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I was at a bar on Soi 8 when I first met Gary. We were all perched on stools looking out on the lane, bottles of Chang or Singha parked in front of us, sweating under the inadequate ceiling fans and swallowing the exhaust fumes of the motorbike taxis racing to and from Sukhumvit Road in the evening rush hour.
Sitting next to me was Gary, burly in a t-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. He had shoulder-length white hair that accentuated his deeply-tanned, lined face. I didn’t take much notice of him initially. Bangkok bars are full of aged farang – or foreigners – and I put Gary down as just another relic of the hippy era eking out his pension in the Land of Smiles. But I needed a new home, so I was immediately interested when he mentioned that the flats at Palm Court were cheap.
“Don’t expect anything upscale man,” he told me in a slow American drawl. “It’s an old place, built in the sixties for GI’s and their families. But it’s in the centre of town and the apartments are big.”
Tens of thousands of US troops were based in Thailand during the Vietnam War. I knew that there was still a small American military presence in Bangkok, housed in a secure space discreetly positioned amid embassies and hotels. It turned out that Palm Court was nearby, tucked down a narrow, twisting soi running off Sathorn Road.
Walking into the compound was like entering a church where parishioners had been replaced by cars. A high roof arched nave-like over a dimly-lit driveway that acted as the aisle, the parking spaces to either side empty pews waiting for worshippers. There was a bookcase outside the manager’s office, where residents dumped tattered paperbacks. I noticed one titled How to Quit Drugs for Good.
Inside the office a middle-aged woman with short, dyed black hair was tapping away at an electric typewriter. I had to stop myself from taking a photo. It had been years since I’d seen anyone using a typewriter. I asked if she was the manager.
“Yes. I am Khun Fah.”
“Have you got any apartments for rent?” She opened a drawer, extracted a bunch of keys, motioned me to follow her and clicked away in her heels.
At the end of the driveway was Palm Court’s spirit house. Every building occupied by Buddhists has one, a doll’s house for malevolent genies. It had a sloping roof and was raised on a plinth garlanded with chains of yellow flowers. Tiny figures stood inside. Sticks of incense were burning outside the front door, alongside bottles of a fizzy red drink with straws in them. They were offerings to keep the bad spirits in their house, so that they weren’t tempted to roam Palm Court’s apartments.
Emerging into sunlight, we rounded a corner to a hushed cul-de-sac. Houses were positioned around three sides of a trimmed green lawn. Flowering bushes, ferns with droopy, melancholy leaves and the skinny-trunked palms that gave their name to the compound barricaded the homes. Running the length of one side of the lawn was a four-storey block of apartments, its flat roof sprouting rusting satellite dishes.
Whitewash was peeling off the building, leaving it spotted with patches of grey. The flats had wooden window frames and doors leading onto concrete balconies. They looked dated and decrepit in comparison to the much newer towers that loomed over Palm Court, hemming it in on all sides. The swimming pool was next to the apartments. It was missing some of its tiles. Others were cracked or broken, leaving them with menacing, jagged edges.
“Does it get cleaned?”
“Every day,” said Khun Fah. “Maybe we repair the tiles in the rainy season.”
The vacant flat was on the third floor. There were parquet floors throughout and a helicopter fan was suspended from the ceiling of the large living room.
“Air-con in the bedroom only,” Khun Fah said, indicating the ancient unit. “Any problem, we fix for free.”
All the furniture appeared to have come from a 1970s discount warehouse. The bathroom looked like it hadn’t been updated since the block was built. But the flat was a decent size and a bargain for central Bangkok. I decided to take it.
Moving was easy. I unpacked my two suitcases, put my laptop on the sole table and arranged an internet connection. Then I settled down to my usual routine, which was editing the Thailand pages of a travel website. You know the sort of thing: reviews and recommendations for backpackers too lazy or uninspired to go off and explore on their own.
It was tedious work but had the advantage of a regular salary. I’d spent the previous year freelancing, which is a struggle in a country that the UK newspapers mostly associate with elephants and hookers. The editors of the foreign pages were mainly interested in what they called “Brits in Shit” stories – tales of tourists whose holidays had ended in hospital, jail or the morgue. Thailand has its fair share of debauched, derelict or dodgy Britons, but there weren’t enough of them to make a living.
My day started with a coffee and cigarette on the terrace. It was already hot at nine in the morning, the sweat trickling down my back gluing me to the fake leather upholstery of the Palm Court chairs. Beyond the balcony, yellow-beaked myna birds squawked above the brown and white squirrels playing chase along the branches of the gnarled, thick-trunked rain tree that rose up from the lawn below.
