While sitting on a bench by a statue along the riverfront in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a man approached me. He was about my age, maybe a little younger, almost a head shorter than me, and he was grinning so much that I thought he must have a medical condition that meant he had to keep smiling or he’d die, like a remake of Speed used for treating depression.
“Hi!” he grinned. “Hello friend!”
“Hi…” I said with the natural uncertainty that comes with meeting people who are irrationally happy. He lived in a country in which 30 years ago Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had 2 million people killed, including babies who were smashed against trees and then thrown into mass graves, marking one of the darkest parts of recent history, and he literally couldn’t contain his happiness, whereas I come from the UK where I want to kill someone if my computer wants to restart to install an update.
“Are you well?” he said, enunciating every syllable.
“I’m good thanks. It’s nice here,” I said, indicating the sunset over the river and the general pleasant-ness of the area. There was a woman pushing a little cart with a cooler full of cold drinks and a group of shirtless kids kicking a football around. Two garish tourists were taking photos of each other looking out over the river.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “England?!”
“Yeah, England. Nice to meet you.”
“Are you from Manchester? What is Manchester like? My mother is moving to Manchester next year. She will be a carer. She worries that her English is bad! Do you need to speak good English in Manchester? Is Manchester racist? What is Manchester like?”
I’ve never been to Manchester. I got close once after losing a bet but there was a car on fire blocking the road so I went back to Cambridge and drank a kale smoothie in an organic coffee house.
“Manchester is lovely,” I lied. “In my experience people there are really friendly — certainly friendlier than London — but your mum should be prepared for rain, debating whether or not it looks like it “might come down” and conversations about how “blowy it looks out there” or not.
“Thank you,” he said, still grinning, “but I don’t understand. Would you like to come home with me and meet my mother? She would like very much to talk to you about Manchester and England. We will have dinner. She is trying to make – how do you say? – shep-herd’s pie? I don’t think it will be nice because my mother is terrible at cooking but we have cake also.”
“I’m sure she’s not that bad,” I argued.
“Yes she is,” he said firmly, smile wiped from his face. “I am surprised I am still alive.” Then the smile returned. “Please come! I will eat first so you know you will not get poisoned. She is not murderer, not yet anyway and never on purpose!”
I wasn’t too keen on joining the lunatic for dinner, because crazy people always have weird relationships with their mothers and this guy had a particularly weird one. I didn’t like the sound of the fact she was going to Manchester to be a carer either. How did she want to take care of people? Did she want to take care of me?
Just then, before I had made up my mind, while I was still weighing up how likely it was I’d survive the night, and while this little grinning man was still grinning at me, there came a blood-curdling scream from the river.
To be continued…
[Yes, it’s a cliff-hanger. Yes, in the next instalment somebody will die. Will it be a main character? A token minor character? Somebody completely new who’s had no characterisation whatsoever? Tune in next time to find out!]