“In The Wink of an Eye”
One indisputable feature of life in Thailand is that it is very rare, and indeed very difficult for anyone to be truly alone. In fact, it is not unheard of for Thais to take the extreme measure of leaving the embraces of their own country as the only way to find the solitude and privacy that they crave.
I should add that this is an extremely rare phenomenon, as a vast majority of Thais are extremely content in their own, unique environment. Indeed, there is no doubt that most Thais derive considerable comfort by immersing themselves in the gregarious and, some may say, intrusive nature of their own, distinctive culture.
Foreigners, or farangs, who live in Thailand, are not immune to this phenomenon, and they often find themselves uncomfortably exposed to the instinctive curiosity of the Thais amongst whom they live.
With their infectious good humour and sheer zest for life, Thais will always want to know everything about people who come within their daily circle – be they friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, or merely those poor innocents who they have just encountered in a shop, office, restaurant or some other public place.
Even when walking innocently along the street, one is liable to be accosted with such enquiries as; ‘Where are you going? ‘Where have you been’? ‘What have you been doing?’ Are you alone? Do you have a partner?’ and so on. These intrusions are all part of life’s daily fare.
Thus, unsuspecting farangs are frequently subjected to the same endless stream of questions from any inquisitive Thai they may happen to come across, often from people that they hardly know. ‘Where you come from?’ ‘How long you live in Thailand?’ ‘Where you work?’ ‘How old are you? All these and more can become an irritation, if not handled with a smile and a liberal smattering of Thai.
But the wary farang had better ensure this smattering of spoken Thai is not only sufficient to understand and deal with those initial enquiries, but also the inevitable follow ups; because, such inquisitors will not quit until they know the victim’s life history. Such are some of the joys for farangs who choose to take up residence in ‘The Land of Smiles’.
But there are compensations; for a lonely person will never be lonely for long and anyone in need of advice, emotional or spiritual support will rarely have to look far to find a friendly face.
The year was nineteen seventy-four and I felt that it was one of the worst periods of my life. I had broken up with my Thai wife in traumatic circumstances, and I had lost my well-paid, expatriate job.
My savings were gone and I was barely able to make ends meet, eking out a living working for a very miserly Thai businessman. I was emaciated, extremely depressed and when meagre funds permitted, was verging on the alcoholic. I took pills to sleep, and more pills to get me up and going in the morning.
I had found employment as a ‘farang’ manager for peculiarly charismatic gentleman by the name of Ittiput, who ran a radio station. Ittiput happened to be crazy about western music and had a driving ambition to promote rock concerts in Thailand.
We had met through a mutual friend, and although Ittiput was indeed a charismatic personality, he was also extraordinarily miserly, and took advantage of my desperate and impecunious situation to employ me at a wage that most self-respecting Thai managers would have rejected out of hand. I was the western ‘face’ with which Ittiput would attempt to lure western rock bands to come and play in Thailand, and he got me at a bargain rate.
It was at Ittiput’s radio studio that I met Som, a very thin and badly scarred young man who worked as Ittiput’s radio engineer. If I was badly paid, it paled into insignificance when compared to the pittance that Som received at the end of each month’s hard graft.
I learnt that Som had three young daughters and a wife to support on his meagre earnings, but in spite of this, his good humour, fortitude and genuine desire to help his work colleagues amazed me.
With the notable exception of Som, Ittiput attracted staff with similar character traits as himself, and he had assembled a group of Thai radio disc jockeys and marketing executives who seemed to be determined to make Som’s life as miserable as possible. The group came from wealthy upper class families, and although their salaries weren’t exactly spectacular, they certainly earned more than I did, and in any event, they were mainly there to bask in the prestige of having a ‘show business’ career. Salary for them was a secondary consideration. It was just pocket money, as their parents picked up all the major bills in their rarefied, high society lives.
Som was from the other end of the social spectrum, and he was effectively treated as the office servant. He was at the beck and call of Ittiput and the rich Thai group from early morning to late evening. Not only did he have to record their radio programmes, (and put up with their childish tantrums), but he also had to go out to buy them food and drink, run their myriad errands, answer their phone calls, and goodness knows what else. – All in the course of each long day’s work at Ittiput’s radio studios.
As I started to get the rock concert business on the road, Ittiput wasn’t content with Som just working his long daily schedule in the studio, and he started to co-opt the poor guy to help out at the concert venues. He would often work all night, putting up sound systems, sorting out seating, acting as a roadie for the artists, and even deputising as door security when the occasion demanded.
He did actually receive some extra payments for this work, but as I was to find out later, I think he would have preferred to spend a little more time with his family rather than exhaust himself earning the miserly handouts given to him by the mean spirited Ittiput.
Notwithstanding Som’s daily struggle to satisfy the ever-increasing demands at work, and to take care of his young family, he went out of his way to make friends with me, and he was always most solicitous of my welfare.
It was obvious to Som that I was one very unhappy, miserable farang, and he somehow found the time to cheer me up and convince me that the end of the world wasn’t just round the corner. ‘Mr. Mobi,’ he would say in his stammering and hesitant voice, ‘I know you have broken heart, but there are plenty of beautiful girls in Thailand. That girl who hurt you – Nid – she no good. Next time you find a good girl – not same Nid – she no good,’ he would repeat for good measure – as if I didn’t already know.’
‘I know Som, I know. But how can I find a girl if I barely earn enough money to keep body and soul together? Who’s going to look at me – a poor farang?
One particular day when the conversation had taken its now familiar course, Som made the fairly obvious observation that if I were to move into more modest accommodation, then I would have more disposable income to spend on the pleasures of life. It was a valid point. Even though I had lost my well paid job, I was still clinging to a very nice western style apartment that I could ill afford.
‘But where will I go Som? I don’t know any cheaper places, and I don’t think I could survive in a Thai style room. It would be too hot.’
‘Mr Mobi, you have to move. That place cost too much. I show you rooms – very cheap. They Ok – not too bad. You open windows – turn on fan – room very cool. I promise you. Why don’t you come and see?’
‘Come and see where Som?’
‘Near my home, in Bangbor. We take bus from office – about twenty minutes. Why don’t you and me go? – after work next Saturday – and I show you?’
I didn’t have much to lose, and in my forlorn predicament I certainly had no prior engagements, so I agreed that we should go and do a bit of room hunting the following Saturday.
* * *
I should have added “work permitting”, as it was past four o’ clock when we finally left the office, due to our dearly beloved Ittiput demanding more than his usual ‘pound of flesh’ before letting us go for a much shortened weekend break.
‘It’s so late Mr Mobi; we better go my place first and have some food, and then we can go and look some rooms,’ Som told me as we walked to the bus stop.
‘Whatever is convenient Som – I’m in your hands. But I can’t impose on your hospitality for a meal. It’s not fair on you, I’m sure your family aren’t expecting me,’ I protested.
I didn’t wish to embarrass him by adding that I also doubted he could afford to cater for a strange farang, in addition to his own hungry brood.
‘You not worry,’ he assured me. ‘You know Thai style – everyone welcome to come and eat.’
‘I know Som – but even so – you’ve got enough problems, without having to feed me.’
‘Mr Mobi – you don’t understand – just wait and see,’ he assured me.
The bus dropped us a few kilometres from the office, and we walked into a narrow, local Soi.
‘This is Bangbor, and we must walk about ten minutes.’ Som assured me, as we weaved our way through a maze of back streets that bristled with the hustle and bustle of suburban Bangkok.
We took so many turnings, which were supposedly short cuts that within minutes I hadn’t a clue where I was. It seemed nearer to twenty than the promised ten minutes when we eventually entered a very narrow, muddy footpath that snaked over a foul smelling canal and finally led us to a cluster of suburban dwellings: some of wooden structure, and others, terraced concrete ‘shop-houses’.
You couldn’t quite describe it as a slum, but it was obviously a residential area for the poor and working class.
We eventually came to a small compound, which was bordered by houses of all shapes and sizes, and in varying stages of disrepair. The area was a hive of activity, and in one corner there were cooking pots steaming on charcoal fires, with a somewhat rotund woman stir-frying vegetables in a large smoking wok that exuded the pungent aroma of garlic and chillies.
Most of the area was taken up by a long wooden dining table, together with a collection of ramshackle chairs and stools of mixed origins and materials. About half of the seats were occupied by a motley collection of people, and as we entered the clearing, there were some joyful shouts of welcome to Som, who was obviously a popular member of what I took to be the local community.
Naturally, there was much fluster and merriment following the arrival of a farang in the midst of all this activity, and there ensued much wai-ing and introductions, during the course of which, I discovered that I wasn’t exactly an unknown person.
‘Mr Mobi,’ said one tall very thin man called Nop, who spoke a little English, ‘Som tell me you have broken heart’.
This was very embarrassing. ‘Well, … not really… what exactly did Som say to you?’
‘He say your girl do very bad – sleep around - and we have to find you a new one.’
This was getting worse. ‘What else did he say?’
‘He say your salary much more than Som’s, but you waste too much money on your apartment. And we have to find you cheap room,’ he finished with a flourish.
My God, my life was an open book with these people!
‘Som! Som!’ I shouted, as he seemed to have discretely disappeared inside one of the wooden houses, which I assumed was where he lived.
Som reappeared in a pakomar, a Thai-style loincloth, and asked me:
“What was the matter?”, as he was going to have a quick shower before dinner.
‘Som, have you told everyone about my personal life?’
‘Calm down, calm down Mr Mobi. You know Thailand – everyone knows everyone’s business. When all my friends found out I worked with a farang, they wanted to know all about you.’
‘Well I wish you had kept it to yourself – it’s so embarrassing Som!’
‘Don’t worry Mobi. Everyone just wants to help you – they don’t mind what you’ve been up to.’
‘But I do!’ I protested, to no avail.
Som went back in the house for his shower, and I became resigned to making my life an open book amongst these apparently friendly strangers.
I walked back to the table, and was offered a seat at its centre. Someone put some Thai snacks in front of me, and a tall, very dark man, also in a Pakomar, approached me and introduced himself in Thai as ‘Yow’ – which means very long– ‘most appropriate,’ I was thinking.
‘Mister – you give me fifty Baht,’ he said very abruptly, in badly broken English and in what appeared to me to be a slightly menacing manner.
He was asking for the equivalent of about one pound, so I decided it would be prudent to comply with this request and was in the process of taking the money from my wallet when Som reappeared.
‘Yow, what are you up to?’
‘We need to buy a bottle of whisky, and I’m sure this farang won’t miss fifty baht,’ he replied to Som, not realising that I actually understood quite a lot of Thai, after living in the country for over two years
‘Mr Mobi, please excuse Yow – he is very rude. No education, you know. Please put your money away – you are my guest.’
Som then proceeded to berate Yow for his behaviour, although I comprehended only about half of what was said. Yow didn’t seem to appreciate being chastised by someone less than half his size and a heated argument commenced, which before long spread to the entire occupants of the compound.
I was beginning to wonder what on earth I had walked in to, when a well dressed man, who looked to be in his early forties, appeared at the table. Almost immediately peace descended.
‘What’s going on Som?’ he asked in a soft, controlled voice.
Som and Yow related to the new-comer the cause of the argument and I was impressed with the authority and calm with which he listened to both sides of the story, before telling the two of them to apologise and for everyone to sit down and have something to eat.
In a final act of conciliation, the man then produced some money from his own wallet and told one of the younger boys to run and get some whisky before :‘We all die of thirst!’
The smiles reappeared as Som belatedly introduced me:
‘Mr Mobi, this is Pee Prasert. He is my – he is everyone’s very good friend.’
‘I am pleased to meet you Mobi,’ Pee Prasert said to me in Thai, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’
‘Pee’ in Thai means older brother, and is commonly used to denote an older and usually wiser man, in the broader sense of brother, rather than as a reference to a blood relation.
‘I am pleased to meet you Prasert, and thank you for resolving the argument. I was becoming quite concerned.’
‘Oh that was nothing. They fight like that all the time, they are just silly children.’
‘Pee, I think we are all your children,’ Som added.
‘Yes Som, you are all my children – delinquents everyone,’ he joked. ‘Now Mobi, please have some food with us. The whisky is on its way, and I am sorry that Yow had such bad manners in asking you to pay.’
‘It’s Ok Prasert, I don’t mind buying a bottle – it’s the least I can do.’
‘Don’t worry Mobi, I am sure you will have plenty of opportunities later’.
The Thai whisky arrived, the cooking continued and the late afternoon stretched into evening. At some point in the evening I did buy a fresh bottle, and as the evening wore on, others at the table procured additional bottles. The eating and drinking went on into the small hours.
I learnt that night the Thai version of our ancient English proverb; ‘Waste not, want not’.
At one point, all that remained on the table was half a bucket of ice, but we couldn’t possibly waste it, so some more whisky and soda had to be bought to use up the ice. Similarly, sometime later, only a bottle of soda water remained, but it would be a terrible thing to waste all that soda, so ice and whisky had to be bought to use up the soda.
I don’t need to relate what happened when, during one very brief moment, we only had about half a bottle of whisky left. It all led to a very long evening, and we certainly didn’t waste, nor did we want!
I also learnt a lot about another side of Thai life that I had never seen before, sheltered as I had been in my luxurious western-type existence and living and working in the more affluent areas of central Bangkok.
This was a poor community, and it was certainly a fascinating and diverse group who came and went on that first evening that I spent with Som and his friends.
Some of those present were undoubtedly alcoholics, or very close to it. In particular there was one thin, very dirty, middle aged man, who, unusually for a Thai, had a long white unkempt beard. His threadbare clothes were full of holes and he came barefoot to the table with a perpetual manic-type smile on his face.
He held a small brown bottle from which he sipped every few seconds. A few of those present tried to send him on his way, but Prasert would have none of it. He bid the unfortunate sole most welcome, and insisted on introducing him to me, his ‘guest of honour’.
His name was Job, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it all when he put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a manic grin, mumbling away in an indecipherable dialect.
Prasert assured me that he was harmless, and handed him a glass of whisky, which he downed in one gulp, and a plate of rice with meat, which he seemed to have quite a problem in digesting finally giving up after a couple of small mouthfuls.
He was finally persuaded to move on by the gentle Prasert, who filled his pockets with some food – dried beef I think – and squeezed a couple of banknotes into his hand.
Then there was Yow, the very large fierce looking man, who had demanded money from me when I first arrived and who nearly came to blows with poor Som.
It would seem that it was part of Yow’s nature to be aggressive, and as the evening drew on, it became apparent that some of his formative years had been spent in jail. I gathered that he still didn’t exactly obey all the laws of the land and probably was little better than a petty criminal.
I also guessed that he wasn’t beyond using the odd bit of violence when the occasion demanded it.
Also there was Piak, a heroin addict. He was a sad and very scrawny young man, who was in imminent danger of losing his boyish good looks if he didn’t find a way to cure his terrible addiction.
As with Job, the tramp, most people welcomed Piak to the table, particularly Prasert, who went out of his way to ensure that Piak was properly fed and that someone stayed close to him as he started to withdraw from his most recent fix.
Even more bizarre were the presence of two policemen, Vichai and Vitaya. They were both young, fit specimens of Thai manhood, and Vitaya, in particular looked very handsome and dashing in his tight fitting, razor pressed khaki uniform.
Vitaya was quite voluble, and prone to argue very loudly, while Vichai, who was accompanied by his pregnant wife, was more content to sit quietly and sip his whisky.
Neither of them seemed to find it incongruous that they were socialising with criminals, drunks, addicts, and other ‘dregs of society’. I gathered that they were both police sergeants, which meant that even though they already moved two steps up the promotion ladder, their official salaries were still extremely low.
But as sergeants, they were able to wield not inconsiderable influence, and they managed to augment their meagre earnings through other nefarious, less official means.
They didn’t look as though they were people to trifle with, and they were clearly held in respect by many of those present that night. Prasert however, treated them in his customary manner, chiding them when they spoke out of line, dispensing advice on their personal problems and at one late point in the evening, calming a very drunk Vitaya when he started to become violent.
Amazingly, Vitaya submitted totally to Prasert’s gentle demands that he must desist, and even apologised for the unpleasant incident. Som told me later that the two sergeants held Prasert in the greatest respect, as he had been very kind to them in the past and had given them a lot of help in both their personal lives and their careers.
There were many more, some pretty near destitute, and others: a mishmash of factory workers, labourers and street traders. Most of them had saved a little cash to spend on eating and drinking with their friends on a Saturday evening after a long hard week.
I concluded that the “spirit of traditional Thai hospitality” was alive and well in this humble setting, for it was apparent that those who were able to, willingly contributed to the general purse, and those who had nothing, enjoyed the generosity of their slightly better off companions.
There was also a fair sprinkling of females around that large table. Some were wives or girlfriends of the hardened male drinkers; others were seasoned ‘drinkers’ in their own right.
I was introduced to Som’s wife, who was the large woman I had seen busy cooking when I first arrived.
Som’s three daughters appeared at various times during the evening, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet three neatly dressed, charming, polite and intelligent pre-teenagers.
How Som and his wife had managed to bring them up so well in the prevailing conditions was a little short of a miracle.
But I started to gather that Prasert might have had something to do with it. He was clearly the central cog in a lively and tight knit community.
Whenever I asked Som about one or other or the characters seated around that table, their personal situation almost invariably involved Prasert in their background, somewhere along the line. Prasert, at some point in their life, had been engaged in some act of generosity or kindness towards them that had helped them get back on their feet or had saved them from a tricky situation.
‘What is Prasert’s job Som?’
‘Oh he is a teacher, and so is his wife.’
‘But he can’t earn much as a teacher, yet he seems to be so generous to everyone.’
‘Mr Mobi – how do you say in English? – “A little money goes a long way.”
Pee Prasert lives very simply with his wife, in a small room in that house on the corner. Their salary is not a lot, but they don’t need much money, so there is always a little to spare on a good cause.
‘They have no children. Sometimes I think we are their children – all of us who live around here. Prasert holds us all together – the good and the bad – and as he says, “Even the bad have some good in them. You just have to find it.” He is a very good man Mobi.’
I was beginning to see that, and it made me feel very humble. It was getting late, and I suddenly remembered that we hadn’t accomplished the purpose of my visit to this strange corner of Bangkok. I decided that it was far too late to do anything about it at that time of the night.
‘Som, I hate to mention it, but what happened to our proposed tour of the local rooms for rent?
‘Oh my God! Mr Mobi. I forgot all about it, I’m so sorry. Maybe we can go tomorrow if you’re free?’
I was, but although I had enjoyed an absolutely fascinating evening, I wasn’t too sure that I could get used to living in an area such as this and was starting to back away from the whole idea of moving ‘down-market’.
However, the decision was taken out of my hands when Som started discussing my affairs with the assembled group, after which he happily informed me:
‘Mr Mobi, my friends want to help you to find a home, so we will all meet tomorrow and have a look around the neighbourhood.’
I was trying to think of a way out, so in desperation, I told Som in English that I’d love to meet them all tomorrow, but I didn’t think I could ever find my way back. So maybe it would be better if we left it for a few weeks until I was able to familiarise myself with the area.
Som passed this on, and much discussion ensued, which culminated, to my horror, with the decision that a group of them would come to my apartment in the morning and accompany me back to the environs of my ‘new home’.
It was past two in the morning, and I wasn’t in any condition to argue further. In fact my main concern at that point in the proceedings was how on earth was I going to make it home. if that is possible.
It was at least twenty minutes walk to the main road, even if I could find the way, which I considered most unlikely. Once again Som anticipated my problem by arranging for one of my new found police friends to give me a lift on the back of his motorcycle to the main road. From there, I could hail a taxi.
In retrospect, I’m glad that I remember very little about that ‘hair-raising’ lift to the road on the back of a high-speed motorcycle, driven by a very drunken police sergeant.
Suffice to say I eventually made it home, after a long and remarkable day, during which I had probably doubled the number of friends I could claim in Bangkok, and had met a most extraordinary man – Pee Prasert.
* * *
My very deep and dreamless sleep was shattered by some loud banging on my front door, accompanied by the intermittent shouting of my name, ‘Mr Mobi… Mr Mobi… Wake up!’
I looked at my clock and was shocked to find it was already past noon. ‘That was some sleep, the longest I’ve had in ages,’ I thought as I roused myself to get up and open the door. Then the headache and nausea kicked in, and I remembered.
‘That was also some night,’ I mumbled to myself. I was still a little drunk as I walked unsteadily across the room and opened the door to Som, and what appeared to be most of the group who were at the previous night’s drinking session.
They all trooped in, as bright and cheerful as though they had been sleeping for a week, despite the fact that when I had left Som’s compound, I had the distinct impression that the party was far from over.
‘Good God Som, how can you all be so cheerful? What time did you all go to bed?’
‘Oh about four o’clock, why?’
‘And what time did you get up then?’
‘Around nine. We’ve all been to check out all the rooms for rent before coming over here.’
‘How do you guys do it? I feel terrible.’ I responded disconsolately, as I looked at the assembled motley collection.
They were busying themselves exploring my untidy apartment and taking in the impressive view of Bangkok from my balcony. There was Yow, the ex felon, (who made me feel a little uneasy,) Piak the drug addict, Vichai, the quiet police sergeant, together with his pregnant wife, Vitaya, the more voluble cop, and a number of others whose names escaped me.
The consensus of opinion seemed to be that it would be a great place to have a party or to entertain a mistress, but no one in their right minds would fork out the kind of money I did every month to live in such a place. Now that my earnings were much reduced, I was obliged to admit they were right.
‘Come on Mr. Mobi, let’s go and check out the rooms,’ Som badgered me, as I ‘walked’ through my shower, and threw on some clothes.
We all shuffled out into the road, where the two policemen jumped on a parked motorcycle, and the rest of us squeezed into a passing bus.
We had another walk through the suburban maze at Bangbor, before stopping outside a three-storey ‘shop house’ which looked to be in a reasonable state of repair. We all made our way to the third floor, where to my surprise, I found Prasert, awaiting our arrival.
‘Welcome, Mobi. Come in and have a look around,’ Prasert said as he opened the door.
