It’s My Affaire
When my Dad and his army pals fought their way across northern France during the Second World War, they carried with them a refrain, “Honolulu or Die!” It must have worked for him because he made it through to peace time, and eventually produced half-a-dozen little baby boomers, of which I was one. When Dad retired, and I phoned to invite him to spend Christmas with us in Thailand, the line went quiet for a moment. Eventually, Dad asked, “How far is Bangkok from Honolulu?” It was, he said, having made it as a serving soldier to the end of the War perhaps tempting fate a little too much. “Dad”, I reasoned, “It was Honolulu or Die; not Honolulu and Die.”
I first became aware of Thailand growing up in rural England during the ’60s. The world was just beginning to enter our lives through the medium of television. There was a particular program, part travelogue, part documentary called Whicker’s World in which an affable and slightly bumbling English gentleman, with an Oxbridge-honed English accent invited us to observe some of the weird and exotic people and places in the world.
Now to us English at that time, there wasn’t a more weird and exotic race of people on earth than the American people. So we kind of shared a similar language and on the face of it a similar culture. But at 9 years old, I knew differently. Just down the road in our sleepy corner of England was home to a massive Cold-War US air force base. Our rural backwater bristled with nuclear warheads. I didn’t know it at the time but our village, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, and before that to the Iceni, was a major target for the Russian military.
And the Americans living in our little village were different. On cold January mornings I would be awakened to the throaty roar of my neighbour’s shiny, red V8 Chrysler. The only Brit vehicle was the small grey Austin baker’s delivery van. The Americans wore blue jeans and brightly coloured T-shirts. Their bomber jackets made them appear to be Marlon Brando. We wore grey. Maybe beige on Sundays. American kids attended our local school. A black girl with plaid hair and white bumper shoes with a white star on the heel sat immediately in front of me. I’d never seen plaid hair or bumper shoes before, let alone a black person. I was madly in love with her. At break-time she and her friends practiced their majorette moves while we played football with a tennis ball. In those days of post war austerity they had popcorn and peanut butter and Marvel comics. We befriended the Americans so we could have them too.
One Sunday evening, Alan Whicker pointed his camera at a bunch of wealthy Florida widows. Now old English folk trembled on their walking sticks as they waited in line at the Post Office on pension day. This was my world view of old people at that time. But these blue-rinsed, snow birds were storming ashore in South-East Asia from a luxury cruise liner at just about the same time as warships were steaming into the Gulf of Tonkin. I remember one old dame in particular, a wrinkled, stooped crumpled walnut of a figure. Disembarking from the cruise liner on the coast of Thailand she volunteered to lay down on the ground at an elephant show. This is not the typical behavior of a British pensioner. I was interested. A sturdy, lumbering beast swayed into the arena, its ears flapping and trunk twitching. It stopped at the prone body that lay on a mat before it. The beast raised its right leg in the air, paused as if to gauge the distance and perhaps linger over the smell of eau-de-cologne, and then gingerly stepped over her.
I held my breath and watched between the fingers of the hands covering my eyes. A second measured step and the beast was now half-way over the be-stilled beauty. What though has an old Jewish lady with three New York lawyer husbands in the grave behind has to fear from a poor, dumb beast? Since one misplaced step and the pachyderm gets sued. One little wrong-footed shimmy and that’s going to cost him a life-time of ‘kluay hom’.
The elephant made it. The old lady stood up and shook her cane in glee as her friends watched on. We don’t do stuff like this in England. In the UK, we dig potatoes, nurture roses and get excited over growing broad beans. So it wasn’t so much Thailand that impressed me, but the can-do spirit of those elderly Jewish New Yorkers. And watching this program had planted a seed of interest in South-East Asia.
That seed nourished and grew during the turbulent years of the late ’60s, watching helicopters take off from that roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as the Vietcong swarmed across the city. It grew during the Kent State riots and the horrendous deaths of students. I looked on in awe when movies such as the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now dramatised the consciousness and tumult of those times and made it reality. I knew that I had to be there. To be a witness. All young men need to feel the heat of chaos and fight dragons. “Honolulu or Die!” This is the back story as to how I came from dull, safe England, via a diversion called Noi, to suburban Bangkok respectability.
