Rocket Ship Temple Blues
Rocket Ship Temple Blues
Rocket Ship Temple Blues
Holiday Traffic Migraine
Rocket Ship Temple Blues
by Jack Fielding
Rocket Ship Temple Blues
by Jack Fielding
Did you know they say the Demon took seven steps when he was born? That’s seven steps to Hell, my friend.”
I watched as the giant airship rose effortlessly into the midnight sky, Genshin Retro Harmony in blazing neon on its side. A few minutes later the airship had disappeared and the bell of the Chrome Pagoda rang out. Its main gate closed behind me with a pneumatic hiss. I stepped away into the glare of a streetlight, gripped the brown parcel in one hand and with the other self-consciously touched my shaven head. Hawaiian shirt frayed at the collar. Torn pocket on my Chinos. Sandals that dug into my feet and made me wince.
But what I really needed to sort out was Bob. I needed to find him. Explain everything. I just hoped — really hoped — he hadn’t done what I’d asked.
The thought of it made me sick with apprehension.
Well, there was only one place I could find him at that time.
I made my way to the nearby canal path and followed it until I reached a wooden bridge, crossed over then slunk through a small alley and out into Candle Street. The No. 6 monotram rumbled past. Electric passengers crackling in and out of electric life and faded painted adverts under the windows.
Further down Candle I realised I was being watched. Damn it. A pair of authentic-looking Japanese soldiers in green uniforms. Tough, burly types with vintage Arisa rifles and vicious, razor-sharp bayonets stuck on the ends. Part of the conquering Imperial Army running Bangkok. Probably trying to work out if the Westerner — Siamese called us farangs — was an ex-monk, just another bum who needed a good hosing down or maybe an altogether more serious case. I kept my eyes down. You could never really be sure about anything these days.
Luckily, they soon lost interest and merged into the darkness.
“Hey, Palm Trees!”
I recognised the voice: Lillie the Leg.
She was standing in the doorway of the Galaxy Rose Dance Hall waving frantically at me. But as I hobbled over, I realised she wasn’t Lillie the Leg anymore. She was...yeah, Veronica Lake. The Blue Dahlia 1943 with Alan Ladd. Even got the peekaboo hairstyle right. Lillie still had that malfunctioning right leg of hers though, which was unsettling rather than reassuring. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of change. It was still damned good to see a friendly face though, and I couldn’t help breaking into a silly grin. Lillie quickly realised I wasn’t in good shape and clattered over to meet me halfway, gently locked her arm in mine, and walked me into the Rose. I was hit by that familiar smell of linoleum. Funny how it’s always the smells that resurrect your deadest memories.
“Veronica Lake, right?”
“Yeah, that’s me! What do you think?”
“She’s classic noir alright and beautiful — but is it OK if I still call you Lillie?”
“No problem, Palm Trees,” she smiled. “Why were those two soldiers eyeballing you?”
“I’m not honestly sure.”
“And where’s that nice trilby hat of yours?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I lost it outside the monorail junction near the Giant Swing. That was ages ago.”
“I’m sure you had it the night before you went into the temple.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, a respectable man can’t go around without a hat. It’s dangerous, you know. I’ll find you one in my booth.”
“Thanks, Lillie, you’re my guardian angel.”
“What is it, sweetheart?”
She took out a hankie and dabbed my forehead. “You’re sounding queer and look kinda peaky.”
“You mean even more than before?”
“I got a box of Doctor Kwan’s medicinals come in on the slippy-shippy yesterday.”
“Smuggled meds? I hope you’ll both be very happy together.”
“Be serious, will you? The box had some Atabrine. Maybe your malaria’s come back and Atabrine’s real good for that.”
I realised that Lillie was too considerate, too kreang jai, to come right out with it and say I looked like an escaped lunatic.
“I’ll be OK,” I said. “Unfortunately, they haven’t found a cure for existential haemorrhoids yet. Thanks for the offer, though.”
“I’ll keep some in case you change your mind.”
Lillie led me over to her hatcheck booth and went inside. “I’ll find that trilby for you later.” She made to take my parcel but I pressed it to my chest. “Something important?”
“Oh, yes, very.”
I grabbed the edge of the counter.
“Sure you’re OK?”
“Er, yeah, I just need to sit down, that’s all. My feet are killing me.”
“You go in then and I’ll see you later.”
I let go of the counter and walked carefully over to Bogart; the detective lay motionless in that brackish green tank with pipes sticking out of his sides. I nodded at him before heading towards the doors of the main hall. Lillie, Bogart, and that linoleum smell ... everything seemed to be the same as I’d left it. The world hadn’t ground to a halt in my absence. There were no ‘Welcome Home’ banners, no Chinese fireworks or Waikiki girls jumping out of giant cakes.
