Postcard From Lille, Part 33

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Antwerp

There was a game that we used to play in the office called, ‘Would / Wouldn’t’. Every adult female would be attached either of the monikers. We even had cards made that we could hold up as if dance competition scores. Being out of the office didn’t stop us.

If you ever find a rather pathetic chap, now of a certain age, by the roadside, confused or face down in a puddle smelling of drink (or with a row of bullet holes across his back), empty his pockets.

Open his wallet. If his bank cards are from rotten, crashed banks such as BCCI, Johnson Matthey and Barings, he might be one of ours. Membership cards? Not the great (dull) London clubs, more the type of establishment a gentleman might accidentally walk into on a sunset stroll, while looking for a delicatessen, towards the better end of a place like Antwerp docks. Regular readers will recall the Blue Monkey Club in Middlesbrough.

Amongst his out-of-date and dog-eared platinum and diamond cards (I kid you not, they used to pay us far too much), you may find a red card saying ‘Wouldn’t’ and a green card spelling out ‘Would’. If so, a comrade has fallen.

Roll him back to where he was and continue on your way as if nothing has happened. We will find him. None of us have ever been left behind on the battlefield (without first being debagged and having our wallet stolen by a colleague).

An unsophisticated person might attribute a certain sexual crudity to this. How dare they. The story of Would / Wouldn’t originates in one of the great, unforgettable affairs of the heart, between luvvies, in the permissive, swinging sixties. I can’t remember who they were. Back in a minute, Google calls.

At the end of a very successful social evening, nearly everyone has said their grateful farewells and slipped away. The four-story Primrose Hill townhouse now lies silent, apart from the clinking of empty wine glasses being taken to the scullery by a maid. Lady Antonia Fraser sits in a chair in the corner of the room, showing a bit of leg, and whispering, ‘Must you go?’, to a tall and athletic figure, reaching out for a door handle.  In the shadows, at an opposite corner of the room, Harold Pinter hesitates, tilts his head to one side, decides to linger and sweary rants (about Palestine) to a bored senseless Lady Antonia until sunrise.

A heartfelt, honest, candid, tender, well intentioned moment between a woman and a man, who would (or wouldn’t) want to spend a little longer in each other’s company. A friend tells me that an inferior (and rather adolescent) version of the game sometimes appears on the internet (driven by a Walter Mitty type fantasist) involving weather girls and lady MPs. Avoid.

An Irish nun knelt beside me in the small chapel of an orphanage. Donors had been very generous; all donations were very welcome. There was room for more, I might like to dwell on that. The donor’s names (there was room for mine) were written on a shield attached to a wall. Beside which, a gilded window bearing the image of Christ looked out over a dusty basketball court where boys, in immaculate uniforms, strolled in quiet conversation while carrying satchels between lessons. My business associate Gisele was amongst them, handing out our home-made Robinson’s Mall candy bag treats, in order to ‘oil the wheels’.

‘There is great danger’, the nun whispered, ‘we must pray and each of us do what we can.’

I held my hand out to Sister, palm down, hidden folded notes held in place by my thumb. She took them off me.

She continued, ‘All the parishes, schools and hospitals are alert. The donors tell me things and the gown-up orphans keep in touch. You must help too’.

I held the silence so that Sister could tell me more.

She broke that silence and in doing so, threatened to break my wallet,

‘There is a reward, perhaps half of it could go to the orphans?’

We haggled over money. Sister was an expert. We didn’t settle on half but I ended up conceding far too much. She told me the rest of what she knew.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Philippine Orphanage

Back in the sclerotic traffic, on our seven holy places in seven hours road trip, Gisele confided in me, between stabbing the accelerator and blowing the horn,

‘Sister finds the little ones in the barrio, in the gutter, some half dead, abandoned. It is a miracle. Two of her former pupils are doctors, it is a miracle. That’s where the money goes, the best donors in May-nilla paying for the orphans of the poor.’

