Sitting in the heat and swagger of Bangkok, it comes to him. He has been travelling for over a day and hasn’t thanked anyone. The beer here turns from cold to warm in seconds. It’s like tea. He takes a swig.
No, wrong. He tries again.
‘How do I say thank you?’
‘Cap-kuhn-kaaaap, says the waiter in the Newcastle football jersey. You want another Singha?’
‘Sure. I mean please, yes, absolutely, that would be lovely. Kap-kuhn-kaaaaap.’
A bottle is placed in front of him. In all truth, he’s delighted with himself. This is the best he’s felt since leaving Tuam. These past few seconds, this eviscerating look at himself and the decision to be better. He feels great.
His name is Petey Burke, his normal habitat is the high stool in The Cellar Bar. Watching Liverpool, although he hates them and slates them just to get a rise from the lads in the pub. They know him but are not his friends. In conversation, he is known by two words: ‘that prick.’
But they are not here now, on Soi 2 in Bangkok, and they would not recognise this man. His smiles, his gratitude. He is transformed. Petey makes no comment about how appalling Newcastle Football Club are. It has not even, or hardly, crossed his mind.
Beer number three and he’s getting a buzz on but with it comes hunger. He asks for a menu and a small man appears out of nowhere. There’s something called a jungle curry. Why not? The closest he’s been to a jungle is Knockma, near Belclare.
‘You want Thai spicy?’
‘Go on so! I mean, yes. Please. Kap-kuhn-kaaap.’
The curry nearly does Petey in. His nose runs and he sweats. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the two waiters smiling at him. And if he takes a swing at them? Would they be smiling then? The fuckers.
No, stop. This is Small Town Petey. Bangkok Petey doesn’t throw punches. Bangkok Petey is pure positivity, a friend to everyone. He finishes the curry. Spiciness is something he’ll get used to. Bangkok Petey can chow like a local.
He pays the bill and gets directions to Koh Sahn road. Time to schlep it with his fellow travellers. Standing at a street corner, some would-be hustler asks him where he’s from. Petey told him what matters is where he’s going. That shuts the other lad up. Don’t spoof a spoofer is what he would say at home. The curry bubbles in his stomach.
Koh Sahn road is seething. Two men grab an elbow each and ask him if he wants to buy a suit. He shakes them off and then a Sikh in a turban offers to tell him his fortune. Give him a smile, don’t tell him to fuck off.
Petey sees a shamrock on a sign a few feet ahead of him and makes a beeline for it. A flight of stairs with various shots of John Wayne running alongside them brings him to a dark bar. Several TVs beam a football match. Petey’s eyes flicker to it; Burnley and Swindon. Irrelevant, but also re-assuring.
He pulls up a stool, orders a pint and runs a hand along the bar’s lacquered surface.
‘They shipped that over from Listowel,’ says a voice to his left.
‘Really?’ Petey says, though the voice made him jump.
‘No word of a lie.’
‘Listowel, that’s Kerry right?’
Jesus, he feels like a gobshite.
‘You’re an odd one! Yes indeed, Kerry.’
Petey looks over at the man. He appears to be in his mid-forties and wears neon yellow runners, jeans and a pink shirt. Two large sweat patches make semicircles at his armpits. As he takes this in, it strikes Petey. He hasn’t made a friend since Zach, who left Tuam when Petey was ten. The other people he’d grown up with had always just been there.
‘I’m Petey,’ he says, proffering a hand.
‘Cyril. Nice to meet you.’
A few hours pass, two or three maybe. Petey knows this because there’s a new set of jerseys on the TV. Cyril has his eyes closed and is in the third verse of some maudlin shite. Would a friend tell him to shut up? Petey really doesn’t know, but the bar man beats him to it.
‘No singing, mister,’ he says, a Thai man in a Mayo jersey. ‘I tell you before.’
‘Ah grand sure, come on to fuck so,’ Cyril says, sliding off the seat.
