Surabaya Jimmy


Peter Snowdon


I was in a minibus going to Schiphol Airport when I met Jimmy. Stranded between two planes, I had had to spend the night in a conference centre beside the North Sea, with no money and nothing to put on over my tee-shirt. My luggage was already in a different time zone, lazily sunning itself on some exotic beach perhaps, or propped against the bar, chatting up a nice piece of Louis Vuitton. I was stuck in Holland. Outside, the rain was pouring down, and the sky was deep into low-wattage Rembrandt chiaroscuro. I was about to enter the second day of what was supposed to be a five-hour journey. I wasn’t even sure that when I got to the airport there would be a plane for me. I wasn’t in a good mood.

I really didn’t want to talk to Jimmy. But Jimmy wanted to talk to me, and I soon discovered I had no choice but to listen. We were sitting at opposite ends of the back seat, only three of us in the bus altogether. The third, a Chinese businessman in a very respectable suit, was sitting two rows in front of us. He said nothing throughout the whole journey. In fact, I don’t think I once saw him move.

Jimmy had made his money in the taxis. He’d had his own business. Now, it was still his business. It wasn’t exactly for sale, but if somebody wanted to buy it off him, he would sell. There was one condition, though: they’d have to wait till the start of the next tax year, so he could get everything “set up.” Jimmy had had enough problems with the Inland Revenue for one lifetime. They’d given him grief over his investments, wanting to know what this one was, and what that one was. So: whhhhsht! – he’d whisked them all offshore. Now they couldn’t ask him any more questions. Not your jurisdiction, mate!

Jimmy knew all about people who try to muck you around. He didn’t like it, and he let them know he didn’t in no uncertain terms .He let me know by issuing a stream of expletives dressed up as sentences and prefacing every fourth word with the epithet “fucking”, as he told me how he’d been mucked about in the past, and how he intended not to be mucked about in the future. There was nothing very ‘respectable’ about Jimmy.

Yet there he was, in Holland, just like me, being mucked about. Even as we spoke, he should have been somewhere else, catching a ferry that would have taken him out for a week’s fishing or surfing or something in yet another place, and which I was to understand was, or rather would have been, very heaven on earth. He described to me in incoherent detail the trip he now wouldn’t be able to make, mentioning confidentially a string of place names obviously intended to conjure up visions of paradise for the initiate, though in fact I’d never heard of any of them before, and hadn’t even a clue which part of the world he was referring to.

I wanted to tell him to shut up and leave me in peace, but I hadn’t the energy. So instead, I let him rattle on in his blank monotone of self-contained, self-satisfied aggression. He was obviously the sort of person who takes their grievances on holiday with them, in case they get an opportunity to air them, just so as to keep their hand in. I was one of those opportunities. I didn’t have to join in. I didn’t even have to acknowledge his existence, or nod, or “hmm” in agreement from time to time. I just had to sit there, and let him scatter whatever his bile had brought up that morning in my general direction. I was his spittoon. Jimmy liked a good spit.

As we progressed across an increasingly soggy Rijnland, my companion never once turned to look at me. Instead he just sat there, pressed back behind his sunglasses and his rubbery crease-lined skin, telling me about his problems with KLM, his problems with his son, his problems with the twenty grand the insurance people owed him that he was supposed to be taking out “there” in cash, but couldn’t now, fuck them – how they were all, in essence, out to screw him, and how he, too quick off the mark, had screwed every one of them, right down the line. Only he didn’t say screw, as I’ve remarked before. Not that that made it any more interesting.

As he lifted out of an uncharacteristically concise and expletive-free account of how he did not like landing at Hong Kong airport, through which they would now probably have to route him, I decided to stick my oar in.

I had gathered, piecing together the clues from what had gone before, that “there” was the Philippines. “So, you’re a big fan of the East, then?” I asked, trying to inject a certain amount of contempt into my voice, in the hope this might pull him up short.

“It’s a great place for me,” said Jimmy, bringing the conversation slap back to his favourite subject, and quite oblivious of my biting sarcasm. “But then,” he added, laughing, “I’m not married. I’m a single man.”

I didn’t like the laugh. And I wasn’t surprised that he wasn’t married. Who could have stood him for more than half an hour? But I could smell this rat a mile off. If he wasn’t going to shut up, I thought, I might at least get him to incriminate himself more interestingly than he had done so far. The occasion called for disingenuous.

“So is it as good as they say?” I ventured, one man to another, almost knowingly, “the Philippines?”

Jimmy laughed again, and strangely, something seemed to soften in him. Perhaps this was the cue he’d been waiting for.

“Na,” he returned. “It’s very poor, very ‘Third World’. There’s bugs everywhere. But I like it like that. Everything’s so cheap. I want it to stay that way.” He seemed filled with a kind of childish glee at the thought of how under-developed life could be. I thought he might suddenly clap his hands in delight. “So when they ask me,” he explained, “I tell them it’s not good. No good at all!”

Obviously, he didn’t perceive me as enough of a threat to the cost of living in Southeast Asia to have to conceal his true opinions.

“I keep a girl out there at the minute,” he added, casually.

So I was right about that. I looked curious, and he turned his spectacles towards me, as if in confidence. “I’m putting her through school. She’s learning dressmaking. Only costs me £25 a week.”

He began to tell me in some detail how cheap an education was in the Third World, and how recent exchange rate fluctuations had affected the cost of international philanthropy (as a rule, to the philanthropist’s advantage). He got quite involved in going over the sums, and translating pesos back and forth into pounds sterling. He even digressed for a while into bank deposit rates, and the much-regretted twenty grand briefly reared its ugly head again. “22 per cent!” said Jimmy, several times over. “That’s 17 and a half net!” Despair and greed mingled poignantly in his voice for a second. Then he turned to look out of the window. The rain was lashing out cruelly at everything in sight – fir trees, signposts, bridges, the still surface of the canals. I wondered if he was looking for his lagoon and its palm trees. I wondered if he could see them.

“Of course,” he added, in a voice that was meant to sound self-assured, but didn’t quite, “she’s 22. I’m in my fifties. If she plays her cards right, she’s fucking laughing.” He repeated this last observation several times, as if in gleeful anticipation of his own demise.

Then he frowned, and his voice dropped. He leaned an inch or two towards me, as if this were some act of intimacy, though even after he’d done so, there were still several feet of empty space safely wedged between us. “Some of the guys,” he said, with an edge of obvious disapproval, “they get out there, they just go wild. There’s one guy, Mike, he likes the ‘cherry girls’ – that’s what they call the virgins, like. He goes out for a fortnight, and he has two or three a night! 25,000 pesos, that’s £400 sterling each! Of course, he’s a fucking millionaire. For him, it’s like buying a couple of beers.” He laughed again, obviously impressed despite himself by someone so much richer than he was.

“I don’t know why they do it,” he added, suddenly solemn. “Where’s the pleasure in it? Me, I like them 7 or 8 months on. By then, they’re over the worst of it. What’s in it for him, eh? Every night, three spots of blood, three sets of tears,” he concluded, philosophically.

“Always the executioner,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Jimmy, and shook his head at so much suffering.

“I had a girl before,” he resumed. “I went off for a month, and when I came back, she was pregnant. How’d that happen? I said. ‘I don’t know,'” – he imitated her young voice. “So I went down to P—- for the weekend. When I came back, you could tell from all the people hanging around, she’d been going with some other men. I asked her. She said, ‘No, Jimmy, only you’. But I could tell. Mamasan said to me: ‘Is it your baby?’ I said: ‘How the fuck should I know?’ It turned out she was 17 weeks pregnant. And I only met her eight weeks before!”

He told the story as though it should be a warning to prostitutes everywhere.

“The girl I have now, she’s —- “. He paused, apparently lost for words, for the first time since he started talking. Eventually he found something that more or less expressed what he felt. “She’s sweet. I knew her before, when I was with the other. I could tell she was interested, but I was with this other girl, so I just had to forget about her. Later, when we were together, and I was about to come back to England, I said to her: ‘If you want to wait for me, fine. If you want to go with other men, fine. But – no lies.’ And she said: “I don’t want to work in the bar any more.’ So I said: ‘Fine. But just – no lying.'”

He obviously felt very strongly about this point. “They’ve got to be honest,” he repeated. “You know the rules, lady. If you lie —” With one hand, he picked up a small doll-sized woman and dropped her out of the window of the minibus as we sped past the turn-off to Leiden. Then with the other, he picked up another doll-sized woman from the imaginary pile on the seat beside him and swung her mechanically onto his lap. I was reminded of those machines at fairgrounds where you have to use a Meccano claw to try and retrieve some (usually quite worthless) object from the bottom of a dry aquarium. You drop it into a tray from which, if you’re lucky, you can then collect your prize. I began to get the feeling that in Jimmy’s world, Jimmy was always lucky.

“It’s a shame,” he said, “some of those girls, they’re really – sweet.” Again the pause, as if he were embarrassed by such an outrageous show of sentiment. “When they first come into the bars, they meet some fucking idiot who tells them he’s not married and he’s going to give them everything. It hardens them. It’s a fucking shame. They’re so sweet. They’d make some guy a fucking wonderful wife. But then they get hardened.” He turned towards the window again, and his glasses glinted painfully in the harsh grey light.

“It happened to the girl I’m with now, when she first arrived,” he continued. “She went with this guy, and after a week he tells her he’s married. So she got hardened – a little. But then afterwards, she was very fussy – she’d only go with her regular customers. She wouldn’t go with just anyone who walked in.

“Last year, I was there with my son Steven, and we went down to P—— to do some scuba diving, and when we got back, Papasan and Mamasan said: ‘While you were away, some men came into the bar, some of our best men. But she wouldn’t go with any of them. She’s only for Mister Jimmy now!”

He smiled. I wondered how it must feel to have one’s girlfriend’s integrity vouched for by her former pimp, in front of one’s son. But Jimmy didn’t seem to be wondering anything. He was lost in a world of self-satisfaction which did not entirely exclude tenderness, though it probably didn’t make life easy for it, either.

He pushed his spectacles back up his nose, and was silent for a while. Two rows in front of us, the Chinese businessman still hadn’t moved, his shoulders stiff with centuries of discretion. Outside the weather that had got us all stuck there together in the first place was growing worse and worse with every minute.

“Yeah,” said Jimmy, without turning round, “it’s a great place.”