There was someone standing further along the beach, facing out to sea. An old man dressed in... I blinked... battle fatigues? Second World War U.S. by the looks of the helmet. I looked on for a moment, squinting into the sun-streaked coconut smoke.
‘You won’t like Bonga’s Guest House, I can tell you now. Maximo Bonga...’ said the fisherman’s wife. She was lost for words, shaking her head.
‘Maximum Bongo?’ I asked.
‘Bonga,’ she said. ‘It means flamboyant.’
Based on a true story
On one of South East Asia’s most remote beaches, a young woman’s body is found. The corrupt local police think they have found the perfect fall guy in Maximo Bonga – cantankerous World War Two veteran and owner of the weirdest guesthouse in town.
But unbeknownst to them, an unlikely friendship has been forged between Maximo and John, one of the boarders of Maximo’s guest-house-cum-boot-camp, where an old machine gun and camouflaged mantraps stand guard, sandbags form fences and a tyrannical pet rooster terrorises the guests. Along with an eccentric bunch of modern-world rejects, John sets out to defend the old soldier in a kangaroo court set up at the local cockpit, in a paradise like no other.
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The Trial of Maximo Bonga
The Story of the Strangest Guest House in South East Asia
By John Harris
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2015 John Harris
All rights reserved.
WELCOME TO THE REFUGE
I knew it was going to be a strange place the moment we entered the village. It's not every day you see a man nailed up on a cross. A real man, a live one, his head hanging limply to one side, blood from the crown of thorns on his head dripping into his fluttering eyes. Just as I stood up to get a better look, the bus driver put his foot on the brake. In a squeal of metal everyone shot forward. Young mothers dropped their crying bundles, old ladies lost their composure and dismissed the transport system as going to the dogs, and the youngsters on board grinned wider than ever. I headbutted the seat in front.
A cloud of dust smothered the bus before being blown onto someone's roadside washing. I used the foggy moment to wonder whether what I'd just seen through the windscreen was real.
After all, it had been a back-breaking 17-hour journey over a dirt road that wound its rutted way along one side of the island. Bus journeys of this magnitude tend to make the mind wander. Seven hours they'd told me when I bought the ticket the previous day. The bus collapsed halfway. 'Seven hours, you said!' I appealed.
'No wheels!' the driver replied, pointing at the snapped axle. A half-day trip turned into an overnight epic. Seven hours, my arse.
My body was heading north, up the coast of a large Philippines island in the South China Sea to a place called El Refugio. My mind, blurred with on-off sleep in a dusty heat haze, was still on Hong Kong's cross-harbour ferry, gazing down hypnotically at the rubbish; the little polystyrene icebergs in the water.
My personal reasons for leaving Hong Kong after six years were painfully inescapable to me, despite all attempts to lock them in the past. But why come here, the Philippines, and why El Refugio in particular, I couldn't quite recall. I think I just needed chaos.
Everything works with the well-oiled precision of a BMW in Hong Kong. Everyone's life is regulated, no one breaks the law except the triads, and even they only chop each other. I was fed up with order in my work and my social life. Everything I'd been looking for in the wild East had been replaced by the very things I'd originally run away from in the tame West.
I'd replaced the routine of one with the other. Exchanged England's afternoon tea with dim sum, Sundays at Greenwich flea market with visits to Stanley Market, and midweek football with horse racing on a Wednesday night at Happy Valley. And then there was the work, the nine-to-nine. If I'd known my bosses in Hong Kong were going to be just as anal as the ones in London I wouldn't have bothered.
So run away I did, once again, trying to shake the shackles of destiny as they chased me halfway round the world and found me hiding in China. I was giving it all up again; a familiar partner and the regular sex and love it provides, the security of a permanent income from a safe job, and the comforting circle of friends. The loving, stable partner, the security and friends were the problem.
And I guess all this put together added up to the Philippines, that extra mile: 'The land of not quite right,' as a friend put it. Or, more precisely, a huge island far enough from the mainland to be different. They had 7,000 of them, so getting lost should be a doddle. OK, so a few people had been kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists but so what? With any luck they'd kidnap me.
