Progress - F. Sionil Jose
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Government offices are much the same everywhere. Sometimes the officials in them are good people, helpful and kind; sometimes they are not. And if you need something badly, sometimes it is necessary to give little 'presents', maybe some money, which then disappears into a back pocket.
These are the ways of the world. People have been giving and taking bribes forever.
Marina Salcedo, Senior Clerk, second grade, hurried to her desk to open her pay envelope. It was the fifteenth of July, and tomorrow she was leaving for Manila, to get the promotion that she had been promised for five years.
She had worked in the Ministry for twenty years, and in the last five years the cost of living had risen greatly. Without the extra money from her promotion, her youngest son would not be able to go to college. Also, three years ago they had borrowed money on their house when her husband had had to go to hospital.
She checked her pay carefully. Two hundred and sixty pesos; this is what she would take to Manila. She walked down to the far end of the hall to the Chief's office. The girls there were not talking. That meant the Chief was in. His secretary told her to go straight in.
The Chief was reading a dirty copy of Playboy, a magazine for men full of photos of women. He did not put the magazine away, and Marina stood in front of him, waiting for him to look up. He was about fifty, and going bald.
'So you are leaving tomorrow, Marina,' he said.
'Well, you can have the afternoon off, to get ready. You will only have three working days in Manila. Do you think that will be enough?'
'I would like to have three more days, sir, if possible.'
'No problem, Marina,' the Chief said. 'Oh, and when you are there, will you please buy me the latest gabardine material for a pair of pants? I will pay when you get back.'
'Yes, sir. Thank you.'
Gabardine material — it must cost at least sixty pesos. Last time, the Chief wanted a pair of Levi jeans; they had cost a hundred and twenty pesos. When she returned, they had played this little game: he saying he must pay, she refusing to take the money. After all, he was not a bad boss — three days off with pay, for example. And he did not try to touch her in the way he did with the other women clerks.
The bus left at six in the morning, driving along the valley through the newly planted rice fields, the water shining in the early morning sun. The roads were good, with strong new bridges, making the journey to Manila only ten hours. It used to take a full day. This was progress, the kind that people could see and enjoy. Marina knew there were problems in the mountain villages and other places, but in her province things were calm. Her own life was not so bad. She and her husband had finally built a house. Three children, one married and soon to leave for the United States; another soon to finish college; and the youngest nearly finished high school. But the cost of living had gone up. They had to cook on wood fires, and could not afford to buy toilet paper.
Five years ago she had asked for promotion. She had gone to Manila twice about it, and finally she had received a notice saying it would happen.
The bus arrived in Manila as it was getting dark. Marina walked to the street where her second cousin lived. They had been college students together. She would probably sleep on a hard sofa in their living room, but that was better than spending thirty pesos on a cheap, dirty room somewhere.
They were having dinner when she arrived and, like a good relation, she had brought meat, fish, and rice from her province. They seemed pleased to see her, but Marina noticed that her cousin soon asked, 'When will you leave?'
'I won't be here more than a week,' she said, 'and I won't eat here. I'll spend every day at the Ministry, following up my papers.'
She was up at six the next day. Her cousin's children, aged thirteen and fourteen, were getting ready for school. They had kept her awake playing rock music in the night.
When she arrived at the Ministry, she went straight to Personnel. The people that she worked with years ago in that office had all left, and there was nobody she knew. She asked for the person who worked on the papers of staff promotion, and was sent to the other end of the office, to a fat woman in her early thirties, with bad teeth, thin hair, and a uniform that was too small for her large body.
The woman brought out a list and read through it carefully. Then she moved some papers around on her desk, and looked up with a fat little smile.
'I am sorry, Mrs Salcedo, but your name is not here. Maybe the forms got lost...'
'But it cannot be,' Marina said. Her voice got louder. 'I have the official letter from you.' She quickly pulled it out of her handbag. 'Here… and the file number.'
The woman shook her head, and her fixed little smile did not change.
'Mrs Salcedo,' she said sweetly, 'I will have to look through the files, hundreds and hundreds of them. I will have to ask one of the boys.' She opened the drawer in her desk that was closest to Marina. 'Why don't you drop a twenty-peso bill in here for him...?'
