As usual, damnit, there was the same cowardly distance between what I should have done and what I did.
I flipped the heavy welding visor down over my face, fired up the blowtorch and prayed that the hissing of the oxy acetylene and the din of the factory floor would drown out the foreman’s raised voice. The next few pipes were bad joins and I knew they’d be tossed out down the line and I would hear about it later, but it was impossible to concentrate with the hatred still ringing in my ears. Shame washed over me, Mulivai was a visitor, a guest in my country, surely we were better than this.
You useless black bastard, I’ve got men further down the line standing around doing sweet fuck all because you’re not feeding the pipes quick enough. Pick up the pace.
Those last few words were spat through clenched teeth, right in Mulivai’s face.
I consoled myself that the foreman was a recent arrival too, not a Kiwi at all but a lower-middle class ignoramus from the English Midlands where the damp and cold seeps down deep within you, making you permanently pinched and miserable. Pakistanis had invaded their colonial mother country, they had taken over his town, changed it forever, even the fish-and-chip shop served their awful food now and so he had fled, all the way down to New Zealand, carrying with him his fears and resentments and ridiculous notions of class. He was at the bottom of the world, but on top again. The elderly Polynesian made an easy target.
Old Mulivai was impassive. He carried on working at his own steady pace, never losing his composure. He could not be shaken. His studied humility suggested something very important was at work, an abiding spiritual faith perhaps, or an unshakeable self-belief, whatever it was it was impressive and I wondered at it. But mainly I brooded, I couldn’t seem to shake the random harshness of the abuse, particularly since it was directed at the wrong person. It wasn’t Mulivai’s fault that the line was slow. It was mine.
He never turned me in, but all day he had to wait until I’d found the joint and welded the seam and sent the pipe on before he could thread in the next one — and I was useless at it. I’d been on the line a month but every one of my welds was lumpy and uneven, it took precious minutes to burn and re-burn until the seam was smooth and the join secure. I hated it, that’s why I was no good at it, it was the kind of job where you clocked in at 7:30 in the morning, worked for what felt like three or four hours and then, when you surreptitiously checked the clock again, it was only 7:35. Yes, it was all my stupid fault.
Sometimes, leaders look like leaders. He was like that, you sensed immediately on meeting him that he had once been somebody important. Perhaps he still was. He carried himself with quiet dignity. His height helped, he was well over six feet tall and whippet-thin, and his short-cropped silver hair and unusual sharp blue eyes further set him apart. I soon found out from another Samoan on the shop floor that he was, in fact, the elder of his village back home, the chief, the matai who held final sway over all disputes, anointed prospective marriages, made sure the taro crops and bananas were tended, counted heads and read from the Bible in church on Sunday, and decided what they should do when the Japanese squid boats came prowling in too close in the dead of night, looking for bait or maybe even a place to come ashore for a while.
At lunchtime he liked to sit on his own to eat but one day I went and sat next to him, leaning my back against the concrete factory wall and looking up at the clear blue sky so I wouldn’t have to look at the tangle of wire and rusting pipes that lay all around us. It was summer in New Zealand but he was always cold. He had taken off one of his three sweaters and rolled it up behind his head. “One day soon I’m going to be a passenger on that plane up there,” I said to him, gazing at the vapor trail of a jet passing across the sky. “I’ll be off to see the world.” “Same here mate,” he said, without opening his eyes. “You’ll travel further than me though boy. I’ll be going home, you’ll be looking for yours.” “Where’s home old man?” “Lalamanu. At the head of the bay, not too far from Apia. That’s where the family’s waiting.” “You want half my Vegemite sandwich Mulivai?” He chuckled quietly. “No boy, I’m okay, that stuff will do you no good, thank you eh.”
“Listen, Mulivai, about the bastard foreman…” I began. I wanted to ease my shame, tell him it was high time for me to fess up and take the blame. He cut me off.
Don’t worry boy, his words mean nothing to me. Back home when my boys want to fight with the boys from the village down the road I always tell them, if you take the bait, they’ll catch you. Don’t let them get under your skin. It’s better that I keep my mouth shut. It’s better that you do, too. I pray for him, that’s all we can do. Anyway, two months to go and I walk out and when I walk out, I forget that Englishman forever. Now go kick that ball around with the others, I need some shut-eye.
Mulivai had 13 kids, all grown up. His wife played piano in the church every Sunday. It was the same piano that had been shipped into the village by a Methodist missionary in the 1920s. It had been patched up many, many times over the years. The strings were no longer taut, and some of the keys were stuck on with tape. It had long since lost its tune. So Mulivai decided to give his wife the best present he could think of, for he could not imagine a better woman or a more devout one. At age 64 he left Western Samoa for the first and only time, to go all the way down to New Zealand where he intended to make enough money to buy her a brand new piano.
He knew the exact piano he wanted, he had seen it in the window of a music store downtown. I decided to make it my business to make sure he wasn’t stiffed in the transaction. It was the least I could do.
Lucky I did. The export form was too complicated even for me. Then it took weeks to find somebody who would insure the piano. The store tried to make him pay for storage too, because the cargo ship wasn’t heading to Apia for another three months. I told them we’d go up to Auckland to get a piano if we had to, that shut them up. “You go home,” I told him. “I’ll make sure it gets on the ship safely.”
He left the factory after the pay round on a Thursday night. Never said a word to the foreman, just tucked the envelope into his pocket and walked out as usual. He figured they owed him Friday. I drove him straight out to the airport for the long flight back up to Apia, and home. I had a present for him, a rugby ball for the youngest boy. He proudly put it under his arm and off he strode, the regal Samoan, back to his world, where everyone knew exactly who he was — and where he stood for something. He would be far away forever from the insults of the English foreman and the ugly din of the factory floor.
Not long afterwards a thank you card from his son arrived in the mail. I still have it. It was one of those old-fashioned cards on heavy paper with a ribboned bouquet of roses on the front. Inside a message was written in pencil, in the slanted script of the mission school: “Dear Mr. Peter Winter, the ball you gave me is like something to eat to me. I keep it on my pillow. Thank you for your kindness. Aleki Apelu.”
I like to think that boy played for Manu Samoa when he grew up, the fiercest rugby team in the world.
Weeks later I watched the piano swing up from the dock in a cradle of rope and disappear into the hold of an island steamer. I said a quiet prayer that it would make it home safely. We had done it. Mulivai’s wife would have her piano.
I left New Zealand on my search for home soon afterwards. But we stayed in touch, old Mulivai and me, for longer than you would think, just a postcard or a hasty letter once or twice a year, but enough to stay connected. Many, many years later, about 15 years later, I sold my company in New York. I was fried, burnt out by the acquirer’s attorney and his self-appointed mission to extract every last ounce of value out of me at the lowest possible cost. I needed to hide. One night it occurred to me that time on a beach in the Pacific would do the trick, no-one from my life in New York would ever find me there. No phone, no television, no computer. I wrote to my old friend. “Dear Mulivai. I am coming to Pago Pago for two weeks on my way down to New Zealand. I know it’s a long way from Western Samoa, but I’m arriving there on Continental 26 from Honolulu on May 22. I would love to see you. I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well.”
Of course he came. As I made my way down the steps of the DC-10 to the tarmac at Pago Pago I heard singing break out over by the thatched airport arrivals building. There stood Mulivai on a makeshift stage in his ceremonial lavalava, with his oldest boy strumming a guitar and two of his daughters dancing a welcome siva. To meet me in American Samoa they had traveled 90 miles in an open fishing boat powered only by a canvas mainsail and an outboard motor. That night we ate suckling pig around a fire on the beach and drank too much kava, laughing and singing old hymns and Christmas carols at the tops of our voices.
We stayed there on that beach under Rainmaker Mountain for a week. We fished in the lagoon, we climbed the mountain to visit the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson, we went pig hunting in an ancient jeep left behind by the U.S. Marines after World War 2. But mainly we talked and laughed and cried about all we had seen and all we had done. He was old now, his wife was too, she had arthritis and could no longer play the piano. Each of us sensed this would be our last time together. And if this was to be the closing chapter on our friendship, we decided to make the most of it.
I can still see my friend Mulivai Apelu standing motionless in the stern of the little boat as they headed out at the start of the long voyage back to Lalamanu, 75 years old but as erect and dignified as ever. His clear blue eyes remained focused on me as the boat made its way through the reef and began to rise and fall across the big Pacific rollers. Sometimes, when I’m walking by the ocean on a sunny day, I feel those eyes looking at me still. When that feeling hits me I marvel at the enduring human connection forged between a 60-year-old Samoan matai and a 20-year-old know-nothing Kiwi kid on a hard factory floor more than 40 long years ago.
Often I have used his words of wisdom to catch myself when I’ve felt the anger rising: “Don’t take the bait,” he said. “When you take the bait, they catch you.”