I haven’t been homeless all my life. There was a time when I had a cozy bed to sleep in and a fine roof over my head. Hello my name is Stefan Stevenson. Before finding myself homeless, I worked at Siam Commercial Bank but was not very high up there. I was only twenty-three, had recently completed my degree in Economics and was just starting out in my career. I had lived at home during my degree in order to save money, and upon coming out from New Zealand to Phuket to work had found myself awfully lonely.
Women were my downfall. One woman in particular. Fern was her name and she had been born in Phuket which was where I was living when I lost my apartment. I met her in a bar and we chatted the whole night. She told me her last name but did not give me her phone number. I looked her up on Facebook the next day and sent her a message during working hours the following day. Very soon we were chatting away, day and night, both in and out of worktime and it wasn’t long before I was called in front of the boss and asked about my decreased productivity. I had gotten so engrossed in my conversations with Fern, so carried away with the moment, I had forgotten about the CCTV cameras that dotted the inside of the building. Management were able to monitor what employees were doing on their computers during worktime. I realised the messages I had prided myself on being so private were actually public property. No doubt the bulk of them had been seen by management, which was more than embarrassing as some of them were quite sexually suggestive. I was in deep trouble.
Confronted by management, I panicked and stuttered. This was my first job since graduation and I hadn’t intended to make a mess of it – I wanted a good reference. It was simply that I had got too involved too quickly with Fern. We didn’t have an actual relationship. Not only had we not slept together, we hadn’t even kissed. Since that night in the bar, I’d not plucked up the courage to ask her out on a date, being quintessentially shy, and our relationship had been limited to and defined by Facebook. Emoticons littered our chats. I sent her exploding hearts – in return she sent me virtual flowers. It was sweet, and harmless. Or was it? Here I was, about to lose my job if I wasn’t careful, all because of a virtual relationship with a woman I had met only once.
The boss told me he knew I was using Facebook during working hours and that this was a big no-no. He gave me a written warning and told me if he caught me using the application again at work I would be fired on the spot, no time for excuses. I thanked him for the second chance and went back to my desk feeling much subdued.
That evening, I explained to Fern what had happened. I told her I couldn’t contact her during working hours anymore and our relationship had to be limited to after hours. She agreed – she told me my job was important and she didn’t want me to lose it because of her. I thanked her for being so understanding and rang off the phone feeling a little better. At least Fern had been compassionate. Some women would have sulked or thrown a tantrum at the thought of the loss of communication, but Fern had handled the situation with grace. It made me like her even more.
I ran a hot bath and soaked my tired body for forty minutes. We worked long hours in the bank, often without breaks, and it was past midnight before I got to bed and beyond one by the time sleep reached its dark fingers in to take me.
* * * * *
Six weeks later Fern was raped. She had been walking home from a film with some friends. The friends walked her to two blocks away from her street and told her they thought she would be okay making the rest of the trip alone. She wasn’t okay. She was just one street over from her house, near a leafy green park that bordered the road when a man reached out of the shadows and grabbed her around the throat, placing his other hand over her mouth so nobody would hear her if she screamed or cried out. He dragged her roughly into the park, threw her down forcefully underneath a tree, yanked up her skirt, tore down her knickers and had his way with her. He left her discarded at the side of the park and told her if she told anybody what had happened he would lie in wait for her again some place when she wasn’t expecting it.
“Next time”, he said, “It won’t be rape; it will be murder. Don’t you dare open your trap to tell anybody about what’s happened here tonight or it’ll be curtains for you.”
He drew one finger across his throat to demonstrate his point.
And then he was gone. Fern heard a car engine start, waited until she couldn’t hear the engine anymore, then gingerly picked herself up and walked slowly home.
Once home, she acted. Smiled at her mother and sister, said she was tired and just wanted to sleep. She made her way to her bedroom and opened her laptop. I received her frightened message.
“It’s me. Fern. I’ve been raped.”
“WHAT??!!! When? How did that happen?”
“I was coming home from a film with some friends. We went our separate ways and as I was passing by a park near my house a stranger grabbed me and dragged me into the park. I feel violated. I need to take a long hot bath. I need a drink of something strong. But the worst part is he told me if I told anybody he would hunt me down and murder me. So now I have to live with that fear too. So you better not tell anybody else about it in case he comes after me.”
