Mosques and temples jostle with shops selling everything from massage oils to cut-price CDs. When the narrow streets get too much, follow the sounds of a cricket match onto Galle Face Green as the sun sets over the Indian ocean.
My mobile beeps and I’m back in the room. It’s a Grindr message.
—Hey. What you into?
Crass, that directness. But the shitty signal on board is an excuse for getting to the point and I’m horny enough to overlook minor irritations.
—Btm 4 top. U?
I send some and get three in return.
—Nice. Wen u looking?
The cabin is crap in a rush. I bash my shin on the side table (luckily the vase with its single plastic poppy is superglued in place) and in my search for a jockstrap, clothes spill out of the miserly wardrobe. I douche quick-smart, distending the plastic walls as I press against them in the tight space. This flimsy cabin could split at the seams. Even when doing nothing it’s a snug fit and more than a little claustrophobic. The sun is shining outside – but open these curtains and there’s just a couple of lightbulbs behind an opaque screen. There’s a stiff breeze coming off the ocean mere metres away – but here there’s only stuffy AC. It’s an inside cabin. The cheapest sort. Still, with the TV on to give a sense of depth, it’s possible to inhabit the space for a few hours.
Animal lovers will be spoilt for choice at Phuket. Visit the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project near Bang Pae Waterfalls or take an unforgettable elephant ride along a tropical trail.
Sunset heavy, adjective laden; the cruise line’s on-board channel details The Odyssey’s itinerary with photos and lulling voiceover. We’re at the Batu Caves as I stuff things back into the wardrobe, with monkeys shrieking all along the 272 stone steps leading up to some sacred Hindu shrine or other.
A knock on the door.
—Hey. Come in.
He’s good looking but I don’t get long to admire the view. We’re chest-to-chest in a room only big enough for intimacy. We stand apart for a second, his aftershave sharp, until there’s touch, my hand on his chest. And then it’s on. He pushes his tongue into my throat. His hands are on my shoulders, pressing. So much for foreplay. On my knees I scrabble for the poppers and take two deep inhales as he pulls his shorts down and forces my head onto his dick. He rams it into my mouth like he wants to make a hole in the back of my head. I gag and pull away, throat raw, face wet with snot and droll, have to take a few long breaths. He hoists me up and pushes me onto the bed.
Stroll in Lumphini Park, the green heart of the city, for a close-up glimpse of monitor lizards on the banks of the lake. Bring your day to a spectacular close with dinner at Vertigo – and watch the city glittering 61 floors below.
I’m not moving or moaning. Just lying on my stomach and the bed springs squeak. There’s nothing so regular as regular sex. It goes on, past feeling. Squeak, squeak. I’ve given up bothering to feign enjoyment but that hasn’t put him off and he’s showing no sign of getting bored.
Take the excursion to the unforgettable Cu Chi tunnels and experience the ingenuity of the Viet Cong.
There’s a mirror on the wall next to the TV and he looks hot in it. There’s a disparity between the way he looks and the way this feels I wish wasn’t there. He’s gym-fit, tanned and smooth. TV colours play over his sweaty skin, the muscles of his shoulders and chest.
And when you tire of sunbathing, feel the rush of the city in its teeming streets where locals and travellers alike search out handmade suits and antiques.
I turn from the stall selling fake Louis Vuitton bags and crush in with grey-suited men and women as they step onto the outdoor escalator. It must be five o’clock, end of the working day. Cologne and sweat ride on the breeze. We rise past neon signs for noodle bars as the sun melts red and pink on grubby apartment windows. He turns. His hand brushing against his crotch is for my benefit, though he pretends to look down through the tangle of telephone wires out to sea. We reach the top and step onto a mossy path. He’s walking quickly and I have to jog to reach him, through Yu Garden with its green pools and ornate temples, past pagodas and willow trees and onto a zig-zagging covered bridge. He stops. I walk on a little way then stop too and lean on the balustrade, flaking blistered red paint into the river with my finger. I see his reflection approach in the water and he’s right next to me. A stone smashes the surface. A girl giggles, throws another. I look up and he’s gone. The river is surrounded by modern apartment blocks on either side. Mountains dilute into mist in front of me. I walk quickly along the cobbled pavement toward them. Then I’m on a wooded hill path. And he’s there. Waiting against a tree a little way off the beaten track.
The climb will be rewarded by stunning views across the modern city from the serene white Kochi castle. Or step through the doors into a perfectly preserved 17th-century interior.
