When Dawan was born, Great Aunt Kung looked at her and said, ‘She is my successor. She has the gift.’
In her mother’s Cambodian culture, there must always be a ghost-keeper in the family. Blessed or cursed with second sight, the ghost keeper’s role was to perform rituals and exorcisms, appease spirits and tell fortunes according to Indian astrology. Great Aunt Kung was the current holder of this office. Growing up, Wan knew that she didn’t want this gift or the role which went with it. She was afraid of ghosts, and wanted as little to do with them as possible.
Her father, who was Chinese, was big in Supanburi. He ran all the gambling houses; he had one foot in local government and the other in the Mafia. He was Mr Big, Mr Supan, and he showered the proceeds on his daughter, whom he kept like a bird in a cage. She could have anything she wanted, and her mother existed only to serve her. If he found his daughter doing anything to help around the house, whether washing dishes, sweeping the floor, or folding the washing, he would beat his wife, the meekest, mutest, most downtrodden creature you could imagine, for allowing his daughter to get her hands dirty.
No wonder Wan turned out the lazy, uneducated, twisted little thing she was. At school she was untouchable because of who her father was, and no teacher could make her do anything. There were a number of kids in a similar position, whose fathers were ‘big’ in local government, business or crime, and so the school decided that the best they could do was create a separate class for them so that they weren’t distracting the other students. They called it the Special Class. Wan would laugh uproariously as she told me about her days in the Special Class, the things they’d done, climbing out over the wall to buy snacks, speaking to the teachers however they wanted, stealing the exam papers in advance of the test. There were lots of escapades and not much learning. Those were without question the happiest times of her life.
At home, she avoided the teaching of great-aunt Kung. Often she absented herself at the appointed times, if her father wasn’t around. And the golden cage didn’t save her from rape at the age of eleven by a neighbour, which she could never tell her father about because her mother would be held responsible and who knows what he would do to her then? So she had to bear the pain alone.
Ghosts frequent trees, temples, abandoned houses and burial grounds, so as soon as she was old enough she ran away to the city, and ended up in Pat Pong, working in a khatoey bar where most of the girls were boys. Not all, though: that was its selling point; the name of the bar was ‘GUESS’. Runaway Wan was taken in by the ladyboys, who liked her and showed her the ropes. So it was natural that some of their mannerisms should rub off on her, and her persona become a salute to them. She adopted those angular gestures, the ironic hands, the gaily swinging arm – and she new how to make them laugh, could be very gay, very funny, always pushing the joke, staccato laughter peppering her speech until it was almost incomprehensible. They laughed all day and all night. She had her hair dyed blonde, spiky as a cartoon, one side shaved, growing back in her native black, giving her a two-tone, punkish look. She was making plenty of money. She got her tongue pierced and a stud in her nose. On her back she got a big tattoo of a dragon which was also a fish, or a fish which was also a dragon. On her left shoulder: a heart transfixed by a needle, and the legend ‘MY LIFE’, in blue.
Those were good days. Pat Pong was her Bohemia, her release from the dreary cage of Supanburi. She found having sex with farangs no great hardship – what counted was the excitement of scoring, the money in hand, the coup of getting bar-fined as you walked back into the bar from the previous excursion; the feeling of success and independence. For a while she was the new star on the scene.
A ‘bar fine’ is the fee you pay the bar when you take a girl. You negotiate the girl’s fee separately with her. The fact that in her early days Wan sometimes ‘bar-fined’ three or four times in a night gave her enormous pride rather than any distress. She liked being in demand. She was successful. She enjoyed sex for real, and was promiscuous by nature. She loved all the funny stories that arose from working and living at the bar, and the feeling of belonging. She had a new family.
And she smoked. In her parlance ‘smoking’ meant only one thing: nights on the bubble — crystal meth. She knew she loved it the first time she tried it. It was like a miracle; when she smoked she could no longer hear the voices in her head.
A drug-affair is not a love affair. It’s a triangle: you, her, and the drug. You’re in love with the drug, not with her. It’s a chemical marriage.
With Wan, the drug was there right from the start, and there until the end. There was napalm on her breath, and slivers of bamboo under her nails. She was my naked jungle cat, crawling scalded from the flames. Her friends were lemurs in leather, drug-bunnies in dresses, cat-boys miaowing and arcing their tongues in identical evening gowns.