She stabbed the brake hard, stopping the car stopped suddenly and completely. The whole vehicle jerked as if rammed from behind. As she spoke, she looked through me and past the jammed traffic, towards the gathering smog of the late afternoon. She dropped her voice, almost whispering.

‘Is that Communism? From the rich to the poor?’

She put her foot back down and continued to talk,

‘That is over in Europe yes, for a few years now? It will end here too. The cure is as infectious as the disease. Tell me it is over.’

‘It’s over, Gisele. Communism is dead,’ I assured her.

‘Excellent. And the Pope will confirm that. He will give the Communists one final kick, with the authority of God, as he did to the Liberationists in Latin America. It will also be the death of this nonsense about utopia.’

We headed North. I handed one of my passports in at a checkpoint so that we could enter a gated community. Gisele pointed to the house’s gaudy walls and coloured roofs. Bright blue tiles were this year’s status symbols, both for the nouveau riche and the long-established wealthy.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Golden Altarpiece

We were able to take in another church. It was called the ‘Church of the Seven Saints’, known locally as the ‘Church of the Seven Million Pesos’. Another donor’s plaque commemorated the rich and generous, this time to an impressive altar piece which rose all the way from floor to ceiling. It was rumoured to be clad in genuine gold leaf. The Blessed Sacrament was being exposed. We knelt side by side, looking ahead.

Gisele whispered, ‘What did Sister tell you? What has she heard?’

I continued to pray.

Leaving, we were stopped by a curious lady parishioner. Gisele pointed at me while speaking in the national language. The woman smiled and offered me a hand.  Among the conversation, Gisele translated that the lady had a prediction for me, in return for a Robinson’s goody bag. I obliged.

‘She does have a gift, you must believe her’, Gisele confided, ‘she predicted the attempted coup’.

‘There’s one nearly every week’.

‘Then she is right nearly every week. Who else is? The horoscopes? Nah’.

We left the car by the church and walked a short distance down a slight slope, past scruffy land marked out by wooden posts into plots.

‘One plot is half a million, before you fold out the notes, not Pesos, US dollars. Before you are allowed to buy, you must promise to spend at least one more half million US dollars building the property. It makes for a nice neighbourhood.’

As well as the church there was a business centre, mall and helicopter pads.

She pointed across the roof tops to the home of a cousin.

‘That’s Malanga’s, they own the bank’, she reminded me, ‘the overseas workers bank.’

It was what’s known as a ‘Remittance Bank’. Filipino migrant workers could pay monies into branches in the host country, which their relatives in the archipelago could then draw upon quickly and in cash. Something that we take for granted these days but a very useful and profitable novelty three decades ago.

I had met Malanga socially. She was very pleasant and well-travelled. We were talking about the art of the Prado, when she interrupted herself to tell me this,

‘You know, the contribution to our economy from overseas works is two billion dollars a year, more than electronics and agriculture combined. My father’s bank facilitates this.’

She was keen to come to England, and I was happy to help her with the documentation, but subsequently a certain distance had emerged between her and Gisele’s sides of the family.

‘Can we call?’ I asked Gisele.

‘No, we need an appointment these days,’ she sighed, making her ‘grrrr’ noise and ending it with, ‘Hubert and Vizconde massacre problema.’

The court case against Gisele’s close relative Freddie Webb was not going well. A stigma was spreading across parts of the family.

We walked back up the bank, while Gisele translated the curious parishioner’s prediction,

‘She says you will talk as well as listen and answer as well as ask. I suggest you start now. Tell me what the Irish sister said.’

I held the silence.

It was my turn to drive. Off we set, along a main highway, in a nice straight line for me, but very slowly.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Sclerotic Traffic

I mentioned Quiapo Church but Gisele was unenthusiastic. It was in a slum area, very crowded, and had a devotion to the desperate, dying and recently dead which didn’t appeal.

I liked Santo Tomas, but she killed that stone dead too with,

‘You are right mister, if you can find it.’

Then she shouted, ‘Stop’, and slammed a hand on the top of the dash board.

We abandoned the car where we’d stopped, hauled ourselves over a low concrete crash barrier and fell straight into a small wooden chapel.

