Dewey meets Zeb
The time was three when the airbus cut through the wispy clouds; leaving silky white traces as it imprinted its smooth tyres on the dry, desolate tarmac. It was a steamy, humid, December afternoon. I was glad the long flight from the UK was over; six foot eight men are not designed for economy travel I thought to myself. An abrupt halt caused me to shoot cold beer through my nose (which was pressed against the opposite seat) making my eyes water. The young Italian man next to me laughed. I wanted to punch him in the face as he glared at me with his bushy black hair and square glasses; chewing his peanuts like a cement mixer. At least I was at my destination though, (Siem Reap) – here to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years: by the name of Zeb.
‘Mr Dewey, enjoy your stay’ said the smirking immigration officer, as he stamped my passport and let me through security. The arrivals gate was hot and hectic, like a Bangkok market; passenger name signs flashed erratically and strange voices called out to me ‘taxi, taxi’ – making me feel dizzy. I was sure everyone was staring at me; being tall and slender seemed to arouse the onlookers; never mind the fact that I was fresh from the UK winter, feeling rather sun-starved and pale.
‘Dewey, Dewey’ I heard from a distant voice among the crowd; the voice became louder, more lucid – it sounded English, with a slight Jamaican hint. A short, stout man, wearing a stars and stripes bandana, appeared. He had bulbous white eyes distending from his portly pink face as he looked at me and grinned. ‘Alright man!’ he shrieked. Before he had time to finish, I stretched my arms around his waist and lifted him, nearly slipping a disc; I was so excited though – I didn’t care. I had found Zeb – my dearest friend from the UK.
We exchanged a few kind words and stepped outside for a cigarette; the Cambodian air was like a dry Sauna; sweat dripped through my Nirvana t-shirt like a leaking tap, making me feel clammy and dehydrated. Zeb told me he had travelled on the overnight bus from Sihanoukville, where he had a couple of friends I could meet sometime. ‘Cool, cool’ I announced, followed by – ‘fancy a beer?’ Zeb looked a little miffed; he said – ‘I’ve arranged a night market tour with a dude I met on the bus, who’s also meeting his friend today’. I re-joined – ‘I’m pretty whacked out – I just want to relax with a beer’. ‘Besides – I don’t know these guys’; ‘Dewey – there are no strangers – just friends you haven’t met yet’ was Zeb’s reply.
As I got on the back on Zeb’s moped, I can honestly say that I thought about using his bandana to carry out a mafia-style execution on him; squeezing the clichés from his fat throat. I guess it was just the tiredness though, so I tried my best to relax and enjoy the moment.
Zeb drove us to the hostel where we were staying – a sordid little backpacker hangout – with 70s style yellow couches, coffin-sized bunk beds, and Tracy Chapman tunes blasting out. I spent the next hour freshening up and downing as many beers as I could – around six – I think. I felt better, more jovial, and ready to hit the night market.
The evening was still early when we met Zeb’s friend Nik (from the night bus) and the friend he had brought along. They were sat by a street food cart, deep in conversation. My heart sank when the friend greeted me with – ‘Hey I’m Lorenzo’; it was the bushy-haired, Italian man from the plane. He had now replaced his peanuts with fried rice and gouged away like a ravenous hog. We laughed about the flight, and I no longer wanted to punch him. ‘Double date it is then’ exclaimed Zeb; Nick laughed nervously as he flicked his light blonde surfer hair to the side of his face and re-joined with ‘let’s rock n roll!’ in his strong Australian accent.
The night market was buzzing; many people from many different nations – all absorbing the atmosphere into their skin and permeating their minds with unforgettable memories. We walked past giant woks, sizzling the air and tantalizing my nostrils with the smells of lemongrass, garlic, and spiced chicken. The colours were incredible; the array of fresh exotic vegetables; deep-fried crispy bugs, and unknown wildlife on sticks; all overwhelming my senses and sending a shiver down my spine. I can still smell it to this day when I shut my eyes and imagine it.
It was around eleven when we decided to rest our legs and have a beer; I almost felt bad for showing any animosity towards Lorenzo, as I now found him quite tolerable. ‘Cheers guys’ I announced to the table when our beers came over, all three of them retorted with ‘Salute!’ Zeb then stood up and clinked his beer glass with the back of a teaspoon, followed by – ‘I just want to say – there truly are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.’ Nik smiled nervously and Lorenzo grinned as he gnawed on a prawn; I couldn’t help what I did.
Pouncing up, a paroxysm of rage overcame me, my arms were spinning wildly, like a broken windmill. ‘Stick your clichés up your ass’ I scoffed venomously at Zeb, as I drove my right fist into his right thigh, causing him to squeal like a pig and shout ‘ah maaaaan!!’ Zeb then sat down looking impassive as he downed a full beer, I guess he was ok. I got up and left, and didn’t speak to him until the next day.
Maybe the tiredness was too much, but whatever caused my outburst, I needed to go and cool off. Walking towards the hostel I heard a voice shout – ‘ey Dewey’; it was Lorenzo. We found a bar with chill-out music and orange coloured futons where we continued to drink ice cold beer until the early hours. The conversation jumped between subjects such as the meaning of life, and whether we can time travel. One thing was for certain though – I had found a true friend in Lorenzo.
