Police Colonel Suthep nosed his car into the narrow space between vendor carts and stepped out into the sweltry night, narrowly avoiding a dead rat in the gutter. At a makeshift stall on the footpath, an old woman wove animals out of palm leaves, a small child asleep on her lap, both oblivious to the heaving crowd of drink-flushed men and barely dressed women behind them. Suthep checked his watch—eleven o’clock—and glanced up. The old neon sign in Thai and English had been replaced since his last visit. The new one blazed with the words ‘NANA PLAZA’ flanked by neon silhouettes of naked pole dancers, ‘The World’s Largest Adult Playground’ in smaller print below. Suthep guessed the Thai characters were omitted to make the place less noticeable—a classic example of trying to hide a dead elephant with a lotus leaf.
He made his way into the plaza—open-air bars in the courtyard surrounded on three sides by go-go bars, clubs and short-time hotels—and came upon a young elephant tethered to a bollard. A man he took to be the mahout was engaged in animated discussion with two of Suthep’s junior colleagues. A couple of bargirls took the opportunity to duck beneath the elephant’s belly for good luck, showing off for the foreigners. A third cop was interviewing a bargirl in one of the open-air bars. ‘She seemed very nice’, Suthep overheard the woman say. ‘Then she just went crazy.’
The mobile phone in his pocket vibrated. The screen lit up with the name of the sub-lieutenant whose call had summoned him.
‘Colonel, nong Kanokwan speaking. We have commandeered an office at the back of the Cathouse.’
Suthep knew it, the last old-style pub still standing in Nana Plaza. As the punters at the Cathouse were more likely to watch televised sport than pole dancing, the staff got to keep their clothes on. A smart choice.
‘I’ll join you there in a moment.’
Although he’d had doubts when Kanokwan, one of the Academy’s first female cadets, was deployed to the Lumpini Station, Suthep had to admit she was good at her job, particularly when it came to handling other females. But her English wasn’t as good as Suthep’s; high school in the UK was a privilege afforded him as a diplomat’s son, albeit one born to a minor wife.
Suthep made his way upstairs, ignoring the whistles from the kratoeys at the Temptations club. The Cathouse smelled of beer and toilet cleaner, the ground sticky beneath his feet. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Most of the patrons were too absorbed by the football to notice him, though his appearance sent a few of the younger girls scuttling to the ladies’ room.
The barmaid gestured toward the back of the building. ‘Straight ahead, Sir. Red door at the end.’
Suthep’s knock was answered by Officer Kanokwan. He acknowledged her salute with a nod.
‘Do we know the suspect’s name?’
‘Khun A. B.’, she said, handing him an Australian passport.
Suthep frowned. While Thai people might use letters of the English alphabet as nicknames, farangs normally didn’t. He checked the passport.
‘Ah, Khun Abbey’, he said, entering the room.
The foreigner looked up at the sound of her name. Suthep registered her sad, grey eyes before she dropped her gaze to the handkerchief she twisted around her fingers. She wore multiple gold rings set with precious stones, a gold watch, pearl earrings visible beneath a cloud of hair the colour of rice straw. Her designer T-shirt was most likely counterfeit, though they could hardly arrest her for that, the trade in fake designer goods being a reliable source of kickbacks for police. The date of birth in her passport put her age at forty-four, though she looked older. Suthep searched for the word in English. Matronly. Well heeled if a little dishevelled, typical of the farang tourist sub-species who flocked to Bangkok to shop and see the sights. Occasionally pushy, rarely if ever dangerous.
She was sitting on one side of a desk evidently cleared for their interview, the computer on top of the filing cabinet, only a desk calendar and a box of tissues in front of them. Suthep took the boss’s chair, giving him a view of a wall covered in Manchester United memorabilia and posters of topless women. Kanokwan sat beside the suspect.
‘Hello’, he said in English, mustering a friendly smile. ‘I am Colonel Suthep. You’ve met Officer Kanokwan. Missus Abbey, we need to ask you a few questions.’
The woman kept her head down but nodded.
‘Okay then. Let’s start with what brought you to Thailand.’
Suthep bit back the question he really wanted to ask.
What in the hell possessed you to try to steal an elephant?
