The Way it Was
A handful of us boys shiver by the Male’s Pool in Manchester’s
Gorton Baths, wartime thin and pale as fear. It’s 1944 and I’m
10 years old. The winter wind rips off the Pennines, roars along
Hyde Road like a bomb blast, then streams through the swing
doors of the pool as an icy draught. I hate it here.
This little group are all about the same age. We’re in the same
class at school, 4b, the slow stream. We take the 11+ in June.
The older lads are in the deep end, larking about. Some of them
will be in the army next year, fighting the Germans. Scally’s with
them. He’s the wiry one with scars on his back. He’s done borstal
for robbing and GBH. He got the birch in there. That’s what the
scars are. So now he’s a kind of hero. It’s as if he was in the war
and got wounded. He says he “owns” the deep end. You can only
swim in there if he gives permission. I’m scared of Scally. He puts
the wind up everyone.
Sken-eye, the bald-headed perv, was already in the plunge when
we came in this morning, kneeling in the shallow end with just his
head above water, like that seal we saw on the school trip to
Rhyl. Judder, our woodwork teacher, says there are seals all
round the coast, watching the beaches. The Germans put cameras
in their heads and use them as spies. Judder should know.
He had his brains blown out in the last war. He keeps hitting us
on the head with lumps of wood and saying, ‘Sheep are the
stupidest animals in the world – except for boys – boys are twice
Smiggy, the red haired lad with no cozzie on, is already in trouble
’cos he jumped off the balcony and depth charged Sken-eye.
Tommy, the caretaker, is after him now. Tommy’s the little thin
guy with the mop of brown hair, the one in the blue overall, white
jacket and gum boots. He spends his life circling the plunge
with a scoop in one hand and a brush in the other, swilling and
brushing, swilling and brushing. He should be fighting the
Germans but he got away with it ’cos he’s not all there. That towel
he slings over his shoulder is wet through. If you do anything wrong
he drops the brush and flicks the towel at you. In a single move,
at 4 paces, he can put a wheal on your body the size of a ten-bob
Smiggy’s got no cozzie ’cos his dad’s a prisoner with the Germans,
so his mam can’t afford one. The cold water’s shrunk his cock so
it looks like a jelly baby at the bottom of his belly. Sken-eye’s
always looking at him. You don’t think he is, ’cos of his squint.
You think he’s looking at you, but he’s really looking at Smiggy ’cos
he’s got nothing on. That’s why Smiggy depth charges him...
It was January-dark when I came downstairs this morning.
Gran’s house is lit by gas, and the mantles don’t give much light.
Maggie was already there, kneeling in the hearth, holding her
knickers in front of the fire, ’cos she’d pissed the bed again. She’s
grown up really, thin with ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. I get
butterflies when I look at her. Gran makes fun of her ’cos
she’s 17 and still pees the bed. Maggie says, ‘The cold does it.’
But Gran says it’s ’cos she’s scared to go outside to the toilet in the
dark – and too much of a lady to squat over a jerry.
I’m hacking a chunk of bread off the loaf when Gran goes past
with a jerry full of her own pee. She keeps the jerry under the bed.
There’s a turd in it this morning. She’s gone through the lean-to
kitchen and into the yard where the toilet is. She agrees with
Maggie really. It’s too dark and scary to go out there at night;
freezing cold as well. Gran’s got terrible scars all over both arms.
She told me she had tattoos cut out. But auntie Kath told Maggie
it was boiling fat from the chip-pan that did it. Uncle Dan went to
throw it over Aunt Amy but Gran dived in and wrestled with him –
so she got the lot.
I stick a fork in the bread, then go and kneel beside Maggie and
shove it against the bars of the grate. I can smell warm pee off
‘Gran,’ she shouts, when Gran comes back in. ‘Stop him. He keeps
looking at my knickers.’
‘No I don’t!’ I shout. ‘I’m making toast. It’s my breakfast.’
But I blush ’cos I do keep looking. I can’t help it.
‘He does! He keeps looking! Look! His toast’s on fire.’
Thwack! Gran cuffs me across the back of the head. ‘Leave her
alone! Look what you’re doing!’
‘I am looking. I like it black. It’s not fair.’
I go into the backyard and feed scraps to the hens.
The yard’s tiny really, surrounded by a high wall with just enough
room for the toilet, dustbin and homemade coop.The coop’s got a
rusty mesh front and piece of old plywood for a door.
The hens are really happy here. We let them run round the
flagstones all day and they lay eggs as presents. They’re like
cousins to Maggie and me. We let them in the kitchen but Gran
chases them out.
They all come clamouring when I come with scraps.
Captain Marryat always pushes to the front. She’s my favourite
– and she knows it. Gran got the hens as day old chicks.
Captain Marryat was the runt and Gran gave up on her because
she thought she’d die. But I saved her. I kept her in a shoebox
in the hearth by the fire and fed her spoonfuls of water and
crumbs and things. Now she’s the biggest and strongest. She
pushes to the front when I come out because she remembers
what I did. When I call her name she always comes scurrying.
I call her Captain Marryat ’cos he’s my favourite author. I’m
going to be a sailor when I leave school. I’ll grow a beard and
get weather-beaten and all the girls will fancy me.
This is cleaning day. Maggie’s in her flowery overall-coat with
bare legs and feet. The overall just hangs on her... but you
know that, underneath, she’s… this special shape. She seems
to be swaying and flowing all over when she walks. It’s like
she’s dancing but she isn’t… On Saturday night, when she goes
to the dance at the Alhambra where the Yanks are, she puts
pale goldie-brown paint on her legs to pretend she’s got
stockings on. I love to watch her painting her legs. She knows
I do and gives little smiles to herself. I pretend not to be
watching and she pretends not to know I’m watching. It’s like
an exciting game as she pulls up her skirt to paint above her
knees. Now I’ve got butterflies again.
On Saturdays she ties a scarf round her head like a turban then
scatters last weeks wet tealeaves over the stone floor. We keep
the tealeaves in a box on the slopstone. They look like dollops
of mud to me but Gran says they soak up the dust. I ask Gran if
I can go to the baths. She says; ‘Yes. There’s threpence on the
sideboard. Gerrout o’ my sight.’
I walk to the baths because I can’t afford the bus fare. None of
us can. it’s about two miles. I meet Smiggy and Sid on the way.
Sid’s the dark lad with shifty eyes. His dad’s in Burma, fighting
the Japs. You can’t trust Sid. I’ve got to watch both these two
lads ’cos they bully me; beat me up and pinch stuff out of my
gasmask box, like my lunch and marbles and bits of shrapnel
I keep as souvenirs after the air raids; depends what mood
they’re in. Today’s a good day so it’s all right. They don’t know
I’ve joined the LNER boxing gym and started training. The best
bit I’ve learnt, is that punches don’t hurt till the next day. Joe,
the coach, said I could make a middleweight champ when I
grow up. I just need a bit of polishing that’s all. So the next
time Sid and Smiggy try it on I’ll tear into them...
Here in the baths, us kids are sitting in the tubs with our teeth
chattering. I spend most of every Saturday morning sitting in the
tubs ’cos the plunge is too cold. There’s no coal to heat the water.
The ships need it to go to America to bring back food and ammo
to keep us going against the Germans. I’ll be on one of those
ships one day – with a brown face, tattoos, and rings in my ears.
The tubs are like a narrow trench with tiles along the bottom and
sides. There’s a trickle of warm water about half an inch deep,
running along the bottom. You’re supposed to come in here and
wash yourself before you go in the plunge. It’s the only warm water
and bath us kids ever see. We sit in a long line, one behind the
other, knees drawn up, hugging our legs and shivering. It’s the best
moment of the week. But every now and again Tommy goes into his
office and turns the control to cold so we are suddenly sitting in
freezing water. Then he comes out flicking his wet towel at us and
driving us into the plunge like those panicking redskins you see in
Worse than that is when Sken-eye comes in. You never see him
coming. He just appears. The first you know is when one of the lads
gives a yell and goes haring past towards the plunge, followed by
another and another. Then suddenly you feel his hands on your
shoulders and these skinny white thighs appear on either side of you,
and you know it’s your turn. Then you’re up and screaming, racing to
leap into the freezing water. Then, for a moment, the icy plunge, full
of shaking blue kids, seems to be the safest place in the world; until
Sken-eye’s head pops up right next to you…
On the way to the baths, in Gorton Lane, Smiggy and Sid stop to
throw stones at a cat that’s sitting on the roof of a communal
street-air-raid-shelter. I don’t join in ’cos I can’t throw straight.
The stones never go where I aim. I had a practice session in a
back alley a couple of weeks ago. I see this cat sitting on Mrs
Coxie’s backyard wall so I throw a stone at it. But I miss and it
smashes her kitchen window, a sudden crash and shattering glass.
So I leg it out of there – like I do when Sken-eye puts his hand
on my shoulder. I thought I’d got away with it. But Long Lily
Holmes was looking through her bedroom window. The stupid cow
split on me and told the other women it was me. The next day
they were all shouting at me in the street and saying I should be
in borstal because Mrs Coxie’s son, Billy, was killed at Dunkirk,
and her other son, Jimmy, is missing at the front and she still
wears black. That’s not my fault. The Germans did that. I liked
Billy and Jimmy. When they were home on leave and I was small,
Billy and Jimmy used to pick me up and throw me to each other
like I was a ball. But worst of all, when I said I didn’t break the
window, the women didn’t believe me. That’s not fair. They
believed Long Lily and she’s mad. She’s about seven feet tall,
with this little round head, white face, and basin-cut hair;
thin as a lamp-post with a long black skirt that goes down to her
feet. They believe her but they don’t believe me. Florrie Ogden’s
mam says I should get the birch. That’s not fair either. Anyway,
Florrie’s mam has her hair cut short like a man. That’s weird that
is. I think she’s got nits. But it’s always the same. No one ever
believes me when I say I didn’t do things. It’s not fair. It wasn’t
their cat anyway.
Eileen Hodge is in the baths today. She was going into the girl’s
pool with a rolled up towel when I was coming in here. Eileen
makes me feel funny too, like Maggie does. She’s not as old as
Maggie though. And she doesn’t sway like a flower in the wind
when she walks. But she has this bright face, smooth and shiny
like an angel’s. A lot of girls have angel’s faces. I wonder if any
of those in the pool next door have no cozzies on – like Smiggy?
There’s a connecting door between he two baths but it’s always
locked and the keyhole’s blocked. I try looking through it every
week but I never see anything. Tommy caught me one week and
flicked me with the towel. It hurt for days. The mark was still
there two weeks later.
There’s a scary thing about girls though. My cousin Jake told me
about it. When they get to Maggie’s age they get hairs on the
belly and give you diseases if you have-it-off with them. It’s
hard to believe that Maggie’s full of disease. But she is. They
all are. Jake said you get covered in boils then go blind and mad
and die. I don’t know why girls do that. But Jake says that’s why
the Yanks wear wallah-bags when they take them up back alleys
to give them nylons and a good seeing-to. I know Jake’s right
’cos I’ve seen loads of wallah-bags in the back alleys. Jake
found one in my Gran’s back entry one day and took it to school.
He was passing it round in the math’s lesson when Ratty Ritchie,
the teacher, saw him and flung a wooden board-duster at him.
It gave Jake a massive lump in the middle of his forehead that
all yellow and purple. Auntie Fanny, Jake’s mam, kept asking
how he got it and he kept saying one of the senior lads threw
a stone at him. He daren’t tell her that Ratty did it ’cos he
took a wallah-bag to school... or else she’d kill him – kill Jake
not Ratty. Mind you, Ratty should be killed. He’s as mad as a
cornered canal-rat. That’s why we call him Ratty. They blew
his brains out in the last war too.
All our teachers are old ’cos everyone young is in this war.
All our men-teachers went mad in the last war and take it
out on us. And the women are witches with tartan legs and
a stink of piss. They all hate me – men and women.
I don’t know why...
All the kids are crowding on the side of the plunge now,
looking across the water, gawping and sniggering.
‘What’s up?’ I shout, running to join them.
‘Sken-eye – look at ‘im,’ says Smiggy.
I look over the water at Sken-eye’s cabin. It’s just like all the
other cabins, with a half-door at the bottom and a green
canvas curtain that you can pull cross the top. When you’re
changing you close the door and leave the curtain open,
so you can see outside but other people can’t see your whatsit.
Sken-eye does it different. He draws the curtain and leaves the door
open so that you just see the bottom part of his body.
‘He’s got an ’ard on,’ says Sid.
‘I can see that but why’s it bent?’ I want to know.
‘’Cos he’s had it off with a woman,’ says Silver, one of the big lads
who’s just swum down from the deep end to have a look, and is now
in the plunge at our feet. Silver’s only got one real leg.
The other one’s a wooden peg. That’s why we call him Silver – ’cos he
has a peg leg. He lost one of his legs in the bombing.
He takes his peg off to come in the water but he’s still the best
swimmer in the baths. I wish I had a peg leg. I’d go to sea as a
cook and have tattoos and a parrot on my shoulder. And I wouldn’t
have to play football. I hate football ’cos I can’t kick. The ball never
goes where I want it to. Then all my team shout at me and punch me.
It happens every time. The teacher says I’ll always be rubbish ’cos I
don’t kick with my instep. I don’t know what he’s on about. I don’t
have insteps – only feet and boots.
‘Do girls bend your cock?’ I ask Silver. I can feel another
problem coming on.
‘They tie it in knots,’ he says.
The world suddenly feels empty. Jake said the two most
beautiful people I know, Maggie and Eileen, get hairs on
their bellies, give you boils, and send you blind. Now Silver
tells me that, if I have-it-off with them, they’ll tie my cock
in a knot. I feel scared and excited at the same time.
But I’ll still do it if they ask me to.
I’m glad Sken-eye’s going home. He makes me jumpy.
He’s always grabbing kids by the arm and asking them to
go back to his house for dinner. He says he’ll give you a
bag of chips and half-a-crown if you go home with him.
It sounds dead good really, chips and half-a-crown.
He asks me sometimes but I never know who he’s talking
to, ‘cos of his squint. I always think he’s talking to someone
else. Then he suddenly thumps me in the chest and tells
Tommy I’m ‘bloody stupid.’ Then Tommy throws a scoop of
freezing water over me to wake me up. It’s not fair. It’s not
my fault he’s cockeyed.
For ages now, the big lads have been telling us not to go
anywhere with Sken-eye. Scally says he’ll beat us up if he
sees us going outside with him.
It all started on that day when Smiggy was shouting across
to me in the plunge.
Smiggy yells, ‘Hey! Sken-eye’s asked me to go for dinner
at ‘is ‘ouse.’
And I shouts, ‘Why?’
And Smiggy shouts, ‘I dunno. But he says he’ll give me a bag
o’ chips and ’alf-a-crown if I go ’ome with ’im.’
And I shouts, ‘Wow. That’s worth a fortune that is.’
Scally and Silver are swimming past at the time, on their way
from the deep end to the tubs. But they hear us shouting –
and stop. ‘You don’t go anywhere with him,’ says Scally,
rubbing chlorine from his eyes.
‘Why?’ I ask, cringing in case he lashes out. He doesn’t
‘’Cos he’s queer,’ says Silver, hopping on his real leg
and steadying himself with his arms in the water.
‘What do you mean – queer?’ says Smiggy, who’s just
swum across to us.
‘He shoves his cock up your arse till your eyes pop out,’
says Scally, grabbing Smiggy by the hair and forcing
his head backwards in the pool until just his mouth and
nostrils are above water.
‘Eh?! How do you know?’ I gasp, throwing caution to the wind.
‘Judder told us,’ says Silver, still hopping and steadying himself.
‘He went home with him a couple of weeks back.’
‘Did he get chips and ’alf-a-crown?’ says Smiggy, bouncing up
as Scally lets go.
‘Yeah,’ says Scally, cuffing him across the head.
‘Hmmm,’ says Smiggy, with that expression he has when
he’s wondering what to pinch out of my gasmask box…
We’re all stood on the far side of the pool, still looking at
Sken-eye’s cabin when Sid says, ‘Hey, Scally’s goin’ ’ome.’
And when I look towards the swing-doors, there’s Scally
standing by the edge of the baths, fully dressed,
squeezing his cozzie into the plunge.
‘He’s going with Sken-eye,’ says Silver, still in the water
at our feet.
‘But he says, “Don’t do that... ’cos you’ll get a sore arse,”’
‘Is it for chips and ’alf-a-crown?’ says Smiggy.
‘He’ll get a lot more than that,’ says Silver, grinning
up at us, ‘he’s going to beat Sken-eye up and rob his house.’
‘He’ll go back in borstal,’ says Sid.
‘And get the birch,’ I tell them.
‘He won’t,’ says Silver, nodding towards Sken-eye,
who’s walking along the other side of baths like a Lowry
matchstick man in a flasher’s raincoat. ‘Sken-eye daren’t split.’
‘Why not?’ says Sid.
‘The police’ll have him,’ says Silver, ‘’cos of what he does
Turning into Gran’s street I see Maggie sitting on the upstairs
window-sill, cleaning the glass with her back to the street
and the sash window pulled onto her thighs. Her whole
body’s moving like music and she’s got this shape that makes
me stop and stare. It looks dangerous to me, hanging out of
the window. If she loses her balance she’ll crash to the ground
and be killed. Other women, in overalls and turbans, are
kneeling on the pavements sand-stoning their steps and
flagstones. They do it every Saturday. They make the pavements
a clean yellow-brown colour. I love it. It’s like sunshine
coming out of the ground in a world that’s covered in soot from
the factories and houses.
Maggie’s already done Gran’s front; she’s always the fastest
and first. Gran says Maggie’s like her mother, Sar-ran Cummins.
‘Sar-ran was a lovely girl but she had three babies,
George, Edwin and Maggie, ’cos she couldn’t say no.’
I don’t get it. No’s dead easy. You just go, ‘nnnn…oh.’
And it’s there – ‘no.’ Maggie can say no. It’s her favourite
word when I ask her to do things.
Sar-ran’s first baby was George, so they put him in Style
Home till he was fourteen then sent him to sea as a cabin
boy. I’m going to be like him when I grow up. He’s in the
Royal Navy now, on warships. But he got torpedoed and
swallowed oil while he was swimming in the sea.
So he’s on sick leave now.
Edwin was the second baby. Then, after Maggie was born,
Sar-ran died of TB. Gran says, ‘Half of Manchester has TB
and go round spitting blood.’ I spit blood sometimes –
after the kids beat me up and pinch stuff out of my box.
But that’s not TB.
Anyway, when Sar-ran died, Gran was left looking after
Edwin and Maggie. But Edwin died when he was fourteen.
I don’t know why he died. Gran says, ‘He was a lovely boy…
but tuppence short of the full shilling.’
Maggie’s boyfriend, Frank, is in the navy too. He’s a gunner
on a warship. In that letter that came at Christmas, he said
he was the one who sank the Scharnhorst. But Gran says
that can’t be true ’cos he’s still in hospital after that camel
spat on him when he got drunk in Egypt. Gran hates him
’cos he beats Maggie up when he’s home on leave. But
Maggie says she loves him and only goes with the Yanks
to get the nylons.
Going through the front door into Gran’s lobby, I wonder if
Charlie Cummins is home yet. He’s her grandson like me.
But he’s older ‘cos his granddad was Gran’s first husband,
Dave Cummins, who died of TB. After that, Gran married
my granddad, but then she killed him.
She told me about that, one day when there was no one
around and she was feeling sad. She said that, when the
last war started, he goes down to volunteer for the army.
So while he’s out she kneels down and asks God to stop
him joining-up ’cos she can’t live without him. Suddenly
the sky fills with black clouds and it goes as dark as night
and starts lashing rain. Then, during the night, granddad
comes downstairs to go for a pee. As he goes into the yard,
God throws down a lightning bolt that hits him and kills him
stone dead. Then God gives Sar-ran three babies she
doesn’t want. Then he kills her and makes Gran struggle
and weep. Gran says God’s punished her for being selfish.
I’ve never prayed to God since I heard that. He’s just like
all the rest.
As I enter the kitchen, Gran’s huddled over the slopstone
tugging at something. There’s an axe… lying on the stone
at her elbow... and something else... I rubberneck to see
what it is.
Yuck… it’s a hen’s head… I move in for a closer look.
She’s plucking a bird… For a moment it doesn’t make
‘No! No!’ I yell. ‘You can’t...! Not Captain Marryat!’
I’m too stunned… too sick to cry.
‘Please! Not Captain Marryat! She’s my best friend…! My only
friend…! It is…! It’s Captain Marriott…! You’ve killed her. I
hate you… You stinkin’ old COW!’
‘Be quiet!’ shouts Gran, ‘you little mardarse. Charlie’s home.