Petey’s eyes baulk at the sunlight when he hears Cyril going ‘Get up in this yoke, ya good thing.’ The engine chugs and Petey’s first tuk-tuk ride begins. They careen close to traffic and he feels woozy, but it passes. Then he’s struck by an ungodly smell.
‘Cyril, this place reeks, where are we?’
He follows his new friend through a heaving crowd. There aren’t many white people here, and certainly no-one in a Kerry jersey. They go down a narrow alleyway that is wedged with market stalls. Cyril weaves through the crowd; he knows where he’s going. A woman lurches at Petey and grabs his arm, thrusting a bottle in his face.
‘Mista, you buy. Fresh juice. Is cold! You buy! OK?’
‘He no buy,’ says Cyril dragging him away. ‘Jesus, man, stick with me, right? You’ll get eaten alive.’
They leave the alleyway and emerge onto a street that is lined with food sellers. An acrid, fishy smell fuses with a deep fried odour. It isn’t entirely unpleasant. Petey is hungry again. Maybe it’s the beer, or the heat or the ungodly shite he’d taken before he left the Irish bar. He smiles. This is much better than being at home. Petey feels alive.
Cyril stops outside a place with a few tables and plastic chairs outside it. There are five or six steaming pots on the go; flies dive-bomb into them. To order, Cyril just points and makes a drinking motion with his hand.
At their table, two beers and three dishes are planked down. A rivulet runs down the bottle of Singha. Petey wants to say it’s beautiful, but hesitates. He’d never say something like that in Tuam, and the fear of being considered soft goes deep, like that oddball explorer who went looking for the Titanic.
‘This is great, Cyril, thanks,’ he says.
‘All good, man. We have to look after the blow-ins.’
‘Excuse me, can I sit here?’ says a man with hefty moustache. If Petey hadn’t looked up, he would swear this guy is doing an impression of a Muppet. But no, this lad seems genuinely afflicted with a cartoony voice.
‘It is ok with you gentlemen, ja?’ he says as he sits down at the table. Cyril says nothing, just takes a swig and nods.
The German slurps and slobbers his way through his meal. The other two are still finishing their food when he clacks his cutlery on to the plate.
‘Aaah,’ he sighs. ‘Ich liebe Thailand. You are Irish?’
‘That’s right,’ says Petey.
‘You Irish, you are not so good with money, no?’
‘I make a joke, ha ha!’
Cyril snaps out of whatever fugue he was in and slaps your man on the back.
‘Jesus, you’re some craic, Fritz! What has you in Thailand?’
‘I come to Thailand for two reasons. Money. And women.’
The Kerry man’s loopy giggle makes Petey laugh too.
‘Und my name is Gunther.’
They have a few more beers with Gunther, and some rum too. It’s rocket fuel to Petey; he’s fairly locked now. The contrariness is starting to kick in. Cyril is starting to wreck his head, and Petey tries not to think of him as a cocky Kerryman, but then Cyril bangs the table and roars ‘c’mon the Kingdom!’ It makes Petey jump.
‘I cannot believe you have never had this Thai rum,’ says Gunther. ‘It is so good, and so cheap. You Irish, always drinking the beer, yes?’
‘I only got here yesterday,’ says Petey. ‘Steady on.’
‘Steady on? Ich verstehe nicht. What does that mean?’
‘It means shut up, Gunner!’ says Cyril.
‘Gun-ther, Gun-ther! My name is Gunther!’
Jesus, it’s like being back in third class. Petey can just imagine a snotty little Cyril in school, shooting his hand up at a question, a know it all. The kind of kid you just wanted to thump.
Petey’s heart is racing. Where is the good natured soul he’d swore he’d be? This isn’t Bangkok Petey, this is Tuam Petey. He isn’t going to slap these lads around the head. That’s small town stuff.
‘Lads,’ he says, raising his hands. ‘We’re on our holidays. Calm down. Let’s do something, let’s knock the drinking on the head for now.’
