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16

Ive told Lek very little about my trip to Kathmandu; he is fascinated, like any katoey, by the spiritual dimension.

Its because youre so spiritual yourself that the Buddha gave you the chance to go up there, Lek says in the back of the cab, pushing his black locks back with both hands. As usual when alone with me, he has taken the liberty of applying just a touch of mascara, using a tiny hand mirror. You must be so thrilled to be called like that. If it were me I would have felt like a pilgrim on hajj.

Lek, please, you must have guessed I only went up there to do some filthy job for Vikorn.

But thats how the Buddha works, darling, you must know that by now. Maybe youre a tad too proud. You have to bend your knee.

Lek, I feel as dirty as a glass roof in Thonburi. I feel like Im covered in shit, inwardly, like my soul has one tiny source of light left. The rest is so caked in corruption and degradation and guilt and bad karma, if I do one more bad thing Im going to die, I know it.

Lek turns to me to make a high wai.

Why did you do that?

Because everything you just said points to a man on the threshold of nirvana. Normal people dont think like that. Normal people dont worry about their souls. Only arhats like you and ladyboys like me.

I sigh and give up. Maybe its not such a bad thing to have one human being on earth who still believes in my integrity.

We sit in the traffic jam at the Asok-Sukhumvit interchange in silence while a kid with a broken windshield wiper and a face streaked with dirt makes a token gesture of cleaning the window on my side. I wind it down to give him a hundred baht, which is about ninety baht too much. Lek is shocked at first, then gives me a great beam when he connects the gesture to my spiritual progress. The cabdriver says, You shouldnt have done that. Hell tell his buddies and theyll all come and one of them will get hit by a car. It happened right here last week.

I didnt do it for him, I retort, to Leks delight. Thats one of the great advantages of Buddhism, by the way, farang: its not results-oriented. Theres no way you can ever work on someone elses karma, only your own.

Vikorns influence at the womens holding jail is less than at most mens prisons, and we dont get much of a reception from the governor. In Thailand female prison officers tend to fall into two categories: bull dykes and morally aware housewives who feel they have a Buddhist duty to fulfill. Khun Kulakon belongs to the latter category. She is also shrewd in the ways of gangsters. She lets me know that she has been expecting a visit from Vikorns camp and takes me aside to whisper, If anything happens to her after your visit, therell be trouble. Ill keep at Vikorn even if he takes out a contract on my head. I dont care how you deal with this, just dont waste her while shes with me.

I whisper back, Its not like that, she doesnt work for us, shes one of General Zinnas mules. She frowns at me. I feel a little strange, explaining mafia politics to her, but, piety aside, shes nosy as hell and keeps jerking her chin at me to get me to talk. A third party busted her. It wasnt us, but Zinna is going to assume it was Colonel Vikorn. I have to try to get to the bottom of it before Zinna declares war again, and you know what that means.

Khun Kulakon knows. She is of a generation that remembers very well the secret civil war between cops and soldiers that endured for decades and reached a climax up in Chiang Mai in the fifties with a shipment of opium that the Kuomintang brought down from the Shan States with the connivance of the CIA. The two sides hung in an armed standoff at the railhead with a train loaded with the drug, until the director of police made Buddhist peace by promising to take the opium and dump it in the sea. Nobody posed the crucial question until decades later, for fear of more conflict. When a journalist finally asked a retired senior cop, Well, did you dump it in the sea or not? the answer came back: Yes, but there was a ship in the way.

The governor casts a few inquiring glances at Lek, who, now I think of it, has never been to a womens prison before.

I say, Were only here to talk. Maybe we can save her life. Buddha knows what Zinna will do if she looks like shes going to talk.

She checks my eyes and manages a slight smile. Thank you, Sonchai. Anything I can do to help?

How is she taking it?

She spoke to her best friend on the phone yesterday. Khun Kulakon shrugs. Apparently, in Australian culture best friends have a special significance-deeper than family, I think. She shakes her head. Its tough to watch these cases, even after all these years. Shes just a stupid girl with a great body who was brainwashed by her culture to think she deserved more from life than she was getting. Corporal punishment would be so much more compassionate, but farang have made it out of style. As it is, even if the King pardons her eventually, which he will, shell be a basket case by the time she gets out. But you cant see psychological scars on TV news, so that makes it all okay.

