Vaughan (Te Ātiawa) and wife Leticia (Philippina) live in Aotearoa-New Zealand, Hong Kong – where their children reside – and the Philippines. This short story brings home the realities of living in Philippines, which he finds don’t differ so much from Aotearoa.
“Writing for me is a religion. Writing, of whatever genre and in whatever language, acts as a salve, as a catharsis, as a necessity – an attempt to deal with the weirdness of life…”
Death of a Tambay
Romero had had enough.
Enough of the persistent heat, which seeped through every fissure every day, even on the few days there was enough money and a consistent enough electricity current to run their small aircon.
Enough of the persistent rain in season, which often led to the ramshackle dam down the road overflowing and flooding their home, so as to steal away the few pieces of furniture along with it, uninvited. Especially if it was not somehow secured to the paint-peeled concrete floor.
Enough of the persistent noises all and every day and most of the night; sounds from the squealing baby next door over the broken fence; from the street sellers trying to get you to buy anything from ice and fish to iced fish; from the few jeepneys that patrolled that part of the barangay, or district, like rogue elephants; from the motorbikes and tricycles with jeering holes in their mufflers.
Enough of the beggars banging on the gate; the neighbours with big noses, gossiping about whatever they had made up; the neighbours who were beggars because they thought Romero’s overseas foreign worker siblings were rich and that therefore he must be, too. Usually they were his own cousins and aunties or uncles, who asked for a bit of help with their electricity bill or some such.
Enough. There was just too much to deal with. Too many people for a start.
Romero blamed the Spanish. They had brought in Catholicism, and the creed had ingrained itself into their DNA. No birth control. No abortion. Not even any divorce. And annulment cost huge amounts of money for the shyster lawyers.
Too many very poor people. Too many very rich people. And far too many frustrated people, just like him.
His mind danced on.
Too much corruption. No one paid taxes. No roads around his place ever seemed to get upkeep, yet Romero had read that the barangay had been awarded huge sums to fix them up. Where was the money, he had asked more than once, only to be rebuffed each and every time by the barangay captain and his henchmen.
Too many guns, too. Every second person he met claimed that they had a gun. None of them seemed to have a licence either. Romero blamed the Americanos for this. Their gun lust had seeped into the Philippine DNA too. And now the central government had re-opened the door to these militaristic Americanos again. Hadn’t his cousin, Lando, told him that their troops were everywhere through Clark-Mimosa further north in the province? Lando worked at the Holiday Inn there, as a driver. He had recently seen hordes of young American soldiers swimming in the hotel pool. He relayed this to Romero, who had a lively brain and who analysed such things.
So Romero shook his head and drank a further bottle of the potent Red Horse beer, replete with the ice he had chipped into a glass. He knew that he had already drunk far too many that day, but he needed to feel better. He also knew that another cousin, Raymon, who ran one of the many sari sari stores along the road, had a big stock of the brew. And Raymon gave him a tab. Raymon and he used to be quite close, but more and more recently, Raymon had betting woes down at the cock pit, while Romero had no interest in cockfighting whatsoever.
Romero also had a pistol, of course. Easy to buy and bullet. So far he had had no need to use it, but the more beer he sank, the more he mused about carrying it with him every day, even if he had to stick it down his shorts.
There was no one person in particular he wanted to shoot: it was more a burgeoning frustration that fuelled his feeling that he needed to shoot someone, even to shoot something. Nothing seemed to work properly around him and he always expected things to be unexpected. Contingency was king and randomness always seemed to rule, most especially if he had planned ahead. A few pistol shots skyward might ease his inner pressure.
His wife always seemed to complain too. She wasn’t even in the country, because she worked in Singapore and channelled much of her money back to him and to their two children, who were studying in Manila. But she was perennially unhappy having to be a cleaner in another country, slaving away for employers who – she claimed, anyway – disrespected her. Disrespected her culture, too.
Made him reach out for another Red Horse from the vibrating depths of their ancient refrigerator. He nearly dropped the bottle on the hard cement floor; the brittle onto the brutal. His sweaty hands captured it just in time.
Later, as the sun rose even higher in the clear blue, unsullied sky and Romero was struggling out the back having a mimi in the long grass, where snakes sometimes crawled erratically, he had what was an epiphany. The sky seemed to have taken on another penumbra altogether. And he felt serenely calm for once. He had read enough scripture and the catholic classics had been drummed into him sufficiently at school, to know one when he was experiencing one. Even if he had left school early, because his family needed funds.
He would travel by the slow bus to Manila and kill the President. He would assassinate, so as to make sense of everything. He laughed out loud as the impact of this hit home deep inside his skinny body.
He reflected later, when he went back inside to sit down on the hard wooden chair, that probably no one would catch him. If he was fast and crafty enough, he reckoned that he could get away with murder in his country; hadn’t others already gunned down mayors at airports and never been apprehended? Hadn’t television stars raped young actresses and gotten away with it, too?
The ones with money and guns, as well as the priests, had the power in this country. At least this was Romero’s mantra, his take on things. So it was his turn now. He would join the club of winners.
He fell asleep under the ineffectual fan, while outside the prowling cats were again fighting and yowling, as two dogs were copulating somewhere in his overgrown backyard.
The next day, Romero woke with a headache. He had forgotten his resolve to kill already and was more worried about finding some money to pay for someone to attach metal grilles outside the bedroom windows, which had not been done previously. There was never too much security in this barangay, and lately Romero was becoming concerned someone might break in to his home. There was nothing much worth stealing there, but they probably thought otherwise.
He drummed his hands on the knobbly marble bench that surrounded the kitchen walls. He turned on the spindly metal tap that grudgingly gave up cold water for him to rinse his hands. Where to find the few thousand peso to get the job done? His wife would not be keen to fund this, even if she was the one who had kept nagging him for a long time about it.
He could try again to find a job, if such things were available around there. He was almost resigned to being a tambay – or ‘standby’ – unemployed now for several years and probably unemployable because of these years. He snapped out of his daydream when a man walked outside the gate yelling about Jesus.
A little while later, when he was drinking another Red Horse from his steadily diminishing supply, he thought that he might have to force a hold-up somewhere: maybe even of richer working folk on a jeepney in a well-off part of town. He would use that pistol in some more constructive way, instead of it just squatting there in his outside toilet, hidden like a refugee.
‘Yes,’ his brain thrummed, ‘this is what I will do … tomorrow.’ For now, however, it was enough to sit as close as he could to the fan and slowly succumb to the numbness the alcohol guaranteed.
Outside, the sun had decided to turn up the heat even more and someone else was strolling past the front gate, hoping that whoever was inside would open the inset door and buy some mais. Romero never heard a thing, as he had soon succumbed to slumber.
It must have been about 5 o’clock that afternoon when Romero was awake enough to be aware. He was hungry and raided the tomb-shaped refrigerator of its paltry sweet white bread and cold corned beef that he had two days ago placed in a bowl, after disgorging it from its tight tin prison. He slurped down a couple of rapid sandwiches and went to lie on the bed; turning on the old television at the same time. Eat Bulaga was on, set in some suburb of Manila, that didn’t seem vastly different from his own surroundings, though far more crowded. That was enough for him to switch to one of the few other channels his television was capable of grasping; to see an ancient black-and-white movie starring a young Eddie Garcia as a gangster, gunning down all and sundry. All very sun dry, actually, as Romero laughed at his own brain’s clever word play. He farted strenuously and strongly and the wafted stench lingered a long time before disappearing through the nearly always open-against-the-heat windows. Which made him regurgitate what to do about making them more secure?
Eddie Garcia didn’t help. He was too busy speaking like gravel and shooting everybody, all of whom seemed to die long lingering deaths, gasping and croaking like Disney cartoon caricatures.
Romero flashed that he would telephone his one sister who had some money and who lived on the other side of the main road in a much bigger house, left to her by her now dead lover; the one who used to be chief of the Roads Bureau. Except Romero had no load on his sweaty mobile. He rummaged in his jar of loose change and managed to scrounge sufficient to buy a load up the road at the new 7/11; the one where all the all-white-dressed schoolkids seemed to linger all day long.
He stepped out into the road, for the first time for about five days and – after greeting the half-dead gnarled old woman, who sat stooped grotesquely on her stoop next door – ambled down the lane. At least the sun was in second gear by now and he was not blinded by his own perspiration. Not far to go to the end of the road, past all the empty two- and three-storey homes staring down at him, with all their high padlocked gates defending their houses; whose owners lived overseas and who maybe would never come back. Baka hindi na babalik. The houses seemed to croon at him some faint mocking chant, which he tried to ignore. The music didn’t listen to him though, and just kept serenading his march.
A couple of trikes bore down on him, so he had to step aside to let them manoeuvre amongst the parked cars and past the dark home-bars, where more of his own cousins and uncles were drowning themselves deeply in rum. A bitch dog was rummaging amongst the rubbish in a gutter and a couple of girls were trying to train a bicycle by grasping a metal fence bastion with their grimy hands. Romero rubbed the coins against one another in his pants’ pockets and walked on a bit more: the crossroad was just up ahead, slightly beyond the laggard line of tricycles and their jaded riders, all hoping for custom.
He reached the corner and was hit by far more noise and confusion and unwieldy traffic and people of all sizes and shapes and facial expressions. The main road was a circus act. He sidestepped onwards.
Just as he reached the 7/11, a motorcycle swept past him, its rider cleverly manipulating misses from the vehicles headed straight at it, horns blaring, whilst at the very same time taking direct and successful aim at Romero’s surprised body with a raised revolver and pumping several bullets in quick succession into the unlucky pedestrian.
Then just as adroitly avoiding the falling Romero and the braking, snaking traffic and disappearing as swiftly as it had arrived on scene, no number-plate in sight. The killer’s pistol was already a myth.
Romero, mortally wounded, had only a few seconds to wonder why he had been targeted. No rationale ever gelled as he faded completely, before the screams and shouts of the bystanders and passers-by had even reached his corpse, slumped half over the road and half over the broken pavement; trickles of blood running away from it into the roadside crannies and lapping over the shoes of a couple of plate-eyed schoolkids, who had gotten too close to the act.
They would never know and Romero would never discover that he was a victim of mistaken marksmanship and that the gunman had hit the wrong man completely.
The intended lookalike had been just a half-step or two behind Romero. He now was loping away as fast as he could, almost tripping over a stray dog, en route to the nearest jeepney he could clamber on, to take him well away from the scene.
Raymon owed lots of peso to a lot of people. They didn’t hesitate to act brutally after giving just one warning. And he had had a few warnings already.
Later, at Romero’s funeral, some did ask others where his favourite cousin was, as they shared a few beers in the nearest shade they could find, away from the relentless sun.
aircon – airconditioner
jeepney – extended jeep that carries many passengers
barangay – district
sari sari – small family-run stall/store
mimi – piss
peso – money
tambay – jobless male ‘standby’ who frequents the same place
mais – corn
Eat Bulaga – popular television programme
Baka hindi na babalik – never to return, maybe
Eddie Garcia – famous Philippines actor
First published takahe 87