By Chris Griffiths
Islands attract eccentrics. Small communities grow eccentrics. So imagine the heights to which eccentricity can reach in small island communities.
Take Stewart Island, my home for the last 21 years. It is a densely forested island as large as Singapore but with a tiny community of 400 in a single township – Oban. It lies off the Mainland in the deep south of New Zealand, across the fearsome Foveaux Strait and presents an indifferent shoulder to the Roaring Forties. Modern wonders have reduced its isolation, but that strait sure is a polarising entity. Regular gales sweep through and, despite modern transport services such as the fast catamarans replacing ferries that pitch-rolled across for four hours, it can still be an intense sixty minutes of misery and sickness, staring dumbly at vast green walls of water rising far above the boat. Or swap that for fifteen minutes of perfect terror on a Britten Islander plane, tossing over the churning water like a leaf.
We are of hardy rootstock, or we become so. Or we leave.
Although sealed roads have replaced the cart tracks; electricity and mains sewerage have replaced the chunter of generators and the garden outhouse; and the internet has brought the world into our homes, a sense of isolation and other-worldliness persists. The cool rainforest deters a great deal of the sun-and-thrill-seekers, leaving the island to the bird watchers, trampers, conservationists and those who find solace in a monumental sky and a blue-gray southern ocean.
One grocery store, one post office, one pub. “But what do you do all day?” people ask. Well, some go to work for the tourists in the busy season. Some go to work to service the needs of a small town. Some go to work for the blue cod and crays. And some go... a little peculiar.
I was once told of a lady in the UK who enjoyed nothing more than rolling her own pooh into balls against the sides of bus shelters, and although there is no one on the island currently engaged in such hobbies this is probably only because we don’t have any bus shelters.
Everybody's lives are enriched by eccentrics – like the dear older friend, sadly gone, who would greet you with her glasses magically stuck to her forehead at a mad angle, one lens over one eyebrow, the other in her hair. Who once phoned me and said, “Oh hello Chris, what do you want?” Who ran a shop of beautiful things she couldn’t bear to part with, and would sometimes ring up a customer to ask for their purchase back.
Like the fellow living rough in a caravan some years ago who attracted my sympathy when he put the call out for any old electric blankets. Poor blighter was cold I thought, and handed over two single electric blankets from my cupboard. Quietly pleased that I had introduced a little warmth into his life, imagine my expression when I found out that the grateful recipient was his homemade whisky still. I guess there’s more than one way to keep warm.
The island may, at times, give a little side-eye to the hermit, the non-conformist, the hoarder, the conspiracy theorist, the UFO spotter, but I believe it does not drive them out. Perhaps eccentrics simply stand out more in small communities or perhaps they see active encouragement. Year ago, when the power poles went up on the roadsides, a particularly pretty bush street had cables laid underground so as not to spoil its look. Where eccentrics are better, I’m told, is at confounding the efforts of spies and aliens from listening to your phone or looking through your windows from space.
There has been the occasional guest at the holiday house that we run who may also qualify as eccentric depending on how you feel about travelling with your pet butterfly in a shoebox, or with a silver foil suit to deflect any wifi radiation.
Most magnificently, there was the broadcaster of Radio Bumhole (on days of particularly good transmission, Bumhole FM) who performed his own talk show from a loud hailer - he played all the parts. He once took a grievance case to court and on being asked for his witness named a native weka bird. “Case dismissed”.
My favourite residents by a country mile, however, were the two old souls who lived closeby for many years. A kindlier pair you could never hope to meet; I’ll call them George and Mildred. George, lean and stooped in his blue overalls (vintage three-piece suit on Sundays), had an Old Testament beard and fewer fingers than usual due to an entanglement with a cutting tool. Mildred was well-upholstered in her old cardies and was plainly a nice woman when she could get a word in edgeways. Their tiny old place was a concrete box, muddled and warm and very sunny.
George was a hoarder. He never meet a piece of timber or iron that he didn’t like. He was not alone in this propensity on the island but he was one of the greatest. We were always late putting our rubbish out on collection days because George would go through it and take home anything inorganic and I couldn’t bear the thought of Mildred being subjected to my mouldy old squabs from the boat, paint tins, frames, metal bits and broken curtain rails from the shed. Their yard was piled with scrap, collapsing under its own weight and composting quietly in the bottom layer. The house too, and various sheds and lean-tos, was crammed with tottering junk. When they sold up and moved to town we were astonished at what a pleasant site they had under all that 'treasure’.
For holidays and anniversaries the pair would cross their street and walk up fifty metres to their holiday crib, Safe Moorings (or Unsafe Moorings as it was more commonly referred to). This rotting and collapsing little dwelling had a view of the sea but was so filled with hoarded items that it was difficult to get in, and the lounge was entirely taken up with the huge engine of a boat he was "mending".
