I occasionally write tales, i.e. reports of moments of the life I live, as this blog testifies. Only once in my life, around the turn of the century, did I write a short story, a short story I had to write, because for days beforehand I was haunted by a vision of it, from some nighttime dream and daytime musing, with editorial me slaving away in a dark corner of a staircase: this much is untrue, although it belongs to a previous period of my working life. Apart from this in situ variation, everything in the story is as I lived it, and yet it is fiction: I conflated events one year apart.
That outing to Pakkret the other day, meeting old-timers from that period, reminded me of that decade-old text which not half a dozen friends have read. I’ll string it along over the next few days, while busy deciphering the last book of Four Reigns – I’m on page 1022 with only 240 more to go.
The world was crumbling. Theirs. Yours too. That much you knew. There was dazzling sunlight beyond the blinds. Always is on a May morning. But your heart felt like mourning, and the office was in shadow, the thicker for the pulsating glare of the computer screen. Over the hum of the air-con came crispy plops like cereals soused with milk. You had heard gunshots before. Hands in a flurry over the keyboard, you sat cramped at your desk virtually below the stairs
—out of which hurtling down pops Long John. “They’re shootin’ like mad out there,” he gasps, choking cough! cough! on his Marlboro. “Bullets hit a billboard upstairs, can you imagine, and I got showered with splinters. The motherfuckers ’ve gone berserk.” He surveys himself, pats imaginary dust off his dirty white shirt, snorts out smoke that catches in his shaggy hair. The twitch in his left eye pulls at his cheek and mouth corner like mad. “No, I mean, we’re more ’n five hunnerd yards away, for fuck’s sake.” Hoarse voice hoarser still. “Trigger-happy sonzabitches, ha. Near the Royal, I bet.” Shakes his mane, his mouth pursed with a sense of personal grievance, or is it childish wonder? “I gotta see that, I got-ta. Come along, man, take a break as well: there’s no one left in the building anyway.” You sigh, stretch back your neck to ease shoulder pain. “They won’t let you. The place’s fenced off. But suit yourself. I can’t go. Someone’s got to fix the commas.”
“Yeah, right, Nero, fiddle with copy while Rome burns,” was his parting shot. Not bad for a Bronx expat. And he was right: you were tickling your keyboard while Bangkok was ablaze.
But then, who else was going to put the issue to bed? They had dumped their copy on your desk, and gone out to join the crowds and share in the fun, and there you were jostling with maimed grammar and warped graphs, and your own sense of impending doom, brought about no doubt by more than a year of such excessive work you had constant premonitions of death, and your own sense of guilt for not being out there watching history in the making. But then you had always managed to miss the ghastly fun, a fine journalist with no sense of timing. The 1973 rebirth of democracy? Forget it, you made it to Thailand one year before and one year after. The 1976 right-wing backlash? A friend, in a fit of revulsion, had bought all the Thai papers she could find and kept them to show others, and the sets of pictures they splashed made you want to puke. The lynching, the still-twitching bodies doused with piss, barbecued on tyres, the demonic faces, the hatred, oh the hatred, and that now famous shot of a jubilant police officer squinting fag hanging out of his rictal lips as he fires arm outstretched at an unseen target. Before these epoch-making fits of Thai hysteria, you had managed to get your baptism of fire twice on trivia, right in the heart of town. On a sunny morning like today’s, when a grenade twenty yards away tore a hole in the kilt of jolly young demonstrators lounging all over the Royal Esplanade – and you remember your sense of awe when, past the first appalling concussion and smoke and splash around of blood and shredded flesh, those youngsters do the unthinkable logical thing: