Sunday, December 26, 2010
IT IS ALMOST dusk, yet she still has not arrived. Something must be wrong, he wonders. He looks at the clock mounted on the wall; it says 6 o’clock. He has been sitting there for almost an hour now. Alone in the corner table. The man at the counter has been eyeing him for quite a while. But he just ignores the man. Instead, he pretends he is reading the newspaper he has brought with him. He sees the muchacho who has approached him earlier go back again to the counter. The muchacho has been summoned by the man at the counter. He can see the man barking some orders to the muchacho, who then nods his head. The muchacho looks from one side to another, then looks at him, in his direction. He gets the cue and starts to fold his newspaper. When the muchacho stands in front of him, he rises to his feet.
“Señor, nuestras disculpas. Pero si usted no tendrá ninguna orden,” the muchacho meekly begins, his voice subdued. ¿Sería tan amable de dar paso a otros clientes que acaban de llegar?” the muchacho politely asks. (“Sir, our apologies. But if you won’t have any orders, would you be kind enough to give way to our other customers who have just arrived?”) He gestures with his hand to the Chinese couple who are standing near the entrance door.
“Sí, por supuesto. Lo siento. Yo estaba esperando a mi compañero. Pero tal vez no podría venir más,” Pedro replies. (“Yes, of course. I’m sorry. I was waiting for my companion. But maybe she might not be coming anymore.”) There is a tone of dejection in his voice. As he picks up his creased newspaper and shoves his chair away from him, the muchacho calls out to the couple who are expectantly waiting for a signal for them to stride over to the table now being vacated.
The voice, feminine and sweet, startles the muchacho. He spins around. There is a look of surprise that crosses that muchacho’s face.
Pedro waves a hand, motioning the lady who has just called him to come over.
“Señor, ¿sigues yendo?” the confused muchacho asks as he takes several steps away from Pedro. (“Sir, are you still leaving?”) The couple has stopped in their tracks; they stand a foot away from the muchacho.
“Creo que no. Mi invitado, puedes ver, ya ha llegado. ¿Puede darnos su menú, por favor?” Pedro says as he tells his guest to take a seat. (“I believe not. My guest, you see, has already arrived. Can you give us your menu, please?”)
“Oh, sí, señor, en un momento.”(“Oh, yes, sir, in a moment.”) Saying that, the muchacho leaves, goes over to the couple and leads them back to the waiting area near the entrance door.
It is Friday evening. At this time of the week, Clarke’s Restaurant is crowded.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Pedro,” she says. She is conscious of the curious stares now being cast on her by the other customers.
“It’s all right, Barbra. What would you have? You sure look hungry.” Pedro leans forward, his elbows atop the crumpled El Diario de Manila. He claps his hands in mid air. In a matter of seconds, the muchacho arrives and hands to Pedro the menu.
“Bueno, nos gustaría tener un plato de tamales con relleno de pollo, y ah, éste, el Camarones al curry, las gambas grandes,” Pedro says as he browses through the menu. (“All right, we’d like to have a plate of tamales with chicken filling, and ah, this one, the camerones curry, the large prawns.”) He looks over at Barbra, inquiringly raises his eyebrows. He knows she likes the local prawns. When he sees Barbra nod, he brings his gaze back to the menu. “Y también, ¡ah, éste,” he continues as he runs a finger on the menu, “los peces Macasar rojo con cebolla frita, y también un plato de anchoas españolas.” (“And also, ah, this one, the Macassar red fish with fried onions, and also a plate of Spanish anchovies.”) As he gives back the menu to the muchacho, he says, “Dos platos de arroz y dos vasos de jugo de coco.”(“Two plates of rice and two glasses of cocoa-nut juice.”)
Barbra is studying her folded hands on the table when Pedro looks at her. She tilts back, digs in her bag and takes out a small fan.
“Something’s wrong with you?” Pedro asks. He can sense Barbra’s uneasiness.
She peers around, and then looks at him. “I had just come from Intramuros,” she begins slowly. She is toying with the fan. “From the church in Santo Tomas University.”
“You met someone there?”
She lifts her gaze. “Yes, I went to see Father Santos.”
Pedro rests on his back, his hands slightly tapping the table. He then straightens his body and props his elbows on the table, his jowls resting on his folded hand. He, too, is feeling restless. “I see. You had a confession?”
A slight nod is the response. Barbra adjusts the starched pañuelo that hangs around her neck. She tightens the brooch that holds the corners of the pañuelo in front of her chemisette decolletee. “Yes, Pedro. It’s been months since I had my last confession,” Barbra softly says.
Pedro is abruptly seized by shame, by guilt. He has not expected that Barbra would do it. He can see now a change in her demeanor, in her manner, in her appearance.
“We really have to end our relationship. It’s not right, Pedro. I'm sorry.” Barbra is now sobbing silently. She takes out a kerchief from her bag and gently dabs her eyes. She brushes a few strands of hair that hangs on her forehead. Her hair, her blond hair, is brushed back; it tapers off into a chignon near the back of her neck. She covers her eyes when she senses somebody is approaching.
Shoving the folded newspaper aside, Pedro watches the muchacho lay down the tableware and the food in front of them.
“¿Podría traernos algunos lanzones, también?” Pedro says, knowing Barbra delights in having the local fruit as the final course of her meal. (“Could you bring us some lanzones, too?”) It has an exotic appeal to her, she has told Pedro a number of times.
The muchacho flushes when he sees Pedro looking at him with slight contempt. He has been caught by Pedro looking intently at Barbra. He moves back and bows his head. “Oh, sí, señor. De inmediato,” he awkwardly says. (“Oh, yes, sir. Right away.”) He leaves quickly.
For some reason, Pedro has still not grown accustomed to the habit of some people—rather, a great number of people—looking at them with curiosity, if not with bafflement. He has tried to ignore the inquisitive stares that meet him and Barbra whenever they go out together. But he just cannot shrug them off. Barbra has told him that, well, it is, indeed, rare to see a male native walking side by side with an American woman. Atypical couple. And since it is something that they cannot do anything about, she has further told him, he should just pay no heed to it.
Pedro keeps trying hard, mighty hard to obey Barbra’s advice. At times, Pedro is successful; at times, he is not. He realizes maybe because of the different circumstances, of the attendant circumstances. Just like now. It surely is annoying to see the muchacho gawking dumbly at Barbra.
“Are you sure of your decision?” Pedro asks in a sullen voice.
There is no answer that immediately comes. Instead, he sees the kerchief becoming damped with her tears. She gently rubs her misty eyes.
He is about to say something when the muchacho arrives with a tray of lanzones.
As they silently eat, Pedro feels a searing pain in the pit of his heart. He is losing Barbra. And no, nothing can be done about it. It is not a decision of hers. It is destiny’s. He should have known it beforehand. Even before they started their relationship. That he can never marry her, she can never be his wife. He can never own her. She belongs to another man. Her husband. After a long time, her husband is finally going back to Manila, his stint in Mindanao having finally concluded. And from Manila, they will travel back to America. There they will live. Back to their place. In their own home, in their own world.
His eyes becoming blurred with moist, he slowly stands up. “Would you excuse me? I’ll just relieve myself,” he says.
There is a slight nod from Barbra.
When he comes back, Barbra is enjoying the small roundish pieces clustered in tiny, wiry branches.
“You really love lanzones, don’t you?” Pedro grins.
For the first time since she arrived, Barbra smiles. “Oh, I really love them. I hope I could bring some to America.”
Pedro feels enraptured when he sees Barbra beaming. He has not seen her smile for a long time, in fact, for almost half a year. How he loves seeing her face give out such cheerful disposition. Suddenly, it brings back the time when he first saw her some three years back. There at the office of his superior, William Notting, an American lawyer (abogado Americano), at a modern building along Escolta.
... ... ...
“Here, Pedro, have some lanzones,” Barbra now offers. She has squeezed a piece of the fruit with her fingers, popping open the fruit. “They’re really sweet-tasting!” she says as she extends to Pedro the peeled fruit.
“They’re my favorite, too,” Pedro says.
There is a sudden noise that they hear. It is coming from the door that leads to the kitchen. It is a voice; a man’s voice that is booming loud. The kitchen door swings. A stocky huge man bursts out.
“Hey!” The stocky man bellows to the man at the counter. “Where is Mr. Clarke? Has he not arrived yet?”
Barbra looks at the stocky man with surprise. “Why, he’s a Negro!” she hisses.
“Keep it low,” Pedro cautions her. “He’s Tom, Tom Pritchard, the head cook here. He’s the one in-charge of everything related to the food preparation, cooking.” Pedro’s mouth is half-full of lanzones.
She continues to peer at the stocky man. “This is the first time I see a Negro here in the islands,” she says.
“Me, too. He’s the first Negro I saw. But he’s great at cooking. He’s the reason why a lot of people flock to this place. Really great food.” Pedro leans back. He sees the stocky man go back to the kitchen door.
“Are you now done?” Pedro notices the heap of lanzones peels on the tray. “You didn’t leave a single piece, eh?” he laughs.
She beams at him. “They’re too precious to be wasted.” She looks at the clock on the wall. “Should we now leave? It’s way past seven,” she says.
Pedro claps his hands. As he takes out his wallet, a muchacho arrives. Pedro examines the small paper given to him by the muchacho. It is the list of the food they have consumed.
“¿Te gustaría firmar un vale para esto, señor?” the muchacho asks. (“Would you want to sign a chit for this, sir?”)
Pedro shakes his head. “No, no. Voy a pagar en efectivo,” he says. (“No, no. I will pay in cash.”) He extends two crumpled bills to the muchacho, who then promptly leaves.
Barbra asks, “I thought they had already discontinued to use the chit system.”
Pedro is wiping the corners of his mouth with the table napkin. “In a way, yes. But for some valued customers, they still observe this,” he says. He starts to laugh and says, “Mr. Clarke was complaining to me the other day that some of his customers who had accumulated huge debts had run off. Debts that ran in the thousands. He couldn’t find them anymore. He has since then stopped offering this I.O.U. thing. He showed to me bundles of chits signed by his errant customers.” Pedro is shaking his head. He starts to rise upon seeing the approaching muchacho bearing the change from his payment.
