We’re in a taxi. It is the middle of the night. There is myself, the driver, uncle Jesus from Bacolod and a hired, senior police officer who is pointing a gun at me.
Uncle Jesus, killing (possibly literally) two birds with one stone, has taken some time out from his Papal visit pilgrimage to Manila, to find me and enquire about the whereabouts of his favourite niece.
‘Where’s Matilde?’, he repeats.
‘Good point’, I commended him, the sweat trickling all the way down my back to disaster date Bibi’s free sample cotton pants,
‘I can’t contact her either. Where do you think she is?’
‘You’re the last one who saw her alive.’
The word ‘alive’ made me sweat even more.
‘I said goodbye to her at the airport. Plenty of people will have seen her there. I presumed she would take a jeepney to the docks and then head back to Josephina Island.’
Uncle snapped and grabbed me by the neck from behind. He spoke in short gasps, sounding more frightened and distressed than I was.
‘You tricked me into … booked the tickets … made excuses to Nini …. while you….’
‘You don’t think I trust the Josephina side of the family, do you?’, I gasped back, ‘Matilde keeps me informed in return for little perfumes.’
I made sure to refer to Matilde in the present tense.
‘Nor the Sipalay side’, he suggests, letting go of me, ‘she comes to you in the middle of the night, and you leave with her, without telling anyone.’
I reminded him that Matilde had come to tell me that I had to dash back to Manila, Gisele needed me. The rumours of the Moro threats to the Holy Father’s life had reached a crescendo. I was needed back in Manila to help.
‘We’ve stopped another attempt tonight. There was an assassin apprehended just now at the Papal vigil. As we speak, your close relative Gisele will be selling the story to the newspapers, you will read all about it tomorrow,’ I told him.
The police officer spoke. An American answering my description, using a false ID, had travelled from Tondo on the Santa Maria Navigation. I pointed out that I wasn’t an American. It made no difference, the natives couldn’t tell the difference between Americans, Europeans and Australians and used the labels interchangeably. He went on to say that the suspect had left the ferry at an unscheduled stop, accompanied by a young girl.
‘The girl was called Johanna,’ I informed him, hoping to clear this complication up quickly, ‘By chance, I was asked to chaperone her. I gave her Matilde’s details and told her to contact Matilde and tell her where I was going. I needed someone to keep me informed. I was having to lie low because of the pills for Paranaque prisoners’ mini-scandal.’
‘For Hubert Webb? Who raped-murdered a teenager and stabbed a six-year-old to death? Nice friends you’ve got there,’ the officer pointed out.
I observed that Hubert was innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. As for me, I wasn’t even in the country during the massacre, I was overseas, and could present the documents to prove it.
‘So can Hubert Webb’, the officer said sarcastically.
Hubert’s court case was going horribly, badly wrong. Judge Tolentino was against him and refusing to admit much of his documentary evidence. Evidence which, even if admitted, was itself too easy to fake. The Americans were refusing to allow diplomats to give alibi evidence in court and Judge Tolentino was refusing to accept evidence from the Americans unless it was presented under oath in court.
It was only a matter of time before someone suggested that my spell in America could appear to overlap with Hubert’s alibi. Therefore, I would be under a huge amount of pressure to corroborate for him. By the time of the trial, I would prefer to be far away, at least back in Hong Kong and, if possible, back in the UK. Fortunately, the case was dragging on interminably, with a trial possibly years away. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound selfish, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d survive the next half hour.
‘Find Johanna, all her details will be on the Navigation’s passenger list. She’ll tell you what I’m saying is true.’
‘Believe me, mister, we are trying to find Johanna’, the officer snapped.
I felt everything sink as if I was disappearing down a tunnel, as though I was observing my own, possibly final experience on this earth, from a great distance.
I snapped out of it.
‘The pair of them showed an interest in Utopia. They’ll have headed there.’
Jesus, grunted, ‘You fill their minds with nonsense,’ he hammered the back of my seat. If it had been on my neck, he would have snapped it in two.
‘I’ll go there and find them,’ I reassured him.
‘You’ve got a week,’ the officer whispered, ‘then you’ll be arrested’.
‘That’s good of you,’ I whispered back
‘I’ll make no attempt to arrest you in person’, the officer confided, his whisper now morphed to menace, ‘There’ll be no lawyer or cosy prison cage. I’ll announce your arrest in absentia, on the front page of the newspapers. Every bounty hunter, nut and sadist in the Republic will want a piece of you, dead or alive.
‘Give me two weeks,’ I replied, ‘there’s things to do in Manila, then I can head south. I know exactly where they’ll be. Matilde was the least honourable of the cousins and Johanna struggled with her health. Her skin. They’ll have encouraged each other and set off together, heading south, for Utopia. Bound to have.’
Two weeks it was.
