Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Elaine Lennon

Waah. Waah. Waah. The klaxon sounded and through the layer of the protective headphones clamped like cotton reels either side of his hard hat, Harwood could hear the insistent scream and thrum of machinery as the moving parts cranked up.

The new rig foreman was fresh off the plane and he raised his eyebrows when he saw Harwood striding towards him. After a few social niceties, he remarked, “Anyone ever tell you you’re the living spit of Clint Eastwood?”

Harwood had heard it a hundred times.

“You should meet my little brother,” he shouted amiably. “He’s Lee Van Cleef’s evil twin. Identical, too.” He smiled and asked the guy his name and over the cacophony of the massive drills and the wrenching and shrieking that plunged into the ocean’s depths it sounded like Nick’s Nose Piercing but that was probably because he was Norwegian. Harwood glimpsed at the guy’s nostrils to check for anything weird but paid no further heed because he wanted to get out off this moneymaker as fast as humanly possible.

He gritted his teeth and sat in the helicopter for the homebound trip from the platform. He tried not to think about it. The churning waters below. The sharks. He had a dread of that phrase, Engine failure. They’d lost a crew on a Sikorsky two seasons ago. It was horrendous. He was glad he hadn’t had to make the phone calls to their families, spread all over the world. He was relieved when he could see the chopper was in easy reach of terra firma on the approach to Manila Bay even if being out on the water had given him his only chance to breathe fresh air in weeks.

“Turn to the left here,” Harwood called to his driver.  “Joaquin?” He saw the man’s head nod, ever so slightly.

Harwood was frequently irritated by the man’s refusal to communicate. He slumped a little further in the back seat while the driver’s hooded eyes gave nothing away.

Harwood buried himself in engineering reports and statistical comparisons and occasionally red-penned some figures he needed to question. You could take nothing for granted.

He noticed the barbecue shacks on the roadside arranged around a shabby Black Nazarene statue and called to Joaquin, “Hey, let’s try some of that good stuff!”

He knew that would lift Joaquin’s spirits which mostly tended to the morose although privately Harwood believed he was a sly bastard looking for the main chance. Like me, he thought with sad recognition.

Joaquin pulled over and jumped out, saying sheepishly, “Good idea! Gutom ako!

There were signs on the different huts and Joaquin approached the one with what appeared to be the biggest variety on the handwritten board:  pinakbet, afritada, menudo, sinanglao. Harwood let Joaquin have his way once in a while and as the man ate intestines on a stick that dripped fat onto the cracked tarmacadam, making squeaking and slurping sounds of enjoyment, Harwood got out and stretched and had a smoke and looked at the line of people eating the equivalent of gristle smoked on rancid fumes. If he hadn’t had a cigarette he would have vomited.

            There were crowds outside the Hilton.

            “What’s going on?” He saw for himself soon enough. There was a fuss around one limo pulling up and out of it stepped the country’s most recognisable film star.

            “Film Festival,” said Joaquin.  “On all week. Lots of movie stars.”

            “Any from America? Or Europe?” asked Harwood, gawping at the exotic bird-like woman all decked out in sapphires and glitter and a sweeping sharp-shouldered gown. His interest was now piqued. Nora Aunor? Coney Reyes? Probably. He couldn’t tell them apart.

            “Naw, nobody good, why’d anyone good ever come to Manila?” drawled Joaquin.

            Harwood had brief memories of seeing Apocalypse Now and reading startling stories about the madness on set up in Baler and thought how similar movie making sounded to oil drilling, only with cameras and stars and a music score.

            As they chugged along the edges of Intramuros, Harwood looked up from the documents on his lap and recognised a figure he shuffling along.

            “Joaquin, there’s Iley on the sidewalk, can we stop? Give him a ride back to the office.”

            Joaquin manoeuvred the Cadillac into the next line and prepared to pull in to the kerb when two mopeds cut in front.

            What happened next scorched Harwood’s retinas.

            Iley had turned around when he saw the car pulling in and smiled at Harwood. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and had his thumb looped in his suit jacket, flung across his right shoulder. A Filipino jumped off the first moped and head-butted him, knocking him against a lamp post. Another man who leaped off the second moped was wielding a machete and started hacking off Iley’s right arm at the wrist, which was sporting a Rolex.

