© Simon Totten
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Allow me to introduce myself. You can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell me so you don’t talk about me much. You often complain that just when you need me most you can’t always find me. Even your best scientific brains have no idea who I am. They believe human DNA is 2% chromosomes, cells and genes and the other 98% is dormant. They think I’m redundant genetic clutter left over from billions of years of evolution. They call me Junk. Whatever. To be honest, it’s not important what you or your eggheads call me. I am nothing yet everything. To some I’m the essence of their being, a celestial presence, an indefinable aura. To others, I’m just plain spirit.
A spirit of the living, you understand, not the dead. Not yet anyway. I must fulfil my destiny to do my best for my human Jake Hunter before I become one of the Unholy Trinity of the Dead, three kinds of spirits known as ‘The Free’, ‘The Hungry’ and ‘the Damned’ who rule the afterlife.
From ‘The Bible’ and ‘The Quran’, to ‘The Sun’ newspaper. From ‘A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ to ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ From literary fiction, to page turning crime thrillers, to dark fantasy or fluffy rom com chick lit, most stories have been told. So why bother with mine? Well, if you’ve ever found yourself curious about spirit, then read on, you’re in the right place.
The story I’m about to tell you is mostly about Jake Hunter. An ordinary, quiet librarian type who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. But hey, you know what they say? It’s always the quiet ones. The rest is about spirits. The basics like do you have one? What’s it for? Where does it go when you die?
It all began twenty three years ago, a fraction of a second after the fertilization of his human embryo when I exploded into life. A lot has happened since, far too much to tell you about here.
Its best I tell it because I know him better than he knows himself, I can tell you what he’s thinking before he even thinks it. Down the years I’ve shared his darkest secrets, wildest dreams, worst nightmares and innermost fears. I’m familiar with his likes and dislikes his strengths and weaknesses, those he loves and those he hates. And I have these sensations. They’re hard to describe but they’re mainly in his water, his guts and the blood flowing in his veins. They tell me how he feels. And I can see the spirits and the colours that surround him, so I can predict his future.
Then there's his memories. Everyone has them. The rare, unforgettable magic moments of happiness that shine like precious treasure at the forefront of his mind. The frivolous, trivial, boring stuff that fades and then vanishes forever.
But life, as you know, is never straightforward is it? Things don’t always go to plan. Shit happens. He tries to forget the dark secrets buried deep in the skeleton graveyard of his mind and the fallout debris from his life’s unplanned disasters that crash and burn around me but they always come back in the end.
One in particular lurches like a monster from the deep and clambers into his nightmares. I’ve seen it so many times, I know it off by heart. It starts with a filthy black crow, perched on a telegraph wire, looking down on Jake, like death itself. Its black pearl eyes follow him through a graveyard. Past the weather-worn inscriptions on head stones, along a concrete path cutting through a neat grass verge where Jesus is nailed to a ten foot wooden cross. The battered, scrawny old bird lifts its dark wings into the apocalyptic December sky as an evil lion’s head knocker stares at Jake from the front door of a church.
Inside, his footsteps echo in the silence. Light shines through stained glass windows, gloriously bright and heavenly. Vivid paintings on the wall depict Stations of the Cross. Rows of hard wooden benches with cushions on kneelers stretch half-empty, from back to the front. The main altar is laden with bouquets of flowers, stone carved statues, crisp white table cloths and gold gleaming chalices. At the back, a square golden tabernacle glitters on high. Hymn number 247 The Lord is my Shepherd is displayed on the board. The marble steps leading up to it are covered by a thick piled red carpet. On them is a coffin with the word DAD spelled out in a wreath of flowers next to it.
To the side candle flames light up a dingy space where a statue of the Virgin Mary stands, praying and smiling warmly. A face emerges. The features, contorted at first come slowly into focus. The pale blue eyes and finely chiselled cheekbones. The short black hair. The knowing expression that always comforted him. The approving grin that always encouraged him.
His mother gives him a white candle. ‘Here, light it,’ she whispers, softly in his ear. ‘It will light up his way to heaven.’
Jake steps up and places the candle in the holder. But instead of lighting it he closes his eyes and blows out all the candles. He looks up and smiles at his mother.
‘I made a wish,’ he says, gushing with pride. ‘You know? Like on my birthday when you blow out the candles?’
His mother says nothing.
‘I wished Dad was back with us,’ he says, searching for a hint of approval.
Thunder spreads over his mother’s face. Jake’s smile crumples.
‘I’m sorry,’ he shouts.
Ever since then, I’ve done my best to fulfil my destiny. To keep his hopes alive and breathe life into his dreams. I've tried so hard to be an inspiration, a driving force, a rock, a guiding light. To fan the flames of his love, put a spring in his step, keep the wind in his sails, joy in his heart and the sparkle in his eyes. But nothing seems to work. I don’t know why but I just echo in his subconscious. It’s like I don’t exist. No matter what, a spirit strives to fulfil their destiny. They’re not supposed to give up. But let me tell you I’m close, very close.
As he steps off a plane into the unforgiving humidity of Bangkok’s midday heat, Jake Hunter is cooking. Removing his steamed-up glasses he wipes a tepid residue of sweat from his brow.
I am exhausted. I have spent the last few months trying to tell him a holiday with his brother Danny was exactly what he needed. A brand new start. A chance to explore some amazing places, meet new people, be seduced by the exotic, enlightened by Buddha’s spiritual wisdom. Discover new horizons, break down barriers, find himself. Go wild, be an adrenalin junkie. Wear shades, soak up rays, sip Pina Coladas. Ogle at bikini babes on white tropical beaches with emerald oceans and paradise palms but he didn’t listen. These days, he never does.
On the bus from the airport, Jake shields his eyes from a white-hot glare and stumbles, grabbing at thin air.
‘Open the window please, someone… anyone?’ he says. Nobody moves or says a word. Like white-faced zombies, passengers stare through him. Outside, the streets of Bangkok are a war zone. Never before has he seen so many people in one place, at one time. Businessmen in suits gabble into mobile phones, street sellers holler, beggars plead. Heaving, clanking cars, trucks and rickshaws are gridlocked, bumper to bumper, snarling like a stampede of wounded metallic beasts.
For the last twenty three years I have marvelled at your world through the windows of Jake’s soul. It’s the same one you see, except for the colours and spirits. Buildings so high you can see for miles from the top. Clouds the size of mountains. Sunsets so stunning they make you cry. Skies so vast and clear, you believe you can fly. Trees so tall and strong with roots so deep, anything feels possible.
And Bangkok doesn’t disappoint. The colours are amazing. Some people say they can see them but I’m not so sure. They’re sometimes known as aura or the fingerprint of God, a visible clue to the hidden reality of people. A map of their thoughts and feelings. A precise indication of their emotional state. It’s a shame you can’t see them, they’d make your life so much easier.
Halos of luminous light surround everyone. Usually, I can spot a few green auras, belonging to well-balanced, peaceful, comfortable, healthy, loving types. But here there were none. Most were purple or muddied red. Purple is pain. Red is rage, the kind that can make you kill.
Toxic clouds of poison billow from the traffic fumes into the sky, melting holes in it. Crimson, pink, orange and green swirl like an aurora borealis. I wonder how it is possible for something so beautiful to be so deadly. Let’s face it, your planet is falling apart. You’re killing yourselves with earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and you just can’t see it. What is it you say? ‘What the eyes don’t see… the heart can’t feel.’
When the bus finally stops to let passengers off, Jake spots a vacant seat. At least it’s half empty. The woman next to him, has hips as big as boulders, breasts like lumpy pillows and an Afro frizz as wide as a tree top. He perches on it, one buttock on, one off.
Musing that perhaps this was what it meant to be living on the edge, he convinces himself it is an improvement on standing in the aisle in a tangle of sticky bodies.
Grateful to rest his legs, he runs his clammy fingers through his matted black curls and gnaws at his fingernails. He unzips his bag and fumbles inside for a bottle of water.
‘Shit…’ he sighs, seeing it is empty.
For the last few minutes the bus driver has not been watching the road. Every now and then he flings his arms in the air, shaking his fists. Then, he bows his head, chuntering to himself. Through the front window, visibility is down to a couple of metres. He rubs his St Christopher pendant between his sticky finger and thumb, imagining the mayhem and carnage should they crash.
Jake stares at the woman with the Afro, imploring an explanation.
‘What the hell’s he doing?’ he asks.
‘He want help,’ she says. ‘From Mae Yanang the goddess of journeys to chase the smog away.’
