We lived in a white house on the Firth of Forth, the estuary just north of Edinburgh. It was called Society House and there was a sign at the top of the road which read Private Road to Society. It was so close to the sea that in rough weather waves would crash into the sea walls and throw spray over the hedge and onto the windows. We would explore the rocky beach and the woods that people rarely visited, climb the walls of Blackness Castle, only a few miles down the coast and sometimes sleep rough in the garden.
One day I was standing on the sea wall when my elder brother Kim turned up. He had left school under a cloud of bad behaviour a year earlier and had gone to France and Switzerland. We hadn’t heard from him in ages but we knew from occasional letters that he had learned French and got some work.
There he was, standing in front of me with a big grin on his face. The thing that impressed me most was his jacket: elegant, dark grey and beautifully designed. It had thin red piping along the seams and a large unusual collar which looked like it could be wrapped round your neck in a blizzard. There was no sign of luggage, just a small leather bag.
– Where d’you get the jacket? I asked.
– Switzerland. It’s a postman’s jacket. I was thrown out of Switzerland for working illegally. I’m home.
To me this was the definition of cool. This was someone with courage. How could I be like him? How could I get out of this place? The idea of travelling abroad on my own was scary. I just didn’t have the courage to do it. I had never jumped into the unknown to such an extent and – worst of all – I didn’t know how to overcome this fear of travelling alone.
It was 1982 and I had managed to scrape my way into Liverpool University where I studied history and politics. I chose Liverpool because it was easy to get into, thanks to the nine-day riot that had taken place in 1981. The riots had stunned the nation as it was the first time since the nineteenth century that Englishmen had risen against the state. The names of the inner city areas where the riots took place – Toxteth in Liverpool and Brixton in London – were burned into the nation’s consciousness.
My Mother was a book publisher and she encouraged us to follow our dreams. She had separated from my father who, in the sixties and seventies, had written a couple of great novels. My Dad now drove a truck between Edinburgh and London, carrying paintings and artworks. His company was called Moving Pictures and it was a chaotic one-man-show. He took great care of the paintings, was always on the road, couldn’t delegate and often didn’t send out invoices. I would help him load furniture and I learned to pack paintings into a truck without breaking them; each painting had to be wrapped in a blanket and then tied to the side, making sure that the edges of one painting couldn’t puncture the canvas or glass of another. It was an art form and my Dad was the best in the business.
My Mother lived with a young builder called Stewart Anderson, an ambitious and inquisitive man whose black moustache was a source of mockery to my three brothers and I. He was interested in what I was reading in history and we talked about Napoleon, the colonies, Latin America, Asia and the world wars. Stewart renovated old houses in Edinburgh and every holiday I would get a job with him as a labourer. I learned to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow full of rubble up a narrow plank into a skip and how to take abuse from the other workers.
In the summer of 1984 the British Council invited my Mother to go on a tour of the People’s Republic of China – which back then was just coming out of the grip of Mao Tse Tung’s dictatorship. The idea was that a delegation of British publishers would meet their Chinese counterparts. She later told me that most of the Chinese publishers insisted that they met up in her hotel as they were too ashamed to show their offices. After the China trip she had booked a flight from Beijing to Thailand where she was going to meet up with Stewart for a romantic two week break.
My introduction to Asia was totally unexpected. I was working as a labourer for Stewart, renovating a terraced house in Edinburgh. My job was to break up big stones, shovel the rubble into sacks, carry these to the street and empty them into a skip. It was hard, filthy work but there were plenty of jokes (and joints) floating around and I imagined it was making me tougher. I remember seeing a street sweeper pushing his brush, enjoying the sunshine, and me thinking: Now that’s a cushy number.
I wasn’t earning enough on the building site so I got a second job – washing dishes in a restaurant. My boss was the sous-chef, a dictatorial Turk who enjoyed shouting at me. By the second night the sous-chef was no longer there and the chef yelled at me as soon as I walked in:
– Where the hell is that useless Turk?
– No idea.
– Can you cook?
– Get over here and start making salads!
– I’m just the dish washer.
– Screw the dishes, get over here. Now!
He grabbed a handful of lettuce and threw individual leaves, very precisely, onto a line of plates that were neatly lined up on the stainless steel counter. Then he showed me a huge jug in which the salad dressing was kept. My task was to prepare these side salads, drip a blob of vinaigrette onto them, wait for the main dish to be dropped on the plate and then get them out to the waitresses. The speed, atmosphere and swear words were exhilarating.
After that second night in the kitchen I decided to celebrate my promotion by going out to get drunk. There was no way I could go straight to bed after working until 2am and Edinburgh has always been a great city to go boozing in. Later that night I ran into Najma, a beautiful dark-skinned former girlfriend of my brother Moona, and we ended up drinking far too much beer. We both staggered back to my place, singing and swaying and shouting.
We got into the house and I put an LP on the record player. My brother Moona popped his head into the room and said:
– What the hell are you doing?
– Come and join us? We’re gonna make a joint.
Moona, my youngest brother, was only about 16 at the time – and that night he started behaving like an adult. He calmly turned off the music, sat down beside me and started talking, as if giving a pep talk at a sports game:
– You know Stewart is going to Thailand tomorrow morning?
– And he’ll be there for two weeks, with the Boss [our Mother]. This is the first time in ages that we will have the place to ourselves.
– Yeah, s’pose so.
– And you’re blowing it. Coming in here at this time, making that racket. You’re gonna wake him up and freak him out. Either shut up of get outta here. Please.
But it was too late. Stewart’s face then appeared through the door with an intense look that said I’m wide awake, fully alert and haven’t slept a wink. He asked me to come upstairs and then told me to get into the bath. I protested. I didn’t want a bath, especially with him watching. And what about the beautiful drunken girl that I’d left downstairs? He told me I needed to sober-up fast. I said I needed to go to bed. He ran the bath and went to get me a cup of coffee.
Then he hit me with a bombshell: he wanted me to go to Thailand instead of him. My befuddled brain couldn’t comprehend this so I got into the bath and listened:
– I have a plane ticket for Bangkok leaving at seven this morning [Stewart paused and looked at his watch]. We’ve got less than three hours. Rupert, I want you on that plane instead of me.
– I’ve been thinking about it all night. I can’t leave Moona on his own here, he’s only 16. You’re in no state to look after him. Your Mother would enjoy a holiday with you, and you want to travel. I’m giving you a free ticket.