Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad
[The following happened over a three week holiday to Thailand May/June 2007. Some names changed.]
I am in Banglamphu, home of the backpacker. I approach a dim shopfront with a cardboard sign ‘Laundry’ above the doorway. Inside, a Thai tot in dirty clothes spots me and shouts “Sak-phaa farang!” into the sweaty darkness behind. Farang laundry. Jesus, this kid is not even three years old and already he has me ready for the mark-up. A fat woman waddles out and decides 60 baht a kilo will be the price for me. I am about to argue but see the pain on Ted’s face and let it go. To be collected tomorrow from 4 pm.
Ted, or to give him his proper name, Nervous Ted, is having both the best and worst time of his life. A complete first timer in Thailand, the bad part for him is the weather; he is heavily overweight and suffering big time. Every step in the Bangkok heat is agony, every five seconds delay with me haggling over ten baht is another moment away from cooling fans. Absolutely everything else is the good part; the food, the sights, the gentle push and shove of the exotic streetlife and, of course, the women. Having never been outside of Europe, he is in a blissful state. Like I was two years and three trips ago, when I discovered LOS. Having known him since schooldays, I took pity on him and badgered this easygoing guy for an entire year to get him here. He realises he is in paradise and he is eternally grateful to me. And he hasn’t even got laid yet. I am a dabbler in the bargirl scene rather than hardcore so am content to bide my time before indulging and he will not go anywhere without me. For now, he is delirious just to be getting happy smiles from gorgeous creatures in shops and restaurants. God help him when I take him to Nana.
2. Chiang Mai.
Alcohol damage. Andrew is in a bad state and it’s patently obvious the damage is not from two heavy nights drinking, not even from two months. This looks like he has spent his full two years in Thailand drinking. He has the lot – unshaven face, bloodshot eyes, scruffy clothes, even a recent gash on his forehead. But it is the shaking that is most frightening. He is shaking uncontrollably and not just his hands; his entire body is trembling at high frequency. It looks far worse than I could ever have imagined. Christ, I think even his head is nodding to its own insane palsy beat.
“OK mate?” I say loudly, choosing to ignore absolutely everything.
“Been better.” he says, and smiles weakly. He stinks, a sour stench.
We start talking. It takes a while but it slowly comes out. No surprises. A familiar tale that goes ’I’m having a real good time’ to ‘I’m a bit out of control here’ to ‘I should stop this’ to ‘I can’t stop this’ to ‘Please help me.’ I had arrived just as his money was really drying up.
“What do you need?”
“I need ten days to get straight.” he says, leaning forward to make it clearer. He then explains in detail his planned programme of systematically cutting down to zero, starting today, rather than immediate cold turkey. Ten Chang beers today, nine Changs tomorrow, eight Changs Thursday… Down to zero by Friday week. It makes some sort of sense, I suppose. At least he recognises the party is over.
I get a bad feeling when he sheepishly asks for money but it’s only £200 he is looking for, enough to see him clear for the next two to three weeks. His girlfriend Pai agrees to hold the money for safekeeping. It was her who finally replied to my last email and arranged for me to come over. She is the same age as Andrew, late thirties, not bad looking but her best days are definitely behind her. She looks like she has been through the mill herself over the years, weary and deadbeat but not unkind. No, not unkind at all; I believe she really does care about him. It emerges that this is her place, not his; it is her small money keeping him ticking over. An odd combination, an eternal PhD student, forever eking out the next paltry grant in the UK who moves abroad and a faded but kind-hearted Thai woman. Who knows how we arbitrarily make our life partner decisions and yet, once made, we then cling to them, like we are fastened with steel bonds? I get the money for Andrew and leave.
Two days previous, I had arrived in Chiang Mai. I had left Nervous Ted in Bangkok to visit Andrew, our mutual school friend, as his emails back to us in the UK were so insistent we visit him. I went to Andrew’s anonymous two-storey housing block. No answer. Place in darkness. Back in my hotel, I send him an email letting him know where I am. I go for a long stroll.
First time in Chiang Mai, first time anywhere north of Bangkok, and I am a little intimidated by not knowing which way is which. After a half hour I admit to myself I am really lost. Suddenly Andrew’s no-show makes the place darker, less friendly. The 400+ miles to Ted in Bangkok seem a long way. I head across the street to the brighter side, to a girly bar. Order a drink. I impulsively barfine a girl, N. I choose her because she is quiet, serene and deferential to the other girls. Back at the hotel, she makes a good effort to liven me up. Afterwards, as she collects her things, I suddenly feel old, ancient even. I feel an unfamiliar need for human contact and blurt out that I want her to change short to long time. She is not up for it. I promise a big tip and I witness on her face the internal struggle as she weighs the proposal. She decides, big grin, drops her things and rejoins me on the bed. I say a silent, selfish, prayer to God for the power of money. Thank you, yes indeed, thank you.
The next 48 hours are spent relaxing while I wait for absent Andrew to make contact. Without anything being said, N is my constant companion. What could have been a miserable time is instead a joy. I get her a spare key for the hotel room so that she can come and go as she wishes. Her radar is so attuned, it is uncanny. She speaks at the right times, keeps silent at the right times. She brings unprompted food back to the hotel room just as I am deciding I can’t face the street heat. She has a skill of entering the hotel room without making a sound to suddenly be standing right beside me when I turn round. “Just checking!” she calls it. This should be extremely annoying; it isn’t, it’s endearing. I must be either losing my cynicism or getting heat damage. I soon know everything yet nothing about her.
The day after meeting poor Andrew I check my emails. A short message from Nervous Ted asking me to contact him at a new hotel number. I realise I need to relay the bad news, explain I’m going be in Chiang Mai a bit longer than planned. I decide not to go into too much detail. Best not to alarm him and spoil his perfect holiday.
“Ted, hi, it’s me. Listen, no need to worry but Andrew needs a little bit of help so I’m going to…”
“Fxxx all that, I’m in fxxxing trouble…GET BACK HERE NOW!” Ted roars.
I head back to the hotel room. N looks up.
“I need to go Bangkok. Today. Friend in trouble.”
“Friend in trouble here.”
“Different friend. Different trouble.”
“Your wife there?”
“Told you, no wife.”
“Your girlfriend there?”
“Told you, no girlfriend.”
“You leave me?”
“…How about we both go to Bangkok today?”
She is ready to go in eight minutes. How can someone be like this?
I call in on Andrew on the way to the airport in the afternoon. He is in a good mood. He points at the clock showing 4 pm and proudly informs me he has had only two of his allotted nine beers. Pai nods to confirm he is telling the truth.
“I am ahead of the game” he says. He is even considering patenting his sobering-up process. I smile.
“Write up a treatise. Maybe you’ll get a grant.”
“I will mate. Just you wait.”
On the plane, I get a chance to think over the Nervous Ted situation.
After depositing the laundry with the waddling woman, it was cold beers for both of us. Ted had bided his time. For three days, he had patiently done the Bangkok tourist things with me without one word of complaint. But he was now insisting on what he called ‘real action.’ I had worked up an appetite myself so not too much persuasion was required. But first I ran through a few golden bargirl rules with him. He nodded and slowly repeated each one back to me in a falsetto voice, like I was an imbecile for even thinking he would need to be told them. We changed hotels to the Sukhumvit area and hit Nana.
Three hours later he was with a cute gentle one who I knew would be perfect for him. I left him in her capable hands as I headed back to the hotel with my short timer.
I woke and smiled. Ted would be in a real good mood for the rest of the day. Showered and headed into the breakfast area. I stopped dead. Ted was at a window table, munching away, unaware that a venomous snake was less than one foot from his body. Ted looked up and waved, oblivious to the danger. I remained frozen. Sitting beside him was the bitterest and hardest hooker in Bangkok. Oh Jesus, what had he done?
I tore into him as soon as she left. But he was not listening. He just had the best sex of his life. She had arrived shortly after I left last night and had intimidated the nice girl away. No amount of reasoning with him could dissuade him from meeting up with her again in the afternoon. He was already making long-term plans with her. I knew she was serious trouble. Her expensive clothes and her immaculate grooming meant high maintenance. But it was her hardness and her air of drama that meant once she had her claws in him, a terrible price would have to be paid to get him free. She was genuinely frightening. Feeling partly responsible, I even offered to pay for any other girl if he agreed not to see her again. He point blank refused. Nor was he now going to visit Andrew. No way was he giving up on this.
I flew to see Andrew the next day. Then, when I phoned Ted from Chiang Mai, I discovered his next move. Not content with shacking up with one of the most serious prostitutes in Bangkok, and all that goes with that, he then starts to believe the handsome man hype from the welcome girls that beckon him during his day visits to bars. Suddenly, instead of being awestruck, he swings 180 degrees and thinks he is top of the world and when Whore#1 has to make an overnight visit to Pattaya, playboy promises to be faithful and wait for her but immediately goes out and scores with Whore#2 and takes her back to his hotel. Makes promises about taking care of her forever. Realising when he sobers up that this one is even more of a witch than the other and that she ain’t leaving him and, with Whore #1 due back to the hotel at noon, he panics, grabs his stuff and legs it while #2 is still in the bathroom. He decamps by foot to another hotel, but only several hundred yards away because he felt so exposed every second he was out in the open. Almost foolproof, but his passport and other valuables are back in the original hotel lobby safe. In the new hotel, he concocts a story of a stolen passport, shows his credit cards and stays hidden in his room, waiting for hell to break loose. All bravado out the window, he is scared witless. He has no confidence to attempt relocating further away; he knows two serious prostitutes are after his blood. I advised him to stay put and that I’d travel to Bangkok and meet him in his hideout hotel room. Idiot.
3. Back to Bangkok.
I am in Bangkok. 9pm.
N and I make our way to Ted’s hotel.
I expect to find him cowering in his room. Instead, he is sitting in the hotel front terrace, in plain sight, supping a beer, slavering over the waitress.
“Hey Hey Hey! Michael, my main man! Who’s the fine looking girl with you?”
“Excuse me? Shouldn’t you be hiding from two assassins?”
“Oh that? All forgiven, all in the past.”
