The first time I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road. Khao San Road was backpacker land. Almost all the buildings were guest-houses for travellers on their way into or out of Thailand; it was a place between East and West.
I’d landed in Bangkok from England in the late afternoon. As soon as the taxi dropped me on the Khao San Road, I caught the smell of dope. Half the travellers wandering past me were stoned.
I found a cheap guest-house easily, and a quarter of an hour later I was settling into a room that was only slightly larger than a double bed. The walls were dirty and bare and stopped before they reached the ceiling, so I could hear everything in the rooms on each side of me. On the ceiling was a fan, and for a while I just lay on the bed and looked up at it. It was calming, and the mixture of the heat and the gentle noise of the fan soon sent me to sleep.
I slept deeply until I heard the man’s footsteps in the corridor. They were different, too weird to sleep through. They dragged on the floor, and a stream of British swear-words floated into my room as the man tried to unlock his door. Then his light came on and, frowning, I looked at my watch. It was two in the morning – early evening in England – and I wondered if I would ever manage to get back to sleep.
The man coughed, then I heard him rolling a joint. Soon there was blue smoke caught in the light above the dividing wall.
‘Bitch,’ said a voice suddenly. ‘I could be dead.’
The voice paused while the man coughed. I was wide awake now.
‘Cancer in the coral, blue water, my bitch. Nearly killed me,’ the man continued.
He had an accent, but at first I couldn’t think where he came from.
‘Bitch,’ he said again, spitting out the word.
A Scottish accent. Beach.
Then suddenly the man’s head appeared in the gap between my wall and the ceiling.
‘Hey,’ he said.
I didn’t move. I was sure he couldn’t see me.
‘Hey. I know you’re listening in there. I know you’re awake. Here.’
Something sailed through the darkness and landed on my bed. The joint he’d been smoking. I grabbed it to stop it burning the sheets.
Holding up the joint I asked, ‘Do you want this back?’
‘You were listening,’ he replied, ignoring me. ‘You heard me talking about the beach. Tell me what you heard.’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘You’re lying. You were listening,’ he shouted.
I thought he was going to shout at me all night, but he suddenly seemed to change his mind and his head disappeared. I heard him light another joint and then he switched off his light.
I hardly slept for the rest of the night, and went downstairs to the eating area early to get some breakfast. When I got back to my room, I found an envelope pinned to my door. On it was written:
Here is the map.
A couple of minutes later, I was sitting on my bed with the ceiling fan cooling the back of my neck and the map in my hands. It was carefully drawn and beautifully coloured in. At the top of the map were the words Gulf of Thailand in thick red ink. Below them were several small islands. On one of them I noticed a black mark. An X. I looked closer. Written underneath, in tiny letters, was the word Beach.
The man in the next room! He must have pinned the map on my door. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say to him. I was curious, that’s all. I just wanted to know what was so special about this beach. His door was unlocked. I listened outside for a minute before knocking, and when I did the door swung open.
It was dark in the room, but there was just enough light for me to see. The man was lying on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. I think he’d cut his wrists. Or it could have been his neck. In the dark, with so much blood splashed about, it was hard to tell what he’d cut. But I knew he’d done the cutting: there was a knife in his hand.
I stood still, staring at the body for a couple of minutes. Then I went to get help.
The policeman was sweating, but not with the heat. It was the effort of speaking English. When he came to a difficult word or a complicated sentence he would stop and wipe the sweat from his forehead.
‘Mr Duck your friend, yes?’ he asked.
I shook my head. ‘I’d never met him before last night. And listen; Daffy Duck can’t be his real name. It’s a joke name.’
‘Joke name?’ said the policeman.
‘Not a true name,’ I explained. ‘Daffy Duck is a character in a children’s film. Like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse.’
‘Ah, so dead man gives false name to guest-house,’ said the policeman, when he finally understood what I was saying. ‘OK. Last night. In hotel. Tell me again.’
I didn’t tell the policeman about the map. I didn’t want to get involved in a police investigation and spoil my holiday. I don’t think the policeman cared about the dead man much anyway, because after about thirty minutes he let me go.
As I left the police station, I saw a French boy who I’d met in the guest-house at breakfast. He and his girlfriend, Francoise, had a room on the other side of the dead man’s and they’d been brought to the police station for questioning too. I sat down next to Etienne in the sun on the steps of the police station. The death was an unusual start to the day and I needed to talk to someone about it.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Do you speak English?’
‘Hi. Yeah, sure, I speak English. You’re the one who found the dead guy, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I found him this morning,’ I said, pulling my cigarettes out of my pocket. ‘Do you smoke?’
‘No thanks. My name’s Etienne, by the way.’
‘I’m Richard,’ I said, and we shook hands. ‘This is so weird. I only arrived in Thailand last night. I wanted to relax in Bangkok, if that’s possible, and instead I found a dead man!’
‘Well, we’ve been here for four weeks but it’s weird for us too.’
‘So where have you been for the last month? Not only in Bangkok, surely?’
‘Oh no. We’ve been in the north. Chiang Mai. Walking in the hills and rafting on a river. Very boring, no?’
‘Boring?’ I asked, surprised.
‘Yeah. I wanted to do something different. All travellers want to do something different but in the end we all do the same thing. There’s no… ah…’
‘Yes. We come to Thailand for an adventure but all we find is this,’ he said, pointing down the Khao San Road.
‘This dead man,’ he continued after a few seconds. ‘He was very strange. He used to talk about a beach every night.’
‘I know where the beach is,’ I said. Etienne looked interested. ‘I’ve got a map. He drew it for me. I found it pinned to my door this morning. It shows where the beach is and how to get there. I’ve got it in my room.’
‘Did you tell the police?’ Etienne asked.
‘No, I didn’t want to get involved. Maybe they’d think I knew him or something but I didn’t. I’d never met him before last night.’
‘A map,’ said Etienne quietly. ‘Cool. Can I see it?’
‘Yeah, sure. But what about your girlfriend? She’s still with the police, isn’t she?’
‘Francoise? Oh, she’ll be all right. She knows the way back to the guest-house.’
‘OK then,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’
When we got back to my room, Etienne stared at the map for five minutes without speaking. Then he said, ‘Wait,’ and ran out of the room. He came back holding a guidebook. ‘There,’ he said, pointing to an open page. ‘These are the islands on the map. They’re in a national marine park west of Ko Samui and Ko PhaNgan. All the islands are protected. Tourists aren’t allowed to visit them. They can go to one, Ko Phelong, on a special guided tour from Ko Samui but they can only stay one night. And they can’t leave the island.’
‘So Mr Duck’s beach is in a national park. How do people get there?’ I asked.
‘They can’t get there. That’s the point.’
I leant back on my bed and lit a cigarette. ‘Well, Mr Duck’s map is rubbish then.’
Etienne shook his head. ‘No. Not rubbish. Why do you think the man drew it so carefully and gave it to you?’
‘He was crazy. He called himself Daffy Duck,’ I laughed.
‘I don’t think he was mad. Maybe travellers try to get to new islands in the national park because islands like Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan are spoilt. Too many tourists.’
‘But they aren’t allowed in the national park,’ I said.
Etienne raised his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Exactly! That’s why they go there. You know, Richard, I’d like to find this beach.’
‘Really,’ said Etienne. ‘Believe me.’
I did believe him. He had a look in his eyes that I recognized. He wanted an adventure. I could tell that he was already listening to the sound of the waves on this idyllic beach, or hiding from the marine-park guides as he made his way to the island.
At that moment Francoise arrived. She was one of the most attractive girls I’d ever seen. I didn’t want to seem impressed by her looks, so when she put her head round the door I just looked up, said ‘Hi’, then went back to studying the map.
Etienne spoke to her quickly in French. I couldn’t follow the conversation but I recognized a few words, including my own name once or twice. I think she was annoyed that he’d left the police station without her. After some minutes their voices relaxed. Then Francoise said, ‘May I have a cigarette, Richard?’
‘Sure.’ I gave her one and held out a light.
‘So, what’s this map then?’ she asked.
‘I found it on my door…’ I started to explain.
‘Yes, Etienne’s already told me. Can I see it?’
I passed the map to her and Etienne pointed out the beach.
‘Just a short boat ride from Ko Phelong,’ he said.
‘How do we know what we’ll find there?’ Francoise asked.
‘We don’t,’ I replied.
‘And if there’s nothing there, how do we get back to Ko Samui?’
‘We get back to Ko Phelong,’ said Etienne. ‘Then we wait for a tourist boat. We say we were lost. It’ll be fine.’
‘I see… OK… When are we leaving then?’
I looked at Etienne and he looked back at me.
‘I’m tired of Bangkok,’ Francoise continued. ‘Let’s get the night train south tonight.’
‘Yeah, but… ‘ I said slowly, surprised by the speed at which events were developing.
‘We’re going,’ said Francoise, and put out her cigarette on the floor as if that was the end of the discussion. And it was.
We took the night train south from Bangkok, first class. I didn’t feel able to relax until I was in bed on the train, away from Etienne and Francoise. Things had been awkward since leaving the guest-house. I had no objection to their company, but I was beginning to think about the reality of our plans. Also, I realized that we were complete strangers – something I’d forgotten in the excitement of our quick decision to find the beach together. I’m sure they were feeling the same, which was why they were as quiet as I was.
At Surat Thani we got off the train and took a bus to Don Sak. From there we caught the Songserm ferry, straight to Na Thon. That was how we got to the tourist island of Ko Samui.