Off in the distance the young fisherman can see the lights of the other boats. Some fishing, some off-loading diesel fuel from a small Malaysian tanker. Normally he would be among them but tonight his boat is alone on a quiet part of the Andaman Sea. The dark water is speckled with silver by the crescent moon. Above is the bowl of night. The sky is clear black velvet pinpricked by a billion stars. There are two men on the boat. Noi, the older man, says “Soon Kop, you will be going.”
“The man from Sumatra?” asks Kop.
“He was here. It’s all been arranged. A job in a restaurant…in Pattaya.”
“What do I do there?”
“You wait for instructions. It’s the kind of place where they like to eat. Jai yen yen Kop…patience…soon we will be hitting back.”
He had seen photographs. Flag-draped coffins. Muslim boys not much older than himself, fighting tanks with slingshots. Dying in the streets to protect the faith. Soon he would be joining them.
* * *
Bert’s breezy arrival in the hotel lobby didn’t make much impression on the sour-faced Chinese night clerk behind the counter but Bert didn’t let it faze him. He was back. Home base baby. Nothing could stop him now. The bars were open for another couple hours so now it was just a question of making himself beautiful, putting on his best smile and hitting a few hotspots. Look out girls here I come.
Pretty soon he is standing in the shower and hot water is running down his tattooed arms and over his hairy chest. Boy it feels good to wash off 12 hours of planes and airports, the accumulation of stale sweat and body odours and itches….the grime collected during the taxi ride with its sticky seat and failing aircon…it would be really nice to wash some other things off too…3 failed marriages, 2 bankruptcies and a bulging midriff for starters…but hey lets not go there right now…lets concentrate on making ourselves desirable…sing along with me guys, “One night in Bangkok…….”
He is shampooing his crotch when he notices the leading member of the trio between his legs seems a little withdrawn. Jetlagged probably? Well don’t you worry little buddy. Uncle Bert soon find some little cutie to take care of you. We did it old pal…we’re back in Sin City. Bangers as the limeys call it. Bangkok. Oriental setting, and the city don't know what the city is getting…who wrote that anyway?…the Abba guy was it?….well a hard man is going to stumble tonight baby and you know what? The hard man don’t give a shit. Bring it on baby. After Saudi fuckin’ Arabia you and me are entitled to a little R & R.
* * *
Noi moves a tarpaulin in the bottom of the boat and exposes a wooden box. The top has been pried open and Kop can see that it contains what looked like metal eggs, each one packed in it’s own section of the box. “Hand grenades,”says Noi, “perfectly safe until you take the pins out.”
He takes a couple of the grenades out of the box and balances them in his hands. He gives one to Kop and tells him to watch closely.
Noi holds the grenade in his closed hand. Slowly he pulls the pin…counts…one…two…and throws the grenade. There is a bang, muffled because of the water and a small spout shoots up.
“The water’s good,” says Noi, “We don’t have to worry about fragments. At most you have 5 seconds before you throw them. These are Chinese so better to get rid of it after 2 seconds. Otherwise there’s not much to it. Just remember — the further you throw it the less likely you are to get hurt. OK try one.”
Carefully Kop holds the grenade the way Noi showed him then standing in the boat he removes the pin and throws it as far as he can. Nothing. Then whoomph!!! A loud bang and a spume of water flies up 20 meters out to sea. “Good,”says Noi, “You could have waited another second. Want to try a couple more?”
* * *
Bert found pretty much what he was looking for in Nana Plaza. It didn’t take long. She said she was 18, nice body, clean and spoke a bit of English. He paid the bar fine figuring he’d check her out, try one all night session before suggesting a trip to Pattaya. The sex had been OK. Not great because of all the beers he’d been drinking but he’d got his rocks off. She’d passed the smell test too so today she’d come with him in a taxi to Pattaya. Better than taking a chance there and finding all the best girls taken. Shit he could always send her back to Bangkok if things didn’t work out. After 3 months in the Gulf he was looking for a bit of fun…not a wife. One of those was enough for any man.
Pattaya was OK. Few too many Arabs wandering about but not near as bad as Bahrain and at least you got to see some skin.
* * *
“OK Kop It only takes seconds to cook these things. Listen carefully.”
It was Kop’s first day at McDonalds and a girl called Supervisor was explaining how things work. It’s all done with things called ‘work steps’.
“One work step for instance, of about 1 ½ to 2 minutes,” said Supervisor (recently promoted from Controller), “could be making 12 cheeseburgers: One. Lay out cheeseburger buns on tray and put the bun bottoms in specific cheeseburger-bun-bottom-toaster. That’s this thing. Two. Put burgers on grill. Three. Put bun lids in cheeseburger-bun-lid-toaster. OK? Four. Take out buns and with BOTH HANDS, one squirt of ketchup&mustard from the special McDispencer, this thing, add onions (6oz), gherkin (1 slice), cheese (1 slice). Five. Move the whole tray and click it into the slot in front of the grill here — by which time the grill automatically opens like this. Six. Put hands into grill to salt and then remove burgers, two at a time and put on bun bottoms. At this point the lid-toaster beeps and you slide the 12 lids onto the 12 burgers in one swift movement and then give the whole tray to the controller for wrapping. Got it?”
Kop wasn’t sure. Supervisor spoke quickly with a Bangkok accent and it all seemed like a lot to remember.
“Now Kop you will notice that everyone who works there has burns and burn scars from their fingers to half way down their forearms, the longer they have been working, the deeper and more permanent the scars – but,” showing Kop her light brown and spotless arms Supervisor assured him not to worry because "They disappear after a while”.
She went on to explain the division of labor.
“The labor is further divided again and again as required. For example…you can do the burger, cheeseburger, Big Mac bit yourself. When two people work at the cheeseburgers, then one does rolls and laying out burgers, and the other does fillings and taking burgers off the grill. If there are three of you then you get a roll person, a burger person and a fillings person. So in busy periods it splits and splits, until it finds its own equilibrium. See?”
Kop was wondering…did they really eat this stuff?
“Look I’m sorry,” said Supervisor, “I know how you feel. My job is to make sure it all goes smoothly and I have to explain it all to new people. Don’t worry. You’ll soon get the hang of it.”
Kop didn’t think so.
“Now you’ll notice there are signs in some areas that tell you how the division should be further split, for example if we had a ‘drive in’ area there would be a chart defining the jobs that each person should do from one to five workers, including a map of where exactly they should stand. There’s no ‘drive-in’ with this one so you can forget about that. Within the kitchen team you decide yourselves who does what but I say which overall area you work in.
“Co-operation is the key to success,” she seemed to be talking faster and faster as if she wanted to get the lecture over with. She had obviously delivered it more than once, “As each step is so defined and each food item and tool is separate – you can instantly see what the next step in the work process is. For example if you see 12 buns in the cheeseburger toaster and it beeps – you know that the only possible next step is the ketchup. So if your colleague is putting the burgers in the fryer you can step into the process instantaneously, without disturbing his or her rhythm of work. They will turn around and see what you are doing, and so they can immediately start preparing the next 12 rolls. Right? In this way you can step into the shoes of anyone and further split the
division of labor as and when necessary. This can last for as little as one minute or less, and then the two workers are reduced to one again. If you find yourself with nothing to do, you can be immediately occupied without un-necessary time wasting questions such as ‘Oh – is that a McChicken your making?’ Of course its bloody not. If it was then we would be standing by the McChicken toaster, toasting McChicken rolls, right next to the bloody McChicken grill wouldn’t we? So you see Kop, the absolute precision of the work process enables seamless co-operation and a full use of every work minute of every worker. Phew. Excuse me a sec. I need a sip of water.”
Kop looked around. There were other young people like himself wearing the black pants and red McDonalds shirts. They all seemed to know what they were doing… Supervisor was back with a cup of water.
“You’re not allowed to do this,” she said, “help yourself to a drink I mean. This is a big McCup by the way. You get a five minute break every two hours, and a half hour break every four. You can drink a small McCup of water in the break room – back there. OK what else? 1-month probation with a three-day notice period, then a two-week notice period after that. Uh OK, this is Malee,” Supervisor indicated a small grinning girl with a pony-tail, “Malee this is Kop. He’ll be working with you. Go easy on him.”
Supervisor went back to the front counter where they were ordering the stuff. Kop thought Malee was OK at first but as the day wore on she started to get on his nerves. She kept saying things like, “Only two slices of gherkin on those, Kop, and don’t squeeze the McDispencer so hard.” And laughing with Controller…about him probably.
Khwanjai, the supervisor, watched Kop without making it too obvious. She knew all the work steps inside out. Keeping an eye on the staff was the main part of her job and especially the new employees. They all reacted differently. Some were awkward from day one and stayed that way. Others picked it up quickly and even seemed to enjoy it. Some people obviously got a kick out of the teamwork. The feeling of being part of a smooth working group organism could be exhilarating. When it’s all going well and you can hardly believe how fast the food is coming out, and when you look round to do something and bang there’s someone doing it that very second. She liked the ‘modern ness’ of it. But she thought this Kop kid seemed a bit too jai-rorn for working in the kitchen. Impatient, hot-tempered. Might make more sense to put him in the freezer.
* * *
Bert left the girl in the hotel room watching TV. There wasn’t much for her to steal and he sure as hell didn’t want to take her anywhere near a department store. He just wanted to stretch his legs a bit. Maybe get a bite to eat. He wandered down Beach Road which seemed much as he remembered it from last year. Palm trees, traffic, tourists on deckchairs. Burger King were having a promotion but Bert headed for the Golden Arches anyway and the familiar menu. Bert decided on No.5…the BigMac/fries/coke combo…there were some things on the menu he’d never heard of… Spicy Chicken with jaew sauce for God’s sake and papaya salad?…but hey the Coke was the same…good old Coke. They hadn’t messed with that. And you always knew where you stood with a BigMac.
“Bik fly? Medium fly?” squeaked a cute young Thai lady name-tagged Malee.
Ah, a decision was needed. “Medium,” Bert boomed back.
“Ee here? Tayaway?”
“What?…oh here,” said Bert,”eat here krap.”
He enjoyed these little exchanges. The staff in Thailand’s Mcdonalds were much cuter and more polite than the surly Latinos he ran into in the States these days. Shit some places you didn’t speak Spanish, you didn’t get served. But in Thailand it was East meets West at it’s best. The washrooms were usually spotless and the food was OK too. The hamburgers were what he was used to and the French fries were perhaps even better. Maybe because they hadn’t switched over to low cholesterol cooking oil yet. One or two regional refinements had slipped in since his last visit he noticed…the Samurai Burger whatever that was, and the aforementioned Spicy Chicken…but that was OK. It lent an exotic touch to the familiar menu and made you feel a bit like you were in a foreign country.
The menu was in two languages, Thai and English, but other than that and a few other local promotional touches, it was all very clean, comfortable and reassuring…exactly what you look for when you go abroad. The Thais seemed to have taken to fast food as well. Good to see them putting on a bit of weight. Bread and potatoes…they loved it…bringing in the kids and putting a smile on their cute little faces with the free balloons…nothing wrong with that. Ah the good old Golden Arches and there was Ronald himself on a bench with a cute little Thai baby being photographed on his hard, yellow, plastic lap…
* * *
Noi was able to report that things were all going according to plan. Kop had got himself transferred to the freezer room faster than anybody expected and he seemed to like the work. Just that morning he had helped unload a truck. Noi had watched from a distance as Kop carried boxes into McDonalds for stacking in the freezer, Grade A Frozen Meat Patties, French Fries, Old English Cheddar Cheese Slices….Semtex…fuses
* * *
Those French Fries weren’t half bad thinks Bert. He might order some more. Perhaps another BigMac then…holyshit… what the fuck is this?!? Doors at both ends of the restaurant burst open and suddenly the place is full of heavily armed Thai soldiers…some kind of SWAT team everywhere it looks like. Some of them rush into the kitchen then next thing they’ve got a Thai kid in handcuffs and people are being hustled out of the building. The McDonalds is on the ground floor of a shopping plaza and pretty soon a sizable crowd is milling around outside in the street and on the beach. Bert finds himself standing by some young McDonalds employees.
“What happened?” he asks a girl with a Supervisor badge.
“Boy no good.” Says the supervisor pointing across the street where some cops are manhandling the Thai kid into a truck.
Bert is pleased to notice that Burger King, two doors down, is unaffected by the commotion. He’s still hungry. Would a Whopper get along OK with a BigMac he wondered? Good time to find out. A beer would be nice too. Maybe he can sneak a can of beer from the 7/11 into the Burger King…probably be no problem at all…hey this is Thailand.
Very nice, again!