Koh Mak, Thailand
I tease him about the women who stare, both local and farang, and he acts slightly embarrassed, but his smile says this is not something he’s unfamiliar with. Some part of him still likes the attention, but in his forties perhaps he’s not quite as affected. I’m a very different man from ten years ago, he says. There is a fragility about him, a tender movement of body and limbs, like he’s carrying something breakable tucked under his arm in bubble-wrap. I didn’t know him at 20 or 30 but I can imagine him at a pub in London out with his mates catching the eye of every female on the hunt.
But this is not what catches my attention when I meet this Englishman sitting at a cafe by Ao Nid pier, drinking red bull on the rocks. That’s awful stuff, I say. You get used to it, he replies, and it keeps me off other stuff. He’s sketching men in yoga and meditative poses. Some of them have beards, some thin as a monk, but if you look closely you recognise the wide eyes, both curious and wary. They are the eyes of someone who’s been kicked in the belly and told to stay the fuck down but got up anyhow. These drawings are all of him.
He went to art school and painted, and because he was talented, he collapsed under the weight of his success. He pulls out photographs of his work tucked between the pages of a leather journal. There’s one of a bearded man with a hammerhead shark’s snout perched on his head. I don’t ask him what it means but it must be about a man blissfully unaware of danger. Or someone who’s embraced it. Another painting is of a man without a beard this time and a porbeagle on his head, cradling a ginger cormorant in his arms while standing in knee-deep water. But he doesn’t paint anymore. He is nonchalant when he tells me.
As I look at his art I feel a violent anger, a helplessness at what might be permanently lost. I feel like slapping him.
When he tells me about his life back in London, he says it’s similar to how he makes coffee. He uses a French press, which requires a steady hand as you push down the plunger. He explains: That was pretty much what I did to my life in London. I shoved that fucker down and all that’s left is what’s necessary—work, my plants, friends I meet for movies and coffee. Sometimes I restore vintage bikes.
I watch him consume two red bulls, a can of coke and a cup of coffee. I would be chewing my nails and pulling out my hair, but when he lights his roll-up cigarette, which he is also very fond of, his hand doesn’t shake. I don’t ask him why he needs so much caffeine.
He’s due to return to London the following week and I wish that we had more than this morning. But it is the sort of conversation where we gloss over details like names, addresses, work, and instead outline our stories until they hang over us like mosquito nets, catching flies, cockroaches, all forms of insects that bite, leave red welts, and because we are on an island and swim in the sea everyday, the bites don’t heal as quickly.
We say goodbye. I ask the trite question because saying goodbye is never straightforward and because I am genuinely curious: what will you do when you get back to London? He shrugs, and I can see that while there is uncertainty, he is not adrift.
First, he says, I will get a tattoo in Bangkok. In London, perhaps I will buy a boat and live in it. I need a change.
Then he adds: maybe I will start painting again.