In Hot Water
(By JLeahy 11.2.2014)
I caked my face. Covering it with a pale brownish mud mask, I worked my way from the top down. Soaking my hands in water to glide the muddy consistency, I spread the mask thickly down my chin and neck, avoiding my eyes and nostrils and lips.
The mud mixture, an old New Zealand-made Nutrimetics face mask, felt cool and soothing. It stank like a familiar dried river bank. The smell did not bother me. Each second the mud started drying, it cracked visible veins across my nose, cheeks, brow and neck. The cracked mud also stretched my face in all directions like something out of Sci Fi. The mask felt dry and prickly.
I glanced into the mirror. In place of my reflection was an aged stranger. I had thought of this person in my head many times. Now, I was slowly bringing her to life. It was a very cold July evening, 1981 in the Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. I was in Year Eleven.
Here in this dormitory in the cold weather, it was rare to have a luxury of warm shower. For almost six months I washed in freezing water every morning and night.
Usually I would see steam escaping and feel the heat as I queued into the shower. When I got in, only cold water would run down. At this same time, I would hear other girls next door cursing and I knew the hot water has run out again!
Tonight I did not feel 100 percent. I desperately needed a hot shower. I did not go to study period and once the bell went, I rose from my single metal bed and got into the shower. I had enjoyed every drop of my warm shower before I started applying the cake on my face. It has been almost two hours since I got out of the shower.
I starred at the stranger and smiled knowingly at what was about to happen.
The temperature dropped sharply. The timing was perfect for the person in the mirror to emerge. I added some mud to her lips and cracked it when I smiled. I had planned to make this person reflected in the mirror; look dead but alive. I had only a few minutes left to complete her make-up.
I rinsed my muddy hand and gently nudged out a piece of soft gold and silver foil from my right pocket. It was the inside of the Benson and Hedges cigarette packaging. I found this gem outside the Biology classroom this afternoon, rinsed it and pocketed it. What a fine finish this “metal leaf” would add to the mirrored person’s make-up, I thought. I quickly moulded the silver side of the foil onto my teeth with the gold side was showing.
I checked myself in the mirror. I grinned. I looked like the giant Jaws in James Bond films. I looked strange but not nasty!
Jaws got the name from his steel teeth that are able to bite through different kinds of materials. The character was played by actor Richard Kiel. I thought even though I now looked ugly like Jaws, my teeth were too neat. That wasn’t what I had wanted. I needed something more sinister.
I reached for my black eyebrow pencil. I coloured over the foil on three random teeth and blackened them. In the evening light, the blackened teeth disappeared. The stranger in the mirror started to look like an old witch with a few teeth.
With the same pencil, I dabbed firmly under my eyes and smudged dark grey shadows, like bags. These smudges gave my light brown skin a dull and decayed look. Then with the Johnson Baby Powder, I quickly dropped a splash of talcum on my hair to add at least 50 years to my age. With the pencil again, I finished off with some lines down my cheeks to the corners of my lips. I drew in a pair of crow’s feet on the edges of my eyes. I made a weird frown and traced where the rest of the wrinkles went. I pulled my hair back in a tight knot. This enhanced the severity in my expression.
I looked at the clock feeling its hurry in the ticking. It was almost 9pm and the study. The period would end in seconds. I felt the temperature plummeting and knew ice has formed on the hilltops. At any moment, the Year Eleven girls at Aiyura National High School would rush out of their classrooms and thunder down the hills. The rush was to get into the showers first, enjoy and linger under the hot showers.
The bell was going to go in any second I thought to myself.
I reached up to grab my thick knitted black cotton cloth I bought in a Lae second –hand shop. The bell went. I wrapped myself. Then quickly I slipped out of my 2 x 3 metre cubicle I shared in the Year Eleven Girls’ dormitory and headed for its shower block. Carefully I placed my steps on the wet floor so I would not slip or make a noise. The shower block was about 8 metres from my room.
Energised by my hot shower earlier, I was refreshed and ready. I positioned myself at the edge of the laundry, facing the doorway to the shower block. Through the dark laundry door, a gust of wind hit me with a stench from the sewerage. I hugged my black cloak completely around me and ignored the smell. The only visible part of me was my face. The face was also the stranger, I had created minutes ago.
As I waited, my mind counted events of the last three hours. I had told the duty teacher I was sick and stayed in my room. I enjoyed a quiet meal of bully (canned meat) and Morobe biscuit and had the best, hottest and longest shower ever. This had been the only hot shower I had since I left my hot, humid city of Lae. I was not cut out for boarding school and the cold in Kainantu was miserable. Aiyura in the hills of Kainantu was one of the coldest places in PNG. In the past six months, the cold showers were unbearable. November was the warmest with an average temperature of 23.9 °C at noon. July was the coldest with an average temperature of 10.2 °C at night. Aiyura had no distinct temperature seasons; the temperature was relatively constant during the year. However, the temperatures dropped sharply at night, just like tonight.
Suddenly my thoughts were cut with the sharp noise of running feet. The stomping got louder with giggles and shouting as they got nearer. The sound intensified. It vibrated like a herd of elephants approaching a waterhole. The Year Eleven girls hit the garden beds and raced down the hillside. They burst through the dormitory doors. I heard books and bags thrown recklessly on the floor and beds. Towels were yanked off wall nails and curtain rails. The girls raced, pushing one in front of the other to fit through the doors.
We all knew too well, the hot water did not run for long. Only the first girls to get in got warm shower.
I moved into position. I only needed one person to see me and at this thought I grinned.
At that same moment I heard a shocking gasp so close to me and caught a glimpse of a girl named Thecla. Her face dropped in a horrific expression as she reversed from the doorway.
Thecla had sneaked in first and had surprised me and herself. Turning in horror, Thecla started screaming and running down the hallway to the exit door: Tewel! Tewel! Tewel! (Devil! Devil! Devil!) “Devil! Devil!, Mi lukim tewel. I saw the devil!” she screamed again as she ran up the hill.
As Thecla rushed out and crashed into other girls behind her, her fear rippled through their emotions. These girls turned and ran out screaming the same thing in a chant. “Devil devil, we saw the devil.
I knew at that point, apart from Thecla, only two other girls may have seen me. Not all. But, I heard a lot of screaming and running.
The shower, laundry as well as the dorm emptied in just a few minutes. The noise shifted outside rapidly. I eased the “stranger” back into my cubicle, wiped off the make up and cleaned my face with a wet towel. I covered myself into a sleeping position. The “stranger” was gone.
From my warm bed I listened to more screaming and confusion outside. If only I could have had some champagne through a drip to celebrate, I thought. But I had not drunk alcohol yet so I imagined the taste of champagne. I wanted to laugh out loud. I could not. I smiled and closed my eyes with satisfaction.
By now the boys ran down from their dormitories to help. The duty teacher and deputy principal, Graham Darby came with all the prefects to investigate. The screaming of “devil” went to “prowler” “rascals” and other things. There was even a claim that the residential ghost, a young lady who died in the dormitory years ago had returned. I could hear people surrounding our dorms. Torches were flashing across our curtains. There were footsteps walking and running with urgency through the thick grass. The search continued for another half hour. Others searched in our agriculture class rhubarb garden and in the stinky drain.
“Let’s go! There is nothing”, I heard a male voice with finality. Nothing had been found and everyone were tired and longed for the warmth of the dormitories. It was freezing outside. Some girls were too afraid to shower that night. Everyone went to bed. I looked outside and once again, the chill and the blackness of the night engulfed the remains of the day and the shape and colour of everything.
Days went by and school returned to normal. Everyone in our dorm was cautious of the shower block and ironically many of the regular hot shower “queens” became considerate of others.
One night as we sat together to a meal, my friends started discussing the ‘Devil in the Shower Block” incident. They all agreed that it was a hoax. I was very quiet. Someone had asked me where I was the night the incident happened. This question brought up other prodding questions about my whereabouts on the night of the ‘crime’.
Soon my friends agreed that and if anyone could pull off such a hoax and bring the school to its knees, it would have been me. I denied the accusation. My friends were not convinced that I was too sick to do anything. The fact that I had been alone in the dorm that night did not save me. A few days later, they got the whole story out of me. I told my friends the truth to so much laughter and each of us joining in to re-enact of the events of the night. Because our rooms were only divided by cloth, other Year Eleven girls heard the story and reported me. Next day, the deputy Principal Mr Darby called me into his office. I had never been called into the deputy or the principal’s office before and prepared myself for the worst.
Darby asked why such a student like me could do something like that. The thought of finally tarnishing my record made me want to smile but underneath, I could picture my mother’s face.
“I just wanted to have a hot shower”, I told Mr Darby the truth. I looked at his face. His blue steel eyes held mine and I knew my reason sounded ridiculous.
Mr Darby reprimanded me and recalled the story of “The Boy Who Called Wolf”.
The significance of this story to my hoax was because in our school, Aiyura, the students and staff members often got attacked by nearby villagers. That night when the Grade Eleven Girls were screaming, Mr Darby had thought we were being attacked.
“I understand that story and I am sorry about my actions”, I said to Darby.
I looked at Mr Darby, expecting him to expel me from school.
Darby sat there looking back at me for a long time – then; he laughed out loud and asked me to not ever do something like that again.