high tide under the house
In December 1999 the author took a sudden decision to jump on a plane to Singapore. He had previously never been further than the Canary Islands. He travelled in order to meet a young Filipina woman with whom he had been corresponding for several months. It was a momentous decision.
It was a momentous decision.
They were married in June 2000 in Iloilo City in the Philippines and returned to the U.K. But what the author had seen and heard of the Far East had intrigued and beguiled him. So when his father-in-law reported that a house was for sale on the beautiful island of Guimaras, for less than £1500, a sum which in Europe might buy you a good quality garden shed, he did not hesitate for long....
This collection the author originally entitled "Vignettes of Mango Island". They were first conceived as email messages to the author's friends and family back in the U.K., after he'd packed his bags and gone to live on a small island in the Western Visayas.
They chart with considerable style and humour his delight in his new surroundings: the curious sights; the ripe odours; the beautiful landscapes; the clear, warm waters of the Sulu Sea. They also reflect his frustrations as a Westerner in Asia: he discovered, as all travellers have discovered over the ages, that cultures are different!
Not all the accounts here are factual: some are stories based on real events or on tales and legends told to the author while he was sitting outside the sari-sari store when the "clicking lizards had possession of the night".
An extract from the book
MURDER MOST FOUL AT PINA
Last night, apparently, the silence at Pina was interrupted by the most terrible screaming and choking sounds. A life was taken in cold blood. We spoke to an eye-witness and he says it's not the first such event.
One hears stories from time to time of drunken arguments concluding with gunshots. Totong tells me a tale of a man who inadvertently shot his own son at a fiesta in the next village. The boy had become involved in a heated dispute with another young man; the father intervened to protect his son, drew the gun he customarily carries and fifteen seconds later, his son lay dead at his feet, his brains blown out.
There is no gun on our land at Pina but Tatay has his sharp bolo to hand at night and a long pole with a steel point at the end which could be used to jab at an intruder through a window or a half-open door. As in many places in the world, the law is not greatly feared or respected. Furthermore, many people are starving and are driven to steal in order to raise money.
Our neighbour, his wife and one of their brood of ragged urchins amble across their field towards our entrance not long after we have arrived. Jose is thin and scrawny. He wears a t-shirt which is more holes than cloth ("air-conditioning" they call it ruefully) a pair of drooping shorts and pink flip-flops ("slippers") on his feet. He is carrying a very long bamboo pole. During the summer, everyone seems to have such a pole so that they may plunder the trees for whatever bounty the last man failed to see or was unable to reach. It doesn't matter who owns the trees. This is simple communism: joint ownership of all the means of production.
The longer your pole, the more you have to eat. The only thing is, the longer your "pole", then the more mouths you will have to feed in the first place. Most people still listen to Rome's views on contraception or, if not, they are too feckless to worry. In any event, all is God's Will and all children are God's Blessing. Feed them? Ah, yes, hadn't thought about that!
Jose begins to prod at the coconuts clustered high above him in the tree which grows just on their side of the boundary. One crashes to the ground heavily. The puppies yelp in alarm and run for the comfort of Sophie's swinging dugs.
Jose's little boy says something in a shrill, piping voice. I manage to understand that he is talking about chickens: "manok". Suddenly, he says something more urgent to his mother and drops his shorts so that he can relieve himself. In the way of small boys, he leans backwards and a high-pressure jet arches upwards before splashing onto some old coconut shells, a considerable distance from his feet.
It becomes clear that Jose has not really come to gather coconuts, for he puts down the pole and leans on the top of the gate. He wants to tell us about the murder.
He had been late going to bed, he says, so he saw it all with his own eyes. Unusually, the mother hen and her chicks were still fidgeting around, pecking at grains of rice or the large red ants which are numerous and meaty enough to be the staple food for all hens in this barangay. He watched them for a while and then he noticed Dick crouching on his stomach, half-hidden under a calamansi bush. Jose inclines his head towards Dick and we follow his gaze.
