Call me Al. I was drinking with Oliver in a bamboo hut on the beach at Crawford’s Place and well into my second ice-cold Chang. It was late afternoon in July and the air was magically clean with the passing of one of the first storms of the wet season. I’d been in Thailand about a year, working as the sous chef at the new Andaman Pearl resort in Phang Nga province. Everything was right with the world.
“Secrets of the kitchen,” I said, “you don’t want to know!”
“Give me an example. I can handle it,” said Oliver.
“Alright, I’ll start you off easy. Bread and butter pudding,” I offered.
“Okay,” said Oliver.
“I’ve seen it made from yesterday’s pastries.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“I’ve been known to eat them,” said Oliver, “and I ain’t even a member!”
“Leftover bacon from the breakfast buffet,” I said.
“Is that the best you got?”
“Okay,” I said definitively, “everything on the specials menu contains leftovers. Everything. It’s like a noble tradition.”
“Yeah, maybe I didn’t want to know,” said Oliver as Betty delivered our food.
Crawford’s Place was about 500 yards south along the Andaman coast from the resort. He ran the place with his Malaysian-Chinese wife Betty. There was a bar and kitchen area with a BBQ pit in the centre, and eight bamboo and palm thatch huts placed just above the high tide mark, jungle behind. You sat on the floor of the hut and either dangled your legs over the side or leaned against one of the bamboo posts, as I was doing at the time.
Like most people, the first thing I’d noticed about Crawford Jensen-Smith was his stupid hat. It made me doubt I could ever take him seriously. But that turned out to be wrong. I’d met him on my first day in Thailand. It was early morning and he was walking towards me along the beach with a bag fashioned from old fishing net. He was stopping occasionally to pick up the litter washed ashore overnight by the high tide: single shoes; soft drink bottles; jagged pieces of polystyrene; and fishing rope, that sort of thing. He was a lurching figure, well over 6 feet tall, 60 years old, with fair skin and a mop of white hair. And the stupid hat of course; it was a tattered panama with some kind of regimental striped hatband in dark green, red and black. He was British and over the previous forty years had fallen down through the expatriate archipelago of Hong Kong, Singapore, KL and now here.
By contrast, his friend, and my drinking companion Oliver Fisher had spent the first 25 years of his life looking at short grass prairie in Texas. On a family holiday to Galveston he’d run away and joined the merchant navy and then spent the next thirty years looking at the sea. He now spent his time in a bamboo hut at Crawford’s Place, mostly looking at people. He was mid-fifties, built like an old washing machine and had a grizzled, grey beard.
As Oliver started to eat his seafood special, a tall, young woman walked up from the beach and came over. She had a plain, Teutonic face and brown hair cut short like a boy. But it was her athletic figure that caught my eye; maybe she was a volley-baller? She asked us if we knew anything about Ulrich. Crawford was behind the bar and gave me a worried look. Oliver looked her over briefly and then stared out to sea.
“How do you know Ulrich?” I asked, cautiously.
“I am his wife,” she replied with a hard German accent vife. I also noted her use of present tense am. She extended her hand, “I’m Karin.”
“Call me Al,” I replied. Under different circumstances I would have definitely gone there – after all I was 29, she wasn’t wearing a wedding band, and Ulrich, well Ulrich was quite dead. That he’d had a wife was one of the many things I didn’t know about him. I’d seen him alive only a handful of times.
“How long since you’ve seen him?” I asked her.
“About two years.”
“Let me buy you a drink,” I said. I gave Crawford two fingers and he brought over a couple of Changs.
It turned out Karin had made the trip out from Germany looking for psychological closure rather than Ulrich. For all practical purposes their relationship had ended two years earlier while on holiday in Thailand. She went back, Ulrich stayed. Somewhere along the line he’d sold his passport and made himself effectively stateless. He was about to be declared dead in absentia by a German court.
On sunset, Crawford turned on the electric lights. The globes were strung between the huts and gave the place a festive feel as they swayed in the sea breeze that was also keeping the mosquitos from landing. Karin seemed a sweet person and part of me felt she deserved to know. I even toyed with the idea of telling her something close to the truth. I decided there was nothing good to come from it. I felt I decided this for her as much as I did for me.
