17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
Some stories seem to be buried stubbornly in our memory. They usually come back to haunt us on nights of loneliness, at moments when we let our mind drift with the whisper of the sea or the sighs of the breeze. They return time and time again like whirling waters and form a sad melody of life, intruding faintly, regardless of place, whenever we are engrossed in the present.
On the last day of September 1980, my eight friends and I were walking down a high ridge and, a little before noon, we reached the upper course of the Kha Khaeng stream. Monsoon rains had been falling for days on end, at times seeming to split the whole range asunder, at others melting in a fine drizzle that lasted from dawn to dusk. Even when the rain stopped, the whole jungle was still as dim and damp as a deserted theatre. The smell of old leaves and soggy rotting logs had filled our nostrils along the way.
Taking the ravine near the source of the Khwae Yai River as our starting point, we had walked for five full days in the rain, up and down steep mountain slopes. We were coming from the west, cutting across the common borders of Uthai Thani, Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces in order to reach the jungle’s edge at a place called Sap Fa Pha. Another day and we would reach our destination, provided we could safely cross the Kha Khaeng rapids. It was the end of the rainy season, and the water was at its highest level. The stream, turbid like a sea of boiling mud, had overflowed its banks and spread wide. All along its course we could see a scattering of half-submerged bushes, which swayed about like drowning men struggling wildly as they called out for help. Whole trees – roots, trunks and all – drifted down, and some got stuck on bushes which the current hadn’t yet torn up.
On the opposite bank, a little beyond our route, a large monitor lizard had been swept onto a branch, to which it clung, bobbing up and down under the thrashing of the current; it was unable to climb up the bank and unable to let go, as it would be whisked away by the rapids. What a pathetic sight!
It was a fully grown lizard which must have gone through a lot before being caught in the stream…
Before deciding to leave the mountains at the end of September 1980, I’d spent more than five years of my life in the jungle. It hadn’t been easy for someone who happened to be born and lived for nearly two decades in a village by the sea, and all the more so for someone who had always been conscious that his parents had hoped he would provide for the family once he had graduated from university.
I was able to get rid of the first burden within a fairly short time: it took me no longer than two rainy seasons to feel at home in the jungle and mountains. But the second burden was different. During those five years, I shouldered it every step of the way, day and night, from high rocky ridges through to meandering brooks.
I still vividly remember the day I had to leave. I had travelled to Bang Pakong, my birthplace, to bid farewell to my parents. Father was the only one at home that day. Mother had gone to a neighbouring province to buy fruit she’d sell at the market. As I sat waiting for her to return home, I thought about the days of my childhood, when we still lived together. The more I brooded, the more I felt she was an angel heaven had punished by making her the mother of someone like me.
Mother spoke little and hardly ever had a harsh word for her children. She was nonetheless one of the proudest women I have ever known. Because she was abandoned by her father in her infancy, had no relatives and never went to school, she was used to relying on herself since a very early age. No matter how destitute she was, she never begged from anyone; even among her own children, she’d never ask for help to ease her weariness if we weren’t considerate enough to see it ourselves.
She usually got up before dawn to take goods to the market and, depending on how much there was, carried them either by pushcart or in baskets hanging from a yoke balanced on her shoulder. After selecting fruits for a while, just before it was time for her to leave the house, she’d nudge me gently awake or call me in her usual tone of voice; under no circumstances would she shout, because she disliked making noise and, besides, was afraid to unnecessarily awaken my little brother and sisters, who were still very young.
One day, she tried to wake me up three times, but I wouldn’t get up. I was already awake, but I still wanted to sleep late like any child who was growing fast and showing signs of puberty. After a while, I began to feel that Mother was unusually quiet. I got up and saw her busy carrying goods on her shoulder, holding this, grabbing that, and on her face, which had begun to wrinkle, tears were streaming down.
“No need.” She whisked my hands away after I jumped to relieve her of what she was holding.
Since that day, I never allowed her to wake me up more than once. This, however, didn’t mean the end of our sad story.
There was a time during which my mother had no money to buy fruit to resell or pay the rent for her stall at the village market. She earned five to ten baht a day from selling shaved-ice with syrup and toasted bread at the parking bay for the minibuses that ran between Bang Pakong and Chonburi. During that period, my father had gone looking for jobs in the South and my eldest sister and elder brother were earning their living in other provinces; thus I was the oldest child in the house. With my three younger siblings, it meant Mother had many mouths to feed day in and day out. She had a plaster piggy bank, made in the shape of a horse, in which there were more than ten coins in various sizes and a five-baht banknote. Any day when she didn’t earn enough from her sales to buy food, she’d take the coins to supplement whatever she had, and whenever she had one or two baht left, she’d slip them into the piggy bank. Things went on like this for a long time.
One day, she came home looking utterly exhausted. She grumbled that there had been no one at the parking bay all day. After resting for a while, she took out the horse-shaped piggy bank, turned it upside down and inserted a hair clip to retrieve the five-baht note she badly needed to solve her current predicament.
In no time her face grew tense and she suddenly burst into tears.
“To have come this low, and still have them doing this to me,” she said between sobs.
I sat stock-still and stole glances at the tears on her weather-beaten cheeks. I had the urge to hug her and say something, but I felt that, for people like us who’ve only had sad parts to play since the day we were born, it would be overreacting. I knew she didn’t feel sorry about the money but was disheartened that we were harming one another at a time when society at large was wilfully tearing itself apart.
That day – the day of my departure – I sat waiting for her until it was near dusk, but she didn’t come. Father, who didn’t know why I had come home, tried to get me to stay the night, but I had to refuse. An appointment had been made that could not be missed – an appointment with my destiny which was tightly linked to the future of the country.
Father hobbled to see me off at the end of the alley leading to our house. As I walked away quietly, I didn’t dare turn around and look at his face again for fear he might catch on to the fact that this time our separation could be final. Besides, I knew he didn’t like to see any of his children cry.
And certainly not his sons.
While we stopped for lunch, we argued among ourselves about the best way to cross the rapids. One member of our party was my lifelong soul mate, and she couldn’t swim, so we had to discard the option of placing our knapsacks on our heads and letting ourselves drift to the other bank. But even if she could swim, I doubt we’d have gone ahead with that method. We had no way of knowing what could be submerged beneath these fast-flowing waters. I once heard the story of an able-bodied man trying to swim across some jungle stream only to be impaled through the neck by a piece of wood. I myself had once waded chest-deep through a flash flood, and besides having to fight against the current with all my strength, had to step with both feet on bamboo thorns underwater; by the time I reached the bank, I was in pretty bad shape. Our eyes couldn’t assess the danger of such waters.
One method we thought might work was to ask the strongest among us to tie himself to a rope and swim against the current to the opposite bank, then fasten the rope to make a line for the rest of us to cling to as we waded across. To test this theory, one of my friends, who had been acting as my bodyguard along the way, tried to enter the main watercourse to check its depth and strength of current. In the twinkling of an eye, his big, tall body was swept away as if snatched by a ghost. I saw him toss and tumble in the current for what seemed like ages and by the time he managed to grab a branch near the bank, he had been whisked fifty metres downstream.
The test had been conclusive. Even if we were able to throw a line across the rapids, clinging to it to reach the opposite bank was not a sensible thing to do. If one of us were to let go of the rope under the pull of the current, the rest of us would have to spend days looking for the body, and at least one more day digging a grave for it, not to mention the eons it would take us to get over our sorrow.
So, there was only one option left: we had to build a bridge across the torrent.
While my wife and I took turns using the only spoon we had to scoop the rice, two or three men who had already eaten went to look for long stems of bamboo among the clumps that lined our path. We were lucky to have a couple of Hmong brothers as our guides. During the past five years, I had never seen anyone use a knife as deftly as the people of this tribe, especially when they used it to cut wood in the jungle. Cutting bamboo stems from their clump is highly skilled work for jungle dwellers. They’d pay for a mistake with their lives, as offerings to the Lord of the Jungle. Stories of chests pierced, throats gashed and main arteries slashed by bamboo stems were common in the mountains. Once, I saw a friend of mine knocked down for the count after a bamboo stem he was cutting had swung back and hit him right on the forehead. Only an expert could tell how the top of the stems intertwined and in which direction they’d swing when you hacked them at the base.
I had hardly started to roll myself a cigarette in a leaf after lunch than the hacking of bush knifes on bamboo stems started up. It resounded above the sizzle of the rain on the treetops and the roaring of the rapids, forming an odd rhythmic tune only its composer could fully appreciate and understand.
‘Even on our way to defeat, we still have to overcome obstacles,’ I thought as I puffed clouds of smoke into the air.
It didn’t take long to gather the amount of long stems we needed. The strongest man in our group was chosen to walk some distance upstream in order to drift back with the current and grab a branch of the nearest treetop in front of us. As we extended the first bamboo stem from the bank, his duty was to fasten it to one of the branches slightly above water level. The second stem was then held out parallel to the first and again my friend tied it tightly to the branch. Our makeshift bridge was beginning to take shape.
One of us crawled on it and sat astride the stems, helping to put in place two more big bamboo stems so that they reached the next bush further out in the stream. We used the same method to place stems from one bush to the next, tying them up securely with rope or creepers while some of us waited in the water to grab the stems and coordinate all the work. We all helped one another and did whatever had to be done as best we could. Boisterous shouts kept resounding and sometimes those who had to stay in the water for hours on end would complain about the cold. The rain was still falling and the current kept flowing furiously.
Before dusk, the bamboo bridge over the rapids was finally ready. Its width was that of two stems laid across the stream in a zigzag course of four or five segments. It stretched just above the water and kept wobbling with the swaying bushes we used as poles. At waist level, along the whole length, we had tied a thin rope for our balance, to grab and pull as we walked across.
We gathered our weapons and personal belongings and started to cross one at a time. It was only then that we noticed that the big monitor lizard stuck on a branch on the opposite bank was no longer there. In its struggle it must have been whisked away by the current while we were busy building the bridge.
I learned about my mother’s death in November 1977, almost four months after she had died. I was then staying on the Hin Rong Kla mountain range. The letter reached me, long after the sun had set behind the ridge, as I sat in a meeting with several of my friends. I unfolded it and read it under torchlight; when I was fully acquainted with its contents, I slung the rifle over my shoulder and left the hut quietly to walk alone on a small jungle path under the sparse light of the moon and stars filtering through the branches.
I don’t know how long I sat against a tree trunk, my face pressed against the barrel of the rifle. I only know the tears that ran down the barrel to the chamber of the assault rifle glistened in the dark and seemed like they would never end.
Near dawn, I found myself in the hut, gazing mournfully at the fire we had built to protect ourselves from the cold. The flames were blurred as if the fire stood behind a sheet of clear water. When I blinked, they heaved along with the folds of the water curtain. My soul mate was stroking my arm as if to let me know that no matter what, we still had each other and I wasn’t alone.
I knew that, yet I couldn’t help but recall that horse-shaped piggy bank. I would have liked to have told Mother that I had never thought of taking advantage of her or the three young ones. If I had taken the five-baht note to play cards with my friends at the back of the market, it was because I thought it would be a way out of the situation we faced. I never intended to make Mother grieve; I had only forgotten to think carefully enough, that some solutions may make a bad situation worse.
The sun began to set very rapidly. I lifted the knapsack which only held the manuscripts of short stories I had written and slung it over my shoulder. I took one end of a piece of rope, tied it around my waist and used the other end to do the same for my companion, who was waiting to cross with me. For this trip, I only had a pistol with me, which wasn’t much of a load to carry. I tied my slippers to the knapsack so that my bare feet could move along the bamboo stems with maximum efficiency. After standing still for a while, I started to step forward. My companion gripped my back with one hand and followed me step by step without saying a word.
Our combined weight made the bamboo stems bend, touch the water and even dip slightly into it at some points. The bridge vibrated under the force of the current; I felt the vibrations running through the soles of my feet, up my legs, right to my heart. If we failed, we would die together, but at such a critical juncture, how could we possibly cross separately?
Right then, the width of the Kha Khaeng torrent seemed limitless. I felt it was taking us an eternity to reach the last section of the bridge, which sank into the water deeper than at any other point. The extremely cold current rushed past my ankles as if to snatch me away as soon as possible. At the same time, the bridge was swaying as though it despised the steps of the defeated. But we finally made it to the opposite bank. Somebody had already built a fire and was drying his drenched shirt by it.
As we sat by the fire, I kept turning to look at the stream we had just crossed. All kinds of thoughts were rushing through my mind with the force of wild waters. The very next day, I would relinquish my arms officially, as well as my hopes to create a world in which horse-shaped piggy banks would not be necessary.
I had no idea how long I’d be bound to the stream of memories, which is much scarier than the current of the Kha Khaeng rapids. I only knew that, from then on, I’d have to struggle to build bridges alone.
First published in this translation in the February 1994 issue of the Bangkok magazine Caravan
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
“Do you already have to go, darling?”
“Yup,” Yut turned to answer his wife pithily, but the instant he saw her still wondering, he expanded his answer. “The chief wants us to give a hand. On Saturdays and Sundays, there’s a morning market, lots of people as if everything was free, as you know.”
He picked up his walkie-talkie and clipped it to his belt, went into the bedroom, sat down by the bedhead and slowly slipped a hand under the thin mattress.
“Don’t take it, please!” his wife, whose eyes had followed him knowingly, remonstrated. “You aren’t allowed to carry it. Besides, you risk being arrested by the police, darling.”
Yup, Yut admitted. His wife was right. He had no right whatever to this gun, a Thai-made sawn-off shotgun.
Security guards had no right to guns, whether homemade Colts like this 12-bore shotgun or foreign-made ones.
He was well aware of this, had been since he got it from a friend long ago, so he kept the lethal weapon hidden away under the mattress.
He stroked it gingerly before putting it back into its hiding place, discreetly sighed at being unable to pocket it to comfort himself and merely hoped that one day he’d have the opportunity to pull the trigger at least once to his satisfaction.
He stretched himself erect. His stout body was tall and impressive in his uniform. He picked up the handcuffs and clipped them to his belt and then did the same with the truncheon.
Yut loved his uniform and was proud of it. It looked like a second skin as did army uniforms. He loved it because he had been a conscript once.
Once discharged from active duty, he had applied for a job as a security guard in a company which was a big firm in charge of the security of a housing estate.
He liked this job very much because even though he was no policeman or soldier, he dressed almost like a soldier and performed almost like a policeman.
Some of his fellow guards had complained within earshot.
“Being guards sucks. It’s like being slaves to the rich in the estate. Them bastards have never enough. And then what about us? A pittance every month. My pay is less than what some of these homes spend on dog food.”
Hearing this, Yut couldn’t help bringing his colleague to his senses. “Don’t go and think like this, man.” He tried to explain his point of view to his disheartened friend. “We must be proud. We’re not guards. Our duty is to ensure security. There’s dignity in that. To prevent stealing. Our work, besides helping people in the estate to be safe, is like being the eyes and ears of the police. We’re helping officialdom, man.”
Most of his friends agreed with Yut. Some of those who used to be dejected found it in themselves to feel proud of their duty. The chief praised Yut and often offered him as an example for thinking positively like that.
Every Saturday and Sunday a market was held throughout the morning at the entrance to the estate. Yut and the other security guards were called upon to cover all the angles. They took care of the traffic, arranged for the easy flow of vehicles and looked after security as well.
This being a large market which kept expanding, with all kinds of goods for sale, clothes, foodstuffs fresh or dry, vegetables, fruit, you name it – whoever wanted something came by and found what he or she was after, even copies of films just showing in the cinemas.
The previously spacious parking lot was no longer sufficient for current needs, because the housing estate alone had more than three thousand households and there were also people from other housing estates along the same road. The more buyers, the more items for sale, the more traders, male and female. Vehicles queued up in search of parking space.
Some of Yut’s friends were given the duty to second the traffic police, others to keep their eyes peeled for criminal elements skulking among customers. Such dubious characters took advantage of the throng to lift a purse here, snatch a necklace there, from both buyers and vendors, so that eventually warning signs had been set up all over the market – “Beware of thieves”, “Mind your valuables”.
Yut didn’t hesitate at all when the chief ordered him to be on duty every morning there was a market.
He had once chased and caught a young man who had snatched the purse of a middle-aged woman busy purchasing some ornament. It had been a chase as in the movies – startled people giving way, the thief running very fast but not as fast as Yut who finally collared him at the parking lot. The fellow threw him a punch. He returned the compliment. The fellow’s mouth bled; Yut’s hand hurt. He got him in an armlock. Other guards came running to the rescue and helped drag the thief to the police booth where they called on the policemen to deal with him.
Yut still remembered the resentful glare in the fellow’s eyes. No way he’d forget that.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll take his revenge?” his wife had asked him out of concern.
“Not at all,” he had answered confidently. What made him confident was that he was well versed in Thai boxing, having trained since he was a child, and he had had even more intensive training during his time as a soldier. He was confident he could handle the criminal young man any time.
“What if he shoots you?” his wife still worried.
“I’ve got a gun too,” he had answered without having to think.