A little later, they are standing a few steps away from the restaurant’s door. They are in the street waiting for a carretela to take them home.
“Maybe we should walk. There, let’s go there,” Barbra says. She points to a corner block. “Too much people here at this time. Rush hour.”
Near the corner block, two pubescent-looking girls are squatting against the wall. They stop chattering upon seeing Pedro and Barbra. One girl, who has thrown the cigarette she was puffing, stands up. She hurriedly marches toward Pedro, her hand extended.
“Señor, billete de lotería. Por favor, compre uno de mí,” the girl pleads as she pushes her extended hand to Pedro. (“Sir, lottery ticket. Please buy one from me.”)
There is something that ached in Pedro’s heart upon seeing the girl. He examines her, his hand reaching deep in his trouser pocket.
“Look,” Barbra says, pointing to the feet of the girl who has remained hunched against the wall. “She’s a leper,” she whispers.
Pedro flinches when he sees the girl’s badly deformed feet. He plucks out several coins and hands them to the girl bearing the lottery ticket. “Manténgalo,” he says to her. (“Keep it.”) “No, no, hija,” he adds when the girl tries to give to him the ticket. (“No, don’t, child.”) “Mantenga también.” (“Keep it, too.”) He fishes out another coin and throws it in the direction of the girl with the leper.
No sooner have they gotten past the corner than they hear a continuous ringing of a bell.
Pedro swirls his head. “There’s a tramvia,” he tells Barbra. “Maybe we should ride there. It’ll take some time before we could get a carromata here. Too much crowd at this time.”
Barbra looks back. “I thought you don’t like being stared at?” she asks. “Look,” she points to the streetcar, “it’s crowded.”
The tramvia slows down; it stops in front of Clarke’s Restaurant. After a few passengers get off, the tramvia starts to run. A ringing bell sound emanates anew from the tramvia.
“I think it’s better if we walk farther. Over there,” Barbra says, pointing in the distance.
“I thought you still couldn’t walk that much?” Pedro asks. “It’s quite a distance. That’s the busiest part here in Escolta, too much crowd there. Near Plaza Moraga.”
Barbra slightly shakes her head. “I’m all right now, Pedro. I need to buy something there, at the Spanish Hat Store. For my husband. He’ll be arriving tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? Pedro is stunned, feeling suddenly struck by a bolt of lightning. He stops, turning his head to her. “Tomorrow? Why so sudden?” he blurts out. Abruptly, he becomes aware of a multitude of emotions crowding his mind. Surprise. Anger. Pain. Sadness. Fear. Helplessness.
Realizing the slip of the tongue she has made, Barbra freezes, finding herself shocked. She drapes a hand on her mouth, her eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” she says, looking at him. “I forgot to mention John’s arriving tomorrow.” She snatches Pedro’s elbow.
He looks down, trying to scrutinize his newly polished leather shoes. “So, this will be our last meeting. I won’t be seeing you anymore?” he silently cries. His distraught voice pierces Barbra, penetrating the inner realms of her physical and mental being. “Why, Barbra? Why?” he asks.
Barbra falls silent, her eyes plunging to the pavement. She has felt it: the vicious and painful prick of torment in her soul.
Aloft, the rhythmical stacatto sound of a horse’s footfalls rises, joining the nocturnal din of the shops and stores and cafés and restaurants that line Escolta on both sides. The small bony horse pulling the rickety quelis gallops at a measured pace. At a distance not far behind the quelis, a carromata is at a standstill, just in front of a Tagal-manned store that sells expensive European wares. The carromata’s pilot, the cochero, has climbed down, waiting for the passengers who are still handing their payment to the store-owner. Not far behind, at the foot of Escolta near the Plaza Sta. Cruz area, a number of carromatas has begun to appear, making a slow trot on one side of Escolta.
Pedro gravely looks at Barbra. He gently frees his elbow off Barbra’s hand. He sighs, swatting away Barbra’s hand when she tries to grasp him anew. He looks in the distance, tears suddenly springing into his eyes. All of a sudden, he pivots, turning his back on her, and starts to walk, leaving Barbra behind.
Barbra goes after him, trying to keep apace. “Pedro,” she begins to say, “no, Pedro. I’ll still see you. I promise. Please understand me. Oh, please,” she pleads. Her voice is deeply agitated
Some passers-by walking near them hear her voice; they cast their curious eyes on her, and then, they dart their gaze at Pedro. Barbra ignores them. She is now tugging at Pedro’s arm.
“Pedro, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she implores.
Pedro pauses; he gives her a hard, searching look. Finally, he speaks. “I don't know, Barbra, I don't know.” He is amazed at how suddenly his voice sounded. The anger has subsided; the emotion he now feels is one of sadness. Pained sadness. He rubs the corner of one eye and then the other. He blinks.
They have reached the lower end of Escolta and are now near the Puente de España (the “Bridge of Spain”) that crosses the Pasig river, the bridge that connects the north and south sides of Manila.
The carromatas and quelises that have just crossed the bridge are slowing down as they near the corner junction. A slow moving carabao-drawn rig moving out of Escolta has caused some traffic turmoil in its wake. In the sidewalks, feet shuffle endlessly. It is the usual feverish Friday evening shopping galore: thick crowds comb through the shops and stores. Merchants, expectant of earning a killing at the end of the day, are on hand, ever watchful and attentive to the shoppers’ needs and queries. The tumult of noise in the air is made worse by the presence of ambulant vendors--some Chinese, some Tagals—that occupy spots in front of the stores and some lingering along the narrow footpaths. They shout and try to buttonhole shoppers and passersby who, in turn, ward off with slight contempt the vendors’ extended hands. Then, too, vying for attention are some beggars who match, if not rival, the vendors’ obstinacy.
Just a few feet away from where they are standing is the Spanish Hat Store. Pedro shoots a glance at the thick crowd inside the hat store. Then he looks at Barbra. The finest creature he has ever seen in this world. Right there, beside him.
“Would you still want to buy?” Pedro asks in a silent, grave voice. He stuffs his hands inside his trouser pockets.
Barbra peers at the hat store. Pedro returns his gaze at her. He then turns, casting his eyes on the watch store that stands adjacent to the hat store. Above the watch store, a signage hangs, reading:
AMERICAN WALTHAM, SOL & CRONOMETRO VICTORIA
The American Watch
the best in the world
Only Agent for the famous Watches
ALL KINDS OF JEWELLERY
Corner of the Bridge
“I’m now feeling tired, Pedro. Maybe we should leave.”
ESCOLTA IS A narrow, crooked street. Its paved roadway does not go beyond thirty feet; its narrow sidewalk can hardly accommodate more than two people walking side by side.
Escolta is “The Bond Street” of Manila. It is “The Broadway” of Manila. It is “The Fifth Avenue” of Manila. It is in this “fashionable street” where one can find a congregation of the fashionable boutiques, classy millineries, stylish haberdashery stores, high-end emporia, shops that sell articles for the sophisticated and the discerning, drug stores that offer premium quality items. Also along this famed street are the offices or clinics of famous Spanish doctors that offer pricey services, storehouses of stationery, shops that house and sell imported periodicals and books, studios where photograph services are available, and picture and music stores. After exhausting oneself in lavish shopping spree, the shopper can partake in some delectable European- or American-styled dish offered by the finest chefs in town: first class restaurants are just a heartbeat away. Or, he can spend his idle time in some elegant cafés or “wet his whistle” in some neat liquor-rooms or buy some tasteful sweets from confectionaries purposely established for the high-income consumers. Clubhouses for the rich and famous abound in the area, too. Then, too, it is in Escolta where one can find the offices of well-known businessmen or firms.
Where does one get to hear salacious gossips or intrigues of the day, those involving the aristocratic, the landed gentry, the high social class, the upper class, the lordly, the patrician, the blue-blooded? In what place could one get a whiff (or even an earful) of schemes or stratagems of the business tycoons, the industrialists, the moguls, that dictate on, and thus, rule the islands?
Only in Escolta.
It is on Escolta alone where the mighty, powerful, the famous, the legendary, the eminent, the rich, the fashionable, the classy, the trendy, the snobbish, the haughty, the arrogant, the polite, and the humble meet. It is also a magnet for the lowly, the poor, the beggars, and the crippled: for them to set foot on this famed street is to have a taste of heaven.
Escolta in the 19th Century
[Image is courtesy of Clipart ETC/University of South Florida with website at http://etc.usf.edu/clipart]
[File Name: 57445_manila_escol; Description: The City of Manila, or simply Manila, is the capital of the Philippines. Seen here is Escolta Street in Manila; Source: Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper's Ency- clopedia of United States History (vol. 6) (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1912); URL link at http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/ 57400/57445/57445_manila_escol.htm]
History is vague as to exactly when Escolta came to exist or how it exactly got its name. Legend has it that the famed street got its name from the Spanish word "escolta," which means an “escort” or a “guard” or a “convoy,” in reference to the “escorts” of the Spanish General (who was quartered in the nearby Santa Cruz headquarters that was attached to the rectory) who passed everyday in the street. Back in the early part of 1842, a U.S. naval officer, Charles Wilkes, who was in the American warship that visited Manila, observed with amusement the outburst of activity he beheld in the “longest and main street” in the Binondo suburb or district, indicative of the vibrant life of Escolta, and thus already in existence, in the early 19th century. In 1856, Escolta was listed in that year’s edition of the Lippincott’s Pronouncing Gazetteer, a respected and leading geographical dictionary journal containing a list of geographical names or places in the world published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An Englishman, Sir John Bowring, who came to the islands in 1858, got informed that the average number of vehicles that passed through Escolta daily amounted 915. Some three decades later, the figure quantum-leaped to 5,000 vehicles per day. By then, the European merchants had conquered every nook and cranny of Escolta, forcing their Chinese counterparts to transfer their (the Chinese’s) tiny quaint shops in the parallel Calle Rosario.
