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The Breadwinner

Miguel was about fourteen years old, slender and with the pouty-mouthed, dark-eyed good looks which one associates with the Philippines. His cream shirt, open at the neck, was always clean and newly pressed setting off a flawless and lightly sunburnt skin. His hair was neatly brushed. His teeth were as white and well cared for as any dentist could wish and even his sandals were clean and unscuffed. A very presentable youth and, one might think, the sort of lad anyone might be proud to call ‘son’.

But behind these first, obvious, visible attributes, there was another Miguel. It needed a second, more careful look. Then the more observant would notice a hardness about the eyes, an obsidian glitter that quite lacked the softness of the mouth and lips. Eyes that looked at one in a manner that was disconcertingly appraising in one so young. They challenged one. They seemed to seek out one’s emotions rather than one’s face – and, uneasily, one wondered why. Automatically one responded to his smile and, then, almost at once, one felt one’s muscles tense in response to a smile that, (too late?) one felt was nearly a threat. Suddenly, his mouth lost its youthful softness and acquired an altogether different, lascivious softness that seemed perilous and hazardous and posed questions one preferred not to answer.

He spoke in the gentle, seductive manner of the insurance salesman or clergyman. Somehow, there was in his voice the sympathetic sibilance of the forest stream, peaty and limpid with the tentatively broken English which inspires confidence. One ached with the need to believe. And, then, one saw, again, those brittle eyes and understood that here was danger.

I remember his sitting cross-legged in front of me, his bare, sunburnt thighs glowing healthily in the warm sunshine. But there was nothing here of the healthy, unconscious candour of a child. Here, one knew, was the fully conscious and deliberately provocative behaviour of Soho or Pigalle.

In one’s mind’s eye, one saw his home – a shack in the scrubby forest behind the hotel. Two rooms, perhaps, clapboard and with a corrugated iron roof. In summer, the heat of San Pedro would make it virtually uninhabitable – even at night. One wondered at his clean, well-groomed appearance. There was a rabble of younger brothers and sisters swarming around a tired looking mother. But fifteen years ago she had not been tired looking – just young and pretty. And, of course, naïve and trusting. Could she, ill educated, hopeful and in poverty, be blamed for believing the slick, fast talking G.I. that had come visiting in his Jeep? There had been no work then and California was such an alluring prospect. It was, also, a long, long way away – and Franklin had banked on that. He had gone home to Sacramento and the CO had not thought Conchita’s desperation important – there were many other “local girls” who had believed the visitors. None of the young men of the village were interested in the young women who had gone with the Americanos. But Conchita needed to survive and there were other Americanos – and, soon, younger brothers and sisters for Miguel.

Miguel watched his mother’s visitors at first without understanding. But, for some, childhood is lost quickly and soon the baby became the child and the child became the boy – and the boy was noticed by the men. He would fetch the cigarettes and drinks, and the hands reaching out to take them would touch the boy and linger ever so slightly. And Miguel noticed that the more he smiled the bigger the tip. The mother was no longer so young and the hands reached out ever more insistently. And the tips became bigger and the smile became wider. And soon the men no longer visited the mother.

But the money was better.

And, at last, Miguel understood. And the eyes became hard and the smile lost its sincerity.

And Miguel was the family bread winner.

 
Word Count: 670
 
 
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