Susan is a grandmother but now she looks after a five year-old. Back home in the Philippines she has five children and three grandchildren, she works tirelessly to send them all money. For £600 a month she washes, cleans, cooks, shops and baby-sits, she also makes coffee when her owners work at home. They picked her up in Singapore seven or so years before, there she also cooked and cleaned, but there was no baby then. Merchant bankers, they could not imagine life without Susan and then, when she got pregnant, Linda simply could not cope without her. After all, at 43 she made a pretty old first-time mother. So Susan moved to London with all three when the bank moved them back after decades in the Far East.
When the painters came only she was there to let them in, make them tea, bring them biscuits and show pictures of her children far, far away. They listened to her as they wiped the walls with their thick brushes, taped down the skirting, covered the lights. They had plenty of time, they were happy to listen to her stories especially when it involved great mugs of tea and plates of fine biscuits and fruit. Susan brought out snaps of home, tales of selling a house, buying some land, so one lot could start a guesthouse. She sent every penny she had home, she had no bank account and her owners kept her passport, just in case. She did go home every two years or so but always came back, there were ever more mouths to feed and more money needed which, here, in this global treasure chest, she could raise. She hurried around the great house with its masses of rooms, extensions, gadgets, driveway, garden and attics tidying, making sure. At 8.30 she took Jonquil to school and collected her again at 3.15. Following her mother’s footsteps the little girl was already beginning to treat Susan with tolerant contempt. How could the Filipino have any dominion over her when her mother merely asked her to bring coffee and tea and promised to give her money tomorrow.
- She doesn’t even have to do the shopping, now we do it all online - she smiled one morning when her daughter asked her:
- Mummy! Why do you never do any shopping?
- I do darling, I just do it over the internet so I don’t have to waste time going to the shops, Susan merely has to get a few things when we run out.
Jonquil smiled up at her mother and went to get another picture for her fridge. The house was littered with pictures of Jonquil, just born; Jonquil, a week after being born; Jonquil, two weeks after being born etc. Susan spent an hour each day dusting them over along with all the other knick knacks: the Singapore dragon, the Hong Kong death mask, the colourful oil paintings that looked like slightly better drawn Van Gogh’s - less colour, more line. Blackberry phones charged up all over the place, on stairs, on kitchen cupboards, on side tables. Susan merely used the house phone, she said that was enough for her, and anyway who did she have to talk to? At prearranged times her children would ring. Waiting under the fans they would connect in the sticky night and moan at their mum for not having an internet phone. Susan laughed, but knew that for that she would need a computer, she could never afford one with her pay and all she saved to send away. Filipino nannies came highly recommended, precisely because of their unswerving loyalty and great thrift; lots of London mamas wanted one.
Linda told herself that Susan was a treasure, that they would keep her savings safe, better than letting her run it herself and waste lots on hair-brained schemes, as South East Asians are so wont to do.
In Isabela the mist rises off the sea coating baroque churches in thick white, hiding minarets and spires. Below the city, the ocean can be seen glimmering, rippling under the fog. The air is wet and hot, no one is outside. The beheading will be later that day. Everyone waits inside in the tense wetness, waiting for the gunmen and the drums. Ali and Rosa pull the blinds down on their beach house. They spent years building this little guesthouse on the sea, convinced that in such a beautiful spot they would get visitors all dry season, and even in the wet, the paths up the mountain are beautiful and attract walkers. They put all their waking hours and every piso they earned into their holiday scheme but armed insurgents started to raid and no one comes any more. Left on the beach with nothing but debts and old dreams, they can hear the drums beginning, banging away up high on the hill. The mist has started to lift and the sun shines through, drying the great puddles on the cobblestones in an instant. Steaming streets puff like cauldrons as the pounding gets louder. As they process down the town the blindfolded slip on the stones, they make no sound when they fall but stand up once more and stumble on. The procession stops outside the huge red brick church that dominates the central square.
- Let your god save you now! – Laughs a hooded leader.
- Wait until the sun shines directly on the square, take their blindfolds off, behead them. – Instructs one.
- Film it all in the full light of day. – Demands another.
- Then head by head on the square, to show them we will not be questioned!
That evening the broadcast goes out all over the islands, the myriads of tiny dots that make
up the country. Six heads sit on the cobbled square, over them stands a masked man with a
long curved knife, which he brandishes victoriously. While this picture flashes round the
country, the local priest gathers up the heads into a sack. The bodies they took away, to feed
the fish they said, but the heads remained. Father Joseph takes them down into the crypt,
blesses them, and asks Rosa if she can help him bury them on the Jungle path. Rosa nods, one of those heads belonged to Daniel, the fisherman. His crime was to wear a long gold crucifix as he sold fish outside the mosque. The Imam didn’t mind but a few of the young ones did. One remembered his mother being sent to the back of a queue in a shop when he was very young, because she was wearing a scarf. The gold dangling crucifix swung on the man’s neck as she shouted at her:
- Get to the back of the queue, wait your turn, don’t push your dirty little Moslem nose in here. –
He had never forgotten, and now here was this fisherman, wearing exactly the same, outside his holy place. Later, as punishment for that golden charm, the head, with no neck to speak of, sits on the wet cobbles, open-eyed and amazed at its position. Ibrahim fingers his blade and spits on the crucifix that has fallen twixt body and head as the corpse splays on the town square. His mother avenged.
