Back at her apartment, Lydia pushed away her half-eaten bowl of rice and fried vegetables and groaned inwardly as she contemplated years stretching ahead of her filled with the delights and variations of rice dish upon rice dish. She was now used to eating rice at practically every meal but still, if she didn’t live in Phnom Penh, where the new supermarkets were selling Western food, she didn’t know how she would cope – rice certainly wasn’t her favourite food. It never had been, which was ironic considering this was where she felt she was supposed to be. However, she couldn’t justify buying supermarket food all the time on her allowance, as it certainly wasn’t cheap, so for now she would just have to find lots of creative ways to eat rice. Thankfully, her cook who came three times a week was pretty adept at doing just that. The organisation she worked for paid a fair amount for her accommodation, which gave her an image of wealth, but her day-to-day living funds were not actually that high – maybe around $300 a month. This was enough to live on but certainly not enough to save for the future. Cambodian teachers themselves received a pitiful salary of around $30 to $50 a month, meaning that they were often undermotivated, had to take second or even third jobs, or would ‘encourage’ parents to provide cash for their child’s education. This was just one example of the endemic corruption that permeated like yeast throughout Cambodian society.
As Lydia cleared her dishes away with a wry smile, a sudden crash and squeal filled her headspace. At first thought she was only mildly disturbed as Phnom Penh was a noisy city, and you could guarantee that if dogs weren’t barking, small businesses weren’t working at all hours of the day and night and the ubiquitous all-day wedding parties weren’t taking place at that exact point in time, something would be sure to disturb the temporary silence within the next half-hour. It was probably just a catfight outside her window, because it was remarkably close. However, her mind would not hold to this possibility – there was something about that squeal that niggled at her. It wasn’t a cat-squall: there had been something half suppressed and even human about it.
Unable to let it go, she picked up her torch in one hand and the heavy wok in the other, cautiously opened the front door and peered into her front yard. Her landlady’s gardener, Rith, had left the spade and trowel out overnight, propped up against the shed – something he didn’t normally do as he was so meticulous –and the spade had fallen to the ground. She could see a dirt mark against the side of the corrugated shed and a shadow sprawled out to the left of the shed. Her tongue feeling thick in her mouth, she called out, ‘Is anyone there?!’ as loudly as possible so that her neighbours would be alerted in case of real danger.
Silence answered. A silence that breathed across the darkness with anticipation. Seconds later, the shadow moved, almost imperceptibly, as if trying to edge its way out of sight.
Whoever or whatever it was obviously wasn’t dangerous, otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to hide from her. Feeling braver, Lydia stepped out of the bungalow and towards the shed. As she moved closer and shone her torch brightly at the intruder, the shadow emitted a whimper. She saw a pair of little hands raise themselves at her defensively. She placed the torch on the ground, reached down and took hold of the upper arm of a small, ragged child. Her face was covered in grime and huge brown eyes stared up at her like a rabbit caught in headlights.
‘Whatever are you doing, little one?! Are you trying to scare me?’ Lydia spoke this as reassuringly as she could. Her heart was racing, although it was obvious that the girl was much more terrified than she was. The child was beginning to wriggle out of her hold, and in spite of her tiny size she was struggling with the strength of a tethered pony. Lydia glanced at her right hand and realised that her heavy wok was held out threateningly in front of her. She released the wok and said softly, ‘I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.’
Suddenly the girl began emitting half-suppressed gulps as if she was trying not to cry. Lydia realised from the scrunched-up look on her face that she was in a lot of pain.
‘Where does it hurt?’ Lydia said in an urgent voice.
Without saying a word, the child put one hand up to her forehead, where there was a large bruise, and pointed down to her left foot, where dark blood was seeping from the bottom of her foot and mingling with the dirt.
‘Ok, I don’t make a habit of taking in intruders, but it’s obvious you need some care and attention, little one. Please, come inside with me and I’ll try and clean you up.’ The girl looked at her with a frown on her face, but after a pause she proceeded to hobble towards the front door. Feeling a little ashamed at asking the girl to make her own way there, Lydia picked her up. Although she went stiff in her arms, she was compliant and made no protest as Lydia carried her into the house.