translated by Tulachandra
Prisna the Teacher
The name of the school was Sikkhalai, although Prisna herself prefered the more informal term, “Auntie Sanguan’s school.” It enjoyed the reputation of being one of the biggest and best – some liked to say ‘classiest’ – school in Bangkok, with classes starting from Mathayom I up to Mathayom VI. After that those who chose could go on to Special Class I and Special Class II, the instruction of which were modeled along the line of finishing courses, with emphasis on languages, arts and domestic science. Both boarders and day students were accepted, although most of the finishing course students were boarders.
Each of these special classes had always had either an English or an American lady teacher for Form Mistress. Miss Craig, who looked after Special Class II, had been with the school for a long time. Miss Hall, of Special Class I, had just resigned.
There were twenty-two girls in Special Class I, or maybe we should say eighteen since the other four often wished they were somewhere else. They were relatively new, having joined the school only early in the year, and they had made the mistake of not attempting to understand the ways of the formidable Eighteen, the merry, dauntless souls who feared no one but Acharn Saguan, the Head Mistress, and Miss Hall, their own Form Mistress. (They had not yet heard of Miss Prisna Sutthakun.) When the new girls had demonstrated beyond doubt that they thought it beneath their dignity to participate in the group’s activities, or mischief making, as some might say, the Eighteen started to make life extremely uncomfortable for them. That had not been a difficult task. The four fated being kidded, and they were contemptuous of jokes and pranks. The Eighteen just gave them a big dose of these, and when the new girls took their grievances to the teachers, resulting in their being punished, they would retaliate by merely doubling or tripling the dose. The new ones were now more or less resigned to their fate. They had stopped informing the teachers and they had learned to refrain from flaunting their disapproval of the group. Beyond that, however, they had not reformed. But they had as good as admitted defeat, and since they were so outnumbered, the Eighteen now let them go their own straight and humorless way.
They were not so bad really, these eighteen growing young ladies. The worst you could really say about them was that they had too much spirit. They were no bullies; they responded to fair treatment and kindness and they were not unwilling to listen to reason. If they proved too much for some teachers in school, it could be that the fault did not lie entirely with them.
Monday morning. Special Class II was having Siamese Literature. Special Class I should be starting their English hour by now, but it looked to the girls – the Eighteen, that is – that their wish might come true after all and they wouldn’t have to do any work owing to a shortage of teachers. Thoughts of freedom rendered them even merrier and noisier than usual. They were having a gay time, no doubt about it; and if the other members of the class – the Silent Four, that is – chose to remain silent and aloof, why, let them. (The poor Four didn’t dare do anything else but remain silent.)
Then Tipa, who had ventured out of the room a minute before, flew back in a hurry to announce, “The Head is bringing the teacher!”
“A new one. She’s going to take Miss Hall’s place.”
“Have you seen her? Is she as good-looking as Miss Hall?”
“Haven’t looked at her closely. She’s Siamese.”
“What! A Siamese to teach us English? Ridiculous. Are we going to let this happen to us? Are we going to submit ourselves to this?”
“Quiet, everybody! Here they come.” The warning was issued by Prabhai, who wore spectacles and was one of the more restrained among the Eighteen.
Commotion reigned for a few seconds while the girls pushed and scrambled back to their own seats. Then all was quiet. The door swung open. Miss Sanguan walked in, followed by another lady. The girls all put their palms together in a gesture of paying respects. Miss Sanguan ackowledged this with a pleased smile, speaking in her resonant voice, “Girls, this is your new English teacher and class mistress.”
Some of the girls, unobserved by her, were exchanging glances which clearly meant “This one is going to be an easy prey.” But on the whole they all managed to appear at their obedient best for the Head’s benefit, and continued to do so up to the time of her departure.
The new teacher placed a book in front of her. Then, calmly, she let her eyes roam all over the room, surveying the field of faces. When she spoke, her voice rance out steady and clear.
“What do you usually have at this hour?”
“English!” chorused the students, innocently enough.
The new teacher pressed her lips together. A glint showed in her eyes, but when she resumed there was no trace of annoyance in her voice.
“I know that, but what subject – Grammar, or Essay, or Translation? Or what?”
The replies came all at once, but they did not seem to concur. There were loud arguments among the informants themselves which went on for some time uninterrupted by their audience of one. After the jabber had died down, the class heard a steady voice telling them to “listen closely.” The book on the desk was opened, and without further ceremony the new teacher began to read aloud from its pages. Her manner was serene, her enunciation distinct; she seemed confident that she was being closely listened to, or at least she didn’t seem to suspect any inattentiveness among the girls. She didn’t seem to notice it when Mani, who sat in the front row, turned round to ask another girl in a whisper, “Well, what do you think?”
“Not bad. No accent at all.”
More whispering from other quarters. But still no sign of awareness from the teacher. The reading continued to occupy all of her attention.
