It happened on a Tuesday; Tuesday July the fourth 1967, a typical wet, windy Manchester summer night. If you’ve ever lived in Manchester, England, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Tuesday was darts night at my local pub, The Lion and the Lamb, in Blackley, a Manchester suburb town. We were playing a team from the Boar’s Head, a pub in Middleton the town adjacent. As the matches always kicked off at 8:00 sharp, my friend Ray and I arranged to meet around 7:30 to enjoy a couple of pints of bitter before the start. I lived close enough to walk to the pub, but he lived a short distance away and so he came on the bus. I got there on time and as usual, ordered two pints at the bar: one for me, one for Ray.
I exchanged pleasantries with a few of the regulars, took a table by a window and got down to the beer while reading the Manchester Evening News paper. I was checking out the property for rent ads in the Classified section by the time I’d finished my pint, and as Ray hadn’t shown up I began to drink his. At eight o’clock, I finished the beer and went into the darts room to play.
As things turned out the Boar’s Head team were a little over confident, so by nine o’clock, the half time break, we’d cruised clearly ahead of them. And by ten o’clock, at full time we had them well beat and we closed out the match comfortably.
They were a lively bunch of lads, and we shared good banter as we downed the customary post game pints. And Christ could those boys drink. Feeling the pace, I slipped away as the bell rang for last orders and double rounds were called. Heading home in the rain, I wondered why Ray hadn’t turned up. I’d last seen him as we went out the works gate and he’d seemed fine and said he’d be there at the pub before he roared off up Victoria Avenue on his motorbike.
Ray didn’t turn up for work the next morning either. Maybe a fight with Betty or a problem with one of the kids, I thought, and told Harry the foreman so when he asked me. Then, at nine o’clock, just at tea break, Harry came over. “Phone call, Phil,” he said. “It’s Ray’s wife.”
I went in the office and picked up the phone. “Hello Betty.”
“So, Ray’s not there at work then.”
“No, he’s not. He didn’t come to the pub last night either. What’s going on, Betty?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He left the house last night after his supper and said he was going to meet you in the pub. It was around seven o’clock.”
“Well, he didn’t arrive,” I said. “What could have happened?”
“I’ve no idea,” she said.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll drop by tonight on the way home.”
“Alright,” she said and hung up.
“So where is the lad?” Harry asked as I replaced the receiver.
“She doesn’t know, Harry.” I shrugged. “It’s strange. I’m going there tonight.”
After work, I rode over to Ray’s place. I parked my motorbike by the house gate and went up the path. The door was open, so I went straight in. Betty was sitting at the table. She looked tired and a little shaken. She poured tea into the cups.
“So, what happened,” I asked.
She shrugged, slightly. “He came home from work,” she said. “He put his motorbike in the shed, washed up and changed his clothes. He sat in that chair you’re in, finished his supper and had a pot of tea and a cigarette. He said he had a dart's game and was meeting you at the pub. “I won’t be too late love,” he said and went out.
I drank some tea. “Did you call the police?”
“I did this morning. But they have no accident reports. In any case, he carried things like his driving license and that with him. If he’d had an accident, they’d know who he was and have his address.”
“It’s bloody strange. Maybe he’s got a problem: something on his mind. Give it a few days, Betty.”
“What else can I do,” she said and tried to smile.
“I’ll get Jean to come over.”
“I’d like that, Phil.”
“Don’t worry too much, love,” I said as I got up to leave. “He’ll show up.”
“I hope so,” Betty said.
But Ray didn’t show up. The weekend came and went and another week began. And though we couldn’t have known it at the time, none of us, his family, his friends and workmates would ever see Ray Unsworth again.
Ray and I were best mates. We met as fifteen year old indentured tool-room apprentices at the Avro Aircraft Company in Manchester, and we hit it off from the start. By the time we reached eighteen, there was a whole gang of us, around ten guys: Avro apprentices all. But me and Ray were the core, the gang founders, the leaders.
And, as we were all motor bike fanatics, the highlight of the year was when we went over to the Isle of Man at the end of May for two weeks for the annual Tourist Trophy motor cycle races; the TT’s on the island’s famous Mountain Circuit. There, we got to watch such great riders as Geoff Duke, Bob McIntyre and John Surtees, and later, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini riding like hell on their Manx Nortons, Gileras and MV Agustas. And when we could afford bikes of our own, we took them with us on the ferry from Liverpool.
And on “Mad Sunday” when the race organizers opened the circuit to allow anyone who wished to ride the mountain part of the course from Ramsey to Douglas, we’d hop on our bikes and go for it; go balls out as the rude saying went. And did we ever. One year, I lost control and came off my Bonneville at Bray Hill; I actually went airborne and, since I was wearing good leathers, was lucky to get away with a sore arse and few cuts and bruises.
We always stayed in Douglas, the island capital, where all the action was, and always at the same guest house, a bed and breakfast place called The Manxman. They liked us they did, the couple that ran it, even though we were a rowdy lot who used to come in late and invariably pissed. They always reserved rooms for us lads.
Douglas had some really great pubs, so after the day’s racing we’d hit them and pursue the other two reasons to be there: boozing and girl chasing. And it was in a pub called The Bridge Inn one night that we saw two terrific girls. Two blondes they were, throwing darts both dressed in tight jeans and sweaters and in great shape, showing off their figures. Of course we hit them up. They were Preston girls, best friends called Jean and Betty. The next day, we took them out on our bikes to the good vantage points to watch the racing. And at night they joined us for the drinking. Naturally, we tried to get them into bed, but, as good girls did in those days, they said no; they weren’t having any of that. Nevertheless, we made arrangements to see them again when we got home. And we did and started courting them steady.
Traditionally, at twenty one years of age we apprentices came out of our indentured time and were considered fully skilled toolmakers. And, of course, we got placed on full pay. It was at this time I asked Jean to marry me, she accepted and we did, setting up our home in a small council house in Prestwich town. And not long after, she became pregnant with my first son David. Shortly after, Ray did the same with Betty, but then he knocked her up and had to rush things a bit.
Things settled down then, into what’s commonly called the daily grind; the deadly monotonous trap that captures most people and only releases them in order to let them die. At twenty six I had two sons and Ray had two sons and a daughter. We didn’t go to the Isle of Man anymore. We watched the bike races on television, if that, and the old gang more or less drifted apart. The most we did was getting together from time to time for a sort of memorial booze up, and that got less and less. But, as Ray and I worked shoulder to shoulder, his work bench was next to mine, we stayed close mates. And every Friday after work we’d down a few pints at the Horse and Farrier, a Chester’s House close to the factory gates. And we’d usually meet up again after supper in the Royal Oak for a night session. But, basically, I was unhappy. I wanted out of the rat race. And so did Ray.
The biggest spur to change my life around was when my dad retired at sixty five. They had a little party for him at his work bench. It was around 3:00pm on a Friday, his last day. His workmates brought a cake and paper plates and some orange juice; no alcohol of course. The works manager came down with the company photographer. He thanked dad for his fifty years of dedicated service, handed him a nice watch and shook his hand to a round of applause. And that was it. Watching it, I could see it happening to me in another forty years and it made me sick to my stomach. I wanted no part of that crap. I wanted my own work-shop, a tool and die shop, my own business. I wanted to be my own boss and make good money. And each year I became more determined. I asked Ray to join me.
What Ray really dreamed of was having his own pub; a free house, something like our favorite, the Ram’s Head in Denshaw, up on the high moors, selling good beer like Theakston’s. Though Ray had the perfect personality for such a thing, the money required to do it put it permanently in dream territory in my view, and I told him that. But, I reminded him, if we made good money as engineering sub-contractors, he might have a chance to do it after a few years. He saw the sense of it and agreed and tossed his hat in and we started looking for premises and some good used machine tools. We were busy looking when Ray vanished.
But, despite his disappearance, I pressed on alone and two weeks later I found the perfect spot in an old mill near Middleton. The property was Victorian, solidly built and in great shape, in a good location and the rent was reasonable. I presented a business plan to my bank manager and got a nice line of credit. I bought some well used but serviceable machine tools and work benches at a bankruptcy auction house, put them in, and went hustling for work.
Since I’d quit Avro’s, in the nicest possible way, my first work came from them, as promised by my old boss, Harry. I got four press tools, six jigs and five fixtures to build and a deadline to do it in. I pulled my dad out of the boredom of retirement, put him to work and paid him under the table which pleased him no end. I also hired another toolmaker, and we got down to it.
We completed the work on time, and I shipped the batch into Avro’s, professionally packaged and properly invoiced. The Avro inspectors passed the tools off and were full of praise, and so more work came our way.
I have to admit I was lucky. The times were booming, and soon I was inundated with work. I put in long hours, but it paid off. Jean helped by keeping the bookkeeping side neat tidy and proper. Within a year, I had eight guys working for me. And shortly after, Jean and I moved out of that council house and into a fine detached place on the outskirts of Middleton.
I rented bigger work premises in the same mill and expanded into the field of machining parts for other companies and then into manufacturing. In five years, I had over thirty five employees in two limited companies: Wells Engineering and Wells Tool and Die. By my fortieth birthday, I had over sixty employees under three managers. I had diversified into many areas, especially the lucrative plastics industry. My two boys, David and Peter, with my encouragement, were pursuing university degrees relevant to coming into the business and taking over after me; David in engineering and Peter in business administration studies.
I began taking over smaller companies that were in financial trouble, appointed good managers and expanded that way. I formed The Wells Group, a holding company, and placed all the companies under its umbrella. Everything was working out better than I’d planned it.
On turning forty six, I brought the boys in. They’d worked in the shops before and knew the setup, but now it was full immersion time; time to prepare them to take over from the old man. I eased up and began to plan early retirement so that Jean and I could travel and enjoy the fruits of all the hard work and effort: I wanted full retirement by fifty.
For the first time in years, we went back to the Isle of Man to watch the TTs. It was as great as ever, though it had changed a lot; The old bikes were history. It was all Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, Japanese hardware and knee down cornering now. And by God were they fast. We stayed at The Manxman for nostalgia’s sake and went for drinks to The Bridge Inn where Ray and I had met Jean and Betty.
Not long after, in Lytham one day, we found the dream house I’d always wanted. Made of stone, it sat on a small peninsula, a promontory, jutting into the Irish Sea. On five acres, it had eight bedrooms a fabulous living room, library and spacious great room for parties and entertainment and other rooms to be used for the home gym I fancied and maybe a sauna or whatever. The kitchen would have supported a battalion of Irish Guards. There was also a basement in which I planned to make into a billiard's room and a wine cellar. The place had been empty for some time, the roof was broken up, and it was in a state of dire neglect. It needed serious money pouring into it, something I had in abundance.
Some would call it a folly, but it was right up my street. I hired a top flight renovating firm and put them to work. It took them the better part of six months, but what a job they did. Jean and I were over the moon and on the point of moving in when tragedy struck. Jean had been having pain for some time and feeling sick, and now the diagnoses was the worst. She’d contracted ovarian cancer; the most deadly kind for a woman.
As ovarian cancer kills over 50% of the women it attacks we threw everything into the fight. We went to Christie’s, the internationally renowned Manchester hospital and consulted the best specialists known. But it was to no avail in the end and Jean passed away at home five months later, me and the boys beside her. I was completely devastated.
Alone now, plans shattered, I moved into the new house. I hit the bottle for a time before I pulled myself together, joined a health club and went on a vegetarian diet. I took up golf again and got myself a good coach. I bought a new motorcycle, a Triumph Speed Triple, and began riding again.
