How I Learned Lao (Sort Of)
It’s a strange old life sometimes: There I was, sitting on a gurney in a busy admissions ward of a central Bangkok hospital waiting for an injection and watching a nurse dispassionately pick pieces of skull from the brain of a taxi motorcycle casualty.
Strange, I thought, how pink a brain looks, it was unexpected. The nurse pursed her lips as she probed with the tweezers once more and I wondered what she was thinking – what was for supper probably.
The left foot of the motorcycle rider twitched from time to time but no other movement was apparent as I watched the nurse drop another piece of bone into the kidney dish resting on the trolley beside her.
Some Friday it had turned out to be, what with one thing and another, and here I was sitting in agony with three broken ribs and a nicely bruised set of kidneys watching amateur brain surgery being conducted six feet away. And, it looked like rain outside.
My nurse approached bearing a hypodermic and on noticing my gaze frowned and turned my gurney around before holding the syringe aloft at present arms and asking, ”Arm or bottom?"
Not being in the mood for jokes, I grunted and replied, ”Arm."
“Maybye painful in your arm" She said.
‘Christ on a bike’, I thought, 'I've been walking around all day with busted ribs and now this palaver; “Arm..O.K.?”, I repeated.
The needle slid in painlessly and as she withdrew it I thought to ask what the injection was for.
“For pain”, she smiled, "Morphine."
Within minutes I knew why Goering had always looked happy and why Mick wanted people off of his cloud, the pain was gone and wonderful feeling of well being had flooded my senses. I felt good, really good.
Shortly, (or so it seemed), Supoj came along and gave me a hand off my perch then steadied me for a few minutes while I giggled about having to break my ribs more often before my legs decided to obey direct commands and we could weave off in the direction of the dispensary to collect my prescription which he had in his hand.
After handing it to the nice lady there, we waited until she returned with a veritable pile of packages which she dumped on the counter and separated into two piles, the smaller of which she indicated and said, ”For infection”, before returning her gaze to the TV in the corner.
Supoj had to leg it back to the office as it was Friday night and that meant drinking and cards so after checking that I had money and was alright, vanished into the rush hour masses outside.
Floating around gently in my induced pink cloud I slowly gathered all the packages into a pile and shoved them roughly into the bag provided before executing a wobbly right turn and headed towards the door.
Once outside I smiled as I considered how to get home which was about a mile away, oblivious to the startled looks from the pedestrians passing the mental farang who was having a giggly conversation with thin air.
It was rush hour and sticky. A taxi was out of the question as this would involve bending down as was a tuk-tuk. The bus was out as they would be jam packed and in any event to reach a bus stop I would have to climb up some very steep steps to cross the
road bridge. This left me the choice of a motorcycle taxi or walking and having witnessed my neighbour in hospital I decided to walk. Slowly.
The first obstacle to my progress was Rachadamri Road which luckily had a crossing controlled by a cop which gave me a slightly increased chance of survival so I waited until he’d stopped all the traffic and waved the waiting crowd forward to cross. As I shuffled slowly across I became aware that at my half way point the office girls in their tight skirts and high heels were already mounting the opposite kerb, something which struck me as vaguely amusing at the time.
Looking anxiously to my left for speeding Mercedes drivers who could not recognise red lights or policemen and may have difficulty in reaching brake pedals caused my neck to ache until the cop walked to me and recognising the hospital bag in my hand slowly
escorted me to the roadside whereby he smiled and wished me good luck.
‘How nice’, I thought, ’One of Bangkok’s busiest road junctions held up for creaky old me’.
After a few minutes to catch a breather and a quick lean against a lamp post I managed to light a cigarette and shuffled off towards Ploenchit and thence Sukhumvit. Difficult to puff a cigarette when breathing in is difficult….
Finally I made it to the expressway which ran over Sukhumvit and knew that I was nearly home: All I had to do was somehow cross the street and make it down to Soi Zero and I was made.
The fact that there were five lanes of traffic inbound did not concern me one iota for a train would happen along sooner or later and the barriers would stop the traffic giving me time for a tip toe across the lanes and central reservation.
But I was tired, it’s difficult to walk using both legs but only one side of your body and by now the morphine was beginning to wear off so I elected to go and visit my little sisters for a cold beer and try to elicit some sympathy. Under the expressway there is a line of beer bars and one of which was staffed by some of the girls who lived in our compound.
