Confessions of a Black Dog

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Chapter 9

This is the way I heard it had happened.

The man stood at the motorcycle taxi rank, the same place that he had stood for five days a week for the last three years. It was a typically humid Bangkok summer’s day and the man was sweating copious amounts of the body’s natural cooling system. He was leaking water so heavily that his eyes had begun to feel very sore and uncomfortable. The man reached into his pocket and began wiping his eyes with a handkerchief; it was a small blue silk square with a delicate “W” embroidered on one of the corners. The man smiled as he looked at the cloth and remembered a place and a time that no longer existed.

A smile, a smell, a joyful and wicked glint in the eye, the feel of sand on his back, a stab of sorrow.

His sad smile suddenly turned into a grimace as somebody stuck a bony elbow into his side with an impatient almost violent movement to get closer to the ever moving flow of motorcycles. In his state of nostalgia he had not noticed that the mess of people that could be loosely termed a queue had moved and felt irritated with himself and with the diminutive Thai grandmother who had barged into his perpetually aching liver, but the irritation passed almost as soon as it had begun. Thais were not known for their queuing etiquette and he understood that to get angry would just show him to be another rude and over bearing foreigner. Besides as he looked around at his befriended home, the sunlight glinting off the pollution covered buildings, the street vendors selling hot chestnuts, durian or flowers and the children skipping and giggling to school, fragile in their innocence and joy, he thought gently to himself “I could die in this place”.

He would.

William Osbourne, or “Oz” to his close friends, was an Australian of slight build in his mid-forties who despite his small stature had two noticeable features.

The first being his beer gut which gave him the appearance of being pregnant as the rest of him was slim verging on the scrawny.

His second was a moustache. This moustache was styled in the grand old fashioned way; think Kitchener, think Terry Thomas. When people enquired about these miraculous whiskers he would tell them that it was “In honour of Uncle George”, a blood relative who had gone to fight in Vietnam and never returned. If he was anywhere near a beer, he would automatically raise his glass and make a toast to the dead soldier.

It was the little quirks of his personality such as these that had charmed most people around him. His gentle and witty sense of humour combined with an earthiness that only such characters that had lived in the bush for twenty odd years could acquire. These traits touched everyone from the lady with the tiny Chinese corner shop that he bought his Bangkok Post from every morning to waitresses in the various restaurants that he patronized, ordering his food with a childlike glee that raised eyebrows and brought smiles.

He had fallen in love with the Kingdom, like so many, when he visited for a holiday eight years before.

The feeling of relaxed freedom that the place gave him combined with the gentleness of the Thai people and the sheer beauty of the women brought a sense of happiness that he had never experienced in the country of his birth.

He decided then and there that he would return as soon as possible after the holiday was over and when he returned to work he began saving his money for his next trip and so six months later he was back.

It was not only the country that he had a love affair with on that second holiday.

This time there was a woman.

She was working as a barmaid on one of the islands off the Andaman coast when they met, a dark skinned gorgeous flirt of a girl. For him she was a vision, she almost knocked him off his barstool and on that first night they got drunk on cheap Thai whiskey, he charmed her and they slept in each other’s arms, him holding her like a babe clutching onto an old piece of rag for protection.

They married two years later, after visits and pained desperate phone calls and one day he finally packed up his bags and moved to Thailand. He was lucky as she really had no inclination to leave her country, no matter how hard her relatives told her to force Oz to take her to the West.

Where the money was.

She loved her life there and would miss it too much, she told them.

Of course, no marriage is perfect but for a time they did feel a simple happiness of sorts and were glad to be around each other as often as possible. He got work on the island teaching English to the bar staff and waitresses in the local businesses and soon he became a well known face around town, she continued at her job at the bar and he joined her at her work most evenings. He even began to read Buddhist sutras in an attempt to understand the people’s very different way of thinking, but found himself drawn more to the Mahayana of North East Asia, than the Hinayana of the South East.

Their life was idyllic, except for the in-laws always poking their noses in or borrowing money, which upset Oz less than it did his wife, who found their interfering claustrophobic but as is the Thai way always conceded to their wishes. Oz just figured he owed the country something and if he made some people’s lives a bit better then it was a just payment. He knew that his wife’s brothers were just blowing away the cash on gambling debts and whores but that was their business, not his.

He had never known how much of a romantic he was until then and indulged in his fantasy as long as he could and so it was for a year or so.

