In 2001, right after the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Administration assumed office in Malacanang Palace in Manila, a couple of us Information Officers from attached agencies of the former Office of the Press Secretary were detailed to our tour of duty at the palace's Press office.
Our group comprised what was then known as the Operations Center. We were directly involved in several information related requirements of the President's travel and state visit plans. We were also involved in the President's Media Interaction team, and the Palace's News Desk. Suffice it to say, we work the clock 24/7.
We were provided with food and accommodation so none of us have to go home every day. We were each given our own weekly two-days off to see our families, feed our pets, do our laundries and pay the bills. After which, we go back to the palace and stay for five days.
Our assigned sleeping quarter was at the "right tower" of the Arlegui Guest House - the same house where Presidents Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada stayed during their term as presidents.
The right tower is accessed through the bedroom that was once occupied by Presidential daughter, and media personality Kris Aquino. At that time, the bedroom was designated as the official receiving room of the Press Secretary.
Because the office is scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, we worked in shifts. So it is normal to find three or four people working at the staff area during the night shift, while the rest (often three or four people or less) are found snoring in the sleeping quarters.
Within the six months that we've stayed in the said area, every one of us had a story to tell, and all of them bordered on the creepy. But one night stood out for me and my friend, Hazel, who was also our media placement officer.
It was eleven PM, and we were waiting for the arrival of the night shift people. Hazel was doing the wrap ups on her reports, and I was preparing to brush my teeth. Upstairs, in the tower, our errand boy, Rey, was already asleep.
There was nothing out of the ordinary until my eyes caught the curtain that leads to the balcony. It was parted, as if someone was standing there and holding the curtains apart with his hands, only no one was there, and there was nothing to hold the curtains open like that.
Like I said - it seemed like nothing if I hadn't focused on it. I had no idea how long it had been like that, but I knew it shouldn't be like that because the glass door leading to the balcony was closed.
I felt like my head grew to three times its normal size. Especially when the curtains closed as if suddenly released.
I told Hazel that we should hurry up and go upstairs. Hazel must have sensed that I was nervous because her eyes registered concern.
Once we got to the tower, Hazel asked me what it was that bothered me, so I told her. We decided that it would be better to just sleep and let the night shift staff deal with whatever it was there was downstairs.
While we were trying to sleep, I could distinctly hear the muffled sound of a ball softly bouncing on the wooden floor boards of the office below us. I looked at Hazel in the dark to see if she's awake, and I saw her staring back at me. I knew then that she could hear the same bouncing sound I was hearing.
Although I wasn't sleepy, and my mind was highly alert, I closed my eyes and covered my face with my blanket. I don't know how long I had stayed that way, and I don't recall falling asleep. But suddenly, I felt Hazel jumping into my side of the bed and screaming, "They're here! They're here!" That jolted me up, and I turned to her to see what the hell was going on.
She was on her side of the bed, wide awake, and perfectly still.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
What was I supposed to say? So I lay down again. And since I wasn't sleepy, I didn't bother to close my eyes. I focused instead on the sound of Rey's rhythmic snoring.
And then, it happened again. Hazel jumping on my side of the bed and screaming, 'They're here! They're here!"
I turned, and there was - Hazel, her eyes closed, but I could tell she was awake.
I stared at her a little longer just to make sure she wasn't going crazy (because if she was, then that would ease my mind of my own suspicion that I was going crazy.)
Hazel's eyes fluttered wide open, and she was staring right in front of her. There was no fear in her eyes. Not even confusion. She sat up, looked at me and Rey for a while, before she lay down again.
I turned away, and the same thing happened two more times - her suddenly jumping on my side of the bed and screaming, "They're here, they're here," or at least, I believed it happened that way. But every time I'd turn around to look at here, she'd be on her side of the bed, lying quietly on her side and very much awake.
As I believed I was very much awake.
Finally, it was 4 am, and both of us were still awake, though very quiet and still. We didn't talk at all through that whole thing. I told her I had to go down to read through the day's issues in the morning papers. She nodded her head and I left her sitting on her side of the bed, still very quiet. And Rey was still snoring on his bed.
Downstairs, only two of the normally four night-shifters reported, and they were busy going through the e-mails and online news. I asked them what time they punched in. One of them said he punched in at fifteen after twelve, while the other guy said he punched it at around quarter before one.
It didn't seem like they noticed anything out of the ordinary, and I didn't bother to ask.
I did what I had to do, and wrote my reports (ratio of bad news vis-à-vis good news) and that day being a Saturday, and since it was still early (six-thirty in the morning) I decided to go back up to the tower to sleep off the remainder of the morning. Rey was already up and fixing his bed, while Hazel was still awake and yawning, and finally feeling sleepy. But on my way up, I caught the last part of the story that Rey was telling Hazel. According to him, he was awakened several times during the night by my jumping into his bed and screaming, "They're here! They're here!" But every time he'd look at me, he'd see me on my side of the bed, and lying perfectly still, while hazel is seated on her side and looking at both of us. Rey said it was a very creepy night for him.
After Rey went down for coffee, I told Hazel my side of the story. And I felt it, like there was this solid thing between us. I sensed that Hazel also had her own story to tell.
She said she heard the muffled sound of a ball bouncing on the wooden floor boards, and the giggling of two children down at the office. Then she heard people chatting downstairs, around seven or nine of them, and how these people suddenly decided to go up to the tower. She said she could hear their foot steps going up for what seemed like several minutes, but they never seem to reach the landing (one could reach the tower in less that seven seconds. The spiral metal stairs that lead up to it has 12 steps). Then suddenly, they were there, walking around the beds, and she found herself opening her eyes, and realizing that no one was there, except for the three of us.
She insisted that she was wide awake the whole time, and that she never closed her eyes at any point. She said she was too nervous to close her eyes.
I have made some good friends now. Adults make very good friends.
BTW, since I posted my last story (IS THIS CLOSURE?), I've been thinking a lot about my childhood, and the foggy stories that people who remember me says about me. For instance, I asked my older cousin (older by eleven years) what I was like when I was a pre-teen, and he said I was so strange that even he and his friends made fun of me behind my back. They perceived me as having a "loose screw" - talking and playing games all by myself.
What really got under his skin, though, was when he caught me (7 at that time) in my room - again, talking to myself - one afternoon (he said he was around 18 at that time). He said he listened to my "conversation," and then he heard me address someone as "lala," which is, in this context, an amalgamation of two Filipino words: "lola" which means grandmother, and "yaya" which means nursemaid.
Apparently, I was not the only child among our extended family who are known to talk to ourselves when we are alone, and address an unseen companion as "lala." Nearly every child among our relatives, from the time they could talk up to six or eight years old had been known to do this, and "lala" is a frequent word they would utter.
That got under his skin because he'd been told that he himself did so when he was very young, and he stopped only when he hit nine or ten. He said he did ask our other cousins, uncles and aunts back then if they remember talking to a "lala." Nearly all those who were close to his age group remember having uttered that word when they were young, but the reason behind the word is foggy to them.
The older relatives, however, said something interesting: they remember "lala" as an elderly nanny who used to take care of them whenever they were alone. She always looked the same to everyone who remembers her: she looked very old, had very wrinkled skin, and had few teeth left. But she's always kind and her presence is comforting, and she always wears a flowery blouse.
They never knew where she'd go when other family members are around. She would only appear to them when they were alone, or whenever there was a thunder storm. She would come to their rooms, comfort them, and help them go to sleep.
Apparently, children in our (extended) families who were born in the city during the mid-80s and after have no such experiences. Some of the children who were born among our relatives in the provinces, even today, are still known to talk to themselves when they are alone, although "lala" is no longer mentioned.
I have no recollection of "lala" myself, to be very honest. I wonder why.