At the point we set off, noisily chugging out from the mini-harbour in a cloud of petrol fumes, I was keen to get to Ko Pha-Ngan. Although I'd been told it was past its best, Hat Rin still had a slightly legendary reputation. Like Patpong Road or the opium treks in the Golden Triangle, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I was also pleased to be doing something important for the beach. I knew that Sal appreciated my volunteering for such an obviously unpopular task, and I felt like I was involved in something serious and worth while.
But an hour later, as the shape of Ko Pha-Ngan was forming on the horizon, my keenness began to be replaced by anxiety. It was the same feeling I'd had under the waterfall. I was suddenly aware that encountering the World would bring back all the things I'd been doing such a good job of forgetting. I wasn't exactly sure what those things were, because I'd forgotten them, but I was pretty convinced I didn't want to be reminded. Also, although we couldn't really talk over the noise of the engine, I sensed Jed was thinking along the same lines. He was sitting as rigidly as the choppy motion of the boat would allow, one hand gripping the tiller, keeping his eyes absolutely fixed on the island ahead.
I reached into my shorts pocket for a cigarette. I'd taken a new pack — hoping the seal would keep them waterproof — and matches. They were in the plastic film-carton that Keaty used to keep his Rizlas dry. 'This is the most precious possession I have,' he'd said before handing it over. 'Guard it with your life.' 'Count on it,' I'd replied earnestly, imagining a three-hour boat trip without nicotine.
Lighting up turned into a bit of a drama because the matches were a crappy Thai brand and they splintered if you pushed them too hard. The first three broke and the next four blew out in the wind. I'd only taken ten in the film can, and was beginning to lose my cool, when I finally managed to get the cigarette lit up. Jed lit one too, off the end of mine, then we both went back to gazing at Ko Pha-Ngan. Between the blue and the green I could now make out a strip of white sand.
To avoid thinking about the World, I started thinking about Françoise.
A few days earlier Étienne and I had been having a diving competition near the coral garden about who could make the smallest splash. When we asked her to judge it, she watched us both and then shrugged, saying, 'You are both very good.' Étienne looked surprised. 'Yes,' he said impatiently. 'But who is better?' Françoise shrugged again. 'What shall I say?' she laughed. 'Really. You are both as good as the other.' Then she gave us both a little kiss on the cheek.
Her reaction had surprised me too. The truth is, Étienne was a much better diver than I was. I knew that without a shadow of a doubt. He could do effortless backwards dives, swan-dives, jack-knifes, weird twists without a name, all sorts of things. I, however, could only manage a backwards dive with a violent jerk that usually flipped me right back on to my feet. As for who could make the smallest splash, Étienne entered the water as straight as a bamboo spear. I didn't need to see myself to know that I was more like a tree-trunk, branches and all.
So when Françoise said that we were both as good as each other, she was lying. A funny sort of lie. Not malicious, apparently diplomatic, but vaguely puzzling in a way I found hard to pin down.
'West... more... land...' I heard over the noise of the engine. Jed was calling to me, snapping me out of my day-dreaming.
I looked round and cupped my hand to my ear. 'What?' I yelled.
'I'm heading west! There's more open beach to land! Less beach huts!'
I gave him the thumbs up and turned back to the prow. While I'd been thinking about Françoise, Ko Pha-Ngan had got much closer. I could now see the trunks and leaves of the coconut trees, and the mid-day shadows beneath them.