—The International Date Line? Is that where you pay for someone to talk dirty down the phone?
—Don’t be facetious. It’s a boundary separating one day from the next. We’re just passing over it, which is why I called you to breakfast. We would have totally missed it if I hadn’t overheard that couple talking.
—Missed the imaginary line? That would have been awful.
—Don’t be facetious.
—So now that we have crossed over, what’s different?
—We’re travelling east which means we have to subtract a day.
—So it’s yesterday again?
—That’s the spirit.
—God. It was bad enough the first time round.
—I know. The champagne. The hot oil massage. Makes you want to jump overboard.
—Oh Christ. Don’t look now but auntie’s making a beeline in our direction.
Age has slowed what once must have been a swish into a slither. He leers (what once must have been a smile…) and sits at our table.
—Hi there dolls. Mind if I join?
I shouldn’t judge by appearances but we’re gay, and he does, and anyway I’ve already started. He’s soggy. His skin is translucent and slack like mis-ordered seafood in a Chinese restaurant. His eyes cloudy, his hands tremulous. Poke him – not likely – and he’d pucker like an anemone.
—You’re the only married couple of gays I’ve met. It’s really a sign of the times but I can’t get my head around it. You know? It’s just not something I’d ever consider. It would feel so weird to me. The guys I like are masculine. Straight. Oh hey, you know what? We passed the International Date Line back there.
—We were just saying before you arrived.
—It separates one day from another day. We’re losing twenty-four hours. It works for me. At my age anything extra is a blessing. You know?
—‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
—Oh it’s not connected to the current. It’s all to do with time zones.
The waiter brings eggs benedict and coffee, with Bloody Marys on the side. We immediately order two more of those.
—What’s the next stop then dolls?
—Papeete. But not for a while.
—Never heard of it. Well, I don’t know about you two but I could really use some land. I don’t feel safe with this pointless ocean all round. You know? My stomach just feels on edge.
—Then why take a cruise?
—Oh it’s a grand farewell. I’ve been everywhere in my time. This way I can have a last whip around without really moving. I want my life to flash before my eyes in style, with a gin in one hand and twenty-four hour room service a phone call away. Granted there’s no trade on board but there are boys in every port. It’s nice to revisit some of the old haunts. Lord knows, I’ve lived so many places over the years.
He pauses long enough for the response we don’t make. He goes on as if we had.
—Know where I was happiest? Generally the arid parts of the world. Saudi Arabia. Morocco. Very distinct but equally amenable. The boys in Morocco will do anything for money. Saudis’ll do anything for kicks. I was longest in Morocco. Younger too. And I suppose it’s there that holds a special place in my heart. There’s an area called Salé, a short drive from Rabat and in those days dirt poor. Well, dirt works for me. I remember the boys from the bidonville would rush out of their shacks to wave when they saw my car coming. They knew me you see. Word of mouth. The mothers appreciated a bit of cash to put away for whatever wedding was on the cards so I was always welcome. It was very cute. I’d even get invited to the homes of my ex-shags after they’d married. We’d talk – or at least say the few simple phrases we knew. I never learnt the language. I always think too much communication is a bit of a killer. You know? So we’d say a few phrases, smile in silence, say those phrases again, drink tea. We’d even screw for old times’ sake while the wife made lunch. There were always new boys around anyway. The older ones would introduce me to their younger brothers. I was never bored. There was the bodybuilding competition every few months, of course. I was a big sponsor. That meant I could hang around the changing room and collect numbers. Those boys were only too happy to be admired. Even the diehard breeders didn’t mind oiling up and flexing their muscles for a private show. You know? They’ll go pretty far with a camera pointing at them. But I guess the best encounters were chance ones. I remember walking out into the hinterland one day. Heaven knows why. Dust, burnt grass, carrier bags snagged on the landscape. And I came across two young guys. You could just tell they were horny – I mean what else is there to think about in the middle of nowhere? But they needed some encouragement to get them going. They could never admit it to each other of course. A few dirhams did the trick. You know how they jack off in that part of the world? Snap a piece off a prickly pear, pull out the spines and stick their cocks into the hole. It was harder to convince them to do each other. But eventually I managed to persuade them to come back to my place and get it all on film. It’s the expression of the one who gets fucked second that I love to watch. With his desire gone you can see all sorts of other things on his face. It’s hard to describe. I could just sit and watch that for hours. Well, I have and I do! Just a case of getting all the old VCRs onto DVD, though that may never happen. Who would I ask for a start?
