“The Birds Will Eat My Bones”: Perhaps a Eulogy for an Impossible Saint

  • Benjamin Linder
  • Friday, February 2, 2018
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John was drunk the first time I met him – 68 years old, thin but tough, short but imposing. He looked like a Guy Ritchie gangster well past his prime, sashaying and stumbling across the strobe-lit dance floor of an unremarkable bar in Thamel. A motley crew converges in Thamel daily: foreign expats, local teenagers, gap-year hippies, Nepali workers, mafia strongmen, European trekkers, and a veritable assortment of crazies and burnouts. So I wasn’t surprised to see a wrinkled Brit ogling women and spilling vodkas with a cigarette dangling precariously from his teeth.

All was not well with him, but there was depth to this sexagenarian drunk; I came to know him over the next few months in bars and pool halls. He revealed himself as a walking civil war: either a roguish brute with a beatific streak, or else an unlikely saint with a penchant for fighting and drink. He was a snake eating its own tail, a character of profound paradox, a bipedal battle between Light and Dark. I had come to Nepal as an ethnographer, an aspiring writer of culture. I faced the common obstacles of anthropology – the obsessive compulsion to decipher hidden meaning, the self-doubt, the dubious difficulty of defining (much less achieving) true understanding. John’s story was simpler than all of that. It was visceral, lived, untainted by academic pretensions. I met with him a bunch of times. I was curious about his life, and he was eager to share.

Around six months after I met him, John disappeared from the Thamel scene completely. His old haunts knew nothing of his whereabouts or health. I tried (and failed) to find him. I don’t know whether John is still alive, so I don’t know if this is a eulogy.

*

John was honest to a fault, even about his chequered past and shameful shortcomings. He had no patience for liars or empty pleasantries. Through his thick cockney accent, he once told me,

“In your life, if you meet five people who are totally completely honest, you’re lucky. Do you know why? Because nice people are fucking scared to be honest. They haven’t got the guts to be honest. They’ll say what you want to hear, not what they believe. They say what you wanna hear because they ain’t got no fuckin’ balls to say, ‘No, you’re fuckin’ wrong.’”

For all his flaws, John answered questions candidly. I believed what he told me, mostly because he had no reason to lie.

He had many vices and claimed to have slept with hundreds of women. I learned about the alcoholism first, because it was the most recent and ongoing of his burdens. He was drunk the first time I saw him, and he was drunk the last time I saw him, too. At the nadir of his decline in Kathmandu, he stayed in a dingy, dirty guesthouse in Thamel. The owner of the restaurant on the first floor would send him tea, liquor and ginger soup. John rose around 6 a.m. By 6:30, he had started in on the vodka. By the time he passed out in bed – possibly alone, but not infrequently with a prostitute – he would have likely drained two large bottles. He laughed as he explained these habits. “Makes me sound like a right piss-head, yeah?”

Back in London, John had been a boxer, but not one of much repute. Crime was his primary employment: “I used to get paid to hurt people, yeah?” I got the impression that, somehow, this was connected to his decades of drug abuse. Life had saddled John with enough addictions to kill a much younger man – heroin, painkillers, muscle relaxers, cocaine. Liquor and cigarettes were only the most recent demons fuelling John’s existential darkness.

John initially contented himself with the life of an expat barfly in Kathmandu. His visa had expired months ago, and he had no plans to go home. His self-destructive tendencies evidently knew no end, and they only accelerated as the year drew to a close. He burned bridges with our mutual friends. Credit ran dry. He had debts all over Thamel. After a long absence, I visited his hotel to find him wasted, his face rough and stubbled. Mismatched pairs of women’s shoes flooded the floor of his tiny room. He had given away his phone and holed up in a stuffy guesthouse.

There are plenty of crazy foreign characters parading through Thamel: the Swedish conspiracy theorist with Illuminati delusions; the barefoot, burned-out hippies; the ex-Special Forces Kiwi with war stories too violent and racist to be believed; the soothsayer speaking to spirits (or herself) in a popular café. But John was different somehow. He never struck me as off his rocker – just the opposite, in fact. He was sharp and relatively clear-headed, even on his worst benders in Kathmandu.

John caroused with lots of questionable folks, but such interactions often accentuated moral contrasts. Thamel’s foreign eccentrics served as a kind of foil. The misanthropic “Polanski”, whose real name nobody seemed to know, was one such character. He was young (half John’s age), heavyset, spoke sparse English and consumed copious amounts of cigarettes, hash and codeine. Polanski exuded shade. I couldn’t tell if he was a criminal mastermind or just a drunk with an inflated sense of aptitude. When John came to know Polanski, the latter was scheming to smuggle drugs from India for a major payday in Europe. This odd pair – an ailing 68-year-old ex-boxer and a 30-something would-be drug smuggler – began partying together as John withdrew further from the scene in Thamel. They frequented a brothel on the other side of Kathmandu, which technically operated as a “beauty parlour”. John fell for the madam there, making wild plans to marry her.

For days, Polanski had been eyeing a prostitute called Daisy. John traversed Kathmandu and brought Daisy and two other prostitutes back to their sinkhole of a Thamel guesthouse. Polanski was high and drunk when the group arrived. He stumbled and fell in the alley, slamming his head into a concrete curb. John tried to send the women home, but a belligerent Polanski rose and grabbed Daisy by the throat. Incensed and protective, John pushed Polanski, 30 years his junior, yelling, “You don’t do that to women!” The women got into a taxi safely. The next day, Polanski arrived with heroin, asking John to help him tie off and inject the needle. Having kicked a ruthless heroin addiction himself years back, John grabbed a nearby meat cleaver and shouted at Polanski, “I’d rather cut yo’ fuckin’ head off!” The two never spoke again.

Thamel is a strange neighbourhood. It first attracted me a decade ago with its barrage of come-ons and stories. John’s was not a story I ever intended to tell. But after hearing about his almost-noble scuffles with Polanski, I went home and scribbled in my notebook, John is secretly a good guy. What had caused him to come to Nepal? Why had this aged cockney miscreant washed up in Thamel, wasting away with Eastern European wannabes in endless pubs?

Around the time that Polanski disappeared from John’s life (and mine), I found myself wanting to know more about how this strange character – not particularly worldly, and particularly obstinate – wound up in Kathmandu, of all cities. We met at John’s most recent regular spot, a dimly lit high-ceilinged wooden room with a pool table in the centre. The place probably swung with revelry at night, but at midday, we were alone with the staff in a quiet bar that still felt hours from opening. I told myself that this was part of my ethnography, but John could already tell it was more curiosity. It’s true that I had been conducting research into Thamel – specifically, how different groups of people interact with and (re)produce the space differently. John seemed to have strong opinions about the neighbourhood. “It’s a shithole,” he said. “I fuckin’ hate Thamel, yeah?” That was the end of that. The rest of our conversation was about him, about his life, so filled with regret and a persistent quest for redemption.

*

             As it happened, the meandering answer to my central question (“Why Nepal?”) unravelled a good deal of John’s troubled past: addiction and sobriety, cancer and chemotherapy, love and loss. It was through this question that John revealed the secret romantic behind his boxer’s scowl. Fighting to stiffen a quivering upper lip, he once said, “All I can say is – most wonderful person, most beautiful person, most wonderful person you could ever meet. She accepted me for what I was, and she’s the reason I come to Nepal.”

The story begins with a woman called Mary, in London, 25 years ago. John was his younger self, a heavy drug user and violent criminal. He had married four times prior. All had ended in divorce. Mary loved dogs, and her greyhound companion had just died. Three weeks later, she entered a London pub, not for drinks, but to take home a puppy from the litter recently birthed by the owner’s dog. Of all the gin joints in all the world, Mary had walked into the one with John slumped belly-up to the bar. With the grin of a mischievous boy, John told me, “She went in there to buy a puppy. She didn’t walk out wif’ a puppy, man. She walked out wif’ me, first time I met her.” The two strangers returned to Mary’s home for coffee. The coffee date became an emotional marathon of conversation and honest confession. It lasted three days and three nights. John, uncharacteristically, swore that they never went to bed in all that time.

Two months later, Mary became John’s fifth and final wife.

“It took a good woman to make me a man. I left all the shit, all the crime behind. I took a couple years, but she changed my life for me. She made me a fuckin’ man, yeah?” John felt understood by Mary, and the two fell fast in love as neither had before. On the second night of that first shut-in weekend together, John felt inspired and recited a little poem:

I can show you morning

on a thousand hills,

and kiss you and give you

seven daffodils.

