The backstreets of Manila underwent seasonal changes. At this time of year, they were made of paper mache. There wasn't a square inch of wall that wasn't covered in posters and flyers of all kinds, splashed across every kind of surface from plywood to sheet metal in the vain hope of catching the odd tourist who dared to venture down a Manila side-street. Every doorway and every window was emblazoned with the computer-generated logo of some dodgy fast food takeaway, blatant copyright infringement as standard. There were still hints of the faded, worn old election material still peeping through from behind crumbled edges, paper so thin that it now seemed to be transparent, but as the paltry sums doled out by the campaign sponsors had long since dried up they were slowly but surely being phased out.
A young girl picked at one of the posters with interest, tearing scraps of it away with her uneven fingernails; it peeled off, piece by piece, leaving scrapings all over the floor. The plywood behind it was soaked through by the tropical monsoons that now rumbled off into the distance; the precious artefact that she'd sought for soon revealed itself. Bulacan St., Intramuras. Barangay 832.
She drew back with a huff, wiping her nails on her torn-up jeans before casting around herself, looking for the quickest - and the cheapest - route to her new destination. It was about ten minute's brisk walk from where she was now - but that was through a major industrial centre that was dirty and smelly and she was already covered in slime. The bus routes were crowded this time of night, jam-packed with communters. And, at any rate, she couldn't afford the fare. There was nothing else for it: she'd have to turn back and go back home. She was kidding herself if she thought that being punctual would guarantee her job security; she might as well let this one go. Let someone else pick up the tab.
She turned around with the weight of shame on her shoulders, and trudged off back into the alley, rapping her knuckles on a door so badly beaten it was about to fall off of its hinges, and letting herself in without another word. The air of the bar was thick and smelled strongly of stale tobacco. Men and the occasional woman - all boob tubes and plastic heels - still curled up in corners, or lounged across sofas, carrying on their card games well into the morning. But most of the patrons had packed up and left. The restaurant area was almost deserted, save for the flies, and the only person she saw besides herself in the smashed window pane behind the bar was the cleaner-cum-finance manager, a Mr. M. de Arriortúa. She wandered up behind him and cleared her throat.
"Excuse me," she said. "Where is the owner? I have business that I need to take care of." Her attempt to sound important obviously didn't wash: the cleaner laid down his broom, and eyed her sceptically.
"Yeah, well, it's sir to you, missy, and so does he. He's away on business of his own. Down in Pasay."
"Oh, that's a shame," she retorted, slightly riled by the crass American's assumption of superiority over her. "Well, if you do see him, tell him I resign."
"Oh, you resign, do you? Well I didn't know you were working here, so I guess he's cool with that." The girl laughed through her nose, and turned away, simmering, before she reached boiling point.
"Good day to you, too, Manuel," she hissed, catching the door as a patron walked in. He picked up his broom, determined to let her leave, but something snagged him.
"Jasmine..." he called, darkly. She turned. "Come on, now." The sharpness in his voice lessened to begrudging affection. "Don't be silly, girl, if you walk out that door you'll turn away the best job opportunity you've ever had." There was silence for a moment: Jazzrow placed a hand on her hip and twirled the other coquestishly.
"You have a very funny definition of opportunity." While the Parthian shot still rang in the air, she made her exit, and wandered out into the dusty alley once again, headed for home.
When she made it back, the plate of orange mutton was already on the stove outside, crackling and hissing like a bonfire. Her mother and brother were crowded around it, rubbing their hands and talking of village affairs, as usual. Such things were above her: she went straight to her part of the house, and threw herself down on the pile of blankets and wool that she'd spent the whole of last summer collecting. It was the most luxurious part of the house, and it was no surprise to find Lorenzo sprawled out across the mattress. He was the most gorgeous creature she'd ever seen; deep, dark, penetrating eyes and a ripped physique that was the envy of all the men in the village. His snout had obviously ruffled the covers, searching for imaginary beasts again, and he'd evidently gorged himself on whatever cockroaches and lice had crawled out of the woodwork in the rainy weather: he was laying there with one leg up in the air, on his side, snoring contently.
Jazzrow reached out a hand and tickled his tummy; no response from the idle creature. Pulling his blanket? Didn't stir him. Slapping his plump arse? He grunted, but did not awake. What did she have to do to rouse the blimp? Slowly, she stood up and wandered over to the kitchen area, a jumbled assembly of pots and pans on assorted counters, and the most basic collection of yellowing household appliances that barely functioned. She selected her weapon: a solid metal pan, with a fine wooden handle that made it ideal for prolonged whacking. She approached the blissful creature with the stealth of a primitive hunter across the ten feet of living space, and brought the cold metal down on the fat, wobbly mass of ham that was his backside. The creature jumped up honking and squealing, and bolted out the door whilst Jazzrow laughed hysterically on the mattress. Her banging the pan on the floor in her fits if laughter only added to its confusion, and pretty soon it was dashing through the back-alleys of the shanty town, terrifying residents and visitors alike in its mad dash. She could hear the crashes and bangs as they scrambled to get out of the way, dropping things and running into doorways.
Her mother let out screams of derision, ordering her brother to go and chase the creature. She could picture him now, being whacked frantically on the head whilst he tried to finish whatever bit of greasy meat he'd had in his hands. "Go on, tempt the creature with it, go on!" The laughing continued for a good five minutes as the sounds of the chase grew ever more distant. Jazzrow expected at any moment her mother to come in and lamp her, but obviously tracking down the water buffalo was more important than giving her daughter a good hiding. She curled herself up in her covers, and fell asleep with a big smile on her face.
Finally, she was woken up by the sound of two people walking in through the front curtain. It seemed like she'd been asleep for hours, but as she looked through one of the gaps in the roof it was clear that it could have been no more than half an hour since the water buffalo had escaped. She rubbed her eyes, and tried to determine who the voices belonged to. It took a while, but one of them was evidently her mother, and the other was a man who was so far anonymous. Judging by the hushed tones, they were presumably talking about her. She sat up softly, and strained to listen to their conversation.
"The water supply's gone again. The municipal pipe has burst. The mill says that there's not enough in their stores to continue work." That was her mother's voice. There was a brief clattering as she rummaged around in the cupboards. "That means that he's going to be home for a few days."
"Earning no money?" came the male voice. It sounded familiar. Her brother, maybe? There was silence: Jazzrow imagined her mother shaking her head. "Well how are we supposed to pay for all of this?"
"Well you could ask your lazy excuse for a sister in there." Yes. The man was undoubtedly her brother. Unless there was another girl in here that Jazzrow wasn't aware of.
"What's she done now?" her brother sighed.
"She's only gone and let the buffalo out again."
"Well, that's hardly her fault, is it?" Her brother seemed to strain to justify her actions.
"Hmm. That's another few coins gone down the drain, that's for sure."
"Well we'll find another one. I'll go and talk to her." He kissed her mother on the forehead, and calmly walked off. A second later, he appeared in her doorway, and, seeing the crumpled girl once again pretending to be asleep, cleared his throat.
"Jazzrow?" Time to take a leaf out of her water buffalo's book. "Jazzrow?" No answer. She lay there, still as cardboard, waiting for him to leave. He sighed. "I know you're not asleep, Jazzrow. Just tell me how it went." She sat up, and looked at him. His work-clothes were covered in oil. Some big vehicle had sprung a leak.
"How what went?"
"Your job? You did get a job, right?"
"Oh yeah. I got a job alright." She turned away from him, and lay back down on her stomach, facing the wall. The covers ruffled as her brother knelt down on them. She expected him to put his hand on her hair, but he didn't.
"What do you mean? What's happened this time?" She groaned.
"I got fired."
"After one day?"
"Jazz...you don't get fired after one day for doing nothing. Couriers these days are hard to come by. What did you do wrong?"
"Why's it always me who does something wrong?"
"Be fair, Jazzrow. It usually is." Jazzrow smiled. She was glad this was her brother. He was the only person who could say that to her without either of them getting a slap. And, she had to admit, it was true.
"Well it wasn't this time. I just couldn't afford the bus fare to Barangay 832, so they fired me."
"Couldn't you just walk?" her brother enquired. Now she wasn't glad it was him; he had intimate knowledge of the city, and he'd taught most of it to her over the years. He'd probably already visualised a route she could've taken in his head, and was now curious as to why she hadn't done so.
"Nope," she said, simply, rolling over onto her back and stretching slightly.
"For fuck's sake, Jazz," he said, gently teasing, after making sure their mother was out of earshot. "You can't keep throwing away jobs like this."
"Yeah, that's what Monkeyface said."
"Monkeyface, as you call him, is a valued family friend. Be fair."
"Well, he may be a family friend, but he's not a friend of me."
"Well, of course not, he hasn't seen why being friends with you is worth the effort," her brother chuckled, stroking her hair affectionately. "But he still cares about you, Jazz. When he gives you good advice, it's for a reason." There was a pause. She raised an distrusting eyebrow.
"And what reason would that be? Invites to our family barbecues? Making sure we can still send him rice on time for that takeaway of his? Checking up on some of those girls up in the village? Or all three?" Her brother sighed again.
"Listen - you have a point. I don't trust him all that much, but he has a point. You need that work, Jazz, you need a job. You can't live under this roof forever, you know, not now that water pipe's burst again. Your mother and I can't afford to feed you."
"I'll feed myself."
"How? By stealing? You saw where that got you last time. You're going to end up in a lot of trouble if you're not careful, and we just don't have the money to bail you out."
"I'll bail myself out."
"Oh, yeah, and how are you going to do that? There are only two ways of doing that, Jazzrow, and one of them's impossible - you're not Rambo - and the other doesn't suit you."
"What do you mean it doesn't suit me?"
"Don't try and start arguments. You know full well what I mean. You're not cut out for that line of work, Jazzrow: you've got too much brains for that." Jazzrow huffed.
"Could've fooled me. If I had brains I'd have been taken up by some big multinational occidental thing by now."
"You know they don't recruit around here. Dry your eyes and get up. We're going to go get your water buffalo back." He pulled out a tissue from his pocket, and handed it to her. She was startled at first: she didn't think he'd noticed her crying. Then she remembered that he had a nack for these things. She took it dutifully, and wiped her eyes once, throwing the tissue behind her and letting him pull her onto her feet. "Oh - and brush yourself down. Monkeyface is coming over tonight." She groaned. "How hard did you whack the buffalo this time?"
"A good solid one. Right on the arse," she said proudly.
"The further away he is, the better. We might have an excuse to miss the barbecue. Just this once."