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of time and tide ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT



© THAI MODERN CLASSICS Internet eBook edition 2008 | All rights reserved

Original Thai edition, Thalei Lae Karnweila, 1985 ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

3 Noi Mother, I brought you some flowers. They are the kind of cannas you liked so much and used to plant behind the house. I’ll prop them up by the niche in the wall that bears your name. It has been exactly ten years since you left us and it is only now that I have come to visit you. Nothing much of you is left, but it is the only memento I have to remember you by, so I have come to see you here. Will you accept these flowers, Mother? The wind blowing from the sea will wither them before long. Ten years is a long time. Your name was coated with dust and I had to wipe and wipe again with my fingers to clear the dust away. The pavilion by the temple entrance where I sit has a sweeping view of the sea. The old wooden structure with stairs on two sides that was here on the day we brought your relics has now been rebuilt, like the buildings beside the joss house∗. The large dormitory for monks that was shaded by mango trees and surrounded with discarded spirit houses was completely dismantled and new quarters have been built in long rows which look like the shophouses at the marketplace. Everything has changed, Mother, and changed fast, too. Yesterday I met Noi; she is a woman now. You remember Noi, the young girl with a dirty face

Chinese temple


4 who told you the winning number of the underground lottery more than ten years ago and you bought her a doll to play with? She remembered me and greeted me even before she switched off the engine of her motorcycle. She got down and stood talking to me. ‘This your daughter?’ I said, casting a glance at the child who had come with her on the bike and looked exactly like her. ‘From my first husband,’ she said with a self-conscious smile. ‘I’ve gone through three hubbies already. They’re all dead, even the one who’s made me pregnant again.’ She pretended to laugh as she pointed to her belly. ‘They say I eat them up. Do you think it’s true?’ Noi is just past nineteen. Her skin is brown and burnished, her eyes are as clear as the sea over a cove of rocks, her face is pretty and innocent-looking, and she has already had three husbands, she has one child and is pregnant again. Noi put the relics of her three husbands all in a row in niches on the western wall of the monastery, across from yours – each of them the age of your children or nephews. Life is uncertain indeed and goes up and down like the tides of the sea. And so it was for our family as well, which once had been so happy together but fell on hard times which made your life so full of sadness, Mother. The sea swallowed all our wealth away – all the gold and ornaments, and even the land we were born on sank ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

5 into it without a trace. Our family went through many losses. What was it you lost, Mother? Necklaces, bracelets, even ancient gold rings and jewellery acquired since the time of your grandparents left your strongbox until none was left, and gone too were several plots of land and, what hurt you most, our last home, where you gave birth to all of us your children. The last part of your life was steeped in pain and sickness and in remembering old hopes which had all vanished, as if you were looking at a rainbow faded away by the fog. Noi wore jewellery all over, from her thin wrists to her slender neck. She invited me to her house, which is built like a small bungalow. She opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of ice-cold water for me, switched on a huge fan which blew strongly ever after and turned on her colour TV for me to admire. A widow as young as Noi should be happy, all things considered. She is still in the early stages of her pregnancy and raises her three-year-old without any problems, together with Granny Chaem, her old mother, who is as nimble and sharp-tongued as ever. But Noi lives burrowed in the past like an old anchor deeply sunk in sand. She lost three husbands over a very short span of time. The sea claimed the first two, who were sailors and departed amidst cries of sympathy and words of consolation. As for the last, he died ostracised by Noi’s neighbours and relatives. ‘After I lost the first two, I gave up any work that had to do with the sea. When I moved in with this last one, I OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

6 thought I was doing fine and we’d stay together forever.’ Noi still cries a lot when she mentions this much beloved husband. ‘He was so good to me in every respect. He gave me everything you see here. He said it was for me and the child, but the people in the village hated him.’ She was sobbing. She didn’t just lose a beloved husband, but also almost all of her relatives and neighbours by the sea. Yet she may have a long life ahead of her and still be the owner of many valuable things – unlike you, Mother, who lost everything. Noi or you – I’m not really sure who is the worse off. Mother, we sea folk live with the wind, the waves and the vagaries of the weather. We are used to seeing the wind still and the waves gentle, and then the sky rumbling, the rain falling hard, the wind blowing fierce and the vicious monsoon throwing wave after wave to the shore – all in a very short time. This kind of uncertainty is frightening and daunting. But are the swift transformations that come to the life of the people of the sea these days any less scary than the wind and waves and thunderstorms? The picture of Noi’s last husband, who died only two months ago, smiled cheerfully in its wooden frame on top of the television set. He was a very handsome young man indeed in his beautiful khaki uniform. Noi’s third husband was a police officer!


7 Sommai When I was a little boy, I remember, the little canal north of the village ran with thick, cloudy waters and it was in this turbid yet clean flow that my friends and I would play from dawn until dusk. The more boats bobbed there sheltering from the wind, the more we liked it. We turned the canal into a deep-sea battlefield by pretending to be pirates ransacking ships, and punched and shot at one another till we fell into the water and it was great fun. Those days are gone like funnel smoke puffed away by the wind ‌ You said, Mother, that Anchor Row Canal Village or Eekueng Canal village was where, when the wind fell in the morning, the fishing boats came to shore to drop their anchors in the sand in long lines. During the cool season, when the sea was cold, you could see shoals of eekueng fish swimming about in the little canal. They stung like hell. They were small and tough, and had barbs like catfish. Some people who were allergic to their sting would lie groaning and moaning in pain for three days or more. You did threaten me with them, didn’t you, Mother, when you forbade me to go and play in the canal. By the time Noi ripened into adolescence, the little canal in front of her house had long turned murky and almost dry as the wind of time had brought in sand from OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

8 the seashore and all kinds of rubbish from the vegetable market joined forces to fill up the canal and make its waters shallow and putrid. It is the largest breeding ground for mosquitoes in the village now. ‘I often went to play around your house and still remember Grandma.’ Noi meant you, Mother. ‘She was small and plump, and white-skinned all over, and wore silver-rimmed glasses. She liked to sit by her betel tray. She was to be pitied, you know – she had lost everything.’ That’s what Noi said to me, and it was clear from her attitude that she really felt for our family. The wind from the sea doesn’t reach Noi’s bungalow, which was built recently behind the railway line. The smell of brine seems to stop at the main district road, which goes by the market and the movie house. This road looks like it has split our district into two halves and into two worlds since its inception. It goes up west to the railway line and then abuts the hills, lined with dwellings of people who have no dealings with seawater fish, quite unlike the eastern side where all houses and people seem to be steeped in salt. This reminds me of you, Mother, when you had to move the family and rent a shophouse behind the road, far away from the sound of waves and wind, a most disheartening letdown before you left us. I can understand the feelings of those who, like you, had to go and forsake their roots to live far away from the sea, just as I can understand why Noi came here to ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

9 build a house away from it as soon as she hooked a cop for a husband. Noi didn’t want to be close to anything that would remind her of the past and the deep wounds she twice sustained. Noi thought it was an auspicious new start and in order to forget past evils launched on a new course, like when the waning moon goes waxing, and she turned from fisherman’s wife into the spouse of a police officer. ‘My ’Mai was from Turtle Mountain.’ Noi meant Police Officer Sommai, her much beloved third husband. Turtle Mountain Village, which is located some thirty kilometres away from the district town, is set amidst pomegranate orchards. When Sommai was in his third year of secondary school, he saw no way of studying further beyond watching over pomegranate trees like his father. In a tiny, old, much bruised notebook which Noi preciously keeps, he had scribbled a record of a short time in his life. After reading it, I felt utterly nostalgic and forlorn. ‘Took the police entrance exam, don’t know yet whether I’ll pass, but chances are good because they take many students. ‘Hope I do make it. To be a cop would be great and I like to box and fight as well. Am afraid of no one. ‘Poor dad! Plantation work is such hard work. The money he gave me for the fare to go take the exam, he had saved up over a long time. If can’t make it into the police academy, don’t think can study anywhere else. Will have to hire myself out as caretaker on pomegranate plantation like dad. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

10 ‘If I pass and graduate and he sees me in police uniform, dad will be very happy. ‘Everybody is afraid of cops. When am one of them, will be able to rake in quite a lot, I’m sure. Dad will get some much deserved rest. Won’t allow him to break his back in the plantation no more.’ Police Cadet Sommai did graduate and he did put on a uniform for his dad to see for only three days – a landslide smothered the pomegranate plants and his dad’s life as well. I cast a glance at him again in his plywood frame and felt sorry about all the valuable possessions in this house he should have been allowed to enjoy much, much longer than he did. Life is uncertain, Mother. As I said, Police Officer Sommai, instead of dying like his father amidst orange pomegranate blossoms in the caretaker’s hut on the Turtle Mountain plantation, died on the beach bordering the long dried-up little canal, his face buried in sand, blood oozing from his brain. He died of a gunshot.


11 Siu Siu was a naughty boy in your eyes, Mother, a dour little rascal and a mean rogue to boot. You once chased him out of the house and forbade me to see him, but I was his friend, and unknown to you I would sneak out to hang around with him. He was two years older than I was, so he was both my friend and my senior, which I could never have made you understand. See there! The kite wind has begun to blow. The sea is all soft waves. High in the sky the wind blows strong. Siu comes to see me at home. ‘Have you got enough to buy paper? I want to make a bird kite,’ he whispers. I take out what is left of the money you give me to buy sweets, which is always rather more than I need. I give him enough to buy cellophane sheets and glue to fix them onto the wooden frame he has shaped up as a big bird. For a whole day we take turns sending the finely coloured bird soaring high over the treetops. It was the same for other games. Siu gave me more than he ever received from me. Out of a piece of ebony, he made a spinning top for me to twirl, caught a big fighting fish, all puffed up and striped in vivid colours, and put it in a bottle for me to take care of and wonder at. At the Eekueng Little Canal, we young ones would OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

12 play pirates plundering ships. Siu was bigger and stronger than most of us and always landed the part of pirate leader. He’d crouch on the sandy beach alongside the canal and his mouth would blast us with such sharp gunshots that we scampered in fear. Every time, he’d be shot dead in the end, fall into the water and pretend to float along with the current. It seems that comic books of flying supermen and toys such as peacocks which, when you released a coiled spring, spread their tails, were what prompted him at first to hurry from his home at Eekueng Canal to meet me every evening. He’d cling to the fence of our house until I came out to him. ‘Is your mom here?’ he’d ask first off, and it became a password between us till we were grownups. He revered you as the owner of a tangkei∗ fishing boat, and even after that image had capsized for good, he was still as respectful as ever. On nights when the moon was waxing, the milky sky over the district and the sea spread itself thin as far as the eye could see. There was a shadow play using a screen set up on the sandy bank at the far end of the village. Siu led us children to it and we made such a ruckus that the local lads got annoyed. When they faced us on the white sandy bank behind the shadow play screen, the taunting would begin. ∗

An earlier, smaller version of the trawler used for fishing in waters close to shore


13 ‘You bastards! Anyone you want, come on, take your pick!’ Siu challenged them. One of the local children, seeing that I was small and frail, pointed at me. ‘Not him! He isn’t well enough to fight,’ Siu shouted protectively. ‘Try me instead.’ But I fought. We hadn’t been at it for long when my nose started bleeding and my lips were split. Siu threw himself between us and floored my opponent before anyone had time to realise what was going on. ‘That wasn’t fair!’ the local lads protested. ‘So what?’ said Siu before turning his back on them to look after me. He took me back home even though he was scared of your scolding, and that was the night you drove him out, shouting at him never to come play in the house again, and you forbade me to see him as well. I was only sorry I couldn’t explain to you what had happened. Siu had lost his mother and grown up with his father and he had had to help himself in almost everything. Hailing as he did from Eekueng Canal, which knew neither school nor books, he was like the fish that swim in endless circles in the ocean of life, and he’d find himself today on a coaster, tomorrow maybe way out at sea on a fishing boat, and the next day perhaps he’d hire himself out as a pearl diver in the southern sea. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

14 So it wasn’t surprising that what were evil things in the eyes of others came naturally to him in his risky wanderlust of a life. His hefty build was fit for hauling up long nets from the deep, and his harsh brogue for triggering brawls. He was caught up with roguish friends, booze, hashish, opium, prostitutes and gambling. Our two lives were like the land wind and the sea breeze, which blow in opposite directions, but we were friends, though with hindsight, I feel that all those years he was my senior even more than my friend. You were afraid he’d lead me into evil ways. Far from it. It was the opposite, actually. In those days, Siu protected me from the evil that surrounded him. When we were in a circle of friends smoking hash and the joint came to him, he bypassed me. ‘Hey, that’s enough for you, damn it. Enough to know the taste,’ he’d say. We’d drink together a little, then Siu would send me back home, or else, when his eyes glazed over, he’d pick a fight with someone but always turn round and tell me: ‘Get out now; you don’t want to be in no trouble.’ What delighted me and I must tell you, Mother, was that at one time when I was studying in Bangkok and was totally hard-up, he sent me three hundred baht. Every time I think of it, I am reminded of the sweat on his ruined swarthy face. I haven’t met him in a long time. They say he’s a ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

15 heroin addict and a pirate waiting to pounce on the refugees who drift into the Gulf of Siam. The rumour is that every time he comes back home, his bag is full of golden ornaments and other valuables he sells for a dime and a song. ‘To think I did him the favour of buying a ring from him – that damn bastard Siu.’ Noi was crying again as she told me about Siu, the junkie pirate who had gone back home to Eekueng Canal in the middle of a public row. Siu was suspected of having shot dead Police Officer Sommai. ‘That damn bastard Siu, he was the only one who had a gun, you see. So who else do you think could’ve fired the shot?’ Noi told me adamantly and full of resentment. The case isn’t closed. Siu is still at large. He has disappeared again, like a fish plunging back into water, his life still running. I quietly hope he won’t die easily, as when we played thrilling games of pirates long ago.



1 No one can piece together a long-lost picture and restore its shape and sharpness, yet I’ll try to bring it back to life from the deep memories that remain. See here! Several turtles are awkwardly crawling over shells and white coral caught in a green grid of woolly morning glory. This, here, is the wide expanse behind the house with bamboo hedges. It has a row of bulky water jars and a palm-roofed shed to dye seines, which doubles as a temporary bunk for young sailors. Beside it is a flower display with pots of euphorbia and spider plants, whose sprigs Mother used to sheathe in red silk and girdle with incense sticks for her offerings. And over there! Clumps of cannas are blooming with red-sprinkled yellow flowers, waiting for Mother to pluck them for her devotions at home. There is a zebra dove in a cage hanging by a steel hook to the roof beam of the house – a propitious bird. ‘Mark my words: if it coos in the morning, eldest sister, take it from me, by late morning the boat will be in, flags ahoy,’ a farming relative who brought the dove to her had eagerly vouched. Fishing boats in Mother’s days were quite a funny sight. They set sail to hunt for fish in the same way ancient armies went to battle – waiting for an auspicious tide, offering sweetmeats to the guardian spirits at the ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

17 prow, and lighting firecrackers amidst cheers; and they were gaily decked out with strings of multicoloured flags. Furthermore, they had to sail around close to shore three times before they put to sea and eventually disappeared behind rippling waves. On their return to shore, there was another sacred ceremony when they flew flags to proclaim their glorious catches, and no mariner had a mind to joke about such displays. The rows of flags that were hoisted were pregnant symbols of prosperity. The one-story house had a wide tiled roof that stretched over three living units, grounds of green concrete, and a raised landing of gleaming boards. In one corner a showcase of richly carved teak displayed ancient bowls and jars and silver trays and various sets of cups and glasses. The beautiful cage of the zebra dove hung above the showcase in matching dark tones. And there Mother sat, beside her snuff, her betel tray and whatever neighbours came to visit. How often and exactly when the dove cooed, and whether her boat was always rigged with flags when it returned to shore, I have forgotten. What I remember is the day the dove died. A snake slithered from the roof beam down to the metal hook and bit the bird in the cage. When Mother woke up at dawn, her shout shook the house and she kept gazing at the carcass of the propitious bird with a ghastly face. Later in the morning that day, her boat returned to shore like part of a battered armada that had lost a war. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

18 Father told her amidst the gloom of the assembled sailors that our net had got stuck and had torn and sunk to the deep bottom of the sea, but buoys had been laid out to mark the place, and divers would be hired to retrieve it from the deep. Three or four naked divers, holding their breaths, amazingly used long bamboo stalks to reach the sea bottom. They were the only human beings able to hold their breaths for so long, as if they had been born like fish with eyes and ears able to withstand the painful pressure of the salt water. They dived several times that day before they shook their heads in defeat. Some undertow had set the net loose and adrift. Mother sat listening to the terrible news by the teak showcase, and let the wind from the sea buffet her pallid face and hopeless, vacant eyes. She had to put the boat ashore on rollers and use substantial sums to buy white cotton thread and hire people to spin it and weave it into large meshes that stretched right out of sight and earshot. Afterward, the net had to be dyed with bark to tighten it and make it last for months. All the crew had to stay at the back of the house and be fed; it would be months before they put to sea again. Each day and night that went by saw her wealth dwindling in bottomless expenses. To invest in a fishing boat in those days was strange in the sense that those who did so were like hard-pressed gamblers throwing piles of betting money in front of ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

19 them. Cash and valuables were dug out of Mother’s strongbox only to be gobbled up by the sea before our very eyes. We fought nature, which held no certainty; fought the creatures of the sea, the waves born of the wind, the storms from the sky; fought all that which for her went by the name of fate. What didn’t come was gone. What wasn’t won was lost and spelled disaster. But Mother did fight back – as of the first catastrophe that came visiting our family with the demise of the zebra dove.



2 A mild, constant wind kneaded the sea few days after the heavy rains and storm had cleared. The sky was vacant, cloudless and virgin white in that moment of dawn when the sun had yet to come up. A seabird swooped down upon a fish at water level, not far from a heap of wet clothes that looked like a clump of weeds pinned to shore by the tide. As it snatched the fish, the bird craned its neck and glanced towards the heap in mild alarm before spreading its wings and making for the yonder pier. The body had just emerged from the deep after three days. It had just returned to land, so far from Eekueng Canal, its birthplace, and ended up here, by Stone Pass Beach. There was fine white sand and mounds of jagged rocks, and tourists came here to bathe. How strange that when he was still alive he hardly ever came here at all. Noi was woken up near dawn by the arrival of her friend the sailor. Actually, there was no need to wake her up, because she had slept only fitfully during the three nights her husband had been gone. ‘They say they found Phorn’s body. You’d better go have a look. Er – take a blanket with you. Must be all bloated by now.’ Her friend the sailor spoke in sadness. He didn’t look Noi in the eye but walked out ahead of her. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

21 ‘How ’bout me going instead? Ye take care of the child,’ Chaem, her mother, offered. Noi looked at her mother, then shook her head. ‘I’ll go myself.’ She closed the gate and went after her friend. The light of dawn was still blurry in the distance. Back there in the house, she could hear her mother bursting into tears. Amidst the smell of death gently spread by the breath of the sea at dawn, Noi sat still on a boulder some distance from the corpse while her friend the sailor went to look for the undertaker. There were people coming down the beach. Before long there would be crowds of onlookers and all of them would turn to observe her. What should she do? Cry? But she had no tears. Only this dryness deep in her chest – and she wasn’t truly sorry anyway. She gazed at the distended dark-green hand sticking out on one side of the blanket and thought of the many places he had slapped her with it. And even those swollen feet that stuck out of there as well, she couldn’t remember which was the one he used to kick her till she collapsed time and time again. ‘Hell and tarnation! If ye don’t want to stay with her, just get the hell outa here. What kinda man are ye who uses his woman as a punching bag and kicks her whenever he feels like it?’ Granny Chaem, all stomping feet and fists on her hips, was prancing boisterously. ‘Yeah. Come kick me if ye dare.’ OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

22 Phorn turned quarrelsome when he drank, but he was in dread of his mother-in-law because, besides the overwhelming favours he owed her, there was Siu, Eekueng Canal’s hoodlum, who was her nephew. ‘Sure, you always take her side. When she insults my mother, what am I supposed to do? Kiss her ass?’ ‘Ye shouldn’t talk back to her. How can ye lay a finger on her? What d’ye think she is? Some kinda cow? But then, when ye fought in the ring with those guys, I never saw ye win even once.’ ‘Let sleeping dogs lie, okay?’ ‘Ye bet I won’t. Ye’ll never come to no good. A failed boxer, and ye won’t even go to sea, though ye’ve got yer own boat.’ You could say Phorn had grown up on the concrete pier at the harbour where both of his parents hired themselves out trundling fish from boat to land. His life was like one of those rubber tires hung all along the pier that by accident falls into a boat. He became a hired hand on board trawlers and resented having to work hard day and night. He wasn’t cut out for sea jobs, yet endured them for a while. Then the fancy took him to have a go at boxing. The whole of Eekueng Canal went out to root for him but came back crestfallen. Phorn fought three times and each time a kick knocked him down for the count. So he had to go back to earning his living from the sea, instead of the ring he had dreamt of. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

23 Granny Chaem had put the finger on Phorn’s weak point. He left the house that evening, full of resentment. ‘I’m going alright! Enjoy yourselves in the meantime,’ he hollered. ‘Sure! Go die someplace else,’ Noi shouted back, before her mother, her mouth already open, could say anything, and this was her farewell to Phorn, her first husband. Phorn started the boat’s engine, revved it up through the rain and wasn’t seen alive again. People had begun to crowd around the corpse, both relatives and neighbours close and near. The story of Phorn’s death would no doubt be told and retold for many days to come, along with expressions of sorrow and pity for Noi’s bad luck as well. ‘I’d warned him the radio had announced a storm. He wouldn’t listen to me,’ one boat-owning friend remarked dolefully. ‘You can’t blame him for it. Who’s ever believed them radio warnings? Those sonzabitches and their goddamn celsius. Never made any sense to me.’ When this other friend had spoken, muted laughter rippled over the body covered by the blanket, just as the sun peeked over the horizon and rumpled the expanse of navy blue with streaks of dazzling sparks.



3 In those days when the beach wasn’t soiled by the footprints of strangers, our district was just a small village which resounded with the cries of crows in the morning and was full of vultures flocking to fight over the carrion washed up to shore during the monsoon season. The junks, sails unfurled, cut through flocks of seagulls to slowly reach the shore every morning. The search for fish took place mostly in the waters close to home. The life of the men on board was in harmony with nature and followed the flux of the trade winds. The course of the stars, the colours of the sky, the build-up of the clouds formed a whole and to forget it could mean tragedy. The master of the junk, who stood holding the liontail-shaped tiller of the rudder at the stern, was attuned to the various natural elements surrounding him, just as the mast of his boat was ready to have its sails lowered or unfurled at a moment’s notice to match the strength of the wind and waves, which he read like an open book. He always knew where his home stood from the twinkle of one particular star; and when the sea was still and the midday sky turned yellow going on red, the wind that brought no rain told him a great storm was coming and he must hurry to take his boat and five- or six-man crew to the nearest shore. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

25 When Father took command of his first junk, he was like those friends in the past: he became at one with the elements. ‘We didn’t go very far away from the village. Just putting to sea and coming back each time was hard work. Whenever we ran into a storm, we had to run for shelter and sometimes waited for days for the wind to abate. It wasn’t easy like it is nowadays,’ Father said. ‘The sea these days is full of instruments and gadgets of all kinds.’ True, Phorn didn’t have all those modern instruments and gadgets to go out to sea as Father mentioned, since he only had a small boat which hugged the shoreline like the junks in the old days. But he did have a net of nylon thread that didn’t need to be painstakingly sundried and bark-dyed as in Father’s time. He took his modest boat to sea all by himself, to where he thought there were fish aplenty, and then let the net go down into the deep. After that, he’d sleep and get up to haul the net towards dawn. The life of fishermen like Phorn, with the help of modern conveniences, gradually estranged them from the forces of nature around them. ‘The sea in the Gulf of Siam will have rain or thunderstorms almost everywhere with heavy rainfall in some areas. There will be rain over seventy percent of the area, south-western winds with speeds of eight to sixteen knots, and the sea will have small to medium-sized waves …’ Fishermen of the new OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

26 generation like Phorn had an important aid when they went out to sea that didn’t exist in Father’s time – the meteorological reports on the radio. The new generation, estranged from nature by the use of their instruments, gradually became alienated from the sea, and the mistakes which resulted from their carelessness led to disasters in their lives. ‘Who would know the sea better than sea people?’ the old folks who liked to reminisce about the good old days would grumble in groups about their sea-going offspring, who had little time for nature – the stars, sky, clouds and wind patterns that they themselves had watched almost all their lives. ‘These days, whoever cares to go to sea can do so and they don’t have to train since boyhood as we did,’ several of the old folks would say, deprecating the fishermen’s cushy life that they witnessed every day. ‘Even Phorn, who wouldn’t believe what his own radio said, if he’d known his waves he wouldn’t have died as easily as that. They haven’t got what it takes, let me tell you.’ The fire that had burned Phorn’s body had died out together with the whispers. Noi had listened to them gossiping about the husband that was no more, and she began to think for the first time of the confused life of those who now sought their livelihood from the sea. It had already changed, like the beach of virgin sand soiled by the footsteps of strangers. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE


4 The young boy gambolling within the walls of a temple in an ancient isolated town was promised to a life of craft: ornamenting with moulded lime the tall pagoda of the temple like his forefathers, or else dabbing colours on pictures, or even chiselling out vines in flame-like patterns to decorate the walls of the temple, which was a centre for arts of this kind. When he grew up some, he thought it would be fun to try his hand at the long drums or have a lark with the brass band of a few friends of his age, but he abruptly changed his mind and went down the Phetchaburi river all the way to its estuary at the Bay of Barn Laem, where he found the sea. The wide expanse of deep-blue water was creased in folds of white which came gliding to the shore from afar, all the time sending out loud sounds like greetings from an old acquaintance. He wasn’t bothered long by the briny smell that was so strange at first, just as his seasickness went after only the first few times at sea, and he began to feel at one with what he felt was nature. He was a ship’s boy on board a sloop with a big white sail, which for the most part roved around floating catches in the open sea, and capes and bights close to home. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

28 He began his training by learning how to use a stick to beat the water to make the fish in the bamboo pens scatter and scamper round the fences before the net was thrown in to scoop them up. When the season didn’t allow the boats to take to sea, he helped the men dye the net with red-man-grove bark or find kapok wood to make buoys. Later still, he was taught how to make sharp, tapering needles to darn torn nets, learned the wind, waves and stars, and how to read the sky and its colours, which changed with the season. It could be said he knew the moods and ways of the sea, which made him one with its environment and accepted by his friends who shared their lives with him on board. A young man now, he moved up to the highest trade on a sailing boat: he was the one who stood at the stern holding the lion-tail rudder, and everyone called him master. Many is the night he thought of the temple walls in the ancient town as he stood at the stern, plying with listless sails across darkened seas. He’d think of the hands and eyes of his forebears engrossed in making mouldings along the temple walls, around the chapel peristyle and on the top of the tall pagoda, and every time it reminded him of the wounds his own sweaty hands suffered as he held the rudder. Some people had remarked to him that the job he was doing was a devil of a way of earning a living, which ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

29 was unlike that of his forefathers, who had an easier time, as their work only required expertise and attention to detail. Whenever he thought about it, he couldn’t help feeling amused at the idea that if he had fled from home to a life at sea, it was perhaps because he had no heart for a job that demanded skill. But didn’t he use skill of his own in his work? His eyes had to scan the wide expanse of water and tell the difference between the reflection of the starlight and the quicksilver, glittering swathe of fish shoals. And what of his ears? They had to stay tuned to the wind at all times, so that as soon as it shifted its course, he’d move the rudder for the sail to catch the most of the gust and for the sloop not to roll and lose its bearings. Wasn’t that a job that demanded attention to detail, and expertise? Beneath the dark night sky, squalls and rain came forth all of a sudden. He had sailed the sloop too far away from home to be able to go back against the stubborn gusts that kept pushing her south. He had to tack back and forth, searching for the wind to get her closer to shore, yet avoiding the waves that buffeted her incessantly, and this went on from dusk to dawn until he finally could see the land and break for the shore. He took the sloop into the eekueng little canal of Anchor Row village. At some distance upstream, there was a wide expanse of fresh water where the few dozen families in the village went to bathe and draw water. The village girls OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

30 woke up before dawn to go fetch water which they brought back in buckets balanced on long poles across their shoulders. They walked in a group, chattering away carrying their water pails, and trudged past the sailing boat which had taken refuge from the wind in the canal at the break of dawn that day. Sitting idle on the sloop which had just lowered her sail, he looked at the last girl in the group, smaller and frailer than the rest, yet as radiant as if she were walking on her own. By late morning of the same day, he met her again in the house of the headman of Anchor Row village. The squalls of the dark-sky night had blown him towards her. Mother’s love, when the sea was unchanged, began beautifully – very much unlike Noi’s.



5 This word sent on a crystal stand Once read, my pet, let no one see Let neither of your parents On this forbidden pamphlet lay their hands’ Mother’s love at first, once the sloop had visited and then left the little canal, feasted on amorous poems received over a whole year from near and then from afar. And after that what was there? if not the wedding cheers over the betel-tray ceremony, and the dazzling red of ribbons around the offerings of sugar cane and bananas and joy-luck cakes, and around the pig’s head, amidst the flower scents that heavily suffused the village headman’s home, which was packed with close and distant relatives. That same sloop woke up on the shore on the auspicious day with her main mast turned into a rainbow of paper tassels that fluttered in the fresh wind of the open sea. But for Noi, her first love was like out-of-season rain, which left her drenched without warning. To Noi, initially, Phorn, her first husband, had been a young, uninspiring neighbour of the same age – the age of a sea flower in bud. In her eyes, he was just a stupid fellow, reckless and rash. Worse still, when he took off his shirt, exposing the tattoos on his chest and back, Noi OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

32 had to turn her face away as she felt nauseated. He was an immodest son of the sea who wore his hair down to his shoulders, dressed foppishly, and had begun to drink and gamble even before he had reached his teens. He liked to act up and sing love songs to her often. Whenever she heard him sing, it reminded her of a dog howling and it set her teeth on edge. Yet, when without warning the out-of-season rain drenched her that paramount night and Phorn was drunk as he sang a folk song she had often heard, he sounded so sad and forlorn that she was moved to pity. Through his blurred, drunken drone, the song told of the despair of a young country lad ignored by the nextdoor lass. Noi actually could sing this song, as she heard it often on the portable radio her mother had bought so she could listen to the soaps while she sliced cuttlefish, but tonight she was pricking up her ears to see how he’d get through the lyric. His voice came from the beach at the back of the house. In her mind, she saw the boxer’s battered face and heard the laughs and jeers from their seafaring neighbours. She walked out of the house and went to him on the beach of white sand dimly lit by the starlight falling from the dark sky. ‘Hey! Noi,’ Phorn called out. ‘Where ye goin’?’ ‘Comin’ to see you, what else,’ Noi said. ‘With all this racket you’re makin’, there ain’t no decent folk around that can get a wink of sleep.’ ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

33 He looked up at her, so close in her round-necked blouse that left her smooth brown shoulders exposed to the caress of the late-night breeze, which also ruffled her hair. His eyes were full of wonder for a while, then he shouted for her to sit down and keep him company. And it wasn’t long before, out of drunkenness, he burst into tears as he told her how slighted and hurt he felt. Noi had never realised he was so frail, and it made her tremble. She didn’t love him but must have felt deep sympathy for him, or else she wouldn’t have allowed him to trespass so far that night under the dark sky. Noi breathed the stench of his liquor, and saw the tattoos on his chest as clearly as the starlight allowed, as it hit the still waters and glowed on the white sand lulling her into a dream.



6 The railway changed the whole outlook of our seaside village, and the pier also brought new life to our sailors. ‘There’s one! A boat’s in.’ The teenager who kept Phorn company over glasses of iced black coffee nudged him and pointed at a blinking blob of light in the dark sea. They both stood up at the ready. ‘Be careful now: you’ve got a sprained ankle, remember?’ Phorn warned his friend before the two of them rushed out to the end of the pier. To tease the group of teenagers who sought their livelihood there, some called them ‘the night brigade’, which through a mere switch of consonants made you think with a smile of a famous military charge. But when they performed their duties, the whole bunch of them did look like warriors risking their all in combat. They had to leap from the high pier onto every boat that came alongside. From a distance, it looked like children jumping for fun into the water. Not so – it was one of the best-paid jobs of the sea in the new era. Seashore folk in the old days would wait for the boats to return at dawn. If it were a sloop, they’d hear its buffalo horn lowing its greeting from afar, but if it were a powered fishing boat, they’d listen hard to pick out the sound of the engine in the roar of the waves and bet amongst themselves on whose boat it was. In the past, ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

35 our seaside village community would assemble every morning at the shore, where waves broke into white foam while groups of people indulged in the benign pleasures of neighbourly chitchat. But now had come the era of trawlers, big modern boats which from dawn to dusk hauled in nets full of sea creatures from the deep. Working at night created a new breed of people who no longer had to wait for the waxing and waning of the moon as in the past. At sunset, the boats came back alongside the pier, making the fish market on it hectic. Sometimes there were so many vessels they looked like an armada surrounding some strategic cape. The trawlers shifted the meeting place of the seaside folk from the white beach to the concreted pier, where they talked from dusk until the wee hours. This new marketplace had liquor joints, restaurants and sweet-food stalls, which kept selling until daybreak, while jukeboxes brayed non-stop. These businesses didn’t only welcome the new breed of sailors who had been toiling since late morning, but also fish-truck drivers, fish-trolley pushers, fishmongers, harbour officials, casual passers-by and most important, wholesalers, to whom all of the above-mentioned paid respect. The job of buying and selling fish was always only done through these middlemen, who were few in numbers on this pier. Amongst themselves fishwives would carp at the wholesalers, complaining that their hearts were harder OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

36 to read than the monsoon winds. Nobody knew at what price they reserved the fish for themselves nor when that price would change, yet hundreds of fishmongers bought from the wholesalers at the quoted price, and they just had to trust it was fair. As soon as they saw a boat coming alongside, the middlemen would rush to the head of the pier and compete with one another over the fish in the hold. Trawler crews would sort out the fish and other sea creatures they caught into separate small crates that were stacked up high in the boat like crates of soda-pop bottles. Each of the fishwives hired teenage boys on a regular basis, who waited to jump from the high end of the pier onto the gunwales of the boats, which rocked and reeled under the impact of the waves, bobbing up and down like spooky shadows on the water. These boys had to jump onto the boats as fast as they could and rush to reserve the best fish for the fishwives who hired them. They formed the ‘night brigade’ of the joke, charging to reserve fish crates. Phorn, Noi’s first husband, was one of the night lot. When he witnessed the tragic end of a close friend, he lost his wits so badly he thought that, from that day, he’d give up any job that had to do with the sea. The night-brigade jumpers were vanguard fighters in the war of extermination carried out against sea creatures. The excited gleam in their eyes was like that of ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

37 animals suddenly caught by torchlight in the dark, but instead of fleeing, they rushed into the glare with wild abandon. The blinking lights of a big, modern boat pierced the darkness of the midnight sea, and as the boat drew closer to the head of the pier, you could see the waves of white foam parting against its prow in tapering folds. The hundred or so people on the pier milled about excitedly like festive crowds watching fireworks exploding against the sky. They waited expectantly as the coasting boat swerved to come alongside. For the members of the night brigade, every part of their bodies had begun to tense up as soon as the light had appeared in mid sea. They all had the same look of metal springs wound up taut about to be released and sent flying with hidden strength off the head of the pier, which was resounding with the uproar of people and the roar of boat engines, and shaken by the impact of the waves on its pillars. The first thing the feet of the night-brigade jumpers had to do was to get a hold on the gunwales soaked in seawater that bobbed and pitched and rolled, slippery as hell. Next, they had to jump again, land firmly on deck and immediately run for the piles of wooden crates stacked to way above their heads, in order to reserve against the competition the most expensive species or those fish that looked fresher than the rest. They made their choices in two blinks of an eyelid. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

38 And when an accident happened, it happened fast, like a sudden strike of lightning that didn’t leave time to think and was over so quickly only fear remained. There was a thud on the boat and a splash in the water as something heavy fell off the head of the pier and the waves closed in a flurry of foam. ‘I can still see it in front of my eyes, Noi, you know,’ Phorn said. He closed his eyes and there was the face of his friend, with whom he had shared iced black coffee that night. ‘It was as loud as a mighty blow from an axe on gunnels. I was already standing in the boat after we’d jumped together, and when I turned to him, he’d already gone under. He didn’t utter a sound. Must’ve landed on fish slime, so he slipped. Hurt in the foot he was, too…’ Phorn spoke in hoarse gulps. He told Noi the accident had scared him away from crazy fish-crate work. ‘Sure I don’t mind good pay, Noi, but I just can’t do it. As soon as I see a boat comin’ in, my legs get awobblin’ under me. I’ve got no strength left to jump and the one thing I see’s ’is face. It’s just as if he died for nothin’, don’t you think?’ ‘How about going back to boxing, then?’ Noi asked while stroking his badly injured face, which was still black and blue. ‘Heck, no.’ He shook his head from side to side. ‘Knocked down three times as I was, who’s goin’ to ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

39 sponsor me again? No way I can make it in that line, Noi. I don’t know what I’m goin’ to do. Before, I thought I’d go to Saudi Arabia, but now I’ve got to worry about you …’ Phorn smiled as he grabbed Noi and made her lie down on the sand again. This time, she didn’t see the tattoos on his wide chest, but she could see his sullen face, and she was left to console herself with the thought that love was bound to follow pity any time soon. The sea breeze began to blow towards the shore. Tiny particles of sand stuck to the skins of the two of them.



7 Old Mong Lai, say, who are you? Why are your stories so secretive So funny, exciting and incredible? Old Mong Lai, say, who are you really? This world had land and sky and sea Yet you tried to adorn it with strangely shaped islands I, who am your offspring, understand how your felt, Old Mong Lai: You created everything out of despair. Old Mong Lai was an old man who had a wife named Ramphueng and a beautiful daughter. Her beauty was like the sacred coral sought by seafarers. Rumour of it travelled from one distant port to another, as far as wings of gulls and fins of fish could reach. A junk from China ran aground in front of the house and a titled official came to see Old Mong Lai, while a young lovelorn local sailor hid the painful turmoil in his breast. What kind of a mother was Mother Ramphueng that she could only think of titles and forget her fellow villagers? She urged Old Mong Lai to give away their beautiful daughter to the titled Chinese official. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

41 How good a mother was Mother Ramphueng? Did she wish the best for her daughter or did she covet the gifts heaped up on that Chinese junk? Pity the young sailor and pity Old Mong Lai, who loved his neighbours and had only his daughter’s interests at heart. His cold blood began to simmer, like a quiet sea before a raging storm. The daughter came acrying, ‘Father, do not send me so far away. I know nothing of Chinks or China’. The young sailor came awailing, ‘Father, take heed of my love’. Ramphueng, the mother, was furious: ‘Old Mong Lai, don’t be stupid, we’ll be free from poverty once and for all.’ In the dim night sky, the stars shone and the sea was still. Then fog blanketed the whole village as well as the junk waiting at anchor. And then there was a storm. Old Mong Lai tore the chest of his most beloved daughter into two halves and threw each away with all the might of his wrath, and both halves fell into the sea. His offspring since then have called Old Mong Lai’s daughter’s bosom Maiden’s Breast Mountain. He hurled a tame animal which awkwardly crawled OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

42 around the house, and it became Turtle Mountain. He let a fierce animal free to rush to the sea, and it became Lion Island. Mirror Gap Mountain, Chopsticks Mountain and the other mountains that festoon the sea, all were utensils he threw out of his house. And he put a curse on Ramphueng, his wife, she who was so greedy for riches, to be a mountain sitting in wait at the edge of the sea. And where did he himself go? Dejected, he sat down, and turned into a mountain, called Old Mong Lai Mountain. Old Mong Lai, say, who are you? Your tale’s funny and exciting, But you’re a true man of the sea: You’ve got cold blood hidden in that scorching wrath of yours. Look here! Your offspring of the sea light up firecrackers and bow deep in worship to you, Old Mong Lai, as their boats sputter past. But how do you really feel, O Old Mong Lai, when you see them frag the fish and destroy the isles you created with your very own hands?



