Wednesday, November 14, 2007


This week I am feeling intensely aware of the extreme fragility of life. I want to hold my children close to me all night, imprint the feel of their soft cheeks in my memory forever. My pressed up nose barely makes a dent in Jemima’s, they are as smooth and firm as an unpeeled mango. Bella’s are squishy like marshmallow, my nose sinks right in. I am so fortunate yet I can’t quite believe that my luck will hold.

Last night I opened my emails to see one from a dear African friend who has been seeking asylum in Britain for many years now. I will not disclose her personal details as her case is, unbelievably, still pending. But the content of her email was something we have both been waiting for. She has found her children! They are in her home country and she can speak to them over the phone. This should have been great news.

My friend has been living alone in a tiny flat on a depressing housing estate for four years. If it were not for her condition, she would be on the streets. But, as she is severely disabled, she is entitled to this social service. As a result of five years of torture, she is partially paralysed, doubly incontinent, regularly blacks out and falls down and in constant physical and emotional agony. I visited my friend every week for a year when Jemima was a baby, until we moved out here, never sure how she could stand the pain and injustice of seeing another mother with her children, while hers might have been dead for all she knew. News of their safety would lift her out of her depression, she was sure. It was all that she needed to hear.

Except that now her imagination is calmed, she has to live with what she now knows to be true. The pictures in her mind of her small children, just as they were when she was parted from them ten years ago, have been replaced with the knowledge that these young adults, always believing they were orphans, have been on the run, homeless, and hungry, though in the care of their aunt, for most of their childhood. The burden of guilt for having a roof, food and safety in Britain has made it impossible to sleep at night. She has not watched them grow up. She did not recognise her son’s deep, teenaged voice. She is helpless, unable to feed them, or reach out and touch them.

All around me it seems that people and animals are suffering. While my life is full of joy and ease, others may never experience anything beyond pain, loss and loneliness. It feels self-indulgent even to write about the suffering of others, as if I am assuming to know their pain, as if it makes a difference to my own happy existence. James wonders why I dwell on it all so much, given there is not much we can do about it. I don’t try to, it just consumes me sometimes. The young boy with the rust coloured hair, a sign of malnutrition, comes to me in my dreams, or interrupts my play with Jemima. He spends his days tied to his blind father, begging in the full sun outside James’s office. He must live nearby, along the ‘canal’, a stinking open sewer. This is his whole life, his childhood over, his future just as grim.

So if I write it all down perhaps we will all be reminded of the simple fact that most of us just don’t know how good we have it. And that actually there is always something we can do.

On Monday I came home from dropping Jemima at school to find a crowd of people on the corner of our street. The small crossroads was blocked by an enormous gold Lexus and underneath was a mangled motorbike and a woman’s shoe. I’ll put you out of your misery straight away, the woman was safe. She was sitting huddled on the side of the road. No one paid her much attention, it seemed more interesting to try to come up with the solution for removing the motorbike with minimal damage to the car. This sight is nothing new. Accidents are so common in Phnom Penh that we see them several times a week. Last week in the same spot the offending vehicle drove off leaving three boys lying injured in the road. A tuk-tuk followed it and got the registration number – how lucky that they actually had one, many don’t bother – and the police caught up with them in the end. No doubt they got off with a hefty bribe. Sorry, I mean ‘fine’. James watched a man go flying a couple of weeks ago too. The driver sped off without waiting to see if he got up afterwards. He should have stayed because now he will never know, which presumably keeps him up at night. The man was ok.

Also on Monday, late in the evening, our night guard brought our tiny sweet cat to the door. She was in shock, covered in bites and scratches, had a tooth hanging out of a ripped gum and could not walk on her hind leg. Our neighbours’ (not the closet Khmer millionaires, but a Belgian/Vietnamese family) two dogs had savaged her in the street. In the summer they killed my friend’s cat in the same way.

I have never paid Puss Puss much attention. Pets in Cambodia have always seemed rather a waste of money given the level of human need. And we always worried about what would happen to one after we left. But she adopted us last year and after a month of trying to ignore her, we gave in. We had her vaccinated, named her Sophie Anna, according to Jemima’s wishes and have been feeding her ever since. She is not allowed in the house because James is allergic, and anyway it is just as warm outside. She has a good life but I have often felt guilty that I hardly ever touch her. Apart from regular mauling from Jemima, she is somewhat starved of affection.

So when I took her in my arms to examine her wounds, I was surprised to find myself filled with fury and pity. I washed her and carried her round to the neighbours, determined that they would see the damage their dogs had done. When they did not answer the bell, no doubt hiding inside, I called to them several times from the street until they could no longer ignore me.

“Monsieur! Puis-je parler avec vous s’il vous plait!”

My stifled outrage was met with shrugs and ‘what can I do?’ Apologise, do something about your dogs, and pay the vet’s bill, I replied. His final insult, after kindly agreeing to pay the bill, was to tell me that I only cared about the money and not my cat. This is untrue. In fact I have since felt so fiercely protective of her that it feels like I have a third child. Watching her dragging her floppy leg around the house (she is now inside, most of her fur has been shaved off anyway), her head in a cone to stop her from grazing her dog- teeth wounds with her rough tongue, inspires serious maternal instinct. It must be all the breastfeeding hormones.

You might be thinking it is inappropriate to write about my traumatised cat alongside such human suffering. I nearly didn’t. In Cambodia animals have to come second after all. But I come from a culture which places a value on animal life. And this experience is just one more reminder of life’s brutality and of life’s fluidity. It feels as though it could run out at any second. Besides, Cambodia is a Buddhist country so in theory any one of us could come back as a cat one day.

It is only Wednesday, so there is still time to cheer up. Tomorrow I am taking the kids to visit four orphaned children who are now living in with a foster family which we and some friends and family support financially. This should be a happy day. While we continue to mourn their mother we just are grateful that they have a new loving family to care for them. No doubt I shall write about this next. But maybe not this week.

1 comment:

Doris said...


Just had a read of your blog and really enjoyed it!