His wife had become pregnant by this time and Oz was working as many hours as he could fit in a week to provide for the new life waiting to come into the world. It was a normal December’s Sunday and the sun was so hot that it seemed to be proud to have had that day named after it; the beaches were full of holiday makers, foreign and Thai and Oz was having a siesta while his body was telling him that he had drank a little bit too much at the bar last night. Oz’s wife had left the house to go for a walk on the beach and see one of her brothers, who again was up to his neck in trouble. The town was silent except for the odd shout of joy or motorcycle’s high pitched whine as it sped to somewhere to find a drink.

Suddenly Oz awoke.

He heard the gush of the tsunami.

He heard the screams of people.

He heard the distressing sound of buildings collapsing.

He climbed to the top floor of his building and stared out across the mess, there was nothing he could have done.

It was shock and the self preservation instinct.

It was the end of his world.

Oz wandered around the debris in a daze during the aftermath, helping the victims and desperately searching for his wife. He found the body of a child in a bush next to the beach. She was no more than five years old and had her blue Pokemon t-shirt wrapped up around her tiny head her bobbed haircut poking out through the cloth. Her mouth was open but her eyes were closed, it gave him the impression that she was screaming. It was an image he would never allow himself to forget. He tenderly picked up the dead girl and walked back towards the town. He was weeping and he did not stop until he found his wife’s corpse lying on the ground half covered in a plastic sheet.

He began drinking heavily after that, who wouldn’t?

I can see him sat alone in his house dwelling on how life can take away something so precious from people.

I can see him cursing himself, the world, God, everything.

The grief and the shock never really left him while he was on that small island, so six months later he packed his bags again and moved on up to Bangkok.

Oz waited at the gates of his school under the protective shadow of a cluster of gnarled scarlet blossomed trees. The students were leaving and he laughed and joked with them while smiling politely to their parents who gave him a nod and a smile that he had always found to be both curious and false.

He was waiting for his fellow teacher, Sam, and wished he would hurry up as he saw a familiar figure walking towards him, and soon he would have to go through the everyday ritual whereby Mr. Somsak, the prominent police captain and father of one of his students would begin practicing his English on him. This meant that the captain would talk at him for ten tedious minutes while not really listening to a word that Oz was speaking.

The man was showing off to all and sundry, but Oz felt the ignorance of the man in not realising that listening is as important as speaking.

Oz just grinned and made polite grunting noises to show that he was interested, breaking off every now and then to joke with a student while glancing slyly over the man’s shoulder, getting more desperate as the conversation turned from his child’s progress to the political situation with the odd subtle bigoted comment concerning Muslims. This was a conversation Oz did not wish to get involved in and he could not help but breathe a deep sigh of relief when a dishevelled figure came into his sight.

Sam wandered up to the men with a knowing grin on his face, looking at the policeman and the slumped figure of the Australian, he knew how much the perpetual one way conversations drained Oz and he relished the wounded look on his friend’s face. Sam immediately broke into the conversation with a disrespectful and haughty air that stopped the police captain’s verbal stream of prejudice and elicited a look that could have frozen a desert.

Then with a cheery farewell they both jumped on a small green non air-con bus that had just pulled up outside the school.

“Jeezus, that guy’s a right prick, mate” said Oz shaking his spiritually beaten head.

“ Ah…shuddap, you love ’im, one day you’ll look back and smile about ’im. Anyways, feel sorry for ’is kid, eh” muttered Sam.

Oz nodded in agreement, “Yeah, poor kid…lovely chap he is too”.

The bus was a obscene death trap just waiting to happen; wooden floors, unashamedly spewing polluted fumes along the dying city’s clogged tarmac arteries, the driver either drunk or on yaa baa(crazy medicine). People just kept getting on until there was no more room to breathe and then more people got on.

Sam and Oz hung on to the ceiling rails in grim silence, Sam closed his eyes and inside his head he listened to Beethoven’s Ninth, seeing the dots of colour behind his eyes changing as the first movement gained momentum. Oz glanced around himself, staring into the tired dry face of an ageless old woman sat on seat cut by a knife or mishap, on her lap she had a bag of foul smelling jackfruit which only seemed to increase her cramped discomfort.

While moving to let some passengers off the firetrap Oz’s elbow knocked hard into a miserable university student’s head and some denizen from an office who was paid nothing more than food rations was staring directly into his continually sweating armpit.

“Poor girl” he thought “I hope she likes it” and he grinned again thinking that it is not so bad today, at least he is not holding onto the door railing as usual, his bag on his shoulder and one leg hanging outside the door with nothing to support it.

Now that is a pain in the arse.

Sam had lived in Bangkok for a number of years. As soon as he got there he knew it could well be his final stop, the end of the road.

