Papa

As well as “Michae – Michae”, “Tooooom-Toooom”, Garee-Gareeeee & my own moniker “Teacher-Teacher” there’s another shrill call that reverberates around our compound courtesy of the very loud mama – that of “Bong Ahhhh” which she proudly tells me means Honey!

This call brings out hiding the other half of the double act that are the owners of my new home – Papa. A wiry chain-smoker of a chap, he very much lives under mama’s thumb, never complaining, just quietly getting on with the task at hand (and believe me there are many of them) a lit cigarette permanently hanging from his mouth and a look of weary resignation in his eyes.

Papa didn’t really speak to me for the first couple of days of my tenure, in fact he didn’t even look in my direction. I knew there was nothing aloof or sinister in this though it was purely a case of what on earth would an old Cambodian bloke have to say to a middle aged western woman.

All this changed last Thursday though. Having been into town for drinks and dinner with a friend I was, for me, late home (approximately 8pm). Mama had planted herself on Gary’s terrace and they were chatting – when I say chatting, I actually mean that Mama was babbling away in Khmer while Gary drank beer, laughed a lot and occasionally interjected with a “yea, yea, yea” despite not having a clue what Mama was saying.

I joined them and talk turned to the fruit Mama had brought for us all earlier – a couple of kilos of bananas and a papaya the size of a healthy baby boy had appeared on my table whilst I was in the shower that morning and mama was keen to check I liked them (‘Do you like xxx?’ being one of the few questions I understand and can answer in my pigeon Khmer).

Whilst we were all laughing uproariously as we worked out that mama asking us if we liked bingo whilst pointing in a vaguely upwards direction was actually her attempt at pronouncing mango, a motorbike roared into the courtyard, skidding to a halt just shy of the path with a very cheery and slightly wobbly papa atop.

Grinning, he stumbled off the bike and in response to Gary’s drink gesturing bellowed loudly “CHUO MOUY!” the Cambodian way of saying “Down in one”.

A beer can appeared and was plonked into papa’s shaky hand as he precariously stumbled around the terrace grinning like a loon and alternately bellowing “chuo mouy” before turning to me and uttering “som tow, som tow” – sorry, sorry.

And all the while, mama sat next to me grinning and patting my leg whilst subtly reaching out to keep papa upright each time he stumbled, a look of pure love and adoration in her eyes despite his ridiculous pissedness.

After a while I bid everyone a goodnight (this elicited a double ‘sorry, sorry’ from papa) and headed inside, lying on my bed listening to papa’s uproarious giggling and ‘chuo mouys’ long after I’d turned my light out.

Friday morning dawned bright and breezy and at around 6am I took up my usual place on the terrace with a mug of hot water with lime and radio 2 for company. Usually by this time papa is out and about, his early morning duties including letting the dogs out of for their morning toilet needs and wheeling out his and mama’s motorbikes. This morning however, there was no sign of him with mama eventually rolling out her own moto at around 6.45am and bidding me a cheery good morning as she headed off alone for breakfast.

Mama returned and finally, around 9am, papa emerged looking rough and a little bit sheepish but with the obligatory ciggy hanging from his mouth and a cheeky little glint in his eye. A day of curiously few “Bong Aaahs!” followed, even the “Tom, Toms” and “Gary, Garys” were subdued as papa was allowed to recover from his overindulgence of the night before.

Around teatime, on his regularly sunset incense lighting tour of the property (for mosquito repelling purposes in case you’re wondering) papa stopped to light up a stick outside my terrace and tentatively looked up to meet my gaze. I smiled, said hello and then couldn’t resist slipping in a cheeky “sorry, sorry” whilst grinning widely. Slowly a smirk formed, which turned into a laugh and finally the ice was broken.

Papa and I still don’t have a lot to say to each other, to be honest we probably never will. But we now make eye contact as he goes about his endless round of chores for mama, he occasionally says hello and yesterday even asked me a question (which mama had to translate from his extremely quickly spoken, heavily accented Khmer to her slow, loud, teacher Khmer complete with gesticulations for me to understand but hey ho! it’s progress).

And when he’s had a few cans he continues to yell copious Chuo Moys with Gary and his other drinking buddies whilst saving his best “sorry, sorrys” especially for the moments when I’m present.

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