Rosa rings Susan to tell her they are all right, but she’d be better to stay in London,
forget Christmas for that year, they don’t know how long they can stay now, they’ll probably be next, given that she’s Catholic and Ali’s Moslem. They worry that they’ll be picked up any day, their beach house will be burned and even if it’s not, there are no tourists here any more, no one to enjoy the beautiful beach, the jungle climbs:
- Unless they want a grand tour of ‘beheadings’ - she laughs bitterly
- There’s nothing else to see here now, only headless corpses and teenagers with guns.
Susan asks her if she wants to come over there, she thinks she could probably find her something, it is not ideal but at least it is safe.
- And leave Ali? Not unless he can come too, I’m not leaving him here, he’d be dead in a few months…No, we will leave it all behind and go North…that’s all we can do.
- I will see what I can do – promises Susan, not very hopeful that she can find a spot for Ali. As she puts the phone down one of the painters, a girl, comes in through the French windows, smiling.
- Susan, Susan, you’ll never guess what’s just happened to me!
- Tell me, tell me – Susan is eager for a diversion. This is the story she did relate:
Girl painting an outside wall, a terrace in a lush London garden littered with Buddhas, rustic candlesticks, and other metropolis paraphernalia. She had to bend low to slap the magnolia onto the roughly plastered wall, draw a fine line between soil and structure, using a plank to steady the brush and make sure that the grass stayed green. Straight-legged she bent low, placing the wood flush to the wall, dipping the brush in the pot filled with smooth, thick off-white. Paint glooped off the brush, she bent and swung her hips, wagging from side to side; slipping a smooth finish onto the rough surface. Turning a grey, dingy surface, creamy white. Sun shining, birds singing, hips dancing, paint slapping - a nice way to spend the day, this.
Humming to herself she jived with the brush, only aware of the birds, the jasmine and Spring, when, suddenly, a sharp, distinct smell wafted over the fence: Come: Slightly salty, a bit brackish, great, if you’ve just enjoyed it -, but, smell, without sensation; not so great. Then she laughed aloud, thought; - One of the builders maybe? All around, lean, and not so lean, torsos; boasted exposed arses and brown/black backs. Just as she was painting some rich businessman’s terrace, they were building flats, extending apartments, opening lofts, adding roof extensions. Men running to the surface, pouring out of dusty vans, be-laddered motors and open-backed lorries. So strong the smell, maybe it had been a few of them, not just one, peering at her through the wooden fence with its eye-sized holes! But they had been so silent, she only knew they were there from the Come. Nothing else, not a groan, not a gasp, not even a whimper – what soundless ecstasy. If it had been a troupe of women watching a man, his muscles straining under silky flesh, his tight bum rising and falling, they would have made an orchestral manoeuvre, imagining him slamming into them. Each would sing, breathe in and out, expelling their delight into the warm April air. But these guys came in dead silence, like undercover assassins. Only the aroma gave them away, the stink of their enchantment, no howls of captivation for them.
On the other side of the fence 3 guys in faded denim and old cotton knelt and stared at the moving target: a great round supported by long slender legs, with occasional rips in the jeans exposing a flash of flesh. Just a flash, no more. They had come down to get some more scaffolding off the truck; one was leaning against the fence having a quiet fag when he caught sight of the show next door. He whistled through his teeth and pointed at the fence, then signalled for quiet. In unison they all found a suitable spy-hole and peered. A slim brown arm waved back and forth clasping the brush, which they imagined clasping them. But most of all, on the first warm day of the year, they pictured puncturing her with ‘oh-so-hard-cocks’. Proudly they tugged them harder and harder as that beautiful bum swung in the firmament. When she bent right down a glimpse of buttock, a tad of crack was visible, sending them to even greater heights. What sexier than a ‘now you see it; now you don’t’ scenario; not the all-on-offer eyefuls they regularly got on the street. She leaned right down to make a clean line ‘tween earth and wall, bending forward, legs straight, trousers riding down her proffered behind, muscled lean arm extended and fit ass shaking – they all shuddered and came in a great surge of ecstasy – wiped their hands, readjusted their flies and belts, stood up, pulled up, and went back to work.
Girl wished she could see them. She would waggle like a peep-show hostess, why not? Paint the wall, shimmy ass, think of three, four, even five hard dicks, fast in hand, pumping off-white magnolia onto forearm and wrist, not brush. She might mix it all into her oil-based Dulux, for even greater sheen and protection. Truly impregnate the wall! And after, take them all into herself: Front, back and mouth, a convenient ear-hole for any left over. Jezebel of Earlsfield, she would enjoy the sexy workers with their tan, frayed jeans, body-builder physiques; along top lips, a glisten of sweat, embellishing taut stubble. This £10/hour shift was turning out a whole lot better than expected. She finished the terrace, replaced the plant pots, rinsed the brushes, waved to the bevy of young cocks, now high up on the scaffolding, far above her head, flourished her behind to a welter of whistles, caught the last tang of semen in the grass, before roaming home. Intense pleasures of Whitewash, wholly enjoyed.
