© Simon Totten
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The queue for Kazbar nightclub snakes around the corner.
‘Who’s he?’ asks Jake, as a wiry figure, wearing an Emporio Armani watch, a three-piece snake skin suit and pointed alligator boots, emerges in front of him. A trail of Hugo Boss men’s scent follows him as he struts towards the entrance.
‘Anyone would think he owns the place,’ says Jake.
Zane and Dex giggle.
‘What? asks Jake, searching. ‘Was it something I said?’
‘He does… own the place, I mean,’ says Zane. ‘That’s Sanuk Rama. A big cheese around here. A well respected business man. An entrepreneur,’ says Zane.
‘From what I hear, he’s stinking rich. He owns three businesses, a hotel on an island down south, a trekking tour place up north and this place,’ says Dex.
‘What a dude. Bit of a sharp dresser. Betcha he’s a ladies man. Betcha nobody messes with him, maan,’ says Zane.
On his way in to the club, Rama inspects one of the bouncers, rearranges his tie and wipes something from his chin with a clean, crisp white handkerchief with the initials SR embossed in gold italics in the corner.
The queue for Kazbar disappears surprisingly quickly. Inside is hot and heaving. In spite of the whirring and clacking of half a dozen ceiling fans, the air hangs heavy, like something’s rotting.
Beautiful young backpackers play drinking games. Middle aged die-hards prop up the bar. Lecherous toads leer at gyrating dancers but Danny is nowhere to be seen.
Flashing disco lights slice dancing silhouettes and fill glasses with cocktails of colour. A mirror ball twirls and glitters above the dance floor. Walls vibrate with techno-house music thumping from speakers stacked on a small stage at the far end of the room.
In the gloom of a long smoky bar, Rama stands with his entourage of bodyguards, surveying his empire. Tourists and locals are on the prowl. Everyone knocks back drinks like there’s no tomorrow. The place is jumping.
People are like wolves in nightclubs. They hunt in packs and follow scents. They won’t rest until they’ve tracked down a victim and gone in for the kill. Except it’s not food they desire, it’s sex.
I don’t know about anyone else in Kazbar but Lek was having fun. Mesmerised by lights, he surfs on the crest of their luminescence, stopping occasionally to peek out from behind speakers and play hide and seek with himself. But he isn’t the only spirit there. Black beetle spirits with human eyes crawl in and out of men suited in straitjacket grey, sipping cocktails and beers at the bar. In the darkness on a small stage, are hybrid spiders with human ears.
Sanuk’s alligator boots squelch over the spongy carpets as he passes Jake. A man mountain is serving behind the bar. His barbed wire tattoos stretch and tighten on his bulging biceps. The bling on his sausage fingers gleams as he removes bottles from a shelf. When he sees Sanuk coming, he almost falls off his seat in his rush to make him a drink. He measure spirits carefully, mixes and stirs them, then drops an umbrella in the glass. He slides it along the smooth surface of the mahogany bar and waits, tapping his fingers nervously on one of the pumps. Sanuk studies it for a few seconds, inspects it closely and sips it.
‘What fack you call that Ronson?’ says Sanuk, wincing. ‘I no like that way.’
‘Sorry boss…very sorry, shall I try again?’
‘Just give me a beer,’ he says scowling. ‘How’s business?’
‘Jumping boss. Couldn’t be better,’
‘Glad to hear you do something right,’ says Sanuk leaning across the bar, whispering in his ear.
Zane dodges and weaves his way confidently to the bar. Jake feels a tap on the shoulder.
‘This is Arne Frederiksen. He stays at the Tai Loke as well,’ says Dex.
Arne Frederiksen has eyes like blue pearls. A lion’s mane for hair and long black eyelashes on his oval face that stand to attention when he speaks.
‘Nice to meet you,’ he says, blotches spreading into his ruddy cheeks as he snatches a drink from the tray. Stockily built, round shouldered with a crooked nose, he’s like an out of condition boxer. He offers Jake a brief handshake before shuffling to the bar.
‘Don’t mind Arne,’ says Zane. ‘He’s a man on a mission. He likes Thai girls, know what I’m sayin’?’
Zane takes three bottles of beer, hands them to his companions who clank them together, cheering. He leans closer to Jake and shouts above the booming music.
‘Any sign of big bro’ yet?’ he asks.
Jake shakes his head. ‘Thought you said he’d be here.’
‘He might be working in the backroom or have the day off or somethin. Chillax, man. You Brits are so uptight,’ says Zane.
