Friday, May 14, 2010


by BM Buttrose

"The Andamans have always been a dangerous place, a port of uneasy repose on the journey to somewhere else."

- Anon

Dear Thomas & Katie,

This is a difficult letter to write, because I don’t know if you are alive or dead. I have to tell you that I have been rewriting it on and off in my head for three years now. The Wild Orchid Hotel; obscure, exotic, remote, homely. I loved it. I took so many notes about the story of your romance, the complexities of Canada meets Bangalore. The pioneer spirit of your tourism venture on Havelock Island. The poem I wrote in your Visitors Book, your enjoyment in reading it and your comment that I had captured you both so well. The promise I made remains with me; to write the story of the Wild Orchid Hotel and send it to you.

Even if you are both dead, I still have to write your story and send it - a promise is a promise. If you don’t reply, perhaps I’ll be able to accept that you are both gone. Or will I still wonder, thinking the Indian postal service has lost my letter, or you two have simply moved on? What if I do get a reply from someone else, telling me neither of you was ever seen again; or perhaps even worse in some ways, a letter from one of you telling me you watched helplessly as the other got swept away? This is the kind of tragic news that has stopped me writing this story until now. It breaks my heart to think of the two of you other than how I remember you both the day I left you, beaming with love, vibrant with the promise of your life to come.

Somehow this story has kept you both alive, captured at a time when you were sad to see me depart. You asked if some day I might return to the island, and at that time the only answer I could give was ‘Yes, I will - in the guise of your story’. We all laughed then at my non-committal response. Who knows what life has in store for us - it is mostly unpredictable. As we all know so well.

Kind regards,

PS: As you may have guessed John is no longer in the picture.

PPS: By the way, I finally found some info about the Andaman Orchid, and that it is extremely rare. A site online reported one orchid as growing on a tree bough on the easterly shore, taking the full weathering of the coast.

Anna Swift had arrived in the Andamans at the end of a journey through southern India with a man she had grown to despise. She felt stupid now for trusting him. He had sold her the idea of going on a second honeymoon, and like the first time she was paying for it. It would be some time yet before she discovered the true extent of his fraud: all she knew at this point was her wrenching feeling of emptiness and failure and the Himalayan-sized Visa debt she would find waiting for her at home.

He had tricked her yet again by coming away with empty pockets but plenty of excuses, ensuring that she would pay for just about everything. At first an increasingly annoying and tedious pattern in their lives, now his lying, scheming and duplicity had become unbearable. She wanted out, but how, and to where, and with what? She couldn't even bear to think of the reality she would return to.

She sat on the beach trying to enjoy what was supposed to be the highlight of her trip, and which now had turned out to be anything but that. During their two months in India, dealing with John’s constant dramas, the only thing that had kept her going had been the promise of the holiday in the Andamans. She had organised every detail before she left, and studied all the major guide books and online sites.

She had known little about the islands, only that the Andaman and Nicobar groups comprised a remote archipelago out where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea. Books of photographs of the islands had seduced her eye. She saw white limestone ranges covered in stands of teak, and an abundance of wildlife, some still unclassified by zoologists. Her eyes tracked roads that ran away into nowhere, carved into the jungled contours of mountains. Pastel-toned colour plates printed in far-off Chennai depicted monsoonal rains washing the powdery limestone into the sea, covering the coral reefs in a milky green bath. Majestic petrified trees, silvered and sandpapered smooth by the decades, lay angled across the beaches.

She read of the tribal peoples of the Nicobars, of whom it was said had never seen Europeans and didn’t possess the knowledge for making fire. Inquisitive travellers were warned that the tribespeople were known to use poison darts and would kill on sight. It all only made her want to go there more - as did the intriguing stories about secret Indian military bases scattered through the islands. It felt like the Andamans possessed everything: beauty, mystery, allure. And they were one of the world’s pristine dive locations. Perfect.

Upon arrival there she had been so enthused about her forthcoming dives that she could hardly contain herself, and talked excitedly throughout the dinner she and John shared with Thomas and Katie, the proprieters of the hotel where they were staying. She was stopped in her tracks by the look Thomas and Katie shared just before they gave her the news. At the time of booking they had confirmed she could dive, but that was before the change of heart by the Indian authorities. All the diving operators had just had their licences revoked following trouble with a couple of tour groups. All diving was cancelled.

Anna barely held back her tears, sliding into the pit, as Thomas tried to reassure her that she would not leave the islands without at least one dive. He had connections in high places, he said, a necessity for any business in India, and would set about seeking special permission. Somehow Anna trusted Thomas: it was a matter of pride for him after all, and Katie’s calm gave her the sense that this was business as usual.

