Sunday, January 11, 2004

18. MOTHER LIVES FAR AWAY

As the school term wore on, it was natural that the students’ stamina and enthusiasm diminished, as did mine. We had done the grammar game, the vocabulary game, the move-round the-class game, the reading game, the map game, the computer game, the quiz game, the murder game and the fifty other such fun activities to help them practise their English. We had moved on to rather more routine exercises which provoked the occasional yawn. School terms were too long. Ever more frequently I looked forward to the retreats to the staff room for cups of coffee and comfort.

There were two staffrooms, one large and one small. I preferred the smaller room, which had space for only half a dozen people, and which seemed to encourage more intimate conversation.

"How’s your least favourite student?" Carmen asked me, as we sat in front of piles of uncorrected work and several half-drunk cups of staff room tea.

"You mean John?" I queried.

"I mean John," said Carmen with a happy giggle. "You know he doesn’t do any work for any of us. And he’s not just disruptive in lessons. He’s disruptive everywhere. He’s fallen out with all his friends."

"I had a chat with his mother," I said.

"She thinks it’s all our fault," said Carmen.

"Not any more," I explained. "She at last came out with the truth. It seems she’s been fighting with her husband and there’s going to be a divorce."

"I suspected as much," said Fergus, looking up briefly from his newspaper. "Now I won’t take the boy’s behaviour so personally.

"I imagine the Indonesians have less of a problem over divorce than the Europeans," I commented.

"Don’t you believe it," said Carmen. "One of the school secretaries was telling me that about half of all the Indonesians she knows have been divorced. Most Indonesian girls seem to get married in their late teens and there’s a high divorce rate among the early married."

"There’s less stigma attached to divorce in Indonesia," said Fergus.

"Divorce leads to poverty for some Indonesian women," said Carmen.

"I suppose a lot of the Blok M bar girls are the product of broken homes," said Fergus.

"And how’s Min?" asked Carmen, changing the subject.

"He seems OK," I said. "One day he can be very cheerful and the next day down in the dumps." I handed Carmen a photo of Min on one of his good days.

"He looks rather sweet but awfully sad," said Carmen, as she studied the print. "Do you think you’re ever going to find his family?"

"Not a chance," said Ian, a colleague with a pessimistic view of kampung people. "His family could be dead. You know the problem’s going to be when you leave Indonesia for good. He’s going to be left on his own."

"Anything’s possible," I said, not wanting to pursue the point. I turned to speak to Fergus. "Where are you off to for the Easter holiday?" I asked. It was already March and time to think of escape from the classroom.

"Thailand. And you?"

"Visiting my parents in the UK," I said. And I knew I would be worrying about Min each day I was away from him. Min wouldn’t understand any explanation I tried to give him.


I bought a wheelchair in the down-town area of Glodok, collected an anxious-looking Min from Wisma Utara, and walked, with the chair, to the house of Tejo, the man in the attic.

"Hi, Ijah," I said, on entering the house. "Can we take Tejo out in this wheelchair?"

"Ah, you bought it for him. Thank you. Yes." Ijah was again wearing her Islamic uniform. She smiled demurely.

"Are you coming with us?" I asked her.

"No thanks," she said.

Ijah and I carried a surprisingly light Tejo down the narrow wooden stairs and sat him in the wheelchair. He was smiling as Min and I wheeled him out the door and down the sunny lane.

The sky was brilliant blue, the birds twittered happily and the gardenia was in full bloom. At the bottom of the road we met a girl collecting washing from a line strung up outside her little house. The girl had sparkly eyes, lovely lips and long, slim legs. I noticed that Tejo was grinning happily.

"Who’s this in the wheelchair?" the girl asked, while giving us a cheerful smile.

"This is Tejo who lives in that big house up the street," I said. "The one with the green shutters."

"I’ve never seen him before," said the girl. "That’s the neighbourhood chief’s house up there."

"I don’t think Tejo ever gets out," I said. "So I’m letting him get some fresh air."

"That’s good," she said.

We did a circuit of the area and then returned a happy Tejo to his home. There, in the lounge, we were met by a worried looking Ijah and a cross faced young man.

"This is Tejo’s brother, Harjo," said Ijah, introducing Cross-Face and looking down at the ground. Cross-Face wore a smart shirt and his thin face had the scowling look of a bad-tempered Sicilian.

"You can’t take Tejo out of the house!" said Harjo, sulphurously.

"We were giving him some fresh air," I explained. "I bought the wheelchair for him so he can get out and about." Taken aback by Harjo’s fury, I found myself shaking. Min was staring at me and looking scared.

"You can’t take Tejo out," said Harjo.

"Are you going to take him out?" I asked angrily.

"No," said Harjo.

"Do you want me to take the wheelchair away for someone else to use?" I asked.

"No," said Harjo.

"Is Ijah going to take him out?" I said.

"No," said Harjo.

"Well what’s the point of having the chair if he’s not allowed to go out?" I protested.

An older, taller man appeared from a back room. He had the muscular look of a soldier and a face that showed no emotion.

"He might go out in the evening," said the older man, "when it’s dark"

"Can’t I take him out?" I pleaded.

"No," said the older man.

"There are institutions for people like Tejo," said Harjo, looking like a mad crusader or jihad warrior. "We may put him in a home for the handicapped."

There was a period of silence and then Min and I made our exit and returned to Wisma Utara.

I decided it would be better not to try to take Tejo out again, in case that made his family decide to banish him to some mental home. The male members of the family were obviously embarrassed by their crippled relative and felt they would lose face in the neighbourhood if he was seen around. I hoped I had not already done irreparable damage to Tejo. Oh dear! I had meant well.


For two days, work and school social events kept me from visiting Min. When I returned to see him I thought he looked pale and sick.

"How’s Min?" I asked Joan, who was sitting in the lounge area. She was dressed in cheap black trousers and T-shirt, and looked fed-up.

"I think Min was worried about you not coming here. He kept on mentioning your name. Yesterday he refused to eat."

This brought a lump to my throat. It was gratifying that Min liked me so much, but, deeply worrying that he couldn’t cope with my short absence. "How is he today?" I asked nervously.

"Just fine," she said. "Everyone’s fine."

"Are you sure? Min seems a bit white," I said. Min looked like an anguished ghost.

"No, he’s healthy," insisted Joan.

"Has he been feeling sick?"

"No."

"There are lumps of dried food on his T-shirt," I pointed out.

"Don’t worry, Mr Kent. He’s very healthy." Joan smiled unconvincingly.

"Has the doctor been here this week?"

"Yes. We told him everyone is OK."

At this point Min vomited buckets of white stuff onto the floor.

"Sick," said Min staring at me with big anxious eyes. This was one of his rare comments.

"I’d better take him to a doctor," I said, firmly. "Is that all right?"

"Yes. I’ll come with you," said Joan. "And can little Tedi come too? He’s been very sick for two weeks."

"Two weeks!" I fumed. "You said everyone was fine! Let’s go immediately." I was still learning about the Third World, and its sometimes odd attitude to truth and accuracy.

We bundled Tedi, a pale, tearful, half-blind, eight-year-old, into the back of my van, along with Min, and drove to the nearby doctor. The clinic was in a modest middle-class house and was modest in terms of equipment and cleanliness. The walls had been long stained by dirty fingers and damp. The shy young female doctor examined Min and issued some pills.

"What’s wrong with Min?" I asked.

"Nothing serious," said the doctor. "His temperature is normal. Blood pressure’s OK. Just something he’s eaten."

Half blind Tedi was examined next.

"Tedi will need to go to the hospital," said the doctor. "He has a high fever and is dehydrated. It’s urgent that he gets onto a drip."

"I’ll pay for his treatment," I said.

"We’ll have to ask the permission of Ibu Ani," said Joan. "Tedi’s mother lives far away in Central Java. It would take days to contact her."

We got back into the van and drove the short distance to the old, Dutch-style bungalow of Ibu Ani, the elderly lady who had built Wisma Utara for her Down’s Syndrome son. Tedi stayed in my van while the rest of us sat on chairs in the garden. Joan and I explained the situation regarding Tedi, but Ibu Ani didn’t seem keen to discuss the subject. She looked grey and tired.

"How are you liking Jakarta?" Ibu Ani asked me.

"It’s great, but I’m here to ask about Tedi," I pointed out.

"And is Min liking Wisma Utara?" continued Ibu Ani.

"Yes, but what about Tedi?" I said.

"His mother must deal with the problem," said the Ibu, quietly. "That’s the policy."

"But his mother will take days to contact," I said.

"There’s nothing we can do," said Ibu Ani.

"But the doctor says Tedi must get onto a drip immediately. I’ll pay for the treatment."

The arguments were repeated over and over again for thirty minutes until I think I simply wore her down. She agreed to Tedi going to the Pertama hospital.

In the emergency room at the hospital, Tedi was given a blood test, put on a drip and taken to the children’s ward.

"It’s almost certainly Typhoid," said the doctor. "It’s a pity he didn’t come to the hospital a bit sooner. We’ll need to hope no complications set in."


Next evening, Tedi was no worse.

Back at Wisma Utara, Min no longer looked pale and in fact was dancing to pop music when I arrived. Music seemed to make him really happy.

"We’ve sent Min’s photo to a newspaper called Pos Kota," said Joan. "They have a column with photos of lost children. Maybe Min’s family will see it."

"That’s fantastic," I said. "It’s a pity Doctor Bahari’s clinic didn’t think of using the press."

"Not many people read newspapers," said Joan. "Poor people can’t afford them. But maybe we’ll be lucky."

"At the end of the week, I’m off to Britain for a ten day holiday," I explained to Joan. "Min won’t understand why I’m not visiting him. Please give him lots of care and attention. Can Dan take him for walks?"

"Yes, Mr Kent. Don’t worry."

"I am worried," I said. "Min is used to me visiting every day."

"Dan will take him for walks," said Joan.

"I’ll take Min for a walk now, if I may," I said. "I want to see if Iwan, the boy with leprosy, is back at home. My driver told me yesterday that when he went to the rubbish dump to collect Iwan, to take him to the leprosy hospital, there was nobody there."

Min and I walked through the kampung towards the rubbish dump and after ten minutes had arrived at Iwan’s house. It was locked. There was no sign of life.

"Iwan’s gone to visit relations," said the old woman in the next hut. "He went two days ago."

"His medicine’s finished this week," I said. "Will he be back soon?"

"I don’t know. Maybe he’s gone for a few weeks," said the old woman.

"Do you have the address of the place he’s gone to?"

"No. It’s very far away. At least six hours by bus."

"Well, my driver will call back here tomorrow," I told her. "In case Iwan’s come back."


It was Saturday. Tedi was making good progress in hospital. Iwan, the leper child, was still not back in Jakarta. Hamid, hopefully, was still with granny in her big house. Andi and Asep and Dian and the others in Bogor had been given money to buy their next lot of medicine. Chong was putting on weight. I said goodbye to Min and set off to the airport for my flight to London.

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