With a thin chisel, he teases a curl of wood from the side of the plank. He picks up the timber, a two and a half metre length of teak almost twice his height, and turns it sideways, running his thumb along the exposed surface. Then he blows it. He catches me videoing him and laughs, revealing a wide gap where his front teeth should be. The camera shakes as I laugh with him.
Pong is chief carpenter on our boat refit project in southern Thailand. With his sons, Ton and Tui, he is transforming blocks of wood into exquisite surfaces. We have two giant fans to blast the sub-tropical heat, but all they do is move the glutinous air around. Rivulets of sweat run down the crevices in Pong’s walnut face, and disappear into his pencil moustache.
Sometimes in the yard, glassfibre and antifoul dust form a grey fog. I wear a mask, and at night scrub my skin until it’s raw to remove the prickly particles. When I cough and sneeze Pong laughs at me through his cigarette smoke.
Pong’s wife, their sons, the sons’ wives and children, Pong’s ducks and the boys’ scooters, have de-camped from Phuket to Satun. When they finish this project they will return home, but before he goes he will cook us one of his cherished ducks. In Thailand, he tells us, you always eat a duck before launching a boat because ducks never sink.
He rents a house opposite the yard, which sits near the end of a row of one-storey homes-cum-shops. There is a scruffy cafe on one side, and a laundry run by a woman with a couple of buckets and a single nylon line for drying, on the other. Inside Pong’s accommodation, there is a single large space; a high work bench is the only piece of furniture. I mime ‘sleep’ and he points to some mats on the vinyl floor. In the corner is a floor-to-ceiling plywood wall with a padlocked door, behind which Pong keeps his valuables. We continue further inside, across rough wooden planks suspended over bare earth, to a raised platform where the family gathers for food. Pong’s ducks fill the garden.
Pong’s child-sized body bends like a master yogi into the smallest spaces on the boat. Often, when I go below to see what he and his sons are up to, it takes a moment for me to find them. Sitting, cross-legged, on a small shelf by our bed, or inside the space where our cooker used to be, they apply delicate wooden veneer.
When the working day is over, Pong joins Jamie and me for a drink on a bench outside the yard shop. We knock back quarter bottles of Hong Thong Thai rum. The mimed conversation becomes more elaborate as the bottle drains and Pong laughs and laughs at everything we say. Others join us, infected by Pong’s good humour, and the laughing continues until we leave.