Lion Rock is set on a rugged coastal hillside, facing the setting sun, the whole hillside like an amphitheatre for the nightly show. Up on the road is the bar shaped like a boat, guarded by geese, loud with reggae and roosters and the roar of improbable vehicles. Down a steep path, just about negotiable by motorbike, is the main clearing. Rows of old rubber trees shelter a dozen huts, two boxing rings, a training area, a simple shower and toilet block, and another jerry-built bar with a pool table.
The third level is where I am, this jungled little valley coming down to the sea. Big tumbled rocks gnarled with tree-roots are stacked up at the ocean’s edge. At the edge of these is an old fisherman’s shack; branches overhanging the cliff, festooned with ropes and old floats. People come down here to fish. Tourists come down occasionally, during the season, to snorkel or kayak or just sit on the rocks. They don’t disturb me. My hut is a few dozen yards back from the ocean, back and up, since everything here is crazy steep.
It’s hauntingly beautiful down here. Up at the top, from the deck of the the boat, you’re presented with the huge brimming bowl of the ocean, textured, furred, molten, bristled, glassed, covered with silvery tracks like snail’s trails… then, when you come down here, the horizon comes in close, pearl-stringed with the dazzling lights of squid-boats. The moon rises over the hill, and illumines the whole valley when it’s full, adorns it with the crescent of its horns when new.
Here at the bottom of the hill, there’s a weird perspective. The ground falls away steeply to meet the sea, and somehow the sea seems to rise with equal steepness to the horizon. The illusion is of being in the nick of a deep V between land and water. At the angle, the join is marked by white water churning at and over the dam of rocks. At night a restless breeze comes off the ocean and skids up the slope; water and air in constant motion, and the land too in subtler ways.
Over to the right you can see the lights of Kata Noi beach. There are fireworks many nights, twinkling through the trees seconds before the sound catches up. And yet this little pocket of jungle is complete, a living ecosystem, distinct in its identity, its sense of itself. It is what it is.
The rains are back, coming in from the South-West. I see the showers and storms approaching, a second horizon moving towards me across the bay. Three days of rain already. It leeches the energy out of the place.
The boat leaks, water streaming down through its decks, rather than up through its hull, kind of an upside-down way for a boat to sink. All that comes up through the mud floor are streams of ants. In the bow is a raised stage with curved reed walls complete with wooden portholes; drums, amps and guitars, taped cables and dodgy plugboards. Somehow no one gets electrocuted, nothing shorts out. This is because Ai knows exactly where to position everything between the drips. At one stage he rigged up a complex system of funnels and hoses to gutter the water and escort it outside, but that went by the board when the new concrete bar got put in, a thing of crude design redeemed ever so slightly by the pattern of polished stones embedded along the surface. Behind the bar are two big coolers which have to be refreshed with ice every other day, and shelves of spirits for cocktails mixed and sold by the tattoo boys after they’ve closed their studio upstairs.
Down in the valley, the rain also stirs up the termites — or more properly carpenter-ants — which made a second attempt to move into my house. The first time was the first night I spent here. I woke up prickling all over, covered in tiny ants. When I put the light on I saw that the black highway streaming across my bed contained big black chewing machines as well, like tanks in a column of infantry.
Some nights you just have to admit you’re outnumbered and just sit up writing till dawn.
May as well put some music on.
I was patrolling a pachinko
Nude noodle model parlour
In the nefarious zone.
Hanging out with insects,
Under ducting —
The CIA was on the phone.
I spent about a month clearing the steep little valley where my hut sits between a rock and a huge old tree, a few yards from the sea. Slash and burn — more slash than burn, with all the rain we were getting. Thick, tangled vegetation, everything connected to everything else by the parasitic creepers and runners whose mission is to engulf the entire landscape. Jungle is tangle and jumble, filaments twining around everything from the ground to the tree-tops, big sheets of creepers hanging from the trees. When I moved in, there was nothing but the path with the steps Hoagy cut, and a few yards of space where the builders had stacked the bamboo. There was nowhere to go except down to the sea, or back up to the other huts.
