Tarcisius Kabutaulaka

Beti stares at the wedding picture that hangs on the wall in the middle of the living room. She's been standing there for nearly ten minutes. Tears roll down her cheeks. She wipes it with the back of her hand, spreading it on the smooth chocolate-colored skin of her cheeks.

She remembers the day the picture was taken. It was the day she exchanged vows with Tome, her husband. In the picture she looks beautiful in her wedding dress. It was bought in Auckland, New Zealand, by a cousin who was studying there at the time. On her finger, her wedding ring glitters, reflecting the flash from the camera. She has an intoxicating smile that reveals her joy and hopes for a happy marriage, beautiful kids, and a promising career as a registered nurse.

Tome looks elegant and handsome in the picture. He wears a black suit that was custom-tailored in Brisbane. The collar of the white shirt under his suit is fixed into place by a bow tie. His hair is freshly cut. Not a single strand is out of place; combed and then plastered down with Fijian-made Reniu Virgin Coconut Oil. A cousin poured him a handful for the occasion. His cousin bought it from a shop at the Nadi Airport as a memory of his last day in Fiji. He had gone to Fiji to study at the University of the South Pacific, but returned after failing all his courses in the first semester.

At the time the picture was taken, Tome had just taken on a job at the Post Office in Honiara after finishing Form Six at KGVI High School. Although he was new at the Post Office, he was determined to climb up the hierarchy and perhaps one day becoming Post Master.

The two met when Beti was in the nursing school at the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education. Tome regularly went to the nursing school, supposedly to visit an old school mate. Everyone knew, however, that he went there to see Beti. They fell in love immediately. A year later a wedding was hastily put together after Beti's parents found out that she was three months pregnant. But, she was happy. During the wedding she pronounced proudly that she would live with Tome "till death do us part." That was just before they posed for that picture on the wall.

Now, fifteen years later, things are different. As Beti sobs silently, she gently, almost hesitantly, unhooked the picture frame from its place on the wall. She takes it to the bed room, pulls out a cardboard box from inside the wardrobe, and puts the picture in it. The cardboard box is filled with old and forgotten family mementos. "Box blong olketa lus hop na diswan ia. Olketa memoris wea hem gud fo fogetim," she whispers to herself. She has gotten used to whispering to herself. There is no one in the house to talk to; to share her feelings with. Tome is hardly around. In the last fifteen years she has thrown lots of things in this box - old pictures, love notes, and dreams and hopes. "Mi no laik lukim na," she whispers as she buries the picture frame deep in the box. "Hem gud fo fogetim. Diswan hem hoples drim na," she says to herself, aloud.

Beti moves to the bed; the one she shares with Tome. She sits on the edge and looks at the cardboard box. In her mind, very slowly, as though in a slow motion movie, she replays her life. She remembers growing up in Honiara, going to school at Mbokonavera Primary School, Honiara Secondary School and then to the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education. She remembers her parents' advices about choosing the right man for a husband. She recalls the first time she saw Tome, how he captivated her, her urge to get to know him, to be with him. Then there it is: in her mind's eyes she sees her shuttered dreams being replayed over and over again. She sees the last fifteen years of her troubled marriage float by. She wishes there is a delete button that she could press, delete her past memories, and start anew.

Outside, her three children play with the neighborhood kids, unaware of what their mother is about to do. The eldest, Tina, is fifteen years old. She is old enough to feel her mother's pains, but not enough to know what she is about to do. Her son, Edi, is ten and knows that his father is rarely home. He thinks it's normal for men to be out drinking and playing in casinos most days and nights. His father does it, and would come home drunk and sleep all day. But, as he grows older he could see that it is affecting his mother. Stella, the youngest, is only four and doesn't understand her mother's pains.

From where she sits, Beti could hear the children talking.
"Wea na dadi blong iu?" one of the neighborhood kids asks Stella.
"Hem go waka ia," Stella answers, innocently.
"Waka fo iu ia, hem go dring ana ia," Edi cuts in to correct his younger sister. "Hem go long Friday hem no kam baek iet."
"Hey, Edi en Stella, kam iumi go long stoa," Tina quickly chips in. She didn't really want to go to the shop. She just wants to change the topic and salvage what is left of her family's integrity, especially her father's. Although she detests the way he treats her mother and for being out drinking most times, he is still her father. She didn't want kids talking about him.

It is late Sunday afternoon. Tome hasn't come home since he left for work on Friday morning. It happens all the time. Beti and the kids have gotten used to him not being around most weekends. He is out with his friends, drinking, spending money at the casinos, and doing whatever it is that they do in Honiara's night life. On Sunday afternoons he would come home, drunk as a skunk, and go straight to bed. He would wake up on Monday morning and go to work. That's what he does every weekend, and sometimes on week days too. It's no wonder he was never promoted. It is unlikely he will ever become Post Master. He is broke most times, always asking for money from Beti and others. He never contributes to the family budget. The car that he drives was bought with money that Beti borrowed from the ANZ Bank. He was supposed to use it as a taxi to subsidize the family income. The taxi business never got off the ground. Instead, he uses the car to cruise around and drink with his friends. Beti is used to all these.

