Oz felt it.
He felt it as soon as he got back from Samet.
At first it was a coldness from people in his street, the corner shop who used to welcome him with a smile began to ignore him, so much so that sometimes Oz would be there waiting and the little gentle woman would just disappear into the back of the shop. The people that surrounded him were sending him a message.
“Go somewhere else” was the message.
The feeling intensified, day by day with the looks from the neighbours, the heads turning, eye contact broken, whispered sneering gossip.
Oz carried on in his same old way, a little bit more deflated in his stride than usual but defiantly willing to make the best of it and try to figure out why. He was not about to move somewhere else now. He had been moving his whole life and now it was time to stay. He began to wonder if hanging around such a paranoid as Sam had rubbed off on him. He dismissed this straight away as nonsense and he decided to get straight to the point and just ask about locally.
He began to do his shopping away from his local shops, he picked up a lot of his stuff on his route to work so that was not a problem. He was just another usual face in the crowd, one that was paler and more gingery than the others but still one that deserved a smile.
His life continued as it always had and besides the feeling of discomfort that surrounded his area his life was looking up as he had just gotten hold of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”, borrowed from Sam. He would forget about trying to be the good farang neighbour and concentrate on his friends and his reading.
He wished he could stop thinking about the people around him. It was so difficult, not being able to communicate, being different.
It was probably that someone had heard of the death of his wife. He had mentioned it to one of the shopowners. He knew how superstitious that Thais were he thought it was probably some “bad luck” thing. He thought that he would ask some of his fellow teachers at his school or Sam, someone must know. Maybe he could get monk in and do something, do it the Thai way. Something was troubling him and deep down inside he knew that this something was connected to Gip.
He had not seen Gip since he had returned.
It had only been a couple of days but that couple of days made a difference.
But it couldn’t be about her, not unless she was in trouble.
Surely people wouldn’t think that he had hurt her in anyway.
Surely people were not that cruel.
Gip had missed Oz when he was away on holiday; she would hang around outside the house’s gates gazing sadly into the dark lifeless shadows of the forlorn windows. She wondered where the crazy happy man had gone. She wanted to smile and dance for him. He was so gentle with her, he made her feel safe and in a family.
One day an old Chinese grandmother from the street noticed the tiny doll like figure across the way again and hobbled over to glean information from it in that confrontational way that old women around the world do. A steely look and grizzled life long pride scared the wee girl out of her sandals. The interrogation took five minutes and ended in the girl being dragged less than wilfully home having collected her worthless son for support.
At Gip’s home the old woman and her blustering son took Gip’s father aside into the dirty unkempt kitchen and began to explain all that Gip had told them.
The moustached farang had the girl enter his house on the pretense of her teaching him Thai, as if she could, they told him.
He sat her on his knee, they told him.
He played with her, they told him.
The moustache was not one of them, they told him.
The moustache talked to her teddy bear, they told him.
He should phone the police, had he never read the newspapers? Farangs were everywhere and they were always defiling everything that was good about Thailand, especially the children, they told him darkly.
They were only trying to help, they kept repeating.
Only trying to help.
The father rejected idea of phoning the police, immediately, not wanting to get involved with the authorities at any cost, his experience of policemen had always been negative, especially since they found that stolen illegal firearm from Cambodia on his bike. It had cost him three thousand baht to have them let him go, that was half a good month’s wages. He told the helpful interlopers that something would be done, but that no police should be involved and no one should know. So, of course, they told as many people as possible.
That night, as Gip lay in her bed, she could hear her father breathing deeply across the room. He was drunk again, the stench of Sangsom permated the room. If he awoke who knew what he would do to her. She was scared. She had always been scared, this was nothing new, she afraid of hands. Hands were clenched into fists, or fingers spread.
Sam and Antti arranged to visit Jonah in Bangkwang prison a couple of days after Sam had settled back in Bangkok.
Antti noticed that Sam seemed a lot better since his holiday. He seemed to be smiling a lot more, refreshed. It was good, especially as it seemed he was already planning his next excursion and asked Antti if he would like to come and join him. He thought about it and said “Sure, why not.” It would be good for him to get out of Bangkok himself for a while as he was beginning to get tired. He wasn’t feeling one hundred percent himself. The night before had been another bad one. He had had to throw yet another ladyboy out of his room. This one had at least gone fairly quietly. Only a mild hissy fit had occurred.
Jesus, why did he have to get so drunk that he could not tell the difference?
Antti had gone to visit Jonah, like he promised, while Sam and Oz were on the islands. The experience seemed to have really affected him. When Sam mentioned it he had seemed subdued. When Sam probed further Antti just answered “You’ll see.” It made everything all the more mysterious for Sam. it was well known that Thai prisons have a ferocious reputation among the institutions in the world, the Bangkok Hilton movie had impressed upon the world wide psyche.
