Those of Us Who Remain by Mithran Somasundrum

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The day after her husband’s cremation, Attiya went back to work. Wan pow – the coffin carried three times around the stupa, paper wraps of satang coins thrown to the crowd for children to catch, coconut water poured over the body, the steel maw of the incinerator sliding closed – came at the end of fourteen days of mourning. On each of those days, monks chanted in the temple hall as light drained from the evening. And in the dark courtyard strangers gathered. On blue plastic chairs, people Narong had never known put their palms together and mourned his death.

This is what happens, Attiya had thought, when you’re murdered by a celebrity.

Probably.

She couldn’t be certain. But it was what most people in Thailand believed and what the newspapers implied. Surapat Wongsuphan, that dangerous and unstable child of privilege had killed again.

Over the fourteen days that followed, Attiya and her ten-year-old son, Den, were caught by the spotlight of fame themselves. There were interviews with reporters, their names mentioned in an editorial in the Bangkok Post. The huge crowd at the temple became worthy of report on the evening news, where it was treated not as a funeral, but as a protest against the Wongsuphan family.

Attiya’s celebrity status saved her job; Khun Pacharaporn allowed her a two-week absence from the coffee shop.

“Noi wants me to tell you, she’s going to get her niece to fill in,” Khun Somraj, Pacharaporn’s husband, told her over the phone. And then, as though unsure of what this new, famous Attiya had become: “You are coming back?”

“Yes, yes. Khun Somraj… of course. I need this salary more than ever.”

So at 8.00 am on a Monday morning, Attiya found herself unlocking the shop, feeling as though she’d returned from a journey to the far side of the moon. And here was her old life preserved under glass, just like the sickly sweet slices of butter cake Khun Pacharaporn kept in the plastic cabinet next to the till.

The place was in a row of three-storey shophouses. The ground floor had a high, cobwebbed ceiling that reached up to the second floor stairs. This made the first floor landing a balcony – glass walled, doors that slid open – overlooking the shop. The second floor, two bedrooms and a toilet, was where Khun Pacharaporn’s family had once lived.

The coffee area consisted of three small, circular tables, each with two straight-backed metal chairs. Attiya found that Khun Pacharaporn’s niece had left the shop with the chairs up on the tables, as instructed, but had been neglecting to mop the floor. The dull orange tiles were greasy in the early morning light. Attiya considered mopping now, but she had to open at nine and wasn’t sure the floor would dry in time. So she brought the chairs back down and went round behind the counter to unlock the till. She squatted down to the cupboard underneath to check the stack of napkins and cups. The bell above the door trilled, and Attiya rose, saying, “We’re not open y—“ to find Khun Somraj.

“Attiya,” he said, and paused. A bulky, pear-shaped man in his fifties, he seemed to be permanently squinting at an unreadable future. And now he was squinting at Attiya. This employee who had been interviewed on Channel Three. “We’re very sorry,” he said. “About your husband and… and everything.”

Attiya understood the “everything”, and had become familiar with the look of pity and interest it elicited. Her traffic cop husband had died in a Tonglor Road nightclub where the shorts were four hundred baht a glass. Twenty shorts equalled his monthly salary. On the first day of mourning a film crew arrived at the temple, and a young Chinese-Thai woman, dressed sombrely in black but with vivid red lipstick, interviewed Attiya. Had Narong gone there often? she’d wanted to know, and Attiya replied honestly, “I have no idea.”

Now she could see Khun Somraj framing the same question. Attiya said, “It’s very good of your wife to keep me on here. Because I – we – Den and I, we need the money. I never saw more than Narong’s salary.”

“I don’t want to pry,” said Khun Somraj and then left a silence for Attiya to tell him about the events he didn’t want to pry into.

