HE has never called her Napatsorn - not even on their wedding day. He tells his glum family her name is Patty, but they never come to visit, so her name never really matters. The neighbours too are silent and slip into shadows when they see him coming; their pursed lips and tut-tutting make him angry - but if their coldness upsets Patty, she never lets it show. She is always gracious in company. Polite. Mostly silent.
He learns she is silent most of the time. Not sullen or shy: he knows this because there is always a sparkle somewhere - in her eyes; in the movement of her fingers as she chops fresh mint on the flat bench his bent hands have carved; in her glossy hair, thick as black wheat. In her straight white teeth.
A bloke he knows has a Thai bride too; a tiny thing with miniature hands and feet. But this bride is treated roughly - right from the start- and when she visits Patty they always sit with their heads bowed together, speaking in soft lyrical patterns. Patty sometimes holds the other bride's tiny hand and strokes it and this makes him feel jealous.
Sometimes he will cough loudly and say, "Patty we need to go to the hardware store" . . . and of course she nods and smiles, her strong fingers encircling the little tan ones as their alien words ebb into silence.
At other times he is happy to watch her and does not interrupt- brushing her teeth bpraeng fan, adjusting her brassiere, smoothing down the silky seams of her wrap-around skirt. With light fingers she pomades her hair, arranges her brushes and turns slightly to smile up at him. Small smiles. That is all she ever offers.
One day Patty tells him that her friend needs help. The husband has been particularly brutal and her teeth and face are damaged. Patty's eyes are dark and pleading. One hand reaches to her throat, the other to his chest. He coughs and reminds her that he's known the husband for many years. He's a hard worker. Nobody worked harder on a shift than him. Remember Patty: his first wife took his children away and he never saw them again. If his new wife leaves and takes the baby, that would be the end of him.
Now and then he wonders why Patty never had a baby. He knows she did nothing to prevent it. He watches her as she watches her friend's baby grow into a little pink girl. He sees the exchange of precise smiles as the women sew dainty dresses together.
One day the little girl, clumsy on chubby legs, bumps a cup off a low glass table and rusty tea spills equally over a half-made frock and Patty's feet.
Mai pen rai! Mai pen rai!
It doesn't matter! It doesn't matter!
But it does matter! The carpet in the room is alabaster and new! Patty will work hard to remove the stain. He coughs and leans against the doorframe. Patty looks up at him, her eyes twinkling with joy and love. Against his better judgment, he finds himself smiling back.
Not long afterwards he comes home from the races and finds Patty sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by bunched up tissues and unwashed dishes. She is still wearing her morning apron and flies drone around the sink. Her eyes, puffy and tired, stare towards a faded Tretchikoff. Her palms are flat on the table. Her hair has broken free and coils like a thick snake over one shoulder.
The baby girl has gone, she tells him in flat, faltering words. The mother has gone too. He smells of sweat and horses and beer. Perhaps he should take her hand? Instead he sits down at the table and waits. Slowly Patty's eyes meet his own. What has happened Patty, he asks. Where have they gone?
There comes a time when all the moments are stitched together like a delicate silk pha nung and she can think without crying inside. He gardens, always busy; bushy brows like bamboo gone to seed. The backs of his hands are spotted with age and his shoulders stoop against the pressing heat.
He has planted canna lily and gerbera. Flowers for her. Flowers she does not like. He grunts as he moves a little sideways, pulling weeds, tossing them onto his manicured lawn. She watches him from under her wide-brimmed hat. She prefers waxy lantom flowers with their golden centres and heavy evening scent. The plants he has sown remind her of her father's ruan kruang sab and blurred faces she has left behind.
He is cross she cannot cook today. Slamming cupboard doors he finally brings her a bowl of lukewarm soup, but when she cannot pick up the spoon his eyebrows jump and she feels the heat of frustration. Later, he places a pillow under her head and draws up the blanket till it caresses her throat. If you're not better tomorrow I'll call the doctor, he says. But she knows he doesn't want to. He'd rather deal with it all himself, somehow.
The prickly summer dissolves into a wet autumn. He has lost one umbrella, stolen from the nursing home, so he is watchful now. In the cramped room he tosses old lilies in the bin and replaces them with yellow gerbera blossoms. He tells her how he has filled in his day, but her eyes are fixed and distant. She is the youngest patient here and she seems to be shrinking. He looks at her clever fingers lying in knots and sees her nails need clipping. This almost makes him cry.
Later, the nurses shake their heads as they watch him leave - cracking open his umbrella against the heavy rain that will wash over him, all the way home, like a baptism of sorrow.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in the Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23