*All names have been changed.
It had been ten days straight at sea in the Philippines. They were blurring into each other. My drawer was full of dirty clothes. It felt like I’d just done laundry. Things were filling up. Things were running out. The garbage bin in the shack. The toothpaste tube. The roll of toilet paper. Fresh food. At least we were heading back to port, if only for one night.
Back in port, we were to refill the methanol hold which didn’t involve the project crew and so everyone was going out. We were tired and had been trapped in a small space for too long.
It was dark already and the wharf was quiet. We spilled out onto the concrete and wove our way through all the new shiny trucks that were being driven off a cargo ship. All stationary beasts with plastic flapping off them. Jack whooped. Steve lit up a cigarette. ‘Fuck yeah’ hollered Angus. It was a coup: A jailbreak: Release Day.
From the swarm we gathered at the gate. Several large guards manned the entrance. They had dark tight uniforms and held a machine gun in one hand and a torch in the other. One of them ambled over to the barrier. It was one of those metal poles with a lump of concrete as a counterweight. He untied the rope holding it down and allowed the pole to swing up just enough for us to pass through in single file. Jack and Steve took the lead and they walked ahead down a dirt road to a corner bar, in sight of the gate.
This was it? Just a stumble from the wharf? I was ready to run through the streets but we were there already. The bar they always went to. Steve and Jack had a table on the street and cold beers were already appearing.
‘Only cold beer on the street. Best fucking bar in town. You can get whatever you want here.’
The plywood table had years of carved names and memories of far flung sailors on its surface.
An older Filipino lady smiled a teeth-missing smile and placed two saucers of peanuts with salt and chilli on the table. We all sat on plastic moulded chairs. The beer tasted good.
‘Dolly’s a bit of a mum for us.’
‘Yeh a Mama Sue.’
Jack put out quickly.
Angus laughed out loud, nearly choking on a peanut.
With the sitting still came a remembered motion from the preceding days. Like a slow inhalation and exhalation. It was inescapable. I went to pee and had to lean against the wall so not to fall over. It was always like this on land after rough weather. The toilet was a squat toilet made of baby pink cracked ceramic. There was no door.
When I sat back down Steve was leaning over the table eating peanuts a few at a time and excitedly relaying the last time they’d been there. They’d been drinking on the street when…
‘Bang! Bang! Bang! Fucking gunshots were going off. So we’re all just like ‘shhiiiit’ and throw ourselves back into the bar. Dolly’s freaking out and trying to lock up the grate and we’re on the floor. And bang bang bang! The gun’s going off somewhere. And the whole fucking street just empties. Kids, buses all go fucking somewhere else and it all goes quiet and then this one fucking dog…’
He nods his head over to a three-legged dog asleep against the curb.
‘Just walks into the middle of the street. His tongue’s hanging out and he’s just standing there.’
Steve had his tongue stuck out of his mouth and waved his head sideways so his tongue lolled around. There were peanut skins stuck to his tongue and saliva flicked across his cheek.
‘When bam! And the dog’s on the ground, fucking bleeding everywhere.’
Steve whimpered and whined and shook himself about. Jack was giggling like a kid and bending back on the plastic chair.
‘Then Mike starts crawling toward the grill. Dolly can’t shut it and we all think he’s being a fucking prick and we have no idea what he wants….so he gets to the grill and crawls out onto the street. And the dog is wailing and he’s crawling. And we’re thinking ..Fuck-he’s going for the dog. But no, he keeps going, picks up his beer he left on the street and crawls back! What a fucking legend. Wanted his fucking beer!’
They were laughing and slamming beers. It felt formulaic and I received the odd glance my way. He wanted to impress me with how casual they could be with danger. Steve threw a handful of peanuts at Angus who tried to catch them in his mouth. Two tall white guys then walked in wearing faded and convincing wife-beaters. They were tough-looking; leathery skin, thick rough tattoos. They were already holding beers and cigarettes. Steve was slapping Jack on the back when the tallest guy, with a heavy grey moustache said his name.
The British accent was apparent through a tar-laced voice.
A seriousness came over Steve as he got up and they clasped hands with a half hug. The other guy just stood in the background. He was a little shorter or maybe just a little stooped. They were probably about fifty and had faces that were weighed by their age. They pulled up a chair each and Steve and Jack cleared their throats, looking serious. Angus kept sucking on his straw. He leant over to John’s ear:
‘That’s Steve’s uncle. He’s a fucking millionaire. Buys arms and shit.’
He was sensitive enough to say it discreetly.
They sat and nodded but didn’t introduce themselves.
It turned out they were there to pick up two ten-tonne cranes someone was selling. They both lived somewhere else in the Philippines but it was hard to connect through their thick-set laconicism. It was also implicit that the same was expected of us in the way that questions weren’t. The stooped guy barely said anything at all. But the transformation in Steve was strong. They spoke seriously in mumbled voices.
They reminded me of guys in shitty bars in Africa. They felt like a breed of expatriates that vultured on lawless places.
But what did I really know about these guys? Nothing.
They stayed about an hour and drank and smoked and then made their way. Steve got up to see them off.
I watched them walk away, as the street was drawn across them. There was a lot going on in the early evening. People. Dogs. Tricycles. Top-heavy buses teetering through the potholes on the corner. Curtains swaying across the windows. Windows with a seedy looking film of condensation from the air con inside. A small boy smeared his hand across the window and squashed his face against the glass.
I was still feeling antsy when we were suddenly getting into a car. I didn’t know whose it was or who the driver was.
Jack jumped straight into the front seat. Steve went in the seat behind but leaning forward, his arms resting on the shoulders of the front seats.
We were going to Ichi Ban. Jack called it a comfort bar. You couldn’t take the girls home from comfort bars.
The entrance was like moving from back stage to the lights of a theatre. As we went in one by one a girl in blue satin paired up with us. As they sat down, the girls sat by our sides. I also had a girl at my side. She looked confused though and Jack was quick to pull her in close to him so that he then had two. He called over a waitress. Also blue-satined. Jack knew how this worked. He liked his life here and he was comfortable in the authority of his wealth. Lady drinks all round and beers for everyone else. The atmosphere was mellow. A few small groups of men sat at circular tables talking quietly.
Jack was holding court, more stories, and one girl sat there gently rubbing her hand into the inside of his thigh, the other positioning herself under his arm. With two, it felt like they had to compete. The other guys were talking to each other but had their hands on their girls. Just a hand on a leg, or an arse cheek. Compliant hand-rests. It felt soothing to be around. The guys had calmed somewhat, cushioned in blue satin.
A Chinese man had gotten up to a small stage that had curtains drawn apart against the wall, framing nothing but wall and a microphone in the middle. He stood at the microphone and sang a heartfelt ballad in Mandarin. His girl stood at his side, swaying with the music and watching him sing. He held her hand.
‘It’s so fucked how they make them do that.’
‘How those Asian wankers make the girl stand on the fucking stage when they sing.’
Angus had his arm around his girl who was leaning awkwardly into him.
The girl’s hand was now cupping Jack’s genitals.
I went to the bathroom again. This time, there was a women’s bathroom. Inside of course, were only more women in satin. I was backstage. They spoke to me excitedly and asked questions and their faces opened to real expression. They wanted to know all about me as they adjusted safety pins holding their dresses and shared eyeshadow. They made the dresses themselves, after buying the material from the boss. Their shapes were all different out of the bar, they were now different heights and told me real names. The curiosity was mutual. What exactly were we all doing here?
Then all the girls heard something I didn’t and left the bathroom. I walked out in the group and watched others extricate themselves from the men to move to the stage where they lined up in formation. This loss got the men’s attention and they all turned to watch. A beat started and a lively man jumped onto the stage. All the girls raised their hands to clap.
He sang a song. It must have been Japanese because the chorus rang out with all the girls singing along:
‘Ichi Ban. Ichi Ban. Ichi Ban.’
‘That’s the owner, fucking loves himself.’
The man was clearly living some kind of performance fantasy. The few customers stared blankly, but the chorus of forty girls or so, were lined up together swaying in motion with his rhythm. He was jumping around the stage in exaggerated dramatics. Singing to a stadium in his head.
