by Louise Hopewell
I met E-bride on a scorching summer day. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that E-bride met me because I was lying on a park bench doing nothing but hating people in general. I had no energy to meet anyone, no energy to talk to anyone, no energy for anything other than my misanthropic thoughts.
The word hot is totally inadequate to describe that day. It was not normal heat. This was furnace-like, thermometer-breaking heat which melted the leaves from the trees and turned the grass to dust. And we’d just walked ten kilometres into town with fifteen kilo backpacks on our backs.
We’d started out from the national park in the cool of morning with spring in our steps and belief in our hearts that once we hit the highway we’d just stick out our thumbs and a passing car would screech to a halt and whisk us into town: our broad hats, weighty backpacks and walking poles setting us apart as genuine hikers rather than lock-your-doors-up-good and plant-the-foot-on-the-accelerator-type potential murderers.
But we had over-estimated human kindness. It was a public holiday and cars formed an endless line of ants along the highway. People going somewhere, people coming from somewhere, but no one with enough kindness in their heart to pluck us from the heat. We’d been out bush for six days and were in desperate need of a shower, but they couldn’t have known that as they accelerated past us, hiding behind speed and tinted windows.
I imagined their conversations.
Female passenger: ‘You could’ve stopped and picked them up.’
Male driver: ‘Huh?’
She: ‘That couple back there, walking with those huge backpacks. It must be nearly 40 degrees out there.’
He: ‘I didn’t even see them.’ A quick glance in the rear-view mirror. ‘If they’re stupid enough to be outside in this heat, they deserve to walk.’
She says nothing, reaching over to crank up the aircon.
But I was probably ascribing us too much importance in their small, refrigerated worlds. They probably didn’t even see us or, if they did, didn’t think we were worth comment.
As the sun rose higher and the temperature climbed, my steps along the shadeless track beside the road had become heavier and wearier. At one point, Alistair had turned his head, calling back to me, ‘Are you deliberately walking that slow?’
For a week we’d been working as a team, but now heat and exhaustion had wedged a bond between us, unravelling our sense of calm. Alistair was too far ahead to hear my mumbled response. I had no spare energy to form the words aloud, just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. But I did have energy for thoughts, angry thoughts about the motorists who ignored our pleading thumbs, angry thoughts about Alistair who’d let his mobile phone battery flatten, preventing us from calling a taxi to pick us up from the edge of the park, which had been our original plan.
Those angry thoughts were still churning in my head as I lay on the park bench, even though we’d finally made it into town, even though I didn’t have to walk anymore and even though I was out of the stinging sun.
‘Hello?’ E-bride’s voice broke through my rumination. I ignored her, hoping she was talking to someone else or that, if she was speaking to me, she’d think I was asleep.
Everything about me, from my inclined position, to my stillness, to my face buried beneath my hat, said ‘go away’ and ‘don’t bother me’. But E-bride either didn’t see that, or was so desperate to talk to someone that she didn’t care. Her voice came again. ‘Hello?’ She waited a while and when I didn’t respond she added, ‘Are you OK?’
‘Yes, just tired,’ I mumbled into my hat. (Actually I wasn’t so sure I was OK. It felt like two fists were pummelling into the spot between my eyebrows and, although my mouth was burning with thirst, reaching out for my water bottle seemed like too much effort.)
I only said three words, didn’t have the stamina for any more, but that was all the encouragement E-bride needed. I heard her shuffle around from the other side of the tree and plonk herself down on the bench beside mine.
‘It’s hot today.’ E-bride had a soft singsongy voice. Perhaps if there were birds around she could’ve talked to them. But it was too hot even for birds.
Hot, yes. And I’ve just walked ten kilometres with fifteen kilos on my back and I am entitled to lie here in the shade in peace.
‘I just got my licence,’ E-bride said proudly. ‘I drove here all by myself.’
Even though I was exhausted, the sour words popped out. I couldn’t help it. ‘Surely you could have found somewhere nicer to go.’ As far as I was concerned this town only had two things going for it – this shady tree and the train line out. E-bride was ruining my peace beneath the tree, so I hoped at least the trains were still running.
‘I thought there’d be some shops open, a café.’
Instead there’s only me, lying hateful and unfriendly in the park. If I had’ve had the strength, I would’ve got up and walked away – found another tree, found some more shade. But even opening my eyes seemed too strenuous.