He was confident that the secret lethal weapon hidden under the mattress would be a great help and comfort. Even if he loaded it with a single bullet, with a 12-bore shotgun like this, whoever met that bullet would have a hard time surviving its shattering impact.
Before leaving the house, Yut turned to tell his wife, “If you want to get yourself something to eat at the market, go ahead, but don’t buy anything else. There’s nothing there the likes of us can afford.”
He waved at his beloved spouse before striding away to get his bicycle and go and perform the duty he took pride in.
On this Saturday morning the sky was cloudless, a boon for everyone who came to buy or sell.
Yut parked his bicycle, greeted his fellow guards and then proceeded to do his duty. Experience had taught him that whichever stall had many customers, that’s where criminals would mingle waiting for the chance to snatch a bag or nick a purse.
He walked about in the market, keeping clear of the crush and observing the comings and goings in the stalls. He had the deep conviction that no crook would escape his attention. His eyes and the determination in his heart cooperated as if they were radars detecting anything unusual. Each of his steps was firm and assured.
A fellow guard in uniform came by from the opposite direction. They smiled at each other with the same feelings and the same heart.
“All clear,” they whispered to each other meaningfully.
Some of the guards wore no uniform. They acted as police informers who mixed with the crowd. They wore their shirts outside their trousers to hide the walkie-talkie ready to be used for coordinated action if anything untoward happened.
The centre of operations was at the guard box. That’s where the chief was, along with many other guards on duty, with walkie-talkies and with motorcycles ready to move in hot pursuit of malefactors.
“Help! Help! Car thief!” a woman shouted repeatedly.
Many people turned to look. Many people rushed forward for a closer look. Among those were Yut and his fellow guard, running in concert.
A cream-coloured car was moving out of the parking lot, with a woman running after it and yelling.
“Help! He’s stealing my car!”
“Fuckin’ hell! Daring this much now, are they?” Yut growled, exchanging glances with his friend in uniform – not the same uniform, but the same heart.
“Let’s get a bike. I’ll go with you,” he told him.
They ran to the guard box. His friend grabbed a motorcycle, jumped on it and kicked it roaring.
The chief instructed all the guards by walkie-talkie to intercept the cream-coloured car.
“Maybe he’ll take the other exit.” He ordered the guards on duty at the box in the other street to close the exit.
The housing estate had two exits. Thanks to prompt cooperation, the car was trapped between the two.
When the motorcycle caught up with it before it came to the guard box, “Overtake him and cut in front of him,” Yut told the driver. The motorcycle sped up, overtook and cut in front of the car recklessly.
The car braked hard. Its muzzle stopped an inch or two from the motorcycle. Yut jumped off, rushed to the door on the driver’s side, unclipped the truncheon from his waist, ready to pounce.
“Come on out,” he ordered.
The driver stepped out promptly, looking mighty displeased. He slipped his hand under his loose shirt as if to grope for a gun.
“What the hell’s your problem?” he hollered.
“You’ve stolen this car,” Yut yelled back.
People were gathering round.
“Get that motorbike out of my way, you jerk,” the man ordered threateningly.
He pulled out a gun to frighten him, and Yut immediately thought of his secret lethal weapon under the mattress.
He felt sorry. If he’d taken it along, the big shotgun would have dampened the thief’s arrogance, for all his handsome features and obvious social status. The man had his gun trained on him.
Upon which the female car owner riding pillion on another guard’s motorcycle arrived. She paid no attention to the gun in his hand, went straight to snatch the car keys from him and a confused tug-of-war ensued.
“You thief!” The woman pointed the finger at him and then had another go at the keys.
“It’s my car!” The man put away his gun and tried to snatch the keys back from the woman.
“We’re divorced! We agreed the car’s mine,” the woman objected in a loud voice. “And you’ve the nerve to steal it from me. Look at you, pinching my keys when I wasn’t looking. Don’t you have any shame?”
Yut was beginning to understand. The people massed around were getting enlightened by the minute from the heated exchange between the two sides.
More and more cars were brought to a standstill. Many couldn’t stand it and hooted their horns. Some came out to listen long enough to figure out what the fuss was about. Others tried to stop the argument.
“It’s a domestic matter. Don’t interfere,” the man shouted to repel them.
“I’m not your wife, and it isn’t your car either!” the woman shouted back at once without any sense of embarrassment. There was no longer any sign of their being husband and wife.
“Then please pull the car over to the kerb so the other cars can go by,” Yut told them, to the approval of many of the held-up drivers.
Right then the police, having received a report that a car had been stolen, arrived. Thanks to their good offices the car was moved aside. Soon the road returned to almost normal traffic.
Yut’s wife pushed her way through to him with a pale face. “I was afraid he’d shoot you.” Yut was silent, thinking about the heart-stopping minute that had gone by. It wasn’t just his wife who had been scared: he had been terrified.
Right then, if he had had his secret lethal weapon in hand, he might have shot the man dead out of fear.
“Let’s go, darling. It’s just a domestic tiff.” His wife pulled him by the arm out of the event, leaving it to the police to sort out the marital dispute over who it was owned the car.
“Talart Chao Na Moo Barn” in Chor Karrakeit 46, 2008
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
There is no one like Mim.
I tried to think of other imaginary names, Tor (Wasp), Duang (Beetle), Maeo (Cat), Fon (Rain), Phueng (Honey), but there is no name like Mim… In the throat, lips protruding, stretched on both sides as if in a smile, the ‘m’ morphing into a short ‘ee’, closing the lips to end on ‘m’ – eummmm … mmimm … mim … Mim! The lower lip touching the upper lip, making you feel like savouring a kiss. Mim … mim. Mim.
There is no woman like her.
I know many women, some broken-hearted, including by me. We are like balls in a pinball machine even though no one wants to get hurt and no one wants to hurt others. Mim is not my first woman, and far from the last. She is the fourth. I remember because I like to think in figures (I’m a clerk in a bank). Most women I ignore. Some are gossip fodder; others I secretly admire in my heart; some I feel like walking up to to ask for their phone number; and a few, to be frank, I’d like to lift their skirts and gawp.
As for Mim?
Was it love or not? Not at all. Don’t know love, don’t like this word, don’t like feelings that can’t be put into words. Used to think I loved Jan (the first woman) but now know that wasn’t love: it was ‘mutual affection’. As for Joy, the second woman, it was ‘admiration of corporeal beauty’. See? Everything can be explained with language.
Never thought I loved Mim, except there was a special kind of feeling. Once we knew each other, I told her I’d like to marry her.
She smiled wryly.
You’ve heard it often, haven’t you: ‘life is stranger than fiction’. In this case, how was life different from fiction? Everyone says fiction is exaggerated, is excessive, anything can happen, the prostitute reformed by the moneybag, the bus driver inheriting a billion baht, the deaf-mute shouldering firewood at the far end of the ricefield a police captain in disguise. Fiction isn’t reality.
But we say life is even stranger than fiction.
If fiction is too implausible it gets shunned by the crowds and panned by the critics. Before a character makes a decision, every time, one factor must support the other, minor events must lead to the main event: we might find that actually the heroine reminds the hero of his poor mother, so he can’t bear the thought of her working in a brothel. Fiction has plots, has messages. The harpy ends up utterly destroyed while the goodies live in clover ever after.
But there is no one to raise his voice when life is not like real life. It all happens at random as at the toss of a coin. Life has no plot. Nobody knows right from wrong. We may cross the street at the red light every day until a ten-wheeler comes along. In fiction only one Hamlet dies and Pritsana gets to marry her Honourable Sir Phot, but reality is multifarious, I may be a bank clerk just as much as head of the loans department.
My shift ended at two in the afternoon the day I met Mim for the first time. She came to open an account with us at two fifteen. She made a thirty thousand baht deposit, but had forgotten to bring her ID. We agreed to let her bring it the next day. She thanked us. By three o’clock I walked out of the bank and found her by the door. We talked. She asked where I had parked my car. I told her I didn’t drive and always rode buses. She laughed, said she’d take me home. The two of us sat listening to Elvis all the way.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Today, the manager called me up. He praised me for being diligent and conscientious, but ended up faulting me for lack of ambition. He is right. I’m satisfied with what I am – no heavy responsibilities, enough every month to live on and save some, no wish for subordinates, no need for headaches, all in all enough to live comfortably.
Because I live alone.
What would it be like if that day I hadn’t gone to that party? Would I be more ambitious today? Would I want more than this? A life full of obligations, holidays abroad once a year, monthly instalments for house and car, tuition fees for the children, doctors’ bills, and when looking in the mirror really wondering who this fellow is. Is that me or not? Or me as someone else – one with responsibilities, working his backside off to raise a family?
I stretch out my right hand and with the forefinger touch the mirror, coming into contact with the forefinger of that man’s left hand, feeling the thinness of the barrier between us two.
You must have heard that life is a matter of chance. The universe came out of a big bang, primal matter scattered into masses, for no reason other than chance. Life evolved from some genetic aberration. Chance begat the universe. Chance begat man. Chance begat one child. Chance it was that had his father lose his life in a road accident, so the child resolved never to drive. Later he became a bank employee who left the office at two o’clock every afternoon, except on the day his friend called to say he’d be in late. The bank has three counters for accounts, but a woman came to open an account at his counter and because she spent some time chatting with an old friend at the door, the two of them met again when he left.
And that day was the day the DJ put on five Elvis songs back-to-back.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I ask the man in the mirror whether he is happy.
‘Sure,’ is his first word. He glances up, his black gaze surveying his daily life. ‘Wake up every morning at six.’
‘I get up at seven.’
‘I have to drive the kid first.’
‘Son or daughter?’
‘A daughter. Her name is Mein (Porcupine),’ he answers. ‘I get to the office a little after eight. I run the business loans department, handle customers until twelve. In the afternoon, there’s a meeting with the other departments. After that, I sign documents and tend to other chores until five and then head for home.’
‘Does Mim come and pick you up?’
‘No, I take the car, learned to drive when she was pregnant.’
‘Were you afraid?’
He is quiet for a while. ‘At first I guess I was but it was necessary. Now I’m used to it.’
I ask further, ‘You go back home and then what?’
‘I help Mim with the housework and then wait for dinner.’
‘Mim cooks, does she?’
‘I’ve never seen her wear an apron. Does it suit her?’
He smiles to himself and asks me what it’s like when I go back home.
Mim took me to her house. She has a twin sister named Taen. Their mother is a nurse. As for their father, he teaches Thai music in a monastery. Before going, Mim warned me Father was very protective of his daughters. Must be true, because he kept staring at me. The mother, though, was fun to chat with. She even took out an album to show me, so I played the game of guessing who was Mim and who was Taen. I learned what Mim’s pastime was: she likes to collect freebees from TV. Fancy that: this world has people eager to collect coupons to try their luck.
Before going back, Mim played the xylophone while telling me that the night before she was born, her mother dreamed someone brought her a Buddha image but as she took it it split into two, so when she delivered she knew she had twins. Besides, outside the hospital window there was a beehive, so she called her daughters Mim (Little Bee) and Taen (Little Wasp). I teased her saying that she watched too many soaps on Channel 7. Mim laughed, insisted it was true. I smiled, sat watching Mim playing the xylophone, feeling as if she was a lady out of an epic, a flower of sweet beauty even first thing in the morning. I did want to see her then, wake up to see Mim dishevelled, see her half-awake in a thin nightgown.
I asked her to marry me. She smiled and said why not, but she’d die before I would. When in the womb, the weaker of the twins would have the other steal her food and once born would be of weaker constitution. While Taen was strong, Mim was sickly: she almost lost her life to haemorrhagic fever as a child.
That evening her father drove us to the bus stop. I felt uneasy because he didn’t say a word, but Taen discreetly whispered that Father liked me. Once there, I bowed and thanked him. Before unlocking the doors, Father mumbled he counted on me to take care of his daughter, and then made a prompt getaway.
Tonight I sleep alone, letting my brain ramble. What was Taen thinking in the womb stealing Mim’s food? Does she feel any guilt? And then is Mim resentful of her twin? I think of the man in the mirror, the twin that lies on the other side, the twin that didn’t go to the party, the twin that wakes up at six, heads the loans department, works till five and can drive. Between the two of us, who is stealing the other’s food? Doctors say that in some cases one foetus swallows the other.
I push away the blanket, lie hugging myself, hairs standing on end, body wrapped up in air, a strand of thin fog linking me to my twin. After I am swallowed by him, what happens? Will I be part of him? Is it possible that one morning I’ll wake up to see a dishevelled woman half-awake in a thin nightgown with a smile on her face?
The bus drives past the hospital. I’ve never stopped here but today it looks strangely familiar. I get off at the stop, walk through the entrance, bow to the spirit house, say hello to Reception, take the lift, push the fourth-floor button, as certain I have done all of this before as I am sure I’ve never come here. The lift door slides open. I walk past an unfamiliar hall, stop by the nursery ward.
I’ve got it: Mim gave birth here.
That time I walked back and forth in a narrow corridor without windows for nearly six hours. A nurse came to tell me a Caesarean section might be necessary. She led me to the anteroom. Father, Mother and Taen sat on a blue sofa. I told the nurse my wife was of weak constitution and might not stand a great loss of blood. Mother and Taen pacified me, said it was the only way. Father sat saying nothing but going through five cigarettes in a row. Finally someone brought documents for me to sign.
Two more hours went by. We all followed the nurse in a green uniform into the room. Doctor said both mother and child were safe, a daughter of normal weight, two thousand five hundred grams (almost one kilo heavier than Mim at birth). Tears came to my eyes as I looked at mother and child. Couldn’t say a word, just lightly kissed my wife, telling her she did great. So did Father, Mother and Sister-in-law, all of us teary-eyed, even Father.
I blinked, looked at the dim empty corridor. A baby was crying some way off.
Who said I never came here and Mim was not my wife? Mim and I at the same party…
…The day the alarm system at the bank broke down at ten in the morning and went on blaring until eleven thirty. Even the firemen couldn’t stop it. Finally the bank decided to close down for the rest of the day. I took the opportunity to call Mim and invite her to lunch. She said she had arranged to meet her school time friends and I could come along if I wished.
I said I would.
Everything started with the alarm. What triggered it? Was it because the night before the watchman had boiled instant noodles and the vapour messed up the sensors? Usually the guard ate at a food stall but the stallholder hadn’t shown up because she wasn’t well. The stallholder wasn’t well because her child at home had left a window open. The child had opened the window to retrieve a shuttlecock in the tree next to the house. Before that, the child startled by a car honking had missed and the shuttlecock had got stuck on a branch…
The sorority party…
Mim’s friends from her university days – I knew some, most I met then – numbered almost forty. Mim introduced me all around. I must confess I can’t remember anyone. She and I had to sit apart, she with a group of her best girlfriends. She took me to sit at one table. I felt somewhat uneasy; I’m not used to strangers. The man sitting next to me told me he used to court Mim. Another said he was her former boyfriend.
Over shrill shouts from the women, another man said something about Mim but I couldn’t hear properly. A woman smiled at me. She wore a ring with a deep-purple stone on the ring finger of her right hand. A man was singing on the stage.
…Love me tender…
I heard outcries. Someone had spilled some water. Pungent smells of food wafted in. A woman at my table got up to help herself to food. I overheard a man at the next table talking about his work. He worked in a shop selling exotic fishes. Someone asked him which fish he liked best.
‘I like squid. Actually squids are not fish but molluscs. I like to see them mating. Do you know what they use for that?’ He marked a pause. ‘The ordinary squid has eight tentacles, each studded with suction pads, but there’s one that’s smooth and that’s his willy. But the coolest thing is the squid’s pussy. Do you know what they use for pussy?’ He smiled. ‘Their nose hole!’ Some laughed. He stopped to drink some water. ‘When squids mate, the male sneaks one of his side arms into her nose hole…’
Mim came up to me with two friends of hers. She looked listless, unlike her friends.
‘Hello, my name is Fai,’ the shorthaired one said first.
‘And I’m Orm. We’re both close friends of Mim’s from back at the U.’ How strange: Mim had never told me anything about these two.
‘You work in a bank, right? A friend of ours also works in a bank, but in a different branch,’ Orm said to me, but I paid no attention to her. Mim, head bent, looked sad.
…I don’t want no other love…
Another man walked up to speak to her. I pricked up my ears but Orm’s voice covered theirs. Orm must have said something funny because Fai laughed aloud. The woman who had gone to get food first was back. The whole room began to shift around. I took the opportunity to queue up too but I simply couldn’t eat, took only water, went back to the table. They were all gone, leaving only Mim so I sat down beside her. She said something to me but I didn’t hear what she said.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I answered her even though I couldn’t hear what I was saying either.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
She was crying.
Mim got in touch with me less often. When we met we hardly spoke, sometimes quarrelled over trifles. I went over what had happened. I’m sure it began at the party that day but the ins and outs became as clear as last week’s dream.
I tried to ask her for reasons, but Mim never answered. Sometimes she seemed to be about to cry, so I stopped trying. Since we had met by chance, we parted by chance likewise.
If our lives were fiction, the critics would tear us to pieces and the audience grumble that they understood nothing.
They say life is a succession of hazards.
