About 50 years ago or so, Paul Anka wrote the English lyrics to the then famous French song “comme d’habitude” by teenage idol Claude Francois. “My way” soon became a worldwide hit and for a time was played and heard as frequently and everywhere in Thailand as the Eagles’ famed Hotel California. For me it reminds me of the early 1990s when I was struggling to launch my tour operating business in Phuket. In particular it brings back memories of Jean-Paul who was an early client of the company and later became a good friend. There’s a line in the song that goes “regrets I had a few but then again too few to mention”. It seems to fit Jean-Paul’s fate in LOS although his regrets over the years may well have been more than just a few!
Jean-Paul was what we sometimes call an original, kind of a master copy of a man. Tall and ruggedly handsome. In his mid forties then and already a successful businessman back home, he came to Thailand on the advice of a friend because, or so he said, he was at a crossroad in his life and needed a break. He booked himself on a round-trip package: Kanchanaburi, River Kwai, north Thailand, Bangkok and then a 2 week bathing holiday extension in Phuket. That’s where I first met and got to know him. Over dinner and a few beers I listened to his own marital troubles, his young daughter’s failing marriage, about his two sons eager to take over his gasoline station and the car selling master agency. He had issued them with a proxy mandate during his absence but that created more problems and was the cause of frequent contention. At his lowest point the inevitable happened. He fell in love with a beautiful 20-year old Thai girl. Nothing remarkable about that but when after the first week of meeting her he called to invite me & the tour guide to his engagement party in Patong I felt it was my duty to enroll him in a basic “Thai girl getting married to Farang lesson”. Not surprisingly that turned out to be wasted time as Jean-Paul was clearly thinking and taking decisions with his little head.
The day of the party arrived and we assembled. Just over a dozen people or so at Bernard’s French restaurant on Patong Beach. But the bride to be never turned up! The girl got cold feet and wanted to wait a few weeks before making a serious commitment or so Jean-Paul understood and explained the short message she left in his room before the disappearing act. He was devastated and the many “I told you so” of the attending invitees didn’t help either. Though the story does not end here but Jean-Paul was not to know then. It was a sad and hurtful interlude. But for Jean-Paul the quest for a Thai partner had only just began. He was a stubborn man and knew exactly what he wanted, he explained to me.
Linda had been a massage girl. Jean-Paul now declared that they were obviously no good. Marriage material needed to be found elsewhere. Someone on the beach where he spent his days at leisure in a deck chair had told him that he should go to the local golf course and look for a caddy girl. No sooner said it was done. He met Som, an unpretentious and cozy girl in her late 20s and mother of a small child. But before settling into the bungalow he now rented there where things to attend to. A man of principle and integrity, he had long been uneasy about his business, property and the unfinished divorce proceedings back home. He traveled to Switzerland where it took him several weeks to clear up, fix and put things in satisfactory order. He returned to Phuket a more relaxed man and adopted a more circumspect approach to the future. Som turned out to be a much more homely girl. She was a good cook and kept the bungalow spotless. For a blessed few weeks Jean-Paul had found the kind of happiness or contentment he’d craved for.
Then Linda returned.
From the moment he saw her again it was a lost cause and he knew it. He could not let go. Linda was accompanied by her mother and it would soon become obvious that her role in the game was to act matchmaker to Jean-Paul and Linda. Having learned that there was a wealthy man on the hook it became an all-out cause to bring him in. Better sooner than later, though more so for the mother than Linda. The immediate problem however was communication and language. I was enlisted as interpreter and gladly accepted the part. Talks between the parties started and right away it became apparent that Jean-Paul would accept any condition or price attached to have the girl. Not a nut case or a lost soul as so many Farang in LOS, Jean-Paul was a prosperous entrepreneur. To ever get to this point he had brains, intellect and wit. But when it came to Linda none of that was visible. In retrospect I still wonder about his forlorn and desperate approach during negotiations. More than an interpreter, my role soon upgraded to one of adviser to “limiter les dégâts” (limit the damage) and I believe I succeeded to some extent. In the end a sum was agreed upon to pay sin-sod and then the talks immediately went on to fix a wedding date. The engagement had already been consumed although in the absence of the bride to be. The ceremony was to be in a few weeks’ time. Next I was asked to inform Som of the current developments, Jean-Paul’s still live-in girlfriend, and deliver compensation. The poor girl cried bitter tears when she learned, packed her few possessions in a cardboard box and immediately left.
