An Unwanted Companion
"Hey, mister! You still want to go tomorrow?"
Startled, Josh Thomas looked up from the paperback he was reading. Standing above him was a young Thai girl, smiling. He recognised her as the daughter of Mr Kim, the man who ran the guesthouse where he was staying.
"I'm sorry?” he said. “What did you say?"
"My father say bus leave tomorrow now. You can go if want."
Josh was surprised. Neither he nor his fellow travellers had been able to work out why there was no bus available on Saturday. Although pressed for time, Josh had declined the offer to travel in a pickup truck instead. He would be risking his life, or his sanity at the very least, according to the stories he had heard.
"But I have already bought a ticket for the day after?" he said.
"It's okay. Just change ticket, no more money."
"Great!" Josh smiled at her. "Do I need to tell your father?"
"No, no," she answered. "I will tell him. Bus leave six o'clock tomorrow morning."
She gave him a little bow and ran off.
Josh settled back in his seat. He picked his book back up, but he didn’t read any more of it, instead he just stared at the words, lost in his own thoughts.
It was great that he could leave tomorrow. He was on a bit of a whirlwind trip of South East Asia. A year previously he had bought a 'round-the-world' ticket. It had allowed him a certain number of flights from country to country within a year. He had, unfortunately, only made it through South America and then on to New Zealand before he had met a local girl called Kyla.
Josh moved into Kyla's flat almost immediately, but things hadn't quite panned out as they’d hoped. It soon became clear that they weren't as compatible as they first thought.
Josh cringed at the memory.
He had been stupid. Hoping he had finally found his home; the place where he could finally feel he belonged, he jumped into the relationship feet first.
Josh and Kyla had barely known each other when they moved in together. The things Josh had found exciting about Kyla—the partying, the reckless sense of humour and the unpredictability – quickly wore thin. He wanted to feel settled, but it seemed that was the last thing Kyla wanted.
One night she had gone out without him and hadn’t come home until late the next morning, reeking of booze, stoned out of her head and stinking of sex. When he’d asked her where she’d been, she’d laughed at him and told him to mind his own fucking business.
What had happened next was the worst thing Josh had ever done. Just the thought of it seemed to clutch at his throat, making him breathless. The memory stirred something dark and it writhed like a snake in his belly.
He pushed the memory away, not wanting to relive it.
He’d known it was time to leave. He had no other choice. The relationship had brought out a part of him that he’d never known existed and it scared him. He didn’t want to become that person and he had to get away as quickly as possible.
Deciding to do what he always did when he lost himself, when he didn’t know where his life was supposed to be taking him, he went back on the road.
Josh’s funds were running extremely low and he only had three flights left on his ticket. He decided to use one to fly from New Zealand to Bangkok and from there he would travel overland through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This plan allowed him to see as much of the continent as his lack of time and money allowed. He could then fly from Vietnam back to Bangkok and finally fly back to London.
Because of his tight schedule, gaining this extra day made all the difference. It meant that he could spend an extra day exploring the Cambodian temples of Angkor. A day that would have otherwise been wasted hanging out in the numerous Thai bars that lined the Khao San Road.
Josh was still puzzled at the guesthouse owner’s sudden change of mind. Mr Kim had been insistent, aggressive almost, when Josh had asked him for a ticket to Siem Reap for Saturday. Arguing had not got Josh anywhere, yet he had seen a flicker in Mr Kim’s eyes, a flicker of fear.
Well, whatever the problem was, it had obviously been sorted now. He would have to watch what he drank tonight if there was a 6am start, as Thai beer had a kick to it.
Josh shifted in his seat, trying to get more comfortable. With his left hand he rubbed at the swirls and lines of the tattoos etched into the skin of his opposite arm. His book remained open, but unread.
It was hard to believe he would be back in London in a few weeks and, although he had only been away for a year, it felt like a lifetime ago. His life back in London seemed unreal, disjointed from him somehow. He felt as though his past life had just been a dream and his only real life was the one he spent travelling. Even New Zealand felt like a movie he had watched.
He wondered if he would settle back into a 'normal' routine when he was back in London or if he would get itchy feet again almost immediately. Josh liked the idea of having a base again, an actual home he knew he was going to stay in rather than a temporary pit stop. He missed having his own things around him, having the comfort of routine and being able to sleep in his own bed. Everything he owned was in his backpack and most of it was battered and worn. It would be nice to have a normal life again.
Josh wasn't so keen on the idea of a job; a nine-to-five in an office. He had worked sporadically in New Zealand, but only in bit-time jobs in the bars that Kyla's family owned. It had kept his head above water, but only just. Sadly, he wasn't going to be in such a good position when he was back in London. Friends of his had agreed to let him stay in their spare room for a few weeks, or at least, until he got himself sorted. Josh didn't think he would find too much difficulty in finding work. He was in IT and there was still plenty of call for someone with his skills, but he couldn’t pretend the idea wasn’t suffocating.
Still, he had to get on with his life; he couldn't wander the earth forever.
Later that evening Josh found himself sitting in a restaurant, nursing an ice-cold beer despite his earlier good intentions, and pushing rice around his plate with his fork. Like most of the restaurants on the Khao San Road it opened out onto the street. There were so many chairs, tables, and people it was difficult to see where the road finished and where the restaurant started.
Loud music filled the restaurant and even the people sitting at the roadside tables had to raise their voices so friends and family, sitting only feet away, could hear them. Josh thought the music was up-to-date chart songs from back home, until he realised that the music was actually Thai covers, like well-sung karaoke.
He smiled to himself as two girls, both in their early twenties, jumped up and started to dance around their table. Both of the girls were pretty, but they had masked their looks with nose rings, lip rings and one even had bright pink hair. It wasn't long before a group of young men leapt to their feet to join them.
Other diners started to clap in time with the music. The girls twirled, and wriggled, and raised their hands in the air; responding the attention of their fellow dinners.
Josh's smile turned into a laugh. Thailand was a crazy place and almost nothing was taken too seriously. He looked around at the happy faces of every nationality possible, trying to print the scene on his memory like a photograph.
Then someone caught his eye and, for a moment, the noise and laughter of the restaurant faded into the background.
A young woman sat alone in the middle of the madness and seemed oblivious to it. Her long, dark hair hung down one side of her face. The fingers of her left hand twirled and twisted the ends of her hair absently, as though she was comforting herself. Her other hand held her fork, but she stared down at her plate of rice without lifting any of the food to her mouth. Here she was in one of the party capitals of the world and she just looked sad.
Josh watched as the girl snapped out of it. Her face broke into a smile and she started to clap, joining in with the rest of the restaurant.
The song ended and the pierced pair took a bow to their audience before sitting back down. They laughed at each other and hid their faces in their hands in sudden mock shyness. Josh looked back over at the girl who had caught his attention, wanting to go over and speak to her. She had picked up a book and had her face hidden in it. It was impossible for Josh to make eye contact with her. In fact, Josh thought, she didn't look like she wanted to talk to anyone.
What was he thinking anyway? The last thing he needed right now was to be distracted from the rest of his trip by another woman.
Before Josh could give the idea any more thought the chair opposite him was dragged back and filled by the large figure of a man, completely blocking his view.
Startled Josh looked up. The man in front of him was hugely overweight. Flesh fell in folds over the neck of his t-shirt and his belly strained against the thin material. He had small dark eyes that looked as though they’d been squashed into his face as an afterthought - a snowman in the flesh. Even his lips looked fat and fleshy.
"Alright mate!" the man said, talking loudly over the music. "Thought you looked like you could use this."
The stranger pushed another fresh glass of beer towards him. He saw Josh hesitate and nodded encouragingly before giving it another little shove as if sheer proximity to the drink would force Josh to accept it.
"Thanks," said Josh warily, "but I'm trying to avoid too much booze tonight. I've got an early start tomorrow and I've spent the last three days either drunk or hung-over."
"Ha-ha!” the man laughed. “I know the feeling! Where are you headed?"
