They set off as planned. For Charlotte, of course, there was no reason not to, apart from her unstated fear that Eileen would not resubmit her second-year exhibition and might drop out of college. She had considered the options, though without consulting her lover. Things had moved too quickly for them, but decisions had to be made. Cancelling the whole trip would potentially cause the greater problem, she concluded independently, in that it could add claustrophobia to the pervading sense of failure. They must be together, of course, of that she was sure. Eileen would certainly need support and her support, being informed, possibly practical, might just be better than anything she might get from her parents or friends in the north of England. These people were not sculptors, after all, and not even artists. So, either they stayed together in London and take the loss of what they had already spent, or they made the trip as planned. Had Charlotte known of Eileen’s father’s outburst, she would certainly have persuaded her partner that they should stay, but she did not, so they set off.
Three months away is what they had planned, and it had been more than three months in the planning. It was probably not enough time to do the whole trip, at least not overland, and certainly not enough to do the return the same way. Charlotte’s father had been generous in the extreme, promising to pay for a return flight - an expensive one-way ticket, no less - for both of them from anywhere they might finish. “You’re only young once,” he had said to them on a visit to Pinner during the Easter break from college, an Easter break when Eileen told her parents she had decided to ‘stay down’ to ‘get some work done’. An outsider might have argued that the distraction caused by planning their trip in the third term of their second year was the reason why Charlotte was read the riot act by her tutor and indeed why Eileen’s work was failed.
Earlier in the year, they had considered several options, the easiest of which was the Magic Bus, which advertised in their college and, it seemed, throughout student venues across London. It was becoming commonplace, almost harder to find someone who had not done it! They read what was available, planned and smoked.
There were alternatives, but these were harder to locate, the only standard quality they displayed being that they were not standardised. These needed extra time, and probably more smokes.
Sunday had become their gallery day and now it doubled as a planning day. Mondays to Fridays involved at least one studio session and one formal art history class at college, plus unlimited hours of life drawing and art history, ceramics workshop and art history, or even sculpture and art history. At least that’s how they perceived it.
Their teacher for art history was, of course, John Daly, so they kept him at arm’s length by making sure they attended his classes. Skip one and he might just ask to see you ‘for a word’, though the word in question might just be ‘fuck’. There was a register system in place, a voluntary act of signing in when a student attended a session. Mickey Mouse, Karl Marx, Jesus Christ, John Wayne, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Leroy were regulars, but the college was small, and faces would be missed if they were not present. There was no way of skipping a class and not being noticed. Also, after all the practical sessions, you had to clean up, clean yourself and eat, so during the week there was no time for anything but college and an occasional visit to the pub. Followed by a smoke, of course.
Saturdays were maintenance days, hours devoted to washing, cleaning, food shopping and finishing off work left over from the week. A visit to the laundrette along the parade took up most of a Saturday morning, for instance, and they had decided not to pool their washing because they wore different fabrics and colours and anyway, they wanted to retain at least some independence. It was also a good time to read the books recommended in art history, since there was nothing else they could do there, certainly not smoke. Some people were trusting enough to leave their things in the machine and come back later, but not Linda, nor Charlotte, nor Eileen.
Food shopping was at the supermarket, again only a walk away. Linda and Alan bought their own supplies, or at least Linda did, while Eileen and Charlotte shopped together. They had the fridge subdivided, one shelf for Eileen and Charlotte, one for Linda and Alan, with the salad drawer containing bags from the shop, name-scrawled in felt-tip. Linda had made a couple of elasticated, colour-coded cloth tags to identify milk bottles, fruit juice, salad cream jars and anything else whose ownership might be confused. Shopping was thus much more than a process of acquisition and implied each time a lengthy period of joint kitchen management.
