Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Don't ride a bike in flip-flops

Don’t ride a bike in flip-flops

Art’s ultimate beauty is that it’s a mirror to life. But it’s a mirror that only makes sense when it displays what we imagine for ourselves, inside ourselves. All we see is what we find there. If we don’t look, there is nothing, we see nothing, and we keep our lives at a safe arm’s length from experience, unengaged. Our senses receive their inputs whatever we do. It’s called being alive. But seeing is not looking, hearing is not listening, touching is not feeling. The blind cannot see, the deaf cannot hear and perhaps the unconscious cannot feel, perhaps. But to be the unresponsive recipients of our senses is not living - that happens only when we discriminate between minimal arm’s length existence and conscious experience. The human problem is always time. Everything we do, even the things we do not do, consume it at the same rate. Since we now use ‘going forward’ to mean ‘in the future’, we seem to deny that ‘going backwards’ does not change the relentless progress or the direction of time.

We also know that if we ‘take time’, or ‘give time’ or ‘spend time’, as if it were capital we might consume at a rate we might decide, we do more than see, hear or touch: we look, listen and feel. An everyday object, studied, drawn, felt in the fingers is uniquely significant, newly important, never to be experienced again in this way, for time progresses, and changes. A view absorbed reveals elements we never realised we could see. Thus enshrined, our lives have been changed. We can never see, hear or touch these things the same way again, once we have looked, listened or felt.

Travel does this for us, if we travel with our senses open to new experience. Repetition of the expected promotes only expected results. It is the personal comfort zone, mental, rather than physical, that provides the border that travel must cross. And if we stay within the confines of an expected experience, we have been nowhere. And this is why, when we do travel, our senses are newly alert. We notice more, though we see with the same eyes for the same length of time. We look at things in new light, and thus time stretches as we absorb, interpret and understand what we feel.

And so it was that our artist, Eileen, experienced for the first time the changed mental state that comes with new self-awareness. In her case it was prompted by her first real experience of travel, which happened to be northern Thailand in nineteen seventy-two. It could have been anywhere and at any time, but for Eileen it was then and there that she first sensed those crucial perceived changes in the self. But then none of us in isolation knows whom we are, so we project our inner feelings outwards and ascribe sensation to the changed surroundings that have challenged.

For all concerned, those few weeks were life changing. For Eileen, the change would be fundamental, Charlotte would experience true adulthood for perhaps the first time and Hli would newly confirm that nothing much ever changes. And Don? Well, Don would change too, but no-one except Don would read how. Don was on the journey as well and, if anything, he was the driver. And little Touhue? Well, he was being taken along for the ride, perhaps like the rest of us, as an eager passenger.

Eileen’s goal in art was to assemble. Objects have histories. They come with origins and have their own stories. Joined or juxtaposed they create conflict or counterpoint. Their differing associations demand we accommodate, choose, cope, cooperate or reject. To remain neutral is to avoid engagement, to allow our personal vulnerabilities to preclude participation. This is precisely why it can be so easy for viewers to dismiss abstraction, for the challenge of engagement it poses is capable of exposing how weakly we are bound to our world and just how proximate are the limits of our own psychological comfort.

So, piecing together this holiday month is hard because, for the first time in this remade life, we have multiple actors who felt, and still feel, perhaps, differently about what happened. These people shared the same events, but reacted differently, responded individually, extracted contrasting, competing and even conflicting experience. Like Eileen’s sculpture, I assemble these strands, juxtapose them and attempt interpretation. So, Eileen, Charlotte, Hli and Don mingle into a confusion of memory. I, Mary Reynolds, am not there, of course, because I remained as yet unnamed by any of them.

“Don’t ride the bike in flip-flops.”

“You do.”

“That’s different.”

There followed a diatribe from Eileen. Men. Always know best. Make up rules as they go along… Rules for women. Not for men.

“You could always take the bus.”

“That takes hours.”

He shrugged. What did he care? It was a favour anyway.

“Why doesn’t Hli come as well?”

“You can’t get three on a bike.”

“You can around here. I see it every day. She could go on the bus.”

“That takes hours. You can’t ride the bike in flip-flops.”

Communication had become something similar to table tennis. It happened at speed but seemed to have little consequence. And then the next rally would start, indistinguishable at face value from what had gone before. Eileen and Don would repeat the ritual each time either suggested another trip to the north.

Both Eileen and Charlotte seemed to be living emotionally heightened realities, but realities that were diverging. Charlotte had become interested in history and Buddhism. She had been tramping the streets, noting and sketching architectural features, classifying chedis by their stylistic origin, Thai, Khmer, Sri Lankan, Burmese and reading everything she could find about the rise and fall of empires, dynasties, kingdoms and religions. She had paid for a guide to take her to Wat Phra That Doi Suptep, not expecting much more than a good view and a tourist shop. Pundit, the twenty-three-year-old student whom she employed, was gentle, learned and patient. He was also quite attractive, Charlotte concluded, as much as ten seconds after their first meeting. He made that experience special and she had spent all day asking questions, noting answers, engaging in conversation and gradually becoming more comfortable in the company of this young man.

The temple itself surpassed all expectations. The great gilded stepped stupa was so far over the top of her preconceptions that she was unable to relate to it in any other way than the way it demanded, as itself. She learned about prayer wheels, about the differences between Theravada and Mahayana, all of which she wrote down in full, longhand. Her sketchbooks were starting to overflow, and she had already bought more. Two weeks into her stay, she had already amassed enough ideas and material to see her through her third year at college.

She spent hours sketching the stupas around town. Her particular favourites were the Burmese, precisely because they were so plain. They were even more interesting when ruined, their collapsed walls exposing the plain earth infill, as if accumulated history, being the planet itself, had started to leak out of fractured human pretence.

Though Eileen liked to visit temples and historical sites, she was generally happy with a single experience of each, never really seeing the point, given they had photos, of the return trips that Charlotte insisted were essential. She preferred to watch people, to note and list aspects of culture, especially those that contrasted with her expectations. This extended to artefact, textiles, pottery, kitchen utensils, food, furniture and, above all, shops devoted to tourist tat, all of which she found captivating.

The cultural aspect of her interest was immediately heightened when Don took her for the first time to visit to a Hmong village, just a day or two after they had met in the café near the bus station. She exposed a whole roll of film, which would cost a fortune to develop and print. What she did not do, which both she and Charlotte knew she had to do, was be systematic, academic, to sketch, to develop an argument, to construct an analysis via research, example and application that could become a work to resubmit for her failed course before the end of September. Her style was forever flirtatious, picking up ideas, tossing them around and then moving on. Exploration for Eileen was breadth of experience, whereas for Charlotte it was depth.

Both of them took up yoga, which began to occupy quite a lot of time, and then more still of each day. And both of them made trips to the required tourist sites - orchid farms, umbrella makers, leather shops, potteries, sari shops. They both bought local textiles and dressed accordingly, except when they wandered through the town, where they found reaction to Western women in Thai dress was less than favourable. But around the house they dressed local and, with a little help from Hli, learned without words how to do things the right way, how to secure a sash, how to make a headdress, how to choose complementary garments. And thus, the two women began to diverge on this, their shared trip. For the first time since leaving London, they began to spend some time alone, pursuing their individual priorities.

They found and shared their elephants, of course, but these disappointed. The choreography was predictable, the experience clearly a repeated tourist show. Once you had understood the difference between a pusher and piler, there was not much more than a posed photo of a ride that did not happen.

What was different was a visit to the villages north of there, villages of the kind where Hli had lived, Don told them. Charlotte was captivated, but once was enough. Eileen wanted to go every day, but Don advised against it. What he did offer was a pillion ride to the area when he went there to meet people, though he would drop her at a pre-arranged place and then come back later to pick her up. It was fine with him, as long as she didn’t mind waiting until he was finished. They designated a meeting place and a time, by a small wooden shop overflowing with plastic buckets, sacks of rice, spices, tins of sardines, cigarettes and Coca-Cola, exactly the kind of place where Eileen could spend time if he was late.

“People are basically trusting, but if you go there too often, they start to think you want something.”

“But I would not be going there like a tourist.”

“You are a tourist.”

“So, what is it that makes what you do different?”

“I speak the language. And I have been going there for a while. They know me. I am involved in community relations.”

“Like an anthropologist.” Eileen mouthed the word without really knowing what it meant. Don did not respond in any way.

