Monday, January 20, 2003

31. ALDI

~

Around Easter, I discovered that I was going to have to vacate the house in which I was living. The Chinese owner of the property wanted to do some redecoration and then increase the rent beyond what my school was prepared to pay. Moving house meant all the usual hassles, such as having to squash all my worldly goods into a few small cardboard boxes, having to go house hunting, and having to give lots of people my new address and telephone number.

House hunting in Jakarta requires great care. Many of the Indonesian houses built for the well-to-do look magnificent on the outside. There are Greek pillars, huge pediments, stained glass windows, and palatial entrances. But, inside, you may find that there is no hot water for the washing machine and no proper bath in the bathroom.

I eventually settled on a modern, white-walled villa with a sloping red roof. There were two small bedrooms; a sunny lounge-dining room provided views through glass doors to a little garden containing Heliconias and Hibiscus. The house appeared to have no major problems, such as broken air conditioners. A date was fixed for entry.

At this point, my driver pointed out that he would have a slightly longer journey to work and might need help to buy a motorbike. Rachmat, the house guard, was not sure whether or not he wanted to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. I ignored their comments, knowing that they were already being paid an above average wage.


I was seated on the settee in the little front room of Min’s house. Light was streaming into the room from the open front door. Standing on the doorstep were two of the local children who had come to stare. Min’s mum, perched on a wooden chair, was mending an old shirt. As usual, she looked less than wildly happy and I wondered if this was confirmation of my fear that the family were not entirely at ease in their new home and new neighbourhood. Aldi, the pleasant looking middle child, then aged about thirteen, was squatting on the floor next to Min. Aldi reported that he was having problems with the local children.

"They’re horrid to me," he complained . I thought he was going to cry.

"Are you horrid to Aldi?" I asked Eko, one of the schoolboys who was standing at the front door.

"No," protested Eko, staring at me with his big dark eyes and trying to look sincere.

"They’re not being nice," muttered Aldi.

"Come in Eko," I said, "and I’ll take a photo of you, Min and Aldi on the sofa."

Aldi made a face but the three of them were persuaded to sit together. Min smiled happily. Eko gave a slightly phoney smile. Aldi temporarily relaxed and grinned.

"My leg’s very sore," said Aldi, who looked a bit flushed in the face.

"Has Aldi been to the doctor?" I asked Wati.

"Not yet," she replied.

My main concern was for Min. I felt it was up to Wati to sort out her other children’s problems. She didn’t seem to be totally without money as, scattered around the floor, there were new toys, including a plastic car big enough for a child to sit in.


Next afternoon I again called in on Min.

Aldi was hobbling about. Fairly high up on his left thigh there was an inflamed red lump, possibly the result of a cut or a sore.

Min’s five year old sister, Imah, had a cough.

"Do you want to take Aldi to the local doctor?" I asked mum. "Imah too."

"OK," said Wati.

We drove to the clinic a few streets away and a young doctor gave Imah some cough medicine. He then applied some cream to Aldi’s cut, and administered some kind of injection.


For the next few days I was busy preparing to move house. I seemed to have acquired rather a lot of books and files and I went through them trying to decide what to throw out. In the end, what I disposed of was mainly old socks full of holes, torn shirts, used exercise books and broken pens. When I had dumped this rubbish in the bin I noticed that the maid carefully took it all out again and carefully stored it away for future sale or use.

The new residence, I had been assured, had no problems with leaking roofs. But after moving in there was a downpour and small brown stains appeared on parts of the ceilings in the lounge and one bedroom. Maybe the stains had been there before and I had just not noticed. Come to think of it, many of the houses of colleagues had similar problems. I completed my unpacking and decided that I was going to enjoy my new home.


After the several days involving packing up and moving, I called in on Min. It was afternoon and Aldi was not long home from school. He was lying on the settee.

"Aldi’s very ill," said Wardi, sounding unusually nervous. "He came home from school and he was like this."

"What do you think is wrong?" I asked. I could see that Aldi was in pain.

