pineapple plantation. The school had been set up after the war with the help of the church to attract both well-to-do locals and American expats and provide a decent, moral education away from the debauchery of Manila’s urban sprawl. The beach is beautiful, he added. White sands and coral gardens. It would be my best bet, he said. I would have a real advantage, coming from England. Perhaps it was a joke, but I took it seriously.
The interview with Fr. Carson was less daunting than I had expected. On the telephone he had said he would be in town for two days and gave the impression he was interviewing half a dozen candidates. As it turned out there was no one else in the running and our chat was more about him than me.
“You see, Mr Gibbs, this is a country of surprises. You come looking for the spirituality of Asia and discover El Dorado. A consumerist paradise. What can you teach, Mr Gibbs? What can you teach a child in such a place?”
I thought for a moment. He watched me with his small plump hands together at his chin, fingertips touching. He kept the fingers spread stubbily apart to distinguish the act from prayer.
“How to be good,” I said in the end. “To tell right from wrong.”
“Do we not know that? Surely that, at least, is given to us at birth?” He glanced upwards. His fingers pressed harder and slipped and locked.
“To avoid mistakes then, Fr. Carson? And understand responsibility.” “It is not an easy thing, Mr Gibbs,
to live in this world of dust and chaff responsibly.” He glanced down at the mandala patterns in the patch of parquet floor between us as though Dante himself might be struggling to get his bearings there.
I followed his gaze and noticed he was wearing brown Jesus sandals. They looked too big for his feet and incongruous.
“I am not a discontent,” I said. My tie was neat, ready-knotted on a clear plastic clip.
He looked up. “Do you know why I am here, Mr Gibbs?”
“On the contrary. I am here to learn. I wanted to be a preacher. But I was advised by my pastor, back in Wisconsin, that I should travel first. See the world we have been given, only then can you truly open the eyes of those who sleep. He was a wise man. And now suddenly, thousands of miles away from home, I find myself the pastor of one hundred and eighty-seven souls.”
Despite the religious underpinning of the school, pragmatism was Fr. Carson’s primary philosophy, and in the absence of an alternative, I was appointed. “Teach them poetry, Mr Gibbs. Show them love and compassion. But above all, how to act responsibly and do one’s duty. There is no greater pleasure, you know, as your famous Mr Hazlitt says.”
“You on duty tonight?” Gloria Gomez had a voice that could cream potatoes in their skins. The boys in her math class flunked every test simply to be in her extra study hour and gaze at the formula of her intoxicating figure. She also ran the drama club which apparently had more boys than ever before.
“Yes, I am. You doing the bar?” “Punch and pop. That’s me.” “Shall I slip in a little vodka?” I joked. She laughed. “You know Dick
Baldwin did that last year. Fr. Carson went berserk.”
“Tricky Dick?” He was often talked about in the school.
She laughed again, curving her whole lithe body effortlessly. I could happily watch her waft and ripple for hours and made a mental note to bone up on some wisecracks for the evening.
“He’s coming back next semester.
You could be buddies. Anyways, must go. I have marking to do. Don’t you?”
“I am going into town to get the props for next week.” I was in charge of equipment for the West Side Story production she was directing.
“Mercer’s will have the knives. We need different sizes but they need to be the kind where the blade slides in …”
“Really?” I cocked an eyebrow.
“Toy daggers, Mr Gibbs. But we need ones that don’t make that creaky sound.” She smiled disarmingly and added, “I’ll see you at Ridge House tonight.”
I watched her totter down to the library laughing gaily at Santos the gardener’s usual gag about the American tourist on the beach who had lost his kit to a Filipino shark.
Down at the school gate I found Tony waiting for a ride into town. He was on his own.
“No target practice this afternoon?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Free time.”
When the jeepney came, we clambered in the back. His jeans were neatly ironed, his gym shoes freshly whitened. “You got a date?” I asked.
“No way. Just need space. You, Mr Gibbs?”
I told him my mission.
He perked up. “Can I come?”
We got off by St Joseph’s and walked across to the strip of small grey municipal buildings. The store was on the corner. Tony went ahead of me like a little boy into Wonderland. From behind his shoulders looked distorted. His neck and his arms oddly long. Like all fifteen-year-olds he was half-grown and thirsting.
I found a salesgirl and asked for plastic knives.
“Everything is plastic,” she said sweetly. “You want baby cutlery?”
“Daggers,” I explained.
Before she understood, Tony had found them. He did an expert twirl with a couple, one in each hand, and stabbed the massive yellow teddy bear hanging from the ceiling like a punch bag.
“This what you want, Mr Gibbs?”
I asked the salesgirl for an assortment of sizes and bought a dozen. Tony was amazed. “Cool.”
I told him there were two gangs in the musical. “With your technique, you should audition, Tony.”
“I can’t act,” he said, trying to rub the scuff marks off his shoe.
“You were acting now.”
“For myself, not for an audience.” “All the best ones do the same, Tony. Really, you should. I’d like you to audition for Miss Gomez next week. Just do your martial arts.” “You don’t understand, Mr Gibbs. That’s not entertainment. That’s for real.”
“Bruce Lee acts, doesn’t he?” Tony stiffened and I saw, in that single moment, what he might one day turn out to be.
I know most of us hold something back. Keeping secrets is how we grow into what we unexpectedly become. Holding back more and more, until suddenly it becomes too much to contain and we burst like a rain cloud. But Tony was different. He seemed to be holding almost everything back all the time. He seemed to want a shield that would protect him from everyone. I didn’t realize that it might work the other way, too.
I met his mother at the beginning of the semester when she first brought him to school. She came in a hired convertible and wore La Dolce Vita sunglasses and an emerald green scarf around her head. “We are from Manila. But I got to go shooting all over the place this year, so Tony-baby is gonna be here.” She looked at him astonished, it seemed, at how he had grown in the twenty seconds she had been speaking to me.
I remember how he had looked at her when she left him and sauntered back to the car. I had told her Tony would be safe and happy in his new school. I was the teacher in charge of Addison Hall. Whatever happened to the boys in Addison was my responsibility. At the time I did not know that Tony’s father had been killed in action.
At quarter to eight that Saturday evening, I was at Ridge house ready to do my duty. The Pacheco twins were on the grass, both in purple tie-dye dresses but with varying starbursts on their budding front. “You could have gone for different colours, girls,” I said.
“Not yet, Mr Gibbs.” They did a little dance routine, arm in arm, two steps forward, one back, and bumped their hips with a giggle. “We are the twinkling twins.”
Ricky, who was carting a case of Fanta and root beer towards the back, whistled.
I went up through the main entrance into the building. The front had three large rooms with interconnecting doors. For Saturday night discos all the doors were folded up and the furniture moved to one side as though the sea had rushed in to make a tumbled strandline of our week’s rickety routine. A glitter ball was put up and, depending on the class that was running the show, balloons or paper chains or fairy lights were used to decorate the place. The 100-watt ceiling lamps were exchanged for 40s, the starters for the fluorescent strips removed and Fr. Carson’s spot lights jinxed. On this occasion the seniors had gone for psychedelic romance: coloured lights, floor cushions, plastic flowers and free-swinging mobiles of stars and moons cut out of day-glow card.
I stepped out of the French windows and found Tony on the lawn with a sledgehammer. He swung it over his head and brought it down on a large rectangular block in a gunny sack. He did it again and again in quick succession, smashing the block to rubble. Only when he was done did he notice me watching him.
“Mr Gibbs, you dancing here tonight?”
“I might very well shake a leg, Tony. What about you?”
He shifted his head warily. “I’m no dancer, Mr Gibbs. No way.” He opened the sack and stuck his hand in. He pulled out a large tapering length of ice, like a crude hefty sword, that had survived his onslaught. “Except with a blade.” He twirled it expertly and grinned. Then he threw it up in the air and did a karate kick that shattered it. “No flower power for me, sir.” He picked up the little pieces and chucked them into the cool box next to the trestle table from where the soft drinks would be served. He emptied the sack of broken ice into the container. “All done. Can I go back to my room now, sir?”
“You know you are not allowed to stay alone in your room on socials.”
“I wanna study.”
“Go to study hall then,” I suggested. “I got no demerits. I just don’t wanna be here, dancing like a monkey.” “You don’t have your eye on a girl, Tony?”
“I thought that was why you guys were in this school. For the girls.”
“That’s you, Mr Gibbs. I am here to learn, sir. To learn how to kill the heathen. Fuckface Commies.” He made a pistol with his thumb and forefinger and mouthed gunfire. “POW.” The hand jerked back in recoil. Then he grinned. “Just jokin’, Mr Gibbs. Don’t look so down. I am not really going to kill anyone. Our code is, ‘Show your strength but don’t use it, except in self-defence.’ No fear, we are just always prepared. I quit the rifle club. I read the Bible every night.”
When I saw Gloria Gomez a little later, I told her that she should keep an eye on Tony. I was troubled by the way he always seemed to slip just out of reach when you talked to him. “He wants to sneak back to his room, but he really needs to socialize.”
“Like you?” A small smile twitched in her mouth.
“He came with me into town to get the props. I think he might be persuaded to become one of your Jets. He’d be pretty good.”
“Right, Mr Director.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to tell you what to do.”
“I have been watching Tony too. He is one of those kids who just won’t loosen up.”
It was my turn to smile. “Like you?”
Gloria straightened. Her head right then was remarkably perpendicular. She was poised to fly: hair coiled and fastened tight with a wooden pin and a clam-shell clasp. I wondered if she knew what I was thinking.
“What are you trying to say here?”
“Nothing. I just can’t wait for the music.”
“You know you cannot cavort about with our girls, don’t you, Mr Gibbs.”
“I had no such intention.”
“I am glad of that.” She raised her face with a deliberate sniff.
“But we can … can we not?”
Her mouth softened and I thought she might blow me a kiss, but then Judy popped her head around the doorway. “Miss G, can I talk to you? Alone, please.”
Gloria looked at me. I held her gaze for a moment. She mouthed a soundless, heartless, Screw you.
“I’ll go check out the sound system,” I said. Judy could be quite unsettling. My own schooling had been in a boy’s institution that did not acknowledge the existence of the female gender except in biology lessons and Latin. I had no sisters, nor cousins, and had never heard of co-ed before. Therefore pubescent girls with large grey searching eyes were disconcerting at the best of times. On a Saturday night, when they were high with anticipation, more than ever I wanted the refuge of Baudelaire’s fleurs du mal. To lose myself in a more mature world of practised lust. Celebrate with a woman who had dark burgundy lips, speckled eye shadow and the grease of more than one season on the stage.
Ricky and David were huddled around the amplifier and turntable. “Can’t we just hook up the tape deck and play that fuckin’ cassette?” Ricky whined.
David, a quiet technical wizard, who never quite reached the end of any verbal exercise—a spoken sentence, or written essay—grunted. “Nah, Brian wants to DJ his new sounds.”
David plucked a red lead out. “Problemo.”
“Brian can suck my dick.”
“Sure he can.” Dave used a pair of pliers to cut the jack and strip the wire. “That cassette is great, man. It really got Judy going last time.” Ricky noticed me. “Hey, Ron. What do you think? Smoochy cassette or a stack of hairy, hippie LPs?”
“Mr Gibbs to you, boy,” I said. “I thought this was a barn dance. Fr. Carson would like you boys to have some good clean fun at the weekend. You guys work so hard in class, he reckons you need a bit of a rodeo.”
“If you weren’t a teach, I’d say, up yours, Mr Gibbs.” Ricky grinned.
By the time other kids from Addison and Rosario turned up, the night air was dark and humid. The woozy Milky Way clotted and thickened above us, but here on our small wooded campus with its needle trees and buffalo grass, its unfurling hibiscus and air-fed orchids, its adolescent musk and hamstrung hassocks, the sea breeze had subsided.
Fr. Carson usually liked to set the ball rolling with a little homily which was a precursor to the sermon he would deliver the next day. He told me that he considered his young impressionable pupils as his garden. He liked to plant his seeds on Saturday evening’s unhallowed ground and water them thoroughly, in the chapel, on Sunday as they germinated. I did not fully appreciate his meaning at the time. This evening he read out a news item about a pop star who had OD’d in Manila’s sunset strip. “The perils of alcohol and wantonness are very serious indeed. Stay clear. Be clean. It is but a short step from a nightclub to a hospital bed. You may hold hands, you may dance and shake, but do not step over the mark. Children, be warned. Amen.”
The younger boys and girls gave a collective shiver at the consequences of adult misdemeanours.
Ricky, who had sidled in next to David, nudged him and smothered a laugh. They shuffled over to their music station. David played the first record. Something innocuous and shrill for the youngest ones to shake and roll to. Fr. Carson hurried through the rooms checking the general distribution by gender and moral armament.
The Pacheco twins came up to me and giggled illegally.
By about nine, the tempo began to rise and the bigger boys made their moves rocky with spunk and crush. The odour of marijuana, masked by DDT, seeped out of dark corners. Jefferson Airplane took off. I went out to get a drink.
Gloria Gomez was sitting on a chair in the shadows, with her neat legs crossed, contemplating the arrangement of the soft drinks and snacks. She had Tony behind the makeshift counter.
“Looks good,” I said.
Tony twirled a bottle in his hand. “Soda, sir?”
“I’ll try the punch,” I said, reckoning that I could sneak a shot of vodka into it nicely, out of his sight.
“One minute, Mr Gibbs. One more apple.” A slim, blue-handled, double-edged knife appeared in his hand and within seconds an apple lay in slices on a plate. He slid them into the jug of fruit juice and lemonade.
He grinned. He folded it and put it in the pocket of his dungarees.
“Is that a switchblade?”
“Just a knife for chopping fruit, sir.” He was lying, but I did not want to challenge him. It wasn’t cowardice, more stupidity. I didn’t want to spoil the evening. It was good that he was out socializing rather than skulking in a corner with his weird thoughts.
I took my glass and went over to Gloria. “Cheers,” I said. “You got a real Jet there.”
She had dark lipstick and a touch of powder on her cheeks; cosmetics that had an added glamour for being forbidden to all the young girls in her charge. She looked up. “He is a bit edgy today. I think he had a letter this morning from his mother.”
“He didn’t say anything to me.”
“Man to man?” She stared at me as though there was something to solve.
“That knife is a switchblade. A real one. I should take it off him.”
“Why didn’t you? He’s one of your boys, isn’t he?”
“It would become a confrontation. I’d have to send him back to his room. Anyway, there’s more fruit for him to cut.” I took another sip. “Nice punch. A lot better a little adulterated, don’t you think?”
“Aren’t we?” I took out my little silver flask and offered it jokingly.
To my astonishment, she nodded. “Go on then, quickly.” She thrust her glass at me.
I sloshed a fair bit into both our glasses, shielded from the light.
In that warm darkness, her face seemed to glow; her mouth was an open curve of bright promise. I leant forward, close enough to catch a hint of sesame on her skin.
Out at the edges of the garden a powerful beam from a flashlight searched the bushes. It moved quickly about illuminating clumps of ferns and beds of perennials.
“Inspector Carson is on the prowl outside,” I whispered.
I thought she might laugh, but she didn’t. Beads of moisture rose up around her bare neck. “Let’s go inside then?” Her voice was both ardent and challenging.
She laughed then, squeezing my hand. “Don’t be an idiot.” She called out to Tony. “You’re in charge, Tony. I’ll be back soon.”
I watched her go. I gulped down my drink and told him I had better go on patrol too. “Be good.”
The dancefloor in the music room was packed full of gawky gyrating youngsters. With Fr. Carson out in the shrubs, the kids had turned off all the lights except for the one on the slowly rotating mirror ball. A wave of writhing rolled along the walls and heavy breathing slid down the sofas. The reek of ripening hormones, sour milk and sucked smoke ran high.
Gloria hooked my arm and led me to the hallway on the other side. From there she hurried us to the back of the building. Collecting a brass key from the janitor’s box, she unlocked a door under the stairs. We slipped into the ironing room. She locked the door and ran her hands over my chest. Her face loomed and her mouth fastened onto mine: lemony and fizzy. She pulled me and we lurched towards the padded ironing table. She hitched up her dress with one hand and mounted it.
I stumbled forward and clutched her shoulders. There were things I wanted to say, but the words clouded. Her quick fingers darted. I tried to get Fr. Carson’s glowering eye out of my head. I wanted to be as wanton as she in my pleasure.
We were both out of breath by the end of the anthem thumping out of the speakers outside. She flopped back and pulsed like a fish out of water.
“Are you all right?” I asked, my head reeling at the speed of our sudden communion.
She seemed to be humming.
“We should go back,” I said. “There is no one out there supervising.”
“What is it about you?” She lifted herself up to a seated position and stared at me as though I had overstepped the mark, or made her do so. She pulled the pin out of her hair and shook her head. I lit a small roach I had in my pocket. In the brief flare of the match, she looked young and girlish and I wondered if I had.
“I think you better open the window,” she whispered. “You can’t smoke in here.” Then she balled up her hair and pinned it again.
The air outside had a faint whiff of seaweed coming up from the beach, mingled with skunk and pine. Next weekend was free for me. I would have done my duty at Ridge Hall. I thought I could ask Gloria to come snorkelling with me. I knew just the place where the water was turquoise and the fish like cherry blossom. We could spend the afternoon in Sebastian’s Cove with a bottle of cold San Miguel and Harvey’s grilled lobster tails. Maybe a tab or two from Manito’s stash. I had a yellow straw mat that would be perfect on the sand. I could see Gloria stretched out on it. I wanted her in my arms again, her slender legs knotted around me, her silky hair loose in my hands. We could be very good to each other and for each other—this could be the beginning of what I was looking for—but for now, I knew, we had to be more than an embrace apart.
Gloria went back into the hall and I set off around the back of the building. As I turned the corner I saw Michael by the trestle table, clutching a bottle by its neck. Study hall over, Mr Batista must have decided to let him join the party. A softie, I thought, unless the boy had done a bunk. A light caught Michael’s eyes, making them glint like a grownup’s in the dark. I wondered what turned a boy into a man: when does it happen? On some random Saturday night when the stars slip and fall, when the sea froths in your head and you burst the bounds that held you confined? When you enter a sanctuary and learn to balance the pleasures of transgression with those of duty?
The twins were singing a song about Virgil and the night they drove old Dixie down. I lingered for a moment by the French windows.
“You are a fucking head case,” I heard Michael sneer across the lawn. “Why’d you tell him where I was?”
“I didn’t,” Tony protested.
“Bullshit. You ratted. You told him I was smoking. He saw me and he’s gonna fuck me up.”
“I said nothing.”
“You don’t belong here, man. You are a half-breed napalm head case, putanginamo.” Michael pushed him with his bottle.
Tony braced himself, feet shoulder length apart, arms steeled, suddenly taut. His square head tight. I saw his hands clench. “What?”
“You are fucking nuts, motherfucker. You should just go back to your happy-hour momma and suck her yellow tits.” Michael raised the bottle again.
For two seconds Tony was absolutely still. A beam of light appeared and framed his head in a halo. Then, like the wings of an archangel, his shoulders rose and he sprang into a fighter’s pose.
Michael hissed something at him and prodded him with the bottle again.
Tony’s fingers opened.
His hand moved with extraordinary speed: a mercurial gleam appeared parting the darkness between him and his nemesis. The shout started somewhere in my head, but by the time it found the cords in my throat, Tony’s knife was entering Michael’s chest. It went in and out in rapid succession as the big boy yelped and stepped back. The tiny blade pushed him again and again, puncturing his skin, his epidermis, the membranes of his adolescence, the network of veins, the layer of young muscle and his tender unbitten heart. “A boy’s life is not his own,” Fr. Carson once said to me. “It is ours to nurture and return improved.” Michael crashed to the ground, and with him all the sweet blessings I thought I had found that September night. I saw Gloria running towards Michael’s leaking lifeless body and Tony’s frozen silhouette. My legs were heavy, my blood reckless, my failure unforgivable. I saw how Tony’s mother would hear of this night and wail, and how Michael’s mother would sink down to the ground.
The sour inky air swirled around me; my skin was damp. The stain of dereliction, I knew then, would not ever leave me.
• Romesh Gunesekera was born in Sri Lanka. Before coming to Britain he also lived in the Philippines. He now lives in London. His most recent book is Noontide Toll.