He’s a Desert Rat; bin away three year; since before Tobruk;
chasing Rommel through the desert and Italy. He’s off to the
front agen soon; Germany this time; to kill Hitler. So run
to the shop for two pounds of potatoes. There’s money on
‘No! No! I won’t!’
I’m really crying now. ‘I won’t do anythin’ anymore!
You’ve killed my friend! You’ve killed Captain Marryat.
I hate you! I hate you all! I hope the Germans come and
kill the fuckin’ lot of you!’
Idiots in Vietnam (2nd Edition)
Motorbikes, thick as porridge
Ha Noi March 2007
I emerge from Arrivals into the concourse of Ha Noi Airport with $400 in my bum-bag. But the local buttons are dongs, 31,000 to the £1, so I need a Bureau de Change. There isn’t one. There’s an INFORMATION sign over there, but no one behind the counter.
That smart young bloke in a brown suit, walking across the concourse, seems to have recognised me. At least, he’s suddenly started waving in my direction and shouting ‘hello’ in English. What’s this about?
I look round to check who he’s aiming at but there’s no one behind me. He must be shouting at me then. Does he think he knows me? Maybe he’s from Cardiff. He looks a bit like one of the waiters from the Happy Gathering. ‘Blimey,’ he’s coming over. He wants to shake hands! Who’s making the mistake? Me, or him?
‘I get taxi,’ he says.
That’s handy. ‘But I’ve got to change some money first,’ I tell him. ‘I need dongs.’
‘Come,’ he says, striding towards the exit.
‘No!’ I shout; ‘money! dongs!’ I keep upping the volume. Maybe he’s deaf. ‘I’ve only got American Dollars,’ I tell him when he looks round.
‘Dollah OK,’ he assures me. ‘Dollah velly good.’ Now he’s gargling into his mobile.
It all fits. That Chinese bloke on the plane told me they like dollars out here.
‘Wait,’ the Happy Gatherer tells me when we arrive outside.
Now a taxi swings into the kerb and Gatherer tells me to get in the back while he feeds my case and rucksack into the yawning boot. OK so far. But now he’s climbing into the front passenger seat. That’s different. ‘Where go?’ he asks.
‘I’m going to the Heritage Hotel,’ I tell him. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I go home,’ he tells me. ‘I give help. You pay taxi. I get ride.’
So we’re going to divert to the Happy Gathering. The guy’s a chancer; nothing for nothing. ‘How much?’ I ask warily.
He inclines his head and looks thoughtful. ‘Eight dollah,’ he decides.
I spot a sign; HANOI 21 Km. And they’re going to charge me five-quid? ‘OK, we’ll settle for that,’ I tell him. ‘A hundred-and-twenty-eight-thousand dong...’
Now we’re at a road toll. ‘You pay,’ the Gatherer tells me.
When I offer the driver a one dollar-note his expression turns from confusion to anger. He waves it aside and gives me a mouthful of verbal scrambled egg. ‘He want dong,’ says the Gatherer.
‘I haven’t got dong,’ I tell him impatiently. ‘You said he’d take dollars.’
The two men sit yodelling at each other for a couple of minutes then, ‘OK,’ says the Gatherer, ‘driver pay now. Then we go bank. You get dong. Then pay driver.’
We push on along a dual carriageway amid the din of motorbikes. Traffic pollution hangs like sediment in the humid air. I wonder if these guys pack any unpleasant surprises?
We’re entering Hanoi now. I relax a bit. But when the bank turns out to be an ATM, I tense again. I’ll be in trouble with the wife. She comes from Scotland. She objects to paying interest to holes in walls.
I get out of the taxi and approach the machine. This is scary. All the numbers have strings of zeros after them. The ones towards the bottom are in millions. When I punch in 128,000 the machine gets violently sick and spews notes over me. I gather them up and head back to the taxi.
I offer money to the driver. He goes unstable and starts screaming at the Gatherer who waves the notes aside. ‘This small money,’ says the Gatherer. ‘Driver want big money.’
‘Looks big enough to me,’ I tell him, ‘all those noughts.’
‘Cents,’ he tells me.
‘You’d better come and explain,’ I say, jerking my head towards the machine. I’m beginning to feel uneasy. Come to think of it, I’ve never been at ease since I met this guy.
I pay them enough to stop the driver’s palpitations and trigger my own. I’m not used to dealing in big numbers. And what’s the interest on a string of zeros? Maybe I’ve just broke the bank.
Ho Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton
It’s the next morning and I’m in a taxi heading for the 5 star, £58, luxury of the Melia Hotel. After I booked the Heritage I saw a report on the internet that it was the worst hotel in South East Asia. So I switched my second night to the Melia. In the event, the £28 Heritage was value for money; clean and spacious. But it’s in the grot of the suburbs so I’m going along with the change. The Melia’s Central.
This is a pukka taxi, with a meter. The trouble is, there are three sets of figures on it... all going up at different speeds. The lowest figure is in thousands. I think the top one is in billions. It’s a long journey and the motorbikes are as thick as porridge. The driver doesn’t speak any English, only scrambled egg. I offer him 100K – £3. He looks delighted. So that’s his tip as well.
I watch a hotel porter whisking my case and rucksack away. Viet Nam is a Communist country. It’s overstaffed. The whole country specialises in inefficiency. The upper-class hotels have a bellhop in every plant pot.
An angel, in a long white dress and hat that looks like a halo, hands me a piece of paper with a number written on it. It’s not her phone number. It’s too short. Pity. I check-in but I’m too early. My room’s not ready. They’ll have my luggage in there at noon. ‘What’s the number?’ they ask.
‘You said the room’s not ready, so I don’t know the number.’
‘No – your luggage number? The lady in white gave it to you.’
‘Did she? I dunno. I’ve lost it.’
‘OK sir. We fix.’ Five star service, caters for idiots.
I collect a map from Reception and head outside for a walk. I like walking. I’m a walking person. But in Viet Nam, no one walks. Everyone goes everywhere by motorbike. There are eight million people in Sai Gon, that’s Ho Chi Min City, and six million have motorbikes. That’s a lorra bikes in one city. Ha Noi looks to be the same. And all those bikes seem to be on the road all the time. It’s like nobody goes anywhere in particular. Just get up in the morning, cock a leg over a bike, and meander round the maze, honking your horn till bedtime.
I consult the map. There are two targets within walking distance; Ha Noi Prison Museum; that’s the Hanoi Hilton where the Vietnamese kept shot-down American pilots; and the Catholic Cathedral.
Outside, on the pavement, reality dawns. A road separates each block from the next. And the roads are no-go areas, rivers of motorbikes with a 20 knot current; every bike doing its own thing. They’re not in lanes. They’re all going in different directions on the same patch; half men; half women; honking their horns in fruitless mating calls. It’s like an ant run out here; high speed dodgems.
It gets worse. The overspill is on the pavement. They come up from behind and whiz past me. The secret of staying alive is to keep walking in a straight line. If you deviate, or stop suddenly, you scramble the equation. Everyone out there respects everyone else’s space, when they can guess where it is. The same rules apply crossing the road. Step off the kerb, close your eyes, and keep going straight, repeating the mantra to yourself... ‘My Space. My Space. My Space.’ If you stop to cough you’ll have six-million bikes on top of you.