* * *
Thailand had been on Abbey’s wish list ever since she’d seen The King and I as a child. She’d read Margaret Landon’s novel, too, and loved the thought of one day following in Anna Leonowens’s footsteps to old Siam.
Even so, while her husband had attended several conferences in Thailand in the past, she’d never considered going with him—not when the kids needed one of them to be home. But the ground shifted once James, their youngest, finished school. In fact, when Bruce announced another trip to Bangkok, it was James who suggested she go, too.
‘You’re always travelling’, he said between handfuls of dry cereal eaten straight from the box. ‘Mum never gets to go anywhere.’
Their son had a point. Bruce had been overseas for work at least once a year for nearly two decades and, other than a trip to London in the 1990s, Abbey had always stayed home. Without resentment. She accepted Bruce’s periodic absences as part and parcel of what made it possible for her to be a stay-at-home mum, which, though unfashionable, was all Abbey had ever wanted.
But there was a time for staying at home and a time for adventure. So on this occasion, she agreed to accompany Bruce to Bangkok.
That was her first blunder, mistaking his announcement for an invitation.
* * *
‘Would you excuse us for a moment?’ Suthep asked her. ‘Can we get you anything? Some water, perhaps?’
Abbey nodded and Suthep signalled for Kanokwan to follow him.
‘Are you keeping up?’ he asked as they waited at the bar for the water.
Kanokwan blinked. ‘We already established she came with her husband to Bangkok, but we haven’t been able to reach him. What about the other woman she mentioned, Khun Anna? Should I try and contact her?’
Suthep suppressed a smile. ‘She was referring to a character in a film and a book. Anna and the King of Siam. You wouldn’t have heard of them. They’re banned in Thailand because they show disrespect to His Royal Majesty King Rama the Fourth.’
The young Thai woman gasped. ‘Does that mean we must charge this farang with—’ she dropped her voice to a whisper ‘—lèse majesté?’
‘Mai pen rai’, Suthep shook his head. ‘She’s not disrespectful, only ignorant. And we can hardly start arresting farangs for ignorance, can we?’
Kanokwan blushed and busied herself with the drinks tray.
‘Looks like this could be a long story’, Suthep said, holding the office door for her. ‘A good opportunity to practise your English. Let’s see what happens next.’
* * *
They checked into the hotel where Bruce and his financial-planning colleagues were holding their meeting. Abbey thought it was very grand, with a fountain in the foyer and great bouquets of exotic flowers everywhere. The complimentary basket in their room contained produce she’d never seen in Goulburn. Grenade-like fruit with deep pink skin and green scales. Spheres of darkest purple with wooden flowers on the underside. Hairy red eggs. Dragon fruit. Mangosteen. Rambutan. She had to ask the concierge for the names.
The hotel organised for a woman called Joy to act as Abbey’s tour guide to Bangkok’s old royal district. While Bruce was working, they visited the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Po temple and the Temple of Dawn. Abbey was besotted by everything she saw. But her spirits took a dive when they stopped to freshen up and she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her hair stood on end, her skin was greasy with sweat and grime, and mascara had pooled beneath her eyes.
Joy, by contrast, remained immaculate, not a trace of perspiration nor a hair out of place. In fact, every Thai woman Abbey encountered looked neat and unruffled, whether collecting tickets, selling drinks or even cleaning toilets. And every one of them was beautiful. She was reminded of a cruel teacher at school saying Abbey was living proof you couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Marriage and motherhood had gone some way towards restoring her self-esteem. But in Bangkok, surrounded by such grace and beauty, she felt her fragile high-school self resurface.
‘How do you stay so neat?’ she asked Joy, having done her best to clean up with spit and tissues.
The tour guide produced from her handbag a small flat packet of tissues impregnated with face powder. Though Abbey felt there had to be more to it, she asked Joy where she might buy some.
Joy suggested they return to Sukhumvit Road, the commercial district near the hotel. They found the face-blotting tissues at a 7-Eleven, and Joy insisted on showing Abbey how to apply them, using the glass door of a fridge as a mirror. Abbey was so buoyed by this experience of camaraderie in a strange city that she enlisted Joy’s help in shopping for something new to wear to the conference dinner. Another mistake: she couldn’t find anything in her size. She prided herself on keeping in shape, but not even garments labelled XL seemed to fit. At Joy’s suggestion, she ordered some clothes to be tailor made. But she still felt like a sow’s ear.
