The Madwoman of Tilac
Sometimes life is like a 4 AM tuktuk ride through the heart of Bangkok. You might catch glimpses of scenery while you're waiting at a red light. The rest of the time the whole thing speeds by like a colourful blur and you hardly even realise what's around you because you're too busy focussing on some pretty girl whose head is resting on your shoulder while the wind causes her long hair to whip around your face.
At other times, however, the ride can slow down and you can look around you to see clearly all that has seemed like a blur before. Peering back into the mists of my life I can't begin to say why some moments have significance while other more eventful moments do not. But this story, which is really just the story of a moment, stays in my mind and haunts me on quiet nights. After my son is tucked up in bed and my wife has collapsed in a drunken som tam stupor, I often think about Bung, the madwoman of the Tilac. I don't know at exactly what point I decided she was mad. Bung was one of the prettiest girls in the Tilac back in the early nineties when the Tilac was still the most successful bar on the Soi Cowboy. She had hair down to her thighs and I remember her thrashing about on the stage of the Tilac bar with an abandon that had nothing to do with the pursuit of farang. She didn't seem to exist in the calculating or victimised worlds that most bar girls seem to inhabit. She was on her own private world where her own private rules seemed to apply.
When I say she was mad I'm not talking about the open wrists, and screaming fits way that is the norm around the Bangkok bar scene, though her wrists had been open a few times I'm sure.
No. Her kind of crazy was the real McCoy. That's what I figured at first anyway. She never wore makeup and danced topless even while others didn't. She had a large burn scar between her small breasts and a plethora of other scars and tattoos around her body to match it. Her almost invisible eyebrows arched mischievously above eyes that twinkled more than is sane or decent.
When she wasn't thrashing about on the stage in a blur of auburn hair she'd giggle at nothing as if she was accompanied by joke telling ghosts. She'd stop as if to listen to the punch line and then laugh. Sometimes in the midst of a wild dance she'd stop and look at you as if she couldn't figure out why you were suddenly there in her bedroom watching her dance, which was, after all, a private thing. When she felt someone was watching her she'd try to cover herself or hide behind one of the bars mirrored columns. But then she'd forget about hiding and remember that this was a place where men were supposed to leer at her slim figure. This seeming revelation would lead her to spin around a pole and maybe even writhe against it glimpse teasingly at the watchers through the weightless mists of her hair. But then just when she might seem sexualised the wild child in her heart would awaken and she'd be leaping about again. Sometimes I wondered how she got there. I wondered whether she cared about farang and money or whether she'd just accidentally strolled in off the street one day and started dancing.
She was slim, very slim, and she tended to dress in torn jeans and skimpy vest-like tops that left her midriff bare. She never wore a bra, but her breasts were small enough so she didn't have to. When she smiled it was a warm, sincere smile and she smiled often, but the smile wasn't for business. It could have been but it just wasn't. There seemed to be no business about her at all. I spent a lot of time in the Tilac bar in the early nineties and I often saw her with customers, but if she sat with them she usually looked distanced from them, as if she'd much rather be somewhere else. Other women would act and fawn over men, playing them as fools for a bit of soft touching and flattery, but not Bung. Despite her beauty I think a lot of men felt cheated by her. Cheated even in buying one cola that she never drank.
I got the impression from the point I first saw her in 1992 that she didn't like me very much. I don't think I liked her very much either. After all I was typical of the men who are sold on the bar because of all that fawning and attention. When, David, a good friend of mine paid her barfine I told him he must be out of his mind because she was clearly trouble. David tended to be philosophical about such things however. He was a black guy with dual US/UK citizenship and he truly loved Bangkok despite having to put up with all the "Chocolate Man" and "Ay dam" shit <best translation would probably be something like "you black cunt" – Stick>. He said "She's a beautiful child. Girls that that are one in a million. I don't care if she's trouble. It would be a privilege just to spend time with her."
She sat with us and the two of them chatted. Dave spoke pretty good Thai and she actually engaged him in a pleasant conversation. Nobody likes being wrong and I would probably have preferred it if she had been as distant with Dave as she was with everybody else. I let my attention drift away from their conversation and sat back drinking while women chatted, came and went. The next thing I knew Dave had paid her barfine and she was taking off.
"What's going on here?"
David said "She's just got to sort some shit out with one of her friends. She'll be back later."
Dave waited for her. I wanted to see a friend in another bar. When I came back a couple of hours later he was still waiting. "I've got a feeling she isn't coming back." I said. "I get that feeling too." Said Dave. "Another one to put down to experience."
And he kind of forgot about her. Except at one point he said "What did you have against her anyway?"
"Nothing really. Just one of those people I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw her."
I later found out that she had this motorbike taxi boyfriend that picked her up from the bar most nights. It seemed an unusual set up as he was, by all accounts, not the nicest guy on Earth but despite letting her work in the bar he had a jealous streak. There was a rumour that a few of her scars might have been down to this jealous temper.
About a year later I was hanging out with an extremely wealthy Japanese guy called Min. Min was a wiry framed fellow who wore glasses and had the gestures and body language of a film mogul. He loved hanging out on the Soi Cowboy and flaunting anything which went against the Japanese tradition. In fact his mother was Korean and he'd been raised as a Christian. He had some intriguingly unusual views of what Christianity meant, but this is neither the time or the place to go into them. His father was the head of some major corporation and due to wealth and, its companion, power, Min seemed to be like a godfather figure to a number of the other Japanese that I saw hanging out on the Cowboy around 93-94. To tell the truth I think a number of these Japs were living off him. Min had enough clout to have got me into the most Japanese-o-centric bar on Thaniya Plaza.
But he thought these bars were a complete waste of time. There was nothing remotely exciting to him about a few servile women who you could go off for a quick blow job within a special room and then come back to finish your drink and Sukiyaki. He tended to talk about Thai women as if they were just a couple of notches down the evolutionary ladder yet felt sure he wanted to marry one. A man of many contradictions, he made every woman he slept with have an AIDS test before-hand. If, then, after having slept with her he would decide whether she was going to be one of the women he had lined up for marriage. He had about five women stashed in hotel rooms in different parts of Bangkok all of whom were part of a well paid short-list. He paid for them to build houses upcountry or buy their dad cars. When he had decided he definitely didn't want to marry one of them, though, he'd just fuck her off without so much as a golden handshake.
Min's newest love interest was a girl who had been working a few weeks at the Tilac called Neeow. It was easy to see what he saw in her. Neeow had the kind of looks that would put any movie star to shame. Probably the most strikingly beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Not stupid either. But there was some dark shit going on with her and I never knew exactly what it was but she had more aliases than even she could remember. I found some things about her much later that were very odd indeed. Ironically, or maybe typically, despite that beauty she wore a cover all one piece black and white bikini when dancing and looked about as comfortable in the bar as Adolf Hitler might in downtown Tel Aviv. She didn't so much dance in the bar as stand there chatting to her friends trying to pretend she was somewhere else. Min had been a saviour to her. He just paid up front for her not to have to dance for weeks on end.
Min's only problem with barfines was that he thought they were too cheap. He'd sometimes pay half a dozen barfines in a bar and then move on after about ten minutes. I was once with him when he virtually closed down King's Castle 1 on Patpong. He did have a ruthless streak though. Despite the fact the money meant nothing he wouldn't pay for any woman that he did not think was beautiful. If one of these women asked him why he didn't pay for her while barfining the other seventy five percent of women around her he'd say quite matter-of-factly "Sorry. But you're ugly. I don't like you." I tried pulling him up on this but he just said "Why should I pay for an ugly woman."
"You don't have to pay. You just don't have to tell her like that."
"Why not. She is ugly. She must know it. She must see it every time she looks in the mirror"
Min and Neeow made a great couple. He had a knack for giving money away to beautiful women and she had a knack for taking it. He told me once that he was thinking of ditching all the other women in favour of Neeow. But, for some absurd reason, he wanted to know what I thought of her. I said that I didn't really know her. And he said he wanted me to hang out with them one evening so I could cast my expert eye over her behaviour. I said I wasn't sure.
"We'll go bowling." He said.
"Bowling?" I said
"Yes bowling. I have my own balls."
"I don't doubt it."
"We'll take Neeow and maybe a couple of other girls." "Just a couple?"
"I want you to take a look at her. See what you think she's like. I think she likes money a bit too much but that's not a bad thing."
"To me that would be a bad thing."
"Money's not important. You've never had money but I know. Money is nothing. It's what happens after you've got money that counts." "Tell you what, just deposit a couple of hundred thousand dollars in a Swiss bank account in my name. Then I'll know what you're talking about."
