PARIJAH DIARIES 10
Chiney has friends, if you know what I mean, and he can get away with some things, to a degree. He would never boast about it, and knows the wisdom of making yourself seem smaller than you are. He had to close during the draconian lockdowns of 2020, and was forced to shed some staff, which broke his heart. But when they brought restrictions back in 2021, coinciding with the vaccine roll-out, he just ignored it. He continued serving alcohol as normal, and certainly didn’t rearrange the tables in observance of social distancing rituals. Occasionally I saw customers following the New Normal restaurant protocols I’d heard about: arriving in masks, removing them once they were seated, and putting them on again if they went to the toilet — all that ring-a-ring-o-roses medieval-style superstition. I assumed they must be tourists participating in the ‘Sandbox’ scheme, vaccinated and quarantined, traced and tested, and committed to remaining within the Phuket ‘Sandbox’ rather than travelling around Thailand. Since I was on the farm in Isan for all of Year Zero, and stayed up here in the jungle for most of Year One, those were the only times I’ve witnessed these absurdities with my own eyes.
Once Chiney became aware that the Filipinos were camping out under the trees half a kilometer from his place, he invited them for an ‘audition’, laid on a lavish buffet for them, and gave them a gig on Sunday nights. This was long before the restrictions on live music were lifted on the island, and as word-of-mouth spread about the secret gig, more and more people started coming — old friends of the band and new. It was a life-saver for them, as well as for the restaurant, pulling in enough people each Sunday, Chiney told me, to cover the monthly salary of two of his eight employees. Once or twice I saw a police car cruising slowly along the jungle soi, just scouting around to see what was what, but Chiney never had any trouble with them. The only time police ever come to Chiney’s restaurant is to have dinner. On the house, of course.
Weekdays were still very quiet, but now he only needed to make enough in the week to cover power and water and his other overheads. He laid out money on new gear for the band, mixer, speakers and mics, to showcase their modern acoustic sound, with two guitars and three superb voices underpinned by Yam’s bass and Mia’s electronic ‘slaptop’, knitting together into a nice dry rhythm section. They’d always invite me up to sing two or three songs with them towards the end of the night, and I’ve never sung with such a cool band. They let me sing ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley, which everyone seems to know these days since it was in some movie. A favourite last song was ‘Who Knows?’ by Protoje, with Kyle doing the dub vocals on the verses and me and Mia swooping in on the choruses, bluesing up the reggae and changing the words in Chiney’s honour:
Who knows? Who knows, who knows, who knows…
I just go where the trade wind blows
Sending love to my friends and foes
And I’m free
To be chillin’ here with Chinee
Jah provide all my wants and needs
I got the sunshine rivers and trees
“And I think we know what green leaves he’s talking about,” says Mia.
And so it was that later the Filipinos were sitting on my wide terrace with the ocean laid out below us, smoking and unwinding after the gig. A necklace of squid boats blazed out across the horizon like city lights in the distance. The whole Filipino crew was there, including all of the musicians and Kittiya and two or three of their other friends. With us was an English-Thai girl who had taken a shine to the band and liked to come up on stage to sing a song or two in a fashionable off-key style I rather liked. She was attractive, very self-assured, and already financially successful in her early twenties, having given up a tennis career to go into business. At one point she’d asked one of the girls, Mia I think, whether she was vaccinated — I don’t know why because I wasn’t following their conversation — but there was a moment’s awkward silence framing Mia’s softly spoken, “Nooo,” and shake of the head.
The girl’s confusion was understandable, since when Chiney had given them the gig the band had needed a new name, with Kyle and Yam included in the line-up. Mia had had the name ‘The Marijahs’ vaguely in mind for some time — as in a conjunction of ‘Maria’ and ‘Jah’, pronounced ‘Maria’ but with a secret spelling — and now for some reason they settled on ‘The Vaccinated Marijahs’ as a joke. Too sick a joke for my taste, but Mia wouldn’t change it. “What is this?” I said. “Product endorsement?”
