© Simon Totten
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FREE Spirit (Continued)
Please note: This novel is narrated by Jake Hunter's living spirit.
The story so far: Jake 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.
Strike # One -
Ants in his pants
Jake tapped his feet and twiddled his fingers, whistling ‘I was born under a wanderin’ star’ out of tune. Geckos, the size of large mice, darted up and down the walls, rustling the flaky dog-eared wallpaper, driving him round the bend.
I noticed Lek, chasing them and waited to see what would happen, thinking he might try to possess one, but he quickly lost interest, preferring to fly to and fro across the ceiling, experimenting with his shape, form and brightness. One minute he was flashing like a siren, the next he was flickering like a candle.
As he drifted slowly down, he separated into clouds of fine dust and fell slowly like miniature snowflakes before coming together again and flying onto the wall to shadow box reflections of leaves. Then, he flashed onto the ceiling and like a bird perched high in the rafters, his brilliance shone down into Jake’s face as he studied his every move, sussed out his weaknesses and planned his best form of attack.
Shielding his eyes from bright light, Jake felt a sudden tightness in his bladder and hurried to the toilet. Disappearing through the dormitory exit, he pushed the toilet door, swinging it slowly open. Inside, the stench of piss knocked him sideways. He stood, unzipped, wiggled and sighed with relief as he sprayed evenly into the water pumping over the white urinals.
In the security mirror in the corner above, a figure caught his eye. A man was mopping the floor. Drawing slowly on the end of a cigarette, his face came closer and closer until the unmistakable pug nosed face of the hostel owner filled the mirror. His smiling eyes flashed an anxious glint. Sweat poured over the light reflecting on the smooth surface of his bald head and trickled to the end of his nose. Slowly, the skin on his face tightened. Panic gripped him.The life drained from his eyes and they closed. His head thudded on the ceramic tiles. He lay face down in a yellow stream of piss and cigarette ends that turned slowly into a thick blood red river. His bulging eye stared up at him, yellow, vacant and dead.
In a state of shock, Jake hurriedly finished urinating, fumbled at his fly and zipped it up. He turned around, blinked several times, rubbed his eyes at the space in front of him. But there was no body, no bloodstains, no mess, nothing. Only clean, white, pristine, ceramic tiles.
Jake ran to the door, flung it open, not daring to look back. On the way back to the dormitory he checked the front desk to see if he was there but his seat was empty.
Attempting to reassure himself he sat down on the bed to calm his breathing and steady his trembling hands.
‘Dude, how’s it goin’?’ said a voice. Startled, Jake jumped up. Two men came into focus. The first had a shaved head with a rectangular face and strong jawbone. His amber eyes were so intense they could have lasered a hole in him. ‘Zane’s the name, skulduggery’s the game,’ he said.
The other had softer, friendlier, green eyes and dreads, like a worldly, white Rasta man.
‘Dexter. Dexter Matthews, Dex for short,’ he said.
‘Jake,’ he said, trying his best to weigh them both up.
Whenever Jake meets new people, I always 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.
‘You just gotten here?’ asked Zane.
‘Err, yea. More or less. It took ages. There was an accident.’
‘What sort?’ asked Zane.
‘A crash. A kid died, I think. It was the smog, you couldn’t see…it was dangerous,’ said Jake, exaggerating.
‘Jeez,’ said Zane. ‘Thais are psychopaths when they get behind a wheel. It’s like that all the time here. Rush hour every hour. I thought us yanks were the pits for gas guzzling.’
‘This place is such a pig sty,’ said Dex, clutching a Lonely Planet guide book on South East Asia. Reaching into the pocket of his Timberland shorts, he pulled out his shades and put them on.
‘Been here long?’ asked Jake.
‘Bout a week. This city is such a blast. More full on than the Big Apple, know what I’m sayin’ dude?’ said Zane, stretching his tanned muscular physique up towards the ceiling. He was very sure of himself, almost cocky. Jake took out the photo of Danny from his wallet again and handed it to Zane.
‘Recognise him? He’s supposed to be staying here.’
Dex peered at it over Zane’s shoulder and shook his head. ‘Did you arrange to meet him?’ asked Dex.
‘Yea. He sent me this,’ said Jake passing him the postcard.
