We are a family of six taking a late November weekend break in chilly Northern France. It is the year 2018. We are split into three teams as, unfortunately, I have accidentally booked us into two different hotels next to two different railway stations. Added to which, my oldest son prefers to sleep in his university accommodations nearby. All of our phones show different times, making a rendezvous complex. On leaving England, mine didn’t adjust itself and therefore it runs an hour late. Other family members put their phones forward by an hour not realising that the phone had already done it for them. There’s a suspicion that at least one of our party (a female?) moved the time backwards instead of forwards. Somehow, we have all managed to be in the same place at the same time, Lille Cathedral, for the 11am Sunday service (or is it the 12 noon or 1pm or 10am?).
After church, we shall strike out around Lille and take in some of the attractions. It is a very cold late Autumn day and I have, as a gentleman should in a full cathedral, sat on the end of a pew far away from the heaters. On leaving, through Irish architect Peter Rice’s Minecraft inspired South-West wing, I make polite conversation, in gentle jest, with the local parishioners,
‘Je me tres du froid. Nous somme trouvez la jardin zoological. Je me allez au la maison de tropiques.’
If you can’t understand my French, neither could the French, until I continued,
‘Dit au la topiques, quand je me jeune, je me habite dans le isle de Philippe.’
At which point they had the good sense to make their excuses, hurry their step and scurry away through the narrow, cobbled Nord pas de Calais streets.
As we consulted the guidebook, our expedition was presented with a bizarre and difficult set of opening times. ‘Closed for lunch’. What does that mean in the French context? And does it dovetail into ‘Closed for Souper au Diner?’.
The Museum of Sacred Art was open only on Saturdays and Sundays from 2.30pm to 6.30pm. The Cannon Museum opened only on Saturdays from 10am to 5pm. The Comtesse Hospice Museum, 10am to 6pm every day, except the days when it was closed or opened at 2pm. Got that? Now work out a tour schedule without knowing what time it is. In the end, we really did decide upon the zoo. It appeared to be open all of the time, presumably because it’s organised around the animals rather than the French.
On arriving, there was a big note pinned to the entrance.
‘What does fermé pour l’hiver mean?’, I asked our French speakers, ‘Free entry for the English?’
Alas not, the previous day, Zoo Lille had closed for the entire winter.
We stood in a little huddle, looking at the locked doors and high fences, feeling colder and colder. Could we hear some animal noises from within? I think we could. Was that the mellow lowing of a water buffalo? The call of a monkey-eating eagle? A cry of ‘gecko’, ‘gecko’ above the scampering patter of a frightened lizard’s little feet? The day warmed to an uncomfortable heat. The sky turned an electric azure. The calendar ran backwards through the decades. My phone set itself forward eight hours. Not only did my hair grow back, it even turned a deep healthy brown. My teeth repaired themselves and become a shiny, natural white.
The ancient French city dissolved around me, replaced by a packed Rizal park surrounded by Manila’s South-East Asian chaotic, heaving urban blocks.
Squeezing through the throng, as couples often are, myself and my business associate Gisele have been thrown back together again by the lure of mutual profit.
It is the day of the Papal mass. Four million (the biggest crowd ever) assembles about the Luneta, walking distance from my accommodations at the Manila Orchid hotel. We have filled my room with Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company ‘mineral’ water, filled from my bathroom, and will sell it to the pilgrims.
We also offer outsized clothes to tourists (and inhabitants of the taller islands) from Gisele’s disaster date Bibi’s garment factory. Crystal, our Arabic speaker, has been given a day off, assuming that a day off entails traipsing up and down in a lift laden with ‘mineral’ water and clothes. While engaged in our busy-busy, myself and Gisele (despite the surroundings she is not dressed as a Catholic priest), regardless of the platonic nature of our friendship, squabble like an old married couple.
‘Why did you tell Uncle Jesus where I was?’
‘Why did you murder his favourite niece?’
We’re on the last lap now. We have shifted a mountain of product and are squeezing our way back through the crowd. It’s not as hot as we’d hoped, nor the pilgrims as uncomfortably thirsty as they could have been. We had to drop our prices but, reassuringly, didn’t sell out too early. Ultimately, I am used to northern latitudes with their still lakes and sheep smattered hills. I confide to Gisele that my money belt is the,
‘Size of a tup’s testicles in the first week of November.’
‘Filth?’, she enquires.
‘But good’, she concludes.
Back at the Orchid I empty my sack (really) and we share the money on the bed (please). Crystal is there too, looking down over that packed Rizal park. There are no big screens and it is too full to get anywhere near the front, so we will look out over the event from my room while simultaneously watching on TV.
‘I haven’t killed her. She’ll have gone down south with the sick girl Johanna, the pair of them took an interest in Utopia.’
As everybody knows, women spend their whole lives competing with each other for the attention and approval of men. Gisele was no exception and seemed rather disappointed that Matilde, Uncle Jesus’s favourite niece, was probably still alive.
‘A descendant of the least honourable of my ancestors’, she reminded me.
Matilde was also a founder member of my ‘Keeping in Touch’, perfume-samples-for-information, maid’s spy ring. This also irritated Gisele, as she’d been initiated somewhat later.
‘And who is this Jo-hanna? They meet you then they disappear, mister, and I’m the bad one for noticing’.
‘I chaperoned her on the ferry, by chance. I told her to go to Matilde in Josephina City and tell her I’d be in Sipalay lying low after the pills for prisoners mini-scandal.’
Gisele made her ‘humpff’ noise.
‘Your sister Issa was being un-cooperative. She would introduce me to Sipalay but not tell anyone where I was.’
I concluded that, ‘It’ll all be proved to be very innocent when I find them.’
The Pope was travelling back and forward by helicopter. The crowds were too dense for a motorcade. The security situation had been eased by the Moro’s bomb factory being disrupted. One of the terrorists had been caught by the Philippine authorities and another had been turned by myself and whisked out of the country. By now, I should imagine, he would be in one of our compounds in Pakistan.
‘Call Ding, Gisele. I need a ticket south and am taking a mountain of excess luggage. I have to get those packages to the philanthropist Mr Cortez, fairly soon.’
‘And find those missing girls, if you ever want to come back alive’, she reminded me.
Crystal interrupted and began to rhyme off a list of flight numbers that I should avoid. She’d written them down on a piece of paper that she handed to me.
‘For goodness sake, Crystal,’ as usual I was rather sharp with her.
‘Stop obsessing about these planes and pilots,’ I urged, ‘the plot’s been disrupted. And even if a trainee pilot did crash a Cessna into the Orchid, what harm would it do? Break five hundred dollars’ worth of windows and kill the terrorist pilot. Who cares?’
Crystal replied that I was right, which meant that I was wrong. She went on to say that I was always right, which meant that I was always wrong. Then she sulked.
Am I allowed to be rather irritable? Time was tight and the police and Uncle Jesus had only given me two weeks to find those girls. Four days had already been taken, most usefully and profitably, on the Papal visit and on making my preparations to head south.
Another two days had passed by the time we rendezvoused again. This time in reception at the Orchid. As I checked out, Gisele recovered the Camry from the underground car park. She now had the captured terrorist’s laptop. Having gleaned as much as we could from it, it would be sold to the highest bidder through her attorney sister. We all hoped that this would help to heal the rift between the sisters and allow Gisele to move back into her sister’s property at 5224 San Augustin Street, especially now that I was leaving Manila.
Gisele had one of her brothers with her, Dong, and a maid from 5224. They would drive me to the pick-up and help to get myself, and Mr Cortez’s order, to the airport. It was very late evening. Airport traffic was so appalling that anyone not setting off in the middle of the night was likely to miss their morning flight. I was itching to get away. Given the various unavoidable excitements in Manila, I was long overdue showing face in the south, in Davao City.
As per the presidents of the Republic previously described, 19th century revolutionary hero Tandang Sora had an avenue named after her. It ran from the University of the Philippines toward Quirino Avenue, surrounded by some rather pleasant residential subdivisions. As such it was a major thoroughfare, despite which it narrowed at times to less than one carriageway wide.
Our very useful friends at the fire department had printed out a route, allowing us to find (in amongst people’s houses), rattling and banging and smelling of chemicals twenty-four-seven, Dane Publishing. A purveyor of educational books to establishments along the whole archipelago, from authorship to final print but not distribution for those dangerously south of Cebu. Cash upfront please, pick them up yourself in a crate.
Myself and Dong hammered on its corrugated tin doors. We were answered by a small boy on fire watch. He shone his torch in my eyes while I gave a little speech, apologising for the late hour and stating that I had to pick up an order for a colleague. Belatedly, I asked if he could speak English, but he was off, shouting ‘follow, follow’, surrounded by dancing torchlight and a swarm of moths.
Dane’s yard was full of barrels of stinking chemicals. Beyond them was a workshop, illuminated by rows of bare light bulbs. Rolls of rough off white-paper were shouldered to the presses from the other end of which large bundles of printed pages were thrown across backs and heaved to the guillotines. The place stank of oil and ink and glue. There were no masks or goggles. A chemical haze hovered above the machines, giving the topless, sweating printers a ghostlike outline. Dong and I were led up an open metal staircase to an office door. The boy knocked and, without waiting for a reply, entered. Myself and Dong followed.
Inside, a girl sat with her head on a desk, another girl was curled on a mat on the floor. Both of them were asleep. The boy shouted ‘oi, oi, oi, oi,’ as he slapped the girl at the desk’s face.
She sat up, and without hesitation, as if found awake, asked in poor English if she could help. Her co-worker on the mat slept on. I repeated my story, this time mentioning Mr Cortez by name. She looked puzzled. Dong translated for me. She nodded and picked up an old-fashioned dog-bone shaped telephone receiver on her desk. After struggling for a connection, she gave up, left us, and tottered down the stairs into the inky haze.
About 10 minutes later we were shouted downstairs also. An ink-stained man stood beside two crates. I reached for my money,
‘Paid-up, Jo, paid-up’, he exclaimed and then held his hand out anyway for an ‘administration charge.’
I gave him some notes and told him to have a drink on Mr Cortez. He laughed and said to pass on his regards. The inky man helped to carry the boxes to the car and put them into the Camry’s boot. He slammed it shut and banged on it twice with his palm to send us on our way.
Gisele set off, returning along Tandang Sora but, at an early opportunity, she turned left into a side street. She put her foot to the floor and raced towards a local landmark, the needle in Quezon circle.
‘What’s in the boxes?’, she snarled, ‘They print money I’ll bet? Print some for me. You Englishman, that’s where you get your money from, mystery solved.’
Myself and the maid were in the back. Dong was sat beside Gisele in the front. He confessed that he didn’t know for sure what was in the boxes, we hadn’t looked in them.
‘Grrrrr, idiotic men. A bomb? Drugs?’, Gisele exclaimed, braking so hard that Dong had to reach out to the dashboard to avoid his head hitting the windscreen. The maid slid off her seat beside me and landed in a heap in the footwell.
As I helped her back up, she took the opportunity to sink her nails into my forearm, a universal warning of danger. Gisele was out of the car and opening the boot already. She put her head back around the open driver’s door.
Dong obliged, pulling a short, serrated hunting knife from beneath his belt. Seconds later the four of us were stood around the open boot. Dane’s crates were wedged next to my blue Berghaus backpack. Gisele took the knife to the top of a Dane crate, split it in two and held it open.
Not surprisingly it was filled with books. The paper was grey and poor, the printing blotchy and brown. Gisele used both of her hands to pull about two dozen of them free. The space created allowed her to rummage about looking for a bomb, drugs or guns. She found only knowledge, typed in grey, bound and glued within thin cardboard covers.
She addressed the maid,
‘Tidy that mess up, girl.’
The maid began returning the books to the crate. Gisele kept one for herself. She opened the front page and read aloud from the flyleaf in an affected sarcastic voice.
‘From the library of Victorio Cortez, a gift of wisdom and harmony to the future good citizens of Mindanao that they may live in peace and tollerance.’
‘It will be the first good that’s ever been in that place’, she said, throwing the book at the maid,
‘Curse the Dabaoenoes’, she continued, ‘Curse gangster-gangster Cortez, he drives our family from the South, and curse the corrupt judge Tolentino, who tries to drive us from the north. And the whore Vizconde, from beyond the grave she … ‘.
‘Enough Gisele’, Dong was sharp with his sister and made as if to strike her. She stopped dead, turned and threw herself back into the driver’s seat. She slammed her door shut and stared ahead like a scolded 8-year-old.
I helped the maid to return the last of the books and fold the top of the crate shut again.
‘What?’ I whispered to her.
‘Don’t go south, mister,’ she replied, barely audibly.
‘They will kill you. You are finished there.’
‘Of course I’m not, I’ve hardly started. We helped mayor Duterte win his election, all is good.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘Have the maids heard from Matilde, girl? Tell me,’ I whispered, ‘What did she say? Is she well? How is Utopia?’
All the maid would say was, ‘Don’t go, please mister.’
I squeezed her arm for more but then had to let go of her quickly as Dong was hovering. He took a step closer to us and ended our whispered confidence by putting a hand on the boot lid to close it. Within a few minutes, we were driving around the Quezon circle, in stony silence, and then heading south towards the airport.
The domestic airport used the same runway as the international one, its terminal simply being at the other end of it. There was a plan to move the international airport to Clark field, the recently abandoned (due to volcano damage) US air force base north of Manila, near Angeles City. The international airport would become the domestic. The overhead railway would be extended north to Clark and south to the current airport allowing a fast connection between the two. Three decades later, the wait continues.
Gisele parked in a bay marked for armoured cars only. She reminded the airport goons of who she was and pointed to all of the badges on the Camry’s windscreen. They told her to go away and threatened her with their nightsticks.
I was abandoned with my crates and Berghaus, on a concrete ramp beside a side door. Was there a spit of rain?
The Camry roared back towards the avenue, in the direction of Makati City, on the wrong side of the road. One big hand and two little hands hung out of its widows waving goodbye to me.
‘Bye, my friends, soon,’ I mouthed after them with little emotion, not realising that I would never see any of them, or Manila, ever again.
To be continued.
Author’s Note: Have I got you baffled? If so, let me know in the (un-read) comments section and I’ll write a ‘recap’ episode. Best wishes and stay tuned.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file