“But Fern you need to go to the police.”
“No way. If I do that he’ll know I’ve narked and slit my throat. We have to keep this just between you and me.”
It took me three days but I finally convinced her to go to the police. I knew it was the right thing to do.
The rapist had to be caught and punished or he would go on offending. The policeman who was put in charge of the case took extensive notes and offered Fern police protection which she accepted. She was asked if she wanted a man or woman to protect her and Fern asked for a woman. The woman, May, was to walk with Fern to work, to sit beside her at work and at lunchtime, to escort her home and to stay with her until she went to bed. At night, May would sleep downstairs in Fern’s house. Fern told me she felt most reassured by this. Fern had described the rapist in as much detail as she could and the policeman in charge told her they would do their best to catch him.
Three weeks later she saw him. She was sitting outside her office with the officer assigned to protect her at lunchtime eating fresh spring rolls when she looked up and saw him staring at her. He held her gaze, then lifted his finger to his throat and drew it wordlessly, but threateningly, across. Then he turned and fled into the crowd. It was a hot day, but Fern shivered as though it was the middle of winter. She grabbed the policewoman’s hand.
“I saw him”, she said. “Just over there.”
Fern pointed towards the crowd opposite.
“He stared at me and drew one finger across his throat. I told you he threatened to murder me, now he’s stalking me at work. It’s terrifying. He’ll hunt me down and kill me.”
Fern shook with fear.
The policewoman put one strong arm around her shoulders.
“It’s okay honey. You’re safe with me. He’s just trying to psyche you out. I know it’s hard but try not to let it get to you. Remember I’m with you 24/7 – there’s not much he can do while I’m around. I carry pepper spray and a taser at all times. I’m well armed. Stick with me and I’ll protect you. That’s my job. My responsibility. It’s what I’m paid to do.”
Fern still felt shaken. She drew in closer physically to the policewomen, feeling the older woman’s warmth through their shirts. I had given her my phone number when she told me of the rape and told her to call me if anything happened. She telephoned when I was also on my lunch break and informed me of the throat incident. I did my best to reassure her, though I too, was shaken by the event. How had he known where she worked? What else did he know about her? Did he know where she exercised and what restaurants she like to frequent? Did he keep a file? Did he have photographs of her at home on his computer? Just what kind of mind were we talking about here?
Back at work, at three-thirty-four pm I logged into my Facebook in order to try and provide Fern with some extra reassurance. I needed to let her know I was really on her side.
“I’ll put my thinking cap on,” I said. “I’ll try and figure out his next move.”
“Thanks”, Fern wrote back. “I’m still feeling pretty frightened and finding it hard to concentrate on my work.”
“Try and put that creep out of your mind”, I said. “I know it’s easier said than done but he doesn’t deserve any of your mental energy. Just try and do a decent job this afternoon. Hold it together till 5.30pm. You don’t want to lose your job.”
Speaking of people losing jobs, my boss had seen me logging into my Facebook account and came marching over to my desk to give me my orders.
“That’s it. You’ve had your warning. I don’t tolerate disobedience in my employees. I need people who are loyal to the company, not people who waste time chatting up women during working hours. You’re to pack up your desk and leave this afternoon.”
He stormed off without another word.
So that was it for me. I was jobless. They wouldn’t give me a reference and without one I knew I would find it hard to find work in Phuket or indeed, anywhere. Without work, how would I afford the rent on my apartment? I didn’t want to go back to New Zealand, didn’t want to admit defeat and go running back home to Mummy, tail firmly between legs. I wanted to prove myself a man. I had to make it in Phuket. I had to look the world in the eye.
Once home, I called up my best friend Mike who had come out from New Zealand at around the same time as me. Mike was a graphic designer who rented an office space in downtown Phuket. We met for a beer most Fridays and I knew I could count on him to help me out in a crisis. I asked him to meet me for a drink the next night. We met at Rockin’ Angels with its walls decorated with album covers and I downed three vodkas before I had the courage to talk to Mike about everything that had been going on.
“I’ve lost my job Mike”, I finally found the courage to stutter. “Which means I will be unable to afford the rent on my apartment. I don’t have many savings, I’ve been living hand to mouth each month.”
