Somehow I love the timeless, documentary feel of monochrome photos. Personal pictures are about memories and dreams, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, and somehow in my dreams and memories, colour never figures very highly.
When my son, Mike was staying at our home out in the far rice fields of Thailand two years ago, he casually told Cat he wouldn't mind trying one of our coconuts. To Cat this was a bit of a challenge and, girding up her loins, if that's what you do, she performed the extraordinary feat of climbing a tall cocout palm without any aids whatsoever. She's as lithe as a panther, but I hadn't realised she was that supple and strong.
All I could do was to stand below looking anxiously upwards. Please, please, if there's a God, give me my lovely wife back. Please, please... not just for a coconut!
Needless to say, she didn't die and she and Nan then began the task of hacking through the tough outer husks of the coconuts to get at the flesh. The sounds of the machete and of their laughter echoed through the house. Somehow, as always, it was all uproariously funny, and Mike, brilliant photographer that he is, captured the moment perfectly on black and white film.
Pictures and memories like this very occasionally encapsulate what it is you so like about a person and why you enjoy being with them. Cat's never the typical farang wife, preening and painting herself pink nor tottering in tight jeens on precarious heels. She's much the happiest when she's belting a hoe into the hard, dry ground in her vegetable garden, bossing Nan and me around or being the life and soul with the friends she always seems to draw to her. She has a life-force that she shares with others and especially with me.
And Nan too, tiny though she is, is also a personality to be reckoned with. Nan is one of Cat's nieces who Cat's parents brought up from birth, and now aged eleven, she lives with us. It's common in Thailand for children to be brought up by their grandparents as hard necessity often makes separation inevitable. Suffice it to say that despite her small size, Nan is always much to be reckoned with... she's one of the biggest characters around.
Her large, wide-set eyes stare unblinkingly out of a little moon face and, while most children quail at the fearful beak of the pale faced farang, from the very first time I met her, Nan held my gaze with never a flicker. I often wonder what's going on inside her head, though it's usually blazingly obvious. Constantly, her face expresses her joy at being alive, though equally at moments of humiliation or pain, her mouth turns into a reverse smiley face and her big eyes become deep pools of sorrow. That time she was bitten by a scorpion, did she howl!
You can see the closeness between Cat and Nan, as Cat has always been a mixture of mother, teacher, sister and friend to Nan, the one person she can always rely upon. So I ask myself, where exactly does that leave me, the exotic intruder into their lives? With what suspicion must she regard me? While I've brought Cat back to the village and provided a home, equally I could take her away again. All I know is that when (very occasionally!) hackles are raised between Cat and her sweet-natured husband, Nan is immediately at Cat's side, her eyes blazing back at me in fury, passionately protective of her beloved Cat.
Nan, Cat and Mama and many other voices fill the house and fill my life, twenty four hours a day. When I first came here, I half expected to be invaded like this and while it's taken time to get used to it, now I wouldn't have it any other way. If occasionally the house is empty and Nan isn't there as we eat at night, we miss her sparkle and the silence seems unnatural and wrong. Normally, as I go upstairs, there's always a little tribe of folk pulling out the bedding and laying it out on the tiled floor of the one big room downstairs. Sleeping like that would destroy a soft westerner like me, but they seem to find a clean, modern floor, and a television permently switched on, the height of luxury.
How would it be for you to have your mother-in-law living at home with you? Especially if there's a big cultural gap between the two of you and you find her local habits of chewing betel nut and eating rotten fish intrinically disgusting. Well, I'm pleased to say, it's all been remarkably harmonious. As she and I hardly have any language in common we can slag each other off under our breaths to let off steam and the one hasn't the first idea what the other's mumbling on about!