Behind The Smile
The Story of Lek, A Bar Girl in Pattaya
Copyright © December 26th, 2017 Owen Jones
BAAN SUAY, NORTH THAILAND, 1972
Pang followed her husband and parents off the large, shaded table that served for breaks from the burning Thai sun when working in the rice fields. They had just finished their midday meal having started at seven, and there were another five gruelling hours to complete before they could go home. However, they were lucky, they were working their own na, or rice fields, as most of the villagers were hired labourers. Her grandparents had worked hard to buy a few plots of land on the edge of the forest and they had spent years clearing them so that they were fit to grow top quality rice – the crop that the area was famous for.
Pang had something on her mind and it had caused her to lag behind, so she picked up her pace to as fast as was safely possible in the ankle-deep water and two inches of mud. They were planting their next crop of the latest rice hybrid which would allow them two to three crops a year, if the producers’ promises were to be believed. It would mean half as much work again, but also a hundred and fifty percent of their current meagre income, so they felt as if they were living in very exciting times indeed.
She moved as close to Maar, her husband, as she could, but her parents were only yards away. Still, it was more privacy than they ever got at home where they all dined together in the open air and slept in the same room in their traditional wooden house on stilts.
“Maar”, she whispered to her husband as she looked around. The four of them were planting four-inch rice plugs in the saturated soil. The layer of water would shield them long enough for them to become established. “Maar! Listen to me, I have something I want to talk to you about. What do you…” but her mother chose that precise moment to tell a funny story. Everyone was expected to laugh and then tell one of their own in turn. It was called ‘sanuk’, an untranslatable word, which meant “having fun at work’; it took their minds off the burning sun, the back-breaking, tedious, toil and helped the long hours seem to pass more quickly.
Pang gave up and joined in the fun.
In fact, planting was the hardest, but least dangerous of the activities involved in bringing a crop of rice to market. At this stage, you could see the snakes hunting frogs in the open expanse of water. When the rice was taller, you could not – then you had to have your wits about you and your machete close at hand. Snakes were very common; of the ninety-odd species found in Thailand, about a dozen of them were venomous, including the King Cobra, ordinary cobras and vipers, of which the deadly Russell’s were the most feared. The six-metre Burmese, and the ten-metre Reticulated pythons were only dangerous if they were hungry and feeling brave.
There were many stories of drunken field workers disappearing, never to be seen again, supposedly eaten by these huge pythons, although there were still a few crocodiles, and also tigers, in the area, despite the government actively trying to catch them and put them into farms or zoos. The wild elephants had been moved on long ago.
“Can we talk later? Maar! Can we talk later? Go for a walk or something after dinner?”
“Yes, all right, telak, whatever you say. I think we might finish this field today… we’re going well”.
“Yes”, she agreed dolefully, and started singing a song that everyone could join in with”.
“Do you still want to go for a walk, Pang? It’ll be dark in twenty minutes…”
“I don’t want to be out for long, but we finished late, and couldn’t get away from the dinner table any earlier. However, it is important, and who knows when we will get the next opportunity?”
“OK, tell your Mum we’re going out, and we can leave”.
As they strolled through the village, people living in houses on the main road were sitting on their dining tables in the garden, and not one family would let them pass without saying or asking something. By the time they had reached the Wat, or Buddhist Temple, on the edge of the village, it was already dark.
“Telak”, said Maar, “I know that something has been bothering you, but I also knew that you would find a way to tell me when you had the time. We are alone now, what is it, my dear?”
“Well, telak Maar, you know that we are on the verge of making a considerable increase to our income? I was wondering whether…”
“You want another buffalo? Or two dozen chickens? Have them all, we will soon be able to afford them, and more”. He smiled broadly at her. If they hadn’t been in public, he would have embraced and kissed her too, but showing affection outside the home was taboo.
She looked at him and smiled back. “Thank you, my husband, you are very generous to me. As it happens, I was thinking about adding to our household, but not with animals…”
“Er… children?” he asked slowly. “I thought we had decided that we wanted at least one more rai, before we took that step?”
“Yes, that is true, but I think that Buddha has other plans”.
“What plans… you mean…?”
“Yes, I think so, my love. I am not one hundred percent certain, but I am two months late.“ She searched her husband’s eyes and face for clues as millions of women had done before her. Thais are thought of as inscrutable, but they aren’t to their family and close friends.
He stepped forward and held out his arms. Pang sprang into them relieved, and they broke the social code of not kissing in public. Passers-by would have been shocked, but secretly delighted, for many people found the self-imposed prohibition too restrictive.
“Your parents and my mother will be so excited – their first grandchild… our first child… have you a feeling about what sex our baby is?”
“No, my telak”, she giggled behind her fingers, in the way that had first attracted Maar to her. “Some women seem to know, but this is my first. I have no idea. Do we have to tell our parents yet though?”
“Why not, my darling? I am so proud and so happy, that I would go into the Temple right now and tell each of the monks individually”.
She stepped out of his embrace, but took one of his hands in both of hers. “I want this to be our little secret for a while, Maar. I don’t want to share it with anyone just yet. Is that selfish of me?”
“I don’t know… I don’t think so. We will do whatever you want, my wonderful wife… I don’t care what other people think, as long as you are well… and our little baby, of course”. He touched her stomach and she blushed. “Come on, I want to get you home before a beady-eyed tiger or the hypnotic Jong-Ahn gets you”. She laughed at his reference to the warnings that parents gave their children about tigers or King Cobras getting them if they strayed too far from home after dark, and ran on ahead. Maar played the game and chased her with his arms outstretched before him. She shrieked in mock terror, but allowed him to catch her.
When they arrived home, it was impossible to hide the change that had obviously overcome them, but Pang’s parents didn’t ask. Life had not been generous to them as far as children were concerned, but they knew how to behave and respected their daughter’s privacy, as much as they could. When Pang and Maar went straight to bed, Bang, her mother turned to her husband, Boonchu and beamed at him.
“What is it, woman? Not wind again, I hope”.
“You are so blind… I don’t know how a snake hasn’t got you yet”.
“Why do you talk in riddles? Please, just speak your mind or hold your tongue”.
“You’ll see. You mark my words… you have a surprise in store, and you will get it this year, if Buddha is willing”.
“I don’t know. The older you get, the less I understand of what you say. Your mother, may she rest in peace, was an old witch, I hope it doesn’t run in the family”.
She slapped him playfully on the shoulder. “Don’t talk about my mother like that, and you don’t need to be a witch to see what I just saw. You just have to look and think, but perhaps only women can find the time to do that, eh?”
“Shall we go to bed? I’m not as young as I used to be and we covered a lot of ground today. My back is killing me. I could do with one of your massages”.
“Let’s give them another twenty minutes, Chu. Lie on the table here and I will massage you now before we go to bed”.
Chu laid face down on the table and grinned to himself. He thought that he understood why his wife was giving the ‘children’ a bit of time to themselves, but he had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
“Oh, that’s the spot, nang, right there!” he moaned in pleasure.
Pang and Maar lay on their bed arm in arm; their parents bed was against the opposite wall, and they billed and cooed to each other.
“If we are lucky, my telak, this room will never seem so big and empty again”, said Pang.
“Luck will not come into, darling. We have been good people and worked hard. No-one can say anything against us, Karma is on our side, and Buddha has to respect that. Our baby,“ he said rubbing her naked tummy, “will be born, and, that boy or girl, I don’t care which, will be a wonderful child, because it is lucky enough to have a wonderful mother to teach it how to behave… He or she will be such a fortunate child. Believe me, telak, I will pull all the stops out for our child”.
Pang snuggled into her husband’s strong arms. Tears of joy ran freely down her cheeks, and she could never remember having been happier.
When they heard their parents clomping up the stairs, they feigned sleep, but not for long.
They were tired too.
The following day was difficult for Maar. Like all first-time fathers, he wanted his wife to take things easy now that he knew that she was pregnant, but at the same time, he respected her wishes that nobody but the two of them should know about their good news at that early stage. He winced every time he saw her do anything strenuous, but resisted the desire to rush to her aid lest his concern alerted her parents. Despite that, not once did he wonder why he hadn’t cared about her physical hardships before she was pregnant.
Pang, for her part, thought it comical that her husband should suddenly be so worried because she might have something the size of a peanut growing inside her.
Her mother and the other village women were right, she thought, men were illogical. They don’t seem to give a fig how hard you work for years, but as soon as you are carrying an extra peanut of weight, they are worse than mother hens!
“Are you all right, my darling? You are not finding the work too hard or the sun too hot, are you?”
“Well, now that you come to mention it, yes, I am, but then I always have done, and so has everyone else, but we’ll get over it, and we will survive, just like we, and everyone else, always does, until the moment when Buddha calls us home”.
“I would feel so much better if your mother knew about… er, you know what”.
“Yes, I suppose you would. All right, if all is well a week from today, we will announce our surprise”. Maar had to stop himself from sploshing over to his wife and hugging her”.
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