Six summers ago, I wound up alone in a small village in the tourist town of Cebu in the Philippines, penniless, pregnant and a little pessimistic. I had nothing except a healthy curiosity and a penchant for mangoes. I was plagued by terrible morning sickness and had a familiar overwhelming sense of not belonging anywhere. The heat made me lazy; I just wanted to order a freshly blended mango drink that tribes of thin brown boys sold up and down the beach for 17 pesos, roughly forty cents, doze on a banana lounge and let the sun kiss me.
The salty smell of the ocean made me smile in spite of my heartache. I kicked up soft white sand and listened to the sound of laughter that seemed an indelible part of village life. Children ran past me with abandon, giggling and pointing, their nakedness as natural as their sense of fun. It felt wrong to be despondent in such a happy place, a tropical paradise for those in a more fortunate frame of mind.
My hasty arrival in Cebu seemed like a dream I wanted to wake from and find wasn’t real. Josh, my travel partner, best friend and father of the baby still growing inside me, had left me suddenly, in Manila. Fitting really, Manila with its frenetic pace and aura of danger. I’d never liked it there. I’d awoken to the baby pushing on my bladder, a common nightly occurrence at six months in. The cheap pine bed was empty other than my still-warm imprint. He hadn’t come home. Without reading the letter he’d secreted in, I knew he was gone for good. The note was as cruel as it was simple, ‘I never wanted this.’ We’d been together for four years and travelled together the last two of those. I can’t say I was completely shocked.
We’d arrived in Manila a month before and I saw a change take place in him. He stared at me like I was stranger, an ugly hanger-on, someone who would hold him back. The smell of debauchery in the air turned him. He became primal, ready to pounce. The carnal nature of the place saddened me; everything was available for a price. It excited him. I could see I’d lost a part of him that very first night. His wanderlust had shifted into something less sanitary.
I wanted out of that dirty, libidinous city. I needed fresh air, innocence and a new beginning. I was going to become a mother and I tried to let that take precedence and dispel the air of melancholy that cloaked me. I didn’t call my mother back home, knowing that if I did so, she would summon me like some kind of wanton, irresponsible teenager.
I picked Cebu simply because I liked the sound of the name and the picture of the white beaches hung on a poster at the hazy, smoke-filled airport. Cebu was everything Manila was not. It was light, colourful and gregarious. I felt like screaming, ‘Infect me with your frivolity!’ I wanted to forget the immediate past and get to a place of acceptance without repentance. I partly blamed myself for being so lax about my fears and not insisting on moving to a more desirable place.
I stumbled upon a cheap hotel the first day I arrived. It was run down and desperately needed painting, but the German owner, Hans, made up for the cosmetic defects with his good humour and booming voice. He took pity on me, a pregnant twenty something, eyes bruised from crying asking for employment in a town where workers are so cheap they’re almost free. I evoked the father figure in him; he offered me a small room with its own sink in exchange for making up the twenty or so rooms daily. He explained it wasn’t as hotel-like as I thought. Making up the rooms consisted of making the beds and a quick vacuum. ‘I don’t charge enough to go washing the sheets every time a new person stays,’ he said.
Hans fed me a hearty German breakfast every morning, which consisted of thick chunks of homemade bread dripping with butter, wedges of ham cut off the bone and bratwurst sausages as thick as a fat person’s fingers. He quizzed me about the baby kicking. I detected a certain sadness when he asked, as though he’d had some tragedy in the past. I did not ask, fearing his answer would be something too sad for my hypersensitive emotions. When we were discussing anything else his ruddy red face lit up and it was never long before he was clutching his tubby belly, flicking his suspender straps and laughing at his own jokes. It was impossible not to laugh along with him. His jokes never made sense, but his chortling was contagious.
I found the local medical clinic and met with the doctor to discuss giving birth. The costs were frightening. Medical help wasn’t free and I wondered how people survived here. Hans didn’t pay me in pesos, so what I spent daily came from my exiguous savings. The cost of a midwife would leave a big hole in the budget. I contemplated flying home to my mother, but I could hear the echo of past recriminations sailing across the bodies of water that separated us.
Instead, I focused on my health. I decided a happy, healthy mother would invariably lead to a happy, healthy baby and enough time had passed for me to wish fervently for that. A few weeks into my sojourn I met a local girl named Juvie. She worked at her parent’s market stall selling bags of dried fish. Everyday I walked past her stall and she would holler out, ‘It’s a boy!’ One day I stopped and laughingly demanded to know why she was so sure of this. ‘It’s your glow,’ she said, with an irrepressible grin lighting up her cherubic cinnamon-coloured face, ‘If your skin glows, it’s a boy. I know this because my mum has six girls. She always had the bad skin, you see?’ she said, as though her argument was perfectly logical.
My new friend Juvie invited me to eat with her family and it became a regular occurrence. An uncle would bring a plastic bag full of steamed rice, a cousin a fish dish, everyone contributed where possible. Some days it was just steamed rice, boiled with chicken bones, thick and gluggy like rice pudding. It didn’t change the atmosphere. The women still teased the men, the children, boundless with energy, still played chasey, the men still sang songs high into the night.
I spent many nights languishing on the beach with Juvie’s family who had adopted me as one of their own. Rice and mango nectar became my only vice. Juvie warned me each time, ‘Mango no good, make hairy baby.’ I could only laugh.
There was no hurry here. The ebb and flow of daily life had a hypnotic rhythm and for the first time in my life, I felt I belonged. Maria, the tiny no-nonsense cook at the hotel, admonished me for hanging my clothes outside at night-time. ‘It’s bad luck! Evil spirits hide in clothes after dark! Give to me, I wash for you.’
We argued as we fought over my meagre pile of laundry. Eight months pregnant, I was no match for the five-foot Filipino in front of me.
Juvie insisted I visited Gloria, a local witch doctor, who stuffed my hands with herbs and creamy balms. Her long black and grey hair undulated in the breeze as she patiently explained the merits of each remedy. I tried to pay her for her wares, but she refused. ‘I am healer,’ she simply said. Surreptitiously I smelt the balms and was transported to the beach. The smell of coconut and sunshine fused into those heavenly concoctions was bliss.
With only weeks to go until the baby arrived, I rang home to let my mother know I was alive and well, and about to multiply. There were shocked gasps, much berating and a fair amount of blame laid on the irresponsible ex, Josh. I said, ‘It is what it is,’ she didn’t like
my honesty. My mother shifted into panic mode. She’d fly over immediately, clean up the mess I’ve made of my life. I pictured her bloodless hands grasping the phone, eyebrows furrowed, marring her perfectly made up face, her immaculate hair. She cried out, ‘What will everyone think?’ Her social status was her main concern. ‘I’m finally happy,’ I told her. ‘Hmmph,’ she replied.
I kept my location a secret. I didn’t need her negativity encompassing something so miraculous. I hung up softly, leaving my mother’s woes and worries in the cradle of the phone. I felt remorseful that she’d be so frantic but I knew she wouldn’t understand. She had a peculiar hold over me; mostly I feared her but deep down I wanted her reassurance, her acceptance. My father died a decade ago, I believed in part to escape her and I’d felt adrift ever since. My dad, Charlie, and I were of the same mould. Both introverted, calm. I wondered how different my life would’ve been were he still in it.
I awoke early because Juvie, with her black onyx eyes that stare into my soul, insisted I exercise every morning to help prepare for the birth. She came at dawn to walk with me before leaving for the fish stall. She chattered non-stop, her voice high pitched, chipmunk-like. She told me about the boy she was going marry. She was only eighteen and I wondered aloud about our different upbringings. Her wedding was arranged and she was excited to try immediately for a baby. ‘What about travelling? Don’t you want to see some of the world?’ I asked, aware of the irony. ‘No, no money for that,’ she said shrugging. ‘I have everything I need right here.’
I was making up a guest room when my water broke. I tried not to think of home as I sought out Maria. After taking some deep breaths to calm myself I waddled toward the kitchen where she was making bread for breakfast and said, ‘It’s time, Maria. Can you fetch the midwife?’ She nodded her head, rubbed my belly. ‘For luck,’ she said and left. The
midwife arrived as my contractions became much more painful. Juvie entered the room breathless, shadowed by a gaggle of local women who would be my birthing party. Most of the women had six or so pregnancies under their belts, so I felt I was in expert hands. Hans knocked quietly and peered around the door. ‘Is the baby kicking?’ he asked, his face etched white with worry. ‘Yes. He’s been kicking all day. We’re ok Han’s.’
The baby made his entrance in this world after a gruelling sixteen-hour labour. He was wrinkled, pink and looked at me as if he wondered what all the fuss was about. ‘Look at all his hair! Mangoes make hairy babies, see?’ cried a jubilant Juvie, pointing at his thick mop of ebony hair. It did seem like a lot of hair for a newborn. The women crowded around cleaning me up, passing him to one another, whispering in his ear. Hans rapped at the door; the women quickly covered me up and told him to enter. ‘Is he ok?’ he asked. My heart broke in that instant, knowing Hans had suffered a loss so great that it would always haunt him. Holding my precious newborn, I couldn’t imagine surviving in this world without him. ‘Here, Uncle Hans,’ I said proffering the baby, ‘this little bundle has been anxious to meet you.’ Hans moved toward us, his face melting with tenderness. He sat, holding the baby, who was swaddled in cheesecloth. ‘What are you going to call him?’ he asked.
‘Charlie,’ I said, ‘after my father.’
