by Steve Tait
Palm trees, a straggly row of them running away into the distance. Jacob couldn’t even see where they ended, not that he bothered looking too hard. He had other things on his mind, weightier things than wind-blown palms. Crossing the wide street he found himself breaking into a jog to avoid the single pick-up hurtling down the road, sound system as well as engine in overdrive. His sandals, all solid leather, bit into his feet as he stretched out. It was a relief to whip them off once he was standing on the sandy path amidst the trees.
Claire had told him about this place. The beach just keeps on going, she’d said, long stretches of sand, a few rocky areas, a promontory, more sand – it just keeps on going. It’s a walk for dreamers, she’d said, a walk to lose yourself. But that was Claire, the original dreamer; a drifter who had wafted into his life, turned it upside down, and then breezed out again without so much as a backward glance.
Jacob hadn’t even needed her, not at first. New to Thailand, new to the job, he had enough on his plate without some free spirited butterfly coming to rest in the centre of his life.
“So this is Mukdahan, eh?” she’d said when she met him. “On the river, far from Bangkok – sounded good to me. Didn’t realise it’d be this sleepy though. The whole place is in a coma. Maybe that’s why it’s so damn hard to leave.”
They had met each other at a riverside bar. He’d spotted her sitting alone, assumed she was just another tourist passing through. Turned out she’d found herself a job at a local kindergarten. She had the honourable role of introducing her tiny charges to that monster known as the English language.
“Well,” he said, after learning of her employment, “maybe you could spice up the way you’re making those introductions. I don’t think they’re going too well.”
“Why’s that?” she’d replied, turning away from the river for the first time to take a good look at him.
“’Cause I’m teaching twelve year olds and they still see the language as a stranger, a thing to fear and loath.”
“So you think maybe I should dress the language up in new clothes or something.”
“Yeah,” he replied, not really knowing what she meant. “Either that or share it with someone who understands.”
She took him at his word and moved in two days later.
He immediately loved it; loved the comfort of her presence round the place. His days had been a tale of tribulations up till then, what with the classes every day, the kids all bouncing off the walls, local people both invasive and somehow distant too, and a language that remained impenetrable despite all his futile effort. Before Claire’s arrival he’d felt battered by the unfamiliar life pressing in all around him. But Claire was attached to no culture but her own. She would dote on him at times, following him around the house, then disappear for days on end, only to return with tales of mountainsides and dusty villages. Next would come the sleep. Days of it, as if overcoming the effects of too much living in too short a space of time.
Too much living. That’s how he felt. Or too much life perhaps, and he unable to find his place in it. Just too much of everything. He never seemed to have enough time to sort through it all. He was at life’s mercy, jostled endlessly by days spend too far from home.
With palm trees rustling in the breeze he looked out over the sea, white froth punctuating the waves as they tumbled onto shore. The surf was small, but the gusty winds and choppy seas had discouraged all but the hardiest swimmers.
Her exit came the way he knew it would. It was the week before the end of term. They had plans, to travel, to see something new. Maybe Burma, maybe even China. He had checked her small closet as he always did when she didn’t come home for a night. Still plenty of clothes in there, but that didn’t tell him much. It was a measure of the woman that possessions held little sway over her. He stared at the abandoned T-shirts and shorts. Just one more week of work. Why couldn’t she have waited? The question, as pointless as it was, haunted him. Regardless of how quickly they had come to value each other, he knew she never really acted with him in mind. She was impulsive. She’d had her fun in Mukdahan. As she might have said, isn’t that enough?
The palms were thinning out, shade becoming a thing of the past. High above, the sun was burning off the few wispy clouds around it. He grabbed his hat from his shoulder bag and threw it on his head. There were some food stalls a little further along. Probably selling seafood even at this time in the morning. He walked around the numerous smoking barbeques, admiring the oversized prawns, all so pink and tender.
That’s about how he had felt on that first day of the school break. Six weeks of supposed freedom, hard on the heels of a week spent beating himself up (“Where did I screw up? What did I do to force her away?”). Plans in disarray, and a head full of ‘what ifs’.
The overnight bus took him to Bangkok. Where else? Gordon had been happy to see him. They met at his favourite bar, Gordon immediately doing what Gordon does. As the beers kept coming, he was grateful for Gordon’s seemingly endless supply of stories about the joys of working for the UN; crazy stories of Pakistani pacifists intent on fighting for their rights, of Israeli hippies trying to live on 100 baht a day (but expecting a certain level of service, nonetheless), of larger than life Americans who had figured out the eternal dilemma of how to communicate with non-English speakers. (The answer required all around to wear earmuffs). And then that one beer that tipped the scales. Gordon’s mood darkened. Talk turned to work, to officialdom, to bureaucracy. Fucking money hungry, slime balls, they’d send their own people up the creek and over a damn waterfall if they could make a buck. Skimming so much off the top that projects never got finished and never made a difference. And all under the cover of smiles and obsequious niceties. Well fuck ’em all.
Jacob made his excuses and left. He had enough weight to carry without adding to it the burden of the entire civil service.
They must have done a lot of work here, he thought, as he rounded a large promenade complete with benches, a landscaped area with flowers and shrubs, and even a small amphitheatre. It must be lovely after dark, with the spotlights on and locals hanging around.
The midday heat forced him on. He headed back towards the coast, to another long stretch of beach, guarded by more wind-swept palms. The breeze had picked up, tugging at the drooping fronds of the trees. He looked up, green coconuts bunched together on each of them. How many people get hit by these things, he wondered, or does that only happen in cartoons? To get coconuted. He smiled to himself. That should be a word.
