Behind The Smile
1 The Big Decision
Lek lay on the thin mattress on the living-room floor between her husband and her granddaughter, thinking about the bombshell that Craig had dropped on her earlier that day. They had abandoned their beautiful bed with its expensive mattresses more than five years before because the tiling on the four-foot thick solid-concrete subfloor was always cool to the touch. Now they had aircon, but were so used to the floor that they soon developed bad backs from sleeping on soft mattresses. The nearer the baby was to the floor, the shorter distance she could fall as well, so now the beds and the both bedrooms were kept for visitors.
As she lay on her back staring at the ceiling, Craig put his hand on her still-flat stomach.
“Are you still awake, darling? That’s not like you. Are you still thinking about what I said earlier?”
“No”, she lied, “you go to sleep. I’m just trying to remember what I’ve got to do tomorrow”.
“I know it’s a big decision, my dear, but there are many reasons why the time is right to do it now… you can see that, can’t you?”
He patted her tummy gently and she laid her hand over his for a few seconds, before turning away to face Shell. A couple of tears traversed her face. Previously, he had always been the one who had difficulty getting off, while she could normally sleep anywhere any time.
It looked as if tonight would break the mould though, she thought.
She and Craig had been together for fifteen years or so. When they had met, it had been her dream to find a falang and either go back to his country with him to work and make some ‘big money’ or emigrate there with her daughter and seek a foreign passport. Fate had had other plans in store for her though, because the man she fell for, the one lying next to her, had wanted to live in Thailand, and she had gone along with him, because she had saved for Soom’s further education and Craig had savings and seemed capable of earning.
However, she had acted foolishly and squandered her savings and more besides. Craig had stepped into the breech to pay for university, but it had cost him all his savings and his apartment, partly because the exchange rate had swung against him by thirty-three percent. She remembered what a cow she had been at the time, when she was considering ditching him and going back to work, which would have forced him to go back to the UK broke.
She found it hard to believe that she could have contemplated being so callous now. Nevertheless, he had stuck by her and she by him, although she had never given up two of her oldest dreams: to own a car and to work or live abroad.
She had the car now, and could have had one years earlier, but it had been as Craig had said: she hadn’t needed one. The car on the drive had cost a million baht, worth nearly six years’ gross salary for someone with a decent job, but was barely used. She had to find excuses to take it anywhere despite having Shell and working in town a few days a week.
He had been right, but so had she, she thought. Her argument at the time had been that he had learned that through having one, and she wanted to learn for herself as well. They had both used the same argument for living or not living in Europe too.
And then today had happened. Craig had said that it was time to go to the UK. After 15 years, he was offering to fulfil her final dream, but it scared her so. She had everything that she had ever wanted, except her daughter living with her, and having worked abroad, and he was asking her to give it all up in order to go away and start again.
It was so scary. She had complained bitterly for more than twelve years about not being able to work away and now she could, or she could just be a lady of leisure over there, although her Thai earnings would not go far in Europe, she knew that. In her village and surrounding area, she was someone. She was an Orbortor, an area financial controller, and a successful businesswoman, but in Britain, she would be a nobody with an average wage.
And what about her family? Now that her mother was in her seventies, her siblings looked to her for help and advice as the head of the family. She also had a daughter and granddaughter to be there for. She was beginning to wish now that she hadn’t caused such a fuss about fulfilling her dream of living in Europe for all those years.
She had never told Craig, because it would have cost her Face, that she knew of lots of girls who had regretted moving away from Thailand in search of money in cold, distant, friendless lands, where they had no family for moral support, despite the Internet. She was frightened now that she would soon be one of those women living in cold, cold Britain regretting having attainted her dream.
And Craig had told her that that happened to lots of Thai women a decade ago as well, but she had chosen to laugh at him and ask how the Hell he knew. He knew he knew, because he had talked to many falang in Pattaya who had told him about their experiences, he had said, but she had never met girls who had come back and said that. The ones she knew had had to return to look after Mum, or someone else. Now she thought they might have been Face-saving excuses.
She could just refuse, she thought, but it didn’t sit right with her somehow.
She heard Craig start to snore. It was the first time she could remember his having got to sleep before her and wondered whether it was because he was going home. He had said many times that living abroad was enjoyable but a strain, if money was in short supply. She didn’t want to go back to having to worry about money again, and especially if she were living in an expensive country like the UK.
She foresaw their lifestyle dropping by twenty to twenty-five percent, and it made the future look gloomy.
She cursed herself again for not listening and complaining so much.
She knew that her mother would be brave and say that her place was at her husband’s side. She also knew that Soom would find a way of taking care of Shell, but she didn’t want to be excluded from their lives.
When sleep came, it was only fleeting. Craig woke her up, because she seemed to be having a nightmare. It was four o’clock in the morning, and she had been dreaming she was dying in a hospital bed in the UK with only Craig and a nurse at her side.
“It was horrible, Craig,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to go with you. Will you be able to come back to see me sometimes?”
“What? After all the nagging I’ve had to put up with over the years? What the Hell are you talking about?”
She took his hand and told him all her concerns. Tears flowed down her cheeks and the sun rose as she did so.
They got up for breakfast earlier than usual and continued their conversation in the garden, while Shell slept on oblivious to the massive disruption in her life that was being discussed by the two main people in that life.
“I’m not saying that we have to leave next month, Lek. We could wait a year, and I’m not even saying that you have to give me your answer right now, but if you are coming with me, as I had assumed, I have to do things one way and make plans accordingly, and if you are not coming, then, well, I might just go and live in Spain”.
“Spain!? I thought you said the UK?”
“Why, does that make a difference? Look, I am European, I can go and live anywhere I like in Europe, but you, being Asian, cannot. At least, not without certain planning. Once we get you into Europe legally, we can both go anywhere. I’ll be a Pensioner soon, and I’ll be able to have my pension sent to me anywhere in the world – even Japan”.
“No, I don’t want to live in Japan… no, no thanks”.
“Eh? I’m not suggesting we go and live in Japan, it was only an example”.
“Good, because I’d rather stay here than go to live over there. I wouldn’t know anyone… or be able to speak the language”.
“Ok, forget about Japan, I wish I’d never mentioned it now”.
“How long would you want to go for?”
“Well, it won’t be only up to me, but I was thinking of five years”.
“Ok, leave it with me, Craig, I need to get on now and think about it in my own time. Do you remember that Soom is coming up for Mother’s Day and our birthdays?”
“Yes, it’ll be good to see her again and maybe you’ll discuss it with her…”
“Yes, maybe… we’ll see how it goes”.
Craig kissed Lek on the cheek and hugged her close. She put her arms around his waist and then they set about their morning routines.
Lek got Shell ready for nursery school, took her by car and then returned home to talk to her mother about her latest dilemma.
“But your dream was always to try living abroad… we used to talk about it often”.
“Yes, but now I have a good job, and Shell and I’m older…”
“I should think that Shell is the most important of those excuses, and when you first talked about going abroad, you had Soom – your own little girl, but that wouldn’t have stopped you back then”.
“Probably not, no, but I didn’t know what a joy it would be to watch your baby grow up. I’m glad that I didn’t go now, and I don’t want to miss seeing Shell grow up either…”
“No, but she is not really your responsibility. She is your granddaughter and you are helping out. I have thought for a while now that you are becoming too close to Shell. I think that you would be devastated if the circumstances arose one day, which would mean her moving away from you – far away. It could always happen, and you, as her guardian, have to be prepared for that day or it will break your heart. It sounds incredible now, but what if you ended up hating Soom because she took Shell away from you? It would mean losing both of them”.
“That would be cruel indeed, Mae”.
“A cruel twist of fate, yes, but not necessarily your daughter’s choice. Still, would you be strong enough to see it like that if it ever happened?
“It is far better to go through life helping others when you are able to, but all the while remembering that they have… everyone has his own life to lead according to the choices they made before they were born and their Karma. You cannot alter someone’s Destiny, it is pre-ordained, and so is the amount of help you can give. You can only do your best, Lek, you are only learning like most of us on Earth”.
“If it were down to me, we would stay here, and things would go on just as they are now. This is the happiest time of my life and I don’t want it to end”.
“You are talking about yourself an awful lot in that last sentence, my dear. I know that you are not a selfish person, but that sentence belies that fact. Are you frightened of going to live in Europe?”
“No, Mae, leastwise not in the same sense as I was fifteen years ago when all the old biddies told me I might be sold into sex-slavery! But maybe I am scared that my family will forget me if I stay away too long in the same way that Craig’s family hardly talk to him now”.
“I didn’t know it was like that. How sad for Craig. You have met his family, are they anything like us?”
“They were very nice, but they just seem to have learned not to talk to him, but no, my family and his are nowhere near the same”.
“So what are you worried about then? Sometimes we see things that do not exist, including problems. I take it that Europe is not a jail, so surely you can come home wherever you like, be it for a holiday or for good. At least you will have tried, which is a darn sight more than ninety-nine percent of the people here. How long are you proposing to go for?”
“We’re not sure, but three to five years. It’s not certain that we’ll be able to afford a holiday back here…”
“I see… that is your main concern. I see now… Shell is nearly three and it is likely that she would have forgotten you in three or five years, but you can become part of her life again. She will accept you with open arms, you can guarantee that”.
“I know, Mae, I know, I guess I’m just scared”.
“You are a thinker, Lek, so consider this. Craig gave up all his friends and family to come here, and since making that decision, has probably given up all his money too. If you want to give him credit for that, you should go with him until you can do it no more. Like I said before, help until you are no longer able to. That’s all you can do, and all that anyone can hope from you.
“It is clear to me that your place is with your husband, not least because of the commitment he has shown to you over one and a half decades, but the choice is ultimately yours, as always. Soom is coming up for your birthday, isn’t she?”
“Yes, I will talk to her about it, but I don’t want you to get sick when I am not around”.
“Thank you, but I am sure that I made arrangements for that, should the occasion arise, many years ago and there are lots of other people around… and if I die while you’re away, then we will meet again one day, have no fear of that. I have enjoyed my time on Earth and you have been a dutiful and loving daughter, I will be sure to seek you out alive or not”.
“Thanks, Mae, that means a lot to me… I feel the same”.
Lek was close to tears and knew that her mother knew it, but it was still difficult for her to cry in front of anyone.
“Is that the time already?” she exclaimed looking at her watch, “I’d better go and check on the shop and hotel. Thanks for the chat, Mae. I love you…”
“I love you too, Lek. Take care of yourself and then those who love you, or you won’t be able to take care of anyone. Remember that. I’ll see you later, dear”.
Lek checked on both establishments, but the girls they had in charge could run them without any help, so Lek phoned Ayr and arranged to meet her for lunch in a small restaurant in a village near by, where they were unlikely to be disturbed.
“Something has come up,” she told Ayr, “but it isn’t life-threatening, so no need to worry”.
“OK, but I’ll pick you up at eleven, I’m curious and there’s no sense taking two cars”.
When they were seated in the restaurant and had ordered prawns and mixed seafood salad, Ayr could wait no longer.
“Come on then, out with it, you’ve had me guessing for hours”.
“It’s quite simple really, Craig wants to go back to Europe for a few years and wants me to go with him”.
“Great! Your dream come true! So what’s wrong with that?”
Lek told her everything that had passed between her mother and herself earlier.
“Yes, I see your point, but I agree with your mother. I think that you should go. Craig has stuck by you, now it’s your turn to stick by him… not to mention the fact that you nagged him for years to take you”.
“But what about you and the businesses? I can’t just swan off and leave you to run them on your own”.
“Listen, Lek, we don’t run them now… our managers do. Anyway, I haven’t told you this before, but Ross has been asking me to go back to Australia with him for at least the last year…”
“Well, why didn’t you say anything?”
“For the same reasons as you just gave…”
“Oh, I see. Thanks. Now what?”
“What’s the problem, don’t you want to go?”
“I just told you about that…”
“Yes, but, really?”
“I don’t really know…”
“OK, darling, but there’s no need to use excuses with me; we’ve known each other too long. Keep that for others, if you like and I’ll back you up”.
They hugged and Lek started to cry again, seconds before Ayr did.
“If we do this, Little Sister, we may never see each other again. We won’t be at the opposite ends of the country, but at opposite sides of the world”.
“That thought was also making my decision difficult, but Ross has been very patient. He is wealthy, so we could visit you whenever we wanted to, but I know that is not your predicament…”
“I also know that visits, like phone calls, peter out… even faster than phone calls…”
“Yes, it is true, I wouldn’t try to argue with that”.
“Our lives will never be the same again, ever…”
“No, I know. Gone but not forgotten, though, eh?”
Lek stared at her friend for a while and then looked out the window. It was just too painful to contemplate.
“What does Soom say about it all?”
“She doesn’t know yet, but she’ll be here for Mother’s Day – the day before…”
“That’s good… I don’t need to discuss it with anyone but you… There is no-one else who matters, but even when my parents were alive, I would have gone anyway. I agree with your mother’s point of view”.
“So do I really, but having someone else say it to you sort of lets you off the hook, doesn’t it?”
“You’re not a coward, Lek, but I know what you are talking about”.
“Just what would Goong make of all this, I wonder?”
“I think she’s sitting not far away, smiling to herself and wondering what all the fuss is about… aren’t you, Goong?”
They smiled at each other and wished it were so.
“Mike, so you won’t be coming up to the village with me for Mothers’ Day, my mother’s birthday and Paw’s?”
“No, my dear, I went to the village last year, remember? So, it’s only fair that I go to spend the day with my own mother this year, and if I do that, I might as well do a day’s work in the bank as well. I only wish I could come with you. I’d love to see Shell again and your family will be more fun than mine, but I’ve got to take Mae’s feelings into accounts as well… it’s only fair”.
“Yes, I know, but I still wish you were coming too…”
“We’ll go up there together for the weekend early next month. Give Shell and everyone my love won’t you? I’ll speak to you on video link every day too”. He kissed her, made himself comfortable and prepared to go to sleep, but something was bothering Soom.
She lay there staring at the ceiling until she heard Mike start to snore and then she rolled onto her side. She knew what it was that had irked her now, this was the first time that Mike had not been keen to make love to her when they knew that they would be apart for several days. In the past he would have been all over her. Tears slid down her cheeks and she wondered whether this was the first sign that they were becoming an ‘old married couple’, although it had only been five years, or was it a symptom of deeper-rooted problems?
If it were, then perhaps that was why he was so blasé about not going with her to see his own daughter. Perhaps, he had other activities planned, which only partially included a brief visit to wish his mother a happy Mothers’ Day.
The idea bothered her off and on all night and on the journey to the village the next day. Sure, he had taken her to the airport in the morning and kissed her goodbye, but that could have been show. It worried her, and wouldn’t go away.
“Thanks for picking me up, Mum, happy birthday and a happy Mothers’ Day. I have some presents for you in my bag in the boot. So, how’s my little girl today, how are you and Paw and what have you got planned for this evening?”
“Your Dad and I are fine, he’s writing his next masterpiece, you know, I’m fine and so is Shell. I dropped her off at nursery this morning at nine as usual and then drove out to pick you up. I had a couple of coffees in the airport lounge and read a magazine while I waited. I really enjoyed it. I pretended I did it really often and tried to look like an international jetsetter, you know”.
“You do do it quite often; I come up at least once a month… and tonight?”
“Yes, I suppose I do, don’t I? Oh, tonight? Nothing special… the same as every year. We’ll have a small family party in your grandmother’s house for us three Mums… three generations of mothers all celebrating. It’s a pity my grandmother couldn’t have lived a few more years to see it… still you can’t have everything, can you?
“He’s OK too, but he has to be careful with his mother, so he has to try to divide his time up evenly, but make her think she’s getting the lion’s share. He was up here last year, so it’s her turn this. It’ll mean he can get an extra three days work in which will keep the boss happier than if we were both away at the same time.
“Can you take me to visit ‘The Old Lady in The Tree’ today or tomorrow?”
“Sure, we’re all going to be busy today, but tomorrow certainly. Why, is there something bothering you?”
“No, nothing specific, but I always come away from those visits feeling ‘better’ somehow… more at peace with myself and the world. Do you know what I mean? When did you last go?”
“Yes, I do know what you’re saying. A visit has the same effect on me. You know, it’s funny, I haven’t been along there this month yet, but I have something I’d like to talk to her about as well. I’m glad you brought it up. Oh, wait a moment… we are going to four parties rolled into one tonight, so we’ll have to wait and see how we feel tomorrow… we can’t go there with hangovers, it wouldn’t be right”.
“No, fair enough, as long as I get to see her at least once before I go back”.
Soom knew better than to ask her mother what she wanted to talk to The Old Lady about. That would have been nosy and rude, but she was curious, nevertheless.
“OK, first stop the ‘Big C’ supermarket to get some essential supplies for tonight; then lunch, and then home to see Craig and get started on tonight’s parties. Suit you?”
“Whatever you say, Mum, it all sounds great to me!”
To save time, they decided to have lunch, just a bowl of rice-noodle soup, in the restaurant upstairs in the supermarket. They sat at the edge of the large restaurant, which overlooked the shoppers with their trolleys below.
“How many are you expecting to be there tonight, Mum?”
“Well, you and Shell, me and Craig, Gran, my sister and brothers and their spouses… that’s er, eleven, so if we cater for twenty we should be OK… and with any luck we’ll have food left over for tomorrow, just in case we do feel a bit tired”‘
Soom laughed. “Good idea!”
Lek slowed down as they passed the nursery on the edge of the village, but the children were inside, so she drove on, slowing again as they approached the hotel in the centre of the village.
“I thought he might be here. ‘Soaking up inspiration from the day-to-day village activities’, he calls it, but I think it is more like drinking beer Chang from a bottle. The food will keep if you want to stop for half an hour”.
“Yes, please, Mum”, she leant over kissed her mother on the cheek and waved at Craig, as Lek parked the car on the forecourt in the shade of their shop next door.
Soom jumped out of the vehicle as soon as it stopped and ran to Craig who stood up with his arms out wide as she approached.
“Hello, darling, lovely to see you again,” he said as he hugged her and she made a sound as if all the wind were being squeezed out of her as she always did. She reached up, kissed him on the cheek and he let her go. She was a tiny forty kilos to his one hundred and twenty. “What are you having to drink, ladies?” he asked as Nong arrived.
“I’ll have an ice cold Chang, Nong, a small one. Soom?”
“Wow, that’s unusual, Soom. Good for you, Lek?”
“And my usual, please, Nong”.
“We’re not staying long, just the one beer because Soom wanted to say ‘hello’. There is food in the car that will go off in this heat, so we have to get it to Mum’s house soon and then we can start preparing for this evening. You won’t get too drunk before you come back, will you?”
“Why would I? Jeez, Lek… Ah, thank you, Nong.
“Happy Birthday, Lek, my dear wife, and May you have many more”.
“Happy Birthday, Mum and Happy Mothers’ Day”.
“Thank you, both, and Happy Mothers’ Day to you too, Soom!”
“Yes, Happy Mothers’ day, Soom!”
“Thank you!” and they all clinked bottles several times.
You can buy Stepping Stones from the bookshop in the title bar.