So, Sunday was their gallery day, but the venues did not open until two o’clock and they closed at five, so Sunday mornings remained a blank space. There were markets. There was Speaker’s Corner. There were walks in Ally Pally or, better, rambles through Highgate Cemetery, the old part of which was like an overgrown city of myth in its own right. In retrospect there is something poetic about starting the day with a joint and then going to visit the tomb of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The galleries were all free and therefore repeatable, luckily so, since they were so big, they could only be absorbed a couple of rooms at a time. They went regularly to the National, the Tate, the V&A, but not the Wallace Collection, which cost a fortune to visit, and was also boring. Others changed their exhibitions, such as the Hayward, the Royal Academy, the new little Serpentine in Kensington Gardens, but most of these had special shows, retrospectives and the like, where the material was judged essential but entrance fees were astronomic, except, of course, at the Serpentine, which was free but took only a minute or two to visit.
But from Crouch End or Muswell Hill, the excursion usually involved bus and tube to the West End as a starter, whether by Victoria from Finsbury Park or a smelly Northern from Highgate. There was always the number fourteen bus, of course, but that could take ages. With their trip in mind, they took to starting Sunday mornings at the Aldwych and Kingsway where there assembled an informal market in secondhand camper vans. It was not a purchase they sought, of course, but they had noticed by chance one cold day in February that some vehicles were selling transport, not themselves.
It was an era when it seemed that all young Australians, even those with limited finances, needed to make an extended visit to Europe as part of a coming of age ceremony. Many travelled overland, but not many did the trip in both directions, so there was a market for seats in transport headed this way or that, like mini Magic Buses, in what were usually VW camper vans, often pained in the bizarre psychedelic livery of the day. They were lifestyle adverts as much as buses and the journeys offered were a good deal more expensive than the regular services, if regular is a word that could ever have been applied to them, but six people could bed down in the van and there would be no need for hostels. In theory, there might be greater flexibility of destination as well as fewer bed bugs.
Their first visits to that semicircle of variegated vans were no more than exploratory. There were lots of people to ask, but the questions were not yet formed. After a few meanders through this hippie enclave, their idea started to solidify, and they started asking real questions of the owners. There were people in college who had done such trips in what later were called gap years and their particular advice was sought, absorbed and filed. Eileen and Charlotte’s window for the trip was quite precise. They had to be on the road by the third week of June and back before the end of September. Some told them that was a waste of an opportunity to do it well, while others told them their three months would be ample time. They were not quite sure whom to believe.
They were agreed they did not want to stop in Europe, though Eileen had never been outside her own country, so she was thinking blind. Her lover’s family had taken regular driving holidays on the Continent, exploring France, northern Spain, Austria and Italy as far south as Rome. Eileen simply took Charlotte’s word that they should bypass the boring bits and head as quickly as possible for the mysterious, spiritual and by then fashionable East, always capitalised in honour of Herman Hesse’s personal journey via title. Initially, Charlotte had assessed Eileen’s agreement as being based on judgment similar to her own, but the idea was soon contradicted by Eileen’s need to apply for her first passport.
One day, a salmon pink van with a white roof, painted by hand in domestic gloss probably to seal in the rust, fit their brief. Two Australian couples, both heterosexual, were offering the remaining two places on board at a fixed rate up front plus a share of petrol, food and any other expenses incurred en route. It took the two girls a week with pen and paper to cost things and they concluded they would save overall by doing things this way. Also, if they happened upon somewhere interesting, they could decide to stay longer if the others agreed, and they seemed amenable people. Of course, they did not want to go all the way to Adelaide - who would? - and negotiated a price based on flying back from Bangkok. The van would have four drivers - excluding themselves, of course - and there was every possibility they could stick to their timetable.
Now apart from Charlotte, I have not traced anyone else who did the trip. The Australian couples were clearly older than Charlotte and Eileen, and contacting has proved to be very difficult indeed. And, in the event, they didn’t get on, so none of them would probably want to speak with me, even if any of them were still alive. As it turned out, the others had done it all before, seemed to have done everything it was possible for a life to do, and had already been everywhere, except Indonesia and planned to spend time without the van in Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan, before returning to Singapore to take a flight home, which was South Australia. They planned to sell the van in Bangkok to a group going the other way. It all seemed fine, so utterly credible, until the reality immediately dipped below the girls’ expectation.
India had been their initial goal. They believed they had created the idea themselves. It was only later that Charlotte came to realise they were merely following what commercial interests had prescribed for their generation. And they did see something of India. They also saw something of Europe prior to Istanbul, saw something of Turkey’s interior expanse and very little of Syria’s emptiness. They paused a little in Afghanistan, but the sight of every man on the street carrying an automatic weapon and an ammunition belt was not anyone’s idea of a holiday or one particular person’s idea of a welcome. They did pause to take photos of the scenery. They had read and religiously observed advice that cameras should not be pointed at Muslims. Kathmandu lived up to expectations for the whole day they spent there, likewise Benares. They drove to Calcutta and expected to pass through, but unexpectedly they paused. For Eileen and Charlotte, a whole two days out of the van and away from the others who frankly were not on the same wavelength as the two students came as a relief, but it proved to be short-lived.
The main driver, the guy they had dealt with outside the entrance to the BBC in Aldwych, a rather conventional rugby-playing type, certainly not a hippie, who didn’t even smoke, returned to the roadside restaurant where the rest of the travellers were taking rice and discussing the taste of mustard oil that pervaded their fish curry. He returned after what the others clearly recognised as an unscheduled absence. From the moment they had set off, the timings had ruled their journey. This leg takes this amount of time. Here we change drivers. There we need a ferry and they only go every four hours. But here in Calcutta, when asked what Graham was doing during those hours of absence, the other three Aussies merely shrugged their shoulders and said “Dunno,” which was unusual, because thus far they had only rarely agreed. And when he did appear at the roadside, emerging from a Bajaj and paying the driver, he immediately turned to the assembled group and announced, “Done.” Charlotte can remember the relief that registered on the other three Aussie faces, a strength of feeling that was matched in reverse by the confusion felt by the two girls.
“Done what?” Charlotte can remember asking.
“He’s sold the van,” was the reply from Dawn, the apparently clueless, gangling girlfriend of Jim, the other passenger couple. Charlotte remembers vividly how she was unable to react, believing their journey had been agreed as far as Bangkok.
Charlotte also remembers Graham, the main driver and owner, filling that silence with words of wisdom. “I’ve had a good offer. It makes sense. There’s a van full of people who want to go the other way. They have just come up through Burma by bus and they say it’s now impassable for people like us. We’d be stopped. Turned back. Perhaps even have the van impounded. Visas are being cancelled. And most of the country is off-limits. We would have to speed through from one end to the other.”
“So how would that be a change from what we have done until now?”
The observation was ignored. “Lady…” She had learned already that this was Graham’s choice of address when he wanted to patronise. “…you’re coming the raw prawn. What we agreed at the start was possible when we set off. Things change. The van stops here. There are flights to Bangkok and they are quite cheap - a lot cheaper than getting stuck in Burma without transport.”
“Couldn’t we go another way?” The question came from Eileen. The others shrugged.
“Lady, there’s a war on. We can do a sightseeing tour of Laos and North Vietnam if you don’t mind staying there for the rest of your life, which, chances are, won’t be very long.” He smiled. “Or, if you fancy, we can go into China via Tibet but a, you would never get past the border and b, the mountains tend to be quite high, too high for the van. Fancy pushing us over a mountain pass at fifteen thousand feet at ten below zero? That thing would never get up the foothills now, let alone the passes. And then we would have the small problem of negotiating our way into and out of China, cultural revolution and all. We have to stop here.”
They parted less than amicably at the end of that day with feelings still suppressed and, forty-eight hours later, Charlotte and Eileen were touching down in Bangkok. Charlotte remembers Eileen’s joke had cleared the air. They were already in their descent to the airport when Eileen stood up, handed Charlotte the pen she had been using to fill in her customs declaration and said, “Would you do me a favour? Would you please write Praktika Super TL SLR across my bum?” She had to shout to be heard above the four turbo props of their already ancient DC4.
