Chapter 8) Cambodia, December 2006
Lydia lay flat on her back, conscious of the weight and form of her body holding her down and smiled luxuriously as Radha came back into the room. ‘Hey, Lydia, I didn’t want to wake you,’ he said, leaning over and kissing her. His eyes were lit with a healthy shine. ‘I just went outside to do my early morning exercises.’
‘You didn’t wake me. I’ve already been awake for a few minutes,’ she said and gave a cavernous yawn.
‘Ooph, you’d better brush your teeth then and freshen up,’ he said cheekily, before emitting an exaggerated, ‘Ouch!’ as Lydia aimed a well-deserved punch at his shoulder.
The cool season had finally come around, when the whole of Cambodia breathed a sigh of relief as the winds picked up, and some were even able to sleep at night with a blanket. Lydia had not rushed into this new part of her relationship with Radha. She had kept him waiting, determined to ascertain the genuineness of his commitment to her and his understanding of Song before giving herself to him. It had only been a couple of weeks since she’d first slept with him, and she felt sure that she’d made the right choice. Radha had been patient, understanding and open with her. Song’s acceptance of him had played a large part in her decision. Brian, Helen and Mike had all met him, spent time with him and warmed to him. What more could she ask for?
‘Would you like to move in with us?’ Lydia broached, having brushed her teeth and tongue thoroughly. ‘I’ve been thinking about it, and Song is so used to having you around that she’d love to have you here, as of course would I, though maybe not quite so much as Song.’ She smirked and Radha returned the punch, lightly. As though on cue, Song burst through the bedroom door and flung herself onto Lydia’s and Radha’s laps, making a trumpeting sound. ‘Er, Song, what have I told you about not just bursting into our room without knocking!’ Lydia tried to sound stern but her wide grin belied her tone.
‘Of course,’ Lydia glanced at her watch. ‘I’d completely forgotten about that! Radha, would you mind dropping her off as you’re already dressed?’
‘Yeah, no problem. I have a few things I need to buy near Central Market so I can drop her directly at Soriya. I haven’t forgotten your question. I’ll let you know when I come back.’ He picked up his motorbike helmet, called out after Song to find hers and walked whistling out of the house with Song running after him, fixing her helmet on the move.
Lydia sighed and hopped into the shower. After the alcohol incident with Song, she’d asked Helen and Mike to hide all alcohol from Song, and she worked hard to avoid having any drink at all in her own house, and thankfully, there hadn’t been any more incidents. It didn’t bother Radha at all as he was actually teetotal, a result of his distaste for his own father’s abuse of alcohol. She knew that, in the long run, simply ignoring the problem would not deal with the underlying issue, but for now it was easier to brush the problem with a stiff broom under the nearest cupboard and hope that no one would notice the creeping levels of dust.
‘Sorry about the mess in the house,’ Lydia apologised as a compact, besuited Khmer lady left her shoes at the porch and came through the screen door. ‘You must be Srey Ne.’ Lydia brushed her sweaty hair behind her ears, kicked the pile of unwashed clothing behind the couch and came forward smiling and bowing in the traditional way. Srey Ne bowed discreetly and sat down without waiting to be asked.
‘Would you like some water?’
‘Thank you,’ Srey Ne said in her serious, non-flamboyant style, accepting the glass that was offered to her.
‘I hope you were able to find the house easily?’
‘Yes, no problem. I know this area well.’ Srey Ne cleared her throat disinterestedly, took out a file and moved straight to business in a manner that took Lydia a little by surprise: Cambodians were generally known for being relational rather than brisk and businesslike. ‘I understand you want to know about the legal situation regarding adopting a Cambodian child.’
‘Sure, but Song, although she has some Khmer connections on her uncle’s side, is actually Vietnamese. She’s been living in Cambodia for more than four years, mind you, first with her uncle’s family and then with me for several months.’
‘Well, you need to know that technically the British Government does not approve adoptions of Cambodian children who are over eight years old. And, of course, if Song is Vietnamese, that takes the situation out of the Cambodian legal remit completely.’
‘Oh, I had no idea her age would be an issue. What are the other options if adoption is not possible?’
‘You could foster her in an informal way, as you’re effectively doing already, but you must understand that you won’t be able to take her to the UK on any legal basis, so you’re committed to a life in Cambodia for as long as Song is a minor or until such a time as the law changes, if it ever does. Also, you would have no legal rights over her, so if her family were to decide to claim her back then there would be nothing you can do about it.’ Srey Ne turned and looked at Lydia with razor-like directness. ‘Only you can decide whether or not you’re willing to accept the responsibility of looking after this child when you’re on such shaky legal ground.’
‘Well, I can almost guarantee that her family, what is left of it, will not be interested in pursuing her. I’ll really have to think hard about whether I want to commit to being here for a long time. I guess there’s not really much more you can tell me, then?’
‘Not really, other than I’ve seen expats in a similar situation to you do exactly the same thing before. Sometimes there’s a happy story, and other times there is great heartbreak.’ She seemed unwilling to divulge, but Lydia pressed her for further information.
