Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book 3: Chapter 2 - Fray Paco: The Banker's Assistant

Fray Paco Series
Book 3: Don Alcibiades - The Banker
Chapter 2 - Fray Paco: the Banker's Assistant

The Illustrados had a colloquial expression, which was a code for “not in front of the servants, the children, the employees or anyone or any subject they might want to talk about which was taboo". ”Hay Moros en la costa” - there are Moors on the coast. It was an old Castilian expression. When the Moors came with their first raiding parties to invade Spain from Morocco, the lookouts would shout from their high towers, “Hay Moros en la costa!!!”

“Hay Moros en la costa?” the banker somberly asked his wife.

“You walked from Chinatown to Intramuros?” Dona Ibon asked with genuine amusement. “Alcibiade you don’t even deign to walk around rose bushes you insisted our gardeners plant.” She gazed at her husband. “That explains your disheveled clothes.”

“My dear, no one knows I had lunch at the Pansiteria Wak Nam and the deal I worked out with the Chinese Don Wak Nam.”

Dona Ibon did not ask what the deal was; she waited for her husband to tell her.

“I shall use the Pansiteria, well, one of the private rooms in the Pansiteria, omitting carefully that several female members of the Wak Nam clan worked in the same room, to catch up on all my paperwork. It’s a good arrangement for both of us. I’ll escape all those fat cat lateros at my office and do my delicate work in secrecy and in peace, and Don Wak Nam will be paid handsomely as well.”

I never though a pansiteria was a quiet place, Dona Ibon said to herself, but as he is such a good provider I can live with my husband’s strange ideas.

“It’s a good place for you,” an understanding Dona Ibon told her husband. She secretly hoped it wouldn’t be too good in the sense that he might overeat more than he already did.

“So, my dear, it’s all arranged. I shall take my lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Chinatown, and Tuesdays and Thursdays as always in our formal Dining Room at the bank," Don Alcibiade jubilantly told his wife.

Dona Ibon cheerfully heard this news and asked her husband, trying not to sound too pleased, “Would you mind if I host the games of panguingue at our house and invite all the ladies in my circle of panguingue for lunch those three days of the week?”

“Oh no! My dear, you are free to do whatever you wish. Just make sure no one else knows what I’m up to. The important thing for me is that you are aware of my whereabouts.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” Dona Ibon remarked fondly, placing both her hands in her husband’s hands. “By tomorrow, one of my friends will reach in and tell me “for your own good’ that your husband has a querida from ‘Lulubelle because he was seen leaving Chinatown and what else could a rich banker be doing there but fornicate?” I can’t wait to hear it. I love to hear chismis (gossip), especially when I know it’s untrue.”

“Don’t we all!” Don Alcibiade exclaimed. “How many are untrue, you think? 50%, 60%, more?” the banker in him could not resist playing with percentages.

“I don’t know but let’s look at your case. Today you disappeared from the Banco Hispano-Filipino for no reason. Right? Right. You walked, and Tirso did not drive you. Right? Right. You came back looking messy and tumbled. True? True. You avoided answering questions as to where you had spent several hours. True? True. There you are!” his wife pronounced, gesturing with her 50-carat diamond ring which her husband thought must have weighed more than his wife.

“You are guilty! You have committed too many actions, which cannot be explained. Dirty minds work in dirty ways. You are now entangled with a pretty girl from one of Manila’s cabarets or a house of tolerance.”

That was a euphemism well brought up women used instead of saying bordello, red light district and casa de putas.

Don Alcibiade became serious. “Listen, my dear, I must tell you, there is a catch to the deal with the dear elderly patriarch.”

Dona Ibon put her patient cap back on. There is always a catch to all transactions, she thought.

“They want to see Fray Paco. Can you believe it? Fray Paco helped me clinch this deal. But I may have been hasty in promising Fray Paco’s company tomorrow,” he said with a touch of apprehension in his voice.

“What are you going to do?” Dona Ibon asked.

“I’ll have a candid talk with Esperanza this evening. She’s looking after Fray Paco until the safe return of Uncle Torquato.”

“You’ll have to tell her something,” Dona Ibon pointed out.

“I’d like to take Fray Paco to the bank. What’s wrong with that? Uncle Torquato brought Fray Paco to the bank everyday except during typhoons, until he left for that cruise to Europe.”

Dona Ibon looked impassive.

“Well, did he or didn’t he?”

“Your Uncle had no choice. His two rotten, jealous and useless sons were always plotting to kill Fray Paco.”

“Dearest woman,” Don Alcibiade said with hilarity, “you make Fray Paco sound like some sort of potentate.”

“Shall I tell you what Esperanza said when she came over one afternoon to play panguingue?”

“Yes, I’d really like to know,” the banker declared. Jesus. Mary and Joseph! Esperanza was now playing that awful game herself. I must plot to put a stop to this rubbish, decided Don Alcibiade silently.

“Esperanza said that not even Saint Francis of Assisi would have tolerated Fray Paco and certainly not the name Fray, that’s almost heretical!”

“Esperanza is wrong. Il Poverello (the Poor One), as Saint Francis was known throughout Europe, was almost heretical himself. He lived with wolves and other wild animals, he dressed in dirty and smelly rags, and he wore sandals even in a snowstorm. Why he and his followers begged for food and clean water. He would have found the humor in Fray Paco’s name. Fray meant little friar.”

“You will have to let Esperanza in on the secret. She’ll never believe you suddenly fell in love with Fray Paco,” Dona Ibon admonished.

Don Alcibiade was too embarrassed to reveal he was really very fond of the disrespectful and disreputable Fray Paco.

“Perhaps I should walk over right now. It’s still early, and it’s a cool night. It’s only a block away,” Don Alcibiade said.

“My! My! What is going on?” Dona Ibon smiled up at her husband. “No dessert?”

“Thank you, my dear, but if I hurry Esperanza will offer me a shot or two of Bourbon and … I’ll have to suggest something with it, their dessert of the day.”

“As I said,” Dona Ibon offered her cheek for her husband to kiss, “My! My! And I won at Panguingue today too.”

“How much did you win?” the banker in him could not resist the question.

“Enough to order several extravagant barong Tagalog made of pina.”

“For me?”

“Certainly not. The pina is for our sons who are swaddled in heavy woolens in Germany, and it isn’t even winter yet,” Dona Ibon’s eyes twinkled as she informed her husband.

Panguinge indeed! The game was so complex and intricate that the gambling casinos refused to allow it to be played in their salons. The casino always wins in the end, just as banks do. But if you did not understand the fractions, numbers and calculus involved in this Chinese-Filipino game the most prudent choice was to avoid it entirely, gleefully mused Don Alcibiade.

Pina cloth (see photo ->) was rare and expensive. A meter of it cost 500 to a 1000 pounds sterling. It came from a pineapple plant indigenous to the Philippines. The stalks were used for weaving very fine, transparent fabric as light and as soft as a butterfly. The weaving was done entirely by hand and the knowledge of this art was almost arcane. Sixty thousand people throughout the islands made a handsome living out of pina. The Royal Houses of England, Netherlands, Belgium and Monaco used nothing but pina during the hot and humid summer months. The House of Romanov in Russia had used thousands of meters of pina beginning with the extravagant Empress more properly a Czar since she ruled all of the Russias- Catherine the Great. The orders continued even after the execution of Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra. Josef Stalin loved fine things. So did his mother. The meters upon meters of pina colored in tropical fruits and vegetables from the Philippines were sent to the Kremlin via the port of Vladivostock. Manila gossip ascribed the pina to the fearsome Stalin's Mother. The best client was Baroness Rothschild of Paris. She had tablecloths for a hundred guests woven, made and embroidered all by hand. Her pina bed sheets and pillowcases kept several villages busy for years.

“Hola Esperanzita, siempre graciosa y guapa, it’s gracious of you to receive your crotchety uncle with no notice,” Don Alcibiade told his niece, putting on his best smile, the one reserved for the gatos gordos - fat cat - clients of the bank. It was not an effusive smile. Don Alcibiade had a monumental sense of dignity. It was more of a beatific, everything is all right, kind of smile.

