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Postcards from Ka’anapali



















The horse-drawn cab rolled to a halt in the darkened street and Arabella Syme clambered out, dragging her hatbox from the seat behind her. In yellow light cast by a street lamp draped in cobwebs, she caught sight of a long greasy stain across her new evening dress and dirt on the palm of one glove.

She set down the hatbox and looked around. Moonlight gleamed on warehouse walls and barred windows, and cast shadows over two thatch-roofed houses set in overgrown gardens. At the edge of the streetlamp’s glow stood a two storey façade of faded yellow shingles and a sign: Aloha Inn-clean towels, hot water, modest tariffs, vacancy. A slash of black paint obscured the word hot.

Her brother appeared, scowling as he closed his wallet, his evening attire resplendent beside the vehicle’s shabbiness. Arabella picked up the hatbox and clasped it tightly while she directed a suspicious look at the hotel sign now creaking in a warm breeze. According to the travel agent at the better end of Flinders Street in Melbourne, the port of Honolulu was the most delightful town in the whole Pacific, but less than a day after she and her brother had stepped off the steamer, nothing was going to plan. ‘Why are we here, Robert?’ she said.

Grasping her elbow, he hurried her across cracked tiles and up wide steps flanked by two mildewed lions to a front door propped open with a boot scraper. ‘Don’t dawdle, Bella,’ he said, nudging her forward when she hesitated on the threshold. ‘The hotel office shuts at midnight and it’s five minutes to the hour.’

A bald man wearing an eyeshade and a limp bow tie peered at them across the reception desk. He produced a well-thumbed register and an ink well. ‘Aloha, folks,’ he said, ‘sign here.’

Arabella reluctantly set her hatbox down on the stained carpet and surveyed their surroundings while she straightened her corsage. Dark panelling lined the lobby and a narrow staircase led upwards to the second storey; old newspapers lay strewn across a table in an untidy heap and a broken umbrella leaned against a potted aspidistra. On the wall above the shiny head of the manager who was pushing a new nib into his pen, a peeling sign read no spitting, no swearing, no dogs, no credit.

She glared at her eldest brother’s bent head while he wrote their names. Robert Trafford-Syme, her chaperone on the long voyage from Port Melbourne, had been abrupt and overbearing since that dreadful argument with a French naval officer barely an hour earlier and now, without any reasonable explanation, he had dragged her here from their charming beachside suite to what appeared to be a disreputable hotel. If Aunt Muriel found out, she would be furious.

‘Rooms Two and Five,’ said the manager. ‘Best we got, $2 an hour.’ When the newcomer slid thirty dollars across the worn desktop, his eyebrows rose for a moment before he rolled the notes and pushed them into a cashbox. He turned the register sideways. ‘Australia? You sure have travelled far. Mr Trafford-Syme and…and…err, Miss Syme.’

‘The keys if you please,’ said Robert, ‘and we do not wish to be disturbed. For any reason.’

Tilting his eyeshade, the manager inspected his new guest’s silk cravat and white evening shirt and when his glance shifted to Arabella’s ruched blue satin and four strands of pearls, his expression slid from incredulous to sly. ‘Yessir,’ he said with a smirk. ‘No visitors.’

Robert leaned closer to him. ‘Breakfast at seven-thirty, on the dot.’

The manager held up two keys between tobacco-stained fingers. ‘Don’t do breakfast here. Flamingo Café on the corner is closest.’ He smiled showing gold inlays. ‘Aloha, folks, have a nice stay.’

Arabella trailed after her brother up the creaking stairs clutching her hatbox and holding her filmy skirt and petticoats clear of the treads. ‘Wait, Robert,’ she called, refusing to go further. ‘Why have we come here? It’s miles from anywhere and not very clean.’ His tall figure ascended to the landing as if she had not spoken and she leaned against the wall, a pulse beating in her ears. Since her childhood, she had learned never to question Robert, her senior by seventeen years and chairman of their family company Symes Medicinals, custodian of the Trafford-Syme trust accounts, and knowledgeable about everything. But Robert had been acting strangely ever since that awful scene in front of irate hotel guests and she wanted answers. ‘Robert, we have left an ocean-view bungalow in the Hau Tree Guest House without any reason and we came away in such a rush that I have no walking shoes or clean stockings. What is this about? Is it because of that dreadful Frenchman who shouted at us?’

