“My sister, she sick,” Lea says. “We take her some money and some food, ok?”
She is standing in the doorway of the large, tiled bathroom, hands on hips. She’s been on her mobile for the past ten minutes, talking in Khmer. I scrape a blunt razor across my face. I’m late for work. We’ve been up most the night - and now deadline day is looming for the magazine. I wash away the shaving cream and look in the mirror. But not for long. Hollowed cheeks. Black rings under the eyes. Hair all over the place like a mad woman’s shit.
“We go later, after work.” I spray some aftershave. Walk into the bedroom. Pull on a shirt. ID tags. “Where my glasses?” She finds them on the top of the TV.
“Sophea, she sick. She die soon.” Lea says this off-handedly, as if saying we had better hurry up or we’ll miss the bus. I pull the balcony doors closed, with their blue-lacquered, wrought iron security, and lace one of the heavy Solex padlocks through the steel hoops. “Keep these shut if you want the aircon open, OK? What, you want to keep the coconut sellers cool down there on the street?”
Lea laughs. “Fuck you Mark. You so lop lop.”
We visited Sophea a couple of months ago, the morning Lea and i set off to ride the motorcycle up to Siem Reap. Then, too, i had given Sophea food, and money. Then, too, she was supposedly sick, although she looked ok. She certainly had a big smile when we gave her the fresh fruit, vegetables, dried fish, and cash.
“Lea, i’m late for work. I go work now, lu luoen, lu louen. We see Sophea later.”
Lea shakes her head.
“You give me money, I go see her.”
Lea’s younger sister lives in a small room down past the Russian Embassy, where Sisowath turns in to Mao Tse Tung. Not so far from work, but further down the boulevard, behind the furniture shops with their endless rattan arrays of tables, chairs, shelves. I figure we can pick up some food at Kandal market, drop it to Sophea, and i can still make the paper by 11. The hard news team – national, world news, the photographers, editor-in-chief – are all there by nine, but no one from the lifestyle desk deigns to show up before 11. The news team only gave me a hard time about this once.
“You guys stick to news, i'll stick to lifestyle. A lifestyle editor needs two things: a life, and some style.”
“No,” i say to Lea. “You come with me, we go to old market, we go see Sophea, then you take me to work. OK?”
“Yes sir,” she says.
“And stop calling me sir.”
“Yes sir Mister Makroy.” She laughs, pulling on her yellow slippers, the fluffy ones with the smiley faces. She looks ridiculous in pyjamas and slippers, but hey. It's her country.
Downstairs they’ve opened the shop. My scooter is locked up out on the road. Harmon, the grey-haired old American bleeding heart, abandons his breakfast, eager to show me his latest project. It’s a full-scale papier-mâché table, complete with papier-mâché chairs. He wants the kids in the village to manufacture them.
“You know, i’m pretty sure I can find a market for these,” he drawls. What a senseless idea. It's good old American entrepreneurial drive, gone troppo. The heat has gotten to him. I wave him away. He’s a basket case.
Lea drives. I cling to her skinny hips as she blithely navigates the chaotic carnage of the Phnom Penh streets. She loves driving the scooter. It’s new, it’s black and red, it has anime graphics, and it’s automatic. She gets a kick out of telling her friends that i bought it for her, but of course it’s hired - at a special rate from my friend Kieran at Kung Fu Bar. Lea uses it by day, and we scoot around the city by night. When i need a real bike, i borrow Kieran's CB 400. Much more fun.
I must admit, i do get a laugh whenever Lea drives me to work in her pyjamas. It’s quite common for Cambodian women to wear pyjamas around town during the daytime. But that doesn’t make it any less funny. Lea pads around Kandal Market in her smiling yellow slippers, laughing with the ladies as they fill my bag with fruit, dried fish, rice, and takeaway lok lak.
Once inside the steel shuttered door, which opens from an alley off Mao Tse Tung, i see Sophea lying on the concrete floor of her bathroom, at one end of her small but neat home. Her hair is plastered over her face, her body and clothes drenched in sweat. Her head is over a pool of vomit, and she is dry retching, her body wracked with spasms. A handful of blue pills lie among the brown mess, and she is clutching her mobile phone.
Lea crosses the room and crouches beside her sister, talking quietly in Khmer. She fills a cup of water and fetches a towel. Taking a ladle out of the ceramic pot, the one that holds the water to flush the toilet, she washes the vomit down the drain. Sophea replies to Lea in her quiet, lilting, bird-like voice, almost inaudibly, as she pulls her hair back from her delicate cheekbones. Her voice is soft and weak. She is telling Lea something about her head, the back of her head. It hurts there. I help Lea lift Sophea up from the floor and we walk her to her mattress. She is shaking badly, her pain almost visible. I feel her forehead. She is terribly hot, burning hot. We lie her down on her bed. She shakes her head, no, and crawls onto the cold concrete floor by the mattress, lying on her side. Her breathing is shallow. She is shivering and shaking. Suddenly she smiles at me.
“Hello Mark, how are you?”
How am I?
“We’ve got to get her fever down,” i whisper to Lea. “We need aspirin, and we need to get her to a hospital. Is there a doctor around here? Can we take her to Naga Clinic? Why isn’t she in hospital?”
“She need ten dollars. She no have ten dollars.” Lea shrugs, and takes the towel to the kitchen sink. She runs it under the tap, then crouches beside her sister, wiping her forehead, neck, arms.
“She sick same same before?”
Lea nods. “Yes, same same before.”
“Where she sick? How?”
Lea puts her hand on her stomach. “Too hot here - now too hot here.” She puts her hand on the back of her head.
I touch my forehead. “Here? Same?”
