Mithran Somasundrum: Excerpt from The Mask Under My Face


Chapter Nine

A family meeting is called. In Sirichai’s vast marble-floored sitting room, softly lit by many paper-shaded lamps—air-conditioned amber light inside and the hot night outside and drinks on tables and the servants gone—everyone apart from Surapat has gathered here to discuss Surapat. Sirichai is pacing in his house slippers, a glass of cognac cupped in one palm. He stops and swirls the glass, lowers his head, as though the fumes will provide the moment of striking insight that has up to now been lacking. At one end of a fat white sofa his wife sits, poised and alert, sipping a glass of white wine. At the other end of the long sofa, Benz, his daughter, is sitting cross-legged, in a skirt far too short for such a pose. She is the only one without a drink. Off to one side, in a fat white armchair, his oldest son, Noum, is taking ice cubes from a silver bucket and dropping them into a glass of beer. He brings his lips to the glass as the beer threatens to foam over.

“I would like everyone one in this room to start paying attention,” Sirichai says.

“We are,” says his wife. “We’re all listening.”  But this isn’t really what he means. He wants them to start paying attention to Surapat. To everything that Surapat has become and is becoming. He wants them to stop and pay attention to the last twenty-five years. Somewhere in that time are all the clues and minefields and missed opportunities; somewhere, hidden in his material success are all their collective failures.

“I mean …” says Sirichai and sighs. Sniffs his cognac again without drinking from it. “I mean pay attention to why these things keep happening to him.”

“Which is what I was saying,” says Benz. “Earlier. I did ask why does he keep doing this.”

“Do you have to sit like that?” asks Noum. “I can see your underwear from here.”

“And I’ve got a pervert for a brother,” Benz mutters, pushing her skirt down in front of her crotch.

“He’s right,” snaps her mother, “Sit properly. You’re not eight years old anymore.”

Benz stands, mutters something and stalks out. “Where are you going?” asks Sirichai. “Where is she going?” he asks the room.

“To get a drink, she said,” his wife replies.

Sirichai rolls his eyes and sips some of his cognac. It seems to him family meetings like this are a microcosm of everything that’s wrong. His house has been built like a fort to keep out wrongness. The silk Chinese-pattern wallpaper, the marble floor and the heavy gold clocks, the carved teak doors with cut glass handles, the Persian rugs, the compound walls tipped with metal spikes. It’s all supposed to be protecting them. Just like the security guards and the police officers they have on call. And yet so often he feels defenseless. As though there is a flimsiness to everything he owns.

“Perhaps now isn’t the time to be asking this,” says his wife. “Now’s the time to be practical.”

I’ve been practical my whole life, Sirichai wants to tell her, and look where it’s got me. Benz comes back in with a can of Diet Coke, a straw poking out of it. With an almost ceremonial precision, she picks up and positions an elephant-carved metal coaster on the small table by her side of the sofa. She places the can on the coaster and turns it just so. “Yes, we get it,” says Noum. “You’re the only one in the room who’s not drinking alcohol. Very good. Congratulations. Tell us about everything else you’re not doing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Stop that. Enough,” says Ann.

“I talk to people,” says Noum. “They know who you’re after. Really good choice.”

Benz’s eyes narrow and her mouth tightens. All of which is enough to tell Sirichai there is some nugget of further bad news in what his son has just said.

“That’s enough from both of you,” says his wife. “Your father didn’t call you here just to listen to you bicker.”  And she sips some more Riesling as her eyes go back to Sirichai, giving him the floor. Here he is again, saving her favourite child.

Sirichai paces and then says, “We have to think about more than what to do right now. We have to think about how to change Gai’s behaviour.”

“It’s his friends,” says Ann immediately. “Gan and that other one. They’re a bad influence on him.”

“They weren’t with him in Laos,” says Benz and immediately gets scowled at by her mother.

“I meant,” says Ann, “They’re the ones who’ve made him behave like this.”

Not us? thinks Sirichai. What have we made him behave like?  Again, he wonders how much of what’s happening to him is simply ghum from his previous life. Perhaps he should stop struggling against it. Perhaps he was fated to have children who would go bad. But even if he is swimming against karma, he can’t help himself. There is an invisible link from his son’s heart to his. Sirichai honestly believes that if one of his children were to die he would know. He would feel the psychic umbilical cord being cut. The sudden absence. He sips some more cognac and his mouth numbs. He says, “We can’t go on getting him out of trouble. Each time he does something the outrage is worse. You’ve seen the crowds at that temple. Can you imagine the reaction if they find out he’s gone to Laos and put a maid in hospital?

