Group Portrait at the Stopover

by Romalyn Ante

The National (UAE) reported that the Philippines’ top export is “its people”. The Guardian (UK) reported that the Philippines provides the third highest number of National Health Service staff overall.

take a walk / over the sharp stones / then come back – Pablo Neruda

i.

Elbow to elbow on waiting chairs.
We rummage through our luggage for treasures
and sunbirds flitter out. I lift the 24-carat
radiance of butter fudge. Take this, sige na,
and I will accept your focaccia and basbousa.

ii.

Manong, tell me your story until the whole terminal
smells of petrol and rust. Salt-soaked tanker.
The skyscraper-tide that almost sank your ship
is now the wind beating the viewing glass.
Remember the afternoons that could burn
a dragonfly, the oil-stickiness of your wife’s lips
and the baby you left one night, who by the morning
of your return, had turned into a man with a beard.

iii.

Manang, you keep glancing at me. For a moment
I thought the burn mark on your cheek
was a spotted moth wing. I am listening. Whisper
of the days you must dab garlic on your wrists,
smear grease on your neck, so Sir won’t grab.
Speak of the years you spent sleeping on floors –
beside potatoes and pickle jars, and the day
you learned how to arrange flowers for visitors,
fill the vases with fresh water, admire the petals
whose edges are like saw teeth.

iv.

Manong, Manang, take these, and I will tell you
how I pull out (with five colleagues) a bariatric man
from the driver’s seat and start chest compressions
in the hospital car park. I will take you there –
between rushing to A&E and the doctor yelling,
                                          Jump on him!
Jump there with me – on top of the stretcher, the man
between your legs, your hands pumping his heart.
Do not fear the clatter of wheels, the bumps
and slopes in corridors. It is only turbulence.

v.

Let these Duty Free bags distract our loved ones
from the scars on our feet. Tara na, let’s not think,
for now, of the next generation that will meet at this gate,
the same old stories that will hum out of younger mouths.
Let’s go home – straight to our elders’ kitchens
where tapioca pearls soften in a choir of casseroles.