© Simon Totten
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FREE Spirit (Continued)
Please note: This novel is narrated by Jake Hunter's (the main character's) living spirit. It can see the physical and spiritual worlds through the windows of his soul.
The story so far: Jake Hunter has arrived in Bangkok to meet his brother Danny in Thailand. he struggles to cope with his broken spirit, he’s forgotten his anti-psychotic medication and the hungry ghost of a small Thai boy is trying to kill him.
When Danny doesn’t turn up at the hostel where they’re supposed to meet, Jake goes to Kazbar nightclub to look for him. On the way the hungry ghost humiliates him by possessing some ants. In Kazbar there's no sign of Danny, so tired, jet lagged and drunk he lusts after a girl. A fight breaks out and a local businessman Rama saves him and tells him Danny is working for him in Chiang Mai so they all agree to go there and go trekking. On the way there, Jake meets the beautiful Zoe but can’t bring himself to get over the love of his life Rachel Bingham.
Strike # 2 -
A Bat out of Hell
Heading north to Chiang Mai, Jake held on tight to his seat as the bus screeched round some hair pin bends. Rama was either the worst driver in the world or he had a death wish.
Gradually things settled down as the road became narrower and straighter. As well as seeing Danny again, Jake was looking forward to leaving the city behind. As Bangkok’s grey concrete clutter slowly gave way to a blur of patchwork greens, blues and yellows and thoughts of sleeping under the stars, singing birds, fresh air, roaming free in wide open spaces, feeling the earth beneath his feet, he felt a warm glow.
The landscape stretched for miles into a hazy horizon. In the field opposite, workers in straw hats rested in the shade of a lonely tree. They stood like lamp shades watching the world go by. Others hacked vigorously at dry earth ditches. The scene reminded him of Danny’s postcard. Rama’s bus jerked and juddered into a car park in the middle of nowhere, creaking to a standstill next to a brown sign with Them Leung written in Thai and English. Everyone stopped talking and looked up. Rama left the driver’s seat and stood 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 Rama. Everyone cheered. Rama stepped off the bus, lit a cigarette and took a long, calming drag.
There was a mad rush to get off but Jake took his time. The stunning girl he’d been sitting next to was already at the front of the queue to get off. Arne was avoiding Dex, in case he punched him and Zane had livened up after his snooze.
Branches obscured the cave’s dark entrance. Jake waited outside the entrance, remembering all those dark nights in his bedroom as a child, trembling, clinging to the toy monkey as he ran and jumped into bed, to avoid the devils waiting under it reaching out to grab him and drag him into hell.
After everyone had filed in, he stood alone, thinking people would say he was a coward if he didn’t go in. Gritting his teeth he clung to the rough stone walls of the dim passageway that led into the cave. Voices echoed inside, but he couldn’t see anyone. With his heart thumping he set off into the darkness, sliding on the damp uneven rocks beneath his feet.
‘Boo, what kept you Bozo?’ asked Zane.
‘Christ, you scared the shit out of me,’ said Jake.
‘Everyone was wondering where you were?’
‘I was just coming.’
‘What d’you say we leave those sheep behind?’ asked 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.’
‘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,’ said Jake.
‘Relax, you’re with me. It’ll be cool man, trust me. One step at a time. Come on.’
Zane and Jake stepped through a narrow tunnel that led to the cathedral-like expanse of a huge cavern.
The cave was pitch black, lit up only by the glowing spirits of birds, bursting free through the cave skylight. I couldn’t see the Damned but I knew they were there. I could sense them. They love dark places like this.
Water seeped lazily from a white sky light, high above them. Tiny drops fell from it like silent rain. Brightly coloured butterflies fluttered like miniature floating stained glass windows.
‘Wooh Spooooky’ shouted Zane. ‘Spooooky’ echoed around.
‘I’ve got a torch in my bag, let’s have a look around,’ said Zane.
‘You could have told me before. What are you waiting for? Hurry up, get it out,’ said Jake cowering in the gloom, shivering.
Zane fumbled in his backpack for his torch. When he found it he clicked the switch at the front and shone it around the cave, squinting at hundreds of dark twitching silhouettes. Everything fell still and silent. Suddenly they swarmed and collided near the roof, flapping and circling.
‘What the fuck was that.?’ asked Zane.
‘Bats. Gotta be…’ said Jake.
‘Shhh, be quiet. What was that?’ asked Zane.
