STING IN THE TAIL

It had been Colin’s most enjoyable weekend ever in Bangkok. He had volunteered for the unpopular courier run from Vientiane to the Bangkok Embassy in order to escape for a while from the pre-monsoon dust and heat, when the wide and swift-flowing Mekong River is reduced to a trickle, tempers are short, and the normally smooth running of the Embassy turns into a nightmare of petty quarrels and seemingly insurmountable problems. Bangkok offered him the refreshing breezes of her many waterways and the cool shade and hushed tranquillity of her serene temples, the spell of which is never shattered, however many grieving mourners or pilgrims might burn a candle or turn a prayer wheel for their loved ones, or roll a stone for the soul of their departed partner. He had also looked forward to being taken to the beach at Pattya, where the uncanny stillness of the miles of white sand is broken only by the wheeling of the birds in the eddies of warm air, and the rustle of the hermit crabs as they peer inquisitively over the parapets of their funk holes, and, if they think the coast is clear, scurry cautiously across the sand, with that weird sideways shuffle which ought not to make any progress at all, but which is really very fast.

 

He also had the most valid ulterior motive of all for his journey. His girlfriend Marianne, whom he had known in the French Embassy in Moscow, had written to let him know that she was arriving in Bangkok that weekend en route for the French Embassy in Vientiane. She was the ideal of every mans’ dream, petite and beautiful, with black curls tumbling about her bright, smiling face, and with a placid and amiable disposition which made her many friends, and had drawn him close to her ever since their first meeting. On hearing the good news, he had taken it upon himself to organise her onward journey from Bangkok to Vientiane, naturally by the longest route to give him as much time as possible with her, and had arranged separate compartments on the all-night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai (the Thai border town near Vientiane) for the Sunday evening of that weekend. Comfortable Pullman compartments, but falling somewhat short of Orient Express standards.

 

Colin’s friends had left no stone unturned in making it a truly memorable visit. They watched the racing, played golf, and swam together at the exclusive country club, they visited night clubs so dimly lit that fellow guests were invisible, and ate at scrupulously clean outdoor Chinese restaurants where superb cooking whetted the appetite with such copious portions of crab claws, King prawns and Bombay duck as are never seen in their pale European imitations. They spent much time together in the intimacy of his friends’ home, over leisurely meals or a drink, trying to catch up on all that had happened to them since they last met. Marianne responded in true Gallic fashion, encouraged by the all-pervasive festive mood and her appreciative male audience, and speaking English with that most attractive French accent, she chattered merrily on until bedtime. Friends had of course arranged that trip to Pattya. They sunbathed the whole day on wind-swept sand, making only occasional sortie into the foaming rollers, and when they were hungry sat down to a gargantuan picnic, the inevitable sequel of which was that drowsy half-sleep making even more delectable their awareness of the sun’s warmth, the softness of the white sands and the caresses of the light zephyrs.

 

The greatest moment was yet to come, however. On the Sunday morning Colin took Marianne to the open flower market, a brilliant display of all the most spectacular tropical plants imaginable, showy double hibiscus which starts the day pure white only to turn to blushing pink as twilight falls, prolific apricot and purple bougainvillea, waxy sweet-scented cream frangipani, deep blue thunbergias, lantanas, ixoras, and, most striking of all, the whole range of orchids from the tender star orchid with its small white crystalline flowers to the cymbidium sprays bowed down under the weight of their delicately tinted trumpets. Set under gaily coloured awnings which dimmed the direct sunlight but suffused a translucent glow to everything as the sun’s reflection danced on the surrounding canals, it presented a handsome picture which drew a gasp of wonder from Marianne. Fascinated, Colin plunged recklessly into buying all the plants he could, some specimens two or three times over, to bring form and colour to his own arid patch of a garden back in Vientiane. The car was soon full to bursting, but there was one more thing he really must buy. He had promised the little Laotian orphan he had adopted that he would bring him back some tropical fish, and there in a corner of the garden display area was just what he wanted, an aquarium with tropical fish so colourful that as they streaked through the glass tanks, they appeared like shafts from a rainbow. He could not resist it; he had to buy a tankful, together with a tin full of mosquito larvae which the astute Thai salesman persuaded him his fish could not do without. The car was by now so overloaded that poor Marianne was wedged tight between the hibiscus and the tank. She remonstrated, but thought better of it and held her tongue, conscious of the greater cause for which she was sacrificing her comfort.

