In the last weeks I read on these pages warnings from contacts with mentally disturbed girls. Before I tell my own case story, I want to support expressly the view of the contributor who wrote that when you meet a girl who is mentally out of control,
you will never have a chance to heal her. Not to see this was the great misconception at the end of the French movie “Up to you”, turning the intended happy end into the foreboding of future disaster. Now to my own adventure.
It was my last day on the island. I had booked an excursion to the famous group of Pinnacle stones and then deserted the tourist group to explore a light forest behind the fisher huts. Their abodes looked poor but not as destitute as those of the sea-gypsies of old at Khao Lak beach. Between the trees I saw a spot of red moving in my direction. It was a girl of about eight, nine years, wearing a red skirt.
“Hello,” she said and blocked my way.
“Hello, yourself,” I responded.
In her hand she held a plastic bag which she stretched out in my direction.
“Please buy my shells.”
She took out a few of them and presented them on her hand. They were colourful but simple half-shells,an inch long, nothing to compare with the marvellous cones my cousin Jörg, who lived in Sukhumvit Soi 41, had been diving for in Phuket.
“Sorry,” I said. “I cannot buy your shells. I am leaving tomorrow by airplane and all the beautiful shells would be crashed in the baggage.”
Maybe my sentence was too complicated. She simply repeated, “Please buy my shells.”
“Thank you, no.”
I tried to move away fast, as I usually do in such situations, but she followed me, dancing around me and calling, “Please buy my shells!”
An older woman who worked nearby shouted, “Let the old man go.”
But she did not listen to the voice of reason. Her face glistening from sweat, she jumped around me, “Please buy my shells!”
Her obstinacy reminded me of a story my Jewish friend Gaby (an English teacher in Uganda) had told me. When her grandmother was of dating age, the family vacationed on the Baltic Coast. She was sunbathing on the beach when a young man came along. She closed her eyes, the ground trembled under his steps, and then he passed her without inspecting her curves. She opened her eyes and in this second she knew with certainty: This boy, whom she had never seen before, was her future husband. He did not know this yet, and it took a lot of harassing on her side to convince him. The wedding was held, but their marriage became not a very happy one.
Like the grandmother on the beach, the fisher girl must have won the conviction that I was the right man to buy her shells, and nothing could change this certainty.
I did not know how to shake her off. Considering the public hysteria on paedophiles, I didn’t dare to touch or push her. Finally I had the solution. I took my small change banknotes out of my pockets – nearly 200 baht – handed them over to her and said: “Here is the price. And please keep the shells.”
She looked at the money, threw it away indignantly and cried, “I do not need your money. I am not a beggar. I want you buy my shells!”
Thereafter she continued her jump-dance, “Please buy my shells.”
She now looked feverish and stressed, I felt sorry for her, and suddenly I understood her, seeing myself in her place.
When I was 9, my school was evacuated to the eastern Baltic coast. We left the big city, where in the nights searchlights were moving long white fingers through the black sky, and resettled at a peaceful beach resort, today called Jurmala. We occupied many different buildings, but the sleeping hall of the boys was closest to the sea. We had just to cross a copse of pine trees, a row of dunes with very soft sand, swallowing the feet, and then we were at the beach. It stretched from the left end of the horizon to the right end, like the beach in Khao Lak, but much longer.
I woke up early. The summer nights are short in the north, and usually I dressed silently and ran to the beach, which I had for me alone. For swimming the water was too cold in the early morning. So I walked barefoot along the shore, looking for the small things the sea had deposited over night on the land. Single corks, ripped off from fisher nets, disrooted algae, broken shells and – most important – glittering pieces of amber, as the eastern Baltic Sea was one of the biggest natural deposits of amber. I made it a habit to collect the most beautiful pieces. Some days the sea had thrown a lot of them on the beach. Then I felt very lucky. On other days nearly nothing surfaced and I was disappointed. In class I showed my pickings around, and if a girl asked me to give her a special beautiful piece, I felt important.
Sixty years later I saw myself again in this disturbed fisher girl, and I understood her emotions. Like the little Felix she had strolled for hours along the shore, looking for newly exposed shells, bent down a thousand times to pick up possible candidates, studying them for flaws, throwing away most of them and keeping only the perfect ones. By this effort she had strengthened her endurance and developed a sense of beauty. Should not an Old Asia Hand and art lover like me be the one to recognize this achievement and appreciate it? It had been stupid of me to be angry at her.
I picked up the money, she had discarded. “Come on, I buy a dozen of your shells.”
She considered this offer and then her face radiated with joy. “I give you all the shells. You see beauty”.
She gave me the bag and jumped happily away, the red point disappearing behind the trees.
Had I been taken? I had abandoned my principle never to buy under pressure. But her emotional distress had been genuine, not a sales trick. And finally we had something in common: Amber and shells. So I felt justified to quiet her inner storms. I would not repeat this manoeuvre in public, inspiring others to imitate her, and luckily she was only an eight, nine years old child, not Gaby’s grandmother.
When packing I did not dare to throw away the shells.
Opening my baggage in Bangkok, all the colourful shells were broken into smaller pieces, a symbol of the fate of beauty in this world, invalidating the poet’s words: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”
There is something in the local psyche whereby people of all ages have something of a propensity to throw a tantrum when things don't go their way. I find it kind of disappointing that more than a few Westerners give in to this and allow themselves to be manipulated so easily…