REFUGE

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So I’m turning into this strange old hermit, this solitary farang living alone at the bottom of Lion Rock, waylaying tourists like the Guardian of the Valley of Death in Monty Python. 

“Thou shalt not pass unto the sea 

Until you answer answer questions three —

What — is your name?

What — is your quest?

Who — invented the modern world before being blackballed on the money markets, robbed of his patents, bankrupted and written out of the history books???”

People often come down here, usually by the path on the other side of the stream, to sit on the tumbled rocks and stare at the waves and the jet-skis ploughing up the bay. Right now there’s a bunch of young tourists partying on the rocks; their music is French hiphop, dubstep machine-noise, auto-tuned vocals. They’ve probably never heard of Nikola Tesla, so it’s as well they chose the other path down to the sea. 

Often I get into conversations. The other day there was an attractive blonde woman and two guys down on the rocks. I waved, and later she wandered back up the path to have a chat with me. She told me she’d been coming to Lion Rock for years but had never known there was any more to it than the boat-bar. The boxing rings, the huts, my valley, she hadn’t known that any of this was here.

‘It wasn’t,’ I told her. 

She told me that one of the men she was with was her husband, and the other a Canadian friend. A writer — and a brilliant one, she told me — he had become addicted to cocaine in its most addictive form: crack. He had gone through rehab and was holidaying in Thailand to reward himself for his clean state. 

But she worried that when he went back he might slide back into his old ways. Nothing in his life would have changed, apart from the drug use. He might find himself right back where he started. She was wondering if a stay in one of our huts might be good for him. Here, with the trees and the sea and the solitude, he could start writing again. She wanted to know how much it would cost to rent.

I told her she would have to talk to Nueng. There is no standard rate here. People make their own deals. You pay rent, or you work for Lion Rock, or a mix of both. We talked around the idea and I encouraged her. Told her her friend would not be the only one coming here to get off drugs, far from it. Forest fruits and gifts from God don’t count; they are just what you need to take the edge off the transition. Over-smoking might become a problem itself, but not a difficult one to deal with.

She introduced me to her husband and friend, though cautioning me not to say anything about the conversation we’d just had. Leaving, she turned back to give me a warm, lingering hug.

A Chinese tourist, crazy rich Asian type, screams when she sees me and insists on getting a photograph. She says she never believe it until she see it, an English man living like this down here. 

An English painter and his German girlfriend stop by, people I talked with up in the bar a few evenings ago. They admire both my landscaping work and my splendid solitude.

‘It’s just me and the bats and snakes down here,’ I say.

I roll them a joint and we sit on a rock in my zen garden and talk.

Bo asks me if I ever get lonely.

‘I’m a writer,’ I say. ‘I’m looking for lonely. Sometimes it’s not lonely enough.’

Then I quickly put my hand on his arm and say, ‘I don’t mean you, man. Always happy to see you.’

Dawn and dusk are my best times.

It goes in phases, but in fact I meet far more new people than I ever used to when I was living a normal life. People come and go. The vibe changes. Everything flows.

An American in a backwards cap comes wandering past and pauses, looking at me. I say hi and offer him a coffee. We talk about mushrooms. I ask him what he thinks — when we’re tripping are we projecting our imaginations, or seeing more of what’s really there?

He says he thinks it’s the plants trying to talk to us.

Makes perfect sense to me.

Danny and Tom have been around for the past couple of months. Dan’s an old friend of Hoagy’s from Perth; Tom has known him only about as long as I have. These are good, straight-up working Aussie boys in their twenties, construction workers who can work short intense contracts and then take time off. They come here to push themselves and get in shape, and get on top of their more self-destructive habits. They don’t always succeed, do they Danny? Both of them plan to fight once their Muay Thai skills and stamina are at the right level. Tom’s looking a lot tighter than when I first met him. Ten years younger, in fact. 

Both will come by for a coffee and a chat every now and then. Tom woke me up at two in the morning one time, having just got back from his visa run, to see if I’d got some weed. And I didn’t mind at all. He hadn’t had a smoke for nearly 48 hours, after all, and a friend with weed is a friend indeed, as the song says. With both these guys you know that they would help you out too if you needed something. Lion Rock soldiers, as Hoagy would call them.

For the past few weeks a Swedish guy has been coming here almost every day to chill by the sea-edge. He brought a hammock, and set it up under some small trees growing right down on the edge of the big basin of rocks. At first I didn’t spend much time with him because I was always working. The first thing he would do when he arrived, no matter how early, was roll a big joint — and he is a masterful constructor of elaborately engineered joints, I have to say. Then he would be waving it at me and wanting to share, but I was always busy slashing away at the jungle, hauling great tangled mats of vegetation from the tops of big rocks, smashing up jumbles of dead wood under the banana trees, stripping out old roots from the ground. 

‘Don’t you ever give up?’ he asks.

Feeling bad about being aloof, and getting to the point where my clearing operation seemed pretty much finished, I start joining him for a smoke in the afternoon.

I found him a little lugubrious at first, though a nice guy, without doubt. Then, sitting with him one day, feeling bad about smoking so early in the day, I got up and started work on my plan to terrace the slope leading down to the sea — the last part of my project. He immediately stripped off his shirt and joined me, helping me carve out the first terrace. I put some music on and we wielded the hoe together. He knew how to get into a work rhythm, collaborating without unnecessary chatter, just the odd comment when you’re pausing for breath.

We finished the first terrace in a couple of days. I could see the satisfaction on his face as we put the finishing touches, and gave him big high fives. I’m easy to win over: all it takes is a shift with a hoe these days and you’re my friend for life.

After that I hung out with him every day. He was getting into fishing, and we’d have a smoke before he headed down to the rocks to try his luck. After a few days catching nothing, apart from one solitary crab, he suddenly had a good day when he netted six decent fish. He donated a couple to the pot at Lion Rock, and they were aroi maak. He sometimes brought his new Thai girlfriend with him, or the young son and daughter of a friend of his in Patong to try their luck with the rod. He loves the peace and solitude of my valley just as much as I do, and is always conscious and considerate about disturbing my peace, never presuming on my hospitality.

So I started to get to know him, and bit by bit he told me his story.

I’ll call him Stefan. He’s in his early forties, and has been coming to Thailand regularly for nearly twenty years. He started his working life as a bus driver — not a particularly rewarding or enjoyable job, particularly the way people treat you. So in his late twenties he started growing marijuana in his apartment. Quitting his job, and supplementing his earnings with government benefits, he found he could spend about half the year in Thailand. He prevailed on friends in bus companies to fake work records for him. With six months’ employment he could claim a jobseekers allowance for the other six months of each year. Now life had a rhythm. Once he started growing his weed hydroponically, he had another cycle: he would harvest his crop, dry it and sell it, and head East for three months. When he came back, the next crop would be ready. Harvest, sell, go away. And so he went on for years.

His operation grew and kept growing, until the inevitable trouble arrived in the form of three Moslem men who came to his apartment in ski-masks, wielding a gun. They beat him, tied his hands behind his back and put him face-down on the floor, where they tortured him with mock executions for a full hour, before taking his harvest and leaving him in a bloodied, weeping heap in the middle of his living room.

Stefan is no racist, far from it. He is not a Swede, in fact, but a Slav, his parents having migrated from Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, so he knows what it’s like to be an outsider. He grew up with Albanians, and thought he knew at least one of the bastards who robbed and tortured him — a guy called Florim. After the robbery he wanted to kill all Moslems. He even set out with a big knife to kill Florim at one point. 

‘Thank God I didn’t do it,’ he says. ‘Or I wouldn’t be here now.’

But his misfortunes were not over. The trauma had plunged him into a severe depression, which lasted for two years. Two years in his bubble, as he puts it, and during that time, unsurprisingly, his marriage fell apart. 

He was seeing a psychotherapist, and at one point she told him that he needed to release himself from the trauma by visualising a different outcome, one in which he got the upper hand over his tormentors. At the time, he thought this was a ridiculous and childish idea. You can’t just unhappen what happened. 

But a few months later, he spent the night with a woman, and at the end of a glorious night he fell asleep for about half an hour as dawn was breaking. In that short span of delicious sleep, he relieved his ordeal in a dream. Only this time, he turned the tables and pursued the Albanians through the streets before catching and butchering them with his knife. Police who got in the way felt the rage of his blade as well, and before it was over he had killed dozens of them too.

When he woke up from this bloody and exhilarating dream, the girl was still there, sleeping beside him, but something had changed. The trauma was gone. The burden was lifted; he was released. 

He started growing again— and the operation took off even better. This was how he planned to get out of Sweden permanently. He bought himself an apartment in Patong, on Phuket, and continued his rhythm of harvesting and travelling.

And everything was good, until police came to his apartment. Busted, and facing jail time. Probably grassed up by the same scum who robbed him. 

But Stefan is not caving in. He has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. The system moves slowly, and he has not yet been given a court date. In the meantime he is looking for a way to get out of Sweden for good, before the shit comes down. Right now he’s back there to sell his car and his apartment in Malmo. The apartment in Patong may have to be sold as well, to provide cash. But one way or another, unless he is detained, he will get out of Sweden, get out of Europe, and stake everything on his life in Thailand. He doesn’t know how he’ll do for money, but he’ll find a way. God willing, Lion Rock will still be here, God’s gifts will still be giving, and I’ll still be tapping away in the writer’s retreat that I carved out with a machete and a hoe, and a little help from fellow refugees and real friends like Stef. 

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