While the painter is honing her story for a possibly greater audience, Susan listens and thinks:
- Builders, yes builders, maybe they could help, Ali is very good at building, he built the house on the beach complete with plumbing, drainage, electric, the lot, maybe he could help these boys that this funny girl, with her stories and her paintbrush, likes so much.
Susan gives the girl some mango and nuts, smiling at her all the while, so grateful for the
idea that she pledges to give them extra biscuits for the rest of the week. After the painter
leaves, she rushes out into the street to look for one of the foreman on the building site
Unbeknownst to her, they have noticed her too. One of them, Carl, saw the little girl being very rude to her in the garden last week, and said to the others on the platform
- That kid needs a good slap! .
They had all gazed down into the garden where the tiny Filipino was trying to coax the little girl inside for bath and supper to cries of:
- No Susan! No! No! No! Mummy says I can stay up until she or Daddy get home…leave me alone… go away!
Seeing her enter the site, he now goes towards her:
- How can I be of help Maam!
Rosa and Father Joseph climb the steep, soggy path with their miserable load, about half way up, still within sight of the sea, the priest branches off down a narrow track, about 200 metres in, he signals her to stop and they start digging.
- We can’t mark it yet, only for ourselves, but we will know they are here and, in calmer times, can bury them with the proper rites.
He is old and finding the spading hard going, Rosa bids him rest, she’ll do it and he can save his strength for the prayers that he can say to these macabre remains. He places his hands inside his long wide sleeves, leans against a tree and files through his mind for the right prayers, for the best words, blessings and resting phrases, to send these heads to peace. On the sacks he has given each head a symbol and a name, so that there is no mistaking them: a fish for Daniel of course, a key for the locksmith, a … the sacks roll into the pit she has dug for them, the earth is wet and easy so Rosa lines the trench with stones as best she can. Six heads in sacks, out of the weave of one trails a few long silken black hairs, they are beginning to smell. She suddenly swerves away and retches into the jungle. Father Joseph comes to, takes some incense out of his cassock, lights it and waves it over the sacks muttering incantations in Latin, English and Spanish. Rosa remembers the upward curve of the blade, blazing silver in the sun, the clouds gathering, the terror of the men, the horror of the crowd. She kneels and prays too:
- Dear God! Let mother find Ali a job! –
All her longing seeps into the prayer, the few short words, whispered on a wet mountainside, thousands of miles away from her mother and the tan foreman standing on the apartment block site back in west London town.
Susan sips the tea, strong and sugary, that the workman gives her. Carl is intrigued he didn’t know they had Muslims in the Philippines, thought it was all a Middle Eastern thing.
- I can’t promise anything mind, but next month we do have a big job coming up, a whole new apartment block, not far from here, where we need loads of skilled people, all top notch pads with masses of electrics, wind energy, green stuff, the lot. We could probably use him then! Leave your phone number and I’ll get back to you! And, one more thing. Who’s the girl you’ve got working over there?
Susan laughs, gives him the name and goes home to ring the family.
Rosa and Ali bolt the heavy double doors and climb the bell tower, up the spiral staircase, worn smooth and shiny grey by centuries of slippered feet. From up there they can see the red smudges left by the heads, uneven blooms on the square. But they do not look down for long, they wave the mobile around looking for a signal, the light on the sea, a flat, even silver, the light on the cell flickering silver and gold: Emergency calls only!!!! Slathered across it in crimson. Rosa waves it around, dancing round the top of the tower, she feels the bells shake under her feet. As they toll out the hour the phone rings. Susan says:
- Travel North, buy the tickets and come when you can!
She has seen the newsflash, the heads on the square, knows it is time they left. Rosa looks down over the beach, imagines the house aflame, sees Ali’s head on the stones and says:
- Thank you. Thank you. Do not ring again! We will call you from Manila!
As the phone goes down Susan hears Jonquil shouting up the stairs:
- Susan, Susan, I’m hungry!
She hurries down, working out in her head how long it will take them to trek up north, buy the tickets and get here. She reckons the bankers will be away by then, she can have them here for a bit. Rosa will be easy to place, but Ali might take time. He will have to live in a hostel for a while. The visas aren’t cheap either at 19 000 pisos a shot, they will have to use all their savings just for those. Two months pay just for the visa, they will arrive with nothing, nothing at all. Reaching for the phone she rings the agency and is relieved to learn that there is plenty of work. She will have to wire them the money to get here but her employers have all her earnings, she has no bank account even. As she puts Jonquil to bed she plans out the series of stories she will tell to get hold of the necessary. Money for a sick baby will do the trick, an operation is needed which is very expensive, and she must send her daughter the money.
Rosa and Ali gathered a few things, into the very bottom of the old leather bag she placed three perfect pearls, given to her on her wedding day. She had kept them safe and now they would need them for passage off the island. Pearls will always do when pisos won’t. They were marvellous, full of all the colours of the deep, yet sheeny satin white on the edge. Scraping them against her teeth she caught the jag of the ocean, the grit of it. They decided to leave on foot, not risk being seen boarding a bus, taking a boat. They would go north and try to leave the island further up. Walking along the beach they look towards the Sulu Sea for any signs of life, pirates mostly. Pirates with GPS, radar, and no end of ammunition. These waters were notorious, corsairs preyed on boats, would take anything. from hostages to hi-fi. But they saw nothing to alarm them. Far out in the Basilan strait, much further than the eye could see, an oceanography ship was taking measurements of huge internal waves. Great banks of water which rise up from the depths, mixing the sea up like a huge whisk, churning, storing it, taking heat to the bottom of this very deep sea and bringing icy currents to the top. Its American crew knew about the pirates, but were not unduly worried. They were there detecting walls of water rising from the ocean floor, a bunch of rag-tags on a stolen boat didn’t seem so hostile. As they checked their internal wave measurements, Ali and Rosa hurried along the beach, anxious to avoid the road at night. Hot, wet, salty air smothered them, swathed their clothes. Rosa’s damp skirt flicked her legs as she made her way across the sand. The thought of those heads buried up above them in the jungle made her steps faster despite the dull heat of the night. The sea lapped the sand, deceptively gentle. Away from the shallow shelf of the land, way out in the strait, vast turbines of saltwater pulled up from 4000 metres, pulling water, round and round, churning and churning, milling a roll of brine under the surface. Above, all that can be seen are little crests of white, mere breakers, the real rollers are all underneath, with them come the fish. Fisher folk through the ages have known to follow these solitons, these twists of brine, as fish come to feed on the zooplankton brought to the surface, catches are best edging the wave. On the shore Rosa clutches her pearls and hurries over the wet sand. The still moist eyes of the severed head blink in her head as she runs. Ali reaches for her hand in the muggy night and clasps it tight.
Susan spends her hours waiting and worrying, outwardly she is cheerful and no one in the house has noticed anything different. She retrieves her cash easily, they tell her off for sending too much money home, but indulgently smile and hand it over. She places it under her mattress, waiting for the day when the phone rings and they can begin. In the evening, when not told to babysit, she visits her friend, the Filipino nanny next door. She had come up from the south long before. They pore over the map, wondering where they will be able to cross.
- Ali can handle a boat - Susan tells her - Maybe they will be able to cross like that!
- Pirate waters those, not safe on the sea either. - Says the other. There is nothing they can do except carry on shopping and feeding and smiling, while they wait for Manila to call.
By the morning they have reached Pangasang but their plan to rest with some friends until the next night is cut short. Rosa goes first, Michaela is her friend, really. Before she even reaches the door, Michaela comes rushing out -
- Rosa, Rosa, you can’t stay here - She mumbles, breathless – Word is they are looking for you….
- But how? – Asks Rosa, amazed at the speed of it.
- A few of them went to play football with the heads and someone told them that you and the priest had gathered them up. Father Joseph has been arrested and charged with harbouring criminal heads. They are out to pick you up now, especially as someone threw the mixed marriage die into the bag. Simon will lend you his boat, but you must get off the island while you can.
Rosa lifts her hands in disbelief, it may take a week to cross the island but only a few hours are necessary when it comes to hearsay. She leads Michaela over to where Ali is loitering. He takes one look at her and knows that they must go across the strait, to Zamboanga, city of flowers, as soon as they can. Turning to the sea, he calculates roughly tides, speeds and winds, it will be a bumpy ride but they could do it, better than staying in a place called Panga, waiting for one to come down on your head for your choice of wife. Michaela rushes them down to the shore, no time for food and rest. They must catch the tide, sail fifteen kilometres of rough tumbling, to reach it before nightfall. An old bottle of water in the boat will have to see them through, but at least there is no bore across the strait. Ali cuts the ropes, does not untie them.
- We stole it in the night, nothing to do with you… I’ll leave it in Mario’s care and you can get it back when all this has died down.
Michaela smiles weakly and bids them:
- Go! Lives are what count now, not boats. Just get across! Write from London when you get there…
Rosa suddenly feels jaded, older than time, her legs buckle under her as she steps towards the small craft. Ali helps her stand, squeezes her arm:
- One more go, Rosa, one more!
He shoves it out into the sea with a rag-doll Rosa flailing about in the bottom, Michaela is already running back across the sand, anxious not to be seen in the dawn light by an opportune neighbour. He leaps in, pushing her prow round, pulls the engine cord and the boat starts to chug slowly forward over a bumpy sea. One tank is cutting it very fine and he must use all the natural help he can get from wind and waves to sling themselves over. Swigging the stale water Rosa began to recover herself, says a silent prayer for Father Joseph - surely they would not harm him, lovely old Joseph, who has always helped young and old, poor and rich, Christian and Muslim. Grey-haired old Joseph, who adored his baroque church, presiding over its magnificent view - she knew he would die rather than tell them where the heads were. She prayed again. Ali starts humming the tune to:
With the moonlight on the sea
And the blue hills of Basilan
Looming up mysteriously!
