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By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
That wasn't like Master Gaw. He was the toughie of the second kindergarten class, as rough and tumble as any four-year-old boy in our Klong Toey slums. Not afraid of ghosts that might lurk in a dark corner or under the bed. The kid feared nothing.
But something changed. This was different; this was scary. So they ran, the toughie and his mum. Had to. Mum's man -- her "live-in" -- could have killed them both. He was "drug drunk mixed with booze". They say druggies and boozers don't mix potions. That's just not true. And when they do mix, the potion is potent and can be lethal to anyone around.
That's what sent mum and Master Gaw running barefoot in the middle of the night. Mum cut her foot but kept going, running like mad, a petite and bleeding woman, stumbling and falling but never dropping her kindergarten son -- a large kid for his age.
She made it to her old school, the only safe place she could imagine. It's roughly 100 metres down the slum alleyway. All was quiet. Nobody really guards the school. There's nothing much to steal and nobody vandalises the place. It's been a second home for slum kids -- even before when mum was a little girl in kindergarten there.
Master Gaw and his mum were hunkered down there the next morning when the teacher opened the classroom at first light. It's the same school where, as a child, mum had hidden from an abusive uncle. But that's a story for another day.
On this day, mum and son were sleeping, huddled on the floor with a stray cat curled up with them. The teacher, revered as the school's "grandmum teacher", is old and wrinkled with rheumatism burning through her joints. She hobbled in closer to see mum and child on the floor at the back of the classroom.
The teacher immediately recognised her former student, even though she was now a mess with a torn dress, tangled hair, broken fingernails. Beside her, Master Gaw looked beaten, bruised and ready to cry. Back in the day, mum had been a Klong Toey beauty, probably the poorest, prettiest and brightest kid in the class. She had been the old teacher's favourite girl student -- just like mum's son was now her favourite boy student.
Looking up to see her former teacher, mum began to cry. She could relax and be a little girl again, if only for a few moments. Why was she a victim of abuse again? She asked over and over. "Why? Why? Why?" The old teacher soothed her, best she could, wiped away her tears, and combed her tangled hair with her arthritic fingers.
Mum held tightly onto grandmum teacher, desperate for all the bad stuff to go away -- just like when she was a little girl without enough to eat and would run to school for help. The old teacher began to cry with mum and Master Gaw, and then, as parents brought their own children to class, they joined with grandmum teacher -- helping, holding, consoling mother and child.
The teacher ordered some boiled rice from the cart lady before finding mum some clean clothes and a school uniform for Master Gaw. Afterwards, she borrowed a mobile phone to call her son, a motorcycle policeman. As luck would have it, he was on duty near the neighbourhood. Within minutes he was there in uniform.
A few years earlier, when he was a police cadet, the policeman had been sweet on mum. After all, she was one of Klong Toey's prettiest and brightest. Recollecting the daydreams, he later said, smiling sheepishly, that if circumstances had been different Master Gaw might have been his son.
Despite all he sees as a policeman, he was shocked at mum's weathered, beaten appearance. She told him what had happened, confiding in him as if he were an older brother. Her full story spilled out in sobs. Turns out this was not the first time her live-in had beaten her, only the most brutal. Even worse, as a joke, he had given drugs to her young son. That had been the last straw.
As kids, the shacks of the policeman and mum were close to one another; they had grown up slum neighbours. At some point they were considered two special kids in the neighbourhood who had made good. But then mum chose the wrong man. No one understands why; like many of us, even she has a difficult time understanding or explaining her choices.
The policeman, along with a police partner, left his motorbike at the school and walked three minutes to the shack where mum's live-in was still drunk asleep. The policeman grabbed the live-in roughly -- maybe too roughly, some would say. But how rough is too rough when you're putting handcuffs on a woman beater who also beats up kids and gives drugs to them?
The ensuing conversation quickly revealed the contraband. By that time, mum had shown up with a crowd of other kindergarten mums. The policeman lectured mum, told her to never again do drugs. She swore she'd never started, never even experimented. She was clean. As her childhood neighbour, the policeman suspected this was all true.
Mum admitted, however, that the lure of extra money had tempted her to look the other way while the live-in used and pushed drugs. She'd never before had money for a nice pair of shoes or fancy cosmetics or spa treatments.
When the policeman moved to put cuffs on the live-in, there was a scuffle. Live-in scuffed up his shin. Painful but nothing serious unless you count the newly wrecked tattoo on his leg.
Master Gaw had recovered quickly, as Klong Toey boys do, and he didn't want to miss the excitement. He had followed his mum back to the shack, where there was now a crowd, slum style.
Toughie yelled: "You hurt my mum." Then he ran over and kicked the handcuffed live-in. His foot sank into the same injured shin. Live-in howled in pain and limped towards the boy, eager to swat him. Of course, the policemen intervened.
With his leg all scrapped up, live-in fretted over the "special tattoo" that now hung on loose skin. He bragged how he got it in maximum security from a tattoo master, and now he feared it would lose its good luck and power to protect.
The police booked him and drove him directly to the emergency room of the police hospital. The doctor apparently didn't share live-in's reverence for the special tattoo. Bottom line, if he didn't immediately tend to the wound and cut away its loose skin, no tattoo could safeguard the leg from infection and, possibly, gangrene. Better to destroy the tattoo then lose the leg. No one could argue that logic.
So, to wrap this up. The old stray school cat has adopted mum and Master Gaw. Follows Gaw every where.
Today mum works as an assistant to her old teacher. Mum and grandmum teacher are side by side. Mum's live-in is, thankfully, no longer her live-in. He's living again in maximum security, where he will likely remain for a long time. Turns out he had previous convictions, plus he was a bit nasty, lippy, talking back to the judge who sentenced him.
In prison word spread among the inmates that live-in had forced drugs on kids and beaten up women. A reputation like that marks a man for a decidedly different kind of tattooing. This one is bruising and takes place in the cover of night.
Even his tattoo master cursed him. Tattoos are to help you do good, not to beat women and give drugs to children.
Meanwhile, Master Gaw is attending school and takes care of his mum, does it about as well as any four-year-old going on five. It's the effort that counts. And grandmum teacher is managing well with her new assistant and rheumatism, just as long as she doesn't forget to take her medicines.
That policeman has still never married. But time will tell. Word is he can be found dropping in on the kindergarten where a certain beauty assists the old teacher. Turns out that mum can turn a policeman's head without all the fancy cosmetics and spa treatments.
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