Their eyes haunt you. Beseeching or without hope. Their souls touch
You're filled with sadness and shame. I'm sorry, you think as you hurry
past. I wish I could help, but I can't. Rather than laze around the boat
till lunchtime, Dean had joined the shore excursion. A market visit was
of the tour. Now he regretted his decision.
He walked swiftly down the aisles, his eyes drawn unwillingly to the
suffering creatures on sale. There were chickens wrapped in newspaper tied
with string, their heads nodding distractedly in the still air, frogs
squirming to be free, fish gasping for water, even a guinea pig to be
used for soup tethered beside its little mound of food.
How Heni would have loathed this place! She told him that two years ago
she was in Hong Kong; she visited the main meat market. 'Don't ask me why.
think I read about it in "The Lonely Planet". They said it was a unique
experience, but warned that you should only go if you had a strong
'It's the last place I'd want to go,' Dean admitted.
'Yes, I was looking for a non-tourist experience, but it was horrible.
Firstly, the stench was appalling. It nearly knocked you flat at the
entrance. It wasn't that the meat was off. I doubt it was. It was just
flat iron smell of blood, together with the sweet sickliness of raw flesh.
It turned my stomach. I should have walked away.'
'Why didn't you?'
'Stupid pride. A little woman in her sixties brushed past me impatiently
I stood there blocking the entrance. She hissed something to me. She was
carrying a string bag for shopping. I realized she probably came there
day and there I was a foreigner too precious to spend a few minutes in her
'She probably doesn't notice the smell,' Dean considered. 'Maybe she never
did. If she had, she'd have said, "It's a smell that I like. It's fresh
meat. That's what I want for my family." '
Heni nodded. 'Later, I realized I was being unfair. There are no
refrigerators. Any place selling freshly slaughtered animals will smell.'
Steeling herself, Heni had entered the market and slowly walked up each
aisle. The vendors seemed to resent her, smashing their choppers down with
unnecessary force, splashing hoses close to her sandalled feet the
water swilling into large pink puddles, one eviscerated a sheep as she
passed and deliberately threw its flop of blue-gray guts into her path. In
one corner was a heap of severed cows heads, their eyes still wide and
filled with terror.
'So you've haven't eaten meat since?'
'I tried, but I find it hard to swallow. I keep chewing at it because I'm
afraid I'll choke. You'll think I'm neurotic'
Dean shifted impatiently. He generally had little patience with
Most, he suspected were attention seekers. Heni was however too honest to
play games. I really should give up eating meat, Dean thought. It really
a disgusting habit. Yet he knew he probably would weaken at the first
tantalizing aroma of a Madras curry.
He passed with relief into the fruit and vegetable section of the market.
was nearing 10 am and most of the local shoppers had departed hours
The vendors were listless, a number sleeping in the drowsy heat.
He passed baskets of lychees and rambutans. Bunches of coconuts like a
cannibal's trophy, hands of bananas, durians split apart to reveal their
yellow, stinking flesh, pink fantastical dragon fruit, yams, bell peppers,
edible ferns, pineapples, mangosteens, jackfruit and black skinned
He couldn't identify some of the fruit and vegetables, but the guide from
the ship was several stalls away talking to the main group.
Is this where my future lies, Dean wondered. Shopping each day in the
for fresh ingredients, preparing for the lunch or dinner trade. Six months
ago, the thought would have seemed absurd. He was studying commercial law
and considered one of the brightest students of his year. Then one day the
direction of his life changed.
He had gone with friends to an Indian restaurant. Later, he complained
the cook's lack of passion. 'The food was O.K,' his friend Peter had
shrugged. 'At least it was cheap and filling.' 'No, it was poor stuff,'
disagreed. 'Good ingredients but badly handled.' Then he rashly added
not rocket science. Even I could cook a better Chicken Korma.' 'Then why
don't you?' Peter challenged and the rest laughingly agreed. It wasn't in
Dean's nature to walk away from a challenge.
