A Christmas Carol
Part 1 – A visit from my Son
I arrive back at my apartment in Pattaya somewhat the worse for wear. After vomiting into the sink, I check my watch. It is a quarter to Midnight on Christmas Eve.
My live-in girlfriend is nowhere to be seen. She is most probably at a friend’s house. I can well imagine the scene. A dozen or so girls all sitting on the floor – legs neatly tucked away beneath their backsides, feet angled politely behind them. Laid out on newspaper is a generous selection of treats and delicacies from the North East of Thailand. My live-in will have purchased the food from one of the many street vendors in the City. More than half of the girls are holding a plastic goblet of Thai Mekong whiskey in one hand with an array of playing cards clutched in the other. The Thai gambling game with indecipherable rules (to Farang’s) is in full swing. My live-in is happily losing my money. She always loses! There is loud Isaan music blaring out from a ghetto blaster. The music is punctuated by a cacophony of bargirl shrieks and laughter. The girls not involved in the gambling game squat around a television set relaying a Thai drama at high volume. Alternatively it may be a game show or a ‘real life’ vampire movie. It is highly unlikely she will return home before sunrise. Indeed she may be away for several days!
I am relieved she did not invite her bargirl friends over to our apartment! At least I can enjoy some peace and quiet. Hopefully, I will get some sleep!
I fix myself a sweet black coffee and light a Marlboro. My ex-wife and I both gave up smoking when she fell pregnant. I started smoking again soon after coming to live in Thailand. Smoking is very much part of the Pattaya bar scene!
I sense the temperature in the room has dropped appreciable – I shudder involuntarily. A sudden icy blast of cold air draws my attention. The curtains covering the balcony doors billow inwards and then part. The open curtains reveal my 11 year old son standing on the balcony. Nigel walks into the room to greet me. I notice his hair is ruffled and untidy. There is a rugby ball tucked under his right arm. Nigel looks exactly the same as he did on that Christmas Eve seven years ago – the day he died!
The memories come flooding back to me. My ex-wife and I are still married and very much in love. We are looking forward to a family Christmas. Anna is hard at work in the kitchen, taking care of the final preparations. Nigel is charging around the house, fuelled by excitement and the boundless energy common to boys of that age. Having just completed some last minute shopping chores, I am relaxing with the paper in Living Room. Anna suggests I make myself useful and take Nigel to the park to get him out from under her feet. I protest half-heartedly, for in truth I really enjoy spending time with the boy. We take the rugby ball with us and spend an energetic hour or so kicking, catching and passing the ball. Nigel and I are so engrossed with our game that I fail to notice the sky clouding over. A couple of heavy drops of rain soon become a deluge. Nigel and I take shelter under a large Oak tree. There is a brilliant flash of lightening immediately overhead. I don’t hear the accompanying crash of thunder. I pick myself up from the ground and call out to Nigel. I find him lying motionless several yards away. I give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, furiously administering chest compressions in an increasingly desperate attempt to revive him. Later a passing policeman finds me cradling Nigel’s head. I am crying, begging him not to leave me. The paramedics arrive within minutes. Despite their best endeavours, they are unable to save him!
Nigel stands in the middle of the room facing me. “Father”, he says simply. “You are not to blame for what happened to me. You tried to save me, and now it is my turn to help you.”
Part 2 – The Ghost of Christmas Past
Nigel glances back over his shoulder and the curtains part once more. A second spirit enters the room. He or she presents itself as a white-robed figure of indeterminate age. The second spirit passes Nigel and advances towards me. I back-off towards the door but am unable to escape. The spirit gently takes my hand. The reassuring image of my apartment fades from my vision. I see instead a traditional English public house located somewhere in the countryside.
The large bar has many exposed wooden beams, with a blazing log fire to welcome customers arriving on a cold winter’s day. The room is decorated with horse brasses and prints of 19th Century hunting scenes. Pewter tankards hang from nails on the wall behind the bar – some regulars’ prefer to be served their pints of beer in their own tankards. Resting on the bar are plates stacked with cubes of cheddar cheese and pineapple chunks. These are free, and customers may help themselves using the cocktail sticks provided for this purpose. Additionally the bar is serving hot Sunday (even though it is Monday) roasts – beef, pork, lamb and turkey. The traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding appears to the most popular choice, with more than half the customers who are eating having made this selection.
