On one of my trips to KL, I’ve been there so many times I can’t remember which, I find myself at Heli Lounge Bar. With plans to meet a couple of other travellers from my hostel (not the Italians), for sundowners, I arrive early. There’s only so much plodding through hotels one can do before sitting alone at an empty bar in the blazing sun wins out.
So here I am, and let me tell you, I’m not exaggerating with the blazing sun bit. Heli Lounge Bar is one of my favourite KL spots for a sundowner, but before the sun gets into the down mode, well, it is hot. Anvil under the sun hot. So hot I don’t know why they are even open at this time of day.
The only way is up. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Dotted with tall bar stools with too small tables, lounge settings and Bali-style bamboo things, the deck has barely one iota of shade, and I give myself into the sweat. The only thing sweating more are the beers, condensation bubbling then streaming down the glass. Aside from staff, I’m the only person here, but they leave me in peace as I inhale beers and collate my notes of the day.
Despite all the gizmos, my primary tools remain pen and paper, and I have a mountain of Moleskin rip-offs to prove it. Then there are the business cards, back of paper maps or receipts. All this stuff I need to shape into something usable on the same day, as by midday the next day I’ll have as much again and it all starts to blur. As I collate details, I screw up the cards and other scraps, and there’s a growing pile on one side of my table.
It is at least an hour of this before any other customers show up, and the bored-to-death staff are happy to have someone other than the sweaty white guy screwing up paper to serve. For a short time he holds the bar up, making small talk with the staff, too casual to be management, I guess he’s a regular. He’s a well-dressed man, not a hair out of place and not a drop of sweat coming through his business shirt. How do people do it? He’s wearing a tie for God’s sake.
Far from the highest spot in town. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
He strolls over and introduces himself as Rick. Pointing at my pile of screwed up paper, he tells me both he and the staff are curious about what I’m doing. I say “I’m collating,” and before I can finish he asks “What, like in Alien?”
I look blankly at him and ignore his comment—I only get his joke about 15 minutes later—and explain what I do and that I’m combining my notes of the day. We have a brief chat about what I do, but he’s feigning interest, bored.
He points at the pile of screwed up papers and asks if he can have them. I say no. He asks why not, rolling on to ask are my notes secret? I tell him they’re not, but he can’t have them and start scooping them into my backpack. Defeated, he sighs and asks if I want a drink, I nod, and he calls to a staffer by name—I knew he was a regular—and orders two beers. While we wait, we sit there, perched on the high stools in silence, him staring at me. It is weird.
A basket for basket-cases. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The drinks come and he declares “I’m a flight attendant.” Nothing more, nothing less. That is all he says. I don’t know if this is code or a prompt for me to ask the ten questions one always wants to ask a flight attendant, but all I manage is “Oh.” The silence returns and I take an undue interest in sipping my beer. I can go a long time without talking, but eventually, I yield and ask who he flies with.
“Cathay for now,” he tells me, “but I’ve flown with a few, I love the friendly skies.” There’s a sleazy sexual innuendo to how he says it, and I’m glad I can’t think of nine other questions. He isn’t deterred though and launches into a monologue dedicated to his exploits.
He has, well, many exploits, and isn’t shy about sharing. He keeps alluding to sailors and ports, but every time gets the phrase wrong. I start wondering if he’s high, his manner is off, but I feel like there’s something else working behind the scenes. His stories veer between the obscene and quite funny, he knows how to tell a tale, I’m just baffled about why he’s telling me.
Kuala Lumpur’s haze often gives an assist. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Drinks are up, so I offer to buy, but I walk over to the bar to order. There, I ask the staff who he is. They laugh, confirming he works for an airline and comes here a lot. He’s also crazy, they say, going on to suggest I shouldn’t keep drinking with him. Sound advice.
When I return with the drinks, he’s on the phone, I think he’s speaking Mandarin, but whatever the language, he’s arguing. When I put the drinks down, he hangs up and chugs down the beer. He was talking to a friend in Taipei, and he tells me, they’re annoyed he won’t be back for some time. He grabs his phone and flicks across the screen melodramatically, his face frowning and a mock puzzled look on his face. “Here,” he says, flipping the phone so I can see it. It’s their friend, naked.
The bar is filling up now and my friends from the hostel are ten minutes late but it feels like ten years. He asks am I waiting for someone and I nod, he asks—in a very crude way—if they’re single, and I gesture to the barman for the bill. Rick waves his hands, apologising for the photo thing, and asks me to stay. But I’m going, I can intercept my friends at the lift and go elsewhere.
Another sunset, this one Rick-free. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
He’s not drunk, but he’s on the way. Behind him, the sun is sinking and the sky is lighting up, but all I want to do is leave. He grabs my arm as I go to stand, telling me he has to fly tonight, so why don’t I stay for one more drink. I shake my arm loose and step back, how could he fly in this state, I wonder.
The bill comes, and I turn, my back to Rick. I leaf out a wad to pay, telling the barman to keep the change. Looking back, for one last look at the sunset before fleeing, I see Rick has vanished.
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