I’m a target now. A swelling convoy of trishaws keeps pace with me, yelling for me to leap aboard for a ‘ten dollah’ tour, with a commentary in scrambled egg. Motorbike-taxis, one after the other, swerve in front of me, heading me off, urging me to squat on the pillion for a ‘ten dollah’ roller coaster whirl of engine-revving bliss. When I pause to consult the map, chancers step out of nowhere, applying for the job of personal guide. It’s like nobody understands the concept of somebody walking, or the joys of orienteering among flowing streams of horn-blasting traffic in the polluted air of a sweltering city.
What these guys don’t know, is that I’m not a tourist. Not a real one. I’m on a beeline from Cardiff to Saigon, on a mission to find my way to the Cu Chi tunnels without the aid of a travel agent or guide. It’s a budget trip. The plane fare subsidised by Air Miles, and hotels and train tickets booked on the internet. I’m the only human involved. I was getting lethargic back there in Cardiff. I needed some action. So I set myself a challenge.
Outside the cathedral, a pretty girl in a palm hat tries to sell me bananas from one of the bowls that hang from either end of the pole she balances on her shoulder. When I turn her down she offers to pose for a photo. ‘OK,’ I take a shot and slip her 20K. Further down the line an old beggar-woman sticks out a bony arm for a handout. I’ve been along this route before, many times. If I give 50 pence to every beggar who pops out of the pavement, a few hundred of the world’s poorest will have their only chip butty of the year. The down-side is, that I’ll be out of beer-tokens before lunchtime.
So here’s the dilemma. Did I give that girl 20K because she’s pretty, then go and turn the old woman down because she ain’t? Hmm? I know... I hold up 20K and my camera. The same offer’s on the table for the crone as for the girl.. She turns it down with a gesture of contempt. I pocket the money and walk away. Maybe that’s why she’s a beggar. She won’t do something for something. Or have I got that wrong too?
Through the window
Another day, another task; board the train for a 32 hour trip to Sai Gon. Trouble is, I didn’t sleep last night. A king-size bed in a 5 star hotel, and I couldn’t sleep ‘cos I had Nasi Goreng for supper. It’s the best I’ve ever had, but it was big. Egg and rice are clogging my guts.
It’s raining today, muggy as hell. I’m sat in the station in a gathering crowd, waiting for boarding time. My ticket’s in my bum-bag. I’ll be in coach 10; compartment 1; berth 1. The tickets were waiting at the Heritage when I arrived. All done by mirrors; couldn’t be simpler. It’s a piece of cake. I’ve no problems.
The crowd are all Asians except for me and two European couples. I guess the couples are Frogs. The hotels are full of ’em. I suppose it’s natural. This was a French colony once. I seem to be the only Brit left in the world.
That tall thin railway worker went over to both European couples as they came into the station and showed them to empty seats. He seems to make a point of looking after Europeans. After a tip no doubt. Everyone here’s looking for the main-chance. He’s heading for me now.
It’s getting near boarding time. The ticket inspector’s opened the door that leads to the trains. We get to board an hour before take-off. The thin guy’s confronting me now. He’s making gestures. I dunno what he wants. It’s all in scrambled egg. Uh... he wants to see my ticket. Now he wants me to follow him. He’s got my case and we’re jumping the queue. He’s heading for coach ten. So he’s got it right. Now he wants my ticket. Maybe he wants to see my compartment and berth-numbers, or to show it to the guard or something. Better give him a tip. I’ve got two 10K notes here... 30p each. I’ll try him with one. If he looks unhappy I’ll give him both.
We’re in the compartment now, four bunks. There’s nowhere for the cases. It’ll be a tight squeeze if someone gets in with their shopping. The guy suddenly spins round and sticks his hand in my face. ‘Ten dollah!’ he snarls. He’s gotta be joking. ‘No way,’ I tell him, ‘ten thousand dong.’
‘Ten dollah!’ he yells. He thinks he’s Dick Turpin, but he’s just a wanker. ‘Ten dollah?’ That must be the first line in the Vietnamese–English Dictionary. ‘Twenny dong,’ I tell him, shoving two notes in his hand. ‘Ten dollah! Ten dollah!’ he screams. We’re struggling now; me trying to ram 20K into his hand; and him pushing it away; a strange situation. Suddenly he strides past me. When I turn... he’s gone.
‘Jesus.’ I sit down. That took my breath away...
‘I think this is my bed...’ Startled by the falsetto voice, I look up. And there’s Emo Philips, the American comedian, reincarnated as a tall gangling Chinaman, complete with a medieval bobbed haircut, hovering above me, arms and legs all over the shop. We go outside and check the compartment number. Emo’s right; it’s 24. I’m supposed to be in 1. Turpin dumped me on the wrong bed then demanded money. People aren’t the same anymore.
I hump my stuff to the right bed. The berths are filling up. There’s a Vietnamese bloke in the bed above me and a middle aged woman in the one opposite. They’ve both got luggage so there’s not much room. Now a girl in her 20s arrives with a total of 7 cases and bags. We’re overcrowded, big time. But, on the bright side, the return journey is only Two-million-two-hundred-thousand-dongs – £78. For that, I get to Saigon and back, and beds for two nights. So I’m saving something like £300 on air, hotel and food bills. And I get to see Viet Nam from top to bottom.
Nightmare! The last time I saw my train ticket, was in Turpin’s hand. He never gave it back. He broke off in the middle of the struggle and strode away. I’ve got problems...
Yaah! God...! Emo’s at the door, standing there like a four-legged daddy-longlegs. This guy’s surreal. He wants a chat. That’s the last thing I need. I just want to sit and worry. My head’s in a whirl. I don’t know whether I’m coming of going. Emo wants me to polish-up his English. He thinks I should go to China and teach it. He says I don’t need to learn Chinese. They all learn English anyway. They just need to polish the pronunciation. But teaching Emo is a fulltime job in itself. His voice keeps changing register in mid-sentence, jumping from baritone to falsetto and back in rapid succession. His arms and legs are the same. He scratches his left cheek with his right hand by putting his right arm round the back of his neck. Then he does the same with the other hand. He’s come from Shanghai to Viet Nam, job hunting. He can’t speak a word of Vietnamese. And, if he could, what would he do? We have two drivers on this train. They earn £30 a week each. It’s a 32 hour journey. And they have to buy their own food. Emo, sunshine – go home!
The train’s well underway now. It’s getting dark and there’s the mother of all storms outside. The rain is like hosepipes; lightning exploding in rapid succession. It’s like the B42’s are back with the napalm, and we’re the target. Now I realise, my coat’s gone missing. I go down the train to see if I left it in Emo’s place, but I didn’t. That bastard, Turpin, must have grabbed it.
