Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
The South Pacific is a marvelous place for characters, it attracts them and magnifies them the same way it magnifies all the tales and rumors. After while I developed Willis’s Rule of Rumors, which is that you need to divide all the numbers in a story about some other island by the square root of the distance to the island in miles, because rumors are a power function of distance. In the Solomon Islands, my mad friend Mike used to say he’d pay good money for anyone to bring him a good rumor about himself. What can I say, the South Pacific attracts characters, and Mike is definitely one, and the rumors about him were legion. I wrote about him before, and about the bar in the Gizo Hotel, in a post called “In Which I Talk To The Thunderstorms”
Figure 1. The Gizo Hotel, in Western Province, Solomon Islands. The bar is the big area with the long open-air window overlooking the harbor on the second floor of the large building. The hotel dock is at the lower right. SOURCE
Now, some South Pacific stories are so good that they get referred to in capital letters even when spoken. And the only thing Mike liked better than hearing the latest outrageous rumor about what he was supposed to have done, was to start one about someone else. The best rumor that Mike, with a bit of my humble assistance, sent rolling out around the islands was the story of Wally and his Custom Bride. It all started out quite innocuously. We had a dear friend named Wally, a great, roly-poly bearded bear of a man whose motto was “We’re not put here on Earth to see what we can do without!”. He had come down to Gizo from Bougainville after the balloon went up and the revolt was underway, on a small power boat called the “Lucky Seven”, accompanied by the daughter of a Papua New Guinean friend who was also fleeing the violence. In addition to the “Lucky 7”, he had a sailboat.
Last time I saw Wally, I ran into him some years later in Ponape. He’d just pulled into the harbor, he’d brought the sailboat back from the Philippines. His boat looked trim, sails snugged, he had a couple of water-casks lashed to the gunwales by the cockpit.
After I’d settled down in the cockpit and we were talking, he took a small cup, put it under the spigot of a water-cask, and ran it half full. He handed it to me … it was rum. He explained that when he’d left Manila, he went to fill up his water tanks, and he realized that they were charging more for the water than for the local rum … so he’d taken just enough water to keep a man alive, filled up all the rest of his tanks with rum, and sailed away. He made it to Ponape Harbor with about two quarts of water left, and about thirty-five gallons of rum. He said the customs never suspected that both the water casks and some of the water tanks held rum, and that Wally didn’t use the faucet up forward to brush his teeth …
Anyhow, one night me and Mike were drinking at the Gizo Hotel Bar with Recifi and Arturo, her boyfriend. The South Pacific attracts characters, and Recifi was no exception. She was Chinese, the daughter of a Singapore washer-woman, and she had somehow escaped the gutter. She spoke four languages, maybe more, including fluent Italian and English, and was the long-time girlfriend of an Italian man who was traveling in his sailboat through the South Pacific.
Recifi was smart and gregarious, always interested in the folks around her and what they were up to. She knew and liked Wally. And she and her boyfriend were sitting there in the Gizo Hotel Bar one night with Mike and me and talking story. Recifi was facing the harbor. She looked out from the bar at the hotel dock and pointed and said, “Who’s that girl just leaving the dock with Wally in the Lucky 7?”. Mike and I looked up. Wally’s boat was just pulling away from the dock, with Wally at the helm, and in the second seat was a lovely young woman.
Now, Mike and I both knew that Wally was taking the daughter of some local Solomon Island friends of ours across to another island to visit relatives. So Mike gave me a kind of warning look and said kind of casually “Oh, Wally bought himself a custom bride”. Hey, it could have happened, Mike himself probably had to pay some kind of bride price when he’d married Gracie a decade before. It’s still quite common in the islands.
There was a pause. Recifi looked at me questioningly. I nodded and backed Mikes play, said I was as surprised as anyone when I heard the news about Wally’s custom bride, which at least had the advantage of being true … and I wondered whether Recifi would rise to the bait.
Mike went on to talk about how we all were taken aback when Wally told us. Recifi played with that topic a bit, but I could see her struggling with her unasked question. She knew the question was impolite as hell to ask, so she kind of tiptoed around it for a while, hinting. But Mike refused all her hints and gambits, he just kept calmly discussing unimportant stuff as if everything important had already been said.
Finally, despite speaking fluent English and Italian, Recifi’s Chinese blood won out, and as Mike had figured, after talking about various things for a while, Recifi said kind of casually, “Mmmm … did you happen to hear how much bride price Wally paid for her?”