He was still visiting the area regularly. He still had work to do. If Eileen were to go with him, she should not try to interact with anyone with whom he himself might meet. He would drop her off a good ten minutes ride back towards the main road and pick her up when he came down. She should stay near the road, if possible, and he would sound the bike’s horn when he returned.

“Will I hear it?”

“It’s pretty quiet up there. You’ll hear.”

He would go alone to his destination, but he knew a guide or two in other villages, people who would take her walking in the forest, along the dykes between rice paddies and even through the village to meet and greet. Many of the locals were used to similar experience in the area he had in mind and many people there had some English. She guessed correctly he was describing a tourist village experience, or words to that effect. The guides charged a fee and each time she offered a few extra coins. It was staged, but it was all new.

“If they ask you how you came there, just say you are staying with Don.”

“Don?”

“Just Don. And don’t ride the bike in flip-flops.”

“You do.”

“That’s different.”

It became a ritual, a joke they played out each time Eileen hitched a lift. A couple of times he had explained how he was used to the terrain, that he knew what he was doing, that he had the bike to hold on to. Passengers could finish anywhere if they came off. He would probably be able to cling onto the bike. Anyway, if I get injured that’s my problem. If you get injured, then you miss your bus to Bangkok and your flight. Wear shoes on the bike. Wear trousers and cover your arms. And always put on the helmet. Skin is precious and there is no freedom with a head injury, no liberation with broken bones, he said.

And, of course, they smoked. All three of them smoked, and regularly. Hli did not join them in the evenings. Don said that she liked to get Touhue to bed and then leave him to sleep undisturbed. And that always happened better when she slept alongside the little boy.

Don was generous. He seemed to have an unlimited supply of weed, hash, dope, shit or whatever was the currently cool way of labelling it. He would never take any money and, indeed, insisted they should never try to buy the stuff around town. The chances were, he told them, that the guy you were dealing with would be a policeman. One day he would sell to you. Another he would shop you. There were lots of people around taking advantage of the travellers and there seemed to be an unending supply of naïve suckers who took the bait.

Eileen and Charlotte used to joke with one another, holding up their hands and saying “Peace, brother,” whenever he simply shrugged and stayed silent at their offers to share costs. Don would never participate in any of their jokes, but he also said nothing to discourage them. Throughout, he remained separate, slightly aloof, slightly parental in his dealings with the girls, who clearly were at least ten years younger than him.

He came and went. He spent most of the day away from the house. He would offer a lift to Eileen - no flip-flops! - at most twice a week and never mentioned what he was doing during the rest of each day, or where he went after dropping her off for her village visit. They did try to ask questions. It was not that he avoided answering, more that he seemed not to acknowledge that any question had been asked. He was capable of projecting a persona that declared itself above examination, as if he were merely part of the landscape, a feature that was undeniably real and experienced, but whose presence became mere assumption, intangible. He spoke few words and offered nothing of himself beyond the public face he shared with everyone. He remained generous with his accommodation, food, beer and dope, but, of course, it was Hli who did the work.

Hli cooked. Hli cleaned. Hli shopped. Hli made all the beds and did all the washing. She ironed, swept, did the garden. She looked after her son, but rarely played with him, at least not in the way Eileen and Charlotte would have expected a Western mother to have done. They themselves had spent many hours with the little boy, but neither of them had truly mastered the tones of his name, so they had taken to calling him Tony and he soon started to respond to that name as well as his own. In fact, Tony became the big hit of the holiday, the aspect they could share on equal and similar terms. The words ‘gender stereotype’ would probably not have crossed their lips in that era, and they would have vehemently rejected any accusation they were mothering the boy, but language was no barrier to what they did and all involved took comfort. He was soon learning more English words, but he never mastered ‘Eileen’. It stubbornly remained ‘Hli’.