He had downed the Bourbon a little too quickly. Esperanza had noticed something was not right. Uncle Alcibiade chomped on his Havana cigar and looked around the 300 square meter veranda that encircled Santol Mansion. At Esperanza’s suggestion the artisans had painted the screens surrounding the entire veranda in white. The principal reasons were to keep them out of harm’s way from the voracious female mosquitoes whose deadly bite brought on malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis and a host of other mysterious hemorrhagic fevers. The 60 foot tall ipil tree was home to a tiny species of very curious bats. After dusk they would often sit on the carved railing of the veranda and watch and listen to the human activities taking place in the mansion.

Fray Paco often chased them away with a ferocity that was frightening. Indeed, he killed as many of these placid and shy creatures as he could get his beak and talons on, hence the screen.

They were surrounded by orchids – fuchsia ones hanging from tree trunks, white and yellow orchids on tree columns, golden ones from branches of a now dead tree, pink orchids in coconut husks hanging from columns, white orchids set on small tables of various heights. The star attraction, was the Philippine orchid - The Waling-Waling- Vanda Sanderiana (see photo). Its cinnamon, gold and cyclamen colored clusters measured 34 centimeters. Esperanza must have had dozens of them.

“Fray Paco spends his days here, in case you’re wondering. I only come in the evenings when Januario and Severo have removed him.”

“Where does he sleep?” Don Alcibiade had never thought to ask before.

“See that enclosed room at the end of the verandah? We’ve covered the screen with black silk Hakka taffeta cloth to serve as curtains so that Fray Paco can sleep at night without being disturbed by the light from the stars and the moon. I had to buy nearly ten meters of the stuff. Hakka silk is very expensive. The costurera worked for three days sewing the bolts together!” she sighed. “Tio (Uncle), you can trust me. I am a tomb of silence,” Esperanza said, looking squarely into her uncle’s gray-blue eyes. The lights had been dimmed so as not to disturb Fray Paco.

“Oh Dios!” he said, distressed. “How did you find out so quickly? That’s impossible!”

“No one here said anything to me, Tio, but you’ve never come for a visit in the evening. One doesn’t have to be Marie Curie to make a simple deduction. You are in a pickle. Somehow I’m involved. In the present circumstances, it could only mean Fray Paco.”

“So you know about Marie Curie, eh? Young people shouldn’t just read ‘Vanity Fair’,” Don Alcibiade had noticed the magazine next to the bottle of Bourbon on the low table in front of him.

“Yes! It’s about Fray Paco.” Don Alcibiade looked around furtively and lowered his voice. “You swear you won’t reveal this to anyone?”

“Tio, I already told you, I am a tomb of silence.”

If you only knew the things I have seen and heard and never spoken about you would fall into a dead faint, she thought.

Now Don Alcibiade’s voice was a whisper. “No hay Moros en la costa? Are there any Moors on the coast?”

“No, but look for yourself to be sure,” Esperanza replied.

He realized his niece had a sense of humor. That was good. She would need it in life. He cleared his throat loudly.

If there were any servants eavesdropping, that must have alerted them he was about to say something important, Esperanza thought comically.

“I would like to take Fray Paco to the bank as often as possible. Keep him with me until after lunch, then Tirso can bring him back with his attendants, Januario and Severo.”

There! He had told Esperanza.

“De veras? (Is this true?) I can’t believe it!!” trilled Esperanza. “Uncle, that’s an excellent idea. His profanities, his prayers, his shocking stories and raucous sounds, oh Dios mio, sometimes I wonder why I took on Fray Paco when Uncle Torquato asked me to. He always has to have the last word. How can a cockatoo be so smart and have such an extensive vocabulary? I have not learnt to cope with him, but I will. In the meantime I am going out of my God fearing mind.

“You thought it was your duty to help out, and you’ve been doing a great job,” her uncle reassured her.

“Matthias will be the only one who’ll miss him, oh!” she said quickly “I would never harm him, but…”

“So what has the boy been doing ?” asked Don Alcibiade.

“Matt has been teaching Fray Paco some sweet nursery rhymes in English and in Spanish.”

“What? Cosa? Cosa? Esperanza, that will absolutely ruin Fray Paco,” Uncle Alcibiade declared undiplomatically and in no uncertain terms.