I could only bow my head in admiration at how it was playing out.
Figure 2. Solomon Islands women wearing shell money. SOURCE
Well, of course, Mike had seen that one coming, he’d been frantically ginning up the fake details in his head as she waffled. So he spoke as knowledgeably about the length and beauty of the strands of custom shell money Wally had paid, and the number of pigs, and how many piles of yams Wally had to pay as bride price, as if they were actually real and he had actually seen them. He claimed that Wally had gone so far as to buy some of the extremely rare feather money to seal the deal, and paid through the nose for it too, it was hard to find.
Figure 3. Solomon Islands feather money. SOURCE
And in a lovely final piece of misdirection intended to obscure the obvious gaping holes in his tale, Mike lowered his voice and confided that he hated to speak ill of his good friend Wally, but in his opinion, Wally had way overpaid for his new bride. Not money, Wally was too smart to give any money, it was a customary payment deal, but all the goods! All the pigs! All the yams? Way too much.
And of course, that was a language that Recifi definitely understood, so she commiserated with us about how poor Wally had been taken advantage of. Mike said that kind of thing often happens to unsuspecting white men, and usually it’s not the girl’s fault, it’s her unscrupulous relatives, and the story just got better. Mostly I just stood on the sidelines and watched the master at work, and served as his stage assistant, nodding my head and agreeing at all the appropriate times.
So the evening wound down. Recifi and Arturo went back to their Italian sailboat, they were sailing off to the capital, Honiara, the next day. I took the company skiff and went back to the island I lived on, Mike went home up the hill from the bar. Wally was heading for Honiara himself in a couple of days.
And then a couple of weeks went by while Mike and I waited for the other shoe to drop.
As things in the South Pacific often work out, I happened to be drinking with Mike in the Gizo Hotel Bar once again when Wally came back to town from Honiara. Both Mike and I saw him coming into the bar, and man, you talk about climate change and geothermal energy—thunderstorms were playing on his forehead, lightning was crackling around his temples, and steam was coming out of his ears. I can read the auguries as well as the next man, I stepped back kinda behind Mike.
Now, when a man is really, really angry, he may go totally incoherent, and that’s what happened to poor Wally. He stood in front of Mike and me, that wonderful bear of a man, and all of the things that he’d no doubt rehearsed to say to us, they all fled from his mind, and all he could manage was to shake his finger at Mike and me and go “You … you two … I should … you two …”, the spittle spraying, his face beet red.
I was frozen. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to respond to that great roar from the bear. I smiled weakly and prepared to run. I figured I probably couldn’t outrun Wally in that state, he could have run down a horse with all that adrenalin, but I reckoned all I needed was to outrun Mike … I was up on my toes, light on my feet, ready to move if need be.
Not Mike. No way. Mike just sat there on his barstool, and peacefully looked up from his beer in a friendly way, in no hurry at all. He waited patiently for a break in the flow of the spittle, and when it finally came he smiled and greeted Wally warmly, said he was awfully glad to see him as always and he hoped his trip went well … and at the end, Mike almost delicately observed that he was kind of surprised, though, that his good friend Wally had neglected to bring his new custom bride with him to the Bar so he could introduce her to all the boys …
At that point, Wally lost the plot totally, and he started laughing. Over the previous days, of course, the whole town had somehow heard the story of Wally and his Custom Bride, and had in fact been eagerly anticipating Wally’s return, so the whole bar-room busted up too, the barkeeper ladies hooting, and Mike’s great laugh boomed around the room and rolled out into the warm, velvety tropical night, Wally couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t stop laughing, no one could.
When we’d all calmed down, Wally said to Mike “You bastard, you almost cost me a damned bank loan!”, and the story poured out of Wally almost in one long sentence—it seemed that Wally’s banker knew some Chinese woman, wife of some very successful Chinese businessman in Honiara, and the wife was a savvy businesswoman herself, and the banker used to buy her lunch on occasion to keep in touch with the Chinese business community’s view of things fiscal, always worth doing for a banker in any small island town, and then one day over lunch she’d confided that she’d heard from some friend of hers that Wally had made this disastrous business deal when he bought a custom bride. She told the banker that he got taken badly by the woman’s relatives who insisted on an astronomical bride price, that in addition to custom money he’d paid thousands and thousands of dollars for her, and given expensive gifts to each and every one of her relatives, watches and cash and silks and jade, and he’d promised he’d give the relatives his boat when he got done with it, and the whole Chinese community was aflutter about it and wondering what the girl could possibly look like to be worth all that … it all came out of Wally in a jumbled rush, and at some point he ran out of gas, and Mike put a beer in his hand and Wally collapsed on a barstool, spent.
In short, the banker trusted this Chinese woman’s judgement, so when Wally came in to talk about how the loan was going, the banker had a long face. He asked Wally to have a seat. As gently and as delicately as he could, the banker told Wally he’d received some serious news. Wally thought, Whaa? The banker said that the news made him question Wally’s business judgement and the wisdom of giving Wally the loan they’d been discussing. Wally thought, Whaa? The banker said he really hated to ask a man such a personal question, but in the name of the bank, he had to ask Wally for an explanation of why he’d been such a fool as to overpay thousands and thousands of dollars for a custom bride, and now what was he planning to use as the collateral for the loan? And had Wally thought how much married life would cost him, could he make the loan payments while supporting a wife? And what was he going to do without his boat?
Wally, of course, was totally gobsmacked. His boat? His wife? Thousands of dollars? Say what? He racked his brain, he told his banker he’d never heard a word of this, it was obviously a rumor, and eventually the banker was pacified. At the end of the day they both finally agreed the story must have been about some other white guy with a boat, accidentally transferred to him, not the first time it’s happened in the Pacific that stories got mixed, and so the loan went ahead … but Wally knew Mike pretty well, and sometime the next day or so the light bulb came on and he said to himself “Hey, wait a minute, could it be …”, and then he’d run into Recifi at the Yacht Club in Honiara, and she’d innocently asked him how married life was treating him, and the jig was up. He got all the gory details from her about how Mike and I were the guilty parties … and the story of Wally and his Custom Bride was a legend from then on.
Anyhow, how’d I get on to the story of Wally and his Custom Bride? I started out to talk about another character entirely, one of the most beloved characters in the Solomon Islands, my good friend Phil Palmer. Phil was white, but he was born and raised in the Solomon Islands. The Palmers had been in the Solomons for years, his family were some kind of cousins to Archbishop Palmer of the Melanesian Church. The bitter joke in the islands is “The missionaries came to our islands to do good … and they did damn well indeed”, and the even more bitter joke, “When the missionaries came to our islands, they had the bible and we had the land.” But I digress, that was the other side of the family, and besides, no one ever mistook Phil Palmer for a missionary, or for a big land-owner for that matter, usually he was poor as a churchmouse.
Phil’s eyes were giving out when I first met him, too much time outdoors on both the ocean and the land. He came to live on the island where I ran the shipyard, the owners were friends of his, and they thought he might dry out a bit there, and get his boat fixed up so he could trade again. Phil was known to drink hard when he wasn’t out trading, and his boat needed work. He was a “beach trader”, meaning he ran a small boat out around the islands and purchased beche-de-mer and trocus shell off of the beach from the islanders, and resold it in Gizo to the buyers. He was famous for getting lost at sea on one of those trips. That wasn’t the reason for his fame, though, lots of Solomons skippers get lost at sea. Phil was famous because after four days, when they finally made it back to land, there wasn’t a drop of alcohol left in the liquid filled compass … the manufacturers put alcohol in boat compasses to damp the vibrations when the boat pitches and rolls. Phil claimed the compass must’ve sprung a leak, he said he was as mystified as anyone …
So I got to know Phil pretty well, we both lived on a small island in the middle of nowhere, you get to know people in that situation, he was a good man. It was about that time that a young crocodile, not a baby but a young adult, started coming on to the island at night and prowling around folks houses … scary stuff, they are frightening creatures. They had been hunted for years in the Solomons, but the hunting was made illegal not long after I’d arrived … and by that time, they were back in full and terrifying force.
