For a recap of the story so far, please click here.
For some reason, Sister thought that things were, ‘Pretty shitty’. She’d just met the Pope, was flying first class and was eating a delicious Philippine Airlines fish stake on a relaxing six-hundred-mile flight from Manila, south to Davao City. She was also reading of the booming economy from a complimentary copy of The Philippine Enquirer. As an aside, why were these things printed on crisp, white paper (and in full colour) with giant, clear photos at a time when the English newspapers were blurry splodges which blackened your fingers in newsprint? The unions? Dopey management? Perhaps. Don’t mention any of this to Sister, it may darken her mood even further.
And not only that, but she was also sat next to this English travelling gentleman (who had two crates of school books in the hold) and she even had the window seat. Some people are never satisfied. The outlook, she repeated one more time, remained, ‘Shitty’. I leant across her lap, hopeful of a glimpse at her porthole (oh dear me, shall we make that the last one?).
Graft, corruption, drugs, abortion, the poor, the rich, Communists, Muslims. The Pope’s recent visit hadn’t quite cured everything – yet.
‘We must become instruments of God’s intention’, I replied to Sister, ‘there is a plan.’
Beyond pretty, Sister was stunningly beautiful. She was clothed, from neckline to cuffs to just above the ankles, in an amazing white dress. She glowed. On a piece of string, tied with a childish giant knot, a rough wooden cross hung around her long, tanned and slender neck. Below those tiny ankles were two tiny bare feet (perfect nails, neither coloured nor varnished) held in stout sandals. There’s one more point of description that you need to know: in this double act, in case you haven’t already guessed, I’m the sanctimonious, un-worldly do-gooder.
‘The solution? I support a project in the South,’ I told her. And I was supporting it, it was costing a fortune. I was flush at the time, there was plenty to spare. You’ll have heard of ‘austerity’? I was coping with ‘excess’. Don’t be jealous, it didn’t last, it never does – a Biblical truth.
‘An ideal community, free of these things you mention, Sister, a place of tolerance where different peoples, especially ourselves and the Moro can co-exist harmoniously. I’ve called it ‘Utopia”.
Sister rhymed off a few more: naivety, ignorance, hubris, interfering foreigners. Poor health care and television.
The Pope’s visit had been a great success, everyone had enjoyed it, the crowds had also been Biblical and (thanks partly to myself and my associate Gisele) he was still alive. The theme had been of ‘Youth’, that they should, ‘Tell the world of His love.’
There was a song, myself and Sister broke into it. She even did the hand gestures.
‘For God so loved the world, He gave us His only son.’
‘Perhaps a generational change, Sister? In God and nature’s time, not ours?’
Outside, God and nature were putting on quite a show. Apart from the giant bridge, as we flew over Mactan, little could be seen of the human world. Our vista included under-sea coral reefs, only visible from the air, and the perfectly conical volcanoes of the Pacific’s rim of fire, which emerged towards the endless sky from a million shades of foothill green.
Incidentally, flying over Mactan put me into the lawless, uninsurable South. We had entered the Foreign Office’s skull and crossbones zone, where dialling the Bat Phone at the Embassy would result in a Charlotte, a Lily or a Sophie running a finger through a flow chart in a flick book, all the way to ‘Tough titty, sort it out yourself, ___ off’. Maybe Sister had a point?
‘Kidnapping, child exploitation,’ she blurted out spontaneously.
Which reminded me,
‘I’m looking for two girls, about fifteen, short with black hair and black eyes.’
Sister made a hissing noise.
‘That’s not my kind of thing, Sister. They’ve gone missing, I have to find them, on pain of getting the blame and seeing my name in the ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ column in Mindanao Life. Pray for me, please.’
‘Police corruption, para-militar-ee violence, bounty hunters,’ Sister suggested.
Perhaps Sister could help? I passed her my business card, asking her to put the word about and to get in touch if she heard anything. A modest reward might be available. Sister continued her litany, her tone slightly altered.
‘Propaganda, political warfare, perception management.’
‘Excuse me, Sister?’