Does the little darkling river
Still go whispering thru the town
Where strange southern stars are mirrored
With the palm fronds peering down
Do the countless shifting fireflies
Keep their lamps alight for me
In dreamful Zamboanga –
World distant Zamboanga
By the moon enchanted sea?*
Rosa laughs and joins in with the last two lines, a few short kilometres across the strait, it might as well be ‘World distant’, but just then they catch a good gust and go hurtling over the choppy expanse. Way, way out across the water two ships face each other in the deeps. The US research vessel is monitoring; the Pirates like the look of their equipment.
While Rosa and Ali shoot over the sea singing, the internal wave, luring the scientists, stops the thieves in their tracks. Literally. Pirates greedy for the state-of-the-art American radar, confident that the crew would have nothing like the hardware they had up their sleeves, had honed in on the research vessel smiling at the ease of it all. But Captain Elaine Larward merely shifted a few degrees eastwards so the Pirates would have to cut right across the soliton to reach them. She moved for maximum effect and ordered a high frequency sounding. The rapacious little boat also altered course slightly, made straight for the main chance, blissfully unaware of the trap they were running to. Hitting the soliton at 20 knots ‘Dreamgirl’ came to a sudden shuddering halt, the Americans took a recording loud and clear, filmed the vessel stopped in its tracks, as tiny flecks of wave lapped about its hull. Turning their boat around, they then motored lightly across the seas with no difficulty at all.
Ali and Rosa chugged briskly on giving them no thought. Their tank was very low and they began to assess the chances of swimming the last few kilometres. Tired as they were the notion of safety, freedom, buoyed them up, drove them on, Rosa felt sure she could swim the whole strait if it meant a bath, a bed and some decent food. She felt light as light, might careen through the sea, fishlike and supple. In the good old days, before the fighting came, they used to swim every morning before work, racing each other across the bay before their guests had arisen.
- Go as far as you can, we’ll swim what’s left.
Ali turned to her and his face relaxed, her keening in the boat had unsettled him. He had been worrying about how to manage the rest with her in his arms, the wind was still behind them but who knew how long that would last. The lifejacket might help but he wasn’t sure that he would be strong enough to pull her over an unkind tide. Now that she was back, Rosa again, pearl-clutching, sea-loving Rosa, they would cope, boat or no. He blew her a kiss and turned northwards, squalls drove them on. Behind them the Pirates revolved on a wheel of water, rats in a briny trap.
Susan picked up dirty clothes, washed out soap dishes, hung other people’s underwear out to dry, mopped floors trodden by mercantile feet, smiled her usual smile and anguished every minute of the day. She rang Mario in his workshop, his dry dock at Zamboanga. She told him to look out for them, guessing that they would head there first – if they could get off the island, that is. Fretting through the days, cloaking herself in deference, she waited and waited. An old priest had been taken hostage, a village had been burned to the ground. News never got better, only worse. The painters noticed her disquiet tho’, the bum-waggling girl had picked up on the Filipino incident, the very word meaningful to her, now that she had told Susan her story. The platter-bearer had been strangely silent of late, still bringing tea and biscuits, but no longer sat on an upturned chair chatting, being chatted to. On the second day she asked her point-blank:
- Susan! Are you ok?
- I’m fine, just a little tired…..
She put the tray down and went quietly out. They could see she wasn’t, left it at that, supposed a dead or threatened relative. Susan clears away the mess of Sunday papers that litter the kitchen, out of one falls a big glossy supplement - full colour, full bleeds, the lot. It hits the floor with a lacquered thunk, flaunts its gorgeous seas, dancing girls, masses of smiling faces: The Philippines. She shakes it out and urges a mass of thoughts, wishes, prayers, whispers, through the photographs, over the pixelated seas, flower markets and sequinned babes, to Rosa.
The little motor and the sail pushed them over the sea, the wind slapped the clothes on their backs, driving them towards land. Hailing a returning fishing boat, they got given a line and were pulled into a small harbour made over to ship repairs and catches. Mario, who had been scanning the sea for the past hour, was there to greet them. He had bad news, Father Joseph had been executed inside his beloved church. He was very sorry. Rosa pictured the old man bowing down before his altar. The joy of arrival tinged with the guilt of survival. She felt unsteady on land, rocking on the jetty , she lunged for the rail. The world slid and she went with it. Ali asked Mario about routes to Manila, he could get them on a ferry leaving that night which would take around 42 hours to reach the capital. They could just rest up and sleep on the way, have a cabin. Rosa wanted to ring her mother, that is all.
- There’s a phone in the workshop – said Mario – Let’s go in there!
They walked up the jetty to the rough sheds on the dock, Mario guided them into a tiny cramped space with a skylight and hooks. On a plank of a table sat an ancient phone, all wires showing, precariously plugged into a socket that sparked now and again. Mario bid Rosa sit on a stool, after he had unloaded it of papers. Slowly, deliberately, she dialled.
- Hello – a flat English voice answered the phone.
- Hello, may I speak to Susan please?
- Yes, who is it?
- Rosa, her daughter.
- Ah yes! Rosa, how are you? Susan said you may be coming over soon, is that right?
- Yes, I hope so.
- Ah! Here she is, goodbye Rosa!
Rosa guessed her mother had said nothing to the bankers about anything. She therefore just told her the basics, that they were out, heading that night for Manila, would ring her again from there.
- The worst bit is over Mum!
- Ring me when you have the tickets, I have found something for Ali too. Next week would be good!
They hang up, she knows her mother does not want her employer to catch on that they will both stay there. She smiles, grateful for her mother’s cunning and carefully replaces the sparky receiver.
- Mario, you could end up electrifying yourself with this phone! – she laughs
- I nearly did when Michaela rang to tell me about you! My hands were soaking wet from scraping the hull when the phone went. I reached for it, dripped on the socket and the whole thing fizzed like a firework. I don’t know what shocked me more: her news or the wire!
Ali laughed, and clapped him on the back.
- I’ll send you some money from London, if I ever get there – he promised.
- Just worry about getting over there, nothing else. We will be okay here, things have quietened down a lot on this side of the divide. After all everybody needs boats whatever they worship: no boat, no fish. Here we worry about hulls not gods.
He shunted them out of the office and took them straight to the ferry.
- You won’t have time to clean up before she goes but you can shower and eat on board.
Both longing for rest and hot water, they followed him quietly, clutching their bags of clean clothes. They booked a cabin on the 9.45 sailing, said fond goodbyes to Mario and locked themselves in. Washing the salt off their bodies they didn’t have the strength to eat, but lay down on their bunks and slept right through docking and sailing until well into the middle of the following day.
- When’s your son-in-law arriving? The job’s been brought forward,
they want a quick fit and sell before the election, keep the prices high
and fancy…tell him to report to me next Monday at the site office, say
Susan smiled, thanked him, and replaced the receiver. Next Monday. That gave her five days to organise tickets, visas, everything. As she packed the bankers’ bags, ironed clothes, aired beds, she planned their arrival, sleeping arrangements, food and clothing, and rang the agency to make an appointment for Rosa. Now all depended on the British Embassy in Manila, the speed and issue of the visa. She had not been there for many years, when it had been slow and dim-witted in the extreme. She phoned her son later that day, told him organise a few letters addressed to the pair at his address, pick up the money she wired, and fill out all the appropriate forms. Their boat was due in the next day, around 8am her time, 4pm local time, they would have to get photographs done, bank statements printed, invitation letters written, that day, and appear first thing at the diplomatic compound the next morning. If their luck held they might just make it, they might just.
- Susan! You haven’t seen Jonquil’s swimsuit have you? Could you bring a pot of tea up while you’re at it! Thanks!
- Susan! Susan! I can’t find Piglet. I can’t go without Piglet! Where is he? I want Piglet!
Tea and Piglet dispensed, Susan runs through the schedule in her mind: Arrival, Visas, Money, Tickets; Arrival, Visas, Money, Tickets; Arrival, Visas, Money, Tickets…
Manila Harbour – anchorage paradise of the South China Seas. Ali and Rosa stand on deck as the ship wades its way through a blanket of plastic bags, a slick of leaked oil, a bob of human turds and the odd limb or two. They do not notice, or care, they look only to the harbour wall, to ropes and docking, gangways and moorings. Aircraft zoom overhead as they dock at pier 5 in the South Harbour. Letters addressed to themselves are shoved into their hands as they hit the pier, her brother bids her read the forms, they are all filled out, need photograph attached and handing in. They use a booth by the harbourmaster’s office, smile brightly and Flash! There they are, reproduced and fixed to paper. Hurrying through the streets they know they are too late for the Embassy that day, but can put in an online application. They enter an internet café, scan in pictures, and log on. Fast Track service, with proof of job to go to, can be done in 24 hours, but it costs, of course! Rosa rings Susan from the corner, while Ali fills in endless name; address; passport number; age; sex; marital status tabulations. The Nanny, but not the Electrician, eventually leaves the café in search of jewellers’ caverns. Pearls in her pockets she heads for the Ermita District, the street of jewels. Here, after the buzz and rush of the city, all is quiet and concentrated. Jewels really focus people, both buyers and sellers. Stones sit on lit cushions, bathed in white or rose, glowing yellow, blue or green, polished, buffed, highlighted and admired. Pink sapphires, blue diamonds, yellow rubies – nothing, as old as this, is as it seems. Something that took this long to make has got to be worth something. Rosa turns her swagger out onto the black velvet pad with priestly reverence. Her pearls took much less time to come about, but their story is queerer: Growing over a decade at the bottom of the ocean, slowly layer by layer as the mollusc builds up sheets of defences against an intruder: a grain of sand, a speck, has prised its way in. Trespassed on, the shell fights back, coating by coating, building up films of iridescence against the marauder until, smash and grab, some human hand tears it from the ocean bed; puts a stop to its noble barricade. Swum fast to the surface it is taken from the cool comfort of the sea to the harsh surface where polished and shone, it is strung on some necklace or hooked, for some fleshy lobe. She and the trader bend over the gemstones in awe. She looks as if the last thing in the world she wants to do is sell them, while he leans back, rubs the tips of his fingers together, appears wholly unconcerned; the dealing has begun.
Susan rings Carl, asks him for a headed letter stating work and wages for Ali. She knows it is a lot to ask, but after all she did fix him up with her sex-obsessed painter, she has seen them go off laughing down the road, assumes that he has caught more than her eye, hopes he will oblige. He will. She already has one from the agency for Rosa. Carl faxes them for her from the makeshift site office to a number she has scrunched up in her pocket. Rosa deals with pearl traders in hazy downtown Manila, while Susan submits to machines in rainy residential London.