“Same, same before. When she sick here.” Lea puts her hand on her stomach again. “You know, when you like…Mark, you member when I burn my hand here?” she points to a tiny scar by the base of her thumb. “You member, I burn my hand here, with…how you say, happy birthday?”
“Happy birthday?” This is getting surreal. Lea looks exasperated. “You know Makroy, happy birthday, happy birthday.” She makes as if she is flicking a lighter.
“Oh. A candle?”
“Yes, you know a candle, you member i burn my hand with a candle here. Sophea sick like that, only inside, here - and here.” This is making very little sense. “The doctor, he make picture.”
“Uh huh. Can I see it?”
Lea talks to Sophea, who raises a thin arm and points to a rattan shelf.
“Yes sir.” Lea comes back with a sheaf of papers, and what looks like an ultrasound image. The medical documents are all in French. The image shows a dark patch where Sophea’s liver might be. Two smaller ones either side of the base of her spine. Cancer? i whisper to myself.
“Tumour?” I whisper to Lea, pointing at the dark area. She looks at Sophea.
“I dunno,” Lea says.
I try to make sense of the French doctor’s clinical notes. A waste of time, I decide. She’ll die from the fever alone if we don’t do something soon. I hand Lea a crumpled pile of notes, a few thousand riel.
“Go to the pharmacy, get some aspirin.” While she is gone i get Speedy on the phone. He says he can’t do the taxi at the moment, and gives me another number. His friend can’t do the taxi either. Sophea waves her hand, weakly. “Mark,” she says. “Is ok. I so sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry. We'll get you to the hospital.” I feel her forehead. You could fry an egg on it. Sophea stops shivering and starts sweating again. I put more cold water on the towel, wiping her neck and her brow. She takes a sip of water and lies back down, talking, something about a movie, something she has seen on TV. I don’t understand what she is saying.
Lea comes back in with a handful of pills. Ibuprofen.
“This is not aspirin, Lea.”
“Same, same,” she says.
She laughs. “Fuck you Mark.”
Is ibuprofen any good for a fever? I can’t remember. I don’t know. I get on my mobile and call Dr John in Australia.
“Yeah mate, ibuprofen will help take down a fever. How many milligrams? OK - give her two now, two in an hour. No, the codeine won’t matter. Just keep her cool, a high fever will kill her. Get her in a cold bath. With ice."
I explain there is no bathtub, let alone a refrigerator. Let alone ice.
“Cold towels. Water. Just keep her cool; get those pills into her. What's she got? She coughing? Sore joints? Swollen glands?”
“Don’t know mate. Hard to get a straight answer. Not sure she’ll keep these pills down. I’ll call you back.” Lea holds Sophea’s head and hand as she swallows two pills, then she turns to me.
“Before, she take her medicine, last of her medicine, she take, but no good, no can keep inside,” Lea says. “She sick.”
“Tell her she’s got to keep these down,” I say. I look dumbly at my phone. “I can’t find a taxi.”
“I get tuk-tuk,” says Lea. “Taxi driver no good.” She puts her head out the door. “Tuk-tuk!” she shouts. “Lu luoen, lu luoen!”
The hospital costs two hundred dollars, bit by bit, over two days. Everything is pay as you go. The medicine. The IV drip. The blood tests. The X-rays. The food. The bed. The water. When she arrived, Sophea had a temperature of 41.9. So. What was I supposed to do? Say, sorry, Sophea, not my problem. I have to go now. I have a lifestyle magazine to do.
Give the doctors the money, they’ll take the money and she won’t get treated. Give her the money – well. She’s not likely to stay in hospital.
Sophea seems to be putting up with the doctors’ prodding and probing good-naturedly, as if to humour me – to thank me, in her way. She doesn’t much believe in any of it. Lea comes back from the market with a small bunch of bananas, some lychees, and some incense. She gives her sister a yoghurt drink then takes me outside. We place the pathetic offerings on the Buddhist shrine outside the emergency ward. Lea lights the incense and bows her head, holding her hands silent contemplation. This, it seems, is the only thing that can help her sister. This is the only thing to do to keep her smiling. And when we return to the ward, where the mosquitoes circle lazily, Sophea is indeed sitting up, smiling.
“Is ok, Mark,” she explains. “No worry. I see you next lifetime.”
She lies back down and closes her eyes, still smiling. She’s deranged, I think. They must have filled that saline drip full of fucking LSD.
The next day Lea and I arrive at the hospital with another hundred US dollars. I go out for food, and when I return, Lea meets me at the gate. She takes me to the other side of the hospital grounds, past buildings that still stand shattered from the Khmer Rouge. We go upstairs to the second floor, where I meet some Western doctors. An American woman in a white coat explains her cell count is low enough for her to qualify for free medicine at what she explains is a non-government clinic. I sign a form for Sophea, and Lea and i are taken in a small white van back to the emergency ward, back to Sophea’s bedside. Her fever is down now, and she is no longer in pain. She is weak and wants to go home. She smiles, and says something in her sing-song Khmer to Lea.
“She want to talk to you,” Lea says, and leaves, going out onto the verandah to talk with the relatives of the old woman in the bed next to us. Sophea beckons me over. I sit on the bed.
“Mark, thank you for help me,” she says. She puts out her hand and I take it in both of mine. “Now I tell you…I…I…” but her lower lip starts to quiver as she squeezes my hand hard and looks down. "I have the HIV.”
She starts to cry. “Mark, I tell you because you my brother.”
I hold her as she cries some more.
She’s only 26, I keep thinking. She’s only 26.
“I so sorry,” she says.
“Shh. It’s ok. It’s ok.”
Me, I don’t cry. Not til I get back to work, when I try to explain where I’ve been these past two days.
1984 ~ 2010
1984 ~ 2010