What she is not ready for is in the letter lying next to her on the bed. It is hand-written and dropped off on Friday evening by Kaoni, a man she had never met before. The letter says that Tome had borrowed $20,000 from Kaoni. He wants his money back: immediately. When he delivered the letter, Kaoni also told Beti that her husband has a 02. That is the term used to refer to mistresses. Beti always suspected that. But, whenever she asks Tome, he would accuse her of being jealous. So, she stopped asking.

Beti looks at the letter again. "Big seleni ia. Wat nomoa man ia kaonim seleni ia fo hem ia?" she asks herself in a whisper. "Wea na bae iumi faendem seleni fo peim baek?" She wants to put the letter in the cardboard box with the other stuff, but decides not to. She wants to confront Tome with it.

As Beti sits there, thinking about what to do with the letter, her mobile phone rings. She doesn't recognize the number that appears on the monitor. She flips the phone open and brings it to her ear.
"Halo", she hesitantly speaks into the phone.
"Beti na diswan?" asks a man whose voice she doesn't recognize.
"Ia. Hu ia?" Her heart beats fast. She is scared and anxious.
"Oh mi nomoa ia. Kaoni. Man mi tekem kam leta ba long Friday ia."
"Ok. Hao?" She now remembers Kaoni's voice. "Hao na iu getem phone naba blong mi ia?"
"Se, Honiara smol ples ia. Iumi save faendem naba blong everiwan nomo ba," he says and then pauses. It is an uncomfortable pause. Beti doesn't like it. Somebody must say something.
"Wat na iu laikem?" she asks, breaking the silence. The man giggles on the other side.
"Nomoa, mi tingse bae iu laek save nomoa ba."
"Save wat?" Beti asks quickly. The man could sense the nervousness in her voice.
"Iu no sekeseke tumas," he says to calm her down. "Samting nomoa ba," he pauses again, as though to torment her; make her beg for what he is about to say.
"Wat ia?" Beti asks. Her voice cracks as the emotion and anticipation swells up from her heart to her throat, ready to explode. Kaoni knows how much she wants to hear what he has to say. She is under his spell.
"Samting ba, boss blong iu ia long hia long 10 Dollar Beach wetem 02. Tufala insaed car blong iufala distaem." He says it slowly; making sure Beti hears every word. He pauses and then adds, "Iu sud kam chekem tufala ba." He hangs up.

Beti drops her phone. She doesn't know what to say. Now it all makes sense. Her mind flashes back to a few months ago when she found a woman's underwear under the back seat of the car after one of Tome's weekend outings. She confronted Tome then, but he denied that he had anything to do with it. He said it was his friend, Sale, and his girlfriend who used the car. Beti called Sale who confirmed Tome's story. Now, she thinks Sale did it to save Tome. The swell of emotions in her throat explodes. Her eyes are cloudy as tears stream down her cheeks. Her heart is beating fast. She is sobbing loudly and shaking uncontrollably. She hears her children talking outside. She doesn't want them to see her crying.

She closes the door and then goes to the wardrobe. From deep inside the wardrobe she pulls out a plastic laundry basket. It is full of old clothes, tidily folded. She lifts the pile of clothes, reaches underneath, and retrieves a little plastic bag. Still crying, she pours the contents of the bag on the bed. There is a 10cc syringe, a packet of injection needles, and two bottles of propofol, a powerful sedative used as anesthetic for surgery. She took the syringe and needles from the clinic where she works, and secretly removed the propofol bottles from the lab at the National Referral Hospital the day after she found the underwear in the car. She was going to do it then, but decided against it after she called Sale. Now, she has had enough of Tome and her troubled marriage.

Her hands are shaking as she takes the syringe and then removes a needle from its packet. She connects the needle to the syringe and pushes until it pops into place. Then she takes one bottle of propofol and peels off the thin plastic covering on the top. Slowly she slides the needle in through the top of the bottle. As she sobs, she pulls the bottom of the syringe back, filling it with 5cc of the sedative. She goes to the window, pulls the curtain aside, and looks out. Her children are playing with the neighborhood kids. She tries to control her sobbing. She looks at the syringe in her hand and then at her children. She then glances at the cardboard box and the letter on the bed. She goes back to the bed and sits on the edge. She is now in her own world. She extends her arm and looks for the vein. She has done this many times before to her patients. But, she shutters at the thought of sticking the needle into her own body. She finds the vain. Still crying, she drives the needle in and then empties its contents into her vain. She has done it; injected herself with enough propofol to put her to sleep forever. She drops the syringe on the floor and looks down at the wedding ring on her finger. As she sobs, she pulls the ring off her finger, looks at it one last time and then throws it into the cardboard box. The other full bottle of propofol falls on the floor and rolls under the bed.

