Putting together in the last couple of days 10 Thai Short Stories as a 2010 pendent to last year’s 9 Thai short stories, I went to look for pictures of authors on the net and learned that one of them, Tak Wong-rat, died two weeks ago. This look jeen (his father came from Swatow) was a journalist, book designer and short-story writer of some renown. As a young man, he was part of the Phra Jan Siao (Moon crescent) school of writing, and indeed his spare style is reminiscent of that of his lifelong friend Nikom Rayawa.
One of his stories, ‘Generosity’, published two years ago in Chor Karrakeit, took my fancy and I found it worth including in that collection, which is to be sold as an e-book both at thaifiction.com and immatériel.fr (as soon as some bugs in both places have been fixed). Reading it, it was obvious it hadn’t been written by a young man and was somewhat autobiographical.
In homage to him, here is the story, in two installments.
The elderly man has lived in this single-floor wooden house for more than thirty years, since a time when it had no running water and used rain and well water instead. This being the suburb’s very outskirts, a provincial bus connection is needed to reach it from downtown.
Two years ago he was persuaded and gently pressed to voluntarily resign from his work, which is only natural when a factory owner insists on cutting back on expenses.
Like when you’re a police colonel and volunteer (under orders) to resign you’re upgraded to police major general.
He very seldom goes into town.
Today: He goes to the cremation of an old schoolmate of the same age. His friend was tall and lanky, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, graduated in science from Kasetsart University, entered civil service at the Pharmaceutical Organisation, ended as head of its chemical and drug production department and died from acute drug poisoning.
Last year a younger friend went to sleep and never woke up.
For many years now he hasn’t attended weddings and instead confides an envelope with money to friends, but he attends cremations.
Many people don’t have true friends.
These days as soon as he wakes up, it’s half happiness half sorrow.
Breath he still has, which is half-good, half-bad.
Friends from the old school at the foot of Memorial Bridge:
Many have died of cancer who never smoked, but that’s not the reason why he doesn’t quit.
He lives alone.
There’s no kitchen in the house.
He relies mostly on the food shops in his street.
Some days, he makes do with just one meal.
He’s been eating all his life – enough.
In the past year, whenever he’s taken the overpass to cross the road, he’s had to stop and stand resting at intervals; now he must use a cane.
He’s not afraid of dying.
Only to have to sit in a wheelchair…
One afternoon, he takes the overpass to go to the newsstand across the road and stops to buy a bag of iced coffee from a handcart with a board saying “Coffee the ol’-fashioned way”.
As he hands over the money the young coffee seller grins.
“No – no – no charge for you, uncle.”
What’s this about? Am I looking that decrepit? No need for an alms collection yet.
Thinking thus, he feels like crying.
“Please be considerate of children, pregnant women and the elderly.” The notice pinned over the windows in buses has no meaning at all, as if people couldn’t read. City dwellers only care for number one. No one gets up from his seat for a pregnant woman. Even those seats with stickers saying “For monks and novices only” are occupied with a straight face.
One day he has to go into town.
Hands over the right fare. The conductor returns him half of it. To qualify for half-fare you have to show your ID.
He hasn’t shown any ID.
There are still bus conductors like this one? he wonders in his heart.
Almost all of the hundred red back-benched three-wheelers of the suburbs are the same: they pick up passengers in the middle of the road, shoot off at top speed, as if they have no time for schoolchildren and the elderly and speed away to take ailing relatives to hospital.
In the morning, all seats are taken from the start of the line; hardly any standing room either.
He gets up and stands with his cane.
A young pupil with a big satchel heavy with schoolbooks gets up at once and offers him his seat.
The evening of the cremation:
The dozen or so friends who’ve stayed throughout the real cremation invite him to dinner in the air-conditioned eatery next to the temple. This eatery is famous for its roast duck menu.
His friends are generals, deputy director generals and businessmen.
It’s been a long time since he drank imported liquor.
He’s quietly glad there are still friends that don’t ignore a friend.
Fully aware he has no high social position.
“What do you do these days?”
An old friend from high school days, a native of Bangkok who’s gone to do business as a foreign trade advisor in Phuket. They haven’t met for more than twenty years. He’s flown over especially for the cremation.
“I make pictures for sale.”
His friend is silent for a while. Pours him a whisky.
“I’ll buy your pictures.
“Take half of the money now. Tomorrow in late morning I’ll go and get the pictures.”
Attending the cremation to meet that old bunch of friends, he’s never thought before he’d get money from Phuket.
It’s raining non-stop:
When he comes out of the eatery he lights up a strong cigarette. His friends go on to a shop selling rice gruel.
At first he decides to take a bus back home, but he’d have to walk half a mile, because the road in front of the temple is one-way.
Then he thinks he’ll take a taxi, what with the Phuket money.
“Don’t drink a lot, so we stick around for a long time,” his friend had said.
When it was time to chip in for the bill, he asked:
“How much each?”
Another friend who’s a lieutenant general said in a rough voice:
“Sit back. Forget it.”
It’s still raining when he reaches home, full of delicious roast duck and delighted his Phuket friend is buying his pictures.
From Khon Kaen to Bangkok almost forty years ago, if he’d failed entrance to the state school, that would have been the end.
He didn’t know at all how hallowed the school at the foot of Memorial Bridge was.
Sure, one had to pass the written exams
and the 100m race in front of the flagpole.
The letter to the principal of the Khon Kaen Airfield school said he’d go on with his studies, not to worry…
Passing by Khon Kaen, an old school friend there told him, “You know what? The principal read out your letter in front of the flagpole.”