It was generally accepted that you did not in any way want to go to a Thai prison. Especially not Bangkwang. Sam had thought it wise to tell Antti himself about Figgis. It would be better face to face. He didn’t honestly know how he felt about it. He should be glad that he had found the grass. But part of him just felt a little sick.
Like the time when a “friend” in Manchester told him that he and his mates would kill the scumbag who used to live downstairs from him. The said scumbag was doing his best to make Sam’s life even more miserable than it had been at the time. His friend, one of the local Salford bad boys he had gotten to know, had said this out of friendship but it hadn’t sat right with Sam. It hadn’t sat right because the guy had said he would “do th’ scumbag an’ ‘is wife an’ baby”.
So he told Antti the whole thing at the meeting place and Antti had smiled. He had smiled only for a second then he too seemed to deflate with the weight of what was being told to him, he too seemed to have a glint of fear of what Sam had said. Sam chuckled inwardly and liked Antti even more at that moment. Sam waited for the information to sink in like the rush of morning coffee and gave his friend enough time to answer all the questions he needed to. The mid morning sun was already beginning to be obscured by the heavy solid clouds that meant another drenching was imminent.
A drenching that could stop everything.
They hailed down a taxi and headed on their way to the outskirts of Bangkok and Bangkwang prison as fast as they could convince the young and cocky taxi driver to get there. As they got out of the taxi, the walls of the prison looming up ahead of them like some solid tidal wave that would soon start to move with the sheer pressure of the inmates inside, the taxi driver joked told them not to stay too long as they may like it enough to stay forever. As they entered through the visitors entrance, having their passports checked they noticed the number on the wall.
It said “47”.
That was the amount of people waiting to be executed. They will not know until two hours before, then they will see a monk and prepare themselves for the next life.
Bangkwang prison is filling up fast. It’s almost full. Who knows what will happen when it fills to the brim. There are already too many prisoners for the cells, too many that the corridors are used as cells themselves. This influx is in part to do with the tougher drug laws that Thailand has inherited from America and taken to its own South East Asian extreme. In 2003, 2200 people were killed in what the media termed a drug gang war. Everyone else knew it was just the over zealous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s police force’s extra judicial activity. They targeted drug gangs and drug gang leaders.
They wiped them out, and if their wives, girlfriends or children got in the way, so be it.
It was karma.
Drugs are not advisable to be taken in places like Thailand or Malaysia. The signs for the death penalty or the heavy sentences that are given should deter all but the most belligerent smoker. The fact that you need a good, reliable and trustworthy Thai contact with which to acquire the said goods, or the police, would make most sensible people stay away from drugs unless they had been there long enough to know the score.
Jonah had known the score.
That was the shock.
Walking into a large room, Sam and Antti heard Jonah’s name being barked out over the loud hailer, along with a booth number. They walked slowly to the booth, dodging the surge pushing relatives, wives and girlfriends and sat down on a cement bench. They looked through the glass and there was Jonah. He was already looking pale and withdrawn. The accumulated stress of a number of days was bearing down on his body and mind. He looked through glass and smiled feebly.
“They’ve got me wearing these!” he shouted through the weak intercom, putting his feet up to the window, showing a pair of shackles around his ankles.
“I’ve gotta wear them for three fookin’ months! They really fucking ‘urt! They say it’s to stop us tryin’ to kill ourselves, fuckin’ bollocks! It’s nothin’ more than intimidation!”
Sam stared at his friend and he wondered if he was strong enough to make it. Would he? Would you or I?
“’Ow many people are in yer cell?” asked Sam.
“I dunno, mate. About fifty I’d say. They’ve been okay with me so far. Asked me t’teach ’em English!”
The two men smiled at this. They knew they had to smile at every opportunity for any positive comment.
“’Ave you seen the embassy rep?” asked Sam.
“Yeah, but ‘e said that I’m better off pleading guilty. I was caught red handed.they reckon I’m looking at twenty five years, of which some I have t’ serve ‘ere. Jezuss, if I ever find out who it was… I want you to deal wit’ ’em. Hire some guys, whatever. I want ’im t’suffer” Sam saw Jonah slump again, then summon up a great energy and continue speaking.
“Y’know, there’s a guy who’s in the same cell as me, ‘e’s completely mad. He’s fookin’ naked all the time except fer when it rains. When it rains ’e puts on ’is clothes!”
The three friends started to laugh.
Three friends enjoying a funny story.
Sam leaned into the intercom and said quietly.
“It was Figgis.”
Jonah looked puzzled and cupped his hand to his ear, looking quizzically at the two men. Sam leaned in again and this time said it louder. Trying to make it inconspicuous.
“It was Figgis who set you up!”
A flash of recognition showed on Jonah’s face. He seemed to become agitated and angry. His eyes bulged and he looked very mad.
“That fucker, that f... What!?”
Confusion seemed to take over.
Jonah’s natural dignity was gone. Sam couldn’t imagine what he was going through. This man who had had such respect for the country he had chosen to make his life in.
Sam felt such sadness at seeing this once proud friend.
“We’ll get ’im fer ya.”
At this Jonah calmed down and stared at the desk in front of him. He seemed to regain his composure.
It was eerie.
That was one thing Sam remembered about it afterwards, it was eerie how he changed, how something seemed to snap. He went silent, his eyes bulged, then he scratched his nose, effortlessly stood up and walked away.
Sam and Antti turned and looked at each other. They both blew air out of their lungs to relieve the stress and got up and walked away.
As they reclaimed their belongings from a tiny locker both told each other that they would come back as often as possible. They both knew that they would at one point stop.
A week or so later Sam was wandering towards Oz’s bungalow.
He turned his way into Oz’s soi, looking at the wonderful abundance of lush greenery when he passed a middle aged Thai gentleman sat grimacing in front of his house in a pair of chequered shorts and a wifebeater. Sam raised his eyebrows in a greeting gesture, but the man stared at him, spat on the floor and muttered.
“Go home, snakehead!” Sam slowed down, shocked.
Snakehead, an old man who likes young girls.
A dirty old man.
There was something malignant in the atmosphere, something heavy seemed to have appeared over the soi. Something that was more than the smell of durian, pollution and buzz of the approaching rainy season. It was as if he felt that something was about to happen as the clouds filled up with moisture, waiting to give birth to a city in chaos once more with its incapable sewage system that led to flooding every year. the rainy season in Bangkok was something that no-one could hide from, no matter how rich or poor.
It was like death.
When he arrived at Oz’s house he went straight in to find Oz reading that days addition of the Bangkok Post. He pulled up a chair and looked at Oz’s face, noticing that something was indeed wrong. Telling Oz the continuing story of the dead American, the conversation turned to the atmosphere on the street.
“I’m fuckin’ worried about Gip” Oz almost whispered.
He hadn’t seen her since they had gotten back from Samet and he knew that something was amiss. Sam decided he would tell Oz what he heard on the street, what the man had barked at him. This put a real dark look over his friend’s posture. He seemed older now, Sam could almost see into his companion’s past, his sorrow coming back and crushing him into a small skeletal corpus. Sam wished he had kept his mouth shut.
Oz went silent and then after five uncomfortable minutes, suggested that Sam leave. Sam understood straight away that old and new feelings of fear were gripping the old man. He respected him enough to know that sometimes you need to deal alone before you can put into words. So Sam left, and went straight home and opened his black book and lit up the first of many of that evening’s cigarettes and began to write. He wrote about his joy to have met Oz and about his sadness that he could do nothing to take the pain away from him. He wrote some poems and finally fell to sleep. He hadn’t drunk that night. It seemed too important for drink.
When the house was silent Oz strapped on his sandals and shuffled down to the shop to buy a bottle of rum and a bag of ice. His was a thankless journey, his change was almost thrown at him, his way aggressively blocked by a tiny lady. A couple of local kids gaily flew into the shop but Oz dared not look at them, feeling eyes burning into his head. He was relieved to get back to house and began drinking as soon as the door was closed. The bottle was emptied fast and smashed onto the floor as Oz dragged himself limply to bed, he slipped into a deep unconsciousness that he did not even notice the smoke or the commotion outside. Again he saw his loved ones beckoning him to join them in their dance. It was dance that began with a sharp smash of breaking glass and the smell of smoke.
He could smell the smoke in his dreams.
He couldn’t hear the whisperings of the men around him.
People had gathered and were watching the burning house quietly, they were muttering among themselves. An old man said he was going to go in and save the big nose, but he was grabbed and reprimanded sharply by his wife. Don’t get involved. The only noise besides the crackling of wood and plaster was from Gip and her father. The father was laughing and swinging an almost empty bottle of Black Label at the makeshift funeral pyre. He stroked his daughter’s hair whispering to her that she was safe now.
Safe from the monster.
Safe she thought, Pa tells me I’m safe.
What does that mean?
Safe from the beatings, the scenes of her father hitting her mother again and again, the feeling of being touched.
The bogeyman was dead she was told.
Gip was confused and weeping into her teddy bear.
She had never seen a house on fire before, it was a terrifying sight.
The smoke belched out and the flames cracked the roof tiles.
She screamed for the moustache, although the noises that came from her mouth were not words.
A moth flew down blown by the breeze and smoke. It landed on the little girl’s face. It began drinking her tears. She brushed it away.
The sound of a fire engine siren could be heard far, far away and the people began to talk, staring in their apathy at the man and his daughter. Some prayed for Oz’s soul hoping that his next incarnation would be a better one than a farang.
Others cursed him hoping that he would come back as insect.
So they could crush him again.