I decided to take the direct flight to Bangkok.
I had to get out of London for my health. I had to get London out of my system. London was full of cold grey people walking cold grey streets. London was prepackaged tasteless food and soul destroying television. London was a job in an office punching numbers into a computer. Telephone calls and bland emails. The work meant little to me apart from at the end of the month I’d be paid. I had saved enough money each month to come back to my spiritual home: Thailand. I needed to reacquaint myself with Bangkok. I had waited months and now it was a matter of minutes before the plane landed and taxied down the runway. I needed to see her again. I had waited too long. We have a bond that whilst everlasting needed strengthening on certain occasions. Occasions such as birthdays.
It is her birthday today and I intend to be there in person.
Once the plane stopped moving I knew it was a simple mater of passing through immigration to have my new visa stamped and then collecting my luggage. Things seem to run smoother in Thailand. Back in the UK I’d be waiting up to an hour for the baggage reclaim belt to start moving. In Bangkok your bags are ready the moment you stroll over to pick them up. Lots of things are easier in Bangkok.
Then I took a meter taxi to Sukhumvit Road. As the city rushed past my window my thoughts turned once more to her, the birthday girl. It was her warmth more than anything that made me board the airplane and travel thousands of miles, past Europe, past the Middle East and across Eastern Asia, to Krungthep, Thailand. Back to her. A birthday surprise!
We had met for the first time five years ago yet it felt like we had known each other our entire lives. Perhaps we had. She believes in Thai Buddhism and that all lives are intertwined in this life as well as past and future incarnations. She believes that fate dictates our every experience and that there is no time except the present moment. She may be right. She was always much wiser than me when it came to matters of the heart and soul, whereas I am more bookish and factual. We had experienced different educations. We were both different yet somehow both our broken parts made a perfect whole.
I checked into the Miami Hotel on Sukhumvit, for old time’s sake. I’d made some interesting romantic attachments back in the days when I lived at the hotel. The rooms used to be frequented by American G.I.s during the Vietnam conflict and there are still a few to be found haunting the corridors and rooms. At one time perhaps the hotel displayed a certain faded grandness, large rooms, high ceilings, low rates.
Now it’s just faded.
Cockroaches gather in musky corners. The carpet smells as only old carpets can smell. The television never works, the fridge is empty. The kind of place where one could write a novel or learn to play guitar, if one had a novel in them, or owned a guitar. If one had the time and the means, they could achieve these things anywhere, but the comfort of despair often awakens certain creative avenues otherwise hindered by the emotional road-block afforded by five star accommodations. ‘Nothing worth a dime, got wrote in paradise,’ a drunken barfly once told me.
So here I sit. Musky carpet, peeling wall paper in a shade of color that was perhaps once originally an attempt to suggest the sense of tranquility. I have not told her I’m arriving, but it is her birthday and she should be expecting at least a phone call. Instead I unpack and walk onto Sukhumvit Road and then take a taxi to Thong Lor where I ask the driver to stop, pay him, and walk out onto the street. It is busy. Every inch of pavement taken up by street stalls selling all kinds of merchandise. Food, clothes, electrical goods, bags and CDs.
After about two hundred yards of walking I find what I am looking for. It’s a shop with a bright red exterior and an interior that glitters and glimmers with gold. I enter the gold shop and say hello to the shop tender in her own language. It’s funny how the birthday girl never insisted I learn the Thai language. Instead I picked up bits of the language here and there from shop attendants and the like. A policeman sits lazily on a stool and stops reading a copy of the Thai Rath. His eyes follow me the way a lizard’s follow the flight path of a mosquito. Willing to wound but afraid to strike. I examine the jewelry behind the glass topped counter and above and behind the shop tender. I decide on a bracelet that has hearts and dragons attached to it. Forty-thousand baht. As I hand over the money I worry that she will not like it, that I have chosen wrongly. I brush my doubts aside reasoning that is the thought that counts on such occasions. Just me being there in person should be enough to make her day.
Excited about the evening I decide to drink a beer in an American-style pub at the end of the soi. I drink two pints of beer and order a pie. As the alcohol begins her magic I worry for a moment that she might not even remember me. Sure, we go back a long way, but with all the customers she must see surely I am just another man to her. Then I remember that special bond that we have and feel the two-baht of gold in my pocket. She will remember me. I am certain.
The pie arrives but is too dry and the gravy too thin. I concentrate on the beer instead and drink the glass down before ordering another one. I pay and walk out into the bright sunshine, my vision distorted with the beer and the flight and the excitement. I hail a taxi and head back to the hotel to shower and get ready for the birthday girl.
A crowd of alcoholics congregate along the road outside the hotel. They will be here until the early hours in the morning. They drink cheap beer and whiskey and play guitar. They talk about the latest novels they are all writing. All the books they are writing are destined to be bestsellers, and their songs are destined for greatness. This, they are all sure of. In this, they are alone. Every drunk has a best selling novel or a classic song in them, and that’s the best place for it.
Bangkok, it has changed immeasurably over the years. I remember all the beer bars lining the roads, the perilous wooden walkways above streams of sewage. The way the wooden floorboards used to creak underfoot and wobbly bar stools against bars that were just that bit too high. I remember the road before the Subway Sandwiches, Starbucks coffee, Sky train, Meter Taxis that I now walk past. I remember a few bargirls that are probably now mamasans; isn’t life peculiar in the way it moves in circles?
I think about how she will react after almost a year apart. We have always kept in contact through emails and telephone conversations. Through thick and thin. But I know what her job is and I have made an effort not to visit too often. We will always keep each other close in our hearts and there will always be that connection. The problem is one of money. I understand that I do not have the money to take care of her. This she knows also. It is sad. But, it is the way it is. She has to work. As do I.
I walk over the footbridge and beyond the beggar holding a transparent plastic Starbucks cup between two stumps. I toss a coin and it bounces from the rim of the cup and he catches it between his teeth. I walk on. Prostitutes of every persuasion line the streets. Their smudged make-up fails to conceal waxy complexions. They leer at passer-bys moving with the spasmodic jerky movements. The live human being had moved out of their bodies years ago. But something moved into the shell when the original tenant moved out, something unwholesome with sinister, desperate motives. The birthday girl had never let herself go. She had people like me in her life. People that kept her strong.
This place is a jungle. I keep on walking heels clicking on the pavement eyes focused towards of. Soi Cowboy across the road ahead. Asoke and the bright neon lights. That small stretch of road when dreams and phantasies are bought and sold. That place where I first met her.
I walk past the bars and to a massage shop on soi 23. And then I see her. Through the window. My heart pounds and my hands become clammy. This is it.
She is in her usual place. She is sitting on the sofa lazily leafing through a comic book. No doubt waiting for the next customer. She has been dealing in sex all her life. That is why I am here. Women that have sex for a living usually have children. That is the sad truth. She looks surprised to see me. I do not know why she should be surprised. It is her birthday today, January 3rd, she must be expecting me. Maybe she has a client. I have the bracelet in the palm of my hand. Not much; just a trinket wrapped in purple wrapping paper. She deserves so much more after all these years. Without her I would not exist.
She is looking old, crows feet have begun to form around her large heavily made up eyes. Her once raven hair has begun to turn grey at the extremities. She wears a simple purple sarong held together loosely by a gold belt. She smiles gently as I approach.
Her smile is warm.
I love her, what can I do but love her.
I walk into the massage parlor. This is her place of work, since she left working in the bars. The masseuses greet me as is custom in this country. They are all pretty and recognize me at once. They all know me well. They should do.
I hand her the gift and speak.
‘Happy birthday mother.’
She has missed her son.
You can see it in her smile.