It's about a sad guy and his life in the poorest region of Thailand, the Isaan. It's from a blogspot. Which blogs usually end up describing incidents and events in Thailand, especially in Pattaya where I live. Sweden is uncharacteristic of the usual blogs. I sometimes write about birding, too.
He was forty-two and he stopped drinking a week before he died. They say it was a very hot day in the Isaan and Sweden needed some coke. He poured himself a cup, rolled over and died. He was my partner's torment at school and slapped her twice, but he remained a family friend, and, as far as collective memory went, was always a chain-smoker and alcoholic. Na's cousin introduced him with : "This is Sweden. He has nothing. No wife. No children. No work. No car. No family. No house." Sweden smiled and nodded. He knew he was a part of the Isaan with its enormous population of poor people habitually drunk, its social problems escalating out of control, watched over by the cogitating baffaloes and the egrets, hoopoes, rollers and flycatchers. Isaan fish are speechless like Sweden himself. As for Isaan's wild animals, they keep a very low profile, knowing only too well where they might end up. For them it's capture, death, preparation, the cooking pot, the Isaan stomach. I myself have been eating Isaan delicacies over the last few days. Little frogs. There is a memorable story that a guy took the love of his life to the local zoo and she knew the taste of every caged animal. The Isaan also caged Sweden and he caged himself.
"Hello, Sweden, why are you called Sweden?" He grinned and said,"Phom....." then a paroxysm of coughing stopped him. He tried to speak again but another paroxysm stopped him. "No one wants him," said Na. "Khee lao." It's usually "Khee mao" but "khee lao" will do. The first means full of drunkenness and the second means full of whiskey.
I tried to get Sweden's story sorted out. Of course I didn't know I would write a blog about the guy. It seemed just respectful to understand whether he ever lived in Sweden, why he was a chronic invalid at forty, what had gone into the scenes and acts which were leading to the sad, futile end of a seemingly fatuous life.
I pressed Na to divulge. She is about the only person in Thailand who understands my Thai. I insist on speaking it to her and she insists on telling me life is pretty unfair because every decent farang speaks English. I tell her I don't like the word farang. She tells me tough luck. I tell her it's important to understand the local lingo. She says she's busy. On other occasions, it's far more diplomatic. We’re in the Isaan for a short stay and I catch her in a good mood and press her into service for this blog, for its “heart of the matter” : Sweden's disastrous life. She tells me no one knows why he's called Sweden. So far so good. She tells me it is rumoured Sweden's father worked a stint in Sweden. I ask her why he is committing suicide. She says he's a sad guy. She mentions he never liked her when she was little and hit her on two occasions. Na's elder brother then asks Sweden for a drink, putting his arm round the guy. Na smiles and says Sweden is now mai antarai (no longer dangerous) and a fly could knock him down. Sweden falls over. It is funny. Na's elder sister's husband helps him up but he is drunk too and falls. More laughter.
In the afternoon Pere and Noy quarrel. We are all at their lake. fishing. My rod has just been broken by Na's elder brother (mai pen lai – a favourite of the Thais meaning “don’t worry”); he it is who usually picks up Sweden, and Pere. He’s a strong guy and my fishing-rod was mere chicken feed to him. We are catching lots of fish. Pere, with a shawl round his lower half, points a rifle at wife Noy. There is laughter but Noy gets very, very angry. Pere mutters and feels humiliated but puts the rifle down. Another member of the family, a success, a doctor, puts an arm around Pere and murmurs words of wisdom. The pail of fish gets splashier. We'll be eating fresh and well tonight.
It is Tuesday, we’re back in Pattaya, and Na is on the phone. She’s listening to some tale. Our modern house is spotless, not like the Isaan. When she shuts the phone off she says, in an offhand way, "Sweden died on Saturday." "When's the funeral?" "The wat already cremated him," she tells me.
How will a guy like Sweden return in his next life? I put it to Na. There is no answer. Will he return as a whiskey bottle? Na doesn't appreciate my sense of humour. She understands that guys like Sweden in the next life are likely to be as problematic as they were in the life they’ve just left, or worse. If they return human, that's bad news. If they return animalesque, same same. Bad news. But if they return as whiskey bottles? Well, I put it to Na, that’s much better. Once again she doesn’t smile. She tells me where to put my sense of humour. She tells me, using dialect, her dialect, the Isaan dialect, where to put my frivolity and superficiality. I think she doesn’t use the word “humour”. I don’t understand her very well but I get her gist and I certainly understand her frown. My jokes were half-hearted, anyway. I give up joking. I am also sorry for poking fun. The living can, indeed, poke-poke, and what’s worse – will.
Goodnight, Sweden. I'm sorry for all the impossibilities. I did ask you why you were doing it, but you couldn't answer.
A piece on the Isaan wouldn't be complete without a description of the long flat farmless land, the bushy scrub aslurping, urine, moisture, wet, and more, the churned, buffalo-hoofy earth, plus another mention of a bad infection I got in 2014 while out and about bird watching, when a scratch brought me low, so low I stopped walking for months. Isaan bacteria are formidable foes.
Sweden, you knew all about that, too, but too much is too much and so you preferred the inarticulate. I am sorry I talk to you now, elegiacally. You never said anything to me but you certainly wanted to. I thank you for the effort. I’m also glad I met you when you couldn’t hurt Na. Thanks for that smile of yours, too.
Well, that's about it. I’ve run out of ideas.