To this day in Golden Bay you can see a once-lovely wooden vessel on a cradle, very far gone now, that George was also fixing up. They could both be seen down on the beach at low tide in bursts of activity months apart, pushing dowel plugs into the holes in the hull by the hundred, and it felt like watching someone stopping holes in a dyke while water poured over the top. To our certain knowledge George ‘fixed’ the boat for decades, but there it still rests next to his shed, crammed and festooned with hoarded scrap and various dinghies shoved into the branches of trees. These little boats ranged from decrepit but possibly still floaty, and slid down the scale of seaworthiness until there were just damaged parts - a rudder board in a tree, a mast and bit of tattered sail roped to the jetty, a holed canoe. Every storm eroded and twisted the dinghy collection further and now only archeologists would be able to identify the remains.
One summer George and Mildred boarded the least wrecked of these dinghies with a couple of so-ancient-they-were-transparent sleeping bags and World War II life jackets and took a jaunt up Freshwater River for a holiday. It takes a 250hp water taxi about 45 belting minutes to reach the river mouth towards the top end of Paterson Inlet; within minutes his clapped-out outboard broke and George rowed the whole way - it took him 12 hours. Being still out under his own steam when night started to fall, with Mildred bailing the whole time, they decamped onto a rock beside the river, and from what we can make out this is where they spent most of the next week. A day or two after their proposed return and still no sign of them we were worried and sought news of them on the radio. Someone at Freshwater Camp reported they had been seen alive and kicking, that hunters had been feeding them, and so we tried not to worry too much despite their advanced ages and their various health problems. Luckily the weather was beautiful for the entire time they were away and they told us later they had a marvellous holiday.
In common with many others who live in what looks like straitened circumstances, rumours abounded that George had millions stashed away but I never saw any evidence of it. They were the ultimate recyclers, like many of their vintage, nothing was wasted or thrown away. He was never happier than when he discovered deer heads and carcasses at the dump - look, already aged - and every bit was used. They would make orange ‘cordial’ out of soaked peel and water, presumably after they’d eaten the fruit, squeezed the juice and scraped the pith off with their teeth, and we lived in fear of receiving bottles of this. No disrespect, but it was undrinkable. However, quite good for cleaning the shower.
The introduced possom – a pest in New Zealand - was on the menu at their place, and it didn’t matter if it was full of lead shot or if it had been poisoned as George maintained that all the poison settled in its paws, so if you cut the feet off you were quite safe. There were very few possums in the area. Generous invitations to dinner were frequent and if you didn’t encounter a mystery dish of possible fish and “milk powder delight” it might be other wee creatures scavenged from the garden. A couple invited for dinner one night were thoroughly discombobulated by the sparrow pie, and only a moment before the bloke had let out shriek on saying Grace, when he felt the stumps of George’s hand where fingers were supposed to be.
George had found God later in life and the time spent doing missionary work in the Philippines some years before, where he helped to build a school or other worthy building, was clearly a defining experience. But oh boy could he talk about it. Mildred was helpless to prevent herself falling profoundly asleep when she heard the word 'Philippines’ (at least if she was sitting down). Although I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had learnt to sleep standing up with her eyes open over the years as well.
Indeed, when my mother in law was visiting, who speaks no English, she lived in fear of encountering George in the street proffering a bottle or dish and with a long loooong story that she couldn’t understand. She would be reduced to tears of horror and hide in the bush if she saw him as without the words to politely decline offerings or to deflect the talk, she felt there was no socially acceptable way of extricating herself and that she was clearly going to live out her allotted time on earth rooted there. With George.
George and Mildred often worked together. One particularly windy day I saw them both teetering about on a slick boat shed roof, nailing down iron sheets in a stiff sou’westerly. It made your heart leap into your throat in case they tumbled down but God was looking after his own - as he was the day George was on our own roof cleaning our chimney and I watched from the garden as the whole house rode a rolling earthquake, with George working at the chimney stack. He didn’t even notice.
I hope there is always room on islands for the nutty, bless ‘em. And as to this island, it is clear to me as I write that a lot of these local eccentrics have grown old and died. I'm not sure if the number or quality of the current odd are sufficient to keep our quota up, despite my efforts – more will be required.
Chris Griffiths is from Auckland and has lived for 21 years on Stewart Island in the deep south of New Zealand. Home to 400 people, it is huge and largely uninhabited. Houses are clustered around the village of Oban, with the rest of the island left to the wind, the rain and the birds. Hectic summers give way to quiet winters, when Chris works on half-finished books and true tales of island life. She administers a teenage son and helps her German husband run a collection of modest tourist operations which add up to an income of sorts, leaving her time to watch, smile and write.
Photographs are copyright of the author.