One day I read in the local newspaper, some white guy from Sydney or somewhere wrote a letter complaining about how people were being krool to the poor Solomons crocodiles and killing them. Yeah, right, I thought, he’s visualizing the crocodile in “Peter Pan” … the next week a monster croc came out of the ocean at a local “toilet beach” about a mile from where I lived, and grabbed a local woman by putting her whole head in its jaws, and started dragging her back into the ocean. She screamed and twisted and fought and finally escaped, at the cost of a hundred stitches to her scalp and neck and face … who’s ahead now? Well, these days people in the flatlands are terrified of the floods during the rainy season. It’s one thing to have the floodwaters rise around your leaf house … it’s quite another to have that same floodwater carry a 10 or 14-foot (three-four metre) monster crocodile down the main path through your village and right up to the doorstep of your leaf house where you are sheltering from the rain, where it looks in the door and smiles, and you don’t have a gun ’cause it’s against the law, and with a crocodile there is no Plan B, it’s gun or run … well, it makes wading for higher ground a life-threatening excursion. I’d say the crocodiles are ahead at the moment.
So when a small crocodile started coming onto the island at night and inviting the local dogs to dinner, we knew we had to get rid of it. Phil said he knew the brilliant plan.
I said I hoped the brilliant plan didn’t involve dynamite, because local legend had it that Phil and his two brothers had been out one time, shooting crocodiles to make money from the skins back when it was legal. For a lark, the story went, the boys decided to use up some dynamite they had. They saw a croc, stuck the dynamite in a fish-head, lit the fuse, and tossed it to the croc … who promptly ate it down and swam over to see if the boys had any more goodies to eat. The dynamite, according to legend, went off just when the crocodile was going under the boy’s boat, dumping the three of them into the ocean.
Phil said no, no, no, way, it didn’t happen like that at all, he knew because he’d seen it with his own eyes, and besides he wasn’t there that day, that was just a rumor put about by his enemies, plus, he said, the crocodile wasn’t all that close to the boat when it blew up, and anyhow it hadn’t actually tipped over the boat, just rocked it some … which didn’t exactly reduce my apprehension about his new brilliant plan …
When he explained his brilliant plan, though, there wasn’t a trace of dynamite in it anywhere, which in my world is always a plus. Phil said, and he would know, that crocodiles love turtle meat more than just about anything. So the next time someone from the island caught a turtle, when they cleaned it I should bring the scraps and the shell and put them on the shore, and toss a bit into the water nearby to fetch the crocodile. Then when he showed up and came out of the water, Phil would take his old .22 rifle, and I’d take his old clapped out 16-gauge shotgun, and we’d kill the croc.
Given the state of his Phil’s eyes, and the thickness of the coke-bottle-bottom glasses he always wore, I figured I’d do most of the shooting. And it actually turned out that way, although not exactly how I figured. Phil and I waited after dark in a small skiff in the lagoon with a flashlight, just offshore of where we’d put the turtle guts and shell. Sure enough, about eleven o’clock, here comes Mister Clampjaw, quiet, just his eyeballs and nostrils showing above the water. We drifted in behind him, equally quietly, to cut off his escape route once he’d climbed on shore. When he was up there eating turtle guts, me’n Phil made the count, 1-2-3. and then we started shooting. I blew off two rounds, and Phil shot one, and we both missed.
The croc ran for the water in that curious long-legged way they have, with his body lifted off the ground and sprinting toward us and the lagoon. I had a pump shotgun, and Phil’s .22 was a bolt-action, so I snapped of two more shots just as the croc got to the water, with Phil’s second shot close behind mine. The crocodile slowed in the water and stopped moving …
The odd part was, when we hauled him in to shore, he had been hit just once … a single .22 bullet right into his walnut-sized brain. Other than that, there wasn’t a mark on the crocodile, and in particular no evidence of a shotgun wound … Phil just laughed, that long easy laugh of his, and said it took practice. I had to agree, since up until that night, shooting at crocodiles was something that had completely passed me by.
My dear lady cooked up the crocodile. I hate to kill something and then waste the meat. It did actually taste kinda like chicken … if a chicken were to live under the ocean, say, and never brushed its teeth, and did pushups all day long. The meat was tough, with a briny taste, not bad, but redolent of the sea … some of the locals wouldn’t eat it because the croc was small, only about seven feet long (the fully-grown males typically are over 4 metres [13 feet] long, and weigh about a half tonne [a thousand pounds]) … and they grow to over 20 feet (6m) long.
