Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by James Austin Farrell

 

 

 

 

 

(i)                   “ Happiness is the meaning of and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

(ii)                 “An immense hatred keeps me alive…I would live for a thousand years if I were certain of seeing the whole world croak.” Louis Ferdinand Céline

Are you happy? Are you both happier now? Are you happy living over there?

Can you answer any of these questions, with clarity, certainty…with a sense of stability? Happy (from Middle English hap, meaning luck): adjective, abstract, over-simplified, bursting with meaning, yet sometimes chock-full of nothing you can easily describe. Your level of happiness right now might have a reasonable cause: I bought a new iMac, I was the recent recipient/manufacturer of an orgasm, I ran around a lake…I lost a laptop, a lover, a leg. You may wake up endeared to humanity, deliriously devoted to an other, whistling to the tune of a song that forges an army of serotonin hormones, and yet, you may find yourself rooted to the comedown of this contentedness when you go to bed, twisting and turning to the tune of its antithetical dread. Happiness is a spring not always easy to tap…it suffers from bouts of aridity.

Happiness can be precarious, ephemeral, frightening, paradoxical, obtuse, and perhaps even painful. Iconic suicide, Kurt Cobain once sang, “I miss the comfort in being sad,” which is testament to some people’s peculiar penchant for playing – and perhaps enjoying being – the victim. Michael Caine, in the film Alfie, was a perennially happy, but actually quite sad, wide-boy who was repeatedly prey to melancholy after doing things, or acquiring things, he thought made him happy – this is called the pleasure paradox. Alfie is epicurean but never quite satiated, incandescent but lonely and, in spite of his seemingly devil-may-care attitude, unable to escape from melancholic introspection: “My life’s my own. But I don’t have peace of mind. And if you don’t have that, you’ve got nothing… So, what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about?”

It’s inhuman not to want to feel all sorts of bliss, to achieve the rarified state of unadulterated happiness. But to achieve happiness, and to sustain it – or at least keep anguish/pain at a comfortable distance – is a life’s work, and purportedly much harder for some than others. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that by 2020, depression will be the second highest cause of DALY (Disability Adjusted Life Years) in the world. Our lack of happiness, we are told, will be an even more formidable serial killer than heart disease in the future, becoming the “biggest health burden on society both economically and sociologically.” Brand new abbreviated medical terms pop (up) into our consciousnesses every year, stirring up alphabetic nightmares for new generations, and while some imaginative parents may really take up Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (or MSbP/MSP), what used to be just weird or unique is fast becoming classified as disease. Maybe in the future we’ll all be sick. Does this mean that contrary to our ‘better’ standards of living – in most countries – progress in technology, cultural developments, etc., we are worse at being happy?

Our brains are a chemical factory, and what we choose to do, eat, drink, think, breathe, all the substances, nutrients, memories, that go through us, will affect the output of this factory. Dr. Paritat Silpakit, Director of Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital, explained that the chemical dopamine is released into specific areas of the brain when we do certain activities or achieve things; “This is part of the brain’s reward system,” says Dr. Paritat, “to repay us for vital activities, which is necessary for the survival of the species.” Without the brain’s reward system we might not procreate, try to complete Mario World, invade countries, or ask someone on a date. But dopamine highs, he explained, are short lasting. For a general feeling of well-being, the chemical serotonin establishes our “mood/affect” and it is this chemical that determines our general levels of contentedness. Endorphins that bind to our opioid receptors in our brains also give us a high. “They are like a pain killer,” says Paritat, “they relieve us and restore us in times of hard activity or danger, sometimes working with dopamine.”

But can we achieve longer-lasting happiness, a sustainable buzz? How do we keep our heads, when seemingly, statistically, all about us are losing theirs?

In one of many attempts to understand happiness, a now famous happiness study at Harvard University in the late 70s showed how people who had become paraplegic as a result of an accident were equally as happy as lottery winners after the initial cataclysm of their life change; their ‘happiness quotients’ after one year were very similar. The theory of the ‘Hedonic Treadmill,’ a term often used in positive psychology – the psychology of making life better, more fulfilling – tells us that ‘50% of our feelings are determined by genetics, 10% by outside circumstances, and 40% by intentional activities’. Your happiness level is homeostatic, which means it returns to a constant after an elevation or decline.  Even though you can return to your ‘happiness equilibrium point’ after material loss, amorous rejection, redundancy, etc, the death of a friend or spouse might irreconcilably reset your general level of happiness – your factory settings. Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle, along with modern psychology, generally agree that there are two forms of happiness. Hedonic happiness: pleasure, memory recall, excitement, malarkey, etc. Eudemonic happiness: well-being with longevity, due to self-realisation, fruitful relationships, goals.

“Every living creature adapts to change, whether it is positive or negative,” says Paritat. “Right now brain research shows the brain’s special ability to adapt, they call it ‘brain plasticity’. If we can’t swim, the brain learns to swim, if you have a genetic disorder, you can compensate by practice, or you can overcome your handicap.” He explains that some people will be born with less genetic advantages concerning how happy they will become, “You can see that in newborns,” he says, “some have a tendency to be happier than others, and some families also have histories of suicide and depression.” Though he insists that, “happiness is a skill” to be learned, as well as a genetic slideshow you are born with.

In spite of the WHO’s depressing statistic, there are branches of positive psychology that are intent to fix sadness and all its mundane corollaries for good. Some theorists believe humans can be transformed, enhanced. À la Huxley’s Brave New World there are scientists out to end human suffering. The BLTC (Better Living Through Chemistry) Research Centre in Brighton, UK, headed by iconoclastic philosopher David Pearce, is presently working on methods to “redesign/recalibrate our hedonic treadmill” and eventually “abolish the biological substrates of suffering”.

Under the umbrella term of ‘Paradise Engineering’ science and humanities are working alongside each other researching various ways to make people smarter, happier and healthier. BLTC’s mission statement reads: “Post-Darwinian superminds can abolish physical and mental pain altogether.” A technotopia exists, we are told, where the “biochemical roots of our ill-being” will be pulled from our brains. The centre is presently researching treatments such as: ‘Utopian Surgery’ and ‘Utopian Pharmacology’. Their premise: with advanced drugs, nanosurgery, and genetic engineering, they can de-code the human genome and we can evolve into a race of trans/post-humans – with greatly improved physicality, augmentation of human emotional and intellectual capacities, and be more resistant to aging and pain – though we may have to wait a while until we enter our brave new unsuffering world.

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So in the meantime a slightly more prosaic solution to maximising happiness, or reducing mental suffering, is riding the muddy waves of mental ill-health. Pharmacological science created – extremely lucrative – methods of affecting our brain chemistry in an effort to cheer up humanity. Prozac, maybe the most famous of modern antidepressants of the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) class, is hardly an answer to the occasional crushing lows of human existence, though its popularity is nevertheless astounding. The idea of nations of moderately dull but functioning people, neither barbed with sadness nor spiked with joy, is – statistically – more than a mere dystopian dream. While compassionate, if we overlook its monstrous profitability, the sweetshop cornucopia of depressive medication available nowadays could perhaps induce an international epidemic of laziness, mediocrity, and victim mentality, while submitting the meek to venal marketing ideology. It’s said that around 10.2% of Americans regularly take mood enhancing medicines (118 million prescriptions in 2005: CDC), while in the UK The Sun newspaper ran a story June 2011 with the amusing headline, ‘Prawns on Prozac’, after an academic report from Portsmouth University found that certain crustaceans were high on spiked human excrement (39.1 million prescriptions for anti-depression medications in England in 2009, NHS). The number of people seeking medication for depression has been rising steadily (as has money spent on advertising depression medication, from 32 to 122 million dollars in the US from 1996-2005: Columbia University) despite many medications being surrounded by controversy that attacks the specious efficacy of the drugs, outlining reams of side-effects, and after numerous medical trials finding many antidepressant drugs only as effective as a clinical dud. While the selfish determinism of our genetics might seem an inescapable cul-de-sac to some dispirited hardliners – perhaps enough to force them over to the green grasses of Prozac – their plaints might be unconvincing to those who believe in the healthy lifestyle, the absence of legal and illegal drugs, daily exercise, meditation, and a balanced diet.

Although some theorists inform us we cannot ever attain lasting happiness. They suggest – and I’ll encapsulate the theory in modern parlance – that ‘we are all fJJked’. The concept of antinatalism, meaning that ‘life should not even be brought into existence’, explains that humanity falls short of justifying why it exists. Antinatalism was made (un)popular by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose theories of inhedonia – the inability to enjoy oneself – were partly based on the Buddhist precept of the will – desires – to cause all human suffering. Schopenhauer tells us our ‘will’ will preclude any permanent satisfaction in this world and only expression through the arts and compassion can provide some occasional solace to our long-haul suffering. Buddhism teaches us moderation, a curtailment of the desires that make us suffer. Our world, presently designed on a system of hearty consumption, is hardly a platform for Buddhist contentment. To have more, spend more, use more, is in some ways our modus operandi as we stomp through life. Is this why 10.2% of American enhance their moods with drugs?

But where would art, literature and music be without a regular dose of anguish, immoderation and loss? Unhappiness, or bouts of, arguably provided us with the great works of Louis Ferdinand Celine, Francis Bacon…The Butthole Surfers. Would happiness not bring about a drought in humanity where we may least need one? In answer to this, biochemist turned Buddhist monk and writer, Matthieu Ricard – nicknamed ‘happiest man in the world’ – tells us it’s irrational to turn away from the things, or the lifestyle, we know would make us happier. ‘Would anyone wake up in the morning and think to themselves, today I want to suffer?’ he asks, and tells us how for so long we have romanticised suffering and so have not remedied it. If great art is a byproduct of what is essentially the scourge of humanity (suffering), is art worth all the bother?

American musician Andrew Bird sings in his song ‘Lull’: “I’m all for moderation, but sometimes it seems, moderation itself is a kind of extreme.” It certainly might be if we’re not moderate people by nature. Spontaneity and impulse can provide us with the best kind of happiness. Perhaps some people are not made of Buddhist cloth? Carl Jung’s typology test, now known as human metrics, is a complex test that classifies human character types. Certain types might be happier in moderation, while others feel comfortable with their intemperateness. Well-being can be achieved to some extent, but first we must know ourselves, our – complex – type. And then we can make the right choices…

Dan Gilbert, an American psychologist and writer working at Harvard University, spoke at a recent TED talk about the persuasive power of delusion concerning life choices. If happiness is so often contingent upon our decisions, then it would be in our interests to choose well. Though Gilbert explains how his research has found that people have the ability, as a result of their psychological immune system, to make themselves think they made the right choice when they did not. His study on synthetic happiness, through a series of tests, revealed that even though we often make the wrong choices, our brains lead us to think – as we are stuck with the decision – to incontrovertibly believe it was the right choice. According to Gilbert, the house you bought, the guy you married, the decision to become a banker and not just a thief, even though you are convinced was the best path to follow, may have been the wrong choice, and lead to what he calls synthetic happiness – not the real thing. His TED illustration of this point is very convincing. Perhaps some of our better choices have worse affects?

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In Bertrand Russell’s 1930 uber-rational Conquest of Happiness, hailed by Time magazine as the modern substitute for the Bible”, he takes a stab at setting us up for rational happiness – involving no chemical magic tricks, genes man-handling, or having to spurn Prada knickers. Depression in the developed world he says might be “unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.” He adds that with technology constantly mutating and multiplying, in modern societies generational problems occur when an older lot can’t manage and access new ideas, technology, culture, which nurtures alienation and the risk of idealising the past, and not enjoying the present. Devout traditionalism then becomes a shield that cowers from the present, and in doing so, casts a shadow over its owner.

He gives special attention to envy and guilt. “The habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one,” he tells us, unaware of the future’s global spectre of social networks where conspicuous happiness has created a pandemic of envy! “The human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship,” he writes. “To find the right road out of this despair civilised man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind.”

And if I post this quote on your FB page you can hit ‘like’…

One of the 21st century’s most outspoken literary sages, Jonathan Franzen, gave a speech on his thoughts about modern technology, social media, liking, and how it fits with our feelings of well-being: “The ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes – a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance – with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” He tells us that we can now “star in our own movies”, and while we might kindly share our umpteen photos with all of our so called online mates, the “sense of mastery” we feel from doing so is likely the pay-off for a self-serving and cold act.

Talking about the reality of our diaphanous friendships and quasi-solidarity of the online community Franzen asks if the verb ‘to like’ has not been transformed/demoted from a “state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.” Our friendships online, and especially on Facebook, are consolidated not with sentimental, tactile, emotive interaction, but with an impassive, solitary tap of the index finger. The human bond, so essential to our well-being, has become desiccated within the apathetic medium of the online hub. Social networks have become bottomless pools into which billions of modern Narcissists sit entranced staring at their own virtual reflections. “It’s all one big endless loop,” Franzen says, “we like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

The back-lash to this fraudulent lifestyle and dodgy online persona we create on social media, says Franzen, is that it is inevitable that you and your super-image will sooner or later come to blows, “You’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight,” he tells us, and we might be reminded of Superman’s hardest and darkest ever scrap when he had to contend with his long-repressed alter ego in the junkyard. “You’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person.”

Russell also talks about how our being in the public eye can cause extremes of suffering, guilt, persecution mania. It’s “self-centred,” he says, and warns us not to focus too much “attention on oneself” nor spend too much time dwelling on how others might think about us. In some ways Russell’s idea of suffering is ‘social media’. “It is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations,” he wrote 80 years ago, having absolutely no intimation that it would become quite normal to have 600 neighbours peering through our virtual windows daily in the future.

In Russell’s conclusion to his Conquest of Happiness he expresses that above all it is love, friendship, and union that are the foundations of man’s well-being. He is well aware of the pleasure paradox, the notion of false happiness and destructive desires. “All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack of integration…The happy man is the man who does not suffer from [either of these] failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe…It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”

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Is happiness more difficult to achieve in a developing country?

The idea of creating widespread social happiness became well known through Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian philosophy that expounded the theory of, ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’. Bentham created a ‘Hedonic Calculus’ so we might know what ‘good’ actually means as a citizen of a society, though his revelations about ‘good’ have always been controversial. In Asia today, countries such as Thailand are presently researching their GNH (Gross National Happiness). Negative Utilitarianism is more in vogue though, which means lessening suffering in the greatest numbers.

For many citizens, troubled times, wars, oppressive dictatorships, poverty, absence of rights, jobs, free speech, may certainly lead towards a protracted state of unhappiness, though it might not always be the case. National Happyism started in Bhutan when the King, in 1972, created the GNH, based on economy, fair governance, salubrious environment, GDP, and positive religion/culture. Despite Bhutan’s relatively undeveloped status it is ranked (World Map of Happiness) the 8th happiest country in the world. Thailand is ranked 76th.

Dr. Paritat explained that Thailand’s Department of Health, and the health insurance department, have compiled (2009) a happiness index for all provinces, in which Chiang Mai is 15th out of 77. The results were based on things such as income/expenses, debt, job satisfaction, but they also acquired data on other more personal aspects of well-being such as perception of one’s own happiness, the mental capacity and skills to achieve happiness and cope with suffering, the spiritual feeling of goodness in a person, and the inter-dependent relationships a person has. Paritat explained that using drugs such as Prozac is definitely not a solution to unhappiness. His belief is that a person can change his sense of well-being with practice and effort, naturally. “Prozac is cost effective, though first I always suggest exercise, positive meditation, lifestyle changes,” says the doctor.

“I believe 80% of our happiness is derived internally, not from what most people think – the external.” Dr. Paritat refers to Matthieu Ricard and his theory of transcending pain by using our “higher brain”. Through positive thinking and meditation it is said that Ricard’s brain shows positive emotions. He can induce happiness, in quantity, all by himself. External happiness – that means gaining happiness from others, things, objects – is “not a good strategy, it’s not sustainable,” says Dr. Paritat, and though he believes that suffering is part of human nature, a necessary part, he tells us that “suffering and happiness are not mutually exclusive, they can live together.”

Will (trans)humans of the future experience something we haven’t: enduring happiness? Can we imagine well-being without corresponding counter feelings? What goes up, not coming down? What would be the consequences of positive emotional constancy? Could meditation habitually replace medication? We can lessen the amount of violence, torture, pain and misery in all societies, by our own self-realisation, and then by realising others, we can start to tame the selfish animal inside of us. But much of the so-called civilised world is drugged up, knocked to its knees by ennui, abused by its own freedom. Our present challenge is to enjoy this freedom. We learn from infancy to compulsively chase fool’s gold, the stuff that offers only the most temporary kind of happiness, but what else is there to do, ‘what’s it all about?’ Reinvent, says Buddha – as do the drug dealers in The Wire when they change ‘the game’ to evade arrest –, while American utopian philosopher Richard Rorty tells us that what we think we know of life, and our own lives, requires ongoing redescription. Adapt to survive, the world is never stable, and so stasis in our minds is dangerous…arrested development can induce total dereliction. And you know they say getting lost is essential to achieving happiness… “Loss of pain results in repeat trauma and early death,” says Dr. Paritat allegorically, when talking about people with congenital analgesia (people who cannot feel physical pain), “we can’t get rid of suffering, but we can learn to live with it.”

Franzen ends his techno-phobic talk on the human condition of happiness, and the union of love, just as Russell did generations before him: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it…When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”

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The Infestation of Poor Dara

 

 

 

 

 

 

By James Austin Farrell

 Dara was uncertain as far as the truth was concerned. He held, was obliged to hold, the belief that the truth was very often of a hallucinatory nature; it was neither here, nor there. The truth melted, as ice or snow did, the longer you held it in your hands. He had fallen for the truth on many occasions, and he had been cheated on in most of his relationships with the truth. What he believed to be true, he knew now as a grown-up man, was always questionable.

 Strange things happened to Dara, and they were strange enough that Dara prudently kept them to himself. When Dara was a teenager he had believed that a firm pressure was constantly pushing against the bridge of his nose. It was not painful, much like somebody’s thumb pressing against him, but it was constant, it was uncomfortable, and before he learned to live with it, it was almost terrifying. He knew, or rather he speculated, that there might not be any pressure, a phantom thumb pushing against his nose; he knew he could be merely imagining it.

 His imagination evolved, always seeming to get the upper hand on him. When Dara was approaching his twenties, borderline agoraphobic, definitely claustrophobic, he developed more profound, wholly believable symptoms. In a kind of converse relation to external pressure, he started to believe in the internal expansion of body parts. He believed that if his right foot wasn’t planted on the ground, or any surface for that matter, that it would expand, and if he allowed it to hover too long, it might explode. He walked with quick short steps, obviating a bloodbath in his shoes. But, as a result of hours of rational thinking and close inspection of his feet, he talked himself out of this fear. Only for Dara, when one obstacle was passed, defeated, another much more cunning obstacle would avail itself. He could not see inside his skull, nor was swelling on the brain so outlandish it could be rationally expelled, so for years he believed – even after scans had more or less corroborated to his system breakdown – that his brain was slowly expanding, and might at any given moment – more likely in a job interview or on an unlikely date with a girl – blow up.

 “Anxiety can be outfoxed. I can escape, and I can reinvent myself. My pressures, and my expansions, are my own doing,” Dara told himself while climbing to the second floor of a half-built house with lumber in his arms. Carrying heavy things, exertion of any kind, staunched his imaginary vices. He had hoped that in his twenties his physical torments would be vacuumed up with the rest of his dark childish idiosyncrasies, such as scratching his arms until they bled or his penchant for crying in the foetus position, but unfortunately his fears would age with him. He was quite sure that he had gotten over both his parents dying – within no more than two years of each other – from what he considered to be the most acute kind of – i.e. whisky for breakfast – alcoholism. He may have gotten over their failure to maintain life, but it was possible that Dara was very much still hemmed in by a nagging, nebulous curiosity as to why both his parents were not just unquenchable alcoholics, but also seemingly dead set on early death. What had he done to deserve his parents’ apathy? Dara felt like an unwanted ugly elder sibling, barged out of the way by an attractive newcomer who sidelined him daily, and whose always formidable appearance in the shape of 4-pack, 750cl or 2lt value bottle, Dara could not contend with. So with so much to feel bad about and so plenty to regret Dara went through life with one fear superseding another, because the kernel, the loadstone of his fears – the fact he was terribly unwanted – he could not remove, nor repress, enough. Although Dara’s worst fear was the end product to all this anxiety. What grim conclusion did his imagination have in store for him?

 “What the fuck is an educated kid like you doing working as a labourer,” he was asked by one of his co-workers on a typically dystopian, muddy day in the gut of South East London. Dara wasn’t educated, far from it, but he was introspective, and because of his regular bouts of strange ailments, he had become very cynical, he questioned almost everything, and this he thought may have mislead people into thinking he was of secular intelligence. His ailments had pretty much forced him into a corner, and so he read, he read a lot, so he might understand the peculiarity of life. Books had brought him much relief, but they were never there when he needed them: in the bank, at his aunty Moreen’s funeral, when holding the hand of a girl that would never understand the illusions perpetrated on him.

 “I am not important, my life is not important,” he told himself whilst working on the site. “Self-absorption is a necessary blunder, but it has to be overcome.”

 “I’m leaving,” he told Phil, the only guy on the building site he talked to, a painter and decorator by trade, but proxy plasterer when called upon.

 “Good on yer lad. You don’t wanna end up like me,” Phil said, vague in his irony.

 Dara knew that travel was a necessary device to unbuckle himself from the highchair of his immature neuroses. And so, having never left the UK before, he flew to Thailand three weeks after his twenty-ninth birthday.

 A couple of years later Dara was less flaky, less of a burden to himself. He ran almost every day, he meditated from time to time – usually ad hoc and alone – and he met a woman who seemed to extend to him the luxurious gift of making him feel at ease.

 Yui demonstrated a heroic charm. When she held him something magic happened; she besieged the monsters that had once tormented him, osmotically relieving him of fear, draining his demons into her, where they died within her impossible environment. Yui was a force to be reckoned with.

She had left university a year before she met Dara – who was working as a fairly legitimate (he had passed a TEFL course) English teacher. It was not surprising to Dara that Yui harboured, like most other Thai women he had met, a dogged belief that men were expected to dry-up after they had procured sex, then crumble into the arms of any other woman that might play surrogate mother to them for a term. Dara thought her acuity at understanding her own culture was impressive in the face of widespread Thai denialism. It was just a cultural trait of hers not to focus too sharply on, and criticise too harshly, the sadness that some other cultural traits inflict on their children.

 But she didn’t trust men, Thai men, and so she crashed, with a sense of hope and abandonment, into the arms of Dara, whom she believed, possibly as a result of Hollywood, or perhaps, to be fair to her, through her own kind of pop-anthropological internet research, he would be an honest boyfriend and maybe even a decent husband. Notwithstanding the tenuous bric-a-brac Yui had picked up concerning English culture throughout her life, it was really her intuition, combined with the fact that Dara blushed a lot – somewhere in an unchartered part of her mind this was a good omen – that told her Dara was a good man, or at the very least, not promiscuous.

 “You should smile more,” she told Dara after looking through photos of them. They had been sat on the balcony together looking at the photos and watching the swallows bring nesting material to the roof vents of the condo. Yui smiled a lot, unlike Dara. She did not quarrel with existence, as Dara did, instead she enjoyed her life. And if she was blinkered, she was happily blinkered. She looked askance when the opportunity arose to condemn or be critical, when Dara would see an opening, a blunder that needed addressing. He searched for these opportunities, while Yui, veiled by her own positive attitude, walked away from most fights, and although this seemed foreign, perhaps craven, and definitely irresponsible to Dara at first, after a while in her presence he started to understand the bounty of happiness available simply by turning away.

 “It doesn’t mean I’m not happy Yui,” he told her, as they watched the raucous birds scrap to get into the vent. It was a stubbornness of his not to smile when asked, smiling for photographs would make him feel he was a performing animal, and this bothered him. He did not tell Yui this. There was a part of him he did not want to expose to her. It was not a deceit, just a polite omission, like the secrecy of defecation or nose picking. “Ok Dara, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to smile if you don’t want to.”

 But actually she liked the fact he didn’t smile; she enjoyed his peculiarities, because to her it was a notion of his sincerity, this loyalty to himself. Until she had met Dara she had taken it for granted, and accepted, that men were extensions of themselves, they were words, fiction, alloyed, impure. She had only to talk to a man for a few minutes and she would not be able to suspend belief. But with Dara the words seemed to mirror his soul, when he spoke she felt dragged into his honesty, she felt complicit in the story, and she could not turn away. After just a few months she was aware that if he were to leave her it would be a catastrophe. This absolute binding of him and her, she had not foreseen, the painful exploration of her fears she did not enjoy, but fortunately Dara felt the same and told her as much. “I never thought I would meet a foreign man, any man, that could make me feel this way,” she told him, “I never thought this could happen to me.” And shakily, feeling every bit as frightened as she did ebullient she told him, “I love you. I love everything about you.”

It seemed like an anomaly to him, that he should ever feel content with someone. He had always thought that contentedness was only possible, and then barely possible, when alone. The complexity and dire usability of the self was daunting enough, so to combine self with another could surely only enact a total inoperable dysphoria for both parties. But Dara had underestimated, in fact he had never even taken into account, the rich and prosperous coupling of certain chemical elements. In Yui he had found a match, a perfect reaction with himself. He imagined he was entrenched in a kind of allegory, he was a slogan for mankind, a success story. They had become knitted within the fabric of each other, and it seemed, that their hopes were unassailable. Only on few occasions did he entertain malfunction, and that was usually just after his parents had drifted into his memory. He wondered occasionally, when the alcoholic scent of his mother suffused his thoughts, if he might ever have another ‘turn’. He asked himself if he could outlive the memory of her, and of course the memory of his father, whose tenure in his brain he found less distracting.

The aesthetically offset pair of Yui and Dara, him standing almost six feet tall, and her no taller than five feet, walked imperviously through mall and high street as they deflected the myriad countenances of foreigners and Thais who, Dara thought, were hatching stories based on his and her immoral misdemeanors. Yui was pretty, pretty in a Thai way, and she was much younger than Dara. This seemed to elicit, or so Dara imagined, some amount of asperity from Thai men. Foreigners might date hookers, but some girls were verboten. Dara was not only in love, but he was eclipsing a myth, he was rubbishing modern culture, and the anarchism he gladly took exception to.

 They had been together almost a year when Dara fell prey to an unexpected foe. A fucking step. The second step on his staircase in his duplex condo where Yui and he were living.

 He recalled the event of the slip whilst the doctor in the hospital encased his leg with warm plaster of Paris a week after the accident when the swelling was less pronounced. How could such a trite slip break his right fibula? He felt old. He had been caught out by a biological hazard that he really should have been aware of. The realisation of a bone had become apparent, as had the fact that he was perishable and one day he would have to die. A cut, or a cold, is a presage of disunity with the world, he mused while enjoying the administration of plaster to his leg.

 Yui was not around for the accident. When it happened he was alone on the stairs. He almost hoped for the pain to be of the phantom kind, the kind he was used to, but the doctor reassured him – after Dara had ridden to the hospital on his motorbike, not being able to use the brake below his right foot – that his fibula was fractured and he would be spending the next few weeks on crutches. When Dara was wheeled out into the reception Yui was waiting for him, and at seeing him sat lumped and depressed in his chair, she said to him, “I want to have your children Dara.” 

“I’m sorry,” he said, surprising himself. He already felt like a burden. He felt too much like a child to think about creating one.

 Yui told him to stay where he was, and took his second prescription for painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicines to the hospital pharmacy. He had spent most of his life alone, and his ailments he had always fought solitarily. Being a burden was a promotion in a way, he thought, but it was a tough one to accept. He exhaled the thick hospital air, the stuff that smothers illness and death, and wondered if coping on his own wasn’t something he would like to give up forever.

Dara was hardly adaptive to crutches. The stairs, the fucking stairs he had slipped on, became a deceptive enemy. He felt no elation in mounting the peak, because the prospect of descent troubled him so much. The bathroom became his bête noir, as unmanageable as ice-cream on a hot day, whose floor tiles and disingenuous rubber mat, probed Dara to think that almost everything in the world could be dangerous given the opportunity. He made an enemy of many objects that had previously never really bothered him, and each time he slipped, spilled something, or banged into something, his enmity towards his locality became more vivid. When his heavy cast smacked against Yui’s thin legs in bed she yelped, and though she tried to stifle her entreaties, after a few nights of clumsiness Dara felt dangerous.

 He couldn’t, for some reason – and he did attempt to understand this, but failed – accept with dignity the help he was receiving from Yui. She brought back milk and water and food, and he immediately felt crushed. And each day his self-esteem ebbed away from him, while he sunk to various levels of melancholy. She worked – he could not – and so she was paying for everything too. He resigned himself to cheap alcohol, which she bought for him, and for the first time since they met he acquired an old skill: drunken moroseness. He recognised this, but felt sorry for himself enough to award his morose feelings their god given right to manifest. During his third week crippled his rotten mood spilled over into the unguarded boundaries of Yui’s goodwill. “For fuck’s sake Yui,” he said, “can you not just let me read!” He had had enough of reading, but that wasn’t the point. A book on punishment by Foucalt was hardly felicitous material for a man in such a depressed, helpless state. Though it did help him realise that it was the ‘spectre of violence’, his verbal punch, that gave him a sense of independence and uncivilised fuzzy justice. Being bad to Yui seemed to galvanise him, and for a short time he felt encouraged because of his actions, but the feeling was temporary, it waned as soon as it soared.

 During the fourth week of Dara’s trial on crutches he told Yui to leave him alone after something as benign as a forgotten request for beer. Dara was enjoying, he thought, his alcohol. He was getting back into booze. Yui brought home dairy products, loaded with calcium, and it just wasn’t good enough. He wanted beer.

 “You shouldn’t be drinking too much Dara,” Yui told him, “it’s not good for your bone.”

 That was correct Dara conceded, but it didn’t change the fact that she had made a mistake. After she left the house, and Dara had crutched his way upstairs to the bedroom, he realised how selfish he was being. He clasped his hands together and held them to the ceiling and asked for forgiveness. He cursed the step, he cursed his alcoholic parents, and then he picked up another book that he imagined he might enjoy reading.

 As he darted around the paragraphs, not really dignifying any of them with a sense of coherence, he felt something tickling his face. He rubbed whatever it was – it felt like a hair being dragged around his cheeks and under his eyes – away, but it soon returned. He had stopped taking the pills the hospital had prescribed him because they had given him stomachaches, and so he ruled out side effects. The tickling precluded him sleeping much that night.

 The next night – Yui didn’t return, though she called and told him she was staying at a friend’s house – again as he lie in bed, he felt something tickling his face. Only now the tickling sensation had moved to other parts of his body. It had to be some kind of psychosomatic attack he thought, brought on by the stress of his broken leg, the reappearance of alcohol, the absence of work, and the temporary loss of his girlfriend. So he told himself it was not real, he surrendered to his imagination, gave it a nod of witting understanding, and then asked if it might please stop harassing him. But it didn’t.

 Google had always been darkly attractive to Dara when insanity brushed up to him, but confiding to the Google search was indubitably a move that ended in tears. Google was the poor man’s truth, it was the last bastion of reason, a cop-out, but it was always there at least. He searched for a few minutes words such as ‘tickle’, ‘invisible’, ‘face’, ‘can’t see’, ‘feels like hair on face’, and in a short time a reasonable culprit was found: Bird Mites.

 As he read this he felt for the first time something moving within the rotten confines of his cast, and this propelled him to read voraciously pages of information on bird mites.

 ‘I’ll pray for you,’ one poster wrote to another who had been infested with the invisible spider-like bugs. It seemed, as Dara read on, that virtually no one who had an infestation ever got rid of their mites for good. There were some bird mite theorists who waxed mental illness, namely ‘formication’, ‘delusional parasitosis’, and the alien sounding term ‘Morgellons’ that apparently, Dara read, some celebrities suffered from. He did wonder – feeling like an old ghost had come back to haunt him – if he were going mad. But there were plenty of people who had seen the red mites – the postprandial sort – and there were indeed many pest control companies out there who also believed in mites. He remembered the nesting swallows as he read about abandoned nests being a cause for a mass exodus of mites and consequential human infestation. ‘The mites will then seek a new host’, the net informed him. He was covered in microscopic bugs. He knew this. He wasn’t making it up. Though with Dara’s history, how could he not entertain the possibility of delusional parasitosis? For the first time in a while he recalled a memory of his mother, perhaps a memory that would be the hardest to erase, the one where she stands in a petrol station in the grips of delirium tremens and starts to scream at people while Dara, only 16 years old, watches from the passenger window.

“I saw my father,” she told Dara later as she sat in a hospital bed rendered less delirious by dint of intravenous Valium. Dara had always thought his mother had long detested her long dead father. The fear a hallucination, something arrantly unreal, had perpetrated on his mother Dara found frightening in perhaps equal terms.

Following another sleepless, fitful, terrorizing night, with the brute energy of mite forum revelations stirring his already paranoiac mind, Dara took a paintbrush to his cast. The object he had yet to use, a tool he had hoped he might one day rescue from its coma. Like all things, it had a place in the world, but it would never paint. After stabbing for a few minutes under his cast at what he thought were mites, he noticed that there was blood on the handle of the brush. Now, he thought, the mites have a channel into my flesh.

 Sitting on the chair – that Yui had brought upstairs for him – in the bathtub he washed his hair three times with coal tar 5% medical shampoo, and in spite of him having sensitive skin, he used the brown noxious smelling liquid on his face. He was aware that his cast, most likely bloody on the inside, could be the nesting area for the mites. Though shortly after his shower he could feel nothing on his skin, bar a burning sensation, a result of his furious washing.

 The next day a tuk tuk pulled up outside his condo, and seeing Dara was incapacitated, would take no less than double the usual price to the nearest Tesco store. Delirium overshadowed argument and Dara took his shopping list – which he had made up with the help of a pest control site – to the supermarket. He had brought a backpack with him that he wore on his front so he could carry the list of remedies, repellents and poisons while using crutches.

 More coal tar shampoo

Bug spray (especially permethrin)

Menthol mouthwash and Vicks vapour rub (to block facial orifices)

Tea tree oil

Borax

Ammonia

Dishwashing liquid (Dawn if available)

Epsom salts

Windex

Eucalyptus air freshener

 Every website Dara had come across had recommended that all clothes be washed in Borax and ammonia, as well as regular detergent. All sheets, all coverings should be washed daily. Floors should be cleaned daily, as well as surfaces and windows – with Windex. Clothes should be bagged, bags tagged, and moth balls thrown in with clothes.

 Though none of this was remotely possible on one leg. So Dara called Yui again.

 “I have a problem Yui,” he said, “you have to come back.”

 “What problem,” she asked.

 “Just come back, please.”

 “Tomorrow,” she replied.

 He did the best he could with the treatments, though once in bed he felt that his body was covered in mites. Turning on the air-con seemed to repel them, but he wondered if the mites might actually be dropping on him from the interior fan, and though blown away from him, more mites would eventually make their back to Dara.

 Mites, he read, could take years to get rid of. One woman said she wanted to commit suicide after a losing battle with them. He read on, but could not keep himself from returning to the word ‘suicide’, a word that throughout his life Dara had tried to distance himself from, though now he felt an unusual and distasteful camaraderie with.

 Then as he was reading the illuminated screen on his fairly new smart-phone he saw what looked like a speck of dust running in various directions, over the text and into the URL. Vindication, for just a short time, a very short time, made him feel elated. He wasn’t going mad. This wasn’t a break down. But his vindication was short-lived, because it occurred to him that he might have now progressed to a state of visual hallucinations.

 Yui came the next day. Dara had not slept. His face was scorched.

 “You look awful,” Yui told him. “And why does it smell so bad?”

 Dara had never before attempted to articulate to anyone – besides his brain swelling to the doctor, which he sure was real – his hallucinations. But being around (he was hardly certain of the correct figure) 90% sure he really did have a mite infestation, he told Yui what had been happening to him over the last few days.

 “But where are they Dara?”

 “That’s the thing Yui, you can’t see them. That’s why it’s so bad…but last night I saw one, a red one, apparently red ones have already taken blood.”

“I don’t feel anything?”

 “Well, because I’m their host. It says on the internet that the mites look for a suitable host. It says they like a weak immune system…and I have not exactly been in the best condition lately. They’re all over me Yui. It’s awful.”

 She looked at him speculatively, and he was reminded how lately he had started drinking a lot, had changed. She loved him, she was sincere, but he had gone, he had coloured-in outside of the lines that they both had drawn, he had tainted their dramatisation of the good life.

 “They’re real Yui.”

 “I believe you, but how do we kill them.”

 “I think there’s a nest. I think there’s a nest somewhere in that wall in the bedroom.”

 “So we get the bug guys to come.”

 “It’s not that easy, they could be everywhere now. Even in my books.”

 “Can you feel them now?”

 Dara thought for a moment. “Yes.”

 Yui slept in the same bed as Dara. Selfishly, he kind of hoped she would feel the mites, but she didn’t. She slept soundly while he scratched himself until daylight, when it seemed the mites were less in numbers.

 Yui seemed suspicious. She was not infested. She was living a normal life, nothing had changed. Dara felt bullied, and guilty, having hoped Yui might have succumbed to the bird bites. They had found their host, and seemingly, they were content with that. Had not just one promiscuous mite errantly left the pack on Dara’s skin, he would have felt better. He was isolated.

 “They’re here,” he told Yui.

 It would have been un-Thai to accuse Dara of being insane, it would have been unlike Yui, so she told Dara she would go and buy groceries and make them both his favourite meal – Chicken Masala. This quotidian kind of effort, she hoped, might somehow help disconnect the bug in Dara’s brain.

 But when she left Dara lying on the couch, his broken leg elevated on a cushion, Dara resumed his inchoate breakdown. His cast was hot on the inside, it was humid in there, and mites, Dara had read, thrive in humid conditions. He thought about pouring water into the cast, and perhaps drowning out the mites, but apparently, according to one site dedicated to bird mite infestations, water alone would not kill, or even deter, bird mites. They were resilient the site said, and were endowed with a mythical gift of near immortality. Only magic chemical formulas, concoctions, potions could kill mites. And most of which weren’t available in Thailand, not even Dawn dishwashing detergent, which he had read was the most effective of the prosaic treatments.

 He mixed one part ammonia with ten parts water, as directed, though it may have been impolitic of him to throw in another part Windex. With his cure, that looked harmless enough, he soaked a Hello Kitty cloth that Yui used to clean their keyboards. Wrapping the cloth around the paintbrush he had earlier appropriated, Dara attempted to ease the brush into his cast and wipe his leg with the mixture. He had expected it to sting, but not that much. And so after just one attempt at killing the mites within his cast, he howled in pain, punched a can of bug spray hard enough to make an indent, and for a few minutes violently pulled and tore at his cast.

 The cast would have to be removed, he thought. But before Yui got back. She would not understand this kind of rough expedient. But first he crutched down to the condo office and abruptly explained that if the mites – the staff had never heard of a mite infestation before, they thought he was talking about the easily manageable, in comparison, bed bugs – were not exterminated forthwith that there was a good chance the whole condo would become infested. Mites will explore, one forum informed him, and they multiply very quickly. Birth cycle is ten days. This meant eggs were already laid, probably many in his cast, and the infestation would get much worse. One woman in America, he explained, had moved three times, throwing away all her belongings, and she was still infested. It is a pandemic he said, almost shouting, having to literally explain the meaning of pandemic, as he didn’t know the Thai. They would call pest control. Though in spite of this promising promise, Dara caught sight of himself in the security door glass and beheld a person, a ruffled, insanely bugged person, that was unlike any reflection Dara he had ever clapped eyes on. He had changed already. His reflection reminded him of the ghoul-like image that inhabited his parents when they had abandoned all hope of normalcy.

 Yui did not return with the goods that night. She did not return the next day. Dara knew she had left him. She had forsaken his distress. He felt that sort of deleterious vindication that the victimised like to feel, the sort that rallies the troops into a justified disarray. He had been right all along. His parents were apparel of the damned. Dara would always be unloved.

 At 4.23 a.m. Dara was still waiting for Yui’s return. At 4.24 a.m., he called her. And at 4.25 a.m. he gave up hope of ever attaining a condition, a true and real condition, of this abstract feeling that people called love. Dara theorised, as he lay in bed covered from head to toe in invisible creatures, that he had never really grasped love. He had not achieved it, he had not been granted it, not as an incoming condition, nor as an outgoing condition. Love for Dara had never been anything more than delusional momentary distractions from self-absorption; love for Dara was the great nullifier of emotional instability. It acted as a sedative, and it was highly addictive, but lacked efficacy in the long run. Each time Dara hopelessly thought he may have discovered love, time had razed it. At 4.57 a.m. Dara had closed the gates on love. And it now seemed ironic that the only thing in life, he considered, truly and absolutely devoted to him, were his bird mites. And they were his now. They had moved in, too quickly, and seemed exceptionally content. But of course, their devotion to him was not requited. He had unlawfully wedded his fears, a wedding he felt cruelly in absentia to.

 It was almost 6 a.m. when Dara realised that breakdowns were real, not as he had heretofore imagined as being a kind of chimerical end product to anxiety. Panic attacks, he had wanted to believe, did not have endings, they were forever incomplete, torturous, but never terminal. But he had been wrong about that. Now he was faced with the conclusion to his fears.

 What is inside the cast, he thought, is now out of my control. He imagined a bloody, glutinous mess, flayed skin, infested, harbouring mounds of ravenous, selfish bird mites. He had given up on removing them. Their eggs, it was said, could be laid subcutaneously. Mites – and Dara despised this verb – ‘burrow’. The tribunal of the internet, Dara knew, was the scariest story ever told. It provided its reader with all the worst endings, and if he looked hard enough, if he was thorough, the net had the propensity to become his worst nightmare. It was realer than life, because alone he knew nothing about what was real, while the net was unreasonably intelligent, and it disseminated sickness in all its lurid forms; it let him know that life will end disastrously.

 They were crawling in and out of his eyes, ears and nose, their preferred destinations, and he didn’t try to repel them. Sisyphus, whom Dara had perhaps mawkishly started to compare himself with of late, might still be alive, but he was sure about one thing in life, and that was that it would end for him. Death in the end would be his consolation, his unwavering, requited love. And his mites, so greedily attached now to his being, would die without their lifeline.

 Poor Dara was without his lifeline: Yui. He had been left to his own devices. A condition his mother had frequently told him would not end well…as it hadn’t for her. Perhaps there was nothing you could do, Dara thought; the selfish determinism of my genes will have their way. Nature is a blunt object that has been beating me around the head for too long. For some people life is stacked with indivisible pains, he thought, that’s just the way it is.

 When he closed his eyes for the last time he was not accosted by the usual collection of bickering, destructive thoughts, what he saw in his mind’s eye was a brilliant-white clean slate, accompanied by a dull electronic tone, the absence of a signal. The signal he had for so long kept intact, his accession to continuity, he now accepted, was lost.

 When Yui arrived at the condo the next morning, equipped with a remedy – red basil, vinegar, and more Borax solution, she had heard from her family how you could easily get rid of bird mites – she first entered the downstairs office to inform the staff there that it was imperative that the nest be removed. Her brother in law, a farmer from the northern most part of Thailand, also had had problems with bird mites. She felt better about being able to help her boyfriend, and possibly a little guilty that the thought had crept into her mind that Dara might have lost his mind. He had been drinking a lot, and since he had stopped jogging it seemed his moods had worsened daily. But she was also equipped with compassion, and her readiness to help Dara made her feel evanescent. She knew he must have reached a new level of desperation while she was gone, why else would he call in the middle of the night? Yui had slept soundly through the call; she was a deep, contented sleeper. When she received a call from her brother in law to visit him and collect his special mite killing brew she had left the supermarket and driven all the way to Chiang Rai in the night, but had not taken her phone charger. Dara would understand, he had never before enjoyed – unlike most Thai men she had known – obsessive, and sometimes intrusive, phone calling.

 The office staff had already arranged for a nest removal and if it was required, they would pay for the duplex to be fumigated. Dara’s cast would be removed in just two more weeks; he would soon be back to normal. It did concern her somewhat though, that Dara could change, and that there was a part of him that she now knew existed, a pocket in his character that was incongruous with her description of him. She had had to acquire a new description, and this bothered her a little. And if he could change, if he could be so broody and vague, what else was he hiding? What did his recent agitation mean? What were its corollaries? For a Buddhist, she thought about the future a lot. Nevertheless, she tried not to think too much. She had not broken her leg, or felt things crawling on her, she was not in a position, she thought, to judge. He was a good man at heart; she knew that much was true.

 The smell of ammonia was pervasive throughout the bottom floor of their duplex, and on entering the living room she found her Hello Kitty hand towel wrapped around one of Dara’s paintbrushes. What on earth had he been up to?

 The fact he had left no note, no explanation, no sentiments, made him a much bigger mystery than she was prepared for. She cried not only for his loss, but also at an absence of memory, something that might explain why he would have smashed off his cast and drowned himself in a bath of water, Borax and bleach. Had he attempted to kill the mites and then kill himself? It didn’t seem likely he could have accidentally drowned. Had he only have waited for her, she was sure, he would still be alive. She could have rescued him.

In fact, nothing seemed to make sense to Yui. His life, and as a consequence now her life, seemed to have no meaning. She felt like she might just blow away, or that everything around her might just diminish, vanish, all she held true about life disappear. Who had she been in love with? Why did she feel so bitter? Her star had exploded, but he was still there, in her mind, and he was inextinguishable. Life seemed cruel to her, it seemed cruel because of what had happened to Dara, but also cruel because she had the capacity to remember. The future would always be empty of something. It seemed, however natural, unfair.

 At 5.34 a.m. a few days after Dara’s disappearance – this is how she thought about his death – Yui was not sleeping soundly. She wanted to be loved, she wanted true love. In spite of the pest control company having fumigated the condo – she was sure something was tickling her face.

©James Austin Farrell 2011

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The Great Firewalls of Indochina

James Austin Farrell

Journalists in French Indochina (Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia) have since the beginning of investigative – or even controversial – journalism in their countries been constrained by the limitations imposed upon them by dictatorial governments and the threat of venal public officials. Exponents of free speech and human rights are continually being incarcerated all over Indochina and Mainland South East Asia (also sometimes called Indochina but including Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore), while censorship, sometimes undertaken by exterior official sources, and/or self-administered, is a regularity that is intractable in most forms of media. Writers and editors risk imprisonment if their criticism falls within the rubric of what their governments hold is a ‘threat to national security’, which at times can be a very lean charge. Even with (or perhaps because of) the vast improvements in technology, and its circulation and consumption, the freedom of press throughout Indochina is still, according to various media NGOs, of the most restrictive in the world.

The Vietnamese media is state owned, and although much more than a political mouthpiece, it is still verily controlled by the government, diligently censored, and in some forms a prime dispenser of The Party’s raison d’être. Journalists in Vietnam do push the envelope, though there can be dire consequences – while there are also topics, as there are here in Thailand, that no journalist would dare go near. Calling for democracy, for instance, is absolutely verboten in the mainstream press, as is critical analysis of the education system. Critical theory can, and does, go underground, though dissident bloggers write at their own peril. Cu Huy Ha Vu, a blogger and activist was sentenced to seven years in April for allegedly subverting the government and calling for a multi-party political system.

Many social network sites are blocked (though not acknowledged by the government), including Facebook, but it doesn’t take an IT savant to get around ministerial prophylaxes. The government does occasionally squeeze out its own social networking sites but social ID numbers are required. Vietnam is often said to be a very IT strong country, as well as being a nation where reading is considered a requisite pastime, compared to the other Indochinese countries. Combined, this has developed the country’s media; nonetheless, there have been a spate of arrests and sentencings in Vietnam over the last few years of editors and reporters, as well as gagging orders on stories, and websites that have gone up in puffs of red smoke.

In March this year Bridget O’Flaherty wrote in the The Diplomat (international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region) in an article entitled ‘Vietnam’s Murky Media Picture’ that “a new press law came into effect that introduces fines for reporters for vaguely defined infractions, and obliges them to publish their sources.” This kind of governmental stricture will of course inhibit the integrity of any journalist’s work in Vietnam, though O’Flaherty writes that in spite of this the “Thanh Nien News and Tuoi Tre (both owned by youth organisations a couple of steps removed from the Communist Party proper) often contain thoroughly investigated stories about environmental issues – and sometimes even corruption.”

Popular outspoken VietnamNet editor Nguyen Anh Tuan was permitted by the Ministry of Information and Communications to resign in March this year. Afterwards he refused to comment on his resignation. “His dismissal,” writes “O’Flaherty “was allegedly so he could take up a less ‘contentious’ government post, and is said to have been on the cards since late last year, largely over the paper’s reporting on sensitive issues.”

Editors must always be cautious in Vietnam. An example of governmental tough-love handling of the media that made world news was in 2000 when the chief editor of Vietnam’s largest newspaper, Tuoi Tre, was fired. All the copies of the newspaper were also pulled from newsstands and burned. The offending article had concluded after a reader survey that Bill Gates was more popular than Ho Chi Minh with the city’s youths.

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Reporters without Borders (RWB) wrote in an article, also in March this year, that Vietnamese underground poet/writer and founder of Giay Vun publishing house, Bui Chat, was arrested by Vietnamese authorities just after he had “returned from Buenos Aires, where he had received the Freedom to Publish Prize from the International Publishers Association (IPA).” RWB writes “The Vietnamese authorities gave no reason for Chat’s arrest but it seems directly linked to the prize he received…Although Vietnam claims to have made significant progress on human rights, journalists, netizens and now publishers continue to be jailed if they dare to defy the government by voicing or relaying dissident views.”

The international press in Vietnam has more freedom than the local press, as is the case in some other South East Asian countries. Prepublication censorship is undertaken by government officials – not always with editorial adroitness, one journalist working in Vietnam told Citylife – in some local newspapers and magazines.  Even the censoring process, Citylife was told, is veiled in secrecy. Foreign journalists however, just as Thais have done for decades, use euphemisms to get past the clumsy hands of the text extractor.

The Vietnamese press regularly exposes lower level corruption. Though cynically, a media source in the country told Citylife, that maintaining a regular public name and shame of corrupt rural officials is often just a maneuver that consolidates The Party’s legitimacy. Meanwhile a major story such as the PMU18 scandal where millions of dollars of aid money was allegedly gambled away became taboo in the Vietnamese media, soon replaced by the usual proxy tales constructed of less politically hazardous material. A report by Oxford Analytica on media in Vietnam states that “editors were also sacked and reporters sent to jail” over the PMU18 scandal. The report reminds us that newspaper editors in Vietnam are “servants not just of the state, but of its public security sector.” Do Quy Doan, the government’s deputy minister of information and communication announced that journalists had distorted the truth and exaggerated, and that there was no political motive in the decision to arrest them. Notwithstanding, the reports were cogent enough to force the transport minister and his deputy to resign. Editors, says the Oxford Analytica report, must be constantly aware of the “no-go zones” and never critical of the flaws in the political system.

David Brown, a retired US diplomat and long time observer of contemporary Vietnam, writes in an article ‘A Fiery Silence in Vietnam’, of the fate of Le Hoang Hung, who was murdered January 19th this year. “Hung covered family squabbles, neighbourhood disputes, suspicious deaths and disappearances, arrests of gamblers, smugglers and dope dealers, and complaints about police brutality and wayward officials.” Browns goes on to say that, “Hung was hardly a radical; he was a Communist Party member, a former non commissioned officer in the Vietnamese Army, and the son of a Vietcong soldier.” Though many thought the errant journalist must have overstepped the line when he reported about corruption involving senior officials.

 “Reporters and editors have learned which subjects or situations they can cover boldly, which conflicts may only be hinted at, and which are forbidden,” writes Brown. Hung, who was doused with gasoline and set on fire in his bed, caused many journalists in Vietnam to panic. Though in the midst of the widespread media paranoia Hung’s wife confessed to his murder. The case has since become a matter of controversy. “Whether it’s a chilling tale of press repression or simply a sordid domestic scandal, the circumstances of his death are the sort of story Hung would have likely pursued with vigor,” says Brown.

As a result of Vietnam’s limitations on media the country’s blogging industry has naturally evolved creating an au courant strain of headache for the government. While a fraction of Vietnam’s internet savvy population have been quietly tapping out their thoughts in cyber-space, under the scrutiny of the government’s omnipresent eyes, the country has also adopted a rich blocking industry. Geoffrey Caine, a Fulbright scholar researching mass media in Vietnam explained to Citylife: “In short, bloggers’ freedoms in Vietnam have taken a dive in the past 3-4 years. Unlike in Thailand, where most arrests are on the grounds of lèse-majesté against the monarchy, here most bloggers are jailed or harassed for challenging the authority of the Communist Party. The government usually asserts questionably worded charges such as undermining national security and social harmony, and defaming the honour of state leaders.” He adds that the crackdowns were particularly far-reaching leading up to, and during, the 11th Communist Party congress last January, an event every five years when party delegates elect the new cadre of leaders. “This is a particularly sensitive time that they fear dissidents can take advantage. The Arab Spring and North African revolutions have also added to the press and blogging crackdown.”

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 “There is a dark face to Laos that no one talks about,” a representative for a former media NGO told Citylife. After Burma, Laos has South East Asia’s worst track record of free speech in the press. It’s a country that is enveloped by secrets, hardly visible to the outside world, and where very few people have access to the internet. Only 30% of households have a TV, and newspapers reach less than a quarter of the population, says a 2009 report called Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific. “Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region and is ruled by an iron fist by the centrally located Communist Government,” said the NGO source, explaining that print media is so small that it is virtually non-existent outside Vientiane. “In rural areas,” she explains, “the print media consists largely of government broadsheets published by the Ministry of Culture.”

The organisation, that spent almost a decade training journalists in South East Asia in radio, print and television, explained that the problem in training journalists was that upon return to their countries the journalists were often not allowed to implement what they had learned due to government strictures on the freedom of press. “Everyone,” she explained, “of any position of note is in the Communist Party.” This virtually ensures that criticism of the political regime is unheard of. “There is a definite ceiling which you can’t get through, when it comes to news which affects senior officials,” the anonymous source said.

 “In Vietnam journalists always had minders taken everywhere they went, and until six or seven years ago among each group of journalists attending our courses, at least one would have been delegated the job of ‘minder’.” she said, and added that even though the NGO was mostly allowed to interview and screen journalists for quality and interest, “in Laos the pool of journalists from which  to choose candidates for journalism training was very small, and most, but not all, followed the party line to letter.”

Another problem they faced was that was that each journalist came “with baggage”, a feeling of superiority due to their nationality and in-built cultural prejudices. “The Thais looked down on everyone, the Cambodians had visceral hatred towards the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese looked down on the Cambodians and were wary of the Laotians and the Thais, and the Laotians had a strong love/hate relationship with the Thais.” Though in spite of this, after time journalists responded well to programmes and were mostly “invigorated by what they learned.” Many of the trainees, she said, are now editors all over South East Asia.

One Laos based travel writer told Citylife that, “The Vientiane Times is more like the social pages showing how the government is progressing on various development projects. You will rarely read or hear anything negative about the government in the Laos media.” He explained that if there’s a social or environmental issue that needs to be addressed, the media will report it, but “in a face-saving way.”

“I’ve recently written on the Mekong dam issue,” he says in support of some freedom of press, “and how neighbouring countries are against it.” On censorship he says, “I’ve been based in Laos for four years and have never submitted anything I’ve written to a government agency until after it has been published.” Although he does add that there are certain matters he just wouldn’t pry too deeply into.

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The Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders writes that Cambodia is considered to be the only country that has a ‘partly free’ press in Indochina. Incidentally, Indochina’s close neighbour, Thailand, was just relegated from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ this year. In spite of Cambodia’s better standing they have the highest official number (9) of murdered journalists since 1992 according to the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

Jeremy Wagstaff, a journalist, consultant and researcher who has worked for the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Review wrote in a 2010 study on South East Asia press freedom entitled South East Asian: Patterns of Production and Consumption, “Most media in Cambodia are private but affiliated in some way with a political party. Most media outlets are not owned directly by politicians, but by private citizens, albeit with a political agenda. So while there is no government censorship, partisan influence leads to strongly biased news coverage.”

The study shows that two thirds of households have no TV in Cambodia, and states that most channels are “strongly under the influence of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).” Radio, writes Wagstaff, is by far the most prevalent form of media in Cambodia, but radio too, he adds is “considered to be under CPP influence.” An independent popular channel called Radio Beehive, which is the most popular channel in the country, has twice seen its owner Mam Sonando jailed.

Wagsaff’s report tells us that only 1 per cent of Cambodians use print as their primary source of information. He writes, “In part this is because of high illiteracy rates – only 67.7 per cent of adults are literate, according to UNESCO.” And many newspapers are run by political parties or individual politicians; only the foreign language newspapers are considered to be free of overt political influence, writes Wagstaff.

Alan Parkhouse, the present editor of the Phnom Penh Post and formerly an employee of The Nation and Bangkok Post told Citylife that he will tackle any kind of issue and he and his staff face no prepublication censorship by the government. Parkhouse informs us that “None of our journalists are on the government’s or anybody else’s payroll except this newspaper. And none write with any business in mind – if they did they would no longer work here.” He expands by saying that no one as yet who works for him has been imprisoned for their criticisms, which are often of a political nature. “But we make sure of our facts and we get very few complaints from the government. Basically, they leave us alone.”

On Cambodia’s murdered journalists (who’d mostly exposed local and official corruption) Parkhouse explains that his newspaper often writes about corruption but with the utmost care and fastidious fact-checking. “We have had no trouble,” he says.

The world of blogging and social-networking is yet to saturate Cambodia, though the government is already discussing how to censor the ‘net appropriately. South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) reports of a plan by the Cambodian government to regulate the internet through various laws. Journalists and NGOs have already voiced concerns about strict government regulations, but it seems when the majority of the nation is ready for the internet the government intends to be equally ready for the inevitable fall-out with its citizens.

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May 3rd was World Press Freedom Day. It was the day Freedom House, the US-based think-tank, announced the decline of press freedom in some parts of the world, with Thailand being pointed out as a country the organisation is particularly worried about after reaching its lowest ever rating. During April and May activists and opposition journalists were arrested in Thailand on lèse-majesté charges, while radio stations were forced to close. Also in April Thammasart historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul along with other academics, human rights activists, and journalists released statements calling for the protection of freedom of speech after they alleged threats had been made to them. Somsak currently faces charges of lèse-majesté filed by the Royal Thai Army in May. Shortly after The Nation wrote an editorial lamenting the decline of free media, and the Bangkok Post ran a story on May 4th about the ‘decline’.  Media representatives have since met with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva about media reform, and contrary to Thailand dropping through the rankings from a ‘partly free’ nation to a ‘not free’ nation since Abhisit’s tenure, Asia News Network (ANN) reported that the PM “deplored that fact that in the past decade press freedom has eroded in Thailand”…

This part of the world, yet to be comprehensively whacked by the heavy arm of the internet, surely will be soon enough. It’s not unforeseeable that more of South East Asia’s future netizens will become more politically active and perhaps more discerning about what they believe due to the breadth and dizzying depths of online information. Against a backdrop of Sisyphean blocking endeavours, cyber-crimes revisions and vague arrests, it seems alternative news still remains indefatigable. Perhaps more Indochinese governments and their policies may be shaped in the future by growing numbers of online underground citizen journalists whose views are hardly congruent with the dictatorships they were born in – kind of a role reversal of the ‘chilling effect’.

Wagstaff writes in his study of an imminent ‘terror alert’ to dictatorial governments: “With the possible exception of Laos, journalists, bloggers and media practitioners have found ways to circumvent restrictions on news reporting, intimidation and censorship in all the countries surveyed here [South East Asia]. From the anonymous stringers feeding stories to Burma’s Mizzima and Irrawaddy to the bloggers of Vietnam, news finds a way out, whether the restrictions are technological, legal or physical. Indeed, in some countries traditional media are in danger of becoming irrelevant as political debate, the exchange of views and dissident voices go online.”

Much of the information in this article was supplied by journalists who asked to remain anonymous.

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The amazing story of Benny Moafi: unbreakable, unshackled by

James Austin Farrell

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. – From the film, Cool Hand Luke.

Benny Moafi has been a free man now for just nine months. He spent nine years, eight months, and two weeks in various Thai prisons for a crime he says he didn’t commit. He has an overwhelmingly large stock of evidence to prove his innocence and wrongful incarceration, all supported by lawyers, international human rights groups, and a faction of the Thai DSI (Department of Special Investigations). He has filed 207 legal cases and over 1,200 complaints against lawyers, the Royal Thai Police and the Department of Corrections, some of which he won, while others are pending, and he says he won’t stop until he has received justice and the perpetrators of his conviction have been exposed and charged. One police official and nine prosecution witnesses involved with his trial have faced charges of perjury made by Benny. He has become something of a bete noir to the Thai police after appearing on Thai television talk shows stating his case, and also appearing outside Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s office in Bangkok in his prison attire, shackled, holding a sign board with the words “Double Standards” written on it, demanding to talk to the PM about his case. The same day he also protested outside the offices of the United Nations.

Benny Behnam Moafi was born in Iran. His parents were political activists fighting against the regime of the ayatollah, which resulted in Benny’s mother and father’s imprisonment. Nine-year-old Benny, his sister, and his grandmother spent seven days in Evin Prison in Tehran. His family were eventually smuggled out of Iran and granted political asylum in Sweden where they made their home. On a stormy and atypically cold March day in Bangkok, Benny explained how a tsunami of corruption stole away his freedom and changed the course of his life.

“I married a Thai girl in Sweden and we decided to come to Thailand to start a business,” says Benny, “I bought a house, a car, a motorbike, and a restaurant/bar which were all registered. I invested 3.5 million baht in Thailand. I had a company work permit and all the legal documentation.” In front of him are a stack of copies of work permits, visas, receipts, and legal cases, all supporting his various claims. “The immigration police came to my bar and asked for payment,” says Benny, adding that the 6,000 baht stipend paid each month to the police was an unofficial protection payment. “I refused to pay, I had all my papers,” he says. This refusal did not sit well with the police.

The police eventually canceled his visa and issued a banning order stating that Benny was harmful to society and a threat to national security. Benny explains how the police had claimed his work permit was a fake, but he disproved this accusation. During his ownership of the bar he’d been to the police station twice after fights had broken out. These visits, he says, were one of the reasons they claimed he was a threat. “I left Thailand and went back to Sweden, but I came back here two years later after I had changed my name so I could reenter the country in order to sell my properties. When I was back in Thailand, money was stolen from my apartment in Bangkok by a cleaner, but after I reported this to the police they released her, so I made a complaint. At the same time I also had a complaint against the immigration police who had blacklisted me in Phuket.” Benny says the Bangkok police, after seeing the Phuket reports, told him to forget the money and go back to Sweden.

While Benny was busy with his ongoing cases against the police, he was asked to help two Iranian families who had paid a Syrian man (Benny refers to him throughout the day as “The Syrian”) for visas to live in Canada that turned out to be counterfeit. Benny, being Iranian and familiar with Thailand, was asked to intervene by a friend. The Syrian, Benny says, had taken 12,000 dollars from the families. “I knew one guy from the Thai immigration police who was a good man. He’s now a key witness in my case,” explained Benny. Benny and the two Iranian families met in the Honey Hotel in Bangkok on September 1st 2000. The families had prearranged a meeting with the Syrian. “I waited downstairs and called the immigration official and he went upstairs to talk to the Syrian and the families. I never actually saw the Syrian man. The immigration official told them to go to immigration to sort their problem out. The Syrian then assured the police at immigration he would pay back the families the money, but this never happened,” explained Benny.

So a complaint was lodged against the Syrian on September 4th 2000 with the tourist police. But on September 13th at 6 p.m. the Syrian filed his own complaint stating that when he was met with the Iranian families, they tried to extort money from him, he also claimed that Benny was in the room, which Benny categorically denies. Benny arrived home on September 14th to find the CSD (Crimes Suppression Division) had broken into his house (without a warrant). He was arrested and his valuables were all confiscated. “They took my gold, my mobile phones, my computers, and they took my BMW,” says Benny. It took him years, he explained, to get (some of) his assets back.

The families, without Thai visas or money, went back to Iran except for one of the men who stayed to try and retrieve the cash. The police then made a case against Benny that he was using a fake passport, but the Swedish embassy stated the passport was real. Following this the police then accused Benny of having a fake document among his belongings. The document was a French passport which the police said Benny had doctored. “It was a photocopy of a passport; you couldn’t even see the photo on it. The police didn’t say I’d tried to change the photo for one of me, just that I had changed a photo. So the court quickly dropped the case of the French passport.” The Syrian, Benny explains, then changed his statement and said that Benny had beaten him, and held a gun to his head, and that Benny and the families had taken money from him. “The daily report book at the police station when the Syrian first made a complaint has no record of a gun, violence, or stolen money,” says Benny. “The police changed the Syrian’s statement.” Benny’s co-accused, the Iranian man, left the country one month after Benny’s arrest. “He was accused of a crime but they allowed him to leave,” says Benny, “they wanted me alone.”

He looks at me emphatically, “Can you believe it, the Syrian says I beat him, took his money, held a gun to him, and then he waits 12 days and decides to make a complaint!” During this time the immigration official who had been helping the families was told by a higher official to stay away from the case. Benny has been trying for years to get his witness into a courtroom.

He says police told him daily while he was in police cells that if he paid 400,000 baht to the Syrian he would be released. Another Thai friend told him he could get him released for 500,000 baht. During Benny’s stay in remand prison he met several people who had been fighting cases for years. “I was sick in jail, and I lost 20 kilos in weight. I decided I’d pay the money, I gave a lawyer my money but he stole it. He took my car, too. I later sued him and got him disbarred. Now I think he sells noodles.” Over the years Benny would go through 18 lawyers, all of whom, other than one, he says were corrupt, lazy, or inept. His present lawyer has been dedicated in supporting Benny in what he has stated is a miscarriage of justice. He has even flown to Iran to talk to the witnesses and acquire affidavits.

Benny’s charge of armed robbery with a gun (unlicensed, so he received more jail time) was not dismissed, despite there never being any evidence: no gun, no proof that anything had been stolen, no injuries to the Syrian, no eyewitnesses. The trial was built solely on the testimony of the Syrian. “In court the Syrian’s statements didn’t even match what he said in the police reports, everything was different,” says Benny. The Swedish Embassy refused to help him. “They didn’t want to get involved and hurt their business relationship with Thailand,” says Benny, “they didn’t show up for any of the court sessions except one time when an embassy worker was a witness for the prosecution! I sued her later, I sued the embassy many times.” In spite of no evidence ever being presented against him, Benny served his full sentence, though with three amnesties it was reduced from 22 years to 9 years, 8 months.

In prison he learned to read and write Thai, in which he became fluent. “I found a law book in Thai and I started reading it every day. At first I’d understand only about 10% of it, but gradually it went to 20%, until I understood it all. I studied a correspondence law degree in Thai from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. The prison stopped me doing this. But I’d read Correctional Law and I made a case against the prison and I won.” Benny took his innocent plea to the Appeals Court for a retrial, where he was told by the chief of the court that he would get justice and a new trial.

Benny was not alone in his rage against the system. Fair Trials Intentional (formerly Fair Trials Abroad) supported his case. The DSI (Department of Special Investigations) told Benny he would receive justice. “The DSI told me they were going to re-investigate my case and send people to Iran to bring back the families as witnesses. But after the election, when PM Samak Sundaravej came to power, the guard was changed at the DSI.” Benny says the new establishment were not as sympathetic to his cause. “The new chief of the DSI was an ex-policemen involved in my arrest from the Crimes Suppression Division, so the reinvestigation was stopped.”

“I was tortured and beaten many times in prison; I don’t know how many stitches I’ve had. My nose was so badly broken I couldn’t breathe through it.” He shows me a line of crooked teeth where he says he was kicked uncountable times. “The officials hated me in the prisons because I kept suing them, but the prisoners I helped loved me.” Benny sued one prison for the price of bananas which he said were the most expensive bananas in Thailand. He was transferred from that particular prison. “They transferred me through 10 prisons and 30 buildings, every time I sued them I was transferred.” He says that the food was inedible in jail, and prison guards would scrape the meat off the food and give the remnants to the prisoners. “They made the food so disgusting,” he says, “that it couldn’t be eaten, so then the guards could sell the uneaten food as pig feed. Everything is for sale inside, it’s not the Department of Corrections, but the Department of Corruption.”

Benny has had many wrangles with the authorities on the state of food in the Thai prison system. A two year legal battle that Benny won saw to it that foreigners were allowed to buy food from Pizza Hut and KFC if they could pay for it. In another case Benny demanded the prison have new TVs to watch as they only had a few battered old TVs. The officials refused so Benny sued them after finding a legal loophole in Correctional Law statutes through which he could legally donate TVs to the prison. Two-hundred new TVs were soon brought into the jail, making Benny both new friend and new enemies. He also became known as the “Champion of Shackles,” having won a case against the use of shackles worn in Thai prisons which Benny stated was a violation of Thai constitutional law. Even though he won the case the Department of Corrections had it appealed and shackles were worn again until the case was finished. In another case Benny had the shackles removed from 111 prisoners with life sentences. He explains, “the sound of men walking with shackles on is a horrible sound. It reminds you of slaves in Ancient Rome.” His cases against shackles have now caught the attention of the UN, which has since urged Thailand to stop the use of shackles in prisons.

Benny met some well-known characters during his time in jail. He met Harry Nicolaides, the Australian journalist accused of lese majeste. Nicolaides has since written journalistic articles about Benny. He also met Victor Bout who was slightly irked that Benny was wearing shoes to court when prisoners, including him, were not allowed to wear them. “I made a case against the prison,” says Benny, “and I won. So I got to wear shoes.”

Benny realises what he is doing is dangerous, but he says in prison there were dangers every day. “The officials get someone to do their work for them in jail,” he says, and talks of being stabbed and beaten. He has also spent a lot of jail time in solitary confinement and survived three hunger strikes. He explains how one time in the hall, the governor announced to 800 inmates that Benny was to blame for bad conditions in the prison and if he were to be killed, then that would only be a good thing. He claims, however, that he doesn’t fear death: “I believe in destiny, when it’s my time, it’s my time.” In spite of this Benny is adamant that there are good people working in the system. “One of our governors, a DSI officer, my last lawyer, and a Bangkok Bank employee who kept my money for 10 years were lovely people,” he says. “I’m not blaming everyone, I’m not blaming Thailand, many Thai people have helped me and supported me for many years. A professor of law from Chiang Mai (now Khon Kaen) called a TV station where I was being interviewed to get in touch with me.” The Counter Corruption Committee have also helped Benny and pressed charges against a police officer involved with his case and also dismissed a governor from one of the prisons whom Benny had a case against.

Benny was told in jail by the government’s Secretary of Justice that he would receive justice and compensation, but when he asked the authorities for a visa to stay in Thailand on his release they refused him. “They knew as soon as I stepped out of jail I’d be taken to immigration and deported. To win my case I needed to be inside Thailand.” Benny, with a week left of his sentence set himself up to be charged with a misdemeanor in jail. “’Charge me,’ I said. They didn’t understand why with only a week left of my sentence I’d get myself into trouble. I got an extra week on my sentence for that but when I was released they couldn’t deport me with a case pending. I know the law better than they do.” On the day of his release the police officer who had first charged him and tried to extort money from him came to pick him up at the prison. “I just screamed at him. He thought he could just take me to immigration and get rid of me. He doesn’t want any of this coming out. But by law I had to stay in Thailand.”

Benny is currently suing the policemen for manipulating evidence during his first arrest including changing dates on reports, and extortion. On May 20th the immigration official, Benny’s key witness, who has never testified, is due to appear in court. If the witness fails to show up in court the new judge has promised to arrest the man and force him into court. His case has appeared on an ITV documentary and he’s also been interviewed by Sorayut Sutassanajinda (Thailand’s most famous talk show host). His exposes on police corruption and the judicial system, along with his body of evidence has made him a menace to certain segments of Thai society: “I always look both ways when I leave the house,” he says laughing, “but the more public my case is, the safer I am.”

Not once during our long day’s conversation did Benny seem bitter or angry. He appears to be a spirited person and naturally good-humoured. Even when talking about torture and the lies that took away his 30s, he remained charged and cheerful.

“But I am angry,” he says, “I’m angry inside. You know if I’d have paid that money I wouldn’t have spent a day in jail. The corrupt policeman called me khi niew [stingy] for not paying the bribe. Had I done the crime and pleaded guilty, I’d have spent only three years in jail.” Benny says he won’t give up. “Harry (Nicolaides) said to me: ‘You learned their system and you used it against them’,” Benny tells me as we eat pasta and steak somewhere under the muddy skies and concrete arches of a city that not long ago saw blood spilled on its streets from people unhappy with the system. “Now this story is more fun, now it’s my turn,” he says.

Presently Benny helps other foreigners in Thai prisons. “I’m in court almost every day,” he says, and his phone never stops ringing, which he picks ups and answers in different languages. “At the moment,” he says, “many foreigners and Thais are wrongfully imprisoned in jail without much hope. It was that hope, some help from others, that kept me from going mad in there,” he says and tells me all the horror you’ve heard about Thai prisons is true. The system has some good people working within it, he says, but the dark side is strong.

The documentaries about Benny can be found on YouTube.

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Morality Crisis

 

Morality Crisis

James Austin Farrell

“Men will of their own accord gradually work their way out of barbarism so long as artificial measures are not deliberately adopted to keep them in it.” Immanuel Kant

In the name of morality the medieval Christians created ‘the rack’, modern America freed Iraq and Thailand consistently teaches its citizens ‘goodness’ via government ministries whose ancillary operation is to search for and censor forms of ‘badness’. The aegis of morality has enlightened us and to some extent helped free us of tyranny, though conversely, it has been/is used as a tool of repression. Moral systems have been put in place by all societies, and most of these systems have the same fundamental rules: we shouldn’t kill; we shouldn’t steal, etc. But morality is supremely complex and (accommodatingly) versatile, as is the law of which morality is supposed to be the foundation. Social transgressions or incorrect behavior might not be unlawful; nevertheless every culture has a code of conduct written into its fabric. This code has continually been a facet of governmental control in Thailand (driven by propaganda and a tightly controlled education system). Some individuals think that morality is relative to cultures, tribes, or the particular circumstances of a person(s), that there are no universal moral laws, just an infinite number of situations that all need to be addressed anew. Though governments are not usually ‘moral relativists’, they stand quite firm on what is right and wrong, and in Thailand expend large amounts of resources disseminating the ‘truth’ about goodness. Moral authority nonetheless is prone to hypocrisy or double standards by dint of its ostensible sanctity.

Since the Victorian era Thai royals and nobility were often sent to England to study. They returned to Thailand and helped advance science, economics and also brought news of differing moral systems and legislation. Within the nobility circle European values were gradually fused with traditional values, King Mongkut initiated education reforms, and the “modernisation of Siam” began. This advanced many aspects of Siam/Thai society though it was localised within an elite structure and sub-structure. Traditional, rural Thai society, some might – and have, including prominent politicians – say is irreconcilable with the ‘higher’ values embodied by the elite class. Society has become categorically divided while in most cases the hi/lo identity is inescapably married to the expectations, stigmas and generalisations of each class. Cultural domination (hegemony) in Thailand, perpetuates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm which, arguably (depending on whose socio-political philosophy you read), cannot exist within an enlightened society. A Social Darwinism can occur, when one class, often calling itself the enlightened class, maneuvers further and further away from the class it sees as inferior or less evolved – political policy, if it deems necessary, can see to it that the system stays rigid. This kind of social schism is certain to breed contempt and fear, though as Plato recommended in his Republic, the elite may create ‘noble lies’ (religious and political propaganda – this became a universal political model) to hold society together. Even though distinctions in wealth and education might grow organically through effort, you could argue a more contained development simultaneously takes place, those that seem to have the upper hand can easily maintain their home advantage with enough political chicanery and cronyism. In our present situation in Thailand, can the privileged class fully understand the significance of being poor and therefore understand the needs and values of that sub-stratum of society? French philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet asked in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (written whilst he was imprisoned during the French revolution) if the intellectually impoverished mass cannot ever understand the grand ideas of the educated elite then how can society as a whole ever be reconciled and enlightened? How can morality, fairness, equality exist without social mutual recognition?

Double Standards

If a moral system is put into place by an enlightened elite, its survival and efficacy balances on fairness and an indiscriminate way of effectuating that system. If the system seems corrupt or unfair, the people who have been told to obey it consequently lose faith. In Thailand there seem to be many instances of double standards in the ‘moral’ system. This is of course a matter of opinion, polemic, and gossip, but what is irrefutably true is that people are making these accusations.

When government leaders are ‘appointed’ and not ‘elected’, then how might democratic citizens feel about this aberration within their democracy? The government has been accused numerous times of applying double standards in emergency decree implementation. The UN, writes Pokpong Lawansiri (human rights advocate and researcher) in a paper entitled ‘Thailand must Transcend Rhetoric’, is currently waiting for overdue reports from Bangkok that address Thailand’s “unsettled” Human Rights commitment. He adds that the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), have both surpassed their deadlines (Jan 2011 and Oct 2010 respectively) on the investigation of the ‘crackdown’ that saw many people killed. At the same time red shirt leaders are being arrested and rights groups are questioning the “standards of impartiality” in the government. These alleged double standards are just some of the many shards of a fractured society that currently severs ‘us’ from ‘them’.

In sexual inequality we can find many examples of double standards: If a celebrity is condemned as being unethical, forced to do community service, and banned from TV for wearing revealing items of clothing, a stern moral message is being sent to the Thai people. Chotiros Suriyawong caused “moral outrage” and was indicted by the Ministry of Culture et al. in 2007 for being unethical and un-Thai like. At the same time festivals, promotions, newspapers use the bodies of women and their inferred sexuality for most of their advertising. Bodies of women are a commodity. The bodies of women consistently prove themselves to be valuable when those bodies meet the standards that men approve of. Female students are often exposed in the media as un-Thai for subjecting themselves to wearing scant uniform attire, but you might argue that their patriarchal society objectifies them, and expects nothing less than cute and alluring whilst they click-clack down their catwalk of youth. Sexual misdemeanors, such as underage sex or premarital sex are socially outlawed. Prostitution is deemed as unethical, it’s illegal, and it is not only part of mainstream culture, but an essential source of income for those working in its market place, for the government itself, the police, and the leaders of industry. How un-Thai can female sexuality be?

Often we read of ‘big’ people committing crimes (daughters of policeman, sons of Miss Thailand models, off-duty cops) and paying for their misdemeanors with less than harsh demands on their freedom. Since the inception of the internet viral public outcry usually follows these instances, and subsequently we hear a resigned collective afterthought: who you know can keep you out of jail. Should morality be contingent on financial circumstances? Money constitutes a new faith. Buddhist philosophy is unavoidably at odds with this kind of piety. Craving leads to suffering says the philosophy. Nevertheless most Thais will admit that there is a questionability inherent to modern merit making, which has become inextricably linked with the lottery. If you went to Major Cineplex over the last year you’d find a very compelling commercial featuring W. Vajiramedhi, a famous monk. He candidly condemns craving for goods, tells the people how unhappy they’ll be if they strive to attain more material wealth, and then you find out at the end of this long moving clip you’ve been watching a convoluted ad for Isuzu!

A hierarchy that is corrupt and seems insuperably unfair might encourage a ‘learned helplessness’ in its citizens, or as Orwell puts it “[the citizen] so far from endeavouring to influence the future, simply lies down and lets things happen to him”. In Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’ he writes, less sympathetically, of what he considered helpless European societies of his day, “…it seems to need nothing as much as it needs stimulants and brandy: hence also the tremendous amount of forgery in ideals, this most potent brandy of the spirit…” If people feel they cannot affect their society, not even with a vote, the people will undoubtedly be forced to adopt a more selfish attitude. The divisions in society might also amass, and take arms against each other.

Dog Eat Dog

I visited Dr. Tanet Charoenmuang, an outspoken political critic who has written prolifically and given speeches on such things as double standards in Thai society. In his office at Chiang Mai University’s Political Science department where he is associate professor, he waxed political, directly and indirectly, and aired his views on the genealogy and present state of Thai morality.

“I was sent to do my MA in the US, and you know what subject?” he says smiling, “Russian Area Studies,” and he explains that at the time there weren’t any political scholars at Chulalongkorn University studying Russian politics. He was sent on a scholarship to be “indoctrinated” about Russia – American style – so he might bring his wealth of knowledge back to Thailand and disseminate what he’d learned. His critique of education, and the way it is propagated in Thailand, will be his cause célèbre during the interview.

His initial critical challenge concerning morality is to the ‘appointment’ of governors throughout the country. “They take orders from their superiors and they receive guests,” he says adding humorously, “they cut ribbons and hit gongs.” His plaint is that governors know nothing about the provinces over which they preside and that “they know full well that they will be transferred.” The problems of a province, social conflicts, corruption, poor planning, he attests, will be “swept under the rug” when each governor leaves. “No one wants to rock the boat,” he says, and with this state of affairs he doesn’t see how problems can be solved. “It’s not the problem of the governor,” he accepts, “but a problem in the system, it’s a system failure.”

“They have to move the governors around because they don’t want them making too many friends in one place, having too many gik! When they have vast political economic social connections it breeds nepotism.” A patronage system, he explains, is a “good example of double standards, it makes life difficult for people with no patrons. Democracy is the only way to solve this problem.”

On gender inequality he explains: “In 1870 American missionaries came to Chiang Mai and found only two literate women. The men studied in temples and the women didn’t study. Women in Thailand were told not to read or write.” This order, he explains, was devised and marshalled by the patriarchs for the simple reason, “men just didn’t want women writing letters to other men”.

“In the feudal system girls were told how to behave. It was the custom of the feudal lord to choose any lady. Before the lady had to dress properly so the feudal lord would be the first one to ‘see all’…the feudal culture in Thailand has not been destroyed. Text books still today have feudal laws and principles and the teachers and leaders of society still have the mindset from these books.”

The ajarn’s critique on education is nothing but forthcoming. “The ministries,” he says wryly, “write in these books about the rich, wonderful, virtuous, nice Thai traditions.” Books that are written in the same place in the same city with the same thing in mind: “dissemination of central policy.” Local Chiang Mai students, he says, must learn about things like the famous winds of Bangkok, though their own ethnography and geography they cannot know anything about. “It is a repetition of the same knowledge,” he adds, “even now teachers are told to use that book – don’t rock the boat!” He follows this critical flurry with a story about a Chiang Mai Demonstration School teacher who decided his students should learn something of the nature surrounding the Ping River (not in the textbook). The parents of the students soon complained to the administration that he was teaching their children things “not in the exam”. His contract was not renewed.

“Before the red/yellow split there was the central government, and 100 years before that Thailand was not a country” he says on how diverse Thailand once was. “It was the central government’s initiative to annex all the parts. But centralisation weakened our areas. We don’t know ourselves. We have no pride, no feeling of belonging. We don’t care. There is no spirit, just indifference.” He mentions that during Thaksin’s tenure social health care improvement and million baht hand-outs to towns gave the people some hope, some sense of belonging, though he warns now that disunity in Thailand has never been more intractable. “There was a sense of hopelessness after the coup,” he tells us.

“I’m not a socialist,” he says, “I believe in democracy. Thailand is not ready for a social welfare state. It is not as rich as European countries with these systems. But I believe in no double standards, freedom of association, freedom of press. I believe in an elected government. After a coup d’état we shut up,” he says of political thinkers, but adds that “in Thailand the intellectual progressive thinkers stay inside the country, not like in Burma where they are crushed if they stay.”

“Society is becoming more enlightened. There have been events [expunge/redact] that have happened that have changed the perspective of the people. People are now becoming more politically involved…

“What are the factors behind all the inequalities? Slowed down political awareness; late revolutionising process; late democratisation. It’s a long and torturous road ahead, I’m not sure how long it will be, but I know it will be a difficult time.”

The quote at the beginning of this article is taken from a treatise Kant wrote entitled ‘What is Enlightenment?’: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Kant suggests – and excuse the bilingual pun – that we help ourselves, though he also contends that our maturity as a race can be stilted by agents who cling to the status quo. Kant’s conclusion, his ideal: “for he [governance] realises that there is no danger even to his legislation if he allows his subjects to make public use of their own reason and to put before the public their thoughts on better ways of drawing up laws, even if this entails forthright criticism of the current legislation.”

This kind of system, very different from the system delineated in this article, Kant suggests, “…gradually reacts upon the mentality of the people, who thus gradually become increasingly able to act freely. Eventually, it even influences the principles of governments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who is more than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity.”

 

 

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The Panic Hotel

 

Merida summertime in the afternoon. A city suffering from exhaustion. These empty streets, imposing, stretch into the distance until their tips catch fire under the glare of the sun. If you’re outside it means you’re desperate. Whole families are wrapped in hammocks, huddled, tense, swaying under the drafts of overworked ceiling fans that perpetually threaten to fall on them. It’s so hot, so fucking hot. I’m choking on dust. The city is silent. It is the season of the plague.

I forgot to put on sun block.

Everything hangs still, trapped in the heat, I am walking through a city that is a still picture. There are no clouds in the sky, the air is thick and windless. On days like these it feels as though there has been an evacuation and I slept through it. As I walk alone in search of a library on Calle 64, I imagine predators in the sky. They are watching the blimp of my body scuttle around like an insect, pushing on in blind distress, a victim, forced out from his hole.

The spooky lull of siesta is broken for a moment by the threatening roar of a distant bus, the maniac driver hurtles down the road as if pressed by death to make his appointment with the end of his shift. The skeletal machine, sounding like a gigantic toolbox on wheels, shatters the silence, then fades out gradually as it leaves me behind. When it is gone and the street is silent again I feel a twinge of anxiety, I’m not certain that ever really happened. They have battened down the hatches, locked all the windows. All that remains to be seen of the city are rows of biscuit coloured buildings. Chipped and bruised boxes made of wheat and sugar.

Calle 62. Katy is sulking. I left her in bed clasping sheets. She was angry. I woke up with a hard on, still drunk from last night, this morning. I tried to turn her over and she told me to fuck off. I tried again and she twisted her head and looked at me, it was a hateful look, her eyes were mean and feline. I am not sure what I have done, what I did. We are flammable, dangerous to each other. The embers of our resentment, I don’t think, will ever die out.

We are fated to collapse.

We clutch to memories in the absence of happiness, the oxygen mask that might save us from the poisonous gases we both emit when we are together. We repel and retreat, because we don’t have the nerve to fight.

I don’t have memories of last night yet, I don’t know what happened. Though I do have a drinker’s awareness, the drunk’s capacity to know that something malign is fermenting in the forgotten time. Something bad happened. I am harbouring a witness.

I think Katy is jealous of Idar.

Idar and Linda, our roommates who managed to evade national service in Norway. Having convinced the authorities that they were pacifists, they ended up here in Mexico on a scholarship to study philosophy. Idar told me the army was a joke, he said they didn’t have enough money to buy real guns so they ran around the forest with wooden replicas shouting bang, bang at each other; preparing for something he thought inconceivable. The other night Idar challenged a group of poor Mexicans in a cantina to a chili eating contest. We had been told not to go into this cantina, foreigners were not welcome. He didn’t win the contest. On the way home, as I struggled to help the six foot Norwegian walk, some kids tried to pickpocket us. They had told me they would help me take Idar home, but as we walked together I felt a hand in my pocket. I looked at one of the kids, he looked back at me smiling nervously. They took off into the dark streets laughing. When I told Katy about the pickpockets she said, “Serves you right, a good beating might have done some good for you.”

I reach the library, the American Library. The librarian is American. I enter and find myself alone with the books. I feel shifty peering through the gaps in the shelves, trying to see if the librarian is looking at me. My hangover is still nascent, I am sobering up, hanging on to the last vestiges of ethanol, the vapours, from last night. I have to work fast so I might avoid the real day and its attendant memories of last night. I find the Pharmacopeia, the A-Z of prescription drugs.

I believe I am in need of painkillers: acute pain, severe pain, not the mild or moderate kind. I need ‘opium derivatives’, ‘opiates’, ‘opioid sedatives’. They must be ‘euphoria inducing’, they must have ‘addictive properties’. Skimming the pages of the book I look for these phrases. I take out my notebook and pen. The librarian walks over to me. “Is everything ok?” she asks. “I’m fine, thanks,” I tell her. I try to look studious.

Astramorph, Oxycodone, Roxycodone, Roxilox, Dolophine, Oxycodan, Numorphan, Sufenta, Altenta, T-Gesic, Talacan, Demerol, Zydone. What fantastic names, what brilliant marketing, I am instilled with confidence when I look at the words I’ve written on the page. I take my notebook and head for the door, when the librarian asks, “Are you studying medicine?” I look at her, and she looks down at me, peering over her glasses.  “No,” I reply, “I have a hangover,” and I walk hastily out of the door hoping she won’t follow me.

On the way back to my apartment there are plenty of pharmacies. I’ve heard you can get almost anything over the counter in Mexico. It was one of the reasons I came here. There are things I want to forget, and to do this, I need some assistance.

————————————————————————————————————

A couple of weeks ago I met a guy from New Jersey. He works at a school. I found him to be menacing at first, with his thick New Jersey baritone accent, his shaved head and muscular upper body. He looked violent, he looked as though he would enjoy violence. His name is Larry. Larry told me he spent all his time working out when he wasn’t teaching.

That wasn’t true.

He invited me back to his place for “a drink and some lines”. I thought he meant coke. We stopped off at a pharmacist somewhere on the outskirts of Merida and he bought some Ritalin. He explained to me it was an amphetamine based drug used to calm down kids who were hyperactive. It didn’t make much sense to me, giving drugs to children who were hyper. Not only because of the apparent paradox in the prescription, but because when I was a child hyperactivity had never been cause for treatment. I was hyperactive. I am hyperactive. We crushed the pills and snorted them.

Larry told me he’d lost his job in New Jersey. He’d crashed a car drunk and coked up on his 36th birthday. “I had to get the fuck out of there,” he told me. And so he escaped to Mexico while awaiting criminal charges. He was a let-down to his family who, he told me, had secured a job for him in the family business. The crash changed all that. “I fucked it up good and proper,” he said, “I fucked it all up man.” He smiled at me remorsefully. He looked sad, incomplete, self-assured I think that the medicine and I were items in his life he had rather never come across. “Fuck it,” he said, “who’s first?”

We snorted Ritalin and delineated to each other the story of our lives. We explained how we’d never fit in, how we’d always been in trouble, how we were always on the run. We shared vices, and in spite of our age difference and cultural differences, I was endeared to him, and I think he was endeared to me. He was my reckless father and I was his abandoned son. A series of escapes had brought us together. As a child he’d seen shrinks about his anger problems. As an adult he’d attended anger management meetings. He said he hated his father, but his sister and mother, he said, were a different story. He didn’t expand. “I don’t know why I’m so fucking angry,” he told me after coming up from a line, and we both laughed as I crushed more pills.

In the morning when Larry went to bed I stayed up dawdling sketches on some paper. I am not sure why – I was hardly aware of my actions – but I drew pictures of women and men fucking. Later with a more stable inspection I realized I’d depicted women with ugly faces and twisted joints, that looked quite monstrous, being held down by men, who were muscular and wore savage expressions on their ink faces. The men’s cocks were oversized, caricatured, they were gnarled and swollen. I was shocked by my train of thought, ill at ease with the images that must have been in my head before I had given them two-dimensional life. But they were good drawings, I had created something beyond my abilities. I didn’t like what I saw though. It didn’t bode well for my state of mind, these vile streams of consciousness.

The paper, I then noticed, had some handwriting on the back of it. I had been sketching on the back of Larry’s poetry, poetry I should not have been privy to.

Draw a circle around your life, are you confined?

 

I hate this fucking bewitching lie. The one that tells you to stay in line.

 

I suffer last month’s agenda, I’m trying to forget to remember…

Epileptic animal, take him to the zoo, make him normal.

 

Women’s claws, I’m sick of trying. I am abused, and YOU cry.

 

Shaking daily, a sorry loss to family.

 

A loss to myself, alone with my memory, the hole in my head.

 

I’m not normal.

 

Helter-skelter, crush the line, bring me back to yesterday.

 

I’m not gonna lose it again. Outcast, well fuck that, I don’t remember a thing.

 

Fuck your American dream, your American machines, your clean sheets, your mean years. I’ve seen all these things in seizures.

 

And the last one was enough.

 

I’m running, I’m jumping the zoo fence. I’m escaping…

 

God knows no one knows what to do with me.

 

Passengers teasing, pleading, easing this pest through my mind.

 

Hold on to the light while you can. Your eyes are closed but still exposed to the flash.

 

The car crash came too late. The forgetful fish contemplates the next three seconds of blind faith.

The sun had come up already when I was reading and then rereading what Larry had written. Edgy because of all the Ritalin I’d consumed I began to feel like I had committed a terrible invasion of privacy. He had not told me anything about seizures. His admissions had been amusing, like mine, they were the lighter side of tragic. Not only did I not want him to know I’d read his very personal poem, but I couldn’t think of any conceivable way to explain my sadistic pornographic doodles on the other side of the paper. He may, I thought, think I had read the poem and then depicted him with his fear of “women’s claws” getting his own back in misogynistic fashion on womankind, or worse, his mother and sister…his mother, sister, Larry and his father, a family orgy! I looked at the drawings again and saw that I had given the women long fingernails that did actually look claw-like. What a horrible coincidence, what bad luck, I thought. There was no way to explain to him what I had done without leaving a stain of transgression on what would indubitably – given my insufferable guilt complex – be a criminal face. Any treatment of the story would cast a lot of doubt on me. He didn’t need to be paranoid, I warranted suspicion. As he lay in bed in the next room I quietly walked into the kitchen and threw the paper in the dustbin. Without saying goodbye I left the house and walked home. There I would find Idar drinking in the morning, alone on the couch. He convinced me to go back to the clandestino to buy more beer. Our session would end with the pickpocketing incident sometime in the early hours of the next day.

————————————————————————————————————

I give the pharmacist my list of drugs. He shrugs and looks at me like he might look at an implausible commercial on the TV screen. “Mucho dolor,” I tell him. I’d rehearsed this earlier after looking up the Spanish for ‘a lot of’ and ‘pain’.

“No” he says, “not here.” He gives me back my list.

I try pharmacy after pharmacy in the centre of Merida and each time I am told to leave the shop. I figure I’m not the first gringo to try this.

I try a new approach. “Me amigo, mucho dolor,” I say in one pharmacy, and I wish I knew the Spanish for ‘bad burn’. I arrive at the main square, where old men meet and talk all day long. Mariachis sit waiting for tourists to call them over. Kids approach me with hammocks and castanets, lighters and miniature guitars with Merida sprayed on them. I beckon over a group of rough looking teenagers and give them the list of drug names, and they assure they will be back soon with something. They ask for the money up front, and I realize I’ll probably never get my drugs. In the shade of the gargantuan church façade I sit and fear the impending day. Cortez built the church in the 1500’s after he had subjugated the Mayan Indians. The exterior was built with the stones from a pyramid that Cortez demolished so he could erect his edifice in the name of the Lord. The remaining pyramids are now a tourist attraction, but the church is for real. It saddens me when I think about the fall of the Mayans and this encourages me to stand up and return to my quest.

There is one pharmacy, just off the main square that offers me medicine prescribed for ‘acute pain’. I buy a sheet and walk back home resignedly with the sun burning the back of my neck while it sets behind me.

There’s still glass on the floor of the apartment from where I kicked a ball through the window. I can hear Radiohead playing in the apartment, which is a doomful presage. Katy is on the couch with a glass resting on her chest. She looks up, glares at me with watery drunken eyes, and lifts the glass to her mouth.

“Where’ve you been all day?” she asks.

“I’ve been out to the library in town, took me fucking ages to get there. I stopped at the square too, for food.” I am trying my best to sound amicable, but my voice doesn’t carry it off. It sounds stilted, unnatural, because I know I am in trouble.

“What, you’ve been with Larry,” she says laughing.

“No, what’s so funny?”

She looks at me candidly. “Forget it Joe.”

“Why is that funny?”

“That’s the whole point Joe, it’s not funny.”

I still don’t know what she is inferring.

“So it looks like Idar and Linda want us to move out.”

“How do you know that?”

She puts the glass down on the table.

“You mean you don’t remember? You’re so fucked Joe.”

“I suppose you better tell me.”

I hope she won’t, I hope she’ll have pity on me.

“You’re fucking psychotic Joe.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“You called Linda a cunt.”

“Did I, why?”

“I don’t fucking know Joe, who knows? Everyone’s a cunt once you’re in your own little drunken world… Idar was ready to smack you.”

“I don’t believe that. You’re taking advantage of my memory loss.”

“I don’t need to take advantage, you’re always like this. I mean, how much of the last six months have you actually remembered? That is, of the things that actually happened.”

“What’s that meant to mean?”

“I’m not going there Joe.”

She takes another drink. She looks exhausted.

“I was probably just having a laugh.”

“No one was laughing.”

“Listen, I can’t remember any of this. I was drunk.”

“That’s hardly an excuse…anyway, you don’t know half of it…The worst thing is, I can’t stop feeling sorry for you… I miss you. I miss who you were before all this happened.”

“All what, it’s not as if I’ve killed someone. There’s no need to be so dramatic.”

“You’ve killed yourself.”

“Katy, fuck you. You can’t keep doing this to me.”

“Doing what?”

“Making me hate myself.”

“I’m trying to tell you you’ve lost it. I love you. You need help Joe.”

She is ratty with drink, my fallen angel. I could tell myself she is the one in need of help, and that she is wrong, because I am ok, I am just the same, but it would be fruitless, because I believe her. I m being a coward, I’m holding something back. I don’t want to think about it right now though, the truth. So I remain clueless.

“What the fuck were we all arguing about Katy?”

“I don’t have the strength to go over it now Joe. Just get some sleep. When was the last time you slept?”

“Last night.”

“What, for an hour?”

“I don’t know.”

Why am I always the victim?

“Can I have a drink?”

“No.”

“Can I get a glass?”

“No, fuck off.”

Tow ice cubes clunk into my smeared glass.

Katy is reading Sons and Lovers while I concentrate on drinking. I hope there’s nothing in that book to stir her emotions, I don’t want her to get any ideas. I’m already on the losing side. Our taste in literature has always set us apart. She hated Celine when I read to her, and she made a point of it. I took it to heart, because it was me she hated, not the dead French author.

“What’s that you’re taking?”

“Nothing, just a headache pill. I have a bit of a headache.”

I go to the toilet and hide the pills. After taking one more I put the rest of them under a stack of Norwegian comic books that Idar laughs out loud to while he’s taking a shit.

“For fuck’s sake Katy, turn off Nick Cave, it depresses the hell out of me.”

“You’re already depressed Joe.”

“And you’re not? I’m not the only one drinking every day.”

“Oh, Joe, same old shit.”

“Well, fuck, I just don’t get why it’s always me.”

“Look at yourself in the mirror.”

There’s a Gecko on the wall in this apartment, it hasn’t moved all night. It’s watching us. It nods its head, and I imagine it’s saying to itself, ‘Yeah, same old shit.’

My eyes are heavy. The painkillers are having an effect on me. Something has changed. I put a glass to my right eye and cover up the left. I can see Katy watching me, judging me. The gecko is elongated. It nods at me. Its black eye, a camera lens, is recording us.

The blond one, the male, has started to stagger. The female is reluctant to move, she won’t give up her territory. The male, though superior in size and weight, walks tentatively around the female when changing the CD. As he does this the female sends him a warning, and so the male retreats feebly back to the chair. After an interval of relative calm the male again musters the courage to change the CD, again he is challenged by the female, who now seems to be showing signs of anger. It is not uncommon for this couple to brawl. This time the male wins. The CD is changed. The male seems happy with his conquest of the stereo.

 

As the male stumbles away to the toilet to urinate, he is followed by the female. On his way out he is quickly apprehended. After inspecting the toilet, she confronts the male while waving a strip of plastic in his face. We are now availed with a splendid show of hostility as the male firmly grabs the female’s arm and rips back the plastic sheet. After a short tug of war style wrestle, the female inspects her arms for bruising, which are now reddish in colour. Tears well in her eyes. The tears are usually not a sign of capitulation, on the contrary, they can often propel her to amazing feats of strength. The female launches herself at the plastic sheet but to no avail. The finale is nothing less than spectacular as the female takes a drink of undiluted Tequila and spits it into the unwitting male’s eyes. He is temporarily blinded, and in his befuddlement he drops the plastic and runs into the bathroom. The female collects the plastic sheet from the floor and inspects the rear side, she puts on her shoes and leaves the apartment.

 

She left the tequila but she has the pills. They were hardly buoyancy anyway. It irks me still that she mentioned Larry. She tortures me. I think it gratifies her.

I’m swigging from the bottle. What do I have to do to make her like me again? I have failed her. Maybe I am a victim. My failure is complicit with the future. This mess was predestined.

I pick up one of the shards of glass from the broken window. It instantly appeals to me. I turn it around in my hands, feeling its rough edge. I press the spike against my forearm. When I dig it into my skin I feel no pain, I feel relief. Absolution, I am nearly there. I dig it further into my arm, through the muscle, and pull it back. The flesh opens up, it moves apart slowly. I am mesmerized. Bringing the glass to the underside of my left eye I open up the flesh. Blood oozes onto my hand. I am confused. I am ashamed again, so I go to bed.

