Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Lady at Victoria Coach Station (or, what goes around comes around)

Victoria Coach Station. (Taken on a different day from this story, but I need a photo so this will have to do)

The lady beside me wore bright pink lipstick and her hair in a towering ponytail that bounced every time she swished her head, which she did often as her gaze trailed each rushing person that passed by. Her long nails were painted metallic red and held on to bags that were stuffed with who knows what.

I was startled when she turned to me and asked me in an unmistakably Filipino accent to move one seat down the row so her partner could sit down when he got back from checking the bus schedule. I must have startled her as well when I obliged and asked her, "taga-saan po kayo?'

"Ayyyy!" she laughed, slapping my thigh gently. "Pinay ka pala day! I thought you were half!"

"Ayyyy!" I laughed in reply, touching her shoulder for good measure. "Opo, Pinay po ako!"

And so it began. She moved one seat down the row next to me, occupying the space that she had reserved for her partner, all the while telling me about how she was on her way to Newcastle to meet some friends.

Her name was Tess, she said, and I could call her Tita or Ate if I wanted. Hardly stopping for breath, she went on and happily on about how she had no idea which bus to get on, that she was so lucky she had her partner to help her out, that her son was so sweet to drop her off at the station and oh, what a shame that I didn't get to meet him, her one great wish was for him to have a Filipina girlfriend, sayang.

I kept listening--though she gave me no other choice--as she proceeded to tell me her life story. She met an Englishman in Cebu over twenty years ago. They fell in love and she fell pregnant with his child. Three years and two more kids later, they moved to London where she worked odd jobs to keep herself busy. They still lived together, though separated recently which meant she got her own bedroom. "Sayang, kung alam ko lang, you could have stayed with me!" she sighed, resting her bouncy-ponytailed head on my shoulder.

She introduced me to her partner, an awkward, bumbling man who wore a three piece suit and sported a bald spot. His hands were sweaty when I shook them, and he couldn't even look me in the eye as he spoke, but when she put her hand on his shoulder, a calmness seeped into his smile. I could see how they made a good pair.

As he sat down, I excused myself. I didn't want to third wheel them, and I had to go fetch my backpack from the luggage deposit anyway. But as I stood up to leave, Ate Tess told me imperatively to come back so I agreed. One does not simply ignore Ate Tess.

At the luggage deposit, I forked over the claim receipt that reminded me of the £4 I reluctantly let go of earlier that day, £4 that meant I had just enough money left to pay for my hostel in Liverpool, and maybe, maybe one decent meal--not even enough for a pint of beer at the Cavern Club, and definitely not enough for the Beatles museum I had wanted to see.

As I heaved my giant backpack on my shoulders, I thought, well at least the luggage deposit was necessary. I could not have gone traipsing all over London like I did with a bursting backpack that weighed a ton. But then I remembered why my backpack was so heavy in the first place. It was all those books I bought in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The bottles of Scottish Malt Whisky from Edinburgh. That clog-shaped paper weight from that charity shop. Unnecessary purchases! As I walked back towards Ate Tess, all the impulse buys and money mismanagement flashed before my eyes.

That very morning, for instance. I was walking from the hostel to the British Library, determined to spend nothing the entire day because I knew every pound from there on out was crucial to my survival, at least until I got home to my aunt and uncle in Devon.

Halfway to the library, a man stopped me in my tracks. He was very tall and walked with a rather carefree but awkward gait. His loose-limbed manner reminded me of one of my friends back home.

"Excuse me, do you know where we are?" he asked.

"Ummmm...I'm the tourist here. Shouldn't I be asking you that question?" I said.

"That's the thing. I went clubbing last night. I lost my jacket, my wallet, my mobile, and my mates. I don't know how I ended up here," he explained, laughing at his misfortune. "Do you have a map or something?"

I broke out my map, and we looked at it together. "Okay, we're here," I said, pointing to a side street off Gray's Inn Road, in the northern part of central London.

"Oh. Okay. Oh shit," he said, laughing again. It started to drizzle. He looked up at the sky and laughed even harder. Then he turned to me, and thanked me, and headed forward.

"Wait, where are you going?" I called out.

"I need to start now if I want to get home," he said. I asked him where he was headed. He asked for my map again. "Well we're here," he said, his finger landing on the same point I had shown him moments earlier. "Home is here." His fingered trailed all the way to the bottom part of the map, past the River Thames, near the London Eye. Having just been there a few days before, I knew how far it was.

"How are you getting there then?" I asked. He smiled. "Walk. No choice." And then he started.

As I watched him walk ahead of me, pulling his shirt collar up to ward off the cold, I felt my steely determination to hold on to what little money I had left crumble. "Wait!" I called, and ran to catch up to him.

"Let me buy you a tube ticket," I declared. And he smiled what was perhaps the first genuine smile I've seen him do. We walked to the station together, sharing my jacket. When I gave him the ticket, he gave me a tight hug, kissed me on the cheek, looked right into my eyes and said "thank you," and I could see he meant it. He got my name before he passed the turnstile, but I never did get his.

Still, the bright and fuzzy feeling knowing I helped someone out lasted the entire day, even as I munched on the cardboard-y toast I knicked from the hostel kitchens that morning.

But when I came face-to-face with my near-empty wallet that evening at Victoria Coach, I didn't feel so nice anymore. Why did I have to be so kind to a person I didn't even know and will never see again? He might even be a terrible person, for all I know! Or worse, a scammer! What if I had just been scammed? I was going to miss the Beatles museum for a scammer? I was going hungry for a scammer?

The thoughts clouded my head all the while as I plopped down beside Ate Tess again.

"Okay ka lang?" Ate Tess asked. I smiled and assured her I was fine, then put my happy face on again.

I listened to her talk about her hobbies, glad for a distraction from my financial troubles: "Sa edad kong to, nagpupunta pa ako sa mga club ano! Yung mga iba, kailangan lasing sila pag nagpunta dun, pero ako, mahilig lang ako sumayaw!" I watched her bright pink mouth go a mile a minute and lost myself in her perky voice and cozy accent.

Next thing I knew, she was piling food on my lap. Two cans of soup, a tub of cookies, a pack of muffins, candies galore. I was completely bewildered.

"Ate Tess, para saan po ito?" I asked.

"Para kainin!" she answered, opening a pack of Maltesers from the pile.

"Naku, wag na po! Baka po kayo naman ang magutom." I said.

"Ay, hindi no. Madami naman ang mag-aalaga sa akin dun," she said.

"Atsaka alam mo, blessings yan. Dapat yan, shinashare." She pinched my cheek lightly and flashed me a chocolate-stained smile, putting the bag of Maltesers in my hand.

I stared at it. I looked up at her, bright lips, chocolate teeth, bouncy ponytail. I looked out at the black sky, trying to find in it a face to thank for the way things turned out. I laughed when I realized it was right in front of me all along.

"Thank you po," I said.

I hope she knew how much I meant it.

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