Loving an Artist

Chapter 9

Richard requested and John reserved a three bedroom suite at the Bangkok Hilton, located on the Chao Phraya River. The river was the main waterway through the middle of Bangkok. Whether it was heavily loaded barges, long tail boats or public transports some form of watercraft was moving on the river day and night.

Chao Phraya river

The group’s suite faced the river and had a small balcony perfect for watching the chaotic movement of boats of all sizes and shapes. The fastest way to get anyplace was by the water. Richard’s plan was to start the shoot almost immediately. He had contacted a photographer friend to inquire about renting private gardens where the orchids would be prevalent. His friend arranged for a garden used for weddings which he said was relatively private. Weather permitting the shoot was planned for our third day in Bangkok.

On the prior days the group traveled to Wat Pho and marveled at the giant reclining Buddha. Many photos were shot in and around the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo(the jade Buddha). The boys carried satchels of clothing and ended up undressing and dressing in rather public places. The Thai visitors enjoyed watching the boys prepare and model for Richard’s camera. Archie and Luuk liked the attention more than Alex and Raj did. As usual John toted a light reflector and felt like an accessory.

Richard attempted to convince the management of the Bamboo Bar in the Mandarin Oriental to allow a shoot. This iconic drinking establishment in the Author’s wing of the hotel once hosted the likes of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. The polished teak bar was flanked by tables and chairs which are described in the writers’ historic novels. The setting was exotic but Richard was unsuccessful getting permission to do the shoot even though he suggested photographing at 5am.

While not successful at the Oriental he and his photographer friend were able to arrange for an early morning shoot at the famous Jim Thompson House. Thompson, an American, immigrated to Thailand and was influential in developing the Thai silk trade. Thompson created a traditional Thai house with dark and cool exotic wood furniture with luxurious Thai silk pillows and throes warming the decor. The house manager allowed only minimal artificial lighting. Richard’s photographer friend brought two technicians with the lights and batteries. The Thai photographer wanted to pose two cute Thai boys when Richard was finished. The manager scheduled the shoot for early morning before any other staff arrived. Richard indicated the models would be partially clothed. The manager insisted that there would be no complete nudity. Richard was bought the smallest underpants and thongs plus gorgeous Thai silk shirts for the boys to wear over them. The manager remained the entire time and permitted the use of historic items as props.

Two young men

Thai Boys

When the Thai photographer photographed his models the boys were erotic even when completely dressed. When the boys stripped down to the minimum the manager seemed to be constantly arranging himself. He asked for the Thai photographer’s card. He said that he wanted to use some of the images in his promotional material directed at the large gay audience that visits Bangkok regularly. Near the end of the shoot Archie asked, “What happened to Mr. Thompson?”

The manager said the mystery of Thompson’s disappearance has never been resolved. He said, “The story goes that Thompson was on a trip to the Cameron Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur. He was apparently driving to a remote location and disappeared. Even after following up on numerous sightings over the years no trace of him was found. Speculation was that he was too successful in his business and his rivals abducted him. No proof of that conspiracy was ever found.” The boys listened in complete silence as the manager told the story.

The final day’s shoot started over one hundred kilometers from Bangkok at the floating markets of Damneion Saduak. The intensity of the colors, the boats and the native people made finding a way for the boys to stand out difficult. Richard was happiest with shots of the boys in traditional boats floating among the vendor boats and their wiry merchants in straw conical hats. The food being prepared looked and smelled inviting. At Richard’s friend strong insistence no one ate the food. Instead he took the group to a restaurant that he trusted was more sanitary. He didn’t want either himself or anyone getting sick.

After finishing their lunch the SUV drove to the private garden for Richard’s planned shots of the boys among the orchids. The late afternoon sun was streaming down on the garden as Richard and his photographer friend shot the three couples.

The strain of constantly modeling for the camera was getting to the boys. Minor arguments about silly things occurred. Alex received several text messages that brought about a change of plans. He announced on our last evening in Bangkok when the group was out experiencing the famous gay area of Silom that he would be staying in Singapore only for the shoot. He said his parents had requested he come for a family event in Hong Kong. Raj was invited to join Alex.

Compared to Bangkok Singapore was clean and well organized. The variety of food was baffling in its availability and diversity. Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian food was sold in restaurants, food courts, kopitiams and hacker centers. Each type of food and location required knowledge of ordering and paying. Our local tour guide Vincent led us first on a culinary tour of the food sources in Suntec City Mall, one of the many malls found in Singapore. One of the boys commented that all the people in Singapore did was eat. When the tour guide asked what the group wanted to eat there wasn’t an immediate answer. He asked if there was a preference for spicy or mild and then, proceeded to go to one stall after another gathering dishes. He came back and forth to the table delivering dishes he had ordered. He brought Asian spoons and chopped sticks. He said the custom is to eat family style. John and Archie particularly liked the tofu and dried tiny fish in a spicy red sauce. Luuk and Alex liked the less spicy dishes of Malay rendung and sayur lodeh while Richard and Raj ate the most spicy curries. They twice ordered dried chicken with red peppers and added sweet chili pepper sauce. White rice came in individual bowls.