The following Saturday, after carefully following a number of Madhur
Jaffrey's recipes, Dean prepared an Indian banquet for eight friends. It
a success. As soon as he picked up the broad bladed carving knife, he felt
he had been cooking all his life.
It became a tradition that each weekend Dean would cook for his friends.
They would pool their money for ingredients and wine, leaving Dean to do
rest. He became used to cooking for crowds and grew more audacious. There
was the occasional failure, but generally success followed success.
One day, Peter's girlfriend Fay put down her fork and turning to him said
seriously, 'This is fantastic food. You're a natural. Have you thought of
cooking as a job?'
'Come on Fay,' Peter laughed. 'That's not Dean's bag. He's a lawyer
and through. Cooking is only a hobby.'
'I wonder,' Fay persisted. 'This is seriously good. Do you feel as happy
practicing law as when you cook?'
Her question returned many times to challenge Dean. He felt his
was split. His intellect was drawn toward the challenges of the law, but
instincts drew him toward cooking. Two roads were offered. The law offered
wealth, security and esteem. Was he really good enough to cook for a
He decided to test his ability. Mark Dolson was a much published food
who he met through his parents. He invited Dolson to dinner. He prepared a
careful selection of dishes. Dolson said barely a word as he ate. Was the
slight puckering of his lips and almost imperceptible frown expressions of
disapproval or simply concentration? When the critic sat back at the end
the meal Dean eyed him cautiously.
'Well,' Dolson said neutrally. It was impossible to read the critic's
expression or take anything from the tone of his voice.
Dean silently urged him to comment.
'What do want me to say?' Dolson asked.
'Well, did I nail it?'
'You're a good cook, but you know that. What do you want me to say?'
It was like drawing teeth. Did the wretched man expect him to beg for an
opinion? 'Could I make a living from cooking?' Dean asked with barely
'Of course. There are hundreds of mediocre cooks out there making a
'So I'm just average?' Dean muttered in disappointment.
'No, you're much better than that. I'd say you're a gifted amateur, but
too early to say if you're more than that. This meal might have been a
'Assuming it wasn't, how long would it take for me to reach a professional
'I can't say. There are so many imponderables. I mean if you worked as an
apprentice to a really good chef, you'd probably make swift progress. A
of these men and women however are shocking bullies. Would you have the
temperament to deal with their oversized egos? How do you handle
'Not at well I should. Assuming I could cope with that, what sort of time
frame would I be looking at?'
Mark took a judicious sip of his wine. 'This cabernet is very good. Time
frame? How about ten years?'
'Ten years!' Dean exclaimed.
'Scientists have studied what makes people successful and there generally
seems to be two main factors. The first is persistence. There are plenty
talented people out there, but most fail because they're not persistent.
criticism and failure easily discourage you, you'll always fall by the
wayside. The second fact is that in almost every field of endeavor, it
around ten years before anyone really masters their craft.'
'And there's luck as well.'
'Yes, there's that,' Mark conceded. 'But as the old cliché goes, the
you work, the luckier you become. To increase your chance of success,
your failure rate.'
'So what you're saying is if that I want to become a successful chef I'd
need to invest at least a decade of my time before I could even know that
was a wise choice?'
'Life is tough,' Mark smiled. 'Look I could praise you to the skies if you
wanted, but what I'd say is if you really want to be a chef, invite me to
dinner in say six years time when you've really gained some solid
working for one or preferably two outstanding chefs. When you do, I'd
that the food you serve wouldn't be just good or even very good. I'd want
'I hope our conversation helped,' Mark said, shaking Dean's hand as he
'It's certainly given me plenty to think about,' Dean replied doubtfully.
Any discomfort Dean may have felt was however nothing compared to the jolt
he received three weeks later. He was going to the room of his law tutor,
Martin Bury. The door was open and he recognized the voice of David Cole
taught history, one of Dean's elective subjects. He paused before entering
and found to his surprise and chagrin they were discussing him.
'So who's your next student?' Cole was asking.
'Why do I hear a slight note of disapproval?'
'Oh, Merton. Well, to be frank, he's not my type.'
