Mater Dei

Mater Dei, Kep, Cambodia 1961

My friend Sabrina’s father was still posted in Phnom Penh, and had discovered the existence of a Catholic boarding school for the children of wealthy Khmer and Westerners working in Cambodia. It seemed like the perfect place for his daughter and he agreed to be responsible for me as my parents were in Thailand.

This all sounded like a pretty good idea to me, particularly as the school was located in Kep, right on the seashore. Maybe things were looking up!

My mother had to rapidly prepare my new school uniform, embroidering each item with a number. But it got done, and on the agreed day Sabrina and her dad turned up to collect me.

We set off for the Thai border at Aranyaprathet and crossed into Cambodia at Poipet. It was a long journey via Sisophon and Battambang, passing south of the great Tonle Lake. We continued through Pursat and Kampong Chhnang, eventually arriving without incident in Phnom Penh. We stopped overnight, and then we were off again, south to Kep which was a three hour drive.

In the care of Sabrina’s attentive parents, I felt safe and content. They had been told by Sister Superior to ensure that Sabrina had extra food supplies. I am not sure if it was because the school could not afford to feed us properly or if it was just that food was rather scarce.

We were each given a food locker for whatever bits and pieces we had decided to bring. One item we brought was cans of thick condensed milk, which was lovely on a hunk of French bread. But Sabrina poured some out one day and saw a cockroach emerge from the can in the thick milk. We had no way to cover the cans, so after that, once opened, a can had to be shared around until empty!

Sabrina’s parents came down every two weeks to replenish our supplies of crackers and canned fruit and tomato sauce. We also had something called Marmite that we ate on Jacob’s cream crackers. Marmite is made of yeast and beef extract and it is an acquired taste. Our Cambodian classmates thought it was revolting!

The large building in the above photograph became our school and our home as the two dormitories were above the classrooms, on the top floors. Each bed had a mosquito net held up on four posts, so the dormitory looked like a forest. The dorms held about 100 beds each. There were rows of sinks along the back wall and that is where we washed, morning and night at a cold water tap. Along the front wall the sisters slept in little private cubicles.

My friend Tim went to Cambodia, many years later, and with my directions, he was able to locate the building that had been my school. This is the picture he took of one of the dormitories. Our beds looked just like those two, with a thin kapok mattress.

I got into trouble with the Sister Superior who censored all our mail. She said I was very bad for writing to tell my parents that the beds were hard. But they were. It was just a comment that I thought would amuse my parents. I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

In this photograph, you can see the row of sinks against the windows and the toilets beyond. Behind the wall at the far end I believe were showers that we were allowed to use once a week.

I objected to having my mail censored. One afternoon in the courtyard I saw a familiar-looking piece of blue paper, so I bent to pick it up. I recognized my Aunty Win’s unique hand-writing, but it was torn from a letter I had never received. My Aunt was a single woman, a nurse, who was dedicated to caring for her invalid brother and her aging mother. There was nothing scandalous she would have written, so why her letter was withheld from me, I never knew. There was no point in challenging the Sister Superior and the letter was already in pieces. I was just very upset about it.

When we had visitors, we were allowed out and could spend Saturday night with our family or friend, so then we could go to the big sandy beach and rent a pedalo, to ride around in the sea. Of course Sabrina and I messed about and often tipped it over.

The school had access to a beach as well, but it was mostly covered in stones. There was a long walkway out into the sea and we would sit and dangle our legs there.

Kep is a lovely place. It looks south into the Gulf of Thailand with a view of the Plateau de Bokor to the west. The sunsets were often so stunning, we were encouraged to leave our homework to go and watch. It was magic.

Behind the school building there was a jungle-covered hill behind which I used to watch the moon rise, and I would stand gazing at the night sky before being called to the dormitory. Sabrina, being younger, we were once more separated, but we were able to meet during the day, so life had improved from our previous school.

We did “Girl Guide” type things. It was called “Les Ames Vaillantes” (Valliant Souls). We helped to arrange a festival in which we had to make costumes and dress up as if it was the year 2000! I wish I had pictures of what we believed it would be like! I think we expected to be space-girls.

Then one day I got some bad news. Sabrina’s father had been posted to Egypt and they would be leaving soon. My friend’s parents came to collect her and they took me out with them for a last weekend.

One of many images I shall never forget is the sight of Sabrina getting into the car with her parents and being driven off, leaving me standing in the dusty courtyard.

With my guardians gone, someone new had to be found and my father nominated one of his ex-colleagues, a very nice man who came down to see me and took me out for the day to Bokor.

Bokor was a hill station that had been used in colonial times as a resort where French officials and their families could escape the heat.

The Hotel de Bokor already had a checkered history when I first went there on my 9th birthday with my parents. It had been a ruin then and nothing had changed. It was a really eerie place that I would not have cared to visit after dark.

The hotel was re-built and later taken over by the Khmer Rouge who used it as an interrogation centre.

My mother viewing the old ruined church, on that earlier visit. My father took some wonderful photographs of Bokor. I have carried them from home to home for a very long time. I regret I have no way to display them here.

