Read The Breath of Night Online

Authors: Michael Arditti

The Breath of Night (2 page)

Although the impetus for the investigation came from the parish, Isabel gave it her wholehearted support. She kept a close eye on its progress, rapidly losing patience with both the agents’ sluggishness and the Bishop’s refusal to chivvy them. Hugh, more conversant with the local ways, mollified her by quoting an old joke: ‘Is there a Filipino word for
mañana
?’ ‘Yes, but it doesn’t possess the same sense of urgency.’ Her unease as she repeated it underlined her exasperation. With Hugh’s blessing, she decided to take a more active role, sending out someone to galvanise the investigation by compiling an independent report. To my amazement, I discovered that the someone she had in mind was me. Far from my usual gratitude for the smallest offer of work, I was seized by panic. Even as she tried to persuade me of my fitness, I listed my limitations: I had never been to the
Philippines
; I could not speak – could not even name – the language; and I was not a Catholic. She discounted each in turn, assuring me that I would be a fresh eye; that everyone spoke English; and that, as an Anglican, I would counter any charge of bias.

‘But what if I let you down?’

‘You won’t. Both Hugh and I have complete confidence in you. He has any number of employees he could send. Or else we could hire a professional investigator. But it’s far too important to trust to a stranger. Julian – St Julian – is all that’s left of my family, apart from you, Pip. You see I think of you as family,’ she said, making the one appeal to which she knew I would respond. ‘I wanted nothing more than to see you married to Julia.’

She was so convinced of her argument that she expected me to agree on the spot. Staunchly resisting her blandishments during a tense lunch, I promised to mull it over and discuss any remaining concerns with Hugh when he came up from London that evening. My hopes of an afternoon walk were dashed when, claiming that no one could speak more eloquently for Julian than he had himself, she handed me a reliquary-like casket, which contained all his surviving letters home from the
Philippines
. My interest was roused as much by her allusion to ‘pages
of family gossip that you can skip’ as by the prospect of a
privileged
account of Julian’s mission but, sitting in the library where five years earlier Julia and I had pored over the gory entries in Lennox Tremayne’s game book, I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of Filipino rural life. Even on a cursory reading, the letters made a compelling narrative which, perhaps
perversely
in view of the savage and shocking material it contained, whetted my appetite to go there.

I had no wish to rush to judgement – and besides, the crucial judgement would not be mine – but at first glance I could detect little obvious saintliness in the letters. There was courage and self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity, generosity and charity, and a host of other virtues; there were even hints that some miraculous phenomena had been manifest before his death. But there was also anger, resentment, obstinacy, self-righteousness and other shortcomings, which suggested that, if nothing else, Julian had been a deeply conflicted figure. Moreover, he lashed out not just at the landowners and officials who had exploited and abused his parishioners, but at those in his own family whom he believed to have failed him. Meanwhile, I was struck both by how rarely he returned home – twice in thirteen years was meagre even for a missionary – and by his parents’ reluctance to visit him. Although I still found the concept of priesthood alien, I was intrigued by Julian’s contradictions and inclined to accept the commission.

A snatched half-hour by the lake managed to clear my head if not to resolve my dilemma. When I returned to the house, a marked if elusive change of mood signalled Hugh’s arrival. I found him in the drawing room, glass in hand, talking to his wife. Although he looked the same as ever: aquiline nose; full lips; wavy hair worn raffishly long at the nape; cheeks the pink of a child’s paint pot; my picture of him had been transformed by Julian’s. He apologised for not having been here to greet me, citing business meetings in the City. Even now I remained hazy as to what exactly his business was, taking my cue from Julia who had been far more forthcoming about her Tremayne
than her Olliphant relatives. The letters had revealed a hitherto unknown Philippine connection, about which I questioned him. He explained that his great-great-grandfather had founded a trading company in the 1840s, when Spain first opened up the country to foreign commerce. Succeeding generations had diversified into textile manufacture, merchant shipping,
quarrying
and mining, and he was now part of a multinational
conglomerate
of Filipinos, Americans and Chinese.