For a moment Marina Salcedo could not believe this was happening to her. She worked in the same Ministry as these people. Then she remembered that Anita Botong in her office in the province did the same thing. It had gone on for a long time — too long to be easy to stop. She took a twenty-peso bill from her handbag, and dropped it in the drawer.
'Will I come back this afternoon then?' she asked.
'Oh, Mrs Salcedo,' the woman said, still smiling. 'You know how difficult it will be. Why don't you come back early tomorrow?'
'I am from the province...'
'Yes, I know. I will do all I can to help you...'
She had nothing more to do. She left the Ministry and took a jeepney to the market in Quiapo. What was the best kind of gabardine, she asked, and what did it cost? In the end she bought the material in one of the big department stores for thirty-four pesos. Then she looked round the rest of the market, and found that food prices were higher than at home. So, prices in the province were not so bad then!
She spent five pesos on a bowl of noodles with chicken for lunch, then walked around the city. She had not been to Manila for some time, and it had changed a lot. In Makati, a very rich area, there were tall, glass-sided buildings, and the streets were clean. It was like America. She thought of her son, who would soon be in America. One day in the future she and her husband hoped to join him there. But the future was here, in Makati. And if this was the future, was it necessary to leave the country?
The next morning, back at the Ministry, the fat woman had found her papers, but there was a new form to complete. Marina would have to fetch Form D22a from another office in the building, fill it in, and then take it to Personnel, who would sign it and send it back to the first office. This office was on the fifth floor, and the lift was not working.
The man in the Form D22a office was very sorry. 'Oh, please come back tomorrow afternoon. We have no forms here at the moment — we have to get some more.'
Marina recognized the old game at once, and was annoyed. The top drawer in the man's desk was open, and Marina dropped a five-peso bill into it. She must remember to carry two-peso bills, she thought.
'Please, I am really in a hurry,' she said. 'Do try and find one. There must be one lying around...'
The man closed his desk drawer with a smile, then went to an old filing cabinet behind his desk. It didn't take him a minute to find the form.
The form had a lot of questions, about dates of this and that, school and college, travel abroad… That made Marina laugh. How many government clerks have ever traveled abroad? She hadn't even traveled around her own country.
Looking back over her past, she began to think about what she wanted from life. She had never wanted to climb to the top of the tree, to become a minister. Both she and her husband were happy enough with things as they were. After all these years, they had their own home, a piece of land, and they could sleep deeply at night, not worried by the kind of bad dreams that important ministers must have.
She took her completed form to the Chief in the office, who was said to be an honest man. Now was the moment when she would find out if that was true.
She waited and waited, and was at last called over to the glass-topped desk where Chief Bermudez was sitting.
'Well, what is your problem?'
'My promotion, sir,' Marina said. 'I've been waiting a long time for it.' She put her papers on the desk in front of him.
Chief Bermudez read them all carefully.
'Well, Mrs Salcedo, everything here seems all right. You know what to do next. After I sign the forms, you go to Finance to find out if there are funds to pay you. If there are, the Minister will sign the papers — and you will have your hundred pesos a month. And I think your pay rise should start at the beginning of this year, to give you those extra months. I will make sure that happens.' He began to sign the papers. 'I know you have worked for the Ministry for a long time. Things happen too slowly sometimes — I should not tell you this really — but we must be patient. We must push, and push, and push… but only gently.' He smiled. 'Good luck with Finance.'
They were now alone in the room. 'Is that all, sir?' said Marina.
'Why, is there something that I have forgotten?'
In her surprise, Mrs Salcedo forgot to thank him. At the door she decided that Chief Bermudez was a good man. Perhaps she should buy him some gabardine material too. After all, he had added several extra months to her pay rise.
After a quick lunch, just some bananas and a drink, she went to Finance. The girls in the office were sitting talking, or reading newspapers, or doing nothing. The Finance Chief, she was told, was out and would not be in until tomorrow.
Marina left, and decided to go and see a movie.
