Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cool Hand Luke

Sometime during a trip through South-East Asia a travelling companion and I arrived in a pretty little stopover in Southern Thailand, a quaint coastal town situated at the mouth of the San Song River, where the river flows into the Andaman Sea. On arrival our plan was to head to some nearby island resorts, but because the town was so pretty we decided to stay the night.
Spread out beyond the balcony of the cheap riverside guesthouse was an outdoor food market. I watched people buying and eating food and then caught a waft of hot chilli, fish sauce and other mouth-watering aromas and was instantly hungry. Tired and weary from a long and arduous bus journey my travelling companion announced he was going to lie down for a bit, while I, encouraged by such sweet aromas, decided to get something to eat.
I walked over to the market and stood in front of a food stall and viewed what was on offer. Like most take away establishments there was plenty of fried stuff and because we were on the coast, plenty of fish and seafood. I felt incredibly hungry and decided to order several items, but when I tried to order in English I was met with a look of total incomprehension by a fat cook running the stall. After that I tried some basic Thai, but because of my complete ineptness this tactic proved even less successful.
While I struggled to communicate the fat cook flipped something over in a frying pan, wiped a greasy hand across the front of his dirty apron, and did nothing. I looked around for help and saw a pretty girl watching with interest from a tour operators shop across the road. Acting on impulse I indicated for the girl to come over and help, but she just poked her tongue out and turned her back on me. Cheeky I thought, and acting on another impulse I strode over to the shop in a purposeful manner. When I got there the girl and I eyeballed each other,
“Wha you wan?” she asked defensively.
What did I want, I wasn’t sure, but the girl possessed beautiful eyes, eyes like the dead of night, and a sudden association of thoughts made me think of the song Spanish Eyes, but the girl wasn’t Spanish and Thai eyes didn’t sound as good. Then I forgot about the song,
“I wondered if you could help me order some food. That guy over there doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak Thai.”
The girl smiled a pretty smile, a smile that revealed a row of brilliant white teeth, and instantly I wanted to extract those teeth and exhibit them in a museum for perfect examples.
“I busy,” she said, with her nose in the air. Then she tapped a pencil on the table and pretended to work.
She wasn’t busy because the shop was empty, but for some reason it felt like she was issuing a challenge and money seemed the only way to meet it head on. There were three other girls in the shop. I turned to them, flashed a wad of cash, and asked if they could help.
The sight of money excited the other girls and they began arguing amongst themselves,
I split the money into three separate wads, “Listen, why don’t you all help?”
The girls smiled like children, but then the other girl suddenly barked at them in Thai, and they stopped smiling. Evidently this girl was the leader.
“What?” I asked
The leader flashed me another dazzling smile, “They busy also,” she said sweetly.
I rubbed my chin, said nothing, and returned to the food stall. ‘Fuck her,’ I thought. The fat man saw me coming and smiled broadly like an old friend. This time I decided to be more assertive with my ordering. I pointed at several items on the menu and then pointed at one of the tables in front of the stall. Then I rubbed my stomach, made munching noises with my mouth, and flashed my wad. This time the man got the idea. He rubbed his hands together, puffed up his chest, and commenced rushing around his stall in an efficient and purposeful manner.
As the cook began chucking ingredients into his huge frying pan I brought a large Singha beer and sat at a little plastic table and waited for my dinner. One by one the cook began placing dishes on the table until there were seventeen dishes in front of me. To complement the food he added five tiny saucers filled with spices and dips, and also a huge dispenser of chillies.
I looked at all the food. There was far more than what I’d ordered, or thought I’d ordered, but I remained silent and formed my eyes into slits, viewing the situation as a tremendous challenge. Then I paid for the meal, gave a tip, and prepared to eat. The cook smiled and said something in Thai, which I took to mean bon appetite, but it could just as easily have meant, ‘I hope you choke to death you stupid farang fuck!”
Unruffled, I pulled a serviette from a plastic dispenser and tucked it into the neck of my tee shirt with a certain flourish. Then I looked to the Tour operator’s across the road. The three younger girls were standing in the doorway watching my every move.
