If you still need proof of the existence of God through nature then take the bus, jeepney and pedicar as far as you can. When the way gets too steep for the pedicar cyclist, alight and climb. When your pretty companion can get no further, carry her on your back. It will be difficult for you, rather than impossible. It gets easier, the air is thinning and cooling. A Biblical truth reveals itself as you reach the top. The effort is worth the reward and, in this instance, the reward is the view of the Gulf of Davao.
Take a rest there and enjoy. Eat in the café and buy trinkets at the shop. Say a little prayer for the shop keepers, as everything has to be carried up that hill, and all because the Holy Infant Jesus of Prague should see across the bay. A china doll of the Nino (exotically dressed) is set in a glass case, atop a mountain, before rows of benches where the faithful might pray. Behind, lies the city, down by the coast on the channel between Mindanao and Samal Island. A brilliant blue sea becomes a canopy of lush palm fronds at a pencil-thin line of white sand. Beyond that, not much, it being close the southern-most point of the archipelago and only about five hundred miles north of the equator.
Closer inspection shows groves between fronds and sands that are interrupted by jetties and wharves. Spiders’ legs of rakes of fishermen’s stilted huts stack into the bay. And it isn’t a small city. It is the largest on Mindanao and the second largest in the Republic.
A working city at that, sheds and workshops, warehouses and wharves, the transport hub of the South and a centre for agriculture and distribution. Disturbing the waters of the bay are Mayor Duterte’s power barges, rattling and belching and curing the ‘brown-outs’.
This place has a name; Matina Hill. Beyond it, Mount Apo, the highest peak in the country climbs gently towards the sky, surrounded with wave after wave of gently rising impenetrable mountain ranges, containing the little-known peoples of the interior. High beyond the infant child, dropping like a tiny flash of sliver, a trail of vapour draws across the sky towards the airfield.
Distracting her from the glorious view, you may touch your companion lightly on the shoulder, lean towards her tiny ears and whisper towards her slender, downy neck, where glossy black hair meets olive tanned skin. Point towards the airfield and whisper the immortal words, which should be a Biblical truth too, ‘That might be my wife arriving.’
* * *
I’m sat in my ‘Anglo Philippine’ office, below my room in the Durian building, next to a busy roadside in Davao City, looking perplexed. If my present situation is a game of four-dimensional chess where all the pieces are armed (and none of them takes any notice of the rules), then this is stalemate. I’ve been warned from returning to Manila and warned off staying here. I’ve been able to deliver half of my school books to a local school but the other half still have to go to my Utopia community, out in the jungle, where they will help to promote the successful living together of different peoples. There are two missing girls, the deadline for finding them is very soon.
I’ve been going back and forward to the post office to make phone calls to check on the dangerous areas nearby. Mayor Duterte has an iron grip on the city, but less so the surrounding countryside, which remains ‘critical’, especially for a white foreigner.
There’s a suspicion that the bounty hunters are already here and are just waiting for the missing girls deadline to pass before pouncing on me. My contact and sponsor, my one-time protector, Mr Gangster-Gangster Cortez is missing, fled to his clan’s hometown of Bansalan for an ordination. My wife is rumoured to be on the way. I’m hoping for a boring day when nothing happens. I hope in vain.
* * *
There had been a bit of passing trade. I had a tray of duck embryos in the window and a pile of the previous day’s Manila Bulletins to sell. I sat and read one myself. Over it, I could see the road and the road could see me.
Two vehicles pulled up outside, a smoked glass FX tailed by a battered pickup, loaded with goons with guns. They piled out and into my office, forming a wedge around a tiny woman in a bright white ankle-length smock. One of her goons stood outside blocking my doorway, pump-action shotgun held hip to shoulder.
At the municipal jail opposite, a row of convicts, legs manacled together, put down their hoes, held the wire and looked across. Another goon stood inside my office, legs at ease, hands to the front, 9mm tucked into his belt. All stared at me. I looked back at them and wished them a good afternoon. My own gun was in a draw in my desk. Not much use there. I daren’t try to draw it in case I got shot.
The woman in the white smock smiled. Short of furniture (after some light pilfering while I was absent during my last trip to Manila), I offered the lady my seat. She preferred to sit on the edge of my desk and look down on me.
‘Mister!’, she introduced herself enthusiastically.
It was Sister, who I’d sat beside on my return flight from Manila. Regular readers will recall that she was the one whose considered opinion was that all was ‘shitty’. I couldn’t help but notice that she was dripping in diamonds and she couldn’t help but notice that I was staring at them.
‘A gift to the convent,’ she explained, ‘they accumulate faster than the cost of concrete and tin. The longer I wear them, the bigger the orphanage we can build,’ she explained.
‘It seems such a shame to keep them in the safe, like the talent hidden under the bucket in the Gospel. But I need some security,’ she said pointing to the goons, ‘or rather the diamonds do.’
She held the ones around her neck toward me. They were rather gorgeous and she suited them. I also couldn’t help but notice a stain beneath them. Very superficial, a pale red colour, almost as if watered down or mopped up blood. Before I could mention it, she had a little more to say about the diamonds.
‘What God and nature has given us,’ she reminded me.
I offered her a duck embryo. She declined. There were two very important things that she wanted to tell me. She had found me via her colleagues at Holy Cross of Agdao Academy, where two days earlier I had taken that box of school books. Also, via Mother Theresa’s Sisters, who had spotted me thereabouts. I did stand out somewhat.
She had an excellent solution to my predicament but first, she needed a seminar on perception management, political warfare and propaganda. I kid you not. On the flight down, I had given her the wrong business card and, after asking her to forget what she’d she seen, she hadn’t. In fact, she had dwelt on it and it had given her ideas. Oh no.
Like many of those I accidentally bumped into in the archipelago, she was impossibly well-bred and impeccably well connected. She was even a relative of the father of the nation, Jose Rizal, executed by the Spanish in 1896.
She was familiar with my badly concealed occupation, as Rizal’s ‘Propaganda Movement’ had tried to improve the representation of the Filipino people within the Spanish Empire and, also, there is the propaganda of the Catholic church, or the more catchy ‘Congregation of the Evangelization of the Peoples’ (as we’re supposed to call it in these modern times).
But first, we can’t keep on calling her ‘Sister Shitty’, shall we call her ‘Sister Anne’ instead? Anne sat on the end of my desk. I told her that propaganda meant to grow, to propagate.
‘Free markets, democracy, the rule of law, our Christian faith,’ I assured her, through business and philanthropy, would save the Filipino and many others. Myself and a few colleagues were on the case and making progress. The time was right, many good things were spreading and growing.
‘Trading triangles, computer club, technological change, cell-phones, the election results, maid’s perfume spy ring. Busy-busy, my friend, for our future success. It will spread and grow like the seedlings under glass in a propagator,’ I informed her confidently.
I laid my trump card, ‘And tolerance between peoples, in my Utopia community in the jungle, already it thrives, an example to all,’ I told her I had a box of books to take there and two missing girls to find. They’d run off to Utopia without telling anyone.
Sister Anne was not so sure. She had a slightly different take, propaganda as a negative, forcing people to be quiet about things, rubbing people’s noses in what they didn’t want, but dare not complain about.
‘When I was in Cal-i-forn-ia,’ Anne confided, ‘they told me there are different perspectives and it would be good politics to pretend that only one was true. A rather silly one at that.’
‘It has a name, Political Correctness,’ I interrupted, ‘so self-evidently untrue it won’t catch on. We trust in reason and promote the positive.’
‘I’m not so sure, my friend, people are emotional, not rational.’
As proof, she touched the diamonds about her cleavage and watched me blush. And if I was so good at promoting the positive and managing perceptions, she noted, why were so many people planning to kill me?
‘An equal and opposite reaction, Sister, the work of the devil. God will triumph, in the same way that truth is the best type of propaganda.’
I did believe that but I was starting to sweat, aware that goodness and truth might not eventually triumph until sometime after I’d been found dead in a ditch. Besides those diamonds, I couldn’t take my eyes off Sister’s ‘bloodstain’. If that kind of thing could happen to her, what chance was there for me? She noticed me looking.
‘A plate of soup,’ she informed me, ‘fortunately lukewarm, and quickly attended to in a restroom.’
There was more, ‘A startled and disappointed girl, and a fit of temper.’
That sounded ominous, or did it?
‘You told me on the plane of the missing girls, that I should pray for you. The prayer is answered.’
My eyebrows shot up.
‘We pray for you in the convent and then ask around. Many young ones run away to the big city, some work as maids, some unpaid almost as slaves. We have our own maid’s spy ring. The convents learn of such things and help.’
Johanna and Matilde had been found and were working as waitresses nearby.
‘They didn’t find that Utopia, and there is an angry frustration in them,’ Sister told me, ‘at least they are safe.’
I told her that I felt that I should really go to them. She cautioned against. They were safe but unhappy. I would just make things worse. Rather, I should contact their families and tell them the good news.
Puzzled that they, native and anonymous, had struggled to find Utopia, I asked, ‘Was the area critical? Did they run out of money?’
Sister Anne repeated that they hadn’t found their Utopia and then changed the subject, ‘Another prayer has been answered. For the ordination of Brother Ronnie, there is a ceasefire in the critical areas, I can get you as far as Bansalan. From there you must promise to go to your Utopia, it is God’s will.’
That was a big relief. Typhoon clouds cleared over the Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company. I celebrated with a duck embryo. I could feel my plans falling back into place again. I should visit Utopia and write up its great success. It would increase my power back in the city and lever myself a bit closer to Mayor Duterte. Things were going well for him but the relationship between Christians and Moros was an outstanding weakness, one that I could offer my Utopia as a solution to. I licked my lips over the last of the balut’s little bones and feathers.
* * *
At siesta time, I locked up the office and pulled down its shutters. After siesta, perilously close to dark, I would go to the post office and book calls to Bacolod to tell Uncle Jesus that Matilde and Johanna were safe and had become restaurant waitresses in order to enable their future success. I would pack everything into my blue Berghaus in anticipation of a reasonably long stay at Utopia until all had calmed down, and I was welcome again back in Davao City and Manila.
Passing into the Durian reception, on the way to my room, there was an airmail letter in my pigeon hole. It was from my business associate in Manila, Gisele, with (I assumed) the important newses from her end of the see-saw of our exotic, and now profitable again, adventure.
To be continued …….
For a recap of the story so far, please click here.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file