The Foreigner Chapter 1

  • 02 Aug 2015

          The murmur of the public behind him haunted him. Even though he didn’t know enough Thai to understand what they were saying he felt their gazes pricking like a thousand needle-points into his back, now drenched in sweat from the sweltering Thai afternoon, and just knew that they wanted to see him get the death penalty. Nic distracted himself by glancing up at the symbol of the court: a two edged dagger pointing downwards between a pair of scales. At the start of his trial he had asked his embassy representative about it and she had told him that, like in any court, it represents fair justice.
          “Is it supposed to be crooked?” Nic had asked.
          “No.” She answered, unaware or uninterested in the ill portent.
          Above the court symbol a portrait of the Thai king, a widely revered figure in Thailand, watched the proceedings with his penetrating gaze peering out keenly and filling the room with an added layer of reverence. At the beginning of the trial Nic had felt that the king’s large, wire-rimmed glasses, handsome face, and receding greying hair gave of air of a benevolent uncle and was consoled by the thought. Until he noticed that it too hung slightly crooked.
          The judges readied themselves in their seats. Nic’s glance darted from judge to judge, not knowing which was about to deliver his sentence. During the trial, which was conducted wholly in Thai and which he couldn’t follow, he had spent the time considering if two judges would be fairer than one…and if together they mete out more justice than a jury, a concept absent from the Thai judicial system.
          “So just two people are going to decide if I’m guilty? If I live or die?” He had asked his embassy representative, in desperation, in his briefing before the trial. “That’s…that’s…not right! Where is the justice in that?!”
          The embassy representative sighed. “Would you prefer to have an operation performed by twelve members of the public or one doctor with considerable expertise? The jury system is a Western model, why would they have it here?”
          “Because…it’s…because…” He couldn’t argue. He sighed and resigned his protest. Over the course of his year in Thailand he had been forced to acknowledge the fragile nature of so many of his certainties. Oftentimes from being broken; once belligerent oak boughs of universal absolutism cracked and hurled to the ground from the unexpected gale-force winds of another culture’s equally resolute certainties. What’s more, a culture he was the foreigner in. More often than not he had accepted these altered mores upon recognition that he had no choice but to. And yet, as the judges assumed their distinguished and formidable air appropriate for the occasion of deciding a man’s life, he was surprised to find himself concluding that he preferred the Thai two-judge system to the Western jury system.
          The male judge cleared his throat and read out the verdict in Royal Thai. Nic had been informed that a translation would shortly follow but, nevertheless, strained his ears attempting to catch some words. However, despite his year in Thailand his language level didn’t extend beyond a few words and fixed expressions, especially given the overly formal register the judge had employed, so his ears soon surrendered to the machine-gun discharge of foreign noise that was communicating his fate. Nic rested his handcuffed wrists on the cage that served as the dock and watched as the tension among the prosecuting team, sitting to the judges’ right, broke into claps and smug smiles. For confirmation he looked over to his embassy-appointed lawyer and from the way he slouched over pinching the bridge of his nose, Nic confirmed his suspicion of the worst. He mused that words, the things which had failed him so often during his time in Thailand, are just mere symbols and that there are many ways to convey meaning without them.
          He was led from the dock, decked out in the red ochre uniform all defendants were made to wear, and manhandled along a corridor as quickly as his chained feet would allow him to shuffle. He fell onto his knees a couple of times from where he couldn’t match the pace of the guards. Both times he was yanked back up again and barked at in Thai, but the officers’ pace remained the same and his struggle was identical.
          The sides of the corridor were lined with groups of gathered Thai officials, brows glistening with sweat and all wearing short-sleeved shirt-and-tie combinations that struck him as from the seventies, all chattering in excitable tones as he passed. The main court-room had, despite the intensity of the atmosphere, boasted an air-conditioning system but the corridor raged with crushing Thailand humidity and the combination of the verdict, the manner of the guards, the vile look of satisfaction on the faces of the officials he passed, the reek of stale sweat, coffee, and cigarettes they emitted, and the sudden change in air quality all made him want to vomit. Finally, he saw the representative from the UK embassy at the end of the corridor and the guards escorted him up to her before bending down and undoing the chains at his feet.
          “You could have done that before” he said to one of the guards in sarcasm-soaked English. The guard met his eyes with a stare of contempt as absolute as his lack of English. Nic was surprised to see that he was a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, but being considerably shorter than Nic and with a wiry frame, he seemed much older. He stared at Nic for a few uncomfortable seconds before the embassy representative jabbered something in Thai. The guard looked up at Nic and said something in Thai. He had addressed Nic in the eyes but the words were barely audible under the weight of the speaker’s clear disdain. Then another guard tugged at his arm and led him back down the corridor.
          “What did he say?” Nic asked the woman.
          “He said that you got what you deserve white, erm…the best word is probably ‘filth’. And that you can’t just come here and do what you want.” She replied in her characteristic matter-of-fact manner, before adding “The Thai people are very proud and don’t take kindly to over-privileged Westerners disrespecting it.”
          “Disrespecting? But I never…”
          She raised an extended finger to indicate silence and like magic he dropped his protest. He recalled a similar instance the first time they had met; it was in the holding cell at Phuket airport and the guard outside the door was barraging her with Thai, much too fast for Nic to catch even a single word, and upon raising her hand the guard fell silent and stood back against the wall. She was a tall, plump woman in her early forties with a school ma’am-ish air and who, in the dealings he had had with her, had always worn an austere grey trouser-suit and had her mid-length hair tied back in a stumpy ponytail. What’s more, she had never once even threatened to show the slightest trace of concern for his welfare. All she talked about was how his “situation” was being viewed at a diplomatic level. However, as he had approached her in the corridor after the verdict he had nevertheless expected some words of consolation for the death sentence he, a compatriot, had just received.
          “Here.” She passed him a brown fabric bag.
          Nic looked at her and shrugged.
          “Put it on. To hide your face” she explained. “There are a lot of cameras outside. Including the BBC.”
          “The BBC?”  A flash montage of friends and ex-colleagues shot through his mind, settling after a split second on an image of his doting parents who he had barely even emailed for well over a year.
          The embassy representative sank an annoyed look into him. “Yes, well…like I’ve said repeatedly since we first met, your little stunt couldn’t have come at a worse time diplomatically. So, are you going to wear it or not?”
           Although he had was all too aware of her tactless manner from their previous encounters, Nic nevertheless bristled at her rudeness.
          “No. Thank you.”
          “Suit yourself. Well, at least put it over your handcuffs. Right, ready? It’s a good couple of minutes to the truck.”
          He was about to ask why they couldn’t just park the truck nearer the exit instead of having to parade him past an angry mob when, down the corridor, he spotted Julian being escorted in another direction.
          “What did Julian get?”
          “He had all charges against him dropped.”
          Her words ran coldly through him, freezing his insides. “Dropped?” He repeated, stunned “But…but…but the whole thing was his idea!”
          “Well, no drugs were found on him, were there? Now come on.”
          The door opened: a cacophonous eruption followed, pinning Nic to the spot. The Embassy representative grabbed Nic’s arm and hauled him out. As they paced through the crushing throng he glanced around attempting to decode the mass of faces and noise besieging him; angry Thai citizens yelled in both Thai and heavily accented English that he got what he deserved and that white people aren’t as superior as they think.
          Alongside them, more moderate Asian faces speaking clearer English and brandishing microphones signalled themselves to him as being journalists whilst every now and then a white face punctuated the crowd and he wondered if it was a BBC reporter. As he was hustled along, he sometimes clearly heard his name being called out of the noise and he would instinctively turn to face whoever it was and was immediately blinded by the accusing light from a camera, stopping him in his tracks while he rubbed his eyes, before feeling an angry tug from the embassy woman.
          Finally they arrived at the truck, its open door and view of the desolate interior welcoming him. The woman helped Nic up the steps and slammed the door shut behind him with a resolute and final-sounding metal echo.
          He sat for a moment on the stark metal bench incorporated into the side of the truck and sank his head into his hands. At least this is more how escorted criminals look on the TV, he thought to himself, appreciative of the privilege of being alone with his shame. During the trip to the courthouse he had been forced to share the van with a dozen other criminals, all Thai, and made to sit in a cage in the centre of the van while armed guards sat at the front and back. Suddenly, a thought struck him: he was on the TV now.
