All that was left of the little lizard was a skeleton. It was trapped behind the browning tape which held the tattered mosquito net across the window. Tail curled, body strained and snaking, it looked like it had struggled to the very end. Alexander and the lizard sat together in the dusty café in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, watching people and sharing time. Alexander was stony-faced. Dead teeth bared, the lizard smiled.
Alexander knocked back the dregs of his watery coffee and lit a cigarette. He took a hard drag and ran his finger around the rim of his cup, listening to the stern, tin voice of the loudspeakers crackle in the heat as the Party marched through their evening bulletin. The street was insufferably busy, as were all in Hanoi. The buildings here squatted closer than in any other city he’d seen, and the trees they hid behind were all taller and thicker. His eyes sifted through the mess of brown faces and patrolling government uniforms and snagged on an elderly woman, crouched in a doorway on the opposite kerb. She was bending her head to the bowl in her hand and shovelling rice into her mouth through the gaps where her teeth should have been. A cat paced beside her, rubbing his mangy fur on her shin and flicking the stump of his tail, impatiently. The woman dropped a scrap and the animal chomped frantically at the ground. She paused and watched him, her tongue licking out from the corner of her mouth and her chopsticks upright in the bowl, like incense at a funerary rite. God, no, not her, thought Alexander. The lizard smiled.
Dusk was starting to creep in, but the air still boiled. In the searing heat, the sewers sweated, and hot, wet air rose up from underground and soaked the people with stench. All along the tree-lined street, shops and eateries spilled over from their doorways. Women sat on the tiled steps, fanning their children with the latest order of government pamphlets. Faded red flags hung from every awning, and they drooped as though weary of the heat too, and the strain of parading their loyalty. A food hawker wiped shimmering grease from her cheekbones and scraped her ladle around the rim of her broth bowl, calling out to those on the pavement. The thin, breathless whistle of bicycle spokes rang out as a stream of riders slipped ceaselessly by.
Inside the café, the electric lights were a stuttering blue buzz. They gave Alexander a headache. He pulled his glasses from his nose and placed them on the table, rubbing his eyes. When he had lost his glasses in his first weeks of war it had taken him years to replace them. He preferred not to see the faces of the men and boys who stalked him, charged him and lay dead in his way. Sometimes, he still preferred to keep his world blurred. All women looked more beautiful, softly unfocused.
It was right at the end of the war when he finally bought new ones. They had thick plastic rims that rested on the bridge of his nose, and the initials of a former owner were scratched into the corner of one lens in tiny, pointed letters. He had been in Saigon – a thousand miles south of where he sat now – and had bought them from a Frenchman in a reeking back alley. A lucky find, they were the only pair in a suitcase that bulged with knock-off watches and Zippo lighters, dented, tarnishing and engraved with the names of the bloodiest battleground cities. They cost him four dollars and a can of Heineken he had stolen from a drunken marine. He got them home just in time to watch the city fall through the slats of his shutters. He had stood with his face pressed against the dark wood and squinted out, and the low, loud moan of helicopters thumped through his chest. It swallowed the shouts of the looters on the ground, and they mouthed noiselessly at each other as they smashed, pushed and stole their way through the chaotic streets. The Americans were finally leaving, and this was what his victory looked like. Hidden in his room that day, Alexander had shared in the hysterical thrill of freedom.
When he looked back, he was still surprised at how easy it had been to desert the US Army. He had expected to be hunted, but he supposed the generals had bigger things to worry about. He was surprised too, at how simple it was to be a stray American, even after the war had ended. He practised his Russian, he lied and he hid, and he slithered through the shadows, untroubled. He supposed the Communists had bigger things to worry about too.
Alexander took another big pull on his cigarette as a soldier sidled by the café and stared brazenly in. Nothing itched him more these days, though, than time in Hanoi. Like nowhere else in Vietnam, the people here were cynical. The Party’s grip was tight and ingrained, and it bred a sense of urgent devotion. Mistrust had grown competitive; a game to be played between fearful men who would shop a comrade quick, lest it be them otherwise. He much preferred the rebellious South. There were far more men for the Party to watch there. He hid better amongst their disloyalty.
He waited for the soldier to pass and then peered back out, across the street. On the corner, a group of women had gathered. They were chattering noisily beneath a simpering portrait of Ho Chi Minh, swapping gossip and rice for gossip and fruit. No, thought Alexander, not them. His eye-line inched along the pavement, and red-and-yellow government banners blazed angrily between the trees. The Office of Justice and Criminal Punishment. The Central Committee of the Vietnam Fatherland Front. The Office of Conscription and Relations with Foreign Aggressors. He ticked off each escape in his head. A mother sat on the pavement and scolded her daughter, yanking a comb through the child’s hair. The girl scowled as her mother snatched a parting along her scalp and twisted her hair roughly up, pinning a knot on the side of her head. No, thought Alexander, not them. He always chose with great care. He was good at choosing. It had brought him success, selling dreams to simple Vietnamese women, and selling simple Vietnamese women to rich, expectant men. He went for the ones with the saddest eyes, but who looked like they had potential. An artisan, he blew hot air into thin glass girls and shaped them into ornaments of humming birds and orchids, so they sparkled in the sunlight at market.
