The Army Game
Sitting with Tik one afternoon, we were having one of these wonderful sideways conversations that can only happen when a man and a woman try to communicate.
What made it even more interesting was the cultural slant that was applied to the concepts:-Tik being an Isaan lady, (N.E. Thailand), and I from the other North East, the one in Scotland that is.
Thais find it hard enough to integrate with Isaan logic let alone the rest of us mere mortals, but the conversation was following it’s standard weird and wonderful route.
Tik was short and swung her legs below the porch bench that we sat on, the sun was warm and the smell of the ripened mangos on the tree beside my door filled the air while we sat there with not much to do except pass the time of day and munch Nem over a couple of bottles of cold beer that she’d brought from the shopette. (Nem is raw ground pork with garlic and green chilli and not for the faint hearted. Or those who worry about tape worms…)
Mind you, you do soon learn to go to a drug store and ask for, “Yaa paa yat." (Worming tablets).
For want of something better to say I asked, ”What are you doing tomorrow Tik."
“Nothing,”, she replied, ”Maybye die."
“Naw, you won’t die. Anyway, is it true that Ae is pregnant?"
Tik pursed her lips before answering, ”Don’t know…but her mother’s dog is." Right- ho then.
It takes some considerable time to get the end result from any enquiry put to a Thai North Easterner, but with enough time, effort and patience one can generally get a yes or a no.
Room Two sat opposite us with the door open and as the previous denizens had legged it a couple of weeks previously I assumed that some new arrivals were imminent. This partly being the reason that I was sat there of course.
“So,”, said Tik, ”How many children do you have?”
“None Tik, none at all”, I replied.
“Yes, but how many?”, she repeated as though to an idiot. (No laughing please).
Foot steps interrupted our conversation and turning we saw the new arrival standing with a box in his arms. It was a katoey.
A grin lit his or her face and with a screech of, ”Hello Farang man!”, it flounced into room two.
Just what we needed in Soi Zero, a bloody katoey, which until then had been a katoey free zone.
They do have a reputation that precedes them you see, stabbings being the least of it, but with a particular bent for being light fingered which would not go down at all well with the denizens of our compound.
I turned to Tik and had a good bitch about the fact that the neighbourhood was going to the dogs etc., etc., and now we had to worry about katoeys moving in.
Once I had fallen silent and a few minutes had passed Tik said, ”That’s my brother.."
Swallowing my mouthful of beer hastily I turned to her in amazement as she had never mentioned having a brother before let alone one who wanted to be a sister, and said as much to her.
“So?”, she replied then stood up and wandered into the room to leave me sitting with that, ‘I can never be surprised again’, feeling that happens so often in Thailand.
Dow, (her brother), got settled in and turned out to be an amiable sort once we’d got the ground rules sorted out, i.e., we liked girls- real ones that is, and got on with his life in typical katoey fashion.
This involved sleeping a lot, ingesting vast quantities of hormones and traipsing off to work every night to the local katoey go-go bar to earn his stake for the surgery.
He had a nice little boyfriend who stayed at home to keep the room clean and life continued on it’s unruffled way in the Soi.
Thais are wonderfully accepting of people’s sexuality-nobody is going to beat you up in the street for being gay, that’s up to you, but they will raise an eyebrow at the antics of some of the more outrageous members of humanity.
The worst that I ever saw was when Alain and I were lounging at a table in the street at the Nana intersection sipping a beer and watching the hordes go about their lunchtime business.
A six foot something farang came tottering through the crowds wearing high heels, a blonde wig, with blue chin and hands like a docker. He was also wearing a knee length purple thing……
I assumed that he was off to a fancy dress party, but this being the Mango, well who’s to know?
Some of the folks looked but merely smiled and went about their business whilst Alain and I nearly choked on our beer as Alain said, ”Another Australian eh?"
Anyway, I digress: After a few months Dow had managed by dint of his hormonal overdoses to have developed a most wondrous set of mammaries of which it must be said that Robin had developed an unhealthy interest. As his chest developed so did his voice rise in pitch and as his list of ‘sponsors’ grew he would regale us with tales of their foibles which would frequently reduce us to tears of helpless laughter as he mimed and mimicked the stories.
The two elderly Germans and the pack of playing cards had us prostrate for days as all anyone had to do to bring on a fit of the giggles was to say in a suitably Teutonic voice, ”Ace is high ja?"
Dow it appeared, had been lying naked and prostrate whilst these pair cut a pack of cards time and time about:- The number on the card being the number of…errmmm……thrusts that they were allowed at any given time. (Face cards being counted as ten).
When one of them had cut an ace, a furious argument broke out as one of these chaps maintained that it was one stir of the pot, (so as to speak), and the card holder maintained that it meant go for broke.
The argument continued for some time whilst Dow lay there and thought of what to have for dinner until eventually the Germans decided to dispense with the aces altogether and continue with their amusement!. They paid well which was the important point
in Dow’s book.
Now, the showers in our compound were of the communal type, two blocks each divided into three cubicles, and as a result of this arrangement there was a constant procession of towel clad lovelies parading their way to and from the ablutions.
On occasion Dow would forget that he was half female, (that Mekhong again), and wander off for his shower clad only in a towel from the waist down.
A sight to behold indeed and a source of horrifying surprise to our visitors.
Tamboon time came around for our North East delegation and they duly made their plans to return to Taad Phanom, Mukdahan and all points Isaan to make merit and visit their families.
Tamboon is an important event in the calendar of any Thai and involves much lively spirits, laughter and catching up with the news.
The temple fairs are great fun and noisy events which are somewhat at odds with the Western concept of raising funds for a new church roof.
Our mob had hired a bus to take them to Nakhon Phanom where they would then disperse to all points of the region and having arranged for the bus to delicately squeeze it’s way down the Soi, they boarded it with great hilarity and hullabaloo before the bongos started, the singing began and the bus slowly made it’s smoky way along the Soi for the start of the 15 hour trip.
Once they had departed Rob and I found ourselves sitting outside the shopette and sipping a beer as we looked around the silent compound.
“Almost too quiet,” I mentioned and indeed it was; no noise of jack hammers banging away at the construction site up the street, none of the vendors coming around to sell steamed eggs or dim sum, and none of the constant stream of people
buying from the shop. Rob belched and replied, ”All gorn oop country lad to get pissed for a week and give the monks some dosh.."
It was a boring week as 75% of our living companions had gone but they began to drift back in one and twos until ten days had passed when the full contingent seemed to be present.
Dow arrived back with Tik and Daeng and seemed somewhat out of sorts, his silence being an unusual feature and indeed went straight to his room with nary a, “Harro”, for anyone.
Later Tik joined him there and a feeling of gloom crept out of that room which dampened our spirits somewhat, perhaps feeling that he’d got some bad news after a blood test.
That evening we were talking quietly on the porch when Dow’s door opened and he walked to the step where he sat down, put his head in his hands and then began to weep.
We looked at each other quizzically as this was a situation that we had no experience of whatsoever.
Katoeys don’t cry. They get even.
Tik followed him out of the room to sit on the step and putting a sisterly arm around him they both sat looking out into the darkness as Dow’s tears fell.
Even Robin was silent for a minute or two, which was another unheard of event, until, ”Oi-Tik, wot’s wrong with him then? Fekkin’ boyfriend run off with a woman or something?"
Tik turned to Robin and after giving him a very long, dark and mysterious look, replied, ”He have go army.”
Of course- it was conscription time again and Dow had drawn the short straw.
As the news hit home we cracked up at the thought of a 5 foot 11 Katoey with a 36DD chest running round the boondocks armed with an M-16.
Dow’s sobs intensified as we laughed sympathetic to a tee, not, as we pictured the possible scenarios.
Dow standing naked in a long line for his medical check, recruits practicing heart massage, Dow in the army swimming pool, Dow learning how to crawl on his back under barbed wire….
Dow doing bayonet practice, being captured by the Khmer Rouge or the Shan…Oh, the possibilities were endless and we laughed even more.
Robert stood and walked to where Dow sat, then putting a hand on his shoulder said, ”It won’t be so bad Dow. Think of the money you are going to make ; Especially after all those other young guys have been running round the jungle for three months with no ladies. You are going to be one popular person I think.”
Dow wailed, ”I no like Thai army man. No have money." Tik looked daggers at Rob who beat a hasty retreat to stand behind Robin and Alain.
“How about the Navy then?”, I suggested, ”You could be a nurse."
Alain was crying with laughter as he demonstrated the Thai army goose step, (official parades), and as he cracked the sole of each shoe on the concrete he swung his shoulders in the opposite direction to compensate for an imaginary set of oversized boobs swinging to the left and right.
Dow jumped upright and screaming abuse at us ran to his room where he slammed the door with a crash to leave us howling with laughter as his muffled sobs percolated through the walls.
Poor Dow, he got no peace at all until it was induction time. When he arrived at or left his room we’d jump to attention and salute him, Robin insisted that we form ranks outside his room for role call before the evening’s drinking started,
and I started bringing catalogues for military equipment home and leaving them on the bench outside his room.
All in all- a brilliant wind up opportunity.
The day that he was due to depart we made our peace with him then handed him the envelope containing the funds we’d raised from a whip round and a paper and pen set so that he could write home.
Then we gave him a hug and wished him ‘Bon voyage’, and maybe see him in a year. Or, maybe not as the case may be…
A week later I arrived home from work but before I had opened the gate, the racket told me that a party was in full swing on the porch, so hurrying to get rid of my necktie I rounded the corner to see Dow and all the gang sat there surrounded by bottles
Dow looked very happy and very drunk and very short haired.
He’d made his way to the induction centre it appeared and after having his hair shorn was escorted with the other thousand or so for his medical examination. As this is conducted near naked it took the doctor some milliseconds to mark a big red cross across his file, tell him to get dressed and have him escorted to the main gate where he was summarily told to bugger off and never come back.
Obeying with alacrity he’d used our collected funds to grab a taxi and leg it to Nakhon Nowhere where he’d checked into a cheap guesthouse for a week and lain doggo in case the army changed it’s mind.
After offering him my congratulations I sat down to drink the contents of the proffered glass and mentioned to Tik that her brother was a lucky lad.
She looked me in the eye and agreed then sat silent for a moment before asking, "Why is an orange, orange colour?
Then she looked away deep in thought, gone to wherever Tik went when solving the questions of the universe.
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