The first meeting.
First RP Day - Friday
The bus crept out of the busy terminal and onto a crowded, smokey road. It wove between the erraticly packed traffic and at last I had a chance to take in the surroundings un-harried by taxi drivers, bank clerks, bag-carriers and young women. This was obviously a crowded and bustling city. Dingy old workshops mixed with quite new modern shops and offices bearing the brand of some international vehicles and other products of modern commerce. Quite a contrast from my rather sterile, modernised, home base; and more absorbing. It reminded me of Spain in the fifties - the atmosphere - not the architecture. Unkempt, untidy, polluted and dirty; but with life out there on the streets and not tucked inside sealed, air-conditioned buildings.
It was also obvious that I had little room to move. Instead of a double seat either side of the isle, this bus had a triple seat on one side and a double on the other. And was it cramped! Next to me was a youngish, middle-aged Filipina with a round face and full figure. We fell into conversation and, as usual, she was interested in my origin, destination and purpose. Again, it was apparent that a foreign man visiting a Filipina was nothing special and, indeed, quite commonplace. And there was no surprise regarding the age of the man as there would have been back home. She told me that she was visiting her sister at my destination. However, the barangay that I was visiting was a few miles before the actual town. She said the driver would stop at the right place.
Her husband was, it seems, a carpenter. She had several children and one was at school and staying with the sister she was visiting. We seemed to get along and it helped the final two hours of my journey to pass quickly. When we stopped to let me alight I gave her the little Koala doll with the Australian flag stuck in its hand as a keepsake. She gave me her address and asked me to write her when I returned home to let her know how I had fared with my pen-pal. This woman was to have an important place in my destiny.
The road that brought us here was winding according to the contours of the coastline as we were never far from the sea. On the way we had gone through small towns and either side was planted with, mostly, coconut trees among which were scattered houses of various construction from stone to bamboo and nipa. There were many of the latter where I was dropped and one seemed to be some sort of shop. I noticed a covered cafe with open sides nearby so I entered and asked if anyone knew where this particular barangay was. An older man said it was over there. Over There was a quite steep slope across the road covered with the ubiquitous coconut trees interspersed with bananas. He said that he would show me.
We crossed the road and climbed some steps between the trees which led to a curving, upwards track. A few people were about. It was about four o'clock. The man said some words to an approaching young man then told me that Young Man would conduct me the rest of the way. He took my case and hoisted it onto his shoulder. I was glad to relinquish it now because I felt tired, dirty and a not a bit apprehensive. He led me another hundred metres and we entered what was recognisably a village with dirt roads and wooden houses scattered among the trees. And then we were there! He motioned me past an assortment of parked thongs, up a couple of concrete steps and through the doorway of a quite sturdy-looking, double-storey, wooden house.
Mary's house. Door R. behind which I slept. Open "men's" balcony with washing during daytime and the occassional waterfall night-time.
I was in a vestibule which opened into the living room with some upholstered and wooden chairs. Sitting around were several young people and a few children. All were watching me curiously and flashing broad smiles when I looked at them. Behind me people were coming into the house and perching themselves on every available horizontal surface. Someone asked me to sit down against the wall and introduced me to the house-owning couple who were the parents of my penfriend - lets call her Mary. I was tired, thoroughly dehydrated, a little dizzy and befuddled. And here were all these people, young and old, beaming at me expectantly. But no sign of my pen-pal.
I suddenly wondered if it had all been a mistake and she was not going to appear and had, perhaps, left home to avoid me. Then a slim, pretty, young girl in a yellow shirt with very thick, wavy hair tied back asked me in a gentle voice if I would like a drink. I said that I was very thirsty. Would I like some orangeade? Yes please! She left through some curtains on the other side of the room and quickly returned with an opened tin of orange and a glass. She sat back from whence she rose and I swiftly drained the glass. Like another? Yes please, if it's not asking too much. Same procedure as before.