It was as crisp a December morning as you could ask for in the tropical soup when he stepped off the plane into the heaving concrete mess that is Bangkok. The first thing he noticed was the smell. Bangkok has a distinctive odour that hits you even at the airport. He passed through doors and hailed a taxi that was being questioned by a skinny malignant looking policeman. Sam saw money change hands and he couldn’t help but have the old Sam Chilton song dedicated to this city of legendary nightlife and debauchery in his head, “Making love the Japanese way, learned aggressively in Hong Kong…Bangkok …”

In the taxi, he stared at back of the driver’s head, at least five Buddha charm amulets dangling around his big, fat, bald neck. The inside of the taxi was a shrine in itself. There were rows of Buddha images, little serene lotus-positioned monks, Hindu deities, charms written in whiteout on the ceiling …” Well, at least I’m protected.” Sam started to chuckle. A serious consideration as the driver was driving fast …very fast. Billboards and palm trees and dark faces covered in cloth poking out from the back of trucks passed in front of his eyes.

The driver’s patter was entertaining, his drawl as deep and bassy as a kettledrum.

“You first time in Thailand?”

“Yes”

“You on holiday?”

“I don’t know”

The driver smiled; a big, wide knowing grin, “You stay long time, I think”…

“Why d’ you say that?”

“You eyes …“, he rasped, coughing spit. He wiped his mouth and face with a rag,” you never leave.”

“You think?”

“Can see, I know”

They drove in silence for a while, Sam staring at the huge advertisements selling security and whiskey.

As they got close to the address Sam was staying at, the driver started speaking again,

“You need driver, I show you temple…”

“No”

“…I very cheap, all day one thousand, okay?”

“No…No, thank you.”

“You want girl, I know many place.”

“No”

“Okay, okay, here my number, you want anything, you phone, okay”

“Okay, thank you”

“Two hundred and fifty baht”

“What…”

The car had stopped at the dirty and cheap hotel in Banglampoo.

Oz had met Sam on his first day of work. They had gone through their present company’s training scheme together. The “indoctrination” as Sam liked to call it, lasted two weeks and was run by a character that the other teachers lovingly referred to as “Papa”, a half mad Brit that had lived in Thailand for too many years and had once obviously loved the place, for his hatred for it was too sharp. He had a sticker on his desk that exclaimed the local population were “a bunch of meandering foot scuffers who couldn’t fry an egg.”

“Don’t learn the language, boys!” he’d shout at every new recruit, “Trust me you’ll be happy here as long as you don’t know what the little bastards are saying!”

Their company was a tin pot outfit. Most of the teachers were on the run from something. In their time together, Oz and Sam had taught with murderers, drug dealers, rapists and paedophiles. The dregs of society. The in-company joke was that if you didn’t have a criminal record you weren’t wanted.

There were a few good men but they were few and far between.

Still, it was interesting.

You never quite knew what would happen from week to week.

Sam and Oz had become partners in crime almost immediately and even though Oz had, with sheer willpower, fought his way out of an alcoholic haze and could now function without a pick me up, he still enjoyed a drink whenever the opportunity arose. And so they were speeding towards their little drinking hole of choice to meet a couple more of the lost souls in paradise.

Oz looked affectionately at Sam slumped against the side of a bus seat, his eyes closed with concentration, his face twitching to his internal symphony and his tie pulled down, naughty schoolboy style. He had had a very chequered past of which he spoke very rarely about, a code that most foreigners adhered to as chances are they were either scallywags, repressed divorcees or homosexuals, failed businessmen or just plain lost. Sam had left his studies at university for a life of travelling and experience.

“’Ow can I be an ex-pat when I wasn’t a fucking patriot in the first place?!” he would always mumble when somebody would talk about the foreigner community in Bangkok. He had lived in a number of countries and had been through a failed relationship just prior to arriving in Bangkok, a relationship that he had messed up, and which he was still atoning for.

“Couldn’t resist those damn Japanese women, d’ya know what I mean?” he would spout heroically to other men, yet Oz could see that he felt a lot more than his taciturn shell would allow himself to say.

Once he had whispered something to Oz, something that gave his friend an insight into how he really felt.

“Sometimes you ‘ave t’ destroy all you love, y’know, just t’ know that you were really in love with something in the first place”.

Sam came to understand that Bangkok was not the easiest place to be just after a failed relationship and yet more mistakes were made through a spate of drunken nights, until Oz took him aside one day and gave him good talking to. If it had been anyone else it would have ended in violence but Oz knew he could say those things to Sam. He had been there himself. He understood.

Living in Bangkok for the last five years, Sam had seen lepers begging for change, people with their faces melting like giant candles through this disease or that (there’s so many to choose from these days), the tortoise man, who would drag himself up on top of the bridge at Rajthewi in the tropical sun and wait for hours lying face down.

And the children.

Tiny little humans kidnapped from their families with their limbs cut off by Cambodian gangsters and forced to beg for change on the bridges, overpasses and streets of that dirty great sweatshop. Kids forced by their parents to work the streets selling roses and sweets.

Sam had taught English to a Burmese illegal that was going to be sold to a foreigner as a bride by her mother (she was thirteen), but was saved by an American and his wife, who gave her a job waiting at their restaurant (she ended up getting thrown out of her restaurant job for fucking the cook). The last time Sam saw her she was walking the streets in make up and getting on the back of sleazy old men’s motorcycles, and there was nothing he could do to stop it happening.

The bus finally skidded to halt at Victory Monument and the two sodden teachers were catapulted onto the concrete pavement and headed directly towards a side street, both greedily awaiting their cheap bottles of Leo beer.

Oz and Sam entered the small Thai bar cum restaurant to find that they were the first ones there. It did not surprise them as it was a late Friday afternoon, which meant that the traffic was building up to apocalyptic proportions as Thais left the city in their thousands on their way to their family home in the country or on a short holiday to an island, and their school was relatively close to their group’s regular meeting place.

They were greeted by the establishment’s owner with a wide grin. He liked having these ridiculous people in his bar, they always drank a lot of his beer and never caused him trouble. Well, hardly ever. It was usually if there was a new face among them, fresh blood, someone who did not understand the Thai way and thought he was better than them because he was white and so-called educated. The old man understood enough about these people to know that if they respect the way things are, things get done for them, if they do not, Bangkok will spit them out. But these two individuals were the first of their group to patronise his bar and he had come to think of them almost as friends. They always called him elder sibling and the older one was very funny and his staff liked them, they had even offered to teach his staff English, an offer he was still considering. He had also seen them defending his female staff when a foreigner had attempted to get a little too familiar with the pretty younger ones. They had hidden behind them as Mr. Sam grabbed a bottle and barked at the offending vermin in their harsh sounding language and the creature had left his bar shouting and screaming like a dog. Then Mr. Sam had walked up to him and apologised for the man’s behaviour.

They were good people, they showed respect to Thais.

As Oz and Sam rocked up to their usual seats, Sam greeted the owner with a traditional prayer gesture to show his respect and within a minute the weekend celebration had begun as two ice cold beers, an ashtray and a big bucket of ice were placed in front of them.

The conversation revolved around Oz’s new abode, a place a little bit further outside of town but a house as opposed to a tiny cramped apartment like he had been living in ever since he had arrived in Bangkok and since the place was owned by a cousin of his late wife, he was paying less than he should be. The area was peaceful and it did not cost him too much more to get to work by motorcycle taxi, basically it was just what he needed and he was just about to organise a moving in party when they were interrupted by the sound of their friends approaching.

Sam saw them, big men towering over the small frames of the Thais.

Individuals attract others and Sam had a group of people that he loved dearly.

They were a surrogate family of individuals, each one with a past as colourful as a Caravaggio biblical scene.

There was Jonah, a loveable Liverpudlian hulk who took full advantage of the illicit Thai drug trade to keep himself amused, but had the annoying habit of always leaving wherever he was drinking with more cigarette lighters in his pockets than he had had when he entered, something that the smokers in the group had become wise to, very quickly.

Then there was Antti, a handsome blond haired, blue eyed Finn, who was the only member of the group who was not a teacher. He worked for an I.T. company that had offices in the capital. Like most Finns he had an insatiable thirst and a razor sharp wit, he was also known to have fits of depression and anger while being stinking drunk and was forever apologising to someone or other.

The last being a New Zealander, The Kiwi. A foul mouth with a heart of gold and a mind like a sewer.

They brought a new face with them, a new teacher from Jonah’s school.

He was a shifty-eyed ratty looking individual, an Irishman who went by the name of Figgis who overcompensated for his lack of physical structure by pushing his chest out and sitting wide legged in a gesture that made him look even more untrustworthy than if he sat normally and Sam took an irrational dislike to him. Figgis wrinkled his nose when Jonah referred to him as an “F.N.G” (Fucking New Guy).

The Irishman instantly decided to take charge of the conversation talking far too much about himself and the women he’d fucked, without being asked any questions about his past and after a couple of minutes everyone began to ignore him. He was left muttering to himself as Jonah side looked at the rest of the crew apologetically.

It was Friday night. Man talk. The clink of bottles. An international meeting place. The predatory instinct. The ritual.