Srey Ne sighed and, twining her fingers together in an interlocking dance, she elaborated. ‘For example, when a relative back home dies and the foster parent is put into a conflict of loyalties, where she may feel torn between wanting to go back home and take care of the grieving relatives and staying here to look after her foster child. Or the child’s parents, aunts or uncles who had previously been uninterested in their child, change their mind, maybe for economic reasons, hoping that the child will bring them money. In such cases the foster parent is unable to fight the case because of the lack of legal standing and so has to go through a painful separation from the child.’ Her demeanour softened slightly as she said, ‘I’m sorry to be the bearer of hard tidings.’
‘Hmm, well, to be honest, what you’ve said has only confirmed what I’ve already been given hints about, and I had a hunch that legal adoption was going to be difficult or impossible.’
Lydia had been given Srey Ne’s details from Tepy at VOA, who had assured her of her qualifications and helpfulness. She’d learnt nothing new from her; simply a confirmation of her already intuited imaginings. Nevertheless, this certainty was reassuring somehow, and she was not disappointed by the visit.
The screen door clicked as Radha strolled in his casual way into the bungalow and found Lydia sitting on the sofa after the lawyer’s departure, her head ringing with thoughts. Coming around the chair to sit beside her, he draped his arm around her and squeezed her tenderly, a gesture which never failed to move Lydia. ‘Is Song ok?’
‘Yeah, I left her with Helen and Mike and managed to get all my chores done. She was so excited to be going to Soriya. You should have seen her face light up as she went up the escalator, like one of those country girls excited at being let loose in the city.’
‘I’d forgotten she’d never been in the mall before,’ Lydia mused. ‘I’d not had the opportunity to take her there until now, and I hadn’t thought that of course it’d be something new and exciting for her. What kind of a mother am I?’ she said in an ironically reproachful way.
‘Well, it’s ok as you’re not her mother, are you?!’
This innocent comment came as a sharp dig in Lydia’s side and she jerked her body away from Radha. He didn’t know she’d been planning to see the lawyer today as she’d kept this detail to herself until she knew the outcome, so he couldn’t know how poignant this comment was to Lydia right now. Rather than speaking out her pain, Lydia’s body twisted, and her sudden quietness alerted Radha that something was wrong. He tried another tack. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you asked me earlier and I’d love to move in with you and Song. It already feels like my natural home. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.’
She remained quiet, still torn.
Radha began tickling her in the stomach and she writhed away from him with an irritated grunt. ‘Don’t!’ She stood up and walked over to the kitchen area and began banging pots and pans purposefully.
He sat where he was for a while, rebuffed, and then said, ‘You’ve changed your mind, then?’
Lydia flung out her next words with unintended venom: ‘Why would someone who’s not a real mother even think about taking a young child into her home? How can I set up house and home with a child and a “father” if I’m not even capable of being a mother?!’
‘Where has all this come from, Lydia? I have a right to know that at least!’
Lydia felt incapable of analysing her own reaction. One minute she’d been calmly reassured by the lawyer’s words and the next minute she’d felt stabbed in the back by a throwaway comment from the man she loved and had begun attacking him. There was no apparent logic to it. She began chopping some morning glory and sweeping the root ends into a neat pile on the work surface before she would answer him.
As she worked her anger into submission, she knew she had no right to keep this information from Radha any longer. Even though she couldn’t justify her reaction, Lydia slowly softened and began to unravel the details of Srey Ne’s meeting in a stalling, apologetic manner. ‘I’m sorry I kept this from you. You’ve been so open with me. I don’t know what came over me just… You hit a raw nerve when you said I wasn’t Song’s mother as I know above all knowing that I’m the only real mother she’s had for some time.’
Radha came over to the kitchen and stood beside her while she talked. Keeping his eyes lowered, he rolled a knife handle between his palms rather than attempting any more physical contact. ‘I don’t know what to say, Lydia. You know that right from the beginning I knew as much about Song as I knew about you and I accepted her along with you, as part of the package. If you continue with this fostering process then I’ll support you in that.’
‘But why, Radha, why? What’s in it for you?’
He flinched at these words and raised his head again. ‘I love you, Lydia. You know that. And I love Song, too. There’s nothing “in it” for me other than a good family that I never had!’
‘But if something happens and I have to leave the country, what will happen to Song then? Will you continue to take care of her? Will your sweet words turn into real action or will they turn out to be empty?’ Lydia knew she was punishing him needlessly but she couldn’t help herself.
‘How can I say what I would do at such a… a time?’ Radha faltered and chewed his lip. He was pressed into a corner and she knew it. If he said he would take care of Song, then he’d be implying that he’d rather do that than come with her. If he said he would prefer to follow her, then that would imply that he didn’t care for Song and her well-being. Turning abruptly and walking away from Lydia in a manner which left her in no doubt about what he thought of her game-playing, he slammed the screen door behind him and began striding up and down on the porch.
