I wish all my readers a very enjoyable Christmas Day.
My Christmas present to you is a short story that I originally wrote back in 2002, and which recently underwent a substantial re-write.
To those of you who have read my novel, ‘A Lust for Life, you may notice that a couple of events in this story were later ‘lifted’ for adaption and later inclusion in my novel.
This short story, (or, at 25,000 words, a novelette), is the only story I have written which is almost entirely about bars-girls and bar-life in Bangkok. It is mainly set in the 1970’s, which, many would agree, was a time when Bangkok was at its pinnacle as a city of exotic delights.
So when you have opened all your presents, stuffed yourselves silly and feel like a quiet hour or so, then curl up in a corner and have a little read of Mobi’s Christmas offering.
I do hope you enjoy it, and once again, happy Christmas to you all…..
Walking Backwards For Christmas
Some forty or so years ago, many of the male members of the expatriate community in Bangkok – in particular the Brits and Aussies – spent much of their leisure time in the ‘Derby King’, a bar in Bangkok’s infamous Patpong red light district.
There was nothing particularly special about the Derb – as the Aussies would fondly refer to it. It was of standard ‘shop-house’ size, with a bar running the entire length of a long, rectangular shaped room. The bar was nicely furnished, with high, upholstered stools on the bar side and small, open booths, with low drinking tables crammed along the opposite side; leaving just enough space in between for customers and staff to squeeze through.
In most respects The Derb was no different to the dozens of other bars that were located on the main Patpong Road and the nearby side roads. In those days, bars with Go-Go dancers was a rarity and most bars offered an assortment of attractive waitresses to serve the drinks and to sit with customers for the price of a ‘lady’s’ drink. Other ‘services’ were at times available. But I get ahead of myself – more of that later.
The Derby King was indeed mainly patronised by expatriates, or ‘farangs’ as they are known, but strangely and somewhat incongruously, there was also a small thriving Thai clientele who mixed happily with the farangs and helped to give the bar its somewhat unique ambience.
The Derb’s service was friendly but not pushy. No one felt under any obligation to buy drinks for the ladies. Indeed, although there were usually two or three good looking girls to cater for the occasional tourist who may stumble in – most of the female staff had undoubtedly seen better days.
The food was outstanding – especially at lunchtime – and the Derby King had become a good place for a business lunch, as the business district was conveniently located within a five-minute walk. It was also a good place to meet friends, or to have a couple a quiet drinks before setting out for an evening of debauchery, or to stagger back to at the end of a night’s debauching. It also happened to be an excellent place to quietly drown your sorrows.
I first met Glyn Williams back in the Derby King’s hay days of the mid-seventies; nineteen seventy-five to be precise, when we were both approaching, what seemed at the time to be the daunting milestone of thirty years of age.
I had been in Bangkok for a couple of years, working for an English Insurance company, and Glyn was fresh off the plane from Australia to take up a position as film editor with a local film production company. His new employer had recently been making waves in the local advertising industry and needed a professional editor to complement their existing western team of commercial film makers.
Glyn was of average height and build and his beer belly was only just starting to become apparent. He was nothing special to look at, but there again, nor was any of us. He was however pretty full of himself, and had one of these piercing Welsh tenor voices that you can pick out in a crowd. His name and voice announced to everyone his Welsh roots and we often heard Glyn before we saw him.
I suspect that from a very young age he probably fancied himself as being one of those ‘larger than life’ characters and whether by accident or design, in time, that’s undoubtedly what he became.
Although I was to get to know Glyn pretty well over the next few years, I’m not sure whether I ever regarded him as a close friend as in many ways he was a difficult person to get close to. He had a tendency to be both voluble and naïve, and when alcohol got the better of him, he was either extremely depressed, or more often, the life and sole of the party. He was bit of a Jekyl and Hyde and I suppose that in today’s parlance he would probably be regarded by doctors as a manic depressive.
The vast majority of The Derby King’s western customers hailed from either the UK or Australia, so although the name of the bar was spelt with an ‘e’, the western regulars pronounced it as DARby King rather than DERby King. But the bar’s Thai customers weren’t used to such unfathomable nuances of English pronunciation, so in their own, highly logical fashion, they always pronounced the name of the bar exactly it how it was spelt. Why not?
Nobody cared how they pronounced it until one day, the newly arrived Glyn appeared one lunch time and insisted, in his very loud piercing voice, that the Thais had got it all wrong and ‘Should learn how to pronounce English words correctly!’
As I was to learn later, this was typical Glyn – generally over the top – always purporting to know best, always the final authority on every conceivable subject and ostensibly in total control of his life. However, as his life in Thailand started to unfold, it became abundantly clear that far from being in control, and cognisant of local sensibilities, for the main part, people and circumstances controlled Glyn.
He had arrived in Thailand with his wife, Jean; an attractive and vivacious young redhead. She was a typically outgoing Australian; she had strong opinions on almost every subject, and she was not shy to express her views to anyone who would listen.
The two of them soon embraced the Thai culture. Within days, armed with phrase books and dictionaries, the Williams were spouting Thai sentences in ghastly Australian accents; all of which was generally met by unsuspecting Thais with blank, perplexed stares.
The bar staff at the Derby King suffered the brunt of The pair’s daily assaults on their delicate, tonal language, and after a while they started to work out what this brash, newly arrived, Welsh/Australian couple were trying to say.
Unfortunately, this only served to encourage the happy couple in their desire to master the impossible and it also meant that they became permanent fixtures at the Derb. Strangely, this seemed to be the only place where their Thai conversation was actually understood.
It was all becoming somewhat boorish, but mercifully, we started to be spared these daily strangulations of the Thai language when Glyn fell prey to the next phase of life that sooner or later embraces most western men – be they married or single – in the infamous ‘Land Of Smiles.’
He discovered the beauty, grace, charm and the ready availability of Thai women. Jean was undoubtedly a ‘good catch’ by any standards, but her western looks and figure was quite unlike the slender, tawny skinned, delicate beauties that worked in the bars and clubs in Patpong and its environs. Glyn’s eyes soon started to wander.
The path down the slippery slope to adultery in Thailand for the average red-blooded male expatriate is generally short, and usually bitter-sweet. Following in the footsteps of thousands before him, Glyn soon yielded to temptation. He started to adopt the practice of meeting his wife in The Derby King after work, and then disappearing on the pretext of meeting a business acquaintance for a quick drink ‘down the road’. Three hours or so later, he would reappear, looking somewhat dishevelled and overly solicitous in trying to pacify Jean, who by this time had become visibly upset over his prolonged absence.
The evening disappearances became ever more frequent, but Jean kept her thoughts to herself and in outward appearance, the marriage still seemed to be in good shape. When they were together, they continued to bore all and sundry with their excruciating attempts at speaking Thai, and acted in all respects like the happy couple.
As ever, Glyn thought he was in control and became emboldened by his wife’s seeming ignorance of his nightly sexual forays. To make matters worse, not content with messing around with girls in other bars behind her back, he was becoming very attracted to one of the few good-looking girls who worked in the Derby King.
Her name was Oy. She was in her mid-twenties, spoke passable bar girl English and was an absolute stunner. Her choice of clothes was always designed to show off her physical attributes to maximum effect and any man would have to be blind if he was not aroused by Oy’s exquisite oriental figure and facial features. Her lithe, golden-brown legs and her gorgeous thighs that were always encased in tight, provocative, micro miniskirts, was enough to turn the heads of even the most cynical of Oriental die-hards.
To the old Bangkok hands, Oy’s appearance would immediately flash danger signals, and they would avoid her like the plague; but for the rest of us more recent arrivals to the Land of Smiles, her unquestioned beauty, combined with her soft and whimsical charm, would have us falling over ourselves to buy her a drink and maybe have a chance to touch her magnificent body.
Somewhat unusually, Oy didn’t have any filial obligations. She had no children living up-country, and no parents or extended family that depended on her for their livelihood. Oy was just out for herself. She wanted a good time, which meant she needed plenty of money and she used her exceptional looks as the means to achieve that end.
Although the Patpong working girls were generally out of the control of pimps, many of them had regular Thai boyfriends. Some of the girls earned their keep by working the bars and sleeping with the expatriates and tourists and would then paid a goodly portion of it over to some young good looking Thai man who was their latest lover.
Oy, being a somewhat independent young lady, was not embroiled in what could be described as a long-term Thai on Thai relationship, but she did have a regular Thai boyfriend. His name was Yai. He was a married man with a family and was a senior executive in one the local insurance companies. He was also a member of the Thai fraternity that drank regularly at The Derby King and would usually arrive in the late evening. He and Oy would slip away at the end of her shift to spend a few illicit hours together.
As Glyn’s infatuation with Oy grew, he was finding it increasingly difficult to control himself in her presence. At first, his ploy would be to arrive at the Derby King well ahead of his wife and buy her a few drinks before Jean appeared. But it wasn’t long before the two of them would start disappearing for a couple of hours during the evening, returning separately so as not to arouse Jean’s suspicions. She would be sitting at the bar, awaiting the return of her errant husband.
Glyn was fast becoming besotted and Oy was enjoying a nice little increase in her income. Her Thai boyfriend, Yai, was aware of what happening but it mattered little to him. He was fully aware of how his gorgeous ‘mia noi’ earned her money and he had no desire to stop her doing what she needed to do. Nor was he willing to contribute to her expenses. She was just his ‘bit on the side’ and although he might give her the occasional present, or buy her a meal and pay the cost of a room for the night, that was as far as it went.
The situation between Glyn, Oy and Jean was becoming increasingly fraught. Everyone in the Derby King knew that something was going on, and most of us knew that Oy was at the heart of Glyn’s daily infidelities. Additionally, some of us were cognisant that Oy was also sleeping with Yai.
Jean was clearly becoming more and more uncomfortable with Glyn’s frequent disappearances, but whatever misgivings she may have harboured, she kept them to herself. The tense situation lurched along, week after week, without ever coming to a crisis.
* * *
Weekend lunchtimes at the Derby King were pretty slow, but one Saturday, about six months after Glyn’s arrival in Thailand, I found myself at a loose end so having nothing better to do, I wandered down there for a bite to eat. It was a quiet weekend afternoon and the only other customer there was a certain Glyn Williams. Judging by his general appearance and number of bills in his bill cup, he had already been there for a considerable period of time.
‘John, you old bugger! Come and have a beer. I was beginning to think I’d drink the place dry before anyone came to help me,’ he shouted, in his inimitable loud, piercing voice.
‘You want me to help you drink the place dry, Glyn? No thanks; I’ll pass on that one. What’re you doing down here all alone on a Saturday?’ I asked him. ‘Where’s your wife, Jean?’
‘God knows mate – we had a bit of a row this morning and she stormed out,’ he replied.
‘Oh? None of my business, but what did you row about?’ I enquired, keeping my assumption that she had probably discovered his extra-marital affair to myself.
‘Oh the bloody woman won’t let up at me about me having to go and drink in the other bars on business. I’ve told her over and over again that the Derby King isn’t everyone’s favourite watering hole, and that not everyone wants to discuss business when there are wives are hanging around. She just doesn’t seem to understand how things work in Thailand. Many of my clients come to Patpong for a bit of fun, as well as to discuss business, and if I want to get their business, I have to go along with it and humour them.’
‘Glyn, I think we know each other well enough to cut the bullshit,’ I responded. ‘You and I both know what those so called business drinks are all about. How much business is young Oy bringing into your studio these days?’
He looked at me a bit sheepishly. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Come on Glyn, half the Derby King knows. We’d all have to be pretty stupid not to have figured out what was going on with the two of you’
‘Just because I buy a girl a few drinks it doesn’t mean anything is going on!’ he protested.
‘Glyn, don’t take us all for mugs. Do you honestly believe that your comings and goings during the evenings, which seem to miraculously coincide with similar disappearances by Oy, have gone unnoticed? We all know what’s going on. Admit it.’
There was a long pause before finally Glyn came clean.
‘Yeah, Ok. She’s such a gorgeous lady! Who in their right mind could resist her? But I do have some business meetings, as well you know! I’m not out with Oy every time,’ he said, in a not very confident attempt to ameliorate his indiscretions.
‘Besides,’ he added, ‘it costs me a bloody fortune every time she leaves the bar during working hours.’
He was referring to the ‘bar fine’ he would have to pay to the bar in order for Oy to take time off.
‘So Jean has twigged what’s been happening?’ I asked
‘No way mate. She’s just pissed off that I keep going off and leaving her alone in the Derb.’
‘It’s none of my business, but are you sure she doesn’t suspect what you’re up to?’ I pressed him.
‘I told you – no way. You randy bastards may have figured it out, but not Jean. She trusts me in completely.’
I wasn’t convinced. ‘Well if it’s only a little tiff, what the hell are you doing in here trying to drink the place dry?’
Glyn gulped down a full glass of beer, and sat on his barstool staring into space for a number of minutes.
‘That fact of the matter is,’ he said hesitantly, ‘John, I’m in love. Head over heels in love, and I don’t know what to do about it. I can’t think, I can’t work, and to make matters worse, I’m running out of money!’
There didn’t seem to be anything remotely constructive I could say in response to this revelation, so I remained silent.
He went on, ‘I can’t go on like this. But I just don’t know what to do. I’ve brought Jean all the way from Australia and she’s loves Thailand and has settled in really well. Now, out of the bkue, Oy and I have fallen in love. I know she loves me – she’s told me so many times. Then another big headache is Oy’s family. Her Mum is very sick with cancer and I’m paying all the hospital bills. And as you probably know, my company doesn’t exactly pay me a fortune. What a bloody mess!’
I had some grave doubts on the veracity of much of what he had told me, but I didn’t feel I could suggest the possibility that Oy was making up the story about her sick mother to extract some extra cash. After all she might be telling the truth. I also knew that Oy had a Thai boyfriend who she was very fond of. But I knew instinctively that any attempts to suggest that Oy might not be telling the truth would not be believed or welcomed, so I kept my suspicions to myself.
‘So what are you going to do, Glyn?’ I enquired.
‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up. Have another beer. Now where the hell is Oy, she promised me faithfully she would be here by one o’clock and it’s already gone three!’
We got stuck into the beers and Oy never made an appearance. I guessed she was probably out with her Thai boyfriend, or who knows? – maybe with another customer. Glyn got totally drunk and we had to half carry him to his taxi late that evening. This was the first of what turned out to be many similar concusions to Glyn’s evenings.
* * *
Glyn was right about one thing – something did turn up, probably much sooner than he was expecting.
It was the following Tuesday, and Jean was back in the Derby King, having made it up with Glyn, but once again, he was blatantly conspicuous by his absence; as of course was the delectable Oy.
I felt a bit awkward talking to Jean. We all did. I attempted to make polite conversation for a while, but it was hard going. Jean’s mind was elsewhere and after about half an hour she suddenly announced, ‘Well I’m fed up with waiting around here every night for that bloody bastard of a husband. I’m off home. And if you see him, tell him to go to hell!’
Two hours later, Glyn returned, looking dishevelled and guilty and was followed five minutes later by Oy who immediately disappeared into the back room.
We recounted Jean’s pronouncement and abrupt departure, which for some strange reason, seemed to immediately lift his spirits.
‘Well at least I don’t have to worry about trying to explain my absence to her again and having yet another row.’
He looked along the bar, just as Oy returned after repairing her make-up..
‘Come over here Oy, let’s get drunk – for a change!’ he added, in his familiar piercing chuckle.
The two of them snuggled into the back booth and they were soon all over each other. The drinks started to flow, thick and fast.
It must have been around eleven when Jean suddenly reappeared and all hell was let loose.
Thinking about it later, I came to the conclusion that even if Jean hadn’t been fully aware what her husband was up to, she must have had a very strong suspicion. Jean had been attending a Thai language school for several months, and even though most of us were still belittling her spoken Thai, she must have made considerable progress.
She certainly understood enough Thai to listen to the girls gossiping at the Derby King and get a rough gist of their conversation. It would have been impossible for her not to have heard the names of Glyn and Oy mentioned over and over again– after all they were at it almost every day, and girls being girls, they were no doubt discussing it every day.
So she must have had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but it didn’t prevent her from becoming utterly hysterical when she finally caught Glyn red-handed, smooching with Oy in the back booth. The air was blue with profanities and she literally launched herself at the errant couple, with both fists flying.
Oy gave a very high pitched yelp and with great alacrity, leaped over the booth and made a speedy exit out of the back door.
Glyn was pretty drunk and just stood there while Jean pounded her fists into his face.
‘You bastard, do you really think I didn’t know what you were fucking up to?’ she screamed.
It was all very exciting stuff for the Derby King’s clientele, but not too good for business, so the Derb’s resident ‘bouncer’ appeared out of the woodwork and gently guided the feuding husband and wife to the front door and out onto the street.
The shouting and punching continued. And it wasn’t long before the bar doors opened along both sides of Patpong Road and the girls and punters started streaming out onto the street to enjoy the spectacle.
Finally, the Police appeared as if by magic and restrained Jean from inflicting further damage on Glyn, who by this time was looking in a very sorry state.
Both were escorted to the local police station where they were threatened with gaol for committing a breach of the peace. Fortunately for them, the owner of The Derby King decided to come to their rescue and made a late but welcome arrival at the police station. After a small payment of ‘goodwill’ to the police involved, Jean and Glyn were released and sent on their way in separate taxis, with strict warnings as to their future conduct.
Glyn’s marriage was over.
* * *
During the following weeks I had a few problems of my own to deal with, so my visits to the Derby King had become a rarity. On the few occasions that I did manage to make to make it down there, Glyn was conspicuous by his absence and Oy was no longer an employee.
One of the Derby King regulars who I bumped into during one of these rare visits was another Australian, Frank Dixon, a big shot in one of the international advertising agencies that operated in Bangkok. Most of us who knew him would usually try to avoid him whenever possible as he had a reputation of being one of Bangkok’s most boring windbags.
If Frank cornered you, it didn’t matter what the subject, he would always have a long rambling story to tell which often had no discernible conclusion. The drunker Frank’s state of inebriation, the longer and more boring the stories became, and the only blessing was that when he was really drunk, you could walk away with impunity and he wouldn’t even notice. He would continue to ramble on, long after his audience had vanished.
The prospect of striking up a conversation with Frank was not very appealing, but he always seemed to have all the inside gossip, and he was probably the best person to provide me with an update on the Glyn Williams situation. So, gritting my teeth, I pulled up a stool next to Frank and asked him for the latest news. As Frank was in advertising, his company did business with Glyn’s company, and as I suspected, he did indeed have the inside track.
Apparently, after the fracas at the Derby King, Jean immediately vacated the rented apartment she shared with Glyn, and to everyone’s surprise, she moved in with the Thai owner of a small advertising agency that had some business dealings with Glyn’s company. Her new benefactor also took her on as a copywriter.
We’ll never know whether Jean had this planned out in advance, but she certainly must have had some idea of her ‘post-Glyn plans’, long before she returned to the bar that night.
As for Glyn, he had moved into a small apartment with Oy in the outskirts of Bangkok, and was rarely seen outside of work. Jean and Glyn had obtained a quick divorce, and to my astonishment, Frank told me that quite recently, Glyn had actually married Oy.
This seemed so out of character for Oy, a girl who made good money working the bars and already had at least one regular Thai boyfriend. Everything pointed to the fact that she preferred Thai men to westerners, and it seemed highly unlikely that she would lose her heart to someone like Glyn. Surely there was an ulterior motive behind this sudden marriage?
It took two long boring hours and several beers to extract this information from Frank, and at last, I managed to make my excuses and escape into the night.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was being too cynical. Was it conceivable that there could be a happy ending to this sorry affair? As I wandered down Patpong Road in search of more interesting company, I couldn’t help wondering if it was indeed the end to the Glyn Williams story.
Somehow, I had my doubts.
* * *
Six months after my boring evening with Frank, I had put my personal problems behind me and decided that it was time to catch up with my old acquaintances at the Derby King.
I will never understand why, but on the very night that I dropped into the Derby King following a six month absence was the very night when the Glyn Williams saga once more reached a crisis point. Many Thais would have me believe that what I would call a coincidence was actually pre-ordained by a higher power and that it was my karma to be there on that fateful night.
Who can say for sure?
As I approached the bar, I became aware of a commotion in the street. There were the usual tell-tale signs. Bar doors were open, crowds of drunken bar-girls and punters were out on the street, and last but not least, I could hear the piercing tones of Glyn shouting and swearing at the top of his voice.
‘You bitch! You whore!’ he was shouting at Oy.
He had grabbed a fistful of her hair, and she was screaming at him to release her.
I had not known him to be a violent man, but he was clearly out of control and was bordering on hysteria when he suddenly lashed out at Oy’s face with his right hand. She crumpled to the ground with blood trickling from her nose and started sobbing.
This turn of events had a marked effect the crowd of spectators. They were suddenly spurred into action; many of the bargirls shrieked and rushed to embrace Oy in an effort to protect her, and a group of men grabbed Glyn and forcibly restrained him from inflicting any more damage.
It wasn’t long before the police made their predictable appearance. They took one look at the situation, and immediately closed in on Glyn. But Glyn wasn’t quite finished. He shook himself free and started waving something at the police.
‘Look at these photos – look at them!’ He shouted.
‘Look at these photos of my wife!’
The police had no idea what Glyn was talking about, as their knowledge of English was limited. They were also trying to take in what Oy was screaming at them, between her sobs.
‘She is my wife’ Glyn said pointing at Oy, still lying on the pavement, ‘and look at these photos of her with another farang! They’re disgusting! She told me she was up-country with her sick mother, and all the time she’s been in Europe with another man. I’ll bloody kill her!’
With that he made another lunge at Oy, and once more mayhem ensued. The assembled females started screaming and the police leapt on Glyn and wrestled him to the ground. The situation was getting pretty desperate. Both Oy and Glyn were still yelling at each other – Oy in Thai and Glyn back at her in English – with neither one understanding much of what the other was trying to say.
Eventually a police van made an appearance and Glyn was unceremoniously dumped on the floor in the back of the van, and Oy was helped up from the ground and escorted onto the front seat, next to the driver.
As the van drove away, I realised that Glyn had dropped the photo album he had been waving and it was still lying in the road. I quickly retrieved it, and started to understand what he had been trying to tell the police. The album did indeed contain snaps of Oy and a European man in some familiar European settings. I recognised the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben amongst others. There were also some even more incriminating shots of the couple in a hotel room.
I couldn’t help feeling a lump in my throat as I flicked through the photographs, and I began to understand Glyn’s hysterical behaviour.
It suddenly dawned on me that Glyn would not exactly be well received when he arrived at the local nick. Not knowing quite what I could do to help, I decided that I had to at least try to do something. So I quickly hailed a cab, and chased after the police van. We soon lost the van in the swirling bustle of Bangkok’s nightly traffic chaos and by the time we eventually made it to the Police station, neither Glyn nor Oy were anywhere to be seen.
With some trepidation, I went inside the station and approached the sergeant at the front desk. In my halting Thai, I tried to tell him that I was enquiring after an Australian farang who had just been arrested in Patpong. I wasn’t getting anywhere and was beginning to give up hope when a senior officer appeared, and to my relief, he spoke passable English.
I told him I was looking for Glyn, and he responded by barking some questions at the station sergeant who gave him a long, rambling reply. Then he turned back to me.
‘Your friend – he assaulted a Thai woman. We not like farangs who do that. He will be charged and put in prison.’
‘But she was his wife,’ I blurted out. Too late, I realised that this piece of priceless information would probably make matters even worse.
‘You farangs must have more respect for Thai people. Hitting Thai woman is very bad. He must go to prison.’ The officer replied, seemingly ignoring what I had just told him.
It wasn’t looking too good for Glyn. I didn’t know what I could do.
The officer continued: ‘We have statement from lady. She tell us that her husband is very bad man. Always hit her. No reason – drink too much and he hit her.’
‘But I don’t think that is true,’ I protested.
I knew that Glyn had plenty of faults, but he wasn’t normally a violent man, and he must have been sorely provoked by today’s revelations.
‘Look at these photos,’ I said, ‘this is his wife with another man. That’s why he hit her.’
I handed over the album.
The officer spent some time looking through the album, and then passed it to the other policemen. A long discussion in Thai ensued, and to my surprise, they seemed to be amused by the whole situation. Whereas before they were angrily offended by a foreigner treating one of their own citizens badly, now the tables seemed to be turned. It was now a case of a Thai putting one over on a stupid farang, and this seemed to be much more to their liking.
The officer barked an order, and one of his minions went out and returned with Oy. I couldn’t work out exactly what was going on but they were quite angry with her for not telling them the whole truth. I’m sure one of policemen said something to the effect that if Oy had been married to him he would have given her a much harder time than poor old Glyn had managed to do.
The upshot of it all was that Oy was escorted from the station and a few minutes later, Glyn made an appearance looking very sorry for himself. The officer spoke to Glyn sharply.
‘You not hit Thai lady again! Next time we lock you up for six months. Go! Go!’
A look of relief spread across Glyn’s face and he thanked the police in his best Thai as we were being shown the door.
‘Kopkhun muck, kopkhun muck,’ he repeated over and over.
As we jumped into a taxi, I explained how I had recovered the photo album from Patpong Road and how it became a key piece of evidence in obtaining his release.
‘Thanks a million mate, that was a bloody close shave. Come on, let’s have a drink – I’m dying of thirst.’
He took me to a roadside restaurant near his home where he ordered some beers and brought me up to date on the background to his latest domestic drama.
‘Well you obviously heard that I married Oy. That was soon after the divorce from Jean,’ he began, ‘then I started to have some serious financial problems – what with Oy’s mum apparently so ill, and also the cost of the divorce. I’m not exactly well paid by my skinflint of a boss, and things started to get pretty desperate. To make matters worse, Oy kept disappearing up-country, to see her mum. But I thought the situation would improve once my divorce was finalised, as then I could sell my house in Australia and cash-in on my share of the proceeds.
‘The sale of the house sale finally came through and for a short while, everything was great. Oy went on a wild spending spree with my money and I spent another large chunk on her Mum’s hospital bills….
‘I decided that it was time to look around for a better paid job. The studio I worked for was making a fortune, my boss was making a fortune, but not much that fortune was trickling down to poor old Glyn. I tell you, John, without me there to edit their films, they wouldn’t have much of a business. The success of their company was all down to me,’ Glyn said, with his typical lack of modesty.
‘So I decided to look around and see what I could do off my own bat,’ he continued. ‘I knew this Thai guy who had once introduced me to a client; and to cut a long a long story short, we agreed to go into business together and set up a film post-production company.
‘It was a great plan. We could service all the film studios, and I would contribute my editing expertise. My partner would take care of all the Thai legal formalities and find the clients, and I would use the cash that still remained from my house sale to buy the editing equipment. We agreed to split the profits fifty-fifty.’
‘Who is this guy?’ I asked, ‘I hope you checked him out. You know how dodgy some of these Thais can be.’
‘He’s from a highly respectable family. He even has a royal title – some kind of Thai prince; his name is Khun Chai Divakon. But as usual, you’re right. I certainly should have checked him out a bit more thoroughly. The whole project looked really exciting, and he was so plausible.’
‘Oh no Glyn – don’t tell me – he disappeared with all your cash’ I said.
‘No, not exactly. He didn’t disappear, but he did use all the cash I put into the business to pay off his personal debts. Then he had the bloody cheek to tell me that we would have to put our plans on ice for a few months, until he could raise some more cash from God knows where. At the end of the day there was bugger-all I could do about it. We didn’t even have a written agreement at that stage.’
‘Christ Glyn, he certainly saw you coming didn’t he? You must have felt as sick as a dog.’ I commiserated.
‘Not half as sick as Oy was when I told her about it. She went absolutely ballistic. Didn’t stop yelling at me for days, and insisted that I go round Khun Chai’s house and demand my money back’
‘Did you?’ I asked.
‘Didn’t even know where he lived.’ Glyn replied sheepishly, ‘But I did have his phone number and I knew where he worked – he works for the government – so I bombarded him with phone calls at home and at work. The theory was that he would lose face when his family and work colleagues found out that a farang was after him to pay his debts. It might persuade him to pay up’
‘So did he?’
‘Sort of, eventually; he kept giving me post-dated cheques that bounced as soon as they hit my bank account. This went on for a while and Oy was getting madder and madder. She took it as personal insult that I’d rather give all my hard-earned dosh to a relative stranger than give it to her.
‘Anyhow, eventually someone told me that it is a criminal offence in Thailand to issue bad cheques, even though it’s not a particularly uncommon practice. So I increased the pressure and started to make vague threats about reporting him to the police. It seemed to do the trick, and one night he came round to our apartment and paid up about ninety percent of the debt in cash. He told me that was all he could get and that he was cleaned out. He had probably borrowed it from another mug.’
‘You were lucky,’ I told him, ‘so you got most of it back then?’
‘Yeah, but not for long,’ Glyn replied. ‘My beloved wife, who’d been hassling the hell out of me all this time, decided that she had first call over the money, and said that from now on she was going to look after it for me’
There was a long pause.
‘And?’ I asked
‘That was the last I saw of the money, and the last I saw of her for quite a while. She said she was going up-country to see her mother for a few days and disappeared for several weeks. I was down at the Derby King one day, drowning my sorrows, when I just happened to hear the bar staff talking about Oy. With my little knowledge of Thai, I put two and two together and realised the bitch was in Pattaya living it up on my money!’
I knew of Pattaya. It was an up and coming beach resort, about two hours’ drive down the coast from Bangkok.
‘Did you go down there to find her?’ I asked.
‘Too bloody right mate,’ he answered, ‘and I found her – shacked up with some Thai hippie guy. She denied it, but I know that’s what she was up to.’
‘So what did she have to say for herself when you caught up with her?’
‘Oh the usual melodramatic, illogical, angry bullshit!
“How dare you come and spy on me. If it hadn’t been for me you would never have got the money back, so I have a perfect right to spend it!”
And so it went on. You know how these Thai chicks are. They can twist everything round to suit themselves.’
‘But in spite of everything you took her back didn’t you?’ I said.
‘Well she still had some of my money. And anyway, I was still crazy about her. After a while she calmed down, she agreed to go back to Bangkok with me with vague promises about not going off again. She said she was so worried about her Mum, that she “had to get away from it all and clear her mind.” That was her excuse!
‘So we resumed life as the happy couple for a while. But I think that the money finally ran out, because she was off again – supposedly up-country to see her mum. But of course by this time I wasn’t having it, so I went to see her old mates at the Derb, as they always seemed to know what she was up to. I pretended to know more than I really did, and it became very clear that she certainly wasn’t up-country. She wasn’t even in the country.
Can you believe it John, behind the bar, as large as life, I found a postcard from Amsterdam. The message was in Thai, but darling wifey’s signature was in English.’
‘So you knew what she was up to before she came back to Thailand?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, that was a few weeks ago. I finally realised that she had been taking me for a complete idiot ever since she first met me. I got my shit together and moved out, lock stock and barrel. Threw all her clothes away, pawned her jewellery, and all the other stuff she left behind, and moved into a new apartment on the other side of town. She was so fucking sure that I’d never leave her, but she was wrong – I was through with her, forever.’
‘Good for you. So how come tonight’s little scene?’
‘I ran into her by accident in the Derb. I thought she was still in Europe but there she was as large as life, showing her mates all the photos of her with the new boyfriend traipsing around Europe. I tried to control myself, but she saw me and smiled and started to talk to me like nothing had ever happened.
‘She asked me where I was living, but I refused to tell her. Then I caught sight of the photos. You’ve seen them John. OK, I’d already dumped her, but seeing her and those pictures really stirred my emotions up again. I started shouting at her, and she shouted back at me – accused me of stealing her property – and one thing led to another. The next thing I knew we were out on the street, and that’s where you came in.’
‘So what now?’ I asked.
‘It’s over John. It’s truly over. I’m never going back to her. Come on mate, let’s get rat arsed!
We got rat arsed, but not for the first time, I wondered if it really was truly over.
* * *
Well, it was…almost…
As I had feared, Glyn did indeed take her back yet again, and they both moved back into the apartment they had shared before he left her. He redeemed all her jewellery from the pawnshop, and once more Oy had triumphed.
Of course, it wasn’t long before she was up to her usual tricks, and there was yet another ‘shoot out at dawn’ in Pattaya, (almost literally according to Frank), this time involving a rich German tourist.
It transpired that the lure of the mighty deutschmark was too tempting for Oy to pass over, and when she refused to return to Bangkok with Glyn, he moved out for the second time. This time he vowed on all that was holy that he would never take her back.
Nobody was betting on it, but for once in his life, he stuck to his guns and his disastrous marriage with Oy was finally over for good.
It is generally thought that the arrival in Thailand of thousands of American GI’s during the nineteen sixties and seventies was the trigger that spawned the growth of western style bars in the country.
Not all students of such fascinating snippets of Thai history will fully subscribe to this theory, but there is little doubt that the arrival of huge numbers of American military personnel into Thailand during that period had a major influence, for good or ill, on certain aspects of Thai culture.
At that time, the American involvement in The Vietnam War was being cranked up, and the American military command chose Thailand as their principal base from which to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Also, for obvious reasons, they used ‘The land of Smiles’ as one of their main regional drop off points for R. &. R.
Back in those days, Thailand, like other non-communist states in South East Asia, subscribed to the ‘domino’ theory – the theory which hypothesised that each state in turn would be crushed and taken over by the Chinese or Russian communists. In the early 1960’s, the Kingdom of Thailand was high on the list of ‘dominoes’, which meant that the Americans pumped billions of dollars into the Thai economy during the period of the Vietnam War. This happened to such an extent that the mighty dollar even became accepted as a de facto dual currency in many parts of the country.
Thais have always had a penchant for assimilating alien ideas and culture and reinventing them in a uniquely Thai way. By way of example, modern Thai cuisine has embraced regional dishes and non-indigenous ingredients to produce an endless array of the most delicious food that can be found anywhere in the world.
And so it was that American-type bars sprang up in the towns where American air bases were built, and thousands of Thai girls discovered the joys that the Yankee dollars could bring to their impoverished lives.
In Bangkok, which was the central area of command for US forces in Thailand, the first and largest growth area for bars was in the Patpong area, close to the Silom business district. The bars were more American than Thai, but nevertheless had a unique Thai ambience. By the mid-seventies, western-style go-go bars were also starting to appear, but even these had a distinctive Thai ‘flavour’.
But this American influence wasn’t solely restricted to the area in and around Patpong Road. In other districts of Bangkok, bars were also springing up with a distinctive American flavour. One such area was Sukhumvit Road, a major artery that runs from the very heart of Bangkok to its outer reaches in the eastern suburbs; and where, at its centre, it was only a few kilometres away from Patpong.
During the sixties and seventies, a number of hotels and apartment blocks also sprang up along the Sukhumvit Road. It wasn’t long before GI’s and other expatriates started to set up residence in the hotels and apartments in the sois, (small lanes) that fed into Sukhumvit Road. Restaurants and coffee shops catering to western tastes started to open, and inevitably, a few western type bars also started to make their appearance in the central Sukhumvit area.
These bars didn’t enjoy great success, as they seemed to be too isolated from the extensive choice to be found in Patpong; so even though many westerners had the homes in the Sukhumvit area, they still preferred to take a taxi down to Patpong for their evening’s entertainment.
Determined to change this state of affairs was one particular entrepreneur – a black, ex-GI, with the incongruous nickname of Cowboy – who decided to try his luck. He opened his bar at one end of a small soi, just off Sukhumvit Road, and with predictable originality; he called his new bar ‘Cowboys’.
Cowboy was married to a Thai lady called Loretta, and together they slowly built up their customer base. Cowboys, would have probably gone bankrupt, along with many other bars in the area, if it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of the local English language newspaper, and in particular, the resident entertainment columnist; one Bernard Trink.
Mr Trink wrote a popular Friday column, Nite Owl, in the semi-tabloid ‘Bangkok World’, which purported to give all the latest gossip and news on nightlife in general, and the bars of Bangkok in particular. Special events, changes in ‘happy hour’ times, new bars opening, old ones closing, changes in ownership and so on, was the ‘bread and butter’ of Trink’s Friday column. The articles were always accompanied by snaps of go-go girls dancing in the ‘niteries’ being featured in his weekly column. Nite Owl was unashamedly aimed at the male expatriate community.
When Cowboy first opened his bar, he contacted Mr Trink for some free publicity. For reasons known only to himself, Trink decided to make a crusade out of promoting the bar, and even took the liberty of unilaterally naming the Soi where it was located as ‘Soi Cowboy’.
Week after week, month after month, Bernard Trink would exhort his fellow farangs to try out Cowboys bar in Soi Cowboy. Such is the power of the press that slowly but surely, Mr Cowboy started to build up his ‘clientele’ and managed to make just enough money to pay the bills.
Then, just when the situation was starting to look promising, he suffered a setback. It would be an understatement to say that husband and wife both enjoyed their booze, and they certainly didn’t need much of an excuse to regularly drink each other under the table. These drinking binges had a predictable effect on their bar’s profits.
Cowboy hailed from Louisiana and had a typical ‘laid back’ attitude to life, and when drunk, he tended to become everyone’s favourite friend. Loretta was the complete opposite and alcohol always seemed to bring out the worst in her. The drunker she became, the more likely it was that joint drinking sessions would end up in a fierce, sometimes violent altercation between the two of them.
Eventually it all came to a head, and after a bad-tempered disagreement over money, Loretta walked out on her husband and set up her own bar, directly opposite to Cowboys. With yet another singular spark of originality, she christened her new bar ‘Lorettas’ – what else?
Trink continued to promote his beloved Soi Cowboy, which by now boasted two bars, and it wasn’t long before several more opened up along the small Soi.
It probably took about ten years before Soi Cowboy was well and truly established as a world- famous, alternative red-light district, that these days has more than rivalled Patpong. During the intervening years, despite the gradual proliferation of new establishments, many of the bars in Soi Cowboy struggled to survive, and changes in ownership were a common occurrence.
Cowboy, the original pioneer and the man who gave the famous soi its name, was an early casualty. He was obliged to sell up at a give-away price when all his money disappeared in unpaid bar bills, many of them his own. He later opened another bar in yet another Soi off Sukhumvit Road, but unfortunately, New Cowboys went the same way as the original Cowboys.
Cowboy drank himself to death – but Soi that bears his name, survived and grew….
* * *
Since the last episode with Glyn at the Police Station, my own career had taken a somewhat downward spiral. My employment contract expired and my employers declined to renew it as they had found a Thai national who could do my job for half the salary. I was unemployed, but I was enjoying life in Thailand so much that I would do anything to avoid leaving.
I hawked myself around Bangkok, desperately trying to find something that would keep body and mind together, and just as I was getting pretty desperate, I was offered a job by a long haired English guy who had recently opened a sound recording studio. The money wasn’t very good, but there was the excitement of becoming part of a new business venture, which had the potential to grow, so I decided to give it a go. The studio was located off Sukhumvit Road, and I moved into the area and took a small apartment about ten minutes’ walk from my new place of employment.
As I was now on a much lower salary, I had to severely curtail my night-time activities, and only made the occasional visit to The Derby King where Frank, in his usual boring manner, would update me with all the latest gossip.
One of the more interesting snippets of gossip that Frank imparted was that Glyn’s ex-wife, Jean, had moved on again, and was now a working in Hong Kong. She had been replaced in Bangkok by an Englishman, Barry, who was at that very moment ensconced at the far end of the Derby King’s bar. Anxious to extract myself from Frank’s boring clutches, I eased my way along the bar and introduced myself to Barry.
He was a few years younger than me, and seemed a very pleasant young man, if a trifle lonely and ill at ease with his current situation. He had been thrown in the deep end as far as Bangkok was concerned, having previously been employed in more civilised British Hong Kong, where he had met Jean socially. It was Jean who had suggested to her ex- employer that they approach Barry to fill the vacancy she had left in Bangkok.
I spent the next hour giving him the benefit of my experience on local nightlife and I must have been boring the socks off him on ‘where to go’ and ‘what to do’ in Bangkok, when he interrupted to ask:
‘What’s this place, Soi Cowboy, that I keep reading about in the local rag?’
I had read about Soi Cowboy, but had never been there.
‘I doubt if it’s worth a visit,’ I replied, ‘I can’t believe that the bars in Soi Cowboy can match the number and variety of bars that we’ve got down here in Patpong’
Soi Cowboy wasn’t mentioned again that evening but a few days later Barry brought the subject once again. I realised that the new up and coming red-light district was actually much closer to where I lived than Patpong. We came to the conclusion that we really ought to carry out a proper ‘survey’, so without further ado, made plans to pay a visit to this street.
As soon as we arrived, I could see that Soi Cowboy wasn’t in the same league as Patpong, with its huge array of bars that had proliferated in and around the infamous district.
By contrast, Soi Cowboy was a small, quiet lane, that was tucked in behind Sukhumvit Road and ran parallel to it. There were a few traditional shop-houses selling the usual fare of groceries, soft drinks and other Thai produce, and there was a large noodle shop at one end. Interspersed between these mom and pop stores were half a dozen bars. We decided to take pot luck and started at one end, which happened to be the opposite end to where the famous Cowboys bar was located.
So it was a couple of hours before we finally made it into the doors of the bar that gave the soi its name. We hadn’t been very impressed with what we’d seen so far. The drinks were cheap, but the bars had obviously been built on very limited budgets, and it showed. They were very basic unattractive designs, with cheap, crackling music systems that I wouldn’t have given headroom in my own home.
The bars had few customers and the bargirls that we encountered weren’t exactly from the top drawer – as far looks were concerned. Unlike their fellow workers in Patpong, they didn’t speak any English, which was a major problem for Barry, and also taxed my knowledge of basic Thai to its limits. Some of the bars had adopted a go-go format, but frankly, it would have been easier on the eye if the bikini-clad girls had kept all their clothes on.
Cowboys wasn’t much different, but because of the never-ending publicity, courtesy of Mr Trink, it did enjoy more patronage than other bars we had been in. As we said ‘Hi’ to Cowboy, who was getting quietly sozzled at one end of the bar, I realised that I wasn’t far wrong in my initial views of the area. From now on, I decided I would stick to Patpong.
There was one bar left, Loretta’s, and we nearly gave it a miss. We staggered out of Cowboy’s, and it was only after we had spent several minutes in a futile attempt to track down a cab, that we decided that we might as well complete the survey, and have a quick and most definitely final drink in Lorettas, before heading home.
In many respects, Lorettas was no different to the other bars in the soi: the same dowdy, cheap décor, same lousy music system, and the same poor quality of females. There was, however one difference. Unlike most of the other bars, Lorettas was buzzing – jammed full of customers. There was something about the place that smacked of a successful establishment.
We found ourselves a couple of seats at the bar and were adjusting our eyes to the gloom, when a familiar, piercing voice attracted my attention from along the bar in the darkness to my right. It was someone with an Australian accent, speaking in very bad Thai.
‘I’d know that voice anywhere,’ I said to Barry, ‘it can only belong to one person.’ As my eyes became used to the gloom, I could now see that just as I had suspected, it was Glyn Williams, as large as life. He was perched on a stool just along the bar from us.
‘Glyn! Hey Glyn!’ I shouted, ‘is that Bangkok’s favourite lover?’ I screamed.
‘John you old bugger!’ Glyn replied, ‘what are you doing slumming it up here in Soi Cowboy?’
‘I’m not as well off as I used to be, mate. Glyn, meet Barry, he’s only recently arrived in Bangkok, and we’ve been up here doing the rounds.’
Drunken introductions followed, after which I started to wonder how things were doing with Glyn, as it had been well over a year since he had finally broken up with his second wife.
‘How’s your love life these days, I hope you haven’t gone back to Oy?’ I enquired, fearful of his reply.
‘Not a chance in hell’
‘Are you sure? We’ve all heard that one before,’ I reminded Glyn.
‘No, not this time, I haven’t seen the bitch in months, and it’s good riddance! So how are you guys enjoying the delights of Soi Cowboy then?’
‘Quite frankly, Glyn, we’re not too impressed – are we Barry?
Barry nodded in agreement as Glyn cut in, ‘Not impressed? What are you talking about? This place is great. Tremendous atmosphere, great girls and cheap beer – what more could you ask for?’ he shouted raucously.
‘Well I suppose there’s a bit more atmosphere in here than in some of the other bars we’ve been in. But as for the girls, come on Glyn, you had one of the best lookers in the whole of Patpong. Don’t try to tell me that the girls up here compare to Oy and all those other gorgeous women down in Patpong?’
‘Listen matey, the girls here are even better! Look at them, lovely sweet things, fresh off the bus from the Northeast; rice pickers – every one.’
‘Rice Pickers? Barry asked, ‘what do you mean? Rice pickers?’
‘Exactly what I say. They’re all rice pickers, straight out of the paddy fields. Loretta ships them down by the busload and they live upstairs. They’re all so young and innocent. Before they came to Bangkok, they’d never seen a farang in their lives. They’re all so sweet and nice – it’s bloody wonderful!’
I could see the attraction to Glyn of a bunch of innocent, unsophisticated girls after his previous experience with Oy, but even so, I was struggling to get my mind around the notion that Glyn seemed to seriously think these girls were better than the ones in Patpong.
‘But look at them Glyn. They’re not exactly stunning, are they?’
‘It doesn’t matter mate. They’re absolutely great. They’re so friendly and…so cheap.’
‘Come on Glyn – don’t tell me that you are seriously thinking about shacking up with one of these… rice-pickers….?’ I asked.
‘I’m not exactly looking for another wife,’ he replied ‘I’m just out for a good time, and up here at Loretta’s you get it mate – bloody cheap – sometimes even free!’
‘I accept they are probably very cheap, but don’t tell me you can sleep with them for nothing!’ I retorted.
‘You wanna bet? Believe me John, these girls are so naive they’ll screw you on the never-never – and I really mean never! Ha, ha, ha,’ he cackled.
‘You stingy bastard, don’t tell me that you cheat them out of their hard earned cash do you?’
‘Sure I do. They don’t care, they have a good time, get a few ‘ladies’ drinks’, and they eat and sleep for free upstairs. Really, it’s no sweat. Makes a bit of a change from that money grabbing Oy doesn’t it?’
In spite of Glyn’s insistence that it was perfectly acceptable to sleep with these young ladies for free, I still had my doubts. They weren’t there just for the fun of it, and they may be naïve ‘rice pickers’, as Glyn liked to call them, but surely they were entitled to payment for ‘services rendered’. It seemed to me that Glyn was taking advantage of them. Maybe he thought it was payback time for the pain that Oy had inflicted on him.
‘I’m not sure your behaviour is quite the right thing to do, Glyn,’ I said, somewhat accusingly.
‘I tell you mate it’s absolutely no sweat. If you don’t believe me, ask Loretta – she owns the damn place. Come on, ask her.’
He escorted me along the bar to Pam, the cashier, who was busy with her bar chits and customers’ bills. Sitting next to Pam, was a woman of indeterminate age who looked as though she’d had more than her fair share of drinks that night.
‘John, meet Loretta, one time wife of Cowboy, and now the proud owner of Lorettas Bar!’
‘Sawadee Krap,’ I said in my best Thai, by way of greeting.
‘Good evening, ti-lak’ Loretta giggled in response, mixing her very limited English with bar Thai; ti-lak meaning ‘darling’.
There then followed one of those tortuous conversations in which Glyn and I conversed with a drunken Loretta, in fractured Thai. Loretta was very drunk, Glyn and I were far from sober, and the terrible sound system had been cranked up to full volume. We never did manage to establish whether it was acceptable to cheat these poor girls out of their hard earned ‘sleeping money’, but we enjoyed our drink with Loretta. Free beer started to flow and the confused conversation was becoming more and more farcical as we desperately tried to understand each other.
Loretta became distracted by a dispute that had developed at the bar between one of the ‘rice pickers’ and Pam, the cashier. The poor girl had been docked a week’s wages for being five minutes late for work and she had been making very voluble objections to this outrageous fine when Loretta decided to a intervene. She jumped off her barstool, grabbed the girl by the hair and gave her a few slaps around the head, before sending her packing upstairs. Loretta then staggered drunkenly into the street and disappeared.
‘My God!’ I said to Glyn, ‘she’s a bit wild isn’t she?’
‘You said it mate. It’s a regular ‘Wild West’ up here – especially when she’s pissed. But it’s a great place. Come on; let’s have one for the road’
‘I think I’ve had all I can take for one evening,’ I replied. ‘Besides, I’m all out of money’
‘Hell, you don’t have to worry about that. Have one on me.’
Glyn ordered a round of beers from the barman and put the chit for the round in his pot which was crammed full of bar tabs. Then he picked the pot up from the bar and started to count up the beers he had bought that evening.
‘You’ve got a pretty big bill there,’ I said, worried whether he had enough cash to pay for it.
‘Not for long mate.’ Glyn replied, at which point, with no attempt to be discrete, he took most of the chits out of the pot, screwed them up and threw them on the floor. What remained in the pot was passed to the barman to tot up his bill.
‘You can’t do that!’ I said
‘Can’t I then? Just watch. These people are either too stupid or too drunk to notice or care what I’m up to. What a place – John – what wonderful, fucking place!’
Glyn was in the process of settling a much smaller bill than was rightfully his, when, to my alarm, I saw Loretta staggering back in, arm in arm with a middle aged, very dark-skinned Thai man.
The bar was closing, and Pam had turned on the bright white lights, half blinding everyone as their eyes adjusted to the sudden change. The purpose of the bright lights was to encourage all the late hangers-on to call it a night, as the bewitching hour had arrived and the law required the bars to close. The place looked even more dowdy under the bright lights, and the ‘rice pickers’ looked younger and plainer than ever. Loretta staggered over to Pam, the cashier.
‘Drinks all round,’ she shouted to whoever was left standing.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked Glyn, ‘It’s already well past midnight. The police will be after her if she doesn’t close.’
‘No problems there matey. That guy with Loretta is the Police Captain from the local cop shop. We can stay here as long as we like,’ he said, apparently without the slightest concern that he had just cheated Loretta out of most of his bar bill, yet only a few yards away stood no lesser representative of the law than a fully-fledged police captain.
Inwardly groaning at the prospect of drinking more beer and a very late night to boot, I settled back on my barstool and joined the assembled congregation for another drink. By this time, Loretta had made her way to the cashier behind the bar and was grabbing handfuls of bank notes which she passed over to the Police Captain, while at the same time she downed glasses of neat whisky. When business matters and drinking matters had been concluded, the two of them made their final exit, arm in arm into the night.
‘Well that’s the end of the free drinks for tonight,’ Glyn begrudgingly commented.
‘What’s going on with those two?’ I asked.
‘He’s, um, sort of, her boyfriend. It’s really more business than pleasure, but there’s obviously some pleasure thrown in for good measure. None of the bars up here are properly licensed, so they all have to pay off our friendly Captain to stay open. As you can see, he has a special interest in Lorettas and he allows it to stay open when all the others have closed.’
I was about to pursue this interesting snippet further, when I recognised the girl who had earlier been berated by Loretta for daring to argue over her fine. She looked none the worse for wear as walked over to us and perched herself on the vacant barstool next to Glyn.
‘Hello ti-lak, you’re back again!’ he said. Turning to me, he informed me that he had been with this particular young lady earlier on, he, Glyn was the cause of her being late for work. It was all getting pretty bizarre, but the girl was cheerful enough and seemed genuinely fond of Glyn, so I stopped trying to figure it out. It was all too hard at that time of night.
The canned music had reached the end of that old seventies hit ‘D.I.S.C.O.’, and blissful silence descended on the remaining customers and weary staff. Unfortunately, Glyn didn’t share these sentiments and protested at the lack of music, but thankfully to Pam was having none of it. The music was finished for the night.
‘Well if you buggers won’t play any music, we’ll have to make our own, won’t we lads?’ he said to Barry and me. ‘Come on, you know that old goons song don’t you?’ at which point, he launched into:
‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas
Across the Irish Sea,’
This was obviously not the first time that Glyn had sung this song in Loretta’s. To my amazement, some of the girls even started to join in, and actually knew odd parts of those scatter-brained lyrics, although I’m quite sure they didn’t know what they meant.
Come to that – did anyone?
‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
It’s the only thing for me.
I’ve tried walking sideways,
And walking to the front’
I never thought that the Aussies would have ever heard of the British 1960’s comedy radio programme – The Goons – let alone know the lyrics to their crazy songs.
The situation got madder and madder, as even Pam, the very serious, sumo wrestler look-alike cashier, who had insisted in shutting down the sound system suddenly joined in as well. By this time I was beginning to feel very much out of things, so shrugging my shoulders, and with an embarrassing grin, I joined in as best I could.
Glyn had now moved on to that other madcap Goons song, ‘The Ying Tong Song’, and with Pam and the rice pickers singing in the background, it was becoming a night to remember.
‘There’s a song that I recall
My mother sang to me
She sang it as she tucked me in
When I was ninety-three
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I Po…’
‘Come on Barry, I think we’ve had enough for one night,’ I said, when the chorus reached its end. Barry nodded, and we made our way unsteadily to the street, where this time, a taxi was thankfully waiting to take us home.
As we drove off, I could still hear Glyn’s piercing tenor, singing at the top of his voice from inside the bar. He had reverted to the first of what were apparently the only two songs in his repertoire:
‘I’m walking backward for Christ…mas
Across the Irish Sea’
* * *
Soi Cowboy certainly wasn’t anything like Patpong, but over the next few weeks, I gradually came to the conclusion that Glyn might have been right after all. Despite a total lack of sophistication and almost complete absence of good looking girls, there was something about the crazy place that made it more fun.
Lower prices and its close proximity to my home and office meant that Patpong gradually became a distant memory, as Barry and I became regulars in the Soi, and in particular, in Lorettas.
The girls were really sweet and relatively unspoiled by the rigours of a sordid life in the big city. Their sheer joy of life and seemingly genuine pleasure in drinking with the farang customers seemed to more than make up for their homely countenances. The word started to spread and punters were flocking to Lorettas in ever-increasing numbers, especially late at night, after the other bars had to close.
Lorettas was booming but an alarming amount of Loretta’s profits were draining away in bribes or free drinks for her Police Captain ‘boyfriend’ and his many cohorts as well as continuing to provide her regular customers with endless free rounds of drinks.
Barry was a typical English bachelor abroad. He had no desire to shack up or enter into any kind of long term relationship with a local girl, and he stubbornly refused to learn much Thai. He seemed content to learn the barest minimum amount of Thai to get by. He knew how to order drinks, and could speak enough to invite the occasional rice picker home for a ‘one-night stand’, but God only knows what they found to talk about. I suppose that conversation wasn’t high in his priorities.
I started to see a lot more of Glyn, both at work, and in Soi Cowboy. As I was now in the sound recording business, our paths crossed professionally, and he became a frequent visitor to our studios. He would often arrange to have his business appointments in the late afternoon, so that he could then adjourn to Lorettas for some refreshment, once the day’s business was done.
Not having quite the same capacity for alcohol, I would usually make my excuses and go home for a shower and have a bite to eat before eventually winding up later that night in Lorettas. By the time I arrived, Glyn would usually be well into his ‘cups’, and very much the life and sole of the party. He seemed as happy as I’d ever known him, but the amount of alcohol he was consuming was becoming a cause for concern.
About a year after that first crazy evening in Soi Cowboy, I almost fell off my chair one day when Glyn turned up at my office early one morning. He was looking very subdued and much the worse for wear, after yet another long night on the soi.
‘Goodness me, Glyn; what on earth brought you here so early in the morning?
‘God I feel awful today John. Must be getting old – I’ve decided I’m going to slow down a bit’
I was thinking, “famous last words,” when he continued. ‘You know John, its high time I got married again. That’s what I miss, a lovely lady taking care of all my daily needs and waiting in my apartment for me to come home from work.’
I refrained from commenting that his idyllic concept of a perfect marriage was a far cry from his earlier experiences; but I was curious to know how and where he thought he was going to find such a perfect wife.
‘Now Glyn, who was it who said only a few weeks ago that there is no way he wanted another wife? If you have changed your mind, I certainly hope you’re not going to tell me that you’ve found your new heart’s desire in Soi Cowboy?’
