Sunday, January 19, 2003



I needed a new house guard. Rachmat, my previous guard, had decided he did not want to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. My maid found me a skinny replacement, a youth called Irfan.

Various sounds would waken me in the night. It was amazing just how many of my Indonesian neighbours kept dogs that went to bed very late and cockerels that woke very early. Part of the noise problem was due to the thinness of the walls. I suspected that when my alarm clock went off, the old man across the road would leap rather suddenly out of bed. Of course the main reason I was ill at ease was Aldi’s death. I was nervous about going back to see Min.

Min’s family had not been sleeping well. There were new lines under their eyes.

"Mr Kent," said a dispirited sounding Wati, who was sitting in her front room with her youngest child on her lap, "how much do you pay Wisma Utara for Min’s schooling?"

"Quite a lot," I said, wondering what Wati was leading up to.

"I don’t think Min needs to go to school," she said, in an unusually outspoken way.

"How do you mean?"

"I don’t think Wisma Utara is doing him much good."

"You may be right," I said. "I’ll have a word with Joan. If I’m not paying fees to Wisma Utara, I can give you the money instead."

Wati’s face seemed to relax.

"How’s the vegetable stall?" I asked.

"It’s not good. There are too many other people selling vegetables."

I guessed that Wati might be in real need of a boost to her income.

"Before I forget," I said, "We must all go to my doctor to get you immunised. Would tonight be suitable?"

"Tomorrow," said Wati, sounding hesitant.

"She’s frightened of needles," said Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who had been hovering at the door.

"It’s no problem. I’ve had lots of injections," I said.

"My children," said Gani. "Can they come too?"

"Yes, of course," I said. "So tomorrow it is."

Min and I walked up the road to see Joan at Wisma Utara. We were invited to have a seat on a rather stained sofa in the lounge.

"How’s Min getting on with his schooling?" I asked.

"Just fine, Mr Kent, just fine," said Joan.

At this point I was distracted by a pair of mournful eyes belonging to a skinny boy seated on the floor.

"Who’s that very thin child with his finger in his ear?" I asked.

"Dadang. Sweet looking boy," said Joan.

"He looks poorly," I said. "There are bubbles coming out his nose." In fact he didn’t look as if he was long for this world.

"He’s fine. Everyone’s fine," said Joan, sounding tired and depressed.

"Can we take him to the doctor?" I knew Joan liked to get out of the home for a change of air.

"Yes, if you like."

I sat down beside Dadang, took his damp hand and asked him how he was feeling. He looked at me with his big sad eyes but said nothing. It was like looking into the eyes of a baby seal separated from its mother. When he coughed, cupfuls of phlegm exploded from his mouth and nose.

Having returned Min to his house, I took Dadang and Joan to a nearby clinic that did x-rays.

"Can you check for TB?" I said to the doctor. I didn’t want to think of Min sitting in school alongside a child with a serious infection.

"We’ll do all the tests. You’ll know by tomorrow," said the doctor. "Dadang is underweight."

After returning Dadang and Joan to Wisma Utara, I walked down to the rubbish tip to visit Iwan, the boy with leprosy. He was not at home.

"Where’s Iwan?" I asked one of the locals, a teenage girl with eyes that were a mixture of the sulky and the sultry.

"At his Kampung. He’s still in Karawang."

As I reckoned that Iwan’s medicine must have run out yet again, I asked the girl if she would fetch Iwan’s uncle. She walked, slim hips swinging, to a nearby hut and returned with the thin little man.

"Can you go to Karawang and persuade Iwan to return?" I asked the uncle, "He must get his pills."

"I’ll go now," he said eagerly, as I handed him more than enough money for the bus.

That evening I met Fergus for a drink. As usual he was wearing immaculately pressed shirt and trousers and dark glasses.

"It’s been a bad week," I said to Fergus as we sat in the Tavern, a bistro-style bar crowded with overweight expats, Indonesian secretaries having a night out, and commercial girls. "An Indonesian child I knew died of tetanus."

"Very high death rate among Indonesian children," said Fergus, looking surreptitiously in the direction of a table surrounded by Indonesian women. "It’s been happening throughout history."

"Makes me feel guilty," I said.

"Remember what Buddha said. You’ll never find a family that’s not known some sadness. People die. We’re all bound to feel guilty. It’s like in these Greek tragedies."

"I didn’t know you were into Greek tragedies." The last book I had seen Fergus reading was a Wilbur Smith.

"We were talking about this at school. In a Greek tragedy, people have to decide between two possible actions. But they always end up feeling guilty whatever decision they make."

"That seems to be the way it is," I said.

"Buddha and Jesus pointed out that suffering is inevitable in this world."

A tall Indonesian girl, wearing too much makeup, walked past our table. As she did so she smiled in the direction of Fergus, who gave a quick smile in return.

"How’s Min?" asked Fergus, as his eyes followed the girls legs towards the exit.

"Fine. But I don’t think he’s gaining much from his schooling."

"I suppose there isn’t too much you can do with a child who can barely speak?"

"Agreed, but the children and staff at Wisma Utara seem to sit around a lot, not doing very much."

"Lack of supervision," said Fergus. "It’s a problem in Indonesia. I just had some problems with a travel agency. Staff not too well trained. Lot of hassle getting tickets for Thailand. Anyway, what are your plans for summer?"

"I might explore parts of Java. Maybe a trip to Borobudur."

Next evening I was sitting with Joan in the lounge at Wisma Utara. Children of various shapes and sizes were seated on the floor watching the black and white TV. Some of the children looked less than normal. One or two were rocking back and forward. It was very humid and there was a smell of urine.

"You remember Santo?" said Joan, before I had a chance to ask about Dadang’s x-rays.

"Santo?" I said. I had a picture in my mind of a boy with wide apart eyes.

"He died," she said softly.

"Goodness. What of?"

"TB," said Joan.

"Was he getting treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"Why not?" My voice was rising.

"His family is poor, Mr Kent." Joan, dressed as usual in cheap T-shirt, slacks and sandals, emphasised the word poor.

"But they’re rich enough to pay for him to stay at Wisma Utara. Anyway, I could have paid."

"Mr Kent is always very busy. He doesn’t come to see us often."

"But Santo must have been ill for years. Had he seen the doctor?"

"No, Mr Kent. We didn’t know he was ill."

"The doctor comes here once a week. Didn’t he examine Santo?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"I don’t understand," I said, my voice becoming high-pitched. "Santo had a family rich enough to put him into this place, but they didn’t check up to see if their child was ill. There’s a doctor comes here once a week but he didn’t check up to see if the child was ill. Nobody told me the child was ill."

To be fair, I had never noticed anything seriously amiss with Santo; so why should the doctor notice. Santo had always looked rotund and smiling. I wondered if it really was TB.

"Diah’s also ill," said Joan.

It seemed that Joan had suddenly decided to offload all of Wisma Utara’s unhappy secrets. Perhaps she thought that, as I had now taken an interest in undernourished Dadang, I might as well know about all the rest. Probably she felt better for telling the truth.

"Where is Diah?" I asked, remembering the pretty teenage girl and her happy smile.

"She’s gone home to stay with her family."

"What’s wrong?"

"A tumour on the brain."

"Can I help?" I asked. My brain was feeling dizzy as a result of all the bad news.

"No, Mr Kent. Her family are rich. They can pay for treatment."

"What about Madan? He looks very thin." I was looking at a boy with a morose but handsome face.

"His father’s a doctor at the Kota Hospital," said Joan.

"Heavens," I said, wondering why a doctor might dump his son in a home and then let him grow so thin. "What about a checkup for Madan?"

"His father knows you come here," said Joan. "He says Madan must not be taken to any doctor or clinic."

I decided not to pursue the matter. There was something in Joan’s tone of voice suggesting it could be dangerous to oppose the wishes of Madan’s father.

"Any results from Dadang’s x-ray?" I asked. I couldn’t see Dadang, who was normally seated in his corner with his finger in his ear.

"The doctor says it’s TB," said Joan. "We got the x-rays."

"Not good. Has he got medicine?"

"Dadang’s family have taken him home," explained Joan.

"Would they like me to help pay for the treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent. They’re rich."

"Do you think anyone else here has got TB?"

"Wira’s father has TB. Wira’s one of our staff."

"Is the father getting treatment?"

"No Mr Kent. Wira gets paid very little."

"OK. I’ll give Wira money if she gets me a hospital receipt each month. And Wira better have an x-ray too."

"Thanks Mr Kent."

"And where’s Gus who used to help look after Min?"

"He’s got cancer."

"You’re joking." I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone at Wisma Utara who was not sick.

"No," said Joan.

"Has he got x-rays or anything? Has he been to a hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Well how does he know he’s got cancer?"

"The doctor told him."

"Tell him to go to the hospital and get a proper check up."

