By Paul Spurrier
The old man sat at his usual corner booth reading the Herald Tribune.
I call him the old man because soon we will be meeting a younger character, and by comparison, his seniority is undeniable. But in Bangkok, age is measured by a rather different set of benchmarks. He could still make the walk from Cowboy to Nana, although now he sometimes had to stop for a short rest at Thermae. He could still read the paper without the aid of glasses – at least if he sat at his usual booth by the window where the light was bright. He could still manage an hour upstairs at Penny Black without the use of little blue pills. And sometimes he reckoned he could still make a young girl shudder.
No, in Bangkok terms, he really wasn’t an old man at all.
Only occasionally, when a truck passed by outside and he caught his reflection in the darkened window, was he startled by the whiteness of his hair, and the lines segmenting his face.
Ralph – that was his name – had been in Bangkok a long time. Not long enough to remember the klong running down Silom or the dance parlours that predated the gogo bars, but long enough to remember the crash and the concrete high-rise skeletons that littered the landscape afterwards, to remember the dildo shows, to remember life before the skytrain, before McDonalds, before meters in taxis.
He had holed up in the Madrid during the coup, had been at the Texas Lone Star the day the buffalo arrived, and had been to the opening night party at Clinton Plaza.
He had lived in the same apartment for ten years, he received his pension through the same bank, and perhaps the biggest disruption to his routine was when the maid moved back home, and he would have to find a new one and explain to her that his books and letters could be dusted, but should never be tidied away.
For a man to have been in Bangkok as long as Ralph had and never be married - this did not come without effort, commitment, and obedience to a set of self-imposed rules.
Ralph never said ‘I love you’, he never even called a girl ‘tirak’, he never gave out his mobile number, he never took a girl to his apartment, and he never took a girl out twice.
And if a girl sat on the bed crying about her sick sister or cancerous mother or indebted father, he would politely wipe her tears and ask her if she wanted to take a shower first.
I do not want to give the impression he was an unkind man. He was no more unkind or unfeeling than the judge passing a life sentence, a vet administering a lethal injection, or a policeman drawing his weapon.
It’s just that Ralph had a nice life, a comfortable life, a life far more pleasant than any of his contemporaries back home in Colorado could dream of. And he didn’t want it to change. He didn’t want to build a house in Udon, or buy tractors for rice-farming, or have an apartment that stank of pla ra; and he most certainly didn’t want to have to think about International School fees.
So his heartstrings had become so strengthened over time that not even the strongest tug could produce any noticeable movement.
He liked women of course. He loved them. He perhaps felt more love than most men do, but his love was shared out, it was a communal love, a love of a woman with long brown hair, dark eyes, and chocolate skin.
Ralph was a contented bachelor.
But of course you’ve probably already guessed where this story is headed. For Ralph was human, and like all humans when his head rested on his pillow, in those brief moments between his last whisky coke and sleep, his imagination sometimes craved a face to fix on, a body to yearn for, and a soul to love.
Many are the lifelong bachelors who find themselves one day in a concrete hut somewhere near Buriram, their arms wrapped in strings. And some of those poor fellows who fall from their balconies in Pattaya find that a life dedicated to independence ends with a paragraph in the Pattaya Mail.
It wasn’t just because of the light that Ralph sat in that particular booth. It also so happened that he had a clear view past the counter into the kitchen beyond, and there at the sink in her yellow rubber gloves was the object of his fascination, and the ultimate source of his downfall.
Noy had come to work at the Old Dutch when she was barely seventeen. Her mother was the cook on the early shift, and had pleaded with the owner to find a job for Noy. Apparently the son of a local drug-dealer in the Prakanong slums where they lived had taken a shine to Noy, and the mother knew she must act quickly to save her daughter. Her little wooden shack and a teenage girl’s naiveté offered little protection against a lusty young man with a motorbike and gold.
Whether the owner took pity on the mother, or recognized the opportunity of a cheap worker is unknown, but Noy became the dishwasher and came to work each day with her mother and did a double shift.
And so one day two years ago when Ralph lowered his newspaper and glanced to the counter to try to order another cup of coffee, his eyes settled on Noy.
Ralph had long ago imposed an age limit on his sexual partners – not because he didn’t find teenage girls attractive, and certainly not because he feared some criminal or even divine retribution, but merely because experience told him they weren’t worth it. He had become bored and irritated with girls who insisted on watching Cartoon Network in bed - the starfish girls who would answer their mobile phone at the most inappropriate moment, whose idea of fashion sense was a T-shirt with a cute Japanese motif, and whose knowledge of the world barely spread beyond the outskirts of their Isaan village. And he hated to be called ‘papa’ or heaven forbid ‘grandpa’.
So although his feelings towards Noy were not entirely paternal, his yearning for Noy was not based on lust.
So what was it that made him gaze at her, made him want to cradle her face in his hands, made him want to trace his finger over her little nose, her pink lips, her soft skin, to brush her hair from her brow, and to tell her that he would take care of her forever?
Perhaps it was her purity, her sweetness, her innocence. Perhaps it was the way she could wash glasses with a delicacy, an almost balletic grace that turned that mundane act into a performance art. Perhaps it was her femininity, her sexuality that was so powerful and so evident in every move of her body, and yet which she was so totally unaware of. Perhaps it was the way she would giggle and lower her head when she sometimes caught him staring at her.
He wanted just once to wake up, to open the curtains, to allow the sun to stream in through the window and to be able to turn and see Noy’s face on his pillow bathed in golden light.
He wouldn’t even have to touch her.
He wouldn’t even need to touch her.
But in the two years that had passed by he had barely spoken to her. Their relationship, if it could possibly be described as such, was based entirely on gazes and giggles.
One time he had heard that it was Noy’s birthday, and he had bought her some expensive chocolates from Villa. She had acknowledged the gift with a gracious wai and a smile that was worth far more to him than the 200 Baht he had spent on the chocolates.
So he would from time to time buy her small gifts: a magazine, a comic book, a cake from Emporium, even on one occasion a t-shirt with a cute Japanese character motif.
And she would smile and wai him, and his old, hardened heart would glow.
In the two years he watched her grow and mature, but she seemed to become ever more fascinating and wonderful.
At this point, you might think that Ralph was a lost cause, that he was becoming another Bangkok romantic fool. But these encounters took up a small part of his day, and Ralph continued to climb the stairs of Penny Black just as often as ever. He still sometimes woke up with a stiff neck after a trip to Baccara, and often smelled of baby oil.
One of the reasons he had always liked breakfast at the Old Dutch was because it offered him just the right amount of companionship – friends who you didn’t always have to talk to.
Tourists generally ate breakfast in their hotels if they woke up in time, so most of the breakfast customers were regulars.
There was Joe, the Vietnam vet, who instead of reading the newspaper would often spend much of the morning sifting through old papers and correspondence researching a claim for payments from the US Army that he had explained to Ralph many times but Ralph didn’t really understand.
There was Mark, the golf pro, who came in for a coffee before his first lesson and would usually greet Ralph with exactly the same remark, "Did you see Tiger play yesterday? Magnificent."
There was Rudi the German, whose entire conversational repertoire revolved around the weather. When it was hot he would come in exclaiming "My Gott. It’s hot, no? Don’t you think it’s hot? I think now we’re into the hot season." And when it started raining, he would exclaim, "My Gott. It’s raining hard, no? Did you get caught in the rain? I think now we’re into the rainy season."
James, the Englishman, was perhaps Ralph’s least favourite breakfast companion. His life revolved not so much around sex, which would not be all that uncommon or irritating, but instead around talking about it. When he hadn’t had sex in a while, usually because he was strapped for cash, he would insist on telling everyone how long it had been since he had last got laid. But when he had managed to find a girl who would go home to his On Nut apartment for 1000 Baht, everyone would hear the finest details.
Preecha was the only Thai regular. He was a lawyer. To be precise, his business card introduced him as a lawyer, private detective, notary public, translator, and visa consultant. Ralph suspected there were other services he could offer that weren’t on his business card. He was a useful friend and a dangerous enemy. Ralph had once loaned some money to an acquaintance, and happened to mention to Preecha that the loan was overdue for repayment. Two days later Preecha turned up with the money. The borrower had left the country. Preecha spoke better English than any other Thai Ralph had ever met, and he loved to use it, peppering his sentences with words from the obscure depths of the dictionary.
The group gathered each morning, each at their own table. If something interesting had happened in sport or in the news, sometimes they would chat about it. Sometimes after breakfast had been cleared away, some would join another at their table and talk about the crossword, politics, Thaksin’s latest antics, or the golf.
But if it was a Monday, or if it was hot, or if there were hangovers, they would just acknowledge each other with a nod and sit silently, each absorbed in their own waking up ritual.
On the morning when my story really begins, Ralph was the last one in to the Old Dutch. A mosquito had somehow got into his room during the night and he had woken up in the early morning, itching. By the time he got back to sleep it was almost dawn, and his whole schedule had been broken.
He had woken up late, groggy and still itching. So when he opened the door to the Old Dutch, he was irritable and thinking only about his first cup of coffee.
He stopped and stared. Someone was sitting at his table! He looked for the Lek, the waitress. She was sitting by the counter reading a 7-11 catalogue. Was she so lazy that she had failed to notice that someone had sat at his table? Why had she not steered the intruder to one of the unadopted tables in the middle? He loitered for a few moments, before he realized that Joe, Mark and Rudi were staring at him.
Ralph moved to another table and sat down. In his haste, he had forgotten to stop at the newspaper rack. Now he would have to get up again and walk all the way across the floor, attracting even more attention to himself.
He glowered at Lek who had not yet even acknowledged his arrival, and decided that today she would most certainly not get a tip. In fact he might not tip her for a whole week.
Then he glowered at the second source of disruption – the interloper. He hated absolutely everything he saw. He hated the fact that he was young, he hated that he wore an earring, he hated that he was wearing a baggy jacket made out of some sort of space material, he hated the fact that he was wearing shorts, he hated the ethnic sandals he was wearing. This was without a doubt an utterly detestable human being – the sort that really should stick to the Khao San road and stay the hell away from decent people.
It was then that he noticed that the trespasser was reading the Herald Tribune. He didn’t even have to glance at the newspaper rack to know instinctively that it was the restaurant copy.
If Ralph had been able to charge his stare with 10,000 volts he would have. But maybe a small amount of power was transmitted, because the young whippersnapper looked up.
"I’m sorry, mate. Was this your table? I wanted to read the football results, and the light’s good here."
Typical! Ralph might have guessed. He was an Australian.
Ralph merely humphed. At the newspaper rack he picked up The Nation and shouted to the waitress for a coffee.
The waitress brought it to him and smiled. "How are you today?"
Ralph humphed again. The waitress looked confused and walked away. That was the problem with these people, Ralph thought. She would never understand why he was irritated. She would simply blame it on the mysteries of ‘farang’, when it was in fact quite largely her fault.
He decided there was no point in ordering breakfast. The experience was ruined already. He might as well finish his coffee, go home, and try and forget about it.
He was only three sips in to his coffee when he was interrupted.
"I guess you guys must have had a hard night, eh? You look a bit hung over mate. Mind you, I’m not too sharp myself. I only got two hours sleep. But then, you don’t come to Bangkok to sleep, do you?"
Ralph returned the slightest smile he could possibly manage and looked down again, secretly praying that this juvenile delinquent would just shut up.
"Miss. Can I have another coffee?"
Ralph thought to himself that the waitress hadn’t been a miss for at least fifteen years.
He looked up again. The hooligan was looking over towards the counter, but a strange look was in his eye. Ralph looked over to the counter, and realized with horror the source of the Aussie stare.
From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see Noy, but he knew she would be there in her yellow rubber gloves stroking and caressing the crockery.
This backpacking, Pad Thai eating moron was staring at Noy, his Noy. And it wasn’t just a casual stare. It was a stare filled with cheap sexual intent. He was violating her with his filthy, lusty looks. He was probably mentally undressing her. He was imagining her in her underwear, naked, lying on his bug-ridden mattress in his cheap motel. He was imagining her face on his threadbare pillow, moaning, gasping, her eyes wide, sweat on her brow. He was…
Walking towards the counter.
Stopping at the counter.
Giving his cup to the waitress.
