Gracefully, a smiling, blue-shirted employee of the Royal Thai State Railway proffered a ticket over the counter. Victor Offord, gruff and unshaven, snatched it back through the semicircular hole in the Perspex that separated the two of them. Without words, he squinted at the ticket, making sure of the destination, tucked it into his shirt pocket, hoisted up his bag, and began walking to the platforms.
‘Please, you take bus to station,’ the man at the ticket booth called after him.
‘What?’ Offord replied, turning his neck. ‘Isn’t this the railway station?’
‘Yes, same same; old part, new part; you please bus to new part.’
Offord let go of his bag. It dropped heavily with a thud to the concrete, pushing up motes of dust. Sighing, he straightened his back and scrutinised the surroundings, focusing for the first time on what had been there all along. The ticket-seller had a point: if there were indeed two parts, this could only be the old one. It looked more like a shanty town than a station. The only train in sight was far off to the west side, resting, or dying, along a grassy track. It could not have moved in a decade, and probably would never do so again. Along the east side, a market had asserted itself, as happens in poor countries when land is left idle and unsupervised. It seemed to Offord that the vendors and stalls had stealthily and gradually sneaked in, past what little security there might have been, and pushed out the trains. All that remained of a functioning station was a ticket booth and the solitary, smiling state employee. Offord dropped his eyes and turned his back on the ugly mess. He was agitated, sweating, and in no mood for delays; he wanted to be rid of Bangkok as soon as possible. He retraced his footsteps out of the filthy station and boarded a red bus parked up in a pile of refuse.
The bus ride was short but succeeded in elevating his blood pressure further and adding more sweat stains to his already-malodorous cotton shirt. Offord suffered in silence, closing his eyes in an attempt to reduce the pain. He reached platform three and his ride to Kanchanaburi by crossing two tracks, or rather by hopping through the two trains that were sitting on the two tracks. Finally, he heaved his big black bag up into the luggage rack and slumped down onto the bare wooden seat, trying to catch his breath. He fingered the mobile phone in his pocket for a moment but was distracted by dazzling light. The glass window had gone but a wooden shutter remained; this he heaved up into the window frame, blocking out the intense sun. Sitting again, he withdrew the phone and flipped it on. He called up Fong’s number on the small screen then pressed the dial button.
‘Fong? Fong are you there . . . ?’ Something clicked at the other end of the line. ‘Shit! You slippery bastard.’ Fong’s home number was on an answering machine. Offord hung up and thought about what he wanted to tell Fong, what kind of message he should leave, how he should say goodbye.
Victor Offord, the forlorn white man uncomfortably seated aboard the Kanchanaburi Express, was an investment banker from The City, London; or rather, he had been an investment banker, a good one — a stolid, respectable pillar of the prestigious establishment for which he worked. For eighteen years he had manoeuvred his way, through the ranks, sideways and upwards, to his present niche: a coveted posting in south-east Asia. He was here ostensibly to assist in the economic development of a potentially rich geographic region. In fact his company was ruthlessly exploiting weak regulation and plundering as much wealth from the newly-rich tiger economies as it possibly could.
Offord blamed Fong for what had gone wrong. He closed his eyes and ran a blade across the glistening yellow skin of the Asiatic’s neck . . .
Fong was Offord’s assistant in the Bangkok branch office — his personal assistant — and it was Fong who had corrupted Offord, in the insidious Asian way — doing business behind closed doors, under tables, over dinners, drinks, and girls. Offord’s seduction had been slow at first, but he soon developed a taste for decadence. A taste for secrecy, deception, and danger. It was fun. And of course he loved the money — more than he had ever dreamed of.
Offord opened his eyes and pressed the redial button.
‘Hi, friend, this is Charles Fong; I’m . . .’
He stared into those inscrutable black eyes of Fong’s and could see no light. Two sparkling stones of evil set on a beguiling countenance — a cameo of sublime wickedness, ready to snakecharm a soul.
Offord and Fong contacted legitimate bank clients after hours and offered them better returns if they invested their own private money. Fong, the local, set the trap with talk of secure overseas funds with fixed returns well above those of index-linked cash deposits. He promised easy access to the investment at any time via outward and inward channels well beyond the reach of taxman and regulators. Safe, accessible, and growing: that’s the way most people like their cash-pile. Offord provided the air of legitimacy; his sound credentials could not be questioned and his solid standing in the banking world further beguiled their eager customers.
‘. . . not by the phone right now, so . . .’
Offord vented his nostrils and could smell the stench of money, dirty money, drifting up on eddies from the foul sewers within.
Instead of locking the money into secure deposits, though, Offord was hedging it on risky, international markets, making bets against the rise and fall of all kinds of indexes, in an arcane way that only investment bankers know. Offord knew. And he profited, as his filthy-rich clients poured their money in, vying to get even richer. Greed, he found out, knows no international boundaries.
But his knowledge alone was not enough; he was not omnipotent and could not divine the ways markets suddenly and irrationally move, against logic and expectation. The markets moved, suddenly, and for Offord catastrophically. He was left wildly out of balance, hanging in a financial limbo.
‘. . . please leave me a message, and . . .’
Offord opened his ears and could hear the song of a sorcerer, the velvet tones of deception.
Fong shed a skin and effortlessly slipped into a new modus operandi, busily wining and dining both new and old clients, some of whom were themselves embezzling from their own employers: companies and institutions. But the new money was just filling holes in the scam; the old money was still gushing out. The situation was bad, but it got a lot worse.
‘. . . I’ll try to get back to you as soon . . .’
Offord’s fingers, still clutching the blade, felt the warm, sticky blood oozing from the gash. His parched tongue could taste the bitter venom of Fong’s dead soul.
When the south-east Asian economic crisis hit in the summer of that year, once-wealthy Thais started to call in their investments, desperate to cover themselves with hard currency. Offord’s comfortable world quickly collapsed: his bank, in the wake of the financial typhoon, was running for cover, back to London; his creative embezzling scam had fallen apart; and desperate Thais were screaming at him for their money back. And if that weren’t enough, the Burmese woman with whom he had fallen in love had fled the turmoil of his life and gone back to her mother, in Kanchanaburi — a place of myth in his own family’s history.
‘. . . as I can. Thanks, friend.’
‘Fong, Offord here; I’m getting out. Maybe Tut can make my life better again. She can lead me away from this. Time to shed a skin, eh!’
He hung up, let down the shutter, and, as the Kanchanaburi Express pulled out of Bangkok Noi station, dropped the mobile phone onto the hot stone flags of platform three.
Leaving the Past Behind
Offord knew that someone would come after him. He wasn’t melodramatic in his foresight, or eager for its realisation, but he had a strong sense that he would be caught and have to face the consequences of his own greed and stupidity; and have to pay back for what he had done — in a way that depended only on who caught him first. Of course, he hoped that when payback time came it would be the Thai authorities that uncovered him, whichever branch it happened to be, and not gangsters working for his clients. Anyway despite his acceptance of fate, that dull, non-verbal, subconscious foreboding, he would try his best to remain a free man — and stay alive.
The train pulled out of the station into the hideous suburbs of Bangkok, and Offord closed his eyes to the poverty. He drew up thoughts of adventure and meditated on them. He had thought his life was adventurous — living as a wealthy expat in an exotic part of the world, taking huge financial risks, and making unimaginable sums of money. Part of that adventure was the danger that it would all collapse and take him down with it. Well, collapse it had, and Offord was sinking and getting desperately close to the bottom.
He snoozed for most of the jerky three hours to Kanchanaburi, where he knew he would have to face the future — and the past. In his dreams, the future smiled at him through cinnamon skin and ivory teeth. The past came out of a faded black-and-white photograph, from which a handsome young man smiled, accompanied by the rattling of machine guns, the swoop of dive-bombers, and the screams of Japanese guards. He woke once only on his hard seat to share sweet, sticky-rice cakes with a fat mother and her angelic children.
Entering Kanchanaburi, the train slowed then lurched to a halt in stages, as each carriage rode its sleepers into the next. Sure that the jolts had ended, Offord stood up and retrieved his bag. He said goodbye to the generous mother, even managing a smile for her children, then jumped down onto the busy platform.
He stood still for a moment, taking in the station; he patted the back pocket of his cotton trousers, making sure that his wallet was still there. Not that it contained much — a little cash and a few bits of plastic, which would probably be useless by now. He consciously suppressed his instinct to hail a taxi and head to the best five-star hotel in town. He even eschewed the sun-blackened tricycle drivers who pestered the dozen or so just-arrived tourists. He heaved his bag over his shoulder and strode confidently out of the small station. A few determined tricycle drivers followed him for a while but soon the heat got the better of them.
Offord’s eyes couldn’t find the River Kwai, but he walked in its general direction, guided by the body language of locals every time he hove to and wiped his brow. He ignored the small hotels that he came across after the road abruptly turned right, and forty sweaty minutes later, when he was at last putting the town behind him, he spotted a Thai guest house, or at least a sign for one, partly hidden by the big purple blossoms of a bourganvillea and the green fronds of a banana tree. He was relieved. Tired and sweating profusely, he crunched the gravel path down to the river and his waiting hideaway.
Offord looked around the thatched reception area and supposed that they didn’t get too many investment bankers staying there, but he dropped his bag anyway.
‘You want loom?’
He span around; an elderly Thai woman had materialised from nowhere and was addressing him in a pleasant, sing-song voice. Her hair was streaked with grey, which disconcerted him for a moment: most Thais dye their hair at the first signs of middle age. He nodded.
‘You follow me, please.’
He did, through a lush garden that was almost a meadow, wild but not unkempt, over an elongated pond, and to a line of bamboo-and-brick bungalows.
‘I’ll take it,’ he said to himself, even before she had mentioned a price. When she did, he gave voice to his thought.
‘Passport and pay please one night,’ she requested.
He gave her money for ten nights and lied that his passport would be here in a week, when his wife caught up with him. She took the money, smiled, and disappeared — back to wherever she had come from. Victor L. Offord, high rolling investment banker from the City and one-time millionaire, stepped into his two-dollar-a-night bamboo hut and closed the door behind him.
Offord was bitten awake by a thirsty mosquito, and quickly realising where he was, he fumbled to the door and pushed it open. Beyond the garden and the wide brown river, an orange sun was setting magnificently, burning away the dregs of daylight. Motionless, he beheld the beauty of what was before him and for an instant lost himself in its total, captivating truth. He vaporised for that second, becoming one with the scene of glory. But just for a moment; he quickly came to and scratched the bite behind his knee. The peace was further violated by a long-tail boat, which was screeching upriver towards the distant bridge with a cargo of tourists.
Dusk had laid a mantle of surreal greyness on the garden, shrouding and subduing its colourful splendour; the rippling water of the river reflected lights from the far bank, each crest a different muted colour; and a crescent moon popped out and hung in the grey-blue, cloudless sky, quickly followed by stud-like stars, pressing through that metallic backdrop.
‘Where am I,’ Offord uttered, in awe of the rich truth that had just entered his life.
Hunger forced a quick retreat to Offord’s awakening spirit. Those few rice-cakes since breakfast needed some substantial company. The guesthouse restaurant looked nice, over there, spread along the ample bank of the River Kwai, half under the cover of a thatched awning, half out among palm trees, whose fronds swayed in silhouette against the evening sky. But Offord wanted to keep aloof, so he trudged back up the gravel path to the main road.
The street was busier than it had been those few hours earlier when he arrived; people were waking up to the cooler evening. Every other house, it seemed, was engaged in some kind of business, mostly the selling of food, that spilled out onto the pavements. Plump mothers, clutching metal fish-slices as if they were sidearms, stood over fiery woks, from which they. tossed ingredients into the air. Then, with oily grimaces, they stirred and scraped vigorously at the cooking food, cracking their implement against the rim of the iron utensil at the end of each flourish. Others were tending charcoal-burning barbecues, grilling sticked chicken wings, fish-balls, and pork. Offord was not at all used to this. He had been in Asia for a few years, but usually not at ground level, always separated by a protective, anaesthetising layer of whatever money could buy.
He plodded past the food-stalls, ignoring what food they served but checking for cleanliness. He wasn’t impressed and finally returned to one that seemed to offer a smattering of hygiene. He sat down on a stool, and tried to ask for fried rice and a papaya salad. The cook understood half the order and when it finally came Offord devoured his simple meal in silence.
He pushed the empty plate aside and pulled out his wallet to pay. Still lying there, inside a plastic flap, was a snapshot of Tut, beaming at a distant wat. Before she left him, the picture had given him pleasure, or what he thought was pleasure. Now it gave him pain — he left it there anyway, as a reminder of how good life could be. Tut had become a faint hope in his plight, a line of escape out of the misery his life had suddenly become. A crossing. Tut was like the sunset he had seen a few hours before, a pervading truth that cleanses anything it touches; Offord’s regret was that he hadn’t let her touch him. He smiled, for the second time that day, but this was a deeper smile; it had real roots, inwards to his being.
That night, the first night of his new life, Offord sat in the garden until the noise of the last of the floating restaurants, discos, and karaoke bars had drifted downstream leaving an unhurried peace, the kind that can only be found in Asia. It wasn’t quiet — it never is — but the distractions were made by contented people, at peace with themselves and their surroundings. Offord realised that he had nothing to do: no monitors to gaze at, no data to scrutinise, no deals to clinch. Nothing. An uninvited space grew in his mind as he sat with the frogs beside the pond.
At last he moved back to his porch from where he watched a magnificently silhouetted five-inch lizard defying gravity against a luminous, spherical lamp-shade, gorging itself on anything that flew into the light. Nature had regained the airwaves from man, and the night’s stillness was disturbed only by the sounds of frogs croaking and leaping in the pond, geckos calling to each other, an owl, and other unidentifiable calls from the garden and the river. It was a symphony out there, Offord thought, a wonderful harmonious arrangement performed by nature’s orchestra. He slipped under the mosquito net of his small bed and wondered why he hadn’t heard this before, it must always have been there.
Crossing Bridges and People
Early the next morning, sharpened by sleep, Offord padded through the verdure of the garden and slipped out of the guest house unnoticed. He felt lighter, unburdened, and was beginning to notice his surroundings with more awareness than before. He moved slowly along a low hedge, in awe of the multicoloured butterflies that gave flight as he approached, some the size of small birds, their delicate wings propelling them into invisible eddies and currents of air.
Today he would search for two people, the first of whom was still alive: Tut. Offord might have to go through her mother, but finding Tut would not be too difficult. The problem would start after he had found her, when he would need words to the convey his feelings; words to illuminate the truth within him. Speech could defeat him, and he wished that she could simply look into him and see everything that was there. Things that he could not even verbalise for himself. Words could apologise and promise, hide things and expose others, but they would never be able to crystallise what he had just begun to find in himself.
Locating the second person might be a little more difficult.
Where the gravel path met the main road, Offord turned left. Almost immediately, he stopped at a roadside stall to buy a bag-full of fried bananas from a listless vendor whose loose clothes were begrimed with the soil of his trade. Munching on his breakfast, he continued towards the bridge.
Tut’s mother was a poor immigrant from Burma, who sold kitsch to the tourists that were daily bussed in to Kanchanaburi and its famous bridge on the River Kwai. Every day she laid out cheap souvenirs on a table and waited for passing foreigners to stop and buy something. She was from an ethnic minority, a hill-tribe, and not really Burmese; and she had fled Burma during one of the many military campaigns against tribal insurgencies in the east part of the country. Her husband (Tut’s father), from the same minority hill-tribe, had been pressed into the Burmese army and disappeared. This much Offord knew about Tut’s mother, but what he didn’t know was what she looked like.
After half an hour of hot tarmac, Offord turned a slow bend and walked into the foreground of The Bridge on the River Kwai. He halted and gazed up at the structure that spanned the three hundred meters of muddy water in front of him, his mind swimming with visions of two people — the handsome man from the fading black-and-white photograph and Tut’s mother — both of whom he had never met but both of whom were suddenly very important in his life.
He shook off any premonitions and with his eyes he followed the railway track out over the famous bridge. He was strangely disappointed: he had been expecting a more grandiose structure, worthy of the thousands of lives that perished during its construction. Above track level iron arches leapfrogged across in three bounds; below stood the same number of concrete supports, giant elephant legs, helplessly stranded in the murky brown water.
Offord walked up and smoothed the black metal of the first arch with his hand. Affixed to it was a small metal card, which revealed the name of a Japanese company in Tokyo that had contributed something towards the bridge’s construction — it might have riveted together the pieces of iron for all he knew. The card somehow made him remember that this wasn’t the original bridge; that one had been bombed to the bottom of the river by Allied air-attacks before the end of the war.
Surprisingly few tourists were viewing the bridge and railway this morning: still a little early, Offord supposed. But several colourfully dressed women were setting up their wares, ready for the crowds that must be arriving soon.
Facial contours, complexion, eyes — they all set apart Burmese from Thais, and Offord was easily able to distinguish the local women from their neighbours across the jungle border. To the nearest squatting Burmese woman he showed his photograph of Tut. But she couldn’t understand his words and tried to sell him some postcards; then some Burmese jade and ivory; and finally, as he retreated, some Burmese cheroots and coins.
Offord mounted the railway and began to walk over the bridge, on planks that had been nailed between the iron tracks. The wood was worn smooth, he supposed by the daily flow of human traffic that pads back and forth along them. He paused, allowing a group of sightseers to get well ahead of him, watching them point, stare, ponder, buy souvenirs, and take snapshots — and desperately try not to knock each other off and into the torrents below.
Reaching the other side of the river but still on the bridge itself, Offord shuffled past the first hawker, a smiling Thai woman with a baby tied to her back. The next was also Thai, but younger, school age. At the edge of this knot of hawkers was a round-eyed, colourful woman, whose aura was joyful. She frowned at Offord’s picture and motioned to a row of colourful stalls under the bridge. He looked down through the tracks, straightened his body, and backed away, barely thanking the woman for her help.
Clanking down the iron steps, Offord fixed his blue eyes on the elegant woman seated behind one of the tables. Her obsidian hair, pulled back by a yellow band, was bunned up on her crown. She was having an animated conversation with the adjacent stall-holder, and her slender brown neck somehow moved her head from side to side in a way that kept her face vertical at all times, instead of nodding to the sides at an angle. Her neighbour seemed mesmerised by her grace and tranquillity. Offord knew at once who she was.
She ceased her conversation as he approached and readjusted her posture, preparing to befriend a stranger for the fleeting moments it takes to sell a souvenir. But Offord paid little attention to her knickknacks, and he could tell that she had already sensed something — she resisted the usual banter that he knew always begins such an encounter and simply smiled up at him. Her bamboo-like fingers reached for the photograph, but they didn’t take it; instead she gracefully reclined her body back into its sitting position and raised her eyes again up to his.
While she was Offord’s lover, Tut had never told her mother about him. It would have only been worth troubling the older woman if they had been going to get married, which never seemed to be necessary. Mother’s mind was firmly fixed in the past, Tut always said, ingrained with the conservatism of generations of forebears. But now she knew, had been told something. Offord sensed that he was not a stranger to her and felt no obligation to justify his presence.
‘Tomorrow,’ she said, still holding his eyes.
Offord acknowledged, and with a nod he obsequiously withdrew himself from her charming presence.
A ragamuffin, barefooted little girl followed him back over the bridge with armfuls of Burmese ivory and gems — obviously fake. But Offord cared not: he had stepped over one hurdle today and was ready to face the next.
Burying the Dead
Unfortunately for Offord’s wilting body, the war cemetery was far from the bridge, along a blazing, heat-shimmering road, back towards town. He moved slowly, keeping in the shade of the magnificent jamjuree and kiris trees where he could and pausing often to replace lost body fluid. He was a noticeably solitary figure, out in the midday tropical sun, plodding along the tarmac. Locals, he knew, never ventured out at this hour, and if they did, never on foot.
Offord was upon the cemetery before he saw it — high walls kept out unwelcome eyes. It was strangely out of place, he thought, immaculate amongst the chaos of its surroundings. Pitted against man in a Thai garden or park, nature usually gained the upper hand. Humans, it seemed, simply managed the surface, subduing the worst excesses of intangible natural forces. But here, man’s logic and industriousness had been victorious, leaving a neat and ordered cemetery — as if death needed a rational hand to maintain its dignity.
Offord stepped into the monumental entrance: a kind of stone obelisk with a big opening pushed through it. Out of the sun, he felt better and sat down on a stone bench. A small safe, set into the wall, caught his attention. Under its etched crucifix, Offord read the words ‘Cemetery and Memorial Register’. He turned the handle and swung open the door. He found no register, just a sign apologising for its absence and telling him to contact cemetery staff during working hours, or the resident caretaker, or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, England. Offord squinted through the sun and saw no staff or caretaker’s house, and however good the mail service was between here and Maidenhead, he couldn’t wait. He walked on through the obelisk and stepped onto the cemetery turf.