“Temporarily,” says Ann. “Temporarily in hospital. It’s not as though there was something life threatening.”

“They wired up her jaw. Her face was red and black.”  He stares down at his glass. “This man Bo, he sent me pictures.”

“Which could be of anyone. Who is she?  We don’t know this woman.”

Sirichai sighs, then drains his glass and crosses the room to the drinks cabinet. He slides up the gold dome and takes out the cognac decanter. Marvels at how the tea-brown liquid has been going down. It can’t just be him punishing it this way. He’s on the verge of asking Noum if he and his friends have been drinking the cognac, but he knows that’s only going to open the door to a second set of connected problems. Meanwhile, his wife looks put out at being ignored. “I’m just asking questions,” she calls over to him. “Questions that need to be answered. This man Bo’s been taking a lot of money from us. He’s become very rich by doing nothing more than providing our son with a hotel room. Which was probably sitting empty anyway. And now it seems he wants even more money.”  Sirichai returns with his drink to stand in front of the three of them. “We’re told to accept this story, but no one we know has actually spoken to this maid.”

“No, and do you know why that is?  Because she can’t speak. She’s taking her food through a straw right now. But I’ve seen the X-ray of her jaw with a crack straight across it. He did that with his foot, can you imagine?  A solid thing like a jaw bone and he kicked it hard enough to make it crack. And I’ve read her description of what happened. Bo sent a copy of that on to me as well, and then just for good measure he read it down the phone. She knocked on his door and he dragged her into the room by her hair, then started kicking her. Even after she was on the floor. ‘He wouldn’t stop kicking. I tried to cover my chest and my sides and he kicked me in the face.’  So I don’t really think what happened is an issue. We’re not going to discuss what he did to the maid, or how much I’m going to have to pay her, or even where that money is going to come from. We’re going to discuss why it is always our son who is doing this.”

His wife’s mouth opens in a silent, soundless ‘O’. There is a pure, talk-extinguished pause in the room and then Noum says, “And it’s everyone’s job, isn’t it?  To figure this out?  If I lose some money in a casino that’s not everyone’s job, that’s just my problem. But Gai, he’s the responsibility of all of us. Why is that, father?  Because he’s younger?  Because his mistakes are worse?  If I was to—”

“Shut up.” Benz says it quietly, not looking at Noum but staring at the Persian rug in front of her. “Not everything has to be about you. Show our father some respect.”

Noum leans forwards and places his elbows on his knees. “You know, I’ve been wondering, this whole look you’ve got. Are you really a slut, or is the idea just to look as much like one as possible?”

Now Benz turns to him. She stares, slams the Coke can back on the coaster and stalks out of the room.

“Don’t speak to you sister like that,” Ann tells him, and then goes after her.

Noum sighs, and still with his elbows on his knees, cups his chin in his palms. “That was a very cruel thing to say,” says Sirichai. “When your sister comes back I want you to apologise.”

“I always say the wrong thing, don’t I?” says Noum glumly, still leanings forwards, looking not at Sirichai but at the now empty sofa in front of him. “I always miss the mood. The tone.”  They can hear the muffled voices of mother and daughter from elsewhere in the house. Benz’s comes at a high, tear-laden pitch. Noum says, “On Mother’s Day, when we were kids, Benz and I would always make an effort. Buy her something, or prepare breakfast in bed, you remember?  We’d fix up together what we were going to do. And Gai wouldn’t help. He’d do nothing at all. And then in the morning he’d turn up and say there was nothing he could buy or do that would show how important she was to him. How she was his whole world. And you could see her loving it, you could just see it in her face. If I tried that it would be, ‘You’re the eldest and you couldn’t be bothered to do anything for your mother.'”

“Your mother and I love all three of you equally. You should know that by now.”

Still without looking at his father, Noum sips some more beer. “She doesn’t. And maybe I deserve it. I suppose some people are less loveable than others. Though being less loveable than Gai is quite an achievement.”

Sirichai stares at his cognac and thinks, where did this well of self-loathing come from?  He wonders if it’s the reason Noum gambles, to be seized by something, by an excitement that will blank out his sense of himself. Not for the first time, he wonders if sending him off to a temple would be good. Somewhere in a forest where he’ll just sit and meditate all day. But his son has, with great ceremony, already done a week in the monkhood, and Sirichai knows he won’t go back. And Surapat hasn’t, so of course that will be another grievance dug out of Noum’s soul and brought up to the light. Sirichai sips from his brandy balloon and thinks, maybe it’s the servants. Maybe it’s been going down so fast because the servants are drinking it.

