The International Literary Quarterly

May 2010


Luis Cernuda
Sally Cline
Christine Crow
Paul Scott Derrick
Paulette Dubé
Sarah Glazer
Tomás Harris
Philippe Jaccottet
Pierre-Albert Jourdan
Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Peter McCarey
Deborah Moggach
Vivek Narayanan
Georges Perros
Tessa Ransford
Sue Reidy
Daniel Shapiro
Rebecca Swift
John Taylor
Yassen Vassilev
Alan Wall
Stephen Wilson
Tamar Yoseloff
Karen Zelas

Volta: A Multilingual Anthology
(One poem: 93 languages)

Issue 11 Guest Artist:
Catherine McIntyre

President: Peter Robertson
Deputy Editor: Jill Dawson
General Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Art Editor: Calum Colvin

Consulting Editors
Marjorie Agosín
Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
Maria Teresa Andruetto
Frank Ankersmit
Rosemary Ashton
Reza Aslan
Leonard Barkan
Michael Barry
Shadi Bartsch
Thomas Bartscherer
Susan Bassnett
Gillian Beer
David Bellos
Richard Berengarten
Charles Bernstein
Sujata Bhatt
Mario Biagioli
Jean Boase-Beier
Elleke Boehmer
Eavan Boland
Stephen Booth
Alain de Botton
Carmen Boulossa
Rachel Bowlby
Svetlana Boym
Peter Brooks
Marina Brownlee
Roberto Brodsky
Carmen Bugan
Jenni Calder
Stanley Cavell
Hollis Clayson
Sarah Churchwell
Kristina Cordero
Drucilla Cornell
Junot Díaz
André Dombrowski
Denis Donoghue
Ariel Dorfman
Rita Dove
Denise Duhamel
Klaus Ebner
Robert Elsie
Stefano Evangelista
Orlando Figes
Tibor Fischer
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Peter France
Nancy Fraser
Maureen Freely
Michael Fried
Marjorie Garber
Anne Garréta
Marilyn Gaull
Zulfikar Ghose
Paul Giles
Lydia Goehr
Vasco Graça Moura
A. C. Grayling
Stephen Greenblatt
Lavinia Greenlaw
Lawrence Grossberg
Edith Grossman
Elizabeth Grosz
Boris Groys
David Harsent
Benjamin Harshav
Geoffrey Hartman
François Hartog
Molly Haskell
Selina Hastings
Valerie Henitiuk
Kathryn Hughes
Aamer Hussein
Djelal Kadir
Kapka Kassabova
John Kelly
Martin Kern
Mimi Khalvati
Joseph Koerner
Annette Kolodny
Julia Kristeva
George Landow
Chang-Rae Lee
Mabel Lee
Linda Leith
Suzanne Jill Levine
Lydia Liu
Margot Livesey
Julia Lovell
Laurie Maguire
Willy Maley
Alberto Manguel
Ben Marcus
Paul Mariani
Marina Mayoral
Richard McCabe
Campbell McGrath
Jamie McKendrick
Edie Meidav
Jack Miles
Toril Moi
Susana Moore
Laura Mulvey
Azar Nafisi
Martha Nussbaum
Sari Nusseibeh
Tim Parks
Molly Peacock
Pascale Petit
Clare Pettitt
Caryl Phillips
Robert Pinsky
Elena Poniatowska
Elizabeth Powers
Elizabeth Prettejohn
Martin Puchner
Kate Pullinger
Paula Rabinowitz
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan
James Richardson
François Rigolot
Geoffrey Robertson
Ritchie Robertson
Avital Ronell
Élisabeth Roudinesco
Carla Sassi
Michael Scammell
Celeste Schenck
Sudeep Sen
Hadaa Sendoo
Miranda Seymour
Mimi Sheller
Elaine Showalter
Penelope Shuttle
Werner Sollors
Frances Spalding
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Julian Stallabrass
Susan Stewart
Rebecca Stott
Mark Strand
Kathryn Sutherland
Rebecca Swift
Susan Tiberghien
John Whittier Treat
David Treuer
David Trinidad
Marjorie Trusted
Lidia Vianu
Victor Vitanza
Marina Warner
David Wellbery
Edwin Williamson
Michael Wood
Theodore Zeldin

Associate Editor: Jeff Barry
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Assistant Editor: Siska Rappé
Art Consultant: Angie Roytgolz

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Deep Waters by Karen Zelas  


When Nick thinks of that year in Phnom Penh, it is Oona’s face that first comes to mind. Not the heat and humidity, the torrential rains that cascaded from gutterless roofs turning the ochre paths to sucking mud in minutes. Not the beggars in the shadows of the gilded Palace and temples. Nor even his sense of dislocation. It is her face.