Finally the bell rang. The end of the hour had come. The teacher shut the book, stood up and said, “And this is your homework for tomorrow: write down in your own words what I’ve been reading to you. You must hand it in tomorrow without fail.” Then she left.
The silence was heavy. The girls stared at one another, some of them with their mouths open.
“Heavens above!” Mani was the first to recover her lost voice. “What in the world are we going to do? I wasn’t really listening.”
“Neither was I. I have no idea what it was all about!”’
“Don’t look at me! I don’t either.”
“What rotten luck! And we have to do it, otherwise there’ll be trouble. The Head would never forgive us. She’d say we maliciously did it on purpose just because she was new.”
“And it would mean no weekly allowance for who knows how long.” To be deprived of their weekly allowance or ‘candy money’ was considered by all the worst type of punishment.
“And we thought she was a kitten we could play with while in fact she’s a lioness.”
“You know, her English is good. I wish I had been paying more attention.”
“She’s pretty too.”
“Her figure’s not bad.”
“What do you mean, not bad? It’s perfect.”
“I agree. But did you notice her hair? It’s weird to say the least. I don’t mean her hair, because we didn’t see much of it. I meant that white hair net of hers. Why did she have to wear it? I had a mind to take it off for her the moment she stepped into the room.”
If only they could go on discussing her hairdo! Mom Chao Ratanavadi did not seem to think they should. “Stop talking about her,” she said, “and let’s concentrate on that homework. Didn’t anybody get anything out of her reading at all?”
Her best friend Vimol, head in heads, groaned, “Not a thing, Tan Ying. You tell us what to do. Please think of something, Tan Ying.”
The others had their faith in Tan Ying Ratanavadi too, and after a while she did think of something.
“We are going to write those essays,” she said with determination. “Each in our own way, on any subject under the sun. Just write it, you understand? Anything so long as we have the papers to submit to her tomorrow.”
Everybody agreed that this was the only way out.
“How was it, teacher?” Mrs. Samorn asked Prisna when she returned home from school that afternoon. Prisna grimaced, shook her head and walked upstairs without telling her mother how it had been. Not in words, anyway.
But shortly after that she came down again for tea, clad in the usual shorts and shirt, and looking quite different from the Prisna of the previous moment.
“What have you done with your white hair net?” Siri asked.
“Oh, stop laughing at me, Siri,” Prisna frowned at her elder sister. “Don’t say any more about that net. I hate it. I only wore it to impress my students on this first day.”
“How was it really?” said her mother.
“Oh, it was fun. I have three classes: Mathayom III, Mathayom V and Special I. The Mathayom girls are easy to teach. But the girls in Special Class I – whew! They are a handful. But I’m going to tame them.”
“So you’re going to tame them, instead of instructing them?” said Siri.
“I must tame them first before I can begin to instruct them. I should also like to teach drawing, but they already have an instructor for that. Teaching nothing but English might turn out to be boring after a while, I don’t know.”
“How well can you draw, Prisna?” asked her mother. “Well enough to teach?”
Prisna laughed and got up from the table. Before anyone had time to say anything else she ran upstairs, then returned with a sketch-book which she handed to her mother. Mrs. Samorn turned the pages while her other two daughters came over to look at them over her shoulders. On one of the pages Mrs. Samorn recognized her own portrait although it was only a comical cartoon. Then there was a picture of Ubol with little Som sitting on her lap at the dining table. Another portrait showed Anong in the act of sewing. Next came Siri with her latest hairdo. The last one was a study of Somsak smoking a pipe and leaning against a door.
“You are good!” exclaimed Siri, while Anong and their mother smiled their pride and approval. “Tell us more about yourself, Prisna. What other things can you do well?”
“Uncle’s always saying that I’m good at drawing and sports, and that I have a nice dimple. But that’s all. It’s not much… Oh, there’s a car outside. It must be Ubol.”
It was Ubol. She entered leading her son by the hand.
“Did you come by car?” Mrs. Samorn asked her eldest daughter.
“Yes, Khun Sak dropped me here. He’s going to the club to play tennis.”
Seeing Prisna, Ubol asked, “And how did the teacher like her first day at school?” But she didn’t wait for an answer, for at that moment in walked Somsak himself. “Why are you still here, Khun Sak? Did you forget something?”
Somsak paid respects to his mother-in-law, then explained to his wife, “No I didn’t forget anything. No tennis today. Chai couldn’t make it. He was coming over to the house to tell me, but I met him just as I was driving out of the gate here.”
“Oh,” said Ubol, “and you wanted so much to play.”
“You’ve said it! I haven’t played for so long. I was looking forward to today. We reserved this court a week ago. It’s a shame to have to waste it now.”
“I’ll play with you if you like,” Prisna said.