It was a very clean room, with a highly polished wooden floor. There was a sink at one end, with a small shower/WC at the other. I would be able to do the odd spot of cooking here, I thought, and there was even a pleasant view of the surrounding streets from the window at the front end of the room.
It was a far cry from what I was used to, but it was certainly adequate for my immediate needs. The rent was a fraction of what I was currently paying, so my objective of increasing my disposable income would be successfully achieved.
‘I think its fine Prasert, but how will I move all my furniture and stuff over here?’
‘You’re new friends here will help you. We just need to hire a small truck and these good people will do the rest won’t you lads?’
There were general murmurs of assent we walked downstairs to complete the deal with the landlord.
He wanted three month’s deposit, which I didn’t have. However, it was agreed that I would pay over the requested sum when I moved in on the following Saturday. I decided that I could always take some of my possessions to a pawnshop to raise the required sum, should it prove necessary.
It was time for lunch, or in my case, breakfast, so we adjourned to the now familiar compound, for a simple meal of boiled rice soup with some dried prawns and pickled vegetables. It was delicious, and had the wonderful effect of settling my stomach.
After lunch, most of the group gradually dispersed, and by mid afternoon it was just Prasert and I remaining at the table.
‘Mobi, you look worried,’ Prasert said.
‘Well I do have a couple of problems about this move, Prasert.
‘Firstly,’ I said with a smile, ‘This Bangbor area is such a maze of back streets and footpaths, that I’m going to need a map and compass to find my way home every night.’
‘Oh you’ll soon get to know the way. You can come home with Som until you’re ready to‘go it alone’.’
‘Som – yes, Prasert. Som’s been so good to me.’
‘He’s a very good person, Mobi. He has suffered a lot in his short life. Did you know that?’
I didn’t, so after a little persuasion, Prasert related the story of how Som once had a much better job in a good company, but one day he was involved in a horrendous road accident. Everyone thought he was going to die, but Prasert managed to get him moved to a better hospital and he eventually recovered.
‘He has never been the same since the accident. He now speaks with a stammer, and he can’t always remember things properly. It was inevitable that he would lose his job,’ Prasert explained simply.
Som’s terrible scars were now explained, but I was curious as to how he managed to find the job he now had with Ittiput. Knowing Ittiput as I did, I found it difficult to believe he would hire someone like Som, if as Prasert explained; he was suffering from some kind of brain damage as a result of his accident.
‘It’s strange that Ittiput agreed to hire Som, in the circumstances,’ I said.
‘Yes Mobi, you’re quite right. All things being equal, Ittiput would never have employed Som.’
‘Then how did it happen?’
Prasert seemed reluctant to enlighten me, but eventually he said, ‘I made him, Mobi.’
‘Because Mobi, it was Ittiput who was responsible for Som’s condition. He was driving his Mercedes Benz and he went through a red light when Som was crossing the road. He hit him head-on.
There were witnesses. Everyone knew it was Ittiput, but the police wouldn’t do anything because he had too much influence. So I went to see him and asked him to help Som and his family by giving him a job.
At first he refused, but when I suggested that the newspapers might be interested in the story of a well known radio personality who nearly killed a young man and then refused to help him, he eventually changed his mind.’
‘Weren’t you afraid that Ittiput might use his influence to harm you?’ I asked.
‘Of course I was, but I had to do it. I couldn’t stand by and see Som and his family starve, could I?
I was pondering what a brave and selfless man he was, when he interrupted my reverie by turning his attention back to my current situation.
‘Mobi, you said you had two problems regarding your move here. What is the second?’
‘Oh it’s silly really. But I’ll never fit all my furniture and stuff in that small room. What will I do with it all?’
Prasert rose from his stool and grasped my arm. ‘Come on, let’s go and see all this furniture and decide what we can do.’
I thought I had imposed on Prasert’s hospitality long enough, and tried to persuade him to let me sort it all out, but he insisted on accompanying me back home, ‘To show you the way out of this maze we live in,’ he insisted, ‘and to sort out your furniture problems’.
Back at my apartment, Prasert surveyed the collection I had amassed over the past two years, and agreed that I would indeed have a problem fitting it all in my new home.
We went out onto the balcony and I produced a couple of cold beers, so we decided to sit and watch the sun set over Bangkok, whilst we deliberated over my dilemma.
‘Mobi, I think you have far more serious problems than deciding how to dispose of some unwanted furniture,’ Prasert said as we started to sip our beers.
‘What do you mean Prasert?’
‘Som has told me your story.’
‘What story Prasert?’
‘You lost your job, you lost your girl, and you drink too much.’
‘That’s all true, but I’m managing. As for drinking too much, with all due respect Prasert, I hardly think you can talk after the drinking session we had last night!’
‘Mobi, there’s drinking and drinking. Most of us Thais know when to drink and when to stop. Saturday night is a good time to drink and relax at the end of a hard week. Som tells me that you drink every day and sometimes all night. He tells me that some days when you arrive at work you’re still drunk. That is not so good Mobi.
‘I know, I know Prasert. But I can’t sleep.’
‘Why not Mobi?’
‘I don’t know.’
There was a long pause in the conversation. I wasn’t going to fob this man off with my usual flippant remarks, and in any event he almost certainly knew most of my background story from Som.
So I decided to be truthful, and after a while I continued, ‘Well I suppose I can’t stop thinking about my girl friend. About what she did to me, about what she’s doing now. I still love her, Prasert.’
I looked at Prasert dejectedly. ‘Can you understand that? I just can’t seem to get over her.’
‘And what about the drugs Mobi?’
Another long pause.
‘Well, sometimes I take something to help me sleep.’
‘And sometimes you take something to help you wake up, don’t you Mobi?’
‘Mobi, You can’t carry on like this. Som tells me that you hardly eat. You are so thin, you will get ill if you don’t take a hold of your life.’
‘How can I do that Prasert? I’m so unhappy!’
‘We will help you. Come and live near us and we will help you to see there is more to life than losing a silly girl. We are a big family, and you need proper friends, not just a bunch of drunk farangs, like the ones that you meet in the Patpong bars.’
I started to talk about my life in a way that I hadn’t done for years, and we chatted for hours as the sunset faded and night crept over the Bangkok skyline. Prasert’s calm and reasonable manner was somehow comforting. Time flew and eventually he had to reluctantly leave.
‘Prasert, you came here to help me decide how to get rid of my excess furniture, and you’ve spent the whole evening trying to solve my personal problems. And I still don’t know what to do with all this stuff,’ I said jokingly.
‘Oh that’s so easy. Do you know what you want to keep?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good, now give me a pen and paper.’
He wrote something in large Thai script on the paper and handed it to me. ‘Now stick this on the outside of your door before you go to bed.’
Although my spoken Thai was improving all the time, I couldn’t read or write a word.
‘What does it say?’
‘It says: “Furniture Sale – Here -Wednesday at 7 p.m.” Can you be here at that time?’
‘Yes, but who is going to read that?’
‘Don’t you worry; plenty of people will read it. I’m sure you will sell everything very quickly. Now, I must be going. Don’t forget the sale on Wednesday, and don’t forget you’re moving out next Saturday.’
I looked at Prasert and he returned my stare.
‘Don’t forget Saturday, Mobi and don’t forget what I have told you about your drinking and drug taking.’
He stare was so intense that I couldn’t refuse him.
‘No, Prasert, I won’t forget anything you have told me.’
He relaxed his face a little and smiled at me. Then suddenly his smile seemed to change into a wink. I had never seen a Thai person wink, but here was the respected Prasert , a pillar of the local community, winking at me, a farang.
I had no idea why, but burst I burst out laughing.
‘Prasert, why did you wink? It was a wink, wasn’t it?
‘Was it?’ he answered enigmatically. He was still smiling, but offered no further explanation.
I walked with him downstairs to the street, and watched as this likeable, new found friend, with an amiable smile still on his face, disappeared from sight into the Bangkok night.
Back in my room, I lay down fully clothed to think about things for a few minutes but almost immediately fell into a deep, drug free and almost alcohol-free slumber.
It was the best night’s sleep I had had in a very long time.
There was already a long queue forming when I arrived home just before seven on the following Wednesday evening. I was amazed at the amount of interest in my second hand discards.
Apparently, all the potential buyers were from my neighbours in the apartment block, and incredibly, by eight o’ clock, I had disposed of all my excess property. Not only had I sold it all for cash, but it all was removed as well! I now had enough money for the deposit on my new home, and everything was set for the big move.
Despite a lot of shouting, sweating and several narrow escapes when we had to manoeuvre some of my larger items up the narrow staircase, the move went without any major hitches. By late afternoon on the following Saturday, I was ensconced in my new room, surrounded by Som and his beaming gaggle of friends, who were busy rearranging the furniture to what they considered to be the best positions.
‘Som, I know you all mean well, but I think you can leave me to put the finishing touches to my new home. I’m very grateful for all your help, and just as soon as I’ve finished here, I’ll come on over to your place and we can have a celebration – and it’s all on me – my treat.’
This offer was enough to persuade one and all to desist from poking my possessions around and to make a hasty exit, in the hope of expediting the commencement of the promised party.
And so the whole community had a memorable evening in welcoming Mobi, their newest neighbour, and it became the first of many happy evenings and weekends that I spent with Som, Prasert and his friends who resided in this most convivial of Bangkok suburbs.
During the following months I grew to know and love this poor community of working class people. As with any other group of people, they were a mixed bunch, with good and bad characters.
In time, I learnt which ones to be wary of when they were drunk, which were the ones who never put their hand in their pockets – even when they had some money, and the ones who always paid more than their fair share – sometimes when they could ill afford to do so.
Then there were those that always laughed and joked, and others who always seemed to be so sad and weighed down by life’s daily problems. And there were always the few who would argue and pick fights on the slightest of provocations.
The community seemed to have a knack of self-disciplining its members. If at any time a member of the group behaved in an unacceptable manner, he would be told in no uncertain terms to sort himself out, or he would no longer be welcome.
It usually worked, although occasionally one or other of the more recalcitrant miscreants would disappear for a week or so, only to eventually re-appear, having come to their senses and looking suitably contrite. Then nothing further would be said provided that all were satisfied that the offender really had learned his lesson.
The trials and tribulations of such a community were many and various. But there always seemed to be a helping hand or a word of advice for the unfortunate victim of the moment, and within the group’s limited means, it was remarkable how often that someone with serious financial problems, would receive assistance in clearing his debts.
And of course all of this existed under the guidance and watchful eyes of ‘big brother’, or Pee Prasert. He was the central pivot who clearly held the community together by the sheer moral force of his personality.
His kindness, generosity and concern for all, without fear or favour, was renowned and respected, even by the most rebellious members of that disparate ‘family’.
Prasert spent many long evenings talking to me, and helping me to put my life back into some semblance of order. Over the weeks and months, the memory of my bad experiences became less painful, and within this simple brotherhood of friends, I started to find a new contentment and happiness – a sense of well being.
I realised that most, if not all of my new friends were probably worse off financially than I was, and would have far more reason to be depressed about the life they were obliged to lead. Yet in their simple way, they were happy and content, and did not seek greater wealth or feel particularly envious towards those who were better off than themselves.
* * *
Som and I continued to slave for the terrible Ittiput, and gradually the rock concert business became a regular feature on the Bangkok music scene.
