(This is one of the first short stories I had published when I started writing in 1992. Eventually it became the first chapter of my first book, The Crooked Beat. You can download The Crooked Beat for free HERE)
The first thing I saw when I came to was a cop sitting in a chair next to my concrete bunk. His arms were crossed on his chest and he was balancing on the back legs of the chair.
I propped myself up on my right elbow and had a good look at him. A hairy mole quivered on his cheek as he popped air from his lips in time to music in his head.
“Am I under arrest?” I asked.
The cop stopped his popping, looked sideways at me, thrust out his bottom lip and shook his head. “No arrest, you jus’ dring too much.”
“How long do I have to stay here?”
“You stay here, then in couple hours, you OK.”
It seemed a reasonable enough proposition, although I had no idea where here was, or for that matter, which country I was in.
One thing that I did know for sure was that I had arrived in Singapore the previous evening on a one-way ticket. I also recalled a stressful night spent slinking through back streets seeking illicit highs while Singapore’s prohibitionist mantra “Da-Da equals death!” ricocheted through my head.
I looked at the cop again. He was back on his lip popping routine, so it must have been a catchy tune. His facial features could just as easily have been Thai or Malay but his starched uniform was unmistakable; I was in Thailand.
Then, like a morning fog exposed to light, the mental fugue cleared. I recalled the bus ride from Singapore to Hat-Yai, a town just over the Thai border; an argument over a bottle of Mekong at the markets next to Hat Yai train station; buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok; the undulating shriek of a thousand cicadas as I stood looking down at the train tracks that slashed the entire length of Thailand all the way to the swaying poppy fields of the Golden Triangle; the police patrolling the station with slow, deliberate steps, submachine guns hanging at their sides; the unnatural thirst that overcame me after my first hit of Mekong, and finally, the imperious urge that knew no equal and which I had in vain tried to resist as the steering column of my mind fractured and spun out of control.
Then I was in the back of a motorized trike called a tuktuk, racing through wide empty streets as a shrine perched on the dash jingled like a hyperactive wind chime. When there was enough distance between us and the police at the station, I’d leaned over the driver’s shoulder and hissed in his ear.
“I want smack.”
“Yes, I want heroin.”
“You say you want to visit Buddhist temple, I bring you temple!” He pointed feebly at his plastic shrine.
“No, I want smack, fuck the temple!”
The driver looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “Nice temple, many statue.”
He pleaded with me “I get you ganja, OK?”
“I don’t need any ganja.”
“Very good ganja…”
The driver adjusted a picture of the King next to the shrine on the dash as sweat ran from his nose. “OK, OK, I try for you, maybe I can get.”
He was nervous as all hell and explained that he’d never bought heroin before but like everyone in Thailand, “he knew a friend.”
As we drove he complained that he didn’t want to get caught by the police. I didn’t care. I was drunk and vicious; I needed heroin.
We drove past the outskirts of the city. The buildings were one-storey high and made of crumbling brick and rusted corrugated iron roofs—a desolate urban wasteland; the perfect place to find narcotics.
I waited in the tuktuk as the driver cagily approached three men sitting at a table in front of a run-down noodle stall. He chatted to them briefly and kept glancing back at me.
When he came back to ask for a few notes, I couldn’t help but notice that his hand was shaking. Then he disappeared through a door in the rear of the shop with one of the men. The others looked at me from under heavy eyelids as they worked lazily at their teeth with toothpicks.
A minute later my driver returned, looking around anxiously as he strode towards the vehicle fumbling for his keys. He jumped in the tuktuk, twisted the key, and tossed me a paper fold as a dark cloud of exhaust blasted from the exhaust.
I opened the fold and had a look as we pulled away from the kerb. It stunk of pure pharmaceutical—straight from the Golden Triangle. This was the kind of gear that Johnny Thunders and Lou Reed wrote songs about.
“OK, now I need a syringe.”
The driver shook his head vigorously without taking his eyes off the road.
“Syringe! For injecting!”
“No! Police—I get arrested!”
“Ah shit, there’s no police around.”
“Yes! You buy needle, they watch, they arrest.”
A small bubble of empathy surfaced from my whisky sodden brain and I suddenly felt sorry for the poor bastard, sitting there with his knuckles turning white on the wheel as a drunken maniac made wild, drug-related demands from the backseat.
“All right then, I’ll just snort it.”
The driver seemed a little happier with this but kept looking around nervously as we drove through the sun-baked, empty streets of Hat-Yai. “Police, oh, police. They arrest me, throw in jail.” He shook his head ruefully.
“I can’t see any goddamn police.”
“Oh…they watch! Then arrest—heroin, in jail…”
“Where? Where are they?”
“They wait at train station. I go to jail… you too!” His wide eyes looked back at me in the rear-view mirror.
I felt a pang of paranoia remembering the cops at the train station. “Look, I’ll snort it all now so that we can’t be arrested, OK?”
“This is better idea.”
I stuck a rolled 100 baht note up my nose and lowered my head. I tried my hardest to stay true to my word and stuffed both nostrils to capacity before hiding what was left of the smack in my headband. As we zipped along in the three wheeled vehicle, my eyes rolled back into my head…
I’m at the Tuesday afternoon Narcotics Anonymous topic group, all the regulars are here.
Vim is slouched on the sofa with drool coming out of his mouth, a side effect of the Interferon injections he is getting for his Hep C.
Johnny with his jail muscles, sits sneering at everyone from his chair in the corner.
All the newcomers from HOW’s rehab are chain smoking White-Ox rollies and managing to look vulnerable and menacing at the same time.
I am surprised to see Jaffa sitting across from me, seeing as he committed suicide a fortnight ago. Still, he isn’t looking bad for a dead guy. He’s wearing a turtleneck sweater to cover up the rope burns and his shaved head makes him look like a big, circumcised cock.
Some fuckwit is nodding out next to me; I don’t know why anyone would bother to come pinned, as the last place I would want to be high is at an NA meeting. It also fucks with my new-found serenity knowing that he probably has a spare hit on him.
The chair is a silly cow from California I think, who never talks about the gear, always her “drug of choice” which usually means weed. I feel like pointing out to her that this is NARCOTICS Anonymous, not HIPPY DRUGS Anonymous.
“Welcum to the toosday aftanoon St. Jarns group. My name is Marjorie, and ahm an addict,” she bleats.
“Hi Marjorie,” everyone answers.
“We’ll start the meeting off with a moment of silence fur the addict who still suffers inside and outside of these rooms.”
Yeah, like the fuckwit nodding out next to me.
“Tiddays tarpic is spiritual concepts. Marcus, would you lahk to open the meeting?”
The waste case next to me shifts in his seat and manages to open his eyes. “Yeah, fanks, Marjorie (scratches his nose in slow motion) I’m Marcus n I’m an addict, (“Hi Marcus”) I sorta fell orf the wagon this morning—got orna summa that filfy gear from up the Golden Triangle, scored it offa this tuktuk driver up the Cross, gives me a gram of uncut Number 4.”
Marjorie interrupts. “Ah Marcus, would you mahnd keepin ahn the tarpic?” She knots her brow in concern.
“Fuck me dead, sorry bout that Marge. Went orf on a bit of a tangent, eh? But y’know I think we’re all kiddin’ ourselves tryin’ ta stay clean and that, it doesn’t work, I mean lookit Jaf here.” He points across at Jaffa who looks at the floor. “Strings ‘isself up tryin’ ta stay clean, shoulda just used some of my gear.” Marcus looks around the room accusingly, “FUCKIN’ OATH, ALL OF YOUSE CUNTS SHOULD JUST USE SOME A THIS GEAR!” he yells before lurching forward to projectile vomit.
The HOW’s guys react first, pouncing into the vomit and grabbing handfuls of it. It takes me a bit to realise what’s going on. Marcus has puked up a stomach full of Number 4. I jump off my seat to join in and we stuff handfuls of the shit into our mouths and up our noses.
In the back of my mind I can hear Marjorie: “Okaaay guys, if we could jest leave the Number 4 alone for a moment to say the serenity prayer.”
I came to on the floor of the tuktuk where I’d managed to puke all over my face. The driver was trying to drag me out of his vehicle. I tumbled out and collapsed on the ground as he pulled at my arms and legs, trying to work out a better way to move me.
Then the boots appeared. Black steel-caps and pressed trousers. I tried to look up at the faces but caught an eyeful of sunlight.
The tuktuk driver was desperately trying to explain; it didn’t sound like he was doing a very good job. I really wanted to say something in my defence but couldn’t quite articulate my thoughts.
Then the driver started squeaking rapidly in Thai; the one word that I picked up was Mekong. Then the police were saying it too, holding up my empty bottle for inspection. They all laughed as they lifted me into the back of a police truck.
The cell door was open. I decided it was time to leave and tried to stand but only got halfway before careening headfirst towards the bars.
The cop grabbed me before I made contact and lay me back down on the concrete bunk. Then a sphincter tightening thought seized me: what happened to the smack? I rubbed my forehead as if I had a headache, and thankfully I felt a reassuring lump under the headband wrapped tightly around my skull.
I chatted awhile with the cop, who seemed quite friendly and asked me all kinds of questions about Australia. I told him what he wanted to hear and left him with the impression that Australia was full of big titted nymphomaniacs that lusted after Asian men. The conversation turned to music and I tried to explain the whole punk rock thing to him, but there was a cultural divide between us, no reference point in Thai culture to which he could relate.
He told me all about the Thai music scene, which seemed incredibly dull. Then I remembered I had my Walkman with me. I pulled it out of my bag, which had been placed under the bed.
The tape in the machine was Leather, Bristles, No Survivors and Sick Boys by GBH. He put the earphones on and sat with a concerned look on his face as he listened. He called in another cop who took a turn with the headphones. After he’d had a short listen, they discussed it among themselves.
“This music popular your country?” asked the guy who had been sitting with me.
“I like it.”
“Very loud—many screaming.”
“Very angry… different to Thai music.” He handed me back my Walkman and asked if I wanted some whisky.
