Two cups – Watchara Satjasarrasin
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]