If it were not for the eye-hurting polar light Muscat could have been a spa for the anciently rich and well-bred. It seemed to be made up entirely of white villas, each street faced by chalky stucco, broken at intervals by chocolate piping, purple bougainvillea blossom and bottle green eucalyptus leaves. A few areas looked whacked, or over-strained, as if all that painstaking gentility was on the point of cracking apart, yielding to howling vastation. The pavements were littered with cylindrical hard brown seed cases like used ordinance.
I saw neither traffic nor people, nor much even in the way of animal life. No skulking dogs. No squashed cats, entrails strewn behind like seaweed. Not even the odd hoopoe barking in the gnarled shrubbery. I could have stumbled into an episode of The Prisoner or the aftermath of an atrocious biochemical experiment. When I turned a corner, the city took on the eerie two-dimensionality of a Giorgio di Chirico painting, the same retreating columns and stark shadows. The roads looked as if they’d been built for a busier age, flyovers feeding on to tree-lined avenues, floral roundabouts breaking up the monotony of the highways like hazards in a game of pachinko. But nothing moved, and no birds sang. I felt beamed down, or conjured up by an evil dreaming mind. I was the girl running with the hoop. I was the man with the blue suitcase, oceanic, fleeting, encrypted. I was a column of fire.
When I woke I saw the place was ringed with bare rocky hills the colour of parched cowpats. The receptionist was a man in a crisp white turban shaped like a vol au vent. He could vanish at will. Now you see me, now you don’t. He may not even have been there. (‘Don’t go!’ they’d said in Kuwait, horrified, ‘Oman is a land of sorcerers’.) On the second morning, two men washed the hotel’s marble floors with rag-ended mops, working with wild scything motions, while a third stood yoked, Christ-like, to two stainless steel pails. On the third afternoon, I saw an Asian woman in a pink nightie polishing an upstairs window, her face multi-faceted and tearful like a Picasso painting. On the beach a white woman stepped out of a blue tracksuit and into the wine-dark sea, while a cerebral Bollywood fan took up his post under a casuarina tree, to wait I knew (O worn and sorrowing mind) for her swimsuit to emerge wet and clinging to the beat of a dhol drum and a chorus of bhangra dancers. These were the only human sightings I had. Of course I exaggerate, but after Kuwait’s teaming streets, its thumping coffee-shops and bulging malls, its crowds bawling important instructions into headsets, its swaggering pavement-hoggers and salaaming (and crouching) utility workers, its crush of SUVs and stretch Hummers, its rearing trick-bikers and dodgem car-racers, it’s hyperreal smash-ups and queues of rubber-necking drivers, Muscat was a ghost town.
Emptiness is expectant. Silence is space stretched too far. It is antiphonic, humorous and slick, like a well-rehearsed magician and his patter. You can guess the problem. The god approached dissolves into the air.
Ram (‘I’m not a he-goat, ha ha!’) came out of the blue, small, wiry and squawking like a cartoon parrot. She was dressed in a micro-mini and a bustier. When she laughed, I saw she had vampire fangs. I mistook them for joke-teeth. She had a skein of tattooing running all up one side, from toe to throat, like a disfiguration. But she’d won a prize for it. ‘I am beautiful!’ she screamed, flattening the ‘b’, making it soft and squishy like a marsh mallow. ‘I came first in the Coral Pattaya Beach Tattoo Contest!’ Later she would show me, via a jerky webcam, the nickel-plated cup she’d won. Later still, in a house-boat on the River Kwai, in Kanchanaburi province, she would disclose, with unexpected shows of modesty, like an old-fashioned bride unveiling her secrets, a picture of a patrician lady in robes (Mona Lisa with a sneer) dangling her washing into a thin blue river—this was on her back. There was also a prehistoric fish, all gun-metal grey scales and stubby whiskers, plunging down her leg. ‘Fading’, she would remark with the lofty dismissiveness of a war veteran alluding to a shrapnel scar.
She led me into Muscat’s one and only night-club. It was called The Sahara. The men on the door looked her over with the squinty concentration of men who haven’t seen that many legs before but have been informed, by wild-eyed adventurers, what they do and what they might lead to. The place had been modelled on a Home Counties pub. It had beer mats, mock-Tudor beams and clumpy wooden furniture, and a bar staffed by affable cynics in matching tee shirts. The band thrashed drums and guitars while the singer did a pretty good impersonation of Dusty Springfield. Lots of middle-aged Caucasians stood around clutching beer glasses to their chests. They had the bewildered look of wedding guests who’ve just caught the bouquet. The ones that spoke with Ram were Australian oil-workers working for her sister’s Canadian husband, Bernie. This sister, Supa, had dyed blonde hair, which she wore around cosmetically altered features like a bandage. She was taller, half-hidden under a forage cap and pantaloons. She was also tattooed, a macaw peeking out of her waistline, with a diamond navel stud in its beak. There was a third woman with an acne rash like sections of Italian sausage, a blank expression and a set of Chinese characters running down one arm. This was Pizza, Supa’s lover, a farmer’s daughter with an even more awful past.
Speaking brisk American TV English (‘Yea right’, ‘Whatever!’), they were impressively up to speed with the latest put downs, tossing violent endearments at the men who tried to interest them (implicitly) in the contents of their wallets. All my hopes about cultural differences were dashed. These were not Star Trek exotics, or characters in a James Michener novel, with tapering fingernails, flattened napes, mysterious inner lives and gold-entubed Zarkonian bosoms. These were the sort of people who appeared on Big Brother. I white-knuckled a pint of lager, while Ram tossed off tequilas and Supa and Pizza performed an anthropological dance in the mosh-pit.
Ram had worked as a prostitute in Bangkok, Singapore and Pattaya, though since she’d always chosen her customers with care, and enjoyed herself each time, she confessed herself unsure if this was the right word for what she did. (She had a keen sense of humour, well-honed, it seemed, in bars frequented by runaway earls and Eurotrash drug-barons.) She’d left school at 15, giving up village life in Roi Et province to follow Supa south to Bangkok. Not only did this seem a better alternative to harvesting sugar-cane for a few measly baht, but Supa offered a future free of the attentions of another sister’s Swedish husband. Over the phone (we had to conduct most of our convos by phone), Ram remarked that she and Supa had been lovers from age 12 to 20, and had even contemplated nuptials, in some liberal-minded European country, in the first flush of sibling love. ‘Incest is somewhat tabu in Europe, especially where marriage is concerned’, I felt constrained to point out, thinking that perhaps what was impermissible even in Amsterdam was commonplace in Roi Et province. ‘In Thailand too!’ Ram said, in surprise. 'Everywhere!’ She appeared to think I was a bit dim. She had the habit of gobbling her words, and always seemed in a rush to get to the next horrific revelation. Her father was a retired assassin, who’d often had to flee to Laos after a hit. He had small knives concealed beneath the skin of his forearms, which could deflect a rival assassin’s strike. ‘I inherit my dark side from him’, Ram said darkly. She’d had other jobs—jeweller’s assistant, bar-girl—but mostly she’d been a kept woman (ah, a concubine, I thought desperately), in moments when she skipped Supa’s clutches, and had lived a fairly comfortable unexcitingly debauched life since.
I was inducted into the intricacies of the socius of the Thai fallen. A bar-girl wanted nothing more than to be ‘looked after’ by a foreigner. Ram referred to her patrons as Boyfriend Number One, Boyfriend Number Two, Boyfriend Number Three, etc., and could rattle out their ages, professions and accomplishments like a cash register. One had been the millionaire owner of a glassware factory, another had been the leader of a gang of Hell’s Angels, a third had been an Internet salesman from Norway. The last one had turned out to be married, but had striven to divorce his legal wife (a clinging Bangkok drunk) in order to make an honest woman of her. He’d been on his way to the lawyer when his motorbike turned over, and had become crippled and desk-bound. I was unable to unravel exactly why this disqualified him from Ram’s plans for social respectability. All I could get from her was that she was disappointed in life. She was staying in Oman while she recovered from too many snorts of crack cocaine. Over time, Supa had turned from Sapphic mate into a sort of Oprah Winfrey mother-figure, to whom Ram could turn in moments of terror or fatigue.
Supa was Pattaya’s success story. She was actually Ram’s half sister, sharing only one parent (the murderous father), and had not met her other family (or her father) until she tracked them down shortly after her marriage, at age 29. Her mother used to beat her, before chucking her out (Supa always reminded her of the father), so she’d lost even that crumb of comfort at an early age. She’d been working as a bar-girl in Pattaya when she’d met Bernie, an oil worker on a spree. He’d wanted to marry her the moment he set eyes on her. This was Supa’s opportunity. Marrying a rich foreigner was the ultimate dream and Bernie wasn’t even old. Supa seized her opportunity. But seizing it meant giving birth to three kids and living in Canada and then Oman. It also meant initiating Bernie into the mysteries of her sexuality and putting up with his momentary lapses of marital attention. But since the former didn’t involve men, and the latter was expected (‘Men have sperm for brains’), there was never going to be a problem. Pizza was her present lover. When Bernie was away—he was now in China—and the kids were at school, they liked to make love in front of Ram. Supa always took the man’s part (she had all the tools). Pizza, who was only opportunistically lesbian, preferred it that way. Ram was a not indifferent spectator. She was only put out that Pizza didn't want to return the compliment when it was her turn.
