Squaresville 2 – Messieurs, les jeux sont faits!August 5, 2011
After the coup, or restructuring or whatever you want to call it, lots of foreigners stayed on but many left. Nine months later I was hanging out at the lake, and even that was quiet. Shooting at clouds? All in the past. The town was dead, though others will dispute this. Moustafa, the friend who broke my unwanted week-long fast, was among a group of North Africans who had arrived without papers and, desperate for letter of transit, were busily in-fighting and sowing wild oats. One of them stole my camera.
Another showed me a Canadian passport he had bought in Bangkok for five hundred dollars. His plan was to fly to LAX, take a bus to British Columbia and declare asylum. Since that was the last I saw of him, I hope he succeeded. The Catholic relief agency JRS, where Moustafa and I and others spent a rather dismal Christmas Day, would have to find someone new to support. I talked to Father Clyde, younger than myself but I suspect no square, who groused good-naturedly about the local habit of shooting up rainclouds. Perhaps he was thinking of the year before.
Blackjack being an indulgence I could ill afford, I went only once to the floating casino. It was interesting to breathe the piped-in oxygen and watch the junketeers down from mainland China and Taiwan. One could also gain face downstairs in the hull: order a round of karaoke and iced beer to pass the time, pick up an unwieldy microphone and belt out Elton John, Nancy Sinatra or ‘Hotel California’, with its ominous refrain about checking out but never leaving. We also crawled about in the watery and disused pirate gallery, tripping over ropes and mainsails and exclaiming, “Ahoy! What the hell is this doing here?”
If many were longing to escape Lotusland, others who could have departed, did not. My friend the late Guy Oz stayed on when he got married. After leaving the Israeli army, where he had been an Intelligence officer during the invasion of Lebanon in 82, Guy worked in security for a time before landing in Cambodia. He rode around PP on a big chopper and ran a girlie bar into the ground before the money ran out and he had to get a job. Guy enjoyed his customary lunches at the Crocodile restaurant, where he and another colleague, the acerbic Jason, would amuse themselves throwing chickens and rabbits to the crocs. (Everyone was certain Jason had AIDS and was not long for this world; in fact, it was his friend Guy who went first. He died in the arms of a certain Irishman who specializes in terminal matters in PP, as did a well-known NewYorker who died prosaically of too much drink. The Irishman rang his widow in New York, who said she needed a moment to absorb the news and hung up. She duly rang him back ten minutes later. “He’s still dead,” said the Irishman.) Back to my old mate Guy—There had been a time, Guy said, when the town attracted strung-out French couples who were to be seen staggering through the streets clinging to each other and throwing up. I never saw any junkies myself—except I did, every day, without quite knowing it. And why was everyone at the Rising Sun talking a blue streak and grinding their teeth…?
At a loose end or two, still rather thin owing to the fare at the Capitol and the Daily’s starvation wages, I grew accustomed to walking. One of my favourite street people was a man who said he had to catch a boat. Between collecting plastic bottles that he placed in a sack for his income, he would stop and wave at the horizon and say, “The boat, the boat is out there and waiting! I must go!” He was from Hanoi, had impeccable English and claimed to be a physicist. If he ever got his letters of transit, I never learned of it.
One night, proceeding up Monivong Blvd in the direction of the lake, I passed the gates of AFESIP, the children’s charity, and heard a noise. A baby was lying on the ground, a baby with no limbs and no eyes. I carried on and told Peaceman, owner of the Peace Cafe. Without delay, Peaceman leading, he and I and my girlfriend were on our way to rescue the baby. Bouncing through the watery potholes, we eventually arrived at a hospital to find the doctors (it was night-time, after all) asleep on their cots. “Oh,” they said. “This baby came in earlier today.” I don’t know what happened after we left.
Hash House Harriers was never my cup of tea, but I used to play footie with the late Tim Seaman who did a great deal for children’s rights in the country, and who had no qualms when he took on a famous bigwig, Victor Chow, over the subject of gunplay in Chow’s nightclubs and shooting galleries. (It would be some time before the kischy pistol statue made from melted handguns, its barrel tied in a knot, graced the roundabout north of Wat Phnom.) Tim owned the Duck Tub—now Howie’s Bar—where we would retire Sundays after soccer. He recounted a tale about Nate Thayer, the journo who interviewed Pol Pot. After he got the money for that world exclusive (a story in itself) Thayer showed up at the Duck Tub puffing on a cigar and tossing burning greenbacks in the air, presumably amid a few libations to the gods of hackery. This was too much even for the mild-mannered Tim who told Thayer off in no uncertain terms. A thoughtful and principled Englishman who had worked in municipal government before joining Licadho, the human rights group, Tim Seaman was tragically killed in an automobile accident, along with a young Khmer colleague, returning from child investigation duties in Kompong Cham.
Squaresville 3 comes next week
Utopia, poems by Kevin Halligan is available on UK Amazon