Not his joke, of course; Blake had come up with that. Abandoning Bangkok, he had determined to take Blake up on a longstanding offer. An old school friend, he had found himself a job as a dive instructor on one of the islands in the south. He’d got married a few months before, although the demands of the school term had prevented Jacob from attending. Of course, Claire’s refusal to consider the idea hadn’t helped. Too predictable, she’d said. Too predictable for what? he’d wanted to ask. But that would have angered her; it would have led to an exchange of words. He knew how that would end: with pushes and shoves, tears and hugs, leaving two distraught, emotional invalids back at square one. So of course he had let it pass.
Blake and Misha lived in a modest bungalow close enough to the sea to be able to smell the salt in the air. A couple of bedrooms, a cozy living room and a garden bursting with potential.
“They’re papaya plants. Not the most beautiful tree in the world, but gee they grow up quick. We’ll be eating our own papayas in no time.” Blake led him across the yard. In the late afternoon sun the host wore a sarong and little else, his rough, deeply tanned skin told of a life spent outdoors.
“Banana trees of course, and this one.” He pointed to a large, non-descript tree that offered plenty of shade. “That’s a rambutan tree. You wouldn’t believe how many rambutan we get! Anyway, have a seat.”
They had reached a gazebo in the corner of the yard. Misha was waiting there with drinks and a plate of fruit. She was a willowy, dark-haired beauty from India by way of Toronto. They’d met on a dive course and never looked back.
“Tell him how you proposed, Blake.”
Blake threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, not that again,” he said, clearly happy to have his new wife bring it up again. “You tell him.”
“You know Blake loves his music, right? Guitars lying around the house and all that. Well I kept trying to get him to play something for me. You know, to serenade me or something silly like that, but he just kept on refusing. Nuh. That’s all he’d say, and it was starting to piss me off.
“Then one afternoon, for no obvious reason, he asks me out to this club. Says it’s a pretty nice place for a drink. So we meet there and something seems a bit off. He’s talking with these guys setting up their instruments – a band of some sort. So they start playing covers – not bad. After a few songs they look at our table and to my total shock, they invite Blake up to join them. Next thing I know he’s playing this beautiful song.”
“Yeah. That’s what it was called. The most beautiful love song. And after it, from the stage, he asked me to marry him!”
Jacob laughed, praising Blake on his ingenuity. “Good for you guys. And you’re still happy here today. Long may it last.” He raised his glass in praise of the loving couple.
“Oh, it’ll last,” they said, hand in hand, eyes sharing something only they could know. Jacob fell heavily into silence, emptiness hollowing out his guts. Where had he gone wrong? he wondered. Why couldn’t that be him? Didn’t he have that sort of understanding with Claire? Weren’t they also lost souls looking for someone to hold on to? Or was that the problem – two lost souls clutching onto whatever came their way. One of them clutching, anyway. The other running before they had even had a chance to build a proper life.
He sat there, numb, as Blake and Misha took advantage of the audience they so obviously desired.
“Hey Blake, tell him about that secret cove we found down past Songkla.”
“Hey Mishi, did you tell him about that perfect dinner we had at that restaurant in Bangkok?”
Stories from a happy couple, tailor made for another happy couple. He made his excuses. Misery had no right to dampen others’ joy.
He was back at the seafood hawkers. He hadn’t even realised he’d turned around. There was a crowd there now, tables and chairs and a sea of umbrellas protecting the hungry beachgoers from the pounding sun. Thoughts of eating didn’t even cross his mind. He walked on, appreciating the soft, sand-covered path, the concrete walkway long since buried as the breeze shifted the sands here and there.
An older couple going in the opposite direction. Hadn’t he noticed them earlier? He was a Westerner, grey hair hidden under a lime green baseball cap, thick, sunburnt arms hinting at the regularity of these walks. His partner, a middle-aged Thai woman with the contented air of one who has happily resigned herself to a certain lifestyle. Her lime green hat was tucked under her arm, allowing her short black hair to blow wildly in the breeze. A nod, a smile, and then gone.
The coconut palms were thick now, providing welcome cover from the relentless pounding of the sun. He stopped, suddenly aware of his aching legs. Looking back he was astonished. Had he really walked that far? No wonder he was so weary. Turning to move on, he took a few paces before stopping in his tracks. The shock of it left him breathless. Momentarily disoriented, he swung around, a full circle, trying to fully appreciate where he was and what had happened.
He sat heavily on the edge of the concrete bench beside the path, letting the wind caress his face, letting this unfamiliar feeling of wellness settle. The smile was real, the feeling genuine. He thought of the effect of all his reminiscing. Yes, good times, happy memories, positive experiences that serve to keep you going.
But no, as true as that was, there was more. It took a moment for him to recognise it. The joy, the unadulterated delight was not from those memories. He looked up. A squirrel circled a branch, descended the trunk of the palm tree, stood with head facing down, and stared at him. He stared back. Squirrels have little tiny ears, and tiny guileless eyes. He had never noticed that before.
His smile grew wider as they eyeballed each other. No, it wasn’t the memories. He gave thanks for the hours of silence, the time and the space to be. It was getting past those memories, letting them slide away, acknowledged and noted. The smile was for here, for now. It was for the breeze and the palm trees, the sea and the sand.
The smile was for the squirrel, present, always present, open to the simple things.
The Breeze is not Steve Tait’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are: