Postcard from Lille, Part 48

Reopen for Business

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Musee d’Histoire Naturelle de Lille
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

For a recap of the story so far, please click here.

We’re plodding around Lille on a cold Sunday afternoon at the end of November 2018. There are six of us in a wedge. Five have travelled from England to rendezvous with the sixth who is ‘en résidence’ at Lille University. There are bizarre and difficult opening times for the attractions, based upon generous French meal times and the anniversaries of saints. We meander upon the Natural History museum which is sort of simultaneously open and closed. Yes, it is open but the front door is closed. It is an electric sliding door which isn’t working and won’t slide. However, it can be lifted out of its socket and bounced to one side. We are in. My French is not great but, with the fortuitous stupidity of the idiot, I get us all in for ‘gratuit’ by inadvertently and accidentally announcing us to be a party of students and invalids.

It was great. Highly recommend. Five stars. Imagine a wide, long corridor with two levels, the upper a gallery overlooking the lower. The right-hand side is cordoned off for ‘improvement’. I have a horrible feeling it might have been for a dinosaur experience and a load of tripe about global warming. Fingers crossed. In the other direction, a glimpse of a better, previous world where natural history focused upon ‘nature’ and ‘history’. Yes, there was cabinet after cabinet after cabinet of stuffed animals and pinned insects.

There was a big Africa running from floor to ceiling, from the beasts of the soils, through the savanna, up to the mountain cliffs, all the way up to the beasts of the air. It is so much easier to understand how God and nature created the world and filled it with life when you have something tangible and cleverly laid out to stand and stare at in wonder. Or would you rather learn about these things by listening to a sanctimonious TV liberal wallowing in five-star luxurious guilt? However, in deference to the aforementioned, my wife did mention that it was hardly surprising that these things were becoming extinct, as the French seemed to have shot and stuffed an awful lot of them.

But what is that case in the corner? It was difficult to see, but I think I spotted sharp claws gripping a mahogany branch. The kind of beak that might rip a monkey to bits looked proud beneath a white and yellow plume. Beneath that, a tiny freshwater crocodile (begging to be turned into a pair of shores) peeped out through the toquilla straw (which begged to be turned into a hat). The croc’s dead eyes stared at me as if preparing a twenty-stitch bite for a travelling gentleman’s right shin. ‘Poke its eyes out with a pen nib’, they’d said to me at the time. ‘Bloody shoot it’, was the first thing that had come to my mind. Everybody in the territory, from toddler to geriatric, carried a gun and they expected me to fight off a crocodile with a biro. Dear God.

Not to mention a giant poisonous frog.

The glass case evaporated, the wood became transparent, the natural history museum dissolved around me. The Philippine eagle spread its wings and soared into an endless blue sky (above a simmering volcano). The little Mindoro croc slithered towards a stream. In the distance? The noise and smell of a tropical farm, the singing of the girls in the paddies, the mellow contentment of the grazing carabao. Beyond them, the start of the big, tropical city beside the coast, all bustle and dust and wires and concrete.

* * *

Slightly to one side of the city’s heart, sat myself in an office, facing the street, on the retail outlet floor of the Durian Hotel building. After too many weeks absent, that morning I had reopened the ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company (Davao City)’. A sign now swung on the door handle announcing, ‘We are back! No job too small, English spoken.’

Earlier, I’d opened the shutters and unlocked the door to a scene of light pilfering. Not as light as it could have been but, all the same, enough was remaining to get business up and going. There was no sign of any staff. I’d expected some to have been stood down (or had breakdowns) at the end of the elections, but I thought one or two might have remained. I expected, as the jungle drums told of my reappearance, that they too would reappear. I hoped for a driver and a bodyguard at least. I was also expecting my contacts in the south, the Cortez’s, to present themselves. I just had to sit there and wait.

About half of the furniture had gone. Not a bad average. Entire houses had been known to be stolen in this locale. Slates and breeze blocks could be dismantled, loaded onto a truck and driven away in half an afternoon. Wooden homes on stilts were sometimes lifted in their entirety, with the help of a couple of big chaps in each corner, and carried off. I’d escaped very lightly. Most of the natives must like me. Besides some furniture, most of the stationary had gone. There were no carpets or mats to start with. Everything of real value was in the back room, in the safe, which remained concreted into the wall.

Sitting at my desk in the front office, I looked through the display window which held a second sign saying, ‘Wanted. Treasured customers, we offer a reward for information regarding the whereabouts of Miss Matilde (a Josephineño), and Miss Jo-hanna, (probably a Luzonian), new to this province.’

Beyond that was the bus stop and its queue and behind that the municipal jail which, ludicrously, only had three sides. One side being open, the prisoners were allowed to come and go as they pleased. At least they could have, had they not been in manacles and chains while pottering about the correctional facility’s parched market garden.