The gathering of women quietened, collected their fruit and fastened the ribbons of their nón lá hats with scrawny fingers, their faces disappearing into shadow beneath the broad rims of the conical straw. As they moved away, Alexander saw another girl. She was sitting at the entrance of a passageway, with a blue-and-white-tiled 28 above the arch. Her hands were resting neatly on her knees and her head was down. There was a door hanging open in the gloom behind her – just a crack. An official approached and she wriggled awkwardly in her seat, leaning away from him. He spoke and tossed a coin in her lap before striding into the passageway and throwing open the door.
Alexander caught a glimpse of a squat toilet before the door swung shut again. He watched as the girl frowned, glancing anxiously into the passageway behind her and clearly waiting for the man to leave. Her shoulders were hunched and she clasped her hands together, folding them over each other and playing with something he couldn’t quite see. A ring? He strained his eyes and watched her tug and twist a band of sickly grey metal around her finger.
He dragged his chair closer to the table and leaned forward, to get a better look. Each time a man approached the squat, the girl shifted in her seat. Her hands jumped from where they had laid on her knees and curled into quick, tight fists in her lap, hiding her ring from the men who paid her. Alexander knew a squat-girl would not own anything of real value; it was her behaviour that nudged at his interest. This is just for me, she seemed to say. As the men left the squat and walked away without a word, or a look, or a thought, her shoulders loosened and her hands slipped back to her knees, her ring proudly facing the world.
From limp hands on skinny knees, the ring shone out, like hope. It shone through the heavy air and foul smells, and across the street, and through the ragged mosquito net with the sticky brown tape, and it snapped Alexander’s eyes suddenly into focus. Yes, he thought, her. He took a last, quick draw on his cigarette and ground it out in the damp at the bottom of his cup. His stare only left the girl for the briefest moment, as he straightened his glasses back on his nose and picked a banknote from his wallet. Clamping the wallet shut with a flick of his wrist, he tucked the note beneath the cup’s saucer and weaved out between the tables. He pushed his shirt tighter into the band of his trousers as he left the café, skipped the kerb, and crossed the street towards her. The little lizard watched and smiled.
Hanh held out her hand. The man yanked at the seat of his trousers and shifted impatiently on his feet. He rummaged in his pocket and threw an oily coin in her palm before hurrying into the passageway. As he jerked open the corru- gated tin door of the squat, it rattled dangerously and strained against its weak hinges. Hanh slid the coin into her pocket and wiped her hand on her skirt, watching the man squeeze his lumbering bulk into the tiny space behind her.
In all the time she had worked here, she never became any less surprised by the stream of men who would pay to use the filthy latrine. It didn’t matter how desperate she was – even if she’d eaten a hundred rotten mangos – she would never go in there through choice. It was dark, low- roofed and barely wider than she was. Wooden planks lay across a shallow hole, and they were always soaked with urine, slippery and stinking. In the evenings, when she was forced inside to wash the floor, she would clasp one hand tightly over her nose and mouth and bunch her skirt above her knees with the other, pushing the wet rag into the corners of the room and up the base of the walls with the toe of her sandal as quickly as she could. Black flies would nip at every scrap of her exposed skin.
The door clattered shut with a gust of foul air, and Hanh saw the man fumble urgently with his buttons and wrench his trousers to the ground. She snatched her eyes away and stared at the cracks in the pavement, listening to the man groan as he crouched over the seething hole. There was a splash from the water pail and a line of escaping water trickled past her feet, running away from the squat on its regular route to the street. The man emerged from the passage, flicking his wet hands beside him, and tiny specks hit against her cheek and arm.
It was suppertime in the Old Quarter, and all along the street the food stalls were trading. Hanh ran her hand across her stomach, feeling the sharp ridge of her bottom rib. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and it made her feel tired and impatient. Close by, a vendor was pinching pieces of yellow fat between his fingers and smearing them around the bowl of his blackened pan. The fat sizzled and smoke rose in his face. He stepped aside, rubbing his eyes. She watched jealously as he threw a handful of chopped shrimp into the spluttering pan, and her mouth began to water. The rich, salty aroma of nuoc mam lifted above all the other smells of the street, tormenting her.