‘There’s nothing open here, nothing to do,’ she said.
‘You should have gone to the beach,’ I murmured. There’d be plenty of people to talk to there.
‘Do you live here?’ E-bride asked.
The thought made me laugh. ‘No way. I’m just waiting for the train to go home.’ As soon as possible. To my home where people are kinder: where someone would have had mercy on weary travellers and rescued them from the heat. But I knew I was being a bit Pollyanna-ish. Where I lived wasn’t any different, I just liked to think it was. People probably weren’t any kinder there – me included.
‘I live in Werribee,’ she said without waiting for me to ask. ‘I drove here all by myself. I just got my licence. My husband bought me a car.’
‘That’s nice of him.’ I was beginning to wonder where Alistair was, thinking I’d be happy if he just bought me a cool drink.
‘I came here thinking I might find someone to talk to, but there’s no one here.’ No one but me who doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else – at least until it’s ten degrees cooler and, quite possibly, never again.
She was quiet for a moment and I was thinking that perhaps she’d got the message. I was day dreaming about home now: a cold shower, clean clothes, air conditioning.
‘It’s so lonely here.’
She was trying so hard that I was starting to feel a bit guilty about my surliness. I lifted a lazy hand and brushed my hat from my face. Even through my closed eye-lids I could feel the fierce assault of the sun.
‘People around here don’t seem that friendly. We just walked ten k into town in the heat and not one person stopped to offer us a lift. No one even slowed down and thought about it.’
‘I’ll give you a lift,’ said E-bride enthusiastically. ‘I’ll take you anywhere. Where do you want to go?’
‘Nowhere now. We’re catching the train back to Melbourne in an hour or so.’
‘I’ll drive you to the station. Where’s the station?’
I prised my eyes open slowly, blinking at the sunlight which was ferocious even here in the shade. Her eager face was looking right at me, smiling. She was older than I’d assumed from her voice and teenage-like excitement about getting her licence. Older, plumper but somehow more exotic, with almond eyes and long black hair.
She was the only person who’d shown me any kindness at all on this bleak day, so I took a deep breath and tried to banish my grumpiness. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked her. ‘I mean, originally.’
‘Thailand,’ she said. ‘Bangkok.’
‘Jing la? Mua gon chan ru ti Grunteep.’ ‘Really? I used to live in Bangkok.’ The words came from some unknown, long-forgotten place inside me. My tongue felt strange as it struggled around the unfamiliar syllables.
‘I used to live in Bangkok’. I hardly believe it myself as I say it. It was lifetime ago, another time and I was another person. A person who embraced every opportunity, who believed in every possibility, who had faith that things would work out. A person with no time for the mundaneness of everyday life: mortgages, careers, reality TV. A person who lived on the edge. The only thing that that time has in common with my present experience of life is the seemingly endless heat. I find it hard to believe now that my life was ever so exciting.
‘How did you come to live here?’ I asked her, already knowing the answer.
‘I married an Aussie. I met him on the internet.’
A mail order bride. Or at least that’s what they used to be called. There’s probably a new term for it now – ‘i-bride’ or ‘e-bride’ or something – I haven’t kept up with the technology or the language. I looked at her more closely, deciding that she’s definitely an e-bride. An i-bride would be less bubbly and more introspective – like me.
I didn’t want to ask anymore but E-bride wanted to tell her story and in this heat-emptied country town, I was the only possible audience.
‘My husband died. I had a ten year old daughter. I had to do something. But what was I thinking? I had a good job. I had my family. And I came here … It’s so lonely here.’ She flicked her eyes to the deserted main street which shimmered in the heat.
I could see the tension around E-bride’s mouth. She was trying to contain the emotion, but her twitching muscles betrayed her distress. Thai people don’t talk like this. No matter what happens Thai people smile brightly and say, ‘Mai pen rai’ – ‘No worries’.
‘How long have you been here?’ I asked her.
‘Six years. My daughter’s sixteen now. She’s an Aussie.’
‘And so are you!’ I didn’t tell her why I think that – that a Thai person would never talk like this. In the two years I spent working in Thailand I never heard anyone reveal how they truly felt about anything. Even my colleague who tossed himself off a pedestrian bridge one lunchtime, right into the path of a bus, smiled broadly and said, ‘I’m great’ every morning when he arrived at the office, including the day he went out for lunch and never came back.
