On the fourth day after the fight that lasted three minutes followed by the party that lasted three days — on the Monday morning, when training recommenced — Hoagy did his knee again. It was bad; he knew immediately. So bad that he disappeared from Lion Rock and didn’t come back for four days. He must have spent most of them lying down, since he could hardly walk. Head back, no doubt, coke running down the back of his throat. But by the end of the week he was back at Lion Rock, taking massage from Na Keow, writhing in pain on a table in the bar and groaning, “Why? Why did I have to kick him so hard?”
It was karma. He’d felled his opponent with a side-kick to the knee and and sent him back to the dressing-room on a stretcher.
The massage sessions were pure punishment. The Thai approach to such injuries is the opposite of Western medicine. The West says, immobilise the limb, apply cold. The East says, mobilise the limb, apply heat — apply pain. So Hoagy was blasting through it the Thai way, using the pain to mask — or maybe force himself to face — the fear: the fear that this was it, that he’d never be able to fight again, and without that discipline he would fall apart, lose himself, and blow all the gains he’d made. I realised the only thing Hoagy was really afraid of was himself.
“Yeah, it’s karma,” I said. “But you can’t know whether it’s good or bad.”
“Good??” said Hoagy, and “Aargh!” at the same time, so it came out kind of like “Gaargh!!”
“Why not?” I said. “You won’t know until later. Maybe it makes something else happen and something else and later you look back and realise it wasn’t a punishment, just a redirection. You can’t calculate karma, just like you can’t negotiate with it.”
I was picking up conversation we’d had another night. He’d been bigging me up for what I’d done to help Apsara’s kids, and I’d confided to him that I’d known I had to change my karma after my mother died. That I’d put everything on hold by becoming a drug addict for two years, and had imagined I could hear the creaking of a great avalanche of bad things about to come down on me.
“I thought maybe you were hoping to get into Apsara’s pants.”
“Well, that too. I did want to get back together with her. I tried not to think about it, but it’s true.”
“Sssss…aargh!” Na Keow’s thumbs exploded Hoagy’s hissing laugh.
“Anyway, it didn’t work. But that’s how it is. If you do something for someone else, good karma’s gonna come in whatever currency it chooses. You might not recognise it. But you can’t negotiate with it.”
Listen to me, schooling the great Hoagy. But I’d realised something as I was speaking, so I was schooling myself.
“I hadn’t got involved,” I said, “I wouldn’t be here now. So I wouldn’t have met you.”
He liked that.
“It is what it is,” said Hoagy.
“That’s right, man.” Gesturing towards the knee. “Maybe this happened for a reason.”
“Maybe,” he said.
And convulsed as Ne Keow hit the spot again.
Then in a strangled voice: “But I’m still gonna fucking kill Johnnie.”
To have the knee go again after the long struggle to rehabilitate it was a disaster. It couldn’t be completely coincidental that the injury came at the end of three days of over-indulgence. A more considered post-fight regime might have helped avoid it. He knew he shouldn’t blame Johnnie, but — what the hell? — he decided to anyway. Why not? Somehow it seemed inevitable that Johnnie should be in front of him when it happened. They were sparring, and Hoagy was getting frustrated with Johnnie’s half-hearted approach. He wanted three-quarter power in Johnnie’s punches and kicks, but was getting less than half. And Johnnie needed to be able to take a punch, he said, needed to harden up the skin around the eyes. So Hoagy was trying to goad him and putting too much into it, when his standing leg had buckled under him mid-kick. It wasn’t Johnnie’s fault, but Johnnie was the trigger. Johnnie was the bad luck.
“I’m gonna — Aargh! — fucking kill ‘im. AARGH!!”
Johnnie had been around at Lion Rock as long as I had. He was Hoagy’s first recruit, moving in to Lion Rock months before I did. In fact I’d met Johnnie before I met Hoagy, that night when the boat had been top-heavy with soldiers, and all the talk was of the film that never happened, the story of a traumatised soldier living in the woods. I’d chatted with Johnnie, and something about our conversation that night had left me feeling puzzled. He looked to be in his early thirties, with a strong physique and a handsome, long-boned face, but he seemed oddly uncomfortable or unsure of himself. He had very clear eyes, their pale, vivid blue contrasting with his dark hair and beard. But his brow was habitually furrowed, and those beautiful eyes flicked sideways at me as he spoke, as if to check the effect of his words.
I assumed he had a military background like everyone else on the deck, but that wasn’t the case — though he told me he’d been thinking about enlisting until this guy Hoagy (that was the first time I heard the name) had talked him out of it. He’d been hanging out in Patong when he’d run into these guys who were making a film about PTSD. Ex-soldiers all of them, they’d struck Johnnie, in his words, as ‘next level’. Johnnie, who despite his looks was only twenty-one and trying to decide what to do with his life, decided there and then that he wanted to become a soldier. He tagged along with the group and came with them to Lion Rock, where Hoagy, eight years and several life-times his elder, soon talked him out of the idea.
So now Johnnie didn’t want to be a soldier, he wanted to be Hoagy. He stayed in the jungle and started learning Muay Thai. He’d done some boxing, Western style, at school, and had got the idea that he was good at it. Twenty-one and full of egotistic fantasies, he thought he was going to be a big champion. It was this constant self-inflation that quickly started to grate on everyone. Thais are tolerant people, but big egos will always be cut down to size. Nueng and Ai soon gave him his name, Johnnie Buffalo.
It’s kind of a cool name, actually, unless you know what it means. The enduring, traditional insults in Thai are all about animals. For instance, the equivalent of ‘Fuck you!’ in Thai is ‘I hia!’ which means, ‘You are a monitor lizard!’ Monitor lizards often live in canals and sewers. They are ugly things and aggressive with it, and calling somebody a hia is fighting talk. Buffaloes, on the other hand, are just stupid. Not unpleasant animals — not at all. They have beautiful eyes, like Johnnie. Brown, of course, not Johnnie’s haunting shade of blue. Big, soulful eyes with long lashes. But they are stubborn and unteachable, just like Johnnie.
By the way, don’t be annoyed, Johnnie, if you’re reading this. Don’t let the name haunt you, Johnnie — own it! Doesn’t matter how you got it, it’s gangsta. Has a good rhythm. Own it. Make something of it. It’s yours, at least.
We farangs are all buffaloes around here, compared to these capable Thais. They are the ones who’ll survive when it all comes down. They have skills, and they have community.
‘Oh, look what Johnnie Buffalo do now,’ complains Nueng, opening the cooler. ‘He put i in i-bock but not put beer. Johnnie! Johnnie Buffalo! You know how much I spend on i every week? Two thousand, three thousand baht. What you keep cold Johnnie? You keep Thailand cold?’
Nueng likes to keep the bar areas clear and tidy. Johnnie has a habit of leaving his T-shirts everywhere, stripping them off once the day gets warm and then forgetting them. Nueng simply picks them up and keeps them, or passes them on to his wife or Shogun or Ice to wear. There are days when Nueng’s whole family is dressed in Johnnie’s T-shirts.
There are two bars at Lion Rock — the boat, up on the road, and a sturdy shack built out of rough timbers down by the boxing ring. Johnnie was put in charge of it. Perhaps some responsibility would bring out the best in him. He was supposed to open it for morning training and serve fruit smoothies, but nothing was happening. Ai had christened it the JIGARO BAR — gigolo, that is — and made a wooden sign. Johnnie Gigolo fancied himself with the ladies, and boasted about that as well. The Thais weren’t having any of it. Not their way at all. Their way was mockery.
Hoagy’s way was more forceful. I’ve seen him yelling at Johnnie, jaws wide open, roaring in Johnnie’s face so viciously that you think you can see his epiglottis vibrating like in a cartoon.
“You’re not ‘quick’!” screams Hoagy. “What the fuck are you talking about? Quick? Quick? Everybody here is quicker than you!!”
Apparently Johnnie thought he was intelligent. Intelligent enough to argue with me about whatever I was talking about. What Morgan did to Tesla, for instance.
“But, Paul, there are no rules, Paul,” says Johnnie Buffalo.
So the trust-fund kid was on the bankers’ side. Johnnie’s father had died when he was two years old, and his step-father was an actuary. There was money put aside for him when he decided to stop fucking about in Bohemia.
I didn’t like to be around this Hoagy-Johnnie antagonism: Hoagy turning into some kind of psychotic drill-sergeant, and everybody else going quiet. I’m sure Hoagy didn’t feel good about it either, losing his cool like that.
Is that just how it is? For every golden-haired warrior like Hoagy — for every god-man with a destroyed ego — must there always be some inferior, dark version dragging him down, some self-worshipping donkey like Johnnie? Perhaps it’s inevitable; that the is attracts the wannabe, the real attracts the fake. That there are always hyenas hanging around the lions.
Johnnie wasn’t good at getting up in the morning, when most of the chores got done each day. So one morning Hoagy grabbed one of the geese, hugging it in his arms and carrying it to Johnnie’s hut, where he stuffed it in through the window, because Johnnie liked to lie in bed until training time. You can only imagine the honking, hissing, flapping, biting chaos that must have ensued in the tight space. A bit rough on the goose, and Hoagy had apologised profusely to the bird afterwards and promised never to do it again. As far as he could tell, the goose had forgiven him.
Another time Hoagy forced Johnnie to sit motionless all night on the top deck of the boat, hour after hour, not allowed to move or speak until sunrise, because negative Johnnie needed to see how fucking beautiful everything is.
But it’s not going to work, is it? Fun to hear about, amusing in the retelling, but no more, really, than an expression of dominance. Hoagy losing his touch, his ability to lead by example, by minimalist utterance and alert observation of his audience. It was ironic that Johnnie, who admired Hoagy so much, should be so immune to his idol’s influence.
Then there was the fist fight. It happened quite early on, before I’d moved in to Lion Rock. A bare-knuckle fight between Johnnie and Hoagy, would you believe? I mean, seriously, how dumb do you have to be to get into a fight with Hoagy? The way I heard it, Johnnie was going on and on about his boxing prowess, how he was going to be the new Mike Tyson and all that, and finally Hoagy couldn’t take it any more — how the fuck do you shut this guy up? So Hoagy stands up and says, ‘All right, then, let’s go. You and me, in the soi, no gloves, now!’
You have to give Johnnie some credit — he’s not a coward. But he’d talked himself into this and he would lose too much face if he backed down. So Johnnie Buffalo gets up and follows Hoagy outside.
Now Johnnie’s a big strong guy — though I’ve heard Hoagy talking about the stretch- marks he’s noticed on Johnnie’s shoulders, a tell-tale sign of steroid use. But Hoagy is on a different level, anyone can see that. It’s just the way he’s put together. A couple of inches shorter than Johnnie, but balanced, compact, explosive. Whereas Johnnie, built like a horse, has no whip. I’ve watched him train. Those kicks take too long to wind up, announced by a dog-like growl. And those heavy punches? A long reach becomes a drawback if your opponent can see the punches coming. It gives time to react, to come inside, and once that happens you’re in trouble unless you can shut it down in the clinch.
Hoagy didn’t go too hard on him — he spared his nose and mouth, smacking him up around the jaw and eyes. But there was blood. Man, I wish I’d seen it. Johnnie Buffalo with his face all bloodied up, after a fist fight with Hoagy in the middle of the road.
Oh-gee take energy from everything, says Ai. From the ground, from the air…
Johnnie, on the other hand, takes nothing from anywhere except his fantasies about himself. And from proximity to Hoagy, of course, like the rest of us. I reckon Johnnie must have caught the odd girl falling off Hoagy’s table, for one thing. Hoagy had completely lost interest in women, at the time I got to know him.
They steal your energy, says Hoagy.
He was open to the right one coming along, and he’d know when she did, but until then he was done wasting his energy. At that point he’d been completely celibate, he told me, for more than half a year. But there seemed always to be a trickle of girls finding their way to Lion Rock to try to change his mind, and no doubt Johnnie sometimes found himself in luck instead.
He would often repeat things he’d heard Hoagy say, trying to co-opt the power of his hero’s spell over others. He’d drop them into the conversation whenever he could, as if they were his own wisdom.
‘Words are actually a very crude form of communication, Paul,’ says Johnnie Buffalo.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer.’ I’d already had a chance to work out that comeback: esprit d’escalier, given a chance to rewind.
‘The jungle sees inside you, Paul. Everything is conscious, Paul.’
‘Very true, Johnnie, though I sometimes have my doubts about you.’
It was all pure Hoagy, but he’d throw these lines at me like a challenge. In his mind, if he was to be buffaloed for his failings, then why shouldn’t I be put through the same process.
‘Lion Rock is a place where people learn things they don’t necessarily want to learn, Paul.’ The old hand, he always loved telling me what Lion Rock was and what it wasn’t.
Once I heard him hitting on a couple of tourist girls in the bar with this kind of mystic jungle talk. Using this stuff to try to get laid means that you don’t have the faintest idea what it all means. He feels the power of Hoagy’s words — their exchange value, if not their truth. So he tries to trade them. But in his mouth the words have no power. Well, maybe over some dim tourist girl, once in a while.
It’s the same with his attempts to manipulate. He’ll be nice to you when he wants something. In fact that’s how you know he wants something. He doesn’t understand why his manipulations don’t work and nobody believes his lies. And that’s why his brows will always be furrowed above his vivid blue eyes, and he’ll never really understand anything. The buffalo doesn’t learn. A goose through the window, a night of enforced silence, swift combinations of punches bloodying up his face. Hoagy getting more and more frustrated. Johnnie Buffalo, stupid, stubborn, unteachable.
Eventually they sent him away.
It takes a lot for that to happen. It’s not the Thai way. They will mock you and tease you for as long as it takes, forever if necessary, but it takes a lot for them to turn you away. But Johnnie managed it, by fucking the girlfriend of one of Hoagy’s old mates who was over from Oz. She was coming on to him, everyone could see it, and Hoagy warned him not to go there.
But he stuck it in her anyway, says Hoagy, so he had to go.
That’s why he’d been away in the north when Hoagy was back in Oz, fighting the government over his pension. But as soon as Hoagy was back in Phuket, Johnnie Buffalo came straight back. And they gave him a second chance. Lion Rock is Nueng’s place, and Nueng has the final say. Hoagy will always defer to him.
Hoagy rolled his eyes at me. ‘He’s like the kid brother you never wanted.’
So Hoagy was stuck with his shadow; we all were. I generally stayed away from Johnnie, but couldn’t all the time; I didn’t want to make a thing of it. So once in a while I had to have a conversation with him. It wasn’t easy. I don’t think I ever had an interaction with him which didn’t leave me feeling puzzled and frustrated. It seemed impossible ever to reach any common ground. Even when there was no explicit disagreement, he seemed to maintain an attitude of opposition. And he had this habit of using my name excessively in conversation. Like this (we were talking about Steve):
‘Paul, you’ve just gotta give him time, Paul.’
‘Sure. Nobody’s saying he doesn’t need time. But I don’t want to just leave him alone, because if you do that he just sleeps and plays video games all day.’
‘He just needs time, Paul.’
‘I know, yeah. He needs time.’
‘You’ve just got to give him time, Paul.’
I looked at Johnnie and he stared impassively back. He hadn’t even met Steve at that point, as I remember.
‘All right, Johnnie, well I guess we agree about that, though somehow it feels like we don’t.’
We were in the boat bar. I got up to go, picking up my bag and bike keys. Then I turned back.
‘By the way, Johnnie, would you mind not saying my name the whole time?’
‘I usually think that using someone’s name is a mark of respect, Paul.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘All the time like that? To me it feels kind of condescending or something.’
‘Well I don’t mean it like that.’ At least he didn’t say ‘Paul’.
‘There are languages where just using the word you is considered taboo,’ I said.
‘But I don’t get it, why?’
‘Names are personal… Look, it would just really help if you stopped saying it three times in every —’
At that point he interrupted, ‘But Paul, maybe I’m not here to help.’
A slipping of the mask.
‘All right, Johnnie,’ I said, getting onto my bike. ‘If that’s how it is, I’ll say good night, and we won’t speak any more than we have to.’ Starting the engine I gunned to the top of the path, taking the two-brake nose-dive down into the trees.
