Fiction / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Mist on the Jungle

by William Peskett

The closer we got to Ranong, the heavier the rain came down. It lashed the car in sheets, the thud of the big drops on the roof making our hired Toyota sound thin and cheap, like a creosote tin. Cars slid past, their windscreen wipers on full speed, some with their lights on. Soaked boys on motorbikes drove by one-handed; the other an eye-shield seeking a passage through the watery veils.

The rain hadn't let up for two days. At night, the water beat on the steel roof of our hotel chalet, keeping the boys awake. In the morning, expecting the fresh air of a newly-rinsed world, all we got was another wash cycle. The puddles had coalesced in the night, forming the beginnings of a moat around the bungalow. To reach the car, we had to leap in our flip-flops from island to muddy island, across the new swamp of the hotel garden like water-hens skipping between lily pads. Back on the road, the low grey sky threatened the horizon, nursing clouds like painful purple bruises.

Ranong is Thailand's wettest city, something I knew from my dog-eared guide book. Five metres of water pass through it every year. On its journey from cloud to aquifer, or out to the sea, that day the rain hammered Ranong's streets, flooding its gutters and swilling fervently down its inadequate drains. The people on the slick pavements waddled about in translucent plastic coats, fogged up on the inside. Caught by the wind, they swelled up like grubs. You could see them moving inside like organs heaving, their skins glistening under the constant downpour. The world as seen from Ranong was sodden, heavy, saturated, like a dripping liver. The town seemed to have an economy based on rain; one squeeze and its currency would spurt out like blood.

South of Ranong, when we stopped on Highway 4 to admire the Nam Tok Ngao waterfall from the sanctuary of the car, the popular spectacle seemed at once unremarkable, no more than a continuous part of its surroundings, just another cascade in a wide landscape of deluge.

Further on, we turned left, east off the highway and into the heart of the Isthmus of Kra. It sounded like an invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, a monstrous empire, perhaps, where the laws of the universe conceded to magic. The road narrowed. After a few forks, the tarmac gave way for a stretch to poured concrete, then to pot-holed shingle and mud. The tracks of previous cars snaked around the largest puddles, but I couldn't avoid them all. Filled with water, there was no way of telling how deep a pot-hole was going to be, so I slowed the slalom to little more than walking pace.

We were in jungle now, a deeper landscape, magic indeed, cultivated sporadically on either side of the track and there sown with crops: sweet corn, papaya, dragon fruit and some coffee bushes. Further back, the lush mix of palms, bamboo and taller broad-leafed jungle trees exalted in the rain and danced with the wind. Lashed with water, every glossy leaf dribbled and ran. Above, the clouds had settled on the hills, the vapour wisps below the tree-line like cigar smoke in a clubroom that the diners had left.

At a crossroads, there was a small village which had a modern school and a dowdy temple. Geng asked me to stop the car.

"You want to get out?" I asked.

"Just for a moment. I won't be long."

"You'll get soaked. That umbrella's not going to be any good in this."

'I'll be OK."

"Can I go, too?" asked James.

"OK, but hurry. What about you, Michael?"

"No thanks."

Identical twins brought up together and everything has to be different.

They dashed under the umbrella into the temple compound. I saw her run up the steps of the bot with James on one hip, step out of her sandals and duck inside.

After 15 minutes or so, the rain had eased and they re-emerged from the wat. The light caught Geng's face as she got back into the car. She looked concerned. She put her son in the back, settled beside me and said, "I had a bad dream last night. A doctor was cutting my sister's leg. She was naked. It could mean she's going to get sick."

"And the temple?"

"Insurance," she said.

I looked at my wife, open-mouthed. There was nothing to say that I hadn't said before, always when we were in Thailand. I slapped the steering wheel in frustration, took a deep breath, paused to allow the moment to pass and started the engine. I wasn't angry, just disappointed.

She asked petulantly, "You understand insurance?"

"Yes, I understand insurance."

I could sing a song for you, my love, with notes that beat to your heart's thrum and words that echoed like your own. I could write a book about you, an encyclopaedia of Geng; the chronicles of you. I have watched you sleeping, held your sleepy head in my lap on tiring boat-trips on choppy seas, seen you as lively as anything with breath. I know your biology. I have tasted your blood and held your vomit in my cupped hands. I have seen two boys slip out of you. I have questioned you in the dark, talked to you all day, taught you and learned from you. We have made love knowledgeably; from the first day I met you, we have made love. I have loved no-one more than you, Geng. There's no-one I know better than you; I know every molecule of you. And yet I don't know you.

My wife is that rare thing: a beautiful, educated and travelled Thai woman. She is not unique in these characteristics, I am sure, but she is rare. She comes from a poor family near Ranong in south Thailand at a point where the isthmus is at its thinnest, no more than 100 kilometres from the Andaman Sea in the west to the Gulf of Thailand to the east. Like most of her village contemporaries, Geng got little from formal schooling. Drifting into bar-work in Phuket was also nothing unusual for the girls she knew. Many had already seen off one hopelessly young husband by the time they left, depositing a baby in the arms of its grandmother as they boarded the bus.

Geng had held out in this regard, hoping to find a more suitable partner among the tourists who flocked to Phuket's beaches and bars. She surprised herself, and her family, by choosing a Thai man to marry. He was indeed a tourist—down from Bangkok for a fortnight's golf with three business friends—but he was unlike any of the local Thais whom her friends had married so unsuccessfully. He was not only comfortably wealthy; he was also, from what I have heard from Geng, loving and thoughtful. Nerng had what the Thais call "a good heart." He saw potential in his young wife and, settled in their new home in Bangkok, sent her back to school, financed her studies and proudly supported her progress to university in the city, where she read physics—the only woman in her year to do so.

Geng's ambitions were not satisfied by her degree. She was offered a place to study for a PhD in electrical engineering at Manchester. Nerng's business contacts helped her win a scholarship from an educational foundation, and he promised to help with any additional living expenses she might have during the three or four years she would be in England.

For a year, it was a happy arrangement. Geng flew home the first Christmas, and Nerng visited his wife in Manchester the following Easter. But in the summer, when Geng again returned to Thailand, she noticed a change in her husband. He was ready to start a family, he said. He wanted children. Geng would have to abandon her doctorate and return to Bangkok. She couldn't be a proper wife at such a distance. He hadn't realised how long her studies would take. He missed her presence at company functions. He felt let down and confused. Geng knew what this was about: his family was pressing for grandchildren. It was pitiful, she thought, to see a man who commanded such authority in his business life reduced to trotting out the unthinking demands of his ageing parents.

Geng had to endure an angry scene with Nerng's mother in which the matriarch fed her roughly the same line she'd received from her husband. However, Nerng hadn't gripped her by the wrists, slapped her face and thrown her to her knees as his mother had done. Unable to respond, she cowered on the floor in the position traditionally ordained for Thais in the presence of a superior.

Geng tried for a week to change her husband's mind, to convince him that there would be time enough to make a family after she had earned her PhD. Her qualification would open up wonderful opportunities for her, for them. They could work abroad for a few years; she could earn good money.

The pressure in Nerng exploded. He couldn't go abroad; his business was in Bangkok. They didn't need any more money; he had income enough to provide for a family of any size.

It was hopeless. One morning when Nerng was at work, Geng packed everything she owned into two bags and left for the airport. She summoned the strength of purpose that resides in many Thai women in times of difficulty: she would carry on alone.

The pot-holed road continued for four or five kilometres. Over one stream, a new concrete bridge had been constructed. Over the next, there were still the two railway sleepers that I remembered. With the final run down into Geng's village, the sun at last burst through the sky's sodden duvet of cloud. I pulled the mud-spattered car to a halt on the cement square—used in other seasons for drying coffee—across the track from her mother's house.

Geng's mother—I always called her Ma—approached us shyly. She wore a bright floral blouse over a bright floral sarong. Her natural reserve fought with her enthusiasm to meet her half-Western grandsons for the first time. Geng had trained them to wai their grandmother, holding their hands, palms together, up to their foreheads. Ma smiled gracefully, squeezed my forearm in the way she always did and led us to her house.

Ma's home is typical of the area, indeed of most of Thailand, a two-storey wooden building with an open ground floor used for sitting out in the evenings, storage, free-range chickens and occasionally a caged pig. Wooden steps lead up to the main living quarters, four or five windowless rooms that are mostly bare of furniture. In one, there is a fridge, in another a large television, aged appliances which indicate roughly the functions of each area.

The steps were sprinkled with fresh blood in honour of our arrival, and, I had been told in the past, to warn off any spirits that might consider doing us harm. The previous owner of the blood had been plucked and neatly chopped and was boiling in a grey broth over the open wood fire in the kitchen, an area beside the house protected by a lean-to plastic roof. A clawed chicken's foot, I recall, projected from the surface of the stew.

The bird was to be our lunch, served as we sat on wooden crates and stools around a low table while the village shaman, hired for the occasion, incanted scripture monotonously in some unused but sacred language. With Geng helping the twins, we stretched out our hands palm-down to spill any residue of bad luck that might be in us. Then we turned them over to receive the good luck that falls from the sky like enchanted rain.

After lunch, Geng came to me looking grave. Her aunt, she told me, had been taken ill and she had offered that we would drive the old lady to hospital.

"I knew this would happen," she added dramatically.

"Actually, you said your sister would get sick," I pointed out.

"She's my mother's sister. It's not 100 per cent accurate, how could it be?"

"How could it be one per cent accurate?"

My darling Geng, what is it about this realm, this soil, this idea of Thailand that strips you so completely of what you have strived all your adult life to achieve? I'm thinking now of your CV: physics graduate, doctor of electrical engineering, production director—clear evidence there of your aptitude for rational thought. Is it the pesticide spray they dispense on the plane? Does some insidious fog enter your mind when you step through passport control? Does the metal detector wipe your hard drive? As you approach the Isthmus of Kra, do I hear your memory banks degrade, like Hal in the movie 2001? "Don't do that, Dave." "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do." What a shock it always is to find that ten years of education, self-motivated against what most people in your position would consider impossible odds, count for so little in the mystical kingdom.

We met in the first term of Geng's second year. Although her scholarship was paying her tuition fees and rent, she had taken a waitressing job to make up the rest. I had been alone for four years following my divorce. I liked Thai food. She served me at my table-for-one.

In those four years, I had seldom felt desire for a woman and certainly there had been no relationships, no intimacy. Pretty girls had served me before, in banks, bookshops and burger bars. I had delighted in their beauty but had never received that essential insight, the one that puts us together in some future tableau. This one is attractive, but what would she see in me? I sell insurance, for God's sake. Can I imagine myself introducing a woman like this to my father or my daughter?

But it happened with Geng. I was polite to her and friendly without, I hope, giving her the idea that I was trying to pick her up, which I wasn't. She was friendly back. We kept eye contact longer than is usual with waitresses and customers. When I settled the bill, she hovered by my table so long I thought I'd botched the card transaction or insulted her with the amount of the tip. After an awkward silence, she told me she finished work at 11.30. I said I'd wait outside.

I found the nearest pub and counted off the two hours in a passion of uncertainty. What the hell was I doing? I'd hardly spoken to this woman except to discuss the spiciness of the food and the availability of green papaya. She must have been 20 years younger than me. The test: could I picture her with my father or my daughter? Actually, no.

When I met her outside the closing restaurant, we hardly spoke.

"Where should we go?" I asked feebly.

"Most places will be shutting up soon," she pointed out.

"I live quite close. I don't suppose you'd like to come and get some coffee? Really, you should say no. I mean, the risk."

"It was my idea," she said calmly, holding my gaze. Indicating the restaurant, she explained, "I told my friend that I was meeting you. We have your credit card details. I think I'm safe."

Within two hours, we were in bed together. I had only the sketchiest notion of who she was but somehow it worked.

In a year, we had travelled to Thailand so that she could complete her divorce. After a further six months we were married. The twins came along when she was a couple of years into a job as production manager at a packaging company. Four months later, she was back at work, shortly to be made director with a place on the firm's executive committee.

Geng fitted well into the life of a Manchester businesswoman and wife. There's an oriental supermarket not far from our house where she could buy nearly everything she needed to recreate the food she loves...the food we love. The more esoteric fermented fish pastes and dips were perhaps an exception, and I drew the line at trying to prepare our own at home.

Geng had been trained as a scientist to a high level and was now applying her skills in the unforgiving world of commerce. Her coinage was the electron; her tools were circuits, chips, robots and human relationships. Her environment was the factory floor, the control suite, the engineering lab and the meeting room. Academic as she was, it was a down-to-earth commission. She couldn't afford to have her head in the clouds.