The morning started well, with a fair bit of passing trade. A gentleman collector of foreign currency, on behalf of his ill nephew, offered to take a ten-dollar bill from me.

‘The last American note the poor boy needs for his album, mister, he improves every day that the collection increases.’

There was some English money in the safe in the back office. I gave him a pound coin instead. The back office was dingey. The back window was boarded up to keep the sun and heat out. Beyond it was the noise and bustle of a lumber yard which sat behind the Durian. Our next caller was offering encyclopaedias and the following two, pyramid selling scams. Not wasted time, I was always interested to hear other people’s sales pitches, often stole their good ideas and, occasionally, their suppliers. They were followed by the Avon lady. I took some order forms from her, wrote my own code on the bottom of them, promised her I’d pass them around and trusted her to send me any modest commission generated from them. I tried to sell her a school book. Miss Cortez wouldn’t miss one or two, would she?

* * *

Did someone say ‘Miss Cortez’? It’s time you knew more. You have already seen her but haven’t been formally introduced. In a previous episode, she was pictured on a tropical beach, face raised to the sun, paddling in the shallows. Her light blue jeans were pulled up, well above her ankles. Behind her, a crescent of golden sand apparently fringed virgin, tropical jungle. Controversially, the caption begged, what your humble narrator thought to be an obviously rhetorical question, ‘Rather be in Carlisle?’. Before her, rippling clear water, as blue as the sky, disappeared as if to infinity, as the Gulf of Davao met the Celebes Sea, which runs uninterrupted all the way to the Equator and beyond.

Much of life, and just about all of perception management, is about ‘framing’. Had the camera been pointing in the other direction, you would have seen the Insular Hotel and a busy road beyond it peeping through a row of palm trees and tropical bushes. We would take a room at the Insular from time to time for a breather. Fine dining, a paddle in the gulf, freshen up in the room in anticipation of some more fine dining and, in-between times, effortlessly and almost by accident, fall into the plans for the next part of our big and profitable adventure.

There was a museum at the Insular (highly recommended) and some images of old Davao also hung in the restaurants. They depicted ladies, immaculate in their home-made lace dresses, accompanied by gentlemen in their suits. Ponies and traps were shown on near-deserted streets which consisted of wooden buildings between roads of compacted earth. Those photographs were only a few years old. Ominously, the occasional Toyota or lump of concrete was portrayed in the sepia images too, such was the rapid pace of change in the south of the archipelago.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Davao City street view
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

As for that description of Miss Cortez, she was short even by local standards, slightly built and topped off with the ubiquitous glossy shoulder-length black hair of the islands, always kept in place by a striped hairband. She was quietly spoken until she needed to be loud and then she was very loud indeed. Be-sandaled or even barefoot, she dressed modestly in t-shirt and jeans unless she was at work, in the schools, in which case she wore the same immaculate uniform as the employees.

Have you ever been introduced to Samantha Cameron? If so, you will have noticed that, like many political spouses, she’s a lot more polished than her useless other half. Smartly turned out, perfectly presented, polite, intelligent and talkative, during small talk she will drop into the conversation that she is a Scunthorpe lass (we know she means rural Lincolnshire), that her father is a farmer (landowner of twenty thousand acres) and that he’s called ‘Reggie’ (Sir Reginald Adrian Berkeley Sheffield, 8th Baronet).

Likewise with Miss Cortez, teacher (owns the schools), father works at the docks (owns them and takes a cut of everything that passes through them). If she tells you where she lives then you know more than me, as I never found out. The Cortez’s owned many properties and we would meet at one of them, or at church, or the in Anglo Philippine office, or my room in the Durian, or at the beach at the Insular, or upon the rim of a volcano or in the middle of a cockpit, but never anywhere that looked like it might be the Cortez family home.

Miss Cortez never carried a gun but often had bodyguards or a chaperone. Had that camera been pointed the other way, you would have seen two of them at a discreet distance, just where the beach joins the Insular’s wooden lodges. She had the well-connected native’s sixth sense in regards to when something was about to kick off, and would occasionally change the plan at the last minute, or take me by the elbow and lead me to a side street, just before the lead and shrapnel began to fly. The suspicion being that her father had a hand in the mayhem.

Not completely unarmed, she kept a handful of polished stones in a pocket. She had two throwing actions, ‘girly’, pivoted from the elbow, palm starts at the face. A scatter approach which chases rabid dogs and emaciated cats. And ‘sniper’, a sideways action, arm parallel to the hip, accompanied by a very severe flick of the wrist, can hit a (very surprised and sore) man on the head from a good distance. Now that you know as much about her as I do, can you climb into the story and help me to find her? Because I’m stumped. I would have expected her to come to me fairly promptly, but she hasn’t. I’m also wary of the strange goings-on at that bus stop beside the municipal jail opposite.

