Foreigners soon learn once they move to Chiang Mai that it is a hot bed of aliens living – sometimes in the open, other times in deep cover – amongst the native Thais. Hilltribes like the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong/Miao, Mien/Yao and Lisu in their precise Wikipedia order, and these highlanders mingle with Chinese, Burmese, and farang. The Lanna purist would throw the Thai-Chinese from Bangkok into the alien class as well. Northern Thais, the children of the Lanna legacy, sought to retain their cultural identity in this unmixed pot of migrants and to keep a fire burning for their language and culture – or at least the bits that remained after years of rule from Bangkok. What this comes down to is a suspicion of aliens and their way of doing things, seeing things, and their failure to support the revival of the Lanna Kingdom.
Ian MacPherson had written this in an email to his mother in Melbourne. He was proud of himself for having shared such a profound insight into his adopted home.
Actually, come to think of it, Ian fancied himself as something of an expert on northern Thai culture. Though, if the truth were known, most of his knowledge came second hand from locals who were members of an exclusive golf course. After retiring from a professional golf career in Melbourne, he moved to Chiang Mai and became a resident pro.
He had married Toi who was thirty-five, had a university education, custody of a niece whose mother had immigrated to New Jersey with her American husband, and a major contributor to Ian’s knowledge of Thailand.
Guitar – yes, as in the musical instrument – was the name of Toi’s niece, who was twenty-one, and had just finished her university education. Ian pulled some strings and got her a job at the golf course in the customer services department. If nothing else, she would be mixing with the right set of people as women often married men from the workplace. There was a secret hope that she might meet a young, rich son of a club member, fall in love, and live happily ever after. The nickname Guitar caused Toi a bit of cultural indigestion. She saw it as yet another trendy Bangkok flutter of butterfly wings that sent ripples washing over and submerging the old Lanna tradition.
Some of the greatest traditionalists were foreigners. Ian was one of them. He felt that Guitar had never shown responsibility. She left doors unlocked at the house and the pickup. She left her keys in the car. Her handbag perched on the car roof stayed overnight until Ian had discovered it the next morning and confronted her. “You’ve got to look after your things, Guitar. I am not always going to be around to watch your back.”
Drinking and vomiting with friends was an infraction of the rules. Ian had done the same thing when he was young. He understood that part of her. His sore spot was with the Burmese ground crew at the club. Like many Thais, Ian absorbed the local prejudice, which meant that he didn’t like or trust the Burmese for no better reason than their ancestors who had sacked Ayutthaya more than two hundred years earlier. The Thais were still waiting for the booty to be returned. Ian bought the Thai side of the story and like any convert was zealous.
Friday night in March, Guitar arrived home at midnight and parked the white Toyota pickup on the road outside the house. Toi had already gone to bed. Ian couldn’t sleep, worrying about whether Guitar was safe. After he heard the door to the pickup slam and then the door to the cottage where Guitar lived slam, he got out of bed, dressed and walked out through the garden to the road. Guitar had left 300 polo shirts to be given out at a celebrity golf tournament on Saturday. She’d left them in the back of the pickup. Sealed in individual plastic bags, the shirts had the name of the club and logo over the right hand side of the chest. Ian stared at the shirts, shaking his head. He thought about how to handle the situation. He was angry. He wanted to march into the cottage and confront Guitar. That approach hadn’t worked well in the past. He calmed down, went back to his house, went into the kitchen and took a beer out of the fridge. He sat at the table, drinking and thinking.
Leaving all those shirts in the open would invite theft. Right, he said to himself. He had a solution that only a late night beer can spontaneously burst into consciousness.
It took him about fifteen minutes to unload the plastic bags containing the polo shirts and put them in the trunk of his silver Camry and closed the lid, glancing at the darkened cottage. He smiled, as he got into his car and drove two lanes away to where a row of dark, derelict semi-detached houses were set back in overgrown gardens. He opened the gate and drove inside the grounds. Using a flashlight, he walked around to the back of one of the abandoned houses, and quickly jimmied the lock. Once he had the door open, he found a closet off the side of the kitchen. In no time he had stacked all of the polo shirts inside. He put a padlock on the door, rubbed his hands and felt happy with himself for being so clever. This would teach her a lesson. Guitar would go into panic mode and beg him to help her. He’d let her cry and stew for a few hours to drive the point home. He returned to the bedroom and climbed back into bed next to Toi. “Is everything alright?” asked his wife.
“Guitar’s gonna learn a lesson in taking responsibility,” he said.
The next morning, Guitar came running into the main house. “Something terrible has happened,” she said.
Ian tried to act surprised. “You forgot your Facebook password?”
“Someone stole the polo shirts for the golf tournament.”
“Where were the shirts?”
Guitar started whimpering, “In the pickup.”
“Where in the pickup?”
She looked ready to cry. “It was late last night. It was for only a few hours.”
“How long does it take to steal 300 polo shirts?”
Guitar perked up. “How do you know how many shirts there were?”
“It was in the club bulletin,” he said.
“You’ve got to help me, Uncle Ian.”
The magic words rolled over inside his mind. It was what he had been hoping for. At last, recognition that she needed to listen. Maybe even change her behaviour. “First you must file a police report,” he said.
“What good will that do?”
“They need to find the thief,” said Toi.
“And you need to explain to the police how the thief would have got away with all of those shirts.”
The light went on in Guitar’s head. “You’re trying to make me lose face?
“I didn’t leave 300 polo shirts in the back of a pickup.”
“If I help you with this problem, will you promise not to give that Burmese kid rides in the pickup and not to drink and drive and not…”
“Stop, just help me, please.”
She nodded. A smirk crossed Ian’s face. He led Toi and Guitar out to the garage and got them inside his Camry. He drove the short distance to the derelict row of semi-detached houses and pulled to he curb.
“Why are we stopping here?” asked Toi.
“Last night, I thought I heard someone outside. I saw a Burmese man around twenty years old taking polo shirts out of the back of the pickup. I followed him here and saw him take them inside.”
Toi and Guitar exchanged a look of mutual disbelief.
“Okay, you don’t believe me. Let’s go inside and have a look.”
He led them through the kitchen – all ants and termites partying while the rats had scattered to other rooms. Ian opened cupboards randomly as if searching for the polo shirts. “I don’t see anything but disgusting garbage,” said Guitar. She sidestepped dozens of empty Singha beer bottles, Mekhong whiskey bottles, and Sang Som bottles. They’d been strewn across the floor.
“Let’s try the closet.” Ian opened it with a big smile. Guitar looked inside and so did Toi.
“I don’t get it,” said Guitar. “What are we supposed to be looking at?”
Ian who’d been standing beside the open closet door, leaned forward and looked inside. The closet was empty except for all newspapers, noodle package wrappers, and a bicycle tyre that had been patched in three or four places. But there wasn’t a single polo shirt. Ian broke into a cold sweat. “It’s not possible.”
Toi shook her head. “Why isn’t it possible? What do you mean?”
“I mean…,” said Ian, as there was no possible way on the fly to say what he meant as a large fly had landed on his cheek and he slapped it away.
“Slap yourself silly, Uncle Ian, but you still aren’t going to find my polo shirts in the closet. Can we go now?”
Ian walked into the closet and looked up at the ceiling. He used his knuckles to rap against the walls. He stepped back into the kitchen. “Someone stole 300 polo shirts from this closet?”
“I don’t understand,” said Toi.
But Guitar understood immediately. “Uncle Ian you did this.”
“This is something I need to report to the police,” he said.
“You are going to report yourself?” asked Guitar, shaking her head. “I don’t think so.”
All the previous bets and promises and admonitions had unwound at that moment. “There must be a mistake,” he said.
“I can’t believe you stole Guitar’s polo shirts from Guitar’s pickup,” Toi said as she got back into the Camry.
Guitar slipped into the backseat as Ian inserted his key into the ignition and started the engine of the Camry. He’d been thinking about what his wife had said. She was taking Guitar’s side and not seeing the good he was trying to do.
“They weren’t Guitar’s polo shirts. They belong to the club. And it isn’t Guitar’s pickup, the Toyota is my pickup. And one other thing, I didn’t steal them. I stored them. I wanted to teach her a lesson.”
Toi sat in the back of the Camry looking extremely displeased. “And what would that lesson be?”
“I am late for work,” said Guitar. “I need to be at the clubhouse before members start to arrive for the tournament.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“I am not a child, Uncle Ian.”
He drove out in the Camry and followed her pickup to the clubhouse. The amount of loss of face would be huge. He’d have to step forward and admit the shirts had been stolen from his possession. He’d fully compensate the club but that wouldn’t stop the club from losing face with the hundreds of members who’d been promised a quality polo shirt in the club bulletin. It was a tangled mess and tempers and reputations were about to fluctuate like a bad storm front from China. They parked side by side in the club parking lot. Ian walked slightly ahead of Guitar who looked a wounded creature on the way to being slaughtered on the altar. Inside the clubhouse, they walked straight to the manager’s office. He was wearing one of the polo shirts.
“Guitar! Khun Ian! I am so glad everything has worked out perfectly with the shirts.”
Guitar and Ian exchanged a glance. “Perfectly?” asked Guitar.
“Dang brought the shirts in two hours ago and said that you asked him to inspect each and every shirt and to make certain they were in perfect condition and then to deliver them no later than 6 a.m. Guitar, that’s showing responsibility. You must be very proud of your niece, Khun Ian.”
“Yeah,” Ian said, his face burning red.
The club manager hadn’t finished, “Who would have thought to trust that kid with all of those shirts? I wouldn’t have done so. But Guitar you are a good judge of character. You’ll be getting a pay rise of 10% starting next month. When your uncle approached me to take you on at the club, I thought, this is going to be a problem. But he was right. You do have the right stuff.”
On the way out of the office, they walked to the putting green. Dang stood with his back toward them a few feet away. Guitar recognised him immediately. “Dang,” she called after him and he turned, smiling. He waved. “I want to introduce my uncle.”
Dang dropped his rake and walked across the edge of the green and stood, head lowered in front of Ian. “How did you know?” asked Ian.
He’d worried about the shirts and followed Guitar home and watched as Ian had taken the shirts and stashed them at the house. He knew that the house was an unofficial party house and the shirts wouldn’t be safe. So he took them away. It took him several trips on foot to get all 300 polo shirts. But he managed it.
In the back of his mind, Ian had hoped to frame the Burmese groundkeeper for the theft. He felt a sense of overwhelming guilt. He felt shame.
Guitar’s guardian angel waited what seemed like an eternity as Ian collected his thoughts, sorted them, rejected this one and that one, and finally came up with the only thing that he could think of that remained, “If you need a lift home after work, it’s not really out of Guitar’s way. And if you have a need for a set of golf clubs, I have a set I don’t use that much. You’re welcome to have them.”
On the way back to the parking lot, Guitar opened the door to pickup and took out the cell phone that she’d forgotten on the passenger’s seat. Ian watched her put the phone in her handbag. “We don’t need to file a police report, Uncle Ian.”
Like most men who underestimated another man, he’d been humbled. A lesson in humility like a lesson in responsibility couldn’t be forced. It came along unexpectedly like a black swan. Sometimes the testimony of aliens was the kick in the seat of the pants that was required. If one was open to listening, and Ian standing in club parking lot, was open as he shook his head. “He had been watching your back,” Ian said.
In life the most important thing one man could say about another is that he could be trusted to watch your back. Ian offered his hand. Dang and Ian shook hands.
Guitar simply smiled. She had managed to get her uncle and his responsibility mantra off her back. She felt free as the air. If only she could write on Facebook how much thought, planning and luck had been required for her to gain her liberty from her uncle’s nagging. She had found a way of taking up the responsibility idea. But not exactly in the manner that Ian would have understood. But, then, she knew Uncle Ian read her Facebook updates on the sly. Some things were better left unsaid on social media.
Canadian Christopher G. Moore is the creator of the award-winning Vincent Calvino Private Eye series and the author of the Land of Smiles Trilogy. His novels have been translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Polish, Turkish, Norwegian and Thai. The German edition of Cut Out, titled Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, the third Calvino novel, won a German Critics Award for international crime fiction in 2004 and Premier Special Director Book Award Semana Negra, Spain in 2007.
His non-fiction books include Heart Talk, The Vincent Calvino Reader, and The Cultural Detective. His Vincent Calvino series has been optioned and is being developed for a Hollywood feature film. He is also the editor and contributor to Bangkok Noir, an anthology of short stories set in Bangkok.
Moore’s website: www.cgmoore.com