I recognised the telephone company’s office by its logo—the same as on the bill in my hand. The glass doors opened onto a waiting room where people fanned themselves against the heat, heads cocked to sleep, bright plastic tokens in their hands. I showed my bill at the counter and was given a token stamped with 11, a yellow one of all the luck, when that was the one colour I couldn’t remember in Thai. I wondered: Should I ask for a different one? Did I have enough Thai even for that? Two people were standing behind me, pressing close, and the thought of being the foreigner who inexplicably refused to take a yellow token was enough to make me turn away. A mistake, most likely—I realised that as I took a seat by the window. I’d have to listen for words I didn’t recognise in a language I barely understood. What to do except hold the token loosely, conspicuously, and smile if anyone caught my eye?
Outside in the crushing brightness a schoolboy walked past, neat in a white shirt but his hair spiked with sweat. A few motorbikes zipped towards the main road, then an overloaded truck that coughed black smoke. Every now and again a clerk called out from a dim doorway and I felt a fizz panic. Had she called eleven? What colour? I tried to trace the sounds of her words, but already someone would be out of their chair and heading towards her.
Soon the bill turned slack and damp in my hand. How Thai writing snagged the eye—here the ear-like curve of an e, there the stiff back and tucked-in waist of a B so that, for a fraction of a second, my brain leapt to make sense of it. But no—the only thing I understood was the 537 baht in Western numerals at the bottom.
Half an hour passed and I took out my book. Bangkok was a place of waiting. In government offices. In traffic jams. For friends caught in traffic jams. I’d taken to carrying around the thickest paperbacks I could find: Thackeray, Dickens, the collected Sherlock Holmes. How strange to plunge into the nineteenth century only to look up and find myself on a bus stopped dead on a ten-lane highway, to see in the shadow of the gargantuan blocks of a half-finished expressway workers in flip-flops and straw hats mixing cement with shovels. Strangest of all was to find Bangkok not so different from the world on the page. Here was that rush to transform the scale of things from the human to the massive that had gripped the Victorians, the Khmers, the Incas—indeed, who hadn’t it gripped?
That afternoon at the telephone company, I couldn’t sink into my book. My head twitched up at the slightest sound: the door opening with a waft of hot, ripe air; the woman opposite me whispering to her neighbour; the clerk calling out. Eleven red? Is that what she’d said? My turn might come and I’d miss it, might be left sitting in the waiting room’s wan fluorescent light until evening came. Already my cotton trousers were clinging to my legs like a second skin, and when I lifted my fingers the pages beneath them buckled slightly. As for the plastic token, it felt unpleasantly warm and greasy where I’d been holding it, and I rubbed it against my trousers.
It was so quiet, so many people dozing, that I yawned behind my hand. Not sleepy, just dulled. There, the buzz of a motorbike far away behind the glass; there, the clerk’s voice dipping across the room. I caught a shift in the air and looked up. Heads turned towards me. The woman in the chair opposite making a small curling motion with her fingers: go, go now.
What had I expected beyond the doorway? Not a storeroom stacked to the ceiling with shelves of cardboard files, and women on wooden ladders running their fingers down the spines until they tugged out the ones needed below. At a small desk sat a clerk with a meaty face and lacquered hair. In front of her, a file with my phone number hand-written on the cover. She turned the pages and pointed with a long polished nail, here, and here. Written in pen I saw each long distance and international phone call I’d made. She waved her hand as if saying good-bye. I understood that she meant No. But no to what? I took out my purse. No. The women on their ladders craned to watch us. The clerk said something more. I stood and pointed to the doorway. No. She got to her feet instead and motioned that I must sit. A moment later she’d gone.
She returned with a young man in a sharp blue suit and slicked-back hair. He spoke English, and I apologised as he led me to his office—my Thai was poor, I didn’t know where to pay, my landlord was supposed to have taken care of the bill. He waved it all away and sat me down beside his desk. How different this room was: plain and stark, the air crisply cool, a computer in the corner behind him. A few keystrokes and he pointed to the screen: everything OK, he told me. He took the bill from my hand. Not a bill. A receipt. My landlord had paid. No problem. Everything taken care of.
A few months later I went back, I can’t recall why now. But I do remember pushing open the doors and standing in the sudden chill of conditioned air, sure I’d made a mistake: of the waiting room nothing remained except a short row of plastic chairs. A wall must have been knocked down because the storeroom had gone and instead, in all that space, stood two cubicles where a couple of young women worked away at computers.
Gerri Brightwell is a British writer living in Alaska with her husband and sons. She has two published novels: Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003) and The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008). Her writing has also appeared in such publications as The Guardian (UK), Camera Obscura and Camas. “Translation” is nonfiction. She teaches in the M.F.A. programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.