“Oh, don’t worry, Uncle. He hasn’t had any luck,” replied Esperanza sarcastically.

“Heh! Heh! Heh!” laughed Don Alcibiade in relief and satisfaction.

“But,” interjected Esperanza, “on the other hand, Fray Paco has not told Matt to get himself murdered or to get the pox. Perhaps there’s hope he might clean up his act. Quien sabe?”

An embarrassed Don Alcibiade confessed, “Hija, there’s more. The elderly Chinese gentleman, Don Wak Nam, Uncle Cesar’s oldest and most trusted friend and partner, has agreed to rent me a small office in the Pansiteria Wak Nam so I can work at last in Santa Paz (holy peace). You are aware he is renting one of our properties and also our largest building in Chinatown.”

“Tio, you intend to work quietly in a pansiteria?” asked Esperanza, collapsing with laughter.

To the uninitiated, a panciteria is a noodle parlor. It comes from the Fujianese pansit, which means noodle. The Spanish changed the spelling to a c, which had to be lisped. Don Wak Nam had a restaurant, which accommodated 300 people, but in keeping with his once humble origins as a tiny noodle parlor, it was still called a Panciteria. One of the many Chinese contradictions which Don Cesar and now his nephew Don Alcibiade found fascinating. Of course a Panciteria was loud and noisy and catered to the working classes of Chinatown.

“Pull yourself together, hija. You’ll wake up Fray Paco,” an offended Don Alcibiade told her. “The key to my sanity is Fray Paco.”

“You must have your reasons, Tio,” Esperanza replied softly, wiping away tears of laughter on her cheeks with a white pina handkerchief bordered in handmade lace. “If that is so, count on my support.”

“You see, hija, Don Wak Nam gave me an advantageous deal, but it’s beneficial to both parties, the catch being that Fray Paco would grace the pansiteria with his presence.”

“It’s certainly a step up in the social ladder for Fray Paco after those unmentionable places he lived in before we adopted him,” snapped Esperanza.

“My dear young woman, I definitely think it’s the other way around. He adopted us.”

“Uncle, who really knows after all these years?

Trust me. Fray Paco adopted us of his own free will.

Seriously, are you sure Fray Paco will be safe? I am his custodian until Uncle Torquato returns from Barcelona.”

“Hija, it’s pandemonium down there in Chinatown and particularly in the Pansiteria Wak Nam. It will be idyllic for him.”

“You don’t think the Wak Nam family would corrupt Fray Paco any more than he already is?” a worried Esperanza asked.

Don Alcibiade told himself, “She’s young yet. Take it easy,” so he kept quiet and bit his tongue.

“Remember, Uncle Torquato taught him the Pater Noster, the Salve Regina, and the Ave Maria Grazia Plena to counter the blasphemous oaths,” Esperanza went on.

“My dear,” Don Alcibiade told her deferentially, “in some ways you may be right. Don Torquato might have reformed Fray Paco somewhat. The Wak Nam family just want him around for local color during lunchtime. You and Dona Ibon should come with me once to taste the food.”

Don Alcibiade knew unescorted ladies never went to any of the eateries in Chinatown. The only place they frequented were the expensive department stores, tailors, dressmakers, fabric stores, embroidery shops, the porcelain and jewelry places and naturally elegant tearooms to see and be seen. They were, luckily for him and for Fray Paco, closer to Escolta which was the Fifth Avenue and the Faubourg Saint Honore and Bond Street all rolled into one.

He felt safe inviting his niece, knowing she would never call his bluff. As for Dona Ibon, she rarely left the house except to attend Mass at Santa Mesa Church. Why should she take the trouble to go anywhere? With her family’s money and her husband’s money everyone in High Society came to see her. No! She would never accept his invitation to the pansiteria in, of all places, Chinatown. She would surely wonder why he even asked her in the first place.

Don Alcibiade was bang on about his wife. But he couldn’t have been more wrong about his precious and plucky niece, Esperanza.

1 comment:

  1. Buon giorno, Isabella,

    Well done! Interesting interplay between the characters; keeps the reader involved every step of the way. And leaves us wondering at the end what will take place next. Brava. I am hooked.



Isabel Van Fechtmann

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