I find the dust-covered, rusted Williams Whirlwind beneath a crumbling vinyl tarpaulin under a house in the back streets of a Cambodian port. From all accounts, it is the last remaining pinball machine in the country. I'm trying to figure how cheaply i can buy it and transport it across country to Carlo's rooftop bar and grill, 550km away in Siem Reap. The Whirlwind's owner is in jail. Perhaps a carton of cigarettes would be useful.
I returned to Sihanouk Ville from Kampot after learning of the possible existence of the pinball machine from a seasoned Dutch traveller i met in a bar. To the uninitiated, this may seem to be an almost random pursuit - to travel the South East Asian highways in search of pinball machines - but i can assure you this strange compunction has a completely rational explanation. Well, almost.
No, it's not that i am a pinball wizard, nor am i even much of an aficionado of the silver ball. It's just that, well, i have this friend, Carlo. Carlo has Special Needs.
I travelled with Carlo and Raoul in Bangkok during the 2006 military coup. Before he took off to Cambodia to find work as an industrial designer. Like many Westerners who take off to Cambodia with the intention of finding recognised employment and building a stable career, Carlo instead opened a bar. As the owner of the rooftop bar and grill XBar Asia in Siem Reap, Carlo now indulges in the depravities of pig racing, ice lugeing and vertical skateboard riding while screening open-air movies and hosting touring rock bands. But the simple pleasures of pig racing and hosting American rock stars is no longer enough for Carlo. His insatiable thirst for decadence drives him to want more and more. His jaded pleasure centres can now only be assuaged by the procurement of not one, but two pinball machines.
"You coming to Cambodia?" Carlo asks. "Pick us up a couple of pinball machines on your way from the Thai border, will you?" Which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable request, and one that any self-respecting mezzano such as myself would normally have no problem accomplishing. But there are certain complications.
Firstly, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly destroyed every trace of Western domination that they came across during their four-year reign of terror. And a pinball machine is a classic symbol of the Western hegemony, with all the bells and whistles.
Secondly, the few machines that managed to survive the Khmer pinball purge, and most of those brought in subsequently, were snapped up three years ago, when a travelling American entrepreneur scoured the country's dens of iniquity and bought them all up, selling them to collectors on eBay at great profit.
Thirdly - just how popular can coin-operated machines be in a country that has no coins?
While getting steadily more drunk in the downstairs bar of Blissful (with its notice that promotes 'No Drugs No Weapons No Prostitutes' - clearly a sign that one man's Bliss is another man's Boring) i stumble, quite literally, upon a lead. I'm drinking the strangely sweet and potent Mekong whiskey, which at a dollar a shot represents an attractive brew for the travelling cheapskate. Dieter, my inebriated companion, regales me with tales from the old days, back in the nineties, after the UN-sponsored election brought some semblance of normality to the country in 1993. From politics the conversation follows a natural course, flowing like the Mekong, to pinball machines.
I know where there might be a machine, says Dieter. There was this bar in Sihanouk Ville - it's owner was thrown in jail a couple of years ago ...
I grab a bus the next morning, and wind up with a room upstairs in a wooden hut on Otres Beach, south of the port town. Here i sit and write, lounging on a beach chair sipping vodka and coconut juice and talking to passing French women in bikinis. But this cannot sway me from my mission. I finish my drink and get on my hired moto.
The Corner Bar is on Victory Hill, a sleazy part of town near the port, a balls-out-rock'n'roll kind of street packed with girlie bars and the kind of sad, misbegotten perverts that give expats a bad name, i.e., 'sexpats'. The bar upstairs, where the alleged pinball machine was last sighted, is being refurbished. The new owners know nothing about any pinball machines.
The previous owner left a couple of years ago, says one of them.
I heard he was thrown in jail, says the other. Ask Johnno downstairs, he might know.
Johnno Downstairs is out, gone to the Embassy to pick up a delivery of imported food. He will be back in an hour, the bar girl tells me. I wander the street in search of some food. I find instead a Caucasian man, sprawled on a piece of cardboard in front of an empty shop. Hideous open sores fester on his legs, his hair is grown long and wild, and he is covered in dirt. He stares at me with vacant eyes. It is a troubling sight. This will be me in two weeks, when the money runs out. I walk past the promise of dancing girls at La Tropicana and the Taxi Club, past the French bar at Le Barometre, before settling on a curry amok and a couple of pints at Retox. The evening is coming on and the bar girls are coming out.
After the hot tofu curry, i head back to the Corner Bar. Half a dozen young Khmer men are having a party in a tuk tuk across from the bar, drinking from a plastic bottle full of spirits. One of them jumps out and approaches me, flashing a palm-sized bag of gunja. You like? You buy? he asks. Awtay akwun, i say. No, don't like, don't buy. Smoking gunja at this point could only confuse things. I'm on a mission. I can't be stumbling about the streets of Victory Hill like some stoned fucking hippy.
Yama? he proposes. Now, this is an interesting development. My trusty travel guide describes yama, from the Sanskrit यम, meaning death, as a drug that "provokes powerful hallucinations, sleep deprivation and psychosis" and warns all travellers to steer well clear of it. I order two, and go into the bar to find Johnnno Downstairs. My man dashes off, promising to return with the goods in twenty minutes.
Yes, i remember the pinball machine, but i don't know where it is now, says Johnno. The owner is in jail. You need to talk to his friend, Heinz. But i don't know where he is. You might try Rudi, he runs the German bar above the guesthouse down the road. He points.
The bar has a great view of the bay, terrible Eurotrash music, and no customers. No staff, either. Apart from the disco music, it is deserted. I go back downstairs and see a blond man in a black sleeveless Rammstein t-shirt taking directions from one of the restaurant staff. He sets out across the road. I follow him. This must be Rudi.
Rudi, i shout. He jumps.
Ja? Wie gehts?
Entschuldigung sie, bitte, i say, before realising that my high school German will not stretch far enough to ask for directions to a long-lost and possibly imaginary pinball machine. Perhaps i could deploy the only other German phrase i remember from those wasted high school years: Du bist so röt wie ein Krebs. Which means, of course, You are as red as a lobster.
It is doubtful the phrase would serve any useful purpose under the present circumstances. I switch to English.
I'm looking for Heinz, who may know the whereabouts of a pinball machine which used to be above the Corner Bar, i explain.
Of course, no problem, says Rudi, as if i'd asked for directions to the bus station. I know the bar. The owner is in jail.
He thumbs through his mobile phone.
I will give you the number for Heinz, he says.
The number is engaged. I walk back to the Corner Bar, and my man pushes a plastic bag with two red pills into my hand. I slip him some money, and walk with him over to the tuk tuk party. One of the men offers me a cut-off water bottle, the bottom filled with what looks like fish sauce. One of the others hands me a skewer with some unidentified fried meat impaled on the end of it.
Awkun, i say, and dip the meat into the fish sauce. This provokes an outburst of hilarity.
What? i ask, glowering.
Is whiskey, one of them says, pointing at the strange brown liquid. Ah. Still, never apologise, never explain. I chew the meat, and down the rest of the weird-tasting drink. They offer me more. I carefully extract one of the yama tablets from my pocket and wash it down with some of this home-brewed liquor. It's time to see just how accurate the Lonely Planet travel guide really is.
By the time i am following Heinz on my rented Honda Dream through the ever diminishing backstreets of Victory Hill, i am beginning to feel a little strange. Perhaps it was that fried meat. The scooter, as promised on its shiny decal, does indeed handle like a Dream. That is, surreal images are looming before me and i have no idea where it is going to take me next. We are barrelling at high speed along a winding, narrow dirt footpath, where women sit chopping unidentifiable victuals and men are engaged in that most popular of pasttimes in South East Asia: squatting on their heels. We pass through some huge wrought-iron gates and ride up to a small house on a large block. A blue, dust covered VW convertible sits under the house.
I have no idea where i am, but i am suddenly feeling omnipotent and strangely light-headed. Heinz has started babbling about his friend. He is in jail, you know.
You don't say.
It is all political. He was framed by his enemies. Ten years. Ten years in a Cambodian jail - can you imagine? But it is going to the Supreme Court. I can't say any more.
I wasn't asking.
Heinz looks about furtively.
Other than this.
He walks up close to me, and holds my gaze.
This is a dangerous country, my friend. You can get your throat cut here for fifty dollars.
Wow. That's a bargain, i blurt out. I am beginning to feel a little dizzy. My mouth has gone dry and i feel like the red ants from the jungle have returned to crawl about the insides of my eyes. Heinz goes inside the house and returns carrying a large meat cleaver.
Now i show you, he says.
Right. I'm wishing i hadn't had those last two pints.
He walks over to where a bundled tarpaulin is held aloft by four rusted legs, its blue bulk taped roughly together with clear packing tape. He cuts quickly through the tape with the cleaver and pulls the decaying vinyl away.
It's a pinball machine.
All i can report, at this stage, is that it was a Whirlwind. All the rest is a blur.