I woke up at eleven-thirty. Then I blinked and it was two-thirty. I realised I was hung over as fuck.
My memory was hazy. I could just about recall, last night at about seven in the evening, telling Kate that I’d had no idea how I’d gotten so drunk so early. Bit of a silly thing to say, really. Obviously it was all the beer.
I tried to piece the night together. There was dirt in my bed – dried mud caked on the sheets. In fact I was covered in mud from head to toe, like some sort of deranged swamp creature. Not that I think swamp creatures are deranged, but if I was a swamp creature, it’s fair to say that I would be.
I discovered a memory. I can hear Asterix above me, laughing. “Hey, man,” he gasps breathlessly. “Are you ok?” I’m lying on my side, in the mud, under a motorbike.
That explained that then.
A couple more surfaced – shotting jaegermeister at the ping pong tournament; a missed call at six forty-five in the morning, from Million, who’d been wandering around for two hours, alone and in the rain; saying to someone-or-other that I couldn’t be fucked messing around with bread crumbs at 3am while deep-frying chicken in a wok. Oh, and a conversation with Lucky, most of which I’ve forgotten, but I do remember that at some point we were talking about breasts.
Today is Million’s birthday. She smokes a lot, and I wanted to get her a grinder, which is surprisingly hard to find on a beach where you can’t go five minutes without being offered a joint. I’d gone round to a few bars, buying a beer at each one to be polite (also just because I like beer). You know what, that’s what got me so drunk. Of course it was the beer.
But I couldn’t find a grinder. The closest I got was someone-or-other telling me, “I know there’s a shop somewhere in town…”
By the time I got down to the beach today it was almost four, which was almost sixteen hours through Million’s birthday and I still didn’t have a present. I’ve actually never been very good at buying gifts. I was proud of myself for having thought of something that actually suited my friend and irritated that I couldn’t follow through with it. I was running out of options. I’d have to head into town.
“Town”, for me, is Serendipity beach. I spent a lot of time there last year, despite the fact that I didn’t really suit the scene. I mean, everyone’s just down there getting wasted, so you’d think I’d fit right in, but I can’t stand the music and the atmosphere is fucked. At the beach bars, like JJ’s or Dolphin Shack, the strobes and laser-lights reflect off an ocean that’s black as pitch. The streets behind the beach are crammed with people handing out flyers for free drinks. On arrival at the bars you get a shot of something that’s violently pink, way alcoholic and way too sweet. There are girls working, whose sole responsibility is to stumble around the dance floor with a bottle, pouring it down everybody’s throats.
I can actually have a good time there, but it’s an effort. Maybe it’s the fact that all the bars play the same music, so you end up listening to Thrift Shop and Gangnam Style six times a night. Maybe it’s the tuk tuk drivers who double as drug dealers. No longer are you pestered with cries of “tuk tuk”; now it’s “Tuk tuk? Weed? MDMA?”
Maybe it’s the twelve-year-old prostitutes. There are two of them, dolled up like, well, kids who’ve gotten into their mother’s makeup. I’m not actually sure they’re prostitutes, but everyone gives them a wide berth.
It was still sunny when I arrived. My complexion doesn’t really suit the sun; I’m pale as a sheet, and tend to burn rather than tan, but this particular day it was lovely. Despite the clear day, it wasn’t intense enough to fry me. I stood for a moment soaking up the vitamin D, trying to get my bearings through my hangover haze.
I tried a men’s beachwear and accessories shop run by a very unfriendly French girl. That was a bust. So too was the electronics and illegal MP3 place, a tattoo parlour, and the convenience store outside Utopia that sells coconuts and party supplies. It was getting to the point where I was thinking I might have to go ask around at the bars. Which would probably mean more beer.
I’d started feeling a little better, but still my stomach churned at the idea.
As I made my way down to the beach and the bars, I passed a little shop advertising piercing supplies. It was tucked in an alleyway amongst houses that had been built out of driftwood and corrogated iron. Every single one of them had a TV.
