On Writing a Novel

Stare down the barrel of a novel,

roll up the manuscript,

the paper crisp,

and you’ll see it, you’ll taste it:

the target, a fading shadow in the mist (a lick of candy-flossed dreams with a lisp);

the loneliness as cold as the steel that supports your numb arse  and your broken fucking dreams;

the self-doubt, tips of fragments of spitzer bullets at the bottom of your cereal bowl;

and the blanks – oh dear god the blanks –

more hurtful than writing ‘the end’.

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Nicky

 

As the storm clouds gather, the humidity intensifies. Nicky steps out onto her third-floor apartment balcony and closes the sliding door behind her.

I can’t afford any more hot air blowing into the living room, she tells herself. The air-conditioner is working overtime already, and my electricity bill has doubled over the last four months – tripled in May when there wasn’t a day when the temperature dropped below thirty-seven degrees Celsius.

Nicky pulls down her mini skirt. She looks down at the compressor.

“I have to get it fixed. The neighbours have complained about this … racket. There’s something loose inside. I wonder what make it is. It might be a Mitsubishi, but it’s impossible to tell. The Bangkok sun has burnt the manufacturer’s sticker to a crisp.”

There is an empty beer bottle filled with cigarette butts between the wall and compressor. Nicky clicks her tongue. “God, Miroslav, you promised to quit smoking when I moved in with you two years ago. You promised,” she hisses.

She ties up her hair and turns around, rests her elbows on the balcony railing. The metal is warm. The cheap tiles under her bare feet are warm. The air blowing out from the compressor warms her thighs.

She shakes her head. Miroslav. Miroslav.

Miroslav and Nicky met on a warm night at the wine bar where she used to work as a hostess-cum-waitress.

God, how easily I fell for you, Miroslav, you sleek, forty-year old Russian businessman wearing an expensive suit and yellow silk tie; Miroslav, you with the shoulder-length black hair and dimple in your chin; Miroslav, you carrying a crocodile leather briefcase. I poured you Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir; South African wines, Australian, Californian, Chilean, French.

That was four years ago on his first trip to Thailand, but they only had time to exchange phone numbers then. He was flying back to Moscow at midnight and only had an hour to kill before he had to catch a taxi to the airport. He phoned Nicky twice on his way to Suvarnabhumi International, told her he wanted to see her again.

“I do property Nicky. I travel. Mostly I am lonely. I see many women. But you… you… What words, Nicky? There are no words for your beauty,” he said.

Nicky smiles at the memory, almost tastes the wine on her tongue. Purple. Velvet.

Miroslav overwhelmed her. He was so intense – his ice-blue eyes put her in a trance.

Nicky can hear his voice: Do you know the difference between wine aromas and bouquet? And: I will be back in Bangkok in a couple of months’ time. The property market is … how you say … booming. Then we meet again, no?

Oh, Miroslav, you were so cute that night. So loving. So sweet.

You were. Were, were, were.

Miroslav bought the apartment on Sukhumvith Road in downtown Bangkok for Nicky’s twenty-third birthday. It was a surprise. He took her out for a romantic dinner at a plush Chinese seafood restaurant on Yaowarat Road in Chinatown.

Nicky was allergic to seafood.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I can’t believe I never told you.”

“It is … how you say … acceptable,” Miroslav replied in a thick Russian accent. “We do not know each other well. I eat the seafood. You order something else?”

“Excuse me for a second,” she said.

Nicky stepped outside and bought a bowl of noodle soup from a stall a few doors down from the seafood restaurant.

“Why you bring in food from other restaurant?” he wanted to know as she sat down at the table. “You do like this is Russia, the chef will shoot you.”

“Relax, Miroslav. You’re in Thailand. It’s not a problem. I explained to the owner I was allergic to seafood, and that it’s my birthday. I said you wanted to surprise me, but you didn’t know about my allergy.”

