When I was half my age and a journalist, I met two Catholic priests of my generation the miscreant that I am is proud to have called friends rather than sources. One was a burly Basque fellow called Guillaume who earned himself a bad name helping the poor in the island-jail of Singapore (he was subsequently logically and honourably expelled); the other was a Belgian priest active in the small Catholic community of Song Phi Nong (‘two brothers’) not far from Bangkok.
If anything, Father Bruno had the gift of the tongue. His fluent Thai had me salivating at a time when I was sweating over the rudiments of the vernacular. I was also amazed at how he could swallow rice congee for breakfast in lieu of coffee and toast. Since he wasn’t French, I didn’t hold it against him.
When I settled down off Sathorn Road in a rented wooden house some thirty-five years ago, it was Bruno who found me a maid: Nipha and her lover had to elope as their parents, taking a leaf out of Shakespeare’s R&J, objected to their mating. The couple would stay with me with the addition in due time of a baby daughter until, four or five years later, I myself found love and moved elsewhere. Nipha cooked and washed for me, smiling away; her Romeo, even thinner than she was and sporting a thin moustache and a permanent frown, found work in some office and was in eternally white shirt and black trousers. Years later, I met her again by chance. By then she had changed her name, was in door-to-door sales of crockery or some such, was divorced and her daughter was going to secondary school.
As for Bruno, we seldom met as he dealt with his church community by the river and I travelled the region, but a quarter century later we did meet a few more times: by then he had left Song Phi Nong for a Bangkok suburb. I found him rather subdued. As I remember, I lent him and he later duly returned André Brink’s great novel A dry white season.
And then, day before yesterday in late afternoon, it took a seventy-three-year-old taxi driver who took pity on me as I lumbered out of a hospital in the Bangkok boondocks along a busy thoroughfare but warned me he was on his way back home to Rangsit so he’d drop me in an area where taxis were frequent but then, having taken a shine on me, what with my ready Thai, painful hips and fascinating conversation, forgot all about home, said he’d take me all the way to mine and settle for that khao kha moo I was vouching for at the top of my road, as he was used to eating simply, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke either, just some plain rice and plain water, look at me;
yes it took a diminutive seventy-three-year-old taxi driver who lives alone, his ‘madam’ and their daughter in Lopburi, who owns three t-shirts like this one and two pairs of pants he washes himself in turn and, mind you, spends only one hundred baht a month on water and electricity given that he has neither air-conditioning (beside within his taxi of course) nor television and relaxes at home in a pha kha ma if I know what that is and sometimes even wears nothing in the dark;
indeed it took a still sprightly grey-haired Bangkok taxi driver who ages ago worked for a time in installing electric generators in Saudi Arabia, a man born seventy-three years earlier in Song Phi Nong and a Catholic to boot …
… to inform me that Father Bruno died of cancer a year ago.