The travellers had debated whether Don and Hli were a couple. But then, Hli looked so young… They had been there over a week by then and they were still not sure. Hli always went to bed very early, as soon as an evening meal was ready. She and Tony seemed to eat in at the back of the house and at different times, never with them. By dark, they had already disappeared into the rooms in the rear extension of the house, which looked like it might have been added as an afterthought. It certainly had been built after the rest of the house which was otherwise symmetrical. There was an outside door, but Hli and Tony always accessed the space using an internal corridor that led from the rear of the main living area. There was a door that could close off the whole extension and it was thus used every night. When it was open, it revealed three doors, which the girls assumed were two separate small rooms and another bathroom. Don stated from day one that this was definitively Hli’s area and that they should respect her space by not going through the doorway. This they did. And never once did Hli invite them in there.

Don tended to sit with them for a smoke in the evenings, but by then, after eating, they were usually out front, on the covered patio and the girls’ room and bathroom were accessed from there. Don would retire into a room on the other side of the patio, but the girls had noticed after a couple of nights that he generally stayed up after they had gone to bed and that his room’s light stayed on until late. They also peeped inside one day and saw there was a bed in the room but noticed also there was a door linking that room to the back extension, so he could access that rear corridor without coming back through the patio and living room. He had been evasive when they asked if Hli was his wife. All he would say is that he had offered Hli and Touhue a place to stay when Hli was having family problems. He did not answer when asked if the problems arose because of the birth of the child. “Hli lives here,” was as far as he would go. Don would not be drawn. Hli could speak no English, they assumed, and little Tony was too young to be concerned with such things.

A chat about their experience thus far, their luck, their interests, their futures, led Eileen and Charlotte, one afternoon, to spend half an hour talking about Don, who at the time was away ‘making visits’. They both remarked how little he said. He was thoroughly knowledgeable when it came to facts about culture, history, language, in fact anything, except himself and people close to him. On these things he remained close to silent.

Their frustration at not being able to communicate with Hli was shared and both of them expressed some surprise that she claimed to have no English whatsoever, despite sharing a house with Don. But then Don seemed to speak Thai and Hmong fluently, so perhaps there had never been any need for Hli to learn a language she would never use outside the house. They still were disposed to the idea she was a full-time maid or housekeeper, but sometimes her behaviour, especially some of her exchanges with Don in whatever language they were speaking, suggested she might occupy a status above servant. It was a matter of interest, but not one of preoccupation.

“Don’t ride a bike in flip-flops.”

“Why doesn’t Hli come up to the villages with you?”

“Because there’s only room for two on the bike.”

“But if I wasn’t here, would she come with you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“She is not from the area where I take you. She comes from a place much further up.”

“But does she go there?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because she lives here.”

It was like repeatedly going round the same roundabout not being able to read the signs. There was no arguing with the analysis and there was to be no further discussion. Don had a way of bringing exchanges to a definitive close. This is where you are. This is how things are done. That is how things are going to stay. End of argument. What went before is none of your business and Hli’s privacy must be respected. Eileen and Charlotte both assumed there had to be some kind of family tension, some risk to her security if she returned to her home area, but they never had more than their own invention as evidence.

After two weeks, Charlotte was meeting regularly with Pundit and she had even attended a seminar in the university at his suggestion. It focused on an eclectic discussion of how Buddhism might facilitate world peace. Charlotte was effusive about the day, but Eileen wasn’t listening when she spoke.

Eileen thought she might make a sculpture out of a Hmong headdress, sewing in anything she might find along the edge of the cloth, possibly to illustrate a history of the people. She started work and even asked Hli to look at it. The reaction was clear. Hli thought she was an idiot. She was even slightly offended that this Western woman should make something that was of her culture and then try to change it. She could not express the idea in words, of course, but there was no need for words when she started removing all the items that Eileen had carefully included to create her work. Hli tut-tutted and shook her head as each one came away.

They spent more time playing with Touhue-Tony. Neither Eileen nor Charlotte made any comment about his Eurasian features, probably because they were unused to noticing such distinctions. Hli’s dark skin was mentioned once or twice, but then Eileen pointed out that the people she had met out of town had very variable skin colour, probably depending on how much time they spent in the sun. Eileen had seen some people working in the fields who were almost black. She had asked her guide and he said they were from the same village as the other people she had seen, but these people worked outside all day. They concluded that Hli had previously worked in the fields. Tony, on the other hand, spent almost all of his time in shade, so his skin was pale.