“It’s a hoax!” protested Mia. “A scam! You’re not getting it.”
The girl was struggling to, as well. “So what about the rest of you?” she asked.
For a second, everyone looked at each other with a laugh bubbling under; these Filipinos, Mia’s gang in particular, it seems to me, have very cultured manners, very smooth and unconfrontational. They do not like to give offense, and there was already a growing social taboo around the subject of vaccination. But the pause lasted only a second or two — actually the precise interval required by pinpoint comic timing — as Ranel, getting up to help himself to another beer, broke the pause with three immortal words.
“VACCINE MY ASS!” he said, jutting out a hip and indicating the appropriate portion of his anatomy.
Vaccine my ass! in his resonant, heavily accented voice, and everybody laughed .
It was perfect, one of my favourite Ranel moments, the one which gained him instant promotion in my eyes to TFL status: Total Fucking Legend.
The girl wasn’t laughing, but looked around, surprised, at everybody there.
“Nobody here is vaccinated,” I said, passing her the joint. “Only you.”
I could be wrong, but I don’t think she was so much worried about finding herself among the filthy unvaccinated, as just surprised. Taken aback, in the English phrase. She’d come in from England on the Sandbox scheme, so life seemed very New Normal to her, I suppose, until she’d hooked up with these musicians. It had probably never occurred to her that there were whole swathes of society who were not playing the Covid game; who are simply not participating in the madness.
Dissidents: those who sit apart. But who still welcome you to sit on a pleasant terrace above the Andaman Sea and pass the Dutchie, always on the left hand side.
We’d been passing joints and sharing bongs, harmonising and hugging under the trees for months. Stoners should be first in line for these super-transmissible infections, don’t you think?
That girl distanced herself from our circle quite soon after that, and I don’t know if the injection thing was a factor — perhaps there were other reasons. I can’t read the minds of inhabitants of normie-land, the kingdom of kitsch. I don’t live there any more, and haven’t set foot in the place for years. What do I know about these people?
But I did enjoy that moment, the look on her face, the perfection of Ranel’s timing and, above all, the sheer fucking concision of that three-word manifesto.
How many words had I written by that time? How many conversations and arguments had I had over a year and half, how much research and discovery, how much strategising and agonising about how to get through to my normies, my charges; how to tell them without scaring them off, how best to pose the argument, how to introduce them to the disturbing reality, how to educate, how to do it gently, how to mitigate the lethality of the text; these Orphic riddles and labours of Hercules; how many decisions and indecisions, letters sent and not sent, urgent warnings not even read, the diatribes and tantrums to for gods’ sake shut him up! After all my gagged nightmares and lost wakings, after all the words, the facts and figures, the revelations and vindications, the gaslighting and guilt-tripping, the threats and coercion, recriminations and repudiations, the psychologising and stereotyping, the censorship and cancellation, civil death and familial excommunication, the groping to find each other through queasy miasmas of propaganda and taboo, and finally the giving up, the feeling of utter helplessness and failure — to cut through all the crap and meta-crap with those three well-chosen words…
Vaccine my ass! from that big frog mouth, strong white teeth in an ugly-handsome face.
My man just blew it all away with three words and a single comic gesture.
Ranel has many friends, many admirers acquired over the years, and he quite genuinely seems to have no idea why. That in itself is a powerful reason why we love him. To list all the reasons might take some time, but certainly that ability to cut through the crap is one of them. An impulsiveness of speech, once the threshhold is crossed, underpinned by fundamental honesty — it might get him into trouble sometimes, and I’m sure it can have its ugly side, but I envy it, actually. I want it back, that purity of conviction.
If Ranel knows he’s right about something (and he almost always is), he will NOT back down. He shows plenty of discretion about getting into a conflict, but once he is roused he WILL NOT shut up.
You will not shut him up.
You’d have to kill him.
VACCINE MY ASS!