Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Soi 4

Even in the seedy surrounds of Soi 4, it was wildly out of place.

She was beautiful. I had noticed her weeks before while waiting for my order at MacDonalds one night. Her tasteful, modest dress was incongruous with the world weary feast of smooth brown skin filling Bangkok's Nana district after dark. She had been talking to strangers; a touch too friendly, a bit too familiar. Her face was gentle and in the warm bloom of womanhood. I thought that in another world she would have made a lovely wife.

Now there she was, raw naked in the open street except for white runners and cute ankle socks, gazing up in awe at a store's neon signage, masturbating. People walked around her in the smudged semi-light of dusk, apparently without noticing. One tall pot-bellied tourist passed between her and the store, looking down at her busy hands with a letcherous grin mishaping his mouth.

Days earlier I had glanced up while crossing the street on the way back to my dim little room, and directly into her guileless eyes. I averted my view quickly and casually, but it was too late.

"Come home with you." She fell into step next to me and linked her arm in mine with a beatific smile. It wasn't a question, more of a hopeful command. "No, I go home alone," I replied smiling back cautiously. "Why not?" She was genuinely puzzled. "I don't do that, but you are beautiful." The last was to ease the slap of rejection. Her stunning face softened like a child's, and I saw the edge of dementia in her uncertainty.

She released my arm and left reluctantly, looking back over her shoulder in case I changed my mind.

"She do drug." The waitress at the bar and grill across the road where I breakfasted each afternoon motioned toward the girl still held in erotic thrall by the neon sign. "She have white husband and baby, but he break she heart."

I sat at the open bench facing onto the street, trying not to watch her bare back subtly shuddering. A thought to take a photo as evidence was banished with censure as soon as it crossed my mind.

Monday, October 15, 2012


I jumped, pushing against the cold St Kilda pavement and landing hard, as if stomping could stop time and change the trajectory of my life. In that cool Winter time between times, alone on that long road, I thumped the ancient earth to nudge its orbit. I stamped to shake both worlds, and wake life from its stubborn steadfast march. But time would not be changed.

A decade further down I drift on a dripping path in a botanical dreamscape, drawn by almost memory. Turn right here, I think, not left. Now right again. Beyond this bend perhaps, and... there! My fairytale Victorian cottage dream, made real. Intense with detail I thought all infant fantasy - the dark eaves, the gabled roof, ivy hung brick walls, ornate iron fence and little gate, the painted hardwood door with bold brass knocker, the deep green garden. A nightmare refuge from Peter's awful wolf, it resolves and shrinks solid there before me. Mystery and dark melody draw back with the mist and I stand gentle beneath the rain, a new innocent.

In another time a clear eyed boy of four with a bright red boat had followed the path with his young mother to the pond nearby and launched his precious toy. Watched helplessly, it made joyful passage into a drainage pipe and was lost. The mother softened tragedy with tale of how the happy boat would in the end reach the wild wide sea, where all boats longed to go.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I was ten years old when I awoke. Standing at the raised verge of a caravan park in County Cork, watching gentle hilltops float like pristine green islands on an otherworldly lake of morning mist, my careless heart came home. My father was next to me, both of us awed and hushed. In the heavy space between breaths he joked about leprechauns. I stood moved and unmoving, called from an ancient past I couldn't have known, yet recognised.

Months earlier I had stood on Culloden Moor and listened to the whispered cries of fallen chiefs drifting like snowflakes around weather worn stones marking where they fell, cut down by cruel English swords. With Scottish blood on both sides of my family, I thought to feel more than just the bitter cold of Highland winter stinging my fingers and toes. I waited long in the icy wind, but left the forlorn cairns and rugged heather unresolved.

Years later when called by Another, I would understand kinship deeper than that drawn through the turbulent blood of Celtic passion, poetry, and pathos. But gazing upon that purest of Irish mornings my young soul, used only to the sunburned emptiness of broad Australian towns, felt an inexplicable homecoming. Cold sky and air, dark peat and damp earth, dank moss and root were all suddenly intimate. This is where you come from. This is how you came. This is who you are.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Tink, tink, tink.

