Along the river banks of the Mekong River, cluttered along the edge of the jungle that looks to overtake them at any time, are small, hastily built plywood homes with corrugated tin roofs. Wisps of white smoke rise from their pipe chimneys. Old men sit on the end of rickety piers, dipping their fishing lines into the water. The smell of cooked fish permeates the air.
The Mekong River is the world’s twelfth longest. It runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s called the Mother Of All Rivers because it’s a resource to so many people. Traveling very far up it is hazardous because of rapids and falls. Dam construction makes parts of it unnavigable. In some parts of the river, houses are built on the water and small boats and skiffs clog the waterway. Just slightly north of the Mekong River Delta is a most incredible site.
There it is. LeGrand Manor. Surrounded on three sides by lush jungle. A prime example of French Colonial architecture. It’s white paint gleaming in the strong sunlight. Every piece of marble, mahogany and wrought iron used to build it ferried up the Mekong River when the French ruled Vietnam.
In the middle of the skiff sit the famous British film producer, Grant Utterly and his wife, the renowned stage and film actress, Carly O’Toole. He’s large, built like a prize fighter. His movements are slow, deliberate, calculated, as if he’s about to land a knockout. She’s much younger than him. Very thin, pale and fluttery. Her every line is spoken as if she’s having . . . trouble . . . breathing. Onscreen and stage she speaks rapidly; she’s known for her ability with rapid-fire dialogue. He has his large arm around her waist, holding her close against him as if he fears she’ll rise from the boat and fly away.
“It’s rather large, much larger than I imagined,” he says.
“The largest home on the Mekong River . . .”
“Yes, I believe I read that somewhere. Built by an industrialist . . .”
“The Frenchman, Charles LeGrand . . .”
“Yes, that’s his name. Built in 1953 if my memory serves me right. The French . . .”
He continues on but the motor on the boat drowns out what he’s saying. The water is choppy. The motor strains against the turbulent waves.
At the pier, before the boat is tied to the cleat, he lifts her onto the ladder and follows her up. “Do bring up our luggage,” he says. They wait, impatiently, and followed from behind, they rush up the marble walkway.
A dozen douc langur monkeys that had settled on the porch, scatter, scrambling over the marble banisters and back into the jungle.
“It’s . . . like . . . a . . . movie . . . set,” she says.
At the door Grant takes out his wallet and pulls out 20 Euros. “I hope this is sufficient enough compensation for your help.”
“Staff aren’t tipped here until the end of your stay.”
“You’re staff?” he asks, dubiously. “And an American?”
“Chauffeur, concierge, waiter, valet, host, busboy. . . you name it . . .”
“For what we pay to stay here, they should hire more staff,” he says. He puts his money back in his wallet, shoves it back into pocket, and opens the door.
As if she is going to faint, she collapses against his side. “All . . . this . . . just . . . for . . . us!”
“Yes, sweetheart, just for us.” He kisses her on the forehead.
“No, there are five other guests here at the moment.”
At lunch, Binh Pham, the chef, also the jungle trekking guide, acupuncturist and activities director, serves the five guests seated at the long table plates of banh khot and then pours coffee, tea and juice, depending on the wants of each person.
Carly picks up a chopstick and gently pokes at one of the bite-sized pancakes as if expecting the shrimp on it to come to life. Her timidness draws the attention of Matt Bolger, the American photographer sitting across from her.
“It’s quite okay,” he says.”Binh is an excellent chef. I’ve been here two days and haven’t been poisoned yet.”
The others at the table giggle uncomfortably. Their fear of Grant was apparent from the moment he and his wife sat down at the table and before introductions were made. He scowled the entire time.
“Who makes better movies, the Brits or Americans?” Matt says to them.
“If you’ve seen any of my films the answer is obvious,” Grant says as he stuffs a pancake in his mouth.
“I seldom go to the movies. I’d go if they returned to black and white films. They were much more artistic.”
Grant’s face turns a bright red. After a long pause, he sputters, “You, sir, are an idiot.”
Matt leans back in his chair and lets out a loud guffaw. He slides a pancake from his chopsticks into his mouth and swallows it whole. “Miss O’Toolee, do you agree with your husband? Am I an idiot?”
In order to prevent the situation from escalating, Binh steps up to the table. “The second dish for your lunch today is nom hoa chuoi, which is a banana flower . . .”
Carly’s hand shoots up and she waves her hand.
Binh looks at her, flashes a forced smile.”Yes, Miss O’Toole?”
“May . . . I . . . have . . . just . . . a . . . plain . . . green . . . salad . . . with . . . lettuce . . . tomato . . . and . . . a . . . hard . . . boiled . . . egg?”
Mr. and Mrs. Satō follow close behind Binh as he makes his way along the path that winds between clusters of bright red flame trees. Mr. Satō stops every few feet to take pictures with his cellphone of the red flowers growing from the thick branches.
Mr. Satō and his wife are the youngest in the group, in their late twenties. Their clothes are trendy, their physical appearances fit and agile. She is very pretty, but a bit like a mannequin in a upscale department store window.
The thicker jungle, where the chatter of monkeys and bird calls from the grebes, cuckoos and nightjars are constant to the point of annoying, has been left behind to walk peacefully in this sparse area of vegetation and quietude. Mrs. Satō keeps her hand resting on her husband’s forearm, closely inspecting every leaf and flower and softly repeating in Japanese, “Suteki janaidesu ka” (Isn’t it lovely).
Matt follows behind, his 35mm camera seemingly glued to his eye as the click-click of his camera’s shutter becomes a kind of white noise, noticeable and yet not noticed at all.
At the base of a large tree, Binh stops and takes two thermos’ of hot tea and 5 plastic cups from his backpack and pours tea for everyone. He also takes out a small box of his homemade ginger biscuits and passes it around.
“I fear Mr. Utterly wants to blacken my eye,” Matt says between a sip of tea and biting into his biscuit.
“Not a good idea to degrade another person’s craft,” Mr. Satō says. He bites into his cookie, and then holds the remaining cookie in his hand, grimacing.
“I was just making am artistic statement,” Matt replies. “I’ve yet to find out exactly what you do Mr. Satō. Something in the cruiseline industry, I think.”
“I own several cruise ships,” he says, almost in a whisper.
“Any that travel the Mekong?” Matt asks, suppressing the obvious awe in his voice.
“Mine are too large for the Mekong River.”
Everyone is silent for several minutes, drinking their tea and munching on their cookies. Not seen by Binh, Mr. Satō tosses his cookie behind the tree.
“What’s on tonight’s agenda?” Matt asks Binh as everyone prepared to return to LeGrand.
“Chantrea is going to give a talk about the Khmer Rouge and then we have desert before bedtime.”
Chantrea, originally from Cambodia, is the housekeeper, laundress, ladies’ maid, dish washer and pot scrubber.
“Before we begin journey back, Binh would like to thank Mrs. Satō for helping make the cookies,” Binh says.
Mr. Satō slowly pushes Mrs. Satō’s hand from his arm.
Dinner went smoothly and quietly with the usual discussion about the humid weather and the spotting of a lizard not previously seen. Grant and Carly had their meal in their room, a simple salad and hamburgers. The other married couple in the group, Edda and Hans Van Dijk, from the Netherlands, show off their language speaking skills while looking at each other, taking turns reciting the first line of Isak Denisen’s book, Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa,” in French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian.
Hans Van Dijk is a tycoon, owner of several diamond mines in Africa. He and his wife have the bloated appearance of the rich who have over-indulged in foods on every continent. They talk a lot to each other as if sharing secrets out-loud, but say little to everyone else.
In the evening, chairs are set up in the front garden that faces the river, and tea and cold beverages are provided for the guests, all who were in attendance. Twilight colors of purple and red shimmer on the river’s surface. Sampans with glowing lamps ply the water. Chantrea, nearing sixty years old, thin and wiry, with the skin color of tanned leather, her gray hair in a bun, takes her place in front of the group.
She points across the river.“On the other side of the Mekong,” she begins, her voice squeaky like a window squeegee on dry glass, “between 1975 and 1979 nearly 2 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge . . .”
“Oooo . . . what . . . a . . . lovely . . . name . . . for . . . a . . . perfume,” Carly squeals.
Sitting directly in front of her and her husband, Matt turns his head about. “Are you stupid, or what?” he asks, pointedly.
As soon as those words leave Matt’s mouth, Grant jumps up, grabs Matt by the back of his shirt collar, lifts him off his feet, spins him around and punches him in the eye.
Matt staggers backward and collides with a stunned Chantrea, sending both onto their backsides in the thick grass.
“We are peaceful people,” Edda proclaims, raising her fist and shaking it vigorously.”We do not believe in such violence.”
Sitting beside her, her husband pats her on the shoulder. “Vurugu ni kila mahali” (Violence is everywhere) he says to her in Swahili.
She dips her chopsticks into the dish of Chè chuối in front of her, lifts out a ball of tapioca and shoves it in her mouth. Coconut and banana cream dribbles down her double chins. “Binh, you must give me the recipe for this,” she says to him without looking at him.
Standing in the corner, nearly asleep, Binh suddenly becomes alert. “Sorry, Binh not give out his recipes.”
Her face reddens. “Why not?” she snaps.
“Binh’s cooking for guests of the manor while they here only,” he says.
“Indignante!” (outrageous) she says to her husband in Spanish and shoves a piece of plantain into her mouth.
After a brief silence, and while pushing a tapicoa ball around in his dish, Mr. Satō says, “Poor Mr. Bolger, his eye looked very bruised and swollen.”
“I give ice pack,” Binh says. “Mr.Bolger go to bed early.”
“Dearest, did you see the look on Miss O’Toole’s face?” Edda asks as she wipes desert from around her lips with the back of her hand. “I’ve rarely seen a woman so excited by such outlandish behavior.”
“What else would you expect, mijn liefde?” (Dutch: my love) He wipes the sweat from his neck with a napkin. In French: “C’est une actrice.” (she’s an actress).
As he did for every breakfast, Binh set up the steam table with the foods inside covered trays, serving the food buffet-style. Also on the steam table is a pot of pho. In the trays are mounds of steam buns, rice, glass noodles, congee, slices of seasoned pork and banh stuffed with mung beans. The varieties of armoas sweetly fill the dining room. The drapes are pulled back and hazy morning sunlight pours in through the tall windows. All the guests are seated at the table, with Matt sitting as far away from Grant and Carly as he can get. His left eye is black and blue and nearly swollen shut. The convesation is kept at a low decible, similar to the buzzing of bees.
After eating two small steam buns, Carly gets up from the table and goes to the steam table. She goes from tray to tray banging the lid down on each one after sneering at the food. “Haven’t . . . they . . . ever . . . heard . . . of . . . scrambled . . . eggs . . . in . . . this . . . country?” she grumbles loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Binh walks into the room from the kitchen, starts to say something, sees Carly at the table, then quickly pivots about to leave.
Seeing Binh, Grant yells, “Hey, you!”
For the first time since arriving three days before, Mr. Satō raises his voice. “Show respect. His name is Binh,” he says to Grant.
Grant’s head whips about so fast to look at Mr. Satō that it makes a snapping sound. “Are you talking to me?” he asks, sounding like a poor imitation of Robert DeNiro in the movie Taxi Driver.
Binh returns to the room. “How may I serve you?” he asks, scanning the guests at the table but avoiding Carly’s glare.
Grant takes his napkin from his lap and slams it on the table, making the glasses filled with juices and water bounce. He pushes his chair back and stands up. ”The food here is unacceptable.” As he walks away from the table he glances back at Carly who is trying to conceal a mischevious grin. “Let’s get some fresh air,” he tells her.
She reaches under the lid of the tray with the steam buns, grabs three, and then rushes to her husband’s side. Her arm linked to his, they stomp off to the front door. Moments later the sound of it being slammed closed echoes through the downstairs.
After sunset and Grant and Carly haven’t yet returned. A warm, moist breeze blows in from across the Mekong. The windows of the first floor are opened and the manor is filled with the scents of the Cambodian jungle. At dinner no one mentions the abscence of the film producer and his wife. The next morning and still they have not come back. Everything returns as it was before they arrived. The current guests leave, replaced by new ones. No inquiries are made about the missing pair. No one goes looking for them. It’s as if they never existed.
Such is the Mekong River, The Mother Of All Rivers. It gives birth, offers succor, and keeps its secrets.
Wonderful narration with a serious jolt at the end. A movie-like plot. Absolutely rivetting.