Stephen Defoe was not usually one for introspection, but it struck him that he was acutely aware of every ache in his body. Squashed between his backpack and a fellow tourist, Stephen sat on a bus currently between Siam Reap and Phnom Penh. Until he came to Cambodia, he thought Phnom Penh was a type of pasta. The bus was old; the sun was unforgiving; backpacking is uncomfortable. Both his feet were asleep. He needed the loo. Something hard was sticking out of his rucksack, kneading a groove in the skin above his hip.
Stephen had just left Angkor Wat, so was more inclined to practice meditation than he might have been normally. A sunrise viewing of the temples had left him strangely contemplative, despite hordes of tourists click-click-clicking on the camera phones, and despite the near-death experiences of clambering enormous steps and wondering ancient ruins and realising that shit that’s a fucking big spider.
So he was quite conscious of how uncomfortable he was.
At a rest stop with mercifully working toilets and mercifully chilled soft drinks, he struck up a friendly conversation with an Australian couple. Or rather, they struck up a conversation with him. ‘Where are you from?’ one half of the couple asked. He looked like a TV presenter, although Stephen couldn’t remember which one.
‘Somerset,’ Stephen replied. ‘Go to the bottom-left of England and then go up a bit.’
‘Near Brighton!’ TV Presenter nodded enthusiastically. ‘We’ve always wanted to go.’ Taking in the matching tattoos both men sported on their forearms—miniature pride flags plus the word ‘always’ in an offensively flowery typeface— Stephen resisted the urge to turn away. The newly mindful part of Stephen knew that meeting an LGBT Australian couple on a bus in Cambodia was statistically likely, given the number of LGBT people in the world and the number of tourists visiting Cambodia. The part of Stephen whose wife had recently left him for a marketing manager named Daisy viewed all pride flags as a personal jab from the universe’s diversity department.
The other husband (honestly, even linguistics had it in for him), who looked like the sort of bloke you saw on a TV segment about gun crime, nodded enthusiastically. ‘Brighton! Yes! The San Francisco of England.’
‘Is it?’ Stephen asked politely. He sipped his Sprite. Mindful of his desire to be more mindful, he tried to think kinder thoughts about the husband. Not gang member. What was the word? Body builder. That was it.
‘What brings you to Cambodia?’ TV Presenter asked.
‘It’s a funny story, actually,’ Stephen said ruefully. ‘My mother died recently and stipulated in her will that I can’t inherit her estate until I can prove I’ve travelled to at least one hundred UNESCO World Heritage sites. She, um, she thought I was too comfortable, and was likely to spend her money on another buy-to-let flat revamp or a trip to Vegas…’ As this was the fourth time Stephen had told the story, the sting of recounting it had lessened a little. Now it felt like reading a journal entry from his teenage years, or like watching somebody vomit.
Whatever TV Presenter had been expecting, this wasn’t it. He was quiet for a full ten seconds.
‘That’s far out! Did none of the family want to come with you?’
‘Well, not really, as my wife left me around the same time for one of her colleagues.’
He didn’t quite know how it happened, but by the time the bus had reached Phnom Penh, Stephen had explained the inner workings of his marriage to the Australians and described in great detail the way his wife had chosen to break the news of her infidelity. It involved a dinner in Stephen’s favourite Greek restaurant, thus ruining both Greece and public dining indefinitely.
‘So now I’m going to the Killing Fields,’ Stephen concluded, ‘before I fly to to Hoi An in Vietnam. I might stop off in Laos before I go back to Europe. I’ve heard the Plain of Jars is quite nice to look at.’
‘Intense,’ Body Builder reflected. ‘Well, Stephen, if you’re ever in Brisbane, hit us up!’
Six months later, Stephen sat on a train going from Paris to London St Pancras. His backpack was battered, but there was space for it in the overhead compartment. No one had booked the seat next to him. He was acutely aware of how moderately comfortable his journey would be.
‘Hey — it’s the monk!’
‘Excuse me? Stephen blinked up. In front of him stood the TV presenter and the body builder, beaming.
‘It is you!’ TV Presenter shook his hand. ‘How are you? Where have you just been—Pompeii? Chernobyl? Auschwitz?’
‘Oh yes, I have. It is quite something. Although Chernobyl isn’t actually—wait, why did you call me the monk?’
‘Mate, we’ve been telling everyone about this guy wandering the planet so he can inherit his mum’s fortune. Somewhere along the road we started calling you the wandering monk. Or Odin. Because he used to wonder, you know…’ Body Builder gestured proudly to a tattoo of the World Tree wrapped around his left bicep.
‘You look… different.’ TV Presenter noted as the train began to move.
Stephen smiled wryly. ‘That’ll be the stomach bug I picked up in Delhi. I couldn’t leave my dorm for three days and I’ve never really got my appetite back.’ He didn’t mention the hornet sting just outside Tokyo, which left him hospitalised. He didn’t mention the time in Barcelona when a drunk English tourist mistook Stephen’s wiping his glasses for an offensive gesture and removed two teeth with a tidy punch. He didn’t mention that a couple of months into his sabbatical, his partners in the dental firm he’d founded in 2006 forced him out in what could really only be interpreted as a coup d’état.
‘So have you got your money yet?’ Body Builder asked.
‘Oh, yes, I reached one hundred Heritage sites in a couple of months. But I’ve decided to keep travelling and spend my mother’s money on a charity providing children with cultural exchange opportunities. Pen pals, language programmes, that sort of thing.’
The Australians looked suitably touched. ‘Good for you, mate. Looks like your old mum was onto something.’ Body Builder clapped Stephen on the shoulder. ‘Hey, did you ever sort things out with your wife?’
‘We’ve spoken,’ Stephen admitted. ‘They’ve invited me to their wedding next year.’
‘Will you go?’
‘Well, yes, actually. We talked things over in Prague, of all places. They did a long weekend there and said they owed me dinner.’
‘Good for you! It’s not like you’ll ever be friends, but it’s beneficial to the soul to clear the air.’ Stephen wondered if Body Builder had read that in a book, then decided he didn’t care.
‘Well, we might not be friend friends, but I’ve sort of agreed to walk Patricia down the aisle. By the way, what are your names?’
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