I’m at my Utopia, a community in the jungle that I have supported, a place of peace and harmony between peoples. It has been trashed. The Utopians have fought amongst themselves, wrecked the place and stolen everything. My wife, her guide, maid and bodyguards have caught up with my party. I am getting told off. In her whisper of an Australian accent, my long-absent other half wonders what part of perfection this exact spot might be? Head hanging in shame, I look at the blood-stained floor.
‘The peace and reconciliation centre, they always did want a cockpit instead.’
I try small talk,
‘How is the apartment?’
‘Still too small.’
‘Then, you won’t be wanting me back in it?’
She looked at the destruction, two and half days walk from anywhere, ‘You’re so much more comfortable here.’
‘What lies that away,’ she pointed, with a woman’s sense of direction, the wrong way, due east.
‘Certain death’, I assured her.
‘However, that way,’ I pointed northeast, ’are the T’boli people. You never know, as a novelty you and I, they might let us get to the coast. Maybe a fifty-fifty chance we’d survive? From the coast, at Zamboanga, we could get to Cebu. I still have my two passports. From Cebu we could fly anywhere. Anywhere in South East Asia. A man from the NBI told me so a while back, as we all fled Mayor Duterte’s new broom in Davao City.’
‘They told me that too,’ she replied, ‘which is why I hired people who can get us there.’
‘Oh,’ I replied a bit speechless, ‘I never thought to do that.’
They say that behind every successful man there is a very surprised (and better) woman. As usual, they are correct. My wife addressed the crowd, ‘He never listens to anyone, he just ploughs on regardless.’
Her bodyguards and maid looked on sympathetically but those from my own party, who actually knew me, were busy nodding in agreement.
‘You can’t go back to Davao or Manila, they’ll kill you,’ she reminded me, ‘You do realise that they’ve been robbing you blind in Manila?’
With a man’s intuition, I could tell that she’d done fifteen rounds with Gisele. That’s fifteen rounds, ten times a day. Only women are capable of such stamina. For some reason, perhaps based on a man’s lack of intuition, I couldn’t understand why they loathed each other. Hell appeared to have no fury like an absent wife suddenly in the same place at the same time as a platonic business partner. If they’re both the same age and both rather pretty then the blast zone can be multiplied by a factor of a zillion.
I reassured her that my dear and trusted business associates in Manila had been robbing the kitty and the fighting fund, not my accumulating capital which was well protected (and tax-free) via ‘cousin’ Malanga’s Remittance Bank. It was hidden in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and beyond.
‘You don’t think I cultivate these people for their benefit, do you?’
I assured her that light pilfering was good for morale, kept the natives quiet and made them feel as though they were getting one up on the white man. I am sorry to talk about money, dear reader, but it had become the point of the exercise now that the philanthropy end of the equation seemed to have gone a bit wrong.
‘I think you do care about them. You really do think that you can change the world,’ my wife responded, ‘You’re too soft. Computer Club sounds a big success, and your name’s in the Gateway Business brochure, well done. Lots of positives but you will move on, won’t you? You and me together?’
That reminded me of the backdoor trap that we’d been able to install on the Gateway motherboards. Very useful and profitable if only I could get out of the jungle and onto a desk. A career change was tempting. She looked around her, ‘Let the natives get on with it, they’re not children you know.’
Before moving anywhere there were one or two points of housekeeping that needed to be cleared up.
‘If you’ve heard about me in the girlie bars of Ermita, it was for important research,’ I assured her, ‘Lots of the girls can speak Arabic, a friend told me. As for looking for a wife from the abandoned and Blessed Single in Sipalay. In the dialect ‘wife’ means a bottle washer and sweeper upper. And it didn’t happen anyway,’ and even if it had, a gentleman in such a position would be, ‘Doing them a favour really, platonically helps them to support the abandoned babies.’
As for myself and Gisele in the same room, it was for economy, allowing more to syphoned off to that private bank in Singers. I assured my wife that a hammock and the floor had been employed. The missing girls had been found, I recalled nonchalantly, ‘They work as waitresses in Davao City, for their future success.’
‘I presume Her Majesty sent you to rescue me?’ I wondered aloud, desperate to change the subject.
‘No, I came to rescue you, you’re my husband. As for Her Majesty’s mission, I couldn’t even get past your tenth cousin twenty times removed, Lotus Flower’s, secretary. Hong Kong is too busy with the Handover, I’m informed.’
‘Blossom’, I corrected her.
‘Since when did she have a secretary?’
‘She’s thundered through the pay scales since I left, apparently,’ I ventured.
‘Oh, she’ll be wanting to keep you away then, the more tragic your end the better. Or go native? Marry a local girl?’
My minor, well-meaning indiscretion, that had had never happened anyway, might be forgiven but would never be forgotten. In a hint of hope for the future of mankind, in the background, the two sets of guides and bodyguards were chatting in a relaxed way. The ladies were browsing natures gifts to prepare a light meal. The gentlemen were sharing supplies and, judging by the laugher, tall stories.
‘The natives do like you,’ she reassured me, ‘but you’ve done your stint. They want to move on and be more independent. It’s all set up for them now. And they want to be like you, that’s the point, isn’t it? Part of the point. A comparator?’