Oona’s features materialise now, like an image in the dim red glow of his father’s darkroom, emerging as though a captive under the rippling surface of the developing liquid. Features white and drained of colour. Drowning. You might think the picture would soften and fade with time – sometimes Nick wishes it would.

Within two days of arrival, Jeffrey had taken Nick under his wing. Jeffrey was his boss: he knew the ropes; he would wise Nick up. Corruption? You couldn’t imagine anything like it in your wildest dreams. If Nick just stuck close by Jeffrey, he’d be hunky dory. It was who you knew that counted here, and how many greenbacks you had folded in your pocket for Government officials.

‘But –’

‘Don’t imagine you can change it. You lads fresh from Uni. No idea of the real world …’

Then, of course, there was the expat community; Nick must meet the right people, folks who could open doors.

‘The FCC. Beside the river. Six o’clock. Find your way there?’ Jeffrey said at the end of the first week. Nick nodded and slapped the map folded in the back pocket of his Levi’s. ‘And don’t come in jeans and T-shirt,’ Jeffrey added, stabbing Nick’s chest with a thick finger. He laughed, punched Nick lightly on the arm and turned away, tucking his mobile into the breast pocket of his loose linen shirt. His shoulders filled the doorway side to side, silhouetted against the harsh sunlight, his square outline softened at the edges, the effects of age and good living, Nick supposed. A slow swagger carried Jeffrey over the threshold, across the dusty courtyard beneath the swaying shade of unfamiliar trees and out of Nick’s view. It seemed no one moved quickly here.

Nick tried to focus his mind on the Education Minister’s latest edict. He drew the back of his hand across his upper lip tasting the salt. He pictured the cows on his uncle’s farm in the Wairarapa; perhaps he should be licking salt blocks like them. Slow, rough-tongued creatures; patient, unlike him. He came here to make a difference. He couldn’t believe, wouldn’t believe this was not possible. Jeffrey had been here too long; he was getting old, complacent, taking the easy line; trying to justify shrinking ambition. Nick’s T-shirt felt as though it had been sprayed onto his chest. He plucked at it, pulling the cotton off his skin in little points. Even the slow whump of the ceiling fan sounded hot and weary.

Night fell early and fast. The tall street lamps along the esplanade spread their light into the open lounge bar on the first floor of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Old photographs lined the stairwell. Nick imagined it unchanged since the days of Pol Pot. It felt strange to be in a place of such repute. He would have liked to be a journalist, had not yet relinquished the possibility. He scanned the dim interior of the bar for Jeffrey and found him, one elbow propped on the balcony wall, leaning back from a diminutive table.

‘You made it.’ Jeffrey signalled a waiter. ‘What’ll you have?’ He introduced Nick to James Appleby, from an English funding agency, and Antoine somebody, a French community worker.

‘I’ve been getting Nick up to speed,’ said Jeffrey between swallows. Slowing me down, more like, thought Nick. ‘He expects to make a difference,’ Jeffrey laughed.

‘No point being here otherwise.’ Nick’s response was a little too abrupt; he shifted uneasily in his seat.

Bien sur,’ said Antoine. He was a small man with intense, ferrety eyes. ‘We French have been here so long helping the orphans of the Pol Pot regime. We can know we have made a différence, not for all, but for some.’ Nick restrained himself from flinging a triumphant glance at Jeffrey.

‘Don’t go getting his hopes up.’ Jeffrey sounded petulant.

Nick couldn’t contain his frustration. ‘So why are you here then?’

‘Ah! That is the question,’ James laughed, and locked eyes with Jeffrey; they raised their glasses to each other. The gold liquid glistened in the light from the shaded bulb hanging low over the table. ‘Skol,’ said James. Antoine was not smiling. ‘Foreign aid dwarfs the Cambodian GNP,’ James started to explain. ‘Without it –’

‘But it doesn’t get to those who need it,’ Antoine interrupted. ‘You have seen the hierarchy driving around in their black-windowed SUV’s? Yes? With their bodyguards? He shook his head. ‘What we could do with a fraction of that money. Corruption. It is a crime.’

‘Why doesn’t the Government do something about it?’ asked Nick. Anger gripped as his elders laughed. It was a sensible question, he told himself. An obvious solution to the problem. He felt stripped bare, caught between wanting to protest and fear of attracting further ridicule.

‘Fill him in, Jeffrey,’ said James. ‘It shouldn’t take long.’ He stood, drained the last of his beer and pushed in his chair, wincing as the feet graunched the bare wooden floor. He leant across the table to shake Nick’s hand, and, whisking a card from his pocket, said, ‘If I can do anything for you, that’s where you’ll find me.’

‘Don’t be discouraged,’ said Antoine with a mournful grin. ‘Bon chance!

James and Antoine departed. Jeffrey started telling apocryphal tales first about the Government, then the local bureaucracy; he gesticulated again and again for refills, moving from beer to bourbon, his words becoming clipped, resentful. Nick nursed his lager, only half listening. He wiped the sweat from his top lip with a cocktail napkin and thought of Antoine and his orphans; his anger abated. What he most needed were water and sleep. He was glad of the soft breeze drifting off the river.

A floating restaurant crabbed upstream, its reflection dancing like disco-lights on black water. His first week in Asia was drawing to a close and he was suffering from overload: sights, sounds, smells, information. He should be full of enthusiasm, but he was being dragged down, sucked into mud, forced to give up hope. Hopelessness – that’s what he saw in the eyes of many who squatted on the pavement before a brazier, or held out a few trinkets or just an empty hand – a flatness, the belief that nothing could change. Cambodia was a free country now, young like him, and it should be going places, like him; it should be full of hope. If Antoine could make a difference, then so could he.

Jeffrey made a sudden twist of his wrist, squinted at his watch. ‘Right-o, time to go, mate.’ His voice thickened. ‘Oona will be waiting.’

Today it had been raining, falling in clear sheets from a louring sky. It had rained intermittently since Nick arrived, and it would rain again soon. He ran up the outdoor staircase; Jeffrey and his wife lived above him. On the cramped upstairs balcony, he slipped off his sandals – there was no point wearing shoes in this weather – and rolled down the legs of his only pair of respectable tropical trousers. His mother had insisted he buy them, light beige twill she said they were, loose and straight legged. Now he was glad – Jeffrey had invited him for drinks. ‘You must meet Oona,’ he’d said.

Nick had heard about Oona repeatedly since sharing an office with Jeffrey; she seemed to be constantly on his mind. When he spoke of her, his voice changed, softened, and he looked past Nick, eyes focussed on some private image a metre or two behind Nick’s shoulder. And Nick had heard Oona: the murmur of her voice entwined with, sometimes truncated by the deeper timbre of Jeffrey’s; her soft tread above his head at any time of day or night – back and forth, back and forth. Once he had glimpsed her disappearing abruptly into the darkness of their apartment when he approached along the narrow path between the front house and the open concrete water tank. Was she avoiding him?

This afternoon, through the thrum and splash of rain, Nick had listened for the previous half hour to the footsteps in the rooms above, the creak of dark overhead timbers. Waiting. Was Oona alone? He had listened expectantly for a second pair of feet, wondering if it would be the done thing to arrive before Jeffrey was home. But when the break in the rain came, he took advantage of it. To hell with protocol; he was getting sick of it already. He wondered how he would last out the year.

The world had opened to Nick as he gained height. In the small house in front, another VSA couple occupied the whole upper storey, while the landlord, his extended family and a family of Laotian immigrants lived on the ground floor.

Ducking under the bougainvillea, still dripping from the last rain, Nick crossed the balcony. From here he could see over the walls to the gilded pagoda next door. He wanted to block his ears to the already too familiar amplified jangly music. Within the temple grounds, shacks with tarpaulin roofs – blue, orange – leaned against the boundary walls. The contrast. Surely the monks didn’t live in these? He had seen the monks singly or together walking the tree-lined streets, briskly, purposefully, shaven heads burnished like burred walnut, flowing robes glowing like sunflowers or marigolds. There were two who stopped each morning in front of a modern house along the road, withdrew bowls from inside their robes and stood soundless and motionless until the woman of the house appeared, bowed and filled their bowls with food. Nick had wondered about her expectation of her next incarnation.

‘Different, isn’t it?’ said a soft voice close to his shoulder.

Nick spun as if he’d been caught spying. His breath stopped in his throat, but not for that reason. The woman beside him was beautiful. Not at all the mental image he had formed of the woman who would be Jeffrey’s wife. Younger, for starters. He took a step back, stumbling on his sandals, aware of the clamminess of his hands and the thin trickle of sweat running down both temples.

‘I’m Oona.’ One hand rose languidly.

Hoping she would not notice, he dragged a palm up the side of his trousers as he lifted his hand to hers.

‘Er, Nicholas. Nick,’ he said. ‘I was just …’ He gestured over the wall.

‘A refuge for women and children,’ said Oona. ‘Domestic violence. It’s a major problem here. The monks take them in.’

‘It’s so ramshackle.’

‘Second class citizens.’ She turned away. ‘We all are,’ she murmured.


‘Shall we go inside? Jeffrey should be here any minute. Or would you prefer to sit out?’

The sky glowered; the air was so thick with moisture that it was hard to breathe. A few fat drops splashed onto the edges of the vinyl-covered balcony floor, bouncing onto Nick’s bare feet. There was no wind, only a strange stillness. ‘Inside?’ he pleaded.

He stepped into near darkness. A candle lit a bowl of white slipper orchids and a gilt-framed photograph of Jeffrey and Oona laughing and clinging to one another. In the background the piercing music from the pagoda. Nick felt as if he were entering a place of worship.

‘You would like to have a drink? Something cold?’ Her voice had a hint of breathy gutturals and a Slavic cadence. ‘Fresh lime juice?’ She swept long black hair from her face and tucked it behind one ear with tapered ringless fingers. Her dark eyes were wide-set above prominent cheekbones, the left slightly larger than the right, like a Cubist portrait, perfect.

Oona emerged from the tiny kitchen, a tall sweating glass in her hand, as Jeffrey loomed in the doorway. He shrugged off his raincape, kicked off his sandals.

‘Bloody pagoda,’ he said. ‘The sooner Ulambana is over the better.’ He pulled the window shutters closed across the mosquito mesh, obscuring the sight of the temple rather than its sound. Nick caught Oona’s glance. ‘I see you two have made each other’s acquaintance, then.’

‘You said –’ Oona was still holding Nick’s glass of lime.

Jeffrey crossed the room and placed a lingering kiss on her lips. Oona’s shoulders dropped, she smiled and passed Nick his drink in one flowing movement.

‘I’ll have a beer, love.’ Jeffrey dropped into a cane armchair. ‘Bloody humidity,’ he said to Nick.

‘Why do you stay?’

‘Buggered if I know.’

‘Do you … do you work, Oona?’ asked Nick, emboldened by Jeffrey’s presence.

Oona glanced quickly at Jeffrey before shaking her head.

‘Oona’s an artist,’ said Jeffrey. Nick scanned the walls for evidence of her work. ‘No, you won’t find anything there,’ he added, grinning. ‘My wife’s a very private person.’

‘Jeffrey.’ A quiet warning.


‘I see.’

‘Do you?’ Jeffrey took a long pull from his stubbie; trickles of condensation ran up his fingers. ‘You know, Oona, you should take Nick up Phnom Wat.’

‘I can’t –’

‘You’re a lady of leisure. Show him the monkeys and the temple.’ He turned to Nick. ‘You’d like that. The city is named for the Phnom, the hill.’

‘If you would like.’ She seemed to be speaking as much to Jeffrey as to Nick.

Nick’s insides circled around a pool of icy lime; the thought of being alone with Oona, perhaps for hours on end, terrified him.

Nick lay naked under his mosquito net. The ceiling fan stirred air so heavy it seemed impossible that the slick of moisture on his skin could ever evaporate – and it was now the dry season. He didn’t know how Jeffrey and Oona could choose to extend Jeffrey’s contract year after year. The work was challenging enough; Jeffrey had attained a level of seniority and influence, was respected by Cambodians and expats alike. It was a measured life, in a way a privileged life. But the climate …

There was only one thing that made being in Phnom Penh endurable for Nick: his walks with Oona. It made no sense to him that Oona would want his company, but he was not going to risk losing it by asking why. Jeffrey didn’t seem to mind; on the contrary. Perhaps Nick was relieving him of a responsibility. Only rarely did Oona accompany Jeffrey to social gatherings, and Nick had no idea how she spent her time when he and Jeffrey were at work; he never saw evidence of her painting. But he knew she read – she talked with Nick about literature; she was greedy for English language books.