Josh realised that this was going to turn into the typical travellers talk: where are you from, where are you going, where have you been…?
"Cambodia," said Josh. "Siem Reap to be precise. I'm getting a bus at six tomorrow morning and I've managed to miss enough forms of transport on this trip because of beer. I don't intend to add this one to the collection."
The man flung back his head and bellowed laughter, as though Josh had said the funniest thing in the world, and then held out a chubby hand.
"My name's Graham," he said, "but you can call me Goose, most of my friends do. You know Goose?"
Josh wasn't sure if this was supposed to be a rhetorical question and just stared at him blankly.
"Goose! From the film, Top Gun."
Josh smiled weakly.
"People like to have me by their side; be their wing man." Goose continued, apparently oblivious to Josh's lack of enthusiasm. "I'm a good man to have by your side."
He finished by giving Josh a wink and Josh cringed.
"And you are…? Goose asked, his hand still out held.
"Josh," said Josh, reluctantly putting his own hand into the one being offered to him. It felt exactly as Josh had anticipated - hot and clammy. He resisted the urge to openly wipe his hand on the napkin in front of him.
"So, Cambodia huh?" said Goose. "I hear it's a great place—they put weed on the pizzas don't they? I'm heading out there myself. Wanted to go now but there was some sort of problem with the buses." A frown squashed his forehead into a row of sausages. Then he realised something.
"Hey. How come you managed to get a ride?"
Josh shrugged. "Just lucky really. The guy in my guesthouse managed to sort it for me."
"Oh, wow! Really?" said Goose. "Which guesthouse are you in."
“Sawatdee House,” Josh told him, hoping he didn't know it. Unfortunately he did.
"Hey! I'm right next door."
Josh saw the idea light up on his face as clearly as if someone had just flicked a switch in brain.
"Why don't I come back with you and find out if they've got a spare seat. Then we could travel together and I could really be your wing man."
Goose raised his beer towards Josh. He had no other choice than to clink his own beer glass against it in a salute. Josh knew that it looked like he had just agreed to Goose's plan and did his best to back pedal.
"The thing is, Goose, I kind of prefer to travel alone."
Goose went unperturbed. "Don't be dumb. No one travels alone. You might start out alone, but no one actually travels alone."
Josh smiled through a clenched jaw. He couldn’t argue with Goose’s point. Everyone took similar routes and he often ended up travelling with other people.
Goose took his silence as a sign of agreement and clapped him on the shoulder with one of his meaty hands. Josh could almost feel the sweat print sinking through to his skin.
"Come on then, buddy. Drink up and we'll go and make sure I can get a seat."
Reluctantly Josh drained his glass. Though he had been trying to avoid beer he suddenly felt like he needed it. He slipped a folded bill under the empty mug, easily enough to cover what he had had. He pushed his chair back and stood up, clearing his view of where the dark-haired girl had been sitting. A blond man had taken her seat; she was nowhere to be seen.
It was obviously fate that he wouldn't meet a beautiful, melancholy woman and was destined to spend his time with this moron instead. He had obviously pissed someone off.
Josh stepped out into the busy, balmy night.
Within moments, a tiny Thai woman approached them. She was no bigger than a ten-year-old child and appeared to be wearing an incredibly bulky dress made of hundreds of strips of fabric. Each strip was a different colour and pattern: reds, greens, blacks, triangles, stripes and spots. On many of them tiny shells had been sown, and beads added to the array. It wasn't until she got closer that Josh realised that the bulkiness was actually hundreds of fabric belts and scarves that were wound about her body, she looked like an overzealous snake trainer.
She held part of her clothing out to them. Josh smiled and bowed his head gently, while his newfound 'friend' snatched up the large camera that hung around his neck and blinded her with its flash. The woman did not look surprised. She simply held out her hand towards them.
Goose stared back at her blankly and Josh nudged him in his side.
"If you take her picture you should buy a belt off of her."
"But I don't want a bloody belt." Goose said, blinking in surprise, his voice edged with irritation.
"It doesn't matter. It's only a couple of baht and it is a matter of respect."
Goose looked at Josh in annoyance, forgetting his buddy-buddy attitude for a moment. He must have seen the look on Josh’s face for his shoulders deflated.
"Well, I suppose they're alright," he grumbled. He took the belt from the woman and dropped sixty baht into her open palm. She smiled and nodded her thanks before moving on to the next tourist.
Josh and Goose continued their walk down the Khao San Road towards the guesthouse. To Josh it felt like a walk of shame. The closer they got Josh found himself crossing his fingers and hoping that the travel desk would be closed.
As they passed one of the VW vans, the lady-boys who adorned it whistled and cooed at the men. Josh smiled at them, ignoring their advances, but Goose stuck his middle finger up at them. The lady-boys showed no signs of being offended and continued their cat-calls.
“They must be kidding,” Goose said. “Who the hell do they think they are? Do I look like a gay-boy?”
Josh cringed at Goose’s choice of language. He wondered why Goose even bothered to leave London if he wasn't going to accept other people’s cultures. Goose was soon distracted by a group of attractive girls wandering past.
“Alright ladies?” he called out to them as they walked by.
The girls ignored him. Josh watched as Goose turned, walking backwards to leer and whistle. Goose was oblivious he was mimicking the calls of the lady-boys he so despised.
Josh stared at the ground, embarrassed, he could feel people summing him up and lumping him into the same category as this uncouth creature.
The pair finally reached the guesthouse. The travel desk was still open and manned by the young Thai girl who had told him of the ticket change earlier. She was talking to a blond couple, pointing out routes on a large map covering the whole of the desktop. She must have noticed or sensed that someone had come in as she looked up straightaway. She caught Josh's eye and smiled.
Goose saw the eye contact and jumped onto it immediately. He bustled up to the girl.
“My mate over there reckons you can get me on a bus to Siem Reap tomorrow,” he said, talking loudly over the conversation she was already having.
The young couple looked up in surprise and the Thai girl looked back over at Josh. Josh hid his face in one hand, marvelling at what incredible bad luck had brought this awful creature into his life.
"I am sorry sir," said the girl. "I am busy at moment, please come back in ten minutes."
"But it won't take a second."
"I am sorry sir," she repeated, this time slowly and loudly as though speaking to a small child. "You must to wait." Then she turned back to her couple and continued where she left off.
Goose stared back at her for longer than was necessary, then realised she was going to continue to ignore him. He turned away from her and skulked back to Josh, his demeanour that of a schoolboy who had just been dismissed. Josh was delighted at her rebuke and was even more so when she looked up at him and gave him a tiny secret smile. Goose said nothing and slumped down into a plastic chair beside Josh. He stared angrily at the girl until the couple stood up and walked away.
"Come on then," Goose said, leaping to his feet. "Let’s make sure I can get on that bus tomorrow."
Josh rolled his eyes at Goose's retreating back, but didn’t follow him up to the desk. Goose didn’t even notice. He had already started talking to the girl about his trip. He spoke quickly and loudly, gesturing with his hands. Josh realised she was nodding in return and he tried to send her desperate looks. He was hoping the fear in his eyes would make her realise what he was trying to say.
Goose shifted in his seat, the flimsy plastic bending precariously under his weight, and took out his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and handed the girl a huge wad of notes. It was easily twice what Josh had paid, and the girl gave Josh that same cheeky smile.
Goose had been had, but he was getting the bus.
Josh sat down and put his head into his arms, suddenly exhausted. Goose slammed the ticket down on the table beside his head, making Josh jump.
"Time for a beer I think!" Goose declared.
Josh put his head back into his arms and mumbled into the crook of them. Goose thumped him on the shoulder for the tenth time in ten minutes and Josh wearily looked up at him.
"Come on, mate. You can sleep when you are dead. Let’s party!"
"Look Goose,” he said, shaking his head. “I really need some sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow."
Even longer now, he thought.
Josh could see him switching back into sulky boy behaviour, so he stood up.
"I'll see you in the morning," Josh said, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t.
Copyright © 2010 Marissa Farrar
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.