Mike put his arm around my shoulders and said the words I longed to hear, the words I had hoped and dreamed he would say. To be blunt, I had thought he might need a little more prompting.
“It’s okay”, he said. “You can stay in the spare room of my office. Just keep the place tidy and don’t leave food scraps lying about or you’ll attract rats.”
I ordered another vodka to celebrate my newfound freedom and the fact that I still had somewhere to lay my head down at night.
* * * * *
Days at Mike’s office were strange. I knew I should be applying myself whole-heartedly to finding another job, maybe even stooping so low as to fake references, or asking my brother back home to pretend I had worked for him in his roofing business, but my heart wasn’t in it. Instead I found myself drifting aimlessly around Kata and Karon beaches, eyeing up women, with Fern in the back of my mind. I wondered what she looked like in a bikini. Although I wanted to, I still hadn’t found the courage to ask her out on a proper date. What if she rejected me? Then how would I feel. Despondent and down and heel. Like one of life’s losers, a reject, a retard. I bought a cheap camera and tried my hand at photography, taking snaps of the locals as they sunbathed or sipped drinks, or ate beef stir fry. I developed these photos myself, at night, purchasing the requisite chemicals and equipment and blocking out the windows in the small bathroom, to keep the light from the streetlights out. It was good to have a hobby – something to occupy my hands and time.
I contacted Fern to ask her how it had panned out with the creep. She messaged me back and said the police had caught him. He had been flashing an unsuspecting passerby and they had nabbed him, quite literally, with his trousers down. The case was still on trial but Fern had been promised by the police that he would be served a harsh sentence.
“The judges in this country don’t look kindly on rapists. If I had my way they’d all get the death penalty, but not everybody takes my harsh view”, stated the officer in charge of Fern’s case.
Back at Mike’s office, I began to grow lazy. Started sleeping in way past ten o’clock and not cleaning up after myself properly. I would leave half-eaten kebabs and old curries lying around despite Mike’s warnings about rats. True to his word, the first rodent showed up sometime in July. I came home from an especially productive morning out with the camera to find it munching cheerfully on the previous night’s kebab which lay discarded and forgotten in the corner. I was grossed out. I had been sinking slowly into the depths without really noticing what was happening to me. The rat forced me to face reality. I couldn’t cohabit with a rodent! I had to get my act together. What if Mike found the rat! As if on cue, as if summoned by my thought, I heard footsteps upon the stairs. O God, I had to get rid of the rat before Mike saw it. I grabbed a smelly old T-shirt and made a dive for the furtive rodent but it screwed up its nose at me and scurried out of reach to the far corner of the room, which is where it was, still clasping part of the kebab, when Mike entered the room and saw it, clocking also the old, moulding food that so gracefully decorated the spare room of his office.
Mike was furious. I’d never seen him so angry. I didn’t know what to say to placate him. What excuse could I make for myself? Unemployment had seen me turn into a slob par excellence and now I was ruining the spare room of his office he had so kindly lent me out of the goodness of his heart. What sort of friend was I? Give me an inch and I took a bloody mile.
“I’m sorry”, I said. “I’ve been slipping slowly but surely into depression. Forgetting to shower. I think I need to see somebody. Maybe even a shrink, somebody heavy duty. I’ll get rid of the food right now.”
I began gathering up the old kebabs and curries and throwing them into the overflowing trash can in the far corner, right opposite the rat.
Mike lowered the tone of his voice.
“Listen, Stefan, I hate to break this to you, but I don’t think you can stay here if you’re going to live like this. When I offered you the flat I thought you were a tidy guy. Maybe it’s my fault for not checking up on you often enough, for just leaving you to your own devices, but I trusted you. Aren’t friendships supposed to be built on trust? I feel you’ve violated my trust Stefan, taken advantage of my generosity. Have you even done any cleaning at all? You’re living like a complete animal, obsessed with that damned photography and forgetting to take care of yourself. I hope there’s no hard feelings but I’m going to have to boot you out. Tonight. Pack your bags Stefan, you’ll have to find somebody else to bludge off.”
No hard feelings?! Mike’s words hurt. He had called me a bludger and stated I had taken advantage of him. I hadn’t intended to do so, it was just that lack of gainful employment had lowered my self-esteem and made me lazy and weak.
