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Heads With Tales

Robin and I have two extra heads.

The first head came from Vanuatu. We were at the airport ready to fly back home at the end of a holiday. Our tummies were full of coffee and kava and our wallets were full of vatu, which is what the Vanuatuans call the cowrie shells that they spend in their shops.

“Perhaps we ought to change all these vatu back to New Zealand dollars,” said Robin, “since we are on our way home, and we do seem to have rather a lot of them.”

“Good idea,” I said and trotted off to the airport bank. The lady behind the counter looked at me with horror.

“You want to do what?

I proffered a fistful of vatu. “I’m the man with no name,” I said, making a subtle Clint Eastwood reference – perhaps it would frighten her into compliance with my wishes. “And I want to be the man with no vatu. Can you turn these into New Zealand dollars, please?”




“Why not?” I was puzzled. I’d been spending vatu in all the local shops and hostelries for two weeks now. I’d even gone to a money machine and shown it a credit card whereupon it happily spat out vatu for me. But now it appeared that the process didn’t work in reverse...

“Because they are vatu,” explained the lady in the bank. “We can’t exchange them for other currencies. It doesn’t work like that. We can turn dollars into vatu, but we can’t turn vatu into dollars. The magic spells don’t work backwards.”

“Well what can I do with all my vatu?” I asked in despair.

She thought hard about the problem. She obviously wanted to be helpful, but she’d never been asked to turn vatu into dollars before. “Well you could take the vatu notes home and frame them and hang them on the wall as souvenirs of a wonderful holiday,” she suggested.

I did not find this thought appealing. “Do you have any other ideas?”

Her forehead crinkled with the effort of hard thinking. “Perhaps you could spend them?”

“Spend them?”

“Yes,” she said. “I know it’s a novel idea, but vatu are currency and you can spend them on things.”

“Can I spend them on New Zealand dollar notes?” I asked hopefully.

“No, you silly boy,” she said. “New Zealand dollar notes aren’t things you buy, they are just slightly mutated vatu; different colours and sizes, but basically the same thing. What you need to do is take your vatu to that souvenir shop over there in the corner of the airport and spend them on delightful island gifts and mementos.”

I returned to Robin and reported the slightly depressing results of my conversation with the bank lady. Robin sighed. “Sounds like a rip off to me,” she said. Why didn’t they tell us that before we went through customs and got trapped here in the purgatory of a no man’s land with only one shop in it?”

We went over to the souvenir shop and examined the souvenirs. All the usual tat was on display. Brightly coloured fabrics made in China, grass skirts and loincloths made in Japan. Genuine plastic coconut shells for drinking kava out of, bottles of coconut oil for greasing your hair imported at great expense from the Phillipines. And some native carvings which actually looked as if they might be local.

We examined the carvings. They were really rather well done and quite attractive. And they only cost twice as much as the native carvings we’d seen on display in the souvenir shops in the capital city, Port Vila. What a bargain! Who could possibly resist?

“It is a rip off,” said Robin. “It’s a conspiracy. They trap us in here with currency they refuse to exchange and they force us to spend it in the only shop available to us where the prices are sky high. Think of the profit they must be making!”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s definitely a rip off. But we don’t really have much choice do we?”

“No, I suppose not.”

We examined the native carvings carefully and made our choices. We bought three gods on sticks, and a rather chunky head with mother-of-pearl eyes and an evil, grumpy grin.

“I think I’ll call him Cuthbert,” said Robin.

When we got home, we put the gods on sticks and Cuthbert on top of the downstairs bookcases so that they could supervise our guests when they browsed the bookshelves. I also entertained vague hopes that the gods on sticks would smite the cats with great and godly smitings when they scratched and bit the books on the bottom shelves. This last proved to be a vain hope and the cats remained unsmitten. The only thing the gods on sticks were good at doing was falling over every time the wind or an earthquake shook the house. We were constantly having to pick them up and put them back, and one of them broke an ear off when he fell over particularly forcefully one day. We referred to him as the lopsided god from that time on. He paid no attention. By now he’d had so much practice that he was really good at falling over, so we just left him to it. His missing ear didn’t seem to bother him at all.

