. Consequently, I had always upheld the conviction that any billiard match would just be like a dessert to me. That night was, however, my first chance to have a match with Bewo. And he was tough indeed. The desire to win was so intense. It pushed my right hand to search a pocket for another twenty toea. Because I lost in the previous game, I had to produce the coin. My fingers quickly slid it into the coin slit. Its clink in a split second ejected the balls into the base rack. Bewo hurriedly picked up some and started arranging them in the triangle. “I think I need more concentration to win this one,” I stated as I joined Bewo in ranking the rest of the balls. “Bet?” he raised his gleaming face as his proud eyes gazed at me in defiance. “You may have to pray harder, Pipi,” he was being sarcastic as he rubbed the chalk against the end of his cue. “My, you must be playing magic against me,” I reasoned out. Nothing more was said as he positioned himself at the head of the table. The cue ball dispersed the triangular object balls into a seemingly tactical formation. The friction of thermoplastic balls hitting each other created the only audible sounds that distracted the tune springing out of the jukebox. “This Bewo must be a billiard expert,” I told myself as it turned more obvious that his scoring strokes were uncontrollable. Break after break. I

tried to console myself with the thought that it was my first adventure with Bewo. Most of the time, I had been playing the game with Balbo. But Balbo might not have been in the mood for the last couple of days. My thoughts were wandering: “What has happened to that dear friend of mine? He has been hiding in his hellish dorm. Making his physical figure sexier, perhaps. Silly Balbo! Or a bilum of problems may have weighed down his nutty head.” “Pipi, see!” Bewo’s pride became more apparent as he scored most points again. “What can you say, my friend?” he asked. “Another draw?” “Ah, shit!” I expressed. A release of discontent. But it did not overwhelm me. Balbo’s picture rather dominated my awareness. I just put down my cue and made an escape out of the Round House which should properly be called Billiard Parlor. It housed two billiard pools and a jukebox. These recreation facilities had been some sort of blessing. They were doubtless better alternative to those old tennis tables around the Tuckshop. More enjoyable. Fascinating! Only they were expensive to play. Parasites to the pocket. “Pipi!” Bewo’s shout exhibited a sound of disappointment. “Do you give up?” He was really yelling at me. As I passed by the Mess I noticed most of my fellow students already having breakfast. But I had to run to the dorm to get my cup. On the way I still met some fellows tending sleepy eyes as they marched in a kind of hopeless precession to the mess area. At that moment, my mind was preoccupied with the thought of Balbo. A best friend. I had missed him as if we had not come across each other for ages. Why had this intense feeling of mine occurred all of a sudden? Remorse for not having called into his dorm for sometime. Nor had he into mine. Both of us had been trying to convince the Dean of Men to put us in the same dorm but having no luck at all. What changed Balbo? He would always be there to spend the night playing billiard with me. Only for the last two nights that he had not been alive. He would be a better match than Bewo. At least I could garner more points. He would not let me go frustrated. Clutching an extra large mug I stepped into the Big Mess. My gaze immediately roamed around searching for any mark of Balbo among the

hundreds of students seated at tables. Not a shadow of his could be detected. My feet carried me closer to the urn on the counter. I filled my cup with tea and grabbed a number of sandwiches. Almost automatically I transferred to the Small Mess. No Balbo was there either. I took a bite of sandwich and a sip of tea in a harmonious rhythm as I walked out hurriedly. Few moments later I found myself ascending the stairs leading to the dorm which was Balbo’s hiding place. But before I could reach his room he appeared in the corridor. Hardly a statue. His right arm carried a big suitcase. A large string bag dangled down his left shoulder. His left hand held his precious radio cassette recorder. I was stunned to encounter such a picture. “Hey , Balbo!” I exclaimed. “Where the hell are you off to?” He threw me a quick glance but he uttered not a single word. He forced his way past me feeling like a stranger on a deserted street. I longed for his familiar entertaining smile. “What’s the matter with you, brother?” I asserted as I became more seriously concerned. “Sorry I haven’t come to see you for some time.” I stood still. My sight followed his back. Soon I lost track of the burly figure descending the stairs. I had mixed reactions. My startled mind affirmed that I did not lose a rib if he did not bother to talk to me. Should I give a damn? But my undisciplined feeling insisted that I had to follow him. To learn more about the situation. To find out what was wrong. As swiftly as my limbs could manage, I ran after Balbo. I reached him in front of the Tuckshop hopping into the college utility car. He sat beside Miss Rikki who was at the steering wheel. As I approached them, she gave me a quick but comforting smile. “Miss Rikki!” I felt easier to talk to her than to Balbo at that instant. “Where are you going?” I asked. “I’ll bring Balbo to the airstrip,” I heard her reply. I blushed! My breathing grew heavier. More questions popped into my disturbed mind. Where would Balbo really be going? But there was no time to inquire further. I quickly asked, “Can I come with you, Miss Rikki?” She was saying something about the lectures which were about to commence for the day. But I had already jumped onto the tray of the utility

and sat on the edge of the suitcase lying there. I was only aware of the vehicle speeding towards the gate out of the campus. Through the windshield between us I noticed Balbo’s face fixed towards the striking signboard bearing the massive letters BALOB TEACHERS COLLEGE by the roadside. His neck twisted to retain the view as the car headed out and turned right onto the main road. As if he was giving it a good glance for the last time. Or was he making a wonderful survey of his section area where he usually worked during Balob Environmental Program and Campus Clean Up? I was still breathing heavily. Something else was bothering me. Another negative report most likely. Miss Rikki might have been upset with me forcing my way onto the utility without her approval. I knew there were lectures I was going to miss. But I also wanted to ascertain where and why Balbo was going. The latter seemed more important to me. I could guess that he might be going for compassionate leave. Yet why was he so queer by not talking to me? I eased my mind with the hope that Miss Rikki by now would understand the Papua New Guinea manner of one still asking while he had grabbed what he was asking for. I would have to apologize later. My head was toying with those ideas when I became aware of the Ute entering a terminal at Lae Airport. When it came to a halt I jumped down almost simultaneously and lifted up Balbo’s suitcase. “Gosh, it’s heavy,” I murmured to myself. “Has he packed all bits and pieces of his belongings in this? He may be going for good.” My initial assumption that he was going for compassionate leave, however, remained stronger. “Never mind,” I raised a restraining palm for Balbo when he came closer and attempted to grab his suitcase. “I’ll carry this for you,” I offered. He trod a path through a glass doorway and on to the check-in counter. I followed him with the sagging suitcase. Miss Rikki came after us. She immediately handed the plane ticket to the airline officer on the counter. I released a sigh as I put down my load on the scale. Instinctively, I stretched and wagged my overtaxed arm while I moved closer to Miss Rikki who was waiting for Balbo’s flight and departure documents to be processed. “Where is Balbo going, Miss Rikki?” I queried in a quiet but anxious voice. “He’s going home,” she whispered back.