The guard arrives, demanding my ticket. I tell him the tale of Dick Turpin, but he only savvies scrambled egg. He goes away and comes back with two helpers. These trains pull a full coach-load of spare guards and comic-singers. There’s no-end of reinforcements. The men gargle and jabber among themselves, then bring their boss. This guy’s the bad-cop... like the Jap guard on the River Kwai. ‘No ticket,’ he raps in English. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ No messing. I like that in a man.
I repeat the tale of Turpin. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he orders. I look at the window; black dark; rivers of rain; lightning flashing! The thought of leaving the train on a night like this, lumbered with luggage and nowhere to go, no bed... no ticket... no nothing... in a land full of scrambled egg... is... well... not good.
In desperation I fumble in my rucksack and produce a piece of paper with the phone number of Tony Kheim, the guy on the internet who delivered my train tickets to the Heritage. I always carry backup. ‘Phone this man on your mobile,’ I tell them. They do. He confirms that I did buy a ticket. It takes the heat out of the situation. But... I can’t stay on the train without a ticket.
‘OK. I’ll buy another one,’ I tell them. I fumble in my bum-bag and scrape 500,000 dong together. The boss waves it away. ‘I want... million!’ he demands. ‘But I haven’t got a million,’ I tell him. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he barks, in his best concentration-camp English. ‘What about this?’ I offer my credit card. ‘Pah!’ he pushes it away. ‘Its Tesco’s Platinum,’ I tell him. He’s unimpressed. ‘American dollar?’ I ask. His eyes light up. ‘Now you’re talking,’ his eyebrows tell me. ‘A hundred and twenty,’ he says, after a calculation.
‘That’s nearly the return fare. I’ve already paid for this bed,’ I tell him.
They jabber among themselves. ‘OK,’ says the boss, at last, ‘downgrade to couchette, 80 dollah.’ They know I’m no dodger and they’ve softened a bit. ‘No,’ I tell them, ‘I need a bed. I’ll pay the 120.’ They jabber again. ‘OK OK,’ the boss weakens. ‘Eighty dollah. Keep bed,’ he tells me.
There’s no buffet. A woman comes round with a trolley, doling out food to keep us alive; foul soup; chopsticks; a ton of boiled rice; dollop of soggy pickled-cabbage; fatty pork. It’s worse than nothing at all. Vietnamese music blares full-blast from a speaker in the corridor. It’s hot and stuffy. I lie on my bed, sweating and gasping for air. I can’t sleep. I prowl the corridor in my socks. All the windows are locked. I look for a toilet. It’s a squat. I come out with feet stinking of piss.
This is it. I’m stuck here till 9 o’clock tomorrow night. That’s 24 hours away. Time stretches before me like a waterless desert. There’s nothing to do; no one to speak to. Even Emo would be a blessing. But he’s on his bed, lifeless, like everyone else... corpses in a mobile morgue.
For no reason, I pull the screwed-up dong notes from my back pocket and iron them out. ‘I don’t believe it!’ There, in the middle of the ball... is my bloody ticket. It’s tattered and torn, but it’s real. It must have come from Turpin’s paw in the scuffle.
In the end coach I pin a guard down and tell him the story. He hasn’t a clue what I’m saying but summons an ever increasing number of assistants. At last I’m talking to the guy from the Kwai, through an interpreter who speaks perfect English. It takes a long time and a lot of jabbering. ‘You see,’ says the interpreter, at last. ‘We have already paid 80 dollah to the government.’
I frown and scratch my head. We’re on a moving train.
‘So,’ he goes on, ‘if we give you 80 dollah, we lose a lot of money.’
‘So what are you saying?’ I ask.
‘We want you to be very happy,’ he tells me.
‘So do I,’ I tell him.
‘So, if we give you 40 dollah, we lose 40 dollah and you lose 40 dollah. Will that make you very happy?’
‘I’ll be 40 dollars happier,’ I say.
‘No... very happy?’
‘No... very happy?’
This is Vietnamese for don’t rock the boat. ‘OK. Very happy,’ I concede.
Kwai puts his hand in his back pocket, pulls out my wad of $80, miraculously retrieved from the government, and deals me 40. So that’s me... very happy...
The girl with the pile of cases leaves the train at noon the next day. And there’s my coat, under the last one. I find an open window, and air; then a European toilet... and people who speak English. I’m back on course. A little wiser; a little poorer.
Through the window
I’m in the middle of the crowd leaving Saigon station. It’s dark and I’m looking for a taxi. A weasel-faced wanker, in a peaked cap and denim jacket, is pulling at my arm. ‘Taxi, ten dollah,’ he chants. ‘Taxi, ten dollah.’ How does he know its ten dollars? He doesn’t know where I’m going.
There’s a taxi rank at the end of the approach; a long line of smart, white, four-wheel drives, filling up and pulling away. These are the boys I want. I head straight for them, humping a rucksack, pulling a case, and fighting off the Weasel. I flag a taxi. The driver ignores me. I try another and another and another... They all ignore me. It’s like I’m invisible.
Maybe the Weasel’s got the first claim on me. OK. I can sort that. I was around in the days of the Empire. We had ways of dealing with guys like this. I put my face into his. ‘Get lost!’ I roar at the top of my voice... and give him a push. His face fills with hate. But he slinks away with his tail between his legs. It all comes back to me now. Sometimes it pays to be hated. The taxi-men still ignore me. I don’t get it. Even if they can’t see me they must see my case. Ah... Maybe they are out in sympathy with the weasel.
There’s another guy at me now, in a grey uniform with an official number on it. He’s got more manners than the Weasel. He wants me to go with him. He must be a taxi driver. I follow him across the approach.
‘Oh no...’ he’s loading my case onto trishaw. I don’t believe it. I’ve landed with Gunga Din. It’s not even a decent trishaw, like the posh ladies go promenading in. This is ancient; a single-seater; moth-eaten and battered. I don’t want to know it. But I’ve no option. The taxis have rejected me. ‘Rex Hotel,’ I tell him.
‘’Otel,’ he echoes.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘Not any hotel: the Rex Hotel.’ He’s another chancer.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Red ’otel.’
‘Aahh, gerronwithit,’ I tell him. ‘Rex Hotel, fifty-thousand. No Rex, no money.’
We start off. It’s uphill. Gunga’s got a load on. He’s struggling a bit. I’ve got my feet on my case with my knees in the air and my rucksack under my chin. He’s edging into the traffic. There’s no order on the road. Just swirling eddies of motorbikes, honking horns, claiming their space. But he copes. He’s been doing this all his life; with the same trishaw by the look of things. When traffic lights go green, bikes zoom away on all sides. Gunga stands on the peddles, struggling to get momentum up the slope. The journey goes on and on. I sense he’s flagging.
‘’Otel!’ he shouts hopefully as we approach a dingy Vietnamese doss.
‘Rex,’ I tell him. ‘No Rex. No money.’
He tries it on, again and again, with every ‘’otel’ we pass. He hasn’t a clue what we’re looking for. I’m running out of patience. I’m tired; two nights without a proper sleep. I need a shower and a change of clothes. I’ve got Vietnamese piss on my socks. I bang the side of the trishaw. ‘Let me off,’ I yell. ‘I’ll find a taxi.’