‘London, Karachi and Hong Kong, no job too small,’ she continued.
Ah, I’d given Sister the wrong business card. I took it off her and swapped it for an ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’ one. I assured her that the three ‘P’s meant something else in the Queen’s English and, in the interests of avoiding misunderstanding, she might want to forget what she’d just read.
‘But keep an eye out for those girls, one with a posh Josephina dialect but a maid’s demeanour, and one with sickly skin and a Luzon shaped head. The sooner I find them the better. I told them about my Utopia and they set off to find it.’
This caused Sister to reflect, and she turned to look out of her porthole. We were now descending over a patchwork of barangay roofs, rattling the tin and shaking the wood beneath them. At the fringe of Davao airfield, schoolboys and schoolgirls, immaculate in their tiny blue and red uniforms, waited patiently for the landing Airbus to pass before dashing across the runway. We crawled past a line of jeeps and soldiers guarding a line of Bronchos and Bells, resting as if beasts grazing upon concrete pasture between bouts of insurgency.
Walking down the steps with the other first-class passengers, the airport terminal looked about fifty yards away. It was two stories tall, rather grand, and built in the local style of a long, high, pitched roof, shaped as if placed on top of another longer but lower roof. As my feet touched the boily hot Mindanao tarmac, I heard the attendant at the bottom of the steps say,
‘Welcome to the new South, sir.’
Like General MacArthur at Red Beach, Leyte, two years after his ignominious dispatch from Bataan by the Japanese, I had returned. Except MacArthur wasn’t as pleased with himself as I was and, judging by the old movie reels, he didn’t quite manage my swagger.
You’ll recall that Ginger Rodgers had to do everything that Fred Astaire did (whilst moving backwards in high heels). Likewise, MacArthur had ten thousand men and a pretty secretary, whereas I had to do all of this on my own whilst dragging two crates of school books about.
There were only two flights a day from Manila to Davao City in those days, one in the morning and one in the evening. The planes were always packed, as was that concrete and glass, large native longhouse style terminal. Outside was no better. Beyond the wire and the first line of armed guards, the two daily arrivals were still a bit of an occasion.
There were motorbikes, passenger cars and public taxis clogged everywhere. Without another white person in sight, I stood head and shoulders above the throng. There was gunfire in the background, to the northwest, outgoing, nothing to worry about. I pushed my way through the mass of people towards an orderly row of jeepneys and private taxis, which suggested the presence of a main road.
Five minutes later I was in a Yumyum cab speeding towards the city centre. It was a Japanese model, well-restored but already having done over a hundred thousand miles in a Japanese city, before a big ship had dumped it in the archipelago, sold for cash in hand, no questions asked. The driver was young and talkative. He recommended the ‘Insular’ but I insisted upon the ‘Durian’. I received a running commentary along the main road whilst heading the eight kilometres to downtown.
‘I know’, I interrupted, ‘I’ve been here before.’
This was a shanty area, here were the squatters, that was the cockpit, there was the church, that was where the new flyover was to be built. You’re a lot closer to the Equator than to Manila, mister.
‘I know, I live here.’
This was the biggest city in the Philippines, in terms of area, though its undeveloped fringes were still a countryside of paddy fields and tropical crops dotted with nipa huts on stilts.
Between a plastic Jesus and a bright badge with an obscene yellow slogan written across it, the meter whirred around at an impossible rate. Concerned, I offered it a swig of mineral water. The taxi suddenly lurched sideways and stopped abruptly, beside a bus stop, opposite the municipal prison and alongside a modern three-story high building, each floor of which tapered thinner than the other, providing a gentle slope above each individual level’s rows of windows.
The upper floors were hotel rooms. The ground floor was of small retail units fronting onto the main road. All of the units were food outlets except two. One of those two was the Durian Hotel’s reception, the other, presently locked and shuttered, bore a brass plaque announcing itself to be the headquarters of ‘The Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company (Davao City)’. Yes, I lived above the shop, albeit in a five-star hotel. The meter screeched to a halt too, at an excruciating three hundred Pesos.