“Somsak swallowed. His experience with woman players made him greet this suggestion with very little enthusiasm. But, then, it was still better than nothing. “All right, Prisna. But how good are you?”
“You’ll see for yourself pretty soon. Oh, but I haven’t asked mother yet. Mother, may I go and play tennis with Khun Sak?”
Permission given, Prisna stood up to leave the table, saying to her brother-in-law, “I’ll only be a few seconds changing my shoes and getting out my racquet. You won’t even have time to start getting impatient.”
“Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking all over the place for you!”
“Really? Why?” Mom Chao Bojnaprija gazed affectionately at his only sister. “What do you want from me this time, Ying?”
“Well, first of all, may I use your car? I’ve got to go out and buy something for a friend. You’re not going anywhere, are you?”
“No, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not doing anything in particular. Would you like me to drive you?”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to. I’ll get Somboon to drive. But if you’re going to stay home, may I ask you to do me another favour? Please don’t say no.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I have this homework – a sort of essay, but I don’t know what to write. So be a dear and do it for me – write something for me, on any subject you want, as long as it’s in English.”
“Wait a minute, Ying, go slow and tell me what this is all about. Why can’t you do this homework yourself? Why don’t you know what to write about?”
Her Serene Highness shook her head – or rather her pigtails – impatiently, and went on, “All right, but I’ll have to make it short. We have a new English teacher. She’s Siamese, but her English is perfect. She’s awfully pretty too. Anyway, we didn’t notice any of her good points at first because we were so determined not to be impressed by her. We were determined to show her a thing or two. We tried our best to annoy her, but she was too good for us. She didn’t lose her temper once and she wasn’t afraid of us at all. She went on reading aloud out of a book. We were supposed to listen, but we didn’t. So now she’s asked us to write an essay based on the material she read to us. And of course we can’t do it, not having listened. We don’t have the slightest idea if it was a short story, or a poem, or what. But we’ve decided to turn in this homework, which means we’ll have to dream up something to write about, which means you’ll have to help me. So please compose something. Well, I must be off now. ‘Bye, I’ll be back soon! Oh, Aunt Soy is coming with me, by the way. ‘Bye, dear!”
Then she was gone.
Tan Chai chuckled. Theirs could be called a perfectly happy relationship, he thought. He was sometimes more indulgent with her than he should be, he realized that too. But why not? She was his family, and she filled his life with love and laughter. The big difference in their age – he was thirteen years older – had brought them even closer to each other. He was to her a combination of friend, brother, father, and yes, mother as well.
Their father, unlike so many other high-ranking princes of his time, had taken only one wife. His place, the Sila Khao or “White Marble,” along with the other properties, had been left entirely to Mom Chao Bojnaprija and Mom Chao Ying Ratanavadi. There had been no one else – no lesser wives nor other children to necessitate the dividing up of the family fortune.
Soon after Her Serene Highness was born, and while Tan Chai was sudying in Europe, their mother Mom Choy passed away, and Aunt Soy, a distant relative of the prince, was then called in to look after the girl. Then came the death of their father. White Marble was closed up while Mom Chao Ying Ratanavadi and Aunt Soy went to live in another palace with a royal aunt. With the return of Tan Chai, White Marble came to life once more. Tan Chai had restored it into the lovely place it once had been. Tan Ying came back home, bringing with her Aunt Soy, who now kept house for them.
Another resident of White Marble was Pravij, Phya Rajaballobh’s son by a lesser wife. Pravij had been brought to the palace by Mom Choy when he was a little boy to be her son’s playmate. Tan Chai had always been so fond of him that when the time came for him to go abroad for his schooling he took him along. They also made the return journey together, and it had seemed quite proper and natural that Pravij should join the household at White Marble. The dashing Pravij, Tan Chai thought with a smile, burning up the town in his fast sports car, attractive to women and attracted by them, accessible and yet elusive…
“But I’ve quite forgotten about Ying’s homework,” Tan Chai said to himself. The sun had gone down and he had not switched on the light in his study. In the dark stillness of the room he had let his thoughts drift and wander at leisure. Now he must get started on that composition, or Ying would be greatly disappointed. Napoleon, his Great Dane, walked gracefully into the room at that moment. Perhaps a few paragraphs about Napoleon the Great would do…
A car screeched to a halt in the front drive. The door shut with a bang. Footsteps came thumping up the hall.
“Is His Serene Highness in, Sone?”
“I think he’s in the study, sir,” replied the butler.
“Are you sure? It’s dark in there.”
“I think he’s in there, sir.”
Pravij entered the study and turned on a lamp. “Oh, you are here. What were you doing in the dark?”
“And what business is that of yours?”
Pravij ignored the banter. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he announced, lowering himself into a chair. Tan Chai waited while he reached for a cigarette, lighted it and started to puff at it with pleasure.
“Well, I’m waiting,” said Tan Chai. “What have you got to tell me?”
“I’ve met the prettiest girl at the club today. Her features were pefect and she had a dream of a figure – the most beautiful of all the beautiful pairs of legs I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Girls, girls, and more girls!” Tan Chai sighed. “Don’t you ever think of anything else? Have you forgotten the girl you met at Hua Hin?”
Pravij let that pass also. “She was playing tennis at the club,” he went on, “the cutest thing in shorts.”
“Showing off her figure, no doubt,” Tan Chai said. “Can she also play?”
“Oh, there you go again, always belittling every human being who happens to be a female. Oh, I beg your pardon, there’s one exception – Ratee. It’s funny our tastes should be so different when it comes to girls. I can’t stand Ratee. Her being my half-sister has nothing to do with my feelings one way or the other. I just can’t stand her, I don’t see why you like her so much. Are you serious about her?”
“Now, don’t jump to conclusions, Pravij, I go out with her because she happens to be Aunt Chuen’s daughter and therefore my cousin. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing between us.”
“No one would believe that, you know!”
“I can’t help that, can I?”
“And the one who will be most reluctant to believe that,” continued Pravij, “is Ratee herself. I saw her today at father’s house. I dropped in there to give mother some money. She asked me to give you a message. She’d like you to come for dinner if you’re free. Tonight.”
“I won’t be free until I’ve finished doing Ying’s homework for her. But, look here, why don’t you do it Pravij? It’s simple enough. You’ll only have to sit down and write a short theme in English. You can choose your own topic.”
“Well, I like this!”
“Ying will be very grateful to you, and so shall I. That’s shettled then. I can have dinner with Ratee. I think I’ll take her to the movies afterwards, what do you say?”
There was such a big crowd for the late show at Chalerm Krung Theatre that night that they could not get enough seats downstairs. Somsak proposed that they should all go home, but Ubol refused to let him get away with it that easily.
“But you’ve promised Prisna,” she reminded her husband, “that if she beat you at tennis today you’d take us all to the movies. It was a bet and you lost it, and here we are. We’re not going home. You go and buy tickets for the balcony seats.”
“I wasn’t really playing my best, you know,” Somsak said ruefully, “and anyway we can’t take balcony seats because I don’t have enough money with me. I forgot to bring my wallet.”
“I have some here,” Siri cried with delight after looking into her handbag. “You can borrow it.”
Somsok muttered something, but took the money from his sister-in-law and went to buy the tickets. A few moments later found him and the four sisters settled comfortably in their balcony seats. Anong kept quiet, looking straight ahead and talking to no one. Siri was frankly interested in the surroundings.
“Look, Ubol!” she nudged her elder sister. “There’s Ratee, wearing a gorgeous dress. She’s with Tan Chai Bojnaprija. Can’t you see? Over in the front row. Oh, what a pity!” For at that moment the lights dimmed and the show started.
Coming down the stairs afterwards, Somsak and his party encountered Tan Chai Bojnaprija and Ratee. The two men exchanged greetings and walked down together, talking easily. His Serene Highness did not look at any of Somsak’s four beautiful charges. Ratee seemed to be in a very good mood and was very friendly with Siri, until her eyes met Prisna’s. Then abruptly the smile left her face; a haughty antagonism replaced it, and she started walking away from the group. Tan Chai did not notice that there was anything amiss, and after hastily saying goodbye to Somsak, he politely set out after her.
“Why didn’t you present us to Tan Chai?” Siri asked her brother-in-law when they had all got into the car. “I’d been waiting for that opportunity for so long.”
“I didn’t want His Serene Highness to think that I was keen on getting him interested in my pretty sisters-in-law,” Somsak said.
Ubol did not agree with her husband. “He wouldn’t have thought any such thing,” she said. “He’s a nice man. And so smart and handsome, don’t you think so, Prisna?”
“Who?” asked Prisna.
“Tan Chai Bojnaprija, of course. Whom else are we talking about?”
Prisna looked blank. “Which one?”
“Oh, didn’t you see him? He was talking to Khun Sak.”
“I didn’t notice. I was looking at the girl who was talking to Siri. So that’s your Miss Ratee, Siri. She was the reason I flew from Singapore. I couldn’t have stood one more day with her around. She was out to make me feel unwelcome on the boat. I don’t know why she took such a dislike to me, but I must admit the feeling is mutual. But why talk about her? What I really want to know is the time. Is it late?”
“I must get to bed, or I’ll never get up tomorrow. Will you wake me up in the morning, Anong? Gosh, I’m tired! I’ve had a hard day.”
“Don’t show off,” Somsak teased her. “We already know you’re a hard-working teacher. Poor teacher, poor Prisna!”
I haven’t translated a word more for Pillow Book but since the next chapter is pretty short hopefully I can have it done next week. Until then, have plenty of Prissana!