And I say, ‘No, I live here, it’s two and a half.’ And he asks, ‘There and back?’
I’m supposed to smile so I do. I say, ‘Yes, bong, I do this all the time.
And I walk away. He calls me back, of course. It’s a Thursday; who else is he going to take to the airport? And he says, ‘Three dollars.’
And I say, ‘No, two and a half, that’s fair.’
And he starts going on and on about petrol and his whole family till I’m just about to lose it and finally he says, ‘Okay, two and a half.’
It’s almost peak hour and everything looks like bushfire, like nicotine. The motodop starts up. His motorbike breathes a cloud and the sun disappears behind it. Everything’s noisy and yellow. It’s like being at a bar but without the mojitos. Just tyre to tyre with a thousand motorbikes. Makes me sick. The whole thing.
I spent the entire morning at the travel agency. It’s an airless box with faded old pictures on the walls of places you wouldn’t even want to fly to: Bali, Hawaii, Koh Samui … And some song wailing tonelessly in Khmer on the TV. People are supposed to have no money here but there’s always a TV.
I said to the travel agent, ‘Don’t even bother. I’ll just go there. I’ll go all the way out to the Lucky Air office at the airport because it’ll be quicker than this.’
I’m meeting Tully and everyone at Bar Long Time tonight and need time to get ready. The travel agent smiled at me like she meant it. You’re angry and they smile at you. I got up to leave and the plastic chair I’d been stuck to left welts on the backs of my legs. Up on the mezzanine an old man was stripping off behind a screen. Struggling to pull his white singlet over his gut. You spend your entire life trying to cover up here and then you go to the travel agent and have to watch an old man stumbling around above your head in nothing but a pair of undersized jocks.
It’s so frigging hot. I’m even happy it’s one of those old motos with the seats on the back, so at least I don’t have to press against the driver. They don’t sweat. Even my nose is sweating under my fakey Pradas. I could die right here from sweating. This Swedish girl died the other day because someone tried to steal her backpack while she was on a moto. Wasn’t wearing a helmet. After she came off they went back to get her bag and left her there, dead.
I said to Tully, ‘Look, I’m not promising to wear a helmet now but I’ll totally forgo the backpack and just use my tote bag if I have to.’
I told work I was too sick to come in. The land-rights report can wait. I wanted to get a Brazilian then book this ticket because Mum’s going on and on about how she’s alone and it won’t be Easter without me. But Rom wasn’t at the waxing salon, even though I expressly asked for her, and I got this other girl. She took the hair off alright but half the wax is still on there. It’s the most uncomfortable thing possible. We start passing people three and four to a motorbike and then I see a family of six: Dad driving, son between his legs, oldest daughter, Mum holding a baby, then behind her a tiny kid with her little kid legs dangling, her tiny bum hanging over the back.
The only thing keeping her on is that she’s got a good grip on Mum’s shirt. They’re all smiling. I get my phone out. They stare at me like I’m crazy. I start taking a photo for Tully but t he motodop is apologising over his shoulder (I ignore him), then he turns off the highway and I’m yelling, ‘No, go that way, the airport’s that way.’
And he’s saying, ‘Sorry, sorry.’
He’s probably one of those hicks who come up from
Kampong Cham or wherever for Khmer New Year, their heads full of vampires and voodoo, and decide to be motodops for the day. They don’t know shit about the Penh. He stops at a shed selling petrol from glass Coke bottles and asks me to get off while he fills up.
I say, ‘Maybe you could have told me this before I got on. I’m in a hurry, you know.’
And he says, ‘Sorry, sorry, lady.’
You’d think they’d use something other than Coke bottles. What if some kid, the little kid on the motorbike, what if she drank one by mistake?
‘Hi,’ I say to the woman at the Lucky Air counter in the airport, ‘I wanted to change a f light but your website isn’t working and I can’t get through on the phone and the travel agent can’t seem to help me.’
‘Yes,’ smiles the woman, ‘the website isn’t working.’ No shit, I think.
‘Can I change my ticket here, please?’ I should ask her to waive the change fee too. Just pay the difference in the fare because of all the hassle, having to pay the motodop to come all the way out here and everything.
The airport’s busy, people crouching everywhere. Families mostly. You’d think they’d give them some seats. If I ran Cambodia, the first thing I’d do would be to put in some seats to stop all this crouching. That and public toilets. Seriously.
Everyone freaks out if I wear a boobylicious top but I’ve seen more strangers’ cocks in the last six months than in my entire lifetime. Tully texted me the other day because there was a guy pissing right across the road from the café where she was eating breakfast and it totally put her off her muffin.
The Lucky Air woman asks me to check the details. I haven’t been charged a fee and the fare difference is only forty US dollars and I think, Sweet. Our weekly pay is 250 bucks and Tully says that’s double what most Cambodians get in a month, but I say we still have to live our lives. So the woman books the ticket and I go to the ATM and get out a hundred so I have some cash for Bar Long Time tonight.
When I get back to the counter her smile is gone and she starts apologising, ‘Sorry, sorry.’
There’s sweat dribbling down the backs of my knees and I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. Then she says, ‘I’m sorry, madam, but I made a mistake. There is a change fee and also the fare is more and now you have to pay 130 dollars.’
‘One hundred and thirty dollars?’ I yell. You’re not supposed to yell in Cambodia. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, madam,’ she says again. She’s lucky there’s glass between us, I swear. ‘I made a mistake; it is 130 dollars.’
‘What. Do. You. Mean?’
‘I forgot the change fee, and … I … read the wrong currency. I’m sorry, madam.’
I fold my arms.
‘I wouldn’t have changed the ticket if it was that much,’ I say. ‘Just give me my original ticket back.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, madam,’ she says, ‘but it is changed already. Please pay 130 dollars.’
‘You made the mistake,’ I yell. ‘Lucky Air can pay it.’ She glances behind her. The door to an office is open. I can feel the air-con pumping out of that room and see a man in a suit hunched over a pile of manila folders. The woman stretches out one arm and shuts the door.
‘Please, madam …’ she tries again.
I look at her pale pink shirt, probably nylon. I’d be drip- ping in that.
Her jewellery is all new but cheap, really cheap – I see that shit all the time at the markets. One hundred and thirty dollars. I think about how much that is to her and start to cry right there at the counter. I hope the woman thinks it’s sweat but she sees right through it because Cambodians just don’t cry in shops. I can’t stop looking at her shirt and her tacky, shit-cheap earrings. I grab my bag and walk back to the ATM and slam my card in and withdraw another fifty. The balance f lashes up on the screen and there’s practically nothing left, after rent and food and bills, for going anywhere or doing anything for the next week at least. The wax glues my undies to my crotch and tugs at the leftover hair and I suppose I cry some more. I wouldn’t give my dad the pleasure of Skyping him and asking for money to go out tonight. I go back to the woman and shove 150 towards her.
‘Here,’ I say, ‘130 dollars.’
I’m still polite. God, you have to be.
The woman says, ‘No no, madam, it’s okay, you just pay 100 and I’ll pay the thirty, okay? Okay, madam?’ Her stupid little earrings wink at me.
‘No,’ I blubber. ‘No, you can’t afford it.’
She’s probably only twenty or something but who can tell here, until someone gets married and goes to fat?
‘It’s okay, madam, you pay 100 and I pay thirty because it is my mistake,’ she says, ‘and also because you’re upset, you’re very upset,’ she says, and I am. I pass her the hundred and the other fifty stays hot in my fingers and she smiles at me and then I’m out in the weird waiting calm of the airport, looking across the tarmac.
‘Same place,’ I say to the motodop.
I’m glad I have my Pradas. I sit on the big wide seat and we pull into the traffic and move steadily along the highway back to Phnom Penh. There’s dust everywhere but it’s a tiny bit cooler. I could almost go to sleep. We slow down at the lights beside one of those big dirt trucks. The lights change and as the truck starts to move forward there’s this crunch – a plastic takeaway container under a shoe, but bigger.
The truck doesn’t stop. It keeps going and as it rolls away, something appears underneath it. The wheel of a motorbike lying sideways on the ground. Then a bare leg. Then the half-crushed body of the motorbike, another leg, a helmeted head. A n arm sticks out and a cheap diamante bracelet around a woman’s wrist winks in the sunlight. She’s dead, I think. She’s dead. But then her leg moves, her arm. No one else moves. It’s like we’re dead. Finally a woman shifts underneath the motorbike and wipes at her shirt. The intersection moves again. The motodop ploughs into it, crossing lanes of traffic with his eyes fixed on the woman behind him.
‘Look where you’re going, bong!’ I yell, but I can’t take my eyes off her either.
‘I need some cigarettes,’ I say.
The motodop says, ‘Cigarettes?’ and pulls over. ‘I’ll get them cheaper for you.’
I give him the money. My cheeks are stiff with salt. He comes back and hands me a packet. He waits as I rip it open and take out two for him but he shakes his head.
He smiles, says, ‘No thanks, lady.’
I try to put one in my mouth but I drop it. I light it on the fifth try. He hands me my change and I guess he was right, it was about fifty cents cheaper that way.
Laura Jean McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia, a short story collection that explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. Holiday in Cambodia has been shortlisted for three national book awards: the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the 2014 Queensland Literary Award and the 2015 Asher Award for books on an anti-war theme. Laura’s writing has been published in The Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing and the North American Review. Find out more or buyHoliday in Cambodia