Eager to know if he had read what Julian wrote about him, I gently broached the subject of their relationship. ‘I had a lot of time for Uncle Julian,’ he said, ‘although I’m not sure that he would have repaid the compliment.’ His sly grin left me none the wiser. ‘He was something of a pinko, which you might think pardonable given the politics of the time, but in my humble opinion he took it a bit too far. Ended up going native – though he’d most likely have called it “going
indigenous
people”.’ He paused, seeming to recollect himself and the reason for which I had been summoned. ‘But he was a first-rate chap. No doubt about it. Gandhi; Mother Teresa; you know the sort of thing. And, like me, he loved the Filipinos. He made it his mission to save their souls, just as I’ve made it mine to conserve their art.’

Declaring it a disgrace that Filipino culture was so
underrepresented
in the world’s great collections, he offered to give me a preview – ‘premature, I trust’ – of the treasures he was bequeathing to the British Museum. Stifling my surprise at this improbable passion, I readily agreed and followed him into the billiard room, with its rows of monochrome pots, bowls and burial jars, for which I struggled to muster the requisite
enthusiasm
. I found more of interest in his study, notably a
fifteenth-century
crocodile made from carabao horn and conch shell, but my admiration for the intricately carved rice gods, which had once protected their adherents’ huts and now adorned his walls, was tempered by the memory of Julian’s disapproval. All that paled, however, beside my shock when he led me into the
trophy room and showed off his latest acquisitions: six
mummified
heads ‘salvaged’ from a former headhunting tribe, many of whose descendents worked in his mines. To compound the horror, he had had them mounted and hung among the other exotic species. Even as I was working out whether this were a sick joke, a racist insult, or an existential howl of despair, I was struck by an image of Julia’s skull smashed against the tree.

I fled upstairs, returning for dinner, which was served with due formality in the old hall. At the end of the meal, Isabel, more mindful of past than of present company, left us to ourselves. Wasting no time, Hugh urged me to accept his wife’s proposal. With an affecting tenderness, he described how she had become increasingly withdrawn since the children’s deaths, scarcely
stirring
from Whitlock. Honouring Julian’s memory was the sole thing that gave her life meaning. Sounding strangely sheepish, he explained that she had an intense, almost mystical, belief that because Julia had been named for Julian and I had been engaged to her, I would be the one to revitalise the
investigation
. Knowing the Philippines as he did, he was under no such illusion, nevertheless he was convinced that my presence – and progress reports – would bring her hope. ‘You’ve no idea how much she needs it right now.’

‘I’d like to help. Truly.’

‘So what’s stopping you? I assure you I won’t be ungenerous. Tell me honestly, is your life in London so wonderful?’

‘You know it’s not.’

‘Well then, what do you have to lose?’

That was the moment at which I decided to take up their offer. The promise of unlimited time and limited responsibility, of extensive funds and expert assistance, was one incentive; the chance to travel to an unknown country and explore a unique, hybrid culture was another; the lack of alternative prospects and emotional ties was a third. Above all, however, it was Hugh’s simple question, with its cruel but irrefutable logic, which
persuaded
me to book a flight to Manila for the early New Year.

4 June 1971

 

My dear Mother and Father,

 

Greetings from the parish of San Isidro in the vicariate apostolic of Montagnosa, in the province of Luzon, in the archipelago of the Philippines. All I need add is ‘the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe’ and you’ll think me six years old again. Which is pretty much how I feel; everything is so vivid and exciting.

First of all,
mea culpa
. I meant to write weeks ago but, from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was caught up in a
whirlwind
. Besides, I wanted to wait until I knew where the Regional was sending me so that I could give you an address. The three months I’ve spent here have already made up for all the
disappointment
of Liverpool. I had to struggle so long to banish any tinge of envy for friends who were posted to Cameroon or Sudan or India. I should have trusted in the Lord. Not only has He called me to a country that is just as wondrous, but it’s one that has escaped all taint of the British Empire.

