Moonlight Fishingby Shane Mac Donnchaidh
Phanu rubbed the silky material stuffed in his pocket between his forefinger and fat thumb. It comforted him a little. A private oasis of calm at the smog-choked intersection where he made his living. He tugged on the material until it peeped over the double-stitched seam of his pocket and he sneaked a glance at its shiny pinkness. The red polyester label fluttered like a flag proclaiming its Chinese origin.
"Phanu! Your fare!" a voice snapped. Phanu jammed his trophy back into his pocket with two stiff nicotine-discoloured fingers before turning round to face the corner boss. Yani's gaze scanned slowly up from Phanu's pocket; a leering grin spreading across his face as their eyes locked. Yani was lean and angular; all country gristle and sinew, they grew them mean in the far south. Around his neck hung a mass of Buddhist amulets and magical Sak Yant tattoos covered his whip-like arms. His short spiked hair gave way to a long rat's tail that hung down between his shoulder blades. Yani indicated the customer with a nod of his head. Phanu straddled his Yamaha Fino and clicked the electric ignition on. Its 113.7cc engine caught first time and he pulled the bike lengthwise to the curb. She cocked a mobile phone away from her ear momentarily and barked an address in clipped syllables without looking at him. He recognised the fare as she sat side-saddle on the wide seat. She was coming from college, judging by her uniform. Pale porcelain features announced her haughty Chinese ancestry. Her tight black skirt pinned her knees together as she jostled herself comfortable on the back. A waft of strong perfume carried over the fumes. The bike pulled out, Phanu glanced through the nook of his left elbow at the black stiletto that hung teasingly from a playful foot. Out into the blocked arteries of the evening rush hour. He weaved his line through the choking traffic as she chatted on the phone. One of her boyfriends no doubt. He jerked back the throttle and weaved a hard left, crossing lanes between a diesel-fume belching bus and a tank-sized SUV. His passenger's right arm looped itself in a panic around his waist; her fingers grasped at his belt. As he took his line he felt her shimmy herself forward on the seat, the outside of her right thigh now pressed hard against his buttocks.
Two tall leafy trees protected the entrance to her lane. Canary yellow blossoms clustered in foot-long ponytails that hung from their branches. Dried seed pods lay scattered where they fell on the roots below. They rode to the end of the street to her home, her parents' house, where she dismounted. He turned the engine off while she rummaged in her imitation Louis Vuitton bag for her purse. She made small whimpers of complaint as she hunted through the confusion of her bag. Phanu looked through the gates of her home. The two storey house stood in its own compound. A small balcony poked from beneath a red clay-tiled roof. Solid rendered walls painted white and weathered. Apart from a gravel driveway the area seemed to be taken up with garden. Gnarly trees secured the occupants from the peeping eyes of nosy neighbours. Off to the right a single cord spanned the distance between two poles at the side of the house. The day's laundry hung from it. A jerry-built corrugated tin roof provided shelter from the frequent rains. An assortment of wares. A navy-blue underwired bra swung in the breeze; lacy frills relieving the rigidity of its frame. A pair of pink and yellow sports socks, several girls' T-shirts with undoubtedly witty slogans printed in English. But it was a single pair of plain white cotton panties that caught his attention as the hazy orange sun began to clamber down behind the buildings of a Bangkok skyline.
About six hours later Phanu pulled his motorbike to a halt between the silloheuttes the full moon made of the trees. The gloom drained them of their earlier vibrancy. Now they stood like dumb security guards at the top of the street. He killed the engine and lit a cigarette. Above the chirping of the cicadas the drone of distant traffic on the city's highways could still be heard despite the late hour. Phanu pulled his bike tight against the the trunk of the taller of the trees and began walking towards her house. It had been raining heavily and rivulets still coursed down the open storm drains. The street lights reflected urine-yellow in the falling drizzle. He hoped the laundry had not been taken in already. A fruit vendor's cart stood chained to a lamp post. Beneath it an emaciated dog attempted to mount an oblivious cat. He reached the house. There were no lights on inside. A single dim bulb illuminated the area by the front door. The gate was locked. Phanu peered through the rusted iron bars. There were still some clothes hanging from the line. Too faint to make out if they were still there. He flicked the cigarette to the ground and crushed it underfoot turning his attention to the compound wall. He stood on tiptoe and stretched until his fingers reached the edge of the coping stones. He pulled them back quickly. Some nasty piece of work had cemented broken glass on top. He checked the gate again. There was a narrow gap underneath where the rain and cars had worn down the gravel. Phanu lay down on his ample belly and pushed his hands under the gate. With effort he pulled the rest of his body through the narrow gap. The front of his t-shirt and jeans were streaked in mud. You pay for everything up front. Like being a wage-slave. It's only you that gets paid in arrears. At least with the taxis you only had to wait until the end of the trip. Not like at the factory, where if you died the world still owed you a month you could never collect.
Phanu walked over to the shelter. There they were, right at the far end. He cupped his right hand over the line dragging it along the length of the nylon cord. His fingers petting items of clothing as they met them: the navy blue bra, the socks and T-shirts and, finally, there pegged at the end of the line, a single pair of freshly-laundered white cotton panties. He picked them up and examined them. There was a white label attached. The light was too faint to make out anything other than a large 'S' printed on one side. They smelled of fabric softener. He pictured a large yellow bottle with a label showing children running through a summery meadow; long-stemmed flowers towering above them. He carefully folded the underwear and gently placed them in the front pocket of his jeans. Careful to avoid where the mud caked the front of his jeans and T-shirt. The panties securely stowed he looked around and found a twig. He scraped off the bulk of the mud. He would look very conspicuous if anyone was to pass as he walked back down the street to his bike. The jeans were not so bad, but he had stupidly chosen a light grey T-shirt for his late night mission. Laundry day. He scraped the worst off with the twig. A good vigorous shake was what was needed. He took it off. He grasped the bottom of the shirt and snapped it out. It cracked like a whip. A dog barked immediately. He looked around him. His heart quickened. In the moonlight he caught a glimpse of something moving at the back of the house. The dog let out a series of sharp barks and began to run toward him. Phanu bolted toward the front of the compound. There would be no time to crawl under the gate. He leapt at the wall, two hands wrapped tightly in his twisted shirt. He gripped the cement and glass on top of the wall through his shirt, his feet kicking in a desperate shimmy for purchase against the wall. The dog snapped at his heels. Phanu tumbled over the wall.
The street outside was as empty and dismal as before. The comforting drone of traffic still buzzed in the busy world beyond the street. Phanu stuffed his hands into his pockets and strode back toward his bike, his head held high and gaze focused forward. He took his time getting his helmet from beneath the seat and made sure the chinstrap was securely fastened before he started the motor and headed homewards.
The main road was busy. Streams of taxis criss-crossed the the network of roads carrying revellers home. Red lights glowed ineffectually as motorbikes sped through, mounting footpaths occasionally to beat the inconvenience of law-abiding citizen-drivers. At Phahon Yothin intersection Phanu slowed by his motorbike taxi stand. Yani and some of the others were sitting on the bamboo platform sharing a bottle of whiskey and playing cards. He pulled the bike in and drew level. Kicked out the stand and turned off the engine. He removed his helmet. A bag lay on the ground by Yani's feet. Glazed dead eyes stared out through the window of plastic. They had been fishing.
"Sufficiency economy," said Yani indicating the bag with a nod of his head. "Got to take care of ourselves, remember what the king said, 'the world doesn't owe you a living'." Phanu lifted the lid from the ice-box by his feet, reached in and pulled out a pale-pink plastic cup. He placed it on the bamboo. He grabbed a fistful of ice cubes and dropped them in. He poured an inch of whiskey on top. He picked up a small clear glass bottle of soda water from a box on the ground and pried the cap off with his cigarette lighter. He topped up the cup with the soda water. He leaned back and took a sup of the whiskey before lighting a cigarette.
"He's right, the world doesn't owe us a living," replied Phanu after too long a pause. Yani looked at him coldly; his dark eyes narrowed almost to slits and his mouth hinted the beginnings of a sneer. Phanu took several nervous sips from his drink.
"Well, you have a good catch there Yani." he said looking down at the bag. Yani did not reply, but he could feel his eyes on him still.
"Why do you never come to the canal with us Phanu? Some good fishing down there, save you a few baht. We're going back tomorrow night." Somchart spoke, breaking the cool silence. Phanu breathed.
"It looks like he's been swimming in the canal already, eh Phanu?" Yani's voice spoke evenly. Phanu patted his belly then brushed at his shirt with his chubby fingers. His eyes sought out Somchart among the faces.
"Oh, maybe. I'm not much of a fisherman you know, no water-lord that's for sure. But maybe I'll tag along anyway." He drained his cup, nipped out his cigarette and put the butt back in the packet. He picked up an empty soda bottle. He shook out the dregs and peeled off the damp label. "You don't mind if I take this do you. I use them for keeping chilli powder and things." He looked up before opening the compartment under his seat. "I'll probably head home now. I'll see you in the morning." He fumbled inside the space and retrieved his fluorescent licensed taxi vest and wrapped the bottle in it. He wedged the bundle carefully between a small PVC bag of tools and a roll of duct tape. He dropped the seat and straddled his bike. He turned the key and pressed the electric ignition. He threw a quick smile in the direction of the shaded faces in his peripheral vision and gently pulled back the throttle. In the side mirror he could see charcoal outline of Yani standing up. His dark gaze followed him as he rode for home.
Phanu parked the bike in the car park under the rundown apartment building. He took his bundle from under his seat and removed the bottle. He looked around before removing the treasure from his pocket, he caressed them briefly. He pushed them into the bottle and wrapped them back up in the vest. He grabbed the duct tape and locked up his bike. He stowed everything under his arm and walked towards the door. An old man he had never seen before in a security guard's uniform sat at the table by the door. His head lay on splayed arms. A small radio by his ear blared out a phone-in radio show discussing the day's protests, opposing views expressed with barely restrained anger. Talks of coups and counter-coups. Phanu passed through the darkened empty lobby and climbed the four flights of stairs to his room. The night was steamy. He was drenched in sweat by the time he reached his floor. The room was dim when he entered. Overspill from the city's lights penetrated through the murky windows. He unraveled his parcel and removed the bottle. He walked to the wall opposite the sofa and with groping fingers finally found a small space on it's chipped surface. He deftly tore two strips of duct tape from the roll and with care he secured the bottle horizontally to the wall. He stood back and flicked the light switch by the door. A single fluorescent tube blinked on and off and on again. Phanu's eyes took a moment to adjust to harsh invasion of the brightness. He rubbed his eyes and looked around his room in awe. He took a few steps backwards and fell back onto the couch. He lay back while his eyes took in the spendour of their surroundings. Taped to almost every inch of wall in the room were bottles. Plastic bottles and glass bottles. Thousands of them. All sizes, all transparent and all containing a single pair of panties. Red, pink, yellow, blue, white, purple, black. Multicoloured. Skin-toned. Crotchless. There were briefs, tangas, thongs, hipsters and hotpants. Made in India, Thailand, China; from Bangalore to Bangladesh, all crammed into a bottle and mounted on display like exotic fish in an aquarium. No, Phanu would not be going fishing tomorrow night. Not in the canal anyway.