It was the year I left my parents, a few useless friends, and a girl who liked to tell everyone we were married, and moved two hundred kilometres downstream to the capital. Summer had limped to a close. I was nineteen years old and my idea was to work the docks, but when I showed up the man behind the desk said I looked scrawny, that I should come back when I had put on some muscle. I did what I could to hide my disappointment. I’d dreamed of leaving home since I was a boy, since my mother taught me that our town’s river flowed all the way to the city.
I rented a room in the neighbourhood near the port from Mr and Mrs Patrice, an older couple who had advertised for a student. They were prim and serious and they showed me the rooms of their neat, uncluttered house as if it were the private viewing of a rare diamond. Mine would be the back room, they said. There were no windows. After the brief tour we sat in the living room, sipping tea beneath a portrait of the old dictator that hung above the mantel. They asked me what I was studying. All I could think of in those days was money, so I said economics. They liked that answer. They asked about my parents, and when I said they had passed on, that I was all alone, I saw Mrs Patrice’s wrinkled hand graze her husband’s thigh, just barely.
He offered to lower the rent and I accepted.
The next day Mr Patrice recommended me to an acquaintance who needed a cashier for a shop he owned. It was good, part-time work, he told me, perfect for a student. I was hired. It wasn’t far from the port, and in warm weather I could sit out front and smell the river where it opened into the wide harbour. It was enough for me to listen and know it was there: the hum and crash of the ships being loaded and unloaded reminded me of why I had left, where I had come to and all the further places that awaited me. I tried not to think of home, and though I’d promised to write, somehow it never seemed like the right time.
We sold cigarettes and liquor and newspapers to the dockworkers and had a copy machine for the folks who came to present their paperwork at the customs house. We made change for them and my boss, Nadal, advised them as to the appropriate bribe, depending on what item they were expecting to receive and from where. He knew the protocol well. He’d worked for years in customs before the dictator fell, but hadn’t had the foresight to join a political party when democracy came. His only other mistake in thirty years, he told me once, was that he hadn’t stolen enough. There had never been any rush. Autocracies are nothing if not stable and no one ever thought the old regime could be toppled. We sold postcards of the hanging, right by the cash register: the body of the dictator swaying from an improvised gallows in the main plaza. There was a caption below: the king is always above the people. It is a cloudy day and every head is turned upward to face the expressionless dead man. One has the sense of an inviolable silence reigning over the spectators. I was fifteen when it happened. I remember my father crying when he heard the news. He’d been living in the city when the man first came to power.
We sold two or three of these postcards each week.
In the early mornings I wandered around the city. Out in the streets, I peppered my speech with words and phrases I’d heard around me, and sometimes, when I fell into conversations with strangers, I would realize later that the goal of it all had been to pass for someone raised in the capital. I never pulled it off. The slang I’d picked up from the radio before moving was disappointingly tame. At the shop I saw the same people every day, and they knew my story—or rather, the one I told them: a solitary, orphaned student. When do you study? they’d ask, and I’d tell them I was saving up money to matriculate. I spent a good deal of time reading, and this fact alone was enough to convince them. The stooped customs bureaucrats in their faded suits came in on their lunch break to reminisce with Nadal about the good old days, and sometimes they would slip me some money. For your studies, they’d say, and wink.
There were others—the dockworkers, always promising the newest, dirtiest joke in exchange for credit. Twice a month one of the larger carriers came in, depositing a dozen or so startled Filipinos for shore leave. Inevitably they wandered into the shop, disoriented, hopeful, but most of all thrilled to be once again on dry land. They grinned and yammered incomprehensibly and I was always kind to them. That could be me, I thought, in a year, perhaps two: stumbling forth from the bowels of a ship into the narrow streets of a port city anywhere in the world.
