Chaos. Wrenching at her. It will sweep her away if it can. Clari’s left hand grips the gummy steering wheel, her right the stubborn gear stick. Catapulting her way through Manila traffic, she jostles for position with this gargantuan herd of metallic water buffalo. The old SUV’s air-conditioning battles the city’s fume-ridden oven heat; Clari’s brow drips liquid salt into her eyes. She wipes away the worst, then swipes hard at the car horn. A young woman is striding across the road in front of her. This is routine pedestrian behaviour; ignoring everyone on wheels, presuming they will slow down or swerve around. When a pedestrian, Clari herself adopts the same strategy of nonchalance, though with less bravado than this Filipina, who, now that she is safely across, acknowledges Clari’s existence with a look of mild annoyance.
Sounding her horn has simply exposed Clari’s identity as a foreigner: out of sync and so completely in the wrong gear. All cultural readjustment skills have apparently abandoned her. She is straining to see the kaleidoscope frenzy of heat-shimmering streets, vehicles, humanity with the eyes that once welcomed these sights as friendly, familiar, even appealing. Exhaling sharply, she gasps a prayer: a single, “Help,” with a single tear mingling its saltiness with the sweat on her cheek.
Anguish is the currency for leaving. And returning. The first few days back are an inevitable pit of teeth-grinding, disorientating, limbo-like lostness. She will find her feet again, and all will be well. Only not quite yet. Now she is fighting a rising desperation to reach the NGO headquarters before she crumbles. Simply being on-site with colleagues, with the kids, will rebalance her emotions, reset her being, and remind her why she first came to this country, why she keeps coming back.
Tap, tap, tap.
Her son’s fingers on the glass garden table, drumming his disapproval. Clari is making a last-ditch attempt to relish the fresh brightness of a Devon spring. They sit together out on the cobbled terrace amidst the grandeur of Eddie and Susan’s immaculate shrubbery. To no avail. He cannot keep silent.
“Mother, don’t you think...” Eddie shifts uncomfortably in his bamboo chair. “Well, don't you think that…”
He seems exasperated at his loss for words, but his mother is not about to help him out. She gazes at him
with mixture of love, patience, a touch of sadness.
“It’s just that, at your age,” Eddie persists, “don’t you want to be thinking about, well, preparing for retirement? Here. In England.”
Clari’s smile only serves to frustrate him further.
“Instead of gallivanting, mother, around the world. And always back to the Philippines! Of all places!”
“Of all places, Eddie, the Philippines is a pretty darned good place to gallivant!”
Clari immediately regrets her half-hearted attempt at humour. Her dear, handsome son’s face twists momentarily; that furrowed brow, that pursing of lips, a sharp reminder of his childhood expression of disappointment.
Tap, tap, tap.
Clari has stopped at a red light. A scrawny boy of around eight years old is reaching up to her window and knocking, his other hand shading his eyes so he can peer through the tinted glass of her aircon bubble and make eye contact. His arms are spindle thin. Dried snot streaked across his face from nose to ear, edged black, as are all his features, with the soot and grime belched from a thousand exhaust pipes.
He cups one hand.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” his voice barely makes it through the locked steel and glass.
Clari instinctively gives one sharp tap back on the window. The understood signal, the definitive ‘NO’.
The boy is gone in an instant. But not before imprinting on her, as a lightning slash, that automaton expression of despondency. Clari groans, and wills the red to green so she can flee the scene. It has her, the partially irrational, wholly familiar fury. Furious with the lost boys. Furious with herself. Furious with the systems that keep these little ones enslaved.
Finally green to go. But she needs to take this fury with her, not leave it behind.
A few hours later Clari is squelching her way over Tondo’s garbage dump with Gail, her colleague. A torrential downpour has turned the ground into a dark toxic mix of degraded waste, redeemed only by a random smatter of genuine mud. The atmosphere is heavy with the humidity of overlapping hot and rainy seasons. It is a sauna laced with the stench of decay. Fat flies atop every millimeter of wire,
alongside and crisscrossing overhead the alleyways. They follow a zigzagging path among the hundreds of shacks crammed together in this startlingly vibrant community. In the midst of squalour, Clari also knows the embrace of gracious welcome.
She finds herself enacting a manic form of breaststroke: First, and for most of the time, head up, catching people’s eyes, returning their smiles and greetings; then for an instant, head ducked and eyes lowered as she wrestles away the clashing of senses. Clari does everything to hide those moments, lest misery expose misery.
But who’s fooling anyone, she murmurs.
Gail reaches out to steady Clari’s arm as they step gingerly, one after the other, on a slimy plank bridging a narrow ditch of grey bubbling goo. Clari sees in her friend’s face a steadiness, a warmth that make her grin back with gratitude. Whether Gail understands an Englishwoman’s state of shellshock, it matters not, at this moment.
They are on their way to visit one of the sponsored students, and once they have located the right dwelling, Gail goes in alone to talk with the mother. Clari does not want her presence as a foreigner to complicate the situation; Gail needs to get to the bottom of a delicate matter with the parents. The signs are that their ten-year-old son has dropped out of school because of bullying, but, so far, neither the boy nor the parents have been willing to talk about it.
Clari finds a rough bench made of scrap wood. She hopes it will hold her weight, but she will risk it; it is too tempting to resist, situated as it is in an oasis of shadow. The moment she is sitting two children join her. The little girl jumps up to sit next to her, an even younger boy, even more raggedly dressed, stands shyly close by.
“Whats-sha-name?” asks the girl, grinning from ear to ear, her grime smudged nose wrinkled and her eyes dancing with an urgent curiosity.
“Ako si Clari. Ikaw, ate, anong pangalan mo?” Clari replies in Tagalog. I’m Clari, little sister, what’s your name?
“Grace, po.” Grace, ma’am.
“Ikaw, kuya?” Clari turns to the little boy who is edging even closer to them.
“Darren, po,” his voice is husky, Clari guesses it is from the acrid air of the nearby charcoal burning area.
Clari returns to simple English to find out if they are brother and sister. But they are not related. Grace tells her that Darren was a neighbour. But now “walang tatay, walang nanay”. No papa, no mama. So, he is living with Grace and her mother, her father, and three brothers. One little extra body to squeeze in when they lay out their sleeping mats at night.
Clari pats her lap. “Let’s sing, Darren!” The little ragamuffin of a boy lets out a croak of excitement and leaps up, all shyness evaporating. Clari is now determined that, as soon as Gail reappears, she will ask for her help to find out from Grace’s parents if Grace and Darren are both going to school. If not, they will be invited to apply for student sponsorship. In the meantime, let the singing begin.
Clari is about to launch into her favourite children’s action song, Ikot, ikot, ikot (‘Turning, turning, turning’) when she feels a:
Tap, tap, tap.
Darren has just discovered her phone: he is knocking on the pocket of her jeans.
With both Grace and Darren now on her lap, with one arm she holds them close, her other arm stretched up and out for a glorious selfie. The three crane their necks forward, all in one joyous accord, smiling triumphantly upwards as if to say,
For this moment
And, anchored by these children, Clari’s heart aches a little less.
Born in the U.K., Ann van Wijgerden has spent most of her life in the Netherlands and the Philippines. She has had nonfiction, poetry and fiction published in a number of magazines such as Genre: Urban Arts, Orbis, Rue Scribe and The Sunlight Press. Ann works with a charity providing education for children living in Manila’s slum area of ’Smokey Mountain’. www.youngfocus.org