Friday, January 24, 2003


Some days after our meeting in the supermarket at Kem Chiks, Tom invited me for an evening drink at the Houghmagandy Hotel in South Jakarta’s Blok M. The Houghmagandy, a modest concrete tower on a street full of noisy buses and traffic fumes, is frequented by the sort of businessmen who cannot afford Five Star establishments, or who do not mind being hassled by the multitude of young women in the extremely dark and crowded bar on the top floor.

"Kent, I need your advice," Tom whispered, as we sat down with our beers in the almost empty lower-floor restaurant. Tom was looking peaky, slightly unshaven and a trifle dishevelled in old T-shirt and baggy grey trousers.

"The sixteen-year-old girlfriend?" I said.

"Her name’s Kuntil," said Tom, his voice sounding a little more confident. "I’m in trouble."

"What’s happened?"

"She came to the office and asked to see the boss."

"You’re still working in Sudirman?"

"Yes. Anyway, the receptionist told her the boss was away. Our receptionist’s sweet. Kuntil said she’d be back and she was going to write a letter to the press. Can you imagine the story?"

" I can," I said. "‘British expatriate, aged 43, working for the well known British firm of whatever, has broken his promise to marry Moslem girl, aged 16.’ How would your boss react?"

"He’s a man of the world," said Tom, "but the firm doesn’t want that kind of publicity. My contract would probably be ended."

"Do you think she would write to the newspapers? I mean, what would she gain if you had to leave the country?"


"Seems to be important in this part of the world."

"I’ve gone off her," said Tom, now speaking quite loudly. "She wants eighty million rupiahs because she says I’ve broken my promise to marry. I think it’s her friends from the karaoke bar who’ve put her up to it."

"Criminals, I reckon. Tell me, what age was she when you first met?"

"Fifteen. But, I didn’t get involved deeply until she was sixteen. I was careful."

"Have you negotiated with her?"

"I went to see her parents. They’re quite nice really. I explained that I had promised to marry her, but that I’d changed my mind."

"How did they take it?"

"They were polite and friendly. But Kuntil is sticking to her demands."

"She’s no doubt disappointed she’s not going to escape from the kampung into a life of luxury with maids and drivers and your retirement home in Madeira. My advice is to talk to her, kindly. Give her a way out that won’t involve loss of face."

"It’s not that I’m hard up, but I’ve saved my money so I can retire early."

"Is your money in shares?"

"It’s all in an Indonesian bank that’s giving a huge rate of interest."

"Is that safe?"

"The manager told me he’d let me know if there were ever any problems."

"If his bank was in difficulty, is it likely he’d let you know?"

"He’s a very decent guy," said Tom, stretching himself and beginning to look less tense. "What are you doing at the weekend? Bogor again?"

"Yes, Bogor again," I said.

In Bogor my first visit was to Ciah and her son Agosto, in their wooden shack under the dark, damp trees. Agosto was home from hospital, recovered from his typhoid, but looking pale, thin and unsmiling. I gave Ciah a small sum of money to buy food.

"Sorry it’s not much," I said, "but there have been a lot of people getting ill recently."

To be honest, I could have given a lot more, but for some reason I was feeling grumpy. Maybe it was the after effect of the beers with Tom.

In the children’s ward at Bogor’s mental hospital in Babakan I visited the mentally backward youngsters, John, Daud, Erwin and Saepul. John was naked, tied up, and sitting in a pool of diarrhoea. Erwin was locked behind bars in his usual small cell.

"John’s lost some weight," I said to the nurse named Diana, a well-nourished woman who looked happy in her work. "Has he seen the doctor?"

"Yes," she said, grinning in a way that suggested possible insensitivity or malice.

"What’s wrong with him?"

"He’s greedy. He ate too much and got sick."

"Is he getting any medicine?"

"He’s OK."

"He looks ill; malnourished."

"No. He’s fine." What was it about Diana’s smile?

I took Daud and Saepul for a short walk in the hospital grounds, and then washed my hands.

I dropped in on Asep and little Andi in Bogor Baru. Asep was still getting his TB medicine and had put on some weight around his face and chest. Andi was running around with his friends, but his stomach still had that swollen appearance of the malnourished.

Next stop was at the house of Dian, the sister of Melati and Tikus. Dian showed me her TB pills and smiled from a face that had put on more flesh and become prettier.

I wandered alongside one of Bogor’s red-brown river gorges. To my right was the volcano, Mount Salak. To my left little kampung houses were clinging to a series of steep terraces; colour was provided by sky blue doors, red-brown cockerels in cages and sheeny pink bougainvillea in tiny gardens; a food cart vendor was seeking attention by knocking on a hollow bamboo stick; a young girl in a too short skirt was slowly climbing some wide stone steps; drifting down the river was a raft covered in semi-naked children.

"Hey mister. Come in." It was the voice of young Dede, fan of English football, and brother of the fragrant and beautiful Rama. Dede, dressed in school uniform, was sitting on the wall outside his house.

"OK," I said, pleased to have some company.

Once seated on the concrete floor of his front room, Dede took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it with a match he had rubbed against the wall. He began blowing smoke rings. There was a slight movement of the curtain leading to the bedroom, suggesting someone was on the other side.

Seated on the lumpy settee, I looked at a framed photo positioned on top of the TV. In the photo, Rama was holding hands with a tall, ungainly young man with a big forehead, hollow cheeks and a facial expression suited to a spivvish barrow-boy.

"My sister," said Dede. "She’s got engaged."

"To the man in the photo?" I asked with a slight croak in my voice. It seemed incredulous that Rama should want to marry someone so less attractive than herself.


"Does he live near here?"

"Round the corner," said Dede. "His mum is friends with my mum. They’re distant relations."

Before I had time to think too deeply about Rama’s fate, a small boy, dressed in a sarong, appeared at the open door and stared in. He was accompanied by a grey old lady I took to be his granny.

"This is Hadi," said Dede, pointing in the direction of the elfin kid. "He’s just been circumcised."

"Brave chap," I said.

"Hadi," said Dede, addressing the lad, "show mister where you’ve had the operation."

The boy grinned and shook his head.

"Want to see my barbet?" asked Dede, cocking his head to one side.

"Your what?"

"Barbet," said Dede, dark eyes widening.


"Do you like barbets?" asked Dede. "I’ll show you it."

He went into the small front garden and returned with a tiny quivering object.

"Do you like birds?" he said, as he opened his hands to reveal the feathery fledgling.

"Yes, but not in cages," I said, feeling sorry for the creature. "There are hardly any birds in the trees around here. They’re all in cages."

He sat on the floor and let the bird walk over his head.

"Be careful. It may not be clean," I advised. "You don’t want to catch some disease."

"Oman’s ill," said Dede.

"Who’s Oman?" I asked.

"A little kid down the road," said Hadi. "He’s got typhoid."

"Has he been to the doctor?" I asked, suspecting that I already knew the answer.

"The dukun’s been to see him," said Dede. "And, his aunt’s ill as well."

"What’s wrong with her?" I said.

"She’s all swollen up," said Hadi.

"Has she seen a doctor?" I asked.

"No," said Dede. "The dukun treated her as well."

"We’d better go and see them," I said, with some reluctance. I felt I had already had enough hassle for the day.

Dede led me to a white walled kampung house inside which were lots of small rooms, all dingy, dark and untidy. There were grubby paw marks on walls; and in one room, piles of threadbare clothes covered a torn settee. We entered a room smelling of rotting meat. Lying on a mattress on the floor was a middle aged woman, named Nurul, whose legs and arms looked swollen to twice their normal size.

"Have you seen a doctor?" I asked.

"She’s been getting treatment from the dukun," said a young man standing by the door. "The dukun did something which made her bleed. But she’s no better."

"She looks fevered. How long has she been like this?" I said.

"Maybe ten days," said the young man.

"Do you want to go to the hospital, if I pay?" I asked Nurul.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Where’s Oman?" I said.

I was taken into a room off a back courtyard. Ten year old Oman, who was lying on a settee, looked like a skeletal creature from a Japanese internment camp.

"Has he seen a doctor?" I asked.

"We took him to the government clinic," said a plump woman with a kindly face and broken sandals. "They gave him some pills for typhoid, but they didn’t work."

"You got pills for how many days?" I inquired.

"Three days," said the woman.

"Did you go back to the clinic when the pills were finished?"

"No," she said, smiling.

"How long ago was that?"

"About a week ago." She looked unsure.

"Do you want him to go to the hospital?"

"He’s been to the dukun," she said, avoiding looking at me.

"But he’s not better," I pointed out.

"Give us the money for the hospital and we’ll go later," said a man who appeared at the door of the room. Unshaven, and dressed in a snazzy shirt, he looked like a down-market used-car-salesman.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Joko, Oman’s father," said the man.

"Why can’t we go to the hospital now?" I asked.

"I’ve got to go off to the market to work," said Joko. "My wife’s got to look after the other children."

"We’ve got to go now," I insisted. "Look. Nurul’s being taken now." Six young men had appeared carrying the sick woman on a stretcher.

Joko put Oman on his shoulders and we set off towards my van.

At the Menteng Hospital the doctor looked worried after examining Nurul.

"She suffers from diabetes," said the doctor, "but she’s also got septicaemia, blood poisoning. She should have been here when she first got ill." Nurul was wheeled away to the third class women’s ward.

Oman was fitted to a drip and the nurse handed me a prescription for pills to last three days.

"Typhoid?" I asked.

"Yes," said the nurse, a pretty girl in a tight white uniform.

"Can we not get medicine to last more than three days?"

"No. It’s always three days," she said.

"But I live in Jakarta."

"Maybe Oman’s father can buy the next lot of medicine."

I turned to Joko. "If I give you medicine money to last ten days, will you make sure it’s used only to buy your son’s medicines?"

"OK," said Joko, avoiding my gaze.


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