THE tolling of the temple bell sounded muffled in the misty half-light of dawn. The air was heavy and steamy, seeming to smother and dampen the sound that issued from the big teak building overlooking the lake.
Revadi heard the sound, opened her eyes. and tensed herself for the pain as she rolled over and crouched. wincing, on her knees before crawling out from beneath her mosquito net. She felt she had hardly slept all night - every move she made brought her instantly awake as a burning pain tore up and down her spine. She walked, bent at the waist, to the water jar on the balcony and splashed her face, straightening her body gradually and gently as she reached for her clean pasin and a sachet of Tamgai*.
Soon the pain would ease, she thought, as she ripped open the sachet and poured the contents into her mouth. Though at this time of year, the pain never really went completely. It stayed, gnawing and chewing at the base of her spine, as she bent over the rice fields - kept at bay only by the precious little green sachets she took every two hours. She felt on the shelf in the half-light. Only two sachets left. She must remember to buy more before she went to the fields.
On her way to Chem’s shop she had to pass the drug co-operative building - a small square storehouse. She had stopped going there when it had run out of painkillers but she was surprised to see it locked and barred now by a criss-cross lattice-work of metal: early morning was one of the best times to sell drugs - before everyone left for the fields. She peered through the bars, then heard someone calling her name.
Her uncle, Sodar, lived next door. ‘Petchura’s run out of drugs at last,’ he said as he lifted a heavy wooden bar to release the buffalo penned beneath his house. ‘She’s a thief, that woman. She was supposed to use the money from selling the drugs for buying more. But she has just kept the money all for herself. It’s a crime and I intend to do something about it.’ ‘And what will you do, uncle?’ she asked, teasingly. ‘Shoot her? She and her husband have the puyaiban on their side. Even if you can prove she pocketed the money, he won’t do anything about it.’
‘I’d like to shoot them all.’ muttered Sodar darkly, ‘they’re all crooks.’
‘I have to agree with you,’ Revadi sighed, ‘the money in Nungeetai always seems to end up in the pockets of just a few people.’
She watched as he skilfully manoeuvred his three buffalo through the gate and she smelt their warm sweat as it evaporated in the steamy air. ‘Did you ever get back the money the puyaiban owed you for your buffalo all those years ago?’ she asked. ‘Yes, he paid up eventually,’ said Sodar grudgingly. ‘But he hasn’t changed a bit. This drug co-operative is a good example,’ he added, warming to his theme as the two of them followed the buffalo down the track. ‘It’s no accident the drug co-operative is at Petchura’s house: she’s married to the puyaiban’s best friend.
‘And that’s not the only money that’s disappeared,’ he continued. ’Do you remember when the puyaiban and that health student first started the co-operative? They went from house to house collecting money from everyone and went off together to buy the drugs from Khon Kaen. I’d like to know why they refused to show us the receipts for the drugs when they came back.’
The puyaiban replaced the lid on the big white plastic bottle and put it back with the others on a shelf behind his clothes in the wardrobe. Then, popping two little yellow paracetamol pills into his mouth, he carefully shut and locked the big glass doors and stepped out of the gloom into the main living area of his big. airy house. The atmosphere was leaden with humidity and his head throbbed, as it always did when the weather was like this.
He walked over and leant on his balcony rails, staring out across the village towards the temple. He thought how nice a proper white and gold temple spire would look glinting in the sunlight: he had gone to Bangkok the previous week to petition a Buddhist charity there for money for a new temple. Hitching his trousers higher onto his waist and reaching for his shoes, he decided to call a meeting to tell the villagers of his plans.
He and Revadi reached Chem’s shop simultaneously and he nodded a curt greeting to her before addressing his brother-in-law.’ I have decided to hold a village meeting tomorrow evening. As you know it’s your duty as my elected assistant to inform people about the meeting.’ Chem grinned affably at his brother-in-law. ‘I’ll tell those that come to my shop,’ he said carelessly. ‘But I’m a busy man. I think it’s time your other assistant, Santi, did his share of running around the village.
The puyaiban frowned briefly, then smiled tightly at the other man. Nodding again to Revadi, he turned abruptly and set off down the path in the direction of Santi’s shop.
Revadi was astonished. She would never dare speak to the puyaiban like that. But then she was not a powerful man like Chem. She did not have the biggest shop and the biggest house in the village, nor was she a relative. She turned back to Chem and reached into her pocket for a crumpled ten-baht note. ‘Twenty Tamgai please.’ she said. ‘And can I have some soap and oil for my lamp as well?’ Chem looked at the note, then smiled his easy smile. ‘It’ll have to go in the book, you know. Twenty Tamgai cost ten baht.’
Revadi handed over the note, smiling nervously. She didn’t know whether to love or hate Chem. He seemed jovial enough. And she certainly didn’t know how she would get through the year without him. She was not the only one either. Half the village was in debt to him by harvest time: she already owed him three hundred baht and there were another five weeks to go till she could even think of paying him back.
Outside Nungeetai’s other shop Santi sat smoking on the covered stoop, enjoying the moment of relaxation before the evening rush began. Already the village was coming to life again after the stillness of the afternoon. A procession of clanking silver buckets, of squeaky-wheeled wooden carts, of bicycles wobbling in the rutted dust, was beginning to pass, followed by a group of buffalo snorting and nodding, making their docile progress home for the night.
Santi smiled and waved to his friend Sodar who was walking behind the last three buffalo. ‘Come and rest your legs beside me,’ he invited. ‘Thank you,’ said Sodar, handing his whip over to his son and collapsing thankfully into the proffered chair. ‘It has been a hard, hot day.’