Min laughed as if I was joking and, with a fag lodged between his teeth in a manner that might have been more appropriate had he been smoking a cigar, he waved over one of the mamasans. The mamasans at Tilac all came when he waved because he gave them cash to do what they normally did for free. Most of the mamasans at Tilac had always been rude to me, with me being a Rubbish Farang and all. It seemed to sit ill with them that they had to feign politeness with me now.
Min wrote down a trio of numbers on the back of our chit and handed it to the hovering lady and slipped her five hundred baht for it to be done. She came back few minutes later all apologetic saying that one of the girls he had sketched the number of wasn't in tonight. "Mai pen rai." He said and waved her away giving her another hundred baht for her to go and fetch him a packet of cigarettes. "I think you like this girl. Very nice girl. Pretty. Sweet. I like her a lot. A good girl."
"You'll see. You'll see"
"I'll see what?"
Neeow came out looking beautiful and sure of herself. She had that look of a woman who has claimed a man and his cash reserve. I wondered if she knew about Min's other stashed women. Maybe then she would have looked a little less confident.
Min said something to her I did not catch. "She's just coming." Said Neeow.
Bung walked out of the toilets. Her head hung demurely as she came and shook my hand. Her fingers were cool and damp. She met my eyes briefly before looking away. I thought, at the time, that this was going to be a difficult evening.
"I think you know each other." Said Min as if he had reunited old lovers.
"Yes. We've met a couple of times."
Bung said something to Neeow. Neeow smiled. If I'd been a wealthy man this was the point I'd have gone running and screaming in terror. Being worth almost nothing however I thought that the worst that could possibly happen was that they were going to eat my brain so I went with it.
After realising that none of us really knew where the nearest bowling alley was Min opted for the one at the Grace Hotel. This might have been awkward given that he had Ice, one of his prospective brides, holed up in a room upstairs. But Ice felt a debt of gratitude to Min or his money and obeyed his order to stay put.
For anyone not familiar with the Grace Hotel it's a huge art-deco looking hotel on Nana Nua. It's a couple of hundred yards up from Sukhumvit Road and has a reputation as sleazy as its decor is kitsch.
Way before I ever went to Bangkok it had a kind of Thermae reputation but since the late eighties it had become part of the Arab scene. There was a whole quarter around here which smelled of shish kebabs and buzzed with Muslims and Black Africans. I always liked this area and I always liked the Grace too. I remember on my first visit there finding a room filled with ornate looking bongs and cushions. It looked like something out of a comic-book sultan's palace. I'd spent many a night in the infamous coffee shop watching the mating rituals between cigar chomping suited Arabs smelling of Aramis and overweight Thai women who had acquired aquiline noses that didn't suit their faces. It was the kind of place that had, as guide books might say, character.
The Grace also has quite a few facilities open to the passer by. By the side of some large snooker tables is the enclosed bowling alley. Not large but large enough and usually empty. Min paid for everything up front as always. Neeow complained at having to wear someone else's shoes but when Bung didn't back her up she soon stopped. Neeow was very focussed and seemed interested in winning and beating Min. She insisted on having the first bowl and felt very pleased with herself when she demolished half the pins at once. Min smiled at this and calmly destroyed all but one. Neeow's expression went as sour as of someone who has just taken a bite from a bright green mango.
Bung and I had similar attitudes to the game. When Bung threw the ball she was just a whirling blur of hair. The ball crashed on the aisle and went spinning down the gutter. She laughed. It was fun just to throw the ball and make a noise. It didn't matter in the slightest if it actually hit anything. I think on my first bowl I knocked one of the side of the grouping. But there was no sense of competitive edge. Min had to suppress a swagger and smoked his fag filled with an innate sense of his superiority to the rest of us. Bung and I found this even funnier than Neeow's growing rage at not being able to defeat him.
A complete indifference to competitive zeal is something which has often alienated me from my fellow human beings, but Bung was right there with me and I felt an instant affection for her. In fact we even started joking about our basic incompetence and the serious stylistic manner that Min and Neeow played the game. Neeow would get very close to the ground and try to roll the ball as if accuracy was enough. At one point Min tried to show her how to throw the ball properly by putting his arms around her and correcting her stance. The look on her face indicated a murderous rage building like a rumbling volcano.
Every time Bung threw the ball it crashed and her eyes twinkled because she knew that it wasn't supposed to. Neeow looked at me and raised her eyebrows as if Bung was a hopeless cause. Min just gave stage directions while watching on with one foot on the bench. As the game went on I started getting into the idea of knocking those insolent pins for six. I even beat Min once. He slapped me on the back and said "Good one."