Just as Bond Street located in the fashion district of London has been mentioned in some well-known works of literature (among which includes Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway), so does Escolta figure in local literature--in the famous twin novels of national hero Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
When the Americans took possession of the islands, Escolta became even more extragavant and grandiose. The pavement on the road has been much improved, structures have been greatly rebuilt and refurbished, the stores have become even more radiant, resplendent, fascinating and glamorous. It is the sun, the star in the center of Manila’s solar system where all the segments of society revolve. It is the most prominent feature in Manila.
Manila is not Manila without Escolta. Manila is Escolta. Escolta is Manila.
PEDRO HAS JUST left the lobby of the classy movie house in Escolta, the Capitol Theatre. He enjoyed thoroughly the movie, starred in by his granddaughter, Julia Santos, a rising star in the local moviedom. Now in his early seventies, he goes out alone. Though he has considered himself retired from his profession, he still has a trickle of litigation cases that makes him busy for a while. “To prevent my brain from becoming rusty,” he has reasoned out to his daughter, who now lives abroad with her American husband.
His only child, his daughter, Bernadette, has left in his custody her daughter Julia, a lovely 20-year-old lass. Bernadette grew up without a mother, and it was Pedro alone who attended to her from birth up to the time she finished college. She was working in a local bank when she met a client-depositor, an American businessman, who must have fallen in love the instant he laid his eyes on her. From then on, the American began to stalk her, to follow her wherever she went; he stuck to her like her own shadow. Initially, Bernadette feared the American, voicing out to Pedro that the American terrorized her as he would always burst from nowhere and try to talk to her, to be with her. When Pedro came to meet the American, it was then that Pedro understood that the American had good intentions on Bernadette. The American admitted his everlasting, eternal affection for Pedro’s daughter, adding that he was willing to wed Bernadette in any church in the country; heck, if Bernadette wanted that they wed in all the churches in the archipelago, the American would gladly do so.
And so, after a whirlind courtship, the couple got married. Eventually, Bernadette gave birth to a bouncing baby girl with angelic features. After more than a decade of living in Manila, the couple decided to leave for America. Bernadette’s husband had to return there; he was being re-assigned back to their company’s mother office. By then, Julia was already in her late teens; in a year or two, she would be graduating from college. So as not to disrupt Julia's studies, the couple decided to ask Pedro, if he could possibly take custody, and thus, take care of Julia until she finished college. Pedro, still strong and healthy despite his age, willingly agreed.
Early last year, while Pedro and Julia were having some refreshments at Botica Boie along Escolta, someone approached them. He introduced himself and expressed his interest in Julia. Pedro initially took offense. Protective as he was of his granddaughter, he frankly replied to the “rude and fresh and saucy” man (a man with mestizo features who looked already in his 50s) that Julia, his granddaughter, was still too young to entertain suitors. “Back off,” Pedro told the man. The man, flustered, apologized and said he was misunderstood. He fished out a business card from his wallet, and politely told Pedro that he wanted to make Julia a movie star. Pedro suddenly was seized by shame; he read the business card. It was then that he realized the man was the famous Jose Nepomuceno, a movie director and producer, one of the giants in the local movie industry. All this time, Julia was frozen to her feet. She could not believe what she had just heard. After some conversation over some refreshments, Pedro promised that he would give the Jose Nepomuceno a call.
The rest was history. Acting proved to be no tough task for Julia. She is good at it. No, excellent is the correct word. Pedro now acts as Julia’s manager, aside, of course, from his law practice.
Julia has finished his third movie in just one year. From what Pedro is hearing from the showbiz circles, Julia is destined to become one of the biggest stars looming in the horizon.
As he now walks along the sidewalk of Escolta, Pedro becomes suddenly nostalgic. It has been decades since that fateful December evening.
In that classy restaurant, Clarke’s Restaurant. He remembers it too well, the spot where Clarke’s had stood. A new structure is now standing there.
He looks in the distance. Ah there, at the end of Escolta, near the junction. Near that area. The thug. The white man. William Notting. The old man. His father, surrogate father. Were it not for him, he would not be having a favored life now. How destiny, how fate, has been good to him. Did he not owe some gratitude to the thug that tried to mug William Notting? he now wondered. Well, were it not for him. Pedro sighs. William Notting. No, not once did the old man show any anger, any wrath on him. Not even when he found out that he was living in with Barbra.
It was one evening. Notting had waited for him to get back to office. Notting asked him if the rumor Notting had heard was true. Pedro confirmed. Notting blew a whistle. Then Notting began to talk, cool as a cucumber, telling Pedro that it was his life, his decision. It was beyond Notting to interfere in the personal life of others. But as his surrogate father, Notting emphasized, he had this duty to feel concerned about Pedro, to give him some fatherly advice. He said that Pedro should be aware of the consequences that Pedro faced. There was no telling what was in the horizon; only time would tell, Notting said. But Notting made one thing clear: Pedro should leave the office: Notting was certain of the adverse repercussions the law firm faced. Notting, however, exhibited magnanimity. Pedro was free to bring with him the cases he was handling so that Pedro would have something to tide him over in the coming “difficult days” ahead.
Pedro was seized with shame and guilt. For the briefest instant, he thought of jumping out of the window (the office was in the second floor). He wanted to express his thoughts, to tell Notting of the reasons why Pedro chose a life with Barbra. Notting, however, broke him off. It was not necessary, Notting said. Notting then gave Pedro an embrace and wished him luck.
It was the last time Pedro would see Notting.
The next year, Notting’s clients began to dwindle. The upshot of Pedro’s affair with Barbra. It was a pure and simple sexual affair, so condemned the conservative society. The judgment was harsh, the punishment was harsher. One by one, the clients deserted Notting. By the end of the year, only one or two faithful client stayed. No, this could not go on, Notting told himself. The following year, Notting left Manila and went back to America.
It took Pedro months to discard the excessive guilt feelings that tormented him. The anguish, the agony---what had he done? he had asked himself a thousand times. He never heard anymore about the old man, the old white man. He prayed hard, asking for forgiveness. Foregiveness from God. Forgiveness from Notting.
All because of Barbra.
Pedro is now at the corner junction of Escolta, near Plaza Moraga, near the bridge. What before was the Bridge of Spain is now known as Jones Bridge. Pedro looks around. The spot where the American watch store had stood. He could still make out Barbra, her image, her beautiful outline. Her face, the finest creature he had seen. Her voice is still fresh in his ears.
I’m now feeling tired, Pedro. Maybe we should leave.
They were the last words he heard from her.
Her face slices through his mind again...
Shattered into the sudden realization of his loss of Barbra, Pedro found himself thrust in a state of dysphoria.
After getting some medical advice, and after some counselling from the nuns, Pedro found courage to live his life. He took his daughter from the convent and moved on.
It was a new life for him and his daughter. He vowed to spend all his time and attention and energy to their child, whom he named Bernadette. He had tried to find another woman, to marry and have a companion. But he never did. And he never found the reason why. But despite all this, he found genuine happiness in rearing Bernadette. A joy in his life.
A favored life.
Indeed, it has been a good life, he has told himself countless of times. With Bernadette, and now, with Julia. He could not have asked for more.
Pedro keeps looking around. The usual crowd. Topsy-turvy. Disorderly. Escolta. The beehive of activity. The place where the action is. After a minute, he decides to walk, back to where he has come from. There it is. His car. Rather, his granddaughter’s brand new car. A sporty two-door two-tone (green and white) 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. It was given by the movie producer as part of Julia's professional fee. Parked in front of the Capitol Theatre. As he now drives the car out of Escolta, he is still nostalgic. Escolta will forever be imprinted on his mind. Escolta was his life. It is his life. He is now in the twilight of his life. But Escolta, vibrant as it is, will live, he now tells himself. Escolta. Vivacious. Pulsating. He knows deep in his heart that Escolta will live long. It has lived through the centuries. It will live through the coming centuries. As long as Manila is there, Escolta will likewise be there. As long as there is effervescent life in Manila, there will likewise be a sparkling, bubbly life in Escolta.
THE ROARING TWENTIES. A decade of affluence. The economic boom in America stretched beyond its shores. Being an American territory, the Philippines was a logical recipient of the beneficent American prosperity.
Manila flourished under the favorable conditions of the time.
In no other place could this be evident than in Escolta, the nucleus of Manila’s life. The control center. The shops, the stores, the cafés, the saloons, the restaurants, the drug stores. The big offices. The clubhouses. The daily life. The nightlife. The flashy, trendy clothes, shoes, the bags, the hats, and other personal accessories. The outburst of new products and technologies, like the radios and the phonographs.
And the automobiles.
Along Escolta’s edge were parked expensive and gaudy automobiles imported from America. A show of wealth and might by the opulent and flamboyant rich and powerful. They were the regular hoipolloi of the famed street. It was there where they forged huge business deals, fashioned business enterprises, planned the future of their riches and other wordly possessions. It was there where they huffed and puffed after an endless shopping spree, indulged in endless bragging, traded scandalous gossips, lounged the day away, loafed away their lives, bummed around, stagnated in boredom.
Though in the Thirties, America succumbed to the “great depression,” in Manila, no economic downturn of such magnitude was felt. Manila continued to enjoy its good life. And so did Escolta.
Along Escolta, a high class cinematograph theatre was built, the Capitol Theatre. And a host of other modern earthquake-proof structures were built on both sides of the famed street.
In the Forties, a desvatating war raged across the globe. Suddenly, Manila woke up one morning to find its life in the throes of an impending demise. Escolta still throbbed with activity, though under the close watch of the distrustful eyes of the Japanese invaders.
Then came the day of liberation. The endless American bombing of Manila to pulverize the ruthless Japanese army left the city with death and destruction. It was in ruins. No one was spared, not even Escolta.
Determined to rise from the ashes of the war, Manila spent the next half decade of the Forties rebuilding itself.
By the time the Fifties arrived, a resurging Manila pulsated with a vigorous life, with a vibrant hue.
