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Rat Water


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When my wife and I found the house on Thanon Khwang we thought we’d gone to heaven. It was in a compound of six identical farang-style houses, each with three bedrooms and two baths, tile floors throughout, ceiling fans in the living room and dining room, and French doors on three sides of the living room. There was a huge paved parking area in the back of the property that was great for enormous parties. We were a mile from the restaurants of Chalong Bay, close enough to Wat Chalong to hear the bells. There was a nid-noi shop across the street that closed at 10, but if you ran out of cigarettes at midnight you could just bang on the metal shutters and Ba Laeng, the septuagenarian shopkeeper, would come down and sell you what you needed. The houses were brand new, built in the corner of a cashew plantation; we were the first people to ever live there. The bus to Phuket Town stopped at the end of our driveway and there was a talaad nad a block down the road every Wednesday. The day we moved in Mem said, “I want our babies to grow up here.” I did too.


The best part of the House on Thanon Khwang was the well. Water on Phuket is like real estate in Manhattan: every conversation on the island eventually gets around to it. In the place where we had previously lived we often had to bathe with store-bought drinking water because the pipes were dry. But on Thanon Khwang we only shared our well with the tenants of the other five houses. It was like winning the lottery.


In house A were me and Mem, our six-month-old daughter, two-year-old son and thirteen-year-old nanny. In B was Tom, and unemployed photographer, and his ex-bargirl wife and their baby girl. In C was Ivan, a retired Australian bond trader and his wife Noot, who ran the Poste Restante window at the post office. Ivan’s oldest boy was working in Burma for a company that sold dehydrated ice cream mix. Every few months he’d show up with a case of booze and there was a non-stop party until he had to go back to work. In D were a pair of female college students with the World Wildlife Federation who were volunteering at the Phuket Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, Swedes I think. In E as was Matt, a New Yorker who owned a dive boat, his wife Jim and their toddling girl. In D was Phi Reep, a fifty-something Thai business man who never exactly defined what business he was in and his twenty-something third wife who was stunning and pregnant and forever silent and sad. House E was owned by Pete, an American who worked on a cargo ship and only spent one month in the house twice a year. His nine-year-old son and the boy’s middle-aged Thai nanny lived in the house year round.


Since I was the only person in the compound who had a “real” job, I was always the first person to shower in the mornings. One day, early in our first dry season in the house, I jumped out of the shower with a curse. The water smelled bad, really bad. It smelled like death.


I woke Mem up and asked her what was going on with the water. “Rat in the well,” she said.


“What do you mean, rat in the well?”


“Dry season. They’re thirsty. They smell the water and fall in.”


“What do we do about it?”


“You go down and get the rat.”


“ME?”


She gave me the Who The Hell Do You Think look and gave one of the breasts I used to consider mine to our daughter. I’d been dismissed.


I went out to the well, which was in a corner of the big parking lot/party space, and sure enough way down there a big black bloated rat carcass was floating on the surface, surrounded by a slick oily sheen.


I knew there was no way in hell I was going to go down that well. I can shovel snow and drive on ice, but climbing down wells is not part of my skill set. It was about 5:30 in the morning; Tom and Ivan wouldn’t wake up for hours, Matt was on a dive trip, Phi Reep usually didn’t even get home from “work” until about 8 in the morning. I knew the women in the compound would be on Mem’s side.


Our houses had been built by laborers from Burma. A year after the construction was completed these migrants still lived in plywood huts just beyond the low cinder block wall that marked our property line, a few yards into the cashew plantation. I guess that hanging around and subsisting on day labor on Phuket was better than whatever they’d run away from in Burma. One of them was sitting outside his hut, lighting a charcoal fire, staring at me with the same look children wear when they see the monkeys in the zoo. Mem had paid these guys to catch a hia that had invaded our house one night (which they had eaten) so I asked him if he’d like to earn fifty baht.


In five minutes the guy had thrown a rope down the well and retrieved the deceased rodent. As he climbed back up the rope with the corpse in one hand there was greasy rat water raining down onto his face. I gave him fifty baht and said thanks, gathered my clothes and left to shower at the hotel. But before I left I stopped at Ba Laeng’s and bought a small bottle of Seng Thip, a bottle of soda and a pack of Khrong Thips. I took them back to the car park and handed them over the wall to my hero. His grin was three feet across.


After work I found that Phi Reep had taken care of draining and flushing the tank and our water was sweet again. All seemed right with the world until Mem said, with the casual air that meant she’d caught me being stupid, “Why did you give that man the whiskey?”


“He had rat water in his eyes. I figured he’d need a drink.”


“That was stupid.”


“Why?”


“You’ll see.”


Just two days later I again found my shower fouled with the odor of death. I went to the back of the property and there was my Burmese savior, sitting on the wall, his rope over his shoulder, already grinning.