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Where Are the Yellow Shirts When You Need Them?

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?’

Louise nodded.

‘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?’

Louise answered.

‘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?

What the Neighbours Saw

What the Neighbours Saw

Up-chuck, chunder, vomit, throw-up, spew, call it by whatever name. Fiona moaned deeply as another splurge of vile fiery red liquid projected into the handbasin in her friend’s upstairs bathroom. Her body shook, and her eyes watered. Fiona clasped her head in her hands and stared into the soup-like swirling mass, a psychedelic carnival. Kernels of corn from yesterday’s fritters, slivers of orange carrot and chunks of red capsicum from tonight’s green salad, and pale and dark polyps from the bean salad floated and mingled. Fiona thought of minestrone soup and heaved again.

Fearful that the basin, now three-quarters full, would overflow, Fiona desperately stabbed at the plughole with the end of her toothbrush. She plucked out strands of puke and flicked them out the open window.

‘You okay up there?’ Her friend’s voice from downstairs.

‘Yep, all fine.’ Pluck, flick, moan, heave.

‘You need some help?’

‘No, all fine.’ Pluck, flick, moan, heave.

‘You don’t sound fine.’

Fiona admitting defeat against the tide of the angry red whirlpool now lapping the ring of the basin wailed, ‘You’re right. I’m not fine. I need help.’

‘This is so embarrassing,’ she whimpered to herself. ‘I’ll never be invited back.’

Before her demise, the evening had begun with a large tumbler of home-brew beer, a particularly nourishing, refreshing beer. While eating dinner, Fiona and her friends Ellie and Seb consumed a couple of wines, a couple of bottles of wine. The camaraderie sizzled and popped until Fiona had suddenly bolted upstairs.

Seb joined her in the bathroom, peered into the basin and gagged. ‘Oh, jeez.’ He clasped his hand over his mouth and quickly left. Fiona heaved again but ejected nothing more than a long, pitiful moan. Seb, brandishing a plunger returned.

‘I’m so sorry, I can’t remember when I last chundered. Pretty ghastly, isn’t it? I can identify everything I’ve eaten over the last twenty-four hours. See the red bits that’d be … ’

‘Not helping.’ Ashen-faced and with sweat forming on his brow Seb repeatedly dunked the plunger into the soup. His upper body moving rhythmically up and down, up and down. Slowly the soup seeped away.

That evening, Herb Green and adult son Steve, visiting from Britain, two doors down the street, relax in side-by-side outdoor baths on the deck.

‘Pure bliss, don’t you think, son?’

‘Sure is pretty special, Pop. The sound of waves crashing on the beach, stars glistening above and a bevvy in hand; the epitome of peace.’

Father and son, each lying back, rested their heads at the end of their separate bath, soaking up the tranquillity.

Bert sat up and peered around with a puzzled look on his face. ‘You hear that?’

‘A person moaning?’

‘Yeah, and it’s coming from there, Seb and Ellie’s upstairs bathroom. There’s a blurry shape in the window.’

‘What do you reckon is happening?’

The moaning continued. Father and son kept watching, listening, their mouths agape. The silhouette of another blurry shape appeared in the window and began to move in a thrusting motion. The moaning became softer.

Herb chuckled as he reached for the bottle of beer.‘Well, I’ll be damned. Didn’t think Seb still had it in him.’

The following evening was the weekly Friday nights get together at the Greens. Neighbours dawdled in with platters of food, cans of beer and wine.

Ellie introduced Fiona to the gathering and then sat next to Herb Green. ‘Last night, I had the best sleep I’ve had in a long time,’ she told him.

‘And why would that be, Ellie?’ He gave an exaggerated wink.

‘When I went to bed, I told Seb that tonight was treat night.’

‘Nice, and Seb obliged?’

‘Sure did. I knew Seb would be watching the squash on TV, and not wanting to be woken when he came to bed, I asked him to sleep upstairs.’

‘Oh, I thought you meant something else.’

‘What?’

‘Steve and I heard and saw it all while we were taking a soak in the baths, the moaning, the thrusting. You put on quite a show, the pair of you.’

‘What are you talking about, Herb?’

‘Oh, come on, Ellie. No need to be coy about it. Does a relationship good to spice things up a bit. I’ve heard about couples doing it on the kitchen table, so why not against a bathroom cabinet. Seb certainly has some stamina, and going by the moaning, it sure sounded like you enjoyed it.’

