Postcard from Lille, Part 18

Mr Gecko

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Mr Gecko lived in the roof space of 25 St Therese Street, in the subdivision of Yulo, in Josephina City, near the creek, slightly inland, on Josephina Island, half way down the Philippine archipelago.

He was a very noisy chap calling his eponymous ‘gec-ko’, ‘gec-ko’, ‘gec-ko’ all day and all night. He was tolerated as he thinned out the lizards. Lizards who otherwise would fall off the ceiling and land in a guest’s soup. They would curl up to sleep in the microwave and then boil and explode at meal times, spoiling more soup. They ran about in the toilet bowl while people weed on them and they curled up to sleep around light bulbs, just before sundown, and were then fried alive when the lights went on.

You could say that Mr Gecko was performing a kindness to the lizard community by merely biting them in two.

And yes, before you ask, I have. I knew you would think that after my adventures with that cheerful rat catcher, out on the farm, that fatally for itself, never caught any rats. Lizard tastes a bit like chicken, in the same way that dog tastes a bit like pork. There, we’ve got that out of the way.

Mr Gecko hung from the painted hardboard ceiling, taking an upside down look on the provincial life of Gisele’s squabbling family. And squabble they did. After a bereavement the property was shared out by, in haste and temper,  throwing up two breeze block walls cutting the house into three.

One end got the orchids. The other end, running water and access to the street. The middle third didn’t get very much. It was only accessible by a lane, which included a public well, which in turn included all the local ruffians. It also allowed barangay children, every morning, to pelt an immaculately dressed English visitor turned out  in his ‘civilian trying to make a good impression in the tropics’ number threes, with water buffalo dung. Excuse me, I’m getting ahead of myself. First of all I have to arrive there, in the middle of the night, during a typhoon.

A young ‘helper’, called Matilde, was dispatched to meet me. She walked ahead of me on tip toes with a box on her head, somehow keeping her feet dry, while I trudged behind her soaked up to my knees in flood water and sewage.

Arriving at number twenty five our torches showed it to be lightly flooded. There was a couple of inches of water across the stone slabs of the ground floor. Carpets had been rolled up and taken up the open stairs to a long row of balcony rooms on the next floor. The electricity had been knocked off by a ‘brown out’ and anything electrical had been put up on top of tables.

There was no real time for ‘hellos’. The rain was beginning to hammer and the wind was touching gale force. Nearer to the coast, especially in the improvised wooden homes built on stilts at the edge of the harbour, people were being killed.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Typical provincial Philippine creek
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I was taken upstairs and shown to my room. I would sleep in Gisele’s mothers room while her mother slept in the room of one of her absent sons. She was known as ‘Nini’. She was the mother of nine children, the oldest forty-five, the youngest, Girl Twins of nineteen still living at home. Their siblings were scatted about the archipelago, mainly in Manila, engaged in business and the professions.

They, and their spouses and children, were frequent visitors back to Josephina City. Gisele was expected back that night too, from Manila, where she had been working for Senator Webb, while lodging with a sister (Nerissa, or ‘Issa’) who was a lawyer in Makati City. Unfortunately her flight had been cancelled by the weather. Even more unfortunately mine hadn’t, and I had flown up from Davao on the only plane of the day, which had been an unpleasant, bumpy adventure. Presumably Gisele would haggle a black market cancelled ticket from a goon at the airport and catch us up soon.

The elections now being out of the way, and our preferred candidates having won, myself and Gisele were engaged in setting up a ‘Trading Triangle’ between Davao, Josephina and Manila and were on the lookout for businesses and individuals to encourage and invest in.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, miraculously, John Major had also won an election, sending the pound soaring and taking the sting out of the very slight premium that the honest natives used to add to everything I bought from them. By ‘very slight’, I mean as much as they could get away with, after anything from light bartering to blazing rows. Thanks to Mr Major’s election campaign, or more likely his to opponent Mr Kinnock’s, I was now making a modest profit just by holding sterling. All else was a bonus.

Before I could add to the tally I needed a good night’s sleep and for the typhoon to pass.

Back in Nini’s room I settled down on her double mattress which was on top of a mat on a wooden floor. The partitions between rooms were paper thin but nothing could be heard from the neighbouring rooms because of the storm.

On the wall next to the bed she had hung a collage of photographs of those nine children. Gisele was a Polaroid of a little girl on the back of a water buffalo. Her eldest son, Dondy, a basketball player in a newspaper cutting. Issa’s photograph was her graduation and those Girl Twins just looked like trouble, no matter what the pose or background. Two more sons stood beside a shining Volkswagen Beatle.

On a mattress-side table there was an old picture of Nini, taken when she was then younger than her now youngest children, stunningly beautiful and in military uniform.

The next morning I sat opposite her at breakfast. She carried her years well, retained her glossy black hair, and had a peaceful dignity about her, held by the patience born from mothering that big family and by gratitude after recovering from recent illness.

Did I say there was no running water? Not quite. There was a drip, drip, drip, from a tap throughout the night, allowing a pyramid of plastic buckets to be placed in such a way that the top one would fill up and then overflow into the others beneath. I had risen early and washed my soiled trousers. The typhoon was abating and the servant girl Matilde had been up all night mopping the flood and putting out sand bags. I took a shower or was it a bath? Just as I never found out for certain which side of the road I was supposed to drive on, likewise I never knew the difference between a shower and a bath. Both involved standing up. I suspect a bath meant washing the head and hair and taking off some clothes. A shower seemed to involve washing the body only, while fully clothed. Bearing in mind that national dress was tee shirt and jeans, and there wasn’t a lot of privacy, it made sense.

However, I always needed to undress completely and have a really good scrub and a shave. The heat and humidity led to my skin always being wet, which led to fungus growing on it, which led to little insects grazing on the fungus. This happened within hours, rather than weeks, of arriving in the tropics. My skin had to be kept immaculately clean.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Billeted with the nuns
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

When I had stayed with the nuns there was an outside gentleman’s washing area with a wall for modestly. However the natives aren’t tall and the wall wasn’t high enough. I tried washing lying on the ground but soon got sick of it. So I stood up in all my glory and I must say, I don’t like to boast, but I did attract a bit of a crowd. Observed perhaps, given I was the only naked white man they’d ever seen, more as if a monkey in the zoo than a statue of Apollo.

Bear in mind that any broken, dirty skin will quickly fester and fill with maggots. Out in the rain forest I once saw a beast that had a blowfly infection. It was still alive and breathing. It lay on the ground but the side of it’s head that was showing was just a sea of maggots, down to the bone and into its brain. We just had to finish it off quickly, then dig a hole and bury it to try to keep the flies down. Bear in mind that that can also happen to a person. It always makes me smile when people want to save the rainforest. Those of us who’ve wrestled with it might prefer it chopped down and covered with concrete.

On that happy note, let’s return to the breakfast table.

The Girl Twins told me every detail of Nini’s recent illness and, while I tried to eat, every detail of her surgery.

They rattled on, excited to have a guest. They finished each others sentences, and vied with each other to tell the most salacious tale from the family’s secrets. Nini tried to quieten them.

Meanwhile, Matilde continued to mop the puddles and check the sand bags while serving at the breakfast table.

The twins resumed, trying to startle a response from me,

‘Papa lives with his mistress …’

‘…the sour bitch.’

‘He plays mahjong all day with his cronies …’

‘… and drinks alcohol’.

‘She hasn’t given him a bay-bee …’

‘… as the beer droops him’.

Nini addressed them in their own dialect, ordering them to change the subject. So they started on me.

‘You must be drowned in the storm…’

‘…we will revive you mouth to mouth’.

Matilde joined in the giggling, while leaning over the breakfast table to remove a grapefruit skin. Nini slapped her hard on the thigh. Matilde scurried away to the kitchen.

‘What size are you, mister?’

‘About five feet and nine inches.’

They had fits of giggles, their skinny, pale arms trembled and a couple of flimsy shoulder straps accidentally deliberately slipped.

‘What size feet plz?’

They set themselves off even more, losing complete control of both their giggles and shoulder straps.

Nini tired of them and invited me to pick a book from her bookshelf to occupy myself through a day that was going to be lost to the weather.  It was much calmer outside but she declared it the eye of the storm, with worse to return.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
More Typhoon
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Nini wasn’t a great reader, her shelf was a row of Readers Digest abridged classics. I chose Moby Dick, finding, as in the newspapers, description to be in English and reported speech in Filipino.

The storm returned, both outside and between Melville’s covers. Captain Ahab led himself and his crew to destruction by assuming upon chance events, greed and the actions of a dumb beast, the intention of God. One sympathised.

Still no sign of Gisele. Nini and the twins watched laser disks of violent films. There was gunfire and crunching bones. Matilde resumed mopping about the house and rearranging sand bags, exhausting herself.

We dined early and in the last of the daylight. It was fish. Consumer advice: the fish should be served cooked, but still alive and twitching about. Chop the head off with the side of your spoon. Throw the body of the fish to the cat and address the head. Eat the eyes and the brain. Revive your English guest by lifting his feet above his head and making sure he drinks lots of cold water. Remind him that fish brain will stop the knees from knocking during love.

As the electricity went off, we settled into our respective rooms and beds. I kept Nini’s room immaculate. I polished the surfaces by torch light and found a brush and scoop to sweep the floor. I folded the sheets back to air them and lay on the bed in my shorts, reading by torchlight. Outside the tail end of the typhoon continued.

Just as I was trying to settle down to sleep, there was a tapping on my door, which then opened before I had a chance to acknowledge it. My torchlight showed the servant girl Matilde, bare footed in her night clothes, carrying a plastic bowl and a jug.

She knelt on the floor bedside my mattress mat. I unfolded an airing sheet to cover myself.

Matilde whispered,‘Ay oh’.

In that province a greeting usually used only between confidants.

She wiped her hair away from her forehead and leant even closer to me.  Although I thought it not possible, she continued in an even lower whisper.

‘Listen, mister, I must tell you something’.

A lizard scampered across the ceiling, its little legs jumping in pairs. It swerved around a stationary ceiling fan as though the fan’s shadows concealed a trap containing a watching, hungry gecko.

To be continued…

© Always Worth Saying 2019

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file