Sitting at a table in a quiet corner are a young couple. The young man affectionately rests his hand on his girlfriend’s arm. They are in deep conversation and clearly at ease in each other’s company. More than that, they are in love!
As we draw closer, I recognise the young couple. It is my ex-wife Anna and I! I can even remember the occasion. It was Christmas Eve 20 years ago, soon after we were married. Anna has a keen interest in politics and world events. We are discussing the First Gulf war and its likely long term impact on the balance of power within the region, together with the stability of future oil supplies to the West. I recall how much I enjoyed the intellectual stimulus of our frank and open ended discussions. Although I would rarely admit it, I knew Anna was often the better informed. She also possessed superior debating skills. Despite this, I usually managed to give her a good run for her money! As I listen to the conclusion of our debate – which she wins on points, the conversation turns to our plans for Christmas Day. Anna’s parents own a large house in the countryside. Her mother is to hold a big family Christmas celebration, with everyone invited. Close to forty people will sit down to a full Christmas dinner with all the trimming that year. Afterwards, more people arrive at the house – neighbours and friends. The eating, drinking and party games carry on until well into Boxing Day. It is by far the best Christmas party I ever attended!
The spirit leads me out of the White Horse and I find myself in the changing room of my old squash club. I have just come off court and am stripping off my sweat sodden gym kit prior to showering. I observe the firm muscle of my biceps and relatively trim waist. I realise that I must be at least 50 pounds heavier than I was during my squash playing days. I am accompanied by three of my partners from the architect’s office. They are all close friends. We see a lot of each other outside work. It helps that our respective wives and girlfriends all get along well together. Bob was the best man at my wedding and I return the favour a few months later. Jim is moaning that the deciding point I won during our final game should have been replayed as a let. I flick my towel at him good naturedly. Michael enquires as to whether we are all still on for the British F1 Grand Prix which will be held at Silverstone in a few months time. I confirm that Anna and I are definitely interested. To everyone’s amusement, I tell him that Anna has kindly “volunteered” to pack a picnic hamper for the six of us – or she will, once I get round to asking her!
I make no effort to keep in touch with Bob, Jim and Michael since quitting my architect’s partnership to live in Thailand. My marriage to Anna limps along for another few years following the loss of our son, Nigel. In truth, I blame myself for his death and go into a deep depression. I keep rerunning the events of that fateful Christmas Eve in my mind, especially my stupidity in sheltering under a tree during a thunder storm. Despite grieving deeply for her son, Anna never blames me for what happened. In fact she makes every effort to save our relationship. Sadly, I conspire to cut myself off from everyone around me, especially my wife.
Our divorce, once finalised, is a great relief to me. I am now free to affect my escape. Not only physically from my country of my birth, but also mentally from my previous life. No longer will I be confined by the shackles of my loss and guilt! I leave my job on the day our lawyers finally agree the division of our marital assets. Within a week, I have bought a one way plane ticket to Thailand. I take with me a copy of François Ponchaud's book Cambodia: Year Zero, which I read on the plane. Somehow it seems appropriate. For the author, 1975 is year zero. For me it is 2007!
During my first 12 months or so in Thailand, I think I have found Utopia. Following a brief stay in a tourist hotel, I find myself a nice Pattaya apartment with everything I need to hand. I can reach the main Farang bar area and beach by motorbike taxi within a matter of minutes. There is a small swimming pool onsite. I can most usually be found there at sunset enjoying a cooling dip. There are several small restaurants and street vendors selling food within easy walking distance. I buy most of my provisions from the 7-Eleven located just 50 yards away from my front door. I do what I like, when I like and nobody bothers me. Sometimes I take off for a week or two to travel, and, or to do a visa run. When staying locally, I am partial to a night out exploring the bars and massage parlours. I might go short-time with a girl who takes my fancy but never long-time. I actively avoid commitment. Sometimes I hook up with some like minded ex-pats for a drink and perhaps a game of pool. We shoot the breeze together – nothing heavy. We might discuss the prospects of England winning the six nations rugby tournament or perhaps the skills and attributes of #322 at whatever is our favored bar that particular week. As well as providing a brief social interlude, the ex-pat network can be useful. Take for example Mickey, a salt of the earth cockney guy. He is one of three English ex-pats I drink with on a regular basis. Mickey tells me he has well placed contacts within the Thai Immigration Department. For the price of a drink and a couple of thousand baht, Mickey is able to source a ‘genuine’ visa extension stamp. No need to do any more visa runs!
