An extract from a novel-in-progress, centred on two women’s search for independence and identity amidst the confines of privilege and duty, set in 1980s Philippines under the Marcos administration.
Isabel couldn’t eat any more fried rice. But she made herself raise the spoon to her mouth, smiling before taking another bite of lumpia. It crunched and crackled.
‘O, kain pa,’ Lola Rosa said, as she piled a mountain of rice on Isabel’s plate. Isabel was tempted to say no but she didn’t want Lola Rosa to think she was ungrateful for her hospitality. More importantly, she didn’t want to give Lola Rosa any reason not to help her find her grandmother.
‘Grandma, stop force-feeding her,’ Maya said.
Isabel took another spoonful of rice, and then another.
Lola Rosa poured water into Isabel’s glass; droplets clustered on it like tiny transparent pebbles. She took a sip. She wondered what Lola Rosa thought of her. There was some affection, but also quiet speculation in her eyes, as if she were holding Isabel up to something. And she worried she came out lacking.
Lola Rosa filled her own glass; it had crescent-shaped coral lipstick marks. Maya’s plate was strewn with grains of rice, tomatoes pushed to one side.
‘I’m going to the market for stock. Will the two of you look after the store?’ Lola Rosa said as she emptied the dirty plates, scraping leftover rice, lumpia, and greens into the dustbin.
‘How much are you paying us?’ Maya asked.
Isabel cut across Maya’s objections. ‘We’d be happy to.’
‘Excellent,’ Lola Rosa said. ‘My kumara Elvira is planning to come round. If she does, tell her I’ll be back in the afternoon.’
Maya turned to Isabel and whispered, ‘Why did you have to say that?’
‘It’s not as if we’re doing anything.’
‘You’re such a goody two shoes.’
Lola Rosa’s sari-sari store was called Everything Everything, a direct English translation of sari-sari. It comprised a large metal-barred window in front of Lola Rosa’s house, lined with colourful hard candies and wrapped bonbons, including Bazooka Bubble gum, Chupa Chup lollipops and Peter’s Butter Balls displayed in recycled glass jars. Isabel cracked open the lid of one of the containers, took out two White Rabbits, and flung one in Maya’s direction.
Maya caught it, unfurled her fingers, unwrapped the candy, and popped it into her mouth. ‘You’re meant to be selling, not eating the products,’ Maya said as she chewed the nougat, lolling back in the rocking chair.
‘Show me the customers and I’ll show you the money,’ Isabel said, not without irony, and shuffled into an aisle where she pretended to align cans of corned beef and Spam.
Isabel held the Spam up to Maya. ‘I don’t understand its appeal,’ she said.
‘Blame the Americans.’
Maya often said things like that. As always, so much in the country – from fast food to jeepneys to basketball and politics – could be traced back to the American occupation. Isabel had read about it in history books, but it was only now, as she got older, that she began to understand it.
Isabel organised the pouched instant noodles by flavour: beef, chicken, and seafood. After this, she restocked an empty shelf with sunflower cooking oil. Then she hauled a tray of 1.5-litre Pepsi-Colas from the back of the shop, stopping and starting, her back aching. She gingerly laid them down in front of the industrial-grade fridge, on the plastic racks next to the bottles of mineral water and San Miguel, as if they were babies being put to bed. Finally, there was nothing left to do, so Isabel ambled up to the till and rested her face against the metal bars covering the gaping hole in the wall that made up Lola Rosa’s corner shop. Shiny blue and green and pink sachets of Palmolive and Pantene shampoo-conditioners hung from the grills alongside mini packets of Chiz Curls, Pee Wee and Mr Chips.
‘Bili bili na po kayo, bili bili na po kayo,’ Isabel shouted, to no one in particular.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ Maya asked.
‘Enticing residents to come and visit.’
‘Even recruiters of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be scared of you.’
‘At least I’m actually doing some work,’ Isabel said.
Maya turned the pages of The Philippine Daily Inquirer, mouthing what she was reading like an incantation designed to chase away evil spirits. Maya glanced at Isabel then looked back to her paper. ‘I’m doing some work too actually,’ she said. ‘I’m staying on top of current affairs, so I can be your assistant when you start at Reuters.’
‘Well, that is useful,’ Isabel said. She wondered sometimes how her friend felt about the job she had, whether she was envious or not. She didn’t think she was. Didn’t want to acknowledge it was a possibility. ‘So, assistant,’ she said. ‘What’s the latest?’
Maya scanned the page, the wide newspaper held open in her hands. ‘Aquino’s declared her candidacy for president.’
‘Interesting,’ Isabel said, getting into the role play. ‘And what do you make of this news?’
‘It’ll teach Marcos. I mean, to be ousted by a housewife, that would be something.’
It would be something, Isabel agreed, but she couldn’t see it happening.
Their game was interrupted by the ding-a-ling of the brass bell. Isabel turned. A child of about five with a mushroom hairdo was leaning against the store’s metal grille.
‘Pabili po.’ He pointed at the Bazooka gum and asked for four pieces. Isabel reached into the jar and handed him the sweets. As soon as he gave her the 40 centavos, he ran away as fast as someone who understood that good things in life are fleeting.
‘How on earth does Lola Rosa make her 50 pesos daily quota? He’s the only customer we’ve had and what did he spend, 10 centavos on a few candies?’
Maya flipped through the newspaper and mumbled.
‘…And there’s no sense of order in the shop,’ Isabel continued. ‘Nothing’s categorised. There’s no list at the front of the shop of what’s available. Maya, are you listening?’
Maya put the newspaper down and gave Isabel a sympathetic look reserved for people who didn’t know any better. ‘Why bother? We’ve only been told to look after the shop, not act like management consultants.’
‘But isn’t this Lola Rosa’s main source of income?’ Isabel said.
Isabel understood Maya’s uninterest. After all, they’d talked about it enough. Maya wanted to leave all this – provincial life, insular rituals, backward thinking – behind. She wanted to be in Manila, not here.
‘Hello? Anybody home?’ Isabel asked Maya, who didn’t look like she wanted to be here, would have preferred to be in another country where convenience stores had air-conditioning. Where she was a customer, not a sales assistant.
Isabel took a notebook and scribbled down the inventory and what needed restocking. She wrote Lola Rosa some questions: when did she open the shop? What was her monthly income? What products sold well? She thought it would make for a good Special Reports piece for Reuters. The sari-sari store as a microcosm of Filipino life, crucial to the community, the backbone of the local economy. She could even use a portrait of Lola Rosa in front of the corner shop as the opener to the story. The headline: The Rise and Rise of the Sari-Sari store. Lola Rosa couldn’t possibly be opposed to that.
‘Is anyone there?’ a pregnant woman in matching polka dot shirt and shorts asked. Maya stayed sat in front of the small television, frozen, seemingly mesmerised.
‘Hello. How can I help?’ Isabel said from the back of the shop, making her way to the front with a newly donned apron that she hoped made her look professional.
The woman looked surprised, not expecting her.
‘You must be expecting Rosa,’ Isabel said. ‘She’s out for the day, but how can I help?’
‘Oh, I’d like six eggs and a loaf of bread and toothpaste and a bottle of Tanduay and five cigarettes and some garlic,’ she said, all in one breath, as if there would be consequences if she didn’t say things quickly enough.
‘How many bulbs of garlic?’
‘You like garlic then?’
‘It’s for the aswang.’
‘Oh really, what kind?’
‘The tik-tik. I hear its hunting calls at night, through the ceiling, and I just know it wants to suck out the baby from my belly. I have to protect my child.’
‘Are you sure it’s not just bats, or your husband snoring?’
She shook her head. ‘You have to be careful around here, there’s plenty of aswang and mananaggal. Especially people like you, who aren’t from Palawan. You have to be extra cautious.’
Nonsense. But Isabel kept this to herself. Besides, even she said ‘tabi-tabi po’ when crossing a mound as a sign of respect to gnomes, , and Lola Rosa scattered garlic and salt throughout the house as aswang-deterrent. She couldn’t judge the poor woman too harshly.
‘Would you like a bag with that?’ she asked. She felt sad too. That this woman who was her age believed that a mythical creature was patrolling the dark dim nights, waiting to pounce on her ripe belly and eat her unborn baby, like a wonton in a soup.
The woman nodded.
Isabel packed the goods in a brown paper bag. ‘That’ll be 50 pesos, please.’
‘Oh, just add that to my credit list, will you? I’m Lola Rosa’s suki.’
Isabel was going to ask Maya, but she had disappeared through the beads.
‘Lola Rosa didn’t leave behind any names of repeat customers. Let me check the log book. What’s your name?’ Isabel asked.
‘Virgie Ramos,’ she said, again in haste, as if her name were meant to remain a secret.
Isabel flicked through the pages, licking her fingers to unfurl paper stuck with dried flour. ‘Hmm, I can’t find anything on her list. You’ll have to pop around tonight.’
‘But I really need the garlic, and the bread, and everything else. It’s for our breakfast. We’ll starve.’
Isabel couldn’t understand how Tanduay rum was part of breakfast, but she recognised the wild desperation in the woman’s eyes. She hesitated, but gave Virgie the bag.
‘Enjoy your breakfast. I’ll tell Lola Rosa. As you know, she collects payments from sukis every month on payday.’
Virgie clutched the brown bag to her chest.
Isabel took out her notebook from her back-pocket. She was interested in this symbiotic suki relationship between regular customers and suppliers, which relied on the generosity of the system, allowing people to pay later and get on with their lives. A system based on trust. How did suki relationships develop? And how did Lola Rosa determine who was trustworthy? She scribbled these questions in her notepad.
Maya had returned, munching on a corn cob, yellow maize kernels falling to the floor with each bite.
‘Will you please get a plate, you slob? And can you get out of my way!’
‘You want some?’ Maya asked.
Isabel looked at the half-eaten cob that resembled a rotting mouth with missing front teeth. ‘No thanks. But hey, I sold a bunch of stuff for 50 pesos.’
‘Wow, you have a future as a tindera,’ Maya said. ‘How’d you manage that?’
‘A nice lady called Virgie dropped by. Pregnant.’ Isabel encircled her waist with her hand.
‘I understand what pregnant is. But Virgie? Did she say she was a repeat customer and that she’d pay later?’ Maya looked at Isabel as though she had gone mad.
‘Oh, Isabel. She’s in debt. Hasn’t paid Lola in months. Her husband’s out of work. I forgot to tell you not to sell her anything. She’s not going to pay us back.’
‘Shit,’ Isabel said. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She cupped her forehand with her hands, eyebrows furrowing. ‘What are we going to tell her?’
Isabel couldn’t understand how she’d managed to get it all wrong, like Murphy’s law at play.
‘Relax,’ Maya said. ‘Sure, it’s 50 pesos, but your allowance is more than that. You can just pay it off if you want.’
Maya was right, but she didn’t recognise – empathise perhaps? How could she possibly? – that Isabel wanted prove that she was capable, that she wasn’t completely useless, but even a simple sale had eluded her. And now she had to tell Lola Rosa she had failed.
As Isabel contemplated how to break the news to Lola Rosa, a grandmother in her eighties sat on the wooden bench in front of the store and cooled herself with a folding fan that made swooshing sounds as she waved it back and forth, back and forth. She complained about her arthritic knees and asked if it was okay that she perch on the bench for a short while to rest. Isabel was hoping she’d buy something, but was happy to have some company besides the histrionic sounds coming from whatever godawful telenovela Maya was watching. She was glued to the television, probably wishing she was there in the celluloid world rather than here in the real one.