I was alone in the shop one afternoon when a man in a light brown uniform walked in. I’d been in the city three and a half months by then. He wore his moustache in that way men from the provinces did and I disliked him immediately. With great ceremony he pulled a large piece of folded paper from the inside pocket of his jacket and spread it out on the counter. It was a target from a shooting range: the crude outline of a man, vaguely menacing, now pierced with holes. The customer looked admiringly at his handiwork. ‘Not bad, eh?’
‘Depends.’ I bent over the sheet, placing my index finger in each paper wound, one by one. There were seven holes in the target. ‘What distance?’
‘At any distance,’ he asked, ‘can you do better?’ Without waiting for me to respond, he took out an official-looking form and placed it next to the bullet-riddled paper man. ‘I need three copies, son. This target and my certificate. Three of each.’
‘Half an hour,’ I said.
He squinted at me and stroked his moustache. ‘Why so long?’
The reason was that I felt like making him wait. And he knew that. But I told him the machine had to warm up. Even as I said it, it sounded ridiculous. The machine, I said, was a delicate and expensive piece of equipment, newly imported from Japan.
He was unconvinced.
‘And we don’t have paper this size,’ I added. ‘I’ll have to reduce it.’
His lips scrunched together into a sort of smile. ‘But thank God you have a new machine that can do all that. You’re from upriver, aren’t you?’
I didn’t answer him.
‘Town,’ I said, and told him the name.
‘Have you seen the new bridge?’ he asked.
I said I hadn’t, and this was a lie. ‘I left before it was built.’
He sighed. ‘It’s a beautiful bridge,’ he said, allowing himself to indulge briefly in the image: the wide river cutting through green rolling hills that seemed to stretch on forever.
When he was done reminiscing, he turned back to me. ‘Now, listen. You make my copies, and take your time. Warm up the machine, read it poetry, massage it, make love to it. Do what you have to do. You’re very lucky. I’m happy today. Tomorrow I go home and I have a job waiting for me at the bank. I’ll make good money, and I’ll marry the prettiest girl in town, and you’ll still be here breathing this nasty city air, surrounded by these nasty city people.’ He smiled for a moment. ‘Got that?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Now tell me where a man can get a drink around here.’
There was a bar a few streets over, a dingy spot with smoky windows that I walked by almost every day. It was a place full of sailors and dockworkers and rough men the likes of whom still frightened me. I’d never gone in, but in many ways it was the bar I’d imagined myself in when I was still back home, plotting a way to escape: dark and unpleasant, the kind of place that would upset my poor, blameless mother.
I took the man’s target and put it behind the counter. ‘Sure, there’s a bar,’ I said. ‘But it’s not for country folk.’
‘Insolent little fucker. Tell me where it is.’
I pointed him in the right direction.
‘Half an hour. Have my copies ready.’ He noticed the plastic stand with the postcard of the dictator’s hanging and scowled. With his index finger, he carefully flicked it over, so that they all tumbled to the floor.
I let them fall.
‘If I were your father,’ he said, ‘I would beat you senseless for disrespect.’
He shook his head and left, letting the door slam behind him.
I never saw him again. As it happened, I was right about the bar. Someone must not have liked the looks of him, or maybe they thought he was a cop by the way he was dressed, or maybe his accent drew the wrong kind of attention. In any case, the papers said it was quite a show. The fight started inside—who knows how these things begin—and spilled out into the street. That’s where he died, head cracked on the cobblestones. An ambulance was called, but couldn’t make it down the narrow streets in time. There was a shift change at the docks and the streets were filled with men.
Shortly after my encounter with the security guard, I wrote a letter home. Just a note really, something brief to let my parents know I was alive, that they shouldn’t believe everything they read in the newspapers about the capital. My father had survived a stint in the city, and nearly three decades later he still spoke of the place with bewilderment. He went there shortly after marrying my mother, and returned a year later with enough money to build the house where I’d been raised. The city may have been profitable, but it was also a frightening, unsteady kind of place. In twelve months he saw robberies, riots and a president deposed. As soon as he had the money together, he returned home and never went back. My mother never went at all.
In my note I told them about the Patrices, described the nice old couple in a way that would put them both at ease. I would visit at Christmas, I promised, because it was still half a year off.
As for the target and the dead man’s certificate, I decided to keep them. I took them home the very next day and folded the certificate carefully into the thin pages of an illustrated dictionary the Patrices kept in their front room. I tacked the target up on my wall so that I could face it if I sat upright in bed.
One night a storm rolled in, the first downpour of the season, and the rain drumming on the roof reminded me of home. I felt suddenly lonely, and I shut my left eye and pointed my index finger at the wall, at the man in the target. I aimed carefully and fired at him. It felt good. I did it again, this time with sound effects, and many minutes were spent this way. I blew imaginary smoke from the tip of my finger, like the gunslingers I’d seen in imported movies. I must have killed him a dozen times before I realized what I was doing, and after that I felt a fidelity to the man in the target I could not explain. I would shoot him every night before sleeping, and sometimes in the mornings as well.
One afternoon, not long after I’d sent my letter, I came home to find the girl—Malena was her name—red-faced and teary, in the Patrices’ tidy living room. She had just arrived from my home town, and her small bag leaned against the wall by the door. Mrs Patrice was consoling her, a gentle hand draped over Malena’s shoulder, and Mr Patrice sat by, not quite knowing what to do. I stammered a greeting and the three of them looked up. I read the expressions on their faces, and by the way Malena looked at me, I knew immediately what had happened.
‘Your parents send their best,’ said Mrs Patrice, her voice betraying grave disappointment.
‘You’re going to be a father,’ her husband added, in case there had been any confusion.
I stepped forward, took Malena by the hand and led her to my room in the back without saying a word to the Patrices. We sat for a long while in silence. There had never been anyone besides me in the room, except for the first time the Patrices had shown me the place. Malena didn’t seem particularly sad or angry or happy to see me. She sat on the bed. I stood. Her hair had come undone and fell over her face when she looked down, which, at first, was often.
‘Did you miss me?’ she asked.
I had missed her—her body, her breath, her laughter—but it wasn’t until she was in front of me that I realized it. ‘Of course,’ I said.
‘You could’ve written.’
‘How long?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Malena said in a stern voice.
She sighed deeply and I apologized.
Malena had news—who else had left for the city, who had gone north. There were weddings planned for the spring, some people we knew, though not well. A boy from my neighbourhood had joined the army, was rumoured to have escaped basic training and gone to live with a woman twice his age in a slum on the outskirts of the city. It sounded far-fetched, but it’s what everyone was saying. As I suspected, the murder of the security guard had been a big story, and Malena told me she herself hadn’t been able to sleep, wondering what I might be doing, whether I was all right. She’d visited my parents, and they’d tried to convince her not to travel to the city, or at least not alone.
‘Your father was going to come with me.’
‘And why didn’t he?’ I asked.
‘Because I didn’t wait for him.’
I sat beside her on the bed, so that our thighs were touching. I didn’t tell her that I’d met the victim, about my role in his misfortunes, or any of that. I let her talk: she described the small, cosmetic changes that our town had undergone in the few months I’d been away. Mayoral elections were coming up, she said, and everyone looked forward to the campaign with the usual mix of anxiety and despair. The owner of the cement plant was going to run. He would likely win. There was talk of repainting the bridge. I nodded. She was showing already, an unmistakable roundness to her. I placed the flat of my palm against her belly and then pulled her close. She stopped talking abruptly, in mid-sentence.
‘You’ll stay with me. We’ll be happy,’ I whispered.
But Malena shook her head. There was something hard in the way she spoke. ‘I’m going home,’ she said, ‘and you’re coming with me.’
It was still early. I stood up and walked around the tiny room; from wall to wall, it was only ten short paces. I stared at my friend in the target. I suggested we see the neighbourhood before it got too dark. I could show Malena the docks or the customs house. Didn’t she want to see it?
‘What is there to see?’
‘The harbour. The river.’
‘We have that river back home.’
We went anyway. The Patrices said nothing as we left, and when we returned in the early evening, the door to their room was closed. Malena’s bag was still by the front door, and though it was just a day bag with only one change of clothes, once I moved it, my room felt even smaller. Until that night, Malena and I had never slept in the same bed. We pressed together, and shifted our weight, and eventually we were face to face and very close. I put my arm around her, but kept my eyes shut, and listened to the muffled sounds of the Patrices talking anxiously.
‘Are they always so chatty?’ Malena asked.
I couldn’t make out their words, of course, but I could guess. ‘Does it bother you?’
I felt Malena shrug in my arms. ‘Not really,’ she said, ‘but it might if we were staying.’
After this comment, nothing was said, and Malena slept peacefully.
When we emerged the next morning for breakfast, my landlords were sombre and unsmiling. Mrs Patrice cleared her throat several times, making increasingly urgent gestures at her husband, until finally he set down his fork and began. He expressed his general regret, his frustration and disappointment. ‘We come from solid people,’ he said. ‘We are not of the kind who tell lies for sport. We helped settle this part of the city. We are respectable people who do not accept dishonesty.’
‘We are church people,’ Mrs Patrice added.
Her husband nodded. I had seen him prepare for services each Sunday with a meticulousness that can only come from great and unquestioned faith. A finely scrubbed suit, shirts of the most pristine white. He would comb a thick pomade into his black hair so that in the sun he was always crowned with a gelatinous shine.
‘Whatever half-truths you may have told this young lady are not our concern. That must be settled between the two of you. We have no children ourselves, but wonder how we might feel if our son was off telling everyone he was an orphan.’
He lowered his eyebrows.
‘Crushed,’ Mrs Patrice whispered. ‘Betrayed.’
‘We do not doubt your basic goodness, son, nor yours…’
‘Malena,’ I said. ‘Her name is Malena.’
‘…as you are both creatures of the one true God, and He does not err when it comes to arranging the affairs of men. It is not our place to judge, but only to accept with humility that with which the Lord has charged us.’
He was gaining momentum now and we had no choice but to listen. Under the table, Malena reached for my hand. Together we nodded.
‘And He has brought you both here, and so it must be His will that we look after you. And we do not mean to put you out on the streets at this delicate moment, because such a thing would not be right. But we do mean to ask for an explanation, to demand one, and we will have it from you, son, and you will give it, if you are ever to learn what it means to be a respectful and respectable citizen, in this city or in any other. Tell me: have you been studying?’
‘I thought not,’ Mr Patrice said. He frowned, shook his head gravely and then continued. Our breakfast grew cold. Eventually it would be my turn to speak, but by then I had very little to say, and no desire to account for anything.
Malena and I left that afternoon.
I went to the shop first to arrange my affairs, and after explaining the situation to Nadal, he offered to help me. He loved doctoring official paperwork, he said. It reminded him of his finest working days. We made a copy of the original certificate and then corrected it so that the name was mine. We changed the address, the birth date, and typed the particulars of my height and weight on a beat-up Underwood Nadal had inherited from his days in customs. He whistled the whole time, clearly enjoying himself. ‘You’ve made an old man feel young again,’ he said. We reprinted the form on bond paper and, with great ceremony, Nadal brought out a dusty box from beneath his desk. In it were the official stamps he’d pilfered over the years, more than a dozen of them, including one from the office of the secretary general of the patriotic forces of national defence—that is, from the dictator himself. It had a mother-of-pearl handle and an intricate and stylized version of the national seal. I’d never seen anything like it. A keepsake, Nadal told me, from an affair with an unscrupulous woman who covered him, twice weekly, in bite marks and lurid scratches, and who screamed so loudly when they made love that he often stopped just to marvel at the sound. ‘Like a banshee,’ he said. She maintained similar liaisons with the dictator, and, according to the woman, he liked to decorate her naked body with this same stamp. Nadal smiled. He could reasonably claim to have been, in his prime, extraordinarily close to the seat of power.
‘Of course, the king is dead,’ Nadal said. ‘And me, I’m still alive.’
Each stamp had a story like this, and he relished the telling—where it had come from, what agency it represented, how it had been used and abused over the years and to what ends. Though Malena was waiting for me, we spent nearly two hours selecting one, and then we placed the forged document, and the target which I’d removed from my wall that morning, in a manila envelope. This, too, was sealed with a stamp.
Nadal and I embraced. ‘There’ll always be a job for you here,’ he said.
Malena and I rode home that day on a groaning, inter-provincial bus. She fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, and when I saw the city disappear and give way to the rolling plains and gentle contours of the countryside, I was not unhappy. The next morning I presented the documents at the bank in the town just across the bridge from mine. ‘We’ve been needing a security guard,’ the manager said. ‘You may have heard what happened to our last one.’ He blinked a lot as he spoke. ‘You’re young, but I like the look of you. I don’t know why.’ And then we shook hands; I was home again.
My son was born just before Christmas that year, and in March the papers began reporting a string of bank robberies in the provinces. The perpetrators were ex-convicts, or foreigners, or soldiers thrown out of work since the democratic government began downsizing the army. No one knew for certain, but it was worrisome and new, as these were the sorts of crimes that had been largely confined to the city and its poorer suburbs. Everyone was afraid; most of all me. Each report was grislier than the last. Half an hour upriver, two clerks had been executed after the contents of the vault had disappointed the band of criminals. They hit two banks that day, shooting their way out of a police perimeter at the second one, killing a cop and wounding another in the process. They were said to be travelling the river’s tributaries, hiding in coves along the heavily forested banks. Of course, it was only a matter of time. We received sizeable deposits from the cement plant once a week and many of the workers cashed their cheques with us on alternate Friday afternoons.
Malena read the papers, heard the rumours and catalogued the increasingly violent details of each heist. I heard her tell her friends she wasn’t worried, that I was a sure-shot, but in private she was unequivocal. Quit, she said. We have a son to raise. We can move back to the city.
But something had changed. The three of us were living together in the same room where I’d grown up. She smothered our son with so much affection that I barely felt he was mine at all. The boy was always hungry, and I woke every day before dawn when he cried, and watched as he fed with an urgency I could understand and recall perfectly: it was how I’d felt when I left for the city almost exactly a year before. Afterwards, I could never get back to sleep, and I wondered how and when I’d become so hopelessly, so irredeemably selfish, and what, if anything, could be done about it. None of my actions belonged to me. I’d been living one kind of life when a strong, implacable hand had pulled me violendy into another. I tried to remember my city routines, but I couldn’t. Nor could I recall a single dirty joke of the dozens I’d heard from the dockworkers at the shop, or the pattern of the wallpaper in the Patrices’ tidy living room. The name of the street that ran parallel to the port had escaped me, as had the sound of the dauntless Filipinos chattering among themselves on those days they came ashore to visit the kind, ornamented women of the capital.
The rest of the world had never seemed so far away.
By late summer the gang had hit most of the towns in our province. It was then that my father suggested we go to the old farm. He would teach me how to use the pistol. I began to tell him I knew, but he wasn’t interested.
‘You’ll drive,’ he said.
We left town on a Saturday of endless, oppressive heat, the road nothing but a sticky band of tar humming beneath us. We arrived just before noon. There were no shadows. The rutted gravel road led right up to the house, shuttered and old and caving in on itself like a ruined cake. My father got out and leaned against the hood of the car. Behind us, a low cloud of dust snaked back to the main road, and a light breeze brushed over the grassy, overgrown fields but seemed somehow to avoid us, so that all we could feel was the relentless heat. My father took out a bottle, drank a little and pulled the brim of his cap down over his eyes. The light was fierce. He was seven years old when my grandfather died and my grandmother moved the family into town. He passed me the bottle; I handed him the gleaming weapon. He loaded it with a smile and, without saying much, we took turns firing rounds at the sagging walls of my grandfather’s house.
