The term was over. The screaming kids, the sadistic teachers, the corruption, the glaring lack of principle. The examination period had been an ordeal, an eye-opening, cringe-inducing, downer. I stared out from my basic concrete hut adjacent to the school grounds and watched a flock of swallows swirl and dive and soar amongst the parched trees and dirt of the school yard. At least something found joy in this place.
I stood up and drifted down the main drive of the school, heading towards the entrance and the highway that led to the nearest dusty town. I gave silent thanks for today’s peace and quiet – no students, few teachers. A blessing. No one left to piss me off, no one left to make an enemy of. The term had left me ragged. I was frayed around the edges and I feared I had frayed the nerves of more than a few colleagues. Maybe I should really take this Buddhism stuff seriously, I thought – shave my head and eyebrows, throw on a robe, and find myself a nice secluded cave to sit in. Spend some time contemplating my navel. Anything for a bit of peace. The way I saw it, this damn world just kept rubbing me the wrong way. Too abrasive – me or the world, one or the other. I’d be better off just keeping my distance. Yeah, an isolated cave.
“Ah!” It was an involuntary shriek. Instantly pissed (again), I slammed my hand down on the shiny black bonnet of the oversized car that had just skidded to a halt inches from me. “The fuck you think you’re…? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no…”
“Sorry about that.” He chuckled as he got out of the car. “Imagine that. Last time we met you were battered and bruised. And another few inches…”
“What? Is that a joke?”
“How’s it going, Lilly?” He was serious then, suddenly wanting to have a deep and meaningful. As if that was gonna happen.
I stared at him, arms folded. “What do you want from me now, Wit?”
“I want you to stay there while I park. How about that? Can you manage that?”
Where was I going to go? I waited. He was back in a minute or two.
“Let’s walk, Lill.”
“Hang on. What the hell are you doing here? I mean, how did you even know where I was?” I was incredulous, a thousand questions bobbling around my head.
The cheeky grin was delivered like a gift. Arsehole. He pointed towards a distant hill. “We’ll head out this way.”
“What do you mean ‘why’?”
“Why do you want to take me over there? So you can pull my pants down and have some fun again?”
He stopped, sheepishly looking at the ground. “I’m sorry, Lilly.”
“Yeah, well you’re always fucking sorry. Easy to say that, eh? Use me and then say sorry…”
“No, I mean I’m sorry you weren’t able to handle that situation with a little more, what, composure? Awareness?”
“You bastard. So it’s my fault?” We were walking now, too agitated to stand still any longer. We’d left the school grounds and begun winding our way through fields left fallow.
“Two responsible adults, Lilly. I don’t believe there was any trickery involved, no coercion; I didn’t force myself onto you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I did check with you each step of the way, no?”
I didn’t want to hear this. “You took advantage of me…”
“How? Two consenting adults? Or would you prefer to be treated as a mindless adolescent who can’t take care of herself?” He took a step to the side and looked at me. “Look, we had a wonderful experience, okay? Why turn it into something dark and deceitful?”
“Damn it, Wit. I was tired, I was still recovering from the accident, and you…”
“What? I comforted you? I helped you feel better?”
“I wasn’t ready to go there.” The tears. I sure wasn’t ready for that. Just goes to show. I hated myself in that moment, my weaknesses, my inability to control my own fucking life, my own fucking emotions. I let Wit hold me, my own arms left dangling by my sides.
I looked up, still blubbering. “I thought I had things under control, and then…”
“And then you let yourself go. It’s not a sin, Lilly.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that.” The tears were flowing freely now.
“Hey, come on, Lilly, too many eyes are on us. Better straighten up.”
I looked up, swung around searching for the onlookers. I saw no one, but I heard the culprits.
“See? They’re staring. Telling us to get it together and move along. Nature’s police officers.”
“Sorry, cows.” We did move on. “I’d love a cave.”
“Nuh. A cave.”
* * *
Slowly, slowly, I pulled myself together. The silence, the space, the stillness, it may even have been better than a cave. The walk, the company even, was calming. I’d been thrown off balance more than I cared to admit. Eventually an old, weather-beaten house came into view, a small shack really, made of greying planks of wood far older than I.
“Okay, now just stay here for a moment, alright?”
“Old friends. They live here. I always drop by when I’m around.”
“And you often wander by I guess.”
He snickered, pleased to see me coming back to life. “Nah. Once or twice a year.”
I found a shaded space and flopped down, happy to be on my own for a moment. A gentle breeze took the sting from the humid country air as I made myself comfortable on a thick patch of grass. I looked up. The sky was a brilliant blue, just a few wispy clouds drifting by. I allowed my mind to float away on the clouds, carrying me away to a simpler world, away from so many things I didn’t quite understand, so many things I couldn’t quite accept. I drifted away to a more clear-cut world where people were who they said they were, where things really were what they seemed. Damn it, why did I always find myself dumped in places where things were fucked up? Life wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t I catch a break? My mind plummeted back to the school. And to think Wit had somehow conspired to get me into this messed up education system!