Buddhism has it that everything proceeds from cause and effect. Even Einstein believed thus so he came up with the theory of relativity to explain every phenomenon – at a time when an English lawyer defending a man accused of rape and murder pleaded that his client had been forced by his environment to commit evil and whoever grew up in similar circumstances would have ended up acting the same: the lawyer won his case.
Many years after Einstein became famous for his theory of relativity, another theory came up to shake scientific circles – the chaos theory: everything might proceed from cause and effect, but if cause and effect form a very long chain, it loses all meaning, like a tale spread by word of mouth changing entirely in the process.
According to the law of cause and effect, when you throw a stone into a pond, waves spread out all over the surface, reach the edges and flow back to the point of impact: any human action generates a reaction. But ponds are full of weeds, turtles, fish, larvae… Even though it might be possible in theory to calculate the velocity of the waves, hundreds of factors intervene to change the waves so that even a supercomputer cannot determine the shape of the backwash.
Similarly, with millions of people the chain of causality is boundless so that in the end everything is absurd, is meaningless.
…Once upon a time when sea gypsies still believed that the world was a big drop of water and the earth floated on it, it was said that if you held your breath long enough to swim to the heart of the world you would meet the true partner the heavens meant for you. The daughter of a super-rich man was sent to find a fiancé on another island. On the way a storm destroyed her sampan. The super-rich man’s daughter went under for a long time until she was rescued by a young sailor. The two of them drifted on a small boat for months before they reached shore. Nobody knows what took place between girl and sailor but as soon as the small boat landed, the young sailor put out to sea again on another boat, never to return. From then on the super-rich man’s heiress refused to marry any man and stayed single until old age, until one day when she thought she was near the end she proclaimed that whichever craftsman was able to make a sky-blue jar that pleased her would be richly rewarded. Potters from all over the world brought sky-blue jars to her but urn after urn the old woman smashed with her own hands. Years passed and the old woman was about to breathe her last without having found a jar that pleased her. One day she decided to go for a stroll on the beach, saw a peddler of old wares amongst which was a jar the colour of the sea, the colour of the sky. The old woman bought the jar there and then and as soon as she was back home ordered her young maid to cut her head when she died, put the head in the jar and bury both. Nobody knew what her reasons were, but there were plenty of guesses. Some said she was insane, but others thought that all her life she must have wanted to go back to those four or five months she spent on the small boat with the young sailor looking everywhere around her and seeing nothing but blue underneath and blue overhead…
Mein is asleep, turns to one side; the cuddly bear in her arms falls off the bed. I pick it up and put it beside her, stroke her hair lightly. Next month she’ll be eight. I intend for her then to sleep in another room. She lost her mother when she was four. My wife had a frail constitution. Since she gave birth, she had been sickly. I lie down and kiss my daughter on the cheek.
In front of the mirror, I straighten the collar of my shirt before putting on my necktie. Taen steps into the room.
‘What time will you be back?’
‘Probably late, ten or eleven or thereabouts.’ Taen buttons my cufflinks. ‘Thanks for going to the trouble of looking after Mein.’
‘No sweat. She’s my niece after all.’
I stare at my sister-in-law. She’s cut her hair again. Since Mim died, she always wears her hair short. She says she doesn’t want Mein to be confused about her and her mother.
‘I’m going.’ I walk to the garage. I bought the old Volk when Mim was pregnant. I start the engine and take a deep breath before going into reverse.
I was with Mim all of the last twenty-four hours. The doctor did his best to alleviate her pain. In the morning, Taen came to help wash, dress and comb her pretty sister. Later in the morning the parents came. Father had brought her the bean curds she favoured. Around twelve friends of hers trickled in. Mim greeted each with a sweet smile. I kept kissing her on the cheek so much it made her blush. Her mother said she was the happiest comatose patient she had ever seen. I held Mim’s hand until the last minute. Everything ended beautifully. Everybody told me how peacefully she had gone. Nobody knew that Mim’s nails were sunk deep into my hand, drawing blood.
Maybe Mim is still alive in a parallel world as science fiction has it, in a ‘what if’ world. To mention only big issues, what if the Jews were still under the power of Egypt? What if the Nazis had won the war? Those worlds are in no way inferior to ours in terms of their physical condition. The possibility for an infant like Moses to float down the Nile and reach the Queen of Egypt’s bathing grounds is so small as to be only a matter of chance. If Hitler hadn’t turned his guns against Moscow, Germany might not have lost the war.
Then small stories such as how many times I brushed my teeth this morning might be duplicated in ten parallel worlds, but brushing one’s teeth being such a trifling matter without big repercussions, those ten worlds would be similar, twin worlds that eventually would be swallowed into one.
I look at Bangkok at night from the elevated expressway, thinking idly how it would be if another nine ‘me’ were hidden in this city, with the one ‘me’ out here, twins alike yet different, separated by the cogs of daily life.
At the party I see from behind someone who looks familiar inching away through the throng. Someone greets me and I stop to exchange a few words out of courtesy. As soon as I can I beg to be excused and resume my chase. Finally I find that familiar back. Taking a glass from a waitress’s tray. I walk around to come upfront. The orchestra on the stage is playing that song softly, movingly.
…Love me tender…
Mim sips orange juice in front of me.
I have found my dead wife at the bank’s end-of-year party.
Mim smiles, abashed.
I take stock of what used to be before I smile. ‘How are you?’ I tell her.
She laughs sheepishly. We are talking for the first time since we parted almost seven years ago. She looks nervous. She must be aware she owes me an apology. What I am feeling is hard to explain – sadness, loneliness, sorrow, but secretly a little pleased she isn’t dead after all. She has married a man in the import-export business. Her husband has come to the party with a friend (by chance again). I ask her if she has children. She has, two, and sons too. I’m happy that she looks healthy.
I open my mouth to ask her about that other party. Almost eight years have gone by since then, maybe today Mim will answer me, but the song drowns out our words.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Around ten pm, I get on the bus headed for home.
This morning a Volk drove past me. Too fast to see the driver, but the little girl in the back seat looked familiar. I smiled a lonely smile as I watched the car speed away.
Tho Fa, in Wannakam Tok Sara (Vowel-less Literature), Nanmee Books, 2005
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
The expanse of water at that bend is quiet and peaceful, cold with mist and dew vapour at dawn. Once in a while a passing boat stirs up wavelets, making the timber rafts moored along the bank heave ponderously.
Small clumps of morning glory are woken to a stir along with them. Their slender shoots rise high as if in pride of their perfection. Some droop down to water level and you can see their light green shimmer as they move in the turbid red water.
Those clumps are strung with wires attached to a rotting stake long immersed but still good enough to prevent them from floating away with the current.
Long scrawny legs wade through the mud-coloured water, past the edge of the bank into deeper water, waist-high, chest-high, head-high. After a moment their owner shoots back up, the coveted treasure in hand, waits to recover breath on a raft for a while and can’t help looking at the beautiful small fish swimming around at the head of the logs. Even though the water is so turbid it looks like red mud, the small light-blue-streaked purplish fish can be seen glistening in the current. As soon as the person on the logs moves, the startled small fry flee for cover.
The water dripping from the hair blurs all vision momentarily. The owner of the face raises an arm to wipe the blur away for a second before the water ripples down the same grooves.
Filmy mist still loiters over the water but then slowly drifts and evaporates in a lingering way like intimations of love whispered before parting.
The sky is bright and clear. A bevy of seagulls dash out of the water when a train clunks over the bridge at full speed. Dust from the bridge falls like sand through the mist and vapour onto the calm stretch of water.
After waiting for the train to disappear from sight with the fleeting glimpses of pallid faces in the carriages, the owner of the long limp hair lets herself down into the water, spreading wavelets around. The water is full of mud mixed with sand. Before long, she surfaces, clinging to a log as if to rest for a while.
A tiger perch, yellow with black dots, tail flapping, scurries by within reach. An instant later it squirts water plumes, hunting some unlucky insect.
A big boat triggers waves that make logs knock on logs and the small fry scamper in every direction.
The one sitting with his feet in the water grips the logs tightly, stares without blinking, almost holds his breath like the one who has disappeared into the water. It is only when she resurfaces that he too discreetly draws a long breath.
“Come back up, sis’. Let me do it.”
“It’s cold, you know.” The one in the water, clinging to the wires that tie the logs together, looks up. A pale sun lurks on the horizon but doesn’t give relief from the biting cold.
The wires tying the logs are what brother and sister are after. They are not diving for pearls, for sure. The two of them and their little brother who live in a hut by the Rama VI bridge rely on what looks worthless to sell and thus draw out their living.
“Let’s go back first in case he’s woken up.”
“All right then.”
The white tense bony hands grip the logs firmly. The arm joints seem hardly able to pull the body up, looking as thin and fragile as reeds as they do.
The cold makes her shiver but she can’t help splashing water playfully before she comes up. She jumps from log to log until she reaches the bank and past the clumps of morning glory grabs a handful of white, plump young shoots.
Their father and mother are dead. Father died in that hut. As for Mother, she went to die in hospital, leaving her with two little brothers who know nothing but hunger, hunger and hunger.
The Chinaman who buys old wire gives them a low price, sometimes just enough for a bottle of fish sauce. At least their mother’s death has led them to know the doctor.
“The doctor said that if mum hadn’t been operated on she’d have died anyway,” she consoled her brothers when their mother too passed away. The three of them sat dejected in the seedy house. The small oil lamp was on its last dregs. A star would send a stronger light, when compared to the brightness from the nearby power station fed by the Bhumibol dam.
Father had stomach ulcers, so it wasn’t surprising Mother died of the same ailment. The doctor looked at the three little lives not knowing what to do when he found that they weren’t even able to take the body out of hospital to what those three urchins called home.
A messy, musty wooden floor; holes in the roof patched with various materials.
The word “materials” to an architect might mean newly made pricey items, but here the word “materials” meant bits of corrugated iron, old canvas falling apart, the odd plank.
In here he almost refused to breathe, but five lives had used the place to eat and sleep. The people in this house didn’t even know what they died of. Good health was something they never knew, because even a single meal was hard for them to scrape together.
From the bridge, he had seen this mess of huts. Such an eyesore should have been got rid of.
“This is my home,” the patient had said by way of invitation.
But there was no place for him to sit in this house.
The picture of the patient dead on the operating table came back to haunt him again. In such patients’ background were things like these he saw with his own eyes in almost all cases. Tuberculosis festered among the poor, those living in congested places, those who were in a condition where they couldn’t help themselves.
The three little faces were staring at him as if they expected loving kindness. How could he have the heart to leave without thinking of those children?
There weren’t only those three faces but hundreds and thousands of them hidden here and there.
“In Thailand the weather is conducive to tuberculosis, so it is no wonder that the statistics on lung-disease patients here keep growing every day, and now their number in this town is at an all-time high – the highest in the world as a matter of fact.”
The doctor ends his speech thus. A ladies’ society has invited him to talk in order to raise funds for a foundation for lung-disease patients.
Many of the ladies on the committee are specialists in their respective fields. They have invited the doctor to a meal in his capacity as commentator, to congratulate him or thank him or for whatever reason. So he is now sitting in this restaurant.
Aperitif wine in the western fashion is served in fine glasses, either dark red or off-white, depending on individual preferences.
On the table the crockery is spanking new; the silver forks glitter; the tablecloth is the same dark colour as the towels folded in the shape of blooming lotuses. The melodious recorded music playing softly is exactly right for this setting.
The doctor takes a sip from his glass. The taste is smooth on tongue and throat. It is alcohol to trigger the digestive juices to better enjoy the various dishes.
“You must have much experience with your patients, doctor?” the lady sitting next to him invites him to chat while waiting for the food.
He has a fleeting thought of the house by the Rama VI bridge.
“Tuberculosis is dreadful.” She shrinks her shoulders. Long earrings dangle and sparkle in dazzling competition with her tapering eyes which look like big dark jewels.
Her talkative mouth opens on pearl-like teeth.
“If I caught it, would you treat me?”
“Most willingly.” The doctor puts down his glass, looks with pleasure at this beautiful picture of a woman. “But…” He smiles sweetly. “You have nothing to fear from tuberculosis, Khunying.” He calls her by her title as he remembers it. She is the daughter of a second-rank princess. “As I said, tuberculosis afflicts the poor or the weak, the undernourished … but in your case…” He ends his words with a last sip of the wine in his glass.
“Oh dear!” Her voice is as soft as breeze through foliage. “What are you saying, doctor? I’m not rich at all. Quite poor actually.”
He sighs, merely rotates the empty glass in his hand before him absent-mindedly. The sparkle of those gems truly belies her words.
“You’re only talking with Khunying, Doctor,” the woman across the table remonstrates in a sweet voice. “Talk to us as well.”
The doctor looks up from his glass. Across from the flower vase on the table, several pairs of eyes are trained on him.
“Please excuse me,” he says under his breath.
“Won’t you order another glass, doctor?”
He does as he is told.
“I’ll be drunk before the food arrives,” he says with laughter in his voice.
Each side observes perfect social manners at the dinner table. The doctor smiles at this person, speaks with that one, laughs with a third until the time for socialising is over for the night.
A gorgeous lady offers to give him a lift.
“Why don’t you treat yourself to a car?” she asks as an opening.
“I can’t drive.”
“And you don’t have time to learn,” she adds. “You must be very busy, mustn’t you?”
The doctor smiles.
“I can’t afford one, actually.”
“Oh, I don’t believe you.”
“Well, you’d better.” He lights another cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all. Where shall I drop you, then?”
The doctor tells her.
“The food tonight wasn’t bad. I like to come here. It’s quiet. There’s no crowd, even if it’s a bit pricey.”
“I seldom come here.”
“You must be too busy. When you’re free, please come again. As my guest, this time.”
“The drinks too are good. The bartender is good at mixing them. I’m told he keeps being offered raises in salary if he goes with the big hotels … Bar owners, people like that, are fighting over good bartenders.”
“Is that so, really?”
“I have a soft spot for him too. The khunying who sat beside you likes it there very much. She likes soft cocktails. She gave us several drink recipes but when I try them they aren’t as good as his. I can only mix two drinks, which are the ones I like.” She keeps a running comment, then changes tack. “Your house is in the same direction as mine.”
“I’m afraid to be an imposition,” the doctor apologises. “Actually I can hail a cab. Tell me when you reach your house. I’ll get off then. That way I can pretend I took you back home.”
“Never mind. I’ll drop you off first.”
“Please don’t insist. Tell me when you get there.”
“If I do, then you must favour me with staying for a drink. Won’t you? A good turn deserves another…” Her eyes glitter as she adds, “This way, I’ll show you how good I am at mixing drinks.”
He hesitates for a while.
He nods in assent.
The expanse of water there is quiet and peaceful. The rising sun chases the fog away. Two little children are diving in and out of the water. A cursory glance would make you think they are having fun playing in the water.
The Chinaman buying old stuff has again squeezed the price of steel wire. Sometimes there isn’t enough to buy even a bottle of fish sauce.
Those clumps of morning glory are still producing tender shoots loyally. It’s the only thing you don’t need hard-to-come-by money to get.
A dark shadow stretches across the timber rafts, stops and stays still.
The cool morning breeze lightens the leaden feeling left by alcohol.
“Look, doctor’s come early!”
In haste the dripping little bodies get out of the water joyfully.
“Did you bring us rice, doctor?”
Her eyes are deep black, fixing him as if to stop breathing. Those eyes have more than a glimmer in them. They sparkle in an indescribable way.
Even though the air is warmed by the sunrays in his back, freezing cold enters his heart.
“Nao Khao Nai Huajai” in Nak Khian Rueang San Dee Dein Warra Khrop 100 Pee Rueang San Thai (Outstanding writers during the first one hundred years of Thai short stories), Khlet Thai Publishing, 1985
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
‘Hey, you! This is a man’s house, not a urinal!’
‘Oh!’ The man, who wore a white shirt and dangling necktie, stepped back in haste. ‘I’m sorry. I thought it was a rubbish dump.’
The younger man, who had long hair and a long, scraggy beard, poked his head out and shrugged.
‘Never mind. You aren’t the first.’ Having said so, he made as if to withdraw back inside. The man was zipping up his pants as he called out: ‘Hey, wait!’ He adjusted the round bottle he held under his armpit.
‘What do you want?’
The man wearing a shirt went and squatted in front of the man with the long hair, suffusing him with the boozy smell of ripe sapodilla.
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘That’s weird! Nobody never wants to talk to me.’
‘And I’d like to come inside as well.’
‘That’s even more weird. People only come here to piss; no one’s ever wanted to come inside.’
‘May I come in?’
The owner of the house pulled his head back inside. The guest opened the rumpled plastic sheet and crawled in.
‘This is a pretty comfy place you’ve got here.’
‘If I can fin some cardboard and some planks, I’d like to extend the floor a little so I can lie down and look at the stars.’
‘The stars? Er, right, I had forgotten there were such things in the world. Believe it or not, I haven’t looked at the stars in twenty years.’
The man with the long hair looked up at the roof and with the tip of his index finger enlarged the gap between two old pieces of cardboard.
‘Look for yourself. Tonight, there aren’t many, because it’s the rainy season.’
