Where Are The Yellow Shirts When You Need Them?
Weary from her flight, Louise Brooks gazed out the taxi window. Flimsy shacks constructed from packing crates, plastic sheets and corrugated iron lined each side of the road. Horns tooted, brakes squealed on the congested highway, and drivers swerved sharply to avoid colliding with another vehicle. Overladen small trucks, nifty motorbikes and scooters, crowded, beaten-up Jeepneys constantly stopping.
Her son’s words of warning seeped through the cacophony of the bustling street. ‘I fear for your safety, Mum. The Philippines is a poverty-stricken country with a high crime rate. It’s not safe for foreigners, especially middle-aged white women.’ Louise had agreed with her son but didn’t tell him so. Instead, she replied with her typical bravado.
‘I’ll be fine. I know how to take care of myself. I always have.’
Now alone in this taxi, a nauseous feeling rose in her throat. What had she got herself into? Alone in this place, far from anywhere or anyone she knew. Why she persisted in portraying herself as being this tough nut, unafraid of anything or anybody, Louise could not fathom. In reality, she was fearful most of the time. Why hadn’t she listened to her son, listened to her own inner voice?
Sinking lower into the seat, Louise rubbed the pounamu fish hook she wore around her neck, her fiftieth birthday present from her children. ‘It means prosperity, good health and safe travels,’ her daughter had told her.
‘This is your hotel,’ the driver announced, pulling into the car park of a grey-block building, ‘Cebu Central Hotel.’
In the early evening, deciding to find somewhere to eat, Louise sought directions from the hotel receptionist, who suggested a nearby open mall. A drizzling warm rain fell, and Louise’s thin wrap-around skirt, quickly becoming damp, clung to her thighs.
Unsavoury odours assaulted her nostrils. Scrawny, sniffing dogs brushed against her legs. Beneath a bridge, bodies wrapped in thin blankets crouched around small fires. Louise shuddered as the fear she’d felt in the taxi returned.
Someone tapped her shoulder. Spinning around, she was faced with three bedraggled children. One imitated eating while another reached towards Louise’s orange tote bag slung over her shoulder. ‘Please, ma’am, we’re hungry,’ their eyes pleaded. Louise hurried on, a sob rising in her chest.
On reaching the mall, she chose to eat pizza. Inside the brightly lit Yellow Cab Pizzeria, away from the bustle of the street, Louise began to relax. Pizza boys in yellow shirts and black caps with a cloth insignia cheerfully greeted and served the customers. Louise sat by the window, slung her bag over the back of her chair, and waited for her order.
A heavy-set man and younger woman entered and sat behind Louise, only to hurriedly leave moments later, closely followed by a yellow-shirted pizza boy. The boy jumped on his motorbike and sped off. Louise observed that, oddly, the boy had no pizza boxes. Her order came, and she began to eat.
Soon the bike returned, screeching to a stop. The boy rushed into the restaurant, had a garbled conversation with his co-workers and then came to Louise’s table.
‘Ma’am,’ he said. ‘Where is your bag?’ She swivelled around in her chair. Shocked to find no bag, she desperately looked under the chair. Her bag was gone. A look of horror clouded her face.
‘Is your bag an orange cloth bag?’
‘Come with me.’ The boy led her outside into the mall.
Under the dim light, three security guards pointed antiquated rifles at the pair from the restaurant.
‘I got them,’ the pizza boy gushed. ‘I got the crooks. I ran them down on my motorbike. They target older western ladies, like you, in our restaurant. We watch for them, and this time, I caught them.’
The young, scantily dressed woman looked to the ground. ‘It wasn’t me. I didn’t take your bag. Please take pity, Ma’am.’
The man, an angry expression on his heavy-set face, remained silent. Defiant. A crowd formed a circle around the crooks and the security guards. Louise reclaimed her bag from the pavement and frantically checked the contents – phone, wallet and passport intact. A police car entered the mall and parked haphazardly. An excited exchange between the pizza boy, the security guards and the two policemen ensued.
‘We’ll need a statement,’ the burly policeman barked. He opened the back door of the police car and beckoned Louise to get in. Then the two crooks were bundled into the car on either side of her. Squished between the suspects, Louise tried to quell a feeling of unease. Where was she being taken, and could she trust the police? How would she get back to her hotel in this unknown, jumbled city?
With the siren blaring, the car wove recklessly through the heavy traffic as the ructions of the city flashed by.
The man, scowling, pressed menacingly against her bare arm and muttered words she did not recognise – Cebuano, perhaps, the local dialect. Clinging to Louise’s other arm, the woman bleated her litany of innocence, ‘Please ma’am, seven children to feed, seven children who need me. Please, take pity.’
The police station, a small, wooden building, contained two desks, a few chairs and one ancient typewriter. Two other officers playing a game of cards greeted their colleagues before returning to their game.
One policeman led the man and the woman away.
‘What will happen to them?’ Louise asked.
‘Locked in the cells for the weekend, then processed on Monday.’
‘Oh, goodness. What about the woman’s children?’
The policeman shrugged and wound a piece of paper into the typewriter. ‘Name?’
‘Date of birth, country of residence, your reason for being in the Philippines?’ The policeman rattled out his questions, and one finger tapped the keys on the typewriter.
‘We’ll need an address for the court notice.’ Louise gave her new school’s address.
‘Wait here,’ he said to Louise, pulling the sheet of paper from the typewriter.
‘Photocopies,’ and he dashed into the night.
One of the card players chuckled at Louise’s puzzled look.
‘Photocopy shop down the street. We don’t have our own machine,’ the officer explained.
Upon the policeman’s return, Louise signed her statement in triplicate.
‘You’ll be contacted when the case comes to court.’
Driven back to her hotel, Louise’s first night in Cebu was finally over.
Two months later, in a stuffy city courtroom, Louise Brooks sits waiting for her case to be called with her visiting son. Victims and accused are seated side-by-side on hard wooden benches. They wait for two hours before the judge arrives. When Louise’s case is called, the prosecutor establishes that the defendants have absconded. The judge stands and addresses Louise. He apologises sincerely for the crime committed against her.
‘Although you have suffered this unfortunate incident, I can assure you that our city is friendly and law-abiding. For the remainder of your time here, you will be safe.’
Louise Brooks will live in Cebu for the next three years and become the victim of two more bag snatches. Unlike the first bag snatch, she will lose all her belongings. Phone, wallet and passport. Where are the yellow shirts when you need them?