The road back
When I eventually got exhausted from work, I went shopping to the enormous shopping malls or I went to see a movie. It was the only place where I could forget about the reality in which I lived. I sprawled in the huge velvet chair in the cool, air-conditioned room and munched sweets. It had stopped bothering me that people were walking in and out during the film; some arrived in the middle of the film and, after it ended, they watched the first half of it. Others were only a bit late but did not stay till the end. Perhaps I was the only one who always asked the attendant when the next show was to begin.
The movie program was not really varied. Suiting the taste of the crowd, Philippine or American movies were usually on. I should say, they basically did not have anything from Europe. It happened only once that I saw a small poster of Life is Beautiful, an Italian film on the Holocaust by Roberto Benigni. No billboard ever advertised it.
The day finally came and I ceremoniously walked into the movie. I felt a bit like going home, I would absorb the little towns, the building, the mountains and pastures of Europe, and the Italian chattering would sound as a real melody for my ears. Suddenly, it seemed very bizarre and perverse how much I wanted to see this film which introduced one of the darkest eras of our continent to the people living far away and often being branded as uncivilized: it introduced the European conviction of superiority and racial discrimination, an ideology which killed millions of people. I wonder whether I impersonated this Europe for them.
The lights went out. To my great surprise, aside from me, there was only one person sitting in the room a few rows further down. He must have been a Philippino, because when their national anthem suddenly started, he jumped up and listened to the loud march standing at attention. Embarrassed, I remained seated, as I did not know what to do. I found the situation ridiculous to salute a nation before watching a movie.
I ran into Roland on my way out of the movie in the evening. It was already getting dark and when I ran across the street among the cars, someone called my name from a tricycle cab. The tricycle stopped, even though it had a passenger. The driver was smiling at me with a broad smile.
I was happy to see him again. He was released from prison more than half a year ago, where he was repeatedly sent back for glue sniffing. Earlier he would hang out in the streets in bad company. Sometimes he and his fellows would visit the home but they never stayed for long with us.
This time he literally fascinated me! He was working as a tricycle cab driver, his hair was neat, he had a clean T-shirt on and he was smiling – there were no sickly eyes made dim by glue.
Unfortunately we could not talk for long because the old lady who was sitting in the sidecar, got angry and started shouting with the boy.
A week later we met again in the city jail at Lumbia. He was accused of stealing. According to his account, he bought a pair of stolen slippers, but he did not think that he would get into trouble for it. Of course, I do not know what the truth was or what really happened, but for God’s sake, it was only
a damned PAIR OF SLIPPERS!…
Our little bakery
I suppose, it was our little baker’s shop that I had always been very proud of. We baked beautiful golden brown loaves, and when I spent the night in the shelter, in the morning I was the first customer and bought bread baked by the boys at daybreak. They respected this habit of mine.
They boiled water so that I could have my breakfast according to the European fashion, with café-au-lait. I must admit they treated me very well.
Nevertheless, the real value of the bakery for me was the fact that the manager and the baker in one person used to be a street kid who grew up in the home. Eddie managed the baking and delivering with his brother, Shushu. They also sold the goods and the two of them did the accounting, too.
We had a hard time with Eddie. He was already around twenty-three and he spent more and more time with the hooligans of the neighborhood. They would often drink next door and sometimes ‘our’ younger kids sat down to the ‘grown’ ones. I went over to them on several occasions to drive at least our children home. However, the hooligans did not appreciate my viewpoint. To compensate this, sometimes I socialized with them to keep up ‘good terms’.
After a while we started to suspect that Eddie was taking drugs. Once he complained that he got into a hopeless situation. He lived in the tin town around the docks with his mother’s common-law husband and his stepbrothers. As only the mother was working in the family, they were just eking out a livelihood and the family expected Eddie to give half of his earnings home. He saw his future more and more pessimistically, he did not believe that he could get back on his feet financially and have a family. I could help with the
problems accumulating around Eddie only to a limited extent. Our relationship was made even more difficult by the fact that I could not really speak with him, as he did not speak English and besides he was a very quiet boy, I hardly heard his voice.
He eventually got into quite a lot of trouble because of drinking and drugs. One morning, when I went to work, I did not find our little van. I drove this car because no one had a driver’s license for it then. Tongue-tied, Shushu walked up to me and put the key into my hand. He said that the car was parked at the Pier slum and I should go and pick it up. I could drag out of him only that it had a flat tire so it was left on the roadside. Tatay Menes and I got on a jeepney to go and repair it and take it home. On the way Tatay looked at me.
“Betty, I believe that we have to go to the police first.”
I looked at him uncomprehending.
“Eddie hit someone drunk last night and he drove off. The police was after him right away, they were literally
chasing him. Then he got into a dead-end street as a section of the narrow street was broken up. He got out of the car and ran away. Fortunately, the man suffered only minor injuries.”
I was staring blankly before me. I smiled wearily as I thought over the string of events. Eddie stole the car drunk and hit a man, the police chased him and on the front of the car large letters announced “Balay sa Gugma”. And Eddie believed that if he had escaped, no one would discover the truth. Well, that was Eddie.
