I’ve known him for over ten years, yet still don’t know his name. He’s the humblest man I’ve ever met, and diminutive to boot, grey-haired, always soft-spoken and ready to smile, with a pebbly chest voice. He lives in a slanting tin box in the nearby slum, repairs clocks for a living and charges virtually nothing. His first wife was beautiful and mentally disturbed; she hanged herself a few years back. He now lives with a fat mama who helps him with the job; day in, day out, he takes his little boy to school across the river and back home on his bicycle, holds his hand, feeds him titbits, carries his satchel.
Who, then, better trust to help find a craftsman able to do a variety of repairs to my house? I’ve tried the likes of Chang Daeng (who’s just been re-elected chief of the community he lives off) and found them wanting: what was repaired only months ago is out of order yet again, and the list of small and not so small jobs has lengthened: the thrice-repaired central light in the living room hasn’t worked for months; two of the bathrooms need features; the mid-level bathroom window at the back of the house and the mid-level bedroom window at the front of the house are but rotten wooden frames; the back wall, built only at ground level (!) needs to be dug under and reinforced with concrete to prevent water from seeping into the kitchen corner when it rains hard. This twenty-year-young townhouse is starting to fall to pieces.
When I talk to the clockmaker, he says he’ll ask around. A few days later, he calls to introduce Chang Piak (‘Little Craftsman’), who turns out to be a nimble one-eyed man in his forties with long hair and a bad back (after a three-storey fall that kept him in therapy for a full year, he says; the eye was another accident, self-inflicted).
On Thursday 4 November, Chang Piak comes on a bicycle from his house a couple of kilometres away. He shows me his ID, too briefly for me to register his name. He says he likes to work for farangs and Koreans: they are straight employers, straight in the praise and in the blame and in the pay. He asks for so much to take out the windows, cement their frames anew and built up (or rather down) the back wall. He’ll do the little jobs inside the house for free, but I’ll have to pay for the new, aluminium windows, the cement, the wood for the scaffoldings and so on. I bargain him down as per custom, and we agree to go and buy the raw materials on Saturday while he shops around for someone to make the aluminium windows to order. It should cost me so much for the bathroom window, a silly contraption with four panels, two of which are louvered and all with metallic grids and mosquito nets. He’ll fit the grids back himself, he says.
On Saturday 6 November, at 8am, he comes with an old man who expertly fixes the problem of the living room main light. From the way he inspects the whole electrical installation and the gear he has brought, the man obviously knows his job. He explains that the ordinary bulbs I use burn socket after socket and I should use another type, which I happen to have handy. I give the man a token banknote he has the courtesy to almost refuse. So far so good.
But how do we go and buy planks, nails, cement and whatever else? Chang Piak has arranged for a van to come by noon.
A large, vantage van it is, driven by a hulk with blurry eyes and an unshaven yard-long jaw. Chang Piak climbs onto the back platform. I sandwich myself into the cabin over a pile of stuff. As I grope for the seatbelt, a part of which hangs beyond reach way below the seat, the hulk says, ‘Don’t bother. The cops won’t say anything. I work for the Democrat Party, see.’ Indeed, when on arrival at the factory a few kilometres away I have a good look at the van, I can see it advertises itself as a delivery van of the Democrat Party for the victims of the current floods, offering sundry goods and even money.
It takes many planks to build scaffoldings to a second floor, I realise. We lay them down in the garage space, along with the bags of cement (how big is that wall extension going to be, I wonder). I make a donation to the hulk, if not to the Democrat Party.
‘I’ll come tomorrow morning to set up the scaffolding and take out the bathroom window,’ Chang Piak says. I tell him I always go to bed very late and with his early morning arrivals I’m short of sleep, so I’ll have a house key made on Monday and give it to him – but will be up to open the door for him tomorrow.
On Sunday 7 November, at 8am, Chang Piak comes with wife (his second, he’ll tell me later, a diminutive but well-turned Lao woman who sells foodstuffs in a government office) and daughter (a 22-year-old rubicund plump girl working as a clerk in the same government office) and, while I strive to read the Bangkok Post and have breakfast as usual, the three of them cart the planks from the front to the back of the house across the living room. Soon there will be banging, the scaffolding is in place, it’s time for lunch, they disappear, then reappear, and by five o’clock not only has the window been taken out but its frame has been freshly cemented and the bathroom roughly cleaned. ‘I think I’ve found a man for the window. I’ll call you tomorrow,’ Chang Piak tells me as they leave –
– without, I realise when I go up, having bothered to block up the huge inverted U hole in the bathroom wall. The scaffolding is still in place, easy to climb. The bathroom door doesn’t lock, or rather it does but I’ve never seen its key. Any man, beast or ghost could introduce themselves into my house tonight, I reflect, plunder my books, bite my legs, drink my pastis or haunt me.
Little did I know then that I was to live with a hole in the wall for not one but five nights in succession…