Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Sixteen – A Boat Ride With "Charlie Allnut"
By Chris Clancy
February 6th 2007. Phil and I arrived at Bangkok International Airport sometime in the evening. It was warm and humid – very different from Wuhan. The plan was that we'd stay in Khaosan Road for a few days until Kell arrived. Then we'd head for Ko Samui Island in the Thai Gulf.
The journey from the airport into Bangkok was terrible. I don't think I've ever seen so much traffic. Even London at its worst was nothing like this.
As for Khaosan Road, it's a bit like Nathan Road in Kowloon. You've probably heard the name before, but once you get there you wonder what all the fuss was about. We found a cheap place to stay and then went for a wander and something to eat.
For the next few days I basically hung around Khaosan Rd. while Phil busied himself going here, there and everywhere. The place was swarming with young people – mainly back-packers - most with their regulation dreds, rags and tats.
When they returned home the dreds and rags would disappear but the tats may well have proved more problematical - especially when the people who had actually paid for them (i.e. the parents) copped an eyeful.
What may have looked "cool" when you were young, may well look less than impressive, or even slightly more than ludicrous, when you hit a certain age.
I daresay the tat removal business, already a growing industry, will be a booming one in years to come.
I felt out of place and awkward. I was just too old for the whole scene.
As a bystander, observing some of their antics, one of Oscar Wilde's lines came to mind - on more than one occasion – the one about youth being "wasted on the young".
It wasn't unusual to see some of them sitting on their rucksacks, alone by the roadside, with a pad and pencil in hand, no doubt trying to strike some kind of Hunter S Thompson pose, as they thoughtfully penned what they knew would most certainly become the first lines of the classic Young English Novel.
This image became somewhat less profound a few hours later when you saw them pissed out of their skulls in some pub, club or bar.
Initially, the only good thing about the place was that I could get a decent meal to eat.
The only other thing worthy of note was a shop which sold incredibly realistic forged documents. In my innocence I expected such things to be sold in backrooms or basements.
But no, there they were on full display, not only in the shop but out front on stands. Catalogues for passers-by to thumb through at their leisure. If you wanted, for example, a bachelor's or master's degree of some kind, all you had to do was tell them the university, the subject, the date and so on, and they'd run it off for you there and then.
Amongst their other wares I noticed that they had a fake British driving licence on display – so realistic - complete with plastic card onto which they'd put your photo. It crossed my mind to enquire about one for China - but thought better of it.
Time passed – aimless – wasted – what a pity we can't stick it in a box and use later?
After four days I'd had enough. I made up my mind to change my ticket and head back to Wuhan. Preferably the next morning. My time would be far better served there – reading.
That evening we went to see a live band playing in the Irish Bar. The music was good - so was the Guinness.
At some point late in the evening I met a woman called Thiti (pronounced like the letter "T" said twice).
When the band finished we left and found somewhere quiet to chat.
We ended up talking all night. I can't even remember what we talked about. But I do remember it was relaxed and easy going and, as they say in all the best romantic novels, the silences were comfortable. Which they were. But, unlike all the best romantic novels, there were no violins in the background, no birds singing, no cherry trees in full blossom with butterflies flitting from one bough to another.
Our meeting was neither love nor lust at first sight. It was two people coming together at a particular point and place in time. One was lonely - the other lost.
No fanfares – no trumpets – I wasn't even looking. It just happened. If you tried to identify a couple more opposite or more totally unsuited, I doubt if you could do it. But there it was.
By the time daylight arrived any thoughts of returning to Wuhan had vanished.
We met Phil for breakfast. I told him we were going to go straight to Ko Samui rather than hang on for Kell. Phil said he still had a few places he wanted to visit - he'd join us later.
And that was it.
We took a long coach ride from Bangkok to a place called Surat Thani. From there, or thereabouts, we took a boat ride to the island.
The boat reminded me of that lovely old movie The African Queen. The "Captain" even looked a bit like Charlie Allnut. He had constructed a precarious-looking platform above the deck. We climbed an even more precarious-looking homemade ladder to get onto it.
We were his only passengers.
The sea was calm and blue and empty. We sat in the sunshine – talked and drank beer – and the old boat gently swayed and chugged along. And I just tried to take it all in – a sort of … pinch-me-someone-I-think-I'm-dreaming … kind of thing.
A lovely memory.
I'm not sure how long the trip lasted. Maybe less than two hours. But it seemed a lot longer.
We arrived in one piece and found a place to live for the week called a "hut". These things are small, comfortable and very cheap – basically a bedroom with a bathroom – usually timber built and detached.
Phil turned up a day or so later by himself. Kell had decided to head off somewhere else. He went his way and we spent the week having a good look around the place.
Thanks to Thiti I actually got talking to a few people. She was outgoing - I wasn't. If I'd been there by myself I probably wouldn't have bothered speaking to anyone.
We came across two elderly retired Brits. They reminded me of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. We ended up chatting for quite a while.
One said he had spent most of his working life as a footman, or something like that, in Downing Street. He said he'd served under four Prime Ministers - starting with Harold Wilson and finishing with Margaret Thatcher. Interestingly, the only one he had a good word for was Wilson – "He was by far the kindest of the four."
The other was a former military man – said he'd seen service all over the Far East - in his younger days. At one point in the conversation Vietnam came up. He said he knew it well - he also mentioned, rather matter of factly, that he'd done a tour of duty there – back in 1962/63.
This set me back a little.
I said, as politely as I could, that I was unaware of any British Army involvement in Vietnam – certainly not at that time – and definitely not on the ground.
"Strictly speaking that's true," he replied.
He said the US Army at the time was badly in need of some counter-insurgency expertise – of the kind which the British had developed in Malaya.
He went on to elaborate – something like this:
"Wrongly, as it turned out, they thought this approach would work in Vietnam.
"For obvious political reasons the whole thing had to be done in a very roundabout fashion. Those selected – nearly all SAS - had to first resign from the British Army. They then enlisted in the US Army - then straight to Special Forces in Vietnam as trainers/instructors/advisors – whate-have-you.
"At some point after this they were sent "up country" on Special Operations.
"When their tour finished, the ones who made it back had a choice. Sign up for another one or resign and re-enlist with the British Army."
He didn't add any more. I wasn't sure what to say. From my expression it was obvious I wasn't convinced. He laughed and said he didn't much care whether I believed him or not – he was too old to argue and nobody gave a monkey's anyway.
Too long ago.
We left it at that.
But my interest was piqued. When Thiti went shopping, something I hated and she loved, I headed for the nearest internet cafe.
I found a few bits and pieces about his claim – along with denials that any such thing had ever happened - but no firm evidence one way or the other. In the end I was none-the-wiser and let it go. I had enough on my plate with the Austrian stuff anyway.
The week passed quickly.
By the end of it we'd had a good time together. Unforced and easy – like it had been from the start. We flew back to Bangkok for my last night. The next day she saw me off at the airport. When we said goodbye there was no lingering clinch – no theatricals - we weren't a couple of kids.
We'd both had our share of disasters.
We said we'd keep in touch. Take our time with it. If all went well I'd return for a week in May and we'd take it from there.
And so it was.
The journey back to Wuhan was long and uneventful.
My apartment was freezing.
As I unpacked my bag I found a letter she'd hidden in one of the pockets. It was quite long. In it she said more or less what I was thinking – hoping for something but expecting nothing.
And there was lots more. I read it through a number of times. The protective wall I'd built around myself had not been breached – but a few cracks had definitely appeared.
Time for a first email me thought.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.