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Sunday 11 September 2011

The Compound

It’s a strange self indulgent feeling.  A cross between a prayer-less Sunday morning - waiting for the newspaper boy to creak the cottage gate before raising the old brass letterbox that gives birth to the elastic banded roll of doom and disaster - and the other guilt feeling: the stillness of a grave-side where the names of relatives’ children evaporate from the grey matter.

The relentless typhoon that had squalled it’s vengeance throughout the Philippine night had, at last, ceased. The mundane activities of another day stirred life into the Island, bringing to the rain-pool surfaces a trillion more mosquitoes: crackling in the stagnation of liquid typhoid, popping in the morning heat like Sugar Puffs in a swirling dirty brown bowl.  Each one an airborne miniature vampire waiting for dusk - and the unprotected - to fill their empty blood sacs with crimson O, B or rhesus-negative; they’re not fussy, skipping over the anti-mosquito creams with the ease of the Dam Busters’ bouncing bombs.

 I sit quietly watching her.

The Sunday morning toast is buttered and drips tantalisingly. She sits cross-legged on her wicker chair, looking like a long black-haired sultry Buddha, occasionally leaning across the small breakfast table to squirt more camouflage HP Sauce into her bacon butties.

Finished, her red nail-polished arched index finger squeakily slides through the sauce remnants on the plate that gets deposited on her outstretched pink tongue.

Then, knowingly, she smiles   
She wipes clean her finger on a tissue that defies gravity, wedged between the discarded mango skins of vibrant orangey-yellow - the remembered colour of the toucan’s bill on the early Guinness railway posters.

She had long left the poverty of her mother’s Negros Island and the daily diet of dried fish, fried ‘til the disgusting odour permeated the small shack that had been home to her seven siblings.  Her table manners had not improved from those Negros years of scooped grey rice and fish heads, but now she had acquired a new culinary habit that both fascinated and disgusted me.

Looking firmly into my eyes to gauge reaction, she tears open the corner of her bag of Maltesers with her white Filipino teeth, then smiling, she lets half a dozen chocolate covered malt balls float on the surface of her morning coffee.

She does this without taking her eyes off mine looking for my approval.

Her spoon swirls between her long fingers, prodding the brown balls bobbing on the coffee’s surface, looking like spiked, wartime floating marine bombs lapping outside a harbour wall awaiting enemy vessels.

After a few tantalising minutes, the chocolate starts to melt, the malt sends bubbles to the surface, she scoops up the reward into her open mouth; the descending escapees gather into a chocolate goo waiting for a deft swirl of her wrist holding the coffee cup to conclude her performance.

She bores of trying to disgust me and leaves me at the breakfast table on the balcony that overlooks a sparse but strangely interesting compound owned by one of the wealthy resort hotel groups.

Here, in this compound, is home to a variety of yard animals and paraphernalia that comes and goes on a three wheeled bogey pushed by two hotel porters.

This is now my time.

My morning of new sounds; new smells - like the acrid accent of smouldering vegetation waste - brings a sharp pungency to the nostrils.

The balcony is now quiet.  I watch, below, the new banana tree leaves unfold.     Their pea-green conical ribbed beauty graces space on a heavenly journey, only to be mercilessly scythed by the looping overhead black electric cable.

These young intrusive banana plants are overshadowed by the hundred year old Bangkal trees which dwarf all other barked pretenders in the compound.

I watch the tree lizards, with their tiny suckered toes, jerk in bewildered movements, changing colour from leaf green to dark bark- brown, as their tongues stab the resting damsel flies whose gossamer wings protrude the lizards’ slitted mouth.

These trees have a presence of purpose.  Their lower branches that encroach over the makeshift basketball pitch are lopped off with machetes for firewood.

Branches culled over many years leave gnarled knuckles on the trunk, reminding me of a poem I read somewhere - may have been from the pen of Ted Hughes - about a lone weathered blackthorn tree on a Devon moor, hunchbacked against a hundred relentless winter storms, it’s one leafless branch held out like a drawn wooden sword, in ferocious defiance against the elements

The compound’s entrance is graced, by a fairly new wrought-iron gate, maybe twelve feet wide. Above its central opening is a curved double arched section that - if it carried wordage - would not look dissimilar to the nightmare of Belson. The rest of the compound’s exterior fencing is comprised of stained, dilapidated corrugated iron, held vertically by stakes of bamboo twined together.

On hearing the whistle of the approaching porters with the loaded bogey, the young guard swings open the entrance gates that answer the incoming whistle with a returning oil-less squeak, one octave above the porters.

They enter the compound, go pass the grey geese - pleasuring themselves in the overnight puddles before the intensity of the morning sun shortens shadows and evaporates the water, leaving cracks, once more, in the iron-hard ground.

The geese toss their majestic wet necks, almost like dipping a hand into Holy Water. 

I often observe men entering the breaking sea waves, dipping their hands before making the Sign of the Cross.  Footballers, too, touch the turf as they run onto the pitch.  I wonder if these mystical actions actually stop drowning or broken legs.

As a kid, I remember seeing my father bless himself with the river’s water before fishing, and how, in his aluminium box of salmon flies, there would always be a small crucifix and - how strange I used to think it - that a tin box of lethal feathered barbs could sit comfortably with another medieval form of death.

As the geese waddle down in their disappearing pool the compound’s hens strut under the trees fallen foliage.  Their trident spurs turn the vegetation - head to one side - looking for lunch.  Above the hen’s activities, nailed to the tree, is an empty roosting pole (for the guard’s prized fighting cock) which has been left empty since the demise of the rooster at last Sunday’s pit fight. 

Other domestic - and some feral animals - prowl around the corrugated jungle.  From my high vantage point, I observe a scrawny, long-backed black cat, snaking between the bamboo poles, prowling for recently hatched chicks and rodents.

Mid-morning sees the arrival of two men.  One younger than the obvious boss man (both carpenters), who have come to inspect and select cut lengths of bamboo, which will be fashioned into outriggers for a catamaran they are building.  The younger lifts a length, maybe twenty-five feet long, one end resting on his shoulder, whilst the older carpenter squints his knowledgeable eye along the length, gliding his machete over the growth rings every few feet, chipping away any imperfections.

The maid arrives.  A Filipino with a mouthful of white teeth that appear as she says ‘Good morning’ in stuttered broken English; her native indigenous name is unpronounceable. 

We call her Mary.  I watch her as she collects the washing, assembles it on plastic coat hangers and leaves it to dry in the sun, which is now creeping steadily onto the balcony.  She knows I watch her.

Mary stoops down to retrieve more garments from the plastic bowl allowing me a tantalising glimpse of her braless boobs; she knows exactly what she is doing, but never smiles at me, once - we have exchanged the pleasantries of the day.  I read her latest tee shirt, proclaiming ‘1+1=3...Jesus is with us’ and my rising sap is slapped in the face.

Down in the compound pups play silently, cuffing each other, baring immature milk teeth. Their heavily laden bitch-mother distracts the pups from her teats as they follow her in the direction of their owner, banging their tin feed bowls with what sounds like a big spoon.

Their owner will fatten-up the pups over the next twelve weeks, this being the optimum period for producing tender dog meat. After this time they are taken north - muzzled with cut-down plastic bottles or tin cans held firmly over their snouts with lengths of wire that dampen down the whelps on their long overnight journey to Bagiao.

Everywhere there are stark posters reminding Filipinas of the likely diseases of consuming dog meat that is not only illegal, but in some cases fatal.

Mary sweeps the tiled balcony, bending to retrieve an escaped Malteser that had abseiled down the breakfast table, giving me a bonus glimpse beneath the holy tee shirt.

I watch as the compound’s guard removes his Rod Steiger sun glasses, and starts to dig a hole below a Bangkal tree, close to the perimeter.  He labours with a spade and an iron bar prising the stones from the baked earth. Now shirtless, he scoops out the rubble from the hole with a discarded paint tin, before returning from behind his tin-topped guard hut - holding by the rear legs a two-tone dead pup that he holds up for me to see, reminding me of my father holding aloft a salmon to be photographed.

The pup is, without ceremony, dropped into its stony grave, where the iron rod curls the dead fur into a crescent, foetal shape.

I watch her, now - her tall, lean, almost boyish, figure leaning on the balcony safety bars overlooking the freshly dug grave.  The guard shouts out something in Tagalog.  She loosely translates, without any emotion: that the pup had been run-over by one of the hotel’s courtesy vehicles entering the compound.

Her long brown fingers mould themselves around the last remaining Malteser that protrudes from the inside of her cheek before joining the other brown delights that have already travelled down her long neck.  Her manicured fingers fold the now empty Maltesers bag into a childlike aeroplane that she launches towards the compound.  The plasticized paper bag disobeys its folded instructions, returning, in flight, to its original shape, before fluttering down to the pup’s grave like a bright red butterfly.

She turns, licks the chocolate off her fingers, retreats to the bedroom, giving me a bored smile; and asking Mary to find, and bring to her, her red nail polish and her Louis Vuitton manicure bag.

© Harry Mills 24th August 2011 
All rights reserved

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