Ann comes back into the room leading Benz by the hand. She is red-eyed but composed. “I’m sorry,” says Noum, looking up at her. “I’m sorry I said that.”  She sniffs in reply and settles herself on the sofa.

“So we should go back,” says Sirichai. “I want us to go back to thinking about Gai.”

“Is he here yet?  In Bangkok?” Ann asks.

Sirichai nods. “Probably. He’s probably here by now. But you can’t see him or talk to him. No one can. And they’ve taken his phone away, just in case.”

“My poor son,” says Ann.

“Is this a good idea?” Noum opens his hands. “Here of all places?”

“He can’t wait over the border. Nhong Kahi is too small, someone will spot him. And you look at what people will say, at what they’re writing. No one expects him to still be in Bangkok. But of course, that’s the point.”  He swirls his glass. “He can’t stay here.”

“So?” asks his wife.

Sirichai sighs and steels himself. Now he’s reached the edge of the cliff. Now he has to jump.”As I’ve been saying to you all, we have to think about why this happens. How to change his behaviour. Plus, the other thing is that people aren’t going to drop this. I suppose you can say …” He opens his free hand, “…that part of it is money. Some people don’t like us. They don’t like our family or they don’t like us supporting Duang …”

“And we’re all so likeable,” says Noum.

“So they use their influence, they keep this story in the papers. I’ve talked to people and I know there are editors getting instructions from higher up.”  He sips some cognac and is surprised to find he is reaching the end of his second glass. And yet, I don’t drink a lot, he thinks. Look at me, I’m sober. I can’t be drinking a lot if I’m sober. “But it’s not the whole story. Ordinary people just don’t like—don’t like our son. They don’t like the idea of him killing a policeman and not being punished.”

“How can they think that when someone else has already admitted?” asks Ann. “The police have got a confession, he’s going to jail soon. They can see someone’s being punished.”

“Perhaps mother,” says Noum, “the people aren’t as stupid as we’d like them to be.”

Ann glares at him. “I’m not calling anyone stupid. And stop talking in that voice.”

“So maybe,” says Sirichai, “the solution to all this, in fact really the only way to do it, to give Gai a new start, is to let him go to jail for a while.”

What?” After asking the question his wife’s mouth stays open. Noum snorts. Benz continues to stare at the carpet.

Sirichai puts up his free hand. “Now wait. Just listen. Just listen to what I have to say. Duang has talked to some people in the police. Unofficially. And there are ways of doing this.”

“Of sending our son to prison?” says Ann.

“Wait, wait. What happens is, Gai comes back and he goes and pays his respects to the widow of this policeman. The newspapers will show him waiing to her and we will pay her something. It won’t need to be much, five or ten million will do. That’s probably more than she’s ever seen in her life. And she can say something to the press about forgiving him. And then, and I’ve been assured of this, they’ve assured me, Gai will get a very short sentence.”

“You mean suspended?” asks his wife.

“No. He will actually have to do time in jail.”

“I cannot believe you are suggesting this. For our son. Our flesh and blood.”

This, Sirichai thinks, is going about as well as he could have expected. “I’ve talked to people and they’ve told me he won’t be treated like a normal prisoner. He won’t have to eat prison food, for example. We can send him food from home. He can eat whatever he wants, from his favourite restaurants, if he likes. They’ve assured me of this. And the guards will look after him. At least one guard will be watching him the whole time. He’ll be protected.”

“I don’t think you can really protect someone inside a prison,” says Noum. “Not forever. There’s always ways of getting at people. Mind you,” he drains his glass with a rattle of ice cubes, “Gai did kill a policeman, so maybe he’ll be a big hit on the inside. Maybe he’ll find a new set of disciples and have his pick of all the best ladyboys. Maybe he’ll come back with friends for life.”

“This is not something to joke about,” says Ann, glaring at him. “We didn’t call this meeting just to sit here and listen to you make fun of your brother and insult your sister. If you don’t have any more sense of family than that you can leave, and we can all consider that you are not a member of this family.” Noum mutters into his melting ice cubes. “What was that?”

“I said, ‘And I’m the one in the wrong.'”

“Yes. You are. Your brother made a mistake, but he’s not here with us. You’re here and you’re supposed to be helping him.”  Noum puts down his glass and stares away from them all, at the Chinese wallpaper, at the gold-plated wall clock with its gold hands, at the window in the far wall, but it’s night ouside and the plate glass is a mirror, throwing back a reflection of the huge room and the four small figures captured inside it. “And what about his sleeping arrangements?” Ann continues. “How does that work?”

“They can’t just give him his own room,” says Sirichai. “It’s not a hotel, and I don’t think the guards’ accommodation is all that great.”

“You’re saying he’s going to be in a shared cell? Is that it? Sleeping on the floor in a room so crowded he has to lie on his side. And in shackles?And do his business over a hole in the ground?”

“It won’t be a long sentence, they’ve told me. A few months.”


“This is a good deal for killing a policeman. A normal person would get years, maybe even the death penalty.”

“It’s not a good deal for my son.”

“I think father’s right,” Benz says, and finally looks up at them. “Gai needs something like this. A shock to the system, or else he’s never going to change.”

“You think that, do you?”asks Ann in a voice of icy precision. “And can I ask what shocks this family has ever inflicted on your system?”

Benz looks away from her and says to the Persian rug, “I haven’t killed anyone.”

“And Gai killed who? Some policeman who was probably selling yaa baa in a nightclub. The newspapers talk about this man as though he’s a hero. No one asks how he could have afforded to be there. No one asks where his money came from. Gai has probably made our country a better place by getting rid of him.”

“No one thinks it’s a better place,” says Sirichai.

“Really, and no one is who? These people watching their soap operas and ogling the front page of Thai Rath, and gossiping in the market and believing every little thing the television tells them. These are the people who are going to decide the fate of my son, and apparently I’m the only one who is going to protect him from them.”

“Darling, that’s not the case,” says Sirichai.

“And protect him from all of you, it seems. Well if I have to I will.”

“You know that’s not what we’re doing,” says Sirichai. “It’s a family decision. A decision from all of us on what’s best for Gai. And if you don’t agree—”

“Fine. Then I don’t agree. I don’t agree with sending our son to prison.”

Ann sits back with her arms crossed and in the room there is a silence that seems to glow with the aftershock of her anger, like the blue after-image thrown by a flashbulb. Finally, Benz says, “So …what do we do then?”

“The other possibility,” says Sirichai, “Is to get him out of the country again. But this time he has to go much further. Somewhere outside of ASEAN. Somewhere that’s not like here, that doesn’t feel like here. Where people don’t …maybe don’t take care of him like here. But somewhere that’s basically safe.” And now Ann’s expression softens. Now that he is again saving the things she loves. “It’s possible that if he stays out for two or three years, people will eventually forget. Or at least they’ll have other things to think about.”

“And where’s this?” asks Ann.

“England. It’s got to be somewhere English speaking, he doesn’t know any other languages. And we have a contact at the London Embassy.”

“This is perfect.”

Sirichai puts up a palm, holding off her gratitude. “It’s not at all simple. To get a visa for long enough he needs a karratchagarn passport. It’s got to have ‘Official’ written on the front.”

“And we can get one?” asks Ann, arching her back, leaning towards him very slightly. A pose that even now Sirichai finds sexy. It’s the way she looked when she asked him about the new swimming pool. Poised at the moment of surrender, waiting to be delighted.

“We can. Duang can find someone. There’s an official Gai can pass for, and this man has relatives in London. But the problem is money. The cost of this is huge. The number of people who have to be paid for their help and the paid for their silence. I don’t have this much ready cash.”

“We can raise it. We have land we don’t even use. In Ratchburi. The house on Khao Yai that no one ever visits.”

Sirichai shakes his head. “They’ve already told me. They don’t want land like that.” He sighs. “They want the casino. They want half, half of my stake. I’m still putting up the money, you understand, but they’ll get half my profits.”

“But this is perfect.” Her smile couldn’t be any wider. “Isn’t it?  Isn’t it perfect?  You won’t even have to give up anything you’ve already got.”

“I’ll be giving up part of my future. I’m still going to pay my share of the construction—which is huge—and now I’ll only get fifteen percent.”

“Darling! Fifteen percent of a big number is still a big number. We’ve talked about this, about how popular it’s going to be. Everyone wants a legal casino.” She pauses. “Don’t they?”

Sirichai concedes that they do, that it is, and concedes that no one will ever see how this casino was going to be his New World. The project that shot him up the Forbes rankings, that put him in the billionaires club. That gave him the respect of the only people who matter, the people who are richer and better connected than he is.

“If it’s just a question of money, then really. Money to protect our son.”

And Sirichai reflects that it’s always “just money.” Just money—mostly—to get a beautiful, sought-after wife; just money to provide his children with a future; just money to provide them with opportunities to go wrong and just money to get them out of trouble when they do. His life’s path has been paved with the simplest of materials.


Read Mithran’s interview with WIPs about his novel in progress, The Mask Under My Face