The guest moved closer to the gap and, through it, looked at the sky.
‘I had also forgotten there was a sky,’ he mused. ‘Wow, the stars are really beautiful. Oh, look! Did you see that falling star?’
‘I see them all the time because this gap is right above my head at night,’ the young man said matter-of-factly.
‘That’s right. These days, there are lots of things around us we just don’t notice anymore.’
‘What’s this?’ said the young man, pointing at the bottle before him.
‘What?’ asked the man with the necktie, turning away from his contemplation of the sky and looking down. ‘Oh, that… Well, Chivas, of course.’
‘All right, Shiva to you.’
‘But what is it?’
‘It’s liquor. Imported liquor, too, and so expensive you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve drunk half of it already. Would you like some?’
The young man didn’t answer. He grabbed the bottle of Shiva, prized it open, lifted it up to his mouth and took a gulp.
‘Oh, wow!’ he exclaimed. His coarse, weather-beaten hand, nails black with grime, went up to wipe his lips. ‘Can I have some more?’
‘Why not. You can have the whole bottle.’
The young man was nonplussed.
‘Sure. Take it.’
The young man put the bottle back on the floor.
‘Why won’t you take it?’ the owner of the liquor asked.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I don’t take things for free. If you give it to me, then I must do something for you in return.’
‘Ah! Ah! Ah! What nonsense! You must be out of your mind.’
‘Not at all. They call me the crackpot.’
‘Well, it’s the same thing, really. These days, nobody thinks that way, you know. What people do is try to figure out how to get things from others without having to invest in, or work for them, and the more they get the happier they are.’
‘I don’t understand. In the morning, I’m hungry, so I go to the market and help vendors unload their trucks and they give me some money to buy myself something to eat.’
‘All right, then. I’m giving you this bottle as payment for the time you’ll spend talking with me.’
The young man smiled and his eyes shone. He lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a swig.
‘This Shiva of yours is so smooth!’
‘Haven’t you ever tasted foreign liquor before?’
‘Never. Them trishaw drivers, sometimes they let me have some of their bootleg, but it don’t taste as good as this Shiva.’
‘Actually, I think you’re rather nice, you know.’
‘What d’you mean, ‘nice’?’
‘Er, never mind. Tell me this: do you still feel angry that I peed over your house?’
‘Angry? No. I just pretended it was raining. I don’t know what being angry means.’
‘How right you are. If only we could avoid getting angry, our lives would be so much better. It might even bring us the greatest happiness in the world.’
The man with the long, scraggy beard wasn’t paying attention; he was lifting the bottle and taking yet another swig.
‘Go easy, young man,’ the guest said, patting the bearded fellow on his dirty shoulder, ‘or else you’ll get drunk and won’t be able to do your job to the full value of that bottle.’
The owner of the house, looking scared, hastily put the bottle down.
‘You seem to like reading newspapers,’ the man with the necktie remarked as he looked around.
‘No. I use them for the walls and I also look at the pictures. I can’t read and anyway, I don’t see why I should read them.’
‘Yes indeed. I’m sure I’d be much better off if I couldn’t read. Do you know how much time I have to waste reading every day? Nearly four hours for five business dailies in Thai, and another two in English. I read them from start to finish, including the ads, and I don’t even know why I have to be so thorough. You’ve no idea how unhappy I feel when I’ve gone through the lot of them. My head feels heavy and all I can think of is what to do to beat my competitors.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course you don’t, because your world in here is so different from that of the tall buildings outside. These days, we have no time to think, except about how to make a profit.’
‘You don’t understand that word either, do you?’
The young man with the long beard shook his head.
‘Suppose I pee into this bottle of Shiva and claim that whoever drinks the liquor in this bottle will be able to fly and people believe me and keep queuing up to buy it at whatever extravagantly high price I set. Well, the money I make selling the piss in this bottle is what we call ‘profit’, and the higher the price I sell it for, the more profit I make.’
The man with the beard made as if he was going to vomit.
‘So that’s your piss in this bottle!’
‘Of course not!’ The man in the white shirt laughed. ‘It’s just an example to give you an idea of what’s going on in the outside world. There’s no justice as you understand it.’
‘All right, I’m convinced you’re really stupid. But then again, sometimes I tell myself if I were stupid too, I’d be a lot happier than I am now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I bet you don’t. There’s no way you could understand. As you just told me, when you’re hungry, you go to the market and help carry baskets of vegetables and earn yourself some money to buy food with.’
‘Sometimes they don’t give me money, they give me food instead.’
‘One way or the other, that’s what we call ‘justice’. But what the likes of me are doing these days isn’t like what you’re used to. What they do is make you unload their baskets and then drive away without giving you money or food because they consider what they’re not giving you as their profit.’
‘Can I have some more Shiva? I can’t make head or tail of what you’re saying.’
‘Sure, it’s yours already. Don’t you remember? It’s what I’m paying you with for talking with me.’
The young man smiled gleefully, raised the bottle of foreign liquor to his mouth and took a swig. He wiped off his wet moustache with his dirt-incrusted index finger.
‘My world isn’t the same as yours. Yours is totally honest, mine is full of lies.’
‘Lies? I don’t tell lies because I don’t talk with nobody. Actually, it’s the others that don’t talk to me.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘But you know what? Every day I have to say hundreds of lies. I lie to my friends, I lie to my business partners, I lie to my subordinates, I lie to my children, I lie to my wife. I lie so much I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, and what’s worse, I even order other people to do the lying for me. I suppose you never watch TV?’
‘I do. I watch it at a shop by the roadside where they’ve several screens playing at the same time. I watch until they kick me out because they want to close. It’s fun watching TV. I enjoy it so much. I’d like to have one here.’
‘Well, that’s where I order them to tell lies for me. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying. The advertisements are all lies, you know.’
The young man shook his head. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Of course you didn’t. Millions of other people don’t either, because I ask them to lie as smoothly as they can. If people were aware of the lies, how could I sell my products?’
‘Your piss, you mean?’
‘Forget that, it was only a supposition. What I mean is things such as utensils, foodstuffs and whatever else I can come up with. I get these products to be advertised with big words claiming they are the best this and the most that – whatever it takes to make people buy them in large quantities so that I can have a lot of profit.’
‘This profit must be so damn smart: you keep talking about it.’
‘Right. It’s the smartest thing in the world. And you know what? These days, every time we breathe in and out we turn a profit.’
‘I don’t understand. You mean we can take it in through our noses?’
‘Of course not, stupid. It’s just a figure of speech. Are you still willing to listen?’
The man with the beard nodded. ‘Yes. I don’t get all you say but it’s fun. You’re good at telling tales.’
‘This is no tale. What I’m telling you is true, a hundred-percent true. Profit is very strong, so strong it can dominate the hearts and minds of all the people in the world…’ He interrupted himself briefly. ‘…except you, that is. It can put everybody under its power.’
‘It must have lots of guns, then, or perhaps a magic sword.’
‘Not at all. Its weapons aren’t swords or guns as you understand them, but mere pieces of paper, just like the ones you use to make your walls.’
‘Huh?’ The house owner’s eyes opened wide. ‘Then, I’ve got this profit of yours in here as well!’
‘How come? You just said profit is like paper. Oh, you’re confusing me.’
‘The payer I’m talking about is money. Everybody wants money. Money can make you do anything, even the most evil things. You know, money makes some people commit murder, kill animals, hack down forests or even destroy entire mountains just like that. As for me, it makes me tell lies; it makes me bullshit people so that I get money from them.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry. Even if you don’t understand, I’ll keep on talking, because I’ve been meaning to talk like this for a long time. Do you realize how hurt I feel every time I think about what I am actually doing? I feel less and less of a human being every day. I think of nothing else but profit. The bigger my profit, the richer I am. My children have told me they want to go on a trip to Europe this summer. My wife says she’ll never ask for anything else in life if only she had a billion baht deposited in her bank account.’
‘A billion baht? Isn’t that a lot of money? I can’t think that big. I’d be very happy just to have a ten-baht note from time to time. I’d hold it in my arms until I fell asleep.’
‘There you are. These days, I haven’t the slightest idea any more whether all the money I have has got any value or meaning at all. We may grow to be filthy rich, but if we are no longer human, then what’s the point of it all?’
‘You keep talking about things I don’t quite understand. May I take another sip?’
‘You don’t have to ask, I’ve told you over and over it’s yours. Just don’t get drunk too fast, because if you do, I won’t have a friend to chat with any more.’
‘Friend? You think I’m your friend?’
‘Yes. You know, I haven’t got any friends left in my life now – friends who are ready to understand me, and who are sincere and honest. In my circle, friends only lie to one another, always looking for one another’s weak point to take advantage of it. My friends tie me up with words and contracts, and they won’t have any mercy for me. If I falter or fall, they’ll kill me, as soon as I’m no longer secure with my silver and gold.’
‘But I’ve never had friends, not even one. I don’t know if I could kill you like those friends of yours.’
‘I’m certain you’d never do that.’
‘No, I think I’m not hard-hearted enough. During the Chinese New Year, I was hired to cut the throats of the chickens, but I just couldn’t do it. I felt they didn’t want to die anymore than I did.’
‘Right. Nobody wants to die, and nobody wants to be bullied, but all of my friends are just waiting for the opportunity to cut one another’s throats.’
‘When I was a boy, my schoolmates were always bullying me. They’d wait and punch me every day after school. They hurt me a lot. They cut my lips and gave me black eyes. So, I decided to fight back, and after that they never bullied me no more.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘My friends have other ways of bullying me. They bully me through business tricks and by cheating me off my share of the profit. Oh sure, we keep smiling at one another, but deep in our hearts we’re always on the lookout for the opportunity to snatch one another’s profit away. I known I’ll never win my friends’ hearts.’
The man with the beard raised the bottle to his mouth and drank up the last drops. His voice began to slur and stammer: ‘You must b-be very r-rich.’
‘I own a very large department store, a soft-drink business, a paper manufacture and two illegal lumber operations on the side.’
‘So you’re a t-tycoon?’
‘That’s right. But you know, the life of a tycoon isn’t a happy one. I’ve got twelve cars – one for each day of the week, plus two for my wife and one for each of my children. My house is so large you feel like an ant when you walk in, and it has nearly two hectares of land to go with it. But you know something? It can’t compare to even half of your home, because it has no love, no warmth. It’s full of stress, rules, and endless longing for even more.’
‘I don’t believe you. I think you’re afraid I’ll turn into a tycoon and become your rival, right?’
‘So you do have a sense of humour after all? Well, don’t you ever dream about it. Even a dream like this is a nightmare. I don’t feel money has got any meaning in my life any more. I keep asking myself why I’m working like mad to get more – is it just to keep it in the bank or to take care of the future?’ He stopped talking for a while and turned to ask his young friend: ‘Have you ever thought about your future?’
The young man shook his head. ‘My future? Is that important? I live for today. When I’m hungry, I walk over to the market and help them wash dishes, so they give me something to eat. When I want to take a bath, I just walk into the marsh at the back of the market. The water stinks, I know, but less than my body.’
‘Sometimes life isn’t as complicated as we make it,’ the man with the necktie said. ‘Where exactly is true happiness? I have more than a hundred million baht to my name and yet no chance to see a falling star or dream in the moonlight. I have completely forgotten there are still many things in the world that can give us happiness. Instead, I have come to think that only money can provide it. You’re right: sometimes, man is too taken up with himself. We don’t only think of tomorrow but of the day after tomorrow, of next month, of next year, of ten years, a hundred years ahead. We work not only for ourselves but for our children, our grandchildren and all of our descendants. If I didn’t think about the future, I’d be much more happy, wouldn’t I?’
‘I’m not sure.’ The young man was casting a doubtful eye on the necktie.
‘What do you call this thing around your neck?’
‘A necktie. Why? You want it?’
‘No. I’m just wondering why you put it on.’
‘Me too.’ He tugged at it sharply and took it off. ‘It’s not too bad, actually. You should see me in the office: I have to wear a jacket as well. Wherever I go I have to dress like this, even though I’m thoroughly fed up and it bothers me no end. Sometimes, I fell trapped in my own clothes as if I were wearing a straightjacket.’
‘But you can’t dress like me.’
‘I can’t, but I still envy you for being so carefree.’
‘Actually, I’d like to dress like you.’
‘Well, the world is upside down. Yeah, it must have been upside down for quite some time. I remember in the days when I had nothing I used to think just like you. I was pining for a suit and tie and I promised myself one day I’d wear them too, but when I was finally able to, I felt like a prisoner in my own clothes. I’m bored with money, I’m bored with my work, I’m bored with everything I’m doing, because I know this isn’t what real happiness in life is about. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you ever seen a man riding a tiger? He can’t get off its back. The moment he steps off, the tiger will be at his throat. It’s the same for me. Even though I’m fully aware this kind of life is totally meaningless, artificial and can’t bring me any happiness, I can’t walk out on it. I must go on with it, telling lies, deceiving and taking advantage of millions of people to keep making even more money. I envy you for being able to live happily in the world you’ve made for yourself. But the world has already changed for me. It’s no longer the world in which we struggle for food, clothes, medicine and accommodation, but an entirely new one in which everyone has to fight with everyone else to make as much money as possible.’
‘Aren’t you sleepy yet?’ the young man asked, and yawned loudly. ‘You can sleep here if you want. I’ll go on listening to you until I pass out.’
‘So you’d like to sleep?’ the man with the shirt asked while raising his wrist to look at his jewel-studded gold watch. ‘Four in the morning already. No wonder you’re sleepy. Well, I’ve had my bottle’s worth. You can go to sleep now. I’m leaving.’
‘No, no, I’m still enjoying myself. You sure you want to leave?’
‘Yes, but I’d like to add something.’
‘The world outside is the world of NICs. Everyone lives, thinks and behaves the NICs way, and I’m one of those soulless NICs beings who are being taught only one thing: to get whatever you can without ever giving a thought to how you get it.’
‘You’re using funny words. I don’t understand.’
The man with the shirt laughed and crawled outside through the plastic sheet opening.
The well-mannered house owner also crawled out to see him off.
‘Can I come and chat with you again?’
‘Sure. But you must bring Shiva with you.’
‘And one more thing.’
‘Don’t piss on my house again.’
They both burst out laughing at the same time before the man wearing the white shirt walked away into the darkness and the man with the shaggy, unkempt beard disappeared back into his rubbish dump of a house.
A falling star suddenly shot across the sky…
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
I raise my head and look at the moon on one side of the sky as the small ferryboat floats in the middle of the peaceful river – it has been so long since I last saw a moon as splendid as this, but how long that is, I can’t say. If memory serves, it must have been when I was a child and lay peacefully out there on the porch, while Mother, who sat beside me admiring the moon, hummed an old song of which I can only remember a few lines – Oh Lady Moon, please have mercy … Give way a little, My Lady So we can banter and flirt And giggle in mirth. As for me I preferred the lullaby that began with Lady Moon Give me rice Give me food, but what I can’t help wondering about is how come Mother and I admired the full moon so much.
Truth be told, I have precious few memories of Mother – I have often tried to recollect her features, but in vain. I only have this picture of her sitting with her legs tucked back to one side in the darkness, the outline of her face upturned towards the moon, like a heavily shaded charcoal drawing … Mother was petite and thin as a rake, knuckles and tendons showing on her hands like chicken feet. I don’t know why she was so thin. And that’s the only picture I have of her. It’s an old picture carefully stored away so that it gets forgotten at times, but every time I think of Mother, I look at the moon and recall the past whose redolent atmosphere has never faded, be it the large ylang-ylang by the porch with its faint cloying scent, the files of marching red ants, the soft breeze, the buzz of the night insects and the big round moon with the orange ripeness of a nutmeg that stood out so near you felt you might pluck it down by merely reaching out…
Look there! Beautiful outstanding moon,
Radiant in full orb, so nice.
In its middle, our ancients said,
Gran and Gramps are busy growing rice.
Faint ramwong music comes from afar. I peer out at the bend ahead and watch the distant shimmers of the bits of glass decorating the finials of the new temple as they dally with the moonlight – long ago, when the old temple was still there, what couldn’t be missed during the yearly fair were likei and ramwong. Even though the troupe was in no way special, the likei had to have a knock-out prima donna and the tricksters had to be wildly tricky. Oddly enough, the local folk were never quite excited by the male lead. The stories played came inevitably from Janthakho-rop, the audience waiting with baited breath for the moment Mora deliberates on whether to hold out the double-edged knife to her husband by the handle or the blade, and cheered with delight when the jungle bandits kill the moon, even though everyone knew the story by heart and watched those parts of the performance every year. As for the ramwong, having the drums beat loud enough to shake the world was all it took. Nobody cared about the song the singer was belting out or the wrong notes of the band nearly as much as about the curves of the dancing girls who wore skimpy skirts, plastered their faces white and daubed their lips a fierce red.
That was before there was a new abbot and a new temple that came from changes in the format of the yearly fair, from likei and ramwong to string bands clashing with famous country crooners and competing with films on giant screens and a hundred and one other forms of entertainment.
“How long has it been since you last crossed over?” the oarsman asks when he has grasped who I am.
