SICK TO DEATH
By Andrew Biggs
It was a perfect storm of diseased relatives and lovers.
The first phone call came at 5.30 am, a time my consciousness was battling the effects of sleep and three quick chardonnays prior to bedtime.
It was Chai, my driver.
“I have to take the day off. Banana is sick. She’s nearly dead … she’s got a temperature and she’s shaking! I must take her to hospital.”
“Okay,” I said, as I went back to sleep.
Two hours later I awoke. It wasn’t until I washed my face and downed the first of two Panadols that it occurred to me — did somebody call me in the middle of the night? And why was I conjuring up the mental image of a dead banana?
Then it clicked. Chai had called. He wasn’t coming to work. I’d have to drive my car all by myself.
My driver was my school’s idea. Last year I fell asleep at the wheel driving back from my Rayong branch, albeit only for one second, but it was enough to give me a shock which I relayed to my staff.
Me and my big mouth.
The following Monday a skinny little kid with a buzz haircut and khaki trousers sat in the school reception area.
“He’s your new driver, boss,” my HR lady explained. “We decided to hire him just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“You kill yourself in a car accident. Not good for business.
His name is Chai and he’s just out of the army.”
What followed was an uneasy week or two as Chai and I came to terms with sharing my car. Chai seemed to settle in nicely. And me?
First of all, having to sit in the back seat of my car for the first time was a huge upheaval. I had to move all my paraphernalia — hip flask, bottle opener, Carabao Daeng bottles — from the glove box to the back seat pockets.
Second, my glorious solitude was shattered.
Chai has conversation topics he is happy to instigate, with or without backseat contribution. He points out European sports cars with relish along with collisions on the side of the road.
This is in conflict with my antisocial personality. Each morning when he picks me up and asks: “Where to?” I am tempted to reply: “Anywhere in silence.”
Well I got my silence the day Banana knocked on death’s door. But who was Banana anyway? A pit bull terrier? A fighting cock?
“His girlfriend,” my HR lady told me when I got to school, driving myself, relishing the solitude so much so that I sat in my car for 15 minutes upon arrival.
“I didn’t know Chai had a girlfriend,” I said. I’d spent months with the guy and never thought to ask such questions — for fear it would lead to conversation, probably.
“Her nickname’s ‘Banana’,” she continued.
“Isn’t that a bit weird?”
“Not really, boss. Lots of Thais have that nickname.”
“I mean taking the day off because his girlfriend is sick!”
My HR lady had to pause to think about that one.
“Maybe nobody can take her to hospital,” she said.
“It seems strange. I mean, in my country we don’t take days off work because our girlfriends get sick.”
“He said she was nearly dead,” volunteered my HR lady. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was mean of me to demand my driver come to work on a day his girlfriend was shuffling off her mortal coil, or peel as Banana’s case would be.
At that moment my personal assistant Waen appeared. He performed a perfunctory wai then shot us a sullen look.
“My grandfather is sick,” he announced.
His name’s not Banana by any chance, I so wanted to ask, but didn’t.
“He’s been peeing blood since last night. I must visit him in Buriram.”
My heart sank. “Look, he’s kind of … old,” I said. “It’s normal for old people to pee blood.”
“I’m his only grandchild.”
“Can’t he get himself to hospital?”
“He’s already there. I have to be with him. I want to catch the bus at lunchtime.”
“When will you be back?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe two days.”
That wasn’t the end of it.
In the afternoon I received a phone call from Nid from our Rayong branch.
“It’s my grandmother,” Nid said. “She’s dying. I’m on a bus to Nakhon Sawan now.”
Nid’s grandmother is 97 years old. How could I say it nicely? Let’s face it, 97 is a pretty good innings, but the timing was terrible. We had new classes starting in Rayong — was there any way Nid’s grandmother could postpone her impending demise?
“I’ll come back after the funeral,” said Nid, as I prayed in the direction of the spirit house that it wouldn’t be a 100-day ceremony.
Chai. Waen. Nid. And then, at 3 pm, my accountant, Nuan.
“Nuan’s left early, boss. Her mother got food poisoning,” said HR lady.
“Sit down,” I said to her, and she duly sat, sheepishly.
“By law, how many days’ holiday is each staff member allowed annually?”
“Ten, boss,” she answered.
“What about sick leave?”
“But you need a doctor’s certificate,” she added, as if that made it okay.
“Sick leave means you yourself are sick, right? Not your parents or spouse?”
“So what about Chai, Waen, Nid and Nuan?” They sounded like the name of a Scandinavian folk group. “All robustly health yet all taking sick leave?”
My HR lady smiled, shook her head and threw me her “you farangs never understand” glance. “They’re taking personal leave, boss. You’re allowed an extra 10 days per year for that.”
I sat in stunned silence. That’s 50 working days a year my staff are legally allowed to take off — or the equivalent of nearly two and a half months’ work. I’m probably employing dozens of people who haven’t set foot in the office since Loy Krathong.
“There’s more, boss. There’s maternity leave. That’s one month by law. And monk leave. That’s up to the company, but usually they will allow 15 days. Is there something wrong, boss? You’re staring at me funny.”
The next morning Chai was there to pick me up.
For the first 20 minutes we engaged in stony yet welcome silence. He wasn’t forthcoming with any news about Banana, and why should he be? Illness doesn’t fall within the parameters of European sports cars and roadside carnage.
“So how’s Banana?” I asked finally.
“Much better. She doesn’t have a temperature any more. She ate some food last night.”
What a waste of a day off, that’s all I could think. And it wasn’t just her who made a remarkable recovery, either.
Waen’s grandfather bounced back in no time. Nuan’s mother received a saline solution and was sent home.
And Nid’s 97-year-old grandmother staged a miraculous, if unnecessary, recovery, despite the cremation tent being set up outside her home by an over-zealous funeral director. After five days, Nid decided he should get back to work.
A combined ten working days wasted and not a single cadaver to show for it.
Should I stamp my feet?
Should I stick an announcement on the notice board saying no unnecessary leave can be taken from now on?
I could. But it might be more productive if I thought less of my staff’s shortcomings, and more on how loyal, trustworthy, caring and even diligent every single one of them is. I have the best staff in the world.
If only I could say the same about their resilient relatives and partners.