Every time I climb the stairs to the Skywalk, I look for her. For Mai, small and filthy in her yellow dress. She sits here against a pillar, baht scattered and glinting around her, a tattered cardboard sign propped in her lap etched in marker pen that says: My Name Is Mai.
I think she is three or four, tiny for her age. Her fingers and soles are dark with the ingrained dirt of a beggar. Her dress is full of Bangkok’s dust and stink, its edges are blackened, as are the gold bracelets on her wrists and ankles. The diamond earrings that stud her ears are dulled. Here, in the broiling heat, suspended between the heavens and the thunder of the traffic below, she sits motionless and mute. Her eyes are dead.
Every time I climb the stairs I crane my neck to see who has left her. Are they here, watching? Is there a gang or only a pimp? She is dark skinned; has she been trafficked from the rural north, Cambodia or Myanmar? How long before I arrived did they deposit her, prop her against the pillar and steal away, creeping down the stairs to melt into the throng and leave this toddler, who I have never seen move or speak, alone without protection.
I come every day along the Skywalk. I tell myself that this is the best route from the city to National Stadium station where I return home to my guesthouse. My palm is hot with the baht that I clutch in it, in the evenings my fingers smell of brass. I drop the coins in front of Mai, resisting the urge to crouch and touch her, to pull her to me, to scoop her into my arms and to run, to speed her away from this fucking existence, this fate worse than death. Instead, I hover, I drop my change with a tinkle onto the concrete and pause, waiting for her to glance up. To connect, to give her human warmth. To show her love. But she never does. Sometimes I leave water and titbits of food, but I worry that it is.
The Skywalk heaves with shoppers and commuters, school children and backpackers. Women clasping pastel-coloured plastic bags of market vegetables. Office workers eating moo ping from the hawkers in the street below and whose aroma coils up above the traffic fumes. If you stop for a moment you feel the vibration: the footfall, the traffic, and at points the roar of the Skytrain overhead as it hurtles from station to station. The floor shakes, just slightly, but constantly. In the middle of this maelstrom sits Mai, small and unseen.
It is now May. Bangkok is febrile with political protests and bloodshed. The sky is stained yellow from teargas and black from smoke: the city burns in the streets where the battles between red-shirts and the army are fought. The heat builds, mercury rising with the conflict, and now the surreal mania of Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and water festival. Amid the terror, Thai teenagers fire day-glo water pistols at one another and drench pedestrians with buckets of water for sanook, for fun.
One day I pass along the Skywalk with coins pressed in my hand to find that Mai is not here. I halt, confused, before retracing my steps: I must have passed her, perhaps she was hidden by the crowd. Perhaps I haven’t reached her yet, perhaps she has been moved. I pace back and forth between Chit Lom and National Stadium stations: she is gone. So I wait. I loiter, toe-ing my flip-flops on the concrete, my back slick with sweat as I lean on the railing. Mai doesn’t appear. I begin to wonder if I am being watched, if her pimp won’t leave her here; maybe I have been spotted before. Perhaps, like other do-gooding Westerners before me, there is a risk I might interfere, or pointlessly call the police.After a while I give up and return home in the fading light to my guesthouse where I think about her as I lie in bed and wonder where she sleeps, if she has a bed, if she has food, if she has anyone who is ever kind to her. If in her wretched life she is ever, ever safe.
from the BBCI don’t see Mai again. I leave for London not long after this; Bangkok is increasingly violent, and news reports of murdered journalists and injured civilians are reaching concerned family and friends in Britain. There are rumours of impending airport occupations and road blockages. I flee the country like all travellers eventually do: impotent, guilty, and ultimately selfish.
I think of Mai today, some ten years later as I sit with a student in her final tutorial and notice the smallness of her hands, they are almost miniature. I stare at them as she is talking and gesticulating, asking me questions that I no longer hear. Mai will be a teenager now, if she has lived. She will have been prostituted and raped and perhaps sold and trafficked out of Thailand. Perhaps she has ended up in prison, with her veins full of needle-sticks and heroin. If she is lucky, she will be painted and gaudy in the neon sois of Patpong with the other bar-girls and pimps where she retreats up dingy stairs to be groped and penetrated by Westerners whose baht lie scattered and glinting around her.This would be a fate better than a fate worse than death.
My student is from Thailand, from a wealthy family. She will shortly return there to work in her parents’ jewellery business and study gemology. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and her diamond studs glitter. She wishes me well and thanks me for her help, for the difference I made.
“I did nothing,” I say.
J L Hall is a Scottish writer and lecturer working on her second novel. Since 2016, her first two novels have been finalists in several UK writing awards. Her essays and short-fiction have been published online and included in anthologies. In 2009, she completed a solo round-the-world trip.