“Lia, bring me drink,” said Riat.
“Ama, there is none left,” replied Lia. “There was so little on the dump today, and I had to buy some food.”
“Pah, food,” said Riat. “I need gin, not potatoes!” He heaved himself off his mat and staggered outside their tin hut into the muddy road that separated the shantytown from Tondo’s main dumpsite. The last light of the day faded behind clouds of circling birds, accompanied by the distant hum of the Manila evening rush hour.
Lia drew near to him and tugged at his ragged shirt. “Ama, don’t go. I have potatoes, and a little meat. Eat something.”
He looked down at the young girl and smiled kindly. “I’ll eat something, but then I must go - Benji owes me a bottle.” He let her lead him by the hand and sat down on his straw mat, watching her as she prepared the meagre stew. She was lean and brown, with jet black hair tied loosely behind her, and held the pot handle with long delicate fingers.
“How you are growing up, Lia. Is it really ten years since I found you in that shoe box?”
“So it is.” He scratched his side where a flea had bitten him. “I don’t understand why anyone would leave a baby like that.”
“Perhaps my mother didn’t want me.”
“Babies are not like clothes, Lia,” he replied angrily, “that you can just discard them when you no longer want them. It is shameful.”
“Tell me why I called Lia, Ama.”
“You know this story.”
“I like to hear it.”
“Lia is short for Liana. My dear wife was called Liana. She had always wanted children… but then … then she died. I started drinking, and lost everything.” He started sobbing. Lia came to his side and rested her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her. “It’s not a happy story, is it?”
“Am I like her, Ama?” she asked.
“You are beautiful like her, inside and out. And you have her eyes.”
She lifted her hand to her face. “I wish I could have met her.”
“You would have liked her, Lia.” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “Anyway, what did you find today on the dump?”
Lia shrugged. “The usual: cans, some cloth. Deni found an old TV.”
“A TV!” exclaimed Riat. “He’s a lucky one, that Deni.”
“Not really. Shama took it off him. Deni tried to fight, but he’s not big like Shama.”
“A terrible shame... Hey, that meat does not look good! Where did you get it?”
“It is fine,” replied Lia. “Deni’s mother found it and gave me some. She said to cook it well.”
Riat grunted, and then reached over to pick up a dirt-encrusted book from a small collection perched precariously on a nearby plank. “Shall I read to you?”
“I found something else on the dump.”
The man put the book down and looked enquiringly at the girl. Lia turned down the heat on the little oil stove, and reached into her large, striped, plastic collection bag. She pulled out a sodden shoebox and handed it carefully to the man. He opened the lid.
“There’s a note inside,” he said, surprised.
She nodded, her eyes gleaming eagerly.
“Wanted,” he read. “Information on the valuable contents of a box similar to this, lost many years ago in Tondo.”
He turned the note over. “And there’s an address.”
Lia sat down beside him and looked up hopefully. “Is it her, do you think?”
Riat shook his head. “It can’t be. What are the odds of you finding such a shoebox, and it being your mother looking for you, after so many years? It must be something else.”
“But it might be, Ama. We’ll go to the address, ya?”
He looked at her sharply. “It’s all the way on the far side of Manila. How will we get there?”
“We can walk, Ama.”
“It will take a whole day, Lia, and we can’t afford to not work. This is foolishness. Let’s not speak of it further.”
He put the note back in the box, which he threw angrily into the corner of the room on to a heap of cardboard and he had collected that day. Lia knew better than to pursue the conversation and returned to stirring the stew. Later they ate in silence, the room darkening in the cooling light of the day.
After the meal, Lia lay down on her mat to sleep. Riat bent over to kiss her goodnight but she turned away.
“Don’t be like that, Lia. It’s a silly hope.”
She did not answer. He sighed and got up to leave the hut. “I’ll be back soon.”
He returned an hour later, carrying a 1 litre plastic bottle of cheap gin. He stumbled unsteadily over Lia’s plastic sandals, cursing as he almost lost his balance.
