Bandit Country 4

This village was on a river bank and had a market selling a great deal of fish. There was a particular species which I saw here for the first time, but continually thereafter. What was remarkable about it was that it was always displayed for sale alive; in this case neatly lined up on banana leaves with others of its sort, price tickets balanced unsteadily on the flattish tops of each head between the eyes. Sometimes the fish, which I was told lived for about three hours after being taken out of the water, would start to move unsteadily away on ventral fins that were evolving into flippers. This happened particularly when they were chivvied by dogs. They would make a yard or so’s progress before being recovered and gently replaced by the Cambodian maiden in charge. When a sale was made the fish were tied up, using a length of thin bamboo, with a neat bow, and taken away suspended from the buyer’s finger. The only dead fish on offer were very large, and these, by way of placation, had their jaws forced wide apart and a propitiatory prawn thrust between them. It was a village of animal-lovers, and two great pink buffaloes – the lucky kind – had the run of it and had stopped at the market for a feed of choice vegetables, while the vendors looked on admiringly.
It was here that a rather ill-boding incident took place. Three soldiers had been travelling with us and now suddenly they came rushing up, breaking through the group of passengers who waited in the shade of the bus for the driver’s signal to take their seats. Scrambling into the bus they threw their possessions out of the window into the street, jumping after them – upsetting as they did so a pyramid of hens in bottle-shaped wicker baskets – and then dashed off up the road, trailing belts and bandoliers.
A clucking excitement now spread among the passengers, and some of them, following the soldiers’ example, tried to unload their packages. They were frustrated by the arrival of the driver, who, abandoning his normal phlegm, and waving his arms like a goose-herd, drove them back into the bus. When I tried to follow, the way was barred and the driver explained possibly in mandarin that some difficulty had arisen. His arguments were supported by helpful translations into Cambodian by the passengers, speaking with the exaggerated slowness and clarity which they felt sure would more than compensate for an actual ignorance of the language. The senior bonze joined in, respectfully removing his sun¬glasses before beginning a low-voiced exposition of the circumstance in some scholarly lingua franca – probably Pali. The man of the restaurant clambered down, and pushing his way to the front, said pirate again, but this time with a sadly apologetic smile. One of the market people called to interpret, asked ‘toi parler Franpais?’ But when I said yes, shook his head in confusion and, having exhausted his vocabulary, was allowed to escape.
Once again the man of the restaurant was back, determined to break this impasse, while the driver cranked the starting-handle furiously. Hearing the word pirate again I pointed up the street to where the master of the skeleton house, who I supposed had retired on the proceeds of Dacoity, having made a dignified re-ascent of his stepladder and passed through his front door, was stretched out on his mat. But the man shook his head. Raising both arms he laid his eye along the sights of an invisible gun, pointed in my direction, pressed a phantom trigger and produced with his tongue a sharp, conclusive click. Then placing a finger on each eyelid he drew them down over his eyes, sighed deeply and gave a final puff, as if in dismissal of something, perhaps a soul. The passengers, who had all crowded over to our side of the bus, were much impressed with this piece of theatre, and shook their heads sympathetically.
The driver had now started the engine and was making gestures of impatience, but my friend persevered. From further sign language, some of which was international – such as the laying of both hands, palms together, under the cheek, to represent sleep – it was conveyed that as there were bandits ahead it would be better for me to stay in this village and to spend the night there, because if they found me on the bus, they would shoot me. This did not seem a very good idea, because I felt that if the bandits heard that I was in the village, as they probably would, they would most likely come for me, and I should be alone. Whereas if I went on with the bus and the worst came to the worst, I might be to some extent protected by the natural human sympathy, the bond of neigh¬bourliness, however slight, that begins after a while to exist between fellow-passengers who are thrown together on such journeys. I therefore succeeded in making it clear that I wanted to go with the bus.
As soon as my determination to continue with them had sunk in, the driver, aided by several of the passengers, began a reorganisation of the baggage at the back of the bus. This was piled up round a kind of priest’s hole, in the opening of which I crouched in the manner of a hermit-crab, refusing to withdraw myself entirely from sight unless an emergency arose.
There followed two stifling but uneventful hours, by the end of which I was half-anaesthetised by the fierce gases from the bales of dried fish. The bus then stopped again. We had come to a ferry and the driver beckoned to me to come out. It seemed that the danger point was past. But we were just on the point of embarking on the ferry barge when a young man came up. He was dressed in a new American GI uniform, and in spite of his air of easy authority, appeared to be weaponless. Going up to each of the passengers he made a collection. When my turn came, I smiled and shook my head. The young man repeated whatever it was that he had said, and I shook my head again. With an expression of slight embarrassment he then gave up and went off. ‘Pirate,’ said my friend of the restaurant again, nodding his head after him.

Three days later I reached Saigon, just in time to claim my seat on the plane for Laos.

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