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 a 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 rumor about himself. What can I say, the South Pacific attracts characters, Mike is definitely one of them, and the rumors about him were legion.
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 innocuous. 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.
The last time I saw Wally, I ran into him some years later in Ponape. He’d just pulled into the harbor, having brought the sailboat back from the Philippines. His boat looked trim, sails snugged, and 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 … and I spat the dummy. It was rum!
Wally 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 people, who charge a duty on all alcohol brought into any country, 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 Mike and I 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 Mike’s 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, as a Singapore girl, 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 drove it back to the island I lived on across 17 miles (27 km) of reef-strewn ocean, 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 once again with Mike in the Gizo Hotel Bar 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, so 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.
Mike just sat there on his barstool, and peacefully looked up from his beer in a friendly manner, 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 to Honiara had gone 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. 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. 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. Of course, the story had grown in the endless retellings. 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. Mike put a beer in his hand and Wally collapsed on a barstool, spent.
In short, the banker trusted this Chinese woman’s judgment, 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 judgment 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 …”.
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.
Ah, the South Pacific … endless stories. My best wishes to all of my Solomon Islands friends.
13 thoughts on “Wally’s Custom Bride”
Great story, can imagine it happening in Gizo. Lived there for 5 years from 1972. Regret not keeping a diary. Great characters, another world! Anne
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This is going into the top drawer in my mind, where your best posts have a permanent place, Willis. Thank you.
Thanks, John. Appreciated.
Good to read a great story told by a great story teller!
Wonderful story, well told.
How did you ever make it up to Recifi?
Hey, I was just going with the flow. And Recifi? From what I heard, she cracked up laughing when the story got to her. We were all good friends, she didn’t take it personally.
Plus it wasn’t her fault that some random banker heard some rumor. And like the rest of us, she truly thought that what happened to Wally was hilarious, not the least because it was totally unintentional on everyone’s part.
A great story, thanks. BTW, the link under Figure 3 is no good.
A friend if mine was in Mahon in Menorca on his boat and was invited to another boat for a drink. He asked for Gin and Tonic and was surprised when the guy put some ice and a slice of lemon in a glass, went to a wash hand basin, put the glass under a tap, opend it, quarter filled the glass with a clear liquid and topped it off with tonic water.
The boat was fitted with two seperate water systems, Whenever they went to Mahon they tied the boat up to the quay beside the Gin distillery, ran a hose over the road and through a window and filled one “water tank” with Gin.
Customs never found out.
Thanks, my friend. Customs never found out about Wally’s boat either.
Hugs to your good ladies,
Excellent discourse of how this story evolved.
“When the story becomes legend…..print the legend”
Awesome story. Started my day off well! Thanks!
My pleasure, Jim, mine has been an interesting life.