After my first idyllic year or so in Thailand, things begin to change. I guess I start to crave more human contact. There are also issues with boredom and in all honesty my general idleness. I find I am getting up later, often sleeping through until late afternoon. I am also less inclined to travel – it just becomes too much hassle. I begin drinking more! Re-visiting my old friends Bob, Jim and Michael with my spirit guide makes me realise that friendships in Thailand are somehow different. I don’t really know my ex-pat drinking companions so well. Our conversations are largely superficial and we never socialise outside the bars. In truth they are acquaintances rather than friends. I am lonely! Perhaps this is why I start going long-time with some of the girls? I even begin to invite them back to my apartment.
About 18 months ago, I start to bar-fine one of the girls, Fon, on a regular basis. At the beginning, I see her every couple of weeks or so. Soon Fon is spending more and more time at my apartment. At first she is attentive and affectionate – less so as time goes by. Fon cooks and cleans for me – really a housekeeper with sex thrown in for good measure. I can’t remember asking her to move in; but the gaps between her visits become shorter and shorter. I don’t love her; but as I become ever more lazy, I find it easier to have her around than not. I still go out drinking with my friends and will also bar-fine a girl short-time if she interests me. Fon disappears from time to time; sometimes to see her friends and on other occasions to visit her family in the Isaan – I think! Progressively, she does less around the apartment and the demands for money increase. It’s a gradual process, so I don’t home in on what is happening – or perhaps I just don’t care? I know that if I tell her to leave there will be a dreadful scene. It is much easier just to maintain the status quo!
Seeing Anna again makes me realise just how different our relationship was to me and Fon. Following the ‘Red Shirt” protests in May 2010, I ask Fon whether she thinks the opposing factions will ever reach an accommodation. She looks at me aghast. “You Farang. Why you care? You think too much!” Fon doesn’t care to think too much about anything – except money!
Part 3 – The Ghost of Christmas Present
As I break off from my revive I realise that I am back in my apartment. The white-robed figure of indeterminate age has departed to be replaced by another spirit. This giant phantom is wearing a fur-lined green robe. I hold out my hand to him, accepting his presence.
Once again the reassuring sight of my apartment fades from view, this time to be replaced by the inside of a busy Go-Go bar. Mickey, Phil and Neville the three English ex-pats I regularly drink with are seated beside me in a corner-booth. The dancing girls on stage have just changed over and we are speculating on the sexual prowess or otherwise of the new girls on display. Mickey has marked out one particular ‘beauty’ as bar-fine material. I tell him I was with her a couple of weeks ago – she is a starfish! Phil and Neville laugh. They tell Mickey to save his money and order some more drinks.
The giant phantom asks me how much I know about the lives of my friends outside the bars. I confide that I know very little. “Might that be because like you they are all running away from their past lives, so they cannot afford to allow anyone to get too close”, he asks innocently? I concur that this is a possibility.
I am immediately transported to the inside of a mortuary. On a slab in the middle of the room lies a pretty young Thai girl of about 20. Her name is written on a piece of card tied to her big toe. It is Noi and I remember her well. Noi was the first girl I bar-fined when I arrived in Pattaya. “You can’t hold me responsible for this”, I blurt out indignantly. “I treated that girl well and tipped her handsomely. Before coming to work in the bar, she was a poor uneducated farm girl with no future. The money she earns provides her with the means to support her family and also to buy a house in her village when she retires. People like me provide these girls with the opportunity to better themselves.” “Yes indeed”, responds the giant phantom gently. “But unfortunately the majority of these girls have neither the intellect nor self-discipline to manage their income sensibly. Most will fritter away their money as soon as they receive it – often on alcohol, gambling and their ne’er-do-well Thai boyfriends. This particular girl used the money you gave her to buy Ya Ba from your friend Mickey. Soon after taking the drug she went crazy and rode her motorbike at speed into the side a baht bus. Did you know that Mickey was a drug dealer? He escaped from London just hours ahead of an ambush laid by a Jamaican Yardie gang intent on killing him and taking over his territory. The UK police are also looking for Mickey. They have issued an international warrant for his arrest!”