She ran a hand through her hair and said, “Sometimes he’d come back late at night, smelling of whiskey and cigarettes. And he’d tell me, ‘If your boss invites you out for drinks, At, you can’t say no.’ So I thought that was all it was. Some little karaoke place where a woman comes and sits at your table.” The knock on the door at three in the morning, the numb drive through an empty city, and then the icy air-conditioning of the mortuary, and Attiya shivering, still in the baggy shorts and T-shirt she’d gone to sleep in. Up to the moment the white sheet was pulled back from the head of the steel table, it couldn’t possibly have been Narong. Afterwards, the fact of him dying in a Tonglor Road club was simply one more piece of unreality, to be piled onto the accumulating unreality of the night. She said to Khun Somraj, “I never paid attention to the Wongsuphans. They were just one of those names.”

“It’s the time we’re living in,” he said, and it wasn’t clear to her if he meant the particular year – 1994 – or something else. “They weren’t big people in the seventies. Not really. But some families just…” He slid his hand diagonally upwards. Attiya knew what he meant. The mad, upward slide that had been going on for over a decade. You saw the slide happening around you, saw it in the cranes on the skyline and the expensive cars driven with such disdain. “They must have had merit, and this is what their children did with it.”

Surapat Wongsuphan had been in the news before. Two years ago a man was executed in a nightclub carpark. At 4 am, as the stragglers spilled out, a noise “like a New Year firework,” and four figures visible under the sodium light, one of them face down on the tarmac. Attiya learned the details from Khao Sot and felt she was reading about life on a different plane of existence. When a week passed before Surapat was brought in for questioning, and when his hands weren’t tested for residue, it seemed no more than the inevitable privilege of his distance from the normal world.

She said, “I never thought people like us could come to the attention of people like them.”

Khun Somraj clasped his hands behind his back and tilted his chin down. She felt obscurely touched that this busy man should travel all the way across the city, purely to pay his respects to the memory of her charming, untrustable husband.

Khun Somraj raised his head and said, “As I’m here, there’s some cleaning up that needs to be done.”

Attiya said, “I was going to mop, but I thought it won’t dry in time.”

“No, no, no. Not that, but upstairs.” He went through, to the rear of the shop. “Come on, I’ll show you,” he said, climbing the stairs. Attiya followed him up to the first floor landing. There was a desk up here with a swivel chair drawn up to an old, dusty computer. The landing often functioned as a storage area for Khun Somraj’s unfathomable ventures. At the moment most of the space was taken by two bulky Chinese telescopes on tripods. In a corner, standing upright and tied together in a bunch, were Japanese carbon fibre fishing rods, and in a plastic bucket, the creels to go with the rods. Every so often Khun Somraj would bustle through the shop carrying goods like these, waving away Attiya’s offers of help.

“The profit margin,” he once told her, sitting at one of the circular tables in Kindly Uncle mode. “It doesn’t matter what you sell, it doesn’t matter the value.” He put his elbow on the table and brought his thumb and forefinger together. “It’s the margin of the profit.” Attiya was behind the counter, nodding her head. She knew he owned a chain of laundries in the north of the city, and saw him arrive at the coffee shop behind the wheel of a BMW. And yet, when he held his thumb and forefinger apart, he seemed to be illustrating the narrow doorway to success that he was trying, and failing, to squeeze through.

“Up here,” he now said, and she followed him up the stairs to the second floor. Attiya had always stayed away from this part of the shop, regarding it as the territory of Khun Pacharaporn’s family. On the landing she could already feel the dust tickling her nose. She sneezed, and ahead of her, Khun Somraj said, “Needs a clean.”

“You want me to mop the floor here?”

“Not just that. Look.” He opened the door facing him, to reveal even more dust and a breath-taking array of clutter. There were two metal desks, each pushed against a wall and piled with bulging manila folders and stacked sheets of paper. Along the two remaining walls were the kind of metal shelves found in storerooms. Up here was a rice cooker with the cord curled up on top of it, the box for a Sony television, a drill, a manual typewriter with Thai keys, bright blue PVC tubes and three-way joints, engraved metal trays and bowls of the kind used to make offerings at temples, packets of incense sticks. Through the room she noticed the neatness of the true hoarder. On the free space of one desk were pencils arranged by length, each exactly the same distance from the next, a metal ruler placed under them. Here in the room, she thought was the future Khun Somraj was squinting at. Everything in the room may possibly bring him money and so nothing was discarded. Putting a hand over her nose and mouth she said, “You need to dust the shelves here. And do you need all these files? That’s where it’s collecting.”

“Some, I would think,” said Khun Somraj. “I need some. What I want is for you to bring things out and clean. I need to go through the paperwork.”

“You can’t just throw it away?”

Even the suggestion caused him worry. His forehead creased up and he said, “There is a legal record here, nong At. A history.” He added, “And you should change, I would think. Look at your clothes.” She was wearing white jeans and a long-sleeved cream blouse with brown polka dots and wide cuffs. “You’ll get them dirty.”

“Change into what?”

Without looking at her, her said, “I’ve got some things in the car,” and left the room.

He returned with jeans, a belt and a red-checked work-shirt bundled in his arms. “These are mine,” he said, “But don’t worry, everything’s clean. It’s all washed.”

Taking the bundle out of his arms, she said, “What about customers?”

“That’s okay, we can open late. Maybe ten or something.”

The second floor toilet was also dusty and unused. There was a small shower space with the curtain rail still there but no curtain, and the shower unit removed to leave wires in the wall. The white porcelain sink and toilet had greyed with disuse. Attiya took off her blouse, draped it over the curtain rail, and then found the work shirt ballooned around her. She had to roll the sleeves back three times to leave her hands free. The jeans, however, were too loose to wear. Even with the belt tightened to its last notch, taking steps in the small space of the toilet, she could feel them slide down her hips. In the end she decided to do without. The shirt on its own was essentially a shapeless, knee-length dress.

She carried her clothes down to the ground floor to keep them away from the dust, and found Khun Somraj in the kitchen area behind the stairs, extracting the broom and dust pan. He turned, saw her and jerked his head. “Trousers … where are your trousers?”

“Here, Khun Somraj.” She held out the clothes piled in her hands. “I couldn’t wear them. Even with the belt they’re too wide.”

A look of shame filled his broad face. “They’re an older pair,” he said, as his thumbs found their way to the belt loops of his jeans.

“Of course,” said Attiya.

He looked around the kitchen area, “We should find you something else.”

“That’s all right, I’m fine like this.”

“No, no. We should find …” He looked at the metal sink, the fridge, the work top, all of which refuse to reward him with clothing.

Attiya held the hem of the shirt-dress and said, “Unless Khun Pacharaporn’s going to come in and find me without trousers? Joke,” she added, seeing his pulse jump.

He said, “I should make a start,” and his eyes skittered again.

Back upstairs Attiya used a damp cloth to take the dust off the manila covers, and then carried the files down to the first floor landing. Here, Khun Somraj was sitting at the table with apparently no intention of turning the computer on. Perhaps, thought Attiya, it was one other thing whose only value was its role in Khun Somraj’s history.

She couldn’t use the cloth on the loose stacks of paper, and so for those she blew the dust off before carrying them down. Soon both of them had running noses. Attiya went back down to the ground floor and brought back the roll of kitchen tissue she kept under the counter. Somraj thanked her and tore off a sheet. He seemed to have acclimatised to her clothes; he could look at her again. “Some of these,” he said, gesturing to the open folder in front of him, “go a very long way. Look at this.” He lifted out a sheet of paper. “Referring to the purchase of this place. You see, I had to negotiate.”

“Khun Somraj, can I ask – what are you going to do with all this?”

“I’ve been thinking of writing a memoir. It’s something to leave my daughter. The story of a life in business.”

Why he needed his old receipts for this, Attiya had no idea. But she carried down the remaining files, and the remaining paper stacks. Soon there was no more room on the desk, and so she placed them on the floor, next to his chair. Rising, inches from Khun Somraj, she saw the blush darkening his dark skin. Honestly, she felt like telling him, you’ve seen me in shorter skirts. Perhaps it was the way the male mind worked. The missing article of clothing made her seem more undressed. Going back upstairs she wondered if it could have been this simple with Narong, if to keep him at home she could have just paraded around in one of his tops. But then she wasn’t forbidden fruit for Narong, and perhaps that mattered to the male mind also. She was fourteen years of familiarity and the mother of his child. Why stay at home for that?

Back on the second floor, she thought of the Tonglor Road nightclub. It was called The Blue Leopard. Attiya had never heard of it before, but according to the papers it was a venue for the “elite.”

“Was this his first visit?” she was asked in the Channel Three studio.

“Yes,” she promptly replied and then, realising the implausibility of the claim, added, “I mean, I don’t know… for sure. But I expect so.” Pinned in the unsparing glare of the studio lights, she knew how unreliable she must sound. On the morning of the interview, Attiya had woken to the news that Surapat Wongsuphan had been released from police custody, but that “the investigation was continuing.” There was somehow no CCTV footage from the club and the witness statements, that led to his arrest, now turned out to come from people who were unsure of what they’d seen. Attiya had expected these things to form the substance of the interview. Instead, Khun Banchorn – “Sean” to the viewing public – stubbornly kept to the topic of Narong.

The man’s usual spot was an evening current affairs programme where he was one of a panel of three talking heads. In darks suits, and always with a tie, it was Khun Sean who guided their discussions. He wore unfashionable, thick-frame spectacles and these were part of his persona as someone too serious, too engaged with the problems of Thai society, to care about the triviality of appearance.

At the studio there’d been only the briefest of introductions, just a wai from her and “thank you for coming,” from him. Sitting in the make-up room, where a katoey clucked around her, making minor adjustments to her hair, Attiya had imagined Khun Sean training his anger on the Wongsuphans. Instead, the purpose of the interview, and his soft-voiced questions, seemed to be to console her on behalf of Channel Three News. Sotto voice: How would she and Den manage?

“I still have my job in the coffee shop.” And then Attiya made the mistake of adding, “Narong’s salary wasn’t much. Though of course, it still made a difference.” The result was that Khun Sean went sorrowfully on to the subject of The Blue Leopard, and how could Narong have afforded to drink there?

Attiya had no answer to this and could only imagine it was a thank you from hugely corrupt superiors. Her mind shuddered away from what Narong had done for the thanks. Instead, she was transfixed by the image of him taking a woman away from Surapat Wongsuphan. She was so sure this had happened, the scene now played behind her eyes with cinematic clarity. Narong didn’t get into whiskey-fuelled fights, but his eyes ran over the curves of any young woman.

“And why do you expect it was his first time?” Khun Sean asked in reply, again softly, as though the question was an aspect of his condolence.

“Well, he was my husband. I’d have known.” The thing she couldn’t bring herself to explain to the country was that if Narong had visited before, he wouldn’t have been able to resist telling her. It was part of his charm. He expected the world to be happy on his behalf. She could even imagine an alternate morning, one where Surapat Wongsuphan has never crossed his path. She’s getting dressed for the coffee shop and is glancing at her husband, who’s still lying in bed, smoking in his vest.

“Hey At, guess where I was last night.”

“I don’t have to guess, I can smell it on you.”

That wolf-like grin. “It’s not where you think.”

One hand behind his head and the other holding the cigarette. Trying so hard to look like a movie star and undeniably succeeding. The chiselled looks of his twenties are starting to go, and there’s a puffiness around his eyes after his late night. But his bedroom stare still hits with a force somewhere around her knees. Even after fourteen years and who knows how much casual cheating.

She placed the last stacks further away from the table and Khun Somraj appeared not to notice her. He was sitting with a single sheet held in front of him, and as she turned to go, he said, “I was a salesman then, did you know?”

“I think Khun Pacharaporn mentioned it.”

He put the paper down and swivelled the chair to face her. “I was driving around all day and I was always thinking. That’s the secret to it. You have to open your mind to opportunities.”

“And you’ve done very well, Khun Somraj. You’ve got this shop, you’ve got your laundries.”

“The fact is,” he said, lacing his fingers together in front of him, “Nowadays I don’t get ideas so much.”

She tried smiling him out of his introspection. “Nowadays you don’t need them.”

“Because I’m in an office all day. Have to manage.” He unlaced his fingers and brought his palms close together. “You look at your possibilities and they are like so.” He flung his arms out. “But when you were younger they were like this.”

“Khun Somraj, your possibilities became realities. You’re a highly successful businessman.”

“You think?”

“Of course. Many people would be glad to be where you are now. And you’re making money in a way …” Imagining all the reasons for Narong to be in an upscale nightclub, she wanted to say, in a way that doesn’t involve breaking the law. But she owed his memory something. “In a way that many people would be proud of.”

“Sometimes you wake up and think, ‘How did my life get to be like this?’ Do you know what I mean?”

“Oh, definitely.”

“When I look through these old receipts I can see how the decisions I made in the past became my decisions in the future.” He leant forwards with his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands. “You can see what I mean?”

“Of course,” said Attiya, who had no idea. “I should start on the shelves now.”

Back on the third floor it occurred to her that they were looking at more than a one-day job. At least, if they were still going to get the shop open in time for its usual 10.00 am rush. Using a damp cloth and a bowl of water, she wiped down both desks and then soaked up surface droplets with the kitchen roll. Khun Somraj’s pencils and metal ruler went into a drawer, where there were inevitably more manila files. These, she decided, she wasn’t taking down. The man needed saving from himself. The shelves she decided to tackle one at a time. She slipped off her shoes and, standing on one of the desks in her bare feet, carried down the rice cooker, the TV box, the drill and typewriter. She set all this on the floor and went off to the second floor sink. After a long extended wheeze it shuddered and spat out water. She emptied the bowl, rinsed the cloth, and then carried them back. She then sat on the floor in her bare feet, her legs tucked under her and began cleaning the rice cooker.

It was stiflingly hot in the small, dusty room. None of the ground floor’s air-con coolness reached up this far and, being a terrace house, there was a window in only one wall. Set above one of the desks, it let in the noise of the street but no through breeze, not even with the door open. Attiya could feel the beads of sweat running down the small of her back. She shifted position to pull her shirt out from under her and then flapped it out around her waist. This did nothing to cool her down but succeeded in raising the dust on the floor. She sneezed, then undid a couple of buttons at the neck and pondered the likelihood of Khun Somraj having a towel she could use. She couldn’t bear the thought of putting her own clothes back on in this state. Not that it was bad having something to do in the early morning. Better than being down on the ground floor, staring at empty tables, alone with her thoughts. “How did my life get to be like this?” How indeed. Your head gets turned by someone charming, that’s all. And when you hear people, including your own mother, saying the kind of things they say about cops, without even knowing him, you want to be the one to give him a fair chance. And a fair chance is all it takes. And who is this better person you’re supposed to wait for? Your mother doesn’t know, even though she’s the one cautioning you. And on a Seven-Eleven nightshift, how are you ever going to find him? Dek wan are the only people who flirt with you. Pimply seventeen year olds who go racing up the street on their 50cc bikes. Gangs of ten or twenty. Big enough groups to intimidate the motorists, and extract some return for the traffic-choked humiliations of daylight. And then come swaggering in for cigarettes and beer, and what time do you get off work? Past your bedtime, luk. Which always gets a giggle out of Mae. Who, when the shop’s empty, likes to talk about the rich man who will one day park his BMW outside and come in looking for Pocky and love. But Mae doesn’t really believe this herself; it’s just something to make the night hours go by. Like talking about what you’ll do if you win the state lottery, even though neither of you buys tickets. And then one day two cops stroll in, and Mae says, he likes you. Rolling her eyes. You know which one I mean. The good-looking one. Ask him if he has a brother. But he doesn’t, he has two sisters and boundless confidence in his golden future and his ability to take the world’s skirt off, all of which you buy into while he’s taking off yours. “I’m not sure is this is all–” said Khun Somraj and Attiya shrieked.

He was standing in the doorway. She said, “I’m sorry, you startled me.” He took her in and his eyes bulged. She put one hand up to the neck of her shirt and the other over her bare thighs. “You’re … you’re sweating,” he said and looked up at the wall. The red had returned to his cheeks and, embarrassed as she was, Attiya found the sight endearingly child-like. She raised her body off the floor slightly and yanked the shirt down under her. Then re-buttoned it. She smiled doing this, but he was still staring at the wall. He said, “I’ll get a fan from downstairs.”

“There isn’t one.”

He could bring himself to look at her again. His still-red face said, “I’ll go and buy one.”

“There’s no need.” But he’d already left the room. “Khun Somraj,” she called, rising. She went out and walked into him. Shrieked a second time. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and put a hand to her chest.

“I was coming back,” he said. His hands went reflexively to her upper arms and then dropped.

“Khun Somraj, there’s really no need to buy a fan just for me. It’s a waste of money.”

“No, no, we can get. It’s useful for the shop.” He looked down at her legs and said, “You’ve taken off your shoes.”

“To stand on the table, Khun Somraj.” Apparently, her bare feet were also having an effect on him. Was this also some calculus of the male mind? she wondered. Without shoes was she one step closer to the bedroom?

“It’s very considerate. To take your shoes off. You’re a very considerate person, Attiya.”

“The shop doesn’t need a fan. It’s air-conditioned downstairs.”

Her comment didn’t seem to register. He said, “I came up for papers. There may be papers in the desks.”

“I think there are.”

“Okay. Good. I should take those downstairs as well. They’re part of the whole story.” He was breathing deeply. “You can see what I mean by that?”

“Yes.” She waited and in his chest-heaving intensity he seemed to expect something more from her. “Yes, Khun Somraj. I can see what you mean.”

He nodded. “You see, you understand. But my wife … my wife doesn’t. I try to tell her about this, about needing to see how I arrived here, and it makes her angry. She says, ‘You’re not happy with me.’ She doesn’t get it.”

“But you are happy with her — right, Khun Somraj?”

“A man needs to look back at the whole story, after a certain point. His whole life could have been different. You can appreciate what I mean.” On the word “appreciate” his hands found her upper arms. A light, fraternal squeeze.

She says, “Yes, Khun Somraj. I get it.”

“We do. We’re two people who understand each other.” He came a half step closer and squeezed her arms again. He moved in, hungering. There was no conscious decision over what happened next. She had spent years listening, irritated, as Narong taught Den how to fight. How to fight in close quarters, how to fight on the stairs, how to fight in the street, how to fight with a stick, and now before she knew it had happened, her knee had jerked into the soft padding of Khun Somraj’s groin. “Huuggh.” He collapsed to the floor; she gasped and cupped her hands over her mouth.

“Khun Somraj, I’m so sorry! Please don’t fire me.”

He was curled foetally on the floor with his back to her. She knelt over him and put a hand on his shoulder. She didn’t think she’d ever seen a face become so pale so quickly. “Khun Somraj, are you all right? Can I do something? Can I get you some water?” A strangulated moan came out of his mouth. He shook his head.

There was a time, just after Den turned seven, when he had nightmares every single night. And having been woken by him, she’d come and sit on the floor by his sleeping mat and rub his back with slow, even strokes until his breaths deepened. Still kneeling, she now rubbed Somraj’s back in the same way. Like Den, he lay still, and she listened to the sound of his breathing. And the muted sound of traffic from three floors below. At the small window above the stairs, dust motes swirled, their reflections creating a beam of light, thrown like a benevolence above the rickety wooden staircase. She said, “Khun Somraj … are you going to fire me?”

A gulping breath, and then, “No.”

She leant over and found him staring straight ahead. He became aware of her presence and said, “Don’t look at me.” So she sat back down and continued to rub his back with measured, gentle care.

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Mithran Somasundrum

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok, where he works in an electrochemistry lab. His stories have appeared in The SunInkwellNatural BridgeThe Minnesota Review and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. His first novel, “The Mask Under My Face,” will be published in Singapore by Kitaab, sometime this year. It features the characters described in “Those of Us Who Remain,” in a slightly different form.

Details of previous publications & links:

“The Undefeated” published in Literally Stories:

https://literallystories2014.com/2021/08/20/the-undefeated-by-mithran-somasundrum/

A short story titled “You Must Remember This” is in the anthology, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018, available on Amazon here:

https://www.amazon.com/Asian-Speculative-Fiction-Short-Stories/dp/981118528X

Social Media handles:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mithran.somasundrum

Image by Mathieu Vivier on Pixabay

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