This is a piece of mine that appeared in The Independent a few weeks ago - as that's now fish and chip paper, it may enjoy a longer shelf life here. It's adapted from a work in progress.
The Bread Lady
I’m hungry. The day clears its throat. A cockerel’s dusty bluster, a furry rip of motosai exhaust, and from some high weed-throttled loudspeaker, the nasal megaphone of traditional song, impossibly nostalgic for a life I don’t know. I stand at the back door with the empty kettle, looking across the dun-coloured lake, its slack skin pockmarked by rising fish. Beyond the sun-mottled margin of mirrored grasses and sudden yellow-green leaves, a saffron straggle of novice monks flickers zoetropically between the paper-cut palms, one of many barefoot lines measuring the morning of the little town. The wives of the government officers whose columnated cement palaces line the road wait by their gates (regally flagged) to drop rice, little cartons of milk, or fruit into the boys’ bowls.
But I am overcome with a desire for toast. Toast made from fresh white bread with a crust that only becomes crunchy in the toaster. Thick toast with a soft, moist centre and a golden surface. I have the butter. I have a jar of thick-cut marmalade. And I possess the only bread knife in town. I am ready.
But here, on this stretch of the Mekong River, a loaf of bread is a fugitive and uncertain thing. If I lived on the far bank, in the jungles of Lao PDR, I’d stand a better chance, thanks to the French bakery influence. In Thailand, I rely, like any addict, on my connection.
I fill the kettle. Lulled by the soft lap and lilt of water in the tilting carboy, I am galvanised by the distant cry of the Bread Lady, bicycling precipitantly through the town as if under fire, basket piled with creamy fresh-baked white loaves, her seeming mission to avoid customers at all costs, and cursing the day she ever left Vietnam to fire her oven in a country that doesn’t eat bread. I lurch from the house, running barefoot, grit studding my soft farang feet, only to see her flash past the end of the track, her mocking ululation already fainter. I gain the road - hand pathetically aloft - to glimpse her tilt into a side street in a spatter of outraged poultry. I concede defeat with a symbolic fall of the arm. As if in recognition, the terrible woman’s gap-toothed cry echoes triumphantly above the crimping tin rooftops. A short way up the soi, another thwarted customer cantilevers on his knees, breathless and breadless in the shade of a stand of bamboo.
A little later, I am lost in the luminous reverie of a tea stare on the porch, the monks’ resonant chant warping on pulses of heat from the temple. The absence of toast and marmalade is somehow more vivid than its taste would be in my mouth. Curly scrabbles a four-paw drift around the corner of the house and takes the steps to the porch in a single happy bound. It is common canine knowledge that a man nursing a mug of tea is a man in need of something better to do.
The morning drifts into a cloudless mid-day. I am idly contemplating the river - a silken flag - when the damned woman’s cry jangles my nerve-endings. I see the semaphore of white cloth over her bicycle basket as she disappears around the corner at the customs house. I sprint, or as nearly so as my shuffling sandals will allow, up the main road to the temple, intending to cut her off at the bike shop by the market. I will emerge coolly to claim my prize, a loaf of white bread as luminous as the Lamb of God, and as delicious. I am joined by a delighted Curly and Djini, bursting weed-adorned from the scrub land behind my wife’s shop. Only monks and madmen walk in this town, so the sight of the running farang, dogs bouncing at his heels, is considered newsworthy by the locals. I grin back at them, but as I teeter into the baked-earth alley that cuts across the block the grin turns into a rictus of pain. I have stitch, and it crimps me up like a drinking straw. The dogs roister the chickens in a barricaded back yard. By the time I stumble into the street, clutching my ribs as if fatally wounded by gunshot, I know I have missed my chance, and she is gone. I feel the sweat creep into my eyes, my heart bouncing like a golfball in a bathroom, the sharp pain in my ribs. But all is as it can only be. I’m no longer hungry. From a world away and a lifetime ago, I remember the words of a builder working on my house: there’s no bread, we’ll have to eat toast.
In the bike shop, a crouching man fingers a wheel like a harp, his eye a nickel rivet in the oily shadow. I’m thirsty.
(In memory of Djini, a great dog)