It’s a couple of years since I wrote this but I found it in my notebook while clearing out the other day. It’s an adventure I think of often and with mixed feelings.
* * *
Breaking the rules always causes pain or discomfort further down the line. The rule was this:
Don’t get on the back of anyone’s motorbike in the local town.
And in breaking the rule, although glad I have, the sweet kind of pain still lingers with the memory.
It was a hot afternoon at the Mitra Indah in Pinoh (every afternoon was hot) when a small, stocky figure in a motorcycle helmet approached me hesitantly.
I turned as she took off her helmet to reveal the childlike features I knew so well. Yet at the same time it took a moment to recognise the face I had missed for so long because in my two year absence she had grown an air of assurance and contentment, a stillness which had not been there before.
Neither of us able to contain our delight, we exchanged greetings. She asked after my brothers and I enquired after her husband and new baby. Amel lit up upon the subject, unable to help telling me all about her son and I was touched by the pride in her voice.
‘Holly has met him three times and Intan has visited.’
I smiled, more glad than I could express to see her so settled, so unlike the restless teenager I had known. She touched my arm excitedly.
‘Would you like to see him?’
Noticing my hesitation, Amel assured me that she lived nearby. There would be plenty of time to get back and catch the bus. Little persuasion was needed and I mounted the back of her bike with only a twinge of apprehension, marvelling again at how altered my dear Amel was. I realised as we wove through the town how much I had missed her as she chatted away. Did I know Hizkia was several weeks old now? And he had weighed three kilograms when he was born. How much did english babies weigh?
There was a moment of anxiety as we darted across a stream of traffic, bumping along the wrong side of the road until we reached the turn off a little before the Bank. Thankfully Amel slowed over the speed bumps and a few hundred yards later we turned in.
I dismounted while she parked the bike, giving me a moment to take in our surroundings. Once gain I felt anxious, partly because of the few women sitting outside the house staring, and I offered up another quick prayer for protection. The house itself was rather large and attractive compared to most of the others in the town.
The Indonesians seemed to favour bright colours but don’t always appear to have a great sense of coordination. Nevertheless, this one was pale pink with white frames and columns over grey tiled steps. A dog eyed us lazily from the grass but soon fell asleep when it decided we were not a threat. Perhaps the only individual who took no interest in our arrival was the scraggly mongrel, and as much as I disliked the beast, I was grateful.
Amel lead me up the dirt path running round the side of the house, fenced in on the right and scattered with discarded papers. It was dark inside, the equivalent of the closes we have in the town where I live, and yet so very different.
It was dingy, but shamefully cleaner than a lot of the closes I have seen. Thick slabs of wood were cemented into the bare wall to my left, leading steeply up to a wooden landing with a half-hearted window and a low door frame leading somewhere else. No banisters or railings. Obviously.
Taking my friend’s lead, I slipped off my sandals, following her up the surprisingly solid ascent. Looking back, I’m not sure whether I am amused or upset that there are those who would pay a fortune for a staircase like that had it been branded an ‘authentic’, ‘rustic’, ‘natural’, ‘exotic’, or ‘oriental’ look by someone of note. At the time I was only surprised at the coolness and wondered who the many feet belonged to who trod the boards to such a tired state.
Even petite Amel ducked slightly to pass through the doorway and we found ourselves in a small rectangular room of bare concrete and boards. Some patches of patterned linoleum had given up trying to cover the floor, instead lounging haphazardly at the feet of the flaking cupboards. I didn’t notice an oven, only a hob, but that is not unusual. The place looked like something out of a photo of an abandoned building but for the fact it was so clean. I hesitated a moment when Amel disappeared through the far doorway.
It was the oddest thing as the naïve part of my mind, based on my preconceptions of how homes should be, was sure that this part of the house was Amel’s kitchen whilst the part of my mind that knew and loved this country like an old friend, quietly asserted that this was a communal area. Of course it was.
My heart tumbled in my chest as I stepped through the last doorway. In a place a little smaller than my own bedroom back home was a hallway with four or five rooms a little longer and a little wider than a single bed, as lavishly decorated as the rest of the house.
‘This is our place,’ she smiled proudly. ‘Wait here a moment.’
I blushed and looked away from the window as Amel disappeared into the room, accompanied by the low murmur of voices. The colour rose a little in my cheeks. I was oddly ashamed that I alone took up the same space as at least eight people. It was not something that Amel cared to know or understand, but the fact bothered me somewhat.
She reappeared a moment later with a bundle in her arms. For several moments I could only gaze at the little face peering out from under the woolly hat and exclaim at his beauty, my eyes tingling.
‘Would you like to hold him?’
It’s a silly question but I always feel strange and awkward holding children. There was a moment of panic as she set him in my arms without waiting for a reply. Hizkia screwed up his beautiful face, squirming a little as he made himself comfortable.
I have never felt my heart beat more softly. The little bundle slept peacefully. For now. Like all children there, his future was uncertain and he would grow up in this place with little more than the clothes he wore and his parents’ care. Standing in the dingy light, these things chipped at my heart but at the same time they were perfectly ok for the simple reason that I could see from my friend’s face that she was more than content, joyful, with her lot in life and she loved her little boy. Perhaps, as I looked down at the rich caramel contours of his sleeping face, wanting nothing more than to freeze that moment and never let go, there was the tiniest speck of envy.
Twelve years of Western schooling had been lost on me, a fact consolidated in a moment as I held a gift from God, wrapped in blankets and breathing softly. Amel grinned and I grinned back, young girls in the Asrama once more.
In the days to come I returned often to her house in my prayers. The image of a sleeping face and a mother’s smile in a back street shack haunted me as complaints about iPad apps and drinking parties became part of my life once more. Whining about having to do the least amount of work possible, and the backbiting of student life often culminates in slipping away silently with heavy arms and a burning behind my eyes.
Before Hizkia, I could just about cope with these things, but now it is harder — hrder not to be bitter. I do not feel guilty because of what I have; we cannot help what we were born to. We can only use it wisely. No, what hurts the most is that those who call themselves adults know nothing of the real world, though they fancy that they do. The pain is in the everyday drama of the unimportant which I must deal with with grace for everyone else’s sake. All the while, deep down, I long for my other life, the one no one cares to ask about.
The life in which I may gaze into sleepy black eyes, knowing that their future may not be long nor abundant and they may never have anything to their name but their parents’ faith and the clothes they sleep in in a shack behind a pink and white house in some unknown Indonesian backstreet. A life in which all of that is perfectly ok because it is a life devoid of wealth yet rich beyond measure.