Last month I was in Bangkok, staying on the 59th floor of a 64-storey building. The swimming pool is on the 10th floor, a 10-second journey in an easy elevator, but to prove that I’m not yet old I walked down the fire-escape stairs. I discovered two things: firstly that the fire escape is the only part of a Bangkok hotel that isn’t air-conditioned in the hot season, and secondly that in the event of some future fire I’ll tie my bed sheets into a parachute and take my chances out the window.
The fire escape was like falling down a long chimney with a furnace at the bottom. I became dizzy and couldn’t breathe. My world slowly filled with hot water. The further down I went the darker it became, and the air in the concrete shaft of the stairwell made a roaring sound like a high wind through burning treetops. I poured myself out on the 10th floor, a bucket of sweat loosely held together by wet clothing, and trickled into the pool.
When I’d floated face-down long enough to stop hallucinating, I noticed there were three other people at poolside. There was an attractive youngish woman from the Philippines and her husband – Scandinavian and somewhat older and less attractive – and their small daughter, around seven years old, who wore swimming goggles and a long-sleeved swimsuit and sat gloomily dangling her legs in the pool with an air of frustrated adventure, using a frangipani petal as a pirate ship and subjecting it to the perils of miniature tsunamis and a sea-monster in the shape of her big toe. Her parents were engaged one of those marital disputes that adults seem to find compelling on holiday, so I whiled away a pleasant few minutes pretending to be a crocodile with my arms extended and my fingers interlocked like teeth. If there’s one thing small girls of all nationalities enjoy, it’s being stalked by a slow-moving crocodile in a swimming pool.
But just as I was about ready to leave, the marital discord escalated and the mom went stalking off in a flounce of angry Filipina, and elderly dad went off in what I assume was the direction of the bar.
This created a small dilemma for me. You can’t go off and leave a small girl alone in a hotel, even if she’s not your responsibility. And also, when is any child not your responsibility? I didn’t want to take her to reception because I didn’t want to be the middle-aged foreign man who removed the seven-year-old from the place where her parents had last left her. She didn’t speak English but she told me her name was Rain, and I thought that was a pretty name but I didn’t say so because I didn’t want to sound creepy. We played crocodile some more and I taught her how to walk like a hippopotamus across the shallow end and we went to look over the parapet at the city under its heavy low grey Asian sky. The air was turning lilac with the dusk and some of the lights in the towers were coming on. The traffic was building with low, roaring jungle sound and the riding lights of the ferry boats on the river moved on the darkening water. It’s a big city and a big world and I thought all of all the little girls left alone and nobody’s responsibility.
We invented a game where I floated tamarind leaves towards her and she submerged and speared them from underneath with a cocktail toothpick. We found some smooth pebbles in a water feature and I threw them into the pool for Rain to swim down and fetch, and when I threw them too deep she put her hands on her hips and waggled a finger and scolded me. As she retrieved each pebble she wrapped it neatly in her T-shirt.
it started to rain, warm fat drops falling lazily from a sky so low it almost felt indoors, and we swam in the rain and I said, “Rain!” and pointed to the sky, and she laughed and laughed.
Finally her mom arrived and glared at me and yelled at Rain in the way that moms have when they’re feeling guilty, and hustled her away. I went out that night and saw some things, and the next morning I was eating breakfast and I saw Rain and her family and I waved and she started to wave but her mom hustled her past to their table. I didn’t mind, although I was a little sad, but a little later I went to the buffet for another croissant and when I came back there was a small, smooth pebble sitting on my plate.
Getaway, 13 October 2014