Cuthbert himself proved to be remarkably stable. Year in and year out he sat there on his bookshelf glaring at the world, and he never fell over, not once. Some people (though not the cats) found him quite intimidating.

Cuthbert was our first head.

A few years after we acquired Cuthbert, Robin went to Oz to visit her mum. She’s my favourite mother in law and her name is Phyll.

“I have a head,” said Phyll. “I’d like you to have it.”

Robin was puzzled. “Yes,” she said, I can see that you have a head. It looks like you’ve recently had the hair on it permed. Very stylish; it suits you.”

“No, no,” said Phyll. “You misunderstand me. I’m rather attached to this head and I intend using it for quite some time to come. You can’t take it away with you yet. But I have a spare one in the cupboard that I’d like you to have.”

“OK – show me,” said Robin.

Phyll rummaged in the cupboard for a while and then emerged holding a carved wooden head that gleamed darkly with ancient polish. He was a gentleman with slightly oriental features. He was wearing a complex headdress which was almost but not quite exactly like a turban. He looked proud, and somewhat aloof.

“I don’t know where he comes from,” said Phyll, “but he’s been in the family for generations.”

“He looks vaguely Javanese,” said Robin. “Did we have any family connections to the East India Company?”

“Not that I know of,” said Phyll. “But we do have several missionaries in our family tree. One of them might have brought him back from an expedition.”

The head smirked at her. It knew where it came from, but it wasn’t going to tell.

Robin returned home with the head, quite excited by her new acquisition. “We need a special head display area,” she declared. Cuthbert would really look rather distinguished if he was sitting side by side with this new head.”

I couldn’t help agreeing with her, and looked around for inspiration. We have a rather ornate and handsome bookcase in the lounge which is full of autographed books. There’s a recessed lip at the top which, as far as I could see, was just begging for a head. So I put the new head up there. He gazed regally around, Lord of all he surveyed. It definitely suited him; his personality shone through. He smiled contentedly.

“I’ll go and fetch Cuthbert,” I said and I went downstairs and rescued Cuthbert from his old position and brought him into the lounge. The gods on sticks grumbled a bit when I took him away, but I ignored them. They’d long ago proved their impotency and I no longer paid much attention to them. I put Cuthbert up on the lounge bookcase side by side with the new head. They looked warily at each other.

“Hello, I’m Cuthbert,” said Cuthbert.

“Hello,” said the new head. “I’m the new head. I’d offer to shake hands, but I haven’t got any hands to shake with. I’m only a head.”

“That’s all right,” said Cuthbert. “I’m in much the same position myself. But I’m pleased to meet you, all the same.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” said the new head and they settled down together quite happily.

“They look good,” said Robin, “but that’s rather a large display area and I think it’s a bit empty. We need more heads so that they can take it in turns to supervise.”

“You’re right,” I said, “but I’m not sure how we could go about acquiring more.”

“I have an idea,” said Robin. “Come with me...”

She took me out into the back garden. Washing lines lay in lazy catenary curves between the fences. “See?” she asked.

“No, not really,” I said. “What are you suggesting?”

“We’re having a party next week,” said Robin. “The house and the garden will be thronging with guests. Many of them will come out into the garden in order to smoke cigarettes and possibly to indulge in other unsavoury substances. They will wander around admiring the weeds and enjoying the prickly bits in the lawn. Perhaps they’ll indulge in their secret vice of squeezing cat poo between their toes as they explore the flower beds.”

“Yes,” I said. “So?”

“Many of them will have over-indulged in spirituous liquors. Wine is a mocker and strong drink is raging. All will rage, all will stagger, all will be mocked.”

“Yes,” I said. “So?”

“The washing lines are all at head height,” said Robin. “Let’s replace them with razor wire. I bet we’ll have a lovely collection of heads by the time the party finishes.”

“Cuthbert will be pleased,” I said.

“So will the new head,” said Robin, and we smiled at each other.

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