Read The Breath of Night Online

Authors: Michael Arditti

The Breath of Night (10 page)

‘So why bring me all the way out here?’ Philip asked,
chastened
less by the threat of violence than by the wretchedness of Dennis’s life.

‘This is where we must meet. We go now to sister. We take jeep.’

He led the way to the jeepney stop which, in the absence of any sign, was reassuringly busy. Each jeepney had not only its designated route but also its unique name and decoration. On current form, these were evenly divided between the sacred and profane. Philip was disappointed to find that
God is Almighty, Amazing Grace, Jesus Christ the Lord
and
Christian Joy
were not heading in their direction.
Playgirl
, which was, was full to
bursting
. They finally found room in
Rambo
, which shot off at
lightning
speed. Clutching at the overhead rail as he lurched on the hard metal seat, Philip looked fondly at
Guardian Angel
in the adjacent lane.

‘Put down your hand from window!’ Dennis said. ‘When we are stopping, kids will climb up and break wrist to steal watch.’

‘Come on! I wasn’t born yesterday.’

‘Is true! Last week, this friend of me, she has earrings. They are grabbing back her head to pull them off. She is nearly
breaking
neck.’

Despite his scepticism, Philip removed his hand and kept it firmly in his lap for the remainder of the ride. They alighted as abruptly as they had boarded, the driver dropping them off at a corner, where Philip was almost run over by a motorcyclist whose tiny son sat behind him, clinging to his back like a koala cub.

‘From now on we’ll stick to taxis,’ Philip said, wiping his face with a handkerchief, which rapidly turned black. Dennis led
him down a side street that was full of restaurants. They stopped at a large blue-and-white sign inscribed
Kamayan
.

‘Is here we must meet sister.’

‘Sure. But don’t forget that we must also plan our trip to Benguet. I spent the morning with the Vicar General, who’s sending me a list of people to interview.’

‘Sister is working very hard. Today she has afternoon off. You must not be boring to her.’

‘I’ll do my best, but you’re not the only one with business.’

‘You are sad English. I am sorry for you.’

‘Why?’

Disdaining to reply, Dennis marched into the restaurant. Philip followed in exasperation. For days he had wanted to discuss arrangements, but Dennis had plied him with excuses that would have tried the patience of a saint, and Philip was not Julian. Now he was fobbing him off with his sister – that is, if she really were his sister and not some bar girl he was seeking to pimp. As soon as Philip saw her, however, his suspicions
vanished
. He knew better than to pin his faith on looks, but no one with such a candid smile and modest demeanour could be an imposter. Dennis introduced her simply as ‘my sister’, which she elaborated to ‘Maribel May Santos’.

‘That’s a lovely name,’ Philip replied, trusting that the
compliment
was sufficiently anodyne. Blushing, she lowered her gaze. He hovered awkwardly while Dennis grabbed the empty chair next to her, leaving him to sit at the opposite side of the table, a perfect vantage point from which to study her. Her
café crème
complexion was enhanced by a hint of make-up on her eyelids and cheeks, giving her the delicate charm of a
hand-tinted
postcard. She wore a purple peony in her chignon, and he wondered whether it was for his benefit or the usual
accoutrement
of an afternoon off. He glanced from Maribel to Dennis in search of a family likeness but acknowledged, to his shame, that he still could not see beyond skin tone. Such resemblance as he detected was largely vocal. She had the same light timbre and
lilting vowels as Dennis, although they suited her better. For the first time in Manila, Philip found himself talking to someone without feeling either compromised or sullied. He pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his forehead and promptly put it away.

‘Now we must eat food,’ Dennis said, picking up a menu. Philip was distracted by the sight of his fingernails, their
spectacularly
full moons eclipsing his own faint crescents. ‘I am so hungry, I can eat a whore.’ Maribel screwed up her nose. ‘Why must you look at me like this? Is good English words. Ask him.’

‘The standard phrase is “eat a horse”.’

‘I am killing Max. He is telling me this to make everyone laughing at me.’

“With you, not at you. It’s our English way of teasing. Have you met Max?’ Philip asked Maribel.

‘I have had that honour,’ she replied. ‘He does many kind things for Dennis. You do many kind things for Dennis.’