My Australian wife reminded me of a story about her Australian cousin. In their mysterious other-side-of-the-globe world of Ford v Holden, he’d been a driver for Ford. They gave him a free car, souped-up, a version not even on sale to the public. His very well-paid job was to drive it around Mattawatta (or some such) all day long, looking cool, with a big arrow pointing at the Ford badge. Better for sales than cutting the price or winning a Grand Prix, as it turned out.
She continued with the theme, ‘As among the impoverished artisan comrades in Budapest? Show them what jeans, trainers, a cell-phone and a credit card look like? And their hearts and minds will follow? I loved Budapest. Any chance they could post you back there? After a bit of a career break, obviously,’ she started patting her tummy, ‘They’re joining the European Community. It’ll be wonderful.’
‘You’re not getting any younger,’ as if I needed to be reminded, ‘you’re too old to crawl through the jungle with a dagger between your teeth, living under the stars.’
She continued to pat her tummy, ‘This clock is ticking too. What are you going to with all that capital?’
I looked at my Utopia for inspiration, at Miss Cortez and her cousin Girl Twin and at farmer John and his two big, strong teenage sons. They say that the more you chase, the more it will elude. They are correct. While searching for my Utopia, the love of a good and wise woman had crept up on me, hacked her way through the jungle no less.
‘Buy a big property and fill it with children?’ I asked, rhetorically.
That night, for the first time in a long time, I would lie beside my wife. In case you’re expecting our endless journey’s first love scene, she was in a tent and I was on the clearing’s floor, wide awake, being eaten alive by creepy crawlies. I’d taken one of those Dane Publishing school books from my pack and was reading it with my brown-out torch wondering, ‘If only I’d got here earlier would it have made a difference?’
The flyleaf read ‘A gift of wisdom and harmony to the future good citizens of Mindanao that they may live in peace and tolerance.’ After that, for the encouraging of harmonious living, there were examples of the similarities between the Koran and the Bible. There were also cartoons and my own carefully worded reflections.
The virgin birth of Christ (Matthew 1:23), although contentions among Christians, wasn’t a problem for the Prophet Muhammad who wrote that if God willed a virgin to conceive then it would be so (Quran 66:12). I was also grateful to the Prophet for the phrase, ‘This is the Book that cannot be changed’ (or ‘of which there is no doubt’) (Quran 2:2), something common to the Bible, the Koran and every other holy book. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah shows a consensus between both faiths, regarding the treatment of minorities (Genesis 18, Quran 29:29). Not to mention the origins of John the Baptist, ominously subsequently beheaded. Perhaps my Utopia, as the tower of Babel (mentioned in Genesis but tellingly not in the Koran), was over-ambitious, never meant?
I fanned my little torch beam around the destruction. I’m a great believer that money, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed, it just goes round and round in circles. The money I’d invested in Utopia may well have done some (pilfered) good somewhere else. If you ever frequent a tropical shooting range or Mah Jong den, and a rusty plaque proclaims, ‘A gift of harmony from the Anglo Philippine Enterprise and Friendship Company’, you might just be taking aim, or placing a wager, in a much-travelled, cobbled together, former peace and reconciliation centre.
Next morning, I paid off John, Lupe and the others, along with some of my wife’s party. A smaller group would guide and protect us through the T’boli territory. We were assured that this was possible and probably quite safe. I pulled the straps of my Berghaus tight across my shoulders, pressing its burden to my sweat-soaked back. My wife did likewise with her pack. We followed the guide into the darkness of the jungle.
The start of the trail was very rough but the guide promised us that by the middle of the next day, the way would be widening, the trees thinning. Coarse mountain grass would describe the first of a series of clearings which would allow a view down the far side of the mountain range, towards cleared valleys, leading to the coast near Zamboanga.
I asked my wife if she’d done Houseman at her boarding school? Of course she had. Plodding through the foliage, I started her off,
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows,
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
She completed the verse for me,
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Chaps like us get no recognition. We don’t want any and don’t deserve it anyway. We would make a mess of it, say all the wrong things and use our titles and gongs to ease ourselves into all the wrong board rooms and golf clubs. Bit embarrassing for everybody. I do have a row of medals, other people’s, some I’ve bought, some have been passed down through the family, awarded to better men than me. Self-conscious of having handfuls of metal but never having served in uniform, only one sits in my suit pocket every remembrance Sunday. My great, great, grandfather’s (on my father’s side) from Waziristan. It seems appropriate. Fertility didn’t really run in his side of the family, I’m his only progeny of my generation. And it’s met the Queen, without leaving its little pocket.
Did I say no recognition? No medals or titles, but if you’ve behaved yourself and your embarrassing relatives are at the harmless end of the spectrum, then you may be surprised one day by an understated and yet rather grand envelope in the post. It will contain an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. If your wife and two of your children are invited too, then your career was not as pointless as you suspected it might have been. Drop everything, enjoy the day.
I’ve met the Queen a few times, no great secret there, but there’s a Golden Rule that states that one’s not allowed to repeat what’s said. This is a shame, as Her Majesty is a woman of deep religious faith, is very well informed and is great fun. I shall, however, possibly foolishly, declare an exception to that Golden Rule and repeat this.
We are in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace, it is a glorious day. It is early afternoon. We have been split into groups and put in a row. Her Majesty strolls along the line making polite conversation. It is my turn. My knees wobble. She stands before me and speaks,
‘And what do you do?’
‘Self-employed contractor, Ma’am.’
‘And have you travelled far?’
Next time: Valete.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file