Then, halfway through a particular game I noticed Bung wincing and bending over double. She crouched on the floor a while and asked Neeow to take her turn. She said something to Neeow and Neeow nodded. "What's up.”?
"No. She has it all the time. She had an operation once and they took half her guts out."
When Neeow went to bowl, Bung sat down beside me. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'll be fine." And her face became sweet again.
Min paid no attention. He was focussed on his skill. After winning another game, he stepped towards us with the cigarette lodged between his teeth and a cheesy grin. "Ay hia" said Neeow.
"If you want to win you have to concentrate." Said Min. "You have to see yourself in relation to the pins. Judge the distance and feel the weight of your ball. If you are attuned to all these things then you can always focus on victory."
"Kwonteen cing cing." Said Neeow.
"Maybe a game of snooker?"
Min was just about to allow Neeow's insults to draw him into an argument when I said "Let's get a coffee before any more sporting activity."
"Yes. Good idea." Said Min. "I'll just take the shoes back." "You going to be okay?" I said to Bung. "I need some yaa."
"What kind of yaa?"
She looked up with a twinkle in her eye. "Don't be angry." "What have I got to be angry about."
She lowered her voice to a whisper "I need some ganja." "Ganja…. Is that all?"
"Don't tell Min."
"Min hates anything to do with yaa. He told me before. But ganja is the only thing I can take for the pain. Everything else just makes me sick. You angry me?"
"I don't give a monkey's what you smoke. I used to smoke all the time when I was younger."
"You won't tell Min."
"No. I won't tell Min."
"But I have to go home for it."
I smiled thinking this was where she would perform her famous vanishing act and, while I liked her a whole lot better than I had before, this was okay with me. "Don't worry about it." "Thanks." And she kissed me lightly on the lips. It didn't send sparks through me but it was a nice kiss and her face didn't look so crazy to me any more. In fact I was put in mind of David's phrase about her. She was a beautiful child. She may have been twenty two or twenty three but there was a quality about her that was childlike and maybe that was what had always disturbed me about her before.
When Min came back Neeow explained to him what was up with Bung. Min nodded sagely looking at Bung occasionally. Then with a sober look Min came over to me and said "Bung's not very well. I told Neeow to go with her and get her some medicine. I think Neeow wants to check up on her sister too."
"She'll be back though."
"It's okay. We can still grab a coffee though. I need my caffeine fix."
"Do you mind if we go somewhere else?" "No."
"You know the Fortuna Hotel?"
"Min. I live on Khao San Road. I don't know any hotels." "I don't know why you stay there. Anyway. Okay. They can go and get the medicine while we talk business."
The business was an idea Min had to get some kind of tour guide thing going around Thailand. He wanted to stay in Thailand but he didn't want his father, who was like a God to him, to think of him as a loafing freeloader. Money was not an issue but the scheme had to be water-tight. He wanted me in as a partner because I was a farang and he thought I had a good mind. Nothing could be further from the truth but I didn't want to disillusion him. Especially when it was a chance for me to stay in Thailand too.
The Fortuna is a smallish hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 5. Just walk past Foodland and keep on walking. The coffee shop is not the usual plush affair but about a half-dozen tables on the left-hand side of the lobby as you walk in. Min booked a room before even sitting down. "What's that for." I said.
"Sometimes I feel like staying somewhere different. The room service here is pretty good."
I mused on how far apart our worlds were. I was staying in a Banglampoo shoebox of a room and Min was staying in more than a couple of plush hotels worrying about the rapidity of room service.
We ordered coffee that came in mugs like bowls. It was strong, thick black coffee. Turkish style. It must have been high caffeine stuff because we chatted like a couple of speed freaks. Min was well educated but tended to fill the gaps in his knowledge with stuff he made up. He was very concerned with the immorality of Thai people. He felt that at some point God was going to cause a catastrophe to envelop Bangkok the way he had done with Sodom and Gomorrah.
When Min got on to theology I always tried to divert the topic elsewhere. I pushed it back into business and money which, I thought, were areas where I could really learn something from Min. He once told me that his father's company was number Sixty Seven in the world. He told me the name of the company which had a strong ring of familiarity but when I later looked it up in a list of the top hundred companies in the world according to Newsweek and The Economist I could not find it.
As we ordered a third round of coffee and I was feeling a light buzzing sensation around my cranium Min noticed the time and remarked on the slowness of the girls in coming back. "Looks like we've been stood up." I said not minding in the least.