‘No, it’s nothing.’
The air was heavy with dampness, fused with a strange sickly odour, Jake didn’t recognise. His rattling breathing, amplified by the acoustics of the cave. When Zane shone the torch, the shadows of stalagmites stretched into hideous faces with pointy noses, monstrous beasts that sprawled and danced. As they moved further into the cavern, they slid on the slippery rocks.
Lek was following Jake, fighting off hungry ghosts and the Damned as he glided through the darkness, never, not even for a second, letting him out of his sight.
A small altar on a shrine with candles cast flickering shadows. One of them glowed brighter and brighter and drew him nearer. At the top of it nestling in a tangle of brightly coloured flowers and ribbons, shining from the hollow eye sockets of the monkey’s skull was a haunting hypnotising light.
Lek was inside it, glowing.
‘That’s creepy weird shit, you seen anything like that before?’ asked Zane.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Jake.
‘I hear you. Wait a minute what’s all that?’ said Zane, pointing at stone crevices, crammed with carved wooden statues of fierce tribesmen with spears, jagged teeth and bug eyed faces with pins through their heads, rings through their noses and spiky black hair. Chicken feathers were stuck to the walls with dried blood.
What sounded like a brittle twig snapped beneath Jake’s foot. He looked down at the half-crushed skull of a bird. The bones of dead animals were scattered everywhere. Swarms of flies circled above flakes of skin hanging off lumps of freshly severed pink flesh. A gut wrenching stench rose 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!’ said Zane.
‘What is this place?’ asked Jake.
‘Shh, What’s that noise?’ asked Zane.
A light scuttling noise was coming from behind the shrine.
‘Something moved, just there I saw it!’
‘Over there, look!’
Jake and Zane crept slowly behind the shrine. Jake gripped Zane’s arm tightly. The scuttling noise became a chomping, squelching, crunch. Something scraped across the hard stone floor. A four legged creature, at least three times the size of any rat he’d seen before was staring at them, eyes burning. It must have been a quarter of a metre long, with soggy patches of brown fur stretched around its bulging pink stomach. Its red eyes, glowing in the dark, darted around the cave. Half the carcass of a chicken hung from its mouth. The creature dropped it, flicking blood from its salivating tongue.
Lek flew up to the dark twitching mass of bats hanging from the roof of the cave and chose one at random. When he was close enough, taking care not to disturb them, he slipped inside one and possessed it. The bat with Lek’s white glow inside it, swooped down and waited patiently, circling Jake.
Out of the darkness a bat came flapping over Jake’s shoulder. It dipped in front of him, then speared into him. Instinctively Jake thrust out an arm to fend it off. First it gouged at his nose and clung to his face, biting and sucking. Screaming in agony, blood spurted from his cheek and he staggered backwards.
As he grappled with it, the flesh on his cheek felt like it was being ripped away. When it released its grip he prised it from his face and threw it into the darkness. It splattered on the rocks, writhing and twitching its broken wing in the half light, it, then lay still. Jake wiped blood from a deep gouge, smearing it over his eye.
Lek had hurt Jake, but it was nothing more than that. He drifted out of the bat, abandoning it, frustrated by the minimal damage and pain he had caused him.
They sprinted as fast as they could, slipping on the damp rocks not daring to look back. Approaching the light of the arch of the cave’s exit, Jake’s heart was pounding.
Outside they shielded their eyes from the blinding light and collapsed on the ground, panting breathlessly. Jake looked up at Dex.
‘Wasn’t it amazing in there? he asked. ‘I love stalagmites, Buddha are so calm and tranquil. Don’t you think?’
The Haunted Hippy Whore House
‘Ahw farking fantastic. Farking wonderful, cool! Lovely to see all you young people on your exciting new adventures here in Thailand’ said French Fry, a small, slightly hunched Thai woman. As they stepped off the bus, she hugged each of them, kissing them on both cheeks.
‘Welcome, welcome, welcome, to our beautiful palace here at French Fry’s Trekking Tours,’ said the host of the establishment. Jake took an instant dislike to her ‘over the top’ approach.
Despite the rambling, shabby, rundown exterior of the building, the interior was jam-packed with the trappings of her and Rama’s marriage. Top of the range furniture, chandeliers on the ceiling, plush deep pile carpets. Three fat Buddha, made from shiny green wax smiled like constipated Sumo wrestlers from an expensive Teak coffee table. The scent of burning candles and incense sticks filled the air.