Calling out to Noy, "Hey, what’s your name?"
Now she was coming out of the kitchen. She was giggling.
Ralph desperately wanted to get out. He didn’t want to be seeing this. But he couldn’t move.
More flirting, more giggling. She was shyly lowering her head, brushing her hair away from her eyes. She was so… amazing. Every gesture, every move was divine, and it was all for that Aussie tyke.
Then, finally, the waitress handed the little weasel his cup of coffee, and he returned to his table.
As he walked through the tables, a stupid grin was plastered across his stupid face, and as he passed Ralph, he winked.
Ralph threw a hundred Baht note on the table and left.
As Ralph entered his apartment gate, he did something he had never done before. He stopped, waied the spirit house, and silently uttered a prayer. "Please let me never see that idiot boy ever again."
But the idiot boy came back the next day.
Ralph was at his own table. He had arrived almost twenty minutes earlier than usual, and was sitting with his coffee and his Herald Tribune, and a perfect view of little Noy.
He heard the door open and shut, but didn’t even look up. It was about the time when his breakfast companions would start to arrive.
It wasn’t until the Antipodean scallywag was sitting opposite him that he knew what was happening.
"Is it okay if I sit here mate? I see you’ve stolen my newspaper. Maybe you could take out the sports pages for me."
There he was, with his tan, his ridiculous, long, wavy blonde hair, his bare muscular arms, both tattooed with some sort of Chinese zen tattooed rubbish, his hilltribe necklace, and his stupid, stupid grin.
"Well, actually, I like to start my day with a little peace and quiet – just, you know reading the paper, sitting on my own. If that’s okay?"
The grin never subsided.
"Jeeze mate. Steal the paper, and evict me from my seat. Okay, no worries. I understand."
He got up and walked away. But instead of going to another table, he went over to the counter and sat on the stool. Ralph watched him. What did he think he was doing?
The counter at the Old Dutch wasn’t for customers. It wasn’t a bar counter or a breakfast counter. It was just a serving counter. Okay, in the evening when the place was full, maybe one might grab a stool and sit at the counter, but at breakfast it was unheard of. Lek, walked over to the young buck, and Ralph smiled. Lek was in a bad mood this morning. She had slopped his coffee on the table when she gave it to him, and didn’t even offer to clean it up. She would give this rapscallion a telling off, and send him off to a table.
Except she didn’t. The blonde-haired monster smiled and told Lek how pretty she was today, and suddenly she was all beams and smiles. She was acting all coy in a way that Ralph had never seen before.
It was then that Ralph realised – although to him this puffed up vagabond represented everything hideous - the worst sort of pot-smoking, surfboarding, irresponsible, slack-off wastrel, he was also exactly the sort of twerp who he saw on the cover of magazines, on billboards, on perfume ads. Yes, as horrible as it was to admit, women liked this type of dopey hunk.
And then of course it got worse. The sneaky brat was calling out to Noy. And she was coming out of the kitchen, and she was smiling and giggling, and they were talking. Talking! She couldn’t even speak English for Christ’s sake! Or at least he didn’t think she could. What the hell could they talk about? Some sort of Bacharach string nonsense was playing in the restaurant, and he couldn’t hear. But he could see, and what he saw filled him with hatred. Noy was flirting. Her body-language was unmistakable. How could she? How could she possibly not see through this scoundrel’s phony patter? Did she not realise what he was up to? Did she not see through his testosterone-fuelled banter? Did she not understand that all he wanted was to have his way with her, to use her, to notch her up on his bedpost, to add her to a list of conquests, then to return to Australia with a story to tell his mates. He wouldn’t take care of her. He wouldn’t know how to. He wouldn’t treat her with the dignity, the love, the care that she deserved. He wouldn’t nurture her, groom her, allow her to bloom.
But then maybe… Oh God! Maybe that’s what she wanted. She was a teenage girl after all. It wasn’t out of the question that her thoughts might also be sexually inclined. Maybe she wanted this. His emotions turned from hatred to despair.
A couple of the other diners were watching this encounter also. Mark turned to Ralph and gave a little eyebrows raised look that conveyed sympathy. Ralph realised that apparently his own little flirtations had not gone unnoticed amongst his colleagues, and that they all knew exactly what was going on. Ralph’s position was being usurped, his love being stolen away - the young challenger was taking his crown away right from under his nose.
He left the restaurant, went home and paced his small apartment, to the confusion and annoyance of the maid.
When he returned to the restaurant next morning, he went armed.
He brought a box of chocolates from Villa – the finest they had, in a small gold box with a bow on. He went to the counter, and quietly, without being ostentatious, handed them to Noy. She smiled sweetly, waiied him, and returned to the dishes.
But when the door opened, and the young descendant of convicts went to the counter, wasn’t Noy’s smile perhaps slightly wider?
Ralph decided not to watch. He had planted his seed, he had stated his intentions. This impertinent gatecrasher was just a tourist passing through. Ralph would be there long after he had gone. This was just a passing nuisance.
Lek came over to refill his coffee. She was chewing on something.
"Mmm. Chocolate very good."
"Yes. Noy she don’t like chocolate. She give to me. Aroy mahk mahk."
This went on for a full week. The Beach Boy reject showed no signs of heading off to the islands, or going home. Each day he turned up, sat at the counter and Noy and he would chat and flirt. Each day, Ralph’s mood worsened, and he sank into depression. He even thought about having his breakfast elsewhere, but then he would truly have been defeated. And everyone in the restaurant would know it. If he missed a day, he would probably never be able to show his face there again.
So he just sat, drank his coffee, tried to read the Herald Tribune, and tried to ignore the fact that Noy and this little shite seemed to be destined bedwards.
Then after a week of this, one morning his challenger entered the restaurant, came over and sat down opposite him.
"Look mate. I wonder if you can do me a favour. I’m new here in town. I still don’t know the layout of things. But I can see you’ve been here a while. I thought maybe you could help me."
Ralph put down his paper.
"Help you how exactly?"
Here it came. He was probably going to ask for money. These chaps were all penniless. He had probably run out of cash and needed a plane ticket home. Ralph thought that he might even pay for a ticket.
"I’ve got a date. I want to show her a really nice time. But the problem is, I’ve never taken a decent girl out here. I mean, there have been loads of women, but I normally just take them back and shag them. I want to take her to a really nice restaurant, do it properly, you know. I was wondering where you’d take a girl to really impress her. If I’m going to get this girl into bed, it’s going to need a bit of fancy foreplay."
Ralph hardly dared ask,
"That depends. It depends on the girl. Who is she?"
"It’s that girl who washes the dishes. Noy’s her name. I’ve been working on her for a while now. She’s never had a boyfriend before, and she’s really shy. But she’s fucking cute. At first she kept saying she had to work every day, but it’s her day off on Sunday, and she’s agreed to go out with me."
Ralph could not hold back.
"Look. Why don’t you just leave her alone? If you want sex, there’s a thousand girls within a hundred yards of here who’ll go home with you. The girl you’re talking about is a decent girl. She doesn’t go with customers, you can’t barfine her. She’s very young. She’s not available. Just stop pestering her."
The Aussie vermin smiled.
"Hey mate. Why didn’t you tell me before? I never knew you had the hots for her too. Not that I blame you. But hey. Don’t you think you’re a bit old for her, mate? I mean she’s young enough to be your granddaughter."
"My intentions in her regard are entirely honourable. I just want to protect her from guys like you who come here and just see her as just another girl they can screw, and then piss off back home leaving her sullied and dirtied."
The little prat laughed,
"Sullied? Jeeze! Which century are you from mate? Anyway, don’t you think it’s her choice? Don’t you think it’s up to her who she goes out with? I mean if you really think she’d rather go out with an old man like you, why don’t you just ask her? I’m not stopping you."
By now all the other diners had turned and tuned into this exchange. The tofu-eating retard didn’t seem to care.
"You do what you want to mate. You think you got a chance, you go for it. But you’re not going to stop me having a go."
It was James, perhaps the most unlikely person, who spoke up at this point.
"I think what Ralph is trying to say is that we are all regulars here. The staff here look after us – that is when they’re in a good mood. And we sometimes look after them too. When Lek’s niece was ill in Korat and she had to go home, we had a whip-round and helped her out with the busfare. We’ve all known Noy for years now. She’s like a daughter to us, isn’t that right, Ralph?"
Ralph could think of no sensible response,
"You’re probably just passing through town. Any day now, you’re going to piss off back home. But we’re still going to be here. And when Noy is all heartbroken and crying, we’re the ones who get dirty dishes."
There were murmurs of support from the other diners. Aussie boy was not fazed.
"I see. So you’re like defending her honour right?
"That’s about it."
"That’s bullshit! You’re all just pissed off because I’m the new guy. I’m not a member of the club, right? There’s not a single one of you that would turn down a roll in the hay with Miss Noy. That’s probably why you all come here. So you can sit here ogling her, and waiting for the day when she finally gives in and screws one of you out of sympathy."
Ralph was not going to take that.
"You have no idea how she feels or what she wants. You think because you come here for one week, you can just sweep her off her feet? She’s not that stupid. Any one of these men here would give her a better future than you ever could, and she knows it."
Ralph realised as he said this that is wasn’t really true. Joe could barely afford his breakfast coffee, Rudi would bore her stiff in about ten seconds, the only thing Mark could teach her about life was how to improve her golf swing, and James would be screwing around behind her back within a week. Preecha… well, he was Thai. He didn’t count. No, in fact it was quite clear that there was only one man who had the resources, the dedication, the knowledge, the passion to inspire her, teach her, take care of her.
Aussie thought about this.
"Look, I don’t like what you’re implying. I like this girl. I really do. I was just passing through, that’s right. But if I meet the right girl, maybe I’ll settle down here. I get an allowance, I don’t have to work. I could take care of her financially for the rest of her life. But you don’t think I’m good enough for her, that’s up to you. You think she’d rather be with some geriatric who’ll probably die before she reaches thirty, that’s what you think."
Lek the waitress was watching this. Nothing that ‘farang’ did really surprised her, but it was unusual. She had no idea what they were talking about.
Rudi coughed and started to speak.
"When I was a student in Heidelberg, we had a way of sorting out disagreements of this sort. We used the sword.. The first person to draw blood from the torso was the winner. The other one had to withdraw and never speak to the young lady again. I myself was once challenged to a duel of the sort. I lost. But it’s okay. Now that same young beautiful German fraulein is 70 kilos, and I’m in Bangkok."
Mark piped up.
"It’s a great idea, but I don’t think you can start drawing swords in the middle of Soi Cowboy. I don’t even know where you’d get swords."
"You could use my guns," suggested Preecha.
"Thank you all for your suggestions," said Ralph. "But I don’t think a shootout is really the appropriate way to settle this."
"Maybe it is." Aussie took a moment to think about this. "It wouldn’t have to be real bullets. We could use blanks."
"It wouldn’t be much of a duel with blanks." Ralph scoffed.
"But maybe it would. What if we stage a duel? We both fire blanks, and we both fall over and pretend to be wounded. Then we see what happens. If Noy runs to you, then she loves you. If she runs to me, then it’s me she cares about more."
Ralph laughed. "I think you’ve been reading too many comic books."
"I’m prepared to do it. If you win, I back off. I never come in here again. That’s the deal. But if I win, I get to go out with her, and you don’t do anything to stop it."
He was actually serious, James thought. It was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard of – two grown men, well one grown man and one teenage moron – duelling for the affections of the dishwasher.
Except of course she wasn’t just a dishwasher. She was Noy, the girl who brought light into his soul every morning, whose very existence he treasured. He could not even bear to think about her lying naked under this sweaty overstuffed dunce. He really would do anything to protect her from that.
And if the invader really would just go away, then everything would be fine again. His routine would be restored. Normality would return.
So he found himself saying,
"Okay, I’ll do that."
The plan was set for the next morning at 8.00.
The Old Dutch breakfast diners had never been so excited before. But the plan was that they must remain in the restaurant, and pretend to be oblivious to the events going on outside.
Only Preecha was to be outside with the two duellists, giving them their weapons, and ensuring fair play.
And so, in the morning light before the day had really started to get hot, when all the bargirls were tucked up in a bed somewhere, with only the cleaning ladies and the cats as an audience, the challengers met on Soi Cowboy outside the Old Dutch.
Ralph was wearing a jacket. He realised that even a pretend fall could do damage to aging bones, and he wanted a little padding. But it wasn’t his best jacket. The street of Cowboy in early morning was perhaps one of the filthiest places on earth.
The abysmal Australian was, Ralph noted, wearing some ridiculous sporting shirt, probably for cycling or something, emblazoned with a big tick.
Ralph had drunk rather too many whisky-cokes the night before. He thought it was probably not a bad idea to blot out reasonable thought. If he thought too much about the foolhardy nature of the plan, he would never do it. And he had to do it. If he could save Noy from the clutches of this callow youth, it might be the most noble and honourable act of his entire life.
He hoped that he would be able to actually fire the gun. He had never fired a gun in his life, and it didn’t seem quite as easy as it looked in TV cop shows. The trigger was stiff, and it took quite a lot of effort.
What if he fumbled and dropped it?
Preecha called them together. It was 8.00. Preecha explained for about the fifth time how it was going to work.
Then they stood back to back. Preecha who had spent the previous evening reading old swashbuckling English novels, called out,
The duellists started walking slow, large paces in opposite directions.
On this cue, James, sitting inside the restaurant, pretended to notice what was happening outside, and shouted,
"Look! They’ve got guns!"
And then, as per his prepared text,
"Doo si! Kon farang mee bern!"
This did indeed attract the attention of both Lek and Noy.
With perfect timing, they ran out of the door to see what was happening just as the two cowboys finished their ten paces and turned.
They had measured it accurately. Noy was equidistant now from both men. She would have to choose to run to the left to Ralph, or to the right to Kangaroo Jack. Or of course she might run nowhere at all. This was something that no-one had really considered.
Inside the restaurant, the breakfast club was at the window, peering to see the outcome.
Both men fired their guns, almost simultaneously. The noise was louder than anyone had expected.
James remarked, "Shit, that’s going to get the cops here!"
And both men fell. The Australian fell with a cry and a gurgle. It must be said it was a rather overacted performance. Ralph fell more gently, more sort of crumpling, worrying about his bones.
And they waited to see what would happen next.
It was as he lay there, hoping, wishing, and praying for Noy to come to his side, that Ralph began to feel a throbbing in his chest. It had been agreed that they would both lie absolutely still, so he did not move to investigate the source of the throbbing, but he could feel something very wrong happening inside him. He was finding it hard to breathe. His eyesight was becoming blurry. Something had gone very wrong.
He was now flat on his back, gazing up at the unlit neon signs, the satellite dishes, the washing, and realised that this was where he was going to die.
And then his vision was filled with the most glorious sight imaginable. Like an angel descended from the skies, Noy’s face was above his. And she was crying. And she was talking.
"Why? Why you do this? Why? I don’t understand. I think you love me. I think you want take care me. You think I like boy? If I want boy, can have many. But can have only one Papa. I want you take care me. Why you do this?"
Her tears dropped onto his face as she cradled his head in her hands. And her face dissolved into a white, bright light.
No-one could ever find out how a real bullet got into one of the guns. Preecha swore that he had checked them both. Any maybe he had. Or maybe he forgot.
It took a lot of clearing up. The kid was hurried off back to Australia, a suicide plan engineered, witnesses paid off, policemen bribed not to investigate too closely. Preecha sorted it all out. It cost a packet of course, but the boy’s parents were rich and they paid the bill. Preecha ended up doing rather well out of it. Some might even have wondered.
Joe, Mark, Rudi, James and Preecha are all still there. No one ever mentions Ralph, except on the anniversary where they raise a glass to his memory.
Noy is there too, still in her yellow rubber gloves, still keeping the dishes clean, and still giggling.
But every now and then, her hands still in the sink, she pauses. She looks over to the table by the window, now empty, the sunlight streaming in, her gaze turns wistful, and she wipes away a tear as she remembers her Papa.
Note: Paul assures me with great sincerity that the character of Ralph was not based on me, nor was the character of Noy based on the gorgeous 19-year-old dishwasher who once worked at the Londoner Pub whom one (regardless of age) tended to drool over. DB
Copyright Paul Spurrier 2007
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