Things were looking up; Zeb and I were bonding like the ‘old days’ and I was having the time of my life in Cambodia. We had even made plans to travel the country and meet up with Zeb’s buddies – Shane and Moe. Zeb seemed at peace and was rapidly becoming more spiritual; this is why I found his announcement one balmy Friday evening rather incredulous. He asked me to travel to Bangkok for the weekend and watch him participate in a Muay Thai fight. ‘I’ve been training hard’ he said as he took a drag from his cigarette and ordered his third beer. ‘You’re a dark horse aren’t you Zeb’ I replied – still in shock. ‘Dewey – the eyes only see what the mind’s prepared to comprehend’ Zeb announced, emphatically. I swigged my beer, tipped my head towards him and exclaimed – ‘they certainly do my friend!’
We took an early taxi to the airport; the hot, dusty streets of Siem Reap came to life as our driver dodged small kids and drug-fuelled revellers. I had some rather nervous, disquieting thoughts rushing over me – like my first day of school. I didn’t know why I was so anxious; maybe I was just worried about my friend. When we finally pulled up to the airport – I thought my heart was going to beat through my chest and I’d bleed to death. The more I thought this – the more I felt sure of it; the news headline – “six-foot-eight man’s heart explodes” – pressed itself into my consciousness. I really needed a cold beer – to calm my nerves and drown my paranoia.
Check-in was a breeze and we made it to the bar. After my seventh beer, I began to relax and asked Zeb some questions regarding, how, why, and when this fight business came about. – ‘A few months back Dewey, (in my quest for discovery) – I was trekking through the steamy, tropical jungle of northern Thailand. I came across a large stream with shiny, glistening water – it was intoxicating; the smooth trickle of clear, running liquid, harmonized with the sounds of brightly coloured, low swooping birds.
I hurried to get a closer look – when I discovered an old man, squatting on a large rock, on one leg – like a statue. His deep tan helped intensify the whiteness of his breezy locks, as he held his wiry, muscular posture. The man was a Dutch traveller named Carlo – highly proficient in the art of eight limbs. I asked him if he’d like some company and we spent the entire afternoon training by the stream; I was his student and he was my master.’ ‘Zeb – you had an afternoon of training?’ I gingerly asked – ‘Dewey – the mind is a powerful tool – my learning never stops’ Zeb replied: confidently.
The time was upon us already; the lead up to fight night seemed to pass in a drunken blur. Zeb had hired a local Thai man to warm him up and organize some pre-fight pad-work; I was to be Zeb’s assistant coach and help keep him motivated. We entered the noisy, illuminating club at around eight and found a dingy little back room – to warm up. Tiger balm and testosterone filled the air as we squeezed into the corner, feeling rather intimidated by the other fighters, also preparing for their moment of glory. I must say – for someone in charge of so much weight – Zeb moved rather delicately and had the grace and energy of a featherweight boxer. He was landing crisp one-twos on the pads and delivered a devastating roundhouse kick; he really surprised me, and I felt proud to join him on his ring walk.
I’m not sure who was more nervous – Zeb or myself, but when we made it to the ring – I was a quivering wreck. Fortunately – I had a hip flask of Sangsom whisky and I downed the entire contents, finally relaxing. Zeb smoothly ducked through the ropes and began to undertake some-kind-of-ritual; he would bow and perform almost dance-like movements. Strange music filled the air – like bagpipes and car horns – lifting my spirits and making me feel jubilant; I stepped into the ring and began to dance as well, performing an Irish Jig, and clapping my hands. Maybe it was disrespectful, as Zeb gave me a contemptuous look and barked ‘no Dewey!’ I guess I just got lost in the moment.
Zeb’s fighter had now entered; he was a rather menacing looking Hungarian, with primate features, and a bowl cut. His scowling dark eyes pierced from his pumpkin-shaped head, staring Zeb down like he was about to feast on his organs. Veins pumped from his tree-trunk legs as they glistened with sweat. The beast sat on his stool, grunting as he glugged from a bottle of Russian vodka. The crowd became raucous when the two fighters leapt up and took their place in the centre of the ring. ‘Come on Zeb!’ I shrieked as I nervously watched my friend square up under the flashing lights – ready to battle for his life.
Bang! – he didn’t see it coming – a strong right hook connected with Zeb’s chin sending him to the canvas. The noise roused the crowd – like an elephant stampede as Zeb crashed onto his back – tumbling, rolling, and attempting to find his feet. I honestly thought it was over. I was screaming at him – ‘get up, get up Zeb!’ – When a moment of divine intervention seemed to arise, raising him to his feet. It was like a scene from a Rocky movie – I was jumping up and down, ecstatic with joy. He was ok, my Zeb was ok.
Like the flick of a paintbrush – the Hungarian’s blood decorated my cream t-shirt as Zeb landed a sensational roundhouse kick on the primate’s nose. The crunching sound of broken bone made my legs weaken as the man stumbled back onto the ropes. Zeb was like a brave warrior; he advanced towards his stunned opponent – using his jab, and evading shots with perfect footwork. He was playing with the Hungarian, until finally – deciding to call it a night.
Zeb feinted a left body jab, causing the ape to drop his hands as he spun on his left foot and landed a devastating right hook kick to the blood-soaked pumpkin. The Hungarian’s jawbone waggled like a broken stick as he collapsed below the bright lights and clicking cameras – finally landing in a luminous puddle of blood and sweat. Zeb had won. To this day – I still don’t know what happened to him; he tells me it was Carlo, sending him thoughts, but I like to think it was me.
We felt like celebrities when we got to the Khao San road that night and celebrated. This was a night I will never forget; I can honestly say – I now revered Zeb as my hero.
A.T Hawthorn – 6.7.19