I saw him then, handing over a brown paper envelope to the grizzled inhabitant of the house. They were standing in the dusty front yard, half hidden amongst a straggly collection of banana trees and papaya trees. There were elaborate bows and thank yous as Wit waied and walked away with a few final words over his shoulder. My mind seized up.
“Jesus, Wit. Another stuffed envelope? Who you paying off this time?”
“Always thinking the worst, eh, Lilly?” He sat down next to me. “The world’s always against you, right?”
“No! I didn’t say that.”
“But you think it.”
“No, I don’t.” I looked up at the sky again, a few more clouds had gathered. “It’s just that I seem to end up with people…”
“…who aren’t the way you want them to be.”
“Well yeah. Because they’re idiots, selfish fuckheads, and…”
“And you’re the only pure being with wholesome motives. An island of purity in a sea of filth and…”
“It’s not like that.”
“They’ll all mercenaries except for…”
“No! I mean… I don’t know.” Wit stared at me, his grin barely hidden. He let the silence linger, let the stink of my ignorance hang in the air for a while. “Okay, it’s not everyone, but you gotta admit – I do seem to get stuck with some pretty shitty people, right? I mean, shitty people doing shitty things. You can’t deny that.”
“Well, I can.” He shot me a look. He was provoking me, I was sure of it. But I was game.
“So you reckon I’ve actually been around a bunch of pure angels, eh?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“No? Then what the hell did you say?”
He stretched his legs out in front of him and leant back on his elbows. “Why do you expect to live in a fantasy land?”
“You expect beautiful loving people behaving just the way you want them to. You expect the world to bend itself into just the shape you’re comfortable with.”
“Hey, I just expect people to be decent.”
“Lots of decent people about, Lilly.”
“Oh, come on…”
“LOTS of decent people,” he said. “It’s just that you get blinded by the bad ones.”
“But it’s the whole system here that sucks, a system full of arseholes.”
“Up to a point, maybe. But look, if you always focus on the negative, you’re gonna end up bitter and twisted; you’ll be this ugly, sour old woman who doesn’t trust anything or anyone.”
“Great. Just ignore it all then. Who’s talking about fantasy land now?”
“Don’t ignore it. Acknowledge it. But honestly, Lill, acknowledge the good as well. Please don’t let the bad blind you to all the good stuff – the people really trying to do something worthwhile.”
“Oh, bloody hell.” I shook my head in annoyance. “Fact is, there’s not much of this ‘good stuff’ around here, mister. And besides, what the hell am I doing at this cesspit of a school anyway? Did you…?”
“Khun Adisak, the principal, speaking of good stuff. I assume you know him?”
“’Course I know him.” We were walking again now, my legs needed to move, needed to shake off the growing discomfort. “He’s a…”
“An old friend of mine. We did a little deal,” he went on.
“Oh, here we go.”
“That’s right. We collaborated in the hope that some good might come of it.” He glared at me. I refused to let him catch my eye. “He graciously allowed an unqualified, inexperienced foreigner to teach at his school, despite the risk to himself and his students.”
“Christ.” A thought struck me. “But I left you. In that shitty hotel room. How the hell did you know where I was going?”
“Come on, Lilly. A couple of calls to the bus station, got in touch with the pick-up driver. Pretty simple.”
“Christ,” I repeated. But I didn’t get it. “So what was in it for you? Just to know where you could find me?”
“You were looking for something, right? A chance to contribute, to be part of something, to play a role.”
“Yeah but I wasn’t looking for a shit situation where it was impossible to do anything.”
The idiot chuckled at that.
“There’s nothing funny about this, Wit. The kids here are getting screwed.”
“Lilly, I know what goes on. The point is you don’t seem to know what goes on. Or you didn’t until very recently. Welcome to the world, Lill!” He peeled a branch off a tree, complete with a bunch of leaves, and proceeded to slap my shoulder with it. “So you’ve been slapped in the face with one of life’s lessons. Hallelujah, let the education begin.” Another slap on the arm with the leaves. “I keep telling you, Lilly, you can either run away from the world and ignore everything or you can try to take it on. Take the second option and it’s gonna be a tough road ahead, granted. But in the long run you might just be able to make a small difference. Take the first option and you’ll never stop running.”
“Here we go again. More bullshit psychobabble. So what – if I don’t set out to change the world I become this pathetic waste of space?”
“Didn’t say that. None of us really change the world.” Another slap with the leaves.
