Sweet mercy and a calloused fist
Sometimes the 'rules of the slum' require more than gentle persuasion to save an exploited and abused eight-year-old girl from the clutches of a violent drunk
It's a love story, raw and rough. But first, the ending -- the little girl is safe. Well, that's not totally true, but she's got a promise and she believes the promise. That's important.
True, we needed a "conversation" to make sure everyone understood a few simple rules, with her real mum, and especially with the "slimy pair of trousers" involved with her foolish mum.
The conversation was one-way -- we talk, you listen. Not that we are goody two shoes, but we promised an eight-year-old child that she could go to school every day. Not just now and then, and not a different school every other month. Every day.
Of course there was no violence during the conversation, despite Slimy Trousers taking advantage of a little girl and her brow-beaten mum. We wouldn't think of it.
You see, they're vagabonds, mum and Mr Smelly. Migrant workers who can't settle down anywhere, and the girl changing schools every couple of months.
But let's rewind. The story began on a recent late night when a bruised and bloodstained mum came to us with her little girl, Miss Nat. "I can't take it any more and I'm not sure if I can protect my daughter," she told us.
Then, through a heavy sigh: "Can she stay with you for a while, just until I get straightened out?"
We asked Miss Nat what she wanted. She said, "I want to stay with you if I can go to school." We said, "Yes, yes, of course. We promise."
KEEPING A PROMISE
This was no smash and grab operation. We stressed that the law of the land dictates that eight-year-old children go to school. They don't get farmed out to work as hired hands, even if side-by-side with mum and dad in a field of sugar cane or rice.
Also, we stressed that in our slaughterhouse section of the slum, all our kids go to school. It's OK to be migrant workers and vagabonds. But it's not OK if the child cannot go to school, or is placed in a different school willy-nilly every other month.
That had been the cycle of life for eight-year-old Miss Nat.
So we asked for a bit of muscle from two friendly "roustabouts" who work in the slaughterhouse and at the port. Old-fashioned lads with calloused hands and strong backs, and also with families, values and kids in school. Lads you don't want as your enemy.
We asked them to politely invite Smelly Trousers into the holding pens where they butcher pigs. There, where they had his full attention, they told him of the promise we'd made to Miss Nat.
Bottom line, little girls don't work in pigpens helping slaughter animals or washing entrails. Nor do they work in fields. They go to school. It's simple -- and it's the law of the land and also the first rule of the slaughterhouse and the Klong Toey slums.
The lads told Slimy Trousers one more thing. "We hear you like to use your fists to bloody up Miss Nat's mum. Not cool. Not allowed." The one-way conversation ended with a non-negotiable deal: "You be nice to mum. You take care of the girl." End of conversation. Amen.
NOT ON OUR WATCH
Everything was fine for three days. That's when Slimy Trousers got rambunctious. He and the foolish mum had been washing dishes for almost a month at an all-night upmarket noodle stand. He collected their month's wages, and then walked "home" to the rented shack where his dad and stepmother lived. He started boozing, grew ornery and in quick order beat up his stepmother and the foolish mum.
Miss Nat walked in from her third day at school. She saw the violence and did what eight-year-old girls do; she ran. He caught her. With a firm grip, Slimy Trousers told her that if she screamed he'd beat her bloody like her mum. Mum cowered in the corner like a badly beaten slum dog. Slimy Trousers then shoved Foolish Mum and Miss Nat into a waiting three-wheel taxi and sped off to the Northeastern Bus Terminal and a bus to Si Sa Ket.
A teacher, walking home from school, saw it all happen and phoned us.
We found them at the bus station with tickets for the overnight bus. Slimy Trousers was taking them all back to work in the fields. We arrived on motorcycles just as the bus was boarding. The ticket collector, a hefty no-nonsense lady, wasn't allowing them to board. Slimy Trousers was visibly drunk and Miss Nat was throwing a tantrum. Those are two no-nos for boarding an overnight bus for a 12-hour drive.
"You can't make me go," Miss Nat screamed at the slimy one. "I want to go to school."
Foolish Mum was crying and holding her daughter. The bus lady began blowing her police whistle as loud as she could. A crowd gathered. There was a bit of a scuffle. A couple of fellow travellers, one a retired schoolteacher, got off the bus. The retired teacher asked Miss Nat why she wasn't going to school.
Madame Nung Ning, our favourite Klong Toey street singer, was also at the bus station with her blind husband, singing country songs and collecting coins. Ms Ning recognised the mum and Miss Nat, so she started singing "A-B-C" school songs. She knew Miss Nat loved school.
Miss Nat ran over and hugged and hung onto Madame Nung Ning. "Don't let them take me," she said, clinging to her. Madame Ning responded with a whisper: "Sing with me, girl. Sing with me."
By now, Slimy Trousers had been locked down by a hoard of bus staff. The arriving police said, "Don't beat him up too much. The newspapers will see it."
Slimy Trousers kept shouting, "I have my rights!" The police agreed, but they had several questions.
Who are you? Did you beat up this woman? Why is this child crying? Is it true you won't let her go to school?
In the midst of this, Madame Nung Ning turned her music box into a loudspeaker. She told everyone she is like a second mum to Miss Nat. Foolish Mum, terrified and beaten black and blue, nodded her head in agreement.
Miss Nat stopped crying long enough to confirm it. "Yes, she's my second mum from Klong Toey and she loves me. She bought me a school uniform and is teaching me how to sing."
Then, with a finger pointed at Slimy Trousers, she tells the gathering crowd that "this bad man beats up my mum and me, and he says I can't go to school. If I'm not nice, he says he'll sell me."
In no time, the police take Slimy Trousers to the police station. Everyone else heads back to Klong Toey, including Madame Nung Ning and Miss Nat. Our favourite street singer says the girl can stay with her and her blind husband -- she can even sleep with the puppy dog, who loves little girls.
CLASS OF HER OWN
We overruled, however. Madame Nung Ning and her husband drink a bit too much.
Thanks but no thanks. Miss Nat will stay with us. On weekends, if she wants, she can go with you to learn how to sing on the streets. But home will be the Mercy Centre.
We also offered a room to Foolish Mum. She's only 33 years old and is trying to work up the courage to leave Slimy Trousers. She's afraid he'll come after her, but we told her that she's safe with us.
The next morning, Miss Nat went back to school. Madame Nung Ning met her at our front door with her blind husband. With a hand on her shoulder and carrying the loudspeaker, they walked her to class.
Miss Nat was assigned to informal kindergarten, where the other kids won't laugh at her for being a bit chubby and speaking Bangkok Thai with a northeastern accent. She is progressing quickly and in a month or so, she will join the regular Grade 3.
As for Slimy Trousers, he gets out of prison soon. But he has strict orders from our strong-backed lads, stay clear of Klong Toey.
Meanwhile, Foolish Mum has her job back washing dishes at the noodle stand. On weekends, when it isn't raining, she listens to Miss Nat singing on the streets with Madame Nung Ning.
Miss Nat is safe. She loves school, even though she has a lot of catching up to do. But she's getting there, she endures. Her mum rented a room nearby with money from her noodle shop job and today she's free of horrible Slimy Trousers. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Most importantly, we are keeping our promise. Go to school, go to school, go to school. n
Fr Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit www.mercycentre.org.