‘No. No.’ he pleads. ‘Red ’otel. OK. OK.’
He shouts to people on the sidewalk. They shout back, pointing uphill. We’re going the wrong way up a one-way street now, in the dark without lights, against a solid wall of motorbikes. It’s like the M25 is coming at me.
He’s behind, standing on the peddles. I’m his shield... He sees my problem. He gets off the bike, comes round the front, and starts pulling me, like a horse and cart. He chickens out and makes for the sidewalk. Now he’s peddling along the pavement. I’ll settle for that.
We come to a corner. ‘There!’ he shouts triumphantly. ‘Rex ’otel!’
And there it is. ‘Closed!’ Boarded up. Dead as a Christmas turkey. I booked it on the internet. I’ve been suckered again. Gunga Din sees the problem. He thinks I’ll blame him. He shouts frantically to a guy sitting on the steps. The guy shouts back and points. We move on, round another corner. And there it is. A blaze of lights. The Rex Hotel. The boarded bit was the back entrance.
A coach has pulled-up outside, disgorging middle class, middle aged Frogs. Gunga pulls alongside and dismounts. Then he misjudges and the trishaw crashes onto its side, shooting me nosediving among the crowd, rucksack and all. The Frogs pause and gaze disdainfully down. Another Rosbeef stealing their thunder.
Gunga hops around on one leg crying ‘sorry sir, sorry sir.’ He can see 50K evaporating. He might be a chancer. But he’s hurt himself. And he’s no wanker. He’s worked bloody hard. We agreed on fifty. I give him a hundred. ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din,’ I tell him.
In the cool of the rooftop bar, the inevitable Philippino musicians murder Western pop music on the corner stage. A couple of aging Frog couples dance to the racket, clapping enthusiastically after every number. One middle aged bloke, a Chirac look-a-like, is swaying and clapping and tapping the table like a star-struck kid.
The service is crap. I go to the bar to get more drink. The local hooker sidles up, ‘you’re new,’ she tells me.
‘Not the usual description,’ I say.
She says she runs a massage parlour on the floor below. ‘Do you need a rub down?’ she asks.
‘Or rub-up?’ I wonder.
‘I manipulate,’ she says.
‘I bet you do,’ I tell her. She’s attractive, in a pale skinned 4-star well-groomed kind of way. But I prefer the girls outside; pale gold skin and almond eyes; sitting astride their motorbikes in skin-tight jeans; shiny black hair tumbling over their shoulders. They’re like dainty dolls. And they walk like dolls; little awkward steps. It’s like their mothers wind them up every morning; stick ’em on high-heel stilts; then turn them loose to stagger about till they find a bike to cock a leg over. These girls are wild flowers. Once they master the walking problem they’ll take over the world. The hooker’s a houseplant.
I tell her, ‘no, I just need beer.’ She looks disappointed. ‘I’m married,’ I say. ‘You’re against the rules.’
The next night she arrives at my table. ‘Can I sit with you?’ she wonders.
‘I’ve told you,’ I tell her. ‘I’m married.’
‘Just for a chat,’ she says.
‘Naah. You’d better not,’ I say. She looks crestfallen and goes back to her table. I bite my tongue. It’s 30-odd pence a pint in here. A double whisky’s a pound. For less than two quid she could tell me tales to make my toes curl.
I’ve booked the trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels for the second day. That’s what this journey’s all about. But I’ve got my doubts. If I end up with a coach load of Frogs it’ll be a nightmare. And the hotel’s full of ’em.
In the morning I go to the foyer and wait for the call. The place is awash with Yanks and Frogs. It doesn’t bode good. Then this girl comes up and says, ‘Mr Gregory?’ I say, ‘yes.’ And she says, ‘follow me.’ Suits me. She a wild flower in tight jeans.
She takes me to a chauffeur driven car and opens a rear door. ‘Am I the only one?’ I say when we’re underway. ‘No,’ she tells me, ‘there are two of us.’ It’s getting better.
We do the tunnels and the war museum. She’s the best courier I’ve ever come across. She walks with her arm round my waist and keeps feeling my muscles and saying ‘wow.’
She takes me to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. ‘I don’t eat with clients,’ she tells me. ‘But you’re nice and happy. I want to eat with you.’ She’s probably winding me up for a tip. But I can stand that. Especially after the meal, when she starts kneading both our stomachs to see which one is the fullest.
At the end of the day I follow her up the hotel steps to the foyer. At the top she turns, puts her arms round me, and presses her cheek to mine. Maybe she wants a bigger tip. But it makes an old man happy.
In the bar that evening, the hooker’s back. ‘Can I come to your room tonight?’ she wants know.
‘I keep telling you; I’m married,’ I say.
‘For you, I do it for love,’ she tells me.
‘Aww shucks,’ I cover my eyes with my hand. It’s very nice of her. We hardly know each other. ‘I’ve still got this marriage problem,’ I tell her.
She plants a kiss on my lips. And then she’s gone.
Mission accomplished. I’ve done the tunnels. I’m dreading tomorrow’s train trip. But hey, I’m homeward bound.
The fun’s over for this trip...
Charlie aka Viet Cong…. Now you see… Now you don’t
Enter Antonio ...
I’m on the train now. A colony of Frogs are swarming into the coach. This is worrying. I don’t want them in here... But I needn’t worry. In walks Miss Saigon. She looks about 19 but she turns out to be 27. She looks a dream as she clambers up and down onto the bunk above me. A woman in her 30’s is in the bottom bunk across the way. She’s nice and friendly; wants to share her water; but I’ve got my own.
I wander into the corridor. The Frogs have got the windows open. Brilliant. It’ll be great to have some fresh air in the place. But now the chief guard has come along with a key. He’s pushing the frogs out of the way and locking the windows. He’s a bit of a Hitler, this guy.
Five hours later, the train stops and the Frogs swarm away. The woman in the bottom bunk has closed the compartment door and we all sprawl on our beds gasping for air.
Suddenly the door’s flung open and a bloke in a khaki shirt and shorts barges in with a massive canvas bag which he dumps between the bunks. I don’t believe it... He’s wearing a blue crash helmet. ‘I’m Antonio... from der Nederlands,’ he roars in a foghorn voice, snatching off the helmet and throwing it on the vacant bunk. He points to the bag. ‘You’ll have to lift dis on der bed for me,’ he orders Hitler, who is standing behind him. ‘I have a heart condition.’
Hitler bristles. He doesn’t lift. He shoves Frogs about and locks windows. I get off the bunk. ’I’ll give you a hand,’ I tell them. Three of us heave it up and shove it on the bunk.
Antonio pulls up a shirt sleeve, bends his arm and tenses the muscle, ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells Hitler. Now he leans over the bottom bunk and shakes the woman. ‘I’m Antonio, from der Nederlands,’ he shouts. ‘Who are you?’ She looks bemused and mutters something in scrambled egg. Antonio does the same with the girl above, and gets the same response.
