Postcard from Lille, Part 31

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

Tangled up in the Vizconde massacre investigation, I’m having to lie low in a place called Sipalay on the Island of Negros. I keep myself busy in the provincial home of an extended family, a dynasty founded by eight brothers, whose decedents include the Webb family (of politics and that massacre fame) and Gisele my business associate. Another branch of the family owns the Remittance Bank

Tortured by a darkness, I find myself in a bad place, wrestling with my demons and wondering if the world is worth living in. Or rather I’m not. I’m having a great time, nicely off the radar and far away from places like Manila and Davao City where, respectively, they have been known to put me in jail and open fire on me.

Sipalay is somewhat under developed, and with a new jetty and improved roads could become a real tourist trap. Our Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company could be in the on the ground floor just as the local economy takes off. All is well with the world.

I’m even planning a property and have half an eye out for a lonely widow and eight unexpected babies to adopt and start a dynasty of my own. My business associate Gisele can take care of the Manila side of things, regularly sending me my share of the takings. She will be delighted to hear this and, believe it or not, she might be. Am I the last to realise that this might all have been a giant set-up and I’ve been sent to Sipalay to get rid of me?

Even after all these decades, I feel that I’m being a bit too cynical. However, it has to be said, the local business environment was somewhat like a mad free for all on a doomed ship just after the captain, up to his knees in water and shark fins on a sinking bridge, has announced,

‘Every man for himself!’

As I settle down in my bunk in the deserted worker’s hostel in Christie’s Corner property (next to Rizal Square), I thank God for my good fortune and remind Him of my plans, unaware that He is shaking his head and laughing while nemesis wanders about the square asking for the whereabouts of the province’s only white man.

Although much more peaceful than Manila or Davao, I take the precaution of bolting myself into the hostel and although the window must remain open (because I suffer from the heat) there is a fairly hefty grill nailed across it to keep the insects out.

That night there’s been a disco in Rizal square. The local young people would meet after dark and play music from a ghetto blaster while coloured lights hung and flashed from the palm trees. The youngsters danced and sang and chatted enthusiastically. It all seemed very innocent, with some added excitement in that many of them were soon to set off for Manila, to take part in the Papal visit.

The local priest was young and attracted a young set. They were keen and enthusiastic, positive about business, full of energy and ideas and interested to see the place developed for tourism. Everything seemed to be nicely set up for our future success. Nothing could go wrong.

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

As the disco fizzled out and the music died down, I finished thanking God and began to doze. Outside, footsteps and hushed chatter slowly faded away to background insect noise as the youth went home. But it was augmented by another sound. A scratchy scraping. Not the familiar scratchy scraping of a giant rat, but of someone trying to jump my bolted door.

I lay on my side, facing the door, looking through tired, half-closed eyes. Shortly, the noise stopped, the stout bolt remaining undisturbed. I felt myself drifting away to sleep again. But in what must have been only a short time later, I was awoken by a louder, closer noise. My bunk was a bottom one, next to a wall, below a window.

The noise was unmistakably that of hands and feet pulling at hand and footholds, scraping their way up the outside of the building. Now, I was on the ground floor, so whoever it was must have been awfully small, a reassurance, albeit less so if they had an Uzi (not unknown in this territory).

The next noise was coming from the window grill. The bunk above me hid the view but I would guess a knife was being taken around the grill to loosen it.

Then there was an almighty clatter, as if metal pulled from a frame and bent in two. There followed a ‘thud’ and a shake.  Someone had rolled through the window and onto the bunk above mine.

At this point, I must say, and I may be becoming a paranoid, despite all the noise, nobody came rushing to help me.

A torch beam appeared and cast a weak light around the other bunks, left to right as if a lighthouse beam, up and down as if a swaying lantern. It was obvious where it was going to go to last. I prepared to spring.

Sure enough, there was a shifting noise above and a torch, attached to a hand, appeared from the top bunk and pointed into mine. Fortunately, I wasn’t dazzled. It pointed towards my feet. I was just about to grab the arm and pull when I noticed the little face above the little arm. I froze. A little voice sprang forth.

‘Ayo, mister.’

It was Matilde the servant girl from 25 St Therese Street, Yalo, Josephina City.

She rolled back into the top bunk, switching off the torch off as she did so.

I greeted her in her native language. She told me off, reminding me always to speak in English. Teased mercilessly by the natives, they had taught me rude words as if proper. I once accidentally introduced myself to a room full of nuns with a string of badly pronounced sexual profanities. It certainly broke the ice. Mother Superior still writes.

We whispered to each other for about twenty minutes. Matilde told me her plan and in doing so destroyed mine. I was needed back in Manila, it was urgent-urgent. There was an FX leaving at 3 a.m. and we had to be on it. She was exhausted and must sleep. I must wake her in an hour.

Matilde was my eyes and ears at Gisele’s family’s property in Josephina City, keeping note of what she over-heard from the important adults.

There had been numerous calls for me from Manila and from Davao, lots of people were looking for me. There was talk of a giant reward. Not for finding me but for information that I might have.

‘Narissa [Issa the attorney] won’t tell anyone where she sent you. She doesn’t want to be ass-oc-iated with you and the Vizconde massacre. Gisele is frantic for you. She needs you back in May-nilla. She is furious with Narissa, family feud. The sick girl Joanna, by your special favour, came to see me with your address. I in agony in this, mister, I the only one who knows.  How do I tell what’s so important that I should come to you?’

I assured her that she’d done very well and she must tell me everything.

‘Two days ago, was a message from Gisele, she is frantic, there was an important call for you, an international.’

Now she had my attention, a shiver ran down my spine, I was hot, cold, terrified and elated all at once. In those days I still had hair (except on my raw, waxed back). It all stood up on end.

Matilde continued, ‘I set off as quickly as I could. I am exhausted. You must return to May-nilla,  quick-quick. There is a reward. My cousin Christie and these aunties are devious ones; they may try to keep you here. We must leave on his rival’s FX from outside another property.’

‘Your cousin Christie?’ I asked, genuinely surprised.

‘My ancestor was the least honourable of the eight brothers, why I am a maid, for now.’

She continued,

‘In his visit, the Holy Father will make all equal, he will abolish the rich and give hope to the poor and our utopia.’

Note to myself, alter Matilde’s record in my mental card index from ‘little spy in the family’ to ‘little communist spy in the family’.

She slept for an hour and then I woke her, having filled my blue Berghus pack in the time allowed. Fortunately, nearly all of my possessions, certainly everything I had of importance, had been about my bunk. We crept out of the hostel and across the población to another road just on the fringe of the palm clad mountains. Cousin Christie owned an FX company. They were dispatched from his corner property via short wave radio. However, he had a rival, and as Matilde had realised, we were better off if Christie knew less of what we were up to. It wasn’t unusual for FX’s to be dispatched in the middle of the night as they would rendezvous with the ferries and flights first thing in the morning at Bacolod, the biggest city on the island, an important port in the north. There was myself, Matilde, another young lady returning to university, a driver and a spare driver (who would swap with another vehicle en route). As there was plenty of room in the FX, we made it uncomfortably full again by stowing our luggage inside rather than on the roof.

Passage was slow and difficult through the hills but on the flat, through the sugar plantations, as we raced alongside a sun which was rising above the distant silhouetted mountains, that which God and the natural laws had given to us was movingly and memorably beautiful.

At Bacolod my ferry had a ‘mechanical problema’. We took a taxi to a favourite uncle of Matilde’s, who lived very comfortably behind big walls, in what could only be described as a Peso billionaire’s mansion. Although a very severe gentleman, we were made welcome. Matilde appeared to be a favourite niece. He would contact Nini, the matriarch of 25 St Therese Street, to excuse Matilde’s sudden absence.

As often, there was a computer that needed fixed, (brand new, heartened to see some of our Computer Club software installed on it), not a lot wrong with it, just took forever to boot up, an easy fix.

Pleased with the results, Matilde’s uncle busied himself arranging a flight for me direct to Manila, unfazed by my false ID. Regular readers are having to imagine me a Caloocan City donkey breeder, disguised as an English travelling gentleman. Or was it the other way around?

I asked to use the comfort room. There wasn’t one. I was directed to the yard and squatted down while, against a pig sty wall, a giant porker up on its hind legs (which presumably had never seen a white bottom before), stared, frothed and grunted at me.

I said my thanks and goodbyes. A helper took us to the airport where myself and Matilde parted company in a hurry as sudden cramps meant I had less than a minute to buy a toilet roll, find the public lavatory, pull a door off its hinges and ask a startled gentleman (himself at half-mast) to make way for an emergency.

Security was very tight in anticipation of the Pope’s visit. Everything was being checked, double checked and bound up in tape and plastic. There had been bombings and attempted bombings. Having boarded the plane, there were more passengers than seats and the army had to come and throw a few people off. Likewise, some chickens had been smuggled aboard and began to misbehave after take-off. None of this boded well for the Holy Father’s safety.

You may say this is all pretty chaotic and you’d be right. We were now approaching ‘do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got territory.’

There were a series of ‘American Libraries’ about the archipelago. They did have a few books and you were allowed to sit in there and read but they were more notable for their aerials and satellite dishes. Being grenade and bomb magnets, they were also well known for their massive security, Caloocan City donkey breeders with a bad fake driver’s licence need not apply. The Americans would have to know exactly who I was. We were allowed to use their telecoms but it was bad form, told the Americans what we were up to and, even if Uncle Sam was pulling in our direction, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t make a mess of it.

I preferred to get back to Manila and get busy with the Philippine communications, at least they existed there, unlike in the provinces.

At the other end of that international phone line a cast of characters passed before my eyes as if an entire, sad and wasted life being revisited on a death bed. Amongst others; the Brigadier General in charge of missing things at Karachi airport, the Mujahedeen’s cash and carry Sheik, my old landlady from Cold War Budapest, a Saudi princess and her Christian mother and servants, Dr Mohammed, Lotus Flower (my fourth cousin eight times removed in Hong Kong). Even my own father, somewhere up a mountain in Switzerland. Not to mention a former captain of the Pakistani cricket team and friends of yours and mine habitually to be found in Amsterdam’s erotic hairdressers or down at the docks in Antwerp. Did I mention a little old lady working on the switch board at the Rand Organisation in California? Add her to the list.

One or more of these was trying to contact me in extreme urgency. But who? And why?

To be continued ….

© Always Worth Saying 2019

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file