            People were screaming and scattered in all directions.

Joaquin leaped out of the driver’s door and the mopeds buzzed off in the crowded traffic.

            Harwood opened his door and helped Joaquin drag Iley across the back seat where he wrapped what remained of Iley’s arm with his jacket. Iley was losing consciousness as well as blood.

            Joaquin sounded the car horn and as Harwood’s heart pounded he screamed at the driver, “Faster! Faster!” and when they braked at the entry to AMOSUP Seamen’s Hospital between them they got Iley onto a stretcher and Harwood unconsciously held his own right hand to his mouth as he realised what had happened. The horror.

Death hung in the droplets of city air despite the overwhelming military presence. Martial law meant no more moped maniacs. Maybe. It was an impossible place with dozens of ethnicities and languages and the best you could hope for was to be left alone. Come nine o’clock, though and there was a quick scoping of the streets and the soldiers were on the lookout for the recalcitrant, especially the ex-pats who didn’t take them seriously enough.

One afternoon, Harwood walked slowly back to the office building, the worse for wear. When he stepped out of the elevator, which had made him feel dizzy, the secretaries were whispering among themselves and one gestured to his office. The door was open. Harwood pulled himself together and entered in spritely fashion, with a smile.

A man in army uniform was facing him.

            Harwood stood stock still 

            “The name’s Harwood. Philip Harwood.”  The military man chuckled to himself. “Am I right?”

            Harwood flinched at the sound of his Christian name from this man’s mouth. He nodded. They both knew why he was here.

            He approached his desk and had to walk around the officer to get to his own chair.

            “Please, take a seat,” said Harwood at his most solicitous. He identified the man’s rank from his pocket. A colonel. The uninvited guest ignored his exhortation. Harwood sat down, never taking his eyes off him.

The Colonel placed a small metal object on the table on Harwood’s elegant blotter.

            Harwood didn’t need to look at it to know what it was. A bullet. Possibly with his name on it. He’d been hearing about the shakedowns at other American companies. Nobody seemed surprised, it was only a matter of time, seemed to be the consensus.

“Take it from me, you’re in a good position,” said the Colonel, all level tone and reasonableness.

            Harwood grimaced at the choice of words.

            “You should be so lucky,” said the Colonel.

            “I’m a lucky son of a gun,” agreed Harwood grimly, immediately regretting his turn of phrase.

            The Colonel wagged his finger at him appreciatively. “You’re funny, Clint!!”

            Harwood didn’t find this amusing and he maintained his stony composure.

            He took a cigarette from the box on the desk and offered one to the Colonel who shook his head definitively.

            “Not while I’m working. And rarely when I’m at home,” he said cheerily. “My wife doesn’t like it!” He was talking in a collegiate fashion as though this comedy of coercion were an everyday event. Perhaps it was.

            “Where’s home?” asked Harwood while he took a puff. He had considered saying, My office, my rules, but swiftly realised this was not the occasion.

            “Ilocos Sur,” answered the Colonel, taking in the other objects on the desk.

            “Nice place,” said Harwood, wishing the other man would sit down in front of him and at least ape civility. “Up there once, nice houses. Lots of Spanish villas.”

            “Yes,” said the Colonel. “Our conquerors have left quite the legacy.” His eyes squinted at a Certificate on the wall above Harwood’s head.

            Harwood looked at the man whom he knew now to be called Aquino. He was pugnacious. Dangerous.

            “So, this is how it works, Harwood.” The Colonel was walking around the office, looking at framed photographs and newspaper cuttings and out through the double-panelled windows of the skyscraper down to the pleasant greenery-bedecked plaza of Makati City many floors below.  “Each Wednesday afternoon I pay you a courtesy call. No need for chat.”

            Harwood sat impassively on his leather and chrome chair.   He steepled his fingers and waited for the clincher.

            “We require the equivalent of fifty thousand American dollars each week and there will be no discussion.” The Colonel was now meeting his gaze. “No argument. No money?” He nodded towards the bullet. “A reminder.”

            Harwood didn’t react but inside his gut was bilious. He needed the bathroom.

