If I was expecting more charity than the minibus fare, I was out of luck. Berko’s goodwill towards all men and their immoral pleasures dried up the minute I told him the censored version of what happened.
Very Christian of him.
His private office in Parapat was at one end of a ramshackle building, close to and overlooking the icy-blue waters of Lake Toba — an impressive view, which didn’t help me one bit.
‘I need to borrow some money,’ I said. ‘Only for a few days.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I cannot do that.’
His wooden desk, piled high with paperwork, was between us. His elevated armchair on casters gave him an advantage in that he was looking down at me sitting in a slatted wooden chair — an uncomfortable one at that. And the bulbous-eyed man, himself, wore an outsize shirt, wet under the armpits, with the length tucked loosely into a pair of stained shorts.
I tried again. ‘What can you do?’
He was more interested in shuffling his paperwork than accommodating me. After a long pause he sighed. ‘I can point you to a branch of the Indonesian State Bank, which has a Western Union office inside.’
I’d already thought of that on my nightmare four-hour trip from Medan — the minibus driver would have made a splendid kamikaze pilot — but transferring money by Western Union would take a couple of days. That’s if I could arrange it.
I gritted my teeth. ‘That’s really not good enough, and without a phone it’s not that simple. I need to make calls to a friend in the UK, and I need somewhere to stay in the meantime.’
Berko face was downcast; no flashing teeth that day and his podgy fingers were tapping the desktop as if wading through his options. Then he bent down and pulled open a drawer.
‘I can spare this,’ he said, offering me a tarnished Nokia mobile that had seen better days. ‘I’ll get the boy to put some credit on it.’
But then he folded his arms across his ample chest — a clear sign that was the extent of his benevolence. ‘If you need a place to stay, see the pastor at St. Michael’s. The boy will take you.’
St. Michael’s? I wonder…
At that he stood up, and, after calling the boy and explaining, he ushered me out with a curt nod. My reception was rescinded.
I was persona non grata...
...But not on the entrance steps to St. Michael’s. Father Angelo from the Philippines — and the smallest priest I’d ever seen with rosy-apple cheeks and overflowing robes — filled the air with cherubic goodwill.
‘Any friend of Berko is my friend,’ he said, in a tenor buffo voice — I could imagine him warbling to Arthur Sullivan’s, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ with his assembled flock.
I didn’t disillusion him. ‘Berko has been quite helpful,’ I said, ‘but he thought I could use spiritual guidance, plus a place to stay for a few days.’
He chuckled at my obvious charade, and whatever I might have thought about Father Angelo, he was one sharp cookie. ‘Tell me what happened,’ he said, eyeing my tailored clothes and Swiss Army trolley-bag.
I told him — warts and all, albeit with a little embellishment to show that I was an innocent victim. It didn’t take long to explain what I needed, and when I finished, he seemed to be choosing the appropriate parable.
‘One’s good luck is another’s misfortune,’ he said. ‘If I was of Buddhist faith it would be karma.’
‘Quite,’ I said.
‘But I can’t help you,’ he said.
A shrieking seagull dived overhead and dumped a wet splat on my head.
Bollocks to karma.
I’d been led up the garden path, and then kicked in the balls. I opened my mouth to remonstrate, but he held up a hand.
‘Let me finish. I don’t have room in my small abode; my flock of four boisterous orphans would not be conducive to your peace of mind.’ He gave me a sideways glance as though issuing a challenge to my integrity. ‘But my housekeeper is a widow, and a good cook. She has a spare bedroom.’
An offer I couldn’t refuse, since I was tired and hungry. He led me to her home, which was nearby, introduced us (I was Mr. Charles from England), and waved adieu.
‘I have evening Mass,’ he said.
Emily, also from Manila and not at all shy, was overjoyed to receive company — especially a virile male in his prime — and before long I was tucking into a pungent chicken curry that brought tears to my eyes.
She thoughtfully placed a box of tissues on the table. I extracted one and swabbed my face. I regarded her simple attire — her once attractive features now weathered by age and gravity. ‘Father Angelo told me you…’
She realised what I going to say. ‘I lost my husband in the tsunami. He was a fisherman.’
I stopped eating. Her openness brought back memories I’d locked inside, and then she fired another arrow.
‘You have a wife, Mr. Charles?’
A sudden anguish; a sharp pain in my chest. My mind went back to that earth-shattering day...
...‘Charles, darling, I’m going to the harbour market with Angelique. It’s such a lovely day to be cooped up here in the House. Do you want to come with us?’
‘It’s my turn to stuff the turkey, Celia. Delcie’s orders.’
‘And I have a shopping list as long as my arm — lobster, squid, crab, and so on. I’m sure I’ve put on pounds since I arrived.’
‘Nonsense. Err... you’re not pregnant, are you?’
‘That’s what Delcie said. You’re both so horrible.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘I’m not talking to you anymore.’
‘I’m not talking to you anymore...’
...A polite cough. A gentle touch on my arm. ‘Are you well, Mr. Charles?’
The flashback vanished into the ether, like Celia had. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, yawning. ‘Just tired. It’s been a long day.’
With that Emily fussed around, and, before long, I washed and more or less settled into the box-size spare bedroom with a picture of Jesus carrying a cross above the headrest.
It brought back another unsettling image.