Fiction: Year Zero
By Neptune Gilderoy
In my dreams, death is a tuk-tuk driver.
He takes me out into the paddy field wastelands surrounding the city, the swampy ditches that spit out skeletons each rainy season, the skulls silently laughing at some joke no one living could understand.
The driver makes me dig a hole with a shovel with my name written on it in luminous chalk and I look down and I’m lying dead in the ditch already, dead in the cosmic killing fields waiting for humanity to wise up to the punchline.
The driver tells me I was born a ghost, we all are, and his cackle splits the sky.
I watched the tired daylight tag out, fading faster than yesterday’s dreams, swapping shifts with the incoming darkness that fills the horizon like a charcoal mothership.
Phnom Penh was waking up, and I was glad to see the end of the sun, a sun so yellow it seemed liver damaged, a sick jaundiced eye in a bruised face.
The sky always had a black eye in Phnom Penh and at any moment it would weep.
At any moment it would fill the gutters with its tears and wash all the pain away.
After a brief and fierce shower of warm monsoon rain that rinsed away the stale ghosts of the previous evening's indiscretions, the city smeared itself with neon and dressed itself in fresh sleaze.
Perfumed with the promise of cheap sex, its heartbeat rocking with the tinny trashy thud of hip hop and badly wailed karaoke, its pulse racing with the blind and antic traffic; Backfiring shotgun blasts of oily exhaust fumes, tuk-tuks like motorised runaway sheds duelled for the scant road space with incessantly hammered horns and flicked cigarettes, aimed at the eyes.
A fury road, bereft of Buddha's patience.
Stolen motorbikes and their methed out jockeys weaved madcap patterns across the sun-cracked asphalt, signing the road with scorched rubber as the drivers' sleepless eyes stood up on stalks, scanning the street for an unguarded handbag to swipe.
Times were hard.
Times had always been hard.
At mien Loi.
A clueless herd of meaty middle-aged sexpats stupored by an afternoon in fifty-cent draught beer stumbled across the trash-heaped curb, blinded temporarily by the hiss and blink of the restless neon signs.
Staggering, lured from one side of the street to the other by a harem of hard-eyed brasses decked out spikes and black fishnets catcalling pidgin spat filth from across the rude gulf of traffic.
The sirens sang their songs from the tattered veranda of the dollhouse, street 136’s premier girlie bar.
One cat-eyed beauty with the cheekbones of an Angkorian goddess and hair a cascade of shining onyx was down there now, distributing worn menus to the men.
They were so sunburnt they seem to glow like iron in a dark forge.
I turned away from the balcony and slid the glass door shut behind me.
“Lili,” I said.
I thought of how the dark cherries of her nipples felt between my teeth.
My tongue remembered her flavour, the salted caramel sweetness of the sweat on her skin.
I thought of how she seemed to sing as she came, that soft and desperate song in her throat that seemed to usher my own orgasm into her like a train into a station.
“I love you, Lili.”
I poured myself another drink.
“Khmer 31, Cambodian Jack Daniels my arse,”
I knocked back a smudged tumbler of the stuff.
It made me wheeze, but I poured another.
I went back to the window but stopped short of going back out onto the balcony and watching Lili work.
It would only make me jealous.
I looked down at the rude horseshoe of teeth marks on my knuckles attesting to my jealousy and tried to make a fist.
My hand looked like a bunch of overripe bananas.
I winced, took another belt, and winced again.
I looked through the glass and past my reflection into the night sky.
Still blue but going black, just like my hand I thought, and then the stars came alive, all at once, as if someone had just then remembered to hit the mains circuit breaker to the universe.
I made my way to my desk.
One short wonky leg I had set with a makeshift wedge formed from torn-out pages of the Phnom Penh Times.
I checked the clock, next to the fan that threatened to burst loose of its rusted screws.
The air it offered to my face was stale.
The clock, the clock.
Time is ticking Jack, slivers of your life falling away one second at a time.
I remembered the doctor's words, back in my previous life somewhere in London, spoken with a cool impassion that made me want to bang the white coat-wearing across the head with his kidney dish.
One thing is certain, Mr. Moran.
You can never take another drink, not if you wish next Christmas.
It could be one year, or it could be five, but you will be facing a very painful death at some stage I am afraid. Liver failure you see. Hepatitis you understand.
I bitterly recalled everything I had shared that I shouldn’t have; razor blades, needles, questionable women of leisure. Knife fights.
It's your lifestyle that has contributed to this, the places you’ve been, the drink and the drugs and the lord knows what else.
Prison. The quack had meant prison.
The sweaty hell of Bang Kwang, the steel-doored boredom of the scrubs, the immigration nick on the border of Laos. The doctor pouted smugly.
I detected amusement.
There are some who would think that you have gotten your just desserts, but not me, Mr. Moran.
I am not a moralist.
Live well, for as long as the lord allows.
On the way out of the doctors office, I had seen kids across the road in a park, running around, pretending to be planes as their nice hipster parents guffawed and licked ice Lollies.
The parents were more gaudily tattooed than me.
Some of the sprogs climbed into the trees, but only the lower branches.
I watched them and wept.
The sun. God, the sun lit them up and left me in darkness, and I hated their happiness.
How was it right that anybody was allowed to laugh ever again now that I was dying like this? How could it be right that anyone ever laughed again?
But I would die and the world would continue to spin.
I wanted to run across the world and scream at all the kiddies that I was dying and one day their mums and dads would die and eventually they would die too.
But I didn’t.
I ended up in an empty pub and spent an hour or two staring down a cold pint until it went flat and warm, and then I thought about Asia.
I thought about the places that hadn’t given me lifetime bans, go out with a bang I thought.
Die with dignity.
Beautiful brasses every night, I’d whore and drink myself to death, just like I had planned to do during my twenties and thirties only this time it would be different, live fast and just die, I won’t hang around, I won’t wheedle out of my own suicide pact and let myself get old again.
I won’t survive.
I took a one-way ticket and the death rat gnawed at my guts the whole flight so I tried to drown it with miniatures of whiskey and cans of Heineken and a surreptitiously sniffed bag of charlie I had scored off of Albanian Mick.
I hit the ground running, and within weeks I had been barred from a variety of establishments, hopping from hostel to hostel, and bar to bar, until I found my apartment and my dusty corner in the Monkey's Paw, Phnom Penh’s oldest pub.
I sat with the empty monkey cage above me, the ghost of its occupant hanging on my back, strangling me from behind, and I sat for three months, waiting for death to walk through the door and tell me that my tuk-tuk was waiting.
But he never came, and I met Lili instead.
I held her in my head the whole stomp down the stairs and the roar down the street but when I got to The Dollhouse my heart sank.
When I saw the sweaty leather vests with embroidered patches of severed Viking heads.
You know they are mental already, to be leather-clad in this heat.
Walrus moustaches and arms the size of cow carcasses.
Meat hook hands with skull rings so cheap they turn their sausage fingers green.
Wankers not tough or smart enough to make the cut with a proper club back in the world, too rotten to be taken by anyone, no bikes and a bar all of their own, the oil slick or the road rash.
I swear one of them drives an old beaten-up Toyota.
Blood Eagles they were called, the Blood Eagles had surrounded my night witch and they were groping her with their eyes, and I dared to lock eyes with them, because I knew I’d see her beaten and gagged, blinking help in morse code with those lush lashes.
And the tattoos smeared across all of them, a gallery of bad bodywork that screamed out a history of hate and discontent; a claw clutching a bundle of decapitated heads, each one named and numbered. There were six, but there was still time.
The devil holding baby Jesus.
Prison numbers and various loser riffs like only god forgives and do unto others and kill em all.
Born to die.
The slurping paedophiles and the geriatric perverts, those I could handle, I could bear their slack-jawed leers, but this was different.
This was naked menace unafraid of discovery, menace, and threat that these cunts wore like a twin coat of arms, a malevolent bunch of Buddhas swallowing the flimsy plastic chairs with their bulk.
I took a seat, and Lili walked out to a chorus of whistles and lip smacks.
She looked scared, her eyes cold with fear until she saw me and then she smiled as she brought me a beer.
Her hand touched mine, and then a voice said.
“Come here often mate?”
I turned to meet the mouth that had said it, stared into a smirk.
I watched something dark pass across the face and beneath the eyes.
Something dark and full of rotten deadness passed under the surface of an ocean like a floating and long dead whale.
I had seen evil in and on many men, and it had recognised my face.
It recognised the silk strand of love that joined Lili to me, the strand that joined us that evil always felt compelled to sever, with its jealousy and contempt.
Evil was jealous and this cunt was green with it.
“Here and there,” I said.
“Here and there. Fine cunts in here eh mate. Might grab myself a handful later.”
He winked at me and then let his eyes crawl all over Lili.
I considered the beer bottle in my hand, the marriage of its body against his planet-sized head.
No, you can't, I told myself, you nearly got her fired last time, and these cunts will kill you slower than death your carry in your gut.
I kept drinking and tried to relax, and each time Lili served me she whispered into my ear “Ahttbanha, no problem. It OK.”
I didn’t believe her until around midnight, when the bikers suddenly left, all of them rising from their tables at once and knocking over bottles with their bellies.
They paid in a flurry of thrown crumpled notes and then they were gone, muttering “sluts” under their breath.
“Have a good night mate,” one said with a pat on my shoulder.
The tension poured out of me, and I sat with my beer and Lili sat on my lap and kissed me for as long and as deep as she could without her madam seeing.
She promised to see me again tomorrow and I staggered home, happy, feeling the death rat rooting around my belly, and I knocked off the rest of the Khmer 31 before I blacked out.
I knew before I had even opened my eyes that something was wrong because it always was.
I was dying.
I peeled my tongue off the pillow and dragged myself out of bed, running from the horrors that chased me down the street toward the monkey's paw.
The Monkey's Paw claimed to do breakfast but I’ve never seen it.
In the afternoon Danel will start serving burgers, but they are only ordered for show.
Alcoholics like to look at food whilst they drink to make themselves feel better.
The walls are adorned with peeling posters of King Kong and planet of the apes and unbelievably there is a shrunken monkey's head behind the bar.
Danel reckoned he couldn’t find a paw.
There was a cage in the corner, above my favourite table, coated with a film of dust.
“What happened to the monkey Danel,” I had asked when I first saw the cage.
“It escaped, got drunk and got arrested. Bit the cleaner. If you don’t believe me, I have a photo. The old bill put the poor fucker in handcuffs.”
Lurking under a table somewhere and sleeping off a perpetual hangover, was a bar dog called Fatty, which the ex-pats fed shots of Baileys like coins into a pinball machine until his eyes lit up and he started to stagger around growling at his own tail.
One too many and he would attach himself to some unlucky cunts leg or arse, teeth first.
So no breakfasts, just coffees and teas and frosty glasses of Cambodia draft, a regiment of them lined up on the bar in front of the wilted legion of ex-pats struggling to find some meaning in anything, each one holding onto the life-raft of the bar for dear life, another hand wrapped around a drink like a weird religious relic, a chalice containing a saint's blood that once drunk could hopefully cure a five-year hangover.
At night the bar fills up with the more hardcore wrong uns, moody jaded bastards who hadn’t slept since 98, men who ruminated on the good old days when you could dump an OD’d hooker into the river in the morning and be shooting cows with Russian issue rocket launchers by lunchtime.
And these cunts work at the embassy!
Danel was already telling half the drunks about another bad one as I arrived and filled me in as he handed me a beer.
“Hear about that girl from The Dollhouse? You know the pretty one Jack, the one that seemed to have an eye for you? Found her down by the airport in a ditch, full of drugs, covered with everything except clothes…”
“What, Lili? She’s dead?”
“Yep. Afraid so. Want a chaser with that Jack?”
I nodded and went to my usual spot, the monkey cage like a gallows above me.
I turned my face away and wept as the death rat nibbled victoriously.
It rejoiced in my ruin and I dared it to do its worst.
I slammed my beer and went back to the bar.
Danel was already pouring me another.
“Who did it?” I managed.
“Who did what? Oh right, that. Nobody knows for sure, but those Blood Eagle cunts were in The Dollhouse last night apparently. I mean they’ve got form haven’t they.”
I was in a fog.
I took a nip of cough syrup, and then I went to war with my liver.
The fight was bloody and fought without quarter.
Danel waved it off, literally threw in a white towel over me as I slumped skull fucked, and said “I’m not having someone die in my bar. Not again!”
When I woke up, I was on my couch.
I immediately started to drink but it didn’t work.
I could see her rag dolled in the ditch, pale as the pre-dawn sky, the flies on her open eyes.
They buzzed between her spread legs as an idle cow perhaps sniffed her and gave her an idle lick.
I knew then with crushing horror that I wouldn’t be able to remember her any other way.
All the good times were lost, the rolling across a bed I wished was endless so we could kiss and roll forever, and her laying panting and stretched out, glazed in sweat, dew on the black silk between her legs, it was all gone and all I’d ever see was the grinning mannequin in the ditch.
The rest of it had never happened.
I had thought my love would protect her from all this shit, but instead, I hanged her with it.
Full of downers and thrown from a car down near the airport, the arse end of nowhere, just stray starved cows munching on plastic bags and desperate dochkai searching for cans to recycle.
Beaten and choked and stripped of every stitch.
I was back in the Monkey's Paw or maybe I hadn’t left.
One or two backpackers too intrepid for their own good wandered in looking for the dirt, ordered a pair of foaming beers, and stood staring at us, and I gave them both barrels.
“This place is like dry rot, once it gets into you it's in your bones and before you know it your backpack and dreadlocks are in the bin along with your sense of adventure and your hope and it's six years later.
It’s six years later and it will be three in the morning forever and the same glass of beer will be in your hand the whole time, and no matter how many pints of piss you pour down your throat or how many hookers you pay to sit on your face, none of it will ever be new again.
And just when you get used to it it will change, just when you come to terms with your own degradation you will sink deeper, oh yeah there are levels to this, you will slide like a turd down to the ninth circle and you will be in a corner with the exiled Nazis and the casual nonces, trying to convince yourself that fifteen isn’t that young and the brass the night before really likes you, it’s not just the money it’s love, and you was a good dad when you could be bothered, even though you haven’t seen your kids in years, even though you can’t remember their names.
Embrace the pain I say, I check my belly and ribs for a knife handle every morning!
I should be sprouting shanks like a porcupine, but I’m not, the damage is interior.
My head feels fine, bizarrely.”
The backpackers left in a fusillade of middle-class snorts, and I got a round of lazy applause.
I choked and spat blood into my beer and watched a ribbon of it float through the amber and then I said
“I need a gun, Danel. Where and how much?”
He shook his head as if there was something stuck in there.
“You are going yellow Jack, and clearly mad. Why do you want a shooter?”
“My blood type is banana. Gun please Danel, and a double Jim Beam.”
He pretended to clean a glass but they were never clean.
“Where can I find such a thing?”
He could get anything.
He stopped and said the name I’d been dreading he would.
Landmine Larry, chief talking bollocks of the ex-pat burnout tribe, an alleged gun runner but I wagered the only machine gun he'd ever known was his own mouth, firing indiscriminate bullets of bullshit into any fool who'd listen or not.
But then there was the Nepalese knife at his side, a crescent moon of tempered steel, and an ice habit that had reduced lesser men to drooling medicated idiots.
Bullshitter or not he was dangerous.
His breath could wilt flowers.
“So, what are you Charles Bronson now? You're gonna go kill crazy over a hooker? These guys are animals, Jack, savages, and you're just a sick old burnout. This is Phnom Penh, Jack, not the movies.”
The Jim beam swirled through my blood and brain like a bad hit of acid.
I replied with silence, waited in it semi-submerged, my eyes just above the surface of a swamp of self-pity, hate, and one-dollar drafts until Danel nudged me a few days later and said,
“Landmine Larry is in the bogs.
He has the package.”
I endured Larry for as long as I could in the piss-reeking ether of Danel’s badly plumbed bogs, his eyes threatening to sprout out of his head on stalks as he tried to sell me everything from a vial of LSD to a World War Two issue Claymore.
Within the space of ten minutes, Larry has reeled off an impossible array of accolades, and I realised I was dealing with the Moby Dick of Walter Mitties.
Tall stories and lies are the twin currencies of the exile and the burnt-out, and men like this wait in every airport lounge bar and bus terminal in the land.
Cambodia is full of these special forces sad acts and serial bullshit merchants, men who have all served in the SAS or helped evacuate Chernobyl or moonlit as roadies for Dolly Parton or bodyguards for the queen.
Landmine eventually ran out of steam, seemingly tired of his own stories.
Eventually, he produced the pistol, a colt .45 bigger than life and heavier than time.
The last time I had held a gun seemed a lifetime ago, an unloaded sawn-off aimed at a post office clerk.
It was a prop compared to this cannon.
This was Armageddon with the gentlest of squeezes, a ticket canceller.
I paid Landmine and left him talking to himself in the toilets.
“Where are you going?” Danel asked.
“To go and have a fight,” I said.
“You are a bloody fool, Jack. A fool!”
One of the near-dead barflies agreed.
“Jack is a tosser!”
I stopped off at the pharmacy, the good one that asked no questions and served up an arsenal of high-powered pharmaceuticals over the counter, and bought another two bottles of codeine cough syrup, a strip of oxycontin, and a jumbo tub of tiger balm.
I had mosquito bites.
I spewed a scarlet rainbow of bloody sick into the toilet bowl as soon as I got home, choked on it, and spewed again.
I upended the bottle of Khmer 31 into my mouth to wash away the taste and chased it with a can of Coke and two swigs of codeine.
I crushed up the oxy and snorted it with a ten thousand riel note.
I was rising and falling like a burning angel.
I held up the gun in the mirror and did my best taxi driver shit as the cotton wool euphoria filled my battered body and temporarily subdued the death rat.
It squirmed but it could squirm its last.
“This is our last hurrah,” I told the mirror.
And then I went outside and climbed in a tuk-tuk.
“Road Rash bong,” I said.
“Baht Baht, Ok Ok bram moi dollar, very far.”
I didn’t argue with the old fossil.
On the way to the Road Rash, I keep telling myself, there’s no need to survive what's coming.
Either way, I’m dead, and I looked out at Phnom Penh, a pitiless sea illustrated with graffiti and pain, cobbled together out of sheets of tin and jagged pieces of poverty, the shiny obelisks of gleaming newly built casinos rising high like monuments to the new gods.
Somewhere among this was the sprawling hive of the central market, and to the south, slowly encroaching, the new Phnom Penh, the trendy nighttime spots of Bassac Lane, and the quiet avenues surrounding the Russian Market with their burger bars and climbing gyms, a Phnom Penh men like me would never recognise.
The tides of change would wash us all away, but Phnom Penh itself would remain, open as a wound.
The Road Rash was crap.
A plastic Valhalla, a bargain bin warrior’s paradise fit for losers and scum.
I fit right in.
I looked up at the flag with the severed Viking head in its helmet.
“Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets, you know,” I said to the rat-faced bartender.
No tats, he must’ve worn his born-to-lose tattoo on the inside.
“What’s it to you?”
“Where is the fat man?”
Fetch him. I’ve got something to tell him,” I said and then looked up and read aloud a moniker.
“Valhalla awaits. I’d like to go there, just to see the look on Odin’s face when you stupid cunts turn up. I’m sure he had hoped for more than a pack of overweight date rapists.”
“You get one chance to walk away,” a familiar voice said from a table to my right and then I turned and stared into those eyes, a pair of full nails hammered into a slab of pork, and I told him he had killed her, and I was going to kill him.
“You killed her…”
“What’s one less dumb cunt.”
Smug as only a killer could be.
“...and I’m going to kill you.”
“Oh yeah,” he smiled.
Gold teeth with skulls and demons carved into them peered out of his mouth.
I heard chair legs scraping against the floor as all the bikers stood up at once, in unison.
“Yeah,” I said, and I pulled my buck knife out.
They erupted in violent laughter.
“What ya gonna do with that mate, whittle me a spoon? I’m an Aussie, I’m sure you’ve seen the films. That's not a knife and all that?”
Then I pulled the shooter and I saw the fear all men hide, the fear he had hidden deep beneath rolls of fat and years of meanness, I watched it rise to the surface and squirm like a maggot in meat.
Quite a thing is murder I thought, as I prepared to commit a whole heap of them.