‘Hail Mary full of grace…’ he mutters, wishing the journey would end. When the bus finally judders to a halt he makes his way to the exit. As he steps off, he stretches and yawns. After a twelve hour flight he’s like an astronaut, taking his first steps on the moon. But at least the smog is at long last starting to clear and the traffic is finally moving.
For some reason, there are more spirits in this city than anywhere else I have ever been.
After collecting his backpack from the luggage store Jake sets off for Tai Loke hostel where he’s due to meet Danny. Swimming against an incessant tide of jostling bodies, dripping with sweat he stops in his tracks. In the dark shadow of a shop front, he shivers, feeling unwell. He can’t understand why he is so cold in such unbearable heat. A black mood, laced with dread, creeps over him.
Dark hybrids crawl in the lengthening shadows. Scorpion dragons fill the shifting skies above. Bugs with human eyes emerge from sewers. Black lizard-rats with human fingers lurk in doorways. Spirits of the Damned, destined to remain on earth forever, neither free nor hungry, just plain evil, are everywhere. As one spreads itself over Jake, I have to be careful, stay strong. Let it in and three things could happen. 1. He will die or 2. He’ll go insane or 3. Both.
Unnoticed by the human eye, high above skyscrapers, hundreds of golden spirits soar. When ‘the Free’ move on they are a spectacular sight. They are the cold pale yellows and dappled greys of Winter. The bright, clear light of Spring. The pastel orange haze of Autumn. The golden blaze in Summer’s cloudless skies. When one shines on Jake, a warm optimism spreads inside him
Spirits of the dead, you see, are the darkness of death and the light of life.
The postcard in Jake’s hand has lost its crisp whiteness to the ravages of time. Its tatty crumpled corners, shrivelled by sunlight. On the front is a photo of Thai workers with wide-brimmed straw hats, digging in a field with spades and forks. Danny’s scrawl on the back is smudged by orange brown beer or coffee stains. It is still legible though and despite all the wonders of modern technology it remains his only real link to him. He holds it up to the light to get a better look.
‘Hey dude, I’m the urban spaceman. Wheels are made for rollin,’ bags were made to pack I never seen a sight that didn’t look better lookin’ back. Butterflies, zebras, moonbeams and fairytales, - Tai Loke 3570 Khao San Rd is cheapest Bangkok hostel if you fancy a visit. Meet you there. Aug 21 4pm? Jesus Jimi Christ, Come up and see me make me smile?’
Jake smiles at the lyrics of Danny’s favourite songs. On their last night together, they had got stoned listening to Hendrix, Dylan and The Rolling Stones. The sixties kind of suited Danny. Wild, free and easy. Tucking it carefully in his pocket like it was his most treasured worldly possession, he checks his watch. It's 3.36pm, almost time to meet Danny, he’d have to hurry.
The last thing he wants is to be late so he starts jogging. Looking up at the side of buildings he panics, temporarily lost, until a sign for the Khao San Road appears magically above him. He stands by the side of the road waiting to cross. In the grit and slime in the gutter he shifts his feet uneasily from side to side. A rickshaw rattles by, only missing his toes by centimetres.
While he waits for a gap in the traffic his impatience grows, inching forwards, expecting drivers to show a bit of caution, slow down, maybe even stop but more vehicles fly past him. Drivers pump their horns, stopping to lean out of windows and shake their fists at him. Their red faces, spitting insults like bullets, forcing him back.
‘Afro fire, Afro fire,’ whispers a voice in his ear. He looks around for someone speaking to him but he is alone.
On the other side of the road, the woman from the bus with the Afro frizz is staring at him. Orange and yellow flames shoot out of her head, her hair is ablaze. Jake steps out into the road to help her. But by the time he finds himself in the middle of the road, the fire is gone. Laughter fills his head.
‘AAAArghhh…’ he rages as a rusty old pick-up truck, with the passenger side door panned in speeds towards him. Like a rabbit in headlights, he freezes.
Now, at this point, it would be easy to get lost in all the excitement of exploring a new city with our hero about to be hit by a truck but let me take a moment to explain the unfortunate incident with the woman’s Afro.
Shortly after Jake’s fourth birthday came his dad’s funeral and shortly after that he went to see some serious men in white coats. They did all kinds of tests but couldn’t work out what was wrong with him. It took them months to decide. When they did they told his mother that the trauma of his dad’s death was the reason for the disturbing auditory and visual hallucinations he had been experiencing. They called it ‘Bipolar Type II psychosis.’ Whatever that means.
