CLOUD NINE WITH FARANG












ISAAN

When Sarakit was a child she stuck close to her elder brother Buwannee, whom she adored. For instance if Buwannee should be climbing a tree he would know to expect Sarakit to do the same, fearlessly following his lead.

Near the house - one-room, built of reclaimed wood, standing on wooden uprights - grew a mango tree they had both mastered. Dominating the Apram’s plot of land this tree stood behind the unmade road which connected dwellings like their own to the highway.

The sparsely populated district was flat for miles on end. Paddy fields, man-made embankments and jungle covered the ground. It was the Plain of Buriram, in Isaan, North-Eastern Thailand.

If there was nothing much else to eat Buwannee and Sarakit could climb the mango tree and bring down unripe fruit, eating it in hard sour slices sprinkled with sugar.

In the dry season, brother and sister liked to wandered over the dusty rice fields or up and down the sandy road. Their neighbour kept a store and if mother had given pocket-money they’d exchange it for dried banana strips or dried fish, to be chewed at leisure under the shade of the tree outside and shared with their two little sisters, Bun and Sum.

At sundown, taking it in turns to shout, they had to call in the water buffalo from the empty fields. The buffalo had a way of appearing suddenly from nowhere and of strolling royally in without a glance at its keepers.

Under the house were chickens. A regular meal was chicken-in-a-broth and sticky rice. Buwannee had the strongest teeth but Sarakit attacked chicken bones with greater relish. Taking a chicken thigh bone she would first suck the goodness out of each end then crush the joints with her back teeth into an edible pulp, consuming almost the entire bone.

After dark Buwannee would meet his friends on the main road, Sarakit by his side. Nights were warm. The open country was silver under the moonlight or, on cloudy days, completely black. Frogs croaked in the undergrowth and other small creatures made calls equal in intensity to those of larger animals. If a vehicle came by its headlights burned retinas and its engine swamped the night until the vehicle was finally a pinprick of light and a murmur on the horizon again. The youths smoked cigarettes, their faces taking on wax-like masks. Ghost stories were popular and gossip was exchanged, mostly involving local misfortune with a funny note to it.

On weekday mornings, Buwannee and Sarakit walked to school. If it rained they went barefoot, carrying their shoes up to the main road to avoid muddying them. In school lessons were taught in Thai. Some pupils had their first encounter with the Thai language there, Khmer or Lao being spoken by their parents at home.

Occasionally, instead of giving a class, the teacher wheeled in a television and showed an educational programme. Some of the class had a television at home, some, like Sarakit, didn’t. Sarakit had great enthusiasm for television but hid this fact from her classmates.

Discipline was strict. Teachers carried wooden rods and used them. Neither Buwannee nor Sarakit particularly minded corporal punishment. They took the occasional thump that came their way with a laugh, taking the opportunity to show bravado. They retold such incidents to each other on their walk home, laughing freely.

Buwannee turned fifteen and his schooldays came to an end. At the wish of his mother he joined the temple for a three month novitiate. Boys of different ages lived there, some staying a few days for a particular purpose – to gain merit for the family or help a recently deceased relative on their way in the next life - others staying longer. Either way, a spell at the temple was considered quite normal for a young man.

The temple was close to their home, behind some woodland and surrounded by a high wall. The larger bells had always been audible during Buwannee’s childhood, so was chanting sometimes if the wind was blowing from the east. The monks frequented the sandy road, walking in procession on feast-days. And always at the dawn of each day the monks came out of the gate and scattered across the neighbourhood accompanied by their acolytes who carried empty bowls to gather breakfast offerings from local families.

The family dressed up to accompany Buwannee to the temple with it’s monastery precincts. Buwannee was taken by the monks to have his head and eyebrows shaved and to be robed. Sarakit and her mother moved to one of the shrines, lit candles, knelt and bowed to the Lord Buddha; Bun and Sum stood behind them with solemn faces.

On visiting days the family returned and Buwannee came out to join them. Among the other novice monks he was scarcely recognisable, being poised and quiet. However he played gaily enough with Sum and Bun in the courtyard. One day Sarakit sat on the wall watching her brother. His shaven head and saffron robe gave rise to contradictory feelings in her. On the one hand she wanted to laugh, on the other she felt a shadow of respect. This made Sarakit feel itchy, hot around the neck and she began to sweat. At this moment, as if guessing his sister was watching him, Buwannee broke off from his game with Bun and Sum, straightened up and looked Sarakit full in the face, grinning. Sarakit grinned back. All was well, her brother hadn’t really changed, despite his shaven head and robes.

One day while Buwannee was still living at the temple cousin June came to take Sarakit and everyone else at home on a day-trip to Phanon Rung, a local Khmer ruin. June was often away working but her family house was nearby. Whenever she was home Sarakit and her mother would walk over to visit. June’s house was on the main road, a concrete-block structure with a blue roof. Similar houses stood at intervals along the road, each occupying a lot without proper land. In front beside the road June had installed a pagoda and neighbours would join her there, fan themselves, crack nuts and talk.

June was not particularly good looking - her face had been roughened by a childhood of ill-health - but she was reliable, she could get on with people and was able to tolerate long working hours. She managed a small bar in Pattaya, a large seaside town ten hours on the bus going southwest, not quite as far as Bangkok. The bar on Beach Road was owned successively by a Frenchman, an Irishman and a Dutchman, each selling up when they could not make the bar pay. June, however, drew her wages and saved money. She had just put down the first instalment on a pick-up truck for her family and her thoughts had turned towards building an extension on the house at the back.

The Phanon Rung day-trip was the first proper outing for the pick-up truck. June ran it over to collect Sarakit’s family. Sarakit, her mother and father, Sum and Bun, all piled into the box. As the pick-up sped down the highway the wind streamed through their hair and they bumped up and down together. June drove while her parents and a couple of cousins sat with her in the cab.

Phanon Rung is an ancient temple complex and sits on a small hill. The party took a long lunch in one of the guest-houses at the foot of the hill and ate rice, barbecued chicken, seafood and noodle salad, minced pork with basil, and papaya salad with fermented crab and Sarakit’s father drank Chang beer – all paid for by June.

The table next-door was occupied by three Esarn girls and theirfarangs, farang being the Thai word for ‘Westerner,’ a word nearly identical to the Thai word for ‘French’, suggesting the French had been the first Europeans to make an impact in Thailand long ago. In the course of the meal June turned and said ‘hello’ to the farangs. Sarakit’s mum and dad wanted to know what June had said.

“I said the farang for ‘sawadee ka,’” June explained.

Shyly, June’s guests tried out ‘hello’ on their tongues, even Sarakit’s mother. This English speaking led to plenty of laughter at table. At one point Sarakit felt the eyes of one of the farangs on her and for fun said to her mum, ‘Hello,’ well knowing the farang was listening. Then Sarakit heard the farang echoing her by saying ‘sawadee cap’ aloud. Sarakit couldn’t resist a direct glance at the farang table. The farangs were drinking beer, eating and having a good time, just like they were. The Esarn girls wore make-up and were of married age. Sarakit noticed the tangle of hair running up and down the forearms of the farang who had looked at her and took an involuntary breath of revulsion mixed with curiosity.

Later, June’s party strolled up through the ruins. The main temple was largely restored as were several of the lesser buildings. Tall, shady trees surrounded the site. In many places the carvings in the stone, nine hundred years old, were in good condition and the visitors could make out depictions of Khmer life, the Hindu god Shiva, warriors and war elephants.

The others went back to the truck to lie down and sleep off lunch. Sarakit and June threaded their way between the stones then sat down to read the information pamphlet they had picked up. The pamphlet described how the Khmer kingdom had once covered Cambodia, Laos, the majority of Thailand and parts of Malaysia. The kingdom embraced first Hinduism and later Buddhism. In its heyday the capital at Angkor had been home to a million people. Now that temple complex was hacked free from the jungle after a long period of being lost. Angkor was contemporaneous with Phanon Rung and only sixty miles away, separated by plantations, jungle and, notionally, the Cambodian border. Sarakit and June turned to look over the countryside which receded perfectly flat in all directions except for a few distant knolls, each topped with latter-day temples whose gilt-painted roofs flashed distantly in the sunlight.

“We are Khmer, the same as they were,” June mused, excited by the thought of her ancestry with a once-dominant people.

“Yes, we are,” Sarakit agreed lightly. She was thinking it would be nice to rule as far as the eye could see and have plenty of slaves.

“But we are part Lao too.”

“And officially Thai.”

“Three-in-one!”

With their imaginations glowing they turned back through the Khmer ruins and went down to June’s new transport.

Back at June’s place June, June’s mother and Sarakit’s mother talked further about the house extension. The only way June could get the project moving right away was to borrow money from the bank using Sarakit’s mother’s property as security. Sarakit’s mother agreed to hand over the title deeds and the next day representatives from Siam Commercial came and signed for them. In Esarn it is common for property to be owned on the female side of the family and parts of Esarn can been loosely described as matriarchal. June was in a hurry to get back to Pattaya. Before leaving she delivered a new television to Sarakit’s place. She also paid money to bring the electricity grid to their farm, all by way of thanks for the loan security.

Life on the small-holding went on. Sarakit’s father was a lorry driver by profession. He liked to drink whisky under the barn. He played with Bun and Sum and called on Sarakit to carry out small tasks. The chores of daily life were his wife’s affair. Sarakit’s mum appreciated her husband’s presence at home but only to a point. When he wasn’t working she found his inactivity irksome. If Sarakit’s dad was away on a job he could safely be assumed to be spending his wages on drink and other women.

Also at home was Granny, a lady weakened by old age and down to thirty kilograms in weight. During that hot season she had taken particularly unwell. Her heart was faltering and she found it hard to get outside.

Buwannee returned from his spell at the temple. He had put on weight and grown taller. His mother was pleased with him. Monastic life had its hardships: no food was consumed by the monks after noon and long periods of meditation had to be endured. She gave Buwannee money to go into town and enjoy himself.

By mutual consent Sarakit didn’t follow her brother anymore when he rounded up his friends and went off for the day. She was fourteen now, apt to be moody. Buwannee was one of only two people who could still make her laugh – the other was Granny. What Buwannee did with his friends she didn’t care but there was far more interest in the opposite sex now.

Then the time came to decide Buwannee’s future. He could either stay at home and grow rice or go to Bangkok and work in the kitchen of his uncle, who ran a noodle shop. The Bangkok option was the more appealing for Buwannee. The money he could send home would be of timely help too. Sum and Bun were almost ready for school which would be the advent of new expenses. The arrangement satisfied everyone and Buwannee left for Bangkok.

Sarakit, who walked to school alone now, picked up an admirer, Chunaswat. On muddy days Chunaswat was the bearer of Sarakit’s shoes and socks. She would walk stiffly ahead, slender heels and toes carefully finding their footing on the track. He followed. Chunaswat was in the Boys’ School and like Sarakit approaching fifteen and matriculation. After school Chunaswat would come over to watch the television. He brought small gifts for Sarakit or her mother, half a dozen bananas, a coconut or some stick-ons from town for Sarakit’s satchel.

Sarakit wore T-shirt and long pants at home. In the daytime the two of them watched the soap operas and pop videos produced by the media companies in Bangkok, at night the action and horror movies from America, dubbed into Thai. The faces of farang actors became familiar to Sarakit and she decided she liked the strong bridge of their noses. Sarakit wished her own nose was more elevated but was otherwise satisfied with her appearance. When Chunaswat went home Sarakit would stay fixed to the box without remarking on his departure.

“Poor boy,” Granny once said from the corner.

“It’s not my fault he likes me,” Sarakit had replied tartly.

At the end of the wet season Sarakit finished at school. The village festival came into the calendar shortly afterwards. The local organiser invited Sarakit to help form the dance troupe since she was one of the prettiest girls in the area. Five girls learnt the dance moves. Sarakit’s home was a convenient place to practise. Chunaswat watched rehearsals, so did Bun and Sum who mimicked the simpler movements from the side-lines.

One evening prior to the festival, when mother and daughter were sitting quietly on the step at dusk, Sarakit’s mother talked to Sarakit about men.

“Men are butterflies, remember that,” she said. “It is in their nature to move from one flower to the next.”

Sarakit said nothing, surprised at her mother’s direct turn in conversation. After a pause Sarakit’s mother went on.

“Men can sweet-talk a silly girl into anything, particularly if she’s had too much to drink. Do whatever you want but please always remember one thing. Do not let a man finish inside you unless you are ready to have the resulting baby.”

Sarakit found what her mother said reasonable. The subject of sex had been the topic of many conversations with her friends, even if not with her mother. Sarakit felt duty-bound to make some kind of joke. “So, is Dad a butterfly?” she asked showing a pensive face.

“I don’t know what he is,” Sarakit’s mum replied tersely. “Just don’t get pregnant unless you mean it. That’s what I want to say to you.”

Her mother had the following to say on the subject of love and marriage. “Before knowing the right kind of man to marry a girl should have two experiences. She should have rejected a man who loved her but she didn’t love. And she should have made a fool of herself with a man who she loved but who didn’t love her. Then she might make the right choice for marriage the third time, having known both kinds of a bad match.”

The local Thai Rak Thai politician provided food and drink. The festival lasted three days, livening up each night. For the dances the girls were costumed in gilt jewellery, similar in style to that on the Hindu deities at Phanon Rung, adorning wrists, ankles, bellies and foreheads. They were also given elephant-leg trousers of red silk. After the dancing a local band from Buriram took the stage. Thai people know many songs, particularly songs from the province of Esarn which has its own style of music, Molam. When the professional singer gave way to the audience many villagers sang expertly.

Each of the three nights passed in singing and drinking. One night Chunaswat went up on stage. Competently he sang Sarakit’s favourite songs. She was softened.

People would remain until dawn, when it was light enough to walk home. On the last night of the festival Sarakit and Chunaswat went off to a secluded place in the woods. They lay on the ground and made love. Sarakit insisted Chunaswat adhere to her mother’s advice, she wasn’t ready for a baby.

Sarakit and Chunaswat made several more visits to their bed of foliage in the trees. Sarakit liked what they did there but started to feel she was getting too close to Chunaswat, whom she didn’t love. So Sarakit broke off with him firmly.

Chunaswat apprenticed with a blacksmith. He would have liked to marry Sarakit and was hurt by her rejection. On the other hand intimacy with the beautiful Kip had made his world complete, at least while it lasted. For her part Sarakit left for Bangkok. She wanted to experience city life and help bring in money like her brother.





BANGKOK



Sarakit went to work in a clothes factory in northern Bangkok, living with ‘Aunt’ Thainee.

Aunt Thainee was not a blood relative but had been a neighbour fifteen years earlier, a family of four with her husband and two growing sons. Unfortunately the family didn’t hold together. The husband went to live with another women and the sons married and scattered. Rather than live alone in the country Thainee had moved to Bangkok. Now she lived in a tenement building near the factory. She was almost an old woman but had kept a strong body. She worked and when she was not working she lived quietly on her own. Her door was always open and neighbours and their children came in and out of from the Kipsy corridor. Her room possessed an overhead fan and a balcony outside for washing clothes and cooking. Inside, a modest shrine of Buddhist iconography watched over the room from a corner-shelf; she burned incense sticks there and maintained a plate of cooked rice. Sarakit and Thainee shared Thainee’s bed and on the first morning Thainee took Sarakit to work.

The factory was on the first floor of a warehouse, with ten or so employees and thirty or forty casual labourers. The casuals tended to work for a period of three to six months, often from one festival in the Thai calendar to the next, then return home. Most of them were girls like Sarakit, lately finished at school, sixteen or seventeen years of age. Many came from towns in Esarn – Khorat, Surin, Kalasin and others. The workers made friends with each other easily. Sarakit began to toil eight hours a day passing polo shirts over a machine which sewed collar buttons. With overtime the weekly wage was in the region of five thousand baht, which was good money to send home.