“Pah!” Miroslav through his hands in the air like an opera singer.

The diners at the other tables grew quiet. The sound of their cutlery was deafening.

Sabaai, sabaai, Miroslav. Relax, relax.”

Nicky gets embarrassed by Miroslav’s sudden gestures and loud exclamations. She wants to disappear every time he shouts Pah! She wants him to disappear.

“Pah!” Miroslav banged his fist on the table this time. “How I can be sabaai? Now you tell personal things to owner? Why you do this? Now he thinks I don’t know you, now he thinks I come to Bangkok for … how you say … boom-boom. Maybe he thinks you are dirty hooker, no?”

What started off as a romantic dinner was quickly turning into a nightmare.

“Excuse me,” Nicky said again, not wanting to continue the discussion and attract more attention to their table.

“Where you go now?” Miroslav wanted to know. There was a piece of coriander leaf stuck between his front teeth.

Nicky holds a BA degree in English, and even though most of her lecturers were Thai, she has an excellent grasp of English grammar. She used to love his accent. But now she can’t stand it when Miroslav speaks to her in broken English.

Then again, she thinks, maybe I should’ve fallen for a native speaker, not a Russian.

“I’m going to the restroom, Miroslav. Is that okay with you?”

“You go boy or girl?”

“Pardon me?” Nicky couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She pushed her chair back too far. It hit the back of an elderly man who cursed in Chinese. Nicky didn’t take notice. She got up and stood arms akimbo, sensing a lump forming in her throat; sensing feral rage burning in her chest. Nicky wanted to take out Miroslav’s eyes with her chopsticks, dip them in her noodle soup. Eat at them raw.

Miroslav ignored her. He leaned forward and struggled to remove the legs from a tiger prawn.

“I said pardon me, Miroslav.”

“I say you go boy or girl. Is simple question, no?” He shrugged his shoulders and dipped the prawn tail into the chili sauce, stuffed it into his mouth, and chewed with his mouth open.

Fists clenched, Nicky forced a smile and said excuse me again. Her voice broke, and her mascara smeared as the tears started rolling down her cheeks.

 

***

Nicky pushes away from the balcony and goes back into the apartment, quickly shutting the door behind her. She walks around the Burmese teak breakfast nook and goes into the kitchen where she opens the double-door refrigerator and takes out the refresher towel she bought at the 7-Eleven on the apartment block’s ground floor. She wipes away the sweat from her cheeks and chin, stares down at the towel half-expecting to see the cheap material frayed.

She recalls taking the sleeper train with Miroslav to Vientiane in Laos. His Thai visa was running out, and he could get another month-long extension if he left the Kingdom and re-entered at the border.

“Why don’t we just fly there, Miroslav? Some of these budget airlines might even be cheaper than taking the train.”

“I want to take train. See real Thailand.”

Nicky couldn’t see the reasoning behind his argument. She knew he was lying – Miroslav always pulled his left earlobe when he lied.

How quickly you get to know someone when you live with them, Nicky thought. The trip from Bangkok to Vientiane takes fourteen hours at night. There only ‘spectacular view’ was that of a few rice paddies and water buffaloes in the morning.

Nicky decided not to pursue the matter, but it bothered her that Miroslav didn’t have a proper business visa.

They slept on bunk beds. Miroslav said he wanted to sleep on the top bunk but woke Nicky at an ungodly hour complaining that it was too small.

“No leg space. Pah!”

The passenger who occupied the bed opposite Nicky stirred behind the green curtain with a pink lotus flower motif. She was an elderly woman who Nicky had made small talk with while they were waiting for the train to depart. The woman said she was getting off at Nong Khai, Nicky’s hometown and the last city on the Thai side before crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge into Vientiane. Nicky wouldn’t visit anyone there. She was dead to her family.

“Keep your voice down, Miroslav,” Nicky whispered.

“My legs are dead,” Miroslav complained, standing over Nicky with his pillow under his arm. “Have strange dreams.”