I was becoming used to being woken in the wee hours. Usually it was the rowdy return of band members and accompanying drunken entourage to the living room where I had made a makeshift bed on the floor. Sometimes it was muted slaps and breathy orgasmic cries as the guitarist's latest nubile conquest voiced involuntary appreciation for his sexual athletics. This night there was neither, yet sluggish sleep was struggling against an unreasonable annoyance.

Tink, tink.

I had come to Dubai to join my friend. His band was two thirds through its standard six month contract, and had already been elevated to celebrity status by enthusiastic crowds of itinerant groupies, bored rich locals, and multifarious international hangers-on. By the time I stepped off the plane and into the heavy burqa of heat shrouding the desert city, the usual partying had merged into a solid purple streak of revelry.

Tonight, however, they had returned early; the guitarist to his bedroom for a rare night alone, and my friend to pass out on the couch near my bed. A single potent Xanax had been washed down with mouthfuls of Jack Daniels to join the other drinks consumed during three anarchic sets. His resultant stupor had resolved into a slow purr of rhythmic snoring.

My friend was not in a good way. Unhappy and nearing the end of his rock and roll shelf life, he had turned more and more to drink to soften the fall, supplemented with pills to help him sleep. In the weeks since I arrived I had seen him drink solidly through four hour gigs, and then finish full bottles of JD at home. I would have been in hospital or dead. He just kept on going.

The irritating clinking pulled me up through viscous sleep. Reluctantly I opened my eyes. My friend was on the couch, still snoring peacefully. A half empty bottle of JD rested on the table beside him. As I watched, his arm moved as if pulled at the wrist by a puppeteer's string, and settled his limp fingers around the bottle's neck. The ring finger then began tapping mechanically against the glass. It was an insistent and purposeful movement, disturbingly at odds with the rest of his deathly still body.

A thin line of fear slid down my back. Again the finger lifted and tapped: tink, tink, tink. Despite being helplessly unconscious, my friend's finger was moving on its own in an apparent effort to wake him. Tink, tink. His eyes dragged open, swimming beneath heavy lids as they struggled to focus through alcohol and sedation. His head turned laboriously to follow the sound. He recognized the bottle and grunted with ironic humour. Unsteady, he obediently raised it to his mouth, took several long pulls and instantly fell back asleep.

I waited. After a few moments his finger began again. Tink, tink, tink, tink. I called his name. The finger paused, and then continued. Tink, tink. I called again, forcefully, and not just to wake him. I challenged the chill sheet of fear that raised goosebumps all over me. I was standing now, pushing back whatever unknown had animated my friend's hand and coerced him to drink and drink beyond even his superhuman tolerance. With hair prickling on the nape of my neck, I called his name to banish the demons real or existential that were driving him toward self destruction.

He woke, or rather consciousness raised brief unseeing eyes above the ocean of chemical oblivion that smothered him. "Time for bed bro. Better go to bed," I insisted. He grunted, made several failed attempts to rise, and then stumbled mindlessly down the hall and into his room where I heard him fall onto the mattress.

I capped the bottle of JD tightly, not without some unease. It was just an ordinary bottle, I knew that. But this night, even stone cold sober, it felt unnaturally hard and cool as I hid it amongst the other empties.

Friday, August 5, 2011


"Can you feel that?"

My friend lowered his head and spoke quietly out of the corner of his mouth. He had just moved closer to his wife, taken her hand, and leaned into her as we walked.

Yes I bloody could feel that. It was 4am at the end of a balmy evening in Macau. We were on our way from the 5-star casino where my friend was playing in a show band, heading toward a Cantonese restaurant for a late, post-gig meal. Turning an unfamiliar alley we had plunged faces first into a soup of primordial aggitation, conjured by a brooding mass of hungry-eyed hookers. My friend's reflexive reaching for his wife was as much for protection from the estrogen tsunami that swamped us as it was to show that he was off the menu. I, on the other hand, had no-one to save me.