For you Stickman readers who have been following my occasional series of submissions on Stickman’s website, rolled together under the umbrella title of “It’s my Affaire”, you may recall how I have unfolded the story of my long-haired nemesis who goes by the name Noi. A lady who led me on a roller-coaster ride of joy, happiness and ultimately to my downfall as everything I had and everything I was turned to dust, and I returned to my native country penniless, jobless, homeless but with a treasure trove of amazing experiences of dubious value.
My Dad and his friends never spoke of his wartime experiences until the end of his life. After Thailand, I understand why. I can only share my Thailand adventures with Stickman readers because you gentlemen have been there, too. A convergence of time, place and shared consciousness made Thailand in the years straddling the millennium a unique shared experience for us farang gentlemen of a certain age. And what makes it all the more compelling is that our shared moment is gone. It too, has turned to dust and will never return.
Fact is, I don’t tell anybody back home what I got up to because quite simply nobody would believe me. Allow me to tell you what happened on an induction course at my new job where were called upon to introduce ourselves.
We were about 30 new hires, a number too large for an intimate reveal, and since most of my new colleagues were twenty-somethings and I was the token old man in the room, the responses were all fairly dull and shallow; school, university, first job. By the time it came my turn to speak I was bored. And when I am bored I become mischievous. So I cleared my throat and decided to drop my equally dull story for something a little quirkier.
“When Friday lunchtime came around, I snapped shut my laptop, headed out of the office and hailed a motorbike-taxi to meet up with my girlfriend Noi at Anusowari in Bangkok. From there we drove down to Klong Toey where we bought Chinese-manufactured household goods from an import agent wholesaler. With Noi’s pickup filled with blankets and flip-flops, and curtain pegs and toys with flashing diodes, and dish cloths and pan scourers and vegetable peelers, and shower curtains and soap holders, we drove through the afternoon and into the night, up the winding mountainous roads in northern Loei province, to a tiny hut which on the ground floor housed Noi’s collection of coffins and funeral accessories for sale. We slept upstairs on the hard, wooden floor. Saturday mornings after a quick cup of Nescafe 3in1 to get the blood moving and with the thin grey mists giving way to sunshine, we set off on the road that skirts the Laotian border. We sold our stuff at roadside markets that could be nothing more than a damp layby or sometimes a field with a dozen or more vendors huddled together. My proudest moment came when an old Laotian lady went head-to-head with me in a wet field over the price of a pair of blue flip flops. Neither of us would yield. She wanted a 50% discount on the flip-flops and this was way out of my pricing spectrum. But I didn’t need to speak her language to know that she really wanted them. In the end I sold her two pairs plus two woolen blankets at full price with a third blanket thrown in for free. And all ending in smiles.
So we wandered up the border, calling in small hamlets, wherever there was a shack or two, and by nightfall we usually had managed to shift our stuff with a decent profit. There was always a roadside stall selling kapow or lad na and always som tam, and under the starry sky we laughed and joked about our customers and the sanuk of selling.
On Sunday morning we visited a lady who bought any unsold stock at cost price and then off Noi went to the farms to buy produce for the journey home; bunches of bananas fresh cut from the tree, passion fruit for turning into juice, jack fruit, dragon fruit, and pineapples for making jam. And when the truck was piled high with fruit and the canvas stretched across the top and tied tightly down, we set off back down the mountain, singing Thai and English songs at the top of our voices as the clouds rolled back to allow us to descend back into civilization and the dirty, old city of Bangkok.”
That was my introduction. I looked around at the stone-cold faces of my work colleagues. Each one was writ with the word, Bullshit. No one said a word. Eventually, the facilitator spoke up.
“So you have direct experience of selling? How nice! Now who would like to introduce themselves next.” I was shunned by everyone for the rest of the day. It was a lesson that no one could ever believe what Thailand meant.
I was 33 when I married. I’d got fed up doing the young man stuff and needed a soul mate. I found Kay behind the reception desk of my hotel on my first trip to Thailand. This was pre-internet, pre-ATM, pre-anything days. She lived in a room in Pattaya with her aunt and uncle; he was F&B manager at the hotel and used his position to get her a job as receptionist. He decided as a reward for his good deed it was ok for him to rape his niece when aunty was at work. Kay’s father also had a sense of entitlement. Each month-end he drove down from Bangkok on his little scooter to get a portion of her salary.
Unsurprisingly Kay was looking to get out of her suffocating family situation when I arrived on the scene.
Kay actually pulled the sick parent stunt on me. Her Dad needed a pace-maker and she had no money. It was a defining moment. Had the internet been around I would have been forewarned and told her where to get off. Instead I gave her the money she asked for. Because of that act, Kay later told me, she felt obliged to marry me. I also found out later that her father was genuinely sick and was genuinely fitted with a pacemaker. Whether it was already in place I have no idea, but maybe she did feel ‘krengjai’.
For my part, I decided to wait for one year to see whether it was just a holiday romance and she would forget me or whether Kay was destined to be my lifetime soul mate.
In 1985, phone calls to Thailand were astronomically expensive and unreliable and it was with quaint, old-fashioned letter writing that we kept in touch. It could be a month or more between receiving a letter and though her spoken English wasn’t so bad, her written English required deciphering. Basically, we were no further understanding each other than the day we first met.
So a year went by and I decided to go back for a second visit. I shouldn’t have gone. I knew I was drifting into something bigger than I could imagine. But I let myself be carried along on a current of laziness and indifference that Thailand seemed to douse me with.
Well, I was now a year older and still no nearer finding the one in the UK. That should have been a little personal alarm bell, to be frank, but I saw myself as a laid-back, easy-going, come-what-may kind of guy. In other words, irresponsible. And the English ladies had that sussed.
Kay kept her side of the unspoken bargain and we kind of nudged each other towards agreeing to marry. Suddenly and out of character, I became decisive. “In that case, I will return to Thailand in 6 weeks from now and will marry you.”
“That doesn’t give me much time” she replied. “I have told my family about you. And then there is my job to consider. What happens if you don’t turn up to marry me?”
“Look, I will send you the money for the marriage ceremony as soon as I get back. That pretty much shows I’m serious, right?”
She thought for a moment. “We have to meet my family. I will call my Dad and we will go to meet him this weekend.”
Well, it’s an adventure isn’t it? So I bought a couple of bottles of French champagne, showered, and put on my best holiday shirt and slacks and off to Bangkok we went.
Stickman readers, you’ve been to these events, haven’t you? Over the coming years these family-style dinners must have reached the hundreds, maybe even more, and really don’t need much description. The only thing you can really say is that you wouldn’t be there if you weren’t paying. But this was an early lesson in the process of my Thai education and was genuinely shocked when the guests started putting ice into that fine Champagne. And then doubly shocked when at the end of the meal, all the guests had left the wine untouched.
“Why haven’t they drunk their Champagne, Kay?”
“Thai people don’t like wine.” She replied. I always approach these dinners in hope, yet invariably they end unsatiatiated.
I was as good as my word and six weeks later returned to get married. It didn’t seem such a big deal, and I felt I could easily separate if necessary. Well, that turned out to be a misjudgment. But more unexpected events were to arrive. The big, showy, Bangkok wedding that I sponsored wasn’t just for me. Daddy was unsure whether I would turn up or not and so ordered Kay’s eldest sister to marry on the same day at the same time as us, so that he wouldn’t lose face in front of family and friends if the farang didn’t turn up. Good move on the old man’s part and the event was only spoilt when the Thai fiancé of my sister-in-law stole the box containing money envelopes and disappeared off to Chiang Mai with his mates, until we were safely out of the country, and leaving his new wife behind in the Capital.
Back in Europe, it didn’t go too badly. Kay enjoyed her freedom and while it was the mid-1980s and the great influx of Thai ladies to the UK hadn’t yet taken off, there were still enough to create a small close-knit group of friends.
I knew she was pregnant before she phoned me from Bangkok. At the outset, I’d promised Kay a trip back home after six months in Europe. What I didn’t know was that she asked me for this trip as an insurance in case she didn’t like the prospect of settled married life together, and she was actually planning not to return to Europe. Getting pregnant stopped that and back she came, with me none the wiser.
Well, the baby moved into our room, into our bed. Kay said it was how things were done in Thailand. But from there after the dynamics of our marriage changed. No doubt it’s a common problem when babies arrive and men find themselves no longer the centre of attention in a couples relationship. But the baby became the excuse for everything that changed from that point onwards, including the fact that Kay no longer wanted sex. So after waiting 30 years to find my soul mate, in a little over twelve months, I had been moved to the friend zone and the spare bedroom. Of course, I couldn’t just walk away, I now had the responsibility of a kid.
I figured this might be a short-term thing. That maybe she was stressed or couldn’t cope. But on the contrary, she threw herself into mothering as if she had been in preparation for this moment since the beginning of time. I guess there are a lot of women like that. I felt cheated. I talked with her about how I felt, but all she could say was, ‘You’re a Dad now’. It sounded like a punishment.
Here’s how my thinking went. If I cut her loose now and send Kay back to Thailand then my baby goes, too. Kay will return to work in the hotel in order to support herself and the baby. That means baby-Kay gets palmed off to big sister-in-law to be brought up as an unwanted luuk kreung on a shitty, impoverished Saraburi farm. Can you honestly, hand on heart, throw an innocent infant into that miserable situation, I asked myself.
On the other hand, if baby-Kay grows up with mom and dad in Europe where I am earning good money, then her opportunities are boundless. She’ll have a comfortable life and be well-cared for. I’m not the kind of person who is able to drown puppies in a sack. I couldn’t be so cruel to my own flesh and blood, and so for her sake I stuck it out in what was now a loveless marriage,
The giving was good; work plentiful and I struck out as a freelance operator. The giving got even better. The ’80s boom years turned into the affluent ’90s. And then I was offered a contract with an American business consultancy in Bangkok. For sure, we went. For Kay it was the chance to return to her family, the same family that she was escaping from when she first met me. But now she had money, my money, and the family dynamics tilted completely in her favour. For me, it was a chance to escape into the bars of Sukhumvit and live the expat dream. ‘Bangkok or die!’ Eat your heart out, Dad. I had made it. I am drinking from the fountain of dreams.
But at what cost? Well her Mum and I drifted further apart. I was well down the ladder in the Thai family list of priorities; about level with our dogs in the sense that as long as I was fed and watered each day then Kay felt she had done her job. She knew that I had befriended a Thai neighbor and he kindly took me on an extended tour around the domain of the middle-class Thai male. We made our presence known around the massage parlours, restaurants, dining clubs and drinking establishments for the discerning male around the Huay Kwang and Rachadapisek districts. It worked out well because when work colleagues flew in from Farangland for meetings I was able to lead them to some of the more interesting places off the tourist trail. I became a good-to-know guy for the middle and upper managers and discretion was my middle name. More importantly, as a freelancer it gave me good business contacts and over time allowed me to become one of the old-Asia hands. It felt fair recompense for a shitty marriage.
Being back in Thailand allowed Kay to renew her relationship with the lesbian Tom that she hung out with during their time together working at the Pattaya hotel. Tom was married with two kids and going through a divorce. I heard stories about Tom but dismissed them as the kind of affaires of sexual discovery that adolescents go through. But over time Kay and Tom’s relationship deepened until they openly identified as a couple. Both of them were now mothers to young children so they had good cover for their activities. Kay would disappear for days at a time, reappearing when she and Tom had a lover’s quarrel. I was in the land of indifference. Possibly, the most dangerous of all locations because it meant there was no check or balance of what either of us could do. We were essentially free, if notionally married. It looked good. Kay made good face with the neighbours, having a wealthy husband, even though the gossip behind her back must have been both rife and ripe.
Of course, any kind of sexual relationship between Kay and myself had long since withered on the vine, but we tolerated each other’s need for space until the day when big sister’s husband jumped into his pickup trunk after an afternoon’s heavy drinking session and drove at high speed into the back of a parked six-wheeler. To tell the truth he wasn’t the legal husband. Big sister was his mia noi yet lived in a ménage-a-trois with the mia luang. And when the army paid out a small pension on the husband’s death, it all went to the legal wife. Big sister got nothing for twenty years of sexual servitude.
Kay had a plan. “If you can allow my sister to come and live with us, I will give her to be your wife”, she offered.
It didn’t seem a bad idea. The economics were not a problem since big sister worked at Mama Noodles in Minburi. At 40 years old she wasn’t pretty but it would mean a source of sex on tap at home. I wouldn’t need to wander far to satisfy a need. What could possibly go wrong to have my own mia noi?
It wasn’t as though mia nois were a rare species in the soi. Across the street is a Cambodian mia noi whose “husband” hasn’t appeared in five years, even though he still supports her and the kid they have together. He’s the brother of a big political agent up in Buriram and the one-night-stand with the Cambodian night club singer led to a pregnancy which elevated her to mia noi status. Kay loathes her dark skin and sudden promotion above her status of prostitute. One night she calls to me to come to the curtains. “Look next door”, she says, the curtains twitching between the fingers of her knotted fist. There bathed in the silver light of a full moon, the Cambodian squats in her garden, her draws around her ankles. “She’s taking a piss”, I said. “No class”, says Kay. “Baan nawk”.
Next door to the Cambodian is another mia noi. This poor lady is in her early 60s, and once again, her “husband” is long gone from the scene. She too, has a child, now grown up into a beautiful twenty-something university student. They live in genteel, declining poverty. In a few years the student will marry and put the brake on their decline. Her beauty has a price, it’s a saleable asset, yet their existence reeks of quiet, sad desperation that lies just below the surface of Thai society. We take her tea cakes to cheer her up and she is always grateful, polite and seems to live in a permanent daze.
Next to us is yet another mia noi. Daow is the same age as Kay. We each moved into our respective houses at the same time, married at about the same time and so share common bonds. Her husband is something like me, a computer geek, so we were all surprised when he took off with a sexy, young student. Well having seen the young lady, I can understand his thinking that it’s time to trade in for a newer model. Daow, sadly, is an air head. She doesn’t cope so well after her husband walks out and quits her sales job. Then after a few months of unemployment and struggling to pay the mortgage she realizes the best course of action is to find herself a sugar daddy. She isn’t so bad-looking, tall slim and unusually sports a frizzy hair-style, but her finances means she can’t be choosy, She does well when we see a nice BMW parked outside her gate several nights per week. Lucky Daow, problem solved. But Daow is an airhead, unable to pin down either a job or a relationship. And after a couple of months, we no longer see the BMW, but before the next new moon and before the next set of utility bills there’s now a Toyota saloon parked where the BMW used to be. Mr. Toyota doesn’t get introduced to us.
Kay twitches the curtains again. “Come and look”, she says “There’s now an old motorbike in place of the Toyota”.
“Daow’s really slipping down the social scale”, I reply. “Soon you won’t be able to talk to her.”
Finally, there’s Mr. Moo, the Chinese guy one up from Daow. Now he really has got this mia noi business sorted. She and the kid they share lives with him in his house, while next door he has brought his real wife and the other set of kids to live in close proximity and we hope, harmony.
Yet with two wives and two families Mr. Moo has too much of a good thing. Each evening, when most folks are strolling about or jogging in the cool of the dusk, he is to be found washing his ancient grey Nissan in the street with a very worried and permanent frown on his face. Washing and lathering his motor is the equivalent of the man who escapes to his potting shed at the end of the garden. With two wives to take care of Mr. Moo prefers his own company.
So when the wife offers me her sister as my mia noi, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate according to the standards of our moobaan. That leaves our house. But I declined as I felt that it would upset the dynamics of home and would end up causing lots of trouble in the future. My reasons were accepted but big sis moved in all the same and it came to pass that my predictions were correct even though I wasn’t shagging her.
By this time I had become bored with the naughty nightlife scene. It’s fun when you’re coming to Thailand on holiday but while living here I was struck particularly by how desperate the whole scene was. From the mongers to the mamasans, the touts and the taxi drivers and of course from the girls themselves, it just reeked of desperation and dissatisfaction. What I needed to do was to find a mia noi for myself.
I waited until teen-Kay had completed Chula and flown the nest to Melbourne for her master’s degree. We were all proud to see her off at the airport but she was not the only one starting a new life. I’d stuck with it for 25 years, done my duty, didn’t complain and didn’t rock the boat. It was the same night that the plane took my daughter, my greatest love and my best friend, away from me, that I switched on the laptop in the back bedroom and started searching for, well, my soul mate.
That’s what many of us are looking for, isn’t it? Men are such simple creatures. Beer, sex, food – perhaps in that order, and a little uncomplicated sweetheart. Is that so much to ask for? Supply that and we’ll happily put up shelves and fix broken gadgets so long as we can fit them around the TV sport schedules. And we’re quite happy to say how great you look in that dress that would have fitted you perfectly a couple of years ago, we’re not going to make a song and dance about stuff. And it’s either you or a dog for a life companion, but we’d prefer not to spend our lives clearing up daily dog shit, so a little soul mate it is.
Kay’s in the garden when I wander down the soi. I hear the soft pitter-patter of the hose pipe as she sprays her plants, a row of orchids strung from a tree branch, lichen stuck to the bark, a warm stream of water passes over the cyclamen, releasing a cloud of fragrance into the air. I’m carrying a plastic bag of dirty washing from the couple of weeks that I have spent in the company of Noi. I desperately want to take a shower to wash the grime of baan nok from my skin and hair. “Did you have a nice time?” Kay asks. “Yeah, it was good”. “Are you hungry?” “Little bit.” “The Muslim lady in the next soi made some Massaman curry when I said you were coming back tonight”. “My favourite”.
“Go and shower and I will warm it through” She turns her back on me and finishes off the far corner which has yet to be watered.
When the wife accepts that you have a mia noi, then life is great. When you accept that the Tom is now her girlfriend, you don’t have to put up shelves anymore.
I enter the house and my dogs go wild with excitement. Upstairs, in my room, separate from Kay’s, I send a couple of messages to Noi before showering and find some clean clothes hanging in my cupboard. Hot, refreshing tea in my Norwich City mug awaits alongside the mail that’s piled up during my absence.
“I lost my job.” I shout downstairs to Kay. “I got made redundant. The Thai girl I hired last year just replaced me.”
“Oh dear”, is all she says. Kay is as calm and serene as I was furious and angry. But everything was to change from that moment on.
To return to England wasn’t an option. I’d lost my home, my savings, my wife, my mia noi, the respect of every one. I was abandoning my dogs whose loyalty and affection was boundless. I’d failed. The dream was over. The bubble pricked. The fantasy had come to an end.
I had no options.
Back to England I went.
It was tough. Both England and I had changed, neither of us for the better. I kicked up a big fuss about it and damaged the fragile relationships with my English folks. It was difficult to adjust from being the big shot to being a nobody. But then I began to notice stuff good stuff, things that I had either missed or forgotten about. For example, the UK has seasons. Four beautiful seasons when the country wears one of four coats. As I write today, the autumn mists hang in the beech trees, a carpet of golden leaves spread around the base. I take the bus down to the 900-year-old Norwich market where I buy some fat chestnuts for roasting. I cast my eye over butternut squash, pumpkin, sleek purple aubergine, plump Spanish onions, crisp apples and pears, sweet figs and dates, Christmas bunting and lights, and smiley, white-haired old ladies, and strangers who chat at the bus stop. Cheeses and cream and rolled joints of lamb; Norfolk duckling and rabbits, pheasants and venison, hanging from the roof of the market stalls. There’s the Ipswich–supporting twins who very dare to wear their ugly blue football shirts in the heart of Norwich’s fine city, an unbribeable policeman, an ambulance hurrying a patient to hospital, and we stomp our feet on the ground and drink tea from chipped mugs and talk about the upcoming weekend sporting prospects.
And then, at the grand age of 62, I land a job. The boy is back in town. And Christmas is a couple of weeks away. There’s something I need to do. I call up Kay and ask for a divorce. Immediately, she agrees. I held back the news of my job just in case the old dollar signs flicker in her registers.
So I find myself in the New Year and a little more than 12 months from being down and out for the count, back on a plane heading to the Far East.
Now a strange thing happens. My first trip to Thailand was over 30 years ago and the flights in and out of the country is certainly in the high treble figures. And on every inbound flight the excitement gradually built up as the miles flew by, so that by the time we pulled into Don Meuang or Suvanaboom, I would be bouncing down the steps with happiness. But this time, strangely, I felt completely different. It wasn’t sadness of my upcoming divorce or that I had missed Thailand. On the contrary. I felt I’d rather be at home – in England. The Asian toxins had drained from my body. I was cured of Jasmine Fever. As soon as the wheels touch down on the tarmac I knew that I didn’t want to be there. I’ve never felt that way before, I’ve always felt the elation of arriving back on Thai soil. And I realized what was causing this feeling was that I could predict exactly how Thailand and the Thais were going to treat me. And it wasn’t a good feeling.
Once through Immigration and Customs and out into the public area of the airport, I stop at a small airport food shop to gather my thoughts and absorb the sense of being back in Thailand. When the serving girl brings me my fried rice, she gives that Thai stare. The one where she brings her head down to my level and locks her eyes into mine and just holds that gaze, waiting for me to blink first. She is searching for weakness. It’s a stare that I have become used to over the past 12 years of living in Thailand. It’s a stare that I have become used to dealing with in shops and restaurants, in bars and taxis. It’s a stare that is figuring out who I am, what I might know, how much I might be worth. And most importantly, can they exploit our encounter.
But as the waitress holds her stare I am asking myself, why do I have to deal with this? Why should this upcountry girl be staring at me in this way. I don’t get the stare in the UK. If it happened in England I would immediately ask, what is the matter? In Thailand it is a waste of time because the starer just wouldn’t respond. She is asking herself, is the farang a newbie or not? Is there an angle for me? Can I work this to my advantage? I finish my coffee and do not leave a tip. I am ready to face the next crappy situation.
The taxi driver taking me to the hotel has the verbal equivalent of the stare. He is bitching about the traffic, the distance he has to go, even though it is downtown, the cost of gas, the cost of his kid’s education. He points out the airport link train as it glides past us and complains about the competition. How can he survive?
Is this my fault that everything is shit? Am I to blame that the country is broken? I’m Joe Soap who just arrived on a plane. I only came on this trip so that I never need to come here again. I didn’t create your problems and I’m not your fucking saviour.
Getting divorced was unpleasant. Worse than someone telling you that you’ve always had bad breath and body odour. I was happy enough to see Kay. I brought a gift as I always did when I came back from a trip abroad. We hugged and kissed and held it together, even though her eyes were filled with tears, but I felt a complete shit for instigating the process and seeing it through. We did the 10-minute agreed divorce. Even at the last minute she asked if I really wanted to do this. I did and I felt even shittier for saying so. Kay didn’t want to let me go. Partly it was the face thing. She had told all the neighbours that I was working abroad, they weren’t informed that we’d split. But it was also that she was scared for the future alone, maybe like one of the discarded mia nois in the houses of our soi. It’s hard to give up the familiar and the comfortable. We think everything stays the same. We like our little routines, the comfort-blanket for our soul. But in truth everything changes and we change in different ways.
After the divorce, I went with my now ex-wife and my now ex-in-laws to my ex-home. Kay asked me to stay for a couple of days and I though it the least I could do. I slept in my old bed in my old bedroom at the back of the house. I played my old piano, the old tunes that Kay liked.
When I came downstairs to drink tea from Dad’s ex-mug, my dogs cuddled up to me as I sat crossed-legged on the floor. We were back to the good old days. This is how it used to be. That time when I went to work at 8:00 in the morning and returned at 6:00 at night to my dinner on the table. That time when I would slip my shoes off at the door and hurry inside before the mosquitoes got inside. That time when a voice would call out from the back of the house, “Dad’s home!”
There are a lot of similarities between divorce and death. The sense of loss and regret is the same. A lot of “if onlys” swirl around inside my brain. If only she hadn’t attacked me with knives. If only she hadn’t cared so much about her family. If only she hadn’t lied about her gambling problem. I wonder what “if onlys” Kay had about me?
Kay made a pot of sweet beef with rice that I like. And when no one was around I slipped a roll of bank notes in her hand. She went pale and nearly lost it. Her lower lip quivered but trooper that she is, Kay rallied and held it all together. I’m glad she did because I was on the cusp, too.
A couple of days later my brother called me from England. “Divorced yet?”
“Yeah, no problems.”
“Actually, I’m with my Thai family right now and we’re celebrating my birthday. They’ve bought me a birthday cake and we’re having a little party”
He was stunned. “No bitter recriminations?”
“None at all. In fact I’ve been staying at my old home the past few days.”
“Careful she doesn’t poison you.”
There’s a right time for us farang to be in Thailand and a right time to leave. We change and so does Thailand. I used to work along Chaeng Wattana and there used to be an old, faded Central department store there. It’s been knocked down now and a newer, more modern store built along the road. But at lunch times I used to wander into this old department store because there was a beautiful spiral staircase built between two of the floors. This staircase had an elegant wrought-iron central core and the black marble steps were inlaid with white stone chips. It was a lovely simple piece of architecture, totally out of place in this dowdy store. But I used to enjoy standing at the top of the stairs and look down at the spiral and imagine how pleased the architect must have been to have gotten this little folly built in the original design. It was so untypically Thai. And then it all got knocked down to be replaced by something modern. For me it’s a metaphor how things never stay the same. Even the good and the beautiful. It all gets destroyed along with the ugly to make way for the new.
We’re the guys who saw Thailand from the ’60s through to the millennium. We’re becoming fewer by the day and our Thailand is also disappearing by the day. I don’t hanker for it anymore because what I had, what we had, simply is no longer there. It belongs to someone else now. I have passed the baton over and I wish them well. If the new Thailand is as kind to the newcomers as Thailand was to us old timers then they can look forward to the pleasures and secrets of her company.
Goodbye Thailand, you never really loved me as I loved you.
Kay wanted me to stay all the time until I left Thailand but I felt uncomfortable. I was intruding. I needed to tip toe away. So I lied and told her I’d pre-booked a few days in Pattaya and then I would go straight to the airport without passing by our suburbs.
“So this is the big goodbye, then?” She asked. The tears ran freely down her cheeks.
“It looks like it”, I said.
Kay gave me a big hug. “I still haven’t given up trying to win you back, dear”, she said.
“You can chat with me on Line anytime you want.”
And with that we separated after 28 years of unhappy marriage.
I lied to Kay. I wasn’t going to Pattaya. I wasn’t even leaving Thailand, at least not for a further ten days. I got back to my hotel and fully-dressed lay down on top of the bed to rest. At around 3 AM in the morning there was a knock on the door. I woke up and switched on the light. Drawing back the security bolt, standing in the gloom of the door frame was Noi.
Noi entered the room. She had a small bag of clothes over one shoulder, a laptop computer under the other arm and in the doorway a printer.
We shared a light kiss on the cheek. It had been a long and tortuous 18 months separated. The person who had given me the greatest pleasure and the greatest heartache in all my life was back. She was here, in my room, in my arms, her small black head resting against my shoulder. If the spirit of my father was watching over me, then I had a message for him, “Honolulu and Die!”
We were both tired. We slept, fully-clothed, on the top of the bed.
Ten days later we married.
Wonderful, just wonderful! This is what this section of the site is all about.
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