It was around this time that Britain went into an economic downturn. Engineering, as usual, took the brunt of it. Aerospace was especially affected. And, as we were deeply involved in aerospace, The Wells Group took a big hit. The boys sensibly retrenched. They had to layoff many workers which was unpleasant, but unavoidable. But then they decided to sell off the tool company, Wells Tool and Die. At this, I baulked. The tool company was the first one I’d started with; it was in my view the cornerstone of the whole thing, the goose that had laid the golden eggs by providing the capital that made all the rest possible. And it was the tool company that made the dies and injection molds for the lucrative plastics division. It was suffering from the downturn, yes, but in my view, it would recover in time. Allan and Peter opposed me. They argued they could get the tools done outside cheaper. It was two to one, and they went ahead against my opposition. I washed my hands of it and we stopped speaking for some time, but made a kind of peace over Christmas. Then, after a long appraisal of things, I called a meeting and told the boys I wanted out of the company. I wanted them to buy me out. To my surprise they accepted, a little eagerly I thought which further annoyed me. And so they did. I walked away from the company I’d founded and built. The Wells Group was theirs now to manage how they saw fit.
Not long after, I took a long trip to America and Canada, something I’d long put off. I finalized the odyssey by crossing Canada coast to coast by train, a fabulous experience.
I’d been back from Canada a week and was enjoying an afternoon glass of wine in the garden of my house when my telephone rang. It was Betty Unsworth. “Hello, Betty,” I said. “This is a surprise. How are you love?”
”I’m not too bad, Phil.” she said. “Are you busy?”
“Never busy. I have nothing but time. I am retired you know.”
“Could you come over? I’ve something to tell you. It’s about Ray.”
I immediately came alert, sat up and looked at my watch: 4:10 in the afternoon. “You want me to come now?”
“If it’s no bother. No, no it’s a long way; maybe tomorrow?”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m on my way. It’ll take me an hour; maybe less.”
“Thanks, Phil,” she said.
I drained my glass. I put on a jacket and went out to my car, an Aston Martin Vantage. I drove fast toward Manchester.
As it turned out the traffic on the motorway was moderate and it took me an hour and ten before I turned into Boothroyden Road.
Betty’s old house seemed cramped after my mansion; her living room was smaller than my kitchen pantry. Still, it was warm, comfortable and well looked after. She made tea and a placed a tray of digestive biscuits in front of me. She sat down and looked at me. “Ray’s been found,” she said.
I returned her gaze but didn’t comment, but my heart beat accelerated
“The police came today,” she went on. “A young policeman with a young woman constable; Ray died the day before yesterday,” she said.
“Oh,” I said and felt a terrible pang.
“He died in a guesthouse,” she put on her reading glasses, reading from a small note. “In Chiang Mai, Thailand.”
I put down my cup. “Christ,” I said. It was all I could manage. I took the note from her hand.
9/1 Soi 4, Phrapokklao, Muang,
CHIANG MAI 50200 – THAILAND
I shook my head and drank some tea.
“Phil, I’m sorry to bring you down from Lytham. I could have told you all this over the phone, but….”
“No,” I said. “You did right. Christ,” I said again and shook my head. I then made a rare snap decision. “Betty, I’m going out there.”
She sat up. “What, to Thailand?”
I nodded. “Yes. I’ve got nothing to do. I’m as free as a bird. And Ray was my best friend, he was my mate. It’s the least I could do. But fancy him dying in a bloody room in a guesthouse, miles from home.” I shook my head and smiled. “Who knows, maybe I’ll bring him home.” I took out my cell-phone and called my travel agent. Betty watched me, but said nothing. The line opened. “Good Evening. Sun Travel, Jesse speaking.”
“Jesse, it’s Phil Wells.”
“Yes, Phil, how may I help you.”
“I need a ticket to Chiang Mai, Thailand. First class, return open.”
“Immediately; as soon as you can. Tomorrow? Can you do it?”
“I’ll call you back.”
“Thank you, Jesse.” I closed the phone.
Betty smiled. “You’re really going?”
“Oh yes I am. Maybe I can get to the bottom of it all. Were you shocked when you heard from the cops?”
She nodded. “I was. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. The first thing I did was have a mass said for him at Saint Clare’s. I went over and saw Father Brennan. He’s such a fine priest.”
“That was a nice thing to do. Have you told anyone else: the kids?”
“Don’t. Best not to. Do nothing till you hear from me.”
“I’m sure Ray would……” My phone rang; it was Jesse.
“Phil. There’s a first class seat available on Emirates tomorrow morning. Manchester-Abu Dhabi-Bangkok. I’ll have no problem getting you on a domestic flight up to Chiang Mai; first class all the way. The Emirates flight leaves Manchester at 9:45am. Should I book it?”
“Of course. That’s wonderful, Jesse. Book it to my card. You have the details.”
“Yes, I do. What about accommodation?”
“I’ll handle that.”
“Fine. The e-ticket will be in your mailbox inside an hour.”
“Great, Jesse.” I closed the line and pocketed the phone and looked at Betty. “I leave tomorrow morning.”
She shook her head, the faintest of smiles on her face. “I can’t believe this.”
I smiled. “Thirty seven years and not a word; now this. I’ll go and do what I can to sort it all out.” I finished my tea and got up. “I better head home pack and try and get some sleep I’ll be in touch, Betty.” I kissed her cheek and went out to the car.
As this would be my first trip to South East Asia and knowing little of Thailand, I picked up a guidebook in the airport to read on the flight to Abu Dhabi. Chiang Mai seemed an interesting place, and I looked forward to seeing it.
As I found long haul flights fatiguing, I downed a double whisky and took a sleeping pill for the long Abu Dhabi – Bangkok leg of the journey and it worked; I arrived in Thailand fresh and sharp. I cleared immigration and flew Thai Air domestic on to Chiang Mai.
It was a brilliant, sunny morning with a light blue sky and hot, around 28 degrees, a pleasant contrast to the 14 degrees, grey skies and misty drizzle I’d left in Manchester. I hailed a taxi and gave the driver a paper with the guesthouse address on it and we headed into town.
After passing through the city center and its traffic, we entered a series of narrow lanes and stopped outside a wide, white painted gate. “Wan’s Guesthouse,” the driver smiled at me and pointed to the small sign that hung outside the gate. I returned his smile, paid him and got out with my bag.