It was a lot of work to strip jungle back to bare earth, but that’s what I wanted to do, to create some space. It was young jungle, and underneath I found evidence of previous clearings, charred wood and tree stumps. But for me it was all discovery — uncovering a different landscape of rocks, going down to the intermittent stream. Everything I’m looking at now was completely invisible under vegetation, even the twenty foot cliff overhanging the head of the valley.
As I cut and cleared, I began to see that it could become a kind of garden, and that between gradients I could define horizontal paths between the rocks. I liked the look and smell of raked, opened soil. Butterflies seemed to like it too; as the clearing grew, more and more came — five or six different kinds, but most often the ones coloured like tigers, tawny orange, white and black, and the ones I love the most, black with a flash of gentian, and the white ones veined with an almost Wedgwood blue. Small chameleonic lizards were also attracted to my work, hopping up on rocks or leaves beside me, long-limbed and four-handed, regarding me dispassionately with swivelling eyes, waiting for me to disturb something edible.
Cutting is the fun part; the hard work is dragging the vegetation out so you can burn it, patiently raking and pulling and severing. Then going over the soil with a hoe or adze, prizing out roots and axing clumps of grass. It will grow back quickly, so the last thing is that every day you must walk the ground you want to stay clear. I firmed and brushed until the ground was smooth and bare to walk barefoot, threading to and between the rocks: a garden of forking paths. I keep them raked and swept — the rest I’ve allowed to grow back selectively. Dark ivy leaves cradle and embrace the rocks, instead of smothering them. I want it to be a place to walk, sit, meditate, trip.
Sometimes I feel like Bob Arctor at the end of A Scanner Darkly, Philip Dick’s best novel in my opinion. His mind broken by the fictitious drug Substance D, he surrenders his shattered identity and is given a new one by the sinister rehab organisation, New Path. He is no longer Bob, no longer has a second name; now he is simply ‘Bruce’. He is put to work on the land, as his warden (dreadlocked Nueng) preaches at him about the benefits of living and working in nature. And it’s true, he finds himself calm at last, his mind empty but for mountain and sky and leaves and earth.
There is something beautiful about working on the land. The closest I’ve come to it before was working on a farm in the summers when I was a student. Those were great days. Brown skin, second skin of harvest dust. Tired muscles, and a red moon as I drive to my girlfriend’s house.
Thinking about that, I feel the ache and tug of the past. A long, long time ago now — another lifetime. Another person?
So give me a new name, put a hoe in my hand and set me to work.
The only thing that’s been holding me up has been the rain — not because it stops me working most of the time, but because it makes it impossible to burn anything, so I accumulate big backlogs of decaying vegetation. Then suddenly the wind dropped, the sea-swell stilled, and the season felt as if it was changing — but it was a false spring, and there was still rain most nights, sometimes heavy.
Still, I’m getting it done. I light huge, smoking fires every time it dries out enough. On this side of the stream the ground is gently sloping, with nice flat rocks — on the other side it rises quickly to the foot of the cliff — which would make a beautiful climbing wall, if climbing’s your thing.
I’m more into the horizontal, for now. Flat, gentle ground. Somewhere you can stand and look. A bamboo bed to sleep on, in a churning kaleidoscope of waves.
Hoagy came down to have a look, reclining like a huge, blue-green lizard on a rock, and pronounced me a ‘weapon’. We made plans, a favourite occupation at Lion Rock: a roofed platform as a place for meditation, or maybe someone could run yoga classes looking out over the sea. That unobstructed view all the way to India. I go along with Hoagy’s excited ideas, but somehow I already know none of it will happen. And I don’t care. Down already has a different vibe from the main clearing, centred around the boxing rings. More peaceful, meditative; another level of Lion Rock.
