Otto - a short story

Otto by Tony Bailie

I first saw Otto standing at the front of a ferry crossing a river in the Cardamon Mountains. I’d left Phnom Penh at six that morning, travelling in a car with a lanky Dane and two Australian women, one of whom had food poisoning. The car was driven by an impish looking Cambodian whose vicious temper was let vent every time another car passed him, or he failed to overtake. The roads we travelled were often nothing but dirt tracks and I bounced from side to side, my head crashing into the roof of the car so often that I genuinely feared being concussed. Next to me was the larger Australian backpacker, her bony thigh digging into me and adding to my discomfort. Her diminutive and much prettier friend sat on the other side of her, occasionally retching into a plastic bag and sobbing. The Dane slept for most of the journey in the passenger seat.
As the raft ferry chugged out into the river, the waft of petrol hanging in the air, I got out of the car and the first person I noticed was Otto. His nose was aquiline and his face gaunt, his body rake-like, impossibly thin, as if he lived on a diet of fruit and raw vegetables, with maybe a bowl of cumin-flavoured brown rice to add a bit of roughage. Round John Lennon glasses, of course; fair hair, peppered with grey, that looked as if it was growing back after being totally shaved off. He was dressed in cargo pants and a Manu Chao tee-shirt, wearing walking boots and had a striped shirt tied around his waist.
The banks on either side of the river were lush with vegetation and the air was full of bird calls and chirping insects, but the petrol fumes from the outboard motor were the dominant smell. I moved a bit closer to the front of the raft, which was basically planks of wood lashed with ropes onto large barrels on which five cars, each filled with passengers, had been driven. Occasionally foaming splashes of water washed over the sides but no-one else seemed too perplexed, least of all Otto who stood impassively watching the bank we were approaching. A bell rang and I could see the driver of my car waving to me impatiently as he revved the engine, determined to be first onto the next stretch of dirt road. Otto returned to a much smaller car than the one I was in, climbing into the passenger seat beside the Cambodian driver.

I’d arrived in Phnom Penh a few days earlier after after travelling by road from Vietnam. It was a dangerously hot city with fetid air where women hunkered down in the gutters to piss and wiry men called out to one another in harsh, guttural snarls. In a tiny cell I had pulled over a knotted wooden door to enclose myself in almost total darkness, my chest tight as I breathed in the stale, humid air, the sound of geckos twittering outside, dried smudges of blood on the floors and walls. Around 14,000 people had been taken to In S21 prison by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, tortured and executed. Those who hadn’t died in the prison were taken to Choeng Ek outside the city and either clubbed to death or simply shot. In the cell, which had been preserved from that era, I had tried to descend to depths where a man is forced to sink, facing torture and certain death.
It wasn’t the recent history that turned me against Phnom Penh,  but the international backpackers it attracted. All seemed to get bogged down in a fug of pungent grass that imprisoned them in a slow-time temporal shift from where they could barely string together a sentence without being reduced to stoned sniggering. A day out for many was driving a tank, strafing a field with bursts of fire from an AK47 or firing a rocket launcher at meandering, lame cows and blowing them to oblivion. I curtailed a planned week-long stay and left after three days.

The raft had barely touched the river bank when our driver lurched his vehicle forward and back on to bumpy land, but half an hour later, on a winding road which shimmered in the afternoon sun, we were pulled over, the driver screeching and kicking his immobile vehicle. The Dane smoked a cigarette while the two Australian girls muttered sibilant accusations at one another. It was 40 minutes before a farmer, passing by on a tractor, stopped and after a few minutes tinkering under the bonnet had the car started again. As it skidded back off up the mountain I tried to squat as low in my seat as possible to keep my head from crashing into the roof of the car, but the increased distance made it worse as I had more space to gain speed as I bounced upwards.
After descending into a forested valley we came to another river where I got out to stretch my legs and massage my throbbing head. Two cars in front was the tiny vehicle and leaning against the trunk of a shady tree stood Otto. I was sweating and frazzled and gulped from my lukewarm bottle of water, hoping to catch his eye and start a conversation. Another raft ferry chugged towards the bank on which we stood and, after it had disgorged a small lorry and a horse and cart, the cars drove on while a few foot passengers, myself and Otto included, came along behind them. Otto bent to say something to the driver of the  small car and I thought I heard the gnarled consonants of Khmer. I went to the front of the raft, thinking that is where he would go as well, but he simply leant against the side of the car, his elbow on the roof, his eyes narrowed against the sun. Still as a heron fishing in a river.
German? Probably. Dusseldorf, say. Maybe Bonn. That’s when I christened him Otto. He had spent six months in a Buddhist monastery in Cambodia and was returning home. That would explain the recently shaved hair, growing back, the meditative stillness.
No, that was too easy. There had to be a more interesting narrative.
Let’s see.