————————————————————————————————————

Linda and Idar are slapping me around the face, I hear a countdown. Soon you will wake up and have to face all this. Three, two, one. Two distraught faces look at me. I am paralyzed.

“Joe, Joe, what’s wrong with your arm? Joe get up, we have to take you to a hospital.”

“Leave me alone.”

And then I see that I have gashes in my arms. One is much worse than the other, the cavity is about one inch wide, and it’s deep. This is the first time I’ve seen inside myself. Idar hugs me, I feel like a child. I want to cry.

“Joe, what have you done to yourself?”

I am out the door, I can’t walk straight. I want to go back to bed. Sunlight pierces my vision. I could collapse, I could refuse to move. We get in a taxi and I close my eyes.

The clinic smells like disinfectant. A nurse takes my hand. Idar and Linda are next to me, holding me. I focus on my damage, I pull my arm away. The nurse says something I don’t understand. This isn’t a hospital, this is a small room in a house. Idar tells me to sit still. I want oblivion. I want always to be oblivious. I can see the nurse stitch one arm. She wipes the deep wound of my other arm with a cotton bud, and I am surprised that it’s painless. She seems to stitch from the inside and then pulls the string at the end, the flesh cavity closes. Idar gives the woman some money and we are out in the street again. It’s so fucking bright. I can walk by myself now, but I don’t know where to go.

“I can walk by myself.”

In the taxi I demand they let me out. Something tells me I must leave the car, I must leave Idar and Linda. They try and stop me, but I open the door and run. I’m stumbling. I have my wallet. I have to be alone. I am embarrassed I think, I don’t know. I’m fucking stupid, I don’t know. I can’t walk straight, but right now I don’t care if people are watching me. My arms are bandaged right down to the wrists. People are looking at me. I know I’m not far from the square. I want a hotel. Donde este…I can’t speak fucking Spanish. I see a sign. The Panic Hotel. It might look like I slit my wrists. Like I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t. I don’t want people to think I am a victim. Reception is empty and an old woman looks at me, she understands my predicament I think. She goes easy on me. There are crucifixes everywhere, a blue eyed Jesus looks down at me from the wall. I don’t want to look Jesus in the eye.

“I need a room.”

She says something in Spanish that I don’t understand. I just pass her my wallet. She understands, taking out some notes and handing me a key. Large double doors, like a stable, are the entrance to my room. As I open them, a girl runs up to me and hands me a bottle of water. She hands it over, looks at me briefly, and then runs away. Locked in, I am on the bed, and I want to sleep for a long time. I want to close up like the stitches did, I want to zip myself into unconsciousness. I am fetal, I require a womb. I pass out.

I need water. I think about water and I also wonder if I will ever be right again. It this it? Will I ever feel better? I can’t bear to look at what I’ve done to my arms. The room is dark even with the light switched on, but I can still see a cockroach run for cover in a small hole right in the corner of the room. It can smell me, smell decay. Will it find my wounds, will it crawl under my bandages?

I am standing in a grass arena at the Mayan ruins. I have a stone in my hand. Cortez is at the other side shouting at his conquistadors. I see Katy, who is standing at my side of the arena and she tells me to run with the stone. I am surrounded by Cortez’s men so I try and make a dash through the middle. I succeed, but when I reach the sideline where Cortez is shouting, I look at the stone and a cockroach crawls from behind it and runs up my arm. I drop the stone and it seems that is the end of the game. Katy looks disgusted, and as she turns her head away from me I hear the words ‘You deserve it.’ Then I remember what the Mayans sometimes did with the losers of their great ball game. They drowned them in the cenote.

When I wake up my mum is sat at the foot of my bed. She’s wearing her mohair cardigan that she knitted herself. I can still see that the arms are bulging with tissue. She cried a lot. As she turns to me I see her false teeth are not in, it looks like she has just woken up.

“Well, I ‘ope yer bloody proud of yerself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Cutting yer bloody arms like that.”

I am speechless.

“And yuv got that girl all worked up. When are yer gonna learn? Yer not fit to be courting. Do you remember when we took you to the ‘ospital to ‘ave yer stomache pumped?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Why are yer always trying to wreck your life, you think ye’d bloody learn. You never learn Joe.”

“Mum, you died of cirrhosis of the liver, you weren’t sober for a day the last ten years of your life. How can you say I’m the one wrecking his life?”

“Don’t talk bloody daft Joe. My liver’s fine.”

“Mum, you’re dead.”

“I’ll tell yer, you’ll be bloody dead if you carry on the way you do. You cried all night in the ‘ospital, screaming out, ‘Mum I love yer, I love yer mum’.

“Yeah, it’s shows how pissed I was.”

“Never a truer word spoken Joe when a man’s ‘ad a drink.”

“Bollocks. You always said that and it’s bollocks.”

“Watch yer language!”

“I learnt it all from you.”

“That’s enough.”

“Well, I did.”

“I said that’s enough. Why did you do a bloody stupid thing like that, anyway? It’s not like yer dote ‘ave everything you want. You ‘ave it bloody easy, yu’v nowt to complain about.”

“How would you know that?”

“Cos I’m yer mother Joe, like it or not. Yer know you don’t deserve a girlfriend, I always knew you’d end up in a ditch somewhere. Didn’t I always tell you that?”

“I’m not in ditch, I’m in a fucking hotel. And anyway, it’s better than a coffin.”

“Don’t try and rile me up. ‘ave ‘ad it up to ‘ere wi yer bloody smart arse talk. That’s yer problem, yer dote know when to shut up. You made it so ‘ard for me and yer dad, sometimes I wish we’d never ‘ad yer, I really do. Yer an ungrateful little sod.”

Her arthritic fingers look like twigs. She looks deathly, but she always did.

“You should ‘ave got yerself a proper job instead a pissing around wi all those bloody druggies. Look what ‘appened to them. Dead. They dint ‘ave the luck yuv ‘ad, and you won’t catch them slashing their bloody wrists. You’re pathetic. All we’ve done for you…”

She gets off the bed and goes into the toilet. While she’s in there I hear a bottle top being unscrewed; things don’t change. I lay back down and bury my face into the pillow.

I’m playing football on the rec’ with my mates. It’s windy. The washing hung out in the council house gardens is blowing onto the field. Mad dogs are barking entreaties to the wind. Someone’s mum is standing at the front of the garden shouting at her son to come back in. She looks hysterical, but her voice is muted by the wind. The ball is kicked to the edge of the embankment, the place where I once found a cow’s head. My friends run off. I am alone on the field. I’m looking for the ball. I can’t find it and I slip and fall down the banking at the back of the rec’. I land next to that cow’s head. It is stuck to me, I push it away and it rolls back into my lap. Its dead eyes are bloody and bulbous.

Something is licking my face. It’s Peppi. Toby is sat at the end of the bed. He looks almost human, sat on his hind legs, upright. Peppi lies in my lap, and she licks me affectionately. Toby looks at me solemnly.

“So then young man, you finally got what you deserve,” Toby says.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you feel sorry for yourself, is that why you did it? Were you looking for attention? Because you don’t deserve any.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well you might understand what it feels like now, to need a bit of attention.”

“You got lots of attention.”

“That I did Joe, you are not wrong there. I see you are as adroit at recalling the past as you were wielding a weapon. Do you remember what you put Peppi and I through? She’s still in denial, she can’t accept how you terrorized us through our lives.”

“Toby, I’m sorry, I really am.”

“Let me remind you: Punches to the face, short thumps with your little iron fists to the end of my nose. Following me around the house, when they were out of course, with a rubber tube. You remember that Joe, the one from the back of the tumble dryer? Coaxing me out from under the table with biscuits and then whipping me until I whined. Come on now Joe, you couldn’t forget that.”

“I do remember and I’m sorry, I’ve always felt bad about that. But what can I do now? It’s the past.”

“Yes, the past, but you can’t escape from the past Joe. From where you are sitting I would say the past is a damn sight more significant than the present. You can’t fob me off with excuses, there’ll be no pardons tonight. I haven’t come here for some cathartic get together, I’ve come to tell you, and with certainty, that you wrecked two lives. You had choices, you made choices, you were a brute, and you have no one to blame for you actions. And if you think that by mutilating your own arms you can extricate yourself from blame, you are very wrong. I am here to tell you that.”

Peppi licks my cheeks. She still stinks of decay.

“Don’t be hard on the little fellow Toby, he was just a kid. And look how they treated him. He was only mimicking their behavior.”

She looks up at me, puss dripping from her ancient eyes.

“Don’t let him beat you up about this Joe, you can understand he’s bitter.”

I don’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what to say Peppi.”

“Peppi is soft Joe, you made a victim of that girl. What do they call it? That’s it, Stockholm Syndrome. She could be hacked to pieces at end of your malevolent hands and still find the strength to give you a congratulatory lick. Heed this boy: you are no good, and don’t try and blame anyone for your own hateful mind. I have said all I want to say.”

Peppi licks me. “Good bye Joe.” And they both limp off the end of the bed. I am devastated. I can’t stay awake, I can feel myself about to weep. Before the tears can reach the surface of my eyes I close them and fall back to sleep.

I am at Mad Alan’s flat. His toddler is crying. Everyone’s arguing because all the barrels of the lighters have melted the plastic braces and no one can do any lines. Alan picks up the axe he keeps for intruders and threatens Paula with it. She pleads with him, telling him she didn’t bust the last one. Alan accuses her of greed smoking with the flame too high. She’s crying, telling him she didn’t turn up the flame. The fire has collapsed and the toddler is picking up the tiles. Under the tiles he finds a lighter. Alan sees this and beckons him towards him, but the toddler doesn’t want to go. Alan screams at the kid. The kid looks over at me on the couch with my tin foil and heroin. I look at the foil because I don’t want to make eye contact with anyone in the room Alan screams at the kid again, which scares him so he runs over to me and hands me the lighter. Alan then looks at me furiously, clutching the axe he walks over to me shouting, ’You lying little fucker, you sneaky bastard’. He swings the axe.

“Fucking hell,” I mutter as I wake up.

I am pleased to find no one is in the room with me. I search around in the dark trying to find the bottle of water. Then the toilet flushes and Larry opens the door. He is wearing only a pair of shorts.

“So did you think I wouldn’t find you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” I tell him, lying.

“Well, how’s about you snooping through my stuff, after I have shouted the whole night’s booze and pills, and then you go and read my poem. Not only that, you throw it in the garbage. And when I fish it out, you have sketched your fucking depraved drawings of my family on the back. Does that help at all, do you remember now?”

“Now wait on a minute Larry…Larry, those pictures were not of your family, I swear to you, how the fuck would I know what your family look like? And I didn’t mean to read your poem, I didn’t know what I was reading until I got half way through it.”

“You’re a sick man.”

“I was fucked Larry. I promise you, the drawings had nothing to do with you or your family.”

“You’re not gonna get out of this, you slick fuck. It’s funny how those guys in the pictures looked exactly like me and my dad, and it’s also funny how the women looked just like my mother and sister. I don’t know how you pulled that off, you’re a slick little fucker.”

“I wouldn’t do that Larry, I’m not a lunatic.”

But I don’t know if I am a lunatic. I am almost as scared of myself as I am of Larry.

“Just one thing I want to know before I beat you to a pulp. Why the fuck did you do it? I mean, I can understand why you might read the stuff, hell, I’d probably do the same, but to go and draw those fucking horrible pictures. Man, after reading that poem about my family problems. That’s sick, totally fucking sick.”

“Look Larrry, not in a million years did I want to upset you. We were getting on fine, if by any chance those pictures looked like you…”

“Oh buddy, there’s no fucking doubt.”

“It’s just a mad coincidence.”

“I don’t believe that, there is no such thing as coincidence. What’s done is done.”

“Larry mate, I don’t know why I did it. I really don’t. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know why your mother hates you and why your dogs cowered when you went near them. You don’t know why you called Linda, who was putting you up for free, a cunt. You get Idar drunk as a skunk and then drag him into a bar and get him into trouble. I can bet you don’t know why you spent the whole day looking for morphine. You don’t know why you are locked in a room, by yourself, with your arms all cut up having nightmares.”

“No I don’t.”

“Well then, I’ll have to beat it out of you.”

I roll into a ball and await my punishment.

“Pick on someone yer own bloody size,” my mother shouts.

Momentarily I feel loved. I feel rescued. I was wrong about her. But then they both start laughing complicity.

“If anyone is giving out beatings Larry, it’s me.” Toby jumps up on the bed and says, “Now Jean, don’t be too kind to the lad, Larry can do a better job. He’s not a boy anymore.”

Peppi hobbles into my lap, her matted poodle hair reeking. She is a true ally. But she is weak and she is dying.

“The dog’s right Jean,” Larry says, “he deserves what’s coming to him. What if that was you he had drawn?”

“If anyone’s gonna hand out a good hiding it’ll be me, alright?” She gives him a hard stare, “I said alright?”

“Jean, you’re in no fit state…” says Toby.

“I’ll tell you who’s in a fit state or not, now sit the buggeryhell down will yer.”

Toby puts his front paws down on the bed.

“Get ‘old of his arms.” My mum directs Larry, at hearing this he smiles.

“Mum, for fucks sake.”

“Eh, language.”

Larry walks round the bed. Toby is on all fours now, wagging his tail.

“Don’t do this mum.”

“Joe, you deserve all you get. Think a that poor girl. Think a what yer did to ‘er.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Yer sick Joe. ‘ave told yer before, yuv got to sort out that memory of yours.” She looks at Larry and points, “And ‘e, ‘e doesn’t bloody exist.”

“So then you don’t.”

“Dote talk bloody daft. Yer blame anyone but yerself. Blame me, blame Larry, blame yer poor girlfriend.”

Toby says, “I think he’s aware of his illusions now Jean.”

“ ‘e needs to be sorted out Toby. Where does it end Joe? When der yer bloody realize yer did all this to yerself? Get ‘is arms Larry.”

“This is not fair.”

“Get ‘is arms,” she says again. Peppi then jumps onto the bed to defend me, but she is crippled, she is all but dead. I am crying. I try to hold onto to Peppi but she breaks in my hands like an ancient toy. This is not fair. I stand up and run, it seems, through the door.

All I see in the blur of the reception are the crucifixes on the wall. I lash out into the night. Under the lamps in the dark streets I am continually exposed. I hear whistles near to where there’s a Cantina but I don’t look around. I am on the main road, running faster than I thought possible. I pass locked doors and barred windows. The road is cutting up my feet but the pain doesn’t bother me. This is where the buses bruise the curbs, these streets are made for battered feet. I am not a bad person, I know I’m not.

I pass bushes cut into dinosaur shapes on the Parc de L’Americas, running under the giant jaws of a tyrannosaurus. The park has come to life. The guilty speck of my semi-naked body is fodder for the animals. Into the night I run, until there are no more streets lights. I can forget all this. The bandages on my arms remind me I am a victim, I was destined for this. The bandages are unraveling, streaming in the wind, my cuts are exposed.

Now there is nothing ahead of me, just the emptiness of the city limits, the dead end of night. The city and its ghosts are behind me. I can hear my pulse, everything else is silent. There’s always more internal noise, the mind is the loudest organ. Did I do those things they said I did? I am not going back. It’s cold now, why must it always be too hot or too cold. I have never found the right temperature. I don’t know what it’s like to feel comfortable.

There are reasons for this. I am the witness, I have seen everything. But right now, right now, I don’t want to know.

©James Austin Farrell 2011

 

 

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Made in Taiwan

  

It’s the routine that gets me down. The stagnant order of things, the passive hours, the sequentiality of my motives. It’s the fixedness of next week, next month, next year, those wearing daily schedules, the weekly confinements, the commitments to the calendar, that ruin me.

It seemed I had spent a long time peddling a schedule to myself, practicing time distribution. Months piling up in my memory like those useless single socks in my drawer. Memories I was reluctant to recount. Time I was ashamed of, not because of the things I had done, but the things I had not done.

Looking forward to masturbating, or the occasional fuck which, although inevitably anti-climactic, was my only relapse into spontaneity. Those minutes of escapism that would, post orgasm, entitle me to a forlorn state of self pity and remorse.

But I needed those minutes, I needed the grunts, and the ejaculations that followed them, because without them, I thought I might just slip away. It was only the enterprise of sexuality, the boner in my pants, the other’s hand on my cock, that gave life to my dreary state.

There was always a seemingly unavoidable melancholy that canvassed the rare good moments when they happened, something that would stab me in the back each time I laughed, each time I relaxed, a warning, a reminder, that something just wasn’t right.

Wake up, consider the day ahead, try not to consider the day ahead, try not to ask myself the same self-absorbed questions I’ve been asking myself for years. Am I sick, am I depressed, am I anxious, I’m going to die? A symbolical note: the wardrobe is turning black. Look at your hair, look at your room, everything reeks of abandonment. You can’t be arsed phoning friends, you want to drink all the time, you take refuge in hangovers and comedowns because at least then you have something to blame, something to survive. Tell yourself repeatedly that ‘people have it much worse’, try and grasp poverty, other people’s sad, violent, horrible lives, people who’ve ‘never had the opportunities you did’. It doesn’t work. You’re bored of your own voice, the clichés that float to the surface of your thoughts, you’re tired of words and the way that you use them. You are fatter, and your throat is always sore. Why is your throat always sore? Look at the internet until it leads you to the inevitable: online death.

That was my position, and what was most debilitating was that it was anguish without any real value, without a proper history. Programmed in me, for what reasons I was unsure of, was a foreboding fear of non-existence, meanwhile the crux of my existence, was my life. I was so scared of dying I couldn’t live, I was so obsessively distrustful of my immunity to disease, despair, discouragement, that I made myself continuously ill. One logical solution to this predicament was naturally, suicide, though even in my darkest hours life was never sufficiently untenable to convince me to take that route. Alcohol, drugs, and orgasmic distractions were always available anyway, not to lift my spirits, but avoid them. I needed a change, a self-reinvention. I needed to be picked apart, scoured, purified. I had to disentangle myself from the diabolical safety net that I’d created. I had to escape.

One morning while I was looking for jobs on the internet, I saw an ad for two months of summer camp in Taiwan. I made the decision to apply. Once the application was posted, a confirmation of employment and contract was sent to me a week later. I sent them a mostly made up synopsis of the duties I had performed as a working adult and the vague responsibilities inflicted on me in those jobs. I was diligent, I was amiable, I was even polyvalent. They returned this gesture of truth with their own adjectives: fun, exciting, rewarding. We had struck a deal.

A package arrived some time before I was to set off to Taiwan. A teacher’s manual, four VCD’s and the rules I would have to adhere to while working on the camp. The only rule that was typed in bold and capitalized was ‘NO SMOKING AND NO DRINKING ON CAMP’. I skirted around that bold text as if it were anathema.

The downside of the camp, which happens to be the downside of most jobs, was the work itself. Something I hadn’t contemplated until I had watched the VCDs that came with the package. Throughout the four discs I did not encounter anything that remotely resembled teaching a foreign language. There were eight chicken dance routines we would have to learn, and a plethora of chants to memorize: class chant, camp chant, happy chant, wake up chant, and one called Bob’s chant. I hadn’t ever written a chant, performed a chant, or for that matter heard many chants. There were videos of young American teachers singing and dancing to Westlife, with what I considered a lack of dignity, while Taiwanese kids laughed at their desks. One female teacher looked no older than 18. I doubted her qualifications as a linguist. She sang Britney Spears, moving slowly from one side of the room towards the camera, pouting, amorously staring into the lens. She delivered the last line, her lips gaped, an allusion to fellatio, only inches from the camera. In spite of the creepiness of the VCD’s short films, and in spite of my own dignity, I reflected on the reasons I was going to Taiwan. A chicken dance in front of a hundred people might be a curative exercise, either that, or it would send me over the edge. Abasement might or might not prove valuable.

I was met at Taipei airport by a man who would drive me to the camp. It took around two hours to get there. We drove in the abstract night and Taiwan could have been any place. It could have been England, or Sweden, it could have been the place I had just left. He took me through tunnels and over bridges, street lights studded the night, and then we’d be in darkness again and I wondered if I ever wanted the journey to stop, this stranger and me, driving into the unknown. I wasn’t quite sure whether I should have attempted to be friendly, or amusing, or teacherly, as he could have been affiliated with the camp and not just a taxi driver. I opted to blank him, and this proved to be the right decision. He was just a taxi driver. When we reached the camp – the catalogue had stated we’d be staying in dormitories – I was pleasantly surprised to see that I would be staying at a beach resort. I could hear the ocean in the distance, and a band was playing in the hotel garden. That night I was allocated a room, and offered a buffet meal with the rest of the teachers and TA’s (teacher assistants). I tried my best to make conversation, though I blushed a lot. Dinner tables have been throughout my life difficult places. I have often left them feeling I’d said the wrong thing – not because of recollections of things I’d said, but because of an awareness of the other people’s discomfort, and their relief once I stood up to leave. One of my friends used to ask me before I ate dinner with his family if I had remembered to bring my adapter. He’d say, without sounding critical, “Don’t forget to bring your adapter tonight.”

I’ve never been able to locate an adapter, and I had a strong sense I would need one over the following weeks.

One of the teachers was smoking in my room when I entered. He blew the smoke out of the window and then flushed the butt down the toilet. He would become a friend, and thankfully, my roommate for the camp. His name was Justin. He was Canadian. After flushing the butt end he walked over to me and shook my hand, then introduced himself in what you could describe as in a minimalist fashion. “I’m Justin,” he said unsmiling, and then he turned around and flopped down on his bed. He made no apology for smoking nor did he ask me anything about myself. I realized I’d been fortunate getting him as a roommate. He said nothing else to me that night while he lay on his bed reading, then around midnight he asked, “Can you turn off the light?” I admired his austerity, and obligingly I followed his command.

There were five groups of students, classes 1-5 assorted by age. I was to teach Class1, whose students were the youngest on the camp. My class consisted of 7-9 years olds. I hadn’t talked to kids this old since I was a kid. I stood in front of them crippled in speech and they looked at me waiting for me to do something. This felt like a stand-off, and even though I knew that it was up to me to make a move I didn’t know what to do or say. Children, I realized then, I had hardly known still existed outside of my memories. Now I was confronted by those memories and the real thing. I asked them their names, their age, and regrettably, what music they liked. They made me feel awkward and sad. One of the children said to me, “Teacher, you eye, funny.” He pulled on the sides of his eyebrows and mimicked my sullen expression. At that point I told my TA I was going to the toilet, which I then did, to figure out how I might make those small people happy.

For my class chant I took the melody from an old Mercury Rev song called Coney Island Cyclone. I became endeared to them hearing them chanting to a tune that had once been a personal anthem in my late teens. I realized then that the kids would probably do anything that I asked, and I began to feel better. The master/slave complex was reversed. It said in the manual that I should teach my students the chicken dance first. I had been hoping that somehow I might get out of this. But it was a camp decree, the camp’s pièce de résistance. This is part of the transformation I told myself, this is what you must do. My reserved assistant hardly assisted and I had to do the dance by myself; the kids enjoyed watching me act like a chicken, and I wondered if they could discern my embarrassment, and to some extent, already understand some weaknesses in my character. I flapped my arms and pecked with my hands, I felt abased, ridiculous, insecure, and they laughed. It was a trade off, their happiness for my embittered success. But the more they mocked me and giggled the more chicken-like I felt, and the easier it became. In character, I thought, maybe I could endure anything. Later in the day there would be a chicken dance competition; a chicken dance-off if you like. I filled in the time with more songs I found in the manual until the competition. They wanted to sing ‘If you’re happy and you know it’, but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to know how it would make me feel. Yet, watching the kids enjoy themselves so much was a very decent anodyne to my feelings of displacement. You shouldn’t, I told myself, take advantage of their happiness, you shouldn’t milk it.

In front of the whole camp my class performed Mercury Rev:

Hey wait babe, wait up now

Hey babe, wait up now

If we could find a space [clap, clap, clap]

Where we could both stretch out [clap, clap, clap]

Roll like Coney Island Cyclones

No, I won’t chicken out

No, I won’t chicken out

Earlier we had come last in the chicken dance competition, and neither did we impress in the chanting which, even though was not subject to the vote, did encourage a certain amount of measured clapping. As for all the other class’s chants, they were all sport’s chants and marching songs. “Who, who, who are you! You’re no good, we are best. Class 2, class 2, class 2.” Unimpressive, I thought. We didn’t stand a chance with Coney Island Cyclone, and I realized I’d been a little bit selfish.

I think the kids resented me somewhat for making them do a chant that sounded nothing like the other class’s chants. I was reminded of my parents telling me that having a weird middle name wasn’t so bad: “One day you’ll appreciate it,” my mother told me. Originality is not attractive to children, which is a pity, because it’s all but a lost cause in adults.

We finished late in the evening and didn’t have time to go to the beach or swim in the pool. Justin asked me if I wanted to go get a beer, and I was relieved. Across from the hotel there was a main road that ran back to Taipei, and some way down, there was the only shop in the vicinity of the hotel. For punitive reasons we couldn’t buy alcohol in the resort. As we were walking down the road we passed a shop front with a large glass window, where a woman was sitting on a high stool knitting or doing crotchet. Her legs were about head height to passers by outside, and as she was sitting with her legs open, her underwear was revealed to us. It seemed a non sequitur to the day’s activities, and guiltily I became aware of another part of me, a part I’d shelved for the day.

“Did you see that?” I asked Justin.

“What, the betel nut store?”

“Fuck no, the woman with her legs open, you could see up her skirt.”

“I didn’t see… they sell betel nuts to passing truckers, loads of the Taiwanese eat betel nuts, it’s addictive. It’s usually women in the shops.”

“Why were her legs open?”

“I don’t know.”

Betel nuts are addictive Justin told me, they make you high. They stain the addict’s mouths and rot their teeth. It looks like blood, a mouthful of blood.

“Do you think you can shag them?”

“Who?”

“Those women selling the nuts.”

“I don’t know.”

It irked me that he seemed disinterested. I’d thought little about anything but illness, death and fucking for a long time. I had wanked or fucked to forget about death every day since the spectre of death and illness had possessed me. Masturbation was my antidote to death. But Justin, he didn’t seem interested at all, he hardly gave her a glance, while I was fascinated, I was shocked, I was moved. I’d seen her underwear, and I felt a lurid bond with her, I needed her. I was frantic, doggish, I saw the image of her knickers in Justin’s face.

“Why don’t you go in and ask?” Justin laughed. But I was serious. What I had seen was serious. His nonchalance was an affront to my sexuality, my normality. He made me feel abnormal.

The shot of her clothed snatch I saved, I gave it precedence in the dormitory of my memories. The next morning in the shower I fantasized about fucking the betel nut seller. It was a working class wank, a stoic fuck, a teeth grinder, hard but not creative in the least, means to an end sex. I walk past the shop and she flashes me. I go inside and ask for directions, but she knows what I am up to. She smiles and tells me she ‘No speak English’. I notice a back door and when I look at her meaningfully she gesticulates as if to say, ‘do you want to go in?’ She shuts up shop and pulls the blinds over the window (blinds were an addition) and we go inside the darkened room where there’s an old barber’s chair. She bends over it, hikes up her skirt and invites me to rip down her underwear. We can’t fuck though. I don’t have any condoms, and they don’t provide them, so she just sucks me off. I come in her mouth and go back to the hotel.

Teaching the kids after wanking in the shower over a betel nut girl seemed wrong, and I couldn’t help but feeling poisonous all day. I left a trail of sleaze behind me when I walked into the classroom, like a slug, my intentions were marked with my secretion, I was obvious. I felt sure the kids knew I’d done something bad.

Over the 10 days on the camp I formed a relationship with my class I had thought not possible during the first few days. I felt revivified out of my depth, lowering myself to chicken dance routines and silly songs. A metamorphosis was taking place, I had conquered melancholy, I was getting over death. I was being reborn. When I had them sing Radiohead’s Karma Police as their final presentation for the whole camp and the parents – that had come to pick up the kids – I almost cried.

“This is what you get, this is what you get, when you messssss with us,” was haunting, as children’s voices often are. It was sublime. They transformed the song, denuding it of fear, rendering it a parody of fear. They weren’t interested it its meaning, only the melody, and in the melody, there was levity. I’d always been possessed by the meaning.

There was nothing to fear.

I stopped worrying about bacteria. I felt certain I had been a hypochondriac. I’d been saved by an intervention, an intervention consisting of children. I thought about the future. I had missed the future.

The following camp was different. The students were older, 17, 18, and they weren’t keen on chicken dancing. Neither was I in front of nubile girls, so for most of the time we listened to music and played games with participles. One of my students had large breasts that I think she was only shallowly aware of, and thus she supplanted the betel nut girl as my masturbatory fantasy. Her tits pervaded my thoughts night and day. On the last night of the camp we had a camp fire. We were asked to perform the hokey pokey in a large circle around the fire. The teachers and students had to link hands, except each person had to crisscross their arms so you were holding the next but one person’s hand. As the students were all quite short, and as I had furtively positioned myself next to the girl with the large breasts; I was doing the hokey pokey whilst rubbing the girl’s boobs with my forearms. I am a reprobate, I thought, I am a disgrace to teaching, to language, to thought. But my faux scruples were powerless against my virility. And that’s what it’s all about, I agreed.

Justin and I were getting along well in our hardly verbose interactions. We smoked cigarettes, we drank the occasional beer together, but I knew from experience that allowing him into the murky world of my sexual fantasies would be a mistake. He seemed to be overcoming nothing, and was definitely unmoved by my regretful maneuvers into talking about emotions or critical analyses of the camp and its aggressively nice staff. This of course engaged me to judge myself, to hold myself in contempt. How could he be so unbothered by everything, I wondered? How could a man manage life without ever seemingly reproaching himself or others? If my life was an uphill battle, his was riding a constant plateau. I might have been envious had he not infused me with calm so often. I tried to see through a façade, but it seemed there was no façade to speak of, he was microscopically unchangeable, emitting, to my – always acute – senses, no intimations of falsity at all.

I was glad to see the back of that camp as I was beginning feel exhausted toiling with sexual ethics. For the next five days we had some dancing respite as a typhoon was about to hit Taipei, purportedly it would cause much destruction over Taiwan. I had never witnessed a typhoon, I envisioned cars tumbling down the street, dogs impaled on street signs and the young teachers crying into their cell phones. I was looking forward to it. But it never came, and I was disappointed. It was just a storm, a pathetic storm, replete with all the banal rumblings of a windy day in England. We drunk a lot of alcohol during our sequestration in the hotel throughout the typhoon, playing drinking games I had not played since I was in my early twenties. I was the oldest on the group by a few years.

Until Dave arrived.

Dave was Scottish. He was two years older than me. I knew on meeting him that he was volatile. The equilibrium I had begun to nurture quite fastidiously was at risk. The affinity we enjoyed was dangerous. He’d lived in New Zealand for the past seventeen years, which gave him a peculiar accent. He called everyone mate, and when he was referring to someone else he’d say, “Did you see old mate when you went to the shop?” He also used the word ‘cunt’ with abandon. “Faik oef yer c’nt, what kinda c’nt daz that?”  “Look c’nt, don’t tell me old mate’s smashing the TA.” Smashing was a term he used for fucking. He had obviously been appropriating the word ‘smash’ as a sexual term for a long time. He used it well. I thought it was amusing. It didn’t come as any surprise when he told me he’d been ostracized on his last camp for loudly vilifying one of the young female teachers in the canteen for eating fish when she was a proclaimed vegetarian. “The c’nt had ‘er own faiking veggie menu and then she eats faiking fish.” I could empathize with Dave for denouncing her. I too was suspicious of a vegetarian’s hierarchy of species.

After the redundant typhoon had passed about fifteen teachers were sent to work at the Boy’s Catholic school in Tainan, close to Taipei. We were told that the boys, aged twelve to fifteen, had already been studying English for quite some time and that their English language acumen was impressive. This was not true. When they did try and speak English it would only be to ask if we had an LP, which stood for Long Penis. “Teacher, teacher, you LP?” And the class would roar with laughter, I had no idea what they were talking about until my TA intrepidly informed me it meant well endowed. Taiwanese boys mythologized the western phallus. They were in awe of white men. They were sick with penis envy. At times they’d try and touch my LP. Whenever I wasn’t looking they’d sneak up behind me and try to grab my crotch. They would fondle each other, too, or mock sodomise each other over a desk. I surmised that seclusion from females at such a hormonally critical stage in life had made them much more sexually frustrated than I had been as a child. To stop unprovoked attacks and keep the boys in check Dave created the Elephant Game, whereby he would choose a particularly aggressive kid from his class and tightly wrap sticky tape around the boy’s upper arm and head while the arm was held aloft at the side of his face. As the boy struggled with his other arm to free himself it gave the impression his fastened arm was a trunk, the kids looked like elephants in distress. They screamed and cried too. It might have been cruel had the circumstances not demanded such avant-garde measures.

Perhaps I had milked my first camp, my feelings of contentment were dwindling. I was coming down. I felt guilty when I tried to make my new set of boys laugh, I understood the selfishness in my actions too well. These feelings of guilt alienated me, my insecurity repelled me and I think it repelled my students. Something was missing and I felt a strong urge to abandon all hopes of transformation. Strings I thought I’d severed were tugging on my feet, the spectacle I’d been showed itself in the toilet mirror when I went for a piss. The impulse to drink got the better of me and with each sip I felt I’d let myself down.

During most nights Dave, Justin, a Belgian man called George, and myself, would buy a few cans of Taiwanese beer and talk a lot about who we were and where we came from. We pressed our identities on each other until we were content the others grasped our character. George was dull, a man of forty-six, who evidently thought he was interesting. He tried hard to make us like him, but he was unsuccessful. His stories were exaggerated anecdotes, that lacked depth and emotional range. He hardly ever made eye contact because he lied so frequently. He’d sit down on the bed pulling on his smoke and watch the glow at the tip of his cigarette while lying to us about the things he’d done in his life. What was most unbearable about him was the fact that every time one of us tried to tell a story, he would cut in, requisitioning the airspace, and tell a story of his own, close to the other person’s, but better in some way, and thereby belittling the other story. Whatever we’d done, wherever we’d been, he’d excelled us. We survived his company by giving him the sobriquet ‘Top Trump’, or TT as he later became. After we’d given him this title it became a matter of comedy whenever he spoke, every time he trumped one of our stories, we smiled conspiratorially. One time I thought he might transgress with his trumping after Dave while drunk, told us a story.

When Dave was in his early twenties, he had been driving with his best friend and his girlfriend to a party, his girlfriend in the passenger seat and his mate in the back. He told us he was sober and not on any drugs; I didn’t doubt him at all. He said that after a momentary lapse of attention he had hit an oncoming car head on. In the other car there were five occupants, a family of three young boys and the parents. All of them died at the scene. His girlfriend’s legs were crushed, she would never use them again, and his friend died. Dave only incurred cosmetic injuries in what he said, ironically, must have been divine intervention.

“Look, yer can laugh mate,” he told me.

This response to my silence unnerved me.

He’d told us this story with an affectation of levity, as if it really didn’t concern him anymore. But I didn’t buy his nonchalance, and I felt sorry for him. I felt incredibly sorry for him.

“Mate, it was a long time ago.”

“So what happened to you?” I asked.

“Mate, I must be the luckiest cunt in the world the amount of shit that has happened to me and to still be alive. I lost my license of course, and they locked me up for a bit, too. But there was nothing to prove, I wasn’t on anything. A lawyer proved that the bend in the road might have turned the wheel of its own accord, if he had been close to the middle, and I was too, then we just hit and that was all. The fucking relatives of the family wanted blood though, and it wasn’t an easy time for me.”

“I bet it wasn’t.”

Top trump had walked in to catch half of this story. I hoped he wouldn’t attempt to trump Dave. He didn’t, I think because he couldn’t, and so he left the room.

“You see mate, that’s why I find it so fucking hard to take anything seriously. When I see people crying over stupid shit, like that girl on the last camp, ‘cos of that vegetarian thing, I just can’t feel anything. I mean, I can’t feel sympathy, I just felt angry that she was so fucking pathetic. When you’ve killed five people you didn’t know, your best friend, and more or less chopped off your girlfriend’s legs, then there’s nothing that gets to you. All I know is that I have been lucky, and that I have to enjoy my life.”

“It wasn’t your fault though, was it.”

“How the fuck do I know if it was my fault, I can’t remember a thing, I just don’t know what happened.”

I thought about how I might feel if that had happened to me, how I might deal with that. How, if it was me driving that car, I would unbuckle myself from the misery of it all. Just what kind of error do you have to make in this world so that you must devote all your life to suffering. Was sustained sadness just a self-indulgent fantasy anyway? Was it possible that nothing at all was exempt from insouciance? Could we move on from any transgression? Surely it was just a decision, to not succumb to your conscience. You could still be moral and not care. Guilt was not moral. Suffering shouldn’t be obligatory, it’s poison. Was that why Dave said I could laugh?

But I didn’t believe he was rehabilitated, I thought his levity – in spite of my musings – was an act. It was a crusade, a crusade that might vanquish his conscience. That’s what I thought. Dave was overwhelming, he had character, he was bullish, cruel, strong, foul-mouthed, funny and surprisingly – given his mode of verbal expression – sensitive and intelligent. He was wise, but I’m not sure that sat easily with him. When he laughed I laughed, he was infectious.

The boy’s school was Dave’s last camp, I still had one more to do. On the final day we organized to go to a club some miles out of Tainan. Justin knew a guy, apparently a speed addict, who would let us stay over at his place and maybe sort us out with some hash. We’d go to a club, drink, and stay the night at this guy’s house.

“I’m not doing any fucking speed,” I told Dave and Justin. They also had no intention of doing any speed, but we did feel like going out and getting wasted on booze and hash.

The speed addict was from England. He was called Darren. He’d been teaching at a primary school for a few years just outside of Tainan. It wasn’t actually speed he was addicted to, the speed I knew of anyway, it was crystal meth.

I knew Dave had been into drugs before we’d talked about drugs. There is a certain humility you notice in someone who has taken a lot of LSD, melancholy seems to perpetually hold sway over former smack heads, franticness infests anyone who has been heavily into amphetamines. Dave gave the impression of the latter kind of drug abuser. Though when he told me on the way to Darren’s house that he had been sectioned for two years, after the car crash, a result of psychosis brought on by crystal meth abuse, it was an addition to his story I hadn’t expected. “Two years in the nuthouse,” he said, laughing. It was a portentous laugh in the face of what I was now thinking might be my naivety. It seemed to me that he had waited until we were safely fastened on to this one way track to tell me about his years in the nuthouse.

The train pounded the rails beneath us, taking us into another night, and while Dave listened to his headphones I thought how peculiar it is that we brush passed people every day of our lives and never make a connection. Though sometimes you touch and a stranger might undo, transform, the itinerary of your life. This unpredictability can be galvanic, it should be enough salvation for any self-confessed trapped animal, though I couldn’t help think that there was something ominously deterministic about my odd journey towards Tainan with Justin and Dave. In a moment of clouded judgment I considered sharing my musings with Justin – who was sat with an almost cadaverous stiffness looking out of the window at nothing but blackness. I sat back in my seat and looked into the lights attached to the roof and tried in vain to blank my mind.

Darren told us after a short intermission that followed some introductions, “I can get a shit load of the stuff for about three thousand Taiwanese dollars. That’s about a hundred American.” Darren said he’d whacked up smack, but nothing at all came close to doing meth. Drugs had brought us all together I was sure, besides Justin that is, like most Canadians I had met, he had not ever been lost enough to take serious drugs seriously.

The decision to do meth was hardly cognitive, it was hardly agreed upon; we must have known we were going to do it as soon as we saw Darren’s works. We were moths to the fire, reckless, but harmonious, in tune with the only function we’d both ever really fully realized, the function to self destruct. I was aware this regression was not exactly conducive to my transition, but in that room I felt committed to a character I would surely never slip.  There we were, sitting on that delinquent bed, nestled against dirty cushions and the necessary equipment to destroy all equanimity, and we could barely restrain ourselves from laughing out loud at the sinisterly recognition that that was what we wanted, it was always what we had wanted. Butterflies trapped in the pits of our stomachs, uncoolly animated, talking about things that didn’t matter, the usual extraneous preambles before heavy drugs are abused.

Darren’s apartment reeked of addiction, it had been untidy no doubt for months, years; a stack of porn VCDs were laying around unaudaciously, mountainous ashtrays depicted a tawdry isolated history at the side of broken lighters, the stale smell of smoke clung to curtains that looked as though they’d been pulled shut for years. Darren was emaciated, he looked about as unwell as people can look and still be able to cook for themselves. He had a scar on his leg and some of the flesh was missing. He told me how before he had come to Taiwan he had been a beach bum in Cape Town and ridden fast motorbikes. His injury was the result of a crash. Another crash victim, I thought.

He was frenzied, jittery, outlandish, and loud in spurts. Around his eyes were dark charcoal rings, rings of sleepless nights that might have told you exactly how many years he’d been an addict if you’d have dared to go close enough to inspect them. He told me he was going back to Cape Town to “come off”. His jaw was mechanical, like the forks of a crane, when he spoke, it looked as though his cheeks might split and his skull would push through. I imagined he could hear his own jaw ache and grind like industrial machinery. He was hardly human.

“I whack up this shite now, I didn’t used to, but . . . I ‘ave a pipe if you want to smoke it. Whacking is a different buzz altogether though,” he informed us coquettishly, soliciting the idea of mainlining.

Justin had taken few drugs and seemed put off by the idea of watching us taking meth. He wanted some hash. The sight of hypodermic needles made him restless, it wasn’t his scene. He hadn’t known Darren was so heavily into meth. It actually turned out that he only knew Darren from a camp they’d done together in the past.

After a few cans of beer, which we drank while Darren was scoring more meth, we got out the pipe. It looked like something you might use in a chemistry experiment, glass tubes and a straw with a bong shaped end where the smoke settled. Dave took first hit and told me how to smoke it. “Don’t hold it in,” he said, “it’s fucking toxic.” The initial feeling was good, not too strong, which surprised me after Darren’s glorification of meth. I felt a subtle euphoria, probably hampered a little by the booze, which I considered more of an opiate high than a speed high.

Darren brought out his works when he returned with the gear.

He took a hit, then stood up, and his face reddened. He pouted, he rambled, then he froze. Exposing his mouth full of decaying teeth, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s it you fucker, oh fucking yes, oh shit lads, you have to try this.”

And that was it, he didn’t need any more rhetoric, we could see it worked. Dave, because of his past psychotic illness had told me he wasn’t going to shoot it. But that was before we stated drinking spirits, before Darren had explicitly, and somewhat orgasmically, acted out an impressive routine he had no doubt practiced many times to himself in front of his bathroom mirror.

“I only have one clean needle, you’ll have to share.”

All of us were high, except Justin, babbling about drugs and scoring and misadventures. Dave was up for it, I was too. “You don’t have AIDS, do you?” Dave asked. I told him the truth, “Maybe.” Justin said no way, he wasn’t going to do any.

You didn’t have to cook up the meth. It just dissolved in water, which I thought quite expedient. But it took a while to find my vein.

When you inject a drug you can almost feel it make its way through your body. It climbed though the network of my veins in my arm and into my head, then it fell through my body and into my stomach, and settled in my heart. I was very high, but it wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be. Dave and I breathed heavily as if we were preparing to spend a long time under water.

“So what’s it like, are you fucked or what, is that not the best fucking feeling you’ve ever had?” Darren asked us.

It was nothing new for Dave. We both agreed it was strong, yet we weren’t in that promised land that Darren had extolled. You could see he was disappointed. As high as he was, he was let down, crestfallen. This was his addiction, it had been his life for three years, so he wasn’t content with us feeling just alright.

“You’ll have to do a bit more to get to where I am,” Darren told us.

We had earlier dropped both hypodermics on the floor and now didn’t know which one was Darren’s and which one was ours.

“I’m not fucking risking sharing with you two,” Darren said and grinned, but he meant it.

“Fuck it,” Dave said, “there’s that hospital we passed down the road, I’ll just say my bird has diabetes. I’ve done it before.”

He left the house. I thought him quite courageous.

Darren kept asking me whether it was cool; wasn’t it the best fucking drug? I almost wanted to be wasted just to make him feel better. I understood his predicament, his loss of face.

No sooner had Dave left the house it seemed, magically, he was back again. Darren sorted out the gear. “A monster shot,” he said, “this’ll fuck you up. This’ll really fuck you up.”

My vision was already blurry but I was sure he’d put far more meth into this shot. I didn’t, of course, mind. I felt meth weathered already. What else could happen?

Surprisingly, Justin agreed to do a shot, but a smaller one than us. I think he’d just gotten bored watching us, and the drink may have relieved him of his anxiety, or ethics about which drugs are good and bad. He went first. I wondered why he just didn’t just smoke it.

He reeled away from us after the shot. He fell back, looking at us as if we were coconspirators. He wasn’t enjoying it.

“Fuck, what is this stuff, fuck fuck fuck.”

And then I went again, without falter, too impetuous to care about Justin’s expletives.

Darren was so high now he couldn’t find the vein. I could see clearly that he was missing, digging straight into my arm, then pulling out again, laughing, sneering even, and then going back in. He tried the other arm, missing again, sweat pouring off him, shaking. Blood ran down both my arms. But he got me eventually.

Dave went after me.

And that was it.

That was the transition. That’s what it took to fully implement the metamorphosis. I was a moth.

Immediately Dave and I stood erect, like pillars, but as if an anti-gravitational force were trying to pull us out of the ground. My breathing was erratic. Justin and Dave were the same, both of them stood next to Darren’s bed saying nothing, just focusing on their labored breathing. I clung to myself. I felt consciousness receding, the walls moved away, and I imagined that any second I’d be in total darkness. You’re going, you’re going, you’re going, this is it, this is it, this is it. The moth flying towards extinction, into the fire. I could barely see the others, they were blurred, quivering images.

“Feel your cock!” Dave shouted.

I felt it. It was hard, charged like it had never been before. As if my entire libido was all stacked in there, a lifetime’s virility, throbbing and pulsating, my parting gesture to temporality. I couldn’t let go of it. Drums were thumping in my head; and I was slipping, slipping out of that life I was living five minutes ago. I was going to die. I felt I would explode. My hands would split open, I’d bleed from my eyes, my cock would rip itself off and writhe madly on the ground like a loose electrical live wire. The death throes of the dismembered, the most important part of me, reluctant to give up its life.

Dave was biting the edge of the door. “Bite this, fucking hell, bite this.”

And I did. Getting my teeth into the side of the door was a slight relief and I almost thought I’d ejaculate in my pants. “Have you ever been this fucking high?”Dave said. His body was flushing itself of its liquid. He was dripping. We had to shout, above our own fears, above the internal decibels of our madness. “This is fucking insane,” Dave screamed, and I tried to look like I was having a good time for his sake. Blood had reached my hands now from the piercings in my arm that Darren had made. It looked like stigmata. Dave was saying something to me. I could hardly hear him, it was as if he were shouting into a strong wind.

“I can’t fucking speak mate, I am so fucked, I have never been this fucked. Is this right?”

Even though I was attached to that door, the perfect prop for the circumstance, it again came on stronger, exponentially, a force that I could not contend with, something more powerful than my body could deal with. It was a bad dream, a death scene, I saw swollen heads, popping veins, my heart thumped; I heard screaming, I heard crying. Dave laughed. I felt like someone was stamping on my chest.

Fear toppled any residual euphoria, pain outweighed any hope I’d had of ever enjoying the experience. I was wrecked, spastic, time wouldn’t save me I was sure. It would only get worse. Dave and I stripped to our underwear, I don’t know why. A headache eclipsed my heart beat, heart was now ancillary to brain. But it was more important than vision. The three of us kept hold of the door, intermittently sinking our teeth into it.

My headache became intensely painful. It almost brought me to the ground. Dave asked me to lie down on the bed, I’d feel better. But he was wrong, he couldn’t contemplate the pain I was feeling. I could not stay still with the drug rushing through my body as it was. I tried to kneel down but it made the pain worse. My face full of blood, threatening to bleed through my pores, I had to keep standing. Though in the midst of this anxiety and pain, a part of my brain, some mocking conduit of rationality, remained lucid. Talking to me as if it knew I were going to die. What have you done? You silly man. You shouldn’t have done that? I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it now…

My heart, my head, they had had it, it was closing time. I was overloaded. I put my hands in the air and this seemed to lessen the pain. I said to myself, You can’t fucking die here, you can’t finish now. Not in this house where no one cares.

It took all my strength not to pass out, to keep standing. I felt I had some control, at least enough not to die. If I tried hard, I might not submit to the darkness. Speechless, my hands out stretched to the ceiling, like an absolution seeker, moving slowly from bedroom to living room. I looked in a mirror. Dave took a photo, he seemed to be enjoying himself, in the way a schizophrenic laughs wildly at his own visions. And it was after about two hours, I am guessing, as time was hardly an issue that night, that Justin had some kind of a breakdown. I wanted to be taken to the hospital, but couldn’t bring myself to ask. We’d have probably been arrested, jailed or deported. I’d die, but I wouldn’t cause a fuss. But Justin could not take any more, he was done with us and the house.

I remember vaguely, him shouting. “What is this, what have you given me? You’ve got to get this shit out of me!”

Justin was always relaxed, phlegmatic. He seemed indifferent to other people’s noise, he seemed at ease with himself. It was as if he had just met his counter-character within himself. What could I do? I couldn’t even lower my arms for fear of aneurism. I couldn’t help him.

It was a phantasmagoria. Justin shouting for help, Dave bouncing around, biting doors, taking photos, me with my hands in the air, praying to a God I didn’t believe in to bring all of us down. Justin’s terrified face looking at me through the cacophony of mental noise. I couldn’t do anything for him.

I looked at my roommate, my smoke collaborator, my opiate and comfort blanket, he looked at my distraught expression and said, “Something is wrong, I’ve gotta go, I don’t know what is happening.” He looked disastrously sincere, he looked perfectly terrified. He ran out of the front door.

At the time Dave and I were too fucked to think about the reason he fled. Compassion was unfortunately unavailable to us that night.

 Later that morning I puked over Dave’s back, I didn’t feel it coming, vomit without warning. He looked at me, teeth clenched, his speech stammered. “Man, shit man, I think you just puked on my back.” He didn’t even wash it off, I don’t think he could wash it off.

“Sorry, I don’t know why I did that.”

We crawled around and made animal noises. Dave tried to change the music. I couldn’t even hold a CD when he asked me to. My hands wouldn’t clasp. The CD dropped on the floor and Dave smiled and said “You’ll be alright mate.”

Daylight arrived and the drug subsided a bit, I was still fearing death. But I could sit down and rest my arms. Finally I could lower my hands. We could talk again.

“What the fuck happened to Justin?”

“I don’t know, I think he freaked and went back to the hotel.”

Darren had been out at a disco, I thought he was in the apartment the whole time. He’d been away for hours and we hadn’t noticed.

“Fuck man,” Darren said when he returned, “I thought you were all gonna OD. That was some fucking shot.”

I feigned calm and timorously told him that everything was ok. He seemed to reject any notion that he might have been to blame for what had happened. “Fuck, you were gone, I mean totally fucking gone. Do you even remember?”

“Justin better not have done anything stupid and told someone what we’ve been doing,” Darren said.

“I doubt it,” I said. “he’s alright,” echoing Dave’s chilling earlier sentiment. I was beginning to feel bad about Justin.

Dave said he needed a shag and would try and find a hooker. I put on some porn in the living room as I thought it would take my mind off dying. I beat off while Dave and Darren attempted to use his computer. Later the three of us collectively tried to send an email to one of Dave’s friends. Between us we couldn’t manage it.

It always seems behind trauma and anguish there is some furtive joke ready to burst the gnarled bubble. Levity is always available to those brave enough to embrace it. I wasn’t brave enough. The sneaky wank, the five knuckle shuffle, one hand on cock, the other hand on heart, and why does it take three English teachers to send an email? But I didn’t find it amusing.

Dave asked me if I wanted to get a hooker, he would pay. A ruthless question to a man ready to die, I couldn’t believe he didn’t understand the gravity of my situation.

We left the house and got a taxi so Dave could try and find a brothel.

The taxi driver asked Dave where he came from. I thought he was only being prudent when he told the driver that we were tourists. We had being doing a Class A drug, punishable by a lot of prison time in Taiwan. When we arrived at the brothel, which looked more like someone’s garage, Dave turned to me and said, “Mate, I don’t like this, do you think this guy’s trying to fuck us up? Mate, what do you think?”

But I was too anxious to be paranoid and I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by ‘fuck us up’.

Dave told the taxi driver to take us back to the same area. I could tell, even in my deathly state, that he was seriously agitated. Every question asked by the taxi driver seemed to put him on edge. The driver asked if he knew the local western guy. Dave, now quite aggressively, maintained that we didn’t come from around here and were tourists on a trip to Keelung. In hindsight, we couldn’t have looked like tourists.

“There’s something going on here, mate, I don’t fucking like this at all.” His face, ingloriously candid, put me on edge too. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said and told the driver to take us to the station, not back to near Darren’s house.

We paid for the cab at the train station and bought the tickets for Tainan. As we had to wait a while for the train I told him I needed to go to a pharmacy, I thought if I could get some Inderal and Valium I might slow down my heart rate and quell the anxiety.

“You can’t fucking go to a chemist,” he told me angrily. “No fucking way. They’ll know what we’ve been doing.”

“Will they fuck…Who’s they anyway?”

“You’re not going.”

“Dave” I whined, “I need some fucking Valium and beta blockers, I’m gonna have a heart attack.

“Your heart’s alright mate, you’re just freaking. Look, I don’t know if I’m freaking, but I think we’re being followed. If you go to a chemist and buy Valium, we’re fucked mate, you’ll be alright.”

“Are we fuck being followed… we don’t have any gear on us anyway.”

“Mate, they can test our blood, you can still get locked up for that.”

Dave’s fiction rivalled my own. I believed mine. I could not suspend belief enough to be concerned about his. He kept turning to me and nervously singing lines of popular songs. “Do you know this one?” He’d sing an oldie. I knew it, but didn’t answer him. I just held onto my chest, intimidated by the people around me, intimidated by my body. “What about this one? Mate, what about this one?” And he kept on singing. The station was full of Taiwanese. This was the end of my world and Dave was making it difficult. “Look mate I’m sorry, but I have to ask you, what about this one?” He sang more songs until the train arrived.

On the train Dave sat next to a girl and I had to stand. It really took all my energy not to just allow myself to collapse. As we set off a voice in my head asked, What are you gonna do if it happens here on the train, and you can’t get off? The sound of the chugging engine repeating those words.  You can’t get off, you can’t get off, you can’t get off.

 

Dave talked to a girl sitting next to him while I wobbled on my feet trying not to fall on the old man below me, who I was sure knew I was fucked up, knew I was dying, knew I would fall.

As we walked out from the station, Dave quickened his pace to almost a run, and I couldn’t keep up with him. “Come on man, come on.”

“What the fuck, slow down.”

He turned to me, his sunglasses black and bulbous like the eyes of a reptile. “That fucking girl on the train said she was from Keelung, I told the driver we were from Keelung, she was one of them!”

I didn’t bother to try and argue with him. His paranoia was selfish and absurd. I’d be better on my own.

I slipped into a chemist and Dave said as I entered, “Look man, if they see you buying pills we’re fucked.”

I stood in the doorway and told him, “Dave, I need some pills.”

He went.

I found some beta blockers and some elbow supports for my bruised arms. At first the chemist wouldn’t sell me Valium until I told him I was having a panic attack. My eyes must have been extremely dilated. All this took an Olympic effort. My arms were black and blue, so around the corner I took off my jacket and put on the elbow supports.

At the hotel I took two Inderal and a Valium and tried, in vain, to sleep. Justin’s clothes and backpack had not been moved.

I couldn’t sleep. For two days I lay in that bed hallucinating. When I closed my eyes, sometimes I saw monochrome scenes where human figures moved around ominously, at times their faces moving right up to the lens of my mental vision. When the Valium wore off and I again started to panic my mind filled with colours, kaleidoscopic explosions went off under my eye lids until I took another pill. Electronic music and drum machines played relentlessly, auditory hallucinations that I tried hard to ignore. When I opened my eyes during some hallucinations the room was alive with my thoughts, luminous bugs zipped through the air, clouds of colours formed above me and then burst falling down to my face like electronic rain. Insects hatched in the corners of the room, they melded with the flowers I also saw, then the flowers wrinkled and died and the insects dissolved into the darkness. A constant dance of life and death took place internally and externally, the consummate nightmare, one that exists in both worlds. Formation and destruction, panic and its constant rebirth, in Technicolor. And the depressive site of Justin’s belongings, unmoved, bitter, things I dare not touch. I was petrified, but I felt I deserved it.

Justin didn’t collect his things. When I left the hotel I put his bags in the lobby. I never did hear from him again, but I also never heard anything about him again, and so I believed he had survived his ordeal but maybe thought better of trying to get in touch.

I was sent to work at another hotel to teach the staff this time. I had to wear a long-sleeved shirt to hide all the bruises on my arms. The elbow supports looked conspicuous. Darren must have missed my veins a number of times. The whole week I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting for something to happen. I made sure to take Inderal before every class.

You can’t properly articulate a panic attack, it’s unfathomable, it’s ineffable. Anxiety grows like bacteria, it takes refuge in the ducts of your mind and evolves there until it becomes part of your reality. Until it is so adept at imperceptibly infiltrating your thoughts you don’t know what is real and what is unreal. And it keeps evolving, never allowing its host an unequivocal detection.

A liquid trickled out of my right ear one night during the last camp. I lay in bed and rubbed my fingers against my cheek as the liquid ran down my face, warm and oily. Had a part of my brain liquefied? Had I been under so much mental pressure that a valve had punctured in my ear? Was it blood? I was too scared to look. When I awoke in the morning there was no stain or colouration on my face.

I bumped into another teacher who had worked on the previous camp and he told me what had happened to Dave. According to the teacher, who like all the others, didn’t know anything about that night of meth, Dave had invited Top Trump into his room and then locked him in. Top Trump later told the teachers how he thought Dave had gone mad. He said that Dave had told him he thought the mirrors in the bathroom were two-way and ordered him not to go into the bathroom. In the morning, someone knocked at the door. It was a Taiwanese guy who had got the wrong room. Top Trump, having been told to open the door, saw his chance and ran. Dave left the hotel shortly after with all his bags. When asked where he was going he said the airport. The teacher asked me if I knew what had happened. Why was Dave suddenly psychotic? He used the word ‘psychotic’ figuratively, which should have been amusing. What had happened to Justin, he asked. I said I didn’t know.

The chicken dances, the kids, the chants. I felt it had been a long time since that first camp, but it had only been a few weeks. I had transformed, but how trite had my transformation been in the end. To escape myself I had only tunneled further into myself, my metamorphosis had gone full cycle. From the ruthless fire I had awoken bruised and demented. What had I gained from that?

Since that night in Tainan I have found it hard to concentrate. I forget peoples’ names. During conversation I sometimes find my mind blank midway through, not knowing what I am supposed to say. I have been to a hospital and my blood pressure is normal. My pulse is normal. I know there could easily be a mutiny in my body, but a mutiny requires a leader. Anxiety, I know, is plotting against me, evolving, preparing to subjugate me.

But I am evolving too. I think of Dave and his car crash, and I try to remember that there must be something amusing even in the most brutal of circumstances. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel able to commit to the future. Now I know why he told me the night in the hotel that I could laugh.

I’m not prepared just yet to relinquish fear. I don’t have the confidence to be comfortable. I am reborn, but like all children, I am struggling to cope with the world. I am alive.

Dave was alive. I received an email from him. He told me that having been searched that day at the airport – another comedic moment of insanity – he spent a week in Japan recovering. He wrote that on arrival in Japan he still thought that the Taiwanese were following him. Only after a few weeks did he feel he could safely leave his guesthouse. Still, he said, by no means did he feel fully recovered.

In the last part of a messy email he wrote: “Mate, was that fucking bad or what? My fucking psychosis all over again… and made in Taiwan too!” referring to a conversation we’d had one night on how all the toys we’d had as kids were made in Taiwan and the fact they were always prone to breakage.

A few days ago I went for a bicycle ride through the mountains. I rode too far and realized as I saw the sun, that was grapefruit red, dipping behind the mountain in the distance, that I might not make it back with enough light. As soon as the sun fell behind the horizon I’d be swallowed by night. I asked myself if I had the opportunity to erase Taiwan from my memory would I do so. It was slowly getting darker as I contemplated this question. And even when darkness was complete, and I was cycling blindly down a road I hardly knew, I was glad that my answer was ‘no’. I peddled on not knowing where I was going.

©James Austin Farrell 2006

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