I was tipped out of the taxi at the Orchid, my mood foul. I crept through the underground car park and up to the twelfth floor in the service lift. I trudged along the corridor downhearted, my chin sunk into my chest. A previous taxi driver, who’d taken us to the Papal vigil, as good as his word, had left Gisele’s clothes in the corridor.
There was no sign of herself. Pink sports shoes (size two), ankle socks, three-quarters shorts and a white blouse sat in a neatly folded little pile. It looked as though the flesh and bone had just suddenly vanished as if, being too good for this world, she’d been taken to God. I thought of Gisele in cahoots with Uncle Jesus, in the shadows on her cell-phone, setting me up. Rather than taken to heaven in a rapture, I imagined her disappeared suddenly as if exterminated by a robot or hit by a thunderbolt.
I let myself into my room. It was dark. I was the loneliest man in the world. Having squeezed around the Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’s giant pile of ‘mineral’ water bottles, I put Gisele’s clothes on the floor next to my bed, where she would lie on the occasions she slept-over. There was a small explosion in the street outside, as if a heart was breaking. I sat on my bed and began to sink into self-pity.
I was distracted by a clackety-clack noise and looked up to see a green glow at the room’s desk.
My mood lifted already. I wasn’t alone at all. Our Arabic speaker was making notes from the captured laptop. ‘Laptop’ in those times sounded impressive. By today’s standards, it was a bit ‘meh’. It weighed a ton. The batteries didn’t last long. It got very hot and had the computing power of half a dozen average sixth formers with slide rules. The screen being green on green meant that it was very difficult to actually read anything on it, hence our Arabic speaker having to sit in the dark. If the light had been on, she would have had to put a towel over her head and the screen, in order to be able to read it.
I knelt down beside her and had a look at her notes.
‘There is something I must tell you, mister.’
‘Not now’, I interrupted her.
‘By the way,’ I continued, and reminded her for the umpteenth time, ‘if there’s reference to an Englishman meeting a Bin Laden in a cash and carry in Karachi, and the said Englishman doesn’t seem to do very much about it, translate it is a something else. Or just miss it out altogether.’
She had written out a bomb-making recipe in her tiny, curly script. I spotted, ‘Prepare the ingredients in the dark’. Memo to self, I can now blame Gisele for setting the fireworks off (by switching the light on in room 603) during our raid on the Moro’s apartment.
‘But mister, the numbers and times,’ she persisted.
‘Not now’, I stopped her again, ‘I just can’t be bothered.’
Not only have I been very rude to, but I’ve also been very rude about, our Arabic Speaker and haven’t even told you her name. You may have noticed, and having just written all of this down it’s just occurred to me, that we couldn’t have done any of this without her. She played a big part in saving the Pope’s life and possibly prevented a civil war kicking off between Muslims and Christians.
She had a name. It was ‘Crystal’. She is short, in the local style, black-haired and dark-eyed, very quietly spoken. She is a relative of one of the girlie bar ladies of Ermita and speaks Arabic because she previously worked in the Gulf as a domestic. She’s even lived in London, although her status was as ‘baggage’ to her abusive Saudi employers. After being repeatedly assaulted, she escaped and was repatriated to the Philippines via the nuns in an English convent. Not uncommon, you’ll have read about such things on the front page of every London newspaper, as the well-being of women is more important than protecting rich Arabs. Sorry?
Crystal has a nice big gap between her front teeth making her easy to spot. One of the important cultural issues, that you gradually soak up without really thinking about it, is what the natives look like. From all looking the same, they begin to fall into categories and then become individuals, as the mind starts to sort a different set of facial characteristics than it would when surrounded by Europeans.
As with the faces, speech stopped being a blur and became individual sounds and then individual words with meaning. Being a devious ‘white devil’ type of a chap, I kept quiet about this and pretended that I didn’t understand anything that anyone said, so that people might be indiscreet in their own language in my presence. Having said that, I didn’t quite become fluent. Locals, as everywhere in the world (except France), would speak English to me, usually to help practice theirs. And I wasn’t joking when I told you that the natives told me rude words as if proper. If you ever introduce your twenty-five-year-old Indo-Malay fourth wife to an English travelling gentleman and he, while gently lifting her hand to his lips, smiles and uses her native tongue to say in a soft, sincere voice, ‘Enchanted ma’am, I’d like to ____ your ____ off’, then it could be me.
No such faux pas had crept into Crystal’s excellent and meticulous work. Previously, she had composed the flyers and posters in Arabic which had successfully tempted our Dona Josefa suspects into the Orchid’s casino while we raided their apartment. Now she was tugging at me about ‘flight numbers’ and ‘pilot training’ translated from their captured laptop.
‘I don’t care, Crystal. I’m getting into bed. Forget about that and find something useful that we can turn into money, like bank account details or something juicy to sell to a newspaper’.
As I slipped out of my clothes and crept under my sheet, having just been rude to Crystal for the umpteenth time, I had just, avoidably, put my own life and the lives of thousands of others in great danger.
To be continued ……..
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file