The Point of the Needle

By Cecilia Duijts Lindahl

 

It was the chicken feet soup that did it. The soup and the heat under the tin roofs covering most of the market. And all the signs in Thai. She didn’t speak Thai, but she knew the word for chicken, gai, and approached the vendor, carefully enunciating the g-a-i. The sign said—or at least she thought it did—fifteen bahts for a meal, 15 written with Thai numerals looking like a curled-up snake and a small road map. 

The vendor smiled and took the lid off the large pot. The intense feeling of relief—she’d make it, no problem. She could buy food. Then she saw the chicken feet through the steam, the mass of scaly white skin on stick-like bones. She stepped back. “Gai,” the vendor said. If she wanted to eat, that was it. She gave him a twenty baht-note. He gave her three coins and a bowl filled with soup. 

She sat down at the blue plastic table and watched the families around her. Small children eating everything, with pleasure. She tried to ignore the yellow nails on the chicken feet as she lifted her first spoonful to suck the skin from the bones.

The coriander roots, the chili, the broth: it was the most delicious soup she’d ever eaten. 

 

All those long walks to and from the market, through endless alleys with mange-ridden, emaciated dogs snapping at her heels, while the fat dogs barked slowly, lazily, from the shade into the heat of the sun. She felt elation when she first dared to approach the motorbike taxi riders at the street corner, asking them with hand gestures to take her to the market, haggling about the price across a sea of different languages. Then the sudden wind in her hair, and she started to laugh as they rushed past the cars. She’d die any second—she was sure of it—but the relief from the wet hot metal-tasting air, and the dogs too scared or too slow for the bike, with the price of the ride matching that of a meal, she decided she could afford death. 

She spent all her afternoons at the crowded market, pushing past stalls full of mangoes, pineapples, guavas, and heaps of hairy rambutans, looking at clothes, plastic spoons, small pancakes, grilled fish with the dead eyes white from fire, surrounded by roasted garlic, chilies and ginger. That first week she tried—in addition to more of that chicken feet soup—pork noodle soup, fried duck on rice, pork leg with rice, stir fried morning glory, pad pak boong, some sour sausages that made her mouth burn before she even tasted them, and a gloriously delicious red curry. She cried when she found what seemed to be fried tarantulas at the bottom of the bowl, but later she learned they weren’t spiders but the rib cages of small frogs. 

She often woke up at night, dreaming about those mouth-watering curried frogs. 

She made her nightly visits to the bathroom, where spiders hung in silky threads and the cockroaches hurried down the drain, away from the sudden light. The first night they scared her more than the realisation a few days earlier—in another life—that there was no money on her Visa-card. When her payment was declined at the lobby bar, she logged in to her bank account and saw a huge withdrawal done in Camden two nights before. All her money was gone, all the nights she stayed in when her friends went out, all the packed lunches when her colleagues bought take away-meals. Suddenly: no Visa-card, only 10, 000 bahts in her wallet and a plane ticket back to Europe, the plane leaving in thirty-eight days. 

She stood unmoving in the air-conditioned hotel just off Thanon Silom, where she had planned to spend three days by the infinity pool (already paid for, breakfast included, thank you Buddha—10, 000 bahts was a night and a half, without breakfast) before booking a flight to Phuket and the ferries south to islands like Koh Phi Phi, Koh Maak, and Koh Lipe.

She called the emergency number and cancelled the card. Yes, they’d look into it, since she was in Bangkok and couldn’t possibly have made the purchase in England. A new card would arrive at her home address within two weeks. Her next salary wouldn’t arrive until some two weeks after that, so she didn’t bother to argue about time or geography. 

She thought about calling her mother, but that time she missed the connecting train in Copenhagen and her mother had to come pick her up had been the main subject of their phone calls for five years. She couldn’t add a Western Union-incident to the list so soon after her separation. 

She snuck out of the hotel three days later, taking the bus—the sky train being too expensive—south-east into the suburbs. She rode for hours on cream coloured buses with wooden floors and open windows in the heavy traffic. Then, this tiny room: a bed and a chair and a fan and a bathroom without a door and a shower with cold water between six and eight in the morning.

After the first week, she had a well-set ritual: waking up at sunrise—the window faced east and the room was small. She showered, brushed her teeth and then left the house before seven. A few blocks to the right she’d found a water vending machine. She spent five bahts for five litres of clean water every morning. She bought grilled chicken from the lady outside the seamstress', fifteen bahts for half a chicken. Chicken in hand, she followed the canal to the temple. She ate her breakfast in the shade, next to the rainbow coloured cloth draped around a Bodhi tree. The rest of the morning she spent in the temple building, sitting in front of Buddha, until the need for coffee became greater than the need for peace. Outside the eastern temple gates, she haggled for a while with the motorbike driver, repeating the name of the market and showing him a 20-baht bill until he agreed. 

The joy she felt week two, when she’d learned the words for stop here, please. A light touch to his shoulder and a shouted jot teenee, ka made him stop in a new soi close to the market. She bought grilled corn on the cob and strawberries—this was truly a day for celebrations! 

She downloaded a free embroidery pattern at the local internet café and bought needles, floss, and fabric at the seamstress'. 110 bahts—she had to survive on nothing but chicken feet soup for three days. She slowly stitched her way through the Thai alphabet. Forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels, and a picture for each symbol: a chicken, a snake, a bottle, a bell. She’d always hated needlework, never had the patience. Here, it gave her a sense of purpose. She sat in the back of a big coffee stall with her undrinkable sugar-laden coffee stitching three letters and their accompanying pictures each day. Three letters a day, so she’d be done by the time she flew back home. It was a way of measuring time that made sense, measured not in minutes but in the slow progression of afternoons. Time moving like the water hyacinths in the sluggish canal water: up and down, but staying in place, keeping everything still. 

As the sun started to set, she bought a plastic bag of frog curry and walked home. She knew exactly where the stench from the canals would become unbearable and held her breath just long enough to make it. As she ran past those stretches of filthy water, she felt almost as elated as that first time she managed to buy chicken feet soup. 

She usually arrived home around seven, sometimes stopping at the internet café to write some nonsense on Facebook about snorkeling and remote jungle excursions to keep friends and relatives calm. She spent the evenings in her bed studying Thai. She named the two largest spiders and that huge cockroach Manee, Po, and Ngo. Now, they almost felt like family. Hi, Ngo. I’m Linda.

Week three ended with her taking the crowded songthaew for the first time. It went around the village in a big circle, first passing the temple, driving north to the post office, then on to Tesco on the Bagna-Trat Highway and finally down south to Big C, before it arrived back at the temple some forty-five minutes later. She wanted to see if she’d manage to travel to the airport without getting lost. She did. The airport and back, it was a six-hour-trip. 

That evening, she stopped at a new market. (This time she knocked on the window and politely said chuai jot teenee duai, ka to the driver of the songthaew.) She had pad ped kob, red frog curry, knowing exactly what she ordered and how much to pay. And then she took a motorbike taxi home, trying the new turn left here and the old stop here please. She celebrated by buying Chang beer at the 7/11, spending more money on that ice-cold beer than on three meals and a bike ride. 

She fell asleep without finishing her three letters. The following days she got back on track by stitching one letter at the temple before heading to the market, and then the normal chore of three letters with a cup of that undrinkable coffee. It was impossible to get unsweetened coffee. After she figured out how to say no sugar, please in Thai, the vendors stared at her and then silently added honey instead. She could tell they wondered about her crazy farang ways and decided to stick to sugar. 

At the end of week five, she still had four hundred bahts left. She could afford a taxi to the airport. But she walked to the temple, took the songthaew, waited in the sun and the traffic for bus 552 at the bus stop outside Tesco, and then changed to the shuttle bus at the Public Transportation Centre.

At the airport, she lined up behind the hordes of tanned tourists. They were bragging to each other about their scuba diving experiences and their shopping bargains and the sunset pictures. She smiled to herself and dropped the embroidery needle into the waste paper basket just before passing security.