"His neck’s sore," said Wardi. "He doesn’t want to get up. His neck feels stiff."

"We’d better get him to the Pertama Hospital," I said, referring to the large tower-block hospital a few miles distant. I felt angry that Aldi’s family had let him go to school that day. I felt guilty that I had not visited Min’s house a few days earlier. I felt worried that it was me who had argued in favour of Aldi moving from their old house in North Jakarta to this new one near Min’s school.

In the emergency ward, the doctor examined the patient, did some tests and came to a swift conclusion.

"Tetanus," he said.

Aldi, who was being attached to various tubes, was moaning and weeping.

I was relieved that we had got him admitted to the hospital and that he was now getting treatment. I did not know much about tetanus but I assumed that the same sorts of antibiotics which had cured the blue baby in Bogor would now also deal with Aldi’s problem.

"Don’t worry," I said to him, smiling, "you’re going to be all right now." Although Aldi was terrified and in pain, I felt there was something reassuring about the nurses and the tubes.

After leaving Min’s home I had a late dinner at The Meridien. I felt more relaxed, even pleased with myself.


After work next day I hurried to the Pertama Hospital where I met Aldi’s hollow-cheeked father who looked stressed and worn out. Aldi was alone in an isolation room which could be looked into through a glass screen. My heart began to pound when I saw the little boy was having huge and violent muscle spasms which made his whole body writhe. These intensely painful-looking spasms were rapid and continual. It just went on and on and on. It was as if he was being electrocuted for hours on end. I could not cope with this nightmarish scene and asked a nurse to fetch a doctor. A tall, unsmiling man arrived.

"What can be done about these spasms?" I asked. "Surely he should be getting some attention from a nurse or someone?"

"He’s got tetanus," said the doctor. There was a hint of irritability in his voice.

"But what’s being done for him? Is the medicine working?"

"He’s getting treatment for tetanus."

I wanted some detailed information and some sympathy but I was not going to get it from this particular doctor.

"What about the spasms?" I asked.

"You get that with tetanus," said the doctor, who then walked away.

I looked at Aldi’s father. The poor man looked near to tears.

That evening I could not relax. I lay down in bed but could not get to sleep. I sat up and looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past eleven. Next time I looked it was twenty six minutes past eleven and thirteen seconds.


There was a phone call for me midmorning while I was at work. Someone from the Pertama Hospital wanted my permission to move Aldi to intensive care.

"Of course you have my permission," I said aggressively. "Shouldn’t he have been in intensive care all along?"

"We also need your permission to increase the dosage of Diazepam. That’s Valium."

"I’m not a doctor. I have no idea about these things. Ask the boy’s father. Aldi’s not my child." I must have sounded extremely bad tempered.

"We need your permission because you signed the form when the patient was admitted."

"I can’t make a decision. You’ll need to ask the father."

"We have to ask you."

"So what happens if you don’t increase the dosage?"

"The present dosage is not sedating the child enough."

"And if you increase the dosage? Are there any problems with that?"

"There is a risk of heart failure, which is why he should be in intensive care."

"He should be in intensive care, but I can’t possibly make a medical decision about dosages."

"The doctor always needs permission before taking any important step like this."

"Tell the doctor he must do what’s best for the patient. I give permission for that. If he wants to increase the dosage, that’s OK. And please consult the father." I imagined that Aldi’s father would know as little as I did.

I was becoming superstitious. I looked at my watch and it was thirteen minutes past twelve. Next time I looked, it was thirteen minutes past one, the thirteenth hour. This was stupid, I thought. Just a coincidence. What was the significance of the number thirteen? According to some numerologists, thirteen means the end of a cycle and new beginnings.


After school finished I was driven straight to the hospital, nerves shivering. I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past the hour. I wondered how the family would react towards me if anything had gone wrong. I remembered again that it was me who had helped persuade Aldi to move to the new house.

We reached the gates at the front of the hospital. Wardi was standing there. He signaled to us to stop and approached the car.

"Aldi is dead. He’s left this world. It’s all right Mr Kent." Wardi was speaking calmly and with no anger in his voice.

My brain felt numb, as if someone had given it a violent blow. I went with Wardi to find a doctor and was shown into a room where a middle aged woman sat at a desk. She looked sober minded and sympathetic. Judging by the room’s comfortable furniture, she was a senior doctor.

"What happened?" I asked.

"The child had a serious case of tetanus. He had had the disease many days before he came to us. I don’t think he had been immunised."

"He had an injection from a doctor at a clinic when he got the red lump," I pointed out.

"Yes but there are two different kinds of injection, those you get before an injury and those you get after an injury. It is the first kind that is vital."

"Did Wati get the children immunised?" I said, turning to Wardi. "After I gave her the money a few weeks ago."

"She went to the clinic," said Wardi, "but they said they didn’t do vaccinations."

"It is very important," continued the doctor, speaking softly, "that they get immunisation before any accident."

"What treatment did Aldi get here at the hospital?" I asked.

"I was in charge of his treatment," she said. "We gave him penicillin and diazepam. The penicillin is for the bacteria, but it does not deal with the toxin already produced by the bacteria. The toxin causes the spasms. The diazepam is to try to relax the muscles. There is a danger with the diazepam that the heart may stop which is why he was moved to intensive care. Unfortunately his heart gave out."

"Was there a doctor in intensive care to help him?" I said.

I must have sounded too angry because Wardi took my arm and said, "It’s all right Mr Kent."

"We did what we could," said the doctor.

There were forms to be filled in at the hospital, and bills to be paid. When we eventually reached Min’s house, Aldi’s small body, covered by a cloth, was already lying in the middle of the living room floor. Relations and neighbours were seated on the floor in a circle around the corpse, and I thought that I should join them. A smiling neighbour came in and read some Moslem prayers. This neighbour did not seem to be at all upset by events but I found tears flooding from my eyes. I hoped that, Lazarus-like, the little body might get up, but it didn’t. Min looked confused, unsure of what was going on.

Wati beckoned to me to come upstairs. There she sat close beside me, pressed against me in fact, and prepared herself to speak.

"Mr Kent, we need money. We have to pay for the burial."

"I’ll pay. Don’t worry."

"We need to go to Lamaya for the burial. It’s the small town where we used to live. It’s a long way."

"Yes, I know. A journey of four hours."

She was naturally in a disturbed state of mind. At one point she picked up a photo of her dead son, ripped it into pieces and then flung the pieces onto the floor.

I wanted to get some fresh air and took Min outside to the communal bench half way along the street, next to where the mobile food carts usually park. It was already dark and insects danced in the light of kerosene lamps. Min became quite jolly, obviously unaware of the true nature of events. Two or three of Aldi’s former school friends came and sat down beside us. They showed no signs of sorrow or unhappiness.

"Mr Kent," said Wardi, who had come to join us, "we need your driver to take the family to Lamaya."

"It’s nearly midnight," I said.

"It’s the Moslem custom that the body must be buried quickly."

"I understand that, but my driver has to get home to his family. What other form of transport is there?"

"An ambulance will be very expensive."

"I know. But it’ll have to be an ambulance."

I returned to my home and lay on my bed. "It’s all right Mr Kent," was what Wardi had said. To some Moslems, it was a simple matter of God’s will; one had to accept these sometimes mysterious events. But how could a good and all powerful God allow such things to happen? I remembered that when Budi had died, I had wondered why angels had not intervened. Buddhist Rahayu, whom I had met during the Idul Fitri holiday, might have seen all this suffering as something inevitable for beings who had not yet reached enlightenment. There would be continual reincarnations until attachments and illusions were got rid of. He did not apparently believe in a God in the Moslem or Christian sense of the word. I remembered what Tom had said: "They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs." What worried me most was memories of Aldi’s painful spasms and the thought that they might not have occurred if I had done things differently. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that my actions, such as moving Min’s family to their new home in South Jakarta, had seemed right at the time. Eventually I drifted off to some kind of sleep.

~

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