‘It makes me sad, this place.’
Because it should be land; it should be alive with the humid hum of insects, the hacking laugh of gibbons and the purr of moss as it creeps over the high flanks of tree roots, he thought.
‘Forty years ago, this was a jungle valley. Now it’s an inland sea,’ he said.
‘Not salt water,’ she said.
‘No, not salt water, but as sterile as that would be. Look at those stumps.’
Across the broad horizon, stretching from island to island in the haze that hung over the calm surface, was a fringe of black stakes. ‘Those are the branches of trees that died when they flooded this place. The islands are the hill tops.’
‘There are probably lots of fish,’ she suggested, finding a reason for optimism, ‘and the electricity is free from the dam, or should be because they’re not burning oil.’
‘That’s sustainable at least,’ he conceded. ‘They swapped a natural habitat for an unnatural one. It is still a habitat, and it is better than burning oil, but it makes me sad nevertheless.’
The long boat delivered its load of half a dozen tourists to the sandy bank surrounding a small island. Greg and Ann climbed up the slope and scouted around. There were a few bamboo buildings and what looked like a small school at the top, with adults for students. An older man was conducting a lesson under a tree. The visitors were told that the young men in the class had been caught committing petty crimes on the mainland. They had been sent to this inland Alcatraz for re-education and craft training.
Ann bought a woven bamboo basket for sticky rice from one of the young men. He had made it himself, he told them. Sticky fingers to sticky rice, thought Greg.
On another island, the revolutionary zealots had re-educated prostitutes, rounded up from the fleshpots of decadent Vientiane. Greg wanted to know the swimming distance between the two islands, but the smiling guide couldn’t help.
They sat on a low wall to wait for the others in the group.
‘In 1827, the Siamese sacked Vientiane, carted off all the inhabitants to populate the sparsely-peopled region of Isaan in what is now north-east Thailand, and destroyed every building in the city except for one wat,’ read Greg from his guidebook.
Ann was silent for a moment. ‘A cat could do all that?’ she asked.
‘A cat? Oh, I get it. Let’s go. Come on, you.’
With the group on board, the boat set off for the return trip to Na Nam, where their minibus was waiting to take them back to the city.
The blonde woman sitting next to Greg was on her mobile. As Ann reached to put her arm around Greg’s shoulders, she spotted a mosquito on his neck and, without warning, slapped his sweat-moist skin open-palmed. She had aimed for speed, but achieved force.
Taken unawares by the assault, Greg let out a small yelp in the direction of the woman and cried ‘Aw, what are you doing, honey?’
‘I got it,’ said Ann. ‘Sorry, but it was a big one.’
‘I should hope so,’ replied Greg.
Ove was thinking that to go travelling in Southeast Asia was not the best thing that Kerstin could have done. At the time, he had encouraged it. He thought that the trip might give her a chance to contemplate their relationship. He thought that she might return home with her love for him restored. But now he was having doubts.
She had called him from Bangkok, and again from Chiang Mai a week later. She was friendly on the phone, to be sure, but he had not found evidence from her calls that the healing had begun.
The first conversation was cut short because, he understood, new friends were rapping on her hotel door; the second was similarly truncated, this time because she was tired after a day trip in the jungle. Ove wasn’t expecting instant results, but he was missing his wife a lot and he calculated that, if their plan was to be successful, she ought by now to be showing some signs of missing him. This was the first time since they had married that they had spent as long as three weeks apart.
Now Kerstin was in Laos, apparently on a lake. While this was certainly the kind of contemplative setting he wished for his wife’s little vacation, the intrusion of a male voice, clearly alarmed, close, and speaking English endearments, made him wonder at the company she was choosing.
He was keeping an open mind, but felt frustrated. He needed to set out his misgivings at greater length than the interrupted mobile calls allowed. He would send an email for her to pick up when she next checked into her account. His laptop was at work, and he couldn’t wait until the morning, so he grabbed his coat and ran down to the street. Their flat was on the edge of central Stockholm and there were two or three internet cafés from which to choose. On an impulse, he turned left, and walked two blocks to Café Nuno.
Ove was clear of his mission: to set out the primacy of his claim for Kerstin’s love. He would acknowledge his past errors. To be believed, he would have to confess them one by one. This needed some thought.
As he entered the shop, he hardly noticed the cat that walked nonchalantly towards the door; it was often there. Absent-mindedly, he let go of the swing door and realised too late that it had closed on the cat’s tail. As the animal squealed, he turned back to release it from the door. It mewed again loudly, bolted along the pavement and skidded into an alley where it found a quiet corner in which to lie low and recuperate from its experience.
Ove composed his love-letter. He hadn’t written to Kerstin for years, not since they were students. He found that the act of writing helped him gather his thoughts, and he wouldn’t have done that if she hadn’t gone on her trip. He re-read the message, decided it struck the right note, sent it and finished the last gulp of coffee. He had been right to encourage her to go to Asia; he was sure everything would work out.
Nancy Lenartsson took an open tin from her fridge, spooned its contents into a bowl and topped this with some dry nuggets shaken from a bag. She put the bowl on the floor and began to prepare dinner for her guest. She put the casserole in the oven and set the timer. Glancing down, she noticed that the cat’s food was untouched. As this was unusual, she checked each of the rooms of her flat for her missing Siamese, but without success.
Nancy concluded that her pet must have gone downstairs. She walked down the two flights to the internet café on the ground floor. Sandberg was manning the shop, as he did most evenings. He had seen the cat earlier, he told Nancy, but not for the last hour or so. She went out through the front of the shop and searched the street for a few blocks in each direction. Her call of ‘Thai, Thai’ yielded no results.