After lunch the boys wandered through the shopping mall while Richard with the help of our local tour guide were successful getting the management of the newly renovated Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel to allow an early shoot. An exorbitant rental fee was demanded which Richard agreed to pay if he could shoot for an hour. He got confirmation from the tour operator. Richard scheduled the shoot before the bar opened.

The bar was a recreation of the original Long Bar in the original 19th century hotel which was the first upscale hotel in Singapore catering to wealthy westerners. The hotel was named after the British nobleman who was credited with finding Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. Richard insisted on auxiliary lighting which John constantly moved at Richard’s demanding direction. Richard worked feverishly with the two couples but John sensed he wasn’t totally satisfied. When the shoot was over the group was allowed into the main dining room for breakfast. During breakfast one of the hotel’s assistant managers approached Richard and inquired as to the purpose of the photos. Richard didn’t have a quick answer. Politely the manager suggested that the hotel would like to review the proofs in hopes of finding some they could use for publicity. Richard was pleased.

Back at the Conrad Hotel Alex and Raj gathered their luggage, gave everyone parting hugs, and got in a taxi for the Changi Airport. It was an emotional departure. Archie and Luuk went to bed.

Ornamental garden

Gardens by the Bay

Richard rousted the boys shortly before noon and suggested visiting some of Singapore’s most famous sites –Gardens by the Bay, The Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the Murlion. His shots like those he took around Mumbai were snapshots.

Richard was unusually restless and irritable. He said he wanted to do something more adventurous than being a plain vanilla tourist He called the tour operator who had arranged the Long Bar photo shoot and inquired about adventurous tours. One trip suggested by the operator that caught Richard’s attention was a trip into the jungle of Borneo to the Mulu Caves near Brunei. Archie and Luuk were interested but reminded Richard they didn’t have clothes for the jungle. He was undeterred and said they would have what they needed before they left for the adventure. John was apprehensive because he didn’t want to journey into the jungle so far from medical attention if needed for his heart condition. John’s concern was probably not justified but he was concerned. Richard didn’t seem to care whether John went or not. Richard was Richard and he wasn’t going to change.

Instead of spending four days in Singapore the three of them struck out for the jungle. The tour required traveling from Singapore into Jahur Bahru, Malaysia for the first flight to Kunching in East Borneo and then onto Miri which is only a few miles for the Sultanate of Brunei. From there they would take a small plane to the Gunung Mulu National Park where the caves were located. In the park the tour operator arranged for them to stay in a rustic ecolodge. The following day they would take a boat to the caves entrance. If the water was high enough they would paddle into the cave otherwise they would hike. He mentioned that the main cave was home to a million or more bats and added that the area was famous for unpredictable weather.

John reluctantly saw the three of them off outfitted for the jungle on the morning of December 28. The air was humid and the day was going to be hot and sticky. John acted happy that they were leaving for an adventure but frightened to allow the three most important people in his life to go into the jungle. The tour operator told Richard that communication by cell phone would be very limited. John tried not to appear apprehensive. All he could do was patiently wait.

John wandered around the shopping malls with no particular destination. He made an appointment for a massage with a gay masseur who advertised in a gay flyer. The masseur was a middle age Malaysian man named Loan. John was nervous but hoped the massage would calm him. When he arrived at the massage studio Loan invited him to shower and come into a small room where the table was set up. Soft music was playing. The room was warm making a cover unnecessary. To John’s slight surprise Loan entered completely naked. He relaxed and Loan’s wonderful hands caressed his weary body. The massage ended happily and was followed with a warm cup of tea. John promised himself he would return if his schedule allowed.

Time dragged as John walked slowly from the subway to the new municipal museum located in the former government legislature building. On the top floor was an enchanting bar that overlooked the historic Singapore Tennis and Racket club built during the time of the British occupation. John sipped two beers for several hours before returning to the hotel. There was no message from the boys so John presumed that everything was going well. He didn’t hear anything nor did he expect to because of the tour operator’s comment regarding limited cell phone service.

Late afternoon on the third day of their adventure John was sitting in the bar at the Conrad when a bellman walked through the bar carrying a small sign with his name on it. John slowly raised his hand. The bellman approached him with a man following. John didn’t recognize the man. John stood as the man approached. He said, “Mr. Jeffery, my name is Phillip Spencer. I’m with the US Embassy in Singapore.” John’s heart was beating so hard he was afraid it would explode out of his chest. “I’m sorry I have some bad news for you. There was an accident with your group in Borneo. I suggest we sit down.” John couldn’t speak he was so frightened.

The man straightened his jacket and continued. “We heard from the park police in Borneo that the river your group was traveling suddenly flooded causing their boat to capsize. Apparently, the driver and your party were swept down the river in the flood. Even though they were wearing life jackets Richard Johnson drowned. The two young men with him survived but were badly scraped and bruised. They’re doing OK. The park police indicated that a search for Mr. Johnson’s body was successful but he did not survive.

The boys want you fly to Miri to accompany them and Mr. Johnson’s body back to Singapore. If you like I can make the arrangements for you. I am terribly sorry to bring you this news.”