"They'll be back. I know something about women." Said Min lighting a cigarette. "By the way. What you think of Neeow?" "She seems nice. Bit of a handful. I wouldn't have thought she was your type with that wilful streak. I imagine she'd be a bossy wife." "Yes. But she is very beautiful no?"
"What about Bung?"
"What about her?"
"I think she's one of the nicest girls about." "You do?"
"Yes. But… Well. I doubt we'll see her again tonight." "Why's that?"
"I just don't think she will."
"Oh. She'll be back."
"Why? What you do? Have her mother kidnapped?" "I know she likes you."
"She likes me."
"She told me."
"Yes because she knows you're my friend and you'll barfine her. No. Neeow will come back on her own and make some excuse for Bung. Bet you."
Min smiled enigmatically. "I know Bung cares a lot about her family. She takes care of most of them here in Bangkok. She always has to go back and see her family. But she'll be back." "Are you sure that family isn't her Thai boyfriend." "You know about him?"
"I used to see him around."
"She used to have a Thai boyfriend. I know him. He's a motorcycle taxi. But that's all over. Has been for a long time." "Well. If you say so. But I still bet you she won't be back." And just as I said that they both walked into the lobby. Both significantly the worse for waccy baccy. Bung seemed to be almost holding Neeow up. Neeow was red-eyed and giggling at everything like a stoned fifteen year old. Bung on the other hand had developed an angelic countenance. Ganja clearly suited her.
"What's up with her?" Min asked Bung.
"Drunk." Said Bung. "Maaow maak"
Min said to me "I hate to see that. I hate when a woman gets drunk. Pisses me off. Women shouldn't drink."
We took the lift up to the room Min had booked. It must have been going on for 2 AM. Neeow laughed at the lights in the elevator as if they were part of some pathetic firework display. I said I'd have to shoot off to Banglampoo before the morning traffic got heavy. I had to change money and buy some stuff.
Min told me not to worry. He could take care of all money stuff. I said that while this was nice I had to pay my room bill too and get some basic provisions. I didn't really but I'm one of those people that needs some time alone. Some people can live happily in the company of others but I need at least a couple of hours to myself each day and Min could be more warying than most people. A French philosopher, whose name escapes me, once said "It's in the times that we are alone we develop the things we will say when we are not alone. If we never spend any time alone all that we do is regurgitate second hand opinions and lies." I still think there's something in that. One of the curses of family life is that you don't get so much time to yourself.
The room was smallish but with a King-size bed and upholstered furniture. As soon as we got to the room Bung put on MTV, Neeow checked out the mini bar for munchies and Min started ordering things from room service. I just sat back and watched it all happen like sharks in a feeding frenzy. The bed was comfortable though and I considered the option of drifting off for a couple of hours. When I tried this, however, the caffeine buzz made me paranoid and the bad started reverberating as Neeow jumped and down upon it like it was a trampoline.
"You see," Said Min. "Thai women are like children. They think that life is all just a game. Most women are like this really. But Thai women feel they can show it. For men business is a game but it's a game to be played seriously. For women just this." I hated to put a dent in Min's theories by mentioning that this particular woman was as stoned as Dennis Hopper's cat?
She grew tired of this activity when the room service came with sticky rice, fried pork, tom yam and a sweet and sour curry. As is usually the way when bar girls encounter hotel or restaurant food, Neeow took a taste from each dish and pulled a face "Mai alloy." She refused to eat any more but instead lunched on the kit-kats from the mini bar.
Through all of this Bung just watched MTV smiling to herself. Min launched into a series of monologues about Thai law, Thai language, how often he practiced karate, how he could handle himself in any fight, how women seemed to like him despite him not being especially handsome, the nature of bargirls and how it was possible with the right amount of will to tame them. He was like some caffeine fuelled oriental Nietszche filled with ideas about how the powerful could always lead and control the less powerful. And all of this he seemed content to deliver all this from the comfort of a large pink chair chain smoking and drinking beers from the mini bar. Neeow and Bung just ignored him as if he wasn't there at all. As they lay between me and the side of the bed he was closest to I kept hearing his serious opinions through the mists of them remarking on what male stars were handsome and what female stars were pretty.
When one particularly romantic ballad came on that Neeow clearly loved Min said it was rubbish. She launched into him saying that he was boring and knew nothing and should shut up. I looked at Bung who smiled and put a finger to her lips. Her hazel eyes were only lightly flecked with the redness of dope.
"You still stay Banglampoo?" She said. I was surprised she knew anything about where I stayed.
"You can take me back there?"
"What about your boyfriend?"
"You mean husband."
"Okay then. What about your husband?"
"Not really my husband already. He's just a crazy man. He drinks too much. Likes to fight too much."
"But you stay with him. He's the man you share your life with." "I have to. I have to think of my family." "Why. What's he got to do with your family?" She pulled into me and rested her head on my shirt for a moment. Then she looked back up at me. "One day you can take me to Banglampoo. We can smoke ganja together in Banglampoo. Then maybe we can go away somewhere."
"Yeah… why not." Go with it.
She smiled and I noted her sharp little teeth. We looked at Min and Neeow. They were fighting like an old married couple. Bung laughed silently as much at Neeow as Min. And we pulled the blanket over our heads.
While cast into this orangey darkness we started kissing. I don't know how it happened exactly but it did. Her fingers were inside my shirt and tracing my skin.
Kissing her was sweet like drinking honey flavoured opium. It was easy to forget the world with her under the cover of night.
We played with each other like children exploring each other’s bodies for the first time. There was something in it that felt like innocence. She undid the buttons on my shirt and I pulled her T-shirt so her breasts were exposed to me. We held each other, flesh against flesh, in a dark tight embrace. I touched the scars on her body. Her soft slim body so flawed and damaged. I kissed her again. Kissed her mouth, her neck, her collarbone, her breasts, the burn scar between her breasts and I had my hand on her cunt. And she held it there between her legs as though it was a prize.
It was a moment both impossible and exquisite. But I pulled back from her. And she seemed familiar beyond the way that I had known her and seen her. She seemed incredibly familiar.
We looked into each others eyes, bodies pressed together, neither of us entirely naked but neither of us entirely clothed either, and… It was like a sharp bolt of lightning. Of recognition between us. Recognition like…
Recognition like the earliest time you saw your mother's face and knew that she had so much to do with you.
Recognition like recalling your earliest memories and knowing that there was something before them. Your true life. You true home. And maybe something even beyond that. I saw her and it was no longer her I was looking at but a mirror of the very core of myself. We were both acting these roles. We were both acting this life. And if you went beyond the roles and this life we were, in fact, the same person wearing different masks.
We embraced again like lovers separated for an eternity and finally re-united. We kissed again and again pressing our whole faces together.
"Why?" She said in English and then again in Thai. "It doesn't matter why."
And we lay, still, embracing.
The commotion from above the blanket had ceased. "What's going on under there?" Said Min.
Spontaneously we started grinding our groins into each other as if we were on the verge of being swept away by uncontrollable passion. Bung started moaning "Uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh ugggh. Yes. Uh ugggh uggggghh Oeerguuh." Pulling Bung's shirt down we threw back the covers. Min and Neeow were both looking at us with shocked expressions.
Min said "You sure you don't want to get another room."
Neeow was confused by all this. She tried to joke around with Bung but Bung pushed her away and just held on to me. We played at fucking around. We played at being in love. We played all the games and fell about laughing because we knew they were games. Everything. Absolutely everything was bullshit. All love. All sex. All the money and poverty and death and hunger. It was all bullshit. Life itself was about as serious as a bout of bowling. It may have been more painful but it wasn't any more or less important.
Neeow saw something between us. A game she wanted to play. But Neeow was a serious player and a winner at that. Beauty is, after all, just a particularly effective form of advertising.
Sunlight broke into the room and with the window open I could hear the beginnings of heavy traffic. I said that I had to go. I had to pay my room. I had to change some money. I had to buy some bog rolls. I might as well have said I had to go for a piss. It was bullshit. Bung held me in a desperate embrace and I felt tears through my shirt. "I'll be back." I said. But I had misunderstood something.
She dragged me on to the bed and we kissed and held on to each other for an age but then she said "You have to go?" "Yes."
"You have to go to Banglampoo."
"One day we go together."
"Yes. For sure."
She kissed me and held my hand as we walked to the door. Once we reached the door I walked through and her hand came through with me but her body was held there as if there was an invisible force field in the doorway.
I kissed her one last time and walked off down the narrow corridor. She stood there staring after me.
I was halfway back to Banglampoo before I started cursing myself. I felt a wrenching separation. Leaving that room was one of the hardest things I ever did and it had no purpose at all.
When I got back to the Fortuna later that day there was a message for me at the front desk. My friends had checked out. Min would meet me at the usual place that day at Six. The usual place being the Tilac.
