Saturday, 30 June 2007

Dedicating Our Wooden House - Part I

It’s dead of night and down in the new wooden house at the bottom of the garden, the lights are blazing, the tile cutter’s screaming, the hammers are resounding and for some reason I just can’t sleep.

‘For heavens sake, why are they working overnight?’ I ask Cat who’s lying prone next to me.

‘Have to finish by Saturday,’ she says, a bit annoyed at being disturbed. ‘Saturday last day. If not have party Saturday, then cannot use house for three months.’

Once again I’m mystified, though increasingly resigned, the strange truth becoming clearer in the morning. In essence, you can’t sleep in a house until it’s been blessed in an animist ceremony that’s practiced across a vast swathe Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and further afield, and the ritual’s to no avail unless it’s conducted on an auspicious day. The coming Saturday is an auspicious day but as there won’t be another one for at least three months, completing the house is now urgent so we can go ahead with the celebration and move in.

So they’re working flat out and at about eight or nine on Saturday morning, the elders will gather and we’ll have the ceremony or bust. This'll be followed as always by the feeding of the five thousand.

Last night we sat and barbecued outside the house amongst all the builders’ mess and wreckage. Meanwhile Cat was madly building a wall of cement blocks that I’d been dispatched in the jeep to buy that day. All was cooking and other activity around us. A fire was burning piles of rubbish and vegetation from our work on the garden and for some reason that I couldn’t understand, Cat’s uncle was grubbing around in the embers. Cat told me what he was doing... he had four cows’ feet and a tail and he was cooking them in the middle of the fire. As he extricated them, all black and singed it gave me the illusion that he’d cooked a whole cow, left it on too long and that all he had left was the feet and tail.

We sat amidst the mess, the wreaths of smoke engulfing us but hopefully deterring the mosquitoes and ate the most succulent pork, roasted on the charcoal. I scoffed greedily, pestered by our dogs, Pepsi and Soda and even more by the cat, while legions of babies and toddlers raised hell around me. Their mums were helping Cat set up a big bamboo table with all the bowls and cooking things for a feast the following day.

With the table now laid out in the open and with night falling, there were a few upward glances.

‘No problem,’ says Cat. ‘No cloud, so no rain tonight.’

In the middle of the night I’m woken by the roar of the wind and the heavens open with horizontal rain. I go onto our upstairs verandah to bring in the cushions and, like a captain on the bridge of his ship, stare anxiously out into the tempest. Then there’s a bang and a flash of light. It could have been lightening, but no it was far too low down... perhaps the electric wires for the wooden house which are strung along the fence at the side and cobbled together with tape. Strange though because the lights are still on in the wooden house, so maybe it hasn’t blown completely.

Morning comes too soon when a mobile phone rings jarringly beside the bed. When we don’t get up, it rings again five minutes later. I finally wake feeling hot and clammy. It’s four in the morning.

‘Nao, nao,’ says Cat. How can she possibly be cold!

‘I forgot to kill the chicken,’ she says, and uncoils off the bed. I lie in the dark listening to the sounds of terminal squawking from successive quarters of the garden.

Soon Cat’s back in the room, telling me to get up, quick, quick. ‘We go market,’ she says. I groan in response. ‘No problem,’ she says. ‘I can drive the pickup to market, if you like.’

But it’s a new pickup and she’s never driven before, so it is a problem and I don't like, so I’m going to have to get up and take her into town.

We go downstairs and Cat unceremoniously wakes Nan who’s asleep in a bundle on the floor. We all stumble outside into a dark world that’s damp and dripping. I can’t see a thing through misted windows but somehow manage to back the big vehicle out through the gate.

First stop is to collect Cat’s helper, Naam, a university student who lives nearby. We drive to the house but the bamboo gate is shut and the place is in darkness. Cat calls loudly and eventually Naam appears.

We drive to Sangkha along puddled, rutted roads, the CD playing nineties romantic ballads at full belt. It’s still pitch black when we get there but the market is as busy as I’ve seen it, jammed with pickups and scurrying figures bearing early morning burdens.

I’m left in the pickup while Cat and her two porters disappear, taking with them half my pension. I’m almost dozing off when a motorcycle appears and stops next to the pickup. How could he carry so much stuff… he’s got vegetables and things across the handlebars, between his knees and piled up behind him. Now he’s gesturing at me through the window. Then I grasp what’s going on… looks like Cat’s bought all this food for the party. Just as we’ve just finished loading it into the back of the pickup, the three shoppers reappear.

Next stop is Daeng’s house where it seems we’re picking up some pork. But it transpires that it isn’t just some pork… it’s a whole pig which is subtly different. Fortunately it’s not an intact pig, though the head stares accusingly at me when I open the lid of a big stainless pot and look inside.

Back home, I drive the pickup to the bottom of the garden and leave them all to unload the booty. Cat’s there as colonel in chief, directing a major logistics operation… there’s teams of ladies peeling vegetables, cleaning, scraping, squatting, chatting, laughing, getting ready for the celebration and the big feast.

I’m now up on my verandah overlooking all this activity and I decide to take a telephoto picture for the record. It’s still only 7.00 am but it feels like mid-afternoon.

The new digital camera flashes unnecessary and so I sit down to try to switch it off. For this modest automatic, the instructions book runs to 185 densely packed pages. It’s one of the least amusing books I’ve ever read, though the safety instructions do give some light relief.

‘Seek medical attention immediately if a memory card is accidentally swallowed.’ What do you do if it was swallowed with malice aforethought?

And, ‘If the camera emits smoke, stop using the camera immediately.’ I thought all the malfunction indicators were on the LCD display!

I bet the camera’ll know our house party's a unique and special occasion. My other Pentax jammed half way through the raising of the first post ritual for our big house four years ago. These are automatic cameras you see and they can sense a special occasion and foul up deliberately, just to provoke me… to make me say something stupid like, ‘they don’t make them like they used to, now do they!’

No comments: