This is the first chapter of my next Phnom Penh novel, to be titled Music for Hungry Ghosts, featuring a ghost who likes the blues, a psycho serial killer, and the search for the perfect spare ribs.
1. the ghost IN CIVILISATION
Red sleeps in the eye of the storm. Civilisation swings in a black wind, thunder rolls and lightning flashes, but Red snores beneath a cotton blanket, long silences between snorkels and snuffles, oblivious to the celestial chaos.
Civilisation is a bistro on Phnom Penh’s Riverside, and Red is its day-and-night guard, parker of motorbikes, mover-on of street urchins, and general gofer. His responsibilities have enlarged in recent times, because four months ago his boss, Mr Burl, bought the lease on the Chinese undertaker next door, the undertaker himself being recently defunct. Red was unhappy with that, as were all the staff to varying degrees, but the lease was cheap and Mr Burl was a foreigner who couldn’t be expected to understand about ghosts. So, spending money he didn’t have and couldn’t afford, Mr Burl knocked down the dividing wall between coffee-shop and coffin-shop, and half Red’s charge is now the possible home of unquiet spirits.
Somewhere in the wet and windy darkness a dog barks, but it can’t disturb Red’s slumbers, for Mr Burl has put a Buddha in the corner. Buddha will handle the dead, and Red will look after the rest.
In his previous career Red was a kick-boxer, possibly the worst in Cambodia. Guarding Civilisation beats kick-boxing hands down: he’s got a blue uniform with roll-down sleeves that button at the wrists, all his major decisions are made for him by Champei the head girl, who’s a little bit bossy and reminds him of his big sister, and nobody tries to kick him in the nuts. Plus serious black boots to wear by day, a folding bed to sleep on at night, and and a day off every month to go home to his village. So Red should be happy, but behind his flickering eyelids all is not well.
Red is dreaming.
It began as a dream of a certain girl from the village, a girl with teeth like the leaves of the tamarind tree, only white instead of green (Red never was very good at similes), but now he sees instead the figure of a man. The figure is made of green sticks. It has neither skin nor organs, just bone-sticks, and its head is a ball like a coconut, green as its green legs and green arms and yellow-green ribs, but smooth and lipless and tongueless. Its eyes are two black holes, and it floats within a black rectangular pit that gapes like the mouth, and somehow Red knows the pit is bottomless. Hunger radiates from it, and a pain that presses his soul.
Or perhaps it’s his bladder.
Red is suddenly awake. The dream vanishes instantly, leaving only a nameless unease. He’s sweating, and his heart races. There’s no clock in the bistro, but the glowing face of his watch tells him that dawn is near.
But this is no ordinary dawn: today is the first of the fifteen days of Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead, when hell opens its gates and the dead visit the world of men.
Lightning flashes, thunder crashes, a dog howls, and Red pulls the blanket over his head.
Last year, just days after he started work at Civilisation, burglars tried to break in from the back alley. They brought a hammer and chisel and tried to remove the bars from the kitchen window by digging bricks out of the wall. They had a blanket to muffle the sound but hammering bricks is noisy work and luckily he heard them and woke up. Armed only with a frying pan, he chased those evil men off and saved the day. Or night. Mr Burl was very pleased, and Red has been trying to live up to the boss’s high opinion ever since.
Red is ashamed. This is no way for the Hero of Civilisation to behave. He pulls the blanket off his head. He sits up. He cocks his head to favour his good ear, and listens.
Nothing, but for the faint electric buzz of the light-box behind the bar and the irregular gush of water from a broken downpipe in the alley.
Now he’s even more ashamed. He looks around.
Nothing again. Up at the front of the bistro the light-boxes glow orange and strawberry and lemon like sucked candies, showing up the shapes of expensive bottles. The stools and chairs sit upside down on the tables with their legs in the air, waiting for the day to begin.
He thinks of Mr Burl, asleep in his apartment overhead. Red would never dare disturb Mr Burl. Even if the burglars came back, he would phone Champei, and she would phone the boss. Soon Champei will arrive and begin bustling and ordering and he will sweep out the bistro and set the chairs in order.
Champei’s absence reminds Red that he’s alone. But there’s nothing to be afraid of, he tells himself.
And he really does need to empty his bladder.
The toilet is down the corridor to the kitchen. The entrance to the corridor is a black rectangle, and for reasons he can’t quite pin down it fills him with nameless dread.
He steels himself and throws the blanket aside, swings his feet to the floor, and stands erect.
What Red sees next sends him gibbering upstairs to the landing outside Burl’s door, where Champei finds him an hour later, huddled in the corner in the foetal position, his fingers in his mouth to the knuckles and his bladder empty.