Manila was magical. I trust Cora received my postcard. Some nights the sky really is that pink. There are those who attribute it to pollution, but I take a more romantic view. By day it’s the people who provide the colour. Many of them are pitifully poor, yet they remain cheerful, even joyous. I’m thinking of a
shoeless
girl dancing a jig in the street, while an old man sat quietly repairing pavement cracks like a boy sifting sand on the beach. They’ve retained the gift, long lost in the more affluent West, of exulting in sheer existence.

Although I’ve been treated with nothing but kindness both here and in Manila, the Regional told me that the government
regards foreign priests with mistrust, which is why the Society brought me in on a tourist visa. My first task was to exchange it for a work permit, which proved remarkably easy, but not without cost. I’ll say no more except that the Mr Fixit, whom the Regional deputed to assist me, would be perfect casting for the corrupt official in
Casablanca
– you know, the French captain with the pencil moustache. Next, I was measured for a cassock (white), which was delivered the following day and which I am wearing as I write – though, in the insistent heat, I can’t help envying the Filipino men who walk about bare-chested. I hear you gasp, Mother, across a distance of 7,000 miles. Don’t worry, I gave you my word that I shouldn’t go native, and I intend to keep it.

For three weeks I had the Society’s house to myself, which I must admit I enjoyed (don’t tell Greg, who’ll think me even more of a recluse than ever), before I was joined by two fellow missionaries, first a rather crabby old man, another Julian, who’d been ministering to the plantation workers on the sugar island of Negros, and then, to my surprise and delight, by Hendrik van Leyden, who was at the seminary with me in Brabant. He spent a fortnight with us at Whitlock four years ago, do you
remember
? Chestnut hair; dimpled chin; eyebrows which, much to Cora’s horror, met in the middle? Or maybe I should mention an eight-pound salmon: the one which, displaying an
uncharacteristic
– even unprecedented – indulgence, Father, you swore that you’d left for him? I’ll say no more.

Hendrik and I were classmates once again, on a crash course in Tagalog run by the Dominicans (eight hours a day, six days a week for two months), after which the Regional considered us ready, with God’s grace, to begin our mission. We’ve promised to meet up regularly, or as regularly as we can, given that Hendrik has been posted to a parish in Cabanatuan City in Nueva Ecija province. It may not be that far on the map, but distances in the Philippines have to be measured in more than miles. After a couple of hours on the North Diversion Road no one, not even Uncle Lawrence, would complain about the surface of the A1.

On my admittedly brief acquaintance, I’d say that the distance from San Isidro to Manila is greater than that between England and the Philippines. No, the sun hasn’t addled my brain. Do you remember how horrified Cora – or was it Agnes? – was when the Misses Cuddleston told us that they’d never been to London and not even to Durham since the General Strike? There are old people here who’ve never visited Baguio City, which is barely an hour away and the closest thing to a metropolis. Manila is as remote from them as Moscow was from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, except that, instead of yearning for it, they view it with suspicion. I shall miss the theatre, along with bookshops,
newspapers
, electricity (I’m writing this by a kerosene lamp), the morning post (we have a weekly delivery on market day), and I won’t begin to mention the sanitary arrangements! But I do have a shortwave radio that picks up the BBC. And to live among such prayerful people makes up for it all.

The parish is huge, with 6,000 souls scattered across 400 square kilometres. It consists of the
poblacion
, the town centre both administratively and geographically, and twenty-four
barrios
(hamlets? neighbourhoods?), each of which is home to between one and two hundred families: some are within walking distance of the centre; others are out on the
haciendas
and can only be reached by car. I’ve inherited an old jalopy, but I’m told that one of the managers gave my predecessor, Father Teodoro, a brand-new Mercedes, so I live in hope! The most remote
barrios
are high in the Cordilleras, the vast mountain range that marks the eastern limit of the parish, and are only accessible on foot. While I remember, would you please send me a pair of hiking boots? 10½ if they do half-sizes, since my feet tend to swell in the heat.

So far I’ve barely strayed beyond the
poblacion
. Its heart is a large square, with the Church and
convento
(rectory) on the east side and the town hall on the west. Two rows of Spanish
colonial
houses, all cracked white stucco and fretwork shutters,
half-hidden
by thick-boughed frangipani and acacia trees, plus two
small general stores, occupy the north and south. In the centre are a statue of the national hero, José Rizal, four weathered stone benches and a dried-up water trough.

It’s no accident that the
convento
is the largest and best appointed residence in town. During the three centuries of Spanish rule, while the soldiers and bureaucrats were based in Manila, the country was effectively governed by a few hundred friars. There is of course an irony, which I’m sure you’ve not been slow to grasp, in my having become a missionary in order to take the gospel to places where it had never been heard, only to find myself in one where it can be heard more clearly than at home. I won’t pretend that I’m not relieved to have escaped all the babble and clatter of England, along with its fashionable clarion calls – how anything can be described as ‘liberation’ that leads you away from the Church is beyond me! Moreover, although the people here have long had Christ, they’re hungry for priests. I understand that, for perfectly valid reasons (age, ill health, pressure of work), Father Teodoro neglected to visit some parts of the parish from one year to the next. That’s an omission I propose to rectify.

On second thoughts, please send me two pairs of boots.

The laminated fact sheet in the porch, complete with
charming
misspellings (the ‘vaulted apes’!), describes the church as ‘earthquake baroque’ which, to my mind, fails to do it justice. It dates from the early 1600s when Philippine houses were flimsy wooden structures on stilts (many still are), the better to
withstand
wild animals and flooding. So it’s easy to see how this lofty stone building would have filled the locals with awe. I doubt that it would find favour in your Holy Redeemer-trained eyes, but I’m already learning to love it. The heavy grey exterior, more buttresses than walls, has a touch of the penitentiary about it and the functional interior still bears the scars of the Japanese invasion in 1942. Several of the clerestory windows are missing, leaving the nave at times like an aviary (perhaps it will come into its own at Pentecost?). The chief decorative features are
the
santos
– simple wooden figures dressed in garish robes that Agnes and Cora would have scorned to put on their least
precious
dolls – set in niches along the walls and above the altars. Yet, for all their roughness, they display the hallmarks of deep devotion. On the day I arrived, a young boy took my hand unprompted and led me to the high altar which, with its three tiers of glass-enclosed
santos,
resembled nothing so much as a toyshop window. He pointed to the central figure, a
glazed-looking
Christ, unremarkable except for long woven dreadlocks reaching down to his waist. ‘Jesus Christ, He is so beautiful,’ he said with tear-filled eyes, adding imperiously: ‘Now you will kiss Jesus Christ.’ Moved by his words, I put my lips to the squarely carved feet with as much reverence as I once had to the bronze toe of St Peter in Rome.

The boy, whom I have yet to meet again unless he were one of the horde of children who accompanied their parents to my first mass, is not alone in his piety. At odd moments throughout the day and at the end of every service, the faithful step up to one of the side altars and press their lips or their handkerchiefs to the
santos
. The mass, by the way, is in English which, I suspect, is as incomprehensible to much of the congregation as the Latin was in Gaverton a decade ago. Confessions, however, are in Tagalog. The Dominicans did their best to tailor their vocabulary to our needs (I doubt there are many language courses that teach elementary students the phrases for disrespecting one’s elders, illegal foraging and lustful thoughts). Even so, I’m not always sure precisely what I’m absolving. Yesterday a young man left the church with a massive grin after a long and faltering
confession
during which, I must admit, I was utterly lost. Then again, there may be something opportune in my confusion. Since God’s mercy is, as we know, infinite, it seems almost reductive to fashion the penance to the sin.

