They had been in the jungle for a week and Thailand for three weeks before that. It was their first trip abroad together, a great adventure away from their families. A chance to be free and to be together. They were eighteen and told each other they were in love.
Every morning for the past week they had awoke in their tent on the plateau. He would often rise first, leaving her sleeping whilst we walked around the camp, the grass wet with dew and the others slumbering in their tents. There were thirteen tents laid there in the grass. Each had two people inside. Two girls inside each. They had booked this trip together through a company as had twenty four girls and only one other guy.
He trod carefully amongst the slumbering tents, wanting to be alone. There was a wood hut in the camp with some benches outside where their guides slept and cooked for them. Old dogs stretched out around the benches in the early light. He walked past the hut and away from the camp. He found a stump and sat down. The plateau was low and around it were green hills rising high. Steam seeped through the foliage where the sun evaporated the streams that ran under the deep green of the canopy.
The sun was already almost unbearable, even the birds moved lazily across the sky. He sat there on the log, his bare back to the sun. He was deeply tanned and had grown skinny from bowls of rice and no meat. His chain began to burn into his neck and he took it off and placed it in his combat trouser pocket.
He thought he heard a movement over in the camp and looked up momentarily. They wouldn’t be able to see him as the hut blocked the view. He was safe in his solitude for now. He had come to need these moments alone.
The first night they had met the others in the lobby of the Bangkok Royal had been overwhelming. So many girls who he knew he would have nothing in common with. They stood in a big, excitable group underneath the bright lobby lights and introductions were made all round. The girls couldn’t get enough of them. ‘Charlie and Beth’. ‘Beth and Charlie, what a nice couple. You’re so good together.’ And they had been. The whole group were good for each other as they rushed out onto Koh San Road to surge into bars and drink Sangsom buckets.
They were at the start of their adventure there under the neon lights. Amongst the hustle and bustle, the pad thai stands. The little girls asking for money. The men offering ping-pong shows. They sat on a balcony with a bucket each and laughed. Charlie was hold up in a corner with Ben. He was a plumber from Manchester, somewhere in his early twenties. He had what Charlie took to be a typical plumber physique. Large arms and a shaved head. Charlie liked him immediately. They sat there and discussed this first night in a foreign country.
‘Mate, look at all these birds. We’ve got it made.’
Charlie smiled and took a sip from his bucket, ‘You’re gonna have a good time….’
Ben interrupted, ‘Ha, oh yeah, Beth, the old ball and chain eh?’
Charlie looked across the bar to where she sat laughing away with some other girls. She seemed oblivious to anything other than that moment. Charlie thought she looked beautiful. She was out of place here, she should be a model in Paris. That pale skin and those dark eyes were the envy of all the girls at the table. Charlie could tell from the glances they stole at her.
Ben continued, ‘She’s a stunner though, well done mate. More girls for me eh?’
‘Yeah, take your pick I guess’ Charlie laughed and looked over the plethora of girls at the table. Not one matched Beth, but there were still some beauties. A burst of laugher shook the room and soon they spilled out into the streets and into tuk tuks which they ordered to go faster. ‘Ten Baht go through red light’. Urging their drivers on, five people in each, racing through the green, red and blue streets. The darkness and the rest of Thailand just beyond the borders of the street light’s reach. Mysteries and mysterious people, watching them from the shadows and the electric air rushed past as they raced onwards through the city.
They screeched up to a grubby building and piled inside to see a ping pong show. Laughing and bartering with the owners. ‘Free drinks. No, two free drinks for all!’ They made a deal and went inside in a drunken mass. He took Beth’s hand and she looked at him briefly and flashed him her smile. They took their seats amongst business men in suits and watched a talented girl open bottles and fire carrots into the crowd. One landed in Ben’s lap. ‘Shit, get it away mate. It’s got Thai juice on it!’ Charlie laughed into the table and Beth swayed in her chair, her eyes lighting up as she grabbed Ben’s arm.
‘Don’t laugh! Fuck!’
They’d laughed all night and the next few weeks. Initially Charlie and Beth went out on their own. They took a boat trip along the river in Bangkok. The muddy waters flowed beneath them as they came up to a monastery where a child in an orange robe sold them bread to feed to the cat fish. ‘Aw thank you’ Smiled Beth as she leant over to make the exchange with the boy. He smiled back and handed the money over to a monk who nodded appreciation. The cat fish swarmed around the boat in a whirlpool of brown flesh as though the river were alive. ‘Look at them all!’ Beth leant over and touched one.
‘They’re so soft. Touch one, Charlie.’
‘I’m not touching one of those, they look slimy.’
Beth gave him a sideways look, ‘Come on you big wimp!’ and splashed water at him.
‘Hey!’ he splashed it back and then they continued on down river.
They travelled around the country together with the others. They went out more as a group and often Charlie would be walking behind with Ben as Beth walked on with the other girls. Sometimes Beth and Ben would walk together and laugh and sometimes push each other as Charlie walked after them. He had little to say to the other girls and became exasperated with them one night when they wouldn’t leave a club after a Thai man had ran his hand over Beth’s arse.
Charlie fumed on the dance floor and began to walk towards the man. Ben grabbed his arm and held fast. ‘What are you doing mate? There’s loads of these pricks. We can’t do anything. They could have knives or anything. You hear about that sort of thing.’
‘I ought to break his nose’
‘Yeah fuck him; someone will break his nose one day.’
But Charlie wasn’t satisfied. He walked over to Beth who was dancing as though nothing had happed. ‘Beth’ he shouted over the music. ‘Beth’ he touched her arm and she turned round surprised to see him there.
‘Oh, hey baby. What’s up?’
‘Don’t you think we ought to go? I’m not having that idiot act like that to you’ Beth looked around the room.
‘What idiot? Oh him? He’s just having a laugh. He’s too drunk to remember.’
‘So what? He can’t act like that. What the hell is he doing? You think that’s ok?’
Beth sighed. ‘He’s just having fun, he didn’t mean any harm. Just let it be Charlie, for God’s sake.’
‘Fine. Well I’m going.’
‘Fine ok, I’ll see you later then.’ And she turned around and rejoined the group of dancing girls. Charlie headed for the exit and walked past Ben who stood with some of the other girls. ‘Mate, don’t go! Don’t worry about it. Have a good time.’
‘It’s just out of order Ben, she doesn’t even think the guy did anything wrong.’
Annie interrupted in her cockney accent, ‘Charlie just forget about it, what’s the matter? It’s nothing.’
‘Stay out of this Annie.’
Now the others joined in, ‘Hey don’t talk to her like that, what the hell are you doing?’
And so he had left and gone back to their hotel room where he had laid awake for hours. Unable to sleep with out Beth there and wishing he hadn’t left her. She would be fine and surely Ben would be keeping an eye on her, but he should have stayed there. Maybe he did over react. After an eternity in the lonely blackness of the room Beth came in, the door cutting a bright path through the darkness, hot air following her into the room. Charlie pretended to be asleep but watched her through one eye as she disappeared into the bathroom and then re-emerged sans make up. She looked exhausted and didn’t seem to look at him. She changed and then climbed into bed and as she did Charlie let out a small sigh and stretched slightly as if he were having a dream but she either didn’t notice or was too tired to pay attention to him. She turned her back to him without a word and soon the sound of her rhythmic breathing filled the room.
The next day they had loaded their belongings onto a coach and set off on a twelve hour trip up to the north of the country and into the jungle. As they climbed onboard and met the others no one said hello to him and Beth whispered, ‘I heard what you said to them all last night. You were really rude.’ Then she turned to the others and settled into a stream of conversation which neither included nor interested Charlie and he spent most of the trip asleep or in silence.
They ventured into the jungle the next day. Dressed in boots and cargo shorts and light shirts. Charlie wore a straw hat to keep off the sun. Beth strolled ahead with the Thai guide as they wound their way up a river bed under the light foliage of the beginnings of the jungle. They walked for an hour. The jungle becoming more dense. The trees had large buttress roots and vines hung down from above. Birds echoed and flies pinched at their exposed skin. One landed on Beth and she let out a shriek. Charlie rushed over. ‘Hey, you ok baby?’ She rubbed her neck. ‘I’m fine, just one of those bastard flies.’ Charlie smiled. Yeah they’re annoying hey?’ Beth didn’t reply but pulled her bag up on her shoulders and carried on walking. They were now starting to lag behind the group and Charlie trotted ahead to keep up with them, Beth’s long legs carrying over the rough ground with ease. ‘Beth. Beth. Let me carry your backpack. Are you ok with it?’
Without turning around she said ‘I’m Fine’ with a finality that gave no room for a response.
