Joy Christine Greedy grew up in Lithgow, country NSW Australia. A trained nurse professionally, she moved to Singapore in 1986 with her husband Mark and children Joshua and Candice. After 19 years in the republic, she is now a permanent resident. Her novel, In the Shade of the Tembusu Tree, flourished out of her extensive travels and the characters she had met along the way.
Also known as the Singapore
five-dollar note tree, is native to Singapore. Tembusu trees are impressive in
size, hardy and adaptable. The Tembusu flowers are creamy white and especially
fragrant at sunset. They are very popular with the birds that feast twice a year
on the trees’ red berries. Two magnificent specimens thrive in the
Singapore Botanical Gardens. Children can be seen sitting and playing in the
Tembusu trees’ low branches and they form a favourite backdrop for wedding
Makati Cemetery: The Philippines 1973
Espinosa sucked in his breath as he glanced at the fingernail moon, half hidden
by a clouded sky. He revved the noisy bike and looked back toward the iron
railing of the mausoleum. Without lights, his journey would be perilous, over
rutted dirt roads littered with potholes and lubak. It was four
kilometres to the midwife’s shack.
Olina had given birth alone, stoically without a sound, while her two
small sons slept on a tattered mat on the marble floor. Boboy cut the cord with
his bolo and applied ash to seal it.
The infant, a girl, was small but cried lustily. Olina laboured intensely, but
despite Boboy’s ceremonial leaf burning, the afterbirth would not come.
He reached the road bordered by broad-leafed banana plants and
thatch-roofed huts. Tala’s louvered shutters were firmly closed. He prayed
fervently as he approached the midwife’s house that she would be there.
Tala and Boboy arrived back as the light was starting to filter through
the palms, to find the gravesite eerily quiet. Olina hunkered in the corner like
a frightened animal. Under the most primitive conditions, Tala crossed herself,
said a prayer and delivered the placenta. She gave Olina a bitter mixture of
herbs and oil as she chanted an incantation, and then took the infant into her
arms, checking it carefully. She cleaned the umbilical cord with a tincture and
gave the baby to her mother to nurse. Olina was too exhausted to speak. She took
Tala’s hand and kissed it as a sign of respect for the older woman. The family
could only afford a paltry donation. Tala assured her that she did not expect
payment, but she took the small amount gratefully.
As the sun sliced through the palms, Boboy placed crossed sticks at the
baby’s head, to avert any harm that may come to the child while he was away.
He then left for his job as a cigarette street vendor. His spirits were high as
the rusty bike spluttered along the roadside. Old men in broken-down beach
chairs, smoking and drinking tuba,
shouted “Hoy” as he passed. He rode on, over corrugated dirt roads, the hot
wind cooling the sweat on the back of his neck. On his way he passed nippa grass
and rippling green paddies. He waved at the laughing brown-eyed children and
squabbling women. He grinned, pleased with himself; today he would buy Olina
some Pop Rice and a Royal Orange. Today she would not have to clean the graves.
Espinosa was afraid of many things, but she was not afraid of the dead. She was
born under a statue of Saint Maria in a stone mausoleum in a municipal cemetery.
Her mother Olina, like all Filipinos, was highly superstitious; it was the
woman’s duty to keep evil spirits away from the home. Olina had dreamt the
night before her birth, of a small silk-lined casket. Boboy, her husband, knew
the dream could not be ignored, and was not surprised when he had to summon the
midwife. This story, and many more, of how the two had met and grew up in the
macabre surroundings, was told often to Esmirada and her two brothers, Manny and
As a child Boboy had moved to the cemetery after a typhoon destroyed the
family’s fishing hut on the island of Samar. His father had irregular work,
while his mother was a market vendor.
They lived for
a while under bridges, near railways in houses made from cardboard and scraps of
corrugated iron. Olina’s family had moved a decade ago from the countryside.
