In the Shadows (2)

Sal crouched under the tiled worktop in the kitchen. Her wet face smeared the cool plaster wall as she pressed her body into it. She heard the creak and grind of the metal doors as they came together to close, the two sections adjoining with a dull clunk and the rattle of glass, announcing Guy’s departure and punctuated with the click and slide of the key turning, being withdrawn. She sat a while longer, part crying part humming, beginning to move her legs away from their limpet like position at the wall and out into the wider area of the room. Her hands crept down from their blocking position over her ears. She was vaguely aware of a monotonous drone somewhere in the room but entirely oblivious that the noise was coming from her. Her hands felt for the cool floor, fingers fanned out and started to feel their way over the floor, moving her from her refuge. Distress remained palpable in the room and as her head turned slowly, her hair plastered wetly to her neck and face, her fingers encountered the sticky, congealing wetness on the tiles; kicked back like the recoil on a rifle. The feel of it made her finally open her eyes. Butterfly pools of red flitted over the floor, glistening, patterning the white and turning brown in the grouted channels. Dull red shrieked down the far wall and a metallic tang hung in the silence that now boomed in her ears after the onslaught. She felt defeated and the sight before her just brought it all back. She slumped onto the kitchen floor amongst the mess and the filth and slept. Guy wouldn’t be back for hours anyhow.

She woke an hour or so later, hauled herself up, dragged herself to the bathroom and vomited. She was past fighting. She was too exhausted to care. She lowered the toilet lid and sat down. The thin waft of the drains permeated the air and mingled with the acrid smell of her sick, turning her stomach again. She switched the shower on and let the cold water wash over her and dilute the smell. She sat with her head drooping, exposing the back of her neck to the pattering sensation of running water. The hot season was unbearable and the flat was like a hot box even through the night, especially through the night. The coldness of the water initially made her gasp, the heat of the day having already seeped from the rooftop tanks, but her body heat quickly warmed the flow and the water lost its refreshing bite. It trickled away streaked with red and the scent of iron soon wreathed the drain. She stood up slowly, wringing the excess water from the t-shirt and sarong, wiped her face with a towel and padded slowly back to the living room, the wet trail following her. She flicked the switch to turn on the light by the stairs but was too worn out to climb them and face the oppressive mezzanine. Instead, she dragged the cushion off the circular satellite chair huffing with the exertion and exhaustion and dragged it into the centre of the room under the ceiling fan. She collapsed on top of it, the soaked clothing clinging and cooling; her skin pale against the royal blue cushion, drained of colour in the comforting semi-dark. One arm flopped outward, groping for the small standing fan that would stir up the soupy air and help her keep her sanity by evaporating the water from her clothes. Rivulets streaked pink with blood still glistened on her legs. She lay still, stabilised her breathing: another night staring at the wall, boredom battering her brain. No radio, no TV. Guy had given her money to buy clothes and she’d spent it on books. Six books – copy books, cheap Cambodian photocopies: no copyright laws to stop the trade, the police being busy with more lucrative matters in order to subsidise the meagre monthly salary afforded them. Cambodia Year Zero was scattered across the floor, pages torn out, fluttering in the waft of the fan, the recent history of Cambodia mingling with the pages of her diary, with Brother Number One and the confettied pieces of the unused return section of her soon to be out of date flight ticket.

Sal stared at the pink tiles that covered half the wall. The whole flat was half tiled with only the kitchen left bare under the worktops: living in a bathroom. She followed the pink pattern that so obsessed her, like the threads inside her building a new life, a miracle that seemed impossible with her body so weak; the life that was leeching her own. Restless, she stood again, moved into the murmur of air at the meshed window. Scrolled metal work semi-obscured her view of the street: decorative bars designed to keep the occupants safe in post war, post Pol Pot Kampuchea. All the windows were similarly barred, both doors covered with a vertical network of metal. Sal couldn’t leave. Even if she could get out Guy had taken the gate key and she clearly wasn’t up to scaling the wall and dodging the barbed wire that topped it. Her only choice was to wait for him to return.

The sky was mapped with wires and cables, dark threads visible in the light of the full moon that was fixed, bright as a flouro in the early night sky. Its light never reached the shadowed streets. They remained swamped by the dark but the rooftop balconies were exposed and the few trees silhouetted – along with Tuol Sleng. She heard a remorque clattering up the street, unusual at that hour. The ratty old motorbike growling and whining as it dragged the heavy trailer. It had to be laden with metal rods. She could hear them clattering together and intermittently touching ground as the bike bottomed out over the potholes. She saw sparks fly up as the rods hit rocks on the road and could see them flexing in her mind’s eye but still couldn’t see the bike, the trailer or the rider. The noodle man would soon pass by, clacking his sticks together to advertise his food and signify the passing of the day. The dogs would howl their intermittent chorus and cats would screech at the sky but the city would sleep through this and no-one would call at the flat. No phone, no key, no way out.

Sal moved away from the window back to the fan. She slept dreamlessly on the cushion, waking at five to run through the splattered kitchen and collapse retching on the bathroom floor. As she kneeled, leaning against the wall, Guy walked in behind her. She hadn’t heard him return; the noise of her recalcitrant body blocking the turn of the key, swoosh of the door, the rubber soled squeak of his step. He slid his hands beneath her arms and eased her up gently, turning her to face him and pulling her into his arms against his chest as he reached behind her for the cloth, held it under the flow and wrung it out one handed as the other continued to support her. He wiped her face, more like a caress; wiped away the tears that came unbidden and washed away the nauseous pallor that had sprung prickles of moisture across her nose and forehead. He slowly pulled her t-shirt up over her head, unwound her sarong and washed her like a child in the cold, cleansing spray. The cold water, the cool hour and the lack of nutrition set her teeth chattering so he kept her close to him, the heat of his body seeping into hers. He brought fresh clothes and helped her to dress holding, brushing and caressing her slender body as he did so. He kept up a murmured encouragement but spoke only once:

‘You’re too thin but you’re too sick to travel.’

She didn’t respond. They’d been through this before. Resigned, he slipped his arm around her, felt every rib but remained silent, just walked her through to the next room. He lifted the cushion back on to the chair and sat her down with a light kiss on her forehead. Silence reigned. She flopped, confused and bewildered in the satellite chair and gazed at the sun as it rose over Tuol Sleng. The patterns on the walls where the officers died looked just like those in her kitchen. She felt haunted by the ghosts; bad feng shui washed through the house over her, over them.

Guy was cleaning up the mess in the kitchen. She could hear him on his knees, knew what pain that would cause him, knew the ruche and groove of his scars, but her mind was overloaded and she just continued to stare blankly at the rising sun as it burnt out the night. Some unknowable time later she became aware of him standing beside the chair. His hand stretched towards her and she turned her head to him. He spoke:

‘Come on. Let’s go up.’

‘Okay.’

‘Jesus, did I do that?’

‘What?’ confused and slightly alarmed she persisted. ‘Did you do what?’

‘Those bruises. Your head. Did I hit you?’ he ran his fingers lightly over them and down across her cheek, a gentle caress, a physical apology: an expression of regret.

‘Oh,’ her voice was flat with realisation. ‘No. You… you don’t remember?’ looking down, away, uncomfortable… ‘I was upset, you stopped me,’ once again her eyes spilt silent tears. ‘I hate being sick like this…’

‘I know, I know you do, but… God Sal, you sure that wasn’t me? I couldn’t see in the bathroom, it’s just the light in here… God look what I’m doing to you. Jesus, let’s go up, sleep on it,’ taking her hand. ‘I need you…’

She didn’t speak just hung her head as he helped her up. Her fingers brushed over his hand, felt across the palm, over the fleshy pad of his thumb, feeling for the cut where the knife went in. She wondered how it missed the bones, if it missed the bones, if the tendons were damaged. She didn’t dare to ask and he seemed unaware. He pulled her to standing and wrapped her in his arms, held her close breathing her in his face deep in her hair, then slowly led her up the stone stairs into the bedroom and into bed.

© Ammie-oy 2007/2011

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