“Look I hate to tell you this”, I said finally, “but I heard Ulrich was taken by a shark.” Oliver and I watched her reaction. She took the news pretty well. She spoke of the changes she’d noticed in Ulrich, the changes that had driven them apart. She spoke about the drugs, his growing anger and the sadness of it all. She finished her beer, squeezed my hand in thanks and left. We watched her walk back up the beach and disappear into the darkness.
“I think you did the right thing,” said Oliver as we watched Crawford drift over from behind the bar.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Yes, the right thing,” concluded Crawford, offering me a fresh Chang and passing a glass of El Dorado Demerara to Oliver.
We were all tense from Karin’s visit, reminded of the truth that bound us together as friends. Oliver broke the spell.
“Stranger things have happened at sea,” he began.
This is what Oliver says when he is about to deliver one of his questionable seafaring stories or arcane facts. His delivery was so authentic I could never tell if he was lying, even with Google. And after a while I didn’t care. I wanted to live in a world where Oliver’s stories were true, even if they were a little made up.
“I once knew a French woman who used to smuggle baby lemurs on her personage,” said Oliver. He sipped his rum.
“Baby lemurs you say?” asked Crawford, knowing the story.
“Yes,” continued Oliver, “she’d tuck them in her armpits and at a glance their fur looked exactly like a European-style underarm.”
Some beer came out of my nose.
“You have to ask him how many she smuggled each trip,” said Crawford, smiling.
“Oh alright,” I said, taking the bait, “was it two at a time, one under each arm?”
“No, it was three,” said Oliver at length, “baby lemurs have the softest little hands, you know.”
The laughter brought some relief. I’d become close with these two old friends. The three of us had the same values, proven by a shared experience. A shared secret really, a truth we alone knew. Like I said, Ulrich was quite dead – we were there when it happened. But not one of us was exactly responsible.
Let me explain. Ulrich was a bad character, and the world is better off without him. He’d come here in the mid-90s to train at the kickboxing school in Khao Lak. Back then Thailand was a popular steroid travel destination. Young white boys would come for a couple of months, live in a kickboxing school and load up on cheap, equine testosterone. They’d go back home looking buffed and with some fighting skills. Some came back, like Ulrich and got into more nefarious dealings.
I’d been in Thailand about three months and was at Crawford’s Place one afternoon when Ulrich had a savage argument with Crawford and threatened to kill him. I knew immediately that it was in him to do so; Ulrich’s anger was visceral and frightening. I found out later that Ulrich supplied Crawford with seafood. Crawford had discovered Ulrich was catching his fish using stolen Royal Thai Army M67 hand grenades. Crawford, an environmentalist at heart had refused to take the fish.
When I arrived for work the next morning, Thai Police were at the Resort. I ran down to Crawford’s Place to see what was happening. One of Crawford’s beach huts was burned to the ground; it was a clear message from Ulrich. I found Crawford visibly upset with Betty consoling him.
“Locals say they heard an explosion,” said Betty as I knelt down beside them in the sand.
“Like a hand grenade?” I asked. Nobody answered.
Unusual for a Thai, Inspector Pak of the Tourist Police was an officious prick. I hung around nearby as he was questioning Crawford. I thought he was unnecessarily hard on him.
“What can you tell me Mr Crawford? This is connected with your German friend I think?” said Inspector Pak, stating a fact.
“He’s not a friend,” said Crawford, deep in thought.
“I know a fragmentation grenade blast when I see one,” said Inspector Pak. “And I notice you serve BBQ fish on your menu. Perhaps you could help me find someone who’s using stolen grenades to catch fish?”
“I don’t think you know who you’re dealing with, Inspector,” replied Crawford.
“I wonder what is your wife’s citizenship status?” he asked finally. “Perhaps you’ll give it some thought?”
As the Inspector left I gave him a dirty look and went behind the bar to make Crawford a tonic water. He nodded in thanks and pushed his stupid hat back on his great snowy head. He was tired.
“I’m too old to pack up and move again,” he said after a while.
“Then somebody should do something!” We looked around to see Oliver walking in.
In the early afternoon we set off towards the reef in Oliver’s fishing boat. I looked at my companions: both old men. I wasn’t sure what the plan was but we were going to find Ulrich and confront him. I began to feel we were under gunned. After about an hour we heard the dull thump of an explosion. Oliver corrected our heading. Then we heard another explosion, a little louder. Eventually we spotted Ulrich’s boat. He was netting the stunned fish from his last grenade and filling his crates. The coral reef where he’d dropped the grenade was destroyed. This was not a fishing ground that could ever be used again. I threw out a sand anchor and Oliver turned off the engine.