When not working Sarakit slept in Thainee’s room or ate. Quite unlike the countryside you could not go anywhere in Bangkok without encountering cooking and Sarakit spent much of her time at work thinking about what she was going to eat next. She liked the barbequed chicken and pork at the warehouse gates; the noodle soups; the fish; the dumplings; the crushed ice flavoured with something sweet and green, something else tingly and red; the pancakes; the vegetables and the fruits from different corners of Thailand.

The girls in the factory had a Bangkok style of dressing which Sarakit admired. The first thing Sarakit did with her spending money was buy some new clothes. She went to the market with three girls after work. They helped Sarakit choose a pair of close-cut jeans and some T shirts with Western words on them; nobody could read the words but they looked cool. Then the girls strolled through the air-conditioned malls, talked about boys and caught a movie.

One Sunday Thainee put Sarakit on the bus for Victory Square. Buwannee was working near there, at an ice depot. Thainee explained how Sarakit could recognise Victory Square. From Victory Square it would be a question of hoping for the best. Sarakit would have to find Rama IV road and from there pick out Soi 10, where the ice depot was. Thainee felt no certainty that a sixteen year old girl, who’d never lived in a city, could find the ice depot by herself. If it all went wrong Sarakit could ring Thainee at the factory for help.

The bus was packed and Sarakit stood holding a handrail. Though not an air-conditioned service the windows slid down to let in air. Sarakit felt gloriously free from buttons and polo shirts and thrilled at the prospect of visiting her brother here in the City of Angels.

Progress was slow: a jam of cars moving in four lanes down a wide, straight road met by frequent intersections. Up front the driver’s radio was tuned to a city station, broadcasting roughly equal segments of advertisements and popular songs. Some passengers watched the road, willing the bus on its journey; a nucleus of schoolboys chatted then lapsed into silence. The city was not at all frightening and, after all, buses were buses. At Victory Square Sarakit jumped off the bus and found herself shy at asking anyone for directions. Instead she started to walk around the one kilometre perimeter of Victory Square, determined to find Rama IV by herself. It didn’t take long and then her confidence in finding Soi 10 was complete. Ten minutes later Sarakit sat down in front of the ice depot feeling hot, hungry and pleased with herself.

Sarakit snoozed until a bell rang and people started coming out of the gate. There was Buwannee, stopping when he saw Sarakit and smiling. Sarakit stood up and they took stock of each other.

“Hungry?” Buwannee asked.

“I could eat a buffalo.”

“Then we need money.” Buwannee pulled a wad of baht notes from his pocket and flourished it. Money!

Sarakit also had money. “Snap.” She showed hers.

“At home we wouldn’t have found five baht between us,” said Buwannee. They laughed, both showing their pearl-white teeth set off by dark complexions. Buwannee touched Sarakit on the shoulder and they set off to find a meal.

They walked a few blocks to be clear of Buwannee’s work then chose a pavement eating shop. This place specialised in duck-on-rice-with-gravy and a pickled egg on the side, not a spicy dish but being Esarn provincials, Buwannee and Sarakit used the condiments to throw on large amounts of chilli. They ate with relish. While they dined dusk fell, the air cooled and around them the pavements thickened with people queuing for buses or eating at newly unfolded tables.

Buwannee told Sarakit about Chanee, a girl he had played around with for a while. She was the cashier at their uncle’s noodle shop. Chanee was a Bangkok girl born and bred, a type Buwannee had not known before. For a while they were a fixture until Chanee froze Buwannee out, saying he was getting too close. She didn’t want to marry an Esarn villager, she wanted someone who had at least some resemblance to the soap stars. There were plenty of boys like that around, who had that Bangkok style: the gelled hair, white skin and nice shoes, even if they lived in shacks by the sewer. From then on Buwannee was finished with waiting tables. He left the noodle shop and took a man’s job at the ice depot.

Rising from table, Buwannee decided to take Sarakit to a popular night district. They arrived early to find the place fairly lifeless. They drank a lipo at 7-Eleven. They went into one of the malls and watched a movie in freezing air-conditioning. They came out and shared french fries at McDonalds. Chanee must have been a stupid girl to dump her brother, Sarakit thought. What did it matter if they were born in Buriram? They were proud of it. And what if Sarakit could feel herself reacting like a provincial right now, so excited by the city? Whatever! She could call herself an adult, with a job and her own money. She was just as good as anyone else in the city and so was her brother.

By now large numbers of people were milling around in the main street and queues had formed outside the night clubs. Buwannee moved slowly through the crowd. Sarakit stuck close. Many people were loitering, some with something to sell, some with apparently no purpose at all. Buwannee turned a corner and after a few paces encountered Dak, a friend of his. Dak was a dark-skinned, heavy-set Khmer and he wore a gold necklace under his T-shirt; its yellow gleam suited his skin. The three of them went down the soi and into a narrow shop-lot. Here basic necessities were laid out on the shelves but the place doubled as a drinking den. Another Khmer joined, an older guy with tattoos over his arms and legs. The four sat down and the cashier brought them Mekong whisky, ice and coke.

Buwannee refreshed his mouth with an ice cube then spat it to the floor. “Let’s drink,” he said.

The older Khmer took out a cell-phone and passed it around – it was a new one. It started ringing forlornly. The Khmer took the phone back, pulled the SIM card out and flicked it onto the floor. “I love city people,” he said, “soft targets. Maybe your sister wants it,” he added to Buwannee, “four hundred baht and it’s hers.”

Dak confided to Sarakit he sold pills, “Any colour, any flavour.” Dak left the table whenever a dealer came in. His stash was upstairs. “No police problem today,” Dak commented. “Payday. They are with their whores.”

They all got drunk. Sarakit had not been properly drunk before. Dak and the other Khmer competed for her attention and each hoped to sleep with her. Sarakit was boisterous with them but not flirtatious and Buwannee was not about to watch his sister taken advantage of. In the early hours Buwannee took Sarakit back to his room to catch some sleep then put her in a taxi.

Two months passed. Now Sarakit and her mother had mobile phones and talked every evening.

“Hello Sarakit, did you eat already?”

“Yes, I’ve eaten.”

“What did you eat?”

“Pork and rice. How’s Granny?”

“Granny had some chicken today but she didn’t go outside.”


“Hello Mum, are the mangos ripe yet?”

“No. Bun and Sum still can’t climb the tree either.”


“Hello Sarakit, Chunaswat came around today. He talked to Granny. He’s doing well as a blacksmith now. Are you seeing any boys in Bangkok?”

“No, Mum, I’m not seeing any boys, I’m only working.”


“Sarakit, are you coming home for the Song Kran festival?”

“Yes, Mum, Buwannee and I will come on the bus together.”

But before Song Kran, Sarakit’s mother rang with bad news.

“Your dad’s in prison. There was an accident on the road. He was drunk. Now he’s in the town prison. He is not hurt badly but someone else was killed.”

After that Sarakit’s mum’s life became more complicated and difficult.

“I have to go into town every day. The prison only gives one meal so your father needs extra food.”

“You dad is complaining about the conditions. He cannot sleep; the boredom is wearing him down.”

“Your dad is not looking so well. He is thinner.”

“Sarakit, can you or Buwannee send more money this month? We are a bit short.”

“Your dad’s eating well now, but I’m tired.”

Then Sarakit’s mum had a new worry. “Sarakit, can you go and see Buwannee. I’m concerned about him. We have not heard from him for a few weeks. He’s sent nothing.”

So Sarakit went to find out what was up with her brother. She had been taking the bus to Victory Square quite regularly, once or twice a month. When Sarakit got to the ice depot, Buwannee wasn’t there. At the depot office they told her that Buwannee was in prison. They said Sarakit could find out more at the police station on Soi 20. As far as they knew, Buwannee had been caught selling yaa-baa. He hadn’t been in to work for two weeks.

The police station confirmed the story. The magistrates had already sat. Buwannee was now on a two year stretch at Halengungbautee prison for dealing in a prohibited drug. In the alternative, a fine of forty thousand baht would settle the offence, payable at the cashier’s office.

There seemed nothing for it but to go and find the prison. Sarakit took a string of buses, sitting shocked and unhappy at the turn of events. Halengungbautee was an organisation of concrete buildings on the Rangsit-Nakhon road out of Bangkok. Sarakit had to wait until late afternoon to see her brother; at last he was let into the visitors’ room by a prison guard. He smiled but looked ill-used. “Hello, Titch,” he said.

“Hello, Big Brother.”

“It’s good to see you. Clever of you to find me.”

Buwannee told Sarakit what had happened. Dak supplied yaa-baa, a pill containing methamphetamine and caffeine. Buwannee sold the pills after work to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, to pick up extra cash. Typically, working people took a pill to give them a lift or to help them through a stint of overtime and yaa-baa was also used recreationally. Buwannee had taken care of the local police as Dak had told him to, with small payments to the patrolmen in the area. That had been fine. But then something had upset the balance. Thinking about it now Buwannee could only imagine that some factor had pushed the police into action, perhaps the electioneering which had been hotting up between local politicians in the ward. Buwannee did not have enough money to buy his way out of the arrest and Dak had no influence in Buwannee’s district.

“The police say forty thousand baht will take care of it,” said Sarakit.

“Never mind. Keep sending your money to Mum,” Buwannee replied.

“What are we going to say to Mum?”

“Nothing. Say I lost my phone, that’s why I don’t call.”

“You are right. Mum’s got enough to worry about with Granny and Dad. I’ll come as often as I can.”

“Don’t worry about me, Little Sister, life here is not so bad.”

At a motion from the guard Buwannee exited the room quickly. Sarakit was left alone with her thoughts. She wasn’t sure what was possible but she knew she could work overtime and she knew if she slept on the bus she could visit her brother here and bring him meals, just like her mother did for her dad. That night Sarakit confided everything to Thainee. Then she called her mum and told her the white lie she’d agreed with her brother. She added that everyone at the ice depot had taken a pay cut because of business problems. Result? Buwannee couldn’t send money for a while.

Everything depended on Sarakit now. With her mother unable to take a mortgage on the farm, which was already under a charge because of the loan for June’s house extension, with her father in prison and her brother in prison, with Bun and Sum needing new clothes for school, the whole family threatened to fall apart unless she held strong.

Sarakit started to work a double shift at the factory, then travel to the prison, sleeping on the bus. The Song Kran festival came and went. Sarakit had to tell her mum she could not spare the time to come home, nor could Buwannee. After this Sarakit almost stopped calling her mum, not liking to lie to her. Her mum sensed something had changed and complained to Sarakit that she was not the same daughter. She suspected Sarakit was spending time with a man, a man who was exercising a bad influence over her, and said so. Sarakit denied her mother’s suspicions vaguely, afraid of being drawn into explanations which would lead to the truth coming out. Sarakit was pained to keep the facts from her mother - who became convinced Bangkok had changed her children for the worse.

After three months the factory took note of Sarakit’s stickability. With a push from Thainee, who was herself a supervisor, the floor manager promoted Sarakit to take responsibility for a line. This brought a much needed pay rise. Thainee herself was working overtime for the cause. Sarakit’s life was a continual round of shifts at the factory and bus rides to visit Buwannee, stopping at the market outside prison for food. Their shared purpose bonded Thainee and Sarakit. Any moments of relaxation they shared with each other. Sarakit felt for the first time her own strength of character. Her determination didn’t waiver. She felt a kind of moral exhilaration at times. And when she felt so tired she could cry, she thought of her brother having to bear up alone in prison.

Sarakit’s dad was let out of jail but he didn’t work again. The haulage company would not re-employ him. His driving license had been revoked anyway. He came back home. Never a farmer, boredom, idleness and lack of money created tensions. Husband and wife argued with unaccustomed ferocity. Sometimes arguments led to marital beatings. There was no one at home strong enough to intervene. Bun, Sum and Granny had to witness it all. Ten months on Sarakit handed over forty thousand baht to the police station, and, two days later the cogs of justice turned, delivering Buwannee out of prison. Buwannee went to the ice depot and got his job back. He was too weak to resume loading and put on lighter tasks while he regained muscle.

Sarakit continued visiting Buwannee on her days off. Once Buwannee made the mistake of mentioning Dak’s name. Sarakit flew off the handle. Buwannee’s time in prison had been hard for her too. She hated drugs. If Buwannee ever returned to drugs or saw Dak again Sarakit would break with him forever. Buwannee stood shocked and awed before his sister’s anger. After she had calmed down he agreed never to touch or sell drugs again. He owed that to her.

In July that year Sarakit turned seventeen. She gave notice at the factory and prepared to say goodbye to Thainee. Sarakit’s mum had been told everything by Buwannee about how hard Sarakit had worked to hold the family together. She was now in the habit of going regularly to the temple to praise her daughter before the Lord Buddha. Sarakit rang with an announcement. “Mum, I’m going to Pattaya. I’ll stay with June. I want to have some fun.” Sarakit’s mum raised no objection. Sarakit had earned a holiday and she was not one to say that factory life deserved loyalty over the perils of Pattaya.





PATTAYA



So begins Sarakit’s time in Pattaya. It took two years before she met Jason. The story of their relationship takes centre place in this narrative when we reach it. In the meantime Sarakit was about to find unrequited love with a farang. It was the programme her mother had recommended. First had come Chunaswat, the young local man Sarakit had rejected. Now it was time for Sarakit to be made a fool of, by a man she loved but who didn’t exactly love her. Sarakit was certainly curious to know what it would be like to have a close encounter with a farang. She had fallen in love with enough Western movie stars to be half-way there.

As she took the bus out of Bangkok, Sarakit breathed a sigh of relief. Free at last from the factory where she had grown so bored. But as the bus grew nearer its destination she was apprehensive. What was Pattaya going to be like? Was it really sensible to bring farangs into your life, whose influence would surely mean there was no going back afterwards to rural Thai life? Pattaya had a reputation for hedonism and was far from the Buddhist ideal. Sarakit pressed her young, unblemished face to the window and read the signing across Sukhumvit highway. ‘Welcome to Pattaya City’. Passengers started to gather their belongings and Sarakit gripped her own two bags.

June was at the bus terminal to meet her. They took a motorbike to June’s place, sharing the passenger’s seat behind the motorbike jockey. The motorbike wove through the sois. Sarakit’s heart lifted as she saw Pattaya had more space and more trees than Bangkok and didn’t feel so hot.

June’s place was in a small, L-shaped apartment building. At ground level there was a turning-circle for cars, parking spaces under the building and a couple of stores. Walls enclosed the complex and beyond the gates the tarmac road ran across wasteland to similar apartment blocks, some still under construction, winding towards the busy Second Road.

June’s room was on the fourth floor and reached by staircase. On the outside landings pairs of shoes stood outside people’s doors. Inside the room two human forms were sleeping in the double bed, which was the only substantial piece of furniture in the room. A standing fan was blowing. The sleepers were two women in their twenties who stirred and opened their eyes as June and Sarakit came in, then shut them again. There was a bathroom ventilated with lattice brickwork and a balcony for washing and cooking.

June opened both doors and turned off the fan. A pleasant draft came in from the balcony and the birds in the scrub woods outside were singing. The sleeping girls slowly came to life and in turn disappeared into the washroom. June and Sarakit sat cross-legged on the lino floor in front of coke, crisps and water melon; later June boiled water and they ate instant noodles. They caught up with each other’s news and ran through what had been going on at home in Buriram. A three year old girl, Pekarin, who belonged to a neighbour, came in and played until her mother fetched her back for tea.

Dusk fell and the roommates began to make up and dress for work. Sarakit took a shower and changed into a fresh pair of jeans.

The two girls were Po, who was June’s cousin from the other side of the family, a married girl with two small children - the children were in the care of Po’s mum and dad at their small place in Buriram - and Nung, another of June’s relatives, who had worked in Bangkok as a masseuse but was now giving Pattaya bar work a go. She had been deserted by her husband and also had a kid back home with its grandparents. Nung was quiet, a little heavy-set, good natured and with a sweet face; Po had a nice figure, used make-up to good effect and was a talkative, amusing companion.

“You’re skin and bones, aren’t you?” Nung said to Sarakit.