A former lecturer in an adult further education college. He had nurtured early hopes of being a writer and had published an academic study –Themes of Rebirth in the Novels of Hermann Hesse. But his writing came to nothing, although a volume of poems, Abgrund, published when he was in his late forties was the catalyst for the breakdown of his marriage – suggestions of covert liaisons, stifling domesticity and sinister whispers from the shadows of the psyche swelling up into accusations and distrust that resulted in divorce and estrangement from both his ex-wife and his son. He had given up his academic career three years earlier and taken up a post with a German international development agency. Eighteen months in India working on reintegrating former prisoners back into society, then another year in Chad, setting up a programme to educate kids who had been taken out of school and made to work as car-washers and newspaper vendors.
Six months ago he had arrived in Phnom Penh to help develop a rehabilitation scheme for sex workers, both male and female, including some who had been forced into prostitution before they had reached their teens.
The centre he worked in was attacked by outraged neighbours who did not want former prostitutes living among them. More concerning, though, was the arrival of a gang who ran a vice-ring, looking for their ‘merchandise’ – a 12-year-old girl who they said they had bought from a rural farming family. Otto was the only westerner working that night and had stood firm in the door, his wispy frame a pathetic barrier against the screaming, pistol-waving gangsters. He knew that if he had been Cambodian they would have simply shot him on the spot and trampled over his writhing body as it died in the doorway, but they were afraid of the attention that murdering a European would bring to them and left. Otto could speak some basic Khmer, but he didn’t need additional vocabulary to understand the hissed threat that the gang leader whispered in his ear, that he was a marked man. The irony was that the girl wasn’t there, a fact that would have been quickly established if he had let the gang through.
Two days later Suranari arrived. She was in her early twenties had been working the tourist areas without the protection of a pimp and dragged by her hair in front of all the other sex workers who were working the street that night, each of whom was ordered to kick and punch her. Police had picked her up and as she had no documentation and refused to give them any information on who she was or where she lived they brought her to the centre. Despite the assaults she had endured she was not too badly injured although Otto, just from looking at her body language, knew that she was psychologically scarred. More worrying though was that from reading his own body language he realised he had been instantly been attracted to her.
There were dormitories in the centre where Suranari, after being examined by a doctor, was given a bed. Otto lived in an apartment by himself in another part of the city but was becoming increasingly paranoid that he was being followed by the gang he had confronted. Every time he got on a bus and someone pushed into him he dreaded the sudden piercing of a knife being driven into his gut or a swift gunshot to his head that would leave him with no time to contemplate his extinction.
Initially Suranari stayed away from him, distrusting western men, who in her experience and like that of most of the women in the centre, were sexual predators. But after a few days her mistrust of him dispersed and she began to acknowledge Otto with shy smiles and sometimes coquettish waves. Otto reciprocated and they began to have short exchanges, incorporating his basic Khmer and her even more basic few words of English, which Otto could speak quite well. One night when he was working alone in the centre he went to the project manager’s office and found an unlocked drawer where she kept files on each of the  residents and rifled through them until he found Suranari’s. Apart from her age, 22, there was no biographical information on her, but the doctor’s report was there and she was clear of HIV. The following night Otto and Suranari slept together in his apartment and the day after she moved from the centre to live with him.
People disappeared from the centre all the time, returning to the streets or their home villages, and so at first her absence was not that widely commented upon by the staff who fully expected that like so many before she would turn up again after a few weeks. But rumours quickly spread and Otto found himself being approached by other clients at the centre, including two of the men, who insisted that they would make much better concubines than Suranari. The handful of Germans who he worked alongside him quickly picked up on what was happening and he was summoned to the manager’s office. Imogen was 24 and qualified to the hilt with degrees and postgraduate diplomas in community-building, social policy and international development but had only been working in the field for three months, arriving when Otto was already there to replace the previous manager. She had no idea how to confront a man who was a quarter of a century older than her and who was among the centre’s most experienced and highly respected members of staff. Otto had even less idea how to deal with Imogen’s naive and patronising lecture and walked out of his job there and then.
He had enough money to pay his rent for a few months and thought he could get work teaching, English if not German. But when he got to his apartment he was immediately aware of another presence, cigarette smoke, an industrial smell as if someone who worked in a chemical factory had passed through. When he went to the bedroom Suranari hurled herself naked towards him and started screaming and beating him on the chest. At first he was so taken aback that he did not notice the man in the shadowed room trying to shake off the bed sheet in which he had become entangled while at the same time pulling on his trousers. At first cowering and muttering obsequious placations the man quickly picked up on Otto’s sense of displacement, of being outside the scene in which he was standing, and hurled himself past the German and their mutual lover who was still screaming at Otto and hammering her fists on his torso. Otto pushed Suranari away and went to the bathroom.