“How’s business?” asked Ulrich when we were alongside.
“More sustainable than yours,” said Crawford.
“Perhaps you’ve reconsidered our commercial arrangements?” said Ulrich.
“Inspector Pak is on to you,” said Crawford.
“And am I looking at three men who would rat on me to the Inspector?” asked Ulrich with a sinister look.
I looked around. We were miles out to sea, no land in sight. The genuine folly of this adventure struck me. I was a sous chef on a fishing boat with two old men facing off against an angry German full of horse steroids – who also had a crate of stolen hand grenades. When I looked back the situation had deteriorated. I saw Ulrich pull the pin from a grenade and lob it into our boat. It clattered around on the fiberglass deck.
“Jesus!” shouted Oliver, grabbing me by my belt and shanghaiing me into the wheel house. “Get down man!” he called out.
We both watched in astonishment as Crawford calmly picked up the loose grenade and threw it sidearm like a cricketer, hitting Ulrich squarely in the forehead thwock, and knocking him unconscious and out of his boat. The grenade plopped into the sea beside Ulrich’s limp body and began to sink. After what seemed an eternity it exploded, producing a loud whomp, a water-jet and a circular shockwave. We looked at Ulrich, floating face down in the water. Gradually he was joined by a school of stunned reef fish as they bobbed to the surface.
“I should turn him over,” said Crawford. “He might be alive.”
Oliver touched Crawford on the arm, “strange things happen at sea.”
“Yes, I suppose they do,” replied Crawford in a soft voice.
We watched Ulrich’s body for long enough. Again, Oliver broke the silence.
“Seems a shame to waste the fish,” he said and set about netting them into our boat.
Meanwhile, I was having a quiet breakdown, the adrenaline still coursing through my body. I was taken aback by how matter-of-fact Crawford and Oliver were; like two old Sergeants picking through the debris of the battlefield. As if this was just standing operating procedure or something. Crawford noticed me and came over.
“You’re going to be okay,” he said firmly. “A lot of people will be grateful for what’s happened here today.”
“Nobody is going to believe what just happened here!” I screeched. “Try explaining this.” I gestured to Ulrich’s floating body and Oliver nonchalantly scooping up the fish. “I don’t want to go to prison!”
“Nothing just happened here,” said Crawford calmly, “but you might want to look away for a minute.”
It was wise counsel. When I turned back Ulrich’s body was still in the water, but it was secured to our boat by a stern line tied to a gaff that was hooked through his ribcage. Crawford was busy hacking some sizeable gashes in the body with a knife shaped like a curved machete. He washed the blade in the water and gave Oliver the nod and we set off trolling Ulrich’s body at about 10 knots along the reef. The first sharks were tentative but within twenty minutes there wasn’t much left of the German. Oliver set a course for home with the setting sun on our backs. Whether I liked it or not I’d just joined a secret society.
As our boat pulled up at Crawford’s Place we saw Inspector Pak and six of his fellow police officers watching us, smiling.
“We’re screwed,” I said, looking at the stern line and gaff and what was left of Ulrich. I began to cry; I’d heard about Thai prisons.
“Hold your nerve, lad,” said Oliver as he throttled down and let Crawford off in the shallows. Crawford waded in and went to talk to the police. We watched as he directed the officers to one of the huts and served them some beers. He waded back to us.
“The Inspector and his men will be joining us for a celebration BBQ,” said Crawford, trying hard to supress a smile.
“The Royal Thai Navy found Ulrich’s abandoned boat with a sizeable stash of M67s. They’ve declared victory in the search for the grenade fisherman.”
“Strange things happen at sea,” said Oliver, taking his baseball cap off and using it to wipe the sweat from his brow.
“Oh, I’ve told them I’m serving a BBQ pork rib special,” said Crawford, “would you give me a hand on the grill Al?”
They both looked at me, as if to say, “do we have an understanding?”
I looked over to the huts where the police were celebrating, the setting sun illuminating my beloved beachfront paradise. I looked back to Crawford and Oliver.
“Secrets of the kitchen,” I replied.