There is a background curtain raiser to the house repairs tale.
I’d been meaning to have them done for months. What really set me going was the leak in the roof showing in three brown holes in the ceiling of the master bedroom. With the rainy season in full splash, buckets underneath weren’t quite the answer. But finding the right man, the right team, for the job can be quite a challenge.
The next-door townhouse had just been rejuvenated by a Chang Faet (Craftsman Twin) and his gang. Rough workers all, but what the hell. When Chang Faet came to repair their sliding door for the fourth or fifth time in a month, I called him over, showed him around and we agreed he’d get on with it as soon as his current work was done, ten days hence. A month and several calls later, it became obvious that such piddling chores didn’t quite have his priority.
As luck had it, the day I printed out my rendition of the first half of Four Reigns my printer ran out of ink. The young motorcycle-taxi fellow at the corner (‘Call me Klorn, you know, as in “bolt” on a door’ – I refrained from telling him klorn also means poem) knew exactly where to take me for a refill and, one thing leading to another, also knew a fellow who did house repairs around here. ‘Chang Daeng is the name. You’ll find him in the lane by your side of the temple.’
The lane bore his name. His house was at the very end of it. ‘He’s at the other place,’ a fat woman told me, and had a youngster give me a lift on his bike which took me to the other side of the block of townhouses where I live.
I should explain that the four parallel rows of townhouses were built twenty years ago as en enclave in what is basically a stretch of semi-slums (wooden hutches with tin roofs and a sprinkling of brick and mortar dwellings for the better than thou) clustered around two side-by-side, brother-enemy monasteries (Wat Daowadueng and Wat Jaturamit) and stretching down to the river a couple hundred yards away. The corner of the block of townhouses the further away from the wats is the seat of a township community known as Khong Tharn (Coal Bend).
That’s where I found Chang Daeng and some of his workers around a table at early Maekhong–soda practice: a stocky man in his fifties with, I found out later, a lame leg.
He came the next day with one of his workers who took notes, and asked for a couple of days to figure out how much to charge. He clearly meant business and indeed when I sauntered over to that same big wooden tin-roofed house two days later named his figure. It was outrageously expensive but well within my means and I didn’t bargain, just told him to do a fine job of it.
Two days later his workers set to work under his supervision. Obviously they had been told to please the farang sucker: I got them to do a few extra things like drilling a kitchen wall to set hooks in to hang pans on to, and other freebies. I gave Chang Daeng two thirds of the money agreed upon, apologised for mobilising his team for such piddling work and showed him how one day I’d like to make changes and convert the garage area into a soundproof bedroom. Could he do that?
‘Sure I can, but why? It’s so quiet here.’
‘Not always. Sometimes there’s a lot of noise, and even when I close doors and windows it’s still very much annoying. Of course, it’s not as bad as ten years ago when those buggers over there got a tanoy from BMA (the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority) and played with it like children with toys for weeks on end.’
Just the mention of it sent me shivering. It happened at the end of 1999. Suddenly at dawn one day the windows started shaking as old Thai songs (yowlings of cats on heat) shattered the peace for a couple of hours.
As it was a week or so before His Majesty’s all-important sixth-cycle birthday one had to put up with it, but then it went on and on way past December 5. Finding myself severely deprived of sleep, I wrote to the Post, I wrote to The Nation, had one of my police in-laws call the local police (he was outranked), then called my good friend Tong, Kraisak Choonhavan, who happened to be the Bangkok governor’s right-hand man and who promptly issued orders to stop ‘noise pollution’ forthwith, and yet it took another month or so for the madness to subside: apparently, the loudspeakers facing the townhouses were disconnected, never mind the blighters on the other side, and the sods in later years have restricted their royal fervour to half-hour yowling every dawn for a week.
This isn’t to say that everything has been peaceful.
A few months later, all hell broke loose again at dawn on a non-royal weekend. Still in my underwear, I grabbed a broom, ran to the end of the lane and flung the broom across the end-wall onto the tin roof where the racket came from. Plonk! The din stopped, there were shouts. Police permission had been granted. It was a wedding. Soon the racket resumed.
A couple of days later, the granny at the bottom of the lane who owed me a favour or two and is now long dead told me in her toothless grin that those fellows had come knocking on doors to find out who it was had thrown the broom. Of course she hadn’t seen nothin’.
That wasn’t the end of it either. All too often we are at the mercy of loud music from the Khong Tharn village headman’s now married son, a seemingly retarded hoodlum in sandals whose only saving grace is his slightly less unbearable musical taste than his father’s and who insists on the whole neighbourhood knowing it whenever he is in his cups or feeling amorous.
Besides, one of the plights of modern times is the growing number of trading vans plying the streets selling ice cream, eggs or water jars or purchasing broken household appliances or old rags, all with pre-recorded babble broadcast non-stop through loudspeakers that set neighbourhood dogs howling and my nerves on edge ten, twenty times a day. In the old days, peddlers shouted or knocked on bamboo or ran rattles; that had a human touch and reach to it; now they use ghetto-blasters that can get every man, woman and child half a mile around deaf.
Anyway, to go back to Chang Daeng, I noticed that what I was saying had turned him into a constipated embodiment of the Thai saying narm tuam park (‘mouth full of saliva’), which means tongue-tied.
To humour him, I enthused about how important a man he was, what with two houses, a whole lane to his name – ‘Did you put up the panel yourself?’ ‘Yes I did.’ ‘I bet you’re village headman too?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Of Wat Dao?’ ‘No, Khong Tharn.’
That’s when the penny dropped.