The phone rang. It was Helena Roces, our land lady from the 28th floor. We rented a one-bedroom unit from her in the same condominium in Wack Wack, a suburb in Mandaluyong in greater Manila. Joan and I had been in the Philippines for 18 months. Helena had become a very special friend to us both. It was 2001.
“Come up for dinner on Sunday. I have some friends coming around. There will be 8 or 10 people there. Come and join us,” was her friendly invitation. Helena occupied the 28th floor of the condominium. It was not uncommon to receive a phone call from Helena who wanted to do something or go somewhere.
Arriving by lift at her floor, we rang the doorbell. Mellie, her maid came to greet us. She was about 30 years old and had worked with Helena over 12 years. She was quiet, industrious, with a little English and a warm smile. She lived with Helena, one of two permanent helpers who lived in. Lydia, an older lady, maybe 60 was the cook. She had been with Helena since she was 14.
We walked through the front door of the unit. It was not any front door. The door was a three-dimensional panel with a close-up scene of ducks in flight painted on the door. Helena was an artist, recently recognised by the Philippines Government as one of five living legends. We stepped into her main living area, large, the walls were painted depicting birds in flight. The current theme for the room. Standing in the living room was a table to seat 16 people. Two full-length glass doors opened out onto a small balcony, the noise of traffic from nearby streets filling the room.
Helena entered from the kitchen with a flourish. Graceful, elegant, a tall slim lady in her late 70s. Her straight hair, grey, fell onto her shoulders. The fading light from the open glass doors playing with her hair as it danced to her movement as she mingled with her guests. She greeted us, a smile on her face, the eyes alive. “Come and meet my friends” she said. She introduced us as her guests chatting to each one. Joan and I were the outsiders, but warmly welcomed as Helena’s friends.
The food began to arrive. I found myself sitting next to an older lady, a similar age to Helena. “I am Malinda.” she said. “Everyone calls me Mals.” She looked at me. “Do I detect an Australian accent” she asked? “Yes,” I said. “I guess I stand out a bit in the crowd.” “Yes, you do” she said. “How I love to hear you speak. The Australian accent will always be a special to me.”
Helena stood, smiled, and the room fell silent. Mellie quietly closed the two glass doors.The outside world shut out. The smell of cooking food dominant. Helena briefly welcomed everyone and then turned and spoke to Mellie in Tagalog, one of the Philippine languages. Mellie disappeared. The conversation resumed, laced with an American accent. Mal’s turned to me and asked? “What exactly do you do in the Philippines.” My answer quickly led to National Politics. “The current President is an idiot.” she said. “Only interested in his own family.” I was rescued by Mellie, who placed a bowel of French onion soup in front of me. It was a favourite of mine.
Helena had lived in Spain for several years. Each year returning to Barcelona for 6 weeks. As I quietly enjoyed my soup, I mentioned to Mals I had recently been to Corregidor. It had been a fortified island guarding the entrance to Manila Harbour during WW2. It had seen heavy fighting between the Japanese and American forces. The island remains untouched as a memorial to those who fought and died there. Mals looked up. “I lived through the Japanese invasion. It was a terrible time. We lived in Old Manila, not far from where the American Embassy is today.
“I still remember the first air raid by the Japanese on Manila. I was 17 years old. We lived in a big house. We had lots of servants. Japanese planes flew low over our home dropping bombs and firing their guns at terrified people running through the streets.” The story was interrupted by a plate of curried chicken placed in front of me. Helena once told me it was based on an old Spanish recipe given to her by a friend while living in Barcelona. The curry sweet, not at all hot. The chicken pieces, potatoes and carrots were slow cooked in a rich curry sauce. It was and remains my favourite dish.
While eating my curried chicken, Mals story unfolded. The more she spoke, the more engaged I became. “I remember my dad became very upset by the rapid developments of the war” she said. “Dad was away for a lot early in the war. He would come home late at night. At other times men would come for him and he was gone for hours. Then, one day, I heard Japanese troops were on the outskirts of Manila. Dad came to tell us we had to leave Manila. We had no time to gather up our possessions. I had my handbag and a couple of photos. Not even a change of clothes. It was dark. “Where are we going? I asked. ‘To Corregidor’ he said. We quickly boarded a small fishing boat and slowly left the mooring, quietly nosed our way out into the bay. Later, I remember arriving at a rickety pier. I saw Dad leave the boat with a group of men. I followed with my sister and Mum”
“We were taken by American soldiers to a tunnel. I remember it being long, with rooms leading off from the main tunnel. I was taken to a hospital room to rest. Wounded soldiers were cared for. We stayed in the tunnel for about 3 days. The noise around me muffled, the smell musty, the air stale. I was asleep when my father woke me. ‘We are going to take another boat ride. We must be quiet. It is dark outside. There are many fires burning across Manila’.
“We were escorted some distance by foot to a small wharf. It had been damaged. A strange, shaped boat was nosed into the wharf. ‘What’s that’ I asked my father. ‘It’s a submarine’ he said. ‘It will take us south to a small beach close to Cagayan De Oro. The quarters on the submarine will be cramped.’ My father turned and hurried off as an American sailor led us onto the submarine.” Mals paused and looked at me. “I am still claustrophobic after my experience in that submarine.”
“We lived three days and nights in that submarine. During daylight, submerged: at night we surfaced to open a hatch letting in fresh air. It was hot, smelly, the stench overwhelming. Every small wave rolled the submarine. I was so seasick. Arriving off a beach in the dark at Mindanao, we were taken from the submarine a short distance to the beach. An old truck was waiting to take us a to a waiting plane. Shortly after we were in the air. My dad came down to me. He said in a quiet voice. “We are going to Australia. We will be travelling down to Melbourne with a few stops for fuel on the way.” I still remember flying into Melbourne. It was the most wonderful sight I had ever seen.” Mals paused. Fresh mango and ice-cream untouched, sat in front of us. “What was your father doing in Australia?” I asked. There was a pause. She smiled. “My father was President Quezon the President of the Philippines.” We travelled to Melbourne with General MacArthur.”