Whipping wind. Miles of sky with nothing to fix on. I feel as though I’ll blow away as we step onto the deck so I grab Leo’s sleeve. It’s very silly and I look around to make sure no one notices. Even with the morning so advanced and the sun full blast by some miracle we find loungers by the pool. The reason quickly becomes apparent: there are only a handful of kids on the cruise but they’re all over the shallow pool next to us. Whenever one of the shrieking brats attempts the front crawl, we get the splashback. In fact there’s something black on the bottom of the pool. I’d say it was rectangular but it keeps breaking out of shape into blobs and strips. It could be a mobile phone. The water’s so disturbed I can’t make it out.
—It’s only one o’clock and I’m smashed.
—I’m not surprised. Two Bloody Marys before you even started on the toast. God knows what all those Stepford wives will think.
—Honey, have you even seen them? The only reason they can’t start on the booze this early is because they haven’t stopped from the night before. And you know it’s not like me to tipple before lunch. I just needed something a bit stiff to cope with that gross old fruitloop. I don’t know what’s worse – the things he’s done or the fact that he seems perfectly content. Going through life, buying what he wants. It’s disgusting. If I end up like that, please shoot me.
—I’ll definitely shoot you way before then, babe.
—Well hopefully we’re safe from him out here. He doesn’t seem the type who could do without a rock to crawl under.
I’m pretending to read but really people-watching. Most of the loungers here are couples sliding into their forties. The women wear big hats, drink champagne cocktails and read trash. The men flop in the sun, flambéing sagging bellies. There are just a few families. One lot deals with tears and tantrums; another smiles vacantly at their little darling churning in the pool. It ducks down and then unfortunately resurfaces with the black thing from the bottom: one of those rubber bricks. Leo wants kids but I’m not sure. The reason marriage works is that we hold it in inverted commas. It doesn’t define anything. But children necessitate strictures and with kids there’s suddenly a point. It’s like the way your eye gets pulled along by perspective in a picture. Led down a road to the vague distance despite every other thing in the frame.
—God, my head is swimming. I actually feel quite vommy.
—Poor babe. Do you want a tablet?
—Not on top of the booze. Just tell me something. Talk.
—I don’t know – something solid. Something involving dry land.
Seen as a whole with a critical eye, Leo isn’t someone who’d stop traffic. But I don’t have that critical distance. His snore in bed; the bovine look on his face when he chews; the queasy hunch of his shoulders now – when they come, those are all things I find I’ve been waiting for. Despite his intelligence, it’s the dopey physicality which attracts me to Leo.
—I’ll tell you about Papeete.
—The approach reveals mountainous jungle, broken by waterfalls plunging toward black sand beaches.
—No, no, get straight onto the dry land.
—Ok then. We take the bus into town along a road bordered by regularly planted palm trees. It’s a mild evening with a refreshing breeze as we step off and head for the exotic gardens. The walk is easy, well signposted. And it’s worth it: in contrast to the sterile town, with its concrete buildings, the gardens are bursting with life. Leaves big as dinner plates and slick as though polished. The Tahitian mape trees are particularly enchanting; sinuous roots and trunks covered in moss so that under the canopy the air is luminous green. Even the grass is fat. That’s what impresses us most – the crunch and squeak of the grass under our feet as we walk out over the lawn and back onto the road. Once out, we head downtown. There are a few pretty places on the way – the odd church or municipal building in the dusk – but it’s overall grotty, with the usual medley of Western favourites: Hard Rock Café, McDonald’s. And soon there’s neon and noise. The bars are filling up with the usual holidaying gays as well as a few drag queens. We choose a place which looks slightly less tacky than the rest and order whiskey sours. We get lingering looks from local rent – you know the sort, tight Ts, tats with a regional flavour on their tanned biceps. Playing up local colour for the tourists.
And I notice a hot guy looking over at me.
—What’s great is how solid the whole place is, from the concrete floor to the walls weighed down with framed photos and lucky trinkets. Even the stools are nailed in place, which means reaching past the point of convenience for your drink on the bar. We get chatting to the old bag nearest us. He’s very slow but we do learn one interesting nugget – that this island is made of the densest stone in the world. Can you imagine? It would take more than a nuclear blast to make even a dent.