‘Well, at least you’re in the right place,’ said Dex.
‘He’s…’ said 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 so he kept quiet.
‘Jeez, You sure he’s your brother? Don’t look much like him d’ya?’ said Zane, flecks of copper glowing in his eyes as he scanned the photo. ‘Wait a minute, isn’t that the guy that works at the bar in the club? What’s its name - the Kazbar?’
‘The Kazbar?’ exclaimed Jake. ‘How far’s that?’
‘A few doors down. We’re goin’ there tonight. The music’s great and the booze is cheap,’ said 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,’ said Dex stepping into a smarter pair of trousers.
Zane pulled at his belt so he fell flat on his face.
‘Butt out idiot,’ said Dex.
Lek drifted 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 observed them up close. Fascinated, he settled on them and one by one he vanished slowly inside them, igniting each of them with a white fluorescence. They marched in single file up the frame of the bed and continued through dirty white sheets into Jake’s jeans.
‘Come on get ready, let’s go. No time like the present. May the force be with you,’ said 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 threw his clothes on quickly and followed 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 was setting and the air fresh, like the rain had cleaned it. Zane led the way.
‘What do you do back home?’ Jake asked Dex.
‘I’m an accountant.’
‘Yeah, what of it?’
‘No…. nothing, I just thought.., you just don’t look like one, that’s all.’ There was a pause while Dex stared at him.
‘Done much travelling?’ asked Jake.
‘I’ve been to the States. That’s where I met Zane last summer. This is my first proper trip, though.’
Jake tried 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 told 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,’ crowed Zane like a cockerel, as he strutted down the Khao San Road towards the nightclub. Jake joined in, singing louder with each step.
Jake scratched his arm but it still itched. He scratched it again and again but it kept coming back. Curious to see what was causing it, he held it up to the light. Flicking an ant off it he staggered backwards as if he was drunk. Scratching his crotch, he toppled over and crashed to the ground.
‘Aaargh, what the fuck?’ he shouted.
‘What’s up, Jake? What is it? You ok?’ asked Zane.
Jake sat on the ground in the middle of the street and whipped off his jeans. He looked down the front of his shorts, contorting his face. Shaking, his bottom lip quivering, he slid his boxer shorts off as if they were on fire and tried to brush the ants off like they were some kind of fatal disease.
‘Bad case of ants in his pants,’ giggled Dex. Zane doubled up in fits of laughter. Jake ran down the street stark bollock naked, cupping his hands around his manhood. Then cowered on his knees, naked in a doorway, humiliated and close to tears.
Lek left the ants and floated into the sky, shimmering like a mist of thin virgin snow, oscillating wildly with excitement and smirking like he just invented the wheel at the discovery that insects have weaker spirits than humans and possessing them was easy.
The queue for Kazbar nightclub snaked around the corner.
‘Who’s he?’ asked Jake, nodding at a wiry figure strutting towards the entrance. He was wearing an Emporio Armani watch, a three-piece snake skin suit and pointed alligator boots and the trail of Hugo Boss men’s scent he left behind him wreaked of wealth.
‘Anyone would think he owned the place,’ said Jake.
Zane and Dex giggled.
‘What? asked Jake. ‘Was it something I said?’
‘He does… own the place, I mean,’ said Zane. ‘That’s Sanuk Rama. A big cheese around here. A well respected business man. An entrepreneur,’ said 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,’ said Dex.
‘What a dude. Bit of a sharp dresser. Betcha he’s a ladies man. Betcha nobody messes with him, maan,’ said Zane.
On his way in to the club, Rama inspected one of the bouncers, rearranged his tie and wiped 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 disappeared surprisingly quickly. Inside was hot and heaving. In spite of the whirring and clacking of half a dozen ceiling fans, the air hung heavy.
Flashing disco lights sliced dancing silhouettes and filled glasses with cocktails of colour. A mirror ball twirled and glittered above the dance floor. Walls vibrated with techno-house music thumping from speakers stacked high on a small stage at the far end of the room. In the gloom of a long smoky bar, tourists and locals were on the prowl. Everyone was knocking back drinks. The place was jumping. Rama stood with his entourage of bodyguards, surveying his empire. Beautiful young backpackers played drinking games. Middle aged die-hards propped up the bar. Lecherous toads leered at gyrating dancers but Danny was nowhere to be seen.
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 was surfing on the crest of their luminescence, stopping occasionally to peek out from behind speakers and play hide and seek with himself. But he wasn’t the only spirit there. Black beetle spirits with human eyes crawled in and out of men suited in straitjacket grey, sipping cocktails and beers at the bar. In the darkness on a small stage, were hybrid spiders with human ears.
Zane dodged and weaved his way confidently to the bar. Not far behind him Rama’s alligator boots squelched over the spongy carpets. Behind the bar, a man mountain’s barbed wire tattoos stretched and tightened on bulging biceps, as he pulled a pint. The bling on his sausage fingers gleamed as he removed bottles from a shelf. When he saw Rama coming, he almost fell over in his rush to make him a drink. He measured spirits carefully, mixed, stirred them and dropped an umbrella in a glass. He slid it along the smooth surface of the mahogany bar and waited, tapping his fingers nervously on one of the pumps. Rama studied it for a few seconds, inspected it closely and sipped on it.
‘What fack you call that Ronson?’ said Rama, spitting it out. ‘I tell you time after time… I no like that way but you no listen.’
‘Sorry boss…won’t happen again.’
‘Just give me a beer,’ he said scowling.
‘Business good. Jumping boss. Couldn’t be better,’ said Ronson, trying to atone for his error.
‘Good… glad to hear you do something right,’ said Rama.
‘This is Arne Frederiksen. He stays at the Tai Loke as well,’ said Dex tapping Jake on the shoulder.
Arne Frederiksen had eyes like blue pearls. A lion’s mane for hair and long black eyelashes on an oval face.
‘Nice to meet you,’ he said, blotches spreading into his ruddy cheeks as he snatched a drink from the tray. Stockily built, round shouldered with a crooked nose, he was like an out of condition boxer. He offered Jake a brief handshake before shuffling to the bar.
‘Don’t mind Arne,’ said Zane. ‘He’s a man on a mission, he likes Thai girls, know what I’m sayin’?’
Zane took three bottles of beer, handed them to his companions who clanked them together, cheering. He leaned over to Jake and shouted above the booming music.
‘Any sign of big bro’ yet?’ he asked.
Jake shook 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,’ said Zane.
Jake waited near the entrance to the backroom, before opening the door and peering in. The corridor was empty. His eyes wandered across the dance floor. Zane was waving his arms in the air. You couldn’t miss him in a crowd.
Bored with playing, Lek had floated into the dry ice that was funnelling out from under the stage. He made it glow and shifted it towards Jake, until he was completely enveloped in its warm, suffocating stickiness.
Dizzy and faint, Jake’s legs buckled. He fell, trying to suck in some air. Vomit rose and subsided in his throat. He staggered to his feet, spluttering and choking, wafting away 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 flew out of the dry ice, did a manic jig and merged into a melee of dancers, laughing.
Appearing and disappearing in a sea of bobbing heads and pumping arms was a blonde mohawk and a checked shirt. Time stood still. People danced in slow motion. In the flash of strobe lighting he tried to get a better look at him. Tentatively, Jake reached out for his arm.
‘Danny? Danny?’ he said.
Alarmed, the man turned to face him.
‘Sorry, I thought you were someone else,’ said Jake. The man held his hands up to show he didn’t want any trouble. On the dance floor, Jake was joined by Zane.
‘Hey, what’s up? ‘You ok? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,’ shouted Zane.
‘What?’ asked Jake.
‘Don’t be such a dweeb,’ said Zane.
‘Eh?’ said Jake, unable to hear him above the booming music.
‘You bombed yet?’ asked Zane.
‘I thought I saw Danny, but…’
‘Really?’ said Zane putting his arm around him. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll turn up. Look over there,’ he said, grinning. ‘She’ll take your mind off things…’ said Zane pointing at a girl on the dance floor. Jake squinted to catch a glimpse of her.
Zane made a b-line for her, dragging Jake with him. The girl’s bookish designer black framed glasses seemed at odds with her party girl image. She was in the mood for enjoying herself and placed her hand over her mouth, sniggering at Jake’s dancing.
While Zane twisted and turned rhythmically, completely losing himself in the music, Jake was hopelessly out of time, he knew he was no Michael Jackson.
Feeling the powerful effects of drink, jet lag and adrenalin he had forgotten who he was and why he was there. He was convinced the girl was up for it and followed her to the bar.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘It’ll cost ya. Mine’s a drop o’ the amber nectar,’ she replied.
‘Coming right up,’ said Jake.
‘Kerry,’ she says. ‘So what’s a nice boy like you, doing in a place like this?’ she asked.
Jake tried to redirect his one track mind.
‘Look here… s-seen him around?’ slurred Jake.
Kerry peered at the photo of Danny.
‘No mate sorry. Bit of a looker though,’ said Kerry. ‘Look, this is my last night. Before I head back I was hopin’ to go out with a bang,’ she said, flirting.
I was doing my best to stem the flow of alcohol and adrenalin to Jake’s brain. A spirit teaches love not lust so I tried to get Jake to say something interesting. Ask Kerry to dance? What’s the best place she’d been to? What do you think of Bangkok? Anything, but it was no use, I was drowning in his testosterone, enough to launch a rocket. His hormones were bouncing, his libido soaring.
Jake moved closer.
‘What do you do? he asked.
‘Skimpies barmaid mate.’
Jake swallowed 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 only paused for breath to reach for half a lager. She downed it in one, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
‘Shouldn’t really drink much. Got a flight to catch tomorra,’ she said. Sensing his chance, Jake opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. His head was swimming, the room was spinning. He couldn’t take his eyes off her erect nipples under her tight yellow top.
‘You ok there?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ replied Jake, drooling at a tiny bead of sweat snaked its way across the collar bone of her tanned torso. ‘Never better,’ he said, seeing double and inhaling the intoxicating force of her perfume. Kerry sipped her drink and stood back smiling at him. Jake smiled back. In the end he said nothing and leaned his face close to hers. As he stared into her eyes. Their mouths moved closer, their lips met.
The smash of breaking glass jolted him backwards. At the bar, Ronson was screaming into Arne’s face. He lunged at him, grabbing him by the throat. His stubby fingers tighten, squeezing it. Arne struggled free, swayed back on his heels and threw a punch sending him tumbling to the ground. The music stopped. Arne stood back, shocked.
Screams of panic pierced the silence. People ran for the exit. Bouncers in tuxedoes rushed past. A Thai woman jumped on Arne’s shoulders and smashed a bottle off the back of his skull. He hit the floor. The woman fell, sprawling all over him, the froth of beer mixed with blood bubbles in his hair. At the bar, fists smack into cheeks. More bouncers waded in. Zane and Dex lifted Arne to his feet, half dragging him towards the exit.
Jake glanced back to see Kerry. She was gone. He backed up towards the wall, then made a run for the kitchen door, but three men standing like vicious dogs forming a wall of clenched teeth were blocking his way.
‘Come on then, you facking carpetmuncher,’ snarled Ronson.
Ronson’s left eye was closed, swollen and bruised. As he hovered over Jake, frothing at the mouth, like a snarling rabid wolf, he swung a fist full of gleaming bling at his face. A snap of pain stung his face, and he hit the ground.
Sitting up he wiped blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and spat out a tooth. The mad glint in Ronson’s eye told sent a chill down his spine. As he raised the machete above his head, his face tensed, the purple vein in the side of his temple throbbed.
I tried to give him the courage to stand up and fight him but as usual he didn’t hear me. To be honest I thought it was all over for Jake and I’d have to take my chances with the Unholy Trinity of the Dead. As you might expect, Lek was smiling, loving it. It would save him the bother of killing Jake himself.
‘Enough,’ said Rama, twitching the brown mole above his lip.
‘Mr Ronson. Put it down,’ he commanded, gold flashing in his yellow teeth, as he grabbed Ronson’s arm and stopped the machete in mid-air.
Ronson released his grip on the machete and dropped it to the ground. Stepping away, he panted, revealing an anchor tattoo on the side of his bulging forearm. Rama positioned himself between Ronson and Jake, like a boxing referee. Moving closer to Ronson he whispered at length in his ear. Ronson nodded in agreement and took another step back.
‘I am Sanuk Wama, Mr Sanuk Wama. We go now.’
Jake and his friends had no choice but to follow him through a fire door exit. Rama held his hand up in the air to attract attention and make sure he didn’t lose them.
Bodies spilled into the street barging into each other. A drunken argument raged between two men. They pushed and snarled, goading each other. Rama led them away, his shifty eyes peering out at the world suspiciously. Two hundred yards further down the street the crowd thinned out, the noise subsided. Rama wagged his finger at a building, then pointed as if it looked familiar. Eventually, he opened the door to a side street café and ushered everyone through it.
The cafe was small but cosy. Rama took them to a large table with a dim light above it. Taking a spare seat, he placed it carefully at the head of the table, sat down and encouraged the others to join him.
When everyone had settled in their seats, he put his hands on the table, showing off his fancy cuff links and silver bracelet. A waitress arrived promptly, chewing gum. Rama made an order and she noted it down.
‘What you want?’ she asked, facing the others, smiling like an assassin.
‘Mineral water please?’ said Jake. Zane and Dex ordered coffees. Arne shook his head. She scribbled it all down on a pad and hurried back to the kitchen.
By now everyone was sober. Zane seemed the coolest. Dex was shell shocked. Arne was still dazed and confused. Rama leaned forward, folding his arms.
‘Well my fwiends. It seem you make men angwy. They dangewous, how you call them, gangsters. You not mess with them.’
Jake and his friends looked around at each other, searching for comfort. By the look on Dex’s face it was obvious he blamed 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.’
‘I can’t. I have to find my brother,’ said Jake, suddenly pulling out his photo and handing it the Rama. Rama squinted at the creased piece of paper as if it had given him bellyache, then chose his words carefully.
‘Kazbar my club, he work for me there since last week’
‘What? He’s ok?’ asked Jake.
‘Yes my fwiend he ok… but he has new job in Chiang Mai now. If you come there, you see him again.’
‘Thank you, that’s great. I I I…’
‘Why you so wowy?’ asked Rama.
‘He didn’t show up at the hostel, where I was meeting him, I thought he was… m-missing,’ said Jake.
‘He fine, no wowies.’
Jake gripped his hand and shook it. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We appreciate your help it, don’t we?’ said Jake looking round the table for support from the others.
Rama smiled. ‘Shall we say, all water under bridge. No hard feeling? Tomowow another day?’
‘Yes, Mr Rama, we’re all sorry aren’t we?’ said Jake nodding enthusiastically. ‘We didn’t mean any harm we were just trying to have fun, weren’t we?’
‘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?’
Rama had saved Jake’s life and knew where Danny was and it would mean leaving the chaotic hell hole that was Bangkok behind as well. What could be better? At last, his wretched luck appeared to be changing.
‘Yes of course we’ll be on the bus for sure, won’t we?’ asked Jake.
The others shrugged, staying silent.
‘I see you tomowow then? Wemember, bus leave ‘Leven o’cock, tomowow. Not safe here any more,’ said Rama.
To Jake it was divine intervention and he was convinced Rama was a Christ-like miracle working genius, a god among men, a hero who could do no wrong.
Next morning at the hostel, Jake woke in the dormitory, gagging at wafts of body odour, stale farts and halitosis.
At times like this I’m glad I’m not human. Deep down though, I’m ashamed to admit I’m a green eyed monster. I’ll never feel the warm, smooth touch of skin, 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 shudder with an orgasm. Never smell coffee, freshly cut grass, clean fresh air or the scent of a flower. I’ll never taste a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate bar, a runny egg yolk with ketchup and chips. I’d swap my higher spiritual plane for just five seconds of any of those. I just hope you realize how precious life is and how lucky you are.
No matter how much he rubbed, scratched the crust on his eyelashes, Jake couldn’t unstick them from their gluey mess. They refused to open. When they finally did the dormitory was a doss house. Dishevelled bodies lay open-mouthed like corpses massacred by a machine gun. His head felt like someone had screwed it off during the night and hadn’t quite fitted it back on properly.
Memories of the previous night in Kazbar emerged slowly like ships in the mist. Kerry’s nipples. Her horsey laughter. His embarrassing lunge at her. His shock at fists in bloody faces. Arne’s punch. Ronson’s golden knuckle dusters. The machete. The ache of fear. Kerry’s curves. Rama’s yellow fingernail, beady black eyes and timely intervention. When he was fully awake he sat up. The most important part of the previous night, slowly came back to him. Danny was alive and well and working in Chiang Mai.
Zane, Dex and Arne rose bleary eyed from their beds, mooching about, stretching and yawning before slowly gathering their belongings and packing their bags. As they did so they completely ignored each other, like strangers.
Dex paced up and down, smouldering. Eventually he walked over to Arne who was lying on his bed listening to music and slapped his feet. Startled, Arne pulled his ear plugs out.
‘What? What the…’ he said.
‘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?’ asked Dex.
Arne pushed Dex’s hand away. ‘Ok, I messed up, I had one too many,’ said Arne, remorse in his low voice. Nursing his bandaged head he stared 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,’ said Dex.
‘It won’t happen again,’ said 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?’
Arne sighed heavily, burying his head under a sarong.
Jake exchanged suggestive nods with Zane in the direction of the exit.
‘Liven up people, Jungle trekking here we come remember?’ said Zane, edging towards the door. One by one they leave the dormitory.
In the pale sunshine outside, they took a left turn into the side street past busy food stalls on the way to Sukhumvit Soi 38, where Rama had told them to catch the bus.
The street was eerie, deserted except for Rama’s battered bus parked in the road. The clapped out old banger had filthy hub caps and bald tyres. Furry muck grew in its window ledges. Flaky copper rust peeled off its ancient green coat of paint. Considering Rama’s reputation, Jake had expected better.
Rama was edgy and impatient, pacing up and down, checking his watch. Sweat rolled down his forehead, forming damp patches under his armpits. As Jake and the others arrived slowly, weighed down by bags, Rama slapped each of them on the back and shook their hands.
‘Welcome to magical mystewy tour,’ he said. ‘Sleep well after last night adventure?’
‘Funny guy huh?’ said 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?’
‘Hangover,’ snapped Zane.
Rama scowled at him and then smiled at everyone else. Zane grunted, forcing a half-hearted smile.
After dumping his bags on the pavement beside the bus where Ronson was busy loading them into the luggage compartment, he clambered onto the bus. As soon as the stuffy cigarette air hit him, he began to dread the journey ahead.
All the seats were empty so he grabbed a window seat near the back that was shaded from the glare of the morning sun. Arne sat on his own, avoiding the others.
‘Air con is on, isn’t it?’ complained Dex.
‘Doesn’t feel like it. Shall we ask Rama?’ asked Jake.
‘Go ahead then, lame brain,’ said Zane, folding his arms, squirming in his seat, screwing his eyes together, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep.
Jake didn’t have the energy for an argument. Dex cooled his face with a small battery operated fan. Arne tapped his feet, nodding in time to music.
As the bus filled up with young fresh-faced tourists, the noise levels were rising. A variety of languages competed to be heard. Fifteen minutes turned to half-an-hour, one hour to an hour and a half.
‘Jeez how long does it take?’ said Zane.
‘Forever and a day, by the look,’ shrugged Dex.
‘I’d ask Rama what the hold-up is but I think I’ll be pushing my luck,’ said Jake. Looks like he’s got a lot on his plate.’ Rama got on and off the bus several times, chatting and fussing and rubbing his hands together, as if he’d lost something.
Zane checked his watch. The bus hadn’t moved an inch.
‘This is such a waste of time,’ he said.
Even if it reaches a natural conclusion a human life is short. Time is precious. I know that some of you make a bucket list. Maybe 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? So on the bus. I tried to 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. But while the clock was ticking, seconds, became minutes, minutes became hours and he just sat there, unable to work out if he was biding his time or wasting it.
Arne was nodding in time to the tinny beats of his earphones.
‘Rama needs to get his ass in gear. I’m sick of all this sittin’ around,’ said Zane.
‘Oh listen to you,’ interrupted 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,’ said Dex.
Dex put his hand on Zane’s knee. ‘Look… you need to calm down a bit,’ he said.
‘Not me dude. I’ve had it with this shit, I’m getting off. I’ll take my chances with the machete mafia,’ said Zane, getting up to walk down the aisle, as far as the door before Rama appeared on the steps. ‘We ready, go now. Ready to go, full now,’ he shouted excitedly.
