Short Story: Pickup by Mithran Somasundrum
Brightways loved his pickup. It was the kind of doting, paternal love you’d extend to a large dog. A bull mastiff, perhaps, of shuddering weight, who barked at your enemies, understood nothing and trusted you implicitly. So it was with the pickup. Brightways loved the way the engine started the first time, with a jolt like the detonation of a small bomb under the bonnet. He loved the steady vibration of the cab, the deep three-litre, diesel-consuming growl.
Also, driving it made him feel more Thai. For two years now he had been collecting such feelings and marshalling them as evidence he presented to himself: he could live here. His flat was one such proof, his girlfriend Ning another. And now the pickup. In the cab’s elevated height, on Bangkok’s choked and dusty roads, among the other pickups and thundering lorries, the weaving motorcycles and buses groaning with human freight, Brightways felt that he belonged and in fact, was surviving.
It hadn’t always been thisway. He’d spent six months travelling on the buses himself and had frayed at the edges, taken apart by Asian entropy. The hindering crowds, diseased street dogs, splattering overhead drains, odours of rotting vegetation wafting up from black-water canals. He’d bought the pickup to escape from all of it.
“Could be a good idea,” agreed Ning, who had no intention of using a bus any time soon. They were in the flat she shared with her brother Gai, forming what Brightways already thought of as the Eternal Triangle: Gai cross-legged at one end of the white leather sofa, Brightways at the other end and Ning off to one side, elegantly collapsed into the cobalt-blue bean bag. The television was on, tuned to ASTV, the Yellow Shirt channel, and Gai was in TV-watching mode — tin of cashew nuts in his lap, glass of iced water at his feet. Ning and Brightways talked across him and Brightways felt each of his sentences passing through the zone of Gai’s disapproval.
When they’d entered the flat Ning had rushed to the toilet as soon as she’d kicked her shoes off. Brightways sat on the sofa and waited. Gai ignored him and remained transfixed on the television. It was the time of the airport takeover. The TV showed Sondhi Limtongkul on stage in front of a sea of Yellow Shirts, praising the “patriotic” actions of the airport’s occupiers. In response there came the sound of a sea receding from a pebbled beach, as his audience rattled their handclappers in unison.
“Well,” said Brightways, “This is different.”
“People are fighting back. They don’t want to live under this dictator and his puppets.”
“A democratically elected dictator,” said Brightways, but Gai missed the sarcasm in his voice and assumed he was agreeing.
“Exactly. Democracy doesn’t work here. We don’t have enough educated people.”
Brightways bit back on his reply. He didn’t want to start rowing with his girlfriend’s brother. They had too many points of disagreement as it was. There was the fact that Brightways hadn’t heard of Sumitronics. (“Big trading company for electronics. Biggest in Asia. I think you know them,”) and therefore couldn’t appreciate the importance of Gai’s job. Then the fact that Gai suspected Brightways of lying about his salary, because surely you couldn’t earn fifty thousand baht a month just for teaching English.
And yet after Ning had come back out he couldn’t resist saying, “Gai thinks shutting down the country is a good idea.”
“I don’t say this. You don’t understand anything about my country.”
Ning collapsed into the bean bag and said, “I’ve had enough of politics.”
So to change the subject Brightways went back to his car plans, continuing the conversation they’d had in the taxi. “They say pickups are better, if you want to travel upcountry.”
Ning said, “You’re an adventurer.”
Brightways didn’t, then, catch the city dweller’s genuine reserve in her voice. “I spoke to a bloke. He reckons I can get a good secondhand one for maybe four hundred thousand. That’s like, three, four years old.”
Gai said nothing, remained fixed on the television, and yet in his very stillness he radiated disapproval. You could sense him putting all his effort into keeping the emotion off his face.
“I thought I’d try some tents,” said Brightways, using the Thai term for secondhand dealers, places where the cars sat out in grids under canvas awnings. “Pare said he’d take me.” Again Gai was quiveringly silent. “I’d best be off,” said Brightways, getting tired of it. “I’ll leave you to your freedom fighters.”
Sure enough, once Gai was alone with Ning all his objections had come bubbling out. She relayed them to Brightways the next day. Four hundred thousand was too much. It was a “farang price”. Pickups were a bad choice, the stolen pickup market was huge. People drove them over the border. In Cambodia you could get a new license, registration, everything. And you shouldn’t buy from tents, you should buy from someone you knew. Most tents were money launderers. That’s why they only took cash.
Ning and Brightways were at work at Chulalungkorn University, sitting at the moulded green tables of the canteen opposite the chemistry building. It was mid-morning and the heat hadn’t yet become fierce; the lunch crowd hadn’t yet arrived. You could have a quiet, serious conversation, except that Brightways wasn’t sure what kind of conversation he was supposed to be having.
“So basically, you don’t want me to get one.”
“It’s what Gai says.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s true. I hear some places upcountry it’s dangerous to drive a pickup. People want them. They force them off the road. Why don’t you wait for Gai to find something?” She put a hand on his arm. “He wants to help.”
Brightways stirred his iced tea and looked up at the students filtering in. He’d heard Ning talk about “upcountry” before. It wasn’t so much geography for her as a region of mind. A vague feeling of having to share Thailand with people who were different, who couldn’t appreciate her taste or education. As much as Brightways liked her, as much as he — let’s face it — lusted after her, it was a disconnect he couldn’t help seeing: middle class Thais living in Bangkok like colonial settlers, surrounded by the unknowable poor. He said, “If I wait for Gai I’ll be waiting forever.”
And so he bought a four-year-old 3-litre Nissan, paying what was probably a farang price (400,000 baht) in cash to a tent.
The next day Ning said, “Gai told me he could find the same model for three hundred and fifty.” She said it apologetically, and a little sadly. I’m sorry you wouldn’t listen. They were in the canteen again, but this time surrounded by the full echoing din of lunchtime.
“It’s done now,” said Brightways, having to raise his voice. “Never mind. But since I’ve got wheels, what about Cha-am this Saturday? Seafood and deckchairs and the rest.” The rest was Ning in a short white T-shirt that would cling to her body when wet and reveal the black one-piece swimsuit underneath. They’d gone last month with Pare and his wife in Pare’s Honda.
“Something else then. How about Ayutthaya, to see ruins? Or Kanchanaburi? The river?”
Ning smiled. It was a part of her kindness that she would always be drawn, however reluctantly, into his plans.
And in spite of her reservations they had a good time. Brightways found the Tham Seua temple without getting lost and the freedom of the pickup put him in a good mood. He liked the roomy comfort of the cab (radio, CD player, beverage cup holder). He liked the long straight roads that took them through cane fields and rubber plantations and bright green rice paddies; he liked the coating of dust that the pickup acquired, making it look even more tank-like and invulnerable. His mood was infectious and they had one of those silly, illogical afternoons, each spinning off the ridiculous things the other said, egging one another on. Ning wore a tight, V-necked cream T-shirt and a flower-print skirt that came to just above her knees. She was always tactile in these sorts of moods, rubbing Brightways’ back, squeezing his arm. He placed his hand on her hip and she let it stay there, only moving away when they saw a group of Western tourists approaching.
On the drive from the temple, back through Kanchanaburi town, Brightways thought of how completely Gai had been excluded. He felt as though he’d already won. And best of all, it had been Gai’s choice to stay at home. He needed the television. The airport takeover was approaching a political event horizon — the King’s birthday — and no one knew what would happen next. In some uncertain way Brightways felt the country was changing. Driving the pickup had made him feel more Thai, but now Thainess itself seemed up for grabs.
He said to Ning, “How about we get a coffee before the dinner? The guide book says the Marriott is a good spot.”
He knew she wouldn’t stay the night, not with him, not yet, but it seemed a progression of sorts just to get her to a hotel. And the Marriott was a good spot. In the air-conditioned cool of the coffee shop, through large plate glass windows, they could look down as the sun ignited the river into a single winding strip of fire. From Ning’s dark eyes to the view, it was Brightways’ romantic idealised Thailand made real. And now that he’d found that country, it all seemed suddenly breakable.
“So this whole Yellow Shirt thing. I know what Gai thinks, I just — what do you think?”
“They have some good ideas. They want to remove corruption.”
“But this stuff about not trusting democracy. If you don’t trust, you know, people, then what do you trust? Money? Surnames? Qualifications? The school someone went to? The military college they graduated from? Are those things better Ning?”
“This isn’t England. Most Thai people don’t know about democracy. They vote for anyone who pays them. Thaksin paid the most and then he could rob the country.” She began to aggressively stir the froth into her cappuccino. “Andrew, it’s very boring to talk politics.” She raised her cup, blew into it and them looked over the rim at him and sighed. She said as a peace offering, “You ever go to Hamleys?”
London was what they had in common. Ning had done her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at ImperialCollege, and Brightways had grown up there and looked to get out at his first opportunity. When they were introduced by Pare, a fellow English teacher at Chula, Ning had said, “It must be autumn now. You miss home?”
“Crap food, crap weather, chavs in hoodies, what’s to miss?”
Ning blinked. He might have been speaking to her in a foreign language. They were in Pare’s garden, celebrating his birthday with a combination of pizza and som tum. Ning took a slice of pizza and moved around the food table and off the stone veranda, away from Brightways. He went after her, across the still wet grass, a beer in one hand, a cardboard plate piled precariously with som tum in the other. “So you were in South Ken then? Nice place, yeah?”
Ning gave him a second chance. She told him about Imperial. As she talked it occurred to Brightways they knew two different Londons. Ning knew the NationalScienceMuseum, the Tate Modern, Chinatown and the West End. She knew where to buy grapao; she knew the Albery Theatre and Madame Tussauds. Brightways knew Lewisham. He knew a good Indian takeaway and the better South London pubs. He knew the semi-detached he’d grown up in, and his father saying, “Do you think this is a good idea Andrew?”
Brightways’ father always came at disapproval sideways. He never said no to his son, only twitched his moustache and queried. “Have we thought this through?” “Do we in fact think we’ve considered?” It was the job, probably. Thirty-odd years at Smith Klein French had convinced him life was a form of precision tool engineering. A Standard Operating Procedure was necessary. Brightways had studied accountancy. His SOP was to become an accountant. Not chuck it up for teaching English as a foreign language and go “gallivanting” across Asia. That was the word his father had used in his last email. “When you feel you’ve finished your gallivanting …” Brightways had scanned through the rest of the message without taking it in. The thorns of childhood could still prick his confidence.
But look where I’ve ended up, he thought, watching the sun turn red, watching the last light caress the side of Ning’s face. The email had come three days ago and Brightways still hadn’t replied. He couldn’t without reading it properly. In a sense his reply had been the trip. Rumbling through the dust with Ning next to him, he’d outrun Gai and his father both. Even now he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to keep on running.
He turned to Ning. “We don’t have to eat here. Why don’t we try and find something? Take a few detours. Somewhere small without all the tourists.”
The high beams of the pickup turned the narrow unlit lane into a tunnel. At the edges of the road, the dim outlines of the bushes dissolved into the greater darkness of the night. They were heading deep underground. Brightways loved the sense of safe contained exploration. They’d turned off the 3199, and after winding along for half an hour, had found somewhere. It was a tiny place — four plastic tables on a small square of concrete, marooned in humming, clicking, tropical darkness.
“This is a discovery, isn’t it?” said Brightways. “I knew we’d find something.”
Ning gave him a tight smile. There was red dust on the floor and on the white plastic seats. She began wiping her chair with a tissue.
But despite the unprepossessing surroundings, it turned out the cooking was good, if limited to the basics — green curry, an omelette, morning glory stir-fried with garlic in oyster sauce. A single unsmiling woman, sombre in a dull green pasin, cooked and served the food and then after the meal, showed them a shortcut to the main road. They were to keep going on this narrow track, apparently; it curled back to the 3199. As Brightways pulled away, she came out and waved them off.
“That was nice,” he said, watching her still figure recede in the rear-view mirror until she was finally swallowed by the darkness. “We’re probably the only customers she’s had all day.”
Ning said, “Not the only.”
“From where? Where would they come from round here?”
Ning slipped off her shoes and brought her feet onto the car seat. As she curled up, her skirt slid down her thighs. She arrested its movement with her palm and then pushed the material back up. “Someone came to see her,” she said in a sleepy voice, and yawned. “While we were eating. I heard them.”
“You can sleep if you want,” said Brightways. “I’ve got it all. Down the 3199, onto the 323, right onto route 4 and straight to Bangkok.” He tapped his temple. “Human GPS. I am programmed with all major Thai driving routes.”
Ning gave a sleepy giggle and at the sound, each of Brightways five senses sharpened. The distant whine that had been following them came to the fore. He checked his rear view mirror, but there was nothing there, only a quick sense of movement. The sound had peeled away to his left. In Brightways’ left-hand wing mirror he saw a motorbike with its light off. There were two people on the bike. They were trying to pass on the inside.
“Genius,” he muttered. The pickup rumbled on through its tunnel of night.
Ning shrieked and sat up. “Andrew!”
The passenger on the bike was waving something. It looked like a crook-lock. He made a palm-down gesture — the Thai signal to pull over — and hefted the crook-lock again.
“Andrew, don’t stop.”
“As if I’m going to. Is he for real?”
The man was still flapping his hand at them. The arrogance of that gesture — the complacency! Brightways didn’t know whether to be insulted or amused. It was like a Mini Cooper threatening a tank.
“Can you actually believe that?”
“Andrew speed up.”
Brightways pressed down and the needle went from seventy to eighty. The motorbike fell behind. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Some people live without brains.”
The bike’s whine rose in pitch. It came back alongside and a dark figure peered in through Ning’s window. She moaned and shrank back from the door. Brightways pushed the pickup towards ninety. But the lighter bike responded faster. It pulled slightly ahead of the passenger window. The man’s arm whipped around. A thud and the windscreen shattered in front of Ning. She shrieked as cracks splintered the length of the glass.
“You bastard!” Brightways shouted. “Fucking … you fuck!” He swung the pickup at the bike, but it didn’t go out far enough. The motorbike began to pull away. Brightways pushed on the accelerator and caught them up. Apparently the bike had reached its maximum speed. There was nowhere for it to go now. At the very edge of the road, it was sandwiched between the bushes and the Nissan. Brightways looked across. He bared his teeth.
He swung out. Helpless, the bike swerved; it slammed into the foliage. Brightways straightened the pickup and behind them the bike had gone. It had crashed right through.
“What did you do?”
“Exactly the same thing they were doing to me.” Dark tarmac raced under them.
“Andrew stop. We should go back.” The needle had crept beyond ninety. “What did you do?”
“Jesus, Ning. It’s not as though we’ve killed anyone.” The needle had reached one hundred.
“We can’t just leave them.”
“It’s too late. We don’t know where they went off.” In the cooling wash of his anger, Brightways knew he was fleeing.
“Maybe they need a hospital. No one can find them out here.”
“We won’t find them either. Just look at that. Look at that windscreen. Every action has a consequence.” From deep underground they were racing towards the Earth’s lit surface. “I don’t think they’re hurt badly.”
“You don’t know.”
They’d left the road before Ning screamed.
Brightways wrenched on the wheel as they dropped. The car yawed. It was going right over as the water slammed into them, and then they stuck.
Brightways came to a dazed awareness of his body. His cheekbone was throbbing; he’d hit it on something. Steering wheel, he thought. Ning began to whimper. The pickup was lodged at a thirty-degree angle in lapping darkness. It was quiet, now that the engine had stalled. A paddy field, Brightways understood, and looking beyond the shallow rise to the tarmac, saw how the road had turned sharp right and how they’d hurtled straight off. And of course there was no sign. This was Thailand, why would you put up a sign?
He said, “Oh Christ, oh Christ.”
He kicked open the door, heaved himself out and dropped awkwardly into calf-high water. Cold mud oozed over his sandals and around his toes. Behind him he could hear Ning struggling her way out, her cries pitiful against the huge night silence. Brightways knew he should go and help, but at that moment he wanted to leave all of it. Just get onto the road and keep walking until he was back in Lewisham.
She was balanced on the running board of the tilted pickup. Without waiting for him, she jumped down into the paddy and then with two fingers held out her skirt where the water had splashed it. She took a step and stumbled on something. Behind her, in a thin sliver of moonlight, the pickup was a darker bulk against the dark water, flying insects collecting at its blind staring headlights. The car had trusted him in its dumb mechanical way, had put its three-litre muscles behind his every command. And this was how he’d repaid it.
Ning took another step, winced and said, “My ankle.”
From the road came the whine of a motorbike. It couldn’t be, Brightways thought. He played back his memory: the bike swerving hard into the bushes. Beyond the rise, a single diamond-white headlight appeared and steadily grew. Suddenly Brightways needed to empty his bladder. This can’t happen, he thought, feeling nauseous. He listed all the separate decisions that had brought them to this spot. If just one had been different, they would now be safe.
And then the bike halted and two young men ran up, calling anxiously, “Cheuey mai?” Without waiting for an answer, they splashed down into the paddy.
“Jep mai?” one of them asked Brightways. Are you hurt? In a Beer Chang T-shirt and torn faded jeans, he couldn’t have been more than seventeen. His gaze flickered between Brightways and the stricken pickup.
“No,” said Brightways. “I mean, mai jep.” And all at once his fears receded and the next tide of emotion, rushing in and swamping him, was an instant grateful love of Thai culture and naam jai and Thai people’s willingness to take on the troubles of strangers.
The man moved past him to Ning, asking her the same question and then going into a stream of Thai too rapid for Brightways to follow.
The second, older man, in a checked shirt almost fully unbuttoned, was already at the pickup. He put his hands on the tow bar and performed a mime of pulling, as though to demonstrate to Brightways that it was stuck. Meanwhile Beer Chang grabbed the running board and levered himself up. The car rocked with his weight.
“Careful,” called Brightways.
“They’ll help us,” said Ning.
The man brought his knees up onto the running board and then disappeared into the cab.
“I left my mobile,” said Ning. “He’s getting.”
Brightways nodded. He thought of the other motorbike and its riders, crashed somewhere in the bushes. Invisible from the road, no one would be going to their aid. He wondered what state they were in. He thought again of how fast the bike had swerved into the road’s dark border. It had slipped right through. He looked back at checked shirt, and seeing him, the man again performed a mime of tugging on the tow bar.
Brightways tried to remember the bodies of the two riders. He thought of the dark figure peering in through Ning’s window. But he’d only glimpsed them, his attention on the road, on the needle creeping upwards. Again, he tried to remember the bike hitting the bushes. “Hitting” was the wrong word. What he remembered was a fluid sense of movement.
He looked across at Ning. “What did he say?” Brightways asked, not liking the way his voice quavered.
“Find my phone,” said Ning. “He’ll call someone. Has friend near here.”
Brightways’ fear clogged his throat; the words stayed lodged there. He stared hard at Ning, wondering why she didn’t see it. There is nothing near here. He looked back at checked shirt and the man performed his tugging mime a third time. There now seemed to be an element of satire in the action. As though he had to explain a very simple fact to someone very stupid.
The pickup’s door swung open and in a smooth athletic movement, Beer Chang splashed down into the paddy. He was holding Ning’s white iphone. His fingertips caressed it. “Suey,” he said. “Paeng mai?” Expensive? Ning gave him a look of dazed gratitude, without registering the question. He waded away from them, dialling. Brightways had the manic image of himself and Ning making a wild escape on the motorbike.
The man waded back to them. “Pai lor,” he said and made a shooing gesture towards the road. “Lor peuen.”
Brightways looked back at the incapacitated pickup. “I’m going to wait right here,” he said.
Ning didn’t seem to have heard him, or else wasn’t interested. She splashed towards the road, sheparded by Beer Chang. As with checked shirt, there was now an element of mockery in his movements. Exaggeratedly guiding, he had one palm millimetres from her bare arm and the other millimetres from her behind. At the shallow rise to the road, he stayed cloyingly close as she scrambled up, but he still wasn’t touching her.
On the road, the two men realised Brightways hadn’t joined them. They looked at each other and then Beer Chang came back for him.
“I’ll stay where I am,” Brightways said, loudly enough for his voice to carry across the dark water. He wanted Ning to see this stand he was making.
And then from beyond the road’s sharp bend came a steady diesel rumble. It was a sound Brightways had always associated with reliability, with reassurance and comfort. No one could innocently arrive so soon, he thought. You couldn’t phone someone out of the blue and have them here so quickly. The light cones of the high beams appeared, and then the pickup itself became visible. Beer Chang had turned in the paddy and was watching it come. Brightways couldn’t tell if the man was expecting this intruder or not. As in a tableau, the four of them, two on the road, two in the field, stood watching the pickup’s approach. It rumbled towards them like salvation. Beer Chang turned back. He looked at Brightways with his young pitiless face.
“My friends,” he said.
Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok, where he works in an electrochemistry lab. His previous short stories have been published in The Sun, The Minnesota Review, Inkwell, NaturalBridge and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others.