‘I have some news, said Santi. ‘There is to be a meeting tomorrow. The puyaiban wants to tell us of his latest visit to Bangkok to raise money for the temple. I was wondering whether we should use this opportunity to raise another matter that has been troubling me.’ Sodar looked perplexed, then his brow cleared. ‘Aha. You mean the matter of the missing money from the drug co-operative. Yes, I think that is an excellent idea. What is your plan?’
‘My plan,’ said Santi, lowering his voice, ‘is to force the puyaiban to move the drug co-operative to my shop where I can keep an eye on it. As you know, that’s where the village agreed it should be in the first place. I knew it was wrong to let Petchura run it. Now we have a drug co-operative with no drugs! And I’ve heard rumours that the puyaiban has a nice stash of drug co-operative drugs hidden in his house somewhere. You never saw him going to buy from Petchura, did you?’
‘You’ve got my support, of course,’ said Sodar. ‘But what can we do? As you say: there are no drugs. And no money to buy more. And no way of proving Petchura took the money. And, even if you could prove it, the puyaiban would just dismiss the whole thing like he did when you caught his cousin stealing from the lake.’
‘Hush, stop speaking so loudly,’ hissed Santi. ‘The walls have ears and the doors have eyes. I made a mistake then. I did not make sure I had the village on my side first. This time it will be different. Now, be quiet and listen to my plan.’
A short spattering of applause greeted the end of the puyaiban’s speech the next evening. He looked down from the platform and noted with satisfaction that he had drawn a bigger crowd than usual tonight. He should ask Santi to publicise the meetings more often, he thought. The man had some uses after all. He was just preparing to dismiss the crowd when Sodar raised his hand and stepped onto the platform to speak.
‘I have been worrying about the drug co-operative,’ he began, and a murmur of agreement rumbled round the meeting. Petchura - a heavy-set woman with flashing black eyes ~ looked up sharply and met the puyaiban’s eyes. Sodar continued: ‘I remember when you sold me a share in the co-operative, you said my money was safe and it would earn me a share in the profits from the drugs. Well, I have decided that, since there does not appear to be a drug co-operative running any more, I would like to have my money back.’
As the rumbling swelled into a loud buzz of chatter, Santi scrambled to his feet too. ‘I agree with Sodar. I was happy to leave my money in the drug co-operative while it was still selling drugs. But now it has closed down, I would like my money back as well.’ So that was why Santi had publicised the meeting so energetically, thought the puyaiban furiously. He was speechless. There were no accusations, no angry declarations - just one villager after another demanding their money back.
There was nothing he could do. He was outnumbered. Having collected the share money himself, he knew that 80 per cent of families had a stake in the co-operative. He knew too that there was no money to give them: he and the health student had kept half of it when they went to buy the drugs; and the rest had been slowly embezzled by Petchura as she sold the drugs.
He stepped forward and put up a hand to silence the crowd. ‘I understand your concern,’ he began, thinking feverishly. ‘But I think you should hesitate before withdrawing your support for the drug co-operative altogether.’ He paused and looked at his friend Petchura. She would be furious, but he didn’t see what else he could say. ‘Petchura has told me that the drug co-operative is only closed temporarily. Isn’t that true, Petchura? You have just closed temporarily - for, er, stock-taking, isn’t that right? Yes for stock-taking.
The glass door of the wooden cabinet winked and flashed, reflecting the evening sunshine as it swung open. ‘How are you enjoying your new job, Santi?’ asked Sodar, sitting down in his usual chair. ‘I think your shop has become rather crowded since the drug co-operative moved here.’ Santi grinned as he counted pills into a little plastic sachet and handed them to a skinny twelve-year-old in exchange for a handful of coins. ‘Are you complaining, old friend?’ he asked, and opened a big new ledger to make a note in it. As he reached for the keys to relock the cabinet, he heard quick footsteps and looked up to see Revadi running towards the shop.
‘Don’t shut the cabinet yet,’ she said, pale faced and panting. ‘I need something from it.’ She leant unsteadily against the doorway. ‘I have a bad pain here,’ she said, holding her stomach. ‘And I keep being sick. Nothing I eat will stay with me.’ Santi looked concerned. ‘You seem very pale, Revadi. Sit down while I check the instructions on the bottles to see if I have anything I can give you.’
Revadi glanced anxiously at him. ‘Haven’t you been trained to prescribe drugs properly? How do I know you are giving me the right thing?’ she asked. ‘I can read, can’t I?’ he retorted, showing her the label on one of the bottles. ‘It says here what each drug is for.’
Sodar chuckled appreciatively: ‘He may not be a doctor, but at least he’s not going to steal our money, he told her reassuringly. ‘Oh, he’s a clever man, is Santi. If it were not for him, there would be no drug co-operative at all Now all the money’s been paid back and we have someone to make sure it doesn’t go missing again.
‘Here we are,’ cried Santi triumphantly, brandishing a box and reading from the label: "For treatment of pain and vomiting of bacterial origin". I don’t know what "bacterial origin" means. But you have pain and vomiting, don’t you? Take some of these.’
It was getting dark as Revadi hurried back to her home on the other side of the village. She was worried. She could not afford to get ill like this. Drugs were expensive. Tamgai was cheap, of course. But the cost of that soon mounted up when you took as much as she did. And now she was ill too. If she had to stop work or go to hospital, she wouldn’t be able to earn anything working on other people’s land and they would never be able to pay their debts.
She wondered uneasily what was wrong with her. Her father had died of a peptic ulcer and she thought she remembered him holding his stomach in pain - and vomiting too - just like she was. And what was it the doctor had told her mother when she went to bring his body back from the hospital? Something about too much Tamgai? No, that couldn’t be true. The government wouldn’t allow dangerous drugs to be sold, would they?
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