I threw the lid of the trash can at the rat then sulkily pack my bags. Where was I supposed to go? I was a loner and didn’t have any other friends. Looked like it was the street for me, with the alcoholics and the derelicts and the other down-and-outters. I didn’t look back at Mike as I exited the building.
* * * * *
Days on the street were tough, but the nights were tougher. I slept in a doorway two blocks over from Mike’s office and he would sometimes pass me on his way to work. I had grown a full face beard by now and if he recognised me he didn’t let it show. Probably he was ashamed of me. I was ashamed of myself.
You had to become hard to survive. Sad but true. My first week living rough, I was robbed. My last fifty dollars was taken from my wallet and I had no money to buy food. An unlucky squirrel crossed my path and I was quick enough to catch it with my bare hands. I slit its throat and skinned and gutted it with a hunting knife which had been a twenty-first birthday present from my father. I cooked it over a small makeshift fire which I built in front of my doorway. The next day I pawned my laptop and my camera, my only semi-valuable possessions. They were well worn and I didn’t get much for them. My mobile still had a small amount of credit left on it so I telephoned my mother and begged for money and she put $1000 in my bank account. I didn’t want to ask her for more. These were the years in which I was supposed to be proving myself, standing on my own two feet. Leaving the nest, I had not flown, I had fallen. Now I lay broken in the street.
I remembered Fern but was too embarrassed to contact her in case she asked about my living circumstances. I could lie, of course, but what if I got found out. That would be terrible. I wasn’t a liar by nature. Lies just got stuck on my tongue. I wasn’t clever enough for lies. Liars have to be able to think quickly or they get caught in a sticky web of their own deception. Since childhood I had figured that honesty was always the best policy and since I was deeply ashamed of the way I was living, I decided it best not to contact Fern.
I tried to be strong. Told myself that I would get through this. This was just a passing phase, just a nasty patch to endure. I went to internet cafes during the day and looked for work. I was desperate and would take anything. I bought a razor and shaved myself in the men’s public toilet, then took to the streets in search of work. Anything would do. The hours spent without employment were too long. Time looped and dragged and wrapped itself around my useless fingers. I went into cafes, the zoo, the aquarium and various animal shows such as the snake show and Crocodile World.
Eventually the man running the snake show took pity on me and said I could work on the door taking money and clipping tickets. Never have I been so grateful. No more aimless wandering of the street. This would give focus to my life, give me somewhere to go during the day and provide much needed social contact. My life was sadly lacking in human relationships. I hadn’t got to know many of Phuket’s other homeless people – they tended to be loners, and each one kept largely to themselves. They did not operate in packs which was a pity as it may have given them a greater chance of survival.
One night I went to an internet cafe and contacted Fern. Much to my surprise she’d gotten married. I was taken aback and a little hurt. It wasn’t that I’d imagined she’d marry me but I had felt we had some kind of understanding. Perhaps I had imagined it, maybe it had all been in my mind. Most nights I felt alone, felt a sort of empty pit in the centre of my chest but I did my best to cover it over by burying myself in work and I tried not to let my emotions affect me too deeply. That was the best way. Emotions were a waste of time. They only led to trouble. Wasted tears, bitter years.
The snake show was a sad affair. The tourists came in droves but many left disappointed. The snakes’d had their fangs broken and were drugged. The men running the show completely lacked empathy and compassion and gave no thought to the quality of life of the snakes who were being abused. The Phuket zoo had a similar reputation for animal abuse and I had not visited on principle. It was hard for me to work at the snake show, for although I was not complicit in the abuse of the snakes I knew what was going on and said nothing which in a way made me party to what was going on. My silence made me guilty. I took the money, clipped the tickets and went home at the end of the day feeling somehow unclean.
I worked at the snake show for six months and made enough money to rent a room sharing with two Thai men. The unit was small and grotty but it was a roof over my head and for that I was grateful, especially after having experienced life on the street. With time I forgot about Fern and I even found a girlfriend, an Australian called Sally, who I met one night at Rockin’ Angels, drunk on Mojitos. Sally had curly sandy blonde hair and brilliant piercing green eyes like a cat. Life was looking up and my time on the street became just a dark nightmare I did my best to try and forget. Having met Sally, maybe I would even have to rethink what I had thought previously about emotions.