A rebuilt Escolta was casting off a vivid and bright light again.
When the Sixties came, a new generation came. The “Swinging Sixties”. The “High Sixties”. The “cultural decade”. The effects of the significant events that took place around the globe were felt in the Philippines. Especially in the fashion trends. The rock and roll music, the Beatles. The hippie movement. The mini-skirt. The hairdos. The movies.
On the local political front, a self-proclaimed war hero, who topped the bar exams some decades ago while reviewing in jail, notched the highest position in the land. He would steer the nation, as the events later showed, in the depths of the abyss. In the next two decades that followed, the nation would earn the appellation “The Sick Man of Asia.”
Little did everyone expect that the famed street Escolta was itself starting to feel the symptons of a “sick man” during the twilight of the “Swinging Sixties.”
By the advent of the Seventies, the marshlands, the morass, the wetlands that adjoined Manila were being transformed into residential and commercial lands. The rise of modern structures in these quondam wastelands spelled a shift of activity, of attention. No longer did Escolta have a monopoly of power: it was fast losing its grip on the rich, the powerful, and even on the commoners, the working class, the great unwashed. The symptoms were progressing.
In the Eighties, Escolta had started to become really sick: it was already the “sick man” of Manila. One by one, the shops, the stores, etc., were closing up; the big businesses were transfering their offices elsewhere (notably in the new business or financial district, the Makati area). People were finding the Escolta area old and outdated and dull. In the last moments of the decade, the famed street was gasping for breath.
In the Nineties, Escolta had become a virtual ghost town. Though there still remained some offices or establishments on each side of the famed street, they no longer bore resemblance to anything powerful or mighty.
At the turn of the 21st century, Escolta remained a ghost of its former self.
Nowadays, one can still see some flurry of activity along Escolta. Aside from some run of the mill business offices and small time cafés and fastfood restaurants located there, there are street vendors that pass through it. Some banks and pawnshops are also there. Then there is a school. A drugstore has opened a branch there. Some convenience stores occupy the corner blocks. There is still a clothing store which you can visit, an ukay-ukay store that offers secondhand or used clothes imported from China. Along the sidewalks, you might stumble upon some makeshift stalls which sell cigarettes and candies or which offer shoe shine polish or duplicate key services. Then there are vagrants or beggars loitering around. And also, cars, passenger-type jeepneys, motorcycles and pedicabs can be seen parked along Escolta’s edge.
Where can you find the lost grandeur of Escolta?
Try to spend a little time in front of the computer screen and try to “Google” it. There you will find Escolta, romanticised in a number of blogs or blogsites, the personal websites of those who were fortunate enough to have tasted the magnificence, the splendor of the famed street in its glory days.
Escolta, right now, is a state of mind. Just a state of mind.**
Sunday, October 24, 2010
NIGHTTIME. THE VEIL of darkness has fallen. A pall of deep silence. There he lurks. In the shadowy, sinister corner. He rises. Then he begins to move, walking stealthily, with premeditated steps. He sees her. There she is, lying on her back. In peaceful quiescence. Perfect. As soon as he gets near, he swiftly sits astride her belly and covers her mouth, his hand firm, steellike, stiffly holding her head down. The sudden force shakes her from slumber. Her eyes abruptly stricken with fear, she tries to rise. But her effort is in vain. For he has already clamped her: his knees have cuffed her arms. The weight bearing down on her is simply too much. He says something in a soft voice. She turns her head on one side. He suddenly grimaces. Her teeth have sunk on his hand. He swings back his other arm and brings down a clench fist, which crashes savagely on her abdomen. She goes limp, the massive pain numbing her body. She is groaning. He quickly stands up and drops down his trousers. She doubles her body in an embryonic position. He goes down again and grabs her arms that are shielding her chest. Another fierce blow to her belly. She is now in near-lifeless form. His frenzied arms rip her upper clothes. He grabs them, the two mounds of exposed flesh, mashing them hard, viciously. He half-rises, grips her lower clothes and hurriedly pulls them off, revealing the delicate, triangular area. The sight of lush hairy growth lets loose from the bonds of sanity his raw hunger. Animalistic. Beastly. Brutish. No time to waste, his bestial instincts tell him. He rapidly obeys. The dark dastardly deed now over, he quickly leaves, his wicked shadow trailing him.
THE FACES. THE crowd. He sees them again. It has been more than a year when he first set foot in the courtroom. He has come back: he is there again, but this time, it will be the last. After a tiring, protracted trial. His trial. The rape case. It’ll be over, he tells himself. From the start, he has maintained his innocence. His steadfast stance. That he did not commit the crime; he never raped the girl. He swore he never raped her. It was a set up. The police. “Those bastards,” he has referred to them. “They framed me up. They just couldn’t get the real rapist. They bungled their job. In desperation, they just went on to grab anyone to save their asses,” he has cried to his lawyer.
But then, the lawyer, his own lawyer, has expressed a different belief. He has seen the evidence, has read the victim’s statement. She has positively identified him, the one who ravished her mercilessly. It was near impossible to rebut the accusation. The offered alibi is simply too weak a defense, based on existing legal principles, as to shield the accused from the charge. He has given his client his assurance that he would do his best. But he never assured him that he will be exonerated in light of the evidence. It is a losing case.
“I’m sorry, Rolly,” the lawyer says as he rubs his eyes. He puts a hand on his client’s sagging shoulders.
Rolly is silent. His head bowed, he does not say anything, he does not move. Seated on the wooden bench ranged against the wall, he has not moved at all from the time he has sat there half an hour ago. Both of them know what is at hand. It will take a miracle to get an acquittal. But miracles can never take place, that he is quite sure.
The lawyer slowly rises, his hand now tapping lightly Rolly’s limped shoulders.
From somewhere in the pews across, a lady stands up. She strides forward and sits beside Rolly, her arm snaking around Rolly’s. She presses her head on his shoulder. He angles his head toward hers; he can hear her silent cry. Gently, her hand caresses his arm, running her fingers on letters SPUTNIK GANG that have been crudely tattooed on his forearm.
“When did you have this?” she asks softly.
He looks at her. “Yesterday. A cellmate, he’s a tattoo artist. He did that for free.”
“You joined them?”
She raises her crumpled handkerchief to her eyes, dabbing off the tears. “Why did this happen to us?”
He slowly shakes his head. “I don’t know.” He half-raises his hands, but brings them down again on his lap. The handcuffs are hurting his wrists. He raises his head, conscious of the biting stare of those around him. He ignores them and looks around and sees something. Someone. His body turning tight and taut, he feels a surging rage. Boiling rage. Liar! You will burn in hell for lying, for making this false accusation! May God have mercy on you! He suddenly becomes conscious of the tightening arms of the lady beside him.
From the pew that stands near the opposite wall, there sit two ladies. One of them is middle-aged, her hands draped around the shoulders of her companion whose head is cuddled near her neck. The companion, who is in her late teens, is not moving. They, too, are being stabbed by curious, merciless stares. They have been there at about the same time when Rolly arrived. Rolly could have walked in the courtroom simultaneously with them, could have bumped them, could have stood face-to-face with them, could have stared at them in the eye, could have spat in their faces, but he was held back by his guard, the jail guard that accompanied him; they had to make way; they stood in the distance. The two women were allowed to get in first. And silently they walked in and sat on one of the pews. Once they got settled, the middle-aged lady wrapped a large shawl around her companion. The spectators could see the teen companion having some jittery fit of sorts; she was trembling despite the comforting arms around her. Right now, her tremor appears to have subsided, though she is still wrapped in the arms of the elder lady.
There is a shuffling of feet. A man dressed in starched beige barong tagalog is marching toward the counsel table, the table that fronts the judge’s upraised varnished desk. He slams the folders on the counsel table and looks around.
“Good morning, Fiscal Braso. The judge’s already here?” a voice asks.
“Yes, Attorney Rendo. He just arrived. Ready with your appeal, pañero?” Fiscal Braso says this with a smirk. He takes off his eyeglasses, mopping the lens with a crumpled tissue.
Rendo responds with his own sneer. “Always ready, Fiscal.” He is already used to this kind of teasing by Braso, the public prosecutor, though at times he gets irritated if the ribbing goes beyond the bounds of decency.
Braso and Rendo are, respectively, the public prosecutor and public defender assigned to the court. Around four days a week, the days designated as the “criminal cases days”, they face each other, tangling, trading verbal jabs, warring on some fine points of courtroom procedure. Off court, however, they seem to have struck up some kind of friendship, despite the fact that Rendo has just gotten his job less than a year ago.
Rendo got his job not because he is qualified in terms of experience in law practice. On the contrary, he lacks trial experience; in fact, he lacks any experience at all. Just out of law school, just passed the bar exams. A greenhorn. He got his job simply because of a shortage of public defenders. (Nobody wants to become a public defender. Nobody’s interested. Low pay, and most find the work somewhat stressing, handling hordes of cases: those dealing with crimes committed by drug pushers, robbers, thieves, muggers, killers, murderers, rapists who cannot afford to get their own private lawyers. Only the adventurous lot---and they are quite few---get to become public defenders. Rendo happens to be one of them. At times, though, he finds himself dealing with his clients at a distance, keeping literally an arm’s length when he finds them stinking, their mouths foul-smelling or their skin stained with some scaly disease. “I still need time to get used to it,” he has told the court stenographer.) Rendo got accepted the minute he applied for the job. No questions asked. Eager to become a trial lawyer, and armed only with his law school “moot court” training, he plunged right away in courtroom work, accepting with vigor and enthusiasm every case the court has assigned to him. And he is getting by. Right now, he is enjoying his work, an “on-the-job” training, “trial-and-error” vocation that will, after some years, ripen into a “rich trial experience”. He tells himself that, given his daily courtroom chore of handling a dozen or so cases, getting appointed as the lawyer of pauper litigants every minute of every hearing, he sure is destined to “enrich” his courtroom prowess. He aspires to be a great trial lawyer someday, to be another Antonio Coronel or Dakila Castro, the local equivalents of Clarence Darrow and Earl Rogers, the great American trial lawyers. This will, in time, be his passport in finding the elusive pot of gold in every lawyer’s rainbow. He knows, though, that it will still take an eternity for that day to come. No matter; he is willing to wait. Patience has its virtues and rewards. Thus, he does not mind at all being beaten black and blue by Braso in their daily courtroom fisticuffs. The travails of the inexperienced. Just charge them all to experience. He vows he will get even with Braso someday. Just wait.