Wild-eyed cats were crouched in a semi-circle at the bottom of the stairs whenever I descended to the pool. They retreated reluctantly, before regrouping ahead of the daily hunt for rats and lizards. The pool was ringed on three sides by clumps of banana trees through which white butterflies darted. Dragonflies circled in rough formation above the water, ready to dive down and buzz the head of any swimmer.
Most of the time the pool was empty. I assumed that the broken tiles with their razor-like edges kept people away. The water was always inviting, though; its colour matching the cloudless, cerulean sky. Shafts of sunlight flickered all around me when I struck out with some desultory breaststroke. They created elongated geometric shapes that danced on the pool’s floor or pulsed along the walls like an underwater heart monitor, spiking and dipping as if measuring my progress through the water.
But one morning I arrived to find a nut-brown body sprawled out on a sun lounger. The man’s face was covered by a battered straw hat with gaping holes in the crown. A paperback lay on his belly. He stirred on hearing me and Gary’s jowly, unshaven face emerged from underneath the hat.
“Hi,” he said in his lazy drawl. He looked at me quizzically. “We’ve met before right?”
“Yes. You told me about Palm Court. I’m Matthew. I moved in earlier this month.”
“I’ve been here so long I can’t remember when I moved in. I’m Gary.” He stretched, scratched his groin and tilted his head upwards, offering his face to the sun as if he was a sacrifice waiting for a high priest to speed him to paradise.
Gary reached for his book, which was titled The Man Called Noon. “You know Louis L’Amour?”
“I’ve never read any. Westerns aren’t they?”
“Yup. He’s the greatest writer. I think he must have sold more books than anyone else. They made this one into a movie but it wasn’t that good. You ever see Hondo? John Wayne’s in it. Louis L’Amour wrote the story for that one.”
Discarding the novel, Gary hauled himself off the lounger, dropped his hat by the side of the pool and jumped in with a loud splash. Quickly surfacing, he put the hat on his head and started bouncing from foot to foot.
“How do you like Palm Court?”
“It’s fine so far. I didn’t expect it to be so peaceful.”
“It’s an oasis man. We’re in the heart of the city, but we wake up to the birds singing. It’s always been a kind of secret place that people discover by word of mouth. Probably best like that.”
“People used to call Palm Court the Chelsea Hotel of Bangkok when I first got here. Some crazy stuff went on.” Gary smiled in remembrance of times past. “It hasn’t changed much. The buildings and the people have just got older.”
“It seems like there’s a lot of long-term residents,” I said. “My neighbour Mike told me he’s been here ten years.”
“There’s a few lifers,” agreed Gary. “Some of the old-timers have passed, of course. Heart attacks and strokes mostly. AIDS got a few as well. Plenty of people have died here. I remember coming back once and seeing all these Thais crowded around the open door of an apartment. There was this woman, a western lady, slumped against the wall with a huge bubble of mucus attached to her lips. She’d overdosed. Heroin.”
He paused, gazing expressionless at a cat emerging out of the bushes as the scene replayed in his head. “That was years ago. I was still spending half my time in the States back then.”
“Where are you from?”
“Bakersfield. Country music capital of California. It’s a couple of hours north of LA.”
“John Steinbeck territory,” I said. “Where the migrants from the mid-west settled in the Great Depression. You ever read The Grapes of Wrath?”
“Seen the movie. Henry Fonda,” said Gary. “My grandfather came out west from Texas. There was work on the farms around Bakersfield, so he stayed.”
“What did you do in Bakersfield?”
“Various jobs.” He sounded vague and disinterested. “I had a bakery for a while.” He paused. “What about you? You working here?”
“I’m a recovering journalist.” Gary looked puzzled. “I write for a website, sometimes for newspapers and magazines.”
“A reporter. That’s why you like asking questions.” Gary struggled out of the pool and shook water off himself. He picked up his book and gave me a mock salute. “I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”
After that, I met Gary often. If he wasn’t at the pool, I’d bump into him at Kenny’s, the neighbourhood bar. Kenny was long gone, but his Thai widow ran the place with a rotating crew of waitresses from her home province in Isan, the northeast of Thailand. The regulars were mostly expats accompanied by local women. While the men smattered away in English, whatever their nationality, their partners engaged in parallel conversations in Thai or the Isan dialect.
Like me, Gary was single. His restless blue eyes homed in swiftly on any vaguely attractive woman in his immediate vicinity. “It’s not just the weather and food that’s hot in Thailand, so are the ladies,” he liked to tell me. But Gary wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. He preferred the women working in the bars and clubs of Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, Bangkok’s red light zones.
Every Friday or Saturday night Gary would shave, put on a Hawaiian shirt and head out, still looking vaguely disreputable, before returning late with a young bar girl. He wasn’t the only person at Palm Court happy to pay for companionship, whether female or male, but Gary was in his seventies.
“Back in Bakersfield it’s considered almost obscene for a guy my age to still have a libido. Senior citizens aren’t supposed to be sexually active. You’re expected to be golfing and bitching about your social security. A two-week vacation in Hawaii each year and the rest of the time watching TV and looking after the grandkids.” Gary shook his head in disbelief at what his contemporaries in the States had to put up with. “I never wanted that life, no sir. Maybe that’s why none of my marriages worked out.”
“How many times have you been married?”
“Three, but I don’t count the first. We got hitched in Mexico in ’69 and split up a month later. I got cold feet.”
Gary’s antics had earned him a dubious reputation. I noticed how the wives and girlfriends of the farang at Palm Court looked askance at him. Not that Gary cared. He turned up at Kenny’s one time with a girl who must have been fifty years younger than him.
Some of the men at Palm Court were disapproving, too. “Gary’s an old goat,” my neighbour Mike told me in his homespun North Carolina accent. Bald and big, Mike had first come to Thailand in the mid-seventies with the US Air Force. Now he lived with his Thai wife Ploy in an apartment decorated with Buddhist icons.
“Yeah,” I said. “But he doesn’t make any bones about it. I guess that’s honest in a way.”
Mike snorted. “Shameless more like. If those chicks he comes back with get any younger, someone’s gonna call the cops. All the Thais here know what he gets up to. They might not say anything, but they don’t like it.”
Whenever people criticised Gary, I stuck up for him. That wasn’t because I agreed with his lifestyle. It was more that I didn’t like the idea of everyone ganging up on him. I mean, even Thailand’s jury-free justice system allows the accused a defence lawyer.
“He’s not forcing them to come home with him,” I argued. “I think he sees it as a mutually beneficial transaction. He gets laid and the women get paid.”
Mike wasn’t convinced. “Gary’s like a lot of farang. They come to Thailand and think they can do anything, that there ain’t no rules here. Thing is, the Thais have plenty of rules. Gary just don’t know what they are.”
Gossip was Palm Court’s principal currency. Many people had nothing better to do than sit on their terraces watching the world go by. I sensed eyes on me often, peeking from behind blinds or through dust-wreathed window screens. The Thai residents, like Mike’s wife Ploy, knew all the scandal because they could communicate with the maids, gardeners and handymen. They lived in their own little block of one-room apartments and saw everything that went on.
Palm Court was convenient and cheap, just like the city it sat in the middle of. But the longer I lived there, the more I understood that it was an anomaly in a country where few buildings stand for longer than thirty years before being demolished and replaced. Stationed all around Palm Court were the apartment blocks that multiply mysteriously in Bangkok, monuments to lax planning laws and bundles of baht. A toxic combination of property developers and Chinese money was turning the city into one mammoth condominium complex interspersed with shopping malls. Yet Palm Court survived somehow.
In a city constantly being reborn – and Bangkok shrugs off eras with ease – the compound’s continuing existence represented a circling of wagons against the passage of time. The long-term residents relished its raffish reputation, while ignoring the fact that the place was falling apart by inches. For them, the attraction of Palm Court lay in the simple fact that it had endured.
When the monsoon arrived, ushering in four months of daily rain storms, I started seeing less of Gary. Swimming became risky with so much lightning jagging overhead, and by then I had got together with Ying. She was a self-possessed, elegant thirty-five year-old who ran a network of clothes shops with two friends, drove a BMW and lived in a smart condo in Bang Kapi, miles away in the east of Bangkok.
Ying was unimpressed by Palm Court. “Why is everything so old here?” She asked on her first visit.
“You mean the furniture or the people?” It was a feeble joke. But, truth be told, I was embarrassed by my shabby home.
She didn’t take to Gary either. Ying sat silent through their one meeting at Kenny’s, picking at a papaya salad, while Gary regaled us with tales of Bangkok in the 1990s and how he had met his third wife, an Isan woman who had walked out on him after eighteen months in Bakersfield and used her divorce settlement to open a nail salon in Florida.
Meeting Ying made me realise that I didn’t belong at Palm Court. At first, I had appreciated the fact that it was a sanctuary. The compound was its own little leafy world in a city of concrete and steel, and returning home was like shutting the door on a harsher reality. I suppose I had needed a retreat, while I worked out what do to next. But now I looked at Palm Court and saw a crumbling retirement home that I had taken up residence in thirty years too early.
Then the rains came and that was the end of it. Palm Court’s drainage system couldn’t cope with the downpours. Any prolonged bout of rainfall resulted in the whole compound flooding. The tidy lawn beneath my apartment disappeared under a tide of dark, foul-smelling water that took hours to subside.
Wading out to Ying’s car – she with her heels in her hand, me with my jeans rolled to my knees – accompanied by a rat paddling along with its snout pointed to the sky, put paid to any lingering affection I still had for Palm Court. Ying was happy for me to stay at her condo, so from then on I was in Bang Kapi most of the time.
We were just back from a week on Koh Samui when Mike told me about Gary’s stroke. “You should go see him,” said Mike. “He ain’t doing great.”
A resurgent sun was asserting itself after the latest cloudburst, casting shallow reflections of the banana trees on the forlorn pool, as I splashed my way to Gary’s apartment. It took him five minutes to respond to my knocking at his door and he was naked when he opened it.
“Nice of you to dress up for me.” Gary appeared confused, as if he was struggling to process my presence. We stood there for a while before he acknowledged that he was nude.
“I guess I should put some clothes on.” His speech was slow and slurred and I could see him straining to force the words out.
“I’d feel more comfortable,” I said, smiling in an effort to reassure him.
Getting dressed proved too much for Gary. He wrapped a scraggy towel around his waist, before collapsing on his dishevelled bed. I pulled up a chair and sat alongside. Sunlight streamed in through the window above the bed, refracted by the half-open blind, revealing the dust floating in the air and creating a disorderly pattern of white stripes across Gary.
Neither us spoke for a while. Finally I prompted him to tell me what had happened. “I woke up one day and couldn’t speak properly,” he said, mangling the words as his lips refused to cooperate with his mind. “I went to the hospital and they gave me an MRI. They told me I’d had a stroke.”
His mouth was still contorted on one side and refused to open fully, giving him a permanent lopsided grin. He had aged visibly since I’d last seen him, the lines on his face etched deeper. Now Gary rolled from side to side on the bed like a parody drunk, deeply frustrated by his mental impotence and powerless to cure it.
“I don’t seem to recall things. I forget what day it is.”
I tried to soothe him. “You’re still healing. Your memory will come back in time.”
“I hope so man,” said Gary. “I hope so.”
Of course it didn’t. By the time I moved in with Ying a couple of months later, Gary was declining fast. He shuffled slowly around the compound and was constantly mislaying his phone and wallet. Khun Fah the manager had to accompany him to the bank each month to collect the rent. There were no more visiting bar girls to outrage the neighbours. Gary rarely left Palm Court now. Instead, I’d see him standing by the entrance, as if he was trying to remember what he had set out to do.
Khun Fah ended up putting a chair out for him, next to the desk where the security guard sat watching soap operas on his phone. The Thais are nice like that. Gary spent hours there each day. Sometimes he recognised me as I passed by, offering a skewed smile. But when I went to say goodbye on my last day at Palm Court, his dementia was in full effect and it was obvious that he had no idea who I was.
Later on, Mike’s wife Ploy arranged for one of the maids to take him a daily meal, as by then he was incapable of looking after himself. Or maybe he had just given up. I wasn’t surprised when Mike called one evening to tell me that Gary was gone. The maid had found him dead on his apartment floor. We knew that he had a son back in California, although they hadn’t seen each other for years. Mike tracked him down on Facebook, but he wasn’t interested in repatriating the body or coming to Bangkok to sort out his dad’s affairs.
So it was left to us to organise the funeral. Mike wanted Gary to have a proper send-off at a temple, with the monks saying prayers for him. He believed in all that Buddhist stuff. We rustled up a collection from the regulars at Kenny’s to pay for it. Khun Fah kicked in some cash, too. The temple was miles away in the north of Bangkok. I remember it took ages to get there, with Mike and me silent in the taxi.
Three shaven-headed monks in orange robes were waiting for us at the temple crematorium. Gary lay in a simple wooden coffin, dressed in a white robe. It was a shock seeing his face again, the wrinkles smoothed out by death. We placed some flowers on him, while the monks intoned their blessings. The coffin was sealed and there was more chanting. Mike had his hands together in prayer above his bowed head, so I did the same. Then the coffin disappeared into the flames and that was the end of Gary.