The Ungrateful Girl

by

Emile Janders

 

 

Almost, maybe possibly, slightly true.


Lek was always a quiet, studious sort of child. When others would go out and have adventures in the village, she would stay at home, preferring to read a book.  Her mother said that sometimes her thoughts would drift away, and it was like she was in another world. You could call her name, and she wouldn’t even hear.  At school, the teachers were charmed by her quiet concentration, and always encouraged her.  If she wasn’t the cleverest girl in class, she was certainly the most sincere.  But her quiet nature shouldn’t be confused with a passive one.  From an early age, she had an unusual strength of character.  She refused to join the gangs of kids that smoked behind the school, and was horrified to hear tales of classmates’ sexual explorations with boys.

 Her family was poor, and her parents worked long hard hours in the fields to provide for the children.   Lek felt and understood their burden, and it became her burden too.   As she grew older, the pensive, thoughtful look on her face sometimes also betrayed deeper feelings of worry, stress, and anguish.  Perhaps it was the mental pressures on her that also affected her health.  She was never a strong child, always the first to catch any cold or cough going around.  Her stomach was constantly in knots, and she confounded the village doctors, who most often prescribed a tonic and rest.

 Perhaps there wasn’t a lot of time for fun in little Lek’s life, but I wouldn’t want you to think that she didn’t have a streak of adventure in her.  One day, her friend Waan convinced her to skip school and go into the local town. The thrill, the danger, the sheer naughtiness of it overcame Lek, and they spent a day touring the malls, and seeing the sights of the town.  It was so out of character that her parents could hardly believe it, and could barely bring themselves to scold her.

 Her quiet, shy nature tended to put off many of the boys in the school, who preferred the flirty girls with short skirts and a mischievous gleam in their eye.  But in her time at school, there were a few suitors – the sort of boys who read books and liked animals and didn’t care to smoke – and they were enchanted by Lek. They could see that beneath the timid surface there was something much stronger waiting to be discovered. They would turn up at her parent’s house bearing fruit, flowers, small handicrafts that they had made for Lek.   But Lek showed almost no interest at all.

 Again, I wouldn’t want you to think that Lek was stand-offish.  She certainly had friends, but she was always more comfortable in the company of one or two best friends rather than with a large group.  Her friend Waan was the first to leave the village to go to Bangkok, and since there are no secrets in an Isaan village, Lek soon heard that Waan was working in a gogo bar.  She was horrified that her friend would make such a decision, and when she failed in her attempts to dissuade Waan from this career choice, couldn’t bring herself to talk to Waan ever again.

 Lek’s parents continued to work hard, but luck always seemed against them. They started a small business, but didn’t realize that they needed a license, and had to shut down, losing their savings.  Their elder daughter, who had a good job in the city, was also having a hard time, and was unable to help them financially.  Lek dreamed that when she finished school she might go to university.  She saw a university degree as a key not only to her future, but to the future of her parents and the village.  She became frustrated by the corruption and injustice of local politics, which squandered and stole the meager resources and failed to help those who most needed help.  And that’s when she met John.

John had known her sister for a few years, and first met Lek when she visited her sister in Bangkok.  Lek was so shy to meet a ‘farang’ that she could barely look John in the eye, wai’ing politely and responding to any questions with nods of the head.  How they kept in touch, and how John fell in love with Lek is another story. I want you to know only that it was a chaste romance, and that in three years, John and Lek barely engaged in more daring activities than the holding of hands.

 She was only a child, but John could not help himself. He loved her.   Lek didn’t really know what love was, and initially she found it odd that this small middle-aged Canadian was so enchanted by her.   But he was kind and gentle, and he was good to her family, and after a while she started to look forward to his visits to the village, where he would arrive in a rental car bearing coffee for her father and sweets for her sisters.  Although he was clearly not poor, Lek seldom asked anything of John.  She didn’t have to.  John could see for himself the hardships that her family faced daily, he could see her threadbare clothes, and he worried about how thin she was. The little money that he sent her meant nothing to him, but a big difference to Lek.

 Three years passed since they first met, and a lot changed in John’s life. But his love for Lek was a constant.  Lek’s dreams of university remained, but with her sister’s business in decline and with barely enough money to put food on the table, it seemed unlikely that she would attain her dream.  When she was 18, Lek finished her final school year, and had to think about her future.  John had to think about his future as well.  John wanted Lek to find her dream, he wanted to be with her, and since she had become an attractive young woman, he also wanted her in his bed.  But it was not an easy decision.  He had enjoyed the freedom of bachelor life for many years, and he wondered if he could change his lifestyle, which – it must be admitted – mostly involved booze and go-go bars.  Was he ready for a real girlfriend?  And more importantly was Lek ready for a real boyfriend?  She was terrified by the idea of sex.  Sex had taken away her friend Waan, and it had caused pregnant schoolmates to have to quit school.  It was something nasty and dangerous that could give you AIDS and ruin your future.

 She did love John – at least she thought maybe she did.  He wanted to look after her, and surely she could love him for that. It was with hesitance and caution on both their parts that John carried Lek’s bags into his house in Bangkok one hot, humid day.  Initially, there was a certain awkwardness between them. Although they had known each other for three years, they had never spent this much time together.  And certainly there was irritation.  They had to get used to each other’s annoying habits.   But after a few days they became more comfortable in each other’s company, and Lek seemed to relax.  If one has known only worry and poverty, it takes a long time before one can start to trust and enjoy security.  But with every day she became a little more comfortable.

 John booked Lek into an English school, and started to make plans for the future.  They took a short holiday to Laos, and John introduced her to great French food.   She was still a virgin, even though they shared a bed.  Lek could see that John wanted to make love to her, and sometimes his hand strayed across the bed, and she had to gently push it away.  She spoke to her sister about it.  What was sex like? Would it hurt?  Was she strange for not wanting it?  What could she do?

 Her sister advised her that at some point she was going to have to take the leap.  However understanding John might be of her innocence and naiveté, he was still a man, and it was her sister’s considered opinion that ultimately all men whether Thai or farang are ultimately dogs, who need only one thing, and sooner or later if they don’t get it, they will move on.  But Lek thought that she could wait a little longer.  Things were fine.  Lek had food in her stomach. Her school fees were paid, and her dream looked as if it would come true. She was seeing places, eating food, doing things that she had never thought she would experience in her lifetime.  It was almost as if she was Cinderella, and she was indeed at the ball.

 But she couldn’t get the thoughts of her parents’ poverty out of her head.  Every time John took her for a meal, she silently calculated how many days her family could have lived on that money.  Every time they hopped in a taxi, she thought about her mother walking five kilometers to market, even though her legs were weak and gave her agony.  Every time John took her shopping for clothes, she would think about her sisters clothes, washed so many times the colors were dim.  Every time she watered the little garden in front of John’s house, she thought about her father planting rice in the midday sun.

 Thus it was that in about the third week, John found her crying.  He wanted to know what was wrong, and she couldn’t tell him.  How could she tell him that every minute she stayed with him only reminded her of her family’s suffering?  And then the rainy season came.  And news came from home that the old corrugated iron roof that had covered their little shack for over fifteen years was so rusted that no amount of buckets could catch the rain coming through.  It needed to be changed. But it was worse than that.  When father climbed up to take a look, with the family watching worriedly from below, he found that the supporting wooden beams were so rotten that he could pull pieces off with his bare hands.   If he had bought decent wood fifteen years ago, they wouldn’t have to be replaced, but fifteen years ago they were no richer than today.  The family was already over 40,000 Baht in debt.  That was from the collapse of the tapioca market after they had spent a year growing the stuff.

Lek also knew, even though her father didn’t, that her mother had pawned all her jewellery for another 10,000 Baht, and unless she made the monthly payments, she would lose it all.  The staggering sum of all these small and big costs came to over 100,000 Baht – over two year’s salary for a rural farmer.  The cloud that recently seemed to have raised a little above her head now enveloped her utterly.  John could see that there was something wrong, and he tried to find out what was wrong.

But how could Lek tell him that the 6,000 Baht he sent home to her family each month was now nowhere near enough?  Then one night, John took Lek out to meet some friends.  They met at a trendy bar in a high-rise building that make Lek feel out of place and awkward.  The friends ordered some strange-smelling farang food, but John said that he had already eaten, even though she knew he hadn’t. They talked English, and Lek was bored.  When they finally left, Lek asked John why he hadn’t eaten with his friends.  John told her that the food at that restaurant was really expensive – over 400 Baht for one plate of food.  He explained that his business was not doing well at the moment, and that they would have to be careful how they spent money.

 Lek’s heart sank.   Later that night, she phoned her old friend Waan.  When John came back from a meeting the next day, Lek had gone.  She switched off the mobile phone he had given her, and realized that she might never see him again.  But she did see him again.  Two weeks later, John and two friends walked into a bar on Soi Cowboy.  It wan’t John who saw her dancing on the stage wearing only a bra and mini-skirt and no knickers.  It was his friend who saw her – one of the two friends she had been with at the expensive restaurant.  She saw the look of surprise on his face, and the delight with which he called out to John.  She turned away.  She could feel them staring at her.  She could feel John’s embarrassment, his shock, his disappointment.

 When the song ended, she raced from the stage, and told the mamasan she was feeling ill, and in spite of a telling off and a fine, she got out.  John would never understand.  John never did understand.  Sometimes late at night, when he was already drunk, he would tell the story to friends, bargirls, or anyone who would listen.   He would tell a story of a stupid, deceitful, ungrateful girl to whom he promised the world, but who chose the life of a prostitute.

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