            “I see where you’re coming from, Colonel,” he said and stood up, hoping that this might end their unpleasant exchange. “And I’ll have to speak with my guys in the States, you know. I’m not the boss.” He smiled at the Colonel. “I’ll let you know.”

            “No, Mister Harwood, that’s not how it works. That,” he gestured to the bullet in its place of honour on the desk, “is how it works.  Three o’clock each Wednesday. You might have to reconsider your lunching arrangements.” He clicked his heels and inclined briefly and laughed heartily, “No worries, Harwood!  Gústo ka ikáw! I like you! We get on very well, I think.” He placed a hand on Harwood’s right shoulder. “We understand each other, I think? Discretion is the greater part of valour, isn’t that what they say?”

            Harwood waited for the man to remove his hand. He wasn’t just scary, he was overly familiar. And he knew how Harwood liked to spend his lunch hours and where and with whom.

            The Colonel then took his hand off Harwood, patted down his own lapel and stood silently.

            Harwood waited for something else.

            Instead, the Colonel withdrew almost silently from the room, pulling the door which closed softly in his wake.

            Harwood exhaled gently and scurried into his executive bathroom, situated to the left of his office, and urinated freely.

“Sweet Jesus,” he said to nobody in particular. He took off his jacket and shirt, which was soaked through with sweat. He needed to change his trousers too. Shit, he needed to change his life.

What am I into now, he asked himself. He readied himself to make the inevitable call to head office and worried for his job for the first time since all those years ago when he arrived as a Ten Pound Pom in Australia to make his fortune. What a callow youth he had been. And now he was involved in military swindles to line the pockets of totalitarian regimes.  Christ, he was even living in Marcos’ apartment. C’est la guerre, he said to himself and grinned, surprised by the memory of the one useful French phrase he recalled from his pointless secondary level education. This is what they should have been teaching us, he thought.

Monteith was standing with his back to the door when Harwood entered and he turned around and said to Harwood, “What choice do we have? Shut down the operation?” He reached for the phone and motioned to Harwood to sit down as he hit the speaker button. “The call I never wanted to make,” he declared as the line crackled all the way to the United States.

At the Ascott Hotel Harwood saw a good-looking mestiza at the bar and decided to exit the company of roughnecks in suits with whom he was so regularly surrounded. 

            He stood beside her epicene companion, a man who clucked like a hen, his narrow face framed in coloured spectacle frames that matched the purple check in his ludicrous three piece suit.  

            Harwood put in his drinks order and straightened himself up to his full height to earwig on his neighbours’ conversation.

            “Thing is,” she said.  “I don’t just feel the pressure to invent stuff, I feel the pressure to suppress. You know, every time you write anything, even if you’re making it up, you’re opening up a can of worms. The temptation to write everything is horrendous!”

            He looked over her companion’s head to get a closer look and saw her dark hair cut in a bob, with a deep fringe edging deep blue eyes and thought, Trouble.

            He lifted his tray of whisky sours from the bar and threw a twenty at the bar man and returned to his oik companions with a shrug.

            “Not your type, eh?!” winked Babb.

            “Talks too much,” sighed Harwood. He took a Marlboro from his pocket and Devlin lit it. “I don’t have the energy for a woman like that.”

            Drill somewhere else, he thought, emitting a grim laugh and toasting the mestiza’s pretty rear end from afar.

            “I’m running out,” he said, motioning to the cigarette. “I need to hit Duty Free one of the days, go to Dakota or somewhere.”

            “There’s oil in tham thar hills,” intoned Graef, sinking his head into his plaid-shirted chest for effect.

            “Way down,” agreed Babb.

            “Way on down,” sang Graef and commenced to warble unmusically so that Harwood gave him a friendly push and Babb threatened to empty his beer glass over his head where he left it teetering momentarily.

            He was at his customary weekly dinner with Monteith at the Manila Hotel. There was a huddle of American officers in the lobby and frequent roars of laughter. Muzak hummed in the background. He recognised a beautiful local call girl on the arm of a US General as they were seated at a nearby table.

            The sweet smell of sizzling pork made his nostrils suddenly flare in recognition. A sense memory of olfactory putrefaction he tried to avoid at all costs. He was taken back to the screams of the pigs in the bacon factory in the East End of London where he raised money to pay for his business course. He wasn’t a week off the boat from Dublin when he found himself working late Saturday night and witnessed things he thought had only happened in concentration camps.         

