When you’re in a small airport during a south-east Asian summer, waiting for a flight from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City that has been delayed for five hours, time moves like a small, plastic oscillating fan: it ticks and clicks and marks the seconds but nothing moves and nothing changes and the air hangs thick and heavy.
Outside the airport the day was grey with heat. I was in a queue to a ticket window to see if I could change my flight, because standing in a queue at least gives you something to do, and an American man with very blue eyes at the head of the queue suddenly turned and addressed us. ‘Excuse me!’ he said.
He was a man of average height and it was hard to decide his age. He might have been in his late mid-twenties or his late thirties – it was a face that had sweated a lot and seen a lot of sun. He was carrying a unicycle as his carry-on luggage and he had a blonde beard that had been tied in a ponytail. I had been travelling too long and I’d seen too many wonders: a ponytailed beard almost seemed reasonable to me.
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said. ‘But I wonder if anyone has $30 to lend me.’
There was a sudden invisible switch of air pressure as a queue of people, without moving their heads, subtly adjusted the direction of their eyes to 10 centimetres above or below or on either side of his.
‘I know what this looks like,’ he said, ‘but I missed my flight and I need $40 to switch to a new one. Any contributions would be greatly appreciated.’
I reached slowly for my wallet, half hoping I wouldn’t have any dollars inside. I have been stranded in places before. I’ve lost wallets and been lost myself and I know what it’s like to be having a bad day and how much it means to have someone help you. I also remember how hard it is to ask for help, how I languished in long agonies of shyness and propriety, socially embarrassed in front of these people who didn’t know my name and would never see me again, terrified beyond reason that someone would think I was lying. I remember the faces of the people who have helped me, although I’ve never managed to repay them. Maybe you repay people like that by helping those you can.
I took out my wallet and reached inside but before I could say anything an elderly Australian man stepped forward. ‘Here y’are,’ he said.
I watched as he counted out the money to the young American, who received it calmly, saying, ‘You’re a lifesaver. I’ll repay you as soon as I get home to Sacramento.’
For a moment I admired the way he received the cash – as an equal, unservile, without any of my pathetic protestations of gratitude and relief. But then there was something about him that troubled me: the way he took the money and didn’t make eye contact; the way he insisted on showing the Australian his passport ‘so you can have peace of mind’, even though the Aussie said he didn’t need to see it, and as though seeing some unicycling stranger’s passport in a Cambodian departure hall means a damn thing either way.
I felt relieved it hadn’t been my money, and I felt bad that the elderly Australian had been conned. Or had he been conned?
I eased up beside him as the queue shuffled forward. I asked if he thought the young American had been telling the truth. He looked at me with pale eyes. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘But does it matter? I have some money to spare, and the young fella needs some. Does it matter why?’
I thought about that.
‘Will you lend me $30?’ I asked.
‘You should have asked sooner,’ he said, and we both laughed.
When we reached the ticket window I could find out if the American was lying. I could ask the lady about his flight and the new booking cost, but I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to know. I wanted to keep the old Australian man in my head, not the money. Sometimes asking for help is a gift you give other people.
Getaway, June 2015