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Paradise to Perdition - A walking tour of Manila's Chinatown


Words: Lionel Shriver    Illustrations: Dan Williams


After a stay at Raffles Praslin in the Seychelles, award-winning novelist Lionel Shriver brings a darkly comic twist to the idea of luxury living for our latest specially commissioned story, set in a fictional resort

Barry Mendelssohn’s story began where so many stories conclude. Films about bad-assery divide into two classes. In the standard prototype, the malefactors — a ravishing word that Barry had come to embrace — go down in a hail of bullets, or they turn on each other, or the cops find the stash of cocaine. Barry had come across somewhere that the plots of all those 1940s black-and-white noirs were then legally required to illustrate that crime doesn’t pay. What a joke. Look at Congress. In many a contemporary thriller, the audience sides with the creeps. Though as a matter of formal obligation it’s touch-andgo, whatever the heist or con or double-cross, our anti-hero gets away with it. Modern or no, any genre has conventions and the traditional surprise-surprise signage of guess-who-slipped-the-netafter- all is a pan of our crafty protagonist with a drink in his hand (or her hand: equal opportunity depravity). Swanky glass, booze icy and preferably a bizarro colour like electric blue, bamboo umbrella optional. Our lovable villain is always on a beach — either leaning over a weathered wooden rail at sunset or laid out in the sand sporting a mean tan and we’d never have guessed that this guy who’s never taken off his leather jacket in colder climes has such a hairy chest. We know he’s far, far away from whatever went down and he isn’t coming back. The single shot of a sly smile over the lip of that glass is all we ever see of our ingenious little friend’s future, since presumably we can fill in the rest: a life of ease, elegance and all-you-can-eat sashimi extends infinitely to his horizon. Apparently, Barry bought the conceit, down to the Curaçao and alluring condensation. Amazing how you could sell a vision of the next 40 years with a cocktail.

To be sure, when he first landed in his new life of languishing, luxury and abandon it was pretty damned swell. After the half-pint plane touched down on to a dot in the Indian Ocean and taxied into an airport circa 1962, its handful of bleary passengers stumbled down on to the tarmac and shambled in the searing sun — funny how simply being spared a Jetway had become exotic — toward what resembled a cottage. With a peaked tin roof, its windows laced with wooden crosspieces, the tiny terminal was painted a soothing sea-green. Barry’s wife Tiffany would have squealed about how the facility was “simply adorable” and he was relieved to skip it. Along the walkway en route to baggage claim, outlandish blossoms burst through the latticed fencing; when you had enough money, no one would razz you for not knowing what all those jazzy foreign plants were called. The journey from plane to belt was as short for luggage as for passengers and Barry’s bulging leather gear smoothed to hand within 60 seconds. He’d cleared immigration on the main island — hesitating over telling the pretty smiling agent whether he had arrived in the archipelago for “business” or “pleasure”; taken with sufficient seriousness, wasn’t pleasure itself a full-time job? So he rolled his chattel directly to the curb, sweat trickling down his spine. At midday in this time zone, the air was syrupy, thick and sticky, but the close atmosphere sure beat January in New Jersey, where take-off had been delayed by lashing sleet. As a tribute to what really should have been a one-way ticket (which always raised eyebrows), in the last airport’s primitive waiting room he’d discarded his black down parka on a bench. Some sucker travelling in the wrong direction was welcome to it.

In all honesty, he missed the blissful entitlement of slogging through the office day on the 43rd floor in midtown

For a moment dismayed that his courtesy car was nowhere in sight, Barry remembered that he was travelling on a fake passport and his driver would be the one holding a sign printed RODR IGO PERE Z. Italian on his mother’s side, Barry could pass for Latino in a pinch. Still, he decided impetuously that from here on he would go by “Rod”. Forceful. Sexy.

In a freshly ironed canary-yellow uniform, the lean African driver flashed a smile, the first blazing ivories that Barry had seen in years that wouldn’t have been the result of violent tooth whitening or veneers. “Meester Perez!” he exclaimed, extending his hand with the joy of meeting a long-lost uncle. “Welcome to our beautiful island! I do hope your journey was not so gruelling.” Barry didn’t care whether the young man’s manner of spirited obsequiousness was sincere. Obsequiousness was a quality that you bought. Fraudulence merely made the fawning seem more expensive.

The driver wouldn’t even let him hoist his own carry-on and immediately handed his passenger a bottle of cold water. Bloated from business-class flights with attendants obsessed with hydration, Barry wasn’t especially thirsty and didn’t know what to do with the thing, which dripped in his hand; he wasn’t one of those water people. Personally, he’d have preferred champagne, but there was plenty of time for that and the three separate legs from Newark had involved such an unending river of alcohol that a breather was probably judicious. As for the water he didn’t need, what mattered was the gesture. He might indeed have been parched (although they might have made it Perrier). That bottle marked the beginning of a new life in which a host of flunkies ceaselessly wracked their brains about what Barry Mendelssohn — what Rod Perez — might possibly want.

Beginning this last link to his final destination, he’d been in transit for 21 hours — 24, if you counted when Barry shut the front door of his undistinguished split-level in Patterson for the very last time and ducked into his taxi. So he could have done without the tour monologue from the front seat. He was much too pooped to give a shit about “takamaka trees” or the complexity of cooking fruit bats or how locals cut cinnamon boughs to make their houses fragrant at Christmas. (What locals? Amidst the crazed vegetation, whose profusion allowed only the odd enticing glimpse of beaches wide and white as the driver’s smile, the only structures he could discern so far were big hotels.) Presumably he was within his rights as a priority guest to tell the driver to put a lid on it, but rudeness and imperiousness must have been prerogatives you had to grow into. Likewise, Barry might have objected that the SUV was airconditioned like an abattoir, but he’d lead a modest life till now; bossing around underlings and acting oblivious to whatever the help might prefer would take practice. He missed his parka.

Turning a blind eye to its funereal connotations, as well as to the fact that the initials “ER ” were powerfully associated with catastrophe, Barry had selected Eternal Rest because it was the most expensive resort in the region. Not a perfectly reliable measure of quality, but exorbitant didn’t usually correlate with complete crap.

As they curved on to the grounds, Barry concluded with satisfaction that Eternal Rest was anything but crap. The landscaping was exuberant yet tidy; none of the palms had drooping fronds and beds of colossal flowering bushes were cleared of dead underbrush. Connected by paved switchbacks, the vast residential units were set widely apart, their long gunmetal roofs settled into still more extravagant foliage for further privacy. At reception, the open-aired structure overlooked a sheer drop, below which lapped water whose inland strip was — get this — the exact colour of Curaçao. Having done his homework online, he didn’t need the plump, un-Britishly unctuous General Manager to list out the resort’s facilities: pool, obviously, big, obviously; spa, fitness suite, business suite, games room; multiple bars, one beachside for sundowners; five restaurants, of varying ethnicities, including Japanese. In addition to hiking and snorkelling, diving and boat trips could be arranged. Participation in a weekly rota of management cocktails, hosted barbecues, discos and karaoke nights was elective.

A businessman himself, Barry noted the fact that no lowly receptionist but the GM herself had greeted him with lemongrass tea. The resort might have charged over a thousand bucks per day, but hiring a large permanent staff to cover busy seasons and flying plenty of Western goodies into the island daily, establishments like this operated in the black only if they kept occupancy rates high. Even ifthey could afford to linger, rich folks were restless and guests who prepaid their first six months would have been rare as hen’s teeth. Had the administrators of Eternal Rest known that he’d embezzled a big enough bundle to put his feet up in this joint until he stroked out at 92, who would have met him then? Oprah Winfrey?

That’s right — embezzled. What of it? He was an embezzler, another pejorative that, like malefactor, he had embraced — or would learn to embrace — was working on embracing. Cinema’s standout bad guys didn’t hanky-twist their lives away whimpering “Gee, am I doing something wrong?”

They whirred off with his bags in one of the many electric buggies with which a small army of boundlessly cheerful staff ushered guests from place to place, lest they become perilously enmoistened by a five-minute walk. With one of the best views of the beach, his premier villa wasn’t much smaller than his house in Patterson (to which Tiffany was now welcome). Packed with aromatic unguents, the bathroom was as capacious as a two-car garage. The mini-bar was stocked not with sad little miniatures but full-size bottles (finally, his champagne). But the kitchen he planned to boycott. The living and dining rooms wouldn’t see much use, either. He’d spend most of his time here watching CNN (well, or porn) on a mattress you could get lost on, or lounging on the sea-facing deck, which spanned 40 feet across — where he would dawdle his left-hand fingers in the plunge pool, keeping the right hand firmly around that icy, iconic blue drink.

