Printed from WriteWords -

Where We Started (working title

by  apsara

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005
Word Count: 1422
Summary: This is the opening of a novel I've been working on for some time - do people get a sense of place?

Every wife at some point wishes her husband were dead. For some, like me, it may be just now and then; for others it’s every day. The reasons can be various: the sight of a young man’s bum, the longing to take a job in a foreign place, the need for a room of one’s own without high decibel snoring and a hot body beside you. For me, it was on those days when I wondered what I was doing in an insignificant small town in north-eastern Thailand; when I longed for walks in the woods in autumn, wrapped up against the wind; when I dreamed of well stocked English bookshops and bread that didn’t taste like bubble gum and feel like cottonwool. I wished for Somchai’s death, not because I didn’t like him or wasn’t happy with him, but because, married to him, all those things were out of reach.
You should not make wishes lightly, because they might come true. Now here I am dressed in black pyjamas, like some extra in a film about the Khmer Rouge. I’m standing next to Somchai who is laid out in a gold and white coffin draped with coloured fairy lights. Next to it is a framed photo of him that must have been taken when he was about sixteen, certainly long before I met him. He looks fresh faced and serious with none of the passion and humour that I remember. I stand and wai as each group of guests passes me. They offer their sympathies before being ushered to tables by one of my sisters-in-law and quickly served food by one of the many aunts and cousins that have materialized over the past few days and whom I probably last saw at our wedding fifteen years ago.
I’ve never felt comfortable at Thai funerals or weddings. The protocols are alien to me and the vocabulary required beyond my grasp. It didn’t matter so much when I was a guest and I could rely on Somchai to say the right thing, but today I am centre stage and on my own. My daughter, Pim, is coping much better and is the darling of her aunts and uncles. She is Thai and I am not nor ever will be, no matter how fluent in the language or immersed in the culture.
When I imagined Somchai’s death, it was only for a moment. The lack of seasons was a small price to pay for a quiet life far from consumer madness and the stress of the city. I had learned to welcome the rain and enjoy the vivid green of growing rice, the precious coolness of the mornings in December and the swift but stunning sunsets.
When one of the villagers screeched up to our gate on his motorbike and shouted for me to come at once, I had no idea what could have happened. As I jumped on to the back of the bike, he started to shout about how Somchai was sick and needed help, but half the words were lost in the whoosh of air as we sped along the dirt road.
Somchai was lying in the field where he had been helping the villagers plant seedlings: fruit trees that he hoped would help them develop integrated farming and become more self-sufficient and and so less dependent on one crop. They should have gone for the doctor rather than for me, though it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. He was dead by the time I got there. A massive heart attack, the doctor said afterwards. It turned out that his grandfather had suffered the same fate, though Somchai had never mentioned it and, despite the number of doctors in his extended family, no-one seemed to have been aware of the risk.
Somchai’s father meanwhile, a portly man who drinks far too much whisky and smokes twenty a day, is still alive and well and presiding over the funeral. I didn’t have the heart or the interest to protest over the lavishness of the affair. Even if I had, I couldn’t have prevented the massive numbers of people from attending. I estimate there’ll be over two thousand over the ten days, and some of those will come several times. Although the family does the initial welcoming, the cooking, serving and tidying up each day is performed by an army of workers. Somchai’s sisters look askance at my mourning outfit. They wear black silk suits with jet necklaces and high heeled shiny black shoes. The villagers, who made the forty kilometre trek to pay respect and express their sympathy to Somchai’s parents, dress like me and no doubt feel as out of place as I do. Somchai’s father received them with that graceful condescension which is the hallmark of the Thai patrician. I could have wept.
The funeral will last seven days. The booze is flowing and it’s real Scotch so people, especially the men, tend to stay a while. There are always a few who stay up all night playing cards ‘To keep the ghosts away’, they say. This is just an excuse for gambling. I’d be perfectly happy to have Somchai come back from the grave so I could ask him a few pertinent questions. Such as, where does he get the gas bottle filled and how do I contact the man who mends the holes in the roof. In marriage, tasks are parceled out according to gender, strength, preference or whatever and, when one of you goes, half the information that keeps a way of life maintained goes missing. Somchai always did the things that involved dealing with government officials, for instance, because neither my fluency nor my temper were really up to the job. Now I will have to manage alone.
I haven’t cried yet. Perhaps people think me heartless, but the only way to survive Somchai’s family is to put on a hard shell. They have never approved of the marriage which spoiled their hopes of a strategic liaison with one of the more well-established dynasties in the province. Now it’s clear that they think that, despite the medical evidence, I am somehow responsible for his death. They wonder what he saw in me, a foreigner who had no money or ambitions. I married him because he was the kind of person I wanted to be, but wasn’t. As to why he married me, that’s another of those questions that will only be answered if he comes back from beyond the grave.
In case you think that I’m being hard on his family (after all, they’ve suffered a loss, too), let me give you an example. This morning, when I appeared downstairs at nine o’clock after receiving guests till after midnight, his eldest sister, already powdered an inch thick and with lips like gloss paint, said, ‘Somchai was always an early riser. I’m always up before Khun Nit to prepare his breakfast.’
As her sole contribution to preparing breakfast for her husband is shouting orders at the maid, I didn’t think this was a great sacrifice.
‘Somchai always liked to have a bowl of noodles at the market,’I replied, civilly enough. ‘He said it gave him the opportunity to find out what was going on in the community.’
‘There’s not much nutrition in a bowl of noodles – and all that MSG,’ she sniffed, as though he had died of malnutrition or something.
Fortunately, at this point Pim shuffled in, still in her pyjamas, and eldest sister went into her ‘How are you today, darling? Shall I tell the maid to cook you some pancakes?’ mode. I made my escape.
I have taken to walking the streets of this busy, dusty provincial capital. For my sisters-in-law, who travel everywhere in air-conditioned cars, this is another sign of my social unacceptability. And it does have its drawbacks. With my white face, I am always the subject of some attention, maybe just stares, though the odd teenager or small child might shout out, ‘Hey you, farang! Where you go?’ It seems the standard of English taught in schools has not improved much since I first came her to teach in a small village school almost twenty years ago. Over the years I have got used to being noticed, being constantly on display, but today I wish only for a place where I can be completely alone, a place where I can start to think about who I am and what I’m doing here and what the future might hold.