‘Route Four’ is from Holiday in Cambodia, published by Black Inc.
‘It’s sort of authentic, isn’t it?’ says the foreign man, bent slightly over the echoes of dysentery in his gut. He lifts the front of his baggy T-shirt and wipes his face with it. A boy with no shoes and a roughly shaven head has been watching the three tourists since they arrived at the station – two skinny and one fat. He sees the grimy money belt strapped to the man’s sunken waist. ‘I mean,’ the skinny man continues, ‘everywhere else in the world it’s 1994 but in Cambodia …’
‘Still year zero,’ says the skinny woman in loose cargo pants. The three wander up and down the dusty platform but can’t find the place to buy a ticket. Finally, the boy calls, ‘I’ll show you.’ He takes their money and them to a barred hole in a wall where the sombre face of a woman peers out.
‘Kampot,’ confirms the skinny man.
‘I think another route is better for you,’ she says in English. ‘Kampot is dangerous. You can go to Battambong instead. It’s very beautiful …’
‘Kampot,’ says the fat man firmly. The woman in the wall smiles reproachfully and writes on their tickets. Route Four: south to Cambodia’s coastline. Where Kings went, where singers went, where the Khmer Rouges went, and stayed, still camped up in the Elephant Mountains.
‘We want to go to Kampot,’ the skinny woman reminds the boy. ‘Does he understand?’
‘Kampot,’ the boy agrees. He asks them where they’re from and makes them say ‘hello’ in German, American and Australian before he leads them back to the platform. The train has arrived and sits there like a tortured armadillo, plated and riddled with bullet holes. There are machine-gun nests in its roofs. It pushes two car-sized hulks of metal at its front to absorb the blow of landmines. As they board the train, the fat Australian touches a bullet hole in the metal the size of his fingertip.
After a short struggle trying to help them with their luggage the boy shrugs and lets them keep it. Small bags: there may be nothing in there, but they won’t give them up so there must be something. Up close, the German woman and the American man are thin as Cambodians and have long scabs down their forearms, from a motorbike accident. The Australian is more muscle than fat and has a thick neck and healthy cheeks. He must be the rich one, the boy concludes. He sees the way the rich man keeps his blue bag between his ankles while the others throw theirs on the spare seats of the carriage.
The boy jumps down to the platform and scuffs his bare feet along it. He was born in Pursat, central west, and has been sleeping at the station since he arrived in Phnom Penh. He was eight then, now he’s twelve.
‘I’m going with them,’ he tells a man loading boxes onto the train. The man’s legs and feet are scarred, but strong; his toenails grown back black after being ripped out in the regime. The man shakes his head. ‘Why not?’ the boy asks. ‘Make some money or take it when they’re sleeping.’
‘What about respecting property?’ the man reminds him. The boy looks at him with incomprehension. Buddha barely made it through the camps and the little ones don’t know him. ‘Okay, hop on.’ The man finds a stub of pencil in his pocket and stamps his foot, catching a bit of paper as it skates along the platform in a shallow wind. He writes a note to the driver: The boy wants to see the ocean. ‘This is your ticket,’ he tells the boy, who looks at the note upside down and nods at it.
Only a few people pass on the platform and those who do stare uneasily in. Where would three foreigners be going on a train?
‘Kampot,’ the boy tells them out the window.
A gas of excitement bubbles from his stomach and fills his mouth but he pushes it down again. Something sighs underneath them, the breath of a huge beast waking up. It gives a lurch. The boy watches the skinny woman’s backpack roll off the seat and thud to the floor. She snorts and says something in German, rights the bag so that it’s standing closer to the boy, against the aisle seat. The train lurches again but this time it catches and moves off. The platform passes, then ends.
Houses strain through mounds of garbage on the outskirts of the city. The smell of rotting fruit and the smoke from burning rubbish fill the carriage. Naked children with shit-stained bottoms leap up from crouching as the train ambles past. The skinny woman scrambles to find lollies in her backpack but can’t and the children are left behind. As the train picks up pace the air whips in through the windows and dries the foreigners’ sweaty hair into spikes. The woman takes off the filthy scarf snaked around her neck and the rich man rolls up his T-shirt sleeves.
‘This is a bit like the outskirts of Cochin before I met you,’ says the skinny man to the woman. ‘And before the dysentery.’
‘I’m going to India after this,’ says the rich man and the lady laughs.
‘Of course you are.’
‘You have to go. It’s dire,’ says the skinny man. ‘You’ve never seen so many people. Sleeping in sewers. People with no legs. It’s way more out of control than here. I was on this bus and we stopped for some petrol, right down in the asshole of the country. There was a boy about his age,’ he points at the boy, ‘sniffing petrol out of a plastic bag and he just smiled up at me with this look of … enlightenment.’ He shrugs. ‘I wondered what he was seeing instead of me. Maybe nirvana? I wanted some of that petrol too, you know?’ The woman and the other man chuckle.
‘That reminds me of this bad H we got up in the Golden Triangle,’ says the rich man. ‘I was traveling with this Japanese –’
‘Not opium?’ asks the skinny woman. ‘When I was in Laos it was opium.’
‘No, it was heroin. But there was something wrong with it. Anyway, I was okay but this Japanese guy –’
‘Oh my god,’ the skinny man shouts and points through the open window to where a woman lies dead in a field, already eaten by birds. The rich man glances at the boy and points. The boy nods. He’s seen that before, but it’s more unusual now than it was. His first memories are of a child dying: his older half-sister, starving and then fed something rotten and then the stomach pains finally got her. Her father had died in the camp and then their mother was raped by a cadre and gave birth to the boy. But she just couldn’t love him. In his seventh year he could finally walk far enough to leave her alone. He made it all the way to Phnom Penh. The train passes the dead woman but the foreigners don’t leave her behind.
‘How do you think she died?’ the skinny man is saying.
‘Starvation, Khmer Rouge, hit by the train … who knows?’ says the skinny woman. ‘The regime ended only thirteen years ago and Vietnam was still fighting here until, what, ’90? ’91? Three years ago.’
‘The people in Phnom Penh looked alright …’
‘Maybe we’ll see what it’s really like out here,’ says the rich man. They all turn to stare out at what Cambodia is really like.
‘That woman doesn’t have a family,’ says the boy after a while.
‘How do you know?’
‘Because they would have buried her. So her soul can sleep.’
‘They didn’t bury those tourists they killed,’ says the woman. ‘Around here somewhere. They were talking about it in Phnom Penh.’
‘Damn, was that conversation only yesterday?’ says the skinny man. She nods.
‘Unlucky,’ says the rich one.
The train weaves at walking pace through jungle so dense it slides against the carriages and springs in through the open windows. The boy reaches out to break a vine from one of the trees. He twists it into a strong bracelet, ornate with green leaves, and presents it to the woman, who smiles and shakes her head. None of them will buy it. They’re sleepy.
‘Cigarette?’ the rich man asks, one eye open. The boy thinks, then sets off to the other end of the train to the driver’s booth. When he returns with three cigarettes and a half stub of one, the foreigners are asleep. The boy stands swaying in the aisle. Their money is hidden in their pockets and protected by hands locked at their crotches, fingers interlaced. Their breathing is peaceful. They’re rocked by the train, which has picked up speed again now that the jungle has cleared. The boy looks at the skinny woman’s bag. Its zips are open at the top like a thirsty mouth. Inside it’s black and full. He crouches and feels the rough material with one finger, watching the foreigners. He touches the metal zipper.
‘Oh dude, you found some,’ says the rich one, stretching for the cigarettes. The boy curls his fingers away from the bag and stands, holding the cigarettes out of reach.
‘Three dollars,’ the boy says. ‘This little one is free.’ The rich one laughs so loudly he wakes the woman. The other man is still slumped against the window, his mouth wide in sleep.
‘He wants three bucks for three shitty cigarettes,’ the rich man tells the woman. ‘You could buy a whole packet in Oz for that.’
‘No Oz here,’ the boy says. ‘No shops either.’
‘The boy has a point. Get over it,’ says the woman, laughing. The rich man shakes his head and grins. He lifts his shirt to unzip the money belt and brings out a one-dollar note. The boy hesitates. There’s more in that belt. The rich man shrugs and goes to put it back but the boy throws the cigarettes and makes a grab for the note. He takes it back to his seat and straightens it between the tips of his fingers, studying its green lines. The rich man gives the woman one bent cigarette and sticks the other into the skinny man’s open mouth.
‘Mofo!’ The skinny one grins and shifts to hang his arm over the woman’s hard shoulders. She produces matches from the pocket of her cargo pants and they light up and sit back, smoking and watching the leaves slide by.
It’s hot in the carriage. When the train pauses at Kampong Trach station, the three climb the external ladder to the collapsing machine-gun nest in the train’s roof. The skinny man is unsteady and the boy tries to hold his bag.
‘Thanks, dude,’ says the man and reaches down with a long arm to take it back. The boy follows him, straddling the roof and clinging to it with his knees and feet. When the train pulls slowly out of the station he could kick out with his leg, knock the bag and scramble down after it and into the jungle. It would only be a day or so’s walk back to Phnom Penh. The skinny man rests his hands on the bag and rolls a joint thicker than his fingers, smiling into it with his skull face and holding it close to his chest so that buds won’t blow away. Down below, more passengers are boarding the train. Soldiers holding their AKs like babies. Three women laden with baskets of fruit and homemade pork buns. An armed man in faded black and a checked red scarf, like a flag, knotted at his neck. You still see Khmer Rouge outside of Phnom Penh, especially in the south where the Elephant Mountains protect them, and in the west where Thailand protects them. The boy wants the foreigners to see but they’re watching like they watch everything: shining fevered eyes that suck it all in like plugholes, swirling and unfocused.