I tried taking my mind off what had happened but I couldn't. Bangkok was still Bangkok. It still had the life it had always had. It was still a river of wonderful incident. But all I could think of was seeing her again. I was mad and I was in love, which was a shame because it meant I had already turned something real into something that was nothing more than a powerful idea. Hell. I'd have leapt naked across a pit of snarling insurance salesmen just to see her again.
Min showed up around 7 or 8 having had a good day's sleep. I hadn't slept and felt like a wreck. I was hitting happy hour beers just to combat my feelings. There's always that fear after you've fallen in love that everything will change and she won't be there any more. "You want to go to Patpong tonight?" Said Min. "Patpong. No. Not really. I'd like to see Bung."
Min smiled as if fate had proved him a wise man again. "I knew it. She was strange after you left. She just stood in the doorway staring after you for about an hour."
"Yes. But then she started crying. She was crying for ages. Maybe another two hours."
Being thick, I thought this was a good sign. "Neeow was a bit worried about her. I want to ask you. You know her before or not."
"Not really. I'd seen her around but I didn't know her." "Strange things. Women."
Bung didn't come to work that night. As the evening wore on I started feeling terrible as if she had died or something. Finally Neeow turned up. She said Bung was really sick. She had more problems with her stomach. Then Neeow looked at me as if I knew that this meant something larger.
I was back at the Tilac again the next night. So was Tum who I had broken temporarily with because she had a rich boyfriend who was sending her loads of money who had turned up suddenly. Bung was there but she knew Tum and she hid from me. She knew that Tum, who was well thought of, had been my girlfriend. But Tum had turned up with her rich boyfriend. The whole thing was a mess and Bung ducked me all evening. She hid from me behind the pillars around the bar. Then she was sitting with a customer who she didn't pay much attention to. When I caught her looking at me she looked swiftly away. Neeow said to me. "I don't know why she's acting like this. She was talking about you all day." The whole thing built itself up in my mind. Instead of being a moment of enlightenment that helped me see through all the bullshit, my ideas became bullshit. I thought about taking her away from the bar. I thought about being with her forever. I thought a whole bunch of rubbish and it was making me unhappy.
One day Min helped me out by getting the mamasan to bring her over. I saw her shaking her head at the mamasan but then she looked over our way and she came and sat with us. She sat with me but didn't look at me.
Min and Neeow went outside to let me talk to her in private.
I took her hand. She held it limply then looked at me with nearly blank eyes and said "I'm sorry. I'm no good for you." "What?"
"I'm no good. I'm bad girl Jo. I take drugs. I work in a bar. I'm no good. You don't know me. You should go back to Tum or Eey." (Another old girlfriend who also worked in the bar) "She really likes you, she's a good girl and she really likes farang." "Not like you."
She looked away from me as if growing impatient with this conversation and wanting to do something else. "Why are you talking like this?"
"You want to pay barfine for me."
"You want me to."
"Yes. I don't want to stay here."
"Then pay barfine. But you'll be disappointed."
"Then I'll be disappointed."
Feeling and knowing it was futile I paid the barfine. Whatever it was back then. And just as she had with David the year before, she slipped away.
I had a few drinks and met up with Ae, another old girlfriend. She asked me if I wanted to go with her to King's Lounge, just as friends. I said I was waiting for somebody. "Who?"
"What?" I said.
"You like her."
"Well. You know I can't say anything." "But I've made a big mistake."
"You said it."
"Because of her boyfriend? Because she's on drugs? Because she's trouble? Because she's crazy?"
"All of that."
A week or two after this I was walking along Sukhumvit and bumped into Neeow. Neeow had stopped working at the Tilac bar and was working for some "model" agency. Given the type that she was it was frankly surprising that she had ever worked in a Soi Cowboy bar in the first place. Like seeing a mink coat at a five and dime store.
She took me for a coffee at the Ambassadors. I think she was really just trying to pry information about Min who was supposed to be buying a house for her. Min had gone off her a bit, however, as Bung had warned him that she had a Thai boyfriend.
I kind of let slip that Bung had let this slip and she kind of let slip that Bung was, of course, still with her husband. I said I'd put in a good word for her with Min if she told me the rest. She said that Bung was a junkie for ganja. She did have stomach pains but she also got shivers and cramps if she didn't get some. I said that this didn't sound like the effect of ganja to me. Neeow smiled and said that maybe there was something else too, she didn't know for sure. According to Neeow the husband was an okay guy who had tried to stop Bung working in the bar, but Bung needed the money for drugs. When Bung did her disappearing acts on farang she wasn't going to her husband but her dealer. Bung wasn't a bad girl and at least she was upfront about her rip-offs. But if Bung was going to spill all her secrets then she could spill Bung's too.
