The Catfish And The Con Man !!!
Paul said goodbye to Laos’s deliciously debauched capital of Vientiane, and headed back to Thailand for some debauchery of his own.
He and Andrew were heading to a small lesser known island on the border with Burma, hoping that, finally The Indian Ocean would provide them with some sunshine. They had so far seen precious little of the yellow stuff during their latest Far Eastern sojourn, so had had to make up with a little more of the amber stuff! Life was certainly a beach without it!
They had made a reservation with a so-called ‘wizard’, who ran five wooden huts on a hippy resort directly on the sand. Before leaving for the airport, Paul fortunately checked the weather forecast for the boys next destination. It was disastrous. Any decision to carry on with their plans would have been most wet – in every sense.
No amount of wizardry could save them from the spell of bad weather the planet had apparently conjured up for their special island. Paul quickly went into his best Phileas Fogg impersonation, and a la Jules Verne, hit the internet to research some drier climes. Unfortunately, there did not appear to be any. Every part of southern Thailand looked to be covered in a blanket of angry, unseasonal storm cloud. He sighed and explained to Andrew, his reluctant Passepartout , that it was probably better they sit it out in Bangkok, at least until the weather looked more favourable to weather a dodgy ferry crossing. They were, he remembered, quite rocky at the best of times. Andrew, thankfully, didn’t rock the boat, and agreed. So they hit Bangkok, for the third time during their trip.
They arrived in an angry rainstorm of thunderous intensity. He and Andrew found shelter, drowned themselves in beer, and watched the small Soi Rambutri, the district in which they were staying, flood to calf level within minutes. Paul knew they had made the right decision for once. A small desert island during such weather would be deserted and quite depressing. Not to mention a touch dangerous. So they decided to stay on in Bangkok. Though as it transpired, their was still danger to be had!
When the deluge ceased after two days, they walked out along the choppy Chao Praya river, it was a part of the city with which neither of them were entirely familiar, and it was always a thrill to discover new parts.
They came across a small park amid the maelstrom of traffic and noise that is the Thai capital and espied a small bridge crossing one of the many canals. To their joy, on the other side of the water, existed a small district of backpacker hostels, funky, cheap, and intoxicating.
Just how all of Bangkok had once been. The seedy little place they stopped at was named ‘The Flapping Duck’ – it was charming and hideous all at once, a combination Paul had always adored. He and his partner sat and drank cheap beer, before Andrew went off onto the back lanes beyond to search for some street food to bring back.
During his absence Paul discovered some street life!
The first vagabond to come along and join him was named Remy, he was a terribly engaging Frenchman. At just twenty-six Remy wanted mostly to discuss sex, drugs and Jonny Halliday. Mostly sex actually. Con les femmes bien sur. But he was most endearing and not brash at all. Paul was worried, that on Andrew’s return, his husband would not be best pleased, as quite often he showed his displeasure when he began conversations with strangers. Especially those with Gallic breath! Yet, just Blanche Dubois, he had always depended on the kindness of strangers. For him, it was stranger not too. To his relief, when Andrew met Remy, he was equally as engaged, the guy was most agreeable after all.
They were later joined by a young half American/ Hawaiian who called himself Jamie. He possessed a haunted look, with doleful eyes and battle scars to die for. He explained he had been to Afghanistan and Syria as a marine, not quite the special forces, although he hinted he had been special. Paul took this as an exaggeration, but it was clear to him this boy had been to war at some point. He knew other soldiers who exaggerated their missions in order to garner attention. He’d always found the habit unnecessary, after all, one tour of duty or ten, they were brave enough.
Jamie had apparently completed eight!
Each time the subject became uncomfortable, or Remy would say something only a Frenchman could concerning La guerre, the ex-marine would leave the table with a quite unnecessary mixture of rage and upset. He would then return a table, take another beer, for which he never paid, and continue on. To make matters worse he had apparently just tragically discovered that he had a brain tumour and was to fly back to The States the following day! The Philadelphia fire department, the brigade for which he now served, were allowing him time out to recover. Paul explained that his late father had been a fireman, it was one of the more heroic things he did during his difficult life. Paul asked if they still used poles in ‘Philly’? Jamie looked confused and left the group once again, to contemplate his dead comrades on the bridge opposite, in quite Checkovian fashion.
Paul began to find it all rather disconcerting. His inner fire alarm went off. Remy said plainly, ‘
‘I sink this man is an arsehol’!
Paul replied that he probably agreed, yet neither of them had been to war, well not on the battlefield at least, and so advised patience as the best option. He knew from his past what a mad firefighter was capable of!
Andrew, being the one flashing the cash, kept Jamie in ale all afternoon, and well into the night. Paul, being far too drunk to stop himself, sang with the Thai band as nighttime and the mosquitos fell. It was great to be amongst youth who were open and for once intrigued by the tales of ‘The Lola Boys.’ Even if he was out of key at times – of course, he blamed the guitarist!
By the end of the evening they had been joined by a gorgeous Dutch girl called Siggy, and two enchantresses from the Czech Republic, who they later discovered gave the false names of Natasha and Sasha. Their reason for such duplicity eventually proved to be most wise! Girls travelling out east had to keep their wits about them. Boys too!
The party was in full swing and Paul headed for the restroom to do something most unrestful. Lunch had been challenging! On his return to the fiesta he was shocked to see the most violent of contretemps had erupted. Everybody seemed to be involved, Remy, Andrew, the girls, and especially the landlady of ‘The Flapping Duck’ – she seemed to be in the biggest flap of all. And it was the twenty-nine year old war veteran, Jamie, who seemed to be ducking the flak.
‘You go. You leave. I give you money back. I no want you in my guesthouse’, Cat, the proprietress was shouting. Harsh, definite and shrill – doubtless she wanted the American to be yanked out. At once!
‘I knew you were full of bullshit’ said George. A quiet Englishman who had been nothing but gentle and unassuming all evening. ‘Three nights I’ve listened to your crap!’
‘Fuck you’, Jamie responded, looking now quite possessed. ‘You wanna step outside?’
The atmosphere had become febrile at ‘The Flapping Duck’! Paul was worried someone might be quackers. He adored a pun, even during a dangerous moment. He now had more than a slight suspicion that Jamie the marine was nothing more than pond life.
‘Hey man’, Andrew interjected bravely, with a slightly phony vernacular, ‘you’ve been rumbled mate. You’re all over the internet. Just leave.’
Jamie looked appalled. He then looked to Paul for some support, but by now Paul knew the others were aware of something beneath the surface that he was not. One of the Czech girls flashed him a glimpse of something on her iPad. Paul, being shortsighted in every way, could not make out all the information, but he could definitely decipher one word.
Along with the alarming instruction was a photo of ‘Jamie’ and a list of his many misdemeanours some of them most serious. He had been kicked out of many a Thai town and was quite obviously a grifter – and a dangerous one at that!
He was not 29.
Or part Hawaiian, in fact the only hula-hula it seems he’d been guilty of was getting into travelling girls beds and threatening them.
He was in fact a 21 year old Thai boy flung up in ‘Philly’, with a Thai identity card and a penchant for theft and violence. Andrew had kindly given him twenty-five quid out of sympathy. Perhaps thinking that would go some way towards his airfare to fix his tumour. He didn’t admit that to Paul until somewhat later. Paul didn’t mind – the guy had been most convincing; his stories obviously well rehearsed.
The incident soon began to flare slightly out of control. The Thai con man lifted a small Belgian chap who had bravely stood up to him and cast him three feet to the left.
‘I get police – now.’ Cat screeched.
‘No need’ Paul heard himself say. Surprised at the masculinity of his tone.
‘Jamie’s leaving now.’
It was not a request!
He looked at the fella who had fooled everyone, well almost everyone, and gave him one of his hard stares,the one he’d learnt from his Aunty Glo. It seemed to work.
‘I’ll get my bag’ Jamie said.
Paul followed him down a narrow corridor, not sure whether the cornered idiot was going to go to collect something else to make even more trouble. He too was angry especially because this fool had pretended to be a war hero, and worse still, a fireman like his dad. Bloody nerve!
The atmosphere was now quite incendiary. When he had him alone there was one moment of physical contact as ‘Jamie’ attempted to re-join the battle.
Paul shoved him backwards – much harder than he had meant too. His heart was racing but his voice was steady, he’d had years of drama school training to thank for that.
‘Just leave Jamie! These people don’t know what you’ve been through. How can they understand? Just leave with some dignity. Be cool!’
Of course, he didn’t mean a word of it.
There was a moment of stillness between them, and the fire in ‘Jamie’s’ eyes extinguished itself. He said nothing. Paul stood aside and the young Thai walked straight by him, tiny plastic carrier bag in hand. Silently he walked past the nervous group standing angrily outside.
There was an unwise shout of ‘don’t come back’ from Cat, the manager, as Jamie crossed the bridge, but thankfully, he knew better than to respond. He’d been rumbled, even if he didn’t know what that word meant.
There was a collective sigh of relief, and Cat thanked Paul and Andrew for helping her put out the blazing situation. Paul thought proudly, we may be two big old poofs, but we’ve fought mightier battles than that.
He was very confident the unknown warrior would not return.
‘You come – stay in my guesthouse. Always welcome’ Cat said kindly.
‘That’s so nice of you’ Paul replied, but tomorrow we head south – to the islands’.
To Paul’s surprise, Cat looked at him with even more alarm than she had shown to the fake marine!
‘You go where? You know there is storm coming!’
Paul hadn’t bothered with the weather forecast – not since they’d decided to avoid the inclement islands and stay in Bangkok. As far as he knew the sun had got his hat on once again. After all, it was peak cap season.
The next day the boys flew to Ranong. On landing they knew at once the error of their ways. There was an eerie calm, and most other ‘farang’ we’re heading in the opposite direction. It was clear that the old ‘currant bun’ had still not visited the milliners.
The open bus took him and Andrew, along with six Germans and four toothless Thai workers towards the pier from which they were to take their boat across the Andaman Sea. As they rumbled towards the coast the precipitous air became more obvious. The wind had picked up and Paul had now learnt that ‘Tropical Storm Pabuk’ was heading their way.
‘Pabuk’ meant Catfish in Lao – Paul knew some of those river monsters to be rather big, if fact, it was reported to be the largest tempest of it’s kind for thirty years. Not to be taken lightly. Thousands of tourists were being evacuated and typically he and Andrew were heading in the wrong direction. They were nothing if not contrary. As they arrived at the pier, their affable driver turned and made a big rocking motion with his hand.
‘No boat’ he said. ‘Take hotel – better’ he advised wisely.
Paul, having been to naval school, and worked on the QE 2 around Cape Horn, knew all too well that twenty-two foot waves were not fun – unless the crew were extremely accommodating. He doubted this to be the case on a fairly crappy twenty-six footer packed with far too many tourists.
He didn’t even consult his partner.
‘We’ll take the hotel’ he said with a wink. Their driver looked relieved.
The serious Fräulein seated opposite however looked far less happy.
‘No, we have ticket. We go’, she shouted.
She then looked at Paul, ‘They take our money, so we go. We have ticket!’
And you still have your life Paul thought, but take the chance if you want you rude cow. Had the stupid woman not heard of the ‘Bismarck’?
The party left the bus and headed for the pier which was obviously closed. Our driver, being the kind soul he was, reversed back to the German group to convince them yet again of their folly. But they would not hear of it, especially the Eva Braun lookalike who was growing angrier than the current tides.
‘Leave them’ Paul said to the driver, ‘they want to go. Let them’.
‘But no boat’ our driver repeated forlornly.
‘Oh well, perhaps they’ll swim’, Paul retorted.
He was beginning to lose patience now. The weather was closing in fast, it had been a long night, what with the mock marine, and he had no intention of going to war with a few Teutonic tourists who had obviously not read the news. Or were just ignorant.
Tropical Storm Pabuk was strengthening and he now had his own cyclone going on with his hair. It was enormous and out of control. Besides which, Andrew needed a cigarette which would only increase the growing tempestuous conditions if he couldn’t light up soon.
The driver gave in, and they made a sharp Brexit, Leaving their six European cousins, standing adrift on the defunct pier side, glaring with indignation.
‘Twats’ Andrew said. Paul couldn’t help but agree. And usually the Germans were so sensible.
Minutes later he and Andrew were dropped off at a large hotel in an unfashionable part of town. The rain came down hard and steady, and the sky put on a show of such theatricality, one could not help but be impressed.
The next day as the cyclone got nearer, Paul had some apprehension. The thunder rumbled ominously from the east and the eye of the ‘Catfish’ was threatening to seek them out. But hey, they had supplies. Enough beer to water ‘Jamie’s’ whole battalion. For the entire eight tours!
And there was a small sauna. So a least they could take shelter somewhere dry, and sweat it out!
They were the lucky ones.
As Pabuk bore down on them, he felt great sympathy for those stuck on the islands, it couldn’t be fun. He knew there had already been loss of life.
He only hoped their German friends had made it.
He and Andrew had no idea what to do next. It wasn’t their decision after all.
The giant ‘Catfish’ had them in it’s net – and he wasn’t letting them go.
Not quite yet!