Before I start, Gisele is a flowery writer and is prone to exaggeration. Aren’t we all? She is also prone to acting on those exaggerations, therefore we must take what she says seriously. Plus, across a longer period of time, she was always annoyingly correct. Furthermore, it is pointless cultivating local knowledge and then ignoring it.
The Cortez’s farm held the same confidences as an Edwardian English country house while the port and cigars are being passed between the gentleman after dinner. None of those present would repeat elsewhere what was said. Everybody shuffled closer to me, keen to hear the newses from the Manila elite.
Gisele began with the usual salutations. She wrote in the name of Jesus Christ our risen Lord. She wished His blessings and the blessings of God the Father upon myself and my intentions. She hoped for more power to ourselves and our businesses. She went on to say that all was lost and that she was bailing out.
Judge Tolentino was finding against Hubert at every call, none of his evidence or alibi was submittable. The court case was lost, I must never mention Hubert, or the fact that we’d visited him in prison, ever, ever, ever again. They couldn’t prove we’d been there anyway. Witness were lying, there were no photos and if there were, they were fake. As were any signatures that might have crept into a Paranaque prison log book.
The NBI were after me, regarding the pills for prisoners’ scandal (despite the fact that I’d never been to the prison). This hadn’t been forgotten about, in fact, as our star waned, it became more and more memorable. Their inability to apprehend me nicely north of Cebu, led them towards shooting to kill me this far south of Cebu. The newspapers all called for Ramos, instead of the Webbs. We had nailed our Watawat to the wrong mast, a mast which must now be chopped down and burnt. The Manila television stations were all owned by President General Ramos‘s cronies. Crystal our Arabic speaker had disappeared.
‘Who found that girl? Who hired that girl? Who trusted that girl?’, wondered Gisele in black, elegant, nun-taught provincial handwriting, on thin blue airmail paper. Crystal had last been seen in the queue beyond the ‘green zone’ cordon at the American embassy in Manila. The phrase ‘residency for captured terrorist laptop secrets’ sprang to mind. It was going to be difficult for us to sell to the Americans what they’d already bought from Crystal, I noted to my audience.
Gisele was off to the United States. She was going to use the same rat run that Vizconde massacre suspect Hubert Webb should have used, if his father’s political career hadn’t necessitated Hubert’s appearance before a Philippine court. On a lighter note, all was well on Josephina Island, her father Roberto’s businesses were thriving.
‘But you have turned me into a metropolitan, no longer a country, girl. I cannot go back to Josephina. California for me.’
You may have noticed that all of this was my fault. I pointed to myself as I read on. Our fighting fund was empty, as was the kitty.
‘They have stolen all your money, mister,’ a wise member of my audience observed.
Let them think that. I pretended to cry. Lawyer’s fees (Gisele’s sister was an attorney), bank charges (her cousin Malanga owned the bank), had used up all of our capital and we were now in debt. I must wire all the monies, passwords and account numbers to Gisele immediately or my favourite Josephina Island naughty twin and favourite maid would hate me. That’s what was written in front of me, in black and airmail blue.
‘Can I wire from there, John?’, I asked, pointing towards a wooden shed.
John was the tenant farmer. He had married late and for love, rather than land. He had only two sons, now in their mid-teens, a very small family by local standards. Aunties mixed potions and said prayers for him.
‘No wire there, mister,’ he replied.
‘Shame,’ I mentioned before continuing.
Matilde and Johanna? No matter, the missing girls, found or not, it was too late, the bounty hunters had been dispatched. I could pay them off, there was an account number to pay into. An interruption from my little audience,
‘The gangsters in Davao City want to kill you too, mister, Mayor Duterte’s new broom.’
‘I have noticed. They keep on putting bullet holes around my office window at the Durian.’
Gisele signed off wishing me even more power and greater blessings from God. I folded her letter and put it back into my pocket.
‘I will strike out to my Utopia, my perfect place,’ I announced, ‘I will take stock there. Utopia is succeeding. Its success will give me enough power to return to Davao City and then Manila. I shall return.’
‘Have you heard from that place recently?’ they asked.
‘Utopia? No, it is too busy with the development and the successful expansion of the harmonious and tolerant living together of peoples,’ I replied, ‘Mine will be a surprise visit, all will be good.’
I recalled the church slogan that had been following me about, ‘The stone that had been neglected, turned out to be the cornerstone.’
‘By that, God means me and my Utopia,’ I decided aloud.
As the sun retired, so did we. The ladies and children walked across the paddies to a neighbour’s farm. Us men laid down inside one of farmer John’s buildings. The sun outside fell, giving the last of its light to the far side of the silhouetted mountains. All became quiet.
At first light, you find me beside a metal handpump, having just levered some water into a tin mug. I’m chatting to a frog, whilst washing and shaving.
‘It’s provenance, all is not lost, despite my business associate Gisele waving the white flag,’ I’m saying to the frog, ‘I’m off to Utopia to see how the project goes. They say it’s not the right route, but the other ways are ‘critical’ from Davao City and this is the only way I can get there. We’ve got a team together, including your farmer John. Does he have two young sons? I think he does. Two strapping teenagers. They’re coming too. Perhaps persuade them to stay for a while for the learning of peaceful cohabitation? They can then spread the word back here on the farms.’
The frog looked up at me and smiled, or at least opened a toothless mouth and stuck out its tongue. Frogs can lick their own eyes clean and, in order to prove it, my little green new best friend, did just that. White man’s bristles in well water must be tasty. That tongue whipped about, catching every drop of my spilt shave.
A scruffy dog struggled to the handpump where the frog was now sat in a puddle. The dog’s fur hung from it in shreds, showing raw skin beneath. Its hind legs failing, it dragged itself about with the front two. It was called’ ‘Dougie’, but I suspected it might soon be re-named, ‘Dinner.’
Later, I lounged about the farm with the other men. We squatted below a palm tree, next to a nipa hut on a rough piece of ground, between raised ridges separating two paddy fields. The smell of carabao hung about us, the culprit just yards away, munching rice stalk from a freshly harvested enclosure. The ground beneath it was already cracked and parched. At the first opportunity, precious water was drained down the gradient to the next thirsty piece of land.
Beyond the rice, sugar cane and coffee grew. Copses of coconut palms then thickened and mixed with tropical hardwoods. In the distance, these became a wall of forested hillsides. There lay, in the mountain ridges of the impenetrable interior of the island, undiscovered valleys and tribes of dark-skinned Negritos. To the west, via a very tortuous route, were the T’boli people and, eventually, the coast at Zamboanga. The Davaoeño liked to tell me that Zambo, in an exclusively Muslim area, was like a very poor man’s Davao City.
The girls re-appeared from the neighbouring farm. It was breakfast time, a simple meal of rice accompanied by a small measure of fruit. Coconut shells were passed around. Some water in a tin pot was boiled over a twig fire and mashed with leaves. This provided mouthfuls of a stamina enhancing, brackish tea.
Over this, the ladies, in passing conversation, dropped a little bombshell. A message had been sent along the tracks during the night. Sure enough, I was being followed. Two blacked-out FXs (passengers un-numbered and un-named) had arrived in Bansalan. They’d been trying to hire the best guides. Partway to this farm, the FXs had proved to be too big and too heavy. Their occupants were now proceeding towards us on foot. My hosts, the Cortez’s, still had influence in the countryside. The locals were doing what that could to slow down and confuse my pursuers. Having said that, it was only a matter of time before they arrived here.
The ceasefire for Father Ronnie’s ordination had ended. There had been fighting on the edge of Bansalan through the night. We had little choice but to gather what was needed and strike out for Utopia. There was no panic or great exertion, it was already too hot for that.
Farmer John would be the guide, myself and Miss Cortez would carry packs and some supplies. John’s old farmer neighbour, Lupe, would accompany us. He arrived with a machete in hand and a farm gun slung across his back. One of the girl twins, who turned out to be a Cortez cousin, would accompany us, also with a pack. We were all lightly dressed, in bright T-shirts and shorts. John carried a sidearm and a machete, myself, only my sidearm. Farmer John’s two sons made themselves useful too, they would straggle behind us as Tail-end Charlies.
We set off in single file, firstly along embankments between rice fields, then beside a plantation of coffee. Beyond that, there were date palms, the last of which’s high branches rubbed against the start of the tropical hardwoods. These became more densely packed until we were on a path within the indigenous forest. A cathedral’s stained-glass sprinkling of light fought thorough a canopy of leaves high above us. The scruffy dog had followed us thus far but now turned back, perhaps because the land was beginning to rise.
I tried to remember landmarks; a fallen tree trunk rotted and covered in moss, some branches across a dried-up channel, an improvised ‘hands and knees’ bridge that we had to scramble across on all fours. The land became steeper. There was a path, of sorts, but John and old Lupe still had to swing their machetes to clear branches grown across the way.
We paused for water from our packs. One of the girls thought she heard a snake. John assured her that it was the ones she couldn’t hear that were the danger, those that were silently coiled and ready to pounce. John’s sons caught us up. They had nothing to report. We weren’t being followed. At least, jungle visibility being poor, not within earshot.
We continued, strung out into our formation. Farmer John, (machete and guide), old neighbour Lupe (second machete), myself, girl twin and Miss Cortez (pack bearers) and finally, well to the rear, our teenaged Tail-end Charlie look-outs. It was a hard, full day’s hike, much of which was in darkness beneath foliage. Stories went up and down the line. I told the one about the aunty who had premonitions.
‘She dreamt I was going to be ill. Well, I was in robust good health and told her so. But she was well known in the población for her prophesies and second sight. She invited me to Sunday dinner. It would have been too rude for me to refuse, so she poisoned me. I passed the lining of my stomach that very night. I suppose the prophecy came true, sort of.’
‘Self-fulfilling prophesy, mister,’ girl twin shouted back.
I continued with my landmarks; a march of giant ants, a putrid smell, a break in the foliage created by nature rather than John’s and his neighbour’s machetes. We rested again, formed a circle, and shared some provisions from our packs. We picked at them lightly, aware that our progress was slow and that it was unlikely that we would dine that evening at Utopia.
‘They’ll be pleased and surprised to see us,’ I decided aloud, ‘roast a pig for us I’d say, maybe tomorrow tea time. Something to look forward to.’
John’s sons reported a ‘feeling’ behind us. They couldn’t see or hear anything but could feel the presence of others, albeit well down the trail. Off we set again, slightly more gingerly. Amongst my other concerns, this was beginning to look like a hack through virgin forest, rather than the clearing of an existing route. I tried to keep up with Miss Cortez and make small pieces of gasped and rather disconnected conversation with her.
‘They’re due a visit.’
‘I installed an agent there.’
‘To guard against slacking.’
‘The actual land claim is with a lawyer in Davao City.’
‘On one trip soon, I’ll present them with their title and they can hang it in a frame on the side of the peace and unity community centre.’
Later, the mood began to subdue, even darken. It was very quiet around about, there were neither wild nor human sounds from either near or far away. It was as though we’d marched off the edge of the world. I even suggested to John that we retrace our steps, if only for half an hour or so. But John was dismissive, he knew exactly where we were. Old, bow-legged Lupe stood beside him, leaning on his machete, nodding in agreement. I was outnumbered.
John said we must continue. It was jungle dark now, but in about an hour it would be night-time dark, meaning completely black. At which point, we would have to stop until the next day. We set off again, doubling our effort across steep and difficult ground. Later, we found, not so much a clearing, more of a thinning of the trees, an obvious place to pitch camp.
The two ladies gathered kindling for a fire. John’s sons arrived. We were definitely being followed. They had been able to hear our pursuers and had even noticed an occasional movement. I sent them back, telling them to recce as closely as safety would allow. I needed to know who was following us, and what they had, in order to help me to decide between three options. Try to outrun them the next day. Stay put and confront them when they caught us up, or attack their encampment during the hours of darkness.
In any circumstances, I was in for a nervous and sleepless night. You’ll have noted that, thus far, my gun has been for show or deterrence. I have worn it or waved it about, rather than used it in anger. Now, being backed into a corner, how thin a veneer separates an English travelling gentleman and a violent shaved ape?
To be continued …
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file