The editor and his deputy sat in the bar of Port Moresby airport. What was usually a chore, an obligation, had turned into something else – an outing, an escape from the office on an impossibly hot and humid day to the comfort of a lounge that offered impossibly cold beer.
The bar of the Port Moresby airport was in fact known to be the only air-conditioned space in the whole of the country and the editor and his deputy had up until that point not recognised its significance.
They were at the airport to meet and greet a new recruit to the Post-Courier, a young lad from Tasmania who had answered the newspaper’s advertisement for an experienced sub-editor a few months previously.
The young journalist, Michael West, was in fact not that experienced but reading his application the editor had decided on the spot that he would do. It had been one of only two, the second from a New Zealander working in Dunedin known to be an ageing alcoholic.
At the airport bar, the Post-Courier top brass sipped beers in cool comfort and looked out of the expansive windows to the single runway that stretched as far as the eye could see before vanishing in a shimmering blanket of steam and heat. They should have been there yesterday, waiting for the young journalist to step from the Boeing 727 from Sydney, to give him a firm handshake and a hello, but just as they were about to leave for the airport in the editor’s Peugeot 404, windows down and whirling fan on the dashboard, they had received a telegram. It was from the young journalist who said that because of delays along the route from Tasmania he had missed a vital connection and would not be arriving until the next day.
Michael West had told a white lie in the telegram, a white lie that had been built on a partial truth. The young West had not in fact been making the long journey, involving three flights, in one day. The young West had left Tasmania a day earlier so that he could meet up with young friends in Melbourne and spend a night with them, something he might not be able to do for the two years of his contact in Port Moresby. They, like him, had also left the Mercury newspaper in Hobart seeking, if not fame and fortune, a life of adventure in journalism beyond what they termed “Slowbart” could offer. On their travels, West’s friends had only got as far as Melbourne, while West had a far more distant horizons in mind.
Many Cascade and Boag’s beers had been drunk during the evening, West determined to take his fill of his favourite Tasmanian ales which, like the camaraderie of his Tasmanian mates, would be unavailable for the two years, and possibly longer, he would be away. It had not intended, however, to go on to a St Kilda club and carry on drinking with his friends there.
West, staggering back to his hotel at midnight, had the good sense to arrange a 6am alarm call so he could shower, dress, get his things together and make the airport in time for the 8.30am flight. Despite a hangover, as bumpy and painful as a Boeing 727 hitting turbulence over the Coral Sea, West had surprised himself with his success in making the airport in good time to check in for his flight to Sydney where he would make a connection toPort Moresby.
However, under the weight of his over-indulgence the night before, West had dozed off and had not heard the captain’s announcement that they were descending toSydney, had not felt the sudden descent of the aircraft, or the bump as its wheels bounced along the runway on landing. He also didn’t notice the doors being opened, passengers stretching for their overhead luggage, and the doors being close again for the departure for the flight’s final stop, Brisbane.
It was only on arrival in the Queensland capital that an air attendant woke him gently, announcing that they were at their destination, and the young West, horrified, had realised that he should have gotten off at its last stop.
A mild panic gripped West as he booked the next direct flight available to Port Moresby, next day, and concocted his story about the flight delays along the route hoping the editor would not twig that other factors were involved.
When West finally queued to board the flight to Port Moresby he was gripped by anxiety, fearing the editor might have in fact tumbled the ruse, had checked all the flights from Tasmania to Melbourne, to Sydney, to Port Moresby to see if his new employee was telling the truth.
Such was the lingering hangover from the previous day – distilled, brewed, fermented now into alcoholic remorse – that West convinced himself that the editor had learned of the lie, knew his recruit had missed a flight because of drink. West now thought he might well be handed a message typed on paper with a Post-Courier letterhead, signed by the editor, telling him to head straight back to Australia, his services were no longer required.
It was a time when there were plenty of newspaper jobs and plenty of journalists to fill them, especially sub-editors who could ply their trade across the English-speaking world, and the young journalist West was convinced the editor had received replies from all over the globe, from sub-editors as far apart as Wolverhampton in the English Midlands, Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon or Mount Isa closer to home. As it happened, that hadn’t been the case. A newly-independent Papua New Guinea, with the uncertainties which had plagued many other nations emerging from colonial rule, and its sultry and oppressive heat, did not make the fledgling nation an attractive option for the travelling wordsmith, especially as there were newspapers in more romantic places looking for sub-editors, like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Nairobi, all with air-conditioned offices.
Back at the airport, the editor was into his fourth or fifth beer, marvelling at how a bar could be so agreeable, so refreshing, so cool without the big, swirling fans suspended from the ceilings of all Papua New Guinea’s enclosed public spaces, and offices, and homes. These fans, in the editor’s opinion, which he repeated after each beer, merely served to swirl and stir hot air, or move it from one point in a room to another.
So agreeable was the atmosphere of the bar, and so cool and refreshing its beer, so interesting the conversation about air-conditioning, fans or otherwise, that the editor was in danger of being seduced by the bar’s ambience, its friendly chatter, and the attractive barmaid in low-cut white blouse – a budding Papua New Guinean netball star – serving the beers, bending to reach for new glasses so a firm cleavage was on display for all the patrons who cared to look.
It was clear that it would be easy for anyone in such a convivial environment, taking refuge from a hot and humid tropical day, to forget why they had gone to the airport in the first place.
As West’s flight neared Port Moresby, his two-day hangover began to ease and he was pleased at least that he would be clear of speech and eye if his new employer was indeed at the airport to greet him.
The sun was bright and hot when the rear door of the aircraft was finally opened. The jet’s passengers blinked and shielded their eyes but the young journalist gazed about him to the palm trees and distant, hazy hills. Along with his hand luggage, he carried an expression of both awe and anxiety.
Once in the arrivals lounge, West looked about him again, this time trying to seek out the editor who, in the original letter confirming his appointment, said he would be on hand to greet him. He looked at white faces, and then black faces, expecting a smile and someone to step forward and say, “Ah, you must be Mr West,” but the words never came.
Vainly, he looked for his name on pieces of cardboard held by Papua New Guinean drivers, thinking that the editor might have sent a chauffer instead.
West waited a good hour – perhaps the editor had been held up and was running late? – and finally he hailed a taxi on a rank outside the airport building to take him intoPort Moresby. West had no idea where the newspaper’s offices were located but the driver said he knew, everybody knew the Post-Courier.
After keeping the taxi diver waiting in town while he hastily exchanged Australian dollars for kina, West took his bags from the boot and with some trepidation made his way into the newspaper offices, being directed past reception to the first-floor newsroom where he sought out the editor’s secretary.
“Is the editor available?” he asked gingerly, looking towards the empty office with the words “editor” engraved on the frosted pane of its open door.
“Oh no,” said the secretary without looking up from her typing. “He’s at the airport meeting a new recruit. A young chap I believe fromAustraliawho should have been here yesterday.”