from Having a Wonderful
A Visit to Phyllis
Alan said, ‘It’s embassy business,’ so when I visited Phyllis, I had the embassy Volvo and Khun Weerapong drove me. Weerapong was Alan’s driver. He wore white shirts with a pleat in the back and smart black trousers. He was tall and Thai thin; he walked with his shoulders pulled back and his chin tilted up. Alan said, ‘He’s not popular amongst the Thai embassy staff,’ but Weerapong was a good driver and the Volvo had beige leather seats.
Weerapong drove past our guard who recorded everyone going in and going out in his red book. He drove right up to the seven steps of turquoise tiles and the carved teak double doors of the residence. I came out when I was ready. Weerapong opened the car door for me – the door behind the driver’s seat. I used to walk to take the front passenger seat but he’d shake his hands over it and say, ‘Mais dais, mais dais’ [cannot, cannot]; there’d be papers there. He had planted them, I figured, so I’d learn my place behind him. Alan told me that the bodyguard sits beside the driver.
On the motorway Weerapong effortlessly passed the tourists in their taxis going to the airport. They were squashed in. I imagined them wearing their pants in ‘free-size’, with their bags full of bargains: shiny Thai silk that’s 100 per cent acetate and pashmina shawls that take three months to pucker into 100 per cent acrylic pills.
I felt like royalty, as if I should wave, but I was only the ambassador’s wife, my nails were not French polished and I didn’t have a designer dress. I wore trousers to visit Phyllis, something in weird colours so she would roll her eyes and say, ‘Oh God, Penny, just like you to wear lime green with red.’
Phyllis wore blue every time: a blue skirt and a crisply ironed shirt with three white bars stitched on her pocket. The bars meant she was good. Phyllis drove this way to the airport eight years ago but she missed her flight. Phyllis had 250 grams of heroin taped to her thighs. ‘What did the heroin look like?’ I asked her. I wanted to know if it had leaked out like icing sugar when they tore the tape off. ‘I never saw it,’ she shrugged. ‘The packet was hard, solid and yellow. It looked like a lump of cheese.’
I never knew how she would be, happy, sad or sick. She wasn’t allowed to phone me. She wasn’t allowed to phone anyone, ever. I thought it must be strange to have never used a phone in eight years. Sometimes when we talked I felt as if we were using the phones children make with polystyrene cups and string. Because it was hard to hear Phyllis through the small holes in the Perspex wall separating us, I tilted my ear to her face when she talked and when I talked she turned her ear to mine. If the guard was away from her desk, I sat on the bench that said Do Not Sit, where I could get closer and hear better.
One time when I visited Phyllis she wore sunglasses. I thought she was trying to look cool. ‘Hey Dude,’ I said, but when she took them off I saw she had conjunctivitis, her eyes were like a basset-hound’s. She told me the infection was rife throughout her block since four prisoners with the infection had been moved there. Phyllis slept top to tail in a concrete room with 280 women. With only a few ceiling fans, tropical, sticky nights spread infections – top to tail.
On this visit Phyllis said, ‘It’s like being with the walking dead in here.’ She sounded worn. ‘Sometimes, I think I’ve seen the worst thing I could ever see in here, and then there’ll be something worse to beat it.’ She shook her head and told me about the prisoners with AIDS. ‘Their friends, they try and keep them going because they know once they go to the prison hospital, well, life’s over then.’ Even in a Thai jail you’ve got to keep life going to the end. Maybe especially in a Thai jail you’ve got to keep your friends going.
I thought about AIDS victims living in a prison and how they were like the walking dead. Phyllis didn’t go on to tell me what she’d seen because she read my face. She told me a cheery story about Mama Ghana instead. Mama Ghana who was pulled aside at lock-up time and told that she was going home that day, that hour, that minute, and how the news spread throughout her cell block, ‘Mama Ghana, Mama Ghana – home.’ Then through the barred windows to the next block, ‘Mama Ghana, Mama Ghana – glap bahn,’ ascending to a chorus from 4,000 women.
When we said goodbye it was Hollywood style; I put my hand on the Perspex and she matched mine, then I asked her if she would like something from the prison shop. I could buy food and toiletries there that were passed on to her. She never asked for much, some chicken, perhaps some toilet paper or hand-cream. She specified the brand; smell was important to Phyllis.
Weerapong waited while I went to the prison shop, then he opened my door and drove me home. I liked to visit Phyllis. There was no face to control with Phyllis, no special ambassador’s wife smile, no tight fitting Thai silk suit with my hair in a bun. But because it was just Penny and Phyllis, two New Zealand women from Wellington, I felt as if I’d visited a friend with a terminal illness.
As we passed through the gates my guard checked me in again and Weerapong drove me to the grand entrance of my rented home. He opened my car door.
I pressed in the alarm code and walked past the white couches and silk cushions and into the family dining room; the children were just back from school.
‘I think I should have more pocket money,’ said Elsie as I walked in. She was eating pomelo and reading the Bangkok Post at the mahogany table, teenage slim and pretty in her white school blouse and short check skirt. I knew she would have a speech ready, a prepared list of needs: the cost of a coffee and a new skirt.
