Fiction

The Road to Wanting

From the archive: this piece, excerpted from Wendy Law-Yone's The Road to Wanting, (Chatto & Windus, 2010) was published in Asia Literary Review No. 15, Spring 2010.

 


 

AMERICANS, I have noticed, are fools for homelands – especially the homelands of others. To determine a person’s provenance is as important to them as it is to the Chinese to determine a person’s worth. And to Americans like Will, who have escaped their own homelands, proudly calling themselves ‘expats’, it seems even more important to repatriate everyone else. Will’s mother was American, his father was Swiss, but Asia was his adopted home. He’d been to almost every city, every province in the region, and knew a great deal about the clans and customs of each. I could only be thankful for his interest. I wouldn’t have been with him otherwise: he would never have noticed me. What set me apart was my particular rarity: I belonged to one of the smallest ethnic minorities on the Southeast Asian mainland.

     I once overheard an Australian journalist make a comment about me. We were attending a lecture at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondents’ Club. During the intermission, Will must have been telling him where I came from, because the Australian said, ‘Why, she’s one of the abos, then.’

     When I asked Will later what ‘abo’ meant, he explained that my people were thought to be the earliest settlers of the region, the ones that arrived before even the Mon and the Khmer. That they were to their area what American Indians were to America, or the Aborigines to Australia. It was a compliment, he said of the Australian journalist’s remark.

     Will seemed proud of the fact that I was an ‘abo’. It disappointed him that I didn’t share his pride, that I remembered so little about my childhood. But trying to recall those days was like piecing together a dream. Just as I caught hold of one bit, the rest slipped away. Will refused to let things be, however. He thought up countless methods for jogging my memory. One method was to hand me a book or a magazine, and say, ‘Here, read this. Tell me if it’s true.’

     ‘“In general,”’ I read out loud, ‘“the Wild Lu are far too busy taking it easy to waste much time in farm work.” Untrue!’ Taking it easy was not how I would have described our way of life, had I known how to describe it at all.

     Will laughed. ‘A little defensive, are we? But go on, keep reading.’

     ‘“A Wild Lu selling bananas at so much for six cannot sell fifteen of them because of the odd number; and if three were left over he would eat them or carry them home.” I don’t know what that means, so I can’t say if it’s true,’ I said.

     ‘Obviously true. You can’t add two and two.’

     ‘“Hygiene is unknown, washing done by nobody …” True, I suppose.’

     Hygiene. Poverty. What did I understand about those conditions when I was living them? The horseflies that clung to the sores on our noses and lips. The rats that burrowed through the beds of garlic bulbs on which we slept. The stink of vomit in old blankets. There had been no one word for it all then, no word like ‘hygiene’. Or ‘poverty’.

     ‘“Victims,”’ I went on reading, ‘“prisoners in most cases, were bought for sacrifice like cattle on the hoof …” Will, I don’t want to read any more.’

     ‘“The aquiline Red Indian nose,”’ he read over my shoulder, before taking the mouldy book out of my hands. Turning my head to one side, he said, ‘“The flat back of the head …”’

     ‘I do not have a flat head!’

     ‘Of course not. A hard head, maybe …’

     Later, free from his scrutiny, I studied those books and journals more closely. But try as I might I couldn’t connect the photographs (neither the glossy new ones nor the grainy old ones), less so their confident captions, with the patchy dream-memories I retained. The images of my childhood that came readily to mind were of frailty, of impermanence. I remembered trees on fire, fields of ash, thatch sheets sailing off in the wind. I remembered holes and gaps: in a roof that let in the rain, in the floor that let in the draught, in the hearth at the centre of our living space – the source of endless smoke but never enough heat. Especially I remembered smoke – from cooking fires, bonfires, burning fields – and the way it blackened the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the bedding.

     But every so often, all that smoke and haze hanging over my childhood would part of its own accord to bring back a scene, or a sensation, or a face. Then, for a vivid instant I would catch sight of our shaman staggering about drunkenly in a storm, the rain streaking his sooty cheeks. Or my skin would tingle, taking me back to a time before speech (before I could remember speaking, anyway), when I stuck my arm through a gap in the bamboo floor, letting it hang into the space below where our cow and mule lived, and felt the lick of a thick warm tongue on my hand. Or a smell would return to me: the sour-bamboo tang of my mother’s lap, for instance. Even her face might appear at such moments, in a liquid flash – though soon enough a stone would drop from somewhere on high, and splinter the watery image.

     But these memories were not willed: they flared up unbidden, sparked by a stray ember in a bed of ash. And how true they were was hard to say. I couldn’t swear that the thick hedge of thorn and bramble enclosing our village was as high and forbidding as I remembered it. Or that the tunnel I saw in my mind’s eye – the long dark tunnel of barbed twigs that served as the entrance – wasn’t shaped by a story I came to know later, the story of Briar Rose. The hedge around the castle of that sleeping princess grew higher and higher, the thorns holding fast ‘as if they had hands’, until whoever tried getting through them ended up impaled on the spikes.

     That the tunnel and hedge existed I had no doubt. It said so, after all, in one of the books Will kept thrusting at me, ‘To gain entry into a Lu village you must either be invited or fight.’

     True or false, I was not prepared to put these memories into words for Will’s benefit. I was ashamed of my past, and suspicious of his probing. I couldn’t see why it should make such a difference to him whether or not I kept alive my childhood home – a home so far away now, in memory and in fact, that it might as well not have existed.

 

*   *   *

 

‘Why won’t you sleep, Na Ga?’ Will would groan. He could tell I was wide awake, even though I did my best to lie still. Sleep didn’t come so easily for him, either. Will needed drink – more and more of it to make him sleep. Or maybe it was the drink that ruined his sleep. What if he went to bed at an early hour, I wondered, before the drinking began? Would he be different then? Would 
he expect different things of me? Would he want me to excite him, inflame him, in ways that I hadn’t? Would he allow himself something other than the groggy fumble with the condom, followed by the hard, hasty fucking?

