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TABLE MANNERS

 

*

They sat, lost and silent, at Table Number One. If they talked I never saw it. Not a smile, not a giggle, not a single gesture of affection – they sat stoically staring into outer space reflecting on the passage of time.

Mr. Chris and his good lady wife were on their second honeymoon. It had been ten years since the last one – ten very long years, by the look of it. Nothing left to say. Nothing left to feel. Nothing left to do but wait for a slow, suburban death.

They’d reserved the Number One cabin; the Royal Junior Suite. I could sense the hand of Mrs. Chris in that decision. Mr. Chris would much rather’ve gorn fishin’. So they always had the Number One table. After all, they were royalty. Junior Royalty, but royalty just the same – they had paid the regal surcharge. Each day a little plastic thing with ‘MR. CHRIS’ in bold black letters was placed on their table of doom, the dead-zone set only for two.

They never shared that table – after all, they were Number One. This implied that the rest of us were Number Two – or worse. There was special place set for Dogster in their hearts. He was most definitely Number Forty-Four.

Every day, every meal, a table set for two; twenty-one long silent breakfasts, twenty-one hushed lunches, twenty-one mute dinners – Mr. Numero Uno sat with Mrs. Numero Uno, the king and queen of nowhere at all. Together they cancelled themselves out. Zero met zero in a cataclysm of broken dreams.

The Number One table was like a black hole. The other passengers steered a long way around the edges, in case they fell in. Indeed, one night two members of the wait staff completely disappeared without warning – one minute they were serving the soup and vroomph! They vanished somewhere into the yawning maw. Late one night I heard singing. It was their immortal souls, still trapped in the space between Mr. Chris and his missus.

*

There was one other solitary punter, a British woman of not-quite certain years. She’d been crying for three years now, a flood of useless tears. Her husband of twenty years had gone to God..

‘Who would have thought a man of forty-five would drop dead? He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he was fit and exercised – then he was dead.’

Shirley was simply stating the facts – she was moving on. Three years. It was time. Slowly, tentatively, she re-entered the world and, to her great credit, had chosen this strip of the Mekong to do it. Now she was embarked on her great solo adventure; the first step in her brave new life – she’d researched, Googled, booked it herself, planned and paid online and embarked on her journey with great trepidation. To her immense relief, ten days into it, she was immersed, enthralled and enthusiastic, taking a break from grief, leaving her past far behind.

‘It’s good traveling on your own,’ she said enthusiastically, ‘I’ve never done it before.’

‘Everything is mental health…’ Dog mused.

‘Too late,’ she laughed, ‘my friends think I’m mad as a chook.’

‘No, on the road. Mental health. You have no-one to jolly you along, no-one to tell you you’re wrong, nobody around to unload on. Things get unsaid; days go by where you don’t speak to anybody. You can get frustrated, existential rage can creep in… mental health, that’s the real issue. You have to be a self-starter.’

She nodded wisely. She was a good woman, battered, beaten and brave. I much enjoyed her company. People who travel on river-cruisers do it for all kinds of different reasons; little challenges, little steps. Just being here was sufficient – she had no need to be any more intepid than that. She made her plans with that in mind, only to be constantly surprised at the little adventure of communication, the spark and excitement of random conversation. Her eyes shone. Shirley had been asleep in the valley of darkness for too long. She knew it. She was doing something about it.

‘You only have one life…’

With that great energy of the nearly-too-old, she had re-engaged.

Vivat Shirley.

Those damn Spiegels were the problem, in Bob’s eyes at least.

‘Little German bastards,’ I heard him say.

There were two Spiegel children; a boy of ten called Willem, all puppy-fat and no fear and his brother Joseph, a lad of thirteen; both well-traveled, very bright, very European, accompanied by their equally sophisticated, educated, well-traveled parents. Der Spiegels were both friendly and distant, a unit as thick as family thieves.

Young Joseph had embarked on puberty with a remarkable vengeance. He had the body of an eighteen year old; towered above his parents; a grown man with the mind of the thirteen year old. Tomorrow was his fourteenth birthday.

The Guildensterns had two kids; a boy of fourteen and his twelve year old sister – both of them smart as tacks. Here genetics had gone the other way – little Guildenstern was tiny, yet older than Joseph the Giant. Mum and Dad were just like Der Spiegels, a young, educated, professional couple in their early forties.

The last German family, equally intelligent, equally traveled, equally bright included just one son, a dark haired lad of ten. He began the voyage full of angst, the single child’s revenge for strange holidays – within an hour he was hurtling around the decks with the others; a pack of feral children playing hide and seek for hours. Every now and then they would erupt as a pack through the upper deck, ducking behind chairs, panting, hiding from their latest nemesis.

‘Sh-h-h-h-h,’ a sweaty ten year old would whisper from under the coffee-table, ’you can’t see me. I’m not here.’

*

Joseph’s lumpy brother was puffing heavily. That puppy-fat was slowing him down. I’d discovered him earlier leaning against the bar, head buried in his arms. I thought he was crying.

‘Are you alright, Lumpy?’ Uncle Dog enquired.

He looked up at me with closed blue eyes.

Einundachtzig,’ he whispered, ‘katzen und hunde, zweiundachtzig, katzen und hunde, dreiundachtzig …’

His face glazed over and he put his head back in his arms.

Do not disturb. In the distance I could his older brother folding himself into an alcove, grinning widely. He winked and disappeared.

‘Einhundert!’ Lumpy said loudly and opened his eyes. ‘Ich komme!’

The game was on.

*

There was another Cai Be Shuffle – only it was Chau Doc . It was a crock.

Welcome to the circus of fish. Brace yourself for a short excursion around the town. After that you will have a short walk to visit the local market then the Temple nearby. Go back to the quay, you will start a boat excursion to the exciting floating villages and catfish farms witnessing masses of basa fish being fed, hand in hand with a shore excursion to the village of the local Muslim Cham community. By mid-afternoon, The Jayavarman casts off for the border towards Phnom Penh.

Which is brochure speak for our next set-piece; ‘Speedo in Chau Doc’. This involves a cluster and a friendly mingle before being decanted into a line of twenty two rickshaws – the pedal olympics. In a tradition that has been going on for years, the drivers vie for line honors. They have learnt that, on top of the obligatory tip of ‘wan dollah-h-h’, winners are grinners. Whatver the motivation, speed and the tip are at top of the list. Customer satisfaction, unless you’re into careening down the main street of Chao Doc, is low on the list.

The disheveled group is assembled for what can only be described as a forced march through the markets. At least, this time, our feet do actually touch the ground and we do actually see real live Cambodians in the flesh. Taking care not to breathe or touch anything, the group is squeezed through a short stretch of market then re-assembled, dripping, at a temple in the centre. Something about the temple is said to those interested then the group is remotivated and hurtled through another short stretch of shopping; this time the disgusting dead things section. Most of the group didn’t need any prodding – they set their own very cracking pace. Soiphisticated Euro-travelers don’t like nasty smells.

No sooner are we out of the market then we’re back in a boat. This involves adventurous walking along adventurous wooden gangways and stairs tied up with string. Quick, quick! We don’t want to miss a minute of the fish-frenzy. Yup, coming up, mad fish.

But not before our visit to the cultural home of the Muslim Cham community, a small retail outlet conveniently placed just down-wind of the fish-food. Muslim Chams don’t do very much. They just sit there and sell you stuff. ‘Silk’ stuff, scraf stuff, dangly bits of material at outrageous priced. They let their cute kids do all the hard work. I think they only breed shop-assistants. Then, wallets squeezed, bags loaded with stuff, we totter over some precarious walkways and enter into the realm of instant-gratification.

Throw a handful of this pebble stinky stuff into the water and indeed, the miracle of creation is revealed. Thousands of crazed fish fly into a frenzy and do whatever it is a frenzied fish does to get food. I don’t think it’s about skill. Swim around fast enough with your mouth open, I guess you have to get lucky sometime. That’s enough fish and Muslim Chams. Back to the boat.

‘Well, at least we had twenty minutes on the ground,’ Bob said wryly.  He was speaking about actual boots on ground, walking time – actual minutes in Vietnam without a window or water in between, without a guide shouting ‘Rauch! Rauch! Rauch!’.

For Bob, unless you had walked on it, you hadn’t been there. By his calculations, we hadn’t been anywhere yet.

Like everybody, Bob wanted interaction.

*

Einhundert!’ a child shrieked. ‘Ich komme!’

The Jayarvarman was hide-and-seek paradise, the best playground in the world. We could hear giggling children thundering up and down the passage-ways, forever hiding, forever running, forever being found. They were happy, it was harmless, almost reassuring to have normality in an entirely artificial world. To his surprise, Dogster rather liked the secret tribe of children; enjoyed the occasional kamikaze attack – he couldn’t summon up a curmudge if he tried. Bob was doing that for him.

‘Those little German bastards. If I catch them running up and down outside my room they’ll know what hit ‘em.’

Pamela tried to shush him but she was equally outraged. She’d ambushed two of them in the hallway.

‘I told them very nicely that we didn’t run up and down the corridors…’

‘You can’t tell us what to do!’ said one of them and ran off laughing.

Pamela was horrified. ‘Wasn’t like that in my day…’ she growled.

‘In your day they didn’t have electricity, my darling,’ Bob crooned.

She fluffed and rearragned her wounded feathers, just as she had a thousand times before.

‘Have you finished?’ her husband asked, just as he’d done a thousand times before.

Her face deigned to twitch that imperceptable amount, the signal for resumption of dialogue.

‘In our day, Bob,’ she said evenly.

‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Bob said, a wide grin on his face, ‘that’s why I love her.’

*

That afternoon, when the shore-excursions were complete, Mr. and Mrs. Chris were on their computer in the lounge – the designated WiFi zone. They were talking to their children on Skype. It was like listening to death.

‘How are yas,’ he said. There was squealing from the other side of Skype. ‘How’s nana treating youse? Did you go to school today?’

There was an adolescent male voice on the line.

‘Were you’se sick?’ Daddy Death said in a monotone, ‘ya don’t look very sick – are you pulling a fast one? What’s Nana feeding you? Are you’se going to school damorra? Put yer sister on.’

‘Goan’gedda-stoo-lfrum-the-ba-a-athroom,’ Mum said, ‘so we can see yas.’

A little girls voice piped up.

‘We love you mummy!’ She was bright as a button.

‘Yairs we-loveyouse-too,’ Mum replied, her voice as flat as a pancake,’ giveyabrothera-hu-u-ugfrumus, I’ll give daddyahug frum youse.’

She didn’t.

The conversation continued – animation and life from the kids, total blankness from their parents. No emotion, no animation – flat nothing. Read it all again in a monotone. It was the saddest Skype in the world.

‘Seeyas,’ they said together, ‘weloveyouse.’

They slowly closed the computer and sat silently staring into the abyss.

*

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