Oona seemed to float on the fringe of existence. Yet when Nick was alone with her, he sensed her substance. She touched him with her eyes, her voice, her smell. And at night she moved in the space above him, she and Jeffrey, actors on the stage of his imagination.

Sometimes he was woken by abrupt and harsh sounds. Perhaps a chair being pushed? A door slammed. Voices raised in argument. Dull thuds. The sharp sound of glass. Sometimes Oona wore dark glasses even on dull days; Jeffrey bore scratches on his cheek or arm. Nick felt compelled not to notice.

‘You mustn’t mind Jeffrey, Nicholas,’ said Oona, after several months. They were exploring the arts and crafts shops in 178 Street. Nick looked up surprised from the stone god he was examining. ‘Jeffrey is very good to me. He is a very good husband. Why do you look at me like that? Is true.’ She stood close by him and spoke in a low soft voice. He was assailed by her perfume; it smelt just as she looked: fresh, like sunlight and flowers. He didn’t know how she managed it in this climate. In her company he was always conscious of his body, his man-smell, felt he wanted to slip away and take another shower. She drew herself up and stepped back from him. ‘You do not believe me?’

‘No, no. Yes. I believe you.’ No, I don’t, Nick thought. He stared at the dark glasses still on her face, even in the dim depths of the shop. He touched her wrist, where a hint of gauze peeped from the end of her loose sleeve.

Oona turned, swept past dusty shelves of antiquities and hurried out onto the street. Nick struggled to keep up as she pushed her way along the crowded pavement.

‘Oona,’ he called. She spun to face him. ‘You can tell me,’ he said. Oona laughed, a laugh that left Nick feeling like a little boy.

‘You want to know? You really want to know, Nicholas?’

Nick nodded. He gulped and squared his shoulders, took her arm and noticed her flinch. He steered her away from the people – the tourists, the locals – to a grass square. Under a tree three women crouched with a cage full of small plain birds. Another was selling lotus buds. Nick tugged Oona down onto the grass and turned his back to the women; he wanted to shut out everything except Oona from his world.

‘You know I’m your friend, Oona. You can tell me anything.’ The naivety of his words struck him, but he couldn’t retrieve them. ‘I mean it,’ he added.

Oona pulled her sleeve down over the red carnation blossoming at her wrist. ‘It’s nothing.’ She lifted the sunglasses, bedding them into her black hair. Nick gasped. He wanted to hold Oona, enfold her. ‘Ssh! He’s a … a good man.’

‘How can you defend him?’

‘You don’t understand.’

‘You’re right. I don’t.’ Nick rose onto his knees, straining towards her. ‘Why do you stay with him?’

Oona shrugged. ‘It’s not so difficult.’ She replaced the sunglasses on her nose. All Nick could see was his own twinned reflection. ‘He is always so sorry and kind after. So gentle. He makes it up to me. The best sex.’

Nick didn’t know what to do with his outrage. He felt almost as angry with Oona as with Jeffrey; he felt like shaking her. He looked everywhere but at Oona; he couldn’t bear the irony of his own helplessness doubled and staring back at him.

‘Don’t be so angry, Nicholas. There is nothing you can do. There is nothing that needs to be done. Come, let us walk some more.’ She climbed to her feet and held out a hand. Nick stood unaided and put his hands in his pockets.

They continued along the row of shops, many of which doubled as residences, hard wooden sleeping platforms serving as seating by day, motorbikes garaged amongst artworks and curios. But the light had been extinguished from Nick’s day and he followed Oona in silence. By contrast, she chattered lightly.

Last night Nick had lain watching chinks of light filter through the single layer of boards that separated him from Oona and Jeffrey. He doubted the lights had been dimmed all night. In the small hours, raging had given way to sobs – or was it the sough of the wind? He imagined rushing up the concrete staircase, across the balcony, breaking down the screen doors and … and then what? Or should he run next door to the pagoda and tell a monk? But he could not imagine Oona huddled under an orange tarpaulin. Nick remained inert, impotent; disgusted with himself.

Today Jeffrey had said Oona needed peace and quiet, that she was unwell and Nick should not visit. Nick was tempted to sneak away from work to check that she was all right, but could think of no plausible pretext; or perhaps he was too cowardly. Perhaps he was not a person Oona could rely on.

Now he lay listening, waiting – for what? To do what?

But the night was quiet. Just soft footfalls. The creak of floorboards. The rhythmic groan of bedsprings.

Weeks passed without sight of Oona. Still Jeffery talked about her at work, but often in the past tense. Without the nocturnal noises, Nick might have thought she had ceased to exist. There was no more raging, no crashing, so he slept more easily. By day he looked and listened for signs of her. Once he was apprehended by Jeffrey halfway up the stairs.

‘She doesn’t want to see you,’ Jeffrey had said, shaking his head. Weariness lined his face. ‘Let her be. Come and I’ll tell you.’

Jeffrey waved the menu. ‘Now, what do you want, Nick?’ It was early and they were the only customers. Rain dropped in cellophane sheets from low bruised cloud, forming deep puddles on the pavement outside the open doorway. It rained, but it never seemed to reduce the moisture in the air, the damp that settled on the skin or wormed its way out through its pores. ‘It’s cheap but good. Run by rescued street kids.’

‘Oona,’ said Nick, anxious Jeffrey might evade the subject. He wanted to know everything. He wanted to hear Jeffrey condemned by his own words.

‘I found her years ago. Doesn’t matter where.’ Jeffrey sighed. ‘She could paint then.’ He lapsed into blue silence. He seemed to be back there, back then. Reliving something now beyond his grasp.

Nick thought he looked pathetic, old, no vestige of cockiness left. He started to feel sorry for him, but pulled himself up short; Jeffrey did not deserve his sympathy. Oona needed to be saved from him, and Nick still didn’t know whether he was up to the task. Or what it would entail. They were in a foreign country, for fuckssake.

‘So I looked after her,’ Jeffrey continued, ‘and I still do.’

Nick locked his hands between his knees. What he heard at nights was not Jeffrey looking after Oona, surely? Bruises, cuts were not caring for or loving her. He must say something, defend Oona. But if Jeffrey guessed she’d confided in him he might punish her further. He opened his mouth but words jammed in his throat.

Two bowls of Amok Chicken arrived at the table, bringing with them the suggestion of normality.

‘Water,’ Jeffrey said without raising his head, ‘bottled, and make sure it’s sealed.’ The young man in a clean white T-shirt, jeans and thongs scuttled to the back of the room. ‘They’ll refill bottles with tap water, if you’re not careful.’ He drummed his fingers on the table, a fast erratic beat, avoiding Nick’s eye. ‘I sometimes wonder what you think.’ He waved away a young woman with a baby on her hip and hand outstretched, even as Nick was slipping one hand into a pocket.

Nick narrowed his eyes. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Living downstairs.’ He paused.

This was Nick’s opportunity. But how could he say what he thought, what he felt? He knew what he wanted to do – smash a fist in his smarmy face. But that would make him no better than Jeffrey. And would be no help to Oona.

‘She gets violent and I have to restrain her.’

Nick spluttered and pushed away his bowl of amok. ‘You expect me to believe that?’ He heard the words as if someone else had spoken and quaked to think how Jeffrey would react.

‘She does. She gets depressed.’

‘Anyone would, with what she suffers.’ It wasn’t as much as he wanted to say, but it was something. He had to work with Jeffrey, report to Jeffrey.

‘She fights me off when I try to help. Sometimes even thinks I want to kill her.’ Jeffrey’s voice cracked and distress swept his features.

Good performance, thought Nick. But even so, he wavered for a moment. Just a moment.

‘And I suppose she gives herself black eyes.’ Nick heard the hatred in his voice, the steel tempered by an element of uncertainty in his laugh.

‘She does. She pounds her face and her breasts with the heels of her hands.’ Jeffrey demonstrated, first on his face, then his chest like a Simian. ‘I try to stop her, to hold her, but you wouldn’t believe her strength.’

Nick shook his head as if to clear it of a descending fog. ‘And the cuts?’

Jeffrey nodded as he forked pieces of chicken, coconut sauce and rice into his mouth. ‘Hmm-hmm,’ he mumbled through the food, fishing out a piece of coriander and draping it on the edge of the bowl. ‘She says it eases the pain. I can’t bear it, the sight of blood welling from her smooth white flesh.’

Nick shuddered at the image. He struggled against Jeffrey’s version of events. Of course, he would try to excuse himself. He did sound genuine, though. Distressed. But Nick could not think of Oona as a liar. Jeffrey, yes. But not Oona. Nick knew what he’d heard, knew what he’d seen. The hard evidence. And the soft evidence: Oona’s dreaminess, her gentleness, her resignation. Every moment he spent with her he sensed her vulnerability.

His mind swayed this way and that until he felt giddy, until he feared his gut would revolt. He was out of his depth. How could he hope to make a difference? To anything.

Oona descended the open concrete-slab staircase, heels making it ring like a deadened gamelan. Slowly, slowly. As if the placing of each step required deliberation. Her left hand gripped the flaking iron balustrade; gripped and slid; gripped and slid. The flared white skirt of her simple cotton frock floated with the perfection of a gardenia flower. Looking up from the yard and the leggy chickens scavenging at his feet, Nick drank in the heady perfume. Oona paused when she noticed him and a smile spread across her lips, as if she were awakening from a deep sleep. As if during the weeks of her confinement she had forgotten Nick resided below, perhaps even that he existed. As if she were stepping for the first time into the world, fresh and pure. Melancholy remained in her eyes.

The air in Nick’s lungs squeezed out in a silent moan. ‘Hello,’ he said.

She fluttered a hand to her chest. ‘I …’ she began, her voice drifting away with her gaze. Perhaps she had been going to offer Nick an explanation for her withdrawal. He did not tell her he already knew, that Jeffrey had told his version of events. ‘Nicholas,’ she said, her voice thick, unused. ‘Are you free?’ Free? ‘Would you be so good as to accompany me …’ Her voice floated away again and her hand conveyed her intent, gesturing toward the narrow path, the green wrought iron gates, the street, the traffic, the motodrivers.

‘Of course. Just a moment.’ Nick dived inside for a hat. What else might he need? Money? Camera? Should he change his shirt? He settled for jamming a cold water bottle into a pocket of his cargo pants, emerging as Oona reached the last step.

They walked along the tree-lined streets towards the Palace, treading carefully over paving lifted by tree roots, navigated the platoons of motorbikes parked diagonally on the footpaths. Oona led and Nick followed; he didn’t know their destination and he didn’t care. A line of monks passed, their saffron sun umbrellas bursting with light as they stepped from shade into sunshine.

Oona led him beside the Palace. Its golden roof gleamed, corners curling up into the blue of the sky, but today Nick barely noticed. People milled in the open ground between the Palace and the river. A grandstand was under construction; the Water Festival was to commence in two days’ time. Oona stopped by the river wall. On the narrow top an old man in a grubby shirt and trousers was stretched sleeping, a trail of bright orange silk spilling over his flexed knees and falling into fast-food detritus. Turgid water surged past below him at an amazing rate. Two long dragon-boats struggled upstream, bow-waves threatening to spill into the boats. The fifty or more men dipped their paddles in unison to the beat of the cox’s drum, practising for the Festival.

‘Did you know the Tonle Sap is the only river in the world that changes the direction of its flow?’ Nick knew, but did not say so. ‘It’s like it changes its mind about what it wants, where it wants to go, where it wants to be.’

‘And you?’

‘Where else is there for me?’

Nick knew what he wanted to say.

‘Don’t.’ She shook her head, put out a staying hand. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said once more. ‘You can’t.’

‘I’m not an imbecile.’

‘I need him, Nicholas.’

‘But –’

‘Ssh!’ She stooped and lifted a straw from the rubbish at the base of the wall. ‘Who will I walk with when you’ve gone home, Nicholas?’ She dropped the straw into the water and they watched it swirl out of sight. In the distance the roiling muddy waters romped towards Vietnam and the Mekong Delta.

Nick left for home three weeks later. His contract was up; although it meant leaving Oona, he could not bring himself to renew it.

At first he could settle to nothing. He slept no more soundly in the cool dry air of Christchurch than he had in the humidity of Phnom Penh. When eventually he received a letter from Jeffrey, he ripped it open thirsty for news.

Dear Nick

You may have heard by now that my dear, my beautiful Oona fell into the river. She was whisked away by the flow before anyone could stop her…

Oona had dropped the straw in the water that day, and they had watched it swirl away. ‘If anyone fell in here, they’d never be saved,’ she’d murmured. ‘And the body would never be found.’

Oona’s face gazes up at Nick through rippling golden water.