When he emerged an hour later Suranari was squatting in a corner, her hands over her face and her body shuddering with violent sobs. She could sense Otto’s presence in the room but dared not look up. When she did she let out a squeal and tried to push herself back even further into the corner. Otto’s hair, which he usually wore tied into a ponytail, had been completely shaved off. He was staring at her like a like a man whose soul had been emptied from him, someone who had died to everything that he had ever been. The shell that remained was the cocoon from which a butterfly had fled, the brittle skin left behind after a snake has moulted. He hardly noticed when Suranari eventually came to him and led him to the smaller, unused bedroom.
In the next few weeks he did not leave the apartment and was fed by Suranari who, after asking him for money, went out and a short time later reappeared with supplies. To start with she was just a presence, a shadow that flickered at the fringes of his perception, but gradually she came more into focus and one night he drew her into his bed and for the first time in weeks felt himself physically re-engage with the world. Still he did not venture out, but occasionally opened the window shutters to look on to the street. One day he saw a group of men gathered in a circle to watch a cock fight. They lifted the two scrawny birds back again and again from one another until in a mid-air frenzy of feathers and high-pitched squawks they were let loose. After a few minutes one lay still and the other, one eye hanging out from its socket and its body oozing blood, strutted victoriously away before collapsing.
That night Otto walked out into the city for the first time in a month and on an unmapped voyage through the silent, moonlit streets of Phnom Penh. He returned before dawn and into bed with Suranari who caressed the brittle covering of hair that had pushed through on his head once again. Still, he would not go out during the day, but each night he emerged from the apartment to venture through the city streets. One night he came to a familiar area, old paths he had once trod without thinking but which now drew him along with a sinister intensity. A bitter smell, among all the other bitter smells in this city, hung in the air. The street had been mutilated and scarred and it was only when he came to a burnt-out shell that he realised that the centre where had once worked had been destroyed. He had only time for a brief moment of reflection on what had happened to his fellow Germans who he had worked with or the former sex-workers who they had tried to help.
He began to run, following the bus routes he used to travel, back towards his apartment. Images of the gang leader he had confronted raping Suranari before pouring petrol over her and igniting it repeated in a loop. The fact that the gangster might wait until Otto had also returned before setting fire to them both only spurred him on, impatient to meet his destiny.
There was a car outside the apartment block with its engine running and headlights on and three men standing beside it who as soon as they saw Otto moved to block his way. He tried to push past but was exhausted from running. From the front door Suranari emerged carrying something. Otto called to her and tried to push past but she refused to meet his eye. A man came after her carrying her few possessions. It was the one who had been there before, the one who had been naked in bed with Suranari. After him came another taller figure, more filled out than the gaunt Cambodians who were playing out this scene.
What’s going on? demanded Otto.
Don’t get involved, said Imogen. You’ve cause too much damage already.
The bundle in Suranari’s arms shifted and Otto heard a baby’s whimper, catching sight of its scrunched up face as it prepared to wail. Suranari muttered to it and the baby quietened. She glanced quickly at Otto before climbing into the back of the car, followed by the man with the bag. The other three men who were blocking Otto pulled back and got in as well and the car drove off.
She had been working the streets to try and feed her baby daughter and her husband, said Imogen. He has a new job in a factory and he wants her to go home to him.

The Dane and the larger of the two Australian girls were gesticulating angrily and shouting at the driver whose mud-splattered car sat beside a much cleaner one. The ill Australian looked drained and sat on her rucksack. The driver was pointing towards the other car. Suddenly Otto was standing beside us.
You must pay five dollars and go in this car to the border, said our driver.
That was not what they told us in the hostel, said the Dane. They said you would take us to the border. We have already paid.
But the driver was shaking his head.
You pay or you walk six miles.
I hate this fucking country.
I did not recognize the voice, a Belfast accent, gnarled and snide. I turned and could see Otto’s face flushed and angry.
Fucking rip-off merchants, he said.
In those four nasal words Otto – the German poet who had been hauled through the psychological debris of his imploded persona to emerge scarred and transformed on the other side – disappeared. Otto was unborn, replaced by this waspish as yet unnamed Irishman. Suranari, her baby and husband, Imogen as well, all faded out of existence.
Geckos chirped as the man who I had named Otto, whose life I had briefly lived continued to argue but I reached into my money belt and extracted a five dollar note and handed it to the other driver and got into the front of the clean car.
The sick Australian girl followed and without speaking we waited for the others.