8 Old Mong Lai turned into a mountain ridge by the sea. Sailors passing by looked at the lonely old man there with respect. This mountain shaped like a man sitting in desperation was evidence of the grief recorded in the tales told by many a generation. But Old Mong Lai sat far away from Eekueng Canal, and few in the village had had the opportunity to meet him for real. The domestic items Old Mong Lai threw in our district were Turtle Mountain and Chopsticks Mountain, which fell by the shore. Falling offshore a very short distance by boat was the fierce animal he freed in his frenzy that time long ago – an island shaped like a lion crouching in mid sea, with a big, puffed-up mane and a tail. At high tide, when the waning moon was stark white, the shimmering glitter all over the sea seemed to bring the all-black Lion Island to life and it was as though we could hear its distraught roar over the roar of the waves. Lion Island was a small island, with no one living on it. There was only one way for the boats to reach its shelter below the wind, and it was a place to explore for the strangers who fled the heat of the weather and wandered that way. Apart from that, rocks studded with sharp barnacles, thickets of mangrove and shore weeds, and a few dozen monkeys that sent irksome shrieks OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

44 were the only features of the mournful desert island – the doing of Old Mong Lai. At the foot of the island a slew of slimy rocks sheltered dead corals and shoals of fish. ‘I know how to catch fish by that island,’ was the answer Noi got from her youthful husband one day, when she saw him filling plastic bags with gunpowder. ‘You’re going to blast ’m, aren’t you? You shouldn’t do that, you know, Phorn. It’s dangerous, and if they find out, you’ll get yourself arrested for sure.’ Noi was alarmed when she saw him busily mixing the powder. ‘Who’s goin’ to arrest me?’ Phorn laughed. ‘It’s only talk. Nobody cares. Take it easy, okay, or else your mother will find out and there’ll be no end to the story.’ ‘She lives in fear of sin and often curses those who dynamite the fish.’ Phorn laughed again. ‘Show me someone who doesn’t commit sin these days. Don’t think too much. Your mother’s an old woman. Just ignore her.’ When he saw he had her silent, Phorn added: ‘I know what I’m doin’, Noi. These days, most boats use explosives. Gunpowder’s easy enough to get, but as for fish, you could spend the whole night and not find any. They hide amongst the rocks at the foot of the island. How can you possibly get in there and throw a net over them? Those bleedin’ trawlers rake off all the fish we used to catch in the old days. Just think. They’ve got the latest gear, and on top of that, they use explosives when ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

45 things are slack. If we keep sticking to principles, we’ll starve to death, damn it.’ Phorn went out to sea that night amidst fumes of booze. He went out in the small boat with a net for coast fishing he had inherited from Granny Chaem’s husband, who was no longer. The obligation for him to find a living from the sea was hardly bearable, but he had no choice. He was too foppish to pedal a trishaw, be a guard at the harbour, or a worker on the roads that were being built to welcome the tourists, and too lazy to stand being a sailor on big boats such as trawlers. He told his woman it was backbreaking work for small pay. ‘The wages they give us are only a pittance but if we catch more than the quota, we get a percentage, but then, they only settle the accounts every six months or so. The guys on board say the owner keeps the money in the bank and lives off the interest,’ Phorn told Noi. True, he wanted to be his own man and have nothing to do with the sea, but to take his own boat out along the shore seemed to give him more face than any other job he could have picked. Except that they could be counted on one hand, the times he went out to catch fish. ‘To hell with goin’ out! Why, there isn’t any fish left in the sea. You just get fagged out for nothin’. You tell me who the heck finds enough crabs or cuttlefish to pay for his rice. So what’s the point of gettin’ all excited about it?’ OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

46 When Phorn was drunk, he’d pick a quarrel with his woman, and whenever he lost his bets at snooker, he’d start using his fists. The power of booze wouldn’t let him forget he had been a boxer once. Noi became pregnant as Phorn was thinking of going out to blast fish. Getting equipped wasn’t that difficult. He just bought gunpowder, mixed it and slipped it into plastic bags to be released into the sea along with a long fuse he’d lit up to trigger the explosions. One blast and the fish below the rocks would float to the surface belly up, together with dead coral, and he’d use his net to haul the lot on board. The fish still looked fresh and bright, except for their guts, which burst under the pressure of the water. ‘Lion Island, I tell ye, that’s Old Mong Lai’s island! Ye scum! Ye’re destroying the Lord’s wealth!’ Granny Chaem cursed him when she found out one day. ‘Ye’ll get your come-uppance for sure if ye don’t stop your sinful ways!’ Just over one year later, Phorn, Noi’s first husband, was caught in a storm blowing off the Old Mong Lai ridge – his boat sank.



9 There was an old local newspaper published in the district that had been coming out for more than ten years, but it didn’t carry anything much of substance besides the printing of the lottery results that came out in Bangkok. The newspaper’s frequency changed with government policy regarding this kind of legal betting, which took place at first once every five days, then once every ten, and finally twice a month. So the paper changed its tempo to fortnightly as a matter of course, but the villagers kept referring to it as the lottery paper. Its venerable editor was a Maha∗, a graduate of theology from an old Bangkok monastery who had left the monkhood when still a young man. He had travelled to this district to make dolls with shells he sold to tourists. His talent had revealed itself when he was still in yellow robes. He carved conch shells and decorated them with stripes to turn them into ladles, peacocks, or key-holders in the shape of various animals. He also scraped conches a little and was able to sell them as water holders for the sprinkling of brides and grooms. Some of his shell-made dolls he fashioned out of surf clams, which had beautiful striae, but most were of a variety of shells that clung to rocks, or hid in the sand ∗

Title bestowed on a Buddhist priest who has passed the third grade in Buddhist theology studies


48 beneath shallow waters. These shells were white like wave foam. He merely used glue to stick their bottoms at random and there you had sundry birds which looked full of life with their red or black eyes made of Indian liquorice seeds. Before he thought of starting a newspaper, he called his shop Khun Maha on Sea. In his shop, there was something else on display to lure the tourists: reproductions of small seagoing sailboats of a kind that was no longer in use. The miniature boats were varnished and shone handsomely. It was as though Khun Maha was aware no one would ever see that sort of boat plying the seas again. Their only value now was as souvenirs perhaps, for those who remembered the boats, and when they saw them maybe they would recall what the sea was like in the old days, just as seeing the vestiges of historical sites is enough for us to visualise features of the lives of our ancestors. When the face of the sea began to change noticeably more than ten years ago, not only did the big fishing fleets, such as the dozens of tangkei of the district, run distressingly at a loss, but the small boats hunting for fish by the shore led their owners to similar ruin, as if the belly of the sea in these parts had grown totally barren of fish and other seawater creatures. Even the shells dug in the sand or sunk under rocks were getting harder to find by the day, which had dire repercussions on Khun Maha’s stock in trade. So he changed jobs and started to print sheets of lotATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

49 tery results after each drawing, as the game was catching on amongst local folks. Then he became more ambitious. Even though he wasn’t as used to the smell of the sea as he was to the scent of the yellow robes, and though he started a newspaper partly with the secret hope of hobnobbing with the high and mighty in the district, whenever he had the chance, Khun Maha would express his opinion forthrightly in the columns of his newspaper. Every time he looked at his rickety printing press, oldfashioned as it was, he took great pride in his possession, as well as in his lottery paper, of which he was the sole typesetter, printer, reporter, writer and editor. He felt much indebted to the sea. He had built himself up from a modest stake that came entirely from the sea, and had by and by received acceptance and respect from almost every single soul in this fishing community. He showed the concern he felt for the local waters and for the local people many years ago in one article which failed to grab people’s attention. ‘The main staple from the sea in the Gulf of Siam is the mackerel, which will disappear one day if we keep letting some of our fishermen go out to sea during the spawning season. Not only that, but the use of explosives to kill fish destroys the coral, the weed flora underwater, and the various islets and rock formations where the fish and many other marine animals spawn. Furthermore, the department of fisheries does nothing to control the proliferation of trawlers, or to regulate the OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

50 spacing of the mesh of nets to prevent the smaller sea creatures from being swept up and dying before they are fully grown. The tragedy is that, if left unchecked, these practices will deprive sea-dwelling people, most of whom are poor, of their livelihood…’ Khun Maha’s article attacked the fisherman’s association for having turned into ‘a lair for gamblers and snooker players’, and berated the coast guard, whose boats it said only ‘went out with binoculars to ogle the girls playing in the surf’. ‘One day, there won’t be any fish left in the Gulf, or else so little that the very way of life of the fishermen will be in jeopardy…’ said Khun Maha’s prophetic article. Those many years ago, however, Khun Maha’s articles were like the waves of the sea, which crashed over rocks in swishes of foam that scattered into emptiness.



10 There’s a story about the sea that was often told with relish to the delight of the people on shore – the story of the Saint Elmo’s fire which drifted in with the sea breeze in the dark hours. ‘It’s like a green and red light that sticks to the main mast of the boat. It won’t go away till you undress.’ Sailors would tell the story with excited faces that added much to the thrill. ‘It’s small and round like this lamp, but its power’s unbelievably vicious. Let it clutch your boat, my friend, and you just might go under.’ Sailors believed the demonic light made storms happen and scared the fish away. If it stuck to someone’s boat, the meek would promptly take their boat ashore, where they had to go and fetch sacred water from the temple and sprinkle it to rid the boat of the bad omen, but to solve the problem at hand when confronted with the light, the sailors would tell one another that they had to take off all of their clothes then show themselves to it in their birthday suits and order it to leave. ‘But tell me sumpin’. Have you seen this thing for yourself?’ an inquisitive landlubber would ask. ‘Ah ha!’ The sailor would always laugh before saying, ‘It’s our elders who tol’ me’. Even though no one could confirm it, the story of the Saint Elmo’s fire was sort of buried amidst the beliefs of OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

52 seafarers of all generations, and the picture of it capsizing boats remained to spook them, even though no one, neither sailors nor shore people, had ever seen it. The story of the demonic fire was a tale told for fun in fishermen homes. No one could have imagined that later our village would meet with real demons and that they’d come from the land one night – not from the deep sea as I had always thought. One of the beliefs of seafarers ever since the days of the first seagoing sail boats until those of the tangkei was that fortune accrued from the sea didn’t come from the labour of man’s hands alone. Fate, as it were, contributed a lot when, in the wide sea in which no one knew where the fish were, this or that boat managed to find them and prize them off the waters, just as when fishermen sailed their boats alone night after night and never saw a single fish and then complained, ‘Tonight, I’ve had no luck’. Soldiers enter battle with talismans even though they have expertise and all manner of weapons. The same went for tangkei sailors. They went to sea investing part of their faith in the goddess at the prow, part in the spirit protecting their mountain path, which had its prominent shrine by the shore, or else in the female spirit dwelling in a spirit house on an island that they knew. And not only did they explode firecrackers as they passed by to show their respect, not only did they dedicate offerings of sweets and a pig’s head, together with the rolls of flimsy silk material they wrapped around the bowsprit, but they would promise the spirits that, humble ‘sons of ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

53 elephants’ though they were, they’d reward the granting of their request with dance dramas and roving shadow plays of good repute. ‘The Mae Thong Yoo theatre group in Phetchaburi is great but damn expensive, but then okay, my lord. If this son of an elephant gets more than fifty thou’ on this tide, he’ll have that group perform for you, and if he gets the money but doesn’t deliver, cut the throat of the sonofabitch and throw it in the sea for the sharks to feed on.’ Such requests and promises to the spirits were made casually in mid sea by almost every boat owner. Fishermen call the one-month fishing outing which begins with the waning and ends with the waxing of the moon, a ‘tide’. Thus, almost round the year, we children had shadow plays or roving dance dramas to watch on the white-sand beach, where the sky was almost as bright as in daytime. All of the tangkei would drop anchor and be still. You couldn’t see the fish in the sea for the deceiving dazzle. And these were the fetes by the sea that children like me found utterly delightful, when the ‘benevolence’ of sundry sacred beings concurred with the vows of the tangkei owners. Mother was also a tangkei owner, but what was she thinking when she made a vow to the spirits promising a ramwong∗, which was quite unheard of? ∗

Thailand’s most popular dance, in which a line of dancers progress slowly in a winding way or in a circle with small steps and, arms outstretched, with gracious movements of wrists and shoulders


54 The serpentine dance, open to all, began excitingly in a glitter of rainbows of tinsel paper, with beautiful girls wearing skirts so short you could see the brim of their buttocks and with much-soused young boatmen, and it ended in blood and the death of a stranger. Which brought a mob of demons all around our village.



11 Noi’s frail hands were deep in fish blood and fish innards every day. She reached into the fish for the entrails and all the accumulated muck inside, pulled the lot out and threw it in a growing pile that sent a foul smell throughout the sea factory. The sea factory in the old days was a place where nets were dyed and macerated to make their cotton thread more resistant. This was done in huge wooden vats full of boiling water, which chunks of bark turned a blurry vermilion and which spewed forth billows of smoke at all times. But for Noi and the young generation of seafarers, it was the place where the fish, once scaled and cleaned, were steamed, then placed in concentric rows in round wide-mouthed baskets to be boiled in seawater, over a fire whose smoke went all the way to the soot-coated roof. Noi’s face was stained with sweat and smoke smudges. Those eyes of hers clear as seawater over a cove of rocks now looked somewhat blurred by the jagged lines of life. Her mother’s voice floated up above the genial din of the employees who bantered together yet toiled in separate groups, some steaming the fish, some gutting as Noi and her mother did, some slicing up cuttlefish. Someone turned down the sound of the evening OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

56 variety programme on the radio when Granny Chaem spoke up. ‘Every time I see them busted up guts I think of Noi’s husband. That damned loafer uses explosives. When I found out ’bout it, ye know what? He had the cheek to taunt me. And now he won’t take his boat out …’ Several people looked up. ‘Phorn uses explosives, does he now?’ ‘Ye heard me. The abominable cur. I cursed him aplenty. He got angry, so he lets his wife provide his grub all on her own, day and night, pregnant as she is.’ Granny Chaem got up and stood arms akimbo as she spat betel juice on the floor, before making a face of utter exhaustion. Love never grew from the inside of Noi’s heart, let alone drift in from the outside like a rain-cloud breaking above the roof, at first refreshing but soon stuffy. Noi sat looking at her hands dipped in fish matter under the feeble light of the sea factory, and felt sad. Hard work wouldn’t bother her if only the troubles of her private life would just go away. If she didn’t have a husband or find herself pregnant like this, at home there’d be a TV antenna to show off to the neighbours and she wouldn’t have to humble herself and flatter them to watch their sets when there was a good soap on, and her mother, who was going deaf by the day, could stop straining to listen to the plays on the radio and look at the pictures instead. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

57 In the new era of the sea, it looked like money went into the hands of women more than men’s, so long as they were strong and willing to work ‘day and night’, as Granny Chaem put it, because the trawlers brought fish and other sea creatures of all kinds to the shore without stopping for the waxing or waning of the moon as in the past. Everything was changing. Take the guts and gills of the fish whose gooey piles flanked Noi: in the old days, they were at best marinated in salt to make raw fish sauce to use at home, but now there was a processing plant beyond the market over there which bought the stuff wholesale from the sea factory to produce fish sauce. Even the muck and blood sticking to the flesh of the fish was valuable. Another example? The kinds of fish fishermen used to think were useless and throw back into the water were now gobbled up day in, day out by a fish-processing plant which made animal feed. The concrete pier which stretched out to receive the flux of sea creatures was never bereft of the roar of engines, as boat after boat of young male crews with backs sweaty and oily came and left round the clock. Battle lines of trucks waited at the foot of the pier to take the fish to Bangkok and to the main provincial towns, while wheelbarrows competed helter-skelter to reach the factories behind the market. Chunks of ice spurted forth from the grinders and were scattered about. Fishwives OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

58 mobbed the middlemen, clamouring for fish prices. Food stores and shops were full of bustle and the deafening blare of jukeboxes. The sea factory was never free of the smell of smoke and fire or of the sickening reek of the decaying sea creatures. Trawler after trawler unfailingly brought in cuttlefish, which in the old days only accidentally got caught in the net at the rear of a motorboat or which small boats close to shore would hoist on board after having lured them with torches. That work made much money for the womenfolk on land, who sat scooping them out and cleaning as many as they had the strength to do, but there weren’t enough hours in a working day to cope with all the catch. Now that several factories dried the cuttlefish in electric stoves, there was no longer any need to wait until the fish had dried in the sun, and people said that before long there’d be no need for workers like Noi any longer either: machines would be doing everything. ‘Them machines are like demons,’ Noi remembered someone saying. Would it be a good thing or bad? she wondered. And when the demonic spirits that Granny Chaem talked about some twenty years ago surrounded Eekueng Canal village, it was a story that gave Noi the jitters.



12 When the Thai New Year came to the shore of Eekueng Canal village, the ramwong was enlivened with navy drums and lit up with storm lanterns. Fishermen’s daughters weren’t keen on adorning their ears with flowers but they liked to drape themselves in garlands of shells. The beat of the drums carried far, so the sailors from the warship that anchored in front of the village came to join the fun with their favourite onboard song. ‘I – I – I’m a soldier of Thailand.’ They sang and danced amidst pungent wafts of booze. Everyone in the village loved the sailors. The lot of them were friends during the hot season every year, when they left their ship. Mostly, they were like the sea becalmed before a storm, in that they loved their peace but were awesome in wrath. Almost all young fishermen were like that, so we got along fine and were never at loggerheads with them. But then the demons came – border patrol police who had set up their camp at the rim of the jungle above the railway line. When some music lover set up a ramwong at the market, children like me often went to spy on the dancers as they practised, but actually ended up dancing more than they did. Professional ramwong differs from the OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

60 New Year type, which is all shuffling legs, in that it uses the flutter of the arms to slowly move in circles with poise and grace. It was said that the ramwong troops travelled as far as the South and were hired to dance in yearly festivals, temple fairs and restaurant shows, and that their owners and dancers were doing nicely indeed. So there were several pretty lasses in the village who fled the stench of fish to feature as star dancers, and this kind of ramwong was most sought after by boisterous young fishermen out for a good time. Mother’s boat went out to sea once again after the first disaster had struck. This time, it set out propelled by the title deeds to several pieces of land which she had mortgaged to an old acquaintance of hers. In those days, banks were very far from her thoughts. Most true fishermen then looked at banks pretty much in the way they looked at politicians. Both had little to do with their everyday lives and seemed to be concepts that were too wide and all encompassing, like the dome of the sky capping the sea. Even nowadays, you’ll find few fishermen willing to have any truck with such broad notions. While her boat was out in the sea hunting fish, Mother did her best to help, as she lingered by the decorative, propitious plants in the garden at the back of the house, such as the spider plants and euphorbia meant for the Lord, and made binding pacts with a host of deities huddled in her fearful heart ever since she had met with the first disaster. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

61 And then one day her boat returned to shore full of fish to the gunwales. Come the end of that tide, on a full-moon night in the hot season, Mother hired a ramwong troop in the market to dance for all, free of charge, in order to entertain the young crew of her boat, although in her heart of hearts, it was rather to fulfil her promise of entertainment to the gods. Besides the sailors from the warship who were on leave, two ‘army cops’ also came over to dance, from dusk to deep into the night. ‘Army cops’ was the villagers’ name for the border patrol police in the camp above the railway line, because they had set up their camp like soldiers. They had aeroplanes and tanks and heavy artillery, and the fame of their fighting prowess had spread far and wide. It was said they were a new force the government in Bangkok had just created from scratch. They had their headquarters in the chief town of this province by the seaside. There were only two of them. They showed up at dusk at the ramwong stage, which shimmered with rainbowcoloured paper and was studded with beautiful young dancers. Just that, and the hearts of the villagers stopped. Even though these two didn’t wear the smart new uniforms everybody had noticed, there was no mistaking their fierce looks or where they had come from. Mother was sitting by her betel tray in front of the teak showcase inside the house lit up as bright as day, when abruptly song, dance, singer and every single instruOF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

62 ment in the band stopped, replaced at once by the shrill shouts of the female dancers. The ramwong stage became deserted as everyone fled in panic, leaving only the dead body of one of the ‘army cops’ with blood gushing out from its back. His friend kept mumbling to him in urgent whispers, then finally looked up and told the policeman from the station: ‘There isn’t much you can do, sarge. Even I don’t know who knifed him. The only thing I know is that he was wearing trousers like those tangkei bozos.’ He meant the loose Chinese drawers fishermen wore knotted at the waist. Someone came to whisper to Mother that the wielder of the knife was a lad from another tangkei; there had been a dispute over a girl; the guy was punched in the nose, so he sneaked up behind the cop and recklessly plunged his knife into him. He had fled into a boat and disappeared. Later that same night, a group of angry warriors with soot-blackened faces surrounded Eekueng Canal village, grabbed hold of all youngsters wearing Chinese drawers and beat them to a pulp. After that night, many an innocent villager in Eekueng Canal had to be spoon-fed by his relatives with gruel for months. With the demons from the sea that roamed in the wind, we knew enough to undress and go out to face them and drive them away, but with this horde of demons that came from the railway line, we merely locked ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

63 our front doors and blocked them with the fear of our shaking bodies. I peeked through a gap in the door and in the moonlight saw military boots stomping the street all night.



13 There was a commotion at the foot of the pier at dusk as men on the move cast lively shadows under the electric lights – then all of a sudden everything froze, as anguishing a halt as a lull in a squall, the men standing still like statues, the women merely raising a hand to their bosoms, staring round-eyed at the wide expanse of concrete, utterly stunned. The shadows on the move were those of four young men who had bolted out of the dark street ahead. The two pursuers wielded small hatchets against the other two, who half fought half fled and had short knives as weapons. Now the two pairs were facing each other, loudly gasping for breath in the surrounding hush. One man raised his hatchet high in the air just as the hand of one of the women shot up from her bosom to cover her face. Seeing his chance, the knife-wielder lunged but, caught hard on the head by the plunging hatchet, he staggered and reeled back. The other two were fighting hand to hand, the knife stabbing mindlessly, missing now, now finding flesh, the hatchet furiously slashing and swishing, its impact on the other guy’s skull loud and clear. The cemented landing bore tracks of blood drops that shone a bright red where they caught the light. The gasps and grunts for breath blended with the gentle ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

65 breathing of the waves busy playing with the pillars of the pier. Their weapons having been knocked off their hands, the two knife-wielders turned round and fled, running up the length of the pier with faces drenched in blood. One of their opponents flung his hatchet after them, but it clattered against a fish crate, to deep sighs of relief from the people around. When the fugitives jumped onto one of the dozens of boats moored there and went out of sight, the guys with the hatchets turned and ran back into the street they had come from. It wasn’t long before things returned to normal, fish sales resumed and the throng milled about again, amidst whispers that all the men had sustained injuries but no one was expected to die, though the two knife-wielders, who were members of a trawler crew, were definitely in worse shape. As for the guys with the hatchets, nobody wanted to talk about them. Someone slid a coin in the jukebox, which bleated out a ballad about the woes of a young sailor in the throes of love. That night the dark sky bristled with stars over a sea which was as smooth as a mirror. Some boats which had come to shore after noon cranked up their engines and began to put to sea again at dusk. These trawlers mostly came from other places and hunted for sea creatures around these parts in order to put into port in this town, OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

66 which was a convenient place to have marine produce sent to Bangkok. There were not many of these outside trawlers, big boats fully equipped with the latest fishing gear. Most of the local people, when they didn’t hire themselves out as sailors, ran the small boats that slung their fishing nets in shallow waters close to shore. Conflicts were bound to happen, like sudden gales rattling the doors and windows of seaside homes. Scuffles between the local lads and the crews of outside boats would start over such trifles as a look askance or some half-hearted insult, or over more serious issues of livelihood, but for the most part they stemmed from rivalries over maidens. The trawlers brought wealth to several groups of locals, both in terms of trade and for those sea folk whose livelihood depended on this port. These groups would often decry local youngsters as hot heads who only knew how to prevent fellow village folk from earning a living. ‘Just wait. These damn monkeys are always goading ’m. If they manage to get the boats to put to port somewhere else, where will that leave us? Won’t we be starving to death then?’ ‘These damn monkeys’ referred to those youngsters who had tattoos of Hanuman∗ etched on their chests or right across their backs. Almost all of them were local ∗

A Hindu demigod in the form of a monkey; the King of the Monkeys in the Indian epic Ramayana


67 boatmen who resented the crews of the trawlers, and there were increasing numbers of sailors from the trawlers who, as they walked along dark streets or roads at night after they had had their fun, were beaten with sticks, stabbed with knives, slashed with hatchets or pummelled with brass knuckles, though as yet none had been shot at, because guns were hard to find and too expensive for the local ruffians. Besides the weapons they had, there was another thing the local lads reckoned helped them win their fights, and that was their belief that their skins were invulnerable to weaponry. They all found their way to a jungle retreat to visit a learned monk and returned with their backs, shoulders or chests covered with a surfeit of ink tattoos depicting flying monkeys in various poses. ‘With this one, the Master says, even an M-16 can’t do a thing,’ some of them would boast, even though they had yet to see an M-16. ‘How ’bout trying with a knife first?’ someone would ask. They’d all rattle off the same answer: ‘No way! The Master forbade us to try for fun. He says that to prove its power, only the real thing will do.’ Noi sat with a fearful heart in the sea factory after someone had run to report that her husband had been injured in a fight at the foot of the pier that evening. She couldn’t help wondering how it was Phorn was always scared to death of the sea but when it came to this kind of trouble he flung himself at it like a madman. Maybe it OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

68 was because he believed in the magic power of the tattoo on his chest and maybe the monk’s cipher did protect him against the sharpness of offensive weapons, and not against the dangers of the sea. ‘Phorn’s okay, Noi, but he’s on the run. He’s probably going to lie low with some friends of his in Phetchaburi. He’s got several knife wounds, nothing deep though,’ someone still pretty much excited whispered to Noi. A bevy of policemen came to investigate the disturbance at Eekueng Canal village in the morning, one of them a slender figure in a brand-new uniform. The shiny tag on his chest said he was PO Sommai. The strong wind blowing from the sea scattered grains of sand over a large area and they fell down like drizzle before the unblinking eyes of the young police officer as he stood gazing at Noi.



14 The fishermen’s association was in a small, compact wooden house on high stilts, with a tiled roof. It stood at the bend of a road shaded with queen-flower trees whose purple-and-white corollas looked cool in the hot season. Their colour spread enlivened the road and gave it a quaint charm, like a new set of bright clothes on a young woman. Several trishaws came cruising down the road not long after the clatter of the train had stopped amidst the echoes of strident hooting. These trishaws took visitors to the residences of the elite by the seaside or to rented bungalows scattered along the beautiful road. The city strangers arrived with holiday clothes and lots of bags and their animated voices competed with the hand bells of the trishaws, which progressed at a leisurely pace like a festive procession. The kite wind sent kites jigging above the roofs of many houses. ‘Every year they come,’ the president of the fishermen’s association was saying to the people next to him as they stood on the wooden veranda of the small house, waiting for all the members to come to the meeting. ‘They run away from the heat for a bit of fresh air here where it’s hot as hell. Since when does the sea help any? Hey, what about us? Where should we go to run away OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

70 from the heat?’ The president spoke loud and clear as befitted his huge, stout frame. He liked to cross his hands behind his back when he spoke and hold himself majestic as became his office, which meant a lot to the fishermen. When the trishaws had glided out of sight, he turned and added: ‘I’m told tangkei owners take their holidays in Bangkok these days. Isn’t that wonderful? We fishermen go to town for a lark and them city people come to the seaside.’ He laughed at the incongruity of it. This fat big man with drab white hair had owned a junk in his time. He had had to give up his education in a well-known provincial temple school halfway through when his father’s junk had begun to lose money, but nonetheless he had never given up his quest for knowledge even while he went about searching for sea creatures. By the time the days of the tangkei came by, age had caught up with him, and before the members of the association bestowed on him the title of president, he had been enjoying his retirement at home amidst the vellums, scrolls and books he had gathered since he was a young man. The younger generations of fishermen had much respect for the old man both for his seniority and for his knowledge, and never more so than when he talked with foreigners in his customary booming voice, even though no one understood a word he spoke. The association drew a modest income from letting out part of the premises for private snooker games. General meetings took place once in a long while, as when a ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

71 school of dolphins would swim by the shore to everyone’s thrill, or when the director general of the fisheries department would visit the district. It was only on very special occasions that the stout old man came out and held a meeting with all members present. ‘Right, we’re all here now, so I start – er, no – so I declare the meeting open,’ the president said from his chair at the head of the table. All of the members around it were old men who had retired from the sea. They had a long past of sailing boats and of the first tangkei of their time as well as of small coasting vessels, and they had all passed them on to their children. The eyes of all the men present had gone through rain and wind and wave and the darkness of night over equally long periods of time and now were blurred and dim like discarded old sails. ‘As I was telling some of you,’ the stout president went on in earnest, ‘the fisheries department wants us to choose a few of our people to go to Japan for a period of three months to see how they work over there. The Japanese side will take care of all expenses. Our men will go out at sea to watch them catch fish, be trained on their modern equipment and observe the various methods they use. The Japs – I mean, the Japanese are way ahead of us in terms of fishing. They have advanced technology. ‘True, everything will be free, but those who go should bring their own pocket money.’ The president coughed OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

72 before turning towards the din that came from outside the meeting room. ‘Hey, you out there, tell the guys playing snooker to pipe down a bit, there’s a meeting of their elders going on in here!’ Then he turned back and went on: ‘Er – one more thing: we must choose people who’ve got their wits about ’m, otherwise we’ll lose face with these guys. They’ll take many people, you know, from all fishing districts. One man per district to begin with, but I understand they’ll take more in coming years. ‘So, let’s figure out who should go and compete with their work.’ The president stopped speaking and then looked at the faces of his friends. ‘What’s this technojelly of yours, Mr President?’ one of the members said with a rather croaking voice. ‘I’m told in Japan they use rubber tires to make pontoons and also they don’t have to dry their nets in the sun: they just pull them out of the water and that’s it. I’m told that to bring the fish in, they don’t go through this muddle of paddleboats as we do; they’ve got engines to pull in the nets instead of using manpower. Is all this true?’ ‘Oh, they’re a lot more advanced than we are. That’s why we must send people to learn from them,’ the president said, smiling rather complacently, before he embarked on the history of Japanese fishing for the benefit of his fellow members. The people who were chosen this time to go abroad to watch fishing operations were young tangkei masters ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

73 who had high-school level education and some status. They set out from their houses escorted by relatives and friends and the seniors of the association and proceeded all the way to the railway station. They were excited and shy under the garlands of flowers slung round their necks. ‘No need to sneak out and check on fishy goingson as well, okay?’ someone said in jest. The president of the fishermen’s association took his stout body back from the railway station, walking slowly with his hands clasped behind his back and in the company of his friends along the beautiful road all decorated with queen flowers that quivered in the hot-season wind. He was reflecting that the event was the first signal that told of change in the life of the sea.



15 There was only one summerhouse near the fishing village whose name made you want to pay it a visit – ‘Felicity House’. For many days every hot season, its surroundings resounded with the happy shouts of children at play, snatches of men’s conversations and peals of female laughter. At all hours of the day the folks from this house were seen bathing in the sea or floating in rubber tyres, playing with true felicity indeed. One summer day, when Noi was still very young, she saw a girl of her age being carried out of the sea, and she was dead. It was said her tyre had drifted out of sight of the grownups, a wave had overturned it and she had drowned. She was the delightful daughter of the owner of the house named Felicity. After prolonged wails of mourning, the house had been closed down, never to be visited by its owners again. The house and its land were sold and changed hands several times before the place was turned into a fish-processing plant, whose stink annoyed the Eekueng Canal villagers no end. The old president of the fishermen’s association, supporting his stout frame with a cane, came to assess the situation one day. Noi could see that the old man’s hair and eyes were of the same white as the sky that ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

75 morning, and that his big frame shook as if chilled by the breeze blowing from the sea. ‘I shall raise a protest with the municipality, damn it!’ The old man was clearly furious, even though his voice was hoarse and quavering these days. ‘This is a blatant violation of municipal law. They can’t allow a fish plant to be set up here. This is a village. There are people staying here. How can the little children here live with such a stink? And look at that, over there, they release their waste into the sea as well! Forget about bathing around here anymore. Bastards!’ Noi heard the old man grumble that when villagers raised a couple of pigs they were fined, yet the fish factory stank much more than pig shit. The reek from piles of rotting fish spread and then lay stagnant over Eekueng Canal, a fishing village of small boats and drift nets. The old man complained some more and screwed up his nose, and before he walked away from the people who had gathered around him, he didn’t forget to instruct them to go along with him to the municipality to protest. ‘But not all of you, or those pen pushers will have a seizure. Send two or three representatives, that should do it,’ the old man ordered. The Eekueng Canal villagers sent five of their own to complain, along with the signatures of everyone in the village, but came back disappointed as they’d been unable to meet with the mayor, who had gone to attend a local administration meeting in Bangkok. A young clerk OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

76 of the same village did promise she’d forward the complaint as soon as the mayor returned. But that was a long time ago and the villagers had got used to the stink by and by, just as they had got used to the stench of the stagnant water in the dry canal, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, when there was no wind to bring in the smell of seawater. In the old days, all kinds of tiny fish thin as leaves used to get caught in the meshes of nets in shallow waters, and the fishermen set them aside as food for the ducks they raised. But now they fed a booming industry, thanks to the tightly meshed nets the trawlers hauled round the clock ever so close to shore, and the small fry piled up on the pier all year round. Trucks took these unworthy fish to processing plants where they were dumped in stinking piles to be turned eventually into animal feedstock that would be distributed all over the country. ‘We have more than twenty thousand trawlers catching small fish and thousands of fish-processing plants, so much so that fish species in the Gulf of Siam are disappearing by the day because they are being decimated before they can reproduce. And what of the small boats that have been ensuring the hand-to-mouth existence of our fishermen? What will our fishermen do for a living? And where? Has any thought been given to these people?’ Yet another of Khun Maha’s editorials came out in his lottery paper. Noi didn’t quite understand it when she read it by ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

77 chance, word by word. She merely wondered as she found herself alone with her baby whether or not she missed her man, who had had to hide far away. Since the fight that night, he went out at night, drank and kept dubious company, wasn’t too keen on going out in his small boat and almost always came back home with an empty net. ‘I told you already but you won’t listen: dynamite’s the thing. The fish’ve taken shelter among the rocks. In the open sea, the trawlers grabbed everything that moved long ago,’ Noi heard her husband complain bitterly as he did every time he went to the trouble of going out to sea only to come back empty-handed. She thought of her childhood as she stared out of the window at the fish-processing plant. She thought of Felicity House, which had dissolved like sand wrinkles smoothed out by the waves – the laughter of the women, the snatches of the men’s chatter, together with the melodious voices that rang out of the house with its three-sided roof, its shady garden of bougainvillea and its swing which swayed to and fro under a majestic tree … The house had been pulled down, everything had disappeared and been replaced by shoddy buildings and a factory with corrugated iron roofs. Sometimes we should return to the old ways, Noi thought. At least, life then wasn’t as boring as it is now.



16 Mother’s tangkei looked despondent as it returned to shore, and so did the long faces of Father and the crew. Lately, Father took the boat to sea himself, but it looked like his expertise as a sailing-boat master was no longer valid in the new times of engine-powered boats, which competed increasingly in terms of power, space and range. The tangkei business was cooperative work of a kind. The owner invested in the boat, the net and other implements, and met the various expenses, such as fuel, food and daily fare of all of the crewmembers, which numbered no fewer than twenty, thus providing the initial financial outlay. As for the crew, they invested the labour of their bodies. Most of these men were strong; they were sons of the sea by right of their birth on either shore of the Gulf, and it could almost be said that they had grown up in the bellies of boats. Sea and sun had turned their skins black as coal or reddish brown as copper. They had eyes as red as jellyfish’s from exposure to the wind, palms thickly callused by the cables used to pull the net out of the water, and loud voices to shout above the roar of waves and wind in the open sea. They went to sea taking only their body strength with them and worked in various capacities. Some were first ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

79 mates, waiting for the day they’d be masters in turn; some, rowers of the swing boats that spread the net out; some, haulers pulling the big cables that ran the length of the net; some, divers whose job it was to jump into the water to make sure the nose of the net came together properly; and some were only willing to be cooks and nothing else. But the wildest dream of almost all of them was to one day be the master sitting in the crow’s nest above the cabin at the stern, directing the proceedings with a mixture of whistles and shouts. The golden era of the tangkei was full of legends that fired the ambitions of young men, as several wealthy tangkei owners had started out as lowly cooks running around at the beck and call of one and all on board. But of course few of these wild dreams ever came to fruition and thus, most men got stuck for life as mere crew, drifting, roving about, bumming around forever on this or that boat. The boats were no different from the flocks of seagulls cruising ready to swoop down on their prey in the sea, then winging away together on the new winds that were forever blowing. There is an old lullaby that goes: ‘The Lord of the Sea ripples ripples ho Waves come whirling by like curlicues And blow duckweed all over you.’ The ditty tells clearly enough how loose the tramping, toiling life of the sons of the sea away from home was, with nothing in it firmer than wave patterns kneaded by OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

80 the wind, today with this boat, tomorrow perhaps with another, from this shore to the one opposite, the only certainty being that none of them could do without the sea and all slept more nights on water than they ever did on land. The terms of hiring workers on a tangkei weren’t couched in black on white, given that most men could neither read nor write. It was a gentleman’s agreement between the owner and the sailors and few were those who dared to break it. Nevertheless, known cases of sailors double-crossing their employers were much less frequent than of owners cheating sailors. First off, hired sailors would receive some money in advance as a way for the owner to tie them down to the deal before the boat took to sea, and they would go and buy food-stuff and other items for personal use such as shaving gear, brilliantine for their hair, needles to darn nets, or some new clothes, and, a must for everyone, a stout aluminium trunk whose colour was specific to the stores that made them. They kept their personal belongings in these trunks in lieu of cloth bags, and took them along wherever they went. The trunks had shoulder straps going through loops on both sides, and tinkled like wind-blown sky tassels on the leaf-shaped edgings of temple roofs. The compact between boat owner and sailors rested on the agreement that at the end of a fishing tide, after one full month, if the sea had been kind, profits would be ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

81 shared in accordance with the importance of the jobs held – the greater share for the owner, and gradually smaller shares for the master, the first mate, haulers, divers and cooks, in that order. Employers would cheat their own sailors by overcharging for expenses or understating profits made on each outing. When they were reasonably certain of having been taken in, the only thing the sailors could do was to retort with jeers or leave en masse in a huff and with much cursing. As for sailors double-crossing their employers, they had but one way, which was to go into hiding or join another boat after they had received their advance. In such cases, the owners would retaliate by setting up kangaroo courts in which the masters were usually the judges and executioners: they’d track down the erring sailors and deal out to them with their fists a punishment commensurate with the amount purloined. When Mother’s tangkei went on running at a loss, it was like the barren waters flocks of seagulls would leave. Several sailors accepted advance money from her only to make themselves scarce, thus contributing to the further bankruptcy of the venture, against which she could do nothing. A boat owner-cum-master like Father was too old to go after anyone and get his money back in punches. The world had passed him by.



17 I’ve often perused beautifully coloured seascapes on paper, be it in calendars or on greeting cards, and I’d like to draw pictures to record some of the history of the people of the sea. Of the many pictures that have to do with the sea, old or new, photographs as well as paintings, I feel that only simple, natural ones – a rainbow over water, a solitary fishing boat – are truly beautiful, even though they are but a small part of the story of the sea, which holds a lot more worth recording and remembering before it disappears through the vagaries of time. Not even the most modern techniques of photography can capture old memories of a past long gone, so I must bring them back to life with lines and hues of my own making. The first picture is of fishermen busy hoisting the sails of their boat before putting out to sea while a flock of seagulls swoop with bright white wings over bamboo fishing stakes. Some of the men do not wear shirts, just a chequered piece of cloth slung over their shoulder; most wear roughly hewn clothes dyed a chewed-betel red, and a cloth belt tied round their waist over baggy Chinese trousers. At the stern, the master is surveying the rudder, the ship’s horn, made of a real buffalo horn, resting by his side. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

83 This picture indicates that when the sailing boat leaves the shore after the horn has blown, it will go straight ahead in the direction chosen by the master at the stern, and thereafter, from dusk to late into the dark night, that man at the stern will be on watch, searching for schools of fish with eyes lashed by strong winds. The fish in waters close to shore swim in interweaving waves, with silvery flashes visible from afar. The next picture is of a boat with its sails down, stripped down to mast and riggings, with five or six sailors pulling the net out of the water, while some fish are jumping in the vivid light of the storm lantern. This picture reveals that after the master located a school of fish, he shook the sailors awake and got them to lower the sails and quietly row the oars so as to bring the boat closer to the fish before the net is cast into the water. It didn’t take them very long to catch the fish with their modestly sized ring net which didn’t sink too deep to be beyond their strength to pull back up. Sailors in those days vied with fish of all species, chasing them, catching them, pulling them up from the sea with their own muscle power and tools that were almost always ordinary. I’ll conclude this illustration of the era of the sailing fishing boats with the drawing of one returning to shore as the sun peaking over the horizon picks up glints of OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

84 gold on the grainy pane of the sea. A man on board grabs the buffalo horn and blows it to awaken the people on shore and get them to come and greet the boat. And now, for the next stage, I draw an engine-powered fishing ship, as this is the era of the tangkei. Clad in rich colours, it has a cabin to the rear with a tiny crow’s nest above it, a smokestack, a mast, lines of flags for decoration and, tied to the rear of the cabin and floating along, a pair of slipper-shaped cutters called swing boats used to spread out the seine. This ship is bigger and taller than any in the first few pictures. In this picture as in the previous ones, the people on board wear casual clothes, but dyed dark red like the net, or else black. Aluminium trunks in which the crew keep their belongings are scattered all over the deck. As for the master, he sits in the crow’s nest above the cabin, a cylindrical torch in his hand, amulets and a whistle on strings round his neck. The picture shows smoke coming out of the smokestack as the engine is being warmed up before the ship leaves the shore. Below deck, the man in charge of the engine performs the task of mechanical engineer, while in front of the cabin the helmsman steers in the direction whistled to him by the ship’s master.


85 The next picture is steeped in the darkness of the sea below the scintillating scriptures of the stars. Almost twenty sailors crowd the two net-carrying swing boats slowly moving away on a parallel course thanks to their rowing strength, and silvery fish are rushing about playfully nearby. At a distance bobs the ship, whose engine has been turned off, and in the crow’s nest above the cabin the master signals the manoeuvres with both arms. This picture has changed from the past, even though the men are still catching fish in the same way. The explanation is that while the ship cuts through the waves in the dead of night, the watery eyes of the master sitting atop the whole ship are constantly sweeping the water surface, trying to discern silver flashes over the waves or whatever moves ahead, and when he sweeps his torch around, his thoughts are only, What kind of fish? and how many of them? because some shoals are deceitful, with only a few dozen fish cruising near the surface while there may be untold myriad further down. It is in the expertise of his assessment that a tangkei master proves his worth, because each bout of fishing takes several hours, as the seine goes deep into the water and hauling it up takes its toll each time on the strength of the crew. Night and day, little by little, the experience of the man who sits alone on the ship’s highest spot grows. Maybe he smokes cigarette after cigarette as he thinks of his folks back home or his sailors sleeping in a jumble in OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

86 the cabin, but his mind is constantly on wind, wave and sea currents and on the silvery fish that will jump at the lure of the light from his torch. Maybe he is lonely, maybe he feels forlorn, but watch! What is now riotously rushing forth like a torrent, catching the remanence of nature in flashes of scales and slime, brings a smile to his lips, as there and then his manly job begins. A comparison will do by way of explanation. He is like an army chief in wartime who knows the battle is drawing near. His first move is to assess the strength of the enemy which he sees from a distance, then to blow staccato blasts of his whistle to raise his sailors and get them ready. Then come orders for the deployment of his fighting force. He has the men lowered into the two swing boats transporting the seine and all this manpower, mustered in a jiffy, must pull away at the oars to get on top of the cruising shoal. As for him, he stays on his grand stand above the stern, surveying the broad picture of what his men are doing. At his command carried by shouts and whistle blows, the swing boats let the seine into the water between them, then part ways. How widespread the circle that will engage the enemy below water, how much booty will be won and how, depends on the orders of the man standing watchful at all times in his lonely roost. I must end the era of the tangkei with the drawing of a ship slowly returning home in the morning. There are ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

87 seine racks along the water’s edge, and the explanation is that the sailors have to drag the net and its tangle of folds, balsa floats and lead weights onto them and then spread that mass out to dry in the sun over the next few days. Once that era had passed, of the seine racks there remained but collections of wooden stumps. Balsa floats gave way to rubber balls used with nylon netting that needs no drying in the sun, of a green similar to the dyed trousers of sailors today. These changes took place not so long ago, after young tangkei masters returned one after the other from observing fishing operations in Japan, and they coincided with the advent of the trawler, which came equipped with powered winches to pull in the seine, microphones and loudspeakers to issue orders, short-wave transmitters, and sonar to locate the fish. The ancient fishing war dies out with this last picture.



18 Towards the end of the year, in the eleventh and twelfth lunar months – October and November – riverside dwellers see the current reach the top of the banks, unlike seaside folk, who are used to the monsoon wind whipping the shore with an endless battery of tall waves, and to the chill that comes with it and remains throughout the cold season. The sea then groans like a wounded animal. Its blind travail shakes up all houses by the shore, rattles doors and windows, tosses water over roofs, drenches lanes and streets, leaving behind the scars of potholes, and turns the ground slushy in places, all in a gloomy atmosphere of muffling mist while the sky up above remains depressingly blue. But such a state doesn’t last. One day it is gone. There is lightness in the sky and lightness in the soft sunlight which dries up the potholes and drives the cold wind away. The sea becomes a tame animal slumbering peaceably, no longer sending out waves to disturb the people, no longer setting nerves on edge with its groans. This state in turn only lasts a few days before the mood of the sea changes again. The sea changes mood often during the cold season, with shifts as radical as day and night. ‘I’ve always seen it like this ever since I was a toddler,’ ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

89 utters a trembling hoarse voice in a group of old men. ‘No way you can ever be sure with this darned sea. Fine one moment, hell and high water the next,’ the old man says, then brings his hand to his chest as cold wind sweeps over the bamboo platform by the road running along the shore where the group has assembled to chatter in the soft sunlight, since the sea is in a bright mood this morning. These men are all old timers from the sea who spend the remaining days of their lives in quiet and chilled retirement, like the sea is just now. There are four or five of them and they wear jackets of different colours bought for them by their offspring, but the same Chinese trousers, and their hair is the same clear white. ‘In the old days, nobody ’d sail out in this weather. We were all afraid of the monsoon, remember? This time of year, you saw only birds, and coconut husks and carrion floating about.’ ‘What are you ranting about? In our time a boat cost nothing much at all. Look at the trawlers along the pier now: each of them is worth millions, so why should they be afraid of the monsoon? Floating buildings they are, really, and into the bargain they’ve got radio and radar to tell ’m which way the wind’s blowing. In our time, as soon as there was a bit of a cloud building up, you had to rush back home just in case.’ ‘These kindsa craft ’ll be the death of small boats, mark my words. They even go for fish no bigger ’an my OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

90 thumb. And then what? Soon there won’t be any fish left at all, I say.’ ‘Nowadays they never stop, you know. Forget the spawning season, they haul throughout the year, now for the fish-processing plants, now for cuttlefish, now for shrimp. I think soon they’ll be hauling in jellyfish as well.’ ‘Where have you been all this time, old man? Jellyfish these days will get you several baht a piece, it’s become a goddamn del-i-ca-cy! Come to think of it, it’s funny, you know: in the old days, we used to kick ’m around just for the heck of it.’ ‘Before, we had dolphins and didn’t know what to do with ‘m. Now even sharks are bein’ eaten up. And then, take samlee∗. In the old days, you wouldn’t be seen eating ‘m, just too rough to go down the throat they were. But now, oh wow! so much per head, they grill ’m and sell ’m like hot cakes.’ ‘Them trawlers will empty the sea of its fish, that’s what I say. They’re toying with them metal slings to scrape the bottom of the sea clean of its coral. From now on, with this method, the fish’ll have nowhere to spawn, y’ know.’ ‘No more worry about getting stuck at the bottom like in the old days. The trawlers drag nets but they’ve got this sling thing up front, and when it meets something ∗

Black-banded trevally (Seriola nigrofasciata species of the Carangidae family), a fairly long, round, supple, brown-and-grey seawater fish


91 hard, it draws back automatically. They’ve got lots of instruments. I think sailors these days have got a much easier time of it than we did. Before, ’twas so damn hard. What d’ya think?’ ‘Oh, stop rambling about the past. It’s a new era now. Look, even in the monsoon they go after the fish day and night, and all those tangkei guys’ve had to flee to Burma to try and make a living. I reckon they must be sneaking into Burmese waters, to get so many of themselves shot dead.’ ‘Well, since we know there won’t be any fish left in the Gulf soon, the gov’ment should do something about it.’ ‘Oh, my good man, since when can you get anything from the gov’ment?’ Whenever the cold wind sweeps the bamboo platform, the conversation of the old men dies down while they bring their hands to their chests and look up at the clear sky in which the soft sunlight is declining. They all spend the end of their lives in quiet, chilled retirement like the sea now, but their hearts are restive and changing like the uncertain moods of the sea itself.



19 Noi was entering adolescence when her father died, leaving behind his small fishing boat. It had gathered sand beside the house almost to mid hull by the time she had a husband and it was again put to sea. Mother Chaem raised her only child by sun-drying cuttlefish and steaming mackerel for a fee. Noi’s father, besides fishing along the shore, had kept his old job as a net diver. He breathed deep and probably had unusually large lungs, so that he could stay in the water much longer than anybody else. People said that when he jumped into the sea, there was a mere ‘plock!’ as of a stone falling into water, even though he was very stout, and he disappeared for such a long time they thought he must be lying at the bottom of the sea, while he was moving around with open eyes, fighting underwater currents to examine the meshes of a net caught on some reef. ‘If you aren’t careful you’ll end up getting caught in the net and might as well prepare yourself to die, because the net will twist so you won’t find your way out. Many have died this way.’ On days when he had nothing to do, Noi’s father would tell her about that special job he had been doing since he was a young man. ‘Whenever a net gets stuck, they all come to The Mute.’ He proudly referred to himself by the nickname people had given him. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

93 ‘I must eat my fill beforehand and then wait a little for it to settle before I can begin to work, but during the cold season I mustn’t forget to do stretching exercises to avoid getting cramps. You’ve got to go down slow and easy along the bamboo stick just like a fish.’ There was no worse mistake for a tangkei master – one that might easily lead to bankruptcy – than throwing the net without realising that right there underneath were protruding rock formations, carcasses of old pontoons or of sunken boats, and the like. It might happen that in the excitement of a chase he’d become careless in waters he knew well, and it might also happen that he’d become reckless in a vast expanse of blue he was unfamiliar with. Everything was possible. There were various degrees of penalties for his mistake. If the net was only torn a little, it would be hauled out of the water and darned on board and that would be the end of it; for bigger repairs, he’d have to take the boat back to shore and wait for several days for the net to be fixed; but what scared him most was when the net could not be retrieved from the depths where it had got stuck. A net in those days cost no less than fifty thousand baht∗, and then to dye it with bark meant not only a big loss of money but an even greater loss of time. Therefore, when meeting with this kind of mishap, the only thing a tangkei master could do, if there was still ∗

About US$2 000, several times the yearly income of a fishing family in those days


94 some hope left, was to leave behind a buoy as a signal, hurry back to shore and return before a storm could tear the buoy away, leaving no mark where to look for the tool that was vital to everyone’s livelihood. Net divers were the last hope, and for this everybody had to turn to The Mute of Eekueng Canal. Noi’s father had three or four helpers and they all shared equally the earnings of each trip, which came to only a few hundred baht per head. Her father explained to Noi that they each took the same risk of dying, even though how long each of them could stay underwater differed. ‘They have to surface and come back down again while I’m still down there,’ he told her, ‘and I must supervise their work as well. If they did anything stupid, the net could kill us all.’ Net divers would crawl naked down a bamboo stick stuck into the bottom of the sea. Their job was to examine the nature of the obstacle the net had encountered and assess the movements of underwater currents, and they might dive and surface time and again for the best part of a day before they could find the very point where the net stuck, set the net free and take it out of the water. Even before Noi’s father died of natural causes, he knew the job of net diver was no longer relevant to the sea, as boats no longer got their nets torn thanks to modern implements such as metallic panels and slings which smashed the obstacles ahead to pieces. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

95 Noi hadn’t seen anyone coming and asking for the help of The Mute of Eekueng Canal for a long time, as the tangkei era was being superseded by that of the trawlers. ‘The last person I saw – I remember her though I was very young – was your mother. She came to see dad at home and told him the net got stuck again. Dad was gone the whole day and when he came back with his eyes all red, he said there’d been nothing he could do. It was a crying shame for her.’ Noi meant Mother, as she sat talking with me. It made me think of Mother. The Mute’s last dive had been the end for Mother and for our family, which by then was well and truly ruined.



20 ‘I’m not like mom. I don’t like to talk. When I’ve got a problem, I keep it to myself, but that day I was angry, so I went to look for him at the club, so he’d take care of the child for a change. He was losing at snooker, so we quarrelled.’ Noi was talking about her first husband; the ‘club’ was the fishermen’s association. The old wooden house had had a snooker corner since way back. The red-earth road entirely shaded on both sides by queen-flower trees which turned a riot of purple and white in the hot season has now been enlarged and concreted and has lost the shady light foliage of the old days. The road sweeping by the fishermen’s association is neat and busy with cars whooshing to and fro. On both sides rows of summer houses surrounded with brick fences stretch all the way to the beach, each with a name alluding to the sea or nature, such as ‘Surf House’, ‘White Sand Pavilion’, ‘Thunderbolt Residence’, and so on. An unending stream of people from the capital come to stay in these houses, in whatever season, just as the sound of snooker balls inside the wooden house of the fishermen’s association can be heard at whatever time of day or night. ‘Since after the fight when he went to hide in Phetchaburi and his return when things quietened down, he’d ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

97 never go out to sea. He’d only get drunk and go betting. Whenever we quarrelled and mom wasn’t around, he’d punch me like boxing was in his blood. That day, he cursed mom, so I talked back and told him he was the sonofabitch. He made a lunge at me, but his friends held him back. Back home, we quarrelled some more. This time, mom was home. He was furious like hell when he took the boat and put out to sea, and then he got caught in a storm and died that night. The only boat dad had left, too. There was only the oars and some planks that floated back to shore along with his body, you know. ‘Five months later, I got married again – well, let’s say I got myself a new husband. He was middle-aged already. He liked to go out in the boat but wasn’t serious about catching fish. I married him to have someone I could depend on. He was a good man, very mature and respectable, but we were together for only a short time, a very short time indeed. He went out on a deep-net boat and was shot dead in Burma.’ Deep-net boats, as mentioned by Noi, appeared at the very end of the tangkei era. Boats of this kind were like tangkei except that they used motorboats to spread their nets, which was less arduous than rowing swing boats. Deep-net boats became plentiful in the South, on the west coast near Burma: most of them had given up the Gulf of Siam to the trawlers and had gone looking for fish that were said to be plentiful in Burmese waters. ‘A lot of them get caught. They say Burma’s patrol OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

98 boats are very fast and it’s very hard to dodge ‘m. And they shoot in warning as well. Some people stay in jail in Burma for years before boat owners can arrange for their release. They say the Burmese only feed them boiled banana stalks, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’d be better – better than what happened to my husband. He caught a bullet fired from a Burmese speedboat and fell dead on deck. They sent his body back. ‘I had told him not to go, that it was too risky, but he said the Burmese weren’t too good at fishing, there was plenty of fish there, a nice share with each trip, and if caught he’d land himself in jail or even with a little luck he’d make it to some island, but his luck was damn rotten because he died – and died for nothing as well. ‘I didn’t cry for either of these two husbands, I don’t know why. Maybe it happened all too fast or I don’t know, maybe I didn’t feel overwhelmed, it just didn’t burst out, I kept it all inside. I was feeling so light-headed, you know, so deeply sad and numb. It hurt to know I already had two husbands and they both died violent deaths, and then there was ’Mai – I never thought it’d happen all over again.’ Noi’s ‘’Mai’ is Police Officer Sommai, her third husband, with whom Noi went to live four months after her second husband died. Noi cries every time she talks about her third husband. ‘I worked hard before I set up with ’Mai. I had to work day and night in the sea factory to earn enough to raise ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

99 my daughter and also for mom, who’s getting older by the day. The fish the trawlers took out of the sea kept coming like they’d never end, and the squid even worse. No matter how, I could never do enough. On some nights, I had to take pills to be able to stand it after working nonstop several nights and days, because the more we made the more we got, right? I wanted money. I thought it’d help me forget my troubles.’ Sommai came with a police lieutenant to arrest someone selling dope in the house next to the sea factory. It was the first time he talked to Noi when he said, ‘You’ve grown much thinner than when I saw you that day. You’ve turned into a dope addict. Do you really want to die?’ For a full year Noi stayed with that policeman of a husband. He provided her with a nice house where she and her child and her mother Chaem stayed comfortably without having to work hard ever again. In the house there was a refrigerator, a colour TV, a record player, a motorcycle – all kinds of conveniences for her to use without having to sit disembowelling squid from dawn to dusk anymore. From Eekueng Canal village which stank of stagnant water, Noi moved to the new house behind the marketplace, and behind her back people called her by a flattering, if sarcastic, ‘M’am’. How fast had Noi’s life changed, like wind and waves on a stormy night! OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT


21 Fishermen have many legends. Hark! Here is one. There was a mountain that stretched by the seashore. A fishing crew looked from the sea at a rocky outcrop. It had the shape of a man with a pigtail who sat quietly staring at the vast expanse of water ahead. The fishermen called the outcrop from this mountain Ol’ Pigtail Cob. ‘Hey, Ol’ Cob – I’ve been fishing since dawn and haven’t caught a single fish. Please help me.’ A man with a fishhook shouted in the direction of the mountain and raised his joined hands over his head then threw the hook again. This time his long-lined fishhook caught a dazzlingly white fish. ‘Presto! Ol’ Cob, the sun’s up, I’m going to pull up the net now.’ A man with a net raised his hands and bowed in the direction of Ol’ Cob before hauling the net from the water. ‘My wife’s always complaining. She’ll accuse me of sleeping on the job if I don’t bring back enough fish to sell. So, Ol’ Cob, take pity on me.’ The man with the net slowly hauled it from the water. He saw shimmering silvery fish wriggling in the nascent light of dawn. Sometimes a boat would capsize right in front of Ol’ Cob. The men flailing with water to their chins would think of Ol’ Cob and pray before they lost all hope, ‘Ol’ Cob, help me!’ Having spoken, they’d see a white sail ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

101 cutting towards them across the blue waves. Ol’ Pigtail Cob never disappointed anyone. Fishermen have many legends. Hark! Here is another. Once upon a time, a young and poor sailor absconded with the daughter of a tycoon in a little fishing boat. As the boat came before Ol’ Cob, the sail turned over, sending the boat running around in circles. The boats of the tycoon and his numerous party surrounded the little boat and the young sailor’s situation soon became hopeless. His beloved was snatched away and he almost lost his life through profuse bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the daggers of the tycoon’s goons. He cried and cursed Ol’ Cob: ‘I know why you did this to me. That damn moneybags has promised you much riches, hasn’t he? Oh Ol’ Cob, in truth you’re just greedy, you helped him because of the offerings he made. But me, I’m poor, I’ve got nothing to give you, Ol’ Cob, so you did this to me and made me lose everything, even though my boat was reaching the shore already.’ They say – they say Ol’ Cob felt so ashamed that he turned around and wouldn’t face the sea from then on. That’s why people today only see the back of Ol’ Cob and his pigtail. Fishermen have many legends, but the story of Ol’ Pigtail Cob has led to much argument. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

102 ‘I reckon that when it comes to a matter of life and death, Ol’ Cob can’t help us anymore.’ ‘I reckon it’s just a question of luck.’ ‘I reckon all there is to it is that Ol’ Cob only thought of the bribe he got.’ One morning when the sun was bright and the waveless sea was as sleek as a mirror, it was on shore that pandemonium broke out. All along the shoreline fishermen came out of their houses at the same time and confabulated in great hullabaloo, young and old alike, before they set out to march peacefully along the wide road that led to the district office. They all went straight to the room marked ‘Bureau of Fisheries’. The oldest man in the group spoke to a young man, whom he addressed respectfully as ‘Mr District Officer for Fisheries’. ‘We’re in deep trouble,’ the old man said. ‘We’re losing our jobs.’ After listening for a long while, the young man in his neat uniform heaved a long sigh and said: ‘I think the era of traditional fishing is well and truly over, uncle. No Fisheries official can help you. The boats pulling nets by the shore are destined to disappear. Besides, I think we are all little people and have no influence to counter such big things. Who would listen to us? And let me tell ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

103 you frankly, uncle: the trawlers bring much income to the state every year. The truth is they’re a boost to the economy. No matter how much you protest, uncle, there’s no hope of getting rid of them, believe me.’ Having spoken, the young district officer for fisheries turned round and wouldn’t face the old man anymore – like once upon a time Ol’ Pigtail Cob had turned away and would no longer face the sea.



22 One day, the ‘Custer’ brought a new phenomenon for sea folk to witness. Each seagoing vessel has a name its owner paints in vivid colours on the prow next to the propitious symbols ciphered by the monks. Most owners bestow their own name or surname. For instance, an owner named Prasert will call his boat Phorn Prasert∗, but all the same there are some boats which derive their names from nature or from animals, such as ‘Golden Eagle’ or ‘Pelican’. But that day Noi heard a most unusual name, which had the whole sea in front of her home amazed. The ‘Custer’ had come up from the South. She was large and tall and filled to the gunnels with all kinds of gear, and she had come to shore loaded with brindled bass from the deep. Noi had never seen so many huge bass caught at once. ‘What would a newborn babe like you know?’ the old man beside her said. ‘Even I have never seen the likes of this in my entire life!’ Each bass weighed about one hundred kilograms, and some even more than a hundred. The lot of them had been dumped at the foot of the pier to await the trucks that would take them to Bangkok. They looked like so many hillocks in a row. Nobody knew where such fish had been hiding themselves and how long they had ∗

‘Precious’ and ‘Precious Blessing’, respectively


105 existed before they had come to an end due to a piece of equipment called sonar. ‘I’m told the sonar on this ship cost four hundred thousand, and the biggest ones nine hundred thousand. It’s like a voice from heaven, the voice of an angel, I’ll have you know. It’s the real Prince Sangthong∗: it calls out to the fish and knows where they are,’ the old man added, still staring at the giant fish as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. Noi was told that in a fishing boat equipped with sonar, like the ‘Custer’, the master had a whole cabin to himself. In there, he looked at the signals appearing on screen much like people on shore looked at television, thanks to a device stuck to the hull underwater that sent out sound waves which could monitor the movements of animals in the deep and came back as signals that told him where they were. He didn’t sit smoking cigarettes on his solitary outpost above the cabin roof, but had a radio transmitter which allowed him to talk with his friends on distant boats when he felt lonely at night. And when he gave his orders to go for the fish, he spoke into a microphone and his voice boomed so loud it completely drowned the roar of waves and wind. The ‘Custer’ also had a cold-storage room in which the ∗

The titled hero of Sangthong, a Thai classical drama written by Rama II (1809–1824). Prince Sangthong is born in a conch and has the magic gift of calling fish or land animals at will. His gift will help him win the hand of the princess he loves.