Outside the roar of the crowd continued. He had no idea why they cared so much about it: sure, he reasoned, he was a foreigner, a Westerner, a farang, who had broken the law. But was it really that big a deal? Foreigners break the law in the UK all the time and they aren’t forced to endure this kind of treatment. His thoughts raged bitterly in his mind when suddenly the side of the truck reverberated with a loud bang. The crowd cheered. Somebody had hurled something at the van. He listened as a battery of orders were shouted out into the crowd in formal Thai which he managed to catch as being orders for them to get back and make room. He stood up and peeked out of the barred window of the door and another wave of leering shouts rose to greet him. He watched as the police officers started forcibly pushing some of the crowd back. Among the crowd he spotted a small group of white people, farangs; one of them delivering a commentary on the events to camera and the clipped accent of the female signalled to him that she was British and, therefore, almost definitely the BBC. Nic’s stomach began to turn from the disturbing thought, breaking steadily into his consciousness that all of this was, in fact, real; he had been found guilty of drug-smuggling in Thailand and had been sentenced to death. The disconcerting dream it could have been had unmasked itself as a merciless reality. The brutal, naked stare into reality’s piercing empty eyes is a curse unknown to most, but Nic had experienced it once before during the scandal that had prompted him to leave England in the first place just over a year before. At that time, as he watched the British press drum up his actions and personality into a grotesque, immoral exaggeration he had often wondered if what he was going through was indeed “real”. However, when the media extravaganza refused to abate and his boss informed him that he was fired, he had been forced to confront the abyss eyed nature of reality and piercing humiliation and impotence it entails.
          As he watched, handcuffed from the back of a Thai police-truck, he saw the reporter wrap up the shot and signal to the crew that everything was done. That was it. The monstrous reality he was facing, whose blackening air was filling the van with the stark inevitability of death and utter extinction, was worth nothing more than a short segment broadcast back to the UK which, aside from the tears of his parents and sister, would arouse little more than amused dis-belief among friends and ex-colleagues who happened to catch the news that day before changing the channel to some soap-opera or sports event. The sudden emergence of this bitter epiphany turned his body to jelly. He struggled to hold back tears but the repression simply turned his emotions to a bubbling rage. He stood up and tried inhaling deeply, then walked away from the window begin slamming his body into the side of the truck and striking it with his bound hands, each time intensifying the rage at the injustice that he was to be executed whilst Julian had lied his way out of everything.
          He ran back to the window and shouted through the bars, “It’s not right! None of this is right! You can’t do this to me!”
The crowd jeered. He shook the bars with his chained hands, trying to rip them out of the window. The police turned around and saw him shouting and started making gestures to the driver to depart.
          “I told the truth! He lied! He lied and I’m going to die! It’s not right! Is this what you get for telling the truth?”
          The crowd surged forward and a police officer struck one them on the head with a baton. Blood exploded out on contact and the man dropped to the ground clasping his head. The mob reacted immediately with coarse Thai profanities and threats. The officer drew back the baton menacingly, releasing a spotted red arc through the air which splattered several of the crowd, some of whom reacted in seizure-like spasms at having someone’s blood on them.
          “You can’t do this to me! I’m British.”
          The sudden self-awareness of the futile self-importance of these final words punctured his anger. He sank to the floor. He remembered saying the same words to the embassy woman when he was arrested at the airport. “I’m British” he said, “We can’t be killed here, right?” His fevered words a reaction to the Thai police officer who, prior to the embassy woman’s arrival, had sat grinning, making cut-throat gestures towards Nic and explaining in broken English that the Thai government was going to shoot him.
          The embassy woman looked at him with a look as much disgust as pity.
          “Your British-ness is only relevant so far as it means I am here and not someone else. Outside of that, it means nothing.”
          The brief respite of this reverie was broken by the truck shaking from the engine finally starting up. It stuttered forward a few times as police forcefully ejected errant members of the increasingly rowdy crowd. Finally the engine began to purr and the din from the crowd was first masked by the regular churn of the truck and quickly faded out as the driver put more and more distance between Nic and the mob and less and less distance between him and his eventual fate.


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