By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that
authorship is acknowledged and credited. The copyright remains the property of the author
It dawned on Josh that although he had read the last two or three paragraphs he hadn't taken any of it in. He laid the book on the desk, gaudy cover uppermost. It depicted a glamorous female in a skimpy summer dress embracing one tall handsome man while another one tugged at her shoulder, clearly trying to pull her away. If it was daylight and people were about he would have been more discreet. Not the kind of thing a self-respecting male wants to be seen reading.
He rubbed his eyes and glanced at the clock on the wall behind him. Three more hours and some minutes still to go. Only half way through the shift really. But at least things had been quiet. They're just paying me for attendance, he thought. He'd had worse jobs than this. A lot worse. He glanced at his list of wake-up calls. Nothing for an hour or so.
Despite the weight of his eyelids he couldn't really relax. He flicked through the register book which he was viewing upside down. That didn't matter, he wasn't reading it. For some reason he was in a fidgety mood tonight.
In the distance he heard the faint tap-tap-tap of high-heels on the fake marble floor. The sound grew louder and a girl of South East Asian appearance in her late-twenties came into sight from the bend of the corridor, walking quickly towards the main entrance.
"Good night, Miss," he greeted her cheerfully as she drew level with the desk. "May I order a taxi for you?"
"Is all right. I walk home."
"Are you sure that's wise? I don't mean to alarm you, but it's after 3.00 am. Not the time of night for a young lady to be walking around those streets on her own." She stopped and looked at him as though the safety aspect of her planned walk simply hadn't occurred to her. "I would be much happier if you would let me phone for one," he added, trying to sound friendly but firm. She stood for a moment, clearly considering what he had said. "Usually the gentleman pays the young lady's taxi fare," he added in what he hoped was a discreet undertone.
Josh smiled. "We're both adults, Miss. Wouldn't it be simpler if we spoke plainly?" The girl looked slightly embarrassed but still seemed undecided, hovering uncomfortably in front of the desk. "I was about to make some coffee. Would you like to join me? I'd be glad of the company. Wouldn't you?"
She smiled and he knew she was going to stay. He motioned her towards one of the polished wooden tables in the lobby and was pleased to see her make her way over and take a chair. "I have my own coffee-maker," he switched it on as he said the words. "It's pretty good. Takes about three minutes to heat up. Do you take milk?"
"No, thank you."
"That's good. I'm not sure I've got any." He put his book out of sight below the counter and opened the side cupboard where he fumbled through the crockery for two clean mugs. "I was wondering if you would say 'No, khob khun ka'."
"Kun put pa-sa tai bpen mai ka?"
"Nit noi. Just a few words. You've heard most of them now. When I was… a lot younger I used to go to Bangkok for what they called 'Rest and Recuperation '. I guessed you were from that part of the world."
"Is good to hear my language. Were you in US Army?"
"Australian Army. same war though. I was doing my National Service. I got out of Vietnam in 1971."
"You are… Australian person?"
"That's right. I know I don"t have the accent any more – well, not much of it left anyhow. I've been here since the late 1970s. Married an English girl. It didn't last. The funny thing is, she's in Oz now but I'm still over here. Funny how things work out." He stirred the ground coffee with a long spoon to speed up the infusion process. "How about you? How did you get so far away from home?"
He saw her struggle to find the right words, perhaps to decide how much to tell. "My mother not Thai. My mother Cambodia, small village, northern part. Soldiers come to her village, kill almost everyone, burn houses. My mother run with two daughter, reach Thai border. Go to Bangkok, Patpong. You know?"
"Yes, I know. I know Patpong very well – or at least I once did."
"Go to Carte Blanche Club, Patpong Two. Work there, five years. But now only one daughter."
"What happened to the other one?"
She paused before answering. "Soldiers. We not know what happen my little sister. She not run fast enough."
"My god. What kind of soldiers were they? Khmer or Western?"
"Not know. All soldiers exactly same. No difference."
He stopped stirring the coffee and looked her in the eye. "I wish I could argue that you're wrong about that, but I don't think I can." She didn"t comment. "So your mother and you arrived at a bar in Patpong Two. And I presume you worked there too."
"Yes. Then English man say he marry me and I say yes. Come to England, big house, big car. But man change. Not same man I marry. Turn into somebody else. You understand?"
"Yes, I think so. Did you leave him?" She nodded. "And he just let you go?"
"He never let me do anything. Not go out, not talk mother on phone, not meet Thai people in England. Not do anything, just stay in house, cook, watch TV, have sex. Not nice sex, rough sex. Like prisoner, slave."
Josh decided the coffee was hot enough and strong enough and poured two cups. He carried them to the table and joined her. "You were right to get out. Good for you. Does he know where you are?"
"No. He know where I am, he kill me I think."
He waited while she tasted her coffee. "How can you do what you do after all that? How can you smile at a man and ask him what he wants, tell him how great he is after he's done it? Doesn't it stick in your craw? Don't you want to get away from men? Don't you hate them?"
"No, not hate all men. Hate bad men. Not all men bad. Some men very good. I think you very good."
"What makes you think that?"
She smiled. "You worry me walking on the road. You give me coffee. You ask my life."
"Don't you realise that I carried a gun in your country, or the one next to it, and shot people for no reason? Just because somebody with a couple of stripes on his sleeve told me to? Don't you realise that I was exactly like every other soldier that invaded your country. Exactly the same. You said so yourself."
"Maybe wrong about that. Not all same. Maybe some… same like me – trapped, like prisoner. Must do this, must do that, no choice."
"Yes, you're right, we didn't have very much choice. In a way your trade and the soldier's trade are pretty much the same. We both have to play-act. Pretend to feel things that we don't. I had to pretend to hate, you have to pretend to love. I think you've got the better deal. But I really admire you. How can you be so… forgiving? How can you trust men the way you do?"
She shrugged. "Don't trust all men. Speak on the phone first. Listen to voice. Voice tell very much. Some men good voice, some men bad voice."
"So that's how you decide. By how they sound on the phone. You work on your own, don't you?" She nodded. "And I don't think you've been doing it for very long. Not in England."
"Why you say so?"
"Well, your shoes for one thing. Maybe you need to take those with you so that you can look good, but wearing them to go home is a bad idea. You can't run in shoes like that. Try it and the heels will break, or the shoes themselves will simply come off. They make you vulnerable. Carry them in your bag, but wear trainers to get around. It's only common sense. Do you carry a personal alarm?" She looked blank. "A thing that makes a loud noise, attracts attention?" She shook her head. "When you go out, do you tell anyone? Does anybody know where you've gone, what time to expect you back?" Her expression remained blank. "Do you let your clients lock the door?" Blank reaction. "Is there a number you can call for help – a friend, or some sex workers" organisation – or even the police?
"You see, what I'm getting at is, it's not safe here, like it is in Bangkok, comparatively. You're not in a little alcove behind a curtain at the back of some bar, with other girls and customers all around you. You're in a private hotel room with one man, or out on the street alone in the middle of the night. It's different. It's dangerous.
"Has anybody attacked you yet? Knocked you around?" She shook her head. "Well all I can say is, you've been lucky. But your luck isn't going to hold forever. Please listen to me. What I'm telling you is important. Think about it."
For a few moments she sipped her coffee and said nothing. "Why you care so much?" she asked at last.
Josh put down his coffee. The mug rattled on the polished surface. He looked away from the girl, stared through the glass doors out into the street. A black cab crawled by on the far side of the road, its driver no doubt looking for an address. When he spoke his voice was little more than a whisper. "It's not easy to talk about those days. About Vietnam, and the soldiers." He decided the topic was too painful and asked another question instead. "You're working to save some money, aren't you? I may be wrong, but I don't think you have a drug habit. I don't think you even smoke. Am I right?" She nodded. "So what are you saving up for? Why do you need this cash?"
"Don't you know? I want go home. I see England now. I try England. And I try marriage. Not like England. Like Bangkok better. Mother, Carte Blanche Club, my same-like sisters. England no good. Bangkok good."
"You want to go back? To the bar in Patpong? That's the life you want?"
"Good people there. People care about me."
Josh considered his words very carefully. "I used to think like that. I used to think that my problems were geographical. That I could be happy in America or England or somewhere else, but not in Australia. It doesn't work that way. Your happiness, your mind-set, is something you carry around with you." He paused, wondered if the words he was using were too big, if she really understood. "Listen… what's your name, by the way?"
"My name Wen."
"Wen. I knew a girl with that name once. It means "ring", doesn't it?"
"Your Thai very good."
"I'm Josh." He held out his hand. "Good to meet you." She held his hand for a moment but did not shake it. "Wen, you may not agree, but I don't think you're going to meet a man who'll care for you in a bar in Patpong. It's not impossible but it's a hell of a long shot. You've got a British passport now, right?" She nodded. "Well just think about the opportunities you've got here. University, clean safe work, good schools for your children when they come along, free medicine if you get ill, pensions, benefits... There are people queuing up to come to this country, paying silly money to hoodlums to smuggle them in. But you're here safely and legally, and you want to go back to that place? Why don't you do it the other way round? Work on getting your mother into this country. Your same-like sisters too. It can be done. I know a little bit about it. I might be able to help."
"You very good man. But I got husband here. Husband who hate me. He find me, maybe he kill me."
"Why wouldn't he find you in Bangkok? Isn't it the first place he would look?"
"In Bangkok, maybe I not be the one to get killed."
It was difficult to argue with that. There was silence for a moment while they both took another sip of coffee. Josh decided the time had come to tell her the truth. He felt his fists clench as he began. "Wen, I owe you something. Not you personally, but your people, your family, all your same-like sisters. You said your mother told you that all the soldiers were the same. She was right. We were all the same. Killing became a hobby. A recreational activity. A big joke. So did rape. I can't say that we behaved like animals because animals don't behave that way. And I can't… bring myself to go into the details. But I know what happened to your little sister, the one who didn't make it to Bangkok. Because it's what happened to thousands of little sisters, tens of thousands of them. And now it's time to… try to make some tiny gesture of reparation." He could see that she didn't know the word. "I mean it's time to make a first payment on what I owe. How much do you need for that one-way ticket to Bangkok?"
She smiled, almost laughed. "You crazy man."
"No. I sane man. I used to be crazy man. Not any more." He reached across and took her hand. "Not any more."
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