My head was clearer now and I was accustomed to the interior light which was initially dim after the bright tropical sun outdoors. I asked the father if Mary was available and he pointed across to my wall against which several people sat. But none seemed to be the person in the photos; just the young orangeade girl and a couple of older people. I must have looked mystified and somehow - I can't remember how - it was indicated that Mary was the yellow-shirted, orangeade girl with the thick, long, drawn-back, brown hair. I was flabbergasted. This was no 32 yr old mother of two. She was a pretty, young and quite slight young lady and very attractive. My word, I thought, what a wonderful surprise.
The next hour or so is blurred in memory. I was still stared at in a friendly smiling way by the silent "crowd" and I did not quite know what I was supposed to do next. I looked pleadingly at Mary and asked what I ought to do. "Should I do a little dance or sing a song?" I remember asking fatuously while waving to the assembly. Then I remembered the little presents that I had brought. So I dug the carton of cigarettes and bottle of Scotch out of my bag and gave her children some books. There were some other things but I forget. It HAD been a hard and confusing day.
At some point everybody apart from Mary had left and I asked her if we could go for a walk and talk. We walked back the way I had arrived and crossed the road to a little bench perched on a knoll behind the bus stop. It was a balmy evening and there was little traffic on this main road now. A few people strolled by, but I hardly noticed because we were engaged in conversation. Mary was softly spoken and I liked that. I dislike strident women. She was rather deferential and wary. But, as I am Lancastrian and naturally open, she became more revealing in return. Her main worry seemed to be that I might still be infatuated with my ex-wife and might return to her. I could not understand this because, as I was not, it seemed irrational.
Months later I think that I found a possible explanation. I could understand why she might worry about future feelings of insecurity being in a foreign country and without the comfort of family and friends. But it's probably more than that. A Filipina friend resident in the USA said that marriage, to them, was a life-time commitment and this was no longer understandable to many Westerners. We now feel that we have a duty to ourselves to disengage from marriage if things become a little tough or "We've grown at different rates." or "Lack personal fulfilment." Culturally, financially and legally this was not an option for them. They would, naturally, see my divorce as an aberration and that there would be many forces, emotional and social, drawing us back together. There ought to be a reconciliation! It would be natural. My friend gave me numerous examples of her relatives separating and later - sometimes after many years - reuniting. There is a belief (it is changing) that once a girl gives her virginity to a man a unique bond has been established that ties her irrevocably to that man. This is possibly the reason why most Filipinos will not consider a non-virgin for a wife. How can he trust her? That special commitment to him alone is no longer available. I have written to a few pen pals over a few years and they mostly were curious whether I would show total commitment to them alone. This also seems to apply in relation to my children. Would she come first. Would I back my children's possible antagonism to her.
This is all speculation because I know of no hard research. But men with children and ex-wives might ponder how they can offer reassurance on these points. And her worries might extend to other members of the man's family. We have to constantly remind ourselves of their, usually, total commitment and duty to family. It is probably hard for them to understand our "relaxed" attitude and the social and geographical distance between individuals in Western societies; how we can rationalise almost any behaviour to maximise our individuality.
It was rapidly becoming dark as it does in tropical latitudes but there was a dim lamp somewhere. By about eight o'clock she became a little agitated as she thought it not correct to be seen chatting to a "strange" man in the dark so late at night! She said that her cousin and husband were expecting to lodge me in a spare room in the town which was about eight miles down the road. I said that, in view of the time, perhaps I could stay with them that night. She said that would be satisfactory and we crossed the road and climbed the track back to the barangay and home.
It must have been near nine when we arrived and all was rather quiet. The wooden shutters had been closed and the house was settling down for sleep. There seemed to be only Mary's mother and younger daughter downstairs and I noticed that mats were down on the floor between the long table and the wall at the far side of the room from the front door. Here also was slung a
sheet between the walls of the room's corner. In it was the baby of this younger daughter.
The stairs from this living room started in a small vestibule cut off from the main room by a curtain. It was in here, under the stairs, that Mary's two pre-schooler girls were already asleep. I wondered where everybody else slept. I knew that Mary's sister-in-law and child were living here together with her twelve and late thirties brothers and a thirteen sister.
Mary brought a mat which she unrolled on the polished wood floor in the vestibule inside the front door. That way I was unseen by the main living room which lay at right angles to it although there was neither door nor curtain. Upon the mat she lay a folded blanket and sheet and left another sheet to cover my aging body and a pillow for my weary head. She was very solicitous for my comfort and I felt very pleased and comforted. I also thought that I would not mind if she lay beside me. I asked after her sleeping arrangements. She slept with her two children under the stairs. I asked the whereabouts of the lavatory and she pointed to the orangeade curtain and said I must go through that into the kitchen, out the back door and across the path to the little house. She suddenly remembered that she had something for me and disappeared through orangeade and returned with a toilet roll for me. She seemed rather pleased that she provided that. I think that I asked if I had to keep some shorts on and she told me yes. I had yet to learn that most Filipinos sleep fully clothed - at least in the provinces. I lay down, she locked the front door and off she went to bed.
The light was switched off - a bare fluorescent hanging from a rafter - apart from some tiny pink light on a shelf with a crucifix about two metres away. All was quiet; but I could not sleep in the oppressive humidity with all the doors and windows closed. I had prepared for this by bringing a few Valium. I took one and opened the door. With the gentle draft and the minor tranquilliser I eventually drifted off. Some unknown time later I woke and a very concerned Mary was bending over me asking what was the matter. I had been talking loudly in my sleep as I occasionally do when I am troubled. She said that I was shouting "liar" and thought that I was referring to her. I reassured her. But before she returned to her cubby hole she closed and bolted the door with a warning that it was unsafe to leave any possible entrance for robbers. I woke at dawn to the thumping of a nearby pile-driver. It was 5.30 AM! Mary said that she had a bad night with only 3 hours sleep.
I wondered whether to dress and silently go out for a walk until the house woke up. Surprisingly, there was a noise round the corner in the living room so I thought it would be in order to go to the little house outside for a pee. There were Mary's mother and daughter rolling up their bedding. I now knew where at least six of the occupants slept. Mother, daughter and her baby in the room with me round the corner; and Mary and children through the curtain under the stairs. Eventually I discovered that Mary's sister-in-law, child and husband - when he was not working away - had the main room upstairs and the men - father and two sons on an under- cover veranda at the top of the stairs. The latter also doubled as hanging space for laundry during the day. I never did discover where the youngest sister slept. And I did not ask. I thought that was the total of residents. Days later I discovered that Mary's 86 year old grandmother (Lola) was on a cot in a small lean-to behind another couple of curtains on the back wall. It was into this room that people constantly went with linen and other items. It never occurred to me that an old, near-moribund lady lay there. I was allowed to peep in and the wrinkled old woman lay motionless on her cot. I wished that my end would be among my family but knew that it was unlikely. Lola's end had important implications for our future.
This was the general pattern of my nights for I never did get to stay with Mary's cousin in town. Nor did I persuade Mary to lie with me - in the house! There were slight variations and adventures. I usually had a couple of beers in the evenings so often had to get up to let it out against a tree opposite the front door. Once I stepped on the sleeping dog who was not used to attack from that direction. Another time I fell over a stump and stubbed my toes. Somebody up on that veranda had a similar problem because there was a few temporary waterfalls outside the window most nights.
Then there were the two kittens who would scamper after small objects across the floor. Mary would get up and put them out. But they would get in again between the wall and the roof and start over. The ceiling above my bed was the floor of upstairs. The floor joists were uncovered. Mary's older brother pinned sheets of brown paper over my sleeping place to allow me more privacy. Nevertheless there was a slight space where wall met floorboards and once a kitten fell through on my sleeping head and once a pair of nickers did the same. I used to sit there reading some evenings when Mary made dinner. Once there was a small stream of liquid on my head and from the faint odour I would say that the sister-in-laws toddler missed the potty.
Copyright © Clive Halliday 2001.