Mr Heng walked into the historic Long Bar that evening, little knowing that his life was about to change forever. His stay at Raffles, Singapore was coming to an end and he was in contemplative mood; he would have one drink and then retire to the luxury of his room to prepare for his departure in the morning. His stay had been lavish, without being ostentatious; his every wish anticipated, he felt valued and treasured, but it was time to return to Angkor.
“Mr Heng!” The barman in his white silk waistcoat called to him above the hubbub of the evening guests. “Mr Heng! Please, come and sit here, near me – let me make you a Singapore Sling.” He turned enthusiastically to the bottles that lined the mirrored shelves behind him and selected those he needed.
Heng perched on one of the padded stools that ran the length of the sleek mahogany bar, picked a monkey nut out of the bowl that had been placed in front of him and cracked it open, dropping the shell on the intricately mosaicked floor. The barman rattled the cocktail shaker firmly, poured the punchy pink drink into a hurricane glass, placed it in front of Mr Heng and stood back.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve you Mr Heng – it is not often you meet a man who has invested so heavily in the Raffles family… 20 years at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor? It’s a privilege.”
“Would you mind if I sat down here?” a voice asked over Mr Heng’s shoulder. He turned to see the handsome man that he had spotted arriving earlier in the day and nodded his head towards the empty barstool to indicate that he could. “Of course.”
“Borys Conrad” the man introduced himself, sticking out his hand.
“Heng,” he replied. “My name is Mr Heng.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, I saw you earlier…”
“Ah yes! In the foyer,” Heng smiled. “You looked as if you had returned to a place that you love very much.”
“You’re right,” Borys said thoughtfully. “I have.”
Although their conversation was, naturally, quite formal to begin with, as the evening settled they began to talk more openly and a connection was forged between the two men.
The barman looked over at them from time to time: the earnest figure of Conrad, elbows on the bar, listening intently to the charismatic Mr Heng. Their heads bowed closely together in the dim light, the palm-shaped fans sending a soft warm breeze across their hair as they laughed and joked.
The men exchanged stories about their past and Borys explained, with a touch of nostalgia, about how it came to be that he knew Raffles so well. He was, he explained, relieved that Raffles had retained all of her old-world charm while not compromising on modern luxury, the service as knife-sharp as it had always been. Mr Heng pointed shyly to the discreet badge that he wore on his lapel, a commendation for service to Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. After losing his wife and daughter, he told Borys, work had become his life and he had given it all the attention and care of which he was capable. Borys alluded to the fact that Chantrea was from Cambodia, but Heng didn’t seem to hear his comment and continued.
“Mr Conrad… do you have children?”
“I do Mr Heng,” Conrad said as he fished in his pocket, pulled out his mobile phone and scrolled onto photos. “I have two little girls.” He passed the telephone over so that Heng could look at their picture and tapped the screen. “This is Kesor on the left and Maly on the right, their mother chose their names, they’re Khmer and they mean…”
“… heavenly one and blossom…” interrupted Mr Heng “… beautiful names…” he was silent for a moment. “I have a picture of my daughter too, shortly before…” he tailed off but then reached into his trousers and pulled out a frayed wallet. He opened it carefully, running his thumb and forefinger under one of the worn leather compartments and pinching out a square of folded photograph paper. He opened it up slowly and placed it on the bar, smoothing the crinkled edges flat with the tips of his fingers and slid it over for Borys to see…
The air went cold as Borys froze in utter disbelief. “Wait, what?” he stuttered incredulously. He raked his fingers through his hair in confusion as the words began to tumble out of his mouth. “What did you say? Who did you say this is? I mean, I know who this is!” He jumped up and held the photograph close to Heng’s face. “I KNOW WHO THIS IS!” he exclaimed, his voice mushrooming around the bar.
Mr Heng’s face had turned ashen with shock. “What do you mean, you know who it is?”
“I mean I know her, it’s her, this is my wife… she has this picture, she has it with her all the time, it’s with her now, in Paris – it’s all she has left…” Borys took a long shuddering breath and looked at Mr Heng, his eyes wide with incredulity. “This is Chantrea.”
As the heavy Singaporean night swept in, Borys telephoned Chantrea at Raffles, Paris. He very gently explained his discovery to his wife and she sank to the floor and wept uncontrollably. She wept for the few memories she’d managed to cradle so closely to her chest, she wept for all the times she’d sworn she’d seen her father’s silhouette in the night sky, or in the faces of the people that passed her on the street but, most of all, she wept with profound joy – after 35 years of believing that her father had gone forever, he had been found; missing in plain sight.
The very next morning, Chantrea and her two dark-haired daughters caught the plane to Cambodia and travelled onwards to Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, where the father she had longed for would be waiting.
In an attempt to calm his nerves, he had spent the morning making sure that all the details of the Landmark Suite that he had prepared for his daughter were correct. The custom-made Cambodian linen and silk cushions adorning the bed were tweaked to lie perfectly straight, the display of hand-crafted ornaments was adjusted, the pictures reflecting the Golden Age of Travel were inched higher and then lower again and the luxurious Khmer furniture and floor was buffed and polished until it gleamed.
He had checked to see if the Persian carpets were square, looked into the bathroom with its elegant rolltop bath and then, finally, he’d flung the French doors open to let the fresh air into the room, washed clean after a dramatic thunderstorm, the gauzy muslin curtains moving gently in the breeze. “I loved her enough to let her go,” he said to himself, his voice floating out into the acres of beautifully manicured French, royal gardens that lay in front of him.
Mr Heng, the concierge at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, then strode through the body of his immaculate hotel, absorbing every detail: the black and white chequered floors, the hand-carved Buddhas standing in the corners, their mudras (hand gestures) raised in blessing. He walked past the art-deco elevator with its wrought-iron latticework and took deep breaths of the lightly perfumed air, which made him feel that he was in a place that could cure all ills.
He now stood, waiting proudly under the portico of the impressive colonial landmark, hardly able to contain his excitement and trepidation. Every couple of minutes he craned his neck to look out over the Travellers’ Palm, ears straining to hear the arrival of the car, but there was nothing yet.
He wore the traditional sampot chang – a length of silk expertly knotted around his legs and torso to create a pair of trousers, the colour of which changed according to the day of the week. Today he wore vibrant orange, which was strangely fortuitous as orange represented the moon, and his daughter’s name, Chantrea, meant moonlight.
Mr Heng’s anxiety was tempered by the thought that the hotel had seen so much in its long years of service – it had borne witness to myriad comings and goings, heightened passions, separations, reunions and now he was adding his own to its history. He thought that there was no better place for such a momentous occasion, there was something about the tranquillity of the legendary hotel that made it feel almost spiritual, perhaps because of its proximity to Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world.
Mr Heng cocked his head – he could hear the sound of a car approaching on the road and, before he had time to gather his thoughts, it turned into the drive and stopped in front of the small double staircase that led up to the entrance of the hotel. Mr Heng ran down the stairs two at a time and reached the car door just as the passenger swung it open.
His world stopped: there was his daughter, his porcelain-faced, beautiful daughter, with her bright, quizzical eyes. She clambered out of the car laughing and smiling and then stood silently as the enormity of the situation dawned on her.
Mr Heng put his hands together like the leaves of a lotus flower and bowed down low. “Khnhom nek nak pi mun rohot dorl pel nes,” he whispered, his voice breaking. “I’ve missed you.”
The story continues…