That was good, as I did need to keep a low profile.
I pushed open the doors and went into the hall. Yep, there was Gloria Grahame In A Lonely Place 1951 and the other Broken Blossom dancers, plugged into their desks like always. Barbara Stanwyck ignored me. Gloria flashed a smile. Linda Darnell yawned. Difficult to tell at a distance, but I noticed the fashion for blacking their teeth seemed to have fallen out of favour while I’d been away. Maybe the Japanese army officers who frequented the Galaxy Rose weren’t getting the hots for pretend geisha girls these days.
And of course, there was no George Raft. Usually, the head waiter of the Rose would be zooming around on his spangly wheels and fetching an ice-cold Amarit beer in a schooner glass for yours truly. But rumour had it he’d gone upcountry and taken the mistress of a Shan warlord with him. Stranger things had happened.
Instead of George a dek serve waitress whirled over. She had a face I’d never seen in any movie ever before, and wore a pink pha sin skirt, ivory-coloured blouse, and hair sculptured high in the Burman-style. In a demure voice she asked me if I would like a table.
I stared at her. Nope, absolutely no idea who she was supposed to be.
She repeated the question.
Then I spotted Bob. Robert Mitchum, Bob to his friends. He was sitting over the far side of the dance floor. I felt relieved and apprehensive at the same time. Oh, Lord, I really, really hoped he hadn’t done it.
Bob saw me coming and eased out a chair from under the table with his foot. He told me to sit down in his best Angel Face 1953 voice.
I flopped down on the chair and put the parcel on the table.
“I’m glad you’re alive.”
“So am I.”
“But I gotta say you do look like absolute shit.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Lillie the Leg — Veronica — thinks I’ve got malaria, bless her.”
Bob shook his head. “That would be the least of your problems, my screwball Limey buddy.”
“Honestly, you don’t have to try and cheer me up.”
“Her name’s Lila, by the way.”
“That new waitress you were talking to.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard the name before.”
“Lila Leeds wasn’t in the big time for long but we got to know each better in court.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. It was hi-grade. Say, I reckon you could do with a drink.”
Bob clicked his fingers and summoned Lila. “This man needs an Amarit beer and you’d better make it quick. Don’t know how long he’s got before they return him to the nut house.”
“Very funny,” I said. “Oh, and Lila, mix it one-third with lemonade. No, don’t give me that look, Bob. I’m a reformed character now. No more excess. A new improved Orson Milo Palmer. Sort of like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus but with louder shirts and more laconic one-liners.”
Lila raised her eyes to heaven, then left.
“Oh, sod it,” I said. “I should have asked her to make sure it comes in a proper thin glass. She, er, might not know.”
“She knows, they all know,” said Bob drily, then let out a rumbling burp. “Excuse me. Say, I thought it was supposed to do you good being in that temple.” He brushed a bug off his shoulder. “You look just as bad as when you went in.”
“In Zen we say that he who knows does not speak.”
“Yeah? By the state of you, I reckon you spent too long in one of those little cells on your own. Broke the rules, upset the full-timers and sneaked in one too many bottles of booze in between chanting. Taking holy orders has made you even more cockeyed — no offence meant.”
“None taken. Anyway, you’re wrong. I told you, I’m a reformed character.”
Bob widened those lazy, heavy eyes of his, “Well, whether you’re reformed or not, I’ve got some good news.”
My heart sank. The moment I’d been dreading.
“Yeah, I did what you asked.”
“God damn it, Palm Trees. What I’ve spent the last goddamned month busting my balls for? Trying to buy or beg and finally steal for you.”
I ran a hand over my head.
Bob gently patted the breast pocket on his shirt. “Got it right here.”
Lila arrived with the drinks. “One Amarit with soda in a proper thin glass and a Bourbon on the rocks.”
“I told you,” Bob said, “these damned robots, they know everything.”
Bob took out an envelope from the pocket and handed it over. “So now we’re even, Palm Trees.”
“Yes, I guess we are,” I said glumly.
“Well, you sure don’t look very happy about it,” responded Bob, an edge to his voice. “What’s eating you?”
“Er, you see, the truth is, uhm, I don’t really want it now.”
I was about to slide the envelope across to Bob but he raised an eyebrow.
Now he was normally a cool kind of guy. Unfortunately, there was something of the smoking volcano about his psychology and I imagined him erupting and tearing my head off with those enormous hands of his.
I gulped and it went very quiet between us.
All I could hear was the gentle chatter of the Broken Blossoms and whir of the dek serves amongst the tables.