An about turn and a short stumble brought me into the empty bar which the girls always maintained was air-conditioned as it had no walls, and placing my bag on a table managed to lower myself into a conveniently padded chair.
Daeng wandered across with a beer for me and asked what was up. Explaining my predicament brought scant sympathy, Daeng’s reply being, ”You not die….yet."
The alcohol opiate mix relaxed me somewhat and the noise blaring out of the neighbouring bar’s sound system blotted out the traffic noise as I enjoyed the cool of the beer.
I’d noticed a woman sitting at the bar who was nursing a coke and obviously deep in thought judging by the expression on her face, and as she thought to herself I studied her more closely and noticed that she had the most amazing hair which seemed to positively shine under the lights.
She must have felt my gaze and turned to look at me which allowed me to finally see her full on so as to speak and she was beautiful, just stunning in that lovely N.E. Thailand and Lao way.
I raised my empty bottle in the standard request for a refill but she shook her head and turned away to her thoughts which I found a bit off, but as Daeng had seen me and arrived with another I took no heed.
I asked Daeng who the girl was and got the reply that she was someone’s sister in law down from Mukdahan in the N.E. for a look at the big city and was a chef or a cook or something like that.
But she certainly did not serve beer in a bar.
Daeng being Daeng upended my medicine bag onto the table and lifting a strip of pills asked me what they were for: “Infection”, I replied.
She reached for another pack and asked what they were for but not having checked, I asked her for them and read the label which said something like ‘Di-Hydra-Codeine’, ‘For pain take one twice daily’, and in red print it said, ’Sricly no alcohol’.
As my ribs were aching again my immediate thought was, “Bollocks, what is ‘sricly’ supposed to mean”, and promptly swallowed two.
Then settled back with my beer to watch the goings on in the various bars scattered across the way.
As I looked around I would sometimes catch the eye of the lady with the long hair as she had a peep at the sole customer of the bar but she would quickly look away with a small smile and resume her study of the magazine propped in front of her.
Time seemed to ooze past and before I knew it, it was gone 10 and my head was beginning to nod with the effects of the beer and pills. My fuddled mind slowly came to the conclusion that ‘sricly’ probably meant, ‘strictly’, but there you go, it could have been a translation for most anything.
Gravity seemed to have increased its hold in my locale as I struggled to rise from my seat and the lady stood, came across to me and offered her hand as a lever. After much groaning and puffing I duly managed to get vertical and stood for a moment as
the lights slowly rotated around my head as though it was me doing the orbit.
She stood by my side and appraised me with her head held tilted to one side and a smile showing perfect teeth lit up her face. As she looked at me I couldn’t help but notice her eyes, limpid brown and sparkling at some secret joke as though she knew the answer to life and wasn’t letting on.
She grinned even more widely and said something which I didn’t catch and not understanding, I asked her to repeat herself, which she duly did.
I still didn’t understand and stood confused thinking that the pharmaceuticals had perhaps erased certain memory banks until Daeng arrived and seeing my blank look said, ”She says you are an old man." Daeng paused then continued, ”True."
“Thanks Daeng, I’ll come to your funeral too" was my response. At 36 are you really that old?
As she handed me the medicine bag I placed my right hand on my right hip and made to shuffle off home when Daeng shouted to me, ”Pheung, she come with you.”
Pheung, who the hell was Pheung I wondered.
Daeng pointed to the lady with the long hair who was standing silent who nodded, smiled and said, ”Ol’ man…"
The idea of an assistant to get me across the street and home seemed like a good idea, so nodding in agreement I set off slowly down the darkened lane followed by Pheung who seemed to have to have a peek into every beer bar we passed and seemed fascinated
by the array of farangs falling around the place as they stumbled off to pastures new or arrived from pastures old.
We managed to get across Sukhumvit without any further incident and without needing to mount the pavement headed down Soi Zero into the inky darkness where I lived.
From time to time and in tune with my mutters and groans a giggle would float past my ear followed by an, “Ol’ man”, and a further giggle which cheered me up just no end. Not.
However, we duly managed to reach the gate which I had her open as I was now walking like a crab with gout and doubted my ability to lean for the handle.