They prescribed yellow anti-psychotic pills. He has always been very good at taking them. Two a day, morning and night with a cold glass of water. I can only recall a short period while working at the Monkton Hill public library, that he didn’t. But that, as I recall, didn’t go too well.
Every day, Merkel, the chief Librarian’s shoulder pads would explode ripping her head clean off. It would fly past him and land in the book bin. When the OAPS came to choose the latest bestselling large print the more they deliberated on the latest Mills and Boon romance, the more a clockwork dalek would appear, shouting exterminate, exterminate, euthanasia, euthanasia.
Most days he’d slice his colleague Hilary up with a chainsaw and index her body parts into neat piles before posting them with inter-library loans. Every evening, he tied Merkel to the Horror Crime section, he would take a can of petrol and douse her, then smile before striking a match and casually flicking it in her direction. As the yellow flames ignited around her, her purple face would scream in agony and he’d close the door on another satisfying day’s work.
Since then the yellow pills have always kept the problem under control but in all the holiday excitement, they’d been forgotten.
Without them, the people who’d been whispering behind his back all these years were right. He was as mad as a box of frogs. Two cans short of a six pack. Away with the fairies. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. A nutjob. A bona fide basket case.
The Hungry Cowboy
Hurtling out of control the truck swerves, its two front wheels skidding. It spins in a circle, hits the curb and mounts the pavement. Metal poles pile up in the back, roll off, then bounce and clank across the road. People dive out of the way. A man in a grey suit falls backwards, tossing away his briefcase. Pieces of paper flap in the air. A woman totters on high-heeled stilettoes, simultaneously dropping her jaw and bags.
The truck ploughs through empty chairs and tables outside a restaurant. A shower of glass rains down as it crashes into the front window shattering the neatly written frosted letters sign that read ‘Soon Fat.’ Finally it stops, wedged, rear wheels off the ground spinning, half inside, half outside the restaurant. Something sparks and buzzes. A dull thud, the scrape of metal and a scream quickly follow.
Jake’s glasses fly off. Fumbling blindly in the road, he grabs them, places them back on his nose and struggles to his feet. Through the fumes, passers-by move in slow motion. Splintered table legs and broken chairs, fragments of bricks and crushed umbrella shades lie on the ground. The restaurant owner appears in tears, sinks to his knees, head in hands, a life’s work up in smoke.
A man lies spread-eagled next to the mangled wreckage of his tuk tuk. The left wheel bent double, the right spinning slowly. Jake looks for signs of life but he is motionless.
From inside the dead tuk-tuk driver’s twisted body the swirling mist of a white hungry ghost howls, spinning into a mini tornado of glowing gold that fizzes, sparks and rockets into the sky. Laser beams of light slice through the smog, lighting up the world until it is gone, free at last.
Another emerges, from somewhere. Black with two stumpy horns and dark hollow sockets for eyes it drifts into the street. Tusk-like fangs snarl. A long proboscis flicks in and out of its jaws. At first it floats around a ravenous dog nuzzling at scraps in the gutter and slips inside its bony ribcage. The dog shakes violently as if it has fleas. When it bolts the spirit flies into the air and disappears down the metal grid of a drain.
In the middle of the chaos, a small Thai boy, dressed in a cowboy suit is lying on the ground, his fingers twitching, scratching at the pavement. The silver barrel of his toy pistol gleams in the sun next to him. One minute he had been happily playing in the street. The next he wasn’t. His pleading eyes blink before closing. Blood trickles from his ear.
Jake staggers towards the boy to help him, gazing in disbelief at the carnage, wishing the ground would swallow him whole. Lek’s dead face flashes over and over in his mind. He twists his fingers together, biting down so hard on his lip, he can taste blood. Heaving deep breaths, he tries to stay calm. He wants to run but stays rigid, transfixed by shock. Pain birds fly from his churning stomach to his mind, making him dizzy. Vomit wells up in his throat.
A Thai woman, holding a baby in her arms pushes through the crowd. Several people jostle her. Free at last, she runs to him, focusing on the boy. Holding back her momentum she eases herself down next to him.
‘Lek, Lek, Lek!’ she screams, touching his face.
