I was standing along the water’s edge in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, talking to a man with an intimate relationship with his mother, when a man in the river started screaming, “I’m drowning! I’m drowning! Somebody please help me, I’m going to die!”
All at once, several things crossed my mind. I thought, Holy shit, this is a real person who might actually die!, and Is somebody going to do something?!, and for some reason I also thought, So this is a real scream? Blimey, actors aren’t very good at fake screaming are they?
Everyone turned and gawped in the same way you slow down when you drive past the scene of a horrific car accident. There was also a man who heard the screams – which were in English – but kept on walking, tutting under his breath, “typical tourist.” I guess he thought being a curious tourist was deserving of an agonising death. I hoped he wasn’t a hotel manager.
Passersby flocked to the water’s edge, but the screams were rapidly moving downstream. I fast-walked along the front trying to keep pace with him, weaving past other people on the path with all the grace of a featherweight boxer, but as it was dark I was unable to make out exactly where he was in the river. A few boats zipped along, lights zig-zagging over the inky water, chasing the drowning man’s cries.
I’d never seen or heard a real dying man before. His words bore the desperation of a person without hope, which isn’t something you hear too often. Racing across the city to Ben & Jerry’s only to get there two minutes after it closes is pretty bad, but the small comfort of “there’s always tomorrow” is enough; this guy wasn’t going to have any more tomorrows if the boats didn’t rescue him.
Unfortunately for those who like stories to have nice tidy endings, I never found out if he survived or not. The boats might’ve caught him or he might’ve been carried away by the river to who knows where. But that’s life. It’s not neat, is full of loose ends that never get tied up, and new stories take over. Talking of which, I’m just back from Morocco so expect some stories of North African carpet salesmen soon!