Friday, June 12, 2009

Today, Sybilla (my wife) wanted to do something for my birthday. This ‘something’ was a river cruise. The river was something else that I’d not yet experienced. I decided to go along with her plan, believing that it might just bring us closer together. We got ready for what I hoped would put a bit of sparkle back into our marriage.

We caught the taxi to the pier that was near to the Shangri-La Hotel. While we waited to board, I curiously walked over to some craft stalls that were situated to the back of the pier, only three or four metres away. This was my first mistake of the evening.

‘I haven’t come all this way for you to do as you please,’ she said in a caustic tone, nearly biting my head off in the process, as she displayed all the characteristics of being impenitent.

‘I’m only looking.’ I said, turning away from her with no idea what I’d done wrong. Was I compelled to be her poodle? It seemed that she was in a mood for some reason, but for what, only time would tell.

Millennium Hilton, Bangkok.

Our boat arrived; we boarded it and took our seats. The cruiser was probably one of the most stylish ones on the river. It was at least twenty metres long, offering two levels of seating, spacious with accompanying dinner and bar facilities. The river glistened in the early evening light. We were one of a number of pleasure cruisers gracing the waters of the Chao Phraya River. Many of them glowed with their multi-coloured lights. Other vessels passed us included the hotel shuttle boats and long tail boats, which zipped past us at speed, but they were very narrow and sat low down in the river.

Naval Fortress on the Chao Praya River

Bangkok at night was an impressive sight, especially with the buildings lit up along the riverfront, not to mention the neon and laser light shows that came from the tops of the larger ones. It was so refreshing to experience the city without the pollution; something that Bangkok was notoriously famous for. That wasn’t to say that the river was not polluted. However, the fish did not seem to be complaining – not that we saw any.

Private Restaurant Boat

From the boat, we watched the illuminated city float past, admiring the suspension bridges, which seemed to span the river at every bend; those were all lit up too. The biggest attraction for me, however, was the magnificent Temple at Dawn: the Wat Arun. Situated on the west bank in Thonburi, it was probably the most stunning sight next to the river. Built during the early 19th Century, during the reign of King Rama II, it was also probably the best known of all Thailand’s landmarks. There it stood; glowing as if it was truly made out of gold, with its four prangs towering into the night sky. It looked even grander than it did during the day as if showing off its status to the rest of Bangkok.

The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun at night

‘Doesn’t that look magnificent.’ I said as we passed it, Sybilla offered me a pleasing smile, as if in acknowledgement of my comment.

This was certainly a different sort of birthday to the ones I was accustomed to. I sat there, musing and at peace with myself, as I watched the almost mystical city leisurely pass by. I felt as if I was drifting into some sort of trance. Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Sybilla got up and went over to the bar, interrupting my reveries. She came back, empty-handed and then announced.

‘I’m just going to the toilet, won’t be too long.’

I continued observing the river spectacle. Crafts glided by, all aglow and with music playing and flurries of raptures in full flow. I was pensively at peace with myself until I encountered my second interruption in close succession.

‘Excuse me, sir. Is it your birthday today?’ a waiter enquired.

I knew immediately that Sybilla was up to something. My birthday was on the 7 June and not the 12 June, so I told the waiter the truth.

‘No, it isn’t.’

Rama VIII Bridge from up river

He left, looking at me in a bewildered way. Where on earth was Sybilla? She was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t too sure what was going on, but this had all the echoes of previous foolish pranks that she was well known for. I remembered on one occasion, she had hired a strip-o-gram for her so-called friend’s birthday. He and his family were clearly mortified. On that occasion, I could have screamed at her for her stupid and ill-conceived idea. The question was, had she learnt anything from it and was I awaiting a similar fate?

I apprehensively scanned the deck from where I was sitting for anybody acting in a peculiar way and looking in my direction. Butterflies fluttered erratically within my stomach as I expected the worst scenario. The only two people who caught my eye were a couple of young twenty-year-olds, looking intently across at me. They certainly weren’t the best looking females on this boat and certainly didn’t look the type to reveal everything. I knew Sybilla was more than capable of organising anything for me. Paranoia was beginning to set in; not that I’d ever considered myself to be paranoid.

Rama VIII Bridge from the south

When my wife returned, I decided to stay calm but I ensured that I kept my beady eye on those two girls. As Sybilla sat down, she gave me one of her angelic smiles, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

‘Are you enjoying yourself so far?’ she asked.