“If you don’t keep quiet, your entire body will be dead,” Nicky jested. “And it’ll be a nightmare.”

Miroslav never laughed at Nicky’s jokes. “You go up. I sleep here,” he said and crawled into Nicky’s bed without saying another word.

There aren’t any showers on the train – only a squatter toilet at the end of each carriage. There isn’t any toilet paper either, a problem for many farang (foreigners) who travel to Thailand. They don’t know how to use the sprayer which is attached to a hose – a kind of ‘manual bidet’. Miroslav proved this point by mistaking the ‘bidet’ for a kind of ‘manual shower’. He washed himself down and flooded the bathroom. He didn’t take a towel with him.

“Pah!”

Nicky could hear his voice echo from the far end of the carriage. She pulled out her Levi’s from underneath her head. Her neck was stiff. She had to take off her jeans and roll them up to use as a pillow because Miroslav had taken both. She covered her face and imagined herself fading. Disappearing  slowly until she was nothing.

Still on the top bunk and lying on her back, Nicky cleaned herself with the refresher towel she’d bought at the Bangkok Railway Station. She asked Miroslav if he wanted one. She  told him that they come in handy.

“Then I smell like woman,” he said and clicked his tongue.

Nicky wiped her face and neck, the inside of her ears, forearms, and then her legs. The towel was already dry when she started cleaning between her toes. She opened a bottle of drinking water and soaked the towelette, this time cleaning properly between her legs.

Like so many times before, Nicky closed her eyes and felt the tears well up as she felt the frayed refresher towel over her genitals. She imagined herself outside this cage made of skin, this body some god with a sick sense of humour had given her at birth. She wanted to crawl out of it and leave it there on the bunk bed, folded like a cheap suit for Miroslav to find. She detested the thing dangling between her legs that caused her so much distress.

What did the doctor call it again? Gender … dys … dys … dysphoria.

Nicky wanted it gone.

Gone. Gone. Gone.

Nicky also realised that she had made a big mistake by moving in with Miroslav. She wanted him gone, too.

“Pah!”

Gone. Gone. Gone.

 

***

 

Nicky drops the refresher towel into the silver Ikea rubbish bin next to the refrigerator.

The morning after she moved in with Miroslav into the two-bedroom apartment, she told him that it wasn’t necessary to buy expensive furniture.

“I’m a simple country girl who don’t need luxuries, Miroslav. A plastic bin from the market would do just fine.”

Miroslav would have none of it. “Only the best for my love,” he replied, the exact same words he spoke on the night he wanted to blindfolded her in the back of a taxi after dinner at the Chinese seafood restaurant.

“What are you doing?” she asked, catching the eyes of the leather-faced taxi driver in the rear-view mirror before Miroslav put the blindfold over her eyes.

“It’s … how you say … surprise.”

“I … erm …” Nicky didn’t feel like any surprises. She was still fuming after Miroslav’s earlier remark when she went to the restroom. “I have a headache,” she lied.

“Come on, Nicky. Why are you like this now? It’s your happy birthday, no?” Miroslav ran a hand through her hair, and then stroked her cheek. Nicky pulled away before he could kiss her.

“Not tonight, Miroslav. I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning at eight.”

“I only want to see you happy,” he said looking down sheepishly at the blindfold in his hand.

Nicky let out a sigh. “Okay. How long is it going to take?” Nicky asked.

“Thirty minutes.”

“On one condition: no blindfold.” Again she caught the eye of the driver who looked away quickly and fidgeted with the volume control on the car stereo.

“It’s a … how you say … when people shake hands?”

Nicky knew Miroslav was hiding something from her. The fact that he didn’t have a proper business visa was worrying. What was even more disturbing was that the Russian businessman didn’t even know the English collocation It’s a deal. But Nicky played along. Miroslav did a lot for her – expensive clothes and accessories, dinners at swish restaurants, the gold necklace and bracelet he bought her for her birthday the year before, and all the money he had spent on her hormone replacement therapy and voice training over the last four years.

“It’s a deal,” Nicky said.

Da. Yes. A deal. Good.”

The taxi driver clicked his tongue when Miroslav told him to stop the taxi a kilometre or so before their destination.

“Here.” Nicky paid the taxi driver the fee on the meter and an extra twenty Thai Baht for his troubles. “That should cover it.”

“Pah! Why you do this?” Miroslav asked when they got out. He slammed the door.

“What do you mean?” asked Nicky.

“Why you pay him more? Why you throw money at taxi driver?”

“You made a deal with him, Miroslav. We got out before we reached our destination. He had reason to be a little upset.”

“There are many farang on Sukhumvith. Taxi drivers make good business.”

“Miroslav. If you look around, you’ll see there are more taxis than foreigners. Not all of them make a good living. Most of them don’t even own their own vehicles – they have to rent them from the companies that run the taxi businesses. Now, where are we heading? This headache is turning into a migraine.”

When they reached the apartment block on Sukhumvith Road, Miroslav took out an electronic security card from his breast pocket and held it over the reader mounted next to the door.

“What is this place?” Nicky asked, wondering if Miroslav had rented a room for the evening.

“You’ll see.”

Miroslav held the door for Nicky to step into a black marble-tiled foyer. When the door shut with a hiss, all the sounds coming from the street – food vendors shouting out their specials for the night, farang bargaining for cheaper prices on pirated clothing and DVDs, car hooters, and the roar of motorcycle engines – were gone.

A security guard got up from his post next to the door, saluted them, and pointed with an open palm towards the reception area.

Kopkoon, ka,” said Nicky, “Thank you.”

Miroslav nodded his thanks and straightened his suit jacket.

The receptionist got up from her chair behind the counter and greeted them, placing her palms together and bringing her thumbs up to the tip of her nose in a respectful wai.

Sawatdee ka,” the receptionist said. “Good evening.”

Nicky returned the gesture and smiled. “Sawatdee ka.”

Miroslav ignored the receptionist, headed straight for the lift, and pressed the UP button. “This way,” he said and cleared his throat.

Even with his back towards her, Nicky knew that Miroslav had put on his business face, a stern look of arrogance that deepened his frown and the dimple in his chin, as if the world owed him everything.

“Miroslav, shouldn’t we check in?”

“You spoil surprise. This way.”

Nicky nodded apologetically to the receptionist who returned her gesture with a wan smile that said it’s all right.

“Three,” said Miroslav as Nicky stepped into the lift.

“Pardon?”

“Floor three,” he said pointing at the control panel buttons.

Third floor, you oaf, Nicky thought and pressed the button. She checked her hair and make-up in the lift’s mirrored walls.

“Very posh, Miroslav. You didn’t have to—”

“Sh. You spoil surprise.”

God.

The lift doors opened and Miroslav walked out in front of Nicky. He turned left, and they walked past two doors. Miroslav stood in front apartment 3/3 and used the security card to open the door. The lock clicked softly.

“Happy birthday, Nicky,” he said and pushed open the heavy Burmese teak door.

 

***

 

Nicky opens the fridge again and takes out a tub of strawberry yoghurt and half-an-orange. Dinner. She balances the orange on the yoghurt lid in one hand and closes the door. Rips off the first page of a notepad stuck to the fridge with a Vladimir Putin fridge magnet.

“Miroslav, Miroslav,” Nicky whispers, looking Putin in the face.

She sinks into the leather sofa in the living room and studies the note.

Doctor Chin

Tomorrow

10:00am

 

This is it, she says to herself. This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. Tomorrow I am complete.

 

***

 

Nicky’s hand was shaking when she filled in the registration form the first time she met with Doctor Chin.

Miroslav put on his business face when they entered the waiting room. He ignored the receptionist who greeted them politely and sat down in an armchair. He picked up a Thai newspaper.

“What’s going on here?” he wanted to know as soon as Nicky sat down in the chair next to him. He held out the front page and pointed at a blurred picture of two bodies and two mangled motorcycles on the road.

“Not now, Miroslav.” Nicky’s hands were shaking so much she couldn’t open her purse to put back her Parker pen.

“Pah! I pay for operation. You translate.”

The receptionist gawked at Miroslav over the frame of her horn-rimmed glasses.

“Jeez. Okay.” Nicky bit down on her bottom lip and pretended to read the caption. “Cops chased them. They had pills on them. Teenagers. Methamphetamines. They crashed and died.”

“You don’t tell truth. I see when you tell lie.”

“Oh, read it yourself, then!” Nicky got up and walked out of the waiting room.

“Where you go now?”

Nicky shut the waiting room door and walked down two flights of stairs to the ground floor where she sat down at a coffee shop and started crying. Miroslav didn’t come after her. He phoned her on her mobile.

“What?” she answered.

“The doctor is now ready for you.”

“God.” Nicky hung up, took a handful of tissues, and stormed past the waiter who was just about to give her a menu.

Nicky’s high heels click-clacked over the tiles on the stairs, muffling her sobs. On the first floor she stopped outside the entrance to Doctor Chin’s office and wiped her tears, dabbed at her hair and straightened her skirt. She took a deep breath and held her head high when she entered the waiting room. Miroslav was standing at reception with the newspaper rolled up in his hands.

“I’m sure she’ll be—”

“I’m here,” Nicky said, not making eye-contact with neither Miroslav nor the receptionist. She walked past them, put the crumpled up tissues on the reception counter, and knocked on Doctor Chin’s office door.

“Come in, please,” called Doctor Chin.

“Do you want me to go in with—”

“No, I don’t want you to go in with me, Miroslav. Read your paper.”

Nicky opened the door to Doctor Chin’s office and shut it as quickly as she does her balcony sliding door. She greeted the psychotherapist with a wai and waited for the doctor to give her permission to sit down.

Doctor Chin pushed her reading glasses up over her forehead. She gave Nicky a quick wai. Sawatdee ka, Nicky. Pleased to meet you. Sit. Please.”

Nicky sat down opposite the doctor and placed her handbag on the floor next to the chair. She guessed that Doctor Chin was in her late forties, Chinese-Thai – there was no doubt. The surname said it all. But it was hard to guess the doctor’s age exactly. She had the skin tone of an eighteen year-old. Nicky noticed the doctor’s hands, neatly folded on the desktop.

Long, elegant fingers. Manicured. Definitely a piano player.

The doctor folded close a red folder Nicky assumed contained all the information Doctor Peerawoot, the doctor who had been monitoring her hormonal levels over the last four years, sent through.

“Before we begin, Nicky, tell me a little about yourself.”

“Ahem … oh. Where to start?”

“Why don’t you just start at the beginning. That will make things a little easier.”

“Certainly.” Nicky’s heart pounded in her chest. It sounded to her like the air-con compressor on the apartment balcony. “Erm…”

“Where were you born? Start there,” the doctor said, leaning forward slightly with her hands now folded under her chin.

“Well, I was born in Nong Khai in the Northeast. Farmers. My mother and father are farmers. My real name was Warakorn, a boy’s name, as you’re aware.”

The doctor nodded and took out a yellow notepad from the desk drawer. “Continue, please.”

“I grew up on the farm. Went to a temple school. Didn’t have much money growing up, as you can guess. Rice farming doesn’t bring in much, especially if you have a big family.”

“So, I take it you have brothers and sisters?” Doctor Chin said, scribbling on the notepad without breaking eye-contact with her patient.

“Seven brothers. I’m the youngest.”

“That’s a big family. Where are they – your family, I mean. You said your parents were farmers. Are both of them still alive?”

“Yes. And from what I’ve heard, my brothers are still on the farm. They have pigs now. I guess it’s going okay. My parents—” Nicky reached for a tissue on the desk. “—may I?”

“Of course.”

Nicky started sobbing. “My parents realised from a very early age that … that I was different. God, what a cliché.”

Doctor Chin smiled.

Nicky wiped her tears with the tissue.

“Everyone knew it. My teachers, the monks, the village chief, the neighbours. Everyone. At the age of four I started dressing up in my mother’s skirts at home. At the age of six I started hanging out with girls only. I didn’t want to be around boys anymore. They bored me, grossed me out. Catching frogs and skinning them, fishing in muddy lakes. I just couldn’t get into it. I felt much more comfortable playing with girls.”

“So your parents knew you were uncomfortable with your sex at the time.”

“It was obvious, yes. They must’ve known, but during summer breaks I was forced to work on the farm. Plant rice, fish with my brothers, and so on. That came from my father. It was as if he was trying to shape me into a boy. I had a miserable childhood. Older brothers will be older brothers, I guess. They mocked me, hit me, kicked me, and told me that I was worthless, so I ended up hanging out in the hut in the rice paddies and prepared food for them. Of course they complained about my cooking skills as well. I still hate them for that.”

“Did you ever discuss this with your parents? Did they ever make an attempt to talk to you about it?”

“Only my mother who was supportive. I didn’t dare speak to my father. He had no time for me. What I really should say is that my mother was supportive at first. She scolded my brothers who called me names like katoey (ladyboy), toot (arse), and gay. You know, the usual names. So, she didn’t mind me playing with the girls in our village and dressing up with them. But you know what’s weird, Doctor Chin? I didn’t mind it when my girlfriends called me katoey. I guess they didn’t mean it in a bad way. I laughed when they called me that, but I got upset when boys did. It’s just … weird.”

“It’s not. You felt more comfortable being around children of your own sex, being accepted for who you were – for who you are.”

Nicky nodded. “I guess.”

“One more question, Nicky. You said your mother was supportive at first. What changed?”

Nicky looked down at the tissue in the palm of her hand. “My father was the boss in the house. He stopped speaking to me at the age of seven, except for when he made hurtful remarks about my sexuality. He never hit me or anything, and I’m sure deep down he still loved me, but he would join in with the others calling me names and telling me what a useless human being I was. What I couldn’t understand about my mother was that she never stood up for me when my father showed this kind of vindictive behaviour. But I accepted it. I kind of understood why he was doing it – my father, that is. Why he mocked me. It must’ve been hard for him. But my mother? No, I couldn’t accept that she wouldn’t stand up to her daughter. Never. I haven’t spoken to them since I left home.”

“How old were you when you left?”

“Sixteen.”

“You haven’t informed them about the sex reassignment surgery?”

“They don’t need to know. I make my own choices.”

“Very well.” Doctor Chin opened the bottom desk drawer and took out a thick stack of documents. “Here, I need you to read this. I’ll put you down for next week Friday at nine in the morning for a follow-up meeting. Read this before you come back. It contains important information about SRS. I need you to read this carefully before we meet again. I cannot stress this more. Write down any questions you have. You can email me if you have any questions. My email address is on my business card at reception.”

“Thank you, Doctor Chin. Before I go … I … erm … I have a question.”

“Go ahead, Nicky.”

“I don’t know how to ask this. I don’t know what the right word is. Do I … do I qualify for surgery?”

“Nicky, it’s your choice. No one can take that away from you.”

“I just … I heard that there’s a test, I think it’s called a real-life test. A friend told me that I’ll have to live as a woman for a certain period of time before I can … erm … qualify.”

“I was going to talk to you about that in our next meeting, but since you’ve brought it up, I might as well tell you now. It’s true that there’s a real-life test, but this is only necessary if we think there might be doubt in the patient’s mind, but even then there can be serious psychological disadvantages. Let’s say, for example, a trans man wants to have surgery but hasn’t had breast removal yet – let’s say the person isn’t quite sure yet – it might be difficult to then live as a man amongst men if the person still has breasts, wouldn’t you agree? How about voice training? If you haven’t had voice training, Nicky, it might be awkward living amongst women.

“But to answer your question, you’ve been a woman all your life. And I’m of the opinion that you’ll be a much happier person after surgery. But again, and I cannot stress this more, you have to make the choice.”

“I understand. Thank you, Doctor. Sawatdee ka.”

“Have a good day, Nicky. Sawatdee ka.”

 

***

 

The coffee table in the living room is cluttered with old fashion magazines, orange peels, and a tub of half-eaten strawberry yoghurt. Arms outstretched, Nicky lies on her back on the sofa, studying the note with the details of her third and final appointment with Doctor Chin and the reconstructive surgeon.

She reaches over on the floor and picks up her mobile phone from the floor, checks the time.

Four-thirty. Miroslav should be landing any minute now, she reminds herself. This reminds me, I’d better start tidying up around here. He hates stuff lying around, especially orange peels.

They had a huge fight on the evening he left for Moscow. Nicky had neglected to throw away her orange peels, and Miroslav lost his rag.

“Why you do this, Nicky? Why?”

“It keeps the mosquitoes away,” she joked and shrugged her shoulders. “Look, it’s not a big deal.”

“Pah! You Thais. Everything to you is sabaai, sabaai. You don’t understand the foreign man. You have no … how you say … respect.”

“That’s not true. Take it easy, Miroslav.” Nicky was afraid. “Hey, take it easy.” She took a step back. She had never seen him that angry. He was making fists with his hands and the veins over his forehead bulged. Then, as if he was onstage performing a Chinese mask trick, he put on his business face and ran a hand through his hair.

“You think I am stupid. We live on floor three of apartment. There are no mosquitoes.” He talked through his teeth.

“Okay! God! I said I’ll throw it away!” Nicky picked up the orange peels and chucked them over the balcony. “And you promised you’d get the air-con fixed,” she shouted. “And you promised you’d quit smoking those cheap Vietnamese cigarettes! You have no respect for me!”

“Pah!” Miroslav packed his suitcase and left without saying good-bye. He knocked on the door five minutes later because he had forgotten his passport. That was two months ago, and he has only called her twice then.

The first telephone call was quick and cold. They had nothing to say to each other. The conversation consisted mostly of How are you? and How’s the weather? and Have you had dinner yet?

Miroslav phoned three days ago. He was in high spirits.

“Hello. Sawatdee ka.”

“Nicky! It’s Miroslav.”

“I know.”

“I have good news. They approved my Thai business visa. Now I can stay one year. No need to go on train for visa run, darlink.”

Nicky decided to drop her hard-to-get act and be a little more polite. “That’s great news, Miroslav. Will you be back in time for my operation?”

“Of course. I come back to Bangkok one night before operation.”

“Will you hold my hand before I go under the knife?”

“Who has knife?” There was genuine concern in his voice.

Nicky laughed. “No one, silly. I mean, will you hold my hand before I go into the operating theatre?”

“Yes, yes. Of course. You have no family … how you say … support.”

“Aw, Miroslav. Thank you.” She hesitated before she spoke again: “And … the money?” Nicky felt guilty for asking, but Miroslav had paid in only enough into her bank account for the basics when he left. The sexual reconstructive surgery wasn’t cheap, and her account was almost empty.

“What money?”

Nicky’s heart skipped a beat. Please don’t tell me he forgot. Please don’t.

“Nicky? Nicky, you there?”

“Yes.”

“What money?”

“The money for the operation, Miroslav.” Nicky could feel her voice turning cold again.

“Ah, yes. The money. I have small problem with bank.”

“What small problem?” Nicky wanted to know, her voice two octaves higher.

You’d better not be tugging at your left earlobe, Miroslav.

Sabaai, sabaai, Nicky. Bank say it takes five working days for transfer from Moscow. Long time, no?”

Nicky let out sigh of relief. “Okay, that’s good.” She held a hand over her heart. “The operation is next Monday, so that gives us seven working days.”

Da, da. Yes, yes. We go for good dinner at seafood restaurant for celebration.”

“I’m allergic to seafood, remember?”

Da, da. I forget. You can order noodles, no?”

“You’re breaking up, Miroslav,” Nicky lied.

“Huh?”

“Hello? … Hello? … Miroslav? Miroslav, Can you hear me?”

Da, da. I can hear—”

“Hello? … Hello?” Nicky hung up and switched off her phone. She was furious.

You can order noodles, no? Humph! Selfish bastard.”

 

***

 

Nicky tidies up the living room and mops the kitchen floor, disinfects the toilet and basin with Mr Muscle. She takes a quick shower because the fumes irritate her eyes.

At five to six she walks out on the balcony and takes in the sights and sounds of the street vendors setting up shop on the pavements. Takes in the smells of pan-fried vegetables and garlic and basil and grilled fish. The sky is dark, yet not a drop of rain has fallen since earlier in the afternoon. There’s a flash of lightning over the slums in Klong Toei District.

“One, two, three, four…”

Thunder rumbles, dampening the sound of the compressor.

“Well, it won’t be long now before all you vendors and shoppers down there will be scurrying for cover,” she mumbles and goes inside.

Nicky switches on the television. She hardly ever watches TV, except for the six o’clock news. She catches the last few seconds of the Thai National Anthem that always plays on national television at six o’clock. She lies down on the sofa.

I know what’s going to happen. The news will come on and Miroslav is going to make his appearance. Then I’ll have to stay up for the late night news because he’ll want to switch channels and watch Thai kickboxing or football.

She turns up the volume when the anthem ends, drums her fingers on her knees to the tune of the breaking news jingle.

“Our top stories tonight,” the news announcer says in a dramatic voice, “Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple in Kanchanburi Province to close.”

A short video appears of an old monk feeding a tiger that lies chained to a tree.

No wonder the tigers don’t eat the monks. Look of the state of the man in his orange robes, Nicky thinks, only skin and bones.

Miroslav appears. On the six o’clock news. Hand-cuffed and helped into the back of a Royal Thai Police van.

“Four members of a Russian gang operating in Bangkok and Pattaya nabbed for cocaine and methamphetamines at Suvarnabhumi International Airport.”

 

***

 

It’s three in the morning. The rain came and went.

Nicky stands in her knickers and bra on the balcony, mobile phone in one hand. The compressor is silent, the breeze cools her thighs. She stares down at the mobile’s blue screen and watches Miroslav’s number flash. She pushes the red tab and scrolls right. Presses her online banking application tab.

Savings account. Yes.

Statement. Yes.

฿729.

She drops the phone. It shatters on the pavement. Takes off her gold bracelet and necklace. Drops them too.

Somewhere in the distance the sound of a motorcycle engine fades. She watches the neon lights of the go-go bars flash: Happy Cowboy Club, Girls-Girls-Girls, Siamese Dreams.

Nicky puts on her Levi’s and a black top, ties her hair in a bunch, and puts on a red baseball cap. Slips on her Nike trainers. She takes the stairs, exits the building, and drops the electronic security card in the gutter.

I won’t get on the train. I won’t fly. I won’t hitch a ride. I will walk.

Walk. Walk. Walk. Gone, gone, gone.

“Mother! Father! Your daughter is coming home!” Nicky screams as the rain comes down again. There’s a flash of lightning that illuminates her face, mouth open wide and eyes staring up at the sky. “Brothers! Your sister’s coming home!”

The End