Nancy looked at her watch and realised she was short of time. She was due to meet her sister’s flight in not much more than an hour, so would have to postpone the search. She returned to her front door where she discovered with extreme frustration that she had locked herself out of her flat. Her keys, money and mobile were inside.
At Stockholm airport, the flight from Johannesburg was on time. Tindra collected her case and trundled it to Arrivals, where she had agreed to meet her sister. She walked back and forth along the rank of drivers—the ones holding up the name-cards—but could see no sign of Nancy.
Tindra’s mobile had logged on to a local network. She called the number of her sister’s flat but got no response. That could be a good sign—that Nancy was on her way but held up in traffic, perhaps. When she made to dial her sister’s mobile, she found the number missing from her phone’s memory; of course, she was used to calling Nancy at her flat.
Nancy was an hour late. It was the same time back home. Tindra knew that, around now, Derek would be heating up one of the dinners she had left for him; and she had a pretty good idea that Nancy’s mobile number was in the address book by the living room phone. She called home.
‘Have you eaten yet?’ she asked her husband.
‘Not yet. I’ve just put one of those dishes you did under the grill. How was the flight?’
‘It was fine. Derek, I need Nancy’s mobile number from the book in the living room. Would you be a darling?’
‘Sure. Hang on.’
While Derek was looking for his reading glasses and then for the number, the bake he had put under the grill began to burn. The smoke it produced was nothing to be alarmed about; nevertheless, it activated the smoke alarm on the hall ceiling.
Derek hurried back to the kitchen to take his smouldering meal out of the oven. He then climbed on to a chair in the hall and silenced the alarm by fanning fresh air into it with a newspaper. He got back on the phone to Tindra, who said, ‘Actually, Derek, Nancy has turned up now. Sorry to disturb you. Please go back to your cooking. I love you. I’ll call tomorrow.’
Upstairs, the alarm had woken Connor, their four-year old son. Vanly, the Laotian au pair, was in Derek’s study composing her weekly email home, which her mother would pick up at an internet shop on the Settathilat Road in Vientiane. Vanly heard the electronic chirp from the hall and Connor’s cry from the next room. Having not heard the smoke alarm before, she dithered about what to do. Should she finish what she was writing on Derek’s computer? Should she collect Connor and get out of the house? In a moment of confusion, she hit the delete button on her email, thinking it was ‘send’, and went to attend to the child.
On the landing, she saw that Derek was coming up the stairs looking flustered.
‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘I set off the alarm by mistake. Could you please get Connor back to sleep? That’s all. Thanks.’
Two days later, Vanly’s mother checked into her email account at the place on the Settathilat Road, as she did every week without fail. She was surprised to find her inbox empty and concerned that something might be wrong.
To put her mind at rest, she decided to walk down to the restaurant on Fa Ngum Road where her son Saravan worked. She would ask him if he had heard from his sister, who sometimes sent him a message on his mobile phone. The road followed the bank of the Mekong River and the restaurant was popular with locals and tourists alike, but it was unlikely to be full at this time in the afternoon, so Saravan would not chide her for disturbing him at work.
Greg and Ann sat at one of the tables set outside the restaurant, under an awning that protected them from the sun. There were a couple of bottles of Beerlao on the table, which they had ordered to quench their thirst after a day’s sightseeing around the town.
Greg poured beer into his glass, took a swig and topped it up. ‘It was Laos’s bad fortune to be in the wrong place when the Americans decided to save the world from communism,’ he said to Ann. ‘In their secret war, they made Laos the most bombed country in history, by head of population.’
‘They’re still clearing away the unexploded bombs,’ said Ann. ‘I saw the UXO office earlier today.’
Greg mused: ‘War devours euphemisms. Carpet bombing sounds so cosy. You wonder if it was Axminster or Wilton.’ He shielded his eyes from the setting sun and lifted his beer glass to his lips.
At that moment, Saravan the waiter passed their table and, simultaneously, his mother entered the restaurant at the side and called to him. At the sound of his name, the waiter spun around, nudging the floor-standing fan with his arm.
The powerful fan swivelled a few degrees and blew its cooling gust over Greg’s shoulder. He noticed the ripple it caused in the foam on top of his beer. He looked back and realised the fan had moved, probably jogged by the waiter as he turned to talk to the woman standing at the edge of the awning. What urge had brought her here? Whatever it was, how minutely different could that impulse have been to have made her act differently, not to have come, not to have called to the waiter, to have left the foam on his beer undisturbed?
Greg looked around the restaurant. He thought: what tangle of impulses has led to this, to all these people being who they are, where they are right now? Who could have predicted this mix of people would be here this afternoon? We feel empowered, yet we live in chaos.
Greg and Ann had come to the end of their trip to Laos. Tomorrow morning they were flying home. Greg was about to suggest to his wife that, with different starting conditions—and it could be something as insignificant as just one mosquito failing to hatch in an area as big as the lake where they had been a couple of days before—with such different starting conditions it could all have been so different.
But he didn’t.
And he wondered how that would now change their lives.
A mosquito is born from the shallows of the Ang Nam Ngum hydroelectric reservoir, hums its tiny new wings into life and seeks out its first blood meal. Days later, and a hundred klicks away in Vientiane, on the banks of the Mekong a light breeze ruffles the froth on a glass of Beerlao.
At least, that’s the theory.
William Peskett was brought up in Northern Ireland and educated there and at Cambridge University where he read natural sciences. He has worked in teaching, journalism, marketing, design management and corporate relations and lives in Thailand. He is married and has one daughter.
Peskett was part of a group of poets working in Northern Ireland in the 60s and 70s. Two volumes of poems, The Nightowl’s Dissection and Survivors, were published by Secker & Warburg, London — the first of which won an Eric Gregory Award.