Monday, February 23, 2009

7 The Axe Hero Bar


The drilling outside reached a crescendo. Tom shouted at the window, "For God's sake, stop! Please stop." And, almost immediately, it did. But, just as he thought he could finally sleep in peace, there was another, more urgent noise. The old Bakelite phone, next to his bed, was ringing again.

Tom shouted into the phone, "Yes!" There was a pause and then a voice that instantly reminded him of Vincent Price in a Hammer horror movie, started to speak, very carefully enunciating every word.

"Is that Tom Rawlinson?"


"Langley here; Gerald Langley."

"Should I know you?"

"Possibly; possibly not. But, as we are two of only seven Westerners in the entire country I thought we should meet. Don't you agree?"

"Umm, well, I guess so. I'm still a bit jet-lagged, but…"

"Very well then: I’ll meet you in the Axe Hero Bar in half an hour."

"The what bar?"

"Axe Hero. It's your hotel bar. You are in the Sukhe Bator Hotel, yes? Well that's what Sukhe Bator means: Axe Hero."

"And where exactl....."

"Click." Gerald Langley was already on his way.

The Axe Hero was one of the sleaziest looking bars Tom had ever seen; not that he had seen many sleazy bars in the 36 years of his middle-class life in English suburbia. As he entered, it was very difficult to see more than a few yards until he had adjusted his eyes to the dimly-lit, smoke-filled haze. The bar was full of black marketeers, drunken Romanian wrestlers, who were in town for a competition, Russian soldiers' wives, a couple of aging Mongolian bar girls and in one of the darkest recesses, a very odd looking character indeed, waving at him: Gerald Langley.

Gerald had obviously spent many other nights like this. His eyes were little more than bloodshot slits, almost completely hidden in deep black circles that extended from his cheek bones to his eyebrows; his spectacles were held together with elastoplast, and there were one or two cuts and bruises on one side of his face. His closely-cropped, sandy brown hair, flecked with grey, looked as though he had cut it himself, as indeed, he had. God only knows what he looks like in daylight, Tom reflected, as he proffered his hand.

"So glad you could make it. Please take a seat. Care to join me in a drink?

Drinks in the Axe Hero bar were only served by the bottle. It was more than a thousand tugriks for a bottle of whisky - fifty dollars at the official exchange rate. It transpired, however, that if real dollars were actually proffered a beer would appear from under the counter at a considerably less outrageous price. They started with beers and a bottle of Mongolian vodka, and proceeded to get drunk like everybody else in the bar.

"So, Gerald, what do you do here in Ulan Bator?"

"I'm with the British Council."

"I see. Is there a British Council office here then?"

"No, it's too small-scale an operation for that. I'm very loosely attached to the embassy. They thought it would be a good idea for me to meet you, say hello, welcome you to Mongolia, that sort of thing."

"That's very kind of you. I must admit it's nice to meet a fellow Englishman. I was feeling rather lost and alone."

"Then I have some good news for you. You are invited to the embassy. They have a small bar in the back garden, where we meet once a week and tomorrow's the night."

They talked about home, where they came from, where they went to school, and discovered they had very little in common, so, by the time they'd reached the topic of football, Gerald's attention had turned to the bottom of a bottle, and Tom’s to the exit, and bed.

As he was walking down the corridor, leaving Gerald to his vodka-soaked slumbers at the bar, a Mongolian girl appeared in front of him. He hadn't seen her coming: suddenly, she was just there. As she passed, she half-turned and gave him the most enigmatic and yet, at the same time, the most beautiful look that he’d had ever seen. It sucked all of his previous life out of him and left his tiny reflections swirling, lost in her dark eyes. She paused coquettishly at the end of the corridor, then, enigmatically whispered something, but whether it was addressed to him, someone inside the bar, or even herself, he could not tell.

She couldn’t be more than twenty-years-old, he guessed. With her long, black hair, high-collared, blue silk cheongsam, flawless ivory skin, a touch of red lipstick and slender legs tottering inexpertly on high heels, she looked a picture of innocence on the verge of corruption. Tom wanted to save her, or did he just want to save her for himself?

He started to walk back down the stairs twice, paced restlessly in the corridor, then walked up and down the stairs again, wondering whether to return to the bar, but when he finally did, she had gone. He ducked out again quickly before Gerald could see him, and returned to his room, where he spent a sleepless night, half imagining the beginning of a rapturous relationship, and half fearing that, at that very moment, she was with someone else. But, he knew that after seeing her, his life could never be the same again, and he was right.


  1. i really enjoy your blog! i love your photos of people in different places - have you lived in all those places, and where do you live now?

  2. Thank you, Kim. Yes, I have. In fact, I have been to more than twenty countries in the last 12 months alone, including a 6-month overland journey through Latin America. The last few countries that I actually lived and worked in were South Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Romania. Right now I'm in Salalah, Oman, on the north-west coast of the Indian Ocean and so I am, once again, an Englishman abroad.

  3. Ah! This shabby bar and cranky Langley character's got me embarrassed. You seem to know very well about Mongolia (Axe hero, haha!). How long and when have you been there, Mr.Salalah?

  4. I was there at that time, for one year.


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