Up until two months ago, a few mornings each week, just before his kindergarten class, Master Note, a nine-year-old boy in our care, rode his imaginary broomstick horse around our Mercy Centre compound.
Note always rode behind his partner, Master Galong, who has a faster make-believe vehicle - an imaginary motorcycle. Sometime Galong has make-believe trouble starting his chopper. Master Note told him that choppers are hard to start in cold weather. Note is extra smart and school bores him. His is small for his age. You can blame Aids for that. Got it from his mom at birth who got it from his dad, both whom died when Note was three. Says he remembers his mom who cared for him as long as she could.
Note's life - lived in that deep part of his soul where nobody else can go - seems to be filled with light and beauty. He loves to draw and, except for the occasional fire-breathing dragon (a monster many kids seem to draw in times of death and sorrow), Note's sketchbook is a kaleidoscope of joyful colours and happy imagery.
Note is small for his nine years, frail and fragile, but he has lots of street savvy. He also knows the morning racing circuit with Galong is imaginary. Galong, at age 35 with a form of Downs Syndrome, isn't as sure. He likes to believe it's real and who are we to tell him it isn't?
Note rides behind Galong because he worries about him. When Galong is in his make-believe world, he rides his chopper with reckless abandon. Sometimes the chopper breaks down in the middle of the street, which especially worries Note, who knows Galong has little use for real traffic in his make-believe landscape.
A FEW MONTHS BACK Note went through a bad patch when his Aids kicked up and we almost lost him. Spent three weeks in the hospital for communicable diseases. He's okay now, but weaker, so he won't be riding behind Galong for a while. Galong was upset and cried until Note told him that his horse wasn't feeling well.
Like most of our children, Note came to us by a circuitous route. Atfer his parents died in Bangkok, his grandmother raised him in Rayong until she, too died, at which point he moved to his aunt's home in Bangkok, where his health deteriorated and he was hosptialised. When recovered, his aunt brought him to Mercy Centre.
Living in different homes in our care, Note and Galong first met when we took them both to the hospital for a check-up. Galong was frightened and Note, who has plenty of experience with hospitals calmed him down. A lasting friendship began. We don't know much about Galong's history. We first found him sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a sleazy backstreet bar. He would open the door for customers and blow a whistle to wave down a taxi when needed. Apparently, he didn't like his job because without knowing us at all, he asked if he could live with us. That was it. He had no earthly possessions, no documentation, and he didn't know his name, his family, or where he's from. The traffickers like them that way, with no identity, so if they disappear, nobody cares.
Somebody here conveniently named him Galong which means "a little bird which as lost its way" in Thai, and he took to it right away.
That was seven years ago and he's graduated from our kindergarten each year. It gives purpose and order to his life. He loves school and helps the other childred. Also, physically he's not too much bigger than his young classmates, so he's not to intimidating.
These days, while Note is still weak, we've asked Galong not to ride his chopper before school, but sometimes he does, and we have to look other way.
After the bell rings at the end of the school day, Galong likes to help the teacher clean up the classroom. Then it's karaoke time. He changes his school uniform for street clothes, picks up his raspy voice, but only for about an hour. He's strict about that. Note told him that if he sings more than five or six songs, he'll hurt his voice, and Galong believe him.
Note has been with us almost two years and his auntie visits the first Sunday of each month. He takes his daily, almost-complete cocktail of drugs. The public hospitals enter most of our children with Aids in their free medical campaign. You have to be poor we qualify for that.
But we must pay for some expensive drugs that are not covered in the hospital budget, and ultimately the doctors select which children are eligible. While that free medicine greatly helps many of our 40 children with Aids, eventually the kids go trough a bad patch that sends them spiraling.
Recently, I've been told, the adults can also get the medicine if they are sick enough and have the "30-Baht Card," but not until next year.
But back to Note… a friend to all, especially the vulnerable ones. Recently he's persuaded Galong to join him at art class three days a week. It's a ritual now. Galong (who can't read a clock) waits in kindergarten class for Note to call them.
Galong puts on his necktie for art class, it's that important. He has poor hand-eye coordination, so it was fascinating to see his first self-portrait in pencil (under Note's guidance) - a reasonable likeness, kind of. In any case, Galong was proud of it.
Meanwhile, Note's not feeling well most days. He can't digest his food properly and he has a blood disorder along with AIDS. So it's three days well and four days sick, as they say in Thai. But right now, as I write this, he is well. And every sunrise is a new day - a gift.
The new issue of the day is tattoos. Somewhere Galong saw a photograph of a guy on a motorcycle with a tattoo, and now Galong has decided he must have one. Note likes the idea. In fact, it took him two weeks to explain to Galong the story of Winnie the Pooh and how wonderful it would be to have a glue-on tattoo of Pooh. Galong only wanted to know if Pooh would ever ride a chopper. Note wasn't quite sure. He tended to think not.
Note continues drawing. Perhaps his most moving piece is the one of the birthday party with the family he never had. It's among the few drawings Note won't explain to anyone. So it seems that the lady sitting at the head of the table is mom, and there are presents for everyone and a bit of cake with candles and probably brothers and sisters he never had sitting around the table. It's a joyful picture. But it's his secret.
When Note dies, as die he will, we will look after Galong as best we can, perhaps not as good as Note but certainly better than the bar where we found him. And we'll do our best, too, to assure Note of our care for Galong.
The boy worries about such things.