Sunday, March 01, 2009

Wisma Utara


A few days later, Margaret, the well-proportioned, middle-aged mother of one of my students, from a family that was half Indonesian and half Dutch, came to see me in my classroom. Margaret was a good soul and took an interest in charitable institutions. Seeing her looking so terribly chic, I found it difficult to believe that as a child during the war years she had lived in squalor in a Japanese internment camp.

"I hear you’re looking for a place for the child you found," she said, as we sipped cheap coffee. "I think I’ve found somewhere suitable."

"I certainly hope so."

"It’s called Wisma Utara," continued Margaret, "and it’s not far from Blok M. It’s not nearly as expensive as the place you’ve been using."

"That’s a relief."

"It was started by a widow with a mentally backward son. She was worried about what would happen to the son when she died and so she raised the money to build this home. It’s in a kampung but it looks not too bad an area. And they’ll definitely take your child. Shall I drive you there?"

"Let’s go."

Margaret and I collected Min and we motored to the suburb where Wisma Utara was situated. Having parked our vehicles, we walked along leafy little lanes sided by home-made brick and concrete houses with pretty gardens and brightly painted doors. This place was full of trees and light and little children, in contrast to the grey downtown area around Doctor Bahari’s clinic. Wisma Utara itself looked like a simple brick-built primary school and it had a long narrow front garden.

"Welcome. I’m Joan," said the girl from Flores, who greeted us in Wisma Utara’s lounge, a place cheaply furnished with dilapidated settees and a black and white TV. Joan was in her thirties, dark skinned, friendly and unpolished. "I’m the senior member of staff. I’ll show you the room where Min can sleep. It’s my room."

The bedroom had a crucifix, a picture of Mary, Joan’s bed, and a bunk bed with bright covers. I liked the room.

"It’s so much more cheerful than Dr Bahari’s clinic," I commented to Margaret. "There are no psychotic adults giving you frightening looks."

"Let’s meet some of the other children," said Joan, leading us to a back courtyard, where a dozen young people, both staff and inmates, were either seated or trying to play badminton.

"The Down’s syndrome one is Hari," said Joan. "The little one with poor eyesight is Tedi."

"Who’s the one with his finger stuck in his ear?" I asked, looking at an emaciated teenager sitting alone in a corner. Green bubbles oozed from his nose.

"That’s Dadang."

"Has he seen a doctor?"

"The doctor comes once a week to see any children who’re sick."

"And the pretty teenage girl?" I asked.

"That’s Diah. She’s a bit backward. She’ll be sharing the room with Min. And the young man next to her is Dan who’ll be helping to look after Min." Dan, in his twenties, looked cheerful, calm and decent. He lacked the tough, prison-warder-look of some of the nurses at Dr Bahari’s clinic.

"What do you think?" asked Margaret, smiling in my direction.

"I think it’s great," I said. "Min seems reasonably relaxed. When we visited the place for the severely physically handicapped, Min immediately tried to drag me out." I was referring to a privately run institution where the young patients had been lying motionless in bed.

"So we’ll leave him here at Wisma Utara," said Margaret. "After we’ve signed him in."

Joan put her arm around Min, and held on tight.

"Min, this is going to be your home," I said, looking into Min’s eyes and trying to look relaxed. He gave me the puppy-about-to-be-abandoned look.

I signed a piece of paper and then, with Margaret, made my exit.

"Best to leave him and forget about him," said Margaret, as we headed back to the main road.

"You mean not visit him?" I asked.

"Yes. Not visit him."

I was horrified. Of course I would visit him, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with Margaret. Min was my soul-mate. How can I explain that? The attraction was not particularly physical. Min had an appealing face but I had no interest in his body. The attraction was mental. Min and I liked each other’s funny ways; we were both outsiders; we depended on each other. I had friends like Fergus and Carmen, but I wouldn’t say that my attachment to them was particularly deep. That was my problem; I was not always particularly good at long-term, relaxed closeness with ordinary people, but, I could be devoted to waifs and strays. Possibly that was because I found I could trust them and not be hurt by them. A psychiatrist might suggest that I should sort myself out and get a wife and children, or maybe a dog or a cat.

"Many thanks for finding the home," I said, as I bade farewell to Margaret. "I’m off to Mayestic for some shopping."


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