The locals explained to us why they didn’t want to eat him, saying “This-fella crocodile now you kill’m, him pikinini [baby]. Mommy b’long him still stop long lagoon. Suppose you kai-kai’m pikinini [eat it], mommy b’long him bye cross for good long you”, meaning the crocodile you killed is only a baby (“pikinini”, with no derogatory sense to it), his mother (“mommy belong him) is still living right here in the lagoon, and if you eat her baby she’ll be really angry (“cross for good”) at you … which gave me pause for thought, because I lived all of thirty feet of flat coral sand from the lagoon … but I ate it anyhow. It was dead, no good letting it rot. Phil never let me forget it was his bullet put the croc down, coke-bottle thick glasses and all … and deservedly so. I did do most of the shooting like I figured … I just didn’t do any of the hitting.
But once again I digress, somehow I got sidetractored one more time, the South Pacific is treacherous that way, because the story I actually started out to tell about Phil Palmer was the story of the Missing Cashbox and the Nguru Patrol.
I know that’s the story I started out to tell back whenever it was I started, because of the the title of this post, which I wrote before I started the post, and it’s a good thing I did that, or by this time I would have forgotten what story I was telling. Anyhow, the story of the Missing Cashbox took place shortly after Phil shot the croc. He’d had been working on his boat in our shipyard, that’s why he was living on the island. After some months, he got the boat fixed up and went out beach trading again. When he came back, his boat was loaded to the brim with beche-de-mer (sea cucumber), which smells bad, and trocus shell, which smells horrible, but which were both worth good money. He’d sold the lot, and after cleaning up the boat and showering and scrubbing off the worst of the odors, he went directly to the bar at the Gizo Hotel … where else? Phil was slated to go out beach trading again the next morning, mostly at his wife’s request so he didn’t spend all his money on booze, and in his somewhat drunken state he realized he still had the cashbox with him in the bar, with all the money he would need to buy the beach goods when he got back to the villages. He knew that if he kept all his money in the bar with him, he’d drain the cashbox dry and wouldn’t have any cash to go beach trading again.
So wisely and prudently he cleaned out his most of his wallet and put it in with the cash in his cashbox, and told his two crewmen to take the cashbox out to his boat, which was anchored offshore from the bar, and they could sleep there and watch the boat, he’d see them in the morning.
Unfortunately, the crew, like Phil, had been drinking in the bar, they were already unfit for military service, or any other kind of service for that matter. So naturally, as they were rowing out to the boat, one of them stood up in the skiff, he needed to declaim something terribly important in the proper theatrical manner, the other one stood up to dispute it with him, the skiff flipped over in an instant, and the guys and the skiff and the cashbox were suddenly very wet …
The beauty of the South Pacific is that although in the Bering Sea flipping the skiff would be a life-threatening experience, in Gizo it’s a night-time bath in warm water. Of course, the skiff and the cashbox went down to the bottom, but the guys didn’t. They slowly swam the hundred yards or so back to the Hotel dock, and turned up at the bar stone cold sober, picking seaweed out of their teeth, and recounted their tale of woe to the great merriment of the assembled masses.
Phil considered the matter, reckoned as how there was no light, couldn’t see the harbor bottom to find the skiff, and besides it was kind of drunk out that night, so he reasonably decided to deal with it in the morning, and continued imbibing.
The next morning, Phil awakened with a massive hangover, and a strong sense that he had forgotten something really important. As the details of the previous night slowly filtered back in and reassembled themselves in a kaleidoscopic fashion, he said bad words, jumped up, put on his swimming trunks, walked quickly from his house along the waterfront road to the beach in front of the Gizo Hotel Bar, and worked off his hangover by diving down to where his skiff was clearly visible on the sea bottom in twenty feet (6m) of crystal-clear South Pacific water or so. He got a rope attached to his skiff, and people on shore gave him a hand hauling it in. Phil flipped it over, cleaned out the water and sand, flipped it back upright, borrowed some oars, pushed his skiff into the water, and went back out to dive for his cashbox … but it seemed to have disappeared. Currents aren’t strong in that part of Gizo Harbour, the bottom was sandy, no obstructions, visibility was sparkling as usual … after searching for an hour, Phil decided that some !@#$%^ had come along at first light and stolen his cashbox.
Without cash he couldn’t go back out beach trading, and for damn sure he wasn’t ready to try to explain all of this to his long-suffering wife, and the morning was getting on, and his head hurt, so he decided to track down the thieves.