Ellie laughed. ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t me in the bathroom. It was my friend Fiona.’

‘With Seb?’

‘Yep.’

‘And you’re okay with that?’

‘Sorry to disappoint you, Herb, but what happened in our upstairs bathroom wasn’t what you thought. Let’s just say, Fiona suffered from Seb’s home brew and a few too many wines and Seb had to come to the rescue with the plunger.’

‘My version of events is way more entertaining.’

Tasty Morsels

Tasty Morsels

In February 1975, I was relieved rather than disappointed to not get an invite to my cousin Charlene’s nuptials in Dipton. Unfortunately, my frail Nan took a fall thye day before the wedding. Mum begged my fiancée and me to attend the wedding on her and Dad’s behalf.

‘Please, Lucy. If nobody from our lot came, your Aunty Pauline would never speak to me again.’

‘Perfect. You’re always saying that if you never hear from that woman again …’ Dad gave me one of his mischievous winks from behind mum’s back.

‘She’s still my sister. And you can borrow our car since yours is unreliable.’ Dad, unseen by Mum, shook his head vigorously.

‘Oh, no need. Jake’s fixed The Tank,’ I said, my fingers crossed behind my back. Our 1954 Hilman was as solid and as slow as a World War Two Tank. Dunedin to Dipton would be a slow trip.

‘Good, that’s settled. The present and the card.’ Mum handed me a box wrapped in brown paper. ‘Do you have some fancy paper?’

‘Sure,’ I shook the box. ‘A kitchen whiz?’ Mum nodded.

At home, I dumped the box on the hall table next to the recently arrived worm farm kit. I’d been planning to set up the equipment over the weekend, a more enthralling activity than attending Charlene’s wedding.

As Jake caressed the Tanks engine into action the following morning, I remembered the unwrapped present. I rushed back inside, nearly toppling on my thin stilettos. As we drove out of the city, I roughly wrapped the box in fancy paper, attaching the card.

The day was hot, the journey long, but the Tank did not falter. I chastised myself for doubting Jakes mechanical skills.

Driving through Mandeville, the noises began. Tapping, clunking, grinding, louder and louder. I shot Jake a baleful look.

‘Easy fix.’ Jake turned the radio knob to full volume. ‘Hear it now?’

The Tank spluttered to a stop outside of Balfour. We stood at the side of the road, thumbs extended for the non-existing passing traffic in the glare of the mid-day sun. The minutes passed slowly. A distant sound, a puff of dust in the still air. An old David Brown tractor with a back-tray came into sight and stopped.

The farmer looked us up and down. ‘The wedding?’ We nodded. ‘Climb aboard.’

As the tractor pulled alongside the curb, the wedding guests flowed from the church, led by my strident, Aunty Pauline. I attempted to discreetly alight from the back-tray. One of my heels wedged between the boards. Snap. I stumbled. Seeing the tractor, then seeing me, Aunty Pauline’s face paled. With her head tilted upwards, her arms flapping penguin style, she waddled to the nearby reception venue. The guests followed.

Jake handed the tatty-looking present to the awaiting bridesmaids. The girls unwrapped the gift then shrieked in unison.

‘A worm farm,’ said one, incredulously.

The other read the card. ‘You’re sure to create some tasty morsels with this useful kitchen appliance, Charlene.’

A Fork on the Road

The night he had a blazing row with his Missus, Tommy Harrison made a reckless decision. He hijacked a beat-up Toyota left unattended outside the Ball and Chain pub on Newbury Street. He did not know that his choice of vehicle was a bad one. Not yet.

Sidling along the side of the station wagon in the dark unlit car park, Tommy Harrison hadn’t noticed the plastic crates in the rear. This fact would have consequences, but Tommy did not know that. Not yet.

He opened the unlocked door of the station wagon, scrambled into the driver’s seat, and hot-wired the ignition. A trio outside the pub, leaning on a bench supping pints, paused as the Toyota roared into life. Engaging the clutch, Tommy yanked the gear stick into reverse.

‘Ain’t that your ride, Harry?’ said the short one, Davy.

‘Shit.’

Tommy glanced over his shoulder. A burly bloke ran towards him, waving his arms and yelling. Tommy reversed and sped away.

‘Sucker,’ Tommy sniggered.

‘You want to give chase, Harry? My Ute’d catch that old banger in no time.’ Davy asked Harry.

Marv chipped in, sniggering, ‘Sure would. How long you had that hunk of junk?’

‘Just picked it up today.’

‘Whatever you paid for it, they must have seen you coming, mate.’ Marv laughed.

‘Nah, they didn’t. I nicked it for a job I had on. You hear about the missing crates of snakes from that zoo place?’

‘Yeah, it’s all over the news.’

‘That was me that nicked them.’

‘What the fuck you want with snakes?’ Merv slammed his pint on the bench.

‘I had a deal with that fuckin’ toe-rag crook, Simon Shoester. Talking like some fuckin’ professor, he says he wanted to put the frighteners on an adversary. The money was good, so I agreed. Now that it’s all over the fuckin’ news, the bastard ain’t going to pay me a cent. Told me to dump them. Just have to chalk this one up to experience, right lads?’

‘That jack-ass hijacker has done you a favour then.’

‘Me and, inadvertently, Shoester. You can guess where I planned to dump them snakes, right?’

The three clinked their glasses and drank up.

Driving on the motorway, Tommy wanted to get as far away from his miserable, venomous wife as possible and to never come back. As he lent over to switch on the radio, the car swerved. Tommy swung the steering wheel sharply, careering over the centre line. An oncoming vehicle tooted. Turning the wheel again, he hit the gravel, and the car bumped along the verge until he came to a stop. He heard a popping sound at the rear of the vehicle.

Shaking in his seat, he listened. A swish, a hiss. He turned his head and saw the slithering thing slide over the back seat. Tommy rubbed his eyes. Panicked, he yanked on the door handle, but it didn’t open. Turning his head back again, a forked tongue flickered inches from Tommy’s face.

Screeching Chainsaws.

Screeching Chainsaws

Tree didn’t know what all the fuss was about, but she knew she was the cause of it. The saga began the day the man strolled down the street in orange overalls and taped something onto Tree’s trunk. Tree bellowed at the man to stop, but he only added more tape. Twisting and writhing, Tree tried to loosen the thing for the sticky tape irritated her skin. Wind couldn’t help, as she was far away that day. Tree spoke to the birds, but they were too preoccupied as it was nest-building season.

Charlie and Mavis Bower, the elderly couple from the end of the street, paused as they always did to say hello to Tree and finger-trace the carved love heart from years ago. Tree had long forgiven the couple for this misdemeanour, as over time, she’d watched their love blossom. Seeing the taped monstrosity on Tree’s trunk caused Mavis to shriek. The birds stopped their nest-building a moment, cocking their heads sideways. They too, didn’t understand the fuss.

‘This is an atrocity. We’ll go to Council, we’ll protest loudly,’ Charlie said, trying to pick at the stubborn tape, but his aged fingers could not peel back the tape.

Alarmed, Tree tried bending her upper limbs to read the notice, but her arthritic branches lacked flexibility.

Tree pondered the situation – change was about to happen, something significant, something scary concerning her, but what? In the past, she’d tolerated the indignity of her upper branches being trimmed gracefully. This time, Tree had a spooky premonition that her life was in danger.

Later, children heading home from school scuffed their shoes through the leaves gathered at Tree’s base but did not look up and read the notice. Trudy Green, the last child to come abreast with Tree, did so. Trudy read the poster as she prepared to snuggle into Tree’s bough for her afternoon read. Her eyes scrunched tight, Trudy looked closer. She ripped the tape from the notice and crumpled it into a tight ball.

The next day, Overall man returned with another man who wore a suit.

‘I knew some greenie would tamper with the notice, but I came prepared,’ said Overall and out came his roll of tape and another poster.

Suit knelt and measured Tree’s girth. He gazed into her leafy canopy and scribbled figures on a clipboard.

Saturday was a miserable, drizzly day. Still, the crowds gathered around Tree, some carrying placards, others, picnic baskets and blankets. Many chanted and sang. Passing vehicles tooted their support. A group of children linked hands and danced around and around Tree until they collapsed with dizziness. The merriment of the crowd made Tree swoon with happiness. All this fuss for her, but why?

Charlie Bower stood in front of Tree, raised his arms, and asked for quiet. ‘My friends, good news. We will not be hearing any screeching chainsaws. In my research of city records, I uncovered a forgotten covenant that protects our beloved tree. She’ll be with us forever.’