Postcard from Lille, Part 30

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
Rather be in Carlisle
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’? If not, as usual, put this nonsense to one side and find a copy. I realised that I wasn’t particularly well read the day I dropped the iPad in the bath. Don’t laugh, it was plugged into the wall at the time. I’m lucky to be alive. I survived but it didn’t. I tipped all the water out and tried that trick with the little packet of rice but when I plugged it in again it went ‘puff’, a little mushroom cloud appeared above it, and that was the end of that.

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
Packet of rice fix
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

There was one irreplaceable on the pad, lost for ever, three, thirty-three, thirty-two. Never mind, nobody need ever know. Let me explain. The second most important job in the office was collecting runs of identical or consecutive numbers in dates and times. Life’s never dull. If someone suddenly yelled,

‘It’s fourteen, fifteen, sixteen!’

you knew that, not only was it about two and three-quarter hours until knocking off time but that a colleague had been keeping a very careful eye on the clock, rather than wasting his life sabotaging Sadam’s atom bomb, procuring for submarines, blagging the latest shape of an American fighter plane or planning a rendezvous with Bin Laden.

Upon an absence of any witnesses, a photograph was required (or it wasn’t true) and only the office clock was canonical.

This led me, in the very early hours of a spring day, to bluff my way into a deserted office on pretence of a bit of a hoo-ha in a Far Eastern time zone. I sat below the clock with my pad, finger hovering over the photo button. One more important characteristic of my beloved pad; it took a second or more for it to capture a photo, so you had to anticipate it a bit and press the button slightly early. This led to a profound disappointment when I looked at the screen and saw what I’d taken. Bugger. Never mind, nobody need ever know.

Now, I hear you ask, if that was the second most important job in the office, then what was the first? Obviously, the most important job in the office was hacking each other’s IT and then laughing at it. And yes, dear reader, they found my photo of three, thirty-three, thirty-two from the 3rd of March and I was teased remorselessly ever after. Rotters.

Despite that, I did love the pad and find smaller screens tiresome. The writing’s too small and the typing if froughtt. See what I mean? However, a new one was going to be north of my budget while, simultaneously, I’ve never ticked many on the ‘Hundred Books You Must Read’ list. Those I have read were forced upon me, by a monk brandishing a cosh with nails though it, standing beside me during prep, while I turned the pages of ‘Class Books’ (in an unconvincing slow rhythm) while day dreaming.

I resolved to catch up with some classics from the charity desk at the supermarket, including Conrad up the Congo pursuing an errant Dutchman and a mountain of missing ivory. Pot shots must be taken at escaped slaves. Chained natives must be observed. Endangered species are there to be eaten. Politically correct it is not. ‘Apocalypse Now’ was the same kind of thing and, rural Cambodia in those days being a bit of a difficult territory, the film was shot in the Philippines, which is where I’m stationed at the time of this tale and, by another remarkable coincidence, dear reader, you find me disappeared up the jungle finding the deeper Conradian truths of myself, God and nature, which to be blunt, were really quite pleasant.

Having bluffed my way out of jail after become tangled up in the Vizconde massacre enquiry, a letter of recommendation from Issa the attorney has allowed me to lie low in Barangay Remote on Remote Island, somewhere in the Philippine archipelago.

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
Provincial Rizal Square
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I’m staying at Christie’s Corner property, next to Rizal Square, two minutes walk from church. It is a small población, on an area of flat between the hills and the sea in the far south of an island. On the other side of a mountain range lie the sugar cane plantations. I might as well tell you where it is.

They say that businesses should ‘know their customer’.  I’ve always pictured yourself, dear reader, as being an erudite and knowledgeable member of some kind of metropolitan elite but with a bit of a mischievous side to your nature. Imagine Terry Thomas, having packed in the acting, joined a stock brokering firm and did rather well. What? I couldn’t be more wrong? Never mind, they say one should never meet one’s heroes and, likewise perhaps, a humble author hamming his way through an iffy memoir, should never meet his unfortunate readers.

If you really are a City commuter on the six-thirty, reading this with one eye and the Guardian with other (while colouring Poly Toynbee a moustache) and the chap who’s read over your shoulder every day for the last twenty years (but who’s never actually spoken) has just shouted out  ‘Sipalay on Negros’, then he wouldn’t be wrong.

Part of Christie’s Corner property was a migrant worker’s hostel. It not being the time of year for such things, I had the place to myself and made myself comfortable on a bottom bunk in a cramped but deserted dormitory. Bare wooden slats were below, one cotton sheet was above. Being away from the killer smogs of the city, I was now in danger of dying of malaria or dengue fever. A little candle sat on the floor trying to frighten away the mosquitoes.

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

I took the precaution of bolting the door every night but felt very safe. Much safer than in Manila or the lawless south, Davao City, where I was often based. I also had the protection of Christie’s family, mainly Aunties, descended from the eight brothers immortalised in a line drawing hanging above the dining room table. The eight brothers who, generations ago, had built the family fortune through all eight of them coming around to your house and having a little word with you if you got in the way of their business plans. An important reality of nature, human and otherwise, no doubt understood by Conrad.

Many of the characters in our story were descended from those eight brothers. Don’t ask me to draw it on a diagram, it was too complicated, but the natives knew every dot and comma of their ancestry, including the honour attached to each strand of the family. This produced a network of obligations that I didn’t understand at all. Rather, Gisele (my business associate in the Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company and Issa the attorney’s sister) would tell me what to do in words of single syllable. If  words failed her she would make ‘hiss’ and ‘grrr’ noises instead. Gisele’s family were descended from one of the brothers, as were the Webb’s (of politics and Vizconde massacre fame). Another branch were the owners of the Remittance Bank, more of whom later.

The gentlemen of the township tended to be away, sugar cane work on the other side of the mountains, fish farms, fishing at sea or lime quarrying whilst simultaneously suing the lime quarry for poisoning the land. You’ll notice tourism isn’t on the list.

The ladies of the población were very amenable and would visit me in at my bunk with their accessories, make themselves comfortable at my side, and then pamper me. With it being boily hot, life fairly simple or even quite hard, pampering was a big industry. In those days, no matter where you were in the world and no matter how low you were lying, the Avon Lady would find you.

The ladies put a huge effort into hair, nails and skin and by Western standards it was dirt cheap. If you were to ask me,

‘Who’s that stupid ponce with the varnished finger and toe nails, plucked eyebrows and waxed hands?’

I’d reply, ‘While you were at work, I’ve been lying on my back all day being fussed over by pretty girls and there was change out of fifty pence. I may be the ponce but which one of us is stupid?’

They usually brought their own electric fans too, which was helpful in my boily hot hostel bunk.

Catastrophe was bound to strike and it did. This is pretty gross and if that commuter is still reading over your shoulder, you might want to ask him to look away now. Used only to eyebrows, the occasional tiny moustache and light, downy, feminine hair about the forearm, they were fascinated by my body hair and were determined to wax more of me. Perhaps in much the same way that Hillary and Tenzing couldn’t resist Mount Everest and that Columbus, looking out over the infinity of the Atlantic Ocean, had to turn to the chap standing next to him on the rocks at Cabo da Roca and mutter,

‘I’m going to need a boat’.

They ordered industrial quantities of wax paper, from their modest savings, and presented this to me as a fait accompli that made it impossible to refuse. Regular readers will be aware that I was often tormented by pretty girls, that they always got the better of me and the smaller and sweeter the girl, the bigger and more expensive a kicking I would get.

I don’t like to boast, but in a ‘Sean Connery’s Chest’ look alike competition, even in front of his home town crowd, my hairy chest would kick Sean’s down the stairs and leave it gasping and humiliated in the gutter of an Edinburgh council estate’s cobbled street. And, like Bond villain Scaramanga or a border collie bitch that’s been in a fire, I have three nipples. Therefore, I wouldn’t let the ladies near my chest. I’m scarred up my stomach, thankfully covered in hair, sacred ground that can’t be waxed. That leaves only one thing that can be defoliated (behave yourselves). Yes, my hairy back. Consumer advice: don’t, just don’t.

There might have been three or four of them upon me at the time but it was difficult to tell. I was face down on my bunk, seeing stars and trying to chew a wooden slat. After the first swipe of the fly paper I tried to get up but they told me that they’d only just started and had only done one little corner. Having pushed me back down, there commenced salvo after salvo of cheap mail order sticky-tape ripping at my follicles (behave). How many hairs are there on an adult male’s back? Taken out one at a time, about twenty trillion. Enjoying themselves, they continued over my shoulders and up my neck.

After a bit of a rinse with cold water, I parted with the seventy-five pence and, for an extra ten, oil was rubbed onto the scorched earth. After that, there wasn’t much I could do apart from lie in agony, allowing flying insects and anything else that could crawl up a bunk bed leg, an opportunity to graze on raw flesh. Across a few days, my skin went bad, then worse, then septic, then toxic. The heat, sun and salty air was torture. One began to envy that lucky man called Conrad who only had to wrestle with lions.

While lying low, to pass the time and make myself useful both to the locals and to Anglo Philippine, I would research a business development project. Absent from the previous above list, the obvious area for new markets and new products was ‘tourism’. I’d go as far as to say that I might have been the first person who’d ever visited the place and that was just because I was on the run from the authorities after bluffing my way out of jail.

The countryside was beautiful and fairly unspoilt. There was a sunken Japanese submarine to explore and lovely, small concealed beaches. Resorts were already set up for use by the locals. A ‘resort’ was an area of beach with some tables, along with a few other simple amenities. Food and drink was also usually available. Consumer advice. Don’t leave your meal to go to the comfort room, not even for a minute. When you return, a chicken will have jumped onto your table and will be cleaning your plate.

Transport was poor, the roads bad and the terrain mountainous. There wasn’t a jetty, meaning a swim out to visiting boats. Mobile phone masts hadn’t arrived yet, communication was by short wave radio. There was potential and an opportunity for someone in on the ground floor, able to invest, to add a lot of value to their efforts, something that Anglo Philippine had to find attractive.

I began to draw my plans. I could be the tourism development wallah and an investor. Property was dirt cheap. I should build myself a big house. There were plenty of ladies of appropriate age, widowed, abandoned, blessed single. I should start my own eight son dynasty, if needs be, with unexpected local babies who could be adopted easily and quickly.

Gisele could take on all the Manila work and send me half the money once a month. She’d be delighted.

They say that if you want to give God a laugh then tell Him your plans. As usual they are correct. Having thought I was Conrad, it turned out I was Kurtz, the mad Dutchman being hunted up the jungle. I was caught unawares in my bunk at the hostel next to Rizal Square (two minutes from church), in much the same way as that Dutchman was trapped at Inner Station beside the mighty Congo river. This is what happened.

To be continued ……

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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