I got in first. I dropped my bag. I yelled and my fingers pointed, my hands jerked staccato, ‘You’re just a spoilt rich kid, you get too much money now anyway, you don’t deserve to get anything, what do you do around here, you’ve got a maid who makes your bed, you don’t even take your own cups back to the kitchen.’ Elsie sat, still. I stood, still, but I felt better for yelling and my face relaxed, my arms came to my side and I exhaled, ‘I’ve just seen Phyllis.’
She got up, walked over and hugged me as if she was my mum; she patted my back. She said, ‘I’m sorry.’
A Model Reflecting
When I was 20 my mother said that I would never get married if I didn’t wear lipstick, so I rang her and told her I was going to be a model in a real fashion show.
I walked to the Skytrain for my measuring at a Thai fashion house that made garments for Miss Universe and Thai socialites. Sandra, the wife of the Slovakian ambassador, said they would make our outfits. ‘Anything you want,’ she said, ‘as long as it’s in Thai silk.’ Thai silk is stiff, shiny and noisy to wear. ‘Sawat di kha.’ I said hello to the motorbike taxi boys at the corner. While they waited for passengers they plucked the hairs from their chins in their bike mirrors and squatted on the footpath to play checkers. They played on a hand-drawn piece of cardboard with Coke and beer bottle tops for counters. I sometimes watched them and chatted. They liked me. Not because I was a beautiful model, but because once, when I walked past with a bag of mangos, I became their interpreter.
They were having problems understanding three Indian tourists. We never had many tourists this end of Sukhumvit road. They wanted to go by motorbike to Wat Phra Kaew, then on to Wat Po, but they called it by the tourist names, The Grand Palace and The Reclining Buddha, which the motorbike taxi boys didn’t understand.
I organised it in my best Thai. Sometimes my second language flowed. But when two of the younger biker boys put their arms around each other and leant together laughing, I thought they could have been laughing at my Thai.
After that day I helped them with other matters. When the older guy didn’t wear his helmet on short runs down our street, I told him off; if he saw me and wasn’t wearing it, he waved and smiled so I could see all his white teeth.
When the Skytrain came I scanned the carriage straight away to look for the girl. Statistically she would be there, one to a carriage, a Thai girl so beautiful she would make me sigh. The sort of girl who could be a model, like me. And if you were lucky, you saw something surprising on the Skytrain – like a guy in an army uniform wearing a pink crotchet shoulder bag with pearly beads.
The fashion house was a short walk from Station Ratchadamri. In the window there were three beaded evening gowns with matching silk purses and silk shoes. In the main room behind them I saw a huge Grecian-style pillar. It stood beside a wide movie-style staircase that wound to a tiny mezzanine floor.
I went in and met the organiser, Khun Ari. She took my hand flimsily. She was thrilled that I was going to model her clothes. I kissed the other models. One kiss on one cheek, that’s how models did it, and ambassadors’ wives, for although I was going to be a model, it was only because I was married to the New Zealand ambassador. In Thailand, society people wanted to watch ambassadors’ wives be fashion models. Sandra, who was young enough to tell us she was 35, knew this and had the very good idea to organise a charity fashion show. She touched my shoulder with one hand, gestured with the other, and with her appealing accent said, ‘People will flock to see us and pay lots of money – it will be so much fun.’
There were mirrors everywhere in the main room; they were even in the toilet, straight in front so I had to watch myself. While I was sitting, I practised the miffed-model look. I needed to practise. I had never modelled before.
I was first to be measured. Two young assistants with measuring tape and papers went with me into a small yellow room where three of the walls had floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The women were young, slim, and fully-dressed, everything I was not. Measuring was done in underwear.
This fashion house wanted my measurements to make a perfect 3-D muslin clone of my body to fit on a mannequin. They needed many perfect measurements to make this.
That morning I had put on honest underwear, no padding or squashing in – something that would give an accurate measurement over my clothes. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights my comfortable, skin-coloured, Elle McPherson bra looked a grubby beige. My white lycra and lace underpants were alarmingly transparent and brief. With my shoes on I looked like a stripper. With them off I looked like the ‘before’ picture in a weight loss programme. One woman wordlessly adjusted my bra. I wondered how long had I been wandering the streets of Bangkok, chatting to motorbike boys, and all the time, lop-sided.
When I was in a straight line, I was measured, nipple to nipple, then nipple to shoulder. The women wrapped the tape about all parts of my body and called out numbers to fill in their forms. With the mirrors, my exposed body, the two pretty women, I felt uneasy. I felt a little as if I was in a porn movie. When they were down to measuring my waist there was a knock on the door. Now I really felt I was in a porn movie. This would be a Western man with an enormous penis. ‘Kao dais mais?’ [Can I come in?] said a woman’s voice. ‘Mais dais’ [Cannot], I said, only half-joking.
Now I was standing in my underwear with three young Thai women and still the bright lights and three floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The woman joining us had come to watch. The first thing she said was, ‘I’m taller than you,’ which I thought was unfair because I had taken off my shoes and she had hers on.
