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Chaos. Wrenching at her. It will sweep her away if it can. Clari’s left hand grips the gummy steering wheel, her right the stubborn gear stick. Catapulting her way through Manila traffic, she jostles for position within this gargantuan herd of metallic water buffalo. The old SUV’s air-conditioning battles the fume-ridden oven heat. Clari’s brow drips liquid salt into her eyes. She wipes away the worst, then swipes hard at the car horn. A young woman is striding across the road in front of her. This is routine pedestrian behaviour, ignoring everyone on wheels, presuming they will slow down or swerve around. Clari herself adopts the same strategy of nonchalance when she’s a pedestrian, though with less bravado than this Filipina who, now that she is safely across, acknowledges Clari’s existence with a look of mild annoyance.
Sounding her horn has simply exposed Clari’s identity as a foreigner: out of sync and completely in the wrong gear. All cultural readjustment skills have apparently abandoned her. Now she strains to see the kaleidoscopic frenzy of heat-shimmering streets, vehicles, and humanity, with eyes that once welcomed these sights as friendly and familiar, even appealing. Exhaling sharply, she gasps a prayer: “Help!” A single tear mingles its saltiness with the sweat on her cheek.
Anguish is the fee for leaving, and for returning. The first few days back are an inevitable pit of teeth-grinding, disorientating, limbo-like lostness. But Clari will find her feet again, and all will be well. Only not quite yet. Because now she is fighting a rising desperation to reach the NGO headquarters before she crumbles. Simply being on site with colleagues, with the kids, will rebalance her emotions, reset her being. And remind her why she first came to this country, why she keeps coming back.
Tap, tap, tap.
Her son’s fingers on the glass garden table, drumming his disapproval. Clari is making a last-ditch attempt to relish the fresh brightness of a Devon spring. They sit together on the cobbled terrace amidst the grandeur of Eddie and Susan’s immaculate shrubbery. To no avail. He cannot keep silent.
“Mother, don’t you think...” Eddie shifts uncomfortably in his bamboo chair. “Well, don't you think that...”
He seems exasperated at his loss for words, but his mother is not about to help him out. She gazes at him with mixture of love, patience, a touch of sadness.
“It’s just that, well,” Eddie persists, “don’t you want to be thinking about preparing for retirement? Here. In England.”
Clari’s smile only serves to frustrate him further.
“Instead of gallivanting, mother, around the world. And always back to the Philippines! Of all places!”
“Of all places, Eddie, the Philippines is a pretty darned good place to gallivant!”
Clari immediately regrets her half-hearted attempt at humour. Her dear, handsome son’s face twists momentarily — that furrowed brow, that pursing of lips, a sharp reminder of his childhood expression of disappointment.
Tap, tap, tap.
Clari has stopped at a red light. A scrawny boy around eight years old is reaching up to her window and knocking, his other hand shading his eyes so he can peer through the tinted glass of her aircon bubble and make eye contact.