“So what’s the point? Why not just admit defeat and move on?”
“Okay, my hard-edged little friend. First of all, where do you move on to? You still think you’re gonna find this perfect idyllic place?” Slap. “Dummy. It doesn’t exist.” Slap. “Second, just because you mightn’t be able to change the world doesn’t mean you have to admit defeat.”
“Ah, yes, so it’s the old bang-your-head-against-the-brick-wall kind of strategy.” I nodded sagely before snatching the damn bush from Wit’s hands and offering a little pay-back.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, Lilly. My God, your world is so black and white! Look, here’s what I’d love you to do. Stay at the school, keep working here for the next semester at least. See what you can do. See how you might make an impact in some small way. I’ll make sure your salary’s paid. Is it enough, by the way?”
“Huh? What? No… Seriously?”
“You think the school has the budget to pay your salary?” He looked at me with disdain. Damn. So much I hadn’t considered. And then the obvious struck me.
“Okay then, Wit. You say I ought to find out where I can make a difference. Well I already know.”
“Go on then. Hit me.” I did. With the leaves. “Not with that. Give it here. Next thing I know you’re going to be trying to flog me to death.”
“Here’s the problem at the school: to do well in the exams, the kids’ families have to pay money to this bullshit building fund. If they don’t…”
“Yep. Got it. And you want me to top up the building fund so their parents won’t have to.”
“Um, well, yeah. Why not?”
“Simple as that, eh? I’d love to believe you. Trouble is, there’d always be something. Money for computers. Money to improve the grounds. New furniture. Something.”
“It’s a small country school. They don’t need too much.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
My head was down. I kicked a chunk of dirt on the side of the trail. “Ow!” Turned out to be a rock.
“Look, even if giving more money to the school would help, I wouldn’t do it, and you know why?”
“Nope, but I reckon you’re gonna tell me.”
“Because that would be me doing something. The question is, what can you do to make a difference? Can you do something other than throw money at the problem?”
“Bloody hell, Wit. I’ve done what I can. I tried. I struck out. I made a fool of myself trying to get things happening here. I don’t think these people even want to change things.”
“You struck out. And what was your attempt at –?”
“A new style of teaching. Change it all around. Turn it on its head. All the damn repetition, the rote learning. Got rid of it. Tried to introduce games, activities, little adventures and stuff.”
“What? Not overnight. During the English classes.”
“No, dummy. I mean you tried to change all that in one go? All at once?”
“And it wasn’t the huge, revolutionary success you had expected it to be.”
I shrugged again.
“Change is hard.”
“Change is impossible when people don’t even want change anything. They’ve all given up. It’s like they’re just gonna stick their heads in the sand forever.”
Wit let out a long sigh. He tipped his head back, eyes on the sky. “So after less than one term, you’ve figured it all out then, have you? It’s all sorted. A closed book. Time to move on.”
“I threw myself into this, Wit. I mean, I really committed, I gave it my best.”
“I know that. But you’ve just started. End of round one. You know we were saying before that you were about to start a new chapter of your life? Well, you’ve barely written the first page.” He picked up the pace now as the school’s lights came into view. The dark had crept up on us. “As I said, Lill, you can either slam the book shut or keep the pages turning.” He stopped, smile gone, lighthearted banter a thing of the past. “You had your first lesson. What did you learn?” Wit stopped, reached out, took me by the wrists. “Write the next page, Lilly. Do it. See what you can be done here.”
“You identified limitations. Great. You’re less ignorant than before. Use that.”
“All I know is that it can’t be done.”
“Not great. It can’t be done. Nothing can be done.”
“Thought you said ‘it’ can’t be done.”
“So change the ‘it’. You keep asking the wrong question.”
“And what’s the right question?”
“What can be done? Given the situation, the people, their background, their needs. What can be done?”
“I just told you that –”
We were moving again. We had taken a turn, moved along another dirt track. The last of the light was going, the moon behind us.
“Hey, where’s this going, Wit?”
“I don’t know.”
“So why are we…?” My words ran out.
“Why are we taking it? Is that your question? We’re taking it because it moves us forward. And if we don’t take it, we’ll never know where it might have led.”
I stood still. I didn’t want to take another step; I couldn’t bear to be where I was.
“It’s the only way. Just takes a little leap of faith – and yes, a whole heap of patience.”
I watched him walk off. “I’ve tried. I’ve already done my best.” He was way ahead of me now. “I’ve failed,” I said to no one, slapping at the mosquitoes that had suddenly attacked. “I’ve failed.”
He circled back, hands in pockets, moved behind me.
“Shitty trail. Overgrown. Kind of rocky too. Better take it slow.”
I sighed, took a step. I was moving again, in the dark now.
It felt better than not moving at all.