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Chapter 33; Goodbye to the Dead, Hello to the Living

I heard the cough of a motorbike shutting off and looked to see who else was showing up for the funeral. It was Hon, not another uniformed Unmo. She had a bouquet of flowers gripped in one hand; her keys, helmet and purse were in the other.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, surprised to see her.

“My neighbor’s cousin, she live in Kampong Cham City. She tell me that Untac man die of malaria. I worry too much for you.” Tentatively at first, she put her arms around me and then, more boldly, she hugged me.

The cause of Aiden’s death had only recently been disclosed, and I was reminded that Cambodia is a very small country. “No need to worry,” I said, holding up my gleaming gold chain with the Buddha she had given me. “Your present protects me.” I held her hand and squeezed it—a more comfortable sign of affection for Hon than a hug. I took the flowers, buried my nose in the jasmine and smiled as I inhaled its intense scent. Over the top of the bouquet, I looked at her body—taller than the average Cambodian woman’s—trying to see a tell-tale baby bump, but her pregnancy was still barely visible. Hon looked radiant as she donned her little helmet and boarded her scooter to leave. I waved goodbye, enjoying her childlike, credulous affection.

Clutching the flowers, I turned back to the circular, partially covered marble portico near the military hangars at the old airport where Aiden’s funeral was being held. There were thirty-five to forty people in attendance, all of them men dressed in one type of uniform or another, sweating and somber in the afternoon sun that reflected relentlessly from the white stone.

Radush and Kyrill joined the group, but I wasn’t comfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with the men who were bonded by military service. Kyrill, looking shaken and gaunt, caught my eye and walked over with a camera. “Pozhaluysta, can you handle this for us?” he asked, thrusting the camera in my hands. “Photograph the funeral for his family?”

Someone from the Untac high command stood at the head of the plain wooden coffin, draped with the British Union Jack, and spoke somberly.

“Soldiers are going to get killed. For many of them, it is all in the line of work. But Aiden was not thinking of getting killed when he went where death lurked. He went to scout out the Khmer Rouge threat and died as a result. To me, that is the definition of a hero.

“We have lost a mate; we’ve lost a comrade in arms. I remember Captain Aiden Grahem with pride, and I thank him for showing me the best of Scottish courage.”

It was bitterly ironic that Aiden had arrived in Cambodia vibrant and carefree, only to be felled by the bite of a mosquito. He had wanted be a hero again. Instead, he was in a flag-draped box surrounded by men who had come to Cambodia for the same reason but were now forced to contemplate their own mortality.

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