I didn’t like Khun Retzna. I handed him the gloves and he nodded. He said nothing, just turned away, his broad back mocking me.
That night there was a storm – violent, tropical. Lightning rent the sky, thunder crashed and rain slashed down. I couldn’t sleep, not just because of the noise but because I was thinking of the next day, as the water gurgled in the gutters and pipes.
The next morning, I set out early. I took with me my few possessions in a frayed orange rucksack slung across my back. I left without a word or a backward glance, taking care not to waken Khun Retzna, who was snoring as usual on his bench behind the counter in the lobby.
It had stopped raining and the big main street that the Americans had made with their concrete-pouring machines sparkled with a thousand shallow puddles. The side-streets, deeply rutted by the rickshaws and the tuc-tucs, had become stagnant channels of foul black mud, washed out from the sewers by the night’s torrential downpour. I knew at once that I should not have come out in sandals, that my feet and trouser legs would soon be caked in filth, but my heavy waterproof shoes were now just a distant memory.
I turned off the concrete road down the path by the side of the new supermarket with the tin roof. The shutters were still up and a dozen homeless people still huddled under the portico where they had spent the night. In a few minutes the shop workers would arrive and chase them away. Normally their fate would have meant nothing to me, even their physical presence would not have registered—but on this morning I felt a wave of sympathy and recognition. If fortune did not smile upon me today then these were my brothers and sisters. In the long run I would be one of them anyway.
Further down the narrow unmade track that was the short cut to the river-bus terminal on the Chao Phraya I passed a monk standing ankle-deep in the mud, his yellow robes touching its surface, his begging bowl in his hand. I searched in my pocket and found the ten baht note that had been my tip from the German with the cartoon animal on his T-shirt the night before. He had given it to me for “finding” a room for himself and his Thai bar-girl, even though we were full up. For people like that we were always full up, and yet always able to find a room. I folded the note and dropped it in the monk’s bowl. He nodded his appreciation.
After I had passed and was out of the monk’s sight I searched in all my pockets again. Only a few satang. There was no point in going to the river-bus terminal now, I did not have the fare. I turned down an unfamiliar back-street, heading up-river. It was barely dawn, I could walk to the Grace Hotel in a couple of hours. Well, maybe three, with the mud slowing me down. I would show Khun Retzna: I would be a doorman at the Grace, my friend Khun Tong would help me to get the job. They would give me new gloves, whiter gloves, and a light blue uniform with epaulets on the shoulders and a white badge with the name of the hotel sown on, and a smart blue peaked cap. Khun Retzna’s hotel was a dump, with bed-bugs, and insect larvae coming out of the water taps. Nobody would ever go there except that he paid the bar-girls one-hundred-and-twenty baht for every client they brought in. The Grace was a proper hotel. A respectable hotel. It paid the bar girls only fifty baht, and there were customers from proper tour companies as well. Khun Retzna would hear of my good fortune – if I could pull it off. I would see to it that he did.
My feet made a squelching sound each time I pulled them out of the mud to take a step. Progress between the ramshackle bamboo dwellings that crowded both sides of the track was very slow. The flooding of the sewer ditches had made the smell unusually strong. A few stray dogs watched my progress but the only signs of human presence were some softly expanding and contracting bundles of grey cloth stretched out here and there on random dry patches where wooden steps led to raised front doors. Bangkok was still sleeping – at least to the extent that it ever sleeps.
The track I was following met another one in a T-junction. Should I turn right for the river or left to return to the main road? I had hesitated for only a moment but from out of nowhere someone had come up behind me, and with a start I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Where are you going old man?” he hissed from between uneven yellow teeth. His eyes were cold, his bony face without expression. I looked down and saw that his right hand was clasped over the handle of something that was concealed in his pocket. It required little imagination to guess what it was.
“Mister, I am just a poor hotel worker and yesterday I lost my job. I have nothing in the whole world but a few unwashed clothes. You’re wasting your time entirely with me, I swear.”
“Is that a fact? You don’t sound like a hotel worker. You speak well, like a teacher or a government official.” He plunged his hands roughly into my two trouser pockets in turn and from the second one extracted a few coins, which he threw contemptuously into the mud.
“Take that bag off your back” he demanded in the same undertone. I undid the buckle and gave it to him. He rifled through it furiously, holding it close to his body in his right hand, which still hovered above the handle of whatever he had in his pocket.
“You see? I told you the truth.”
He emptied my clothes into the mud. Instinctively I reached out to save them. His eyes fixed on my hands. “Why have you got cloth tied around your hands?” he demanded.
“My hands get cold. I have no gloves now. Khun Retzna took my gloves… well, they belonged to him, but I needed them. I needed them very badly.”
He withdrew the knife from his pocket so that I could see the full eight or nine cruel inches of the blade. He was wearing gloves himself, I noticed. Thick sleek black leather ones: the kind motorcyclists wear.
“Very clever,” he said beneath his breath and grabbed my right wrist. He pushed the point of the knife between the yellowing piece of cloth and my skin, rocking the blade back and forth to cut the ancient fabric.
“What are you doing? Are you mad?” The material fluttered down in shards, following my clothes into the foul-smelling mud.
“That’s where it is, isn’t it? Hidden under these bandages…” As he ripped the last strands away in a single yellowing tangle he stopped and became completely motionless. My wrist slipped from his grasp and his face lost all of its colour.
“I told you that I needed the gloves,” I said quietly. Before he recovered from his shock I deliberately grasped the blade of the knife in my foreshortened leprous right hand and watched the blood spring from between the remains of my fingers. “It doesn’t hurt,” I assured him. He let go of the knife. I did the same, allowing it to join everything else in the mud. I reached towards him with my dripping rotted hand and watched his eyes widen with alarm. In his haste to draw away he stumbled and fell backwards, sinking inches into the filth, covering his clothing with the mixture of clay and excrement. I leaned over him and lowered my hand so that it was almost touching his cheek. “I have heard that the contamination is carried in the blood,” I whispered. “Shall we find out?”
“No! No, I beg you! Anything! I’ll give you anything!”
I watched my blood dripping rhythmically past his shoulder. I had never before observed such terror on the face of a human being. “Since you are kind enough to offer,” I continued in a level conversational tone, “I would be grateful for some money. If you can’t find all of it yourself I will be happy to help you search… “
It was not necessary. He produced four leather wallets of differing colours and design in the time it took me to draw another breath. I used my still-covered left hand to accept them, and commenced re-packing my rucksack. He shuddered and tried to crawl away from me, pushing up great mounds of filth with his elbows and feet.
“Oh, just one more favour,” I added in a tone which I fancied must have sounded almost apologetic, “I should like you to give me your gloves… ”
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