The next morning she was back in Finance before eight o'clock. She noticed that the office had several pretty girls, and they seemed to do nothing.
At eight-thirty the Finance Chief arrived, Julio Lobo, one of the top men in the Ministry. He was wearing a brown gabardine suit — she recognized the material at once. She went into his office.
Chief Lobo was reading some files and adding up some figures on a calculator. He looked up at her. There were heavy bags under his eyes, and his thick lips smiled. 'Yes?'
Mrs Salcedo explained her story, telling him she was from the province.
'You can leave your papers here,' he said, still smiling. 'I am in a hurry. I have a meeting in another town today and will not be back until five. You can come and see me then.'
Marina now had to wait all day, and this endless battle to get her promotion was giving her a headache. But it could be worse in other ministries. She knew a teacher who had to pay a thousand pesos just to move to another town.
It was raining outside so she decided to stay in the building and visit the Education office, where she had friends. At three o'clock she went back to wait outside Chief Lobo's office, and tried to read a novel, but it did not hold her interest. The pretty girls in the office were all talking about the disco they were going to that evening.
At five Chief Lobo arrived, and some of the girls went in and out with papers. When they had left, Marina went in.
'Ah, Mrs Salcedo — yes, your papers are still here. I will work on them tomorrow, Saturday. Did you know I work even on Saturday?'
'Well, I do. ' He smiled, showing teeth yellow from cigarette smoke. He looked at his desk diary, then at her papers again. 'Mmm… a hundred pesos a month. Why, that's one thousand two hundred pesos a year. Surely, you can afford to buy me a forty-peso dinner!'
'Yes, of course, sir,' she said.
'Well, then, my favorite Japanese restaurant is in Ermita. It's easy to find. I'll be there on Sunday evening, at seven. I will have your papers — all finished. I see no problem, really.'
'Thank you, sir,' Mrs Salcedo said.
Forty pesos! If she did not eat, she could afford the meal. She would still just have enough to buy her bus ticket.
During Saturday and Sunday morning Marina did not leave her cousin's apartment. Going out meant spending money. So she made rice cakes, cleaned her cousin's kitchen, and washed the floor and the walls in the living room. When the family came home Saturday evening, the place was shining clean, and her cousin was very pleased.
On Sunday afternoon she went out to find the Japanese restaurant. It was mostly foreigners eating there, and it looked very expensive. She would have to give the waiters something too. She must be honest with Chief Lobo, tell him that she did not have the money, that she would give him a present later, when she had got her pay rise.
From there she went to the Manila Hotel, where in 1955 she had danced with her boyfriend, later her husband, when they finished their university studies. It was pleasant to remember those days. But the hotel had changed — it was all new inside, with thick carpets and fine wooden furniture. She saw the coffee shop, but she could not afford even one cup of coffee, so she sat on one of the deep soft sofas, watching the beautiful people walking past. So, there was progress under the government's grand new plan, as this fine hotel showed.
At six-thirty she walked back to the Japanese restaurant. Chief Lobo was there, his fat stomach too big for his blue jeans, and his T-shirt smelly from his unwashed body. They sat down, and all around them were the delicious smells of fresh food cooking.
Marina found it hard to speak. 'Sir, you know I am just a poor clerk in the province. I have only a hundred pesos-'
Chief Lobo's hand came down heavily onto her knee, and stayed there. 'My dear woman,' he said. 'We are not going to spend all that. I will just have tea, and… some fish. Too much food is bad for me. But making love is not bad for me. So, after this, we go to a motel. That will be no more than forty pesos...'
Marina did not want to believe what she had heard. Then she remembered office talk about the Finance Chief — how he behaved towards women, what he asked for...
'I have three children, sir,' she said miserably. 'My oldest is married, I have a grandson, the first.'
'That's wonderful,' said Chief Lobo. 'But you know, you don't look like a grandmother.' He looked at her body hungrily, and Marina felt her face turning red. 'You have a good body, very nice...'
'Surely, sir, with all those pretty girls in your office...'
Chief Lobo laughed. 'Ha! You noticed,' he said. 'But they are young, they need teaching. I don't want to be a teacher all the time. I enjoy beautiful, older women — like you.' His hand moved higher up her leg.
