the first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Ko Sahn Road. The
Ko Sahn Road was backpacker land. Almost all of the buildings had been
converted to guest houses, there were long-distance telephone booths with
air-con, the cafes showed brand-new Hollywood films on video, and you
couldn't walk ten feet without passing a bootleg tape stall. The main
function of the street was as a decompression chamber for all those about
to leave Thailand; a halfway house between the East and the West.
I'd landed at Bangkok in the late afternoon, and by the time I got to
Ko Sahn it was dark. My taxi driver winked and told me that at one end of
the street was a police station, so I asked him to drop me off at the
other end. I wasn't planning on a crime, but I wanted to oblige his
conspiratorial charm. Not that it made much difference at which end one
stayed because the police obviously weren't active. I caught the smell of
grass as soon as I got out of the cab, and half the travelers weaving past
me were stoned.
The driver left me outside a guest house with an eating area open to the
street. As I studied it, checking the clientele to gauge what kind of
place it was, a thin man at the table nearest me leaned over and touched
my arm. I glanced down. He was, I guessed, one of those heroin hippies
that float around India and Thailand. He'd probably come to Asia ten
years ago and turned an occasional dabble into addiction. His skin was
old, though I'd have believed he was in his thirties. The way he was
looking at me, I had the feeling I was being sized up as someone to rip
"What?" I said warily.
He pulled an expression of surprise and held up the palms of his hands.
Then he curled his finger and thumb into the O-shaped perfection sign
and pointed into the guest house.
"It's a good place?"
I looked again at the people around the tables. They were mostly young
and friendly looking, some watching TV and some chattering over their
"Okay." I smiled at him in case he wasn't a heroin addict but just a
friendly mute. "I'm sold."
He returned the smile and turned back to the video screen.
Quarter of an hour later I was settling into a room that was a little
larger than a double bed. I can be accurate about it because there was a
double bed in the room, and on four sides there was a foot of space. My
bag could just slide into the gap.
One wall was concrete -- the side of the building. The others were Formica
and bare. They moved when I touched them. I had the feeling that if I
leaned against one it would fall over and maybe hit another, and all the
walls of the neighboring rooms would collapse like dominoes. Just short
of the ceiling, the walls stopped, and across the space was a strip of
mosquito netting. The netting almost upheld the illusion of being in a
confined, personal area, until I lay down on my bed. As soon as I
relaxed, I began to hear the cockroaches scuttling around in other rooms.
At my head end I had a French couple in their late teens -- a beautiful,
slim girl with a suitably handsome boy attached. They'd been leaving
their room as I got to mine and we exchanged nods as we passed in the
corridor. The other end was empty. Through the netting I could see that
the light was off, and anyway, if it had been occupied I would have heard
the person breathing. It was the last room on the corridor, so I presumed
it faced the street and had a window.
On the ceiling was a fan, strong enough on full setting to stir the air.
For a while I did nothing but lie on the bed and look up at it. It was
calming, following the revolutions, and with the mixture of heat and soft
breeze, I felt I could drift to sleep. That suited me. West to east is
the worst for jet lag, and I wanted to fall into the right sleeping
pattern on the first night.
I switched off the light. Enough of a warm glow from the corridor
outside came through for me to still see the fan. Soon I was asleep.
Once or twice I was aware of people in the corridor, and I thought I
heard the French couple coming back, then leaving again. But the noises
never woke me fully and I was always able to slip back into the dream I'd
been having before. Until I hard the man's footsteps. They had no rhythm
or weight and dragged on the floor.
A muttered stream of English swearwords floated into my room as he
jiggled the padlock on his door. Then there was a loud sigh, the lock
opened with a click, and his light came on. The mosquito netting cast a
patterned shadow on my ceiling.
Frowning, I looked at my watch. It was two in the morning -- late
afternoon, English time. I wondered if I might get back to sleep.
The man slumped onto his bed, giving the wall between us an alarming
shake. He coughed awhile, then I heard the crackle of a joint being
rolled. Soon there was blue smoke caught in the light, rolling through
Aside from the occasional deep exhalation, he was silent. I drifted back
to sleep, almost.
"Bitch," said a voice. I opened my eyes.
"Fucking bitch. We're both as good as ..."
The voice paused for a coughing fit.
I was wide awake now, so I sat up in bed.
"Cancer in the corals, blue water, my bitch. Fucking Christ, did me in,"
the man continued.
He had an accent but at first my sleep-fogged head couldn't place it.
"Bitch" he continued.
A Scottish accent. Beach.
There was a scrabbling sound on the wall. For a moment I thought he
might be trying to push it over, and I had a vision of myself being
sandwiched between the Formica board and the bed. Then his head appeared
through the mosquito netting, silhouetted, facing me.
"Hey," he said.
I didn't move. I was sure he couldn't see into my room.
"Hey. I know you're listening. In there, you know you're awake."
He lifted up a finger and gave the netting an exploratory poke. It popped
away from where it was stapled to the Formica. His head struck through.
A glowing red object sailed though the darkness, landing on the bed in
a little shower of sparks. The joint he'd been smoking. I grabbed it to
stop it from burning the sheets.
"Yeah," said the man, and laughed quietly. "Got you now. I saw you take
For a few seconds I couldn't get a handle on the situation. I kept
thinking -- what if I actually had been asleep? The sheets might have
caught fire. I might have burned to death. The panic flipped into anger,
but I suppressed it. The man was way too much of a random element for me
to lose my temper. I could still see only his head and that was backlit,
Holding up the joint, I asked, "Do you want this back?"
"You were listening," he replied, ignoring me. "Heard me talking about
"... You've got a loud voice."
"Tell me what you heard."
"I didn't hear anything."
"... Heard nothing?"
He paused for a moment, then pressed his face into the netting.
"No. I was asleep. You just woke me up ... when you threw this joint at
"You were listening," he hissed.
"I don't care if you don't believe me."
"I don't believe you."
Well ... I don't care ... Look." I stood on the bed so our heads were at the
same level, and held out the joint to the hole he'd made. "If you want
this, take it. All I want is to go to sleep."
As I lifted my hand he pulled back, moving out of the shadow. His face
was flat like a boxer's, the nose busted too many times to have any form,
and his lower jaw was too large for the top half of his skull. It would
have been threatening if not for the body it was attached to. The large
jaw tapered into a neck so thin it seemed incredible that it supported
his head, and his T-shirt hung slackly on coat hanger shoulders.
Past him I saw into his room. There was a window, as I'd assumed, but
he'd taped it up with pages from a newspaper. Apart from that it was bare.
His hand reached through the gap and plucked the butt from my fingers.
"Okay," I said, thinking I'd gained some kind of control. "Now leave me
"No," he replied flatly.
"Why not? What do you ... Do you want something?"
"Yep." He grinned. "I wants lots. And that's why" -- again he pushed his
face into the netting -- "I won't leave you alone."
But as soon as he said it he seemed to change his mind. He ducked out of
sight, obscured by the angle of the wall. I stayed standing for a couple
of seconds, confused but wanting to reinforce my authority -- like it
wasn't me stepping down, just him. Then I heard him relight his joint. I
let that make the end of it and lay back down on the bed.
Even after he'd switched his light off, twenty or so minutes later, I
still couldn't get back to sleep. I was too keyed up, too much stuff was
running through my head. Beaches and bitches, exhaustion; jumpy with
adrenaline. Perhaps, given an hour of silence, I might have relaxed, but
soon after the man's light went out the French couple came back to their
room and started having sex.
It was impossible, hearing their panting and feeling the vibrations of
their shifting bed, not to visualize them. The brief glimpse of the
girl's face I'd caught in the corridor was stuck in my head. An exquisite
face. Dark skin and dark hair, brown eyes. Full lips.
After they'd finished I had a powerful urge for a cigarette, empathy
maybe, but I stopped myself. I knew that if I did they'd hear me rustling
the packet or lighting the match. The illusion of their privacy would be
Instead I concentrated on lying as still as I could, for as long as I
could. It turned out I could do it for quite a long time.
Copyright 1997 by Alex Garland and Riverhead Books.
Reprinted here with permission. All rights reserved.