Peering out from the corner of the stage, Padchai surveyed the clientele. Mainly western, over 60, and all looking decidedly grabby. No matter how many times she saw it, there was always something eerily creepy about this many old men in brilliant white vests and multicoloured trainers. As the music switched from a fast paced beat to a slow bluesy rhythm, Padchai hunkered down into a small wicker chair just out of the crowd’s view.
The white vest army was fixated on a small brown girl moving her way back to the stage from the centre of the room. Having discarded a number of sequined layers along the way, she was now wearing nothing more than a shiny stars and stripes bikini. Clambering back on stage to a torrent of pinches and spanks, the dancer flashed a cheeky grin and began her finale.
From her place in the wings, Padchai heard the whoops and yells grow to a crescendo as the remaining clothes flew into the crowd and the serious stuff began. The music was getting louder and louder, the clapping and cheering more intense. Then the tap on the shoulder came. Trying not to think about how disappointed her boyfriend would be, Padchai edged her way into view amidst a loud chorus of appreciation…
A few hours later, sitting in her favourite park, Padchai watched the first rays of sun break through the trees. This was the part of the day she liked best, the city was waking up and everything seemed so fresh. She loved watching the squirrels coming down from the trees for their first forage. As she sipped her morning iced tea, the email she’d been dreading pinged on to her dilapidated Blackberry: “Darling, it’s not your fault. I love you. I’m coming for you.”
“You white knight prick!” yelled Simon, leaping up from the Hemel Hempstead Starbucks table and bolting for the door. With every single one of the lunch crowd seemingly getting in his way, the skinny, agitated blond man spewed forth a plethora of ‘sorrys’ as he barged towards the bike rack on the other end of the high street. He didn’t have a lot of time.
It was a good 20 minute cycle back to his home on the south side of town, but this afternoon Simon managed to do it in 15 flat. Time was of the essence. If he didn’t pull this one back from the brink right now it was all over. He needed to get back to his home computer. Panting and sweaty, he burst through the door and raced upstairs to the tiny second bedroom he used as an office. Before sitting down, he leaned out of the open window and called Bobby in.
Bobby, who had been having a lovely time eating a variety of bugs in the back garden, raced through the oversized cat flap and lolloped upstairs to join his master. As the Blenheim Cavalier King Charles spaniel burst into the room demanding hugs and fusses, Simon was tinkering with his settings and preparing to send a reply to the latest irksome email.
After typing out her reply, Padchai headed back to the bar. The streets were a mixture of workers heading home, street vendors setting up for the day and the drunken tourists from the previous evening struggling back to their hostels and hotels in stained shirts, grotty shorts and smudged sunglasses. Padchai wished she was back in her park.
Manoeuvring her way through the sticky, nicotine stained red curtain in the entranceway, the young dancer instinctively wiped her hands down her jacket. The seedy atmosphere of just a few hours ago had given way to a dull sadness. The smell of stale beer and sweat hung in the air, the grotty interior was laid bare, and the room itself seemed to be decaying of shame.
In the far corner, all the girls who had worked the previous evening were hanging around waiting to get paid. Most of them, including Padchai, lived together in a cramped dormitory flat above the bar. They danced, they slept and they went out and had fun together in the city. Padchai didn’t mingle much, but all the girls seemed to like it here. They were happy to live this life until something better came along. For most of them, this meant old, rich and hopefully weak-hearted.
After an hour of heel kicking, the dingy red curtain swung open and three burly looking Thai men entered the bar. Dressed in shorts, t-shirts and unseasonal jackets, they made their way over to their makeshift desk, a dilapidated snooker table, at the back of the room. Padchai thought it best not to imagine what lurked under their jackets as she was summoned over for payment.
For seven months she had waited tables here and spurned all offers of dancing money. Now a stubby tobacco stained finger rubbed its way down her face, traced down her neck and slowly undid the top three buttons of her shirt. Taking one banknote at a time from a greasy roll, the chief took great pleasure in tucking them individually into her bra.
“Come on you white knight pain, I’ve got you now,” gurgled the conman with glee, before turning his attention back to his little dog. This was Simon James’ life. For the last six years, the former IT Ops Manager had run a range of electronic scams out of his house. He’d set up a bank of servers in this, his spare room, hid his location and got down to offering a truly personal service.
Now he sold dreams, adventures and real life passion. He sold people stories they wanted to hear, a lifestyle they wanted to live and he made them feel more alive than they’d ever felt before. He liked reeling the suckers in. At the moment he had 19 cash cows on the line feeding him lovely hard currency from all around the world, and another 40 edging that way.
This current challenge was a Scottish Supply Manager, James, from Aberdeen. James had met Padchai in a chatroom around three months ago and had been helping the poor village girl make ends meet in the big city for the past six weeks. But in a world where WhatsApp, Facetime, Skype and mobile phones are used by pretty much everybody on the planet, keeping someone on the hook with emails, photographs and social media accounts can only last so long.
Simon was an artist though, and what he did took skill. Sometimes he felt he was more Padchai and the others, than he was himself. He’d never been too much good at relationships and had never been to Thailand, or Russia, or any of the places he claimed to come from. When he was stuck, he put words into the mouths of his favourite TV characters, because it was all him alone. He’d never employed people to act as a front to speak to his ‘marks’. Everything he did was via email or Facebook and he collected his well-earned money through a variety of simple Western Union transfers.
It had been just twenty minutes since Simon had arrived back in the house, and by this point Bobby was keening noisily at the door with his lead in his mouth. He’d only had his ears poggled once, no food had been offered and an energetic game of catch in the park was required and demanded. But before the young scammer could address the needs of an excitable dog, the email he wanted landed. He had him now.
Padchai buttoned her shirt in disgust, thrust the money into her bag and hurried outside. She’d sold her moped earlier in the week, but had managed to borrow one from another of the other girls. It needed returning by late afternoon. Climbing aboard the light blue Vespa, Padchai headed west as fast as she dared in the morning traffic. After an hour she broke free of the city and was able to ride the bike flat out. Concrete and conurbation gave way to vast green expanses and the last horrible 24-hours melted away as the wind lashed her face.
It was a further three hour ride to the village where she grew up, not exactly the ideal journey to take on a 50cc moped, however, she had no choice. But finally turning off the main highway onto the last stretch of pothole-marked road, Padchai’s heart swelled. She hated what she was having to do, but speeding towards her family’s small farm, she knew she had no choice. It had been a year since her mother got sick and they had been forced to mortgage the land, but the money Padchai had in her pocket would see them right for at least a month.
The familiar single level building loomed in the distance in front of her. Kicking the bike off the dirt track, she rode up to the side exit at full tilt, just as she had done hundreds of times before. Flinging open the small gate, she manoeuvred the Vespa inside and powered forward to the decking of the small wooden house. Peeping the horn, Padchai ran up the steps – she was home.
Rising up from the computer, Simon tugged the lead out of Bobby’s mouth. He could do no more. It was time for “walkies”.
Bounding off to the park, the pair were in equally high spirits. Bobby because he had plenty of new things to sniff, and Simon because yet another of his creations seemed set to net him a big chunk of change. Entering through the gate, Simon lobbed the battered Frisbee as hard as he could and Bobby threw his whole body after it, tail wagging in delight. From within his pocket, Simon’s phone buzzed with a new mail.
Pulling out the Blackberry, Simon sat down on a bench and watched as the squirrels gleefully bated Bobby by the tree. Drinking in the email, he smiled – now all he had to do was decide how much money was needed to save that family farm.