‘There must be a better way to live than this’, I observe, ‘the squabbling, the pettiness, the violence. Why can’t we all just get on with each other and live in peace and harmony?’, I wonder aloud.
‘Sounds like Communism, my friend’, Gisele replies, stood beside me in the lift at the Manila Orchid Hotel. We are going up (behave),
‘Are you unhappy?’ she asks.
We’d been put out of the house at 5227 San Augustine Street, Makati City, Metro Manila, because of feuding sisters. I lasted a little longer than Gisele but a giant phone bill, racked up by phoning my contacts in the Gulf and Pakistan, (especially a very entertaining hour with Dr Mohammed of the BCCI bank), have seen me exiled too.
We live in the garden. When I say ‘we’ live in the garden, I mean Gisele does. I did try, but on creation day, whereas God made the Filipino with invisible skin and a stealth scent, unfortunately for me, He allocated peoples from less fortunate latitudes with (to a mosquito’s radar), the profile of an exploding volcano.
We slept in hammocks strung out across the front doorway. Or rather she would sleep while I hung at a funny angle, awake all night, listening to the geckos (and gun-fire from nearby street parties), while being eaten alive by insects. I craved the killer smog and sterile streets of the inner city.
I de-camped to Ermita, my old haunt The Swagman being somewhat uncomfortable too, I washed up at the Manila Orchid. Just to push the spoilt privileged-ponce-o-meter into the red zone, I went to school with the Orchid’s General Manager. An excellent chap, previously at my concentration camp-style provincial boarding school (as his family were ex-pats). I’d love to tell you more about him but, dear reader, two important points. Firstly, unlike the rest of us, he’s still out there, in khaki, in harness, still in the fray, not to be mentioned in a memoir.
Consumer advice: if your fourth wife is younger than your two youngest daughters then you will work until you are at least ninety in order to live very simply (and not get enough to eat) while paying boarding school fees.
Secondly, and I say this without suggesting any detriment to his good character, he was the sort of chap who might type his own details into an internet search engine. Mum’s the word, less said the better.
‘Why can’t we all tolerate each other and be equal?’ I ask.
‘Of course,’ Gisele replies, ‘tolerate the drug pushers and gangsters and be equal to the poor in their barangay shacks. You try it, mister, like you tried living in Issa’s garden.’
They say it is tough at the top. For once they are wrong. It’s a lot tougher at the bottom and, unlike the Orchid, the bottom doesn’t have a rooftop swimming pool or its own casino.
The lift makes a ‘ping’ noise. We’re at my floor. It’s 9 pm and time for a case conference.
I stride along the corridor, Gisele beside me, very smartly dressed, lovely makeup, glossy black hair nicely cut and recently styled. I catch a whiff of her scent, her favourite from my ‘Keeping in Touch’ range. I can’t help but notice an overnight bag slung over her shoulder.
There was a note pushed under my door among the advertisement leaflets, I unfolded it and announced that my silk shirt was ready at the dry cleaners.
‘You’re wearing it’, Gisele observed as she snatched the note off me and read the message out loud.
‘Urgent from Dane publishing. What is that place?’ she asked, ‘They follow you about.’
‘Books for my associate Mr Cortez’s schools in the South’, I replied just about honestly.
‘Ah. Then why the secrecy?’
We sit side by side at the room’s desk. It was covered in my research, (carefully ordered little card indexed notes), as were parts of the floor. The room door was always double-locked, never any need for room service.
I had my laptop on the desk too, connected to the phone line.
Our Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company Computer Club software has been rolled out by the manufacturers and a surprising number have been sold. It contained a ‘trap door’ which allowed me to hack into computers. The internet was in its infancy but I could ‘dial-up’ some commercial computers and use the ‘trap door’. It was torture but it was a help in the hunt for the assassins sent from Pakistan to kill the Pope.
‘No, I’m not unhappy at all.’
I showed her what we’d done so far. The terrorists had laid a false trail which was being followed by everybody else; police, bounty hunters, crackpots and fantasists. Because of my contacts in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, I knew that the assassins would be Afghans and Pakistanis flying in, albeit by circuitous routes, from Karachi.
We’d had a rendezvous at Tutuban to pick up an intelligence booklet (courtesy of Rand) meaning all the likely names, aliases, passports used and modus operandi were now in our ken. Ding, our contact at the airline, was going through the names to find out when they’d arrived and establish some kind of a trail. It would be a big help if we knew where their safe house was.
Cousin Malanga at the Remittance Bank had done some heavy lifting, a nice symmetrical trail led from Saudi Arabia to Ermita. She suggested I check out the girlie bars for laundered money. She also suggested I didn’t contact her, or mention the bank ever again, as a Saudi national was at the centre of the Manila end. Her Remittance Bank’s seven hundred thousand guest worker customers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had become a ‘big, big problema’.
I had the Saudi’s photo pinned up on the wall. Gisele pointed at him,
‘Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. Funds the Relief Organisation, the orphanages and the schools in the Muslim areas. Sponsors young people at the start of their careers’, she drew her finger around his chin, ‘You could almost call it the Arab Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company.’
Don’t worry, dear reader, your humble author isn’t going to get sued. Khalifa, as perhaps an Arab travelling gentleman of a certain age and persuasion (and a brother in law of Bin Laden) might be, was subsequently reported assassinated while visiting one of his gem mines. However, at the time of our tale, he was still drawing breath, causing problems and somewhat untouchable.