I believe the hotel is once more up and running although I gather the local people will not go near it because of it’s very bloody history.

My nice new guardian took me to the Popokville waterfall, where we had a picnic and then he took me, safe and sound, back to the school.

I was greeted there by Sister Superior who was not pleased. Having allowed me to spend the day with my father’s appointed friend, she had somehow found out that he was divorced! Quel scandal.

A different guardian must be found! I can imagine how well my father received that request. In any event, the next thing I heard was that another “gentleman” had been appointed. He was previously divorced but now respectably re-married and he was titled! Which made all the difference. Apparently.

The titled gentleman had a young wife and two small children to keep him occupied but I doubt he was as respectable, in fact, as the “appalling divorced” colleague of my dad. While in his care, his Vietnamese maid looked after me, and she was outraged when she discovered that I had been filled with wine and champagne until I could barely stagger upstairs. My first hangover, aged 13. I was ill, but my Vietnamese friend looked after me. She was very sweet to me. She was another of those people of my childhood that I lost track of and who went on, probably, to face an appalling future.

However, I still had to get through another semester at Mater Dei and it was a bit grim. With Sabrina’s parents gone, there was no-one to bring me food supplies. At breakfast we had bowls of coffee and a piece of bread. During the day we got a banana or bread. I used to go down toward the beach and buy something from the street sellers. They had tiny shrimp that were cooked into a sort of flat, fried cake.

At lunch and supper we were given rice and soup with tiny bits of chicken. Sometimes we got pork. During the siesta hour I would hear a pig squealing and then we would know what was for supper, but we didn’t get very much of it. We had to supply our own cutlery, and when our meal was over someone would come around to dump a pot of hot water on each table. We stuck our utensils in it, wiggled them around and then dried them on our napkins.

I was not familiar with Charles Dickens in those days, but I unknowingly mimicked Oliver Twist one day by asking for more and got roundly told off for it.

But soon food was the least of my worries. Cambodia and Thailand were always squabbling about one thing or another and I discovered one day that diplomatic relations had been cut off. This meant that there was no form of communication possible with my parents. My mother was able to get one letter to me by giving it to someone that travelled to Vietnam, but mostly it was silence.

The end of the year was coming up and I was supposed to be leaving but there was no news coming from anywhere. At about this time I finally decided that I didn’t like what was happening to me. I can remember saying to myself that I was tired of being dragged around “like a sack of potatoes”. The anger which I carried around for many years started there.

I used to lie in my bed at night and listen to the sea down on the beach. I was so alone. So I made up a family in my head. It was based on some series I had read in one of Michel’s comic books, back in Saigon. When I was alone I would run the next bit of their story and eventually if I was bored in class I would day dream about them.

My imaginary family were very honourable people. They were loyal and loving. I don’t know why, but I used to make terrible things happen to them. But they were terribly brave. They survived and held together, overcoming whatever ordeal they had to face. I suppose they were what I would have wanted my family to be.

That family lived in my head for years. I have never told anyone about them, not even any of my many therapists because I suppose I was embarrassed. But you do what you have to do to stop yourself going mad. When I had no-one else, at least I had them.

At first when Sabrina left, I used to find solace in the evening when I could go to sit at the back of the small chapel across the road. It was run by Franciscan friars. The chapel was a very humble wooden building that smelled of incense and when the friars chanted it felt safe and good. As the sun set, the chapel would fill with golden light. It was so still then and so comforting.

But as time went on and I got so angry, I couldn’t seem to find solace anywhere. I think I really wondered if I would ever see my parents again.

Then one day a car arrived and the driver told Sister Superior that he had been sent by the titled gentleman to collect me. Sister Superior was so mad at me. How could she arrange all this at such short notice? She then proceeded to lecture me in a most un-Christian way. First she seemed delighted to tell me that my grades were down and I was no longer “first”. “Oh,” she said, “you speak good French, but your accent is not Parisian”. And then it was “I knew your people during the war, the Tommies. They didn’t have much guts.”

I have so often wanted to find that woman and tell her what a bitch she was. It was no wonder I no longer wanted to be a Christian.

Because the border between Cambodia and Thailand was still closed, there was some difficulty about my passport. There were no Thai officials in Phnom Penh to issue me a visa, but the Thai government must have had some arrangement with the Burmese because I was given a visa for Burma and told to present this on arrival in Bangkok.

With my history of passport problems, I was not at all convinced, but I was happy to board a flight which, according to the stamp in my passport was once more Christmas Eve. It was my final departure from Cambodia.

Mater Dei, like the hotel in Bokor, was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as an interrogation station. When Tim went there the place was basically a ruin and a few years later it was demolished and replaced by a resort.

I wanted so much to go back to Cambodia but I think if I did I would see ghosts everywhere.

2 thoughts on “Mater Dei

  1. This is the saddest part of your story yet. No young girl should ever have been shuffled about like that away from family and, without your only friend, completely alone. You are strong to have survived this part of your life.

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