It occurred to me that Fergus was right. Making decisions led to guilt. If I had left Min living in the North Jakarta slums, I would have felt guilty. But having moved him to the house near Wisma Utara, I now felt guilty. Wisma Utara seemed to be an institution lacking proper supervision, at least as far as health was concerned.

Leaving Wisma Utara, I walked down the narrow little lane leading to Min’s house. I found Min’s mum brushing her front doorstep with a homemade broom.

"Wati," I said, "I think Min should stop going to Wisma Utara. Tomorrow he should stay at home. I’ll give you the money I was going to pay them for the schooling."

"Right, Mr Kent," said Wati, looking supremely happy for a change. I got the feeling she didn’t have a totally high regard for the staff at Wisma Utara.

"Any ill effects from the injections?"

"No," said Wati, grinning widely, "but my arm was sore for a while."

"My doctor says your x-rays are all OK. No TB."

After my visit to Wati, I headed for the rubbish tip. Leper Iwan was back from visiting his mother in distant Karawang. As had happened on the previous occasion, he was distinctly unwell. He was looking more skeletal than a kampung chicken and parts of his feet were horribly mushy and infected.

We headed straight to the local clinic where the doctor declared that the boy must go to the leper hospital.

The following day, a Saturday, I took Iwan and his granny to the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, where the leper hospital is located.

"He has to be admitted as an in-patient," said the muscular doctor in his green-walled surgery.

"He needs to have his wounds attended to every day, by a nurse. There’s a lot of puss. And he’s malnourished."

"It’s the best thing," I said to Iwan. "You’ve twice been off to your village without enough medicine. And you look as if you haven’t eaten for a month."

"What about my granny?" said Iwan, eyes watering. "The doctor says she can’t stay in the ward."

"I’ll give her money to stay in a local boarding house," I said, "and I’ll give her money for food." I knew the granny would probably be able to sneak into the hospital any time she wanted. There appeared to be no staff on duty in the latter part of the day.

"There are lots of other children in the ward," said the nurse. "You’ll have plenty of friends. OK?"

"OK," said Iwan.

We walked through the pleasant gardens and met some of Iwan’s fellow patients in a ward for young males. I was struck by the fact that the majority of these patients looked quite normal. Only one boy was limping as badly as Iwan and none was as undernourished. If only Iwan had looked after himself better.

At the end of the day, and after consuming the maid’s undercooked but re-heated chicken, I developed a headache. The maid called in young Irfan, the house guard, and suggested that he massage my feet. So I sat on the settee while he squeezed each toe in turn.

"Wahdoo! That’s too much," I protested. The pain in my toe was worse than the pain in my head.

"This will help your head," he explained.

I noticed Irfan’s dirty fingernails and I suspected that he didn’t wash his slightly tattered clothes or himself too frequently. He was quite a good-looking kid but he wore a worried expression.

"Irfan, where’s your family from?" I wanted to distract myself from my pain by thinking about something else.

"Central Java. My father died when I was very small My mother remarried after my dad died. I was left with my father’s first wife."

"Your stepmother? How did you get on?" I asked.

"I had to sleep in the mosque. My stepmother had no room in her house. It’s full of lodgers."

"Do you ever see your real mother?"

"Hardly ever. She lives in the middle of Java with her new children. It’s many hours by bus."

"And her new husband? What does he do?"

"He lives in Jakarta. He got a job here as a driver. He works for an Indonesian and gets paid very little."

I was beginning to feel really sorry for poor Irfan. "Have you been to school?" I asked.

"I reached Primary Three."

"What happened when you left school? What did you do all day?"

"I made money from guarding parked cars outside Hero’s supermarket. Mister, can I go back to school? It would only be in the mornings. I’d work the rest of the day." Irfan gave me his big-eyed, child-beggar look.

"Would you want extra money from me?"

"I haven’t enough money to pay for school. I have to give some of what I earn here to my sister. She’s unemployed."

"OK. Go and visit the school and see if they’ll take you. You may be too old now."

"Thanks mister."

"I think my head is a little better now," I said. My problems seemed slight compared to those of Irfan.

I few days later I spoke to Irfan while he was cutting the grass in the front garden.

"Irfan, how was school? What class have they put you in?"

"I’m in Primary Four," said Irfan. He was blushing.

Poor kid, I thought. He must be twice the size of all the other students. But at least he’s getting some kind of education.

The weeks and months went by; there was lots of tiring exam marking and report writing; Iwan made good progress in the hospital; Min stayed at home rather than going to his school; my bags were packed ready for a trip to Borobudur.



Post a Comment

<< Home