After dinner Anna sat on the beach alone staring at the sea. There was nothing out there, no moon, no shard of light from a fishing boat, just the matt black of the ocean and the sea wind coming off it. She watched it, blank, her thoughts going back to the conversation with Thomas and Katie, and the dive she would surely do; and how Thomas had said the Andamans were like no other place, that everything seemed to be in larger proportions - the fish, the corals, the trees, the coastline, the waves of the weather coast.

Her thoughts drifted futher. She found herself of all things feeling envious of the love between between Thomas and Katie. It was tantalising to witness. They possessed what she yearned for: love and all its identities rolled into one, a rock of love. And she had John - controlling, neurotic, unbalanced. She was certain now that she didn’t want him any more but didn’t know how she would ever escape him.

Katie had first seen Thomas as he roared up on his Honda Hero motorbike, his lustrous raisin hair streaming behind him. She didn’t mind breathing in some of the salty dust kicked up by the bike. Her mouth felt dry and teeth gritty, but she was after all in India. Such things were to be expected.

She had just got off a long-distance bus at the Bangalore interchange and been met by her friend Nadi who took her across the road to Thomas’s restaurant. She tried to look disinterested as he got off his bike, deciding not to fall into the trap so many Western women do: the instant sexual allure of the exotic.

Thomas wasn’t a crazy Hindu fundamentalist or a medieval Muslim, but a capitalist Christian, exuding charisma. He looked like a masala movie matinee idol, and his eyes teased with humour. His restaurant was the meeting place for the hip and artistic IT crowd of Bangalore. The models and moguls of the chosen castes gathered there to finger their thalis and suck on frothy chai and imported cola.

As Katie walked into the restaurant, she witnessed a scene. Two of Thomas’s recent ex-girlfriends had turned up separately, intending to berate him about having jilted them. But Thomas’s charm was irresistible.

‘Ladies, perhaps this is not the right time or the right place, eh? Perhaps we could speak later, please?’

Both girls melted, apologising for their behaviour. He promised to see them later that night, for which they seemed grateful, and left.

Katie said afterwards she was impressed as only a Western woman could be by seeing an Indian man wielding such power. The next thing Thomas was eyeing her across the restaurant. She was wary, not wanting to be cast as some restaurant owner’s porn-star, which is what she thought all the Indian men and women seemed to think Western women were. It wasn’t long however before Thomas was chatting to Nadi, and he and Katie were being introduced. She felt strange when he held out his hand to shake hers, an unusual gesture for an Indian man. She accepted it, and they touched. They stared at each other, an eyelid flicker too long. Nadi punctured the mood with an order for drinks from Thomas.

After he went, Katie thought oh no, it’s all too messy already. Nadi said the same thing out loud: ‘No Katie, he’s a playboy, you’ll get hurt, it’s too complicated.’

‘You’re absolutely right, Nadi. No way.’

Katie was a tall girl, an inch taller than Thomas. Fine brown hair, angular shoulders and blue eyes. An adventurous Canadian from Montreal. Her parents accepted her marriage to Thomas, although not without muted, hopeless protest. The next thing Katie’s family knew, she and Thomas were partners in a restaurant, then starting up a resort together from scratch, in the Andaman Islands, of all places. Katie’s parents had to look it up on a map to find it, and even then couldn’t locate remote Havelock Island. It was just too far away and too small, a speck on the rim of the ocean.

They had started with a single thatched lean-to and mosquito netting, and built it up from there. By the time of Anna’s visit their dream of building the resort was almost realised. By then they had ten well-booked cabins and a healthy flow of return guests. It seemed their hard work had paid off, their future secure.

Anna had always been fascinated by the sea, and had idolised the French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. She remembered the documentaries about his discoveries in the underwater world, and one in particular about the unique aquatic life around the Andamans. She recalled the excitement of the Cousteau team as they talked about marine life never before seen in the Fire Opal Trench, still a secret kept between divers. Now, thanks to Thomas’s connections and tenacity, Anna found herself on her long-hoped for dive trip, in the company of an Israeli couple.

Israelis were considered troublesome by the local authorities, many of them coming to India to cut loose after completing their compulsory military service. This couple, Anna thought, must have had especially good connections to be on the trip at all. They looked like they had travelled and partied very hard, and sat staring out to sea with vague indifference, sharing a cigarette. They had greedy festering sores from insect bites covered with gauze, but didn’t seem to notice the state of their bodies, nor the flies drinking their bloody sap. Anna couldn’t help but wonder whether they would attract sharks.