Kayla was here all day yesterday. She loves Lion Rock, and comes to hang out as much as possible. I am so happy to have found this place and that it’s something I can share with her. In turn, she helps make Lion Rock what it is. It’s somewhere she can be herself, where everybody knows and accepts her. That’s something she’s never had before. In fact she’s never had friends before — but she does now. For her, Lion Rock means inclusion and belonging. She feels at home in the loose community here, enjoys the animals, the music, the stories and all the crazy shit that happens. Whatever happens, she’s going to remember this place. Her first Bohemia.
She turned seventeen a month or two ago. She never went to school, and, as I always tell her, however left out that makes her feel, it’s an advantage in some ways. Like everything, it depends how you look at it. It makes her more open, I’d say, connected with reality perhaps — Kayla always keeps it real. That’s why I like her so much. She has a fresh openness of character; she’s a page on which the good people around her now can inscribe something beautiful — about what men can be, I hope, if nothing else. Kayla is brave, and honest, and what more, really, can you ask of anyone?
Kayla’s strange life-story means it’s a drag for her to answer a lot of questions, and this can make it difficult with new people at first. But she’s got to get used to that. Meanwhile, the core of Lion Rock knows her and accepts her completely. Nueng adores her; Hoagy high-fives her gleefully whenever their paths cross. Here she’s just another waif and stray; she’s what Lion Rock is for; she belongs here, I tell her, as much as anyone.
If she meets anyone who doesn’t know her story and asks her where she went to school or why she doesn’t speak Thai or anything like that, I tell her to to make something up. She can be who she wants. Don’t be ashamed of you mystery, I told her. Tell them you were raised in a forest by wolves, or whatever you like.
She doesn’t have much confidence for such role-playing, but the other night there was a young Russian guy at the bar who started asking her questions.
Even a standard opener like “Where are you from?” triggers a sideways look at me.
I take the lead. “Kayla was raised in a forest by wolves.”
It has the desired effect. He goes quiet, and we change the subject. Then he wants to know where the forest was.
“I don’t know,” says Kayla. “The wolves didn’t say.”
“Well,” he says, “then what kind of forest was it?”
“Tropical,” says Kayla without hesitation, because after all she doesn’t know any other kind.
“Really? A tropical forest with wolves? That is most unusual.”
Now she was stuck.
“Google it,” I said.
“OK,” said the Russian. “I will.”
After he’d gone I said to Kayla, “We may have to rethink the wolves. It might have to be monkeys.”
“Shit,” she said. “Please not monkeys.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Tigers? Leopards, maybe? Up to you. It’s your childhood.”
Tigers would have been a little too daring, perhaps. In the end she settled for Orang Utans, but she wasn’t happy about it.
“I miss the wolves,” she said.
I’d got up late, and had done only a little light work around the hut, because Hoagy and I had stayed up the night before, talking, playing pool and doing lines of coke. I wasn’t expecting her, but when I got hungry I went up to the clearing and took a shower, then revved my bike up the ragged trail to the road. Kayla was in her usual place at the end of the bar, lying on her front and playing with her phone, with Chickadee, the possible chicken, sitting on her back. We couldn’t quite work out what she was. The kids had rescued her, a little black thing with enormous feet, from a cat, and now she lived at Lion Rock with all the other waifs and strays.
I drove her into town to grab something to eat and buy a few things I needed, and then we headed back to the Rock. I asked her if she’d like to come down to the valley and set fire to stuff. Ooh yes, she said. She’s a bit of a closet pyromaniac, like me, and there was a lot of cut vegetation waiting to be burnt, which should be dry enough by now. We had fun building a fire and getting it started and tending it, sitting on rocks and talking in that comfortable way that has developed between us. Talking was one of her favourite and most important things, now. There were so many conversations she hadn’t had, though I suppose that probably goes for all of us, if we did but know it.