It feels great to say that. This is more like it, his new self.
Cyril says nothing. His face is red; he looks into his glass, like he’s just been scolded for being bold.
‘There is a very good brothel close to here,’ says Gunther.
‘Not what I’m after Gunther. Something for my soul.’
‘I am from East Germany.’
‘We are atheists.’
‘Temples!’ says a suddenly beaming Cyril. ‘Let’s go see some Buddhas!’
And Cyril is away off down the street. Petey throws down a few hundred baht on the table. It’s about right he reckons. Gunther raises an eyebrow.
‘You are leaving a tip? This is too much.’
But Petey is weaving through the crowd now, keeping an eye on Cyril’s bobbing red hair. He catches up with him at a stall selling replica soccer jerseys. The Barcelona ones look pretty genuine; he could sicken the lads back home wearing one of those. There he is, thinking about them again. He’ll have to stop.
The woman can’t understand Cyril, who is demanding that she find a Kerry jersey for him. How can she not have any, he asks her, sure isn’t it the greatest sport in the world? She looks at Petey.
‘Your friend, he crazy.’
Then Gunther taps him on the shoulder and points them towards the main street. When they get there, Gunther walks up to a man leaning against a car.
‘Ko Toh, temple. Three hundred baht.’
The three of them get into the taxi, and Petey rejoices in the glory of air-conditioning. This is living. The taxi driver turns up the stereo and starts drumming the windshield. Phil Collins, In The Air Tonight. Quality. The man knows his tunes. Then the vocal kicks in. Some Thai singer doing a karaoke warble over it. But the music is intact, you can’t mess with those drums. Petey is happy, he won’t let it annoy him.
He can see the tops of the temples peering over the long white walls. Serenity. They roll out of the cab, and Gunther leads the way to the gates. A man in a sharp beige suit approaches them, offering to give them an official guided tour.
‘There are no official guided tours! It is forbidden in the temple! This man is a fraud!’ Gunther barks.
They walk past the startled man and join the queue of people filing in.
‘A bit touchy for an atheist, isn’t he?’ Cyril says in Petey’s ear. The pair of them are annoying the shite out of him. He feels saddled with them. Put a bar stool under his arse and he would tear them to bits.
The bile rising in him falls when he walks through to the courtyard. The smell of incense hits him like cigarette smoke. Hundreds of people are milling around, but they are quiet, and the traffic outside seems to have stilled to a hum. The roofs of the temples peak all around him, pointing to the sky and taking him up.
He follows Gunther up some steps to one of the temples. Petey takes off his yellow flip flops and goes inside. A golden Buddha the height of a bungalow sits at the back of the room. Some Thais and a European man with blond dreadlocks kneel in front of it. Petey sits down beside them and closes his eyes.
Tuam is rattling in his head, like a noisy, dying fly locked in a car. Sitting in The Cellar, talking shite with other people who annoy each other but write it off as banter. Slagging, they call it. What shite. Petey hasn’t a friend in the world. But the world is huge, with billions of people .Surely, now that he has put a continent between himself and Tuam, he can stop being a bollocks, and just be himself.
These thoughts are confusing Petey and he knows it must be more than the rum that’s altering his brain. He looks at the Buddha, with his little smile, and asks him for an answer. The small town side of him, what he had thought was his only his side, tells him he’s being stupid. But the part asking the questions tells him to be still for just a little longer.
‘Fella, you’ve gone fierce quiet,’ says Cyril, slapping a hand on his shoulder. Petey gets to his feet, embarrassed, goes back outside and down the steps.
‘Your shoes, you clown,’ Cyril says, waving his flip flops. Gunther stands with his hands in his pockets and smiles. The two lads follow the German, passing a few more temples and a group of people who are sitting on benches as a monk prays into a microphone. It sounds like Irish sean nós singing to Petey.
Cyril gets out his phone to take a picture of a row of golden Buddhas.
‘Something to show the mother when I get back home, so she’ll think I was doing something halfway holy,’ he says.