Looking after him, Lydia saw a future without Radha and a pang of loss descended into the pit of her stomach. She could also foresee Song’s disappointment and felt sure that Song would blame her for pushing him away. Knowing she was largely at fault in this situation, she sidled outside and stood in front of Radha, blocking his angry passage. ‘I’m sorry,’ rose from her lips, and she poised there feeling vulnerable as she waited for him to respond. When he stood silently with his back half turned from her like a disapproving wall, she tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I’d love it if you would make a home with us.’ The next thing she knew she was being wrapped in a bear hug and feeling the wiry strength of his arms holding her safe. Lydia leaned into Radha’s shoulder and breathed hard, trying to keep at bay the lump in her throat. After a wordless few minutes, where the silence snapped shut the circumstance, Lydia raised her head and murmured, ‘I’d better go and get Song.’
Chapter 9) Cambodia, February 2007
Song stuck her face excitedly against the window of the coach as it pulled into Siem Reap bus station and watched the horde of tuk-tuk and moto drivers who held up name signs, pressing up against the sides of the latest vehicle from Phnom Penh that they hoped to make some money from. The coach was teeming with tourists, backpackers, expats and middle-class Cambodians, some of whom had boarded the coach along the way and stood in the aisle for most of the journey as there were no more seats available. Lydia was relieved that they’d arrived, as a teenage girl just across the aisle from them had succumbed to motion sickness halfway through the five-hour journey, and the smell of vomit was clinging to her nostrils. She’d been trying in vain to breathe through her mouth for much of the journey to mitigate the smell, and the opening of the coach door sent a blast of much-needed fresh air through the vehicle. Feeling tired and grumpy, she breathed in deeply.
Radha took pains to pick up all their hand luggage but left their rubbish scattered on the seat and floor as they squeezed their way into the aisle. ‘You could have picked that up and brought it with us,’ moaned Lydia, in no mood to overlook this environmental slight.
‘If you’re so bothered, why didn’t you bring it?!’ derided Radha with a frowning smile. ‘Anyway, the bus company will clear it up.’
‘That’s the problem with you… people.’ Lydia was about to say ‘Cambodians’ but resisted the temptation in this public setting. ‘You always expect other people to clear up your rubbish for you.’ Then, realising that she was being stared at by several older Cambodians, she modified her tone somewhat and lowered her voice. ‘At any rate, you could at least have put the rubbish into one plastic bag so that it was neater.’
‘Once again, something youcould have done,’ Radha likewise murmured, managing to maintain both his cool and his smile, which irritated Lydia immensely.
Their argument was curtailed as they stepped off the bus to be greeted by a barrage of strident, nasal voices offering their services in clipped English. ‘Hold hands,’ Radha hissed at Lydia, all the while gripping Song’s, ‘so that we don’t lose each other in this madness.’
‘Come Lucky Guesthouse, Sir, only five dollar a night. Beautiful, clean rooms. Good service!’
‘How much you want my tuk-tuk? I give you ride hotel and show you round all the temples, very good.’
‘I give you best service, come with me, Sir!’
‘How much you want, how much you want?’ called out a particularly desperate sounding man who leaned right forward and grasped Lydia’s arm. The width of his girth and the shine of his features belied any real economic need, and Lydia shook off his hand.
Radha and Lydia ignored the desperados and squeezed round the side of the bus to collect their luggage; then, with backpacks in hand, they sidled away from the tourist trap to where the quieter, less avaricious drivers were waiting.
Lydia and Radha had chosen this long holiday weekend in early February to get away on their first trip together, and they had decided to come to Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temples as neither had visited them before. Bringing Song along with them was all part of the fun, though the holiday wasn’t starting off in the best possible way. Lydia had insisted that they sort out where they were going to stay before they arrived in Siem Reap. Many folk would arrive and wander around until they found the best accommodation deal, but as they had Song with them, she felt it was best to be a bit more organised and used all the tourist guides she could lay her hands on to find the best. The best and cheapest deals were actually slightly away from the main town, which meant they would have to travel further to get to the temples. The place they had selected was run by Westerners at a very cheap rate and the guides had promised a ‘homely’ stay for $5 a room. The only downside was that there was no AC or hot water, but that wasn’t a big deal for a couple of nights. Song would share with them, which would also keep the costs down.
‘Friendly Guesthouse please, Uncle,’ Radha bartered with an alert-looking tuk-tuk driver sitting quietly to one side of the melee of drivers. He knew all the tricks of the trade, having been a tuk-tuk driver himself for a few years, and managed to fix a very reasonable price, which included trips to the temples that evening at sunset and the next day.
Pulling up outside the guesthouse, Lydia was pleased to see greenery growing all around the edge of the building, and she breathed in the intoxicatingly sweet fragrance of the frangipani flowers blooming on the trees near the entrance. ‘Whatever time you want to go to Angkor Wat, let me know and I will come back,’ Samnang told them in Khmer, while unloading their luggage, eager to please.
‘How long does it take to get there from here?’ Radha asked.
‘No more than 30 minutes.’
Lydia glanced at her watch and answered, ‘Hmm, well if we want to get there for the sunset viewing, it would be good if you could come by at 5pm.’
‘Certainly, Sir. Certainly, Madam. No problem. I will be there.’ He nodded to them, beaming, and with a splutter of his engine he manoeuvred the vehicle round. ‘Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.’ As he drove off, a peal of laughter rang out behind him.
