Boiling rats, guzzling urine, ladyboys, a broomstick to the head, and an old vagabond bastard finding the wisdom of the open road. In other words, another travel yarn spun by the inimitable Michael Britton. Compulsory reading.
You could easily mistake Hsuen for a gentle woman. Until she smiles revealing an upper denture of broken teeth. Hsuen frightens me. I guess it is the way she takes care of the rat problem in the Step Down Guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur. Hsuen is the cleaning lady and to cross her path is to invoke a litany of miseries.
Today is execution day for a pair of unfortunate rats ensnared in Hsuen’s traps. With a glee filled cackle and a turgid excitement trembling through her compact fireplug body, Hsuen puts a tin pail of water to boil. With a growing horror we watch Hsuen add a fistful of salt to the raging water before picking up a rat by the tail and, with a ceremonial swish, plopping it to a horrible death.
The rat lets loose a scream that knocks angels off of their lofty perches and snaps demons out of heated naps featuring pornographic reels of exceptionally limber teen faeries being ravaged by hairy imps.
Franz, my dormitory mate, cannot bear the spectacle. He blanches before vomiting. Bjorn, the other tenant, watches impassively. He has witnessed Hsuen’s macabre performance before. It takes an eternity for the rat to die. Where the fur has boiled away the flesh is bright red.
The other rat cries for mercy. It knows what is coming its way. The rats looks to be praying for divine intervention. It kind of makes sense that rats would believe in a god. We do. And neither god doles out mercy generously.
Hsuen ignores the second rat’s urgent pleading and dispatches it to a scalding oblivion. When the screaming finally subsides Hsuen steps back, and with her hands mounted on her hips and her eyes brightly glistening announces that ‘all rats gone. Rats no come here no more.’ It is unanimously agreed that only an exceptionally dim witted rat would now dare darken Hsuen’s door.
The Step Down Guesthouse attracts the broken traveller. The exhausted and dispirited come here — the freaks wandering far outside the compass of ordinary lives.
Franz, a combat traumatized French Foreign Legionnaire, describes himself as a boyfriend of death. He regales me with battle stories from West Africa and the missions he undertook hunting snipers in the hills surrounding Sarajevo, Bosnia. Franz is a German. He tells me how after the defeat of the Nazis thousands of former Wehrmacht soldiers enlisted with the Legion. Wehrmacht marching songs are still tunelessly belted out on French parade grounds.
Bjorn’s nightmare is returning to the grey half-life of Stockholm. He is the sole survivor of a house fire. The remainder of his family is gathered in bottles in a storage locker. He carries the ghost of his sister.
I carry disappointment. Death does not want me for a boyfriend. Nor even as a pet.
I fear that Hsuen is plotting for my affections. She has taken to mopping the floors dressed inappropriately for her tasks. In a certain slanting light, dark shadows cast from a malevolent forest creep out whenever litter is picked up. Hsuen frightens me.
There are twenty-six beds marshaled in as best an order as can be managed for a dishonorable platoon of the willingly dispossessed. It is a devil’s orgy of twisted sheets, shirts, and underwear. Some socks have divorced their lifelong companions and run away, seeking the succor of forbidden adventure.
An Iraqi refugee occupies the far left corner bed in the dormitory. He sleeps for twenty hours every day curled into a tight wad wrapped in a sheet littered with little yellow flowers. No one knows his name. All we know is that he worries about his wife and children left behind in Baghdad.
Franz and Bjorn languish in their beds until mid-afternoon. Hsuen views them with disgust. Rats provide better company.
A new guy encamps in bed number fourteen. I take an immediate dislike to him. He has ‘idiot’ impressed on his flat, small town face. There is no need to ask where he is from, the Canadian flag sewn on his backpack boasts his jingoistic pedigree. He is the type of guy who never shuts up and immediately trespasses into my lugubrious musings.
He lectures us on the diabolical conspiracies of world government, birth control, the Vatican, and the tonic benefits of drinking urine.
Urine is best sipped fresh he assures us. He prefers his beverage diluted with water and chilled. Franz warns him against chilling his tonic in the communal refrigerator. The Canadian dissents, arguing that freshly relieved urine is sterile. ‘Nevertheless,’ Franz hisses. The Canadian is nonplussed. An uneasy truce ensues for what remains of the afternoon.