I have only one question.
“Easy – I just paid them £500 each”
And that’s it. He had waited in the hotel room but finally could not stand the stress. So he had phoned each one of the hookers and met them separately, calmed them down and handed over the cash. He sees it as money well spent and he promises to choose more carefully from now on. Not for the first time I make a mental note to find out how much he earns.
4. Ko Phi Phi.
Now that Ted is back in the land of the living and reunited with his passport, and a phone call to Pai confirms Andrew is sticking to the programme, I fly to Ko Phi Phi with N. Three days in overcrowded, over priced Phi Phi. But with N and such scenery, it is heaven on earth. If you find yourself there with a beautiful girl and all is going well and you are not happy, then you already dead. I pity you.
5. Back to Chiang Mai.
I am back in Chiang Mai. Same hotel. 3.30 pm. Curled up asleep with N. A knock on the door. Pai is standing there. Andrew’s patented foolproof sobering method has failed. He kept rigidly to the programme right up to the five Chang mark. Then he drunk his allotted five bottles by 9am and snapped. He stole a 1000 baht note from Pai, went to the minimart and started on the whisky. That was yesterday. He was now back at Pai’s room, penniless, shaking worse than ever, crying and clucking. The DTs were on their way. Pai was bailing out, for good. So much for steel bonds but I can’t say I blame her. She now realises there are only two stark options for Andrew. Either he stays in Thailand and keeps drinking and ends up dead in the gutter or else he gets out of Thailand and stops drinking. Nothing else and, either way, Pai was not going to get a look-in. She had clung on but had got burnt. She is off to stay at friends for as long as it takes but says Andrew needs help tonight. She has never seen him so bad.
She says her goodbye and I reel back into the room. N leans up in the bed, still half asleep. I explain his dire case and that I need to go to him now and don’t know what to expect. He could even be dead. Perhaps she can help; she is pretty level headed after all. Perhaps she knows someone, a doctor maybe, or she could even suggest a treatment? Finally: “Does this mean no bowling tomorrow?”
Sweet as she was, I realise it was like explaining a sudden nosedive in the household financial status to the family cat – it may, and indeed will, affect the cat but it does not show the slightest bit of concern. I am on my own. I know I need either alcohol or medication for him but at 3.30 pm in an unknown city? I don’t even know if there are any late bars or clubs. I phone the hotel porter. He is completely useless.
I have a brainwave. I head down the road to a more upmarket hotel, check into a 1400 baht room, raid the minibar and emerge ten minutes later, pockets clinking, on a mission to save Andrew.
A soul-baring night, sitting in a darkened Thai room. Just the two of us, talking. All of Andrew’s bluster from last week is finished. Previously he had a spark; now it is gone; he is beaten. Pai’s final leaving is hitting him hard. He sups the liquor, no pleasure involved, just avoidance of pain. He tells me he started drinking pretty heavily in the UK ten years ago but kept it in check. But in Thailand it spiralled out of control. He has squandered £26k left to him from his mother’s will. Was it Thailand that did him in or would anywhere have done? How many western souls in LOS are wasting their lives away, not on bargirls, but alcohol? No answers here tonight.
We make it to the morning. I calmly explain to him that I am in Thailand for only one more week. I’ll support him for that long but no more. If he pulls any mad stunts, he’s on his own.
The next five days are intense. The first three he spends in hospital, getting detoxed, taking some fairly heavy duty tranquilisers to offset the alcohol withdrawal symptoms. He is released into my care, staying at Pai's room. I help him get shaved, force him to eat, makes sure he takes all his medication, get his laundry done – all the while keeping a beady eye on him for any sign of relapsing. He is as good as gold. His shaking starts to get under control – by the fourth day he manages soup without spilling half of it – but I still need to help him into the shower each day because his legs are cramping. I get the number of his sister in the UK and have a lengthy chat. She had suspected the worst. She makes arrangements for Andrew’s return flight in two weeks and agrees to put him up when he arrives. Despite the shame, Andrew is relieved his problem is finally out in the open. He even manages a few jokes amidst all the wretchedness. Things are looking up. At least he is beginning the long haul out of the mire. I head back to my hotel.
I am alone in the room. N is out shopping. It is while I am shaving that I realise there is a big fxxxing problem: I am whistling. I hate whistling. I hate dickheads who whistle. Yet here I am. Why? And why am I shaving now when I shaved just last night? To be smooth skinned. For N. It hits me that I have not noticed a single other Thai girl in over two weeks. I realise I am completely smitten with her and I didn’t even realise it. With all that has been happening she has sneaked under the radar.
I sit down on the bed. This is bad. I feel misery coming on. It’s like the conservation of energy: energy cannot be created or destroyed, although it can be changed from one form to another. Thus, in any closed system, the sum of all forms of energy remains constant.
Substitute the word misery for energy. Andrew slowly making his way out of his mess. Nervous Ted, previously in torment, is now as happy as a pig. And me?
I am fxxxed. I don’t have a Ted or Andrew running to help me. Do I even want help? I have just two more days left. Maybe if I make a run for it? I turn. She is beside me.
“Just checking! Ok you?”