Copyright © 2015 Lawrence Osbourne
HE CAME OVER THE BORDER AS THE lights were about to be dimmed, with the last of the migrants trailing their stringed boxes. With them came gamblers from the air-conditioned buses, returning short-time exiles tumbling out of minivans with microwaves and DVD units. The border forced them all into a defile in the rain. The gamblers complained about their summary treatment while opening plastic umbrellas provided by the tour company. It seemed a shame to them that the casinos on the other side could not manage it better. Their Bangkok shoes began to suffer in the coffee-colored mud. Between the two posts the ground was already filled with pools and the dogs waited for the money. The hustlers and drivers were there, silently smoking and watching their prey. The officer ripped away his departure card in the Thai hut and his passport came back to him and he set off for the farther side lit up by the arc lamps.
The drivers began to wave, to raise their arms and shout, but he could not hear what the words were. Carrying a single bag, he was quick on his feet. He had the aura of poverty about him, but still, he was white and therefore—in their eyes—affluent. He went under the dry eaves of the opposing nation and gave his passport anew to the men behind a shabby window. There were four windows and the men behind did not look very forgiving. They bore considerable weight in their eyes. In the bare concrete rooms, tables were set up with thermos flasks and darkened TV sets. The new king high on the walls in his wise white uniform.
“Tourist,” he said, and they charged him a surplus two dollars for not having a photograph for the visa. He counted out his baht and pushed the filthy money across the table and they stuck a full-page green visa into a page of his passport and tossed it dismissively back at him. He had a month to roam their green and pleasant kingdom and he spent the first minute looking across at the neon lights of the casinos, the dusk and the men waving at him.
The pools opening up under the lamps had grown green as well and he walked gingerly around them with his shoulder bag and his straw hat growing soggy as the rain enveloped him.
“Sir, taxi,” the men were crying, already each one setting off toward a large run-down Japanese car. Forced to pick one at random, he chose a man with a Toyota and an umbrella and it was seven dollars into Pailin. Above them shone the red and blue lights of the Diamond Crown casino. But he was tired and not yet in the mood for a fling on the tables. He resolved to return the following night.
HE SAT IN the backseat and drank from the bottle of iced tea he had bought at the border stalls. The verges were filmed red with sticky and wettened dust and in the dark were rolling green hills dotted with primeval-looking, isolated trees. Fields of mung and shaggy sugarcane. It was windy, the sky jagged with storm clouds and a Peeping-Tom moon. The site of a disaster, or of a disaster about to happen. The earth dark with iron and cloying and musty to the nose. He was down to a hundred dollars so he asked the driver to take him to a cheap place for the night, he didn’t care where. Turning his head for a moment, the driver told him there were only two or three choices in the town anyway and none of them was the Hilton. A half hour later they were passing the traffic circles of the town, a few roadside bars with red Angkor beer signs. A small park with twelve golden horses prancing in a grit-filled wind.
The man took him to a place called the Hang Meas. It was on the main road to the border, which was lined by one-story shops. Pailin, to his eye, was clearly a place with three streets and little more. A town built on illegal gemstones and the undeparted Khmer Rouge. A dead and absurd sign on the hotel’s facade read, as if contradicting its current lamentable state, Le Manoir de Pailin. The establishment’s pink walls and the karaoke club on the ground floor gave a further dying look to it—he could tell that it was about to close. There were life-size sculptures of deer on the roof gazing out to the Cardamom Mountains and white glass-ball lamps on the balcony. A huge model cockerel stood in the car park and next to it a spirit house filled with kneeling figures with painted white hair and beards. The ancestors of that windswept place, secretly connected to the fields and the mountains which could be seen even in the night. The car left him by them and he waded into a decrepit lobby with his wet hat and his chills and the girls looked up with a subtle contempt.
He sat in a leather chair by some fish tanks while they photocopied his passport and stamped the forms, and he saw the entertainment hall next door to the lobby with a multitude of red pillars wrapped with ribbons and covered with mirrors. In there the karaoke was going on, Viet or Chinese businessmen singing badly. The girls were in clasped silk skirts playing them for a song. It was a Bee Gees number, “How Deep Is Your Love?”
A girl ambled over and invited him to come with her to the room on the third floor. They went up the stairs and their scents came into awkward contact.
“Holiday?” she said, as if it was the sole English word she had.’
“Business,” he said.
It was the word that usually ended all conversations.
“We closed next week,” she said sadly.