She leans over and shakes his lifeless body again and again but there’s no response. She tries again. In that moment the world stops. Silence fills the air. Only a grieving mother could cradle a boy in her arms in that way.
In the distance, people are fussing and shouting. A policeman tries to calm the irate drivers vacating their vehicles. Another directs traffic. Sirens blare, lights flash. Firemen spray the truck, quelling the flames. Paper floats in the air, like confetti. Smoke darkens the sky.
Jake panics. Turning his back, he runs. At the street corner he stops, bent double, his lungs about to burst. Hacking and barking like a seal, he’s on the verge of collapse, he can go no further. He stops shaking, recovering his composure sufficiently to search his bag for his medication. He could have sworn he packed it. Emptying the contents of his rucksack onto the pavement he searches but finds nothing.
His thoughts spin out of control. Slowly it dawns on him that there is nothing he can do about the accident now. Nobody had seen it. Nobody would know it was his fault. Nobody would blame him. It was his secret, a secret he would only share with Danny. He’d know what to do about it, he always did.
Peering into the ash sky, clouds and the odd bird fly by, nothing unusual. He wonders if there really is a God. And if so, how could he let something like this happen? He sits down on the pavement, draws his knees up to his chin, covers his ears and rocks slowly, back and forth.
When the dust settles on the accident, Lek’s spirit leaves his body. I had only one thought, ‘Only the good die young.’ The faint imprint of his face circles, uncertain of where to go or what to do next. It is pure white, shaking with the demented lunacy of a hungry ghost. It has decided that if Jake hadn’t run into the road, the car wouldn’t have hit Lek and he’d still be alive. It will stop at nothing for revenge. That is bad news for Jake. Very bad.
The First Rule of Possession
The midday sun burns Jake’s face as he heaves himself off the ground and continues searching for the hostel. A Thai man in a green shell suit stands in his way. Young but with a pale face that was care worn, full of scars and pot holes. A greasy streak of black hair hides half of it. He loiters, as if he is about to rob him.
‘You want… buy?’ he asks, holding up plastic bath plugs on chains while one of his eyes stares somewhere into the space above his head and the other was covered by a patch. Unsettled, Jake skirts around him.
A few steps on, an older man tries to convince him that a stuffed camel would be the cornerstone of his existence. Everywhere he turns, somebody is selling something as if their life depended on it.
A beggar stands before him, his filthy ripped rags hanging off his back. His face, barely visible through dry flakes of skin and great clumps of a beard, matted by dirt. He holds out a photo of Thai royalty, rattling a rusty tin. Jake reaches into his pocket for a handful of coins.
A Thai woman, in her late forties leans in, close to his face, pressing herself against him so the cushion of her breasts rests on his arm.
‘Cheap fuckee, you want cheap fuckee?’ she asks, drawing back a veil to reveal a tongue sliding back and forth over broken teeth, dull eyes that undress him, hairy warts and a hooked nose. He lengthens his stride. Looking back to see if she’d gone, he hears her yelling after him. When he is satisfied she had given up, he breathes a sigh of relief.
I couldn’t miss the man selling bath plugs. His neon lime aura was about a foot wide and glowed in bright sunlight. It showed he was struggling, losing control. The dark blue around the prostitute’s feet meant she feared the future. I could tell Jake was tempted by her offer. Maybe it was being in a strange city, nobody would know if he propositioned her. The old man with the amulet was a muddy grey. A residue of fear was accumulating in his body. The darkness of death was almost upon him.
Exhausted, Jake dumps his rucksack on the pavement and sits down. Just when he thought he’d found a moment of peace, a caged chicken is thrust into his face. As he stares into its drooping eyes, a warm liquid splashes his face. He looks up and another drop of sweat falls from the hairy armpit above him.
‘Jesus C-Christ,’ he stammers.
The man with the chicken disappears. Jake stands up, shaking. Fists clenched. Teeth grinding.
‘F-Fuck,’ he says.
‘You ok?’ says an old man passing by.
Jake glares at him suspiciously.
Taut and visibly shaking, the old man, narrows his watery hazel eyes. Sensing Jake’s apprehension he removes the amulet on a piece of string from around his neck and reaches over to hand it to Jake.
‘Really there’s no need,’ protests Jake. ‘I’ve got a St Christopher to protect me,’ says Jake. ‘He’s the patron saint of travellers, where I come from.’
‘Take it, take it,’ insists the old man forcing the amulet into his hand. Reluctantly Jake closes his fingers around it and ties it around his neck.
‘It look bad,’ says the old man, pointing at the sky. The cloud of thick smog billows into the road. The swirl of mysterious white shapes spiral closer. The world is disappearing before his eyes.
When the smog clears, the Khao San Road reveals itself in all its glory. Bursting with noise, activity and a riot of colour, he has never been anywhere like this before. It is a cornucopia of delight and madness. Sellers shout. Tourists’ cameras click furiously, snapping momentoes. Businessmen’s ears are glued to their phones. Clothes stalls are draped in swathes of shiny silk and garish cotton. The smells of fried locusts and banana fritters flood his mouth with saliva. He licks his lips, swallowing hard.
Escaping the array of fake rolexes, handbags and cheap gold necklaces, he positions himself carefully, balancing on both feet under the canopy of a market stall to shelter from the relentless rain to check the number of the hostel on his postcard. Risking a soaking, he makes a dash for it, splashing his way through puddles, half-jogging, half-stumbling, He decides he doesn’t mind the rain. In fact, he quite likes it. It is cool and refreshing.
As he searches for ‘Tai Loke 3570,’ among the sprawling Thai letters on advertising signs he has to stop several times to catch his breath. Wiping his specs on his soggy sleeve only made things worse. Unable to see clearly, he keeps bumping into strangers.
As he makes his way to the hostel Lek is never far behind, his legless, neckless form vanishes into the mountain of grey cloud above, dipping and diving like a manic bird, with the sheriff star on his shirt flashing in front of us.
Eventually he comes to a battered door. The numbers painted on the wall beside it are faint. He checks them several times until he’s sure it is 3570. Weak and tired, his wet clothes stick to his skin weighing him down, he tries to push the door, but it won’t budge. The golden horseshoe knocker in the middle finally moves and the door creaks open.
When it opens, half of Lek’s face appears. One silky white eye peers out. Wing-like limbs hang from his sides like the melting wax of two huge candles. A gaping hole opens and closes where his mouth should have been, as if he is screaming. White fire roars from the narrow spaces where his eyes used to be.
Vibrating with fury, the freckles on his cheeks glow like small nuggets of white gold. Strands of his ginger hair stand on end, dancing like flames. His snarling lips uncurl into a sinister grin. You’d think for the spirit of a boy, no more than three feet tall, he’d be harmless but you’d be wrong.
A sweaty, grubby mess of a middle-aged man emerges in the doorway, his beady eyes look Jake up and down before he goes back inside and sits down behind a glass kiosk. His hamster jowls and wispy curls, sticking to the crown of his bald head, are partly obscured by swipes of dirt and a spider web of cracks in the glass.
A lop-sided smile acknowledges Jake’s presence.
‘Yeth? What d’ya want?’ he lisps through the gap in his teeth.
Jake pulls out the creased photo of Danny. ‘You seen this guy lately? He’s staying here.’ There couldn’t have been many that looked like Danny in Thailand. His dyed blonde mohawk, the dragonfly tattoo on his arm and dangly pirate ear ring were unmistakable. Anyone seeing his smile for the first time would think it was false but Jake knew different. Whenever he had his photo taken he always said bollocks instead of cheese.
The hotel owner scans the photo blankly and shakes his head. ‘Many tourist, no memory,’ he says finally, scratching the flab bulging from the holes in his white string vest.
‘You sure? You must have seen him?’ says Jake, waving the photo under his nose.
A grimace spreads over his face. His pursed lips inflate the rolls of flesh under his chin like a plastic paddling pool. He shrugs.
‘Ok I’ll wait for him here then,’ says Jake. ‘Have you got a bed for tonight?’
‘Only big room beds, all rest taken.’
‘Big room beds?’
‘Come, I show you,’ he says, swatting a fly on the back of his hairy neck.
He ushers Jake through the door, gesturing grandly as if he’s leading him into a royal palace.
‘Forty baht. Cheapest in town,’ he enthuses.
Jake drags his rucksack into a shabby dormitory where rows of grey metal framed beds are lined up with military precision and pays him for the night.
When the owner is out of sight he flops exhausted onto the nearest bed sinking into a saggy mattress and waits. Danny is bound to show up soon, he thinks.
As Jake lies on the dormitory bed, Lek is at his throat, slashing his misty tendrils across his throat as if he were cutting it. But like all spirits, he had to learn the first rule of possession – ‘Spirits of the dead cannot influence the physical world unless they possess something living in it.’ He tries everything to force his way into Jake. He is inventive and determined, I’ll give him that but I will never allow him in. Never.
Jake taps his feet, twiddles his fingers, whistling ‘I was born under a wanderin’ star’ out of tune. Geckos, the size of mice, dart up and down the walls, rustling the flaky dog-eared wallpaper, driving him round the bend.
Lek is chasing the geckos. I wait to see what will happen. I thought perhaps he might try to possess one, but he quickly loses interest.
Instead, he flies to and fro across the ceiling, experimenting with his shape, form and brightness. One minute he is flashing like a siren, the next he’s flickering like a candle.
Perched high in the rafters, his beam of brilliant light shines down on Jake. He is like a bird, surveying the scene, watching Jake’s every twitch, sussing out his weaknesses, planning his best form of attack, waiting to strike.
Finally, as he drifts down, clouds of fine dust and insect spirits scatter into the air like miniature snowflakes. He hovers for a while near the ground, gathering together the wisps of his ragged being before flying onto the wall and shadow boxing reflections of leaves, then crawling over Jake.
Feeling a sudden tightness in his bladder, Jake hurries to the toilet. He stands, unzips, wiggles and sighs with relief as he sprays evenly down the white urinals. In the security mirror in the corner above, a figure catches his eye.
A man is showing commendable dedication to toilet cleanliness by mopping the floor. Drawing slowly on the end of a cigarette, his face comes closer and closer until the unmistakable pug nosed features of the hostel owner fill the mirror. His smiling eyes flash an anxious glint. Sweat pours over the light reflecting on the smooth surface of his bald head and trickles to the end of his nose. Slowly, the skin on his face tightens. The life drains from his eyes. Panic grips him. They close. His head thuds on the ceramic tiles. He lies face down in a yellow stream of piss and cigarette ends that turn slowly into a thick blood red river. His bulging eye stares up at him, yellow, vacant and dead.
Jake runs to the door, flings it open, not daring to look back. In the dormitory he jumps on the bed and lies down. Shielding his eyes from the glare flickering briefly on the ceiling, as it fights with shadows, he steadies his trembling hands.
‘Dude, how’s it goin’?’ says a voice. Startled, Jake jumps up. Two men come into focus. The first has a shaved head with a rectangular face and strong jawbone. His intense amber eyes could laser a hole in him. ‘Zane’s the name, skulduggery’s the game,’ he says his upturned nose flaring his nostrils.
The other has softer, friendly, green eyes and dreads, like a worldly, white Rasta man.
‘Dexter. Dexter Matthews, Dex for short,’ he says.
‘Jake,’ he says, trying his best to weigh them both up.
Whenever Jake meets new people, I try to put a feeling in his water to give him an inkling of what they’re like but he never feels it. He has no intuition whatsoever.
‘Wait, just a second. Got to go... I’ll be back,’ says Jake, disappearing through the dormitory exit. Slowly he pushes the toilet door, swinging it open. Water pumps over the urinals. The stench of piss knocks him sideways. He checks the white ceramic tiles for signs of the hostel owner but there’s no body, no blood, no mess, nothing.
On the way back he checks the front desk to see if he is there but his seat is empty. Reassuring himself that what he’d seen was a psychotic vision, that it wasn’t real, he walks back into the dormitory.
Zane and Dex are sitting on a bed chatting.
‘Sorry, call of nature,’ says Jake.
‘You just gotten here?’ asks Zane.
‘Err, yea. More or less. It took ages. There was an accident,’ says Jake.
‘What sort?’ asks Zane.
‘A crash. A kid died, I think. It was the smog, you couldn’t see…it was dangerous,’ says Jake, exaggerating.
‘Jeez,’ says Zane. ‘Thais are psychopaths when they get behind a wheel. It’s like that all the time here though. Rush hour every hour. I thought us yanks were the pits for gas guzzling.’
‘This place is such a pig sty,’ says Dex, clutching a Lonely Planet guide book on South East Asia.
Dex reaches into the pocket of his Timberland shorts pulls out his shades and puts them on.
‘Been here long?’ asks Jake.
