The bus rumbled into a staccato rhythm, easing itself into the early evening as it made its way through the lush, green countryside. The low sun sprayed pink over the fields and hills, laser like. The road was dusty, unpaved with sporadic wooden stalls selling coconut milk and refreshments on both sides. Motorbikes, scooters and all manners of vehicles with two wheels and engines zipped around the bus. Some contained families, others ferried Buddhist monks in bright orange robes. The occasional nucleus of small houses, tucked off the road, were inhabited by rice farmers, who toiled under the Cambodian sun in fields. Despite the potholes and swerves around moped drivers, the journey had been a soothing one so far. Andy settled back into his seat, attempting to let the surroundings nurse his taciturn mood. It had been two days since the event, and he was now leaving Siem Reap, but his frown hadn’t disappeared.
“You’re coming to the big bash later?” Kris had asked.
“Yeah definitely, sounds too good to miss!” Andy replied.
She smiled at him with those cool, blue eyes. It was the first thing that had struck him about her. Her white blonde hair and blue eyes gave her the look of an ice-queen, but the warmth of her smile and lust for adventure dispelled that.
“That’s what I wanted to hear.”
He met her smile with one of his own, his body tingling as he watched her cross the guesthouse common area, chatting to other people. She walked with the same Nordic grace in which she interacted. A guy in a Chang vest, with tattoos and a fade haircut hollered something at her and she laughed. Needle-like pings of jealousy coursed through Andy, the guy continued to stare at her as she left the room. Andy studied his tattoos judgmentally, looking for anything to pounce on. What looked like a Lion’s head with the words ‘Always a King’ provided solace. He hoped the ‘King’ and his cohorts wouldn’t be at the party later.
The bus continued in that curiously rough but soothing manner. Now on a more primary road, with more vehicles navigating their way along. The road was littered with various stop off points catering for traffic. Mechanic stores, kitted with an array of pieces and parts for the varied modes of transport. Food stops, some a mere fridge with cold drinks and stalls with snacks under a plastic covering. Various sources of petrol, from gas stations to men on the side of the road, with litre bottles of fluid for sale. Some of these men smoked cigarettes happily, apparently not too concerned with where they flicked the ashes. Andy smiled. The relaxed attitude toward health and safety had been something of a curiosity for him. Very un-Western, a certain sense of calm to danger, either evident or imaginary.
“Bed bugs everywhere man, fuckin’ itching for days I was.”
Guillermo the Italian took a long drag from his spliff, before passing it to Tess.
“No sympathy whatsoever. It was your idea to go there in the first place, even though literally everyone had warned us,” Tess said with admonishment, and a shake of her head to the group.
“Scratching the whole time I was on Koh Rong man, fuckin’ pain in the ass,” said Guillermo
“Nearly as bad as having to listen to you still complaining,” Tess said with a roll of her eyes.
Everyone laughed. A group of the hostel guests were smoking on the balcony, all sitting down on various cushions on the ground, beer cans, ashtrays and smoking paraphernalia littered around them. Andy took a sip of his beer. The local beer Angkor was favoured in the hostel, and went down a treat once chilled.
“Tasty stuff that there Andy boy innit, there’ll be plenty of that later and even cheaper,” Alex, the golden-haired Essex boy said.
“That can’t actually be true,” Tess said quizzically.
“It is. The hostel’s completely closing down, so they need to get rid of most of the alcohol, that’s why they’re throwing a big party. The barman told me earlier,” Kris stated.
You know everyone thought Andy, as he watched her laugh and chat with the others. She shot him a look and smiled, both sets of eyes locking together with intent.
Andy stepped off the bus. The rest stop they had pulled up to was a big building, which largely catered for tourists. A coffee stall, various snacks and bites were accompanied by an array of T-shirts, hats and shorts. Andy smiled to himself. Although a pot of fish noodles and baseball cap was a staple combo, he opted for a coffee and passion fruit juice, paying in dollars as was largely the norm in Cambodia due to the weakness of their currency, the Riel. The lady at the till smiled broadly as she gave the change. The passion fruit was delicious, perfectly ripe and flavoursome. Andy earnestly drank, as more buses pulled into the station. Backpackers disembarked and purchased refreshments. He watched the various groups, laughing in sync and posing in photos with each other. Some travelling together temporarily, others for the long haul. Some would see each other unintentionally at later points, a thought that raised his spirits, even for just a second.
“This is fuckin’ wild man!”
Alex grabbed Andy in a hug and kissed his neck. The smell of vodka, orange and sweat filling Andy’s nostrils.
“Ah man, that’s rank!” Andy said with a laugh. He swayed with Alex’s weight on him.
Alex and Andy laughed with each other. The hostel party was in full throttle. A sea of neon paint and swarming bodies. Bright coloured vests with Southeast Asian beer logos and radiant coloured bikinis and tops decorated the surroundings. Glow sticks and glitter lit up the bar and dance floor, almost pulsing in sync with the deep house and jungle music being played. The cheap liquor Kris had forecasted was on display. The crowd gorged on beers, drank cocktails and sank shots. People smoked spliffs and disappeared into the haze of the dance floor. The bartender, a big Cambodian with tribal tattoos, seemed to be matching drinks poured to drinks taken for himself. Laughter, dance, light and euphoria all blended together, in a trance-like collective atmosphere.
“If you keep staring with your mouth open, a mosquito will fly in.”
Andy turned around to see Kris standing behind him. Dressed in a white top, a pink whistle draped around her neck, with fluorescent yellow paint marking and blue denim jeans, a flower headband propped her white blonde hair back. Her pale blue eyes seemed to glow in sync with the paint.
“You’re still staring,” she chuckled.
“Yeah…No I was… this is great” Andy said. The rum and weed had definitely taken effect.
“Yeah, quite the novelty really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen prices like this. I just got two mojitos for less than 3 dollars. They really need to just get rid of the alcohol before they close.”
“Could they not just sell it in bulk to another bar, or hostel?”
“Hey, I’m not complaining.”
They both laughed with plenty of eye contact.
“This whistle is for you.”
“Ah looks much better on you,” Andy protested.
“Here,” she whispered, leaning in. She wrapped the whistle carefully around his neck, fixing the neck cord. She smiled up at him, the smile sending fizz like tingles around his body. He leant in-
“There he fuckin’ is aye!”
Andy and Kris were barrelled back with what felt like a heavy slap on Andy’s back. Andy whipped round.
“Hey, watch it mate,” Andy said, frowning.
The perpetrator was a stocky guy covered in glow paint. Dressed in a white Philadelphia 76ers basketball jersey, with denim shorts, he held a German Das Boot pint glass with a multicoloured concoction in it. The drink smelled of a variety of different spirits and both Andy and Kris recoiled back.
“I remember you mate, we were there in Utopia, with Sam and Alison the night of the bingo loco,” the guy said. He was an Australian, with a mixture of sunburn and tan.
“Nah that was someone else, you’ve got me mixed up I’m afraid,” Andy said bemused.
“No mate, in Sihanoukville. We were there at the afters, Sam had the acid and Tamer had that drum at the pool.”
Andy looked at Kris, perplexed.
“Honestly man, that was somebody else. Maybe someone who looked like me,” Andy said with a grin.
The guy moved in between the two of them, grabbing both in a hug.
“We’ll do it again guys, we’re the reigning Kings champs for the year, no-one’s taking our crown,” he said with a healthy swig of his drink.
Andy and Kris looked at each other.
“Yeah, sure,” they said in sync. Both chuckling.
“Knew I could count on you two,” he bellowed. “Right, tequilas on Dwayne.”
“Eh I’m alright, I think,” Andy said looking at Kris.
“Oi blondie you’re not gonna let me drink on my own are you?” Dwayne asked, still holding her.
