POSTCARD#297: Bangkok: 6pm: A coffee shop near to Banglampoo, plugged into an iTunes track, when another sound breaks through; someone calling my name – there’s a man coming towards my table. I stand up too quickly and the headache stabs me, one earbud yanked out, and the phone spins away on the other one still attached, falls off the surface and hits the table leg; crash, bash.
Reaching for phone suspended on-cord-pulled-tight, thus thrust into real time, all-around sound… a face without a name appears. Mind-rush-through-memory-files, searching for nearest match. A hand extends into my space: ‘I saw you in the window!” he says, by way of explanation. It’s Jim! Remember me? How’re ya doin’ pal? – How long has it been? I shake his hand held out for handshake, warm firm grip.
Yes, it’s Jim, same face, older, threads of hair combed carefully over a bronzed skull with brown age spots on smooth old skin held at the corners like curtain folds beneath which, enquiring eyes look out… an unfinished sentence. Recognition starts to kick in, laughter – good-looking teeth, I see a row of white back molars, and for an instant, the smile seems to go all the way round 360 degrees, so that the upper half of his head becomes separated from the lower.
This is too weird; I manage to swallow a headache pill with a swig of water. How is it possible, running into each other like this after a decade or more in old Bangkok? He tears a piece off my paper coaster and writes his phone number on the back in large emphatic numerals. Sorry but he is on his way to somewhere else right now but I have to remember and give him a call. We shake hands again and he’s gone in the crowd.
Running into someone I know from decades ago; small world, I suppose – now I’m resident here until who knows when. My coffee cup balanced unevenly on a torn coaster, and in the centre of my vision, the other part with his phone number written on it. Should I call him tomorrow? It’s been so long, so much water gone under the bridge. What to say? Tell him about my headaches? Nope, that’s a whole discussion in itself. I pay the bill; get up and out into the huge sound of evening traffic.
All kinds of changes since I’ve been away, a proper place for pedestrians to walk, these streets seem to have moved into gentrification. Either that or I’m becoming part of recent history. My old buddy Jim would remember how it used to be, streetlights with bare wires twisted together in junction boxes, broken paving stones and the infrastructure of the city poking through into ordinary reality.
There’s always been a particular care in Thai behaviour, but these days there’s a civic responsibility that wasn’t there before. Streetlights show the patina of small slippered-feet-shuffle over smooth sidewalks. The handrails on pedestrian over-bridge, polished and worn smooth with Thai palms, fingertips, sliding along – I feel I’m part of them, holding on.
Should I call old Jim? Would it be relevant to him, me saying that I just moved back to Bangkok after a great number of journeys between here and Delhi, North India? Nope, that’d only confuse things; he would assume I’d been here all this time. Why go anywhere else, he’d ask. We are refugees from the West embedded in Thai society, gratitude to the population who just move over and make space for us.
What is it then? Under what circumstances do our paths cross here in this part of town after nearly 3 decades? Maybe it’s nothing, no reason… a window opening onto karmic flows, and for a moment we can see the functions of our relationships with each other – always a ‘birth’ of some sort in the creative unfolding, and then it moves on.
I should tell him, a child was born downstairs from us, 22nd December 2017, like something biblical. The baby son of Jiab’s nephew, I held the tiny being in my arms, a haze of soft black hair. We never had a child of our own; maybe we can borrow this one for a while. Recognition of body heat, breathing, moisture of mouth, the small weight. Eyes slide open at the sound of my voice, a blue glaze of filminess. Could be an ancient artifact – the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself: anicca dukkha anatta.