In the end, Miss Sao, now 15 years old, came across Bangkok town with us to try to find out who her parents were so she could get her I.D. papers. We had the firepower with us - a Klong Toey plainclothes lad, and another from Special Branch - just in case. Plus her beloved substitute mum, Teacher, the one who had smuggled her out of the slum that rainy midnight eight years before. Tippy-toed past the rented shack where Miss Sao lived with her auntie, granny and grandfather - the sex abuser - to escape to safety and freedom.
Teacher had bought a bottle of foreign whiskey (with a higher alcohol content) for Sao's grand father. It was a high risk move, because liquored up was when he looked for his grand daughter, to come sit on his lap. But it worked. He passed out: totally hammered. She hadn't been back in all that time. Didn't dare. We didn't dare.
But justice comes in strange packages. Grandfather died, despised and unwanted after three years in a prison cell. The only ones still living in the rented shack were her dad's younger brother and his wife, the auntie who slapped her to stop her crying when grandfather hollered for her to come and give him a hug. Grandmother too had since died. Sao didn't know anything about her mum and dad, not even their names. Was always told they were useless and better off dead. So eventually, she stopped asking.
At that time grandfather was buying second-hand magazines, and taking them to the Sanam Luang area to re-sell them. That's why he wouldn't send her to first grade. Her sitting there begging beside him was a good moneymaker. Unless it rained, he usually made whiskey money.
That's when Miss Sao went to her teacher, crying, and asked: "Can I come and live with you?"
Now Miss Sao was 15 years old and grown up. Not a cowed, abused seven-year-old, who with no parents and no identity papers did not exist in the legal world.
Even at 15 she had no I.D. papers, but there was some hope.
This time, it was daylight in the old slum and she asked to stop at an old neighbour's house on the way to use the bathroom. She was terrified.
She led the way. The slum hadn't changed that much in eight years. Teacher beside her, police following quietly, guns hidden. Walked straight to the rented shack she grew up in. Had to stop at half a dozen houses, neighbours remembering her, all telling her how she had grown up and was so pretty, and greeting her teacher. They all knew the story. There are no secrets in the Bangkok slums.
Then came the unpleasantness.
Auntie Malai met her at the door. This time Miss Sao didn't cry. Well, not very much anyway. Plus the two lads moved up a bit closer behind her.
"You animal girl! You killed my dad in prison," said the auntie.
It didn't really get ugly. Easily could have though. Neighbours crowded around.
Teacher shouted, screamed at Auntie Malai, "Shame on you. Shame on you." The Special Branch lad caught Auntie Malai's attention, smiling that particular policeman smile. Then auntie started bawling. Mumbled that she didn't think Miss Sao would ever come back again.
But it was awkward. Miss Sao asked, "Why did you let him do those horrible things? Why didn't you protect me?" And Auntie Malai just looked down. "I never liked you - had to take care of you and you were such a brat. Besides, these things happen to us women, and you're not even my blood family."
Then she said, I guess by way of compensation: "Your father lived here a while, but I threw him out. He moved to another slum a couple months ago."
That's how they learned that Sao's father was alive. The Special Branch lad asked what was his name and what did he look like?
They got directions, didn't bother to say goodbye. A five-minute walk to an adjacent slum. Of course he wasn't home, he was working. But they exchanged phone numbers with the nice lady in the noodle shop next door. She said Sao could phone and they would call him to the phone.
He phoned first, and Miss Sao said she'd go to see him the next day after school.
She's popular, so she got her sometimes boyfriend and his biggest gangster motorcycle friend to bike her over to meet dad. He'd dumped her when she was just a year old, so how could she know what he looked like? But now, for the first time in her life, she knew his name, and, as she told us later, when she saw him, she knew.
This is the easy part of the story. Let's do the next part step by step.
TESTIMONY AT DAWN That night after Teacher smuggled her out of the slum eight years ago, before dawn uniforms friendly to sex-abusing grandfather from the station across town came to us looking for Miss Sao and her teacher. They wanted the girl back, or they would bring a charge of kidnapping. We told them they must go get a woman police person to question the girl. No men. No guns, no jack boots.
So while they were at the front door, fuming, we frantically called a child-friendly Klong Toey policeman and our lawyer and Teacher to smuggle Miss Sao out the side door to the Klong Toey station, where she gave testimony that she came freely.
We got Miss Sao and Teacher back through the side door just in time, as the other uniforms brought a very gentle, soft-spoken policewoman to speak to Miss Sao. Was she being held against her will? She proudly showed them her document.
That finished that. Grandfather received a fifty-year sentence. The judge was not amused. Continued abuse of a seven-year-old child over a period of two years. Rejecting his role as protector. Forcing her to beg.
Teacher is now happily married, with a child of her own, nicknamed Sao. She is still teaching kindergarten.
Miss Sao has had no legal documents until now, but as said above, there is hope.When she came to us, she was already a full year behind in school. She was allowed to study at a local school, but no certificate would be given. Then a sponsor paid tuition to an international school here in Bangkok. By special exception, she could attend classes, but again, no diploma could be given. In desperation, we sent her to a special school in one of the provinces, where after some years, she was recommended for citizenship.
Now, back to Mercy Centre in Klong Toey.
Sao has met her dad, who told her, "Oh yes, of course. You were born in Roi Et Provincial Hospital in the Northeast. Yes, of course, there is a birth certificate. Of course you are a Thai citizen.
"I can't remember her real name, but she called herself Jit. We lived together about a year after you were born, then we split."
"Were you married properly? I mean, with any ceremony?"
"Well, kind of. I went to Roi Et with your mother to visit her parents, to kaw sa-ma [ask for forgiveness] after the fact we were living together and to ask for her hand in marriage. About a year after you were born, we came from Roi Et to Bangkok, and I left you with my younger brother and sister-in-law Malai. But just for a while. Till things worked out."
Dad continued his story: "Then I went South for a few years, worked on some fishing boats. Haven't seen your mum since then. Don't know where she is."
We will look into trying to find her mum later. One step at a time.
During school vacation, Sao plans to travel with our staff to the Northeast to seek a copy of her birth certificate, after all these years.
I asked her if she wants to go back to the slum to see her dad. She shook her head "no" . But she said that he will probably be around, if he gets sick or in trouble, or something.
I asked her would she would help him?
She looked at me for a long moment, then said, "Let's wait and see."