Beginning this week, we will be featuring the winners of the Words, Pauses, Noises writing competition. The winners are being posted in no particular order and will also be featured in the upcoming publication.
Starting us off is a wonderful short story by Kingston Alumni A. A. Moore. Moore’s experiences traveling and working in Asia gave her a plethora of stories for which to draw on when sitting down to write. She reminds us that one of the most important things in life for a writer is to get out from behind the desk and into the unknown as often as humanly possible.
The Water Festival
A miniature fort of suitcases surrounds them – her jeans and jumper. The jealousy digs, ever so slightly. Next weekend she’ll be drinking Jagermeister, prince blasting on the jukebox, Dan doing lines in the toilets, everyone winding him up with paranoia tricks. Sinead slipping free triples over the counter.
She’s going home.
“You gonna call Eros?” She starts to dismantle the fort, kicks her bags towards the door.
“It’ll be fun, back to the islands. Shame he’s a bit of a twat.”
“Yeah. And I dunno if I can stand that bus trip again.”
She’s at the door. I want to say something else.
“Well fix your bag,” she starts to laugh. “Too many Thai guys got to see your underwear… Their eyes were like Christmas.”
She hesitates. I probably look small in this room, in this city, in this country.
“It’s cool,” I shrug her off. “You were just a fling in this adventure.”
“A good one though.”
She’s out of the door, a weighed down packhorse. Four times more stuff for her two weeks than I have packed for six months away.
It’s very quiet. Now the sounds of Bangkok motorbikes seem fierce outside my window. I scroll to Eros. I look at it. I shut my phone. I’ve become addicted to temples. I sit in the shade of a small one, near my guest house, looking at the sculptures and making up my own interruptions about which God resides here.
I shut my eyes. I feel the cold stone under bare sole. I feel what it’s like to be completely alone, in a country where no body knows me. At a time where no one on the plant could pin point my location, not even for a million pounds.
“Hello Miss.” A middle age Asian man sits down. Short brown hair with kind brown eyes and wrinkles.
“You like this temple.” He observes me.
“It is good temple. Bangkok have many good temple. And many good food.” He grins, his teeth a bit black from tobacco plant, tongue ash-kissed. “You like Bangkok food?”
“Surapong.” He extends his hand. “You’re English.”
Surapong does most of the talking. He tells me about the water festival happening that night and how he will take me with his daughter. I nod along and tell him that’s a very gracious offer.
“My pleasure. You come with me. We have great time.”
“I better go now.” I stand, slowly as I’ve lost some feeling in my legs.
“Come here. 8pm. I pick you up on bike. We go with my daughter to water festival yes?”
“You know no one here yes?”
“Ah so we go water festival.”
It’s about 7.45 and I’m sitting on my bed. Bangkok is livelier than ever outside. I’ve eaten dinner. I’m not tired. I look outside my window. It’s starting to get dark.
Outside the temple I kick the dust with my sandals and feel the hot air on my cheeks. The noise of a motor bike draws nearer. It’s Surapong, riding up like a knight. He pulls the bike round and grins at me. A small girl pops out from between his legs, she must be about seven or eight.
“This is Jam,” he displays her proudly. Then with some urgency –
“Come Miss, we go water festival now.”
I gingerly manoeuvre myself onto the back on the bike. I grip the sides of Surapong’s baggy t. shirt.
A time where no one on the plant could pin point my location, not even for a million pounds.
I do not know this man. I do not know this city. The prostitution trade in Bangkok is huge – hundreds of western girls get sold into it every year. How could I be so dumb? Why had I not at least informed the guesthouse staff where I was going? I start to panic. I start to play out how this could go down inside my head. I start to try and mentally follow our route – left, right, crossroads, right, second left – shit, fuck. We drive fast, we lean into the corners, we have no headgear. Bangkok in all it’s fairy light colour, steaming smells and offensive noise rushes past us in a blur.
Surapong slows the bike, and turns into a multi-story car park, industrial and grim. There’s an office on one side. An Asian girl comes to the door. She looks amazingly nonchalant. She leans against the doorframe and stares me down. Her hair is jet black. She’s sexy, skinny and paper fragile, like so many of the girls here. Her stare frightens me.