“Ten or maybe twenty years,” I venture, thinking back.
“The world these days is changing so fast,” he mumbles, as if talking to himself. “After four or five years you can’t remember what it was like before.”
“But around here nothing much seems to have changed.” I turn round again to look at the water pavilion we just left.
“I wonder when it’ll all come tumbling down,” the oarsman says as if he is resigned to the current state of things.
“Not any time soon, I’d say.” I am trying to pass on hope.
“Who knows?” The oarsman shrugs his shoulders, perhaps as a way to handle his oar rather than to show unconcern.
Each of us is silent, the silence around us making us feel empty. I shift my gaze to the reflection of the moon on the ripples of the flowing water and recall with longing a night down the Mekong river, and that revolutionary song is still in my ears.
With stars aplenty all around
Like the Lao nation flanked by multitudes
Moonlight is like a leading light
For the Lao people to forge ahead
And build a nation just as bright
“These days, to make a little money it has to be late at night when the motorboats stop running,” the oarsman mumbles.
“Do you still have children cross the river to go to school?” I let my hand skim the water and tell myself that the chill I feel on my fingers comes from the coolness of the moon on the expanse of water.
“They still do, but when they’ve finished their studies they don’t return to the other side.” There is an emotion of some kind in his voice.
“That’s only normal.” I pretend levity. “It’s the same everywhere. Take me, for one. It’s taken me more than twenty years to get back.”
“There’s only a few miles from town to pier,” the oarsman says, sounding perplexed. “Why don’t those kids cross over and go back?”
“We all like to forge ahead,” I answer softly.
“But going back to the past is nothing to be ashamed of,” he objects. “At least it’s better than rushing ahead and tripping over your own feet or stepping over other people’s heads.”
“Oh, sure.” I join my wet hand and the other one. I can’t tell if it’s wetness or warmth I am transmitting to myself.
“When you went to school over there, did you ever think of what you wanted to do once you grew up?” the oarsman asks as he pulls on the oar to cut across the current.
I am silent and search for an answer within myself for the first time in years.
“An orchard worker’s daughter with only primary education…”
Moon looks at me.
“How could I have big dreams? At best, I’ll be a worker in a factory. With looks like mine nobody would want me even as a background dancer in a band. But actually, in the end I’ll be stuck in the orchard, that’s all.”
“This year when I finish third form, I’ll go and study further in town.” My hands are plaiting a coconut palm spine out of habit rather than out of feeling abashed at being alone with her so close in the dark late at night.
“That’s good.” Moon nods. “When you graduate, come back for a visit, will you?”
“Sure will,” I promise and hold out to her the barb I have just plaited.
“Lovely.” She holds it up to the light from the house and peers at it. “I’ll hang it in my mosquito net. I’ll look at it when I’m not sleeping.”
I think up some silly remark such as “When you do, think of the one who plaited it” but I only think it.
“How about you?” She lowers the barb in her hand. “What do you want to be?”
“I don’t know.” I shake my head. “Haven’t thought about it yet.”
“Soldier, cop, teacher or district official?” Moon seems to be demanding an answer.
“No idea yet. For the time being, I just want to finish my studies, that’s all.”
“You know something?” She lowers her voice as if to tell a secret. “I’d really like to go and live on the moon.”
“Why?” I can’t help smiling.
“Don’t laugh at me.” Moon is embarrassed.
“I’m not!” I suppress the smile and ask again, “Why?”
“Uncle, do you think there’s a rabbit on the moon?” I turn to ask.
“What do you mean?” the oarsman asks back while raising his head to look at the moon whose shine is soft on the eye.
“The rabbit in the song, you know,” I answer.
“Maybe there is,” he says, noncommittal.
I hum the song.
They say there’s a rabbit on the moon, is that right?
Look carefully, sweetheart, it’s right inside its light.
“But maybe not,” he changes his mind. “Maybe astronauts have already caught and eaten it.”
“I think the moon is a better place to be than this human world.” Moon’s answer comes from afar. “Because when I look at the moon I think of things that are good and gentle and sweet.”
“But there’s nothing on the moon,” I object. “So who will you stay with?”
“At least there’ll be a rabbit,” she says. “Just that is enough.”
Actually, what is it that we want? And how much? Some only want the basic requisites of life, but once those requisites are there, they struggle to acquire other things, and yet more, almost without end, while a girl like Moon merely wanted a rabbit on the moon even though she knew in her heart it was impossible.
“Who was it you were pals with at the time?” the oarsman further explores, while I use the bamboo stick to push away clumps of floating weeds that obstruct the prow.
“Wichai, Bunrort, Pathum … Amphorn … and then Moon.” I think long and hard but the list is still short.
“Wichai – was that the one who was a soldier and then he stepped on a mine and lost both his legs?”
“Probably.” I’m not sure either.
“Bunrort must be the one who trained as a nurse and then fell for the owner of a ten-wheeler. She moved to town ten years ago.”
I nod and try to remember what she looked like.
“Pathum, there’s two of them. One is a teacher, the other’s a whore.”
“Well, one or the other.” I cut him short, because whatever she is is none of my business.
“As for Amphorn, that name doesn’t ring a bell.” He shakes his head, at a loss.
“What about Moon?” I let out.
“Moon, you say?” the oarsman repeats.
The old water pavilion looms dim and adds resonance to the sounds of darkness accompanied by the rustle of trees swaying in the breeze, mixed with the muffled chirping of night birds along with the lament of the waves expiring on the bank – rather like a familiar old song, a song that brings out tears of joy and sorrow, sweet and poignant, the kind of song we hum in snatches on occasion without concern for complete lyrics or melody.
“Twenty years or so is quite a long time,” the oarsman remarks as he leads the boat to land.
“Long enough for some people to remember what they used to forget.” I remain seated and still in the boat.
“Or else forget what they used to remember.” He is not being derisive.
“Was Moon good at plaiting barbs?” I ask in a weak tone.
“She was,” the oarsman confirms. “But who in this time and age will buy coconut palm barbs any longer? And after she was cheated by her brothers and sisters, the little she was left with wasn’t enough for her to earn a living.”
“She didn’t suffer much, did she?” I stare into the darkness.
“Probably not.” The oarsman is silent for a moment. “I heard the women vendors in front of the school say she rushed out to a farang in a car who wanted to buy a barb and never saw the motorbike coming the other way … She was killed on impact.”
“Will you come back again?” the oarsman asks after he has taken the boat across the river slowly.
“I don’t know exactly,” I answer without conviction.
“Where your old house was, the owner has built a shed with snooker tables. As for Old Monk Seng’s cell where you used to stay, the abbot had it pulled down to build a Brahma shrine years ago,” he tells me.
I raise my head to look at the sky again. The moon is still radiant with no cloud to hide it.
“So, do you think there’s a rabbit on the moon or not?” the oarsman asks out of the blue.
“Of course there is,” I state confidently before lowering my eyes to the reflection of the moon on the river and bending over to scoop refreshingly cool water in the palm of my hand.
Jantharupararkhar in Thawin-ha|Nostalgia, Matichon Publishing, 2001
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
At first, when he came to the funeral, he had nothing much in mind. He didn’t try to talk to her relatives, but walked in to pay his respects to the body, and then went and sat alone in a quiet corner, answering whoever greeted him. With Grandma Jan, it was the same. They didn’t talk much together; they merely exchanged a few words when they met, as old acquaintances do. It seems they only started to get intimate after her husband’s cremation was over.
Everyday he’d walk by her house and poke his head in and ask if she was home. If she wasn’t, he’d leave right away, but if she was, he’d go in and chat with her for a while before going back home. Besides, he never came empty-handed. He brought packets of rice with sliced chicken or pork, bags of iced black coffee, sweets or oranges, and left them behind every time. You could say that after he left, her offspring ate to their heart’s content.
His visits didn’t bother anyone, because he was a nice man. Though he was seventy this year, he still looked fit as a fiddle. He dressed neatly, his shirt always well tucked into his trousers, his hair tidily combed. More importantly, his son was a judge who was highly respected in the village; when people were in trouble, they went to visit him at home and he helped them as best he could, and if he couldn’t help, they let fate take its course.
As for Grandma Jan, she didn’t think much about it either. If she allowed him to get friendly, it was because they had known each other since they were in their teens, and she didn’t see why things should be any different now. Life is too short and we’ll soon die — take her husband for instance: he’d never shown any sign of sickness before, he just went and died. If she didn’t say so herself, nobody would have believed it was true.
As the days went by, however, everyone in Grandma Jan’s house began to see him as a bit of a joke, because of his habit of popping up every day with his packets of chicken rice and bags of iced coffee. Sometimes they teased him gently, but he didn’t seem to mind.
If her offspring laughed at him, it was because of Grandma Jan herself. She would sit with an unusually dreamy expression in her eyes and, when queried about it, flush with embarrassment.
‘Isn’t Old Thong-in coming today, Grandma?’ or else: ‘Who are you daydreaming about, Grandma?’ If she felt like answering, she’d berate them: ‘Don’t be fresh, just remember who you are talking to.’ But actually, the young ones were right — she really did let her mind wander. She couldn’t help but worry about him. Where was he now? Had anyone prepared food for him yet? It was getting late, so why hadn’t he come? Or maybe he’d fallen sick? Had he got anyone to take care of him? …
She kept on brooding quietly. Whenever someone teased her — ‘Daydreaming again, Grandma?’ — she’d turn red in the face, pretend not to hear and talk about something else, or she’d grab some betel leaves and areca nuts and pound them, her head bent over the mortar, not daring to meet anyone’s eyes, afraid of being embarrassed should anybody guess what was on her mind.
Grandma Jan always sat on a worn-out sofa next to a table where she put a jumble of tins, bottles of medicine, various utensils and all her other precious personal belongings, so much so that, sometimes, her daughter, who was a teacher, would lose her temper when she came back from school and saw the mess. She would help her sort it out and throw things away because ‘you don’t want to lose face when he comes.’ Grandma Jan had long wondered who her daughter was referring to until she realized Old Thong-in dropped by every day with his chicken-rice and iced-coffee offerings.
The sunlight had reached the refrigerator, so she went to close the window and look out through the iron lattice to the front gate. On any other day, no sooner had the sunlight reached the refrigerator than the old man would show up at the gate.
Where was he now? Was he sick? She wouldn’t mind paying him a visit for a change, but she was afraid her grandchildren would shame her by saying something like ‘You’re always complaining you can’t walk because of the pain in your knees, so how come you can saunter to the landing of Old Thong-in’s house today?’ Having thought this far, she could see no way out, so merely prayed in her heart that he was all right; it didn’t matter if he didn’t come, he could come whenever he thought of her.
Wasn’t it odd? They had known each other for so long, yet why was it only now that they were beginning to think of each other like this? It was only since her husband’s cremation that she had come to feel this way, and besides, she was still in mourning! Why did she feel so flustered? Or was it that some evil spirit had come to torment her and make her feel ashamed whenever she was told that, old as she was, she already had one foot in the grave, so how could she still have lurid thoughts like these? It was so unfair! Why did she have to be in such a quandary at the age of sixty-eight when she was so close to the end?
When she was overwhelmed with such thoughts, she had to find something to do to prevent her fantasies from running even wilder. She entered the kitchen and, seeing that it was untidy, took a broom and went about sweeping the floor, but she couldn’t help craning her neck toward the front gate.
After she was done in the kitchen, she went to clean the sitting room. When her eye caught the photograph of her daughter in her teacher’s uniform that had pride of place in the room, she felt quietly elated. Wasn’t it these two hands that had taken her daughter through school till she became a teacher respected by everyone in the village? Surely her daughter’s father couldn’t have achieved this on his own!
These days, there was something else that was odd: she liked to look at herself in the mirror. She knew she was getting older by the day, yet she still liked to check. She had only a few teeth left and they weren’t much good at chewing anything anymore, yet she still felt for such things. But the more she thought about it, the more she was ashamed of herself. Look at me: all my hair has turned white, my face is all wrinkled, and yet you have the cheek to come and woo me! Isn’t it funny? She smiled absently to herself.
‘You look in the mirror all the time these days, Grandma. How about some perfume and lipstick? I’ll get them for you if you want.’ Her pretty granddaughter, who was eighteen, had appeared from nowhere. Grandma Jan was really embarrassed, as what the girl had said hit home.
‘Where are you off to again? You never stay home these days.’
‘I’m not like you, you know. I can’t just sit and wait for someone to bring me some nice chicken rice every day. I haven’t got anyone to buy it for me, and if I stay here, I’ll just starve to death.’
‘Listen to the little wench, talkative as a parrot!’ Having said this, Grandma Jan huffed and puffed, pretending to be angry to avoid being further embarrassed by any more jibes.
‘Isn’t that so? Come on, I dare you, say it isn’t true. Say it.’
It’s because of his outlandish behaviour that my grandchildren are being so disparaging with me. It’s him who’s making me lose face among my kith and kin. It’s too much, too much really at such an age. But then, it’s unfair to blame only him. After all, I’m also urging him on. Men just don’t keep coming back if you don’t encourage them. What a shame! This shouldn’t be. Why did I have to get involved in such a disgraceful affair in my old days?
While she let her mind wander, she heard her granddaughter say precipitately: ‘Here he comes, Grandma, walking tall with chicken rice in his hand.’
This was enough for Grandma Jan’s heart to swell in rapture, as if it had been soused in consecrated water, or as if a sudden downpour had come showering down on plants withering in the middle of the hot season. She pretended not to hear, made no answer whatever and remained impassive, yet in her heart she couldn’t help but feel excited at the prospect of seeing him, and she was eager to know what had delayed him for so long.
She heard him ask her granddaughter: ‘Is she in?’
The children nearby had to tease him again: ‘No, she isn’t. She’s just gone to market, but you can leave your chicken rice with us.’
Those brats showed no respect to the elderly. Why were they lying to him? She felt like calling out, but was afraid her meddlesome granddaughter would shame her again, so she kept her peace.
‘How long ago did she leave?’
‘Just before you arrived. You missed her by a hair’s breadth. If you go after her now, you’ll catch up with her in no time.’
Everything went quiet. Maybe he had already left. The thought made her furious. Why did they do this to him?
‘Grandpa… Grandpa, don’t believe them. She hasn’t gone anywhere. Grandma, your boyfriend’s here to see you. Why are you so quiet?’ That was her granddaughter speaking, who else.
Then, there was a peal of laughter all around.
When Grandma Jan went to open the door for him, she could see that, despite the signs of anger that lingered on his face, his eyes behind his dark glasses sparkled with joy.
She invited him to enter and sit down as he did every day, went to fetch him a glass of water, then sat down quietly. She remained silent for a long while as she was afraid of letting out her real feelings and of giving the children outside something to gossip about. So, she cocked her ears to make sure there was no longer anyone around.
As days passed, the relationship between Grandpa Thong-in and Grandma Jan became more intense, to the point that on some days he would arrive at dawn and not leave until after dusk. This very much upset Grandma Jan’s daughter, who felt utterly ashamed by her mother’s obnoxious behaviour. At such an advanced age, her mother should concern herself with spiritual matters instead of entertaining all manner of lewd thoughts.
On one such evening as he was still visiting, the daughter looked askance at her mother several times, and as the older woman pretended not to notice, she finally decided to speak up.
‘Does your family know you’ve been here all day? I’m sure they must be worried by now.’
‘They know. I tell them every time I come here,’ he said, then averted his eyes.
‘I think it’s getting dark and you’d better go back and have dinner at home. You can come here again tomorrow.’
Both the old man and the old woman felt something hard hitting their chests. Elderly people like them should not let their offspring order them about in this manner. The shame of leaving the house upon being told to get out prevented him from standing up then and there, so he put on a brave face and went on sitting for a while before he felt it proper to take his leave.
At night, the long lane that led to the boat landing looked desolate and it would have looked a thousand times more so had anyone known what was in the old man’s heart as he walked back home alone.
Grandpa Thong-in would very much have liked to tell other people, so that they understood him better, that when he and Grandma Jan were in their teens, they were in love with each other, so much in love that they’d gladly have died for each other, so much in love that they were ready to elope, but their parents had thwarted their plans, claiming they were no match to each other, and time had finally separated them. Grandma Jan had married first, and he had been despondent for five years until he, too, had got married. For all of fifty-three years since then, he had had to live with his sorrow, suppress his feelings, bow to social constraints and try to be a good father to his son.
Come to think of it, it was funny, very funny indeed! He wondered what kind of evil spirit had prompted him to start fantasizing in earnest.
The power of love is so strong that no tradition can stop it. And so it proved to be for Grandpa Thong-in and Grandma Jan. Once the fire of love smouldering in their hearts became unbearably hot, something had to be done about it.
‘Wouldn’t it be better if we did the right thing, so that we can live happily together?’ Grandpa Thong-in suggested one evening when they were on their own.
The old woman looked at him as if she couldn’t believe her ears, but she didn’t answer immediately. She took a stick of tobacco and wiped the lime off her lips and teeth, then sat thinking for a while before she said: ‘Both of us are old now. We just can’t be reckless like children and start the neighbours gossiping.’
‘But if we don’t do the right thing, they’ll gossip even more,’ Grandpa Thong-in objected.
‘Then tell me what you want me to do.’
Grandpa Thong-in’s heart was pounding. What he felt now was no different from what he had felt that first time. He still remembered the day of long ago when they had agreed to meet at the temple fair to build a sand castle together. The beautiful girl named Jan had told him something similar after she had become his that very same night.
He smiled at her before answering thoughtfully: ‘If you don’t mind and really want me to be your companion, I’ll ask my son to come and talk to your daughter.’
He thought his idea was correct and everything would turn out all right. His son was a judge respected by everyone. If he came and asked Grandma Jan’s daughter for her mother’s hand on his behalf, she certainly wouldn’t refuse him. There should be no problem with his son either, because his mother had been dead for all of twenty years.
After they solemnly agreed that they would each bring the matter up with their children, Grandpa Thong-in undertook to talk to his son, but it was difficult for him to find the right time to do so, as he had to observe his son’s expression to make sure he was ready to listen to his plight. Their conversation left him utterly disappointed.
‘Why are you like this, Dad? I don’t understand you at all. If you do this, how can I look people in the face again?’ his son had said with a shaky voice.
He had felt his face become numb with shame. He had never thought the situation would turn out this way. His idea had been that it was the right thing to do — once you are in love, you should do what tradition requires. When his son had fallen in love with his future wife, he had been the one to ask for her hand for him, but now that it was his turn to be in love, why did it prove to be so difficult? He didn’t argue. He didn’t say anything. He kept everything bottled up. Every word his son had said was right: he was a judge, someone everybody respected; how could he save face if his friends, the neighbours or whoever else sniggered at him because his father had become a laughing stock? What if the newspapers announced something like: ‘A dirty old man humiliates his son, a judge, by remarrying at the age of seventy!’
‘At your age, why don’t you turn to religion instead? You should go to the temple to take your mind away from these kinds of thoughts.’
He hadn’t known how to answer. If he had told him he and Grandma Jan had been in love in their youth, it would have sounded like some fairy tale he had brought up to try and outsmart him by obscuring the real issue.
As for Grandma Jan, she had the same problem. After she talked with her daughter, she felt like a prurient old woman.
‘I’m not up to anything. I just want to consult you. Please stop yelling like this; think about the neighbours.’ She waved her hand, signalling her daughter to lower her voice.
‘You don’t give a damn about my reputation!’
‘Go on, go on shouting if you don’t mind the neighbours.’
‘It doesn’t make any difference whether I shout or not; everybody knows what you two have been up to.’
‘And what is that, pray? Don’t you dare look down on your mother like this!’ She raised her voice this time as she couldn’t allow her daughter to blame her and get away with it.
She was both pained and ashamed to be criticized by her offspring at such a ripe old age. No one knew that she wept alone in the dark all night long. She kept asking herself what kind of evil spirit had turned her feelings loose like this, and why it was she had to hanker after him and be so concerned about his welfare, even though the loving bonds of yore had been cut off such a long time ago.
After they were separately instructed to bridle their desires and refrain from lusting, they agreed to turn to the temple to purify their thoughts through the teachings of the Buddha as their children suggested.
Not long after he entered the temple, however, Grandpa Thong-in decided to leave, because the teachings of the Buddha did nothing to alleviate his suffering. On the contrary, he felt that the longer he sat meditating, the more confused his mind became. He had come to the conclusion that the only way he’d get rid of his suffering was by having other people understand and commiserate with him. Tradition is a set of conventions thought up by man so that everyone performs one’s social duty happily. Its function is no different from that of a shirt, which not only prettifies but also provides warmth to its wearer, and when a shirt is too old or too tight to be worn anymore, one must discard it and put on a more fetching one instead.
That night, after he and Grandma Jan had made up their minds they would elope together and had set the time for it, they secretly stuffed clothes and other basic items into their travel bags.
Grandpa Thong-in had insisted she should take along as little as possible, to avoid being overloaded as they travelled. Three or four items of clothing should be enough; she could always buy some more once they had settled down.
‘Have you thought it through?’ Grandma Jan asked, to make sure once again.
‘Yes, I have. If we let things go on like this, we’ll just make them miserable for nothing. Besides, we are old now and will be dead in a few years anyway.’
‘But I’m worried about my daughter, I’m afraid she’ll feel lonely,’ Grandma Jan said and then burst into tears. They had been together all of her daughter’s life, so why, oh why, did they have to part now?
Throughout the journey, Grandma Jan kept complaining she was missing her daughter and grandchildren.
Grandpa Thong-in took her to a small house in Rayong province. It was the same place where he had once taken the beautiful girl named Jan and they had walked hand in hand along a beach of fine white sand. He still remembered the freedom of the seagulls swooping up and down above the deep-blue sea; the small but swift land crabs that challenged the young couple to run after them and catch them, which was great fun; and the stretch of sand on which they had helped each other etch the words that confided their innermost feelings to Mother Earth: ‘I will love you forever.’
These impressive scenes had hidden themselves in a secret recess of his heart for all of fifty-three years, such a long time that he sometimes completely forgot that he, too, like everyone else, had once had a first love. Never had he thought that in this life there would be such a day again, a day in which he’d have a chance to taste anew the sweetness of the past.
That day long ago, they had hooked their little fingers together and poked fun at each other as they ran along the beach, like any other young couple in love. But today, just walking together without so much as touching or plying her with I-love-yous made him very happy.
‘Are your knees still hurting?’ he asked with great concern.
‘Of course they are.’
‘I’ll give you a massage when we are back. I brought some ointment with me.’
Grandma Jan didn’t answer. Her mind was still in turmoil. She missed the loved ones she had left behind. By now, they must be searching high and low for her.
The place they were to stay in was a small section of a long townhouse built for renting. They moved in as soon as they had paid the rent.
This was the first night they would share the same bed. Though they each had known married life, it was their first night together — the first night of a new life, the first night of mutual dependence until death would part them.
The old woman bowed to Buddha, recited prayers dedicating merit to those who had passed away and asked the house spirit to protect her. She then lay down stiffly right against her side of the mosquito net and lay there almost motionless.
As for Grandpa Thong-in, he kept tossing and turning but couldn’t find a comfortable position. He had no idea what time it was, but it must have been very late, because the radio in the adjoining house had long stopped broadcasting yet kept hissing, as its owner had probably forgotten to turn it off before falling asleep.
Although they had switched off the light, a neon tube outside sent a faint glow into the room and he could see that Grandma Jan was lying with one arm across her forehead.
The old man extended a hand and placed it on her stomach, which was heaving up and down as she breathed.
‘Aren’t you asleep yet?’
‘Not yet. I was thinking of my daughter. By now, they must be at sixes and sevens looking for us.’
This time, there was no answer from him. He let her drift back into her thoughts, and after a while she began to feel uneasy when she realized that the hand that had been on her stomach was no longer there but awkwardly moving up and down, giving her goose pimples all over.
‘You want to?’ she asked.
It was a language that poured from the goodness of their hearts. They just said what came to mind; there was no pretence.
She took off her sarong and then her blouse and let him caress her for a while before she extended her hand to stroke his groin.
‘But you are still limp!’
‘You want me to help?’
It was a way of expressing mutual concern rather than sexual passion.
‘Enough. You should sleep now.’
‘I know you are tired, I understand.’
‘As you wish, then. Let’s lie quietly.’
The deeper the night, the colder it became. He had long fallen asleep but she still laid with her arm across her forehead. Despite her weariness, she went on worrying about her daughter and grandchildren. She blamed herself for what she had done; she shouldn’t have left them and travelled so far away. How were they now? Did they have anything to eat?
Tomorrow, she’d tell Old Thong-in to take her back home.
Born in 1960, Reungsak Kamthorn is a journalist, and the author of short stories and journalistic potboilers. This short story, written in 1992, was published in the present translation in June 1994 in Caravan, a monthly magazine in Bangkok during that year. It was republished in Kyoto Journal No. 50 2002.
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
“I’ve been raped!” She wanted to shout out these words to let the world know that those people had abused her, had ganged up on her and torn off her clothes. Their vile and filthy hands had groped her body all over, forced themselves into her most secret recesses and then turned them inside out as they would have pig guts. Those people had feasted on her greedily. Once full, they had scampered at once, leaving her prostrate in utter solitude.
“In utter solitude…” she moaned, adrift. Once, she had mocked a girl next door who had dragged herself up to her with her clothes in tatters. She had urged her to report to the police, to tell the officers truthfully what those sex maniacs had done to her, but the girl wouldn’t go and wouldn’t talk any longer, just kept on crying. Was she stupid or crazed? Why wouldn’t she tell them she had been raped? Those bastards had violated her body and her soul. Crying and sobbing, what would that get her?
But now she understood. She had just realised why women who have been raped do not want to talk about it: they do not want to be raped a second time around. Once was more than enough. But, for all that, they still could consider themselves lucky to some extent.
That’s right – a lot luckier than she was. To them it would happen in the darkness of night, down some secluded alley or else in some underbrush. Apart from the rapists, there would be no prying eyes around, and there could be just two or three of them, or even one – that’s all.
But what had happened to her, how would you call that?
Those people looked dignified, dressed conservatively and wrapped themselves in thick layers of compassion. Even their words were brimming with solicitude, sympathy, and resentment at what she had been through.
Those people said that for the sake of the thousands of fellow human beings that might at some point in the future suffer the same fate as she had, they merely asked her to promise to do them the honour of taking part in their show. Everything would go smoothly. There wouldn’t be any problems. Let her case be a caveat for fellow human beings. Let her testimony be like a sharp sword cutting through the feelings of greedy capitalists so that the whole thing would lead to a demand for self-consciousness and a sense of responsibility in their hearts.
One of them told her she should do it for the sake of righteousness, but there were some among them who said she was lucky in her misfortune. They said she was the first to be invited to the show, a show with the highest ratings in the country, a show on which many important people in this land would like to appear even for a short time, but most unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity. But in her case an exception had been made specially, to fit the event and situation in hand.
“We must beat the iron while it’s hot,” one of them said, and they all nodded their heads, even the man she loved.
“You must go, darling,” he whispered to her. “It’s a great honour, you know, and you’re very lucky. Few are given the chance you are. More importantly, you’ll reveal everything that happened. At least those black-hearted capitalists might feel some shame.”
He spoke and smiled at her gently. He was always gentle and rational, and that’s why he was always in her heart – always, even in the life-and-death ordeal she had gone through only days before.
“I’ll go and keep you company,” he promised as he squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. After that, she no longer remembered what it was exactly she had told those people. All she remembered was feeling the hand of the man she loved that squeezed hers slowly withdraw. They all smiled, bowed to her, made the appointment and left their name cards behind while promising to come and fetch her at the hospital three days hence.
Everybody said she was lucky. The patients on the next beds were excited. They tried to raise their hands even though they were cast in thick plaster. Someone, she wasn’t sure whether a nurse or an auxiliary, shouted she’d watch her on TV.
And then those people came and helped her shuffle to the car, her lover close behind her. She felt secure beyond words, secure even though she still dreaded what she was about to face.
Like so many girls, she had always entertained dreams in secret. She had dreamt of being a glamorous star. She wanted to appear on the small screen of the world of illusion, just like those goddesses she followed in the various programmes, but then what she had never dreamt would happen to her suddenly had: she was about to feature in a television show, her picture and her story would reach viewers all over the country…
She couldn’t help feeling excited.
“You have nothing to fear.” It was as though he could read her feelings like an open book. He drew closer, giving her courage with his smiles and his words. “There’s nothing difficult or scary. In any case, you’ve already gone through scarier than this.”
“I’ll try,” she told him, feeling the dissonance in her own heart.
After that, everything started and proceeded as those people had told her beforehand. She was taken to a recording studio to tape the film for the show and made to sit in front of a handsome presenter and his beautiful female assistant she had long secretly admired.
The conversation began sluggishly. The audience in the studio was dead quiet. In her inexperience, she hardly knew how to behave. It was oppressive and scary, as if she had no idea how things would turn out, thus in no way different from what she had felt when she found herself caught beneath the rubble of that accursed building only a few days ago.
The young anchorman always performed well. That day he began the conversation in a way quite unlike his usual approach. His sharp clean-shaven face which had spinsters and widows swooning all over town looked sad. His usually cheerful voice was low-pitched and shaky. The female star who acted as his assistant was the same. Those people made her feel burning hot round the eyelids. Their greetings made her feel even more sorry for herself.
The young presenter told her to relate in detail what had happened to her during her four days in the anteroom of hell that time, how she had coped and how come she had survived when hundreds of others had to die inside the collapsed building. He’d like her answers to be like surrogates to the shouts of those unfortunate victims.
They hoped that the talk show that day would trigger self-awareness and a sense of responsibility among the people involved, be they the group of capitalists concerned by the event or the state machinery.
She began slowly and haltingly, to the point of feeling frustrated with herself. All the cameras and all eyes in the brightly lit room made her feel lonely and confused and she forgot even the recommendation of the anchorman before the start of the show to look straight at the camera for the picture that would come out to look most natural.
He had told her to act normally to relate the terrible and most terrifying event of her life. Everyone was absorbed in her story. All the cameras were recording her picture and her words, and in a few days they would be broadcast all over the country.
Actually, she hardly remembered what she had said during the long recording session. She only knew that she had lost her identity. Everything took place as they had planned and wanted it to be – until a few days later when the show went on the air, and then she saw.
On the narrow screen she saw herself sitting there, round-shouldered and looking pitiful. She spoke slowly, repeating herself at first. It was such a shame! Such a shame that at times she had to turn away from the picture she saw.
She heard her own voice coming out of the television set. It began with ordinary events as every other day. She had left her house to go to work on time, clocked in and then gone to her workstation. By then it was ten in the morning. The coffee shop in the hotel where she worked had just opened. The staff were preparing the food and cleaning. Everything was going on as usual. The kitchen supervisor told them to get the snacks ready for the guests attending the seminar being held on the next floor up.
That day the hotel was especially busy. Several seminars were being held in the various meeting rooms. There was a bustle of people coming and going – hotel employees, customers who came to eat, guests who came to stay, delivery boys, repairmen who came to fix the air-con ducts, and many other people she didn’t know. At the time everybody was busy with his or her own duties. She walked up to the floor where the meeting was being held. And then…
Everything she saw in front of her and around her suddenly vanished, vanished as did the five-storey hotel which collapsed as if sucked into the ground. There had been no portent. There was no warning. There was nothing.
Those people were clearly excited. The anchorwoman brought her hand to her chest as if she could see the event taking place right before her eyes. There were mutterings from the audience in the studio. The young presenter promptly intervened. He asked about what she had felt as soon as she became aware of what happened. He’d like her to show what she had felt then.
She saw herself force a smile, close her eyes and stay still as if deep in recollection, but then she just shook her head. Indeed … even today she still couldn’t think how she had felt at the time.
The anchorman smiled at her as if he didn’t mind. He showed understanding and acted as if he could read her feelings through and through. He changed his question in a few words and ended by saying that when she was stuck inside the collapsed building she wasn’t alone but she had company, didn’t she?
“How many persons?”
“Only one,” she answered.
“Man or woman?”
She answered, a man. He asked forthwith whether she knew him before and how come he happened to find himself with her.
“Please tell us about this in detail,” the female assistant added, leaning forward as if what she was about to hear from her was especially important. “That is, everyone wants to know what happened to you then. Where you were stuck was rather deep down, as we know, and there was almost no one else left around. Please tell us in your own words.”
“I’d never met him before,” she heard herself answering the question. “He was a young man, about my own age. He told me he was a guest in the hotel. When the building collapsed, he was coming out of his room to go downstairs but then the building came tumbling down, the floor I was on gave in and I found myself thrown together with him.”
“It’s very strange, isn’t it, that the two of you were thrown together with no one else there,” the young anchor remarked. “But then, anything can happen, right?”
“I don’t know either how it happened.”
“And then?” the assistant pressed.
“At first I knew nothing. I must have passed out for quite a while. When I came to, everything was totally dark. I tried to piece things together and then I just knew the hotel had collapsed. At the time he was pressed against me. It was cramped in there and it was hard to see anything.”
“He was pressed against you!” the anchorman broke in.
This is when she saw the young presenter turn to exchange glances with his assistant before turning to look at her briefly. After that he resumed his questioning.
“He – uh – what did he do to you?”
“What did he do?” she repeated the question, nonplussed.
“Uh – well, I mean, the two of you were alone, and then he was a young man. You yourself are a young woman and er – pretty too. Besides – I do beg your pardon, you were wearing the hotel uniform. That is, I don’t mean to imply – I understand that uniform is rather short and tight fitting and from the pictures we saw when people came to your rescue, your clothes were in tatters. That is, it’s something that…”
She smiled bashfully at his words but it seemed that she didn’t quite understand. The young anchorman reclined on the sofa as if to wait and give her time to speak. His eyes swept through the audience in the studio. The picture on the screen changed to a view of the viewers. They were all silent, peering intently ahead. Then the camera moved and framed the man she loved. He sat motionless, staring at her with frozen eyes, frozen but so unyielding she was the one to look away.
