Extracts From The Diary of Dr J A Earnshawe (Part 6)
A Reputable Hotel, Bangkok Wednesday 23rd March 2005
By nature I am quiet man – all my adventures have been lived out by the fireside. Any loneliness I might have experienced was tempered by the companionship of my wonderful sister Grissel, who bestowed upon me a great tenderness, and prided herself on being an excellent contriver in house keeping; and as for cooking a shepherds pie, she could not be excelled.
However, I have always been of the opinion that the honest man who marries, does more service to the community than he who continues single and only indulges in, or perhaps only wishes for, the pleasures of the flesh. From this motive, I had long hoped for matrimony and desired to choose a wife, not for a fancy surface, but for much deeper qualities.
Yet all my endeavours to find such a wife in England were continually frustrated. Not that I didn't occasionally enjoy the little rubs which Providence sends to decrease the value of its hardships. Once, I was put in touch with a widow by a dating agency. We exchanged a number of letters, but the termination of our correspondence coincided with my response to her request to provide a photograph. I don't believe I look my best in a bathing costume.
Another time, I sat on the bus next to a lady who smiled at me. It was but a short affair: she got off after only three stops. Retrospectively, she may not have even been smiling at all. She could have just been suffering from a bout of intestinal colic. I'll never know.
Most memorably of all, Grissel introduced me to a friend of hers, Wendy, On our first date (it wasn't a formal date, I just accompanied her and Grissel for a walk along the cliff tops), Wendy had an accident. I solemnly express I had no hand in. She simply fell over my foot as I raised my leg to check if my lace was loose. All my efforts to woo her were vanquished by this single blow. The coroner said it could have happened to anyone.
It was therefore perhaps, from hearing my wishes so frequently recounted while we were colleagues together in England, that my dear friend Cummings, upon his sudden departure from his post to Thailand, encouraged me to follow his lead. Being convinced of Cummings' experience of the affability of his Thai pupils, and not least that the availability of a suitable matrimonial partner seemed to be so transparent, I was willing to commit myself the huge step of expatriation to join the colonial service, at the grand old age of 57.
This, as may be expected, produced a dispute attended with some acrimony, which threatened to interrupt the good relationship I had with my dear Grissel. However, on the day we parted for my flight to Bangkok, we made up: one virtue she has in abundance is temperance; too often the only one that is left at our age.
When I awoke this morning, the yellow haze that seems to permanently shroud the corpse of the city had lifted a little and a tiny crack of blue appeared. Was it an omen? Could it be that my long search for happiness could soon be over?
My first objective was to restore my faculties of sight. With this in mind, I set out to look for an optician. By now, I could make my way to the main road directed by smell alone. Following the exhaust fumes of the car park, then across by the burning grease of the pavement stalls, I turned right to the odour from the broken hatches of the sewerage system, towards the little brick shelter at the corner by the crossing.
I had prepared myself with the picture of a monk I'd torn from a magazine. I intended to show this to the proprietor of the theatrical store, and avoid any ambiguity in our communication. I knew the Skytrain station was not far from the corner, but first I hoped to obtain some replacement spectacles so that I might be able to actually see the rest of my way to my destination.
I came across a small shop, looking rather like a chemist, but if it did not actually specialise in ophthalmy then at least I might be able to obtain the assistance in finding such a service here. I walked up to the young lady at the counter and tried to explain my predicament, at first making little headway. Spectacles… glasses,…optician… eyesight – none of these words seemed to register at all. I might have well been speaking a foreign language for all the good it did. Don't they teach English in the dominions any more?
I was all but ready to leave, but decided to give it just one last try. 'I want to SEE. I want everything to be CLEARER. I see very SMALL. I want everything to be BIGGER. I gesticulated with my arms stretched out – like a fisherman describing the one that got away – and repeated loudly and slowly …B-I-G-G-E-R… you understand?'
This last word seemed to light up her face, but then she immediately covered it with her hands and walked briskly away. Shortly after she returned with a more senior lady assistant. 'Ah, you want make bigger?' she asked. 'You take this. Soon make big. It cost 1600 baht.'
I looked down at a dimpled plastic envelope. 'I'd rather not have contact lenses if you don't mind.'
'No – these not lenses – you take in mouth when you need make bigger.'
'Pills? But how long do they take to work and how long do they last?'
'Work in 30 minutes. Last four hours.'
'But that's no good – I need them to work now and last all week.'
She looked at me in surprise. The junior again covered her face. I wasn't sure, but I believe the impudent young hussy was hiding a grin.
'It must last for a week until I get to see Mr Willie.' I tried to explain, but I don't think I was making myself understood at all. What was that Thai phrase Walker had used to describe meeting a lady? I wanted to explain the importance of my vision being good for this evening. What was it he said? It suddenly came to me.
'It is very important, you see. Tonight I am hoping to bum-bum with a lady.'
The junior immediately turned away, not even trying to suppress her laughter now. Obviously, I was making a fool of myself with my awkward pronunciation. It is never wise for an Englishman to attempt the native tongue. It seems incredible that some foreigners have not yet grasped the de facto status of the lingua franca.
The senior assistant then placed a different sleeve of pills on the counter.
