Living In The Past
“Do not dwell in the past,
do not dream of the future,
concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha
As the Coronavirus Pandemic brings the present to a standstill, and robs many of a future, it seems that the only thing to look forward to is the past.
David Carradine was dead. I was trying to explain to Boom what had happened. But the fact that he’d just been found naked in the closet of his Bangkok hotel room with a rope tied around his neck, hands and genitals, just helped further in confirming Boom’s view that all Farangs were ba (crazy).
His hotel, The Swissôtel Nai Lert Park, on Witthayu Road, was just a few miles down the road from the apartment I was renting at the time in On Nut. It wasn’t how I wanted to remember him. I’m sure he wouldn’t have chosen that way to be remembered. But when a combination of words like dead, naked, Bangkok, and hotel room all appear together in the first couple of sentences of a story it’s never going to be easy to conjour up an epitaph to be proud of, even without the gory details. Just one more un-explained crazy Farang death in The Land of Smiles. Bangkok can do strange things to a man.
Boom was sitting at the end of the bed drying her hair in front of the fan, droplets of water blotted on to my copy of The Bangkok Post that I was reading the story from. I decided against telling her that he’d once been a hero of mine and, in some strange way, was probably partly responsible for me ever being in Bangkok.
When I was 13 years old I spent six months in hospital. Though it feels like a whole lifetime ago to me now those months will always be etched into my mind even if the physical scars weren’t there to remind me. The hospital itself was made up of a scattered collection of buildings on the outskirts of London. Even then the place was old. The ward that I was on had once been used to house TB patients before the Second World War. Confined to bed for most of my stay, one of the few chances to escape, if only in my mind, was on a Saturday afternoon when I had my bed pushed up to a small TV at the end of the ward so that I could watch the ’70s TV series Kung Fu. David Carradine played the part of Kwai Chang Caine, wandering throughout the old American West in search of his half-brother.
On the run from China and with a price on his head in America, trouble was never too far behind him. Though he would do all he could to avoid violence the point would always come when, forced to defend himself with only his martial arts skills, he would beat the shit out of the bad guys. And what 13-year old boy at the time didn’t want to be able to do what he did?
The flashback sequences in the series saw Caine as a Shaolin Priest at a monastery in China. I think that it was these images of temples, along with shaven headed monks in saffron robes, that somehow became embedded into my subconsciousness.
It was a mysterious far off land that I had no knowledge of other than what I saw every Saturday afternoon in a fictional TV series.
That little spark of interest in the Far East must have been fuelled further by a Chinese nurse on the ward during my time in hospital. These days of course the thought of a Chinese nurse would just add fuel to a fantasy but back then, as a truly innocent 13-year old, she was the light on some very dark days. Her name was Lin. I remember her as being beautiful, but above that I remember the kindness she showed towards me. On the day that I was wheeled down to the operating theatre, probably more scared than I’d ever been in my life, she’d come, on her day off, to hold my hand and walk with me as my bed was pushed along endless corridors to the theatre. Her beautiful face was the last thing I saw before the anaesthetic took me to a world beyond sleep. She, I have no doubt, is why I have always loved Oriental women.
“See you soon, Boom”, I’d said, sitting on the end of my own bed back in London around the same time that Carradine would have been checking in to his hotel suite in Bangkok. Hanging up, I sat for a while. Cherry blossoms fell from the trees outside in a swirl of pink confetti like colour. Blown on the breeze of a bright spring day it looked beautiful against a clear blue sky.
I’d just been made redundant and, although it felt strange to be sitting there on a Monday morning when I normally would have been at work, the chance to get back to Bangkok was all I could think about. I’d be lying if I said that Boom wasn’t the main reason for going back. (See my story Boom and Bust)
In the four months since I’d last seen her she was all I could think about. Pathetic, I know. Somewhere in the back of my mind the sensible voice of reason tried to suggest that maybe I should stay at home and look for a new job while spending my redundancy money wisely. I booked my flight. I also had some faintly ridiculous romantic idea of renting an apartment in Bangkok and doing some writing. For some reason, I don’t know why, I had visions of myself bashing out stories on an old typewriter. I pictured an overhead fan, flickering shadows cast around a dimly lit room, ruffled papers on a desk, cigarette smoke curling up from an unemptied ashtray, the sound of ice chinking in a whiskey glass, the heat and the sounds of a city that never sleeps drifting in through an open window.
