Chapter 3: Balance: ฿942
“What’re you up to?”
Arthit is scribbling something on a piece of paper, occasionally tapping the desk with his pencil in thought when Kongpob walks in on Thursday morning. Kongpob plops himself down in front of Arthit again, resting an elbow on the corner of the desk. He’s taken to doing this every morning, trying to strike up any sort of conversation, much to Arthit’s reluctance.
“Sugar! Did we have Maths homework due today?”
“Sugar?” Arthit frowns at him questioningly.
“We’re not supposed to swear at school,” Kongpob explains.
Arthit blinks a few times, trying to decide if he’s serious or not. Detecting no hint of jest, he bites back a smile, then continues scrawling numbers on the page, his handwriting messy and haphazard.
“No, this isn’t homework. I’m just doing some review.”
“But…why? We don’t have a quiz coming up.”
Kongpob peers at Arthit’s rough work, trying to make sense of the gray, insect-like figures.
“It just helps me remember it.”
“Maybe you could teach me, then. I’m awful at algebra.”
“I’m sure you could hire a professional instead, moneybags.”
Arthit is still writing and drawing arrows between different patches of scribbles as he speaks.
“Why would I do that when I could just ask my warm, fuzzy friend?” Kongpob grins at him, tilting his head to look at Arthit from his bowed view.
Arthit finally looks up and places his pencil down.
“Why won’t you leave me alone? And again, we’re not friends.”
“Good morning to you, too, Arthit. Come on, help me out. I need a better grade,” Kongpob pouts, gently pulling at the sleeve of Arthit’s left arm, which the latter promptly shakes off.
“It’s not my problem that you can’t even do simple arithmetic without a calculator.”
Kongpob doesn’t get to finish his sentence before their teacher calls for everyone’s attention, everyone scrambling back to their seats. He turns around once he’s seated, waving at Arthit, who rolls his eyes.
The courtyard is fairly crowded at lunch, a friendly football match taking place in the playground as half the student population crowds around, cheering for their favourite side.
As it’s not really their sport, Kongpob and M are sat at their usual table, chatting about nothing as they eat their lunch. Today, Kongpob is eating a vermicelli salad with shrimps and tofu cubes, doused in a sweet and sour dressing.
It’s as they’re talking about an upcoming game they have with a neighbouring school, that M nudges him from across the table. Kongpob squints briefly, before following M’s slight tilt of the chin behind him.
Arthit is fidgeting with the edge of his sleeve, eyes looking everywhere but at Kongpob, who immediately brightens at the sight of him.
“Arthit! Come join us!” he says, shuffling over on the bench to make room.
“I…no, that’s okay. I already ate.”
“Oh. Well, join us anyway.”
Arthit glances briefly at M, who shrugs and gives a tight lipped smile. He stands planted for a few more moments before he shakes his head.
“No, that’s okay. Sorry, I’ll just—” is all he says before he’s speed walking in the other direction, into the crowd and invisible again.
Kongpob and M watch after him, both in bewilderment at what had just happened.
“Uh…what was that about?” M says.
“I don’t know.”
Kongpob is still staring in the direction of the playground, trying to see where Arthit has gone.
“Also, since when do you talk to Pork— sorry, I mean, Arthit? You guys are friends?”
“Just recently. He’s in our class, it’s not so weird that we would be friends.”
M chuckles and shakes his head, digging his spoon into his rice.
“No, I guess not. It’s just funny that you two are friends after all this time.”
Kongpob pauses, looking up at his friend, who seems disproportionately amused.
“What do you mean?”
M pauses, trying to read Kongpob’s confused expression.
“Never mind, it’s not important, I guess.”
When Kongpob nears the cart that afternoon, he sees Arthit hurriedly taking off his apron and dashing down the street, leaving the cart to be attended by a middle-aged woman.
He hadn’t been able to visit the cart for the past two days, practice running late enough that his mother wouldn’t allow him to make his own way home, despite his protests.
“Sawasdee krab,” he says to the woman, giving her a wai.
“What can I get you, Nong?” she smiles. Kongpob recognises the same milky complexion and the deep dimple in her cheeks. This must be his mother, he thinks.
“Excuse me, I was actually looking for Arthit,” he peers behind her in the direction that Arthit had taken off running.
She looks surprised, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Oh! I think he’s just gone to use the toilet,” she says. “You know my son?”
“Yeah, he’s my friend from school,” he smiles, teeth sparkling white. The woman pauses a moment, taking in Kongpob’s features, before smiling softly.
“He must be fond of you if he considers you a friend. My Arthit is not exactly a social butterfly.” she shakes her head and turns a few skewers over to check the grill marks.
Kongpob grins at this, noting the many times Arthit had so vehemently reminded him that they were not, in fact, friends.
“What’s your name, nong?”
“Kongpob,” he says. Her hands stop briefly, looking at him again with a tilt of her head.
“Well, N’Kongpob, would you like anything to eat?”
Kongpob isn’t actually hungry, but he feels bad for taking up her time without buying anything.
“I’ll take five of the pork, and three of the beef.”
“Wow! Big appetite?” she places a few more skewers on the grill, which sizzle as the marinade drips onto the coals.
Not really, he thinks, but hopefully by the time the skewers are done, Arthit will have returned from the toilet.
“Well, it is really delicious. I’m going to take some home for my sister.”
“Aren’t you sweet?” she grins. “And so handsome, too!”
He blushes, biting his lip in the same awkward smile he gives his distant aunts when they make the same comment. Arthit’s mother puts the skewers into a plastic bag and hands them to him.
“That’ll be ฿49.”
It’s at this moment that Arthit scurries back up to the cart, a little flustered.
“Mae! I, uh…I’ve got it from here.” he loops his apron back over his head, hurriedly tying the strings in the back.
“Oh, Oon, you’re back. I was just talking to Kongpob here,” she emphasises his name, raising her eyebrows. “You didn’t tell me you made a friend at school!”
Arthit glances between Kongpob and his mother quickly before giving a tight-lipped smile.
“Uh…how much was it?” he says, willing for his mother to walk away now. However, she folds her arms in amusement as she watches.
“฿49.” she digs around in the cash bucket, looking for a ฿1 coin. “Nong, do you have a ฿50?”
Kongpob looks at Arthit briefly, who’s scratching the back of his neck. He must have not mentioned their unique deal to his mother.
“Um, yeah, just a moment.” he reaches into his wallet, thankfully finding a ฿50 note. He’d made note to break up his cash into smaller banknotes since his first encounter with Arthit’s wrath.
She takes the note, plopping the coin into his open palm.
“Arthit, I’ll see you at school, then,” he says, after sensing his classmate’s discomfort.
Arthit just nods, not looking at him.
“Thank you, Paa,” he wais to her again.
“Oh, please. Just call me Mae.”
“Krub, Mae,” he says, eyes meeting briefly with Arthit’s before he turns to make his way down the street.
When he’s far enough from earshot, Arthit’s mother turns to him and pinches his cheek.
“Sooo…Kongpob, huh? I haven’t heard you mention that name since you were in middle school.”
“Maaaeee,” he whines. “It’s not like that.”
“What? I’m just glad you’re making friends. It doesn’t hurt that he’s so polite and handsome, too.”
“Don’t you have your own stall to run?” he mutters, frowning as he brushes more marinade on the skewers.
“Uyyyy,” she tuts, pulling at his ear. “Don’t get sassy with me.”
She shakes her head, but does indeed make her way back over to her own stall, a few ones over from Arthit.
“Thanks for watching my stall, N’Prae,” she says, scooping dry coffee grounds into a nylon strainer. “That son of mine, he’s so stubborn!”
Prae laughs, stepping back behind her own stall, spooning a fresh ladle of scallion pancake batter onto a large, round griddle top.
“No problem, Mae.”
Sure that his mother is no longer watching, Arthit slyly pulls out the notepad.
14/08/2014 – ฿49
He fishes Kongpob’s ฿50 out of the cash bucket and pockets it, before quickly tucking the notepad back into the cart.