‘I’m not an Aussie. I want to go home. But I can’t because of my daughter. It’s good for her here. She’ll get a good job and have a good life here.’
‘Can’t you go and live with her and your husband in Thailand?’
‘He hates Thailand. He’s only been there once … when he came to meet me and we got married. He says it’s dirty and disorganised and too hot. He likes things here. He doesn’t like things to be different. He doesn’t like Thai food. I have to cook him steak and mashed potatoes. He used to get so grumpy at me at first. Used to say, “You don’t put chilli on mashed potato!” I didn’t know that. How could I know that?’
Mashed potato – comfort food. I remember being served mashed potato on a flight back to Australia and realising how much I’d missed that smooth creamy flavour without even knowing it. The taste of home.
The memories are flooding back now. Memories that have been forced to the back of my mind, supressed by the tedium of everyday life. I was a serious person now, with a serious job, in a serious relationship and living in a serious country.
I studied Thai language so hard during those two years. When I spoke the sing-songy words, I was Thailand: colourful, easy going, carefree. And yet now, just five years later, that language – that person – is gone. I can’t even remember how to ask E-bride her name in Thai. How could I forget that? I must have asked and been asked that question a million times and yet my mind is blank. Annoyed, defeated, I asked her in English.
‘Mali,’ she answered.
It’s a nickname, of course, Thai names having at least ten syllables and covering a full scale of musical notes. Her name means jasmine and yet life here has sucked out her sweetness, just as it has sucked out mine.
‘I had a good job in Thailand. A job I loved. Here I have no job, nothing.’
I want to tell her that having a job is not everything. I have a job here and still feel like nothing. When I was in Thailand I was interesting and exotic. On the street in Melbourne you’d never even look twice at me. In Thailand whenever I opened my mouth and started speaking Thai I’d get the same reaction from foreigner and Thai alike, ‘Wow your Thai is amazing.’ Except, five years later I can’t even remember how to ask someone their name. I’m no longer interesting, no longer exotic. No wonder no one stopped to give me a lift into town.
‘My husband bought me a car to show how much he loves me,’ E-bride said. ‘He’s a good man.’
It was a nice car too, a shiny red hatchback – air-conditioned. When Alistair finally came back with the drinks, the three of us squeezed into the car, me in the back seat, wedged between our backpacks.
‘I’ll take you all the way home if you like,’ offered E-bride. ‘Save you the train trip.’
‘We live on the other side of town,’ protested Alistair.
‘I can take you there. I can take you there.’ E-bride was almost pleading.
I would’ve liked to take her up on her offer, staying wrapped in the cool cocoon of her car for as long as possible, but Alistair, always the man of principle, directed her to the station.
We said hurried goodbyes in the car park, the black tarmac burning through the thick soles of our walking boots. When E-bride hugged me I was still chastising myself. How do you say ‘What’s your name’ in Thai?
‘Can I have your number?’ she asked me. ‘I can call you and we can be friends. I don’t have any friends here.’
‘Sure.’ I recited my number quickly, anxious to get out of the blazing sun.
It came to me when we were on the train, watching the dry brown kilometres flash past. The world looked so much nicer from an air-conditioned box, easier, kinder. I was beginning to understand why no cars stopped to save us from the heat.
‘Chu arai ka?’
‘Huh?’ Alistair had his head on my shoulder and was almost asleep.
‘That’s how you ask someone’s name in Thai. It’s just come back to me. It was still there! I knew it was!’
‘Only about an hour and a half late,’ said Alistair. If his eyes had’ve been open, I swear he would’ve rolled them.
‘I can ask her when she calls.’
‘But you know her name now.’
‘That’s not the point.’
But E-bride never did call. For a few weeks I thought of her every time my phone beeped, feeling a bit sheepish about how cool I’d been towards her that hellishly hot day. Now I wanted to repay her kindness, I wanted to be her friend.
But perhaps she did try and call me. When she asked for my number, all I was thinking about was getting out of the burning sun, getting on the train and going home. It’s possible that in the haze of heat, headaches and hate that day I mixed up a digit or two. I’m not good with numbers at the best of times.
I picture her dialling the number I gave her over and over again, wanting a familiar voice to rescue her from her loneliness by asking her what her name is. But I will never answer and I will never ask.