One satisfying and rewarding outcome of these concerts was the opportunity for me to provide casual employment to several of the able bodied men in my adopted community, who I hired to help out as labourers and act as security guards at the concert venues.
Som no longer had to do everything alone, and it wasn’t long before we had an experienced and semi-professional team of ‘roadies’ and security personnel who immensely enjoyed their new roles in the glamorous world of show business.
Needless to say, the post concert parties were something to behold. We would invariably adjourn to the home compound at Bangbor, where a great deal of food and whisky would be consumed, much of it supplied by those who, on previous occasions had been too poor to contribute.
In particular, Yow, that fearsome black giant, had made a wonderful head of security, and was the first to donate some of his precious earnings. I used to smile as I recalled the previous occasion when he had demanded money from me, and which had now become a distant memory.
Occasionally, I would revisit the Patpong bars that I used to habituate in my ‘pre-Bangbor’ era, for with all the money I was saving on the rent, I could afford to return to my old drinking haunts now and then.
On these occasions I would meet up with a few of my old farang acquaintances, but somehow it wasn’t the same, and it always reopened the old bitter memories.
It was difficult for many of my old friends to believe me, but there was no doubt that my alcohol intake had definitely reduced considerably since I had come under Prasert’s influence.
But there was one particular occasion, when in some inexplicable and temporary reversion to my past ways, I became so drunk one day from a night back at the old establishments that upon awakening in the morning, I discovered a strange female beside me in my bed.
Up to that point, not only had I refrained from bringing any ladies to my new home, but to my utter consternation, I had no recollection of how she happened to be there.
I was wondering what I was going to do with my ‘visitor’, when there was a loud bang on my door.
‘Mr. Mobi Mr. Mobi. Wake up, it’s late. We’ll be late for work’
I looked at my watch and realised I had overslept. ‘I won’t be a minute Som, can you wait downstairs?’ I asked, too embarrassed to let Som see who I had brought home.
‘Why downstairs Mobi?’ Som replied as he turned the door handle, and to my horror, the door opened and he walked in. I must have forgotten to lock the door when I came home.
‘Mobi, who is that in your bed?’
‘Um … it’s my new maid Som. You can see what a mess everything is in here, so I decided that I need a maid to clean up the room.’
‘Even in Thailand we don’t usually sleep with our maid, Mobi. Come on – the truth.’
I told him the truth. Frankly, I had little recollection of who she was or how she happened to be there, but by this time she had woken and proceeded to enlighten us as to the name of the bar where she worked, and how we had met.
Apparently I had insisted on taking her home with me when the bar closed. With Som’s help and a little financial inducement we managed to send her on her way, and subsequently made a late entrance to our office where the assembled Disc Jockeys were all screaming about the absence of their radio engineer. Som glanced at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and I knew that I hadn’t heard the last of this particular episode.
There was much merriment, at my expense, for many days following my adventure with the ‘maid’.
On one such occasion, about a week after the infamous incident, even Prasert joined in the ‘Mickey-taking’, and told me that he was very glad to see that I had finally got over my ‘broken heart’. But he then asked, with a grin on his face: “Mobi, was it really necessary to sleep with your maid?”
He followed this question with his now familiar, mischievous and somewhat mysterious wink.
‘But seriously, Prasert, I really do need a maid,’ I said, trying to inject a note of seriousness into the conversation. My room is such a mess, and I don’t seem to have time to clean up any more, what with all the concerts going on…’
‘And drinking here most evenings, when you’re not looking for ‘maids’ in Bangkok’s bars,’ added Som.
We all had yet another good laugh but it was so good-natured that it was difficult to feel offended. My state of well being had certainly improved ever since I had moved, and there were long periods when I felt something akin to real happiness. The hurts of the recent past were slowly becoming more bearable and I had stopped the drugs. I was sleeping a lot better and life was really starting to feel worth living again.
My reverie on this particular occasion was interrupted by the arrival of Vitaya, one of the police sergeants, who announced that he had been given free use of an open back truck for the following weekend and suggested that we all take a trip ‘up-country’.
‘Where to?’ I asked.
‘Why don’t we go to Nakhon Nayok,’ Prasert suggested. ‘It’s beautiful up there, and I have a friend who has a large hunting lodge where we can all stay on Saturday night.’
There followed much excited discussion about the proposed trip to Nakhon Nayok, which was nearly a hundred miles north of Bangkok, and to my relief the subject of ‘me and my maid’ ceased, for once, to be the main topic of conversation.
I was told in no uncertain terms that my presence on this trip was most definitely required, and although I nurtured a few misgivings, I agreed with the plans, which were that we would set off at midday on the coming Saturday.
* * *
There must have been about twelve of us all told, who started to assemble from noon onwards, with our overnight bags for the two-hour trip up-country. I might have guessed, that in true Thai tradition, the promised truck didn’t arrive for another two hours, and by the time we all finally settled in the back, with various boxes and supplies for the journey, it was past three p.m.
The journey, for me, was an education and an introduction to yet another aspect of Thai ‘culture’. As we arranged ourselves as comfortable as possible on the floor of the truck, a number of large plastic bottles containing a milky looking substance were produced from one of the boxes, and we were invited to have a swig and pass the bottle around.
‘What on earth is that Som?’ I asked, fearing the worst.
‘Try it and see, Mobi.’
I took a small mouthful with some apprehension. It was quiet a strange taste – sweet, fairly bland, but with an underlying yeasty flavour that wasn’t particularly pleasant.
‘Come on Som – what is it?’
‘We call it ‘gou lou’ It’s a sort of wine made from rice.
It tasted most unlike any wine I had ever tasted, and upon further investigation I managed to deduce that it was an illegal, very cheap, raw alcohol mash – made by the fermentation of rice, water and yeast. It probably had a fairly low alcohol content, but at the rate it was being consumed, there was undoubtedly going to be some sore heads by the time we reached our destination.
As the alcohol started to have its effect, the ubiquitous guitar was produced, and singing commenced. I wasn’t familiar with any of the Thai folk songs that were sung in the back of the truck that afternoon, and as the gou lou bottles started to empty, the songs became ever more strident. The guitar was accompanied by much banging of make shift drums and ‘bongos’ and there were frequent shouts and loud peals of laughter when the songs evidently reached raunchy parts in the lyrics.
We made it there just before nightfall. Prasert, who had avoided the drinking and raucous singing, by sitting in the front of the truck with the driver, guided the truck down a twisting, pebbly track for a mile or so, before heading off, seemingly straight into the jungle. Another mile or so and we finally came to a halt outside the promised ‘lodge’.
It was a large log cabin, built on very high stilts, with a rope ladder hanging down from a trap door in the centre of the floor. I was disconcerted to find out that the cabin was built high to provide protection from the wild animals, which were prone to wander through that part of the jungle at night.
We clambered up with our meagre supplies, and I was further disconcerted to discover that there was just a large, bare wooden floor, which was to be our communal bed for the night. There was no electricity, no running water and obviously no toilets. For lighting we had a couple of hurricane oil lamps, water was stored in large covered earthenware jars underneath the cabin, and calls of nature had to be attended to outside, in the jungle, with the wild animals! It was certainly primitive.
After we had all found our own little area of floor to park our overnight belongings, I learned that we would be going to eat at a nearby Wat, or temple, where we would find a few local eating places. Apparently, there was a dance being held in the temple grounds, and that was also to be included in our evening’s itinerary.
I was told the temple wasn’t far, but the walk along the narrow jungle paths, armed with two pathetic little torches and yet more bottles of gou lou, seemed to go forever. I was becoming convinced that we were irretrievably lost when we finally spotted the temple lights in the distance and at last we made it to enjoy a very welcome repast.
The dance at the Wat was something I shall never forget. Some incredibly beautiful young ladies dressed in traditional, mid-riff hugging sarongs; a lot of very drunken men – locals as well as us interlopers – under a stormy night sky that provided an electric and sensuous atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the ‘maid’ joke still wasn’t dead, and many a young maiden was introduced to me as a potential ‘domestic’ to take back to Bangkok with me.
I have to admit that the heady mixture of rice alcohol, Thai music, and exquisite girls in the middle of the jungle, made this jocular suggestion sorely tempting.
Inevitably, just as the dance came to an end, it started to rain. It was an incredible tropical storm, that showed no signs of abating, so we commenced the long wet trek back to our lodge, and this time I was more convinced than ever that we would never make it.
The pathetic torch lights that we had been using to find the way faded completely as the batteries died, and we stumbled along in the darkness for what must have been a couple of hours. More by luck than judgement, we almost bumped into the stilts of the lodge before we thankfully realised that we had made it back at last.
My previous concerns about sleeping on the hard wooden floor evaporated as I collapsed in a heap and rapidly fell into a deep and exhausted sleep.
* * *
At first, I was sure I was dreaming. There was a very loud bang, like a gunshot. Then there was another. The noises were very close to the lodge. I looked at my watch – it was seven ’o clock, so I had only been asleep for about four hours. No one else seemed to have stirred so I made my way gingerly to the trap door and looked out. I could make out the two police sergeants shouting at each other. One of them, Vitaya, was pointing a gun at the other, Vichai.
I tried to make sense of what was happening. Just next to the lodge there were two stools and a rough wooden table on which there was an empty bottle of Thai whisky and two glasses. They had obviously been drinking ever since we had returned.
‘I’m going to kill you,’ Vitaya shouted at Vichai.
Vichai stood still, staring at Vitaya, with no apparent sign of fear on his face, but he must have been very close to death as Vitaya continued to point his loaded gun in a very menacing manner and scream Thai obscenities at him.
As if by magic, Prasert suddenly appeared in the gloom behind Vichai and held up his hands, seemingly warding off an imaginery blow.
‘Vitaya, stop that now. What are you doing?’
‘Keep out of this Prasert. Vichai has insulted my wife and he is going to pay with his life!’
‘I didn’t insult her, Pee Prasert. I just told Vitaya the truth. Someone had to, and I thought I was his friend.’
‘Friend! Friend! Speaking terrible lies about my wife like that. Keep out of the way Prasert, for this man is going to die!’ he said in a cracked emotional voice.
Prasert walked quickly in front of Vichai and obscured him completely from Vitaya’s line of sight.
‘Prasert, if you don’t move out of the way, I swear to God I will shoot you as well. Move now!’
‘Vitaya, Vitaya, you don’t mean that. You are so drunk that you don’t know what you are doing,’ Prasert said in quiet voice, as he slowly walked towards the gun. ‘Calm down, Vichai is only trying to help you.’
‘Help me? With those filthy lies about my wife!’
‘Vitaya, They are not lies – it’s the truth. Your wife has been unfaithful many times. Everyone knows – except you.’
‘Now you’re telling me lies, Prasert. You will die with Vichai.’
‘Vitaya, look at me. I am Prasert, your elder ‘brother’. I have known you all of your life. Why would I lie to you? Why would I want to hurt you? I love you.’
I looked at Vitaya, dreading he was going to pull the trigger, but he just stood transfixed, staring at Prasert.
‘It’s true Vitaya. Killing us is not going to change anything.’
Prasert continued walking towards Vitaya, and as he reached him, the gun dropped to the ground and Vitaya suddenly grabbed Prasert around the shoulders and embraced him.
‘Now come on the two of you, let’s go for a walk and we’ll talk this through.’
I sat watching, as they walked into the jungle, and just before they disappeared, Prasert turned and waved up at me with a smile, followed by that enigmatic wink, gesturing me to go back to sleep. I fervently hoped that the other two hadn’t seen me.
I couldn’t go back to sleep on the floor, but sat there, and mused over what I had just witnessed. I had to reassure myself several times that it hadn’t all been a dream.
The others were starting to wake, and were wondering where Prasert and the two policemen had gone. I told them that they had gone for a walk, but didn’t relate the events that had led to the early morning stroll.
A meagre meal of cold ‘sticky’ rice, and then we set off for another long walk through the jungle, this time in daylight and in a different direction, to find the famous waterfalls. Prasert and the other two met up with us as we left the lodge. Vitaya was very quiet and subdued, for a change.
It was a difficult climb up the rocky and uneven terrain, but it was more than worth the effort. In the hot, humid morning, the waterfalls were so cool and fresh, and truly spectacular. We followed the trail up the steep hillside, and near the summit we came across a picturesque and rugged rock pool into which millions of gallons of water must have been flowing. It was time to have our morning wash and we all jumped into the cold refreshing swell and luxuriated in the invigorating water.
After I had washed all the grime and dirt of the past twenty-four hours off my skin, I lay down on the grassy bank and let the sun pour down on me to dry out my clothes. Prasert came and sat down beside me.
As usual, he was smiling as I asked him, ‘How’s everything now Prasert. Are Vitaya and Vichai friends again?’
‘Oh yes Mobi. They are probably closer than ever. Everything is fine now. I just have to make sure Vitaya doesn’t do anything silly to his wife when he gets back home. He is such an impulsive and emotional man.’
‘Prasert, you were very brave, standing in front of Vichai like that.’
‘Not really Mobi. I wasn’t scared because I knew Vitaya would never harm me.’
‘How could you know that for sure? I mean he was almost out of control and was also very drunk.’
‘I can’t really explain,’ he replied, ‘but somehow I knew that it wasn’t my time to go quite yet, so I was sure I was safe,’ he said with an enigmatic smile.
‘I can’t pretend to understand that, but I’m really glad it’s all over. It’s been such a great weekend, apart from that nasty incident.’
‘Yes I think we’ve all enjoyed ourselves. And as for Vitaya – well he had to know what was going on sooner or later, so I think it’s all ended very well.’
‘It’s so beautiful and peaceful here Prasert. I feel like a new person. I feel happier and more content than I have in a very long time.’
‘Well I must say, you look a lot better. You’ve put on some weight, and you’ve stopped taking all those harmful drugs. You are certainly a far cry from the Mobi that I met several months ago – the one who didn’t know what to do with all his extra furniture!’
I laughed at the memory. ‘It’s all thanks to you Prasert. I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve been so kind and helpful. I dread to think what would have become of me if it hadn’t been for you. I was in a pretty bad state, you know.’
‘Yes Mobi, I know that. That’s why I had to help.’
‘Well thank you, Pee Prasert, from the bottom of my heart.’
‘There is nothing to thank me for Mobi, it was my pleasure,’ he added with a smile and his now familiar wink.
‘Now I think it’s time we all started heading back to the truck and home.’
The return journey was even more manic than the trip out. I think we were still all drunk from the previous night’s adventures, and yet more rice alcohol was produced from what seemed to be a never-ending stockpile. We drank and sang all the way back to Bangkok, and this time we even sung some farang songs to make sure that I didn’t feel left out.
But I knew I would never feel left out ever again. They were all truly my brothers and sisters, with the incredible Prasert very much at the head of this fascinating family. As I finally bade them all a weary goodnight, I couldn’t help musing, once again that in some indefinable way, Prasert had permanently altered the course of my life.
I don’t think Som had been late for work since that infamous occasion when he had found me oversleeping with the ‘maid’. We hadn’t been travelling in together for a while, as I usually made a very early start in order to make contact with a number of overseas concert agents who all lived in different time zones.
But on this particular Monday morning, a week after our up-country adventure, it was already past ten in the morning and there was still no sign of him. The ‘prima donna’ DJ’s were all becoming highly agitated, and one in particular came bursting into my office, demanding to know what had happened to Som.
He told me Som should have started recording two hours ago, and he seemed to think that as I lived in Som’s neighbourhood that I should know where he was.
I had no idea, and was starting to worry about what might have happened, when to my relief Som suddenly appeared at the studio door.
He looked terrible, and I felt sure he was sick. His face was so white and there were black circles under his eyes. His clothes were dirty and in disarray and I hurried over to ask him if he was feeling all right.
‘Never mind that now!’ snapped the DJ who was late with his radio recording. ‘Come on Som, into the studio, now! We’re two hours late!’
Som gave me a forlorn look and walked unsteadily into the control room. I was worried and watched for a few minutes as he set up the controls to start the recording. He was certainly in a state, and he kept fumbling with the equipment, and continually dropped records and other paraphernalia on the floor.
The DJ was sitting impatiently in the recording booth, and when Som finally managed to turn on the microphone, a loud torrent of abuse surged out of the monitor speakers.
Som stood transfixed, and I thought he was about to collapse so I rushed into the studio and grabbed him by the shoulders and escorted him to a seat in my office.
The irate DJ followed us in and demanded the return of his engineer.
‘Look,’ I said to him, ‘You guys have been around these studios long enough to know how to operate the equipment. Do it yourself, or get one of the other lazy bastards to help you!’
‘Do it myself? I could never do that! It’s not my job!’
‘Well if you don’t you won’t get your programme on the air. Now get out of here!’ I shouted.
He looked at me, and realised that I was serious. He finally walked out of the office and back into the studio.
‘Now Som, what’s the matter? What’s happened?’, I asked.
Som just stared ahead of him in a sort of trance.
‘Are you ill?’
‘Ill? No Mobi, I’m not ill.’
‘But you look terrible!’
‘Yes, I know. I didn’t sleep all night.’
I started to have a very uneasy feeling about all of this. ‘Som you have to tell me what has happened. Please Som.’
He looked at me with tears in his eyes. ‘Mobi, you’re not going to like this. It’s Pee Prasert, He’s dead.’
I suddenly felt dizzy. The room became a blur, and if I hadn’t been sitting, I’m sure I would have fallen over.
‘Dead! How? Why? I don’t understand. How can he be dead? I saw him on Saturday night, he was fine!’
‘I’m sorry Mobi, he really is dead.’
My thoughts immediately went to that incident at Nakhon Nayok, when Prasert was in imminent danger of being shot by Vitaya.
‘It was Vitaya wasn’t it? Vitaya shot him!’
‘No Mobi, it has nothing to do with Vitaya. It was a motor accident.’
‘I can’t believe it. How did it happen? Prasert never goes anywhere; he always spends his weekends at home, with us.’
‘Not always. Yesterday morning he went up country with some students from the school where he teaches. They asked him to accompany them as they needed his help to study an old Buddha statue that they had discovered. As usual, he didn’t know how to refuse any request for help, so off he went.
‘On the way back yesterday evening, the car was in a head on collision. The amazing thing is that he was the only person who was killed. He was sitting in the back of the car, and somehow he was thrown out of the open window when the car crashed. He died of a broken neck. Everyone else was Ok, hardly scratched. It’s so unfair. It’s so terrible.’
The news of this incredible tragedy was starting to sink in, and I too started to feel very distressed. We sat there looking at each other, and I think both of us felt that the world had ended. What an unfair world! How could fate be so cruel?
Somehow I held myself together and decided that Som had better go home. He was in no fit to start work, so I had a quick word with Ittiput, and brooked no argument, insisting that Som leave for the day. For once, Ittiput didn’t argue.
‘Thank you Mobi,’ Som whispered, ‘but what about you, are you Ok?’
‘I’ll manage Som. Off you go, I’ll come and see you tonight and visit Prasert’s wife.’
‘Tonight Mobi – everyone will be at the Wat. Prasert’s body will be at the Wat tonight. You will find us all there.’
‘Which Wat is that Som?’
‘The funeral is at Wat Bangbor – you know – the big one just down the road from our house.’
I did know it, although I had never been inside the compound. ‘OK then Som, I’ll see you there tonight.’
* * *
By the time I arrived at Wat Bangbor that evening, it looked as though the entire neighbourhood had uprooted itself and set up residence in the temple grounds.
Although I had been in on the peripheries of a Thai funeral before, I wasn’t in any way prepared for the sight that greeted me.
The body was encased on a platform in front of a large Buddha image, and there were nine monks seated in the antechamber, in a semi-circle, chanting Buddhist prayers in the ancient Pali tongue.
I learned that the chanting would continue non-stop for as long as the funeral lasted, and when the nine monks became tired, a fresh team would replace them. There was a queue of people who, one by one, lit a stick of incense, and then moved to the centre of the room, to kneel and pray in front of the image. In the surrounding grounds, immediately next to the covered area, a number of large wooden tables laden with food and drink had been set up.
Seated at the tables, were many familiar faces from the local community and I could see that several of them had already had too much to drink.
‘Who could blame them?’ I thought, as I sought Som’s whereabouts. He was seated alone at a distant table, and I walked over to make sure he was all right. Although alone, he seemed surprisingly cheerful.
‘Mr Mobi, I’m so glad you’re here. Have you prayed yet?’
‘Som, you know I am not a Buddhist.’
‘That doesn’t matter Mobi. Come on, you have to pray for Prasert’s soul, and to show your respect to his wife and family.’
Som took me by the arm and led me up the steps to one side of the antechamber where Prasert’s wife and hisw immediate family were all kneeling and praying. I wai-ed to them and expressed my sorrow to Prasert’s wife for her terrible loss.
She smiled and acknowledged my condolences, and then introduced me to the members of the family who had rushed to the Wat during the day when they heard the news.
‘Prasert loved you Mobi. I’m so pleased you have come,’ his wife said. ‘Please go and say a special prayer to help him on his way to his next life.’
I felt a little awkward, but nevertheless joined the queue and lit my own stick of incense before kneeling and trying to pray.
‘What was I praying for?’ I thought to myself.
I didn’t know how to pray – after all, I wasn’t Buddhist and I certainly didn’t believe in reincarnation. I wasn’t sure that I believed in any religion. I glanced at Som, and I could tell he wanted me to do my best so I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes, put the incense in the holder next to the Buddha Image and moved away to let the next person take my place.
‘Thank you Mobi,’ Som said, ‘Now let’s go and have a drink.’
We walked over to one of the tables, where the familiar figure of Yow was performing the honours, and duly poured me a large glass of whisky. It trickled down my throat like water.
Since Som had broken the news that morning, I had been so distraught. I didn’t know how I had managed to get through the day, which for the most part, had passed in a complete daze. And now the whisky was a welcome old friend.
I was astonished at how quickly the word of Prasert’s demise had spread, and it was truly remarkable how many people had travelled to the Wat at such short notice. Som took me around and introduced me to countless strange faces. It soon became apparent that Prasert was well known far beyond our immediate community and I met so many people who had nothing but good to say about this saintly man.
It seemed that everyone had some story of how Prasert had helped them in some way during their lives.
He really did seem to have been some kind of a saint – yet why him? Of all the people to have met an untimely and truly unlucky end – why him? The question repeated itself over and over in my mind.
Another remarkable feature of that evening was how cheerful everybody appeared to be. I knew they were all as devastated as I was, yet they managed to hide their grief so well. It was the Thai way, to stay cheerful in the face of adversity, and they were certainly doing just that.
A particularly poignant moment that night was when I was introduced to a young man by the name of Yothin.
‘Did you know Prasert well?’ I asked.
‘No, I just met him yesterday.’
‘Oh,’ I said in surprise, ‘where was that?’
‘When I drove him up country with his students. I was the car driver. It was me. It was my fault – I killed him.’ He stared at me with a haunting and melancholy look etched onto his face.
‘But… surely… it wasn’t your fault? That… can’t be right…’ I stammered.
‘Right? What is right? What is wrong? I don’t know. Only the Lord Buddha can tell you that. All I know is that I have to live with the knowledge that I killed one of the most virtuous men that I have ever met.’
With that, he walked away to join the queue of those waiting to pray.
Som said, ‘Yothin has already passed on his deep condolences and regrets to Prasert’s family. He offered to dedicate his life to them, in recompense for their loss. But they’ve already forgiven him. They believe in karma and don’t blame the poor man. They believe that it was destined to happen, that it was predetermined that Prasert would die young.
If not, why did all the other people in the crash escape with hardly a scratch? Yothin will suffer enough, carrying the guilt of Prasert’s death with him for the rest of his life. Maybe that is Yothin’s karma – to suffer in this life for something that he did wrong in a former existence.’
It was starting to get too much for me. All this talk of ‘karma’ and ‘former existence’. After all, I wasn’t a Buddhist. But there was more to come.
‘Mr Mobi, the Abbott would like to meet you’, one of the group called out from the background.
The Abbott, Phra Manut, was the head monk of the Wat, and I couldn’t imagine how on earth he had even heard of me, let alone why he would want to see me.
I was escorted to a small antechamber at the side of the Wat where a very old monk was seated before yet another Buddha Image.
‘Ah, Mr Mobi, come and sit down for a few minutes. I have heard so much about you.’
I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed. ‘How do you know me Phra Manut?’
‘Mr Prasert used to tell me all about the farang who was living in our Bangbor community,’ he said with a gentle smile. ‘Prasert was so worried about you when you first came to live here. We used to talk a lot about you.’
This came as a complete revelation. ‘Talk about me – but why?’
‘Mr Prasert used to talk about all his friends who had problems and needed help. He had such a heavy burden on his shoulders that sometimes he found it useful to talk to me. He was a very good and great man, Mr Mobi. And he loved you like a son.’
‘Yes I know he did, and I know he was a very good man. But why did he have to die Phra Manut? It’s not right, is it?’
‘We cannot say what is right and what is wrong. Only the truly enlightened know the answer to that.’
‘But if Prasert was so good, why did he have to die so young?’
I don’t think we have to worry too much about Prasert. He will be very happy in his next life, I am sure of that. He had so much Metta.’
‘Metta? What is Metta?
The venerable monk explained to me.
‘You know Mobi, we Buddhists believe that every person must strive to achieve the four sublime or boundless states on their path to reach nirvana. The first and, probably the most important of these states is Metta. It is a state of loving-kindness, good will, friendship, and unconditional love for all human beings. Metta is the feeling of warm-hearted concern for the well being of others, whoever they may be. It is the spontaneous wish to do what one can to help. Do you recognise Prasert in that?’
‘Yes Phra Manut, I do, very much.’
‘Think about it Mobi. If you try to understand you will not feel so sad.’
But I wasn’t at all convinced.‘If you believe in a ‘next life’, then I can see why you do feel too sad. But I am not a Buddhist, Phra Manut, so it is difficult for me to accept what you say and be happy about it. And even if it’s true – this business of reincarnation, how can you be sure Prasert will be happy in his next life? How do you know he won’t come back as a rat or some other low life vermin?’
‘When people die, I admit that usually I wouldn’t have any notion of what their next life would be. But Mr Prasert was someone very special. I know he will be happy. In some ways his next life will probably be very different to this one. You know Mobi; the strain of trying to be a virtuous man like Mr Prasert in this wicked world can sometimes be overwhelming.
He had to continually fight temptation, and he always had the worries and problems of the whole community on his mind. He never had a moment’s piece. It was a life he chose willingly, but it was never easy. Oh yes, I know his next life will be happy – probably very calm and peaceful, with very little to worry about, and plenty of people around him to give and receive love.
I am sure of this. Now I must go and talk to Prasert’s family.’
I left him and returned to my friends, troubled and unconvinced about Prasert’s karma and his supposed next life.
By this time Som seemed to have cheered up considerably, and I joined in what was starting to take on the familiar appearance of a typical Thai wake. There was much drinking and laughter and there were endless anecdotes, all of which helped to illustrate Prasert’s blameless life, but with much humour.
‘Mr Mobi, are you coming again tomorrow?’
‘Tomorrow? How long do these funerals last?’
‘Oh sometimes they only last a day, and sometimes much longer. It all depends on the money.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If a rich person dies, the funeral can last up to two weeks, or even longer. As long as you can pay the temple and provide the food and drink, and the mourners keep coming. You can keep it going for many days – the longer the better.’
‘So how long will Prasert’s funeral last?’
‘We don’t know yet, but so far, everyone who has come has donated a lot of money, and it’s still pouring in, so we’ll have to see.’
It was getting late, but before I went, I was exhorted to pray one more time. The tragic events, the alcohol and the talk of Buddhist spiritualism was starting to have an unnerving effect on me, as I once again approached the large Buddha Image and knelt in the praying position. Prasert’s family was still seated at one side and the monks were still chanting.
The whole surreal nature of the event was playing on my sensibilities and my stupid western brain. ‘What was the purpose of all this pantomime?, I asked myself.
‘Shaven headed men in saffron robes, muttering away in some archaic language that no one understood.
‘Prasert’s family and friends, all believing that they could ‘pray’ him into a better next life.
‘Everyone was drinking and laughing as though nothing had happened. And all this talk of Karma, reincarnation and Metta. It was all senseless rubbish. How could anyone really believe this mumbo jumbo? And it was going to continue for days – until all the money ran out, for goodness sake.’
All that I knew was that one of the finest men I had ever known was gone – gone forever!
It suddenly became too much for me, and try as I might, I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up. The tears started to slowly pour down my cheeks, and my body suddenly became wracked with sobs as I collapsed onto the floor.
I hardly remember being led away by some of the mourners, who quietly escorted me out of the Wat and along the road to my room.
* * *
My state of mind deteriorated sharply over the next week. Every day I would go into work and perform my duties like some kind of ‘zombie’, and in the evening I would adjourn to Wat Bangbor, where, if anything, the size of the wakes were growing larger by the day.
On the third day, I was amazed to find that the entire complement of students from the school where Prasert used to teach, had turned up to pay their respects; all of them spending the entire evening in silent prayer.
I knew he was a good man, but I had no idea how much he was loved and respected, seemingly throughout the length and breadth of Bangkok. This simple man, who lived a simple life, seemed to have become even more famous after his death, and the crowds kept coming, day after day, donating ever more money so that the ceremonies could continue even longer.
The local community remained permanently encamped in the temple grounds. I concluded that they were apprehensive to return to their homes, as they were all anxious about the future.
What would happen to their life, now that Prasert was no longer around to hold them all together?
All of Prasert’s good work with me over the past few months started to unravel. I was drinking too much, and I was finding it impossible to sleep. I started the drugs again, and the downward spiral continued.
After the second week, I stopped going to the Wat. I’d had enough of praying and watching people drinking next to Prasert’s body. A bottle of whisky and a packet of pills by the bedside were all that I needed to blank out the memories of yet another depressing day.
It must have been the twentieth day after his death that Som disturbed my semi-slumber one evening.
‘Mr Mobi, why are you behaving like this? If Pee Prasert were here he would be very upset at you.’
‘Yes, but he’s not is he? He’s dead, gone forever!’
‘Mr Mobi, you’re back on drugs again, aren’t you?’
‘So what if I am! Go away and leave me alone – go back to your everlasting funeral.’
‘That’s what I came to tell you. Tomorrow is the last day – it will be exactly three weeks and tomorrow we burn the body.’
‘At long last!’ I said in a sarcastic tone. ‘Well you don’t need me.’
‘We do need you Mobi. Prasert’s family needs you, and your friends need you. You are part of us now – you can’t hide away. You must come for the last time and pay your respects.’
I looked at Som and realised, even in my drug-induced state, that I couldn’t escape this final act of grieving. ‘Ok Som, I’ll be there, I promise.’
The largest crowd I had ever seen assembled on the following evening for the burning of the body. I was very drunk and also high on drugs, as it seemed to be the only way I could get through each day.
I was beginning to regret having come. I really needn’t have bothered, as there were so many people there that I wouldn’t be missed.
Maybe I could just slip quietly away.
But the illusion was soon shattered when I was spotted by one of the ‘regulars’ and was dragged to the front of the crowd where the family insisted that I took a central position for the final ceremony.
After much chanting and praying, it was all finally over and Prasert’s ashes were at long last sent on to his ‘next life’. Everyone stood, staring at the tall thin chimney and after about five minutes, the black smoke of Prasert’s ashes suddenly billowed out and a gentle breeze gradually dispersed the eerie, dark smoke away until soon, there was nothing left but the late evening hazy sunshine.
He had gone – to where? who knows?
I tried to escape, but Som dragged me back to the family compound, where all the familiar faces were seated around the table. Everyone was in a sombre mood for a change, and a seat was made available for me at one end.
I wanted to leave but my legs seemed glued to the floor, so I shrugged my shoulders and resigned myself to yet more self-inflicted punishment.
By midnight I was in a pretty bad state, and decided that if I was ever going to make it home without collapsing, now was the time to make a supreme effort.
I bid a very drunken farewell, and stumbled out into the dark and along the narrow Soi towards my home. I passed the perimeter of Wat Bangbor, and for some reason, I came to a halt when I reached the main gate.
It was eerily silent and so different to earlier that evening, when there had been crowds of people thronging in the temple grounds. So different from every day for the past three weeks when there had been all those tables crammed with food and drink with crowds milling around, determined to make Praert’s wake forever.
Everything had been packed away and it was so dark.
Prasert had gone at last – and so had his people. There was nothing left to show for the endless days of activities.
‘I wonder if he is lonely?’ I thought. ‘They have left him all alone, they shouldn’t have done that.’ I knew my mind wasn’t right, but I couldn’t help feeling that he must be lonely. Something was drawing me into the temple grounds, and I half walked, half staggered through the gate and approached the huge Buddha Image. I dropped down in a state of exhaustion, and stared at the spectral image.
It occurred to me that the image was staring straight at me
‘What are you staring at?’ I shouted.
‘Come on- what are you staring at? I suppose you’re fucking proud of yourself,’ I ranted. ‘Sending Prasert into oblivion! What a great fucking idea – he was doing so much good in this fucking, evilworld, that you couldn’t stand it, could you?’
‘You had to kill him off. Leave all the shit-faced people here in this world and send the good ones away. Is that what it’s all about?’ Tell me! Tell me you mother fucker!!!’
Although I was half out of my mind, I knew I was behaving in a disgraceful manner, but somehow I just couldn’t stop myself. I kept shouting and swearing until my throat was so sore, I could shout no more. It was a miracle that nobody heard me.
I passed out for a while, sleeping the sleep of the drunk and the drugged, before being woken by the sound of barking dogs at the back of the Wat.
I lay there listening to the ever-increasing cacophony, and suddenly in the middle of all that noise I detected the sound of a kitten meowing.
The barking continued, and so did the sound of a kitten in trouble. In spite of my almost helpless condition, I somehow roused myself and clambered unsteadily to my feet.
I was feeling dizzy and very drunk, but I had to find the cat – to rescue it from those barking wild dogs.
I followed the sounds into the temple grounds, around the side of the Wat, and then into the area behind the main building. A strange sight indeed awaited my arrival.
There must have been at least a dozen mangy dogs of various shapes and sizes all crouched underneath a low wall, upon which was perched an extremely thin, very young, ginger kitten, who was staring down at the maddened creatures. The poor thing was meowing for its life.
I screamed at the dogs. I thought that my hoarse voice would probably made me sound very menacing, but just to make sure, I started to charge around the temple grounds, in a desperate effort to chase them away. After a few minutes of frenetic activity fuelled by alcohol, I collapsed onto the ground in an exhausted heap. I opened my eyes in a squint and verified that the dogs had all dispersed. The cat was safe and I could go back to sleep.
‘Mobi, Mobi, wake up.’
The voice had a very strange, high-pitched timbre, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby. I remained motionless and there was silence for a while.
Then it came again. ‘Mobi, please wake up’
I opened my eyes and looked around. There was no one in sight.
‘Mobi, up here.’
I looked up, but there was no one. No one, that is, except that emaciated kitten.
‘Where are you? Who’s calling me?’ I croaked.
‘It’s me, I’m calling you, Mobi.’
The sound seemed to be coming from the kitten, but even in my advanced state of intoxication, I knew that it was impossible. I closed my eyes. It was all too hard and I just wanted to sleep.
‘Mobi, I have to talk to you’.
My eyes remained closed, but I whispered, ‘What about? Why don’t you just leave me to sleep?’
‘I will in a few minutes, but first I want to speak to you for a moment.’
I kept my eyes closed, not really believing what was happening. I must have been dreaming. ‘Go on then, talk,’ I said to whoever was there.
‘Mobi, you must not worry about Prasert anymore. He has started his new life and he is going to be very happy.’
Now I knew I was dreaming.
‘What do you mean – new life?’
‘He is born again Mobi. Prasert is born again. And he will be happy.’
‘I’m so relieved to hear that. I am so grateful – now go away,’ I replied in a dismissive, sarcastic tone.
‘I haven’t finished yet,’ the strange voice continued.
‘Oh God, hurry up then and finish!’ I rasped.
‘Mobi, you must stop taking those drugs and get your life back together.’
‘What’s the point?’ I replied. ‘I’ll only get killed by a passing truck or something. There’s no justice in this world. So why should I bother? My life’s been a mess, ever since my bloody girlfriend cheated me. I’ve got a lousy job, with a miserable, cheating boss, and one of my best friends gets killed for no reason.’
‘Mobi, please believe me. You are not going to die, and if you make the effort, your life is going to change. It’s going to get much better.’
‘How can that be? I’m sure that I’m stuck forever in this wretched rut.’
‘Not if you pull yourself together. I can assure you that you will have a good life, but don’t leave it too late.’
I lay there, pondering over all the things that this strange voice had been saying to me. It was all madness – I was having the craziest dream of my life – probably brought on by the alcohol and drugs. ‘Who are you to tell me about Prasert and my future? Who the hell are you?’
I opened my eyes, and stared up at the scrawny kitten that was still sitting there.
‘Who am I, Mobi? Don’t you know? …. I used to be Prasert… of course. But now… I am…Tong.’
The kitten suddenly leaped down on the other side of the wall and disappeared into the darkness, and with much relief, I closed my eyes and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. Sleep, at long last.
It was exactly one year after Prasert’s death, and I was back at Wat Bangbor for the first time since that dreadful night, almost twelve months ago. There were the usual familiar faces assembled for the traditional anniversary ceremony that is often held for someone of wealth and note who has died.
Whilst Prasert hardly qualified in the former category, he was certainly qualified as someone of note, and his family and friends were resolved to ensure that the one year observance took place, whatever the cost.
A lot had happened to my life in the past year, not the least of which had been a welcome change of job, nine months ago, followed by me moving house to be closer to my new place of work.
These events had meant that I was started to lose touch with the Bangbor community and although I still met with Som from time to time, the forthcoming ceremony at the Wat was a good opportunity to find out how everyone had been faring since Prasert’s demise.
I mingled with the large crowd and finally spotted Som in conversation with Prasert’s widow.
She told me that she had now moved to a room within the school grounds where she worked.
Her husband also used to teach there and I gathered that the school authorities decided it was their duty to care for her, such was the respect and esteem in which Prasert was held.
She was a much quieter and more melancholy figure than the smiling, jolly woman I used to know, but all things considered, she seemed to be coping reasonably well.
Som also looked well, and not for the first time I suggested that he leave his job with the terrible Ittiput, and come and join me in my new studio venture that I had started with an old farang friend.
Truth to say, I wasn’t much better off financially in my new situation, as it was very much a fledgling business. There insufficient resources to pay me an ‘proper’ expatriate salary – but I was much happier- as anything was better than working for Ittiput.
I lived in the hope that the business would be successful, and that I would eventually reap greater rewards. However Som, with his wife and three daughters to support, wasn’t convinced that it was the right time for him to change jobs.
‘Mr Mobi, I’d love to come and work with you, but I think that it’s better to leave it for a while and wait for your business to become more established.’
I had always imagined that Som would have given his right arm to get out of Ittiput’s clutches. But upon further reflection, I had to admit that even though he was treated badly, it was possible that Ittiput really did feel some responsibility for what he had done to Som, and in some strange way, their two lives were inextricably linked.
‘Maybe you’re right Som. Maybe you should stay put for the time being. At least you know your job is pretty secure.
‘But don’t forget that the offer is always there if you decide to reconsider later on. Now, what about all my old friends? Let’s go and see who is here.’
We walked around and the first young man we came across looked so fit and had put on so much weight that I barely recognised him.
‘Hello Mr Mobi, you look well,’ said Piak.
‘Good God, so do you Piak,’ I said grabbing him in a bear hug. I couldn’t believe that the scrawny, sickly young drug addict that I used to know could have changed so much. ‘What’s happened to you Piak, you look great and you must be off the drugs.’
‘Yes, I am Mobi. In fact I haven’t taken a single drug since the last day of Prasert’s funeral.’
‘The morning after, to be precise,’ Som added.
‘Yes, the morning after,’ Piak said with a knowing smile to Som. They both exchanged more smiles and looked at me.
‘So what’s so significant about the morning after?’ I enquired.
‘That was when we found you at the back of the temple grounds in a sort of coma,’ Som explained.
‘At first we thought you were dead,’ Piak added. ‘Then we managed to half rouse you, but we couldn’t get you to walk home, and you were too heavy for the two of us to carry.’
‘I don’t really remember much about it,’ I admitted. ‘What happened then? Did you leave me to sleep it off?’
‘No, we went and got Yow, and the three of us sort of dragged you back to your room.’ Som said.
‘And you slept until the next day,’ Piak told me with a flourish.
‘My memory of that night is very patchy, Som. I can hardly remember anything except being very drunk and totally stoned out of my mind on drugs.
‘I know that when I eventually woke in my bed, I felt so weak and I couldn’t speak a word. I also remember my knees being badly bruised and scratched and there was a shoe missing.’
I gave them a reproachful look.
Som and Piak returned my gaz a slightly embarrassed and bemused look of their own.
“well, Mobi’, said Som, we did have to drag you up two flights of stairs.’
I looked at them and smiled. It’s Ok Som, I know you were only doing your best. Yes, when I woke up that morning, I realised how close to the edge I had been. And I guess it was some kind of turning point.
You know what? Like you, Piak, I’ve not taken any drugs since that day. But what made you stop Piak?’
‘Just seeing the effect drugs was having on you. I thought you were dead, and I couldn’t face losing two of my friends like that. It made me stop for good. Six months ago, I went back to college and I hope to graduate next year,’ he said proudly.
‘I’m so pleased for you Piak, and so glad to hear that in some twisted way I helped you to become clean. Now what about the others? Where’s Yow? I haven’t seen him around.’
‘He’s back in jail Mobi.’
‘Oh my God! What did he do?’
‘He was caught stealing, from a house in a rich suburb – sentenced to three years, I’m afraid’
‘That’s so sad, but why did he do it? I thought he knew better than that?’
‘As long as Prasert was around, Yow was kept more or less in line, but after he died, Yow went wild, completely out of control. No one could tell him anything,’ Som said sadly.
‘So now he’s inside.’
‘Yes, but we visit him regularly, and make sure he has enough to eat. He’s a tough man, he’ll survive.’
‘And what about the others?’ I asked
‘It’s the not the same as it was, Mobi,’ Som said sadly. ‘Many of the old residents have drifted away and gone to live elsewhere, just like you. The community has changed. Prasert held it all together, and after he died no one had the heart to keep everything going, like it used to be.’
Som told me about those that he knew about. Some had bettered themselves, like Piak, and others had fallen into bad times, as in Yow’s case.
But many of the old group had survived intact and had come back to Bangmor for the ceremony. It was quite a meeting of old friends. I would probably never meet most of them again.
Many had simply moved away because to stay living in the area carried too many painful recollections. But wherever they went, the memory of their departed friend would surely stay with them forever.
The ceremony was just about to commence, when I realised that two prominent members of the community didn’t seem to be there.
‘Som, where are the two police sergeants? I haven’t seen them around. Didn’t they come?’
‘So you haven’t heard Mobi?’
‘It was in all the newspapers so I thought you knew. But of course you can’t read Thai.
Vitaya is dead. He was shot by a drug dealer in a police shoot out down by the docks at Klong Toey. It happened about six months ago.’
‘That is terrible Som – I wish I had known.’
‘His funeral was a very quiet affair. Poor Vitaya didn’t have many friends. He was too excitable and was always getting into fights. After he threw out his wife, he started to drink a lot, and without Prasert around to control him, he was in a pretty sorry state by the time he died. Some say he deliberately caused his own death.’
‘And what about his friend, Vichai? Don’t tell me he’s dead as well.’
‘Oh no, not at all. Vichai took the police officers’ exam and he’s now a Police Captain. He was posted up north a couple of months ago. He’s doing very well indeed.’
I remembered that morning in Nakhon Nayok, when Prasert had probably saved Vichai’s life. It was all so strange the way things had turned out. I couldn’t make any sense of it all.
The sad occasion finally drew to a close, and I was making my way to the front gate of the Wat where I had arranged to meet Noi, my new girl friend of nearly six months. I spotted her cheerful face at the entrance when someone called from inside the building.
‘Mr Mobi, Mr Mobi! Do you have a moment?’
It was the ancient Abbott. What did he want, I wondered? I met up with Noi and asked her to wait a few minutes, as the Abbott wanted to see me.
We sat in the same little alcove as that night of the funeral.
‘Mr Mobi, you are looking very well,’ the Abbott said with a smile.
‘Yes I am thank you Phra Manut. Life has treated me much better over the last year.’
‘So I see, so I see. And do I detect new young lady waiting for you over there?’
I reddened slightly, ‘Yes Phra Manut– that is Noi. We met six months ago. She’s is a very nice girl from a good family. She was educated in Singapore and speaks excellent English. I think I have found the right partner at long last.’
‘I’m so glad to hear it Mobi. Prasert always said you would find the right girl eventually, didn’t he?’
‘Yes, Phra Manut, he did.’
‘Mobi, I wanted to talk to you about that night. That last night of Prasert’s funeral.’
‘What about it Phra Manut?’
‘Do you remember anything that happened that night Mobi?’
‘Not really. I was so drunk and stoned that it’s all a complete blank. I know that I passed out in the temple grounds, and Som and his friends took me home the following morning.
‘But what I did during that evening is a total mystery I’m afraid. Why? Do you know what I got up to?’
‘Well I know some of it. I was woken up around midnight by one of my monks. He told me there was a crazy farang screaming and cursing inside the Wat.’
‘A crazy farang! That was me I suppose?’ I asked guiltily.
‘Yes, Mobi, it was you. I came over to see what was going on, and there you were, completely out of your mind, screaming and swearing in English. You seemed to be arguing with the Buddha Image.’
Something at the back of my mind started to click. ‘Screaming at the Buddha Image? Oh dear Phra, I’m so sorry. What did you do?’
‘Do? – Why nothing. What could I do? I just watched you, as you tried to ‘exorcise your demons’’.
It was all slowly coming back to me. ‘Oh dear, oh dear. I’m so embarrassed.’
‘There’s no need to be Mobi. As I said, you weren’t in your right mind. When I saw you here today, I thought I’d have a word and make sure that you had recovered from all your traumas. I have been very worried about you, and with Prasert gone, there was no one to keep a proper eye on you.’
‘I appreciate your kind concern Phra Manut. I really think that I have recovered from my traumas. I’m fine now thank you.’
‘I’m very pleased to hear it.’
I got up to go, but the memories of that night were starting to flood back, thick and fast.
‘Phra Manut, can you tell me if there are any cats living in the temple?’
‘Cats? Why, I’m not too sure. I think so.’
‘Are there any ginger cats?’
‘Ginger? I’m not sure. Why don’t you ask Job? He looks after all the strays that come into the grounds.’
Job! – The name rang a bell, I went over to collect Noi and together we around to the back of the Wat, where I found an old white haired man busy tending some plants.
‘Khun Job, is that you?’ I asked.
The man turned round, and I could see he had a long white beard, so unusual in Thailand, and yet so familiar. I recognised him as the old drunken beggar from Prasert’s house, but now he looked clean and well fed.’
‘Khun Job – do you remember me? I am Mobi – we used to meet at Prasert’s house.
The man looked blankly at me. ‘No sir I don’t remember you – but in those days I was an alcoholic – so I don’t remember much before Pee Prasert brought me to the Wat and found me this simple work, looking after the Abbott and tending the flowers in the temple grounds.’
I inwardly smiled. So I had found yet another good turn that Prasert had managed to accomplish before his untimely end.
‘Khun Job, are there any ginger cats living round here?’ I asked.
‘Ginger cats – No sir. There’s one black kitten living inside the monks’ quarters – but he never comes out. The dogs would kill him if he did. The dogs usually kill most of the stray cats that come around here.
My heart missed a beat. ‘Didn’t there used to be a stray ginger cat? About twelve months ago? Think hard, please.’
‘Now let me think – twelve months ago – that must have been around the time of Pee Prasert’ funeral.’
‘Yes, can you remember anything?’
‘Well, now you come to mention it, there was a cat, a scrawny, starving little thing, and I’m pretty sure it was ginger.’
‘Did it have a name? Did you call it anything?’
‘Yes, we used to call it Yoghurt.’
‘Yoghurt? Are you sure?’ I asked, a little disappointed. Why Yoghurt?
‘Yes, I remember now. We definitely called it Yoghurt. I found him one day licking the remains out of a discarded yoghurt cup and decided to call him that. Such a pathetic little creature – it used to sit on that wall over there.’
‘Khun Job, what happened to it?’
‘Well, as I say, all the cats round here usually end up dead. The dogs used to chase Yoghurt all the time, and then one day, a big ugly brute caught it. I heard this terrible noise, and found the poor cat being dragged along. Its foot was in the dog’s mouth.’
‘What happened? Was it killed?’
‘No, not then. I threw a large brick at the dog and he let go. The cat lost its back paw though. It was in a bad state.’
‘So it died later?’
‘I can’t say for sure. It was all a bit strange.Yoghurt’s wound sort of healed and we used to see him hopping around on three legs. He still insisted on sitting on that wall and taunting the dogs. It was so weird.
‘Then one day, there was a big funeral at the Wat for some rich local dignitary. The road was so congested that one of the mourners had to park her car around the back – near where Yoghurt used to sit on the wall. I remember the driver went over and kept talking to the cat and stroking him. Then I had to go and help inside the building, and later when I came back, the cat was gone, and I never saw him again.’
‘Do you think the driver took him?’ I asked.
‘I doubt it – why would anyone want to take a dirty, scrawny three-legged cat? No, I suppose the dogs caught up with it again and that was the end of that.’
I couldn’t accept Job’s explanation. The memories of that crazy evening at the Wat were becoming clearer and clearer and I refused to believe that the cat I had seen that night was dead.
‘Khun Job, have you any idea who that car belonged to?’ I asked.
‘Yes I do. It belonged to a well-known politician – his name was written on the side of the car. It was Sukree Betaphol.’
I asked Noi if she had ever heard of him.
‘Everyone has heard of him, Mobi. He is very famous. It must have been his wife in the car.’
‘Have you any idea where he lives?’
‘I know exactly where he live, Noi told me, ‘It is a famous house – a beautiful old traditional Thai house, on the other side of Bangkok, down by the Chao Phya River.’
‘Can you take me there, Noi?’
‘I suppose so – but why? So that you can find out if they stole a mangy cat from the Wat?’
‘Yes – that’s exactly why I want to go there.’
‘But what is so special about this cat Mobi?’
‘I promise I’ll tell you later, but please take me there.’
It was quite late when we arrived at the front gate and rang the bell. I wasn’t sure what we were going to say, but I was relying on Noi to make up a plausible story.
A servant came to the gate to inform us that his master and his wife were not home. Noi made up the story that I was an old friend, recently arrived from England, and asked if it would be possible for us to leave a message. We must have sounded convincing as the man let us into the driveway and took us to a table on the veranda, in front of the house. Noi sat down to write a note and I tried to peer inside the house.
I couldn’t see anything, and Noi was nearly finished with the note. She looked at me, and I shook my head.
She called the servant, holding the note in her hand. ‘Do you have any cats in this house?’
‘Yes cats. I’m very allergic to cats, and I can sense there is one nearby somewhere.
‘Well Madam, there is one. He’s in the house over there at the back of the room, but he’s probably too far away to affect your allergy.’
The servant opened the front door and switched on the lights. I looked in, and now I could see him clearly. There was a rather plump, most definitely ginger- coloured cat, sitting on a beautiful blue silk cushion.
‘Whose cat is that?’ I asked, thinking how serene and content he looked.
‘Oh sir, he belongs to the mistress. She loves him so much and she spoils him terribly.
‘The poor thing only has three legs, but he has a very comfortable life.
He is so friendly and docile. Everyone loves him. And he is also very intelligent. The way he behaves, sometimes we think he is almost human.
‘I’m sorry if he bothers you, Madam,’ he said, as an afterthought to Noi.
‘Don’t worry, I’m sure Noi will survive,’ I said to the servant.
‘He certainly is a lovely cat. What’s his name?’ I asked, somehow knowing what the reply would be.
‘He’s so precious to us that my mistress decided to give him a precious name. He’s called Tong sir.’
For the second time that night my heart jumped at least one beat. Tong was the Thai word for gold, so poor scrawny three-legged Yoghurt had been re-named after the most prized of metals.
On top of that, there was something else about the word Tong that was stirring in my befuddled memory. But I just couldn’t think what it was.
‘Can I stroke him?’
‘I’m sorry sir, I’m afraid I can’t let you into the house. My master would be angry.’
I walked over to the door and peered in. Suddenly the cat looked up, and his wide brown eyes held me transfixed. I couldn’t seem to remove my eyes from the cat’s hypnotic gaze. ‘Come on Mobi, we’d better go,’ Noi called.
Reluctantly, I looked away and allowed myself to be led back down the driveway. When we reached the front gate, Noi gave the servant the folded note, thanked him for his help and we drove away.
‘Well, we found the cat. Are you satisfied now?’ Noi asked me as we headed back home.
‘Oh yes I am very satisfied. By the way what did you say in the note?
‘Nothing. I said nothing. It was just a blank piece of paper.’
I looked at her and she smiled. We both laughed spontaneously.
‘And the cat Mobi. What was so special about that cat? Sukree’s wife must have taken Tong from the Wat, didn’t she?
‘Yes, I think she did Noi.’
Then I told her about the memories that had returned. Memories of that last night at Prasert’s funeral. I could now recall everything, after a year of absolutely nothing.
‘And the cat?’
‘The cat… the cat must be Prasert… in his next life. I’m sure of it.
‘Mobi, how can you say that? It’s ridiculous! Nobody has ever been able to prove that a person can be reincarnated as an animal!
Anyway, if Prasert had lived such a virtuous life, he would never come back as cat – especially one with only three legs!’
‘I can indeed say that, Noi, because I remember what Phra Manut said to me on the first day of Prasert’s funeral.
He told me how hard it was to be virtuous in this wicked world. He told me that he thought Prasert’s next life would be stress-free, and that he would be happy and calm and peaceful, and that he would be loved. Doesn’t all that fit with Prasert being Tong, back there?’
‘Mobi, you’re pushing the bounds of credibility. Just because some monk said Prasert would have a peaceful, stress-free life, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Prasert would come back as a cat. You have to have a more convincing reason than that!’
‘So what is it then?’
‘Come on – what is this incredible reason?’
‘Noi, when I looked at that cat tonight he did something really strange. Very un-cat like.
I looked at Noi for a long time, desperately trying to engage her eyes and her thoughts. Finally, I told her.
‘He winked at me.’
‘Don’t be absurd – cats don’t wink.’
‘This one did. He winked.’
‘Mobi, I have never heard anything so ridiculous. Even if the cat did wink – which is impossible, that doesn’t prove anything.’
‘Oh yes it does, Noi. That cat winked at me and I know for sure it is Prasert.’
I looked at Noi – she looked at me, and for the second time in as many minutes, we burst out laughing.
We laughed and laughed until the tears rolled down our cheeks.
Who would ever believe it? – A cat that winks!