'Dean? You're joking. Everyone likes him. Fellow students. Members of the
faculty. Why, even the Chancellor was saying to me the other day…'
'Dean Merton is a clever fellow I'll grant you.' Cole interrupted. 'A good
'A brilliant student,' Bury corrected his colleague.
'Brilliant at giving us what we want, but I doubt he has any depth. I
detect the faintest spark of originality.'
'You're too hard on him. I only wish more of my students were a fraction
'You know the trouble with Merton and his type?'
'Enlighten me.' Bury invited sarcastically.
'He's never known failure. Everything comes to him too damned easily. The
trouble is that nothing good is ever done without a struggle. Dean is a
enough fellow, but I find him both predictable and disappointing. He's
enough to do some serious work, but I suspect he'll always be too lazy and
smug to attempt it.'
A few minutes later, Dean strolled into Bury's office. He was smiling and
appeared confident, but inwardly he was seething. Hours later at home when
he calmed down, he remembered his father had once told him that we often
learn more from people who dislike us than from our friends. Cole could be
dismissed as mean spirited and envious but perhaps he had a point.
For as long as Dean recalled, he had been both able and popular.
he attempted, whether it was dancing, cricket, scuba diving or study came
easily. Perhaps he'd accomplish far more if he had to struggle for
He decided to discuss the problem with Fay, who he always found to be a
To his surprise, she became irritable.
'Oh, for heaven's sake Dean,' she interrupted. 'Listen to yourself! Men!
strut around expecting everyone to admire you, but the moment someone
dazzled, you whine like fretful babies.'
'That isn't fair,' Dean muttered.
'What's your problem? That you have lots of talent, but that isn't enough?
Tough! Suck it up! You should be grateful for whatever talent you have,
if some consider you shallow. You should hear the way Peter is always
on about the way he wishes he was you. What a bloody waste of space men
'You don't understand.'
'I understand only too well. That's the trouble. You asked for my opinion.
Well you'll get it. You need a life. You've become self absorbed. Travel.
places where nobody gives a damn about Dean Merton and his precious gifts.
And you know why they don't care? Because they live on the streets of
under a sheet of plastic or their hands have been cut off in Cambodia to
make it easier for them to beg or they haven't eaten anything last night
they won't tonight. See these people. Then feel ashamed that you feel hard
done by because some lecturer thinks you're an empty raincoat.'
The more Dean thought about Fay's comments, the more he became convinced
was right. A week later, they met by chance in the street.
'Dean,' she began. 'You've been avoiding me. I'm sorry for what I said. It
'It was honest,' Dean smiled. 'I'm glad now that you said it. You're a
friend to tell me that.'
'I hope we'll always be friends.'
'I'm sure we will. Anyway, I'm pleased we met today. I wanted to tell you
I'm taking your advice. I've been able to take six months off my study and
I've bought a one way ticket to Vietnam. I'm leaving next Monday.'
'That's wonderful. You'll love it, but we'll all miss you like mad.'
'I'll post some photos on Facebook when I have chance. We'll keep in
'It's not the same. I hope we can catch up before you go.'
'Probably not. I think I'll just slip away.'
A month after leaving Melbourne, Dean found himself in Laos. One memorably
drunken night in Luang Prabang, he won a 30 year old motor bike in a card
game. It was the last of the great Triumphs. A black and gold 750cc T140
Bonneville Special. A collector's piece, but in a wickedly neglected
condition. Thus began a meandering journey through much of Southeast Asia
that ended ignobly when the gears stripped on the outskirts of a small
village near Pagan in Mynamar. I loved that beast, Dean thought with
as he walked away, resolutely not looking back. He told a village elder
where he had left the bike, hoping that one day a villager might repair
More likely, they'd strip it and sell the parts in a market.
'I wish you had been riding pillion,' he told Heni three months later in
Bangkok. 'Most of the time, I was happy with my own company, but there's
sometimes a moment when you look at say a great sunset or hear the jungle
creatures in the evening and you think, Wow! It's then, you'd like to turn
to a girl and see that's she's sharing the same pleasure.'
'Motor bikes scare me,' Heni smiled doubtfully.
'I know. I had some hairy moments. A bus driver on a mountain road near
Kerala for instance nearly wiped me out. A week later, I read that a bus
gone off the road in the same spot, killing the driver and all his
passengers. It probably was the same man.'
Heni shuddered. 'That's what I mean. A friend of mine lost her leg in
when a driver jumped a red light and ploughed into her. I'll travel on
almost anything, but I'll only jump on a motor bike if I'm desperate.'
Dear Heni, he reflected. What was she doing now? He tried to calculate the
time difference between Malaysia and Amsterdam, but gave up. He guessed
was probably half way through her father's burial service.
Dean met Heni Veerboehaven in a cyber café off Sukhumit Road. She helped
set up a personal web site, then download a batch of photos. 'That's a
brilliant design,' Dean enthused. 'Now, instead of sending postcards that
take weeks to arrive, my friends can instantly read how I'm traveling.'
It began as a casual affair. Then without warning he realized that he
Heni. It was the first time he had fallen in love. Long before he loved
Dean both liked and respected her. She was striking rather than beautiful;
healthy, vivacious and intelligent. She had a quick, sympathetic
understanding and they shared the same quirky sense of humor.
Born into an old merchant family that first became wealthy in the 17th
Century, Heni was down to earth, curious about culture and accepting of
people. Proficient in five languages, she was completing her Master's in
Thai literature, translating some of the lesser-known work of the 18th
Century poet, Sunthorn Phu. It was her first time in Asia and she joyfully
embraced every second of the experience. Dean was impressed to discover
was both tough and compassionate. Many nights she'd join on one of the
private rescue teams who help the many victims of Bangkok's nightly and
often horrific traffic accidents.
'Would you like to come with me on another adventure?' she asked one day.
Dean learned that as a birthday gift for her, Heni's father had bought her
and her childhood friend Inge a ticket on a nine-day river journey into
heart of Borneo. Inge however had fallen ill and returned to Holland to
recover. 'I could ask for a refund,' Heni explained,' though I probably
wouldn't get the full amount back at this stage. Alternatively, I could go
by myself, but then I thought wouldn't it be fun if we went together?'
Dean readily agreed, but a week before the trip, Heni learnt that her
had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. She arranged to fly back to
for the funeral.
'I could come with you,' Dean offered.
Heni shook her head. 'No. I want you to meet my family, but not like this.
Take the trip and I'll come back here.'
The days passed swiftly as Heni arranged her return. They no longer made
love and Dean felt helpless to see her grief. He gradually learnt more
Heni's family and the strong, affectionate bond between father and
'I wish I could have met Dirk,' Dean said. 'He sounded fun.'
'He was, but more than that he was strong, quiet and gentle. All the
qualities I look for in a man. He helped talk Mum around to letting me
home. It was the first time I'd done so. I had hardly traveled in Europe,
much less live in Asia. Damn! I'm going to miss him like mad.'
Later she remarked, 'You never talk about your family. Are your parents
'No. Mum died about ten years ago and Dad passed on last year.'
'What sort of man was your father?'
'Nothing special or rather that's what I thought when he was alive. He was
low paid public servant. A man of simple tastes. A non-drinker, he was
passionate about his football team. The team never came within a bull's
of winning a premiership, but Dad doggedly supported them all his life.
People loved my father, although he was basically a loner. Heaven for him
was sitting in a dinghy on some placid lake, dangling a fishing line. A
straight up and down man. I was surprised how many people came to his
funeral and how many later told me of his kindness. He touched something
many hearts. He had qualities that I don't share and hadn't recognized.'
'How did you get on?'
'Very well, although we were far apart in temperament and interests. This
sounds conceited, but I think he was in awe of me. The last thing he said
me was "Keep up with the law. You're going to do great things with it."
trouble is that I think I'm losing interest. Do you think I should do what
'No,' Heni shook her head decisively. 'The dead had their lives. Their
wishes shouldn't become our prison. The only thing that parents should
is that their children are useful, happy and successful, no matter what
decide to do.'