When she’d finished showing him around, the stout head honcho stood in the foyer with her eyebrows arched, looking expectant. A beat too late, he realised he was supposed to effuse. “It’s great,” he said dutifully, embellishing when she clearly wanted more, “I mean, really great”.

He’d meant it was great, too. Yet as she left him to get settled, the tiniest worm in his mind niggled: Is this all? He suppressed an ugly apprehension that the worm could grow into a snake.

Thereafter ensued a blowout party-for-one. Barry began a typical day with ravaging the breakfast buffet, mounding his plate with pain au chocolat and gnarly, unearthly fruit labelled “mangosteens” and “rambutans”. He complemented made-to-order omelettes with the locally smoked marlin and salmon combo. A bit of loitering over a latte would see him through to eleven, when he’d hit the poolside bar, throwing down a beer or two before warming up to lychee martinis, cloudy concoctions with a blobby albino olive at the bottom to which he took quite a shine. The Japanese restaurant was next door, so he could glide to lunch with his buzz on; he’d never quite seen the point of raw fish, but he dug the prawn tempura. After dispatching the green tea ice cream with its fan-shaped cookie shard, Barry drifted the afternoon away on a fat canvas beanbag in the pool, occasionally signalling for a mojito.

By five, it was back to his villa to freshen up. While undressing for his shower, drying off with a blindingly white bath sheet that he left on the floor and slathering top to toe in orange-blossom moisturiser, he kept CNN yammering on in the background. Yet whatever was happening elsewhere seemed muffled and far away, as if the ructions were occurring on another planet. He’d gather that something had blown up, but couldn’t have said whether the misfortune occurred in Iran or Texas. By the second week, he started short-shrifting the news for Jennifer Aniston movies on the Romance Channel.

Dinner was a suitably elaborate affair, with delicate seedcoated breadsticks, heart of palm salad or mango-dotted ceviche (which didn’t seem like raw fish) and imported Scottish ribeye or New Zealand lamb shanks — all washed down with zingy South African Sauvignon Blancs and chewy Chilean Malbecs. A little unsteady, he’d be whizzed by buggy to his villa, where he could crack open the Hennessy and find out whether Jennifer got her guy. Unfortunately, he usually fell asleep before the couple got their act together, so that his experience of the Romance Channel was one of ceaseless heartbreak.

Rarely finishing a film before he passed out was, alas, only one of several flies in his orange-blossom ointment. Having long prided himself on his Mediterranean genes, Barry hadn’t taken the equatorial sun into account and at this latitude even his swarthy melanin-rich skin could char. When by the end of the third week he’d started to peel, vanity demanded wearing his robe at the poolside bar. In the shower, rinsing off rolls of dead brown skin made the ablution feel rather grubby.

Obviously he’d have to dial back the alcohol a bit in the fullness of time, an expression that imparted grandeur to his good intentions while not binding him to forthcoming virtue with any disagreeable specificity. The blur to his edges from rarely being completely sober lent the palms and the blooms and the coastline a vagueness that was probably wasteful. In all honesty, he missed the blissful entitlement of slogging through the office day on the 43rd floor in midtown and enduring yet another tailbacked commute across the bridge to Patterson, finally to take that first glorious chug of a new craft beer. He didn’t think of himself as one of those work ethic saps who had to earn their happiness, but reward wasn’t, well, as rewarding when all you were being compensated for was getting out of bed.

It was the subject of no little indignation that with all those ill-gotten gains in an offshore account he couldn’t buy himself out of a hangover

Some mornings, of course, getting out of bed ought to have made him worthy of a medal — a framed commemoration, a plaque. It was the subject of no little indignation that with all those ill-gotten gains in an offshore account he couldn’t buy himself out of a hangover. Yet the biggest challenge was sewing indulgences end to end without any gaps, through which uninvited reflection was wont to seep. A lapsed Catholic, Barry recalled that the very word indulgence applied not only to a mid-afternoon Balinese massage, but to the Pope’s official grants of reprieve from stints in purgatory for one’s sins — stays of execution, if you will. There’d been some sort of scandal in the church way-back-when about indulgences in the theological sense being bought and sold. He had therefore purchased from Eternal Rest indulgences of both varieties and panicked when they ran out.

Nevertheless, it was tough to eat, drink and be merry every minute of the day. Unextended by chitchat, dining solo was too efficient, even when he padded the meal with soup and cappuccino. Cocktails in solitude, too, had a tendency to evaporate. Waiting for another bill to sign, drumming his fingers between refills, or idling his feet in a pool hot as the air, Barry would find himself muttering, “Assholes got what they deserved. Divaggio and Hobson’ll make another billion in no time anyway. Get to keep the whole pile, too, with me out of the picture. Ten per cent. Can you believe it? Love to see their faces first time they get a look at the books. Took me for a fool.”

Only once the largely one-way conversation had dwindled did he realise that he was a fool — for not keeping his trap shut with one of the wives waiting for her husband at the bar on the beach. Her face was creased from too much sun, but he was a sucker for any woman who could still get away with a bikini in her forties. So he’d explained expansively about having founded a company that installed motion-activated lighting systems, “to spare the consumer the exhaustion of turning on a switch”. That line had always earned him a chuckle before and he should have pulled up short when she didn’t crack a smile. “Gave us green credentials,” he went on instead. “Having lights come on when you enter a room and fade off when you leave conserves electricity and cuts bills. Oh, MADCIS has done whole office buildings, coast to coast. Our systems can also power down computer and AV equipment that would otherwise keep purring away on standby. The savings add up.” “MADCIS?” she asked hazily. “Motion-Activated Domestic and Commercial Illumination Systems,” he spelled out like an idiot. Did he have to name the company? What if the story made the papers? “Whole concept was my idea. The tech side’s pretty simple. Motion activation has been around for decades.”

Fortunately her husband showed up, or he’d no doubt have looselipped about how his partners, roommates from college he’d known for 20 years, inserted some conniving fine print in the incorporation documents, the upshot of which was the guy who came up with the whole concept — “the whole concept!” he’d come to grumble repeatedly to no one in particular — was due not an even-Steven third but a mere tenth of the profits. If she’d stuck around, too, he might even have blubbered about leaving his wife behind: “You can’t believe the stress of the last few months. I mean,” he might have shared, lifting his glass, “why do you think I’m on my third one of these? The secrecy was murder on my nerves. And there was a load of complicated finance to master. Tiffany didn’t understand and naturally I couldn’t explain why I was so, you know, tense, hard to live with. But I couldn’t tell her, see, unless I could be ironclad certain she’d come with. And I bet she wouldn’t have. Has all these friends, you know, golf buddies. I was hoping till the last minute… But I couldn’t take the chance. What if she ratted me out instead?”

No, he didn’t blab to well-preserved bikini lady about Tiffany, but the encounter still shook him. He needed to shut up. He needed more to do.

From then on, Barry threw himself into all the diversions he had previously spurned as for lesser holidaymakers who had to schedule up their time as if at summer camp. He took up snorkelling, though breathing through the tube with his head submerged induced an anxious drowning sensation that was embarrassing in two feet of water. He went on the boat trips, which made him vomit. He taught himself backgammon, though by then the muttering aloud had got sufficiently out of hand that no one would play with him. (“Right, sure, Divaggio and Hobson were the ‘brains’. They were the ‘tech savvy’ ones,” he’d sneer alone in the games room. “But the technology was Tinker Toy! Who came up with the whole concept?” Since no one was listening, he could non sequitur to, “And nobody reads contracts. I only did what everyone does: flipped through the incorporation documents looking for the signature lines.” He often rounded on the more sorrowful incantation, “But I couldn’t take the chance. What if she ratted me out instead?”) He entered the ping-pong competition, but got so worked up declaring, “Ten per cent! Can you believe it?” that he failed to keep the ball on the table. Besides, he couldn’t kid himself: he wasn’t really busy. He was occupied.