John himself did not know where it came from, or why it popped into his head. It did not much matter that these were lyrics from a folk song by the Brothers Four. It became their poem, their lovers’ anthem. Mary would often ask John to recite it again years later, and so he always would. Every birthday and anniversary, John would print their little poem in the local newspaper. “Special for her,” he told me proudly. After hard decades of crime and violence, John had found a woman who accepted him for all his faults. True love caught a man who’d seemed intent on avoiding it. He felt fortunate and at peace, possibly for the first time in his life.

Later, John developed an insidious cancer. The ensuing chemotherapy was tough, and he might not have made it but for the care with which Mary nursed him back to health. Even at rock bottom, their connection was manifest. At 3 a.m. one Saturday morning, Mary awoke to use the toilet. She found John, out of his mind on painkillers and chemo drugs, standing in the kitchen and reaching intently to the sky.

“Baby, what are you doing?” she asked.

“I love you so much. I’m tryna get you a gift that no woman has ever been given before. You are so special to me, I’m trying to – ”

She interrupted him. “Why you got your hand in the air?”

John gazed at her with emotional addict’s eyes. “I’m trying to get you a rainbow, darling.”

Mary lovingly guided John back to bed. The next day, John ventured into town. He bought ceramic cut-outs of celestial objects, wrapped them in a box, and presented them to Mary. “I couldn’t get you a rainbow last night,” he began. “Here’s the moon and stars for you. One day, I promise you, I’ll go to the top o’ the world and get you a rainbow.”

John told me this in the pool hall pub in Kathmandu, the nearest city to the top of the world.

*

            The cynical cockney boxer with a penchant for misogyny and bridge burning had settled down for a domestic life of English bedrooms and whispered sincerities. It went on like that for sixteen years.

But for all his honesty, John rarely divulged specifics about Mary’s death. He talked endlessly about her passing, but only sparsely about details. And the details seemed important. Whatever happened to Mary had catalyzed John’s descent back into addiction and cynicism, had jumpstarted the juggernaut that brought him to that Thamel bar half a world away. Between cigarettes at that pool hall, John finally told me.

“Drug toxicity,” he said. “She was on 15, 18 different drugs a day for heart, for this, for that.”

“I’m sorry, John,” I replied.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “You asked. This is about truth. I don’t lie.”

John had been there, had found Mary’s body. “I seen my wife fuckin’ bloody mouldy. I seen my wife drop down dead just like that.”

Just like that, their unlikely love story ended, and John became a widower. It couldn’t have seemed fair. Mary had nursed him back to health from cancer and chemotherapy. She had opened him up, made an honest man of him. It seemed backwards that he should outlive her.

Mary’s death devastated John. He returned to their shared house broken and depressed. He drew the curtains and receded from the world. There would be no more daffodil poems printed in the local dailies, no more ceramic stars, and no more marathon sessions of devotion and candour. The crippling sadness, the emptiness of Mary’s absence – these were too much to bear. John recalled, “For one year, I cried my fuckin’ heart out. From my guts. I cried and cried every day for one year.”

John tried to kill himself towards the end of that first year. He mixed a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail –  “chemotherapy drugs, Interferon injections, Retrovir tablets, fuckin’ Tramadol” – and fell into a deep blackness. He wanted to die, and he nearly succeeded.

The unconsciousness lasted for six days and six nights.

John awoke in a cold London hospital with pneumonia, MRSA, and a paralyzing numbness down one side of his body. Refusing to yield, he pulled out all the tubes and drips. He escaped the hospital, crawling on weakened hands and knees. Six hours later, the police rapped loudly on his front door. They had come with two of the hospital’s nurses.

“We searched the hospital for you,” said the nurses.

“Fuck off,” John replied. “Go away.”

A policeman answered. “We can arrest you and take you into protective custody.”

John’s voice was weak with pneumonia, so he could hardly speak. “Fuck off, I got children older than you. Out of my house!”

The police left. The nurses stayed. A crisis team visited John to check up on him three times a week for the next month.

The anniversary of Mary’s death loomed in the imminent future. It would be a cruel reminder, so John – of his own volition – entered a psychiatric hospital until the anniversary passed a couple weeks later. He constantly argued with the nurses and doctors, mostly about the utility of anti-depressants or about the rationality of ending his own life. The top psychiatrist, however, endeared himself to John by offering to cancel his appointments and personally drive him to the cemetery to visit Mary’s grave. John declined (it would have been too painful), but he respected the doctor for his kindness and left the hospital in one piece.

Of course, John’s suicidal tendencies had not evaporated. But they at least lay dormant. He returned home – to loneliness, to despair, to a house haunted by the phantom of his true lost love. It had been a turbulent year in a turbulent life. Shortly thereafter, John received a visit from a long-time friend. She told John he was “out of order” and needed to get his act together. John flew into a rage, but the friend held her ground.

“No, you shut up and you listen,” she went on. “Since Mary died, you don’t answer your phone, you don’t go out, you talk to no one. You’ve become a recluse. You’ve become a miserable old bastard. And you haven’t got a right to do that.”

“Why not?” John asked peevishly.

“Mary is lookin’ down on you, and you’re making her cry, too. She’s better than that, inn’t she?”

John took a sip of his vodka in the Kathmandu pool hall before relaying the rest of the story to me. “I got hold of her, and – the first person in one year since my wife died – I got hold of her, and I cuddled her. I cried my eyes out on her shoulder.”

When the crying subsided, his friend offered one last piece of advice. “John, live your dream and live her dream,” she said. “You told her you were gonna go to the top of the world and give her a rainbow. Go and do it.”

That was November 27. Nine days later, John boarded an airplane bound for Kathmandu, Nepal. He had come to catch a rainbow for Mary.

During that first visit, John stayed with a family of Newars. He went to Boudhanath, where monks blessed Mary’s silk scarves and hung them to wave in the wind. He also ventured out of the city and into the proper mountains. When he was at a sufficient elevation, he reached towards the sky, just as he had done in the London kitchen all those years ago, when Mary found him high on drugs. Out loud to no one but Mary, he said, “Darling, I’m at the top of the world. I’m here, babe. I kept my promise. Here’s your rainbow that I promised.”

We were still sitting in the midday pool hall in Kathmandu, five years later, when John told me this. I knew he had secrets, but I never imagined such poignancy and longing from this rough-around-the-edges cockney boxer. John had tears in his eyes. I took a sip of whiskey to wash down the lump in my own throat.

I said, “I had no idea you were such a romantic, John.”

“I’m not romantic. I’m one half bastard,” John scowled.

“But you’re one half romantic,” I said.

“Hmmm.” That was all he said. A grumble.

*

            That first visit to Nepal had lasted two months. John returned to England. He quickly fell into old habits of depressed fatalism. He couldn’t bear to live in the house that he and Mary shared all those years. “Just drinkin’, drinkin’, drinkin’. Killin’ me, every day. Just killin’ me.”

Out of the blue five years later, Nepal made international headlines when a massive earthquake devastated it. Miserable, drunk and secluded, John watched the tragic coverage unfold on the BBC. Images of Nepal – and thoughts of Boudhanath, the Himalayas, and the Newar family he had stayed with – got him out of his apartment and back onto an airplane within a couple of months.

That was when I moved near Thamel to conduct the bulk of my dissertation research. And that was when I first met John – drunk and virile, braggadocious and withdrawn. Before too long, he explicitly told me that going back to England was not an option: “I go home to England, where my wife and I shared all them years – too painful. I’ll stay. Fuck the house. Fuck the books. Fuck the music. Fuck the furniture. Got beautiful women here.”

One of those beautiful women was the madam from the cross-town brothel that John and Polanski frequented. If it sounded like a strange pair, even a recipe for disaster, it probably was. But at the time, the match seemed convenient, even sensible. They were engaged to be married. John didn’t love the madam the way he loved Mary. But he was lonely and slipping further down a dark path. The new fiancé helped John stop drinking. He stayed clear of liquor and drugs for over a month. I saw him on the street one day with a mutual friend, the one who had first introduced us. John wore a dapper suit and tie on the dusty lanes of Thamel. He’d put on healthy weight and looked happier than I had ever seen him.

It didn’t last. The engagement to the madam broke off. Maybe his relapse into alcoholism was the effect of the split, or maybe it was the cause. Whichever the case, the last time I saw John, he was drunk again and cynical as ever.

Then he vanished completely.

*

            From the beginning, I got the sense that John returned to Kathmandu specifically to die. Nepal lured him with mythic promises – the possibility of inner peace and redemption, or at least an escape from his London demons.

He hated Thamel, which he saw as a noir cesspool of two-faced thieves and liars. He equated it to the end of the world, to the end of life itself.

The mountains were another story. If London was pain and Thamel was death, the Himalayas were the Great Beyond. John could not have been more different from the myriad Westerners streaming into Nepal for (pseudo-)spiritual quests. Nevertheless, he did harbour exotic fantasies about the mountains. John felt that Nepali villagers were genuine and truthful, unlike the dishonest “nice” folks in Kathmandu and London. It was, after all, in the Himalayas that John finally kept his word to Mary, had finally given her the rainbow he promised.

He seemed to be drinking himself to death in Thamel, slowly but deliberately. He once said that, when he finally died, his remains should be left in the mountains. “And the birds will eat my bones,” he told me.

John lost his will when Mary passed. There had been small joys since then, of course, but his raison d’être had perished. At some level, all the subsequent years were extra, bonus time. So it didn’t matter if he wasted away with vodka and prostitutes. Reckless consumption only accelerated his welcome death. John had developed an unshakable rationale for ending his life. He had honed it years before during his time in the psychiatric hospital. He later explained:

“Two things happen when you die: you either meet spiritually with your loved ones, or there’s nothing. That’s all. Your mind and my mind can’t comprehend nothing. It’s not like being asleep. It’s not like being unconscious. Nothing is nothing. If there’s nothing, I won’t be in the pain I’m in now. If I meet spiritually with my wife, that’s everything. So there’s either everything or nothing. In between, I’m in this life, living, and I’m in fuckin’ pain. If I was a dog, you’d take me to the vet and put me down, if I was in that pain. So why shouldn’t I die?”

According to John, the top psychiatrist (the man he deeply respected) later said that he might have felt the same way, had he walked through life in John’s shoes. For my part, I tried to say all the things that I thought I should say. But I was a privileged young student talking to a weathered Brit with a finely calibrated bullshit detector. John wasn’t crazy like some of the other expats. He was just lonesome and lovesick for a woman who had saved him once upon a time.

Anyway, whenever John talked about going into the mountains, I never knew whether he meant literally, geographically; or whether, as I now fear, he meant it metaphorically, symbolically. The mountains as a peaceful eternity. Not long before he disappeared, he told me, “I might be going back up into the mountains, you know? That’s where I’m gonna be happy, up in the forest, up in the mountains.”

For a long time after John disappeared, I sporadically tried to find him. The managers at his guesthouse knew nothing. The restaurant owner downstairs – where John received his medicine, his ginger soup and his morning vodka – stopped me on the street one day to ask where he had gone. He claimed John owed him 70,000 rupees. Likewise, mutual friends and bartenders at John’s old haunts offered no leads. Nobody knew where he had gone. John – the boxer, the miscreant, the truth-teller, the world-weary romantic – had vanished.

I still don’t know if this is a eulogy, or why I felt compelled to write it. The permutations of where John might be are endless. If he is alive, he might be back in London; or maybe he still whiles away the months in the hidden shadows of Thamel’s underbelly; or perhaps he stands atop a hillside in rural Nepal. Then again, he might have died in any of those places, leaving no record.

John was (or is?) a man of perpetual surprises, the embodiment of years of conflict and paradox – sometimes brutish and aggressive, other times introspective and articulate. He was honest and fair and heartbroken. If, as I suggested, John was a snake eating its own tail, I never knew whom to root for, the head or the body. Categories like “good” and “bad” overlapped, contradicted, and grew muddled beyond recognition. If John personified a constant struggle between Light and Dark, the battle lines blurred in ways I still can’t seem to sort out.

I sometimes muse about meeting John again someday – on a London sidewalk or a Kathmandu galli. Maybe this isn’t a eulogy after all, but a clarion call to – somehow – coax him out of the woodwork. I want to know, out of earnest care and selfish curiosity, what became of him.

In truth, I doubt I’ll ever see him again. But, whatever it meant to him, I hope he’s in the mountains.

 

Author’s Note: To protect the privacy and anonymity of those involved, the names of all characters and certain identifying details have been changed.

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