As with mens jails, the women prisoners spend most of their time in an open-air compound surrounded by rows of cells in a rectangular formation. For Thais, riap roy, or neat and tidy, is not an exhortation so much as a way of life. Even though at first glance the compound looks like a refugee camp, with towels and other pieces of fabric used as something to lie on, some cooking going on over small earthenware charcoal stoves, disheveled women shifting in their sleep or moving listlessly from place to place, to any Thai it is obvious that a detailed order prevails. Basically, each six-by-four-foot space staked out by towels or newspapers possesses an invisible number in the hierarchy, with longer-term inmates owning the most highly prized places. On the other hand, the old-timers are expected to help the newcomers learn the ropes and the elaborate rules which the women impose on themselves. That is true of the Thai women, at least. About ten percent are foreigners. I recognize a couple of very big and very black Nigerian women who were caught with heroinfilled condoms in their stomachs, a German woman who murdered her Thai husband after she caught him in bed with a prostitute, a couple of English girls who got caught forging checks and copped an eight-year sentence in a case hardly worth a hundred dollars. They were left to find out for themselves how the system worked. Sooner or later even the weeping and screaming Nigerian giants would learn to conform.

Rosie, though, is in a different category because she has just arrived. The head screw takes us to where she occupies one of the most highly prized positions in the middle of the compound; positions are rated as to how far away they are from the cells, where mosquitoes breed and plague the flesh of everyone in proximity. Nights in the cells are a torment during which all but the toughest find it impossible to sleep; daytime is for catching up on lost slumber.

Coming at her from behind one cannot help but be aware of a shapely backside; the curves of her body, though, are brought together in a compressed fetal posture. When we arrive at her spot, we notice she is sucking her left thumb and appears to be unconscious.

Shes not sleeping, the screw explains. Shes blocking out. Farang women do this a lot-its kind of weird. A Thai woman who comes to us for the first time usually sets about learning the rules, studying the power structure, and making herself useful so she can earn some privileges and make friends. Farang dont see life that way. They feel either destroyed or superior. Theres no middle way.

Well, Rosie does not look superior. The screw bends down and whispers gently in her ear. When that fails to have an effect, she shakes her with increasing vigor. Finally she says, Sorry about this, and twists Rosies ear until she opens her eyes.

You have visitors. Stand up-or do you want to be closer to the mosquitoes?

I think the name of the insect does the trick. She seems to force herself to stretch her body, as if taking a step in an icy sea, trembling all the while and squeezing her eyelids shut again, clenching her face against the world. When she finally manages to stand, she has the white, crumpled face of an old lady. Once she starts to speak she seems unable to stop, although its unclear if she is talking to us or simply vocalizing a monologue constantly playing in her head: Im finished, my life is over, Im all fucked up, destroyed, finished, theyre going to waste my life here, my body, Im all eaten by mosquitoes, Im going to be old and wrinkled by the time I get out, Ive had it, Im dead, this is hell, the mosquitoes are hell, hell, hell, theres nothing left for me, nothing, Im wasted, finished, Ill never experience childbirth now, Ill never marry, my mum will drop dead with shame, my friends will disown me, Ill get hate mail, Ill be so ugly no one will want to look at me, Ill be bitten all over by insects, Ill disgust people, me, look, dont you like my tits? Dont you want me? Have me, you can fuck me here in front of everyone, I want you to, this might be the last chance I have for good sex, I dont care, I dont care, Im dead, cant you see, Im dead, gone, its over for me, Ive got a decade to go in the valley of death, Ill turn to stone, Ill be just a shadow, a frightened little old lady scared to leave the house, I can feel it, Ill be a total nutter, cant you help me, please, I have such a good body. Do you eat pussy? Want a blow job? Ill be your sex slave for life if you get me out of here, I can do things with my tongue you wouldnt believe, I love being tied up, or I can do that to you, whatever you want. HELP ME! THE SKEETERS, THE SKEETERS ARE EATING ME ALIVE, IVE GOT BITES ON MY NIPPLES!

The screw slaps her face and she falls silent. I shake my head at Lek. To Rosie I say, Maybe we can help, but youll have to get your head together. Ask the screws for some tranquilizers, something to help you think straight. Here. I slip her a bunch of banknotes worth over a thousand baht.

She stares at me and bursts into tears. Im not a criminal, Im just a normal girl. I didnt want to get into this, all I wanted was a harbor-view flat in Sydney, it was a one-off, I was going to open a beauty salon, theres a new development on Rose Bay, I wanted south facing, I was going to be Rosie of Rose Bay, thats all, I was going to have sex doggy-style and look at the view. I only intended to do one bad thing so I could have a real life, thats the only way I could afford it, see? Whats wrong with that? Its what everyone does. She stops suddenly, as if remembering where she is.

I hold up a hand and whisper sternly, at the same time passing her more banknotes with the other, Maybe we can get you out in eight years. Thats a long time, but youll still be in your midthirties. If you keep your mouth shut we can get you special privileges, insect repellent, the right food with vitamins and protein-maybe we can even make you a trusty with lots of privileges-maybe even let you have a man now and then. Rosie, were the only chance youve got. Am I getting through to you? The only chance, Rosie. Rosie, if General Zinna thinks youre going to talk, hell kill you, do you understand?

I think I did manage to penetrate to that part of her that was still interested in living. Openmouthed, she nods slowly, like an idiot. She puts a hand on my shoulder and leans heavily on me, blinking all the while at the scene around her. Little by little she musters her strength, forces herself to focus on her surroundings.

Its shitouse here, Rosie says. Those slimebucket Nigerian bitches are only crying for appearances, soon as the screws turn their backs they get heavy-and theres nothing you can do, look at them, theyre giants. I follow the direction of her chin across the towel-strewn prison yard to the two enormous Nigerian women, each of them about six foot six, who are softly sobbing together at this very moment with their arms on each others shoulders. Its one oclock in the afternoon, and those who were given the privilege, like Rosie, of a spot away from the insects now pay for it in terms of exposure to direct sunlight. Rosies delicate northern skin has started to flake a little on her nose and forehead, and she is taking care to keep covered up as much as possible.

Rosie, Im working on your case. I really am. We can maybe get you a pardon in eight years, so long as you cooperate.

Whats to cooperate? You already know who the big bloke is, hes that army general everyone in here talks about. Some clumsy fucker by the sounds of it, half the girls are in here cos of some fuckup by him or one of his people. I wish Id gone with the cops, mate, that was my mistake.

Rosie, look at me, Rosie, just answer me this: do you know a Tibetan called Tietsin?

I doubt that the fluttering of her eyelids is faked. I think the question is so far out of her range of knowledge she assumes Im just another local whose mental software differs so far from the Australian that no understanding between us is possible. No.

Rosie, you have a Nepali visa in your passport. This interests me. Id like to know more about your visit to Kathmandu.

She shrugs. Its on the circuit, init? Backpackers go up there. Some go trekking, some go for the dope, most go for both. I dont do trekking, myself.

You smoked dope up there?

Sure.

Where did you stay?

Why dyou want to know that?

Rosie, if you hold out on me I might not come back. Im your big hope for an early pardon, Rosie.

She gives me a fed-up kind of a look, as if Ive prevailed upon her to sin against her will, but the sacrifice is not excessive. The Nixon Guesthouse. Everybody knows it. Its on Freak Street.

I thought nobody used Freak Street anymore.

Its fairly extreme. A lot of sixties nostalgia. Im old-fashioned.

I wouldnt have put you down as nouveau hippie, Rosie. I think you had a reason to stay in such a place.

She sighs. Okay, so, its the place to go if you want business. But dont ask me for names cos I havent got any. You just go there, you hang out for a while, you put a certain look on your face, you use body language-if you dont dress like some clapped-out freak, if you put a bit of makeup on and show you know how to look respectable, but at the same time you hang out with that look on your face, sooner or later someones gonna come up to you and make a proposition. See, the word is, they have the safest circuits. The safest suppliers. Ive met people been financing their travels for years that way, bought houses, flats, fast cars-Ive spoke to them, seen the way they live in Sydney. Thats what I thought I was getting into, the respectable set. Now look. She jerks her chin at the prison yard.

They actually give you contacts in Thailand? And the choice between working for the army or the police?

Yeah.

And the people who come up to you, are they Nepali, Asian, Westerners-what?

You cant say. See, its all rotating all the time. Maybe a Westerner will be up there for two months and he or she will do a lot of dealing for the main man and youll think the Westerner is an important player, then the Westerner disappears, goes home or goes trekking, and its someone else doing all the business, maybe an Indian man, or a Nepali woman, could be a Tibetan refugee-or a Thai. Course, you never meet the main man. Never. Nobody does. There arent even rumors about who he is.

There are Thais involved?

Sure, there are quite a few Thais in business up there, mostly in restaurants. And there are a lot of Tibetans looking for money. Not all the refugees are monks and nuns. Not all the monks and nuns are straight.

I say, Thanks, Rosie, and try to slip her another thousand baht, but she stays my hand.

Look, mate, theres something you can do thats important. Get me a little Chanel No. 5 makeup set? I know it sounds ridiculous, but just for me self-respect, mate, and Ive worked out my own little hideout for it-its just soze I dont feel like Im going native, see? I look around the yard, taking in the big Nigerians, and she catches my thought. Dont worry, mate, I aint gonna put it on in public. Only when Im all alone at night. Look, look at what I got hold of last week, just in case. Ive got to dream, mate, or Ill end up like those two mad bitches over there.

I like the healthy triumphalism on her face when she shows me a shard of a ladys hand mirror. I tap her on the shoulder: On yer, I say, hoping I got the strainism right.


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