The kid downstairs warbled his little song as he went over to the tree and assessed his best chances of success: Get some mangooo. Get some mangooo. Then, grasping a long stick, he started bashing some of the low-hanging clusters. He was a small kid and the stick was cumbersome and long, so the work was hard (for him) but comical (for an observer, like me). Eventually his efforts were rewarded. Two or three of the plump green fruits plopped to the ground heavily.
That was just over a year ago. The kid’s family have gone back to Wapenamanda and have been replaced by another from Ialibu (say it quickly: Yal-ee-boo). The mango tree is still there, next to the back fence, and is in fruit again. There are two literal mango seasons in Moresby, while a third is deployed by conversationalists to describe a different kind of seasonal occurrence. The first season happens around September or October, but it is just a tease, a week or two of mangoes found at the market but that’s it. The trees save their best until the second season, which we are in the midst of now, where for many weeks leading up to Christmas the fruit is plentiful. The streets are littered by half-ripe, partially-eaten mangoes. Many streets have mango trees by the roadside, belonging to nobody in particular, the fruit waiting for a hungry passer-by. They are often plucked when only partially ripe and eaten that way, firm and tart, or carried home to slowly sweeten and soften. Being a wild strain quite different to the Woolworths or Coles varieties, they are usually green even when ripe, and a bit stringy. A favourite sight is of little kids, barely stable on their own feet, grasping a mango half the size of their own head and shoving the half-peeled fruit messily into their mouths, sucking away as best as they can with their toothless gobs, bare chins and chests slippery with sticky juice and bits of yellow flesh.
The third mango season coincides with the second, and describes the heightened state of “fruitiness” that pervades Port Moresby leading up to Christmas. More money floating around (for air fares home, gifts, Christmas indulgences) means a rise in robberies, car-jackings, and hold-ups. I am told that the more nefarious inhabitants of Six Mile stick nails in mangoes and leave them on the road out to Loloata, to rupture tyres and force vehicles to stop in the settlement, easy prey. The whole town gets a bit more feral and febrile than usual. Mid-December is a good time to get out.
The local mangoes tend to be smaller, and are cheaply bought at markets. There is another strain, far more expensive, but worth the extra kina. These are the long, fat, almost-bean-like mangoes that people call “Rabaul Mangoes” (I don’t think they grow exclusively in East New Britain, perhaps they did originally). While about five times more expensive they render mountains of extra flesh. They are sweet and smooth in the mouth. They are perfect.
You may question why, with a mango tree only a few metres from our door, we bother with mangoes from the market. For one, they are not Rabaul Mangoes. Second, the families downstairs (the current Southern Highlanders and the previous Engans) tend to monopolise the harvest, along with the other kids in the compound. We have become accustomed to seeing barely-chewed mangoes strewn about the place, denied their chance to ripen (and our chance to eat them) by kids using them as balls or missiles in their raucous late afternoon games. When their mothers put them to work they get hold of sticks and bash at the lower-hanging fruit, while the bigger kids clamber up the trunk and shake branches, instigating small heavy showers. The little kids look up at the branches expectantly, trying to pick the fruit that will weaken and fall first, then dart without fear of the plummetting objects to claim them with yells of triumph and excitement.
At times we grumble at the lack of sharing, but the fact is that if we don’t go and claim them the mangoes won’t climb the stairs to us. The Engan kids, however, did work out we liked them and sometimes spared us a few from time to time. They worked out our taste for mangoes because one day I decided to climb the tree and get some of my own. The cleft in the trunk is low and it was easy to scramble up. Once up, I started peering through branches to spot the ripest fruits to clamber up for. My studies of the branches distracted me from what was around my feet – that is, a few dozen big red ants. Bracing myself with one hand I lifted a leg to brush them off, only to have another dozen or so ants crawl over my hand and up my arms. I realised I had ants inside my shirt and in my hair. And they were biting. Although these big red ants are not as aggressive as their smaller cousins, they nonetheless had no love for me invading their tree. I tried steeling myself and making a swift climb to grab a fruit or two, but every foothold and branch had more ants waiting to jump on board. Defeated, I climbed down. The three Engan kids were waiting at the bottom of the tree, the two youngest silent with their massive brown eyes, puzzled at this rare sight. The eldest brushed the ants off my arms, legs and back, then helped me pick the ants from my beard, hair and eyebrows, with the youngsters observing from a small distance, quiet and transfixed. Afterwards it just seemed a lot less bother for everyone for them to bring me a mango every now and then.