" … Whoa!”

“Did ya see that!”

“See her. I could practically smell her”

“Come and sit on my knee, sweetheart”

“On your knee? On my cock more like!”

“You’re one fuckin’ eloquent cunt, d’you know that?”

“I’m a fuckin’ champion mate!”

“Yeah, a champion sheep shagger”

“Nothing wrong with a bit o’ wool stuck in your teeth”

“New Zealanders like it, uh?”

“Us Kiwis, the Welsh, and especially the Aussies. The Empire was fuckin’ founded on it, Bro.”

“We Finns enjoy the company of reindeer, actually”

“Fuckin’ ’ell mate! Enjoy the feel of those antlers against cold skin, d’ya?”

“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”

“He he he he he … Oh dearie me, Antti, what are we going to do with you mate?”

“Do what you like, I don’t give a fuck. I’m way too wasted …”

“Could be fucking worse, you could be an American …”

“Hey calm down, that’s fighting talk to say that to a European…”

“Steve’s gone then?” asked Oz,

“Yeah…” chuckled Jonah making finger scissors “and if ’e comes back ’is missus ’as threatened to give ’im the old Thai snip” to which everyone winced.

“So, what the fuck s‘appened to Thomas?” Sam asked Jonah.

“Fuck knows, mate. ‘E just went AWOL again this week, in’t that right, Antti, you’re closer to th’ cunt than I am,… as long as he turns up for work on Monday, ’e’ll still ’ave ’is job, though”, Jonah replied staring at the Finn, who just shrugged and muttered “He had problems, man, y’know…don’t we all?” to which the four close friends nodded knowingly, the Irishman gazed into his glass of beer and the American stared at them all with a look of distain.

People were always disappearing in Bangkok.

In my imagination I see the six of them sat there from above, the five friends rejoicing in their comfortable familiarity, the stranger sat there trying to prove himself. He deserved to drink in this place as much as they did with the strangeness of the surroundings in smouldering jealousy and resentment. It bonds his relationship to each of the others.

This is how people sometimes have an instant doomed friendship, a brotherhood of hatred.

The booze flowed and as the night wore on the two separate camps appeared to relax a little in each other’s company; the drink making the four friends more lecherous and loud, the Irishman a touch more joyful.

They decided to go to another bar as the night was still young and the conversation had yet to become the inane mumblings of the truly drunk. They paid their bill and off they went. The bar they were headed to was frequented by middle class Thais with a bit of cash in their pockets and students in the process of pretending to be adults, the food was expensive but the whiskey was still cheap and the girls were a notch above the average and more likely to speak English. The night was going fairly smoothly for once, although there was the usual undercurrent of suspicion from some of the Thais who resented having their drinking space invaded by large numbers of foreigners, who they rightly or wrongly saw as exploiters and sex tourists.

Figgis had become drunk very fast and his position on the peripherals was becoming a problem as the place was crowded and he was perched on the outer edge of table with customers and waitresses trying to get past him, every so often knocking into him. Antti was talking to him about his visit to the States when a waitress carrying a tray full of drinks lost her footing for an instant and hit Figgis’s drink clear out of his hands. The glass crashed onto the table splashing Antti but did not break. In an instinctive moment of rage Figgis pushed the waitress who dropped all the drinks onto the floor.

Everybody stopped and looked, Jonah and Sam leapt at Figgis and started berating him for pushing the girl, Oz leant down to pick the girl up but she violently pulled her arm away muttering away in her sing song language and out of the corner of his saw a group of Thai men rustling their feathers.

“Jeezus, I’m too old fer this” he thought.

Jimmy had begun mediating between the two groups while Sam and Jonah continued to argue with the drunken Figgis.

He had started to point his finger at Antti who was beginning to get very pissed off.

Oz saw that bad things were going to happen if they did not leave that bar as soon as was humanly possible.

He grabbed Sam, motioned to the unhappy locals.

“I think we’re in trouble, old boy, let’s fucking leave!” he said calmly through his cleaned teeth with a grin full of worry and anger.

Sam got the message and dragged Joshua and Antti away from the chaos. Figgis saw what was happening and he leapt out of the door, upsetting a table in the process as he zigzagged his way to the exit. The manager unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere with a look of anxiety on his face as he saw his bar in disarray and the potential aggressive situation and he gestured to the gang of locals to relax.

Sam and Jonah instantly rattled away half sorry yet still angry in Thai at him, Jimmy settled the bill and offered to pay for the drinks that were spilled but the manager just wanted them out and the four scooted off into the sultry night leaving the F.N.G to fend for himself.

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