The gun started killing him before I even pulled the trigger, the black hole of the barrel and all its terrible truths sucked away everything that had never mattered to him.
The gun barrel is the evil man's crystal ball you see, and it showed him what he was and his future in one glance.
Maybe it was more like a mirror.
Death was forever, the gun told him, and it said, I am the truth.
His outlaw veneer washed away in a toxic rain of fear and melting pig fat and I saw him for the tiny slug he really was.
I saw his soul.
He tried to hide behind nothing, waving his hands and holding up a glass.
For a moment I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, and then it seemed to happen by itself.
“You killed Lili,” I said. And he squeaked out no and then I shot him.
The explosion was atomic, surely heard by everyone across the city and he clutched his chest, trying to catch the syrupy blood spilling out.
I squeezed again, and the glass exploded.
A hole smoked in his face and teeth sprayed across the table with a witch doctor’s scatter of bones and dominoes.
Perhaps I could see my fate in them, but I didn’t need to look, I could see my fate in any old beer mug at five in the afternoon at the Monkey's Paw.
I was damned.
Rat boy got it next.
I squeezed one off as he approached with an axe handle.
I aimed for his neck and caught him in the head, the top of his skull spinning off like a bad toupee in a stiff wind.
I stood over his startled-looking corpse and made it dance, emptying the clip and drowning out the stink of blood and shit with a bonfire of cordite.
Rosettes erupted across his chest, overflowing with juice that spattered my face.
My hand stung like I had high-fived a train.
Beer glassES and bottles began to smash around me and crash into my head.
I turned and a pool cue broke over my skull and then something got stuck into my shoulder, near the neck, making things crunch.
I looked down and saw my own buck knife poking out.
I didn’t remember dropping it.
The panicked bikers were pelting me with everything they had, trying to stone me to death with chunky tumblers and shot glasses, but I didn’t care. I let them soak me with their rain, let glass and slimy sticky dregs explode on my head, and run into my mouth.
Glasses and bottles, I’d been trying to kill myself with them for years you amateurs.
I nearly smiled and was tempted to poke out my tongue and let the dregs drizzle in my mouth but I aimed the empty gun at them instead.
Twenty stone men tried to scurry off like rats, falling over themselves like an ensemble of clowns tumbling out of a car.
My rat scurried with them, trying to burrow out of my belly but I held fast.
I clicked the gun.
Nada, but they didn’t know. A gun was a gun.
No no, they said.
Please and gods. One or two Jesus Christs.
“I thought it was Odin!”
I pistol whipped at them, cuffing them across the ears, across their big beach hall heads.
Teeth tumbled out.
I laughed, stepped over the pair of corpses, and helped myself to a bottle of Maker's Mark from the bar.
Save the best till last, no more of that Khmer 31 shite, not till the day I die.
I let the sweet smokey poison run down my throat.
I looked around, the air still ringing, the smoke in columns, a mini-war.
But life was a war.
In Phnom Penh, it always had been.
It was dark in the city, and it always would be, and anyone who lived here by choice deserved to be painted with it.
Dead angels parade these streets.
The sick and the dead littered this road less survived.
This city was an opium den daydream that made it difficult to determine who was alive and who was centuries dead, a kingdom of crying ghosts.
Sex and death bright as neon, twin stinks that lingered everywhere you went.
This city, it climbs inside you.
It was always three days past midnight in some grey flight of concrete steps and you were staggering up them crunching roaches like Corn Flakes.
Always some bar where no one knew your name.
Always a thousand-yard stare into coffee table glass with a grid of lines crisscrossed on its surface like suicide attempts tallied on a wrist, the sick light trying to break through a darkness that oozed out the ground and dripped out the sky.
Always on a tuk-tuk, with death driving, the neon slurring past like the jumbled drunken bullshit falling out of our mouth for the last thirty years..
I took another deep draught of the Maker’s and felt the death rat begin to gnaw away again at the remains of my liver.
“Chew away you bastard,” I said, and thought of Lili, waiting for me in the next life, or perhaps the one after that.
I hoped she recognised me.
I’m in Phnom Penh and I’m dying, and the girl I loved is already dead.
What more can I really say?