“Oh go on then, but you’ll have one too?” she said looking at Andy.
“Definitely,” he said and walked with them to the bar.
“Right we go again.”
“Oof, can we let that one settle.”
Andy, Kris and Dwayne all stood at the bar, heads down, assessing the crime scene of lemon, salt and empty shot glasses.
“Struggling there Andy boy?” Dwayne asked, cutting more slices of lemon with a sharp knife.
“That’s me definitely done,” Kris said with a tipsy giggle. She swayed slightly.
“Whoopsie,” she said, laughing.
“Are you ok Kris-
“I’ve got you there love,” Dwayne said, grabbing her and holding her up.
The two men stared at each other.
“I think we’re ok for shots now,” Andy said calmly.
“You’re speaking for her now?”
“No he’s right, that’s my quota on the shots now I think,” Kris said. “Oh there’s Tess over at the sofa, I should join her.”
“You wanna glass of water love?”
“We’d better catch up with the others, talk to you later man,” Andy said gently ushering Kris away from the bar.
The bus had moved into a steady pace with a twilight-like rhythm, now navigating the rural roads and hills. All chatter on the bus reduced to low murmurs, all snacks and refreshments long devoured. An old woman who sat opposite Andy rocked a baby to sleep. She looked back at him and nodded simply. She had carried the baby, alone, the entire time, gently rocking and soothing it. He was tired, the long journey and previous few days’ events now leaving their mark. His taciturn mood had only increased as the journey went on. Attempting to rouse himself, inspired by the elderly woman’s stoicism, he sat up and gazed out the window. In the distance he could see a blue line on the horizon. The sea, he was nearly there.
“I’m tellin’ you mate, they’ve sooo many better songs. Andy, tell him! All that vodka’s mashed his brain, well mashed it more Guillermo mate eh?”
“I can sing better than the lead singer, I don’t even know his name. All that singing through the nose-useless!”
The gang were now all sitting around a big table close to the dancefloor, which save for a couple of last revellers, was now spacious and largely empty. A few more bodies were propped up at the bar, around the barman, whose gung ho intake for the night was all to see in his sunken frame. The carnival atmosphere had fizzled down to a dwindle. From a strobe to a flicker. Andy, sitting on a couch with Kris, was tenderly rolling another spliff, attempting to understand the intricacies of Alex and Guillermo’s Oasis or Blur debate. Tess was asleep on one of the sofas.
“Live Forever, Don’t look back in Anger, Whatever…mate you need to back it up here Guillermo.”
“Blah, Blah high-pitched blah,” Guillermo said, waving his arm like a conductor.
Andy laughed, lighting up his spliff.
“Christ, bit moody and depressing here isn’t it. What happened to the fuckin’ party.”
Dwayne strode into the circle and sat down heavily on one of the chairs opposite Andy and Kris.
“Oi lad, Oasis or Blur?” Alex asked.
“Ah fuckin’ Oasis all day long brother. No contest,” Dwayne replied.
Alex let out a hoot and grabbed Guillermo in a bear hug. The two swayed with each other, engaging in a mock-wrestle.
“Only the pansy boys like Blur. Andy boy here probably does,” Dwayne said with a sneer.
Andy took a sharp drag of the spliff, exhaling the smoke across the table in Dwayne’s direction.
“What about you blondie cakes, who do you prefer?” Dwayne asked.
“I like both actually,” Kris said.
“Oh come on Kris, don’t sit on the fence, choose one,” Alex hollered.
“Who says I can’t like both?” Kris said with a raise of her eyebrow.
“Ah you know which one’s the better choice though love, you don’t like the soft boys do ya?”
Dwayne leaned forward, eyes gleaming at Kris.
“She already answered the question, you heard her the first time,” Andy said coldly.
The two men stared hard at each other.
“Wanna play a game mate?”
“We’re just chilling here man, why don’t you leave us to it.”
Dwayne jumped to the edge of the chair he was sitting on, eyes locked on Andy. Reaching into his back pocket he pulled out a knife. It was the knife at the bar used for cutting lemons.
“What the fuck man! What are you playing at!?”
Alex and Guillermo both jumped up from the sofa. Dwayne, eyes still locked at Andy, hadn’t moved. The knife was in his hand in a loose, almost relaxed manner. It was now pointing at Andy.
“Put that fucking thing down now,” Andy said, voice calm but heart pounding. He studied Dwayne, who hadn’t moved from his seat. Dwayne gazed at him with an eerie calm.
“Come on Andy boy, don’t be afraid,” Dwayne said softly.
“Put that down now, hey someone call the police!” Alex shouted towards the bar. The barman had now completely passed out however.
“Dwayne put that fucking thing away,” Andy said now standing up arms outstretched. Dwayne hadn’t moved but could lunge at any time. He was a big guy, intoxicated and judging by his dilated pupils, on drugs. A lethal mix, and one that resonated in Andy’s trembles and fast heart beat.
“Soft boy’s afraid then isn’t he?” Dwayne said, this time louder and almost to the entire venue.
“It’s just a bit of Stabberscoth Andy boy, won’t kill you mate.”
“Here look, I’ll even go first.”
Dwayne slammed his left hand flat on the table, fingers wide. Lifting the knife he looked at Andy before slamming the knife in turns, in the spaces between each finger. Each thud of the knife ringing around the room. The final slam was a hair’s breadth away from severing his baby finger. The group looked on, revolted as much as shocked.
“Your turn mate,” Dwayne said.
“You need to leave,” Andy said.
“You actually like these pansies blondie!?” Dwayne snapped, looking at Kris.
“Do you think I'm impressed by that?” she responded.
Andy looked at her. Her blue eyes were as cold as ice as she glared at Dwayne. Unwavering, staring him down. Dwayne leaned back in his chair. Staring at both Andy and Kris, he then looked around at the rest of the group, and finally the bar. An eerie silence had replaced the throng of noise that the space had so vibrantly been. With a half shrug, he pushed the knife on the table towards Andy, and stood up. Andy tensed, his body in high alert mode. Dwayne sneered at him, almost reading Andy’s body response. He looked around once more.
“All fuckin pansies. Christ, I'd better find me a real party.”
He rustled in his pocket briefly before looking at Andy once more. Repugnance in his eyes.
“And I’ll be seeing you again Andy boy. Ciao blondie cakes.”
Swaggering off, he headed for the exit by the stairs.
“Ok people it’s time for home,” Tess announced.
Andy sat on a beach lounger sipping a cold beer, sand between his toes, enjoying the coastal breeze. The bus journey had been a long one. Various groups sat in circles on the beach, one had a guitar and were singing. Locals prepared fish and meat on barbecues for the night ahead. The grilled barracuda was famous here, and on Andy’s list. Guillermo had raved about it in Siem Reap. Andy thought of the affable Italian, and the rest of the people he’d had so much fun with up until that point in the night. He had felt anger and confusion after the whole thing, and brooded on why anyone would act the way Dwayne had. His eyebrows furrowed once again as he fiddled with his beer colster, his thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.
“Hello stranger,” she said, pale blue eyes gleaming.
“Hey, you came here?” Andy said, standing up.
“Yeah I felt I needed some chill time on the beach, the last few days were...intense you could say,” Kris said, looking at the sea.
“Yeah I agree. I thought you were headed to Phnom Penh.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you!” she said, rolling her eyes.
“No, definitely not, it’s great to see you,” he said with a beam.
She stared back at him.
“So, me and the gang over there are having a smoke and singing some tunes. One of the guys has a guitar, care to join?”
“Yeah definitely, just one thing…you’re not singing any Oasis songs are you!?”
“No actually, just Blur,” she said with a wink. Linking her arm into his, she led him to the group, sun overhead and hum of the waves gently caressing the shore.