My evening beverage is a litre of blueberry infused vodka. It is a joint ventured product of Malaysia and Russia, and of markedly poor quality. The blueberries delightfully conceal its lethality, and I joyously swill it in large candy flavoured gulps. An abandon I will sorely regret later.
Franz and Bjorn wisely share a bottle of Hercules whisky. It tastes like Cognac.
The Canadian fills a glass with his pale amber cocktail poured from a wine bottle. He sips with an overly practiced genteelness. Franz watches him with a steel intensity. The condensation on the bottle informs us that it is chilled.
Hsuen is intrigued that a budget traveller sleeping in a rundown dormitory would choose to drink wine. A decent, or any, bottle of wine is prohibitively expensive in Malaysia. ‘It’s kinda my Chablis,’ the Canadian tells Hsuen.
‘Like California?’ Hsuen has never enjoyed a Californian Chablis and shyly screws up the nerve to ask for a glass.
‘Sure. Anything for the little lady.’ A glass is fetched from the sink and cordially filled to the brim. The Canadian settles deeper into his bed and waxes into his recent adventure in Bangkok. ‘You ever have a lady boy?’
This turn of conversation throws us and we neglect to warn Hsuen.
‘I did last week,’ the Canadian continues. ‘There, I admit it and I’m not ashamed.’
‘Some of them are very beautiful,’ Bjorn adds, setting aside his sister’s ghost for the moment.
‘This one was a stunner. In her early twenties, I think. o we went up to my room and she asks if I know she is a lady boy.’ The Canadian pauses for effect: ‘Sure, I know. I just want a blow job.’
Hsuen sniffs at her glass of Chablis and wrinkles her nose. She ventures a sip. It tastes sour, overly acidic and possesses a curious familiarity. ‘People in America like this?’ she asks.
‘It’s good for you. Even cures cancer,’ the Canadian briefly interrupts his carnal tale. ‘Thing is, her teeth were scraping me and I told her to stop. She apologized and I let her try again but she kept on using her teeth.’
‘This tastes funny.’
‘I took it for as long as I could but I had to stop her again and I was getting mad. Don’t use your teeth! Okay?’
‘I don’t think this is wine.’
‘She tries one more time but her teeth are still scraping me and it’s starting to hurt. So I tell her to forget it and go.’
‘You fuckin’ bastard! You give me piss!’
‘You’d think a guy would know how to give head.’ The Canadian is impervious to the looming storm.
A chill, like the eternal reaper’s withering handjob, claps it’s wintry bones over our joyous little party. We, all of us, are death’s boyfriends now.
Expression drains from Hsuen’s face, snuffed out like the corpse of an elf smote flat by an avalanche of sugar cookies. I struggle to pry myself loose from the binding chains of far too much blueberry infused vodka — an immediate sobriety is immediately demanded.
Silently Hsuen leaves the dormitory room returning a moment later with a mop handle. The Canadian looks at her and before a solitary utterance can issue from his cherub pink lips Hsuen cold cocks him across the forehead.
The sight of angry rivulets of blood running amok is too much for Franz. He faints straight away.
‘You guys know about this?’ Hsuen demands. She brandishes her mop handle like a holy roller threatening a host of concupiscent starlets at the annual elf’s convention at the Ventura Holiday Inn.
Bjorn and I deny any knowledge of this crime. ‘We thought he was drinking wine. The bastard offered us some too. Hit him again.’
Some days are born ugly. Through a blueberry nausea I note the vacated blood smeared sheets of the Canadian’s bed. The sun slashes into the room delivering hot misery. Hsuen is scrubbing the bathroom and chirping a saccharine love song. I roll over and bury myself into my grey, saliva soaked pillow, and amid a heavy pain wonder what compels me to do this to myself.
It is discontent that propels the traveller. An uneasiness constantly churning deep within. Weeks and months become strings of disconnections. Disembarking trains and buses in dark towns, scavenging for a cheap hotel, finding a meal, and doing laundry. Friends are abandoned and we go deeper and deeper into a solitary void.
In time, there is no more searching for new sights, new experiences, and a new self. There is only the compulsion for velocity.