In no way ever could I compare myself with a street kid, and it was wrong of me to have used the expression in the piece I wrote yesterday. I was on the street a lot as a kid in Cambodia, but I had a home, I had food and I even had money. Street kids have none of those things, living hand-to-mouth, never safe, seen by authorities only as a nuisance.
My heart has always ached over things I saw during my time in Asia. Accounts of the atrocities in Cambodia were hard to bear, impossible to comprehend.
I shall never understand how such a devastatingly awful fate could have befallen the gentle people I knew. For a long time it made me question the value of the Human Race.
Humans manage to fail each other in such thoughtless ways. This young lad was taken away from his village in the distant mountains of Cambodia and brought to Phnom Penh at the whim of Unesco’s chief of mission. He spoke a dialect no-one knew. He had no possessions but what you see. They dressed him in a waiter’s outfit and took him to work at the airport. If he was ever able to return to his village he would no longer have been able to fit in, exposed as he had been to a life that he would not have been able to explain.
I’ve always wondered what happened to him.
One good thing came out of my “imprisonment” by the American family where I had unexpectedly found myself living in 1956. During that time I had somehow met an Australian girl who was close to my own age. Her name was Sabrina.
No longer enrolled in school, I had a lot of time on my hands and as I soon discovered, so did Sabrina. She was supposed to be doing correspondence courses, but for the next nine months or so, perhaps it was my bad influence that kept her from them.
Sabrina and two of her older brothers lived in a large house that was much nicer than ours. Her parents were the Best! I so wanted to join her family. Sabrina’s mother was a big cat-lover. She acquired a very grand Siamese cat called Mau and before long he had a lot of admirers, the main one, as I re-call being Grizzy. There was also an Alice and a big tom tabby called Bunny. I was especially fond of Bunny. Apparently cats just kept showing up at Sabrina’s house.
I often stayed over at Sabrina’s and I remember her parents going out to a function one night and telling us emphatically that there were to be “no more cats!!!!” They had not been gone many minutes when we heard a whimper at the door and upon investigation, there was a tiny kitten! He became Sputnik after the Russian space craft that had just launched. I don’t think there was too much trouble about it in spite of the warning.
We both loved animals a lot and I introduced her to Sai See’s cat Kliang and to the little civet cat she arrived with one day. I didn’t know what it was, so it was always known as “rat cat”. It was a furry animal and I was fascinated.
Most foreigners in Phnom Penh belonged to the Cercle Sportif where people went to swim, and keep cool. I had never been in a pool and I was keen to learn how to swim. I never had lessons, but I mastered the doggie-paddle by watching other kids, and when I eventually found myself in the deep end one day, with no hand-hold, I somehow started treading water. After that I started to swim, albeit with no style what-so-ever! My father didn’t belong to the Cercle, so every time I was taken there I risked being challenged and thrown out. I used to get a sick feeling in my stomach as we approached the door. I felt like a bad, unworthy person.
One really hot afternoon we were at Sabrina’s house alone. The Cercle was far away and maybe we had been told not to go out, but I was always good at improvising. Like all houses in Phnom Penh, this one had a big water tank. It was on the roof where we frequently went to play. I suggested that no-one would know if we took a dip in the tank.
It was a bit smelly, but deliciously cool in there! We had been so sure that our impromptu swim would be our secret. Suddenly we heard an enraged shout from Sabrina’s mother who had returned to find murky brown water coming from her kitchen tap. I’m not sure how she worked out that we were the problem, but we hopped out double quick. We hadn’t been aware the tank would be coated in slime!
One of our favourite forms of entertainment was cyclo-pousse rides down the boulevard. We would each climb into one of these chariots, propelled by their driver who sat behind us pedalling for all he was worth. We would get all excited and call out “Vite! Plus vite!” (“Fast! Faster!”) The cyclo drivers quite entered into the spirit and they were always well paid for their efforts.
Two young children, even white foreigners, were not a heavy load. It was incredible to see what could actually be transported in a cyclo-pousse, from furniture to fowl. As long as it fit and didn’t tip the cyclo over, it seemed to be accepted. Usually you bargained the price before setting out. Sabrina and I were skilled at this.
Often we would go down to the Petit Marche, the Little Market, especially if Sabrina’s mum had given us pocket money. I’ve forgotten what we bought beside a few of our favourite sweeties and maybe some coloured pencils. Somewhere we had collected a whole bunch of State Express cigarette tins which we scotch-taped together to create a concertina-like container with separate compartments for all our stuff.
There was a series of books in England when I was a child, called The Famous Five, by Enid Blyton, about 5 enterprising kids that were always out solving mysteries. We were great devotees and imagined ourselves as junior detectives, always seeing a crime in the making. Sometimes we went in search of clues, like the time we took a cyclo down to the Hotel Le Royale and found a stairway up to the attic. It was disappointingly empty and devoid of mystery. We huffed our way noisily down to the next level where a hotel resident burst out of his room and abused us heartily for disturbing his siesta.