The wide gate was for car access, a smaller gate stood at the end, and I passed through that. I was in a garden of trees and heavy dark green foliage. Four cars were parked on the left, and the guesthouse buildings stood behind and above the vegetation. I followed a path inside to a small reception area. A wooden bladed fan spun overhead creating a pleasant draught. An attractive young woman sat behind the desk watching a television movie. She rose and smiled as I approached. “Good Morning,” she said in good English with a slight accent. “You’d like a room?”
“I suppose,” I returned her smile. “I’ll need a bed for tonight.”
She checked the wall where the keys hung. “For tonight we have only two single rooms left. One air conditioned, one fan cooled.”
“Fan cooled will be fine,” I said, disliking air. She handed me a small form which I filled in. “Maybe you can help me,” I said and leaned on the counter. “I’ve just arrived from England. I’m a friend of a man named Ray. Ray Unsworth, I……” The effect was palpable. Her eyes widened and she looked at the form I’d filled and back at me. “A moment, please,” she murmured and went through a door. I heard her calling in Thai. She returned with an older woman, also attractive, in her mid forties I estimated. “You are Phil the friend of Ray?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said, surprised.
“He spoke often of you. Ray died two days ago,” she said.
“Yes, I know. I….I’m so very sorry.”
“I am Wan. I am his wife,” she said.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said, more than a little shocked.
“He said you would come,” she smiled warmly. She came around from the desk indicating I follow her. He said I would come.
We went out, turned right and entered a courtyard area, partly covered and filled with tables and chairs; a restaurant. At one end was the kitchen and service area; at the other was a pub style bar with the name: The Red Lion, emblazoned across. A few couples and singles were enjoying breakfast at the tables. Wan led me to the bar, pointed to a stool for me to take, and went behind the counter. I sat down and took it all in. The bar was sturdy and well made of good timber. Six British beer engines with ivory white porcelain handles with red lions rampant on them stood prominently erect over polished brass and oak boxes. Wan gave me a smile, took a glass, a British pint glass and commenced to pull the beer. I watched her do it, and she did it well, working the handle expertly. She put the glass before me. “That is from Ray,” she said. She laughed at my stunned expression.
I reached for the beer, licked the foamy head and took a pull. The beer’s flavor was nutty, and malty with a tangy, slightly acerbic after taste on the palate; it was delightful and I finished it in four pulls. The head, a rich froth that clung to the glass, reminded me of the Brussels lace of the Trapiste beers of Belgium.
“Did you like that?” she asked.
“Very much,” I said
She refilled the glass. “Ray made it. It’s called: Ray’s Manchester Bitter.”
I wanted to ask where Ray was: his body that is, but decided to wait.
“Phil, I shall return, in a few minutes,” Wan said. She handed me a paper menu carrying the list of Ray’s home brewed beer as she slipped away. She’s being discreet, I felt, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I read the list: there were six beers named, with their strength and taste qualities described, along with the kind of food that went best with them. I was impressed. I looked about me. The bar shelves were stacked with liquor bottles and glasses. Refrigerators carried a variety of foreign and domestic beers. A large photograph at the back of the bar showed Ray grinning as he pulled a pint. So, Ray had not died alone and penniless in some seedy backstreet guesthouse as I had imagined; not a bit of it. He’d always wanted a pub and he’d finally got one. And I was sitting in it.
Wan returned with two young ladies, in their twenties I guessed. The younger one was the girl who had booked me in. “Phil,” Wan indicated the girls. “These are my daughters. This one is Tuk and this is Chan.” The girls placed their palms together, bowed slightly and made the wai gesture I’d read about in the travel book. I stood and did the same. “I’m pleased to meet you,” I said with a smile.
“Thank you,” they said in unison, smiled and turned back the way they had come.
I sat down again and Wan came back behind the bar. “I also have a son, but he is at university. He will be here tomorrow for the funeral. Would you like to visit Ray?”
“Yes, I would,” I said. I finished my beer and followed Wan toward the gate. She led me to the next gate down the lane, and we went inside. And there he was.
Ray’s coffin, a light brown varnished box on short squat legs, sat on top of a wheeled trolley. My eyes rose up to take in the structure that rose above the box. Made of wood and colored paper, it had the shape of a building, with high pitched, curving roof lines and gables. I realized it was a representation of a Buddhist temple. A photograph of Ray was on the coffin side with his date of birth and death in Thai script, but the years were in English:
1940 – 2005
A white board on an easel stood to the left carrying many photographs of Ray. With Wan, I walked over to see them. They were everyday photographs of a man with his family, his wife and growing children, in the home, camping, on boats and beaches. On all the pictures, Ray sported a smile or a grin: he looked very happy.
Wan took two incense sticks from a bowl nearby and lit them. I did the same and followed her. We stood before the coffin and she held the sticks forward in her hands, bowed her head and prayed Buddhist prayers. I copied her, but being a Catholic, though a lapsed one, I recited the Lord’s Prayer, quietly to myself.
“This is our home,” Wan indicated a two storey wooden building behind the coffin. “Ray bought three old teak houses and brought them here and put them together. I will show you later. Tonight we have Buddhist service and prayers. Tomorrow we cremate Ray at the temple.”
“Was Ray Buddhist?” I asked.
“No,” Wan laughed. “He was Christian; a Catholic.”
I smiled. “Yes, I know that. I just thought maybe he’d changed and converted to Buddhism.”
She shook her head. “No. But I want to do Buddhist service for him.”
“Tell me,” I asked. “What did Ray die of?”
“He have heart attack; a big attack. But he lived one day. I called the priest, the priest come and gave him the Christian prayers and sacrament.” She touched my arm. “We are late. The service was to be yesterday and the cremation today, but we waited.”
“Oh,” I said. “Waited, for what?”
She gave me a surprised smile. “We waited for you. We knew you would come. Ray said you would.”
Wan offered me a room in the house, but I took the room in the guesthouse. It was small, humble, simply furnished and totally delightful.
I attended the Buddhist service for Ray. It was over my head with monks gathered on a dais, lots of praying and chanting and burning incense. Many people attended, mostly Thai, but with a fair bunch of foreigners many of whom were Brits, two from Manchester. After the ceremony several of them headed for Ray’s pub and, of course, I joined them.
The Brit boys were much younger than me. They were ex-pats with Thai wives, not tourists. They lived here and knew Ray from his Chiang Mai time. I explained I was Ray’s boyhood friend and best mate. I entertained them with tales of our youth, the trips on bikes to the Isle of Man, drinking and skirt chasing. Luckily, I’d brought along some photos of us from those years and I went up to my room and brought them down. It was a terrific night, well lubricated by Ray’s home brew beers. I didn’t mention Betty or the three kids he’d left her with. I also made out that we’d always been in touch and that helped.
One chap, Will from Salford, reminisced and disclosed a great deal for me. “As you no doubt know, Phil. Ray made his money in Australia and New Zealand in that mining work he got involved in. And then he went on to Southern Africa and did well there.”
I didn’t know, of course, but I implied I did. “Yes, he wrote me often,” I said. “He wanted me to join him on some of those projects, but I was tied up with a wife and kids and my own business.”
“That’s too bad. But coming to Thailand and meeting Wan was his smartest move. Setting up his pub with hand crafted beer was his dream and ….. well, it’s a pity he’s gone. He was such a character.”
“Yes, he was. And his beer is incredible,” I said. “But who will brew it now?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that; Wan does it. She learned all about it from him, but she’s turned out to be a better brew-master than he was. A couple of these beers are hers. The India Pale Ale is hers.”
As the funeral was early in the morning, we parted company a little after 10:00pm and I went up to bed. After a long cool shower in the tiny shower stall, I opened the wooden windows and closed the mosquito screens so I could get a good, insect free, night breeze. I turned on the ceiling fan. And as a further precaution against night invaders, I dropped the white muslin mosquito net over the bed, a bamboo cot really, and got in. I lay back against the pillow and caught the pleasant smell of incense burning.
Though I was tired, the revelations of the day kept me awake. In their ignorance, everyone praised Ray as a super achiever, a man who had taken life by the scruff of the neck, left England to make his fortune and done things his way. I could imagine the nights at the bar, Ray presiding, telling stories of his adventures and all the guys listening and taking it in. Ray was their hero: a great guy. And maybe he was by their lights. But it disturbed me. I couldn’t help thinking about Betty in Manchester, waiting for him with her children: Allan, John and Hilda in that little council house on Boothroyden Road in Blackley. He’d left them without a word never to see them again.
There were of course the anonymous payments deposited into Betty’s bank account every six months that redeemed him somewhat. They’d arrived like clockwork ever since he’d left; and it had to be him. Betty needed the money, but the payments buoyed her hopes that one day he would return home; something he never intended to do. But he’s gone now and the reasons he did the things he did have gone with him; it’s not for me to judge him. And he was, after all, my closest friend. I drifted into sleep.
I estimated that around three hundred people sat down to Ray’s funeral breakfast. I sat with the family: Wan, her daughters and son and her two sisters, Pron and Tika. The food was superb and much of it. And the general mood, unlike a western funeral, was far from sad, almost happy and joyful.
After the breakfast, Ray’s bier was rolled through the gate and into the lane and we all filed out. Then, with Ray’s family and me in the lead, the bier was slowly pulled with long ropes along the lane. From somewhere behind music began playing. I looked back to find it came from a Toyota pick-up truck that carried speakers on its back stationed behind the bier. They were playing Acker Bilk’s old hit, Stranger on the Shore. More people joined and followed behind. When we reached the main road, two policemen stopped the traffic allowing us to turn onto the road. The music changed to Climb Every Mountain, Julie Andrews singing. From time to time I paused, released my hand from the rope and took photographs. As the cortege moved slowly down the main road more people joined the column of mourners, others simply lined the road and showed their respect. The music switched now to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches played loud and clear. I have never been so moved in my life before or since. The atmosphere was dramatic and profoundly beautiful. Did Ray arrange all this, I asked myself? He surely must have.
After a good kilometer, we turned and passed through the gates of a temple. Chairs for the many mourners had been set around what was obviously the crematorium. After we had taken our seats, several men removed the structure above the casket and carried the coffin up the stairs to the stone, alter like, receptacle and placed it in. There, they took off the lid and began removing the ice bags used to cool the corpse. Wan tapped my hand and stood up. And led by her and her family, I mounted the steps to see the man who had been my closest friend, the man I hadn’t seen in thirty seven years.
It was Ray alright. He was dressed in a white long sleeved shirt, open at the neck. He wore well washed blue jeans, a broad, brass buckled leather belt and soft, brown leather, loafers with no socks. His face was as I had always known it. He looked younger than I had imagined he would, but carried a sad and puzzled expression as if the reaper had taken him by surprise and he didn’t want to go. His hair was full and thick, cut short as always, but grey and white now. His hands had been placed together over his abdomen. There was no lining in the coffin: it was just a wooden shell. I raised my camera and began taking photographs. I reached in and squeezed his hands and then I moved away to allow others to pass by him. I became aware of the smell of diesel fuel and could see wood and the black curve of an automotive tire beneath the coffin. I watched a monk, in an act of Buddhist symbolism, pour water from a coconut over Ray’s face. Then, after a final look at my old friend, I went back down to my seat.
The coffin lid was replaced, the temple superstructure re-erected above it and the pyrotechnic boys moved in to set the stage for the final act of cremation. I couldn’t really make out what they did, but the results were dramatic.
A low whistling noise cut the air and everyone stood. A small device raced along a wire toward the coffin and its edifice detonating a series of fireworks and colored smoke. Everything above the coffin burst into flames. And then, from beneath, a muffled boom as the main fire was ignited and a cloud of black smoke arose. I sat down to watch as the flames beneath the coffin came up with a dull roar, strong and fierce. I felt the heat as I took my final photographs.