The games we played were played in her world. I could never dream of bringing her into mine. If we went out, we went back to the bars, never anywhere smart, and that was her preference too. We would go to Pat Pong sometimes to see her old friends, and seeing her walking down the soi – tottering on her heels and swinging her arm in that cocky, comical way of hers – always made me smile. She tugged at my heart-strings. Guttersnipe, urchin, little star.
As for my friends, only the ones I was making music with had the privilege of meeting her, since she was sometimes at my place when they came over. They treated her nicely, of course — the one friend who ignored her, as if she was part of the furniture and not worth talking to, never got invited to my house again. A litmus test: let’s see how you deal with my piece-of-trash girlfriend.
But of course they didn’t understand. Who could understand someone like me, blowing my life away with the help of this glittery gutter trash? On one level it was my backlash against the milieu I found myself in, all these educated know-nothings, these programmed ‘teachers’ with nothing to teach. And against all the women I’d ever been with, who never wanted anything but more. What Wan was doing to me was really no different from what any woman had ever done to me; but it was more fun. My message to the world was: keep it. Give me guttersnipes and lowlifes like Wan. I’ll love the lowest of the low.
Well. I make no pretence of making any sense. She nearly killed me, nearly drove me mad, but I’ll tell you this, women I’ve loved: she will always have a place in my heart. A dank little place; more than you.
She was endless trouble, though. There was rebellion in every pore of that girl, and if she couldn’t touch the people who hurt her she’d take it out on whoever was available. At root it was all about her father, and if you crossed her you became in her mind the Tiger of Supanburi, and were guilty of all his crimes. All men, beneath the surface, represented her father, and at a deep level all she wanted was to be served by them. Although she had me in her grip, still I crossed her more than any boyfriend she’d had. Of course it drove her crazy.
I maybe ting-tong, says Wan, but I not crazy! That was after she’d checked herself into a hospital to get off the meth, and then panicked and called me to get her out. She was right. It was not a good place. There were people in there who had no way of getting out. People who been dumped and forgotten by their relatives. Top floor of a big hospital, locked in, clothes confiscated. I had to pay her out and go and find some clothes for her. The only place nearby was a trendy little shop selling very strange clothes. I ended up getting her a glittery T-shirt and a pair of big clown-pants, very apt for dredging her out of a loony bin.
She was a stress-head, narcissistic victim, psychic urchin, ghost-fugitive, and often the idea of her appealed to me more than the reality. I’d find myself missing her, but when I was with her I didn’t know what it was I missed. She would turned up uninvited when I was busy, writing or mixing music or ploughing through school work. She’d interrupt recording sessions. Wan, I’d say, we’re trying to do something here. She’d call me up, having a quiet night at the bar, bored or annoyed with some rival, and ask if she could come round. If I said no, she’d come anyway, and a couple of times we were fighting and screaming on the doorstep, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s having people muscle in on me when I’m working.
Unless they’re bringing me ice, of course.
I was always on the verge of getting rid of her. But breaking up with her would have meant breaking up with meth. In both cases, that would have to come. But not yet. Whenever there was strain between us, she called for Du, our dealer. Whenever we were on the edge, she called for Du. Sometimes, my fury rose almost to the point of violence; but she called for Du, and everything was all right for a while longer.
But she was a spirit, unselfconscious in her high-waisted shorts, stack heels and tattoos. She was crazy, borderline schizophrenic, self-hurter, clinger… but I liked her precisely because she was trash, someone with no stake, no complacency, no pretension. She was what she was: nothing could or would change her. She was real — living right on the edge, day to day, hand to mouth. Bar-fine by bar-fine. Farang by farang. Nothing between her and the drop. Try to save her if you can. I tried, and look what happened. Drowning girl pulls man under. She doesn’t want to be saved, just wants some company as it all goes down. Someone to hold as she goes under. So you go with her then. Down into the deep pond, the dark waters of Bangkok.
I once stayed awake for a whole week.
I could say, in pursuit of the sublime.
I could say, flirting with disaster has always been my thrill.
I could say, vertigo. The voice of the emptiness beneath you. When I hauled that first lung-full of rippling smoke, the rushing in my ears was the rush of falling.
Wan was doing to me what the British did to China. The Qing Dynasty which had ruled China for a quarter of a millennium was brought down not by armies or gunboats, but by opium. The British wanted Chinese tea and silk, porcelain and brocades, but the Chinese would accept only silver in payment. When offered British manufactures including scientific instruments, the Emperor, announced that he ‘set no value on things strange or ingenious, and I have no use for your country’s manufactures’.
So the British started bringing in industrial quantities of opium from British East India Company’s factories in Bengal and Malwa and selling it to to smugglers and traffickers. In 1835, 35,445 chests – each containing 150 pounds of opium — were sold into China. In the 1830s, opium sucked some 34 million Mexican silver dollars out of China, ushering in a century of chaos and ultimately leading to the complete uprooting and destruction of Chinese society and culture under Mao Zedong.
An addict wasting away in some opium den would never understand that his visions came into existence to reverse the balance of trade between two empires, and ultimately to dismember and eviscerate one of the two. The British were consciously subverting Chinese society and culture using drugs. They succeeded in creating somewhere between four and twelve million peasant addicts — estimates vary. They targeted local officials for addiction and corruption. Corrupt customs officers made fortunes. When the Qing tried to shut down the illegal trade with confiscations and mass arrests in Guangzhou, there was war, followed by territorial and diplomatic concessions, followed by more war. Ultimately China was eaten alive in a feeding frenzy of British, French, American and German corporate imperialists. The Qing Dynasty hung on until 1912, by which time ninety per cent of all males under forty living in coastal regions were addicts. Business was stalling, civil service activity grinding to a halt and China could hardly raise an army any more. It eventually lost control of its ports and was partitioned among the Western powers and opened like an oyster. British, French, Russian, German and Japanese fingers squelched into its flesh to rob the pearls.
Now it was happening to me. I was slowly being eaten alive. The life of a high-functioning drug addict is exhausting. Never mind candles, you’re burning every cell in your body from both ends. You alternate between extended periods of blissful oblivion and deep purgatorial troughs of hyper-fatigue accompanied by nasty bouts of consciousness. As time went on and I got deeper into my addiction — and she got deeper back into hers — we were entering a spiral that could only end with separation, one way or another.
By means of the drug, Wan colonised me. Not that she was consciously trying to destroy me, of course. She benefitted financially and perhaps, as time went on, emotionally, that was all. We both knew. I knew she was using drugs to control me, and she must have known that I would have moved on by now if not for the meth; that only the drug gave her power over me, which she resented. I knew and she knew: the only thing propping us up was the crystal.
And I knew I could have no other source of it. I had learned how dangerous what I was doing was, and about the extensive police entrapment operation. More than once, rumours circulated about particular girls who’d been arrested but released after a few days. There were many cases where addicts had been turned, preserving their freedom in exchange for betrayal, working for the police entrapping foreigners, paid off with as much meth as they needed. Who knew how much of it was being put on the streets by the police in the first place? All of it, conceivably. The police in Thailand are paid a pittance and rely on extortion to survive and prosper. So it was impossible to know who to trust. Wan was well known to the police, and they were increasingly interested in her. She’d be sitting in a street restaurant and a Dog in street clothes would sit down next to her and start tempting her, promising her things. She was perfect, they would say to her. She could make a cut trapping foreigners, and have as much ice as she wanted, and be immune.
What about salary? she’d ask.
Salary? No, no, no. That’s not part of the deal.
Then it’s a shit deal. Work on commission? Fuck you.
You’d get to stay out of jail.
Yeah? You wanna take me now to the station? You want to give me a urine test? OK, let’s go.
We used a masking agent to protect us against urine tests. The test works by dropping a substance into the urine which reacts with the target chemicals and changes colour — with meth, to purple, I’m told. But we bought little bottles of pills which turned your urine a brilliant sky blue, fading through hues of luminous green and gradually back to normal as the effect wore off over several days. Florescent blue urine can be quite a shock the first time you see it coming out of your body. The masking agent was an admission of guilt, but the police had nothing to combat it. The pills were made illegal eventually, giving the police a helping hand in their mission to line their pockets.
I knew Wan and could trust her. I knew how much she hated and feared the Dogs. She would never go over. But the moment I stopped seeing her I would have to give up the drug. So we continued in a turbulent and uneasy truce, worshipping the same god. For all the damage it did to me, it was worse for her.
By this time she had been revelling in her Bohemia for ten years or more. There’d been various boyfriends who’d taken her away for a while, but she always ended up back on the bar scene. She hadn’t been a bar-girl for all of that time. Like many of the girls she used the bars as a dating machine – she was putting herself in the shop window for a nice Western boyfriend. And she’d found one, a bricklayer from England, and married him. She and her husband moved to Supanburi, where Chris got involved with her dad’s business dealings. Girls like Wan are expert in one thing — apart from improvising materials to make bongs that is: stripping men of their money. Through entanglement with Wan and her father, Chris found himself several million baht lighter in the course of about a year. Relationships declined. It all ended with Chris and Wan doing a runner before dawn one morning — the Tiger’s eyes were everywhere. The marriage soon broke up in recrimination and violence. After he beat her up in a bar one night, Wan informed on him as an overstayer. So Chris ended up back in the UK, back to square one with nothing, skinned by the Tiger of Supanburi and his little cub.
And then she was back on the scene. Marriage had helped her to stay off the bubble for several years. Now, with me, she was back on it — and her body couldn’t take much more. She was in decline, drugs and alcohol taking their toll. She had black-outs sometimes. A doctor told her that she had about this much (holding up his little finger) of a liver left. She had problems with her blood, and her heart fluttered.
All her life, she told me, she’d heard voices in her head. Drink and drugs helped to keep them quiet. I don’t know how much that was just an excuse, but I soon began to believe her about the voices. I would be persuaded that she did indeed have a gift of hearing.
My house had a narrow strip of garden separating it from the street – no more than twelve or fifteen feet wide. Apsara had made it beautiful, but now it was thickly overgrown, creating a barrier of vegetation. On the street were a row of food-vendors who served the school-children and students who swarmed the soi every afternoon. Opposite was a condo with security guards. Before long, these people were all talking about me and Wan and what was going on in my house.
One security guard in particular had been seen talking to my maid and my ex-girlfriend. We told Du about it, and he dealt with the guard with a simple expedient. On his way out from our place, Du simply stopped his motorbike in the middle of the street, took out his phone and snapped a photo of the guard, flashed him a sinister smile, and drove off. That was all he needed to do. We never saw that guy again.
I fired my maid and changed the locks. Walking with Wan past the vendors I saw the evil looks these women fired towards her. Then one evening when the kids and students had all trickled away, and Du had brought our supplies, Wan heard voices from the soi. I couldn’t see, from the upstairs window, whether there was anyone there or not, because of the banana leaves and other overgrown vegetation in my garden, forming a wall of green. I couldn’t hear anything at all. But Wan said she could hear them talking about us.
One voice, with an Isaan accent — like Apsara or my maid — was describing in detail our procedures, how Wan would prime the bubble and call me – ‘Baby?’ – to partake. They imitated her voice, and talked insultingly about the noises she made when we fucked.
Still I could hear nothing. Was this Wan’s paranoia, the voices in her head, or was it real? I couldn’t tell, and neither, she admitted honestly, could she. She didn’t always know what was real and what was inside her head.
I was ready to go out and confront them, ready to tell them, if necessary, that I would have them evicted from the street outside my house, as under Thai law I could, when Wan said, ‘Wait. They calling police. Stay here. We hide everything.’
Better safe than sorry, I did what she said. We went through the rooms, wiping down surfaces and checking for clues. We hid our latest bong and our ice and other necessary paraphernalia inside the air-conditioning units upstairs. We turned off all lights.
We were still upstairs when Wan said, ‘They’re coming. Go downstairs.’
I headed down the stairs and as I walked down I heard a loud crash from behind me.
‘You OK, baby?’
Silence. I went back.
She was lying on her side on the floor, arms out in front of her, jerking and twitching in a full-scale epileptic fit.
As I crouched beside her, I heard a siren very faintly in the distance.
Her eyes were rolling up into her head, her eyelids flickering. I made sure she was in a safe position on her side. I reached a pillow from the bed and put it under her head.
I could not believe that the siren was for me. Why would the police do that on such a routine piece of business? But as I tended for Wan I was aware of the sound growing closer and louder until it was right outside. Red and blue lights raced around the walls and ceiling inside the room. I stole a quick look out of the balcony window and could see the roof of the cruiser with the bank of revolving lights on top of the cab. Wan was still twitching on the floor. There was no way I was going to open the door to the police now, not with Wan like this. I lay down behind her, putting my body against hers, holding her and whispering in her ear, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, I’m here…’ and stayed like that until the fit subsided.
When she was still, I lifted her onto the bed and made her comfortable, eyes closed and breathing evenly. Then I looked around. The lights had stopped. I went to the window — the cruiser was gone. Everything was quiet. I went downstairs, peering out of the windows, but could see nothing between the banana leaves and the hedge. I heard nothing.
I went back up. Wan opened her eyes. ‘Somebody coming?’ she asked. I told her they’d gone. I lay down and held her, and we slept.
Next day Wan asked around and found out that the police, when they arrived, had asked the vendors about me — who lived in the house, where was he from? When they found out I was British, they changed their minds about hammering on the door. Apparently they couldn’t afford to transgress the law about unjustified searches. If they searched the house and found nothing, I could sue. I guess they feared the influence of the British embassy.
That didn’t mean I was safe, of course. Wan told me that they would watch the house, wait for me to come out and nab me for a urine test. I was nervous leaving the house for work on Monday morning. I dressed in my best suit for work for the next few weeks, trying to intimidate them. I complained to my landlady about the vendors (not telling her, obviously, about the nature of the trouble they were making for me). One day walking home from the canal there was a Dog speaking to one of the vendor ladies. Seeing me she turned a submissive smile my way; I stared back at her with a stony expression behind my dark glasses. I knew this spot was their livelihood, but I didn’t care. I wanted them out. It never happened, but they were warned off at least. I gave notice and got out of that house within the month, and when I left they were still there. I lived in a hotel for the rest of the year.
My problems with Wan were always that she wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t get any time to myself. Time to think, to write, even to do my school work. I was always liable to be interrupted, and she would rarely take no for an answer.
I believed her, now, about the voices. What had happened seemed to me to be proof positive. At the very least, she could hear things I couldn’t. She told me they were calling the police, and we cleaned up and hid the stuff. Then she told me they were coming, and collapsed — and only then I heard the siren. At the very least, it seemed that when she was afraid her sense of hearing grew preternaturally sharp.
Later, lying in bed in the Omni Hotel, I asked her if she ever saw ghosts, and she told me — Every day. Her mouth pulled down at the corners by all the grief of the world. Every day.
That’s why she couldn’t live alone, I realised, why she could never be left alone.
Where do you see them? I asked her, and she laughed, ruefully. Everywhere, she said.
The Omni Hotel was — still is — a strange, old, thousand-room hotel far down Soi 4, known as Soi Nana, one of the sex-trade hubs in Sukhumvit. The enormous lobby, with its central well overlooking the sub-level, was as busy as a street. The clientele at the hotel was mainly Indians, Arabs, Russian hookers, and old American guys with cropped white beards, military and CIA hang-overs from the Viet Nam war, I reckoned. I rented a small apartment consisting of a bedroom and living room, a little kitchen. Not bad floor space for the money. Everything was old, but the furniture was good quality, heavy wooden armchairs with curved arms, which were pretty comfortable. I kind of liked it — it was shabbily retro, built in the seventies, with warrens of low-ceilinged corridors, overflowing laundry rooms, a gym full of rusted machinery… a knocking shop, only a couple of hundred meters from the sex emporium of Nana Plaza. Plenty of porn videos getting made in the bedrooms and living rooms of the Omni Hotel — something for everyone, no doubt.
