A story by FATHER JOE MAIER about a phone call that brought a young woman back to the Klong Toey slum for a new start

They knocked down the door, then searched her house, and put handcuffs on her second son. Now Auntie Jan would have two of three in prison. Plus six brothers and sisters. More common in our fair land than you would want to think.

She kicked that junkyard dog, who then began severely distracting the arresting officers. That's when she grabbed her son's cell phone. "Mom! Help!!" He whispered to her. Begged her to "trash" the phone because all his friends' and clients' numbers were in it. It could be used in evidence. Auntie Jan, no stranger to a slum card game, and slight of the hand, quickly stashed the phone under the blanket of her Aids-sick, useless brother-in-law. Shouted at the officers he was highly contagious. She prayed the phone didn't ring.

It wasn't the Aids that made Auntie Jan's brother-in-law useless. There was more to it. He was out of prison for the third time _ drugs, just like all the rest _ and was on his way back in. The court didn't know how sick he was when he was sentenced. When the cops found out, they decided they didn't want him to die in jail because there'd be a lot of paperwork.

So they turned their backs and he walked away and they put it in his file that he'd escaped. He had gone to Auntie Jan's for refuge because he was married to her youngest sister, who also was in jail. Father of their two daughters.

The police left with her son sandwiched between the two officers _ cuffed _ on the back of a motorbike, and Auntie Jan retrieved the phone. Trash it? No way. The handcuffs ended any support she'd ever get from that son. You never throw anything away in the slums that might of some use. If things got really bad, she could sell it to the authorities. Not that she would.

But you never know. In Klong Toey's game of rock/paper/scissors, hunger wins of honor and loyalty. Especially if the hungry ones were children, and she was currently caring for four.
Besides, some years from now, once her son got out, he wouldn't be worth much anyway. Certainly wouldn't find a decent job. To be a tough guy inside, he'd have to get himself an ugly set of tattoos, and once he was released, the tattoos would mark him for life.

First things first. Auntie Jan used the phone to call her niece, Ploy, who was working in Phuket, and told her to come home. Miss Ploy's mother was doing life because she was stupid enough to take that drug rap for Khun Samran, her useless Aids sick _ should be back in jail _ husband. Ploy's father.

Now Ploy's father, Samran, was dying. The Aids, plus T.B., plus half a pack a day, plus an occasional shot of heroin, made all that happen. But he was going slow _ painful. He had mumbled that he wanted to see his daughters. Auntie Jan figured that was the proper thing to do: let Miss Ploy and her younger sister Mame take care of their father.

On the all-night bus coming back to Bangkok, Miss Ploy had time to remember what she'd run away from. She was about seven when she lived with us at the Mercy Centre the first time, but that time too, her dad convinced her to come home to take care of him, cook for him, clean up his messes, quit school, be a servant, run drugs for him.

She did that for five years before he was caught and sent to prison. After that, with her mom already inside, her aunts and uncles wanted her to run their drugs. Have her run their drugs rather than their own kids. Yes, kind of keep things in the family, but one step removed. Better your sister's kids caught than your own. Besides, who cares if a throw-away kid with parents in the slammer gets caught. One less mouth to feed. No loss.

That's when Auntie Jan stepped in. Enough is enough. She asked us to take Miss Ploy back. We told her no. Our shelters for kids were operated as open houses and we didn't have staff to guarantee her safety from the local mafia who surely want her dead. So she was taken into juvenile custody, where she remained for a year.

Upon her release, Auntie Jan again asked us again to take Miss Ploy, who was now 16. We said yes, because she was no longer "hot material". The drug routes had changed, as they do constantly, and the drug runners no longer considered her a threat because of what she knew. A year later, by the time she was 17, and still in one of our shelters, she was in the fifth grade.

But now again, just recently, daddy's will prevailed and again Miss Ploy returned home, for just a few more runs, he said, until he got on his feet again. She promised to go to school every day. He promised to send her every day and give her lunch money and bus fare. But she began to miss classes, miss being a normal teenager.

When the drug police started sniffing around, Miss Ploy decided she'd had enough. Called us from the Southern Bus Terminal, in tears. Sobbing. Totally without hope. She was on her way to Phuket to work in what she was told was a "traditional" massage parlour, although she had no experience or training. She was told she would never have to "off" (do other things with customers). That was several months ago. Now, again, a call from home, this time from Auntie Jan. Her father was dying.

She hadn't seen her mother in nine years except once for about an hour on some sort of official "family day". She barely recognised her mom, who was then 32 years old. She was totally embarrassed how her mom was carrying on: crying and wanting to hug her, hold her hand. This almost strange woman who said she loved Miss Ploy and younger sister Mame so much.

Old Samran, he always blamed his daughters for his bad luck. It seemed to be the thing he could do best, he had a real flair for blaming other people. Oh, yes, he was also good at booze and drugs. Besides that, he was a mediocre carpenter. Learned the trade as a kid with his dad, but he never did much with it until he picked it up again in the prison shop making furniture, like so many prisoners do.

Miss Ploy remembered all this on the bus wondering if it could get any worse. Of course it could. It can always get worse in Klong Toey. She hadn't told her Auntie Jan she was pregnant. Three months gone and morning sick. Fur would fly and it wouldn't be pleasant.

Her father, of course, was sicker. Death sick. He was TB coughing and looking awful from the Aids. On top of that, a neighbor sent his wife over, complaining. She said her husband was training some excellent young fighting cocks for a rich guy and he figured old sick Samran had the chicken flu or something, and if the birds got the flu or the police came around, they might want him to kill the chickens. Imagine, anyone wanting to put down healthy fighting cocks worth about 20,000 baht per bird.

Auntie Jan said it wasn't bird flu, it was Aids and TB. The woman said her husband wanted Samran moved out. He'd even pay Auntie Jan a bit of cash, when the birds got older and when they won some fights and when he got his commission. Hey, a promise of money was better than what she had going for her at the time.

So with Miss Ploy's help, they cleaned off an old table and turned it into a bed for him, not too far away and under the old sacred trees. A long time ago, there had been a temple there. They moved the temple, but the trees grew tall and full and beautiful. Auntie Jan figured that maybe some of the holiness of he trees just might fall down on her useless brother-in-law. Maybe do him some good. They fed him, watered him, looked after him now and then. He was sheltered from the sun and the rain and it wasn't too hot in the shade. And he had the old junkyard dog for company.

He died and Auntie Jan and Miss Ploy examined what he'd left behind. A bit of cash, a carton of high visibility cigarettes and a couple of vials of heroin powder and some anti-viral pills. Auntie Jan sold the cigarettes and heroin to a local broker who felt sorry for her. Then she flogged the anti-viral pills to a neighbor lady who had the virus. She ate a couple pills after she met with a customer. Thought they'd keep her from getting Aids.

The benevolent society provided a casket and the junkyard dog jumped into the van with the body. Couldn't get him out, so off to the temple.

When the temple bells tolled to signal the creation was about to begin, he howled like he'd never stop.

Life goes on. Auntie Jan has opened a three-table restaurant by the side of the road there in the slum with Miss Ploy. They get along fine and the food is good.

Miss Ploy's morning sickness is gone and she studies at home. The neighbor who raises the fighting cocks, his wife has an education, so she helps Miss Ploy with her school work. She's determined to finish sixth grade. And she says she and the baby in her tummy are cool.

- FATHER JOE MAIER is the founder and director of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey, Bangkok. For more information: www.mercycentre. org or write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Phone: 02-671-5313.