They stopped for a cool drink in a garden café on a soi off Sukhumvit Road. As they sipped their lemon sodas, an elephant appeared on the footpath by the entrance. Abbey’s eyes widened at the sight of what she deduced, in the absence of tusks, was a young female, a pale star-shaped patch on her forehead. The elephant wore a chain around her neck and a cloth across her back with bags at either end like panniers on a bicycle. The young man leading the elephant fished a piece of sugarcane out of one bag and waved it at Abbey. She understood this to be an invitation, and asked Joy to take a photo. The elephant hooked the sugarcane from Abbey’s hand with her trunk. Abbey rubbed the animal’s rough, asperate hide, feeling goosebumps despite the heat. She handed the mahout one hundred baht, and he posed for another photo.
‘Amazing’, she said, returning to the table. ‘A real-life elephant in the middle of Bangkok.’
Joy smiled, but there was no warmth in it.
‘What is it?’ Abbey asked.
‘Mai pen rai’, Joy said, which even Abbey knew meant ‘never mind’. But clearly Joy did mind. Abbey could feel her displeasure.
‘Have I done something wrong? Should I have paid more for the sugarcane?’
Joy shook her head. ‘Mahouts make good money—more in one day than a factory worker earns in a week. That’s why they do it, of course.’
‘Travel far from home and bring their elephants into the city for street begging, though it is illegal.’
‘The city is not good for the elephant’, Joy said. ‘The pollution, the traffic. The hot roads damage their feet.’
‘I know how the elephant feels’, Abbey said lightly.
But it failed to make the Thai woman smile.
Abbey wished Joy would tell her what was wrong. Had she also travelled far from home to work in the city? Did she feel out of place in Bangkok? Or was she simply too polite to tell Abbey off for encouraging the mahout by giving him money?
Abbey thought she’d made a friend in Joy. But she was mistaken. She finished her drink, gave Joy a tip, and excused herself to get ready for dinner.
* * *
Her parents named her after the Beatles album Abbey Road, released the week before she was born. As her name usually appeared at the top of people’s mobile-phone contacts, Abbey was used to having her number dialled by mistake. Bruce was the worst offender, always putting his phone in his pocket without switching it off first.
The dinner had been in full swing for over an hour when they both opted to use the bathroom in the break between courses. Abbey had just dried her hands when the phone rang in her bag and Bruce’s name appeared on the screen. Straight away she knew her husband had rung by accident. The echo in his voice told her that he was still in the men’s room. She almost hung up, when she heard her name.
‘… unbelievable. Of all places, Abbey picks Bangkok. Talk about cramping my style.’
There was a muffled response she couldn’t catch.
‘I’m going to slip her a sedative’, she heard Bruce say. ‘I’ll meet you guys at the bar once she’s asleep. No way I’m coming to Bangkok without getting a root.’
Abbey turned off the phone. Her face in the washroom mirror was ashen with shock.
She rushed back into the toilet cubicle, threw up everything she’d eaten, and burst into tears. She tried to cry quietly, but her sobs escalated until she knew she would lose it completely if she didn’t pull herself together. She took deep breaths and stanched her tears.
She returned to the mirror and was surveying the damage when Trish, the wife of Bruce’s boss Kevin, walked in.
‘Abbey, what’s wrong? Are you all right?’
She wanted to howl, No, I am not all right. My husband—the man I’ve been faithfully married to for twenty-four years—plans to dope me so he can go out fucking with his mates.
Instead she said, ‘It must have been something I ate.’
‘Oh, you poor thing. You didn’t have ice in your drink, did you?’
Abbey rolled her eyes as if cursing her own stupidity, which she was, though not for the reasons Trish thought.
‘I feel dreadful. Will you pass on my apologies to Kevin and tell Bruce I’m going straight to bed?’
Trish hesitated. ‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s for the best. I’ll take a tablet and try to sleep it off. Tell Bruce not to worry if I don’t stir when he comes in.’
She stumbled up to the room, sure Bruce would follow. On learning she was ill, he would abandon his foolish plans and stay by her side. She stripped down to her underwear, lay on the bed under the coverlet and watched ten minutes go by on the hotel’s digital clock.
Perhaps he had tried to call or send her a message. Abbey turned her phone back on. Nothing.
She typed a message. ‘Don’t worry about me. Have taken sleeping tablet. C u 2moro.’ Her thumb hovered over the ‘X’ button, but she couldn’t bring herself to sign off with her customary three kisses before pressing ‘send’.
She shuffled into the bathroom, tempted to pop a pill and tell herself in the morning that it was all a bad dream. But her reflection in the mirror made her think again. Shock and hurt brought her features into sharper focus, giving her face a new edge. It was as though Abbey could see herself clearly for the first time in years. She couldn’t close her eyes.
Nor could she stay in the room. She pulled on a pair of chinos and the DKNY T-shirt she’d bought that afternoon as a gift for her sister. Not Abbey’s usual style. But then, she wasn’t her usual self.
Dinner was still going, waiters with dessert trays gliding into the dining room as she passed through the foyer. She stepped out into the hot, humid night, the smell of petrol and rotting fruit settling on her skin as she approached the nearest street stall. Abbey wanted a baseball cap to match her T-shirt and a pair of the pink-tinted light-sensitivity glasses she’d noticed earlier. She was relieved to discover the stallholder was deaf-mute, as she had no desire to talk. They used a calculator to agree on a price.
Abbey tucked her hair under the cap, put on the glasses, checked her reflection. Not enough of a disguise to withstand close scrutiny, but if no one gave her a second glance—
Who was she kidding? She was a plain, white, middle-aged woman in Bangkok. She might as well be invisible.
Back in the hotel foyer, Abbey hid behind a floral arrangement taller than she was and waited for Bruce to appear. Kevin and Trish came out first, holding hands as they got into the lift. Bruce and friends followed moments later and made a beeline for the door. So much for staying by her side. Despite the hotel’s frigid air-conditioning, Abbey flushed hot with anger.
She gave them a ten-second head start before following. They walked along Sukhumvit for several blocks and turned into a soi. Within metres of the corner, they turned again into a compound signposted as Nana Plaza.
If not for her mounting sense of outrage, Abbey would have shied away from the throng of drunken men and half-naked women, the flashing lights and neon images of naked girls, the bars with names like G-Spot, Angelwitch, Spankys, the cacophony of voices shouting to be heard over throbbing dance music. But her anger made her brave.
Heart racing, she tailed Bruce and his pack as they sauntered along the narrow passageway between bars, past the bikini-clad touts. When they stopped, Abbey ducked behind a pillar, peering out in time to see Bruce have his crotch fondled by a girl who looked young enough to be his daughter. The door to the bar behind him opened to reveal near-naked women dancing around poles on a stage. Abbey wheeled around and promptly crashed into a barstool.
* * *
Suthep noticed Kanokwan’s eyes start to glaze over and called for another break. Abbey said she needed to use the bathroom and Kanokwan escorted her. Suthep was worried the club’s rowdiness might make Abbey anxious. But she returned looking calm, lipstick refreshed, hair combed.
‘Keeping up?’ Suthep asked Kanokwan as they resumed their seats.
‘I think so. She followed her husband here and saw him go off with a phi suea rah trii, yes?’
Suthep nodded. ‘Night butterfly’. One of the more gentle euphemisms for prostitute.
‘I don’t think this story will have a happy ending’, Kanokwan added.
* * *
Abbey was ready to brush off the woman who came to her aid from behind the bar, with her fake smile and her fussing. But something stopped her. The woman was neither young nor pretty, her features squeezed between a narrow forehead and a pointy chin. She was the first ordinary-looking Thai person Abbey had seen.
The woman righted the barstool and patted the seat. ‘I get you a cold drink, yes?’
Abbey rubbed her bruised shin. ‘I’m not staying.’
‘Beer. One for you and one for me and then we can both sit and talk together, okay?’
She made it sound like Abbey would be doing her a favour.
The woman reappeared with two bottles in polystyrene holders, set one in front of Abbey and raised the other. ‘Cheers.’
Abbey took a sip to be polite. She didn’t think she liked beer, but it tasted good.
‘What is your name?’ the woman asked.
‘Abbey. And you?’
‘Keo.’ She tapped the neck of her bottle. ‘It means glass.’
‘Good to meet you.’ Abbey meant it. She felt immeasurably better for Keo’s company.
‘Where you from?’
‘Australia. And you?’
‘Ayuthaya. You been there?’
Abbey shook her head.
Abbey’s eyes welled up in response.
‘Oh, Missus Abbey, I’m so sorry. What happened? Your husband, is he died already?’
Abbey sniffed and smiled at Keo’s imperfect English, thinking it would be easier in some respects if Bruce was dead. ‘No, he’s here. Inside one of the clubs. He thinks I’m back at the hotel, sleeping.’
Keo pursed her lips. ‘My husband same-same. I get married to him when I very young. Then he run away with someone else.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Abbey wiped her eyes. ‘Do you have children?’
‘I have boys, too. Three of them.’
‘Three sons is good luck for you’, Keo said. ‘They can take care of their mother.’
‘I’m not sure they see it that way.’ Abbey swigged her beer to douse the fresh tears that threatened at the thought of having to tell the boys she was leaving their father. ‘Does your boy take care of you?’
‘He have a bad accident’, Keo said. ‘Cannot walk. My parents take care of him. I work in a restaurant, but the pay is not enough to care for my son. He needs the—how do you call it?’ She drew circles in the air beneath her barstool.
‘Ka, ka’, she nodded. ‘Wheelchair. My friend works here at Nana Plaza. She say the money is good. One boyfriend even give her a gold necklace. Gold necklace I can sell for buy wheelchair. And so you see …’ She conveyed the end of the story with a tilt of her chin.
‘Yes, I see. Is that how it is for all the girls who work here?’
Keo shrugged. ‘Everyone has to take care of someone.’
‘But it’s not right.’ Abbey felt her stomach sink. ‘These men—men like my husband—they’re taking advantage of you. You shouldn’t have to do this kind of work just to support your family.’
‘Oi, Kay-oh, how about a round over here?’
The voice, loud enough to cut across their conversation, belonged to a beet-faced man with sweaty strands of grey hair plastered over a bald pate. Australian, by the sound of him. Keo forced herself to smile, an effort entirely lost on the man at the bar.
Could I do this? Abbey asked herself, seeing the strain on Keo’s face. If I needed the money to look after my boys, could I work in a place like Nana Plaza?
Bile rose in her throat and she gulped down the rest of her beer. Even if she was desperate, she knew she didn’t have the strength.
Keo had left a bill for three hundred baht inside a bamboo tube on the table. Abbey tucked a five-hundred-baht note inside and turned to leave.
That’s when she saw the elephant again, standing in the plaza. She recognised the star on its forehead. The elephant was swaying her head from side to side as though groggy and distressed, the whites of her eyes showing.
As Abbey came closer, she saw a fresh, bloody tear on the animal’s ear. She looked around for what might have caused the injury. A sharp corner on the roof of a food cart. Loose fencing wire. The side mirror on a truck. Hazards everywhere.
The mahout was flirting with a couple of Nordic-looking girls, gesturing under the elephant’s stomach and saying, ‘You—good luck.’
The girls laughed and backed away. The mahout let go of the chain around the elephant’s neck in order to try to coax them back.
That was when Abbey made her move.
* * *
‘I wasn’t trying to steal the elephant. I was trying to rescue her.’ Abbey sighed. ‘I had to rescue something.’
Suthep glanced at his watch. It was nearing midnight and his patience was wearing thin.
‘You were extremely lucky no one was hurt, Missus Abbey. But your actions jeopardised public safety and threatened livelihoods. You must understand there are consequences.’
‘Are you going to arrest me?’
‘That won’t be necessary. But people need to be compensated. Perhaps we should try again to locate your husband.’
‘No!’ Her tone made Kanokwan flinch. ‘Just tell me how much I need to pay. I’ll get the money.’
‘Well…’ Suthep looked at the ceiling as he made his calculations, doubling each sum to cover the police cut. ‘There’s the mahout. Nights are his busiest period, so he’s probably lost half a day’s income. That’s about three thousand baht. Then there are the stallholders who had to disperse to get out of your way. That’s two people…damages…loss of income…say, three thousand baht each. We should also compensate this venue for the use of the office. One thousand baht should be enough. Can you think of anyone else, Officer Kanokwan?’
He meant it as a rhetorical question.
‘Maybe we should pay Nang Keo’s bar fine for the time she was being interviewed by the police’, the younger woman said.
‘What’s a bar fine?’ Abbey asked.
‘Money paid to compensate the bar when the worker is taken away by a customer’, Suthep said.
Abbey frowned. ‘Seems the wrong way around to me. I agree Keo should be compensated, but the money should go to her, not the bar. If I add two thousand for her, by my calculations, that comes to a total of twelve thousand baht.’
Suthep nodded. He didn’t approve of the bargirl being added to the mix. But as it was unprecedented for a farang not to barter down the penalties demanded of them, he let it slide. The distribution would be his responsibility after all, and the more in the pot, the better. What the bargirl didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
He joined Kanokwan in escorting Abbey back through the plaza to the currency-exchange booth just outside the entrance.
‘She has a point, you know, Sir,’ Kanokwan said while they waited for the farang to get her money.
‘It’s not right, men taking advantage of poor women like Keo.’
‘Women like Keo are also good at taking advantage of soft-hearted people like Khun Abbey’, Suthep said.
‘But it’s a pity so many women in Thailand have to do such work in order to support their families, isn’t it, Sir?’
Suthep raised an eyebrow. A less enlightened cop might accuse Kanokwan of impertinence. But as he liked to think of himself as progressive, he decided to indulge her.
‘Thai women have many choices for work’, he began.
‘But prostitution shouldn’t be one of them’, Kanokwan said. ‘I mean, it is illegal, Sir.’
‘You would do well to remember your place, nong.’
Suthep addressed her pointedly as ‘little sister’, but Kanokwan was unfazed.
‘That’s the problem, Sir. What is my place? As an officer of the Royal Thai Police, isn’t it my duty to suppress illegal activity?’
‘Don’t give me that holier than thou shit’, Suthep snapped.
He spoke loudly enough to make Abbey turn around. ‘Sorry this is taking so long. They keep asking for more things.’
He gave her a tight smile and Abbey returned her attention to the teller.
‘Just where do you think we get the resources to do our jobs, Sub-Lieutenant?’ Suthep said, keeping his voice low. ‘The money we make from prostitution props up your wages. Besides, where else are these simple country girls going to find work? You want them all out on the streets swelling the ranks of the redshirts?’
‘No, Sir’, Kanokwan said. ‘I apologise. I didn’t mean—’
Suthep cut her off. ‘If you can’t adapt your principles to fit reality, Sub-Lieutenant, perhaps you should reconsider your decision to join the Royal Thai Police.’
Kanokwan bowed her head. Suthep assumed he’d succeeded in putting her in her place. But she was only pausing for breath.
‘Surely, Sir, if prostitution were legal, it could be taxed to raise legitimate revenue for police. Then the women could organise and—’
‘That’s enough, Sub-Lieutenant’, he hissed. ‘Your place is not to question authority but to follow orders. Is that understood?’
To his satisfaction, the colour drained from the young officer’s face and she looked as though she might cry. But before Suthep could savour the moment, Khun Abbey was with them again, leafing through a bundle of purple five-hundred-baht notes. Suthep held out his hand.
The farang hesitated, shook her head.
‘Thank you, Colonel, but I think I should take responsibility for handing out the money. I want the chance to apologise personally for my actions.’
‘That’s really not necessary.’
‘You’re very kind, but I need to do this. I need to find the strength to start my new life.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Now, I know which one’s the mahout. But could you kindly point out the two stallholders whose work was disrupted by my foolishness?’
‘I can help you with that,’ Kanokwan piped up. ‘Come with me, Khun Abbey.’
The two women walked off, leaving Suthep to stare helplessly after them. He thought he heard Kanokwan say thit thang lom plian. ‘The winds are changing direction.’ But whether she was having a dig at him or musing on the fate of the farang, he couldn’t tell.
Suthep sighed and returned to his car. But he’d forgotten about the dead rat in the gutter. This time he stepped on it and had to wipe blood from his boot before he could drive home.
Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia.