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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Pigeon Island's schoolteacher Christine Bertaut

Pacific Islands Monthly, June 1971

 

Reading old copies of the Pacific Islands Monthly, I found this story about Christine Bertaut who had been Pigeon Island's schoolteacher at the time when I had almost gone there myself in 1969 - see here.

Lucy Irvine (of Castaway fame) tells of Christine's return from a watery grave in her book "Faraway", and I'm sure she won't mind if I quote her:

[page 202 ...] "... the rainbow was without doubt encircling the whole [Hepworth] family the day Christine, a twenty-two-year-old teacher with a passion for challenges and total commitment to all-round childcare, walked into their lives ... and it wasn't long before the bikini'd figured of the pretty young New Zealander was constantly surrounded by worshipful piccaninnis of all ages ... Under Christine's hands, a garden of scented flowers sprang up outside the leaf schoolhouse ... and exotic collages of land- and seascapes soon covered the classroom walls ... In the course of that time she made learning such a pleasure that Bressin, in particular, often stayed in the schoolhouse studying long after hours, and she transformed even days of lashing rain into something to look forward to, by making a cosy corner and reading Tolkien out loud.

One night when Christine was floating under the stars she loved to study, her small dugout drifted away. And the Debbil tortured her for five days and nights before what was left of her was washed up and found, by other islanders, seventy miles away.

This time, Tom [Hepworth] wasn't away on a trading trip when the horror happened, but in Honiara sorting out paperwork that would allow Christine to stay a third year. For once he was making promising progress with bureaucracy, when a garbled message reached him that this girl of whom they'd all grown so fond was missing, believed drowned. Frantically he tried to contact Diana, but radio communications were down and air-sea rescue services would divulge little beyond the fact they understood the young woman had been missing a full night already, so had conducted only a brief search during the morning then given up, as survival was deemed impossible. It had been a blowy night, there was a swell on, and if those hadn't tipped her to the sharks, her dugout would have been smashed on the reef. What was she doing out in it at night anyway? Hardly sensible.

'Where exactly did you search?' Tom demanded, containing his irritation at their admonitory manner. He may have looked to the neat, disapproving officers like a scruffy Outer Island oddity, but he knew the waters around Reefs like the back of his hand. His was coral-head-and-tiny-landing-channel knowledge, not guesswork based on an old Admiralty chart.

'We followed the course of wind and current - naturally, Mr Hepworth.'

'Captain Hepworth,' Tom snapped. 'Are you aware that the current patterns in that district are unique - that the drift may have been anticlockwise, despite what your books say? That's certainly the local belief.'

They didn't give him much of their time - a captain who'd lost his ship and gave credit to 'local beliefs'. But while he was in their offices, another message came in. It was second-hand but originated, Tom knew at once, from Diana. 'Don't believe dead. No dugout found.'

'There!' said Tom. 'A broader search should be conducted at once.'

But as far as the officers were concerned, it would be pointless. Not unkindly, because they realised sentiment was involved, they explained to Tom that scores of dugouts had gone missing between Reef Islands and the larger groups over the years, and the vast majority had never been traced. It was impossible; not so much a needle in a haystack as a matchstick in the ocean. Sorry, Captain.

... [Tom] knew Christine was very able in a dugout, a strong swimmer, and - most important - not someone to give up. If she were out there still, she'd be fighting for her life, singing to keep up her spirits at night, dousing her head with water to prevent sunstroke in the day ... Tom sat down with a whisky in the G Club, an expatriate hangout where he was rarely seen, and Diana never. There he was befriended by a government architect who pulled a few strings, but it was still ten days before Tom learned properly what had happened ...

 

In 1947, English couple Tom and Diana Hepworth purchased the ketch Arthur Rogers, previously the Falmouth pilot boat, and sailed to New Zealand via Panama and Tahiti with various crews. Always elegant, Diana was a former London fashion model. They arrived in the New Hebrides in 1957 as traders, and then moved to the Solomon Islands, opened a trade store at Santa Cruz and leased small Pigeon Island (274 by 91 metres) in the Reef Islands. For a long time their Santa Cruz store was the only trade store in the Eastern Outer Islands. They lived an idyllic life as traders, until Tom died in 1994 and Diana died in 2003. They had three children, Natasha, and twin boys Bressin (Ben) and Ross.

 

[Christine] had fallen asleep looking at the stars, but when she woke they'd receded, and she knew at once, by the swell and silence, she'd drifted beyond the Edge of the Reef, and could be anywhere within a hundred miles, depending on speed of wind and current, of Pigeon. She fought back panic and decided to try to rest while the sea was calm enough to allow her, without risk of capsize. She'd need all her strength to get herself to land, once she saw where it was, when dawn came. But before dawn she heard surf and knew she'd drifted near an island. Which island, though? And there was no comfort in the sound of the surf in the dark, for if it was pounding over coral, she'd be better off staying in deep sea. By first light she was paddling with long, strong, determined strokes away from land, whatever land it was, for the particular crash of the waves was familiar to her. Christine, in her journeyings around the islands, had seen many a shoreline where not even the hardiest islander would attempt to land, and this sounded like one of them. Midday found her far out on the deep, and exhausted. But she didn't dare stop paddling for fear of being driven back towards the coral, so she paddled on, hoping to see, each time she lifted her head, a kinder shore where she could rest. No shore appeared before the sun went down, and she allowed herself a few minutes' rest from the paddle which had blistered her hands, to put them together.

'Dear Lord, look after me, please. There's still much I have to do.' A simple plea, uttered with conviction, for Christine trusted God and his knowledge of her. She closed her eyes, and may have dozed for moments or hours. When she opened them again, the stars were out, and so were the sharks. 'Dear God,' she whispered, and lay rigid, arms clamped to her sides, feet folded in on one another, in the slender dugout swaying carelessly over the waves. But her rigidity in the little scoop of wood made it tip about. She knew about breathing and the art of balance, and knew she must try. That's when she began to sing again, but softly, not to hurt her voice, on the second night, when she also collected a little rainwater. The singing forced her to breathe deeply, so the more easily laden dugout floated gently between its consort of fins. Christine knew a shark's anatomy precisely, having inspected those landed near Pigeon: the skin like a rasp; the inbent teeth that ripped. Sometimes they came so close she could have touched one; sometimes vanished, then zoomed at her, only to swerve off course, as though teasing, at the last minute. No sound came from her mouth by midnight, and the moonlight was so thin its revelations only added to terror. She counted eight fins, dreading one would bump under her and pour her out to the rest. She shivered uncontrollably for minutes on end, then took deep breaths, went limp and poured sweat. Repeatedly.

Twelve hours later - another midday - her face was blistered, and she'd tied her bikini on head and shoulders against the sun. The shark had left in the morning, and she'd sighted land - a dark bouffant of green, promising more than coral - and begun paddling frantically. But it was as though for every twenty paddle strokes made, she was flung back nineteen, because the wind had risen now, and there was a scattering of white over the waves that pushed her easily, like little rippling fingers, back, and always back, to what she now knew, when the sun went down, would become her nightmare zone again. And it came, again and again, for three more nights, until she no longer knew what time it was, or which was the worst horror, the grinning sun, under which her tongue swelled when her water supply evaporated and the tops of her feet bubbled like lava, or the black night, bringing the grotesquely beautiful arrival of the fins, trailing streamers of phosphorescence.

... But she never totally gave up, and when an Islander on Utupua's remotest shore found her, she was curled around her dugout, holding it to her like a man, on her side. He carried her light body, and her paddle, which he couldn't wrest from her fingers, to his village, and the women laid her gently in the shade, on their newest leaf mat.

... on distant Utupua the first news Christine heard, when she came to, was that she'd been reported dead. And she realised her parents, in New Zealand, would be thinking this too. It was three weeks before Tom was able to reach her, and bring her back to Pigeon. Her body was much recovered by then, with little-and-often feeding by the Islanders, who'd pushed mashed pawpaw - the babyfood of the islands - carefully between her cracked lips when at first she couldn't eat, and applied coconut cream to her sun-shredded skin. But she was to re-experience her living nightmare whenever she tried to sleep, over the next month, and even though Diana moved another bed into the schoolhouse to be with her, and sponged her face when she cried out and shook, Christine could find no way of escaping the memories of the shark, and the sharklike sun, and the particular horror of the announcement of her own death, with her parents mourning prematurely. Mercifully, Tom believed, a coma broke this pattern. When , after thirty-six hours of being unrousable, Christine opened her eyes once more, she was calmer, but her paddling arm was paralysed, and she couldn't write a line home with her other hand without weeping. Although she half protested she was all right and couldn't leave the children, there was no alternative but for her to return to New Zealand."

The above account of Christine's ordeal was drawn from Tom's notes, Diana's memories, and discussions with Islanders and with Christine herself, who would like it known that, despite her terrors adrift, her main memories of her time on Pigeon are highly positive.

I sometimes wonder what mine would have been, had I gone to Pigeon Island in the Solomon Islands instead of Rabaul in New Guinea.


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