People began walking away then. Wan took my hand and led me toward the gate. I turned for one last look at the pyre as we turned onto the road.
The next morning, after breakfast, Wan took me aside. She showed me a round bamboo container. “Ray,” she said, simply. She had woken early, gone to the temple and, assisted by a monk, retrieved Ray’s ashes. “Today, this morning, I will bury Ray. Would you like to come?”
“Of course I’ll come.”
“We should go now,” she said.
I agreed, and we took a taxi a few kilometers to a small cemetery. “This is an old farang burial ground,” she whispered as we passed through the gates. A security guard waied us with a polite smile.
We walked slowly, and I paused before some of the tombstones to read the inscriptions. Most were old, many from the 19th and early 20th centuries; it was the last resting place of Europeans who had lived in Chiang Mai and had ended their days here. It was a beautiful, well tended and peaceful place.
Ray’s tombstone was already in situ. It sat in shade beneath the boughs of a tree. The inscription was simple:
Raymond “Ray” Unsworth
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wan opened the small bag she had carried and handed me a trowel. I knelt down and dug a round hole in the soil deep enough to hold the urn. Wan knelt beside me and we place him in together. I filled in the hole and covered him. “Tomorrow I’ll bring flowers,” Wan said. She took out incense sticks, handed me two, lit them held hers toward the tombstone and prayed for Ray in Thai. I did the same, and again recited the Lord’s Prayer.
I spent three more weeks in Chiang Mai, staying at Ray’s place and getting to know the town. I rented a car, and Tika escorted me to many places. Tika, a widow with a two daughters, worked at a health spa as a masseuse. She’d studied massage at Wat Pho, the Buddhist Temple in Bangkok, considered to be the finest of Thai massage schools. Her desire, her ambition she told me, was to one day open her own spa. At thirty seven she was athletic and fit. She had a superb figure and a very lovely face. I found her increasingly attractive; disturbingly so as I believed that at sixty five I was far too old a man to entertain thoughts of sexual desire with a woman younger than my sons.
Two days before I left, Wan handed me a wooden box that had belonged to Ray. “Ray wanted you to have this,” she said. The box was locked and without a key. I took it up to my room and using a knife, broke the lock.
The contents were letters and photographs from Ray’s past. One letter, sealed, was addressed to Betty. There were many photos of Ray and Betty with me and Jean when we were young. There was a picture that I’d taken at the TT races and forgotten about. Monochrome, it showed Ray standing in the pits next to John Surtees sitting astride his Senior TT winning MV Agusta, both Ray and Surtees grinning like old pals.
At the bottom of the box were his passports; four of them covering forty years and a ring with two keys: his house latchkey and the ignition key for his motorbike. I took a notebook from my pack and took the passports down to the bar. The passports were heavily franked with visas and work permits and using them I began to track Ray’s movements since that fateful Tuesday night so long ago.
The night before I left, Wan held a small party for me. Tika gave me a distinctive jacket, handmade by the Hmong northern hill tribe people. It was beautiful, loose fitting and very comfortable.
Wan and Tika took me to the airport. At the gate, they made me promise to return, and I did. And then Tika began to cry. I was taken aback. I wiped her eyes with a tissue, squeezed her hand and with a final wave, went through to the departure lounge on my way home.
While in Chiang Mai, I’d decided to tell Betty only what she needed to know, and nothing that might wound and hurt her. I would lie about everything; the guesthouse, the Red Lion Pub, the dramatic funeral and certainly about Wan and the three children she’d borne him. I’d even decided to tell her that I’d buried him and paid for everything. But reviewing it on the flight home it sounded so crass and fake and I decided I’d tell her the truth, censoring nothing, pulling no punches and allow her to come to her own terms with it all. I would have been easy to lie, but it would have been unfair and wrong. Betty would get the unvarnished truth. Three days after getting home, I phoned her, told her I was coming up, and headed out toward Manchester.
It was a wet, windy and cold day with poor visibility and the traffic was heavy, but cocooned in the Aston Martin I felt warm and relaxed and, using its immense power, I was able to cut a smooth path through the traffic and arrived at Betty’s home in a little over an hour. We opened a bottle of Amontillado Sherry I’d picked up in Bangkok Airport. I gave Betty the letter he’d wrote to her and the full contents of the box Wan had handed me. I gave her the keys and his passports separately and described for her my theory of Ray’s travels through Australia and New Zealand and his sojourn in Southern Africa before settling down in Thailand. Supported by the many photographs I’d taken, I gave her a full account of my experiences. She was especially enthralled by my description of Ray’s funeral, and lingered long over the photographs of Ray in his coffin. “He didn’t change much,” she commented.
I didn’t mention Wan and may not have done so had Betty not suddenly cornered me on it. “Was there a woman in his life?” she asked, sipping her sherry with a hint of a smile. “A Thai woman?”
I nodded. “Yes, there was. Her name is Wan, and it’s for her that the guesthouse is named.”
She took it well, her smile spreading. “Children?”
“Yes, two girls and a son.” I showed her my photographs of Wan and her children. It was done; she knew it all now.
We finished the sherry and I said my goodbyes. I hugged her and kissed her cheek and she waved me off from the doorstep. I never saw her again.
Two months after my return from Thailand, Betty died. She hadn’t answered her son, Allan’s daily phone call, so he’d dropped by and let himself in. He’d found her in her chair in the front parlor, sitting by the window with a bottle of sherry, a glass and a box of photographs. She’d passed peacefully away. In her hand she held the keys I’d given her and a monochrome photograph of her and Ray on his Triumph Bonneville taken on the moors above Glossop, Derbyshire. I remember the snap well as it was I who took it. It had been a chilly Easter Sunday morning and the four of us; Ray, Betty and Jean and I were riding up to have lunch and a few drinks at a pub on the high moorland.
Allan told me his mother had never given up believing that his dad would one day come back home. She’d once dreamed that he’d come up the road, passed through the gate at the bottom of the garden, put his latch key in and come into the house with a smile. She believed it was an omen and took to spending her afternoons in the parlor, looking out toward the gate, sipping her sherry, waiting, with her photographs and her memories.