Eventually, I relented and allowed my mother to visit. Charlie was nearly one by then and I felt strong enough to handle her. I was unrecognisable as the person I’d been. Motherhood suited me. I finally felt whole. My mother, Elizabeth, arrived in a cloud of expensive perfume, her mercurial nature never far from the surface, ‘You’ve aged.’ Deflated, I looked up to the sky, the colour of tears.
I introduced her to Hans and Maria and finally to Charlie. Her face softened briefly, and then her shield of haughtiness returned. Juvie’s family had prepared a feast to celebrate
her arrival. It was very extravagant. They’d organised a whole suckling pig, which for them was equivalent to three month’s wages and was usually reserved for the annual fiesta. I insisted on paying them for it, my pleas politely ignored. We gathered at the crumbled limestone wall by the beach where we always met, shaded by majestic palm trees.
Everyone had prepared side dishes to impress my mother. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my Filipino family for trying so hard. Mother played her part well, complimenting everyone on their efforts, and asking about their lives on the island. When we returned to my room the real Elizabeth emerged. ‘How can you live like this?’ she gestured to my small room crowded with furniture and baby toys. ‘These people have nothing,’ she said in disgust.
‘That’s where you’re wrong. They have everything,’ I said.
The wet season arrived and the lack of tourists affected everyone. I marvelled at the tenacity of my friends. Meals became simple. When one of Juvie’s family was delivered a bundle of fruit or fish, it was quietly divided among everyone, including us itinerants living with Hans. I’d sold the shares my father had left me and was finally able to reciprocate. I had enough money, if I lived frugally, to make a life for Charlie and me in this paradise. I told Hans I wanted to buy a small shack and find a way to make a small income. His forehead wrinkled, leaving ripples like sand the tide has massaged before retreating. ‘This is your home, this is Charlie’s home!’ Charlie had become the child Hans never had, but always craved. He shared with me, one sorrowful night, his first and only child was stillborn. ‘Hans,’ I pleaded, ‘you could make money renting out my room.’ He wouldn’t hear of it. There was no way I was taking Charlie away. He’d suffered loss before and he wasn’t going to again.
I agreed to stay and help improve the look of the hotel. We would rejuvenate the building as cost effectively as we could. I would take the role of chief painter. Hans told me
he’d help me find a small house that I could rent out as holiday accommodation. Compromise handled, we were both secretly glad nothing would change. I loved living in the hub of the hotel. Maria and Hans were an important part of Charlie’s life, too, and I’d hate to change that. The hotel was quiet. I had begun to help Hans advertise via the internet, and designed and maintained a web page for him. It was easy to do and I was happy to see bookings already for the following summer.
I found Maria and Charlie deep in discussion about crayons and asked if they wanted to come and visit Juvie with me. I had a small container of pork adobo and a jar of Hans’s home made sauerkraut. She was in her first trimester of pregnancy and craved the vinegary taste of the pickled cabbage. Hans was overjoyed: someone loved his preserves as much as he did. We rounded the bend and began our trek up the hill towards Juvie’s stall. The dense humidity made my hair frizzy, but I liked the mixture of sweet sultry hot air mingled with almost imperceptible drops of rain. Juvie saw us approaching, and held her arms up, making a perfect Y. Yellow sunlight danced behind her. Her ethereal beauty made me catch my breath.
Charlie swaggered like a cowboy to her, walking still new to him. She swooped down, raining kisses over his face. Her long black hair was silver where the sun reflected off it. Her eyes, always dazzling, were now brighter with the secret she held inside her. We hugged and kissed like best friends do. I felt her energy, like ripples of electricity, vibrate through me. I had never known a person to be so singularly happy. She seemed like an old soul who appreciated each day as a gift from her Christian God. Maria patted Juvie’s belly exclaiming, ‘You’ve been eating bananas!’ Juvie’s eyes widened with shock. ‘Twins?’ she asked Maria. Lost in their conversation, I asked, ‘What?’ Maria looked over at me like I was a dense as the weather and said, ‘Don’t you know? Eating bananas makes the twins!’
Today, six summers later, Charlie with his thick mop of black curls talks fluent Filipino and attends the English school near the hotel. Maria and Hans dote on him and sneak him chocolate, which is a rare treat here. The hotel has been renovated and with the help of the internet is usually busy enough in summer for Hans to make it through the wet season. It’s now hotel policy that the sheets are washed with every new visitor. I’ve since purchased two small shacks that I rent to long term tourists. I earn enough to drink mango nectar all summer long. Juvie is still as effervescent as ever. She still works at her parent’s fish stall and has now incorporated fresh seafood. She has two beautiful boys, the twins, Joey and Jordan, and is expecting her third child any day now. I stride up the familiar hill to her stall and embrace her. As always, she is smiling, radiating the happiness that is Juvie. I say, “It’s a boy,” as I rub her belly through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. She has the glowing skin, you see.