The precious breeze was nowhere to be found on Christmas Day and to make matters worse Oz had been persuaded against his better judgement to reluctantly wear a Santa suit and sing Christmas songs with the students in the thirty five degree heat. Sam had taken great delight in clapping and egging the students on, trying to whip them into a frenzy of Christmas furore just to see the look of spite on his suffering friend’s haggard face.
To Oz, the suit felt like asbestos and the false beard kept tickling his ever growing nasal hairs. Combined with the tropical heat it was almost too much irritation for the desperate middle aged man to bear and he ridded himself of the loathsome red and white garment as soon as the opportunity arose, muttering and cursing to himself. Sam could not resist an open guffaw at his friend’s pathetic show and was not surprised to be answered by firm “Fuck off!”
That evening Sam went out with Jonah and Antti, knowing that Oz would not be joining them to celebrate until after Boxing Day. They had known each other for so long that the tragedy of Oz’s past had already come out years before. They understood the reasons behind the shyness of festive spirit.
Oz returned to his quiet sanctuary feeling tired but relieved and once he had showered he began to feel at peace with himself. After eating a cold meal bought from a vendor on his way home, he took up usual position on his porch steps, beer in hand. He was reading a history of the education system in Thailand when he heard a shuffling noise and his gate creaking as if something was leaning on it.
In the evening’s dreamy twilight he saw a small shadowlike figure stood against the rusting metal gateway. Squinting through the oncoming gloom, he made out a tiny eye gazing at him and he nonchalantly stuck his tongue out at it and then pretended to return his interest to the book while sneakily glancing upwards to see a little dark pink tongue poking through the bars. It was the little skateboarding angel and this time she was on her own except for a tattered old teddy bear that she was clutching in her right hand. The soiled toy was big enough to have one of its legs dragging into the dusty gutter full of sweet wrappers and grotty dry tissue paper.
Oz got up and opened the gate and then he crouched down in front of the child and held his right hand out in front of her.
The kid gave him the same inquisitive mannerism as the first time they had met.
“Hello” said the old man nodding sharply in a gesture that indicated that she should put her hand out too. Since the girl was still holding the toy in her right hand, she thought it better to give the strange foreigner her left hand as that seemed to be what he wanted, but to her surprise the stranger shook his head with a mock doleful expression on his face that made his moustache curl up reminding her of a Muppet that she had seen on television. Then he leant over to her teddy and shook his right hand, again greeting him.
The girl looked at her teddy and at the man with a playful scowl upon her face. Suddenly she dropped the unfortunate stuffed plaything in the gutter and offered the man her right paw. He took it up and shook it gently; his face a mixture of amusement and mock seriousness and the angel began to giggle and then she felt embarrassed all of a sudden and withdrew her hand in a movement of childish bluntness.
To Oz’s surprise she whispered “Hello!” and started to chant this new word over and over again, making a little tune out of it, mixing it in with Thai words that rhymed and spinning around and around, faster and faster like a whirling dervish, the world spinning in front of her like something new and undiscovered. Oz began laughing at this display, laughing so hard that all the sorrow of his past seemed to be joining with the present, making him laugh harder and stronger until he noticed that the little girl had stopped singing and was stood at his gate, frozen to the spot in wonder at this crazy old man with hair on his face.
Oz stood up, took his blue handkerchief out of his short’s pocket and wiped his eyes, something inside him yearned to take the little girl inside his house, to feed her to clothe her, to be a father to her. This was, of course, a dangerous feeling to have no matter how innocent and he shook it off almost immediately.
The child yawned and was obviously getting bored and tired, so Oz gave her a wave and watched her skip down the soi as lights were being turned on and the mosquitoes were coming out to feed.
The next day was a Friday and Oz had seemed so subdued all day that Sam was surprised when the older man asked him if he fancied a drink after work. Sam didn’t question him about his change of heart, feeling that Oz had his reasons and if he wished to tell him he would do it in his own time, at his own pace.
