Editor’s note: This story has been published from our archives. It first appeared in Westerly 29.4 (December 1984)
There were four of them who had arrived in Luang Prabang that day, and now hung around the entrance of the Royal Air Lao office in light rain, waiting for a man called Ted Akhito. As far as they could make out (here Ruth for once had made the enquiries, her matric French promoted by Galen), this Ted was a Japanese English teacher who rented rooms to travellers on this building’s second floor. Probably C.I.A. Who wasn’t? An introverted, sleuthing silence fell among them, not helped by the rain.
Travellers were scarce in Laos that year, and they seemed to be sticking together, linked by a sort of professional pride. On the traveller’s scale of values, Laos had an off-beat, quietly dangerous chic. Vietnam had lost its glamour even for the foolhardy, but in those days, Laos, with war flickering through its jungles so you had to town-hop in a battered DC3, and sleep in the curfew to the distant sound of planes and even gunfire, still had that nice edge of controllable adventure.
In Ban-Houei-Sai, the little border town on the Laotian side of the Mekong, shopkeepers had refused to serve them, and the one cafe that would give them a meal had been full of armed soldiers and beefy American men in laundered mufti. “The place is crawling with C.I.A.”, Galen wrote to a friend back in Australia (he liked to write on-the-spot accounts in cafes), “it’s probably only a matter of time before the borders are closed”. There was that Shangri-la savour of a soon-to-be-lost frontier.
But last night in Ban-Houei-Sai, while Ruth was dousing herself in a mandi bath, an unseen watcher had laughed at her from behind the window bars. There were peeping Toms everywhere, as Galen had said, but there was something about the sureness and scorn of that laugh, its pause, its continuation, as she had clutched a sarong about her pink body and fled down the curfew-darkened corridors of the hotel, that she related to war. She wasn’t sure that they had any right to be in this country at all.
It was nearly dark when Ted Akhito arrived, under a dripping umbrella. They followed him up a staircase that opened, loft-like, into a large rectangular room with shuttered windows at either end. It was bare except for the rows of bamboo mats along the walls.
“Five hundred kip a night”, said Ted Akhito, looking at his watch. He was young, as young as they were, dressed in Westernised tropical whites. There was no question of bargaining about the price.
“I must go now, I have a class. I’ll be back later to check things out. Curfew is at ten o’clock.” He spoke excellent English without an accent, except he said ‘class’ like an American. What was he doing in Luang Prabang? Yes, almost certainly C.I.A.
Mats were already being claimed while he was talking.
“Here?” said Ruth to Galen. There were two mats together near the staircase. That tiny panic, like schooldays, when the gym teacher would say “Find yourself a spot” and you’d jostle and circle to be at the back, near a friend. Galen shrugged. She took the mat that would be furthest from Bob, the Englishman, who as usual was hovering to see what Galen would do.
The Canadian was already striding up and down the room, looking out the windows.
“Wonder where you can get a meal in this town”, he said.
“Wouldn’t mind a cup of tea”, said Bob. He was always ready to attach himself to a superior energy.
Galen was flicking through his Student’s Guide to South-East Asia. “Got the name of a cafe here somewhere”, he said. There was a general movement to the stairs.
“Hold on”, Bob was muttering, arm-deep in his rucksack. “I’ve lost my mac”.
Ruth hurried to join Galen, who with Canada was already at the bottom of the stairs.
Luang Prabang’s wet empty streets did not seem under siege. The Student’s Guide was pre-war, but the Melody Cafe still existed by the river, a dimly-lit little cave scattered with a handful of their own kind. A hang-out. Like the German Dairy in Chieng-Mai, or the Thai Song Greet in Bangkok. Made you realise that the trail had been well and truly blazed before you. Look at the menu. Along with all the usual rice and noodles, you could get roles and jam for breakfast, boiled eggs, stek fry, bananas milkshek. They wouldn’t be quite the real thing of course, they were hybrid dishes cooked up for nostalgic Western palates.
‘I’m gonna have me a steak”, Canada announced soon after they had settled themselves around a table.
“Steak!” said Bob, looking at the menu. “That’s eight hundred kip. It’s a ripoff. ”
Canada slapped the table lightly.
“This is a rip-off, that’s a rip-off, oh you’re having steak, I haven’t had steak since I left home.” He addressed the table in general. He was never personal. He went on. “Why are travellers so god-damned mean? Like it’s immoral to spend money or something. They haggle over anything to save five lousy cents. Me, if I want steak, I’ll have steak.”
“All very well if you’ve got the money”, said Bob, still staring at the menu.
Ruth tried to catch Galen’s eye. A taboo had been broken. They had been so conscientious about adopting the right ethos. If you let them rip you off they didn’t respect you, and you were spoiling it for those who came after you. The less you spent, the more you roughed it, the better traveller you were. For some it was not just economical, it was spiritual. Working off some of that bad European karma, vaguely evening up the score. “We lived just like the villagers”. After India, there were some travellers who never used eating utensils, or a handkerchief, or a sit-down toilet again.
Canada was untroubled by the niceties of the sub-culture. He didn’t look like the typical traveller either. Western males in Asia seemed to become feminized. Like Galen or Bob, or the travellers at the other tables, their muscles became wasted from dysentery, their bodies were lost within their own over-sized clothes. Their hair grew, they adopted bangles or earrings or headscarves, their gestures were smaller, guarding their own space. Canada’s denim shorts were tight around well-built thighs. He wore a heavy leather belt around his hips. He was square-featured and tanned like an old-time football star. The exchange of names didn’t interest him. He called everyone ‘Hey’, they called him Canada.
The cafe-owner’s wife stood before them, smiling. Young, very upright and finely attentive though a child was hovering by her thigh. A grandmother held a baby, and an older child played around the kitchen door. They smiled at her as they gave their orders. Except Bob. He was deliberating over the omelette or the fried eggs.
“Excuse me, excuse me”, he called out after her as she had turned towards the kitchen. Again she stood before them.
“Look, do you mind, I’ll have the boiled eggs instead, two soft boiled eggs, two minutes each, understand? Two minutes”. He held up two fingers and tapped his watch. She nodded.
“Thank you so very much”, said Bob. He treated her to one of his weary smiles.
Ruth kept her head turned away as Bob subsided, satisfied, on the bench next to her. When they had first met Bob, in the German Dairy, a week and a country ago, she had not been sure whether in these transactions he wasn’t trying to produce a comedy turn. He looked as if he was going to be funny, with all those schoolboy freckles and his hair barbered ruthlessly above his ears. He drank milkshakes for his health, he told them, by way of introduction, and his smile seemed benignly goofy under his milk-speckled moustache. Hepatitis, caught in India. Infinitely travel-worn, like all those emerging from the great subcontinent.
Like her, he couldn’t seem to get the hang of foreign currency. “This .. can’t .. be .. right”, he had said to the German Dairy’s proprietor “I .. will .. not .. pay .. so .. much”. He spoke in pained, deliberate tones, shaking his head slowly for emphasis. Galen had stepped in, and sorted it out for him. But he’d still felt aggrieved as he walked back with them to their hotel. Ruth’s old hope, half forgotten in the serious business of travelling, of finding a fellow clown, died. He wasn’t trying to be funny. It was a form of tantrum they were to see every time he had to part with his money.
“Nice place”, Ruth said to Galen, across the table. Galen didn’t answer. He and Canada were picking their way through an abandoned Laotian newspaper, testing out their French.
“I thought you guys were supposed to be bilingual”, Galen was saying, laughing.
Their waitress brought them a pot of tea. Galen and Canada looked up, paused, motors idling over, purring. Homage for her swift fine fingers setting out the cups, the economy of flesh of her oval face.
“They take their time”, Bob muttered. “I’m starving”. He reached a white freckled arm across her to pour himself a cup of tea.
Ruth’s legs felt heavy as she crossed them. For a moment she thought of saying to Bob “Do you ever feel like you’re an inferior physical species?” Like her, Bob was noticeably of Anglo-Saxon stock. Fair skin inclined to flush up in the heat. Blue eyes often sweat-stung. Beige teeth. Innocent knobbly white feet sprawling across thongs. But this was way beyond acceptable perimeters. Too personal. The sort of comment she used to make over wine at her own table, safe in that acknowledged femininity that she seemed to have left back in the West.
Was that what she meant? She felt she’d lost a whole persona somewhere along the trail. Become a mere trudging mate whom nobody seemed to hear. It wasn’t just that mascara streaked down your face in the humidity and long hair was out of the question, you just tucked it back as best you could. She hated to catch sight of herself in shop mirrors. A large girl with a bare earnest face. Sexless as a missionary. And fat. Getting fatter. There were no shadows, no roles, no corners to hide in anywhere. Just the fact of yourself coming to meet you border after border.
“The women in these parts are supposed to be the most beautiful in the world”, Canada said to Galen. His steak had arrived. He was feeling convivial. “Good grub heh?” he said.
“I wish I knew”, said Bob. His eggs had not appeared.
“It pays to order what they know”, Canada said, “if you’re hungry”. His eyes glittered at Bob above his busy jaw.
Ruth finished first. Galen worked slowly through his rice, his chopsticks moving in a ruminative way like the fingers of women crouched on doorsteps, searching through their children’s hair. Galen had applied himself to the art of chopsticks as he did to everything, with the natural expectation of success.
Ruth preferred to use a fork. The way you could scoop and order and round up with your aggressive Western prong. And the fork gave her more contact with the food somehow. Sometimes she felt that the closest relationship she had these days was with the plate of food in front of her.
“Ah here we are”, Bob was saying, clearing his spot on the table. The eggs had arrived, lolling in a soup bowl. “Not quite the usual presentation”, he had to add, but cheerfully enough, holding one down and tapping around its crown. He smoothed his moustache back, his spoon dived and was dropped clattering onto the table.
“Bloody concrete”, he said, reddening under his freckles. The eggs were both hard-boiled.
“He’s infantile, it’s embarrassing. It’s so . . colonial“. Ruth nudged Galen aside on the walk back to the hotel to share her anger with him in the dark. Bob had stood up in the cafe, waving his eggs at their waitress, calling out “Look here”. They had left him personally supervising the timing of two more eggs in the kitchen.
“Well”, said Galen. “So what?” He kept walking fast to catch up with Canada.
“I’m fed up with him”, said Ruth. “We’ve had him hanging round us since Chieng Mai”
“Oh God”, said Galen. “Chaos in Laos.”
“Oh very clever”.
“Honestly”, said Galen, “when are you just going to shut up and enjoy yourself like everybody else?”
“Don’t lecture me”, cried Ruth. She wheeled off and sat on the steps of a building they were passing.
”I’m going on”, said Galen. She saw him meet up with Canada at the next corner and, both hunched over with hands in pockets, disappear into the shadows of the long avenue.
Ruth didn’t sit there for long. The flap of a single pair of thongs was fast approaching. Like her, Bob had no sense of direction, and hated walking alone in the dark.
Back at Ted Akhito’s, there was an hour left to them before curfew, but it was not inviting. A naked bulb hanging in the middle of the dormitory cast a subdued, yellowish light. Canada and Galen were making rapid male preparations for sleep. There was a flash of Galen’s long hopping white legs, before he was magically prone, sheathed and flattened. It would have been indecent to watch Canada as he thrashed and muttered his way into his sleeping-bag and turned his face to the wall.
Galen re-surfaced. He lay half out of his bag, trying to read Anna Karenin; he maintained that he could not fall asleep without a dose of the printed word, but in this light he had to run his fingers under the lines like a ritual of prayer. Perhaps it was a gesture of waiting for Ruth. At home she always fell asleep to Galen’s lamp and the soft turning of pages. She would have leaned across him, and said “Where are you up to?” Anna Karenin was her book: she had read it for four whole days in the hold of an Indonesian cargo boat. She had been carried along by the book as much as by the boat, the story had unfolded to the rise and drop of the seas. Nineteenth century Russia would always be associated with the dazed hustle of their arrival in Djakarta.
Bob came panting up the stairs.
“There’s not a soul to be seen out there” he said. “Do you think it’s a sort of pre-battle hush?” He spoke loudly, as if he were rejoining a party.
“The light!” growled Canada from his corner. “D’ya need that light?”
“All right, all right”, said Bob, “it isn’t curfew yet”. He lingered at the end of Galen’s mat, ready to conspire. But Ruth had turned to unpack, and Galen was closing his book.
“Christ I’m tired”, said Bob. He flapped across the room to the door. They heard a hiss, “Where’s the ruddy switch?” and the light went out.
Ruth was left crouching by her pack, unresolved. Galen was still. She had intended to unpack, shake out her hair, write in her diary, all without reference to Galen, but within his range of observation: it would have been a wordless interaction that brought them to the conclusion of this day, and the battle between them that each day’s travelling seemed to bring. Then one of them might have been ready to make a sign, that across these strange deprivations, their unity survived.
Darkness had pre-empted her. She was now a mere night scuffler. She moved like a thief, each sound was a betrayal. Unlayer her pack. Possessions as familiar as her hands. Book, sarong, diary, toilet bag. The layers descended in relevance. Right at the bottom, occasionally disturbed by the hands of customs officers, was a woollen sweater still smelling of home, and the photos of her family.
On the other side of Galen, Bob was crackling out his sleeping-bag. It was covered in a crisp papery plastic. For lightness. They had heard a lot about that bag. How it had been specially made for walking tours in Wales. Double thickness down, much too hot for Asia, with complicated aerations, all zip-controlled. Rolled up to the size of a giant green salami. A room-mate, French, had tried to rip it off in Calcutta.
Zip, crackle, deep sighs from Bob, more zips, more sighs. A final crackle. Enough to make the back of your skull crawl, Bob’s horny feet manipulating plastic.
Galen had yawned, was turning over. Now to inch her way into her sleeping-bag, lay back her head. The big windows let in a grey translucence that had settled over the room. The night outside was silent. You’d hardly know there was a war on, she would write to her parents when they were safely out of Laos. She wrote them hasty air-letters of cool-minded reportage, casual feats of endurance. My goodness, they would write back, you have to be young!
Beside her, Galen had started moving, in a series of subtle, strait-jacketed shrugs. Ruth listened, and understood. He was taking off his passport pouch and money belt, and kicking them to his feet. “Trust nobody”, they had been told. She shut her eyes. For yet another night, they were to lie side by side like brother and sister, chaste, curt, burdened with old knowledge of each other. Galen, her husband for nearly half a year, had become a traveller, a different person to her. But he remained after all, like her, a well-warned child of the bourgeoisie. She turned over then, ready for sleep.
“Look after her”, Galen’s father had said. Of course he hadn’t had a tea-towel over one shoulder, down on the wharf, he was wearing his suit as he did whenever he left the farm, but that was how she saw him. Waving them off with a floury hand.
Every time Galen had taken her home, Norman would make scones. Rubbed butter into flour with trembling old brown hands. Cut the dough with an upturned sherry glass, up and down, swift as a process worker. “Open the oven door for me darling”, he would say to Galen. Out the kitchen window, just beyond the chook sheds, you could see the bare brick walls of suburban houses. The poultry farm was in an outer suburb now. There had been nothing but bush and market gardens when Norman bought the place, and flatness, a convex landscape after England, Galen said. He’d been twelve. His mother died that year. He always called his home ‘the farm’.
It took him an hour by bus to get to uni. He was always late for morning lectures. When she first knew him, he used to disappear mysteriously from pubs or parties. Slipping off to catch the last bus home. He got a lot of work done that way, he said. He never talked about his father, or about leaving home.
Meeting Norman that first time, she’d been a bit breathy and overdone. She used to think she had to keep Galen entertained. She’d admired the scones, admired Norman’s history book collection, pranced around the sheds and admired the chooks. Smoked like a chimney, dropping ash in her tea, but you couldn’t do anything wrong in Norman’s kitchen. As they were leaving (they were going to a party in Ruth’s mother’s Mini, Galen at the wheel), Norman had said then “Look after her Galen”. Galen never answered.
In the humidity, Galen’s face was very sallow. The acne scars across his jaw seemed to darken, reminders of an old battle. Now that he was so thin, he looked more like his father. Like this, from the side, his head bowed over the letter he was writing on his knee. She watched a tear of sweat escape his headband and linger in the hollow of his cheek. She could never imagine Galen with his mother. He seemed to spring straight from the mother and father both in Norman .
“Looks like rain”, Bob said.
They were sitting in the courtyard of a monastery, half-way up the hill overlooking the town. It didn’t look like they would get much further. They were sated, even by the rich smells that hung in the humidity, of dung and damp undergrowth, and rotting overripe fruit. Even Canada, having paced the circumference of the courtyard, was sitting down now, smoking, over by the gate.
That morning their pace had quickened with the promise and strangeness of a new place. Luang Prabang, after a night’s sleep, was a beautiful country town. There were red blossoming trees along roads that still gleamed from last night’s rain. High above the town, a golden dome shone from a hilltop, like a fairytale turret. Townspeople had smiled at them, curiously. They had shared cigarettes and sign-language with a group of soft-faced, schoolboy monks. This was how they liked to be received, as a species of scruffy pilgrim.
“Stomach’s feeling strange”, said Bob. “Think I’m in for another attack of the runs”.
Galen wrote on, rapidly. “I am sitting on the steps of a tenth century drinking-fountain”, she read at the top of his page, “in thirty-five degree humidity”. Facts she hadn’t been aware of.
A bell had rung and the monks had disappeared. The sky that hung before them over the town, was now a luminous grey. Palm trees in the courtyard had started to rustle and wave. Nobody else seemed to be around.
Canada stubbed out his cigarette and started back down the hill.
“Coming?” said Bob to Galen.
The four of them moved towards the town like an awkward beast whose legs wished to go different ways. Canada was off-hand, accompanying them this morning as if there was nothing better to do. He walked ahead, restlessly peering into door-ways of the ochre-coloured buildings, disappearing up alleys, looking for action. His presence made Ruth uneasy.
She was used to travelling at Galen’s pace, in Galen’s way. He always had an air of elation about him, discovering new territory. He loved to plan their route, and fit together the puzzle of map and reality. His passport pouch swung out and back to its bay within his hollow ribcage. The tails of the black and white scarf he wore as a headband flew out behind him. Travelling was a feast of the eye, he said. Was there such a state as pure vision?
While she trailed, glimpsing the backdrop through a web of thoughts. Like watching ants as a child, guessing at purpose and connection in a teeming other world. Distanced by the huge eye of the self. The overblown Alice, locked out from the garden, left to swim in her own tears.
Sometimes she found herself silently in step with Bob. He always seemed to be holding his words in check, until he caught up with Galen. Bumping together, they didn’t even bother to say sorry.
“Ouch”, said Galen suddenly. She had walked into him and trodden on one of his thongs. He held it up by one dangling tentacle.
“Sorry”, Ruth said. Galen was very attached to those thongs. His Bangkok thongs. He called them art objects. The crinkled rubber was printed with a series of red and green music notes, gay inconsequential crochets and quavers, worn away now to the hills and valleys of his feet.
“Damn”, he said. His eyes, looking at her, were as dark as the black checks in his scarf. “Why can’t you keep up with me“, he said.
The rain didn’t matter. Running in the rain had been one of her specialities in the old days. Theatrical liberation like moonlight swims and talking for a whole evening in her ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ voice. Funny, you couldn’t see the rain falling. Just the puddles widening, dimpling, somehow connected with the descent of the huge grey sky.
Already the aisles through the market stalls were running miniature rivers, gorges, lakes. She had to hitch up her skirt, pry up each footstep, her shoulder-bag slapping against her hip. Not such a short cut back to the hotel after all. Galen in bare feet would be nearly at the Melody by now. Untrammeled.
Most of the stalls were empty, the mats rolled up where this morning’s produce had been laid out. Just a few women under one of the big umbrellas, smoking and laughing. Probably at her, the only person out in the rain. Eyes down, picking her way home as fast as she could. Focus on that emptiness three paces ahead. Do not look at me. Alone, it was always like this. She carried her invisible purdah with her wherever she went.
“Hey”, Canada said, appearing at the top of the stairs and turning back to the others. “D’ya hear about the two German guys? They hired themselves a boat and went downriver. Haven’t been seen since”.
“Pathet Lao got ’em spose”, called out Bob. “anyone know for sure?”
“Ask Ted Akhito”, said Galen, on his way into the dormitory. The others laughed.
Ruth looked up from the mat that defined her territory. It was late afternoon, them they seemed to come a little closer to the action of the place.
Surprisingly they came and stood around her mat. Galen crouched down beside her. Bob started moving his hands together and apart in a little concertina movement that she had come to recognize. He was shuffling an imaginary pack of cards.
“We’ve decided to play bridge”, he told her.
“I don’t play”, Ruth said.
The three of them were damp and breathless, seemed to be sharing a joke. Boys returning from the pub. Galen put a hand on her shoulder. He was still barefoot.
“Bob’s going to teach you. Bob’s going to be your partner”.
“You know I hate playing cards”, Ruth said to him. She sat very still under his hand.
Bob and Canada were already settling themselves around a spare mat under the window.
“Come on”, Galen said to her. “We’ll be nice to you. Promise”.
Bob was dealing.
“You sort them into suits”, he said. “Descending order of value. Ace, King, Queen, Jack – 4,3,2,1.” He was frowning, busy, spitty-sharp. Bob came into his own when he played cards.
The faces on the cards were stern and mediaeval, glimpses from nursery-land. The cards spilled from her hands like an over-sized mouthful. Bob went on, about contracts, tricks, trumps.
“What?” she said to Galen.
“Just listen and play”, said Galen, not looking up from his own cards. “You’ll pick it up”. That’s what he had always done.
On the other side of her, Canada lazily pulled cards in and out of the fan in his hand. He lay on his side, one heavy thigh lapping the other. His eyes had never flickered once in her direction.
The moment loomed when she must bid. Why had she let herself be drawn into this arena? Listen. Keep up. Play.
“Nine clubs”, she offered, hopefully.
Bob flung down his cards.
“You haven’t been listening, have you? You don’t understand.”
“I don’t know”, said Ruth. She couldn’t help the slow smile spreading across her face. Unmasking Bob. “I can’t seem to see the point of the game”. She heard Galen begin to laugh.
“Hey”, said Canada to Galen. “How long have you been travelling with this chick?”
Galen couldn’t stop laughing. He rolled onto his back and up again, his headband fell across his eyes.
“Oh boy”, he said. He put a hand on Ruth’s knee. “This is for life”, he said.
“Mais ou est Ted Akhito?” Ruth asked the clerk in the Air Lao office again.
“Ca ne fait rien Madame, vous pouvez payer ici”, came the same reply.
Ruth turned back to the others. “It’s no good. We’ll just have to give him the hotel money and hope for the best”.
“Ask for a receipt”, said Galen.
“Bloody irresponsible”, said Bob, counting out his notes. “I think we have every right not to pay”. But they had already decided that it would be too risky just to leave the town without somehow paying the mysterious Ted Akhito, whom they had never seen since that first night. He probably had friends in high places.
“Hurry up”, said Canada. Outside, the Air Lao cattle truck that ferried passengers between the airport and the town had started up its engine. As before, they were to be its only passengers.
Ruth was the first to sling her bag into the back of the truck. The others hoisted themselves up while she climbed over the boards at the side and swung in. The truck lurched off. They held on to the cabin, standing up.
“All right?” Galen asked Ruth. She nodded.
After their long walk to the Golden Dome, Ruth and Galen had told the others that they would be leaving Luang Prabang the next day. Bob said it was funny, but he’d been thinking of leaving too. Canada just seemed to be with them as they were buying their tickets. You could get used to a place very quickly, they said, it was always a relief to be moving on.
From the truck they could see behind their street now, to paddy-fields spreading under water, islanded with palm-trees and bamboo huts, dotted with bending, slow-moving figures. The truck was speeding up. Now, in their final glimpse of the town, they could grasp its strictly civic plan, its streets and squares set out under the golden Dome, the steaming river that curved around it and disappeared into alien hills. Like the two Germans, who had never been found. A flock of camouflage-splattered helicopters rose like smoke in the distance. In those hills and jungles there would be the sort of scenes you see in newsreels at home.
“Hey!” Canada was pointing across a square. There, surely, hurrying out of a building, was the neat white figure of Ted Akhito.
“Well I like that“, Bob said. But they were all smiling. They had rightly been judged not to be security risks. They were too lazy. Too cautious. You’d hardly know there was a war on. If you played by the rules.
The town was behind them now, shadowed by its own hills.