“Why? Has somebody died in his family?” “No. His scholarship has been terminated due to poor academic results.” A tingle of shock went through me. I remembered that the Governing Council met a pair of days ago. I felt my countenance getting hotter as I brought to mind my own academic standing. I wanted to ask something more, but Balbo was then coming to join us. He had in his hand the radio set and on his shoulder the bulky bilum. “Thank you very much, Miss Rikki,” Balbo’s words sounded sad. “It’s alright, Balbo,” she smiled as she handed him the boarding pass. “I hope everything’s alright with you.” She paused for a while. Then with her usual sympathetic tone she continued, “Can we leave you now?” Balbo nodded. His lips slightly parted as if they wanted to pronounce something which he could not express. My gaze traveled fast from him to Miss Rikki. “Let’s go then, Pipi,” she invited me as he paced towards the transparent push door. I looked back at Balbo. His cheerless eyes stared straight into mine. When I could no longer bear them, I stepped towards Miss Rikki as she pulled the door. “I think I’ll come later, Miss Rikki,” I imparted. “I’ll just find my way back to the college.” “Remember your lectures, Pipi,” she reminded me. The next moment she was outside and the glass door drew back after her. I turned and hesitatingly strolled to where Balbo was now sitting. He was facing the exit to the boarding field while he sat comfortably in one of the cushioned chairs provided for waiting passengers. People around were not that many. There was a vacant seat beside Balbo which I took. I could hear his cassette radio playing his favorite song, “There’s a place in the sun where there’s hope for everyone. Gotta find me a place in the sun . . .” It was not simple for me to start a dialogue with Balbo. The memory of his mysterious attitude towards me earlier lingered on. The horror of being rejected. Or I could not possibly pick what I thought would be the proper phrase to break ground considering that it was a downcast moment. “What time is your flight?” I suddenly asked. “Quarter to eight,” he informed coldly. More of a murmur.

I watched the clock on the wall. Its longest arm marking the moments that flew by. After a span of silence, I breathed, “Twenty minutes to go.” There were questions in my head which remained to be answered. “What are you planning to do from here?” I inquired. “Are you going back to your home village?” I witnessed him give it a moment of grave consideration. Then he replied, “I’ve got nowhere else to go.” He spoke in a very peculiar manner. Very different from the Balbo and the mode of his I had known for almost two years. “I’m not sure of my future,” he acknowledged. “I’ll be missing a lot.” The solemnity of his expressions made my mind recollect the unrecorded diary of bygone fellowship we two shared. The lovely days and nights the two of us spent in countless conceivable fashion – cracking jokes, bartering loud laughters, making fun with fellow students. The boundless joys of creating marvelous sounds in the deep silence of the nights. Without them the college campus had no life. The whole place could be likened to a cold grave. Forsaken for choirs of insects. Since we met in the college, Balbo had been a big brother to me. More than a buddy. He was always available to give me company outside classes. How I wished we could be placed in the same homeroom! But for one fabricated reason or another it could not happen. Maybe, we possessed what was called by many as common interests. Something which could enable us to go on playing pool or table tennis all night. Ah, those numerous sleepless nights! Not to forget, of course, those off-the-record drinking bouts we occasionally had off campus. I would surely miss his company too when he’d be gone. I could anticipate the loneliness of being alone amidst groups of fellow students who dared not show interest in what Balbo and I used to do. Alas, the unbearable solitude of the nights to come! It would take a long time before I could find another big brother in place of Balbo. “It was a very nice life we were enjoying there in the college,” Balbo softly remarked, diverting the train of my recollection. “Heavenly. But a deceiving one. Things were just provided. Chicken feed. Our existence was not our own worry. It was of the government. The church’s. That’s why I could not really appreciate how valuable it was. Not until I had lost it.

Imagine how we were spoon-fed with educational programs, books, materials, aids, what not! What more could we ask for?” I was tongue-tied, discovering new truths. New light thrown into hidden facts. “All we needed to do was to study,” Balbo continued. “To train to serve as capable teachers, the way our lecturers used to say. And to study hard could be the only acceptable reason for us to be there.” His words began to have piercing effects in me. I was experiencing real agony of heart and mind. “But I took it for granted,” he disclosed. “I did not take advantage of the rare opportunity. I was blind to the fact that to be in college made me luckier than a lot of youngsters who could not reach any portals of postsecondary education. Thousands of youth who were not chosen, who won’t be chosen.” My thoughts strolled back to my own village. At the spur of the moment, I was convinced that I was more fortunate than scores there. “It’s too late,” he sighed as he vowed his head. His palms cradled his forehead as his elbows rested upon his thighs. Slowly he continued with a trembling voice, “Now I know. Without the effort, without the sacrifice, success can never be attained. Indeed, one’s future depends a lot on how he shapes it.” I observed tears fall from his eyes. By then my eyes were flooded too. I could recall the counsel of my study advisor the previous week when she handed me my term assessment. She had heralded that the college faculty recommended me to be given a final chance to make up and show my best. But she had added that it depended on whether or not the Board of Studies and the Governing Council endorsed it. During those last moments I had with Balbo I came face to face with reality. It was a painful moment of truth. I was going to lose a friend, my best one. And also the knowledge of my being on probation became more real. Terrifying. I became more conscious of the fact that I already had a number of probations. I was alarmed by what could be waiting for me. But I should have been informed if the staff’s recommendation was turned down. I was given another chance most probably. “Your attention please,” the loud speaker above our heads made the announcement. “All passengers bound for Kanainj on Flight 2127 are requested to board the aircraft now.”