Finally, he said, “Look, it’s me you’re talking to, Palm Trees. You’re out of the temple and in the real-life nut house now. So, give your Uncle Bob here the dope on what’s really happened and remember I don’t like bullshit salesmen.”
Mm, I knew this could be a way out before subjected to an act of senseless, uncontrolled violence.
“Honestly, Bob, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Go on, try me, Palm Trees.”
He cracked his knuckles.
“You sure? You want the real reason I’m going to take my chances and stay in the city? Why I’ve decided to follow the Middle Path? Avoid the opposites. Be a good boy. Tell you how I know the Enlightened One has given me another throw of the dice?”
“Yeah, I do — and just as existentially important — tell me why in hell you’re wearing your sandals on the wrong feet.”
“Oh, am I?”
I peered under the table and changed them round. Damn, that actually felt a whole lot better. “Thanks.”
“You were saying?”
“OK then, Bob. I’ll reveal the secret behind my miraculous transformation. But you better be ready. Because the story I’m about to tell is so incredible it will make the suspenders on your socks curl.”
As if on cue the curtain on the stage opened to reveal Tommy Dorsey and his Recycling Rhythm Aces as they launched into Swing! Swing! Swing!
Bob took a sip of Bourbon, then folded his arms and looked me straight in the eyes.
“This better be good,” he said.
* * *
I smacked my neck and killed the mosquito feeding off me while contemplating the extraordinarily beautiful eddying, swirling patterns that emerged as the inverted glass in the bottom of one’s whiskey bottle diffracted the mixture of opiate residue combining in a poetic medley with Sangthip whisky and delicately layered flakes of cigarette ash.
Suddenly my reverie was disturbed by a noise outside my cell door. A sort of soft shuffling. Had they sent someone to spy on me again?
You could never really be sure.
Just to be safe, I shoved the cork in my whisky bottle and hid it under the mattress. I lit a Falling Rain cigarette and took a slow drag. Tried to keep it causal.
Blimey, why couldn’t they just leave me alone?
I’d made a generous donation towards the new roof tiles on the pagoda of the Chrome Pagoda to buy some time, wait it out as a temporary monk while Bob sorted things out for me. I’d reminded Bob that he owed me big time and I’d also given him the last of my savings stashed at Madam Sin’s mahjong den. Bob was the only one I could trust. The only one who could help me stay alive.
It had gone quiet outside. I stubbed out my cigarette, then picked up Uncanny Tales from the floor. It was Golden Age. Mint condition. I peeked inside at the main story, smoothed down the corners before returning it to the shelf with the others, and then lay down on the sweat-sodden mattress. I thanked the Enlightened One.
It was time to grab some sleep.
* * *
There was a tentative knock on the door.
“Yes, what is it?” I said sleepily.
My throat felt like sandpaper.
“May I come in, please?” from the other side.
That was Wittaya, the young novice monk always trying to be my best pal.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“They’ve found something.”
“Some of the other monks.”
“They’ve finally tracked down Amelia Earhart?”
“Er, no, no, it’s not her. It’s something really bad.”
“Bad? Damn it, you’re beginning to make me nervous.” I picked out a Junior Mint from the packet on the floor and popped it into my mouth to hide the smell of booze. “OK, you’d better come in.”
The door rattled.
“It seems to be locked.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
I leant across and unfastened the latch and slid back the bolt.
Wittaya shuffled in. The candle on the shelf flickered. He was an amazingly well-detailed sort of chap with spectacles, pock-marked skin for added effect, and a face that made him appear forever on the verge of apologizing for something.
“Come in and close that door gently,” I said. “Right, now what on earth’s going on?”
Wittaya sat down beside me and sniffed. “Khun Palm Trees, it is not very nice in here.”
“I’ll have a word with the cleaning ladies first thing tomorrow.”
“You are allowed to have cigarettes but not alcohol. I think you know this by now.”
“I have suffered a momentary lapse of inner discipline, but please don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t, but you’ll get in even more trouble if they find out. You’re on your last warning and mustn’t get kicked out. Everyone in here likes you, Palm Trees. They don’t believe those terrible rumours about you. But they are, um —”
“A bit disappointed?”
“Yes, I’m afraid we all are.”
“Don’t worry, chum. Nobody is more disappointed in me than I am.”
Wittaya shook his head as if feeling very sad.
“You said they found something and it wasn’t to do with Amelia?”
“I don’t know exactly, but it’s in the forest and it’s very strange.”
“The forest is miles away.”
“No, not really.”
“Anyway, I thought it was off limits to everyone. The dispute between Chrome Pagoda and the Black Tiger Temple lot over the exorcism rights. Even the rats avoid it.”
“Earlier some of our other novices were in there hunting the cobra that killed that policeman on Saturday. But instead of the snake they found something else and I’ve got to take you there.”
“Unfortunately, I’m really busy right now. I’m not well, you know.”
“The Abbot himself said you have to.”
“Abbot Od — did he?” I rubbed my face, trying to concentrate. “Hang on, I thought he was away. Visiting the Pathumwan District army commander to bless that newfangled gravitational tank of his. You’d better not be pulling my leg.”
“Pulling your leg?”
“I mean making fun of me.”
“No, honestly,” said Wittaya. “Our abbot returned as soon as he heard what they found. He said to me, ‘Wittaya, you tell that Palm Trees farang fellow to get his act together and meet me in the forest. Don’t take no for an answer.’”
Uh-oh, I thought. That sounds exactly how Abbot Od would have put it. If he was back early I needed to put my boozing and narcotic sampling on hold until he left again. I couldn’t take a chance on getting kicked out of the temple before Bob sorted things out.
“Alright then,” I said. “I don’t want to upset him.”
“Our abbot sees many things, Palm Trees,” said Wittaya with a sigh. “Many things ...”
What did he mean by that?
I nudged Wittaya out of the way while I put on my robes. Then I shoved my sandals on, snuffed the candle out, and stepped outside. The night was illuminated by a waxing gibbous moon. More gothic than noir.
With Wittaya following closely behind, I limped around to the back of the prayer hall. We found the temple’s battered replica of a Vespa Arditi scooter chained to a pillar next to the Stairway to Heaven shrine — you couldn’t trust anyone, not even on the way to Enlightenment — and with Wittaya’s help I freed the Vespa.
I climbed on and immediately started to keel over. Wittaya caught me just in time and I was able to kick the bloody thing into life on the third attempt. “Maybe you should take over,” I pleaded. “I’m not sure I can manage this.”
“I don’t know how to drive one of these mechanical things.”
Ah, the irony. “Brilliant. Right. So what’s the best way of getting there then?”
“Don’t you know? How long have you been here, Palm Trees?”
“Just tell me.”
“At the far end of the vegetable garden is the buffalo track. Follow that past the old elephant pens, then turn right at Aunt Apple’s organic rice farm. Then it’s straight on to the forest from there. It’s not far.”
“But a long way to hunt for a snake.”
“It was a dangerous snake. It killed the policeman.”
“Did they find it?”
“No, it was a most clever snake.”
“The worst kind.”
Wittaya hitched up his robe and sat behind me, “I reckon Abbot Od has got a little surprise planned for you.”
“I hope not,” I replied, a knot tightening in my delicate stomach.
“Come on, let’s go.”
I turned the headlight on, got the Vespa into gear and off we putt-putted towards the vegetable garden.
* * *
Someone was standing by a mango tree and waving a torch about. I killed the Vespa’s engine, slid off the seat, and walked over with Wittaya close behind. The torch was shone straight in my face.
“Please point that somewhere else,” I said, “otherwise I will almost certainly be sick all over you.”
“It is us,” said Wittaya helpfully.
I blinked and standing there was Elephant, a short fat monk and one of the Chrome Pagoda’s veterans. Hanging from his shoulder was a brown leather satchel with the temple’s badge on it. He didn’t like farangs and me in particular — probably because I confirmed all the Siamese’s worst prejudices about us.
“This way,” he said tartly, “and get a move on.”
“Where’s the Abbot?” I asked.
I groaned. I couldn’t go on much further. My damned sandals were killing me and all I wanted was to curl in a ball and quietly expire. I fumbled about in my robes, took out my packet of Falling Rain, and gave them each a cigarette.
“Thank you, Khun Palm Trees.”
Wittaya pulled out a box of matches and did the honors.
“The monks found something interesting around here then?” I said. “It had better be good.”
“Come on, this way.”
As we stumbled through the trees Elephant pulled a cloth out of his satchel and shone his torch on it.
“What you reckon to this then?” he asked, passing it to me.
I opened the cloth out and peered at the object. “You know what? I reckon it’s an antique pommel — the bit at the end of a sword handle — and it’s carved into the shape of a pelican. Looks like it’s made of ivory.”
“I think,” said Elephant carefully, “it might be worth something.”
“I think you’re right. It’s beautifully made.”
“Isn’t the pelican a symbol of sacrifice and rebirth for Christians?” said Wittaya.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “I’m a part-time Buddhist, remember? Anyway, where did you get it from?”
“The ship’s cabin,” said Elephant, deadpan.
Ship’s cabin ...?
Not having a firm grip on reality at the best of times, had I taken a wrong turn at the farm and arrived in the wrong yarn? No, I must have misheard. I was so tired.
“Ah, you’re such the expert, Palm Trees,” said Elephant. “And what about these then?”
He pulled two more things out, one of which caught the moonlight.
“Pretty sure that’s an old opium pipe,” I said. “Made of hill-tribe silver. And the other thing is a very fancy lady’s parasol, which is probably another antique. Might also be expensive.”
Wittaya took it from me, “Let me see that.”
“They also came from this cabin?”
“That’s right, Palm Trees,” replied Elephant. “Now come on, let’s go.”
I took a long drag on my cigarette and we carried on walking.
We hadn’t gone twenty yards when Wittaya suddenly stopped. “Hey, look,” he said, bending down, “what’s this?”
He held up a silk band with a check pattern.
I stared at it. At the same time an awful cloying, sickly-sweet smell invaded the heavy night air.
“I’ve got no idea,” I said slowly, feeling sick.
“It’s a band for a hat,” said Elephant. “You had a hat.”
Wittaya nodded. “Yes, Khun, Palm Trees! Actually, I remember now. You had a hat with a band just like that.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I think you did.”
“Yes, he’s right. You did.”
“Can we please drop the subject?”
“But how did your hat get here and where is the rest of it, Khun Palm Trees?”
“I told you already — it’s not mine!”
“Come on,” hissed Elephant, “we’re nearly there.”
We stopped next to a tamarind tree. There was that terrible cloying smell again. Lord knows what it was, but it made me feel ten times worse.
“Are you OK, Khun Palm Trees?”
“No, I’m bloody not,” I said. “Look, I’ve ridden a clapped-out scooter death trap all the way here, just to be shown the belongings of an opium-addicted lady aristocrat who wields a mean parasol and has an unusual line in pelicans. Is that why I’ve been dragged out here?”
“No,” said Elephant, pointing further into the woods. “We’ve dragged you out here to see that.”
I peered in and the cigarette fell from my mouth.
* * *
At first I had thought we were still in amongst all the trees but it was actually a huge skeletal hulk. Torn metal framed against the night sky, and bang in the middle of it lay the smashed remains of some sort of cockpit or cabin. Material flapped around in the breeze like bits of skin.
“Well, this is weird,” said Wittaya.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for stating the blinking obvious.”
“No, I meant this,” said Wittaya. He showed me a branch, then picked at the bark.
I snatched it from him. “It is, I believe, a bit of what they call a tree.”
“You don’t understand,” said Elephant, grabbing it from me. “Wittaya is right. It’s strange.”
Wittaya said, “It is strange because the trees around here are not damaged, Khun Palm Trees. You would expect them to be burnt or broken, but they are not.”
I knelt down and grabbed a fistful of earth. “It must have happened a long time ago and everything has grown back.”
“But all the things from the wreck are recent and show no signs of decay, Khun Palm Trees.”
“Nobody around here heard or saw anything,” said Elephant, looking straight at me. “Not now nor in the past. Nothing ever reported in the newspapers. The novices came across it by accident.”
“Something definitely crashed here,” said Wittaya, “and the passengers died but nobody knows anything about it.”
“Passengers?” I wiped the sweat off my face. The effects of a high-impact crash on fragile human bodies ... the source of that horrible smell ... awful images began to crawl around inside my head. I needed to be more careful where I stepped, especially wearing sandals. “There were passengers ...”
“You’re sweating, Khun Palm Trees. Are you OK?”
“No, funnily enough, I’m not.”
“There certainly were passengers,” said Elephant. “The abbot has spent hours exploring the site. By the size and the shape of the wreck, he says it must have been one of those old rocket ships.”
“The passenger ones?”
“Yes, exactly. No doubt about it.”
“But that’s impossible! If a rocket ship crashed around here there would have been a massive explosion. It would have been big news, too. And what about passengers?”
“Ah, yes, the passengers. They are peacefully at rest in their coffins.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
He took us to the edge of a large clearing and sure enough, in the centre was a circle of heavy wooden coffins. They were carved in the Siamese style, which always reminded me of Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi. All neatly laid out. I was a bit relieved, to be honest. The hapless victims hidden away, not a mangled horror in sight. What terrors had they endured in their final moments ... it didn’t bear thinking about.
“Well,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “You’ve certainly done a good job, Elephant, and in record time, too.”
“Not me,” replied Elephant, staring into the distance. “They were like this before.”
“You mean the other monks did it?”
“Don’t be daft, Palm Trees. Monks — even novices — don’t go around carrying spare coffins with them.”
“So how did they end up in their coffins and why are they arranged in a circle?” said Wittaya, almost whispering.
“I don’t know.”
The three of us lapsed into an uncomfortable silence as we tried to work out any kind of rational explanation.
* * *
“Did you know they say the Demon took seven steps when he was born? That’s seven steps to Hell, my friends.”
We spun round.
It was Abbot Od standing in the shadows with his hands on his hips. Interesting back story. An ex-professional Muay Thai kick boxer, the good abbot was a tough, wiry soul with jug-shaped ears that were considered highly auspicious. You saw them on many of the statues of the Enlightened One. Everyone was in awe of him.
“You didn’t know about the Demon?” he said. “Why am I not surprised?”
I wanted to puke again. Sarcasm wasn’t something you usually associated with the abbot of the Chrome Pagoda. It meant he was in one of those strange metaphysical moods of his. I hoped he wasn’t going to direct any of that enlightened energy towards me, not in my condition. I was feeling bad enough already.
But luckily he fired off a barrage of questions at the other two instead.
Why are you late?
Why is there a massive wreck of an old rocket ship that no one has ever noticed before? Why are the passenger’s possessions recent but the wreck is old?
How did the coffins get there?
Why had things been stolen from the wreck?
Wittaya hid the parasol behind his back.
“Fragments from lives now departed, stories that have ended or perhaps not yet ...,” said Abbot Od.
Then he took the prayer canister he always kept around his neck and began to rub it gently between his finger and thumb. Began to get a bit of mindful contemplation going.
We knew better than interrupt and stood there in respectful silence.
Then I looked down.
“What’s the matter, Palm Trees?” whispered Wittaya.
Damn it, so that’s why my feet were hurting — I’d put my sandals on the wrong feet. I tried to swap them around, but the straps were stuck.
* * *
Abbot Od nodded and seemed relieved. He lifted his eyes to the heavenly night, something he did when an occult insight had got hold of him and he was able to transcend the world of earthly sin. We followed at a respectful distance as he started walking towards the circle of sarcophagi.
“So,” said Abbot Od. “A rocket ship has crashed here but we don’t know when and no one saw it. It has evidently been here for a long time and yet the debris we have found is quite recent, as are the coffins. And who even brought them here?”
Abbot Od raised his hand and we all stopped.
Wittaya fiddled with the end of the parasol.
“Uh? Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know,” I said and scratched my head.
“That,” Abbot Od said, “is because you are trying to rationalize what cannot be rationalized. In other words, you are trapped in a tangle of opposites.”
He gave out a little chuckle.
“Just listen. This has come to me:”
Empty handed I go, and behold the comic book
is in my hand;
I walk on foot, and yet from a rocket I am falling
Abbot Od looked at us. “What does this mean — any of you?”
No one answered.
Why had he mentioned comic books?
“It means,” said Abbot Od, sounding disappointed, “that we must find the answer beyond the limits of rational thinking.”
We continued to the circle of coffins.
“Has anyone opened them?”
“Er, no, honorable uncle,” said Elephant, “but I was just going to before you arrived. I’ll do it right now.”
“No, you won’t. Wait a minute. Now, how many coffins do you see here?”
“Seven?” said Wittaya tentatively.
Abbot Od stood by the head of the nearest coffin. “Yes, that is correct, which means?”
“Seven is important,” I piped up, working on the principle it’s always best to get the easy questions answered first so you don’t get asked the hard ones.
“What is the significance of Seven?”
The abbot placed the palm of his hand gently on the lid.
“I wonder ...,” He spoke in an uncharacteristically wistful tone. “You see, seven is of course one of the Holy Numbers. For the Enlightened One took seven steps at birth. That means there are seven steps to heaven.”
“Don’t they also say the Demon took seven steps when he was born?” asked Wittaya.
“Yes, well done,” said Abbot Od, “there is still hope for you.”
Wittaya broke into a massive smile.
“So that means that there are also seven steps to Hell,” continued the abbot.
Elephant and Wittaya joined him at the coffin while I tried to sort my sandals out.
“Shall we open it, honourable uncle?” asked Elephant.
“Yes, go ahead. I think we might find something remarkably interesting. Open the other coffins first and you had better cover your noses. After all, one can never be sure after such a long time.”
I cleared my throat and started feeling sick again.
Covering the lower part of their faces with their robe sleeves, Elephant and Wittaya went around the circle, carefully lifting the lid off each coffin and peering at the contents inside. Sometimes they exchanged furtive glances, sometimes they stared, and a couple of times wretched.
“Don’t be timid, you two! The decay of death is a natural process as it is in life,” said Abbot Od.
Wittaya and Elephant finally completed the dreadful task and joined the abbot at the last coffin.
“Now take the lid off this one as well,” he said.
They gently did as they were told and put the lid on the ground.
“So what do you see?”
The pair looked at each other, peered inside then stepped away. They’d gone all wide-eyed and I swore Wittaya had aged fifty years and Elephant didn’t look much better.
“Palm Trees, stop dawdling!” said Abbot Od. “Get yourself over here.”
Bloody hell, I was still trying to fix my sandals.
I stumbled over and stood by the coffin. I held my breath, to steel myself against the awful stench.
“Go on, Palm Trees. We haven’t got all night.”
Might as well end the agony.
I leaned over the open coffin and risked a quick glance inside.
I stepped back and nearly fainted.
Abbot Od chuckled.
“Well, what did you see?” he asked.
“I don’t think Khun Palm Trees is very well, honorable uncle,” said Wittaya.
The abbot turned to him. “So if we put everything together what have we got?”
“Perhaps it’s some kind of prophecy ...?” said Elephant.
“To do with the coffins?” added Wittaya.
Abbot Od folded his arms. “Seven is a holy number because the Enlightened One took seven steps to Heaven but also the Demon took seven steps to Hell. Therefore what is the significance of a seventh coffin that is empty?”
Elephant said, “Maybe they just haven’t found the seventh body yet.”
“I know!” said Wittaya, “The coffin was meant for the seventh victim but somehow they escaped their fate. It’s like a warning or something!”
“Palm Trees?” said the abbot.
Everyone turned to me.
“Pardon? Oh, yes.”
The abbot put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed hard. “I think,” he said, “we have been lucky tonight. Plenty to think about — isn’t that so, Palm Trees?”
I suddenly remembered the silk hat band that Elephant had shown me. I had a terrible urge to get back to my cell and read that story in Uncanny Tales. The main one all about a rocket ship and a man leaving a temple — without his hat.
The Abbot threw his head back and laughed out loud.
“Now let’s be quick,” he said, composing himself, “before Abbot Frog and his Black Bridge monks decide to stick their noses in.”
I bent over and tried to sort my sandals out again. But the abbot ordered me to take Wittaya on the Vespa and go and wake up the local farmer and borrow her buffalo and cart.
Two ball-busting hours later, Wittaya, Elephant, and I had stacked the coffins in the cart and made our way slowly to the Chrome Pagoda. I was exhausted.
“Right, you lot,” said Abbot Od brightly. “We’re nearly done. Take all seven coffins around to the icehouse and store them there for the night. Remember to do it with loving mindfulness. I’ll be over there in a few minutes to make sure you do it properly.”
He left us to get on with it. I took my time parking the Vespa before joining the other two at the icehouse, a squat dilapidated building at the far end of the temple compound with a green metal door and a small bench next to it. The place gave me the creeps. They called it the icehouse and it was colder than hell but I had never actually seen any ice in there.
I opened the metal door and peered into the lantern-lit interior. Sure enough, there were Elephant and Wittaya. They had just finished placing the last coffin on the stone slabs around the room. No doubt with great mindfulness.
“Anything I can do?”
“No, we’ve finished here now, Khun Palm Trees,” said Wittaya, looking like I felt. “We did it ourselves.”
Elephant just glared at me.
I didn’t have the strength for a fight, turned to leave, and bumped straight into Abbot Od. He was holding a book and a flask, and an old coat draped over his shoulder.
“Ah,” he said. “Good, you’ve finished. It’s time to return to your cells and get some sleep.”
Thank the Lord for that.
“Not you, Palm Trees. I need a volunteer to chant the death prayers through the night until the cockerel brings in the dawn. Even you know how important it is to sooth the souls of the dead for their journey.”
“But why me?”
“Because you need to make penance for that alcohol you smuggled in last week.”
“But can’t I do something else instead? Anything?”
“No, it absolutely has to be you tonight, Palm Trees.”
I could have tried to explain I was desperate. The night’s exertions had been too much for me. I could have shown him my badly shaking hands. My eyes were sore, my throat as dry as parchment. I had lost a terrible amount of weight. My sandals.
But I knew it was a waste of time.
Abbot Od gave me the book. “This is the one I showed you before with the translations in English. I’ve marked the prayers you need for tonight. They need to be chanted with loving mindfulness and continuously repeated. The flask is full. And the coat will keep you warm, it’s getting cold out here.”
Wittaya and Elephant edged past me, then walked off together in the direction of the monks’ quarters taking the lantern with them. Was that a stupid grin plastered all over Elephant’s stupid face?
Well, at least there wouldn’t be any mosquitoes in there. They hated the cold as much as I did. Anyway, I had no intention of chanting prayers all damned night.
“No need to go in. Just sit on the bench while you chant,” said Abbot Od cheerfully.
I ran a hand over the scars and ridges on my head.
Bloody bastards, the whole lot.
Abbot Od patted me on the shoulder. “And don’t worry, I’ll be back to check on you later.
Remember, Palm Trees — with loving mindfulness!”
I leant against the doorway and watched in utter dejection as the abbot left me there.
Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.
I closed the door to keep out the darkness and sat down on the bench. It was narrow and hard. I wrapped the coat around my shoulders, put the prayer book beside me, then sniffed the contents of the flask. It was water or very weak or something. Whatever it was, I slowly tipped it all out onto the floor. Perhaps they all thought I would now be forced to contemplate the error of my ways. That I had nothing to help me get through the terrors that lay beyond the door without a drink or an opium smoke. Nothing to ease the awful nausea and pain. To dull the awfulness of what lay ahead.
But they were wrong because, from the folds of my robe, I took out a flask of my own. Smaller but infinitely, supremely better. High-grade, rot gutting lao khao homemade white whiskey. For emergencies. Past the point of caring, I shut my eyes and started to down the contents of the flask. It turned my insides into a furnace but I was too tired to care. Thank you and good night.
* * *
Seven ... in the darkness ...
I opened an eye.
What a bloody awful nightmare, and of course I still felt complete and utter shite. I tried to reach out and grab a cigarette from the packet I always left near my mattress. But I could hardly move. I was wedged into some kind of box.
I kicked and flailed and punched until I until found myself naked on a cold, hard surface.
Where the hell was I?
Somewhere in the icehouse I could hear a man screaming.
* * *
“If you don’t believe me, it’s all in here — I’ve got proof.”
I carefully undid the string and unwrapped my parcel. Inside was a neat bundle of Golden Age comic books, every single one of them in mint condition. I put the top one on the table in front of Bob.
“It’s called Uncanny Tales and a real classic. Golden Age. Mint condition. There’s nothing better than a genuine American comic book. Go on, dive in and see what you find.”
Bob looked at the cover and sighed.
“Check out the big opening frame,” I said encouragingly. “That mysterious but good-looking guy without a hat walking out of a zany Buddhist temple somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok. Doesn’t he look just a little familiar ...?”
Bob was going to just flick casually through the pages to humour me, but then the story and amazing artwork inexorably drew him in — just like they did to everyone — and I knew he was hooked.
“This is screwy,” he said. “This opening one called 'Rocket Ship Temple Blues' looks a bit like the same crazy yarn you’re spinning me.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!”
“You mean to tell this is your story?”
I leant forward. “Yeah! Don’t you see? I’m that guy in the story walking out of the temple without a hat. He goes to a dance hall ... gets a ticket for a rocket ship from his friend ... and it crashes ... killing all seven passengers!”
“Oh, geez.” Bob carefully turned the pages as he read through to the end of the story. “So that makes you the seventh victim of that rocket ship crash? The story in the comic is like a warning or something?”
“Now you’ve got it, Bob!”
He sighed and shook his head. “Oh, brother.”
“See, Bob, the Demon took seven steps to hell. Seven is the magical number. There should have been seven victims. The abbot explained it all again after he rescued me from the icehouse the next morning.”
“Well, it’s one helluvan excuse for not getting that ticket. I’ll give you that,” he said. “I mean, I busted a gut to get that darned piece of paper.”
“It’s all in the comic book, Bob!”
“Look around the dance hall, Palm Trees. Take it in slow and careful. This is real life, not those crazy stories in your comics or a bad night on the liquor or the monks playing games to shake the sin out of you. See Gloria and Barbara and the rest of the Broken Blossom dancers over there? Tommy and the Rhythm Aces playing a mean swing tune on stage? Lillie in her hatcheck booth. Lila serving us with a smile. This is real life, Pam Trees. Get used to it.”
I slid the envelope with the ticket towards him.
“Listen to me, Bob. There is no way I’m getting on any damned atomic-powered rocket ship to Mars. Keep the ticket. I don’t care about the money. We’re even. I told you already, I’m new and improved. The Enlightened One’s given me another roll of the dice and I’m taking it. I’ll take my chances down here.”
I stood up, shaking.
“Hey, take it easy, tiger,” said Bob gently.
I sat down and put my head in my hands. “I’m all done in, Bob. Give me a break — please.”
Bob took the envelope back. “Truth is,” he said, “I’ve already got a buyer for this ticket lined up. I figured you might change your mind. You’re a screwball — no offence intended — and that’s why I like you. Only question is: if you really do stay, what are you going to do about that rap they’re trying to pin on you?”
“That,” I said, “is another story.”
“Do you want another drink? One for the road?”
“Oh, go on then.”
Bob caught the attention of Lila Leeds and she whirred over with a big smile.
I looked hard at him.
Robert Mitchum. Angel Face 1953. Robert — Robot — Bob — but still one hell of a good friend in a tight spot.
Or was he?
You could never really be sure about anything these days.