‘I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow morning, Jo, I’ll be your driver’, offered the young man as he emptied my boxes and Berghaus from the boot.
‘Not at these prices,’ I replied, slipping him three purple war game hundreds from my clip.
A security guard carried my luggage into reception and helped with the school book crates. His colleague remained on the door, pump-action shotgun in hand, scanning the street through dark glasses, his blue uniform covered in gold badges which glinted under the eternal southern sun.
Previously, I asked you to imagine me with a big scabby bash on the right-hand side of my face, from temple to chin. That was just about healed by now. The adrenaline, sunshine, fresh air, and a lotion that my Manila business associate Gisele dripped onto it, did wonders. However, until further notice, I want you to imagine me dragging those two damn crates of books about with me everywhere I go, aided by passers-by, taxi drivers, security guards, old ladies and small children desperate for a few coins.
At this moment the crates are in the Durian’s downstairs reception while an exceptionally pretty girl fills in my cards, asks to see my passport (I show her the blue one) and then notes its number. She mentions valuables for the hotel safe but I decline. She points to a sign on her desk.
‘All Firearms Must Be Left at Reception.’
My gun was in bits in my Berghaus, I fished them out and she locked them into a box. I heard steps behind me coming down the stairs that led to the rest of the hotel.
The duty manager announced himself, ‘Welcome back sir, a man of your word.’
Not always the case in this part of the world. Some people snapped and vanished. Others did one tour, recalled it forever after as if bragging rights, and we never saw them again. However, the staff were used to me coming back as promised, but I suspected that they suspected that a reasonable man might suspect I’d be back in a body bag (on its way back to Blighty) one of these days.
The DM was the masculine equivalent of the girl at reception. Impossibly handsome, immaculately dressed, he extended a strong handshake beneath a broad smile as he introduced himself as Gill, pronounced Hill. He ushered me into a tiny room beside reception, where he folded himself into a chair behind a desk dominated by a giant Star Trek style computer monitor. Gill repeated the corporate line about firearms on hotel premises. He apologised and cited health and safety, as if not having heavily armed guests about the corridors was a bit of a nuisance. He asked if there was anything that he could do to help during my stay?
‘I have business with Mr Victorio Cortez,’ I replied, ‘I’m having trouble contacting him, the phone lines from Manila have been awful.’
Gill nodded, ‘You’ve been in May-nila all this time?’
‘Mainly, and Negros, Bacolod, Sipalay via Josephina and prison. Paranaque municipal jail. Not as bad as it sounds. In small doses.’
He assured me that the communication problema were temporary, caused by the recent Papal visit and the booming economy. The mobile phone masts were going up daily, it would only get better. He shook my handy firmly again as we prepared to part, stating, ‘You know sir, it is more friendly here, and the people more hospitable and generous than in May-nila, you are always welcome here.’ Then he spoiled the effect somewhat, over a continuing warm handshake, by insisting I promise never to leave the hotel after dark. Ever. Under any circumstances.
He reminded me that, even in daylight, security was only responsible for my well-being when I was actually on the premises. As soon as I stepped out of the door, I must fend for myself. The men might intervene if I was within sight or earshot, but they might not,
‘There is no obligation, they are professionals, it is a judgement that they must make. Welcome to the new South.’
I was shown upstairs to a room. It was excellent. There was an air conditioner built into a wall, my own marbled bathroom, a small refrigerator and a large double bed. No one was sleeping on a mat on the floor. There wasn’t even a total stranger dozing in a hammock. Even better still, it was spotlessly clean and insect-free. A maid placed my Berghaus at the foot of the bed. I offered her some small notes but she refused.
I showered on my own, without even wearing a T-shirt or shorts. I surprised myself by feeling a slight tinge of regret that nobody was watching me. While drying myself, I checked my cell-phone. No signal, excellent. I lay on the bed and went out as quickly as a steeply falling sun dropping behind a very low latitude horizon.
Life was good, all I had to do was to get those books to Mr and Miss Cortez and find those two missing girls, who were bound to be at Utopia. I would do it the next day, at my leisure, after a lie-in and a light breakfast. Little did I realise.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file