‘And not just chasing hole,’ Petey says.
‘Good man, Petey! Now we’re talking! I’ve had enough of this, let’s have some craic.’
This time, Cyril insists on walking but only gets a few feet before he goes down on his hunkers. He is bucketing sweat, his face a plum tone of puce.
Gunther stands a few feet behind them, holding the door of a taxi open.
‘My friends, walking in this heat is not advisable. You Irish. You are not in Ballyshannon now, haha!’
Petey sits in the middle while Cyril looks out the window, trying to hide his embarrassment. Gunther says a few words in Thai but the driver remains quiet.
‘It is nice to speak some of the language,’ Gunther says. ‘It shows that you are not just another tourist.’
The taxi pulls up on a heaving street and two Irishmen and a German step out. The German strides ahead to a bar that seems to wobble in the heat and tips the Richter scale with the volume of the bass.
‘This is Bangkok’s largest ladyboy bar,’ he shouts behind him. Petey follows Gunther as he moves through the crowd, which seems to be mostly men in soccer jerseys or shirts buttoned up to the neck.
A tall woman in a hot pink dress comes over to Gunther and kisses him on each cheek. She takes his arm and brings the three lads to a table that overlooks the whole room. Hot Pink walks away and Petey is drawn to the way the dress clings to her arse.
‘Ah, I see you are a man of taste. Very convincing, no?’ says Gunther.
‘What? No, fuck off.’
Cyril smiles but says nothing. There’s a huge whoop from the dance floor when the DJ plays Abba. A man with puke down the front of his shirt is carried past them, his head thrown back, roaring along to Dancing Queen. Petey looks at the TVs littered around the place, showing a video of oiled up men in sailor suits, wrestling. Hot Pink returns with three cocktails. A huge chunk of pineapple clings to each glass, but beyond that Petey has no idea what’s in them. Gunther grabs one and takes a slurp and Petey follows suit. Cyril shifts about in his seat, saying nothing. But it’s so loud that he would have to shout, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do that.
The cocktail is strong and hits Petey like an ice-cream head ache. Then Spandau Ballet’s Gold shoots out of the speakers. It takes him back to a Sunday, sitting in the back seat of a car with his best friend Zach. Zach moved to South Africa with his family a few months later. They fell out of touch, but that day, they were giddy and happy, free, and dancing like eejits. It is a jolt to Petey, something from the edges of his memory and it fires him towards the dance floor.
He’s in the middle of them now, a mass of sweaty limbs on a Bangkok dance floor. Two women sidle up beside him, hips rolling in some hip hop approximation. They’re probably lady boys. He doesn’t give a fuck.
Gunther joins the party and, it has to be said, the German has moves. The tune is something Petey doesn’t recognise, but Gunther’s shoulders flow like liquid to the bass. Petey shakes his arms, trying to get loose, looking for shapes he’s never thrown before. Bangkok Petey has arrived.
A hand pulls his shoulder back. He turns around to face the beetroot of Cyril’s face. His eyes twitch, his teeth snarl.
‘C’mere here, Tuam. Are you a queer or what?’
Petey thumps Cyril right in the face. He backs away, a hand pressed to his right eye. The dance floor parts as Petey moves forward and Cyril falls to the floor. Petey draws his fist behind him and holds it there. He leers over Cyril, smiling.
The beat of the next song kicks in. Petey spins around and sways. He shimmies next to Gunther and puts his hand to the small of his back.
He is a long way from home now, an unchartered distance from Tuam, and he always will be.
Jimi McDonnell is a writer and freelance journalist based in Salthill, Galway. He is a graduate of the MA in Writing programme at NUI Galway. In 2011, Jimi was awarded the One City One Book prize by Joseph O’Connor for his short story *Coole*. His work has been published in Wordlegs, The Galway Review, Skylight 47 and The Irish Literary Review. He is on Twitter as @jimihair and keeps a blog on jimimc.com