Wan and I continued playing our games. For a while it was OK and then the spiral kicked in again. I was fighting for more space, more air, and Wan was clinging and kicking and trying to monopolise my attention. Something had to give soon, and one night I threw her out and she ended up trying to slash her wrists. The first I knew of it was when I started getting threatening messages from her number — her uncle, who was allegedly a judge of some kind. Death threats from a judge — that’s an achievement of kinds. She came back even after that… I gave her hell for cutting across her wrists rather than with the veins. You can’t even do that right, I told her. I was angry and cold. It was just another aggressive, manipulative act. She’d tried it before with me, back when we were in my house on Soi 23. She ate some toilet cleaner — not enough to make her very ill, in fact, but I dealt with her tenderly, taking her to hospital and bringing her home, buying her shark’s fin soup because she had a craving for it, tucking her up in bed and caring for her. But now I was just bored by all this drama.
I kill myself five times already, she told me.
Five times, huh? And no luck?
She laughs. No luck, she says. You see me right here, don’t you? I alive!!
Yeah baby. You alive.
And she was. For all her fucked-upness, still alive and kicking. That’s what I loved about that weird twisted little life-force, that unique little instability, that flicking and flailing filament, kicking and spitting and laughing and dancing naked on a stage and mincing around in her fuck-me shoes.
Ever thought of getting some ‘fuck you’ shoes? I asked her.
But Wan is Wan and all alone and ever more shall be so.
Except not like this. The time was coming to an end. I was going to have to go. Time to wake up or die. And Wan’s time in her Bohemia was running out pretty fast now. She was trying to give up drinking. I’d told her, all along, it’s the alcohol that’ll get you in the end. Her doctor was telling her the same thing. So she was trying to give it up, but I knew it was never going to happen. And she was never going to make it on her own. I was checking out to save myself, and without a man to take care of her, the only options really were the death of a drug addict, here in Bangkok, on the streets of Nana or Pat Pong, or crawling back to her family and saying goodbye to Bohemia.
It was coming. Her ghosts were missing her. All her sad ghosts were calling her from the province. As long as she was smoking, or drinking, they were quiet. But you can’t smoke all the time, and the alcohol now, as I’d told her it would, was letting her down hard. I’d seen it before.
Here, little Wan. Smoke some more. Play your game.
Trauma needs drama, I know.
Shouting and screaming is better than voices inside your head.
I get it.
That’s my trouble.
But here. Smoke. Then let’s have some silence, OK?
We’ll be quiet together.
In the Omni Hotel, the televisions have a closed circuit channel where you can watch the lobby. Kind of a cool feature, especially for paranoid drug-addicts.
We were sure the police had been staking out the lobby. Standing out among the Arabs in their robes and the Russian hookers, these days there was always some solid Thai guy with a phone and the right hair-cut sitting on one of the sofas, and his eyes would flick at us as we passed. Probably nothing to do with us — God knows what went on in that hotel, I’m sure they had bigger fish than me and Wan swimming around in that stacked up concrete pool.
But we got into the habit of turning on the CC channel while we waited for Du, and keeping it on while we smoked. It was hypnotic. A four-way split of the lobby. Constant traffic of people. Hookers heading out. Arabs in robes. Flick the channel to the doors out to the carpark at the back.
Ghost images. Charcoal and silver. Fuzzy, fizzing phantoms.
Smoke and stare. Hallucinate within that framework.
Who’s coming, out of the electric murk? What figures forming?
Seeing police everywhere.
I left the country. I had to, to get away from her and the meth. Left the country to get back to the world from this strange place I’d got myself into. Sitting in the top of a thousand room hotel hallucinating phantom police on CCTV, motionless with a naked girl beside me. No longer distinguishable from a dream. A static, looped dream. Phasing like the image on the screen. Hardly there. Nerves popping with static, mind a hollow chamber twitching with interference.
The hollow cheek, the writhing tongue.
So I packed my bags and got out of Bangkok. It was the only way. To break an addiction you have to change your life, your surroundings. I’d been on meth for at least two years. My mind was so scrambled I wasn’t even sure exactly how long. Finally, I had to face the long task of putting myself back together. Bangkok had chewed me up and now it was time for it to spit me out. A friend had moved to Vietnam and I went over to visit him, liked it, and decided to move. I rented a little house in not for from the centre of Saigon, went back to Thailand to collect my stuff, and moved, with two suitcases and a cardboard box containing my Fostex studio monitors.
I didn’t go far; to Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam — Saigon. I had friends there, and planned to take some time, let the chemicals leach out of my body and my mind, get myself back on track, and then look around and decide what to do. I had no job to go to and hadn’t even thought about visa requirements — but I found a little house in District 3, and that’s where I went to start again, to start again again, the repeating pattern of my life.
The house was in an alley behind a Buddhist pagoda, which provided the soundtrack to my new life. Every morning the young monks would welcome the day with drums and chanting. The sound would start at a quarter to four in the morning, with an almost inaudible roll of hands on a drum. Then a pause. Then again, a fraction louder. A thin, high bell or triangle. A pause, slightly shorter this time. Another, deeper drum, and now a cockerel sounding, nearby – and another, further away. At the peak of the crescendo, sometimes the novices would join in, crowing like cockerels to mark the city dawn.
It never woke me if I was sleeping, but this was by no means always the case. Often I was awake all night, usually mixing music in a tiny roof-room, finishing off tracks I’d made in my hotel room in Bangkok. If I was awake for the dawn chorus, I would forget about sleep till later. The Vietnamese get to work early, and by five the roads were full of bikes and my alleyway busy with people, clattering metal pots and women calling and laughing. Often when I emerged and walked to the street for cigarettes or water or fruit, I’d find the temple a hive of activity, tables being laid out for a festival or a screen and chairs being set up for a televised lecture by a famous monk. For Tet and other holidays the street would be hung with paper lanterns for its whole length, and big bowls of flowers set out at intervals. It was a lovely place to live and continue my recuperation from all that sordid stuff in Bangkok and the deep chemical hangover it had left me with. I was thin as a rake, and my mind was still hung with clouds I could smell and taste.
I was off the meth but I found out where the dealers hang out on Bui Vien, near Ben Thanh market, and I’d buy a couple of e’s once in a while to pause the interminable aching comedown I was on. One night I took a pill and was about to leave the house when my brain did a somersault inside my skull. I felt it go. Some kind of hot pill, and it ushered me into a psychotic haunted trip which lasted a good twelve hours, not that I had any idea what time it was, or even what day it was — or, in retrospect, whether I was awake or lying unconscious on the tile floor. Wan was there with some strange young friends. Elusive, appearing here and there in the house. Sad and rebellious, she tried to steal my rented motorbike and I wrestled her to the ground outside my front door. Last I saw of her, she was sitting on the roof on top off my skinny three-floor house with a posse of young ghosts, staring at me sulkily.
I came out of that trip with bruises and a broken toe. From that moment on I was convinced that Wan was dead and that I had met her sad, pale little ghost. It was a heavy thing to carry, and I often slept embracing sad memories of my tragic urchin-addict.
I picked up work at the international school outside town. But about a year and half later, after I’d moved to a modern apartment in Thao Dien, Wan tracked me down through Facebook. We even had a chat on Skype. Her face was rounder, now. She had swelled up because of the complications of her blood disease. She was back with her family in Supanburi. They’d set her up with a squid stall at the market. She wanted me to send her money, because she’d spent her profits from the stall and couldn’t buy more squid, and her father would be angry with her.
Every Saturday, she told me, there was a seance at her house where she went into a trance and channelled Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess — or Laksami, as the Thais say. Local people would come and pay twelve baht to ask her a question.
So Aunt Kung had finally got her apprentice. After twelve years of prostitution and drug-addiction, the family had its ghost-keeper, ting-tong and toxic, sicker and more subdued, more co-operative now.
She didn’t mind, she told me. When she woke from her trance she never remembered what anyone asked had her or what she had answered, but she knew she’d been in the presence of gods.
“Mata Lakshmi, the golden-skinned, the four-handed, grant me knowledge of the goal, understanding of the prize. To know, to see, to understand. To be pure, no matter though rooted in filthy water. Seated on a lotus pedestal, white elephants spraying rain, coins cascading from your open hands, Shri of Vishnu, Thuramaga, female energy of the Supreme Being, vision of riches material and spiritual, personification of charm and beauty, all the gods fight for your hand. Grant me righteousness and desire, pour out your golden spirit, free me from ignorance, liberate me from Samsara, this valley of repetition, this veil of tears.
Oh, and if you could let me have the winning lottery numbers this week that would be great.”