Esmirada loved her cemetery home; it was peaceful and carefree. She,
Ricardo and Manny ran barefoot and wild with scores of other children who lived
in the many village cemeteries in the area. They did not go to school but spent
their days digging for valuable garbage in the nearby tip, or fishing for bottle
tops and tin cans in the sewer. Secretly they would sit with the old men
watching the pula puti and hanging
about in the shade of the tattered tent awning of the sari
sari. They listened with wide eyes to the stories, squabbles, tsimsis and idle gossip of the women. They would sit beside the road,
and watch the rusting sugar-cane trucks roar down the highway, spewing diesel in
a hazy band of pollution.
As Manny and Ricardo grew older, Boboy would take them along to sell
cigarettes in the streets and later in the hotels. The exposure to many hazards:
drunkenness, street fighting, drug dealing and prostitution, ate away at him,
but Boboy had few choices in his life. Esmirada helped her mother clean the
graves and mausoleums for a few pesos, and in the evening she sat on the cool
marble floor sorting through the rice, picking out bits of grit and small
pebbles. They ate salted fish by coconut-oil lamp, sitting on top of the crypt
before finally lying down next to the entombed to sleep. On Sundays the family
would wake before sunrise, pack, clean, and leave their home before the
relatives of the dead came to visit.
Each October, the small family banded together and left the cemetery
until after All Saints Day in November. Esmirada hated that time of the year.
They would go to stay with their Tiyo in
Tondo, a slum on the outskirts of Manila. Buboy lived with his wife Rosa and
three small sons in a squalid plywood shack surrounded by even smaller hovels.
Her Lola and Lolo lived nearby
in a hut built from tin, scraps of wood and cardboard. Esmirada despised the
ripe stench of garbage that lay festering in the heat, picked over by the slum
children and flea-bitten dogs. The noise of the slums disturbed her after the
peace of her mausoleum. Tiyo’s dwelling was one room with a flimsy wall
dividing it from the next family. You could hear everything: the curses, abusive
taunts, wailing, miserable children and the strange animal grunting from the men
and women late at night. They had to sleep in relays because of lack of space. A
black cloud of mosquitoes would rise from the filthy ditches, and every time it
rained cockroaches, trying to escape the deluge, would invade her makeshift bed.
Her saviour during these visits was Lola; she loved her small dark
grandmother with her wizened face and teeth blackened from too much betelnut. The door to Lola’s house was only four foot high,
causing her to bend and stoop each time she entered. Lola was
industrious, inventing a myriad of ways to make a few pesos. Her eyes had
started to fail, forcing her to give up her sewing. Her latest venture was
making kerosene lamps for the barrio. When Esmirada came to visit, she would
help her search for jars at the dump. It was her job to scrape the filth and
labels off in a bucket of cold water with her fingernails. Lola painted
the lids and made wire handles and wicks, working from dawn to dusk in the small
dirt courtyard of her hut.
spoke English well but preferred a pot pourri of Tagalog and Spanish. She spoke
to Esmirada in English, as she had done with Olina. As they worked, she regaled
her granddaughter with superstitions, myths and folklore. Esmirada wasn’t sure
what they meant but she loved the intimacy brought about by the telling of the
stories. Her favourite was of Terengati
the bird hunter. Her calloused hands would catch at her faded housedress and
suddenly it became the winged-robe of the sky fairy.
her grandfather, had had a stroke and spent his time lying on a woven pallet on
the dirt floor. Lola resented the old man and the extra care he now
required. Even when he had been able-bodied, he had been foolish and lazy. He
had a drinking addiction, as Lola told it, and would whittle away the day
lazing under the awning of the sari sari, drinking tuba,
playing the guitar and singing endless Filipino love songs.
“He was guwapo when I first
met him as a young girl. I was shy
but he slowly won me over with his energetic smile.”
Esmirada listened intently as the old woman expertly coiled the wire for
“No matter how full the rooster may be, it will still peck grain when
it is given.”
She spat a gob
of red-stained spit in the dirt and looked sideways at the old man. Esmirada had
heard this proverb many times and had heard it applied to her tiyo Buboy
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