She squirmed, peeling herself away from her plastic chair, and a bead of sweat dribbled down to the small of her back. Another man was walking towards her: a Party offi- cial. He stopped close and stood over her, demanding to know how much it cost to use the squat and blowing his rancid breath in her face. Hanh felt her body brace against the back of her seat. When the men talked to her it made her nervous – especially officials. They spoke as though she were nothing better than a dog. She mumbled a reply into the humid air. He snapped at her to speak up, and she gripped her hands tightly together, worrying her mother’s ring around her finger. She had argued with her mother again this morning. Hanh hated it when they argued. She tried to hold her tongue and be a good girl, like she was told, but it was difficult sometimes. Good girls did not survive long in Hanoi. Her mother didn’t understand.
Hanh hauled up a louder voice to answer the official, and he paid and disappeared into the passageway. As the water leaked along the ground beside her she slipped her grubby feet in and out of her sandals, wriggling her toes. Tonight, she would go to the river and wash, and then she would paint her toenails. She would paint her mother’s toenails too. She’d paint them a bright, happy colour. Though her mother wouldn’t be able to see from where she lay in her sickbed, she would know they had been painted and they could feel beautiful together.
The pavement was beginning to quieten, and the bicycles that jostled for space on the road were thinning too. Between their merging paths, Hanh could see into the café on the opposite side of the road. It was crowded, as it was every evening, with barely a table empty. Disgusting Dinh was there, drinking beer with the owner, and his bloodshot cheeks were glowing blue in the fluorescent light. The legs of his plastic chair bowed under the weight of his sprawling body, and he raised a fat finger to the waitress, who jumped up and scurried to his table with another full drink. The girl hurriedly wiped the condensation from Dinh’s bottle with her apron and fussed around him.
Hanh frowned, bitterly. If Dinh could afford to drink beer all night, he could afford to pay her the wages he owed. It was more than two months now since he’d given her anything for the hours she’d worked at the squat. She even called him Uncle – like he said she had to – but it made no difference. He still wouldn’t pay her. Sometimes, when her rations were low and she didn’t have money for anything extra, the bubble of air in her empty stomach would cry at her to quit. She knew she wouldn’t really, though. The Party would rather let Hanoi starve than allow private business, and what little work existed was entirely corrupt, secret and scarce. Jobs like this were rarer than tigers, and Dinh’s thin promise of some payment was better than a guarantee of none. He looked up suddenly and caught her staring. With a grin, he waved and patted his thigh, like he wanted her to sit on it. The owner of the café threw back his head and slapped Dinh on the shoulder, bellowing with laughter.
Hanh looked quickly away, her eyes scavenging over the other busy tables with their bottles of drink and bowls of steaming pho-beef broth. At the far side of the café, there was a man that caught her attention. He had white skin and was sitting alone by the window, watching the street with interest. He was probably Russian, she thought. The only foreign men in Hanoi were Russian, these days; here to trade and prop up the Party. She leaned forward just a little in her chair. It was difficult to see him properly; his table was half hidden from the pavement by a greying net. Was he the man she had seen there before? It had been the day she went to temple with Thuy, and they were laughing about the monkey they had chased away from the fruit at the altar, and Hanh thought she had seen a white man look at her, just briefly. The moment was quick, but sharp as a poker, and she hadn’t quite known what to make of it.
The man drained his cup and sparked a cigarette alight. Hanh dipped her head, but kept a curious watch through the corner of her eye. The men she knew rolled raw tobacco, and they stuffed the papers so greedily that the fibres over- flowed and stuck to their teeth. This man smoked real ciga- rettes, and he smoked with confidence. Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his arm out to his cup and flicked the ash away with one finger. He wasn’t slouching over the table like Disgusting Dinh, or bossing the waitress, or grinning stupidly. He was quiet and calm, turning the cigarette packet in his hand and tapping it on the table. To Hanh, his eyes stood out. They were small and dark and powerful.
A man butted his foot into the leg of Hanh’s chair and called her attention abruptly back to the squat. She held out her hand and took his coin. His sweat-speckled shirt was just inches from her face, stretched tight across his bloated belly, and she pinched her lips together to stop from breathing him in. He sidled into the alley, his gaze lingering brashly over her face and chest as he left, making her shudder. This was what real life was like: rude and threatening. It made her mad just to think of it. She knew she would lie awake again tonight, listening to the cramped rumble of her belly and her mother’s deep wheeze and feeling a heavy, choking fear: This is all I will ever know.
She put her head back down and stared at the pavement. Another stream of water was escaping across the concrete, down to the street. Once, Hanh tried to tell Thuy how she felt. She told her she pretended that she was that little trickle of dirty water, running away from the squat, down the street, out of the city and into the distance. She told her how she imagined she would reach the sea and be clean and free. Thuy had laughed and Hanh had laughed too, though just with her voice, and not with all her soul.
It was almost dark, now. Hanh was looking at the ground and she didn’t see him coming until he was right in front of her. He crept up and surprised her, the calm Russian with the powerful eyes. With her palm upturned and open, and her heart sparked alert, Hanh held out her hand.
Excerpted from The Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks. Copyright © 2013 by Lucy Cruickshanks.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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