Exclusive Excerpt: An Heiress Escapes the Scandal of An Affair and Returns to Her Childhood Home
In her debut novel, author Caroline S. Hau digs deep into her Filipino heritage to present readers with an enthralling read about the disparities of socioeconomic classes. In Tiempo Muerto, published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press, Hau’s two heroines come from different backgrounds: One is an heiress, while the other is an Overseas Filipino Worker, who is the daughter of the heiress’ childhood nanny. When an unexpected tragedy occurs, the two meet again in the old bahay na batowhere they shared their childhood years.
Hau is a Filipino-Chinese academic who has authored two collections of short fiction: Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories and Demigods and Monsters: Stories. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of the Philippines Diliman and earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from Cornell University. She now serves as a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
Read an excerpt from Tiempo Muerto below.
Lia Silayco Agalon had not used her full name in seventeen years. In all the years that she had been known in the newspapers and tabloids of her husband’s country as Lia Liao, wife of Alexander Liao, daughter-in-law of real-estate mogul Wesley Liao, notwithstanding the fact that her Philippine passport officially identified her as Maria Leah Agalon-Liao, she felt as if, in ceding part of her name, she had lost something that her divorce, now finalized, could not give back to her. Reverting to her maiden name Maria Leah Silayco Agalon seemed like a fresh start, on paper if not in fact.
There was the child, for one. Back home, a divorce would not be called a divorce. Her family would have quietly arranged an annulment that worked retroactively to declare her marriage null and void, and it would have been as if she had never married. She might have kept Natasha, as the laws in her country generally favored the mother as primary caregiver, primary caregiver not being applicable to the platoon of maids who changed Natasha’s diapers, slept on the floor beside her bed and fetched her from school, who cooked their meals, washed their clothes, and cleaned their spacious good-class bungalow on Dalvey Road.
Although the interior décor was Shanghai modern, strategically furnished with antiques from the nearby countries of the Far East, Lia sometimes felt as if she had never left the Agalon residence in Lavezares Village, judging by the points of origin of the maids and chinoiserie. No stranger to the whims and vagaries of attachment, Lia made sure that no maid assigned to Natasha stayed longer than the two years specified by contract, no matter how good she was. Especially when she was good.
As for the rumormongers, her family had not been able to weed out entirely the plants in the gossip columns back home, but it could threaten to pull out the tongues of the writers should they deign to publish her name. Her father had told her over the phone that journalists were used to a diet of cash, free tickets and meals, and substantial discounts at retail stores. The more imaginative among them no longer wished to soil their hands with money; they preferred stocks, condominium or land titles, and all-expenses-paid “study trips” abroad. Besides, one could count on the fact that journalists as a whole had a shorter-than-average life expectancy.
Oddly enough, Lia felt no relief after getting off the phone. She was bothered not so much by what her father had told her—this was not the first time she had heard him talk of such things—as by the nonchalance with which he laid out the game plan for managing public opinion. In the Philippines, a politician or businessman merely had to express a wish to be rid of one person to have that person disappear, literally or metaphorically, by dint of money and muscle.
While Lia had joint custody of Natasha, it was Alexander—absentee father reborn in Christ as anxious parent—who exercised care and control. Natasha had grown up in Singapore (brief vacations in the Philippines didn’t count), had adjusted well to the rigorous curriculum of the Nanyang Girls’ High School, and had told the judge that she didn’t want to move to the Philippines. In the Singapore Family Justice Court, Lia’s family name, illustrious though it may have been from across the South China Sea, barely registered. Natasha, secure in her father’s name and environs, preternaturally self-sufficient, had not asked anything of her mother since she entered high school.
Then there was the scandal.
Lia had worked with her personal trainer to shed some weight after Natasha’s graduation from elementary school and her husband’s assignment to Dubai on family business. The aerobic and core exercises and strength-training program had whittled off the fat from her cheeks and body and gouged out some of the doubts she had about what she was doing and why.
Lia had done her best to be a good wife and daughter-in-law. With other tai-tai, she had undertaken the obligatory rounds of lunch meetings, mahjong sessions, fund-raisers, product launches, and exhibition openings. She had managed her husband’s family’s charitable foundation and signed checks to underwrite dance theater productions, special exhibitions, biodiversity and heritage conservation projects. She had lent her face and name to the Symphony Orchestra, the Red Cross, Transient Workers Count Too (many of whom were her kababayan, after all), Action for AIDS, the Share-a-Meal campaign of the Mainly I Love Kids (MILK) Fund, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
And still, the hours lingered. The books she read shut their doors on her. The tai-tai closed ranks and faces, careful to withhold opinion and judgment. The pills her doctor prescribed no longer bought her sleep. In her dressing room sat, gorged and yawning, packages she brought home from her shopping expeditions with the wives and daughters of her husband’s peers, and Lia could barely remember why they were there and why she had spent so much money in the first place. The exquisitely plated food set before her had the uniform taste of fish boiled for too long in unsalted water. Lia knew that if she were to stop what she was doing and disappear, things would carry on without her. Natasha would still be in school, Alexander would have no problem finding her replacement, the house and garden would continue to be well-maintained, the charities would find some other sponsor.
The freedom her marriage bought her had very little value added. Lia thought of all the projects she had begun and never finished: the books she stopped reading after a few chapters; the stories and poems she began writing; the outreach missions she failed to go on; the Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and Bikram yoga classes she attended fitfully; the board meetings at which she had been pre-instructed to vote; the graduate programs in political science, history, and literature to which she thought of applying; the women whose friendship she should have kept.
Meantime, Alexander had thickened into a version of the father he had disliked and could never please. In her first six months with Alexander, Lia had only a vague idea of which family he belonged to, so assiduously did he spare her the details of his family life in Singapore. When she thought about it now, she realized that she had been equally reticent.
Years later, the same thing was happening, for different reasons, with different consequences. Alexander no longer brought home his thoughts and feelings, preferring to confine his dinner-table and bedside conversations to the quotidian facts of their marital cohabitation. In time, the everydayness of their being together began to grate on him, and he stopped according her the same courtesy that he would never dream of withholding from their housekeeper Mrs. Deng. The couple’s decision to have separate bedrooms brought immense relief to both.
Lia did not think Kevin Hale alluring. He was her trainer, a better-paid servant with the interpersonal skills to goad her into regaining the silhouette she once had. She preferred her men clean-cut, dark-haired, long-eyed, brown-skinned, and whiplash-lean, not blond, blue-eyed, long-jawed, and brawny.
It had started with herbal tea and decaf coffee after workout, lunches on weekdays as she waited for Natasha to come back from school. Kevin had closed his fingers over hers while she told him about the argument she had had with Alexander over her husband’s refusal to bring her with him to Dubai. She had thanked Kevin through a brume of tears, thought nothing of it afterwards.
When Kevin kissed her—a quick, gentle pressure on her mouth instead of the social beso-beso on her cheeks—just as she was taking out her car key in the covered parking lot of the mall where they had met for lunch, she thought of the garlic in the pasta she had just eaten before she realized what Kevin meant. She saw him in her rearview mirror, unsmiling and still, and put her foot down on the accelerator to widen the distance between them.
In her dressing room, she looked at the woman in the mirror, the one with the smeared eyes and mouth. Taking up with one’s trainer was so cliché it was beyond pitiful. She recalled her disgust and contempt when she learned of her mother’s dance instructor a decade ago. She vomited laughter.
It was true that Alexander’s father had had separate living arrangements with his Eurasian tai-tai Anneliese: he had moved out of his estate on Marine Parade Road and was temporarily lodged in Le Royal Suite of Raffles Hotel until his three-storey penthouse in Wallich Residence was ready for occupancy.
Wesley Liao preferred his women tall and glinty, like his skyscrapers. He was photographed with a succession of young women who came to be known as the Four Beauties—a former Miss Singapore, a daughter of a business tycoon, a daughter of a minister to the Cabinet, and a PRC girl. Such was his prerogative as patriarch that he saw no contradiction in lecturing his second son about the fact that Alexander could do better than marry someone from a Third World country, granted that she came from a good family.
A moving picture of Wesley Liao’s liver-spotted hand on her knees beneath the red tablecloth of a New Year’s banquet table went dark as Lia felt Kevin’s tongue in her mouth and his fingers inside her skirt. After days of being buffeted by dread and longing, Lia now felt as if she were in the eye of a storm. Kevin had broken the kiss long enough to take the wheel of her car and drive them to a part of Geylang where Lia was least likely to run into someone from her circle.
The budget hotel had a mock-Georgian façade in blue and white. The wall behind the counter of the lobby had been unaccountably papered over with a blown-up photograph of Japan’s Mount Fuji, mantled in snow and fanned by cherry blossoms. The room, which Kevin paid for, was smaller than the guest bathroom of her Dalvey Road mansion. Although the walls and floor were unremittingly plywood, the bed was large and soft, the sheets clean and scented.
The act itself was hurried, brutal. Afterward, Lia remembered the shock of his thrust and the feeling that she could not open herself wide enough as he tongued her. Not since the frenzy and soreness of her early years with Alexander did lovemaking leave her so fearful and exultant.
Had Kevin not reached for her hand while they were getting on the escalator of the mall a few weeks later, they might have passed for two people on their way to a meeting, friendly or business. A reporter from one of the tabloid papers had chanced upon them and, unable to believe his luck, captured their intimacy on his cellphone camera. Blurred though some of the photos had been, there was no mistaking the look she had offered Kevin, like a gift. The years had fallen away from her, and from afar, she looked like the version of herself in vintage Dior crêpe de chine that the Tatler had once pronounced captivating, under a headline that read: “Who is the girl in the aqua dress?”
Later, Alexander told her that he had forgiven her. (She was sure that part of his forgiveness entailed paying Kevin to disappear. Her calls to Kevin’s cellphone had gone unanswered and soon all she got was an automated female voice telling her that the number she dialed was no longer in service. Had this taken place in Manila, the word disappear might have taken on some other meaning.) Alexander said he had no problems with her sleeping with someone else, considering the fact that he had absented himself from their home and bed. What he did mind was the fact that she had fallen in love with a man beneath her station, a meat mountain of a man who could have had no other motive than to fuck her to shake some money out of the Liao family.
Lia pointed out that she had not asked for Alexander’s forgiveness, that she had not had to pay Kevin for anything since they got involved, and that the home she shared with Alexander had stopped being a home long before her husband left for Dubai. And speaking of family money, Wesley Liao’s great-grandfather had been an opium farmer and trafficker of firearms and coolies, a trafficker in drugs and death, in human suffering and misery.
To which Alexander replied that the Chinese-mestizo Silaycos and Agalons were nothing more than provincial traders. Lords of latifundia they were not, nowhere near the league of the East Indies’ Oei Tiong Ham, Hong Kong’s Robert Hotung, or, for that matter, Singapore’s Liao Kok Bun. The Agalon money smelled of the cheap cotton-paper mint it had rolled off from, and it was telling that Lia’s grandfather, the senior Rigoberto Agalon, had successfully lobbied post-war Congress to have a cul-de-sac in downtown Manila renamed after his rascal of a grandfather, Anselmo. A cul-de-sac indeed.
Alexander thought it beneath him to comment on his own affair with the wife of the man with whom he played golf, except to say she didn’t lie there like a dead tuna fish. The difference, he said, was that Lia’s affair had resulted in scandal, while his had been discreet. The difference, Lia responded, was that Alexander’s mistress had not retired from her career in acting.
Once the rage bled out of her, Lia felt herself go limp and heavy. She had worn her marriage like an amulet against everything that could hurt her and her family. She had nursed Alexander through his weekly sessions with a father who was forever retailing his second son’s deficiencies. She had mourned their inability to have more children. She felt keenly her husband’s disappointment at their failure to have a son, even as she made it a point to insist, in their quarrels, that the failure was as much his fault as hers.
Lia knew Alexander was not a bad man and wondered how she could have overlooked his need to please his father and court the approval of others. Wasn’t it enough that he came from a good family, had had a good education, hadn’t he been a good husband of his family’s properties? Weren’t she and Natasha enough for him?
Lia tried to explain to Natasha that what happened between her parents had nothing to do with her. The girl shrugged off Lia’s caresses, and behaved toward her mother with a formality that left Lia wondering if this was because Natasha was self-conscious about any display of affection, or because she didn’t want her mother’s. There was that one time, as Lia’s carry-on bag was being stowed in the trunk of the car that was to bring her to Changi airport, when Natasha turned away from her mother and bent down to fiddle with her perfect bows of shoelaces, but the face that Natasha presented to her—Lia might as well have been looking at herself in the mirror—after she straightened up was unsigned by her parents’ public divorce.
It was Lia’s mother, Angela, who advised her to go back to the Philippines. Not to Manila, as the scandal had already washed up with the tides and a blind item had bobbed up in the papers (the columnist—a man who understood that an Agalon threat was not to be taken lightly, especially not by his publisher from a rival political clan—moved the setting to the other port city of Hong Kong), but to the family estate on Banwa.
Angela Silayco-Agalon’s voice over the phone—“Sweetie, you might want to disappear for a bit. Why don’t you come back?”— was soft, but Lia knew enough to recognize it for the command that it was.
Tiempo Muerto is now available at Fully Booked, Ateneo Press Bookstore, Solidaridad, and Popular Bookstore.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountry.ph.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.