[ fiction - january 03 ]
Off in the distance the young fisherman can see the lights of the other boats. Some are fishing, some off-loading diesel fuel from a small Malaysian tanker. Normally he would be among them but tonight his boat is alone on a quiet part of the Andaman Sea. The dark water is speckled with silver by the crescent moon. Above is the bowl of night. The sky is clear black velvet pinpricked by a billion stars. There are two men on the boat. Noi, the older man, says "Soon Kop, you will be going."
"The man from Sumatra?" asks Kop.
"He was here again. It's all been arranged. A job in a restaurant - in Pattaya."
"What do I do there?"
"You wait for instructions. It's the kind of place where they like to eat. Jai yen yen Kop - patience - soon we will be hitting back."
He had seen photographs. Flag-draped coffins. Muslim boys not much older than himself, fighting tanks with slingshots. Dying in the streets to protect the faith. Soon he would be joining them.
* * *
Bert's breezy arrival in the hotel lobby doesn't make much impression on the sour-faced Chinese night clerk behind the counter but Bert doesn't let it faze him. He's back. Home base baby. Nothing can stop him now. The bars are open for another couple hours so now it's just a question of making himself beautiful, putting on his best smile and hitting a few hotspots. Look out girls here I come.
Pretty soon he is standing in the shower and hot water is running down his tattooed arms and over his hairy chest. Boy it feels good to wash off 12 hours of planes and airports, the accumulation of stale sweat and body odors and itches... the grime collected during the taxi ride with its sticky seat and failing aircon... it would be really nice to wash some other things off too... 3 failed marriages, 2 bankruptcies and a bulging midriff for starters...but hey lets not go there right now - lets concentrate on making ourselves desirable - sing along with me guys, "One night in Bangkok..."
He is shampooing his crotch when he notices the leading member of the trio between his legs seems a little withdrawn. Jetlagged probably? Well don't you worry little buddy. Uncle Bert soon find some little cutie to take care of you. We did it old pal - we're back in Sin City. Bangers as the limeys call it. Bangkok. Oriental setting, and the city don't know what the city is getting... who the hell wrote that anyway?... the Abba guy was it?... well a hard man is going to stumble tonight baby and you know what? The hard man don't give a shit. Bring it on baby. After Saudi fuckin' Arabia you and me are entitled to a little R & R.
* * *
Noi moves a tarpaulin in the bottom of the boat and exposes a wooden box. The top has been pried open and Kop can see that it contains what look like metal eggs, each one packed in its own section of the box."Hand grenades,"says Noi."Perfectly safe until you take the pins out."
He takes a couple of the grenades out of the box and balances them in his hands. He gives one to Kop and tells him to watch closely.
Noi holds the grenade in his closed hand. Slowly he pulls the pin - counts - one, two - and throws the grenade. There is a bang, muffled because of the water and a small spout shoots up.
"The water's good," says Noi,"We don't have to worry about fragments. At most you have five seconds before you throw them. These are Chinese so better to get rid of it after two seconds. Otherwise there's not much to it. Just remember - the further you throw it the less likely you are to get hurt. OK try one."
Carefully Kop holds the grenade the way Noi showed him then standing in the boat he removes the pin and throws it as far as he can. Nothing. Then whoomph!!! A loud bang and a spume of water flies up 20 meters out to sea."Good,"says Noi,"You could have waited another second. Want to try a couple more?"
* * *
Bert has found pretty much what he was looking for in Nana Plaza. It didn't take long. She said she was 18, nice body, clean and spoke a bit of English. He paid the bar fine figuring he'd check her out, try one all night session before suggesting a trip to Pattaya. The sex had been OK. Not great because of all the beers he'd been drinking but he'd got his rocks off. She'd passed the smell test too so today she'd come with him in a taxi to Pattaya. Better than taking a chance there and finding all the best girls taken. Shit, he could always send her back to Bangkok if things didn't work out. After three months in the Gulf he was looking for a bit of fun - not a wife. One of those was enough for any man.
Pattaya was OK. Few too many Ayrabs wandering about but not near as bad as Bahrain and at least you got to see some skin.
* * *
"OK Kop. It only takes seconds to cook these things. Listen carefully."
Kop arrived in Pattaya two days ago and this is his first day in McDonalds. A girl called Supervisor is explaining how things work. It's all done with things called 'work-steps' she tells Kop.
"One work step for instance, of about 1 to 2 minutes," says Supervisor (recently promoted from Controller), "could be making 12 cheeseburgers: One. Lay out cheeseburger buns on tray and put the bun bottoms in specific cheeseburger-bun-bottom-toaster. That's this thing. Two. Put burgers on grill. Three. Put bun lids in cheeseburger- bun-lid-toaster. OK? Four. Take out buns and with BOTH HANDS, one squirt of ketchup & mustard from the special McDispencer, this thing, add onions (6oz), gherkin (1 slice), cheese (1 slice). Five. Move the whole tray and click it into the slot in front of the grill here - by which time the grill automatically opens like this. Six. Put hands in grill to salt and the remove burgers, two at a time and put on bun bottoms. At this point the lid-toaster beeps and you slide the 12 lids onto the 12 burgers in one swift movement and then give the whole tray to the Controller for wrapping. Got it?"
Kop isn't sure. Supervisor speaks quickly with a Bangkok accent and it all seems like a lot to remember.
"Now Kop you will notice that everyone who works here has burns and scars from their fingers to half way down their forearms; the longer they have been working, the deeper and more permanent the scars but," showing Kop her light brown and spotless arms, Supervisor assures him not to worry because "They disappear after a while."
Then she goes on to explain the division of labor.
"The labor is further divided again and again as required. For example - you can do the burger, cheeseburger, Big Mac bit yourself. When two people work at the cheeseburgers, then one does rolls and laying out burgers, and the other does fillings and taking burgers off the grill. If there are three of you then you get a roll person, a burger person and a fillings person. So in busy periods it splits and splits, until it finds its own equilibrium. See?" Kop is wondering to himself - do they really eat this stuff?
"Look I'm sorry," says Supervisor,"I know how you feel. My job is to explain it all to new people and make sure things run smoothly. Don't worry. You'll soon get the hang of it." Kop doesn't think so. He is beginning to get a headache. "Co-operation is the key to success," now she's talking faster and faster as if she wants to get the lecture over with. She has obviously delivered it more than once, "As each step is so defined etc. etc. ketchup etc. etc." she just drones on and on and Kop wishes he was back on the fishing boat bobbing gently on the Andaman Sea. "So you see Kop, the absolute precisionof the work process enables seamless co-operation and a full use of every work minute of every worker. Phew! Excuse me a sec. I need a sip of water." Kop looks around. There are other young people like himself wearing the black pants and red McDonalds shirts. They all look as though they know what they're doing - now Supervisor is back with a cup of water. "You're not allowed to do this," she says,"help yourself to a drink I mean. This is a big McCup by the way. You get a five minute break every two hours, and a half hour break every four. You can drink a small McCup of water in the break room - back there. OK what else? One month probation with a three-day notice period, then a two-week notice period after that" Uh, OK, this is Malee," Supervisor indicates a small grinning girl with a pony-tail, "Malee this is Kop. He'll be working with you. Go easy on him."
Supervisor goes back to the front counter where they come to order the stuff. Kop thinks Malee is OK at first but as the day wears on she starts to get on his nerves. She keeps saying things like,"Only two slices of gherkin on those, Kop, and don't squeeze the McDispencer so hard." And she's always laughing with Controller - about him probably.