Loud cheers and much blowing out of cheeks greeted the announcement. At last, the final seat at the front had been filled. Zane turned around and made his way back to his seat.
Jake scanned the crowded bus filled with tourists, backpacks and sarongs and felt 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 drank in the buzz of those young tourists’ energy and excitement like a blood sucking vampire and pumped it through Jake’s veins. But he just stared out of the window, worrying, wishing the journey was over before it had begun. It was enough to make me give up.
‘Is it me or is Rama the same bloke as the one in Kazbar? He was much calmer and in control then. Now he’s all sweaty, shaky and distracted.’
‘Yeah, he’s acting weird, don’t you think?’ said Dex.
‘Look at his finger nail, said Zane. ‘He’s not your average bus company director is he? He’s the director, driver and the biggest charlie snorter in South East Asia if you ask me. Look at his eyes maan, he’s totally lost it. Not exactly helpful when it comes to bus timetabling is it?’
Jake could see his point.
‘You think Rama’s great don’t you?’ asked Zane.
‘Mmm… maybe not but right now, I don’t care. He’s my only connection to Danny,’ he said .
The First Cut
Nothing prepared Jake for the vision of jaw dropping beauty that climbed onto the bus. As she made her way down the aisle, heads turned, eyes on sticks, undressing her.
With the look of a beautiful elf or pixie, she was composed, serene, yet fierce, and looked them all confidently in the eye. She wasn’t exactly skinny but she didn’t look like she ate much. She ran her fingers through long tangles of unkempt blonde hair that tumbled over her shoulders, smoothing out streaks of purple dye.
When she paused at Jake’s seat, the butterfly stud in her nose glinted, her blue eyes dazzled in the sunlight his world stopped, he looked down at the floor, agonisingly conscious that the only vacant seat remaining was next to him.
As she stretched her slender arms up into the rack above him, he couldn’t help noticing the outline of her breasts. Round and full but pert. Her long legs allowed her to stretch up on tip toes, to reach into her bag. The elastic of her men’s underpants rode up above ripped jeans. Her pale blue Tai dyed T-shirt matched 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 sat down to unwind the tangle of her Mp3 headphones. Looking down at the floor, avoiding all eye contact Jake held his breath, trying to ignore her, as she made herself comfortable in her seat, putting her MP3 plugs in her ears, and sitting back relaxing like the rest of the world didn’t exist.
He pictured kissing her perfectly smooth tanned skin, breathed in her fresh summer meadow scent. He wanted to look into her eyes, ask her name, ask her where she was travelling to, what her plans were, what did she think of Thailand? And if marriage was a bit too early he wondered 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, but his tongue remained stuck to the roof of his dry mouth, his brain frozen, seized by a stone-cold paralysis induced by the thought of Rachel Bingham.
What happened with her still tortured him. 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.
But the last time he’d seen her was three years ago. It was as fresh in his memory as if it had happened yesterday. One Thursday night after work on a whim of spontaneity, 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. Every time you shook it buried the ugly Troll in a snowstorm. It was only a tacky piece of plastic but it was a special present from a holiday in Norway and 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.
Rachel’s curvaceous naked body lay beside him in a white cotton sheet, her silky flesh tingling on 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, 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.
The memory of Rachel and his last night with her was bittersweet, an erotic dream and nightmare rolled into one. Luckily I’ll never experience the devastating hurt of love. Its gaping raw wound had scarred his heart permanently. I know it happens all the time and people can spend their lives collecting them but to Jake it was the ugliest most painful thing imaginable.
I tried to empathise with what he was going through but the nearest thing I’ll come to falling in love is meeting kindred spirits. The most I’ll ever feel is an affinity, a detached kind of belonging. Its nothing like love. Nothing like falling head over heels, being bewitched by the magic spell of its addictive drug. I’ll never be so love sick I can’t think straight, eat or sleep.
I have always done my best to fan the flames of his love for his parents, Danny and his friends. I have tried to make it bloom in all the right places in all the right ways but as usual I didn’t get very far. Ever since Rachel did that, things have been different. His heart is a down trodden punch bag, a shrivelled up wasteland, a cold dark desert I never visit. I understand why people say the first cut is the deepest but what can I do?