In the Shadows

Sal stood on the tiled balcony an arm draped casually around the chalky pink column. Her other hand rested on the damp balustrade, fingers flicking at a rotting papaya leaf that had been swept there by the afternoon rains. The post rain breeze carried a pungent waft of leaves, moist and decaying in the ditches beside the road, and cleansed away the fumes of the traffic below. Petrol and oil would soon resurface as the traffic geared up again and would mingle with the symphony of smells that told her she was home: the neighbour’s drifting incense, the steaming food carts, the open drains.

She gazed at the scene laid out below and thought about leaving; distracted herself by counting. No radio, no television, this was her favourite game: people watching, people counting. The most people on a motorbike (seven), most on a bicycle (four adults but they quickly fell off), biggest family in a cyclo (seven again), largest load on a bike (a fridge freezer), most cops on a motorbike (five), weirdest thing on a cyclo (a motorbike? A curb side petrol station?) She’d even tried counting tourists (one looking lost). The balcony was her window into another world. The sun’s descent had left an earthy glow on this side of the city, the daylight not yet gone but the cool moving in. Tuol Sleng stood a street away surrounded by green grass and palms, trimmed with barbed wire. The shady confines were tinted red. She shivered at the sight and as she scanned the street below she felt simultaneously removed from it and a part of it. The exertion of the afternoon had shined her face and arms and sapped her remaining energy as she moved back into the house.

Guy lay on the bed. Sweat glistened along the coarse, wiry blonde hairs that coated his arms and chest, shone in the dark hollows beneath his eyes and slicked his upper lip. The white cotton sheet was pooled around his damp frame, balled up in one fist. The fan lazily swept the room, stirred the air and turning its whirring face away from the sleeping form. It looked towards the light, paused as if to stare through the window, clicked and then resumed its slow, sweeping arc, an affirmative nod to the wall: the outside world moves on.

She stood exhausted beside the bed watching him sleep, let her attention wander across the squirming pink pattern of the tiles. She remembered the flat hunting – finding this flat and all the others they’d looked at together: flats by the river, flats near the market, flats in the expat quarter. Of all the flats they’d seen, this was the flat they’d chosen. They’d loved the place on sight despite its candy pink façade; had negotiated with the jovial Chinese Khmer landlord and christened it The Pink Palace. Now this low ceilinged mezzanine bedroom squeezed the life out of her and the wriggling pink strands that crawled across the half tiled walls seemed reminiscent of DNA under a microscope, the life growing inside and nauseous days spent staring at the wall.

She switched her focus back to the restless figure on the bed and slipped seamlessly through time. She remembered Kim; Kim who had brought them to the flat the first time. She’d sat side saddle behind him on the broad slab of a seat, cross-legged, one sandal dangling from her foot precariously close to the blurring road. Guy sat astride behind her, his body curved protectively around hers. Kim had cajoled the beaten up moped as it revved and spat trying to keep up with the Canadian. They’d followed the healthy rental down the hot dusty streets with one eye on the road and one pinned on the Beer Laos t-shirt and brown bouncing curls as they weaved through the throng of sleek dark heads. They’d wound ever further away from the expatriate areas until they were puttering down dirt roads with the breeze ruffling their hair and whispering thoughts of freedom in their ears. It had seemed a long time before they’d spotted the lonely sign in the first floor window: For Rent. The sign had been written in English but nobody spoke the language. Such signs merely assured landlords of a higher rent. Within about five years the area would become popular with English teachers and foreign workers ensuring higher rents, greater prosperity for some of the local families and the eventual resurfacing of the potholed dirt road. The landlord would become proficient in English.

She continued to stand, pack on back and bag in hand, watching him. She stared intently at his sleeping face, troubled, creased with the pillow, creased in a grimace, lined and shadowed with whatever it was that sunk its claws into his sleeping mind and made him scream out at night: the pain of sleep. He dozed fitfully; she tried to summon up the energy to move, the energy to leave but at forty eight kilos and losing she was fading. She had no reserves, no energy and little life, too much life. The fight had seeped from her body and the space was now filled with creeping sorrow. Like a sickness it had spread; filled the crevices, the space between her ribs, the small of her back beneath the pack, gnawed at her solar plexus… maybe her heart. She watched him and knew that she couldn’t walk out, knew she had to tell him. She didn’t want to go but it was self-preservation. For two.

His eyes opened slowly, heavy with pain which eased as he saw her, as he sleepily focussed on her face. All was well. She mirrored him, slowly smiling, leaning towards him but his expression was changing, the eyes creasing up, the brows lowering, wrinkling together and her mouth was moving into a round ‘o’ as she realised what he was seeing, as she remembered the rucksack, the bag in her hand. The air became charged. He peeled his body up from the damp sheets, leapt from the bed, moved towards her grabbing her arm, his face closed in on hers spitting fire. Her skin prickled and she recoiled, at last remembering her purpose now that it was too late and all the while whispering:

‘No, no, I wasn’t going, I wasn’t…’

‘You were gonna leave me! Walk out while I slept! You fucking bitch you were gonna leave me, you weren’t even gonna tell me…’

‘I wasn’t, I swear, I was waiting for you to wake up, I wasn’t…’

He didn’t wait to hear more but yanked the pack off her back, grabbed the smaller bag and tipped its contents on the bed—

‘What are you doing? What do you want? I wasn’t gonna go, honest. I just…’

‘Keys. Where are your keys? Give them to me. Now.’

She didn’t understand and her hand twitched slightly. The movement jingled the front door key against the only gate key. He immediately snatched them from her hand and disappeared down the stairs. She heard him swipe the key from the back door and check the front door was locked. The slap, slick and stick of his bare feet on the tiled floors grew closer and then the rhythmic thump as he climbed the stairs. Almost as loud as her heart, her audible fear and she had no idea what to do next; what he would do next.

© Ammie-oy 2007/2011

Photo courtesy of The Drala Principle: June 2010


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