I arrived in Pub Street on the day I gave up drinking, so that should tell you something about my timing.
‘Halla! You wann massaaa?’
‘You wann massaaa?’
And then I remembered I wasn’t in India anymore. I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Sometimes I wake up not remembering which country I’m in – or even which continent I’m on.
‘Massaaa, massaaa. Foot? Summin ell?’
‘No, thank you very much. I’d quite like some lunch.’
‘As I said – no, thank you!’
I thought about how I’d been having this sort of conversation for decades in country after country. And I’m still none the wiser. Still wondering who’s in control of the language, whose language it is, and who’s the author of these encounters. And how the benign racism of the English, who think that everywhere else is a slight variation on England, would see my recording of it like this as patronising. And now I’m reducing all the English to stereotypes. It’s a very long corridor, and the first doors say things like man, woman, black, white, gay, straight… But at the far end is a door marked Nazi…
‘Non!’ Time for a bit of French. After all, I’d seen plenty of baguettes in shop windows.
‘Je veux manger.’
‘Mangetout? Salaaa mayonnai inside.’
The banality of life hit me as I replayed all this drivel in my sobering head, and at exactly that moment three different musics struck up in three different restaurants.
I’m caught between three musics on the day I gave up the booze, I thought. And then I felt the need to shout it out loud against the terrible aural assault.
‘I’M CAUGHT BETWEEN THREE MUSICS ON THE DAY I GAVE UP THE BOOZE!!!’
‘You wann drink – Angkor bee?’
‘Angkor Wat or Angkor bee-rrr?’
Some people think I’m a mature, cosmopolitan human being, capable of all sorts of communication with many types of other people. Types or stereotypes? The long corridor again… No – individuals! But standing here in Pub Street, caught between three musics – and dreading the arrival of a fourth, or even a fifth – I felt I was turning into one of the thousands of stone heads I’d seen that morning at Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat had been about scale. Angkor Thom was all detail. And this whole place – this range of temples and seats of learning – had out-Oxforded Oxford in its day. But this was Pub Street, and it made Oxford’s Westgate Shopping Centre seem suave.
‘Whaa you waa?’
What did I want? What the hell did I want? I don’t think it was even a drink I wanted, though it was swilling all round me, and smoke from various sources wafted across me. What had they wanted a thousand years ago, when all this began? When they – we – got from before Bayon and Ta Prohm Kel to Pub Street, from stone heads to stoneheads?
Against the thunder of the three musics, I could just hear my drink-free voice.
‘Home, I think…’