‘Soft!’ I hear your favourite epithet, Father, echoing across the drawing room. ‘The boy’s gone soft in the head!’ Or maybe Mother is reading the letter aloud to you at breakfast, causing
you to choke on your porridge, and your prediction that one of your children will be the death of you will finally be fulfilled.

Forgive me! I’d tear up the page and start again if I weren’t so near the bottom. The fact is that I’m missing everyone so much. By trying to keep a clear picture of you in my mind, I’ve let myself be carried away. But please don’t think that I’m depressed. If anything, I’ve been having too much pleasure, not least because I arrived on 13 May, two days before the feast of San Isidro, the most important date in the town’s calendar.

‘See the welcome we’ve laid on for you,’ the Mayor said, when he greeted me outside the church. For a moment I mistook the twinkle for the truth. What arrogance! It was a saint they were celebrating, not a humble priest. The square and several of the side streets were festooned with bunting. It looked as if the whole town were wrapped in a cake frill. The church itself was crammed with fruit and flowers and vegetables, including a jackfruit the size of a beer barrel, which quite obscured the font. The
santos
had all been given their annual change of wardrobe at the hands of the
hermanas
, the daughters of the local
landowners
. I may be wrong, but I detected a hint of genteel rivalry over the distribution; unsurprisingly, Our Lord, Our Lady and San Isidro are prized above the lesser saints. One young woman made up for being assigned the comparatively lowly Santa Barbara by decking her out like Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Next year, apparently, it will be my job to make the allocation – which is a treat in store.

This year my duties were confined to saying mass. That was nerve-racking enough since it was my first chance to meet the hundreds of parishioners who had streamed in from the
outlying
barrios
. The church was packed, with several of the young men sitting on one another’s shoulders. What’s more, I’d had no time to write a sermon and simply adapted one on Loving Your Neighbour that I’d preached before last year’s Liverpool-
Everton
derby. But it seemed to go down well, with so many people shaking my hand at the end that I stopped worrying about the
sweat. I even received a compliment – and a lunch invitation – from don Florante Pineda, our foremost local landowner. ‘An excellent sermon, Father, I approve,’ he said, as though the parish were his private domain.

After mass I had a chance to unwind, strolling through town and introducing myself to the people before the procession, which was due to start at three. Having adjusted my mind as well as my watch to Filipino time, I was expecting a half-hour delay, but not the ninety minutes in the hallucinogenic heat that it took for everyone to assemble. That said, I did as I was told and waited patiently (don’t laugh, Father), until it finally set off, taking its pace from the lumbering water buffalo that pulled San Isidro’s carosse, looking as incongruous in its sampaguita garland as Hector in Cora’s Christmas Day crown. The carosse was covered with carrots, corn, cucumber and lettuce, the saint’s early life as a farmer making him a particularly fitting patron for an agricultural parish. Our Lord, Our Lady, St Francis Xavier, St Charles Borromeo and a host of angels followed in slow
succession
, each attended by the family who’d taken charge of its care and adornment over the previous year. Then came a parade of
barrio
groups, among them a pack of
Gigantes
, ten-foot-high stilt-walkers with Humpty-Dumpty heads, and twenty youths performing a tribal dance, wearing loin cloths and flip-flops, and brandishing spears.

A band of ten girls, in floral crowns and white dresses (which had withstood the heat far better than my cassock), brought the procession to a close. Each represented a different facet of Our Lady: Divine Shepherdess; Immaculate Conception; Queen of Prophets; Mystical Rose and so forth. With one exception, each was escorted by a young man, looking at once proud and bashful. The exception was a remarkably pretty girl, whose radiant smile as she walked beside her mother made her the perfect
representation
of the Queen of Peace. The poise and excitement of the girls and the anxiety of the boys suggested that, for all the religious panoply, Mary wasn’t the only virgin being venerated.
As they filed past, I wondered how many of the couples might be standing before me at the altar in the forthcoming months.

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