* * *

The queue had ebbed and flowed as the buses, jeepneys and taxis called. But one thing remained constant, like a big rock or a stubborn crab ignoring the force of the waves lapping against it on a tropical beach. A young woman was either very unlucky with the bus routes or was standing and staring at me, apparently scouting the office. I should keep an eye on her, and might even do something about it, but the day was getting too hot and it was very close to ‘eat a pastry time’, from the cake shop next door.

And thus, in among the derring-do, was provincial life in Mayor Duterte’s Davao City decades ago. I must say, dear reader, I’m starting to well up thinking about it. Amongst the gunfire and grenade attacks, death threats and assassination attempts, I met some really nice people and have lots of happy memories. However, I must dab my eyes with a dirty hankie as I finish my pastry. A harsher reality calls in the shape of a boy selling newspapers. He charges me ten times the cover price, after which I devour the publication, looking for references to myself, especially on the ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ page (between fighting cock sales and magic potions).

No, there was no mention of me or the missing misses Matilde and Johanna. I still had a long week before the deadline to find them expired, and the police set the bounty hunters on me. No need to panic, or even rush. I was certain they would be at the Utopia community that I’d set up in the countryside nearby. I would go there soon but first I needed to deliver the school books to the Cortez’s and to arrange safe passage to Utopia through them, which was the usual procedure. I began to doze. No matter what the clock said, as far I was concerned, both the hour and minute hands were pointing to ‘Siesta’.

I locked up, walked past the cake outlet and into reception at the Durian. I retired to my room and, as was my habit that far south, opened the mini-fridge and sat naked in front it’s open door. There was an ice tray. I was very tempted to take it out and sit in it. Instead, I turned the air conditioner up to full pelt, until it started spitting ice into the room.

And that’s how Cogoy found me, fast asleep, propped against the end of my bed, stark naked. My feet had slipped into the mini-refrigerator. He’d brought a wicker seat, perhaps from a corridor or a function room, pulled it up, sat on it and begun staring at me. The reader can imagine him taking his gun from his belt, removing the clip, fiddling with it for no particular reason other than to pass the time, replacing it, flicking the safety switch and cupping it in a palm on his lap, pointing the nozzle at me. There was no hurry, perhaps of all the things he could be doing, watching a sleeping white man, whilst ordering his own thoughts, seemed the least disagreeable.

Cogoy had prepared his space carefully. When I awoke, I stretched and blinked and looked around me. There was ice from the aircon on the floor and a big wet ice-tray-melt puddle running all the way from the fridge to beneath me. Cogoy was nicely highlighted. The room wasn’t particularly dark despite the curtains being closed. Sunlight blasted around their edges and through the slightest of gaps where they met. On the top of the fridge, propped against a mineral water bottle, was a little card. Rather like a saint’s motto or a memorial card for a recently deceased. Speaking of the deceased, I couldn’t help but recall that various combinations of playing cards were rumoured to be left at the scene of killings. To my right, between myself and the door, was that man Cogoy in that wicker chair, sitting quietly, pointing a gun at me. There were noises from the lumber yard and the clatter, clatter of the aircon. I rubbed my eyes, looked again, he was still there. The gun motioned to the card on the top of the fridge.

‘Take a look at it, mister’.

Had I assumed the bounty hunters weren’t after me yet? Perhaps famous last words? The accent wasn’t local. The English was crisp, metropolitan, learned at home, since birth, from professional parents. Certainly not picked up from movies, TV, language school or by mimicking the pidgin English of the provinces. A better class of hired assassin?

‘I’ve got another week to find those girls,’ I informed him, ‘harm one hair on my head and they’ll be after you. Police. My Embassy. My dear friend Mr Cortez. Senator Webb’s family. Nowhere to hide for you.’

He looked completely unimpressed, ‘Wait a week in a tourist hotel, at a hundred dollars a night, by all means,’ I told him, aiming through his wallet towards his heart, ‘you won’t last two minutes in a hostel or lodgings with that accent. Why not go back to Manila, old chap, I’ll find the girls. Soon. I’m on the case.’

‘Take the card,’ he told me, nodding towards the top of the refrigerator.

Lotus Blossom’s, my seventh cousin eight times removed, Snake Head relatives (not from my side of the family, I hasten to mention, rather from her Chinese, rather nouveau riche, side) like to leave a ‘lucky seven’ of diamonds behind them in the blood and gore. Her Triad side, a two of clubs. A friend tells me that the CIA prefer an ace of spades. I rose slowly, naked, rather self-consciously, leaving my bottom print embossed on the damp carpet.

I picked up the card.

To be continued ….

© Always Worth Saying 2020

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