His eyes quickly darted over the small brown stones, thousands of them, neatly laid out in row upon row, a perplexing symmetry. He started to walk towards an imposing grey monument, which stood near the centre of the graveyard, noticing that the stones were all identical, save for the arrangement of letters on their tops — the a’s, b’s, and c’s that gave meaning to someone, somewhere. He turned in along a row of stones. The names were very English: Jones, gunner; Peterson, bombardier; Crook, private; and Arthurs, corporal. But some of the regiments seemed obscure: The Gordon Highlanders, The Herts Yeomanry, The Loyal Regiment, The 135th Field Regiment . . . He had no idea which regiment the man he was looking for had served in, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference — the stones didn’t seem to be laid out according to anything in particular.
Along the rows and lines he went, reading the simple epitaphs: ‘George Rawlings, Srgt. Norfolk Regiment. Your courage will always be with us’ conjured up images in his mind of a squalid prison camp, forced labour, and brutal guards. He could see the bulging rib-cage of Srgt. Rawlings as he heaved back-breaking sleepers along Death Railway, goaded by the bayoneted gun of a sadistic camp guard. Another one: ‘Jack Prewit, Orderly, Royal Medical Corps’ gave him a vision of a young man dispensing rations of quinine in an unsanitary camp hospital to a gangly line of skin and bones. He wondered what had killed Orderly Prewit. A disease? Cholera, dysentery, malaria, scabies? Or had it been brutality? A bayonet, a whip, water torture, a punishment hole dug in the baking earth? Or had poor Prewit just given up hope and turned his back on the insanity that life had become? Offord suddenly felt disgust at what he was doing — looking at the war dead. He noticed a coach-load of sight-seers fanning out over the grounds and wondered why they came here, to see what exactly. The lalick birds in the giant jamjuree tree were the only ones who really knew how to enjoy the cemetery. And where were the thousands of Asians who had laboured and died alongside the Allied POWs: the Tamils, Chinese, Malays, Burmese, and Thais. He felt uneasy and decided to give up his search. He walked to the end of the row he was in, turned back up towards the entrance, and suddenly saw his name on one of the brown stone, ‘Offord’. He stopped, bent forwards, and read the inscription slowly: ‘T/219219 Driver S.G.J. Offord. Royal Army Service Corps. 13th May 1944. Age 31’.
‘So, grandfather, you were a driver.’ He smiled and thought of all those ridiculous stories he had heard about grandfather fighting the Japanese through the jungles of Malaysia and Borneo and suddenly liked him all the more for being a driver and not a daredevil jungle commando. Offord made a note of the number at the top of the stone (for what he didn’t really know) then side-stepped tourists back to the exit.
Reclining in a cane chair under a palm tree back in his blooming garden, Offord pondered his options. His mind whirred like a cinema projector and he saw himself on celluloid: black and white scenes from old spy films, in which he was always apprehended by polite, grey-coated officials. Leaving the country now through official channels would indeed be foolish, as those mental film clips were warning him, certainly if he tried to fly out. An overland crossing might be safer, especially in a remote jungle area, away from modems and fax machines, but could still be risky. Fleeing over a river or a mountain would be easy, but then what? He wound on the reel to the scene showing his capture in a militaristic state, without papers, stamps, and visa: charges of espionage, a Burmese Changi Prison, months in solitary confinement, torture . . . Surrendering himself in Bangkok would be better than that. Offord regurgitated his meditation on adventure and decided to update it.
Nobody had come looking for him yet; how could they? The only thing to link him to Kanchanaburi was Tut, and only Fong and a few others knew about her. A bull-frog started to croak as the buzz of a cicada subsided. Offord wound down into a doze.
‘Huh?’ Offord replied.
A matronly-looking Thai, with a bluff face and bunched black hair, had just uttered something unintelligible and was now laughing, he presumed at him and the way he was bent over a bucket of soapy water trying to wash out his shirt. She stopped cackling and threw him a scrubbing brush. His own odour had stung his nostrils when he stirred awake on the cane chair, and he had decided to clean up a little — starting with his clothes.
Offord had begun to notice the way local people undertook the mundane chores of everyday living with smiles and laughs. Preparing food, cooking, washing clothes, sweeping the floor — all were done with zest, albeit slow zest. He (an investment banker with a six-figure salary) had previously thought himself above such menial activities, and he had always hired people to take care of that drudgery. But he now realised that he had been missing an important part of life. The hired hands were not his hands, and the food he ate, the clothes he wore, and the bed he slept in, all lacked a vital part of his being. He smiled to himself, contented, as he wrung out his cotton garment and hung it on a green-leafed bush ready to catch the next morning’s sun. Money can’t buy this, he thought.
The evening entertainment had started to float by on the river, and Offord wandered down to the water’s edge to look out on the screeching long-tail boats that pulled huge rafts, upon which had been built, restaurants, karaoke bars, and even discos. He saw fat cats from the city and knew how they gorged themselves on sumptuous meals and expensive whiskies; knew how they bragged about deals made and money won and lost. Offord had been there and knew what they were made of, beneath their Rolex watches, designer cell phones, and tailored suits; and he thought he might never want to go back.
Reunion of Souls
Offord bent his knee and hoisted his tense body onto the sturdy iron bridge, thinking he was far too early. As he peered at a knot colourful women on the far side, something skittered up behind him and two warm palms slipped down his forehead to cover his eyes. He turned, stooped, and embraced his silent assailant, greeting her in her own dialect. Tut unfolded a splendid smile across her face then shot a single kiss at his stubbly cheek. Offord was defenceless, his tension melted, and he subconsciously surrendered to this figure of joy that had just re-entered his sorry life. Stepping back out of her embrace, he raised both hands to her shoulders and looked into her deep eyes, holding them for a full minute. He then pulled his eyes away and looked around for Mother; but she had already glided past and was now in the middle of the bridge with her bundles of trinkets. Offord wanted to thank the older woman for bringing her daughter to him (he couldn’t imagine the words that must have passed between them); but before he could take a step, Tut clasped his moist hand and tugged him over to a whitewashed wall. Mother disappeared.
They sat on the wall, next to a row of short pilasters, from the tops of which spilt the purple of blooming flowers.
‘I . . . uh . . . I don’t . . . I’m not sure . . . well, where to begin,’ Offord said. He whistled, wiped his brow, and then looked away. ‘But I do know where I want to end.’ He returned his eyes to her. ‘I want this to end with you and me together, far away from here. Away from Fong and the bank; away from Bangkok. Just the two of us and a new beginning. Tut didn’t wince but he knew it sounded corny, like badly written dialogue in a cheap romance paperback; and especially so here, in such a dramatic setting under The Bridge on the River Kwai. But that was the way it came out and that was exactly what he wanted to say.
‘What do you mean, “away from Fong and the bank, away from everything.”?’ Tut quizzed him.
Offord adjusted his position on the wall, looked up at the black girders of the railway bridge, and began to tell his story. He told her what he had done, boiled down to the essential truths and facts but omitting none of the skulduggery. She listened to every word and said nothing, blinking occasionally at some of the arcane financial terms.
Tut seemed not at all disconcerted that he might be a fugitive on the run from sundry pursuers. ‘We’ll go there,’ she said.
‘What?’ Offord followed her gaze across the bridge.
‘To Burma,’ she added. ‘We’ll go to Burma.’
Offord said nothing for a while. At last he exhaled a deep breath and said, ‘Burma . . .’ And then he laughed.
‘Don’t you see what is in front of you ? Tut said pointing a finger towards the bridge.
‘I see it alright,’ he answered.
‘Local trains run up to Nam Tok,’ Tut said. ‘It’s very safe, especially for Robin Hood.’
Robin Hood? Offord squinted at her and wondered if she had misunderstood his confession; he then wondered how a Burmese woman would know anything about Robin Hood. He said nothing.
Tut squeezed his hand.
‘And after NamTok?’ he asked.
Tut smiled. ‘It’s not so far from there to Burma, she said, ‘many refugees come through the passes into Thailand; we’ll just be going in the opposite direction; it’ll be fine after NamTok.’
Offord had read the names from the tourist maps: Death Railway, Hellfire Pass . . . they didn’t sound like places for a fine afternoon stroll. He let go of her clammy hand as that word again entered his mind: adventure; it came swirling in from the depths of an inhospitable jungle inside an unknown country. He took a deep breath and his eyes made their slow way back over the bridge.
© Paul S. Davey, 2003