neighbours observed – Squat

‘Jogging, jogging.’
The intonation doesn’t indicate a question and yet I feel it is one.
‘Yes,’ I say because it’s the response he’s looking for, and he smiles. Where he got the idea I go jogging I can’t say. It’s of no matter to him that I’m on my way back from the shops with two bags of groceries, ‘jogging’ it is, and of no matter either that my build or the way I move don’t suggest I’m one of those run-five-miles-a-day types, and neither do I have the bicep clock or designer sweats favoured by the self-conscious exercist.
For a while I thought ‘jogging’ was the extent of his vocabulary in English but his older brother assures me that on occasion Squat has plenty to say for himself in English and in Mandarin, too.
Squat is as close to a sumo as one can be without being one. In addition to the considerable body he has a strong jaw, a squinty eye and a handshake to crush walnuts. Fortunately for me he doesn’t shake my hand much, he prefers to greet orally.
Twenty years ago when Squat was a few years old he was diagnosed as ‘slow’. ‘Slow’ was as precise as his mother was offered and today she still doesn’t know what her son’s detailed condition is, and she gave up long ago trying to find out.
As soon as Squat’s father, a miserable coward, heard the news of his son’s condition he packed a bag and snuck out in the middle of the night leaving his wife to raise Squat and the bigger boy by herself. The coward fled to Indonesia where he shacked up with a floosie who left him after a while because she found better. Where he is today no one knows, or cares.
For years, the abandoned mother struggled, scrubbed other people’s floors, cleaned toilets and took in washing and sewing. If it wasn’t for the help of a good sister and kind, generous neighbours she says she’d have gone under. The older boy grew up ‘normal’ – whatever ‘normal’ is – and today he has a good job and is the breadwinner. He tells me he’d like to get married and have a family of his own but he can’t, he feels it’s his duty to look after his brother and mother. ‘I’m not like my bastard father,’ he says.
On two occasions, Squat was given the chance to work. Here we have a few training centres for people with disabilities and Squat was signed up for a course at one of them. He lasted half a day. The instructor was showing him how to perform a certain task but Squat had his own way of doing it, the wrong way. When the instructor pointed out his way worked and Squat’s didn’t and tried to get Squat to do it the right way Squat punched him in the face and knocked him out. Squat was sent home right away. Six months later, Squat joined another course and lasted only an hour – he pushed another trainee through a window.
‘He’s not as dumb as he pretends,’ his brother tells me, ‘and he’s a lazy little shit. He knew at the training centre he’d be sent home if he turned nasty, lucky we weren’t prosecuted. All he wants to do all day is sit on his big arse and watch TV and smoke cigarettes, cigarettes I have to buy for him, and if I say a word against him my mother jumps down my throat, he’s not to be criticised or scolded, and he knows it and plays my mother like a fiddle. When I’m around I make him help her with the laundry and I make him do the washing-up; otherwise, he does nothing. What’s going to happen to him when my mother passes away? I don’t want to think about it, I just don’t.’

neighbours observed – Skippy

Skippy is a stick insect on steroids. Whether by himself or in company he’s lively, disturbingly lively. Any time we meet he can’t be still a moment, and his movement could be the Ali shuffle, Michael’s moonwalk or a Viennese waltz, or all three in the space of a minute.
The first time i saw him coming down the path i thought he was a troubled adolescent throwing shapes but as he drew close i could see he was much too long in the tooth to be one perpetually troubled by a circus in his shorts. And at first, i thought my presence upset him but then i came to realise he’s a compulsive mover, a constant dancer, and for a man of fifty quite the performer.
He wears his hair long, down to his shoulders, a pepper ‘n’ salt cascade parted in the middle. His dress is simple, flip-flops, baggy shorts and T-shirts that hang like curtains from bony shoulders, and sometimes he has a heat plaster on a knee or an elbow.
When we meet at the lift or on the path leading to the shops he greets me in precisely the same way each and every time.
‘Howya, Boss. It’s all shite and onions, isn’t it?’
The combination is reminiscent of Joyce, and where he picked it up is uncertain. I suspect it was at the docks where he worked for years before he was given the push.
‘Yes,’ i say, and he smiles at me and punches the air. He’s told me on several occasions i’m the only one in the building he likes.
‘Don’t believe anything the bastards tell you,’ he says, ‘the only thing straight about them is their hair.’
I don’t comment.
Everyone else in the building fears Skippy because he’s given to moods and can be fiercely insulting. At times, he can be violent.
Skippy lives with his 75-year-old widowed mother and his 16-year-old son, his only child. Skippy’s wife left five years ago, she couldn’t take it any more, and is somewhere in Malaysia. Granny looks after the boy and the boy keeps an eye on his father when he can. Despite the difficulties at home the boy’s doing well at school and for his age is remarkably sorted and sane.
Skippy has two sisters who live nearby. Both women have good jobs and pay the bills for their mother.
Every few months Skippy loses the plot entirely and is taken away. He’s usually gone about three weeks and what they do to him where he’s held or what drugs they pump into him i can’t tell. When he comes home again he’s calm for a while until his demons get the better of him once more and he’s back to dancing and throwing shapes.
When he’s in a bad way he breaks things. A week ago he started shouting and breaking and kicked up such a racket his neighbour across the landing came out to see what was going on. He saw her, aimed a stream of invective in her direction, picked up a chair, broke a leg off and went after her. She managed to get behind her door just in time.
Yesterday, i met Skippy’s mother on her way back from the shops pushing a trolley of groceries, and i asked after her son. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘Mr John, two of the hospital people came to visit me last night and told me they’ve decided not to release him any more, he has to stay there now, he’s too much of a danger to everyone, and to himself.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ i said.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘I’m so sorry,’ i said again.
‘Never mind, Mr John, sooner or later the day had to come.’

neighbours observed – Ellen

Ellen is elegant, slim and petite.
She says, ‘I hate it when i hear anyone using the term vertically challenged, so ugly. I may be five foot nothing but i don’t consider myself challenged. Why would anyone think someone else is challenged just because he or she is short? I’m not challenged in any way, i know my worth.’
Five years ago, Ellen resigned her teaching post at the age of forty-five.
‘Couldn’t take it any more,’ she said. ‘There was a time teachers were respected, especially Maths teachers like me, you know how much emphasis we place on Maths and Science here, but the kids have changed. Now they’re in love with the virtual world, their phones and people they’ve never met, and they’re in love with themselves and have become precious, a broken nail is a catastrophe and enough to send them to the emergency room. And of course they were born to text and shop.’
Ellen decided to pack it in when the kids began to mock her in class.
‘They said they couldn’t see the board, i was blocking the view, very rude, and hurtful when you consider my arm fully extended reached only halfway up the board. I can’t imagine what it must be like for other short teachers who aren’t Maths teachers. Maths is a sacred subject in our schools and highly respected, and we’re proud how numerate our young people are. I suppose if i’d been teaching in one of the elite schools it might have been different. It doesn’t matter now, i’ve done with it.’
‘Tell me about the moment you decided to quit,’ i said.
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back?’
‘Yes, more or less.’
‘Went into my best class one morning, a class that up to then had not been rude, not one of them not even once, good kids who were hardworking and keen to get on, and on the board was a big arrow pointing down. I looked down and there on the floor was an upturned beer crate. I walked out, went straight to the principal’s office and tendered my resignation. I had to serve out my notice for three months, the longest three months of my life. The principal never mentioned to the kids i was leaving nor did any of my colleagues blab, the little bar stools didn’t find out until the last day, and then came running to me and said they’d miss me and they were sorry if they’d hurt me, and rubbish like that. At the end of the day i walked out with my head held high…’
‘Good for you.’
‘… and a week later i started working in a bakery, and i’ve never regretted the change. The aromas of fresh bread are job satisfaction in themselves.’
‘You’re not in the bakery full time, are you?’
‘Three days a week, the other days i tutor at home, that’s where the money is, and i have a waiting list of eager kids, and their even more eager parents.’
‘So you don’t miss the classroom then.’
‘Not a bit.’