‘But not the same ones,’ Philip said, determined to dispel any confusion.

‘Do you like being in Manila, Mr Philip, sir?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes, very much. Right now I can think of nowhere I’d rather be,’ he replied, with a sincerity that thrilled him. ‘But it’s a city that can be hard work for strangers.’

‘I know,’ she replied.

‘Really?’ Philip glanced at Dennis, his head buried in the menu. ‘I presumed – I’ve no idea why – that you were both born here.’

‘You are very kind,’ she said, a smile illuminating her face. ‘Our home is in Cauayan, a third-class city in Isabela province. Our mother runs a small medium enterprise, selling snacks. We have our own house with a fridge.’ Dennis snapped shut the menu and spoke to her in Tagalog. ‘And we have other modern
conveniences
. In the garden we grow many indigenous plants and
vegetables
. We have our own palm tree. Every year when we were smalls, Dennis would climb to the top to bring down the coconuts.’

‘Why must you say this? You are making him think I am like monkey!’

Dennis’s tone made his sister look so crestfallen that Philip wanted to thump him. Maribel, however, responded more temperately. ‘You are a monkey,’ she said. ‘You are a naughty monkey.’ Dennis grinned, giving Philip a glimpse of the carefree boy that life in Manila had all but obliterated. The waiter came to take their orders.

‘I can eat a horse,’ Dennis said pointedly.

‘I’ll check with the chef, but I think we’ve run out,’ the waiter replied, joining in the joke. Philip, unable to read the menu and refusing Maribel’s offer to translate, asked for exactly the same as she did,
rellenong bangus
and
laing sa gata
which, to his relief, turned out to be nothing more exotic than stuffed milk-fish and yam leaves in coconut sauce.

‘Don’t they bring us any cutlery?’ he asked in a bid to distract Dennis, who was looking at him smugly.

‘Are you not seeing sign? This is
kamayan
restaurant. Is Tagalog word for Using Hands.’

‘Really?’ Philip asked, thinking of the coconut sauce.

‘My brother is right,’ Maribel said, ‘but he is also wrong. Of course you will have a spoon and a fork if you wish.’

With a sniff that left no doubt as to his disapproval of such affectations, Dennis took out his phone and began to text, leaving Philip and Maribel to talk. She filled in the family
background
that Dennis had left blank, with a description of her younger brother and sister, and their father who had left home, breaking off after a reprimand from Dennis.

‘So when did you come to Manila?’ Philip asked, suddenly conscious of her youth.

‘The 17 July 2010,’ she replied.

‘I am sending her bus money,’ Dennis said, while his fingers worked as nimbly as a tailor’s.

‘Do you live together?’ Philip asked, recalling Dennis’s shared room.

‘Good heavens not!’ Maribel replied. ‘I live with my aunt. She is very strict.’

‘She is not liking me,’ Dennis said.

‘Naturally she likes you. You are her nephew.’

‘She is not letting me come through her door.’

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the meal. Dennis tore into his
lechon
de leche
but, in spite of the greasy pork crackling and the sticky rice, his fingers remained
surprisingly
clean. Philip felt infantilised by his spoon.

‘This is delicious,’ he said, savouring the tender flakes of fish, chopped ham, carrots, peas and raisins, seasoned with lime and pepper and what tasted, improbably, like Worcester sauce.

‘It makes me very happy that you like our food,’ Maribel said, smiling.

‘I like it very much indeed,’ Philip replied, an assessment that he was forced to qualify when the waiter brought Dennis his side dish, a plate of barbecued chicken intestines, which looked as if they had been salvaged from a pathology lab.

‘Are you a student here?’ he asked Maribel.

‘Oh no,’ she replied, shielding her mouth as she ate. ‘I am a fulltime operative of
24:7 Solutions Incorporated Manila
. Is it familiar to you?’

‘How must it be?’ Dennis interjected. ‘He is Englishman.’

‘We are the third largest call centre in Manila, serving all the major cities of the United States of America,’ she said proudly. ‘There are four hundred seats in our workplace and one hundred applicants for jobs each day.’

‘Wow! You must have really impressed them.’

‘Is me who is getting this for her,’ Dennis said, his mouth full of entrails. ‘Is usual you must have three years in college, but I have a friend and we are doing business. So.’