The fact that I don’t smoke, drink whiskey or own a typewriter didn’t really seem to come in to it. Live the dream, forget the reality. The reality of course was that six months later I’d blown my redundancy money, mostly on beer, women and rent and had a half finished poem scribbled in a notepad about my dislike of Pattaya. I’d do it all again tomorrow if I had the chance.
I hadn’t really imagined living with Boom full-time. In my mind I’d seen it as a few nights a week sort of arrangement. But I guess she saw things differently. As promised she came to check out a few apartments with me when I arrived and, on a day when the thunder, lightning and torrential rain seemed to be more like a biblical event than an ordinary storm, we taxied along a flooded Sukhumvit.
After checking out a few places I settled on a room around On Nut. The next thing I knew we were in Tesco Lotus shopping for bedding, towels, toiletries and a fan.
For years up until that point I’d been happy to stay on Sukhumvit soi 8 whenever I was in Bangkok. Everything I needed was there – hotels, bars, restaurants, an internet cafe, 7- Eleven, a place to get my laundry done, Lolita’s for a more specialised form of entertainment, and all within a 5-minute walk to the skytrain.
Moving to my own place on Soi 89 was one thing, nobody catering to Mr Farang down there, and a 20-minute walk to the station at On Nut, which at that time was the end of the line. Moving in with Boom was something different altogether.
I’m fairly pessimistic by nature. For me the glass is usually half-empty, an expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed view of things. I wish I wasn’t like that but that’s the way I am. So living with Boom 24 hours a day 6 days a week I expected things to go tits up rapidly. But somehow we managed to get along most of the time. I look back on those days as some of the best I’ve spent in Thailand. I liked my apartment, we filled our days and went out most nights. We travelled the country from the Burmese border, beaches and waterfalls around Prachuap Khiri Khan, to the ancient temple ruins of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. From cold beers on the banks of The Mekong River up around The Golden Triangle and Nongkhai to deepest darkest Isaan and many places in between. It was wonderful.
We could laugh at many of the same things, though at times she would just look at me as though I was retarded after making a joke about something I thought was amusing.
Late one night we got back to my apartment. Planet of the Apes was on TV, dubbed in Thai. For some reason we lay there in bed watching it. “Those monkeys speak very good Thai”, I remarked after a while. I felt her head turn towards me, unsure of whether I was being serious or not. “No him not speak Thai”, she started to say before she saw me laughing.
“Why your brain think like that?”, she asked unamused, and not for the first time.
A couple of weeks earlier we’d been in Kanchanaburi. On one rainy day, rather than walk around getting wet, we found someone to drive us around on some battered old motorbike tuktuk and show us a few sights. It was a pleasant enough few hours until the last stop down some muddy puddle-filled track which turned out to be a place called Monkey School.
Some dreadful set up where captive monkeys perform tricks for paying tourists. A small tattered billboard outside showed a monkey on a bicycle. We were the only people there. I looked at Boom and shook my head. She was as happy as I was to turn around and go back to town.
A few days later in Hua Hin I had somehow managed to persuade Boom to walk up Khao Takiab (Chopstick Hill) in the blazing sunshine. Like most Thais she couldn’t really see the point of walking anywhere for pleasure. So, as expected, she wasn’t in the best of moods once we’d reached the top. Troops of wild monkeys were running riot up there, crashing over rooftops, chasing and squabbling with each other. Snarling and baring lethal looking teeth as they fought over any scrap of food.
Snatching things from unwary visitors whose screams were frequently heard. Boom moaned about the shit everywhere and said there were too many monkeys and that something ought to be done about getting their numbers down. I suggested that maybe they should give them condoms. “How monkey can know about condom”, she replied, her exasperated looking face unusually beaded with sweat
“They could send them to monkey school in Kanchanaburi and teach them”, I said, before dissolving into a fit of the giggles at my own joke and her increasingly angry look.
“What happen with your brain?”, she muttered.
Maybe it was just monkey based humour she didn’t like. Who knows? I could understand that sometimes humour might not translate that well. But I had known enough Thai girls by then to know that there are going to be times when you are never going to be able to understand what is going on inside their heads. In the six months we spent living together there is always the one time I keep going back to in my mind.
Late one morning back on Soi 89 we were thinking about getting up and what we would do for the day, or what remained of it. I always enjoyed that time. Looking at her lying there, strands of unbrushed hair caught by the fan blowing across her natural makeup-free face, her dark skin against the light-coloured bed sheets, a shaft of sunlight hitting the wall through a gap in the curtain. I suggested we needed some more water. I’d been buying it from a little shophouse on the soi.
