Riparian

After less than an hour of labour, Pairot is born. A week later his maternal grandmother arrives in Chumphon, the gateway to South Thailand, to view her daughter’s child. She pronounces him small and, loudly enough for the baby’s father to look up from his hand of cards and bottle of Leo beer, weak. The old woman will not address her son-in-law directly, nor even make eye contact. The man’s failure to improve the living standards of her eldest daughter after six years of marriage has confirmed her earliest impression of him as lazy, feckless and stupid and an unsuitable addition to the family.

The first two children—both girls—have turned out satisfactorily, it’s true. While both wai their grandmother respectfully on arrival and departure, putting their palms together close to the nose as they’ve been taught, the elder one now also fetches her walking stick and sewing glasses when required and looks smart enough in her school uniform and regulation page-boy haircut. But the old lady has forebodings about the boy.

"We shall call him Noo," she announces over rice as the sun goes down on the evening of her arrival. "He’s no bigger than a mouse and is unlikely to develop into much. It’s a shame your husband was unable to give you a stronger son. The child clearly has weak blood. He hardly turns his head or grips my finger. How will he satisfy a vigorous wife? Is he suckling properly?"

"Yes, Ma, he feeds well enough. As well as the girls did."

"That cheap food you buy has made your milk thin and watery. How can you eat pork like this? It’s all gristle."

"It’s all they had at the market for the price, Ma. We do what we can."

Despite the warnings Noo survives on a diet of broken rice, tough chicken and pork gristle. His sisters teach him to be dandled on laps, wear miniature English football club shirts, walk in flip-flops and speak the words of the farm. They show him the paths through the trees, the gently-sloping branches he should climb to pick ripe purple mangosteen and the places favoured by snakes. They stand back, the smaller sister behind the larger, when the boys from the village come to kick their ball about, throw balloons filled with water or silently witness the marvellous dissection of Noo’s father’s motorbike engine, its secret, masculine innards so tightly packed, like the convolutions of an open durian.

Noo is growing up. It is a joyous time. Like the fattening of a pig or the blushing of a ripe mango, it’s a time to observe the way things change, how nature places one foot in front of the other without consultation and the jungle and the village—the whole world possibly—matures into what it is supposed to become.

And yet there’s something that isn’t quite right.

Noo, like the rest of creation, is developing, but not along the old worn paths. He does spend more time now with the village boys than at home with his sisters. That is natural, as acknowledged by his parents and reluctantly confirmed by the hurt silences of his grandmother when she visits from time to time. Yet, as his friends get closer, plotting chancy adventures, he holds back. Some voice he hardly hears is whispering to Noo of another direction, dangerous but more alluring, one that leads into the dark areas of the jungle, along a track that has no signs, no scraps of red ribbon tied to the saplings and, so far as Noo can see, no fellow-travellers.

*

A few more years on and Noo rises with determination, showers and dresses in clothes he has taken from the room of his sisters. His mother is an early witness to these experiments and doesn’t react, at least not outwardly, hoping it could be nothing more than a stage in the lives of all boys of which she has not been warned. They sit together, the two of them at a time when the girls have homework to do downstairs, to watch a Chinese epic on TV. When the warrior prince is sliced through by a gang of black-robed and masked assassins, she reaches her dry hand across the planks of teak and touches his arm. He turns to find tears in her eyes, but however much he hopes these drips of brine acknowledge his pain he knows they are shed for the prince.

Later she speaks to him with re-gathered strength. His father is in town and will be gone all afternoon. She says she has enquired about the injections. He is at a fork in the road and the hormones will ease his body into the shape of a woman. It’s easier now when he is still young, as long as he is sure.

"I’m 100% sure. But the cost."

"I can use some of the housekeeping money. You’re more important to me than lean pork or ant spray. You are my prince."

That makes him pause with realisation. "But Father."

"It will be some time before it’s obvious. Keep out of his way." He imagines himself hiding in the trees and wonders for how long. "Though finally you will have to leave. You know what he’s like."

In a while she adds, "When we’re alone you can ka me for practice; but you must continue to say krap to your father." One is please for a woman, the other for a man. He is sure of her now as a champion in the epic battles that will surely rage, the fights he dreads with his father and his grandmother.

*

My age of confusion finished not with war but with a name. Becoming Jane made my purpose clear, ending years of not knowing and replacing them with a future of confidence and certainty. It was no surprise to find that my father didn’t share my optimism. I packed my bag before his sullen indignation could turn to drunken rage as it surely would, and I certainly wasn’t going to suffer a visit by my grandmother.

My mother came to the door as the taxi carried me away but she said nothing to her new daughter. I realised then that it was fear that drove her, as it had driven me before that time, in that house, the house into which she would turn her grieving face as soon as I was out of sight.

I dozed on the bus, my head knocking against the curtained window waking me in snatches. Thus between the journey and the dream I plotted my life in generalities. There was no detail and I didn’t care. I knew no-one in Phuket, had nowhere to live and, beyond the price of a couple of bowls of soup, possessed no money. Yet I was free of something and that, like the hot sun that burst the yellow curtains of the bus, infused me with happiness. That was the point at which my life reached its peak. I became fully potentiated on that bus. That power would carry me for more than a year before leaking away as my dream ended in realisation and revulsion.

*

On her first evening on the island of Phuket, Jane meets Thierry, a rich, nervous boy holidaying from Switzerland. Using signs and a few words of English and Thai they develop a bond which endures dinner in a KFC and the walk back to Thierry’s rented chalet on the beach.

"I came to Phuket looking for a coastline, a certain vulnerability," he tells her on the veranda, sipping Tiger beer from the bottle. They’re both fascinated by the sea, close now at high tide with waves no taller than a duvet. He might as well be speaking French, though Jane smiles as she has been doing all evening. "In Switzerland we have no sea." This time he makes an effort to explain it more clearly and she wonders how it could possibly be true.

"My life is privileged," he confesses, "free of danger." Jane wonders if she should be worried.

When it comes to making love, she commits herself with the confidence of the novice. Sometimes it’s better not to think, but simply live. Thierry seems fully satisfied, which dispels the only fear that Jane has allowed. For herself, she lies awake in the little room, the veranda light they left on in their haste piercing the dried palm-leaf wall with a pinkish glow, feeling that she’s just been born. Thierry is the first person she has ever met outside her family, the village and the school she thinks, the first person outside herself that she can remember ever having met. She turns to his cool body, silky and dry in the conditioned air, and watches her hand on his smooth chest until she’s asleep.

*

Thierry has booked for only three weeks but whatever commitments he has in Geneva seem fluid and he extends his stay without difficulty. When his visa finally expires he takes Jane to make a passport. It has to be in the name of Pairot so fearing his knowledge of names she goes to the window alone to complete the forms, smiling nervously over her shoulder. He flies her into Malaysia for the day, simply so that he can start a new visa on his return. Over the months, it’s a journey they often repeat.

Thierry is happy to foot the bills, uncomplaining when Jane orders lobster through not knowing or suggests another shopping trip to buy the clothes she needs. But she wants to pay her way and besides she has the constant knowledge that, in the leather folder he keeps on the night-stand, is a ticket for Geneva, undated he says but capable of being activated at a moment’s notice. In a moment her lover could be gone, called away to whatever mystery Switzerland is, to a life beyond this, to family, friends, streets or houses she neither knows nor understands, to anything but a coastline.

To earn the money that she thinks may keep him here, she takes a job at a bar on the beach, a rickety bamboo contraption put up for the high season and stowed under the palm trees at the top of the beach when the tourists thin out. She learns to mix contrived cocktails with random names and acquires enough of the key words of English to chat numbly with her customers. She notices that the bar loses some business in the early afternoon as the midday drinkers drift away in search of lunch. When she suggests to the owner a barbecue, he agrees and provides the equipment; Jane and Thierry shop for meat in the market and Jane rises early to mix the marinade and thread chunks of chicken on to bamboo sticks.

Thierry pays for another month on the chalet. Jane begins to think about the future. She is as happy as she has ever hoped, but will they always live on the beach? It seems temporary. To step out on to sand and lose your footprints by nightfall is not at all like the jungle where paths persist for years. She asks him many times in her head and plans to put voice to it soon: wouldn’t he prefer a house in town, with a tiled floor and a garden with fruit trees? A condo at least? And what about the operations? She longs to complete her development once and for all as is surely the right of nature’s immature.

One day she thinks of them old together, an old woman and an old man, but says nothing. She’s not going to be the first one to mention love; that’s for the man.

Then she’s walking home along the beach from the bar. He hasn’t come to meet her after her shift on the barbecue as he sometimes does and she sees that he’s not on the veranda. Her footsteps creak on the wooden stairs, but inside he’s unconcerned. She opens the door straight into their room and the two of them are lying there on the bed, looking out of the darkness like rats caught in a hole.

Thierry smiles. He hasn’t been compromised, he’s saying, he’s testing her boundaries, the ones they haven’t discussed, learning what’s allowed, finding out just how vulnerable it all was.

Jane stands and stares. Everything she believed was true is wrong. Her life has collapsed, melted. She cannot speak. Her head feels cold as if all the love she has incubated in its warmth has swilled out through a drain. She bursts into tears and rushes from the chalet. Thierry shrugs and gets up from his lover to close the door.

*

She retreats into the trees, sitting at the top of the beach under the coconut palms in a place from where she can see everyone that passes. He doesn’t come.

After an hour she goes to the beach bar and sits on a high stool, as a customer, and orders a Bacardi. Nit can spare little time as the bar is busy but she asks Jane quickly what’s wrong.

"It’s Thierry," she says.

"Well, I guessed that. He cheat on you or stop your money?"

"Cheat."

"Men are such bastards," says Nit as she turns to take an order. She would say the same if it was money.

Jane calms a little as the rums have their effect. The sea is dark now and the lights have come on along the shore. She cannot see the chalet from here with any certainty, but she can pick out the row of them from their veranda lights. The sand between is eerily light, reflecting the moon better than land or sea.

Suddenly he is beside her, their heads at the same height, her still on the bar stool. He says nothing, feeling a little guilt now, hoping that a remorseful face will see him through, but her silent anger cannot be tolerated.

"I’m sorry," he says at last. "I should have asked you first."

"Asked me? What would you ask me?"

"If our relationship is exclusive, whether you mind if I have other lovers."

"Other lovers?"

"Yes. I wouldn’t mind if you had other men. I didn’t think you’d mind if I slept with other…"

"Yes? Other what? If you slept with other what?"

"Men."

Jane pulls a thousand-baht note from her purse and slams it into the pot with her bill. With a renewed outflow of tears she strides away from the bar, out of earshot, before collapsing on the sand. Thierry follows and sits beside her.

"I’m sorry," he repeats. "I told you I’m sorry. I should have…"

"You’re a bad man. You’re a bad man, Thierry."

"I know."

"Your lover. Who is that?"

"Oh, he’s just some boy I picked up. He’s nothing, really. Honestly, I’m telling you the truth. It was just…"

"No, not just anything. I saw, Thierry. He was a man. I caught you sleeping with a man. That’s disgusting. You’re gay!" She’s shouting now, becoming hysterical.

Thierry’s face goes slack and his mouth drops open. His eyes scan her face for clues of forgiveness but there’s nothing there but anger, hurt and jealousy. Confusion dries his brain. For moments he can think of nothing to say except, "Gay? Jane, of course I’m gay. What…? Excuse me, but why did you think…?"

"I don’t want a gay man! Why would I want a gay man? I want a real man, a straight, a man who loves me, loves me for who I am. I want you to love women—not sleep with them, though I could forgive you for that—look at them go by and tell me I’m more beautiful.’

‘Sorry, Jane. I do love you, but as a man. I’ve never been attracted to girls, never. I’m sorry. Look, this is all quite a shock. I’d better go. You know me now. You know where you can find me, if you want to come back or if you want to get your things. Everything of yours, it’s all yours of course."

*

Jane sits for a while on a slight rise in the pale sand. She is alone now. Thierry has gone and the few romantic couples who walk the shoreline in the evening have found their restaurant for dinner.

She pulls her dress over her head and lays it on the sand. She repeats with her bra. She sits with her knees up for a moment, her hands clasped around her shins. Confirming that she is alone she slowly unwinds and looks down at her breasts, their weight and shape. They don’t look like a woman’s breasts, she realises now, they’re too high and hard. A woman’s breasts are like water and flow into her body like a stream. I have a man’s chest, a man’s muscles.

Hoping she is mistaken she wriggles out of her shorts and panties. Who was he trying to fool? What was he thinking? That the injections would shrink him away to nothing and the proof of a woman would simply grow like a flower?

He is nothing but a man in women’s clothes. He couldn’t fool anyone, not his mother, no-one in the street, not his lover even. He is ridiculous. Everyone has been laughing at him. He can’t go back, there’s nothing for him in Chumphon, no living to be made here and nothing possible left of the future he has planned with Thierry.

He stands up and looks at his body in the pale light like something larval, yet to form. He doesn’t want to be found like this. He slowly puts his clothes back on, brushes the sand from them and walks down the slope. As the water reaches his hands, he combs his fingers through the surface. Soon he is swimming, a slow but determined stroke, straight out from the shore.

*

I was born on the land and will die in the sea, yet I lived my life—all of it that had any meaning—on the shore, that narrow strip where the waves wash and the tide flows. On the map it’s the width of a line of ink, the black space between earth and water, neither wet nor dry, not one thing nor the other.

 

William Peskett was educated in Belfast and at Cambridge University, where he read natural sciences. He has worked in teaching, journalism, marketing, design management and corporate relations. He now lives and writes in Pattaya, Thailand. Peskett has published two volumes of poems, The Nightowl’s Dissection and Survivors, the first of which won an Eric Gregory Award. These were followed by three novels, verse, essays about ex-pat life in his adopted country and two collections of short stories, Mango and Sticky Rice and Mist on the Jungle. He is currently working on a third story collection. You can find more at www.williampeskett.com.

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