“Four Men in a Boat” by ‘Shipmate” – Chapter 5

5 CHAPTER FIVE (Thailand).

 (There but for the grace…).

The prison’s reputation was not unfounded and accordingly, in his judgment, it was probably the most frightening experience he had ever had in his life.  The immediate lack of communication left him with a fearful dread of the future and the total incomprehension of how he came to be incarcerated in one of the world’s most notorious jails.  Nobody knew where he was and he certainly had little idea either but was quite sure that to his custodians, his welfare was the last thing that they would be concerned about.

A solitary naked bulb dimly illuminated the surrounds.  Total darkness may have been preferable to the wretched scene about him, strewn with ragged and pitiful bodies of indeterminate gender.

No furniture of any kind.  No Bunks, no beds, no tables or chairs.  Just thick rusted iron bars and dividing stonewalls containing double locked doors.  The lack of windows of any kind was oppressive and the vile smell of sweat from unwashed bodies added to the stench of sewage that lay thick in the sparse air.

He closed his eyes and thought back to his most recent recollection, trying to ignore the almost unbearable hangover that was making him feel nauseous in the stomach and uncharacteristically insecure.  He felt his head was about to split open.

He remembered going to the tailors with his shipmate to collect his friend’s three-piece suit, that he had ordered a couple of days earlier.  It was a blisteringly hot and humid day and when they arrived only the trousers and waistcoat were ready.  Apparently, the tailor explained, three different seamstresses produced the suit and one item was late.  The tailor dispatched a small boy to collect the missing item and dealt with the delay by producing cold beers for the waiting customers.

He recalled that after the third beer he had become restless, particularly as the tailor’s shop did not benefit from air conditioning.

He told his friend that he didn’t want to hang around any longer and would wait for him in the small air-conditioned bar, over the road

On entering, the barman, who immediately perceived a profitable interlude, met him with a friendly greeting.

Hitherto the bars only customers were a couple of locals drinking the cheap Cava beer whereas the European would surely be drinking expensive imports.  The barman’s expectations were confirmed when several ‘San Mig’s’ were ordered by the newcomer, in quick succession.

Scandinavian seamen are forbidden any sort of alcohol on board their ships and as a consequence once they are on land they tend to let loose.

The door to the bar burst open admitting a blast of warm air and five Swedish sailors who entered as though they owned the place.  The barman welcomed the unaccustomed activity, and his new customers who had obviously been celebrating elsewhere and seemed determined to continue.

It is a custom of the sea for sailors to mix cordially with one and other and join in with each other’s songs, jokes and games.

Inevitably, the Swedes lost at darts which not being their normal game saw them defeated by the sole Brit, so when it came to their turn to choose, he could hardly refuse.

It was a drinking contest.

Language was a barrier but the Englishman was familiar with such competitions and was known to drink a dozen gin and tonics with little immediate effect.  Besides the Swedes were well oiled and were only occasional drinkers.

The rules, as translated inaccurately by the barman, were simple.  Each party would have ten drinks before them and on the word ‘go,’ called out by the barman the race was on.  The first to finish won and the barman’s say was final as he also acted as the adjudicator and held the fifty-dollar wagers.

The inaccurate bit, as it turned out, was that you couldn’t select your drink.  Whether the barman had a surfeit of ‘Parfait Lamoure’ or whether it was the Swedish contestant’s choice was unknown but both parties were confronted with a tray, each containing ten glasses of the purple liqueur that had been poured with a generous hand.

Counting down from ten in ‘pigeon’ English, the barman missed out two so his ‘go’ was a little early.  The finesse was lost on the Swede who started immediately on the word ‘go’ and rapidly downed the drinks one after another.

The hesitation and the surprisingly vile drink slowed the Englishman down but he wasn’t far behind and was pleased to have come second.

The barman passed over the money to the Swede and everyone was apparently happy but, as it turned out, apart from the barman.

The sailors didn’t notice at first being preoccupied with shaking each others hands and toasting Rolls Royce and Sandvik, but eventually they all became aware that the barman wanted paying for the liqueur.

The lone Englishman recalled never ordering the noxious stuff and said that as the Swede had apparently ordered the drink that he should pay out of his winnings.

It’s difficult to win an argument when the odds are six to one, but he certainly tried, which is probably what led to the barman furtively ringing for the police.  The curious thing was that before the police arrived, the barman carried on pouring drinks, collecting money and genially acting as the host as though nothing was amiss.

Meanwhile the jacket of his friend’s suit remained illusive.

Provided you cooperate with them, English Police are firm but fair and use the minimum of force.  Not so in Thailand.

Two vehicles screeched to a halt outside and the drinkers innocently observed their entry.

Suddenly about a dozen armed Policemen in battledress uniform rushed in through the door shouting loudly and urgently as they came.

Rapid conversation from the barman resulted in rifles being used as clubs and the last thing he remembered was being bundled into the cage of the arrest wagon having been beaten about the head by a rifle butt.

He had obviously been unconscious and wondered how long ago it had been.  He noted his pockets were empty and his wristwatch was gone.  A cold shiver of fear ran down his spine at the thought of having no documents or proof of identity.  His qualms were somewhat tempered by a desperate need to relieve himself.  Recumbent bodies were all around him and looking about he found he was propped up against the only respectable looking person he could see.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

To his relief the reply was indeed English.  “Yes.”

“Can you tell me where the toilet is and how one gets there?”

“With great difficulty.” was the reply.

