The Merry Misogynist
FIVE DEAD WIVES
B y the time the calendar pages had flipped around to 1978, Vientiane, the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, had become a dour place to live. The fun had been squeezed out of it like the hard-to-come-by juice of a durian. It was flat and colourless and starting to feel sorry for itself.
The novice socialist administration that had ousted the six-hundred-year-old monarchy was starting to realize its resume didn’t match the job description. In the two years since taking over the country the prime minister had survived four assassination attempts. The army was moonlighting in timber exports and Pathet Lao troops were black-marketing petrol. A new class had been added to those sent to the north for re-education: corrupt socialist officials.
The numbers told the tale. The per-capita income was less than ninety US dollars, and over a hundred thousand people had already fled the city to try their luck in the Thai refugee camps across the Mekhong. Eighty-five per cent of those remaining in the country were subsistence farmers yet for the first time in its history Laos had resorted to importing rice. An unprecedented drought the previous year had resulted in the Department of Agriculture’s predicting a famine for ‘78. It appeared even the Lord Buddha had deserted his flock. Decrees had been passed limiting private commerce but that hadn’t made a lot of difference as there was hardly any money to spend. The five hundred million dollars pumped into the city by the US imperialists during the Vietnam War had well and truly dried up. The expressions on the faces of the people who lived in the quiet capital city advertised the city’s joylessness. In fact, on March 11 of that year, there were only two truly happy men in the entire country.
One was seventy-three, soon to be seventy-four-year-old Dr Siri Paiboun, the national coroner. It was astounding that a man so ancient, with so much bad karma tallied up against him, had been able to find any joy at all. Two years earlier, his dream of retirement had been bullied out of him and he had been designated the country’s only medical examiner. It was the nadir of a lifetime of unfortunate decisions: decades of trying to understand his own Communist Party, decades of marriage to a woman too focused on revolution to start the family he craved, decades of putting together soldiers broken from the countless battles of a never-ending civil war. What was one more unwanted job after a litany such as that?
But then, as if by a belated good fate, widower Siri had been reunited with Madame Daeng, the freedom fighter, still pretty at sixty-six, still carrying a torch for her silver-haired doctor. The couple had tumbled head over heels in love and, just two months earlier, they had married. The honeymoon showed no signs of abating and the smile hadn’t left the coroner’s lips since.
The other truly happy person on that steamy March day was the man who some knew as Phan. He’d just done away with his fifth wife and, as usual, nobody was any the wiser. How could a man not be overjoyed at such success?
“Are you Dr Siri?”
“Dr Siri Paiboun?”
“Three out of three; you win a coconut.”
“You have to come with me.”
Siri stood at the foot of the stairs that led to the upper floor of Madame Daeng’s noodle shop on Fa Ngum Street. He wore only a pair of Muay Thai boxing shorts and a crust of sleepy dust. His thick white hair was tousled and his eyes puffy. He hadn’t planned on being awake before eight and it was only a quarter past six. Daeng had gone down to set up for the morning noodle rush and had responded to the loud knocking at the shutters. She had checked the man’s credentials before rousing her hungover husband. Even though Siri was only 153 centimetres in his sandals he still managed to rise half a head above the intruder in the slate grey safari suit.
“Who are you?” Siri asked.
“Is this your place of abode?”
“Has anybody told you that answering questions with questions inevitably leads to your vanishing up your own – ?”
“Siri!” Madame Daeng caught him just in time. It was unwise to rile a bureaucrat, even a very small one. Both men looked up when she pulled back the double shutters to give the Mekhong River a better view of the inside of her shop. The early sunlight glittered on the water like a shoal of day stars. A solitary fisherman rowed his
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