From London to Virac: A Mother’s Tale of Woe - PDI

The woman continues to haunt town plazas and the church belfry in the dead of night, probably reminiscing about the house she had saved for by working abroad, but which some relatives had reportedly appropriated for themselves. She might also be thinking of her lost love – her British lover with whom she had a son.

Her son, Tarik Khan, whose story was featured in SIM in January this year, has recovered from his sad past. But the mother still needs help, the main reason for this sequel. As far as can be gathered, hers is a story of unrequited love compounded by what she considers as betrayal by family.

Her real name is Esperanza Tresvalles, and I met her some 15 years ago while I was mounting a voice recital near a historic church by the river in Bato, Catanduanes. It seems providential that I would always see her everytime I was preparing for a concert on the island.

Eight years ago, after a concert in the capital town, I set out to visit my mother’s grave at 5:30 in the morning, just before my flight back to Manila. On board a tricycle to the cemetery, I saw her huddled by the church patio, munching some shriveled bread and staring into nowhere. The face was gaunt and weather-beaten, the hair disheveled and spiked with dried twigs, the faded dress made of discarded sack and torn at the sides. I thought she had aged considerably.

I first saw Esperanza in the summer of 1992, when I flew to the island province to check possible concert venues. Emerging from the airport terminal, I caught sight of her chasing butterflies on a dusty road. I quickly dismissed the sight, knowing full well that every town in this archipelago has its village idiot, the madwoman immortalized by Sisa in Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere.”

I saw her again later, walking across the plaza. There was something about her carriage that aroused my curiosity. She walked with a certain royal cadence despite the dirty hair and the faded clothes. Imagine my surprise when I heard her chatting with the convent errand boys and carrying on what sounded like witty, even intelligent conversation with them, and later, with a friend who was coordinating a concert. I joined them and was jolted to find her speaking British English and even acting like the bloody English.

When the concert materialized a week later, the woman actually showed up at the very moment that soprano Luz Morete (accompanied by Najib Ismail) was singing Sisa’s aria from Felipe de Leon’s opera, “Noli Me Tangere.”

My God, what if she disrupted the opera? I could just imagine the headlines the next day: “Mad scene in De Leon’s opera interrupted by real-life madwoman!”

My fears, it turned out, were unfounded. Esperanza entered the concert hall discreetly and quietly settled on a seat. The sight of her in a concert hall caused a ripple among the townsfolk who knew her mental state. But watching her seemingly enjoying the Handel aria, I thought she looked like an African royalty seated in the front row of Covent Garden.

In the reception at the town convent, to which Esperanza had also been invited, I learned that she had a son, Tarik Khan, from her British lover. With help from two music lovers, also her friends, I set out to unravel Esperanza’s life in London through a clandestine interview that looked like a casual get-together.

I learned that the woman left Catanduanes for Manila in 1973 and that after serving several households in Forbes Park, she decided to go to London sometime in 1979. She passed a short course in English and later worked in the household of one Charles Miles.

“I am not sure if my memory will serve me now,” she said, sounding like Vanessa Redgrave. “But this is all I remember about that sojourn. My trip to London was like a fairy tale. In that Miles household, I did a lot of haute cuisine like lamb curry and… I am sorry I lost my memory. But I remember the beautiful house, the carpets, the high ceilings, the exquisite furniture, the lovely mansion.”

In another household, she worked with a certain Mr. Fane, a filmmaker whose house reminded her of a film by Alfred Hitchcock (her own description). Later, she worked as a hospital attendant in the Royal National Hospital.

It was while working in another English hospital that she met the future father of her son, Tarik, a British guy of Iranian descent named Tarik Homayou Khan. Esperanza described him as “the most handsome guy in Europe.”

The romance bloomed with frequent meetings at Piccadilly Circus and later at Leicester Square. She could not describe how the romance ended. All she knew was that her son Tarik was three when she returned to Bato, Catanduanes in the early 80s, only to discover that her dream house didn’t exist. That was probably when she started her slow descent to madness.

For a while, she and her son settled in the town lodging house. When they decided to go back to London, Esperanza couldn’t find her passport. But life went on, and while her London earnings lasted, she donated a lot to the parish and helped neighbors put up capital for sari-sari stores. “You can’t carry all that money with you to your grave,” she would say when asked about her excessive generosity.

But staying in the lodging house for some time and giving money left and right drained her savings soon enough. One day, the folks of Virac found the once prosperous OFW and her 6-year-old son reduced to penury, roaming the streets of the town aimlessly.

Violent fits followed, with Esperanza going to her siblings’ house and threatening to burn it. She then started living in the belfry of the town cathedral, becoming the object of mischief of young boys in the area. Early in the evening, they would imitate the voice of a lost child and call out, “Mommy, Mommy, where are you?”

When Esperanza heard this, she would hastily get up and call back, “Son, is that you son?” Realizing it was just a prank, she would curse, hurl stones at the boys and stray bottles at everybody else.

Residents living near the church would tell stories of how the woman would start wailing at the altar at two in the morning, moaning, “Oh, Lord, give me back my child.” This was the time when Tarik was adopted by the town’s couturier, who had taken pity on the child roaming aimlessly with his mother.

It is Mother’s Day again and one can’t help but think of how, despite her addled mind, Esperanza’s maternal instincts still prevail. Like a modern-day Sisa, this woman lives solely for her child.

By Pablo Tariman

Philippine Daily Inquirer

First Posted 23:01:00 05/09/2009