by Birgitt Krumboeck
Mathawee had been shelling peanuts for two hours. Flecks of the delicate inner skin plastered her cheeks and stubborn pieces of shell had painfully lodged themselves under her fingernails. The fire over which Ma had roasted the nuts earlier in the day was still spewing fumes across the room, causing tears to prick her swollen eyes. She told herself that she only had to finish one more batch, wrap the individual portions in cellophane bags, and take them all down to the market where Ma ran a ramshackle snack stand.
After the peanut ordeal, she would still have to grate coconuts, shave ice for gelatinous drinks, and cut green papayas into bite-sized squares from which Ma would assemble her famed salad with lime dressing. She also still had to prepare guava juice, making sure to eliminate all the seeds by straining the flesh through a gauze sieve. Ever since the hordes of back-packers who had started trawling the nearby beaches in recent years had grown addicted to Ma’s fried banana-and-pineapple pancakes, Mathawee also found herself preparing the batter from scratch in the afternoons.
Mathawee was tired of all the chores she was expected to do while Ma was away plying her trade. Although she knew that Ma had their best interests in mind, Mathawee was still disgruntled that she had to bear the brunt of the housework, plus babysitting for Auntie who lived in the next shanty town down the road. Mathawee had grown up without Pa whom Ma called a good-for-nothing and whom she had kicked out a long time ago. He had evaporated in a cloud of cheap rice wine fumes, never to be seen again. Mathawee often wondered if the slant to her eyes was a genetic fingerprint of Pa’s. There was also the birthmark at the base of her spine which was definitely not on Ma’s body.
Ma had done the best she could, but when Mathawee had insisted on staying in school beyond elementary, she had ranted and raved for days, saying that it was useless for a girl to pursue higher education. She would easily learn what she needed to know from the streets, just as Ma had done. It was more important that Mathawee’s energies were channelled into helping out at home and in the market place. After all, there was no room for fancy schooling in this neck of the woods. To keep a long story short, Mathawee had left school before she had even turned 10 and had since then basically been a domestic servant, virtually held prisoner in her own home. Ma knew that she could rely on Mathawee not to talk to strangers, keep her eyes to the ground, and her nose to the grindstone. Nevertheless, although Mathawee knew that there was not a chance in high heaven that she would be allowed to return to school, she had obstinately clung onto her school uniform despite the bad shape it was in, mottled with mildew and unraveling at the seams. She had just turned twelve last summer and – in any case – way outgrown her uniform.
Another hour later, she had completed her chores and decided to head down to the market. As usual, the bus was late and overcrowded with sweaty street hawkers pimping their various goods. Why they couldn’t just hold off until they got to the market was a mystery to Mathawee, but then she remembered that ‘time was money’ so who was she to blame them for trying to make a quick baht1? Having dropped off her “loot” at the market and greedily gulping down an iced coke from Ma’s secret stash, Mathawee headed back home. A cool breeze was coming off the pearlescent beach and she knew this was a sign of better things to come. She absent-mindedly spooned one of Ma’s sticky rice & mango puddings into her mouth. She and Ma would be eating together in the evening, when Ma had returned from the market, eyes bloodshot with exhaustion and expecting a proper meal on the table.
Sometimes, Mathawee allowed herself to entertain dreams of her future. She had originally wanted to become a seamstress. Everyone said that she had a good eye for colour and patterns. There was nothing she liked better than running her fingers over the sensuous fabrics on display at Madame Khem’s tailor shop. Madame Khem was blind in one eye and deaf to the world, but she could mend tattered clothes like no-one else and was a mean dragon when it came to domesticating her ancient sewing machine.
There was a faded poster tacked to the wall in Mathawee’s corner of the hut she shared with Ma, right above the place where she rolled out her sleeping bag at night. It was an advertisement for Thai Airways. Mathawee had always puzzled at what “smooth as silk” meant, since there was no translation available and she knew only a smattering of English. She sometimes dreamed of leaving these sun-scorched shores and traveling to colder climes. Perhaps she could train as a flight attendant and sail the skies in a gleaming metallic shell. Perhaps there was an alternative version of life out there, far removed from this run-down neighbourhood with its mangy dogs and fetid sewers. It seemed as though life was out to get her, no matter how hard she tried to make things work for herself and Ma. Was change really too much to ask for?
After Ma came home, they sat down to Mathawee’s signature spicy shrimp salad with glass noodles, sprinkled with crushed peanuts. To her surprise, Ma had managed to glean a bottle of Sprite at the market and poured Mathawee a generous helping. After taking a cold shower in the rickety, roach-infested shower stall which had been erected in the middle of the village compound, Mathawee and Ma finally bedded down for the night.
Mathawee waited for Ma to pass out from the day’s trials and tribulations. When she was snoring quietly, Mathawee scrabbled around in the dark for her belongings and headed off to where the bright lights were calling as deceptive as sirens singing to lost sailors at sea. Ma was a sound sleeper and Mathawee an early riser. So even if Ma should wake up and not find her in the hut, she would not have grounds to worry. Mathawee had been known to sleep-walk from an early age and she would often watch the dawn bleed colour into the virginal morning sky. Ma also knew that she often spent the night at Auntie’s where she was always welcome for breakfast.
Mathawee expertly concealed her silver thong and sparkly heels within her thread-bare sarong2, and hurriedly set off down the slippery slope towards the seedier parts of town, where she would be performing to the beat of Madonna most of the night, gyrating her slender hips on-stage for the lecherous farangs3 who reminded her of pot-bellied pigs. A smile briefly lit up her face as she remembered Olan. He was the one who had helped her out from the very beginning. After all, her money was safe with him.
1 Thai currency
2 lower body wrapper