A little taken aback by his unexpected laughter, Lydia asked Radha, ‘Do you think he’ll be back?’
‘Absolutely. We’ve not paid him yet! And we won’t be paying him until the end of our deal. He’ll be here faithfully every time we ask him to. Even if he’s not honest through and through, he’s a sensible businessman. No doubt about that.’
‘He’s a good man,’ Song pronounced, looking around her with wide eyes, instinctively intuitive.
Radha laughed and rubbed her shoulders. ‘That’s all there is to it, then. You’re the only oracle we need!’
At five minutes to the hour, the tuk-tuk driver was back as he’d promised, faithfully waiting outside the guesthouse. Once the town had been navigated, the last part of the journey to Angkor was a scenic one, and a sea of tuk-tuks and motos drove along a flat, tree-lined, well-manicured boulevard towards the entrance of the main Angkor Wat temple. All three of them were quiet, drinking in the view.
There was an understandable inequality to the way in which the temple authorities managed tickets at this most famous of Cambodian tourist attractions. There was one ticket booth for foreigners and one for Khmer, and while the Khmer were able to enter the temples for free, foreigners had to pay a sizable fee of $25 for a day pass. It was understandable in that this most Khmer of attractions was open for every Khmer national to be able to see their heritage freely, but it seemed unfair that every foreigner, regardless of their own income differentiation, was clumped together as a source of easily tappable income. The reality was that the vast majority of this money would end up in the hands of corrupt, bloated officials, so you couldn’t even console yourself that the money would help the country as a whole.
Lydia stood in the foreigners’ queue with a studied air of detachment, distancing herself from the nonchalant trails of young Western women wearing culturally inappropriate flesh-exposing vest tops, and the strident American tourists who vocalised every opinion, while Radha and Song stood somewhat sheepishly in the national queue. In spite of Radha’s and Lydia’s sharing the cost of her ticket, an awkward dynamic had been built between them because of this enforced differentiation. While Song was Vietnamese, she had been in Cambodia long enough to blend into the Khmer culture, and Radha knew she was unlikely to be asked for any form of identification if she was with him.
Passes were available for one day, three days and a week. Lydia and Radha had both agreed to pay for just the one-day pass, although their reasoning was slightly different. Lydia rationalised that one day would be more than enough to get a feel for the most important temples, whereas Radha simply wanted the cheapest option. He wouldn’t admit this directly to Lydia since she had been willing to pay the total cost for more days if that was what he wanted. The bonus about the day pass was that it was valid from sunset the night before so you could see the grandest temple silhouetted in the day’s glorious final brush strokes. Lydia knew of people who had come when there was too much cloud cover to be able to see a decent sunset, but this evening looked to be a beautiful cloudless evening, and her heart was pulsing in anticipation.
Radha and Song were through the ticket booths quicker than she was and were waiting for her patiently on the other side, Song swinging her legs with a rhythmic bounce against the balustrade they were sitting on.
Lydia gazed straight in the direction of one of the wonders of the world and wondered if she had descended to an alternative plane. She had seen this iconic image in many photos, but looking directly at it drained the heat from her excitement as the building’s edges didn’t have the sharp clarification that the professional photographers gave them. The five peaks of the temple were without doubt an architectural pinnacle of achievement, but somehow there was a dullness to the stone that gave it, at least to her mind, an understated vacuousness. Turning to Song and Radha, neither wanting to express her initial sense of disappointment nor having the words to explain herself, Lydia smiled broadly and with a forced cheerfulness exclaimed, ‘Here at last! Isn’t this great?’
Radha looked askew at Lydia and gave her hand a soft squeeze, then addressed his first comment to Song: ‘Hey, little one, how many peaks are there on this temple?’
Song’s eyes flicked rapidly. ‘Five.’
‘Well, did you know that its five peaks represent the mythological Mount Meru which sits at the centre of the universe and is the place where the gods live?’
Song had been open mouthed and wide eyed in her appreciation of the temple structure and she enthused to Radha, ‘No, I didn’t know that. That’s amazing! Who designed it so cleverly?’
‘King Suryavarman II in the early twelfth century when Cambodia was at its most powerful.’
‘Cambodia used to be a powerful country, not a poor country?’
‘Oh yes. Cambodia was once an empire which extended as far as modern-day Thailand and parts of Vietnam. Actually, if we get close to the south wall of Angkor Wat we’ll be able to see some pictures carved in the stone that narrate the story of King Suryavarman’s conquests against the Champa people in Vietnam.’
‘I’d like to see them. You can explain the story to me.’
Lydia was glad that Radha had paid enough attention to history to be able to explain such details to Song. She’d not had the patience to read the guides in detail herself and was more interested in just wandering around and getting a flavour of the place.
The temples in the Angkor Wat complex represent two key religions. The earliest temples were Hindu and demonstrated the highest level of architectural design. From the end of the twelfth century with the reign of Jayavarman VII, Mahayana Buddhism became the state religion and a spate of monuments was built in the region within a 40-year period. These are generally considered by historians to be artistically inferior to the earlier monuments in spite of their grandeur. Angkor itself was once a vast city, but all the structures including the palaces have long decayed as they were made of wood. Only the temples were built to last.
It was noon on the second day of their Angkor Wat experience. Lydia pushed back her sunglasses to see Ta Prohm more carefully. Even though it was not yet the hottest season, the atmosphere was close and vibrated with the glare of the midday sun and the sound of crickets. Song had really enjoyed the stories and the historical details that Radha had entranced her with as they explored the main temples. Lydia’s personal favourite was this temple which had been left in the state in which it had been first discovered, with the jungle encroaching in on all sides and crumbling walls being overgrown by lithe, whispering trees. As she walked through one of the enclosures she stood back and took a photo of a massive tree root that was pressing down on the enclosure’s gallery. There was a fascinating symbolism that appealed to her. Nature was breaking down what was man-made and temporary, and civilisation was being crushed by a rampant wildness.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lydia could see yet another child worker approaching. This particular child was a wan-looking girl with limp hair who looked as though she was about seven or eight, but Lydia guessed she was around the same age as Song as most Cambodian children were a lot less physically developed than their Western counterparts. Dispensing with the usual Cambodian grin, the girl pulled on Lydia’s hand rather sharply. ‘You want buy books about Cambodia? Very good, yes. Only $1.’
‘No thanks,’ Lydia replied in Khmer, yanking her hand away. The books were all travel guides about Cambodia and other books of interest to tourists regarding the horrors of the Killing Fields and the Pol Pot era and were extremely cheap because they were photocopies, much like those you could buy in any of the markets in Phnom Penh. So far, Cambodia had managed to evade all international copyright laws, and this included DVDs and books, and the Westerners who lived in and visited the country tended to support this thriving black market for one of two reasons: either because the products were bottom-of-the-barrel prices or because there was no other option for consumers who wanted these products.
The girl put her hand on her stomach and looked imploringly at Lydia; she wasn’t going to give up easily. ‘Please, I hungry!’ While this stark statement was true of many street kids in Cambodia, Lydia pushed back the pinpricks of guilt. She knew that the sad reality was that this child was being manipulated by adults for their profit. If it were true that she was hungry, it would be better to give her some food rather than money, which would end up in the hands of someone with more power and less concern.
‘Would you like to play with me for the rest of the afternoon?’ Lydia was startled as she’d not been aware of Song’s approach.
It seemed as though the girl was just as surprised, not by her approach but by her suggestion. ‘Play?’ she said in Khmer. ‘I have to sell at least ten books this afternoon or… I haven’t got time to play.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said the irresistible Song, her eyes dancing. ‘I’ll help you sell the rest of the books, too.’
‘Will you now?’ Lydia wasn’t sure that this was such a good idea.
‘It’s ok, Aunty. I know what to do!’ Song wouldn’t give up and Lydia decided to throw caution to the wind and let the girls have some fun together. That would probably be better medicine for this waif than anything else.
It turned out that Song’s method of playing was actually a way of combining play with work. With Song taking the lead, the two girls, Song and Daneat, accosted potential customers with a rather unusual selling ploy – dancing! Lydia had no idea where Song had picked up this style: she would advance on the tourists and entertain them with a bouncy, leg-intensive dancing style reminiscent of Irish dancing, while Daneat would leave her book tray to one side and sway and swerve around Song. It was not the most choreographically elegant of dances, but the tourists were amused by it as it was so unexpected in this cultural context. Several tourists didn’t buy any books from Daneat but they gave generously, from $5 to $20 a dance. Radha and Lydia stayed as far away as possible from the girls, which was for the best as their barely suppressed hysterical laughter would hardly have aided their efforts.
Breathless and giggling, the girls counted their pickings in the corner of Ta Prohm at around five in the afternoon. The total cost was $115 – an absolute fortune for a simple child seller.
‘Perhaps you could keep half of your earnings today rather than giving it to your employers?’ suggested Radha to Daneat with a sideways glance and a wink. Daneat’s default stern expression returned and she cocked her head up from the fistful of notes without saying anything, probably afraid of what might happen if she was found out. Softening like butter at the edges, she responded with an ironic, ‘I couldn’t!’ while clapping her hands in glee.
‘Save your money,’ Song said, ‘and come to Phnom Penh to live.’
Lydia stepped in, uneasy with the way the conversation was going. ‘Phnom Penh might not be the best place for her, Song.’ She didn’t know what the best option was. It seemed pointless the child having all this money if she wasn’t going to be able to do anything fruitful with it.
‘Please, Aunty, she could live with us!’
Not wanting to seem as though she was rejecting the child, but at the same time annoyed with Song’s over-enthusiasm for putting her in this position, Lydia chewed her bottom lip and responded, ‘We might love to have Daneat with us, but her father and mother would be sad to see her go.’
‘I don’t have a mother or father,’ said Daneat matter-of-factly.
‘Who is taking care of you, then?’
‘I take care of myself. I give my earnings to my aunty, but she lets me do what I like.’
Lydia didn’t doubt that this was true. It was yet another sad story of Cambodian child poverty that would be repeated all over the country. She felt a hollow kicking inside mixed with an elemental rising-up. There was no way she could take in another ‘waif and stray’ under the conditions of her organisation, and she didn’t even know if she wanted to. She was quite content with her life with Radha and Song, and although some might consider this selfish, she didn’t want that to change.
While she was racking her brains about how to proceed, Radha interjected with a helpful deferment. ‘We can take your contact details and ask around about organisations and people who can help you. What do youwant to do with your life? Never mind Song – she’s easily excited.’ Song’s chin twitched and Radha squeezed her hand affectionately.
Never having been asked such a question before, Daneat didn’t know how to answer immediately, but when her answer came it was simple and unaffected: ‘I want to get a good education and have a nice family.’ She looked up, eyes wide and tentative.
‘Of course you do; that’s what most people want,’ Radha responded in an unpatronising tone.
Radha sighed and pulled up a chair opposite Lydia. ‘I’ve finally managed to track down a local NGO willing to help Daneat but they say she would need to approach them first. I can let Daneat know the details tomorrow.’ As Daneat didn’t have access to a phone, they had told her they would meet her the following morning outside their guesthouse, to let her know what they had managed to find out. Lydia stroked his hand across the table and said with reassurance, ‘There’s nothing much else we can do. You’ve done a lot already. I really appreciate your help in all this.’
‘It was nothing,’ Radha said distractedly. It was 9pm. Song had gone to bed about half an hour earlier and the two of them were sitting with a drink beside the pool. Lydia was taking this opportunity of Song not being around to drink a refreshing pina colada, while Radha drank a cola. Radha sat eyeballing his drink, his shoulders hunched over, without making eye contact with Lydia for what seemed like five long minutes, though in reality it was probably only one or two.
‘What’s up?’ said Lydia. ‘I’m not used to you being so quiet!’
‘Do I have to chatter all the time?!’ he barked, the muscles in his jaw contracting. ‘Maybe sometimes I just don’t have anything worthwhile to say.’
Lydia didn’t say anything in response but tried to encourage him to look at her at least, sliding her toes on the inside of his calf. He responded in the way she wanted and, having studied her face, he began searching for words to unravel the tangle of his thoughts.
‘The thing is… I’m seeing myself in Daneat and it doesn’t bring back happy memories.’ Sensing that Radha was about to open up to her about his past at last, Lydia didn’t want to stem the flow by commenting, so she just nodded sympathetically. So far, all Lydia knew about his past was that he’d lived in poverty but that his family had not suffered extreme hardship during the Pol Pot era because they’d been simple farmers living in a rural area, whereas the Khmer Rouge’s main axe-grinding had been with the capitalist city-dwellers as they sought to implement a so-called ‘Agrarian’ ideal in the land. ‘You know, from the mid-eighties I was on a treadmill running hard from poverty. My parents managed to get into so much debt – mainly due to my dad’s drinking and lack of responsibility – that we always owed two or three times more than we could possibly earn in a year. My mum would borrow money from the local corrupt moneylenders and the interest rates were so ridiculously high that it was a losing game from the start. All I wanted to do was go to school and make a good life for myself, but for a while I was stuck as there were no qualified teachers in the area – they’d all been killed off during Pol Pot’s time. We had one so-called teacher but she had only been educated herself until the age of 15 and, although no one said it to her directly, it was known that she frequently taught factual inaccuracies.’
‘Like what?’ Lydia couldn’t resist probing.
‘The one I remember best was when she taught us that the boiling point of water was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, not Celsius. No matter how hard we tried to follow her instructions and boil our water, we obviously couldn’t. No one would directly contradict her in front of the class even if we had known the truth – it would have made her look a fool. And sadly she was the authority!’
‘So how did you find out the truth?’ Lydia laughed.
‘Oh, I don’t remember fully, but there were one or two educated adults in the village who at least knew some basics, and it was obvious to most of us kids that her “fact” was not quite factual as it wasn’t working. I think even she realised that she was misinformed, but she wouldn’t have wanted to admit that for fear of losing face.’
‘Very different from how things are in the UK. She’d have been struck off the teaching register for incompetency and the parents would never have allowed her to get away with teaching such inaccuracies.’
‘Yeah, I can imagine. It’s not like we had any alternatives, though.’
‘Sure, it’s easy to take things for granted sometimes,’ she said, her face flushing.
‘Anyway, I’m getting away from my main track of thought. You’re distracting me by asking too many questions!’ Lydia was pleased to see Radha’s customary casual flippancy returning.
‘I never want to go back to that state again,’ he said after a pause, shuddering, as though following a line of unspoken thought.
‘Of indebtedness. The sense of being trapped in poverty with no way out is my worst nightmare. Last night I woke up sweating after a particularly horrible nightmare, actually.’
‘Really? I had no idea. What was it about?’
‘It was one of those dreams you can’t explain properly. When I woke up the details were already slipping from my memory, but it left me with a level of fear that I could taste, and I knew it had been something to do with trying to get out of debt. What I do remember is a leering face, perhaps of a particularly ruthless moneylender, and a windowless space with cockroaches scuttling up and down all four walls in an endless march.’
‘Sounds revolting,’ Lydia cringed.
‘You know, I’d do anything – absolutely anything – to avoid getting into a position of indebtedness again.’
‘Yes. Particularly if it involved the welfare of my family.’ A hardness set itself around Radha’s mouth. He fiddled with his watch strap and removed the watch to scratch underneath. ‘Tsss, I’ve got some sort of metal rash and it’s really itchy… You know, my dad wasn’t always a heavy drinker. He used to be a really respected, hard-working member of our community, and the village chief would turn to him for advice. “Mr Sam-Oeun: moral and wise” could have been written on his forehead and it would have been totally true – once…’ His face contorted fleetingly as though he’d sucked on a lemon – not a green lemon as the Cambodians tended to call limes, but a bright yellow lemon with all its concentrated bitterness.
‘So what changed?’ Lydia asked hesitantly.
In spite of the fact that Sam-Oeun and his family had not suffered the worst of the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on much of the population, he had been adamantly against the Khmer Rouge and its paranoid mentality, which forced family member to turn against family member in desperate bids to save their own lives against a fluctuating ideal that there seemed no sure-fire way of ever living up to. Teachers, lawyers, monks, and even those who wore glasses or had paler skin, were considered to be enemies of the regime. Even some inside the regime such as higher officials were known to have been killed as ‘traitors’, so there was no way for sure of knowing you were safe. In such a climate, security was a schizophrenic parasite that fed upon itself to prevent itself from being destroyed externally.
Naturally, Sam-Oeun had been happy when the Vietnamese had defeated the regime in 1979 and had freely shared his opinions among the other villagers and farmers from other villages alongside whom he had worked. After the ‘liberation’ of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, a civil war kept the country in a state of turmoil for another 12 years. During the eighties, a range of guerrilla groups representing diverse political parties had plagued the provincial areas, and in 1985 Radha’s father became the victim of one of these groups. The party was called the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and was known to be vehemently anti-Vietnamese.
‘I’d got up early that morning to help Dad with the birth of several calves and I was feeling really at peace after seeing the amazing process of new life emerging and staggering around falteringly. Have you ever seen it?’ Lydia shook her head lightly, knowing that this was not going to be his main topic. ‘A tall stranger with an obvious limp and a gun hanging by his hip turned up that same morning, at around ten o’clock, and knocked hard on the door. My mum opened the door and was greeted by the abrupt words, “Where is Sam-Oeun, the farmer? We are looking for him.” I had just finished washing my hands and, although I was a little surprised at his abruptness, I was on such a high after the calving that I wasn’t thinking straight. So I said, “He’s out the back with the cows.” My mum looked at me sharply out of the corner of her eye and I felt myself deflate. What an idiot! Feeding my dad straight to the wolves!’ Radha shook his head, grimacing, as though trying to shake off a heavy weight. Lydia watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall, engrossed.
He exhaled slowly like a woman in labour and continued. ‘Most of what I know about what happened to my dad at that time came out bit by bit over the next few years, some of it mumbled while he was drunk and some of it shouted out when he was in a foul mood.’
The tall stranger was the leader of the guerrilla group, whom Sam-Oeun simply referred to as Dop.Dop accosted Sam-Oeun in the barn, where he had just finished placing one of the post-partum cows in her stall. After twisting his arms backwards and tying him to the barn posts, he kept him there for two days, interrogating him. A whole retinue of guerrilla underlings were on hand for Dop to command as he wished, dropping in or out to attend to him at what seemed to be the mere clicking of his fingers.
For the first half-hour or so after being manhandled into the position of prisoner, Sam-Oeun’s mind was maze-locked and he was unable to fathom why he was being held prisoner. The only words Dop would let drip to start with were, ‘You know why you’re here, don’t you? You’re an animal, aren’t you?!’
When Sam-Oeun cried out, ‘Please tell me why you’ve taken me captive!’ the only answer he’d receive was a resounding knock round the ears and a repetition of the accusations. It made sense to keep quiet after this to prevent any further abuse, although the fists would get terrifyingly close to his head and the vague accusations continued.
After about half an hour or so Dop suddenly exited the barn, leaving Radha’s father even more confused. When he returned later, he was with a shorter, stocky soldier with a lazy eye, whose main role seemed to be to stare him out. Dop’s tactic had changed. He was a lot calmer and almost personable, with an easy-going and polite demeanour. ‘Ah, sir, sorry for any inconvenience. You must understand that we’re deeply concerned about the plight of our nation and we have reason to believe you know something that could be of assistance to us in our fight against the Vietnamese.’
‘What on earth could that be?’ Sam-Oeun said sarcastically.
Dop refused to be riled and responded, ‘I think you know already.’
‘Please,’ Sam-Oeun tried his own change of tactic. ‘I don’t even know who you are. Let me know what I can help you with and I can be a lot more useful to you than I am right now.’ He tossed his head at his tied-up hands almost apologetically, and Lazy-Eye gave a wry grin. Dop ignored the gesturing and began pacing back and forth, five steps across from Sam-Oeun, and five steps the other way. It was as though he was deliberately drawing out the time of his response in order to emphasise his control over the prisoner. Lazy-Eye stared fiercely at him, willing him to break eye contact, which he soon did. Sam-Oeun wasn’t about to compete in these pointless mind games.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cheechaw, one of the mother cows, nudging the edge of her stall hard. The mother wanted to see her calf, which was outside with one of the farm helps, and she was being denied that right. The pitch of her moo reached a frustrated high and, flinching at the sound, Dop stopped in his tracks, swivelled his gun in the direction of the cow and silenced her protests. Sam-Oeun gripped his jaw tight to prevent himself from expressing the anger that rose in his gullet.
At last, Dop spoke, still maintaining his cool. ‘Poor cow. She really shouldn’t have stood in the way of our very important investigation. I am representing the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and my aim is to flush out those who have betrayed our nation to the Vietnamese.’ Sam-Oeun suspected that whichever party he supposedly represented, this man was on his own private mission, a megalomaniac seeking to restore some sort of balance to a world that had been turned upside down. ‘Right now, I’d like you to think hard about whether you or anyone you know has been involved in such treachery.’ Sam-Oeun opened his mouth to speak but Dop raised his hand stiffly and shook his head. ‘Wait, I don’t want you to give me an answer now. I want you to take time to revisit all your memories and get as many details for me as you can. I’ll be back in the morning. In the meantime, my colleagues will take care of you.’
Dumbfounded, Sam-Oeun slumped back defeated, ready for a long night. Being ‘taken care of’ by Dop’s men was not what one would normally consider to be a caring approach. Over the next 12 hours, a sequence of nameless, blank men passed through the barn, transformed into automatons by the mental state of the prisoner. When looking back later, Lazy-Eye was the only one Sam-Oeun was able to distinguish as an individual since he’d been there from the beginning while he was still coherent. In Radha’s father’s most cogent moments, the thing that intensified his rage when looking back at this time was the indignity of not being allowed to leave his position to go to the toilet and so gradually finding himself becoming wetter and more soiled as the night progressed. This, more than all the torturing, ate away at his memories in the years to come. Torture is what you did to someone who was your enemy, someone you valued enough to want something from. To Sam-Oeun’s mind, leaving someone to urinate and defecate on himself was a way of saying that that person had zero worth or dignity, that he was less valuable than a vegetable or dust mite. The methods of torture he mentioned were almost a sideline to this indignity. One soldier would hold his head so far back against the wall away from his shoulders that he could feel his nerves and sinews stretched so taut that he thought they would snap; another came in and yanked his toenail from his big toe on his right foot; yet another used a grater against the knuckles on both hands.
‘I remember hearing a high-pitched, unearthly scream at about midnight that night, and I’m convinced that was dad’s toenail being ripped off, though I have no idea what time any of the tortures took place.’
In between the physical torturing, Sam-Oeun was left for 15 minutes or so at a time and he would catch fitful snatches of sleep, but within minutes he would feel another hard blow about the ears from yet another automaton. This was going to be a long, painful and sleepless night. No one spoke a word to him, and if he tried to speak he would receive further knocks. This all seemed to be part of the game they were playing with him – to keep him in the dark about the reason he was being ‘interrogated’.
Radha paused suddenly, turned deep wells of sorrow to Lydia and asked her a question which he didn’t seem to require her to answer: ‘How could anyone treat another human being that way? One thing I’ve learnt is that violence breeds further violence, especially violence with a hair’s breadth of motive. You know what? I know very little about what happened to my dad after that endless night. All I know is that he did eventually find out what Dop was accusing him of and that it was connected with his sharing his opinion with others about the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge being a blessing. I can’t put my finger on anything more specific than that – Dad was pretty silent about what went on the next morning. The fact that it was so vague an accusation suggests to me that the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, or at least the breakaway part of it that Dop represented, were simply using Dad as a tool to strike fear into the heart of anyone in the local area who might speak in favour of the Vietnamese. Of course, I didn’t figure any of this out at the time; it was only later on that I started to put the pieces together…’
A medley of crickets could be heard in the background, striking Lydia with the incongruous thought that it was impossible to locate exactly where their sound was coming from. ‘I can’t even begin to imagine what you must have gone through.’ As soon as she uttered this, Lydia hated herself for its triteness and closed her mouth as if to swallow back the words, then was more annoyed with herself for even thinking that her words were what mattered in this situation.
The manager of Friendly’s, a rotund, bulbous-nosed Australian, cleared his throat and said to them in an even tone, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to head to your room now. It’s almost 1am and I’m closing up shop. You’re not making much noise but we do have some families here whose rooms are close to the pool and we don’t want them to be disturbed.’
‘So sorry!’ said Lydia. ‘We totally lost track of the time.’
Radha flicked his fingers on the edge of the table, keeping his eyes averted. Then he raised his head and said, ‘No problem; we’ll go,’ in a light tone that belied his body language. Thus, in a moment, the mood was changed and further revelations were put on hold. Lydia stifled her frustration at not hearing the end of Radha’s story, and holding him loosely by the hand, she encouraged him up from the table while the manager began switching off the lights.