Best Served Cold
It is a warm, still night in Phnom Penh. Along the banks of the Bassac River a row of waterside guesthouses hug the shore like boats that have gotten fat and forgotten how to sail.
It is 3am and the variety of backpackers have left the deck and are asleep or having anonymous sex in their cabins. A stray cat angles through the night, looking for something to toy with.
Inside one of the cabins I sit shirtless on the edge of the bed. The lamp is off and I have a towel over my knees. I am so tired I struggle to keep my eyes open. This is not what I had come looking for. I didn’t remember how I got there, I was not sure if I could ever leave. Insanity leaks down my spinal cord to give my limbs an unnatural, stale version of the fight or flight reflex. The night is far from over and before it’s done there will be blood. Regardless of the way this contest goes, I already know that it will be mine.
I like to keep my ears clean. Just for fun, or if I’m in a bad mood, I’ll use two cotton buds instead of one and most of the time both come out just as clean as when the went in. I’m dubious about the phrase ‘like your shit don’t stink’ because I suspect that mine doesn’t.
You could say that I am a fan of control. I don’t go in for security systems or trip wires, but I do enjoy a new sponge on the end of my dishwashing wand and I have a specific way of packing a dishwasher. For the uninitiated, big plates and pans on the bottom level with cutlery evenly spaced in its receptacle. Top level is mugs and glasses and breakfast bowls resting on each other at an angle to allow the optimal ratio of space efficiency to water access. You’re free to experiment with configurations, but I think you’ll find that I’m right.
In fact, there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. A part of me knows that I will somehow live longer, if not happier, knowing the best way to pack an overnight bag or make a bed or style curly hair. It’s not like I’m going to force my rightness onto other people, but I may repack the dishwasher when you’re not looking.
This rightness is about efficiency most of the time. Not always time efficiency because sometimes the right way to do things is the long way. Take the Great Ocean Road for example or sitting through the opening titles for Game of Thrones every episode. Whilst these things are not necessary, they make me feel better about life. For a glimmering hopeful minute, some aspect of this hurtful fucked up planet is bowing to your command. You are in control of the minutia of your existence. You too can stare in the face of chaos and know for one moment of your day that everything is good and proper and easy to find.
Of course, as in all parts of life, you get fucked up. People assert their autonomy and insist on doing things the wrong way, or worse, they don’t even consider that there could be a right way. It’s fine. You know, it’s good. It’s important. I can’t be right for everyone and some people like making mistakes.
Where my quest for rightness really falls down is around the October mark. Something happens to the world at about that time in the year, in Sydney at least, that makes a mockery of any attempt I make to be happy or content in this world. What I’m talking about, the phenomena that can shift me from a zen mountain goat burning incense to a wide eyed half naked revenge apparatus is the natural world’s insistence on insects. Apart from them, I’m usually pretty good with animals. Poodles shit me and some cats are pompous and jellyfish are dickheads, but otherwise everyone’s pretty cool.
Everyone, except of course for mosquitos.
My friend Harry I and I arrived in Cambodia via a border town that reminded me a bit of Deadwood. In those heady days of the first fluctuations of the global financial crisis our comfortable trip across South East Asia quickly became a jaw droppingly expensive and frustrating contest with currency conversion.
Regardless we found a comfortable riverside guesthouse where we could eat dragon fruit and strong coffee with condensed milk before venturing out to do battle with the Chinese embassy to get a visa for the bus ticket we were now going to have to buy thanks to the toxic debt in America.
I liked Cambodia. The street dogs were friendly and the sex tourists were innocuous. Our fellow backpackers were from Brisbane and they were determined to find the complete series of ‘Charmed’ before they went back home. Unfortunately we had little opportunity to speak to Cambodians except those that drove us around or gave us our alcohol.
Somewhere in Vietnam I remembered that European colonials drank gin and tonic because the quinine was a natural insect repellent. This suited Harry and I fine. We did our best impression of bobble hatted British imperialists sitting at the edge of the world with Bombay sapphire as mother’s milk. Despite the permutations of a hundred thousand stock brokers half a world away the post Imperial conquest of one guesthouse and a few pirated DVD’s was going pretty well.
This particular guesthouse started where the shore ended. the whole structure jutted out over the shallow waters of the Bassac. Outside our window grew some tall reeds. It felt a bit like an exotic locale from a Star Wars prequel.
As night fell we retired to our room to sleep off the quinine. From somewhere far away, from under the bed or in the darkest corners of my psychosis the faint, interminable and most of all, mildly irritating noise of mosquitos began vibrating through our air.
I don’t deal well with mosquitos. If my life was a Disney film a trio of mosquitos would be the baddie’s henchmen. Except if this cartoon were animal based, in which case the baddie would be a mosquito. For whatever reason, they like my blood, more so than anyone I’m ever with. In this case, more so than Harry. My mythological quinine was little more than a cultural appropriation, and mosquitos have no regard for post colonial thought. The miasma of my latent alcohol addiction was little more than a brisk barrier to the virile Cambodian mosquito.
For those who know me, I’m sure I appear to be a pretty level headed guy. There is something about the frequency of a mosquito flying in the dark that is a one stop ticket to Spencer smash. They make me irrationally rage fueled. What they do is cruel. In light of my desire for a modicum of control over the environment around me, they fly full in the face of order and gentlemanly decency. They are chaos on wings. I can’t sleep with one in the room, which is enough to say that I didn’t sleep a lot in South East Asia.
What happens next in this story should be prefaced with the knowledge that I was very very tired. I don’t deal will with being tired. I get grumpy and apparently, vengeful. At 3 am on that balmy Cambodian night I was determined to destroy evert cheap little insect in that riverside room. What I once saw as a charming guesthouse I now knew to be an evil breeding ground for the cruelest creatures in the Universe.
My plan was simple. I would kill them. I would just kill them. I was a man and they were a chemical reaction. If nothing else and pending mosquito’s ability to remember and communicate, my last stand would go down in their tiny annals as a bloody night where an entire colony would pay for the irritation of a lot of sleepless nights near the equator. I lay my exposed limbs in the darkness as a kind of bait, willing the poxy little shit heads to come and feast on these prime cuts of grain fed Australian flesh.
‘Hahaha’, I laughed inside my head, in case they heard me, forgetting that my foe was barely sentient.
It was a slow start to the offensive. The hunters became the hunted, but of their noses or proboscis were immune to quinine they were all the more sensitive to treachery. After full minutes of waiting, a tell tale vibration rang out near the far wall. I turned the light on – ha! ‘Surprise! You thought I was asleep! No, my friend I was lying in wait, I was waiting for you!’ In the harsh light I slapped at the wall and through light pained eyes I saw my adversary fall, stunned, to the ground.
With careful precision I picked the agent of chaos up with the fingernails of my thumb and forefinger. It didn’t seem so big now. Its delicate wings motioned in the air. I could see it’s hateful beak swiveling, looking for purchase. ‘No. Not this time. I have you now and you will pay. If your kind feels pain, you had better prepare yourself.’
In the dark dark night on the banks of the river next to Phnom Penh, in a sleepy guesthouse, I got my satisfaction. The tiny cries of a single mosquito could be heard through the city.
As I look back now, with my blood down, and out of the heat of warfare, do I regret my actions? No. I blame the natural world for making me what I am today. As I stood over the lamp slowly bringing my newly wingless prey closer to the heat of the 75 watt light bulb and taking pleasure in its adorable convulsions I knew that I was going home a changed man.
Do you ever recover from war? No. It stays with you always. In my heart I know that my cause was just. Even if that was the only mosquito I killed that night, I know that a balance was restored, that wrongs had been righted. When blood is spilled there must be retribution. Blood can only clean blood. That is the order of things, the right configuration, the small bowl underneath the big one, alphabetized, orderly, and efficient.
This story was originally performed at Story Club, Hermann’s Bar on the 27th of June, 2012.