A modus operandi had developed. Habits had begun to solidify. Charlotte always went to bed earlier than either Eileen or Don, at least a couple of hours, usually more, after Hli and Tony had disappeared. They smoked and talked, or perhaps it could be said they smoked, and Eileen talked. Don nodded occasionally, provided fact, but would not be drawn on anything. Eileen did ask him what kind of work he was doing. He mentioned the word research, and then the word academic, but gave no detail.

And then Charlotte and Eileen had their argument.

“What college work have you done?”

“Still thinking.”

“You’re going to fail again.”

“I have an idea.”

“Tell me.”

“You’ll see.”

In what we have met thus far, Hli has been a recipient of others’ thought. But at the time she was very much an active, if quiet, participant in events. The two girls had by then assumed that Don and Hli were a couple, but still they had no definitive confirmation on which to base this opinion. Of course, the girls were out for much of the day, so they only saw Hli for an hour or two before she retired as soon as night fell. But even when they stayed in for a morning or afternoon, they still had little contact with Hli, who was forever busy with domestic jobs. Don would neither confirm nor deny. Don would not even be drawn. He did make it clear that such detail should not really concern them.

“It depends on what you mean,” was Don’s much-used answer, which he always left hanging, and they did not pursue.

Hli gave Charlotte cooking lessons, mainly during the hours that Eileen was away with Don on their visits to the north. She did try on several occasions to communicate with her about things other than the ingredients and utensils they were handling, but Hli would never be drawn, even into sign language and still they shared no verbal common ground.

“She was very interested,” Hli said of Charlotte, many years later. “She wanted to learn everything about the food, the culture, the religion. I could do the food. Eileen was different. She could not concentrate. She said she was interested in everything, but it did not last. She could not apply herself. She would do things for a few minutes and then move on to something else. I tried to show her how to make a Hmong headscarf, but she did not want to learn. She always wanted to change things before she had learned what they should be. I tried to say, ‘It’s like this’, but she would just do things the way she wanted.”

Almost before they had noticed the passing of days, they had just a week left, and Charlotte knew Eileen had done nothing towards her resubmission. Hli remembers their argument that night, not only because it woke her up and caused her to leave her room in the dark, but because she also had insufficient English to understand what was being said and she was genuinely concerned that someone was about to start a fight. Charlotte does remember the gist.

“We had a massive row. Eileen was high on dope. She was incoherent. She seemed to be spending more of her time like that by then. We’d been smoking and we went to bed. But I had not had much. I was all too aware of what was happening. I am not sure Eileen was. I went to bed before her. And then she came in. Beer. Dope. Too much. I woke up when she closed the door. I told her she was making things harder for herself. I demanded she show me her sketchbooks. She had told me over dinner that very evening how well she was getting on with her ideas and I said I wanted to see the evidence. She almost threw a couple of books at me and I had a look. And, as I thought, she had nothing of any substance. We went through the whole thing - should have stayed in London, should have done the work before we left, should have done the work in the term instead of planning the trip. Eileen blamed the tutor, saying he had no idea what she was trying to do. It was a real row. When Hli appeared at the door I was so embarrassed I got up and went to sit outside on the patio. Leave her to stew, is what I kept saying to myself. I then got bitten to death by mosquitoes. The bites turned into sores. Took me weeks to get rid of the scabs and blotches.

It was the next day that the real bombshell came. Eileen disappeared after breakfast without speaking to me. She went off alone and I did not see her for the rest of the day. I went out in the afternoon. I came back and, when Don said he was going for a nap, I did the same. It was around five when Eileen came into the room saying she was looking for her camera. She picked it up and immediately left. I followed her. And there was her work. Don’t ride a bike in flip-flops, she called it. She was already taking pictures when I first saw it. She took another five shots before I spoke.

It was Don’s shining new Honda, parked in the drive. There was a notice stuck across the handlebars saying, “Do not touch.” All the way round the tread of both tyres she had stuck - I really mean stuck - a line of old flip-flops, multicoloured, all facing the same way. I suppose it was funny. It was the bike that was wearing the flip-flops. Don came out to see what was causing the commotion. He was absolutely livid. “What the fuck…”, I remember he began, but was unable to say any more for a couple of minutes. “How did you stick them on?”

“They’ll come off.”

“Too right they will.”

“Not until I’ve finished.”

“And when might that be?”