"And that night?"
"That night was just a night.
She got into a lot of shit with her husband for that night. She was acting really weird for a couple of days after and that was why she had been off work. But then she just got back to normal." Neeow laughed. "After you left she just kept crying and crying. I thought she'd gone crazy. Not that she isn't crazy already. Min felt really sorry for her and gave her Two Thousand Baht. Of course he made her promise not to tell you."
"I don't know. But she was clever. I could never put on that much of a performance."
"Neeow, you don't have to. Men will pay just to be seen with you." "Does that mean you're paying for the coffees?" "Who's here to see?"
"Good point. I shouldn't say this, but I think she really liked you. But she's a bit fucked up."
"I guess so."
We sat there all night and drunk a lot of coffee. Neeow told me all about her life. It was obviously edited. Maybe a version of the truth, but not the whole truth. It was dawn by the time we left. As we walked across Sukhumvit Road Neeow was looking almost like one of us mortals with the bags under her eyes and no make up. The little flaws made her look warmer and perhaps even more attractive. She took a taxi one way. I took a bus the other.
When I got back to England I met up with David again. He'd been through the wringer due to some particular treachery that took him to Hell. This is another story. Walking through Hyde Park I told him the story about Bung. When I had finished telling him he seemed genuinely surprised and said "Shit man. I'm kind of jealous of you." "Why."
"I was really into that one."
"So. I never actually fucked her. She got away from me exactly as she got away from you."
"No. But you got hold of her. Not for long but that's more than I ever saw anyone else do. Hell. I'd have loved to have a munch on those sweet little tits of hers."
"You have a way with words man."
"I tell it like it is. She's one of those I never quite forget about."
"I know what you mean."
"I'm glad you finally saw the light man. I seem to remember you weren't too enthusiastic."
"I knew she liked you man too. She told me she thought you didn't like her like it mattered to her."
"Yeah. They say a lot of stupid shit. Take me to that place you said all the Japanese girls hang out."
I saw her a few more times.
One time I was shopping in Prakanong with the wife. She was sitting on the back of her husband's bike while he was chatting with some of his friends. She nodded to me but indicated her husband meaning we couldn't talk. I indicated my wife meaning the same.
A few weeks later I was in the Midnite bar with some friends. She had cut all of her hair off and had been working as a tout outside the bar. She had a massive scar on her forehead as if she had head butted a wall. After hanging around in the background like a shy deer she came and sat with one of my friends who waved her over. He was a young guy, tall blonde and handsome. Within a few minutes they were doing some deep snogging. When he went to the bog she leaned across everyone and said to "I'd sit with you but I can't because you're a married man." I shrugged and carried on drinking.
The last time I saw her was in the New Thermae in early 1998. I was sitting with Nan, possibly my oldest surviving friend in Bangkok, talking shit. Nan was about as damaged as a girl could be without being at death's door. She'd been used and abused and pissed on. She'd lost contact with her family. She' d lost all her boyfriends. She'd fallen in love with farang and had even carved the name PAUL in her chest with a knife. She had been borderline crazy all the time I knew her but had a heart as big as a whale. She was telling me how happy she was that I seemed to have found marital bliss and had a cute kid but she still didn't believe happiness was possible. "You live alone, you die alone and in between you alone." I was doing my Norman Vincent Peale act saying that anything was possible if you had hope but I suspected that in her case it was utter bullshit. Then out of the blue Bung came and sat opposite us in our booth. She was with a couple of her friends and a burly looking Swede.
Bung asked me if Nan was my girlfriend. Nan laughed telling her I was a happily married man. Bung asked me how things were going for me. I said things were going very well. Bung interrupted herself to tell her friend about me. "Before he was so good looking." "That was before my accident" I chipped in.
"That was before he got married. Now he's a little fat in the face but back then a lot of women liked him."
Then she looked me in the face and asked me if I really remembered her.
"Of course. I never forget you. You still with your husband."
"Finished long time already."
Nan said something to me and I answered her. Bung got up and said "Maybe we'll meet again. I've got to working." And she edged past her friends out the booth.
As the light struck her face I noticed how her skin seemed blemished by dark blotches and I prayed for her sake that it wasn't what it looked like.