'This very good. You take one every day. Last long time. Cost 2200 baht.'
'Thank you, I'll give it a try. I had better take one immediately – have you got a glass of water please?'
She looked at the girl and said, 'Nam.'
Nam went and got me some water – almost spilling it – still trying to hold in her stupid giggling, which was now almost turning to convulsive sobs. She couldn't look me in the face as she handed me the water. In an attempt to distract her from her silliness I tried to make conversation.
'This is much different to the treatment we would have got in England. We are normally measured first to establish exactly what prescription we require. You see, everyone is different where I come from. I suppose its on account of you all being the same here.' I looked around the room. 'You don't even seem to have the facilities here for any measurement.'
My efforts at conversation had even less influence than if I hadn't said anything at all. Now both of them were holding their faces and not even attempting to hide their impudence. I would have waited in the shop for the medication to take effect, but I didn't want to remain in the presence of such rudeness any longer than I had to.
Fortunately, the steps to the Skytrain were just outside. I thought I would have difficulty finding my way to my train, but the crowd on the platform almost picked me up and carried me forward. Of course, no seats were free, and I was surrounded by so many tiny individuals crushing against me. Imagine being in a can of yellow sardines, most of who seemed to be picking their noses, all staring as if you were the one who looked strange. (Of course, you have to have vivid imagination to picture a sardine picking it's nose.)
When my station was announced I was glad to fight my way off – again the momentum of the crowd carrying me to the street. With the help of my monk picture, someone led me to some enormous gates. The fancy-dress hire shop resembled a huge yellow fort, with massive pointed turrets – set among beautiful lawns – but by now, nothing could surprise me about this bewildering country.
Yet, what I saw inside staggered me; so many customers were dressed as monks – if I hadn't known I was in a theatrical hire shop I would have believed I was actually in a monastery! I suppose this is how it must have looked before Henry VIII abolished the monasteries in the sixteenth century. The colonies must have had to follow suit. Anyway, I was relieved to find that I wouldn't be the only one going to tonight's ball dressed as Friar Tuck. I would hardly feel such a fool after all.
Finding someone who seemed to be in authority, I made my request, 'Excuse me sir. I would like to engage your services in securing a rental contract in order to enable me to hire a monk's habit.'
Completely expressionless, he stared at me for several minutes. I wasn't sure if he understood what I wanted or not, but eventually he indicated that I should wait. After a few minutes another gentleman came forward to speak to me. He had the confident air of the proprietor of the establishment, and fortunately (and at last!), he addressed me in English, in a slow, calm – almost serene – manner.
'Hello my friend, how can I help you?'
I repeated what I had told the first man. He raised his eyebrows and bowed his head, at the same time continuing to rest his kind eyes upon mine. 'My friend – you have thought deeply about this?'
'Indeed I have sir. I discussed it with my colleagues only last night. At first, I was rather reluctant to go through with it, but it is only for one night – and really – (I lowered my voice, and hoped he wasn't going to laugh at my pronunciation) – between you and me – I'm doing it for the bum-bum more than anything.'
He stared at me intently. Slowly a deep countenance passed over his face. 'You become monk for bum-bum? You mean with lady?'
Something in his demeanour made me feel I shouldn't, but I gave a hesitant nod. I couldn't meet his intense gaze and looked down in shame.
'My friend, the strictest of our rules – and one you must observe all times – is that such superficial pleasures are strictly forbidden. A monk must never touch, or be touched, by woman.'
'Of course, I would never do such a thing.' I declared vigorously, 'and no woman has ever wanted to touch me and …' but I could see he wasn't finished explaining the hiring procedure, so I let him continue.
'I am questioning this life for you, my friend. Perhaps – too many hardships. Must rise 5am. In bare feet, walk many hours – collect alms – mediate all mornings. One meal each day before noon. Chanting all afternoons. No alcohols – no ladies. Must to sleep at 8pm. Before, try many Phla Falang – but it not good. All fail.'
He put his head down and looked extremely despondent. Clearly there was a lot more to hiring fancy dress garments in Thailand than I imagined. In England, all I usually do is pay a deposit.
'Are you saying I cannot take a robe? I promise I'll look after it.'
'My friend I believe all problems can be overcome. It is not only wearing of robe makes man a monk. Monk must be patient. All a man's consciousness must focus on whole cosmos.' He paused, and his face smiled kindly as he spoke. 'Perhaps trial period – for one day – that best for you?'
'Yes, that is excellent thank you – it is all I need. I promise I won't damage it, and if I do I'll refund the entire cost. I assure you, this means very much to me – so much depends on it – it could be the turning point of my life…'
He interrupted me with a smile and a wave of his hand. 'I understand my friend. I do not doubt sincerity about taking up our simple way of life – go now change to robe of novice monk – already I see you shave head. This good, must repeat each night before moon is full.'
'Is there anything else you need to ask me?'
'Yes, is there anywhere I can grab a spot of lunch, I'm awfully peckish?'
'Go now my friend with other novices to collect alms. Many good people will present food to you.'
I thanked him and was led to a room where I tried on a robe, it felt so cool that I decided to leave it on during lunch and followed the other customers – who were all trying out robes too – to the food hall.