He blinked and Monteith asked if he was alright, and Harwood looked at the food on his plate and instantly felt queasy.

            Monteith was chomping with gusto. Strips of pig were laid out ceremonially on his main plate alongside a selection of vegetables. The centre of the table had four separate dishes of pork and oily sides, steaming and sickening in their globular presentation.

            Harwood knocked back his Bacardi and Coke and summoned the waiter.

            “Just give me stir fried vegetables and the noodles,” he said.

            The waiter frowned, curling in his short legs and pigeon toes. “Is something wrong with Sir’s food?”

            Harwood shook his head. “Change it,” he said and motioned to the plate in front of him.

            Monteith paused mid-bite, eyebrows raised.

            “Lost the taste for it,” said Harwood and allowed his gaze to wander the room and he sucked on his cigarette.

            More pigs. Pigs and women. In PNG, where he’d got that quick promotion after the other guy ran out one day and said, Never again. An Australian who just couldn’t take it any more and left the camp. He’d run back in naked amid a hail of poison arrows from the locals after he’d been bathing in a waterfall with their women. A helicopter took him out two hours later and he was never heard of again.

            Harwood had only ventured from the mining company’s compound once, and to his amazement everything his colleagues had told him was true. On the other side of the planet when he was growing up on an Irish farm he never dreamed he would ever see anything like this. No nature documentary could have prepared him. The Papua New Guinea natives were astonishingly primitive. Civilisation had never touched them. Women were suckling squealing piglets in the villages. Twenty-three years old and he knew that for certain races life was literally alimentary. These were another species entirely. Evolution? What a joke.

The jungle with its enveloping tightness, sun slashing through leaves that could cut a man in two. The heat. The humidity. The perma sweat. The sheer un-white foreignness of the place.

            He had lost his taste for meat at a young age at home on the family’s small farm when a friendly mama pig who had weaned her offspring wound up being sent to the local factory. He was seven years old and didn’t know what it meant until one Sunday his mother placed a mountain of sausages and rashers and black and white pudding on plates at the side of the gas cooker in the scullery and he asked her, Where does that come from? And she told him. She wasn’t being cruel, he needed to know and she had informed him. Information was king.

            And when he sat down at table with the rest of his brothers and sisters on the one day in the week when they were guaranteed food because they were so many and they had so little and his mother told him, Eat up, it’s good for you, it’ll make you grow big and strong, he did it, because he was a good boy, but as he did, he wept. He wept for mama pig and he wept for her piglets in the shed because he knew now where they would end up. And it was so strange to think that he wound up working in a pig factory in London – for two years! Doing that business course drained his funds – and then a year later to find himself  watching, mouth agape, as those women with their screwed-in eyes breastfed pigs in PNG. Animals. Humans. There was no difference in this world. They were all the one. Meat. That was reality.

            Home. Away. Away was a word he heard a lot when he was a child. His father was always away, away. Away at sea. In the British Navy, where he served as Radio Officer. Where he spent ten months of the year. The multi-coloured aerogrammes and postcards with exotic stamps filled the boy’s mind and grafted upon him a taste for life and adventure. His father once brought him The Daily Telegraph Map of the World as a present from one of his stints. It was years later he realised that it had come free with a newspaper. He cherished it as one of his own few precious belongings. He salivated over the prospect of one day visiting some of the countries on that vibrant four by two illustration with its backdrop of turquoise sea and so much of the world designated the salmon pink of Empire hinting of wonder elsewhere. It gave him respite from the chunder and the chores, milking the cows before school, cleaning up the dung from the shed floors when he got back, while his sisters were mopping and dishwashing before some measly scraps for their evening meal and nights hunched together, struggling with homework over the table in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house, with a stove for cooking and heat and which he would have to fill with logs he himself had fetched down the fields after another tree had been felled by one of the workmen who lived in the loft at the back of the house and who were invariably better fed than any of their employers.  Property tax, his mother used to mutter, bemoaning the location of their sixty-acre non-productive farm just a mile from the county town. Everyone thinks we have money. The tinkers have more than us, she’d say.

The house was filled with children, one for every annual leave, he supposed. He had had a twin but he had died. You got better offal than he did, his mother had said quietly. It was his heart, his lungs, his kidneys. They just didn’t work properly … her eyes would water and her mind would wander and he was left to ponder the luck of getting better organs and being a survivor. The odds of being one in two. Offal. Awful. The words were inextricably linked in his mind.

It was normal for a man to be away, when he was growing up. And every year his father came home the man had grown tanner, leaner, older, slightly greying, until finally he returned when he fell sick in nineteen sixty-two. He stayed for a year and undertook all the tasks his sons had been doing but it was clear he was ill at ease on land. He missed the sway of ships and the pull of the water. He had once patted his oldest son on the shoulder to congratulate him for passing exams and that was the only gesture Harwood had ever had from this stranger. Now he was away himself, but he had no home to go to. No woman. He supposed he would, one day. But he was in his late thirties now, ten years older than his father had been when he had been born, at the end of the war. There was only one war then, World War Two. Here in the Philippines there were many wars and everyone knew all about all of them and would tell you endlessly about the Spanish and the brief takeover by the British and now the Americans who had their bases here and came ashore and used the women and paid a lot of money for sex and flew their planes in and out and overhead and thought they owned the place. Not now, they didn’t. Marcos was in charge and the Army did his bidding and wasn’t he himself living in one of Marcos’ properties? He was renting from either a cousin or a sister or an in-law, the names changed like the weather and the weather was on a loop – hot, sunny, wet, rainy, wild and impenetrable and disgustingly damp and utterly unpredictable. You were sitting in a state of such moistness that nobody was embarrassed if they left a wet patch on a seat. There was a class system and multiple peoples and dialects and indeterminate racial mixes who spoke hybrid Tagalog and English and odd words of Spanish interspersed with other polyglot combinations and goodness knows what else but the common language was greenbacks.

            He saw the Colonel at another table and returned the nod in acknowledgement and grew uncomfortable, unhappy that he had been spotted, unwilling to let his conscious self be so aware that his whereabouts were always known, his drinking spots a matter of common knowledge, that like all the other businessmen in his position he was under constant surveillance.

            He sucked on his cigarette and stubbed it out on a white Hotel ashtray as his vegetable special was placed in front of him and he started to chop up the food.

            Pigs, thought Harwood. Why does it always have to be pigs?

            He was ambling happily from the Irish pub in the Ayala Centre, when a jeep pulled up and the Colonel was standing in front of him before he knew what was going on. He was still laughing to himself about something dumb someone had told him over the course of a very drunken session. He found himself being pulled into a nearby alley by two uniformed men. He looked around and he was at the bottom of a cul de sac. He saw the Colonel appear in the partly-lit gloom.

            “What’s the charge?” he asked as one of the soldiers pushed him against a wall between trash cans.

            “The charge?” the Colonel laughed. “We’re not the police, Mister Harwood! We’re just keeping order while society reorganises itself to recognise the Fourth Republic!”

            Another officer muttered to the Colonel.

            “Very well, you are charged with public intoxication while breaking curfew. That is the charge. We will escort you to your home.”

            Harwood could feel the butt of the rifle parting his cheeks through his trousers and was sweating profusely despite the night chill. His chin was bleeding against the plaster wall.

            “Keep your hands up! Turn around!” one of the soldiers shouted into his ear.

            The other soldier pushed him over, down on the ground. Harwood fell on his face.

            “Turn around!” ordered the second soldier.

            Harwood twisted himself forward.

            The Colonel nodded and the first soldier kicked Harwood hard, in the liver. Harwood reached up, gasping. This is what the Guards used to do in Ireland to anyone they didn’t like. Some had particular gifts – leaving terminal organ damage without a mark was one of them. Somewhere in the middle of the kicking he recalled this.

               “Ibinigay ko sa iyo ng isang bagay upang tandaan ako sa pamamagitan ng!” whispered the Colonel.
               “Hindi ako nagsasalita ng Tagalog,” groaned Harwood. I don’t speak Tagalog.
               “Smartass! Again,” said the Colonel.
               The soldier jumped on him.

            “Take my advice, Mister Harwood,” said the Colonel, picking invisible lint from his jacket. “In future, stick to guava juice.”