A long whispered conversation followed.  It appeared that his new acquaintance had stopped off for a Friday night drink on the way home from work and got mixed up in a drug bust.

The arrest squad targeted anyone and everyone.  He was not only totally innocent but also almost driven out of his mind with worry at the anguish his wife must be suffering.

Anxious to befriend his Thai-speaking companion, the sailor confided in him that he had a hundred dollar bill in his sock as was his covert practice learnt long ago from an old hand on one of his earlier ships.  With his new friend’s translation abilities and by using the money, he hoped that they would survive the weekend until the Court opened on the following Monday.  The Thai spoke quietly to his neighbour.

A ‘babble’ passed along the corridors a bit like ‘Chinese” whispers and a little later a huge slightly deformed figure appeared out of the gloom.

The conversation appeared to be all one sided with his Thai friend doing most of the talking that was punctuated by the occasional grunt from the ogre.

“We have no choice – give him the money and he will protect us until Monday and stop the guards and the other prisoners from touching us.”

Reluctantly, knowing he couldn’t ask for change, he removed his shoe and sock and passed over the hundred-dollar bill.

He decided it was time to test their purchase and asked to be shown the toilet.

“Follow him.”

Fearful he would be jumped any moment he trailed along behind their ‘minder’.

The same key, which the minder kept on a chain around his waist, accessed every door.  There was no sign of prison guards’ as they passed through at least six gates before entering a large semi open courtyard.  At its center was a hole in the concrete about eighteen inches across surrounded by indescribable filth.  The stench was overpowering although the minder didn’t seem to notice as he loitered waiting for his charge.

Nature’s call was not to be denied any longer so trying not to tread on anything or breathe in; he relieved himself from quite a distance from the hole.

The return journey was more comfortable and he noticed how the other inmates cowered from his escort and he felt ever grateful for his old sailor’s habit.

The minder saw him back to his place of origin and disappeared locking the door as he went.

As he settled down next to his new friend he reflected how terrified he had been when he had awoken and how devastating his position had seemed.  Now he already felt a kind of improvement.  He had a translator, a minder, he had relieved and compared to the utter squalor he has just seen, his confined space was bordering on the almost luxurious.

“If we need our protector,” his Thai friend said, “we just call out “Griff” and he will come.”

Just then a terrible scream followed by desperate sobbing could be heard in the distance that immediately conjoured up visions of torture taking place.

‘What do you think that is?’ asked the sailor.

“I don’t know,’ was the reply, ‘ perhaps its just some poor anguished sole full of demons.’

Confronted with a feeling of despair and abject misery he grasped the Thai by his shoulder.

“Promise him some more money,” said the Englishman.

  “Tell him I’ve got an American Express Gold card and will sort him and the warden out if they can get us both out.”

“Griff!”  The call was passed on by other inmates and got fainter the further it went down the corridor

They could hear the clang of the doors a long way off, conversely getting louder as the keeper got nearer.

Eventually, out of the murkiness their benefactor appeared and the single bulb suddenly illuminated his face.  An angry ragged scar ran from where his left ear should have been, down across his shoulder finishing at his elbow.  His right eye was missing too.

After an earnest conversation between the two Thai’s, the ‘trustee’ led the way.

He motioned them to follow him through a maze of iron clad corridors past resentful looking internees who they knew that, had they not had their escort, the surly prisoners would not have thought twice before assaulting them in more ways than one.

All through the long journey, they did not see a prison guard even in the heavily shelved storeroom.

It didn’t take the ogre long to locate their belongings, each in a cardboard box with their names scrawled in marker pen.  The names of previous users of the box were scrawled through and he noticed a shaky signature after each name or sometimes just a thumbprint.  Their personal items were returned to them.

 The translator turned to the Englishman who thought that the Thai would translate the five-minute exchange with ‘Nelson’ as he mentally referred to their helper.  All he said was, “We must sign for our things.”  He passed across a paper, presumably written in Thai with a dotted line for a signature.  He duly signed it ‘Mickey Mouse’ and endorsed the box with the letters MM.

Extraordinarily, the sailor found his wallet in tact, complete with credit cards and money, so he took out the equivalent of thirty Pounds Sterling and gave it to ‘Nelson’ who removed a cigar case from his nether region, unscrewed the cap and added the notes to his secret hoard before replacing it without a hint of embarrassment.

Three dimly lit corridors later; they came across a solid steel door with a small opening containing a ‘Judas’ window.

Nelson produced another key from a secret hiding place and without farewells they were set free.

Both men were elated and the sailors’ companion flagged down a three wheeled passing taxi rapidly giving directions in the local tongue.

“Thank you so much, without your money I may have remained unaccounted for and forgotten.”

“Don’t mention it,” said the sailor, “without your language, God knows what would have happened to us!”

Before they parted to go on their different ways, they stopped at an open-air café for some food and a drink.

The Englishman proposed a toast, raising his livener and clinking the beer bottle against the Thai’s teacup.

“To Nelson who I hope will continue to keep his eye on things.” 

 In replying, the local grinned and said,

 “Put a sock in it.”  He seemed a bit fixated. 

 “Sock it to me,” and then,

“I will always remember to keep some money in my sock.”

A fond embrace and the two men went their separate ways.

On returning on board he was met by his shipmate who said,

“It’s alright for you going off on a spree.  When my jacket eventually turned up, it didn’t even fit properly.”

He decided not to comment but instead said, “What are you going to do about it?”

“They’re going to have it ready for Monday lunchtime.  Do you want to come?”

“No thanks, I couldn’t take anymore local hospitality!”

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