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.

No comments:

Post a Comment