Despite the adventures of our baker, the business in the bakery started up and prospered quite well. Five - six
children cleaned it in the afternoons, then they started kneading. The tasty white dough humps were on trays by the evening. The scent of fresh bread was lingering around the house around midnight, and when I worked in the office until late at night, sometimes I walked out to refresh myself with some sweet, soft bread and the jokes of the baker’s boys. Finally, they loaded the motorellas (motorbikes with a closed cabin) at daybreak and started for the city to deliver our products to the little stores. The boys were working very hard for every single peso.
Shushu was just as quiet as his brother. He approached me always with the greatest humbleness when he wanted to say or ask something. It very much bothered me, as there must have been only a few years of difference between us.
I was sitting at my desk when he knocked. He asked me to go outside as he needed some help. I realized then that he was grasping one of his hands with the other one, which was covered with blood and his nails were hanging. Shushu was ghastly pale, near to fainting. I jumped up and alarmed my colleagues. Our social worker, Jessie Ann soon bandaged his hand, while I pulled up with the truck. Shushu nestled by me. A couple of boys sat on the platform to accompany us to the hospital.
The traffic stopped in the streets of the city in the afternoon heat. Two-three cars, jeepneys or motorellas
jammed into a single lane and policemen were struggling to control the traffic in the intersections. I drove across the crowded market, repeatedly honking all the way. I turned on the white line of the broad street and, honking and flashing the headlights, I drove on the narrow route between the cars passing in the opposite direction, waving at them to pull aside. Then I arrived at a street section where the traffic was detoured. Further up, policemen were standing who kept the cars from driving on the road. I looked over and saw that Shushu was still very pale and the blood soaked the towel on his hand.
Lead by a sudden decision, I turned onto the empty road section and I kept driving and honking. Suddenly heavy military vehicles turned up from the intersection and were heading towards us. Steadfastly, I kept waving at them, although I felt as if I were a speck of dust against the ‘odds’. However, as if by miracle, the convoy started to pull aside to give way for the crazy white woman, who, believing that even the gates of heaven would open for her, drove forward against the oncoming traffic.
We passed the policemen, who were staring bewildered at me and the kids in the back. The part of town over the bridge was less crowded. I knew the small streets which, though in very bad condition, were less busy. We got to the hospital in half an hour, so Shushu’s fingers and palm were stitched very quickly. He lost one of his nails, but we had hopes that the other two fingers would be all right.
Christopher became a permanent part of my life. Our peculiar relationship went through a lot and I experienced various emotions through it. With his girlish smile on his lovely face, he filled my days with warm respect and love.
His aggressive behavior, the result of the destructive effect of glue sniffing and the brutal circumstances, showed me the dreadful feeling: mortal fear.
I know that he would never have hurt me. Our social worker and his parents said: Chris was a decent boy, smiling and helpful. Still, when he was possessed by the devil, he was not Chris anymore, he was the Evil himself.
And indeed, it is still beyond my reach how an angelic face and an innocent smile could turn within seconds into hostile snarl and trembling fury, which deforms the face so much, that it becomes unrecognizable.
Chris was a sixteen-year-old, baby-faced boy, who lived with us, together with his siblings. He was the most favored son of his mother, who, due to her work, had no time to look after him. He got into bad company in the slum, used to steal and sniff glue. He ended up in the shelter through his stepbrothers.
The boy was kind and helpful, but when someone infuriated him, he attacked the other with unbelievable
aggression, using anything that he had at hand, a knife, a rock or scissors. When he had a fit, his face got distorted, his entire body was shaking and he wanted to kill. The children and the supervisors already knew him. On such occasions, several of them held him down, tried to appease him, were praying the rosary or massaged his head with balm. When he calmed down, he had a headache and was so exhausted that he lied on the mat for hours. I often sneaked into the room when he was asleep. I sat on the ground and watched him. I wanted to understand his secret, understand the transformation.
One evening, when I was sitting with the boys on the porch, I caught Christ lying. I got very angry and did not
accept his explanation. Upset, I stood up and walked towards the kitchen building, when I heard screaming from behind me. The boys were running upstairs to the porch. I saw Chris with a knife in his hand as he was struggling with four bigger boys, who tired to hold him down. I froze. Chris could not control himself. He wanted to kill me.
I ran upstairs to them to see whether I could calm him as I did on other occasions, but as soon as he saw me, he started shaking and screaming violently. I stood in blank dismay. I was not able to move. Rodney, one of the street kids was clutching his wrist and he told me to leave immediately because Chris was very angry with me. But I was late. Chris was fighting with the boys on the porch in front of the only door through which I could have left. I moved behind Tatay Menes, the social worker and sat on a bench while they were soothing him. He got exhausted in a few minutes. He sat sunk in himself. I wanted to squat next to him. Ten minutes passed by. The others left, only Tatay and I remained there. I was not able to walk away. On the one hand, I was trembling as a leaf. On the other hand, I was afraid of Chris hurting himself. Long minutes went by,
sweat was running down on my body. I wanted to calm down and hug him, but I could not have gone to him yet.