To do that, as he had done for various purposes in the past, he whistled up what Phil called his “Nguru Patrol”. “Nguru” is the word in some local island language for what we used to call “Number 11” when I was a kid. “Number 11” means a small child who has snot running out of both nostrils and making the number “11” on his upper lip … so Phil put out the word and enlisted every small kid in town. He called them in from all around him, Phil was like the Pied Piper with children any day, he had a whole passel of them himself, they all loved him. He hauled some of the smallest up on his knees, with the other kids gathered in close, and he told the whole crew the fabulous tale of Phil Palmer and the Missing Cashbox. Well, didn’t their eyes just about pop out, what adventure, and best of all, Phil promised a fistful of “lollies”, candy, for the first kid who could answer the most curious and interesting question he was about to ask them … and when he had all of their undivided attention, he looked around the assembled group and said:
Who, in this lovely town of Gizo, about 5,000 souls in all, was to be found this fine morning, messing around with wet paper money?
Pretty damn smart, if you ask me …
Now, Sherlock Holmes had his “Baker Street Irregulars”, kids that used to assist him in his investigations, but they were just fiction. The Nguru Patrol, on the other hand, were the real deal. In under an hour, a kid came flying back out of breath and reported excitedly that “Two-fella man long place b’long Kiribati, him dry’m seleni [from “shillings” meaning money] on top long roof b’long him!”, meaning “Some guys over in the section of town where the people from Kiribati Island live are drying money on the roof of their house!”
Well, Phil Palmer had had a long night, and a disappointing night, and a really ugly morning, and what with the hangover, and the diving, and the missing money, he was not in a good mood at all, and when he heard the news from the Nguru Patrol he waxed fearfully wroth indeed. He swore up and down that he would see those [bleeping] men clapped in the [bleeping] jail before the [bleeping] sun had set. He knew he’d stolen a march on them, he knew where the money was, they didn’t know he was onto them, he was going to walk right down to the Police Station and see them thrown in the slammer, he was going to get his damn money back from the damn scoundrels, and all would be well again, and that was a promise. And he got to his feet, and gave the kid a double fistful of lollies to keep his word to the Nguru Patrol, at that instant he was the richest kid in town by far, and Phil went storming out the door.
Now Phil’s house in Gizo was, I don’t know, maybe a half-mile from the cop shop. Call it a kilometre, the Police Station was on the other side of town from his house right next to the Gizo Hotel, and he was on his way, by god.
Of course, Phil was well known and loved in Gizo. And like all small island communities, the “coconut telegraph” works very well there. So everyone on the island already knew Phil had lost his cashbox and most of the money he possessed, although no one knew yet who had taken it. So when a friend of his saw Phil striding purposefully along the waterfront road, he asked Phil what was up. Phil didn’t want to spill the beans and warn the thieves he was on to them, so he just told the man he was headed to town, good morning to you, and kept walking. The next friend of his got the same answer, but Phil did take him up on his kind offer of a beer, as the day was at its full tropical heat by then. He drank it down, and then went on his way toward the other side of town, he was a man on a mission.
At the next encounter, he was just as careful to not say a word about knowing exactly where his money was, but he did shoot the breeze with this friend a little, and drink a couple of beers. He was careful to get right up, though, he didn’t stay long, he was on his way to town with “important business”, he told his friend, and resumed his mission.
And so Phil Palmer worked his slow way across town to the Police Station, moving along the waterfront road stage by stage, house to house, as though swimming upstream through a gently flowing river of warm friends and cold beer. Everyone wanted to commiserate with him, everyone understood what it was like to lose money like that, they knew it makes a man cross, and thirsty too, have another before you go … but through all of it, his mission burnt like a secret fire in his chest, he was hot, he was going to get his money back and see those bad men get their just desserts for stealing his hard-earned cash, he didn’t get his boat all fixed up just to make those thieves rich, no sirree …
And finally, proudly, at around three in the afternoon, Phil shook off his last well-wisher, drank his last beer, navigated the last few yards, and hauled up and dropped anchor in front of the Gizo Police Station, still and steadfastly a man with a mission.
Now, the Giso Police Station is a small building, actually a very small building of a common island style, a wood building up on concrete posts maybe a yard (metre) off the ground to keep it away from the termites and let the cool air under, with a long porch all along the length of the front, and a set of wide stairs leading from the porch down to the ground.
And Phil was proud because he’d made it through the entire town to the Police Station, and despite getting, well, actually pretty well lubricated now that he stopped to consider it … in fact now that he had physically actually stopped to consider it, curiously, the stairs were still moving, undulating just slightly like a heat mirage, but despite the stairs still moving, and despite all the people he’d seen, he hadn’t said one single word to anyone about how he knew exactly where his money was and exactly who took it and how he was going to bring the hammer of the law and the righteous wrath of God straight down on their unsuspecting heads. Not one single word to anyone.
And as Phil stood there in front of the Police Station, carefully assembling a detailed and cautious plan for ascending the Police stairs that didn’t include self-inflicted harm, the door to the Station suddenly opened, and his friend, a Solomon Islander who was a policeman, walked out and closed the door behind him and stood on the porch. Phil was overjoyed to see him, he had the sudden heartwarming thought that perhaps he could pull the whole thing off without having to actually solve the difficult Police stairs + Phil = ? puzzle.
His friend’s face lighted up when he saw Phil, and he greeted him warmly, saying “Phil, you’re just the man I was going out to find! Your timing is perfect, there’s a couple of Kiribati guys inside who just walked into the station a few minutes ago to let us know that they found your cashbox, and they’ve brought most of the money back! How about that for a coincidence, I was just leaving to tell you the good news, c’mon up the stairs, I’ll introduce you to them, you can thank them yourself!”
Phil looked at his good friend the policeman, who was so happy that today he had a chance to help out and serve the public, happy to be bringing someone good news for a change instead of the sad fare the police are usually called on to deliver. It hurt Phil to see his friend so happy.
Phil looked back at the stairs.
He realized he’d never actually looked closely at that particular set of stairs, and now that he was taking the time to take a hard look at them, there was something fishy about them, in fact they looked very suspicious. He’d never realized that they were quite so wide, or went quite so high off the ground, or looked quite so hazy. He gazed harder at the stairs, and kind of squinted his eyes, and the stairs obliged him by stopping their motion for a moment so that he could fully appreciate his peril. He closed his eyes as the stairs started to move again, shook his head for a moment, and then looked back at his friend.
“No,” he said after a pause, “thanks for the kind offer, but I’m actually on my way over to the Gizo Hotel to have a drink at the bar, why don’t you just have one of your guys bring the money over to me there.” His friend looked puzzled, he’d expected Phil to be much happier about the good news, but no surprise really, you could never understand white guys anyhow, so the policeman said he’d have one of his men take Phil the money …
Phil turned and made his way towards the Gizo Hotel Bar, moving easily and deliberately now, headed back where the whole story of the Missing Cashbox and the Nguru Patrol had started, was it really only last night? He knew the stairs up to the Hotel Bar, they were old friends, not like that wide strange set of steps the Police had. The hotel stairs were narrow and comfortable, with two handrails and a wall, those stairs hardly moved at all, and no matter how drunk he might be, he knew them so well that he could probably fall up those stairs, in fact now that he thought of it he seemed to remember that he’d done exactly that, fallen up the stairs of the Gizo Hotel Bar at least once in the past with some success.
Besides, now he had money to both drink tonight AND go beach-trading tomorrow, and in the morning he could leave his wife and the kids and all this craziness behind once again and put out to sea where he really belonged … and in the warm, golden heat of the fading Gizo afternoon sunlight, Phil Palmer walked slowly towards the Gizo Hotel Bar, a contented man on a new mission.
And looking back on it now with the advantage of hindsight, I would say that Phil had never really wanted to see anyone in jail. He himself was a beach trader and a free man, and he, like me, could think of no worse fate than to be penned up away from the wind and the sea and the sky … and perhaps more importantly, his wife was from Kiribati too, and so the men were very probably related to her somehow, and he was scared of her, so I think he was happy just to wash his hands and walk away, have another beer, and in the morning go out once again on the ocean, as he had so many times before, out to that seamless sunswept vista where he could let the waves wash his mind and the light close his eyes, out where he didn’t concern himself with the petty cares and squabbles of folks that live mostly on land, out where he could let go and let the thieves’ karma work itself out like it usually does.
Phil died a couple years ago, he drank and smoked and pissed and traded and screwed and shot and farted and boated and cursed and loved and lost his way through life, and always found his way again, without slowing down from beginning to end. And as near as I can tell, he died of just that—a surfeit of life itself. Farewell, my dear friend Phil, I’m sure you would be tickled to know that your memory will never fade as long as this world contains alcohol-filled compasses …
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …