The alarm went off at ten minutes to six in the morning. It was mild out and the sun shining and out the landing window I could see Waan sitting at the garden table talking on the mobile and smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee all at the same time and just like she always does every morning before getting ready to go to work. It must be a knack, she isn't possessed of three upper limbs, she isn't Jake the Peg or some mysterious Barnum's spectacle, but she can juggle a mobile phone, cigarette, and coffee mug. I stared through the window knowing something wasn't right but couldn't figure out what it was. I leaned against the glass and could see something I have rarely witnessed. She was crying. And that wasn't all, my step-daughter was outside with her. She is fifteen, she never gets out of bed before eight, and here she was in her pyjamas talking to her mum. I went downstairs to ask. I didn't want to, but I'm the man of the house, and if something is wrong it is my job to fix it for them. I entered the kitchen at the same time as our daughter came back into the house from the yard and she was crying uncontrollably. I held my arms around her as she sobbed into my fresh work shirt and whispered "What's the matter baby?"
"Mae papa, he is dead, you understand me Rish?" she asked. This was the worst news I could ever have heard and tears filled my eyes. Not out of sadness or for my loss, but because two women who I love dearly had had their world shattered, and it showed. Waan stepped through the back door and I enquired of her father. She nodded her head and the tears rolled down her cheeks. "When is the funeral?"
"Sunday", she replied. My heart sank, we were never going to make it, at best we could get there for Monday. I wasn't going to let that stop us because a Buddhist funeral lasts four days. But we weren't going to make it in time to send his spirit on his way.
I sat at the computer and opened up an Internet Explorer with an ache in my throat and a desire to cry like a child at the despair and stupid ideas rolling across my mind of quicker ways to get to Thailand. But there isn't a quicker way than scheduled flights and this is the busiest time of the year for airlines. I typed 'cheap flight to thailand' into google and top of the list was the usual bunch of miscreants. Maybe that is a harsh criticism of eBookers and Opodo but I resent them charging me £30 for using my Visa card. I mean, what is that charge for? It costs the agent £5 to credit check your card and get a varification number from the card issuer and they are making the transaction not me. I have used them both several times so there is no need to keep checking and it has been two years since the charge was outlawed by the banks. But today I will pay whatever is needed and nothing is going to distract me from getting these two girls home. I did a search for flights the next day +/- 1 day and a surreal moment of impossibility swooned from the display. There it was in a world of disbelief that scared me to not want to click the link in case it was an error. There was a flight today with Etihad at 2.30pm, with three remaining seats at a cost of £430 each.
I booked it without hesitation certain in the knowledge that if I did a comparison the availability would be lost and besides, it was close to £200 cheaper than the regular ticket. And so began an epic Phileas Fogg journey of Hollywood timing. Kate McAllister desperate to get home to Kevin. A Jack Bauer journey where we all know in the real world it takes 24 hours to cross New York State and the mobile doesn't work half the time. It works in the movies, but it doesn't work in real time.
I googled again for a taxi to get us from my sisters house where we always leave our car that is only four miles from terminal four and jotted down a couple of numbers then checked my BlackBerry for any appointments that we were going to miss. Horror struck me when I realised Waan had an eye appointment the next day that held a fifty pound deposit. She's not bothered about laser eye surgery anyway but we had to give them 48 hours notice of cancellation. I called them and explained and to my meagre delight they were very helpful and understanding and rebooked it for two months later. I called Waan's boss but got her voicemail and called the daughter's school but got an answering machine. Everywhere I was leaving messages. I had half a dozen other work related appointments that I felt only I could deal with. Some angry clients was an inevitability but what choice could I make? Your family comes first.
We had five hours to get to Heathrow and I hadn't yet obtained a means of getting from Wraysbury to the airport. I'll be honest, I didn't even think we'd make the flight but I was going to give it a shot. I emailed work from my BlackBerry that I wasn't going to be in for three weeks and yelled at the girls to start packing. It was by now seven thirty a.m. and we had to be at the airport for 12.30pm. We needed money and the bank wouldn't be open till 9.30 but the missus was already banging around in the cellar and cleaning the mould off the cases. We were fighting over the shower and confused about which toothbrush to take and in the skirmish I forgot my chargers for my shaver and toothbrush. We also forgot the insect repellant and I had to pack twice because I put in jeans instead of shorts and tee shirts instead of vests. And then I had to pack again because I forgot a white shirt and black suit but in the main we had what we needed and were outside the bank waiting for it to open at 9.30am.
The bank was outstanding in its willingness to be helpful in our hour of need. "How much can we withdraw over the counter without warning?"
Two thousand pounds was the reply. I explained our predicament that we were leaving for Thailand in five hours time and asked for some assistance because two thousand was not going to be enough. The answer was 'No'. Is there any way round it, I asked. You can come in Monday and get another two thousand was the incredulous reply. You were listening then weren't you, considering I had just told you we were leaving for Thailand in five hours time, or did you think I could perhaps pop back on Monday?
Having been at the counter for twenty minutes and no sign of the branch manager who could hopefully overrule the cashier we conceded, "Ok give us two thousand please".
"I haven't got that much in my till", she replied.
If you are reading this please know I couldn't put into words how stressed you made us both but you have probably shortened my life by several weeks.
She suggested we go to another branch not far away, which we did, and which started the same stupid rigmarole all over again until I caved in and told the cashier we will use ATM's to top up our cash requirement while in Thailand. It took about three days in her version of 'real time for the eclectic cashier' to count £2000 and then she asked me to check it before leaving. In my normal state of mind I would like to have given her a black eye, not that you would, but often we regret not doing or saying something. But retrospectively I only had one thought. Unknowingly, I was concentrating on getting there, and looking back on it, I was focused. I didn't want to take my eye off the ball. But this wasn't me being all controlled and cool geezer. Far from it, we were so stressed that my girlfriend stuffed the banded notes into her handbag and without any polite salutation we ran through the door like Bonnie and Clyde and back to the car where I jumped in, started the engine, signalled and put it into gear in one smooth motion to make any Le Mans entrant proud as I set off down the High Street at a rip-roaring 4 miles an hour behind the single decker bus that now has to come this way because some idiot at the town planning decided we need a new multi-million pound bus depot and not some play areas or reasonably priced nurseries for kids. They demolished the bus depot to build a Tesco that no one wanted and then realised they had nowhere to build the new depot because Tesco owned the land they had intended to use. So they are building a new depot in the exact same inappropriate location. Welcome to Dudley council. My greatest ambition is to one day say goodbye to the den of iniquity that is Dudley MBC.
My watch said 10.00 exactly as we left the ring road and when we got onto the feeder road for the M5 I got the missus to type the phone number of the taxi service into my BB (read into that what you will but a Internet Police Officer might read this). 'Oh shit' was the thought that ran through my head when the bloke who answered said they were a chauffeured limousine service. But he also gave me a number to try. I can't thank you enough whoever you were because I called LHR Express Cars on 01895 444333 and they said no problem, they would be there at 11.45, not that I was confident I was going to. Yes that sounds like an advert but seriously, I will use them every time from now on.
I had to get Waan to read out my appointments that I was going to miss and I dictated emails, well sort of anyway, with solutions to various problems that I was leaving behind. Then the emails started to come in to the sound of a bicycle bell. One after another, kerching, kerching, and each of them saying the same thing, their sympathies to Waan and her daughter and yes they can cover work, just go and do what has to be done. At times like these you appreciate your employer. They could easily have said no, then what would I have done I wonder. Then another kerching and this time from Waan's boss who said take all the time you need, just message me when you are back. Of course I didn't break the speed limit any more than I was typing emails while driving down the M40 but it isn't quite as far as I'd always thought. At 18 minutes to twelve we parked the car on the driveway. My nephews car was there, which I thought odd, but it meant I had a back up if the taxi let me down. It was the same old, same old as the 'head of security' as my sister likes to call her came rushing to the door barking semi-meaningly at the key going into the lock and turning the handle.
My nephew staggered out of his bedroom door like a teenager who'd been on the lash last night. He is neither but works anti-social hours and looked like he hadn't had a great deal of sleep. I told him not to worry, we were off to Thailand and could he tell his mum we wouldn't be back for our mum's 75th birthday. A thought that tore through me and straight to my heart. And we didn't need a lift because we had a taxi coming so he could go back to bed. He was so exhausted he merely waved and went back to bed. But at 14 minutes to there was no sign of the taxi and the panic was fast arriving. I suggested we wait outside and I'll call the taxi office again. But outside was an immaculate Mercedes and a driver wearing a dark suit and peaked cap. This I expected to come at a price but I was way beyond caring. I was just glad he was here.
He asked which terminal and didn't speak again as he drove us there. Thirteen pounds was the charge. A black cab is eighty pounds, yes you read that right, it is £20 per mile in a black cab outside of the metropolitan borough. And it is a closed shop, mini-cabs are banned from Heathrow. And this private hire limo was £13. I asked him for his card so I could book the return journey. The really annoying thing is that the Police do not apply the rules correctly. A cab can pick you up if it is pre-booked. But when they turn up at the departures landing, because they are not allowed in arrivals at all, they are invariably moved on and or banned from the airport while looking for you because they are classed as touting. Heathrow is plagued with taxi touts and you should never use one but something needs to be done about the closed shop rip-off advantage taking of tourists arriving in Britain. And me come to that.
We checked in and went to the duty free with an hour to spare and I looked at our flight schedule for the first time. I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips with an 'oh well' at the 7.30hr layover in Abu Dhabi. The arrival time in Bangkok was 18.05 on Saturday and I went looking for an Internet terminal to check flights to Udon Thani. Of course at Heathrow they wouldn't have such a useful feature and if they did they would charge £30 per second for it. I was kicking myself for not asking the check-in girl but I emailed my old pal Bleakopeth in Bangkok to let him know we were on our way and I'll come for a beer or two and by the way can you check out flights to Udon while we ate a full English breakfast, Waan's favourite not mine, at the American style diner with a London street name. When you have been awake seven hours and not eaten yet it tastes a lot better than it really is. The last flight to Udon was 18.10
The seven hour flight to Abu Dhabi felt like an eternity. Etihad are pretty good at entertainment and refreshments but our minds were elsewhere and it wasn't pleasant being so possessed of self-pity. I kept looking at the girls trying to relax but their eyes were red raw and had a glazed look that had replaced the tears. We arrived in UAE with aching backs and could find no respite on the uncomfortable hard back chairs in the waiting areas. After a couple of hours Waan wanted a cigarette but didn't want to go to the lounge on her own. I hate the smell of cigarettes and ash but she needed me now more than she ever did so I went with her. The airport was between flights and close to deserted. Little did I know the next flight in would be the second from Heathrow and had we booked that one there would only have been a one hour layover. But this deriliction meant we had the smoke room to ourselves. You know the really wierd thing is how soft and comfortable the benches are in the smoke room. And it is ventilated and air conditioned unlike the non-smokers lounge with hard chairs and unwelcoming eateries. I stretched out on one of the soft benches and went to sleep.
The second flight was six and a half hours and most of it was spent discussing tactics on arrival at Suvarnabhumi. We agreed we would stay at our usual haunt of Thong Ta Resort on Lat Krabang Road but that only meant the missus could extend the discussion. What, you think that doesn't make sense? You must be single. We have stayed at Thong Ta many times and though it is a bit tired it is clean and comfortable and you know what you are getting and there wasn't really anything to discuss. But she needed to talk, she needed to be productive, she needed to feel like she was in control. So on arrival we followed her commands and went straight to the Thai Airways booking desk and bought three tickets for the first flight on Sunday morning at 10.05am. Waan rang her brother-in-law and asked him to meet us at 11.00am at Udon airport as we made our way to the taxi rank. As she spoke to my friend and brother-in-law Lert we could hear the chanting in the background of the mourners who made ready for Pa Jon's cremation the next day at 12.30pm.
Waan suggested we stay at the airport hotel. We walked, and walked. At a guess it is about half a mile through underground tunnels. When we finally got to the hotel the escalator was broken and there is three flights of stairs to the reception. Novotel - you are rubbish. No good in England and no good in Thailand. Nobody in their right mind would stay in a hotel that is geared toward an airport but provides no assistance or service for anyone arriving by airplane. And we didn't.
We made our way back to the taxi rank and got a cab straight away. The taxi driver was really helpful and suggested another hotel that was very close to the airport and I was so knackered and in need of a shower I wasn't bothered so we went with his notion. The hotel turned out to be rank. It smelled of damp and the shower didn't work, nor the aircon and there wasn't enough towels. I went to reception and asked for more towels but was told we were only allowed one each. I pointed out that I am a big fat farang and need a bit more than a face cloth. So she gave me one more and said that was all and she was doing me a big favour. Well you did do me a favour darlin, you won't see our patronage again. Meanwhile I got it in the neck for not going to Thong Ta. I don't know if this flea-pit was called Grande Inn or Plai Boutique or something but if your hotel is near the airport don't bother, they're all rubbish except for Thong Ta or you have to travel out a bit and pay a bit more to somewhere like the Best Western Amaranth.