I’m REALLY dead. It’s over. How did I think I could survive travelling on my own? I knew something like this would happen. I knew I’d get sold as a prostitute. Fuck, fuck, fuck. My mum will be so pissed at me. Oh god, this is terrible…
Surapong walks over to a big black car with blacked out windows. Now all the films I’ve ever seen are screaming at me – DO NOT GET INTO THAT CAR.
He opens the car door, beckons to the nonchalant girl.
“We go in car so my family can come too.”
I don’t move.
“We all go to water festival yes?”
He beckons to the car, looks confused and then moves towards me. I back away slightly. Jam skips over to her father, as if on cue, and wraps her arms around his legs.
“I’m sorry Surapong. Please don’t be offended, but I can’t ride in that car with you.”
Surapong looks deeply offended.
“But why? We go water festival in car.”
“But you said bike.”
“But my family…” Surapong gestures to the nonchalant girl whose eyes are still seeping into my flesh, and another man, either her husband or her pimp, who has just appeared behind her, one hand on her shoulder.
“But they cannot come then…” Surapong eye’s plead with me. I am almost taken in. I shift uncomfortably. I can hear my mother and teachers applauding me silently. Stranger danger! Better to be safe than sorry! Be sensible for once in your life, you stupid girl!
“Maybe you can drive me home on the bike and then come back and take your family? I don’t want to prevent your family from going, but I won’t ride in the car.”
A moment, then something in Thai from Surapong-
A skipped heartbeat, the moment of truth, life or death…The nonchalant girl breaks her stare, goes back inside the office. The young man follows. Surapong slams the car door.
“Okay we go, they stay.”
“Surapong, I’m –”
He waves it off. “It is done.”
He gets back on the bike. Jam squeezes between his legs. My heart still races but I choose the bike over the deserted carpark. We speed off again into the Bangkok night.
Where we stop next there are lots of people and I relax. Surapong won’t let me pay for anything. The water festival is a beautiful blur of sparkling lights, fireworks and hundreds upon hundreds of flowered wreathes, all with single candles alight and floating, captivatingly down the river. Some have come from as far as Chang Mai, and all to say “Thank You” to the water.
I put my wreath down and whisper, “Thank you water. We’d be totally screwed without you.”
Surapong tries to take me to a fancy restaurant, one that I’m sure he definitely cannot afford. I insist we go somewhere else so he takes Jam and I to a riverside restaurant where we buy tickets and exchange them for fish and noodles. Karaoke and a bizarre raffle that I don’t, and can’t, understand fill the air. It’s perfect.
Later Surapong drops me back at my guesthouse. He grins the same slightly black smile. I give Jam a little hug before she runs shyly back behind her father. She won a huge stuffed baby that looks like a marshmallow in the raffle. She clutches it. “You like water festival yes?”
“Tomorrow I take you for noodles. I pick you up here yes?”
“I don’t know…”
Surapong takes a piece of paper and scribbles a phone number down for me.
“You know no one here yes?”
“No! Now you know Surapong! And his family.”
He puts the piece of paper in my hand.
“Bye Surapong. And thank you, it was really special.”
Surapong grins. “We have many special things in Bangkok. Very special place.”
I walk into the guesthouse. The man, the child and the marshmallow watch me go.
My net-book’s winking at me. She’s out of the sky already, almost home.
“So… how are the islands second time around? And what about Eros? I hope you managed to ditch him for someone a bit more special?”
I sit and smile to myself. I tap the keys for a short reply…
“Yeah, something like that.”
Whether you call it guts or cautious optimism, Moore has it. She succeeds in passing on to her readers the uneasiness that many of us can feel when immersed in a different culture for the first time. She also forces the reader to ask what they would do if put in a similar situation.
It’s important to note that you don’t have to travel all the way to South East Asia to gain new experiences as a writer. Pen and paper in hand, simply pick a direction, wander and observe. Whether it’s across the world or down the block, people watching is one of our greatest tools as writers. Stay tuned next week for another winner from the Words, Pauses, Noises competition.