A Debt of Honour
by Mike Bell
Yongyut was not at all happy with his new nickname: Pattaya’s Most Hated. He blamed it on his father for encouraging his money-lending activities when he was a youngster. It started innocently enough; he saved his pocket money and, to the delight of his father, bought one of the first Harry Potter books translated into Thai. After he had devoured it he began lending it out to his classmates at ten or twenty baht a time. The price was dependent on the speed of the reader. Occasionally a reader went over his allotted time. Very occasionally Yongyut was forced to get physical to recoup his book or the extra money. His father never knew of this side of the business.
From here it was a small step to begin lending out money out to those with less generous allowances than his. Sometimes even the richer boys would come to him through a lack of forward planning or thought. Naturally there was a small interest charge which climbed alarmingly after the deadline day was missed. It was amazing how quickly a debtor saw a small loan of two hundred baht soar to five times that yet Yongyut carefully explained the debt in advance and on paper to which the borrower had to sign. His wealth increased in direct proportion to his waning popularity.
There were dozens of hard luck scenarios circulating round the villages which sent poor farmers to his house: too little rain; too much rain; an unexpected wedding; a medical condition; a motor bike accident. What had started as a service became his life. Occasionally he had to pay strong men to collect payments. After the fire he took these men with him to Pattaya.
It was not a suspicious fire at all: it was clearly arson. The house and car were destroyed. His dog was burnt to death along with all the loan agreements and ledgers of outstanding debts. Yongyut estimated there were fifty thousand reasons why someone would pour petrol over another man’s car and house. He lived with his doting father until the insurance money came through then moved to the bigger stage.
He had not expected Pattaya to have been parceled out already. He knew from his research that the Third Road area was a hotbed of drug activity. There were many customers in need who would sign their name to any paper to ensure their next fix. The existing loan sharks did not take kindly to such another setting up on their patch. The fights were fierce, bloody and occasionally fatal. Then they stopped and Yongyut’s patch was assured and unthreatened.
She came to him early one evening as he sat smoking on the terrace of Cherry’s restaurant and observing his fiefdom. Yat was short but held herself proudly and appeared taller. Naturally she needed money – her baby was sick.
Yongyut saw the pain behind her eyes yet her voice was clear and steady with no hint of the whining desperation evident in so many of his clients. He really hoped she could keep up the payments from the proceeds of her noodle store on the corner of Soi Exzite. Of course she didn’t – she couldn’t keep pace with the rapidly rising interest charges.
At first she sweetened her inability to pay with a bowl of noodles every Monday her money was to be paid. Yongyut hoped the noodles would be delicious enough to allow her to defer payment indefinitely. Unfortunately there was nothing special about the meal. In an idle moment, he wondered lasciviously if there was another way of working off her debt.
Her response to such tentative inquiries was immediate and fiery. Her dark eyes flashed in the lamplight. “There are many such girls in Pattaya - I am not one of them. Many customers, farang and Thai have told me I could earn more on my back than on my feet.” She lowered her head and softened her tone, “I married for love. My husband was a soldier who served his country in Songkla. The army sent his body back to me in two pieces.”
Yongyut left hastily and ashamed. He cursed his father’s pride in his son’s success. He considered overlooking her debt out of song saan, pity. Even as the thought crossed his mind, he shook his head in rejection, his reputation would not bear it; his employees would see it as a sign of weakness.
He took longer than usual in deciding what her punishment should be. It had to encourage her to try more desperate measures to meet the repayments. He, could not, therefore, disfigure her face in case she changed her mind about becoming a bar girl. Damaging her noodle store would merely take away the pitiful weekly amount she was paying. He decided her weakness was the child; after all the money was to save her baby’s suffering.
Rather than send one of his hired hands who might handle the matter less delicately than was necessary, Yongyut went to her lodgings himself. She let him in without surprise. The room was adequate; everything neat and tidy. A small fan barely disturbed the sweet-smelling air. The child was swaddled in blankets on a mattress in the corner. He had originally intended merely to frighten her without hurting the child. Glancing meaningfully at the motionless bundle, he spoke menacingly, “This has to be done.” His voice was cracked, his mouth dry. It had been a long time since he had done his own threatening.
Yat showed no fear, even smiled rather sadly. “You will have to kill me before you can harm my baby, any more.” Her words stung him into action and he strode to the bundle in the corner. Roughly he unwrapped the child and stared into its wizened face. Its sightless eyes stared back at him. The sweetness of decay assailed his nostrils. He could dimly hear the distraught mother’s words, coming to him across a great void.
“Three weeks ago, I did not have enough money for her medication and you. I chose to honour my debt and chance my baby’s illness would not worsen. I chose unwisely.”
Yongyut put down the tiny body, gently on the mattress. He turned towards the door, unable to look into Yat’s anguished face. Barely trusting his own voice, he passed her by and murmured, “Your debt to me is paid.”