Ali still hunched in his internet café, picks up the splotchy faxes, scans them, adds them to their application and wings them off. Up the road Rosa shakes her head, makes to pocket the pearls…trader tells her:
- Sit down. Sit down, what’s the hurry?
It is not that she knows anything about pearls, has no clue of their true worth, but she does know they were given to her at her wedding, by Ali’s widowed uncle to whom the pearls had meant a great deal. They had belonged to his wife whom he loved, who had died. He had kept them wrapped in velvet, meaning to take them with him to his grave until, that is, he had met Ali’s bride. He had held her hand long and hard, gripped her even. Tiny, miniature Rosa, with her eyes sliding off into her cheekbones, her slick of hair, wrists not much bigger than a sunbird’s claw. Fierce and fragile, he was captivated, reminded of Aisha. The pearls then, were Rosa’s acceptance by Ali’s family. Lustrousness lessening the pain - lucky charms, Rosary, Misbaha – they played a mighty role in Rosa’s fraught life, those pale pink, imperfect spheres from the deep. In the end it was her reluctance to part with them that drove the price up, not her know-how. But it worked. He counted out the money admiringly, even now she did not seem that bothered, he had her down as a true pro, considered asking her if she’d like a job. Yet, she was out of that spotlit cavern before he even had the chance.
As her children all sat down to dinner that evening in Manila, Susan prepared lunch. She allowed herself to cry a little into the rice, they were safe now. There was no need to keep smiling. No one saw her as she stirred the wok, threw in the fish, dropped big tears into the mix. She wept in that big, light, well-appointed kitchen with its aga, tiles, massive fridge, double sinks, waste disposal and verandah, salting her dish with relieved sobs. They would come, find their way, work hard, miss the vividness of the day, never get used to the cloudy pearly skies, sometimes feel that we were living under the sea, not above it, but they would be safe. As a soft mucus of a sky stretched above her, her children sat down to eat in the humid twilight of Sampaloc where infants ran under the table giggling, and high on a shelf lay a wadge of money, counted and bound in a fine pile, for tickets, visas, and thick clothes.
The next day the Embassy staff were polite but stern: Men to the right, Women to the left. Rosa and Ali joined the respective lines clutching their papers, their safety lines tight. Behind the glass sat a stern white face with no Tagalog, only the Queen’s English and a stack of forms, crisp and white, waiting to be filled. They handed over their London faxes, their invitation letters, proof of work, residence, existence. Sequences of numbers: 1.4 followed by 2; 2.6 turning into 3. Rafts of questions, with very little space for reply: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘None’, was what they required. Explanation, prose, composition were not catered for. At the end of each page was a big white box for ticks or crosses. These were crucial, if you got all ticks you were through, if you got only crosses, you had no chance. Ali and Rosa watched those white boxes like hawks as they stood waiting for the next request. Bank accounts and residence were the first. Ali spoke good Manila English, if they had bothered to speak to him in his own language they would have caught the faint tang of Arabic in his tongue, a sure sign of his southern roots, but they did not, so he sailed past. The killing of the priest had been all over the local papers, so any whiff of escape, refugee status, getaway, would ruin their application. His wife wore little crosses in her ears that twinkled every time she moved her head. She flashed with Christianity as she carefully counted out the money for the visas with her slim brown fingers. Ali slid his bundled under the glass to his big blonde Hilda, as Rosa handed hers to a jovial bearded chap in horrible shorts. At the end they were told they would have to leave the money and the forms there, while a decision was made. They would get the answer by the end of the week. Then they would have to come back, stand in line again and wait to see if the papers were ready. Hilda and Beardy explained the procedure with conviction. All the papers had to go through strict security checks, they were checked and double-checked which is why it was so slow. They smiled superior smiles and waved them on.
Near the Embassy, on a street of brands, was a string of travel agents, they went to check tickets and availability. They could book, impending visas, by placing a small deposit that they would not get back if they were refused entry. This they did. Walking over the Ayala Bridge they crossed into the Hospicio San Jose to sit, and think, and hide from the heat of the day. There, in the soft green, as long-skirted sisters with their coiffed heads swished past, they sat and thought of how it would be to be in the wet grey of England. The beauty of the island they had left, the rolling of the sea, tolling of the old bells, sharp smell of fish in the market, racket of children tumbling out of school – all this went through their minds.
- Remember Father Joseph – Rosa said fiercely.
Ali saw the heads seeping blood into the jungle. Felt sick. They embraced, sat there in silence for a long while, before slowly winding their way back over the Pasig river, back to Sampaloc, and the family in the north of the town.
Susan goes shopping in the big supermarket near her, despite the online orders, there are always things missing. Things her employers need. They seem to need an awful lot. Neon-lit aisles shine with goods, glossy packaging and photos of ever-so happy families grin down at her from the shelves, as she collects pasta, tomato sauce, cornflakes. The flecked floor shines and makes a perfect skating rink for a small girl who deftly circles the aisles in wheeled shoes. Susan longs for open-air markets, places you can laugh, haggle, triumph on that, come a cropper on the other. She talks to the girls in checkout who look wan in the false light, but that is all the contact they, and she, have. All the joy of a day at the market has gone. She even remembers a woman going into labour at the marketplace - Falling to her knees she grabbed the trestle of the nearest stall and moaned.
- It’s starting!! –
The village women yelled, hauling her onto a table while someone ran for the doctor and the midwife hurried forward. Susan can’t imagine anyone going into labour here on these polished corridors, overhung with bright signs announcing their contents: Tea, Coffee, Soup, Pasta, Toiletries…or anyone knowing what to do, even if they did. Still she can’t imagine anyone getting beheaded here either. No life or death then, just safe wrapping! She chews on another piece of dried mango and lines up by the tills.
At the end of the week Ali and Rosa line up again in the dim heat. The air outside can be held in the hand, weighs down on skin, an atmospheric dumbbell. They have to wait in the heavy air until they go through a series of detectors, bodies and bags, to enter the cool interior. The sweat of the visa seekers evaporates in the fresh air, creating a fine drizzle in the officious rooms. They are given a number and told to wait. Beardy and Blondie no longer preside but two locals sit behind the thick glass. This is a relief. Rosa is called first, she is asked all about her mother, her mother’s employment, savings, visas, status in London, prospects, possible retirement age…Rosa produces a sheaf of papers concerning her mother, which, it turns out, they seem to have also. Tick
Ali steps up to a slight angular youth who has a Chinese look about him but speaks Tagalog like a native. One of the many Manila mixed-race, Ali explains his job on a big building site.
- Why do they need you, when they have so many of their own? –
Asks the consular youth.
- Because I am cheaper and am willing to move around, have no fixed abode, or children to keep me tied. –
Tick. They are told to wait to one side, nothing is said pro or contra, and they spend a horrible 40 minutes waiting in the cold, high ceiling-ed visa section, with its posters of coaches, parliament, Big Ben and the Eye, announcing:
WELCOME TO THE UK!
They hold hands but do not smile. They cannot decide whether it is better to look expectant, optimistic, cheerful, or plain blank. In the end they go for blank. That way nothing can be inferred, they will annoy no one. They are convinced that they are being watched through some secret two-way mirror in the wall, someone is writing down their reactions to the wait, making them sit there just a little bit longer, has perhaps even turned the air-conditioning up a bit to make them shiver. But they don’t fall for it, they look at the magnificent Eye rising over the fog; count gold leaves on the coach; resolutely leach all anticipation from their glances. A slight pressure of the hands indicates to the other how much they are enjoying this charade. Spy stuff, but no guns. Daring, without danger. A stunt-less Bruce Lee film. This is fun. If all else fails they will stay in Manila, work there, it won’t be their dream island but they are alive. They relax and are called.
- Salamat, salamat!!!
They both bellow as they receive their visas, stamped into their passports and work permits on a separate paper, indicated in the visas. They may enter to work for a period of 12 months each, after that they must reapply. Thanking their way out of the building, they re-emerge into the hot air and are glad of its warmth. Clutching rolls of money in their pockets, what is left of what they have already peeled off in the Embassy, they hurry down the street for the tickets. They will rewind time and arrive not long after they had taken off. Fly from night into night over half the planet, cheat oceans, ranges, deserts, of their presence, arrive rested and awake after a very long night above the earth during which they will sleep rolled up together on their half-reclining seats, with the air vents definitely switched off.
Susan is delighted, they will arrive just as they should, as dawn is breaking, she will have to wait at the airport half the night, as there is no other way of getting there at that time, unless by taxi, which would cost her half a week’s wages. She will take the train and the metro, sit curled up on those lines of soft seats, reading gossip magazines and waiting. She checks cupboards for ingredients, she will make them a welcome curried fish, which she knows her daughter loves. She will give them the spare bedroom for the first few days until Rosa goes to her new family and Ali goes hostelling with the rest of the builders. He will be in the west of the city at first, and then will move out east to the stadia. Susan bustles and plans. She worries about how Rosa will adjust to the climate, it took her years. They will have to get used to having very little money, no home of their own, and no luxuries at all. No pearls and skinning dipping here. She leaves some dried mango soaking in a bowl of water, she will prepare the rice the next day, leave it overnight and feed it to them as they come in at dawn, they will not want to sleep but rest and adjust to their new surroundings. She will give them two days and then they must move on. The family will be coming home and she must remove all trace of Filipino from the house; smells, sandals, jewellery, ticket stubs. The little girl picks up anything left on the floor and a Manila-London Hthrow boarding card tag would be a dead give away. Linda knows they are coming over, but has no idea that they are staying here, Susan wants to keep it that way.
Ali and Rosa sleep and sleep as the aircraft hurtles through that lingering night. They pass into ever more nights, as they move westwards and northwards, nosing into the black. The euphoria of escape seeps through them as they sleep. Buried heads, dead priests, abandoned homes, sink into their tissue as their bodies prepare for a new climate and a new time zone. They will have crossed 8 by the time they reach London, shifting into a steady 9pm-12pm for about ten hours. Truly, a good day’s journey into night.