‘No mate, no worries,’ he replied. ‘What I need is a decent, respectable woman, someone from a good family, not a bar girl.’
‘Well I’m glad to hear you’ve finally got that one straight. But I’ve no idea how you’re gonna find someone like that. Respectable girls don’t usually go out with farangs.’
‘Respectable middle-class girls don’t. But high-class ones do. Even royalty have been known to marry foreigners – it’s bloody weird, but the real upper-class don’t seem to have the same hang ups.’
‘Ok, so you’re going to find a princess, are you?’ I asked sarcastically, ‘Glyn, get real,’ I continued.
‘But that’s exactly what I aim to do – marry a Thai princess!’
This was getting silly. Glyn seemed to have lost his marbles. If any other farang in Bangkok had told me he was going to marry a Thai princess I would have taken it with a pinch of salt, but Glyn Williams, the twice married, drunken ‘king’ of Soi Cowboy? It had to be a joke.
‘So who’s the lucky lady Glyn?’
‘It’s Khun Siriporn, your secretary.’ He replied, to my utter astonishment.
‘What on earth are you babbling about Glyn? You hardly know her, and she’s not a princess!’
‘I do know her mate, although so far, not very intimately. But she is most certainly a princess, or least she’s the daughter of a princess which, I think, makes her one as well, doesn’t it?’
Khun Siriporn had been my secretary for two months. She did indeed come from a very rich family and may well have connections to minor royalty. She had been educated in England and spoke perfect English, which was why she gave her the job. We didn’t pay her much, but with Daddy rolling in money, she wasn’t there for the salary. Young ladies from rich, upper-class families tended to work in respectable companies until their parents found them suitable husbands.
I had often wondered how she had come to the conclusion that our little studio business qualified as an acceptable company, but could only conclude that her preference for working with foreigners had outweighed any qualms she may have had on the respectability of our establishment. She must have decided to be a little daring in her choice of employer so that she could work with Englishmen.
She was obviously a very eligible young lady. She came from an upper-class, rich family, had an overseas education, was very intelligent and she was extremely attractive. Her complexion was flawless and almost as white as Europeans, and her small delicate features were exquisite. She always dressed very demurely, and in many ways was the antithesis of Glyn’s previous wife, the seductively- dressed Oy.
On the face of it, Glyn’s notion that he could ever hope to marry someone like Siriporn was utterly preposterous, and I told him so.
‘How do you know that for sure?’ he asked me, ‘give a bloke a chance. She likes me, I know she does’
‘Glyn, I’m sure she likes you. She likes all of us. She loves speaking English and working in our free and our easy atmosphere, rather than in the stuffy, formal, status-ridden bureaucracy that exists in most Thai companies. That doesn’t mean she’s going to marry you! She’s waiting for Mr Right to come along, not Mr drunken, twice married Williams.’
‘That’s me!’ he answered with a grin, ‘you wait and see. Now, if it’s OK with you, I’m going to have a word with her in her office and start the ball rolling.’
He seemed so full of optimism that it seemed churlish to obstruct his plans, so I inwardly sighed.
‘Be my guest Glyn, but don’t say I didn’t warn you’
* * *
Incredibly, some days later, I was forced to admit that Glyn seemed to be making progress. He was forever visiting our office on the flimsiest of pretexts, and spent increasing amounts of time in deep conversation with Khun Siriporn. She did indeed appear to be responding quite positively and actually seemed to like him a lot. The ‘affair’ was making more progress than I had predicted and I had to admit that I admired Glyn’s efforts, and was even a little envious. After all, it’s every man’s dream to marry a beautiful princess.
Glyn’s visits continued in the same vein for several weeks, and although I refrained from asking him how it was going, I was becoming increasingly curious. I was also quite irritated by the constant disruptions to my office routine, so one morning I hesitantly mentioned to Glyn that Khun Siriporn had a large backlog of filing to take care of.
He was profuse in his apologies. ‘Look mate, I’m really sorry,’ he replied, ‘you’ve been an absolute brick about all this and I really do appreciate it.’
‘Well anyway – tell me, how’s the romance going? I hope all this time and effort and interruption to my business has been worth it.’
‘It’s going just fine. She really likes me, we’ve been out a few times and believe it or not, she actually said that she’d like to marry me. But there’s a few obstacles in the way.’
‘Sounds ominous. What sort of obstacles?’ I asked.
‘Well for starters, I’ve got to meet Mummy and Daddy, and get their approval.’
That seemed to me to be an insurmountable obstacle, but I kept these thoughts to myself. ‘So when is this going to happen?’ I asked him.
‘Pretty soon, I’ve been invited for dinner next week’
‘I wish you luck on that. And what other obstacles are there?’ I asked him. Now that he had opened up to me, I was eager to know more.
‘Oh they’re all to do with my life style. I’m going to have to clean up my act. Cut out the boozing, no more Soi Cowboy, no more Patpong. I will have to be a clean living young man, if I’m going to wed her.’
It all sounded a bit surreal. Glyn, a clean living young man! I pressed on. ‘So you told Khun Siriporn all about your chequered past then?’
‘Had to mate. If it came out later it would be a disaster. Yeah she knows it all, my two ex-wives and all the sordid details.’
‘Surely that must have put paid to your chances,’ I said.
‘To be honest, that’s what I thought, but don’t forget Khun Siriporn’s been out and about in the big wide world, and she’s much more broad-minded than your average Thai lady.’
‘That may be so Glyn, but what about her father? Is he broad-minded? You know she won’t marry you without his permission.’
‘That’s the surprising thing,’ Glyn replied. Siriporn has told her Dad all about me and he’s seems to be keen on the whole idea. It was her Dad who suggested we meet. Apparently he quite likes the idea of having a farang for a son-in-law.’
‘Well I wish you the best of luck. But, come on Glyn, what’s this about being a clean-living young man? No more bar crawls? How are you going to survive without your daily beer?’
‘I’ll manage, and it’ll be worth it. Siriporn is the love of my life. I’m crazy about her and I’d do anything to marry her. I know you’ve heard all this before, John, but this is the big one. I’m crazy about her and determined to get her, whatever it takes.’
There wasn’t anything I could add to such a declaration of passion and intent, so I wished him well once again, and hoped against hope that it really would work out.
* * *
Glyn was as good as his word and his disruptive visits to my office ceased. Two weeks went by and I couldn’t help wondering how the dinner with Daddy had turned out. Khun Siriporn was keeping quiet, and I didn’t feel I could intrude in such a personal matter.
I was thinking of giving Glyn a call, when to my surprise, I bumped into him one evening in Lorettas when I popped in for a quick one on the way home from work. There he was, as large as life, fairly well sizzled, despite the early hour.
‘Glyn, what the hell are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘What’s happening with your romance?’
‘It’s going great man. Daddy’s on board and the wedding date is set.’
‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’
‘I’m deadly serious. I’m going to be married in three months’ time. Daddy’s busy making all the arrangements’
‘So what’re you doing here then? I thought you had to clean up your act?’
‘So I do, mate so I do – more than you think; but I’m not married yet, so the rules don’t apply yet.’
It all sounded a little bizarre to me, but Glyn insisted that until he was married he could do what he liked. Then he told me all about his dinner with ‘Daddy’. They had hit it off straight away, and he received the parental blessing, subject to three conditions.
The first was that he had to go into a monastery and became a Buddhist monk for thirsty days; the second was that he quit his job, and the third was that after the wedding they had to move in to live with Daddy in the family house. Presumably this was so that they could all keep an eye on him. It sounded a bit of a tall order to me.
‘Quit your job – what are you going to do for money?’
‘Daddy is going to find me a job with one of his companies,’ he informed me.
‘But what’s all this about becoming a monk, and setting up home in the family house? Are sure about all of this?’ I asked.
‘I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. I love Siriporn, and if Daddy’s conditions will make her – and him – happy, then it’s fine by me. This thirty days monkhood malarkey is so that I can make a completely fresh start; sort of …wash away all the sins of my past life. I don’t know much about it yet, but I’m meeting one of her brothers tomorrow and he’s going explain everything to me. He will be my sponsor when I go to the temple.’
‘My God, you’re really serious about all this, aren’t you?’
‘Too right cobber!’ It’s what I want, and I’m bloody determined to see it through.’
The whole idea sounded like madness, but I kept my thoughts to myself and joined Glyn in a celebratory drink. He had certainly had a turbulent existence since his arrival in Thailand, and although in many ways he had brought his misfortunes on himself, I couldn’t help hoping that his luck was about to change. Just maybe, it would all work out well for him this time. But going into the monkhood? – quitting his job? – living with his in-laws? – no more drinking? Was this really the Glyn that we all knew and loved?
The evening descended to familiar levels, with Glyn chatting up every rice picker in sight, and drinking like there was no tomorrow. He was still throwing his bar chits away almost as soon as they landed in his bill pot, and after a couple of hours, I’d decided I’d had enough and bid my goodnights.
Glyn was desperately trying to make himself heard over the screechy music, and as ever, he’d finally broken into song so I accelerated my departure to make sure I didn’t become embroiled in the Lorettas sing-along. The all too familiar strains followed me out of the door.
‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea…’
* * *
I was invited to Glyn’s initiation ceremony as a monk. A pre-initiation party was arranged on the Friday, the eve of the ceremony, and would last all night, culminating in the initiation itself, which would take place at exactly nine a.m. on the Saturday morning. All the guests – consisting of friends and family – would drink and make merry, but poor Glyn, bless him, would have to remain completely sober all night. Undoubtedly, it was the first test of his willpower.
I was invited but unfortunately I had a major recording session booked for the morning of the ceremony, so I had to make my apologies and leave just when the party was getting into full swing at around one a.m. To his credit, Glyn was still sober and was taking it well in his stride.
The party took place in a large restaurant near to the temple where Glyn was going to spend the next month. At eight thirty a.m., he would be escorted to the temple where his initiation would ceremony begin. Once he was invested as a monk, the guests would return to the restaurant where the festivities would continue in his absence until everyone finally gave up through drunken exhaustion.
I was sorry I missed it, but Barry, who had also been invited, saw it out to the bitter end and told me a couple of days later that it all went as well.
When the time came for them to make the short journey to the wat, the entire crowd was well and truly drunk, with the exception of one man –Glyn. For once in his life, he had succeeded in remaining sober. When he arrived at the temple, the monks got to work in shaving every hair from his head and body. This included his eyebrows, his armpits and even his genitals!
Suitably shorn, he took off his clothes, and put on a simple white robe. Then, accompanied by monks, friends and family, he embarked upon a ritual walk around the wat – three times – before he was finally carried into the Wat by his ‘sponsors’. The head monk, or Abbot, who had been awaiting his arrival supervised the removal of his white robe to be re-dressed in traditional saffron robes. Finally, the assembled congregation knelt, chanting Buddhist prayers in the ancient Pali language.
Barry told me that he had been truly moved by the ceremony, and had been very impressed with Glyn’s single-minded dedication.
‘I honestly didn’t think he had it in him,’ Barry said, ‘it was quite something, I tell you.’
‘I agree. I’ve known the bastard a lot longer than you, and I still can’t quite believe it. He’s only going to be there for a month, but it won’t be easy for him. He’ll be sleeping on the floor, praying all day long and only one meal of rice per day, which he must start eating before eleven each morning. I only hope he’s up to it.’
Barry nodded in agreement, adding: ‘And when he comes out of the monk-hood, there’s no more Soi Cowboy, no more Lorettas, no more work, and he will be forever under Daddy’s eye,’
‘I wonder what he’s doing at this very moment?’ I said.
‘Praying, I imagine’
‘Rather him than me. Come on Barry, let’s go and have a few beers. We better drink to Glyn’s memory, because if he sticks to his guns, I don’t think we’ll ever set eyes on him again in Soi Cowboy’.
* * *
It was about two weeks after the ceremony when I received a phone call from Barry at around eight in the evening. There was a lot of background noise; music, singing and God knows what else, and I had trouble making out what he was trying to say. I finally managed to establish that he was calling from the bar telephone in Lorettas, and that something serious had come up and he wanted me to go over there straight away. I couldn’t imagine what sort of problem would require my immediate attendance, but curiosity got the better of me and I rushed over to see what kind of scrape Barry had got himself into.
I found Barry sitting at a packed bar. It all seemed pretty normal.
‘What’s up?’ I asked.
‘Look over there,’ he answered, pointing to a table in the far corner of the room.
As my eyes became used to the gloom, I made out four people sitting at the table. There were three young ladies and a rather strange looking farang, all of whom were making a lot of noise and seemed to be having a jolly time.
‘Who is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s Glyn!’ Barry replied.
‘It can’t be – he’s at the temple. He still has two weeks to go, and anyway, he can’t be here – it’s not part of the deal.’
‘It’s him all right John,’ Barry replied.
I looked closely and I could now see that although the recent ritual shaving had dramatically changed his appearance, it was indeed Glyn.
‘Oh my God. What the hell happened? Have you spoken to him?’
‘I tried once, but he told me to bugger off; said I was disturbing his private party.’
My worst fears seemed to have been realised. I climbed down from my barstool and approached the table. Glyn was guffawing away in his usual drunken manner and had his arms around two of the girls
‘Glyn! What’s going on?’
He suddenly stopped laughing, looked up from his beer and stared at me for a long time without speaking. Finally, he broke the silence.
‘It’s all over mate – it’s all bloody over. My life is in ruins.’
‘I don’t understand. What the fuck happened?’
‘That’s what I’m still trying to figure out.’
‘But why did you leave the temple? You’ve still got another two weeks to go. Surely you didn’t give up?’
‘I may be a pretty poor specimen of mankind mate, but no – I didn’t give up – at least, not in the way you think. Come on, sit down and have a beer and I’ll fill you in’
I sat down and looked at him and the three girls, wondering what had happened. In a sudden change of mood, he decided to dispense with the female company.
‘Sorry ladies! I have to talk with my friend in private. Now bugger off!’
Once they had gone, he put his head in his hands, and started talking in a low, muffled voice.
‘I was doing just fine, really getting into it. It wasn’t easy, especially having to exist on one meal a day, but I was managing. It was going to be worth it. Then two days ago I had a visit from a man I’d never met before – one of Daddy’s henchman. He grabbed me early one morning when we were out on the rounds collecting food. He spoke pretty good English and gave me a letter from Siriporn. It was a letter I never expected to receive, from her of all people!’