They came into the room and the same smell pervaded it. It’s OK, he said, as if there was a choice in the matter. She showed him the workings of a few switches and left him alone. He turned on the AC, stripped off and took a tepid bath with the lights on. One had to fear such a wonderland of roaches. He smoked his last three Thai cigarettes and considered if he had the gall or the energy to go out straight away and find a casino. There would be little else to do here anyway. The other foreigners who crossed the border—nearly all Thai—either went straight back into Thailand or carried on toward the capital, a mere five hours away. They would have to think of a reason to stay in Pailin. He would have to think of a reason other than not having more than a hundred dollars. But it was a reason, at least. He opened his bag and pulled out a cheap dress shirt and pressed it out with the iron in the cupboard. He could make himself half presentable after a shave and an oiling of the hair.
At nine thirty he went down to the lobby and asked them to call a taxi to the gates to drive him to one of the casinos back at Phum Psar Prum. He strolled out in his awkward shirt, his pockets filled with US dollars, and the car was summoned by the boys outside in their “security” uniforms. He said “Casinos” to the car that pulled up, and when he added that he didn’t know which one, there was a confusing consultation. In the end he was driven to the towering place he had seen an hour or two earlier, the Diamond Crown. It was a pointless forty minutes driving there and back again, but he didn’t mind. Anything was better than karaoke or an empty room.
The Diamond loomed over the village around it. There was a forecourt garden of towering palms, and a blaze of neon across the facade in Latin and Khmer lettering. Outlines of playing cards and golden women. A KTV to the right, and a hotel of the same name. Inside, red carpets, sky-blue vaults with painted clouds. There were Chinese shrines; a tacky, run-down feel. The tables were green felt. The Khmer girls in their equivalent green waistcoats watched him slowly with a dim interest. In one corner two staff workers struggled with a large rolled carpet. It was a hot crowd, mostly Thais playing simple poker and baccarat and roulette. They looked like officer workers on a lost weekend. He walked around sizing it up and wondering if he had luck on his side that night, or ever, for that matter. Finally he sat at a drunken table and played roulette for five-dollar bets against a ring of Thai middle managers downing the Sang Som and Yaa Dong and far gone in their daze. There was no time to calculate or think and later he thought to himself that this was how he had won. It’s how an outsider always wins. He pulled in two hundred, packed up and went outside to buy some Alain Delons. At the far end of the forecourt was an outdoor restaurant filled with half-dead gamblers and he sat there and smoked and saw that the moon had appeared again out of the fast-moving black storm clouds.
Fireflies now shone in groomed-looking frangipani trees nearby and he felt his skin moisten and harden at the same time. He had spent nearly all his cash and was due to go back to the homeland, but he had stuck his neck out for a few days across the border and suddenly it seemed to have paid off. It sometimes came up like that, a flash of good luck out of nowhere and the night—and the nights after—looked a little different. A little more and he’d be able to pay the fee to change the ticket home and linger on. You want to linger on sometimes, when there is nothing better awaiting. A teacher from England did not have any worlds at his feet. He did not have anything at his feet but doormats and cigarette butts and the plucked fins of cooked fish.
The Alain Delons were harsh but the face of the French actor was everywhere on the billboards. He smiled down above the streets on scaffolds, his face from around 1960 more youthful than the twenty-eight-year-old Englishman’s. So time passed but not for Delon, not for the immortals.
He lit a second cigarette and smoked it down just as coolly and slowly. The waiters didn’t even bother to give him a menu. There were no barangs here and he didn’t fit the scheme. Yet he liked this new country a little better than the previous one. It had a different feel to it, a slower spin.
As a teacher he profited from a long summer holiday. Two months were enough to slip away entirely from one’s life, however complicated that life might be. But as it happened his life was not complicated at all. He lived alone at the edges of a town called Burgess Hill, close to the Sussex Downs, in a damp cottage with a wooden lintel and horseshoes decorating the walls. He had not even redecorated it to his taste. He had done very little to personalize anything in his surroundings. He did not, in the end, raise much objection to his own passivity. It suited him.
Did it make him dull? He didn’t mind. The dullness was only an impression made upon outsiders, to whom he was, in turn, completely indifferent. He had gone through three years at the University of Sussex as inconspicuously as he could. Studying English and dallying with a few girlfriends. There had not been much more to it than that. A dream that passed quickly. He had chosen the university because it was close to his family, to his parents, and even to his grandparents, who lived in a council house in Bevendean on the road from Brighton to Falmer. They were a family whose members never strayed far from each other. The elements of life remained stable. He could take a bus to the Bevendean estate every weekend and walk to his grandmother’s gooseberry bushes. They made him trifle and he went for walks in the hills above the estate.
Outwardly, he remained stable as well. Even his haircut remained the same for years. Long at the back, with a parting to the right. Weekends, after visiting his family, he went to the rowdier pubs in Lewes and sat at the bars and talked to strangers. Then he left on his own and rode his motorbike back to his cottage. This invariable pattern was never broken by anything surprising. Naturally, he reasoned, this was because he wanted it to be so. His unconscious wanted it, and therefore he wanted it. It was like a period of waiting, or a period of sleep from which he would suddenly wake up armed with a sword.
But every year there came the summer holidays and with his free two months he tried to engineer a few surprises. One year he went to the island of Hydra in Greece. Another summer saw him in Iceland. He went alone and came back alone, and he was mostly alone when he was there. Even in Hydra he was alone, walking the dust paths that ran around the island. Swimming alone, eating alone. Most importantly, sleeping alone. He couldn’t say why he was alone; he was pretty in his way. But then again he was a dreamer and a loner. It was the way he was.
Iceland and Greece: the northern extreme of Europe and the southern. But he had found them to be remarkably similar. All he had come back with were photographs and a general irritability. There were times on Hydra, in particular, when he had felt something more like rage. He never told anyone where he was going, not even his parents. He would say, “I’m off to Greece,” and they would say, “Oh, are you? Take care then.” But his rage was not obvious to himself. What was it directed against? Not the Greeks. Not the ruins of the house of Ghika looking over that beautiful sea. Something else. Sometimes he thought it was merely his own anxious, unsteady blue eyes staring back at him from a hotel bathroom mirror. Could you feel rage against that?
Places in Europe, he sensed, were now the same tourist mills. The same restaurants, the same nightclubs, the same hotels, the same sexual escapades. This summer, however, he had saved up for two years so that when July had come around he would have the money to sail off into a deeper, more distant, blue. He had never traveled very extensively when he was younger and resented that he had never explored much of the planet. And even now, the Far East was not that far. The flight to Bangkok had been less than six hundred pounds.
He went back inside the Diamond. He felt even cockier and surer now and sat at a different table, but one nevertheless swarmed by the same Thai managers with their throat-scorching herbal Yaa Dong. The game itself was still a mystery to him. He had never even played cards much, let alone roulette. His game was amateur chess. But now he felt the attraction of a larger risk, a more uncertain venture. He played for an hour, throwing down his bets blind and hoping for the best. There was a hilarity in it. And the voice in his head urging “One more, one more” until he was running with the unfamiliar idea of playing and imperiling his small amount of capital. It was the kind of spontaneous risk that ordinarily he never took. He threw himself into it innocently. It turned out well. Who could understand it? Then, as if in a single moment, he had a thousand and the staff began to notice. The girls came over in their starched white blouses and bow ties and asked him if he would like a Black Label or a vodka neat or, you know, an orange juice or some fried ants. If it was a joke he didn’t know and he took a Black Label and looked at the clock on the far-off wall and decided that he might as well keep on destroying the middle managers and padding his new nest.
He did so. It was the moon, of course. It was something in the atmosphere. Soon he had two grand and some change and that was a fair winning for the Diamond Crown. Before unease set in and decline came upon him he wrapped it up with two grand in US dollars and collected the stash at the window without ceremony. The staff didn’t seem especially put out or surprised. The Thais were often high rollers themselves and wasted extraordinary amounts of money in the border casinos. It was something they saw every week.
“You have a heart of gold,” the floor manager said as he escorted him out, and as he passed to the gates he saw Alain Delon smiling down from his scaffold and the moon full of juice rising above the one-story shops and the road where the motodops waited. He could sense unlit roads rising up the hillside with dark bars and men with bottles in their hands. It was quicksand, all of it. He took the cash out of its envelope and squeezed it into one of his front pockets and took a farewell of the thugs in cheap suits who had come out to stare him down. They wanted to remember his face.
HE TOOK A motodop back into Pailin. The town was now almost asleep and in the Hang Meas restaurant he ordered a pho and a Lao beer and pork satay with cucumbers. The karaoke was still going strong and the grounds were alive with roaming Khmer girls in heels, their eyes finding him with ease and laying upon him a dallying charm. He drank on with the dark Lao beer all alone in that restaurant with the red lanterns stirring quietly as the wind picked up, the long tassels moving slowly back and forth like horse tails. Two thousand. It was something from the half-forgotten realm of sorcery. Years ago, he thought, you got an education for nothing and now here you are, boy, a rabbit shooting out of a hat, all set up with no future at all but with a stroke of luck that has served you right. It was a fine thing and no one saw it coming. Moreover, he resolved never to set foot in a casino ever again. He was not going to lose what he had won so flippantly. He was going to hold on to it and plant it for a while and, if possible, make it flower.