While my thigh was measured the woman who watched cheerfully told me that ‘normal’ was 20 inches, and my thigh was three inches over that. Each thigh. I was alarmed. I remembered a time when I had a 24-inch waist, now I had 23-inch thighs. ‘Heart shaped,’ she said in Thai. My Thai wasn’t good enough to understand, so she sketched a heart. The round mounds at the top were the thighs – the point, the ankles. We all laughed, all four of us, in a tiny yellow room with the mirrors. Then they measured my knees. I looked in the mirror; I was a model reflecting at every possible angle.
When they finished and were still filling in the boxes, I dressed and got out. I now had my ‘conference’ with Khun Ari. Remembering the evening gowns in the window, I settled on silk trousers with a knee-length jacket. I looked at magazines for ideas; other wives of ambassadors found inspiration in the real thing. From back rooms, two assistants carried out designer gowns for them to try on.
Madame Switzerland was an Australian called Frieda. She said she looked good in cream and was first dressed in cream. Frieda had been an ambassador’s wife for many years. Frieda wrote lengthy articles about her travels around Asia that were printed in the International Women’s Magazine and the Australian and New Zealand women’s magazine, Intouch. She expected people to read them and take her advice; we should all have holidays like Frieda’s. If we missed a sight she had written about she would say, ‘Well, you should have read my article.’ Thing was, I always did. I loved reading Frieda’s writing. She lay down for a repose when she had a nap and saw brightly sparkling Yuletide adornments instead of Christmas decorations.
Frieda smiled a lot into her thick Gold Coast tan and wore her blonde hair pulled to a ponytail with a clasp at the nape of her neck. She favoured white eye shadow and gold lipstick with a red outline and wore a tiger print top that day with a white skirt and gold sandals. She had just come from a posting to Hong Kong where she told me she had picked up clothes ‘for a few dollars’. She was once an aerobics instructor and had a model figure.
She came out in a glamorous gown, a flowing creation of silk, shiny beads and lace. She looked elegant, poised. The perfect ambassador’s wife. The perfect model. I imagined her underwear matched.
‘Catwalk,’ someone commanded. She did. She stuck out her sharp collarbone, tilted her head up and walked in even strides. She had mastered the superior model look I had tried in the toilet.
As if accusing her of cheating someone called out, ‘You’ve done this before.’
‘Yes,’ she beamed and smiled side on in a glamour pose.
I put my magazine down. I watched a small man with a large camera come out from a back room. He took photos of Frieda against the Grecian column at the foot of the grand staircase. After the model-on-her-own photos, the Thai staff lined up to have their photograph taken with her. I winced as I thought of the pictures hanging on their walls or in an album. ‘This is me with wife of the Swiss ambassador,’ they would say. Frieda’s smile did not falter. She tried on another three dresses and had photographs taken in each one.
Sandra, who wore a pair of skin-tight white trousers, platforms and a tight white T-shirt, changed into a wine-coloured gown that showed off her pale, plump breasts. ‘Your body looks fantastic in that gown,’ I said, ‘you’re so...so wow.’
‘Oh.’ She looked puzzled, opened her arms, gestured towards her awesome flesh and said, ‘Whenever I put on weight, it all goes on up here!’
Madame UK was inspired. She was a fair English rose with a snappish intellect and a BBC accent. ‘Brigitte Bardot,’ she said to Khun Ari at her conference, as if she was ordering Sandra’s breasts from a menu, ‘off the shoulder, sexy, lots of bosom.’ Which was all very well, but Madame UK was an A cup. I wanted to encourage her, though; go for it, I thought. ‘You could get a padded push up bra,’ I suggested.
‘I am wearing one now,’ she said.
I returned to my role as a silent voyeur. It was like watching children in a dress-up corner; even the dresses looked the same. But I had an appointment. I found Khun Ari, thanked her and explained I needed to leave. I had my photograph taken on the staircase by myself in my everyday wear; to assist the designer to visualise the thighs, I guessed. I said thank-you and goodbye again to Khun Ari but she clapped her hands and said, ‘No, no, there must be a group photo.’
Gowns were changed.
‘You should wear the cream one, Frieda.’
‘Mary, don’t worry if you can’t walk. It’s just a photo.’
I waited; I was now late.
‘I am sorry, I really must go.’
‘We’ll soon be ready,’ said Khun Ari. She looked me up and down. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to try on a gown?’
The ambassadors’ wives were eventually arranged at the base of the staircase, with the un-gowned Madame New Zealand hidden at the back. I waited.
‘Just one minute, just one photo,’ Khun Ari called. One photo was taken.
‘Just one more photo!’ We were rearranged. I was still in the back. The photo was taken, then I made my move, I had said goodbye and my smile was slipping to a sneer.
I pushed the door to hear, ‘And one with me in it,’ from Khun Ari.
I escaped like a truant. I watched my strong thighs speed me to the Skytrain around the corner. Thighs fed lovingly on New Zealand cheese and Canterbury lambs, thighs three inches too large, each one. They helped me escape from being an ambassador’s wife on Khun Ari’s living room wall.