And then suddenly it is raining and it is monsoon rain and the sky becomes very dark but still the sweat dribbles down my temples as the driver pulls up at the orphanage. He runs inside and I can see that he is soaked even before he reaches the curb. Large puddles of water have already formed around our minibus and the rain feeds them and shatters them and feeds them and shatters them and the water streams down the windows and Cambodia blurs into browns and greens around us.
Then the door slides open and the driver stands there ushering us out one at a time and holding an umbrella above our heads. Some Cambodian teenage girls are waiting on the veranda and they are smiling and saying Welcome Welcome and holding their hands together in the Khmer greeting that looks like praying and I smile at them and they giggle like children. There is a smell of incense and burnt wood and cooking and rotting fruit and faintly too the smell of excrement. The girls follow us inside where it is dark but not cool and this lady is telling us about the orphans and how they find them after their parents die of AIDS and bring them here to safety and send them to school. I wonder who these people are and I think about my own children and who will care for them if I die and I am grateful for the love of strangers. The rain is so hard that I can barely hear what this old lady is telling me as she stretches her head towards my ear and I smell her hair and hear her saying there is someone I want you to meet.
We go upstairs and there is this beautiful boy rising from a desk to greet us and his hands come together and then apart and then together again like silent clapping before he shakes my hand. He has dark skin and a Roman nose and pale palms and a smile that is uncertain at first but then grows like a candle. The old lady is telling him that I am an important man and I want to stop her and say I am not important and I am not even clever but I am just come from a land of accidental plenty. We think he is 15 or maybe 16 the old lady says but he came with no papers and then we found his sister and she is with us too but it was too late and she has AIDS. Her voice fades slightly and for a moment the boy looks at his feet. And then he talks to me and I am surprised at his English, so good that he can even make jokes and soon we are laughing and for the first time in this trip I feel released from Babel, able to talk without care or thought. He is smart I can see that but he stands so close that I step back instinctively and then blushing and then angry at myself when I see confusion flash across his eyes.
Show him your pictures the lady says to the boy and he opens the desk and there is this red exercise book of water coloured mountains and aeroplanes and a river with cows on the bank. I point to a picture of lady drawn in charcoal. Who is that? She looks serious and sad but she is beautiful too, her hair neatly brushed so that she looks somehow elegant and old fashioned at the same time. It’s my mother he says and he pulls out this old photograph from which he has faithfully copied her image. And then he takes my hand and it feels incongruous like he is comforting me.
I push down the urge to release his hand because I know it is only the Khmer way and this revulsion washes over me, not for the act of holding a boy’s hand, but for this man beside him who is filled with such oceans of shit and phoney love and sometimes milk but mostly just rubbish and pretence and vanity. He leads me towards the others and though I am blushing I squeeze his hand and everyone turns and some of them laugh saying to me It looks like you’ve been adopted but without irony or malice and I think we are all slightly sick with shame or guilt or something that is bitter like bile rising to our tongues.
It is still raining and the orphanage has grown darker in the late afternoon. Children’s voices come excitedly from the kitchen where they are preparing the evening meal. While the others drink tea I pretend to go to the toilet but slip back up the stairs to the boy’s room and I take the ten American dollars in my pocket and I place them into his red exercise book. Downstairs again and everyone is getting ready to go and the boy finds me but he only puts his arm around my waist and does not speak. Then all the children are saying goodbye goodbye and we are huddling again on the curb and the driver says Run Run and we all dash through the rain and the water runs down our faces and necks.
Then we are in the mini bus with the windows still streaming and we are patting our clothes and shaking our wet hair as the vehicle pulls away from the boy looking at me with his hands together like a child praying. And then his image distorts and there is the street again and the motorbikes and the fruit stalls and the sudden breath of air-conditioning and still on my hands the touch of another life and the beauty and the horror of it all like a stain seeping through me and the rain will not stop the rain will not stop.