We had a smoke and walked all of my paths, because they are still fresh and need the tramping of feet to harden them. Suddenly she exclaimed as a hole opened up under her bare foot and a centipede with bright orange-red legs and head came shooting out, heading at high speed down the slope, hotly pursued by one of my lizard friends with an iguana-like fringe around his jaw. We watched as he took his time crunching up the big insect. Those ones with startling red legs and headgear, Ai told me later, have an insanely painful bite: pain that makes you want to gnaw your own leg off like a fox caught in a snare, and even morphine doesn’t make any impression on it.
Then the rain came in from the sea with thunder and lightning, so we sat on my verandah watching the torrents form and big earth-coloured stains take shape in the sea. As the storm passed over us a vertical bolt came down like a hammer on the hillside, close enough to set our senses reeling. We knew we were stuck for an hour or two, but we didn’t mind. I put some music on, and Kayla sat sketching as we talked and laughed about people and chickens and wolves. She even called herself by her assumed name at one point — the name she’d lived under for most of her childhood: I showed her how to roll a spliff, and she had a go, holding up the end-product as lumpy and saggy as a Christmas sock, laughing and saying, ‘Look! Kate’s first joint!’
Her father had made them choose new names. Her brother had gone for ‘Steve’; resolutely ordinary. Five-year-old Kayla wanted to be called ‘Kite’. It was a silly idea, she told me — what kind of name was that? She couldn’t remember where she’d got the idea; perhaps she’d come across a character with that name in book or something. But her dad wasn’t having it: far too conspicuous, he said. She could be Kate; Kate Michaels was suitably nondescript. Oh well, she was happy enough to keep her initial as a connection with who she’d been before.
‘Kite,’ I said. ‘I like it! Kite — that’s so cool. You should keep it, it suits you.’
She sputtered a laugh. ‘But it’s a…’ and she mimed flying a kite, looking up. ‘A thing.’
‘Also a type of bird,’ I said.
She didn’t know that.
It suddenly got dark, and even though the rain wasn’t letting up we climbed up to the clearing and had a game of pool at the Jigaro bar. There was no one around. That’s what happens when it rains — people get stuck where they are, whether in their huts or up at the boat. Rain hammers on tin rooves so loud you have to shout to talk. Bead-curtains of rain hang from every eave and doorway. We got bored with pool and braved the rain again, just a few yards to the big boxing ring where Nueng and Ai had set up the music gear. I turned the power on, slightly nervous about electricity because everything was so wet. But Kite sat down at the keyboard and started messing around, finding a big dramatic sound and playing the white notes with unselfconscious enjoyment. I stood beside her and supplied bass notes and twiddled knobs, and together we created epic thunderstorm music, abstract and cinematic, with the rain hammering and the thunder rumbling.
After a while Johnnie Buffalo appeared out of the darkness, bare-chested with a towel over his head. Kite was sitting on a stool, listening to me sing ‘All Along the Watch Tower’, looking extremely happy with the way her Sunday was turning out. Today had turned into something special for her. Fire, rain, lightning, and weed, sketching and talk and barefoot paths and music, what could be better? I asked Johnnie to look up the chords to ‘Perfect Day’, the Lou Reed song, on his phone, and I stumbled through it, Johnnie and me belting it out the choruses together with gusto, a spontaneous serenade to the laughing Kite. That was going to be my name for her from now on, I had decided. Five-year-old Kayla would get her wish.
It’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Such a perfect day
You just keeping me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on
By this time it was already about nine thirty and Kite thought she should probably be getting back. But it was still raining, and Johnny pointed out that there were several empty huts where she could sleep if she wanted to stay over. It was a good idea — the hill road would be treacherous even if the rain stopped. So we hauled our asses up the trail to the roadside bar to find something to eat. We were in luck. There was fish curry and barbecued chicken, plenty left for the two of us. The rain stopped while we were eating, and we went all the way back down to my valley to drink tea, eat Oreos and call her mother to let her know she wasn’t coming home. Then I armed her with my head-lamp, a can of insect spray and a bottle of water, and Kite set off back up the path to her hut.