People were always taking siestas. This was at once boring and at times quite useful. Sabrina’s dad got fed-up with our noise and told us one day after lunch “I’m going for a siesta, and I don’t want to hear any of this”, and he proceeded to demonstrate opening and banging a door multiple times.
We really did try to be good but somehow it seemed, the harder we tried, the more trouble we got into. We tried to amuse ourselves quietly, and just how this resulted in our breaking a ceramic lamp, I am not sure. We looked at each other and decided Promptly to re-locate, catching a ride to my parents house where they too were sleeping.
Still doing our very best to be quiet, we got ourselves some drinks and don’t you know, one of the glasses decided to upset itself, in so doing cracking the glass tabletop. My heart sank through the floor as my father had no sense of humour for children’s crimes. We did not hesitate, did not pass Go, we fled.
In the end there was no hiding place and we each glumly found our separate ways slowly home. We lived to tell the tale and I don’t think either of us really got seriously told off, or “blown up”, as Sabrina liked to call it.
The river front was a good place to visit, as there was plenty of activity there. We found ourselves up a tree one day, in the grounds of the boat club. There were cars parked beneath us and in one a driver sat either resting or waiting for his passenger. When he saw the two of us up the tree he unzipped his pants and pulled out what was inside. I can’t remember if either of us reacted but we quickly descended from our perch and took flight, once more.
Occasionally we would explore the back streets around the residential area, searching for something to do. We found it one day by accident, when we turned a corner to see the White Elephant advancing toward us. This was a well known creature, considered sacred because of his unusual colour and although he was with his attendant, he had a reputation for being ill-tempered, so we hastily scaled a nearby wall.
We there found ourselves in a junk yard of sorts. Heaven. In no time we found a discarded metal frame which had bars that we could swing on. We had a jungle-gym! Needless to say it was our secret. Not long after, we found a puppy that we named Wuzzy and for a time Wuzzy lived at the junk yard, but I have forgotten what happened to him in the end.
One of my last memories of those happy days in Phnom Penh was an afternoon when we were playing happily on our jungle-gym and Sabrina fell off, landing heavily on her back. She lay there winded and I tore off up the road to fetch my mum as our house was nearby. It was one of the few times I saw my mother become really anxious. She ran out of the house with me and as we hastened down the road, we met Sabrina coming the other way. She was dirty and a bit disgruntled but otherwise all right. I think that was the end of our afternoons at the jungle-gym.
It was also the end of our freedom. Perhaps Sabrina’s fall alarmed our parents enough to make them re-consider the liberty they were permitting their 9 year old girls. Maybe they became concerned about our neglected education. Sabrina went back to her correspondence classes and I was trotted off to the *Ecole Norodom and my second, devastating “downgrading”. After 15 months in Cambodia, I had learned but a handful of French words. The school decided to handle this by placing me in kindergarten where little girls were constantly staring at me in amazement and looking up my skirt. I’ve no idea what they expected to find there. Perhaps because I was comparatively so big, they thought I might be a boy.
*The Ecole Norodom, was where I should have been sent upon arrival in Cambodia. Over the brief time I spent there, I absorbed the French language like a sponge, which is what happens with most children who are immersed in a foreign language.
Among other things, most of which I did not understand at first, we were taught writing and drawing in which I could participate without knowing the language, but although my efforts were appreciated, they were harshly graded because I had the “advantage of large hands.” My only pleasure in those days was riding back from school in a cyclo-pousse during the monsoons and arriving home drenched from head to toe. Fortunately my humiliation only lasted 3 months and then arrangements were made for Mum and I to fly back to England in time for Christmas.
My Dad reluctantly followed a couple of weeks later, having been told, if he did not accompany us home, we would not be allowed to re-join him in Saigon which was his new posting. He was outraged, detesting the British climate and England in general, so he compromised by touching base in England for the shortest time possible. I’m not sure he even got to see my older brother Peter, who had remained in Britain at boarding school when Mum and I left.
However he may have moaned and complained, my Dad was never-the-less obliged to make a farewell tour of Tonle Bati, the village where he had sometimes taught.
It was enthralling
Even my poor mother was expected to speak. That she had no common language was a trivial complication. I don’t remember, as I was bored out of my scull, but I am sure she managed to convey something cheery, as always. She, in fact, often helped my dad to create posters for the village, and that sort of thing. She was a skilled artist by nature and she understood the basics of agriculture which Dad was expected to teach.
Then it was farewell, Cambodia. I was thrilled that Sai See was allowed to see us off at the airport, and even more that she brought Kliang.
I didn’t know it then, but I was to return three more times to Cambodia….