Another creature. The public prosecutor.
Attention-hungry. Attention-grabber. Credit-hungry. Credit-grabber. Name whatever form of “hunger” or “grabber” there can be, it may just be the public prosecutor. From the way he looks, he has been in his work for more than two decades. It makes one wonder why he still has not become a judge, though. “I just don’t have the right connections,” he has repeatedly told his colleagues. His voice gruff, his demeanor menacing, he can just be a perfect judge himself. With his courtroom skills, he can readily swallow his adversary, especially if the poor fellow is a newbie. And thus he has done so in the rape case. He was merciless. He reached deep down in his treasure chest of experience and unloaded it. The newbie public defender--Rendo--could not match it. He has no experience. He has nothing to keep. He has no treasure, his chest was simply empty; what could he unload? Nothing. Braso gobbled him up. In just one swallow. The court stenographer thought she heard the public prosecutor give out a loud burp.
“You need to do better next time, pañero. The score now is 5-0.” Braso gives Rendo a wink. “This rape case is the sixth conviction you will have since you got in here.” He is talking a notch louder than their usual courtroom talk, purposely to let others overhear them. He is rolling with laughter.
Rendo ignores Braso, trying to appear busy skimming through his case folders. “Oh, you’re saying something, Fiscal?” He throws another sneer at Braso.
“You still need a lot of practice,” Braso retorts back.
There is a sound. The creaking of the door. From it bursts out a bespectacled chubby man, mustachioed, clad in polo barong. He stops just beside the judge’s desk. He inhales, and then shouts: “All rise please! The Honorable Judge Robert Senye presiding. Silence is enjoined!”
From behind, a black-robed stocky man with graying hair appears. After banging the wooden mallet on his desk, he barks, “Read the calendar, Attorney Sison.”
Sison flips over the first page of the folder in his hands. “For promulgation. Criminal Case No. 921-08. People vs. Rolando Markinez. For the crime of rape.”
“Appearances?” Senye’s mentholated baritone voice evokes the rumbling sound of thunder. One is reminded of James Earl Jones, the voice behind Darth Vader. His goldfish eyes, thick eyebrows, huge, beaklike nose, sagging jowls, thick, droopy lips and wrinkled facial skin create a ghastly, if not a terrifyingly horrible, countenance that scares the hell out of lawyers appearing before him. Seeing this man, one gets to think that this five-foot stocky man may have just come out straight from a mixture of some Hollywood flicks: Nightmare on Elms Street, Night of the Living Dead and Tales from the Crypt. During court sessions, the scene gets doubly terrifying: the rumbling thunder’s decibel level reaches a higher altitude, the facial countenance attains horrific proportions destined to cause an intense, painful feeling of repugnance, of fear. Rendo oftentimes hears from other lawyers that they have just attended a hearing in the Courthouse of the Undead, presided over by “His Horror.”
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]
Friday, October 8, 2010
HE HAD BEEN waiting at the Manila port for quite a while, waiting for the steam launch, Laguimanoc, to arrive. He had decided to call it quits as the boat’s crew captain for personal reasons the other day. As to why he still had to come here to the company office, well, simply because he wanted to get his belongings which he failed to bring with him. At last, after what seemed like an eternity, the steam boat was now nearing the port. He lost no time to get his purpose done. The minute the boat got moored, he went straight to the boat’s cabin.
“You’re Juan de la Cruz?” the new captain of the boat asked when he was informed of the presence of the visitor.
The new captain wasted no time. They had been waiting for him, too. He informed De la Cruz of the orders of the management of Varadero or Slipway Company of Cañacao, that he, Juan de la Cruz, was to be put under custody and to be brought to Cavite, where the main office of Varadero was located.
De la Cruz appeared to be confused. “For what reason?” he asked, rather meekly.
“For abandonment of your post. It is illegal for a boat captain to leave and abandon his post without any reason at all.” The new captain summoned his crew to accompany De la Cruz to the office of the captain of the Manila port. De la Cruz offered no resistance. He went with his captors.
At the port captain’s office, Varadero’s resident engineer informed the captain of the arrest order. Discussion then ensued. After an hour or so, the Laguimanoc began sailing on the rough waters of Manila Bay on its way to Cañacao Bay in Cavite.
The year was 1886. Spain still held the Philippine islands under its dominion.
For the whole duration of the trip, De la Cruz sat inside the cabin unperturbed. He appeared bored since, just several days ago, he was the one manning the boat’s steer. For him to ride in Laguimanoc as its passenger was something too improbable to happen.
He thought for a while about his wife and kids back in Manila. He had told her that he would just drop by Varadero’s Manila office to get his things. Anyhow, he would just explain things to her about this sudden flight to Cavite once he got back home.
Juan de la Cruz was already 50 years old with graying hair and wiry frame. He had spent most of his life as a seaman, the only occupation he knew. His last post was at Varadero’s, the company that ran the steam launch Laguimanoc. He earned quite enough as the boat’s skipper. But fate must have decreed that he sever his ties with Varadero, a reality that up to now he still would need to face. He, however, had told himself dozens of times that everything had to come to an end, and his stint at Varadero was no exception.
The journey took several hours. At last, the boat was nearing the Bay of Cañacao. The new captain steered the Laguimanoc near the portion of landing stage of the port which was almost finished. The rest of the Varadero jetty or pier was still under construction.
No sooner had De la Cruz stepped out of the boat than a commotion had arisen from “amongst the swarm of native workmen” who were at the construction site. They were bestirred by the presence of De la Cruz.
Among those who were at Varadero’s Cañacao office were three Americans, namely, Frederick Sawyer, the company’s consulting engineer, J. L. Houston, the resident engineer in charge of the work, and Gustav Brown, a ship carpenter, the real owner of, and from whom Varadero hired, the Laguimanoc. Of the three, it was Gustav Brown whom the native workmen had trusted. And it was to him alone did the workmen confide the cause of their uproar.
Thus apprised, Brown promptly held a brief meeting with his colleagues. It was decided that De la Cruz would be handed over to the local judicial authorities. It was already late in the afternoon by the time De la Cruz and his captors reached the local judge at his office.
“You cannot bring him here,” said the judge. He was eyeing De la Cruz from head to foot. “I am only sitting here as a judge in an acting capacity. The judge who had sat here was transferred to another place, and the new judge who will be sitting here in a permanent capacity has not yet arrived. I regret that I cannot accept the custody of the accused.” He shook his head as he led them toward the door.
De la Cruz’s captors were in a quandary. How could the judge refuse to take the case? they wondered. They decided to proceed to the office of the Gobernador-Politico-Militar, hoping that he might take cognizance of the case.
“I am sorry to say that I have no power to interfere in such affairs,” was the courteous reply of the Gobernador-Politico-Militar to the befuddled captors. “Matters involving criminal acts belong to the jurisdiction of the local courts which have the powers to decide both criminal and civil cases.”
It was now almost sunset. They certainly could not afford to hold further custody of De la Cruz for security reasons. Houston, the resident engineer, racked his brain in the next succeeding minutes. Since he personally knew the Commandante of Cañacao, a naval officer who had a few marines at his disposal and whose office was just nearby, Houston made a bold move to ask for a personal favor that De la Cruz be temporarily detained overnight at the naval officer’s place. It was already dark when Houston and his men left the naval station, leaving behind De la Cruz who was locked up with naval guards keeping an eye on him.
Since the understanding was only for a one-night detention of De la Cruz at the naval station, Houston, accompanied by a Spanish surgeon who was the medical attendant of Varadero’s staff, Dr. Juan Perez, spent the next day visiting several government offices, purposely to find the appropriate agency to whom he could convey the custody of De la Cruz. He heaved a sigh of relief when his effort finally paid off. Later of that day, De la Cruz was transferred to another prison in Cavite. What happened next was the filing of the appropriate charge against him.
Little did De la Cruz know that the grungy, cockroach-infested Cavite prison with rusty iron bars would be his next home for more than a decade.
The wait for trial
Days after, Houston made a written declaration regarding the case against De la Cruz. Several days more, the judge before whom the case was filed summoned Houston to go to court to affirm before the judge’s presence his (Houston’s) written declaration.
Over the next months that passed, the judge ordered the resident engineer, the foreman and some other people, who were probable witnesses, to appear in court, for them to make a formal avowal of their statements against De la Cruz.
Given this state of affairs, it was Houston’s assumption that the case against De la Cruz would begin its formal trial.
But it was not to be so.
At the Varadero’s Cañacao office, the construction of the new docking facility for boats was finally finished and the native workmen were accordingly dismissed. Dozens of ships had docked and were repaired and launched there.
As for the office’s personnel, new faces had come to replace the old ones. Houston had gone to another country. So was Brown, who bought a schooner and embarked on a journey beyond the local islands. Frederick Sawyer, the consultant engineer, went to Cuba after concluding his project of building six gun boats for Varadero.
Among those that also transpired were the demise of the surgeon, Dr. Perez, Varadero’s in-house doctor who was supposed to be a witness against De la Cruz, and the execution of his successor, Dr. Hugo Perez, on account of his alleged ties with the native rebels wanting to overthrow the Spanish government.
There was still a slew of events that took place in the span of ten years, most notable of which was the change in the judges who had presided over the court where De la Cruz’s case was filed. These judges came and went. And none ever bothered to touch the expediente, or the case folder of De la Cruz, which, over the years, had grown thicker.