She had almost forgotten that he was there. He was like the other men: he wanted to know what had happened to her then. He had asked her before, when he kept her company as she recovered in hospital, but given her weariness and the shock she had received he hadn’t dared to insist.
The anchorman’s cough brought her back to the present. He asked again what that young man had done to her, he meant while they were alone under that accursed building, how they had got along.
She took a deep breath. “He was hurt.” And then she heard herself saying, “He must have hit something while the building collapsed, but it seemed it wasn’t too serious. He could still move. He told me not to cry, he wiped away my tears. At that time I only thought there was no way we could survive. The rubble pressed on us from all sides. We could see each other only blurredly. I wanted to die. I didn’t know what was the point of living any longer. No matter what, we had to die in there, because there was no way out. Breathing was difficult. There was nothing at all to give us hope of coming out alive. Actually I wasn’t seriously hurt, just a few grazes and bumps on my head. He was in a worse shape, but nevertheless he kept saying all the time that we had to survive, we mustn’t die…”
There was a moment of silence on the screen. The two anchors blinked away. She went on with her story.
“We tried to help each other find a way out by furrowing through the heaps of brick and cement, but nothing doing. The more we moved the more rubble piled up on us. Oppressive – it was really oppressive. Not enough air to breathe. Tired and short of breath, we finally had to lie and rest, lie looking at each other and await death…”
“But for all that you were still lucky,” the young anchorman observed. “At least you had a friend. When you felt hopeless, you still had a friend.”
“Yes … I still had a friend,” she said quietly.
“What kind of a person was he?”
“He was a good man,” she answered without having to think. “He was polite, helpful and very resilient.”
“He was very resilient, was he?” the young woman queried further. “You must have been very impressed with him.”
“Yes, I was very impressed with him.”
“Uh – could you tell us a little why you had such a feeling? That is, we just want to know what you felt deep inside. But if you’d rather not answer, we’ll understand.”
“Oh, I can answer that,” she said, her voice more assured than it had been so far. “We were together for the whole of four days, till death us do part. Even though we would die, we still felt we had a friend in each other, right? We were friends in need. It’s only now I understand the meaning of that expression. For four days we were together, in a cramped space, not knowing what to do, except vent our spleen and stare at each other, seeing only a glint in each other’s eyes, hearing each other’s sighs of hopelessness. When we were too tired, we slept; we slept only to find upon waking that everything was still as before. He told me to sleep and rest as much as I could to preserve my strength. He hoped someone would dig us out of there, so when I slept he didn’t, because if we slept at the same time, maybe we wouldn’t hear when they came.”
The anchorman turned to the audience. He repeated what she had said. He wanted the audience in the studio to see in what a pitiful situation she and the unfortunate young man had found themselves. He talked about human fate, nightmares and impossible choices.
“Let me ask you this: how much did you trust him?” The anchorwoman was the one to resume the questioning.
“Even if I hadn’t trusted him, what do you think I could have done? I had no choice.”
“Meaning that whatever would be would be, right?” the young man took over. “In a situation like that, I can understand that whatever happens we have to give in, that is, er – that is, I’d like to make a supposition of my own. Just suppose the young man who was with you suddenly thought of doing something crazy, er – that is, I think as any man would, right? If he felt like doing something bad to you…”
He stopped briefly and turned to look at the audience as if to convey a message of some kind, and then went on.
“That is, I think it’s entirely possible. You’re a young woman, there’s no way you can protect yourself, and in a secluded spot like that … That is, we can’t see at all, can we, what he thought deep down. Now, if he really felt like doing it, what would you do in this case? How would you get out of it?”
In the narrow rectangle of the television screen, she saw herself struck dumb. Her eyes opened wide as if in sudden terror and then she bowed her head and raised her hands to her face. The picture she was seeing was no longer of herself, but of someone she knew who was being trussed up to a large chopping block, at the end of her tether and unable to protect herself, while those people were eagerly taking her clothes off one by one in clever and expert ways before a row of expectant onlookers, before cameras that kept sweeping like as many demons’ eyes, all of them watching her in crude yearning.
By now the flesh of that young woman was bare, wide open. The honourable hands of those people were helping themselves, taking samples of her flesh and laying them out as exhibits, removing her internal organs, reaching through to the very bottom of her soul and leaving it without any secret whatsoever.
She didn’t know what happened after that. She was confused and hopeless, just as when she had been trapped in that stuffy space among the rubble. Everything still went on as it would. They still had some time left. The time that remained was valuable and they had to make use of it to the utmost.
Dazzling light still assaulted her eyes, questions still poured forth uninterruptedly, but she felt she was in the dark, couldn’t see anything any longer and didn’t hear even the wailing in her chest. She couldn’t see even the man she loved – he had got up and vacated his seat for good.
The programme ended that day with her feeling empty and lost, no different from the feeling of hopelessness when she had crashed into that dark recess of hell days ago. She went back home in utter loneliness and had no opportunity to see even the shadow of the man she loved in the days that ensued.
She had been well and truly abandoned. There was no one left in her life any longer. That was unlike the hell beneath the rubble into which she had been thrown. In the darkness and hopelessness there, she still had a friend – a friend in need that fate had thrown into the same hell as hers. In the dimness of that gap she had been given the opportunity to see the glimmer of friendship assert itself little by little. In the parchedness of life, she still had had the opportunity to savour the goodwill a fellow human being had bestowed on her.
Those people never found out what happened between her and that young man, because what those people wanted to know and kept asking about was not what she intended to tell, but what she wanted to tell, those people never asked.
Those people didn’t want to know how many times during those four days spent in the arms of the Great Reaper the friendly hands of that young man had yanked the rope of death off her neck.
Those people didn’t want to know how many times in those days of despair at still being alive his words had prompted her to force herself to breathe. Those people would never hear the comforting voice of that kind-hearted friend.
He had told her she must not die. As long as she still had faith in life, she would not die. She still had a man she loved: he stood waiting for her at the mouth of the pit of death. His love would be a strong rope reaching down for her to cling to. Love and hope in their splendour would pull her out into a new life.
Those people didn’t know and didn’t want to ask. Therefore those people didn’t have the opportunity to learn that that unfortunate young man was willing to die so that she could survive. On the last day of their wait he rallied the little strength he had left to fumble about and claw through the rubble in search of a way to communicate with the outside world. He succeeded. A beam of light entered that corner of hell. Fresh air came through for her to breathe lungful after lungful – in the same instant as a beam of concrete fell and crushed him to death before her very eyes.
Those people didn’t know, because that wasn’t what they wanted to know.
Before this she had always had nightmares. She used to dream foolishly that she was whirling down a mysterious, totally dark abyss, used to dream that sex maniacs ganged up on her and abused her crazily, and she used to dream with uneasy wariness that the man she loved had left her. But now everything that happened was no dream.
She still thought of the poor girl next door. She had mocked her for refusing to report to the police and tell them truthfully what had happened to her. Was she stupid or crazed?
But today it was at herself she was laughing. That girl had been raped in a deserted street, in the dark and without any prying eyes around.
Nai Thee Satharrana Lae Tooktong Tam Kotmai
in Tula-khom (October) 1994, Samnakphim Nakhorn, Bangkok
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
He wasn’t sure when ‘classic’ had become his catchword; he didn’t even know what the word really meant and had never thought of looking it up in a dictionary. He only knew that it was a generic term used to describe what you felt in front of a picture that deeply disturbed you and that everybody around you was talking about. You used it to give your opinion about someone’s work, as a kind of quality label for an outstanding piece.
So, when he started his own work, the word roamed in his mind as if he was haunted by a ghost.
The sheet of paper he had fed his typewriter the night before was still totally blank, even though the marketing objective was clear and data gathering and analysis had been completed. These days, people are under stress because of their hectic struggle for money and social status and increasingly violent and stifling competition with one another. They have to let out steam but can’t do it themselves, so, entertainment must cater to this need. Rampage sequences must be realistic and presented in meticulous detail, and death scenes must show horrible savagery, as in those Hong Kong and Thai classics with titles like Brutal Squirt, Settling Accounts through a Hole in the Head, The Bullet of Revenge or Blood All over Town.
He had some classic scenes in mind, such as the one in that film on Al Capone’s life, when the cops are trying to secure a prime witness, the only one willing to testify in court against him. In the hustle and bustle of the railway station, the first crossfire creates Pandemonium. A mother loses hold of her baby’s pram, which starts rolling down a long flight of stairs. In this crucial second, a police sharpshooter throws himself forward to stop the pram before the baby gets hurt, and at the same time takes his chance and fires at the Mafia boss, who is using the witness as a shield.
There is also the ringing of the church bells in that scene of The Godfather in which Don Michael Corleone is baptized as godfather of his nephew while the child’s father is being murdered as he has instructed. Or Chow Yun-fat’s one-man act in The Mean, the Bad & the Good, when he takes his revenge on his former business partners, whose betrayal led to the arrest of his closest confident; the fast-paced, action-packed, blood-splattered scene is riveting.
These things vied for attention in his mind and he had to think hard before starting to write his film script. He had to find scenes, angles and events that would arouse strong feelings.
‘Don’t … don’t do that, Eik. Stop it!’ The screams of Sarlika, the maid, interrupted his thoughts, only to be covered by the shrill yells of ‘Yahoo! … Jetman’s Gang! … Fatal Kick! …. Red Boomerang!’
When he opened the door and got out of the room, he saw his six-year-old son perched on the dining table deftly kicking the maid with one foot. He was holding a hanger as his magic weapon and bashing her on the head with it.
‘Hey!’ he shouted, startled, but that didn’t help. Sarlika, protecting her head with both arms, collapsed and squatted on the floor next to a pile of clothes waiting to be washed.
‘Stop that stupid game now! Can’t you see you are hurting her? Her head will bleed, you know. What a naughty child! Go away — get out of here, or before long you’ll be hurting too!’ His voice was like a growl. He was really angry. His concentration had been disturbed to the point that he couldn’t sort out his confused ideas. That, and his son’s aggressive and threatening attitude, which went far beyond a pleasant tease, made his blood boil.
He and his wife were bringing their child up the modern way, according to the advice of handbooks and of the paediatrician on TV. They made sure they spent quality time with him and hugged him often to make him feel loved. They avoided shouting at him, hitting or berating him when he did something wrong, because they were afraid it might spoil his temper and make him rebellious.
They kept teaching him how to love and be kind to others and how to notice and remember things. They did it themselves, with the help of video. Yet, strangely enough, the older he grew, the farther he was straying from the path they wished for him, showing himself obstinate and decidedly aggressive. He had bought him a guitar to play with and get him interested in music, but his son had turned it into a gun like that of Getter Robo G, the space protector in a Star War-type of movie.
The little fellow, looking despondent, went to fetch some coloured pencils and drawing paper. He bought him plenty of them so that he could enjoy himself dabbing away while improving his concentration and creative talent. As soon as he saw his son busy drawing in a corner of the room, he went back and sat down in front of his typewriter.
He loved his only child with all his heart and had never thought of giving him a brother or sister, even though the family could probably afford to have more children. He wanted to raise him as best he could and give him his undivided love and everything else besides, so that he would grow up healthy, both physically and mentally.
He had to make a great effort to focus his thoughts on his work. If he was working so hard, it was for him. He didn’t have enough courage right now to tackle the classic scene of his film script. Perhaps the personalities of the main characters were not clear enough. The film was about serious conflicts that turned to bloodshed, so the characters should have inner conflicts as well. Each of them should have roughly equal measures of good and evil, and strong and hidden weak points.
The Mafia overlord must be thoughtful and soft-spoken, as well as ruthlessly decisive, circumspect and adept at protecting himself. His weak point is his kindness to children, especially those in the local borstal, as he himself has gone through the painful experience of this kind of establishment. Every year he joins in the charity fair there and makes a donation. That’s where he’ll get his comeuppance.
The godfather’s personal bodyguard is smart, brave and as emotive as an ice pick; he is an expert killer and a master tactician, and there is nothing on his plain face to attract attention. His strong point is his total self-control. His apartment in a five-star condominium is full of aquariums and he spends most of his time feeding the fish and watching them swim around. His mind is totally focused and never strays. Like his rival the crack-shot cop, he believes in the need to achieve total mental concentration before going down to work. The difference between them is that the cop meditates in front of a Buddha image in a temple, his pistol ready at his waist.
The godfather’s main foe is a clever young man who is adept at hiding his feelings as he bides his time to avenge his family. Under the guise of a businessman, this master strategist manipulates the situation so that he finally corners his enemy and gets ready for the kill, but when the time comes to spill blood, he lets a greenhorn do it for him. His weak point is his indiscriminate womanizing. He strongly believes the sex drive is the power that fuels men’s ambitions and dreams of regal greatness. His end must come in ‘Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind’ fashion.
And there are lots of minor characters who must have their own aspirations and roles.
The classic scene should take place when violence reaches a climax and purity seeps in and gives the action an entirely new twist, creating an uneasy atmosphere which forces some of the characters to make potentially disastrous decisions — or perhaps he should do the opposite, going against the expectations of the audience, to achieve a higher effect? Or…
‘Bioman’s Gang … SuperLaser Sword … StrailFair…’
The little fellow was yelling again after a long period of quiet. He was a boy, so his boisterous behaviour was normal, but he had never learned to stay his hand and refrain from violence.
His son should grow up fine and decide on his own course. His parents could only try to figure out what life would be like in tomorrow’s world and prepare the ground for him to walk in step with the rest of society and live in a meaningful way.
To begin with, he must be ready in body and mind. He thought he should get him to play a couple of sports, so that he would get proper exercise, know the rules and understand discipline, as well as play to win and also know how to lose. That would be better than letting him throw stones at the birds sitting on the fence, yelling, ‘Jet bomb … Boom!’
Oh, yes! There was that shot of the flock of birds taking off in fright in the sequence where the mayor and his underlings surround Bonnie and Clyde and shoot them dead — really classy, classic stuff! You hear the shots blasting from the surrounding bushes but can’t see the guns. What you see is puffs of smoke and leaves whirling in the air, and the bullets tearing through the plating of the car, and the bodies of the young man and woman jerking under the impact of the bullets. What a beautiful, sensational and perfect shot!
Sometimes, eerie sounds that set your nerves on edge — a window that shatters, wheels shrieking on the tarmac, piercing screams of pain from some dark corner, the deafening explosion of a fuel tank — play an important part in rousing you till you are taut with fear. He had to have some of them in some scenes, to show how good he was.
‘Shoo! Get out or I’ll chop your head off!’ the little one was shouting. This must be the neighbour’s dog, who had probably come through the fence onto their lawn again. It seemed the boy couldn’t get along with this noisy pet, who yapped non-stop but got easily scared. His son should be more considerate than this; though he didn’t like the dog, he should at least be kind to him. He had often taken his son to the countryside to admire the fields, the jungle and the mountains, and had introduced him to the various species of animals, those lovely and wonderful friends who live in the same world as us.
He used to worry that, in this increasingly screwed-up society of ours, his son would develop abnormal sexual proclivities, but before long it was his aggressiveness that got him worried. Perhaps he should tell his wife to have him apply for some weekend music course rather than let him watch all those star-war movies.
Indeed, what about the score? Though that was handled by professionals, he should contribute by letting them know what kind of mood he wanted. A good score adds spice to a movie. The crescendo slowly building up to a climax and the furious fracas during the main explosion should be clearly separate. Even though action rules over feelings in this film, the music after the climax should be sweet and soft. To have as lead song a ballad like ‘A moment of romance’ wouldn’t be a bad idea.
In order to be classic, sometimes you have to find some ambiguous symbol that will make the viewers think and come up with diverging interpretations, like in that scene in The Graduate in which Dustin Hoffman runs away with another man’s bride at the start of the wedding ceremony and blocks the church gate with a cross to prevent anyone from going after them. That shot purports to show that sometimes the fetters of religion can alienate man’s freedom.
Perhaps he should have the hero keep some kind of hunting animal like a wildcat, a hound, a hawk or a piranha. He’d have close-ups on its hungry eyes, impatient claws and glistening fangs during the important scenes to convey the hero’s innermost feelings. Its fierce growls would make the story perfectly exciting.
His son was singing a Japanese song out there. The boy just picked up whatever took his fancy after hearing it repeatedly on TV. It was remarkable how he didn’t have to be taught; he just absorbed everything naturally. He may not get all the words right, but the pitch and the tune were close enough. Sometimes he couldn’t help laughing at his son’s gift to memorize and learn. He thought he should set up good examples for him so that he could absorb proper and useful values. If he left him exposed to the present-day environment, there must be problems for sure: people are getting increasingly violent these days.
Maybe he would take him to the seaside in the South once this work was over and let him learn and appreciate the beauty of nature below the sea for three or four days.
He switched his attention back to his work and concentrated on thinking up the most important scene. To get the godfather killed, he would use a handsome, candid-faced fourteen-year-old boy as his murderer. After the donation ceremony, the godfather, feeling elated, would lower his guard. His bodyguards would be covering various spots some distance away. The boy, who had been sent to the borstal to prepare for this very eventuality, would present him with a basket of flowers as a memento of gratitude and suddenly pull the small, sharp Vietcong-style bayonet out of the basket where it had been hidden and stab the godfather right under his left breast — exactly what the shot should be, given the target and the boy’s strength.
That was the outline. As for the details, he had to think hard to figure out the distance between the boy and the godfather, the rhythm for pulling the bayonet out of the basket, the cool, unchanged expression in the boy’s eyes, the deadly accuracy of that one stab, and the gushing of blood when the bayonet is pulled out, like in Chinese movies — no, that sounded ridiculous. The sight of blood should convey more repulsive or thrilling emotions than this. Or should he have a shot of the blood dripping from the tip of the knife?
Sarlika, the maid, opened the door of his office, served him his third cup of coffee and changed the ashtray expertly. After she had left, he heard his son shouting harshly: ‘Gogul Red attacks Dead Dark … Kill ‘em all!’ Sarlika cried out heatedly: ‘Don’t … don’t do that, Eik!’
The commotion forced him to drop his work and hurry out of the room. Since when had his metallic ruler disappeared from his desk? It was now a laser sword in the little fellow’s hand and it was cleaving the alien Sarlika right into a dark corner.
‘Hey!’ he shouted in fright as a sharp corner of the ruler cut into the arm Sarlika had put up to protect herself and left a long gash. Sarlika covered the wound with her hand and rushed to the dining table, where she sat down. He took mercurochrome, gauze and cotton out of the first-aid pharmacy and hurried to help her. Dark-red blood was oozing from the web of her hand, and blood drops began to fall on the white tablecloth.
As they touched the cloth, they slowly spread out like the buds of red flowers in bloom. Each drop formed a fascinating flower and all together they were like a bunch blossoming all at once.
He looked at them thoughtfully, and suddenly was reminded of the godfather’s blood at the time of his death. In the shocked silence of the moment, the blood buds were slowly stretching their petals all over the tablecloth.
What a supremely classic shot!
First published in the issue of Phooying magazine dated 24 November 1991
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
What an irritating and confusing Monday morning! She kept letting out weary sighs while her car idled at the red light. But for all that, the chores of early morning had gone well. She felt better as she thought of Yot Narm, her darling daughter, kissing her on the cheek before she ran swiftly into the school. She had felt warm relief when she saw her safely past the school gate. Not until late afternoon would they meet again. These days she had no one but Yot Narm to give her the strength to forge on.
A picture of her husband came into her mind. He had vanished for two days and only turned up this morning and as usual they had quarrelled again. For all that they tried to avoid having words in front of Yot Narm, when a spark ignited the tinder the fires of hell ran across the breakfast table. The light turned green. She gunned the engine irritably. She was always hurt when she saw Yot Narm’s eyes raise questions over what was going on before them.
She was no longer able to put up with her husband’s behaviour. He had become totally different from when they were newly married. After they had Yot Narm, his attitude changed. He turned increasingly raffish, shouted and threatened, disappeared from the house without explanation and came back reeking of alcohol. What she could no longer stand was his insistence on pawing her when he came back roaring drunk. She was so furious she abused him without restraint and usually fled to sleep with her child. She couldn’t help asking herself what had happened to her life. What kind of life was this for the two of them? Where had the tender loving care of the past gone?
She slammed on the brakes when the motorcycle in front of her stalled. She swore loudly. The car behind her hooted its horn impatiently. So what? She felt like giving the driver of that car a mighty piece of her mind.
What a maddening morning this was!
She reached the office with her hair in disarray, her face puffy, sullen and tense. She acknowledged the bows of the front office staff perfunctorily, unlocked the door, switched on the light. A stale smell wafted out. It was always like this on a Monday morning. She left the door ajar, threw her handbag on the desk, turned on the fan of the air-con, let herself drop onto her chair, pressed her back against it and stared through the windowpanes. The morning sun was already fierce.
Her brain felt constricted, she couldn’t think of where to begin with her work, stared at the files piled up on the desk, couldn’t remember what documents they were exactly.
‘Gooood mornin’, boss.’ Marlee, the housekeeper, put down her mop then raised her hands and bowed.
She turned to glance at her distractedly then turned her gaze back to the files.
‘You don’t seem to look well,’ Marlee said in a low voice then set about mopping the floor in front of the desk.
‘Fill up the kettle and plug it in, please,’ she looked up to order. Marlee went on with her cleaning for a while then left, wondering why today the boss wouldn’t chat with her as usual.
Marlee came back, filled up the kettle and plugged it in. ‘Here you are. It’ll be ready in a sec’.’ Marlee smiled broadly.
She stared at her without responding. Marlee’s clear playful eyes sparkled.
She smiled with a corner of her mouth. The unease and irritation cleared from the air a little.
‘Ah, smiling at last!’ Marlee remarked, her own smile widening.
She took the newspaper she had bought earlier this morning, took out the small-sized entertainment section and handed it to Marlee. ‘Here. I know you’ve been waiting for this.’
Marlee nodded, smiled even more broadly, fumbled for the page she wanted and stared at it for a long time.
She smiled. It was always like that. A couple of days before the lottery results were out, Marlee would ask to have a look at the lucky figures printed at the end of the entertainment pages. As for her, she wasn’t really interested; she hardly ever read that section. She bought the paper for the front-page political and social news only. Funny to think that the section she thought was nonsense was valuable to Marlee, so she always kept it for her. Lately she wasn’t sure whom exactly she bought the newspaper for and what was even funnier was that, seeing how she liked to talk about the lottery with Marlee, her staff mistakenly thought she too was having a go at it. And yet, she took an odd pleasure talking with Marlee. Even though they had hardly anything in common, she thought of Marlee as a little sister.
‘So? Anything you fancy?’ she said as she put down the newspaper.
Marlee was still silent, frowning as she stared at the picture of Ganesh whose body shapes suggested a medley of figures. Marlee slanted the newspaper this way and that, staring hard.
‘Have you read it yet?’ Marlee held it out for her to have a look.
‘Oh, whichever angle you look from, it’s all figures.’ She sat back. Marlee thus went for another hard look.
‘This time I have a hunch I’ll take heaps of money back home for the New Year.’
‘Haven’t you learned your lesson yet?’ she interrupted. ‘You lost your stakes in the last two drawings.’ She came up with a laugh.
‘Says who? Sure, I didn’t win the official lottery, but I made a little on the underground one, enough to get my money back.’ Marlee was always boasting like this. She knew very well that Marlee lost on the lottery but never admitted she did. She wouldn’t acknowledge the truth and always had a hundred and one reasons to explain she hadn’t really lost anything. Sometimes it was so blatant she knew Marlee was bluffing. She understood well that she didn’t want anyone to know about her own failures. She always smiled to herself when she saw Marlee come up with the same paltry excuses.
She sat reading the newspaper waiting for the water to boil. Marlee went out with her lucky figures. After a while the kettle started to hiss. She got up to get her coffee cup but started a little when she saw her favourite small cup resting snugly inside a big cup. Oh, right, she had forgotten that on Friday evening she had taken the two cups to wash them and had unwittingly put the small cup into the big one and then it turned out she couldn’t get it out. She had never thought they’d fit so tightly. At first she had found it funny but after trying several times and failing every time – they were completely stuck as if someone had glued them together – she began to feel annoyed. Forget about calling Marlee or some other employee: there was no one around. It was always like that on Friday evenings.
She picked up the cups, inserted her fingers to grab the handle of the small cup tightly, her other hand firmly around the big cup, and then pulled with all her might. After two or three attempts, there wasn’t the slightest difference. That was crazy! She poured in some hot water to work them apart. After waiting for a while, she pulled again. It was as before. Irritation surfaced once again. There were no saucers either, just these two cups. For all of five years she had always drunk coffee from this small cup. She remembered she had bought it right after Yot Narm’s birth, and used it without ever thinking of getting another one. She felt it was auspicious for her. After she had started using the cup, her career had progressed as never before. Who knows, maybe there was no connection. As for the big cup, for all she knew, it was her husband’s someone had brought in or he himself had picked up somewhere and happened to leave in her office when he came by early last month. But last Friday, someone in the office had brought a big bag of lemongrass for her to taste so it had been necessary to use the big cup, and she had never thought for a moment something crazy like this could happen.
The hiss of boiling water was heard again. She left the cups on the desk. Irritation was beginning to roam in her head. When Marlee came back in, she’d take care of the matter. She went back to her desk, opened a file and scanned it for documents she had to sign. Being the director of the funding and supplies department of a state enterprise, it was no easy matter preventing administrative errors. Since her nomination as director at an early age last year, she had been feeling a hundred times, a thousand times more under pressure. At the time, she had felt that her superiors were watching, doubtful as to her competence and waiting for her to make a faux pas. As for her subordinates, they tended to be unyielding and showed little respect, but after almost a year had gone by everything had improved, all sides had begun to believe in her abilities and she had begun to relax.
She had gone through one file when the young front-office secretary knocked on the door and came in.
‘The SG would like to see you in his office.’ Startled, she asked, ‘Right now?’ The secretary nodded.
Unexpected events could happen anytime; the secretary-general could ask to see her at a moment’s notice. She felt at once on the alert. Her irritation subsided. She tried to think of the various tasks the SG had entrusted her with, or perhaps it was about the purchase of equipment for the department, or else the invitation to tender for the renovation of the dining hall. Oh, it could be anything really! She tried to marshal her thoughts, gathered stacks of documents she thought might come in handy, glanced at herself in the mirror, touched up her makeup as a matter of habit. How strange: this time she didn’t feel confident at all, or was it that she hadn’t had her coffee yet?
She went back to her office feeling much relieved. Her fears had been unfounded. The half-hour or so she had spent in the SG’s office had made her feel better, forget her troubles and eager to get on with the work. The SG hadn’t been particularly inquisitive about work but merely asked about progress on the policy he had laid down last month. He had even asked her to look into the possibility of purchasing a van for the department and then had spent the rest of the time talking about odds and ends.
She took the file of documents she had already signed to the front-office secretary then went back to check the remaining files, turned to glance at the coffee cups, picked them up and pulled again, tried two or three times, in vain. She even felt that now they were stuck together tighter than before. She thought of Marlee. Where was she? She couldn’t understand herself either. At the slightest problem she would call Marlee, perhaps out of habit. Although Marlee was only the housekeeper, she gave in to her often, and yet in front of her subordinates her tone was uncompromising.
Once, Marlee had addressed her in the bathroom, telling her she looked dreadful, was too thin, overworked herself, and should take some rest. First thing next morning, she put in a request for a long holiday, even though previously she hadn’t listened when the SG urged her to do just that. Or sometimes when she needed to come to a decision on some important matter, she’d get the answer or a pointer to it from chatting merrily with Marlee. This sort of thing happened often, yet she thought Marlee herself was probably unaware that her behaviour was a help to her. It was the same with matters of luck. She was always lucky when she believed Marlee.
Marlee was always talking to her about her family. She felt that Marlee’s family was better off than hers was. Marlee’s husband was security guard in a company. They had two children. Marlee told her that even though their combined income didn’t amount to ten thousand baht a month, they managed by being thrifty. Earning little they spent little. Twice a month she put a few baht aside for the lottery to have something to cheer her up in life. She couldn’t stop playing altogether; it would be as if something vital was missing. As for her husband, he was too fearful of Marlee to do anything silly, so their family life was rather smooth.
She glanced at the clock on the wall and then went on checking documents. She was incensed when she found many mistakes in the calculation of prices for new orders of equipment, so she called up the culprit for a chat, scolded him sharply over the more calamitous errors and politely pointed out the minor ones. The subordinate stood at attention, silent. She closed the file and handed it over for him to revise his work. She took a carton of fresh milk to drink and went to stand in front of the window, her eyes roving outside while she thought of her daughter.
‘I’m returning your paper.’ Marlee’s voice came up.
She turned round. ‘So, how many figures did you get?’
‘Oh lots. I took them down. This time, I’m pretty sure I’ll hit the jackpot.’
‘And take back home bagfuls of cash, I’m sure,’ she teased.
‘Right you are, boss.’ Marlee grinned, joking as they did on TV.
‘So when will you go home?’ she asked.
‘I told ’m next month but I probably won’t. My husband will go instead. My folks called to say this year the rice looks bountiful. They’ve got no one to help ’m with the harvest. If it rains, they’ll be in trouble, so I’ll have my husband go instead. Actually I’m dying to go but I can’t afford to drop work.’ Marlee’s voice grew heavy.
‘You can, but only for a few days.’ She sympathised with Marlee. She couldn’t help her much. Marlee didn’t come under her department but was an employee of the cleaning company the department had contracted. Each day off work meant a cut in wages; being away for several days, there wouldn’t be much left at the end of the month.
‘That’s why I’d better not go, but thinking about it I can’t help feeling sorry. How I would like to go back to see the gold all over the rice fields!’ Marlee raised her hand and struck a pose. ‘And when the wind blows, ah, boss, the ears of rice waving to and fro are such a beautiful sight!’
She could empathise with Marlee’s words. She was no city dweller by birth. As a child she had known the fields turning golden at sunset around Suphan Buri. They were still vivid in her memory. She felt lonely and sad whenever she came across such scenes. Marlee made her think of her childhood again, a childhood tightly linked to nature in the country. She should find the time to take a trip back there.
‘You seem really eager to go back, waxing lyrical like this. Come here, help me with this.’ She walked back to her desk. ‘Get them unstuck, will you. I’ve no idea how they got stuck like this.’
‘Oh, but that’s your favourite cup!’ Marlee took the cups and then laughed. She used her hands to pull at the small cup with full force, but failed. She tried again, even more strongly, without success.
‘Mind your hands. If a cup breaks, you could get hurt,’ she warned when she saw Marlee go at it with all her might, making her feel apprehensive.
Marlee huffed dejectedly before asking, ‘How come they got stuck anyway?’
‘When I went to wash them. I just slipped it inside without thinking. I haven’t had coffee yet today…’
‘Good grief! Why didn’t you tell me? There are lots of other cups.’
‘No way, I prefer to drink out of my own.’
Marlee again tried, and tried again – with no result.
She watched her with growing unease. ‘Enough. Looks like it’ll never come out.’
‘Then no coffee for you,’ Marlee ventured. ‘Never mind. I’ll try with washing liquid to make it slippery so it comes out easy.’
‘Go ahead. Anything to get it out.’
‘Do you want another cup first so you can have a coffee?’
‘Never mind. I’ve just had milk.’
Marlee left with the two cups.
Such a trifling matter and look where it gets us, she thought, amused.
When she had signed all the documents, her mobile rang. It was her husband. What did he want now? If they had to quarrel like this morning, she didn’t feel like taking the call. She was fed up, annoyed and didn’t want to speak to him. The ringing persisted. She wavered, decided to press the button. They spoke for a while and tempers flared again.
‘I’ve had enough of talking to you! You behave as if I didn’t exist, as if our home, as if our daughter didn’t exist either!’ she shouted back and then pushed the ‘off’ button.
What kind of mad life was this? She was a woman endowed with work responsibilities. Her husband was a high civil servant. They had a lovely daughter. What an ideal family this was! Everybody was jealous of her family. But then what was the use? It was nothing but a dazzling mask.
By now she seriously wondered exactly why it was she and her husband had married and kept living together as a family. Love? Preposterous! That would be the very last reason. It happened as a matter of course. Due to her status she would associate with people whose responsibilities matched hers and it was he who had stepped into the last years of her life as a single woman. That’s right: she had almost missed the boat of matrimony. Was it good luck or bad luck? She wasn’t quite sure.
‘Here you are, boss.’ Marlee’s voice reached the room before she did.
She escaped from her thoughts. Marlee held the coffee cup out to her.
‘Great. How did you do it?’
She took the cup and held it, turned it around to check it. It was fine. Not even a chip.
‘Hey? What about the other cup?’ she asked.
Marlee smiled to herself but didn’t answer right away. ‘The big cup, right?’ she repeated as if she didn’t want to answer. ‘I had to, you see, otherwise you’d have had to go without coffee.’ She had a discomfited smile.
‘You know how it is … I really had to. No matter what, it wouldn’t come out. I had the other helpers try as well but nothing doing. So I…’
‘Broke it and threw the pieces away?’
‘Yes, boss.’ Marlee nodded.
She was silent for a while. Marlee didn’t dare to look her in the eye.
‘Since there was no other way, well then, it doesn’t matter really.’
Marlee could smile. ‘But I weighed the pros and cons,’ she hastened to explain when she saw her remaining silent. ‘You prefer the small cup so I decided it was the one to keep. That was my way of thinking, see. I hope you don’t mind, boss.’
‘It’s fine. Thanks very much.’
Marlee walked out of the room.
She was still for a while, looking at the small coffee cup, thinking of what Marlee had said. That’s right, sometimes you have to come to a decision, when you fall into a situation where you have to choose. She stroked the small coffee cup back and forth as if deep in thought.
By now she had to make her choice.
[First published in the collection of Nai-In Award winning stories, 2007 – Current translation from Rao Long Luem Arai Bang Yang (Things We Forget), March 2008, Samnakphim Nakhorn, 02-516 46 05/6]
[English translation published in the Bangkok Post of September 8, 2008]