Balbo stood up promptly. I also rose and caught a glimpse of his face beaming with challenge. A soft tune was fleeing from his radio cassette, “Goodbye to you my trusted friend . . . We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun . . .” I expected Balbo to give me a word of encouragement, his hopes for me. But not a word was spoken. Only the sparkle in his eyes seemed to communicate, “Start a new life. Put more efforts in your studies. You’ll be successful.” Inspired, I got the courage to open my mouth. “I hope to see you again, Balbo,” I mumbled. “See you someday,” he responded. An indication of composure. “Somewhere. Somehow.” We were holding hands. But I felt empty-handed until my other arm had possessively encircled his shoulders. “Farewell, my big brother,” I whispered. “Have a good trip.” He pressed my hand holding his. “May you fare well too,” he was able to mutter as he turned and wiggled out of my hold. My eyesight, dim with tears, followed his fading figure. I could hardly behold him board the plane. I watched the blurred aeroplane taxi to the runway. It was occasioned by a deafening engine roar that filled my ears. Then all I could determine was the rising form of the aircraft taking off. I was waving my hand. And only half-conscious, I gave a loud call that echoed: “Balbooo. Balboooo. Balbooooo.” I could see the plane no more. I discovered myself running aimlessly from the airstrip. I fagged down a taxicab that approached me. But it did not stop for it had passengers in. Only then did I remember to make sure I had enough money for the fare. My fingers hastily explored my pockets. Not a single toea! All might have gone into the pool and the jukebox the last night. It grew vivid in my mind that I had to go without pocket money for more than a week before I was going to receive my next fortnight government allowance. There was no other way than to hike back. I just ran and ran until I arrived back in the college. I called on my way into the Registrar’s Office. I wished to apologize to Miss Rikki for my insistence to go to the airport with them. However, some strange people were there talking to her. She just handed me an orange sheet of paper. An absence Form which I had to fill in

reasons for not attending lectures that morning. When I left the office, Miss Rikki urged me to visit the Vice-Principal sooner. I knew pretty well that I was on the brink of failure. But I had promised myself to improve and start anew. A spirit of determination kindled my whole being. I could still visualize a bright tomorrow. I walked calmly, holding the Leave Form. My feeling was very light. It could be due to lack of sleep. At any rate, the refreshing morning breeze enabled me to wander around the Tuckshop. The Round House came in full view. Nobody was there. Of course, everybody was in class. I decided I should better be joining my class after recess, for third period was nearly over. I could command a view of the locked door of the Round House. And at that very minute I yearned for its closure forever. For a while I roamed the green lawns. All of a sudden, I was standing in the chapel. It was the first time the place looked to me serene and inviting. I knew full well that very soon the staff and students would be gathering there for morning devotion. Yet alone, I knelt down, murmuring a prayer for Balbo. ### ______________________ This short story was an entry in the 1984 Asiaweek Short Story Competition. It ranked 37th out of a total of 389 qualified and 71 disqualified entries from 20 countries in Asia and beyond. Please refer to pages 75-78, Asiaweek, December 21-28, 1984 issue.

Copyright © 2008 Samuel B. Batara, All rights reserved.

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