De la Cruz, however, refused to give up hope. From the first day of his incarceration, he never wavered in his faith---that he would one day leave prison as a free man. He had voiced out his innocence to his captors, his having done nothing wrong against anyone. He was steadfast in his stance. And as proof of this (as he ruminated in his prison cell), he never at any one time showed any guilty attitude, any fear or remorse for having supposedly committed any crime. Anyone with a guilty conscience would have easily buckled down. But he did not. His captors could attest to this. He had stood face up to his captors, to his accusers, to his jailers. He had looked at them dead in the eye. His demeanor had spoken for him on his innocence.
And he was arrested solely due to his act of abandoning his post and nothing more? Was his act of abandonment too heinous a crime? Was his long imprisonment commensurate with what he had done? No! he had said to himself. Where was justice in this world? If the authorities did have any evidence whatsoever against him, then they should present it in court, show it at once. And he would face them all!
Juan de la Cruz, however, was no stranger to the rampant injustices the Indios, or the natives, suffered at the hands of the Spaniards. He had heard and seen thousands of cases involving sheer prejudice and unfairness perpetrated upon the suffering Indios.
Thus, notwithstanding his strong conviction of him someday walking out as a free man, he knew that, he being an Indio, he was not an exception. He was aware that his case could just rot in court. Or he himself may die in detention (some of his cellmates were afflicted with a variety of diseases, like tuberculosis, leprosy, etc.). He had thus prepared himself for any eventuality. He had acquiesced to the realization that his case was just one of those that may get buried in the quicksand of the Spanish justice system. A corrupt system that pervaded across the islands. He knew the system would scarcely change, not in his lifetime. Not until the Spanish departed the islands. And this would take an eternity.
The year was 1898. At the other end of the world, a mighty nation had just made a firm determination to end Spain’s interminable acts of “barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries” in its colonies. After kicking the Spaniards out of Cuba and Puerto Rico, America started sending its powerful fleet across the seas to wrest control of the Philippine islands from Spain. At the close of April, the American fleet reached the bay of Manila. The next day, the Battle of Manila Bay began. The Spanish battle ships were no match to the potent invading naval army. In a few hours’ time, the Spanish squadron suffered heavy losses. Its wounded navy leader, Admiral Patricio Montojo, ordered his remaining naval forces to retreat and proceed instead to Cavite’s Bacoor Bay and to resist the enemy for as long as possible. The resistance, however, proved to be weak when, on the 2nd of May, the American admiral George Dewey and his marine forces arrived in Cavite. The remaining Spanish defenses were completely wiped out. On this day, the Spanish reign had begun to cease in the islands.
This was the day Juan de la Cruz had been waiting for.
There was utter confusion and chaos across Cañacao. The natives, sensing the end of the Spanish roughshod rule over them, ran amok and looted every government offices. In one part of the town, the frenzied rioters took notice of the deafening noise that came from the prison cell where De la Cruz was held. In a matter of minutes, the grubby government structure that housed the town jail was filled in pandemonium as each inmate scampered out to freedom.
Juan de la Cruz sucked in the fresh breath of air after a dozen years of captivity.
For the remaining years of his life, De la Cruz kept regretting bitterly his decision in still going back to Varadero’s Manila office just to retrieve his belongings. It was a big mistake. Had not he been there on that fateful day, he surely would not have suffered the injustice of long imprisonment. “Grave injustice” were the words he would later tell to his family.
The love affair
But what was the very cause behind this “grave injustice”?
Juan de la Cruz was one of the best sailors of his time, so said his superior, Frederick Sawyer, the consultant engineer at Varadero company. Efficient, reliable and very experienced. He had travelled across the seas, both within and beyond the islands. He had his own family who lived in Manila. Given, however, the nature of his work that required him to be constantly away from home and stay for most of the time in different places, it was not unexpected of him to meet people from those places.
One of the towns he had visited was San Roque, which was not too distant from Cañacao town where Varadero’s office was located. In one of his travels to San Roque, he came to meet a soft-spoken young woman who was half his age and good enough to be his daughter. A village lass whose charm and beauty held sway among a pack of young men in San Roque. She, however, was not content on venturing forth into a relationship with someone belonging to the same class or level as hers. What she was looking for was someone who would be patient and understanding, and more than that, who could afford her whims.
This she found in the person of Juan de la Cruz.
There was some sort of instant mutual affection when the middle-age sailor first met the virginal-looking damsel. Not long after, they were “shacking up” in a San Roque hut: she had willingly accepted the role of a mistress, and he had assured her of his undying affection and his monetary support for her caprices.
In the months that followed, De la Cruz enjoyed the pleasures of his conjugal home in Manila and the sexual bliss in the arms of the San Roque lass. There were times when the arriving Laguimanoc launch skippered by De la Cruz was still several distance away from the port, De la Cruz would see her waiting for him at the Varadero office.
It was in one of these instances when the San Roque lass came to meet two young men who were part of the crew of Laguimanoc.
The chance meeting
One afternoon, while she was waiting near the gate of the Varadero office in Cañacao, the young dusky mistress was startled to find a muscular man standing behind her who had tapped her shoulder.
“A pleasant afternoon, madam.”
She almost dropped the head shawl as she swung to her back.
“Are you waiting for someone?” Another man appeared behind the muscular man, whose frame was equally sinewy.
“Oh, sir, I’m waiting for Mr. Juan de la Cruz,” she replied. She bowed as she draped the shawl around her head.
He felt a slight nudge from the man behind him. “Well, he’s just having some meeting with our boat engineer, but it won’t be long. Is he your father?”
She looked up to him and gave out a reserved smile. “Not really.” She was trying to come up with the right words. “Just a relative.”
“Oh. Would it be rude if I introduce myself to you?” He straightened his body and moved closer to her. But then, a hand held him back.
“Brother,” the man behind him called softly. “Mr. Juan is now coming over here.”
“I’m Andres, madam. But we have to go now,” he said in a huff as they hurriedly shuffled away.
Andres was the engine driver of the Laguimanoc; his brother, the stoker of coals.
It was a chance meeting that would bring about a change in their lives. And their destinies.
Another intimate affair
Juan de la Cruz’s mistress was young and in her prime. While she may have found some pleasures brought by her intimate affair with her lover-sailor, she still felt not fully satisfied for some reason she could not explain. She had suddenly begun to notice some shortcomings in her man. For one, he was already old; he would sometimes refuse to give in to her physical desires. At other times, he would be grouchy, or irritable to the point of being unreasonable. But what she could not bear was his feelings of insecurity toward other men. He was, in other words, jealous. He prohibited her from leaving their abode if he was there, unless there was a necessity. Most importantly, he forbade her to talk to other men. For he feared she might get involved with other men and leave him.
She could not recall the number of times she had met Andres and his younger brother at the Cañacao port. In such brief encounters, she had come to like him. He had teased her about the possibility of them alone meeting at some place in the town, but she was non-committal, preferring to let her bashful smile as a reply to him. But then, after she had an argument with De la Cruz, she had decided to let her adventurous nature get the better of her.
It happened when Juan de la Cruz was ordered by his superior to stay put at Varadero’s Cañacao office. An extended meeting would be held there. Aware of this event, Andres proceeded to meet the San Roque mistress at the gate of the port.
Though they had kissed and made up after their quarrel two days ago, De la Cruz’s mistress was still feeling some traces of resentment over their non-sensible spat that arose over some petty thing. It was De la Cruz’s petulance that caused it all.
When she beheld anew the manly appearance of Andres, there was something that burst within her, a feeling of some want, a deep craving, a sudden desire.
Andres must have sensed it the minute he got an eyeful of her generous smile. He teased her again. This time, there was a positive reply. Andres found himself in ecstasy.
“Berto,” he called out to his brother who was nearby, “take care of my things.”
It was midnight when De la Cruz reached their hut. The meeting exhausted him. And he was hungry. He exploded when he found that there was no food left for him. He roused her from sleep.
“Did you not cook?”
She sat up, her eyes blinking. “I didn’t. I thought you won’t come home.”
“What’s wrong with you? You don’t want me to eat? I’m dead tired and hungry. You know every time I come home, I am hungry.” He threw out of the window the plate he was holding and stomped out of the hut.
She watched him leave. She decided to lie down. She started to caress her neck gently. She could still feel Andres’s touch on her, on her body. There was a world of difference between him and Juan de la Cruz, she said to herself.
In the weeks that followed, there was a noticeable change in her attitude. An aura of dourness was beginning to emerge from her. Though he tried to ignore it, he just could not shrug off some gut feeling that kept bugging him. He had to know the cause behind all this. From then on, he tried to be as perceptive as he could be in dealing with her.
It did not take long for him to know the answer. In almost every town in the islands, the residents, especially among women, spent a great deal of time of the day on gossiping. Be it first-hand or second-hand information, as long as the subject dealt with other people’s lives, the talebearers derived a great measure of gratification in telling and re-telling the same tales and divining the “what-if” endings.
Juan de la Cruz caught a whiff of some rumored nocturnal tryst between two lovers in the town outskirts. There was a resurrection of the gut feeling he had felt before. “But it couldn’t be,” he told himself. “She just wouldn’t do it.”
He decided to check on it. One late afternoon, he informed Andres that he would be having a long meeting with Gustav Brown, the ship carpenter, and J.L. Houston, the resident engineer. This was after they had arrived in their Cañacao office. He asked Andres if he could relay the message to the young lady waiting for him at the port’s gate so that she should not wait for him anymore, and instead, go home.
De la Cruz had it all planned out. He had asked the young boy, who was also a member of his boat crew, to follow the brothers Andres and Berto.
The next morning, when he met the young boy at Cañacao port, De la Cruz had his worst fear confirmed. There was an existing affair between his paramour and Andres. This could not be happening, he declared. He had to do something. This had to stop.
When they went on with the usual daily trips from Cañacao to Manila, and vice-versa, he would notice Andres and Berto often talking in whispers, and then breaking out into laughter. Berto, the stoker of coals for the launch’s engine, was frequently the noisy one, emitting huge guffaws.
Days passed. The rumors were becoming wild and deafening. This time, Andres and Berto were supposedly visiting his girl in their own hut!
De la Cruz was not a man to be cuckolded. And more than that, he was not a man to be disgraced by his paramour. There was no way he would allow this to happen.
In the next voyages of Laguimanoc, instances occurred where some tools, or engine parts or metal fittings were found to be missing. Since he was the engine driver, and thus, in charge of all that were needed for the engine to run, Andres was often blamed and held responsible for the lost pieces. But smart, skilled and resourceful as he was, he would often overcome such atypical scenes. In the process, he was able to avert any threatened dismissal from service. Andres was not dumb; his intuition had told him that De la Cruz was behind all odd happenings in the launch.
From then on, mutual distrust prevailed upon the crew of Laguimanoc.
On the 5th of June, 1886, a Saturday, the Laguimanoc made a trip to Manila. The steam boat was to fetch the resident engineer.
On the morning of the 7th, a Monday, another important engine part was missing. The safety valve was nowhere to be found. There was a delay in the return voyage of Laguimanoc from Manila to Cañacao caused by his missing part since a new one had to be obtained. At Cañacao port, after the steam boat’s arrival in the afternoon of that day, a management decision was reached, that is, that a thorough investigation would be conducted to determine the circumstances behind the loss of the safety valve.
It would later turn out that no such investigation would be held.
Juan de la Cruz knew where the investigation would lead to. That he would be found as the culprit behind the loss of the safety valve. In no way could the finger of suspicion be leveled to Andres and Berto. All the circumstances pointed to him. Should this happen, he surely would be fired. This was more than he could take. Losing his job would mean losing everything. More importantly, he would lose his mistress.
There was no time left. He had to act fast. He had to do what he needed to do.
In those times, the natives held the belief that during the time a man sleeps in the night, his soul is absent from the body, wandering around. The soul must be given time to return, otherwise, serious and even fatal consequences may arise. If a person is awakened suddenly, he may become an idiot. “Many natives have as great a fear of the wandering soul of a sleeping person as of an evil spirit or ghost. The soul is said to return to the body in the form of a small black ball, which enters the mouth.” Or it may be that the person who awakens the sleeping one, some great harm may happen to the former.
Aware of this belief, Juan de la Cruz thought that the best time for him to effect his plan was during the night, when the brothers would be in the midst of sleep. At the time when their souls were wandering.
It was almost midnight of that same day. Though a few clouds hung above, the night was clear and bright. Beyond the earth’s sphere was a multitude of stars that were blinking. But it was the almost full moon that held the monopoly of the nocturnal light. Down below, the sea was serene, though an observer could see a mass of wavelets endlessly rushing forth and slamming into the beach sand.
The Varadero office was dark and silent. Not far from it was the Laguimanoc which was fastened in the port. The launch’s cabin served as the sleeping quarters of Andres and Berto. They were wrapped in their blankets for it was already cool and breezy on that tranquil June evening.
There was a slight movement. A creaking on the steam boat’s floor. From behind the shadows, the silhouette of a wiry man emerged. His mind was steeped with deep revenge. A wicked glint flashed across his eyes. In his hand he gripped tightly a rusty steel bar, about eighteen inches long, and one and three-quarter inches square. Its tip was blackened by coal. It belonged to Berto; he used it as coal-breaker.
As he neared his prey, he breathed hard. From then on, he unleashed his rage.
The blows were ferocious and lightning-quick. Since the two brothers were lying beside each other, the assailant alternated his blows on the exposed defenseless heads of his prey. This was to purposely maim instantaneously the enemy and prevent possible retaliation. “The sharp edge of the steel bar crashed deep into their skulls, driving in the splintered bone upon the brain. One agonised shudder from each, then all was still.” What previously appeared as human faces were now grotesque masks of flesh and blood. He then trained his eyes on the robust bodies of the unmoving brothers. It was on one of these where his dusky, diminutive San Roque lass had lain in sexual bliss. He had countless images of her indulging in the muscular prowess of his prey. He had to efface the images now! He threw the coal-breaker. He stepped nearer, drew the sharp bolo from his waist and began, this time, an orgy of chopping blows. “The heavy and keenedged blade fell repeatedly, cutting great gashes on the throats and bellies of the victims, whilst streams of gore ran down the waterways, and trickled out at the scuppers, staining the white sides of the launch with crimson streaks.”
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]
Thursday, August 19, 2010
IT WAS THE first time for Joseph to travel out of the country. He really thought it was improbable for him to journey beyond the local shores given the meager income that he had. Though he had been in the practice of his profession (he was a dentist) for more than a decade, he had not really gotten enough to give him the luxury of spending some spare money to go on a tour or vacation of sorts. What he earned out of his practice was barely enough to meet both ends meet. Heck, he even could not afford to buy a second hand car. His car would conk out at times he least expected it; he badly needed a replacement. But his limited resources strictly prohibited him from doing so.
As he now roamed his eyes inside the business lounge of Hong Kong’s state-of-art airport, relaxing on the soft couch, munching on some sweet muffins and sipping fresh fruit juice, he still could not believe that he had just had an all-expense paid vacation in Hong Kong. It was, to him, a lifetime experience: a 3-day stay in Holiday Inn, a visit at Hong Kong Disneyland, a trip at the casino, etc. It was simply incredible. He was really lucky to have won the grand prize of the raffle that was conducted two weeks back during the college reunion of his batch. He almost fainted when his ticket number was called. He would have wanted to get instead the cash equivalent of the grand prize, but then, he was told that his prize was non-convertible; the business class plane ticket and hotel accommodation had already been paid. The cash that he could get was the two-hundred US dollar pocket money that he would need while in Hong Kong.
His flight back to Manila was in hour’s time. He saw to it to get to the airport early to avoid any hassle, given the fact that it was his first travel abroad. So far, he had not encountered any, much to his relief. The thing that he wanted to do now was to use the free internet service provided inside the business lounge. There were four computer units with flat-screen monitors, one was busted. The other three were presently being used. Two Caucasian guys appeared oblivious to those who might be wanting to use the internet. They were having some Facebook chat. The third guy, a black one, seemed aware that Joseph also wanted to use the internet. Joseph had caught the black guy looking at him. After a few minutes more, the black guy pulled a USB flash disk from the tower case just below the flat-screen monitor after he had punched some keys in the keyboard. He looked again at Joseph and then stood up.
Joseph got up from where he was sitting and sat on the chair vacated by the black guy. He could hear the white guy beside him emitting some soft cackle. Joseph lost no time in going to the Yahoo website; seconds passed, he was already accessing his email inbox. No, not a thing about his application for immigration in Canada. He had already completed the requirements some four months back, still no movement on his application. Damn. His friend had already gotten his visa the previous week. What could be the reason? They submitted all the documents at the same time. Anyway, there was no rush, he thought. He could still afford to wait for some more months, or even for one year more. He tried to scan the items in his inbox. He smirked when he saw something. Nah, the usual trash emails again. He dragged these items from the inbox to the trash folder. Seeing nothing more of interest, he logged out from his Yahoo account and went to Facebook’s website. He checked his account, read the shoutouts in his Facebook wall, then exited from the website. He yawned, rubbed his eyes and stood up.
As Joseph strode near the food counter to get some green salad, the black guy slowly rose from a corner table where he had seated and promptly sat back to the same spot he had left a while ago. His fingers thumped furiously on the keyboard while his eyes rummaged the flat screen monitor. A minute later, he was talking to someone in his Blackberry; he was talking in his native Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s languages. He was asking from the man at the other end of the line if the username and password he had just sent had arrived at their destination. As soon as he got the confirmation, the black man deleted the software he had uploaded earlier in the same desktop unit. As he prepared to leave, he saw Joseph now walking towards the door of the business lounge.
THE AREA IS located in the southwestern part of the country. As to how much exactly its population, no reliable figure has come up. The local government has put the figure at more than 15 million; this, however, was disputed by another report, which claimed that the area’s population was only at little over than 9 million. One thing is certain, though, that the area, which is the smallest state in Nigeria, is the second most populous in Africa.
Lagos State came into existence in the late 60s. It was then the country’s political capital. In the mid 70s, the capital was moved to Ikeja, another metropolitan area. In the early 90s, the federal government’s seat was formally relocated to Abuja, which is now the country’s capital. Lagos State still remained to be the nation’s most economically important state as it is where Lagos, the nation’s largest urban area, is located.
The World Festival of Black Arts and Culture is a major African event that takes place in Africa, a black world’s affair intended to recapture the origins and authenticity of the African heritage. It was first held in 1966 in Senegal. A decade later, in 1977, the festival was hosted by oil-rich Nigeria. In preparation for this huge event, the Nigerian government invested generously to build thousands of dwelling units and several major avenues in Lagos. This particular area has come to be known as Festac Village or Festac Town, from the acronym FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture)(Festac Town is located at a distance of about 10km west of Lagos-Badagry expressway which forms the town’s southern boundary). The effort resulted in the success of the extravagant affair. Afterwards, the government gave the housing units and title deeds to the properties to those who won the balloting that was conducted. In the years that went by, however, Festac Town descended into a state of degeneracy owing to utter government neglect. By the 90s, bad roads, lack of potable water, dilapidated structures, became the regular feature of the town. The dwellers, however, stuck it out there, given the lively economic activity that pervaded in the area. During the early part of the 21st century, a new craze hit Festac Town. Dozens of internet cafes sprouted out like mushrooms all over town. Denizens of these cafes virtually lived there, their main occupation being to send thousands of emails to their intended recipients all over the world. These emails yielded huge returns. Victims were either Americans or Europeans or Asians: they were lured to wire-transfer sums of money on the false promise that they would, in return, get huge amounts or payoffs sourced from unclaimed money or from dormant bank accounts left by deceased depositors or from a cache of gold hidden in some place. Foreign governments and western enforcement agencies (the FBI, Interpol, etc.) have stepped in and have come to refer to these emails as cyber frauds, their senders as cyber scammers. For its part, and basically to show to the world that it has nothing to do with these scams, the Nigerian government began a crackdown. Among its first step was to upgrade its penal law that heavily punishes the scammers. Thus, the designation “419 scam” was born—taken after an article of the Nigerian penal law that punishes these cyber-crimes.
JOSEPH HAD BEEN waiting at the Mall of Asia grounds for already over an hour. The friend he was supposed to meet had not responded to his text messages. He tried ringing up the number but his calls were unanswered. His friend was to help him apply to a dental clinic there at the Mall of Asia. Dental and medical clinics located in that upscale mall flourished, always brimming with patients or clients. It was his chance to upgrade his practice, and so too, his standard of living, if he were to get accepted in the new dental clinic. Feeling bored, he decided to drop by an internet café on the second floor at the north wing of the mall. As he checked his inbox folder, he was surprised to see an email sent by someone from the United Kingdom. He opened the item which reads:
Dear Lucky Winner,
You have won the sum of £10,000 from BBC BRITISH LOTTERY on our 2010 charity bonanza your winning ticket was selected from a Data Base of Internet Email Users from which your Address came out as the winning coupon winning number : 15 28 32 43 44 45 BONUS 20. Provide the following information needed to process your winning claim.
Congratulations once again.
It was sent by the “BBC LOTTERY DEPARTMENT” using the email address arcosempione.cream @fastwebnet.it.
He was wondering how on earth did he win. He explored his brain in an attempt to recall any item or detail in the past that may have led to the sending of this email to him. No, nothing whatsoever, he thought. How would I win when, in the first place, I never joined any lottery? He ignored the email and checked on the other items in his inbox. It was at this time when his battered Nokia N70 phone rang. It was his friend. He exited from his Yahoo account and began to rise from his seat.
The next day, he found another email in his inbox sent by the same sender. He was being told that he had just 10 days to claim his prize otherwise it would be forfeited. Is this for real? he was asking himself. He stood up and paced his room. After finishing his cup of coffee, he went back again to his desktop and replied to the email, asking the sender if there was any truth to the information relative to his “prize”, could the sender send to him the money he just won? He was laughing at himself when he stood up and went to the toilet to take a pee. When he got back to his computer after a few minutes, he was looking at another email from the same source, in response to his inquiry. “Send us your bank account number, the name of the bank, the bank’s SWIFT code and also your name, address, age, sex and country,” were the words he was reading when he opened the email. He was still thinking if all of this shit was true. He pondered for a few minutes. Seeing no harm if ever he would send the details being asked, he hit the reply button and pecked the keyboard. When he was done, he sent his reply email, anticipating that nothing would ever happen afterwards.
AFTER HE GOT out of Manila’s international airport, he boarded an airport taxi that took him to Makati, specifically to Makati Avenue where the hotel he would be staying was located. It was his first time to be in the country. His colleagues had gone ahead of him; they were now enjoying Boracay’s white sand and skimpily-clad women frolicking in the world-famous beach. His plan was to stay for a few days in the metropolis before taking some days of pleasure. Business is important. As he got in his room at the 10th floor of the hotel, he opened his laptop and went directly to their business website. It was already half past five in the afternoon. Great! he almost shouted. He was reading an email in the inbox folder sent by one Joseph Santiago. He was sure this was the man he chanced upon at the airport in Hong Kong. He whipped out his Blackberry from his pocket and dialed. Soon, a voice was speaking from the other line. The man was speaking in Yoruban, their native tongue.
“Joseph,” he said, “Joseph Santiago,” he repeated as he firmly pressed the Blackberry to his ear. “Ja, dit is die naam. Nou, stuur sy rekening slegs 500 US dollars, hom glo dit is vir ware. En ek sal probeer om hom te ontmoet terwyl ek hier. Het jy dit?” (“Yes, that’s the name. Now, send to his account only 500 US dollars, to make him believe this is for real. Then I’ll try to meet him while I’m here. Got it?”) He was now talking in another language, Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa. Conversant as he was in this language (he and his colleague had stayed in Johannesburg for more than half a decade), he at times switched to this language in an attempt to avoid any possible eavesdropping by the federal authorities in Nigeria.
After uttering, “Ja, ek het dit” (“Yes, I got it”), the man at the other end of the line put down his cellphone and resumed his work. He was rubbing his day-old stubble on his chin as he punched the keyboard. It was almost lunchtime there, on that side of the planet. The shabby, ramshackle building where the internet café was housed was thick with unbearable human stench. Only a handful of internet cafés could be found on that side of Fetac Town that provided clean surroundings and late model computer units.
JOSEPH HAD JUST left the car repair shop where, an hour earlier, he had brought his car, an aging ten-year-old maroon-colored Honda Civic. He was already stinking with sweat. He almost left his car in the middle of the road after it petered out again, for the nth time in one month. Fortunately, the car’s engine came to life after he gunned it a dozen tries. He went straight to the repair shop. His main concern now was where would he get the money to cover the repair expenses. This damn car belongs to the junkshop, he muttered to himself. He had only a little over a thousand bucks in his bank account. He proceeded to go to a nearby ATM to get some money and leave just a hundred bucks or so in his account. He was starving, he was feeling weak now. He was stupefied, however, when he found out he had around twenty-two thousand bucks in his account. How did it happen? Shit! He pressed a button on the ATM and out came a small paper showing the balance in his account. Twenty-two thousand seven hundred pesos! He stuffed the paper in his pocket, pushed his ATM card back to the card hole and pecked on the buttons. His face stricken with disbelief, he withdrew twenty thousand and went back to the repair shop. He was re-energized by the thick peso bills now bulging in his wallet. Just how lucky could one get? A while ago, he was on the verge of desperation. Now, he was feeling rich. After an hour, the mechanic finished his task and was now pushing into his pocket a one-thousand bill given by Joseph. Joseph was thinking there must have been an error committed by the bank, an error in crediting the amount in his account. Surely, he would be receiving a notice or a phone call from the bank requiring him to return back the amount. Oh, heck, let them call me. It wasn’t my fault. It’s theirs. Why would I bother myself with the mistake of others? He was now thinking of possible schemes or tactics so that he could delay reimbursing the amount back to the bank once he received such notice. For now, he relished the taste of the Chicken Joy meal here at the Jollibee fast food near his house.
A daily routine already, he checked his Facebook account and Yahoo mailbox, spending an hour or so, before going to sleep. When he opened his mailbox, it was only at that time the mystery was answered. The email he was now reading was telling him that a portion of the money he won was deposited to his account. There were some requirements more that he needed to complete before he would get the complete prize money, among which was for him to open a dollar account at his bank where the money would be deposited. Also, the email continued to state that he would have to sign some papers to be given to him by the sender’s representative who would also be coming over to Manila in a few days. This was a company policy and as proof that the winner had truly received the prize money. For a minute, he was gripped by fear. There could be a syndicate behind this. Or, at the very least, something not legal that could spell trouble for him. It was almost past one in the morning when sleep hit him. The next day, he went about in his dental clinic as he normally did, attending to a patient. After lunch, he proceeded to bank and opened a dollar account. He was bubbling with high spirits. From there, he went to SM Megamall to watch a Leonardo Di Caprio starrer, Inception. It was evening when he got back to his apartment in Mandaluyong city. He promptly logged on to his Yahoo email and typed a message. In it, he provided his dollar account number. Seconds later, the email was being read in the grubby internet café at Festac Town. As if on cue, the man reading the email pulled out his Nokia Communicator phone from his breast pocket. Thousands of miles away, a Blackberry lying atop the small table near the bed began to ring. The man on the bed slowly turned and reached for the Blackberry. As he talked on his cellphone, the naked lady beside him got to her feet and went to the toilet. They were inside a cottage that stood almost twenty meters away from Boracay’s powdery sanded-beach. “Who was that, Malik?” were the words thrown to him by the lady, who was now starting to dress. “Business call, really important. Sorry about that.” Malik’s English resonated with Nigerian Pidgin English, which was prevalently used in Nigeria. Malik was now handing to the lady five one-thousand bills. Malik’s brain worked furiously. He now should meet this Joseph Santiago. It was time. He only had a week or two of stay here in the country. He still had to travel back to Hong Kong, then proceed to Thailand, to Moscow, to London, then back to Lagos. He had a busy schedule. Their cyber-scamming business was thriving.
THE PENINSULA MANILA, an upscale hotel located at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Makati Avenue, is the place where most business executives meet and do business. Most of the times, though, one sees a couple of local stars having dinner at the hotel’s coffee shop. Politicians, however, provide rivalry to these stars: they themselves get huge attention. On this particular evening, though he found himself feeling awkward in his brand new barong tagalog, a formal attire he was not comfortable to wear, he was enjoying the cup of cappuccino and the soothing piano music at the coffee shop. He was to meet Malik Ugabe, the representative of the British lottery firm, the firm with whom he had been corresponding via email for more than a week now. He had already gotten around two thousand dollars, a part of his prize winning. He was still to receive the sixteen thousand dollars or so, the balance of the prize. As he had been told, he needed to do some paperwork and some minor task. He had been eyeing the shapely legs of the comely, mestiza-looking lady concierge standing near the hotel reception counter. He had arrived an hour earlier and as he now checked his watch, he could feel his limbs becoming fidgety. In half an hour’s time, he would be getting the sum close to a million pesos. Boy! The money came right at the time he needed it. He had already received the immigrant visa issued by the Canadian Embassy. He would use the amount as pocket money, or “show money”, which was required for him to finally get into Canada and live a new life there.
“Mr. Joseph Santiago?” The voice was baritone.
Joseph looked up from where he was sitting. He immediately stood up, pulled out his eyeglasses from his pocket and reached out to grab the extended hand. “Yes, I am. You are Mr. Malik Ugabe?”
[As of this writing, the lawyer of Joseph has just filed a case in court for "mandatory injunction" against the police, seeking the release of the ten thousand dollars they have in their custody.]
*Magha is scammer slang from a Yoruba word meaning fool. Nigerian scammers use this term to refer to gullible white people.
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]