Dick looks embarrassed and his ears drop. He does a little twizzle and pretends to be interested in something behind him, or between his legs. He is about fourteen months old, a young dog from Sophie's first litter.
Like all young males, he is fascinated by his growing member. He spends the greater part of each day flicking his head around to look at it as if he's never seen it before or to check that it hasn't gone AWOL. Or perhaps he thinks of it as an irksome fly that has just alighted upon his person. Occasionally, he'll give it a little flick with his tongue or a more serious seeing-to with a hind leg. He is not called Dick for nothing.
"Gamay?" says Tatay. "The little one?"
"Yes," says Jose. "Yesterday morning I had a hen and six chicks. Now there are only five."
Dick's Ilonggo is obviously superior to mine. He has understood. He loses interest in his eponymous appendage and scuttles off to hide behind the bananas and papaya trees. The rest of us affect seriousness whilst Jose tells us the story.
"He came out from under the bush," he says, "dancing and skittering about like he does. He gambolled over to one of the chicks and seemed as if he wanted to play with it. Then he got it by the neck; played with it for a moment or so and then bit its head off and ran back in this direction with the body."
Later, after Jose's concerns have been calmed, action has been promised and the urchin has jet-washed the area for a second time, they leave us and return home.
Tatay says that he is not surprised. Neither are we. To begin with, there were seven chicks and we all know what happened to the seventh. Tatay saw Dick dispatch it much as Jose has just described the passing of number six. In seven's case, it was a mercy killing, says Nanay. The thing was stunted and had a twisted, deformed leg.
I walk around to the back of the house to have a word with Dick's father. Cheerful Charley is the classic hang-dog. Nothing's ever right: it's too hot; there's not enough to eat; Benji's thrown a rock at him; the pups are sucking on what he'd like to be sucking on. Moan, moan. As usual, he's slouching against the shade of the back wall, occasionally snarling at the family of warty toads who hang out there under a litter of crusty, brown mango leaves.
"Can't see what all the fuss is about," he says, yawning and snapping at an insolent fly. "Boys will be boys. He's got a good appetite on him, that's the thing. Growing lad; a big boy, if you follow my drift. Anyway, it's only a bloody chicken."
Seeing that we are going to get no help from his father, I decide to see what Dick himself has to say about it. He has come out from his hiding place and is lying in the sandy dirt, very close to his mother. Her favourite spot is under the mahogany trees where she can see what Nanay is cooking for breakfast.
Seeing him lying there, looking at his mother adoringly, it suddenly occurs to me that Dick may be seriously psychologically damaged. He is a disturbed child with issues that need to be addressed. Killing chickens is his way of asking for help. After all, his own siblings disappeared one day. One minute he was frolicking with them over by the deep well and then Tatay came along and scooped them up and he never saw them again. A few weeks after that he mistakenly ate a long ribbon of plastic, thinking that it was bihon. (A type of thin, stringy noodle.) It took days to pass through his system, during which time he had to walk around like a grounded kite or a man looking for somewhere to hang his bunting. Very embarrassing for him. It has played no small part in his obsession with checking his hind-quarters. What would you do?
And more recently, of course, his nose has been truly out of joint with the arrival of two brothers and a sister who have usurped his place at his mother's bosom, leaving him to try to make conversation or have fun with his morose father.
"Is that what this is about, then, Dick?" I enquire. "Molesting Jose's poultry is your way of trying to get some attention around here?"
He says nothing but nuzzles closer to Sophie, enjoying her undivided attention while the pups chew on the bougainvillea stems. He is panting rather showily, right under Sophie's nose. Her nostrils twitch a bit and her ears spring to attention.
"Back off, Dick," she seems to be saying. "Phew! Talk about dog's breath. What have you been eating? Smells like uncooked chicken."
As we left this afternoon, I wondered whether we shall ever see Dick again. We shall not be going up to Pina until later in the week. Perhaps when we do, the murderer will already have been called to account.
As we juddered out onto the main road, I saw a shadowy figure under a santol tree. It looked as if he had a scythe over his shoulder.
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