Jake loiters around the entrance to the backroom, then opens the door and peers in. The corridor is empty. His eyes wander across the dance floor. Zane waves his arms in the air. You couldn’t miss him in a crowd.
Bored with playing, Lek floats into the dry ice that’s funnelling out from under the stage. He makes it glow and shifts it towards Jake until he’s completely enveloped in warm, suffocating stickiness. Dizzy and faint, Jake’s legs buckle. He falls, sucking thin warm air into his lungs. Vomit rises and subsides in his throat. He staggers to his feet, spluttering and choking, wafting dry ice with the back of his hand. Jake thought perhaps he’d had too much beer? Or maybe the jetlag was catching up with him?
Lek flies out of the dry ice, does a manic jig and merges into a melee of dancers, laughing.
Appearing and disappearing in a sea of bobbing heads and pumping arms before Jake is a blonde mohawk and a checked shirt. Time stands still. People dance in slow motion. He shields his eyes from strobe lighting to get a better look at him.
Tentatively, Jake reaches out for his arm.
‘Danny? Danny?’ says Jake.
Alarmed, the man turns to face him.
‘Sorry, I thought you were someone else,’ says Jake standing back. The man holds his hands up to show he didn’t want any trouble. On the dance floor, Jake is joined by Zane.
‘Hey, what’s up? ‘You ok? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,’ shouts Zane.
‘What?’ says Jake.
‘Don’t be such a dweeb,’ says Zane.
‘Eh?’ says Jake unable to hear above the booming thud of music.
‘You bombed yet?’ says Zane.
‘I thought I saw Danny, but…’ he says.
‘Really?’ says Zane putting his arm around him. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll turn up. Look over there,’ he says, grinning. ‘She’ll take your mind off things…’ says Zane pointing at a girl on the dance floor. Jake squints to catch a glimpse of her.
Zane makes a b-line for her, dragging Jake with him, then twists and turns rhythmically, bopping, completely losing himself in the music. Jake is hopelessly out of time. He knows he’s no Michael Jackson but the girl he’s dancing with makes him look even worse. She’s in the mood for enjoying herself. Her bookish designer black framed glasses are at odds with her party girl image. She places her hand over her mouth, sniggering at Jake’s dancing.
The powerful combination of drink, jet lag and adrenalin make him forget who he is and why he’s there. He’s convinced the girl’s up for it and follows her to the bar. I try to stem the flow of alcohol and adrenalin to Jake’s brain but I fear he’s about to make a fool of himself.
‘What’s your name?’ he asks.
‘It’ll cost ya. Mine’s a drop o’ the amber nectar,’ she replies.
‘Coming right up,’ says Jake.
‘Kerry,’ she says. ‘So what’s a nice boy like you, doing in a place like this?’ she asks.
Jake tries to redirect his one track mind.
‘Look here… s-seen him around?’ slurs Jake.
Kerry peers at the photo of Danny.
‘No mate sorry. Bit of a looker though,’ says Kerry. ‘Look, this is my last night. Before I head back I was hopin’ to go out with a bang,’ she says, flirting.
A spirit teaches love not lust so I try to get Jake say something interesting. Ask Kerry to dance? What’s the best place she’d been to? What do you think of Bangkok? But it was no use, I was drowning in Jake’s testosterone, enough to launch a rocket. His hormones bounce, his libido soars. He moves closer.
‘What do you do? asks Jake.
‘Skimpies barmaid mate.’
Jake swallows hard.
‘Love my job back in Kalgoorlie, might get ‘em out now and then. Flash ‘em around. Earns big bucks y’know?’ said Kerry. ‘I’m in a league of my own. I can make up to $1200 a day no worries. The big money is in the tips. You make ‘em laugh, you serve ‘em, you remember what they drink, you remember their names and make ‘em feel special.’
Kerry pauses for breath and reaches for half a lager. She downs it in one, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
‘Shouldn’t really drink much. Got a flight to catch tomorra,’ she says. Sensing his chance, Jake opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out. His head is swimming, the room is spinning. He can’t take his eyes off the erect nipples under Kerry’s tight yellow top.
‘You ok there?’ she asks.
‘Yeah,’ replies Jake, drooling at a tiny bead of sweat snaking its way across the collar bone of her tanned torso. ‘Never better,’ he says, seeing double, inhaling the intoxicating force of her perfume. Kerry sips her drink and stands back. Jake smiles back at her. In the end he says nothing and leans his face close to hers. As he stares into her eyes. Their mouths move closer, their lips meet.
The smash of breaking glass jolts him backwards. At the bar, Ronson is screaming into Arne’s face. He lunges at him, grabbing him by the throat. His stubby fingers tighten, squeezing it. Arne struggles free, sways back on his heels and throws a punch sending him tumbling to the ground. The music stops. Arne stands back, shocked.
Screams of panic pierce the silence. People run for the exit. Bouncers in tuxedoes rush past. A Thai woman jumps on Arne’s shoulders and smashes a bottle off the back of his skull. He hits the floor. The woman falls, sprawling all over him. The froth of beer mixed with blood bubbles in his hair. At the bar, fists smack into cheeks. More bouncers wade in. Zane and Dex lift Arne to his feet, half dragging him towards the exit.
Jake glances back to see Kerry. She is gone. He backs up towards the wall, then makes a run for the kitchen door. But he is blocked by three men standing like rabid dogs forming a wall of clenched teeth.
‘Come on then, you facking carpetmuncher,’ snarls Ronson.
Ronson’s left eye is closed, swollen and bruised. He hovers over Jake, frothing at the mouth, like a rabid wolf, baring its teeth. I try to give Jake the courage to stand up to him but just when he needs me most, he can never find me.
Armed with a row of gleaming bling on his fist he swings at Jake’s face from nowhere. A snap of pain stings Jake’s nose, and he hits the ground. Tasting blood he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and spits.
There’s a mad glint in Ronson’s right eye as he raises the gleaming machete above his head. His face tenses, the purple vein in the side of his temple throbs, as he brings it down.
I thought it was all over for Jake then. I’d have to take my chances with the Unholy Trinity of the Dead. Lek is smiling, loving it. It will save him the bother of killing Jake himself.
‘Enough,’ says Sanuk, twitching the brown mole above his lip. Gold flashes in his yellow teeth as he grabs Ronson’s arm, stopping the machete in mid-air.
‘Mr Ronson. Put it down,’ he commands.
Ronson releases his grip on the machete and drops it to the ground. Stepping away, he pants revealing an anchor tattoo on the side of his bulging forearm. Sanuk positions himself between Ronson and Jake, like a boxing referee. Moving close to Ronson he whispers at length in his ear. Ronson nods in agreement and takes another step back.
‘I am Sanuk Wama, Mr Sanuk Wama. We go now,’ he says.
Jake and his friends have no choice but to follow him through a fire door exit. Sanuk holds his hand up in the air to attract attention, making sure he doesn’t lose them in the crowd of revellers pushing and shoving in their desperation to escape.
Bodies spill into the street barging into each other. A drunken argument rages between two men. They push and snarl, goading each other. Sanuk leads them away, his shifty eyes peering out at the world suspiciously. Two hundred yards further down the street the crowd thins out, the noise subsides. Sanuk wags his finger at a building, then points at somewhere as if it looks familiar. Eventually, he opens the door to a side street café and ushers Jake and the others through it.
Inside is small but cosy. Sanuk takes them to a large table with a dim light above it. Taking a spare seat, Sanuk places it carefully at the head of the table, sits down and gestures for people to join him.
When everyone is settled in their seats, he puts his hands on the table, showing off his fancy cuff links and rattling his silver bracelet. A waitress arrives promptly, chewing gum. Sanuk makes an order and notes it down.
‘What you want?’ she asks, facing the others, smiling like an assassin.
‘Mineral water with ice please?’ says Jake. Zane and Dex order coffees. Arne shakes his head. She scribbles it down on a pad and hurries back to the kitchen.
By now everyone is sober. Zane seems the coolest. Dex is shell shocked. Arne is still dazed and confused. Sanuk leans forward, folding his arms.
‘Well my fwiends,’ he says. It seems you make men angwy. They dangewous, how you call them, gangsters. You not mess with them,’ says Sanuk.
Jake and his friends look around at each other uneasily, searching for comfort. By the look on Dex’s face he blames Arne for starting it all.
‘I give you stwong advice. I wun bus twips tomowow, north to Chiang Mai. If you have any sense, you be on it,’ says Sanuk.
Everyone stops. Silence follows.
‘I can’t. I have to find my brother,’ says Jake, suddenly. He pulls out his photo and hands it to Sanuk who squints at the creased piece of paper as if it had given him bellyache, then chooses his words carefully.
‘Kazbar my club, he work for me there since last week.
‘What? He’s ok?’ asks Jake.
‘Yes my fwiend he ok,’ says Sanuk. ‘But he has new job in Chiang Mai now. If you come there, you see him again,’ says Sanuk.
‘Thank you, that’s great. I I I…’ says Jake.
‘Why you so wowy?’ says Sanuk.
‘He didn’t show up at the hostel, where I was meeting him, I thought he was… m-missing,’ says Jake.
‘He fine, no wowies,’ he says.
Jake grips his hand and shakes it. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We appreciate your help it, don’t we?’ says Jake looking round the table for support from the others.
Sanuk smiles. ‘Shall we say, all water under bridge. No hard feeling? Forget tonight. Tomowow another day?’
‘Yes, Mr Rama, we re all sorry aren’t we?’ says Jake nodding enthusiastically. ‘We didn’t mean any harm we were just trying to have fun, weren’t we?’ says Jake, looking at Arne.
‘Is it all settle then? My wife, French Fry run Jungle Twek. I take you meet her? See elyfant, have wafting fun. Leave shity madness behind?’
Sanuk had saved Jake’s life and knew where Danny was and besides a change of scene from the chaotic city would do him good. What could be better? At last, Jake’s wretched luck appeared to be changing. In his eyes Sanuk was some sort of Christ-like miracle working genius, a god among men, a hero who could do no wrong.
‘Yes of course we’ll be on the bus for sure, won’t we?’ says Jake.
The others shrug, staying silent.
‘I see you tomowow then? Wemember, bus leave ‘Leven o’cock, tomowow. Not safe here any more,’ says Sanuk.
Next morning, when Jake wakes in the dormitory at the hostel, gagging at wafts of body odour, stale farts and halitosis, I’m happy not to be human but then I’m sad. Sad that I’ll never experience love or feel the warm, smooth touch of another human’s skin or an exploding orgasm, the difference between velvet and sandpaper, a cool soothing breeze on my face or icy water extinguishing a fire in my throat. I’ll never smell coffee, freshly cut grass, clean air or the scent of a flower. Taste a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate bar, a runny egg yolk with ketchup and chips. I try to make him glad to be alive, but I can’t reach him.
No matter what he tries, rubbing, scratching, he can’t unstick the gluey mess of crust on his eyelashes. They refuse to open. He panics, until finally, he breaks them. Seeing again is a huge relief.
The dormitory is a doss house. Dishevelled bodies lie open-mouthed like corpses massacred by a machine gun. A dull headache weighs him down. His neck is knotted as if someone had screwed his head off during the night and hadn’t quite fitted it back on properly.
Memories of the previous night in Kazbar emerge like ships in the night. Kerry’s nipples. Her horsey laughter. His embarrassing lunge at her. His shock at fists in bloody faces. Arne’s punch. Ronson’s gold knuckle dusters. The machete. The ache of fear. Kerry’s curves. Sanuk’s yellow fingernail, beady black eyes and his divine intervention.
When he is fully awake he sits up. The most important part of the previous night, the best thing to come out of it, slowly dawns on him. Finally, he’d met someone who knew where Danny was.
Zane, Dex and Arne get out of bed in slow motion. Bleary eyed, they shuffle to the toilet, mooch about, stretch and yawn. They gather their belongings and pack their bags, completely ignoring each other. Anyone would think they were complete strangers.
Dex is pacing up and down, smouldering. Eventually he goes over to Arne who is lying on his bed listening to music and slaps his feet. Startled, Arne pulls his ear plugs out.
‘What? What the…’ he says.
‘I hope you’re proud of yourself cave man. I can’t believe you’re that stupid. Didn’t you spot she was with that animal. You could hardly miss him could you?’ asks Dex.
Arne pushes Dex’s hand away. ‘Ok, I messed up, I had one too many,’ says Arne, remorse in his low voice. Nursing his bandaged head he stares at Dex pitifully, with one eye half shut, bruised and swollen.
‘Why did you do that? Now we’ve got to make other plans, just because of you,’ says Dex.
‘It won’t happen again,’ says Arne.
‘No… you’re damn right it won’t. We could have all been sliced to pieces. Why don’t you fuck off back to Oslo?’ says Dex.
Arne sighs heavily, burying his head under a sarong.
Jake exchanges suggestive nods with Zane in the direction of the exit.
‘Liven up people, Jungle trekking here we come remember?’ says Zane, edging towards the door. One by one they leave the dormitory. Outside, in pale sunshine, they take a left turn into the side street past busy food stalls on the way to Sukhumvit Soi 38, where Sanuk had told them to catch the bus.
The street is eerie, deserted except for Sanuk’s battered tourist bus.The clapped out old banger that’s parked in the road has filthy hub caps and bald tyres. Furry muck grows in its window ledges. Copper rust has flaked off large patches of ancient green paint. Considering Sanuk’s wealth and status, Jake was expecting better.
At its side is Sanuk, edgy and impatient, pacing up and down, checking his watch. Sweat rolls down his forehead and forms patches of damp under his armpits and chest. As Jake and the others arrive slowly, weighed down by bags, Sanuk slaps each of them on the back and shakes their hands.
‘Welcome to magical mystewy tour,’ he says. ‘Sleep well after last night adventure?’
‘Funny guy huh?’ says Zane.
‘All aboard gentlemen. French Fry’s Trekkers here we come. Trek in nice clean jungle air just what you need for how you say, left over hang up?’ he says.
‘Hangover,’ snaps Zane.
Sanuk scowls at him and then smiles at everyone else. Zane grunts, forcing a half-hearted smile.
After dumping his bags on the pavement beside the bus where Ronson was loading them into the luggage compartment, he clambers onto the bus. As soon as the stuffy cigarette air hits him, he begins to dread the journey ahead.
All the seats are empty so he grabs a window seat near the back that is shaded from the glare of the morning sun. Arne sits on his own, avoiding the others.
‘Air con is on, isn’t it?’ complains Dex.
‘Doesn’t feel like it. Shall we ask Sanuk?’ asks Jake.
‘Go ahead then, lame brain,’ says Zane folding his arms and squirming in his seat, screwing his eyes together, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep.
Jake doesn’t have the energy for an argument. Dex cools his face with a small battery operated fan. Arne taps his feet, nodding in time to music.
The bus is filling up with young fresh-faced tourists. The noise levels rise. A variety of languages compete to be heard. Fifteen minutes turns to half-an-hour, one hour to one-and-a-half hours.
‘Jeez how long does it take?’ says Zane.
‘Forever and a day, by the look,’ shrugs Dex.
‘I’d ask Sanuk what the hold-up is but I think I’ll be pushing my luck,’ says Jake. Looks like he’s got a lot on his plate.’ Sanuk gets on and off the bus several times, chatting and fussing. Each time he rubs his hands, agitated as if he has lost something.
Zane checks his watch. The bus hasn’t moved an inch.
‘This is such a waste of time,’ he says.
To Jake and his friends the wait on the bus seemed like an eternity. When the clock is ticking and seconds are slipping away it’s hard to know if you’re biding your time or wasting it. Some make a ‘bucket list.’ Visit the pyramids? Jump out of an aeroplane? Read all the classics from cover to cover? Swim with dolphins? Have sex in a threesome? Watch the top 100 films of all time? A human life is short. Time is precious. I always tell Jake to make the most of every moment. Seize the day. Take the bull by the horns. Make hay while the sun shines because time you enjoy wasting is not wasting time.
Arne is still nodding in time to the tinny beats coming from his earphones.
‘Sanuk needs to get his ass in gear. I’m sick of all this sittin’ around.’
‘Oh listen to you,’ interrupts Dex. ‘You’ve got a short memory. Just remember he’s the one who saved us from being sliced into pieces last night. Be patient. They’re just waiting for it to fill up. They want to maximise their profits. Probably why he saved our skins last night, saw us as bus ticket money,’ says Dex.
Dex comes over to Zane, putting his hand on his knee. ‘Look I know you’ve got a lot on your mind right now but you need to calm down a bit,’ he says.
‘Not me dude. I’ve had it with this shit, I’m getting off. I’ll take my chances with the machete mafia,’ says Zane getting up to walk down the aisle, as far as the door before Sanuk appears in front of him on the steps. ‘We ready, go now. Ready to go, full now,’ he shouts excitedly.
Loud cheers and much blowing out of cheeks greet the announcement. At last, the final seat at the front had been filled. Zane stops, turns around and makes his way back to his seat.
Jake scans the crowded bus filled with tourists, backpacks and sarongs and feels out of place among these gap year kids. They’d been more like spoilt kids on a school trip, rather than backpackers but now they were laughing, high on life. I drink in the buzz of their energy and excitement like a blood sucking vampire and pump it through Jake’s veins. But he doesn’t notice, preferring to stare out of the window, worrying, wishing the journey was over before it had begun. It was enough to make a spirit give up.
‘Is it me or is Sanuk the same bloke as the one in Kazbar? He was much calmer and in control then. Now he’s sweaty, shaky and distracted.’
‘Yeah, he’s acting weird, don’t you think?’ says Dex.
‘Look at his finger nail, says Zane pointing at him. ‘He’s not your average bus company director is he? He’s the director, driver and the biggest charlie snorter in South East Asia. Look at his eyes he’s totally lost it, man. Not exactly helpful when it comes to bus timetabling is it?
Jake looks at Sanuk, seeing his point.
‘You think Sanuk’s great don’t you?’ asks Zane.
‘Mmm… maybe not but right now, I don’t care. He’s my only connection to Danny,’ he says.
The First Cut
Nothing prepares Jake for the vision of jaw dropping beauty that climbs onto the bus. As she makes her way down the aisle, heads turn. All eyes are on sticks, undressing her.
Confident, composed, serene, yet fierce, she looks them all in the eye. She isn’t exactly skinny but she didn’t look like she ate much. She has the look of a beautiful elf or pixie. She runs her fingers through long tangles of wildly unkempt blonde hair that tumble over her shoulders, smoothing out streaks of purple dye.
When she pauses at Jake’s seat, the butterfly stud in her nose glints, blue eyes dazzle in the sunlight, His world stops. He looks down at the floor, painfully conscious the only vacant seat left, is next to him.
As she stretches her slender arms up into the rack above him, he can’t help noticing the outline of her breasts. Round and full but pert. Her long legs allow her to stretch up on tip toes, to reach into her bag. The elastic of her men’s underpants rides up above ripped jeans. Her pale blue Tai dyed T-shirt matches the colour of her eyes, revealing a hint of cleavage.
Like the rest of the bus Jake couldn’t take his eyes off her as she sits down to unwind the tangle of her Mp3 headphones.
He deperately wants to look deeply into her eyes, ask her name, where she’s travelling to, what her plans are, what does she think of Thailand. And if marriage is a bit too early he wonders if it would be a bit forward to ask if she’d like mad passionate sex when they get to Chiang Mai. It was the perfect opportunity to say something clever, witty or impressive. To strike while the iron was hot, but his tongue remained stuck to the roof of his dry mouth, seized by a shyness, his brain frozen by a stone-cold paralysis induced by the thought of Rachel Bingham.
What happened with her still tortures him. The last time he saw her was still fresh in his memory. A Thursday night after work. On a whim of spontaneous inspiration, he had decided to surprise her. He’d let himself into her flat using the keys he’d had for over a year. There was nobody home.
He’d smiled at the toy beside her bed. A present from a holiday in Norway. The ugly Troll that was buried in a snowstorm every time you shook it was only a tacky piece of plastic but it was special because it always made her laugh.
DVD’s of her favourite films, The Wizard of Oz and Krystoff Kieslowski’s Three colours trilogy were still on the shelf next to the bed. The thought of those cosy Sunday afternoons watching them together in bed still lit a raging bonfire in his heart. Their naked limbs entwined in the afterglow of fantastically thrilling marathon sex.
As he lay stretched out on the bed, he reached down inside his shoe running his finger lovingly over the photograph of her he kept in his shoe.
He remembered Rachel’s curvaceous naked body in a white cotton sheet, her silky flesh tingling over his. The way she fluttered her eyelids when she woke. The way she smiled, parting her moist, pouting lips, to whisper the words he had longed to hear for so long.
‘I love you, will you move in with me?’ she whispered.
He held the T-shirt from under her pillow to his lips, breathing in the essence of her. The image of her green eyes, porcelain skin and long black hair, forever imprinted on the back of his eyelids.
The sound of keys turning in the lock interrupted the flow of his wandering fantasies. He jumped off the bed and hid behind the kitchen door, intending to leap out and surprise her, smother her with love, affection and passion.
Rachel pushed the door open. Laughing hysterically, she picked up her letters and put her keys in her bag. Her watery eyes bright. Her radiant cheeks blushing and blooming, her teeth pearly white, her breath smoking in the cold outside air.
A stranger was with her. A man Jake had never seen before. Why was he even there? Why was he standing in Rachel’s doorway? Why was he grinning at her like he knew everything about the woman he loved? When he grabbed Rachel and pulled her close to him he expected her to pull away, protest, object, kick him where it hurt. But she didn’t. She kissed him. Not with a friendly peck on the cheek but with a tongue and lips that lingered long and deep.
Rachel and Jake’s last night together was a bittersweet memory, an erotic dream and nightmare rolled into one. They had been childhood sweethearts, together five years three months and twenty seven days. He had always loved her and probably always would. He had always thought she was the one. Clever, challenging, sensitive, kind and generous. Always the life and soul. Her smile melted him and he fed off her positive energy.
They always knew what each other were thinking and finished each other’s sentences. She was the only person he could trust. A true soul mate. He could go a lifetime or five and never find that again. A spirit can’t fall in love but I understand why people say the first cut is the deepest.
Looking down at the floor, avoiding all eye contact Jake holds his breath, trying to ignore the girl on the bus, as she rocks in her seat, making herself comfortable, putting her MP3 plugs in her ears, and sitting back relaxing like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. He pictures kissing her perfectly smooth tanned skin, breathes in her scent of a fresh summer meadow and dares to look into her dazzling eyes but all he can see is Rachel.
Strike # 2 - A Bat out of Hell
Heading north to Chiang Mai, Jake grips the seat as the bus screeches round tight bends. Sanuk is either the worst driver in the world or he has a death wish. But as the road becomes narrower and straighter, the journey becomes more comfortable. Bangkok’s grey concrete clutter slowly gives way to a blur of patchwork greens, blues and yellows. Thoughts of sleeping under the stars, singing birds, fresh air, wide open spaces, feeling the earth beneath his feet and roaming free comfort him.
The landscape stretches for miles into a hazy horizon. In the field opposite, workers in straw hats rest in the shade of a lonely tree. They stand like lamp shades watching the world go by. Others hack vigorously at dry earth ditches. The scene reminds him of Danny’s postcard and can almost feel him getting closer.
Sanuk breaks unevenly. The bus jerks and judders onto a car park in the middle of nowhere. It creaks to a standstill next to a brown sign with ‘Them Leung’ written in Thai and English. Everyone stops talking and looks up. Sanuk leaves the driver’s seat and stands in the aisle facing his passengers.
‘Bweak now. This Them Leung. I show you best limestone cave in Thailand. Not in Lonely Planet book. You stwetch legs. Have smoke. Welax. Learn mystewies of Buddha,’ said Sanuk. Everyone cheers. Sanuk steps off the bus, lights a cigarette and takes a long calming drag.
There’s a mad rush to get off but Jake takes his time. The stunning girl who had been sitting next to him is already at the front of the queue to get off. Arne is still avoiding Dex, in case he punches him and Zane has livened up after his snooze.
Branches obscure the cave’s dark entrance. Hesitating, Jake waits outside the entrance to the cave. His childhood fear of the dark stops him from going any further. After everyone goes in, he forces himself to his feet. People would say he was a coward if he didn’t. Gritting his teeth he clings to the rough stone walls of the dim passageway, leading into the cave.
Voices echo inside, but he can’t see anyone. With his heart thumping he sets off into the darkness, sliding on the damp uneven rocks.
‘Boo, what the hell are you doing, Bozo,’ says Zane.
‘Christ, you scared the shit out of me,’ says Jake.
‘Everyone’s wondering where you are?’
‘I was just coming.’
‘What d’you say we leave those sheep behind?’ says Zane.
‘Look, I reckon there’s more to this cave than a bunch of stalagmites and stalagtites n’ stuff. Let’s try down here. There’s a kinda’ tunnel.’
‘No way. Absolutely not, there is no way I’m going down there,’ says Jake.
‘This is wicked, man. Come on, don’t be such a wimpy chimp. What’s the matter? You lost your bottle? Who’s afraid of the big bad dark?’
‘Idiot,’ says Jake.
‘Relax, you’re with me. It’ll be cool man, trust me. One step at a time. Come on.’
Zane and Jake step through a narrow tunnel that leads to the cathedral like expanse of a huge cavern.
The cave is pitch black, temporarily lit up by bird spirits bursting free through the cave skylight. I couldn’t see the Damned but I knew they were there. I could sense them.
High above them water seeps lazily from a white sky light on the ceiling. Tiny drops of water fall from it in silence. Brightly coloured butterflies flutter like miniature floating stained glass windows.
‘Wooh Spooooky’ shouts Zane. ‘Spooooky’ echoes around. Jake cowers in the gloom, shivering.
‘I’ve got a torch in my bag, let’s have a look around,’ says Zane.
‘You could have told me before now. What are you waiting for? Hurry up, get it out,’ says Jake.
Zane fumbles in his backpack for his torch. When he finds it he clicks the switch at the front and shines it around the cave. Hundreds of dark silhouettes twitch. Everything falls still and silent. Suddenly they swarm and collide near the roof, flapping and circling.
Zane shines the torch at them.
‘What the fuck..?’ says Zane.
‘Bats. Gotta be…’ says Jake.
‘Shhh, be quiet. What was that?’ says Zane.
‘What?’ asks Jake.
‘That noise’ says Zane.
‘No, it’s nothing,’ says Jake.
The heavy dampness is fused with a strange odour Jake doesn’t recognise. The air is thin, his breathing amplified by the acoustics of the cave. When Zane shines the torch on the walls the shadows of stalagmites stretch into hideous faces with pointy noses, monstrous beasts that sprawl and dance.
As they move further into the cavern, they slide on the slippery rocks.
Lek follows Jake everywhere, fighting off hungry ghosts and the Damned as he goes, never letting Jake out of his sight.
A small altar with candles casts flickering shadows. One candle glows brighter and brighter and draws Jake nearer to the shrine. At the top of the altar nestling in a tangle of brightly coloured flowers and ribbons is a haunting hypnotising light, shining from inside the hollow eye sockets of a monkey’s skull. It’s Lek.
‘That’s creepy weird shit, you seen anything like that before?’ asks Zane.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ says Jake.
‘I hear you. Wait a minute what’s all that?’ says Zane, pointing at stone crevices, crammed with carved wooden statues of fierce tribesmen. with spears, jagged teeth and bug eyed faces have pins through their heads, rings through their noses and spiky black hair.
Chicken feathers are stuck to the walls with dried blood. What sounds like a brittle twig snaps beneath Jake’s foot. He looks down at the half-crushed skull of a bird. The bones of dead animals are scattered everywhere. Swarms of flies circle above flaky skin hanging off lumps of freshly severed pink flesh. A gut wrenching stench rises from the rotting fur and feathers of decapitated animal limbs festering in the dirt.
‘Ahh, Urrgh, fucking weird shit man. That’s what the stink is? Dead rottin’ critters!’ says Zane.
‘What is this place?’ asks Jake.
‘Shh, What’s that noise?’ asks Zane.
This time he could definitely hear a scuttling behind the shrine.
‘Something’s there... just there I saw it’
‘Over there, look!’
Jake and Zane creep slowly behind the shrine. Jake grips Zane’s arm tightly. The scuttling becomes a chomping squelch, then a crunching.
‘Listen! What’s that?’ gasps Zane.
Something taps and scrapes on the hard stone floor. A rat, three times the size of any he’d seen before, scuttles in front of them. It must be a quarter of a metre long, with soggy patches of brown fur stretched around its bulging pink stomach. Its brown eyes dart around the cave. Half the carcass of a chicken hangs from its mouth. The rat drops it, flicking its salivating tongue at it.
Lek flies up to the dark twitching mass of bats hanging from the roof of the cave and chooses one at random. When he is close enough, taking care not to disturb them, he slips inside one. Lek glows inside it making it swoop down and circle Jake. Out of the darkness it flies in front of Jake.
Then, flapping over his shoulder, it spears into him. Instinctively he thrusts out an arm to fend it off. First it sticks to his face, gouging, biting and sucking. Jake staggers backwards, screaming in agony, blood spurts from his cheek as the flesh on his cheek is ripped away.
Jake grapples with it, prising it from his face and throws it into the darkness. It hits the rocks, flapping frantically. In the half light, it writhes and twitches its broken wing, then lies still. Jake wipes the blood from his face, smearing it over his eye.
Lek has made sure the bat hurt Jake, but it was nothing more than that. He drifts out,, abandoning it, frustrated by the minimal damage and pain it had caused Jake.
Jake and Zane sprint as fast as they can, slipping on the damp rocks not daring to look back. Approaching the light of the arch of the cave’s exit, Jake’s heart pounds.
Outside, they shield their eyes from the blinding light and collapse on the ground, panting breathlessly. Lek soars into the light. Jake looks up.
‘Wasn’t it amazing in there? I love stalagmites, Buddha are so calm and tranquil. Don’t you think?’ asks Dex.