Back to the Future

by Mike Bell

Ben’s bad back was a source of amusement to his friends on the quiz team. He put it down to golf and gardening; they said it was the other! The tropical climate of Thailand gave him some relief, but not much. He walked stiffly and was forced to turn his whole body to look at anything in his peripheral vision. Driving was a chore, reversing was almost impossible. At 65, he could no longer afford medical insurance on a meager pension and so was forced to rely on his own initiative. He tried every different kind of muscle relaxant, pain killers, stress pills; all in vain.


He tried Thai Massage. His Thai wife accompanied him to ensure he received a ‘medical massage’. He got no relief of any sort there. After an hour’s pinching and pummeling by a blind man, he came away feeling worse than ever. Someone recommended an osteoarthritis specialist in a little fishing village close to Pattaya. The injections near the base of his spine gave him some initial respite. After a further course, he had a setback. His wife had hosed down the tiled front step and Ben slipped and fell heavily. Several days in bed left him desperate to try alternative treatments. He was very careful about medicines and his health. Before he bought any medicaments, he would carefully research any side-effects or possible long-term problems.


So, after hearing various positive reports, he began the process of researching acupuncture. He knew that it involved needles and could cure you of smoking. There were even stories of footballers undergoing miraculous recoveries after career-threatening injuries. He wondered what it could do for bad backs. Trawling through practitioners on the internet, he found one on Pattaya Tai.


He was not impressed by the ‘surgery’. It was in a rather dingy building and appeared to be one large room curtained off into several compartments. A desk to the right of the entrance appeared to be the consulting room and the space also served as a waiting room. An ancient Thai lady sat in one of the chairs and took considerable interest in Ben’s examination. Though the consultation was done in English, she seemed to understand exactly what Ben’s problem was; she nodded and smiled and, on one occasion offered the acupuncturist some advice in Thai.


Ben was intrigued by the old lady. On each daily visit over the next few days, she was there; same chair, same keen interest, her wrinkled face screwed up in concentration like a sheet of brown wrapping paper. Her tiny eyes missed nothing. When she smiled, which was often, she revealed two blackened and crooked teeth. He asked Maui, the acupuncturist, what she was there for.


“She has come every day for nearly two weeks. After 60 years bent double in the rice fields, she can barely straighten. She is trying to make up her mind between me and her village wise man. He says he can cure her if she can find a cat foetus with placenta still attached. It is not easy to find one; they are in great demand since the Government banned the purchase of human foetuses from hospitals. She will pray to it to cure her. She is puzzled by my treatment. I have not promised I can cure her and I am more expensive. This is her idea of research. Or maybe she’s just enjoying my air-con?” He smiled dismissively.


“But why cats? How can they help?” Perhaps it was his imagination, but Ben thought he detected a note of eagerness in his own voice.


Maui considered Ben’s question. He appeared to hesitate before answering lest he lose a customer to the village holy man. “Siamese cats have always held a special place in the heart of the Thai people. Because they are said to have nine lives, even after death they are reputed to live on. They are the Guardians of the Temple. Their sensitivity enables them to detect earthquakes and other natural disasters in advance of the event I am sure the old lady would recommend a good holy man.” He smiled uncertainly.


The old lady, aware that they were talking about her, grinned toothlessly and watched as Ben prepared himself for his first moxibustion treatment.


Maui told him for this occasion he was using the leaves of the mugwort plant. Ben only half heard the explanation as he was already lying naked on his belly. He drowsed dreamily as Maui moved on to another patient. There was a sensation of deep warmth in his lower back. The warmth became a deep heat. He could smell something burning—like flesh. With a yell he leapt from the bed trying to extinguish the flames which he felt were consuming his spine.


Maui rushed in and offered a towel to cover Ben’s modesty, then began plucking out the offending needles. He was puzzled at Ben’s panic. When his patient confessed he had not heard the previous explanation, he patiently went through it again, this time demonstrating on the bedside table.


He sliced the moxa or mugwort leaves thinly and squeezed and moulded them into tiny cigar shapes. These he threaded onto the needles. When the herb was lit, it burned slowly, sending the heat down the needles and under the skin. When the burning moxa comes to the end it sends up a cloud of smoke. It was this that had awoken Ben and sent him into a fear of spontaneous combustion.


Cautiously, he looked round to see if anyone had witnessed his humiliation. Of course, the old lady had seen him leap nimbly and naked from the bed. She was shaking silently with laughter, clutching her wizened sides as tears of mirth ran down her wrinkled cheeks. Ben smiled ruefully, clutching his towel.


She launched into a tirade of Thai aimed at both of the men, pausing at frequent intervals to regain her breath. She wiped her eyes and left; her face tilted perpetually to the floor. Ben began to apologise for losing Maui a prospective customer but the acupuncturist stilled his protestations with a wave of the hand and a broad smile.


“Please! You don't need to apologise. On the contrary, you have just gained me a customer. You just convinced her I'm better than her village wise man. She says she has watched you every day for a week. She noted the difficulty you had in walking and climbing onto the bed. After only seven treatments, you are able to bound from the bed…” Maui’s voice tailed away a little as he sought to translate the old lady’s parting shot. “But today—and these are her words—you’re jumping around like a horny teenager with chilli on your balls!”