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Job of a Lifetime

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It was the job of a lifetime for me, teaching people to speak English in Hanoi, Vietnam, and getting paid big money for it.

In 1994, the war seemed long over, but for some, it was never going to end, soldiers becoming redundant, and innocent people becoming landlocked, their way of living and thought forever changed, so much so they could never rest, not until their job was done

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Summer was in full swing there and two of my friends joined me, to help me settle in. They had been there twice before. Good old Jim Dyson and His wife John, short for Johnette. They were both older than me by about ten years. I was only twenty-six.

An uncle of mine – Tom -  had served in the Army during the war, got wounded at the Battle of Long Tan. He rarely spoke of it, but when he got drunk he did, and would troll off into his own little world, speaking in Vietnamese, because he had to learn the language, just in case he got caught.

“ Eddie, “ he'd say, breathing alcoholic fumes on me, trying to look me in the eye, “ they tie ya to trees, boy. Then, they cut ya. From ya shithole to ya breakfast. “ Then, he'd look over his shoulder suspiciously,  and smirk, “ We really should make a run for it. “

Uncle Tom was killed by a car walking to the shops in 1986. He had been sober for three years. Hurt my family deeply,

Hanoi surprised me, because I thought I would be in a city of the past, with people selling rice, working bullock drays, on unpaved potholed roads, with throwback sixties bars, and tiny, pretty women in purple silk miniskirts promising to love me long time. It was nothing like that. The Dysons had warned me. It was very modern and very loud. And, man, it was loud.

First day there, I saw a fight in the street. Two taxi drivers got into an argument over a potential fare and one stabbed the other in the back of the neck. The potential fare ran off and got on a bus. I wanted to step in and help the wounded driver, but Jim pulled me back, saying, “ No, Ed. It's their business. They don't like interference. Trust me. “

I trusted him, but I really think I should have helped.

We settled into a hotel called the Hanoi Arms and I still had three weeks to go until I settled into the teacher's cottage.

The Vietnamese government, crawling along as it was, had found me a permanent place to stay, which I was and will be forever grateful for. It was much like a modern bedsitter unit. It had an expanse to place a bed, a lounge, a desk, and television, which I never had reception for, unless it was a black screen with Viet music playing. The place had a seperate kitchen and bathroom, though. And it had electricity. I met the renevator – Tran – when I turned up the first time, with Jim and John.

“ Ready. Ready soon, “ he said, smiling, covered in paint, a man in his late forties. “ You cook here. Big cook. “ He dabbed paint at the wall, then said, “ Here, man cook all time. Good for wife. Wife cook good, man cook better. Must cook better. No cook, no good. No cook, no wife, “ then he chuckled, like this was the local knowledge and a joke to him.

Tran smoked a cigarette while he painted, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth,  never once using his hands to deal with it, inhaling and exhaling through his mouth, squinting through one eye. When the cigarette was finished, he spat the butt with expert aim into a brass pot.  I have never smoked, so I found it fascinating, and when I finally moved in at the start of term, there was not a shred of cigarette smoke in the place. I never met Tran again.

At the community school, where I would be working, I met the head of education. She called herself Miss Maggie. She was taller then most Vietnamese women, had long and straight black hair, with legs that ran to her neck, and she had the greenest eyes. Jim and John met her with me and they later told me that meeting an asian woman with green eyes is very good luck, like marrying a white woman with blue eyes. It's simply the polar cultural opposites of good fortune. Being only twenty-six at the time, I won't lie, I wanted to fuck Miss Maggie bad. She was hot.

With three weeks to go before the start of a new term, Miss Maggie said, “ You should cycle. Go get cycle, love. “ She said love. My heart was beating fast. Then, she said, “ The people there. In the country, they need you. I don't need you here. I need you there. Introduce yourself, Mister Grantley. Be a teacher. “

“ Just call me Eddie, “ I said.

“ No, you are Mister Grantley. You are a teacher, like I am, but I am better than you are. You know why? You are here, love, “ winking at me, knowing she was the boss, and that was all of it.

Love... That word again. A learned word to soothe the nerves of the caucasian, like junkies use it to appease a dealer they owe money to, or to get product from, or to slide their foot through the door. We were attracted, I could see it, but she wanted me to do my job, earn the money, better her homeland, and prove it.

“ Certainly, “ I said. “ It's a very good idea. I'll listen to your advice. Bicycle, was it? “

“ Yes, “ she said. “ Blend in. A motor car distinguishes you at my school. Get a bicycle. I see you have friends waiting for you. You should take them with you. I heard your other friend speaking Vietnamese. Make sure he goes with you. To be a good teacher, Mister Grantley, you must be like the students. If they crawl, you crawl with them, then they learn to walk. “

I understood her logic and that's why I eventually married her.

Jim and John were quick to rent bicycles for us and off into the Vietnamese countryside we went, leaving the noise of Hanoi behind.

Before too soon the roads became dusty, dirty, pocked with holes, and irrigations. We laughed at how much those road jolted our bones.

We stopped at villages, the villagers coming out, speaking to us, telling us where to go, and where not go, offering us their babies at times, freaking us out, always marvelling at the shininess of our bicycles, sunglasses, and watches, touching the fabric of our clothes.

At one place, into our fourth day of cycling, at a village I still cannot pronounce, they held Jim and Johnette down, by the side of their toppled bikes, yelling, machetes high, willing to decapitate them both, then the villagers laughed and let us go. We wanted to go home then, but Jim was pissed, “ Fuck these little cunts! Fuck them! “

“ Shut up! “ Johnette shrieked.

Then, they came back, and took us, shoved us to the ground again. Right there in the middle of nowhere.

“ Be cool, “ I told my companions, “ Just be quiet for a moment. “

( Please... ), I said in Vietnamese, especially to the older angry man with the machete above me, his dark face scrunched to kill, and me already having wet myself. ( We will ), from remembering all my uncle Tom's drunken Vietnamese. I was here to teach it, not speak it.

The angry man with the machete yelled, “ We will? We what? “

I asked, ( Teach speak please? )( Can we please help you? ) ( Hear me? )

He kicked my belly, called me a smarty pants, slapped the back of my head, and snorted that english was easy.  The Americans taught him that.

Jim was next.

He grabbed Jim by the fringe and put the machete to my friend's throat, yelling, “ You! What you do? “

John was pleading with the men roughing her up and Jim was seething with anger, his eyes making it clear.

( I can rip every tooth from your head and fistfuck your mouth for this, ) Jim growled in clear and profound Vietnamese.

The machete man let him go and stepped back, understanding exactly what Jim meant. First, he smirked, then he chuckled, slapping one of his pals on the arm, then he laughed at Jim, “ No, you cant! I won't let you! “

Then, everyone was laughing at us.

I was thinking they were going to keep us prisoner, rape Johnette, behead us, all the terrible things my uncle Tom told me about, but within in a few hours, they had fed us, given us water, returned our bicycles, and sent us on our way.

We were glad to be away from them and Jim and John bickered momentarily, but they made up quickly, and held each other crying. They wanted to blame me for it, but couldn't, because I never invited them. They invited themselves.

Two days later, we encountered an old compound that may have served as a military base during the war. The walls were huge and grey, four towers standing high, but vacant. The place seemed deserted, so we ventured inside to look around. We quickly learned that this place had been a prison. There were hundreds of cells with broken doors and rusty bars, an executioner's gallows rotting away.

In the massive courtyard we heard a door open at the far end and a small old man was looking at us, just standing there, shaking his head in disappointment.

“ Hello! “ John called.

The man looked shocked and upset when she called out, then spoke to himself, turning around, and darted back into his room.

“ Spritely old fart, “ Jim said. “ Probably has a huge cock, too. “

John giggled and punched his arm.

We knocked on the old man's door and it opened slightly, unlocked.

“ Hello? “ I quizzed. “ Are you there? Can we please come in? “

There was a breeze and the door opened a little more, so I gently pushed it all the way open.

The old man was unravelling bundles of rope, cutting them into lengths with a large knife, mumbling to himself. We entered and he seemed oblivious to us. His room smelled of kerosene.

“ Are you the caretaker? “ I asked.

John was amazed at the silk tapestry on the wall. Jim checked in a vase and coughed, “ I think those are human ashes in there. “

I was trying to decipher what the old man was saying, but for the life of me, I couldn't grasp his dialect, wondering aloud, “ What do you think he's saying? “

“ Sounds familiar, “ Jim said. “ Some shit about three ropes. “

The old man kept cutting the ropes with the knife, nimble about it, but also quite distressed, like we had made him get out of bed  to do something he didn't want to do, as if us being there was a chore, never once ceasing his mumbling that same phrase over and over.

I turned to Jim and he had John's arm, backing out the door in shock, motioning for me to follow them, Jim nodding his head, wide eyed in panic.

He walked calmly to his bicycle, telling me to follow, don't look back, but I did look back, and as we rode away, I could see the old man wailing silently at us, on his knees, rope in hand.

When the compound was out of sight, Jim stopped pedaling, taking a breath.

“ That old guy is fucked, “ Jim said. “ I recognized what he was saying from this time I went to Thailand to visit a friend. Some prison guards were speaking to each other in a bar. That old man back there was talking Thai. He was wasn't talking about three ropes. Even for an old man, he is very dangerous. He was a prison executioner and he was saying he needed to hang three more, meaning us. That was a gutting knife he had. He was going to gut us and hang us, Eddie! “

In 1994, the war was long over, but for some...

 

The End

BIO: I live in Orange, NSW, Australia. I have one child -a daughter. I was born in 1977. My poetry has appeared in anthologies world wide and my short stories have appeared in men's magazines. I cite James Herbert, Tales from the Crypt, vintage Penny Dreadfuls, and Ripley's, Believe It, Or Not as an influence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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