Glyn struggled in his back pocket and produced a very creased letter, which he handed to me. I opened it and read.
I have some really bad news. Daddy has changed his mind and won’t let me marry you. It’s all my fault, I’m so sorry. I told you before that that Daddy knew everything about your past? Well, I’m sorry but I lied to you.. I didn’t tell him about your previous marriages, because if I had, I knew he would never let me marry you. I thought that once we were married, then it would be too late for him to do anything about it. Yesterday, he was talking to one of his friends who told him that he knew you from Patpong. He told Daddy all about you marrying that bar girl. Daddy was so angry that I had lied to him and he told me the marriage was cancelled. He’s sending me to England to stay with my cousin. He said I have to marry my cousin instead! I’m so sad and so sorry Glyn, but I can’t disobey my father. I hope you will understand and forgive me. I have to go. I will always love you. Please be strong for me, I am crying so much.
Goodbye my love,
I handed the note back and looked at Glyn. He was staring at me with a look of utter distress on his face.
‘What am I going to do John? I’m totally devastated. I left the temple yesterday. I just walked out, didn’t even say goodbye to anyone. I’ve lost my job, lost my girl – what the hell am I gonna do?’
I had no idea what he was going to do. I knew that relations with his old employer were very bad following his rushed resignation, and there was no chance of getting his job back. I couldn’t think of any advice that was worth a damn.
‘Come on Glyn, let’s go to the bar and join Barry. I’ve left him stuck over there alone and he was the one who invited me out for a drink’
‘I was a bit rude as well; told him to bugger off,’ Glyn mumbled.
‘I know, he told me,’ I replied, as I grabbed his arm and led him back to the bar.
During the course of the next few hours I managed to snatch a few quite words with Barry to apprise him of what had happened, while at the same time trying to make sure that Glyn kept a hold on reality. He was drinking like there was no tomorrow, and was becoming very drunk and very morbid.
The evening drew to close, and the sudden switching-on of the bright lights signalled it was time to go home. But Glyn wasn’t about to call it a night. True to form, he started singing as soon as the taped music was turned off. Loretta didn’t care, so a group of us decided we’d better stay with him, just to make sure he didn’t do anything foolish.
At that hour of the morning there was little to do but sit and drink and…join in those, oh so familiar songs, from so long ago…
‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas
Across the Irish Sea…’
Bangkok’s Grace Hotel was located off Sukhumvit Road, on Soi three; and it was roughly at a midway point between the Patpong red-light district and the Soi Cowboy red light district.
The Grace had probably been built in the late sixties but by the mid-seventies it was already showing signs of wear and tear. In particular, no one could remember a time when the Grace’s infamous twenty-four hour coffee shop hadn’t been a run-down, tatty, smoke-stained, squalid establishment that had somehow become a notorious Bangkok hang-out.
The mid-seventies to early eighties were the heydays of the Grace Coffee Shop, and it was always crammed full of punters. A steady stream of westerners and locals passed through its dilapidated portals at every hour of the night and day.
It was a place where “East met West”. It was a place where the dross of Bangkok – western and Thai – seemed to gravitate. It was a pick up joint. It was a pimp’s hang out. It was a place for drug addicts to congregate and for dealers to deal. It was a place to go when all the other bars and clubs had closed. It was a place to hang out and hope your luck might turn. It was a place to drown your sorrows in the small hours. It was a place where you could lean against an old fashioned jukebox and listen to the same old western pop music being belted out, hour after hour, night after night.
Its shabby interior attracted a melting pot of humanity, and as its reputation spread, it drew in yet more customers; some broke and down on their luck and others just there out of curiosity, to enjoy the undisputed uniqueness of the Grace.
But more than anything, it was a place where Thai ladies, whose ages ranged from fifteen to fifty, could go at any time of day or night and weren’t obliged to spend any money. They could sit, if they were lucky enough find a vacant seat, or stand around in the hope that some handsome, rich young farang would appear out of the blue, sweep them off their feet, and take them away from their miserable poverty.
It was a miracle that they all survived. Maybe some didn’t. Most of the farangs who came to the Grace were either broke, nearly broke, or were very circumspect as to how they parted with what meagre funds that they happened to possess.
Occasionally, a girl might be fortunate to meet a wealthy Arab, who had flown in from the Middle East for a ‘sex holiday’, and if she succeeded in landing such a ‘fish’, then it was considered to be the bar-girl equivalent of winning the lottery.
For the most part, it was a constant battle of wits and a fight for survival between hard up, tight-fisted farangs on one side, and the desperate girls who needed to feed themselves and their impoverished families on the other.
It was a depressing and degrading way for the girls to live their lives, but Thais being Thais, they always bore their burden with great fortitude, and their irrepressible good humour would always light up the bleakest of Grace dawns.
* * *
Following the debacle with Siriporn, Glyn’s financial situation became pretty dire, and it was inevitable that he would eventually beat the well-worn path to the Grace Hotel Coffee Shop.
He must have been a Grace regular for some time, when Barry and I came across him one night in the small hours, when we decided to pay the Grace a quick visit for a night-cap, and to savour its unique, infamous ambience.
I was delighted to see Glyn there, as I hadn’t seen him for over six months, ever since that night in Loretta’s after Siriporn had broken up with him. I had been pretty busy at work, and as Glyn had already quit his job prior going into the monkhood, he wasn’t paying me any business visits. I had tried to call him, but his phone had been disconnected, presumably due to unpaid bills. Through the grapevine I learnt that he had moved home and was barely surviving by doing some occasional jobs he managed to pick up as a freelance editor.
He had commandeered one of the seating booths and was happily ensconced with a couple of the Grace’s finest ladies, who were giggling away at some joke he had just made. As we approached the booth he spotted us and let out a yell of delight.
‘You old bastards! You’re sure slumming it tonight aren’t you? I didn’t know the Grace was included in your repertoire of drinking establishments!’
‘Well, Glyn, if the only way we can have a beer with you is to slum it at the Grace, then that is what we must do, however unpleasant…’ I replied, as I clapped him on the back.
‘You lying git. You had no idea I was here!’
‘OK, I admit it. Barry and I wanted to see how the other half lives. Anyway, how’re doing mate? I called your place loads of times but could never get through. I gather you’ve moved?’
‘Yeah. Couldn’t afford that fancy apartment after I lost my job. I’m staying in more humble surroundings these days. Come on John, Barry, grab a seat, squeeze in, there’s plenty of room.’
The two girls moved even closer to Glyn and we joined them in the booth.
‘Meet my friends,’ Glyn said to the girls, and made the introductions. The girl sitting next to Glyn was called Nid, and the other one was introduced as Tukta.
Nid was quite young and, by the general standards of the Grace, had passable looks and a reasonable figure, although in truth, she really wasn’t very pretty. But the other one, Tukta, was a real Grace dog. She was much older, and she looked as though she hadn’t had a decent meal in months. Her complexion was terrible, and her face looked as though it had been rearranged in a boxing ring.
‘Sawadee Krap,’ Barry and I both said to the two girls. It soon became clear that Nid spoke very little English, and Tukta didn’t speak a single word. This made conversation difficult. Through the years Glyn and I had slowly improved our spoken Thai, but Barry still only spoke the few words that he had learnt when he first arrived.
I bought a round of beers and we settled down for a chat. Glyn seemed very friendly with Nid, and I was speculating on whether yet another relationship was blossoming when he interrupted my train of thought.
‘In case you’re wondering John, no, Nid isn’t my latest love. We’re just good friends, aren’t we Nid?’
Nid nodded but I wasn’t convinced that she had understood what he had said.
‘How long have you known her?’ I asked.
‘A few months,’ Glyn replied. When she doesn’t have anything better to do she comes and sleeps round at my place. We get it on now and then, but it’s nothing serious. Nid needs money, and I haven’t got any, it’s as simple as that. Whenever she finds herself a rich Arab or some other farang with money she takes off for a few days ‘work’, and when she comes back, the three of us go out on the piss, and Nid pays the bills. They’re great girls, I’m telling you. You never know who your real friends are until your stony broke.’
I resisted the temptation to make the cynical observation that Thai girls never believe that farangs are really broke, however poor they may appear to be. To them, a farang always means money, and they believe that sooner or later it will come to the surface.
‘You mean to say this young lady always pays?’
‘Not always. If I get a job and have some spare cash then it’s my shout, but believe me, more often than not, it’s Nid who forks out.’
‘So how’s the job scene really going now?’ Barry asked, ‘I’ve heard that you manage to pick up some freelance work now and again.’
‘It’s not much cop mate. Sometimes I despair. If things get any worse I may have to teach a bit of English to make ends meet.’
‘If I hear of any jobs going, I’ll let you know,’ I assured him ‘Why don’t you go back to Australia and start again?’ I suggested.
‘Two good reasons. One, I don’t want to. And two, even if I did, I can’t afford the air fare.’
‘I’m sure we could all club together and lend you the cash,’ Barry said.
‘I’m not a bloody charity case yet,’ Glyn said vehemently. Let’s drop it. I’m not going anywhere, Ok?’
‘Ok!’ we both agreed.
‘Hey Barry, why don’t you young Tukta here home with you tonight? She’s a great lay and I’m sure you don’t want to sleep alone, do you?’ Glyn suggested.
Barry almost choked on his drink before replying, ‘I don’t think so Glyn, thank you very much, she’s not exactly my type.’
‘How about you then John? She’s a lovely girl’
‘What on earth are you on about Glyn? Are you her pimp?’ I replied. ‘Apart from the fact that I’m very well sorted in that department thank you, surely you don’t expect us to be interested in her. I mean come on mate, she’s one of the most ugly girls in the Grace, and that’s saying something!’
‘She’s got hidden talents, believe me’
I ignored this unlikely claim, and bought another round of drinks. ‘Just one last bottle for the road and I’m gonna call it a day. Some of us have to work tomorrow you know!’ I said, somewhat thoughtlessly
‘Yes mate, you’re quite right, some of you do. Unfortunately, I don’t.’
My tactless comment seemed to have dampened the convivial atmosphere, and as it was heading towards four a.m., Barry and I bade our farewells and hurried home for a brief night’s sleep.
I turned back to look at the three of them as we headed towards the door. There was always a sense of imminent disaster as far as Glyn was concerned. Ever since he had arrived in Thailand, he had been engulfed in a never-ending series of misfortunes and I couldn’t help feeling that they hadn’t finished yet.
* * *
I didn’t see much of Glyn over the following weeks, but if I wanted to make sure he was still alive and kicking, I knew I could always find him late at night in the Grace Hotel. He was invariably ensconced in his favourite booth, along with his two partners in crime – Nid and Tukta. He was nearly always drunk, provided that at least one of the terrible trio had enough money to buy a few beers.
I fell into the habit of dropping by at least once a week, when I would buy a few rounds of drinks, and enquire how the job search was going. Although his situation was pretty dire, he put a brave face on it, and was almost back to his old self; laughing and singing his crazy songs, and trying to get Nid, Tukta and anyone else who happened to be around, to join in with him.
I continued to try and persuade him to give up his struggles and return to Australia, but he wouldn’t listen. He felt sure that sooner or later something would come up. He was earning a meagre income from teaching English, and he still managed to land the occasional freelance assignment, which, if nothing else, paid for a few beers.
At length, a few months after I first came across him in the Grace, I was having a solitary drink in Loretta’s early one evening, when the door burst open and none other than Glyn himself made a typical theatrical entrance, arm in arm with Tukta ,the older and uglier of his female two-some.
‘John you bugger! Thought we’d find you here. Whatcha you drinking? It’s my shout tonight mate.’
‘The usual thank you. What are you doing up here? This is strange territory for you these days isn’t it?’
‘I’ve just finished a nice little earner, so Tukta and me decided to track you down and pay you back for all those beers you’ve been buying us down at the Grace.’
‘That’s very decent of you. But why drag Tukta up here with you? Talk about ‘bringing coals to Newcastle’. Anyway, where’s your other partner in crime – Nid?’ I asked.
‘Oh Nid’s off with some rich farang. I don’t see her much anymore – not since I shacked up with Tukta’
‘Shacked up with Tukta? You’ve got to be joking!’ I exclaimed. She may be good fun, but come on mate, you can’t tell me you really fancy her!’ I said, taking a good look to make sure her face hadn’t undergone some miraculous transformation. But no, she was still the same skeletal, pockmarked, plain Grace girl that she had always been.
‘I’m not joking,’ Glyn replied. ‘Looks aren’t everything you know.’
‘I wouldn’t argue with you there,’ I said, ‘but there’s looks and looks. For God sake Glyn, if you have to shack up with someone, what’s wrong with Nid? She seemed a nice girl and a damn site better looking than Tukta.’
‘Nid is just fine, but I happen to prefer Tukta. It’s no big deal; we enjoy each other’s company and we have a good time together. I’ve learnt my lesson with the good-looking ones; from now on I’m sticking to girls with homely faces. There’s much less risk of being ripped off or taken for a ride.’
‘It’s your life, so I’ll say no more,’ I responded, somewhat unconvinced about Glyn’s latest romantic entanglement.
We had a pretty heavy drinking session, and Glyn wouldn’t let me put my hand in my pocket all evening. As he became drunker, more details on the terrible two-some’s backgrounds started to emerge.
Although Glyn had initially preferred the better looking Nid to Tukta, there had been occasions when both of them had accompanied him home in the small hours, when they had all been too drunk to do anything other than collapse and fall sleep. One night, when the girls assumed that Glyn was still asleep, he overheard Nid referring to Tukta as her mother in Thai. He felt that he must have misheard, but decided to ask them about it anyway. At first they denied it, but eventually they had admitted that Tukta was indeed Nid’s mother.
‘But Tukta only looks to be in her mid-twenties,’ I said to Glyn.
‘She’s thirty mate,’ he replied.
I was doing some mental arithmetic as Glyn confirmed my thoughts, ‘Tukta was raped when she was twelve years old, and Nid was the result.’
‘That’s dreadful,’ was all I could think of to say. ‘What happened to the guy who raped her? Nothing, I’ll bet!’
‘Got it in one. One of her Dad’s drinking pals. It’s commonplace up in the north –east where she comes from. Nothing happened to him, and Tukta was forced to go and work in the local massage parlour so that she could take care of Nid. She had to leave school, and even now she can hardly read and write in Thai, let alone in English. She didn’t have much of an education.
‘That’s pretty tragic isn’t it? How come they both ended up in Bangkok’
‘I haven’t finished yet. As you can imagine, there’s no such thing as family planning advice in massage parlours and Tukta kept getting pregnant. She suffered loads of miss-carriages and eventually had two more kids, who are both back home in the north. There were some bad complications with the last one and Tukta nearly died.
‘She can’t have any more kids, thank God, but she still owes money that she had to borrow to pay for her medical treatment. Whatever good looks she may have had when she was young have long since disappeared. Eventually she couldn’t attract customers anymore; so she decided to bring Nid with her and try her luck in the big city.’
‘It I don’t suppose they’re doing very well here. The Grace is hardly a good place to make a decent living,’ I observed.
‘Nid doesn’t do too badly. She’s quite popular with the Arabs and every now and then she gets a bit of a windfall. They send as much cash as they can afford up-country, for Nid’s two younger girls and to help pay off the debts.’
‘These women never cease to surprise me, Glyn,’ I said, ‘when you see their bright, smiling faces, you never know their backgrounds. You never realise that they were forced to come here and work the Grace under such tragic circumstances. They seem so full of fun.’
‘I wish I could do more for them,’ Glyn continued. ‘At the moment I’m having enough trouble keeping myself together. Anyway, When Tukta hasn’t got any customers – which is most of the time – she stays with me, We have an understanding and it suits us.’
‘You sure do get yourself into some weird situations. Still I guess you wouldn’t be Glyn Williams if you didn’t,’ I said.
‘Well I won’t argue with you about that,’ he replied, ‘but, you know something lads, I have a feeling in my bones that my luck is about to change. Something good’s going to turn up pretty soon, I’m sure of it’
‘I hope you’re right. It’s about time you had a bit of good luck.’
The night was winding to a close, the habitual singing started, and I slipped quietly away, hoping against hope that Glyn’s luck would indeed take a turn for the better, as he had so optimistically forecast.
As ever, Glyn’s less than dulcet tones escorted me all the way to the waiting taxi.
I’m walking backwards for Christmas….
* * *
He was right; it took a while, but his luck did eventually change for the better.
A few months after our last meeting in Loretta’s, I ran into Glyn, and it looked as if he was buying drinks for the entire occupants of the Grace Hotel.
‘Hey John, you just won’t bloody believe what’s happened. I’ve finally got a job. A bloody good job too. What do you think about that? I told you things were going to change – didn’t I?’
‘That’s tremendous news Glyn, congratulations. So what’s the job?’
‘I’ve been offered the position of senior film editor for Charlie Dixon in Hong Kong. Huge salary in Hong Kong dollars, free, luxury apartment, car, the works!’
Charlie Dixon owned and ran a flourishing post production house in Hong Kong and was reputed to be well on the way to becoming a millionaire. He was a frequent visitor to Thailand, and over the years we had all been involved in various jobs for him. He had known Glyn ever since he first came to Thailand almost five years ago, and it was great news that he had offered Glyn this chance.
‘Glyn, I’m so pleased for you. So it’s goodbye Thailand, at long last?’
‘It looks like it,’ he replied. ‘I wasn’t sure at first whether I should take the job. I love Thailand so much, in spite of all my bad experiences here. But Hong Kong’s just a few hours flight away, and it doesn’t have to be forever. I’m sure I’ll be back this way on business, and who knows? – Maybe Charlie will open up a branch in Bangkok one day. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up mate. I’m on my way at last.’
‘So when’s the big day then?’ I asked, with my mind already focussing on a suitable farewell party.
‘Just as soon as I can get away – they want me like yesterday. But I’ve got a few things to sort out here before I leave. For starters, I have to get married.’
I nearly fell off my chair. ‘You have to do what?’
‘Get married mate. Tukta and I are getting married, and she’s coming with me’
I had to be careful with what I said next. ‘Glyn, have you thought this through? Are you sure this is a good idea? You know what happened to your previous attempts at marriage?’
‘I know, and I realise it sounds pretty crazy John, but this time, it’s really different. Tukta is a great girl – not great looking, but she’s got a heart of gold. She takes care of my every need, never gives me any ‘agro’, and I really believe she cares for me. This is it, mate. She’s never going to leave me or ditch me like the others – is she?’
‘But she’s got so much ‘baggage’, Glyn. She’s got three kids and she doesn’t speak a word of English. She can’t even read or write in her own language! How’s she going to manage in Hong Kong, especially when you’re away working?’
‘She’s a lot brighter than you think. I’ll send her to school over there and she’ll soon learn’
‘But why get married? Why don’t you just take her with you and see how it goes?’
‘That’s what I was planning to do, but I can’t get her a visa, not with her background. They suspect she wants to work as a prostitute.’
‘So you’re really set on marriage?’
‘Too right mate. We’ll just do the registry office –no party or anything. Once we’ve got the marriage paper, she’ll qualify for a visa; but I’m happy to do it anyway. I really do love her. She needs this break as much as I do, she’s had a terrible life and it’s not her fault. I’ll earn loads of money in Hong Kong so we can easily take care of her family – I won’t even notice it.’
I looked at the good-hearted, but still gullible Glyn for a long time, not really knowing what I could say to stop him making a fool of himself, yet again. In the end I knew that nothing I could say would make one iota of difference, and what would be, would have to be.
‘You’ve obviously made your mind up, so I’ll wish you the very best. I genuinely hope it all works out for you.’
‘Thanks, I know you mean it’
‘Now Glyn, where’s the farewell party going to be?’
He sat thinking for a couple of minutes. ‘We’ve got three choices; the Derb, Loretta’s or the Grace; those are the three establishments that have played such a significant part in my life in Thailand. Which one is it to be?’
‘Well, none of us go to the Derb anymore, and I don’t think the Grace is quite right for a private party. So it had better be Loretta’s,’ I suggested.
‘Loretta’s it is then, let’s find Madam Loretta and get the place booked.’
* * *
Even by Soi Cowboy standards, it was a night to remember.
As we had agreed in the Grace some two weeks earlier, Loretta’s was duly booked, and most of the regulars were invited. It was quite a crowd. During the past five years Glyn’s fame – or infamy – had grown far and wide. The ‘in’ crowd from The Derby King, including boring old Frank, made the pilgrimage up town for the occasion, and there was even a smattering of familiar faces from the Grace Hotel who somehow managed to gate-crash the party.
Loretta was in good form and not only did she outdo herself with a sumptuous Thai repast, but she also kept handing out extra rounds of drinks on the house after the official ‘free bar’ had closed. This probably meant that she was in deficit for the evening, even before the long-time regulars started to throw away their bar chits.
Glyn was now happily married for the third time and the blushing bride was duly given pride of place at the bar, where she held court amongst the young rice-pickers of Loretta’s, and where she seemed to have somehow assumed the role of ‘mother confessor’.
We all got mightily drunk, and by advance arrangement with our friendly local police captain, the party continued well into the small hours.
By three o’clock, the crowd had started to thin out a little, and I found Glyn alone at one end of the bar and went over to say my farewells.
‘So when’s the flight mate?’ I asked.
‘Tomorrow evening. I still can’t quite believe it. Finally leaving Thailand, and with a good, honest woman on my arm as my wife. It’s just too good to be true,’ he replied.
‘You’ve certainly been through the mill, and if anyone deserves a change in their luck it’s you. Somehow, I think you just might have earned it?’
‘Do you really think so? Yes, maybe I have at that. It’s certainly been a funny old five years – but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’ve had a ‘ball’, John – in between the ‘bad bits’ – but they’re just a distant memory. Can you believe it’s nearly nineteen eighty? It’s a new decade, John, so it’s time for a new life’
‘Well we’re all certainly going to miss you Glyn, but I’m sure our paths will cross again’
‘Course they will. You ain’t done with me yet, I can assure you!’
‘Look, I’ve got to go. It’s been a great party, but all good things must come to an end, and I’ve got an early start in the morning. See you mate, and all the very best’
I shook his hand and was half way out of the door when Glyn’s piercing tenor stopped me in my tracks.
‘John, don’t you dare take another step!’ he shouted. I looked round and the entire occupants of Lorretas had suddenly become silent.
‘You miserable bastard! Did you really think you’d get away with it?’ he continued, in an overtly aggressive tone.
‘Get away with what Glyn? What the hell are you talking about?’ I asked, getting a little irritated by this silly inquisition, ‘what on earth are you on about?’ I insisted.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Glyn continued, ‘Can you actually believe that my former friend, John over there, was trying to sneak away unnoticed. He nearly got away with it too!’
I was becoming more and more flustered. What was I being accused of?
‘Look here Glyn I…’
‘Don’t give me any of that innocent crap!’ he interrupted. We all know you’ve been trying to duck out of it for months, and as a punishment – you’re going to have to sing a whole verse solo,’ he concluded, as a mischievous grin spread across his face.
I was dragged back to the bar and the singing started. The same old Goons’ songs; ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’, ‘Ying tong iddle I po’, and a few others that I’d never heard of before.
‘Glyn you’re fucking crazy!’ I told him in one of the few breaks between songs.
‘I know I am mate, and this place is fucking crazy; the whole of Thailand is fucking crazy, and I’ll tell you what; for the first time in a long time I feel fucking great. Life is sweet, and at long last I’m gonna be out there making a bit of cash like the rest of you rich farang bastards. Look out Hong Kong, here I fucking come!’
The singing started again, for what was likely to be the very last time under the auspices of Glyn Williams.
‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas
Across the Irish Sea,’
After Glyn’s departure to Hong Kong I persevered in trying to make a success of the studio recording business in Bangkok; but trying to run a small, under-capitalised farang business in a highly competitive local advertising industry became too much of an uphill struggle. After three long years, I reluctantly decided to give up, move back to England and start over. I had reached the ripe old age of thirty-eight, and felt that time was fast running out if I was to carve out a new career for myself.
My first year back in England wasn’t easy, but my employment situation slowly improved and I eventually became immersed in a new and flourishing career in the city. In fact, I was so successful, that within ten years I was seriously thinking about taking early retirement.
My wife and I had kept in contact with our friends and acquaintances back in Thailand, and in the mid-nineties we decided to start up a modest little import-export company. I must have developed the Midas touch, for the business started to boom to such an extent that I was able to retire from the City within two years and I started to enjoy extended trips back to my beloved Thailand.
There was very little contact with Glyn after he moved to Hong Kong, but during the three years that I had remained in Thailand, I did occasionally hear that things were apparently going pretty well for him. After I moved back to England, I lost touch completely, and often wondered what had become of him and his questionable marriage.
Then one night, almost twenty years after that memorable farewell party in Lorretas, I was out in Bangkok for a Christmas break and was dining with some former business friends from my studio recording days.
It was Christmas Eve and we were reminiscing about the old days and we discussed those wild times down in Patpong. To my surprise, I learnt that my favourite Patpong hangout, The Derby King, was now, of all things, a haunt for Thai ‘Lady Boys’. Apparently, the farangs and Thai businessmen who used to patronise the Derb had long since vanished.
I also learnt that the Grace Hotel, and in particular its infamous Coffee Shop, had long since lost its pre-eminence as the main late night meeting place for the waifs and strays from Bangkok’s seedier echelons.
By contrast, I was informed that the red light district of Soi Cowboy had survived and prospered, but I was unable to learn whether Lorettas and the other bars in Soi Cowboy that I used to patronise back in the old days were still there. My fellow diners were all accompanied by their wives, so even if they did know, they weren’t about to enlighten me in the presence of their better halves!
Eventually, the subject of Glyn came up, and I related the story of what had happened some twenty years ago. Glyn’s name was a bit of a legend in Bangkok’s expatriate community, but although my hosts had heard of him, they couldn’t throw any light on where he may be now.
I spent much of the evening relating Glyn’s life story, up to the time when I lost touch, and the telling of it brought back all the old memories. I suddenly felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to Soi Cowboy and see if I could find anyone there who might remember him, or have some information on his whereabouts.
It was still relatively early when we finished our excellent turkey repast and I made my excuses, jumped in a cab and headed off to the infamous soi that I hadn’t seen for more than fifteen years.
‘You want nice lady?’ the cab driver asked me in broken English, with a grin. ‘Soi Cowboy no good! – I take you to number one lady,’ he continued.
I told him to ‘forget it,’ as we raced across Bangkok.
The road had changed out of all proportion over the past twenty years, and it was barely recognisable as the run-down, slightly sordid area that I remembered from the old days.
Now there were wall-to-wall bars running the entire length of the soi, with huge, multi-coloured neon signs, flashing above every establishment. The girls looked much prettier than the ‘rice pickers’ of years ago, and there were groups of scantily clad beauties standing outside each bar trying to entice the crowds of strolling farang customers inside.
The road had been pedestrianized, and I had to blink my eyes to get my bearings and become adjusted to the heaving mass of humanity that seemed to be occupying every inch of pavement and road, all determined to make the most of their Christmas in the tropics..
Without doubt, Soi Cowboy had been transformed into a thriving commercial red light district and there was little doubt that Mr Trink and Mr Cowboy had a lot to account for.
The cab dropped me at the opposite end of the Soi to where Loretta’s used to be, so I fought my way down the road, frantically resisting the attempts by dozens of young ladies who were trying to drag me into their establishments. Amazingly, the original Cowboys bar was still there, but there was no sign of Lorettas. Where Lorettas once stood, there was a rather mediocre establishment, which bore the name ‘Pams’. It looked pretty run down compared to the other glittery bars in the vicinity.
I stared at the sign and recalled that Pam was the name of Loretta’s cashier in the old days. Could it be that this was the same Pam that now gave the bar its name? Pam wasn’t exactly a common name in Thailand, so it seemed at least a possibility.
Outside Pam’s was a pathetic looking Christmas tree which had been placed between a couple of plastic tables on the forecourt. I looked at it and realised that this was obviously one Soi Cowboy bar that wasn’t making much money. I decided to take a seat at one of the tables and order a beer. As I waited for my beer, I noticed a very large Thai woman at the next table.
‘Could that be Pam?’ I wondered. She was busy talking to an ancient farang sitting with her, but after a couple of minutes she caught my eye and stared at me for a few seconds before her face broke into a beaming smile.
‘John? It’s John isn’t it?’ she said, ‘Merry Christmas!’
I couldn’t believe that she could recognise me after all these years. It was incredible.
‘Pam, Sawadee Krap,’ I responded. ‘Merry Christmas to you too, Pam. How are you? How’s Business?’
‘I’m fine, but business not good. Not many customers now.’
‘What’s happened to Loretta? Do you own the bar now?’
‘Loretta she go many years already. She lose all her money, drunk all the time. I buy bar from her and she go up-country to her village. I don’t know if she still alive.’
We started talking about old times, and I asked her if she had any idea what had happened to Glyn.
‘John, you better ask that man at the next table, he know all about Glyn’
This was excellent news. Pam shouted to the elderly man, and he turned and looked at me. He was dressed very shabbily, and had a dark, weather- beaten complexion. He had an untidy, full grey beard and his long, straggly hair was almost completely white. But the most striking aspect of his appearance was his painfully thin, emaciated appearance. His threadbare clothes were literally hanging off him.
I was still trying to work out what nationality he could be, when – like Pam, a few moments earlier – his face broke into a huge smile.
‘You bastard! You bloody bastard! Where’ve you been all these fucking years?’ he said, ‘and a merry fucking Christmas to you too.’
I didn’t recognise the face, but I certainly recognised the voice. ‘I don’t believe it. It’s you, Glyn, isn’t it?’
‘Of course it’s bloody me, John, who else do you think is going to be sitting out here at this time of night talking to Pam?’
Pam giggled, ‘He come here every night.’
‘Come on, have another beer mate,’ Glyn insisted.
I looked at his bill pot full of bar chits and insisted on buying the round.
‘So what have you been up to? How long have you been back in Thailand? Are you working?’ I didn’t dare ask him about Tukta.
Glyn ignored my questions. ‘Bloody John, back after all these years, slumming it in Soi Cowboy. How are you? You old bastard! Christ, it’s good to see you!’ With that he got unsteadily to his feet and walked over to me and gave me a long hug, as he continued to laugh his head off. ‘You remember all those singing sessions we used to have? What a laugh! ‘I’m walking backwards to Christmas,’’ he started to sing.
‘I remember, Glyn, how could I forget?’ I interrupted. ‘Come on mate what are you up to these days?’
‘Oh, just ducking and diving. Making a few bob here and there –just enough to keep body and soul together. I manage. How about you?’
I told Glyn about my success in the city followed by my successful business ventures, and my long marriage, hoping he wouldn’t be too envious, as it was pretty clear that his own life hadn’t gone too well.
‘I’m so pleased for you mate. I’m really pleased. I often wondered what became of you, and I’m so delighted that it’s all worked out so well. Same wife too, you lucky bugger. You’ve made my evening, I’m so happy.’
I didn’t want to press him about his current situation, so we started to talk about the past and mutual friends of twenty years ago. Barry was still in Thailand, but rarely came to Soi Cowboy. He still didn’t speak Thai any better than he did twenty years ago, but he was doing quite well and was managing a small business. Dear old boring Frank had come and gone a few times, but was now back in Bangkok, involved in the house moving business of all things.
We moved onto Glyn’s ‘old flames’. Glyn told me that he met Jean, his first wife in Australia a few years back, and she was doing very well. She re-married and was now the successful editor of a national magazine. Her was in a happy marriage and her career was going great.
‘We’re friends now,’ he added. ‘All that unpleasantness is long forgotten. She’s a great lady, and I’m so pleased that it’s worked out so well. Just think, if I hadn’t fallen for Oy, she might have been lumbered with me all these years, and then she would’ve missed out on a great career!’
‘Talking of Oy,’ I asked, ‘Do you know what happened to her?’
‘As it happens I do. Frank gave me the low-down, as usual. She married a rich Swiss guy, and she now lives in a Chateau in Switzerland. It’s just what she always wanted, loads of money to spend. She comes to Thailand several times a year to see her friends and do some shopping. She really did hit the jackpot didn’t she?’
‘Doesn’t it make you sick, eh?’ It was an observation more than a question.
‘Not a bit of it. She was such a beautiful girl, she was born to enjoy all that luxury. I was never going to give her a fraction of what she’s got now. I’m happy for her, I really am.’
‘Now, as for princess Siriporn,’ Glyn continued, ‘she lives in England and is really happy. I never told you John, but Siriporn had a secret plan for us – after we were married. She planned for us to stay at her dad’s house for a year or so, and then, when the time was right, she was planning to move to Australia. She didn’t want to live in Thailand. For some reason, she preferred the farang way of life. I didn’t say anything at the time, but the last place I ever wanted to live was back in Australia. So I know now that it all worked out for the best, as I would never have been able to make her really happy.’
‘You’re giving me a lot of reasons why all your ex-girlfriends and wives were better off without you. But it must be bit depressing to see how well they have done, compared to the way your life has turned out,’ I said.
‘No mate, truly. You remember that time when I was going to marry Siriporn and I had to go into the monkhood?’
‘How could I forget it? You were supposed to be there for a month but you skipped out after about two weeks, just after she dumped you.’
‘That’s right. But anyway, while I was there I got to know the Abbot quite well. He was a great guy, and spoke pretty good English. He told me all about Buddha’s teachings on the four sublime states for the mind and heart. Let me see, there’s metta, kindness to all human beings; karuna, compassion towards those who are suffering; upekkha, equanimity of spirit; and mudita, identifying with other people’s happiness – being happy for them and not envious.’
‘You’ve remembered that pretty well!’ I exclaimed.
‘Well I had a bit of time on my hands to learn when I was in there. But I’ve really given it a lot of thought since I’ve been back in Thailand these last few years. Life had been kicking me in the balls again, and I started to wonder what the hell it was all about. And then I remembered the Abbot’s teachings, and I started to feel better about things. It’s true you know; none of my girlfriends and wives would have been happy with me. I loved them, but I’m really happy that they moved on and their lives turned out so well for them. It’s mudita, John, bloody mudita. I really don’t envy them, or jealous of their husbands. I’m just happy for them.’
It was getting late, and I had to fly to the North of Thailand early the next day. But I couldn’t go without finding out what had happened in Hong Kong and his job with Charlie Dixon. I assumed that his third wife, Tukta, wasn’t around anymore. I never really expected it to last, but I still needed to know what actually happened.
‘Glyn, what’s happened to you? What happened to the job with Charlie? I suppose Tukta couldn’t stand it over there, could she? Is that what happened? Did she run back home to Thailand?’
‘You couldn’t be more wrong John,’ Glyn replied. ‘I always said she was a smart girl – and so she was, way too smart for me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘As soon as we arrived in Hong Kong she went to school, and she was speaking English like a native within months. She started to get bored so I found her a filing job in the office to keep her occupied. Before I bloody knew it, she was running the whole fucking company! Smart as a whip! She started to speak Chinese, learned all about the film business – unbelievable I tell you.’
At first I thought Glyn was joking, but his eyes told me that he meant every word.
‘I can’t credit it, Glyn. When I knew her, she was even more illiterate than Loretta’s rice pickers. I can’t quite get this round my brain. But if she was as smart as you say, that was good, wasn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with her turning out to be so bright?
‘Nothing mate, and it was fine for a while. But you know me John; I can’t stay off the booze for too long. My drinking got worse and I started to turn up late for meetings with customers. Tukta and Charlie weren’t very impressed, as by this time, the two of them were running the place between them. Then, it had to happen. I was passing by the office very early one morning – on my way home after a night on the tiles – and I caught the two of them having it off together.’
‘Tukta and Charlie? You must be joking!’
‘Wish I was mate. Well that was the end of that. Tukta left me and went to live with Charlie – to whom she’s now married, believe it or not – and Charlie sent me off to Singapore to open up a new branch.’
‘Jesus Glyn, it could only happen to you. So what happened in Singapore?’
‘Not a lot. I got my act together for a while, but we never made any real money. Charlie paid the bills, but my heart wasn’t in it. So it was never going to be a success. He might have carried on footing the bills indefinitely if it hadn’t been for the Asian financial crisis. The Hong Kong business started to go downhill badly, and Charlie ran short of money.
‘He shut down the Singapore office , and a year later the Hong Kong Company folded. I came back to Bangkok, and lived on what savings I had managed to keep, and a year ago, guess what? Tukta opened up a company back here, in Bangkok. She and Charlie are back in business, except this time it’s in Thailand, and Tukta is now the boss. I think she must have saved almost every penny she made when she was over there. They’ve got a pretty good business going here now, and it’s all down to her. Bloody amazing!’
‘Do you ever see her?’ I asked
‘Oh yes. She did give me a bit of freelance work when she first started up, but I haven’t had anything for quite a while. I suspect she regards me as too unreliable. And she’s probably right. You know the booze and me, mate.’
‘I dread to think what state your liver’s in,’ I commented.
‘Yes, well, we won’t go into that. But as I was saying, I don’t begrudge her or Charlie anything. Charlie was good enough to believe in me all those years ago when everyone else had written me off, and as for Tukta, I always knew there was something special about her. She just needed a chance, and by God when it came, she took it, and I’m happy for her.’
‘Glyn, I have to leave – Can you give me your phone number? I’ll call you next time I’m in town.’
‘No phone, I’m afraid mate. Can’t afford one. If you want to see me, I’m always here, outside Pam’s, aren’t I darling,’ he shouted across to Pam.
With that, he jumped up and after shouting ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’ he suddenly bustled off down the road, laughing and screaming at the girls outside the bars. As he disappeared into the distance, I could have sworn I heard those familiar goon-like strains, echoing above the noise and chatter of the street.
I was just about to leave, when I remembered Glyn’s huge bill. I was sure he hadn’t settled it, but it had vanished.
‘Pam, where’s Gyn’s bill. Surely he didn’t throw it away?’
She smiled and produced it from under the table.
‘Good God Pam, it looks like he’s been drinking here for a week!’ I exclaimed.
‘More than that,’ Pam replied. There’s about a month’s bills there. No, we don’t let him throw the chits away like he did in the old days. We like to keep them.’
‘Keep them? Why? Doesn’t he pay?’
‘John, Glyn has no money. He can’t pay. He hasn’t paid for over a year. Always he promise, but he never pay. That’s why he come here. Free drinks.’
‘But why do you give him free drinks Pam. You’re not exactly doing a lot of business, are you?’ I asked.
‘John you must understand. Sure, I not in good business and there be plenty of bad people in Soi Cowboy. You know John, The Lord Buddha, he teach us to love and help the poor people. We must do good in this life, so when we come back we have a better life.
‘Glyn luck very bad; he have very bad karma. Maybe he do something very bad in his last life. But long time ago he help us and buy drinks in Soi Cowboy when no farangs want to come here. I know he throw away his bills, but sometime he pay a lot, and he bring many friends here. He help Soi Cowboy to survive. You too John, you also help. Glyn, he is good man, but now he have nothing and we must help him – if we don’t do it we lose our respect. We must help this farang, we love him John.’
‘I don’t know what to say Pam. At least let me pay this bill. He’ll be drinking your profits away for years to come if you keep giving him free drinks.’
‘Thank you John, you very kind. But don’t worry about my profits. Glyn not drink much longer.’ She paused for a few seconds.
I looked at her, not understanding.
‘John, didn’t he tell you?’
‘Tell me what?’
‘John,’ she paused again, ‘Glyn have very bad liver – he die very soon’
‘Jesus Christ! No wonder he looked so terrible. Why didn’t he tell me?’
‘He don’t want anyone to know. But I know. Six months ago I take Glyn to doctor when he very ill. Doctor tell me Glyn liver in very bad state. Doctor tell me Glyn not live more than a few months. My girls and me, we cry so much. Now Glyn never eat and he get thinner every day. I think he die very soon, John.’
There were tears in Pam’s eyes and I felt devastated. I quickly paid the bill and wandered off down the soi in a sort of dream. The bargirls and pimps triedto hustle me:
‘Mister, you wanna nice girl for Chris-mass?’
But I was in a world of my own. I reached the end of the soi, and turned onto the main Sukhumvit highway and carried on walking, not really knowing where I was going.
I couldn’t believe that Glyn’s life had turned into the ultimate disaster – such a mess – and now it was ending in one of the most horrible ways imaginable.
But then I started to think about all the good times. He really had been one of life’s characters – a one off. He was always the life and sole of the party and so full of optimism, regardless of the latest calamity to befall him. That night, when he left for Hong Kong, he told me that ‘life had been a ball’.
And tonight, no regrets, no self-pity, still laughing at himself and the world. What was that he said? ‘Mudita, John, its bloody Mudita!’ The stupid bastard!
And those crazy goon songs – I’m sure he was singing one of them tonight when he took off so suddenly. The one about Christmas – how apt, I thought.
I looked around me, not knowing quite where I’d wandered. It didn’t really matter.
Then, somewhere out there in the murky polluted Bangkok night, I heard a familiar voice. Was it my imagination, or was someone really singing?
On an impulse, I too started to sing. I sang at the top of my voice. After all, it was past midnight. It was Christmas Day.
‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea,
I’ve tried Walking sideways,
And Walking to the Front,
But People just look at me,
And say it’s a publicity stunt….
It was the festive season and despite the late hour, there were still quite a few people about. They started to stare at me, this crazy farang in their midst.
I heard one of them saying in Thai to his friend that all farangs were mad. I decided they were probably right, and if they thought I was mad then I’d better start behaving mad.
I started walking backwards, and then side-ways, aping the song, meandering all over the road. The cars were slamming on their brakes and swerving all around me. Everyone was screaming at me to get out of the road, but of course they couldn’t possibly have known that crazy farangs can’t sing, ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas,’ walking normally, in a straight line and on the pavement.
And they couldn’t have known that out there somewhere, was another crazy farang called Glyn, singing the same song, weaving his own crazy way along the middle of the road towards me.
And they couldn’t possibly have known that although my mate Glyn had very bad karma, he had bloody good mudita.
I knew, because the bastard had just told me, and he ought to know!
Merry Christmas Glyn!