At the end of a veranda, which separated the novice nun’s dormitory from the school’s basketball court, was a ‘shower’. A pyramid of plastic buckets sat below a tap which part filled them as it dripped overnight. I allowed myself half a dozen cupful’s of precious brown water for a shave and a full body wash.
A wall preserved my modesty, or rather it didn’t. The average Filipino being shorter than the average Englishman, my bits dangled above its top. I cleaned myself unselfconsciously, there being no one else about the place at that early hour. Later and dressed, I made myself useful at the entrance to the church. There were boxes and furniture that had to be moved in anticipation of Brother Ronnie’s ordination that afternoon. The place swarmed with children. I invested a few pesos in them.
‘Come and tell me if you see Mr or Miss Cortez, they are my dear friends and I haven’t seen them for a while. Come and tell me if you see any strangers, not ordination strangers, people from Manila, goons from Davao, even whites. I am conscious of being followed. Come and tell me children, nice things for you if you do.’
They ran off enthusiastically, in all directions, to listen and watch unsuspiciously, hoping for a few coins and notes in return. Outside the convent compound, Everlasting Street busied towards a throng. The road of bare and cracked earth was covered in feet, tyres, jeeps, jeepneys and jalopies, parked on every spare inch of potholed space. Celebratory bunting, made from inflated brown plastic bags, was strung across the road between wooden poles.
To the accompaniment of a rehearsing choir, I set out chairs at the back of church. I had a horrible feeling that the instant Brother Ronnie said ‘I do’, the local ceasefire would be over and I’d been killed in a hail of gunfire. Banish that thought! At that very moment, Brother Ronnie walked across to the convent building to dress. The crowd parted for him and applauded. The bishop of Digos, a small earnest-looking man, arrived in a limousine with three suitcases of vestments. The crowd parted for him also but in silence. An aunty took him to a room to change. A girl stood before me. Mother Superior ‘Ory’ had sent her.
‘You must follow me, mister.’
The pews were filling and I must take my place. I was sat about a quarter of the way from the front, on the left-hand side, with a good view of the altar. Those about had an opinion regarding a white foreigner having a better view than they did. They let me know by hissing, which, to be blunt, made me feel rather important. I asked the girl about the Cortez’s.
‘Are they here yet, can you look and give a message?’
She smiled a smile of content inaction. Even at her young age, she seemed aware of God’s, not human, time.
‘Perhaps at the very front?’ she wondered, ‘With our local mayor and his family?’
I daren’t creep any further forward. I stood on tiptoes looking at the backs of rows of glossy-haired heads. The older ladies were draped in black lace. I thought I saw Mr Cortez, but maybe not. The church filled more, then packed, then threatened to burst. After that, even more squeezed in. I couldn’t move from my pew. An old woman knelt in front of me, also in black lace, weeping. The twisted sick were carried to the front, in anticipation of their special blessing. They were laid before the altar, on improvised mats of freshly chopped bamboo leaf. The heat was stifling. A stand-up fan appeared beside me. It was plugged in and switched on. The hissing began again. I was told to switch it off because it was noisy.
‘I’ll switch it off if you take me to Mr Victorio Cortez. Is he at the front?’
It wasn’t possible. The church was too full. The ordination would begin soon. The front rows were reserved for Brother Ronnie’s family members, VIPs and special guests. There were already grumbles that I was this far forward.
One even asked a neighbour, ‘Prot-est-ant?’
Then the singing began. It filled the air to the tin roof, to the concrete walls then spilled through the narrow-slatted windows, drifting across the rooftops like a blessing mist all the way to heaven. You can say what you like about the grumbling, violent locals, but they couldn’t half sing. It lifted my spirits. There were no hymn books or a projector. The lyrics were in the local dialect, which I couldn’t understand at all, but I can hold a note and ‘la, la, la’ in reasonable tune. The celebrants proceeded down the aisle, the bishop of Digos, bishops of elsewhere, monsignors and fathers. Thuribles of incense were swung from side to side, banishing ill and the harsh dry scents of the countryside. Brother Ronnie was in all white. I thought I saw a white face. I craned to recognise it, was it Father Conrad?
Then I spotted Mrs Thatcher. And that’s not a joke, I shall prove it with a photo. You weren’t expecting that were you? Neither was I. There she was. I just gawped. Well, there you are, speechless. I suspect that a new statue of a European looking Blessed Virgin was commissioned, just for the ordination. The sculptor, assuming that we all look the same (as we do they), relied upon the first photo, of the first white woman, that he found while leafing through the Manila Bulletin. Can you blame him?
It was a very long service, suffice it to say that by its end, Brother Ronnie was ordained priest. If you’re expecting me to rise and leave, not so fast. As soon as the ordination was over, Father Ronnie had to say his first mass. The celebration continued long after its end. I lingered, young people with home-made guitars gathered for impromptu songs and prayers. Others kneeled by the saints (including Mrs Thatcher) and lighted candles. Suddenly, Mother Superior ‘Ory’ was at my side with my lunch bag.
‘You must eat outside, it is rude to eat in church,’ she reminded me.
The packed lunches were being consumed under shade provided by plastic strips hung between poles across the basketball court. One of my child spies touched my hand.
‘You must go to the cockpit, the Cortez’s have gone there, I will put you to a pedi car with my cousin.’
‘Am I being followed?’
‘Do I need my gun and pack?’
‘Hold my lunch bag.’
Outside the cockpit, it was all things chicken. There was a shambles of stalls vending everything feathered and violent; eggs, chicks, fighting cocks, spurs, hoods and every type of potion from veterinarian to ‘lucky’. Having checked my gun and pack into a lean-to armoury, I paid my few pesos, squeezed through a turnstile, shuffled sideways down a narrow tunnel and immerged onto the ground floor of a packed pit. The noise was overwhelming. A steep camber on the wooden terraces made it seem as though the crowd was about to stumble forwards into the circular fighting area. This was protected from the crowd by a high barbed wire fence. I could only take a few steps, before the crush of people made it impossible for me to move andy further.
In the deafening cries, boys leant forwards attracting wagers by shouting, ‘isco’. Others were busy with tick-tack signals, or with throwing rolled up paper bets. During each of the contests (which only lasted a couple of minutes) there where ‘whoops’ from the crowd at every contact between the fighting cocks. At the end of a bout, a dead cockerel would be held up. To settle bets, notes were rolled into balls and thrown impossible distances with impossible accuracy. A dandy with a bull horn directed proceedings.
One such folded wager struck me in the middle of the forehead. It was caught by a boy standing next to me as it fell towards the floor. He handed it to me, smiling, looking up at this tall, white stranger through his fringe of black hair. I unfolded the roll of modest notes. Within it, there was a piece of paper containing a message. I read to myself and then showed it to the boy. He read it out loud, it said, ‘Boo’.
He pointed across the pit, towards a figure opposite, the only woman present.
‘From there, mister’, he announced.
She was smartly dressed, in clean and pressed three-quarter length shorts and a plain light blue T-shirt. She wore a Panama hat. Too big for her, it rested across, rather than above, her ears. There was a companion, a big chap, still dressed in the formal attire befitting an ordination, rather than the scrum at a cockpit.
‘She is the goon’s bodyguard,’ the boy shouted.
‘All four foot ten of her,’ I shouted back.
I leant towards him, dropping my voice, ‘What’s your name?’
‘Si-Hong,’ he replied. Si-Hong wanted to show off to the white stranger,
‘She is a daughter of Victorio Cortez, if you have a problem with her then Mr Cortez has a problem with you.’
Si-Hong raised a hand to his face and took a finger down its side, pressing a child’s fingernail across a child’s cheek to demonstrate a slashing.
‘I know all about the Cortez’s. Friends of mine,’ I informed him, ‘I even get to call Victorio, ‘Gangster-Gangster’ to his face. That’s one of my old hats Miss Cortez is wearing. Take me over to them, Si-Hong.’
‘No can do, mister. Wait. They stay at a farm nearby. I get you there, later.’
We re-addressed the cockfighting. He made a few small bets for me, all of which sank, whether my fighting cock lost or won. There were a series of technical reasons for this, which he explained. I suspected that he was throwing my money to an accomplice and they would split it later on. The kind of thing I would do. Shouldn’t complain. He squeezed my wrist.
‘They have gone, come with me.’
I looked across the pit, sure enough, there was a gap at the front where Miss Cortez and her goon had been standing. I checked my gun and pack out of the armoury, after which Si-Hong led me to the main road where a queue of vehicles was parked up, higgledy-piggledy on the kerbside. He put me in an uncle’s a jeep. It was open-topped. Their own goon was slumped in the back, asleep, an automatic rifle cradled in his arms like a baby. We set off without waking him, along an unmade road, away from the last of the huts at the edge of the población. We drove along an ever-roughening way, bouncing towards a place where road faded to track, to rough ground, to paddy, beyond which no white face ever ventured.
