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Around The Sun: The Barman On The Brink Of Hell

Steve Harrison tells of a hefty barman who could almost drink his own weight in alcohol.

Never hire a barman who can drink his own body weight of booze in a day, especially if he weighs over 200 kilograms.

James was a loveable guy, but the downside was an insatiable appetite for alcohol, drugs and girls. I met him on my first visit to Phnom Penh. He told me about a great club then asked if I would loan him US$20. He never repaid the loan. Always judge a book by its cover and opening words.

As I said, he was like a big teddy bear, harmless and a lot of fun. Everyone found him endearing. He drank day and night in the Temple bar, spending up to US$40 a time. I guess he always found someone to borrow from because he always paid his bills. He always had a string of pretty Cambodian girls in tow and you could always manage to get a silly story out of him.

One particular evening he was high as a kite. He had been drinking steadily since midday. "I bet my bill is now US$100,'' he slurred.

Impossible, I thought. Booze is cheap in Cambodia.

The barmaid added up his bill and presented it to him. US$97.

I was shocked. I had the bill re-checked. I was also concerned. The guy had drunk 17 B52s, 16 glasses of beer, 12 tequilas, 8 Bacardi rums and 10 bourbons as well as vodka and Temple Bar cocktails which we had given away during the evening.

I stared at him in disbelief. He was still upright and able to talk, though there was that slur.

He paid his bill then disappeared into the night, saying he was going clubbing.

Next day he was back, apparently without a hangover. Though he was eager to share his woes. He was spending too much money. He was broke.

I consoled him then, stupidly, offered what I thought was a solution to his problem. Why not work without pay as a barman? He then wouldn't be spending his money all night. As a barman he would be allowed several free drinks. His money would go further. Perhaps he would even be able to start saving.

He was given a free room to live in and was told his working hours could be flexible.

A couple of days later my business partner announced that he would give James a salary and a job description.

Soon the Temple bar takings were in steep decline, and expenses were rising equally steeply.

There came a time when I returned from what I called a three-day business trip to find all 200 kilos of James trying to hide behind a refrigerator near the bar entrance.

Why is everyone after me?'' he pleaded.

Sweat was running off his shaved head.

I keep hearing my name on the radio. The motordup drivers keep calling my name. Why are they all after me?''

It's hard to watch a grown man cry. James was inconsolable.

I told him I had no idea what was going on. I said I thought he was being paranoid after taking too much yabba, a cheap local heroine-type drug.

He remained in this state for four days, shivering like a baby, barricading himself in his room. The many people who liked him tried to talk some sense into him, but to no avail.

Eventually he would emerge from his room, become his old self, drinking and story telling. But then paranoia would seize him again, reducing him to cowering in corners.

We suggested that he should go away for a holiday. We even gave him some money so that he could go off and enjoy himself.

So off he went. That was when we started getting the phone calls from the police and the military. Just about every bar owner and bordello keeper in town said he owed them money. Poor James was in so much debt that he was allowing some of those to whom he owed money to drink for free in the Temple bar. Customers were coming in, drinking liberally, and they were never given a bill. James had not only tried to drink us dry on his own account. He had also organised free drinks parties at our expense.

He never returned to our bar after his free holiday. There were stories around town saying that disgruntled debtors had organised his demise. A bloated body was reported to have been discovered floating off the coast down south.

Two months later he telephoned the hotel and spoke to me from England. He apologised profusely for any trouble he had caused. Yes, he was fine. Working hard. Determined to save enough money to return to Cambodia and pay off all his debts.

Good luck to you James wherever you are.

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