It’s Christmas eve in ghetto Manila.
I sit at a table surrounded by a bunch of shady characters I don’t know from a bar of soap. I had met the host and his brother at a bar for the first time earlier that night, and after sharing some jokes and a couple of rounds and they had asked me back to their place to continue the festivities. The host was a big burly man covered in tats, and his brother was skinny fellow with a shifty glint in his eye who rarely talked other than to bignote himself as a “biker”. The host introduces me to everyone as “extended family” with a smile, but seems to darken in earnest whenever he converses with the others in their native Tagalog. Everything about the situation makes me uneasy, but I do my best to stay composed and easy while contemplating my chances of escape past the gang to the door at the far side of the room.
“Knock knock knock”. The door swings open to reveal two old beggars who peer expectantly into the room, and brandish a smile with less teeth than a premie. One has what looks to be a half smashed ukulele with some strings missing, and the other holds a frying pan with a stick in his blackened hands. Both beggars begin to sing, strum and clang the tune to “Merry Christmas” unceremoniously and without any trace of synchrony.
The host rises from his seat at the table with a look of frustrated resignation on his face and crosses the slum floor toward the door. He hands the old men 5 pesos and ushers them down the street toward their next mark. They depart, bowing, scraping, and hail marrying on their way.
On my left is a bedroom, and in the bedroom doorway stands a baby no more than 2 years old who has just witnessed the transaction with the beggars, and now demands with outstretches arms; “pera! (= money in Tagalog)”. Peering inside I can see is a lone futon on the floor, covered with five or six sleeping children sprawled this way and that on top of it.
I smirk when it occurs to me that it might be the baby’s first word, but a more disturbing thought connecting the baby’s fate with that of the old men brings me out of my mind and back into real time.
The man to my right id ritualistically emptying tailor made cigarettes and packing them full of weed. One of them is grumbling about “shabu”. It seems he isn’t happy about the prospect of only smoking weed tonight. It’s Christmas, after all.
“How the hell did I end up here?” I ask myself, already knowing full well the reason. This is what happens when you deviate from the cobbled path in many parts of the world, even a little.
The baby is screaming even louder now, with the same kind of contorted desperation you’d expect from an innocent facing execution. The noise, and to a greater degree the reason for the noise, is grating on my nerves, but everyone else just seems to ignore it. I try to say something funny to the kid, “You’ve got plenty of time to worry about money, kid. Just enjoy your life!”. Yeah right, like the kid really gives a shit about your lame attempt at humour … he’s got money on his mind, and his mind on his money!
The skinny brother, who had given me a lift on his bike earlier, looks up from the table and asks me with a blank expression to give him 50 pesos for 1L of fuel to cover the ride. “Classy guy”, I think to myself. I’ve been buying the prick food and beers all night, and now he wants to shake me down for the rent. Looking into his eyes I search for the glimmer of a soul. Nothing, he is cold as ice.
I make a conscious decision not to make a big deal out of it (I’m not really a fan of the blades that guys like him carry), but as is the case sometimes the desire for a laugh gets the better of me. I do something stupid. I reach into my pocket and throw 5 pesos on the table in front of the man. He just stares at me with the same blank expression, and I launch into my best rendition of the old beggars song complete with vocals and air guitar. The song a hit nerve with the other guys at the table, and they erupt with the laughter of a pack of stoners. I’m not sure if they understood the significance of my gesture, or if they were just laughing at my ridiculous performance, but either way it was better than silence.
The biker’s face turns dark and sullen, and the first emotion that I’d noticed on him flickers into view; rage. He’s not handling the ridicule very well. His mates are biting even harder now, and they start throwing objects at each other from across the table. Sensing the distraction, and an imminent end to the festivities on this holiest of holy nights, I take my queue and make a quick departure through the front door without uttering a word.
Once outside I disappear as quickly as possible into the labyrinthine slum, while simultaneously looking back over my shoulder and attempting to dodge puddles of pig shit. As I walk I realise that everyone in the room was laughing except for the baby and the biker.