Now I had the robe, my pressing concern was that my eyesight was still no better. I took another of the pills in the hope I could increase any effect they might have, but I was beginning to suspect I had been duped. Eyesight pills indeed! How could I have been so foolish to fall for such a scam? Well, I would be certainly confronting with those two fraudsters on my way back.
Another surprise was that, instead of going into some kind of dining hall, we walked along the banks of a nearby river, where many men, women and children were waiting for us and handed us baskets of food; fruit, deserts and many other snacks. Everyone was very generous and there was no immediate charge for it – I suppose it will all be taken into account in the final bill when I return the outfit tomorrow. The victuals were excellent – I have never eaten so much in my life. Afterwards I lay on the grass by the river with the others, and began to feel very sleepy – until we were suddenly roused by the voice of the proprietor calling us back into the shop.
We then assembled in a large hall and were instructed to begin the meditation. Since it was my first time, I naturally put up my hand to ask exactly what I had to do to meditate.
I was told to relax, focus my mind and think of nothing.
'What do you mean, think of nothing?' I said.
'Allow your mind to become a state of emptiness.' the proprietor patiently explained. But this was at odds with everything I had learned in my scientific studies.
'But it is impossible to construct a region of space which contains nothing.' I pointed out. 'Even if a matter-free vacuum were possible it must contain physical fields. Gravity cannot be blocked, since all objects not at absolute zero must radiate electromagnetically.'
'My friend you must first believe such a region can exist and then work to create it.'
'But even if that were true, the region would still not be nothing, because all space must have a measurable existence as part of the quantum mechanical vacuum.'
'You must awaken from the sleep of your ignorance, my friend. The physical world must be left behind you as you enter the state of enlightenment, ' he said firmly, raising his voice just a little, I thought. There was just a faint hint in his reply that he was capable of losing his serenity now and again. I decided to end our discussion. It seemed we were incompatible, and unable to agree on nothing..
All in all, it was a strange procedure to hire a robe. I accepted I had to just go along with it – everyone else was. I tried to talk to the others about the theoretical basis of quantum mechanics during meditation but I was very rudely ignored. I suppose it could have been that, just then, many of them were in enlightenment – but I just couldn't seem to get there. On top of that, my eyesight was still no better. I sighed and took another pill – more out of the will to do something than expecting to restore my vision.
After many hours of thinking about nothing we were instructed to begin the next stage – chanting. I'm not really a chanting person, but at least I'd had some experience of this when I was a boy, when I was taken to watch football with my father. But the chants here were rather different to those used at football grounds in England.. It sounded a little like 'namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu…' and so on, without much variation – or sense – I'm afraid.
At first, it seemed to have rather a catchy tune to it, but after an hour or so I got quite fed up and started chanting some scraps of my own. 'We hate Nottingham Forest, we hate Liverpool too, we hate Man United but …' suddenly I was aware that everyone around me had stopped chanting and had their eyes on me with a look of absolute incredulousness. Then I saw one to two were smiling, and because the proprietor had left the room, I thought: why not vary the activities a little – just to ring the changes -as I might do in one of my lessons?
'Now listen to me everyone,' I said, 'to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory," I want you to follow me,' I began, 'We hate Nottingham Forest, ..' at first tentatively and then with a definite enthusiasm slowly building up, more and more began to join in, 'we hate Liverpool too… ' soon the roar of the chant was deafening, 'we hate Man United …'.we could have almost been in the Gallowgate end in the 60s…'but Magpies we love you…all together now one, two, three…'
Suddenly a piercing, manic, shout cut through our joyful celebrations. The proprietor had totally lost all trace of serenity and was running around yelling at the top of his voice.
Within minutes we were back to the restrained and monotonous: 'namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu, …' It was as if the brief rebellion had never took place.
It all seemed such a tedious process. I wondered if Cummings and Walker were having the same kafuffle hiring their outfits as I was. I was beginning to get some misgivings about the whole thing. At 8pm, exhausted after many hours of meditating and chanting, we were told to make our way to the dormitory. The beds were as hard as concrete and the single blanket provided was as rough as sandpaper. It was rather like being back in my old boarding school, except there was no supper before lights out, and no matron to tuck us in. In one last desperate effort to see clearly I took the remainder of the pills, and put my head down on the log I had for a pillow and willed them to take effect.
It was at this point that I began to get extremely suspicious. I am no fool. Either the process for hiring fancy dress in Thailand was an extremely elaborate one, or I was indeed snared in some kind of crazy religious order. I'd read about such secret cults, the tales of kidnapping and brainwashing their members in The Guardian recently.
Naturally, I turned my attention to escaping. There were some problems to overcome: I was dressed in a monks habit, I had no idea where my clothes were, I couldn't see, and all around me were hundreds of men sleeping. Unaccountably, as if I hadn't enough problems, I began to get a huge erection. A final pressing concern was that if I didn't make a move soon, I was going to miss the Robin Hood Ball altogether and this complicated robe hire business would have all for nothing.
If there is such a thing as nothing.
J A Earnshawe BSc PhD
Absolutely brilliant, again!