Mark left Andrew watching a Manchester United game on their hotel room TV and walked out into the yellow, dark, warm, surprisingly lifeless streets of Hué to do the best he could.
And lo – in the ashed-out, kerosene lamp-lit display case of a baker’s shop on Le Loi he found a straggly little cake-like thing which he bought for 2,800 dong, and behold – the proprietor of a three-table restaurant on Hung Vuong street was willing to part with a wick-impaled clump of wax for 3,500.
There you go. Mission accomplished even without Sue Ellen’s help. Things always work out. Seen better props, but it’s the thought that counts. After all, this is not Copenhagen. Andrew would have a good laugh at the candle. He would joke about the cake. He would say: birthday-smurfday – who cares – not I, though Mark would see that for the false bravado it was.
A downside to their annual father and son see-the-world expeditions was that they often took place at the end of March, keeping Andrew from being home with his mother and doting aunts on that one special day when home, mom, and doting aunts were not such a bad idea to have around.
“Where you been, Dad? John O’Shea just scored on a pass from Keane. You’re missing a good game.”
“Praise the Irish – I was checking email.” Mark concealed the paper bag with birthday party paraphernalia behind his back.
“Any word from Mom?”
“No, but I discovered a bar with a nice pool table. Too bad Thun has left.”
Mark and Andrew liked to hang out in bars with pool tables. Mark could care less about pool, but Andrew, with his good-nature, blond tadzio curls, and budding cue skills would sometimes get adopted by other players as a partner in impromptu tournaments, which is how they had met up with Thun and Libby in Hoi An.
And it was also in a Hoi An bar that they had run into Sue Ellen, a professionally poised young Vietnamese woman who after inviting Mark to buy her a drink latched onto them as their self-appointed, round-the-clock tourist guide. Sue Ellen thought it wonderful that father and son were traveling together, the best of friends and all, and she wondered if her life might not have turned out differently had her father taken her out to play pool in bars when she was Andrew’s age. Mark couldn’t imagine what sort of effect that would have had on her. He wasn’t sure what it was having on his own son either.
Everyone wasn’t as positive to these father and son exploits as Sue Ellen. Andrew’s school principal back in Denmark, for example, had this to say when Mark informed him of their upcoming trip:
“If you must pull him out of classes – if you can’t wait like other parents for the ordinarily scheduled school breaks, then try to make this an educational experience. Tie in your excursions with his geography, history and social studies. Talk to his teachers. Perhaps a travel diary – a paper he can turn in?”
“Absolutely. That’s a great idea,” answered Mark.
And in a Copenhagen vaccination clinic, in response to her ex-husband’s inability to specify on a map, colored and graded with the infectious perils of Southeast Asia, exactly what places he and Andrew were planning to visit, Andrew’s mother, Freja said:
“You don’t have a clue do you, Mark?” She shook her head despondently, while Andrew sat with his sleeves rolled up, more attune to the needle jabs immediately ahead of him than the distant threats of malaria, encephalitis, jaundice and avian flu.
The clinic’s nurse, not missing her cue, proclaimed, “Well in that case (since only an idiot takes chances with their child’s health) I recommend full coverage.”
Afterwards in the Conditori La Glace, as Andrew licked his vaccination wounds and the inadequate compensation of an ice cream cone, Freja said to Mark:
“Hey, that was pretty embarrassing back there. What do you think that nurse thought about us?”
“Should I care?” said Mark, “and for that matter I don’t think she was a nurse at all even if she was dressed like one. You don’t have to be a nurse to work in those places. What you need is sales talents so you can scare people into spending half of their traveling budgets on dodgy protection for obscure maladies.
“Obscure like malaria?”
“I was thinking more of – what do they call it? – Japanese Brain Fever? Like, who catches that? We’re not going to Japan. And furthermore, what is so damn wrong with improvising on a trip. When people go to the Tivoli or Legoland they don’t plan beforehand each and every ride they are going to go on and in what order.”
“You are comparing Vietnam to Legoland? Jesus, Mark, is this going to be like Cuba?”
“Andrew could have gotten appendicitis anywhere, Freja. Cuba was the perfect place to have an appendectomy. Best medical facilities in Latin America.” He turned to his son: “Hey Buddy, wasn’t that a great hospital? And you got to meet the president of Venezuela, right?”
Andrew looked out the window at two cyclists who were arguing about the right-of-way in a bike path. He had hated the Havana Hospital and was pretty sure he hadn’t met the president of anything.
“The deal is,” said Mark, “it’s not necessary to plan what you’re going to do in Vietnam. You just jump in. It’s a stage dive. The people are honest. You just cast yourself into their arms and they make sure you get where you need to go and if you don’t have plans of your own they’ll suggest things. It’s pretty simple.”
“Where did you get that stagediving crap from? You’ve never been to Vietnam.”
“I read. I talk to people. There’s something called the Internet you know.”
Actually it was Mark’s friend Jens who had brought up Vietnam several months earlier over beers in a Bredgade bar.
“Vietnam, Mark! Andrew will love it. It’s an amazing country. You fly in, jump into somebody’s taxi – and you’re off and running. If you are elegantly attired they will take you to a posh hotel or if you are sporting a backpack they will take you to a backpacker place. Every Vietnamese hotelier is a tour guide, travel agent, fixer-in-general. And they are all connected in huge family networks throughout the country. You never have to think or plan what to do – it’s a stage dive. Vietnam will overtake Thailand as the worst tourist hole in Asia in a couple of years – so go now or never.”
Andrew spent the night before their departure at his mom’s. Mark came over in the morning worried about all the unnecessary stuff he was sure Freja would be packing for her son.
His fears were justified. Freja had not only crammed Andrew’s backpack with way too much clothing but she had also bought him an extra bag that Mark knew would be cumbersome.
“Remember this is a dictatorship that puts people in jail for chewing gum,” said Freja, as she stuffed an ominously large paperback into the already cram-packed extra bag. “You might find this book helpful unless, that is, you feel detailed, accurate information about where you’re going will spoil the spontaneous nature of your vacation.”
“Thank you, Freja, but you are confusing chewing gum in Vietnam with chewing gum in Singapore. And this book – I appreciate you buying it, of course – but it’s just a ritual thing that tourists carry around like IV-bottles. If you need the Lonely Planet to get by on, you’re not ready for real travel.”
“Real travel? Sure Mark, just take the book. You will also find in that bag suntan lotion, mosquito spray, aspirin, diarrhea pills, Dramamine, water purifiers, toothpaste, and all the other items that probably never occurred to you might be necessary. And for god’s sake make sure he brushes his teeth. Every time he comes back from being with you his teeth are all gucked up.”
Not surprisingly, Freja’s last words to Mark as she saw them off at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport were: “Make sure he brushes his teeth.”
Have you brushed your teeth?” Mark noticed Andrew’s eyelids beginning to droop.
“What? Now? Why should I? I’m watching football, aren’t I? Do people brush their teeth to watch football? I’m not planning to go to sleep yet.”
“Because, clueless child, you never plan to fall asleep. You just do, and often without brushing, and it’s my fault – by default, as I am for the moment your sole guardian.”
“Are we leaving tomorrow?” asked Andrew, changing the subject.
“We could stay another day in Hué if you like. But I’d say we try Nha Trang. Thun and Libby will be there. Sue Ellen told me there’s a bus that stops right outside our hotel at ten in the morning.”
“What do people do in Nha Trang?”
“I don’t know. There’s a beach. I’m sure there are plenty of pool bars. We’ll just have to play it by ear.”
Manchester United scored another goal. This time Giggs.
“Will Sue-Ellen be coming with us?” asked Andrew.
“Of course not. Why would she?”
“She came with us to Hué. Why not take her to Nha trang? Is it because she brought that American guy to the dinner party?”
“Absolutely not. And we didn’t bring her to Hué, Andrew. She just happened to be on the same bus on account of her having family here. The fact is we’ve said goodbye to her at dinner tonight for the last time.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I had a little talk with her.”
“It might have something to do with what you have written to your mother?”
“I wrote her you bought a tailored suit.”
“OK, but you have apparently also told her we are hanging out with a teenage ludertæve.”
“No way. I never said anything like that.”
“Well you must have said something to that effect because Freja has written that if we don’t immediately cut off all contact with that ludertæve, which is, anyway, the word your mother used, she is going to ask the department of family affairs to cross out the joint from our joint custody.”
“I never said ludertæve.”
“Yeah, well you know I don’t like the idea of divorced parents making pacts with their kids, like, this-is-our-own-little-secret kind of shit. I never asked you not to write your mom about what we do–”
“Really Dad? How about the night we drank rice beer on that street corner in Hanoi and you gave me a cigar and you said, I’m glad your mom can’t see you now.”
“Well that is not the same as asking you to keep something a secret. I’m just suggesting you be more careful with what you write in your emails. Even though we’re not going to be seeing Sue Ellen again, you might want to explain that she is not a whore – just a sweet college girl who is guiding tourists in order to practice her English.
“She wanted to come back to Denmark with us. She wants to become a dentist.”
“Sounds like you two had some secrets of your own. She didn’t tell me that. Anyway, I gave her a nice tip last night.”
“A tip? I thought she was our friend.”
The lopsided nature of the football game finally put Andrew asleep. Another night without brushing or taking a shower. Oh well. Mark undressed him and rolled him under the sheets. He was turning fourteen tomorrow, but lying in bed there he looked more like seven. Funny how some look older when they sleep and some look younger.
The trip was going smoothly on most counts: Andrew hadn’t come down with anything worse than a brief spell of turistas. They were taking their malaria pills despite the crazy dreams they caused and he hadn’t gotten his kid run over. Traffic accidents with fatal outcomes seemed to occur quite frequently here in Vietnam.
And Andrew was getting an education for sure. Though pool bars might not be the historically significant places his school principal had had in mind and even if it was doubtful that Andrew would ever turn in a written report on the people he and his father met – such as Libby from Adelaide, who had left her husband and child in the middle of a family vacation in Thailand to run off with the hotel’s bartender – well – Vietnam was undeniably a learning experience for him.
Mark and Andrew had met up with Libby and Thun at the Full Moon Bar in Hoi An, the same place where Sue Ellen had latched onto them a few nights earlier. Thun was a daring, if somewhat theatrical, pony-tailed, pirate of a man in his late twenties. He had sak yan tattoos, a gold front tooth and a master’s way with a pool cue. Libby was tall, thin, somewhere around 45 years-old, sported a nose ring and had remarkably bushy red hair. Thun and Andrew had teamed up together in the evening’s pool tournament, while Libby chained down mentholated cigarettes and orchid-festooned cocktails at a table with Mark and Sue Ellen.
Libby had a lot on her mind and it wasn’t long before she was putting her heart on her sleeve for her new friends. She alternately pined for Phoebe, her darling little eight-year-old, dissed her ‘fucking bore’ of a husband, Tom, whom she had left in the dead of night with only a counter-top note as an explanation, (“for how else could I have gotten away?”) and extolled the merits of Thun.
“We can’t have it all,” Mark told her. “You had to make your choices and you chose Thun.”
“What if I made the wrong choice?” asked Libby.
“It’s not what you’ve done that matters,” volunteered Sue Ellen, “it’s what you are going to do with the rest of your life.”
Mark nodded in agreement. “Libby, I am not the one to judge. I mean, really, who is? But you followed your heart, and that, considering what it’s costing you, was a brave and courageous act. You made a great sacrifice for the sake of love and how many of us can claim to have done that?”
The Australian woman began to sob and Sue Ellen consoled her with a sisterly hug and was dabbing away the tears on Libby’s cheek with a table napkin when Andrew came over to hit up his dad for 20,000 dong.
“Whatever for?” asked Mark. “Cokes are like 2000.”
“The Canadians want to play for money. Thun says it’s OK. He says we can’t lose. He says I’m a ringer – whatever that means.”
Libby went for her purse, but Mark beat her to it and handed over the money requested. Sue Ellen, after giving Libby another pat on the shoulder, followed Andrew to the pool table to watch the game.
Though we’ve just heard Mark eloquently praising Libby’s courage, this wasn’t exactly his true feelings on the matter. It’s sometimes better to be kind than honest, right? Here is what he was really thinking:
Libby, You are basically fucked. Whatever enticements there existed for Thun, who perhaps didn’t have that much going for him as a bartender in Thailand anyway, whatever ideas he had about how much money you were worth, or the soft life waiting for him in Bantry Bay or wherever, he is in for some big disappointments and before you know it, he’s gonna go so-long, bye-bye. Have fun while it lasts, Libby – cause it ain’t gonna last that long.
Which actually isn’t that far off from what Libby assumed Mark was thinking. And though she said, “You don’t know how happy I am to have your support, Mark. No one at home understands.” She was thinking:
You take me for an idiot, don’t you. An ignorant selfish bitch. A failure as a mother for abandoning my child. You strut around with your little Andrew thinking you’re some kind of parent-hero while I have committed the worst possible sin. I know you figure Thun is playing me for my money because I’m old and ugly and there is no other reason he would be with me. Fuck you, Mark.
And though Mark reasoned that however gingerly he skirted the issue of Libby’s forfeiture of her only child, she would see this as the hypocrisy it was, he couldn’t help saying the following, which sounded pretty good to himself, making him think that he just might mean it:
“One day, Libby, you are going to return to your Phoebe. And you are going to tell her your story. You are going to tell her the honest truth. You are going to tell her what it means to love and desire something so bad you can’t live without it. And you are going to tell her how leaving her behind there in Koh Samui was the most painful, regrettable thing you ever did in your entire life. And she is going to forgive you. Grudgingly at first. But in time she will come to understand how your relationship with her can be stronger for what you’ve done. And you will never, ever leave her again.”
By now most of the bar’s guests were over at the pool table watching Thun and that young blond kid from Denmark making mincemeat of the Canadians. Libby ordered a ‘Sex on the Beach’ and fired up some more menthol.
“Enough about me, Mark. Let’s talk about you. May I ask what your arrangement is with this Vietnamese girl? Sue Ellen can hardly be her real name. And her age? If we were in Adelaide, I guarantee you they wouldn’t be serving your little companion liquor in a bar.”
“We only met a couple of nights ago. She speaks incredibly good English as you can hear and she has become, or rather made herself our guide. She drives Andrew and me around on a motorcycle showing us stuff in town. Amazing to see her handle that bike.”
“So is she for you or for your son?”
Mark cracked up in laughter while Libby maintained her deadpan.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about Denmark – but Danish fathers don’t initiate their sons with hookers,” said Mark.
“Libby, since we are being so forthright and upfront with each other here, I will let you know that though I do appreciate that Sue Ellen is a beautiful girl – intelligent, charming and all that, I am just not attracted to her. And that goes even if it turned out that she was ten years older than she looks – which she just might be for all I know.”
“Age doesn’t seem to be that big a problem for you guys out here.”
“You guys? You’re kidding? You think I am one of those?”
“How would I know? Not that anybody would care. You get what I’m saying? Everywhere Thun and I go there are stares and jokes and comments while you arseholes out here can bugger anything with two legs, male or female, regardless of age and nobody bats an eye. How fair is that, Mark?”
“It’s not fair at all, Libby, but please don’t put me in that category.”
Sue Ellen came over to ask if it was okay with Mark that people were buying drinks for Andrew.
“Cokes?” asked Mark.
“Not exactly,” said Sue Ellen. “Shots and beers and stuff like that.”
“Hell no,” said Mark. “If they try to give him anything, bring it over here to me, please.”
“What a great dad,” said Libby dryly, “using your son to score drinks. Where are you two heading after Hoi An?”
Mark told her he didn’t know and explained the concept of stagediving which Libby declared boring-boring and waved aside with a yawn. She suggested they join her and Thun on the bus to Hué the next day. “It’s a short trip, takes only a couple of hours, so we can spend some time on the beach before leaving.” Mark said he’d ask Andrew what he thought.
Which was unnecessary since by now Andrew would have followed Thun to the South Pole. The two of them were kickin’ ass with the competition at the Full Moon and it wasn’t just Thun who was sinking shots. Every time Andrew put a ball in the pocket the gathering around the table cheered.
Sue Ellen, when told about these new plans, said she’d be sad to see them leave Hoi An, but she knew bus schedules by heart and recommended a 5 p.m. departure. She volunteered to get them tickets as well.
Mark, Sue Ellen, and Andrew, the latter’s pockets stuffed with dong notes, as Thun had let him keep the lion’s share of their winnings, left the club together at one am. They walked through Hoi An’s Central market place on Bach Dang and though Mark had sworn to never let himself get drunk when Andrew was in his care, it did seem on this street, lit only by the quoriesent moon, that Andrew was helping his dad more than Mark was helping Andrew in trying to avoid stepping on any of the alarming number of dead and bloated rats in their path.
“They’ve been poisoned,” explained Sue Ellen. “The rat-catchers come here after the market closes and spread out phosphides and then they come back and pick up the carcasses before the market opens again. Same procedure every night. Too many rats this close to the river.”
The next morning Mark and Andrew packed and checked out of their hotel. Sue Ellen was there to meet them as usual and drive them to Cui Dai beach on her Russian-made 125cc Minsk. They had arranged to meet Thun and Libby at eleven, but the couple didn’t show. Andrew was the most disappointed. He sat twirling his frisbee waiting for Thun while Sue Ellen and Mark fended of the jewelry sellers. Sue Ellen took off after lunch to fix some stuff, she said, and Mark and Andrew left the beach at four in a rickshaw not knowing if their new friends would be at the bus terminal or not.
Libby and Thun were there alright, looking like they had just gotten out of bed, which they probably had.
Sue Ellen was there as well with their tickets as promised, but she had apparently also used Mark’s money to purchase one for herself. When the bus pulled up she was the first to board.
“You’re such a bullshiter, Mark,” said Libby. “You told me last night there wasn’t anything happening between you and now you’re taking her with you to Hué? And you said you weren’t one of those guys. Give me a break, will you.”
“Libby, I swear, Sue Ellen being on this bus comes as a total surprise for me.”
“Kiss my ass, Mark.”
During a change of busses in Da Nang they all had coffee together in a cafe next to the station. Sue Ellen explained that when she heard they were going to Hué she figured it would be a good time to visit with her family there. Libby asked if she knew the city well.
“Like the back of my hand,” answered Sue Ellen. “I was born in Hué.”
“Just our luck,” said Libby,”because we need to do some serious sightseeing. I am getting flak from back home.”
“I thought you’d broken off all contact with your ‘back home’?” said Mark.
“With family, yes, they all hate me. But I still have a few friends left, and they say get out and do stuff. See the sights. Take advantage of being in Vietnam. I know there is this Imperial City thing in Hué which is a must. Maybe you can arrange that for us, Sue Ellen?”
“Of course. I’d love to.”
“Great,” said Libby. “We want the full-blown Hué experience just like it’s laid out in the book. We want to get bikes and picnic baskets and everything. We want to see the entire Lonely Planet Top Ten: The Citadel, the Forbidden Palace, the tombs, the pagodas and temples – the works.”
“Mark and Andrew, you guys are in on this too, right?”
“We don’t usually do that sort of thing, Libby,” answered Mark.
“What are you talking about, Mark? We’re all tourists aren’t we?”
“We like to think of ourselves as travelers –”
“Don’t listen to him, Libby. We’re in,” said Andrew. “It’ll be a real switch for us. A whole day with plans instead of just going out and getting lost. It’ll be my birthday present.”
“What? Tomorrow’s your birthday?”
“Actually the day after.”
“Shit, that’s no good. Thun and I are booked on the night train for Trang Nha. We’ll miss your birthday.”
“It’s no big deal, Libby,” said Andrew.
“Of course it is, Andrew. We’ll have to make this grand tour your party.”
It was past midnight when they arrived in Hué. Mark declined Libby’s invitation to go have a drink somewhere. “I’m guessing we’ll have a long day ahead of us,” he said.
“How about you, Andrew? Want to do some partying?” asked Thun.
“Are you serious, Thun? You’re asking my 13 year-old to go barhopping with you at twelve o’clock at night?”
“Relax Mark, I was only kidding.”
Thun and Libby’s tiny Bed & Breakfast was fully booked, but Sue Ellen knew a hotel nearby and she made sure they got a good rate before leaving them.
* * * * *
Sue Ellen was back at their hotel at eight the next morning with five bicycles and wicker baskets filled with provisions. How she had gotten it all together in such a short time was a mystery. Mark was surprised that Libby and Thun were no more that ten minutes late.
After some adjustment of bicycle seat heights, they took off for their first stop, the Dong Ba market, by crossing the Perfume River at the Troung Teng bridge.
“Who built this bridge, Sue Ellen?” Libby wanted to know everything.
“The French,” Sue Ellen shouted out without stopping her bike. “The same guy who built the Eiffel tower”.
“Who was that?” asked Libby
“His name was Eiffel.”
“Interesting,” said Libby. “Did this river ever really smell like perfume?”
One by one they bit off the must-dos on the Lonely Planet list. Thun and Andrew goofed off at every stop or raced their bikes around in circles. Libby kept feeding questions to Sue Ellen who was a history book on wheels. Mark felt trapped into listening to lengthy narratives about all the shitheads of the Nguyen Dynasty who had enslaved and buttfucked everyone around them. Thanks to the wars there wasn’t much left of the so called Citadel and its surroundings, but he couldn’t care less what was royal, or imperial or forbidden or for some reason called the Purple This and the Purple That.
At one point they had stopped in front of the ruins of what probably once had been a wall.
“So what are we looking at here, Sue Ellen?” asked Libby.
“It’s a pile of bricks,” answered Mark.
“I can see that there are bricks here, Mark, but I was asking Sue Ellen, not you. Is this something important that we should know about? Historically speaking, I mean?”
Thun and Andrew, after playing football with a bag of trash, had found some shade where they could sit and Thun was teaching Andrew how to roll a cig.
Mark couldn’t keep from laughing. Sue Ellen looked at him scornfully.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Because you are standing here in the blazing sun oohing and aahing over a bunch of crumbling bricks.”
“But, on this very spot, Mark,” said Sue Ellen,”Crown Prince Hong Bao took his own life in the presence of his mother, the powerful Empress-Dowager Tu Du, after a failed attempt at usurping his younger brother, Tu Doc. Hong Bao was the oldest son of Emperor Thieu Tri’s 47 children and the rightful heir to the throne, but his father felt he lacked moral character and had bypassed him in selecting Tu Doc to succeed him.”
“That’s great,” said Mark, “that’s really interesting, but how are these events reflected in this wall? I see bricks – old bricks, new bricks, bricks of indeterminable age. I see where some workers have left their tools. I see where a bunch of idiots have painted or scratched their names. I don’t see anything else.”
“Mark, you are being very disrespectful. This is an important monument. Sue Ellen has just told you why.”
“Yeah, well that’s the point. If someone has to tell you that something is important because it is old or because Napoleon took a shit on it when all you see is a pile of rubble, like here, or some rusty pot or porcelain scrap like over there, then what’s the point of it all?”
“Mark, you are hurting Sue Ellen’s feelings. She has been very kind showing us all this. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
From a familiar odor in the air Mark realized that Thun wasn’t rolling cigarettes at all, but rather joints. “Hey, Andrew, get your ass over here and look at this important wall. You’re missing everything on this excursion you so badly wanted us to go on.”
When the tour was over, or more correctly when not even Libby could take any more, they all biked home to change clothes for Andrew’s day-before-birthday dinner which was to be held at the famous Lac Thanh restaurant on Dinh Hoang street.
There were only westerners at the tables and most of them had their Lonely Planet open, though a few nonconformists were sporting Rough Guides. Vendors of street art and jewelry were standing outside apparently under strict orders not to attack the tourists until they had placed their orders.
“The book says this is one of the best places in Vietnam and that we should definitely have the shrimp crepes, said Libby”
“Where is Sue Ellen?” asked Andrew.
“She’ll be here. She’s never failed us yet.”
When Sue Ellen did show up she had exchanged her usual jeans and t-shirt for an elegant Quảng Nam style áo dài and some snazzy high heels. And she had brought with her a westerner wearing a linen suit and tie despite the heat. His name was Steve. He was an American who worked for UNESCO.
Steve apologized for crashing the party, but when Sue Ellen had told him she was in town he couldn’t miss the chance to meet up with her. “As you must have experienced for yourselves, she is the greatest tourist guide in Vietnam,” he said.
After dessert and coffee Libby stood up and proposed a toast for Andrew, who she said was the coolest kid she had ever met with the exception of her daughter, whom she hoped maybe one day, in a few years that is, could meet up with Andrew and who knows what would happen.
“Andrew, Thun and I didn’t have to think very hard to figure out what present to get you. You might just have a career going for you, kid. You might have found your calling at a very early age and it would make us proud to think we were part of giving you a good start.”
Thun lifted a thin canvas bag from under the table with the text, SHARK WARNING printed on it. Andrew shouted yippee, opened the bag and fitted together the two halves of a pool cue before hugging his benefactors.
Sue Ellen had bought him a shirt displaying a smiling Uncle Ho smoking a pipe. This too seemed to please Andrew immensely and he immediately changed into it
Mark, who was never that great on presents, had bought his son a box of cookies. “Glad to see you’re not spoiling him, Mark ,” commented Libby.
The party broke up early on account of Thun and Libby’s train time. Mark and Andrew had expected Sue Ellen to bike with them back to their hotel, but she stayed behind with the American, telling them she’d have the bikes picked up the following day.
“That was weird,” said Andrew. “She didn’t even ask us what we wanted to do tomorrow?
“She sure had some nerve bringing that Steve person along to bust in on our party like that,” said Andrew.
“Maybe you pissed her off with your lack of respect for Vietnamese history.”
There was a TV in their hotel room and Andrew soon found a channel showing Premier League games, giving Mark the opportunity – as we have learned earlier – to walk out into the yellow, dark, warm, surprisingly lifeless streets of Hué to find the cake and candle necessary for tomorrow’s Danish birthday wakeup.
Mark’s Chloroquine-induced dream this night was not about Sue Ellen in her flowing áo dài, or Libby and Thun in coonskin hats paddling up the Mississippi, or feeling up his first teenage crush, Tina Dickow. In this night’s dream Mark was a cook in the court of the Emperor Tu Doc and he was about to be beheaded for forgetting the salt in Her Royal Highness, The Empress-Dowager’s porridge.
In the morning Mark dressed quietly so as not to wake Andrew, who may or may not have been feigning sleep, and taking the cake and candle surrogates, went down to the lobby to recruit some participants.
Rounding up half a dozen of the hotel staff was easy, but instructing them on correct procedure was no trivial task, for in whatever manner the Vietnamese celebrate birthdays, it is not by waking up the honoree in his or her bed with coffee, cake and song.
Attempting to teach his volunteers the Danish traditional I dag er det Andrews fødselsdag, Hurra, hurra, hurra! was out of the question, but most of them had a rough idea about how to sing Happy Birthday and they were more than happy to join in on this crazy tourist’s procession.
The little ensemble – Mark, plus four men and two women – marched up the hotel stairs making such a clamor that other guests could not possibly have slept through it, the Vietnamese singing and clapping hands despite Mark’s remonstrations that they were to be as quiet as mice until it was time to enter the room. Outside the door, the candle refused to function, and the boys in the group lit up their Bics.
Andrew’s head, eyes wide open, was propped up on his pillow when this band of revellers with Mark leading the way, cake held high, entered the room. The enthusiasm of the Vietnamese reached new heights at the sight of the blond youth lying in his bed and they gathered around him giggling and singing anything that came into their heads. The normally unperturbed Andrew was taken aback by the extent of their enthusiasm and all the stroking of his face and arms and feeling of his hair they were subjecting him to. He already had some experience with the touchy-feely ways of the Vietnamese – out of nowhere women and men would come up and run their hands through his hair in cafés – but nothing like this and of course never in his own bed. Mark, sharing his son’s discomfort, asked for restraint and quiet in order to make a birthday speech, which he had only just begun when one of the men took a hold of Andrew’s bed covers and yanked them to the floor.
The Vietnamese laughed gaily at the site of the skinny pale white boy in his boxer shorts furiously trying to grab back his sheets, and were unperturbed by both Mark and Andrew’s shouted objections.
“OK, party’s over. Get out! – everybody get out, god damnit!” Mark forcefully herded the hotel workers, who gave no indication of understanding that anything improper had occurred, out of the room. Their mirth was inextinguishable. Distorted renditions of Happy Birthday, and the Banana Boat Song could be heard fading away as they marched down the hotel corridor.
“Jesus, I’m sorry Andrew, I had no idea they would go crazy.”
“They think I’m your little lover, Dad, just like those guys in Halong Bay who asked if we had met here in Vietnam. They think you’re a pedophile.”
“Look, I’m really sorry, Andrew, I had no idea they would do that? I thought you would get a kick out of them coming up here.”
“Yeah a big fucking kick. I just want to get out of this place. Vietnam is a shithole. Why do you drag me on these stupid trips. We could have gone to Disneyworld, Asshole!”
“Hey, what little I know about parenting, I know that’s no way for a 13, er – 14 year-old to talk to his father. But I promise we will get out of here today. We’ll take that 10 o’clock bus. We’ll start packing right now.
They carried their bags down to the lobby where the Vietnamese, who Mark had chased out of the room a half an hour earlier were as cheerful and attentive as usual, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “Happy birthday beautiful boy,” they called out to Andrew, as father and son walked pass them to one of the breakfast tables in the lobby.
After banana pancakes and coffee, Mark got up. “You stay here with our stuff, Andrew. I’ll run over and check email. We’ll see who’s remembered your big day.”
The internet café across the street was empty with the exception of the proprietress who was playing Tetris on one of her four computers. She immediately got up and turned on some music for Mark’s benefit. To the accompaniment of I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, he read his emails, which included a half dozen birthday greetings from Freja, relatives and friends. There was also a long message from Sue Ellen which he decided to save for later. He printed out the birthday stuff and paid the woman.
Back at the hotel the bus had arrived and Andrew, in a surprising show of industriousness, was already storing their things into the luggage bin. Mark gave him the computer print-outs and went into the hotel to pay their bill.
The clerk asked for the room key, which Mark was pretty sure he had left with Andrew. “Didn’t the boy give it to you?”
“No sir. Ask boy. Keys much expensive.”
Out on the bus Andrew told Mark he had left the room key on the desk.
“Well look in your pockets, Andrew. You might be mistaken.”
“I am not mistaken, Dad. I left the key on the counter. Comprendo?”
Mark returned once again to the front desk, countered the clerk’s persistence with shrugs and wide eyes, made a display of searching strenuously in his own pockets, and went back outside where the bus driver, impatient to be off, was revving up his engine.
But before he could take his seat beside Andrew, half of the hotel staff had stormed out on to the street, blocking the bus’s passage and demanding an inspection of Mark and Andrew’s bags. The unhappy driver followed by the unsympathetic remarks of the other passengers, opened the baggage compartment and Mark was obliged to drag out their bags onto the ground.
At least the passengers on the right-hand side of the bus had the consolatory enjoyment of watching an embarrassed Mark open up and display the disorganized contents of his and Andrew’s backpacks: Dirty clothes and clean mixed together, a half bottle of Gamla Dansk wrapped in underwear, a box of crushed cookies, airline tickets, passports and other papers in no apparent order. But the key was not to be found and the staff had no choice but to let Mark close up their bags and get back on the bus.
“Gosh Andrew, that is so strange. I wonder whatever happened to that key?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Andrew triumphantly fished the room key out of his back pocket and held it in front of Mark.
“Andrew, what in the . . . What have you done? Give me that!” He snatched the key from his son’s grip.
“Stop!” Mark shouted to the driver, who had already gotten a block and a half from the hotel, a distance which he reran at full speed, dropping the key on the reception desk counter without saying a word.
Once on the bus again, he started in, panting heavily, on a lecture for Andrew about respect for other people’s property: “That key … it probably costs more … than what we paid for our room. We had to give it back. Who taught you to do such a stupid thing?”
There was no remorse or docility in Andrew’s reply. “I hate you, Dad.” He spoke slowly through gritted teeth. “You don’t know shit what’s going on. The key was my revenge. You just stole my revenge.”
“What are you talking about, Andrew?”
“When you went to the Internet café, they came and stood around me, and the same guy who pulled off my sheets grabbed me between my legs. I wanted to hit him, (Andrew clenched his little fist tightly) but it all happened so fast, and everyone was standing around me laughing. I wanted to die. I started crying and then they left me alone.”
“For God’s sake, why didn’t you tell me? That’s awful.”
“Because you wouldn’t have done anything about it anyway. If Thun had been there he would have beat the crap out every one of them, but you never take anything seriously. Shit happens – we’re stagediving – that’s what you would have said. So I took their key instead. That was all I could think of to get back at them. And now you’ve deprived me of that as well. Asshole! Thanks for a great birthday.”
Mark tried to put his arm around his son’s shoulders, but Andrew pushed him away. Mark could think of nothing more to say than that he was sorry, terribly sorry. “If you wish we can report them to the police.” Andrew sniggered at this suggestion and they sat silently as the bus weaved its way out of Hué, Mark looking out the window at nothing. Andrew, holding his new pool cue and staring at the floor, avoided contact with his father’s body.
Their bus gained speed as traffic thinned out, but the road was still lined with shops – kilometers of tiny shops with singular wares on display; one with only hubcaps, the other with just pans, one with a few jars of oil, another with neatly stacked bundles of wood. After winding their way up a mountain road, they made a stop at the crest, where hawkers peddled snacks and drinks. Mark got out and bought two coconuts with straws. Andrew refused his, so Mark had to sit balancing the two coconuts in his hands as the bus jerked around sharp bends on their descent down the back of the mountain.
They heard their driver make a long blast on his horn and their bus came to a screeching, abrupt stop. Both Mark and Andrew were thrown into the seatbacks in front of them, Mark dropping both coconuts, spilling the sweet sticky milk on their clothes. Through the front window they could see the cause of their sudden halt – a lorry extended sideways across the road. Another accident, Mark assumed from the amount of people and dogs milling about and he followed the passengers filing out of the bus, ordering Andrew to stay in his seat.
Behind the lorry, in the middle of the road, a motorcycle lay on its side in a pool of gas and oil. Next to it someone had covered the body of a young man with a grimy old carpet. His flip-flop-shod feet stuck out from under one end of the carpet, his impossibly twisted neck and head from the other.
Ten meters away in a spillway of vegetables, a group of people had gathered around a woman squatting on the pavement, wailing softly, her mouth wide open, rocking the bloody, lifeless body of a child – so tiny, perhaps just a baby, it was hard to tell, so much skin had been scraped away from skidding over the rough asphalt.
The bus passengers stood dumbfounded, inert, sickened. Mark felt a body pressing against his. It was Andrew. “I thought I told you…” Mark broke off his reprimand. Andrew was trembling, both of them were quietly crying. Andrew put his hand in Mark’s and squeezed tightly. Mark drew him into his arms.