Shirley Eng

Shirley Eng now lives in Christchurch, New Zealand but has lived in Singapore and Shanghai. She writes short stories and poetry and the occasional piece of non-fiction, all in an attempt to make some sense of the world

Writing for me is like exercise for some people. I feel better for having done some. Just like exercise stretches the muscles and gets air into the lungs, writing pushes my thoughts and extends my language.

The Summons


Dear Sarah

I’m getting the hang of avoiding trouble. ‘Congratulations,’ I hear you think, ‘Only took you 48 years and a stint in jail.’

I was terrified of prison but not enough to blab. I’d heard the horror stories about the inside. Thai jails are something else, but sadism’s alive and well in New Zealand’s system too.

Sorry, I forget myself. Thanks for sending the writing stuff. The prison shop stocks it but you need money. My prisoner’s account is empty. To transfer funds… don’t let me get started.

Getting your stuff to me has taken four days and heaps of begging. Writing’s suspect. Thinking needs obliterating.

Still, my fears of intimidation from fellow inmates were ill founded. Maybe they respect me for not being a nark. Mind you, I only know three cell mates well: Spud, Al and Kenny. Nineteen hours a day us remand prisoners spend in the same cell. Shared toilet and shower, ensuite, you know.

The TV plays constantly, programmes like The Bachelor and Master Chef, to remind us of winners and losers, most inmates being losers from birth. In one of my darker moments I dreamed up this idea of writing to the top guy, suggesting they provide ropes instead of TV’s. Cheaper, quicker and permanent. Wouldn’t help my case, though.

In the weekends, we spend 22 hours a day in our cells. It’s amazing how sane my companions are.

Sorry about the mood. Prison breeds darkness.

I keep thinking about Keith’s reassurance not to be overdramatic: ‘They’ll never take the prison option,’ he’d say.‘Nobody’s been jailed under section 165 of the Criminal Procedure Act.’

Bloody lawyers, charge you an arm and a leg whether they’re right or wrong. In my case, it’s more than limbs. It’s my sanity.

I do think about you and Beth, honest. It’s just that when your world shrinks to a cell, it’s hard to believe there’s an outside – even when there are people as dear to me as you two are who live in freedom.

Please write and tell me about that. Take my mind off my next court appearance on Wednesday. I don’t suppose you’ve told Beth her father’s in prison. That’s your call.

Keith’s challenge to the High Court has just made this judge more bloody stubborn, I reckon, but I’m staunch too, so don’t count on getting me out any time soon.

Love you both,


You caught me on the hop, turning up like that, but now’s the time to get things straight.

I didn’t want you jailed but don’t expect my sympathy. I don’t know who it is you refuse to rat on. Don’t want to know, but I suspect it’s that old rogue, Terry. You owe him nothing. We all make choices. He made rotten ones all his life. Indefensible ones, in my book.

You got one thing right. I haven’t told Beth you’re in prison. I haven’t told her you’re back. I haven’t told her you’re alive. Don’t you realize you’ve been dead to us for the last sixteen years?

I suppose when name suppression’s lifted and your story hits the media she’ll have to be told but I’m saying nothing till then. Actually, since she’s moved to Wellington, we don’t communicate so much. She’s gone her way, I’ve gone mine. Keeping your return quiet wasn’t hard.

Leave off the love you stuff, will you? You demonstrated your love by clearing off to Thailand when we needed you. I don’t want to know what happened. Or if Sisi’s still around. Beth and I got on just fine without you. Life was a lot less complicated… till Beth hit puberty.

Don’t misinterpret the help I’ve given you. Helping people is what I do. Put you up for a night, get you stationery. No sweat. I help the old guy over the fence. He finds it difficult getting his rubbish out. He’s a neighbour. You and I are on that level. Got it?

By the way, once they let you out, you’ll need to find somewhere else to stay. Beth rarely comes down but I don’t want to refuse to let her stay, if she decides to return. Besides, everyone thinks I’m a widow. To tell the truth, even your big travel pack in the spare room’s awkward. How do I know what’s in it? It may have stuff respectable people wouldn’t want in their homes. Just saying.


Dear Dad,

How weird is that? For years, you’ve been dead. Killed in a motorbike accident overseas. Mum told me it happened when I was about two. Sometimes I thought I could remember you – dropping me off at pre-school, on your shoulders at the beach, in your arms half asleep. Just snippets I probably made up to feel the same as the kids with dads…

How did I find out about you now? This guy I used to get around with works for Crown Law and he assumed I knew you’d been imprisoned for refusing to give evidence in a criminal pre-trial hearing. He was raving on about how unprecedented it was jailing someone who refused to give evidence. Imagine how much untangling that took to get me to understand it was you. I’ve been through denial, shock, tantrums, name-calling. But now I’ve realised I’m a mature, civilized adult, I’m giving you a chance to explain yourself.

Are you allowed visitors? Do I just rock up? Do I need an appointment? Will they frisk me? I should point out you’ll have to stay there for at least five more weeks because I can’t see myself clear of assignments and research demands till then.

How’s Mum taking it? She can be very obdurate. Having an adult daughter with a mind of her own doesn’t come easy for her. She has a kind heart, if you’re ‘deserving’. Ignore that last bit. I do love her but we’re so different that it’s better if we live in different cities. Not sure how she’ll take my visiting you.

I’ve included some writing paper and a stamped self- addressed envelope in case those things are a bit short in your digs. I really want a reply, get the hint?

Your abandoned daughter,


Dear Sarah,

Sorry. Remember how I always thought I knew what was in your head and how I kept getting that wrong? Thanks for your help. I don’t deserve it. You’re a good woman. I shouldn’t take advantage.

Don’t worry about the pack. It’s just got clothes and toiletries in it. A couple of paperbacks. A tablet. Cell phone. No drug stuff, PROMISE. For the record, I gave up drugs a long time ago. Get someone to help you stick it out in the shed.

No more moans from the inside. And don’t worry about SiSi. She’s still around as my business partner. Never more. You’d like her. She has a good heart. She helps people too.

When this is all sorted, you should come to Trabi and stay at our Lodge. As my guest. You’d love it. Our little bay is beautiful. A place of regeneration. You’d find my work a bit different from what you think.


Dear Beth,

Your letter has left me so chuffed I almost didn’t notice being stuck in this hole. A little bit of the universe grew lighter. Like it’s all meant to be. I feel stronger about facing the judge tomorrow, my fifth appearance. He thinks time in here will change my mind. I hate the humiliation and denial of freedom, but I won’t buckle. I hope to meet you away from here. Perhaps you’ll have time to graduate and be practising before I’m released. But no, I’ve got faith in myself now.

Let me tell you how my court appearance goes.

You’ll recognise the headmaster’s trick of keeping the recalcitrant waiting outside the office? I’m driven to court in a steel box early in the day, handcuffed. I’m locked into a cell where I watch people coming and going all day while I wait and wait; the skinny man, the powerless soul. By the time I’m summoned, my brain’s gone numb. I hear my solicitor talk on behalf of someone. Me, supposedly in a fit state for interrogation. Asymmetric warfare, I call it, known as ‘bullying’ at school.

But, how’re you doing? You’re obviously a clever young woman. Clinical psychology, I hear. I’m told that’s competitive to get into. Perhaps you can help me understand myself one day – my attraction to those who don’t fit into society and… all my many other flaws. I like your openness, your lack of judgement, your humour.

One good thing about being in here is, it allows you to realise how bloody dysfunctional imprisonment is. If you didn’t know already. The guards treat you like a kid. One told me to, ‘Ask politely,’ the other day. What reaction did he expect? A bloodied nose? Try needing a dentist or setting up a bank account. It’s a maze newbies have to find their way through. Inevitably a form is involved somewhere. Nobody helps you get to it, though.

You’re reduced to a zombie.

But I’m raving again. A bad case of prisonitis.

Write again soon. I want to get to know you. Don’t worry about visiting me. How about a photo?

Your dad, Monty

Dear Monty,

Hope you well. Jed and me in Thabi no more.

Bad guys come. With machete. For you.

You gone already airport. Jed toll them he find you. He run away.

We hide children in safe house. Girls find own job, some go Bangkok. So sorry.

Jed and I go up North. Paradise Blue disappear.

Hope you good.


Call me. Your phone no answer.


Dear Dad Monty,

‘Monty ‘ from now on since I missed out on the ‘Dad’ bit.

My life is far from interesting. A $40,000 loan confines it. But I love this stuff. It took me a while to settle on clinical psychology and then I had to have a couple of go’s at getting accepted but now I know it’s what I want to do. Not totally sure of my final area but will probably choose ‘concentration’ and how to improve it.

There is so much we don’t know about learning. Brain scanning has taught us heaps. I’d love to bore you with it some time.

But now, I need to know more about you. Obviously, you can’t tell me anything about the case but you could tell me something about this guy they want you to give evidence about. No names. Also, I need to know why you left us? Were we so horrible?

What do you do now? Why Thailand? Can I come and see you there? Sounds exotic. Is there scuba diving?

Got to go to a tutorial.


Attn. Mr Seamus Montgomery,

The premises known as Paradise Blue has come to the notice of the Phuket Police as a business suspected of operating a brothel and in child trafficking.

This is strictly against the law of the Kingdom of Thailand and, you, as registered Manager of Paradise Blue, are requested to report to the Phuket police station on Monday the 31st of August at to discuss this matter further and provide evidence in defence of this accusation.

Please be informed, if you are found guilty of this offence, as a first offender a fine of 300,000,000 Thai baht (Three hundred thousand) is payable within 40 (forty days) of this summons.

A fine (in lieu of further punishment) is conditional on a commitment to a discontinuation of said activities forthwith.

Please be aware that Thai law allows surveillance of the premises to be carried out without notice and without warning at any time.

N.B. Failure to attend the nominated meeting at the time requested above, will result in the forfeiture of your lease and properties and withdrawal of business visa.

Failure to pay the fine will also result in a warrant for your arrest.

Please be informed that running a brothel is an offence which may carry a sentence of between five to ten years’ imprisonment.

Yours sincerely,
Akkarat Narkbunnum
Chief Inspector, Phuket Police,


Dear Beth,

You’re right. Nothing about the case. I made some stupid mistakes in my young days. Sometimes you get the chance to pay back the people who stuck by you. Enough said.

I know you want and deserve some answers about disappearing from your life. Just believe me when I say I had to leave when I did. I’ll explain someday soon. I was a slow learner about what mattered. I can’t write about that from here.

Thai thugs have used my absence to bribe the authorities and ruin our business. SiSi and I had set up an enterprise helping women escape prostitution, giving them skills. Also, helping street kids. We gave both groups a rudimentary education, basic training in hospitality, therapeutic massage, simple crafts to sell to tourists, hygiene and basic cooking in a kind of tourist retreat called Paradise Blue. We had a good number of volunteers to help us and it was a great place to be, very healing for everyone. But anything that threatens the porn business is on risky territory. SiSi and her adult son, Jed have fled. Any enterprise in Thailand is hugely complicated, without bribes or fame.

A few months ago, I’d have loved to have had you and Sarah come over, enjoy the place, see our good work… Life changes, sometimes without warning. A tsunami, a hurricane, a prison sentence…

Must have had a premonition! My lawyer, says he’s confident I’ll be discharged at my next court appearance. A pyrrhic victory, some might say, when Paradise Blue’s lost. But I look at it like this. Women we helped will have learned enough to start life anew. Some had already gone. To have done more would have been good but…returning to Thailand is not an option for me now. Thailand’s Justice system makes New Zealand’s look half reasonable.

I’ve got another chance to get to know my daughter. How lucky is that? After squandering the first go. You’re so different to me. You haven’t stuffed up your chances.

I can’t blame anyone else but my biggest regret is not being part of your childhood. It’s not easy to talk about your painful fuck-ups but when I see you I’ll try to explain what happened. None of it was your fault. Perhaps I did you a favour by clearing out. I had so much to learn in Thailand.

Does everything happen for a reason? Was the summons the universe’s way of getting me to pause, suffer a bit, face up to the injustice I’ve inflicted, put a few things right … I hear you laugh and say, ‘Pop psychology.’ You’re probably right.