Some days, I am not on the ball. I start to doubt myself, my performance at work, and then my place in this universe. Some days, I am surrounded by beautiful friends who cheer me with their humour and delightful tales of life from the wryest of perspectives. Some days, my friends aren't in the best of moods and it is my turn to balance that aforementioned ball on my nose and perform. I tell my tall tales and frivolously embroider my antics and anecdotes to create a happy tapestry to cheer up a pal in need. Some days, two friends are both in need. Those are the days when world feels like an ancient unoiled machine. Metal grates on metal and sparks fly. Axes get ground and yet no one cuts the air.
Today, I decided to take myself off on my bicycle to whirr my blues away. A friend rang and rang again. Texts started to ping. Then more calls. Eventually I stopped for rest. A text, a second, and then the third. The texts started with an invite and ended with insults. He was angry and, in not picking up, I had become his focus. I sent a text back. I tried to salve, but the oil for those troubled waters caused a flare up. I know he was drunk. He's always drunk. I know he needs a good friend, just as I know the company he craves will never cure his brand of lonely. However, I am not able to cater for that. Not today.
Today, I was not on the ball.
He says he is my friend and I want to believe his sweet words. However, his words are not always so measured or kind. His actions too, can be somewhat chaotic, and I am beginning to think this friendship comes at a high price.
He is Prince Charming. He is interesting and interested in everything around him. He comments astutely on the issues of the day, and I find myself in the company of a man who makes me think and ponder. I see new perspectives through his eyes but am never left feeling my own perspectives lack value. Hours pass and are barely noticed as we rally back and forth. Wit and charm married together in one man who seeks out my company. So what's the problem!
He is a drunk. Sometimes, by ten, the conversation is already a little muddled and a few times recently I've found myself in heavy waters. His patience wears thin and I feel blamed for his loss of concentration. With reduced focus comes a loss of veneer and, when the charm disappears, what lies beneath is not too savoury. A short temper is the most noticeable. Never directed at me, yet, but skulking in the background like a surly dog, he snarls at the people he loves. He becomes more negative about life and will cut people with a tongue that seems to sharpen in alcohol. When he is like this, I keep a metaphorical eye on exits and I am on tenterhooks.
So I have a rarely seen friend and an often times worrying companion. It's time to let this friendship slide into the cool waters of acquaintance. A kindly nod and a friendly hello with a distance kept. The next time I am texted beseechingly, I will remember that it is Lady Alcohol and not Prince Charming who is seeking my company. I will miss my friend. I do already, for I haven't seen him sober for a while.
I reach deep inside myself and find there is nothing. I fear my lurking superficiality, for it might reveal all I lack to the world. My mind is shingle grey like the beaches I once called home. I shroud myself in the dull hues of strand, sea and sky that wash into each other until I am almost drowning in monotony.
Other days when I reach inside myself it's like a jungle. My mind has been overgrown with mysterious half formed shapes, but everything is covered in moss and trailing creepers. The good and the bad grow side by side. The indiscriminate fecundity is almost nauseating and I choke on the sweet aroma of life feeding on death. I disgust myself.
I dream of being an artist, so, arid or rotten, I strip myself bare and swing dizzyingly on the trapeze of my emotion. Below me no one watches with bated breath. I take my life, so private in its living, and thrust it into the public lap to be virtually ignored. I am just an imitator. Life is a cabaret and this artiste shows twice nightly.
I took a walk along the river today. I wandered down under the shady trees and crossed over on the bridge that usually takes me to work on my bicycle. I stopped for a bite to eat with the barbecue pork lady before heading north. So many times I have walked passed the pagoda there, meaning to stop, but somehow I never find the time.
Today I found I had time to spare. My tummy was full of rice and I was feeling in the mood for a meander. For me the temple itself was not the main attraction though it is undeniably beautiful. It is surrounded by other buildings as most temples are in Cambodia, but in Battambang the architecture always seems just a little more special.
I wandered about and took a few snaps and then headed north along the eastern river bank. It was a cool morning and it’s been a while since I just went for a walk. Up to the bridge that takes Highway Number 5 over the muddy brown Sangker river. I wandered up to the ferry terminal and found myself a coconut to satisfy a niggling thirst then abandoned the river for the frangipani shaded walk east.
My last leg reminded me that this seemingly sleepy city is in fact the second largest town in Cambodia. After my dreamy walk where I felt quite alone with my thoughts I turned south and soon was in the happy midst of daily Khmer life. Psar Boeung Chhouk teems with people. The Psar Nath may be the landmark market hall but Boeung Chhouk market is were people come to shop in droves.
Four months I have lived in this city. It still fills me with wonder, charms me senseless and brings a smile to my face. Sok Sabay I say to almost everyone I meet. Peace and happiness is easy to find in Battambang.
I am the artist and creator of my life. I have pictures that line the long hallway of my life. Some of these artistic renditions are masterpieces. I have beautiful detailed memories that are vivid and bright, executed clearly and framed exquisitely. Some are sketches or maybe just sketchy. Brief line drawings that capture the shadow of a moment.
As curator, I have applied no reason or rhyme to the collection. Some of the memories that are the most golden seem to be attached to events that were quite unremarkable at the time. Other major moments or seemingly key times have been ruthlessly archived into dark recesses and held under lock and key. The curation has been highly selective and very subjective.
The memories that hang, easily retrieved, paint no accurate picture of the path I have walked through life. My mind has edited and refined my collection. Every now and then I see an oil painting that seems to have a rather unusual perspective. Some paintings have been rendered so sympathetically I am not sure I was ever truly there.
So here I am with my hallway of memories . A random and diverse set of paintings that portray my life with no more or less accuracy than I apply to this, my writing. For I am the artist and this life I put out on display, is merely a creation.
I am woken every morning by the birds with their playful chatter. I go to bed early so the dawn chorus is perfectly timed to gently rouse me from my slumber and help me embrace a new day. That fresh hour before dawn is my time to celebrate the new day and to reflect on the joy and wonder of life before the rising sun takes to the sky.
Once the sun is up, the birdsong quietens as the heat intensifies. The first light brings a realisation that life must be lived as well as pondered. Most days I am out and before eight, purposefully scurrying around the town before rewarding myself with a long lazy coffee. I have a few daily chores and by ten my enthusiasm will be stifled by the heat and I will seek shade, caffeine and a moment to watch life pass by.
Later, just as the sun peaks, I head out on my bicycle. I am the mad dog, the English man setting off on my stately bike with a sun hat to protect my barang head. A short cycle ride brings on a sweat and I arrive at work, damp and crumpled like some second rate colonial clerk. If the birds are awake they are too hot to sing and the air hangs hot and still. My brief hours of teaching finish as the day starts to slide into evening and soon after sunset my first yawns begin to punctuate the evening.
My life is simple but never prosaic. Here in the Kingdom of Wonder I have time to reflect on the majesty of the everyday. I live here as a barang, a foreigner, and I observe life unfolding around me like a lotus. Tomorrow there will be the wonder of morning birdsong before the rising sun and a new page of my life will start.
The cafés of Battambang are a leisurely way to waste away a Sunday and I ignored the thundery heavens as I cycled to Street 1.5, just south of the central market. My favourite café was uncharacteristically full and I and my flat white were wedged in a corner between a well upholstered, coke swilling American and an anxious Londoner who was hopelessly unsure about her salad. An Australian accent cut through the generally quite subdued chatter of the corner café. I looked up to see an ancient outbacker informing his equally elderly friend he had plans to read the Quran in the not too distant future. I dropped my gaze but remained all ears.
“Apparently, there are Mohammedans who deliberately misquote the Quran to Westerners.”
“They call us Kafirs,” his friend announced in an accent that was several hours drive south west of Dublin.
Still loud enough to be considered a Public Service Announcement, our man from Alice continued, “Once I have read the details I will be able to know when they are lying to me and be able to put them straight. Half of them don’t understand their own beliefs”
“Of course some say it’s what readers of the Quran have interpreted and that these interpretations build together to give a bigger picture.”
The man from Cork was stopped there. Clearly this dialogue was becoming a little cluttered and the outbacker had a point to make. Making it plain he wasn’t interested in anything but the actual words of the holy text iself he dismissed the idea of Muslim intellectuals, favouring a more fundamental approach. He’d met some, in a Melbourne college, and they, Muslims, were hypocrites. They talked about the sanctity of marriage and leading a good life while they were having affairs with Australian women and drinking beer. He assured his friend from Cork that people can’t follow a religion if they don’t believe hook, line and sinker. Hoping his colleague was not a defrocked priest fleeing Catholic guilt and frolicking in South East Asia, I listened on. I was no longer pretending not to stare. Sadly, moments later, the conversation was interrupted by a diminuitive Khmer woman with a surprising voice that overpowered even my Antipodean ranter. She was a tour guide and explained to her group, The Intrepid Explorers, that showers had been forecast and therefore transport had been arranged so no-one would get wet returning to the hotel. The discussion, like the salad, was left unfinished as the obedient travellers filed out. Moments later, the place was deserted and an empty coke was my only companion as the first heavy drops of rain thumped onto the corrugated iron verandah.
They say that travel broadens the mind and I hope the cliché is true. Each day I see and hear different things and my mind tries to process and understand the experiences. I try to observe without judging and I always fail so I observe and I comment because that’s how my mind works Every mind is different and we all start our journey from different places and perspectives. As for the Intrepid Explorers, now safe and dry in their respective hotel rooms, I hope tomorrow’s itinerary will provide them with much more than just conversation, Coca-cola and the eternal questioning of salad.