Her brother placed his suitcase on the landing and descended three steps until he loomed over her. ‘Keep your voice down, Bella. Do you want to wake every sleeping guest? That officer was drunk, didn’t you notice? I have already explained to you. His ship is in difficulty with Customs officials over warehouse consignments. Smuggled rum I suspect.’ He shrugged. ‘These Hawaiian Islands are notorious for rum smuggling.’

‘But what’s that to do with us? I wanted to see the hula demonstration and fire twirling on the beach. And why must we stay here when we have comfortable beds and—‘

He held up a warning hand. ‘Enough! Do you want to stand on a draughty wharf in darkness explaining who we are to blundering Customs officers? Because a drunken Frenchman has a grievance? Do you?’

Arabella dropped her gaze to a faded print of hibiscus flowers hanging crookedly on the far wall. ‘No, no! Of course not!’

‘Very well, let’s go to our rooms. Remember we are foreigners here in Hawaii, Bella, and standards here are inferior to those we are accustomed to in Melbourne. Being foreign, we are regarded with suspicion, and risk being exploited by corrupt officials and local scoundrels. We cannot be too careful. You must leave everything to me, my dear. Tomorrow, we will embark on the ferry for Ka’anapali on Maui Island and this unfortunate episode will be a fading memory. Here, dear girl, take your key.’

Ten minutes later, Arabella lit the lamp and pushed open the only window to air a room sour with the smells of tobacco smoke, spilt rum and other mingled odours too vile for any respectable young lady’s nose. Rummaging in her hatbox, she took out the vial of lavender water from her evening bag and shook its contents over the thin towel on the wash-stand, across the faded carpet square and into folds of mosquito netting tied above the bed. Then she shook out her crumpled dress and petticoat and hung them on the wardrobe.  Scratching at an itch on her elbow, she sat on the bed and frowned. Tomorrow morning, she would be forced to wear un-ironed clothes, dirty gloves, a collarless dress and satin evening shoes. With a sigh, she unrolled her stockings and hung them over the bed-end; she had never worn dirty stockings before in her life but she could not appear in public with bare legs, and at this late hour she could not wash her smalls in the basin at the end of the hall.

She stared gloomily at the postcard view of Waikiki Beach that she had propped against the grimy pillow. Apart from the Windsor Hotel where she often took tea with her aunt, her only experience of a public hotel had been three nights at a grand suite in Ballarat reputed to have been occupied by Dame Nellie Melba during an Australian tour. Aunt Muriel had complained that the sheets were not starched and that a sixpenny surcharge for posting letters was outrageously expensive. What would Aunt Muriel make of the Aloha Inn?

She picked at a broken finger nail, deep in thought. Robert’s explanation for why they had rushed to this decrepit hotel did not make sense at all but she was too tired to recall the sequence of events clearly.

There had been no hint of trouble until that rude French naval officer had interrupted their dinner in the elegant dining room of the Hau Tree Guest House. She had been enjoying an exotic cocktail and admiring graceful native dancing girls draped in flowers when he had sat at their table uninvited.  He had been so agitated and had gabbled so quickly that she had barely followed what he was saying, something about a shipment being delayed. From what she could understand, Customs officers had sealed all warehouses in Honolulu and were checking every consignment. And he had mentioned a General Someone. What was that about?

After the Frenchman had been escorted away by waiters amid muttered complaints from guests at nearby tables, Robert had explained that Customs men often checked warehouses in Hawaii to catch illegal shipments of rum. ‘But what has smuggling to do with us?’ she had whispered behind her hand.  ‘Why has this officer approached us and behaved so shamefully?’

While she had finished her drink, Robert had whispered to their waiter and passed him a ten dollar note. They had not stayed until the end of the show and within the hour, he had hustled her away down a gravelled drive to where a taxicab waited in a dark clump of trees. If he were not her brother, she would have said he was behaving like the villain in a moving picture but that was such a fanciful exaggeration that she should put it out of her mind.

She would close the window and try to ignore discordant singing and guitar playing from the thatched house across the lane. If she hid her pearls in her shoe, rolled back the bedcovers and wrapped a towel around the pillow, she could sleep in her evening clothes although her new corset was laced so tightly that it rubbed across her hips. And she would mail her cheery postcard message to Aunt Muriel from the ferry terminal tomorrow as if her holiday were perfect in every way. 



Postcards from Ka’anapali

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Dear Aunt Muriel,                                                     

We have arrived!                                                       

The Hau Tree Guest House is                         

very clean with all  modern                                       

conveniences. Staff welcomed us                   

with  garlands of flowers.                                        

Love, Arabella



Miss Muriel Trafford

The Elms

Alexandra Parade

South Yarra