A Sad Tale
It’s a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I’m in the office. There are a couple of drawings on the table, and some unanswered emails begging attention. Time for a coffee. I’m in the pantry just making one when I hear the mobile phone go off.
My ringtone is easy to recognise; I’ve got one of the old models that just makes phone calls and not much else. For good reason too. I don’t go for the bells and whistles that go into the latest things. For less than the price of one of those phones, I can get a standard phone that makes and receives phone calls, AND get a good high resolution digital camera with a decent memory capacity.
I also won’t find myself in the imaginary scenario where you’re thirty minutes into your session at the Even Club, and your other half calls up on your latest Nokirola. ‘Hi, darling, where are you?’ In a profuse sweat, perhaps brought about by your exertions, but by now beginning to feel a little cold, you answer ‘Out drinking with some friends, darling’. ‘Okay. Take some pictures now and SMS me back. Don’t forget to timestamp the pictures. Bye…’
Back to the present. I manage to get back in time without spilling the coffee. ‘Hello?’ Ah, it’s Lek, from up in the provinces. I haven’t heard from her for a while; she’s been spending time between her parent’s village and the Eastern Seaboard, where she has land.
‘There’s been an accident, will you come?’
Some parts of the following story may be a little graphic. If you don’t like it, don’t read any further. They’re real people, these things did happen, just that the names and places are changed.
Yes, I have to go. It’s something called social obligation in Western society. The Thais call it ‘grieng jai’ or ‘sangkom’. I’ll get the details later, and make arrangements to get there on Friday and stay through the weekend. It’s good practice to attend at least one night of prayers at a funeral; the important day is the actual cremation.
I get there early Friday evening; already I spot a couple of familiar faces outside Lek’s parents’ place. ‘Hello, hello, you come here!’ I laugh, ‘Hey, you started without me!’ There are quite a few empty ‘Sang Som’ (a brand of Thai whisky) bottles already. I’ve come prepared with cold beer and a spare whisky bottle. Funerals, at least on the face of it, don’t seem to be taken as seriously here as in the West.
I spot Lek; she’s at the back of the house with a whole lot of other ladies; they’re preparing the food, some of which will be for the evening meal, and some will be brought to the temple where the funeral is being held. They tell me the story.
‘Do you remember Mei and her husband, they run a pick-up service for the kids to and from school?’ Yes, I did. ‘Well, they were going to the big temple with Lek’s two cousins, Aey and Oh, and Mee from the beer shack. They wanted to see a monk about their luck’. Okay. ‘When they were going over the railway track, the train hit the pickup.’ Ugh.
Mei was still in intensive care. No-one thought she would live too long, though. She was the only survivor.
I know the place where it happened. It’s one of those unmanned level crossings without barriers or anything, just some warning signboards and a couple of speed bumps on the road. Although it is near the station, not all trains slow and stop here. The express trains just go through at speed. Couple that with a car driver not paying attention, and this is what happens. The train driver cannot stop ten tons of steel on a dime.
If the train has not derailed, the driver will stop only long enough to get the details (ID card numbers, number of casualties, that sort of thing), get the track cleared, and he has to be on his way. The railway does not pay compensation for accidents of this sort. In fact, a couple of weeks later, a bill for damages caused to the railway arrived at Mei’s house, to the tune of several hundred thousand baht.
‘The funeral of Mee and Aey are at the temple in this village. We will go for prayers there this evening’. In the meantime, we sit and proceed to diminish the beer (and whisky) stock. There are other things to talk about, too. The ladies bring the food and join in. Oh’s funeral is being held at a different temple. It is at the village her husband comes from. Mei’s husband’s body has been put into storage, as they think Mei will soon join him, so they can have a joint funeral.
It feels strange, at the temple. Prayers at this sala (temple pavilion), being echoed at the one right next to it, both for friends where I’ve visited their homes. I see some familiar faces moving between the salas during the prayers. The other temple is too far away to attend prayers.
Everyone gets back from the temple, determined to finish the remaining whisky. I end up sleeping on the floor of Lek’s parents’ place, as with many of the visitors. Fortunately, I have not forgotten to pack my sleeping bag in the car. Many of the others are sleeping on mats.
I get an opportunity to speak with Lek the next day. Her daughter is now working in a factory quite far away, so she won’t be coming. But she’s unhappy with her son. ‘He sometimes does not go to school; someone saw him playing video games at the local internet shop’. She also does not like the crowd that hangs around there. ‘They teach him bad things. I know he now smokes cigarettes, but he will not do it in front of me. He has promised not to try drugs, or have any problem with the girls. But at his age, does he really listen?’
I have known her son from the time he had no hair in his armpits. He’s actually a well-mannered boy, just that he is easily influenced. She also laments about the increasing levels of violence. ‘Many of his friends now have guns. I have told him not to see these friends, they are not good. If they have problems, he will be involved’.
‘Let me show you something’. I follow her into the house, where she produces what looks like a baton, about two and a half feet long. ‘Hold this’, she says. Hmmm. It’s about an inch in diameter. The lower bit is solid metal, and it looks like an aluminium tube has been riveted on and painted black. ‘I confiscated this from my son. He says it belongs to a friend, and he just borrowed it, but that’s beside the point’. She then does something totally unexpected. In one deft movement, she pulls the black tube off, flips it around, and it clicks into the back of the handle. Bloody hell! It was a scabbard, and concealed a blade almost the length of the tube. She now has a weapon almost twice it’s original length. My blood ran cold.
‘I bring it with me when we go on the neighbourhood watch’. The neighbourhood watch is organised by the village headman. He gets volunteers from different households to meet at his house, then they make several rounds of the village in his pickup truck on the lookout for anything amiss, and end up around midnight. The police do their motorbike patrols after that.
By now it is late afternoon, and a lot of food, whisky and beer has been consumed. Someone comes running from the temple. ‘Don’t go for the prayers tonight! There is a bad smell!’ The refrigeration unit for Aey’s coffin had shorted out, with the inevitable consequences.
Lek said, ‘She doesn’t want to go. This is her way of showing it’.
‘Why do you say that?’ I ask.
Lek continues, ‘When the train hit the pickup, it split it open and dragged it for almost fifty meters. Aey’s head hit one of the posts, leaving half her brain scattered around. No one bothered to scrape up the remains, so she’s unhappy that her brains are still there drying in the sun’.
I did not go for prayers that night.
The cremations took place the next day without a hitch. I declined any alcohol as I would be driving back to Bangkok immediately afterward. It’s sad when you think about how many lives are claimed by accidents, and really hits home when you have to attend something like this.
Lek waves to me as I am leaving. ‘Can you give me a lift to the shop that does the sewing machines?’
Sure, it’s on my way. ‘What are you going to do there?’
‘I’m getting this sharpened’, she smiles. And holds up the baton.
I've only been to a few funerals in Thailand. Totally different to Western affairs. The atmosphere can feel more like a party than a Western funeral.