The day of the wedding we took a flight up to Bangkok and then travelled on to Khon-Kaen by train. An arduous journey on the heavily shaking carriages but lots of fun and tasty food on stop-overs. Two of my company’s hostesses accompanied me on the travels and to the party. We checked in to the Charoen Thani Princess Hotel next to an immense building ruin and got ready for the event the following day. Jean-Paul and his fiancée were already there to receive us. From the wedding party itself I mostly remember a crazy, drunk ladyboy, part of the family apparently, kissing and hugging everybody. Also unforgettable was the fact that Jean-Paul turned up early the next morning actually finding time and energy to jog around Bueng Kaen Nakhon pond with me.
Perhaps it was the first signs of the troubles ahead. Sex with Linda would not always be joyful but was to become a sometimes arduous activity. Though more than twice her age, Jean-Paul’s libido was far more intense than the now 21-year old. Obtaining her consent was often linked to promises or pledge for material goods. Also, he had learned that taking care of the family was part of his new responsibilities and surely no problem for him as he was a rich man, Linda often added. He realized that having sometimes boasted of his wealth in the past it was now a double-edged sword. Once again on our frequent meetings back in Phuket, George was in a plaintive and sometimes gloomy frame of mind. It didn’t help that I had myself relationship problems at the time. Our misery was sometimes drowned in too much beer or Mekong on those occasions.
The quest to find peace of mind with his young wife continued and Jean-Paul’s next undertaking to find it was building a house. Plans were made and rejected, new designs conform to his and Linda’s many wishes and desires eventually found approval. Finally an impressive house with an adjacent outbuilding for staff and a large swimming pool was built in the inner Rawai region. Once the construction was complete, soon followed many invitations and event parties on his premises. The years passed by and they settled in a kind of status quo to which they both had a vested interest, if for different reasons.
Yearly holiday trips were made mostly to Europe. Linda was ecstatic after their return boasting of having discovered Paris, Rome, Vienna, Alpine towns in Austria and Switzerland. Venice on the Adriatic Sea and the mountain town of Zermatt at the foot of the imposing Matterhorn became her all-time favorites.
Back in Phuket life resumed its course and Jean-Paul at first was unaware or did not pay due attention to Linda’s frequent trips home. He did not care for the northeastern town but was happy living in his house by the pool or the occasional afternoon at Nai-harn Beach and dinner on the terrace of the exclusive Yacht club hotel. After another prolonged absence and frequent telephone calls asking her to come home Jean-Paul started to grow worried and eventually suspicious that something was amiss.
Then one morning a woman rang his doorbell. Jean-Paul did not recognize her at first. It was Linda’s mother. The many years of hard labor in the rice fields had made her grow old prematurely. She had travelled on the bus to Phuket. And she brought news. Linda was in hospital, she had given birth to a healthy baby girl. Mother and child were doing well. It was a devastating blow to Jean-Paul. Having undergone a vasectomy years ago he knew it could not be his child. To make it worse he had never doubted Linda’s faithfulness despite the many warnings and bizarre stories he was told by friends or acquaintances concerning Thai boyfriends of Farang wives.
Around this time Jean-Paul was undergoing his yearly health check. Having difficulty urinating he knew or suspected what was awaiting him. After numerous tests and tissue biopsies he was finally diagnosed with prostate cancer. It reminded him of the old proverb his mother taught him: “un malheur ne vient jamais seul” (misfortunes never come singly). He fell into deep depression and for time had suicidal thoughts. But the condition was operable and no more risky than an appendix removal his doctors told him. So he did what he was recommended to do by the medical team. He went to the hospital and had the operation. All went well and he recuperated though slowly and it took many weeks. He even found some of his former self-assurance and a weak smile saying: Yes, I feel better but I am a diminished man now.
It wasn’t to be his last regret though. During the long convalescence he started to Google more about his condition. What he found in his researches saddened him even more. It can be summed up in a few words: Prostate cancer screening means looking for a specific antigen called PSA. But the risk of misdiagnosis is rather high and generate a certain number of unnecessary and senseless operations. How will I ever know if my treatment was pointless and wasteful, he asked? You won’t and you better live with it, I told him. Harsh words but he understood.
Jean-Paul turned 75 a few weeks ago. There was a modest party at his house but I did not attend. Instead we met a few weeks before at the R&R Steakhouse in Bangkok’s Landmark hotel. We enjoyed the wine and food as much as always with the only proviso that steaks now had to be well done, we are both too old to digest them saignant (rare) as we like it best. Jean-Paul will never be the formerly domineering and successful personality or businessman again. He has become much more humble and recently even more self-satisfied at least to a degree.
Friends for 30 years I asked him what his biggest regret on his life’s journey was. I’m healthy again and thank God for that, he said, but because of the prostate operation the biggest regret I have in my life is not being able to do any longer what I always liked best.
On my last visit to his house Linda was there with the child. The toddler is now almost 5 years old and what a beautiful child. Jean-Paul has a big smile on his face when playing with her. Maybe, he said, someday I will adopt the kid.
The author cannot be contacted.