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His arms are spindle thin. Dried snot is streaked across his face from nose to ear, edged black, as are all his features, with the soot and grime belched from a thousand exhaust pipes.
He cups one hand.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” his voice barely makes it through the locked steel and glass.
Clari instinctively gives one sharp tap back on the window. The understood signal, the definitive NO.
The boy is gone in an instant. But not before imprinting on her, like a lightning slash, that automaton-like expression of despondency.
Clari groans, and wills the red to green so she can flee the scene.
It has her, the partly irrational, wholly familiar fury. Furious with the lost boys. Furious with herself. Furious with the systems that keep these little ones enslaved.
Finally green to go. But she needs to take this fury with her, not leave it behind.
A few hours later, Clari is squelching her way over Tondo’s garbage dump with Gail, her colleague. A torrential downpour has turned the ground into a dark toxic mix of degraded waste, redeemed only by a random smatter of genuine mud. The atmosphere is heavy with the humidity of overlapping hot and rainy seasons. It is a sauna laced with the stench of decay. Fat flies atop every millimeter of wire running alongside the alleyways and crisscrossing overhead.
Clari and Gail follow a zigzag path among the hundreds of shacks crammed together in this startlingly vibrant community. In the midst of squalour, Clari also knows the embrace of gracious welcome.
She finds herself enacting a manic form of breaststroke: first, and for most of the time, head up, catching people’s eyes, returning their smiles and greetings. Then, for an instant, head ducked and eyes lowered as she wrestles away the clashing of senses. Clari does everything to hide those moments, lest misery expose misery.
But who’s fooling anyone, she murmurs.
Gail reaches out to steady Clari’s arm as they step gingerly, one after the other, on a slimy plank bridging a narrow ditch of grey bubbling goo. Clari sees in her friend’s face a steadiness, a warmth that make her grin back with gratitude. At this moment it matters not whether Gail understands an Englishwoman’s state of shellshock.
They are on their way to visit one of the sponsored students, and once they have located the right dwelling, Gail goes in alone to talk with the mother. Clari does not want her presence as a foreigner to complicate the situation. Gail needs to get to the bottom of a delicate matter with the parents. The signs are that their ten-year-old son has dropped out of school because of bullying, but so far neither the boy nor the parents have been willing to talk about it.
Clari finds a rough bench made of scrap wood. She is unsure if it will hold her weight, but she takes the risk. It is too tempting to resist, situated as it is in an oasis of shadow. The moment she is sitting, two children join her. The little girl jumps up to sit next to her, and an even younger boy, even more raggedly dressed, stands shyly close by.
“Whats-sha-name?” asks the girl, grinning from ear to ear, her grime-smudged nose wrinkled and her eyes dancing with an urgent curiosity.
“Ako si Clari. Ikaw, ate, anong pangalan mo?” Clari replies in Tagalog. I’m Clari, little sister, and what’s your name?
“Grace, po.” Grace, ma’am.
“Ikaw, kuya?” Clari turns to the little boy who is edging closer to them.
“Darren, po,” his voice is husky, Clari guesses it is from the acrid air of the nearby charcoal burning area.
Clari returns to simple English to find out if they are brother and sister. But they are not related. Grace tells her that Darren was a neighbour, but now “walang tatay, walang nanay.” No papa, no mama. So he is living with Grace and her mother, father, and three brothers.
One little extra body to squeeze in when they lay out their sleeping mats at night.
Clari pats her lap. “Let’s sing a song, Darren!”
The ragamuffin boy lets out a croak of excitement and leaps up, all shyness evaporating. Clari is now determined that, as soon as Gail reappears, she will ask for her help to find out from Grace’s parents if Grace and Darren are both going to school. If not, they will be invited to apply for sponsorship.
Clari is about to launch into her favourite children’s action song, Ikot, ikot, ikot (“Turning, turning, turning”) when she feels a:
Tap, tap, tap.
Darren has just discovered her phone. He is knocking on the pocket of her jeans.
With both Grace and Darren now on her lap, with one arm Clari holds them close, her other arm stretched up and out for a glorious selfie. The three crane their necks forward, all in one joyous accord, smiling triumphantly upwards as if to say,
And, anchored by these children, Clari’s heart aches a little less.