Rob looked up from whatever he was doing on the porch as I crept past and gave me the, ”?” look.
“Never mind”, I grunted. He nodded and replied, ”’Nuff said.”, and returned to whatever he was doing.
My bed had never ever looked more inviting, and with a sigh I lay face down and lapsed into dreams of pain, fragmented people, laughing smiles and sweet sleep.
“Oh, so sweet sleep, where are you?"….blackness.
Slowly I became aware of a noise and as my conscious came to, realised it was a voice calling, ”Morneeeeng….morneeeeng…."…What did that mean?
Panic, black panic, help, help, I’m dead nearly.
Then a hand touched my face, a soft hand and a giggle wafted through the room with, ’Norn luk chan, norn fan dee.’ All said in a song.
Later: Sun coming in the door, a blanket over me, a voice trilling some song that the language was familiar but unfamiliar….someone there who cared about me….sleep.
Red woke me up. Sharp lightning flashes of red cutting my chest as though a manic welder had been given carte blanche to involve his or her most violent dreams.
I fought to wake. I fought to escape the dream where this was happening. It was sore.
Finally my eyes opened and I looked around to see my room: and a lady in shorts and T-shirt with long, long hair. She was singing a children’s song quietly and though I knew not the language, it was surely a kind and happy song for children.
She looked long and hard in my eyes and a trace of worry seemed to crease her brow before the door darkened as she left the room.
Dozed maybe? Then Rob arrived.
“Hoi, it’s after lunchtime and the sun is over the yardarm, are you staying here feeling sorry for yourself all day?"
He paused and helped himself to a cigarette before saying, ”Good drugs or just painful?"
Now ladies and gents there are times when manslaughter is permissible, but if you physically cannot rise to do the deed then you’ve probably saved yourself a world of hassle.
Rob laughed and offered a hand then helped me to a sitting position.
“Your nurse pointed me in this direction, well I think she did cos’, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying." Then added, ”Cute though…..where’d you find her?”
“It’s a long story mate,”, I replied, “But hand me those pills would you?"
After swallowing two and as I lay waiting for them to work their magic Robert walked out the door to return with two bottles of beer saying, ”Well, the sun is over the yardarm somewhere."
The door darkened as Pheung reappeared carrying my washing basket which had become empty and to be honest it did figure on my horizon that I was on to a good thing here as she placed it in the corner and turning revealed that full set of even, pearly white teeth before saying, ”Ole man o.k. mye."
Robert laughed and offered his hand for me to stand whereby we slowly ventured to the porch, Rob to sit whilst I stood leaning.
Pheung joined us and asking in my bestest Thai what language she spoke, was answered with, “Thai" Then as an afterthought she chuckled and said, ”Lao."
I had visited Laos on numerous occasions for business but had never had an opportunity to pick up any of the lingo and this it would appear would seem to be my chance. If she stuck around that was.
I asked Rob to call the office to say that I was to be incapacitated for a few days and would see them whenever, not wanting to do it myself as this would involve climbing the porch stairs and watched as he ducked into my room to score 5 Baht for the phone.
He returned with a grin and laughed, ”Your problems are over old boy…..if you get stuck then you can always sell your medicine to junkies. An old favourite they are indeed!"
As he called work I became aware that the pain had left and turned to my new companion who smiled then promptly handed me another bottle of beer. ”OooooooooKkkkkk…..”, I thought.
Rob resumed his seat and again asked who she was. I explained that I’d met her on my way home from hospital and thought that she was Lao which caused him to exclaim, ”Fuck me Col, you must have come home the long way. Can’t pilots
do anything without radar?"
Then turning to her he said, ”Colin-no good. Me-good."
She scowled and looked down at the concrete of the yard then put her arm through mine before looking at Rob and saying, ”No."
Rob pursed his lips then drank, and after swallowing said, ”Looks like a bit of a language learning curve on both sides methinks. Think of the fun you are going to have"
“Anyway, drink your beer and think of it as a sundowner; on top of those pills it’s going to feel like sundown in an hour for you mate”, he laughed.
I looked in Pheung’s eyes and said in Thai, ”How do you say, ‘Thank you’ in Lao?"
Pheung put her mouth to my ear and told me and so raising my bottle to Rob I said, ”Khawp jai maak."
And that’s how I learned to speak Lao sort of….