French Fry had long, plaited black hair and a tye-dyed T-shirt, silver bangles on her wrists and shiny beads on a string around her neck. Pin-striped trousers portrayed her tough hard head for business she had picked up over the years from Rama.
In neon pink loopy italics it proclaimed ‘Welcome to French Fry’s Trekkers.’ Brimming with pride, her eyes twinkled as she pointed at the gawdy sign above the door. Jake had never been to one but he was sure it looked more like a whore house than a trekker’s hostel.
The sunset bled into an orange sky. As the shadow of the roof cut into the twilight, French Fry smiled at the tourists as they walked across the porch, creaking the floorboards, shaking the leaves on potted plants, presumably happy they were keeping the place busy and thriving.
As she gave the group of travellers a whirlwind tour of the house she waved her hands in the air excitedly like a Club 18-30 tour guide on speed, her tongue struggling to keep up with the number of words she wanted to deliver.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lovely trip to real Hmong hilltribe plan for you. We have jungle trek, swimming and elephant riding. I have lovely noodle and boiled chicken. Build up your strength for jungle trek. Before I show you all to your rooms, I need you to pay for the two night one day trek to hilltribe village. Step right this way ladies and gentlemen. Full cost is three hundhert baht,’ said French Fry.
Jake joined an orderly queue to pay Fench Fry as she hunched behind a desk. As each wad of notes was waved under her nose her hands made circular movements as if she was performing a Charleston.
When Jake had paid, he wandered through the hall, continuing into the conservatory. The intricately patterned Persian rug on the floor contrasted with the plain white walls and green plants.
The sight of Zoe, an oasis of calm and peaceful serenity in the indoor jungle of the conservatory stopped him in his tracks. Sitting alone in a high backed whicker chair, she was reading, completely detached from the world and oblivious to French Fry’s vivacious diatribe.
Jake opened his mouth to speak but no words came out.
‘Hi,’ he stammered eventually, determined not to give up. ‘How are you?’
Pulled abruptly from whatever world her book had locked her in, she looked up, startled. An awkward silence followed.
‘Zoe, Zoe King,’ she said, offering her hand to shake.
‘Jake Hunter,’ he said, savouring the electricity from her soft warm hand. ‘Don’t you want to join the tour?’
‘Oh….… heard all that shit before,’ she said in a faintly Australian accent.
‘So you’ve been here before?’
‘No. Never,’ she replied. ‘But these places are all the same aren’t they? Tourist traps. Money machines.’
‘That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,’ said Jake.
‘I mean. Look at her, she said, nodding at French Fry. ‘How annoying can you get? Never stops does she? Looks like an ex hippy bored with living in a druggy, non-materialistic, haze. Now she’s a middle aged has been that hides the wrinkles on her face with layers of make-up,’ she said, switching her attention back to her book.
‘S’pose you’re right…’ said Jake, turning sharply on his heels to make his way towards the hallway where French Fry and Rama were deep in conversation.
‘You do well, my love,’ said French Fry.
‘What?’ replied Rama, remaining solemnly expressionless.
‘To bring so many, you do well to bring all these tourists to us,’ said French Fry, pecking her husband on the cheek.
Nothing more than the flicker of a half-hearted smile spread across Rama’s face.
‘All food prepared, just need heating up, all rooms cleaned, bed sheets washed. Paco help do trek to village, he organise rafting and elephant ride. Hilltribe do opium smoking. All organised, everything taken care of, just as you ask, my love,’ said French Fry.
‘Excellent, perfick,’ said Rama.
French Fry was beaming with the satisfaction of knowing she was playing her part in the running of her husband’s business empire. Anything she could do to help, she was happy to oblige.
‘We charge for stay one night here in trekkers, one night in village, elephant riding bamboo rafting and opium smoking. All together. That way, there no problems. No hiccup misunderstanding. We clear about everything. We do well no?’
Rama nodded. To Jake they were the perfect married couple. One day he would be like Rama. Successful, settled, calm, authoritative, responsible, adult but with a dash of stylish cool sophistication.
‘You have all under control, darling. I leave you to it,’ said Rama.
‘You leave so soon?’ asked French Fry.
‘I’m afraid so. I have important business,’ said Rama, checking his watch.
‘How far is the hilltribe village?’ asked Jake, fearing he had interrupted their conversation.
‘Not far, don’t worry my fwend. You will twek there soon. I not suwe if Danny will be there when you arrive though. He do important wok for me,’ he said.
‘Hmong hilltribe vewy pwoud. They make much for many thing. He dwive big lots to head office in Chiang Mai for take away.’
‘A kind of delivery for distribution service you mean?’ said Jake.
‘Yes like that,’ said Rama.
‘What do you deliver exactly?’ said Jake.
‘Things hilltribe make and sell,’ said Rama.
‘Like what?’ asked Jake.
‘Many thing. They vewy hard woking,’ said Rama.
‘Monkey bwain soup….’ laughed Rama. ‘No, no, no. I only joke my fwend. I not know… fine clothes lovely stitching, wonderful necklace, ear wings,’ said Rama. ‘No worry, you see Danny there. It gweat twek my fwend, Welax enjoy holiday,’ said Rama, shifting his eyes to the floor. ‘I have to go now but let me know if you need anything. I look after you Jake, you are special guest, ’ he said, edging towards the door.
Jake stood next to a battered ricketty old piano in the hallway, excited at the thought of the trek to the hilltribe village to see Danny.
Lek was sitting on top of the shabby, neglected keyboard, next to the spirit of a young woman. Her face was hidden at first by a mothballed white wedding veil but as Jake moved closer the flesh on her face was grey as the ash of a burnt out fire, cauldrons of molten lava burned in the space where her eyes used to be. The lace on her mouldy dress was withered and worn, like it could disintegrate any second.
‘Who are you?’ asked Lek in spirit tongues.
‘I am Adriana… I lived here two hundred and thirty years ago. My lover took my life and left me here,’ she whispered. ‘Look at the hole in my head he made…’ she whispered, bending her heard to reveal a crater, in her skull. ‘ The bullet’s still in there. I took it with me.
‘Why would he do a thing like that?’ asked Lek.
‘Couldn’t bear to see me married to another. But I will never get revenge because straight after he shot me he blew his own brains out, left them all over the walls and the floor… so here I am…trapped forever. I will never escape this world.’
As if dying at your own wedding wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being a hungry ghost, just wandering the place, lost and haunting it for eternity.
Sleepless in Chiang Mai
Fussing over each of them as if they were her own children, French Fry led the group of tourists up a set of steep stairs, covered by a hideous green carpet.
On reaching the first floor, she handed bedroom door keys to three fresh faced Swedish girls, eager to unpack and prepare for the trek to the village.
On the next floor up, French Fry paired Arne with Dex to share a twin room. Zane flashed a mischievous smile, as if he was saying ‘she’s got a wicked sense of humour.’
By the time they reached the third floor, French Fry. She opened the door to a room, stood, hands on hips, showing her age, blowing breathlessly and wincing in pain at her back ache.
She waved Zoe inside, holding out her keys for her as if they were a pile of steaming dog shit. Once Zoe was inside, she closed the door on her.
She continued quickly to the next room, inviting everyone in and sat down next to Zane on the bed. Playfully, she rubbed his chest, squeezed his biceps and played with the soldier tags around his neck.
‘Best room in French Fry palace for best looking boy,’ she said as she lay back seductively, arching her back and pushing her breasts up and bouncing on the mattress.
Zane sat back on the bed hands behind him, staying cool, smiling. Zoe reappeared at the door chewing gum, her eyes not leaving French Fry. The two were like feral street cats, spoiling for a fight. Jake was caught in a cross fire of flirtatious mind games.
‘Jake, here catch. Let yourself in next door,’ she said, throwing the keys to him.
Jake walked out and opened the next door down. With its sparse, plain furniture, drab grey walls, bare floorboards, metal framed bed and functional wooden drawers it was more of a prison cell than a bedroom. Through the small window, letting in minimal light, he could see a yard full of old junk.
Jake lay down on his bed listening to the faint voices next door through the thin plasterboard walls.
At least he could rest in the quiet of Chiang Mai before the trek. He undressed and climbed into bed. Tossing and turning, he couldn’t get to sleep.
Sitting up in bed, a voice in his head whispered, ‘Let me out, let me out. Drill a hole in your head, let me out.’
He covered his ears, looking around. Nobody was there. He put in his earplugs, turned the music up full blast to drown it out but he could still hear it above the thumping beat of the drum and manic guitar solo. He slid down the bed, pulled out his ear plugs, and covered his eyes, not daring to look into the darkness.