“Are you awake?” he hissed. Lia didn’t reply, so he sat down heavily on his sleeping mat, took one final swig from the bottle, and lay down, resting his head on his arm. Sleep came soon, as did the recurring dream of his wife. She stood under a palm tree, her flowing cotton dress blowing in the breeze, holding a baby girl. She smiled at him, and held out an arm for him to come closer, but he never could.
He has awoken by the sun streaming into the hut. Startled, he sat up. “Lia, why did you not wake me?!” There was no answer. Puzzled, he looked around, and seeing the room was empty, got up, and went to the doorway. The day was already in full swing, with hordes of dusty children noisily chasing the morning dumpster trucks. He rubbed his throbbing head and went back inside. Lia had left him a bowl of rice porridge, but it was cold.
“What is going on with that girl?” he muttered to himself.
Then his eyes fell on the cardboard heap in the corner and he leaped up, knocking the bowl to the ground, splattering porridge over his feet. He sprinted out the hut, through foul alleyways, blood pounding in his temples, until he reached the tarred the outskirts of the shanty town and the roads of suburban Tondo. There was no sign of Lia, so he carried on running, his chest bursting, until he saw her an hour later, sitting crying in the dust next to the hurtling stream of traffic along Rizal Avenue. He sat down next to her, gasping desperately, and pulled her close to him.
“You silly girl,” he said. They sat, huddled together for many minutes, Riat staring dreamily into the distance, Lia sniffing into his shirt, until finally he turned to her and wiped her tear-streaked cheeks with a dirty sleeve. “Come on then. It’s time we finished this.”
Taguig’s leafy suburban lanes offered welcome, cool respite from the heat of that day. Riat and Lia shuffled wearily passed walled mansions until they reached the address on the shoebox paper. A tall wrought-iron gateway barred their passage. Riat pressed a buzzer on the wall.
“Yes?” said a strong male voice through the intercom speaker.
“We are here to see the lady of the house,” replied Riat. “About a shoebox.”
There was a pause, and some muffled talking, before the voice continued, “We get many shoebox people every day. What is so special about your shoebox that you should see the lady of this house?”
“It contained a child,” replied Riat.
The gates opened a moment later, and Riat led Lia along an ornate gravelled drive, until they come to a massive teak door. The door opened and a white-pinafored domestic invited them in.
“Follow me,” she said coldly, looking at their filthy rags with undisguised disdain, “and don’t touch anything!” She led them to a large library and indicated that they should wait.
“Ama, look at all those books!” whispered Lia loudly, pointing at the book-lined walls. “Old, just like yours.”
“Many more than my few,” replied Riat sadly.
“They used to belong to my sister’s husband,” said a female voice from the shadows. They turned to face a middle-aged woman dressed in a stark business suit, her hair tied back to reveal a smooth, aquiline face. “Before he disappeared.” She stared pointedly at Riat.
“Hello Maria,” said Riat, shuffling forward and extending a hand. “It has been a long time.”
She ignored his hand. “I want to know what happened,” she said coldly, “… that night.”
“Oh Maria, Liana had been so depressed about the baby. I didn’t understand it – we had wanted a child so badly. Then, suddenly, that night, she said she didn’t want the baby anymore. She wanted to get rid of it on the dump. I tried to reason with her, but she ran off and drove away. I followed her, and found her with the baby in a shoebox.
We fought. She was like a crazed animal. Then she fell, and smashed her head on a rock. There was blood everywhere. I just panicked and ran off with the baby.”
He looked imploringly at her. “I’m so sorry.”
“You just left her there, you bastard.”
“She was dead!”
Maria ignored him and turned to Lia. “And this? This is the baby?”
Her face softened. “She looks just like her. What’s your name, dear?”
“Lia,” whispered the girl.
“Oh!” The voice behind them was soft and familiar. “That’s my name too.”