Three weeks ago I had commented to Waan how much I missed egg on toast for breakfast in Thai hotels. If you ask ex-pats what they miss most they will often say 'bread'. Thai bread has a sweetener in it and as a result, it is edible, but dip it in soup and it is awful. Asking Thailand to stop putting sugar in their bread would be like asking Lyons to stop putting milk in tea. It isn't wrong, it is the wrong expectation. In Thailand bread is a sweet, as in pudding, they put ice cream in it and a favourite is candy floss. I agree it is a little odd but then so is putting it in a toaster and putting a fried egg on it. But of all the hapless breakfasts you could be offered in Thailand, egg on toast is the most palatable, amongst which usually is smoked sausage, cured ham (of the pork variety), and a large helping of tomato ketchup. A real Thai breakfast would be rice soup or fish soup and the western version is better suited to the American and German palette.
Unperturbed the following morning we went down with our bags ready to go and us dressed to attend a funeral, for breakfast, which managed to live up to all expectations and the totally uninterested waitress was baffled by the request for two egg on toast. Surprise, surprise I was only allowed one egg so I offered to pay for the other baffling her further. "We don' cell brekfat, ony for guess" to which I suggested I should have paid for two rooms. If that wasn't bad enough I was facing a table with an old, fat, farang with bright red skin and bald head lecturing a bar girl about how farang get fed up with Thai always wanting money, money, money as he described in detail how he knew all about Thailand and money, money, money in that stupid accent that takes over every sex tourist who thinks he can speak Thai by mimicking Fu Man Chu. He kept on, and on, and I said to Waan loudly in Thai that the fat sex tourist is talking through the vagina in the top of his head. The bargirl flinched and as usual the missus was furious with me. Thailand has something for everyone and sex is on the agenda but I despise people like him. He saves up his pension, has barely enough to pay for his holiday and will pay the bargirls the bare minimum and moan about it, he will check every bill and wont buy anything from the markets or street traders. He inputs nothing into the Thai tourism economy and exploits the prostitution and truly believes everywhere in Thailand is just like Pattaya. If she is Thai she is yours for one thousand baht. I doubt that I am the only farang who has had a total stranger ask his partner for her phone number.
But I have no doubt this farang did not understand what I had said so I'm guessing him hearing me speak what would have sounded to him like fluent Thai was enough to make him shut up. And then we left. It was two hours too early for check-in but I hated this hotel so much I just wanted to leave.
We whipped through the arrivals and baggage claim of the ex-USAF airbase that is Udon International and there in the hall waiting for us was Waan's nephew Mint with his fathers Isuzu Warrior pickup truck in the car park. It was 11.30am and we still had a 45 minute drive to the village. No one spoke during the journey. We pulled up onto the driveway, or what was left of it with all the canopies and tables that were accomodating a couple of hundred mourners. We had no idea Pa Jon was so popular or so well known and I heard the speaker announce our arrival from England with a Laos style "Ah, here's the falang, it's very good that he came". We arrived with 20 minutes to spare.
48 hours of stressful travel raises the game in the adrenaline stakes. I could see it in my partners face. The relief of getting here and on time was just too much. She wasn't upset or even tearful, but I had never seen her look like this before as she said to me, "Look at all those people," as I strode up the bank to the patio, "I don't know my papa have so many friend."
Children of all ages were sitting on the floor watching videos of traditional Thai dancing and music on the TV that had been brought out of the lounge on an extension lead that trailed through the top light opening and through the angle iron beams of the porch canopy. Grown-ups were sitting on the rustic benches and a bamboo bedstead listening intently to the narration. Hundreds were sat at the 20 fold out picnic tables each with half a dozen plastic stackable garden chairs under the arch canopy style gazebos all borrowed from the temples in surrounding villages as they tucked into the food provided by the host family. And stood in the opening below the wide open roller-shutters was Mae bordering on smiling with joy at the sight of her distant family.
Priviledged? - You bet I am. She was glad to see me, and I her.