A couple weeks ago, I’d been in the very same alley for a party. Kaffuffle in the Water Park. They’d had a giant inflatable waterslide and a pool. It stormed. I remember I had no money to pay for the slide, but somehow still ended up at the top, slipping and sliding in fat drops of rain and watching the lightning. People were huffing on balloons, getting dizzy on laughing gas and their own CO2 till they tumbled forward and slid like seals to the bottom.
I actually didn’t drink that night, and I had a spectacular time. The whole place flooded but the music never stopped. Seriously, there were waves on the dance floor. Almost everyone ended up in the pool, but it stank like a swamp to me so I just danced.
Huh. Not so much of a swamp creature after all.
Lying in a hammock in front of the piercing supply shop was a local girl, who waved and smiled as I approached. I asked her if they had a grinder, making a little twisting motion with my hands in case she didn’t speak English. She frowned for a moment, turned and shouted something-or-other in Khmer, before she motioned me inside.
There was another woman in there, a little older, a little less willing to smile, but to my delight she knew exactly what I was after. “Grinder, yes,” she said, reaching behind the counter.
I held my breath. Not really. Just adding a little extra drama to the tale. Embellishment is the something of something, as my grandad used to say. I can’t express how relieved I was, though, to have accomplished my goal, especially while I was so hung over that I could barely remember my own name.
The grinder she pulled out looked cheap, and tacky as honey that’s been baked into wood by the sun. It was a bright, toxic green soccer ball, and not exactly what I was after. For myself, sure. But for a birthday gift, I wanted something a little less tacky.
“Do you have any others?” I asked. She nodded, and headed into the back of the shop. She was gone for a long time. I’ve never really detected a sense of urgency amongst the Khmers, at work or otherwise. They lack alacrity. Except, once, when Nos and I were making out late one night on the beach and her bag was stolen from right on top of our feet.
It wasn’t our first kiss, but we’d just had one of those deep discussions that feel like you’ve seen each other’s souls, and we kissed as if it was. We were so into each other, in fact, so distracted, that not only did the bag get stolen from in front of our faces, but we didn’t even notice it was gone. Not until one of the thieves came back.
He was pretending to be a security guard. He wasn’t dressed up or anything, and was using his phone as a torch, but he tapped us on the shoulder, pointed at our feet and said, “Bag – gone.”
“Oh,” we said, still high on each other. “Whoopsy.”
“Beach security,” he said, tapping his chest. “I find for you.” Then he disappeared.
It was a scam, of course. Suddenly we were surrounded by Khmer men, dragging with them a scrawny guy with hunched shoulders and a guilty look on his face. In his hands he was holding a purse.
One of the men told us he was a police officer. He seemed to base this on the authority of his navy blue polo shirt, and the fact that he had a real torch instead of just a phone. “This is your bag,” he said, pointing to the purse.
It wasn’t our bag, actually, and we told him so. The police pretender shook his head and jabbed the bag forcefully. “This is your bag,” he said again. “We find for you. You pay us ten dollars.”
We weren’t going to stand for that, particularly for some random purse that had undoubtedly been emptied of any valuables. I have to hand it to them, it was a pretty sneaky trick – stealing our bag and then ransoming it right back to us. Well, I guess it would have been if they’d actually had the right bag. But ten dollars? The bag we’d lost wasn’t even worth ten dollars. All it had had in it was a hundred riel and a three-dollar phone.
(A hundred riel is… oh, maybe about twelve cents).
Anyway. There wasn’t much of an argument. The police pretender insisted we pay a couple more times, we told him we wouldn’t and walked off. They didn’t seem too dismayed. Eventually they just shrugged and wandered off, including the guilty-looking guy they’d “caught”, who didn’t look nearly so guilty anymore.
To finish my story. The woman came back about ten minutes later, and proudly spilled an armful of grinders on the counter.
“Many colours,” she said as they rolled about at random. I had to laugh.
They were all soccer balls.
Ah, well. I got the toxic green one, because hey, if you’re getting a tacky present get it in the tack-tackticest colour you can, and figured I’d write a really funny card.