If In Some Distant Place

“The irony was, I’d imagined the Revolution would be exciting and romantic,” said Madam Dai, fiddling with the gaudy jade ring on her fat middle finger, “But it turned out to be drab and incredibly boring.”

Robert pursed his lips to stifle his smile. He couldn’t recall a time in his life when irony hadn’t tasted sweet on his tongue. It was, he thought, chiefly a journalist’s disease, this delight in witnessing the miserable consequences of ill-considered decisions. And far from making him dislike Madam Dai for her embittered confession, it made her all the more likeable. So few people saw their mistakes with such honesty or clarity.

“I was a spy, you know,” she said with a giggle. Yes, it was exactly a giggle, kittenish and flirtatious. Incongruous in an 80-year old woman.

But everything about Madam Dai was incongruous, from her considerable bulk—elderly Vietnamese ladies tended, usually, to be tiny and birdlike—to her startlingly jet-black hair. At first, Robert had assumed it was the result of a home dye job, but realized, after she tugged it sideways in a moment of pique, it was a poorly made wig.

The ‘Thư Viện’ restaurant had been, she explained, her law library in earlier days, before the fall—or the liberation, depending on your political affiliation—of Saigon. The shelves were no longer filled with books. Instead they bowed under the burden of dozens of massive jars containing the corpses of poisonous snakes floating in clear rice-brandy. But every so often, the rows of glass were interrupted with dusty photographs in ornate and tarnished silver frames: the Madam with Mitterand, the Madam with Breshnev, the Madam with Pierre Trudeau.

“I see you like my drinks cabinet,” she purred. “Snake wine is very beneficial for men, you know. Men like you, of a certain age. It helps with…” she trailed off and, raising her eyes to the high, water stained ceiling, shrugged mutely. As if erectile dysfunction were a matter of which she knew much, but was reluctant to say.

“I’ve heard that,” said Robert.

Without asking, Madam Dai motioned the thinner of her two elderly helpers over. What emerged from Madam Dai’s mouth was a scalding stream of verbal urine. Ten years of covering the war in Indochina had not accustomed Robert to the way in which the Vietnamese spoke to those they considered their inferiors. Clearly, Communism hadn’t cured them of the habit. For her part, the ancient, skeletal maid was not to be bullied. She responded with an equal measure of screeching venom. And this time, he did catch enough of the words to understand them.

“We’re trying to run a business here, you stupid old bitch.”

This time Robert couldn’t help the smile. The maid relented, hefted one of the enormous jars off the shelf and thumped it down onto their table, seemingly unconcerned with breaking the thing. Inside the glass, the violence both physical and verbal brought the entangled mass of dead cobras momentarily to life. They gyred lazily in the jar. Their opaque eyes bleached white in the alcohol, their scales sloughing off into the liquid as they slid over each other like sinuous, reptilian zombies.

The old maid came back with three small, thick glasses, so old and scratched they had lost their transparency. She banged each of them onto the table so hard it sounded like gunshots in the small, high-vaulted, bare walled room.

Madam Dai smiled serenely, revealing dental work that accessorized her jewelry, and unscrewed the large, rusted metal lid. “Have a drink with me, Mister Robert. We shall toast the old days.”

Only then did Robert recall the third member of their party. He turned to the quiet woman who sat at a little distance from the table, chain-smoking. The woman who had caught his eye at the Caravelle’s rooftop bar. The one who had brought him here, promising him amusement. At first, he’d thought she was one of the younger cadre of reporters here to cover the Anniversary celebrations. Then he’d guessed a Russian bar girl on a night off. But now he wasn’t sure. Too young for him, of course, but a visually pleasing enigma nonetheless.

“Are you up for drinking some of this?” he asked.

Nuria stubbed out her cigarette and pulled her chair back to the table. She spread her hands, palms down on the sticky plastic tablecloth. “Of course I’m up for it. I’ve always wanted an erection.”

* * * * *

The food Madam Dai had ordered without consultation arrived. On the table cluttered with greasy glasses, snake specimen jars and overflowing ashtrays, there were small plastic plates, each with a shoddy sample of Vietnamese cuisine. Wise enough not to partake herself, she replenished her glass in the murky jar.

Like a portentous Greek chorus, Robert thought he heard the dead snakes in the jar whisper: “Don’t eat the springrolls.”

“I was the first woman to sit in the senate,” said the old woman. “Back in the old days, when we were pretending to be a democracy. Me, with my law degree from Paris, and my beautiful stylish shoes.”

Her black eyes glinted, the liner around them had run into the creases of her skin and her false eyelashes sat curled and dusty black on her heavy lids, like dead spiders on cupboard shelves.

“Those men,” she said. “Those fucking men. They just couldn’t help themselves. And the Americans only made them worse. The corruption was…” she shook her head and her wig, after a short delay, agreed. “The corruption was so thick. So thick. I can’t even find words for it. It was like the whole of Saigon had lost its mind. It was something past greed, you know? Ridiculous cherry red Cadillac’s being flown in on a moments notice. Whole crates of refrigerated lobsters left to rot on the dock in the sun. No one did their job. Everyone was too busy squirreling away what they could skim off the Americans. No, skim is the wrong word. I was a spoiled woman, you know? I had been born into a rich family, brought up in a big French house, sent to the Lycée. I thought I’d seen corruption all my life. But it was nothing to this. Nothing. I couldn’t stand the sight of the excess. Perhaps you can’t even comprehend it.”

She looked at Robert, blinking. A black trail of moisture had wormed its way into the puffy hollow under her eye.

“I think I do,” he said.

“Maybe I have something to thank the Americans for.” Her old eyes settled back down on the half-empty glass on the sticky plastic tablecloth. “Maybe they made me patriotic. Maybe they turned Saigon into a bathtub full of money and all the shits floated to the top. That’s when I met my Colonel. That’s when I fell in love.”

“He was Viet Cong?”

“Viet Cong?” she cackled. “You Westerners, you have labels for everything. You think once you put names to things you can control the world. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden.”

Robert decided to ignore the snakes and bit into a spring roll. Without something to soak up the rice alcohol, he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the evening. It was a tough, greasy little thing. Like a fishy tootsie roll.

“So, what was he like, this Colonel of yours?”

Madam Dai closed her eyes and her stained, wrinkled lips spread smooth across her mouth, and displaced all her sags and lines onto the sides of her face. “He was so handsome. He was a teacher, you know? Or that’s what he was pretending to be. I met him on a tour out to see one of the newly invented strategic hamlets out near the Cambodian border.”

“Near Tay Ninh?”

“That’s right. God that place was poor. Poor and filthy.” She shook her head again. “He showed me the school they’d built for the village children. And there was a little clinic. Oh, he was so soft-spoken. He was from Central Vietnam, you know. The peasants there are almost unintelligible. But he was from Hue. I could tell. He was courtly. I knew right away he wasn’t a teacher.”

“But you didn’t say anything?”

“I didn’t care. That slim young man, in his neat, belted trousers and his bright white shirt. You should have seen his hands. He had elegant hands. After all the greedy, fat pigs in Saigon, he seemed to me like a god of the rice fields. With his soft voice and his ravenous eyes.” She grinned again and took a sip from her glass.

“So, how did you two get together? I mean, in those days, it couldn’t have been easy.”

“About three months later, he came to my office in Saigon. Ostensibly to organize funds for some pre-natal program the Americans were using to try and win ‘hearts and minds’ with.”

Madam Dai put down her glass and looked at Robert. “I have always been a clever woman. Believe me, I knew exactly what he was doing, trying to recruit me. At first, I’m sure it was all about doing his duty. I knew that. I just didn’t care. I knew what he was, and I was willing—no, no, I was hungry—to be swept up with his cause. And I wanted those elegant hands on me. I wanted them to lead me to something else, somewhere else.”

“So what did he want you to do?”

“Oh, he didn’t tell me any of that at first. That first visit to Saigon, I took him back to my house and let him fuck me in my marriage bed. It was the best sex I ever had.” She chuckled and looked over to the dusty shelves and the stained plaster. “Not that he was such a great lover. No. The pleasure came from knowing that, with every thrust, I was letting go of all that filth and all that corruption. We screwed until all the French in me came off on the sheets. Until there was nothing left but a Vietnamese girl. He purified me. He fucked me red. Literally.”

* * * * *

Robert and Nuria walked back towards Lam Son Square, down the night-time chaos of Dong Khoi street.

“Thanks for that,” Robert said, after a considerable silence. “Madam Dai is one hell of a character. If she were ten years younger, I would have been tempted to seduce her.”

“I’m pretty sure she’d still be interested.”

“I don’t think I could get past the dusty wig. I don’t even want to imagine what those breasts look like.”

Robert was doing exactly that, Nuria suspected. There was a small, private cinema in his head, with a reel of silent film featuring Madam Dai: wig askew and ancient breasts swaying, seamed lips frozen in an ecstatic o, grey-haired cunt plundered by a headless cock in some jerky clip of impossible pornography.

Nuria shrugged. Forty years from now, perhaps she’d be one of those women. Women who retained some sad ghost of desirability. Women who time had placed beyond the reach of casual objectification. A woman who would hold allure only for someone with a penchant for the eroticism of disgust.

Eppur si muove.

That was the true horror, wasn’t it? That a woman might yearn to be desired once desire was impossible? Exiled to some imaginary table in the always-open restaurant of well-past-their-due-date women who were once beautiful, once desireable, once fuckable, but now not. Waiting at a table, cluttered with organic snake-wine viagra, for someone to overlook, or forgive, or even take delight in what time had done to them.

Is anyone aroused by what time does? Nuria suspected there were. Maybe there was a secret society of them who occasionally got together and partied with the small but fanatic amputee fetish club. Perhaps they traded photographs: I’ll trade you two wattles for a thigh stump?

“Can you take me to that club I’ve heard about? Apocalypse Now?” he asked.

“So now I’m your city guide?”

Robert smirked. “My dear young lady,” he quoted, “we’ve already established what you are, now…”

“We’re establishing your price. Yeah, very funny. Sure I’ll take you. But it doesn’t open until 11. Want a coffee?”

“Sure. Coffee on the terrace at the Continental? That’d bring back memories.”

“Long gone, I’m afraid. The Saigon Tourist took over the hotel and enclosed the terrace. It’s a sub-standard Italian tratoria now.”

He nodded like a man grown used to the disappointment of the irretrievable.

Instead, Nuria chose Brodard’s—a cafe overlooking the same square. They sat by windows open wide to the scant night breeze, the petrol fumes, and the cacophony of the evening traffic. Overloaded motorcycles, three and even four astride crossed the square, avoiding collisions in strange, looping trajectories. At the Opera House, a localized version of Macbeth was over and primly dressed members of Saigon’s self-identified intelligentsia poured out onto its broad, colonial steps. Bicycle-based enterprises, selling balloons and dried squid had strategically staked their territories, with the expectation of custom.

Their iced coffees arrived in tall, sweating glasses with long-handled ice-cream spoons and garish neon straws. For a while, they sipped and watched the mayhem.

“Oh, look. It’s my favourite man,” said Nuria. “We’re about to catch his eight o’clock show.”

In the middle of square, amidst the milling bikes, a man of about fifty was starting to dance. Terribly thin and barefoot, he had a close-cropped brush of dark hair. His clothes were torn, stained and faded khaki. The shirt came off first. He swung it over his head in a stripper’s parody, revealing a hollow chest, burnt almost chocolate by the sun. Then, after a little fiddling at the waist, off came his ragged, oil-soaked pants, slipping down over the swell of his pale and boyish buttocks and puddling around his shuffling feet.

“Holy shit. What’s he doing?” whispered Robert. “I have an urge to cover your eyes and tell you not to look.”

Nuria glanced at Robert. “I’ve seen it before.”

Motorcycles swerved around the naked man, giving him a wider and wider berth as he reached for his groin, clasped his semi-tumescent cock at its hair-thatched base and began masturbating.

“He does this often?” asked Robert. “Right in the center of the square?”

“Usually on Friday or Saturday nights. But sometimes on weekdays.” Nuria didn’t take her eyes off the small figure.

His sun-striped skin was an obscene contrast to the human-driven, metal and rubber machines that wove around him. He turned in slow, full circles as he wanked, like one of those plastic ballerinas in a jewelry box. Instead of a quaint and tinny music, he revolved to the experimental song of many beeping horns. Some like quacking ducks, broken-throated from overuse, some like tuneful gunshots.

“Don’t the police come?”

“Eventually.”

The figure in the centre of the square had stopped gyrating his hips. Intent now on completion, he stroked himself violently, ass-cheeks flexing as he delivered his cock into the cave of his fist. It was a race, but one in which the runner was fully aware of the spectators.

“He’s insane.”

“I think it’s kind of a game for him. To see if he can make himself come before the cops arrive and bundle him off.”

On the steps of the Opera house, faces painted with disgust, parents firmly turned their children away from the spectacle. Pedestrians shouted curses. Young women giggled, their doll-like, perfectly manicured hands screening their mouths. But everyone who could look did look. Like Nuria, fingers on both hands crossed, silently willing the public masturbator to reach orgasm soon.

In the distance, above the song of the traffic, came the nee-naw-nee-naw of a police siren.

“They’re coming,” said Robert. But his eyes were also glued to the wanking man.

But the figure’s thrusts were tighter, more precise; his fist was pumping with the even automation of an assured and incipient outcome.

“They’ll be too late,” said Nuria with a smile. “He’s going to make it this time.”

Before the last words had left her lips, the naked man in the middle of the square, bronzed with the blush of the sodium street lamps and lashed with the headlamps of passing motorcycles, stiffened like an upright corpse and ejaculated.

A few people on the sidewalks clapped. More shouted obscenities. The spry, naked figure bent down to pick up his discarded clothes and bolted in the direction of gardens that ran alongside the Opera House.

Nuria released her held breath and beamed. “Bravo,” she whispered. “Bravo.”

Leaning back in his rattan seat, Robert shook his head in wonder. “I feel…I feel dirty.”

“You are. We are,” she said, still unable to dislodge the grin.

“Like I just had sex.”

“I think we did.”

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