Duong says that i have the legs of a ninety year old.I’m forty six. “Why everything hurt”? she asks as her vice like hands force my skinny white, non supple limbs, into positions that they were never meant to be put into. “I think you take lady too much” she accuses. I whimper and groan and moan and plead, “please be careful” as i lie on my back and she holds my leg straight and pushes it back as far as it will go, which is to about forty five degrees before i feel it will snap like a twig. “Okay okay i know what i do” she assures me before clamping off the blood supply to both of my legs from the top under her, not inconsiderable,weight. “I want to go home” i joke as she pins me to the bed,she laughs her wheezy smokers laugh before releasing the blood back into my legs which flows with a warm tingle all the way back down to my toes.
Duong is the wrong side of forty nine, overweight, smokes too much, drinks large bottles of Chang Beer whenever the opportunity, or money, arises, is as lazy as they come and keeps a soi dog called Yaap. But despite my lame protest of pain i know that she gives the best massage i’ve ever found in Bangkok, if a massage is what you’re after. There are no happy endings, just a bowl of Mama soup and a bottle of Chang Beer.
If she’s paid the bill and her phone has’nt been cut off, again, i call and tell her i’m on my way. Skytrain to the end of the line and a motorbike taxi to the edge of the map way down On Nut si sip si. She lives in a little ramshackle one storey wooden house that in the swamplands of Louisiana would be called a shack. It creaks with every step you take across its worn looking floorboards, holds the heat like a furnace, and sits over lifeless looking green water that i assume was once a lake, or pond, before it was filled in to make way for more homes and roads.
A broken looking walkway leads from the little soi across the water to the verandah. I always feel a sense of relief to have made it over without falling through, or off,the thing. Yaap the dog usually meets me about halfway across just to add an extra hazzard to the crossing. This mutt is so excited to see me it barks and yelps and growls for attention while trying to jump all over me so that i’m forced to hold the scabby mongrel off until it calms down.
Farangs are few and far between in this particular corner of Bangkok, but i’m a known face down that way now.I always enquire about the neighbours as the Grim Reaper usually seems to have paid a visit to someone while i’ve been away. Illness, accident, suicide, or old age will have taken somebody. Or they just disappear in the night with gambling debts and no money to pay the rent. Duong herself will always scrape the money together from somewhere for the lottery “tai din”. (underground lottery) Alcohol finally took the poor old boy next door, though he probably was’nt as old as he looked. Duong would tell me how he’d just get pissed all day while his wife was out at work. Some days she’d get home and beat the crap out of him for wasting money, that she’d earned, on whisky. Occasionaly she’d then have to take him to the local clinic and pay out more money to treat injuries that she’d inflicted on him. We laughed so much when Duong told me this sorry tale. It was funny at the time but i feel bad about it now having slipped a twenty, or a fifty, into his trembling hands now and again if he asked.
I first met Duong at the Beer Garden when it was still just a place you knew about by word of mouth. I love it now, in its new barn like incarnation, but i loved it more back then when it was hidden away down a shadowy looking Soi 7. A lot smaller the place had a sort of thatched roof over it, which just about kept the rain off if it was’nt windy and you sat close enough to the bar. A parrot would sometimes go into a mad squawking fit in the corner,until one of the girls would throw ice cubes at its cage to shut it up. (beer mats there still feature the parrot) There were fewer girls then and they were less forceful than they are today. But the same girls would be there each night so that you got to know them whether you took them out or just stayed for a few drinks. Many a pleasant night was spent slowly sinking into the bar. But the one thing that the place has never got right, in my opinion, is the music. Though i don’t suppose you go there to listen to the music it does help to set the mood. It’s bad enough now but when i first found the place it was almost all German/Barvarian drinking style music, all accordians and lederhosen. It was awful. Annoyingly i’d suddenly discover that my foot would be tapping along to it without me knowing. Then, bizarrely, in amongst all of this thigh slapping Alpine goat herders stuff Englebert Humperdink would start singing Please Release Me. This was in the late eighties. I can just about remember my Gran buying the record when it first came out in about 1968, i think. Comfortably slumped at the bar with several girls Englebert would sing and somehow it just seemed so right. I don’t know why. Yet how could i ever explain, or admit, to anyone that Englebert Humperdink actually sounded quite good in The Beer Garden. They were wonderful happy nights and i must confess that if ever i hear Please Release Me i’m close to wiping away a tear as i remember those lost, and slightly more innocent, nights.
It used to be more of a trek to get to Duong’s place in the days before skytrain. I had to go with her several times before i could find it on my own. Sometimes i’d stay over. Geckoes chattered in the darkness and there would be the slightly unnerving sound of something gnawing away at the house between the walls. “When you find someone to marry with me”? she would ask then, as she does now, wanting a rich old farang who’s about to depart this world for the next, leaving everything to her. She gave up The Beer Garden about twenty kilos ago. I have no idea how she survives apart from the occasional massage at a place nearby if she gets a call to go in. Other than that she does nothing but sleep, watch tv, drink Chang Beer and chat with the neighbours. She shows me tattered fading photographs of snowy scenes in Japan from when she worked there a lifetime ago, and of young smiling faces at a flower market in Holland where she once spent some time, and of a sister who long ago left for America after marrying a G.I based in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
Late afternoon and a fan pushes the warm air around.Sometimes i fall asleep and Duong just leaves me to it as she smokes another cigarette out on the verandah.If the phone has been cut off i give her money for that, as well as the massage, and i’ll say “get it put back on tomorrow”, and she’ll always say “okay”, before adding”if i have time”.
Near dusk and we walk to the end of the soi for a couple of beers and to sit and watch the world go by at the busy little junction there. A nearby market has come to life,street vendors are cooking and the last of the sunlight fillters through the smoky air. “When you marry with me?” Duong asks, as she always does, and i say “Duong, i might have the legs of a ninety year old but i’m not about to drop dead just yet.