On the run
Graham knew he only had seven days, just a week to get
what he craved – a new life.
A cacophony of voices in pidgin English broke him out
of his trance, the grabbing, everywhere hands accosting him
as he neared the entrance. He was back, the tawdry plywood
exterior looking even poorer than he remembered illuminated
by the tacky red neon sign announcing Christie Cabaret Show.
Greeted by the same throbbing Thai pop music, beating in
time to his heart, the gutter stink of cheap perfume, the place
looked much smaller and far more decadent than it had in his
mind’s eye over the last few weeks. In his dreams he’d expected
to walk in and find her, poised, as if she’d been waiting for him,
but Graham felt cheated as he looked around frantically at the
other ladyboys. Though how he hated that word, the fact he
could possibly be desperate for one of their ilk. Staring out at
the braying red-faced punters, Thai girls curled serpent-like
around bovine white men, their eyes calculating every move,
brains computing every sentence uttered he saw a kind of hell
and of Natasha there was no sign.
‘God,’ he said to himself, feeling his muscles tense, mouth
desert dry, palms leaking sweat, chewing at nails so destroyed
blood was oozing out of them.
‘Can I help you, Sir?’ said not a divine being but a heavily
‘Where’s Natasha?’ he said, wheeling around, scanning the
‘Natasha?’ said the boy with a shrug.
He flopped down at a bar stool overlooking the ramshackle
stage, sighing as the first strains of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will
Always Love You’ – one of wife Sheila’s favourites – struck
up and a ridiculously elaborately dressed ladyboy appeared,
lip-synching in all the wrong places.
‘Beer, please,’ said Graham to the boy who’d continued to
hover and he was gone with a practised and unnecessary shake
of his arse.
‘All right, babe. As one alcoholic would say to another, you
look like you need a drink,’ said a man to his right, fruity voice
cutting through the din, a gnarled hand seemingly weighed
down by a worrying amount of gold jewellery enveloping his
arm. ‘Great this, ain’t it.’
‘Graham, what’s yours? Though everyone calls me Gray as
in Mr Gray. Like my life,’ he said, turning to look at his new
best friend, taking in the yellowing skin which was the hue of
old newspapers, the gin-coloured hair.
‘Nigel… Nigel Monroe.’
‘Good to meet you, Nigel Monroe.’
‘You can live like a king ‘ere, dear,’ he said, voice a shouty
amalgam of Cockney and camp, raising a glass unsteadily with
one hand, patting the boy’s arse with the other. ‘These girls,
you see, know what they want and how to get it.’
‘Do you know Natasha?’
‘Let’s see, I’ve been here since 1990, so that’s twenty years
now. Twenty bloody years man and boy…’
‘Where were you before?’
‘Before? Was there a before?’ he said, looking out into the
middle distance. ‘All over. And you?’
‘Don’t sound like it.’
‘I don’t have a strong accent. Guess you could say I’m well
read. Like my crosswords and that. But, come on, what have
you been doing here?’
‘Ah, the first rule of being an expat, never ask that question
‘ere,’ he said, shakily raising a hand. ‘People get offended. But,
you know, this and that…’
As he tailed off, Graham sensed regret, his companion staring
off beyond the nonsense on stage and into the darkness beyond,
as though wondering how he’d ‘lost touch’, so the phrase went,
with friends and family, with his roots, with who he actually
was, traded it all in for a seat in a dive bar in a city halfway
around the world. He didn’t want to bloody end up like that.
‘Listen,’ he said, his turn to put a reassuring hand on his
neighbour’s arm. ‘I need to find someone… a girl.’
‘A girl, eh?’ said Nigel, stroking his stubbly chin. ‘And who
might she be?’
‘Ha, bullseye,’ he shouted above the din of the warbled bars
of Whitney. ‘But she ain’t no girl. Very pretty mind.’
‘And I, eeee-I, will alwayssss love you…’ came the racket
from the stage as if to mock Graham, the ladyboy’s eyes boring
directly into his, while Nigel had gone back to concentrating
on his real interest, the drink in front of him.
