Thursday, 24 May 2007
Abroad Thoughts From Home
Our new wooden house... what's it going to be like?
I’m writing this early one morning sitting on the sofa in the house of my daughter, Anna who lives in Petersfield, Hampshire in the rural south of England. It’s early summer and as I look out at the garden, it’s clear and bright, the first decent day for weeks. I’m here for my annual trip to stay with Anna and Will and Mike and Tamsyn, and to see my older sister, Diana and her husband, Michael.
The last three summers Cat has come with me and together we’ve spent almost a year and a half in England, the first time in London and then in Petersfield. Sadly, this time she couldn’t come for family reasons so I’m making a short trip here on my own.
A few weeks back, we took the bus from the village and spent a few days at our bleak, concrete room off Sukhumvit soi 71 in Bangkok. We’d suffered eight very hot hours in the bus and swore not to do the journey by day again. Parting crept up on us insidiously, but Cat did her best to lighten the mood as we looked round the new Suvarnabhumi airport before the flight. There’s nothing I hate more than separation but having become wedded to the other side of the world, I now have to deal with it all the time.
As we ate at the airport, the chill of parting hanging over us, I almost longed for it to be over and done with. I knew there could be no display of emotions because that’s not the Thai way, though under Cat’s cool exterior, I knew she was feeling it too. As I finally walked away into the departure area giving her a last backward glance, our worlds split apart and I told myself I’d never willingly let this happen again.
I wasn’t enjoying this at all, though strangely, I quite enjoy flying. Passively cosseted in a luxury sardine tin, I was to be propelled across the world, risking fiery eternity and a stranger’s elbows and snores.
I always ask for an aisle seat so I can make regular trips to the facilities. In the toilet mirror my hair’s standing on end and I reflect that while I’m traveling stupidly fast at 30,000 feet, Cat’s about to board a smokey old bus at Moh Chit for the long trip back to the village. Her journey’s only a few hours shorter but it’s infinitely more dangerous.
I’m not knocking the long distance buses in Thailand as really they’re pretty good. The seats recline, the air conditioning sometimes is okay and hostesses bring round drinks and free nibbles. Four pounds for four hundred kilometers isn’t bad either, but on the buses it’s not like the jet set… it’s a world where your fellow passengers are migrant labourers dismally travelling between village and Bangkok in search of work. Thailand looks glossy and smooth but for the Thais, life can be tough.
Here in the aircraft toilet I look at the row of luxury creams and fragrances and at the sterile cleanliness of the brand new plane, reminding myself that the air ticket back to the West has cost me a hundred times more than Cat’s ticket for the bus. But then I’m burning oceans of fossil fuels. I’m in a time capsule, the screaming engines spitting pollution into the upper atmosphere just so I can see my family. My carbon footprint must be size eleven at least.
Now back in Hampshire, all is English and idyllic… clean air, hills and countryside, a manicured market town full of pavement cafes and shops that line every high street in Britain and I’m finding it mildly boring. The town centre is busy but the surrounding streets are deserted and I meet and speak to nobody all day. It’s a dormitory town and they’re all too busy, madly working to pay the mortgage and all the bills but with no family elders around to help raise the babies and lighten their load. Exhausted at the end of the day, they go inside and shut the door, switch on the television and open the computer. It’s time to do the weekly online shop at Tescos. Such is life in the industrial society!
I think back to our village in the North East of Thailand, where in contrast to England, our Thai house is always full of people. Everyone wanders in freely at all hours, usually with a baby or two, taste whatever we’re eating and then wander off again. The Bangkok soi where we have the room is dirty and chaotic and choked with traffic, but it too is always alive with people. It’s a hubbub of markets, construction sites and food stalls, of prowling cats, cocks, colour and laughter. When Cat orders her favourite chicken feet in volcanic sauce from the old lady, she’s greeted like a long lost daughter, though we haven’t been back there for months. It’s an urban village, a community that against all the odds is vibrant and alive, a corner of Isaan uprooted in chaos to Bangkok.
I’ve just been staying with Anthony and Sue in Somerset, Anthony who I was at school with and with whom I smoked my first illicit Woodbine, down the side of the railway bank beyond the cricket field more than fifty years ago. There’s an old cider house next to their farmhouse and they’re having it converted into two units for holiday lets. I told Anthony that Cat’s building a big wooden house in our garden, and he asked me how much a carpenter costs for a day’s labour. He’s astonished when I tell him… the normal rate is about two pounds a day. He’s had to pay his workers about a hundred times more than that.
Yes, Cat’s busy building again and because I miss her and want to know what’s happening with her new house, it’s a relief that I can phone Thailand and talk to her. It’s a strange experience as, though we are in different worlds, the line’s so clear and her voice so strong. I always ask her where she is, in the kitchen or outside, so I can visualize what she’s up to. She’s never in our bedroom and she tells me she’s sleeping downstairs with her Mama and Nan. She can’t go upstairs, she says, because I’m never there and I ought to be.
I left her some money in her bank account before I left as she’s been longing to build a small wooden house in the garden for the children to play in and as an occasional overflow for visitors. We only have two bedrooms and occasionally it’s been a problem. I imagine the tiny beach huts on Koh Chang and on the phone, I ask her how it’s all going.
‘Work, work, work every day,’ she replies breezily. ‘Now nearly finished. Cannot finish toilet as someone steal sangasee for roof.’
‘That’s a nerve stealing the corrugated iron… noisy too. Soda didn’t bark? But Cat… I’d no idea it’d have a toilet!’
‘Of course there’s a toilet. It has a kitchen, big, big verandah, museum room and three bedrooms. Many people stay… must have toilet.’
‘Three bedrooms? Cat, you’re crazy!’
She’d talked to me about her ‘museum’ before, a special room to put my beloved buffalo cart in so as to get it out of the house, but I never thought she’d actually do it.
I now imagine Cat beavering away, in no way a butterfly, hyperactively planning her wooden house with neat drawings, costing the materials, finding workers, ordering truck loads of soil to make up the land and pitching in to help digging the post holes and scraping the timber.
The wooden posts must be pretty dirty because, as is normal, they’ve been stored at the bottom of a pond for some time. Cutting trees down is a serious offence and you can go to jail for possessing newly cut wood. The police are alive to this and, like minor traffic offences it must offer a lucrative sideline for them. Forest cover in Thailand has suffered terribly in recent decades but with people desperate for wood to build their homes, Canute could as well hold back the waves as save the remaining trees. Really it’s all just a game, but sometimes with high stakes.
Cat’s been playing the usual cop and mouse game and she tells me the police have been sniffing round the house, knowing exactly what’s been going on there. The rules mean that the wood has to be delivered at dead of night and there’s then a race to nail it to the house before the police arrive.
It’s a bit like cricket and if you can get back to the crease and finish hammering before they get there, it seems it’s too late for them to nail you. Our wooden house is obviously brand new, but you tell them that it’s been there for ages and humour them with a drink or two and then it’s okay. I beg Cat to be careful though, because I don’t want to have to visit her in jail.
The core of the new wooden house is an old rice barn that Cat’s recently bought and had reassembled, but then comes the dangerous bit as the rest of the walls and floors are of newly cut timber. Her idea is to build a totally wooden house of traditional materials, including a grass roof on top of corrugated sheets and so she’ll just have to risk handling red hot timber.
From afar, I have to admire this little brown dynamo who’s beavering away in the heat, passionately building something very special for both of us, while all I do is write silly blogs about it from far, far away. Yes, though I’ve totally lost control, I do like her idea of a wooden house, but why’s it so big?! What’s it for exactly, I ask Cat over the phone, but I get no clear reply, at least not one that’s fully comprehensible to a farang.
Even so I can’t wait to see the next photos of the building work. Cat tells me she’s had big problems sending me the picture from the internet café in Sangkha, but I’ve begged her to try again with some more recent ones. It’s tantalizing to be away at this time for all sorts of reasons and I want to see the latest progress with the final stages of our new wooden house. It sounds so nice, I might even move in myself!