106 fish were kept as long as needed without having to worry about rushing back to shore. ‘At first, the captain didn’t know it was going to be fish this size. He thought it must be some coral or rock formation, but the signal told him it was moving, so he ordered the net to be lowered. I’ve never seen anything like it either, uncle, ever since I came out of my mother’s womb,’ a young sailor from the ‘Custer’ told the old man with bated breath. He hadn’t got over his excitement either. Fishing boats would catch fish of this size once in a blue moon, and only a few of them at a time, when they had strayed from their shoal and got caught in nets by chance, as sometimes happened with sharks and dolphins. Usually, the bigger fish would stay deep in the belly of the sea and even trawlers’ seines couldn’t reach them at such depths. Fishermen mostly dealt with fish that stuck to the surface and to mid-level waters, such as the various species of mackerel, which swam in shoals along the coast of the Gulf east and south. There were a few bass as well, but no one knew their usual whereabouts, and even if they did, there were no fishermen capable of catching so many of them at once like this – and of such sizes, too, that one could wager they had never shown even the tip of a fin to man. ‘They’re like tigers in a cave,’ the old man commented. ‘Get in there with a good weapon, and it’s easy enough to catch ‘m.’ Noi had been told that in the old days the tangkei had ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

107 to return to shore after each catch to buy ice in order to keep the fish fresh while the boat hurried on to Bangkok, which together with the return trip wasted several days. It was almost unbelievable life could have been that arduous when you thought that within a few hours those giant bass would be on sale in Bangkok fish markets thanks to the trucks that came to transport them. Today, all of the local wholesalers were shaking their heads; none had enough cash to buy up such a mammoth catch. Apart from the ‘Custer’ bringing to the sea folks a new phenomenon conjured up by a short-wave transmitter called sonar, people were amazed again by the news that drifted from Bangkok to Eekueng Canal village in the evening of the same day. Those worthy giant brindled bass lifted out of the deep blue sea in a single outing had earned the owner of the boat close to two million baht. Noi had been thinking to herself that morning she wouldn’t ever see another bass from the deep again, and she had a notion that what the old man standing beside her had said was also going to be true. ‘How old they must be to have reached such a size. It’s like a cave destroyed: once people have found it, that’s the end of it.’



23 The stars hung above the sea in the dark hours when the cold season was in. Their lights were like sad human eyes staring into the emptiness of time past. From the top of the stairs in front of her house, Noi, huddled in a blanket against the cold breeze that blew now and then, was quietly staring at the sea. A few days earlier, something awful had happened to a married couple, both fishermen from Eekueng Canal village. It was like a nightmare she still couldn’t wake from. The wife had been her friend since they were little. She had grown up into a young woman and married a hardworking man. They helped each other fish at sea every night without fail. Husband and wife were typical of those drift-net fishermen who refused to give up, be it during the rainy season, the hot season, or the season when a cold wind swept over the sea, turning it almost as cold as ice, like now. Three or four days before the cold wind set in, on a dark night, Noi’s friend went out to sea with her husband on the usually placid waves. With their net locked and the boat set adrift, they both were fast asleep when a huge trawler which had gone astray collided with the little boat. The boat split into two and so did both the legs of the ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

109 woman. They were crushed to bits by the thin edge of the propeller cutting through both the water and the flesh of her thighs as she struggled to surface. The men on the trawler helped her and her husband out of the water. Her husband was unhurt, but she died while the trawler was still rushing to shore. The financial compensation for the loss of wife and boat which the owner of the trawler paid, all told amounted to several tens of thousands of baht, but how could it stop the sorrow of the man who had been her husband? Her body was still at the seaside monastery, and her husband was still crying and crying. All of the villagers of Eekueng Canal were asking themselves what she could have done in her past lives to deserve to die in such an awful way. Death had come under the roof of Noi’s house three times already, first for her father and then twice more for the men who had been known as her husbands. When her father had died, Noi was still a little girl who didn’t know much about anything, and when it was the turn of her two husbands, the deaths happened so fast she felt they were like distant events remote from her feelings, so she didn’t worry that death had come to ravish her precious charmed life – unlike this time, when death seemed to have struck at her personally. Noi perhaps didn’t have time to mull over the deaths before this one: they had been like nightmares which OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

110 had pounced on her all of a sudden, and she had woken up just as fast, feeling dazed, unlike this time when she was still dreaming with sorrow and torment in her sleep. Noi thought with longing of the cold season when she had braved the chill of the waves together with her friend to throw a net over a run of fish that had drifted to shore; thought of the contrast of the white sand of the beach and the bright red flames that had leapt out of the armful of dry wood they used to gather when they were still very young; thought how they had chased after ghost crabs on full-moon nights and how they had helped each other dig sea clams out of wet sand with their feet. Noi thought of many other scenes in which her friend had shared games and shared laughter with her. When her friend had grown up, she had fought doggedly to survive in the life that was familiar to sea folks. Was it fitting then that her life should end in the atrocious way it did? And what about Noi? How would her life end? When the cold season was in, the stars clung above the sea in the dark hours. Their lights were like sad human eyes staring into the emptiness of time gone by.



24 Disaster struck Mother’s tangkei boat for the second and last time. After a period of hardship before that, the net tore over some reef, got loose and was lost at the bottom of the sea like the first time around, except that this time there was no portent like the death of the zebra dove. Stillness settled over sea and shore and anguished the house itself, as if it knew it would soon be sold and levelled. Mother wouldn’t blame anyone, but would ramble on about luck and fate and merit and sins of all kinds, as she felt certain that to catch a fish was to commit a sin and that that was what had brought about her misfortune. Sin was something that couldn’t be touched, but merely acknowledged or witnessed, or so she believed, and she spent the rest of her life in the rented house behind the marketplace in patient suffering. What Mother didn’t know was that another important thing that couldn’t be touched had truly brought about her loss of status, and that was the changes wrought by time to the sea and to all lives linked to the sea. Part of a powerful, ineluctable process, those changes had shaped a new environment which was bound to push old boat owners like her out of the way forever. Many owners of tangkei boats were suffering stunning losses during this period. Wealth amassed over generaOF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

112 tions was wiped out by the waves, as though some greedy, insatiable ghost was waiting in the deep to gobble it up – and gobble everything it did, even such large items as houses and plots of land, reminding people of the saying, ‘the sea is never full’. Tangkei owners who used to be well off fell into a pathetic state; many amongst them ended up destitute. All of them were fighting the law of change with a blurred vision of the new state of affairs. They were archaic capitalists doomed to fade away with the passing of the era, like lone anglers on a cliff’s edge who lose bait after bait without suspecting that one day they might lose arms, legs and more chunks of their flesh to a new species of fish coming in with the tide, which would have a decisive edge over them. So, they were hauled away into oblivion along with the old era of the sea they were identified with. Had they come to suspect anything, they would have had to recall how one young tangkei master after another had returned from Japan year after year with faces excited by the new wonders they had witnessed; they would have had to think of the balsa floats that had been replaced by rubber balls within a short span of time, just as nylon nets had replaced nets of rough cotton thread dyed in a bark concoction. Consequently, net racks had fallen into disuse and turned into ungainly clusters of stumps along the shore, where children these days relieve themselves. Similarly, boats with diesel engines ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

113 requiring no warming up had seen row boats sink into the sand and rot. They also should have remembered that microphones had superseded whistles; that powered winches now hoisted the seines from the sea in lieu of human brawn; and that underwater swings and steel plates smashed up obstacles before expensive nets could get stuck and be lost. Even though they couldn’t foresee the present use of radar and sonar in catching fish, they should have mulled over all the changes that had accrued over time right from the moment they were born. Who could ever resist the changes brought by time? Mother was one of those who were foolish enough to fight till she was spent and went under. ‘I should have given up when we still had house and land. I shouldn’t have let everything go like this, but then at the time, if we gave up the sea, I didn’t know what else we could do for a living.’ Mother complained ruefully about much of what had happened and looked for ways to have all of her sons escape from the conditions imposed by the sea in this new era, which had thoroughly beaten, battered and crushed her. The trawler superseded the tangkei, and not a few new boat owners were born, just as not a few sons of formerly powerful tangkei owners became hired hands on board trawlers. Amongst them was one of Mother’s sons.



25 Khampun was from the Northeast and never in his life had he seen the sea. He brought his lanky self to a halt in front of our house. I can still picture him. He squatted down on his heels, then raised his hands and bowed to Father and spoke with a singsong lilt. ‘Boss, may I join your boat, sir? I’d like to try the sea. I haven’t got a job,’ he said, while Father watched him from the corner of his eye in disbelief. More than twenty years ago, men like Khampun were ludicrous oddities to those who fancied themselves as native sons of the sea. Only those who were born and had grown up by the sea could make good sailors. The expression ‘like a fish out of water’ reflected the blind belief of sea folks – as if it were the blue expanse of mighty Nature itself that had ordered their births – that only they could understand the sea through experience gleaned since an early age, and only they could hold their own against it. The sea as creator was like a mother worthy of respect; as destroyer, like a foe to be watched without surcease. The sea was a tall tale that could never be for someone born far away from the smell of brine like Khampun. But Father allowed Khampun to go on board, more out of pity than out of trust in his stamina. Several sailors accepted him amongst them with mild contempt. How ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

115 could a fellow hardly out of his highland jungle and still smelling of mud and dung stand the sea? At first, when Father bought him a trunk to put his belongings in, Khampun slipped the strap through the loops on both sides and slung the clunking trunk across his shoulder with a bashful expression. He took the long, thin darning needle in obvious wonder, then turned to me and said, ‘It’s much smaller ’an a sickle, you know,’ and when the time came for him to go and sleep in the workshop at the back of the house, he made a wry face, as if to show he thought the place stank. At first Khampun couldn’t do any work while at sea. He spent his time doubled over in a corner outside the boat cabin, seasick night and day to the point his fellow sailors began to feel sorry for him. ‘Do you think you can cope, Khampun?’ Father would ask him often, and each time Khampun would nod and put on a tough look. ‘Still better ’an tillin’ the paddy field, boss,’ Khampun would tell Father. ‘At least, the sea’s got fish to eat, so no ’un’s starvin’. I ain’t givin’ up, no sir.’ It wasn’t long before Khampun began to fill out and gain sea savvy and was praised for being hard working. His very endurance shamed more than a few native sons of the sea. Tangkei sailors when they were at sea, even though they didn’t often shower with fresh water, dipped their multipurpose piece of chequered cloth in fresh water to OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

116 wipe away the scurf which the salt licks attracted. Thus, at the aft of the boat there was a small water tank for that purpose as well as for drinking and cooking, and it was beside that tank, in a spot made private by the jutting out of the cabin, that the crew answered nature’s call in the early morning and throughout the day. They squatted and relieved themselves directly into the sea while the boat sped on and the noise of the engine drowned all others. It took some skill, and this is where Khampun lacked experience. Foam from the waves made the gunnels wet and slippery at all times. When someone busy relieving himself fell overboard and splashed about in the water in the daytime, it was just a matter of jokes amongst the crew, but at night when everybody was asleep, there was no one around to witness accidents. This was something his fellow sailors had forgotten to warn Khampun about, like their old folk had always taught them, ‘the sea’s here, the sea’s there, the sea’s everywhere,’ and you simply couldn’t be careless. Whoever fell overboard at night when no one else was awake and the boat was speeding would have his shouts for help drowned out by the drone of the engine and roar of the swell, and would finally run out of breath and strength and drown without anyone knowing. The boat returned to shore one day and Khampun wasn’t on board. Nobody knew when he had gotten up from his bunk in the cabin and gone out to relieve ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

117 himself and then fallen overboard, and nobody knew either whether or not another boat had rescued him while he was still alive. Khampun, the man from the highlands familiar with dry paddy fields, was never seen again. Meanwhile, the sea in the Gulf of Siam had entered the era of trawlers using all kinds of mechanical devices, and it looked as though the ships were being manned mainly by Northeasterners like him, making the expression ‘native sons of the sea’ meaningless from then on.



26 Yet someone else was killed in a collision with a trawler. This time it was a young villager from Eekueng Canal, who had gone net drifting on a moonless night and had forgotten to put up a light. The trawler, which was off course, had collided with the boat and capsized it. Eekueng Canal neighbours thronged to the funeral on the last night, when the last rites are held. A cold wind chilled the seaside temple and spread the heavy scents of the incense smoke and of the fresh flowers in front of the coffin all around. The dark sea could be seen in the starlight. The old president of the fishermen’s association, trembling from age as much as from the wintry cold, entered the funeral pavilion. From what Noi could see that night of his big bulk propped up by a cane, he had become much drawn and wrinkled. Only a few starkly white hairs were left on his head. His eyes, as clouded as rice water, stared at the coffin before he lowered his head in respect for the dead. Another old man, though much younger than the president, came through the chatter and laughter of the crowd and was teased as he picked his way. ‘We can’t trust your lists of lottery numbers anymore, Khun Maha. We’ve got to wait for the lists in the big newspapers,’ someone said. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

119 ‘Come on! That’s all you ever think about. In the next issue, I write about trawlers. That should interest you. I call them criminals; I call them predators of the sea. Don’t forget to buy it, all right?’ Khun Maha, the owner of the lottery newspaper, spoke loudly amidst chuckles, before he turned and saw the older man who had come before him, then respectfully went to sit next to him in the front row of chairs. As the monks stopped chanting, Noi overheard the conversation between the two old men from a distance, like an exchange of whispers. ‘So, what’s your reaction to trawlers hauling so close to shore they kill people like this so often? What do you think can be done?’ ‘They claim they were after some fish and strayed off their course. There were big waves and they couldn’t see any light from the small boat. Anyway, they accept they’re at fault. Looks like they’ll compensate for the boat, besides paying for this funeral as well. It’s a good thing, you know, Khun Maha, that they didn’t flee after the collision, or else it’d be a total loss. We both know how difficult it is to do anything at all. It’s not like on land. For all that’s on the books, who’s ever bothered about the marine law anyway? I’m at the end of my rope.’ ‘There’s a law to limit the size of meshes; there’s a law to limit fishing areas; there’s a law to limit the fishing season as well. Excuse me, but what are those bastards doing? Haven’t they got any regard for those who live OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

120 hand to mouth? And then, Mr President, those marine police chaps always sniffing around, have you any idea what they’re waiting for?’ The old president laughed. ‘They’re after smuggled goods.’ ‘Like this heroin thing – you just wait, I’ll write it up one of these days. As you know, sir, kids these days are up to their eyeballs in it. Schoolchildren, sailors, lining up for a fix. Some of these bozos can’t even walk straight and they’ve got the nerve to think they’ll go to Saudi Arabia. And amphetamines are on sale too – those white pills, you know, sir, they say – excuse me – you take that shit and you don’t feel tired, but it’s drugs all the same! The women gutting fish take ‘m all the time; before long they’ll all be addicted to them. Oh, talking ’s no good. I must write about it, and I shall.’ ‘Be careful, Khun Maha. These guys are pretty fierce.’ The old president laughed again. ‘You know, don’t you, that this is the era of technology and manufacturing interests are involved,’ the old president added. ‘Our country’s changing. It’s another day, another way – and the same goes for the sea. The days of using people like cows or buffalo as in the past are over. Our fishing boats now go as far as India and other faraway lands. You can’t do international fishing with little capital and obsolete methods. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, ever since we sent our young men to Japan to see how they work over there. What can people like us ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

121 do? All crews these days come from elsewhere, while our own folks just take their boats out along the coast.’ ‘So, we’ll let these sonzabitches kill us all with their trawlers, is that it, Mr President?’ Khun Maha said. The older man was pensive for a while and then said: ‘I want to resign. I can’t do it any more. I can’t keep up.’ ‘Before you do, you should find strong young men to replace you. We must have our own people. We must fight for the old jobs of the poor like drift-net fishing, and keep demanding them through the association. I can still help you, but just now, Mr President, please don’t give up. You’re the only one around here who knows the law. You’d be doing it for our offspring. Heck, whatever will be will be. Just don’t lose heart, old friend.’ ‘Oh, I can still be of help. If I haven’t resigned, Khun Maha, it’s because the fate of Eekueng Canal is still up in the air. The municipality wants to raze us to the ground and resettle us beyond the railway line over there. They’re going to build a road along the shoreline to boost tourism. The boats mooring here will have to go elsewhere. I’ve heard that that damn fish-processing plant owner wants to build a hotel, and he’s been moving heaven and earth for it over there in Bangkok. I can still help with this, Maha. I’m dead set against it.’ Noi couldn’t hear more than this, because the monks had resumed their chanting, but she could see Khun Maha’s face twitching. The wind was chilly. The cluster of lights of Eekueng OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

122 Canal village winked in front of her amidst the dark gloom of the watery expanse that throbbed some distance away from the temple pavilion. Noi had the premonition that one day she would have to leave her little house over there.



27 ‘I know very well, Noi, how sad death is. It has happened to me before, and I haven’t gotten over it yet.’ The owner of these words, who often came visiting in his khaki uniform now that Noi was a widow for the second time, had parked his motorcycle against the trunk of a coconut tree. The white metal escutcheon adorning the cap hung on the handlebar flashed as the cap swung to and fro due to the land breeze, which blew through the coconut trees with sounds as mournful as the tone the man used with her. ‘Just imagine, Noi. Only a few days after I graduated from the police academy, dad was crushed in a landslide. His body was in an even worse state than your friend who was hacked in two by the trawler – so bad I couldn’t recognise him. I almost went mad with grief. Dad had no luck. He had worked hard since he was a little kid. He used to take care of a pomegranate orchard.’ White particles of sand whipped up by the wind came to cling to his rather thick eyebrows, while his eyes remained still like deep waters. The forelock of his regulation haircut flailed on his large forehead, which didn’t match his thin, tall body. Noi thought he should have been a clerk writing entries in longhand at the municipal office rather than a cop tailing cars and busting people. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

124 He behaved like a wise man rather than a trickster and showed an earnestness much beyond his years. ‘I planned to get dad to give up his job as soon as I got my first pay. I thought I’d have him stay in my quarters at the station so he could take it easy. But then, see how he died. The day of his cremation, I was so sad I completely forgot I was in uniform.’ When he had learned she was widowed the first time, he had begun to come by for a chat until his friends started teasing him. His motorcycle was no longer heard at Eekueng Canal village or near the cuttlefish plant when she got herself a new husband, but was back when she was widowed the second time around. Was he being serious with a widowed mother of one or was he just fooling around? Noi mused. It was clear to her, though, that what he was giving vent to now was his deepest feelings. ‘But then, you’re worse off than I am, aren’t you, Noi? I know enough to guess what your life’s like. What I feel is, we’ve got to help ourselves, for our children, our parents, and ourselves as well. Never mind the others. At best, they can just comfort us.’ He stopped speaking for a while as he peered intently at Noi and got closer to her. She sat idly on the bamboo platform under the coconut tree, which stood waving its fronds cheerfully, basking in the sunlight of the hot season. ‘And you know, Noi, my boss, he’s reviled by the whole village, but he says he doesn’t care about anybody. Everything ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

125 he does he does for his kids, for the welfare and happiness of his kids. And I can see he’s wealthy and his kids are really happy also. ‘Think about the sea folks here. None of them want their children or grandchildren to go through the hardship of putting out to sea like they did. They send them to school and push them as high as they will go, to keep them from the sea and see them happy like my boss’s kids. I think they’re right. The sea has no future. Those who stay with it do so because they’ve got nowhere else to go.’ Noi was ready when he said, ‘You’ve got a child, you should think hard about it. Come stay with me, I’d like you to share my life.’ That night, Noi sat musing before her mirror, which threw back floods of saffron yellow light from the nearby lamp. In all fairness, though she had gone through two husbands and given birth to one child, the young woman she saw was enticingly beautiful. That woman had no blemishes, and if anything, she was more beautiful than ever before. Her low-necked blouse exposed smooth skin and a wide expanse of shoulders flushed with blood, flesh and feeling. The saffron light suffused her face in the mirror like a sepia photograph kept in a hallowed place. That woman was ready. ‘He’s one of them officials. Ye got no education. Worse, ye’re no maiden no more but a widow with child. D’ye really think he’ll want ye, Noi?’ Granny Chaem warned. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

126 Time was to prove Granny Chaem wrong. Police Officer Sommai really loved the widowed mother of one. He took her, her little child and Granny Chaem out of their house at Eekueng Canal to his quarters next to the police station – fully intending to pull them away from the turbulent life of the sea.



28 The house, the last scrap of inheritance that Mother lost, was on a plot of land by the seaside which her grandfather, the headman of Anchor Row village, had given her not far from Eekueng Canal. On this land, Mother had had a wooden house built. It had a tiled roof and spread wide and deep over a single floor, split into three sections like shophouses. At the back of it, a thatched-roofed shed was built as a workshop to dye nets. The toilet stood between groves of cannas. There were domestic animals like tortoises awkwardly crawling over dead coral and shells, and big hawksbill turtles floating in a shallow artificial pond around which we children gathered. Mother had three sons, and all were born in that house. She hoped the land and the partitioned rooms in this home by the seaside would be just right for the sons she had, but it seems they were lost forever when house and land fell into someone else’s hands, even before the provincial tribunal ruled that Mother should move her family out of the house within fifteen days after being declared bankrupt. Several neighbours came to help us remove our belongings. Mother couldn’t stand looking at the sad expressions on their faces and went to hide her tears in the newly rented house. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

128 Our new home was a small, narrow shophouse at the back of the marketplace, so removed from the sea that we couldn’t hear the pounding of the surf. Whatever the rest of our family went through, it was nothing compared to Mother’s plight, she who was like a big fish come ashore to die – a matter of long-lasting gossip amongst the neighbours and a dismal tragedy for the house by the sea, on whose last performance the curtain had fallen irrevocably. ‘So now, what are we going to do for a living?’ Mother said after she had regained her self-control. ‘Never mind our debtors. Let ‘m besiege us with their claims – we haven’t got a thing.’ This being said, Father had to find a small boat and a net for fishing along the coast. Mother would fry bananas for sale. As soon as he had graduated from secondary school, the eldest son would look for a job as a clerk somewhere. As for me, Mother said, ‘You can’t stand the waves, you’re allergic to the wind, so keep on going to school, I still have enough to see you through.’ As for the second-oldest son, whom Father had hoped would take over from him as master, he had only four years of schooling. At this juncture, if he didn’t go out in the small boat to help Father, he had to choose between being a carpenter, a trishaw driver, a janitor, or a guard in a bungalow complex – either that or be a hired hand on a trawler. He chose the latter, and has been roaming the sea in the South as a sailor ever since. ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

129 One of his scribbled letters told of his tiredness at being a ‘worker’ rather than a ‘boss’ like before. Mother cried as she read it. It was from this brother that our family came to know what it meant to be a labourer day after day after month after year on a sea that had no future. It made Mother think hard because she had never thought for a moment her sons would ever be under outsiders’ orders when it came to jobs at sea. This son, Mother had dreamt, one day would take over from Father as master of the tangkei boat and sit on the highest spot issuing orders, but the changes of tide and time had ordained otherwise. The sea ceaselessly kept altering its challenge and complexion, from a straight fight between human skills and nature to a display of modern equipment and manufacturing methods, from the demise of owners of antiquated ships like Mother to the rise of modern-day capitalists. Trawlers’ decks no longer had any need for men born and bred in brine, and those who got weary of the turmoil of the sea began to take up new jobs, turning their backs to the swell, as trishaw drivers, railway workers and so on. A great number of them found employment as hired hands planting pineapples and thus became farmers, while farmers from the highlands like Khampun headed for the sea in great numbers, and got well enough used to its fishy smell and over their own seasickness to make it on water amidst a surfeit of modern equipment. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

130 The sea began to turn into a factory that didn’t need many experts, because it had loads of machinery and merely used human labour to execute complementary tasks. Unskilled labour from elsewhere thus kept flowing towards the sea. These workers bellowed over the din of engines rather than over the sounds of swell and thunder. The next era came when the Gulf of Siam shrank, all kinds of fish became scarce and international fishing began in earnest. Capitalists sent out ship after empty ship as big as floating islands to foreign waters, then went about hiring crews that were to be flown on board. Mother was dead before she could see such a change. Some people longed for the life of the sea in the old days that had been smashed to smithereens – such as Mother, who, before she died, liked to recall the house and its steel strongbox full of riches, and such as those natives sons of the sea like the villagers of Eekueng Canal, who clung to the old ways by fishing with drift nets along the shore. And all were finally defeated.



29 Eekueng Canal village was set on the western coast of the Gulf of Siam, across from the eastern coast which tangkei boats could reach within a single night’s sailing. There was a difference between these two sides of the same sea, however. Boys and girls of loving age who sought to enhance their yearnings with endearing hues by watching the moon dip into the sea in the hours before dawn or the sun sink below the horizon on one side of the expanse of water in late afternoon would head for the sandy beaches of the eastern coast. If they wanted another kind of romantic setting, they would come and sit down by the waterfront at Eekueng Canal village, where the moon would weave a net of bright lights over the waves at dawn, and at dusk on full-moon nights. Sea folk on both coasts had exchanged visits for generations, be it to share fishing grounds or to trade goods. The dwellers of both coasts separated by a common expanse of water had got to know one another both as visitors from afar and as next-door fishermen. Even in the present era, though time has changed a great many things, the smuggling of illegal goods by sea has remained unchanged, like the trade winds, whose flux pays due respect to time. The village of Eekueng Canal was part of a district OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

132 which was like a gate to the South, the last outpost of the central part of the country, and in its vicinity ran a chain of mountains that reached into Burma. Since this area was close to the capital and provided easy, uncontrolled access to this next-door country, it wasn’t surprising that smuggling continued to prosper, thanks to the sea connection. Occasionally, reports came through of the seizure of boats running narcotics and other smuggled goods, even weapons, but hardly anyone had ever seen the real thing. And yet, one night during the monsoon, by chance, Noi did, and having seen was stunned. It was shortly before she left Eekueng Canal to live with Police Officer Sommai. Since morning, the turbulent sea had thoroughly shaken and doused the house with waves turned wild by a rainstorm, but during the evening the rain had abated some and the battering of the shore was no longer as strong. Noi was in bed vaguely listening to rain and surf and thinking to herself once again. With the first two men it hadn’t been love at all. It had been nothing but chance and loneliness that had led her to lower her guard and yield to them – unlike now: she knew for certain that she had found the love she had been seeking. Noi thought back to the love they shared in his living quarters beside the police station. It was still vivid in her mind, and she felt sure it would never fade. Their lust ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

133 for each other was as wild as the rainstorm that had raged that morning. ‘I want to be with you, I want to stay with you, ’Mai darling, till the day I die,’ she whispered to herself before closing her eyes in happy abandon to the soothing lullaby of the rain. Noi opened her eyes again when, even though the rainstorm had begun to gather strength anew, she heard voices from the next house whose roof touched hers. They were loud enough to catch what was being said. ‘Hurry up, Phan. They pay well for this job, you know. The more you take ashore, the more you’ll make. They go by the number of trips. Just over there, it’s not far at all.’ ‘What kind of crazy guys are they to move smuggled goods into the village?’ ‘They say they missed their contact because of the storm, so they’ve got to get the cargo on land as fast as possible as the waves out there are too fierce.’ ‘What kind of cargo?’ ‘Don’t know. It’s all in wooden crates.’ Phan’s voice grumbled, before it trailed away as he went down into the boat. It wasn’t raining much but the strong wind blew noisily, yet Noi could hear footsteps on the wet ground in front of her house squelching back and forth time and again. She opened the window a crack and when a flash of lightning flared from the sky, she could see everyone clearly. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT


30 The mayor was in his early forties. He was the scion of a large and influential family which had begun developing the land around here more than a hundred years ago. His family was very wealthy and owned threemasted, square-rigged sailing boats and much property besides, and employed a large number of people. He had received top schooling in Bangkok, and was praised and respected by all the villagers pretty much like his forefathers had been. He had been elected mayor by the villagers and was in the second year of his second term, yet he had never come across such a thorny and depressing case. The municipal office, next to the railway station, was shaded by an Indian almond tree, and the cold wind didn’t make the mayor shudder. He was deep in thought, his hand holding his chin, his glasses shifting slightly, as he considered the hefty pile of paper on his desk before him, headed, ‘Project for the Construction of a Seafront Road and Relocation of Eekueng Canal Village’. The file had come straight from Bangkok, and when he had seen the signature on the attached leaf endorsing the project, he had felt cold, colder even than when the fierce wind had blown through the Indian almond tree. The mayor had read the file with acute discomfort several times. Actually, the project was well thought out ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

135 and worth supporting for the development of the locality as a modern tourist area. It offered a magnificent hotel and a fine neat road for people to promenade and admire the seascape. Had there been no mention of moving Eekueng Canal village somewhere else, he would have been more than a little excited about the project. The mayor was very much aware of the duties and powers of expendable stooges like him in the democratic game, and he also knew who the man behind the project was who had been lobbying amongst influential figures in the capital, and that was what irked him. ‘Eekueng Canal is indeed on municipal land, but the people have been there for two or three generations. What do you think?’ The mayor turned to a close friend of his. ‘Try to talk to the two elders, maybe they’ll help you find arguments to convince the villagers to move.’ ‘Hmm – not a bad idea, except it’ll never work,’ the mayor said. ‘I know very well what the old man who’s president of the fishermen’s association will say. He’ll suggest I resign. As for Old Maha, he’ll probably hurl abuse at me. As if it’s not enough that he’s running me down in his rag. I don’t think I could endure his curses to my face as well.’ The mayor, at his wit’s end, shook his head. ‘Let’s keep it quiet for the time being. Don’t say anything for now, okay?’ A few days later, the news of the imminent relocation of Eekueng Canal was everywhere. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT


31 Noi turned over in the dark. The faint noise of the trains passing by was unlike the familiar pulse of the waves. More than half a year had passed since she had moved from her house at Eekueng Canal, first to the quarters next to the police station and then to her own home, a small, well-proportioned house which had nearly everything she needed to live her new life as a ‘M’am’, as the sea folk called her teasingly. She had yet to get over her wonder at how fast her life had changed. It was like a dream, like the furrows of surf on sand. Her husband had more money than she had expected, both from what he had saved and from what he regularly managed to find, amidst slanderous gossip that often reached her ears. ‘Why do you want to know where I get money from?’ Sommai said rather gruffly. ‘I just don’t cheat or squeeze anyone like these mischief-makers claim, Noi. You just wait! If I ever catch ‘m tongue-wagging, I’ll deal with the sonzabitches.’ After more than half a year, the few things Noi knew about the police, she had learned from her husband. His only friends were policemen. The villagers avoided him out of mistrust or perhaps simply because they didn’t like his face. ‘That’s what it means to be a cop, Noi,’ Sommai had once told her. ‘And I’m one of the good ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

137 ones, you know. Some of us wouldn’t think twice locking up their mother-in-law to smooth out the rough side of her tongue,’ he teased, taking a swipe at Granny Chaem. Granny Chaem, together with the child of Noi’s first husband, shared the house with them happily enough, thanks to Police Officer Sommai’s love of family life and, above all, his infatuation with his twice-widowed wife. Although he felt annoyed at times with the old wag, his irritation never lasted. ‘Do you know what my boss says?’ He spoke softly in the dark, like someone about to fall asleep. ‘He says we can’t choose how we’re born, but we can choose what kind of person we are – stupid or clever, crooked or straight, poor or rich – and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve decided to be the latter. I don’t cheat anybody, Noi. People come and give money to me.’ ‘Why would they do that?’ ‘Most of those who give us money are crooks. If they don’t cheat the people, they cheat the law: they open brothels, they set up casinos, they’re into smuggling, into heroin – what have you. They cheat till they get rich, and I don’t see anybody doing a damn thing about it. You know, Noi, if someone of my rank tried to arrest them, you can bet the next day I’d be out of a job. And then, what’s all the fuss about? Feeding us handouts is better than giving us nothing at all.’ Sommai spoke again about his father’s life of deprivaOF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

138 tion and hard labour in the pomegranate orchard and again described the sorry picture of the body crushed by a landslide that was still before his eyes and deep within his heart. As for his mother, she had fallen sick and died when he was little. ‘I love you very much, you know, and I’m thrilled about this child of ours being born.’ Sommai carefully laid his hand on his wife’s womb. ‘Our child must be better than its parents.’ He took Noi in his arms and seemed on the verge of sleep, but then he said in a drowsy voice, ‘Oh! Talking about heroin, it reminds me: they’re saying at the station that several months ago a shipment of heroin was unloaded right in Eekueng Canal and local guys were hired to do it. Who was in on it, I’ve no idea. Noi, warn everybody there’s an investigation on. Our bosses are pissed off this time. They think these guys ’ve gone too far.’ Noi had almost forgotten, but then she remembered that brief flash from the sky during the drizzle that night, shortly before she left her house at Eekueng Canal village. ‘Phan!’ The word slipped out of her mouth as she saw clearly once again the snapshot of the man shouldering a crate that night. ‘Phan? You sure?’ Sommai asked. Noi told him everything as if in a daze. ‘I don’t know what was in that crate, though. I thought it was only cigarettes or whiskey. But darling, don’t do anything to ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

139 them. Don’t tell anybody else either. They’re like family, they’ve been friends of mine since we were little.’ ‘Come on! I wouldn’t do that to our people and besides, it’s an old story,’ Sommai said drowsily as he slipped into sleep. But Noi felt restless, her heart beating fast from fear and foreboding.



32 Those who had always been scared of him as a thug readily protested when they met him that he hadn’t changed a bit, that he looked as strong, fit, and as big as a giant as ever, when he knew damn well that the venom of heroin was gnawing at every cell in his body, flesh, blood, muscles and bones. But he had never feared and never would, because he always made sure that those who knew his condition and fancied they might take him on were aware that he carried a gun at all times. On a morning of bright sunshine and still wind, he sat in hiding on a stump under a coconut tree, his back to the smooth expanse of blue water, watching the end of the road, by the dry canal of Eekueng Canal village, where people were gathering in groups and beginning to dance and sing to the accompaniment of long drums amplified through a megaphone. In the middle of the gathering a banner in big letters said, ‘We won’t move from here. Give us a break: we’ve been here for generations!’ Though he looked at the banner without much of a sense of kinship, the people gathered there, men and women, kids and crones, who got one another to dance and sing, tickled his funny bone. It had been a good many years since he had last been ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

141 in his home village, wandering as he did from place to place like a fish swapping tides. As for his real close relatives such as Auntie Chaem and her daughter Noi, they had gone on to be ladies beyond the railway line. But, wait a minute! Those people now dancing and singing now shouting over there, weren’t they uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters, if not exactly relatives then old-time neighbours and friends, with whom he had shared the best and the bad all along? He mulled over how he could be of assistance. How would they want him to help? Would it be necessary to use what he wore slung portside in his waist? Siu’s fumbling hand reached for the gun, and then he sat still again, watching. Few people like using megaphones. Those who did took turns making speeches in between bouts of dancing and long-drum beating to keep people interested in the demonstration. All houses in the area seemed to have been deserted and their occupants had gathered by the dry canal. All the fishing boats were moored along the shore and looked like an armada of midget warships. And then the demonstrators proclaimed they opposed the order to raze the village of Eekueng Canal, which was due to take effect that very day. The people spoke earnestly in their local accents and, even though the wind was beginning to blow the words away towards the open sea, it was clear they were deeply hurt and resentful that strangers would come OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

142 destroy their houses on land they had lived on since the days of their grandparents and even great-grandparents. Let them outsiders try to pull out the stilts of their homes and see what happens! And who the hell was it who had dared to order them to move to a land next to the burial ground beyond the railway line, so far away from where they made their living? They’d prefer to die. ‘We sea folks must stay by the sea,’ they proclaimed loudly to cheers and the beating of the long drums. An old man was pressed to say a few words. His voice was hollow and trembled as he told of way back when three-masted sailing boats glided into this canal, which was now dry and full of rubbish. In those days, come the cold season, Eekueng Canal had shoals of eekueng rushing and thrusting and leaping in its swift current. At this point, there were tears running down the old man’s face. Siu watched while clasping his trusted weapon, face twitching, teeth clenched. ‘Sods! Land grabbers! You won’t get away with it,’ he growled to himself. The news of the projected relocation of Eekueng Canal village and construction of a road along the seashore had been known for about half a year. At first the mayor had tried his utmost to personally explain things to the villagers. He and his party visited each and every household to point out that the municipality would build a new village for them, and they would stay in rows of modest houses built on land adjoining the burial ground. ‘If you think it’s too far from the sea, I’ll set up a ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

143 service of minibuses for you,’ the mayor said to express his concern, but he failed to get anyone in any household to agree to his proposal. And then one day as he was doing his rounds, he was hit on the head by a well-thrown splat of smelly mud. From that day, he disappeared, and the rumour was that he was full of resentment and would no longer try to work out any compromise with the villagers. And then, in a sheer show of power, the order came out of the building with the Indian almond tree that at the end of the allotted period, the municipality would have all dwellings at Eekueng Canal village levelled forthwith. Khun Maha, the owner of the lottery paper, came to the meeting full of thoughts and principles. He told his people, ‘We’ve got to hold tight, we’ve got to stick together, my friends. If we do, I can guarantee that even if that damn mayor brings in a hundred of his people he won’t be able to do anything to us. The only thing I ask of you is to remain united.’ Khun Maha promised that, late that afternoon, he’d go to Bangkok as their representative, together with the old president of the fishermen’s association, to explain the situation to the authorities in the capital and air the grievances of the villagers, who earned their living from the sea and were in dire straits. ‘The man behind the whole scheme’s none other than the damn owner of the fish-processing plant which has been stinking our air up all these years! His plant’s OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

144 going bankrupt. There’s no fish left in the sea to speak of. That’s what got him thinking about building a hotel. Shame on him! Only doing things that fuck us all up!’ Khun Maha said, then looked towards the site of Felicity House, which the hands of time had defaced beyond recognition. But then, the two old men who were to go to Bangkok as announced never made the trip.



33 After he left the circle of dancers at the protest meeting after dark, Siu went to hide in the house of a close friend of his and fell into a drug-induced sleep. When he woke up again, it was broad daylight, late in the morning. He wondered why he didn’t hear the beat of the long drums or the people’s cheers and jeers today. At the foot of the stairs in the same house, a young woman sat crying. She whispered, ‘Phan’s been arrested, Siu’. She turned to look at him, tears smudging her face. ‘They arrested several people. I tried to wake you up but you wouldn’t stir. The police came before dawn. They arrested Phan and his friends, claiming they’d been hired to transport white powder. What you don’t know either is that now the police have moved in to control our village. They’ve set up an outpost over there. There can be no more meetings now and it’s everyone to oneself.’ The young woman spoke with an excited face. She was the younger sister of a friend of his and the sweetheart of Phan, one of the young men of Eekueng Canal. Siu peered out and saw the makeshift outpost erected right where the people had gathered yesterday morning. Two police officers stood guarding it. ‘It’s all Noi’s fault. She must’ve told her man about transporting the heroin,’ the young woman claimed resentfully, looking Siu in the face. ‘He was the one who led the arrest.’ OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

146 Siu could already guess roughly how things had developed yesterday afternoon. He was still sitting on the stump under the coconut tree when two policemen had sped past on a motorcycle. The man sitting at the back, Siu remembered, was Sommai, his cousin-in-law. Phan was drunk as an owl. He jumped in front of the motorcycle to make it stop. ‘Well, well, ’Mai, so you’ve come to arrest us, hey?’ ‘Not at all, Phan. The boss’s just told us to come take a look round. Nothing more.’ Sommai got off the motorcycle. ‘Oh, you want to take a look? Well, take a look, then,’ Phan said, dropping his drawers. He wore nothing underneath. The women shrieked in shock, but the men hooted and cheered. The faces of Sommai and his partner went bright red. ‘Phan, damn it, do you want to get yourself arrested for indecent exposure and insulting police officers?’ Sommai said in a loud and angry voice. ‘Damn your eyes, ’Mai. Come get me if you dare. Take off your uniform and let’s do it man to man.’ The whole group fell dead quiet. Nobody could have guessed that Phan was so drunk he’d dare a cop to a fistfight. But before anybody could take hold of him, Phan had lunged and punched Sommai on the mouth, drawing blood. The other policeman undid his holster and pulled out his gun, amidst shouts of alarm as Phan’s ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

147 friends restrained him and apologised profusely to Sommai and his partner. ‘Phan, you fucker! You’ll go to jail for this, I swear!’ Sommai exclaimed in anger, his eyes throwing off sparks, before jumping onto the bike, which then sped away. Eekueng Canal village now was silent and deserted. Most people kept themselves to themselves and wisely stayed indoors. There were only sad whispers, like the susurrus of the surf in lazy times. The old president of the fishermen’s association took his old body up the steps of the district police station in late afternoon instead of going to Bangkok, and asked to visit Phan and his three friends who sat despondently in the steel-ribbed cell. ‘Did you tell them the truth about what happened and why you did it, Phan?’ the old man whispered with a raspy voice. ‘Everything. It was several months ago. At the time, I – I had no money.’ Phan was crying. Tears also came to the old man’s eyes as he looked into Phan’s face and saw it covered with bruises. Siu stood amongst a small group of villagers from Eekueng Canal, close enough to see clearly the cell on the ground floor of the police station, before he walked away, looking neither right nor left, heading towards the house beyond the railway line. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT


34 Train after train had sped past the house from dusk till late into the night, but Noi’s swollen eyes were still wide open. She had never cried so much or felt as sad as she did now. Even when she had been told of the deaths of her first two husbands, she hadn’t grieved with such heart-rending sorrow as this time. Noi felt torn apart by disappointment in the person she loved most. Sommai was, she felt, so ruthless he wouldn’t hesitate to kill friends, relatives or even his own children. ‘He’s more a cop than my husband,’ she thought resentfully. Everything had gone too far. How could she look anyone in the face again? The more she thought of what had happened that evening, the sadder she felt. ‘Don’t ye love or respect yer own people any more, Noi, that ye have to report everythin’ to yer man? Let me tell it to ye like it is: the villagers are sayin’ ye’re the evil one who’s brought calamity on their heads, what with the destruction of their homes and now our young ’ns in jail.’ Granny Chaem stood hands on hips, brooking no argument. ‘You can’t blame me for everything, mom. I didn’t know what it was all about. He asked me, so I told him, because I thought it was ancient history. I had no idea ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

149 it’d turn out this way and get mixed up with the demolition of our homes as well.’ ‘Rubbish! Ancient history indeed! Then why couldn’t ye let sleeping dogs lie? Ye certainly weren’t thinkin’ of our own people. Weren’t ye poor before? Smuggled goods ’ve always been around. Poor kids! How many years will they have to rot in jail? That damn ’Mai, how could he do this to me? Couldn’t he give a thought to my people, my relatives? I ain’t stayin’ with ye any longer.’ When she saw Noi crying, Mother Chaem softened her voice. ‘I’ll spend the night at Eekueng Canal, to help give ‘m some comfort, seein’ as to how they’re sufferin’. And don’t ye try to follow me there, ye hear – they might as well strangle ye if ye show’d up. From now on, ye ’ve got no family any more, re-member that. The whole town’s cursing ye and yer damn ’Mai. ‘By the way, just now I saw Siu. He was lookin’ for yer man,’ her old mother turned to tell her before she left the house. ‘Better keep on yer toes. I saw the peculiar look he’s got in his eyes. Warn yer husband, too. That damn Siu’s madder ’an the rest of ‘m. I’m worried, oh, I’m worried stiff.’ Noi lay thinking in the night, full of resentment. As soon as Sommai came back home, with so much to be aired, they’d have a big fight for sure. She had no way of knowing he’d never come back home in this life. OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

150 At dawn, Noi heard someone knocking on the door of the house. ‘Must be mom; I’m in for some more scolding.’ But one of her guesses was wrong. It was Granny Chaem, and she was aghast. Her mouth quivered, and she was in tears. ‘He’s dead, Noi,’ she said. ‘Your husband’s dead. ’Mai’s been shot dead.’ Noi fell in a heap on the ground, hearing nothing but the wailing of her mother.



35 A young boy of Eekueng Canal village woke quietly well before dawn. He was thinking of the beautifully coloured kite that had gotten stuck on the roof of the house the day before, and to avoid being beaten, he had to get up before his mother did, and climb to the roof to get the kite. When he was on the roof and had secured the kite in his hand, he looked down towards the ground below. The sea breeze had already given way to the land wind, which blew rather strongly to welcome this new morning of the hot season. The darkness was lifting. Blurry white rays were beginning to chase one another over the horizon as well as on the sea and on the sandy ground. The little child saw two men on the ground below walking out of the police outpost. They were both policemen. The one who was tall and lean suddenly fell sprawling onto the ground, his head hitting the sand, and then a gunshot came out of one of the houses, shattering the quiet with its loud bang. The young boy was startled. The beautifully coloured kite slipped from his hand with the remaining string, fluttered towards the ground below and fell close to the body that lay still. Police Officer Sommai had been stealthily shot dead while on duty keeping the peace at Eekueng Canal OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

152 village during a period of disturbance. He was posthumously promoted several ranks and a large indemnity was paid to his widow, who was in the early stages of pregnancy. She let it be known she blamed no one for her husband’s death, then quietly took care of the funeral, which was attended mainly by officials from the district. Before that, the hand of the law had reached out to arrest several suspects amongst the local fishermen. They were taken away from Eekueng Canal amidst the wails of their close relatives, but the number-one suspect managed to vanish without a trace. Thus, after consultations between the old president of the fishermen’s association and Khun Maha, the owner of the local newspaper, on the one hand, and the mayor and all the senior police officers of the district on the other, all the suspects from the Eekueng Canal arrest were released. All the houses located on public land in the village of Eekueng Canal were pulled down and the people who lived in them relocated to a new village adjoining the burial ground beyond the railway line as part of the next phase of the project. A big board right at the entrance of the new site said, ‘Sea Folk Village’. At the same time, the fish-processing plant was demolished, and the construction of a modern hotel and of a road hugging the seashore was hurried along to be ready by the beginning of the next hot season in order to welcome the tourists.



36 Mother! Today the mayor inaugurated the beautiful new road that follows the shoreline, and hundreds of coloured balloons were released. I saw the wind gently shepherd them over the blue water, which was crested with white waves, and it was a wonderful sight. If you were still alive, I’m sure you’d have wanted to see it and watch the merry festivities that took place. You’d have witnessed too the many kinds of change forever happening in a continuum of pain and pleasure and grief and bliss. Will you accept these flowers, Mother? The wind blowing from the sea will wither them before long.



postscript Most novels are meant to make you thirsty; the more you drink them in, the thirstier you feel. Some, on the other hand, are best sipped a few pages at a time, like a rare and heady brew. Of time and tide is of the latter concoction. The immediate appeal of this true‐to‐life fiction is its poetic language, crafted with simple words; its delicate imagery built around the moods of the sea, the follies of man and the transience of life; and its bittersweet melancholy tempered by little touches of irony and seasoned with unexpected, delicate symbolism – grains of sand betraying sexual attraction, for in‐ stance; or the language of flowers and their hues. Yet its greater value is in its presentation of the changes that have affected Thai seafaring communities over less than the span of a generation. In an exquisitely light manner, through the modest, seemingly haphazard chronicle of the life of a few family members, friends and neighbours, a sweeping social panorama is created. The sad retrospection invites the reader to meditate soberly on the pas‐ sage of time, the boon and bane of change, and the vagaries of fortune that toys with all human lives. Thus the local tale unfurls its universal truths. Similarly, the setting is at once specific and symbolic. There once was a Barn Khlong Eekueng, literally a ‘village with a canal which had catfish‐like fish known as eekueng’. The village nestled near Hua Hin, a laid‐back seaside town a few hours’ drive south of Bangkok, where the kings of Siam have kept a summer palace for the past hundred years. The author mentions the names of ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

155 many places in the vicinity, yet makes clear that Eekueng Canal village could be anywhere and everywhere along the long sea‐ coast of Thailand, a country of several million seafaring people increasingly reorienting their working lives to tourism services and the growing of industrial crops. By the time the novel starts, the name of the village is already obsolete: there are no eekueng there any more; the dried‐up canal is merely a breeding place for mosquitoes. By the end of the story, the village has been destroy‐ ed in the name of progress and its dwellers relocated inland to a sardonically called ‘Sea Folk Village’, quite appropriately located next to the district’s burial ground∗. The structure of the novel is unusual: a broad outline of the plot is provided in the first three chapters, which form a kind of prologue, as if to signal that to know who killed who over what or how it was that Noi became a widow three times over is not really important. After this prelude, the story proceeds roughly in chronological order, although the narrator’s recollections go back and forth, like the tide of the sea, ever changing in the continuum of time.

As a rule, Buddhists cremate their dead and keep the bits of unburned bones as relics to worship either at the temple or at home; the bodies may be kept for long periods before cremation, and in this event are stored in the local monastery’s mortuary. Most seafaring communities, however, like the one mentioned in this novel, are predominantly Muslims or Chinese. (In Thai, the vocabulary of the sea, from boat names to rankings on ships, is Chinese.) Both communities bury their dead in more or less grand fashion – in their own well‐ attended burial grounds. Yet, in the poorest rural Buddhist communities whose monasteries cannot afford such a convenience and the services of a caretaker, the bodies of the destitute are simply laid in a hole in the ground (without coffins) in designated land plots known as burial grounds; once in a blue moon, a collective cremation of what remains of the corpses may be organised at the initiative of a charitable organisation.


156 The author tells his story through a mixture of anecdote, legend and folk tale, bits of doggerel, pithy broadsides, snappy, colloquial conversations – and silences: what is left untold adds to the poetic and moral climate of the tale. We know virtually nothing about the narrator, and are not told why he has waited ten years to visit his mother’s relics. Phorn, Noi’s first husband and the most significant character in the first half of the novel, is hardly mentioned in the prologue. Police Officer Sommai – in another example of information gaps in the narrative – may or may not have acted on the information his wife provided him with when he and his fellow policemen arrested the villager suspected of smuggling. How the same policeman got the money to buy a house for his wife is not spelled out either. Siu is prob‐ ably the man who killed Sommai, he is probably still alive and will perhaps die the violent death the narrator doesn’t wish on him … With the bits and pieces he provides, the author leaves the readers to complete the puzzle on their own by formulating the big issues he modestly alludes to: police corruption, callousness of officials, entrepreneurial greed, the plight of workers, pollu‐ tion, depletion of natural resources, etc. In contrast, the author eagerly displays an extensive knowledge of the sea – the various kinds of boats and their equipment, the different ways of fishing and how fishermen rape the sea and bring wealth and ruin in turn to its shores. Far from being a weakness, the documentary aspect of the novel provides its substance. Old wisdom and superstitions of a distant past are set against the demands of modernity. Yet, this is not a backward‐ looking tale: the character of Mother may well have bemoaned her sins as a killer of fish before she died, but the author makes ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

157 clear that her major crime is to have been unable to recognise and adapt to change, which is presented as an overwhelming and unavoidable force. The title of the novel, indeed, says it all: time and tide wait for no woman. The accumulation of drastic changes over a relatively short span of time gives the story density and an almost dreamlike quality. Most readers, however, will be familiar with the reality of the material metamorphoses of Thai coastal towns and of the shores of similar third‐world countries in the throes of rapid development over the last few decades and will agree that the author’s descriptions are neither invented nor exaggerated. Besides their magical value and naive wit, the three folk tales – Old Mong Lai, Ol’ Pigtail Cob and St‐Elmo’s fire – help emphasise modern situations: the absurd outcome of irreconcilable conflicts of loyalty; the indifference of officials to the losers in modern development; the malfeasance of brutes bent on revenge. The characters of the novel are all ordinary men and women, with their dreams, beliefs and superstitions, frailties and foibles. All have depth. Even the stereotypical ones have redeeming fea‐ tures that flesh them out: Siu, a thug, pirate and junkie, is gen‐ erous and has a sense of friendship; the bullying braggart Phorn dreams of boxing glory but loses his nerve after the death of his friend; sharp‐tongued Granny Chaem grieves over her dead in‐ laws and has concern for the villagers and for nature … The portraits of Noi and Mother are studies in contrasts, which gain strength from each other’s proximity. Noi is a hard‐working girl at the dawn of her life; Mother, a once‐wealthy owner and businesswoman at the close of hers. Noi seeks love and trinkets; Mother seeks comfort and continued status for her brood. Noi OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

158 receives love and wealth in return for turning her back on the sea; Mother loses wealth and status out of her fidelity to the sea. Noi finds herself at nineteen in a surfeit of the goods she has been dreaming of and is proud of, yet she is distressed for having lost the brief love she enjoyed; Mother dies disconsolate and none the wiser, easy prey to old ghosts. Both women are strong, courageous types, both share the same bitter disappointment over the loss of what made their lives valuable, and both have committed the same crime of living in the past. The older woman is a symbol of a generation that has become irrelevant; the younger, a symbol of the present materialistic generation, sur‐ rounded by possessions, but grievously purposeless. ‘Noi or you – I am not really sure who is the worse off.’ Focusing on a three‐time widowed woman is one of the subtle ironies of the book. Atsiri mocks the old Thai folk law which posits that ‘a thrice‐ordained man or a thrice‐married woman should be left well alone’. Noi, not merely ‘thrice married’ but thrice widowed, isn’t even twenty years old but can already be seen as a hapless victim of circumstance: except perhaps in the case of the third, she cannot be held responsible for the deaths of her husbands. Noi’s life with her first two seafaring husbands is full of hard‐ ship. It is only when she weds a non‐seafaring man that she finds material comfort, an allegory for what is about to happen to the whole community, which ‘weds’ outside entrepreneurs, only to find that after material comfort comes to the seashore for others to enjoy, the village is destroyed and Noi’s last husband is dead. Similarly, the villagers’ irreverent wake for Phorn on the beach is like a prefiguration of their own fate as a community. The ulti‐ mate message is one that warns against alienation – alienation ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

159 from nature, alienation from one’s own past in the name of commercialism, ‘technojelly’ and all the other lures. What is left then? ‘A long life ahead [as] the owner of many valuable things’ that may be lost at the turning of the next tide, as happened to the narrator’s mother … Cultural, spiritual values? Love? They belong to the unsaid, as multicoloured bal‐ loons are blown by the wind over crested waves. How fitting this last image is, matching beautifully coloured pouches full of air with the intangible elements of the world we live, struggle and die in! The author has drawn a lot from his own life and experience in these pages, as in the rest of his literary writings. Atsiri Thammachoat [or Ussiri Dharmachoti] is regarded as one of the leading journalists of his generation and was until recently director of and columnist for Sayarm Rat [Siam Rath], one of the better, if ailing, national dailies, yet chances are he will be best remembered as a poetic writer with a conscience, author of bittersweet short stories and novels focusing on the plight of the common man. In a cramped cubicle open to the clatter of antiquated type‐ writers and the whine of modern phones and fax machines sits a tall, dark man who speaks pensively in a low, almost confidential voice and puffs nervously on cigarettes he stubs out half‐smoked. The puffy, bloodshot eyes tell of sadness and booze, and the long OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

160 hair and cropped moustache frame features that seem to bear the legacy of preteen attempts at Thai boxing. Atsiri was born in 1947, the last of five boys, two of whom died young. Fifteen years earlier, Khueam Ton Khua, a second‐genera‐ tion Chinese from Phetchaburi and master of a fishing junk, had been swept off his feet in Hua Hin by a 29‐year‐old beauty named King Seesawat, who had a daughter from a former union. The couple went fishing for a while in southern Thai waters then settled down in Hua Hin, where they opened a grocery store, kept the fishing boat operating and comfortably raised their three sons. Young Atsiri was a quiet child much fussed over by his mother. He had a problem: they lived by the sea, yet he was allergic to wind and waves – an ironic affliction for the future bard of the Gulf of Siam. He went to Hua Hin’s Sa‐thukarn School, until the status of the family changed dramatically when his father lost his boat at sea and mortgaged their house and land to buy a new one, which was soon lost as well. The family, which changed its name from Ton Khua to Thammachoat, had to move to a shop‐ house inland. Atsiri’s eldest brother would not take over the family business from his father: he took to sea as a sailor; the other brother left school and found a job at the pier; and Atsiri went on with his studies, partly because of his allergies, and partly because Mother insisted on it. He spent two years at Klai Kang‐won Palace∗ School in Hua Hin, but failed to pass the last year of secondary schooling. After one year spent idly at home, he entered another school, in Bangsue, a northern suburb of ∗

A summer residence of the king of Thailand – literally, Far‐From‐Worry Palace


161 Bangkok, and finally passed his exams, but failed to make it into the faculty of political science at Jularlongkorn [Chulalongkorn] University as he had wanted. By then, he was 20. He was temp‐ ted to become a soldier, but Mother wouldn’t hear of it. In spite of her misgivings, he spent nearly two years as a researcher for the National Bureau of Statistics in the Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom and Phetchaboon provinces of the Northeast and the North, which were hotbeds of communist insurgency at the time. This is when he became interested in politics, started drinking and stored away experiences that would nurture much of his writing in years to come. Finally, in 1970, he made it into the faculty of public relations and mass communications at Jularlongkorn, a success which pleased his mother before she died in 1971. By 1973, he founded a magazine called Fim (Film) with friends and when he finished his studies the following year invested in another magazine, Maeng Mum (The Spider) and then another, Nang (Movies). All these ventures failed. He then decided it was time to find a steady job and worked for a few months on a magazine before joining Sayarm Rat daily as a political reporter and entertainment and political columnist. He wrote under the pen name of ‘Chalorm’, which is his eldest brother’s name, as well as the name of an old‐fashioned three‐ masted fishing boat. Apart from a three‐year interval (1983–85) during which he went to work for another daily, Matuphoom (The Motherland), and edited Soo Anarkhot (Towards the Future), he has been with Sayarm Rat since the mid 1970s. In 1982, he married Manthana, a Northeasterner from Ubon, who works in the international cooperation department of the OF TIME AND TIDE | ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT

162 Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have no children. As a noted sports‐writer, he went to Peking for the Asian Games, and has visited Tibet, Australia, Sweden and Denmark, and has even spent a couple of days in New York. Atsiri started writing short stories in 1972. His first, ‘Samnuek Khong Phorthao’ (An old man’s memories), was based on his experiences in the Northeast. He remained unknown until his first collection of short stories, Khunthong, you will return at dawn (Khunthong Jao Ja Klap Muea Fa Sang), published in 1978, won the prestigious Southeast Asian writers’ award (the so‐called Sea Write Award) in 1981 and was subsequently translated into English. Since then, hardly a year has gone by without the public‐ ation of a collection of his short stories – As if the sea had an owner (Muean Thalei Mee Jaokhong), 1981; The house by the sea (Barn Rim Thalei), 1984; The beggar, the cat and the drunkard (Khortharn Maeo Lae Khon Mao), 1988; Weeping gale raging sea (Thalei Ram Lom Soak), 1991, to mention but a few – and tales – A world of blue (Loak See Narm Ngeurn), 1985, and Oftentimes in life (Lai Lai Khrang Nai Cheewit), 1989, set in the Northeast. For years, Atsiri has been dreaming of finding time to travel the country extensively and write the novel whose theme he is sure ‘lurks somewhere out there’. Of time and tide is the most accomplished of all his ‘long works’ and represents a mature synthesis of various themes and reflections developed piecemeal in previous short stories. Before him, Thai sea novels thrived on the theme of piracy; Atsiri chose instead to bring the reality of the sea alive through the prism of his memory and mature understanding of the technical, social and cultural changes he had observed as a youngster. He wrote ATSIRI THAMMACHOAT | OF TIME AND TIDE

163 the novel in weekly instalments for Matuphoom, where he worked, but left the daily before he had completed it and wrote the last five or six chapters some time later at home. This ex‐ plains, to some extent, the patchwork construction of what a noted critic∗ calls ‘a columnist’s novel’, although Atsiri vouches that he didn’t ‘set out to write an ordinary novel’. What he did write was a rare poetic novel with social depth. Translating the book has been a challenge. Atsiri’s style is deceptively simple. He seldom uses clusters of words when only one will do, which makes translation that much easier, but his talent to align everyday words and give them deep reverbera‐ tions is damn difficult to match. In addition, his great attention to rhythm and sound often leads him to skip and skitter on the slippery slope of euphuism – never quite falling, though – and, in regal disregard of the rules of grammar, to into odd corners of his sentences sweep some words or phrases, to tell us of the swell of the sea, maybe, or the way a boat bobs, which poses the double problem of comprehension and rendering of similar effect in English. No easy task for a translator, where indeed it has been possible at all. Another challenge has been a change in our work routine: for the five other novels already published in this collection, the pro‐ cedure has been for Phongdeit Jiangphatthanarkit to first trans‐ late from the Thai and for me to edit his English version against

Pailin Rung‐rat, ‘Atsiri Thammachoat Kreing Rangwan See Rait Jing Rue’ (Is Ussiri Dharmachoti in awe of the SEA Write Award?) in Sayarm Rat Sappada Wijarn, 8‐14 December 1985


164 the Thai text, trying to render not just the meaning but the style of each work. This time, however, because I had the leisure, incli‐ nation and bumptiousness, I forged ahead and did the translation from start to finish, leaving it to Phongdeit to check against the original… and find in the process dozens of mistakes! Whenever our common wisdom (which included TMC Manager Montree Phoomee, no mean writer of Thai himself) could not fathom some of the depths of the text, or we agreed to disagree, the author himself was kind enough to provide suitable enlighten‐ ment. MARCEL BARANG


of time and tide | atsiri thammachoat  

Gone with the waves — from barques to... mass tourism