by Alexander McCall Smith
She arrived in Bangkok not knowing what to expect. Her husband knew the place, as he had made a number of business trips there over the years.
“You’ll be happy there,” he said. “I promise you. And the Thais are very friendly. You’ll see.”
“But the traffic,” she said. “And all that noise. The children . . . .”
He touched her arm reassuringly. “There’s traffic in Sydney too, remember. And the children will be fine. The firm will provide us with a maid-two if you want. You’ll have all the help you need with the children.”
He had been right. She liked living in Bangkok, and soon stopped missing Sydney, where they had come from. It was easy to keep in touch with Australian friends, too, as they were often able to break their overseas journeys with a stop in Bangkok.
“They stay the perfect length of time for guests,” she wrote in a letter. “Three days to catch up on things and then they move on. Guests are like fish, aren’t they? After three days they begin to go off.”
Her husband enjoyed his job. He had reached the highest echelons of an international firm of accountants, and had been put in charge of the Bangkok office. They mixed in elevated financial circles, with parties and receptions at the houses of Thai plutocrats. They were popular in the society of the capital, and, being photogenic, her picture often appeared in the pages of The Bangkok Tatler. She went to charity auctions and fashion launches at the silk houses. And he liked this. “It’s good for business for you to be seen,” he said. “Consider it work. Enjoy yourself.”
By the end of their fourth year there, when the boy was fifteen and the girl thirteen, they had become so established that the prospect of returning to Australia seemed something remote. Yes, they would go back, but not in the immediate future. The children had learned Thai and had their friends in Bangkok. They were doing well at their international school. They had better manners than their Australian contemporaries, and they had picked up that subtle physical grace which the Thais have. Australian teenagers seemed so ill at ease in the space they occupied, and were so gauche.
Then, on a Friday afternoon in the monsoon season, just as a heavy purple cloud was building up over the northern fringes of Bangkok and the air was becoming heavy and humid, a woman from the office knocked at the door. She let the woman in and could tell immediately that something had happened. The Thais smiled in a particular way when they were distressed, and this was such a smile. It was always misread by foreigners-farangs as they called them-but she understood it very well and did not misinterpret it now. Something very serious had happened. He’s had an accident, she thought immediately. It’s happened . . . .
Every eight hours somebody is killed in a traffic accident in Bangkok, so dense is the volume of cars, trucks, and motorcycles. He had been in the car with his driver, apparently, and they had turned a corner onto a narrow street. A small elephant and its keeper, a man from a hill tribe in the north, had been crossing the smaller road and the car had hit the elephant. The driver had been relatively unharmed, but her husband had been badly cut about the neck by flying glass. He had been dragged out, bleeding, and because there was no ambulance service to speak of, he had been put into a motorbike taxi, a tok tok, to be driven to a nearby clinic, his driver trying to staunch the bleeding from his neck. He never arrived. He died in the brightly painted tok tok as it bumped its way along the potholed road.
There was an outcry from the firm and from those who had been campaigning to rid the city of elephants. “They have no business in the city,” said a prominent member of the city administration. “This is another example of what happens when you allow elephants to roam around in the city. These people who bring them in must be punished severely.” She did not want anybody to be punished. She saw a photograph in The Bangkok Post of the elephant that had caused the accident, and of his keeper, who looked so small beside his charge and so intimidated by the presence of the two policemen in the background. The elephant’s left foreleg, facing the camera, had a large gash in it, a laceration caused by the impact with the car. She stared at the photograph, then turned the page quickly. But she then turned back to the photograph and looked at it again, noticing the details-the shirt worn by the keeper and the Buddhist amulet around his neck. He might have thought that this amulet had saved him, and made a victim of her husband instead, an anonymous farang whose car was going too fast anyway.
She could not go home. Her parents, who were retired and living in Melbourne, came to stay with her, and helped. They urged her to return to Australia.
“You have to do it for the sake of the children,” they said. “Think of them. What are they going to do here?”
“But it’s for their sake that I’m staying,” she said. “Look at them. They have all their friends. They’re happy here. I don’t want to uproot them.”
She stayed in Bangkok for a year, a year of pain and loneliness which she tried to disguise for the children’s sake. Her weepy moments, alone in the apartment overlooking the Chao Phraya River, were never witnessed by the children, although the boy sensed the depths of her distress, she felt, and put his arm about her at odd moments and hugged her to him. “You have me,” he whispered. “You’re not alone. Remember that.”
A year after it happened she was invited by friends for a long weekend in their house on Samui, an island in the southern provinces. These friends, Americans who worked for one of the banks, were childless, and her children, sensing a weekend without teenage company in Samui, opted to stay with friends in Bangkok.
The American couple lived on the west coast of the island, near a small village called Baan Thaling Ngam. They had spent a great deal on the house, which perched on the top of a hillside and was surrounded by palm trees. It had been built in the Thai style, to the specifications of a Bangkok architect. The top storey had a large living room with a balcony overlooking an emerald green sea; down below there were several bedrooms with polished hardwood floors and windows shuttered against the heat. When the balcony doors were opened, a warm breeze entered the house and kept it cool. The breeze carried the scent of the frangipani trees that had been planted in front of the house, a scent that made her think of expensive unguents and soaps.
“It’s lovely here,” she said. “So peaceful.”
“Yes,” they said. “We’re going to miss this place. We’ve put so much into it.”
“Paul’s going back to New York. We’ve decided to sell.”
She said nothing, but that night, on the verandah, while they watched the sun burn down over the mainland, she decide that she would buy the house and live there. She would come down with the children during their school holidays and stay in the apartment in Bangkok during term.
“I’ll buy this house from you,” she said suddenly.
They laughed. “We hoped that you’d say that. We wanted somebody we knew to look after this place and its spirit house. Thank you.”
Many a Thai house had a small wooden spirit house in the garden; a tiny building on a pole, resembling a birdhouse but decorated with ribbons and flowers and offerings for the spirits. A well-kept spirit house would have happy spirits who would be willing to stay. One which did not have regular offerings of fruit would be deserted by the spirits, spurned.
She returned to Bangkok with pictures of the house to show to the children. They approved of the idea. The boy, in particular, liked the sea. They had taken him on a number of occasions to Hua Hin and Phuket, and it had been difficult to get him out of the water.
“Aquatic,” her husband had said. “Look at him. He’s like some beautiful sea creature. An otter maybe.”
She was proved right about the children. They took to the house immediately and while they were on the island they largely forgot about their Bangkok friends. The boy took to fishing and he struck up a friendship with a young man from a fishing community on one of the tiny islands along the shore of Samui. They could see the island from the house; it was a tiny lump of rock that rose sheer out of the sea and was topped by dense green jungle vegetation. At the base of the rock, the fishermen had built a few houses on stilts, made of palm straw and thick bamboo poles. On the edge of the cliff they had tied fishing poles, the lines dangling down into the water to catch lobsters and crabs which they would take into the fish market on the large island. The boy sometimes went out with the young man, who was about his age, and fished from the side of the young man’s father’s longtail boat. She watched them set off from the beach, her son almost as browned by the sun as the other boy, and she thought of how her husband would have liked this. He had found it more difficult to get over his natural reserve, and had spoke hesitantly to the locals. “I feel so out of place with these people,” he had said. “So . . . so large. It’s as if I just don’t get it.” She knew, though, that her son got it, whatever it was.
There were other foreigners in the area, and there was some social life amongst them. She got to know a couple, German artists, who had a villa further along the coast, and who entertained on a large scale. They held several parties each New Year, and it was at one of these that she met one of their friends, another Australian. He had been working in Bangkok and was between jobs. He was renting a house on Ko Samui for a couple of months before returning to Australia. She spoke to him for several hours at the party and invited him to the house the next day. He came, and met the children. She saw her son look at him with attention, and then look away again.
The new friend returned her invitation.
“My house is not nearly as nice as this,” he said. “But there’s a pool, if the children want to come.”
The boy did not want to go. “I’m going fishing,” he said. “Samsook said he would collect me at the beach. We want to get some red snapper.”
She left them behind and went to his house. He showed her the pool and the living room. He had a spirit house, too, but he had left it untended. A few flowers, now dried, placed there by a previous tenant, were lying at the spirits’ doorway.
“The spirits will have moved out in disgust,” she said, half-chiding him.
“I’ll try to get them back,” he said, laughing. “I’ll make it up to them.”
She found herself comfortable in his company. He had an easy charm and was a good conversationalist. She realised that since her husband’s death there had been so much that she had not been able to say, because there had been nobody to say it to. She had forgotten, she realised, what it was like to sit down with a man, at the table, and talk to him about anything-small things that had happened during the day, things that people had said. And he sat there listening, and smiling; not the Thai smile with its numerous meanings, but a smile she could easily understand, a flickering smile that signalled intimacy and understanding.
He was divorced, and had been for some years. He had not wanted the divorce, and had tried to persuade his wife to stay. “It was like a death,” he said, and then stopped, realising that he had been tactless.
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