‘Dennis is the kindest brother,’ Maribel said, giving him a look which in other circumstances Philip would have found touching. ‘It was hard for me, but I went on a course and now I have a certificate. I am proficient in English. Would you say I am proficient in English, Mr Philip, sir?’

‘I’d say you were very proficient. Proficiency plus.’

‘You are making a joke at me.’

‘No, I promise.’

‘At this moment I work for a bank – US American bank not Filipino bank – but every night I study from books. I learn medicine.’

‘Do you want to be a nurse?’ Philip asked. ‘I mean a doctor?’

‘Oh no, I want to be a medical transcriptionist. It is the most desirable job in Manila.’

A request for the owner of the black BMW to proceed to the lobby drew less respectful looks from his fellow diners than its recipient had intended. Dennis muttered a few angry words into his phone before pushing back his chair.

‘Don’t tell me,’ Philip said. ‘Business?’ Dennis looked at him coldly. ‘We’ve still not made any arrangements for our trip!’

‘I am calling you tomorrow. I leave you to be sure sister is going to work for nine o’clock. No monkey business. See, I know my English.’ He grinned. ‘Is not just Filipinos who are monkeys.’ He scraped the remaining offal into his napkin and sauntered out.

‘I am worrying very much for Dennis,’ Maribel said. ‘
Sometimes
he is angry with the world, but the world is not always being kind to him. When our father left home, he has given up school to help our mother. He read in the paper about many jobs building a palace in Kuwait. My mother did not want him to go, but he would be making very much money, some to send to her and some to put to one side to buy a bakery.’

‘As in baking bread?’

‘Yes, this is always his dream. You will not know this, but my big hard brother is as soft inside as the dough. He came to Manila with 3,000 pesos he was borrowing from my mother, my uncle, our teacher and our priest, to pay for his passport and his aeroplane. He gave the money to the agent, but when he returned to the office two days afterwards the agent was
disappeared
and so was the desk and the chairs and the files and the calendar and even the name sign.’

‘Didn’t he call the police?’

‘What would be the use? Everything disappears in Manila: money; rooms; people.’

‘So what did he do?’

‘He had not even the money to pay for his ticket home, but still he went to the bus station. It was where he was sleeping since he came to the city. And there he met a man who has found him work in a bar.’

‘Is it that easy?’

‘It is in this kind of bar,’ she said, with a new note of bitterness.

‘So you know about the Mr Universe?’

‘Yes, but I am the only one. My mother thinks that he is working in a restaurant. And he will not go home until he can pay back this money. Sometimes I am fearing that he will not go home at all.’

Maribel started to weep. Philip leant across the table to take her hand, which felt both natural and right. The moment
vanished
with the return of the waiter, who rattled off the dessert menu with a curtness bordering on contempt. Philip,
suspecting
that he had broken a taboo by taking her hand in public, released it abruptly, which surprised Maribel but failed to placate the waiter, who grew visibly impatient as she dithered over her choice.

‘I have a sweet tooth,’ she explained to Philip.

‘And a sweet mouth to go with it,’ he replied.

They both blushed. The waiter’s lower lip curled over his pencil and Philip realised with dismay that his change of
attitude
was caused by Dennis’s departure and by the
assumption
, all the more painful for echoing his own, that Dennis was pimping Maribel to him. Furious, he longed to break something, if not the man’s nose then at least his bright yellow pencil, but he was anxious not to distress Maribel, who seemed oblivious to everything but the food. She finally opted for some preserved jackfruit.

‘Make that two,’ Philip said.

‘Are you sure you do not wish to have some cassava cakes or coconut rice?’ Maribel asked in alarm. ‘The jackfruit is, how do you say, a bought taste?’

‘An acquired taste?’

‘Do not bought and acquired mean the same?’

‘Often, but not always.’

The waiter hurried away.

‘Your English is so hard. I try to make every day
improvements
and still I make many mistakes. Whenever I am having an afternoon off, I must read an English novel.’

‘Do you have any favourites?’

‘What I like most of all are sad stories with happy endings.’

‘In England we call them romances.’

‘I think that I would like an English romance,’ she said, so
artlessly
that Philip was smitten.

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