The bus rumbled like an empty stomach. We missed the bus stop by ten yards. It did stop. I got off alone. I didn’t wave; I trundled on; I had a hand-drawn map; it was damp with sweat, was it the right place? I thought so. She told me her farm would be easy to find. There was nothing here. Miles of green paddy fields. Or were they her farm?
People with hunched backs picked at the water, lifting, stabbing, planting. One after the other, head turned and peered at me. Should I wave? Head down I trudged on.
At last, buildings came into view. An elderly man cycled past, turned, gawped, and nodded his head. The wide-brimmed bamboo hat tried to fly, he clamped it hard to his grey hair.
Wooden structures lined a single-lane road. Colourful awnings shaded piles of goods. As I approached, no girlfriend was in sight. Her shop house was 18/34, where the hell was that? There were no house numbers in view.
Inquisitive heads popped out. All I had been told was to meet in a coffee shop. I didn’t expect Starbucks, but there was no coffee outlet in view.
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself.
“Geordie, Geordie, I’m here.” A big two-handed wave and a beaming smile met me, a grin bright enough to light a cave met me.
“Jesus Belle, I have been walking for miles.”
“Why did you get off down there?”
“Because that’s where you told me.”
“You should have told him you were meeting me. He would have dropped you off at the coffee shop.”
“What coffee shop?” I asked.
“This one silly, you’re in it.”
I looked around, okay there was a table, four chairs, and I could smell coffee brewing.
“Do you want one?” Belle asked.
“Yeah, why not? I was looking for a sign or something.”
“We don’t need any signage, everyone knows us and what we do.”
“What do you mean? I thought you had a farm?” I asked.
“We do, but it’s a long walk to the buildings,” she giggled.
“So, you own a farm and a coffee shop?”
“Yes, and a few other things.”
“Great, good for you, that’s why you could afford a British University?”
“Yes, and no. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
I was dragged by the arm, leaving half a mug of rather tasty coffee.
“Yeah, but my drink?”
“Don’t worry, we have a whole plantation up the road.”
“You…” I didn’t finish my question, the answer was clear.
Everybody was whispering as I passed them.
“Belle, I read ‘The Backpacker’s Guide to Thailand.’ Plus every article about Thailand I could get my hands on. They all say, how cheerful and happy-do-lucky Thai people are. But here…”
I let the criticism hang.
“Yes, Geordie, that’s why I invited you here. Come on, we’ll go to my house and I’ll explain.”
We walked the short distance to huge cast-iron railings which led us to massive shut gates. Smoothly they opened, a uniformed man pointed to the front door.
Belle grinned, “This is our home, what do you think?”
“It’s a castle, a stately home, a mansion.”
“Not quite, but my ancestors have worked hard over the years.”
We moved from hall to marble-floored living room.
“Come on, we’ll go to the garden,” Belle said.
The garden was packed with fruit trees, neatly trimmed lawns and an Olympic-sized pool.
“And we thought you were a poor little Asian girl,” Geordie said.
“I was taught not to show off,” she answered.
“I’m happy to be in your country, but…”
“You thought you were going to meet my dad?”
“You are, but not for what you imagined. We have an unusual problem. We need your help.”
We sat in wicker chairs, and a mug of home-grown coffee arrived.
“Will I finish this one?” I asked.
“Joking aside, the village’s problem started slowly but has now grown. We can do nothing. But, you can.”
“Okay, but how?”
“You studied theology, right?”
“We are Buddhists here, we know nothing about Christianity,” she said.
“We have a witch,” she said. Without a hint of a smile as I expected the punchline.
“You have a witch? What can I do about it?”
“She is a Christian witch. She came here years ago as a backpacker. She loved this village and settled. All was well. And as you said earlier, we Thais are a cheerful bunch, we love to laugh at one another’s gossip. All of that stopped when some ladies here gossiped about ‘her’ the witch.”
I kept my mouth shut; I didn’t want to be accused of gossiping.
“One of our farmers took a shine to her. She wasn’t interested in falling in love.”
“So what?” I asked.
“The farmer started spreading filthy lies about her. The farmer’s wife was even worse, accusing the Christian woman of twisting his mind.”
“I still don’t see where I come in?”
“The woman is English, her name is Doreen. She hexed the village. We don’t talk to each other anymore and I’m the only person who smiles. I think because I was the only one away at the time of the curse,” Belle said, sweat dripping from her nose.
“I still don’t see where I come in?”
“We need an exorcist!”
I was fit to burst, looking around for the hidden cameras, where was the tv host ready to jump out? I didn’t want to laugh I was a guest in a friend’s home.
“I am not a priest, I only studied religion, I can’t perform an exorcism,” I said.
“You are our last chance.”
“Where is she?”
I was led past the fruit trees, over the grass, and into a bamboo grove. A small shelter stood alone, then the screaming started. When the witch saw me, she stopped.
“Who the hell are you? Are you going to get me out?”
The shelter was open-fronted, a door leading inside, a bench with plates and a jug of water, all very homely. Doreen was chained to a central post, I assumed the chain could reach inside to a bed and amenities.
“I’ve seen worse prisons,” I said.
My hostess started twitching.
“I’ll leave you to it, if you need anything come to the house,” said Belle, as she scarpered.
“Are you going to free me, or laugh at me?”
“You had better tell me what happened?”
“I was looking for a place to escape and write my book. I settled here.”
“A book? Did you finish it?” I asked.
“Never mind the bloody book. Get me out.”
“I have to ask, are you a witch?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, of course not,” she answered. “My book is about black magic around the world. Here was to be the last chapter, one of the farmers saw some pictures.”
“So they believed anything you said?”
“Yes, I told them not to gossip about rubbish. From then on, they couldn’t chit-chat or smile. At first, I thought it was a joke.”
I sat next to her, “What have you got at your digs?”
“Not much, my book, I hope, and some clothing, plus my passport.”
“Follow whatever I say, I’ll get you out of here, okay?” I said.
I picked up her things.
“Belle, as you can see I collected Doreen’s bag and her belongings. That was my part of the deal. Now she will remove the hex. Then you must allow her to go to the city by taxi. Then the village will be cured, and you will no longer see her.”
Belle kissed me.
As the taxi disappeared from view, the villagers couldn’t stop chatting.
“Did you see…”
“Her dress my god…”
My phone bleeped a text, “I am seeing a publisher at noon tomorrow,” Doreen. “Oh, yes, if I was you, I wouldn’t wait around.”
I laughed and enjoyed a beer with Belle.
“You can stay here, have a break for a few days, there is plenty to see,” she offered with a cheeky grin.
I couldn’t say no, okay it was a guest bedroom, we’ll have to see what tomorrow brings.
The clock ticked to noon. Suddenly there was silence, even the birds were quiet.
I touched my lips. They were stuck together. Belle came rushing in, lips sealed. The servants, her parents, and the whole village had glued lips.
My phone signalled a text.
“I hope you left the village?”