I am unsure whether it is the wind, or the spray being kicked up by the boat, or whether it is conceivable that I am cold. This seems impossible, in Bangkok, at this time of year. Nevertheless, the driver has donned an impressive looking ski-jacket and is using the hand not on the tiller to fiddle with the zipper. I notice that the North Face logo appears to be sewn on backward, and that the stitching doesn't quite seem to match the pattern, but he certainly looks warm. Overkill for sixteen degrees, maybe, but there is no doubt the wind is cutting. He's mastered the zip and reaches his now free hand up to his neck and tucks the amulet there inside the jacket and out of sight.
More throttle. More noise. The wind is cold.
There is a tiny hut, a ramshackle collection of planks held together with rusty nails, that sits at half way down my soi. In it are housed a desk, an angle grinder, and a concrete plinth upon which sits a hand-drawn checkers board and enough bottle-tops for two teams of draughts. Singha for red, Heineken for green. The kings have inscrutable Thai symbols scrawled on them with thick blue paint.
This is where the drivers of the motorcycle taxis that ply their services from soi spend their days when they are not running people to work, or weaving wildly down alleys while kids in school uniform ride side-saddle, or doing lackadaisical, effortless, chin-ups on the parts of the street lights that are supposed to hold flowers but instead simply outline smudges on the sky.
They share the space with an old man who makes amulets, and a carefully maintained cage containing the old man's tame bird. This is a vicious black and yellow thing who is let out on weekends to terrorise the local dogs and will scuttle and swoop back to the cage at the sound of metal on the grindstone, or from the slightest whistle from the old man.
On Sundays, the motorcyclists sit in a circle around the checkers, still flaunting jaunty orange vests, and pass around a glass bottle of coke that has been judiciously topped up with Sang Som. The bottle stays full, but I notice the colour of the liquid inside gets lighter and lighter as the sky darkens.
"Can you hold it?" she says. "Hold what?" "The bottle. Hold the bottle." "What in god's name are you doing?" "Mixing them. There’s enough space in the bottle now." "You've never done this before, have you?" "What, why?" "You pour the spirit into the can. That way it just looks like a normal can. It’s actually quite hard to look inconspicuous when you are standing in an airport taking slugs from a bottle of imitation vodka" "Oh, yeah. Okay." "That man over there is laughing at you. Hell, I'm laughing at you." "Give me the can."
We dip to the right to avoid one of the idling barges and an arc of spray slaps the oily water beside the longtail. The engine cuts and we roll forward as our wake overtakes us.
“It’s because of China,” the man sitting opposite me says, as the driver opens the throttle again, sliding us back over the wake and onward.
“What’s because of China?” I ask.
“The weather. A low pressure system up there and it throws the whole thing out of whack. It'll be another two weeks at least.”
“Hopefully some bloody heat. This isn't right, not for March.”
“It’s nice though, right? A break from it.”
“Sure, if it was a break, day or two, right. But it’s been a week. Close to. Upsets the locals. Don’t like that,” and he stubs the butt roughly against the hull and flicks it into the river. "You saw the paper today?"
"Yeah, that idiot with the earthquake predictions. Tsunamis. Wipe out half the fuckin' coast down there . Just like oh-seven."
"I didn't see that," and I'm thinking about 2007. Really? It was then. Earlier, surely?
"Some nutjob from up in the provinces. Reckons they've predicted every major disaster in the past twenty years. Flawless record. Blah blah blah. Well now my wife is too scared to travel down that way and half the bloody office are acting like it's Armageddon rather than a holiday. Reckon if he's that bloody good he should've had a go against Paul," he says as he glares at another oncoming barge.
"I'm sorry, who's Paul?" I ask.
"The octopus, mate" and now I am utterly baffled.
"The octopus? What octopus?"
"Soccer person? Football, whatever" he says, and looks ruefully at the cigarette packet that's been soaked by the river water.
"I guess. To play. A bit."
"You didn't watch the World Cup? -" and then I remember Paul, the octopus who chose winners from a box and who was now, if I recalled correctly, stone-cold dead.
"- picked the winners for ages. Magic run. I'd trust him over some bloke with a fold-up table, tarot cards and a couple of plastic chairs. Thieves, the lot of them." This makes me think of an article I read the other day stating that Australia now holds the ignoble honour of having the highest per capita rate of gambling in the world.
“I think he’s dead,” I say.
“What? The article was just today.”
“No, the octopus. After the World Cup. I think,” although I am less certain now than I was a few minutes ago.
“Someone probably had a flutter that went the wrong way, eh. Not a good job to have, octopus.”
The river is the colour of freshly-poured miso, and the sediment swirls behind us in ever diminishing loops. Fibonacci is at the tiller, and I'm watching the angle of the sun as it tips behind Rama 9.
On the way to the river today, I saw a girl coming out of Seven Eleven, letters on her shirt in a sharp abrupt sans, “I’d rather die terrified than live forever.” And I would.
At the mouth of the soi, near where the motorbikes are parked, I notice the bird pecking at something curled on the ground. It is the skeleton of a frog, and the tiny fingers are splayed wide, clutching at air.