The “Home” page is my daily blog. The remaining tabs contain previously blogged, episodic ‘stories’, which are now re-published in chronological order.
In response to a few comments I have published a poll in which I would appreciate it if my readers would kindly let me know whether they would prefer a clearer, less ‘quirky’ website format.
Please vote so that I can see that if I need to change my format yet again. A bit of hard work for this “non-techie luddite’ but all good fun…
(You will find the poll at the start of my Daily Blog, Home page, dated 15th August, 2010. It is just beofre Part two of “Metta”.)
As promised, here are the final two parts of “Metta”, an autobiographical short story that I wrote in 2000, and I am now re-publishing, in a slightly edited form, in my blog.
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 who winks!
Pee Prasert, wherever you are and whatever you are, I will always love you. Rest in Peace, my ‘never-to-be-forgotten’ friend.