Pizza was something else again. She also had drug problems. She’d been abandoned as a baby, left on the side of a road in a rush basket, like an Old Testament prophet. She hadn’t had the same sort of advantages. She’d been rescued from a German crackhead with a bad temper.
Pattaya’s very own Mother Teresa, Supa had set about rescuing young women from their drugs and pimps. Ram had been her most significant rescue. I saw a photo of them together. They were both blonde, identically got up in make-up and smiles, both with snakeskin limbs. There were lots of pictures of Ram in unusual poses (all taken by her sister). I remember feeling worn out, rather than appalled, after she closed the album. This wasn’t Big Brother, this was The Jerry Springer Show. I’d been raised on a diet of Calvinist guilt and Freudian trauma. Surely Ram, Supa’s junior by 17 years, and 12 at the time they’d first met, had been the victim of paedophilia and abuse? Surely her vogueing and crapulence were the surface irruptions of a deeper emotional scarring? Perhaps the tattoos were a kind of shield—Look at them, not at me. But, then again, I was forgetting cultural theory. This sort of life must be contextualised; it was embedded in a community of practice. How could you apply Freud and Piaget to Thai sex workers when their lives, what they did, were not the same as those of the Viennese middle classes, c. 1890? —Sex workers? Was that an appropriate term? And hadn’t Ram made it clear that she was happy with herself? I’d thought such people were victims, of predatory white males, of neo-colonialism, or the flows of international capital. But Ram was nothing of the sort. No matter how hard I pressed her, I couldn’t get her to say she was ground down or oppressed. She liked who she was, and seemed to regard choice as a birthright rather than something you got when you graduated from Berkeley. She treated sex as a shopper might a strip mall. Orgasms required asceticism and single-mindedness, like metaphysics. After a few very long, very strange phone calls, I had, I decided, never met anyone quite so conscientiously depraved.
Their home in Oman was one of the white stucco villas. It had large rooms and a winding staircase. The fridge was stocked with king-size bottles of Fanta, packs of Anchor beer and Smirnoff vodka. We played pool under the sort of chandelier the settings in Dallas had made chic. We took turns. Supa played with screamed intensity, swivelling her cue and kicking her leg up in her efforts to force the ball into its pocket. Pizza was low-key, losing mutely and frequently. Ram liked to play for money. She put some blues on the CD player, and sang along, getting louder and more diva-like the drunker she got. Supa said she’d won a talent contest for her singing. I could see her doing well on Pop Idol. At one point, she fixed me with a glassy stare and belted out Celine Dion’s hit from Titanic.
On the river Kwai, she was much quieter, almost reflective, fearful of ghosts (Death Railway was just across the river) and the ever-present prowling dogs. She avoided the rain, but liked to gather ferns for lunch (‘I am a country girl still’) and sit in the dark listening to the frogs. ‘Romantic’, she told me. She kept a journal—two journals (one factual, the other interpretive)—and this was what had first piqued my interest. I wanted to read it, edit it, co-produce it with her as a book, transform it into a confessional piece with a poetic Far Eastern title. The Scent of Green Papayas had been taken. Ram grew more evasive the more I pressed her. Eventually she offered to recite me a bit to me from memory. It was a night scene in her home village. Her mother was washing her in the moonlight. This, she said, was her earliest memory. Ah, I thought, the opening bars of the sound-track (a softly tonking circle of gongs) already echoing in my ears. Then she clammed up. She said it was mostly written in Thai, so I wouldn’t understand it. I said I could translate it with her help. She said I would be shocked by the contents. I said that was unlikely.
There was so much I never heard. A layer of sense and possibility beneath all that spectacle and sensation. A small uneventful set of longings I hadn’t the ears for. The journal was always on my mind. Her refusal to show me or anyone else what was in it was a kind of redemption. By refusing, she escaped a peculiar late modern fate: being the next big thing, commodification into burgers and narrative, TV reality, an item on Richard and Judy. I will end with a text message she sent me from Pattaya [text as she wrote it], 8th May, 2006: Less people wake up such a morning like this all I do It only walk to toilet and get back 2 bed in the dark a lovely stupid frog still cry I dont know from what reson., Oh maybe there cry after rain or ask 4 rain more so there can swim and lay eggs., But its not romantic because I am alone., How ever I will try 2 close my eyes in the dark again., But cant shut my ears from the frog., I might plan to put the Boom in the frog house just make it shut so I can have sweet dream., But 2 sorry 4 a family frog betts I leave it i it grew old and die by it self.! A lot to write a about no sent.,