‘Very popular that one,’ the old man replied finally, as the
seemingly infernal noise from the stage ceased, a mischievous
smile lighting up his face. ‘I’d talk to Mark if I was you.’
‘Who the hell is Mark?’ he said, familiar knot of pain across
his shoulders, arms trembling.
‘Mark, babe, is the owner of this fine establishment… I told
her to engage with the fucking audience, why is she looking at
the floor?’ he said, pointing at the ladyboy nominally on stage,
for she clearly wasn’t interested, Nigel slamming another empty
glass down on the counter.
‘What’s it gotta do with you exactly?’
‘You’re speaking to Nigel Monroe of the Nigel Monroe
Dancers fame, West End impresario and choreographer,’ he
said, the boy refilling his glass, ushering away another empty
bottle of whisky from the scene like an embarrassment.
‘The Nigel Monroe Dancers?’
‘Those big telly shows in the seventies and early eighties. The
glitz was personified by the Nigel Monroe Dancers. Even made
it on Top of the Pops once,’ he said, spreading his hands as if to
reveal a name up in lights but there was only a dark emptiness.
‘I see,’ he said with a tight smile.
‘I’m creative director here.’
‘How about Mark? When can I speak to him?’ he said, wanting
to get back to the topic but wondering how someone barely
able to raise a glass to their lips through the fog of alcohol could
possibly direct anything.
‘He’s around. Probably out back getting hammered again.
But he’ll be back. Where else would ‘e be?’ said his companion,
patting Graham’s knee.
‘I don’t even know what I’m doing here. What the hell am I
thinking?’ he said, though he thought back to when he’d first
seen Natasha – her ample, perfectly symmetrical breasts spilling
out of a skimpy basque top, crimson lipstick accentuating
the lure of her mouth, unruly shock of blonde hair hinting at
sexual abandon. Before ‘seduction’ was just a word from the
crossword puzzles he obsessed over to distract him from the
paucity of his life.
‘Go on then, what’s your story?’
‘Story? There’s no bloody story,’ Graham said above the
thumping disco beat, mimicking the palpitations of his heart
he’d been suffering the last awful three years, since that day,
that bloody day, the bastard day of the accident that changed
everything. ‘I made the mistake of coming over here earlier
this year with the missus on my fortieth birthday, didn’t I.
Natasha, she was giving me the eyes… I couldn’t help myself.
We kissed. I can’t stop thinking about it. My life back home
in England, it’s so empty.’
‘What about the wife? Kids?’
‘Kids? I don’t even wanna go there, Nige. Another time.
But my wife, Sheila, she hates me. We haven’t touched each
other in years, bloody years. I sit driving my cab through the
night, those cold London nights, rather than go home. It’s
freezing on those winter nights with the pissheads getting in,
throwing up, running off but I prefer it to her cold, hard back.
So bloody cold.’
‘And where you meant to be now?’
‘Told ‘er I was going to Canada to see my brother for a week.
He emigrated there years ago but he’s got terminal cancer. All
the nonsense about life being too short but it really is.’
‘I know, babe. I know.’
‘Every chance the wife gets she tells me how crap I am, how
I don’t amount to anything. She blames me for everything. Is
it any wonder I’m having a breakdown? Doctor gave me these
pills but I haven’t taken ‘em yet. I feel enough of a bloody
failure,’ Graham said, waving the packet of happy pills in the
air, defeatedly chucking the box down on the bar, shoulders
slumping, blinking back tears, again.
‘Dear, it’s the way it works I’m afraid. Life I mean,’ Nigel
said, holding up a placatory hand as he did so. ‘Not being
funny but look at yourself in the mirror, look at me… no,
go on, I mean take a fucking good look. What could you or
I have that could possibly be of interest to these twenty-yearold
visions of beauty? It’s not our looks, it’s not our sense of
humour, it’s not even our great personalities.’
‘I know but…’ he said, looking out at the lithe bodies on
stage, then catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind
the bar, the image Nigel had warned him about – and he took
in the thinning blond hair only partially disguising the pathetic
balding pate, the craggy forehead lined with twenty-plus years
of worry, the length of his marriage, the darting, desperate eyes.
