I grew up in my own country, the son of loving parents, an average
student at my school. In my youth, I had one overbearing desire. Fire was my
whole life, and fire had a power over me like nothing else. I'm not talking
about the small fires which my grandfather showed me when I was a young
boy. I remember us sitting by the glowing embers of the fire in my
grandparents' house. He would take his stick and point at the embers and
show me the shapes he saw in his imagination. Then I would tell of some
things that I saw. One day I described a ship, travelling far away, but never
dreamed that I would ever need to take such a journey.
My fascination with fire continued as I grew older, and it came to a head as I reached the age of nineteen years. I recall a cold, winter evening. All seemed bleak. I went back to my school, remembering all that had been good and all that had been bad about that place, determining that once and for all it would be prevented from building or destroying any more young lives. It was about ten o'clock when I struck the first match and half past ten before the place was well ablaze. By one o'clock, the fire service had worked diligently and well, but in vain. The task of the fire service here was now complete, but they would soon be visiting another scene of my handiwork. The work of the police, by contrast, was just starting.
After my grandfather died, grandma grew old very quickly and was soon placed in a home. An old people's home, a retirement home, an institution, all these names mean the same, all these names mean nothing. Five years had passed since she died in that place. Seven months before this night, the home had closed its doors, switched out the lights and boarded up the windows. I went to look at it, remembering my grandma and the toast she had cooked up on the embers in my youth. The amount of bread we toasted! The butter and jam we used! The thought was more than I could bear as I lit another match.
The fire started quicker this time, and both the police and the fire service were quicker too. A few words heard on the radio news early the next morning were all the motivation I needed to pack my bags, make a visit to the bank to remove my meagre savings and leave, while I still had my freedom. Freedom is a very precious thing, even when it is no longer something one deserves, and for sure I no longer deserved to be free. I consoled myself with the thought that nobody had been hurt by my actions. Nevertheless, it was time to leave.
Recalling Jonah's actions, I went down to the port and found a ship going somewhere away from where I should have been going. Unlike Jonah, I was not troubled by a great storm, neither did God send a great fish to devour me. Instead, I entered this idyllic country where there were few formalities and little to stop me from taking up residence. Nobody asked questions, and without questions there was no need for answers.
My first determination was to find work so that I might not starve, and my second was that I would never again light a fire. I found work quickly on a plantation in one of the country's northern islands, and found that I could eat cheaply and even save a little. After eight years, I had saved enough to buy a small plantation of my own, and this I did. Once I was an owner, with workers of my own, it did not take long for me to buy a bigger one. Indeed, I was able to double the size of my company within another four years and then again after three years. It is not my place here to trouble you with the details of how this came to pass, except to assure you that my zest for life and freedom continued undiminished while I feared even the briefest tangle with the law. In short, everything I did was completely above board.
Everybody I knew saw me as a friend, though some of my closer friends thought me eccentric in that I never had any fire at all. Burning of stubble was popular, but I never did it. All the other plantation owners and most of the workers smoked heavily, but I would not allow myself even this indulgence. It was an inconvenience never to have a cooked meal, but raw food suited me well, and in any case I could afford to eat out when it suited me. It was an inconvenience never to have a warm shower, but in a tropical country such as this, a cold shower was just as effective, and saved time too.
Years passed. My only worries were mosquitoes which bit daily and employees who didn't work daily. I built up a fortune which I suspected would do me little good, for all I now knew was the life of the plantation owner, and retirement was something I never wanted to consider.
A new worry soon came upon me. A change of government led to other changes. Foreign landowners were suddenly not looked on quite so favourably as before. Successful landowners and employers were no longer the great and the good, creating employment for the local people. The new government saw them as greedy newcomers with no concern for nationals.
They may well have been right in my case, but this did not make it easy for me. Returning to my home had little appeal, for the legal authorities seemed to be long on memory and short on forgiveness. I couldn't go home, and there was nowhere else to go, and I worried as I had not worried since I was nineteen. These islands did not generally make people worry. As I said, there was usually nothing to worry about here but malaria.
The nightmare started less than two months after the government had changed. We were in one of the bars in the town. I exaggerate when I call it a town, and I exaggerate again if I have suggested that there might have been more than one bar. One of my dear friends, who had sold me some of my land and bought some of my cattle was drinking. He could certainly hold his drink, but tonight this was not the case. He was weeping and wailing as I had never seen before. As he cried, he passed around a letter printed on white paper with a jade letterhead, the most frightening letter I had ever seen.
"The Immigration Department has determined that your presence in this country is no longer welcome. You and your immediate family are required to leave within ten days of receipt of this notice." The letter was signed by the Prime Minister and the Internal Affairs Minister. There was no mistaking that it was genuine.
As Jean-Francois and his family packed their bags over the next week, there was little celebration in the town, but there was much drinking. A group of us drove to the airstrip at the weekend and watched as they left, never to return.
The following week, some men arrived at what had previously been Jean-Francois's plantation and treated it as if it were their own. They were newcomers to the area, but obviously citizens of the country. Rumours were rife that they were nephews of the Prime Minister, but nothing could ever be proved. We didn't know, we didn't much care. They didn't come and drink with us like all the other newcomers had done over the years.
Not long after the same thing happened again and Erich found that he was not welcome either. This came as a bitter blow to him, for his father and his father's mother had both been born here, yet he was no longer wanted. He owned the fourth biggest plantation in the country and showed the third biggest profit. He was always saying that, and maybe that was his undoing. He wasn't seen much in the town during his last week, but we made another trip to the airstrip, this time crying as much as before, but not just for Erich and his wife. Our tears of sorrow were tears of rage too. Not only tears of rage, but tears of fear, for who was to know which of us would be next?
With unseemly haste, the new occupants of the plantation arrived only two days after Erich had left. They kept themselves to themselves, but the same suggestions were made about them too.
In the weeks that followed, letters were received and appeals lodged and rejected as three more plantation owners found that jade letters were more to be feared than mosquitoes. By now we suspected that in time, we would all receive them.
I remember well the day I called in at the Post Office. For some reason, all these letters had arrived on a Thursday. This particular Thursday, my post office box had a slip of paper in it asking me to call at the desk for a registered letter. I did so, for though I knew what the letter would contain, I also knew that I could not avoid it forever. I was not surprised to read that the Immigration Department had finally determined that I was no longer welcome in their country. Within ten days, I too, would be on my way. I was asked to take my family too, as all the others had been, but the difference for me was that I had none. I had no family and nowhere to go.
I went back home and had a cold shower while I reviewed the situation. As I dried myself, I realised that I could afford to go anywhere I wanted, but had no desire to go anywhere. After so long, this was my home, the country I loved. Citizenship applications talked about nationality of choice in contrast to nationality of birth, but I had never applied. As I looked down at the jade letter and wondered what to do, I knew for sure that they would never have accepted me anyway. I shook my head slowly and tears came to my eyes.
Down at the drinking hole that night, I showed my letter to a dwindling group of friends, who bought me more drinks than I needed but scarcely read the letter. They knew what it said without needing to read it. In the early hours of Friday, I staggered home, and I rested quietly through the weekend, packing up a few belongings in a battered old case, preparing for the journey to another unknown country.
On Sunday, as I sat quietly and ate my bread, butter and jam, I thought fondly of my grandparents and remembered the good times. Butter and jam were the same then, but it hadn't just been bread. I decided it was time to do something. A walk to a friend's house, a walk back with a few sticks of wood and soon a small fire was blazing. Toast was the first thing for me, and although the first two slices of bread turned black before I could eat them, the next four gave their lives for the first toast I had tasted in many, many years. It was the finest toast I ever tasted. I knew I could do it.
Late in the evening, I walked quietly to the furthest corner of my plantation and lit a few matches. The grass was dry and the fire started at once. On to the next corner I strode, and repeated the process. It was a twenty minute walk to the next corner, so I started two more fires before I got there. If I couldn't derive the benefit from my plantation in future, neither could anybody else. My heart was beating faster than it had for many years by the time I reached home. Seven other owners had seen the glowing beacons on my property that night, and had realised what they meant. To their credit, not one of them had tried to stop the fire. We all sat on my balcony watching the flames leap as they brightened and warmed the starry night, while we drank and sang.
Come the morning, we slept. It was late afternoon before we ventured out and surveyed the scene. Blackened trees and grass were all around with no signs of life at all. After that, we went down to the town together. I called in to the Post Office while my friends ordered more beer, for which I was soon to be very grateful.
A new letter was waiting for me there. I ripped it open and looked at the words of the letter with the jade heading. "The Immigration Department apologises for an administrative error and wishes to state that you and your immediate family are welcome to stay in our country and conduct business until further notice."