Part One: Queen of the Islands

This opening chapter of “The Happy Dancer” was joint winner of The New Writer magazine’s competition for the “First 500 words of a novel”. It was subsequently a finalist in the Fresh Talent competition for the best opening chapter of a novel; and reached the long-list for the original “Lit Idol” competition.  

Chapter One:  Tuesday, January 3rd, 1989

Ninoy Aquino is the only airport in the world named after someone who was gunned down the instant he stepped off the plane. On the other hand, there’s a ten-piece band to welcome anyone who makes it as far as the arrivals hall. For me, the Philippines will always conjure up that mingling of danger and delight.

We’d been travelling for 24 hours, the air conditioning in the terminal was turned down just low enough to be ineffective and I was caked in long-haul grime: but that band was like a cool breeze. They were decked out in bright tropical shirts, perfectly creased black trousers and huge, face-splitting smiles. As I queued for immigration I caught the bandleader’s eye and he somehow managed to widen his grin another couple of millimetres. I grinned back like an idiot. It was charm at first sight.

It also helped relieve the stress I’d felt ever since the phone call that terminated a cosy Christmas at home with my girlfriend in favour of an urgent trip to the Far East with my boss. Two ships had collided in an obscure archipelago on the other side of the world and although nobody white or famous had been on board, I knew that this was the big one. It might barely rate a mention in the western media but judging by the Lloyd’s accident reports, the loss of the Queen of the Islands was shaping up to be one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

So here it was: an acid test of the motto I’d cited so proudly during my interview at the UN Maritime Safety Agency barely six months before. I’d been expounding on why I was the ideal candidate for the job of Deputy Manager, Asia-Pacific, when the Director General walked in and challenged me to sum up my motivation in one sentence. My reply still makes me cringe, for it surely belonged to someone else – someone shockingly earnest and naïve.

‘Let’s put people before profit.’

More shockingly still, they gave me the job.

And so here I was, Johnnie Kelso, at twenty-eight a real live representative of the United Nations, on my first outing to a world where safety and profit grind against each other like two ships trying to squeeze into a dock that’s only big enough for one.

My burning desire to make the world a better place was somewhat tarnished by the fact that I hadn’t a clue where to begin – and my nervous tension was further stoked by fear of suffering a humiliating failure on my first mission. I tried hard to keep that hidden beneath a veneer of professional calm but when we emerged into the mayhem of the main concourse, I very nearly lost it.

Common sense told me that all these people were just happily meeting and greeting each other – but it still reminded me of one of those Vietnam movies where there aren’t enough helicopters to get everyone out before the VC or the Khmer Rouge crash the party. We fought our way through like countless Westerners before us, struggling to maintain dignity and good manners while applying just enough brute force to achieve our goal.

By the time we climbed into our taxi, the little rivulets of sweat trickling down my torso had met up around my groin and formed streams that flowed all the way down to my socks. The discomfort was so distracting that we’d pulled away from the kerb before I noticed it was already dark. As we left the pick-up zone the bright lights terminated with startling abruptness; and when my eyes adjusted, I saw that our route was hemmed in by a vast and stationary crowd. It was as if there were two airports, one either side of the edge of darkness.

‘What are they all waiting for?’

Nils, my boss, gave a cursory glance and grunted. ‘Buses. Friends. Foolish foreigners who venture out of the lighted areas. In this city, it is not wise to stray too far into the darkness. Not everyone who does so returns.’

Nils always made me feel rather small, not least because that weather-beaten face gave him an air of incontestable authority. I pretended to be unimpressed and fiddled with the air vents, directing a cool breeze over my face while I watched the shadow play on the streets. Nothing I saw was familiar and that delighted me. Every man feels a sense of release when he gets away from his partner for awhile but that wasn’t the half of it. I wasn’t just eager for an adventure in an exotic foreign land: I was gagging for it.

My girlfriend and I had parted on uneasy terms, Rachel extorting a promise from me to call her every day and hinting that I’d have to make some hard choices when I got back. In retrospect it’s more than a little ironic that I thought a trip to the Orient would somehow throw those choices into sharper relief, making them easier to negotiate. How could I have been so naïve? How could I have imagined that plunging into a world of alien experience was going to make anything simpler or more straightforward?

Instead I floundered straight into a moral quagmire. In no time at all I was bogged down worse than a platoon of Marines in the Mekong Delta, wondering what the hell I was doing there and how the hell you could tell the gooks from the good guys. Pretty soon, ‘Let’s put people before profit’ was fighting for survival against ‘Let’s do what we gotta do and get the fuck outta here’. And some of what we did wasn’t the kind of thing you tell your girlfriend about when you get back home.