I pointed out to Gisele that the difference between the ‘Arab Philippine’ and ‘Anglo Philippine’ was our call to peace and reason, neglecting for a moment, the small arsenal we were assembling in our deposit boxes in reception at the Orchid in anticipation of our ‘make sure it’s really them’ fact-finding mission, necessary before passing information on to the authorities and claiming our giant reward.
Gisele poured some mini bar mineral water for both of us and we adjourned to the edge of the bed. Looking out over the city, Manila was a checkerboard of twinkling lights and brownouts. There was a firework display nearby. We were looking down on the exploding pyrotechnics.
The Orchid is close to Rizal Park. We played a game of spotting the different floodlit buildings and monuments. It was beautiful. If the regular reader hasn’t realised that I’d fallen completely in love with the islands, then forgive me, my humble effort has failed you miserably.
‘It’s my most fertile time’, Gisele whispered, ‘tonight could seal the deal. It would be good for both of us. A permanence. Perhaps what God wills?’
Two fireworks exploded beneath us. Slightly different shades of heart crimson, they merged into each other as they rose, forming a new, irresistible colour I’d never seen before. I am a church-going, repressed, near teetotal prude, a condition not helped by the energy-sapping, boiling tropical heat and dryness. On the other hand, in the background, the air conditioning hummed a serenade and a glass of cold mineral water was beginning to surge through my veins.
My time with Gisele passed before me. During the elections, she’d been campaigning for Senator Webb while I’d been pretending not to campaign for Mayor Duterte and General Ramos, whilst hinting at prosperity, foreign investment and Papal visits, if they were elected.
Both of us were often about the same place at the same time. We’d swapped business cards, kept in touch, and when a Trading Triangle was set up, her home city of Josephina and my base in the South, Davao City, were two obvious points of one such triangle. With my (well your, dear taxpayer, and Her Majesty’s) money and Gisele’s contacts, we were a self-evident team and hare-brained adventures ensued, some of which long-suffering readers will have read of here.
The fighting cocks, stale cakes, evicting the natives with a sack of rice to build a golf course, the silencer franchise on an island with no cars. And there’s more, mail order shoes when none of the natives knew what size feet they had. They used to send their orders folded inside sheets of paper covered with crayon drawn outlines of the soles their feet.
In among the duck embryos, roast dog, spinal cord soup, fish eggs (bathed in semen) and fried lizard, we happened across an English tea shop. It might have been on the paradise island of Boracay. Yes, we used to go to Boracay to network-network. What? You’d rather be in Dumfries? Takes all sorts. In the tea shop, all was authentic. The lady proprietor had married an Englishman, lived in Britain for many years, worked in catering and returned to the Philippines to start her own English cafe. Not English style, English proper. It was perfect, the food and drink somehow completely authentic. I tucked into my cream tea. Bliss. Simultaneously, Gisele was turning yellow, then green, starting to wretch and threatening to faint. Outside, lying on the perfect sand and reviving herself with mineral water while I held her feet above her head, she announced fruit scones to be inedible and cream cakes un-natural.
‘How can you eat that stuff?’, she wailed, ‘It’s disgusting’.
Likewise, because she was (or wasn’t?) closely related to Genghis Khan, nature had shuffled her amino acids into a difficult hand. Always insistent on joining in the ice-cold jugs of (real) San Miguel beer after a hard day of busy-busy, she would turn an indescribable colour (after half a mouthful of booze) and then fall off her stool. Didn’t stop her, same again the next evening.
And the Trappist monks, unable to speak, after silently allowing us into the monastery to pray, unexpectedly grabbed hold of us from behind and, without a word, dragged us into the gift shop and wouldn’t let us leave until we’d spent some money.
You’ll recall that Nelson said it takes two years to build a frigate and two hundred years to build a tradition, likewise it takes two willing hearts and a thousand little shared moments to build an affection between two souls. I thought of her funny noises, the ‘hisses’ and the ‘grrrs’, the times she was angry and frustrated. Something moved within me. Away from the derring-do, gunfire and plots, there was a life more ordinary which tempted me.
‘I feel exactly the same, Gisele’.
‘I knew you would’, she replied, ‘I can tell what you’re thinking these days.’
I closed my eyes and lent over to kiss her. And kept on leaning until nearly at the horizontal as she wasn’t there. She’d climbed off the bed and was heading for the door, swinging her overnight bag like an excited teenager.
‘I’m meeting him at ten, dash-dash.’
‘Who?’, I asked.
‘Bibi, he has the garment import and export, busy-busy, contacts-contacts, network-network. I knew you’d understand. Wish me luck’.
Well. Never mind. More proof, if it were needed, that men and women, far from being equal, belong to different species created by different Gods.
A call to the fleshpots rang out. It was walking distance to the sleazy ‘Strip’. It would be melting hot and very noisy, and unbelievably tacky. Any ardour would soon be quenched, especially since I’d be spending a fortune quizzing the bar ladies about strange movements of money, as if laundered from Arabia, and the whereabouts of Moro looking chaps with false names, preferably smelling of cordite or nitro-glycerine.
To be continued …
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file