The younger teacher was suffering that day as yet again he had drank too much the previous evening, an uneventful night, where the Christmas meal was expensive and mediocre by Western standards but to the foreigners who survived on rice and chillies it was manna from heaven.
The conversation had been primarily about work but then regressed to crude whore mongering stories from the members of the table who still indulged in the night time sleaze that had dubbed Bangkok as a “city of sin”. Everybody had their stories, yet the ones who had been there longest never spoke about them anymore because they had nothing to prove to anybody and these conversations became incredibly dull as the long haulers had either heard about or done everything already. Sam was especially bored by these stories and had drunk too fast because of the tedious nature of the sexual sagas and decided to leave early.
Sam’s apartment was just a few stops on the Bangkok sky train away and as he stared out of the window in an effort to blank everyone out, he began thinking about his current situation and how long it would last. He had often tried to figure out what had made him leave Britain in the first place.
Why had he never felt at home there, and how were others so proud of coming from such a hotbed of ignorance, calumnies and stupidity?
Maybe it was him that was wrong. He often thought that. His father used to tell him that everyday of his childhood existence. You are wrong, you are stupid, don’t you dare talk back to me, do what you’re told, you are wrong. It became a mantra for him, he embraced his wrongness and all that society considered to wrong; he aligned himself with all that was bad, evil, and unjust. Maybe his father was right.
“If compassion is the virtue of prostitutes, does that mean that we’re all whores now?” he thought to himself.
People were everywhere, people unaware that life was short and interested in nothing more than bargains not realising than nothing in life is free. There is always a price to pay whether materially, physically or spiritually. To Sam, love was the most expensive thing of all.
A voice came over the sky train’s speaker alerting him to the fact that his was the next stop and he manoeuvred his way until he stood directly in front of the doors, and as soon as they opened he braced himself and barged his way out of the oncoming wave of people who were pushing blindly on their own way into the modern clean Western mode of transport. Stepping briskly down the steps in an effort to get to the gates before the shoving queues once more appeared, he reached into his pocket for his ticket and when he reached the barriers slid the small rectangular piece of encoded plastic into the slot, and voila he was back on the broken streets.
Walking slowly, a hangover already forming, he turned down a street full of restaurants and bars. Everywhere was heaving with customers enjoying their weekend, ready for the oncoming festivities for the New Year. Feeling a little unwell, Sam dived into the local American convenience store for two tall bottles of beer and a packet of light cigarettes to keep him company until he slept. His house was another two or three minutes away and he made it back without incident, woke up the ever drowsing night watchman and crashed into his den.
It was an average two roomed small Thai flat with a tiny veranda to boot, one room being the living room cum bedroom the other being the cramped bathroom that at least contained a bath. Most of the space in the bedroom was taken up by the king-sized bed in the centre of the room and the rest of the floor space was covered with Sam’s notebooks and sketchbooks covered in dark smudged drawing in charcoal and various scrap and tissue paper with maybe a sentence, or even just a single word or symbol scribbled onto them.
He had lived there since he had set himself up in Thailand and the owners of the building liked him as he always paid on time and never caused trouble like so many of their other tenants, complaining about the lack of cable channels for their televisions, or trying to throw their “ex-bargirl” girlfriends out of their rooms while trying to stab them one too many times, or complaining about the extra rent charges that had suddenly appeared on their bills for no reason. But to Sam, it felt safe to him, it was home.
He immediately switched on the ceiling fan and stripped off his clothes until he was stark naked, a ritual that was usually accompanied by a shower and masturbation session, that left him ready for sleep. This time he thought of an old fling, while trying to get the image of a middle aged teacher out of his head.
Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
He decided to crack open one of the still cool beers, putting the other one in the freezer compartment of his ever empty fridge, to light up a cigarette and start writing. He did not like to write when he was too drunk as it usually was so incomprehensible that it almost always ended up as bin fodder, but tonight he felt good about it, the cold beer sparking his synapses into life, while the alcohol in his system set about killing as many brain cells as it could manage. The tension between the two chemical changes of booze and tiredness set Sam on a mission to write until the wee hours, leaving only two dead beer bottles and a tombstone of fag butts as evidence of his lonely night’s work.
His madness had seemed scarce in Asia.
His madness had fit right in.
His most powerful hallucination had occurred in a Pachinko parlour in Japan. Sam had heard someone weeping while the cash and the din and sparkles drowned around them. The place had flooded with moths. Sam closed his eyes. It went away.
Another one had revealed itself in a go-go bar. One of the girls had become possessed with the spirit of Ganesha, the elephant headed god and asked Sam why he was in such a place. Sam couldn’t answer then but he only realised after that it was to feel not so alone.
His depression and paranoia had increased.
There is nothing like a constant change of scenery and people to keep a paranoid on his toes as there is nothing to hang on to. Nowhere to feel safe.
At times being in Asia was itself like a dream or nightmare. Superfluous to his everyday reality. No wonder Buddhism had taken such a hold there with its teaching of the transience of everything. Food went rotten there faster, the light went from daytime to night time in an instant. People were there one second and gone the next. He was in a country where almost everybody not only believed in ghosts but had had an encounter with them in one way or another. He told nobody about visions, not even Oz. In the kingdom of the freaks where trustworthiness was almost non existent, why confuse things.
He knew that he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
Sam eventually drifted into the realm of unconsciousness and just slept where he lay on the floor, his notes on top of his chest and his pen still in his hand.
He dreamt that night.
That was how his room looked to him.
The inside of a cardboard box with no windows or doors, just an over large white bed on which he was lying; his drawers and a lamp. On the ceiling was an electric fan, spinning fast and violently, shaking, teetering on coming off its hinges and flying off into the room, cutting and slicing as it fell.
Sam felt compelled to stare at the fan, losing himself inside its spinning, waiting for it to fall.
He felt something sniffing around in his head.
Sniffing through his thoughts.
It was looking for something.
Then the fan became a copy of Louis Ferdinand Celiné’s “Journey to the End of the Night”, still spinning but slower now, grinding to a halt. Sam reached out, opened the book and began reading. Inside the pages were not Celiné’s writing but his own thoughts, his dream.
“A box. That was how his room looked to him…”
He read the story of his life, the story of his internal world printed on a page and he fell into it, he became the paper and the ink.
The book closed.
The alcohol had numbed his brain into a dull lifeless sleep, not at all refreshing and though he awoke with no memory of dreaming, in the back of his mind was a most uncomfortable feeling, the feeling that a nightmare leaves the next day.
The next day, Sam hurt just enough so that things took a little more effort than usual but the workday flew by at an usually fast pace. The tedious waiting and sweating and wondering if you are going to vomit or shit yourself was virtually non existent. Although he did feel physically exhausted and almost fell asleep at his desk on his lunch hour and would have done except that Oz knowing his friend’s condition and desiring revenge for the previous morning’s Christmas debacle decided to invite the most irritating Thai teacher in to the foreign teacher’s staff room to talk to Sam about some linguistic problems and so practice her English speaking on him. The ordeal lasted the most part of an hour and afterwards feeling fairly mentally shattered and knowing he had another three hours of teaching with no break, he found Oz relaxing in another classroom.
All he could say was “Touché!” which was answered by nothing more than raised eyebrows that said nothing less than “That’ll fucking teach you.”
That evening, Oz and Sam got pleasantly drunk in each other’s company once more, this time nobody joined them and save for the first toast which Oz quietly dedicated to “absent friends” nothing of real consequence happened, there were no stories about whores and the beer tasted good and nobody asked anyone awkward personal questions and there was no violence and the two friends smiled and the night became liquid and seemed to flow into the morning and walking home Sam thought that if this was his last day on Earth, it would have been a good day to die.