And when the dust cleared in front of the bus and the man on the cross at the head of the Easter procession materialised again I began to see just how different this place was going to be. A real Jesus. Jesus. I knew the Philippines was the only Catholic country in Asia, but this was good. He was wearing basketball shorts.
I yawned and stretched out the early morning cramps from the long journey. 'Is this El Refugio?' I asked the driver, praying it was.
He wasn't listening. Instead he leaned out of the window, spat on a passing dog and impatiently gave the parade permission to pass in front of the bus. An old man next to me wearing a cowboy hat said it was El Refugio and I sat down again, wondering what was going to happen next. The driver yanked up the hand break and rested his elbows on the wheel, resigned. A group of Filipinos dressed as Roman soldiers, with plastic swords and skew-whiff helmets, appeared from between the houses.
'What's going on?'
'Look at them,' the man next to me said.
I looked at him.
'Re-enacting the crucifixion of Christ. Every Easter it's the same. Christ. No wonder our country never gets anywhere. It was better under Marcos.'
The crowd stopped again, the man strapped to the cross opening one eye to see what the hold-up was. Bus versus Jesus in a stand-off, the Lord looking out the corner of his eye at us.
The driver leaned forward, pressing on the accelerator. Want some of this? It may be Easter week, mate, but I've got a schedule to keep. I've got a bus full here, and if I don't get them in on time there'll be all hell to pay. Vroom! His hand moved slowly across the face of the steering wheel as he reached for the horn, eyes fixed on The Man.
'Get this bus moving,' the cowboy next to me shouted, wiping another layer of dust and sweat from his face.
The driver pressed his hand down. Beeeeeep!
A cheer went up between the houses. The crucified man was hoisted aloft again and his head lulled back onto his shoulder, smug. The procession moved out from the side street, dancing, chanting and holding multicoloured Virgin Marys and crucifixes. The drunk-looking centurion at the front gave Jesus a whack with his plastic sword for good measure.
Lining the street, old women dressed up in their best lace looked happy that someone was suffering more than them. Young careworn mothers, knowing they still had decades of suffering left, looked tired. They held their little statuettes with barely concealed bitterness, as if they wanted to clunk the old girls over the head for being so superior.
On one side of the street were the doilied dinosaurs, on the other, tired child-rearers. And in the middle, young girls looking brand-spanking new in their crisp dresses, squared shoulders and erect backs.
Circling the whole crowd, running up and down the lines on this bright morning, were the boys, bursting with energy. They poked the girls and received coy brush-offs, which the older women could see was all heading in a vicious circle of innocent games turning into more teenage pregnancies.
Church bells clanged somewhere. I stuck my head out the window and looked up. A flock of pure white birds flew across the blue sky. The tinny recorded voice of a repentant woman chanting Hail Marys echoed off the crooked limestone cliffs that circled this small fishing village they call El Refugio: The Refuge.
I looked back the way we'd come in, squinting into the rising sun; a natural canyon in the landscape just wide enough for the dirt road to squeeze through. On both sides fissured limestone rising to 50 metres was picked out crisply against a clear sky.
Lining the road each side of us were tatty shacks with storefronts where entrance doors would normally be. Eateries with trays of butchered animals, fried fish and rice. Shops with dangling blue and red plastic Chinese products, each one selling exactly the same as its neighbour. A bakery displaying radioactive-looking cakes, and a table with some shrivelled vegetables on it. All unattended as the crowd grew and grew until the bus was floating in people.
The driver slumped back onto the steering wheel as the 3-metre crucifix passed in front of the windscreen and made a right turn. Another cheer went up. The frenzied procession turned into our road from the side street, a collective bounce starting somewhere in the mass. It was a bit like jogging on the spot, everyone shuffling forwards, framed pictures of the Messiah held out. Up and down they went, the man on the cross bobbing precariously at the head. Then it happened.
The straps holding Jesus to the beam unravelled, his feet slipped, and he did an arms-in-the-air fall and forward roll on the dirt a Premiership footballer have been proud of. Right in front of the Hard Rocks Videoke Bar.
