Hindsight for July 25, 2022
FROM THE street, the building still looked like the bank it had once been, with fluted columns crowned by precast acanthus leaves, but the paint and even the cement cladding had chipped off to reveal the pedestrian concrete underneath. It had been a branch of the old Fidelity Bank & Trust Co., which had gone under in the 1980s after its owner had fled to Southern Spain with P600 million in debts, and the building had served various lessees and uses—once, even, as a shoe emporium on its ground floor, with a restaurant in the mezzanine. But with the building of the LRT, the whole district was literally benighted, occupied by aging tenants with nowhere else to go, pitted with all kinds of booby traps for the unwary.
The former bank’s windows had all been shuttered or painted over, but a steady procession of young people still went in and out of the place through a side door at all hours of the day and night. The locals were made to understand that it had been converted to a call center, although a sign that said “Far Eastern Institute of Homeopathic Medicine” still hung beside the old entrance. Security guards—always two at a time—were posted at the side door, and they ran everyone’s ID through a screening device before letting them in.
The one exception to this routine was the woman they called Ma’am Ventura, a smallish, gray-haired lady in her late sixties who was always accompanied by her driver-bodyguard Bulag, so-called because he never took off his wraparound shades. Ma’am Ventura always wore a dark jacket, matching skirt, white blouse, and flat shoes, like a bank teller—which she had been, in this very same branch, which explained why she had chosen to lease it for her operation.
She had had the mezzanine converted to an office with a window overlooking the cubicles below, and with a long table around which her floor managers assembled at 10 p.m. to assess the day’s metrics and discuss tomorrow’s messages. The dress code for the trolls below—the “social media specialists”—was strictly informal, the easier for them to vanish into the crowd, but for her managers, Ma’am Ventura insisted on ties, socks, skirts, and heels, so they could understand that they were professionals, as worthy of respect as any college instructor or law clerk. “Transforming society through democratic discourse” was the outfit’s pitch to its recruits.
But tonight, Ma’am Ventura was in a typically foul mood, reviewing some scripts that a new hire had prepared. “Puñeta! I’m not asking you to write an essay that will get a 1.0 from Professor Dadufalza! I want you to say, in 280 characters or less, and in words Bulag will understand, why historians lie! Can someone please show poor Ms.—uhm—Ms. Morales here how she needs to think if she wants to stay in this job?”
Ever eager to please, Nico raised his pencil from his seat on Ma’am Ventura’s right. “They’re people. Just like us. They make mistakes. We don’t even need to prove they’re wrong. We just need to show they could be.”
“Wasn’t the Code of Kalantiaw fake news? Someone just made it up,” came a voice from the far end. Nico winced, knowing it was coming. Angela never missed an opportunity to upstage him at these sessions, flaunting her UP degree—which she knew Ma’am Ventura had as well—like she was standing on a three-foot stool, spreading her arms wide. “Even historians can be fooled.”
“How many Pinoys out there today even know about the Code of Kalantiaw?” said Bruce, Nico’s ally and Angela’s spurned suitor. “That might be good for TV or Kuya Obet’s column but it’s useless for us.”
“So what can we use? Ms. Morales, any ideas? Redeem yourself.” Ma’am Ventura lit up her first cigarette of the evening; smoking was forbidden on the shop floor but up here they would all reek of it by midnight. This was the part of the work Ma’am Ventura enjoyed the most. The business side of the meeting—impressions, reach, audience growth, engagement rate, etc.—just harvested stats for the client. The Q&A reminded her of the time, after the bank closed down, when she had to take on a teaching job at the college in her provincial hometown. She had begun by teaching Accounting, which she had studied for, but as often happened in these places, she was soon made to teach English and even History.
At first she tried her best to keep a few chapters ahead of her students, reading the textbooks late at night and figuring out exercises to keep them busy and from asking questions she couldn’t answer. But then the load just became too heavy and she began resorting to what she told herself was just conjecture—that, for example, Josephine Bracken agreed to become Jose Rizal’s wife to escape a scandal in her family—and she soon found it so pleasurable that even her exams posed questions like “What if Japan had won the Second World War? What would you be eating and watching on TV today?” She graded them based on their inventiveness, which she took as another form of intelligence. They began with a set of known facts, and then embellished them, building speculation upon speculation. It was much more fun that just memorizing names and dates. History was a record of settled arguments—until you gave it a kick.
Ms. Morales struggled. “Well—ma’am—can we say that historians lie because—because they don’t really know what happened, so—so they may not even know they’re lying? I mean—they’re not bad people, just—”
“Historians lie because they get paid to lie—by the left-wing universities that buy their books, even by the priests who are always looking for somebody else to blame,” Nico interjected, holding his pencil like he was about to snap it. “We just have to show they’re no saints.”
Angela added, “Let’s dig up some dirt, surely there’s—”
Ma’am Ventura rapped the table. “So what’s the line, boys and girls, what are we going to feed the sharks?” Below them, the monitors from dozens of computer screens glowed like votive candles to a hungry god.
A little hand went up from Ms. Morales. Everyone stopped. A snicker escaped Bruce’s airways. Ms. Morales fidgeted with her Hello Kitty purse. “Kung—kung manghuhula binabayaran, historian pa kaya? I mean… they’re also fortune-tellers, right? Just looking backwards.” She zipped and unzipped her purse. No one spoke until Ma’am Ventura began clapping.
“Hija, that’s brilliant! I want you all to write scripts around that punchline! Ms. Morales, I don’t know what you had for dinner, but I’m calling Grab to order it for everyone! Welcome aboard!” Ma’am Ventura blew a cloud of smoke so for a moment no one could see her face, but they could imagine her flashing that sweetest of smiles.