THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Jack always thought the Australian post-office was glad to see him go. The severance pay was more than he had expected and the pension enough to afford him a comfortable existence in Pattaya North Side. A couple of months of the good life had his weight up twenty-pounds and his appetite for beer around ten-bottles a day. Khem must have liked overweight Aussies who passed wind on the baht-bus and scratched their arm pits on a regular basis. She had Jack, and she was obviously enchanted with his ways.
Jack and Khem were married in June. Not only because Khem was expecting a little fudge colored bundle of joy, but because they got on very well together and he didn’t think anyone else would have him anyway. She never complained about his desire for beer and he never complained about her desire for new clothes, jewellery and money for her family in the province.
They stood in front of a realtor shop in a soi leading to Beach Road. She was in her eighth-month so she stood a little further away from the window than Jack. Jack picked his nose as he remembered how much he had left of his lump sum. The girl in the bank had made up his account book to date and the withdrawals told their own story; a falang who was involved and was paying for it. But there was still some left to buy a cheap house.
The cheapest house in the realtor’s shop window was too expensive and they went into the office and asked if there were any houses cheaper. The agent was helpful and advised Jack to either buy a small boat and live on the Chao Praya river
or build his own house. Jack chose to build one as, owing to his beer drinking, he might end up more times in the river than on the boat. He gave the agent the third degree for the next half-hour to get the process and costs, and walked out the realtor’s office a happier man. Apparently, it was possible to build his house by cutting a few corners to save money.
That evening Jack sat at the table in the small apartment and did the maths. First, cut out the architect. Jack knew he could draw building plans. He had won a drawing competition when he was twelve; admittedly, the drawing of Muriel Spank, a girl in his class, wasn’t a working design but it proved he could handle a pencil. You can either draw or you can’t. He had also worked on building sites when he was eighteen so he thought he knew the process.
Jack showed the first perspective drawing to Khem. She liked the front fence and the flat roof and asked him what the sticks were for. He told her that was Jack and Khem, and that he was good at drawing matchstick men as well as houses. The building plans were finished the next week and Jack went back to the realtor to buy some land. The same negotiator told Jack there was some land, just enough for a house, a few miles from Pattaya, in Ban Bungin.
Jack and Khem went to see the land. It was small but enough for a house. Jack told Khem that she would have to be careful when she opened the windows as the surrounding trees would be close on that side, and the wall of the glue factory would prevent the windows from fully opening on the other side; still, she had the electric fan if it got too hot.
Jack couldn’t do any of the building work and asked the realtor if he knew a good builder. Jack couldn’t pronounce Jatukamramthep’s name without spitting, so he called him Bill. Jack wondered why Khem found it easy to pronounce those long names; the Thai food must have special qualities.
Jack rode in Bill’s van to the site and Bill asked Jack several questions pointing at the trees and making mimics about cutting the branches off, and several other signs that could have meant extra money for preparing the site and his concern about the closeness of the glue factory. Jack kept nodding. His Thai was limited to Singha, cop-coon-crap, and sawadee mate. Bill had the plans and seemed happy to do the work, and the site meeting ended on a handshake. Bill had been recommended by a reputable realtor, a Pommy, but nevertheless a reputable Pommy. So Bill should be capable of building a little house.
Jack was due to go to Sydney on the Monday and left the plans with Khem to give to the builder. The trip was going to be a long one; twelve-weeks or more. His itinerary included a visit to his daughter on the gold coast, dispose of some property in Melbourne, and go to a funeral in Alice Springs; he had known Bluey, God rest his soul, since they were six. They had even shared a cell together when they were eighteen. Jailed for something they didn’t do. All five of them were framed. That girl consented; in fact, she asked for it, someone heard her. Although, thinking back, Jack thought she might have just shouted that phrase out of surprise when she saw Bluey urinating against a car.
He scraped together the cash for his three month air fare and Khem waved goodbye, she told him she would oversee the builder’s work and not to worry.
The months rolled by and Jack returned to Pattaya on the last day of his ticket; Khem, and the new baby met him at Bangkok airport. He slept in the taxi and it was late in the evening when they got to the apartment. His first question to Khem in the taxi was, “How is the house?”
“The house is okay,” she said.
“What’s the baby’s name?”
She smiled with pride and said, “Ramkamhaeng Phrom-Borirak Supsampantuwongse. Nickname, Ram.”
“Is it a Sheila?” Jack asked.
“No,” Khem said, putting away her Australian/Thai dictionary. “It’s a boy.”
The next morning Jack looked around the apartment at the stacks of boxes. The furniture van was due in the afternoon and the last of the nick-nacks were laid out ready for packing. Jack looked at Khem as she drank her breakfast soup. He was proud of her. She had completed a task many women would never have taken on. She had overseen the building of their new home, paid all the bills, and found time to have a baby boy.
Jack wanted to see the house before the furniture van arrived, so they caught the baht-bus, which stopped a hundred-yards from the land before it turned off. Jack and Khem approached the front. The house was very close to the glue factory as Jack had expected and the trees on the other side were all lopped enough for the windows to open. The house fitted perfectly into the gap.
“Do you like it?” Khem asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a bit crooked.”
“I like it,” Khem said. “You see how the builder added those nice steps to the front door?”
“It’s lucky he put those steps there,” Jack said. “He’s build the bloody thing upside down.”