I motioned for the girls to come over and they smiled and looked back to their leader. The leader stopped what she was doing and glared at me. Then she slapped her hand on the desk in a resigned manner and waved the three girls away. Immediately they ran over,
“You eat all?” said one, gesturing to the multitude of dishes.
I pulled my best nonchalant face, “Yep, unless you want to help.”
The girls glanced at each other knowingly and then said in unison, “No, we wan you eat, we think no possible.”
I wondered what I was getting myself into and glanced over my shoulder. There was the cook flipping something over in his giant frying pan. He looked at me and then at the food and in my mind the look said, ‘Now I’ve gone to the trouble of cooking all that shit, you better eat it all you little English prick.’ Fuck, I thought, this is now a challenge I can’t back down from, “Not possible a?” I told the girls with a brave face, “Well check this out!”
Then I got started. By the time I was on the fifth dish a small crowd had gathered around my table. I acknowledged the onlookers with a confident wave and soldiered on. After the ninth dish I ordered another large Singha beer and replaced the by now food-splattered serviette with a fresh one. Then I winked at the girls and gave the cook the thumbs up.
From here on in it became a battle of wills and I began to feel like Paul Newman in the boiled egg eating scene from the film Cool-Hand Luke. I went into tunnel vision mode and stuffed the food into my mouth and took large swigs of beer. After the twelfth dish my belly began to swell and tighten, and then it felt like the food was rising from my stomach to my neck, and beyond. After the fourteenth dish I became like a madman. My head felt like it was going to burst, my eyes bulged out, the sweat poured off me in torrents, and my extended belly made me look pregnant. I called out for more beer, I called out for more chilli, I said brilliant things the girls didn’t understand, but continued to stuff food down my gullet.
Finally, when the seventeenth dish disappeared down the same orifice as the other sixteen, I emitted the world’s biggest burp and collapsed headfirst onto the table. I could hear yells of delight, cheering, and an extended round of applause all around me. Then I raised my head and blinked my eyes like I was dazed.
The girls fussed about my person, and although I didn’t feel too bad, I decided to milk the situation. As the crowd melted back into the shadows I pointed feebly to the guesthouse and indicated they help me to my room. The three girls fussed around me even more and lifted my bloated frame and assisted me across the road.
As we passed the tour operator’s I shrugged the girls from me and addressed their leader,
“Excuse me,” I called out in a horse voice.
The leader looked up, “Ya,”
“Tomorrow, I need tickets for the ferry to the islands.”
The leader’s eyes suddenly brightened, “You wan now? You best price me!”
I shook my head, “No, no need, I’ll buy them when I come down for breakfast,” I replied somewhat melodramatically.
At the mention of the word breakfast all four of the girls looked amazed; “Tomorrow, you eat breakfast?” They chirped in unison.
“Of course, full English.”
The girls were confused, “Full English? Wha that?”
“I’ll explain tomorrow,” I replied, and then walked to my guesthouse just like how old Bing Crosby must have walked up the hill on that final round of golf and said, ‘That was a good game,’ before collapsing and dying of a massive heart attack. Only difference was that unlike old Bing I didn’t die of massive heart attack, but instead bumped into my still sleepy travelling companion emerging from our room like Rip Van Winkle,
“What happened to you? You look fucked,” he yawned.
I smiled weakly and pointed to the bed, “Nothing, I’m just tired after eating.”
My travelling companion reacted like he had just remembered something important, “Is there anywhere good to eat in town?” He asked.
Despite feeling like my stomach was about to explode, a mischievous thought entered my mind and immediately dominated the other thoughts that resided there, the reasonable, boring, sensible type of thoughts,
“Yeah, just tell the girls at the tour operator’s you want exactly what I had, from exactly the same place.”
My travelling companion thanked me and I felt a pang of guilt, but it didn’t last long. Then I collapsed onto the bed, rubbed my huge stomach, and stared at a ceiling fan revolving above my head. Outside I could hear voices,
“You wan same as your friend, really?”

Joe Ridgwell


Stephen Morse said...

Strange as it may seem, this story reminded me of some the early american tales by writers like Jack London that often involved practical jokes. Well told, good details, kept my interest

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe not that strange stephen as Jack London is one of my literary heroes, his ss are often underrated or simply forgotten