The hotel is quieter than he expected. The air is sticky and it clings to him while he walks up a grandiose wooden staircase into the foyer. The feeling of perspiration on his legs sends a flutter through his body. He is away he knows - far from home. So far that the air is hot, even on his toes. The foyer is mostly empty and it is dark outside. Instead of walking to the greetings desk he walks around the perimeter of the atrium drinking in the scent of the surrounding greenery. It smells of the tropics. “Excuse me sir,” the lady at the reception calls out, her words dressed in the staccatic accent of the Orient. “May help you?” she continues. Unsure of himself, he proceeds slowly to the counter. Up closer he can see the young woman is dressed in a silk robe. Her skin is magnificently olive, the same tone as the polished maple of the lobby’s service desk. Standing behind the large wooden counter she appears slight.
“I have a reservation under Mr Daniels,” the man says.
“OK, may have your passport sir?”
Quickly he flips out his passport and proffers it to the young woman. Meanwhile, his eyes dart around the lobby.
“You have single room for 21 days… yes?” she asks.
Slowly she hands him back his tattered passport and new room key.
On the street the air has cooled though the night is still humid. As Mr Daniels walks on the side path, tuk-tuks roll past periodically. The street is some distance from the main strip and it does not have the manic feel of Thailand just yet. On the opposite side of the road a local couple walk by with their baby daughter. Their clothes are tattered and they laugh together, playfully teasing the little girl. Ahead, Mr Daniels can see the intersection. Although it is some distance away, he can sense its hurriedness. He imagines the lights, the muddled scent of street food and petrol. It will take him about 15 more minutes to get to the go-go bar and he estimates it will be another 20 minutes before Tutti arrives. Tutti. The thought makes his heart race. He looks across the road for the young local family but they have disappeared down one of the darkened side streets.
Inside the bar there are three people: an overweight American man on his laptop in the corner; the owner of the bar behind the counter; and Tukki sitting alone by a table, drink in hand. Tukki is an old hand of Thailand, a Malay immigrant who emigrated to Phuket 20 years ago. On his face there are many scars, they snake like contours across all of his body - a tapestry of a life hard lived. Sitting on the stool his legs are too short to reach the ground but despite his diminutive stature, there is an aura that encircles him that says: be alert. Many years ago, when he was a young man during his first year in the country, he would beat wayward tourists for his own amusement. And although his years in Phuket have softened him, beneath his innocuous brown eyes lies a dormant malice.
When Mr Daniels walks in there is a slight nod of the head from Tukki. Mr Daniels’ stride is quick, his steps are not measured. He greets Tukki with hidden eyes and a feeble “Hello”. For a night in Phuket the bar is sparse and he struggles to keep his eyes in check for they wander, running from the steady gaze of Tukki who has not yet said hello. Finally, and with certain nonchalance Tukki announces, “OK we go now.” And like that, the pair make off into the night.
The main street attacks the senses. Clashing music explodes out of tiny bars while hundreds of people walk up and down the esplanade. In Phuket, there is always an eclectic crowd. Amidst it all Mr Daniels walks on, his hands unusually clammy, his heart pounding. Normally, the site of this place and its marvels would stir inside him an excitement; a certain affirmation of wanderlust. But tonight his mind is travelling and it cannot keep still. “Where do we go to?” he asks Tukki, realising too late that he is mimicking the man’s poor command of the English language.
“Hoola Bar – we need to go see Big Boss first.”
Big Boss. The word is seedy to Mr Daniels. He feels like he is in a gangster film - a walk-in role in a cheesy movie. But this is reality he tells himself. “This is what you need,” he whispers. And amidst this ambivalence he reaches for a familiar passage in time; a thought whose edges have blurred; a much maligned memory.
Sandra. She was tall and manly, and by most accounts objectively ugly. Her hair was curly and golden - this was one of the nice things about her. Her face was an assortment of irregularities: a crooked tooth protruding from lopsided lips, a mismatched hairline standing over an asymmetrical barrage of freckles. At six foot one she loomed large over him. Even her voice far outweighed his. Her elements were emasculating but the way she spoke to him buried her ugliness. The tone of voice; the way her words would trickle through his ears and into his body warming his skin. She was the only one who had loved him, one of the few that mistook his awkwardness accepting it for what it was and seeing humility behind it. Behind his thick-rimmed glasses she saw a softness in his eyes that few could interpret. He often wondered how she could see beauty in his strange, elongated face. Years later, long after she had passed on, he would often ring her mobile phone number. “Hello! You’ve reached Sandra!” He would hold the phone at arms length imagining the path of her voice. Angry it was still so vibrant, so alive. Wondering why it continued to travel in spaces, through lines, blasting into the air with pizzazz and fervor. A spectre that would not die.
Walking away from the clatter of Phuket’s main esplanade he is aware that he is thinking of her. It is ten minutes before they are at the coast. The houses that line the beachside are much nicer than what is around the town center. Shielded away from the hotel district the coastline is peppered with villas. As they turn the corner Tukki points to a little hut perched precariously atop the cliff side. “There,” he motions toward it. “Inside, the boss will tell you. I go now – bye.” At that moment Mr Daniels understands there is no real option other than to enter this strange little hut. The battle between the serenity of the setting, and the clatter of his mental state reaches a climactic point and it is as if the world halts. For a moment all that exists is the ocean in its darkness, and the little house into which he must go. The drone of waves against the shore grows louder and louder until it is time to step forward.
Inside, the house is small and very wooden. Mr Daniels walks into the living room with trepidation. “Hello… I am a friend of Mr Tukki’s,” his voice is loud and it lingers in the silence, searching for someone to startle. The living room is sparse, the furniture sleek and grand. The only light comes from the open kitchen. Outside he can hear voices and ever so slightly he creeps toward the courtyard. The smell of kerosene enters his nose and at once he knows he is in the company of Westerners. Every step forward the voices grow louder. American he thinks. No Canadian maybe. Is that a European accent? His mind is juggling thoughts, some of which slip through the cracks shattering inside his head. Others grip him, rooting him to the spot until he realises there is no turning back. Two feet from the courtyard door and he can make out silhouettes. He should turn back he thinks. But through the doors lies a forbidden hope.
“HELLO I AM A FRIEND OF TUKKIS!” he announces right as he steps through the sliding doors. Three sets of eyes stare back at him and for a second he thinks he has the wrong house. In front of him there is a man and two women, all of them Western looking. “Well, we’ve been expecting you – sid down why don’t cha!” male says in a slow American drawl. “Ya know, that Tukki sure knows how to pick em! Now tell me – why you here son?” Staring back at the smirking trio Mr Daniels searches for his usual unassuming words but they are out of reach. Quite abruptly and to the surprise of himself he blurts, “I want a girl… I want a girl I can fuck.” The words are tinny. They rattle around the air fooling no one. In the resulting silence heat rushes to his face and shame drapes him, hugging him tight until he feels his throat well up. The girls next to the little American raise their eyebrows and look at him more seriously – as though this had been what they had been waiting for. The little American man’s moustache curls and behind his moon shaped glasses grey eyes hold their gaze. He does not move for almost a minute until suddenly he erupts with a thunderous laughter. “Alright son settle the heck down! Now tell me what ya want – I got fair gals, dark gals, young gals, old gals, hell I even got boys too…. So tell me, what’s it gonna be?” For a long moment silence engulfs the little hut until the music of the night rises up outside. Crashing waves meet the whistle of the evening wind in a strange harmony. Inside, Mr Daniels sings a song of desperation. For it, he is given a piece of paper with a name and a map.
Downtown, past the tropical coastline are the shanty-towns. They lie just past the lip of the tourist zone, hiding out of sight of the vacationers. These tiny communities are made up of shoddy dirt tracks lined by street vendors selling whatever they can; food, services, cigarettes, anything. Illuminated by the faint lights of these mini stalls, Mr Daniels walks slowly, trying to follow shoddy directions from the crumpled piece of paper in his hands. Around the corner a young boy of about five years sitting next to his crumbling, shack of a house stares at Mr Daniels. His gaze exudes a curious recognition. It is much later in the night now and the maze has become quiet. There is an eerie silence hanging in the humidity and for every step Mr Daniels takes he has to force himself to not turn back. The safety and comfort of his hotel beckons but alas, he is a man he tells himself – a real man. Up ahead he can make out the faint outline of a building. It is incongruent amidst the collection of rickety trailer stalls that surround it. Looking at the piece of paper in front of him he knows he has reached his destination.
Outside the house he sits and waits. There is no difference in entering now, or later he tells himself. It is the same result. But still, every time he makes a start to step forward his heart begins to race and a little voice screams deep within him. And oh you should hear the obscenities; they are true and real and for a long time Mr Daniels can only look at the crumbled façade in front of him, lamenting both his life and the situation at hand. After an hour of anguish he makes out movement from the tiny window. Briefly, behind a small square window a head floats, perfectly framed. It is the head of a young local woman. Her skin is darker than most of the other girls around, and it looks smooth and unblemished. Her face is a perfect symmetry of petit features. He is too far away to make out her eyes but from the sound of her harmonic voice he knows they are filled with the timidities of the poor. She is beautiful he can tell. For 10 long minutes he sits and watches her eat. Even in the most mundane of actions she is painfully graceful. For a long time he continues to watch her, wanting to walk in and make himself known. Inside of him his heart feels heavy and dull, and every time he makes a start to enter the house it sinks sharply. This is it he tells himself. Time to be a man.
Early the following morning, back at his hotel room Mr Daniels lights up a cigarette on the balcony. Outside it is still dark. From the sky thick droplets of rain fall, yet underneath the shelter of the awning it is strangely serene. It has been years since he has sparked up a cigarette and into the driving rain he blows a thick pillow of grey smoke for old times sake. He thinks of Sandra again and the memory is strangely coherent. For once it wreaks not havoc but an odd wave of satisfying nostalgia. He thinks of the young local girl in the shanty-town miles away, glad that he did not meet her.