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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






My grandmother is ill

April 2008: It's early 2005 and I am spending three days on Boracay Island in the Philippines to celebrate a friend's wedding. The island is an hour's flight from Manila and has become popular for with local and foreign tourists. It's on the cusp of degradation; the once-deserted beach is lined with hotels, guest houses, shops and bars, but it hasn't quite fallen into the tawdry depths of mass tourism. There are little undiscovered cafes that sell excellent breakfasts and beach-front bars where you can watch the sunset, downing cocktails at a reasonable price.

The festivities go well. A moving church ceremony followed by two receptions. The latter begins to die in the early hours of the morning and a small group of us wander back towards the main cluster of accommodation. We are too awake to go to bed and only one bar is still open. We gather there among the drunks and the drugged, the artists and workers, rich and poor and the men and women who have not yet found a partner for the night.

I'm thinking of going to bed when I see a figure wandering around, always watching me. He's young, good-looking, on his own. No drink in his hand. I head for the men's room. When I come out, he's there, ready to talk to me. I should say something, but my feet have taken me past him and back to my friends. Quarter of an hour later, however, I head for my room and, surprise, surprise, there he is on the narrow pathway, waiting for me.

William (not his real name), is 20, slim, good-looking, a trainee nurse who wants a friend for the night. He's leaving with his friends early the next morning to return to his village. In the meantime, we have a few hours together. He's kind, gentle, considerate, loving and, to my slight surprise, does not ask for money.

By nine he has gone. I spend the rest of my last day with my group of friends; the next day we are home in Bangkok. But William has my phone number and for the next few months we text each other. He's in love with me, he tells me. You're not, I tell him. He disagrees. We leave it there.

Then the requests for money come. He doesn't want much - perhaps $100 here or there. It's to pay for his nursing course. Look, he sends me emails - here are the photographs and documents proving that what I say is true.

I send him money occasionally, then say I will send him no more. He seems to accept this, then after a couple of months I get a request; it's not for him, it's for his mother who needs it to get back to her job in Saudi Arabia. I text no. He begs. I text again, angry. This time the message gets through. He apologises for disturbing me, says he will not do it again.

He keeps to his word. We keep in touch - he sends me photographs and tells me how his course is doing. Occasionally he dangles a little question in front of me "Do you think I will ever see you in BAngkok?" "Could you help me get a job in Thailand?" and so on. But there is never a request for money and I gently say no and the conversation continues as before.

At the end of the year I am one of a group of gay expatriates returning to Boracay for Hallowe'en. The others have partners. I ask William to join me. The eight of us dress up in Carnival costume and head out into the bars to discover we are almost the only ones in costume. Luckily we are drunk enough not to care. William spends two days with me and he's sweet and asks for nothing, but apart from the physical attraction there is nothing to hold us together. So while I discuss politics with the Europeans or read a book William gossips with the other Filipinos and a relaxing time is had by all.

I return to Thailand. Time passes. William and I exchange monthly emails. He never asks for money, but once a year I send him $100 or so for his birthday. He tells me the ups and downs in his life. The downs include a robbery, unreliable friends and a suicide attempt. The ups are his refusal to quit his nursing studies, his gradually moving towards graduation. That should come in 2008. As the months go by I see him gradually grow up - fewer parties and wild statements, more goals of exams to pass and money to earn. And from to time, when he's a little emotional, I'll get an email telling me I'm his only true friend.

In early January I return to live in London. In March I send him $150. He sends me a long, drunken text message thanking me, promising to save it. I feel good. Then one morning - yesterday - I wake up to find a message on my telephone. "Please call me." I do so. When he answers, he's in tears. I can't get him to tell me what's wrong. He says he'll send an email. A quarter of an hour later, it arrives.

His beloved grandmother - the one who brought him up while his parents worked abroad - has suffered a stroke. The hospital won't treat her unless the family come up with $750 downpayment. He has $300 of his money - the $150 I sent him and the $150 he has saved - and the family has come up with another $150. They still need another $300. Can I send it?

It takes me five minutes to come to a decision. Firstly, do I believe him? I know the sob stories that people can come up with, but yes, I think he's telling the truth. Secondly, can I afford to send him the money? Yes and no. Yes, because although it is a significant proportion of my monthly budget, if I make the sacrifice - don't go out for several days - I could send it. No, because this is only the downpayment and I do not know how much more money he will need; no, because his grandmother is not my responsibility; no because Western Union will require me to pay an additional $30 in fees. Ultimately no, because I am selfish...

His reply is gracious. He understands. I am sure he does not fully understand - he has not seen my bank statement - but he understands that I have my limits and those limits do not include his grandmother's health.

I wonder if I have done the right thing. In two or three days I will send an sms or an email asking how she is. It may be a long time before I get a reply. I am afraid to hear that she is still desperately ill, that there is no chance of recovery and no chance of an early easy death.

And when this is all behind him, I wonder what William will think. Will he still see me as his only true friend, or will he have reached that point in life that we all reach at one stage of our lives, when we realise that even our closest friends cannot be relied upon in times of need?
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