Khwanjai, the supervisor, watches Kop without making it too obvious. She knows all the work steps inside out. Keeping an eye on the staff is the main part of her job and especially the new employees. They all tend to react differently. Some are awkward from day one and stay that way. Others pick it up quickly and even seem to enjoy it. Some people obviously get a kick out of the teamwork. The feeling of being part of a smooth working group organism can be exhilarating; when it's all going well and you can hardly believe how fast the food is coming out, and when you look round to do something and, bang, there's someone doing it that very second. Khwanjai likes the 'modern ness' of it all. But she thinks this Kop kid seems a bit too jai-rorn for working in the kitchen. Impatient, hot-tempered. It might make more sense to put him in the freezer.
* * *
Bert leaves the girl in the hotel room watching TV. There isn't much for her to steal and he sure as hell doesn't want to take her anywhere near a department store. He just wants to stretch his legs a bit. Maybe get a bite to eat. He wanders down Beach Road which seems much as he remembered it from last year. Palm trees, traffic, tourists on deckchairs. Burger King, he notices, are having a promotion but Bert heads for the Golden Arches anyway and the familiar menu. He soon decides on No.5 - the BigMac/fries/coke combo - there are some things on the menu he's never heard of - Spicy Chicken with jaew sauce for god's sake and papaya salad? - but hey the Coke is the same - good old Coke. They hadn't messed with that. And you always knew where you stood with a BigMac.
"Bik fly? Medium fly?" squeaks a cute young Thai lady name-tagged Malee.
Ah, a decision is needed."Medium," Bert booms back.
"Ee here? Tayaway?"
"What? - oh here," says Bert,"eat here krap."
He enjoys these little exchanges. The staff in Thailand's Mcdonalds are much cuter and more polite than the surly latinos he runs into in the States these days. Shit, some places you don't speak Spanish you don't get served. But in Thailand it's East meets West at its best. The washrooms are usually spotless and the food is OK too. The hamburgers are what he's used to and the French fries are perhaps even better. Maybe because they hadn't switched over to low cholesterol cooking oil yet. One or two regional refinements had slipped in since his last visit he noticed - the Samurai Burger whatever that was, and the aforementioned Spicy Chicken - but that was OK. It lent an exotic touch to the familiar menu and made you feel a bit like you were in a foreign country.
The menu is in two languages, Thai and English, but other than that and a few other local promotional touches, it's all very clean, comfortable and reassuring - exactly what you look for when you go abroad. The Thais seem to have taken to fast food as well. Good to see them putting on a bit of weight. Bread and potatoes - they loved it - bringing in the kids and putting a smile on their cute little faces with the free balloons - nothing wrong with that. Ah the good old Golden Arches and there was Ronald himself on a bench with a cute little Thai baby being photographed on his hard, yellow, plastic lap -
"Thank you." Bert smiles. By golly - he's even starting to get the hang of the language.
* * *
Noi was able to report that things were all going according to plan. Kop had got himself transferred to the freezer room faster than anybody expected and he seemed to like the work. Just that morning he had helped unload a truck. Noi had watched from a distance as Kop carried boxes into McDonalds for stacking in the freezer, Grade A Frozen Meat Patties, French Fries, Old English Cheddar Cheese Slices - Semtex... fuses
* * *
Those French Fries weren't half bad thinks Bert. He might order some more. Perhaps another BigMac then - holyshit... what the fuck is this?!? Doors at both ends of the restaurant burst open and suddenly the place is full of heavily armed Thai soldiers - some kind of SWAT team everywhere it looks like. A bunch of them rush into the kitchen then next thing they've got a Thai kid in handcuffs and people are being hustled out of the building. The McDonalds is on the ground floor of a shopping plaza and pretty soon a sizable crowd is milling around outside in the street and on the beach. Bert finds himself standing by some young McDonalds employees.
"What happened?" he asks a girl with a Supervisor badge.
"Boy no good." Says the supervisor pointing across the street where some cops are manhandling the Thai kid into a truck.
Bert is pleased to notice that Burger King, two doors down, is unaffected by the commotion. He's still hungry. Would a Whopper get along OK with a partially digested BigMac he wonders? Good time to find out. A beer would be nice too. Something to wash it down. Maybe he can sneak one from the 7/11 into the Burger King - probably be no problem at all - hey this is Thailand.