Tatay sat down and talked to him. He helped him to his feet to lead him into one of the rooms. But as soon as he turned towards me, he started to snarl wickedly, and trembling came over him. Tatay immediately pushed him to a chair, kept talking to him, and I hid embarrassed behind the rear column of the porch, waiting for what was going to happen next. Tatay was not strong enough to hold Chris down and no one else was around, no one saw or heard us… I felt mortal fear. If he had not been able to control himself, he
would have enough strength and passion to kill someone. I wanted to get out of the trap. Finally a boy came upstairs and I went around them slowly and quietly, and ran down the stairs, out into the darkness, far from the home…
Two weeks later Chris was ready to leave Balay. He returned to his family to participate in a therapy. I walked him to the jeepney stop. I told him quietly and kindly that he had to do it and it depended entirely on his willpower whether he would get better or not. The jeepney did not come for a long time. I kissed him on the forehead and promised him that we would go and visit him… I still do not know what I felt as I watch the jeepney leave…
Two months later Chris returned. The past never spoilt our exceptional relationship. He loved me and I loved him.
The tall grass hides them…
Often there was no water for weeks, and sometimes there was no electricity either on the housing project, where I lived. In the mornings, we would maneuver a tall plastic bucket home from the well on a tricycle cab. We had to use water sparingly to have enough for cooking and bathing during the day. The situation got more and more uncomfortable and cramped in my populous family, so I moved out to the shelter for the time of this crisis. The taps, however, ran dry in the home, too a few days later and we were able to provide no more but drinking water for the children. Of course, they did not bother about washing or bathing. They splashed about in the sea for days. But I suffered even from the humidity of the briny water, my skin was itching all day long. I used to buy water in small plastic containers in the city and I tried to ‘bathe’ in that day after day. The heap of my laundry was getting larger and larger.
Eventually I ran out of clean T-shirts and underwear. Shamefully, I have to admit, that I bought a couple and
hoped that the distressed days would be over soon.
One day I went to the university to a lecture. I hopped off the jeepney near Divisoria Square to make a shortcut on foot. I passed a deserted, bushy plot. Whenever I walked this way, I was always watching out for boys in the thicket.
The kids liked this place very much, where they could hide easily. Many glue sniffing children found shelter here because the police did not discover them and did not drag them away to jail.
The kids were very frightened when I showed up. They were hesitating whether they should run away or no… They were afraid of my anger. But my heart sank and I stayed silent.
I asked them to come home with me. They refused and added that they did not want to live in the home anymore. I could not tell them more, because they did not understand my concern (it is very hard when you cannot express yourself!), and they were already high on glue. With heavy heart, I decided to leave them there. When I said good-bye, I saw the sadness in their eyes. Butchoy started to cry.
“Good-bye, Ate, I love you…” – he was sobbing. They others whispered good-bye, too and they waved timidly.
I left them there. I looked back from the sidewalk and I saw the eight little heads in the grass as they were watching me, still waving.
Days later the police brought them back to the shelter.
They stayed for a few weeks.
Carrying my heavy shopping bags, I had to cross the square in front of the bookstore, where my favorite street children gathered in the evening. I had a long and hard day and was in a hurry to get home so I wanted to pass them without being noticed. It was hopeless.
The kids caught me in seconds, they were laughing and fooling around. I noticed that Antonio stood downheartedly at the corner of the building. He also lived in the home before. He had spent a long time in prison, although he was only fifteen, and when he was released, he did not even think about moving back to his family at Davao City. He had been living in the streets for years as a ‘mistress’ of homosexuals. He had serious tuberculosis when he came out of jail. He was worn by prison life. He slept on the ground for months since there were no beds in his cell.
He found shelter in the home, and it seemed that he settled down. He entered school. He was quite a good student, though the kids made fun of his tattoos, and the teachers were not glad either that Antonio was coming from prison. The continuous disappointment at school made him loose interest, now he played
truant and he spent more and more time in the street. He started to date a fifteen-year-old prostitute, who got pregnant. Antonio left the home.
When I saw him, I remembered that the children told me, he got into a fight the week before and he was hit by a rock on the head. He went to the hospital right then and his wound was stitched. I walked over and asked him about his wound. Antonio took his cap off. Oh, my God! The wound in the greasy hair got
septic and putrefied. The boy must have been in extreme pain.
He was treated at the county hospital but Antonio could not buy the prescribed medicine. He needed an immediate examination and a new bandage…
At this moment I regretted that I came this way! It was almost five o’clock, I spent my entire day at the hospital with a couple of boys, and I could not imagine that I would turn and go back there! So I told Antonio that I would come for him the following day and together we were to go to see a doctor. I said good-bye.
I got to the next corner when I felt self-reproach. I had to turn back. Antonio was still standing on the same spot. I took his hand and just said: “We are going now!”
Still, I felt terrible when I recalled that I had left the boy standing on the corner in such a condition, even though I had known that he had needed immediate help.