On the beach at Lalamanu, Western Samoa

Matai Mulivai

when you take the bait, they catch you

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.

It was some consolation 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 superiority. The elderly Polynesian made an easy target.

Old Mulivai was impassive. He carried on working at his own steady pace, never, ever losing his composure. His studied humility suggested something very important was at work, an abiding faith perhaps, whatever it was it was impressive and I wondered at it. But mainly I brooded, I couldn’t 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 confirmed the harsh reality that it was only 7:35. Yes, it was all my 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 an unmistakable 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 the villagers should do when the Japanese squid boats came prowling in too close in the dead of the night.

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 cool 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. Still, he’d taken off one of his three sweaters and rolled it up behind his head. “One day 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. “So am I 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. 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 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 I tell my sons, if you take the bait, they’ll catch you. It’s better that I keep my mouth shut. 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, the same piano shipped into the village by a Methodist missionary in the 20s. It had been patched up many, many times over the years but the strings were no longer taut, some of the keys were stuck on with tape and 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 Samoa for the first and only time, to go down to New Zealand to make enough money to buy her a new piano.

He knew the exact piano he wanted, he had seen it in a shop window 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 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 went, the regal Samoan, back to where everyone knew exactly who he was — and where he stood for something.

Not long afterwards a thank you card from his son arrived in the mail. I’ve saved it for years. It was one of those old-fashioned cards 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 the 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 own 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 it was enough to stay connected. Many, many years later, I sold my company in New York. I was fried, burnt out by their 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. I thought of Samoa and wrote to my old friend. “Dear Mulivai. I am coming to Pago Pago for two weeks on my way 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.”

Of course he came. As I made my way down the steps to the tarmac at Pago Pago I heard singing break out over by the thatched airport building. There stood Mulivai on a makeshift stage, with his oldest boy strumming a guitar and two of his daughters dancing a welcome siva. They had traveled 90 miles to greet me 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.

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 by the 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 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 for one had much to learn.

I can still see him 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 as ever. His clear blue eyes remained focused on me as they made their way through the reef and began to rise and fall across the big Pacific rollers. When I’m walking by the ocean on a sunny day I sometimes feel those eyes looking at me still. I marvel at the human connection forged between a 60-year-old Samoan matai and a 20-year-old know-nothing kid on a cold factory floor more than 40 long years ago.

Often in my life I have remembered his words of wisdom and used them 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.”

Peter Winter writes from his home on the coast of Maine. He tells his stories here at Life of Fiction and he blogs about media and management at BlastofWinter

Feel free to drop him a line at peter@pwinter.com

Peter is represented by The Garamond Agency, Washington D.C.