As the sedative begins to take effect, Beti finds pictures of her children. She climbs into bed, lies down and places the pictures on her chest. Her eyes are heavy. Things begin to spin around her. As she drifts off into dream land under the sedative, the last thing she remembers is the door opening. She could barely hear Tina crying and shouting, "Mummy, mummy, wat na iu duim ia? Mummy, muuuummmmyy ... " But, Tina's voice fades away. It's too late. Beti is gone. The letter about Tome's debt lies beside her.

Three days later, Beti is lying in bed in the Intensive Care Unit at the National Referral Hospital. She is alive and sleeping, but the doctors are not sure if she will make it. She hasn't woken up for three days. After Tina found her, she called the hospital, but there was no ambulance so they got a neighbor to take her the hospital in his car. The doctors, all of whom knew Beti as a nurse, worked hard on her. They stabilized her. So, there she is, lying peacefully in a hospital bed with no certainty she will live. A tube runs from a large oxygen bottle at the head of the bed and into her mouth. Another runs from an IV bag that hangs on a pole next to the bed and to a needle that is inserted in her arm, right where she had injected herself three days earlier.

Sitting on a stool on her bed side is Tina, her fifteen-year-old daughter. Her eyes are red and puffed-up from days of crying and lack of sleep. She has her arms around her sister, Stella, who sits on her lap looking at her mother. On the mat on the floor next to the bed lies Edi, asleep. The kids had not left their mother's bed side since they took her in on Sunday afternoon. Tina went back to the house only briefly on Sunday night to pick up clean clothes for them. The room is quiet. Tina is in deep thought. She might have to drop out of high school to look after her siblings. She holds back the urge to cry openly in front of her younger siblings. She has to be strong.

Suddenly, Stella taps Tina's arm and then points to their mother. Tina looks. Their mother's eyelids move slightly. Tina wipes her eyes to make sure she could see properly. She sees it again. Her heart beats fast. She touches Beti's motionless hand. She doesn't know whether to cry or laugh. Slowly, as though with much labor, Beti opens her eyes and then shuts them again. Tina shakes her mother's hand. Stella is still sitting on her lap.
"Mummy, mummy, mifala long hia." Beti struggles to open her eyes. Tina knows her mother could hear her. Her lips are trembling. She is crying with joy. "Mummy wek ap. Mifala trifala long hia," she says again.
"Wat ia?" Edi asks as he quickly gets up from the mat on the floor.
"Mummy hem lelebet wek ap ba," Tina says with a cracked voice.
"Mummy, wek ap," Edi says as he stands beside the bed looking at their mother. As the children watch, Beti opens her eyes again. At first she can hardly see. Then as her eyes focus and things become clearer, she sees her children looking down at her. She smiles. Then tears roll down the side of her eyes. She squeezes Tina's hand to say that she is back. The kids start crying. A nurse comes rushing in, then a doctor. Soon, the room is full of Beti's colleagues. The children are overjoyed.

A day later, Beti can now sit up and eat. The kids had gone home, taken showers, freshen up, and are back at the hospital, next to their mother's bed. The four are alone.
"Mummy, mifala laik talem iu nomoa . . ." Tina begins, but she chokes and cries. Beti takes her three children in her arms. They cry together. "Mifala laik talem iu nomo dat . . ." Tina continues, "Daddy hem dae." She cries aloud. "Hem dringkim chloroquine den hem dae long haus." Together the four cry. No body says anything.

Tome came home on Sunday evening, drunk as usual. The neighbors told him that his wife was taken to the hospital after attempting to commit suicide. But, he was too drunk and went straight to bed. That was the evening Tina came home to pick up clean clothes for her and her two young siblings. She found the second bottle of propofol under the bed and the syringe on the floor. The next morning a relative found Tome's lifeless body in bed. An empty chloroquine bottle was found in one hand. In the other hand they found the letter from Kaoni.

That evening, as the children are about to leave the hospital, Tina goes up to her mother. The other two are waiting in the corridor.
"Mummy," she begins as she holds her mother's hand. "Mi bonem na cardboard box ba ia."
"Hem oraet," Beti responds.
"O nara samting moa," Tina says, looking into her mother's eyes. She reaches in the bag she is carrying and takes out an empty bottle of propofol and a 10cc syringe. "Mi faendem andanit bed long Sunday night," She says. "Mi nilam daddy . . ." she begins and then stops. Her lips are trembling as she embraces her mother. Beti takes her daughter in her arms. There is no need to say anything else. They both understand.