'I am forty-five,' said Marina.
'But you don't look thirty-five!' he said.
She followed him to his car outside in the street. Her mouth was dry with fear. She must be good to him. The future was in his hands. She tried again and again to talk him out of it, but he did not listen.
Alone with him in the motel room at last, she begged him one more time. 'Sir, please. I will give you half the money I get from my promotion. I promise!'
Chief Lobo looked at her in surprise. 'Stupid girl,' he said angrily 'It's not money I need.' He began to take off his shoes.
When she did not move, he shouted at her. 'Take off your clothes!'
'My poor husband, my poor children,' Marina cried softly as he began to touch her.
She was back at the apartment at nine. She took a long shower, hating Chief Lobo, hating herself, hating the world. How would it be tomorrow when she saw him again? He had not even brought her papers as he had promised.
She did not sleep much that night. When morning came, she knew she must go on, finish the job. After that terrible evening, there was no battle that she could not fight — nothing could stop her now.
Chief Lobo's thick lips smiled at her when she came in.
'We will go up to the Minister's office now,' he said, standing up and picking up her papers.
The Minister's office was very big, with a carpet, paintings on the walls, and tall green plants in the corners.
Minister Guzman was also wearing a brown gabardine suit, but Marina, looking at it closely, realized it was a finer, more expensive material. She had heard that the Minister had a drinking problem. He certainly seemed strange this morning — either sleepy or drunk.
Chief Lobo put Marina's papers on the desk, and the Minister looked through them.
'Ah, Mrs Salcedo… your promotion… I am very happy to sign these.' To Chief Lobo. 'Are there funds for this?'
'Yes, sir,' Lobo said.
After the Minister had signed the papers, he turned to her again. 'Mrs Salcedo, how is it in your province? What are your problems? It's good to see someone from your province here. You know, your province is very important in our New Society plan.'
Mrs Salcedo looked at him. Was the Minister serious? How could he be so drunk so early in the morning?
She shook her head. 'We have no problems, sir.'
'Come now,' the Minister said. 'Be honest. We need the truth, the facts. Only that way can we make progress.'
Marina shook her head again. 'Everything is fine in our province, sir,' she said.
'All right then,' the Minister said. 'But you must work hard. All of you. You must remember we are building a New Society, progress for the people, a country to be proud of.'
He seemed to be talking to everyone in the office.
'Yes, sir,' Marina said.
'We must all work together. Progress. Promotions are wonderful, but we must work for them. Progress...'
After Marina had bought her bus ticket, she had two pesos left. She had made three meat sandwiches at her cousin's, and that would have to be enough until she got home.
When the bus arrived in her town, it was past six and already dark. To save money, she decided to walk home from the bus station. She only had a handbag, a small bag of clothes, the gabardine material, and two apples. Away from the town centre, the road was unlit and rough. She and her family lived on the edge of the town, where they could grow vegetables and keep chickens.
She had just turned a corner when a man jumped out of the shadows and grabbed her handbag. She held on to it as hard as she could, but the man pushed her and she fell, hurting her face on the ground. He took the bag, and as he ran, she shouted after him.
'There's no money in there — just my papers. My papers!'
But he was gone too fast and did not hear her.
She stood up slowly, feeling weak and strange. She still had a long way to walk, and her legs did not want to move. It started to rain, but her umbrella was in the handbag that was stolen. She did not mind the rain; it was losing her papers that felt like a heavy stone lying on her heart. Without the papers, there would be no pay rise. She knew, only too well, that nothing could make Manila send copies of her papers.
She would have to return to the capital, and the thought of that filled her heart with fear and misery.
At last she reached her house, with the trees all around it. When she pushed the door open, her family were eating supper and they ran from the table to greet her. They saw the dirt on her clothes, her pale face, her wet untidy hair. To their questions she gave no answers, and Marina Salcedo fell to her knees, the anger and misery coming from her in violent sobbing. No words of kindness, of love, no friendly touch could stop the river of her tears.
— THE END -
Hope you have enjoyed the reading!