We didn’t notice him come—we didn’t notice him go. But of all the people that came and went while my buddy Alan and I flopped around Thong Nai Pan beach on Koh Pha-Ngan island for over two weeks at the tail end of 1999, whenever we meet up, if we get to talking about that trip, we speak of Jules the Welshman the most—a most dubious and highly insignificant honour, granted, but an honour nonetheless.
If I sit down and think about the other characters, sure, names, faces, nationalities, character traits come back. We bussed from Bangkok with an Australian man who’d been living in London where he’d clearly grown a fondness for the Boogie and a thoughtful American woman who I’m fairly confident would have been blogging her Southeast Asian adventures if blogs had been invented (it was 1999 and we were all writing in notebooks/ journals with PENS!).
We ended up driving in the back of a pick-up from the port along a washed out clay road to Thong Nai Pan. Regular deluges had made the road pretty hairy. The pick-up slid down hills with little control and got stuck several times in huge crevices going uphill. Eventually we got there and checked into the first set of bungalows called Dreamland and settled into the life of a beach bum: reading fifth-hand novels bought on Bangkok’s Khao San road, drinking, smoking and eating adventurous things we’d never tried before, you know, like porridge with banana, pancakes with banana, muesli with banana, club sandwiches with no banana—and the odd green or red curry.
Of the characters that came and went – in non-chronological order – I can recall a mysterious Persian-looking fellow who wore jeans (at the beach!) and played chess a little bit too well for Alan’s liking. There was an English couple fond of spliffs and clichés (“We’re travellers not tourists”). There were two shy French women and by day Alan and I thought about pairing off with them by night. There was a solo-travelling English girl who was hanging out with the local grass dealer, a Bangkok dude who’d re-branded himself for the foreign market as Pea. He was on the lam or escaping hard drugs – maybe both – and a little bit too street wise and cool for a barely developed beach strip. There was Nathan, a ginger Aussie army boy who was talking about a spit roast while the aforementioned English girl was in the toilet (I was wondering why he was whispering and picturing a pig, a spit, and you know, a roast—it would be years later when I discovered what he was suggesting). Lots of people left. We stayed. The rain came bucketing down and the road was apparently deteriorating. We thought we were stuck yet every morning one or two travellers would arrive on the back of the mud-splattered pick-up. We were pretty content but daydreamed out loud about a troupe of Swedish (or whatever) beauties appearing the next morning – just to spice things up a bit between banana pancakes and lolling-in-the-hammock-time. With perfect comic timing, the next day eight gay Canadians arrived.
And then there was Jules.
Part One – The Invention
I first noticed him one morning walking down the beach, gazing intensely at the shells, or debris, like an amateur geologist. I figured he was bored but not quite aware of it yet. Hence the overdone level of fascination with shells on a beach.
At some stage he made his approach to our table and teased Alan and I with a line that sounded a lot like this: “You guys know much about patenting?”
We replied by saying things like: “No/ not really/ maybe/ don’t you post whatever it is you want to patent to yourself, or something/ why don’t you just ask a lawyer/ why?”
Oh, he couldn’t say—until he could 10 to 20 minutes later when he said something like this: “I’ve invented something.”
We were curious. Not bending-over-backwards-begging-for-answers-curious. Let’s say, mildly curious. Enough to play along and ask questions anyway. Jules pretended to play coy. It was too big to talk about. But talk about it he did. It was big. It could be huge – this invention. Like, change-the-course-of-history-save-human-civilisation-kind-of-huge. He intimated that there may even be people after him, whether they were trying to steal his designs, or stop him, it wasn’t clear. He said, no, whispered something like: 'I have to be careful – if this information got into the wrong hands…” Two random young Irishman, however, well, we were about to enter the circle of trust. He sat very close to both of us, swore us to secrecy, before revealing he had “designed a generator.”
“A power generator….”
“And the beauty of it is….”
“It runs on thin air…”
"Yeah, this could change the world we live in overnight, man…"
"… the oil and gas industries, they’re worth trillions and they want to protect their investment…" [he glanced over shoulder for effect]
"Yeah, man — thin air…”
And when we eventually slipped away to our one-bed bungalow and crawled in under the mosquito net riddled with holes, Alan and I looked at each other, and said things like: "THIN air!", "Yes, of course!", "Why hasn’t anyone thought of it sooner?", "Send in the assassins!" and we laughed so much that we cried and wheezed and gasped for air.