Near Mulu Caves

John had a premonition that the trip was not going to turn out well. He was too stunned to cry. The person he cared the most about in the whole world was taken away from him even though he was never sure if Richard loved him. The next few days were filled with details. Mr. Spencer flew with John to Miri where they were met by a consular official who escorted them into a private room at the airport where the boys were waiting. John rushed to them and hugged them. He could see by the pain in Luuk eyes his bruised body was hurting. The boys were quiet but relieved to see John. Mr. Spencer indicated that John should follow him to make a positive identification of Richard’s body. The boys already identified Richard’s body but the consular officials wanted John to confirm it. Richard’s face was white and blue and he looked angry. John told the attendants that the body was Richard’s. They returned his body to the refrigerated space at the airport. The park police showed John a gruesome picture of where Richard’s body was found.

When they returned to the small hotel where the boys were staying they were anxious to get out of Malaysia. For John there were details yet to be handled. As the departure approached Mr. Spencer suggested that he and the boys return to Singapore and John stay with a consular official to complete the transfer of Richard’s body. In consultation with Mr. Spencer it became clear that taking Richard’s body into Singapore was going to be a problem. John suggested his body be cremated in Malaysia to avoid lengthy delays and expense of transporting the body out of the country. The man from the consul said getting a body cremated in a Muslim country was going to be a problem. Apparently Muslims didn’t believe in cremation. John had to stay overnight but Mr. Spencer assured John he would get the boys safely to the Conrad.

Waiting to board the plane the boys were quiet and both still seemed to be in shock. John tried to get them to talk a little about what happened but all he got was how frightened they were as they were pushed by a wall of water down the deep sided river banks for several miles. Apparently, they could see each other most of the time. John decided it was better to get them on their way and get details later. He waved as they walked into the jet bridge with Mr. Spencer.

John returned to Singapore two days later after enduring endless waiting for this official or another to make decisions and make sure paper work was correct. He could not get approval for cremation so had Richard’s body embalmed in Miri. The man from the consulate could not have been more courteous and helpful. But he like John was completely frustrated by the bureaucracy. John had to make decisions when Richard always made the decisions. Finally, John was able to fly to Kuala Lumpur where with the help of the Singaporean officials transferred Richard’s body to an overnight train because the Singapore rules would not allow Richard’s body to be brought by airplane. Mr. Spencer arranged for a hearse to meet the train the following morning. Richard’s body was cremated which was the traditional method of burial in the Chinese culture. John was completely exhausted.

By the time I got back to the hotel late afternoon he found the boys packed and ready to fly home. Archie immediately spoke as he entered their room, “John, we’re leaving. We don’t want to be here anymore.”

“I understand. You’re ready to leave. What are your arrangements? Have you reserved your tickets?”

“No, we were waiting for you. Are you going with us?”

“I can’t. I have to wait for Richard’s remains to be delivered to me. I haven’t contacted his family,” even though he had limited information about Richard’s family. John was concerned about the money he had already spent to get Richard back to Singapore. Richard handled the money so he had to find out how much money he had.

Archie said, “We have reservations on a flight tonight non-stop to Chicago. Shower and come with us to the airport to pay for the tickets. We’ll wait for you.” John knew he had to go even though he was so tired. After the check-in process they sat at a small coffee shop one last time.

John said, “I was able to get you business class. I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through.”

Luuk said, “It was terrible but we’re really worried about you. What are you going to do?”

“Luuk, I really don’t know. You know how much I care about you boys. But Richard was my life and I can’t leave yet.”

“Archie and I have been talking. We don’t understand why you tolerated Richard. He treated you like an assistant sometimes, a father sometimes and was less than pleasant to you most of the time. Didn’t you mind?”

“Honestly, I have been devoted to Richard since I met him more than fifteen years ago. I don’t think he ever thought of me as a partner. I never figured out where I stood with him. I guess I was afraid to ask for fear he would end our relationship. Sadly, he left me and I will never know.” John felt warm tears running down his cheeks. The three of them sat quietly hugging for a few minutes.

Luuk said, “We do have Richard’s camera gear which he had in a waterproof packet. I grabbed it as the boat was flipping us out into the horrible, raging water. The water came on us so fast the boatman couldn’t do anything. Do we know what happened to him?”

“Nothing was mentioned to me about a boatman. Did he have a life jacket on?”

“We don’t think so. But neither of us can remember.”

“Well, hopefully, he survived. Did you see what happened to Richard?”

“He was struggling with us for a short while and then he disappeared. We were told by the park police he got tangled in some tree roots and drowned. They found him hanging in the roots ten feet about the water once the river went down. Archie and I were able to crawl out of the water way down the river.”

“Mr. Spencer told me you guys were almost two miles from where the boat capsized. I am so happy you weren’t injured any more than you were.”

“It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. I mean it was horrible.”

“Me, too.” Archie got up and handed over the camera bag. John put his arms around Archie and Luuk joined them. It was a ‘goodbye’ without saying goodbye. They walked to the security entrance. As they waved one last time John was completely alone. Instead of taking a taxi back he wandered onto the MRT and barely made it onto the last train to downtown Singapore.