Hard to believe now but at that time the nearest 7- Eleven was a 15-minute walk away. But I was happy to support a little family business and besides, it was easier to carry half a dozen bottles of water back from there rather than trekking to 7- Eleven.
“I no like dis water”, Boom then informed me, gesturing towards a bottle of whatever obscure brand it was that sat empty on the table.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “Water is water, it’s all the same”.
“No not same”, she insisted.
By now we were playfully wrestling on the bed.
“Singha water better”, she argued as I pinned her down.
“It’s all the same”, I repeated
“No not same”, she said laughing.
“Oh you’re just too fussy”, I said, letting her free.
“What fussy?”, she wanted to know. “I don’t know fussy”, she continued, looking more serious.
“I think you speak bad.”
“No it’s not bad”, I tried to reassure her.
I didn’t know the Thai for fussy and it wasn’t in my English / Thai dictionary that I was desperately thumbing through. I tried unsuccessfully to explain the meaning.
“People call me fussy, it’s not bad”, I said.
I tried to give an example. “Look if someone made me a cup of tea and I complained about there being too much milk in it people might say I was being too fussy, it’s not bad”. It was the best I could come up with.
“I think you say bad to me”, was her response. But the rest of the day, and that night, passed off without any further mention of it.
Saturday morning and Boom went back to her room in Phra Khanong as she did each weekend.
I had a friend working in Bangkok at the time and saw him most Saturdays for a few beers, games of pool and joking around with the girls who would set the balls up and take care of us. What Boom didn’t know was that my mate would have to get back to his wife by the early evening and I’d have a night to myself.
Some Saturdays he couldn’t make it at all. He’d call me up on a Friday to say he wouldn’t be able to meet up and I would always end the conversation with, knowing that Boom was listening, “Okay then mate I’ll see you tomorrow”.
He’d chuckle and say “have fun”, knowing I’d be having a night on the town.
So on that Saturday after Boom had left I called my friend who, unfortunately for him he thought, was having to spend the day with his wife. Knowing that she spoke very good English I said “Ask Nok how do you say fussy in Thai.”
“Joo jee juk jik” I could hear her say, or what sounded like that. I said it a couple of times to confirm it, and no it wasn’t bad to say it to someone I was assured. I wrote it down phonetically. I called a girl I knew and asked her if she understood when I said “joo jee juk jik” and if it was okay to say to someone. Yes she understood and no it wasn’t bad.
That evening in my favourite little bar on Soi Cowboy, with a couple of girls I had known there for years, I asked the same question. No it wasn’t bad, they both agreed, and were amused to hear why I was asking.
Sunday afternoon and Boom returned as usual. It was always an enjoyably lazy time before going out for the evening. The soi was quieter and somehow felt just like a Sunday afternoon should feel. Joking around, as usually happened at some point, I suddenly remembered what I wanted to tell her.
“Oh, you remember I called you fussy?” I said, leading up to the moment where she would realize I was right and hadn’t said anything bad.
“Jam dai” (I remember) she replied, stiffening slightly and moving back a little.
“Khun joo jee juk jik“, I announced, pleased with myself for remembering how to say it. Right then I knew I should have left it well alone. For a couple of seconds time stood still. I pictured tumbleweeds blowing down the soi.
“Why you speak so bad to me?” she wanted to know, now sitting up and looking down at me. She was a picture of quietly simmering anger. “Nobody speak so bad to me before like dis”, she continued.
“Boom it’s not bad it’s just joking”, I said, seeing the pleasant evening ahead slipping away.
“No not joking you speak so bad to me”, her face like thunder. By now she was on the other side of the room. No matter how much I told her it wasn’t bad the more I began to wonder if maybe I’d got it all wrong. Maybe calling someone in Thailand
“joo jee juk jik” was the worst possible insult imaginable. Maybe I’d been told that it was okay as a joke on me.
For a while all she would ask, through her teeth, was “Why you speak so bad to me?”, each time with a little more menace until she barely spoke at all for the next two days.
A frosty night followed, with me on one side of the bed and her as far away as she possibly could be on the other without falling off the edge. I lay there in the gloom trying to figure it all out. I never did. I couldn’t sleep. Should I sleep? Could I really trust her? After all, the thought entered my mind, David Carradine was dead.
Just another unexplained Farang death in The Land of Smiles.
By the third morning there was a slight thaw in the room. I woke to discover that I was still alive and that Boom was now snuggled next to me. I showered and slipped out leaving her there. It was a long hot walk back from 7-Eleven with bottles of Singha Water. Bangkok can do strange things to a man. I never said “joo jee juk jik” again.
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