Extra-curricular activities having never seriously interfered with the rigours of hedonism, the inevitable day came, too, when Barry was towelling down in preparation for another four-course dinner and caught an unguarded glimpse of himself in the dressing room’s mirror. His face might have been drawn on a balloon that was then inflated to bursting point. His body always had a squareness about it, which Tiffany claimed to like; she said his strong right angles gave him a masculine bearishness and as an object he appeared ‘impossible to knock over’.” But now his corners were round. Nuts. He talked to himself incessantly. He was a drunk. And did this ever happen to those suave anti-heroes who absconded with the loot in the movies? He was getting — he wasn’t even getting. He was fat.

Thus was born Rod Perez, Reformed Character. (Alas, no one ever called him Rod. The resort imposed an atavistic respectfulness and it was all Meester Perez this, Meester Perez that.) He foreswore the pastries, the parathas, the petits fours. He renounced lunch. He trained waiters to bring him Perrier and cucumber sticks, or occasional bowls of consommé, no croutons. He hit the weights and stationary bicycle in the fitness suite, which was always deserted and he came to regard as his personal fiefdom. While the other guests dawdled on the sidelines with wine and sun block, he swam laps. Resolved to walk everywhere, he was incessantly badgered by well-meaning buggy drivers insistent on giving him a lift and saying no took so much energy — energy that no one on a cucumber diet could spare — that most of the time he gave in. Turned leaf or no, the slimming was slight and slow. Moreover, becoming a fitness paragon made him even more of a pariah at a luxury resort in the Indian Ocean than talking to himself like a homeless person. Once when reclining poolside next to a fetching young woman in a lavender one-piece after 90 minutes of breaststroke — the only breast he’d stroked in this joint being his own — he began doing crunches in his lounge chair, convinced that the lady was impressed. He’d seen her noticing him while he was still swimming and now she was cutting eyes in his direction when she thought he wasn’t looking. But after a couple of minutes, she put her book down. “Could you please take that somewhere else?” she requested in an American accent. “Some of us are trying to relax here.”

In the end, his corners still not restored, Barry was miserable and couldn’t continue to sanction a life of unremitting denial in paradise. Breakfast was a torture: sawing a single wedge of honeydew into translucent slices amidst platters mounded with bacon, all the while enticed by the aroma of toasting brioche and melted butter. This was the worst place in the world to go on a diet. With a clientele of honeymooning couples, families with hardworking parents on breaks they’d saved for years to afford and Middle Eastern sheikhs and Russian oligarchs whose cultures didn’t run to exertion, Eternal Rest was also the worst place in the world for exercise freakery, which his fellow guests found not only strange or irrelevant but actively repellent. What was he paying all this money for — to suffer? Yet once he restored a civilised lunch and allowed himself a bread roll at dinner, Barry discovered the real slimming secret of the filthy rich: fastidiousness. Pernicketiness. The upturned nose.

Interestingly, this was a form of abstemiousness with which the staff was clearly familiar and clearly more comfortable. And he wasn’t feigning the fussbudgetry, either. The glut of food and drink had seemed so fabulous at the beginning. But now he wondered if the chefs had changed, or the personnel who ordered provisions had been replaced by more stinting procurers. Nothing tasted nearly as good as it had when he arrived. So he sent back breadbaskets for being stale or overbaked. He complained the jackfish was undercooked, or had been seasoned too heavily with cumin. He left three-quarters of his dauphinoise potatoes because he “wasn’t keen on the nutmeg”. He rejected countless bottles of wine for being too tannic, too thin or too fruity and abandoned ordering lychee martinis at the poolside bar; besides being a bit cloying, they’d developed a funny aftertaste. He’d ceased eating or drinking to excess, but discipline didn’t enter into it. Everything that grazed his palate was disappointing.

He was choking on all this geniality, obligingness and turning of cheek; he was

At length, however, what he grew truly starved for at Eternal Rest wasn’t a coconut custard that lived up to expectations. It was resistance. No matter how many times he insulted the cooks and waiters to their faces about how the roasted vegetables were burnt to a cinder, or how the prawn and garlic stir-fry was spiked with so much chilli as to be roundly inedible, all that came back was Yes, Meester Perez. So sorry, Meester Perez. We always grateful for suggestions to improve our service, Meester Perez. Desperate to get a rise out of these imperviously amenable minions, Barry began lambasting dishes that had in fact been prepared impeccably.

He accused the red snapper of being “a month old if it was a day”. Though the waiter assured him that the fish was meant to have been caught that morning — which was surely the case — the bastard still apologised, explaining “there must have been some meestake in the keetchen”. There was no mistake in the kitchen! Why couldn’t he hurl back, “Look, you son of a bitch, you won’t get fresher fish without diving into the sea and chomping down on that snapper while it’s still swimming!” Or at the pool, when he tossed his towel back to the attendant snarling that it stank of mildew, he yearned for the guy to give it a sniff and say, “You crazy. Nothing wrong with thees towel. Something wrong with you.” But no. Many apologies, Meester Perez. New towel right away, please forgive delay of your sweem today.

No matter how much abuse he chucked at these people, they absorbed the blows. It was like boxing with a punching bag filled with pudding. Now the drowning sensation wasn’t from snorkelling in the shallows, but from being eternally submerged in a warm bath of hospitality. Every day was one long can-I-help-you-sir. He was choking on all this geniality, obligingness and turning of cheek; he was suffocating under the plumped pillows of everlasting pampering. Were he to rail in indignation about a buggy driver “leaving him in the fucking pouring rain for fucking half an hour” — when the pickup had been prompt, a matter of five minutes really and nothing had stopped Barry from ducking under the restaurant’s eave to escape the actually-rather-pleasant afternoon shower — this poor sap, who was probably paid per week a fraction of what Barry spent on a single bottle of Merlot, merely bowed and promised to do better next time. What did he have to do to get a little pushback, deck the guy? In what he had begun to think of as real life, Barry had been a combative man who relished trading good-natured insults with colleagues over a beer and now he was flailing from a deficiency of friction, as if every surface in his surround had been sprayed with silicon and he couldn’t get enough traction to walk across the floor. He yearned for quarrel, back-sass and contradiction. Sure, the customer was always right, but when you claimed two and two made five and you were right, there was no such a thing as right. He had landed himself in a world of softness and goo, where he was slathered with affirmation, flattery and affable comments about the weather like the pink-smelling liniments of all those never-ending spa treatments. It was a world where he was never held to account — where all that mattered was not what he thought or what he’d done, but what he wanted.

What he wanted was to go home. Abruptly on an arbitrary Thursday afternoon, he showed up at reception with his packed bags, announcing that his flight to the main island left at five-thirty. Within the hour, he was through the farcical security and seated in the waiting room. For once he was glad that this hop had no business class, hence no business class lounge, with its open bar, its free WiFi, its buffet of miniature quiches, stuffed vine leaves and ripe cheeses. He was glad of the hardness of this slatted bench, its lack of poofy cushions. He was glad to have to move over to accommodate shy local schoolgirls and pecan-coloured professional travellers in dopey hats — to not be treated as if he were special. He was already looking forward to the invigoration of the prison yard, in which a man couldn’t buy a place at the top of the pecking order, but had to struggle to establish himself in the hierarchy of other men; where if he so much as looked sideways at one of his fellow convicts he’d earn a sock in the jaw. In a cellblock, yes, but he still looked forward to folding his own clothes, matching his own socks and changing his own sheets. He looked forward to celebrating the fact that this was the day of the week the penitentiary canteen served individual frozen pizzas and that pizza — with a bland, congealed sauce of tomato soup concentrate — would taste more sumptuous than the Mediterranean focaccia with rosemary, anchovies and kalamatas at Eternal Rest. Cinematically, this ending may have hewed to an old-fashioned plotline, but Barry had always liked those black-and-white noirs.

The flight was delayed from a tropical downpour, which crashed against the terminal’s tin roof like an audience of several hundred breaking into applause. The dark beams crisscrossing overhead provided the snug, muggy room the atmosphere of a hunting lodge. Delicate wooden Xs over the upper windows stitched the building like an edging of crochet. He wished Tiffany were here. This airport really was adorable and somebody should say so.

Lionel Shriver is the author of many books, including We Need to Talk about Kevin, winner of the Orange Prize in 2005. Her latest novel, The Mandibles, will be published in May 2016

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