Friday, October 21, 2005


It was a muggy Saturday morning and I was standing in the garden area in front of Bogor's Menteng Hospital. Butterflies were fluttering happily around the magnolia flowers, two schoolboys were enjoying a pretend-fight on the grass, but I was not in the best of moods. Mukmin and his family were supposed to have turned up before ten o' clock. It was now eleven o' clock and there was no sign of them. Six-year-old Mukmin had recovered from his typhoid but he still needed medicine for his TB.

"Where do you think they are?" I asked Mo, my driver.

"Perhaps they've gone off to visit relations. This is what happens after Ramadan."

I was not only worried about Mukmin but also about sad little Agosto, the boy who lived in the shack under the dark trees. The previous week, Agosto had been looking like a Boticelli angel, grown thin and grey. I was feeling guilty at having done so little for Agosto after he had been orphaned by the death of Ciah, his mother. He had never looked well since the time he had had typhoid. There was something gloomy about the boy that sometimes made me want to avoid his company.

"Can you go to Agosto's house," I said to Mo, "and get him to come to the hospital for a check up. I'll wait here in case Mukmin arrives." Mo drove off in the direction of Bogor Baru.

I sat on a wooden bench, shaded by sweet-smelling trees, and watched a series of hospital patients come and go. Spindly-legged creatures shuffled past in dusty torn sandals; women with fat brown legs stepped smartly by in polished leather shoes; there was a distant wail from a small child.

I took a look at my newspaper and began studying an article about a novel called 'Pale Fire' by the author Vladimir Nabokov. According to the article, Nabokov was making the argument that there is a lot of chaos in life. Accidents happen. People do not always achieve the objectives they desire. How true.

There was a slight 'bleep bleep' sound which made me look up from my paper. Sitting on the bench opposite was a toddler with a bruise on one leg. This child was being guarded by a teenage girl with an almost-too-short skirt and a preteen boy playing an electronic game. I might have been irritated by the 'bleep bleep' from the game but instead I was charmed by the lyrical good looks of this trio. The girl wore cheap plastic sandals but she had a face that would not have been out of place among the film stars in Cannes. I suspected that nature was better than any scientist at producing beautiful people, or beautiful magnolias.

Minutes before the children's clinic closed, little Mukmin and his father came striding through the hospital's front entrance. We were just in time to get him his TB medicine.

"Why were you late?" I asked the dad as we stood outside the doctor's surgery.

"It's a five hour bus journey," he said, with a friendly smile. Mukmin gave me a charmingly shy grin.

Then I noticed Mukmin's left eye. It looked squint and dull. "What happened to his eye?" I asked.

"Last week some kid hit him with a stick. They were playing a game."

"What did the doctor say?"

"Nothing they can do. But he can see OK with the other eye."

I had felt good when Mukmin had got rid of his typhoid. It was me who had persuaded the father to keep the child in hospital long enough for a full recovery. But now Mukmin's permanently injured left eye seemed to be forcefully reminding me yet again that life is not a long quiet river.

"See you in a month's time," I said to Mukmin, as he and his dad hurried off to get their bus.

Mo returned without Agosto. "Where is he?" I asked.

"He doesn't want to come to the hospital," said Mo.

We drove to Agosto's damp shack under the trees.

"Hello Mister Kent," mumbled Agosto, who now resembled some miserable Dickensian waif.

"You look unwell," I said.

"I've got a cough."

"We'd better take you to a doctor. Then I can give you some money for food."

As we drove into the centre of Bogor I spotted a sign saying 'doctor' and asked the driver to stop. The sign was outside an orphanage which was housed in a home-made-looking house. In a brown-walled surgery, a thin middle aged man, with the look of a junior clerk, asked Agosto some questions and then opened the drawer of his desk. He took out three different pills from a mixed assortment and handed them to the boy.

"What's wrong with Agosto and why is he only getting one of each type of pill?" I asked.

"This pill," said the man, "is paracetamol for headaches. This pill is for malaria. And the third one is an antibiotic for the cough."

"One antibiotic pill will not cure a cough," I said, in a tone intended to imply angry contempt.

"I only have one of those tablets left," he said, sounding flustered.

"Are you a doctor?"

"No. I work for the Health Ministry." He looked down at the ground.

"I don't think you know what's wrong with Agosto. One malaria pill is not going to do much good. It's ridiculous." I was nearly shouting. I hadn't eaten or had anything to drink since breakfast time.

"I only have one of each pill. It's all I have left of these particular ones."

"I'm going to the hospital to meet a real doctor!" I snarled.

At the Menteng Hospital, the children's clinic was closed, but at three in the afternoon we were able to see a hospital doctor who gave Agosto a quick examination.

"Bronchitis," said the tired looking medic, who was losing some of his dark hair. "I'll give you a prescription for an antibiotic."

"It's not malaria?"

"Definitely not."