Charlotte remembers the momentary confusion that was immediately cleared when Eileen pointed at the strip of paper with ‘Customs Declaration’ printed across the top, a paper she held out in her left hand. The thumb was indicating a particular line, multiply translated, halfway down. Charlotte read, “List items of value on back side.”
It was to be the first of many such experiences over the next few days, when proto-English became real comedy. There was a menu with ‘chicken in spit’. There was a Royal Palace Official Guide where the audience room was described as ‘This is where the King sits on the Thorne.’ Charlotte explained the sudden release from two weeks in the VW camper van. Being cooped up with four mildly hostile companions had left them both tense and irritable. The silly moments gave temporary relief to their frustration, but this would be destined to resurface later, when there would be no distraction from its disappointment.
Bangkok’s temples, palaces, spelling errors, smelly squid on bicycles, fiery food, thrumming tuktuks, it all seemed like a release. The diesel fumes, unburnt two-stroke, heat, humidity, traffic jams and overcrowding worked the other way. There were certainly a lot of Americans around. Though they saw no uniforms, the demeanour, the crew cuts, the false camaraderie that established groups and set their members visibly apart from one another, all these elements reeked of conscripts on R and R. And these groups were always concentrated wherever there was sleaze, such as Patpong, where Eileen for the first time in her life saw humans effectively traded like so much consumer junk. For her, this was potentially inspirational, but in reality, it was all proving to be hardly the spiritual quest, the mysterious East they had sought. But the expected self-realisation was certainly being achieved, though not in the quality they had imagined.
Charlotte recalls the day in detail.
We were sitting in a restaurant. We were sharing a bowl of noodles and a plate of chicken with bamboo shoots on rice. I can remember it well. The food was so utterly delicious we both took photographs of the table. I still have the picture. We must have been near the floating market, because you can see the klong in the background. We had a couple of bottles of Singha as well, and we were feeling more relaxed than we had been since we started out. “So what next?” Eileen asked. “We have only two months left and we have seen nothing yet.”
“There’s two options, darling,” I said. “North or south. South is islands, lying in the sun, snorkelling, hippies. North is also hippies, but more temples, mountains and elephants.”
“Elephants,” Eileen replied without pause. So we took the bus to Chiang Mai. It really was very easy. I don’t remember why we thought getting on and off a bus would be any harder in Thailand than anywhere else. You bought a ticket, got on at one end of the trip and off at the other. The bus might have been a little less luxurious than at home, but the long-distance buses in UK at the time were not that comfortable. At least the one in Thailand ran on time, had a toilet on board and some refreshments served by a young woman in uniform, and so that was four up on rich UK services for a start.
But we both suffered a certain unspoken disappointment when we arrived in Chang Mai. “Eight hundred years of history and not a single old building in sight,” Eileen shouted above the rasping tuktuk that took us to our hostel. Things soon got worse. We had booked a place from a kiosk in the bus station and we chose only on price. The man who made the call told us “Very popular with hippies,” meaning, I suppose, I know where you are coming from.
The tuktuk dropped us on a square with nondescript concrete buildings, mixed low rise to six storeys, obviously built piecemeal at different times. They had shop fronts on the ground floor, all open at the front, containing a veritable town centre, restaurants, bars, general stores, clothes shops, workshops. The only thing that was uniform about the place was the dirt. The entrance to our hostel, Happy Valley - I can still remember that sign and the name - was a dirty staircase leading up straight from the street, without a door. On one side was a metalworking business where half a dozen men were grinding, welding, beating, hammering. The noise was deafening, but not so loud as to drown the whistles they all offered in our direction as we paid our driver. Eileen and I seemed to have caused real mirth. I suppose we both did have fair hair.
But what was overpowering was the smell. Old oil, petrol, diesel, burning grease, paraffin mixed with smoke, cigarettes and soldering, plus that persistent rancid smell you get when a car’s brakes burn, all this mixed with fumes from the road, a dirty gutter, a leaky drain, a rubbish dump over the road, burnt cooking oil from the café next door in thirty-five degree humid and motionless air. I think you get the olfactory picture…
And if it was far from salubrious to the right, on our left the building at first sight seemed presentable but closed. Unlike the rest of the street, the frontage was bricked up, with small windows let into the walls that enclosed what was clearly designed to be an open front. It had a visible concrete skeleton and the light bricks that had been used to fill in the gaps were unrendered, the apparently randomly applied mortar between them spilling out in places, non-existent in others where you could see right through the wall. A building site, we said to one another. But we were wrong. We looked again. The wooden doors had been varnished. They actually looked in quite good condition. We walked towards what was clearly the main entrance, half-thinking it might be the ground floor manifestation of our hotel. But after five paces or so we could clearly see that beside the door was a glass-fronted noticeboard. On display were several photos of attractive young women, all smiling, all professionally posed. They all had captions, clearly their names, but had a comment printed in Thai underneath. “It’s a knocking shop,” I remember Eileen saying, as we turned back to the grubby staircase. It didn’t get better when we arrived on the first floor, where we found the place had already been knocked!
We were greeted by a little old man in a dirty tee shirt with designer holes and a pair of ragged shorts that he had probably worn since the age of six. He greeted us, laid his cigarette onto an ashtray overflowing with dogends and paused to cough up a great gob of phlegm into a bucket by his chair. He clearly knew who we were. Probably the bloke at the bus station kiosk had described us over the phone. He stood, said no more, and beckoned us to follow him. We went up other flights of stairs, which might have been swept sometime in the nineteenth century, until we reached the top floor, where a door that bore no evidence of a lock let into a large space with a dozen bunk beds, six lots, two high, lining the walls. He showed us in, but it was quite hard to imagine where we might put our feet. The place was full of backpacks, bags, half-eaten meals, beer bottles - the floor seemed to be carpeted with bottle tops, dirty clothing and people, none of whom bothered to get up when we appeared. The place reeked of piss and dope. The man thrust a piece of paper into my hand. On it was written a figure. He rubbed together his finger and thumb. I told him we had paid the man in the bus station. He shrugged and pointed at the paper, saying, “Cash.”
We did not hang around. We simply picked up our bags and left. We only had hand luggage and we knew the way out. We were already in the street when the owner had only made it down two flights. He was shouting after us, but we were not waiting. We walked around the knocking shop to the main road on the other side and found a restaurant, where we decided to have a beer and work out what to do.
Now I admit I was not aware of how hard Eileen was finding things. She was not good at expressing emotion. She had seemed relaxed, but this experience was clearly a last straw and things suddenly came to the surface. We sat in the restaurant with our beers, dragged our bags under the table and before we had taken a sip, Eileen burst into tears. Of course, I knew she had been under strain because of her failed course, but I knew nothing about the split with her parents. In fact, I knew nothing of that until I read your message. It’s strange how one revelation can so easily reinterpret painful memories that have been assumed understood for forty years.
The restaurant owner came over to us. He wasn’t the slightest bit interested in our welfare. He started shouting at us, despite the fact we had yet to exchange a single word. He was immediately very angry indeed and he started to pull my arm to make me stand. When I pushed back, he tried to pull our bags from under the table. He clearly wanted rid of us. I could hear him say hippie this, hippie that. I had Eileen hysterical in front of me. I had an incandescent restaurateur trying to evict us, apparently by force of sound and we had nowhere to stay on our increasingly disastrous trip. At that precise moment, I was not coping.
From nowhere, perhaps he had been sitting there when we came in, a man appeared and said something to the owner, who immediately started to calm down. It was an American voice, but the language was not English. First impressions were of another hippie, the sort who might raise a hand in a Buddhist mudra with a quick ‘Peace, brother’ alongside, despite the fact we were both women. His shaven head sported a stupid little tuft of hair. But to say we were thankful for this weirdo’s intervention is understatement. A few minutes later we were sharing a beer, chatting, relaxed and calm again, despite the continued mutterings of the owner.
I can remember Don’s words like it was yesterday. “He’s had trouble with western traveller types recently, and there’s a lot of them about. He’s had people high as kites in here and smoking dope like they are at home. He can go to jail if the police decide to notice. Some of these people are very arrogant. They behave as if they own the place. There were people in here last night, about half a dozen of them. They were arguing. One of them threw up over there and the rest started a fight. When the lady started crying,” he said, nodding towards Eileen, “the owner thought you were about to have an altercation.” It was his use of this word that makes me remember everything so clearly. It was such an unexpected word. Argument, fight, row, all possible, but the last time I had an altercation, as far as I know, I was on a motorway, I think.
He was American. I had already been well trained by my dad in how to distinguish between Americans and Canadians and this guy had already said the key word, ‘about’, and there was no trace of Scottish ‘oo’ sound. He was American. It was not a surprise. We had met lots of Americans already in Thailand, though not many who could speak Thai, let alone fluently. But he didn’t use Thai all the time when he spoke to the restaurant owner. There was a distinct change in the tone. I think it may have been Mandarin. He also did not look like a traveller. If anything, he looked like a Buddhist monk. He was tanned, quite dark, actually, and the shaved head had a dark stubble shadow, showing he would be bald if his hair grew. It was topped by a ridiculous little tuft that stood up like a little erect you-know-what at the back of his scalp. He had baggy trousers with orange and white stripes and a loose cheesecloth shirt. He had a necklace that looked like threaded dog’s teeth and a couple of crass bracelets. It was a Hollywood stereotype from a road movie in flesh and blood.
Charlotte’s recollections continued at some length. We chatted for several hours via Skype and, though I did record everything, I will not include her story verbatim. She spoke as much about her current situation as much as the past. She also wanted me to explain in detail the nature and scope of my biography of Eileen. I had the distinct impression that she became the one who might be gathering information, rather than providing it.
Charlotte is now, apparently, living in a pleasant village in the Cotswolds, west of London, as she described it. She is married to a financier who works in the city. When I asked which city, she laughed and said the one with the capital letter. She is active in politics and short-listed in the selection of a parliamentary candidate for a constituency in the north of England but has no illusions that she would ever be elected there. It took time to refocus our discussion on Thailand and the nineteen-seventies. She insisted on asking her raft of questions. What she did reveal, however, confirmed that the experience was still fresh in her memory and came with intricate detail, so I will paraphrase.
Eileen finished her beer and then unexpectedly burst into tears again. Don, who had already introduced himself, listened to Charlotte’s brief summary of how they had arrived here amid a sense of disappointment and disillusion. She described the long bus journey from Bangkok, the disgusting hostel, the days travelling non-stop cooped up in a van with Australians, how their intention of finding art, culture and experience contrasted with the reality of cheap tat, plastic bags, tourism, trauma and sleaze. He was a good listener and was willing to give them time. Charlotte also mentioned that Eileen did have regular bouts of emotion at certain times of the month. It was not unusual, and it would pass. And it did. She settled down, but both she and Charlotte still wore their disappointment as a translucent mask.
Don stayed and talked. The girls finished their beers, but he drank iced tea. He ordered another round, saying amid protest that he would pay the bill. They could not decide if he was genuine, but he did appear to have grown sincerely and thoroughly interested in them, their experience at college, their expectation when they set off. He said eventually that their story was far from uncommon, that disillusion was often the destination of the hippie trail. He did not understand why people travelled halfway across the world to ‘find themselves’. The trick for that was looking in the right place, he joked. People were often chasing something intangible, but also something they could neither articulate nor define. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t know when you’ve found it. “It usually starts and ends with dope,” he said, “not that a smoke is a bad thing, but it’s not a replacement for life.”
Charlotte remembers their talking for an hour or more. They became relaxed and Eileen was back to her usual, ebullient self. Charlotte added poignantly, “At the time it didn’t register, but looking back I can now see that Eileen had already changed.”
Of course, to this point in the story of Eileen’s journey through life, I have had to rely heavily on material from Charlotte, so what has been described is often her personal view of events. From here, however, I can draw on several sources, so what follows is an amalgam and distillation of several memories.
The travellers and their new friend, Don, took a rickshaw. He had already decided to offer them a place to stay well before he raised the issue of where they might go next. At best, Eileen and Charlotte had privately thought he might be able to advise on somewhere reasonable, somewhere clean, somewhere that came with a recommendation and a reassurance from him.
But when he announced he had a spare room where they could stay, there seemed to be no need to consult, since both travellers agreed simultaneously and without a second thought. He told them his place was just a short ride in a tuktuk from the restaurant. He said they should get their things together and by the time they had reached the street he would have transport ready. They had already learned that Don was very precise and, though apparently laid back and easy going, also very efficient and very economical with his words. He delivered what he promised, and the ride took under five minutes, including traffic lights and roundabouts, or traffic circles as their host strangely called them. With three on board plus two bags on their laps, they would not have wanted it to be further.
As the rattle of the tuktuk faded, the girls needed a moment or two to readjust the handles and straps on their bags. After shouldering their packs, they needed four or five paces to clear the hedge that surrounded the house before the open gateway gave them a first sight of their accommodation. Their shared gasp was audible when they saw the reality.
It was not a big house. And neither could they see anything overtly impressive. But it was beautiful. Amidst a whispered chorus of ‘gorgeous’ and ‘wonderful’, the group approached this timber house standing on pillars a foot from the ground. There were slatted walls left and right, each with one window, but straight ahead there was an almost square, covered patio with an open wooden railing in front. Three steps rose from the end of this short driveway to the patio level and behind they could see a living room, not large but spacious, which currently had its shuttered walls folded back, both in front and at the rear, so they could see right through to the back garden. A fan above a central low table rotated slowly. All around the house there were flowering bushes of the types they had seen throughout the country, but whose names were still unknown. There were occasional and gentle sounds of cooking coming from somewhere, but the associated smells were everywhere and nothing less than divine.
For the first time in weeks they heard birdsong. They could hear the buzzing of insects. A cat upped from a cushion on the patio and sped away as they mounted the first step. There was an array of bamboo furniture before them, with throw cushions in Thai fabrics. Compared to where they had been in the previous weeks, and also compared to their flat above a shop in Muswell Hill, this looked and felt like paradise. It probably was, I thought, so I located and bought the house some years ago.
Don indicated they should turn to the left. A few steps took them to an unlocked door, which Don pushed open. The inside was dark because the shutters were closed, but as the darkness faded from their vision, they saw a pair of beds - real beds! - with draped mosquito nets hanging from wide wooden rings plus sparse but exquisite pieces of carved wood furniture, a chair, a table, a dresser, a cupboard. Don asked them if it would be all right for them, prompting the two travellers to burst into almost uncontrolled laughter which, in retrospect, was mutually felt relief. Of course, it’s fine. It’s beautiful.
Charlotte recollects that Don switched languages again and called out, directing his voice towards the back of the house. And this was clearly yet another language, quite different in its tones from anything they had yet heard from him. Newly and unnecessarily worried, Charlotte dared to ask how much he wanted for the room and she vividly remembers Don’s reaction of incredulity. “You are my guests,” he said, indicating what might have been taken as mild offense. “You can stay as long as you want, right up to your return to Bangkok for your flight home, if you want. The rules are simple. No loud music. Nothing! No parties. No inviting other travellers. Otherwise it’s your house.” Despite his laidback appearance and clearly intentional choice of hippie persona, Charlotte recalls how, both at the time and still today, precision and clarity were Don’s hallmarks.
It was at that moment they were joined by the woman they assumed was the cook. They were astonished at how small she was. She had a round face, almost perfectly round, whose skin was unexpectedly dark. She was dressed in what they assumed to be a local traditional costume, though at that stage they remained perfectly ignorant of whose tradition it might be. It was certainly like nothing else they had seen in Thailand, even in the ‘traditional dancing’ show they had paid through the nose to experience in a Bangkok hotel. Everything about her dress was dark, an ambiguous shade of green, blue and grey in a fabric that seemed to shimmer as she turned, apparently changing colour as she moved. Baggy trousers were held tight at the ankles by bangles. A loose tunic with patterned trim was held at the waist by a broad band and a scarf which covered every hair on her head was decorated with hanging charms, coins, bobbles of fabric and strips of geometrically patterned cloth, clearly embroidered. It was too much for the girls to take in and they spent a considerable time staring before a self-conscious embarrassment diverted their gaze.
“This is Hli,” said Don, before issuing several sentences in that same language they could not even hear, let alone understand. They thought, after a few days hearing Thai that at least they could now tell when words started or finished, but this was something different, where they could not even hear a cadence or a pause. Hli gave a little smile, just a hint of recognition crossing an otherwise unchanging ambiguity of expression. Her manner was equally formal, with none of the effusive smiles, bows and prayer-like handclasps they now had come to expect. The girls heard Don’s pronunciation of their names mentioned several times in his apparent monologue, strange points of recognition embedded in a torrent of incomprehension. They decided to introduce themselves.
“Eileen,” said Eileen, offering a hand, which was not taken.
“Charlotte,” said Charlotte, bowing, a gesture that was not acknowledged.
“Eileen and Charlotte,” repeated Don, as if there had been confusion which, of course, there had.
Don’s clipped American vowels rather shortened Charlotte’s name, making her sound like a small onion, more shallot than shar. But it was Eileen’s name that was the greater variant, that had caused the problem. The British girls had put their stress on the first syllable, whereas the American placed it on the second, making the name sound level and long.
Hli repeatedly tried to say Eileen, but it came out the same as Hli, aspirated and mimicking Don’s lengthened ending.
“I lean,” said Eileen, standing at a silly angle. It was a joke, but no-one got it.
Don was in the middle of what sounded like a conversation with Hli when the little boy appeared from the living room. He was a toddler, but steady enough on his feet to rush towards Hli and grab her leg with a determined hug.
The two girls’ collective response was clearly drawn from reflex. They both donned a broad smile and uttered a succession of phrases, such as, “Hello. Sweet thing. Lovely boy. What’s your name?” They clearly wanted to pamper the child, but Hli picked him up when he instinctively moved to hide behind his mother, before audaciously trying to peep out to laugh at his audience. Hli stuck out a hip and perched the boy there, wrapping her left arm around him.
“This is Touhue,” said Don. “Touhue…” he repeated, slowly. The little boy smiled at him, yelped and waved an arm in the direction of the American face that approached, eyes playfully wide. He then stood beside the child and turned to face the girls. Don lifted the little boy’s arm towards them in an unsuccessful attempt to point. “Charlotte… Eileen…”
“Hli,” said the boy, causing Hli to burst into laughter, which was the first sound she had made. She turned to the side and whispered a few words into the boy’s ear. He was attentive, interested and wonderfully calm. She then spoke louder in what seemed to the girls like an admonitory, almost angry, assertive tone. Then she gave the lad’s hair a ruffle with her free hand, set him down and, with a little push in the back, directed him back into the main room. All four of them watched in silence as the boy meandered through the room and then down the stairs at the other side into the garden at the rear.
“His name again,” asked Eileen, wondering why at first sight she had assumed he was a boy.
“Touhue,” answered Don. “Let’s eat.”