Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, April 20th

14 Para

There's a kind of character I have occasionally been unlucky enough to meet when travelling, that can be found all over the world. This person fulfils certain criteria: unintelligible, persistent, boring, but with enough of an undercurrent of menace to make the prospect of the seemingly sensible course of action - extracting oneself immediately from their presence - unattractive. Usually alcohol provides the persistence and dullness, and presumably either drugs or psychosis provide the unspoken threat. (The most memorable of these we have met was Joseph, a 'tourist guide' we met in a bar while we were on honeymoon in Dominica, who decided that we had insulted him, and after having endured several hours of his rage, we got the bar owner to distract him while we made our escape - and then he realised we'd left and chased us through the streets of Roseau in a rainstorm, banging heavily on the door of our guesthouse, which we'd only just managed to get inside and lock before he caught up with us.)

We met just such a man in Mersing, the small port town from which we were catching the ferry to Tioman Island. Earlier in the day we'd caught the "VIP bus" - not the "super-VIP bus", because ours had four seats across, not three - from the local bus station, which involved a very sweaty 45-minute wait amidst the diesel fumes. Malaysia's coach transport might be all bright and shiny and air conditioned, but its bus stations are, well, the same as bus stations anywhere else in the world: grotty, but in KL also suffering from the immense and unseasonal heat and humidity. "After the tsunami," we've heard said quite a bit, including from Iwa. "The weather hasn't been the same since the tsunami." Waiting with us was a morose, middle-eastern looking chap, who ended up on the bus with us, and slept the whole way.

The five-hour journey to Mersing, a few hundred kilometres down the "North-South Highway" - a big modern motorway running the length of the peninsula - then east across the peninsula's spine, through hills and jungles and palm oil plantations, passed very pleasantly. When we arrived in the late afternoon, all the boats to the island had already left, and we were greeted by a tout of sorts, who offered to drive us to any hotel of our choosing for free, then pick us up the next day in time for the ferry, provided we bought our ferry ticket from his office. Since the price would have been the same regardless, we took him up on his offer, and ended up in a dingy flophouse; but since it was only for one night, it was no great hardship (actually, I wouldn't have minded had it been longer: I have considerably lower standards than M).

That evening we strolled round the little town, where we enjoyed some very pleasant food from an open-air Chinese restaurant offering chicken chops - which I'm now seeing everywhere - and then went for a beer at another restaurant. At the next table I espied our morose fellow-traveller, talking in French to a western guy. The westerner was trying to buy one cigarette, rather than a packet, from the waitress, who didn't understand what on earth he was asking. To be helpful, I offered him one of mine, and we fell into conversation.

They were sailors from a French naval vessel currently docked in Singapore. The crew were given ten days' shore leave - to stay in Singapore and sleep on the ship every night, or to other destinations in south-east Asia. Of the 200 crew, only Abdul and Thierry decided to go further afield, but they'd gone their separate ways, and had, rather amazingly, just bumped into each other that evening on the street in Mersing. We chatted for a good while about this and that in a mix of French and English - M is fluent in French, whereas I am fluent in "badly remembered O-level French". Abdul, an engineer, was born in the south-west of France, but his parents were Algerian, and despite his melancholic appearance, had a great smile when he chose to use it. Thierry, a ship's paramedic, was from Brittany, and was overflowing with enthusiasm for life. Neither of them wanted to remain in the navy once their term was up.

Thierry had played football with a bunch of Malaysian guys earlier in the day, and they were now in the restaurant drinking beer, so he went off to have a drink with them. At some point later, the aforementioned crazed individual came from the footballers' group, and joined the three of us who remained at our table. "Hello hello," he beamed, a youthful-looking guy with terrible teeth, probably in his thirties. "Welcome to Malaysia! Where you from?" So far so good - the usual questions. Then he started trying to pour his nasty, warm Special Brew into our lovely half-finished, ice-cold Tiger Beer glasses. We gently resisted. "US special forces in Mersing the other day," he said, a propos of nothing. "Ah, that's interesting," we replied.

"What do you do for a living?" one of us asked, innocently. "I told you already," he replied,seemingly irritated. "Special forces." Then he turned to me. "I can go to England whenever I want."

"That's great," I said, mystified.



"14 Para."


"You from England. You should know. 14 Para. Special forces."

Then the conversation took even more of a turn for the bizarre: "You're OK now. I'm protecting you." What from? "There are people in this town who want to kill you. Slit your throat." Er... which people? He motioned vaguely towards a halal restaurant, that was decidedly shut, and in darkness. "But don't worry. I'm protecting you. 14 Para. I kill." At this point he finally succeeded in sloshing horrible warm superstrength lager into our glasses. After enduring about an hour and a half of tedious, threatening gibberish, we were wondering how on earth we'd extricate ourselves from his drunken, and possibly drugged, company, without angering him, when thankfully his lift arrived. "I see you again!" he shouted. "Not if we see you first," we muttered under our breaths, and as he was driven off into the night, we poured our besmirched beers down the gutter.

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