            Harwood lay curled in a foetal position in the alley with voices crying out from the dollar an hour motels nearby. Eventually, he shambled home, cradling his abdomen.

               It was Bisperas ng Pasko or Noche Buena, Christmas Eve.

“I don’t feel too good,” said Harwood. He was talking to nobody in particular. His wife had left the building to go to Brisbane’s shopping district for Christmas gifts. He could see her board the water bus from the window of the apartment.

He was older now, greying at the temples, sunburnt to a crisp and with melanoma patches around the back of his ears from playing a lot of golf in the sun. The speckles dotted the parts of his head where his cap didn’t reach and his hair was cut too short.

He gasped. He was bent double in excruciating pain. He couldn’t find his mobile phone. His vision was shockingly impaired, just like that.

He buzzed the intercom to the front desk of the building but there was no response.

He opened the apartment door after feeling his way along the walls and bumping into the circular antique mahogany table he’d had shipped from Ireland. Home.

He made it to the corridor and punched the round button for the lift.

            He stood in the elevator and felt everything swirl and his head swung forward, violently, as the metal box staggered to a halt on the ground floor. The doors opened and he fell out at full tilt, bleeding from every orifice.

            The middle-aged Greek porter looked up from the desk and ran around it, pushing on the button for the lift control to jam it, dragging Harwood out and away from the doors which were clanking against his legs. Harwood was tall but now he was skin and bone, no weight at all in his tee shirt and khakis, looking decades older than his fifty-eight years. The much shorter Stassinopoulos saw Harwood’s head sagging into his clavicles. He looked over his shoulder in vain for any help passing the glass doors that opened onto the street. There was a gentle drone of traffic noise but no one entered the building or walked by.

            Harwood’s eyes were in the back of his head as the Greek pulled him towards a chintzy couch situated between two large planters on the marble tiles. There was a trail of blood over the surface leading from where he had fallen.

Stassinopoulos ran back to his desk and dialled for an ambulance and watched in horror as Harwood sat moaning and groaning in a growing slick of his own blood, dripping into puddles and filling his trousers and moccasins.

            Stassinopoulos did not know Harwood except when he came to stay a few times a year.  A lot of ex-pats had these apartments. Harwood owned half the building, his reward to himself for enduring the law of a country where he wasn’t permitted to own anything.

Harwood’s eyes flickered as Stassinopoulos pulled him with immense difficulty into an upright position in the chair.  He briefly came to, and thought, Where am I? 

What Stassinopoulos saw was Harwood’s eyes, rolling back in his head. What he thought was, What the fuck do I do? And why have we got such a stupid chair in the foyer?

            Harwood was gagging on the blood steadily making its way through his mouth, his ears, his nostrils, his nether regions.  His trousers were filling, staining dark red.

            Stassinopoulos jumped from one foot to another hoping the ambulance wouldn’t be much longer. He needed towels to soak up the liquid and ran to the bathroom but there were only handsize pieces of fabric available. He couldn’t staunch the blood because he couldn’t see the source.

            Blue lights and whining sirens heralded assistance.

            Three paramedics rushed through the doors with a gurney and all kinds of paraphernalia.

            They put Harwood on the stretcher and the blood that he’d left on the couch made one of them vomit in his mouth. They jumped his increasingly lifeless body.

            Harwood briefly came to with eyes open, but they were trickling blood that dribbled over his temples and cheekbones. He couldn’t focus. Everything was fluttering and indistinct. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his brain he could hear the Colonel’s words, echoing like a loudspeaker through the fog of imminent death, “Not now, not tonight, not tomorrow, you’ll remember this beating. You’ll be dying somewhere, long after you’ve left my country and you’ll remember me. I’ve given you something to remember me by!”  He could hear more words, floating over his head and landing around him, but there wasn’t enough oxygen going to his brain to filter them. He could hear someone say “He’s bleeding out!” and through his fluttering eyelids he saw ugly squat women suckling pigs and he could make out an animal being tortured and heard the words, “Oi! Paddy! Back to work! And grow up! This is how it is!” And he was back in London aged eighteen in the factory. And he was at his mother’s side in the scullery, tugging on her apron strings, crying, the sizzle of frying bacon overwhelming his senses.

            Pigs, thought Harwood. Why does it always have to be pigs?

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