I was sitting in Neko Cat Cafe one day when I saw an advertisement in an open newspaper looking for donations to the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I still had $700 in my bank account, left over from the $1000 my mother had sent me and I handed in my notice at the snake show and reported them to the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I don’t know if the society ever investigated or if anything came of their investigation if they did look into it, but it was a weight of my conscience and I felt at least I had done the right thing by the snakes.
* * * * *
My brother said he would lie and vouch that I had worked for him in his roofing business which meant I could apply for more meaningful work. He wrote me a glowing reference on company letterhead and I began to feel more secure. I had no experience but how hard could roofing be? I put some credit on my mobile and telephoned a few roofing firms and Lady Luck must have been smiling on me that week for I found a job at Chayond roofing working for Arthit, which means Man of the Sun. The name was appropriate for Arthit could be found up on Phuket’s roofs in all weathers, and I was soon up there with him. Arthit had no fear of heights and would climb the steepest pitches to get the job done. I learnt on the job, learnt quickly and was soon working with asphalt, galvanized steel and shingles right alongside Arthit. The job made me as strong as before I had been weak, and I never wanted to face a period of unemployment again. Unemployment rotted the soul. Arthit also had excellent balance which made him perfect for the job. He was a natural born roofer and told me it was the job he had dreamed of since being a young boy.
“I used to climb up on our roof with my Dad when I was young to fix the chimney or the TV aerial. Used to love it. Loved the view. You could look out over all the other houses and feel like king of the world.”
There was an art to aligning the shingles. You had to get them just right or the water, and wind would get through. We also installed insulation and vapor barriers and sealed everything off to avoid leaks. Arthit was a good teacher and I was happy to learn from him.
My girlfriend and I were getting on well. I was happy to have found a companion in life and was thankful I no longer had to walk such a very lonely path. Sally was good company and was an expert in making me laugh when I got stressed. As I grew to trust her I told her about my time on the street and her eyes filled with empathy.
“Oh, that must have been rough”, she said. “At least those days are behind you now. You’ve got a good career in roofing if you play your cards right. It’s a good steady job. People will always need new roofs and their old roofs mended.”
I became a work robot and began to dream of running my own roofing business in Thailand. In the internet cafe I looked into the legality of it and saw I was entitled to start my own business there. This gave me some hope for the future. I felt I would be good at being my own boss. I wasn’t really cut out for working for anybody else. Although I had turned into a slob when unemployed I could also be very disciplined when I wanted to get things done. Running a business would be good for me.
I took a night course in book-keeping, as I wanted to be able to keep the financial side of things straight and then I went into business as Stef’s 4 Roofs. I was the little red hen. I did everything myself. I purchased all my own equipment and a white van which I had specially spray-painted with Stef’s 4 Roofs in gold lettering on the side. I quickly picked up business, being careful not to poach Arthit’s customers and soon had a solid customer base which kept my cash flow steady. At night I would crash into bed exhausted, setting my alarm for 6am the next morning when dawn would bring another hard working day.
Throughout my time as a roofer I had been getting closer and closer to Sally. We had been sleeping together almost every night for the last six months and in January of the following year I proposed. I was very nervous. I had bought an expensive engagement ring – an emerald surrounded by six diamonds from one of Phuket’s most exclusive jeweller’s and I was hoping she was going to say yes. I had kept the receipt for the ring and checked the returns policy just in case she turned me down. Nonetheless, I was quietly hopeful. She had told me she loved me on more than one occasion and I had reciprocated. We had a warm, close relationship – the kind of relationship I had thought I would never find in my life, which had been largely cold and empty, like a vacuum in outer space.
I took her out to the Blue Elephant, and after the mains, when dessert had been ordered but had not yet arrived, I did the old fashioned thing and got down on bended knee and proposed. She accepted with a coy smile and afterwards, when we were walking home, gave me a big smoochy kiss. My heart skipped in my chest and it struck me that I had found, in this harsh, unforgiving world, some small sliver of happiness and contentment.
Well, who can ask for any more than that?
Illustration: Shreyaa Krritika Das