Charlie hurried on and caught up with Ben at the front of the column. They’d had to stop numerous times for some of the girls in the group and it was no effort to stay ahead of the others. Beth walked steadily on, betraying no sense of any effort she was making. She looked as beautifully calm as ever and from time to time Charlie looked back to catch glimpses of her brushing a stray hair back behind her ear or laughing with the others.
The heat was awesome and Charlie sweated along side Ben as they clambered up a fallen log, hot on the heels of their nimble Thai guide, whose small frame made him look like an agile child. Ben wiped sweat from his brow and motion back down the line with a flick of his head. ‘Girl trouble?’
‘Something like that mate. It’s getting awkward. We never have a fucking moment together these days. And all these bitches hate me.’
‘They’re alright mate. Give them a chance. Beth is just having fun. It’s gotta be hard you two being here together.’
‘Charlie looked back and took a swig of warm water. ‘Maybe mate. Maybe.’
That was a few days ago now and as Charlie sat on his stump, nothing had changed. People were stirring now in the camp and he got up to wander over. They sat down and had breakfast. The guides came out and served them up a plate of omelettes. Annie came over after it was all served up. Puffing and a little red in the face. ‘Annie,’ Charlie got up to offer her his seat, ‘You want to sit here?’
‘Cheers mate’ she said with a smile. He looked over to Beth who seemed oblivious to his presence, let alone his good dead which was partially designed to impress her.
After breakfast Charlie, Beth, Ben and Annie headed down the hill through a field of some crops. They passed through a field of grass at the bottom of the hill and over an old fence. Now they were in a wooded area and trees hung over the dark path like ancient arches. Charlie and Ben walked ahead. They crossed a wide shallow stream and then hid behind a fallen tree, waiting for the girls to catch up. They timed it with military precision. Peering over the top of the trunk, concealed by foliage they jostled each other for a better view. When Beth and Annie were in the middle of the stream they jumped out and shouted ‘boo!’ Beth jumped and was caught off guard; she slipped and fell onto the gravel bed of the stream, landing on her side. ‘Shit!’ she cried. Charlie rushed over, ‘Sorry, are you ok baby?’
‘Fuck off Charlie, you’re an idiot.’ She pushed him away as Annie helped her up, both of them scowling at Charlie.
They carried on walking. Charlie knowing it was useless to make any effort to apologise to Beth. They rounded a corner in the woods and slid down a muddy bank. They were at their destination, a water fall where they showered everyday. They stripped off to their underwear, the girls in bikinis. The water fell straight down from the stream above in hard icy drops. One by one they clambered up onto the thin ledge that sloped down into the shallow plunge pool below. Beth and Annie struck up a conversation, excluding Charlie. He began to climb around them on the thin ledge to reach Ben, his only ally. As he began to inch round them Beth grabbed his arm. ‘Charlie! What are you doing! You’ll fall off!’ she scolded like a mother chastising a child. Annie and Ben looked sideways at each other.
She said nothing more to him for the duration of the shower. The four of them sat around the pool, drying themselves off. Charlie’s shoes were on the other side of the pool next to Beth and he called over for her to throw them to him. She threw them short and they landed in the pool. On edge and unable to contain his reaction Charlie snapped, ‘Fucking hell Beth. Be careful!’ She scowled at him and walked away, Annie rushing after her. Ben gave him a ‘what can you do?’ look as Charlie punched a rock and regretted it immediately.
The whole day they didn’t speak to each other. The tension became unbearable. Even when they passed in the camp she didn’t acknowledge him. As evening fell the guides were preparing to build a bonfire. They had amassed a great pile of logs and were beginning to stack them on a patch of grass away from the tents and huts. Charlie went over to help them but before he got there he saw Beth coming up the path and decided to clear the air once and for all.
By the time she saw him coming it was too late to change her path and she walked up to him with reluctant eyes. Charlie was the only one to speak. ‘Beth. Look, I know I’ve been an idiot the past few weeks. I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done. I don’t want to get into it all, but I’m sorry. I just want to have a good holiday with you, so I apologise. I’m going to help build the bonfire. I’ll see you later’. He walked off without waiting for her to reply and set about helping the guides build the logs up. Aided by his anger he lifted large logs in one go and half ran with them tottering on his shoulder before throwing them onto the pile. The Thais told him to take it easy but this just spurred him on. He worked until he was tired and sweat seeped through his shirt.