This time the roar came from inside. Drunken, shiny-faced men rushed out of the pub and went down on their knees to administer a tonic to their fallen idol. Was he all right? Would he live? A bottle of rum went to his lips. There was a moment's uncertainty as he milked the once-a-year attention for all it was worth, remaining stiff as a board, eyes defiantly closed.
I was on the edge of my seat. I was out of my seat, and so was everyone else. Even the jaded old cowboy next to me was leaning forward, hat off, mouth open. A fly went in.
'Perhaps he is injured,' a concerned woman said.
'He only drinks San Miguel,' the old man dismissed.
The bottle of rum went back to his lips and everyone held their breath. There was a flutter of eyelids, a pained frown and smacking of dusty lips before his eyes opened fully. 'Oh my God, where am I?' his expression said. He grasped the man's wrist in a death-like hold, sucked on the bottleneck and guzzled.
All the men cheered and began piling back into the bar. All the women sighed with despair, resigned to yet another show of their men unable to get a grip on life. Unable to steer even Jesus from temptation.
And when the Roman centurion saw the only foreigner on the bus and came on board to get me I tried to say no. I had to find a room. I needed a shower to wash off the hours of dust that had stuck to me. I felt like a stinky pair of underpants. I needed food, water, rest.
'You like drinking beer?' the legionnaire said.
Everyone on the bus stared at me.
Look, I thought, as he dragged me – not exactly kicking and screaming, it has to be said – from the bus, Jesus ain't the only one who's suffered. If you'd spent six years stuck in Hong Kong you'd want to get pissed as well.
The village of El Refugio reveals itself pretty quickly. There aren't more than half a dozen dirt streets and the whole place nestles inside a snug, square kilometre. The surrounding cliffs on the landward side and the open sea on the other make it impossible to walk for more than 10 minutes without either repeating a street, slamming into a cliff face or walking into the sea. I felt as though I was at the end of the line, literally. It allseemed to make sense. The place matched my mood perfectly. Any further and I'd have been drowning, in every sense.
When I'd arrived at Manila airport two days earlier the woman at customs had asked where I intended to visit. When I told her where I was going she looked up from her stamping duty. 'Why not Boracay? The place you're going is ...'
'The end of the line?' I completed. 'Perfect.'
But that wasn't far enough away for me; I needed the end of the end of the line. And as I stood there that morning on El Refugio's little beach, surrounded by shagging dogs, defecating pigs and drunk fishermen, I knew I'd found it.
Dropping my bag and squinting through the wood smoke drifting from the village, I gazed out over the flat calm of the bay. Running my eyes over the pregnant belly of a large dome-shaped island just offshore, I could see the end of the world.
I closed my eyes and floated above the earth, picturing thousands of islands and focusing in on this one. I could see the road from the state capital and its end here, as it ran between the cliffs and dropped into the sea. I could visualise myself as an 'X' on a map. I drifted, the beer I'd just drunk with Pontius Pilate and Co. warming my stomach nicely.
'Goot mornink to you.'
I opened my eyes and stared at a fisherman pulling nets from a beached outrigger just in front of me.
'I say goot mornink to you!'
I spun around. A very short, pot-bellied, middle-aged white man with a handle bar moustache and wearing only a G-string was marching along the beach. I thought I was hallucinating. He waltzed past, his stubby little legs scissoring to and fro, his buttocks wobbling and rotating around the tiniest strand of red material.
'I am Ziegwalt,' I just about heard him say before a mad pack of dogs came racing out between the palm trees and chased him down the beach.
The fisherman watched the bum speed away before coming over. He plonked a bucket on the sand next to my foot. 'Lobster?'
I blinked, looking from him to the galloping pack chasing the pink arse.
'Him live here,' the fisherman said, as if that clarified things. 'Dog not like him.'
I crouched and looked into the bucket at the lobsters. They were massive. Only a week before I'd paid thirty quid for one half this size in a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong. It was tasteless. 'How much?'
He weighed it. 'Two hundred pesos.'
Three quid. 'I'll take it.'
'You want I cook him?' He pointed to the boat where a woman was off-loading a little stove.
'Help! Zhese dogs! Zhey are not goot!' Ziegwalt ran back the other way still chased by the salivating pack.
'Yes please,' I said.