The train grunts out of the station and that’s where the town ends. The boy crouches bird-like on the roof, watching for his chance. The woman lights the joint in the shade of her hands and breathes in a lungful. They pass it around. The train enters the jungle again. Green leaves big as paddles flatten against the metal to make a tunnel. The stench of growth plumes around them. To the right the mountains loom. The rich man take his hand off his blue bag to suck the life out of the joint and throw the roach over the edge, where it disappears into the foliage below. The boy readies but the man’s hand returns to the bag and brings out a ball. He pretends to chuck it at the boy and then holds it up, raising his eyebrows. The boy sits back, nods. He can try the bags in Kampot.
‘Don’t lose it,’ the skinny man says.
‘It’s all good.’ The rich man smiles as the boy darts his arm out and catches the ball before it sails into the jungle. The man is good too. The boy watches how easy he is with the ball and the air and how easily he smiles. The man spins it a little and throws it higher and the boy lets out a short scream – a rare one, it only comes in joy or terror. The man laughs and the boy returns the ball hard and crooked in protest. The man catches it with his fingertips. Then an explosion rips down the train and blows the ball from his hand.
The front carriage lifts off the tracks in the blast. The foreigners are hurled against the side of the machine-gun turret and the boy is nearly thrown from the roof. The blue bag falls into the jungle.
‘Oh shit, shit, shit,’ one of the foreigners says. They press down low but they can still see everything and everything can see them. The pterodactyl sound of AK47s comes from the halted train and bullets shower the forest. The fire is returned, two-fold. Black-clad men with red scarves emerge from the undergrowth, firing into the carriages. One cadre gets shot from the train and the foreigners see him fall, dead. The rest make it to the carriages and climb up the sides to the doors and windows. A woman cries out. Another shot and she is silent. The cadres drag people down, taking money, food, shoes. A man pleads with them. They shoot him in the head and he drops like a bag to the ground. Another man runs to him and they fire at his foot. He falls and is kicked in the mouth. The cadres push the other passengers into a group and make them wait on their knees in silence. One of the men climbs onto the roof and shouts down to his cadres in Khmer.
The foreigners crouch in the machine-gun nest, their hands up in the air. More cadres, their uniforms in rags, climb up to look at them. The boy watches them take the bags. Money, a portable disc player, passports. They find the ganja and snort.
‘Stop fucking around. Bring them down here,’ yells a man from below. The foreigners don’t understand but they see that he’s better dressed than the others, older, fed, in charge. The men raise their guns at the foreigners, who cower. The woman covers her face. The guns twitch impatiently.
‘They want you to get off the train,’ whispers the boy. The two men and the woman climb down the side while their bags fall faster through the air beside them and hit the ground first. At the bottom there are more soldiers with guns. On the roof, the boy is grabbed by his shirt and hair and pushed towards the edge. He screams for the second time that day. The man holding him splutters with laughter.
‘You’ll never make a cadre,’ he tells him, ‘you have to be tougher than that.’ He orders him off the train too and the boy scrambles down the ladder to join the other passengers kneeling on the ground. The foreigners are taken a little way off. It would be safer with them; the Australian man would protect the boy and take him to his country. The boy shakes his head, furious, and tears splinter his eyes. He remembers seeing a white man for the first time in Phnom Penh. The country had been filled with Vietnamese men and women his entire life but this whiteness was different.
‘He looks like a pig,’ the boy said to one of the old men at the station, dead now, as they watched the white man walk past. The old man didn’t laugh.
‘That pig can make your life happier and more miserable than you could ever imagine,’ said the old man. ‘Stay away from him.’ The old man turned his back while the boy watched the white man walk down the street until he was a pale blur.
The leader of the cadres stops in front of the boy and looks down at him. His face is worn.
‘We could use this one …’
‘Nah, he’s chicken shit.’
‘You sure? Looks tough to me.’
‘He’s spent too much time with foreigners. He’s a little capitalist spy.’ The leader peers at the boy then snorts and flicks his hand. The other man raises his gun and shoots the boy in the head. The bullet smashes through the side of his skull and he hits the ground. Warm liquid pools around him. He’s warm. He can see the foreigners’ knees in sharp focus across the dirt and rocks. He can’t move his eyeballs. Their bodies are a blur and their faces distant. They’re very still. The Khmer Rouges stand around with their guns lowered to the foreigners’ stomachs, talking. The boy is cold. He hears the leader say, ‘Alright, we’ll take them up to the colonel.’ The cadres tilt their guns upwards. The skinny man stumbles. The woman and the rich man help him to his feet and the cadres push them into the jungle.