Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
This is a tale about one of the most beloved people 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. I wrote about Phil before in my post called The Crocodile and Tufala Panadol.
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 shells off of the beach from the islanders, and resold them in Gizo to the buyers. He was famous for getting lost at sea on one of those trips. Well, not exactly for getting lost. That wasn’t the reason for his fame, because back before GPS lots of Solomons skippers got lost at sea. Easy to do.
No, 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 dampen 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 …
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. 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? Here’s that magnificent structure in all its glory.
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 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. They could sleep there and watch the boat, he said, and 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. Apparently, he needed to declaim something terribly important in the proper theatrical manner. And when 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 …
Now, I’ve fished commercially in the Bering Sea. 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 (meters) or so back to the Hotel dock and turned up at the bar stone-cold sober, picking seaweed out of their teeth, and recounting their tale of woe to the great merriment of the assembled masses.
Phil considered the matter, reckoned as how there was no light, you 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, and walked quickly from his house along the waterfront road to the beach in front of the Gizo Hotel Bar. There he 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, and 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 kids himself, all the town kids knew and 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 sea story of Phil Palmer and the Missing Cashbox.
Well, didn’t their eyes just about pop out! What a great 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 … but then Phil always had unplumbed depths.
Now, in the novels 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 [“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, Mr. Palmer was not in a good mood at all, no sirree.
So 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 Post 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 Phil Palmer promise.
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, that kid was the richest kid in town by far, and he and Phil went storming out the door in different directions.
Now Phil’s house in Gizo was, I don’t know, maybe a half-mile from the cop shop. Call it a kilometer. The Police Post was right next to the Gizo Hotel, on the other side of town from his house, 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. As a result, most everyone on the island already knew Phil had lost his cashbox and about all of the cash 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 Police Post on 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 he resumed his mission.
And so Phil Palmer worked his slow way across town to the Police Post, 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 indeed …
And after many interactions since his well-intentioned start at ten in the morning, finally, proudly, at around three in the afternoon, Phil shook off his last well-wisher, drank his last beer, navigated the last distance past the Gizo Hotel, and hauled up and dropped anchor in front of the Gizo Police Post, still and steadfastly a man with a mission.
Now, the Gizo Police Post is a small building, actually a very small building of a common island style, a wood building up on concrete posts maybe a yard (meter) 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 Post, and despite getting, well, actually pretty well lubricated now that he stopped to consider it … in fact, now that he had physically stopped to consider the Post, standing right in front of it, curiously, the stairs up to the Post were still moving, undulating just slightly like a heat mirage. Moving stairs. Odd …
But despite the stairs still moving, and despite all the people he’d seen and all the alcohol he’d imbibed, 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 Post, carefully assembling a detailed and cautious plan for ascending the Police stairs that didn’t include self-inflicted injury, the door to the Post 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 this whole thing off without having to actually solve the day’s most perplexing puzzle, the conundrum right in front of him, which was Police stairs + Phil + Alcohol = ? …
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 Post a few minutes ago to let us know that they found your cashbox, and they’ve brought all of the money back! Well, almost all of it, they said some money floated away … 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 almost hurt Phil to see his friend so happy.
Then 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 scrutinize them carefully, 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.
Or that they moved around so much … surely that couldn’t be normal.
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 bring 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 unpleasnt set of steps the Police Post had. The hotel stairs were narrow and comfortable, with two handrails and a wall, and much better behaved. The hotel 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, or at least without hospitalization.
Besides, now Phil 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.
So the men were very probably related to her somehow … and more to the point, as is the case with more than one man married to an I-Kiribati woman on this lovely planet, he alternately loved her dearly and was deathly afraid of her …
So I think he was happy just to wash his hands and walk away, have another beer, and in the morning go beach trading, venturing out once again on the ocean, as he had so many times before, out to that seamless windswept Solomons vista, with sunlight far-reaching on the sea.
Out where he could let the waves wash his mind and the light close his eyes, out where he didn’t have to concern himself with the petty cares and squabbles of folks that live mostly on land, out where he could let go of being angry about the cashbox, and let the thieves’ karma work itself out like it usually does.
And in that most golden forenoon, as he motored out through the mouth of the Gizo Harbor, Phil Palmer was a very contented beach-trader on an important mission …
Phil died a couple years ago. He drank and smoked and pissed and traded and screwed and shot and exaggerated and boated and boasted and cursed and loved and lost his way through life, and always found his way again, without once slowing down from the cradle to the grave.
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 …