Cambodia: A short story by Dean (not suitable for kids!)

I’m pleased and proud to introduce Dean Patrick, the author! Below is his first short story, inspired by our time in Cambodia. I’m biased of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s amazing! If you’re a kid, don’t read on unless your parent says you can!

Enjoy!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday 5th August 2013

Tepid water lapped at his bare ankles as Narong Keo stood on the highest of the concrete steps leading to his door, struggling in vain to close the heavy, rusted padlock. He kicked at it in frustration, causing the faded material of his right trouser leg to fall from the safety of his knee and drop into the muddy brown water. Cursing, he hoisted it back into position and tucked the shoes he was carrying under his arm so that he could give the lock one last almighty squeeze with both hands. Water seeped out of his trouser leg, forming rivulets that snaked their way down his calf and, as the first of these rejoined the ocean of floodwater at his feet, the steel hoop grudgingly slid home with a dull, barely audible, click.

Taking his scuffed shoes in his hand once more, he turned to survey the scene before him. Rainwater, channelled from the rooftop high above, hammered down onto a corrugated metal porch just above his head with a sound that was almost loud enough to drown out that of the city waking up around him. The metal sheets stretched out on either side and water sluiced off the precipice to create a wide but uninspiring urban waterfall. Beyond this translucent veil, on the opposite side of the flooded street, were housing blocks identical to his own, subsidised for government workers like him, nearly-new but already deteriorating. He had replaced the broken lock of his door with a padlock, but that too was now clearly beyond repair.

It had rained solidly for four days – not uncommon for the rainy season in Cambodia – but with such a ferocity that parts of the city had flooded that he had not known to flood before. Including this one, it now seemed. He raised up the hood of his plastic poncho and set off down the steps, realising as he went that it would be a pointless task to attempt starting the half-submerged motorcycle that waited for him below. Once at the bottom of the steps, the water level reached halfway up his thighs, which meant that his attempts to keep his trousers dry had been as much a waste of time as the sandbags that he could see piled up at the end of the street. He turned away from them and waded up the slight incline until he reached the intersection with the main road. Here, the water was shallow enough for traffic to run, so he looked around for a tuk-tuk to take him to work as the rain played a drumbeat on the hood pulled over his head.

The sun had barely risen, but the street was already a hive of activity: neighbours were pulling open the shutters to their shops-cum-houses, a young boy was helping his mother to balance myriad piles of fruit and vegetables into pyramids, a truck laden with sleepy looking labourers bounced along the road through unseen underwater potholes, and mopeds threaded their way around the larger vehicles – some stacked high with crates, others carrying whole families, and one just in front of him draped with dozens of dead chickens.

His eyes met those of a tuk-tuk driver through the chaos and so he waved his hand in a downwards sweeping motion to beckon him over. The tuk-tuk’s construction was typical of those found in Phnom Penh: a two-wheeled carriage pulled by the front section of a moped, sheltered by a roof that extended forward over the driver, with fabric screens that had been unfurled down the sides and rear to provide some protection against the downpour. The driver stopped level with him so that he could lean in close to describe the location of his city centre office. He didn’t have to say much before the driver flashed a grin – which exposed more gaps than it did teeth – and nodded vigorously to indicate that he knew the destination. At least 20 years his senior, the driver’s face was a mass of wrinkles: ripples of experience emanated from his gaping smile and his wide, shining eyes

eyes bursting with a soulful joy for life, so deep and so dark: a welcoming embrace that he longed to fall in to

which radiated out to the wisps of hair that sprouted from his head, ears and chin. Side-stepping away from the driver, he climbed into the carriage, allowing the screen to fall closed and seal him away from the outside world. He dropped his shoes on the wooden planks at his feet and removed his poncho, placing it next to him on the bench. Leaning back, he ran his hands through his thinning hair, relieved to have exchanged the rain for the dry confines of this motorised cell. Beyond the opposite bench, outside the cabin, he could see the back of the driver’s head glancing from side to side as he navigated through the traffic. Attached to the roof of the canopy above the driver’s head was his license, which featured a photograph of a much younger man – barely recognisable as the same person, but the mouth and eyes

so hauntingly familiar

gave it away. The driver’s name was written to the side of his photograph.

His name is Issarak Matak.

Kompong Cham province, Cambodia, Thursday 28th December 1978

Two weeks ago, whilst labouring in the fields with his mother at a Koh Kong province work station, he had been taken for training so that he would understand the aims and principles of the Angkar. Five days ago he was shown how to hold and fire an AK47. Yesterday he was driven here, to a new work station, and given an orientation of the camp. Today he was to start work. But he wouldn’t be working in the fields any more. Now he was assigned to be a guard. In three days it would be his thirteenth birthday.

On his first morning as a guard, he was given a breakfast of almost a whole bowl of rice porridge – so much more than while he was working in the fields, when he could count the individual grains of rice submerged in the grey liquid. Straight afterwards he was told that, rather than help to escort the workers to the fields, he was to collect a prisoner from the communal cell and take him to brother Suon Seng in interrogation room B2. He repeated the prisoner’s name over and over under his breath so that he would be sure not to forget it

His name is Issarak Matak, Issarak Matak, Issarak Matak, Issarak Matak

and eventually he found his way to the holding cell. After explaining to the guard on duty who he was and why he was there, he was shown inside.

It took his eyes a minute or so to adjust to the gloom of the small, windowless interior. The room was about as wide as he was tall and at his feet was a metal bar, the ends of which were bent downwards and cemented into the floor near the walls. Attached to the bar were four sets of shackles, each wrapped around the ankles of a man. The men were sitting with their backs against the wall, which once may have been painted a vivid yellow but now was so faded and covered with mould that it was difficult to be sure.

The guard stepped into the cell and knelt down to the prisoner on the far right, saying, “This is the one you want, brother Keo,” in a flat monotone, as he unlocked the shackles. Prisoner Matak recoiled from the guard and met Keo’s gaze with impossibly wide, beseeching eyes. Once free from his restraints, the prisoner was hauled upright and thrust in Keo’s direction, who motioned with the tip of his rifle towards the door, saying, “Come with me.”

Issarak Matak staggered ahead of him through the building and into the bright light of the compound. Out here, Keo was able to see large welts that the shackles had left around the prisoner’s ankles and it became clear why he found it so difficult to walk. He slowed their pace and a few minutes later they entered room B2. It was roughly square, with a plain wooden chair at the centre, each leg of which was ringed with a shackle and secured to the floor by a metal bracket. Above the chair, a single bare bulb illuminated the scene with harsh white light. A man – presumably Seng – stood behind the chair, wearing a peaked cap that cast a dark shadow over his face. The room was otherwise bare, except for a table in the far left hand corner, on top of which was a battered cardboard box. His attention was drawn back to the shadowed face by a low voice.

“Please show our guest to his seat,” each word was said slowly, with precision. As Keo moved forward to do so, he found that he could begin to make out the features of Seng’s face, which was plump and shining with grease. His lips were slightly parted, revealing two rows of perfectly straight, very white teeth, clamped tightly together. Once he had guided prisoner Matak to the seat, Keo was spoken to again.

“You are to remain here to assist me. Stand aside.”

Seng then moved so that he was directly in front on the prisoner, looking down at him.

“You are here because you have committed crimes against the Angkar. You will confess your crimes to me.”

Prisoner Matak looked from Seng to Keo and back again, his darting eyes full of fear and confusion, “But… I’ve not committed any crimes! I’ve done nothing wrong! I’ve done all the duties that are expected of me without any complaint, I…”

“You have been arrested,” Seng cut in, “therefore you are a criminal. Are you stating that you have nothing to confess?”

“I have done nothing wrong.”

“Then I suggest,” he replied, “that you try hard to think of something.” He moved towards the table and, as he did so, spoke over his shoulder: “Fasten the restraints. Both sets.”

Keo shouldered his rifle and worked his way around the chair, locking the shackles around the prisoner’s ankles and wrists. He was relieved that there was no resistance. An Angkar slogan, remembered from his training, came back to him as he did this: Better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party!

When he had finished securing the prisoner’s limbs to those of the chair, Keo received another instruction: “Take down his trousers.”

He looked towards Seng to make sure that he had heard correctly, but he could only see his back, leaning over the box on the table. Prisoner Matak wore a simple pair of plain black cotton trousers, ripped in places and repaired in others, held up at his bony waist by a makeshift belt of rope knotted to one side. He moved to untie the knot, but Matak began to buck and writhe at his hips, pleading and begging and protesting his innocence. The lightbulb overhead began to flicker, turning Keo’s vision into an ever changing series of still-frame images, making his task impossible.

“Can you not control your prisoner?”

The impatient voice came from just behind him, making him jump upright.

“If he refuses to cooperate, then strike him.”

Keo felt a sudden surge of anger at the prisoner in front of him who was making him look so foolish and, without really thinking about what he was doing, swung the butt of his rifle hard at his face. It made contact with Matak’s mouth, making a sound like a crushed egg, and he immediately fell still, his head bowed forward, moaning quietly. Bright red blood dripped from the man’s chin onto his chest.

Keo thought of his father. “Good,” came the approving voice over his shoulder. He noticed that the light was no longer flickering, but couldn’t have said how long it had been that way.

He repositioned his rifle, bent down once more, undid the knotted rope, and pulled Matak’s trousers down to his ankles. He was not wearing any underwear. Seng moved forward, shunting Keo to one side, and knelt in front of Issarak Matak. After a while he stepped back, and Keo saw that he held two wires in his hands, the ends of which had been tied somewhere within the hair between Matak’s legs. He now turned and began wrapping the exposed metal core of one of the wires around the terminal of a large battery that had been placed in front of the chair. Seng turned his head towards Keo, his face dripping with perspiration, and spoke.

“It is our duty to see that he confesses his crimes.”

Then he turned his beady eyes back to the man in the chair, who still sat immobile with his chin against his chest, and moved the other wire to the remaining battery terminal.

Issarak Matak’s whole body tensed – muscles, veins and tendons strained against the surface of his skin and his hips lifted as high off the seat as his restraints would allow. His head was thrown back and from his clenched jaws came a drawn out, strangled moaning sound unlike anything Keo had heard before. Time seemed to stand still. Matak’s front teeth were at unnatural angles – one in particular looked as though it was on the verge of falling out – and blood stained his chin. The putrid smell of singed hair and flesh began to fill the room. Eventually, Seng pulled the wire away from the battery and Matak dropped back into the seat.

After a few moments of complete silence, Seng calmly explained to Matak that the interrogation would continue tomorrow and that he would now be returned to his cell so that he could consider what information to divulge on his next visit.

The walk back to Matak’s cell was slow and long. Storm clouds were rolling in from the east and these now passed in front of the sun, causing a dark shadow to overtake Keo and his prisoner and spread out to the far corners of the compound and beyond. A revolutionary song was being played from a loudspeaker somewhere in the distance. Keo remembered it from his training and, as he walked, Angkar slogans ran through his mind.

Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake!

Long live the revolutionary Angkar, utterly wise and clear sighted, and ever glorious!

When pulling out weeds, remove them roots and all.

                                                             ***

It was the middle of the night and Narong Keo lay awake on his mat, anticipating several more sleepless hours alone with his thoughts. But the next day arrived sooner than expected, and with a lot more noise, as a rather distressed looking officer burst into the room. He kicked sleeping guards into wakefulness and yelled for everyone to put on their uniforms, gather their weapons and assemble for further instructions.

Outside was a scene of agitated chaos. Clouds obscured the moon and stars, so the only light available was that offered by a few generator-driven lights. It was raining hard and must have been doing so for several hours because all around him people were running in a sea of mud. Alarm bells were sounding throughout the compound. Keo joined a small circle of confused guards who were standing to one side, which gradually grew larger as more men, and boys around his own age, gravitated towards it. After a few minutes the group was approached by an officer – Keo couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, but when he began to speak he realised that it was Suon Seng.

“The Vietnamese army have invaded our beloved homeland of Kampuchea and are advancing on our position… we must resist them!” The group of guards had organised itself into something resembling a line and Seng paced up and down it as he talked. At their previous encounter Seng had seemed to dominate the room, but out here Keo noticed how remarkably short he was compared to the other men assembled there.

“We are currently arming everyone able to hold a weapon,” he continued, “and you will all be responsible for ensuring that those weapons are used against our enemies until there are no enemies left. If anybody refuses to fight, or tries to flee, then they too become an enemy of the nation and will be destroyed.” He stopped walking and cast his narrowed eyes slowly along the haphazard row of dripping faces. “I trust that you understand me.” His voice was not loud but it seemed to slice its way through the air to be heard above the surrounding commotion. The assembly dwindled as Seng sent parts of the crowd off in varying directions, until just the two of them remained. Seng turned to face him.

“The prisoners are an inconvenience,” he stated. “There isn’t time to extract full confessions but they must be dealt with nonetheless. Go back to the holding cell; the duty guard knows where to take them. You will assist him as necessary and then you will both report back to me.”

He had finished speaking but Keo remained motionless, processing all that had happened over the past few minutes.

“If you understand me,” he glowered impatiently, “then I suggest that you go. Quickly.”

                                                             ***

Keo was marching with the cell guard and four prisoners and had been for some time, leaving the compound behind them. He found it hard to be certain about the details of exactly what had happened since he had left Seng. It was like trying to recall a vague afterglow of a dream, or trying to distinguish between reality and déja vu. He remembered running – slipping and skidding through mud in the dark – and reaching the cell. The prisoners were told that they were being moved to another camp and that their families would soon be joining them there. He couldn’t fully remember the conversation that he must have had with the prisoners’ guard, but he knew that this was a lie – even if there was a hint of truth about their families. After all, weeds must be pulled out by the root.

Keo never found out where they were heading. Suddenly, the surrounding darkness was full of shouting and the rattle of gunfire. Bullets snapped through the air around them and he found himself dragged down into a drainage ditch. It took Keo a few moments to realise that the other guard was lying next to him, firing his rifle into the night and screaming at Keo to do the same. He fumbled for his gun and desperately looked for something to shoot at. Seeing nothing, he pointed it in front of him and was about to pull the trigger anyway, but at that moment the shooting stopped. Confused, he looked around and saw the other guard face down in the mud beside him, completely still. There was no sign of the prisoners who, Keo realised, must have escaped. The shouting grew louder. He dropped his rifle and stood up, silent tears making tracks down his dirty cheeks.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday 5th August 2013

The tuk-tuk stood motionless at the roadside. Confused as to why his passenger had not emerged, Issarak Matak climbed down from his seat and walked around to the side of the carriage. It had stopped raining and, as he lifted the drape, the clouds behind him parted to flood the interior with the bright light of the morning sun. He was startled by what he saw. Keo was on his side with his arms around his legs, curled up, filling the entire floor space and talking to himself. His eyes were closed tight against the light that silhouetted Matak, and tears moistened his face. He did not stop talking now that he had an audience.

Large parts of what he was saying were barely coherent, as his babbling speech constantly jumped from one half-finished thought to the next. Explanations and confessions were woven together with threads of guilt and self pity. After some time, an impassive shadow of understanding settled on Matak’s features. When Keo had nothing left to offer but sobs of remorse, Matak let the screen fall back into place and returned to the driver’s seat.

Matak drove further than he had in many years, far out of the city and up to the crest of a remote hill. During this time, Keo had managed to regain some level of composure and now sat calmly on the rear bench. He had resigned himself to whatever fate was in store for him, even if Matak had driven him all the way out here to kill him, he would offer no resistance. After all, if the Vietnamese hadn’t intercepted them thirty years ago, he would have done what was expected of him when the time came. Wouldn’t he?

There was an abrupt stop, the sound of feet crunching on small stones, and then the side covering was lifted. “Come out,” came the old man’s voice. He motioned for Keo to walk with him to the sheer edge of the hill, and he did as he was bade. When they reached the edge, Matak sat down and crossed his legs. Keo, after a moment of confused hesitation, followed suit and sat next to him. They remained seated that way, looking down at the sprawling city before then, for what seemed to Keo like an eternity; but eventually Matak broke the meditative silence.

“I’ll never forget those years,” he said, without moving his gaze from the view of the city. “There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think about the people they took from me and the evil things I witnessed.

“But I count myself lucky. I survived, and my wife did too. We have been blessed with four children and seven grandchildren. And, if I had the eyes of an eagle, I would be able to see all of them from this very spot.

“There are certain people that I will never be able to forgive for the parts they played in those dark days, but you, and those like you, I forgave a long time ago.”

After saying this, Matak turned and his eyes met Keo’s. “As to whether you can forgive yourself,” he continued, “only you can say.”

In Matak’s eyes, Keo saw the truth.

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3 thoughts on “Cambodia: A short story by Dean (not suitable for kids!)

  1. Wow, such a moving story, You must have heard some harrowing tales to relate such a powerful piece of literature. Am loving the blogs Steph – get a buzz when one pops up on email. Photos fab! Keep them coming. X

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