Part Two – The Novel
So by now we have an inkling that Jules is a tad delusional, very possibly mad if only starting out to be mad – and so he became part of a game that needed no hyping up and no referee. There was no whistle to signal the start but without a word being spoken Alan and I were already playing, “Dump your buddy with the weirdo.” The aim of this game was, “ALWAYS leave a man behind.”
One evening, after dinner and beers, we sat outside Jules’ bungalow smoking a spliff and/ or sipping beers. Alan was on one end of the hammock. Jules the other. After a while, Jules suggested rolling another joint. Alan committed himself to the act and with that – and with considerable relish – I announced I was off to bed. Alan’s eyes widened and focused on my face. His lips didn’t move yet I could see he was saying, “Fuck you, you prick.”
Perhaps it was the weed, but Jules was in a relaxed mood and he didn’t seem too worried about the prospect of being dragged off in the middle of the night by a group of mercenaries hired in secret by a board of ruthless oil zillionaires. That night he wanted to talk about his literary ambitions. Maybe it was because Alan was holding his fifth-hand copy of Anna Karenina that triggered this off. Who knows. But anyway, he said something like: "You know, I’m working on a book.” Alan expressed token interest. Alan knew that writers generally never discuss the content of a book — he’s also aware that Jules is delusional. Maybe he’s not expecting to hear much more, or maybe he’s just hoping not to hear anymore. But Jules rallies on by revealing the backdrop to the novel. It went something a little like this: “Dublin, New Year’s Eve. Four people—one from Wales, one from Scotland, one from England, and one from Ireland [It would be noted later this is a classic and recognisable formula to anyone who has heard a joke starting, “So a Paddy Irishman, Paddy Welshman, Paddy Scotsman and Paddy Englishman are all caught by African tribe/ walk into bar/ are sitting in a plane…”] are all suddenly in financial trouble. The Celtic Tiger has collapsed. The economic shit has hit the fan. The four main characters all separately try to kill themselves as the clocks hit midnight. But by some incredible twist of fate THEY ALL FAIL. “
[Interlude: I should point out that this all took what felt like a brief eternity to tell. Alan was stoned and in the horrors. Jules was just getting started and settling in for the night. Leaning back, he pinned Alan back in the hammock and continued to explain how his characters all freakishly survive. It went on so long that Alan thought Jules had revealed the guts of the entire novel…]
Jules eventually seems to be winding up the story and then he said something like: “Then they come here…”
Jules swept his arm from right to left and gestured at the surroundings: “Dreamland.”
"And that’s the end of chapter one…”
"…" [Alan nodded his head, as if impressed.]
"…." [Jules smiled and stared into the distance]
“So how many chapters have you written?” [Alan politely played along]
“Written? Oh none of them….”
"Well, not on paper anyway…"
Then Jules tapped the side of his head and grinned as if to say, “don’t worry mate. It’s all in here” where we would presume it would stay along with the blueprint for the revolutionary generator that ran on thin air.
When Alan eventually “escaped” Jules’ hammock, he walked back to the bungalow holding his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh out loud, and when he got back we sat on our bed laughing and crying until our faces hurt, and Jules, we didn’t notice him go, but slip away from Dreamland he did, from one banana-pancake-cooking bungalow-resort to the next [“it’s not safe to stay in one place”], trying to impress upon young backpackers, wherever he went, that he wasn’t just an ordinary man of little purpose from an ordinary town in Wales, he was an extraordinary individual on an extraordinary world.
And maybe we shouldn’t have laughed (so much) — at least at his literary ideas. Years later myself and Alan would tell the story to a friend and they would remark, “that’s weird. I just read a book by Nick Hornby called the Long Way Down [published in 2005]” The premise? “Four strangers happen to meet on the roof of a high building called Toppers’ House in London on New Year’s Eve, each with the intent of committing suicide. Their plans for death in solitude are ruined when they meet. The novel recounts their misadventures as they decide to come down from the roof alive - however temporarily that may be….”
Coincidence? I don’t think so!
Conclusion: If the oil zillionaires’ hired assassins didn’t get Jules in the end, it must have been Nick Hornby.