“What, in here?” I asked.
“Oh yes, we are always drinking here.” He reappeared a minute later with two more cops in tow. They brought in extra chairs and four cups. I lay on the bed propping my head up with my right arm, keeping one eye closed to eliminate feelings of nausea.
We leaned forward and clinked our glasses in cheers, the whisky sloshing over the sides of the cups onto the bloodstained cement floor. Whenever my glass became slightly less than full, one of the cops would lean over to fill it up.
We talked and drank and laughed and told dirty jokes for a good hour. At one point I let out a great big whisky fart, which caused them to laugh uproariously and spill their drinks. Then one of them disappeared and came back with another bottle and a tape player. He whacked Leather, Bristles, No Survivors and Sick Boys into the deck and hit “play.” They were all heavy drinkers and we drank the whisky neat.
About then, I decided that it was probably a good idea to get rid of the smack in my headband. Even though they were drinking whisky and listening to GBH, they were still policemen and heroin was still heroin.
I walked out of a corridor containing four holding cells. The top floor of the station consisted of a large main room filled with desks, old-fashioned typewriters, and phones.
A ceiling fan blew papers off the desks as I walked through the abandoned room. The police station reminded me of an old school classroom, all wooden and sunny as if stuck in eternal afternoon.
I tried to roll up a note in the toilet but just couldn’t get it right; I kept going cross-eyed, so I stuffed the fold up to my nose and snorted the shit straight up. I puked the second the junk hit the back of my throat and completely missed the bowl. I used the toe of my shoe to move bits of banana behind the toilet, trying hard to remember when I’d eaten it.
Back in the jail cell, one of the cops was singing along with the music into an imaginary microphone, his whisky spilling everywhere as the others clapped and laughed at his performance. I laughed and joined in.
Here they come, walking down the street
Big and bouncy, look so neat
I like them best between the sheets
Big women give me a… TREAT!
I sang along to the tape, doing my bit for cross-cultural relations and all that. After another bottle of whisky and some of the worst karaoke I have ever heard, I finally remembered the train to Bangkok. I pulled out the ticket stub. “The train!” I shouted jumping up. “I’ve missed the fuckin’ train!”
“What wrong, my fren?” asked the karaoke cop, sweat running down his face.
“Bangkok, four o’clock! I’ve missed the train!”
The senior cop, Lek, grabbed the ticket and started yelling in Thai, ordering the others into action. They put down their drinks, cleaned up the cell, then ran into the front room and started slamming windows shut. I was having trouble standing again and kept banging into the walls, so Lek ordered me to stay on the bed.
When they had cleaned up the station, the four of them came back into the cell and grabbed me by an arm or a leg.
They lifted me up with my duffel bag on my stomach and ran down the stairs. Out in the street, they threw me in the back of a police van. The siren and lights started up and we took off.
The driver, Bang, was truly amazing. He was as drunk as the rest of us and ran red lights at high speed, dodging and weaving like a pro. We reached the station in record time and my Thai cop pals jumped into action, one on each leg and one on each arm. They ran with me to the ticket counter as if we were on a life or death mission.
Propping me up against the wall of the ticket office, they yelled and screamed at the lady behind the counter until she relented and gave them another ticket at no charge. It turned out that the train wasn’t due for more than an hour, so Lek wandered off and bought another bottle of Mekong.
We spent the time screaming abuse at passersby and getting indecently drunk. Whenever a western traveller walked past, I would whisper an English swearword in Bang’s ear, who would then yell it out at them. When a Thai walked by, Bang would whisper something similar in Thai to me and I would scream it out.
When people realised that it was drunken cops doing the yelling they walked faster. After telling them the stock standards, I got a bit inventive.
“Your buttocks are inexcusable!” snarled Lek at a perplexed backpacker with a Canadian flag sewn onto his bag.
The train pulled into the station just before nightfall, and with much backslapping, handshakes, and hits from the bottle, we said goodbye. I found a window seat and waved farewell to my new friends.
The train slowly left the station and started for Bangkok. I watched as the sun set over Hat-Yai, drawing out the shadows and turning the buildings red. Before long I was asleep.
I woke as the train reached the outskirts of Bangkok in the chill of early dawn. The sky was the colour of wine. The air was cold and misty and the still city reeked of over-ripe durian fruit. I watched shacks pass by with the vacuity that comes with a hangover and the lethargy that follows a smack binge.
The train passed over a dirty river with white washing strung up next to it. Kids in a park laughed and played with a footbag. Fragments of Thai conversation drifted towards me but the wind snatched them away.
A lone rooster crowed as we passed more rundown shacks. Then I remembered Hat-Yai and cursed myself for being so careless on my first day in Thailand. It was a miracle I hadn’t been arrested. As the train advanced through the outskirts of the city in the semi-dark, I realized that I had learnt a very important lesson: that drinking Mekong neat and in large quantities endeared one to the local constabulary. I took an appreciative sip from the bottle at my side and abruptly retched out the window.
Then, as dawn truly broke over Bangkok and the train shunted towards its dirty heart, I thanked my lucky stars and screwed the cap back on the bottle.