The bike had an electric start, which was not universal in those days. The key was in the ignition and she flicked it. To this day, I don’t know what she was trying to do, trying to prove. Somehow, when she had lifted the bike and pushed it around to get at the tyres, she must have clicked it into gear. It lurched forward with Eileen holding the handlebar, which twisted to the left because she didn’t move as the bike lurched. It stalled, of course, but she tried to hold on as it overbalanced. She fell with the bike on top of her.

“You stupid…”

Half the flip-flops had already come off. The others were well and truly stuck. Hli burst into laughter and went back to her room, clearly amused but also embarrassed. Then Eileen screamed.

“My foot’s bleeding.”

She had cut her bloody foot. It wasn’t a bad cut, but it bled. Cuts do. I called her an idiot. We found some cloth and wrapped it round her left ankle and foot. It bled quite a bit and she had to limp up to the chair on the patio. She sat with her leg up on a stool. Don spent the next couple of hours scraping glue off his tyres.

We had a major heart to heart. We sat there, just the two of us, with Don along the drive, probably within hearing range. We had to work out how we could get out of this mess. I made her promise to do some serious work towards her resubmission, starting the next morning and I also offered to help. It was clearly painful for her, emotionally as well as physically. It was also perhaps the first time in my life I had a real disagreement with another adult, one that was not teacher-pupil, parent-child, something where a major difference between equals had to be addressed and solved.

The next morning, I found her back with Hli resurrecting the idea of making a Hmong headdress as a sculpture. It was off the wall. Eileen made some drawings and she said she would go out collecting materials to include. She set off, but immediately came back, saying her foot felt uncomfortable. The next day she worked around the house and said she had made good progress, at least with the sketches. We went to bed after the usual evening smoke and chat, and I felt the air had cleared a little. Don said there had been no lasting damage to the bike and that we should forget the whole thing.

Before morning, however, Eileen woke me saying her foot was throbbing. I suggested she bathe it in in warm water, which she did. By morning, not only the foot, but also her lower leg as far as the knee had turned red and looked swollen.

We showed Don. “You’ve got blood poisoning. You’ll have to get it treated. Don’t ride a bike in flip-flops.” No-one found it funny this time.

“We have to travel back to Bangkok the day after next”.

Don shrugged. “We’ll see.”

We did see. The hospital admitted her. For twenty-four hours, she was delirious. I spoke to her, but all she said was nonsense.

“She can’t travel,” Don said.

For a day there was little improvement. On the third morning, she seemed more like herself, but her leg was still swollen, painful and red. They said the antibiotics would need another three or four days to bring the infection under control. She was not in any danger, Don told me. It would heal but needed more time. He went on to say that it needed to heal, otherwise she might lose the leg. I told him he had a strange idea of danger, or possibly an even stranger concept of safety.

Some days earlier I had already bought our bus tickets for Bangkok and I had the same agent get our air tickets, so I was all tooled up and ready to go. We had no more money left. I could not get any refund because I had bought the cheapest tickets and they were non-transferable. My dad had sent the money I had asked for and it had covered the tickets, but we had literally nothing left.

I remember that last visit to see her. I am still not sure to this day whether it was the delirium returning or whether it was all true.

“We have to be on the bus this afternoon.”

She was strangely silent. Then she looked at me long and hard, straight in the eye, which was unusual for Eileen. It was as if she was preparing herself for an experience she was about to savour. “I’ve slept with Don,” she said. “More than once.”

I was speechless. I grew up that day. I had never before really understood what adults were talking about when they spoke of trust. That day I learned. I had never before understood the word betrayal. Now I did. I said nothing. I couldn’t. I didn’t shout. I didn’t cry. I just left.

I went back to the house, packed and spent a couple of hours back in the same café we used on the day we arrived. I did not see Don. I did not see Hli. I never said goodbye to Tony. I bought a postcard in the bus station, addressed it McHugh, Weaver’s Rise, Crofton, West Yorkshire and wrote, “There has been an accident with a motorbike. Eileen will not make it. Her artistic life is probably over.”

I meant Eileen could not travel and would therefore fail her course. I probably wasn’t thinking clearly. I understand now that it was read differently when it arrived through the McHugh’s front door, after most of the street had already seen it. I couldn’t remember the house number.

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