‘Graham, ain’t it. You need to hear this and we’re only going
to have this chat once. After this, like all of us, you’re on your
own,’ said Nigel. ‘It’s a so-called playground for white men, a
paradise if you like, but we’ve created a monster. Look around
you. I know for a fact most of these boys have several different
foreign boyfriends all unaware the other exists, all under the illusion
they are paying for little Johnny to go through university
or save his dad’s buffalo herd from foot and mouth.’
‘How about the girls then?’
‘Girls? They’re not girls. Don’t kid yourself. You’re down
here in the gutter with the rest of us. If that’s what you like,
though, do yourself a favour and be honest. Sounds like you
done living a lie.’
‘I’m not gay,’ he said, feeling like he was going to vomit out
his insides, head swimming, hating having to even utter the
word, that bloody word.
‘Love, no one’s judging you. Try to let it go,’ said Nigel,
placing a hand on his shoulder. ‘Be careful though, the ladyboys
are the worst of the lot, they have the accoutrements of
women, yet they think like men, they’re dogs when it comes
to sex, like us. But just enjoy it, if that’s what you really want.’
‘So what you saying?’
‘Sorry for the lecture but in a roundabout way, I’m saying
it’s even worse being alone, if you crave the touch of another,
tenderness, any kind of contact, what we all need. If you’re
alone, you’re just swimming with sharks,’ he said, watery eyes
looking older than time.
‘You had someone?’
‘I had someone and I was the one that ruined it. I ate up all
the ridiculous temptations like sickly sweets, I kept fucking
around and he couldn’t take it anymore. Now all I ‘ave is this,’
he said, wrenching the glass from the table, whisky slopping
down the sides. ‘I can’t get involved in the game now. It’s too
late for me.’
‘What about me?’
‘I don’t profess to have the answers. You want to give up
everything to set yourself up here but what are you really giving up?’
‘A life,’ he said but Graham didn’t really believe it. What life?
he thought savagely, looking at the box of Xanax on the bar,
hinting at a kind of existence that made him so anxious he was
prescribed pills just to get through each day.
‘These girls, boys a lot of them are interchangeable but they
can give you what you want. For a price. This is the East.’
Graham noticed a serene look come over the old man’s
haggard features as though he’d just spoken a sacred truth.
‘Shush,’ said Nigel, finger to his lips, pointing him to a figure
behind the bar as he went back to his drink.
Graham took it to be Mark, lending an even seedier edge
to proceedings, something of the Dickensian rogue with his
ragged clothes, rat-like features, hair plastered down with
sweat, brow glistening as he frantically counted money – what
looked like the night’s paltry takings. He put the slender sheaf
of notes down, silently shaking his head at the dark, almost
‘Can’t you see I’m busy, mate,’ he said in a grating
Liverpudlian accent, brandishing a cigarette he was puffing
Undeterred, Graham grabbed a stool opposite as the man
went back to his counting.
‘So what can I do you for?’ he said finally, looking up from
his small mound of notes and receipts, making eye contact for
the first time, though it seemed a worryingly dead-eyed stare.
‘You’re Mark, right?’
‘Who wants to know? Listen, mate, if you’re looking to
buy me out, the whole gaff is up for sale lock, stock and two
smoking fucking barrels,’ he said with a smile.
‘What does that fucking divvy know? He keeps telling me
how to run the show and look,’ he said, waving at the emptiness
of the place, indicating the lack of talent on show, the
‘I’m not that innocent,’ lip-synched one of the ladyboys,
completely out of time as she mimicked fellatio in what was
meant to be the gap between the words as if to illustrate Mark’s
point and Graham let out a nervous laugh.
‘You think it’s funny?’ Mark said, stubbing out another cigarette
in an overflowing ashtray.
‘No, course not,’ he said, beginning to feel he didn’t know
what he was dealing with, like he’d swapped south London for
the Wild West, where he didn’t know any of the rules, if there
actually were any.
‘I’ve got Nigel in one ear, Christie in the other,’ Mark said,
slamming a palm against his sweaty brow.
‘I’m actually here about Natasha.’
‘Natasha,’ spat Mark. ‘You really don’t want to go there.’
‘Well, I need to find her,’ Graham said, fiddling in his pocket,
meeting Mark’s gaze but there was nothing in the blank stare
to provide reassurance or even to register an interest, though
he hoped the two 1,000 baht notes he’d just placed on the bar
would change that.
‘Okay, if you really, really want to know,’ he said, spiriting
the notes away as he did so. ‘She’s in Soi Cowboy at Casino
Royale. She’s the star. Well she bloody would be, wouldn’t she.
That’s what I heard anyway.’
‘Soi Cowboy? And why’d she leave here?’
‘Soi Cowboy is another part of the jungle. Not too far in
a taxi. Get your guidebook out. She has to be number one,
numero bloody uno. That’s why the silly cow left. Felt she was
being upstaged. I think we’re done here old son,’ said Mark,
turning from the bar, disappearing into the blackness behind it.
It was the same trait he’d noticed in Nigel, that Bangkok
expats were only interested in someone that could do something
for them, otherwise you ceased to exist.
‘Soi Cowboy… Casino Royale,’ Graham repeated, relieved
to have a whereabouts, even if he didn’t know where that was,
he had a name and what a name, he chuckled, Natasha channelling
peak Bond girl, though he guessed there wouldn’t be
any flashy casino.
But as he prepared to leave, thoughts drifted back to the
image of Mark frantically counting money, calculating whether
it was enough to live on, and he feared he’d caught a glimpse of
his grubby, threadbare future. Walking out past Nigel Monroe
of the Nigel Monroe Dancers at closing time, he saw his eyes
were glazed over at what was unfolding on stage, a performer
stifling a yawn as the old man watched, waited, finally bringing
another half-empty glass to his lips.
Arriving back at the crumbling concrete block of a building
that was his hotel, vowing to continue his search the next day as
the city’s bars were now closed, at least the legal ones, Graham
caught a glimpse of himself in the cab’s rear-view mirror, a
white ghost in a lurid world. The irony of the hotel’s name
spelt out garishly on its grisly edifice making him laugh for he
felt a long way from the Paradise it promised.
He grabbed for the phone vibrating in his pocket, knowing
instinctively who it would be, forty years old and only one
person was ever interested enough to call, yet it was also the
one person he least wanted to hear from. Still, out of a sense
of what – Duty? Habit? – he picked up.
‘Where the ‘ell are ya,’ said Sheila.
‘Whaddya mean, where the hell am I?’ he said, knot tightening
across his shoulders.
‘Graham, I’ve spoken to your sister in law, you’re not in
Canada. I wasn’t able to contact you earlier and I was worried.
Where are you?’
He breathed into the phone, short, sharp breaths but the
words wouldn’t come out.
‘Thailand? I might have bloody known. You and those
‘Just for a few days. I need to find myself.’
‘Find yourself. Find your bloomin’ self. You say you’re
anxious and you’re taking those stupid pills. What abaht me?
Graham, you’re not some teenager on a gap year. You’re a fortyyear-
old man with re-spon-si-bil-i-ties. The last three years ’ave
been hell and you’re running away. What would Emma say, eh?’
‘Emma? How dare you bring her into this, my daughter,
my lovely Emmy.’
‘Your daughter? I hold you completely responsible, you
bastard. And this… this Thailand, it’s all about sex.’
‘Sheil, I’m not looking for sex, I’m looking for love. Love
you dopey cow. How many times have you rejected me over
the years? Even Em said, before she… that I should get a life.
I want the touch of another human bein’ for God’s sake. I’m
not a monk. I can’t go on like this!’
‘You think I want anything to do with you? To even touch
you? Look at yourself in the mirror. Kissing you is like kissing
a toilet. You’re bloody disgustin’.’
‘Love, you ought to know there’s someone else,’ he said,
cutting her off, punching the wall, jagged pain raking up his