I've never seen such a mirror ball. From the darkened mezzanine, i watch as it rotates in a gigantic, slow saturnalia, its rings of light flashing from the shiny surfaces of the distant bar and the jewellery of the dancers below. It's big.
We are the only Westerners in the club, a club tricked out with the gaudiest of Phnom Penh's elite, in their brutal hate couture. Women with hair piled high over hooped earrings are gambolling in the flickering light with men dressed as characters from a Korean soap opera, their carefully mussed hair and flashy rings underlining the fact that their countrymen are living on a dollar a day. With their ostentatious wealth and their power to chronically abuse power, they are relaxing this Friday night, taking a break from selling the land out from underneath its people.
Neal is dressed, as always, in a suit and tie. With his mate Travis, and Travis's wife, Sokleang, we have ramshackled our way through the chaotic streets in a tuk tuk in search of Holiday, otherwise known as Manhattan Club. It's duplicitous namesake makes it difficult to find. But we're here. It's an old army trick, assigning code names to crucial rendezvous points. Try finding Snowy's, for instance, where one can sit and sip cocktails and watch the sun set over the river from a precariously perched verandah - a verandah which will, in all likelihood, and in the very near future, topple headlong into the slow-moving, lily-strewn Mekong, taking the bar and all its inebriated customers with it - Snowy's, where one can sit and watch the sun set over the river - if only one can find the damn place. No easy task, given the bar is actually called Maxine's.
After locating Holiday, Neal leads us through a glistening wet car park towards a garishly lit entrance, beneath a neon sign which reads 'Manhattan Club'. "You can usually score ketamine around here," Neal says, waving a stylishly suited arm around at flash Hummers, fancy cars, and a dalliance of young men and women in the shadows. He pauses for a moment, and we stop and stand with him, in the torpid, humid aroma of Phnom Penh's streets after rain, half expecting someone to step forward and proffer a plastic bag. If we were lakeside, or even riverside, there would be no end of shamelessly unimaginative entrepreneurs on hand to offer us drugs. But this is the high end, the pointy end, of the Cambodian netherworld. These kids are connected to generals and ministers - their money comes from on high, not from the street.
But why would anyone with half a brain left would want to score ketamine, i wonder as the doorman pats us down for weapons. It's beyond me. I remember trying special K with Mickey T a couple of years ago, back when Miss Mayhem was staying with us in Carnarvon. As you do, in an outback town where one form of after-hours entertainment is to snort Bundaberg rum until it comes out your eyeballs. We began experimenting after the local veterinary surgeon gave Mickey T a couple of vials to administer to his injured dog. But i had other ideas - as did Mickey T, who, after curing his dog's bad shoulder with reiki, handed the drugs over to me. We medicated ourselves and dropped quickly and drastically into the k-hole. Barely able to move, we could not speak at all - only growl, or occasionally bark, while rolling about on the floor. Which frightened poor Miss Mayhem, when she came home from work, nearly out of her wits.
But Neal seems intent on the ketamine experience, so, after the waitress arrives with our drinks, i peel my ears and mingle with the crowd on the mezzanine, sipping on my Heineken and looking about. I hear Neal ask the waitress to go find him a girl. I shake my head, counting in it the number of times he's asked me to do the exact same thing. He can't seem to pick out a girl for his own self - probably because he can't actually see. The girls need to be brought within a few inches of his designer frames. I bump into a well-dressed, thick set Khmer man, who turns around and surprises me by asking in English where i am from.
"Australia. But i like it here better. It's more fun."
"Ah. And you are looking for fun tonight?" He lights a cigarette.
I look around and nod. "Always looking for fun."
"Too easy," he says. "There's plenty of girls." He raises his head and blows a plume of smoke over the handrail in the direction of the dance floor. The waitress reappears at the top of the stair with a dumpy-looking girl wearing too much eye-shadow. She takes a quick look at Neal from underneath her false eyelashes before turning abruptly and walking back down the stairs.
"I'm not looking for a girl," i say.
He nods. "So. You want ketamine?"
My eyebrows shoot up. This really is too easy.
"Yes. I mean, no. My friend wants some." I nod at Neal, standing a few metres away. "Any around?" Neal glares at me, and beckons me over hastily.
The Khmer puts his hand on my shoulder. "Wait here, my friend." He slips away into the crowd. The mirror ball rotates ever slowly as the music gets ever louder. I slalom through the crowd to Neal, who grabs me by the arm and leans in, whispering in my ear.
"What do you think are you doing? You've got to watch yourself here. That guy is a gangster."
"Just asking about some K."
"Are you crazy? You don't just ask those guys for K. This isn't lakeside." I nod, and sip on my beer. "Why don't you go and find us some girls?" I shrug, and walk over to the bright chromium rail. I look down at the crowd. A pretty Khmer woman in a white fur coat looks up from the dance floor. I smile. She smiles back. So they do wear fur coats here. And i thought all that Japanese clothing sent as aid - with little regard for Cambodia's location in the tropics - was only bought by barang on their way back to the chill north of the hemisphere. But i doubt this woman bought that coat from Tokyo Thrift.
She returns to dancing with her female friend, who is equally expensively dressed, minus the fashion model looks. She glances up at me again, and i raise my drink. She smiles. I turn around and the Khmer gangster is standing there in front of me with his fist clenched. He raises his fist, slowly, until it is just below the level of my eyes. Right in my face. I dart a glance at Neal, who is standing, frozen, watching for the inevitable attack. The gangster smiles, and i see there is a line of white powder on the uppermost side of his fist, between thumb and clenched fingers.
Neal buys fifty dollars worth, which gets us a lounge outside a private room on the mezzanine, and an unending supply of horse tranquilizer. The gangster sits with us and sets about disengaging our minds from our bodies. After a couple more lines i'm happily giddy, and tell Neal i'm going downstairs to find him a girl. He grins, and does another line from a plate which has appeared from who knows where. The kitchen.
I float downstairs to the girl in the polar bear coat. She speaks no English. And i can barely speak at all. The music is way loud. I point upstairs, then lean in to her ear and say: "Party? You? Your friend?" which comes out sounding like "woof woof woof." She shakes her head no. I shrug, and float back upstairs. The party has moved on from the lounge to a stainless steel table, where we have a new round of beers. My gangster friend is giggling like a lunatic at something Sokleang is saying. He beckons me over for another beer and a line. A security guard appears, dressed in black, his uniform bearing markings in the style of a New York cop.
Torch in hand, the security guard walks over and shines the light onto our plate. I thank him and do another line. This is no Carnarvon K-hole. This really is 'too easy'. I start to giggle. This seems the understatement of the decade. The security guards are helping us do lines. I waft over to the rail and the polar bear girl and her friend look up and see me. I can't help laughing. They laugh back, and, after a brief exchange of words, head up the stairs.
After a couple of lines. the polar bear girl sidles up to me and Neal begins dancing, quite up close and personal, with her friend. They're drinking and having a good time. I'm feeling kind of warm and fuzzy. Or is that the coat? After a few more drinks, i notice Neal has turned a distinct shade of green. He has backed away from the dancing girl, and begun an urgent, whispered discussion with Travis and Sokleang. They both look at the girl, still blithely dancing away, and shake their heads. Something is wrong. Neal looks even more sweaty than usual. Positively uncomfortable. I beckon Travis over.
Travis shakes his head. "Neal is convinced the girl is a ladyboy."
I snort into my drink, and beer froths everywhere. "You've got to be joking."
"I know. She clearly isn't, but we can't convince him otherwise." Travis shrugs.
My head starts to spin. Ladyboys? Oh dear. What have i done? Now even i am not so sure. The coat. The makeup. I feel giddy, and sit down on a couch far too quickly, dragging the polar bear with me. She laughs and her nails dig into my skin. Suddenly i remember the story of the friend of my late wife, the one who climbed into the concrete polar bear pen at the Perth zoo while on acid and was torn apart in front of his horrified, tripping friends. Oh god. Ladybears. What have i done. I look desperately around, but there is no escape. I am surrounded by polar bears. My legs refuse to move, as legs will inevitably do in a nightclub, or is it a nightmare? as the impending disaster draws ever near. And i begin to realise, too late, just how easily a fine mind is lost to the lure of the K-hole.