At the end the girls all jumped off the stage in a practised cheer. Suddenly Madonna was blaring loudly and Steve took up the mantle and jumped up amongst the girls jumping around, dancing with them all. Jack was up too clutching two beers. Jerking his hips around and spinning on his heels. Angus danced awkwardly, avoiding me altogether. Something about my presence felt like an intrusion.
‘Like a viiiiiirgin, when your heart sings…’
Steve had his arms round two girls, teaching them the can-can. Things were getting fun. The music was fun. Everyone was singing and dancing. The guys were happy. Jack was chasing girls from behind and grabbing their arses for a mini conga line. Angus was twirling his girl round and round. They were giggling and screaming. Lady’s drinks were spilling on satin and there were smiles everywhere. I let go enough to enjoy it. Someone brought a tray of shots and we all downed them together.
Somehow we were all on those converted motorbikes, everyone called tricycles. Lights were screaming past and the engines were whining. We were two to each bike. I was with Angus who was passing out inside the sidecar cab with his head against the plastic upholstery. He was splayed across the seat and there was no room for me to sit. His hand, still awake, were clumsily reaching for me and so I found myself hanging onto the roof of the sidecar seat and kind of squatting on the floor. It felt more in control than anything around me. The road was blurring below me, just centimetres from my feet. We stopped at a junction and Steve and Jack’s trike pulled up. Steve was straddling the bike and holding onto the driver. Jack was sitting and smiling in the sidecar. Steve leaned over to the driver of my trike shouting into his face and putting money in his hand. He then slapped the roof of the trike with a drunken heaviness. It felt ominous. Steve’s bike accelerated with Steve screaming maniacally, sticking his legs out and slapping his hand on the driver’s arse like he was on a horse. With a lurch, we weren’t far behind. We were racing. Steve had paid them to race.
Along with the impending nearness of death there was a lick of elation. A disturbing sense of fatalism meant I did nothing but hold on. I could ride it out bending my legs. Angus was sliding around inside, the frame was giving slightly and felt immensely precarious. Then, I was standing straight and the night was filling my hair and Steve’s trike was swerving around us, him, cackling. The trike driver had a cigarette in his mouth, that smelt familiar. He was smoking weed. The man’s eyes were a proud red and he was clearly stoned out of his mind.
I could feel my heart and a sense of wildness until a sudden lurch and then a frictionless quiet; I gripped my hands tighter. We landed with a sharp crunch and a roar from the engine. The driver didn’t seem phased but we had to slow somewhat, mostly because the sidecar had started scraping on the ground with each hump. I crouched back inside trying to breath.
We got back to the bar on the corner by the port where we’d started the evening and the trike drivers just took off. My legs now even more unsure of the ground.
Angus crumpled and lay on the dirt. I left him there. I was still feeling wild. The bar abruptly sedate with some of the ships’ crew there. They were sitting, drinking and smoking.
I sat down behind the table. Jack and Steve were talking animatedly to Dolly, the Mama Sue who then disappeared down an alley. Slowly, like an emerging army, girls and women started to appear. Steve sat, a girl on each knee, his face between breasts, wasted paws waving large peso notes around. Jack had one, straddling him. One crewman stood up and left a half drunk beer. I had to pee again. I went round the back, anticipating the stench. Steve’s uncle was there, leaning against a wall, eyes closed, a dark head with long hair covering his groin. His eyes snatched open.
‘Fuck off. Bitch’
I went out, stopped caring about peeing. I felt too sober for this and I wasn’t sure where to walk. I looked over at the bar. There was the captain, leaning back, shouting in accented English.
‘Line them up.’
‘Show them to me.’
‘No Dolly, no. Lower, lower’
He had his palms held out flat and was lowering them repeatedly. He meant younger. He was laughing and spreading his legs.
More girls showed up. They were younger. Much younger. Dolly pushed one girl forward. She was a girl, with pimples for breasts and big eyes with a schoolgirl eagerness that said Pick me! Pick me!
I vomited into the drain and walked back to the ship.
Image: Olivia Wilson