It rained the day of her funeral. Along with my son David and Ray’s sons, Allan and John, we bore Betty’s coffin into St. Clare’s Church. It was a small, humble service with her family and a few parishioners attending. Sitting there listening to Father Brennan’s gentle eulogy, I couldn’t help but recall the irony of Ray’s splendid, almost triumphal, sendoff in Chiang Mai.
Betty was interred in the local cemetery beside to her parents alone in a grave intended for two. Allan had had a stone cut and already in place. It read:
In Loving Memory
Elizabeth (Betty) Unsworth
A Loving Wife And Mother
Feb 17th 1943
September 9th 2005
Blessed Are The Pure In Heart
For They Shall See God
I dropped David off at his home and headed back to Lytham through a storm with a heavy heart.
Back in the house, I put on a windbreaker and a scarf, cap and gloves, braving the wild weather, went down the stone path to the solarium above the wild garden with a bottle of Glenmorangie Malt whisky, some iced water and box of Cuban Cohibas. I turned on the electric heaters, poured a drink and lit a cigar. Beyond the promontory the sea was a seething mass of white capped waves, as wild as I’ve ever seen it with not a single vessel to be seen. Normally it would thrill me to watch nature have her way and I tried to enjoy the view. But my mind was elsewhere. They were all gone now I realized: Jean, Ray and now Betty. I was the last man standing. I crushed out the cigar and went out.
I went over to the garages. There are two; one for the Aston Martin and the other for my motorbikes. I opened the bike’s door and faced my four main bikes: the Triumph Speed Triple, the Honda Fireblade, the fabulous, but testy, Ducati Paginale and the loud and tempestuous MV Agusta Brutale. But I walked past them and over to the two old Triumph Bonneville’s that stood on their stands: Ray’s red one and my black and grey. I put down the whisky, fiddled with the carburetors and kick started both bikes. I turned on a fan to blow out the exhaust fumes and sat astride my bike, drank the whisky, revved the motors of both and listened to the 650 twins pulsing and let my mind drift back to the old years, riding up on Sundays with the girls in the cold wind to the pubs on the high moorland. I recalled a long trip we’d once made to the Scottish Highlands, through the dark somber Glencoe and on up to Aviemoor.
A few days later, in an attempt to break out of the sense of sadness I felt, I took the Eurostar for Paris and Brussels and spent a fortnight taking in places I’d not seen before. I met many interesting people and enjoyed myself. But I got back to a surprise. My entire kitchen furniture had been rearranged and some of my living room furniture reorganized. I called Annie my housekeeper into the kitchen and had her make tea and asked her what happened.
“It’s not me, Phil,” she said. “It is your daughter in law, Alice.”
“Yes. She said it was better and more convenient.”
“Did she now?” I couldn’t help smiling. “Convenient for her, she means. So, my son was here while I was away?”
“You let him in?”
Annie shook her head. “He has a key. But even so, I could hardly refuse him. He is your son.”
“Yes,” I said. It all fitted in now. Peter had been coming to visit more regularly during the past year. He’d been arriving without a phone call and often bringing his three rowdy kids. He’d also got around to suggesting the place was too big for me and that perhaps I should get a condo in town, nearer to the “amenities.”
“Such as doctors, hospitals, you mean; para-medics, emergency units, respiratory stuff, oxygen and such?” I’d replied, testily.
He’d laughed it off. “Dad, don’t be like that. But you have to think of certain things at your age.”
“Oh, really,” I’d said. “I suppose to you in your early forties, a man in his sixties is an old has been, ready for the fucking rocking chair and then the bone yard. Well, let me tell you that the man who wears the sixties shoes may feel differently about such things. My father made eighty two. His father made ninety four. I have lots of time left.”
I explained to him that I had all the help I could possibly need; Annie my housekeeper and main cook, Jane and Phyllis my cleaners and George and Harry my gardeners plus other temporary help if required. I didn’t need to lift a finger.
I started getting the idea he wanted me out so he could move in. It was Alice that was driving him, of course. I had never really cared for Alice.
I told Annie to place the furniture as it was before. I then called in a locksmith and had the entire entrance door locks changed including the main gate. I gave Annie a set of the new keys and instructions that no one was to enter in my absence. “Even Peter,” she looked disconcerted.
“Especially Peter. No exceptions without my permission.” My son had seriously annoyed me. And I still burned when I thought of the tool company selloff. It angered me that the boys had gone against my most fervent wishes and advice and did that. It had effectively driven me out of the firm I’d founded.
I was in my sixty sixth year. On the face of it, I had been successful and achieved all the things I’d set out to do. I had everything I wanted and had money to burn. But I was not happy; something was missing. For one thing, I felt lonely. I concluded it would be great to get away for a while; seriously get away. Thailand had had a strange effect on me, and I wanted to go back and see more of it and maybe some other areas of South East Asia. I also thought about Tika, Wan’s lovely sister and the feelings she’d aroused in me. Life is short, Phil, I told myself. I began making plans.
The following day I walked into Lytham for lunch at the Lytham Arms pub and had a few pints of bitter to go along with it. Passing a bookstore, I stopped and went in. In the Travel section, I picked up the guide: South East Asia on a Shoestring along with a few other guides on Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Back at the house, I went down to the basement where I had a stone fireplace. I set up a fine fire of ash logs I’d had delivered from a friend with a farm in the English Lake District. I then selected a bottle of Amontillado sherry of good vintage from the wine cellar and sat by the fire. I poured a glass and watched the flames work on the dry wood and got into the travel books.
A week later I was ready. I’d read somewhere that one should: go simple, go solo, go now. I decided it was good advice. I’d go light with just a backpack, taking as little as possible. From the Thai Consulate in Liverpool, I obtained a multiple entry visa, good for a year. And Jesse, my old and reliable travel agent, fixed me another ticket with Emirates. Finally, I arranged standing orders with my bankers to pay all bills relating to the house and the salaries of my small staff. Then, the day before leaving, I held a barbeque in my garden for the house staff, complete with vintage wines. I didn’t bother informing my sons of my intentions; they’d find out soon enough. I got a kick out of imagining the faces on Peter and Alice when they found the gates locked and permission to enter refused.
Wan and Tika met me at Chiang Mai Airport and took me back to Wan’s Guesthouse. I took my old room, and things were fine, but I really wanted my own place and the privacy it would bring. After a week of Wan’s hospitality, I went looking and found a lovely house for rent on a quiet lane five minutes from the guesthouse. With three bedrooms, it came furnished, had a big well treed yard and with lots of vegetation including bougainvillea and frangipani. It smelt delightful, was quiet, and the rent was cheap. I took it for a year with an option for more and moved in. And within a week, Tika, deciding it was “not good” for a man to live alone and uncared for, had moved in, to cook, clean and share my bed, with no protestations from me.
After a month, I bought a Toyota all wheel drive truck and took Tika and her daughters on a month’s tour of Thailand, staying in simple guesthouse accommodation. It was a wonderful trip that convinced me I’d made a good decision in getting away from Britain and my life there.
Back in Chiang Mai, I began hunting for a place suitable for Tika to set up her spa. And it was while reading a tourist magazine extolling Thailand’s islands that I came across the Thai phenomenon of “Resort Spas” and “Wellness Spas.” Some of these resorts in Phuket and Kho Samui looked incredibly beautiful. Why not go all out and build one in Chiang Mai? Not surprisingly, Tika went for it.
We flew down to Phuket. On the Andaman Sea, it is Thailand’s largest island and an international vacation destination. We booked into a superb resort on the south coast that had everything by way of luxury. We also toured the island checking out other resort spas, taking photographs, making notes and comparisons; and finding faults. We went to Kho Samui and did the same. Kho Chang, the island near Cambodia was the next and last port of call. There were many fine resorts there and we stayed at three as we toured the island. I liked Kho Chang more than Phuket or Samui because of the high, forested mountains. After two weeks there, we flew home and began a search for land. Land is relatively cheap in Thailand compared with Britain or Europe And with so much land on the market, it didn’t take long to find the ideal spot.
I bought two adjacent properties; rugged and hilly, less than ten kilometers from the city. Combined, they amount to eighty five rai; far more than we needed.
We formed a company to keep things legal and orderly; Tika, being Thai, held the majority shares. And once the conveyance was all sorted, we met up with a team architects and set about the design of the resort.
We went for an open plan, airy ambience, with a large central main lodge with rooms, restaurant and all the bells and whistles. There would also be the spa and massage areas and private cabins of various sizes. I handed them my conceptual sketches along with the
photographs we’d taken of existing resorts. We took the better aspects of the other places and weeded out the weak areas. They went to work and within two weeks had the drawings and 3D computer models ready. I checked them with the architects and found everything sound; we were ready to roll.
The construction crews started early on a Monday morning. Tika and I drove up to watch them roll in, set up their work camps and begin cutting out vegetation. We went up again the following day and saw the heavy equipment arrive and work commence on cutting the roads and preparing foundation footings. We took photographs and chatted with the engineers. Things looked good and in capable hands. But as an incentive, I made it clear that for good work there would be bonuses.
“How long will it take to finish it, Phil,” Tika asked me that evening over supper.
“Around eight months, according to the main contractor. He built the Supannika Resort on Kho Chang in that time, so he should know.” I started to fill the wine glasses.
“No wine for me, Phil,” she said, smiling
I filled my glass and took a sip. “Are you excited?”
“Yes, I am. I also have another reason to be excited.”
“And what’s that?”
“I hope you won’t be upset.”
“Upset?” I felt my eyebrows rise, “What might upset me?”
“I’m pregnant, Phil. I’m going to have your baby.”
“Jesus,” I said and put down my glass.
“You’re upset,” she looked hurt.
“Shocked is more like it, Tika. At my age, a father again? Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s almost two months.”
“Two months? And you didn’t tell me?”
“I was afraid you might not want.”
“Don’t be a silly girl. It doesn’t show yet.”
“No. But it will soon. It may please you to know it’s a girl,” she spoke hurriedly.
I shook my head “Well I’ll be damned,” I said. I took a long draught of my wine. “Does Wan know yet?”
“No. I wouldn’t tell her before you.”
“Then let’s go over there and tell her now,” I said. “If I’m going to be a father again I may as well celebrate at Ray’s Pub.”
And so after supper we went over and delivered the news. Wan was, naturally, pleased and excited at the prospect of having a baby niece to play with. We chatted for a while, but when the girls got down to deciding on a name for the new baby, I slipped away to the bar. And on Wan’s orders, Chan, the elder daughter, followed me and took up station behind the pumps. She pulled me a fine pint of Manchester Bitter with a superb head on it. I ordered a double whisky, a Glenmorangie Portwood Finish. Chan smiled and handed me the bottle along with an appropriate glass and a bowl of ice; smart girl.
I poured a whisky, added ice and took a careful sip; superb. I followed it with a long pull on the bitter; even better. And as the alcohol coursed through my system, my eyes alighted on the photograph of Ray on the back wall. His right hand is gripping the pump that delivers the Manchester Bitter. But it’s the smile on his face and his eyes locked on mine that arrested me. And I got to thinking about how quickly and dramatically my life had turned around. A few months ago I was retired living in Lytham, Lancashire and more than a little bored and lonely. Now here I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a new wife young enough to be my granddaughter and soon to be the father of a baby girl. I was building a huge resort spa. And I felt terrific, like I had been given a new lease on life. And in a sense it was all because of Ray. If Ray had not absconded in such in irresponsible manner all those years ago, I wouldn’t be here. And every time I take a drink here at Ray’s Pub, my eyes always alight on that picture of him on the wall, pulling a pint. He’s looking at me, a big smile on his face; like he was waiting for me. “Where have you been,” he seems to be saying.
“We waited for you,” Wan had said. “He said you would come.” How true it was.