The giant phantom then leads me into a small Isaan family house. Lying alone on a sleeping mat is another young Thai woman. Her small wasted body is covered with sores and she coughs incessantly. Although there is no air conditioning in the room and the girl is covered by a blanket, she shivers violently due to the high temperature she is running. A foul smelling puddle of excrement trickles out from beneath the blanket. “AIDS is a terrible illness”, volunteers the giant phantom without my prompting. “Did you know your friend Phil is HIV positive? He left London when his doctor told him he must curb his promiscuous lifestyle. Despite his doctor’s caution, Phil still refuses to wear a condom – ever! Fortunately for Phil, he continues to have the means and the where with all to secure the drugs he needs to remain well. So far he has infected five bargirls and they in turn have passed the virus on to several of their customers. Two of the girls’ Thai boyfriends are also HIV positive, although they are not yet aware of their status!”
Next we arrive outside a squalid shack in Cambodia housing one of the countries many brothels. A small girl of about 11, the same age as my son Nigel, lies face down in the mud. She is clutching an old woollen doll to her chest whilst being viciously beaten with a heavy rattan cane by a mean Mama-san. “Your mother sold you to me and you will do what I say”, spits the angry Mama-san. “I own you”, she adds chillingly! Through sobs and whimpers the little girl begs the cruel Mama-san to allow her to return to her family. “I don’t want to go with that man, I want to go to school and play with the other children in my village”, the little girl shouts defiantly. The Mama-san snatches the woollen doll from the child’s grasp and throws it into a small fire of burning twigs and leaves nearby. The doll catches alight, emitting a bright yellow flame. The little girl cries silently for the loss of her only friend and source of comfort. Consumed by anger and revulsion I try to intervene, but I cannot. I am only an observer!
Neville strolls out of the brothel without a backward glance.
Part 4 – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Back in my apartment a new spirit guide awaits me. A figure entirely muffled in a black hooded robe. He reminds me of the grim reaper. Perhaps he is the grim reaper? I glance at my watch. It is still a quarter to Midnight on Christmas Eve, but the date is 2011. I understand – what I am about to be shown is a vision of the future!
I am driving a rented Mercedes, similar to the one that Mickey owns. There are a number of parcels and envelopes neatly stacked on the backseat. I must be running short on funds as I now work for Mickey! I appear to be making a series of deliveries. I am also collecting money and orders. This is work that Mickey would never risk doing himself, but is of too much importance and value to be trusted to his local Thai network. Resting beside me on the front seat of the car is an open bottle of whiskey. I reach over to pick-up the bottle and take a large swig. I am red faced and clearly drunk. Looking across to the dashboard, I see that I am comfortably exceeding the speed limit.
A woman accompanied by a small child steps out into the road. I strike them without breaking or swerving. The child is thrown up high into the air, cart wheeling some twenty feet or so above the car. He lands on his head some distance behind the speeding Mercedes. The child most likely dies before he hits the ground!
The Mercedes strikes the woman on the hip, smashing her pelvis and causing multiple fractures to both legs. She lies by the side of the road screaming in agony. I drive on, leaving her to her fate!
Parking the damaged Mercedes outside my apartment, I see something is wrong. Some of my clothes and possessions are strewn across the parking lot. A battered white truck pulls out smartly into the traffic. I catch a glimpse of the driver – a Thai man in his early 30’s. I remember Fon once introducing him to me as her brother. I find the security guard asleep in his office. I ask him what happened. He knows nothing!
The door to my apartment is wide open. Fon and her Thai husband have removed almost everything that wasn’t physically nailed down. I return to the Mercedes to collect my whiskey bottle – at least they didn’t manage to steal that!
Standing on my balcony, whiskey bottle in hand, I admire the twinkling lights of the City below. It seems so peaceful up here, divorced from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The phone in my apartment rings. I register surprise that my teerak must have missed it whist she was sacking the place – I ignore it. I hear the sound of police sirens. Three police cars skid to a halt in the parking lot, lights flashing. The policemen leap out of their cars. I look down on them, a hundred feet or so below me. One of the policemen calls out to me. I climb over the safety rail of my balcony and join him. The black hooded spirit and I observe my body tumbling though the night air dispassionately!
Part 5 – Christmas Day
The muffled spirit in the hooded black robe departs leaving only Nigel and I in the apartment. The clock on the mantelpiece strikes midnight – it’s Christmas Day. Nigel’s spirit reaches out to me. I see that in his outstretched hand he holds my passport. I take the passport and bend down to kiss Nigel on the forehead. Nigel smiles – that joyous open boyish smile I remember from all those years ago. And then he is gone!
It is just after Midday. I look though the small aircraft window of my International flight and watch Bangkok slowly slipping away behind me. It will still be Christmas Day when I touchdown in London!