The pile was complete. It would soon be dinner. Exhausted, he decided to get away from the camp for a while to try and think. He wanted to be nothing but positive for when he next saw Beth. He didn’t want any more ill feeling between them to be his fault.
He walked quickly out of camp, doing his best to avoid anyone who would ask how he was or what he was doing. He was relieved Ben was nowhere to be seen as he was sure he would want to come along on his walk with him. Charlie walked behind the hut and down a muddy bank; now on the opposite side of the hill to the waterfall shower. There was no path here and he slipped and fell on his backside down the muddy slope. He came to a stop at the bottom and stood up and laughed. He was alone now but could hear the noise of the camp behind him.
He walked along a dry gravel path. On his right was the hill leading back up to the camp, to his left a number of fields leading onto the great hills that enclosed the camp. He had decided to pick a few flowers for Beth. The pickings were thin, only pale white, pink and purple flowers existed here, often growing in thorny bushes. He did his best to gather a wide selection and by the end of it he was scratched and itchy but happy he was doing his best to be a good boyfriend. Just as he turned back to go to the camp he spotted a large cow tethered in a field. It had the largest and sharpest horns he’d ever seen. He didn’t know cows had horns like that. They certainly didn’t in England.
Next to the cow was a slender and brilliant yellow flower. It grew there all alone and seemed to have absorbed all of the colour from the other pale flowers he’d managed to gather so far. He approached the cow cautiously, not daring to take his eyes from its lethal horns. He was too young to die, but dying for romance would be an honourable way to go. Maybe if Beth found his corpse clutching a bunch of flowers she’d feel bad.
He reached the cow and approached it hunched over. It looked at him sideways and he could smell its warm, wet breath. He gagged slightly and slowly reached out a hand to snap the flower from its stem. The cow jerked at the noise but he patted its side gently and calmed it, ‘its ok, its ok, don’t worry.’
He backed away slowly and then the cow stamped one of its hooves and breathed heavily out of its wet nose. Charlie took no chances and ran as fast as he could out of the field, thorns ripping into his knees as he went.
He clambered back up the muddy slope. The bunch of flowers clutched behind him. When he reached the hut one of the guides gave him a wink, ‘Oh, flowers for me?’ Charlie laughed, ‘Get your own flowers mate.’ Everyone was stood around the fire as another Thai began to light it. Beth saw him coming over and rushed across to him. ‘Charlie! Where have you been? I was worried. You’re all scratched…’
Charlie laughed, ‘I’m alright, I got you these…I’m sorry.’ He produced the flowers from behind his back and Beth’s eyes widened the way he always loved them to.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry about everything too, I’ve been thinking and I just want us to have a good time too. I saved you some food.’ She held a bowl in both hands and swapped one for the flowers. They walked back over to the others and she showed the girls the flowers. ‘Aww, that’s romantic Charlie.’ He pretended not to hear them and Ben gave him a wink.
That night they sat around the fire, Beth nestled under his arm for warmth. Ben got up and went over to the hut. When he came back he pressed a cold beer into Charlie’s neck, still dripping with water from the cool bucket in the hut. They all sat and talked and as the fire died down Charlie got up to throw more logs on. Sparks flew out and some danced towards a few girls who scuttled backwards.
‘Charlie what are you doing? Don’t build the fire up, it’s already burning!’ He was about to reply but Beth beat him to it, ‘He’s trying to keep it going. It’s going to go out.’
One by one they left for bed until there were just a few of them left by the fire. Charlie brought their sleeping bags from the tent and lay down next to Beth. The warm pulse of the fire enough to keep away the night’s chill. They lay next to each other and he looked in her dark eyes and kissed her on the forehead. Then he turned over and looked up at the stars. Millions of white specks flooded the night sky with waves of purple and blue pulsating amongst them. All the secrets of the world were up there. ‘Beth’ he whispered, ‘look at the stars, they’re beautiful.’ But she was already asleep and as he watched her face twitch in the depths of some dream he smiled and soon he was sleeping deeply beside her.
Thomas Ward is soon to graduate from Newcastle University with a BA in English Language and Literature. He has been published in Alliterati and awaits feeback on his first novel. As well as writing he likes to travel, play music, watch films and fantasise about fighting sharks and the inevitable zombie apocalypse. He has a tumblr at www.renegadeviper.tumblr.com
© 2012 Thomas Ward