We had to visit seven churches in seven hours. It would bring good fortune for the forthcoming Papal visit. This would be our third.

It was a basic Christian chapel, just a hut with half height walls and a pitched roof held up by four wooden pillars. There was room for about two-dozen people. A lady knelt with her rosary. A gentleman stood before the altar in prayer, his arms apart, elbows bent, palms facing upwards.

We prayed in silence for a couple of minutes and then Gisele instructed me to talk. I’m naturally a rather quiet, introverted person, Gisele the opposite. This was beginning to irritate her. She had to work very hard in order to find out nothing. I just had to sit and listen while she gushed (or bribe a maid with a perfume sample for something overheard).

Gisele instructed me to talk and tell.

‘What did the Irish nun tell you? Why do you think I left you alone with her? Tell me what she said. Tell me what you are thinking.’

I told Gisele that I was thinking that when St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and such, he may have been writing to a little place like this, complete with chickens and the fumes of the barangay. The church essentially as a small number of people, possibly squabbling, with the building itself modest or even an afterthought. I reminded her that St Paul was a great man on a mission, charged with a higher purpose, known to be rather bad tempered and capable of dumping his companions in an instant. Perhaps he should have been allowed to get on with it, rather than being tormented by the Ephesians, Galatians and the essentially good, but wayward, people of Corinth?

Gisele cut to the quick, ‘There is a reward mister and you want it all for yourself only.’

‘All the runners run but only one gets the prize’, I reminded her from scripture, with a bit of a smirk on my face.

Back outside, we both leant against the same roof prop, both facing down the pitted unmade shanty road but in opposite directions. She lit a cigarette, something she could never do on her home island where, out in the sticks, she would have been hissed at and slapped.

She drew on it and then passed it to me. I held the tip the wrong way around, between a finger and thumb, where her lipstick had been left. Its warm tip faced my palm to protect the struggling flame from a warm Manila Bay breeze fortified by barangay dust.

She had her say.

‘You tell me nothing and expect me to tell you everything. My cousins report to you. The helpers spy on my family for you. Matilde the maid, wherever she may be. What is it with Matilde the maid? The least honourable cousin, what are you two up too, thick as thieves?’

It was a question followed by a brief but accusatory silence.

‘And what of the South, Mindanao?’, she continued, ‘What do you do there, with those crooks and Moros? I’m afraid to go there and I’m a native.’

Metaphorically (for the moment) she had unexpectedly taken the cigarette off me and applied it to my bare skin. Then she turned it into a blow torch and held against an even more delicate part.

‘You are protected by a gangster-gangster down there, Victorio Cortez, how come?’

One of her younger sisters was married to a man from Tagum, only thirty miles from Davao City in Mindanao, where I was based when in the South. Their noisy stays at the extended family’s Manila base (5227 San Augustin Street, Makati City), were described as ‘honeymoons’. I had been indiscrete and boastful in their presence. The Tagumenyo obviously weren’t as thick as the Davaoenos had told me they were. The jungle drums had been busy.

‘Cortez has two daughters who own schools’, she continued, ‘and you are about those schools with their Citizen’s Army. And on his farms near the Morro terrorists. What goes on?’

I remarked that she was only half right, taking care not to tell her which half.

I suggested that ‘respectable and enlightened provincial philanthropist’ was a better translation from Cebuano to Tagalog to English than ‘gangster-gangster’.

I gave her the cigarette back. She stormed off shouting, ‘I don’t know why I bother, maybe it’s all over?’

She began climbing over the concrete barrier, back to our parked car on the highway. I followed but she told me not to. She touched her belt where her gun was usually concealed, pointing a finger and thumb in the air as a warning. She told me to get a taxi.

Seven churches, lose tongues in Tagum and a cigarette break outside the kind of place that St Paul might give a good telling off to, was the confluence that insisted that I shout after her.

‘Must you go?’

To be continued …….

[3] Arisu Shen
[4] Lawrence Ruiz
 

© Always Worth Saying 2019
 

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