 

Their goodbyes said, they made their way to the Nongkhai express. The porters lifted down the consignment one by one, and as the pile grew, the sleeping car attendant stood dubiously by scratching his head. “I don’t think we can get all that into your compartment,” he said politely, “you take the tank and tin can, and I’ll put the plants in the shower cubicle at the end of the corridor.” Colin thanked and duly rewarded him, and the couple settled down, glad to have the twiggy mass off their hands, and thought no more about it.

 

Until a loud bellow roared down the corridor audible even over the rhythmic rattle of the train wheels. The shrubs were just too many, and too thick, for the human form to insert itself comfortably under the shower, least of all the portly figure of the G.O.C., Northern Command Area. He had bent down to pick up the soap and pricked his bottom on the bougainvillea. He stormed down the corridor, burst into Colin’s compartment where the two had looked forward to a quiet evening’s courting, and threatened the direst penalties for such lèse-majesté, even to a worsening of Anglo-Thai relations. Colin deployed all his diplomatic skills to turn away the general’s wrath, but it was Marianne who saved the day. Smiling sweetly at him, she spoke about the repercussions of the war in Indochina, the threat to Northern Thailand in particular, and the grave responsibilities which must therefore rest on his shoulders. He was flattered, and preening himself like a cock pheasant began to expound on the extent of the threat, and his plans to avert or at least minimise it. The whisky did the rest, and cordial relations were restored; but at a price, for they had lost their quiet evening together.

 

The general left at about 11, and with so many hours’ journey ahead of them, they settled down again to enjoy each other’s company for a little longer. But not for long. Their moments of bliss were abruptly shattered as two or three mosquitoes, which had been hovering over them with that particularly unpleasant high-pitched hum, decided of one accord to attack. The larvae were hatching out in the damp heat of the tropical night, first one, then another, and another, until a hungry black cloud bore down on them as savagely as any infuriated swarm of bees or wasps. They opened the door to flee, but this only increased the pandemonium as their tormented fellow passengers came threatingly at them to protest. “Get the flit gun,” one cried. There wasn’t one. “Open the windows,” yelled another. They wouldn’t open. At last in desperation Marianne, who was the really practical one, picked up the can of larvae and poured it down the lavatory, thus removing the source of the plague. Colin was cross at the loss of his fish food, Marianne’s even temper snapped, and they quarrelled. That was the end of their intended intimacy, and with true Gallic haughtiness, Marianne stalked from the compartment and retired to the pure mosquito-free air of her own.

 

The atmosphere between them was strained the following morning as, in the warm morning sun and pure riverside air, they were ferried across the Mekong, on that rickety wooden raft which seems too ramshackle even for the foot passengers, let alone the cargo of cars and lorries it carries. She was particularly distant with him as she earnestly asked herself how, if she married him, she would be able to cope with all his eccentric ways and dog-in-the-manger attitudes. He had been frustrated by the unwanted interruptions of the previous evening, and quite unreasonably, but very much in the manner of thwarted lovers, directed his irritation against the object of his love.

 

They went their own way as soon as they reached Vientiane, and for a short while did not seek each other’s company, but the estrangement was not to last for more than a few days. As the weekend approached, Colin began to yearn again for her company, and it was high time he planted the mass of shrubs he had bought. They would all need careful soil preparation, siting and staking, for which another pair of willing hands would come in all too useful. And so he plucked up courage, rang her, and was delighted when, bitterly regretting their differences over so trivial an affair, she accepted, a little too eagerly, perhaps, than she should have done, to help him with the planting and to share his weekend with him.

 

Their close, happy relationship was soon restored as the serious business of creating a garden began to absorb them. They broke off from time to time for cool drinks, to prepare the evening meal, or just to laze in the shade, but by Sunday evening the garden was beginning to take shape, each shrub in its ideal setting, in well manured soil, securely staked and watered in. It was to become a firm link in the bond between them, for whenever Marianne entered through the gateway, now arched with a showy apricot and salmon pink bougainvillea, and saw exotic hibiscus and thunbergias beyond, she would smile at the recollection of their origins in Bangkok’s Sunday morning market and the agonizing train journey which had really brought them closer together after all. Once married, however, her keennesss to help with the gardening quickly evaporated. She unilaterally declared the hard part of it his province, and as all wives contrive to do, contented herself with cutting flowers, floral arrangement, much unsolicited advice on siting and landscaping, and just sitting back in the chaise longue to issue directions to him and to appreciate the garden’s beauty and Colin’s hard spade-work in maintaining it.