Not everybody disliked Johnnie, and nobody disliked him all the time, not even me. Nueng’s teasing often had an affectionate quality. ‘I love you Johnnie,’ he would say, putting his arm round him. ‘But you are buffalo.’ He would play master-and-slave games, making Johnnie massage him for hours, and mostly the ribbing was good-natured and humorous. Nueng and Ai’s line was: Johnnie Buffalo is just a child, he will learn.
Kayla got on well with him. They had something mysteriously in common: that excluded feeling; that certain bewilderment at life. They talked a lot about their childhoods and the different hang-overs each of them had been left with. Whereas I was bound to dislike Johnnie for his constant needling, she wasn’t on the receiving end of any of that. He was different with her. Even his eyes were different, she told me. Sometimes they were pale and indifferent. Other times their pale blue darkened with threads of green.
Johnnie’s father had died when he was two, and his mother had remarried an actuary. A lot of money had gone into his education, not that the results were in any way visible as far as I could see, except perhaps in the emotional baggage, the anxiety that resulted from too much concern, too much pressure. An over-feminised childhood had left him with a compulsion to prove himself as a man, perhaps.
As as he didn’t think he could prove it with Kayla. A trust-fund kid slumming it in Bohemia, a few hundred thousand dollars set aside to take care of his future and no sense of direction in his life. Kayla by contrast had nothing waiting for her and nothing behind her, but she was way too good for him and it wasn’t going to happen. She was open and perceptive, honest, gentle, unpretentious and warm, with a laugh like birdsong — and inexperienced, emotionally naive and vulnerable. All of Lion Rock embraced her instinctively and unconditionally. Nueng and Ai loved her like one of their own. Hoagy too — anyone who hurt Kayla would have them to deal with, no question, so I shouldn’t worry too much.
Still, I did.
When I’d started coming to Lion Rock in the mornings to train, it was Kayla who had wanted to have a go at Muay Thai, and once she’d been in the ring a couple of times, Steve agreed to try as well. So the three of us were there every morning. It was a lovely human scene, men and women and children and chickens and cats, the thwacks and grunts from the ring, the whoops and commands of the coaches, loud reggae or techno music pumping out from the Jigaro Bar — which still wasn’t serving any fruit drinks, but we lived in hope. Unfortunately there was some kind of stand-off going on over the matter of the blender. Johnnie had bought a new one for several thousand baht, but had then left it standing around despite being asked to clear everything out for the builders, who were extending the bar and installing a wide new roof. The blender had somehow got broken, and now stood in an improvised shrine in front of the boat, with another of Ai’s signs, saying “R.I.P. Brenda.” Johnnie, in protest, had gone on strike.
Kayla would often come back in the afternoons or evenings just to hang. She loved to smoke, and of course I let her. It calmed her, and made it easy to talk; she enjoyed our rambling ‘chats’ as she called them. Sometimes I’d take her for dinner at Sabai Corner or in Rawai. Hippy, a Lion Rock veteran who turns up every few months, told me that when he first used to see me around I’d made him think of Leon the Professional, like in the movie — older guy, with a lived-in face, shall we say, who’s always got this young girl in tow. Seeing her on the back of my bike, people usually assume she’s my daughter, though once or twice, this being Thailand, someone ventured, ‘Your… girlfriend?’
Not my girlfriend, God forbid, and not my daughter either. But I had to accept that fatherly role to a degree. The kid had never had a friend in her life, and that had to leave her a little vulnerable to emotional manipulation. I’d brought her here among the vanara, the forest humans of Lion Rock, so I had to look out for her. Anyone who looked like they might take advantage of her inexperience would have my veto. I’m no grizzled assassin like Leon, it’s true, but I would find a way to enforce it. That’s just how it was. Even Johnnie Buffalo must sense, surely, that Kayla was off-limits. He’d already been sent away once for ignoring warnings. I’d have to find an opportunity to make this clear to him. But that wasn’t going to be easy, given our mutual antagonism.
I understood well enough why Johnnie didn’t like me: Hoagy’s original recruit, he saw himself as Hoagy’s double, or something like that, but faced a constant drip of criticism not only from the Thais but from his role model as well. And then I show up, and who am I? Not a soldier, not a boxer, not even young, but here I am with these kids and Hoagy loves me for what I’ve done for them and spends hours talking with me about Nikola Tesla and Bohemian Grove and all the other weird stuff I bring with me.
Not only that, but I was witnessing all his humiliations.
One morning at training, after I’d seen him getting a vicious tongue-lashing from Hoagy the night before, I was holding Johnnie’s feet while he did sit-ups, and I asked him, ‘Are you and Hoagy OK?’
His answer seemed disconnected from reality. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘we’re fine, a hundred percent. Two hundred percent, Paul. You’ve got to understand, me and Hoagy, we’re like brothers, Paul. It’s just brother stuff, Paul.’
Well, all have the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We’re not rational creatures, but rationalising creatures, as someone once said. If there was internet here I’d look it up.
But there was a kind of symmetry. In his own way, Johnnie Buffalo was as big a mystery as Hoagy. Not as interesting a mystery, but a mystery nevertheless. I often wondered why he put up with so much, why he didn’t just leave. I guessed he didn’t have any other ideas, anywhere else to go.
And I can’t just leave him out of this story, much as I’d like to. I have to put up with him, just like Hoagy and Nueng and Ai and the rest. We’re all stuck with Johnnie Buffalo. Somehow it feels inevitable, like a law of nature or something. Somehow, Johnny Buffalo just has to be there.
When Johnnie got his second chance, there were conditions. One of those was that it would soon be time for him to fight. Enough posing around; time for a reality check. Time to step into the ring, Johnny, hey.
Once Hoagy had fucked up his knee again, the matter was brought to the top of the agenda. With our champion out of action, someone had to be getting ready to fight, or Oh was wasting his time coming here every day, in Nueng’s opinion. The decision was made, and the date set. The first thing Johnnie did was shave his head, keeping a triangular patch hanging down at the back. This would have time to grow out into something plaitable, since the fight was fully a month away. The second thing he did was choose himself a nom de guerre, a ring name — Ma Daeng: Red Dog — which caused a certain amount of hilarity around the boat, since there happened to be a brand of chemical drain-cleaner with the same name. ‘Don’t touch Ma Daeng,’ Nueng would call out. ‘Ma Daeng have bacteria. You don’t know what disease you will get.’
By the time the fight came around, Ma Daeng’s Chinese-style pig-tail was looking splendid, tied with a red string. He was up against a balanced-looking Thai fighter, a fraction shorter than him and lighter, of spare, athletic build. In fact, looking back I think the Thai could have murdered Johnnie if he’d wanted to. And he did, but in that very Thai manner which doesn’t rub in superiority, but conserves force and face — the ethic seems to be to display unquestionably superior technique rather than necessarily inflicting as much damage as you could. It’s not just an honour thing, I imagine, but a good policy for longevity as a fighter — stay out of trouble, demonstrate your superiority, win. Having said that, any boxer will of course be happy to end a fight inside the distance.
Red Dog kept going forward, trying to land punches and get into clinches. Hoagy, in his corner, was screaming at him to put together some combinations. He was strong but too slow. He didn’t have that whip or speed of thought. Once or twice he tried a fancy back- elbow, but he wasn’t landing anything, and meanwhile the guy was floating all around him, twice flipping him heavily onto his back with a sweep to the standing foot. That was enough. He did what he needed to and no more.
So Johnnie went the distance, but I think everybody knew that it was an emphatic defeat. After the fight it was a little awkward — Johnnie clearly wanted to get a big group photograph with the Lion Rock crowd, but people kept drifting off and it didn’t happen. I felt for him, telling him he’d done all right.
Back at the boat, exhausted and in pain, he laid himself out on a bench, wanting someone to massage balm into his shins, but I wasn’t about to do that and nor was anyone else, and he quickly fell asleep there in the bar, in his silk shorts, with a towel covering him.
I tried to be encouraging. Getting into a Muay Thai ring in front of a crowd for the first time is not an easy thing. Again, I have to hand it to Johnnie — he’s no coward. But he had clearly found himself out of his depth. He had finally learned something. And that was Hoagy’s point in making him fight. If he couldn’t teach Johnny to curb his ego, reality surely could.
What Johnnie had learned just how much pain was involved in blocking kicks with your shins, and of having your kicks blocked in the same way. It was different from kicking a pad wielded by his coach. What you spend most of your time doing in training turns out in reality to be so painful that you can’t actually use it as a weapon. It’s like walking into a coffee table in a dark room over and over again. And yet that’s the standard move in Thai boxing. I guess it hurts a lot less if you’ve been doing it since you were seven.
After the fight, like anyone else, Johnnie rested his bruises for two or three days, but then pleaded a bad back as a reason to not train. And then he was sick for a few days with a fever. And then the back was still bad and he still couldn’t train. But he wouldn’t admit what he had learnt: that he wasn’t anything special at boxing and that in fact he didn’t want to box any more. Instead you could have pointless conversations with him about his back and whether he should go and see someone about it, and still from week to week there was no sign of him get back into training.
Instead he took up drawing. I’d seen him sketching a few times, and he wasn’t bad. In fact I was quite struck by a sheet of faces he’d produced. Impassive faces, thickset faces with oriental features; faces with the impassive gaze of an idol. I was particularly struck by them because Johnnie himself had mastered the art of the impassive gaze like nobody else I’ve known. He was really good at it; every muscle still, the brow unfurrowed, letting those big pale eyes cast a calm dispassionate gaze over everything before him. And yet you never got the feeling he was contemplating anything; allowing himself to be contemplated, perhaps. A pose. A thousand yard stare with nothing behind it.
But it was a stare even Hoagy could get lost in, as I saw on the night of statues.
I’d spent the evening at Ap’s place, and it was late by the time I got back to my hut. The rain had soaked the path, helping cement the new steps I’d cut. I’d forgotten my lamp, and I just had the little LED on my key ring, so I was picking and squelching my way cautiously down the hill. And when I came to my hut I found a very strange scene.
I was watching my feet as you have to on that last little stretch of the path, and so I was on him before I saw him. Johnnie was sitting on the side bench of my verandah, perfectly still, with his hands on his knees. I clapped him on the knee, and said, ‘Hallo, Johnnie,’ with a question in my voice. He didn’t respond, just sitting there in that impassive way he has, staring at… and I followed his gaze… Hoagy! In the dim light, and focusing on the surprise of Johnnie on my porch, I hadn’t registered him.
I have a nice deck chair, upholstered in some padded plastic material, very comfortable. I sit in it to write, with my laptop on a little adjustable computer desk I picked up at Homepro. Hoagy was lying back in the chair with his legs up on the desk. He was twisted at the waist, turning his torso and head towards Johnnie, as if he had been frozen in the middle of reacting to a surprise incursion into his world. His fists were clenched and raised towards Johnnie, and his face wore a frozen expression of horror and defiance, as if he were ready to defend the universe against flocks of hideous demons pouring through some portal into our reality. His eyes were locked on Johnnie’s.
It was a bizarre scene. Two big men frozen like statues on my porch. Like waxworks. Like the casts of bodies at Pompei, petrified in death by the pyroclastic wave pouring down he mountainside.
I looked from one to the other. Neither responded. Neither’s eyes, locked onto each other’s eyes, even flicked towards me. It was as if I wasn’t there.
‘What’s going on, Johnnie?’
Not a flicker.
I crouched beside Hoagy and rubbed his forearms and fists, as if trying to warm a frozen corpse, saying quietly, ‘What is it, Hoagy? What’s the matter, man?’ I noticed how his wrists were cocked; it wasn’t even a correct punching posture.
He didn’t move a muscle. His eyes stayed fixed on Johnnie’s, unblinking, his brow furrowed, his jaw set in grim determination.
Has time stopped? I wondered. Am I the invisible man?
I opened my door and went inside. I’d been planning to have a cup of tea and a spliff before sleeping, so I put the kettle on. I asked the statues if they wanted a cup of tea.
‘What kind?’ asked the Johnnie statue.
‘Earl Grey,’ I said.
‘No thanks,’ said the Johnnie statue. ‘Have you got a cigarette?’
I did. I gave him one, lit it for him, and he smoked it, all without without taking his eyes off the Hoagy statue.
I ignored them, moving around as if they weren’t there. I made the tea. I put some music on and smoked a joint. They didn’t move. I lay down and went to sleep.
I half expected them to still be there in the morning, but they weren’t. Hoagy was in the bar as I drove up, and was already calling out to me, ‘Paul, I’m so sorry!’ before I stopped the bike.
I went in and gave him a hug, deflecting his profuse apologies. He told me — they were both on mushrooms, obviously — that he’d been looking into Johnnie’s eyes and seeing something very horrible in there, ‘bacterial’ he said with a grimace, some kind of seething fountain of filth. I told him how he was lying, and he said, ‘Yeah, I was flying a space ship, and Perry was my co-pilot, and then I looked round and he’d turned into Johnnie.’
I wanted to know how long he’d been like that. It must have still been light when he and Perry had come down to chill on my porch. We knew you wouldn’t mind, he said. So my padded deck-chair and computer-desk had made him think of a space ship, like the captain’s bridge in Star Trek or something.
Now I understood the position his arms had been in. The fists were gripping a steering console — that’s why his wrists were not aligned as in a boxing stance — and he had twisted his body, reacted in shock to Perry’s transformation into Johnnie, and remained frozen like that for I don’t know how long, but several hours, certainly, staring into Johnnie’s eyes. And Johnie had remained there, staring impassively back.
‘Yeah, we went down to chill on your porch,’ Perry told me later, ‘and then Hoagy started saying all this weird shit like he does sometimes when he’s on mushrooms, and I don’t know how to deal with him when he’s like that, so I called Johnnie to come down…’
I was surprised he’d done that. Hadn’t he seen how Hoagy and Johnnie interact when they’re tripping? You need to keep those two apart, not send for Johnnie becauseHoagy’s saying some weird shit. It was the opposite of a good idea.
Later I saw Johnnie sitting with Hippy at one of the stone tables under the trees, and went to join them.
‘I love you, my brother,’ said Hippy, as Hippy does.
‘We were playing egos,’ Johnnie explained. ‘It’s just brother stuff, Paul. Battling egos. Me and Hoagy, we’re like brothers.’
I didn’t say, that’s not the way Hoagy talks about you.
It was a bizarre incident, and I couldn’t help dwelling on it. Hoagy’s utter immobilisation, apparently unable to speak or to move even an eyelid, as if he’d stepped out of time, fascinated and hypnotised by the fountains of filth he could see behind Johnnie’s eyes. The tension in his body. His Defender of the Universe posture. For the first time, I felt a twinge of concern for him.
And Johnnie. What was his game? What was he thinking?
Just brother stuff, Paul. Ego battles.
And me wondering why he was still here. Rejected and sent away, mocked and ridiculed every day. Not a soldier, not a boxer, and certainly not Hoagy. Nowhere to go, nothing to be but Johnnie Buffalo, Johnnie Gigolo, Johnnie Wannabe.
It crossed my mind that there might be another way of looking at this. Was Johnnie trying to find a way of beating Hoagy?
Couldn’t beat him in a fight. Couldn’t beat him in an argument. Couldn’t beat him in the esteem of the tribe. Baited and mocked where Hoagy was lauded and loved.
Hoagy unable to move or speak. Johnnie calmly smoking a cigarette, turning down a cup of tea.
Was Johnnie looking for a way to win? Had he found a way?
He’d accidentally precipitated the knee injury, with his impassivity as a sparring partner. Hoagy goading him, trying to get him to punch harder, and take a few around the eyes. And then the knee going under him.
And the four day coke binge. Hoagy going deeper into psychosis.
The buffalo, slow but strong. Without whip, but could he outlast him his idol? Could stupidity become a strategy?
The impassive gaze.
Waiting him out, wearing him down.
Hoagy always said that Johnnie was a good person, just immature, needing to learn. I’d taken his word on that, but now I was having doubts. Was there more to the buffalo than even the buffalo knew?
They were just passing thoughts, but I was a little bit spooked. It’s easy to get spooked in the jungle, on these long nights, down by the rocks, under the moonlight.