Uncle Edward by Mike Bell
Mary was the rock on which Edward Tyson’s marriage was built. When she died it was assumed he would founder; his children thought within two years. Mary had taken all the big decisions; when to have children; their names; which schools they would attend; the family holiday destinations. All Edward had to do was provide the money which he had by his work as a teacher. When his wife became terminally ill, Edward took early retirement to care for her. When she died he discovered his pension had been severely diminished. It left him precious little to live on; in truth, he had precious little to live for.
He could have given up the ghost. He could have resigned himself to a short slide into an early grave. He didn’t do either. Showing a remarkable resilience of character, he decided to emigrate. He could not have said how Thailand popped into his head. He and Mary had once spent a fortnight in the sunshine of Samui. He had never even heard of Pattaya until his decision had been taken and he began to research his possible destinations.
He knew he would have to teach again. He had lost his spark in the grey classrooms of a northern Comprehensive. Increasingly his thoughts turned towards primary education: the students were more easily moved to laughter; more grateful for his efforts. With his academic qualifications and considerable experience, he quickly found his way to the Regents School , the premier International school on the outskirts of Pattaya. Here he re-discovered the zest that had once made him an inspirational teacher.
As the years ticked by, he became increasingly altruistic and determined to give more to the underprivileged of Thai society. He gave up teaching the children of wealthy parents and turned to those without; wealth or parents. He volunteered his services in local state schools; at orphanages; even in children’s wards in Government hospitals. For a while he felt fulfilled. He had always been quick with languages and quickly learned enough Thai to make his lessons rewarding.
The realization that he was friendless and lonely came to him at lunchtime one Tuesday. He could pinpoint the day exactly. After a working lifetime regimented by lesson bells every forty-five minutes, he lived his life by routines. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, he taught at Father Ray’s Redemptorist School. At lunch time he would indulge himself with a treat. He would sit and eat a plateful of pastries, sip a nutty coffee and read a Pattaya paper. That Tuesday, no paper had been delivered.
He gazed about him. His family rarely communicated with him as if he had gone into self-imposed exile. He had had friends when he first came but they died with alarming regularity. After Mary he had had little interest in women. Only his teaching offered him any consolation. His reverie was interrupted by a movement at the corner of his eye. He became aware that he was being observed or perhaps it was the two remaining cakes that drew the intent stare from two pairs of brown eyes.
Gazing in, their noses literally pressed against the window’s glass, were two little girls about six or seven years old. They were obviously sisters; they had the same severe haircut; the same serious expression; the same hungry gaze. He turned away and finished his coffee. He could not, as was his habit, finish off the cakes. Instead he had them put in a bag, paid his bill and went out into the bright sunshine. As he passed the girls, he shyly offered the bag to the older sister. She hesitated but the decision was made by the smaller girl who snatched the bag and began to devour a cake. The older girl stammered a thanks and gave in to her appetite.
They were waiting for him on Thursday. He vaguely wondered if they had observed him before. They stood outside and watched as he ordered his coffee and opened his paper. When he peeped round the corner of The Pattaya Times, he drew a smile from the younger girl. It became a game of peek-a-boo. When his coffee arrived, he put down his paper and, pointing to the cakes, beckoned them inside. The little one tore herself from her sister’s restraining hand and came in. She took the offered cake and was halfway through it before her sister sidled in next to her.
Edward invited them to sit and asked if they would like a drink. Again the young one answered for them both. He ordered two cokes. Nee was the older; Joy her confident partner. He got their life story between mouthfuls of cake. Their mother pushed a food-cart round the sois of Pattaya. They went to school locally, sometimes. There was no father. They ate only if there was any food left when their mother came home. Their eyes darted to the two remaining cakes. He chuckled to himself. ‘I needed to lose some weight anyway.’ And he pushed the plate across the table.
This pattern was repeated over the following weeks. He varied it by letting them order stuff from the menu. He found himself looking forward to their company. Their shyness was gone and they were totally at ease with him. After eating, Joy would snuggle up to him whilst he talked with Nee. He noticed they wore the same grubby shirts each day. One week he bought them a new yellow dress each and was delighted when they showed up the next week wearing it. He realized the girls filled some long dormant need in him. Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays did he feel truly fulfilled. In the deeper recesses of his mind, he wondered how easy it might be, with their mother’s permission, to formally adopt the whole family.
Over the long weekend without them, he began to make tentative inquiries. His condo in Jomtien was far too small and on a high floor: too dangerous for young children. For the same rent, he could have a three-bed roomed bungalow on a nice estate on the East of Sukhumvit. He had an agent show him one on Perfect Homes estate. It had a lovely swimming pool with a children’s safe area. There was a good school close by. He needed to meet their mother soon.
He knew something was wrong on the following Tuesday. Ordinarily they would be waiting for him, bubbling with life and excitement. He sat down at their usual table. He put the bag with their new shoes in it on the floor, ordered his coffee and waited. He did not wait long.
The two men were unmistakably police. The farang even wore his Tourist police uniform together with an expression of undisguised contempt. Without preamble he blurted out the reason for their visit. ‘What are you, some kind of pervert? What you doing with them two little girls?’ The Thai was more reserved, even shocked at his colleague’s outburst. He explained they were acting on a tip-off that two little girls were in danger of being exploited. He accepted that nothing untoward had happened, yet. He felt it wiser that Edward discontinue his relationship with the girls.
Edward’s face burned with shame and his eyes pricked with unshed tears of indignation and loss. In vain, he tried to explain about adoption; the house with a garden close to a school; the joy the girls brought to his empty life. His voice faltered in the face of the farang’s curled lip. He rose abruptly and blundered from the café for the last time. His head reeled at the injustice done to him. In the lift going up to his condo on a high floor, he tried to cool his fevered brow on the cold metal walls. He knew what he must do now. There was a benefit from having a condo on a high floor.
Turning the key, he welcomed the cool rush of air from the permanently opened door to his balcony. Like a sleepwalker, his feet took him across the room towards the edge of mercy. He thought of Mary: she would never have let him come to this. He felt his body falling forward towards oblivion. And then, and then, through eyes blurred with tears of self-pity, he caught a flash of yellow; two tiny figures waving and shouting in the road below, their voices tinkling like cool water on his fevered brow.
Within a minute he was down at their side; their arms about him, pulling him towards a third figure who waited in the shadows. Her face was that of her children’s; more careworn, fatigued but somehow composed. ‘The police came. They wanted my girls to say bad things about you. They would not and they left angry.’ She paused as if it was something she had to ask even though she knew the answer. ‘Your thoughts about my daughters are entirely pure?’
As Edward nodded, hardly daring to speak, she continued in a rush. ‘The lady in the shop told us where you lived though I do not think we would have found you if you had not come out when you did.’ She stopped and, realizing she was babbling, covered her mouth with a hand.
He smiled and through dry lips, he murmured, ‘Yes it was pure luck, I came out on to the balcony when I did. Would you and the girls like some cake?’ He smiled again when she nodded their assent.