Colin Cotterill

Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach


Slipping on the Dog

(from 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head' – BURT BACHARACH)


He didn't so much as look up. He had a lot of problems, did Grandad. Deafness wasn't one of them. Ignorance was. He feigned the former to achieve the latter.


He knew I was there, but I admit I'd chosen a bad time to get through to him. It was the morning rush hour in downtown Maprao and he had traffic to examine. As the fishermen traveled to or from their boats, a lot of them stopped off at Jiep's rice porridge stall across the street. Six thirty was as busy as it would ever get. He sat beside the road in his white undervest and his Fred Flintstone shorts and he tsssked and tutted at the passing vehicles. Like an ex-matador might sit on a farm fence glaring at a bull, pondering how, in his prime he would have demeaned and disfigured the beast, so Grandad gave the evil eye to every passing truck and motorcycle sidecar. There weren't that many, but every one of them flouted the highway code in one way or another. Grandad knew every regulation. He'd been a traffic policeman for forty years, and then for fourteen more years he'd subscribed to the Royal Thai Police Force Road Users' Gazette to keep up with amendments. He was a living compendium of petty legislation: probably the most knowledgeable man on the subject in Chumphon province, if not the whole country We'd often urged him to send in an application to Channel Five's Genuine Fan, where people who'd spent their entire lives focused on something utterly useless-combative stag beetles, designer handbags, English Premiership football results and the like-had a chance to answer questions on their chosen specialty and win a refrigerator. Grandad Jah would have had a fleet of Toshiba freezers by now.

I glared at him, still hoping for a response. It was like waiting for Cro-Magnon man to evolve. I wondered what use we might have found for him if he'd invested his vast memory on nuclear physics rather than traffic regulations.

In rural Thailand it's unlikely anyone would know the first thing about the rules of the road, especially not the police. If you were too poor to front up to the Motor Car License division with a generous bottle of whiskey and a wink (in which case your license would be expedited), you'd be asked to fill out a multiple choice quiz whose correct answers were well indented on the pad from the previous twenty applicants. You'd then drive your vehicle to a tree, beneath which the examiner sat. He or she would ask you to park. If you managed to do so without knocking over the tree or hitting the examiner, you had a license.

The few people who knew the rules were at a disadvantage down here. The north-south highway, Route 41, passes through Chumphon, and it's the most dangerous stretch of road in the country. All those righteous smart- alecs from Bangkok who learned when to signal politely and how to adjust their hands at the ten-to-two position on the steering wheel were invariably sideswiped by unlit coconut-carrying pickups coming at them at full speed in the wrong direction. Arrogance is punished in Chumphon.

So, anyway, there I was trying to get Grandad's attention for a matter I considered to be infinitely more urgent than traffic.

'Grandad,' I called in an irritating screechy voice. 'There's a head on the beach.'

If that didn't grab him, nothing would. He'd been glaring at a truck with conflicting plates. The one on the back was handwritten on cardboard. The number at the front was different. It was a traffic policeman's nirvana, but I got a dab of eye contact before his attention returned to the truck.

'A head of what?' he asked quietly.


'Head of fish?'

He always spoke slowly and enunciated like a teacher at a special school. Despite the fact that I was a moderately sane thirty-four-year-old Thai woman, he often talked to me as if I was a mentally challenged youth.

'Head of dog?' he continued. 'Head of cabbage?'

'Head of man,' I said, as calmly as I could under the very annoying circumstances. It's always a bother to decide who to tell when you find a head on the beach. I mean, there is no protocol. And when I say 'always' here, I may be exaggerating somewhat because I can't say I've stumbled over too many heads on my morning dog walks. I'd seen body parts in morgues, of course, and accident scenes, but that Wednesday was my first detached head. It upset me that it hadn't upset me enough.

My inner alarm clock had woken me up at six, as was its habit. It doesn't have an inner snooze button, so I got up. This was not a habit born out of a desire to watch the sunrise or to frolic gaily along the sand with my doggy friends. It was a habit begat by the fact that there was absolutely nothing to do at night in the mulch pit we'd arrived in a year earlier. 'Maprao' means coconut, and that pretty much sums the place up: thick skinned, dull as dirt, and containing nothing of substance. I'm spending too much time here on sidetracks and making a mess of what should be a tense and exciting opening to my story, so I'll save all the gripes and family intrigues for later.

Back to the beach. We had two dogs. Or perhaps I should say the two dogs had us because there were no walls to keep them in. They arrived at mealtimes from whatever mischief they'd embroiled themselves in, and would deign to sleep at our modest seaside resort-or not. Unfortunately, whenever I opened my cabin door of a morning, there they would be; wagging. Gogo, bitch in every sense of the word, was one of my mother's roadside rescues. No manners. No gratitude. No intestines. She ate like a horse and defecated like a cow. Our vet, Dr. Somboon, who was fortunately a livestock specialist, told us that Gogo was physically unable to digest. So we gave her a mountain of food every day in the expectation that a small hillock of it might find its way to her muscles. That had not yet happened.

Dog two: Sticky Rice, white, one enormous black eye, had been a temple pup. He was a thief. Not yet seven months of age, but no excuse. Were he a human teenager, he would be under lock and key at a juvenile correctional facility. No shoe was safe in front of the guest rooms. No bottom-shelf instant noodle pack, no drying squid, no garden vegetable. He had them all. And, cunning beast, he left no evidence because he ate everything: leaves, packets, laces. He gave a new definition to the word 'consumable.' If you've never seen a dog chew through a breeze block and not spit out the crumbs, you've not met Sticky.

All right. I'm lost again. So, there we were, on the beach. The wind du jour was just starting to roll the polystyrene blocks like tumbleweeds. Plastic bags were being thrown up by the tide. There was nothing pleasurable about our amble, but my mother, Mair, insisted I walk the dogs twice a day-as if they didn't have legs and minds of their own. It was November, so you could barely make out any sand under all the garbage. Urban dwellers who have a river passing behind their houses see it as a sort of free, convenient, garbage-disposal system. Toss a plastic bag full of diapers into it and voila, it's gone. Nature is truly a wonder. All that disgusting junk gets spewed out of the Lang Suan River estuary and obligingly sent to our bay via the incoming monsoon tides. The dogs love garbage days because there are obviously so many more nutrients in putrid fish and half-drunk cartons of congealed chocolate milk than there are in the extortionately expensive Pedigree Chum that Mair feeds them.

The hounds were forty meters ahead and they'd found something among the debris. They were excited. When Gogo comes across something that confuses her, she whimpers and does a sort of canine native-American

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