Postcard from Lille, Part 41


Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Pope Saint John Paul II, Manila
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

There’s a very good story about Alan Hansen, who played for football Liverpool and Scotland in the days when Liverpool were winning European competitions (some things never change) and Scotland were qualifying for World Cup Finals (other things do). Towards the end of his contract at Liverpool, he was still close to, but no longer in, his prime. A boot room arm was wrapped around his shoulder. He wouldn’t be offered a new contract. There was no shame in that, Liverpool had a reputation for moving people on just beyond, but still near to, their best. He would soon get fixed up somewhere else. At the end of the season, when all the back-slapping and congratulation had died down, Alan went home, presumably to a big house in Southport, and sat beside the phone. And sat and sat and sat through an agonising silence. Never mind, he started ringing people up, unfortunately to no avail. Closer to the end of August, he was spotted doing serious mileage up and down the motorway dropping in on spec and wearing his knuckles away on football ground’s front doors. Such is life.

Likewise, with our reward for thwarting the terrorists. The Moro bomb plot having been disrupted; our cell-phones remained silent. A giant pile of money didn’t appear from nowhere, so off we set. How many cardinal sins are there? Seven. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. How many Cardinal Sins are there? Just the one, the diminutive Cardinal Jaime Lachica Sin, Archbishop of Manila. Had he been a character from the Bible, he would have been the grumpy tavern keeper at Cana trying to maintain order with a big stick, as the wedding guests got a bit rowdy, late in the evening, on the better wine. Now, I hear you say, you can’t just drop in on a Cardinal the day before a Papal visit. Yes, you can.

He, like Gisele, was part of the vigorously intermarried great and good, well established, landed Philippine families. He was always interfering in politics, often involving our problematical contact in the senate, Senator Freddie Webb (pride?). As a young cleric, he had not only been in Josephina City but in Gisele’s family parish, of which they were benefactors. We sort of half knew him to start with. As he was always being pestered for free tickets near the front (envy) of the Papal events, handing out a giant reward claim form (greed) might be a nice change for him. And we had just thwarted an attempt to kill his boss. I might even slap him on the back and call him ‘Jim’.

He received us together, assuming we were married. This wasn’t unusual, your humble author and his entirely platonic business associate were often assumed to be a couple. If we were house guests, we’d be put in a double room. As was the local custom, I’d sleep in the bed and Gisele on the floor or in a hammock. Modesty was further preserved as ladies can get dressed and undressed, somehow, by slipping their new clothes on under the old. No, I didn’t discover this by peeping through my fingers or half-closed eyes while pretending to be asleep (lust). A friend told me. You’ll also recall that another local custom dictated that baths and showers were taken clothed. You don’t believe me? Neither did anyone else, then or now, but dear reader, it is true and you’ll recall that this humble author’s pen struggles to spin a mild exaggeration, let alone a lie.

Can men and women be purely platonic friends? Yes, they can. Take it from one who was there at the time, decades ago in every fancy goods store in middle America there was a sign saying, ‘You break it, you buy it’. Likewise, above every well-connected Filipino lady hovers a note saying, ‘Keep your hands to yourself or Daddy’s goons will pull your arms out of their sockets, tie them in a knot and throw you in the turquoise sea, beneath a scarlet sunset, for the entertainment of the sharks – if you’re lucky’. Plus, the energy-sapping boily heat, humidity and dryness. There were only two times when the flag almost dropped, one previously described, when the air-conditioning sang a love song and cold mineral water surged through the veins. The other was even more embarrassing, ten times worse. Stay tuned, you will hear about it later.

I shouldn’t really tell you this. It’s a bit close to the knuckle and I missed it out during the appropriate episode. When I was sat beside Evangelista De Reyes (she who stole my excess luggage allowance and upgraded herself to first-class and charged it all to my account, while baffling me with the local language at a check-in counter) the cabin crew treated us as if a couple. I whispered to her while giggling,

‘They think we’re married.’

To which she replied,

‘No, they don’t mister, I can pass for fifteen, they think you’re a pervert.’

Have I just typed that?

Incidentally, Giselle’s father made Rodrigo Duterte look like an 8 stone soppy liberal. He stayed on Josephina Island most of the time attending to his businesses and young mistress (more lust). He had a weakness for fine leather goods. We kept him happy with gifts of bespoke hand-made imported leather shoes. Cost a fortune, but I am still alive, so it was worth it.

Back in the Archbishop’s residence, we tried to move Cardinal Jaime towards writing a big cheque. Myself and Gisele seemed even more like a married couple as we dysfunctionally completed each other’s sentences while trying to make it sound as though we didn’t really want the reward for ourselves (greed).

‘.. a great injustice to my cousin, incarcerated in Paranaque ..’

‘.. two fifths to the orphans ..’

‘.. as in the Bible, the unjust judge, Tolentino, must be challenged ..’

‘.. a Utopia to prove that Christians and Moros can live together peacefully and ..’

‘.. the legal bill can be paid ..’

‘.. down in Mindanao, near Davao City, actually nearer to Digos ..’

‘.. as a favour to my father, a long-standing donor of yours, Cardinal James..’

‘.. please, Jim?’

The Cardinal was unimpressed. He did have a point. The Pope hadn’t even arrived yet, let alone returned to the Vatican intact. He looked through our evidence, a box full of bits. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t show him the Rand organisation’s misplaced intelligence booklet. The box did contain biographies of the bombers, one had been captured, the others had disappeared. Also, our photos of their burnt-out bomb factory. We hinted at the existence of an impregnable laptop, which in truth I had been able to hack. At that moment its contents were being translated and examined by our Arabic speaker, who we’d locked into my room at the Orchid, while we met the Cardinal.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Cardinal Jaime Lachica Sin, Archbishop of Manila
Cardinal Jaime Sin (1928-2005), ErnmuhlLicence CC BY-SA 3.0

He thanked us for our efforts, suggested we contacted the police and that he would review the situation upon the successful completion of the Pope’s visit. At least we could now relax and enjoy the events. The next day found us sitting back, doing just that, anticipating the Pope’s arrival. There were excellent views of the main events to be had from my room on the 12th floor of the Manila Orchid. Others events, such as the vigil for clergy, were within walking distance. At the moment, we are chatting, busying ourselves and half watching TV. The Pope is arriving now. That little dot on the screen is his plane approaching NAIA. On Sunday we’ll be able to watch the main event out of my window as we look down on Rizal park which by now is fitted out for the Papal mass in three days’ time.

Some walkways and loudspeakers have been set up. This was in the days before giant screens, most people won’t see much more than a dot, many will see nothing, but they will be in the company of holiness, like the crowds in the Gospels. A stage has been built at the far end, the American Embassy end, of the Luneta. The Embassy was a bullet and bomb magnet and the roads nearby were usually blocked off and defined by long queues of Filipinos wanting American visas. We were occasionally there, gathering documentation to show that Gisele’s close relative Hubert Webb had been in the United States during the Vizconde massacre and therefore providing him with an alibi.

I did have a pièce de résistance to show you. A handwritten letter from Warren Christopher, the then United States Secretary of State, during the first Clinton administration, but I can’t find it. Since, in the modern-day, my derring-do box sits in the attic next to my model railway, I have a horrible feeling that the Secretary’s most important letter may have been, in an emergency, covered in wallpaper paste, painted green, grassed in scatter and now looks out over the occasional passing N gauge 4 MT on milk wagons.

As for this day, we will watch the Pope arriving on TV and then make our way around the corner and see the Holy Father go past during his motorcade from the airport to his accommodations at the Embassy of the Holy See. If he notices a burnt-out flat, he might well nod a wink towards us and say a prayer for us, as that’s where we sabotaged the bomb plot, at a cost to myself of a scabby injury to the lower right-hand side of my face. Our Arabic speaker is hard at work on the terrorist’s captured laptop. Can we sit back and enjoy the visit? Yes, we can. No, we can’t because we’re busy filling up about a million empty plastic ‘mineral’ water bottles from the tap, bath, shower and toilet. The Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company are on hand to sell water to the pilgrims at the Papal mass on Sunday. We pray for a boiling hot day.

Likewise, Gisele’s disaster date, Bibi, has shifted some outsized trousers from his garment factory onto us at a very reasonable price. We will pan-handle the crowds, looking for foreign pilgrims and inhabitants of the taller islands. Being average for an Englishman, I’m therefore taller than most Filipinos and am wearing a pair myself as a ‘demonstrator’. ‘Gentlemen of the Philippines, you can be just like me’, was quite a good offer at the time, as the difference between the developed and developing countries was not only obvious but also a source of self-conscious shame to the locals.

After keeping a careful eye on the TV, we slip out of the Orchid and walk to the corner of Roxas and Quirino, hoping to see the Holy Father as he passes. It is very packed indeed. If we are separated there is a plan B. It is chaotic. There are two carriageways, both full of people and with no cordon at all. I thanked God that we’d thwarted the bomb plot and made a note to myself to increase my estimation of casualties (for the reward and extra kudos), in my over-written report to Hong Kong. Manila’s finest were on hand, creating an envelope within the heaving crowds for the motorcade to push through. Motorcycle outriders drove into the masses and stopped, leaned into the people and pushed them back, allowing a convoy of limos and a Popemobile, to progress. The police outriders from the back could then pass through to the front and repeat the process. If a police motorcycle runs over your foot and shoves you to one side, the good news is that you’re going to get a very close up view of the Pope. And so I did. Did he make eye contact with me and mouth ‘thank you’ as he went past? I think maybe he did.

After the Pope had passed and having lost Gisele in the crowd, it was time to initiate plan B. Rendezvous at Jollibee, beyond the sandbags at the front door and well away from the taped-up windows. Having thwarted the assassination attempt, we were now back to the normal ‘background count’ of gunfire and grenade attacks. Jollibee’s was very busy but, in a great tribute to the private sector, had run out of nothing, and could literally cater for your every desire, assuming you wanted a yumyum burger and still orange juice from a bucket. We sat at a table at the back, very excited. We’d both been very close to the Pope.

‘I must say Gisele, I had a realisation as he went past, a sudden understanding, almost an epiphany.’

‘Really? Not uncommon, my friend,’ she replied, ‘such times present such moments.’

I continued, ‘I suddenly realised. If our Arabic Speaker is using my laptop to access the Arab’s, then she can read my files as well as theirs. And mine aren’t even in Arabic.’

‘It is so mister, I presume, my good friend, a problema there?’

‘I’ve been writing a report to Hong Kong about all of this. It has to be done in flowery English in case the Americans want to buy it from us.’

She tucked into her yumyum burger, unconcerned.

I persisted, ‘If our Arabic speaker repeats anything uncomplimentary, it’s a misunderstanding, flowery language, London likes that kind of thing, I’m talking you up really. Honestly.’

Gisele made her hissing noise, not a good sign.

My cell-phone made a sound, I ignored it.

‘What I’m trying to say, Gisele …’

Her cell-phone rang, she answered it.

On cue, it was our Arabic speaker sifting for us.

‘She’s found something’, Gisele said in a startled voice.

‘Ah’, I replied, the blood draining from my face, ‘if it’s the bit where I compare you to Miss Cortez in Davao City, what I really meant was …’

She cut me off with her ‘nits’ noise.

‘Nah, it’s about the Moro assassins, guess what she’s found.’

To Be Continued……

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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