‘Ratatatat!’ He suddenly crouches between the bunks, firing a heavy machine gun, full blast. ‘Bang! Boom!’ He roars, lobbing hand grenades onto the bunks. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells the girls, who are now sitting lotus fashion on the lower bunk staring at him, wide eyed. ‘I vos in Curacao.’
He’s 65 with a shock of grey hair and grey moustache. And he’s been on a 2 month cycling tour in the Meikong Delta. ‘You’ll have to talk up,’ he tells me, ‘I’m deaf.’
‘It’s all those bloody hand grenades,’ I tell him.
‘I lost my hearing aid in the der crash,’ he tells me.’ He was in a collision with a motorbike and lost his front wheel. ‘Mudder and daughter,’ he suddenly roars, looking at the women. It’s not very tactful. But it’s very Antonio. ‘Bridget Bardot,’ he roars, suddenly realising how beautiful Miss Saigon looks. He dives into the canvas bag and produces a camera. ‘You are der sex kitten,’ he tells her. ‘I take your picture.’ She’s posing for him now; combing her hair and preening herself. He’s got something going for him.
Swish! A sandal skims my nose in a karate kick. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells me. ‘Ratatatat! Boom! Bang!’ He’s off again. This guy did 2 years National Service in the 60’s and, by the sound of things, he’s lived off it ever since. But he’s no more a soldier than I am.
He’s at his pills now. ‘Von for my heart,’ he announces. ‘Von for my blood pressure. And von for Diabetes... Bang!’ he lobs a hand grenade into the corridor.
I look at the women. ‘Mad as a typhoon,’ I tell them. They nod enthusiastically. They don’t know the language. But they guess what I’m saying.
‘Dare vos dis Russian vife in the Meikong,’ he tells us. ‘Antonio, she tells me. I love you. I love you very much. You must come to me in Russia... And I vill go,’ he assures us. ‘And I vill give her much umpety-umpety.’
The women leave the train at 0700. Antonio produces pictures of his wife and daughter; two attractive women. There’s a postcard from his daughter too. ‘Come back healthy,’ she tells him. ‘And tell us lots of stories.’ He’ll definitely tell her stories.
At 0800 he decides to go a walk down the train. I hear him telling a Vietnamese guy about ‘giving umpety-umpety to a vife on the Venice Express.’ The guy hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
Half an hour later he’s back at me. ‘Meet the new girlfriend,’ he tells me. He pushes a Vietnamese wildflower towards me. He says she’s 23. But she looks younger; much younger. He says she has an apartment in Ha Noi and produces a condom. ‘I vill sleep vith her tonight and give her umpety-umpety,’ he tells me.
It’s only half-eight in the morning. He’s not had his breakfast yet. And he’s already picked up a scrubber.
I don’t know how he knows she has an apartment, or that he can sleep with her. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I think he tells her what he wants. And if she nods or smiles, it’s a done-deal.
She leaves him now and goes to a compartment further down the coach. There are two young blokes in there and she spends most of the day with them, behind a closed door.
‘I have to be careful,’ Antonio tells me, holding up the condom. ‘I had dis near miss vid a black vife in Africa. I think she had Aids. It vos new then. I had to tell my vife about der girl. Ve both had to have tests and medication.’
‘Christ. It’s a wonder she didn’t divorce you.’
‘Oh no, no. My vife understood. I vos just a young boy at the time. And I had been avay on business for a couple of veeks.’
‘Oh. That’s OK then. How old were you?’
‘Only 35; just a young boy.’
I nod my head. There’s no answer to that. But it explains his daughter’s postcard.
He wants to know what I think of his new girlfriend.
‘She’s not just an ordinary girl,’ I tell him. ‘Miss Saigon was an ordinary girl.’ I point to the top bunk. ‘She let you take photos. But that was all. Ordinary girls don’t take you back to their apartments for umpety.’
He gets another packet of pills from the big bag; takes one; and washes it down with bottled water.
‘What’s that one for?’ I wonder.
‘Diarrhoea,’ he tells me.
‘Have you been drinking the water?’
‘No. But ven I’m vith dis little vife tonight, I might be excited and get the shits.’
I nod wisely. There’s no answer to that one either.
The girl’s back at him now. Making pillow signs with her hands against her cheek. He throws me an, ‘I told you so,’ look, as she takes his hand and leads him away.
I stand corrected. Looks like he’s struck lucky.
But she takes him to the boys’ compartment, where he’s invited to buy satay and coffee all-round off the food trolley.
When he comes back he asks me again, ‘vot do you think of my girlfriend?’
‘She’s with two blokes,’ I tell him. ‘She could be a hooker, working the train. Ask the guards if they know her.’
He asks Hitler, but gets waved aside.
She’s back in our compartment now. Sitting on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. He falls for it big time. She suddenly stands up and leaves without giving a reason. Ten minutes later, one of her boyfriends comes and stands in the corridor, eyeing the Dutchman. There’s something sinister about him.
‘They could be setting you up for a honey trap,’ I warn Antonio. ‘Two men and a girl.’
‘Yah,’ Antonio gets the point. ‘I vill put my things in a safe in the station,’ he decides. ‘And take only $30 to her apartment. Nothing more. If they pull a gun. Dat is all dey vill get – $30. But if they have no gun, I vill destroy dem. Two fingers fly at my face. First, I take out their eyes. Den I chop them.’ Swish! Swish! His hands fly through the air in karate chops. ‘Den I finish dem.’ He leaps to his feet and goes kicking down the corridor, like a German soldier who’s lost control of his goosestep.
We’re getting near Ha Noi now. The girl’s back on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. ‘I love you,’ she tells him in English. ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
He looks at me, wide eyed. ‘I told you,’ he says. ‘She loves me. She has told me this herself. You heard her.’
‘Give me a kiss,’ he cries, taking hold of her shoulders and pulling her towards him.
‘Yeeeaaow,’ she squeals and struggles like an angry cat. ‘No kiss! No kiss!’ she screams.
She rises and goes to the door. ‘Goodbye,’ she calls over her shoulder, with a wide grin. Then she’s back with the two boys, who are waiting in the corridor.
‘Vot do you think?’ he asks, hopefully.
‘She’s taking the piss,’ I say.
He nods his head. ‘Yah. You might be right,’ he concedes. ‘So I need a hotel in Ha Noi. Is dare room at your place?’
‘Dunno,’ I say. ‘I booked it on the internet.’
‘Have you got a double room?’ he wonders.
‘No way,’ I tell him. ‘I’m not sharing. I’m not playing second fiddle to a scrubber.’
On Ha Noi station I see Antonio being towed away by one of the wankers. ‘Dis man has a hotel,’ he shouts to me. ‘He vill give me a room for der night.’
‘I bet he will,’ I say, as I go looking for a chancer with a taxi.
The pictures below might interest the historians out there...
Now Some of Charlie’s Toys
Step on it...
and down you go to a bed of spikes.
This one rolls you down and pierces back and front
With this one you hang with your armpits impaled
There’s one that opens like a window
See Saw Marjory Daw. Then down to the spikes.
Then, for your convenience
This one folds like a chair – with spikes
Get out of this under fire...
Funny thing, war; the big boys don’t always win.