Isabel arranged the green and orange sachets of Milo and Ovaltine, debating which was crunchier, and therefore better. Ovaltine, she decided, remembering summers stealing spoonfuls of the malt drink on its own without milk; the crunch, crunch, crunching of it in her mouth. Ate Josie said eating it like that would give her worms, but for the first time she didn’t listen, didn’t do what she was told.
‘I’m looking for Rosa,’ the grandmother said.
‘Oh, you must be Elvira. Hi, I’m Isabel. Lola Rosa hasn’t returned from her errands yet, but she did say you should pop by again later in the afternoon.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll just wait for her here.’
‘How do you and Lola Rosa know each other?’ Isabel asked.
‘Oh, I’ve lived here for 80 years, so I know most everyone. Rosa and I have been friends since we were five.’
Isabel’s ears perked up. ‘So you know everyone on the island?’
‘Most people, yes,’ Elvira said.
‘And how did you and Lola Rosa meet?’
‘Oh, I caught her stealing oranges from our garden. She gave them all back to me and we made them into a juice.’
Isabel laughed. She was silent for a moment before wringing her hands, examining a new mole on her thumb. ‘Would you happen to know an Alma Villar?’
Elvira’s face lit up like a child that’s just discovered that caterpillars morph into butterflies. She smiled. Her teeth were chocnut-brown. ‘Of course, I knew Manang Alma. We grew up together. We used to swim in the sea and play Guess the Killer and bahay-bahayan and make houses out of curtains and plywood.’
Isabel tried to keep calm, but her heart thumped in her chest as if she were running. She wanted to ask another question, but Elvira continued with her story. ‘But then my father lost all his money gambling. I still remind him to this day that he squandered all our fortunes, and he freezes whenever he sees a slot machine. So, we had to downgrade homes, imagine that, from mansion to mud hut. Alma and I were no longer neighbours. We kept in touch for a while. She’d visit. She brought hampers filled with yema and cakes and imported juice. You’d think I’d be happy, but I was embarrassed. I felt like a charity case, so I stopped seeing her. She was a good person,’ Elvira conceded. ‘It’s a shame she’s in hospital…’
‘How do you know?’ Isabel asked. ‘Isn’t she just away?’ Tiny beads of sweat formed above her lip. Isabel wiped them with her hand.
‘No, she’s in hospital.’
‘I don’t know. But I’d say one of the big ones, in Puerto Princesa or Coron Town.’
Elvira talked like she hadn’t chatted with another human being for months. It was unclear to Isabel whether Elvira was addressing her or having a dialogue with herself. She listed her grievances in life (that she never became an actress, that her family’s financial fate never recovered) and regrets (not having properly said goodbye to her dying mother). She even listed what she was looking forward to in death (clouds for beds and merienda buffets) as she was certain, without a doubt, that she was heading to heaven, not hell, and unlikely purgatory because she had already confessed all her sins to Padre Raul.
Who was Padre Raul? It didn’t matter because Isabel’s head was elsewhere too: she was already masterminding how she was going to get to her grandmother. Isabel’s fear mixed with excitement at the thought that she was this close to finding Alma.
When Manang Elvira finally left after an hour of chatting and no purchases, Isabel sat down and took stock of everything that had been said. There was no time for woe-is-me thinking. Isabel had to work things out strategically.
She marched over to Maya, who had fallen asleep while watching Kuya Germs’ That’s Entertainment, where boys in ill-fitting white shirts and ties danced to Wham!
Isabel tapped her shoulder.
‘We need to go to the hospital.’
Maya slowly rose from the rocking chair and her hair stood up with her, like it had been electrocuted, given its own life. She lost her bearings. Maya toppled into Isabel who stumbled against the metal grills, causing the Chippy and Cheese Curlz and Golden Green Peas to sway an aluminium dance of their own.