“Yeah, I want to put on some weight,” said Sarakit.

“Still, nice legs,” said Po from the other corner of the room, “and you’ve such a pretty face. I wish I had kept my legs.” Po was concentrating on curling her eyelashes.

“What’s Pattaya like,” asked Sarakit.

“Pattaya’s like McDonalds,” answered Po. “There’s no medium, only big or small.”

“By the way, what do they call you at home?” Po asked.

“Kip.”

“Shall we call you Kip then? Easier for farangs to learn than Sarakit.”

Sarakit nodded agreement - or ‘Kip’ as we shall now call her.

Kip deliberated with herself whether to make up like the others. She decided not to and threw herself spread-eagled on the bed. ‘No buttons, no shirts, no seams,’ she chanted to the amusement of the other girls. Kip watched television as the others finished getting ready for work.

The girls went down to the courtyard, their heels clicking on the iron staircase and their perfumes wafting across the landings. Motorbike jockeys were waiting for fares on the road. A particular guy was always there to ride Po to work. Po didn’t mind him, but she had no time for Thai men in Pattaya, they had no money.

Kip rode with June and five minutes took them to the bar, which was on Beach Road. June Bar was two steps up from the pavement, open-faced, with a barn-like roof. Inside, a handful of farangs were drinking, talking boisterously as if they had been drinking for some time. Adjoining the bar were two other identical ones. Round the corner was Soi 4, leading inland. Music from the bar carried onto the pavement where some girls sat on stools. June, Nung, Po and Kip went in, each making a quick wai to the Buddhist shrine shelved behind the bar.

“Quick, I’ll show you the beach,” said June.

June and Kip crossed Beach Road - two-lanes of one-way traffic – to the promenade, which was deserted and dark under the palm trees. Crossing the promenade they slid down a small cutting to the sand. There were dark stacks of deck-chairs and umbrellas. The girls held hands and walked onto the beach. The smell of the sea came to Kip: half a nose of fermented crab, half a nose of fresh air.

The bay was long and curved and the tide was out; there were pools of water in the sand and further out the sea met the beach. The water offshore was ink black and the lights of fishing boats moved deep out. Kip disengaged and loped down, stopping at the edge of one of the pools.

June watched.

“I want to bring my mum here one day,” Kip yelled at her.

June and Kip rejoined the girls on the pavement. Some were chatting; two girls were sharing a plastic bowl of chicken-feet soup, dark and spicy, their first meal of the evening; other girls were sitting quietly - digesting a meal or smoking a cigarette.

The more energetic girls got off their stools for passers-by and tried to coax them into the bar.

“Hello, sexy man, where you go?” It was Po, circling a man and trying to grasp his arm.

“Sorry, I have bad disease,” said the man, side-stepping Po.

“Handsome man,” Po wailed, “I want you buy me drink – even if you have bad disease.”

Walking a way down the pavement the farang turned. “Have to go doctor,” he said, “but I come back tomorrow.”

“I wait you,” Po said, then turned back to her friends, the farang forgotten.

Kip was impressed Po could speak farang. She hardly knew three words of the language. In fact those three words must have been ‘hello sexy man.’ Kip had understood that, but not the next part, ‘where you go?’ or the rest of the exchange. Kip asked June for a translation, finding it difficult to put those words on her own tongue.

“’Where you go?’ means pai nai?” said June. “And try to say the last word in a rising tone to make it a question for a farang. ‘Where you go?’”

“I don’t like speaking farang,” said Kip. “I’m not going to learn. Farangs can speak Thai to me.”

June laughed. “Don’t you worry, you’ll learnt it. Otherwise you won’t be able to say much to your future boyfriend.”

“No boyfriend then.” Kip felt her face redden and decided to stop talking.

“Up to you,” said June. “Come on, Little Sister, let’s go inside.”

Kip spent the evening in the bar. She examined the CD collection and started choosing the music. She crossed the road and went back down to the beach. She’d never seen the sea before. Rain came at midnight. The weather emptied the streets - it was off season anyway. At one o’clock June closed the bar. Some of the girls swung off to a nightclub; June took Kip home. They readied for bed and June unrolled a mattress for Kip on the lino. As Kip stretched out she thought; ‘I’m Kip now, not Sarakit.’ She ran the concept across her mind several times, her face expressed once a faint smile, once a faint frown, then she fell asleep.


So came Hugo, a Dutchman enjoying two weeks of fun in Pattaya, the man she fell in love with and who she would be disappointed by. They spent five nights together. She liked his hotel which, though inexpensive provided comfortable clean rooms. They were lucky to have a good-sized balcony. Hugo said he chose the hotel solely for its fried potatoes at breakfast. He was a windsurfer and each morning they went to Jomtien beach. Sitting under a patchwork of umbrellas Kip consumed everything the passing vendors offered - a true gastronome like all Thais: freshwater oysters, tempura prawns, pickled eggs, crab cooked on the spot on a charcoal brazier; whole oily fish wrapped in foil still warm. Above all papaya salad, a dish which is a microcosm of Isaan life itself.

Hugo had delivered an eulogy on Kip’s colouring. Thai people looked beautiful on the beach, he said, their complexions matched the sand and the coconut-grove shade. Farang people looked horribly white, just like mounds of fat.

They spent afternoons making love and evenings eating out in different places. First stop was always June Bar and they usually returned there for drinks later, then took whoever wanted to go to a night club. Kip loved the way she could stroll into June Bar with Hugo, holding hands - her very own farang boyfriend. And she liked it in the hotel when he had to be helped like a child because he couldn’t speak to the receptionist or didn’t know how to order Thai food.

On the morning of Hugo’s departure they exchanged email addresses. Kip said the words ‘I love you’ to Hugo and Hugo replied with the same words. Then, quitting the room, Hugo went to check out while Kip waited in the street. A taxi arrived, they said goodbye and Hugo was driven away. Left to herself, Kip walked slowly down the soi. She reached the crossroads listlessly. She couldn’t think what to do with herself. She stood at the intersection temporarily bereft of purpose. At length she called over a motorbike jockey. She might as well head for June’s room. On arrival Kip did some washing then lay down to join her room-mates sleeping out the day. She had already started to miss Hugo and found she had fallen in love. Kip wrote to Hugo and he replied he would be there at Christmas to see her. Christmas was almost three months away. Kip decided she would wait for Hugo and did so, not taking the bar fine of another man in the intervening period.


As Christmas drew closer Pattaya began to fill with farangs on holiday. One Christmas couple were Vittorio and Pen. Vittorio (the bargirls called him Victoria by mistake) was an Italian in his late forties. Built like a wrestler he ran a gym in Milan. He was on his second holiday to meet Pen, a tall, dark-skinned Buriram girl who carried herself proudly and looked on the world with a confident smile. Pen was related to Po. Like Vittorio she had come into Pattaya for the holiday season.

Hugo, when he arrived, came straight to the bar from the airport. Kip took his bags behind the counter while Nung ushered him onto a stool, taking his drink order and returning with a cold towelette. Kip realised Hugo must be disorientated after his displacement from West to East, farangs always were on their first day back and needed time to settle and after a few drinks he did not seem such a stranger.

The first part of the holiday passed quickly. Kip and Hugo shared their time with Vittorio and Pen. The four of them took a speedboat to nearby Ko Larn island, taking June, Po and Nung to share the fun. Another afternoon Pen and Kip had their hair crimped. Vittorio bought Pen the gold medallion she wanted. She showed it off at the bar. This left Hugo to step up to the plate and buy Kip some big gold too. At the end of a week the three couples had a special dinner before separating. Hugo was taking Kip to Samet Island, Vittorio and Pen were going up-country.

Kip and Hugo had three beautiful days on Samet Island then returned to Pattaya. Hugo went to find a new hotel as the other one was full. Kip went to June Bar to show off the island beads she’d had weaved into her long hair. Vittorio flew back to Milan and Pen’s next customer, Raffael, flew in.

After their return, Kip and Hugo economised and spent more time in their room, a cheap one slightly out of town with no facilities and no TV – it was all Hugo could find. Hugo spent the mornings reading books and Kip slept late or sat in bed with a comic. Kip didn’t complain about having no TV, even though it made the mornings rather boring.

In the evenings Hugo left Kip at June Bar while he went off on his own. Kip didn’t mind if Hugo visited go-go bars so long as he came back. She was happy to hang out at June Bar with the other girls. But one night Hugo didn’t come back. Kip waited at the bar until two a.m. Without saying so, the experienced girls in the bar knew it was probably over between Kip and Hugo. The fact was, that morning (as they had all heard from June) Hugo had accompanied Kip to June’s room, (where Kip made daily trips to change clothes and leave washing), and wanted his washing back even though some of it wasn’t completely dry. Kip had read nothing into this but her room-mates registered this as a bad sign.

At three a.m. Kip took a motorbike to the hotel. She knocked on Hugo’s door. Hugo came out with a towel round his waist and shut the door behind him. The two were in the corridor and Kip dropped to her heels.

“I wanted to see if it true, if you have another girl,” said Kip. Tears ran down her face. “I know now it true, you have. I know she a go-go girl.”

Kip felt the completeness of her humiliation, dumped to the full knowledge of everyone at the bar, talking to Hugo in the corridor while another girl was in the bed - it was horrible. “Why you not tell me?”

“I thought you knew it was over. That’s why I took my washing back from June.”

“But why?”

“It was getting a little boring. I thought you were bored. We didn’t really talk. I’m sorry.”

“I waited you. I waited you so long.” Kip was referring to the three months she had waited for Hugo.

Hugo looked tired and taken by surprise. Why was he surprised? What did he expect? Had he just been playing with her? And who was inside the room now, a big-boobed go-go girl? How could Hugo do this to her?

“I never cry for man again,” said Kip through her tears. “I’m so stupid. I never do again.” Kip straightened up and turned away. Hugo remained standing by the door looking stunned.

“I waited you so long,” Kip said again, turning at the end of the corridor and driving home her point of superiority. “I loved you before, but not now.” Kip took the stairs, still crying but with an air of fierce self-pride.

Kip went to work the following evening determined to put a brave face on it. But she felt a fool and deeply let down by Hugo. Pen made the evening easier, lining up tequila shots for Kip.

“Think of farangs as ATM machines,” Pen advised. “When you are with a farang focus on the next withdrawal of baht. If the ATM is kaput or dispensing small denominations go and find another one.”

It was early evening and the bar was quiet. Raffael, Pen’s new farang, was reading the newspaper, taking no notice of Pen speaking in Khmer, or was it Lao? Other girls in the bar, aware of what had happened to Kip – Kip the youngest, prettiest girl among them – said nothing. It was impossible not to feel sorry for Kip. They’d all been down that same miserable track at one time or another, knowing how it felt to be cast aside by a farang. Time alone would heal Kip’s wounds, they knew that. Their solidarity was almost tangible, that and a tincture of satisfaction, that Kip’s experience was finally no different to theirs, despite her prior happiness.

Pen’s crack about ATM’s brought smiles. Kip tried to laugh but she felt hollow inside.

“I know your heat is broken,” said Pen, “join the club.”

Po, Nung and others murmured agreement. Then Po cast doubt on Pen’s remark.

“What, you Pen? We didn’t know someone had broken your heart?”

“Long time ago,” Pen conceded with a laugh.

“I will never cry for a farang again,” said Kip, repeating the statement she had made to Hugo then embellishing on it. “I’ll cry if I see a dog die in the street but not if I see a farang die.”

“Drink tequila tonight, Kip,” Pen said. “Drink tequila and start to forget.”

Kip looked at Pen. Pen was a true Khmer. The Victorias and Raffaels of this world didn’t stand a chance.

“Yes, let’s drink,” said Kip. “I can drink everybody under the table Pen, but not you.”

“Maybe you can out-drink us all,” said Pen, her eyes actually transferring warmth and fight into Kip as she spoke. “You are going to be all right.”

After the New Year Kip and Pen went to cash in their jewellery. Having done so they took their cash to the money transfer agent. Pen stacked forty thousand baht on the counter. She had her Thai lover up-country, a man given to drinking beer before noon, who spent long hours lying in a hammock and exchanging remarks with his friends about their useful women in Pattaya.

Kip had forty thousand as well: ten thousand for the gold necklace Hugo had bought her, eleven thousand day-to-day money from Hugo and twenty thousand more Hugo had sent from Holland - with apologies and good wishes. They had talked and reached an understanding. Hugo had never been serious about Kip, just playing. Kip had cast out her love for him. If anything she was sorry for him now, for his feckless character. In fact she had altogether stopped thinking about him. What she thought about now was the Honda two-wheeler her mum was going to buy, to more easily get into town. Pen encouraged Kip to keep in contact with Hugo. She guessed he might cough up more cash in due course.

Time passed. Kip’s friendship with Pen grew. If nothing was going on at June Bar, Pen and Kip would pay their own bar-fines and go to Walking Street. They liked Tony’s, a night club then in fashion, taking a table and buying a litre bottle of Chivas Regal with mixers. DJ sessions alternated with sets from the house band and routines from the transvestite comedian from Bangkok. Sometimes fights broke out. Pen and Kip enjoyed watching farangs laying into each other or security piling into a farang arguing over his bill. Last thing at night the girls would eat behind the club where a Khmer women set out a table of pickled vegetables, fish and rice in the alley.

Kip grew tired of drinking and moved to the day shift. Work started at ten in the morning. Life became a normal, daytime existence. Kip liked to people-watch. Each morning a coach turned into Soi 4 to park and disgorge Koreans on package holiday. Then an impassable ribbon of Koreans crossed Beach Road, stopping all traffic. They went down to the beach where speedboats were waiting for them. A ship-sized platform was moored in the bay. This concession ran parascending. Every morning for two hours chutes coloured the sky while speed-boats milled underneath, pulling airborne Koreans.

The girls on day-shift whiled away the hours eating and chatting but making no real money, just basic wages and a few lady drinks.

After work Kip spent an hour on the internet. She had contact with farangs from America, Canada, France and the UK, men who wrote intermittently, counting down the time until their next holiday in Pattaya. Kip also had boyfriends among the expatriates in town. One guy talked of buying Kip a bar but he was still entangled with another Thai girl. A second farang wanted to fund Kip to start a hair salon and learn the trade. Kip heard out these offers with a smile and always said the same thing. “Up to you. If you want do for me, I won’t stop you!” A few marriage proposals came Kip’s way, precipitant and unconvincing. Kip had offers to work in the go-go bars but chose to stay at June Bar.

Then Pen got her own bar, on Soi Bhukao. An elderly Italian expat bought it for her on condition Pen lived with him. Pen agreed but wouldn’t be kept on a short leash. Sometimes Kip joined Pen there. They’d play pool with the customers.

Healthwise, there were ups and down. One season the contraceptives Kip took made her ill so she came off them. Later her periods became irregular and Kip put this down to drinking. She caught a dose of Chlamydia and became celibate, delaying seeing a doctor until a month had passed. Then she had to return to the doctor again after getting some bleeding following a night with a particularly well-endowed yank sailor. This took a while to heal and entailed another period of celibacy. Kip had black moments worrying about the combined effect of her problems. Could she still have children? The doctor gave her no definitive answer on that subject and urged her to be careful. Girls who had the misfortune to pick up serious problems usually went back to their villages. Pen’s friend’s cousin, who had contracted AIDS, went home and hanged herself.

Kip met Jason on her nineteenth birthday. That morning she had gone up to the Big Buddha on the hill in South Pattaya. Kip wanted to burn incense for good luck, tell the Buddha she would continue to strive to be a good person and in return ask the golden deity to keep her family in good health.

Having knelt for some time before the main shrine Kip retired into the shade of the tree-line and sat quietly, watching people coming up the steps from lower down the hill. Kip had changed a bit in appearance in the two years she’d been in Pattaya. She was no longer the bean-pole she had once been, her figure had filled out. She grew her hair down to her shoulder blades. As ever she wore jeans and a T-shirt, her jeans perfectly shaping her long legs.

Kip sat on the terrace of the Buddha reflecting on her life. Two years was enough in Pattaya, that was for sure. She had had her fun, just as she had wanted to have it and Pattaya had exacted its levy, in disillusionment and wasted energy. But what of the future? The fact was, life offered finite opportunities and youth mustn’t be squandered whole, it was also the time to build something for later life. Kip sat thinking until she began to feel a headache. She descended the steps back to the road. If she didn’t meet a good man soon she would go back to Buriram and do something else.

When Kip walked into June Bar that afternoon Jason was there. He was a fair-haired Brit from Luton, England, tall, nice looking and twenty-two years old. Jason was accompanying his father, Brian, and step-mother, Angie. He was sitting at the counter besides his father and looking bored. His father was doing all the talking. Kip saw Jason’s eyes occasionally drifting to the football match being replayed on the bar television.

As Kip learnt later, Jason’s dad came to Pattaya for winter sun, liking the cheap accommodation and the well-run British pubs. Being an ex-serviceman he didn’t mind the long flights. As he said, for an Asian country they didn’t do a bad job of an English Breakfast; Costa del Sol for the summer and Pattaya for the winter were all right by him. Their hotel was up the road. Brian was a tall, big-jowled man with a red face. He liked to have his son at hand to carry bags, run errands and keep him company. Back home in Luton, Brian ran a car repair shop and Jason worked for him.

Kip was touched by Jason that first day for some reason and wanted to lift his spirits. She paid him small attentions. She wiped the bar in front of him. She offered him and his party cool towelettes to refresh themselves. She made small-talk with Jason and his dad and got to know them.

The family made June Bar one of their regular watering holes. Kip liked the fact Jason was not in Pattaya for the girls, boys or ladyboys but was there accompanying his father. Jason had a girlfriend back home in Luton, a girl named Chrissie. Kip liked this too. How natural. Why should farangs not have farang girlfriends? They often said they didn’t but Kip didn’t believe them. As far as Kip could see, farangs had little reason to find Thai girls attractive or take them seriously as potential wives.

Jason did not have a lot to say but what he did say was to the point. Kip found he had a dry sense of humour and in his company she became talkative and always found herself sweating.

Jason started to come alone to see Kip, catching a few hours away from his dad when the other was drinking or taking a nap. Together they’d walk across to the beach bringing a radio. They were both addicted to listening to music on the beach. As Jason had a girlfriend they behaved as friends. Once they nearly kissed and Jason said, “Best not, Chrissie’d murder us if she found out.”

Kip liked Jason’s honesty and his faithfulness to Chrissie. Only a small part of his mind seemed to dwell on sex. Kip didn’t think Jason found her particularly attractive. Presumably he liked whiter-skinned girls.

Towards the end of the holiday Jason brought Kip along to the English pub where Brian and Angie were drinking.

“Hey lad, what are you having?” Brian said, catching sight of his son and waving a friendly hand to him. At the same time Brian ignored Kip, not offering her a drink. Jason got her one. It turned out Brian didn’t like his son going out with a Thai girl, even if just as friends. As far as he was concerned, when it came to it the girls here were all third-world hookers. And Brian wanted Jason at his side, not amusing himself elsewhere.

The family flew back home. Kip remained working at the bar. She knew Jason liked her but did her best to keep down her own feelings. After all Jason had an English girlfriend and a life in England and it could by no means be a simple thing for someone like Jason to alter the course of his life for a girl he had just met in Thailand.

He was not an emailer. Nor was Kip for that matter. Neither particularly relished sitting down in front of a computer trying to key in meaningful sentences. Still, Jason emailed Kip more about his girlfriend Chrissie. Jason’s dad liked her because she laughed at his jokes and flattered him. She went further and sided with Brian against Jason. It all made it difficult to break up with Chrissie, which Jason had wanted to do for years.

A month on, Kip walked one evening up Soi 4 to check her email. Dusk was falling, the soi was in shadow and it was March, the hot season. The internet cafe was at the end of the street. Kip arrived at the place, stepping into the air conditioned shop. Logging on, she was pleased to find an email from Jason. She prepared to read it slowly, putting words and phrases she did not understand aside, to return to later with the aid of a dictionary. It read as follows:


Hello Kip,

I hope you are well and taking care of yourself.

Well, I finally broke up with Chrissie. Chrissie’s mad now and Dad’s on her side. I can see he’s surprised. Chrissie says to him, ‘Who’s this Kip Jason has ditched me for?’ and Dad’s gone; ‘Kip?’ And then he’s turned to me and said; ‘Have you gone loco, Son? What do you want to mess around with that Thai girl for? She’s ten thousand miles away and won’t do you any good.’

Well, Kip, I don’t even want to tell you everything that was said. But I stuck to my guns; Chrissie shed a few tears; Dad comforted her and said, ‘Never mind, Chrissie, why don’t you go home now and let’s see what tomorrow brings.’

Dad’s angry with me. And I feel bad for Chrissie. It’s not like her to break down – I never expected that.

Anyhows, what’s done is done and with any luck everything will settle down. I don’t know how Dad’s going to react about me disappearing back to Thailand. It’s difficult as he’s my boss, although he pays me peanuts. I think I’ll just leave a note; ‘Dad, see you in three weeks, I’ve gone to be with Kip, love Jason.’ – something like that.

Kip, I’m at sixes and sevens now. I’m in the pub with a mate, emailing from his laptop. We’re having a few beers. I’m excited and scared. But I keep coming back to how comfortable I am with you, darling Kip. Let’s hope you love me. Tomorrow I’ll go and buy a flight.


I love you, Kip,

Jason xxx


Kip stepped away from the computer terminal into the street. Thrilled by Jason’s email she sat down on the lip of the pavement. With distracted eyes she watched the busy highway of Second Road; the beer bars; the massage emporium; the passing farangs and Bar Girls. Her heart had already flown the scene. In imagination Kip was on her way back to Buriram, leaving Pattaya far behind.





BURIRAM



Kip was not home in Buriram more than a couple of days before Jason’s flight came in. Jason said he wanted to come to Buriram. No more Pattaya for him either. Kip worried whether Jason would be able to sleep on a mat. With any luck it would be ok, although no farang had ever stayed at their home before. Kip and her sisters took a pick-up out to Buriram airport to meet Jason on his connecting flight from Bangkok.

On that first night Kip and Jason found themselves lying together in the darkness. Granny was in the corner; Sum and Bun slept together in the centre of the shack; Mum and Dad were on their slightly raised platform; and Kip and Jason were on another slightly raised platform. Outside were the various night Kipses and Kip could tell Jason was wide awake. “Are you comfortable?” Kip whispered.

“Yeah, but it’s a little hot,” said Jason. “Are you sure those people are your parents? They look way too old!”

Kip gave Jason a thump. “Yes,” she breathed.

They heard footsteps outside.

“Someone just walked past. Who was that?” said Jason.

“Don’t know. Maybe murderer.”

They lay together for a while then Jason whispered even lower, “Can we do it here?”

“Yes, just not Kipsy.”

“But what about your mum or dad?”

“They don’t mind, it’s normal,” Kip lied.

Jason was quiet for a while then said, “You start.”

Kip climbed on top and as they made love for the first time both had half their mind on who was awake. As Kip later learned, this was the whole tribe.

In the morning Kip showed Jason over the place. With the money coming in from Buwannee and from Kip there had been no need to plant the rice fields. Instead Kip’s mum kept two pigs as a hobby and had put in a pond stocked with catfish. Kip, Jason, Sum and Bun fished with sticks, hanging a simple hook on a length of line. They sat on their heels beside the water and neighbouring children came by to look at the fair-haired farang. Kip barbequed the fish under the barn and Jason played with the radio, tuning it to different local channels playing molam music. Sun and Bun ran off to buy some beer. Then the four played badminton, two holding ends of a long stick, two playing. There was the water buffalo to call in before nightfall; and Kip’s mother selected a chicken and cooked a fresh supper.

The next day Kip was having a shower in the washing hut and Jason was walking around waiting his turn. Jason felt a sharp rap on the side of his head and heard a crack as a projectile hit the tree in front of him – quite a big stone. Jason turned and saw a Thai man in the scrub woods who backed away and disappeared. Jason waited for Kip to finish her shower then told her someone had just thrown a stone at him.

“You ok?”

“Yes, just a graze.”

“Thai guy?”

“Yes.”

“I know who, Chunaswat. Take shower. I go speak him.”

Later, at sunset, they were drinking outside in the companionable, though silent, presence of Kip’s father, whose wizened face was as dry as the ground. Kip’s father was drinking the whisky Jason had bought along as a gift, they were drinking beer. Every now and again Jason said ‘cheers’ to Kip’s father who responded by grinning, revealing blackened, broken teeth; otherwise he remained mute and motionless. Jason asked Kip what had occurred with Chunaswat.

“I went him house and told him if he give problem again I fucking kill him.”

“Good,” said Jason reflectively.

In one corner of the plot were foundations for a new dwelling.

“Buwannee my brother build for him and future wife,” remarked Kip.

A day later Buwannee came down from Bangkok to meet Jason. He and Jason found themselves with similar physiques, Buwannee slightly older, Jason the taller. Buwannee showed Jason around his house-in-progress, talking to Jason in unsimplified Thai. Jason responded in natural English but they more of less understood the gist of each other’s remarks through a lot of pointing. Then Buwannee took Jason out on the Honda Wave to the main road and after a few sighting passes, showing Jason the worst potholes, they took it in turns to motor up and down at increasing speeds.

“Good,” said Buwannee when they had had enough - he did have a little English. When the bike had cooled down Jason put it on its rest and had a look over it.

“My job,” he explained.

The next day Buwannee’s friend Bulibo brought his motorbike.

“Kaput,” said Bulibo.

Jason fixed it.

In the evenings Jason, Buwannee and Bulibo went into town. Kip stayed at home with her mum. The women were happy to see Jason and Buwannee getting along. One evening Buwannee and Jason returned late. Jason crawled onto the mat by Kip.

“You ok?” whispered Kip.

“Yes,” said Jason.

“You don’t want go Pattaya?”

“No,” said Jason, “stay here. Your brother Buwannee my friend now.”

By now Jason was speaking pigin English. They were silent for a moment. Then Jason added, partly to tell himself, “I think I’m having the time of my life.”





KHAO YAI NATIONOAL PARK



Buwannee returned to Bangkok but not before arranging to meet Kip and Jason the following weekend at Khao Yai National Park. The park is an extensive hill and forest area branching onto the plain of Khorat. Buwannee would bring his new girlfriend, Tik, and the party of four would make a holiday of it.

It was towards dusk when Kip and Jason, having reached Pak Chong rail station first, greeted their holiday companions as they came off the train. As intended Buwannee had bought Tik, an Isaan girl who was also making her living in Bangkok. She had lately got a job at the ice depot where Buwannee worked. She was in admin and had caught Buwannee’s eye.

Tik stepped off the train followed by Buwannee carrying both their bags. A curious Kip introduced herself and greeted her brother. Tik did not strike as being particularly pretty.; she was average height and her ordinary clothes (nothing fussy or impractical for a weekend in the park) suggested she was a down-to-earth sort of girl. Tik smiled at Jason but was shy on her English.

They had all sat for too long on the train and now took pleasure in stretching their legs as they walked through town. Pak Chong was a simple road-town. There was a market besides the highway. Moving towards Bangkok one way and Cambodia the other traffic sat in its own fumes at the junction. Like a movie set the rest of the map-location petered out quickly into small holdings and scrub.

Amongst farms hidden in a hollow they found Jungle Adventure Tours. They were booked in for a couple of nights in two bungalows. It was six o’clock and people who had arrived earlier were already having drinks in the main room of the central bungalow. Kip’s party made haste to drop their bags off and join the group. The resort-manager was Bunny, a small Thai women in her thirties with chatterbox English. She fetched them each a Chang beer from the fridge. Were the beers free? It wasn’t entirely clear. The other arrivals consisted of two young German students who had been travelling through South East Asia for some months, and an English metals trader and his girlfriend down from Bangkok, these latter two, Anthony and Jill, a little older than everybody else. The resort’s activity leaflets on the table made a brave attempt to show there were all sorts of reasons to visit Pak Chong and that the town was not just the gatepost to Khao Yai National Park but, knowing full well that visitors would have a single aim, Bunny had a truck and driver ready to take a party into the park the next morning. The members of the impromptu gathering were friendly enough to agree to go as one. Bunny herself would lead the tour. Oddly there didn’t seem to be anyone besides her running the business.

It was full night now and the grounds of the resort were pitch black. Kip’s party decided to walk back to the main road and eat at the night market. This they did, stumbling a little and laughing.

Something rustled in the bushes.

“What was that? Why didn’t you bring a torch?” Tik complained to Buwannee in Thai.

“We’ll be in the light soon.”

“Why doesn’t this town have streetlights?” Tik went on. “Bangkok has streetlights. This is a stupid buffalo town. Hold my hand.”

The other couple lagged behind and Kip gave Jason a hug.

“You’re excited, aren’t you?” said Jason.

“Yeah, I never do anything like this in my whole life,” replied Kip.

The night market was cheerful, informal, grubby; people of every age; large woks sizzling and hot oil smells greasing the air. They noticed a farang drinking whisky at a table with a non-descript Thai women who was obviously deep in his cups. How he had ended up in Pak Chong was anyone’s guess. After inspecting a few of the noodle carts and mobile kitchens they opted for large mussel omelets fried in palm oil. These were delicious; bean-shoots gave crunch and a chili sauce side sweetness.

No one knew the first thing about Khao Yai National Park but that was fine, they’d find out tomorrow. The three Thais were of course aware parts of their country had rich wildlife: tigers, elephants, monkeys and such like. But as fledgling city people, country life was to Tik and possibly Buwannee now something they were superior to. Still, they were all pleased that farangs came from as far as Germany to see their parkland and jungle. Probably the German girls had all the facts and figures from the guidebooks at their finger-tips. On the other hand Thailand was Kip’s birthplace and the information was, so to speak, imbibed with her mother’s milk.

Plates empty, Jason talked.

“My dad and I used to go camping in Malaysia and this is just the kind of town we would start from. This is when we stopped living with my mum and came out on a posting with the service. I was seven years old. I didn’t know what had happened about Mum. But Dad was always there and we’d started living in a foreign country. Some things were a boy’s dream: the airfield; being among grown ups so much; the friendly stewards in their uniforms serving at meal times; the kitchens out back and the local boys who were all so impressed by my big white dad with his side-burns. We had so much open space to play in so I didn’t always think about Mum. And I knew Dad didn’t want me to. Well, you know my Dad, he likes to have a grip on things and the world is just fine as long as you go along with his version of things.

Jason paused and smiled at Tik.

“Don’t worry, she understand,” said Buwannee, reading his thoughts.

“Yes, I understand,” said Tik in Thai. “I read his face, I understand.”

Kip said in English. “Say something funny so we laugh, then Tik can laugh too. She can understand it funny.”

Really Tik didn’t like to be left out of conversations, English or not, but she was doing her best to be amenable. Jason went on.

“So one time we went out camping in the hills outside the station. I think Dad wanted me to be a tough son-of-a-bitch the same as he was. We were going to stay out a week, self-sufficient like, just the two of us with no one else to bother about. Only thing is I got ill. I don’t remember much of it. Dad told me later it was dengue fever. Anyway I guess Dad hoped I’d be back on my feet after a night in the tent. But I was worse next day wasn’t I? We were a day’s walk out from the nearest road and so Dad left the camp to itself and carried me all the way down to help. Whatever I thought about Mum, when you have a Dad who does something like that you’ve gotta love him.”

Kip wanted to hear more about Jason’s mum but decided to ask questions on an occasion when the two of them were alone. Now she said to Buwannee in English. “You not know Jason dad. He not like me. He very tall and not like Jason.”

“Yeah,” said Jason, “He like me but he not like me.”

“That what I say, he love you but you not like him.”

“Simple isn’t it?”

“I kill you.”

Tik had put on a solemn face. Now in Thai Kip asked her what she thought Jason had been talking about. Then Kip explained it to Jason. “Tik watch your face and then she start to think about her grandmother who took care of her when she baby. No room for her with her family. That’s why she feel a little emotion. You think my brother like her?”

“I think so.”

Then they started playing some drinking games.

Around ten o clock the two couples made their way in the general direction of their lodgings. There was an unfamiliar chill in the air. The thought of a good night’s sleep and of the day to come was a pleasant one. Turning away from the main road Kip, who had taken the lead, turned into one side street that had better lighting than the others. This lane graded downhill between quietly gated villas. A little way down there was a length of wall up to the pavement a curtained doorway and a red light burning. Kip had stumbled on the town’s modest brothel.

Tik made a tactless joke. “No need to work, Kip, remember we on holiday.” Just a late night crack after alcohol, to laugh at and forget.

Silently the party, navigating by moon, felt their way through the backstreets to the resort and their bungalows. In bed Kip took a small part of the space and lay on her stomach. Jason sat on the bed. “Kip, darling, are you cold? I never knew it could be so nippy in Thailand.” Jason found the nape of Kip’s neck and rubbed it.

“Get off me you big hairy spider,” Kip said. Then in the silence, as Jason sat on the bed looking at her. “Why I have farang boyfriend anyway? I don’t like farang. They only come Thailand for sex. Sex on brain, always. Farang think every Thai girl prostitute.”

“No, Kip. Where does this come from suddenly?”

“This come from me, Jason. I never work bar again. I not prostitute. I don’t care if I not see farang again. Only care my family, love my mother.”

“All right, if that’s the way you want it,” said Jason. He sighed and got fully into bed.

“Yes, don’t touch me, hairy spider. Go sleep, good night!”

In the country air they were both asleep at once.

Breakfast was in the main bungalow. An old lady from the kitchen served each new arrival a plate of fried eggs, bacon and toast the moment he or she sat down. The two German girls asked Jason if he wasn’t German. They thought with his height and fair hair he might be.

“No, I’m not German, I’m from Luton.”

“Ah, what a shame. We are from Holstein,” said the prettier of the girls.

Kip said nothing at the time but later, as the group collected by the truck she said to Jason. “You sure you not German? Why you not say you German? Good for you.” But Jason was too busy drawing the strings of his rucksack together to reply.

It was time to board the truck and take seats on the benches. The driver was a deeply tanned type with a countrified air and a cigarette on his lip. He did not seem likely to interact with his passengers during the day ahead. The truck started up, with Bunny among those in the back. There was a soft roof and rolled up side-windows which could be lowered if it started to rain. On the open road the ride was windy and Kipsy. The feeling was of being outdoors while moving along. Bunny started to impart facts to those sat next to her about the park (it was 2,000 square kilometers in extent). Those further down the bench were simply happy to watch the countryside moving by.

There was a left turn off the highway into parkland. At the park entrance were market fruit stalls on dry earth under large trees. The truck made an ascent through slowly rising hill country with fewer and fewer signs of humanity and more and more greenery. Long views over green countryside opened up through the woodland. The drive went on for nearly an hour then the truck slowed up at a bend. The metals trader spotted some monkeys in the trees on the shoulder of the hill, gibbons. The truck stopped. There were beggars on the road with their hands out for food, pig-tailed maqueces - like monkeys. Delighted by these the visitors threw them crisps and biscuits and the monkeys came closer.

“These monkeys no good,” said Bunny. “They lazy, they bite.”

“I know what she means,” said the metals trader to his girlfriend. “Do we really approve of this sort of interaction between tourist and wildlife? Seems all wrong to me.”

“Oh well, they are funny to look at,” said Jill.

Further driving, then it was time for a jungle walk. The sun was strong on the road but under the trees there was shade. The trees were not particularly close together or tall, not jungle in fact but dry evergreen forest. There was a dry leaf floor, quietness and a mix of green and dusty smells. Birds sang in the trees but altogether the forest seemed sparse on wildlife. Those who had heard Bunny talking about the jungle felt let down. Still, the setting was special enough to keep everyone talking in low tones, looking around with attention, admiring the shafts of sunlight coming down through the trees.

The party came on a swathe of forest that had been trampled down, younger trees in splinters and all the greenery gone from the saplings.

“Elephant,” said Bunny. “They eat leaf.”

“When were they here?” asked Jill.

“Long time. Maybe five day.”

“Wild elephants, how about that?” said Jason to Kip. Kip could hardly summon the contrariness to say, “Yes, it Thailand, Jason. We have elephant.”

The party moved on and everyone listened to Bunny for a while.

The woodland opened out to a long sloping grass bank down to water; a round drinking pool with muddy approaches – almost a lake - the turf chopped up by hoof marks. Behind the water stood a look-out post and this was where Bunny led on. The waterhole was used by the elephants after dark, she said. The steps were awkward but one by one everyone got up to the concrete platform fifteen feet clear of the ground. Apart from the drinking pool there was a modest panorama in the other direction beyond savannah grassland to hill country going on to a blue horizon. Overhead the sky was clear and blue. It was baking hot.

Everybody broke out water bottles. Bunny mentioned that through the savannah grass they could rejoin the truck and go on to the lunch spot. This seemed cheerful news.

Returning to ground level couldn’t be hurried, it was one by one backwards down the ladder. Bunny and the German girls were the first three to go off and they missed something. A small antelope came sprinting out of the forest, near to where the tourists had come out of the forest themselves. It was chased by a tiger of similar size. The antelope, aiming for the lake, jinked this way and that, the tiger close on its tail. The antelope somersaulted and then was on its knees without moving. The tiger took it’s slim neck in it’s jaws and settled down beside it. Bunny was now moving through the tall grass, her back turned. “They burn the grass every year to stop the trees growing, food for animals,” she was telling the German girls.

“Bunny!” the metals trader exclaimed.

Jason added his voice, “Bunny, hold up!”

“That daft woman’s not going to hear us,” the metals trader said.

Jill was busy clicking off photographs. “Quite something huh, even if we’ve seen it a hundred times on television.”

“Yes, but what about Bunny?” said the metals trader. “Do you really think she’s licensed to take people into the park?”

“Frankly, I doubt it,” said Jill.

The three Thais let the farangs do the talking. Farangs usually had more to say.

The tiger had now dragged its kill into deep grass and was out of sight. There was nothing more to see.

“Better not get left behind,” said Jill cheerfully.

“To be honest, I’m sorry that happened,” said the metals trader. “I wonder what our Thai friends think.”

“Oh, I expect they see this everyday,” said Jill smiling at Buwannee. Buwannee smiled to show he understood some of what was being said but not enough to reply.

Everyone made down the ladder and went after the others.

Back at the truck the metals trader told Bunny about the antelope kill.

“No, not possible,” she said, obviously used to being teased. “No tiger I think. Tiger never come. In three years I know.” But Bunny was abashed. She fell quiet then talked through the cab window to the driver during the short drive to lunch.

The truck drove into a clearing with parked cars and lines of coaches. Visitors were walking around. There was a perimeter of souvenir shops and a long line of open kitchens under barn roofs. The nucleus of the site was a park office with notice-boards and maps on the outside walls. There were lots of shaded eating areas. Finding what they wanted to eat the party collected at a long dirty table. As Jason and Kip set their plates down on the table Jason put his arms around Kip, made a growling sound and softly bit her neck. Jill and the metals trader looked up from their fried rice and laughed. Kip struggled free, laughing. “You want eat something, eat your noodle,” she said.

Jill passed her camera around the table so everyone could examine the pictures. Those with the zoom were good. Bunny consented to take a look. “You give me copy of picture, ok?” she said to Jill, quick to see their marketing value.

“So you believe in the tiger now?” Jill teased.

Studying the photos Bunny gave her opinion. The tiger was a female and the antelope was a male sambar deer.

After lunch Kip put her arms around Jason and nuzzled his neck. “Not male tiger, female tiger, you antelope.”

“Sambar deer,” Jason corrected. Then he picked Kip off her feet and slung her over his shoulder. “Me the antelope? Oh no!”

After lunch there were two activities. One was to spend the afternoon at the waterfall, the other was to visit the aviary. The party split up, with Kip and her group the only ones wishing to visit the waterfall.

The directions were simple. There was a stream running next to the visitors’ centre at the bottom of a slight gorge and half way up the gorge was a dirt path which led to the fall. Twenty minutes shaded walking amidst fragrant vegetation on the good path with the glitter of the stream down below to the right and they came to a hollow where the waterfall fell into a clear pool of water. Some tourists were jumping into the pool from the top of the waterfall and making a great deal of Kipse. Kip, Jason, Buwannee and Tik picked their way with care down the gorge onto the rocks below the waterfall.

At the water’s edge there were many butterflies with white wings. When disturbed they rose like a cloud into the air then settled back again on the same rocks.

Tik found a place to sit cross-legged on a large flat rock and Buwannee joined her, lying fully stretched on his back. Tik fanned Buwannee with her jacket and he moved his head onto her lap, closing his eyes and hearing the waterfall more clearly. The tourists who had been there first packed up and left. Jason stared down into the pool for a while, it was invitingly clean in appearance, then turned to Kip, who had sat down next to her brother. Seeing the three Thais settled quietly, perhaps intending to sleep, Jason sat down near Kip.

Buwannee had taken his shirt off and Kip was looking at her brother’s body, dark skinned and lean and with its prison tattoos. Jason took his shirt off. Jason was so white you could see every scratch-mark and discolouration on his back and every hair on his leg. Still, Jason had a fine body too, tall and not puny.

Jason got back to his feet and examined the butterflies. He managed to have some settle on his arm. They were very pretty, like little fairies of the fall.

As Kip got used to the sound of the waterfall she noticed the peace of the jungle glade. The water spilled quietly over the back rocks. The gorge cast shadows that would grow over the afternoon. This place was remote and as night fell people would drive their cars away from the visitors’ centre and the park would be left to itself. After dark a place like this would be a different thing. The spirits of the forest would be out. What sort of spirit did the waterfall have? Kip would make a wai to the waterfall before they left and leave a small offering on the rocks. The thought of being left here overnight touched Kip’s imagination even though there wasn’t the smallest chance of it. She knew there were a great many ghosts in the jungle waiting to scare people half to death.

Having lain on his stomach for a while Jason got to his feet again. He wasn’t at all sleepy. No one had brought bathing suits or towels. Jason decided to strip down to his shorts and swim. The water was an easy temperature, with areas warmer or cooler in different parts of the pool. Paddling for a while, Jason climbed out onto the rocks near the waterfall and climbed up the gorge, ten feet, until he was on the upper level and standing with the water rushing through his feet. Then he jumped, crashing into the pool with hands clasped around his bent knees in a bomb. He came to the surface in an understated way with no whooping. Buwannee woke up and pulled himself into a sitting position to watch. Kip felt sure Buwannee was not a swimmer. Had he ever learned to swim? She didn’t think so.

“Sleep,” said Tik coaxingly, half asleep herself.

Jason climbed again to the top of the waterfall considered his landing site and jumped. Buwannee freed himself from Tik and now Buwannee and Jason climbed together up the side of the waterfall. Jason jumped then Buwannee jumped. Buwannee came spluttering to the surface, arms out. He couldn’t swim. With a push from Jason he found his feet in the shallows.

Buwannee rejoined Tik and Kip.

“You were lucky you didn’t drown,” said Kip. “Don’t be so brave next time please.”

Buwannee eased himself back onto the rock thoroughly pleased with himself. “Jason’s a good swimmer,” he said.

“Yeah, all farang good swimmer,” said Kip.

Tik was playing a game on her phone, seemingly absorbed by it. Buwannee and Kip saw she was probably sulking.

Jason swam up and put his hand out to Kip. Kip looked into Jason’s eyes and saw how gentle they were.

“Go on, Kip,” Buwannee encouraged.

“I’m coming,” said Kip to Jason, “but I keep my clothes.”

Jason and Kip paddled together in the centre of the pool. Buwannee was talking to Tik, who had put down her game.

Those beach days in Jomtien had given Kip confidence in the water. This crystal clear freshwater was so much nicer than the perturbed salty sea. They took themselves to the curtain of falling water, ducked under and came out in the smooth water behind, with a moist dripping overhang of rock above, dark and acoustic.

“Kip, I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Jason. Sorry if I cranky. Tik say something stupid, make me confuse.”

“Forget it.”

Both felt in love with each other to the upmost degree. They were bursting out of their skins with the feeling.

The rendezvous at the truck with the others was in late afternoon. The aviary had been nice. Some wanted to see elephants now. Bunny promised she would find some. It was back to travelling in the truck like in the morning. The truck took one mountain road after another, rarely getting above ten miles an hour as the driver turned around potholes.

Jason and Kip were the centre of conversation in the truck. Their eyes sparkled with friendliness and interest. No one was a stranger anymore and the metals trader enjoyed getting to know the pretty Thai. Everyone was curious what the others had made of the day so far. But the driver couldn’t find elephants and one hour dragged into the next.

It was long dark and everyone was dying for supper and a warm bed. The truck stopped. There in the headlights was a small herd of wild Asiatic elephants, methodically feeding near the road – large, dark, mysterious forms. Bunny told everyone to remain in the truck, otherwise the elephants might become dangerous. So they watched from the back of the truck, all peering into the darkness from the same squeezed bench.

At length the elephants moved away into the forest. The metals trader spoke for everyone. “Well done, Bunny, you found us wild elephants after all. Now let’s step on the gas and get home. I’m so starved I want to eat an elephant far more than I want to watch one.”

The next morning people came in at different times for breakfast. The woman in the kitchen wasn’t there with eggs and bacon anymore. The metals trader and Jill left early before anyone else was awake. The two Germans were moving on towards Cambodia, hoping to cross the border near Surin and go to Angkor. Jason and Kip walked Buwannee and Tik to the station and saw them on the train to Bangkok. They had decided to stay on a bit longer.

“Do nothing?” said Kip, as they strolled easy in mind through town. “Just sit under tree?”

“Yup,” said Jason.

“You like Tik?”

“Yes, I like her.”

“You think she good for brother I?”

“He seems to like her.”

“Yeah. I think they ok together.”

Perhaps Tik was not perfect but choice of girlfriend was up to Buwannee.

Back at the resort Kip left Jason in the bungalow and found a bench under the large tree near the main house. It was not yet warm. Staff were doing their morning jobs. Gardeners were sweeping leaves fallen overnight from around the bungalows, which were on stilts. Maids were going in to clean the rooms. Bunny came out and she and Kip talked. According to Bunny her farang husband, who had built the resort, was a bad man and she had had to drive him away. He was back in Denmark now. Then Kip was on her own, watching the birds flying in and out of the resort. Jason came out and joined her.

“Let’s wait until eleven o’clock then have a drink,” said Jason.

“Jason, I want know about your mother. Please tell me. I don’t understand everything you say yesterday.”

So Jason explained again to Kip about his mother, who had left home suddenly and never come back. Jason had been five years old then and hadn’t seen his mother since. Brian had brought Jason up. It had been just the two of them practically since Jason could remember. Angie had only appeared on the scene recently, a year ago, after Brian met her on a Polish dating site.

“It’s not so easy to talk about this, you know,” said Jason. “It’s hard to explain because I still don’t really know. As a kid I was always scared of asking Dad where Mum had gone and now I don’t know where to begin. What I do know is Dad was angry with Mum about something and they broke up. I remember still the ferocity in his eyes. I think she fell in love with another man, what else could it be? But why didn’t she ever come to see me, despite Dad? I guess she was scared of Dad. I remember Mum but not her face so well. I remember walking along the high street with her. People stopping to chat and patted me on the head. I guess Mum knew everybody. But she deserted me so did she love me? Had I disappointed her in some way? I don’t know.”

“Of course she loved you,” said Kip. “You got talk your dad, ask him. It your right.”

Jason made a sound of being tortured. “Whenever I try and broach the subject with Dad I feel awful – guilt, apprehension, however you define it, it comes down on me like a ton of bricks.”

“What’s a ton of bricks? Anyway, let’s see,” said Kip. She clearly had ideas of her own on the subject.

“Two Heineken?”

“Yeah.”

Later they took the bus back to Buriram.





BURIRAM



There wasn’t much to do on the farm. With Jason flown back to Luton and Buwannee in Bangkok, Kip and her parents were restored to the quiet routine of country life. Small activities punctuated the day. In the morning Kip took Bun and Sum to school on the motorbike. She collected them again in the evening. Kip took a midday shower. She sat in the house and watched television and chatted to her mother and Granny. They ate small meals often and the three of them planned ahead what they wanted to eat next. Kip shopped in town or made small diversions on the way home to places where locals set up their cooking carts or market tables on corners of roads or under large trees. There were freshwater fish, seasonal leaf tips and bugs. Kip’s dad wandered off in the morning and in the afternoon he sat under the barn and watched the pigs.

Jason was back working for his father at the garage. The row with his father hadn’t been as bad as expected although his dad was still anti-Kip.

They telephoned long-distance. Kip liked to tramp around the farm holding the phone to one ear and switching a stick with the other. She struggled to visualize the England Jason was calling from, vaguely fusing Old Trafford and Big Ben.

Jason told Kip his thoughts:

“When I have breakfast with Dad and Angie we sit round the table and I think: ‘Where’s Kip?’ Kip, I want you to be sitting right here eating breakfast too. And at work Angie comes into the garage for a chat in the morning with the lads. I just think one day it will be Kip coming by; Kip chatting to the lads; Kip drinking a cup of coffee. Kip, I miss you every single minute of the day. I dream of the time you will sleep with me in my bedroom and put your clothes in my wardrobe.”

“What’s a wardrobe?”

“It’s a box for clothes.”

“Kip, I think of you and it’s like I am walking on air. I can’t stop smiling. I feel like I am on cloud nine.”

“Cloud nine?”

“Yeah cloud nine. I don’t know what it means but we say it. I feel like I’m on cloud nine. I feel so in love with you, I don’t even worry if you love me. I know you do, so I hardly worry.”

“I love you, Jason. You don’t need worry about that. I only want one man. That’s you. I feel cloud nine too - no, cloud ten!”

“Kip, I don’t even argue with Dad. Angie said to him; ‘Jason’s in love,’ and my Dad replied, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, what has Kip got on English girls?’ And I just said, well... I never said: ‘Dad! Angie is not exactly English is she? She’s Polish!’ Instead I said: ‘Dad, I don’t know but I just love Kip.’ He said; ‘Get yourself down to Palms on Saturday night and you’ll find a new girl; if you don’t want Chrissie there’s piles of lovely girls down there, so I hear,’ and I just shook my head at Dad and smiled, like he was so wrong but I didn’t mind, I had all the patience in the world and I said to him: ‘No more Palms for me, Dad, I’m gonna be waiting for Kip and learning my Thai, aren’t I?’”

Kip liked to listen to Jason talk. His voice warmed her.

“Jason, I still don’t know English good. If you want me come England I come. I do anything for you Jason, I love you. Even I have to leave my mum and dad for a while.”

“But why your dad not like me Jason? I don’t understand. He never like me from first time. Why Jason?”

“That’s just him. Don’t worry. He will change.”

“I don’t think he likes anyone. He not nice to no one.”

“Yes, but you know he was in the armed services for thirty years. That’s why.”

Sum and Bun liked to sneak up behind Kip during these conversations.

“Who are you speaking to. What are you talking about?” they’d demand with intense curiosity.

“Jason.”

Then Sum and Bun would run around chanting, ‘Big sister in love with farang Jason. Big sister in love with farang Jason.’

Jason wanted Kip to come to England. He, his dad and Angie were coming to Pattaya again at Christmas. Kip could meet him in Bangkok and they’d go to the consulate together and try for a visa.

One morning after dropping Bun and Sum off at school Kip joined her mother and granny indoors where they were talking. Granny lay half-reclined in her corner. Kip’s mother sat next the cooking utensils. Kip positioned herself cross-legged on the floor.

Dusty rays of light shone across the dim interior through gaps in the timber. The light outside was white. The three brown-skinned women, blending in with the dark tones, were almost invisible.

Granny was speaking. “Jason loves Kip, anyone can see that,” she said. The conversation had already been going some time.

“And Kip loves Jason,” said Kip’s mum, “that’s clear as day too.”

“But how strange to have a farang lover,” said Granny. “In my day we never saw a farang. I think if I had met a farang I would have burst into tears. Blue eyes scare me. You think you are staring at the sky through the eye-sockets of a skull.” Granny’s frame shook and Kip’s mum glanced at her with momentary anxiety. Kip smiled at her grandmother’s theatrics.

The women were silent again. The cicadas turned their dry engines outside.

“You can see Jason has a good heart,” Granny resumed. “But farang men cannot talk to us the way Thai men can.”

“They can make love with their one-eyed snake but not with their sweet talk,” Granny added.

The three women giggled.

“Is it so big?” asked Granny.

“I never look,” said Kip, but she patted her forearm to satisfy Granny’s curiosity.

A mosquito hummed between the women, ignoring Granny and Kip’s mother and honing in on Kip, who always sweated. Kip watched it land on her ankle and squashed it.

Kip’s mum said, “Yes, your dad made love to me with his eyes and his Khmer words. That’s how it happened we married. I couldn’t resist him. He put a spell on me.”

Kip’s mother moved on her knees to the cooking area. She heated a pan and began frying garlic, chilli, minced pork, fish sauce and a handful of basil leaves. She set the pan in front of Granny along with sticky rice and the three of them shared the meal.

“Yes, your life may be different to ours,” said Granny to Kip. “Maybe it will be better, with more money and less work in the fields.”

“I like working in the fields,” said Kip.

Granny considered this. “All the same, if you want to go to England, go. You have already done so much for us with your work in Bangkok and Pattaya. You make the decision. We trust you. You should think of yourself as head of the family now.”

Kip’s mum nodded her assent to this shared decision. “You were never frightened, even as a little girl. Buwannee sometimes had to work hard to be tougher than his stick-insect of a sister.”

“I always took after Granny didn’t I?” said Kip before changing the subject, embarrassed before such praise. “I wonder what Dad’s doing now?”

“Probably over at Krunghantepni’s place,” said Kip’s mum. “Your dad talks to Sunni when she comes outside to hang the washing. He will try and fondle her breasts. Failing that he will attempt to borrow money.”

The women laughed.

“After the Song Kran festival I might plant the long field,” said Kip. “I feel like doing some work.”

“It would be nice to eat our own rice again,” said Granny, “but don’t let it stop you going to England.”

“I think your Dad will help,” said Kip’s mum. “Really he is a harmless stay-at-home now.”

“And you like having him around,” said Kip.

“Yes, I like having him around,” said Kip’s mum. “I sleep better with your dad by my side.”

“We all need a man to hold at night,” said Granny. “They make our babies too, otherwise we don’t need them, or the trouble they bring.”





LUTON



Kip and Jason met in Bangkok the next month. Kip applied for her passport. Then, paying an extortionate sum at a visa agency, they procured her a UK visitor’s visa. The couple purchased a pair of flights to London. Kip didn’t have much to bring with her, just a small suitcase of clothes. Kip called her mother from the airport and said goodbye. Thai people kept goodbyes to a minimum. You are supposed to go as if you’ll be back before evening; and one day you return with equally little fuss, as if never away.

Kip slept for the whole of the twelve hour flight. Jason watched movies then slept too. An hour before landing the stewardesses pulled up the shutters in front of the windows. Kip found the plane floating above clouds in a blue sky. The plane descended through the cloud, banked and Kip glimpsed a city below with a river winding through it: London. The network of streets and parks resembled a map. For a moment there was a clear sight of the heart of London and Jason leaned over Kip’s shoulder to point out the landmarks: Westminster, Big Ben, the London Eye. Then visibility became patchy. The plane encountered more cloud on its run up to the airport, landing with a lurch to one side quickly corrected and a whine of engines thrown into reverse.

Heathrow Immigration was waiting. Jason and Kip took different channels and Kip found herself at the back of a zigzagging queue that took up the whole floor space in a low-ceilinged room the size of a megastore. Three long hours later Kip was through. They went to find the shuttle bus to Luton. Kip’s spirits were at a low ebb. So this was England. Kip knew how to spot UK people. Forget about race or colour which could be anything. In Pattaya the Brits were the one’s wearing at least one piece of football kit, even if a hundred yards dash looked like it would kill them. Bar-stool footballers. But here at Heathrow there were no big men in shorts trying to look like footballers, instead crowds of people wrapped in coats, stressfully trying to control their children and keep their bags together.

They stepped outside the terminal building and Kip experienced the cold of an early spring day. Kip sensed the air was clean. Jason helped Kip engage zips, buttons and the hood of her coat. They stood in the bus queue while cold grabbed at Kip’s ribs. Kip hugged Jason and stared over his shoulder at the unattractive shapes of the delivery depot buildings across the road. There was no sunlight, it was already late afternoon.

If Kip had had a wider field of reference she might have compared herself, at that moment, to a convict en-route for freezing exile in Siberia. Changing transportation mid-journey, standing on the platform exposed to arctic winds, that convict would have looked upon the desolate steppes of Russia and understood what the future held. In this case it was Heathrow Depot that confronted Kip and she stood in the windswept queue for the Luton Shuttle, but the feeling was probably the same.

“I think some Thai when they come here go straight back home,” was Kip’s only comment.

In the shuttle bus there was a chance to warm up. The seats were comfortable and there was space in the middle of the bus for luggage. The bus started up, worked its way out of Heathrow then joined the motorway. What light there was was fading and Kip enjoyed watching the red, green and yellow cat-lights which appeared between lanes in neat rows. Kip noticed the grass embankments were devoid of the market-stalls, half-finished concrete buildings and telegraph poles that would all have been there in Thailand. No people either, just banks for green turf. The radio was playing, carried to the passengers through small speakers along the bus. It was the Jonnie Gibbons radio show on Hertfordshire local radio - a fact repeated often with a jingle. The music was good and the DJ was even better, taking phone calls from listeners, hosting discussions, first on the weekend’s football games, then a comparison of various nightspots on the ‘M1 Corridor’, whatever that was, then a discussion on the question, ‘Is the Queen a National Treasure?’ Kip liked the DJ very much, but how could they talk about royalty like that? He was agile, funny and light-hearted, like some of the farangs in Pattaya. Kip didn’t get every word but she got enough. Perhaps England wasn’t such a bad place. It was almost a pity when the engine went off and the driver called out, “Luton. All stop here.” Jason and Kip took a taxi into town through flood-lit streets.

No one was at home to welcome them. Jason lived with his dad and Angie in a small semi. The house had one main bedroom, occupied by Brian and Angie, and two small bedrooms, one Jason’s. Going to bed together Kip saw Jason’s small single bed and pointed a quizzical face at him.

“I thought we could sleep on the floor Buriram style,” Jason said cheerfully. They were both very tired.

Kip said, “I’m not gonna sleep on floor. You can sleep on floor if you want.”

So they shared Jason’s single bed. On the weekend they went to buy a bigger bed. Brian grumbled about the arrival of the new bed. He still didn’t like Kip as his son’s girlfriend.

The lineaments of her new life were quickly apparent to Kip. During the week everyone went out to work and Kip was left alone in the house. She woke late and lay on the sofa watching morning TV and then afternoon TV, eating snacks and putting on weight. Sometimes she played music and watched TV at the same time. On the whole, the stuff on TV in England was better than the stuff on TV in Thailand.

On the weekends the TV went on too. Jason and Kip liked to lounge in the easy chairs in the living room.

“Where do you like better, Jomtien Beach or Luton living room?” asked Kip.

“Well, we have beer the same,” Jason considered.

“Yes,” agreed Kip, “we have beer.”

“And sometimes Angie comes in with food; that’s like Jomtien where the people come by selling snacks.”

“Yes.”

“But here we can watch Little Britain or sit through the whole of 24 Hours on DVD.”

“Yeah but in Jomtien you can watch real people on the beach and it’s warm from the sun not a bloody heater,” said Kip.

Jason bought some beach posters in town and put them on the wall in front of the easy chairs. “Any better?” he asked next time they were sitting there.

“Yes. Put picture my home in Buriram too,” Kip said, “then I feel ok.”

“Here not so bad,” conceded Kip later. “We have Trisha. We can’t get Trisha in Jomtien.”

The supermarket was a short walk down the road. Kip didn’t cook much, Angie took care of that, but Kip did the shopping for her. It was her only real job. Angie did the housework and although Kip could have helped more, that wasn’t something Kip took to. She didn’t mind dusting and sweeping, but Hoovering carpets or loading a washing-machine with clothes were somewhat alien to her.

Young kids hung-out in the car park of the supermarket. A kid on a bicycle wheeled over and intercepted Kip. “Give us a kiss, Darling,” the boy said. He was about nine years old.

“Say that to me again and I’m gonna hit you with a stick,” Kip said.

“Hit me with a stick?” said the boy.

“Yeah, same my granny did me,” said Kip.

“If you do that, my Dad will give you what for.”

“Give me what for. What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, but he’ll do it.”

“Give me what for,” said Kip still puzzled, “what for what?”

The kid changed the subject, “Where do you come from anyway?”

“Thailand innit,” said Kip.

“Oh, Thailand,” said the boy and rode away. “She comes from THAI-LAND,” he told his friends. Kip couldn’t believe the kids in Luton.

On Saturday nights Jason and Kip went out clubbing. They met Jason’s friends, crammed into nightclubs, got drunk and danced; eating kebabs with hot sauce on the way home. Kip looked a little short compared to the Luton crowd, especially if she didn’t glam up with high heels.

Time passed. One afternoon Kip was watching TV as usual. She didn’t feel one hundred percent and hadn’t gone out shopping. Instead she’d finished all the milk and fruit juice in the fridge, looking for strength. Brian came home early in a bad mood. A customer had complained after his wreck of a car had broken down shortly after being fixed for the umpteenth time. Brian went out to his workshop in the garden, then came in to make a cup of tea. He found with irritation there was no milk in the fridge. Brian could hear Kip watching TV in the lounge and the blood rose in him.

“There’s no fucking milk is there?” said Brian entering the lounge.

Kip looked at Brian, the tall farang who was Jason’s father. She knew now his background. Thirty years an RAF squaddie and that’s where he got his manners from.

“OK, I get milk,” said Kip rising.

“Can’t you even make it to the shops then?” Brian said. “It’s not like you are fucking working.”

“I want to fucking work,” said Kip straight off the bat, “but what fucking work can I do?”

Brian wasn’t particularly concerned whether Kip worked or not, he just didn’t care for her.

“You want me leave?” said Kip. “I walk out of house right now if you want. I know it your house.”

Brian had no immediate comeback.

“Brian, I’m so bloody boring here watch TV all day. I don’t mind walk out right now. Go back Thailand.”

Kip was roused now. Few can match the Thai anger level when finally it shows. Surprising himself Brain exited the lounge saying nothing. Instead he left the house, banging the front door behind him.

That night Kip told Jason she was going back to Thailand.

“Why, Kip?” asked Jason softly.

“No one reason,” said Kip, “I miss my Mum too much. I’m bored. Your dad don’t like me. Many thing.”

Jason nodded. “I understand. I miss Buriram too. Will you come back?”

“Sure,” said Kip.

“My Dad. One day he will come round. We just have to be patient. He can’t fail to realise you are made of gold.”

“It’s ok about your Dad,” said Kip. “Not everyone like each other.”

“We are still cloud nine, aren’t we?” said Jason.

“Yes, we still cloud nine,” said Kip.

Jason saw Kip off at Heathrow. She had been in England six months. The plane was half-full of Thais, half-full of farangs. At the end of the long flight Kip looked out of the window and this time it was outer Bangkok through the clouds: the plain, the canals and the patterned fields. Kip wept for no reason.





BURIRAM



Back home Granny had gone downhill. She no longer had the strength to stand. With Kip home, Kip’s mum decided to care for Granny full-time and Kip took over the running of the household. Bun and Sum had been walking to school in Kip’s absence. Bun had turned fourteen, slim, comparatively light-skinned, fashion conscious, but there was something going on between her and her dad. She had silent periods, tantrums when she accused her father of not loving her and Kip learnt she had made a half-hearted attempt to kill herself by taking aspirin. Everyone was happy that Kip was back. She brought presents and told her stories about England.

As before, Jason called everyday. If he didn’t call, Kip called him. But being long distance lent something flat to their conversations, which they couldn’t shrug off, however much they wanted to communicate with each other. During their time in England they had taken no precautions but Kip hadn’t got pregnant. During one phone call Kip asked Jason if he minded about not having a baby.

“I don’t know,” Jason said, “there’s plenty of time isn’t there?”

“But maybe I can never have,” said Kip.

“It’s you I care about,” said Jason. “We can always adopt.”

“Adopting not the same,” said Kip. “A man wants a woman who can have children. I don’t blame you for that.”

Another time Kip asked Jason what he had been doing. It was a Sunday, so Jason’s day off.

“Chrissie came round for dinner,” Jason said.

“Why Chrissie come round for dinner?”

“Dad invited her.”

“Your Dad want you to get back with Chrissie I think,” said Kip.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to.”

“She has nice boobs.”

“I don’t care about her boobs.”

“Maybe she could give you a baby. I think so,” said Kip.

“Kip, hello, what are you talking about, she just came to dinner because Dad invited her, not me.”

“Yeah, but she’s there and I’m here. I know, Jason, you are good man.

But I think she will jump your bones.”

“I won’t let her jump my bones.”

“She’s big girl. It might happen.”

“Who taught you ‘jump my bones’? I don’t remember teaching you.”

“Maybe my boyfriend in Thailand.” It was a flat joke.

When their phone calls ended they came away feeling dissatisfied, irked with each other or themselves, it was hard to say which.

Three months later Jason flew to Thailand with his dad and Angie. Kip met them at the airport and they all went down to Pattaya for a two week early Christmas holiday. Jason’s dad was civil to Kip throughout the holiday but he still hadn’t warmed to her. Instead he demanded the full attention of his son. He didn’t like Kip and Angie getting along too well either.

Jason and Kip treasured undisturbed nights in their hotel room.

“He’s your Dad and you love him,” said Kip. “You can’t help it what he’s like.”

“He just needs to relax,” said Jason, “but I don’t know how to get him to.”

At the end of the holiday Jason, his dad, and Angie flew back to the UK and Kip took the bus back to Buriram.

In the New Year Granny died. The monastery held a service and cremated her body. Kip gave Jason the news and Jason offered to come out to Buriram. Kip said no, but knew Jason shared her bereavement – he and Granny had liked each other. Jason and Kip’s phone calls virtually ceased. Jason always wanted to call, but he didn’t want to intrude. Kip counted the days they had not spoken. First it was two days, then three days then four days. Kip knew Jason would be counting too. A week passed without either calling. Partly this suited Kip. She didn’t want to engage in small talk and for the rest there was nothing new to say between Jason and herself. Perhaps that’s why they had stopped ringing each other. It had not ended but it had come to a halt – their love affair. Kip and her mum sat silently in the house for long hours wondering if Granny’s spirit was still there in her corner.

Bun turned fifteen and Kip took her up to Bangkok to settle in with Thainee and start at the factory. With Kip around there had been no more problems between Bun and her dad and Kip let sleeping dogs lie, whatever the trouble had been.

While in Bangkok Kip went to see Buwannee. He had got married, not to Tik but to another girl while his sister was in the UK. Kip had been more sorry than words can say to miss the wedding. Now Mao, as she was called, a quiet girl from Khon Kaen, was expecting a baby. Kip was happy for her brother but returned to Buriram feeling very alone.





PATTAYA



One morning a car approached along the track. Two men got out and asked for Kip’s mother. The men were from Siam Commercial Bank, the finance house June had used for the secured loan four years earlier. They were there to serve notice on Kip’s mother that the loan was in arrears, passing her a letter. Unless the default was made good within ten working days the bank would act to take possession of the farm.

Kip and her mum marched over to the blue-roofed house to find out what was going on. June was not at home and a shamefaced cousin denied all knowledge of the problem, exhorting the three women to speak directly to June. June couldn’t be reached on her mobile phone. Kip caught the night bus to Pattaya, leaving her anxious, angry relatives at home waiting for news.

Arriving in Pattaya at eight the next morning, Kip went straight to June’s room. She found June in bed, awake but unwilling to communicate. Po and Nung, however, were at hand to explain that June hadn’t been out of the room for three days, not since she’d been humiliated by a farang called Manfred.

Kip knew Manfred. He was one of the men who drove big motorbikes. When he drew up on Beach Road he would spin the wheels to impress people, creating a choking cloud of dust and rubber. He was a regular at June Bar and had worked through most of the girls there. That made him rather a creep. The girls knew Manfred as someone difficult to get rid of and not easily embarrassed: thick-skinned and expecting other’s to be equally so.

Po and Nung took Kip outside and told her more. Manfred had taken up with June a month earlier. They supposed he’d done so because he needed money and June was someone who had some. June had moved out of her room and into his apartment. Before long she was paying his weekly rent and other expenses. In return Manfred initially took the trouble to make June feel beautiful and special, things no farangs under sixty had done before. She was blinded by love. When Manfred came into fresh funds he disappeared. Then three days ago he had walked in carrying all June’s clothes from the apartment. He’d dumped them on the floor of the bar. June would have scratched Manfred’s eyes out if Po and Nung had not restrained her. Manfred took off on his motorbike with a smile on his face.

“Why he do that?” asked Kip.

“Just stupid,” said Po. “Bad man.”

All June’s salary had gone Manfred’s way and that’s why June had stopped repaying the loan.

Back in June’s room June was prepared to say something now. Her cousin was supposed to have taken care of the loan payments, selling the pick-up truck. Kip said she hadn’t. June got her cousin on the phone. The cousin now admitted pick-up had been mauled in an accident and wasn’t saleable, that was the problem.

Seeing how things stood Kip left the room and went into town. The loan repayments were not large by Pattaya standards and without much difficulty a day looking up old friends got Kip the money needed for June’s missed repayments. The next thing was getting June to her feet. But June wasn’t ready to resume ordinary life. She had been deeply humiliated. Her roommates guessed she was quietly winding up to take some sort of revenge on Manfred. Kip decided to stay put in Pattaya and earn some money. In a few days she had found part-time work promoting a new bar opening. Po and Nung returned to their jobs at the bar. For much of the time June was left by herself. Po heard from the motorbike taxi guy that June had started fraternising with a band of gangster types.

Three days later June returned to the bar. She was relaxed. Her old self. No one asked any questions. The newspapers had a report of a farang shot dead. This had happened outside the farang’s apartment in the early hours of the evening. Witnesses had seen a Thai woman in her early thirties firing a gun then being driven away by a man on a motorbike. Three shots were fired, two had hit trees but one had hit the farang fatally in the chest. He died shortly afterwards at the Pattaya Memorial Hospital. The farang was named as Manfred Hoslen, otherwise know to his friends as Mannie.

That evening at the bar, June rang the bell.

“What are we celebrating?” asked one of the farang customers.

“I have news about friend, make me happy,” said June.

“I think we can all drink to that sort of news,” said the farang.

The Thais only smiled at him.

Some of Mannie’s compatriots put two and two together and started to boycott June Bar. Glass was smashed against the security grill by someone overnight. But there was no police visit.

Then Mannie’s parents showed up. They were a well-dressed elderly couple, all the way from Switzerland. They had all the composure of people who’d walked out of a nearby air-conditioned luxury hotel. June treated these two with genuine kindness. They just wanted to know something about their boy.

They stopped at the bar several times. They knew Manny had run out of money, it was they who had cut the money-supply off, trying to call time on his dissipated life. But, as always, they’d relented. Perhaps this time without money had led their boy into trouble. After meeting June they couldn’t believe she had anything to do with his death, but they had been told she had. She seemed hardly attractive enough to have interested their son and just too plain to imagine in a crime passionelle. They accepted they would never know who had killed their beloved Mannie, or why. He had made enemies his whole life through and finally this beautiful boy’s life had come off the rails, here in Pattaya.

They wanted to fly his body home and found several agencies in town doing this sort of work.





KO SAMUI



Kip decided to stay in Pattaya. She wanted to lose herself for a while in drinking and parties. At twenty-two she was still an attractive proposition. Perhaps her face wasn’t as smooth as before but to compensate her eyes were finer, more expressive. Kip wore jeans as always, sometimes a little make-up, but rarely needed to visit a salon. The other girls at June Bar, many new, looked up to Kip with her wide experience and time living in the UK and Kip became the confidante of their troubles and their hopes.

Pattaya seemed to have got angrier, fights in the bars more common, or was it Kip who had changed? She had new drinking companions and she liked to be stirred by the passion and violence of other peoples’ brawls. Kip stepped forward sometimes into the arguments of strangers. More than once she accompanied a disputant to the police station and gave a witness statement. When she was bored Kip slept around the clock, not appearing at the bar for days.

Some of Kip’s ex-boyfriends were around, among them Hugo.

Hugo remained a twice-yearly visitor to Pattaya and was still a friend - although two years had passed since their last contact. Now, in a chance of good timing for Hugo, he emailed Kip a nostalgic love-letter. Kip didn’t understand Hugo, but he had been her first love, he had been generous to her with money and, in his feckless way, she recognised that he had picked up feelings for her. Kip replied that she was free and Hugo was quick to organise a two-week holiday to join her, beginning with a few days in Pattaya.

“You are so strong, I am so weak” said Hugo. “I always considered you marriageable, even as a seventeen-year-old chit of a girl.”

Kip told Hugo about Jason and didn’t conceal that she was still in love with him.

Kip and Hugo flew to Samui Island. At the airport, which stood in a clearing in the trees with native-style terminal buildings made of wood, they stopped at the tourist desk and selected a cheap bungalow resort on Chaweng Beach. Getting there by jeep they threw their bags down and went through to the beach. Tables were set on the sand. They took one and ordered beers. The Samui-blue sea was there, the limbs of a broad tree, high above, provided shade; spacey beach music emanated from speakers at the shore-side restaurant. On the bright sand a group were playing volleyball. Kip and Hugo sat drinking the entire afternoon.

“Now I have space to think what I want do,” Kip said. “Do I belong Buriram or Luton or Pattaya?”

The following afternoon Kip and Hugo took a moped and explored the island as far as Lamai Beach. On the way back they took a road inland and motored along narrow tracks in the hills. They stopped for a cigarette. A woman on a motorbike came down from one of the native huts and went past, ignoring them. Kip stood by the side of the road and found her senses alive. There was the hard sunlight, the coconut palms, the cicadas and the smell of vegetation in the moist heat. Kip didn’t say anything to Hugo but a strong urge to return home gripped her. She knew her question was answered, it was Buriram.

The Samui holiday came to an end. Kip and Hugo returned to Pattaya for the last few days of Hugo’s holiday. Kip was incubating a new idea. She was going to start a pig farm back home.





BURIRAM



Kip’s mum and dad had fallen into a slump. The livestock had gone and the land was unused. Kip’s mum seemed to have grown much older and with Bun in Bangkok, Sum was anywhere but around the house.

“Mum, I’m here to stay,” said Kip. “You and Dad can relax. I’ll take care of you and the farm now.”

“You are our true daughter.”

Additional land was easy to come by in Esarn. What usually lacked was project finance and willing manpower. Kip chose a large plot five minutes walk from the house - pig farms smell. She bought ninety-nine piglets – nine being the luckiest of numbers - fenced the plot in and built a lean-to.

Kip took on the family finances and housekeeping. She handed Sum her daily money for school. Bun began sending her money from the factory direct to Kip.

One morning, as Kip was working on the pig enclosures, Chunaswat strolled up. He knew pigs and Kip needed an extra hand. He helped erect the pig huts. Chunaswat was the same age as Kip, he was strong-handed and together they shared the same understanding of country life. They became friends again. Chunaswat was not busy at the blacksmiths. His presence made a more regular girl of Kip, in the eyes of the community, and it was good for security to have a man around. Some months ago a shocking double-murder had happened only a few kilometres away. Two little girls, left at home while their parents went into town, had been strangled. The common theory was that the neighbours had come to burgle the house and found the children at home, otherwise why kill two innocence children?

Buwannee came visiting from Bangkok with Mao and their new baby boy. In the way parents have, on a whim they had called their newborn son Arthur. The couple were anxious to move out of Bangkok now they had Arthur. Buwannee started to work with a purpose on getting his house built, a similar wooden-pile structure to the main house. Kip agreed to oversee the project when Buwannee and his family returned to Bangkok.

The pig farm sold its first livestock and after expenses saw a small profit. Kip had a long conversation with Buwannee on the phone. She proposed he partner her on the pig farm and together they expand it with Chunaswat. Agreeing, Buwannee, Mao and Arthur upped sticks and moved back East. Arthur’s arrival was a moment of joy for the Buriram household. Kip showed that she intended to dote on him wholeheartedly. It was only sad Granny was not there to set eyes on her great-grandson. Mao was already expecting a second child.

During the Song Kran festival a big table was set under the mango tree. The family drank five crates of beer and one of whisky, with long afternoons and nights of talking and singing. Arthur was passed around the table like a little Buddha. Neighbours and friends came by. June was there with a harmless-looking farang of fifty who seemed devoted to her. Bun and Thainee came down from Bangkok.

Bun was seventeen now. She had a style all her own, dressing in a Japanese pretty-punk way. Kip needed to decide if Bun should go to Pattaya or not. If the farm continued to prosper there was the possibility Kip could send Bun to college instead. Bun was clever and to have a graduate in the family would be good for the future, but further schooling was an expensive investment. Sum regarded her sister with awe, happy when Bun consented to leave table and go walkabout with her.

Kip had a plan for Thainee and found a quiet moment to talk to her. She wanted Thainee to stay for good and give up the exhausting factory work in crowded Bangkok. Thainee went away to think about it; she walked around the perimeters of the dry paddy fields; she admitted to herself she had grown old and was in need of the salve of country life. Walking very lightly and with a tear in her eye she went to find Kip to joyously accept.

Song Kran over, it was just Bun who returned to Bangkok.

One afternoon Jason rang. He was at Bangkok airport. He was about to catch the local flight to Buriram and needed picking up. Kip sent Sum out to find a neighbour who could drive to the airport. Successfully finding transport Sum insisted on her right to go along.

Jason and Kip might have been strangers, so unfamiliar were they with each other in the cab on the drive home. Sum peered at Jason, making big eyes at him. Jason said a few phrases in Thai, demonstrating the studying he had been doing in the language.

“Sorry, we speak Khmer or Laos here, not Thai,” Kip said archly.

“You speak Khmer then, I speak Thai,” retorted Jason.

“I understand you, Jason,” Sum said shyly but distinctly in English, blushing.

Kip smiled, relenting. “Thai ok, Jason,” she said.

At home Kip showed Jason the pig farm. Buwannee and Chunaswat were there. Kip had an impulse to lie about Chunaswat and call him a cousin. She just said, “This is Chunaswat,” offering no explanation of his connections.

Walking back from the pig farm Jason said, “I don’t think that guy likes me, he didn’t smile. He wasn’t the guy who tried to crack my skull before was he?”

“No,” said Kip and left it at that.

“You want to know something? I’ve stopped working for Dad,” said Jason in an ‘imparting big information’ way. “That means I can stay here long time.”

Kip didn’t know what to reply. From the moment of Jason’s arrival she had started sweating. Thainee and Kip’s mum had both noticed it. In fact Kip had no idea how to take Jason this time. He was carrying with him the different pace of farang life. He was like an alien dropped on the farm. Yet he was Jason. After consultation between Kip and Buwannee, her brother took Jason into town to decompress. They went to the bar of the Thepnakorn Hotel, listened to the house rock-band and had a few games of snooker. Chunaswat joined. For Chunaswat this was the best night of his life, drinking in town with Buwannee and a farang. That night Chunaswat went back to his own home to sleep.

“Guess what,” said Jason as they lay on their bedding.

“What?”

“Chrissie gave up on me. She’s going out with someone else now.”

“Hmm.”

“Guess what else?”

“No guess, you tell me!”

“Dad came round. We were watching a DVD, The Legend of King Naresuan. The next day he says to me, ‘Jason, you should bring Kip back to England, she’s a fine girl.’”

Kip absorbed this news. “Why? He think I’m King Naresuan now?” she asked.

“Yes, he does.”

“I never saw King Naresuan, but I heard about the movie,” said Kip.

They were silent. Then Kip said, “Are you sure your dad say that?”

“Yes, one hundred percent.”

“Why not one hundred ten percent sure? Football manager always talk one hundred ten percent.”

“OK, one hundred and ten percent sure.”

“OK, now I believe.”

The next day Kip took Jason to the Khmer temple ruins she had visited years earlier with June. They took the motorbike, riding across the plain of Buriram. Going up to the site Jason saw the temple carvings and got the gist of the history. He said to Kip, “That’s the point. Thai people have their history and their culture; and they are just as proud of it as we are in the UK of ours. But it took Dad a long time to see it. He just thought Thai people were mail-order-bride people.”

“It long ago,” said Kip, “but I like to come here because you can see long way from this hill; and yeah we Khmer.”

Jason had been carrying an engagement ring around with him. He decided now was the time. “I did right to come back, didn’t I?” he said.

“Yeah, Jason, you did right.”

“Will you marry me then?”

“Yes, Jason, I marry you.”

They sat on the smooth stone of the ancient terrace and for a moment the world was timeless. Then Kip starting thinking about practicalities. They would get married in two months time at the temple where Buwannee had done his novitiate. Kip and her mum would organise everything. All Jason had to do was sort out his family.

“So, your dad, he coming, yes or no?” Kip asked a few evenings later, after Jason had phoned his dad with the news.

“Yes, he’s coming and so is Angie,” Jason replied. Jason said nothing about his mum so Kip didn’t ask and moved on to other considerations.

“Where they stay?” Kip mused aloud, “Better they not stay here, no air-conditioning, no privacy; better they stay June new extension. That clean. You think they like, Jason?”

“That’s an impossible question,” said Jason.

“No joke please,” said Kip. “I ask June tomorrow.”

“What sinsod you give my mother, father?” Kip asked. This was the wedding payment to the parents of the bride from the groom for the hand of their daughter. The greater the sinsod the more prestige would come to Kip’s family. No sinsod meant loss of face.

“Kip, I’ve got no baht. If I had I’d give. Maybe I can ask my dad?”

Kip and her mother conferred together.

“No, don’t ask Brian, we don’t want. I give you sinsod, you hand over my mum and dad on wedding day. Secret. No one in village know.” Kip and her mum smiled.

“Sounds good to me,” said Jason.

While Kip and her mum set about organising the wedding Buwannee and Jason involved themselves in a small business project. The pigs were fascinating but neither man was a farmer at heart. They wanted to start a repair shop in town, a partnership, with Buwannee running front of shop and Jason repairing vehicles. Presumably, as a married man, Jason would have some employment rights. The project provided a good excuse for the men to get away from the farm and go into town. Here they inspected premises and held meetings. As their plans began to firm up the bar at the Thepnakorn Hotel took on the mantle of their unofficial headquarters.


**


Buriram gives the visitor every impression of being a quiet provincial town. Old men on cycle rickshaws wait at street corners, nodding questioningly from their saddles to pedestrians. The sun is very hot but the roads are wide and planted with trees. In the centre of town there is a large, stagnant lake. Wide drainage canals, strewn with rubbish, run parallel with some of the roads and the town is wholly flat.

If one image would jolt the tourist awake (but there aren’t any tourists) it is the charging war elephant, cast full-size in bonze, which traffic rounds somewhere near the town centre. Atop the animal are warriors, a small army of them, brandishing spears. The monument is an impressive reminder of Buriram’s role as a Khmer stronghold in days past.

The Thepnakorn Hotel is on the outskirts of town and has few rivals. It is a pleasant hotel of its kind. The entrance leads into a high-ceilinged lobby which occupies the entire ground floor. Excellent pieces of local craftsmanship, teak fret-worked panels and stone bass-reliefs, decorate the expansive walls. Fans work overhead keeping the lobby cool. People with no obvious business at the hotel occupy the sofas, some quietly sleeping. The bar stands in one corner.

Holding meetings here, Buwannee took advice from his assembled business mentors, most of whom didn’t wear socks. Although there was no shortage of mechanics in town - people adept at cannibalizing parts, working almost for nothing - room surely existed for a higher-end operation, English speaking, where expats could leave their motors in trusted hands. Buwannee was taken through standard lease terms by his local experts and briefed on those interested parties in town who would expect to be bribed. Jason listened in, trying to absorb some of the Lao-Khmer mix of the discussions.

Brian and Angie arrived for the wedding. They moved into June’s new wing with its clean furnishings and air-conditioning. Angie was not feeling well the first day and remained in bed. Jason and Buwannee took the opportunity to show Brian over the workshop they had ear-marked as their future premises. This took them to a commercial estate on the edge of town. The lot had previously been leased by a bus company. The heat was heavy in the bare workshop, stripped of fans or air-conditioning. Brian suffered and the partners kept the tour brief, pleased to have Brian’s sweating approval. Then Buwannee returned to the farm while Jason and Brian headed to the Thepnakorn Hotel for a cold drink.

Jason had primed himself to ask his dad about his mum. Whether it was being out here in Esarn or the fact Jason was on the cusp of getting married, confronting his dad came easily now. They were settled at the bar with their drinks, a couple of vodka limes and Jason went right into it.

“Dad, I want to know about mum. I want to contact her.”

Brian’s face darkened but he was ready for the question. He always had been.

“Well son, we can find her. Her parents still live in Luton. She moved somewhere north – Liverpool I think.”

“Who is she?”

“She calls herself McCloud now. Her first you remember, Doreen.”

The barman sat low behind the bar and consumed noodle soup with a fork and spoon. The fan overhead pulsed cool drafts of air. Brian told Jason how Doreen had fallen into an affair with a man called McCloud, who ran the newsagents in the high-street, getting herself pregnant while Brian was away on a three month posting in Cambridge. There was no hiding what had happened. Brian saw red and sent his wife from the house, telling her to go and live with McCloud, which she did. Soon afterwards Brian took Jason with him on that posting to Malaysia and later the divorce came through.

“Dad, why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I wouldn’t have kept it from you, if you had asked, Son. But you never asked.”

Jason couldn’t believe he finally knew. He wanted time alone and left his dad at the bar. Stepping outside, the doorman automatically summoned him a taxi. Jason got in and went to the farm. ‘Doreen,’ Jason told himself on the journey, ‘my mum’s called Doreen and lives in Liverpool.’

Kip was in the pig field distributing straw with a fork. As the taxi drew up she stopped and waited, wondering what had happened to bring Jason home so early.

“My mum’s name is Doreen,” said Jason. “My grandparents are still living in Luton.”

“Jason, you can’t go now, we are getting married in three days.”

“I know, don’t worry.”

“So Brian told you?”

“Yes. She got pregnant with another man. Dad flipped. They divorced.”

“Jason, why your mum never see you; why your dad never tell you anything?”

“I guess Mum was scared of Dad and Dad was scared of losing me to Mum.”

“You angry your dad?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where he now?”

“I left him at the hotel.”

“I happy for you, Jason. You know your mum now. And you man. You can ask your dad anything, you not scared.”

Jason returned to find Brian where he’d left him, big frame perched top-heavy on the bar stool. Jason gave him a shoulder clap. “Hi, Dad, I’m back.” Brian revolved in his seat and gave Jason a glad smile. “You’ve grown up these last few years. Ever since you met Kip I suppose.”

“Yes, Dad, Kip’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

The barman returned from a sortie of his own at reception and took their second order. Outside it was growing dark. Presumably feeling the hour demanded it the barman turned on the audio equipment and Esarn music started to flute across the hotel. Brian gave Jason a lively glance. “Son, doesn’t this place remind you of the Sepang Hotel in Malaysia? It’s got that same smell. You remember we used to go there from the airfield at Sungai Besi. You were seven.”

“I remember, Dad.”

The next day Kip, Jason, Kip’s mum and dad, Brian, Angie, Bun and Sum, Buwannee, Mao, Albert, Thainee and Chunaswat went to the local reservoir for lunch. During the journey Albert peed on Brian’s trousers. On arrival the Thais were fascinated to watch the tall, white-fleshed farang strip down to his briefs and plunge into the water. Angie rinsed his trousers at the water’s edge and looked back at the party through blue eyes, which, like Granny had always said, bore an appalling resemblance to the sky above. The Thais gravitated sensibly towards the shade, made themselves comfortable and began the business of eating. Jason joined his dad in the water, conscious father and son were being regarded like albino marine animals. He and his father’s hoots carried clear across the reservoir. How great it was to be farang. The Thais didn’t know what they were missing. Later Bun, Sum and Thainee went into town, the last to have their wedding suits fitted.


**


On the day of the wedding the Apram household rose at dawn. Kip’s mum and Thainee started cooking outside using camp-stoves they’d hired in town. A whole sack of rice went into an enormous saucepan. Neighbours started to appear, women to help with the cooking, men joining Kip’s dad who was squatting on the compact earth making an early start on the beer. Good natured conversation and joking went on between the menfolk and womenfolk as the sun rose through the trees. Inside, Kip was skittish. Thainee and June were going to dress her and do her make up but it was hours until the ceremony. Thainee and June went in and out of the house umpteen times. The bride had to remain inside.

The temple was involved from dawn. Nine monks filed silently into the side-room reserved for Kip’s marriage ceremony and commenced a long pattern of meditative chanting prescribed for wedding celebrations. Jason, Brian and Angie slept late at June’s place until Thainee came across with breakfast.

When at last it was time, Kip emerged from the house in her wedding dress of white silk, took care of the steps and started off for the temple in a poised walk, seeming elevated in body and mind. Kip’s mum and dad, Bun and Sum, Thainee and June, and all the others followed behind her.

In the wedding room Jason, also dressed in white silk, was waiting for Kip, with Brian and Angie.

Kip’s party filled up the wedding room. Kip and Jason looked for each other but people deliberately stood between them. The wedding rite commenced, addressed to the gathering by the senior monk while the other monks, who had been chanting, retired to sit crossed-legged on matting. The formal Thai was incomprehensible to Jason’s side, probably to Kip’s side too and the guests stood as one in respectful, silence.

Then the Khan Mark ceremony began and Jason’s side handed over the sinsod and other gifts. Guests made audible sighs of pleasure and for the first time Jason and Kip had an unencumbered view of each other. The celebrant monk engaged Jason and Kip directly in a number of speeches and rites, which Kip and Jason followed with concentration, both feeling more and more relaxed. Joy began to break out on their faces. The monks sung something and Albert broke into a wail, which people said afterwards was a good omen. The Khan Mark ceremony done, the guests applauded lightly and those with cameras took pictures.

Now the wedding party walked back to the farm for food, drink and music. Kip and Jason walked hand in hand accepting congratulations on being married. Tables and chairs were laid out under the mango tree. As the first guests returned the band started playing from under the barn.

Like many a bride on her wedding day, Kip was in no hurry to change out of her dress. She stationed herself in front of the house and admirers collected around her. Kip said little, feeling pleasantly like a figurine. People examined her and made comments to each other on her appearance. The rest of the day sped through. Buwannee gave a speech under the mango tree which began, “Kip has always been a big part of my life. When we were kids we used to climb this very mango tree, peeing from the branches like two monkeys.” This was the funny part then Buwannee changed gear and had many on the Thai side weeping as he sung his sister’s praises. Brian, who was enjoying himself, commented to Jason, “I’ve no idea what your brother-in-law said but he’s a hell of a speaker.” Brian was aware of having found a fan in the awe-struck Sum. From a safe distance she had been following him around, letting no one else refill his glass.

Jason’s speech was next. He took his chance to make Kip the wedding vows of a UK marriage. His voice held up well. Then Jason intended to make some jokes, one in carefully rehearsed Thai, but at this moment six piglets ran squeaking among the guests cutting him short. Bun and Sum were the authors of the prank, the pigs trailing the pink ribbons from their own dresses. Kip hitched up her dress and went after the pigs. Given the incongruous sight of a bride running after pigs in her wedding dress no one moved to help, preferring to spectate. Applauded for her speed of hand and foot Kip finished the job dusty and sweaty. You couldn’t find a gamer bride, there was no doubt about it. Jason gave Kip a barnstorming kiss.

At ten p.m. June chauffeured Kip and Jason to the Thepnakorn Hotel where the newly weds were having one night in the honeymoon suite. Back home the party went on. Brian and Angie stayed an hour longer then groped their way back to June’s place. At some point the band stopped playing and went home. Eventually, when the last drop of whisky had been consumed the Thai guests lay on the ground to sleep or made off through the trees towards their own homes.





PATTAYA



The next day the honeymoon party travelled to Pattaya where Brian had booked three bungalows in a small resort. Kip and Jason took one bungalow, Kip’s mum and dad the second and Bun and Sum were supposed to sleep in the third. Brian and Angie were going to stay at their regular hotel nearby.

Left to themselves after arrival, Kip’s mum and dad stood self-consciously in their allotted bungalow with its large bed made up with fresh white sheets, its padded easy-chairs, its matching towels in the bathroom, its shampoos and soaps. Outside, similar bungalows clustered around swimming pools in tropical gardens. The Thai couple could understand each other’s disorientation perfectly; neither had gone far from home for a holiday before, or stayed in a resort. When night-time came Sun and Bum, who were scared in their own bungalow, joined Kip and Jason in bed; Kip’s mum and dad had a similar idea, crept in and slept on the floor.

At dawn Kip’s mum and dad went outside. As the light rose birdsong filled the air. They’d slept well and it was a beautiful morning. A bird with red, yellow and green plumage landed on a palm stump close to the porch.

“I remember this bird as a kid,” remarked Kip’s dad.

“Me too,” said Kip’s mum.

Their emotions had been running along similar lines ever since Kip’s engagement. Now, as they watched the garden, both felt satisfaction at their daughter’s marriage; they liked the feeling of being the parents of the bride. Kip’s dad, a new man in his new clothes, felt shame for some of the things that had happened in the past and now he wanted to be equal to whatever the future held and to make his wife a better husband. Both felt their relationship had turned a corner. The morning workforce began moving across the resort. Gardeners swept leaves fallen overnight. Seeing the couple awake a housekeeper approached to make-up their room. The couple followed her inside and watched with puzzlement as she pulled the bedding apart then made the bed up with new sheets. “You want watch TV?” the maid said, a little put out that her every movement was being scrutinized by this pair of Esarn folk.

They made no answer, embarrassed.

“You need new towels?”

They shook their heads.

“You want breakfast? The buffet starts at seven o’clock. It’s free for guests,” the maid added by way of encouragement.

Realising they were in the way Kip’s mum and dad went back outside. They walked through the gardens to the main building and sat on the ground to wait for breakfast.

Kip and Jason joined them for breakfast later. Reaching the table, Kip saw her father waving a stainless steel fork in the air, holding it just like a farang, while her mother watched, creased with laughter. Obviously Kip’s dad was imitating the farangs at the next table. Saying nothing Kip pulled out chairs for Jason and herself while giving her parents a fascinated glance, as much as to say, ‘What is going on with you two!?’

In fact Kip was on to the reunion quietly under way between her parents. She had noticed too Brian’s pleasure in kids and the way he dangled Albert above his head somewhere up in the stratosphere - Brian had finally relaxed! Sometime soon Jason would meet his mum and Kip would have a mother-in-law. The concerns of her new, enlarged family were everything now.