Atchara was returning from the market, walking to the end of the street where the motorcycle taxis wait, when she heard crying. Deep, heart-broken sobbing, coming from somewhere nearby.
Curious, she turned into a side street. She was going in the right direction, though now, strangely, the crying sounded further away. The street had a dog-leg turn in it, and as she passed the angle, she heard it again, this time coming from somewhere to her right.
Across the street there was an alley or sub-soi, with washing lines full of clothes strung across it at third floor level, from window to window, shading the street. The clothes seemed to muffle the crying voice, but Atchara went forward, through stripes of sunlight and shadow. At her feet she saw the silhouetted flutter of children’s clothes, and looking down at them she heard the sobbing again — and the well of deep, inconsolable grief in those wretched, choking cries.
At the end of the soi was an iron gate, and through the bars she saw a courtyard, quite large, with a stone urn in the middle of it from which water swelled from a fountain shaped like a pho leaf. Beyond the courtyard there was a tree-shaded garden and the facade of a house of spare, clean lines and golden proportions, with shady, trellised balconies and a beautiful Thai roof.
For some reason, it struck her as the most beautiful house she had ever seen. Her dream house, in fact.
Before she could take in the fine ratios of that house or absorb all its detail, her eye was caught by a movement in the ground floor window — a movement of hands, skilfully arranging flowers in an elegant vase, but she couldn’t see the face of the woman, which was in shadow, or hidden by reflections.
Intrigued, Atchara quietly pushed open the gate, gently leaned her bag of vegetables against the wall, and entered the garden, treading softly. At the side of the house a door stood open. Atchara slipped off her shoes and entered.
Inside, she was again struck by the balance of modern and traditional styles. In some parts the floors were of teak, and in others, softly shining white tiles. The rooms were high, white and airy, like rooms in an art gallery. Again she thought, How beautiful! Exactly as I would design it, if I had the money to build such a house, such a beautiful house.
The crying was softer now, as if the worst had passed. She followed the sound into the next room. A woman stood with her back to her at a table of dark wood, bending over the flowers and watering them with her tears. Elegantly dressed, with glints of gold at her wrists and her long black hair gleaming in the light of the window, she was obviously the lady of the house.
She turned, lifting her sad eyes to meet Atchara’s curious gaze, her cheeks glistening wet, and her hands still full of flowers. Standing in the cool, bright room, Atchara realised, with a shock of recognition, who it was.
She was looking at herself.
She grew up in Isaan, North-East Thailand, a rough-and-tumble village childhood she came through with a fighting and ambitious spirit. She got herself into university to study art and graphic design, and once she’d graduated she found a job working on lay-out at a newspaper, and was fulfilled and happy. The money was decent; she’d always remember the pleasure of being able to afford three thousand baht shoes. A lot of money in those days.
Thais — Thai women in particular — tend to be subject to the lure of the foreign, because it is synonymous with the lure of money and sophisticated lifestyles, and many Thai women marry Western men. In Atchara’s case the lure was slightly different, a variation on the theme; she thought a foreign man would give her more beautiful children. Her parents, in particular her mother, had convinced her she was ugly. Whether this is something Thai parents do to discourage vanity I don’t know. She was a normal-looking kid, but the constant harping on her alleged hideousness convinced her there was something wrong with her. Her mother hit her frequently and beat her with sticks, frequently breaking the skin and layering bruises on bruises all along her arms. She would sometimes hang the child by her clothes from a hook on a ceiling beam when she was getting in the way. Her grandmother would always be the one to take her down. In Atchara’s mind, her ugliness could be the only explanation for all this cruelty. She determined to find a foreign man, to mix her genes so that her village ugliness would be mitigated in her children. And she loved everything that was beautiful or rich, which led to her nickname ‘Daeng’ or ‘Red’ — that colour in Chinese lore signifying wealth and high culture. She hated the name, which just seemed to incorporate more of the endless criticism.
After two or three years working in Bangkok, she decided to go and stay with relatives in the U.K. to improve her English. In Chester, in North-West England, she met Terry Feldman, an Englishman seventeen years her senior, a successful computer engineer. They married, and moved to Clwyd, in Wales, where prosperity and the birth of a child masked an already abusive relationship. It first it was mental cruelty, not physical. If he was angry with her, which was often, he would refuse to let her ride in the car, forcing her to walk home, sometimes mile after mile. Far from home and devoted to her little son, she had little choice but to endure it.
A few years later they moved to New Zealand, where their daughter was born. Now Atchara had a beautiful house and a shiny new BMW to drive, but the marriage continued to deteriorate. Atchara was an extraordinarily devoted mother. She lived for them, these beautiful, sweet, characterful children. But things only got worse with her husband, who had, over the years, acquired a growing taste for hitting and throttling his small Thai wife.
So the marriage had to end. There was a period in which they co-habited as parents rather than man and wife, trying to keep things going for the sake of the children, with Atchara allowing him to date other women and even dressing him for dates. But she wasn’t safe, and eventually she filed for divorce, and was granted custody of the children by the New Zealand courts.
Feldman cut her off, never paying her a cent in maintenance or child support, contesting everything and dragging his feet through the legal processes. She fought him through the courts for four years, but was eventually forced to return to Thailand. She went back to the village, and her family.
It was soon after that she made her greatest mistake, agreeing to meet her ex-husband so that he could spend some time with the children. They met in Singapore, at the famous zoo, where she left them with him for a few hours. And that was the last she saw of them for ten years. Her son was eight years old. Her daughter was five. Atchara would never forget, returning to the zoo, the seismic panic, the deep inward collapse, of the realisation that they were gone.
The likelihood was that Feldman had crossed the border into Malaysia, so Atchara had the authorities put an immediate stop on his and the children’s passports. And so began the interminable search. Over the next two years she exhausted all the official channels, such as they were, since there was no treaty between Thailand and Malaysia. About a year into the separation she found him, and went to Malaysia, where they were living in a nice villa, Feldman’s Chinese girlfriend playing the role of step-mother. Without help from the police or money to pay a lawyer she was able to achieve nothing. She found the children, playing in the park, but they ran away when they saw her: they were afraid, their heads full of lies their father had told them. Feldman would not speak to her or let her into the house. She lay down across the doorway and stayed there all night. But she was compelled to return to Thailand empty-handed and alone.
Childless and almost destitute, she went back to Bangkok and found work as a maid. She worked cleaning apartments for foreigners for a year or so until eventually a kind New Zealand couple, an elementary school teacher and his wife, found her a job as a teaching assistant at an international school in the Sukhumvit area, one of the glamorous business districts of Bangkok. She lived with them in their large apartment on Soi 13, near the school and continued the search, managing to find an Interpol officer to take an interest in the case. But the case was not his primary interest, since he would not help her unless she slept with him first. Filled with contempt, she turned him down.
There were moments when she did not believe she’d ever get them back. Like many Thai women, she had looked to a foreigner — a farang, as the Thais call all white people — to give her the life she wanted. When he took it away it seemed there was nothing she could do. She was helpless. A huge hole was ripped in her.
She didn’t know if she could go on. Under the influence of her friends, she started attending a Christian Church, finding some comfort in the religion. But nothing could fill the hole. One evening at dusk, she was swimming in the rooftop pool of the condo, and dived down to the bottom, wanting to stay there and drown herself. She couldn’t, of course, but as she bobbed back up to the surface and released her breath, something happened which seemed like a sign. As she lay gasping in the water, her eyes rested blankly on a condominium a few blocks away. In the gathering dusk, she saw lights come on; a vertical swathe down the centre of the tower, and then a horizontal one as a whole floor of the building lit up, emblazoning the tower with the sign of the cross. God had sent her a message.
A few weeks later, the vicar of the Church told her she must accept the loss of her children as the will of God and discontinue the search for them. She would never do that. She left the church and never went back. She was at the beginning of a gradual process of moving away from all that was foreign, of returning spiritually to her own land and its Buddhist religion. Farangs ruled the world, but in the end she would know that her place, her embrace, must be the land of the Thais, for all its poverty, corruption and foreign domination.
The dream of the beautiful house came to her in the Buddhist year 2557, when her children had already been gone for nearly ten years. In her dream she was a young woman in her early twenties. The dream was like a lost echo of a warning she’d needed to hear half a lifetime ago.