‘Yes, it’s OK,’ I replied, as I gazed aimlessly across the river.

The waiter returned again. Hadn’t he got the message yet? Again, he muttered the same question regarding my birthday.

‘Are you sure it isn’t your birthday sir?’

What was I supposed to do? Pretend that it was, or had I a birthday that I could change at will, whenever I wanted to?

Sybilla offered me a reassuring smile, but that wasn’t enough to placate me. I quickly looked to see where those two women were. They’d moved and were now seated only a stone’s throw away. I was now convinced that they were in on the act as they sat there, intent on assessing our table, probably debating when to make their next move, or waiting for the signal from either the waiter or from Sybilla.

I turned to the waiter and said, ‘No, today isn’t my birthday.’

‘He only wants to get you a drink,’ Sybilla said, in what she probably thought was a reassuring voice as opposed to the condescending one that I had grown accustomed to. Surely, Sybilla wouldn’t have gone out of her way to embarrass me in front of all these people. I took a deep breath and decided not to make this into an argument. The two women were still adamantly observing us, or so it seemed and the waiter had now returned to the bar.

Restaurant boat all aglow

On the other side of the boat, a group of passengers started carousing in raptures of ‘Happy Birthday’ to a fellow passenger, celebrations being in the making.

‘There was nothing wrong with his or my intentions,’ Sybilla said. ‘I have no hidden agenda; I know you feel uncomfortable about things like this.’

She sounded convincing, but I still wasn’t convinced. Plus, the two women were still there. They looked to be sympathising with Sybilla. Maybe I should have been too. Then the disco started. Oh, why couldn’t they have had a jazz boat sailing up and down the Chao Phraya River; I was convinced they had them on the Mississippi. Sybilla was looking quite disgruntled as she shook her head in annoyance. Then she piped up as if nothing had happened and asked, ‘Do you want to dance?’

‘No thank you. You know I’m not the best at disco dancing; you go ahead and enjoy yourself. I’ll be OK.’

A state of compunction was beginning to set in. I was annoyed with myself for acting in such a curmudgeonly way towards Sybilla, even though I believed that she’d not helped the situation with her domineering personality that she had display back at the pier, along with her on and off attitude, since she’d arrived. This, I knew, would take some time to mend.

Sybilla went to the dance floor as I cast another glance across the undulating which was also opalescent in nature thanks to the reflections of the river crafts and the overpowering glow from the city’s lights. The river, however, did seem to be at peace with itself, flowing out towards the Gulf of Thailand. Other cruisers moved past us, merging into the confusing flickers of lights generated by the city, before slowly meandering down the Chao Phraya and disappearing.

I turned my attention back to the disco. A few coloured lights illuminated the makeshift dance floor. Only a moment ago it had been serving light evening snacks. The pop music was a combination of Thai and British, mainly from the 70s and 80s groups such as ABBA and Queen, to name but a few. Sybilla had been joined by the two inquisitive women; they were laughing together as they shared a joke. Only occasionally did they offer me a fleeting-glance. I was happy that Sybilla was enjoying herself, with her newly made friends. They were certainly better company than I was at this moment in time. I was beginning to vacillate about whether I was being silly about all this or not. I knew I could be difficult at times, especially when in awkward situations like this.

The cruise finally ended and Sybilla and I got a taxi back to our hotel. Sybilla wasted no time in challenging me over my performance and attitude and in how I had rejected the waiter’s offer. She claimed that I hadn’t tried to make her feel good about herself.

‘I’m sorry. I was convinced that you were up to some sort of meddling like you have done on so many occasions. I’ve seen it all too many times with you. I remember those things, even if you don’t. I also remember all the embarrassment that it causes – you need to be more transparent in your actions, rather than suddenly jumping up and heading for the bar and then suddenly absconding to the toilet while everything unfolds.’

‘I told you I hadn’t got anything planned – no tricks up my sleeve,’ Sybilla said sounding aggravated.

‘Yes, and how many times have you told me that in the past and then look what’s happened,’ I responded in a similar tone to hers.

‘God! You’re simply impossible at times and miserable with it. Can’t you just let your hair down for once in your life and try to enjoy yourself?’

‘If it’s any consolation, I’m sorry. Sorry! OK, this time I got it wrong, maybe I had my moment of madness, but I’ve been right on so many other occasions before.