neighbours observed – Ahmad

Ahmad is heavy set, slow, cantankerous and diabetic. His left foot has turned dark, almost completely black and he walks with the aid of a stick. Dr Gan has him on a strict diet and some medication but Ahmad’s not fond of limitations or pills and says he wants to enjoy what’s left of his days and not be confined to ‘rabbit food and nasty friggin chemicals.’
‘I’m eighty,’ he says. ‘Don’t i have a point?’
‘You do,’ i say because it’s what he wants to hear.
‘As long as i can get out of the house and walk to the coffee shop without anyone’s help i’m doing OK. The day i can’t go for coffee and sit and chat with my pals will be the end for me. If i can’t do that, what’s left? I’m not asking much, just the chance for coffee and a chat. Anyway, them doctors don’t know shit.’
He looks at me and says, ‘What do you think?’
‘You have to look after your foot,’ i say.
‘You always say that,’ he says, ‘but what’s the use? One of these days they’re going to tell me they have to cut it off. I know they’ll tell me and when they do i have my answer ready, i’ll tell them fuck off. Anyway, i wouldn’t survive the operation. I arrived with all my pieces and i’m going out with them all, black foot or no black foot, and if you were me you’d be the same.’
He leans on his stick and sets off for the coffee shop, a five-minute walk for me, thirty for him.

neighbours observed – Dominic

Dominic is 94 and is suffering from dementia. He doesn’t recognise anyone any more, not even members of his family. It’s hard on him and hard on his children and grandchildren.
His son hired an Indonesian maid to look after his father full time. She’s no more than a young slip of a thing but she’s kind and patient, and every morning without fail she guides Dominic downstairs to go for a walk. It’s more of a shuffle than a walk and the maid holds his hand and the two of them shuffle in step. What impresses me most is Dominic’s bearing. He does indeed shuffle but he’s not bent or stooped, he moves with his head held high, his back straight and his chest out, the bearing of a recruit on parade.
Dominic and his carer shuffle the length of the building and back. For Dominic that’s quite a distance as it’s a long building, more than 100 yards, and he and the maid manage to make three round trips. It takes them the best part of an hour and by then Dominic is very tired and needs to rest. The maid guides him to the lift and they retire upstairs. For the remainder of the day Dominic does little more than eat his meals and sleep.
I hope to see Dominic and his maid going for a walk many mornings to come.

haze haze and nothing but haze

October 26 1994

Haze, haze and nothing but haze. It has dominated our lives for six weeks and each day we look out we’re confronted by a grey fog nothing at all like the ‘bright golden haze on the meadow’ in Oklahoma.
Look at the atlas and you’ll see that to the west of Singapore lies the large island of Sumatra and to the south-east lies the equally large Kalimantan and both have dense tropical forests. In the annual clearance, farmers and loggers set fire to vast patches of undergrowth and the fires have been smouldering for the past month and a half and plumes of smoke have been pouring forth. We’re affected when the wind blows from the west one day and from the south-east the next. Both islands are waiting for the winter monsoon and while they are we’re being smoked out of it. Things are fine when it rains, the rain washes the haze away, but an hour later it’s back. The Ministry of the Environment tells us it’s in the ‘unhealthy’ range at present, about 130 on the PSI, the Pollution Standard Index. On a scale of one to five hundred that isn’t alarming but it’s uncomfortable for people with asthma and a slight risk for patients with heart conditions. To everyone else it’s a nuisance and a literal eyesore for many. On worse than normal days, outdoor activities such as PE in schools and jogging are officially discouraged. In a hot humid climate such as ours there’s no question of keeping windows and doors shut; besides, the bloody smoke would get in anyway. It isn’t smelly most of the time but on occasion it is. The monsoon rains are due in Indonesia at the beginning of next month so they should put the fires out once and for all. These fires are on a huge scale and thousands of hectares of forest are affected. Ground access to these areas is either difficult or impossible as there aren’t any roads in the heart of the forest where fire engines and the like can go. The idea of dropping water from the air has been discussed but it’s expensive and furthermore most of the fires are in undergrowth and in coal seams which water from the air in superficial amounts wouldn’t penetrate; only sustained rain can do that.
It has just turned midday and as i look out the window i can see the haze is back with a vengeance. Now it’s a bluish grey, not unlike a dull november afternoon in Ireland when the sky seems to come down to the ground and it’s in smelly mode, the acrid pungent odour of burning bush.

_____________________________________________________

I wrote that 21 years ago and today in September 2015 we still have a haze
problem in Singapore. Right now, the reading is 317.
Despite meeting after meeting and promise after promise that the issue
would be resolved nothing has been done. Powerful people with vested
interests will always have their way.

settling in Singapore

late june 1992

Settling as a resident of Singapore. I’ve rented an airy, spacious flat on the 11th floor of a block, what’s known as a point block here, and enjoy good views of the district and of the sea and this high up i don’t need a/c. I’m lucky the block isn’t surrounded by others, as many are, and there’s a distinct feeling of space both inside and out. I’m within walking distance of the MRT – to you, the tube, the metro or the subway – and across the road is the post office and a host of shops. A good supermarket is five minutes away and I’m 20 minutes by taxi from the airport.
After the confinements of my flat in Bkk, this place is like a football field. The entire floor area is covered in white tiles which need frequent mopping but which make walking a cool pleasure and are excellent support for the Iranian carpets i dragged all the way from Kuwait via Bkk. Some things you don’t part with.

I’ve started my new job. Moving house and starting a new job at the same time isn’t a combination to be recommended, too much to be done at home and outside.
I’ve been appointed supervisor and co-ordinator of English Language studies at SSTC, fancy title, and my work permit/residence pass is being processed by Immigration.
SSTC is off Orchard Road, right in the heart of the city, and i ride the MRT to work. Door to door it takes 40 minutes and that includes a lovely 7-minute walk from my house through the local park before i catch the train. I get off at Somerset station, cross the street and walk through Centrepoint, a shopping mall, to get to the 7th floor of the building behind. If i want to shop, i ride the lift down to the 4th floor and walk into the mall. Tuesday and thursday evening i work with a Japanese businessman. His English is advanced but he needs help drafting technical documents; the tutoring’s not exciting but it’s highly lucrative and the eight sessions a month pay more than half the rent of the football field.

I left here on May 11th after my five-week stint at the college and returned to Bkk for three weeks to see out my contract. What a dramatic three weeks they turned out to be! Just before i was due to fly to Bkk my passport was stolen. It’s a long involved story i shan’t go into. The British High Commission came to the rescue and issued me a new passport in rapid time; i returned to Bkk only one day late for work which didn’t upset anyone much. Since my Thai residence disappeared with the disappearance of the passport, i had to enter the country as a visitor on a 15-day visa but managed to get an extension before making my final exit on June 4th. All of that sounds relatively easy; it wasn’t.

The problems in Bkk were waiting for me good and proper and i was back a week when the fireworks started. If outsiders saw any of the events on tv they saw more than we did as censorship reared its head. During the shooting, the killing and the looting the military-controlled tv stations in Thailand treated us to Chinese movies. The newspapers were controlled as well but both the Bangkok Post and The Nation were brave enough, especially The Nation, to run pictures of the worst atrocities. How many died in the mayhem will never be known. The authorities grudgingly admit to sixty, the pro-democracy people put the figure in the hundreds and there are still more than 600 unaccounted for. The schools were closed so we were able to avoid possible flashpoints. Where i used to live, Rajaprarop, wasn’t by any means in the thick of it although a few unpleasant things did take place there but i was never in danger and didn’t feel threatened. Others weren’t so lucky and a few foreigners bit the dust. Things have quietened down now but the problems are by no means solved and there’ll be more bloodshed if the next election isn’t a fair one. During the troubles i was worried i wouldn’t be able to make a smooth exit but in the event all turned out well and i left Bangkok on Thursday, June 4th. My old friend jj – he of the ‘beautiful people’ – was at the airport to see me off. I never did join him and his wife for one of their ‘fancy dress’ evenings but he didn’t hold it against me. He was very quiet at departure and as we said a final farewell he grabbed me and gave me the fiercest of hugs and tears ran down his cheeks. I’ll always be grateful to jj for showing me so much of his city tourists and resident expats never see and always grateful for his friendship. He is a thoroughly decent man.

Two years ago, Patrick promised he’d come and visit me, ‘next month, for sure,’ and last year he said he had plans to recruit hundreds of Thais to work in Kuwait. Well, i waited and waited and not a sign of him. Then, would you believe it, he showed up on the very day Thais were shooting Thais in the streets and tanks and jeeps and soldiers were everywhere…and that’s not an exaggeration. He stayed only one night but for that night we talked and talked till all hours. We weren’t able to go out, there was 6pm to 6am curfew, so we ate in. Next morning he flew off to who knows where or to do what – skin cavies in Peru or foment revolution in the Outer Hebrides? He vowed he’d be back the following week before i was due to leave for Singapore; i’ve not heard a word since. That’s Patrick. I must say the blighter was looking well.

The week before i left Bkk my Singapore friends came for a visit and to help me with my baggage, i was able to use their allowances. Because of the turmoil they were worried about making the trip but i advised them not to cancel, peace could come at short notice, and three days before their scheduled arrival the revered and widely respected King Bhumibol intervened and the Thais went home to patch their wounds and bury the dead.
I had my packing done before my visitors arrived so i was able to spend time with them and show them around. For me it was the final visit to several spots i like and for one of our outings we went to the bridge on the River Kwai. As we walked across the bridge in glorious sunshine i remembered i’d not been there for six years. That was my final trip outside Bangkok; 48 hours later i left the country.

From my 11th floor i look across a large part of this city and see the cars and the trains passing by and the lights of so many ships in the distance. This has to be my final destination, i’m tired moving and i want to settle. At the moment i’m happy even if i’m unpacking boxes and sorting things out and deciding what goes where – the joys of relocating – but once it’s done i know i’ll relax and be at peace. The quiet and order here appeal, everything works, everything’s efficient and it’s all done without fuss.

It’s exactly a year since i made the decision to move to Singapore and i haven’t for one moment regretted that decision. I turned down the offer to work in California and said no to Taiwan. I chose Singapore and i feel in my bones i made the right choice. This is my kind of town.

in the relative calm of clean and ordered Singapore

may 1992

Here a month in the relative calm of clean and ordered Singapore and i’m enjoying it. If i looked for a starker contrast to the bustle of Bangkok i couldn’t find a better one anywhere. The college is situated on the west of the island quite a way from the city centre and i’m living on campus but such is the efficiency of public transport it takes just forty-five minutes to reach Orchard Road by bus and train; an equivalent journey through Bkk would take an eternity.

From the campus i take a #199 bus, there’s one every seven to ten minutes between 5:00am and midnight, and ride to the MRT station at Boon Lay. I call it the Boonies as it really is an outpost but one with shops, a newsstand, telephones that work and a working man’s cafe with excellent Malay food, the mutton curry’s delicious.
From Boon Lay it’s a direct run to Raffles Place. If i want to go to Orchard Road i change once and if i want to go all the way out to the East Coast i stay on the train; it couldn’t be easier. All this comfort and facility of travel has spoiled me and i’m not looking forward to returning to Bkk where i’ll have to navigate my way through all manner of obstacles, manmade and natural. But Bangkok is only for a few weeks more, i’ve already booked my flight on Singapore Airlines back here on June 4th.

The working day has spoiled me, too, 9:00 to 2:00, and for the first time in a long while i’m enjoying the luxury of staying in bed till 7:45 and finishing at the early hour of two leaves me a lot of free time. I’ve been looking at flats in the past week and have viewed several reasonably priced and within budget but haven’t rented one as there’s no point paying for a place a month in advance. There are plenty of flats on offer so it won’t be difficult to find one when i hunt in earnest in June. As for a job, i don’t feel like taking a full-time post at the moment and won’t do so till i find what really suits. I came to an arrangement with SSTC last week to work for them part-time from the third week of June for an initial period of six months; that should give me ample time to have a proper look around. For four hours in the afternoon, five days a week, SSTC will pay more than i’m earning full-time in Bkk and in addition will process an employment pass. They’re happy to have my services and i’m more than happy with the arrangement. Who knows, perhaps by December i’ll like it so much there i’ll stay on.

After a month, impressions of Singapore are taking shape and gradually i’m getting to know how the place and the people tick. The Chinese comprise three-quarters of the population with Malays, Indians, Europeans, Americans and others such as Indonesians making up the balance. The Chinese are in control and although Singapore is proud of its racial harmony the reality is slightly different. There’s day-to-day tolerance of everyone and that’s the most important element and is to be praised and admired, but there isn’t much love lost and one hears mutterings and a lot of grumbling. But then everyone everywhere grumbles about something or someone else; it’s what people do.
For me, the Malays are the friendliest and i find myself mixing easily with them. I get on well, too, with the Chinese but other Europeans and a few Americans i’ve spoken to say they find them cold. There may be misunderstanding here as i find them shy and reluctant to initiate conversation but since i talk to everyone and anyone without preconceptions i’ve had no trouble breaking the ice with them and once they warm to you they’re civil and begin to smile. I frequently remind myself i’ve been here only a month and mustn’t make rash judgements but the Chinese in particular do seem over-anxious to achieve and they suffer from stress. Many young Chinese men are self-conscious and vain – some i hate to say are downright bitchy – and i notice they spend a lot of time preening themselves in front of mirrors; insecurity, probably. The young women are much more self-assured and look smart and well turned out in eye-catching gear.
Those are small observations only and the overriding impression, an accurate one, is that the city is clean and well run, things work, maintenance is of a high standard and the people are serious and practical and go about their daily lives with great purpose.

Another agreeable change is the weather. March and april are the hottest months in Thailand while here on the west of Singapore it rains almost every day and although the rain makes things sticky, it is cooler. I’ve been able to sleep without a/c for the past month, an impossibility at this time of year in Bkk, so for the cooler weather alone i’m grateful. When i return to Bkk next week it should’ve cooled down a bit and the first rains of the year should be on their way.

As far as the political climate in Thailand goes, i’m not looking forward to returning. There isn’t much coverage of events on Singapore tv but i hear on the grapevine that for the first time there’s determined opposition to the military regime and the opposition parties aren’t going to let the disliked Suchinda have a smooth takeover of power. It’s hard to gauge what the general will do but it won’t surprise me if he uses violence if he and his military feel under threat. The wisest thing is to get back there and finish what i have to finish, take the money they owe me and run.

Had a letter from George in Macau to say Patrick had been in touch with him out of the blue from Kuwait and was anxious to get in touch with me. George told him i was here in Singapore so Patrick said he was going to come and look me up. I took the whole thing with the proverbial pinch of salt which in hindsight seems to have been right; not a dickeybird from Patrick.

A final comment: The Straits Times is Singapore’s English-language daily. It’s a fairly thorough paper in that it covers local and international news, as any respectable paper ought to, but it’s a dull affair. I miss the Bangkok Post.

more Singapore than Bangkok the general election and a slave auction

March 1992

Plans are these: i leave here on April 4 for Singapore and shall be there five weeks. I return on May 10, wind up affairs and then make the final exit on June 4. So from now on it’s more Singapore than Bangkok.
The five weeks in S’pore will be spent at Nanyang where i’m giving a course in English. The school has granted me official leave and although it’s five weeks away from the job it is in reality only an absence of fourteen teaching days as it coincides with Easter holidays so from the school’s point of view it’s not so bad. Naturally it’s leave without pay but i’ll make up for it by the better money in S’pore; in fact i gain.

Two years ago to the month i began the process of packing up and shipping out of Kuwait; now once more i’m beginning to be surrounded by boxes and bags and labels and lists. It’s a major pain but it’s self-inflicted so i can’t complain, but anyone who’s moved, and that’s virtually all of us at one time or other, will sympathise.
The february trip to S’pore was enjoyable and i made valuable contacts in the job arena, among them the Director of Nanyang who offered me the five-week stint. He may offer me a permanent post after this but i’m not sure i want it, i’d prefer to join one of the independent schools or one of the internationals. I’m keeping options open and shall explore the market while i’m there for the five weeks.

Today, a letter from Steven in Kuwait. Mail out of there is slowish, i see from the postmark it took two weeks to get here. Steven’s fine and says Kuwait’s made real recovery since liberation but points out that systems are sluggish and most people indecisive when it comes to making important decisions. The beaches remain off limits and the weekend crowds in the city are much smaller than before. At the end of february there was a four-day holiday to celebrate the first anniversary of liberation but it was a boring affair, little to do but sleep.

This coming Sunday, 22nd, is general election day in Thailand and in these final days before polling there’s a frenzy of activity with all thirteen parties chasing votes as fast as they can. Although he isn’t seeking a seat in parliament, General Suchinda, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, is tipped as the next Prime Minister. He and the army are waiting till the voting’s over before deciding their next move and if he accepts the post of PM the general will resign his military command and contest a special by-election in which he’s sure to gain the seat. This is Thailand or in short, TiT.
A few weeks back, a candidate was challenged by a reporter who accused him of openly buying votes. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ he retorted. ‘At least it guarantees a full turn-out on polling day.’
The logic’s impeccable, the politics stink.

Summer has arrived with a vengeance and the temperature has soared. Humidity’s high, too, so it’s miserable weather all round and everyone has headcolds and coughs. I heard on the BBC that schools in Mexico City have been ordered to close and 50% of the private cars have been taken off the roads because pollution is four times higher than the acceptable limit. The Governor of Bangkok, an honest man, should take note as this city is now three times above the limit, and the muck everyone coughs up every day doesn’t bear thinking about. I’ll be glad to be away for april as it’s even hotter than march.

Our school’s moving to a new campus miles and miles out of town in the sticks and the directors are busy raising money for the outfitting of the new buildings. We had a slave auction last week where some students and teachers allowed their names to be put forward and the rest bid for them. Once bought, the slave had to obey the wishes of his or her temporary owner and carry out tasks such as bearing satchels, fetching food and drinks from the cafeteria and even walking on all fours. Several owners dressed their slaves up and one boy bought by a syndicate of three girls was converted to a French poodle for the day and led around on a pink leash. The girls who bought him don’t like him – no one likes him, he’s a stuck-up little prick (just like his father) – so it was their way of getting even. His classmates set him up beautifully: two boys – with possible futures in politics i’d say – promised him that if he went forward they’d buy him and dress him up as Napoleon for the day and that it seems appealed to his vanity. When the time came the boys made a few deliberately low bids and the three girls easily claimed him. The whole thing was great fun and the humiliation of lapdog on rope instead of emperor in regal attire took a few edges off Master Wonderful. I was auctioneer and in two hours auctioned off eight teachers and twenty-five students for 40,000 baht (a thousand quid) that’ll go toward paying for blinds for the classroom windows. All the buying was done by the kids and quite a few of them had more money than sense. The highest price paid was 7,000 baht for a boy from Grade 6, quite extravagant when you consider he was slave for only a day but all in a good cause.
Dozens of other activities are planned for the next few months: bake sales, concerts, raffles, a soccer tournament, a badminton tournament and an international fair.

This weekend i’ll keep a low profile as people go to the polls. The sale of alcohol has been banned for thirty hours, starting at 6:00pm tomorrow so the city’s bars and clubs will be dark. The ban is aimed at keeping the level of violence down; i hope there won’t be any violence at all but things are pretty tense. Some believe that if the army imposes its will after the election people will react negatively and say enough is enough and there may be clashes between students and troops like there were in 1974 when a lot of people died on the streets, thirty-three on one afternoon alone. It was bloody and nasty and no one wants a repeat.

cops & robbers in the Big Mango part 3

WARNING: some of you will find this final part disturbing.

I was out late on a week night because JJ – he of the ‘beautiful people’ –
had asked me to go with him to meet a friend who wanted to see me
urgently. The urgency was nothing more than to ask me to tutor his
daughter who was preparing for TOEFL. I was tempted to say yes
as he was offering good money but i told him politely i didn’t
have time.
As midnight approached i took my leave, i had to work next day
and JJ and his friend were bent on staying till the wee hours drinking.
I was lucky to catch the last #73; well, not so lucky as it turned out.
Five passengers and a driver in a hurry on a rattly bus. The rain was
coming down in buckets and the streets were deserted. The other four got
off after only a few stops and that left the driver and me and now that i was
the only paying victim remaining he went even faster than before.
Six or seven stops from my place he pulled up and said, ‘Go!’ I finish here,’
and opened the door for me. I was out on my ear. He swung the bus around
and headed the way we’d come.
I had to walk the rest of the way home and where he kicked me off was
a dark and dingy part of town. Nothing but rain and a sharp wind. I charged
forward. I had a goodly walk ahead and the best to do was to tackle it.

I’d gone a hundred yards when i saw a glint of metal and realised it was
the rear of a motorbike picked out by a watery street lamp. Something
told me stop and i did for a moment before proceeding with caution.
The tail of the bike was sticking out of the mouth of a soi and i recognised it
as a cop bike so two boys in brown and black boots couldn’t be far away,
perhaps relieving themselves in the soi. A soi can be wide enough for a truck
to pass or as narrow as an alleyway; this was an alley.
The last premises before the soi was an old hardware shop and i stood in its
doorway. The rain had eased and everything was quiet. Then i heard voices
in the soi, a man’s gruff voice and a lighter, thinner voice. The man sounded
as if he was giving orders; the lighter voice was a voice of feeble protest.
Since i could hear clearly enough the voices had to be close by, no more than
a few yards into the soi. And then i heard what sounded like slaps followed
by whimpering. I couldn’t resist, i had to take a look.
Two boys in brown and a small figure in a pale dress. One of the cops was
looking up the alley, on lookout duty, and at the same time was fully exposed
and playing with himself; the other had his back to me and was facing the wall
of the first building and between him and the wall was the small figure
kneeling. He was holding her head and pressing his crotch into it and slapping
her into submission. Her whimpers died away as she complied with his demands.
There was nothing i could do. My heart was racing and i feared for my safety.
If those boys saw me i could be in deep shit. I pulled back into the doorway and
tried to calm down. It was best to stay there till they left and the doorway was deep
and offered not only shelter but cover.
There was laughter and i couldn’t resist another peek. The boys in brown had
switched roles although the lookout this time wasn’t playing with himself,
he’d had his bit of fun. I melted back into the doorway.
A few minutes later there was more laughter and chat and the two boys came
to their bike, mounted and rode away.
I entered the soi. The small figure in the pale dress was slumped on the ground
as one who has had everything taken. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen
or fourteen. The only good thing was the rain had stopped completely.