An hour passed this way, blowing out what remained of the windows, and circling the house clockwise to try our onslaught from another angle. We aimed for the cornices just below the roof, and hit, after a few attempts, the tilting weathervane above so that it spun maniacally in the still afternoon heat. We shot the numbers off the front door and tore the rain gutter from the corner it had clung to for five decades. I spread holes all over the facade of the house. My father watched, and I imagined he was proud of me.
‘How does it feel?’ he asked when we were finished. We sat leaning against the shadowed eastern wall.
The gun was warm in my hand. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘You tell me.’
‘You’re no good with that pistol.’ He took his cap off and laid it by his side. ‘You’ve got to shoot like you mean it.’
‘It’s all right to be scared.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I am.’
‘Your generation isn’t lucky. This never would have happened before. The old government wouldn’t have allowed it.’
I shrugged. I had a postcard of the dead general buried in a bag back home. I could show it to my father any time, at any moment,
just to make him angry or sad or both, and somehow, knowing this felt good.
‘Are you enjoying it?’ he asked. ‘Are you enjoying being a father?’
‘What kind of question is that?’
‘It’s not a kind of question. It is a question. If you’re going to take everything your father says as an insult, your life will be unbearable.’
He sighed. ‘If it isn’t already.’
We sat, watching the heat rise from the baking earth. It seemed like a strange thing to have to deny to my father. I mentioned the bridge, its new colour, but he hadn’t noticed.
He turned to face me. ‘You know, your mother and I are still young.’
‘Sure you are.’
‘Young enough, in good health, and I’ve got years of work left in me.’ He flexed his bicep and held it out for me to see. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Feel it if you want. Your old man is still strong.’
He was speaking very deliberately now, and I had the feeling that he’d prepared the exact wording of what he said next. ‘We’re young, but you’re very young. You have an entire life to lead. And you can go, if you want, and look for that life elsewhere. Go do things, go see different places. We can take care of the child. You don’t want to be here, and we understand.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Your mother agrees,’ he said. ‘We’ve discussed it. She’ll miss you, but she says she understands.’
I wasn’t certain I understood. For a moment I stared at him. ‘And Malena?’
‘She’ll want for nothing.’
I picked up the gun, brushed the dust off it. I checked to make sure it was unloaded and passed it back to him.
‘When?’ I asked.
And then we rode home and spoke only of the weather and the elections. My father didn’t care much for voting, but he supposed if the owner of the plant wanted to be mayor, he could be. It was fine with him. It was all fine with him. The sky had filled with quilted, white clouds, but the heat had not waned. Or maybe it was how I felt. Even with the windows down, I sweated clean through my shirt, my back and thighs sticking fast to the seat. I didn’t add much to the conversation, only drove and stared ahead and thought about what my father had said to me.
I was still thinking two weeks later when we were robbed.
It was no better or worse than I’d imagined. I was asked to say something at the manager’s wake and, to my surprise, the words would not come easily. I stood before a room of grieving family and shell-shocked friends, offering a bland remembrance of the dead man and his kindness. I found it impossible to make eye contact with anyone. Malena cradled our son in her arms and the evening passed in a blur, until the three of us made our way to the corner of the dark parlour where the young widow was receiving condolences. She thanked me for my words; she cooed at our boy. ‘How old?’ she asked, but before Malena or I could respond, her face reddened and the tears came and there was nothing either of us could say. I excused myself, left Malena with a kiss and escaped through a back door, into the warm evening. The town was shuttered and quiet. I never made it home that night and Malena didn’t look for me.
Photograph © Tony Walmsley