'And your father always gave you oxygen?'
'Yes, I recall him telling Mum who's a control freak, that parents often
think they're helping, when they're really only meddling.'
'I'll bet she liked that!' Dean laughed.
Dean wondered if Dirk would have easily accepted a stranger, especially
whom his daughter adored. Male jealousy might have soured their
relationship. He'd never know. Perhaps that was just as well.
In a reflective mood, Dean meandered through the market coming at length
a section where they sold toys. A small crowd of men and boys had gathered
around one stall. The vendor with a mysterious air opened a large
box that was marked "US Ranger Chopper". The crowd watched entranced as he
removed a steel gray helicopter from its foam cradle. Unfolding the rotor
blades, he flicked on a remote control. The blades span until they were a
blur. The helicopter rose four feet off the ground and performed a
complicated series of ascents and dives, before coming to rest at their
feet. The crowd was delighted. A number of men on discovering the price
immediately drew out their wallets and began counting out notes. Most
however watched with the quiet resignation of poverty.
Having done a brisk trade, the vendor turned to Dean. 'Where are you from
'Oztrailyou,' he pronounced carefully. 'Many people come to me from your
country. I always do a good deal for them. I like them. What you say,
are dinky di, cobber. For you today sir, I make a special price. The
"Ranger" for only $50Aud.'
'Thanks, but why would I want to buy a toy?'
In the half-light of dawn, Dean carried the box to the Upper Deck. In
30 minutes time, staff would begin preparing the Early Riser's Coffee.
preferred to be alone. He felt foolish enough playing with a toy, without
having an audience. He wasn't sure why he had bought it. Perhaps it was
simply something different to think about. He flicked on the switch but
nothing happened. Bloody typical, he thought derisively. It's a dud. He
reseated the batteries and tried again. Nothing stirred. Then just as he
about to give up, the toy shuddered as though casting off sleep and the
rotors began to spin. The chopper began to rise. He pushed the control's
lever forward and the toy rose swiftly to 20 feet. He then held it steady
before sending it out on a wide sweep above the ship, taking care to avoid
Thinking himself alone, he was startled by an excited shout from the
riverbank. Two small boys were pointing excitedly at the chopper.
Dean began showing off, sending the chopper in a long sweep to hover
tantalizingly close to the children. Then he sent it into a series of
maneuvers, ending in a sharp bank before hurtling down toward the water.
planned to pull the chopper out of its dive seconds from the water, but
either because he miscalculated or the toy's engine failed, the chopper
ploughed into the water and sank.
As Dean watched stunned, the two boys scrambled down the muddy bank and
dived into the river. They took turns diving into the murky water. Just as
Dean was despairing, the older boy emerged triumphantly clutching the toy
a ball of sticky mud.
The boy gestured to Dean, offering to swim out to the boat to return the
chopper. Dean considered, then shook his head. He motioned that the boys
could keep the toy, then drawing his arm back he threw the remote control
high and hard as he could to them. The control flew in a great arc across
the river. For a moment it looked as though it would fall short, but the
older boy launched himself across the water taking a magnificent catch.
Applause broke out behind him and he turned to see two members of the
crew beaming at him. 'Great catch!' Dean shouted to the boys. 'Just like
Ricky Ponting!' He wasn't sure if the Malay children understood the
reference. Cricket mad Indians would have instantly recognized the name of
the Australian captain.
The excited boys climbed up the bank, waving and giggling as they carried
their trophies back to the long house that could be glimpsed through the
forest. Dean smiled, imaging the excitement as the mud was carefully
away. If there was a problem with the engine, a villager would know how to
fix it. It felt good to think of the hours of simple pleasure that the toy
would give village children of all ages.
As Dean climbed down the stairs to the breakfast room, he realized he was
living in a perfect moment. That fleeting and exquisite moment when life
offers us a glimpse of its infinite and joyful possibilities.