Sunday, 1 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Paul & Rose

Paul and Rose
The year was 1986. I had met an English girl in Tokyo while living there for 2 years as a TEFL Teacher. As a relationship it had been a troublesome start, but when the time came for me to leave Japan she had surprised me by asking to join me backpacking from Tokyo to England. Incidentally, that girl is now my wife, but that's another story.

I had a route planned through Asia and then on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing back to Europe. A fellow traveller had told me about the little island of Koh Samet in Thailand. Arriving in Bangkok we headed across country by bus and eventually took a boat to the island. It was beautiful, and back then it had hardly started to become developed. We headed for what I had heard was a very secluded beach, arranging a ride on the back of an agricultural tuk tuk with a few others. Left in the jungle, we were pointed down through the dense undergrowth. Suspicious that they had taken our money and dumped us in the bush, we headed cautiously through the narrow jungle path and finally came out on high ground looking down over what we were told was called 'Paradise Beach'.

Koh Samet. A recent pic. Things are more developed now.

There is no question about it, by any westerner's standards, this was paradise. A small hidden bay with
a sweep of clean, white sand and a few thatched huts scattered at the back of the beach. Nearer the beach there was a kind of larger wooden platform with a thatched shelter over it. This was the cafe. Food was cooked on the floor by a young local woman on two basic calor gas burners. The kitchen consisted of a large plank of wood on a makeshift wooden trestle for chopping and two big buckets of water. But have no doubts, the cuisine – tropical fruits picked from the surrounding jungle and fish that were abundant in the facing sea – was out of this world. I have never tasted Red Snapper like it and the tropical breakfasts were to die for. And all this for minimal cash. The lady cook had many times, we were told, been propositioned by western restauranteurs but had refused to leave. Why would you?

There was little to do on Paradise Beach, but what there was felt just perfect. People read, swam and sipped mango juice or beer. In the evenings we all sat around the 'cafe' eating and drinking. Sometimes someone played a guitar and people sang. Once or twice in the three or four weeks we were there, we went fishing on the boat owned by the locals who casually 'ran' the cafe and beach huts. The huts were absolutely basic. Little rats lived in the gap between the thatch and would poke their heads out and look at you. They were fairly cute rats really. They never harmed us, although one ran across my feet once as we lay in bed – a thin mattress on the wooden floor.

Fellow Travellers
We got to know a number of people staying on the beach. A young Swedish couple, Lars and Anja, in the next hut to us who were so alike that many there thought they must be brother and sister. The huts had thin walls. It seemed unlikely to us, we politely assured them.

We became friendly with a couple of Canadians. They were from a town way up in the wilds of Northern Canada. Paul wore checked shirts and looked for all the world like a burly young lumberjack, which he was not. His partner was quite a lot older. Rose was a school teacher. She kept herself to herself at first. She wore thick glasses and read a lot. Like a classic overworked schoolmistress stereotype, Rose wasn't making the best of herself visually. Her hair was kind of nondescript and hung in her eyes. She wore dowdy clothes, even on a beach, and she had a slightly downbeat manner. Paul was not only younger, he was optimistic and cheerful. He didn't read books. He swam and sat with me drinking beer. We laughed a lot and talked about dirt biking. Eventually Rose came out of her shell and drank a few beers with us one evening. Gradually her whole physical appearance seemed to change. In fact when we went for a late night swim, it became obvious that her general attire and body language had been hiding a rather handsome figure beneath. More beer and some Mai Tai whiskey loosened Rose up no end and it was not long before I felt brave enough to ask her how she and Paul came together.

A Long Courtship
"Oh well it's a funny story really," she said, chuckling to herself. Maybe we'll tell you one day.
She looked over at Paul, shyly. Paul told her to carry on and tell the story. Rose being a teacher of English Literature, told it well. Her timing and her powers of description had us all entranced. I will try to do it justice in my recounting of it:

"The town where we live is one of those kind of one horse towns where everyone knows each other from school. Most of us are probably distant cousins somewhere along the line. Well that's a bit of an exaggeration, the population is probably a hundred thousand but you get the picture I'm sure. There's not much to do in our town after work except drink and watch movies or TV. Paul goes dirt bike riding with friends, but even that's an excuse for drinking beer. My husband was the headmaster of the high-school where I work. We'd been married for around 12 years when I discovered he'd been having an affaire with a waitress. That waitress was Paul's wife. I didn't know them back then."

I think we were all surprised at Rose telling us this in such a matter of fact way (my girlfriend and I and the Swedish couple), given that she had stayed silent for our first few days, but she seemed to be rather enjoying it.

"Now I had always wanted to travel," explained Rose. "I pleaded with my husband for us to go travelling together even before we were married, but he was always against it. It was the money, or it was that there was plenty to see and do close by, or it was the risk of one of our parents getting sick while we were away. He had plenty of excuses. There was absolutely no persuading this man, however hard I tried and despite some compensations – being the wife of the local headmaster carrys with it some status in our town – it made me feel miserable and really like I was kind of wasting my life, you know? So when I discovered his dalliances with your friend there's hot little wife, I was pretty mad. There was me sacrificing my innocent desires for him, while he was getting busy amusing himself with a waitress half his age and a quarter of his intellect – I'm sorry Paul, but you know it's true."

"I know that Rose, I know that. I was drunk when I met her and she told me next week she'd fallen pregnant. Marrying her seemed the nice thing to do. It was a bummer to find out she made it up but what the hell."

"Paul is too nice for his own good, you see. My husband was not the first as it turns out, but he was a class above the philanderers she was used to, and being a rabid opportunist she wasn't going to let that chance go by, oh no! She hung on. And this is the bit that hurts. Do you know within a week of me confronting them in that motel, that son of a bitch (excuse me but I called him worse), he had quit his job and moved in with her. Moreover by the end of the week he had called around and told me I could keep the house (a big mortgage anyway!) because they were so happy together and him and Marianne were going travelling. Off around the world! My goddam dream.
Can you imagine my anger? I told him I wanted all his stuff out of the house. I didn't want a sign nor smell of him in that house ever again."

We four in the audience all agreed that her anger must have been unimaginable. But what next?

"Well pretty soon they'd gone," said Rose. "The whole town was talking as you can imagine. Then one night I got a call from him. My love-struck husband that is. He said Marianne's husband (that's Paul here) being such a good-hearted guy, had said he could store his stuff at Paul's appartment and that Paul would be calling round with his pick-up the next day to collect it. I mean, I thought well, this guy Paul must be some kind of simpleton – sorry darling, but you know. Well Paul came the next day – it was a Saturday – and he worked his butt off carrying all this stuff out to his truck. It was a beastly hot day and I felt sorry for him. When he'd finished I called him onto the porch for a cold beer and a sandwich. I think I was quite moved by how kind he was, and how generous spirited he was being about it all under the circumstances. Anyway the next day he called me and said he'd left his car-jack behind and could he call round and maybe he could invite me out for a pizza so we could talk all this over a bit more. I could see how he needed to talk to someone so I said yes.
So this kind of became a weekly thing. We helped each other. I told him about the travelling thing and that it was this more than losing my husband or being cheated upon that was making me so mad. The next week Paul came with a Lonely Planet guide and pitched the idea to me of him escorting me travelling. He'd always wanted to travel too, or at least that's what he said. And so that's how we're here."

The sun had disappeared over the horizon now and it seemed like a fitting way to end the story. The four of us others made lots of 'Oh how amazing' kind of comments and then turned to Paul to say what a great and thoughtful thing he'd done. He was embarrassed. There was a kind of void still hanging there though. Something we needed to know, yet none of us could identify exactly what. But Paul knew instinctively.

"Well I did wanna be kind to her, of course. She was pretty cut up and angry. But to be honest... Well, I'd always liked older women y'see. Especially librarians and... well I think I used to have a crush on my English teacher in school, so you know, you don't think that could happen in reality. But it was always a kind of a thing for me."

"But Paul, you mean?" exclaimed Rose, suddenly. She searched for words. "God, I never thought..."

We were all stunned. They had been away for a month already, travelling through China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Surely the opportunity would have come up before now?

"I... I didn't wanna be pushy," said Paul. "Yeah it does seem a long time to wait, I know, but I kinda thought if we came away together, then maybe..."

In the stillness, only the waves could be heard, breaking gently onto the sand. None of us wanted to break that silence.

"I suppose I was waiting for the right moment," said Paul finally.

Rose sat there staring into her glass. Paul had sensed he should probably give up trying to explain. Perhaps he'd totally blown it now. He looked annoyed with himself.
I think we all felt uncomfortable for them. For Paul in particular. One of us tried to change the subject. I offered to go to get more drinks but neither Paul nor Rose responded – not until eventually Rose put down her glass and stood up. Reaching out, she took Paul by the hand and brought him to his feet. Silently she led him down the beach. In the glow of the stuttering oil lamps reflecting on the water we watched her lead him into the sea and then gently fold her arms around him. Cautiously he bent to kiss her. I think Anja sighed. Sinking into the cool black water they bobbed about for a while, talking. Then after a few minutes we saw the silhouettes of their two heads growing smaller as they swam slowly away.
"Breakfast must be strange tomorrow I think," murmured Lars.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

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