Heroes for a day

The hotel is located on a busy street in Cambodia. There are twenty floors in the building. The room where they are sleeping is sparsely furnished. There is a small desk with an old TV. There is a bible on the bedside table next to a full ashtray. The carpet shows signs of wear and the door to the shower is half-open. It is hot here because the air conditioning occasionally fails. The balcony doors are closed and the curtains are drawn.

It is almost seven in the morning. Rays of sunlight shine through a crack in the curtain. Tender glittering grains of dust dance in the light. Stardust, gold dust. It looks magical. The two boys are sleeping in each other’s arms. One of them is breathing deeply and irregularly. Sometimes his breathing stops completely and his body is eerily still. But then his breathing takes a run-up and it starts again shockingly.

The bed, the sheets, the bedspread at the foot of the bed. The sparse interior of the room. This is his safe haven. A quiet last refuge. Down in the street the traffic rages. The sound rises. It bounces off the windows of the hotel room but is unable to break the silence. They lie close together, protective of each other. Safe in each other’s arms.

That’s how they fell asleep together. Two boys in love.

Ten years ago.

It is the middle of winter in the Netherlands. You are partners in crime. Both are only 15 years old. Children with an instruction manual. Vulnerable children. Beautiful children. Tough, young heroes on a journey of discovery. Adolescents on the verge of adulthood.

Life seems like a bizarre joke that you both seek the plot of. My daughter Robina and you: Damien. Best friends who can take on the world together.

I do my best to offer both of you a home, but it’s not easy to gain your trust.

It’s not an easy time. Heartbreak and euphoria, joy and sorrow, alternate.

Incomprehension, anger, despair, and quarrels at home escalate.

There are always plenty of parties and love affairs. There is a lot of experimentation with mind-altering drugs. There is so much temptation. You both take enormous risks sometimes. It’s a dangerous life, but you are both up for the challenge. And you are there for each other. Nothing can harm you as long as you are friends.

You stay close over the years, even when Damien is away more and more often and starts to travel far.

It is almost noon in Cambodia. The sun is stifling hot. The crowds on the street are increasing.

A boy opens his eyes. Then suddenly, there is panic.

It’s not possible to wake you up anymore. There is now chaos in the hotel room.

The dust storms in the bright light. Someone is banging on the door. Strangers run into the room.

There is shouting.

Someone is calling your name.

But you are already so far away.

In my mind, I go back in time. Robina still lives at home. On a grey chilly winter morning, when I am on my way to pick up my other kids from school, I see you walking towards me on the bridge.

I immediately recognize your narrow, gloomy figure. It is bitterly cold and the heating in the car is turned on. You’re not wearing a coat. You are shivering while walking towards our house, with a bowed head and your hands tucked deep in your pockets.

I stop the car to let you get in.

You smile happily.

Traffic continues to rage on the streets of Phnom Penh. Someone opens the balcony doors and terrible noises from outside pour in.

It’s deafening.

It’s a busy day, I am running some errands when Robina calls me. She’s crying and screaming.

It’s hard to hear what she is saying. Until I finally do.

I drop everything and drive home. Tears flow down my cheeks.

When I drive over the bridge, I see you there again in my mind.

Walking towards me over the bridge like you did many years ago.

Just a boy on his way to his best friend.

I watch you until your figure fades away in the sunlight.

Stardust falls down to the pavement.

Written for Damien and Robina. Best friends. Damien passed away in Cambodia after an overdose. Their favourite song was Heroes, by David Bowie.

Damien * 11 July 1992 –  ✝️ 10 July 2017.