He flicked a bedside lamp on. In the sultry air, an army of insects attacked the electric bulb hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room. Flies circled its glow like kamikaze planes. Moths linger long and lovingly, adoring the light. Suddenly possessed by an insane energy, they dived out of control hitting it buzzing, stinging and burning on it until they drop to the ground.
With his thirst for revenge unsatisfied, Lek had taken his rage out on the insects. Like a cat, toying with a mouse, he had savoured the pleasure of seeing them buzz, burn, suffer and die. After he’d had his fun, he floated down onto the bed surrounding Jake with his light. For now, he had no choice but to wait. His day of vengeance would come soon enough but patience wasn’t exactly his biggest virtue.
The low moaning sound coming from next door turned into a knocking on the wall became progressively louder until it was a banging. He turned over, pulling the pillow over his head.
It was no surprise to Jake that Zane had pulled. The only mystery was with whom. If it was Zoe, it wouldn’t have been the first time he had missed his big chance with a girl. If it was French Fry, surely Rama would have heard his wife having full on sex next door?
The moaning got louder, the banging harder. The grunting, snorting and rhythmic wails of ecstacy were louder and longer. On and on they went. ‘OOOOaaaah, yes yes yessssss.’
He could handle the fact that someone else was better looking, sexier, more successful with women but the thought of Zoe with someone else was already unbearable.
A sudden and unsettling silence filled the room. A Daddy long legs clambered awkwardly over the bulb. Like an addict desperate for a fix, it overdosed, dropped and lay black and burned on the ground next to the other charred stick bodies, killed by its own lust for light. Alone in the darkness, Jake quivered under the sheets, sat up and stared into space. in the gloomy corner of the room a lime coloured face of Arne emerged, moved closer, and hovered. His puffy cheeks glistened, all moist and shiny, his vertical hair waving like seaweed. His chest and stomach join his head. One arm was no more than a stump. The other held one of his legs in his hand.
Jake cowered under his bed sheets, convinced Ronson had finally caught up with Arne and hacked him to pieces with his machete. The sight of Arne’s dismembered body was disturbing and the longer he went without his medication the worse his psychosis was becoming and the more he was losing his mind.
The Strange Disappearance of Arne Frederiksen
Next morning, Jake woke in a half-light, stiff after a night of noise, insects, nightmares, sweating, itching and fearing the sight of dismembered limbs or eyes bulging out of their sockets.
He swung his legs off the bed, threw on his jeans and T-shirt on and went outside, closing the door quietly behind him. The silence was deafening as he crept along the landing, tip toed past Zane’s room and downstairs.
Beyond the space filled with easy chairs and plants the door was open to what looked like a communal kitchen with white plastic tables and chairs. The sofa with flowery cushions and photo of Princess Diana reminded him of a greasy spoon café back home. Only the painting of a river with boats somewhere in Thailand looked unfamiliar.
Dex was sitting in the corner, hunched over a large plate of pancakes, shovelling them into his mouth and munching and swallowing them like a starving animal.
French Fry marched into the room.
‘Ah, you want pancake Jake?’ she said. ‘Ha ha pancake Jake, it rhyme no?’
‘Sounds good. Please. I’m starving,’ said Jake.
‘Ok. Two minute,’ said French Fry clearing up dishes with robot efficiency, balancing them expertly on one hand, she quickly disappeared into the kitchen.
‘Enjoying that?’ asked Jake.
‘Mmm. Good. Just what you need to start the day. French Fry’s banana pancakes are even better than her noodles,’ said Dex continuing to devour them and slurp his mug of black coffee.
‘If in doubt, eat,’ said Dex. ‘That’s what I say.’
‘Why what’s up?’ asked Jake.
‘Oh its nothing. Well I guess I don’t know. It was… a really quiet night. Think it’s the heat. I was exhausted. Plus I had the room to myself. It was a haven of tranquillity. Arne didn’t turn up last night, you see ’says Dex.
‘What? … where is he?’ asked Jake.
‘Dunno don’t care,’ said Dex. ‘He said he was going for a smoke outside and then I went to sleep.’
French Fry appeared table side, yawning. She was so tired she almost let the plate slip from her grasp and fall onto Jake’s lap. She recovered it just in time and served him a piping hot pancake.
‘Thanks,’ said Jake, licking his lips and smothering it in golden syrup.
‘Do you know what time it is? Hurry up and eat. We have busy day. Get backpacks, make sure you take water. Make sure you ready. Come on. It not every day you get chance to trek in the jungle and ride elephants is it?’ said French Fry. ‘What you two on? Like two old women chattering. Move yourselves. Can’t sit about all day. What matter with you?’
Jake and Dex sprang to their feet, cleared their plates and pushed in their seats.
‘We musn’t be late for Paco. He get mad,’ said French Fry.
‘Alright, keep your knickers on,’ said Dex.
Bit late for that thought Jake, hoping she was the one who’d had the exhausting night of energetic lovemaking.
‘When everyone was finally together French Fry looked around, counting the bodies that had assembled. Zane, Dex, Zoe and the three Swedish girls were all kitted out in the hallway with backpacks walking boots, ready to begin the trek.
‘This is our guide for the trek,’ said French |Fry. ‘Round of applause for my good friend Paco.’
Paco stepped forward. A muscular battleship of a man, with a red bandanna, arms as thick as Jake’s legs and a diving watch on his wrist. He nodded graciously at the appreciation shown by the tourists.
‘Where’s the big Norwegian guy, er whatisname? Arnold?’ asked French Fry.
They looked at each other blankly.
‘Er dunno. His name is Arne by the way. We just been saying. He didn’t sleep with me last night,’ said Dex, turning a bright shade of red when he realised what he’d said.
French Fry frowned, placing her hands on her hips.
‘You sure you not see him?’ she asked.
‘Not since last night, I swear. Who cares anyway? Better off without that slob,’ said Dex.
Jake looked at Dex suspiciously.
‘Ok I admit we had words. He took it badly when I said it was all his fault we had to leave Bangkok and he was a pervert for lusting after Thai girls,’ said Dex.
‘Ok spread out everyone, let’s look for him,’ said French Fry.
Zane went to the kitchen. Zoe ventured outside. Jake and Dex went upstairs to search for him in all of the rooms but when there was no sign they returned downstairs.
‘I think he’s gone. His stuff’s not in his locker,’ said Dex.
‘I’ve looked everywhere for him. I not know where else to look,’ said French Fry.
‘Where could he have gone?’
‘Do you think he left?’ asked French Fry looking at Jake and Dex but all she got was puzzled looks and apathy.
‘His bag is gone from the room,’ said Dex.
‘He could have got bus into town last night,’ said Jake.
‘Strange. He already pay for trek but must have decided against it. Very well, we go without him. Let’s go,’ said French Fry.
Jake tried to stay calm. He wondered who had been making all the noise last night. He half-smiled, giving nothing away. He was worried about Arne. What if Ronson has caught up with him and sliced him to pieces with his machete? And if so, who would be next?
One thing was for sure if anyone found out about him seeing Arne decapitated on his bedroom floor, they’d send for the white coats. An exhausting trek through the jungle was the last thing he needed right now but seeing Danny would make it all worthwhile.
Strike # 3 - Psycho Dumbo
In the dense jungle of Northern Thailand, silent butterflies added a splash of colour to the lush green, emerald and jade trees that stretched high into the azure above. Manic chickens ran wild in the red sandy earth. The incessant clicking of insects and squawking birds was building into a wall of noise that put Bangkok’s traffic to shame. The air was closing in. Warm rain and sweat flowed down Jake’s cheeks.
Lek was chasing the hungry ghosts of monkeys as they leapt from branch to branch through the shady canopy, they were far too quick and clever for him and he couldn’t catch them. He hung in the air alongside a flock of parakeets, disturbing sleeping tree spirits, and darting in and out of branches to keep sight of Jake at all times.
Sweat soaked Paco’s shirt, his red bandanna was wringing wet as he hacked ferociously with his machete, slicing the roots and leaves of twisted ivy, tangled overhanging branches of Durian, Mangrove, Banana, Coconut and Bamboo trees.
French Fry matched him stride for stride. The further they ventured into the jungle, the tracks were less defined. The thick undergrowth gave way to a riverbank path, where they covered muddy trails for about a mile. They reached a crossing point at the river. A series of stepping stones were spread out, equidistant, across it. The trekkers took their time, carefully balancing on them, taking care to avoid falling into the fast flowing rapids below. Zoe skipped across them like an Olympic hurdler. By comparison Jake leaped clumsily from one to the other. When everyone was safely across they rested briefly.
A series of undulating hills followed. Zane was breathing down Jake’s neck behind him. Reaching the top of a steep, muddy slope, Zane caught him up and turns to face him, his face hot and flushed.
‘Whats up English?’ said Zane. ‘Feeling the pace?’
Jake was so breathless he couldn’t speak.
‘You going to be the perfect gentleman?’ asked Zane, holding out his hand, his boots squelching in the mud, wide apart. He rested his hands on Jake’s shoulders, giggled and yanked his arm.
Jake slid down the muddy slope, arms flailing. Gathering pace, he lost balance and tumbled head first into a mushy pit of brown sludge. Soft, warm mud covered him from head to toe. He spat a lump out of his mouth trying to brush it off but only succeeded in smearing it everywhere. Zane burst into hysterical laughter.
‘Oi over here, look!’ he shouted at the others down the track. When they saw Jake a spontaneous round of applause and a loud chorus of laughter followed.
Jake was relieved his face was covered in dirt because nobody was able to see how red it was. He got to his feet and continued trekking up the winding trail. The dried mud on his sweat drenched skin set like concrete.
‘We stop here for rest and swim!’ said French Fry pointing at a beautiful waterfall, its bubbling white spray thundering into an enticingly calm, deep pool.
‘Just what we need’ said Zane.
‘Heaven,’ said Dex.
‘Last one in is a…. toad’s turd,’ shouted Zane.
Frantic undressing ensued. Paco and Fench Fry led by example by diving in first, followed by Zane, Dex and Zoe. Jake is last, he couldn’t get his trousers off quick enough.
When he finally made it he jumped in, making a huge splash, hoping nobody had noticed. He swam the short distance to join the others under the waterfall. Its shattering ecstasy pelting off his skin soothing his aches and strains. He never thought it was possible to feel this alive. The fun escalated into a splashfest and ducking session. Zane popped up beside him.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘Couldn’t resist. It was only a joke, no hard feelings?’
Jake wanted to throttle him but just shook his head.
‘Zane,…’ said Jake.
‘About last night.’
‘What about it?’ asked Zane.
‘Were you …?’
Zane shrugged, unable to look him in the eye at first and then grinned.
‘You heard right. It was just one of those things. It just happened. Just a bit of fun, No harm in that is there?’
‘Me and the rest of Thailand. Are you crazy?’
‘Who was the lucky girl?’ asked Jake.
‘Well… a gentleman never tells, does he?’
‘You can tell me, can’t you?’ asked Jake.
‘All I can say is sometimes you just got to take the plunge, know what I’m saying? The water was hot and bubbly. Let’s call it another of our little secrets, shall we? Just don’t say anything to Dex ok? He’s a bit funny about that sort of thing.’
‘Why?’ asked Jake raising his eyebrows.
‘Well I …I’m supposed to be with him but the truth is…’ he said, looking flustered for the first time ever. ‘I… I feel really bad. I don’t know what I’m doing. Me and him met last summer, shared a kiss. At first we kept in touch, then he wouldn’t leave me alone. He insisted on coming out here to see me. I think he’s serious about me. Wants us to be a couple n’ all, but…’
‘But what? You fancied a quickie? Is that it?’
‘No… I swear, not at all. I’m not like that. I mean I wouldn’t…’
‘Yeah, right,’ said Jake.
‘You don’t believe me do you? My head’s all over the place at the moment. Don’t know if I’m coming or going. I don’t even know if I fancy Dex anymore, let alone anything else. Girls are more my thing these days..’
‘So you’re confused? Does that give you the right to mess people around? Treat them like dirt?’
‘No…no that’s not right. That’s not fair. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick. You got me all wrong. It’s not like that at all,’ said Zane,
‘Well, from where I’m standing. That’s exactly how it looks,’
‘If you knew what was really going on.. You’d change your mind.…’
‘Like what? I cant wait to hear it.’
‘I .. I’ve only got a few more days here. I’ll have to go home… back to the States.’
‘Really? Have you told Dex yet?’
‘Not yet. I’ve been trying to tell him since he arrived. … It just never feels like the right time.’
‘Why the hurry to get home?'
‘Well… the thing is…'
‘Go on spit it out, not normally lost for words are you?’
‘It’s my mom. She’s sick, she… she’s got cancer. Don’t know how long she’s got.'
Jake’s expression changed, instantly regretting what he’d said.
‘I want to get back in time to say my goodbyes,’ said Zane.
‘I’m sorry. I had no idea.. I..’ said Jake, seeing Zane in a whole new light.
‘It’s ok,’ said Zane, putting his hand on Jake’s shoulder. ‘I’ve gotten used to the idea now, she’s been ill for so long. I been kinda expecting it. I just gotta figure out a way to tell Dex that’s all.’
The lithe figure of Zoe, in a white bikini revealing a toned, tanned muscular figure, arrowed into the pool, straight and true.
‘The thing is,’ says Zane, hesitating. ‘Last night was just a spur of the moment thing, livin’ on the edge, Jake. Don’t you ever feel that buzz? It keeps you alive, make the most of it, live a bit. None of us knows how long we got,’ smiled Zane.
After drying themselves in a sun drenched clearing in the jungle they were rested enough to continue the trek. Further down the trail, a commotion erupted. Jake hurried to see what all the fuss was about.
Craning his neck to see through an excited crowd he couldn’t believe his eyes. Never before had he seen such creatures, not that close. But there they were, larger than life. Four elephants, swishing their tails and curling their trunks, were ripping up trees and chomping on bamboo shoots.
‘Paco organise ride. Have fun,’ shouted French Fry. Paco split everyone into groups. Zane and Dex with French Fry. Jake with Zoe.
The trainer in charge of their elephant was a small frail looking man in a white turban. Impassive, he sat on its broad neck, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.
Lek was waiting patiently for Jake and Zoe to mount the elephants, weighing up their brute strength and bulk. Once he had climbed onto the elephant’s neck, it was obvious what he was up to. He knew this magnificent beast had enough power to kill an army of men and he only wanted to kill one, so he slipped inside its broad skull.
Jake smiled at Zoe, putting out a hand to help her up the ladder to climb onto the elephant, but she ignored it, preferring to climb up herself. Sitting comfortably in the wooden seat strapped to the elephant’s back, they observed the rich greenery of the jungle from on high like a royal prince and princess in the days of the old empire.
Despite the trainer barking orders, digging his heels into the elephant’s neck and hitting it with a stick, he seemed to have no control of it whatsoever.
‘Don’t worry. It just hungry. It need to eat. Let it have bamboos and it will be fine,’ shouted Paco.
The elephant wandered off the beaten track. With its long curling trunk it pulled up another bamboo tree and cracked it in half, then demolished every green leaf on it. When it finishes, it calms down, concentrating on the job of tourist transportation
Over time, a relationship of trust developed. The elephant’s slowness became tolerance. Its stupidity became bravery. Its size less clumsy, its unpredictability, a balance of strength and power. Its tail swatted away flies. Its ripped ears doubled as cooling fans.
While it ate, the trainer slid off its neck onto the ground, inviting Jake to climb on. At first, he wasn’t sure. Dried mud crumbled in his fingers as he scraped them over its baked skin. Isolated black hairs grew in the barren grey desert of its vast body. Slowly but surely he shuffled himself onto the broad, brute strength of its neck.
After the elephant had eaten its fill and the trainer returned to the driver’s seat, the elephant gathered pace, dumping a lorry load of dung from its rear end onto the trail. Its ears wafted back and forth threatening a Dumbo style lift off. Then, digging its heels in it ground to a halt and sat down, at the top of a steep slope. In a half-seated position that made Jake and Zoe hold on to their seat for dear life, it slid down, squelching mud on the way. When it reached the bottom, its knees buckled and it belly flopped, almost throwing Jake and Zoe off.
When it stood up, it ambled towards the end of the trail where the ride was due to finish. Relieved its day’s work was finally over, it stood munching a banana leaf. Jake and Zoe were the last to dismount.
While the others led their elephants off for a well-earned frolic in the river the trainer in the white turban had lost patience with his elephant’s stubborn disobedience. When he smacked its backside with a stick it reared up, trumpeting on its back legs, waving its trunk in the air.
‘Surely it can’t be hungry again?’ asked Zoe.
‘I dunno…Wait… hang on a second… Just…’
With wobbling flesh, flapping ears , the huge grey beast’s lumbering bulk broke into a gallop, building into a head of steam and charged blindly at Jake.
‘Shit it’s coming,’ he shouted.
‘Watch out!’ screamed Zoe.
‘Jeesus Fuck….’ he shouted, as its great tusks loomed in front of him he could see the tormented look in its eyes. Jake stood open mouthed, rooted to the spot.