At the entrance to the Cortez farm, there was a crucifix attached to a post beside a nailed garlic sprig (to scare away vampires). On the bottom step of the first of the farm’s nippa buildings, a jar of gently steaming brew cast the farmer’s wife’s intention towards a pre-Christian god. You’ll recall that I would (nearly) get a hug off Sister Anne. I would shake hands with Gisele. Other intimacies have included whispered confidences with maids in the middle of the night and sharp nails in the forearm from concerned helpers. From Miss Cortez, I always received a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze from her little arm placed around my waste. She waited patiently for me, beneath some palm trees. I was paying off my driver, telling him to get a message to me, somehow, if he saw or heard anything to suggest that I was being followed.
After my little kiss and squeeze from Miss Cortez, the farm busied. A neighbour and his wife arrived from the next farm to see what the fuss was about. He was a stocky, muscled man, bow-legged, with the dark leathery skin of an outdoor life. He wore shorts and a jacket and one tooth, on his lower jaw, slightly to the left of his chin. His wife tagged along behind him in a billowing skirt. She looked worried at the attention that their place was attracting. Noise and chatter were now echoing like drums across the countryside, announcing a stranger’s presence to any surrounding malevolent ears. A pair of girl twins appeared from another direction. A boy shinned up a palm tree and threw coconuts down for us. The husks were split with single machete strikes. The assembled feasted on the white contents, known locally as the ‘milk’, as well as the liquid within, that they called the ‘water’. While drinking straight from a husk, I addressed the small crowd.
‘It’s supposed to be good for tourist tummy, but I’m not sure whether to drink it or wash my white butt in it.’
Nobody laughed. Later, we gathered about a doorway. The building was up on stilts. There were steps to sit on. Others stood, some sat on the floor. A stool appeared for me.
‘Where’s your father?’ I asked Miss Cortez, ‘lots to tell.’
‘And lots to ask for’, I was thinking.
Now that the ordination and ceasefire were over, I needed Mr Victorio ‘Gangster-Gangster’ Cortez’s protection, as I headed further inland to my Utopia community in the jungle, or I might be killed.
‘Ah,’ Miss Cortez replied, contorting her little face, ‘big problema, a change of fortunes. He will already have gone back to the city, to the docks.’
The docks that Mr Victorio Gangster-Gangster Cortez owned, or so I thought. Mayor Duterte’s cronies had bought his share from him at a knockdown price, I was informed. What the accountants call a ‘stressed’ sale. As soon as the ordination had ended, Victorio had had to set off back there, to work for them. From now on his nickname was ‘forklift truck driver, forklift truck driver’. Not the kind of moniker likely to intimidate the local Communist insurgents, Moros, bounty hunters, kidnappers and War Lords. As for the Cortez family’s properties and schools, one by one, they were losing control and ownership of them. Miss Cortez would ‘hang around’ in Bansalan for a while but expressed an intention to ‘marry a rich foreigner.’ This wasn’t a pipedream, there was a market place for such a thing. Did I mention that one of the ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’s’ most profitable lines was in introducing eligible overseas gentlemen to Filipino ladies? What, I forgot? Oh, I was too busy telling you about the philanthropy, education and high tech? Maybe another time.
I couldn’t dream of offering myself to Miss Cortez as, not only was I married, but Miss Cortez knew that I was. The muses have told this story in a particular way with, previously, myself as a bit of a sideshow and Gisele being the star. Another time, on our endless voyage to Lille, I’ll be even more of a sideline-sideshow and, in some kind of a flashback, Miss Cortez will be the star in various extremely tall tales of derring-do. What, in the face of the muses, can the humble author do? As I say, another time. Meanwhile, back at the farm, the change of circumstances continued.
The Cortez brothers were being pushed out by Mayor Duterte’s cronies too but, bright and well educated, they could gravitate towards the professions. Law might be a good idea and teaching. You can’t really go wrong with teaching, especially if you’re (just about) a native English speaker. As for the other Cortez sister, she’d already bailed out to the Gulf, where she remains to this day. There is more ‘Postcard’ to be written. Those of you who think that they can detect a full circle of completed strands, suggesting that this might be coming to an end, may well have to strap yourselves in for another n episodes.
I’m not a great believer in miserable tales where everyone descends onto a dark place, tormented by demons, but this is as good a point as any to read out Gisele’s situation report airmail letter from Manila, that had arrived a few days earlier when I was still at the Durian building in Davao City.
‘If you think that’s bad, wait until you hear this,’ I announced, taking a little thin blue envelope out of my pocket and gently uncrumpling it.
To be continued …..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file