The entire length of the alley was lined with dark posturing figures, all now focussed on us with vampiric intent. We were no longer free men meandering the boutique backstreets of Macau. We were fresh meat being stripped from the bone by scores of predatory eyes; tremoring rodents caught in a sudden snake pit, regarded by a wall of appetite.

A pretty girl dressed in Victorian ruffles and stockings floated like a Draculian bride across our path and back into the shadows. Her theatre of innocence was a perverse contrast to the murderous sexuality assualting us. My perception lurched sideways. We had descended into Hyborian madness of animal eyes, sensual limbs, and boiling darkness.

We had almost reached the end of the alley, pursued by faceless threats that folded into the dark behind us, when a shadow fell. Framed in light coming from the street ahead stood a crazy-eyed Russian, her long shapely legs spread and planted into the road like a hardened sex soldier. Her hands held her hips in fierce defiance. Brutally bleached hair drifted around a sickly white visage, blown by an occult wind. The space around her dimmed as if veiled by diaphanous spreading of demonic wings. Several kinds of corruption swam in her stare and she mowed us down with burning blue and bloodshot eyes.

We had to change direction to walk around her. She never moved except to turn her head as we passed, eyes sucking at our souls.

The old Cantonese restaurant and its faded extravagance felt like a shining temple of spiritual light afterwards. We had won through a diabolic horde to reach our worn seats and bone chopsticks. Spicy Chinese steamboat never tasted so good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The porter looked at me quizically, but nodded his Peci covered head in acknowledgement and let us through.

I had just apologized in clumsy Bahasa to the doorman of my hotel after bumping him. Like the other locals I had been using my newly learned vocabulary on, he seemed surprised. Probably unused to polite bule (Caucasian), I thought.

It was my third week in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Very early I had noticed the casual arrogance of many Westerners in this developing country, and it shamed me. I was determined to be different. For weeks I had been ferreting words into my mobile phone, and referencing the growing list. When people spoke to each other, the burred tones unfurling from their lips like batik swirls, I listened carefully. When a friend bumped into an old woman at the top of an escalator and blurted a surprised apology, I took note.

The first perkataan greedily collected had been those most useful in showing respect and consideration. "Thank-you", which came in several forms, was first. I had particularly sought out "Please" which even locals didn't use often. "Sorry", to my pride, I had picked up in context without help. My grammar was non-existent, but after only a few weeks I could almost make my way without falling back into sign language.

"What did you say to the doorman?" my Indonesian friend and incidental tutor enquired, when we reached my room. "He looked at you strangely."

"Oh, I bumped him and said sorry." I was unable to keep some pride from touching my voice.

"Who taught you that," my friend asked. "I don't remember teaching you that."

"I heard you say it in the mall when you bumped into that old lady last week. I've been using it a lot." I repeated the word in Bahasa, careful to get the pronounciation correct.

There was a pause. Then came a howl; a long husky note, like a shocked cry of pain, that started high and descended into gurgling, staccato madness. My friend fell to the floor in breathless hysterics - literally rolled onto the bed, and then to the floor. It was gut-busting hilarity, and it took minutes to subside.

"What! What's so funny!" I tried to be heard over my friend's raucous delight. "What!"

"That... doesn't mean Sorry," through gasps and more helpless laughter. "I was swearing... that's Bahasa for dick."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Feng Huang Lu

I had been drunk for weeks it seemed. Days and nights merged into each other carelessly, smoothed by the coercive hand of hedonism. I should have felt seedy, or guilty, or contrite, but I didn't. All I felt, as I watched the stars fade and the sun slink slowly up from beneath the dark neon earth, was euphoria.

I spoke my thankfulness out loud to the sky. I lifted my arms in gentle exaltation and chuckled. With the fresh cool of early morning brushing my face, I let my head fall back and smiled, and thanked God for the moment.

It was 6am as I strolled unsteadily along a quaint Shenzhen alley towards my peaceful apartment, slowly sobering and happy. More intoxicating than the alcohol I had thrown back earlier during uncounted rounds of Chinese drinking games, was the freedom I had discovered here. No-one knew exactly where I was. No-one knew what I was doing. I had no responsibilities and enough money to cover an extended period of Asian living. It was beyond privileged, almost decadent; I knew this. What I was experiencing very few people ever could, and I was blissfully thankful.

Being a white man in China brought all sorts of advantages, economic and social. But that was not what had me singing quietly as I passed through the black iron gates guarding residential apartments that towered like massive stucco anthills over the center of Feng Huang Lu. For the first time in my life the future was irrelevant; I had let it go. I had given up the lie of living for a hope that would never arrive. All I cared for was the moment I was in, and the liberation was giddying.

Waking hungover the following afternoon, there would be time for the return of angst. Wounds from deep loss and brutalization do not heal in so short a time as between aching sobriety and grinning drunkenness. But each evening they could be released anew to lose voice within noisy, gaudy nightlife. And perhaps one day, they would never return.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Somewhere in the untidy space between joyful marriage and bewildered divorce, Cold Chisel's Khe Sahn infected me. Driving back to Brisbane from a night at the Gold Coast, tipsy and strangely empowered, Don Walker's haunting narrative of shiftless middle-aged dislocation rattled inside me like a stone in a bucket, and landed with a clang. I was seized by a potent desire to lose myself in Asia; to disappear from everything and everyone I knew; to vanish.

Two years later I sat on the cool tiles of a tiny 15th floor balcony watching my first Chinese dawn rise over a corner of Shenzhen. I wasn't completely lost. My friend and his Chinese wife slumbered in an air conditioned bedroom just beyond the small neat living room I now called home. But I was half a universe away from everything I knew. The dawn and I were both grey, and it was good.

I had arrived in Shenzhen at the end of a complicated, life altering journey. Crazy holidays in Macau and Indonesia had led to 18-months work in Arizona, and then several more months in Jakarta and Dubai. Like the listless protagonist in Chisel's faded folk tale I had finally surrendered to brokenness. It had taken 40 years and more than one brutal broken heart, but it had happened. I had no plans, no more dreams, and no clue.

In the few hours since crossing the Chinese border, the musty magic of the Orient had filled me with a creeping wonder. Everything felt different, from the mundane script describing colourful laundry powder packets to the acute, quirky clothes worn by beautiful Chinese girls populating the streets and buildings. All was alien, and invigorating.

I should have been exhausted following the overnight visa run through Hong Kong and the two hour van ride to the apartment from the Shenzhen ferry, but I was too wired to rest. The Lam Tsuen mountains beyond the slow sliding causeway and far to the south were ancient, but from my balcony looked alive. I felt as if I was in a movie, and played the reality of where I was across my consciousness until fatigue blurred me.

It was over an hour later as the sun rode high up a hazy, unfamiliar sky that I stretched onto the couch and shut my eyes, my nose and ears already filled with Asia.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


He was thin and unkempt, with an unusual meekness about him. He had been telling me his story, how he had lost his wife and his family, and spent time in a Mexican prison - all results of a relentless drug addiction. In the middle of a sentence he paused and lifted his face to look over my shoulder.

Tinny praise music was coming from somewhere in the house behind us. Surrounded by the casual bustle of aid workers making a late breakfast amongst the mess of a suburban back yard, I hadn't noticed. But he was transfixed. His eyes glazed slightly, and his face softened with wonder.

After some moments he looked back at me and apologised. Since becoming a Christian in prison he had listened to praise music constantly. When released into the custody of a local church rehab centre, the music continued to sustain him. During the most desperate time of his life it became his lifeline. Now, even in this mundane setting, a thin line of audio emanating from an old plastic tape deck was irresistible. I could see as much as feel its effect upon him. Too distracted to continue, he excused himself and shuffled toward the house to warm himself at the music's source.

Entering the beginnings of middle age, he had nothing. Even his ill fitting clothes were borrowed from friends in prison. He was estranged from his loved ones, and penniless. Yet, amongst the score of aid workers who had taken weekend furloughs away from lives in Arizona to make early morning drives across the Mexican border with food for families living on a city dump, he alone had responded to the music.

It is a strange paradox that broken people are often the most spiritual. As he passed out of view I felt a prick of Godly envy and knew that of us all there, at that moment, he was richest by far.