Photo: Ermita, the "sin city" of Manila
I just discovered this story of mine during an office clearout. I decided to type it up again: it ain't hopeful but it is 'real'. And most of all, it is true.
I first met Fred in a brothel*. He had a woman on either side of him, laughing and chatting away in Tagalog, the Manilan language. They eyed each other nervously whenever his coarse and frequent laughter disturbed the other patrons and caused them to turn and stare. None of us knew his background but his clown-like face, all furrows and bulbous nose, looked lonely, weary and afraid, even then. He looked like someone’s grandpa gone astray, turning up white-haired and inappropriate in one of the sin capitals of the world.
I got to know Fred pretty well during my three months in The Philippines. We’d meet up in some provincial centre, all the travellers gathered in the same bar or hotel that the guidebook promised would be deserted, and talk about England. His England. I’ve been to pre-war Fulham whilst gambling in the boiler room of a steamship and worked with the lads down at Peckham sorting office, sitting on a tiny tropical island. I probably travelled more with his words than my own feet.
Looking at the spreading web of his tattoos depressed me. It spoke of lost opportunities. His hands and body didn’t move much, just kind of collapsed inwards to eventually protrude in a fragile beer gut. But his eyes were alive with vitriol and longing to live. He knew he didn’t have that long, that was apparent in his bitter and sarcastic talk about friends and family deserting him over the years. I think that Fred must be one of the loneliest people I’ve ever met. He was 79 when I last saw him.
I often asked him why’d he’d put to the road so late in life. In his sober moments, which were few, he told me.
As the youngest of four children, he’d been reared by his mother and sisters in a Fulham (west London) terrace. Their father deserted them before Fred reached his teens. His stepfather beat him. He left school at 14 to do a variety of jobs, never settling and never sticking at anything for a length of time. He blamed it on The Depression.
The War changed his life. Or so he said. He’d never travelled further than Bognor Regis (an English seaside town) and now “some bastard in Whitehall” had sent him to join the 14th Army in India and Burma. The Forgotten Army. They were abandoned with their half-competent officers, more concerned with observing the rigours of protocol than the health and well-being of their men.
He’d been sent to guard temples where teenage girls, sold by their parents, were lowered kicking and screaming onto a hallowed spike, symbolically removing their virginity and consecrating them to a secretive caste of prostitutes. He vividly described the sight of their bright garlands spattered with blood, silken robes parting over twisted, brown flesh. After this he considered all Indians, and most Asians, to be “animals”. The irony of our Philippines surroundings seemed lost on him.
He deserted after a couple of years. The situation was forced on him, he said, by 2,000 Japanese soldiers “running down me bloody throat”. He’d been based in the Burmese jungle when a naked white woman ran into his camp and began babbling, in a Glaswegian accent, that the Japanese were advancing only a couple of miles away (she, by the way, had been an anthropology student who’d installed herself as the leader of the tribe she’d come to study).
“Them fucking officers” ordered her to be arrested because she’d entered their mess, off-limits to anyone below the rank of Second Lieutenant or, for that matter, a civilian. Fred and his mates fled when several hundred tribesmen surrounded their superiors and held them until the Japanese arrived.
He’d been fleeing from himself ever since. As a postman back in Peckham, he’d spent the next 30 years in four unhappy marriages. Fred’s charm did not lie with women (he was robbed twice by prostitutes and charged at least double for their services during the times I met him in The Philippines) and he’d managed to alienate his only daughter.
Postwar England had obviously not brought happiness or fulfillment. He was pensioned off to live in a high-rise flat somewhere in his native Fulham, griping about Maggie Thatcher and femalekind in general to a cold and silent audience. After five years he set off to travel the world, scraping together the savings he had left and vowing, he told me, never to return. He’d been more places in those few years than I’d been in my entire life.
I sat and watched this incongruous figure, spindly legs jutting from beneath fake Fred Perry shorts, and failed to imagine him as a young man. That pained me because I felt I was doing an injustice to his memories. His lips quivered and he frothed everso slightly at the mouth, a broken old man reliving an alien youth. He talked too much. My companions – a motley assortment of minor drug dealers, Norwegian runaways and a hotelier-in-training – laughed and took the piss. Fred would halt his tale and join in with them.
He hadn’t escaped the sorrow of his life by travelling. He was still unsettled. This was the impression you had talking to him, an old man reeling drunk on San Miguel beer and bitter memories. At those times he would begin swearing at everyone around him, the Filippinos, prostitutes and us. He didn’t seem to care, perhaps because he’d lost all he had already. It embarrassed me to see him like this.
I doubt that Fred is still alive. I hope that he isn’t because his weariness and despair I found painful to witness. I shall strive to make my life a success in memory of that man and hope that wherever he is now, he rests in peace.
* Ed note: Most of the bars for the backpackers were also brothels.