Blackouts and Bliss (A Prologue)
At some point, early on during my time in Thailand, I was in a beach bar on the southern coast, alone, slumped in self-pity over the counter. There was a heavy atmosphere of manufactured history in the place. Its tables and walls were a haze of backpacker graffiti. John and Duncan '99. Lucy and Ian '05. Sarah and Emily '13. Layer upon layer of names and dates and crudely drawn smiley faces. All available surfaces had sunk beneath these mournful inkings.
And there, on a high-up area of wall somewhere behind me, was my own drunken testament to the good times – my name, scrawled next to the date 2014 – forever laying claim to some - what? - some stain of experience, some something.
So, it's early afternoon and I'm sat in the bar, sweat-glazed in the thick tropical heat, sipping tentatively at my first drink of the day, when this sunburnt guy walks in. Lots of guys had come into the bar already, but this guy came in emphatically.
It was a statement, his walking in.
He was wearing a panama hat and a white t-shirt that had some badly blurred imagery on it. There was this shop on the main strip where customers could get a photograph of their own choosing printed (with varying degrees of success) onto small, medium or large white t-shirts. Meaning that on any given day you were bound to see a dozen or so tourists strutting their stuff with bespoke images emblazoned across their chests. Entire groups of friends would all wear portraits of each other's drink-whipped faces, some cherished snapshot plucked from the tumult of the previous night. Often the portrait chosen would show its subject in a state of ugly, lax-faced happiness, an expression splayed between pride and humiliation, crumpled onto to cheap cotton fabric.
For this man, the t-shirt was slightly too small. You could see it hug the boozy drum of his belly as he settled in just down the bar counter from me. He wasn't fat, though: there was a solidity beneath the paunch, like a soldier who'd taken to hard drinking. He sat down and asked one of the barmaids to change the channel of the TV playing overhead so that he could watch a Thai boxing match that was about to start. He did this with a mixture of Thai words and irritated hand gestures. I got the impression that the barmaid found his gestures significantly more comprehensible than his broken Siamese.
The boxing match started. He watched intently, drinking all the while, and reacting to the fight with increasing volume, demonstrating the fixation and frustration of either a long-time fan, or a man with money riding on the outcome. His pendulous swings from exhilaration to fury were just that bit too aggressive to be ignored, and you could see that the staff and customers were starting to feel his presence establishing itself as a centre of gravity in the room, a weight dragging against the normal harmonious flow of things.
But none of his behaviour was anything approaching rude enough or even loud enough to be an Official Problem. It was just the wrong side of decorous, unsettling more because of a vague sense of unpredictability to the man than because of anything he was actually doing. His sport-fan jeering seemed to be not just a spontaneous reaction to the boxing match, but a calculated assertion of his willingness and ableness to occupy space. His sunburn was that deeply ingrained sort of red that only very tanned people can go; not the pink and peeling surface-burn of pale bodies that have shrieked at the first touch of ultraviolet, but the long and careless soaking of toughened skin in blistering afternoon hours. A 'fuck it' shade of red.
Each time the barmaid poured him a refill I could smell the whisky as it splashed down onto the ice in his glass. Could smell his cigar smoke too as its spiralled above him in spectral turrets and then fanned out sideways to hover over the heads of the surrounding drinkers.
And one time, as I was watching the barmaid pour, I realised what the image on his t-shirt was actually of. The swirl of colours came together, fixing into place and taking form, so that I started to make out the face of a young blonde woman tilting slightly backwards, her mouth open and her eyes closed. I had never seen the photograph before, but I might as well have done. It was the exclamation mark at the end of a million movies, the coup de grace that drips down eyelids and cheekbones as the camera fades to black.
The porn-star facial, languishing there on his t-shirt, as bold as brass.
He caught me looking.
'You'd be amazed how many people don't even notice,' he said, grinning widely. 'Trend-setting can be a thankless task, I'm telling you.'
That was how I met Joseph. After that, my entire trip took a turn for the better. There was an infectious wildness about him; his eyes darting, arrogant, alive, drinking in everything, as if all the world were put on as a display for his appraisal. Here was a man who thrived on conflict like an extrovert thrives on socialising or an introvert thrives on solitude.
All of which is to say that when, after months had gone by, peppered with blackouts and bliss, and money had leaked from us in the drip drip drip of daily debauchery, and our long nights and short days had seen us swing between euphoria and nausea together, when all of this was done and our bonds were strong, I guess I really wasn't all that surprised when Joseph went and fucked me.
1. Beating the Beaten Track
Bangkok. Usual rendezvous. No sign of Joseph, though. No word.
Here I am, left sinking into this city like dishwater spiralling down a goddamned drain.
Almost evening now. Daylight's violent glare has given way to an amber sheen. Dusty heat, raucous hawkers, the fixed smile of the market-stall vendor as he look another jet-lagged customer up and down and quotes him his special price. I did my time here like that, roaming wide-eyed in the swollen air, making bad calculations of the exchange rate, paying over the odds.
Probably even Joseph did too, once.
The mania that sweeps through this place after dusk hasn't yet come. Tourists continue to stroll and amble, their bangles jangling like wind chimes in the eddies of gritty air thrown up into the road by the passing tuk-tuks. In my right ear I can hear the tuk-tuk's screaming engines, their endless chorus of revving, but into my left ear my earphones stream music.
I walk to the beat, scanning faces in the crowd.
All the dead repetitiveness of shuffling bodies.
One of the sellers sees my gaze linger over some of his merchandise, and he swoops. 'Good price, good price!' he tells me, but, as ever, the specifics of cost are left vague. The guy's on a hiding to nothing; all of his entreaties quickly slip away into the background hum. I keep moving, picking up the pace a little, weaving nimbly through the lumbering multitude, a side-step here, a sharp elbow there.
I'm honing in on a man whose ivory skin I've just now seen glimmering like a beacon in the waning sun. He's alone, this guy, sitting in the outside section of a crowded traveller bar and sipping a Diet Coke. As I get closer, I can see an unruffled guidebook spread open before him, its bright-white pages looking crisp, informative and comforting. The place he's chosen for himself is filled with fellow travellers: dreadlocks and flip flops; tie dye and crescent eyes.
Youth's rude health.
I lean forward over the bar, trying to lock eyes with a member of staff. 'Beer over here, please!' I call. 'Hey, yeah, can I get a beer here? Excuse me!'
When the barman comes I hand over the exact change and make a quick count of my remaining funds. Enough for four or so drinks in this place. A few more if I head a little further afield. I take a good slug from the bottle, drinking half of it down in a few thirsty gulps. My loose shirt flutters in the breeze of the fan whirring above the counter.
My man's still absorbed in his guidebook. Whatever expansive excitement he once felt over this trip has clearly begun to shrink down to a series of logistical problems to be overcome, choices to be made, information to be scanned and understood.
I make my way towards him. 'Hey!' I say, stopping right by his table. 'How's it going? I see you're reading Lonely Planet there? Don't suppose I could quickly take a few notes from your copy? I lost mine the other day...'
He's all smiles and enthusiasm, so I thank him and take a seat.
'You keep your copy well,' I say. 'You should have seen mine! Barely readable by the time I lost it.'
'Oh I've only just arrived,' he tells me. 'Got in this morning - morning in Thai time, that is - and collapsed for a few hours in the first room I could find. I was so tired from the flight!'
'Shit, yeah - the flight's a killer alright. So where are you staying?' I speak distractedly, taking long draws from my bottle, still transcribing from his book, apparently more interested in the numbers of hostels in Chang Mai than I am in his sleeping arrangements.
'Some place called the Sunrise Guesthouse,' he says with a vague wave of his arm in its direction. 'It's just up the road there.'
I know it. I know all of the guesthouses round here. Smiling, I drain the rest of my beer and hold the bottle up between us. 'Fancy one?'
His eyes brighten at that. 'Yeah, why not?' he says.
Jesus, I think. You could almost see his worries about the loneliness of travel fall away in that moment.
Too bad for him, I guess.
2. Atlas Had Shrugged
My man's a gap-year kid. English, too, like me. He's so goddamned fresh you can practically smell the aeroplane on him. Recently cropped hair marks him out from the raggedy crowd, and small beads of sweat are starting to drip down beneath his curt sideburns, trailing glistening lines across the patches of whiter skin that've been newly exposed by the barber's clippers.
Sat there, all heat-reddened and fleshly, youth positively beaming from him, he makes me go cold with envy.
'So, what's good to do around here?' he says.
'Depends what you like, really. Some good places to drink in this area; all very tourist friendly. The whole country is, to be honest. What's your guidebook saying?'
'Oh, you know. Grand Palace. Walk around for ambience. Some restaurant that serves roast duck...'
'The duck is pretty good...'
'Yeah, but I'm not really here for food. I mean, is Bangkok worth staying around, I guess is my question?'
I blink at him, swelling with something like pity for the question. All around us are faces contorted with pleasure, distended with joy, creaking from boozy smiles and frenzied flirting. Dozens of undreaming eyes, distant and drunk, catching glances of each other with blank stares, thoughtless relish. I see desire swelling into subhuman snarls of need, and I see alcohol stoking boundless passions, so many gross libidos gorging themselves on each other's cheapened meat in a fleshly dance of sweat and saliva and semen.
Weaving through the street-stalls and tourist bars, I see pleasure tugging at people like a master puppeteer, jerking them this way and that: intimidating pleasures, unpleasant pleasures, hard-throated pleasures, raucous and wailing. Drinks-for-pleasure, drugs-for-pleasure, flesh-for-pleasure, so many bars teeming with slim young women-of-the-night, all of them calling towards holiday-makers for the cash-fuelled 'good time,' sultry eyes alight with a dead corporate sparkle.
The entire pheromonal throng.
'Definitely,' I say. 'The drinking's good here. Nightlife, that is. Look around. Best places in Thailand to have a good time. More expensive than elsewhere, but fuck it: nothing compared to the UK. My advice would be to give it a few days here, sleep off the jet lag, absorb the flavour of the city at night. Then head south, get there in time for the Full Moon Party. How long you out for?'
'A few months,' he says. 'Meeting some friends soon down on the islands - Full Moon Party, as you say. They've been doing the whole Australia scene for the last few months. We're all starting university in October, so got to be back by then.'
'Yeah. Life fucking waits for you alright, doesn't it? So what university are you going to?'
'Durham. Should be good, hopefully.'
The world of the traveller is small indeed. 'Nice place, Durham,' I say. 'I actually went there. A good few years ago now, though.' I light a cigarette and draw deep, swelling with smoke and nostalgia. 'For most people then it wasn't their first choice. Lots of Oxbridge rejects.'
I don't know why I say this; but it spills incontinently from me, like a pathetic confession.
'Ah yeah,' he says, affably. 'Well I did think about applying to Cambridge but in the end didn't bother. You're supposed to do two essays a week there, or something ridiculous. How about you?'
'Yeah. Oxford. Messed up the interview. But Durham was great.'
In its way. At least there were plenty of others there who, like me, were still sore from their own Oxbridge rejections. We consoled ourselves with three heady years of alcohol and ambition. Then, so sudden, that life ended, and in the meantime Atlas had shrugged, numbers had tumbled, and the high-flying jobs we all thought we were owed began to pour away from our world like oceans from his shoulders.
The world had raised us drunk on desire for a life it would not give.
To my man in Thailand I assume the role of the knowing elder - benevolent and wise, advising him on his future studenthood. After a couple of beers with him I buy us some tequila shots, slam them down on the table, and say "Right! Let's do this!" before knocking one back immediately. He's keen. Of course he's keen. He’s desperate for stories to tell and photos to show.
Go for the pale ones, that's the trick.