Ties that bind – Reungsak Kamthorn
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.