Where does this begin?
On one of the numberless blue mornings, climbing out of a sticky bed to the blare of cicadas? Emerging from the little bungalow set amid a riotous profusion of bougainvillea a hundred metres from the pulsing heart of Patong. Somewhere the smell of fish being barbequed, the laughter of Thai girls in the lady room. Ahead of me a large black butterfly careers down the twisting path towards the pool. Just another day in the garden of earthly delights.
Perhaps earlier, dropping, dropping, dropping ever lower through monsoon storm clouds, the interior of the aircraft lit up by the white light of lightning strikes, every passenger holding their breath, fingers strangling the arm rests until… until finally breaking through the cloud cover to see Bangkok below; a million lights spattering a dark plain. The thump of landing transmitted through thighs and back as we hit the flooded runway. Somewhere behind me a frantic passenger releases the involuntary pentacostal cry “Thank you God!” We all exchange looks, he speaks for all of us.
No. here is where I choose to start.
There is a scraping sound. It is 6am. I stand next to my car, eyes raking the darkness trying to make out what it is. To get a fix on where it has come from. Is it best to clamber back in the car? To lock the doors and drive swiftly away? Just past the white bread van I see a head momentarily visible before it ducks back down. I stand my ground, waiting to see what will happen next, he’s a good way off and the scraping continues. It’s a wise choice. From the ominous emerges the innocuous. It’s Glenn.
“Shit Glenn, you nearly gave me a heart attack.” Glenn approaches with his trolley cart, shovel in hand. He has a dipping gait, testament to a withered leg, his shovel gives the regular scrape I heard. Part tool, part walking stick. He is surprisingly short, and stooped when we get up close. A small man with a big head, topped with a carroty crewcut… the Grecian 2000 already growing out. He has a fierce look in his eye. “That you, Simon?” He remembered, it had been a while since I had seen him. “Sure is. I’m doing the pastry run. We’ve you been?” I knew immediately it was the wrong question.
An hour later, as I drive home I am playing through the details, reordering them in my mind.
The sun-soaked land, of wide white smiles and the smell of coriander. A place where laughter is the common language, where turquoise seas lick at golden beaches, where party politics and the PC police, women’s lib and holy rollers are as alien as ice bergs. Glenn had wandered the length of Thailand for three months. From Hat Yai the wild border town which fed the sexual needs of the repressed Malaysian Muslims. All the way up to Chiang Rai where opium farms fed the world's hunger to vague out. He had watched the Muay Thai bouts in the Lumphini Gardens in Bangkok, visited the King's palace in Hua Hin and finally settled in the little seaside city of Pattaya. It was here that he struck gold. This was the place where 20 quid got a man digs, food, and beer. And for just a little more maybe a girlfriend from Kaen Khon... yes all this cost less than he spent living in Croyden and keeping Mr Tesco’s carparks clean.
It was just the story so often told. ‘What I did in the holidays’. But there was something more. Something that wouldn’t let me rest. Glenn in his crippled glory was somehow heroic. The Croyden Odysseus sailing the wine dark seas, pulling open a curtain that had, for an hour, filled my head with tropical brilliance. The dank autumnal streets I drove through were no more than the blinkers put on draught horses to keep me focused on the way ahead. And the way ahead was predestined and predictable. A procession of days mapped out by mortgages and career, football scores and children’s parties. No detours. No time out for good behaviour. Then one day you wake up and discover that you are Glenn, or a variant of him. Little more than a metallic scrape in a supermarket carpark somewhere in the dark hours of yet another wet morning.