They didn’t. It was a perfect day. It was at the extreme end of recreational diving, down one hundred and fifty feet. It was called the Fire Opal because as far as the eye could see the trench was covered in massive, sail-like stands of vermilion coral, fanning in the undersea current. It was like diving into a chasm of cool volcanic lava. She floated through it, overwhelmed, stopped breathing, lay on her back looking up towards the light, dead, alive, complete.

‘You’re looking very pious tonight,’ Thomas quipped, as she sat at the bar on the last night there. ‘Quite the devotee.’

Anna was wearing a loose-fitting tangerine silk outfit, and a purple shawl. ‘Yes... perhaps,’ she smiled back, ‘I didn’t realise... It just seemed perfect for my last night here, I suppose, that’s all.’

‘Where’s John? On his way?’


She couldn’t help the perfunctory tone, nor the audible relief that her last evening at the Wild Orchid would be so much more enjoyable without his presence.

Thomas left and returned with a drink for her. She didn’t ask what it was, and he didn’t say. She just drank it, slowly. Strange, she thought, how alcohol can salve you: it’s just a drink, after all.

She could see Katie setting up the dining room and seeing to other guests’ drinks. Katie was smooth all over: her voice, the way she moved, her expression. Perhaps the Andamans had taught her patience, and her composure was a result. She looked up, saw them and smiled. In a few moments, Anna knew, she would have Katie’s company as well as Thomas’s. She loved seeing them together: their union created a palpable third entity; their eyes were alive with it. She had heard bits and pieces of their story, but wanted to hear more. She knew tonight it would be told.

Thomas scooped up her empty glass. ‘It’s a special Andaman lime crushed with palm sugar and white rum,’ he said. ‘It’s called the wild orchid, like the ones that grow on the boughs of the trees at the edge of the beach. Have you seen them?’

‘I saw one at Elephant Beach. Such a harsh environment for something as delicate as an orchid.’

‘That’s the Andamans - full of contradictions and oppositions. Would you like to join us for dinner?’

‘I would, yes, thank you.’

‘I’ll get Dasgi to prepare a fish curry. Not his usual fire-breathing stuff though,’ he laughed. ‘What do you do in Australia?’

‘I’m a journalist,’ Anna said. She might have added: "Recently retrenched".

‘It’s strange I hadn’t asked you that before. But now that you tell me I can see that you are a writer.’

‘I’d love to hear your story. The story of you and Katie. I’d like to write it, and send it to you.’

‘Then we will tell you over dinner.’

Katie approached, and placed a visitor’s book in front of her along with an engraved silver pen; a wedding present, Anna saw. There was only one other entry in the book: Katie had said before that it was new.

‘I have a poem for you,’ Anna said. ‘I think it’s ready for ink now.’

‘Then we’ll leave you to write,’ Katie said, ‘and come back when dinner is ready, okay?’

Within a second of them leaving, the poem started to write itself. It had never happened quite like this before. She had thought such writing a romantic fable, but now felt the poem coming seemingly from her flesh itself, a current running down her arm to her fingers, rippling the page. She knew the poem would be special: it was ecstatic, yet also almost strangely ominous in feeling.

When she finished writing it, she drew a map of Australia, the states, landmarks and animals, and marked the place of her birth, Sydney. She didn’t live in Sydney but whenever she was overseas she always recorded it as her place of belonging in the world. She was proud of Sydney.

The dining room entrance was a simple construction of local bamboo, thatching, and on the floor aromatic pinkadoo, the softest hardest wood known. With a scent of musk, and peppermint hues, it framed the whole pavilion. The giant taro trees, with leaves like elephant ears, sat in the sand surrounds, buttressed by their white roots.

The dinner conversation teased through the entrees, but by the time they were on Dasgi’s fish curry it had progressed to Thomas and Katie’s first meeting, and their protracted courtship fraught with geographical tribulations. They had tried living in Canada, Bangalore and finally settled for their pioneering resort on Havelock Island.

They had been together nine years, but you couldn’t tell, Anna thought, because they had retained that fascination with each other. Their relationship was typical of the new India, Anna assumed: they had wanted to build their business before starting a family.

One glance at their faces told her that her resolve about John was correct. He had consumed her like a quarry does a mountain, ounce by ounce, cell by cell, until she couldn’t even remember who she had been before. It had started simply and easily and would end quagmired in complexity. She knew he would not let go, as it seemed she had everything he wanted and he had nothing she wanted. Her money was all gone now. That much at least would help.

‘And here we are today,’ Katie said, by way of completing their story.

‘Yes,’ Anna said. ‘Here you are, and you are so lucky.’

‘We know,’ Thomas said. ‘We’re lucky.’

On the morning after Christmas, she had a dream. The house was silent. The torn wrapping paper of the day before had been cleared away. The children had their presents and slept in their beds. She still slept beside John. Two years, and she hadn’t escaped him. After New Year, she had told herself. After New Year. If only there weren’t the children. They were his children, and they were almost grown up, but she loved them as her own. One day soon, she knew, she had to go; had to kiss them, get in her car and go.

The dream was of the sea: the seawater heavier than freshwater, welling, swelling, sustaining its momentum, overwhelming the intertidal zone with ease. The whim of the ocean, toying with you like a killer whale with a seal.

The water seemed violent to her, but it didn’t hurt. The foyer of the Wild Orchid was nearly submerged as she witnessed the silent force of the cold sea water rushing in. Her attention was on the visitor’s book: she found it just out of her reach. Thomas and Katie’s poem was in that book: it was part of her, she grabbed for it. The water cleverly opened the book at the right place, a mocking glimpse, she could just see it. The memories of her holiday returned. At the time of writing, the poem held an unknown meaning, waiting for them all. She realised in the dream that it was water in the wrong place, very powerful, tubulent, but quiet. Seeing everything but hearing nothing, she knew water had a voice. The periphery contained Thomas’s black hair and Katie’s pale hands. In a second the book was torn away, eluding her grasping fingers. It submitted instead to the sea. The poem was being recited, just as it had been performed at the goodbyes. Hearing laughter but seeing no faces, she could feel them close, inside her, silently calling to her. Without warning the frames of the scene accelerated and she watched as the book felt the full force of the water, squeezing the ink from the page and the meaning from the poem. It was all out of control, nothing to be done. She let go. That wild orchid, arid on a bough, white, hidden on Elephant Beach. All swept away.
When morning came she remained unsure of what she had seen, the inside of her head still floating. It hadn’t been a dream, she felt. She had been there with them, but could do nothing. The wave was on her face, flowing down her cheeks, filling her hair. She lay in bed beside the man she detested, too frightened to breathe, sobbing.

He was still asleep when she got up. The children hadn’t stirred either. She went downstairs, made herself a cup of tea, and switched on the television. She didn’t know what might be on. On Boxing Day, cricket, the Sydney to Hobart? She stared at it, blank as the sea. Then it began, the tsunami. She gasped. By the time John and the children came down it filled the living room, and she was nowhere to be seen.

“The Wild Orchid” © 2010 BM Buttrose

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


a short story by Jane Smith

“Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war.”

- George Orwell

He swaggered in his Levis but the locals still managed to walk faster than him. Ron was six foot three and John Wayne’s ugly brother. His voice was naturally attractive; that is, when he wasn’t repeating himself. Having traded upon his youth, now spent to the extreme, he was ageing with self-flagellating neurosis. His downfall was companioned by a pageant of insecure, pissed peroxided women who felt in need of a tall man and assumed he had a grunt of a penis.

The most recent version was Pammie. A self-described “blond bombshell”, she was considerably more shell than bomb. Her skin was that healthy Nordic type, but giving way to mottled ruddy flecks, her face fissured with screaming capillaries. Poor circulation, she used to say, smiling her healthy Santa Claus glow.

It was always Christmas with Pammie around, jingle all the way. Still wearing the 80s fluoro of her heyday, she was a girl not easily fobbed off, hanging on to the end of every drinkies like the last survivor of the Titanic. The only iceberg that scared her was the melting one in the bottom of the esky. She and Ron were as co-dependent as mutually destructively possible, sharing beers, butts and a bed.

Their day had a preordained rhythm, starting with ordering the servants around, the driver around, then the office staff around, but all things pointed towards four o’clock. That was the hour of the Sulo Bar, a short walk away and a long stagger home. Myanmar (Burma) Beer, Ron and Pammie’s piss of choice, had won an international award leading to an enormous outpouring of national pride, the achievement splashed everywhere on advertising billboards, even dwarfing the junta’s ubiquitous Communist propaganda posters. But then, there weren’t many things the people had to feel good about.

Ron and Pammie would compete to see who could drink the most, lose count of the jugs, cans and ciggies. What the hell did they care, fleshy white Queenslanders in a country fifteen blocks down and to the right of nowhere? It was Ron’s second tour. The first had been a risky tourist venture at Patwey Beach, burnt down by the military. One might have liked to think they’d done it in the interests of taste. Another thought was he’d had a mate in the ranks and begged them to do it for the insurance. A decade later he was back, trading in surgical equipment.

This time Ron and his new inductee Pammie had located themselves in the capital Yangon, amid its monsoony melange of postcolonial neglect and tower block tourism. The Burmese military presence was all-pervasive but peripheral. When the traffic stopped and the crowd uniformly hushed for yet another unofficial military procession, the locals were relieved as one when the final escort vehicle passed and the debating could start about who it was in the main vehicle.

‘It was Number Three General,' one man would say.

'No. It was Number One,' another would reply. 'He always has fifteen escort jeeps. Number Three, he only have twelve.’

Ron lived in extremes. When he was "On" with his exercise routine he anticipated the physical pain of exercising with such gusto that it bordered on the masochistic. And then when he was "Off" his routine he romanticised about how much pain he’d put himself through to get fit.

Ron detested his crumpling appearance but couldn’t resist the crummy London brand Cigarettes or cheap beer. He was forever worrying after his weight and ate as little as possible. Nonetheless the lines in his face were getting nearly as long as his legs, and things were starting to go on him.

The last time back home in Queensland he'd his eyes done, an unusual procedure in which the backs of the eyelids were tattooed to fix a problem with irritation. The pain had been like sandpaper, with days and nights of pills and streaming tears, and Ron wasn’t a man who shed tears. He wouldn’t cry for anything but a limping dog on the street, but no matter what he did the unsettling tears came. That was the worst.

After the eye surgery he’d stayed on for a spell home at Paradise Beach. On the deck in the afternoon, under the shade of the frangipani, the green shimmer of Ron’s beer can signposted a daily boozy chatfest. There was always something in hand, a joint, an ash tray, and friends half dozed through his gargled wisdom. When he returned to Yangon with eyelids good as new, he blinked day and night to celebrate. If only the rest of his body could be so easily renovated.

On the way to the office near Many-Ways Junction a week or so later, Ron sees the weekly line-up of people queuing for soap. A tourist wouldn’t notice that, he thinks: life is necessarily subtle here. Then, in the heat of a Yangon winter, he climbs the auspicious five flights of betel nut bloodstained stairs to his sales office, making a mental note to get less auspicious premises closer to the ground next time.

He opens the office door to perfectly contrived grins. The staff have heard him coming like a medieval ghoul thumping a club foot up a tower. His manager Cho Cho Kee, immaculate as ever, the Number One salesman of A1 Surgical Products, sits at his desk without a bead of sweat, hint of discomfort or suspicious flicker of the untoward.

‘Mingalaba (Burmese greeting), Cho Cho Kee.’

‘Mingalaba, Mr Ron.’

‘How’s sales? Feeling auspicious?’

‘Ah... no sales today, no sales ....ah...’

‘No sales... bloody fortune tellers, never bloody right.’ Ron takes a moment to sit and catch his breath. ‘Bloody fortune teller said this would be an auspicious day for business, and not one bloody sale. Maybe he got my horoscope wrong, sure I’m Sunday born. And these fucking stairs... Jesus Christ how did I ever get roped in with this auspicious bullshit stuff.’

Cho Cho Kee is offended. He looked long and hard for that office. Besides, swearing upsets him, and now he has lost face, and keeping face sweeps the collective Asian space in a never-ending tsunami of trepidation. The others in the office have gone silent at the show of Western temper, the only sound well-controlled breathing. Ron plonks himself disconsolately onto an office bench, hard teak that hurts his arse. That of course is another bloody story.

That afternoon the ringing of the telephone interrupts Pammie's pedicure. Having a phone in Burma is a matter of status, requiring money and clout. For a crazy moment she fantasises the call might even be from someone back home in Oz, but it turns out to be just Cho Cho Kee.

‘May I speak with Mr Ron please Maam.’

‘Cho, you don’t have to call me Maam. Pammie is fine.’

‘Yes, Maam Pammie, my name is also said Cho Cho Kee.’

‘He’s on the computer. I’ll just get him... Ron, it’s Cho!’

‘In a minute, in a minute!’ Ron yells.

‘Are you playing Patience again?’ she yells back.

‘No! Just wait, okay. Just one more bloody minute!’

‘Are you there Cho? He’s playing that bloody game again.’

‘Yes Maam Pammie, the Patience game. He's getting better at it I think.’

‘I’ll call him back!’ Ron trumpets from the back room. ‘No, wait there, what does he want? Just another minute, one more minute!’

‘Cho, he wants to know what you want.’

‘Maam Pammie, it is most important that I must speak directly with Mr Ron. I will wait. It took many minutes to find this line.’

‘Okay Cho, you wait then.’

'What is it Pammie?' Ron yells.

‘He won’t tell me. He wants to talk directly with you! Burmese men’s business I suppose!’

She stalks off leaving the phone dangling, swinging back and forth in the imaginary Yangon breeze, and returned to her nails.
A minute or so later Ron grabs the phone and shouts down the line.

‘Cho Cho Kee, still there? What you bloody want?’

‘Yes, I’m still here Mr Ron. Yes, Patience a very good game, and I have got very good news.’

‘Well go on!’ Ron says, tugging on a clump of his damp silver hair, head resting against the wall.

‘Very auspicious day today.’

‘Yes Cho Cho Kee, we’ve already done that mate!’

‘Yes, Mr Ron, doctors from Yangon Hospital say many many patients today.’

‘Patients at the hospital? What, lots of them?’

‘Yes, Mr Ron, yes, good news, very good news, many many people suffering respiratory ailments. The smoke from cooking fires, you know. Doctors order many stethoscopes.’

'Brilliant news mate. Brilliant. Cho Cho Kee, that is truly auspicious! Good on you!'

‘It’s that tooth again isn’t it!’ Pammie says.
‘Fucking killing me if you wanna know the truth.’

‘It’s going to kill me too. You’re a big blouse of a sook Ron... this has gone on too long. I’m booking you a flight to Singapore to get it done. I’ll do it right now!’

‘What?? No! No way! Shit, you know what that’ll bloody cost? Look, it’s a straightforward dental procedure babe. I’ll save a bloody fortune if I go to see this bloke here. He was trained in Singapore and he’s been highly recommended.'

‘By Cho Cho Kee, I suppose?’ Pammie says.

‘Well he’s got good teeth.’

‘That’s because he’s an abstemious bloody Buddhist Ron! Just do something, will you, either way, just do something!’

She's hunting for her ciggies, but knows anyway she’s smoked the last one. Ron is bad enough on a good day but some thing can really shorten your fuse.

‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it babes,' he says.

'Just fucking see someone this time!'

'Okay, okay,' he says.

His driver drops him on the far side of Mission Road, complaining of no parking anywhere and that is was the only option. Ron knows there's no point complaining. Yangon traffic is high on Ron's hate-list, along with spending money and dentists: today he's getting the trifecta. The only comfort is getting the bridge-work done here will save a mint.
The dentist is secreted away in a labyrinth of alleyways and arcades, predictably impossible to find. The midday heat is overwhelming and his haemorrhoids are flaring. Having to ask directions along the way from kids shrieking with laughter at seeing this big Westerner lost and looking for one of their dentists, only makes him crankier. All he wants is a nice long sit-down on his blow-up rubber ring, but he has to keep walking. Finally high above a restaurant and next to a leather goods shop seeling pelts of jungle cats and exotic snakes, he sees the shingle hanging out the front: “Dr Sien Sien Ky, Happy Luck Dentist - Your Teeth My Problem Not Yours”.

Pammie emerges from her fourth shower. On days like this with an atmospheric inversion, the heat and smoke from cooking fires is unbearable. The phone rings: Cho Cho Kee, but this time for her.

‘Maam, Maam Pammie, I have very inauspicious news.’

‘Cho, you don’t have to call me Maam. Just Pammie, okay?’

‘Yes Maam Pammie, my name is also said Cho Cho Kee.’

‘Yes Cho, I know who you are. Ron’s not here, remember - he’s at the dentist!’

‘Yes Maam, yes Maam, Mr Ron, yes, was at dentist - now he is patient!

‘Cho, he’s not bloody here, he’s not playing Patience - will you just listen for once!’

‘Yes, yes, Maam Pammie, no, no, not the Patience game
- the hospital patient! Mr Ron, he is hospital patient!’

‘What? What hospital? Not Yangon Hospital! What’s he doing in there?? He could bloody die in there!’ Pammie is sweating freely now, panting in the heat.

'Maam, please be calm and I come and get you now.’

‘What’s happened? Is he alright?’

‘Yes Maam.’

‘Will you stop calling me Maam!’

‘Yes Maam.’

As his dental work was being concluded, Ron had passed out in the old British Army issue dental chair of Dr Sien Sien Ky. Judging such a sizeable western man prone to coronary, the dentist had him rushed to hospital. In Yangon Hospital, Ron regained consciousness just long enough to see a confused-looking young doctor striking a stethoscope with the heel of his hand, trying to get it to work.

‘Can’t seem to get a heartbeat,’ the doctor was saying.

Hearing that, Ron had swooned again. Pammie has never been one for hospitals, terrified of them ever since her brother died, and more recently when she had to get Bangles and Striker, her pair of Rotweilers, put down at the vet before she came over.
She hasn’t even seen Ron yet, and is already having an anxiety attack when the room began to swirl.

‘Can’t seem to get a heartbeat,’ she hears a voice saying. ‘Can’t seem to get a heartbeat.’

She looks across and sees a white-coated doctor poised over the massive frame of Ron. It is he who has uttered those words. Pammie clutches at her sides, vomits, topples from her fluoro wedges and falls very hard.

‘Miss Marple, Miss Marple...’ she is whispering.

‘Miss Marple? What is she talking about?’ the young doctor asks, shaking her gently, trying to revive her.

‘Miss Marple is an English woman sleuth,’ Cho Cho Kee says. ‘Maam Pammie reads them continuously.’

‘Ah, that Miss Marple,’ the doctor smiles. ‘Of course I know that Miss Marple. Written by Dame Agatha Christie, the famous lady author.’

‘Yes,’ Cho Cho Kee said, smile unfaltering, ‘that one.’

Pammie wakes seconds later, just as Ron stirs too, and they both realise they are somehow in adjacent beds, and in hospital. They exchange a confused, hungry look before Ron notices that Cho Cho Kee is sitting at the end of his bed, and that he wears a furrowed brow and no smile. Along with everything else in this situation, this is new.

Ron is unable to speak, mouth horribly swollen from the straightforwardness of his dental procedure, and Pammie can barely whisper from the concussion sustained from fainting onto the hospital’s concrete floor. Both now watch, muted and bug-eyed as Cho Cho Kee, sensing it has fallen to him to show leadership, begins to speak while pacing up and down between their beds, unaware of the frustration building in his entirely captive audience.

‘It is afternoon of the same day on which you Mr Ron suffered heat stroke at the dentist, and you Maam Pammie fainted when you got to the hospital. Now, I have extremely inauspicious news and have something very deliberate and serious to say,’ he says. ‘It is very bad luck, perhaps to do with your horoscope Mr Ron, but it seems that all our stethoscopes have been found to be defective. Yes it is unprecedented, but it also gets worse. They have been traced back to a robbery by brigands of a UN refugee relief truck on the Thai border. My mind astounds me they could do such a thing to us Mr Ron! Not only is the equipment all stolen, but it is entirely non-functioning. There is only one solution that can take place. I am not pleased to say this, but it will require a substantial bribe to Number Six General to get everything smoothed over.’

Ron writes on a scrap of paper. How much?

‘I thought you may want to know that, so I have prepared a spreadsheet.’ Cho Cho Kee is smiling again.

Ron’s face turns from hospital white to toxic red as he sees the sheet and he snatches the page and points at one of the figures, a big one.

‘Oh that, Mr Ron,' Cho Cho Kee smiles. 'That’s danger money.’

Pammie releases a muted high-pitched squeal, wide-eyed as if she has sat on a rose thorn.

Please explain, Ron writes on the scrap of paper, pointing again to the amount.

‘Mr Ron, it is expected when doing business in Asia that someone be paid danger money. These payments are normal. It’s just business, Mr Ron. Just business.’

Ron stares at him fuming, wishing he could reach out and wipe that idiot smile from his face, wishing he could do more than mutter through his swollen mouth.

It was four o’clock at very, very long last. Pammie puts the final touches to her face. Even though most of it melts off the moment she leaves the apartment, it doesn’t matter. Puckering in front of the mirror, she adds a generous layer of bronzing powder and favourite hot pink lipstick. She looks like a doll, she thinks. She even thinks about wearing a dress today, a special day, but decides against it. She feels safe in jeans even though her pot belly shows a bit.

‘Ah... babe... don’t we look done out,’ Ron drawls. She smiles and coos. They’re both excited: it’s Sulo Bar time.

The lift is working today, an auspicious sign. They leave via the basement, the swagger back in Ron’s step, but once outside he’s dazed by the heat and traffic. He hasn’t been out for a week. But now it’s just that short walk to the Solo, and then nothing will matter. He soldiers on towards it. Pammie keeps pace, tippy-toed, dodging potholes and composting street flotsam, making swishy noises with the zig-zagging of the seams of the Levis cladding her inner thighs.

At last they enter the chilly confine of their one safe haven in all of Burma.

‘Your shout Ronnie!’ Pammie declares, snaffling a stool.

Ron grins and gestures to Winston, the bar manager, who smiles greetings. The icy jug of Myanmar Beer comes in moments, with a pair of clean frosty glasses.

The deep chill of the beer spikes Ronnie’s bridgework, and he feels for a moment like he’s going to pass out. But he doesn’t, and then that taste comes, the malt and hops and all the other perfect whatnot, and he slurps another big swig. They settle. The sugar does what sugar does. For one silent, sustained, wondrous instant, God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.

‘So what do you want to do for Christmas Ronnie?’ Pammie says. ‘Nearly time to renew the visas isn’t it? Besides, you need that surgery done don’t you.’

‘More bloody surgery, fucking haemorrhoids.’

He takes another long deep swig: Never was there a better cure for ailments oral or rectal.

‘By the way, remember that little fibro-shit-box I bought in Paradise Beach before we left? It’s trebled in price. Agent got me a coupla idiot tenants in there doing it up it for free.’

‘Can be hard to get rid of but.’

‘Nah, easy,’ he laughs. ‘If I can do okay with a Number Six General I can get rid of a few feral renters. Quite a little operator that Cho, isn’t he. Hate the fucking smile and he never sweats the bastard. But he did get the U fucking N off my bloody neck.’

Pammie takes another sip, and hesitates a moment before speaking up. ‘Ronnie?’

‘Yeah babe?’

‘Did you know where those stethoscopes came from?’

‘Sure. Singapore.’ He takes a mouthful, draining the glass. The bridgework appears to be holding. ‘Everything I get, that’s where it always comes from babe. Singapore.’

She nods and finishes her own beer. Ron gestures to Winston up the bar for refills, and sits back on his stool with a small pained sigh.

‘Did you forget your little rubber ring, darl.’

‘Shit of a bloody thing,’ he says.

‘Did the fortune teller come this morning?’

‘Yeah. You were still asleep babe.’

‘What did he say?’

‘That I’ll have a very auspicious life. Better than the last one anyway,’ he said. ‘Best bloody news in ages.’

‘Well that’s good then, isn’t it darl?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, suppose it is. Wankers.’

Winston approaches with fresh frosty glasses.

‘Bloody fortune tellers,’ Ron says.

'When's he coming again?'

'Next week.'

'Is he worth it?'

'Oh, he doesn't cost much.'

Winston politely pretends not to hear, but then he’s heard it all before.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Jane Smith this morning spoke to her devotees on Queensland's beautiful Sunshine Coast in an interview with Sami Muirhead and the breakfast team. Jane took the word of spiritual development through home improvement to the holy land of spiritual renovation, to the people of Sunshine Beach and Tewantin, and the Noosa River, the very Ganges of home improvement. Jane recited Kea's famous maxim "out is good, then in is good", and spoke of how at his ashram in India she had first read his famous book "I, Kea". Thanks to Sami - and the best of luck to the boys at finding their inner shelf!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Our daily routine in Kea's ashram of course included yoga.

I had done a bit of yoga back at home, being an Iyengar brown belt, but my master introduced us to his own form of yoga. Kea’s view is that in the West, yoga is fake because it pretends to be about spiritual things but really it’s just about fashion and body obsession. My master’s technique is much truer unto itself.

Called Pradah Yoga, it is an exercise, breathing and positive visualisation regime all in one. It has poses like “Stretch for Success”, which is a powerful extension with fingertips at full stretch towards a visualised luxury necessity, and “The Ostrich”, which is a full headstand on the floor, which allows you to ferret out any kipple that might have accumulated under your bed, a notorious kipple hot-spot.

During their daily Pradah Yoga routine, the novice is taught to powerfully visualise all the good things of life - stocks and shares, waterfront homes, European cars, designer clothes and precious jewels and objet’s d’art which will inevitably begin to cascade towards them from the simple act of tackling their kipple and confronting their shelves.

Our days were not only taken up with lectures and yoga though, as they are in other ashrams. Kea also had a host of very helpful practical techniques, and our afternoons were spent in the Domestic Core Design, Shelving Assembly Instructions Comprehension, Allen Key Specialisation and Basic Internal Maintenance huts. Our master had thought of everything, you see, but that is what makes him a guru.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jane Smith's new book at Sydney University

Blissings upon you all at Sydney University... Today, Wednesday 8 April 09, is a special day. I am reaching out to you all as my chosen Devotees through offerings of my new book, 'Finding the Shelf Within'. Like lotus petals on the wind you will find an abundance of copies on campus, and for those who seek them out, each will have a cover sticker coloured to match their aura!