     But that rare event – to lie abed without drink – would have had to take place during a very brief period: between ten in the morning, when he got up, and noon, when he left for the day. First for lunch at the club (a sandwich, two beers and a Bloody Mary). Then to the office for an hour or two. Back to the club in the afternoon, for a game of squash or a few laps in the pool, followed by a couple of cocktails. Or home to shower and dress for the evening, and more drinks at clubs, bars, restaurants or the homes of friends. By the time he came home and fell into bed, it was almost morning.

 

*   *   *

 

Only when Will was sound asleep could I observe him as closely as he observed me. Eyes narrowing and flaring as though to focus his gaze, he seemed to be looking through me, past me, down his nose at me, trying to see beyond the obvious, to pick out some hidden detail. But whenever I tried to return his scrutiny, I came up against a stillness, an emptiness, in the glassy depths of his green-blue eyes. Eyes closed, however, Will’s face opened itself to me. Then I could see in the worried frown, in the pouting lips, the fear and petulance of a child. I came to know the patterns of his breathing, and what the different patterns meant – shallow sleep, or restless dreaming, or death-like oblivion. With my ear on his chest, I could tell from his heartbeat how far he was in that other world, or how close to waking.

     Once I felt confident that he wouldn’t be easily awakened, I turned on the bedside lamp and examined his body from end to end. I lay alongside him, propped on an elbow, or sat up the better to take in the length and breadth of his naked frame. Neck: sun-reddened. Shoulders: wide and pale. Nipples: dark and tough, like the navels of old oranges. Chest: hairy. Arms: likewise. Belly: concave, with the navel sunk in its fur pit. Pubic hair: fine and frizzy, not coarse and straight like the hair on his arms and legs. Cock: quiescent. Balls: without distinction. Thighs: hairy and sinewy. Knees: large and knobby. Calves and shins: hairy, with prominent veins. Feet: long and white. Toes: wide and curled inwards. Nails: battered, with jagged edges. 

     When I moved to the foot of the bed for a different view, it was my custom to begin by touching my head to his feet, pressing my arms along the sides of his legs. Someone watching from a distance might have thought I was praying. 

     What a singular beast is the body of a man, a body with a mind behind it! The bodies of beasts are menaces too, but a beast can only crush you, maul you and devour your flesh; it cannot imagine, and plan, and carry out, and enjoy – not only enjoy but rejoice in your degradation. The body I studied under the light was not one that had ever harmed me. Those big solid ribs had never ground against mine, harshly or otherwise; those legs had never bruised me; those feet had never kicked me; those big broad hands, with the fingernails chewed down to the quick, had never once struck me … Yet how could I approach that harmless being, that blameless body, except with utmost caution?

 

*   *   *

 

I never knew, in the beginning, whether to leave or stay in his bed. Should I lie still, not touching him, but remaining within reach for touching – in case he needed a hip to rest his hand on, a leg to straddle, a breast to cushion him? But would I be able to stifle every cough and sneeze? I was afraid to disturb him, afraid to breathe. Sometimes he caught me holding my breath. Then he shook me. ‘Breathe, Na Ga, breathe! For God’s sake!’ Only when he started snoring could I inhale and exhale deeply.

     One day I asked him outright if he had a lot of money. ‘None of your beeswax,’ he said. ‘Why do you want to know? Look, if your allowance is not enough, if you need anything, just say so.’

     My allowance was more than enough. That wasn’t what concerned me. I wanted to know because I was afraid of what money could buy. If he could buy anything he wanted, what was to keep him from buying something else, someone else, to replace me? But money was not a subject Will enjoyed discussing. Neither was the subject of what he did for a living.

     ‘I am an amateur,’ he said, when I asked him.

     ‘An amateur is what?’

     ‘Someone who isn’t doing what he does in order to make money.’

     ‘For what, then, if not for money?’

     ‘For amusement, for interest, for fun.’

     ‘But what is it you do for real, for money?’ I persisted.

     ‘I have my own business.’

     ‘What kind of business?’

     Will laughed, but I could tell he didn’t like being questioned.

     ‘What is this, a trial? It’s not important, my business.’

     ‘Are you a spook?’ I asked him. I’d heard some of his friends use that term.

     ‘A spook! First, tell me what you think a spook is, and I’ll tell you whether I’m one or not.’

     ‘A spy?’

     ‘You don’t miss a trick, do you? But, no, I’m not a spook. You speak a few languages, you have a few friends in key positions, and everyone takes you for a spook.

     ‘No, I’m not a spook,’ he repeated. ‘I’m a student.’

     ‘A student! But what is your subject?’

     ‘The world. I like to look and listen and learn.’

     ‘And you like to collect strange things,’ I said, looking around the room at his collection of betel-nut boxes and bamboo backscratchers, his assortment of iron birds once used for opium weights, his ear-cleaning instruments so dear to the Chinese.

     ‘Why do you think I picked you up?’ he teased. 

     I was not strange, I was common. 

     Yet he’d singled me out that first time in the refugee village. 

 

*   *   *

 

‘ICR!’ somebody whispered. ‘God be praised.’

     We’d all heard of the ICR – the International Committee for Repatriation. They were the ones who negotiated the fate of those waiting to be deported, who bargained on their behalf with officials on both sides of the border.

     I noticed him right away, the tall one in the checked shirt who detached himself from the group of foreigners he’d arrived with and was standing alone, watching me. I’d seen him peering over a relief worker’s shoulder at the roll-call list, seen him looking up when someone pointed me out to him. Now I watched him stroll about the room with studied indifference, hands in his pockets, nose in the air. He appeared to be looking down at everyone, but then he would stop to talk to someone with a little bow of courtesy. Suddenly he was directly in front, bowing slightly and saying something in a language I couldn’t understand. I shrugged. He smiled, apparently satisfied, and went back to join the members of his group. I could tell they were talking about me, nodding in agreement with whatever he was saying.

     Later, when my name was called over the loudspeaker, summoning me to the main office, he was standing by the entrance, holding out his hand in greeting as I stepped in. Once again he seemed to be speaking a foreign language. Once again I failed to understand him.

     ‘Never mind,’ he said in English, laughing awkwardly. ‘I was trying to practise the three phrases I have in your language.’ 

     My language? It was only then I realised what he’d been saying all along. He’d been asking me my name – in Lu, of all languages. And now he was telling me his. ‘I’m Will. I’m your new … sponsor.’

     Sponsor. What could that mean? ‘I live in Bangkok,’ he added. ‘Have you ever been?’ I shook my head. ‘Want to go there with me?’ 

     He was looking down his nose, but his eyes slid shyly from side to side. Of course I said yes – but with an indifferent shrug, careful not to seem too eager, in case I was being tested, or teased.

 

*   *   *

 

A sour smell was circulating in the air-conditioned car – and it was coming from my damp T-shirt and jeans. I couldn’t stop my teeth chattering or my eyes streaming. Blindly, I had signed the release papers thrust at me, then followed him out through the camp and into the waiting car, never even stopping to gather up my few belongings. 

     It was only when he handed me his handkerchief, saying, ‘It’s okay, everything’s going to be okay,’ that I gave up pretending it was the cold that was making my nose run and my eyes stream.

 

*   *   *

He was rich, he was handsome, he inhabited the house of my dreams. And he was taking me in, no questions asked, no services owed in exchange. It was far too good to be true, and I was almost relieved when he took me out one night – I’d been with him hardly a week – to show me another side of Bangkok.

     The driver let us out at the head of a narrow street, in a snarl of tuk-tuks, mopeds and vendors on wheels. We dashed – it was raining, as usual – into an arcade with T-shirts on tables, watches on trays, satay sticks on smoking grills. The ground itself shook in that tunnel of noise, from the din of live bands, boom boxes and the drumming rain. The touts had taken shelter under an awning but continued to call out their greetings anyway.

     Will led me by the hand into the first bar – through a barrage of pulsing music, flashing lights and gyrating girls in G-strings. He seemed to know every last person on the scene, pimps, managers, bartenders, go-go girls, and most of the guests as well. Shaking hands, waving, saluting, he made his way through the crowds, leading me along behind him. The girls in the sequined bikinis came down from the stage to greet him between dances. They looked me over, full of curiosity and tease. Fan? Was I his fan, they wanted to know … his girlfriend?

     We stayed long enough for Will to make his rounds; and then it was out onto the strip again, with neon signs spelling royalty, victory, and magic. Cleopatra. Queen’s Castle. Napoleon. Winner’s Bar. Pussy Alive. Magic Grill. Every bar we entered, every show on stage, seemed part of the same city-wide celebration: balloons on the ceilings, confetti on the floors, sparklers between the legs of naked girls on trapezes, swinging upside down like gibbons.

     ‘Cunts doing stunts,’ I heard a fat farang say. Whistles were blown, bottles were opened, spoons were bent, chopsticks were wielded – all by means of the cunt. Cocktails were mixed in upended cunts. Trick scarves without number were pulled out of trick cunts, then turned into flapping doves. Garlands, too, and streamers, and bells on strings, were draped like bunting from cunt to cunt to cunt.

     The printed menus, handed out on the street, offered more variations: pussy smokecigarettes. pussy openbeer bot tle. pussy pick the desert with chopsticks. bigdildo show. fish push in sideher. long-eggplant push into her cunt. blue movie film snake sexy dance. boy-girl fucking show. 

     In the smoky light below the stages, everything white looked phosphorescent – white shirts, white socks, white teeth. Up on a stage, a long-legged dancer did the splits over a handstand, while a bottle of Coke was poured down a funnel planted in her crotch. Back on her feet the girl bowed to applause, then bent to swoop up a roll of toilet paper. She tore off a piece while tiptoeing off the stage and, with a sudden delicacy that made me look away, she held it between her legs to staunch the dripping.

     I was beginning to grit my teeth – first in anger, then in fear. I didn’t know what was behind Will’s eagerness to bring me here, to this all-too-familiar world of flesh for sale. Was he teaching me some sort of lesson, like rubbing a dog’s nose in the mess it has made? Or was he trying to say, ‘Here it is – the place where sooner or later you’ll have to make your way’?

     But maybe Will, my sponsor, was up to something else altogether – something in the shaman’s line of business. I remembered when one of the boys in the Daru village was accidentally shot with a poisoned arrow, and the shaman had to be called in to remove it. 

     ‘Watch,’ he said, holding up the thin shard he’d pulled out for all to see. ‘First, you pull out the source of the poison.’ 

     The Daru shaman was a different sort of healer from Asita, the shaman in our Lu village: more like a dull teacher than a drunk magician.

     ‘Step one.’ He snapped the bamboo in two against his knee.

     ‘Step two. Only when you break the poisoned arrow will the wound close properly. Only now can the flesh begin to heal.’

     Was that the sort of healing Will had in mind? Maybe it was his way of saying, ‘Look at this great festival of lust and greed. It always has been, and always will be, right here with us. Look it in the eye, face it squarely. See it for what it is.’ His face gave nothing away except mild amusement as he went on greeting his countless friends, leaning into their ears until they shouted with laughter, which I could see but not hear in that din.

     ‘Hungry?’ he asked me finally.

     I nodded, eager to leave. We wove through the alleys and up along the strip, past Rififi, Blue Hawaii, Memphis Queen, not stopping once to go in. 

     Down one of these alleys there was a roof-top restaurant, lit with red apples that hung from the boughs of potted trees. The flashing lights on the sign outside spelled ‘Garden of Eatin’. There, at a corner table, we sat and ate without speaking, like an old married couple. Or a pair of doomed lovers. Or a whore and her pimp.

 

*   *   *

 

In the early days I went with him everywhere – to cocktail parties, dinner parties, restaurants, clubs and bars. Then, little by little, I stopped going along on his rounds of the city. For although it would please him to see me all dressed up, ready to go out on the town with him, it pleased him more to have me at home to greet him when he returned at three or four in the morning, and ask if he wanted anything to eat. To bring him the chicken sandwich or pound cake he fancied, and to keep him company while he ate. To lead him to bed afterwards and undress him. To put his clothes away: trousers on the hanger, shirt and underwear in the laundry basket, shoes fitted snugly on shoe trees. To sit at the edge of his bed and ask where he would like me to sleep: in my own bed, or with him.

     It pleased him, too, that in the morning I was there at the table where Samai, the maid, had set out coffee and toast and fresh fruit for his breakfast. Shuffling out of the bedroom in one of his checked sarongs, he would touch me on the head or shoulder before sitting down for his first sip of coffee. 

     I never asked where he had been or whom he had seen because Will was a truthful person, unlike me. More and more I was afraid of the truth when it might have the wrong consequences. That he might have been with another woman, for instance, was not so worrisome; but if this other woman was likely to replace me, then that was a truth I would want to put off knowing.

     I hoped this was one of the qualities Will liked about me: that I was prepared to wait for him to tell me things. I was not impatient, not loud, shrill and excitable, like those women on the Patpong strip, like the one I’d watched annoying the sour-looking European couple in a crowded bar by flirting with the husband long after they had made it clear they wanted to be left in peace. The girl had gone on teasing, hitting the tight-lipped European on the shoulder, ruffling his hair, wiggling on his lap. In the end he had caught her hand and held it, twisted, in a clearly painful grip. With a grimace of effort she had screwed it out of his, but as she turned her back on him to walk away, she had raised a fist, screaming, ‘Fuckhead!’

     It wasn’t that I was free from such urges – far from it. How many times had I wanted to let loose, to shout and laugh, scream with rage or bawl my head off, instead of always weighing the outcome, telling myself not to laugh so hard, or seem too pleased, or talk too much, because laughing or smiling or talking might not serve me well. 

     So, keeping my fears to myself and my questions to a minimum, I simply sat and watched Will eat.

     Once, when he came home so late that it was already early morning and he didn’t want to wake me, he poured himself a glass of juice, found something to eat in the fridge, and was sitting at the dining table, reading a paper, when I came out and saw him before he saw me. He was bent over the table, engrossed in his paper, the crown of his head a dull gold in the cone of light cast from the hanging lamp above. I drew back and watched him for a long while, overcome with a contentment I couldn’t immediately place. Then I remembered those last days in Rangoon, and how I would kneel at my window, spying on the man from Holland in the house next door, watching him attend to his solitary meals as to some sacred rite, his head aglow under lamplight just like this. I prayed then to find a way of attaching myself to the lonely figure across the way. I imagined saving his life through some heroic act, dragging him out of a burning building, perhaps; or nursing him back from a near-fatal illness. What choice would he have then but to take me with him, to a new life in a new country, wherever that happened to be?

     Now my prayers had been answered. I had found my guardian, my protector. There he was, alone at the table; and here I was, in a new life, a new world, with him.

 

*   *   *

 

As he said from the start, my body was not what was important to him. In time it was not only unimportant, it became uninteresting. In time he ceased finding pleasure in only receiving, never giving, satisfaction. When he failed to coax me into relaxing or enjoying his attempts to soothe or arouse me, he gave up the pretence of trying. Pleasure of that nature, he came to understand, was not pleasurable for me.

     And so we entered into an agreement – an unspoken pact – not to pretend to each other, not to lie. He was not going to pretend my body was important to him; and I was not going to pretend it was responsive to him. I’d had my fill of pretence, deception, false promises. I knew it frustrated him not to be able to reach me and heal me in that most basic way, and I was sorry to place that distance between us. Because, when all was said and done, I felt more at home in his bed than in mine, on my own. I knew of no greater comfort than lying by his side, asleep or awake. I liked the solidity of his flesh, its boozy, sour-sweet smells.

     Still, the thought of his disappointment nagged at me, and I searched for ways to justify myself. I was doing all I could to make up for my deficiencies. Why couldn’t he be content with all my other expressions of gratitude and devotion? Wasn’t it enough that I served – dutifully and eagerly – as companion, cook and housekeeper? That I’d got rid of all the servants – except Nid, the driver, and Som, the part-time gardener? That I was running a home-stay for his endless stream of friends, and friends of those friends, who needed a berth while passing through the city? That I not only changed their sheets, and scrubbed their baths and toilets, washed and ironed their laundry, prepared their meals, told them where to find the shops and offices they were seeking, and helped sort out their travel arrangements with phone calls to airports, taxis and bus stations? That, in addition to everything, I sat and listened? 

     How ready they were, these ‘odds and sods’ as Will called them, to pour out their hearts to a stranger like me, one who no doubt had seen it all, heard it all. I listened to a fat black American, who claimed to be a judge in California, go on and on about his ex-fiancée, a woman he’d thought better of marrying because she smothered him. For one thing, she couldn’t stop buying him gifts. For another, she had an ‘overeager’ vagina. He didn’t know how to describe it exactly, but it was scary the way it vibrated.

     I listened to a Belgian mining engineer worry about whether his girlfriend might have mixed feelings about sex since she tended to vomit on his belly after the act. I listened to a professor of philosophy from Calgary who described himself as a lover of women. Women were so much more interesting than men, he felt, so much more sensitive and easier to talk to. It made him very sad when he met a woman who had never had an orgasm. He felt a responsibility to ‘gift’ such a woman an orgasm or two, even though it sometimes required a fair bit of persuasion. And because he loved women, he saw himself as a ‘universal donor’. He liked the idea of impregnating women, of making his selfless ‘deposits’ even in those who would never mean anything to him. He was that sort of person – generous with his seed. 

     I sat and listened for hours to Nefertiti, a healer from San Francisco with milky skin and the hair of an Egyptian queen: black, polished and blunt above the brow. She herself was not Egyptian, but had studied the wisdom of ancient Egypt.

     Chem, she said – as in chemistry – meant ‘blackness’. It was also the old name for Egypt. Egypt stood for the chemistry of knowledge. Going into the blackness was necessary for salvation. 

     She advised me to look into my blackness if I wanted to see the light. I had to die to my old life in order to wake to true knowledge. If I went on being nice, being good, I would be disappointed, disappointed, disappointed. She urged me to go down into myself, deep, deep into the darkness. Did I not know the ‘Hymn of the Pearl’? We were put on earth to find the pearl, but we drink the drink and eat the food, become drowsy and lazy and forget to go after the pearl.

     ‘“Awake, arise, or be fallen!” Who said that?’ she demanded, eyes flashing in challenge. ‘Come on, Na Ga, get with it. Don’t you know anything? Oh, don’t give me that I’m-just-a-hot-and-cold-running-maid routine. You’ve got a regular library here, you’re surrounded by good books. Why don’t you read? Start with the big book, the Bible. It’s got everything in it, everything you need to find your way. Lucifer! Lucifer said that: “Awake, arise, or be fallen!”’

     She muttered, laughing at a secret joke. ‘He knew what he was talking about, Lucifer.’ The things that made Nefertiti laugh never ceased to puzzle me.

     She made me pick a tarot card from a deck she carried in her purse, then threw her head back and cackled at my choice. 

     ‘What do you see? What do you see?’ She gathered up the rest of the deck, leaving only my card on the table.

     ‘Lightning?’ I said. ‘Striking a tower?’

     ‘What else? Come on, what else?’

     ‘The dome knocked off in the fire?’

     ‘And?’

     ‘Flames coming out from every window. A man and woman falling head down.’

     ‘If that doesn’t say it all!’ she crowed. ‘Total destruction before salvation.’

     It was Nefertiti the healer who put a name to the ailment, the handicap, as she saw it, that kept me homebound.

     Agoraphobia, she said, a Greek word meaning a fear of the market, was what kept me from going into the world and finding things to occupy myself with outside the home – from taking an interest, any kind of interest, in the life of the great ‘sprawling, brawling’ city I lived in.

     When I told Will what Nefertiti had said about my so-called agoraphobia, expecting him to snort at such rubbish, he surprised me by saying, ‘She may have a point.’

     ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘You don’t go out any more. You don’t do anything outside the house any more. You bury yourself in housework, slave over unnecessary things. You’ve got rid of the maid, the cook. You’ve saddled yourself with work that no one expects you to do. You don’t need to do any of this cleaning and scrubbing and …’

     He stopped himself, realising how heated he was becoming, got up and poured himself another drink. In a calmer voice, he said, ‘I have nothing to complain about. The house is spotless, the guests are happy, my shoes are polished, my shirts are ironed. You’re waiting for me at whatever hour I come home. It’s difficult for guys to say no to such comfort and care. But you’re not my housekeeper or caretaker or my slave, Na Ga. Christ sakes, you’re not even my wife. What am I doing letting you go on like this? It’s not what I want for you. And it can’t be what you want for yourself. I just wish I knew after all this time what it is you do want. You won’t go to school and get yourself an education, you won’t read any of the books I suggest, you won’t go out and make friends, you won’t take trips I’ll gladly pay for. I can’t force you to do any of these things. But, really, I’d much rather you devoted your energies to your own well-being than to mine, much as I would stand to lose in the way of comfort.

     ‘Now you’re all pissed off,’ he said, drawing me to him and putting his arms around me. ‘The ungrateful bastard … after all I do …’

     There was a point in his drinking when Will became conciliatory – another point when he spoke in fragments, in a kind of shorthand that I had to struggle to understand. But right now he was still lucid, and expecting some kind of response.

     All I could think of saying was, ‘You know why I don’t read? It’s because I hate the way you interrogate me afterwards.’ He was listening closely, taking me seriously, it seemed. ‘You always want to know exactly what I understand and remember and think after I’ve read something you gave me. It wipes out everything from my head because you’re giving me a test that I’m sure to fail.’

     ‘But why sure to fail? Why such defeatist thinking? I’m only trying to discuss ideas with you. It’s called conversation.’

     No wonder I was afraid of conversation. 

     ‘It isn’t a test. This whole thing, this life. It’s … it’s …’ He looked old and tired suddenly. ‘Let’s go to bed.’ But I knew he’d meant everything he’d said. I’d been put on notice. I would just have to try harder, work better, in order to make myself even more necessary.

     How could Will not know what I really wanted? All I wanted was to stay where I was – with him.

     I was living in a fool’s paradise, of course I knew that. It wouldn’t last – it couldn’t – for ever. Will was away for increasingly long stretches: in America, in Europe, in other parts of Southeast Asia. He saw friends on those trips: women friends, even girlfriends, for all I knew.

     There had been more than a few before me, of course; even a few live-ins. Like Lana, the model from Hong Kong, who threatened for years to slash her wrists, and finally did – though not fatally: she went on to a successful career in public relations, in charge of a big Saudi account. Like Melinda, a Filipina journalist who had covered the Vietnam War from the age of seventeen, and since then had worn only khaki correspondent’s jackets.

     One particular friend of Will’s enjoyed a special status, however. He’d told me about her from the very beginning: a sort of childhood friend he was expected to marry some day. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. They’d been engaged more than once, but one or the other had not been ready at the last minute.

     So I had always known that one day they might marry and then I would be sent away. I’d had clear and ample warning. But knowing a thing is not the same as really believing it will ever happen. How serious his plans were it was difficult to tell – except that he made it a point to remind me of them from time to time; and I made it a point to feign acceptance.

     ‘Na Ga, you must see this. Nothing is for ever; no one belongs to another. I am not your owner. I happened by when my help was needed. I did what any decent person would have done. You would have done the same for me. But helping doesn’t mean owning.’

     You only say that, I thought bitterly, because you can own, you are in a position to own and disown as you please. All over the face of the earth people did own other people. Shaman Asita owned our village; the Daru headman had owned me until his wife released me into Daw Daw Seng’s care. Now I was owned by Will – even if he didn’t want to admit it. 

     ‘You don’t want to be a slave all your life,’ he said, having just insisted I was not a slave. ‘Look at me. Don’t look away.’ Holding my head still, he banged his forehead gently against it. ‘I am what I am: a restless farang who drinks too much.’

     I waited for him to finish the comparison, to say: ‘And you are what you are.’ 

     Instead, he said, ‘If I don’t get down to business, I’ll end up with no next of kin. You know what they say: if a man doesn’t settle down in his forties, he’ll never do it. Time is running out on me. And pretty soon my faithful fiancée will be running out on me too.

     ‘Okay, don’t look at me. But listen to me, at least. You have to start living. You’re young, you have a future. I want you to start breathing, to quit holding your breath.’

     Taking my silence as a rebuke, he said, ‘You know I’ve never lied to you.’

     And you are proud of that? I thought. Was lying to a person really the worst thing in the world? How like a judge he could be, for all his easy-going ways: righteous and sure of his position. I once heard, on television, a Japanese man using the word ‘blue’ to speak of western ways. A mania for clarity, for right and wrong, a stubbornness – hard-headed and stiff-backed in the extreme: these were ‘blue’ qualities, he explained.

     There were times when Will was blue to a fault: honest, pitiless, true blue. 

     ‘I don’t want to keep you,’ he said firmly. ‘You are not mine to keep. We have things to do, you and me both. We have to get on with our lives. You have a past, a home, a family – all stolen from you, taken away. You need to go back and find them, see who you are, who you were before you were …’ He hesitated. ‘Misled.’

     Misled. Certain words of kindness could be oh-so-hateful. There was loving-kindness, as the Buddhists called it, and there was the other kind, the kind that made you want to scream. What nonsense could pour out 
of a man’s mouth when it suited him! Misled! Go back home and see who I was! 

 

*   *   *

 

Eventually it happened, of course. One day, exactly ten years and three months after he had brought me home, Will asked me to move out. Only for a while, only for ten days, he said, with awkward courtesy but no hint of apology. 

     Without argument, I agreed. I’d seen the way he beat down prices at the weekend market, hiding his hand, stating his absolute limit with the indifference of one prepared to walk away. But I was hardly in a position to bargain with him. So I accepted the deal, if one could call it that, with phoney indifference – the loser’s small revenge.

     Only for a while, only for ten days, I told myself, fighting panic as I emptied the cupboards and cleared away my things with needless zeal, like a criminal erasing a trail. With a vengeance I went about making myself scarce, packing up almost everything in cardboard boxes for storage, stuffing the rest into two shoulder-bags to take away.

     As I cleaned and concealed and rearranged, all for Will’s convenience and shifting whim, I noticed that he, too, was hiding things from me. He wasn’t telling me everything, no matter how patiently I sat at the breakfast table, no matter how silently I waited. It had to be difficult for him, I didn’t think it wasn’t. I didn’t believe for one minute that it was nothing for him to ask me to leave – even if he did it with seeming ease. Even if he could stand to look me in the eye and say, without further explanation, ‘Helen is coming to visit.’

     Nid, the driver, took me away. Nobody else was around to witness my going. Will was at work by then, and even the dogs failed to follow me into the car as they were in the habit of doing. They remained on the cement walkway, felled by the heat, their eyes open a slit, if open at all, as though pretending not to see.

 

*   *   *

 

A whole week passed at Mole’s, where I was staying, before I heard from Will. I don’t know how long I had been sleeping when the phone rang.

     ‘What’s up, kiddo?’

     ‘Will! Hello!’ I tried not to let on that he’d caught me not only sleeping but in the middle of a dream.

     ‘So! What are you doing? Where’s Mole?’

     ‘He’s gone,’ I said, ‘until tomorrow.’

     ‘What? Leaving you alone? I’ll have to have a word with him!’

     A little laugh in his voice – his drinking voice. ‘Well, I was just checking in. Listen, I thought I’d come by for a bit, say hello.’

     ‘Now?’

     ‘Now. Well, an hour from now, with this traffic.’

 

*   *   *

 

He came through the door and gave me a quick kiss on the head without looking at me, squeezing the back of my neck on his way to the bar in the living room. He poured himself a drink, a double whisky, and took a sip before turning to face me.

     We sat in the conservatory, across from each other, while he looked into his glass, shaking it gently as though it was tea he was drinking, with leaves at the bottom he was trying to read. Was my room comfortable, he wanted to know. At least three times he asked me the same question. Then he yawned deeply. ‘Come on, let’s get a little shut-eye.’

     I led him to my room, where he took off his clothes and collapsed onto the bed, not bothering to get under the sheets. I draped his clothes on the chair, tucked his shoes under it, and went to lie with him, my head on his chest. He clasped my arms firmly as though to keep them still.

     ‘I found a dragon today,’ he said sleepily. ‘A beautiful gold naga, lying under your bed. It made me think of you. That’s why I came.’

     For a moment I was puzzled. Then I understood: he meant my brass belt with the heavy scales and the dragon-head buckle. How had I missed checking under my bed while clearing up before leaving? And why had he gone into my room in the first place?

     But he had. He’d gone into my room, reached under my bed for who knew what reason, and found something I’d left behind. He had picked it up and examined it. He had thought of me. And, with Helen still in town, he had come to see me. He was fast asleep now; I could tell from the rise and fall of his chest. But I didn’t want him to sleep. I wanted him to wake, to see me for once as I was. 

     I got up and stripped, then knelt at the foot of the bed. ‘Will! Will!’ I shook him. 

     ‘What is it?’ he murmured. Then, seeing I was naked, ‘Wow-za!’ But pleasure was not what I heard in his voice.

     ‘Tell me what you want me to do! Anything, Will. Just tell me!’

     He laughed softly. ‘I want to hit you on the head, very hard, so you’ll finally go to sleep.’

     ‘Anything!’ I said. ‘Do whatever you want to me.’

     I knelt over him and bent low. First with my hand and then with my mouth I tried, how I tried, to arouse him. But while he stroked my hair, and sighed a little, and lifted his groin slightly to meet my face, he was not to be aroused, not to be seduced – and finally he lay very still.

     But I was not about to give up. I took his hand and cupped it over my breast. Then I leaned over and fed my breast to him. And when he turned away I felt the despair of a nursing mother when her infant prefers bawling to the tit. I lay on top of him, clinging and rocking.

     ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ he said. ‘Come on, kiddo. That’s not necessary.’

     Covered with sweat from all that fruitless effort, I said, ‘Tell me what to do, Will! Just tell me what to do!’ Firmly he pushed me away. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’ll be back home in three days. Three days is all. What’s the hurry?’ 

     ‘Stay with me,’ I begged. ‘Please.’ 

     ‘Na Ga, I can’t,’ he said, irritated now, getting up to dress. ‘You know I can’t do that.’

 

*   *   *

 

Nine nights had gone by at Mole’s – nine endless nights without rest, without peace. Just one more to go before my ten-day sentence would end.

     Mole chose that evening to bring out his baby pictures and introduce, one by one, reminders of his childhood in England: mother, father, sisters, uncle, a nanny, a pair of shoes, a painting of a church and two horses.

     I was having trouble breathing with a sudden constriction in my chest. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, getting up. ‘I don’t feel well.’

     Mole looked up. ‘Oh, I am sorry.’ 

     Mole had a tiresome way of speaking, of answering straightforward questions with roundabout phrases. ‘I shouldn’t have thought so,’ he’d say, when ‘no’ would suffice, or ‘I would have thought’ when he most definitely thought. Will once tried to explain that such a way of speaking was called ‘the conditional’ or ‘the subjunctive’. ‘The Brits like to talk that way,’ he said. But the Englishman was emphatic now in his concern. ‘Go to your room,’ he said, as though chastising me, ‘and get some sleep.’

     I went to my room, but only to find my bag and the money I’d need. I hurried past him on my way out, afraid he would try to restrain me. But though he rose from his seat and followed me to the door, saying, ‘Where are you going, then? Must you do this? Is it wise?’, he stood aside to let me by. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was still early – eight thirty. I knew where to go, where my search had to begin. In the dark I opened the garden gate and shut it behind me. I broke into a half run along the side-street. Before I reached the main road, a drizzle hit me, but it was too late to return for an umbrella or a rain jacket – too late for anything except ploughing on. Just as I reached the top of the street, the rain lashed down in a fury. By the time a tuk-tuk stopped for me I was soaked through and shivering.

     The city was hosting a mammoth celebration. Firecrackers popped and hissed from every direction, and the horns of cars were kazoos. The festive lights were brighter than ever, floating in the sea of rain.

     I got out at the head of Patpong 2, where the street was blocked with parked taxis and tuk-tuks, mopeds and food vendors. I hurried through the neon-lit arcade of cigarette, newspaper and video stalls, and along the noise-tunnel, where hard rock was thrumming from open windows and doors, competing with the blare of boom boxes for sale.

     Under an awning like a wedding tent, the touts took shelter, calling to me in a mix of languages. Where was I going? What was I seeking? But they were asking out of habit and boredom; they knew there was nothing of interest or profit to be gained from this drab, drenched figure charging head down through the noise and the rain.

     I hated that place. I’d hated it from the very beginning – from the very first time Will had taken me there. I hated it now more than ever as I plunged into its bowels with no clear plan or motive. I wanted to find Will and Helen. It wasn’t the search of a thinking, planning person: it was a mad, hit-or-miss spree. I wanted something more, of course, than just to find them.

     At the back of my mind, in the depths of my heart, I wanted to shake them. Explode their smug contentment. Drive her away. Bring him back to me. Or just make a scene for once in my life, a little scene to embarrass him. Show him that I was somebody, not just something. Not just a slave he could own and disown with impunity.

     Yes, all over the world people owned other people: this was a slave planet, all right. But even slaves didn’t go to their graves without making a fuss or shaking their fists now and then.

     All I had to do was show up, stand there in front of them and the poison would spread without a word being said: Look at what he’s done, see how he’s left me!

     Even better: I could show up with a baby. Will and his talk of wanting a child, needing to breed, so he was not deprived of next-of-kin. You want a child? I’ll give you a child!

     I remembered the alley behind the pharmacy where Will had pointed out the building to me. ‘That’s where they rent out babies,’ he’d said, nodding towards the second floor.

     ‘Rent out babies? What for?’

     ‘For begging, for photography, for fun, who knows?’ he said, shrugging.

     It wasn’t in the exact place he had said, but the woman upstairs told me where to go next: to the dress shop around the corner.

     The one available baby was on the floor, in a swinging rattan basket, right next to the treadle of a sewing-machine.

     The young woman working the treadle took her foot off the pedal every so often to keep the crib rocking steadily. She made me wait while she finished a long seam, her mouth pointed like a beak. I thought of a gull overseeing a nest in which the eggs have been left by a cuckoo. The child wasn’t the woman’s, I knew in that instant. It couldn’t, simply couldn’t have been.

     It wasn’t a newborn, either, I was relieved to see. Newborns made me nervous – they were hardly human. This one was formed, it was whole, its features were complete. It woke from its sleep long enough to regard me calmly for a moment; then closed its eyes and was still.

     The seamstress asked for a deposit and the two-hour minimum. Renting a baby for two hours was cheaper than renting a ball-gown for an evening. She handed me a carrier, a pouch made of corduroy, and showed me how it worked: I could wear it in front, kangaroo-style, or on my back, like a rucksack.

     I held the pouch open while she filled it with the still sleeping infant. Then she helped me strap the carrier to my back. Seeing I was without an umbrella or jacket, the seamstress tore off a length of thick black plastic from a rubbish-bag dispenser behind her sewing-machine. This she draped over my shoulders and tied by one end around my neck, like a cape.

     Bracing myself, I charged back into the rain. I knew I’d find them somewhere along the strip, where he did most of his entertaining and drinking. Cleopatra. Winner’s Bar. Pussy Alive. Queen’s Castle. I recognised the names from the early days, but no longer remembered which were the bars with the go-go dancers, which the second-storey rooms with the floor shows and special acts.

     I hadn’t thought through the problem of entrance, either, of how to get past the bouncers, barkers and pimps. Somehow I made them understand that stepping inside for one moment was all I was after. A quick survey of the audience, nothing more. For I could spot him in a single instant. Even below the stages, below the bodies in the spotlight, coupling and writhing, even in that eerie ultraviolet gloom where the white objects – white shirts, white teeth – looked radioactive, while everything else stayed hidden: even there I would know him right away.

     Dashing from door to door, criss-crossing the streets, I scurried like a rat in a maze. In and out of entries, up and down stairs, past bodies and faces, and dancers on stages, and neon signs repeating the same names: King’s Castle, Napoleon, Goldfinger, New Red Door, Mizu, Mango Brutus, Magic Grill …

     I was beginning to despair of finding them when I remembered the one place I hadn’t yet tried: the Garden of Eatin.

     Under one of those trees with the apple lights for bulbs was the round table where they were all sitting. The friends around him were faceless to me, except the one sitting opposite him, her face turned in my direction.

     I had thought of Helen as a girl – a violet-eyed girl with corn-husk hair like the girl in the giant milk advertisement posted all over the city. But she was a woman, this Helen – a pale-skinned older woman with hair like untidy wool framing a troubled face. From the deep crease on her brow and the downturn of her mouth, I could tell she was no stranger to misery.

     And she understood mine, I could see. Before I could step back behind the screen, she looked up and straight at me. I stood near the door, trembling in the air-conditioned chill, but there was no turning back any more. Her head tilted; her eyes narrowed and widened. While Will and the others went on laughing and talking, unaware of my presence, she watched me closely as I approached the gathering.

     My heart was clapping wildly as I stood at the foot of the table and watched Will’s face as it registered surprise, then anger, then a terrible, terrible coldness. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t – bring himself to get up for what seemed a very long time. The silence at the table was spreading to other tables as well. From the clinking of cutlery and the clearing of throats I was dimly aware of the kind of tension that precedes a public speech. But the only face I could take in was Will’s, and the expression on it made me quail.

     As though watching a film that had come to a stop and was starting up again, I saw Will rise to his feet. With a mocking courtesy that cut me to the quick, he said, ‘Well, if it isn’t our favourite fury! Na Ga! What a surprise! Come and have a seat!’

     I pushed away his outstretched arm and saw him clench his fist as I worried at the knotted plastic around my neck.

     The seamstress had tied the ends so tightly that I couldn’t get it undone; and in the end I just slid the whole thing back to front, and reached behind to unfasten the pouch with the baby.

     ‘What do we have here?’

     I could still hear the ice in his voice as I unhooked the straps from my shoulders and set it on the chair he had offered me. I started to unzip the front of the carrier. ‘A baby,’ I said flatly. I heard murmurs, clicking tongues, placating noises. ‘Aw, a baby …’

     ‘You want a baby …’ I couldn’t keep my voice flat: it came out like a croak. ‘I’ve brought you a baby.’ I was trying to get the child out of the carrier as quickly as possible – I wanted to thrust it at Will, force it into his arms – but the zipper was sticking, and its limbs were oddly inert and heavy. It was still fast asleep. What an exceptionally placid brat!

     My God! It wasn’t moving – it hadn’t moved! I shook its arm. I shook its leg. It wasn’t moving! I put my ear to its chest. It wasn’t breathing! It was dead! The child was dead! Roughly I pulled it out of its pouch and gave it another shake. I slapped it on the back, on its feet, on its face. I held it high, held it low, slapped it again and again.

     The child was dead. I’d smothered it under the plastic.

     I turned to Will. ‘I killed it,’ I said, trying to hand him the heavy mass.

     The arms that relieved me of the burden were not Will’s but Helen’s. She took the child from me and gathered it to herself before hoisting it slightly to one side and over her shoulder. Calmly, almost absentmindedly, she rubbed its back. 

     All of a sudden the baby arched, almost flipping backwards in her arms, but she caught it by the neck and brought its head towards her shoulder again. The baby looked around, confused, its eyes flicking across the room before it let out a shriek.

     I saw Helen smile as she went on patting its back, flinching a little as it continued to scream but otherwise unperturbed. The baby worked itself up, yelling its head off. When I reached out to try to comfort it, Helen turned and gave me her back so that the baby was facing me. Seeing me seemed to be the final straw: it flailed about, trying to throw itself out of Helen’s arms, while screaming at the top of its lungs. Once more I reached out to take it from Helen. ‘Give it to me!’ I had to shout to be heard in the din.

     A weight fell on my shoulders. Will’s hands were crushing – like a yoke or a gibbet. ‘That’s enough, Na Ga,’ he said in his old voice. ‘You’re coming with me.’

     As he led me through the restaurant and out of the door to where Nid was dozing in the car, draped over the steering wheel, I was aware of the plastic still hanging down my front like a ridiculous black bib. I allowed myself, nevertheless, to be led without protest as though already handcuffed and sentenced.

     ‘Take her home to Mole’s,’ Will said to the driver, who had started the car and was revving the engine. Nid was used to snapping out of sleep in an instant, at any time of night or day.

     ‘What about the baby?’ was the only thing I said.

     ‘Never mind the baby. We’ll take care of it.’

     I had the presence of mind, I don’t know how, to hand Will the receipt from the seamstress, and he slammed the door in my face.

     Nid’s eyes kept flicking towards me in the rear-view mirror. But he’d learned to be discreet, to mind his own business. His lack of curiosity enraged me. ‘I almost killed a child back there,’ I announced.

     ‘Lerh? ’ he said, meaning, ‘yeah?’ in Thai.

     Fucking blood-sucking, brothel-owning, baby-renting Thais!

     But I knew then that the doors had not only slammed shut behind me; they were now locked and double-bolted for good measure.

     Once again this Wild Lu had proven herself unfit for companionship, unfit for slavery. Unfit for child minding even.

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