We whisk you away to Thailand for this #WeekendRead with another story from our newly-released collection - Migrations. "Farang" came third in the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize and was praised by the judges for its lyricism and reflective, detailed prose.
Migrations is available in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves yet. It will be published in the US and UK in September, and will be available as an eBook in all African territories on 1st April.
Across the road from my childhood home is a stretch of ordinary veld. Red-hot pokers push through the thick grasses like babies’ heads, the lick and curl of the Indian Ocean only a breath away. I wish you could see it: the way the sky shines like polished silver; the gulls descending
on unsuspecting shad. There is something freeing about this place, in a breathing, thinking kind of way. It’s where you’ll find my wanton mind, in all those moments you don’t know where I’ve gone. Here, in this place of remembering and forgetting, is where my spirit rests. On humid nights like this one, when that stench of raw sewage and fried duck mingles with orange blossom, when even the air conditioner cannot cool our damp thighs, this is where I go.
If I were to tell you the truth about me, I would need to bring you here. I would have to guide you along this embryonic path back to South Africa. Back to the belly of my mother, her twisted insides, those parts of her that knitted together the tissues of my soul. But I won’t go that far back.
We kissed within two hours of meeting, in a cramped dive bar smaller than my apartment, to which I wore platform heels and too much makeup. A woman with black nails and iceberg skin approached me to say I had great hair, and something about the way she said this made me feel further from home than I ever had been, a gaze turned inside out. I was the only foreigner, and because I didn’t know anyone there I felt weightless and free, spinning around the room as thin and bright as candy floss, in a tiny, shiny dress that crept right up my thighs. I danced too wildly and drank too much, and all the while I felt you staring from behind the bar, where you
served cheap margaritas without the salt, in a T-shirt that said fuck you. It didn’t take long for us to get back to mine – a studio of maps and little coin towers of baht and rand – a room owned by an elderly Japanese man who called me Miss Becca. Just out of the lift, I lost my underwear.
Moments later, you lost yours too. Something was caught between your body and mine, something alive, and moving, strung between us like a strip of lights. I think that’s when the condom must have broken, or slipped off, or done something to negate its purpose. A flood of unwelcome swimmers crossed the channel, cleaving to my insides, little saboteurs bounding towards their prize.
Had we known, you might have laughed and made a shitty joke about Thai condoms, and we could have made that awkward visit to the chemist the next morning, even maybe got a coffee afterwards. Except we didn’t know, and so instead of swallowing two pills at opposite ends of the clock, two cells met, and the inevitable happened. When I think back to that moment, the split second that caught us unawares, I imagine a flash of light. I see the world splitting into water and air, night and day.
I’d booked my ticket on a whim.
I quit my job, left my wretched digs in Woodstock, and decided to explore the world. It was a big dream with a small budget, and I never knew it would involve love. I never knew what any of it would involve.
You wanted to teach me Thai. We’d start with numbers, so that I could bargain in the markets and direct a cab driver late at night, two things I’d never manage without being able to count to ten. You were adamant I learn immediately, so we set aside an afternoon for you to tutor
me, which was also a good ruse for a date. When that Tuesday came we decided to meet at the river, so I took the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station and scrambled down to find you on the platform. We sat cross-legged beside a replica of the Leaning Buddha, the sounds of the city quietening to a synchronous roar on the waters. Long-tail boats carved cerise and
turquoise paths through the Chao Phraya, its murky brown teeming with monstrous fish.
We shared coconut ice-cream, and you peeled numbers from your fingers like hangnails, counting slowly on your hand so I could mimic you in turn. One two three four, nèung, sŏng, săam, sèe, five six seven eight, hâa, hòk, jèt, bpàet. I discovered the lyrical quality in Thai: its alternating high and low sounds, a song that jars and soothes. You asked my age and when I
told you I was twenty-five, you blushed and said you were younger than me. I only minded when you made me work out how much yêesìp-sèe is, but I finally worked out that you were twenty-four. You taught me the number of my building, the amount of change I’d need when buying fruit, the correct way to pronounce my address. Once I’d memorised each number, I repeated their sounds until they tolled like bells in my mouth. Until it felt like I’d split numbers right from their centre, chewing and spitting them like snuff. Nèung, sŏng, săam, sèe – one, two, three, four.
Nèung, sŏng, săam, sèe.
We went to a cat café on our second date.
You’d asked if I liked cats and I’d stupidly kept quiet about my allergy, replying that yes I did like them, very much. We sat in this pink, face-brick restaurant eating Belgian waffles with sweetened cream, while Persian and Siamese felines rubbed themselves all over my legs, stopping only to sniff the camel leather of my handbag or each other. By the end of the date, my eyes were slits. I was sneezing dreadfully. I must have looked quite ill because when the waiter brought us the bill, you asked if I was okay in this concerned tone. Only then did I admit to being allergic, and in urgent need of an antihistamine. But then you laughed. You didn’t know what an antihistamine was, and I burst into tears, thinking that you were being callous. I didn’t know then that Thai people laugh to diffuse tension. But you called a motorbike taxi anyway, which we both hopped on to, and instructed him to take us to that Chinese pharmacist on Naradhiwas Road.
You clung to me on that motorbike drive, incidentally, my first. Only afterwards, over drawn-out tea breaks with my American expat colleagues (whole hours dedicated to dissecting our love lives), did I realise that whether I liked it or not, this thing between us was more than a fling.
Your English wasn’t very good and my Thai was shocking, so in the beginning it was with our bodies that we spoke. One evening in those first weeks together, before we knew, you told me that your name meant from the south. Thaksin, a name for an island boy, for a body filled with
the Andaman Sea that curls around the south of Thailand and ripples out to India and beyond. A name given by proud parents and prouder grandparents who’d found their way to Bangkok in the space and strength of a generation. My own body held the Indian Ocean, my blood being that of surfers and fishermen tucking their daughters into boats at dawn. In your eyes, I felt myself returning to this liquid, to the saltwater quietly lapping at our shores, as if by merely willing it, I could bridge the oceans between us, wave by undulating wave.
As we lay together, I made an index of our bodies, noting the places where our limbs slotted together, their perfect assembly like that of continental plates, a configuration to be read, and sung. I gazed at your body, which had grown steadily familiar to me by then: bronzed limbs, sallow stretches where the sun hadn’t yet reached; a purplish birthmark on your lower back. From your neck hung gold amulets for protection passed on by your grandmother, to ward off evil spirits. Around mine I wore the Saint Christopher that once belonged to my mother, a misplaced icon for a patron saint who had never intended to guide travellers. You started saying something then, and although I listened to you with the kind of focus one has when newly in love, it wasn’t your words I heard, but the timbre of your voice, a babbling brook with flat spells that ebbed into the softest silence.
From this swelled all the stories you would never tell, translated from unspoken word into flesh, into the hands with which you always spoke. Your hands. Hands with songs. Beautiful as rain. Slender fingers, deep coloured and soft as a baby’s skin. The things you taught me with them, the things I showed you in return. Whole worlds, constellations. And in your palms, something eternal as planets orbiting the earth. We broke apart our mother tongues to share like loaves of bread. We fed them to each other in hungry mouthfuls, piece by piece, as if we were starving and they were all we had. We consumed the flesh of our words like our lusty last meals – furiously.
You attempted the English of my mother, but the Afrikaans of my father was locked inside my teeth, rattling around like keys. You said “lekker” and “kiff ”, imitating me, and I returned with the kind of Thai I later found out is spoken by the lower classes, women of the night, gang members on the outskirts of the city. I stripped to nothing, my bare skin against yours, the
history and potential of us wrapping itself around our bodies, like soot and salt and smog. And even though I let you have it all, deep down I knew I would refuse every diamond you gave me until the earth spat out its last one.
You bought me mangosteen and farang, a great waxen fist of unripened guava sealed like dead flesh in clear plastic. It was cool and icy from the fruit man’s cart, the colour of pallid skin and rain clouds. The fruit itself was as smooth as the elephant tusks in your grandfather’s house, tooth-white and sticky like wads of wet tissue. The centre pips were a milky, frangipani sap, reminding me of the blossoms in my mother’s garden and the prehistoric-looking trees dotted around my condo. That fruit was at once dead and alive, as if in another time, parallel to this, it still clung to a spindly branch, in a field somewhere, or a garden. With each mouthful, I fixated on the deep-set eyes of that blind man who played his harpsichord on the corner of Soi Saint Louis and Sathorn, and how he shook his tin pleadingly at passers-by, the coins ching-chinging like the rains in monsoon season.
The fruit man laughed and pointed to me as he passed you the bag. It was an old joke, a silly one because farang means both guava and foreigner. He found it hilarious all the same. You dismissed him and we ambled along the road, stopping so I could throw up in a steel drum I left wet with my sick. I wiped my spitty chin and my snotty nose, and then we bought that pregnancy test from 7-11 that said I was going to be a mother.
I told you about South Africa whenever I could. I think all the Saffa expats do this. I told you about the elephants and giraffes of the Wild Coast. Of the thick, impenetrable bush circling the Eastern Cape and those berries near the river that gave my little town its name, Gqunube. I told you about the Point and the surf and the Great Whites that swallowed people whole. About the sand dunes rising up from the earth, the sky so blue it hurt. Yet despite seeing
it more clearly than I ever had, with eyes washed clean by distance, home came out in broken fragments. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t scrape together enough to feed that part of you that wanted to know me, and understand my point of view. In these romanticised morsels I starved you of the truth, and I began to sound like a caricature of myself; strangely garbled in my efforts to convey my sense of everything to the man I loved. But you listened all the same.
There are eleven official national languages in South Africa, I said. It was early evening, that curious hour when Bangkok wakes up and turns neon, and we were drinking craft beer in Thong Lo. Sìpèt, I said. Eleven whole ways to say, “I love you”, to say “I’m hurting”, to say, “Please stop”. We’d moved beyond the intrepid politeness of our initial conversations, those first weeks of dancing around anything that could possibly be construed as contentious (politics, the King, my being Methodist while teaching at a Catholic school). Although neither of us were fluent in each other’s languages, we had arrived at that lovely meatiness that either exists between lovers, or doesn’t (the latter usually a sign that a quick end is in sight). It had become okay to probe: to forget caution, and stride right into each other’s beliefs or childhood.
There was some confusion about my home languages, about there being two, and you asked me about these mother tongues, about Afrikaans, and English. Do you speak English at all times? When do you speak this Afrikaans you’ve mentioned? And you say you have servants. Do they also speak Afrikaans?
My mother put me on the pill when I was eighteen. She’d told me it was for my skin, but we both knew that wasn’t its purpose. Seven years later we chatted about Asian men and mixed-race babies over Skype. She had joked about me getting pregnant at East London’s small, dingy airport only moments before I boarded the plane for Johannesburg. I don’t want coloured grandchildren, she’d said in that old language, the one still spoken in yellow tongues behind closed doors.
If only she knew.
They say that there are options but in my case, there was only ever one.
And it’s hardly a choice, after all.
You were supportive, yet I can’t help remembering your reticence. You’d asked if I was sure, in a voice that was barely a whisper. We were walking out of the hospital, hand in hand, hurrying because the rains were about to begin, and we hadn’t called a taxi. I had a scrap of paper in my pocket, a doctor’s note with the number of a man who’d be willing to do it for me. At
a cost, of course. Nothing was free.
I’ll never forget your face when I made the call. Unmoored, conflicted. Lost in that sea we’d been cast into when we saw those two magenta lines. You kept your hand on my leg the entire conversation, only stopping to wipe a tear when I put down the phone. We fought over who would pay. I wanted to cover the cost myself since I had savings back home but you insisted that we at least go halvies. We argued over this until late that night, until you boiled green tea in matching cups and sat down beside me on the balcony.
“I’m sorry,” you said, in English, looking at me with this expression I’d never seen before, a look that said you’d both grown overnight and shrunk back into yourself with fear. You said something then that I didn’t quite catch, something in Thai, venom filling your throat.
“I’m sorry,” you repeated, “I’m so sorry.”
I first took the morning-after pill in the Marie Stopes clinic in Bree Street. I swallowed it with flat Appletiser in my lunch hour, and then set my alarm to take the second pill twelve hours later. The nurse told me I was damaging my insides, and that I’d probably never be able to have babies. In that darkened clinic that smelled like mercurochrome and menstruation, I wept and prayed I’d one day fall pregnant.
That was a year before I bought my ticket out of South Africa.
I didn’t move. The clinic gown was too small, so it caught at my hips, and I could feel the little knot where it tied in my back, like a pea, or a dagger. Across the alley, a Philippine band sung Nirvana covers at an Australian bar. A denial, a denial. I was terrified, but I hummed along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, until the doctor told me to take a deep breath and be still. He was firm, but not unkind. I could tell by his tone that he was trying to tell me a joke but I couldn’t understand him through the thickness of his surgical mask. The nurse however, was swift; an automaton on platform pumps the colour and consistency of paracetamol. Her hands too, were slight and pale from whitening lotion, and they flittered over me in this half-dance, which I watched with detached fascination. Thai nurses always reminded me of china dolls, something about their uniforms, a throwback to the 1950s, and the rosy full-moons they drew onto their cheeks.
I counted the injections in Thai: nèung, sŏng.
I felt a tugging, then a sharp pain.
The doctor asked if I was okay. My silence hung between us until I realised he was expecting a reply. I tried to say something, but the words caughtin my throat like fish bones, and instead of answering in Thai, I let out a garbled “dankie”, then “thank you”. My head was abruptly filled with the Afrikaans lullabies of my childhood. Wieg nou my baba tussen takkies so sag. There was a strange sound, like the one the Kreepy Krauly makes when it’s out the pool, a grotesque mangling of water and air. The doctor made another joke. Kyk wat gebeur as die takkies waai. We were almost done. Met baba en al sal die wiegie draai.
A few moments later, he left the room. I was completely empty, a waned moon invited to rise up and re-enter the sky. I struggled to swallow, and began to think of my mother, when a second nurse whisked me away to a room where the only decoration was a viridian orchid and a poster of two Thai women with perfect skin and teeth. I sat next to a teenager whose
nose was held in place by plasters and tape, who gnawed at her fingernails until she drew blood. One times abortion, I remember thinking, one times rhinoplasty. I remember thinking how bizarre it was that I could terminate my pregnancy while in the adjacent room, a cosmetic surgeon chiseled away at septum and bone.
The room had a sweet, chemical smell, like perfume, and anesthesia. I felt very little except for a dull ache, and the painkillers began to numb even that. I remember looking down at my abdomen and worrying that maybe that was how I’d always feel, aware of a lack, or this indeterminable absence. Perhaps that moment was the first inkling that relief would never come. That in my haste to make it all go away I’d somehow misjudged things and done something I shouldn’t have. I wondered what I’d done to my body, to us. There was sadness, but it was less my own and more a thing that orbited me, begging to be felt. I clasped my hands together on my lap, as one did for class photographs during primary school, and realised I felt none of the guilt my friends had warned me about.
When my waiting period was over and I stood up to leave the clinic, the receptionist surprised me by bowing. I didn’t think that she would treat me so respectfully; Thailand was Buddhist after all, and despite its availability, the procedure was still illegal. No matter how much it cost you.
You wanted to be there, but I convinced you I would do it on my own. This was my procedure, after all, my choice. I’d thought all that but while taking the Skytrain home, I found myself regretting my earlier decision, wishing that I could insert you into the past three hours of my life. You were probably leaving work, stepping on to the metro, travelling west to my building in the business district. When I got home that evening, you were waiting outside with flowers. At the time I was pleased, and kissed you, quickly, on the mouth. I didn’t think it was odd to arrange the long stems in a tall blue vase, to find the perfect alcove for their serene blossoms.
In that moment, flowers were not the domain of congratulations, or the property of children born.
The Saturday after the procedure, we took a mid-morning walk down Silom Road. It should only have taken us twenty minutes to reach the bridge, but because we were so busy watching the life of the street unfold around us (uprooted melon trees being drawn on carts, nests of soi dogs coiled around palm trees, and this all set to the score of Bangkok’s unmistakable
hum), it took us a full hour before we reached the Hindu temple. You bought two garlands of marigold and orange blossom from an Indian woman outside the temple. We slipped off our shoes at the entrance and stepped inside, to light a candle before the statue of Shakti. When we walked outside, you asked me if I knew why there were no bins in the street, and I interrupted you with a kiss –
– I still wonder why there are no bins in that street.
I swam every day for a month, laps of breaststroke and freestyle, in the rectangular pool on the eleventh floor. I was usually met by the same faces: a Nigerian woman and her infant son, a Japanese couple in their late fifties, a set of fraternal twins I guessed were from China, or Taiwan. We all swam beneath this reinforced concrete ceiling, a monstrous slab set with a rusted watermark that looked a little like Jesus. I stared up at rusty Jesus, this urban messiah who held up pillars, and listened for the sounds of hadedas and ocean waves and trucks driving by. They weren’t there of course, but I pretended a lot in those days.
I think I had to.
On my last day in South Africa, before my big departure for Southeast Asia, I found myself in my mother’s garden. She and I walked around the small square, the edges rounded with stocks and mint and rosemary, clumps of pennyroyal massed around the hibiscus, discussing the medicinal and cosmetic properties of her plants. We were two women lost in the beauty of a garden, in the quiet simplicity of an afternoon, delighting in the simple pleasures of scent and sight.
What’s that one, I’d ask, and she’d tell me, lemon verbena – you can make a lovely ice cream with that – or pennyroyal, not to be trifled with. We carried on this way, me pointing out an oddity or something I thought was beautiful, her labelling and dissecting, until we drew near a small bird bath rising from a mound of purple bells.
What are those, I’d asked, enjoying our game, expecting more of this sweet diatribe.
That, my love, is morning glory, she’d replied. Is it indigenous? I asked,expecting the affirmative. No, I’m afraid not, she replied, a pinched look on her face.
That is a rather noxious weed.
My mother’s washing always smelled like the ocean, strung across the garden where the wild fig met the mist off the sea and the sheets hung like damp, salted skins. There I would find the Omo-soaked shirts, the greying socks, the period-stained panties, sorted into darks, colours and whites.
There is one day that sticks out in all this. It was a week after the procedure, a strange, blank seven days in which everything felt altered, as if the universe had tilted further on its axis and I was left suspended at odd angles. You knew I was feeling out of sorts, so after school that day we ate quail pancakes from a street vendor and you showed me how to ride a scooter side-saddle. I was wearing a skirt, as teachers at Thai Catholic schools are required to do, and the fabric swaddled me in the cloying heat, clinging to my legs like a shy child. That afternoon you taught me the Thai names for ice and water, and we slunkdown a side alley where little vials of red Fanta were set on trays for tree spirits. I think that was the night you took me through
the streets of Silom and the clotted green of Lumphini Park, setting me down beside the Chao Phraya River to kiss me on the mouth.
I knew I was in love with you then.
The sky is slick as paint, the dark dropping in on the stretch of the train tracks, spilling into the unlit sois of fourteen and twelve. Rooftops are strung with the promise of night, Prudential and Visa and Kasikorn signs bathing my small apartment in a spangled glow. The Skytrain turns
its attention east and settles on its course to Chong Nonsi station, cutting through the smog, emptying and refilling itself every five minutes or so. At once foreign and familiar, the sight of this train stirs up the slow sediment of all I’ve left behind.
I am naked except for panties. The kind that hide at the back of your underwear drawer, waiting for you to menstruate. And yet only weeks ago I was pregnant. A gentle flutter, your hand in mine as the tiny chrysalis appeared on the screen, the silence of the menopausal doctor as frenetic as white noise. Sometimes I experience this moment as if it weren’t a memory at all. Instead, it feels then as if it were still happening, always happening, again and again, less a repetition of itself and more a single, timeless current that flows parallel to my life, this instant I will find always find myself returning to. Some days, it feels like this, or like a past life, and yet it is the very same as this one, here, now, where the fan spins dust around the room and the fluorescent bulb flickers lazily. It is still humid. You are still my boyfriend. Despite the sirens outside, the world has not drawn to a dramatic end. Here are the damp, twisted sheets. There is the aircon turned to sixteen degrees. Outside is the city.
I get out of bed, slowly so as not to wake you, and pad to the balcony. The seamless rectangles of a thousand windows burn against the black sky. I slide open the door, and am met by the sounds of fifteen million people.
It’s too hot to sleep. I head back inside to fetch a towel from the loo, twist my hair into a messy bun and spoon a mouthful of rice into my mouth. You’re sleeping through all the noise I’m making, so I tiptoe over to the bed, to kiss your nose and marvel at how lovely you are. I slip off my underwear.
After my swim, in that watery womb of the building, I climb back into bed. Your body is warm, the air from the fan hitting me in waves. Outside, the sounds of Southeast Asia are a steady hum, like the refrigerator, or a swarm of bees. In Lumphini Park, swan boats circle the pond. Lugubrious monitor lizards slither beneath their ceiling of water, while at the outdoor gym, a terrible, rusted thing, Chinese men huddle in cloistered groups, taking gleeful sips of 60baht whiskey between hasty sit-ups.
I nestle up next to you, the curve of my torso framing your back, and rest my cheek on the cool sheet. I feel the weight of what could have been. Its acrid taste, like green wood burning. A sense of loss, and muffled silence. But then it passes, leaving only its absence behind. No more. No less.