The fisherman picked up my bag and we sat on his boat's outrigger while his wife boiled the lobster.
They seemed so content with their lot, and I really envied them what they didn't have. Here I was, pockets full of cash, money in the bank and totally bloody miserable. And there they were; one crappy wooden boat, a tatty fishing net, a few sticks of dynamite, and they were smiling. I felt like doing myself in there and then.
The lobster boiled up nicely. The fisherman's wife jammed a knife into it and served it to me on a plate. 'Salt?' I nodded and asked if she had pepper. She had. And calamansis (tiny native oranges the size of marbles), and rice, and more ciggies.
I felt all right with the world after that. The vomity feeling I'd been experiencing had gone down, along with the suicidal tendencies. There's a lot to be said for a full stomach. I think it might be connected to the heart.
'You need room?' the fisherman asked, chucking the scraps to the pack of dogs, who'd got bored chasing Ziegwalt. A fight broke out, tails between legs, lips curled over top teeth. I briefly thought about the discos in Hong Kong, and how similar the packs of gladiatorial women behaved when they sensed a bulging wallet nearby.
'Him have rooms,' he said, and I followed his arm and pointing finger down the curving beach.
There was someone standing further along, past the burning coconut husks. An old man dressed in ... I blinked ... battle fatigues? Second World War US by the looks of the helmet. He was standing on the shore facing out to sea. I stood my ground for a moment, squinting into the sun-streaked coconut smoke.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the old man's right arm came up and he saluted.
'You need a room?' a female voice called.
An old Filipina woman with candyfloss for hair came to her garden fence and cracked a rug like a whip, drawing her head to one side to avoid the dust.
I looked back at the mirage then at the old lady again.
'You need a place to stay?' she barked. 'I have rooms here.'
The sign above her read 'Gladys's Cottages. Hot and Cold showers & More'. I looked back down at her, wondering what the 'more' was. She reminded me of the Tai Tais in Hong Kong, a species of wealthy, grasping elderly ladies I'd learned to hate over the years. It's not good to judge people on first encounter but sometimes gut instinct is right on the money. The sun was striking her pink rinse and I could see her scalp. She wore a thick mask of make-up and I could just imagine it sliding down during the heat of the day to transform this gargoyle into a real monster by evening. I was already sweating like crazy, so God knows how she felt in that dressing gown. This must be Gladys.
The prospect of a shower and bed right there and then was tempting, but if that old soldier had a place to stay I could be in for a real treat. Like I said, I was after weirdos and chaos. Although Gladys wasn't exactly the epitome of sanity standing there on the beach in her mules, that old boy beat her hands down.
'Well ... um ... I think ...'
'Two hundred and fifty pesos a night,' she said, draping the rug over her picket fence. 'Including Milo. Take it or leave it.'
'Can I have a look,' I said, trying to find a reason to leave it and wondering who the hell Milo was.
'That one there.' She pointed to a wooden shed behind her.
'Does it have a shower?'
'Well if you want to look I suppose I'll have to go to my store and get the keys.'
What a dragon. She should call it Gladys's Lair.
'But I don't want visitors. No hanky-panky, no drinking – there are too many drunks in this village already, he's one of them – and no pets.'
Her voice trailed off as she looked back down the beach. The old man was gone. All that stood in his place now were two dogs going at it like the clappers while kids threw stones at them. One of the children stood and mimicked them, thrusting his groin back and forth in the air. Another kid copied him and soon all of them were standing in a line. It looked like they were doing the conga.
'Never see their parents in church on a Sunday,' Gladys huffed.
'What, the dogs?'
She didn't laugh. Instead she turned and growled at a girl who was polishing the veranda of one of the cottages with half a coconut husk. The cleaner had begun to sing very lightly while swinging her hips to and fro, using her foot to move the buffer. She went down on her hands and knees and smiled through the balustrade at me.
Excerpted from The Trial of Maximo Bonga by John Harris. Copyright © 2015 John Harris. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to the Refuge,
Cockfights and Kybosh,
A Private Eye,
Vampires, Doves and Fugitives,
Whose Side Are You On?,
A Lam in Wolf's Clothing,
Ich Bin ein Detektiv,
Trial of the Century,