‘Bout a week. This city is such a blast. More full on than the Big Apple, know what I’m sayin’ dude?’ says Zane, stretching his tanned muscular physique up towards the ceiling. He is very sure of himself, almost cocky, thinks Jake, taking out the photo of Danny from his wallet again and giving it to Zane.
‘Recognise him? He’s supposed to be staying here.’
Dex peers at it over Zane’s shoulder and shakes his head. ‘Did you arrange to meet him?’ asks Dex.
‘Yea. He sent me this,’ says Jake passing him the postcard.
‘Well, at least you’re in the right place,’ says Dex.
‘He’s…’ says Jake, hesitating, trying to work out why he hadn’t showed up. Maybe he had run out of money or he was ill or he had met a girl or something. It was too early for the word ‘missing.’ He couldn’t bring himself to say it. It scared him. He kept quiet.
As Zane scans the photo, flecks of copper glow in his eyes. ‘Jeez, You sure he’s your brother? Don’t look much like him d’ya?’ he says. ‘Wait a minute, isn’t that the guy that works at the bar in the club? What’s its name - the Kazbar?’
‘The Kazbar?’ exclaims Jake. ‘How far’s that?’
‘A few doors down. We’re goin’ there tonight. The music’s great and the booze is cheap,’ says Zane, bouncing on his toes. ‘Good times round the corner and Dan’s the man. The maaan. That place is where it’s at man. Everyone goes there. He’ll be there you’ll see. Ain’t that right Dexy?’
‘You bet,’ says Dex.
Zane pulls at Dex’s belt as he steps into a smarter pair of trousers. Dex falls flat on his face.
‘Butt out idiot,’ says Dex, flushed with embarrassment.
Lek drifts across the floorboards, hovering over a colony of ants that were devouring the sugar in a dark sticky patch of a spilled fizzy drink and watches them up close, fascinated. He settles on the ants vanishing slowly inside them. One by one they light up and glow with a white fluorescence, then march in single file up the frame of the bed. The procession continues through dirty white sheets and into Jake’s jeans.
‘Come on get ready, let’s go. No time like the present. May the force be with you,’ says Zane saluting Dex and standing to attention.
‘We’ve got some partying to do, ain’t that right Dexy?’
Caught up in Zane’s infectious enthusiasm, Jake throws his clothes on quickly and follows two complete strangers out of the door into the warm night air. On the way to the Kazbar, the evening shade has cooled the deserted streets. The sun is setting and the air feels fresh, like the rain has cleaned it. Zane leads the way.
‘What do you do back home?’ Jake asks Dex.
‘I’m an accountant’ says Dex.
‘Really?’ says Jake.
‘Yeah, what of it?’ says Dex defensively.
‘No no…. nothing, I just thought.., you just don’t look like one, thats all.’ There’s a pause while Dex stares at him.
‘Done much travelling?’ asks Jake.
‘I’ve been to the States. That’s where I met Zane last summer. This is my first proper trip, though,’ says Dex.
Jake tries to work out how two such different people could possibly have got together. But he supposed that travelling threw odd combinations of characters together. He tells himself to think faster, suss people out better and trust nobody.
‘Shareef don’t like it, Rock the Kazbar, Rock the Kazbar... That crazy Kazbar jive,’ crows Zane like a cockerel, as he struts down the Khao San Road towards the nightclub. Jake joins in, singing louder with each step.
Jake scratches his arm but it still itches. He scratches it again and again but it keeps coming back. Curious to see what was causing it, he holds it up to the light. Flicking an ant off it he staggers backwards as if he’s drunk. Scratching his crotch, he topples over crashing to the ground.
‘Aaargh, what the fuck?’ he shouts.
‘What’s up, Jake? What is it? You ok?’ asks Zane.
Jake sits on the ground in the middle of the street whipping off his jeans. He looks down the front of his shorts, contorting his face. Shaking, his bottom lip quivering, he slides his boxer shorts off as if they were on fire and tries to brush the ants off like they were some kind of fatal disease.
‘Bad case of ants in his pants,’ giggles Dex. Zane doubles up in fits of laughter. Jake runs down the street stark bollock naked, cupping his hands around his manhood.
As Jake cowers naked in a doorway, humiliated and close to tears, Lek leaves the ants and floats in the sky, shimmering like a mist of thin virgin snow and oscillating wildly with excitement at the discovery that insects have weaker spirits than humans and he could possess them easily. Lek smirks like he has just invented the wheel.