A Little Boy in a Phnom Penh Shop

The shop is like a thousand others in Phnom Penh –
a wooden house on a dusty street,
With orange ice-boxes out front containing
bottled water, Coca Cola, cans of lychee juice
and ice you shouldn’t drink.
Individual sachets of instant coffee and shampoo
hang in connected plastic strips from wire-frame shelves,
and prawn chips in over-inflated packets
covered in Korean lettering adorn the door frame.
And there are two mangy dogs living here,
running around and biting at the ankles
of the lethargic, skeletal neighbourhood cows.
(The dogs don’t seem to be for sale but,
everything is for sale,
so that’s probably an illusion.)

As I wait for the seller,
in satin pajamas and a straw what,
to get my change, a small boy comes around the corner.
His bare feet stop in the dirty sand and,
for a moment,
he only stares.
Then he backs slowly away, and his eyes never leave mine until
he is gone around the corner.

And I wonder if, as he grows,
I will pass into the personal legend of his
distant memory,
so that one day he might say to his mother,
“Khnyom tcham boro-teh.”
(I remember a foreigner,)
“Khnyom tcham boro-teh,
big and tall, with a beard,
who used to come to our shop when I was young.
Is that right?”

And I hope the seller will reply,
“That’s right. You were so scared of him,
but he was always friendly.
And he wasn’t really very tall.”

Although, come to think of it,
I don’t mind if she leaves that last part out.


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