S H O R T S T O R Y
SALAMAT SO LONG
b y c a n t a r a c h r i s t o p h e r ~ s a n f r a n c i s c o / p a r i s
NINE YEARS ago and there he was pointing to the telly and calling out, look, there she is, I told you she’d turn up. Out of an ocean of faces, thousands, hundreds of thousands, he sees her. And there he was packing his bag with a wave and a whistle and telling me, I’m off to get your mum, shan’t be long, don’t wait up.
So I put the whisky back in the cupboard and waited and why not? In an ocean of brown eyes, brown bodies he saw her. I have my father’s Irish belly and my mother’s Ilocano eyes but you’d never spot me in a crowd, this city’s too thick and I’m much too a part of it. This my bosses know, every bastard one of them, and sodding else. Clever girl, climbed out of the muck, the muddy mick muck, three strikes against her as these Yanks would say, but she’s got a head for figures, as does half my race.
The other half, well, there was Dad with his Guinness and Granny pinin’ for the fiords, no not the fiords, the hills so fresh and green Kathleen, and the low sound of Monty Python on a Tuesday night as Daddy tried to write, and me drumming pots and marching to Monty Python, turn off that bloody noise, and later on it was the low sound of Monty Python on a Tuesday night as Daddy shuffled the cards with some guy from California, turn off that bloody noise, those snobs from Oxford make me sick.
It was cards brought us all together don’t you know, a tidy unfixed game of poker in Manila with an untidy and very fixable guy who had a sister, or was it a cousin? She flashed those Ilocano eyes and all was lost, or plenty more than a single night. But what was left for a foreigner in his own land to do but make his way as a foreign correspondent? And him without education or name or credentials. All he ever got out of that adventure was a pregnant Catholic wife, thanks be to the Holy Mother my prayers are answered as Granny Kathleen would say, and frequently. A Catholic wife and a taste for poker.
Was there still hope back in blighty? I never knew. All I knew was the passing of time and the cold wind and the unceasing damp and Granny wrapping me up warm, warm in the deep blue cloak of Our Blessed Virgin Mother, praise her holy name. And never once did I dream of a sultry beach or the soft sexual swaying of palm trees. No, if hope had fled I saw it in my father’s eyes though I didn’t know it then, watching him watching her as she rose before light from his childhood bed to visit her ladies, tender ladies of Kensington and Holland Park, her hair bound up, her figure trim in jeans, eight stone and built for scrubbing. There it fled after the rising after the slamming of the door, after the rising of his manufactured brogue as he poured the whisky neat and cursed the damnable cliché of it all.
But Granny’s laundry hands had lived through it all before and everything short of murder was a blessing to her. And so through her I kept the honour of our crowded house, and passed my levels, and kept the wrinkles from my uniform, and stood beside the parish priest still as a soldier whilst he administered extreme unction, waiting for the wafer to pass her lips for her to ask me weakly yet again to sing, 'Tara, sing, but silly how silly it was, a little brown girl singing this song to a dying old woman:
But inherited I did my granny’s laundry hands, now even the breath of the dead is a blessing....across the ocean wild and wide
to where your heart has ever been
since first you were my bonny bride...
Daddy was lighter after those damp dark days, maybe a little more room for him to breathe gave him hope, he even whisked out his notebook to jot down a thought or two, for what is more enlightening to the Irish intellect than graceful death? Even the matter of Mother, still graceful in life, became conquerable, and like a hero compassionate in victory he graced her with his early charm.
How her tired face lit up, how she graced us in turn with poetry that was fading fast from her memory, lines incomplete and in another conqueror’s tongue, id a mi patria id, extranjeras flores... And I saw hope in her flashing Ilocano eyes for the first time, hope for him, and a smile that was Kathleen’s.
And then she was gone. In a flash. Went to her ladies one day and never came home. Oh the mortifying worst of it, having to walk up to the doors of those faceless ladies hat in hand, have you seen my wife, is she there, surely you remember her, she works for you, don’t you even know her name? Because no-one did. And oh the reports and oh the dreary police, the cocking eyebrows and my father crumbling, can’t you bring in Scotland Yard?
Scotland Yard, the sigh, oh sir...
What I was brought up to believe in, in the country of my birth, was in the forgettableness of her kind, in the disposableness of her kind. But that disposable? That forgettable? If she wasn’t there, how in the name of God did the washing get done? Where was she, if not there?
And if not where was she, who was she? And what right did someone of her kind have to confound us all at last?
I stopped asking questions flat when the California guy, my father’s poker pal, finally, mercifully whisked Dad and me across the ocean wild and wide. This stoppage of questions, I must advise, was immensely attractive to my bosses, in consequence the little homestead soon surpassed the damp dwelling of our early years. Roses in the yard, tomatoes in the garden, oh the abundance of this country! And you could smell the warm and beckoning Pacific from Daddy’s window, the window where he watched and waited till I got him the telly, then in front of that he watched and waited till the sign came at last like a shaft of holy light through the heart, Perla del Mar de Oriente, nuestro perdido Edén, no, our Eden found.
There she is, he said to me, there’s your mother. In a sea of revolution he found her.
Nine years ago and he was going to finish his unfinished story at last and who was I not to believe too? But still I must advise that such belief carries penalties beyond ordinary endurance, and I had trained for years to become ordinary. Even California Guy turned away, I broke through the net of my marriage and bounced from here to there and back again, lying on the wild and wide California shore, watching and waiting for the sign that came at last not as a shaft but a whisper, the initials at the end of a story in a foreign newspaper: CFC.
C. F. C. Colin. Francis. Christopher.
And I knew then that I was right to believe all along praise be to Our Holy Blessed Mother and I and my kind were right to sail in silver ships across uncharted seas and hope or kill hope if it pleased us or let it live again, and I and my kind are sailing even now in silver ships again above the tender murdering ladies of Kensington and Holland Park above the shores of California wild and wide I’ll take you home again Kathleen—
Salamat, salamat. So long.
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