My wife was raised in Buddhism, or at least in that amalgam of Buddhism, Hinduism, animism and superstition that Thais collectively call Buddhism. But she didn't seem to be an active adherent of the creed. I suppose I took her for a lapsed Buddhist in the same way that I was a lapsed Jew; that is, it was something my parents seemed to believe in. Geng had Thai friends in Manchester, almost exclusively young women married to Mancunians. We were occasionally invited to parties that had a Buddhist element—a new house would be blessed by a group of saffron-robed monks with northern accents, a baby would be similarly welcomed into our midst. But apart from that, Geng seemed to show no interest in practising the religion. She had British citizenship; she worked as a Westerner and seemed to think like one. In England, her dreams went uninterpreted, she survived without making merit and as for the lottery—an important focus of superstition for the average Thai—she could take it or leave it. The dimensions of her life—and of our lives together—seemed to obey the laws of physics.

Geng's aunt was brought out from one of Ma's bedrooms. She looked sleepy and pale. As Geng helped her to the front-door steps, Ma took a small bowl from the fridge, dipped her thumb in a dark liquid and applied a dab of it to her sister's forehead.

"What was that?" I asked Geng later as we proceeded towards the car.

"The rest of the chicken's blood."

It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the outpatient entrance to the hospital. An efficient porter met our car at the dropping-off area with a wheelchair. Geng and the boys went inside with the invalid as I parked the car. I found them upstairs in a waiting area.

Before too long, Geng's aunt appeared through a pair of swing doors, her chair pushed by a young nurse in white shoes and a freshly-pressed white uniform. A more casually-dressed woman in a white lab-coat walked behind. This woman, who I took to be the attending doctor, approached Geng and they conversed briefly in Thai.

A bill was presented and I paid some money at a counter.

"It's an ear infection," Geng translated the diagnosis for me. "They've given her some antibiotics. It should be gone in a few days."

"They didn't think much of your mum's medicine," I remarked.

"What do you mean?"

"They washed the blood off her forehead."

As we drove back to the village, the light was beginning to fade. The rain had stopped now, but the mist still clung to the wooded slopes above our route.

Back at Ma's house, Geng explained the doctor's conclusion to her mother. Her aunt was to finish the course of antibiotics and take it easy. She was placed at the table downstairs, and, complaining that she was hungry, given some rice soup.

I went to get a bottle of Scotch from the car, found a plastic mug and came back to sit with the aunt. I noticed the bloody thumb-smudge had been re-applied. I considered remonstrating with Geng, but I could find nothing to say that would be new. Even in my own head, my unspoken arguments were beginning to sound intolerant and harsh. Really, what objection could I have to the way life was conducted out here in the jungle? None, but that wasn't it. It was Geng. It was my wife's accomplishment, the way she stood for what could be achieved with sufficient determination, which contrasted so awkwardly with the way she accepted her family's hocus pocus and joined in with it at certain points. Already, I could hear her response: "Let them; it doesn't do any harm."

No, of course the stigma does no harm, but surely you can see that belief in it does. How can you and your family ever hope to benefit from the knowledge we have accumulated over centuries if you won't accept the immutable laws that govern the world? You, my darling, you of all people should see this, you who understand the physics of the pendulum, the duplicity of light and the repeatable properties of all things. You and your professional forebears have made us close to 100% certain of how materials behave. At home in England, I know this is how you think. Yet here where the land threw you up, the air is thick with humidity. Here, a steam of ignorance enters your lungs like a soothing balsam, and a mist descends on you as surely as it does on the jungle trees, blocking your view, occluding the light.

Three days later, our holiday was at an end, and we were on our way home. We returned our hire car at Bangkok airport and boarded a plane for Manchester via Schiphol. The boys and I had three seats together. During take-off, Geng held out for my hand across the aisle.

She said, "Do you still want to retire to Thailand?"

I said, "Of course."

"We'll start looking for a house next year."


"Somewhere that's not as wet as Ranong."

"Good idea."

"The rest of it," she said. "It's just insurance."

"But you don't need insurance."

"Don't let your boss hear you say that."

The co-pilot welcomed us to Manchester. The ground staff, he said, had reported that conditions were clear and dry, with some cloud.

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